Cruel Summer

Stagnation in Egypt. Grinding insurgency in Syria. Unpunished repression in Bahrain. Frustration in Jordan. Parliamentary crisis in Kuwait. Fizzling protests in Sudan. Humanitarian woes in Yemen. Creeping authoritarianism and renewed bloodshed in Iraq. This summer has not been kind to the Arab uprisings. With the shining exception of Libya, which today celebrates its handover to an elected civilian government, almost every Arab country has sunk back into the bog of political stagnation, frustrated citizens, and in the worst cases grinding violence. Many observers have begun to give up on the hopes for change in the Arab world, and are now dismissing the Arab uprisings as a "fizzle," a mirage, or a false flag for Islamist takeovers.  

It is far too soon to accept such a verdict. A frustrating as it has been to live through, this regression to repression is neither surprising nor cause for despair. In my book The Arab Uprising, I warned that there would be such reversals of momentum, unsatisfying political outcomes, activist frustrations, and competitive interventions by powerful states in newly opened political arenas like Syria and Libya. The forces driving the Arab uprisings are deep, structural, and generational. They don't guarantee happy endings, nor do they automatically privilege any one kind of political challenger, whether liberal, sectarian, counter-revolutionary, or Islamist. But persistent, creative, and unpredictable challenges to the Arab status quo will continue to manifest in new forms, undermining every effort to restore the authoritarian status quo ante. Don't be fooled by the current sense of stagnation -- but do be worried by the regional fallout of the new struggle for Syria. 

The reversal of the momentum of the Arab uprisings began within months of their outbreak, of course. Saudi Arabia, after locking down its own home front, helped to prop up friendly monarchies across the region with financial and political aid. Morocco's canny limited constitutional reforms and a burst of mob violence against Jordanian protesters set back reform movements there. Yemen's horrifying descent into violence and failed government and Libya's long military stalemate eroded the non-violent nature of the uprisings. The crushing of Bahrain's protest movement and the sweeping, sectarian repression which followed inflicted perhaps the deepest wound on the Arab uprisings -- not only its unaccountable repression, but the hard-edged sectarianism which had for the first months of the uprisings been suppressed. Politics across the region has been caught ever since between the hopeful efforts of empowered citizens and the determined resistance of entrenched regimes. 

This summer has been dominated by a narrative in which protest movements struggle, dictators retrench, the Arab agenda fragments, and the Syrian war dominates the news. Arab states seem to some to be back in control, and to others perched back on the tenuous equilibrium of the days before the Arab uprisings -- ongoing political crisis with no signs of serious reform, economic struggles taking an ever harsher toll, and sectarian and ethnic cleavages taking ever deeper hold. Jordan's deeply disappointing new election law has done nothing to restore the legitimacy of the monarchy or to break the trend of tribal dissent and societal fragmentation. Kuwait's political crisis has accelerated dramatically, with the dismissal of parliament followed and the refusal of its replacement to vote in a new prime minister likely leading to yet another new election in a few months. Bahrain simmers with sectarian rage, almost all hope in peaceful reform crushed by a hardline regime more concerned with public relations than with serious political outreach. Countries that largely avoided mobilization during the height of the Arab uprisings, such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria, seem unable to confront their persistent political deadlocks. Saudi Arabia faces a growing, potent protest movement in its Eastern Province which it shows few signs of being willing to accommodate. 

Not everything is grim, of course, even within this generally depressing regional environment. Libya has consistently confounded the skeptics. Despite its many remaining problems, most notably the continuing presence of armed militias only tenuously connected to the emerging political order, Libya's successful elections have produced a transition to a democratic, civilian government which few thought possible. Yemen has slightly outperformed (very low) expectations, as its new president has tentatively pushed to restructure the military and assert his authority. Tunisia continues to amaze, despite its crushing economic problems and the emergence of some worrying polarization around religious issues. Even Sudan saw glimmers of popular protest.  

But those signs of hope have been overwhelmed by the two largest and most consequential of the Arab arenas: Egypt and Syria. The seating of Mohamed Morsi as the elected president of Egypt broke the fever which had kept Egyptians in a state of political frenzy for many long months. The air had largely gone out of Egyptian politics, even before the latest crisis in the Sinai. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Egypt's constant state of crisis and daily reversals of fortune over the first half of 2012 brought us all close to the brink of complete nervous breakdown, and a timeout to regroup was badly needed. Unfortunately, that "strategic pause" seems to have been largely wasted, and the transition to civilian rule which seemed so important seems to be failing to deliver constitutional legitimacy. 

Egypt's "pause" should have been an opportunity to get state institutions working again, start dealing with economic disaster, reassure international investors, and rebuild the lost political consensus around the revolution. Instead, it has been frittered away in nervous jockeying between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. Politics has become ever more polarized between Islamists and their rivals, with virtually any move on either side viewed with suspicion and the worst intentions ascribed (was the Muslim Brotherhood's effort to clean the streets really a nefarious scheme, rather than a smart move to try to actually do something positive?). Revolutionary movements grow every more alienated from the emerging political order, but have done little to build an alternative political movement. The technocratic government which Morsi finally appointed has failed to spark new political energies (though, to be fair, had he appointed an Islamist-dominated government instead the reaction would have been far worse).  Indeed, in almost every way the Muslim Brotherhood's decision to seek the presidency is proving to be the strategic disaster that it appeared at the time -- alienating other political forces without gaining any real power. Egypt may not be in the midst of crisis right now, but it is deep in the political doldrums and looking ever more like the latter-day Mubarak period which the revolution erupted in order to change. 

And then, of course, there is Syria. The worst fears about Syria have now largely materialized. With international diplomacy having failed, the conflict has now turned nearly completely into an armed insurgency against a rotting but still capable military regime. The insurgency, fueled by Syrian outrage against Assad's brutality and backed by foreign cash, arms, media, and political aid, can sustain itself indefinitely and has little reason to compromise. Assad's regime has little incentive not to fight to the death, and still retains not inconsiderable domestic support and external Russian and Iranian backing. The chances for a political solution were never great, but the unfolding civil war is showing exactly why diplomacy was worth the effort. 

The emerging Syrian insurgency is nothing to celebrate. I still believe that Assad is ultimately doomed, as his brutality and political clumsiness has wiped away any hope of restoring legitimate rule over the country. Certainly, the responsibility for political failure and the turn to violence lies with the regime. But the fighting, bloodshed, and spreading sectarianism will leave scars and undermine hopes for political reconciliation in whatever follows Assad. So will the proliferation of weaponry into the hands of armed groups which still lack any real leadership or cohesion, to say nothing of a clear political agenda. The role of al Qaeda may be exaggerated in some of the reporting, but jihadist fighters are now clearly present and playing an active role, and they will not be easily dimissed when the fighting ends.  

The effects are not only internal to Syria, of course. Like Iraq in the previous decade, Syria is increasingly the battleground for regional proxy war, the breeding ground for regional sectarianism and jihadist extremism, and a potent cautionary tale for autocrats seeking to frighten their discontented populations against further revolts. The Syrian war overshadows almost all other issues in today's Arab media, driving out many of the political and social and intellectual issues brought to the fore by the early days of the Arab uprisings. The idea that things would be better in Syria now had the United States intervened militarily is a fanciful one -- more likely, such an intervention would only have destroyed hopes for a political solution more quickly, accelerated the violence, and now found American forces caught in the quagmire. The Obama administration has been wise to resist pressures to intervene militarily in Syria, and I fear that its emerging moves to support the insurgency, which it likely sees as now politically necessary even if unlikely to actually produce desirable outcomes, will come back to haunt it in the coming years. But the reality is that there are now no good options.  

This is a grim regional picture -- and I haven't even mentioned the beating drums for war against Iran or the complete absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It's been a cruel summer. But it should not be taken as reason to despair or to question either the reality or the value of the Arab uprisings. The core structural driving force behind the Arab uprisings remains the generational rise of a new public sphere of frustrated citizens in a radically new information environment. There was never going to be a straight line from popular uprising to liberal democracy in these countries. Islamists were always going to perform well in elections, autocrats were always going to defend their power, and the beneficiaries of the status quo were always going to resist change. But autocrats are on the defensive, Islamists are internally divided and struggling with the demands of power, and expectations of democratic participation and open, contentious public life taking ever deeper root. Taking a longer view allows us to see the reality of how much has changed in the texture of Arab politics, and perhaps despair less at setbacks and reversals. 

In The Arab Uprising I wrote that we were only seeing the early manifestations of a generational change in Arab politics, and that long view remains important. That's why I remain cautiously optimistic on Egypt and on many of the other Arab countries which currently seem so stagnant. But I do continue to fear the regional effects of Syria's relentless shift from political uprising to externally-backed armed insurgency and sectarian rhetoric. As in the 1950s, the region's politics are increasingly shaped by this struggle for Syria, in which, as Patrick  Seale famously put it, "each [regional power] sought to control it or, failing that, to deny its control to others." This regional context may not be all-determinative, but it cannot help but affect the domestic struggles across the region. Can the domestic struggles for political change gain traction in this environment? Can regional media such as Al Jazeera now obsessed with Syrian war again unify these local struggles into a common demand for Arab change as they did in the early days of 2011? Can protest movements unify around demands for change and resist the insidious spread of sectarian and ethnic conflicts? Those will be the defining questions for the next stage of the unfolding Arab transformations. 


Marc Lynch

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.