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Tag Archives | middle east

“The worst day in Western diplomatic history”

The Obama administration’s actions and inactions in Syria have undermined the global chemical weapons regime.

The Telegraph has called September 9, 2013 the “Worst day in Western diplomatic history.”

A series of rather spectacular gaffes on Syria have hurt the Obama administration’s credibility at home and abroad. Syria, however, only represents a microcosm of the Obama administration’s disastrous handling of affairs in West Asia since the beginning of popular uprisings in the region in 2010.

Perhaps swayed by public sentiment or by a desire to not be seen as being interventionist, the Obama administration watched as despot after despot was dethroned in the Middle East.  This was good, many people argued, because “democracy” was an idea that had finally arrived in the Middle East.  The people had spoken.

Except that the institutions for democratic governance weren’t there in the Middle East nor could they be built overnight.  Thus, those who rode momentary popular waves of support to assume leadership in these countries simply carried on in the ways of the last usurper by accumulating power, subverting law and silencing opposition.  Three years on, not only is there no democracy in the Middle East, the region is now significantly more volatile than during the last three decades of rule by U.S.-allied strongmen.  Large swathes of Syria and Libya are now controlled by Islamist militias, many of whom are allied with al-Qaeda.  Egypt is on boil as the Muslim Brotherhood spars with the Deep State.

In Syria — like in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — the Obama administration chose not to intervene militarily when uprisings against the regimes broke out.  Choosing not to intervene then in Syria made sense.  U.S. interests in Syria are limited and Syria has never been a U.S. national security priority.  But the humanitarian crisis that resulted from the battle between insurgents and Bashar al-Assad’s regime concerned many, including the U.S., which pushed for a Coalition of the Somewhat-Willing to provide arms and ammunition to the Free Syria Army and other rebels, but not intervene directly in the conflict.  Two years on, the battle for Syria is still inconclusive and the civilian death toll is well over 100,000.

Having decided against direct intervention in 2011, Mr. Obama erred in declaring an arbitrary “red line” for U.S. military action in Syria to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.  The red line is arbitrary because a precedent for intervention on the grounds of the use of chemical weapons by one party in a conflict simply does not exist.

In fact, as this piece from The George Washington University’s National Security Archives tells us, Saddam Hussein’s “almost daily use” of chemical weapons against Iran and Kurdish insurgents were “known-knowns” to the U.S. when Donald Rumsfeld met with Mr. Hussein in 1983 to discuss, among other things, their mutual antipathy towards Iran and potential alternate routes to transport Iraq’s oil to the U.S.:

The U.S., which followed developments in the Iran-Iraq war with extraordinary intensity, had intelligence confirming Iran’s accusations, and describing Iraq’s “almost daily” use of chemical weapons, concurrent with its policy review and decision to support Iraq in the war [Document 24]. The intelligence indicated that Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian forces, and, according to a November 1983 memo, against “Kurdish insurgents” as well [Document 25].

Following further high-level policy review, Ronald Reagan issued National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 114, dated November 26, 1983, concerned specifically with U.S. policy toward the Iran-Iraq war. The directive reflects the administration’s priorities: it calls for heightened regional military cooperation to defend oil facilities, and measures to improve U.S. military capabilities in the Persian Gulf, and directs the secretaries of state and defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take appropriate measures to respond to tensions in the area.  It does not mention chemical weapons [Document 26].

Soon thereafter, Donald Rumsfeld (who had served in various positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including as President Ford’s defense secretary, and at this time headed the multinational pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Co.) was dispatched to the Middle East as a presidential envoy…

Rumsfeld met with Saddam, and the two discussed regional issues of mutual interest, shared enmity toward Iran and Syria, and the U.S.’s efforts to find alternative routes to transport Iraq’s oil; its facilities in the Persian Gulf had been shut down by Iran, and Iran’s ally, Syria, had cut off a pipeline that transported Iraqi oil through its territory. Rumsfeld made no reference to chemical weapons, according to detailed notes on the meeting [Document 31]. [National Security Archives]

So having committed to a “red line” which had no precedent,  the Obama administration was put in a fix when intelligence reports recently emerged of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian insurgency.  Mr. Obama’s enthusiasm for a limited military strike against the Assad regime wasn’t shared by all.  Many in the U.S. questioned the value of a limited strike, while the UK voted against participation in a military operation against Syria.

Even as momentum towards a military strike against Syria was being built,  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry bizarrely ad-libbed his way into declaring that military operations would be put on hold if Syria turned over its chemical weapon stockpile.  The Russians and Syrians capitalized on Mr. Kerry’s statements; U.S. military operations against Syria are now on hold, pending U.S.-Russian discussions in Geneva on the logistics of negotiating the Assad regime’s surrender of its chemical weapons stockpile.

These events have effectively left in tatters both the Obama administration’s credibility in the region as well as the collective efforts of the last thirty years towards an international regime against the use of chemical weapons.

Deterrence works only if punitive responses to non-compliance are credible.  In this case, either the Assad regime calculated that its use of chemical weapons would go undetected or that detection would not matter because the U.S.’s ability to make good on its threats was not credible.  This has proven to be the case.  The Obama administration’s handling of the situation in Syria undermines the Chemical Weapons Convention and sets a poor precedent on the future use of chemical weapons.

Others might rightly conclude that the costs of using chemical weapons will be insignificant and can be absorbed.  As long as promises are made to the effect that any existing stockpiles of chemical weapons — post-use — are relinquished, no harm will come of them.  Considering the logistical challenges inherent in both verifying the destruction or surrender of chemical weapons stockpiles, and the ease through which new chemical weapons stockpiles can be built (relative to, say, nuclear weapons), this is a bargain most countries will take.

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In Pragati: Bringing our citizens home

A very belated blogpost: in this month’s Pragati, I review India’s evacuation efforts as uprisings raged in Egypt and Libya.  While the government can indeed be pleased about the overall effectiveness of its response, there are lessons to be learned from the experience:

India is no stranger to security uncertainties in the Middle East. At the time of the first Gulf War, India had about 180,000 citizens living in Kuwait and 20,000 in Iraq. Over the course of the war, India dispatched ferries to Dubai and chartered Air India flights to Amman, Jordan to evacuate citizens from the region. Direct evacuation from Kuwait was impossible because of air and sea blockades by the US-led coalition, a point that drew repeated protests from Inder Kumar Gujral, then foreign minister. India incurred costs exceeding $1 billion, having evacuated over 100,000 citizens via 500 flights from Amman to Mumbai. Again, in 2006, when conflict broke out between Israel and Hizbullah in South Lebanon, India dispatched four warships of Task Force 54 (INS Mumbai, INS Brahmaputra, INS Betwa and INS Shakti) to rescue not only the 2,000 Indian citizens but also Sri Lankans and Nepalis, as part of Operation Sukoon.

[T]he bulk of India’s evacuation efforts were concentrated on Libya, where over 18,000 Indian citizens lived and worked. As anti-Gaddafi forces gained momentum in Benghazi, the MEA launched Operation Safe Homecoming on February 28, its largest evacuation exercise since the Gulf War. The initial focus of New Delhi’s efforts was Scotia Prince, a passenger ferry with a capacity of 1,200, chartered to evacuate its citizens from Benghazi and Eastern Libya to Alexandria, Egypt. From Alexandria, four special flights (including one Indian Air Force IL-76 transporter) operated to fly evacuees back to India. The Indian government also chartered MV Red Star One, which evacuated citizens to Malta, from where they were flown back to India via flights operated by Kingfisher and Jet Airways. [Pragati]

Read the article in its entirety in April 2011’s Pragati (webpage, pdf).

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In Pragati: The twists in the Middle Eastern revolutions

In this month’s Pragati, I argue that while despots in the Middle East may be out, the ruling establishments will still continue to maintain control.  A delirious Western media has consistently misinterpreted the recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia as pro-democracy and pro-freedom movements; they are neither.  At best, these are anti-establishment movements that will only yield a new generation of despots in the region.  But hope for democracy in the Middle East is not lost.

In its enthusiasm to support the mass social movement in Egypt, the world failed to appreciate the history of post-colonial Egypt, the Mubarak regime and its support structure. Mr Mubarak, like his predecessors, Naguib, Nasser and Sadat, is a product of the military-security structure that has dominated post-colonial Egypt since 1952. Even as Mr Mubarak transitioned power to his vice president Umar Sulayman and deputy prime minister Muhammad Tantawi (as indeed General Naguib did, albeit under coercion, to General Nasser) the military-security apparatus’ hold over Egypt will likely remain. Indeed, the jubilation on the streets of Cairo after the army’s take-over indicates that democracy and freedom became lesser issues than the people’s desire to see the last of the man they blamed for Egypt’s social and economic ills.

In this regard, the United States erred in continuing to push for Mr Mubarak’s expeditious exit after he announced his decision to withdraw from the presidential elections in September 2011. With Mr Mubarak  “gone,” and calm restored to the streets, the regime is unlikely to be under pressure to institute meaningful, time-bound democratic reform in Egypt. [Pragati]

Read the article in its entirety in this month’s Pragati. (webpage; pdf).

 

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The New Great Game in the Middle East

Belly dancing on a tightrope.

The Best Defense carried a guest blogpost by Daniel R. DePetris on how India and China’s increasing demand for energy resources might play out in the Arabian Peninsula and the Greater Middle East.  The writer asks, how will New Delhi and Beijing’s foreign policies be affected by their quest for energy resources in the Middle East? Will they seek to assert themselves (thereby helping share “America’s burden”) or assume a more passive role?

These are all interesting questions, but also ones that have been largely answered.  The broad contours of engagement with the Middle East have been laid out by both countries.  China, in the past, tended to regard the Middle East as too distant for it to actively engage in the muddled politics of the region.  Even at the UNSC, while China sought to leverage its position to undermine U.S. power, it hardly ever actively brought proposals to the table on resolving the region’s long-standing disputes.

China’s growing economy and quest for resources necessitated a change in its approach.  It has established energy ties with several Arab countries.  It is invested heavily in construction projects in the Peninsula.  It is engaged (albeit uneasily so) in negotiations on the Iran nuclear issue, while it clandestinely pursued to build up Saudi Arabia’s nuclear deterrent via its friend, Pakistan.  While China today is engaged in the Middle East on several levels, its motivation is primarily economic, and its relations, nascent.

Therein lies the difference between India and China.  India’s engagement with the Middle East goes beyond the economic (although, arguably, energy security today is India’s chief motivator).  India’s historical cultural ties with the region have allowed it to engage with several, often warring factions in the Middle East without being drawn into zero-sum equations in the region.  Even where economic ties are concerned, India and China differ, with India having contributed substantially to the Peninsula’s human capital.

While India’s cultural ties with Iran are well publicized,  it has also maintained enduring cultural and economic ties with Arab countries.  These ties are the reason why a 350-year old Shiva temple stands at the outskirts of Muscat, why over a million Indians live and work in the U.A.E., and why India is Egypt’s fourth-largest trading partner.  That India has managed to maintain its ties with Arab countries, while also developing strong ties with Israel is a rare success for Indian foreign policy.  Belly dancing on a tightrope can’t be  easy.  And this is something that puts it at an advantage over Beijing in the Middle East.

This is not to suggest that the scope for adjustments in foreign policy, when required by national interest, does not exist.  India’s relations with Iran, for example, have come under stress recently, with New Delhi’s decision to support  U.N. sanctions, twice, against Iran and with its decision to launch Israel’s spy satellite, Polaris.  However, none of these changes will alter the nature of China or India’s engagement with the region.  Hopes that either country will offer to share “U.S.’s burden” in the region, therefore, are unrealistic.

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