Should Embassy Damascus be closed?


The U.S. Embassy in Damascus is reportedly planning to shut down if the Syrian government can not -- or will not -- provide adequate security guarantees.  If the safety of Embassy personnel is seriously in danger, then of course they should make the safe call to protect them.  But the security rationale masks a deeper question:  at what point should Ambassador Robert Ford be recalled on political grounds?

I argued long and hard for Ford's confirmation as Ambassador, and for the importance of having someone like him on the ground in Damascus.  I believe that his performance has more than vindicated that stance.   But has the usefulness of his presence come to an end? 

There are three arguments to withdraw him and close the Embassy, beyond the security concerns.  First, the Asad regime is too far gone at this point for diplomacy, listens to nobody, and this leaves little room for traditional diplomacy.  Second, the rapid and frightening militarization of the conflict has seriously reduced the space for public diplomacy, as Embassy personnel (and Ford himself) have few opportunities to get out to engage.  Finally, withdrawing him would send a strong message to Asad and to the world that the window has closed on a transition which includes him.   

These arguments all have merit, and the point may soon come where withdrawing Ford and closing the Embassy would be appropriate.  But we have not yet reached that point.  All policy choices at this point on Syria must be guided by three objectives:  ending the violence and protecting civilians;  hastening Asad's fall;  and creating the conditions for a successful transition following Asad's fall.  One of the reasons which I continue to oppose Western military intervention is that while such a military role it may hasten Asad's fall it would likely create far less favorable conditions for post-Asad Syria.  The same goes for a deliberate strategy of arming the Syrian opposition, which could quickly empower armed militias at the expense of political leadership and create the conditions for wide-scale civil war following Asad's fall. 

Would withdrawing Ford and closing the Embassy serve those goals?  At this point, it would have little effect one way or the other on the violence.  Nor would it likely have much impact in hastening Asad's fall.  Asad would probably be thrilled to see him gone, frankly. It might matter at the margins if all major Embassies closed at the same time in a coordinated, multilateral demonstration of Asad's international isolation --- something which I would recommend when the time comes. But it isn't going to a primary driver of political change.

The core question, then, is whether a U.S. diplomatic presence helps create the conditions for a "soft landing" post-Asad.  At this point, I believe that it does. The Syrian National Council is still struggling to create a legitimate, effective and unified external opposition umbrella, and the State Department is doing what it can to work with them.  But increasingly the important action is taking place inside of Syria -- not just the Free Syrian Army, but the local leadership and opposition groups emerge in villages and cities.  They will likely play a key role in any post-Asad Syria.  The more opportunity the Embassy has to engage with, learn about, and forge relationships with these new forces inside Syria the better.

Beyond the internal opposition and the Asad regime, Ford and the Embassy also still have the chance to talk with the fence-sitters and elites whose decision to stick with or abandon Asad will likely determine his fate. They have legitimate fears about the future, and doubts about their fate after Asad.   It is just as important to talk with the business community, minorities, intellectuals, and other elites at this point as it is to talk with the emerging opposition.   The business community in particular needs to come to believe that the sanctions which Asad has brought upon them will increasingly harm their interests --- but could be quickly removed and their fortunes restored should Asad and his regime depart and a legitimate, inclusive political transition begun.

For now, then, Ford and the Embassy should stay in Damascus unless the security situation is genuinely too dangerous.  The political benefits of his presence, particularly for preparing for a potential transition and engaging emergent forces and frightened elites, still outweight the momentary impact of his withdrawal.  That may change, but for now I hope they stay.

The Middle East Channel

Yemen's Stalemate

Yemen seems trapped in an endless political stalemate. More than a year after massive protests erupted challenging the 33 year old regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen seems no closer to achieving a meaningful political transition. The deadlock has persisted despite the outrage over regime violence against civilians, splits at the top of the military, a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violence and calling for a transfer of power, a Nobel Peace Prize for leading Yemeni protest figure Tawakkol Karman, and the near assassination of Saleh himself. In the absence of a political solution, the humanitarian situation has dramatically worsened and regional conflicts across the country have intensified. Is there any hope for Yemen?

On Wednesday, January 25, from 12:30-2:00 pm, I will be hosting a POMEPS panel discussion at the Elliott School of International Affairs on Yemen's political stalemate, featuring three political scientists with deep experience in Yemen and very different specializations: Stacey Yadav, Sheila Carapico, and Laurent Bonnefoy.  When I chose the title "Yemen's Stalemate" for the panel a few months ago, several people commented that this seemed gloomy. I would have loved to have been proven wrong, but here we are. I hope many of you can attend; a video of the event will be posted later. The post which follows is the introductory essay to POMEPS Briefing #8: Yemen's Stalemate, which can be downloaded here

There is no doubting the astonishing resilience, creativity and courage of the Yemeni protest movement. The protestors gathered in Sanaa's Change Square, including Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman, represent some of the best and most inspirational of the activists of this past year's Arab uprisings. It is astounding that they have maintained their energy and kept up their numbers despite massive regime brutality and dim hopes of political success. But they have also struggled to put forth a clear political alternative, and as Stacey Yadav has argued, have been badly served both by the "opportunistic opposition" of tribal leaders and regime defectors and by the traditional opposition parties of the Joint Meetings Party (JMP). They have proven that they can not be silenced, but seem as stymied as anyone about how to break the deadlock. 

The poorly conceived transition plan pushed by the Gulf Cooperation Council and backed by the United States and the United Nations has proven to be an impediment to meaningful change. It offered immunity to Saleh as an inducement for his departure, but the Gulf states showed little interest in promoting any real democratic change. The GCC plan left the role of the armed forces and other state institutions untouched, and made no provisions for a genuine role for the protest movement. Even so, Saleh failed to sign the agreement for months, instead stalling for time and taking every opportunity to divide and weaken his opponents. In September he returned to Yemen unexpectedly and retook the reins of power.

Many hoped that Yemen would finally move forward when Saleh unexpectedly signed the GCC deal in late November. But instead, as most Yemenis and analysts expected, he has continued to exercise power from behind the scenes. He shows no sign of actually living up to the promise to depart the scene and allow Yemen to move on. The immunity from prosecution guaranteed to Saleh by the GCC deal -- and recently extended to all government officials who have served him -- outrages many Yemenis. It has provided neither justice nor a political transition. Instead it has rewarded a culture of impunity and given Saleh a blank check to kill.

The presidential elections slated to be held in February are widely seen as a sham, even if they are not postponed, wired to simply ratify the elevation of Vice President Abd Rab Mansour al-Hadi and maintain Saleh's power behind the scenes. Such elections do not seem likely to either satisfy the protestors or remove Saleh and his regime from real power. Saleh's family members remain entrenched in key positions in the security apparatus. Meanwhile, as Abdul Ghani al-Iryani noted in December, Saleh and his regime continue to stall, divide the opposition, and play on Western fears of al-Qaeda.

The costs of this political stalemate are enormous.  The mounting humanitarian crisis is reaching staggering proportions. Secessionist sentiment in the south is rising rapidly, while the Houthi rebellion in the north remains potent. Reports of al-Qaeda seizing strategic towns are likely exaggerated, but the jihadist organization is clearly taking advantage of the chaos to build its presence. Real power is devolving to the local level as the political center remains frozen. The absence of legitimate political institutions raises the risks of a complete collapse into civil war. 

The international community, including the United States, has only intermittently paid attention to Yemen -- an oversight which will haunt it for years to come. The U.S. too often has been focused on counterterrorism and the struggle against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to the exclusion of other issues. This has led too many officials to view Saleh as a necessary partner, rather than the key part of the problem which his regime is, and to trade off the right to carry out drone strikes for real pressure for political change.  Even where those tradeoffs are not consciously chosen, the sheer complexity of the problem and the crush of other regional crises has made it difficult for the U.S. or the international community to act.

In September, Tom Finn asked whether there was "any way out for Yemen." More than four months later, it is difficult to argue that we are any closer to achieving the meaningful political transition Yemen so desperately needs. At this point, Saleh should be given a deadline to leave Yemen or lose the amnesty promised by the GCC deal (the blanket immunity recently approved by the Yemeni cabinet for all government officials should be rejected completely). The assets of Saleh and regime officials should be frozen and a travel ban imposed until real change is achieved. But even such steps will not be enough without fashioning new Yemeni political institutions which can respond in a meaningful way to the demands and the needs of the protest movement and the diverse regional groups which have so powerfully challenged decades of Saleh's autocratic rule. Too much time has been lost already.