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Preparing for Assad's Exit

Last week's stunning assassination of several key Syrian security officials, the sudden spread of serious fighting into Damascus and Aleppo, and the Russian-Chinese veto of a Chapter VII resolution at the UN Security Council have ushered in a new phase in the Syrian crisis.  Five months ago, I wrote a policy report for the Center for a New American Security warning against U.S. military intervention or arming the opposition, and proposing a series of non-military steps which might help bring about a political transition. In April, I argued in a Congressional hearing for giving the Annan Plan a chance to work. 

In an essay published today on CNN.com, I suggest that diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have failed -- but that this is no cause for celebration.  Annan's efforts, supported by the U.S., attempted to find some path to a "soft landing" which could avoid Syria's descent into  sectarian civil war, insurgency and potential state collapse. For his pains, Annan was often treated as an enemy by Syrian opposition supporters anxious for external military intervention, outraged by the daily bloodshed or distrustful of any regime promises.   But the likely course of the struggle to come demonstrates painfully why this was an effort worth making. 

Today, we face the grim reality that the prospects for a negotiated transition have largely ended and Syria now likely faces a long, grinding insurgency with few foundations for a viable post-Assad scenario. Sadly, such an outcome of long-term violence would be acceptable to many whose primary interest is weakening Iran rather than protecting civilians or building a more democratic Syria.  At this point, it is vital to prepare for an end which won't come soon, but when it happens will likely be sudden and surprising.

The CNN essay was meant to appear on Friday morning, but was pushed back due to the horrible Colorado shooting tragedy;  in the interim, several very good pieces have appeared making similar points, including this one by Fred Kaplan and this one by Martin ChulovIn the CNN article, I argue that Assad's end really is nigh, as has been clear for some time, but that the way that his regime ends matters immensely for Syria's short to medium range future:

The assassinations were more of an inflection than a turning point.

Diplomatically isolated, financially strapped and increasingly constrained by a wide range of international sanctions, Assad’s regime has been left with little room to maneuver. It resorts to indiscriminate military force and uses shabiha gangs and propaganda to inflict terror.

The government’s brutal violence against peaceful protestors and innocent civilians has been manifestly self-defeating.  Assad has failed to kill his way to victory. Day by day, through accumulating mistakes, the regime is losing legitimacy and control of Syria and its people.

Nonetheless, it’s premature to think the end is close. The opposition’s progress, reportedly with increasing external funding and training, has put greater pressure on Assad’s forces. But the opposition’s military success has exacerbated the fears of retribution attacks and a reign of chaos should the regime crumble...

Now, even if Assad’s regime collapses, violence may prove difficult to contain given that the country is deeply polarized and awash in weapons. Assad’s end could pave the way for an even more intense civil war. Making matters worse, the continuing fragmentation among the Syrian opposition groups raises deep fears about their ability to unite themselves or to establish authority. Few foundations exist for an inclusive and stable post-Assad political order.

This violent struggle ripping Syria apart is precisely the scenario which the U.N. political track had hoped to avoid, and which Assad's brutality and the escalating insurgency has summoned forth.  The U.N.'s efforts never had a great chance of success, of course, but they were worth supporting given the alternatives which could so easily be foreseen and which are now manifesting.

At this point, unfortunately, it is difficult to see any real prospect for the "soft landing" envisioned in those efforts.  Diplomatic efforts, such as the Arab League's offer of a safe exit for Assad if he leaves immediately, should still be tried. Perhaps the regime's newfound sense of vulnerability and the opposition's sobering recognition of the challenges it faces after the regime's fall might even get the ideas a listen. 

But even if Assad and parts of the opposition can somehow be sobered by the inevitable end, the fragmentation, violence and anger are now likely too great to overcome.  Does Assad really see that he's losing, and does he really believe that there is any safe passage out at this point (and could anyone truly stomach that)? And could a divided opposition smelling victory and suspiciously eyeing competitors for future power really settle for a pragmatic but unpopular deal... or trust any parts of Assad's regime to honor it? The These are the challenges with which Kofi Annan has tried and failed to grapple, and which will bedevil all other such efforts. 

It has never been more clear that the Obama administration was right to reject calls for American military intervention, and should continue to do so.  The events of the last week show that those who believed that only American military action could put serious pressure on Assad were wrong.  And the likely downside of direct U.S. military involvement is as potent as ever. The new talking point that an earlier American intervention would have quickly ended the fighting is utterly divorced from Syrian reality.   American bombs were never likely to quickly end the conflict, and the open entry of the U.S. into the fray (particularly without U.N. authorization) would likely radically transform the dynamics of the conflict for the worse both inside of Syria and at the regional and global levels. And most Americans, who have not forgotten the experience of Iraq, wisely reject the enthusiasm of the op-ed pages for deeper American involvement. Military intervention by the U.S. has not been and still is not the answer, and the Obama administration deserves great credit for rejecting the drumbeat from the armchair hawks.

Nor should the U.S. be joining the dangerous game of arming the insurgency, which seems to be getting plenty of weapons from other sources.  All of the risks of the proliferation of weapons into a fragmented insurgency of uncertain identity and aspirations, so blithely dismissed by the op-ed hawks, remain as intense as ever.  There are still vanishingly few, if any, historical examples of such a strategy actually leading to a rapid resolution of a civil conflict, and all too many examples of it making conflicts longer and bloodier.  Nor is it likely that providing weapons will provide the U.S. with great influence over the groups they are.  I see no reason to believe that armed groups will stay bought, or stay loyal, just because they were given weapons, or that the U.S. would be able to credibly threaten to cut off the flow of weapons if groups deemed essential to the battle used them in undesirable ways.  As a general rule of thumb if you really think that a group might join al-Qaeda if you don't give them guns, you'd best not give them guns. At this point, the flow of weapons may be as unstoppable as the descent into protracted insurgency and civil war, but that doesn't mean that the U.S. should heedlessly throw more gasoline on the fire. At the most, it should continue its efforts to help shape some form of coherent political and strategic control over those newly armed groups. 

Instead, the U.S. should be focusing on supporting the Syrian opposition politically, mitigating the worst effects of the civil war and insurgency, pushing to bring Syrian war criminals to justice, and maintaining its pressure on Assad through sanctions and diplomatic isolation.  Several articles published after I wrote the CNN piece have begun to outline some current U.S. thinking and activities in this regard.  Above all it needs to work with the Syrian opposition to prepare it for the prospect of unifying the divided, fragmented, and anarchic Syria which it will inherit when Assad falls. That should include doing everything it can to convince the armed opposition of the urgent need to police its own ranks and thinking constantly about how it will need to relate to currently unfriendly communities in a future Syria. 

I'm hoping to write more soon about such political efforts, and about the UN mission, and about the regional politics of Syria. But those are beyond the scope of today's short CNN article taking stock of this inflection point in Syria's ongoing conflict.

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/GettyImages)

Marc Lynch

Islamists in a Changing Middle East

The election of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed el-Morsi as President of Egypt, following the electoral victory of Tunisia's Ennahda Party, has sharpened the world's focus on the role of Islamist movements in a rapidly changing Middle East. The turn from an "Arab Spring" to an "Islamist Summer (and/or Winter)", as pessimists warn gloomily that the overthrowing of dictators is only empowering a new generation of religious fanatics, has become the stuff of cliche.  But the concern over rising Islamist political power in both the West and in countries such as Egypt is very real. Who are these movements? What do they want? And how will they shape -- and be shaped by -- the region's new politics? 

I am thrilled to announce today's publication of a new ebook, Islamists in a Changing Middle East.  This collection of dozens of essays originally published on ForeignPolicy.com offers deep insights into the evolution of these Islamist movements. They offer accessible, deeply informed analysis by top experts, which can help to correct many of the misconceptions about such movements while also drawing attention to very real dangers. These essays were written in real time, in response to particular circumstances and challenges, and have been only lightly edited and updated for this volume in order to retain the urgency and passion with which they were written. The essays offer snapshots of a political moment, informed by deep experience and long study of these movements and the countries within which they operate. They have enduring value. 

The success of Islamist movements in transitional elections in the Arab world should have come as no surprise.  Most non-Islamist political parties across the region have long since been crushed, co-opted, or calcified into political irrelevance.  Meanwhile, Islamist movements managed for the most part to avoid the taint of association with the old regimes, and have long been the best-organized and most popular political movements in most Arab countries.  They have also spent decades systematically reshaping the public culture of the region at all levels of society.  Islamists were thus naturally well positioned to take advantage of the political openings in many Arab states that followed the great protest wave of 2011.  No meaningful transition towards more democratic systems could have avoided the reality of significant Islamist constituencies and organizations. 

But that does not mean that such Islamist movements are all powerful.  One point which quickly emerges from the essays in this volume is simply how disorienting the newly open political vistas have been for Islamists, and how easily their advantages can evaporate.  The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for instance, has gone from a cautious movement to a risk-taking power broker which seems intent on grabbing as much power as possible before its window closes and has succeeded in alienating most other political forces along the way. It saw its sweeping Parliamentary victory wiped away with the stroke of a judicial pen and the powers of its narrowly won Presidency constrained by decree.  A President unable to even appoint his own Minister of Defense is unlikely to succeed at imposing unpopular sharia laws.  Its rise has so frightened and angered its political rivals that some avowed liberals and revolutionaries have rallied to the side of the long-hated SCAF.  In short, the Brotherhood has struggled to deal with its own ascendance, as it suffers internal fissures and unprecedented public scrutiny.  Not even the Brotherhood's leadership seems quite certain how their new opportunities will ultimately affect their behavior, their ideology, or their internal organization.

Other Islamist parties have similarly struggled to master the new political terrain. At one point in the summer of 2011, a leader of the Egyptian Salafi party, al-Nour, told me that if all went well his party might win four or five seats; it won over 100.  Since that success, the performance of its Parliamentarians has proven underwhelming, leading to serious rethinking in the salafi ranks.  Tunisia's Ennahda won the founding elections and initially managed to hold together a broad national consensus, but has struggled to keep its balance in the face of impatient salafis, disgruntled revolutionaries, and anxious secularists.  Libya's Islamists look set to do poorly at the polls.  Morocco's Islamist PJD may have taken the Presidency, but only by accepting the King's political terms.  Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood is planning to boycott upcoming Parliamentary elections.  Kuwait's Islamists have been rocked by the Emir's dissolution of Parliament.  

The new political landscape is rapidly exposing long-standing divisions among the Islamists themselves. The Muslim Brotherhood is not al Qaeda, the Global Muslim Brotherhood Organization exercises little control over its national branches, and Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood parties are competing furiously for votes and for Islamist credibility.  The participation of Salafi parties in democratic politics is even more novel. While some Salafi parties had entered the political fray in the Gulf prior to the Arab uprisings, there had rarely been anything quite like the electoral rise of Egypt's al-Nour Party. Salafi movements had for decades rejected democracy on principle, as apostasy which replaced the rule of God with the rule of man. The enthusiasm with which these movements now entered the electoral fray suggests that they may yet wear their ideology lightly. But the harsh rhetoric and radical views of many of these inexperienced Salafi politicians shocked local and foreign audiences alike. Islamist political parties have to calculate their strategy in uncertain legal and political environments, weigh both domestic and international calculations, and decide how to reconcile their ideals with the demands of practical politics.

The exercise of power, in short, poses significant challenges to all such movements.   The authoritarian realities of these regimes created something of a safety net for these political Islamists. Imposing Sharia law was never before an option, but now even pragmatic leaderships must explain to a more radical rank and file why they do not try. Since there was never any real possibility that they could come to power through the ballot box, they were rarely forced to choose between their Islamist ideology and their democratic commitments. They could posture as democratic reformists, highlighting corruption or repression, without having to signal whether they would use a position of power to impose their vision of Islamic morality on others. The Arab uprisings have removed that buffer, forcing many of these movements to confront for the first time the opportunity to actually rule. How, one wonders, will Muslim Brothers or Salafis in leading roles in an Egyptian government deal with the need to take IMF or World Bank loans to rescue the economy, when the Islamic sharia forbids the charging or paying of interest? How will they deal with the need to coordinate policies toward Gaza with Israel? It has already been intriguing to watch Egypt's new President work to reassure the United States that his country would continue to honor its treaty commitments, including those to Israel.

These deep divisions among competing Islamist trends should ease fears of  the rise of a unified Islamic bloc across the Middle East and North Africa, however. Islamists are deeply divided amongst themselves about political strategy and how to wield political authority. Some hope to immediately impose Islamic cultural policies, while others prefer to focus on economic development. Participation in politics is already changing these movements, strengthening some factions and weakening others. What is more, their very success carries the seeds of a backlash -- both from frightened liberals and from Islamist purists disgusted by the compromises necessary to political power, as well as from those upset with their failure to solve likely intractable problems.  Non-Islamist movements may catch up with the Islamists in forming political parties and harness the substantial non-Islamist electorate. And finally, the experience of the 1950s and 1960s bears recalling, when pan-Arabist dominated states such as Iraq, Syria, and Egypt proved bitter rivals rather than easy allies under the banner of Gamal Abed Nasser. 

For all these challenges to the Islamists themselves, there are also good reasons for secularists or liberals to worry about what such movements might do with state power. It is extremely significant that Islamists of almost all stripes have now decisively opted to accept the legitimacy of the democratic game. It is far better to have such groups inside the democratic process than to have them as marginalized outsiders -- as long as they are willing to respect democratic rules, public freedoms, and the toleration of others.  But at the same time, they should be judged by their behavior. Even where these movements have proven to be able and committed democrats, they are most certainly not liberals and will not become so.  The same democracy advocates who once defended the Islamists against regime repression now should legitimately hold them accountable for their own actions --- and insist that they respect fundamental human rights, tolerate competing views and identities, and refrain from imposing their preferences on the unwilling.

All of this marks a dramatic change since the bleak days following September 11, 2001 and the dark days of jihad and civil war in Iraq, when extremist views and violent rhetoric dominated views of Islamism. The appeal of violent jihadism has clearly faded, at least for now, and few Islamists still openly reject the principle of democracy. Al Qaeda has struggled to adapt to the Arab uprisings, with the American killing of Osama bin Laden marking at least a symbolic ending to a decade dominated by a so-called "War on Terror." But it would be wrong to assume that this will necessarily last. Indeed, one could easily imagine the appeal of jihadism returning with a vengeance should democratic politics fail or should Islamist politicians compromise so much that they alienate purists in their ranks. And, of course, state collapse and protracted civil strife create new opportunities for jihadists to regroup. Syria, in particular, already seems en route to becoming a major new rallying call for salafi-jihadists, a new front for jihad to replace the lost opportunities of Iraq.

The essays collected in Islamists in a Changing Middle East  capture the complexity and the uncertainty of the new Islamism in the rapidly transforming Middle East. They offer no easy answers and no unified perspective. Instead, they present deeply informed analysis of these movements as they have confronted new challenges and seized new opportunities. They show the Islamist movements in all their similarities and differences, their struggles and their advances, and their troubled engagement with a rapidly changing Middle East. They offer well-informed, timely and highly readable analysis of Islamist movements from some really top-notch experts. Get it as a PDF or as a Kindle eBook today!