Regardless of any negotiated ceasefire, it appears that the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) may take Aleppo. According to Syria expert Josh Landis, they practically already have. Landis has done a turnabout recently in his opinion of the chances of the Assad regime surviving and his favoring of active support for the rebels, though he still falls far short of encouraging military intervention. He says instead that the US should tell Assad that unless he forms a transition government and leaves power after the US election (because nothing so daring is getting done until then), then the US and other Western powers should supply the FSA with anti-aircraft weapons. That would be enough to hand them victory.

Assad has no possibility of regaining control of Syria. He does not have soldiers enough to retake lost cities. But he insists on using his air force to destroy what remains of rebel held towns. This is senseless destruction. He has no hope of recapturing them. It should be stopped. He has been carrying out a scorched earth policy that is killing thousands, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, and destroying Syria’s precious architectural heritage.

This raises a number of questions, most notably whether direct US and Western support would be sufficient to guarantee an opposition win, whether that is desirable (from the US perspective), and whether such is even necessary.

While I’ve no doubt that the US could play a robust role in toppling Assad if it wished to, Turkey is and always has been the key to the FSA’s survival and potential victory. Assad’s only chance to survive is to break the international coalition set against him, and Turkey is the coalition’s center of gravity; without Turkey, the insurgency dies.

Turkey early on made its anti-Assad position clear. The other week, after shooting down a Syria-bound plane and responding to Syrian mortars in kind, the blogosphere and other media were full of speculation that Turkey might launch a full-scale invasion. Most ultimately dismissed the idea, but a few played with the possible merits to Turkey: stabilizing its neighbor, crafting a favorable regime there, and taking the upper hand in shaping the region to its liking.

The Middle East seems to be shaping up into a field of contestation for four contenders for hegemon: Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. I daresay that many, especially in US policy circles, are opposed to Iran winning this contest, but they should also be asking if the other three choices are equal in their implications for the US.

From the US’ perspective, I imagine that Turkey winning the game holds a lot of appeal. The US has less and less ability to play the role of hegemon. It may decide that its best bet is to support a new hegemon with whom it shares many values and a history of cooperation. Of the available choices, that’s Turkey. Then again, Turkey taking over an Arab state would quickly revive old hatreds. They may prefer to influence from without.

If one looks at the Arab Spring in general as coming from the re-balancing of powers post Cold War, Lebanon and Syria both promise to be the major arenas in which these hegemonic contenders fight. All four have friendly parties/proxies in the ethnically mixed states to which they can funnel money and arms, for whom they feel some sympathy, and from whom they can expect some reciprocation. Baring an outright win by one of the four, both Syria and Lebanon may have a long period of instability to look forward to. The US may not have much ability to change that.

The protests that raged across the Middle East and North Africa over the last week have prompted many questions, but perhaps not the right ones. The attacks on American embassies in nascent democracies are not betrayals of some utopic, democratic future, but the a further playing out of larger geopolitical forces we are still struggling to understand. 

I may be coming a little bit late to the game on this one, but the protests throughout the MENA region last week, while now thankfully died down, have raised a number of questions back in the US region. Most of these questions are quite old and tend to resurface as new and salient any time people “over there” act or react in ways that uncomfortably call attention to what might not be as impartial, mature, logical, and just generally correct behavior on our part as we would like to think.

“Why do they hate us?” “Why can’t they take criticism?” “So illogical!” (note this last might as well read: “how uncivilized!”) Some commentators have seemed shocked that the new political openings in the region hadn’t precluded such a thing, that this was a betrayal of the democratic promise made to us (thus adding the idea that not only are they irrational, but they are untrustworthy as well). In some ways, then, asking these questions about the recent protests comes back to asking what the Arab Spring really is.

See for example, this op ed from Fouad Ajami in the Washington Post. As he makes clear from his introduction, “Modernity requires the willingness to be offended. And as anti-American violence across the Middle East and beyond shows, that willingness is something the Arab world, the heartland of Islam, still lacks.” What follows is a long summary of colonial history in the region and the general feeling that the Arabs just haven’t quite been able to get with it, to keep up with the times, to modernize. There is nothing imperialist about this; it is what the modern world demands of everyone.

Ajami’s recounting of history is correct in the details, but I disagree with his thesis and dangerous misuse of terms. By “modernity” – a term that can mean everything and nothing – what he really means is “Western culture.” So, Arab culture is lacking Western culture. I see where this is going. Ajami in effect says that decades of colonialism and historical humiliation have led Arabs to be perpetually thin-skinned. They are trapped by history, as unchanging in their ways as the great deserts they inhabit.

The idea that a century or more of being a “subject people” is solely responsible for rough relations with Western society is pretty specious, given that more than half of the cultures in the world can be described in the same way. It doesn’t help, but there’s nothing particularly exceptional about the Arab or Muslim worlds in this regard.

One might say that to the extent that societies are not secularized, that any political differences of significance are bound to be religious in appearance. But that, I fear, misunderstands the secular mindset as a norm (and monolithic) and once again places the arguer in a position of self-defined superiority.

One possible argument for an essential cultural component to what’s going on is that Arab culture (and most others except ours) places a high priority on honor (or “face”). Disagreement is fine and healthy, but public insults are another matter. In America, we thrive on insults (giving more than getting, of course). I would hardly put that on the list of essential elements of our way of life, but it is a vibrant character trait/flaw.

I have no doubt that the history of Imperialism is terribly important and is material for resentment. From the American standpoint – and it is that standpoint which is of primary concern to me – we must find ways to “bridge the gap” with these societies, help with their disastrous youth-unemployment problems, and somehow desist from playing the role of regnant Imperialist power.

More and more, I think Sam Huntington had it right. This is one aspect of what he would have termed a “fault-line conflict,” which also helps to explain why it never goes away. Elites manipulate issues to gain and  retain power, and such a public clash of cultures (or civilizations) is an expedient means to do it.

So then, if not oriental thin-skinnedness, what are/were the protests about? How much is religious? How much political? As to the political: why?

I suspect that the attack in Libya wasn’t entirely linked to the anti-Muslim film that spurred on the Egyptian riots and which then spread to Pakistan and elsewhere. Of the others, who really needs a reason to protest the US? People have been deeply resentful of the US for decades. The yoke of empire sits heavy, and without a unifying story of a battle of good vs evil (the Cold War) to justify hegemony, it is not just heavy but unjust.

But it is far more complicated than that, of course.Tony Karon wrote a good overall assessment of the situation in Libya shortly after the attack. I think he overplays the danger in Libya and also doesn’t distinguish between different types of salafis; however, he does help to show the ways that elites manipulate issues in the region to their own advantage and he highlights the ways that the new political situation in Libya (and perhaps elsewhere) presents challenges and opportunities.

People don’t like the US. The US and Israel, in the local mindset, are responsible for every ill. That’s silly, of course, but also understandable to a degree. People in the region now have the physical ability to mobilize and act, where they couldn’t before under dictatorial rule. They also have the the encouragement to act, in that they’ve seen what collective action can bring.

Getting back to Huntington, I do think that the end of the Cold War is largely responsible for the Arab Spring generally (and I include the earlier Iranian Green Movement here) in that, along with a growing “middle-ish class” and 20% youth bulge, it upset the traditional balance of powers. We are in the process of seeing the cards settle after a good shuffle.

In many ways, I think events today resemble 1848, with a series of revolutions that produced, in that case, the dawn of ideological politics in Europe and throughout the world. That year saw the publication of the Communist Manifesto, and while communism played little to no part in any of the revolutions then underway, the “specter” of communism (to use Marx’s phrase) thereafter became the most potent ideological force available to anti-establishment forces. If the parallel is a good one, however, I think we have to ask what is the “specter” today? Is it Islamism or salafism, as some suggest? Or is it a greater geopolitical shift?

Egypt, according to seasoned Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross, is living in denial. Ross says in an op ed in the Washington Post that Egyptian President Moursi and the Muslim Brotherhood are denying reality by disavowing sending a response message to Israeli President Perez’s note even while bowing to pragmatic pressures by reversing its stance on accepting IMF assistance. From this, Ross interprets a dangerous “alternative reality” forming in the mindset of the Brotherhood; something for the US to steadfastly confront in its dealings with the new government.

What conclusions should be drawn about an organization that cannot admit the truth? That insists on living in its own reality? If nothing else, it’s clear that the group the Brotherhood [sic] is wedded to its ideology and cannot admit anything that might call its basic philosophy into question.

What conclusions should be drawn about an organization that cannot admit the truth? Possibly that they are in politics?

Not being able to admit fault in its central tenets is a quality of ideology—political or religious—to be sure, but public statements disavowing unpopular but pragmatic actions is also the hallmark of politics. That the Brotherhood is unused to playing such politics and may stumble embarrassingly upon occasion is to be expected. One could point to any number of incidents in American politics as proof of either party in the US insisting on living in its own reality despite overwhelming evidence of “truth” to the contrary.

Ross is, of course, a diplomat, and his overall point is that the US should not tolerate actions or statements by foreign powers that it doesn’t agree with. Particularly as the Moursi government is in the process of forming what Egyptian politics is the mean, this is a critical period in which to establish the bases of the bilateral relationship and the US should take a hard stand now or lose the ability to do so later on.

Fair enough, but his chosen argument is a poor one. Most other states contend that the US doesn’t abide by the arbitrary rules it sets for others, that it punishes others for unfair trade relations while enacting protectionist measures at home, that it insists upon democratic reforms abroad while stifling dissent at home and supporting friendly dictatorships around the world.

And what conclusions should be drawn about a state that cannot admit the truth but insists on living in its own reality?

Politics as usual.

Just as I was at long last getting ready to turn my attention to Libya and Tunisia – the forgotten but oh-so-important arena of the Arab Spring – Egypt thrusts itself back into the limelight. And even though I feel we pay too much attention to Egypt when it comes to understanding the wave of revolutions sweeping through the region, I like everyone else, must pay heed.

Over the weekend, Egyptian president Moursi at least rhetorically, if not in actuality, dismissed the military junta controlling the state and took the reigns for himself. Questions abound. Thankfully, Marc Lynch does a superb job asking those questions, if not always in answering them.

Abu Aardvark asks here:

were Tantawi and Anan consulted, or did they find out on TV?  did junior officers collude with the Presidents office, or were they equally surprised?  And the behavior of key actors in the coming weeks will shed light on their intentions this weekend:  does Morsi move to impose an Islamist vision or reach out to create a broadly based constitutional convention?  does the military strike back in some form?

There’s no way to answer those questions just now, alas, but as Lynch states, the truth will trickle out. In lieu of comprehensive answers, he proposes three routes along which events might unfold:

1) Those who believe the SCAF remains fully in control see a clever scheme to cement long-term military rule in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood by gently dumping the unpopular figureheads while retaining an institutional hold on power. 

2) Those who fear the Muslim Brotherhood see the makings of a full-scale Ikhwanization of Egypt, with Morsi seizing dictatorial powers, brushing aside the secular bastion of the SCAF, and putting himself in place to shape the new constitution.   

3) And those who still see the prospect for some kind of real democratic transition can find some comfort in an elected President removing the senior leaders of the outgoing military junta without a bloody fight and asserting the principle of political control by an elected President.

This “long, grinding war of institutional position,” as he states, will take time to play out and much of the action will necessarily be out of sight.

Been away for some time as part of a major move, but slowly settling into things. While there’s been a lot of news coverage on the region, there’s been little to alter any of the previous questions – no major game changers. If anything, the situation in Egypt confirms that the Muslim Brotherhood, the Moursi government, and the SCAF have found (or are finding) a way to live together. That’s good for the country, though we will have to wait and see how good that will prove for Egyptians or others (read: the United States).
In the meantime, here is a decent, if somewhat superficial, rundown of the major figures in the Brotherhood. Many questions surround each of them.

A quick note about this. I would say that events on the ground may well have shortened that wall I last discussed considerably.

Neil MacFarquhar does a good job of asking, and at times answering, the big questions. It does seem to me that he puts too much emphasis on the bombing being in Damascus. A regime can survive for a long time with low-grade insurgent violence in the capital – it can lead to successful ethnic cleansing, as happened in Baghdad – but the idea that the inner circle – and not just the Sunni components – may be cracking is a threat.

My friend may think Assad has a year at least, but I think he may be operating under a few assumptions as to how much in control of the Alawi he is. The Alawi have really staked much on the Assads, but i think if it seemed worth while to them, if they felt vulnerable enough or if an alternative seemed alluring enough, they would abandon him. The idea shouldn’t be dismissed, at least, that Assad will fall far quicker than a year. What is to come after, though, may not make many here or there too happy.

It would seem that the elite defections are starting in earnest now in Syria. The Syrian ambassador to Iraq has resigned and defected. Fares’ defection, along with the earlier defection of Gen. Tlaf, plays into the narrative of the crumbling regime in the ways that we’ve seen before, for example in Libya. I tend to be in the camp of thinking that the writing is on the wall for Assad, but the question is, how long is that wall?

Are these two high-profile defections bellwethers for immanent collapse of the regime? I think, perhaps, not. Unlike Libya, you don’t have NATO adding pressure with military force. That sped up everything. Plus, despite what the mainstream media is saying about Tlas being a personal friend to Bashar and Fares being an important, senior diplomat, it may be that what we’re seeing here is a result of the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian revolt.

Tlas and Fares are Sunni, and the armed opposition is increasingly majority Sunni and radical. These defections show that the Sunni elite that has existed just outside the inner Alawi core is crumbling. That’s not good for Assad, but it doesn’t spell doom just yet. If anything, I would expect the lines to harden. Assad has no compunction using extreme violence and force to sustain his rule, and the core around him may well be prepared to go as far as necessary as a means of keeping the Sunni bogeyman at bay.

Then again, such a situation may be ripe for a palace coup, as Reva Bhalla and Kamran Bokhari have pointed out in Strafor (via Josh Landis’ site).

So, more crumbling at the edges, but the wall still stands. For how long? A friend with good insight says at least another year. Half the military and the entire diplomatic corps could defect in that time. Assad’s state may shrink before it falls.