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In search of decisive points: Syria and Bahrain

April 27, 2011

One of my main problems with the Libya intervention was its attempt to turn a country’s civil war into the “center of gravity” for the fate of an entire region. Unfortunately, Libya is by no means the key to the Middle East, either ideologically or geostrategically. Among myriad opportunity costs of intervening, one which concerned me (but could not be proven at the time) was the possibility of greater crises emerging, and finding the US too entangled in an open-ended intervention in a peripheral zone to respond with adequate strength and flexibility.

The search for a center of gravity in the Middle East revolutions – a point which the West could concentrate its enemies on to undermine the capacity for authoritarian and hostile governments – has thus far proven futile. The attempt to make Libya into a decisive point by inflating its role in shaping the perception and behavior of regimes and opposition abroad has proven negligible. In theory, the US’s image would suffer serious damage, opposition movements extreme discouragement, and dictators inspiration,  if the US did not act. However, acting in Libya has done little to affect outcomes outside Libya.

This problem is all the more serious because the US cannot again rely on the methods it used in Libya to achieve victory elsewhere. For all the force employed in Libya, the political capital spent in its execution, and the international efforts to guide the situation, we are looking not at an assured endgame with a repeatable, clear strategy, but an escalating intervention with unclear ends, inadequate ways and insufficient means to meet them. Although Libya is hardly a drain on US resources the way Iraq or Afghanistan is, it is, quite clearly, exacting a toll on the Europeans, whose lesser military establishments are beginning to face overstretch. Already, in what is supposed to be primarily an aerial campaign, they are running short of precision-guided munitions, while much of the naval and aerial forces available for use are tied up in this theater of the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately for the United States, Libya was not the center of gravity of the Middle Eastern revolutions because there is no center of gravity, only different revolutions, their own political dynamics, and another dynamic that shapes but hardly controls their behavior. Unlike 1989, where a large bloc of regimes suffered under a shared ideology held in power by an imperial military presence, there is little reason to think a cascading wave of democracies is an inevitable outcome. To return to the 1848 analogy, the more likely event is that while the political mobilization of the masses and the fears and counter-mobilizations of authoritarian regimes will extend beyond borders, the “man on the scene with the gun,” through his action or inaction, will be final arbiter of which regimes fall and which do not. Only to the extent that foreign powers and individuals can compel or constrain those with political power in an individual country can it shape the actions which occur there.

So, in Syria, it is once again those men and women on the scene who are taking the lead in shaping the country’s political events. The crackdown of the Syrian army certainly represents the primacy of Syrian politics over the strategic narrative relating the US to the region in shaping the course of political events. Syria is also a country where much more is at stake for the United States. One of the advantages, or at least, mitigating factors, of intervention in Libya, is the relative strategic marginality for Libya to the United States. This means that while the US has very little to gain from participating in an intervention, it also means that its outcome also gives the US less at stake to lose. In other words, if Gaddafi succeeded, it would not do much to affect any major US interests. Even the scenario of massive refugee flows could be mitigated without a regime change strategy, if it can be mitigated at all – and it is not at all clear our current strategy Libya is doing much to stem flows of refugees an important way, anyway.

Consider the consequences of chaos in Syria. Unlike Libya, Syria has an outstanding territorial dispute and hostile relationship with Israel, a major role in neighboring Libya and the support of Hezbollah, a critically important non-state actor. It also abuts Jordan, an important US partner, and Iraq, from which it has absorbed many refugees. Developments in Syrian politics in this more compact and integrated area of the Middle East do ripple across in ways we might not see in Libya, and to countries ultimately more important for US interests. The balance of Middle Eastern power is relatively insensitive to what sort of regime emerges in Tripoli or Benghazi, but the stakes in Syria are even more significant, and concrete. They rely not on abstract notions of inspiration and discouragement, but direct political consequences for neighboring states and co-ethnic groups. Syria’s role in Turkish and Iranian foreign policies make it critically important, as Turkey is shaping itself, through stabilizing its relationship with Iran and Syria, while making itself more involved in the Arab world, to be a key player in the Middle East. What kind of regime, or kind of chaos, prevails in Syria will have direct and profound consequences on the actions of major players and neighboring states.

This is not to say the United States should intervene in Syria. Far from it, the Syrian military is far stronger than Libya’s. While Gaddafi feared his armed forces and deliberately weakened them and put them in the midst of several comparable paramilitary security services to prevent a coup, the mutual confidence in the Assad regime and the military has meant that country’s military is a major national institution, large in size and amply equipped, with a substantial air force and air defense systems. It is not a situation where the West could quickly and easily win a conflict from an air, nor one where the US could establish any kind of safe zone. It is also certainly not one where the opposition has even the vaguest shred of combat capability to counter the Syrian military.

Almost certainly, however, the US will face more serious challenges to its national interests in what occurs in Syria than Libya. Yet despite the bombs dropped and treasure spent, rhetoric lofted and lives lost, what we have done in Libya, however admirable it was and however much it helped the Libyan people, will count for very little in the streets of Daraa and Damascus. Credibility comes not merely from a national image to shape all a nation’s actions. In the case of Syria, the credibility of the US to stop Syrian repression is not merely a function of what America has done to other countries in the past, but the geopolitical situation facing the US now, and the costs and pain the Syrians can inflict in return. The US demands to stop repression in Syria today are less credible than they might otherwise be, because the US has proven itself unsure of how to effect desired political outcomes in the Middle East, unsure of what outcomes it even really wants, and unable to commit adequate resources to what plans it does have. It has less military resources and political willpower to bring to bear, because it is concerned about a war deeply unpopular at home and the capabilities of allies with limited power projection capabilities to see it through. It therefore has less time, attention, resources, and will to bring to bear against Syria, which knows full well the length of the checklist the US administration filed to sign off on intervention in Libya. Because Syria is of serious diplomatic interest to Turkey and Iran, has closer ties with Russia and is less obviously ripe for revolution than Libya, it is difficult to think the international community would be any more forthcoming in helping the US accomplish its goals there.

Ultimately, the US will push for more sanctions, the Europeans will probably oblige, and Germany, Russia, India, China, Brazil, and Turkey will either grudgingly accept, evade taking sides, or oppose. But unless the US decides it is time to commit a colossal strategic blunder, it will not intervene in Syria and find itself helpless to shape events there, despite the narrative it so painstakingly carved out in Libya.

The Gulf, too threatens to descend further into instability. As the Gulf Cooperation Council, as it simultaneously endorsed foreign intervention in Libya, conducted its own counterrevolutionary intervention in Bahrain, it opened the door to a dangerous regional dynamic. The serious consequence of diplomatic failure in Bahrain was never just the humanitarian outcome, which pales in comparison to the bloodletting in Misrata or Daraa, but the destabilization of one of the most militarily tense and arguably, the most geopolitically important part of the entire region – the Persian Gulf.

Though Iran previously tried to overthrow Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy, at the outset of protests in ethnically-divided country there was little indication that Iran was playing a significant role in provoking or supporting the protests, which were not mere sectarian or “tribal” affairs, but genuine attempts at reform. However, the paranoia of Bahrain and other GCC states towards the loss of a monarchy in a Shiite-majority country immediately led to scapegoating the unrest on Iranian mischief, and used that pretext of foreign support to justify their actual joint intervention against Bahrain’s opposition.

Instead, this identification and escalation predictably opened up Iran even more opportunity to actually influence events in Bahrain. When the opposition is backed up against the wall, and the wedge of Iranian loyalty and Shiite identity is used to divide or marginalize it, these beleaguered forces have more incentive to embrace the only country which seems to support their interests: Iran. This dynamic increases the influence of more committed or pro-Iranian opposition members, and, since no other outside power, including the US, seems interested in pressing their case, in fact makes Iran their last hope.

It also increases the incentives for Iran to throw their weight behind the opposition. After all, if Iran is facing blame from all the Gulf countries for supporting Bahrain’s opposition and its Shiite majority, some members of the Iranian government, intelligence, and security apparatus will doubtless feel some pressure to make real geopolitical gains by doing what others already charge them with. The rhetoric of the Basij commander in favor of supporting Bahrain’s opposition should not be surprising, particularly in light of the expulsions and diplomatic sanctions Gulf states are leveling against Tehran.

Even the narrative the US tried to establish in Libya works at cross purposes with its interests here. However abhorrent we might find an Iranian invocation of rights to peacefully assemble or the Responsibility to Protect, it would hardly be the first time other countries have used foreign, even humanitarian norms, against or at cross purposes with Western powers. The Indian intervention to support the liberation of Bangladesh met strong US opposition, and briefly invoked humanitarian ideals. Indeed, Pakistan, an American partner, was engaged in a brutal suppression of its easternmost province. One might speak similarly about the post-Vietnam war intervention by that unified state against Kampuchea’s horrendous regime. During the Suez Crisis, President Eisenhower found himself in a bind as he realized no satisfactory principle could condemn both the Soviet intervention in Hungary and the Franco-British-Israeli intervention against Egypt.

Even more recently, the principles of self-determination and protection of human rights have found expression in Russian conduct in the Caucasus. In its invasion of Georgia and occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia invoked its responsibility to protect Georgia’s breakaway provinces from oppression in Tblisi and its support for ethnic self-determination as the conflict escalated. This might not be a very credible invocation of commitment to humanitarian norms, nor might many of the previous examples have been, but if countries selectively invoke humanitarian interests to justify military action only in situations where the national interest is at stake, is this so very different than what the President said in his speech about combining values, interests, and opportunity in choosing to act?

US humanitarian intervention can only give the US credibility in its demands elsewhere when observers might some reasonable degree of consistency in US actions. The invocation of humanitarian norms by other countries is inconsistent, and for that reason, among others, few would consider Iran to have credibility in protecting human rights when its officials speaks about Bahrain. Yet the American strategic narrative faces the same limitations, because in its inconsistency, we expose our “credibility” to the vicissitudes of relative forces strengths, political wills, interests at stake, and now, having altered them with our intervention in Libya and silence elsewhere, it will give us no easy out in Syria or Bahrain.

The result in Bahrain, if the escalation’s dynamic continues unabated, may mean an increasingly militarized character to internal repression and international disputes. An Arab-Iranian Gulf clash may not come quickly, but its probability is certainly not decreasing as the competition over Bahrain increases.

Whatever happens in Bahrain and Syria, the US has not helped, if not outright hurt, its chances of influencing those events by committing so much of its resources and attention to a peripheral zone. As for the hopes of backing up our allies, it remains to be seen how much their support will count for in the unfolding of events in Syria and Bahrain, let alone in the troubling but increasingly serious possibility of a regional conflict emerging somewhere down the line. Despite the rhetoric surrounding it, what occurs in Libya may be a mere aside to what is coming further to the east.

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