Fund Syria’s Moderates

We can’t say that helping the Syrian rebels didn’t work, because it has never really been tried.

In response to non-violent protests calling for reform, the Baathist regime in Damascus has brought Syria bloodshed, chaos, and created the conditions in which jihadism thrives. The now partially armed revolution is doing its best to roll back the bloodshed and to eliminate the regime that perpetrates it.

Yet Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch, one of the more perceptive analysts of the Middle East, argues that after more than 60,000 lives have been lost, "the last year should be a lesson to those who called for arming the rebels." In a previous article, Lynch noted, "Syrian armed groups are now awash with weapons."

Anyone laboring under the delusion that pro-revolution foreign powers have flooded Syria with hi-tech weaponry should scroll through the blog of New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers or peruse the web pages displaying improvised catapult bombs and PlayStation-controlled armored cars. These are hardly the tools of a fighting force that has been armed to the teeth.

While it's true that some armed groups -- particularly the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra -- have sometimes found themselves in possession of plenty of weaponry, the resistance remains overwhelmingly dependent on the weapons it can buy, steal, or seize from captured checkpoints and bases.

Simply put, the assumptions of those who called for arming the rebels have not been tested because the rebels have not been armed -- except in irrelevant, sporadic and, in Lynch's words, "poorly coordinated" ways. For instance, an ammunition shortage slowed the original rebel advance in Aleppo to a destructive halt.

Yes, the Saudis and Qataris distributed some light weapons -- each according to their own interests, which only compounded the disorganization of rebel forces. The United States has held them back from providing heavy weapons, which could have made a difference against tanks and aircraft. In any case, the Arab Gulf states are also manipulating the Syrian conflict for their own ends: The Saudi tactic seems to be to slowly bleed Iran in Syria in the manner of the Iran-Iraq war rather than to push for a rapid revolutionary victory.

NATO's Patriot missile deployment in Turkey, which will only be used to stop missiles crossing the Turkish border rather than to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, sums up the broader thrust of Gulf and Western policy: a vain effort to quarantine the Syrian problem rather than to allow the revolution to come quickly to its natural conclusion.

In October and November, rebels did acquire man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), which were almost certainly seized from over-run regime bases. A number of regime planes and helicopters were then shot down, prompting media talk of yet another tipping point. But now the MANPADS have dried up, and Syria's cities and villages have been returned to the unending grind of aerial bombardment.

A steady, well-coordinated supply of anti-aircraft weaponry would have liberated parts of northern Syria from these bombs, which pulverize both infrastructure and human life. Refugees could have returned from Turkey. The Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella organization for opposition groups, could have made a real effort to coordinate governance and food supplies in these areas, and warlordism would have been weakened. Rebuilding could have started. Schools could have reopened. But there was no supply, and as a result northern Syria is dying.

"It's too late to avoid the militarization of the conflict or to prevent the sidelining of non-armed groups," Lynch writes. While this statement is entirely true, it fails to take account of the enormous and continuing disparity between the sides. Not only is the regime far better armed and organized than the resistance militias, it is also by far the most destructive force in the country, by far the greater killer of civilians. At this point, it's not unusual for 1,000 civilians to be killed in a week. Bombs are not dropped on bread lines or petrol queues as a battle tactic, but to murder, terrorize, and demoralize the unarmed population.

The inequality of military power does not restrain, but in fact encourages, the use of force by the Syrian regime. As the United States did in Iraq, or as Israel has done again and again in Gaza, stronger parties rely on overwhelming force when other solutions fail them. The weapons disparity is the only reason Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad continues to believe that he can win. He has lost vast tracts of the country, a large majority of the population despises him, the economy is crumbling -- but still he has planes, helicopters, tanks, and missiles, and his opponents do not.

In the light of the regime's extreme repression, the arming of the revolution was inevitable. Non-violent protest continues to be important in Syria, but it lost its centrality in the first months -- before the emergence of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) -- because peaceful demonstrations were consistently broken up by bullets and clubs and non-violent activists were tortured to death. The FSA did not create these conditions, but emerged in response to them. When soldiers are ordered to fire on their unarmed countrymen, some will inevitably defect. When people experience the destruction of their homes, the rape of their sisters, the torture of their children, some of them will inevitably take up arms. Once they have done so, they are hunted by the regime; they must either bring it down or die.

Yet Lynch writes, "The United States should lean even harder on its Gulf allies to stop funneling weapons and cash to its local proxies for competitive advantage." This is a recipe for mass slaughter. These people are not going to give up, and Russia and Iran are not going to stop funneling weapons and cash to the regime.

Lynch is right that direct foreign military intervention is inadvisable. It would fulfill the expectations of those in and beyond the Middle East who believe the Syrian revolution is all about Iran and that the revolutionaries are pawns in the hands of dastardly foreign powers. There's too much bad history, particularly as far as the United States is concerned. Moreover, Syria would be an infinitely more difficult conflict than Libya: Western forces would find themselves fighting several wars at once -- against Iran, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, perhaps even against Kurdish insurgents. Their presence might well exacerbate the sectarian element of the conflict.

But direct military intervention has always been highly unlikely. It's a red herring (the most persistent red herring of the conflict) -- and one that misjudges the West's mood, its economy, and its current capabilities in the Middle East. The only useful intervention that can be hoped for is not a land or air invasion but a coordinated effort between the West, the Arabs, and Turkey to fund and arm the Syrian National Coalition, which is now recognized by over 130 countries as the "sole" or "legitimate" representative of the Syrian people.

With regard to Jabhat al-Nusra, Lynch writes, "The shift into armed insurgency and civil war is what brought al Qaeda into the mix, not America's failure to deliver guns."

Once again this is true, but surely time plays a role too. In Iraq, it took more than a year of attacks against Shiite civilians before the Shiite militias geared up into ethnic-cleansing mode. In Syria, for the first year of the armed revolution, Jabhat al-Nusra was an irrelevant fringe group. That's a year of increasing trauma and desperation for the military defectors and suffering civilians on the ground. Trauma and desperation tend to radicalize people's politics.

But two factors above all have dramatically improved Jabhat al-Nusra's profile in the last six months, and neither of them is ideological. The first is the shortage of arms among the rebel groups. Jabhat al-Nusra's existing arsenal -- acquired from Iraq and from private donors in the Gulf -- wedded to its cadres' fearless discipline in battle, allowed it to capture a string of military installations in the east, and thus to procure more weaponry, including heavy guns. It has used the new weapons to take on new and bigger regime targets, like the Taftanaz airfield in Idlib province, and in the process has won new weapon-hungry recruits.

The second factor is hunger. In Aleppo, regime bombing of bakeries, poor supply lines, and other militias' looting and indiscipline sparked a bread crisis. Jabhat al-Nusra stepped into the breach and won plaudits from locals for safeguarding grain supplies and fairly distributing bread. According to the survival standards of today's Aleppo, it is applying good governance. So far, it looks like al Qaeda's most successful incarnation -- one which has learnt valuable lessons since the Iraq branch with which it maintains ties -- alienated Iraqi Sunni communities.

It's too late for a happy ending in Syria. There are no easy answers to the country's enormous problems, but there is an obvious first step toward a solution: funding the moderate Islamists and secularists of the Syrian National Coalition, which will then feed the hungry and fund the fighters, empowering them to buy the weapons they need. That step will provide those Syrian communities scared of the revolutionary future, as well as the West, with a real Syrian interlocutor -- a body that represents a real path to a better future, rather than a collection of militias.


Democracy Lab

Sorry, but Africa's Rise Is Real

Africa growth skeptics have got it wrong. The continent's rise is very real.

The counterattack, when it came, failed to live up to our expectations.

As the authors of a book that challenges so much of what passes for conventional wisdom about Africa in financial, academic, and NGO circles, we thought long and hard about the vulnerabilities of our argument.

In The Fastest Billion: The Story Behind Africa's Economic Revolution, we and our co-authors endeavor to show that sub-Saharan Africa -- or at least a great many of its 48 countries -- will make impressive advances in living standards, economic performance, health, education, and governance over the next thirty years.

Like a growing number of economists, development specialists, health, and agricultural scientists, we have watched as the gap between popular depictions and reality on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa has widened. We set out, with detailed sectoral, geopolitical and econometric analysis, to lay out what we feel is a more accurate picture of sub-Saharan Africa today -- and the dramatic changes we expect to see in the coming decades.

For years, whenever economic or financial news from Africa managed to wangle its way through the tales of genocide, famine, and catastrophe spun by western correspondents, the response of pessimists has been to write off all growth on the continent as a crude commodity play.

In a piece that makes this point aggressively, JNU doctoral candidate Rick Rowden returns to this narrative, one which, we believe, reflects an outdated mentality and rests on several misconceptions about sub-Saharan Africa and economic development generally. Indeed, to write off, as Rowden does, a decade and a half of GDP growth at rates of 7 percent or more -- performance a dozen sub-Saharan African countries have achieved -- is as outdated as the Cold War mentality that views China's massive investment as a threat or dismisses the startling improvements in health, education, per capita income, and retail activity as just some kind of anomaly.

Rowden, we believe, makes three critical miscalculations in discounting sub-Saharan Africa's prospects as "a myth," as the headline put it.

First, he makes the common mistake of comparing Africa today with East Asia today. It's like comparing Germany in 1840 with Victorian England at its height and saying Germany will never amount to anything. In our analysis, we choose instead to compare Africa today with East Asia in the 1970s, when South Korea, to name just one subsequent "tiger," was still a poor, largely agricultural cub. Our confidence in forecasting robust future growth -- growth that lifts not only GDP but also the well-being and prosperity of these societies generally -- is based on the similarly of policy shifts, growth patterns and improvements in health, welfare and governance measurements that echo the events that preceded East Asia's takeoff.

Second, Rowden ignores the experience of India, which has pulled millions out of poverty and vaulted up international league tables without engaging in a massive push for industrialization. In contrast to the East Asian model, India has boomed for 30 years without industrialization. The pace of India's GDP growth is exactly the same pace as Developing Asia for the last 20 years -- but with a 10-year lag. Manufacturing accounted for 11 percent of India employment in 1995 and 11 percent in 2011. It is services that are driving Indian growth. We argue that India is 20 years ahead of sub-Saharan Africa on this, and that growth in the region can accelerate for the next generation without industrialization leading the charge.

Rowden states that, absent such an emphasis on manufacturing and other value-added activities, a sub-Saharan country will be saddled with "still largely a primary agricultural economy with little movement towards the increased manufacturing or labor-intensive job creation that are needed for Africa to "rise."

In fact, if there is a myth in Rowden's piece, this is it. Justin Yifu Lin, the Taiwan-born chief economist of the World Bank, recently emphasized in his own book, The Quest for Prosperity, that every economic miracle -- including that of his Taiwanese homeland -- starts with the primary sectors doing well first.

Even Britain, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, had to achieve an 18th-century agricultural revolution first. Russia's development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries followed a similar pattern.

Indeed, the mistake of too many African countries in the 1960s was in believing western and Soviet economic propaganda that promised post-independence leaders they could leap-frog straight to industrialization. This flew in the face of both western and Soviet history as even Stalin only industrialized on the back of what had been a very successful agricultural, mining, and resource sector.

The consequence was that African governments built up debt during the last commodity boom of the 1970s to pay for industrialization that was premature given infrastructure constraints (human and physical capital was lacking). Mining and resources in general today are helping Africa pay for the infrastructure improvements (from human to physical capital) that will enable the continent to expand industry.

Three key things have changed that suggest sub-Saharan Africa will start to industrialize at a faster pace.

  • First, labor costs are rising in China, thanks to its shrinking young labor force (the number of 15-24 year olds will fall 20-30 percent this decade). Per capita GDP was similar to sub-Saharan Africa in 2000, but is now three to five times higher.
  • Second, education levels in sub-Saharan Africa are now (2005 data) on par with Turkey and Mexico in 1975, suggesting that sub-Saharan Africa in the coming decades can emulate the industrialization of Turkey and Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s. This began with textiles and light manufacturing, and got heavier and more value-added as time progressed.
  • Third, African governments are prioritizing business-friendly policies. The World Bank Ease of Doing Business reforms show steady progress among sub-Saharan African countries, as they do in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

This is not to say that Rowden is all wrong. The focus on industrialization may not be necessary for the next 20 years. But it would be useful. Justin Lin's book emphasizes that governments should adopt industrial policies. We richly agree, and we have counseled officials in Africa whenever we have an opportunity to do just that.

In Kenya, which will soon be the largest of Africa's economies, officials have such a plan. Called, Vision 2030, it spells out an industrial policy that will take effect after a major infrastructure investment and construction program is completed.

Kenya is not unique -- many governments now have 10-20 year development plans -- and we agree that nothing in them guarantees they will be effectively implemented, or implemented at all. We'd like to see more targeted policies, which aim to capture the textile and light manufacturing business which China is losing as its wages rise. We argue that education and demographics both suggest Africa is well placed to capture this over the next 10-20 years.

But the fact is, sub-Saharan Africa's leaders are conscious of the precedents and acutely aware they are walking two to three decades behind in the same footsteps as emerging market powers like Malaysia, Indonesia, India, South Korea and Brazil.

Discounting the chances of an entire continent under such circumstances strikes us as foolish, at best. We, after all, are an investment bank, and we approach this topic not only in the hope that a continent so ill-served by recent history will finally break through, but as an opportunity to share in its growing prosperity. If we're right, and we believe the case we make is very convincing, then we have indentified an important inflection point in global economic history as sub-Saharan Africa finally begins to shake off the problems that led the Economist, only a decade ago, to label it "The Hopeless Continent." That august magazine's recent proclamation that Africa was rising should not, as Rowden suggests, be seen as a misguided and shallow provocation aimed at selling magazines. Indeed, it is a corrective -- one long overdue, in our minds -- and one only the hidebound can now abide.

And when push comes to shove, who among you would not be willing to risk a few dollars to own a bit of Hyundai or Kia at 1978 prices? That's precisely where sub-Saharan Africa is today.

Photo by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images