Argument

Obama Can Stop the Killing in Syria

The United States has leverage with the murderous Bashar al-Assad; it has simply chosen not to use it.

As the Syrian uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad concludes its third month, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is coming under increasing fire for its slow, reluctant reaction. The administration continues to call on the Syrian president to lead a transition to democracy and argues that the United States simply lacks the leverage to affect the situation in Damascus. As one senior U.S. official told the Atlantic in May, "The Syrian government knows it can act with a certain amount of impunity because we have no real leverage over them."

Not all significant players agree with Washington. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak have stated that Assad's rule is "illegitimate." Washington is lagging behind.

Against all odds and expectations, the Syrian revolt has spread to almost every part of the country. The spark that began in mid-March in the southern town of Daraa has extended to the Kurdish areas in the northeast, the mixed Sunni-Alawi coastal towns, central Syrian cities such as Hama and Homs, and even the suburbs of Damascus.

Initially, Washington was skeptical. An anonymous U.S. official revealed in April that the Obama administration's general assessment was that such a broad uprising "wouldn't happen, that Assad was too good at nipping these movements in the bud, and also that he was not afraid to be brutal."

Save for the last part, that analysis has proved wrong. Despite unspeakable brutality, including the wanton torture and murder of children, the uprising continued apace and quickly became a national movement whose demands have coalesced around toppling Assad. The protesters' chants have echoed the refrain heard in Tunis and Cairo: "The people demand the removal of the regime."

Yet even after its initial analysis proved wrong, the Obama administration hesitated to support the protesters. Syrian dissidents who met with administration officials in Washington in April relayed their overall disappointment with America's "lukewarm" response.

Lukewarm is the right word. Even as the administration moved to impose sanctions on senior regime figures, its reluctance was obvious. Anonymous officials lamented to journalists that, due to a lack of leverage, they doubted whether sanctions would have any tangible effect. "We already have sanctions," a senior administration official said in April. "We could pursue whether there are additional ways to tighten pressure, but I don't want to suggest there is anything imminent."

These lamentations are a self-fulfilling prophecy. The evolution of the Syrian uprising has presented Washington with a unique opportunity to squeeze Assad. The United States has leverage; it has simply chosen not to use it.

The first and easiest avenue for Washington to pursue would be to recall Robert Ford, whom Obama appointed as his ambassador to Damascus despite congressional objections. Bringing Ford home would be an obvious way to deprive Assad of the legitimacy that comes with relations with the world's only superpower. It would send an unambiguous message that the United States is done dealing with the Syrian regime. That message would embolden the protesters and dishearten Assad. Perhaps most importantly, it would send a clear signal to the silent majority in Syria, which is watching apprehensively and wondering who will win.

In addition to severing diplomatic ties, Obama should finally come out and declare Assad's rule illegitimate. The president's current reluctance to make such a declaration is incomprehensible, especially when other allies, such as France and Israel, have already done so. Yet the administration persists in its fanciful call for Assad to "lead the transition."

The Arab media is already rife with perceptions that America is soft on Assad, an impression his regime surely wishes to foster. That is why Assad's advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, recently expressed to the New York Times her belief that the international community will fall back in line once the regime has restored control. Obama could lay this notion to rest by washing America's hands of Assad once and for all.

Assad's brutality has already cost him critical relations with three countries that have been instrumental in his efforts to rehabilitate himself in the world: France, Qatar, and Turkey.

In 2004 and 2005, France was Washington's principal partner in the effort to isolate the Assad regime in the wake of its alleged murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The French then shifted gears and tried to engage Assad, but to no avail. Now they are spearheading the European effort to impose sanctions and other restrictions on Assad and his cronies, and are leading the way at the U.N. Security Council in seeking a resolution targeting the Assad regime.

Qatar likewise invested in Assad and even played a role in Paris's opening to Damascus, while counterbalancing Saudi Arabia's sometimes fraught relations with the Syrian regime. Today, the Doha-based satellite channel Al Jazeera has been a powerful tool in exposing Assad's crimes, while providing a platform to Syrian dissidents and human rights activists. In late March, the influential Doha-based Egyptian preacher Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi publicly expressed his support for the Syrian revolution, declaring "the revolution train has reached a station it was bound to reach: the station of Syria." The Syrian media retaliated by unleashing its venom on Doha and its assets.

Turkey, meanwhile, has not only criticized Assad's brutality, but is also playing a direct role in setting in motion a transition in Syria. To that end, it allowed a conference of Syrian opposition leaders to be held on Turkish soil, much to Assad's ire. For that, it too came under attack from the Syrian regime's media. In recent days, as the Assad regime's assault on towns in northwestern Syria has sent thousands of refugees across the border into Turkey, Ankara has escalated its rhetoric and expressed support for efforts to pressure Assad at the Security Council.

These states form the nucleus of a coalition capable of putting tremendous pressure on Assad. Washington's regional allies are not holding back. Even the claim that Israel is somehow protecting Assad is false and has been dispelled by a number of Israeli officials, including the ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren.

The United States, along with Britain and France, is halfheartedly seeking to overcome Chinese and Russian objections to a Security Council resolution condemning Assad. But one crucial element is missing here: a clear strategy, backed by strong American leadership. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laments the lack of international unity on Syria. Yet consensus requires American leadership to coalesce. French, Qatari, and Turkish officials are operating on their own because they cannot be sure of Washington's position.

That is why it is essential for the United States to abandon its hands-off approach to Syria. Once Washington states unequivocally that it sees no role for Assad except for him to leave, everything else will follow. The position of the superpower, after all, matters. The Turks, for example, who are divided on how to proceed, will stop vacillating if Obama makes it clear that he would like to see Assad depart in a manner that safeguards their interests.

Once the administration makes that decision, its ability to muster leverage increases. Washington could then widen the coalition against Assad to include other key Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. Washington should make clear that it seeks Assad's ouster as part of a broader strategy of countering Iranian influence in the region -- something about which Riyadh remains deeply concerned. There are several signs that the Saudis will be receptive to this argument, not least of which is the relentlessly critical line Saudi-owned media have taken against Assad over the last three months.

The administration could then induce other regional allies to use the leverage they have on Syria to its advantage. To assuage their worsening financial distress, for instance, the Assads have been reaching out to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Iraq. Obama can lean on these Arab allies to refrain from assisting Assad's regime and investing money in it, just as he works with the Europeans to choke off sources of revenue for Damascus. These measures could become a significant factor in the calculation of the Sunni business class still on the fence and might potentially accentuate rifts in the army, which is already showing signs of cracks and fatigue amid growing reports of defections.

There is much more the United States could do. Washington could approach allies that share borders with Syria -- Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey -- and make contact with local leaders in the country's border towns. America has plenty of leverage with Iraqi Kurds, and it could build on this relationship to communicate with Syrian Kurds. Similarly, it could encourage advantageous alliances between tribal groups that span Syria's borders with Iraq and Jordan. It could also supply the protest movement with communications equipment.

In the end, the real problem is not the lack of leverage so much as the Obama administration's refusal to use it. Obama and Clinton have said much about multilateral diplomacy, and Syria now presents them with an opportunity to put it on display. So what are they waiting for?

Syrians are fully aware who stands behind them in the international community. In recent weeks, they have burned the flags of China, Russia, and Iran. Why haven't they burned the American flag? Perhaps it's because they still hold out hope that Washington will come to their aid. That hope is itself a form of leverage. Obama should not squander it by continuing to bet on Assad as he murders people in the street.

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Who Tried to Kill Ali Abdullah Saleh?

The hidden feud behind the revolution in Yemen.

There aren't many foreigners traveling to Sanaa these days, but one group of outsiders is getting a lot of attention: an FBI forensics team, which reportedly arrived last week to investigate the attempted assassination of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is now convalescing in Saudi Arabia.

Evidence from the scene indicates that the explosion may have been caused by a device that was planted inside the mosque on the presidential compound, and not by a mortar shell or rocket, as was initially reported. If true, this means that someone with close access to the president was involved, which raises the question of why members of the Yemeni regime's inner circle -- set to mark its 33rd anniversary in power next month -- now appear intent on destroying each other?

To answer this question, it is necessary to look beyond the protests that have called for Saleh's resignation and instead look at the premises of the political settlement that has held the inner circle together for so long.

The first spectacular rupture within the group came on March 21, when Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar publicly defected from the Saleh regime three days after snipers gunned down peaceful protesters in Sanaa, killing more than 50 people. Ali Mohsen is the country's most powerful military leader and a distant cousin of Saleh. A fight between the two men has been simmering for at least a decade; empathy for the protesters was certainly not the only factor contributing to Ali Mohsen's decision to jump ship. The rivalry between the two former allies was probably more decisive.

By joining the opposition movement, Ali Mohsen and other defectors from the regime have not necessarily heralded a new era for the Yemeni people. Instead, they appear to be settling old scores.

The inner workings of Saleh's Yemen are incredibly opaque. Think of a series of concentric circles with him at their center: That's the regime. Tightly wrapped around the president in the next circle are his close relatives (sons, nephews, half brothers, cousins, and in-laws), and slightly further away is the elite of the Sanhan tribe, to which both Saleh and Ali Mohsen belong. These three circles, consisting of perhaps 50 or so people in total, constitute the regime's inner circle. Some of its members control the country's most sensitive military positions, including those charged with counterterrorism operations in close cooperation with the United States. All have enjoyed the benefits of being deeply enmeshed in the country's formal and informal economy.

The regime has intentionally kept the names of most members of the inner circle out of the public realm, and until several years ago even Saleh's last name -- Afaash -- was treated as though it were a state secret. The likely reason: The name revealed that Saleh is not a sheikh and does not come from a respected tribal pedigree. Moreover, his name also revealed that Ali Mohsen actually sits above the president in the Sanhan tribal hierarchy.

Palace intrigues are the source of continual debate and rumor within Yemen's political classes. These debates tend not to be based on verifiable evidence, however, partly because Saleh so actively prevented the inner circle (other than a selection of his close relatives) from appearing in the media. Until only a few years ago, most Sanaa residents could easily point out Ali Mohsen's house, but most also reported never having seen a photograph of him. This was despite the long shadow that Ali Mohsen cast across Yemeni politics and the active role that was often attributed to him by local analysts and politicians.

Ali Mohsen was vital to Saleh's rise to formal power and the maintenance of his regime. In June 1978, Ahmed al-Ghashmi, president of what was then North Yemen, was assassinated, as was his predecessor eight months earlier. At that time, Maj. Ali Abdullah Saleh was the commander of the Taiz Military District, which granted him access to the Red Sea and the lucrative international smuggling opportunities that went along with it. He was the second-highest-ranking military commander from the Sanhan tribe after Mohammed Ismail al-Qadhi, who was then in the political wilderness for having supported the wrong side in the 1960s civil war.

Upon Ghashmi's assassination, Ali Mohsen managed to secure control of the Central Command Headquarters building in Sanaa. A standoff ensued for 40 days, during which time the Sanhan elite sold assets and gathered cash to purchase support from other military commanders for Saleh to capture the presidency. An agreement was settled between the Sanhan sheikhs involved in the enterprise, which was, according to a Sanhan insider, referred to as "the covenant" (al-ahd). Essentially, it contained an understanding that the Sanhan tribe would stand together under Saleh's leadership and that Ali Mohsen would be next in line to succeed Saleh as president.

The informal succession line did not extend beyond Ali Mohsen, and it is likely that, knowing the short life span of previous Yemeni presidents, the adherents to "the covenant" did not expect their leadership to last for very long. It was widely reported at the time, for example, that when Saleh took office a CIA agent in Sanaa wagered that he would not last six months. Saleh's presidency -- as well as the Sanhan ascendance -- was reasonably expected to be a short-term proposition.

The issue of political succession lay largely dormant until 1999, when Saleh began to push for a series of politically regressive constitutional amendments, one of which was an extension of the presidential term of office from five to seven years. Even though he had been in office since 1978, he was only officially elected for the first time in 1999, meaning that under the amended Constitution he could remain in office until 2013 instead of 2009. This prompted intense speculation that the extension was intended to allow the president's son Ahmed to reach age 40 -- the constitutional minimum age for a Yemeni president -- before Saleh would be compelled to retire.

Some of the elite within the president's tribe, including Ali Mohsen, were reportedly outraged at Saleh's apparent attempt to position his son to succeed him, and this sparked a major factional dispute, though not necessarily because Ali Mohsen wanted the top job for himself. One of Ali Mohsen's most powerful supporters, the commander of the Eastern Region, Qadhi, spoke out and, according to a Sanhan insider, explicitly told Saleh that he was "breaking the covenant." Very shortly after this reported conversation, Qadhi was killed in a military helicopter crash. Although the crash was officially declared an accident, many observers in Yemen saw it as the beginning of other, more subtle moves against Ali Mohsen within the military, as other officers and units loyal to him began be to removed or weakened.

At around the same time, the relationship between Saleh and the country's most prominent tribal figure, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar (the deceased patriarch of the family involved in the recent fighting, and not related to Ali Mohsen), also soured markedly. The Sanhan rivalries increased too, with insiders noting privately that Saleh and his sons and nephews attempted to undermine the influence of the Sanhan old guard using tactics of intimidation and humiliation. The families within the tribe increasingly split between two main factions: the Afaash clan (those related to Saleh) and the Qadhi clan (those related to Ali Mohsen).

Yet even though Saleh's family may try to avenge the attempt on his life, Yemen is not necessarily headed for a long civil war. Despite the situation's obvious combustibility, several factors could still help pull the country back from the brink.

First, though Saleh's son commands the Republican Guard, many of the guardsmen have family and tribal kinsmen in Ali Mohsen's 1st Armored Division and the tribes that support the Ahmar family. The relatively narrow geographical and tribal origins of these three key groups could help to at least limit the potential for resorting to deadly force over an extended period.

Second, though Yemen's famously gun-toting culture is often touted as a reason to fear civil war, it could also work the other way. Ordinary Yemenis are acutely aware that violence can spiral exponentially as a result of small miscalculations. The fact that the protesters have been resolutely nonviolent despite the regime's violence against them is just one indication of how well this is understood.

A final factor is Yemen's political and tribal culture. In tribal conflicts, the goal is less to vanquish an opponent than to demonstrate the ability to apply symbolic force in defense of one's position and then negotiate a solution in which both sides retain honor. Although this tends to lay a foundation for theatrical brinkmanship in which the cost of miscalculation is real and high, it also means that violent outbursts tend to be relatively short-lived. So far, the casualties caused by the fighting between the Ahmars and those loyal to Saleh have been less than one might expect, considering the amount of firepower used.

Yemen's modern history is full of short, sharp conflicts, but it is when outside powers have intervened, as in the 1962-1970 bloody northern civil war -- which became a proxy fight between Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- that war has become most intractable. This observation provides all the more reason to worry about the deep involvement of Saudi Arabia and the United States, with its myopic focus on fighting al Qaeda, in Yemen's crisis. Both players may be helping to set the stage for the regime's internal rivalries to explode -- with dire consequences for the Yemeni people.

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images