By Nawaf Obaid and Jamal Khashoggi, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Nawaf Obaid is a fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Jamal Khashoggi is the editor in chief of the Al Arab Satellite News Channel. The views expressed are their own.
While the U.S. media spends countless hours discussing the vagaries of American non-involvement in Syria, little is being said about the conflict's ramifications for the stability, borders and realpolitik of the Middle East – or the changing role of outside nations in the region's affairs. Yet there are massive, historic and intensely important implications that we need to understand. Indeed, the Syrian civil war is but a catalyst for numerous shifts taking place in the regional and global power structure.
First and foremost, the Syrian tragedy is a turning point in the long established tradition of Western intervention in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. The quagmire has brought to the fore the new reality that the United States and its European allies no longer have the political and economic stomach to openly engage their militaries in another regional conflict. While the so-called Arab Spring brought with it huge expectations to the Arab world of freedom and democracy, the dawning era of Western military disengagement from the region is going to have even more widespread implications as shifting borders and military alliances usher in a transition phase.
Absent outside intervention, the Syrian conflict has the potential to continue for many years. Given the support that the al-Assad regime is receiving from Russia and Iran, and arms being delivered to the rebels from the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the United States and France, one is reminded that the Lebanese civil war lasted for 15 years.
By Fareed Zakaria
A new internet game – “Where is Damascus?” – asks you to pinpoint Syria’s capital on a map. Even if you are off by 100 miles, you will probably have done better than 80 percent of the people who played the game. According to its creators, a number of the people inside the U.S. Department of Defense tried it out as well…and only 57 percent managed to locate Damascus. Some of the guesses were as far off as India and South Africa! Let’s hope those folks weren’t tasked with targeting the air strikes.
So, as a public service, here are three facts about Syria:
First, it became a nation recently and with much turmoil. Until World War I, the Ottoman Empire controlled most of the Middle East, plus parts of Europe and North Africa. It had ruled much of this land for six centuries. But when the Empire collapsed after World War I, it led to a complete fragmentation of the region. France and Britain carved up parts of the empire. Syria broke free of French influence after World War II. Then followed a series of failed governments, then briefly it actually joined up with Egypt to create a new country, the United Arab Republic, and then seceded from that republic three years later. In 1963, the Baath Party organized a coup – and that is the beginning of the Syria we now know.
By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The prospect of a U.S. military strike on Syria has focused new attention on the role and influence of Islamic extremist groups – including Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and jihadists from Chechnya, Pakistan and other countries – opposing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In his address to the nation on September 10, President Barack Obama asserted that “al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.”
Syria’s neighbors share some of those concerns. Indeed, a new Pew Research Center survey shows extremism is also a matter of great concern to Muslims in the countries surrounding Syria, with many also worried that the turmoil will spread across their own border.
By Michael Shank and Rep. Raul Grijalva, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Shank is director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. U.S. Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The views expressed are their own.
The Americans don’t want it. The Germans don’t want it. And the Brits don’t want it. The overwhelming consensus of public opinion in the Western world is that a war with Syria would be a bad idea. This now gives President Barack Obama some flexibility to back away from his red line, save political face, and do what’s necessary to prevent further violence in Syria.
But before spelling out ways we can help bring peace to Syria, it’s worth first identifying some problematic trends in America’s tack towards war. This is not unique to President Obama and was visible in past presidents’ penchant for war. There is a precedent here.
First, the idea that America can be “precise” and “limited” and “strategic” while attacking another country is completely misplaced. It inevitably leads to further or escalated violence. It always has. We wanted to be brief, precise and strategic in Iraq by bombing Baghdad, thinking “shock and awe” would intimidate the country and its recalcitrant leader into submission. This is not dissimilar to how we are now thinking that a “punitive” strike on Syria would send a stern message that President Bashar al-Assad, one to which he would be responsive.
By Anthony Brunello, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Anthony Brunello is a professor of political science at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. The views expressed are his own.
Even the most powerful advisers in the National Security Council are unsure of exactly how to respond to the current problem in Syria, but clearly a response is coming soon. We can only hope the NSC has better information and advice than the general public is getting from the press, talking heads and President Barack Obama’s partisan critics in Congress. The president would be wise to take his time, move slowly and, most important, ensure that any action taken is done multilaterally.
We cannot go it alone or with a small group of willing allies. Of course, any U.S. response must be planned carefully with the United Nations, NATO and Arab States, but much still depends on the attitude of China and Russia. With these two siding with Bashar al-Assad and holding back the United Nations – as they have for many months – any U.N. movement is stalled.
But the Syrian crisis is further complicated by three circumstances:
First, Egypt – a significant ally in the past and key to peace and stability in the region – is in turmoil. A single miscalculation by U.S. forces would create an even worse mess, and on top of this we must always remember Israel is sitting in the middle of this turbulence.
By Joseph Singh, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Joseph Singh is a research assistant at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) North America. The views expressed are his own.
Amid emerging chaos in Egypt, daily bloodshed in Syria and uncertainty over how Iran’s new president will handle nuclear negotiations with the West, the increasingly complex security environment in the Middle East has complicated U.S. efforts to undertake the fabled pivot to Asia. At the same time, fiscal woes dictate that the Pentagon prepare to do more with less, even in an environment where U.S. adversaries are finding increasingly cheap means of challenging the conventional instruments of American power projection.
These realities make it all the more perplexing that many defense analysts have dubbed the Pentagon’s new operational concept – called “AirSea Battle” – a plan to fight a war with China. In fact, AirSea Battle may very well be more about the Middle East than the Pacific.
According to the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, a publicly released report by the U.S. Defense Department analyzing military objectives and potential threats, AirSea Battle seeks to “address how air and naval forces will integrate capabilities across all operational domains – air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace – to counter growing challenges to U.S. freedom of action.” To be sure, these challenges to U.S. freedom of action are certainly most pronounced in China. But they’re present in the Middle East, too.
By Gabrielle Chefitz
Editor’s note: GPS intern Gabrielle Chefitz speaks with RAND Corporation analyst Julie Taylor about Hezbollah, civil war in Syria and the dangerous uptick of violence in Lebanon.
What was behind the recent EU decision to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization?
For a long time, the United States has had Hezbollah listed as a terrorist organization. The Europeans had not. And one of the reasons why is because the EU highly values having open diplomatic channels, and cutting-off relations with a group that plays an important role in the Lebanese government restricts the EU’s ability to influence events in Lebanon.
After the Hezbollah terrorist attack on Israelis in Bulgaria [last July], the EU was under pressure to change its position. It took a middle path and only listed Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization, not the party as a whole. There are fears that this will isolate Hezbollah. [But] what I think is most important about the announcement is that this is coming at a time when Hezbollah members and supporters are being assassinated and kidnapped by Sunni extremist groups and Free Syrian Army sympathizers, both in Lebanon and Syria. While the extremists and FSA-Sympathizers aren’t necessarily working in tandem, these aren’t simply retaliatory attacks due to events in Syria: they are a deliberate campaign to try and draw Shiite Hezbollah into a more direct sectarian confrontation with Lebanon’s Sunni population.
By David Andrew Weinberg, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as a staff member covering Middle East issues at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The views expressed are his own.
Barely a week after having been released from prison, prominent Saudi rights activist Mohammed Al-Bajadi was reportedly detained again on Wednesday. Sadly, Al-Bajadi had already served more than two years in jail for something that should not have been a crime in the first place: establishing a human rights NGO that urged Saudi officials to live up to their own stated legal code.
Ironically, Al-Bajadi first ran afoul of Saudi authorities by calling attention to the plight of other individuals detained without charges, often for years at a time. In 2007, he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement for four months for highlighting this issue.
In 2009, he was hauled in for questioning about his continued peaceful activism for democratic reform and for the rights of prisoners. Although he was released without further punishment, his passport was confiscated to prevent him from traveling abroad. The organization he helped found that year, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, has consistently been denied requests for a license. Earlier this year, the group’s assets were confiscated, and two of its other founders were each sentenced to at least a decade in prison.
Watch the full interview on "Fareed Zakaria GPS," this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
Fareed speaks with Chris Schroeder, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, about entrepreneurship in the Middle East.
But the states of the Arab world are highly statist…I don't think of them as places where you would see the growth of entrepreneurship.
One of the great stories about entrepreneurship now is the fact that so much is happening bottom-up, again, enabled by technology. And so as you know better than anyone, all emerging markets have tremendous complexity and histories and legacies to work at.
But all of a sudden, when young people have these devices in their hands and they have the access to technology, they can collaborate, share ideas and solve problems in very, very different ways.
So what have you found going around?
So what I've found overall are sort of three buckets of entrepreneurs. And by the way, this is as true in North Africa as in Yemen, in the midst of all the things that are going on. As you see often in emerging markets, you have entrepreneurs who are taking things that have been successful elsewhere and they're taking it to the Middle East.
Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
Fareed speaks with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, just days before the latest outbreak of violence, about Egypt’s government and the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi.
Would it be fair to say that Israel is quietly happy with the change of government, which of course many people regard as a coup, in Egypt? The new government has been much tougher on the border in terms of supplying Hamas.
Yes, you know, I don't think that we are really a major player in this. It’s a dramatic development for the Egyptian people and for the whole Middle East, the Arab peoples. Israel is not the center focal point of this.
You have the border with Gaza and this government has been...better than Morsi’s government?
Yes. But I think that the whole world should support Sisi. I believe that...
…the new Egyptian government?
I think that you have to support him. If we support him, it probably will embarrass him and it probably won't help him. But Sisi and the liberals, ElBaradei and others, they deserve the support of the free world. To whom else can they turn?
Morsi was elected relatively fairly, but he immediately turned to use the very tools...of [being] slightly and quite democratically elected into turning into a totally totalitarian, Sharia-like extreme Islamist system. And his own people rejected it.
By Erin Evers, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Erin Evers is a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are her own.
I awoke at 7 a.m. on Wednesday to a frantic telephone call. A contact inside of Raba’a al-Adaweya, one of the two six-week-old Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins that took over two Cairo neighborhoods, was on the line. “It’s starting,” he told me. “We’re surrounded. They’re firing on us from three sides.”
I spent the rest of the day alternately seeking out the injured and trying to avoid becoming one of them. Dozens, if not hundreds, have been killed at Raba’a, at the Cairo University sit-in, and at flashpoints throughout Cairo and the rest of the country.
Society here seems to hang by a thread. Fighting continues and it is unclear who’s on what side. I spoke to a man injured at the Cairo University sit-in who said he and 25 others had come to fight the Brotherhood alongside police.
Checkpoints litter the city, some manned by the army or police, others by groups of men in civilian clothes reminiscent of the “neighborhood watches” who took matters into their own hands during Egypt’s January 2011 revolution. The country is polarized in a way I never imagined.