Friday, April 22, 2011

Pakistan, Libya, Drones . . . and Syria

Bashar al-Assad's security forces have gone after anti-regime demonstrators today with a vengeance, in what some are calling the Good Friday massacre.  As Anthony Shadid's NYT report notes, the claimed numbers of dead vary, with one report as high as 72, including as many as 37 dead near Damascus. (For more see the WaPo coverage here.)  Yet even with all this, Shadid soberly reports:
despite the bloodshed, which promised to unleash another day of unrest as the dead are buried on Saturday, the momentum of the protests seemed to fall short of the popular upheaval that revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia represented. Organizers said the movement was yet in its infancy, and the government, building on 40 years of institutional inertia, still commanded the loyalty of the military, the economic elite and sizable minorities of Christian and heterodox Muslim sects who fear the state’s collapse.

Coming a day after Mr. Assad endorsed the lifting of draconian emergency rule, the killings represented another chapter in the government’s strategy of promised concession and grim crackdown that has left it staggering but still entrenched.

“There are indications the regime is scared, and this is adding to the momentum, but this is still the beginning,” said Wissam Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group. “Definitely, we haven’t seen the millions we saw in Egypt or Tunisia. The numbers are still humble, and it’s a reality we have to acknowledge.”

Some argue that Assad is too well entrenched, his security forces too powerful, even if (as Hisham Melhem claims) his credibility as a would-be reformer has been demolished and Bashar has been exposed as a dictator every bit as authoritarian as his father, Hafez, but not nearly as politically astute.  Nonetheless, Melhem notes, Bashar's overthrow will be much bloodier than was Mubarak's demise in Egypt:
 Minority based regimes such as the one in Syria will fight back with tenacity and show no mercy. The regime has convinced many members of other religious minorities, mainly Christians and Druze, that it is the only guarantor of stability and that its demise will lead to civil war. But recent demonstrations in Homs and other cities show that Syrians from all religious backgrounds are participating in the protests, thus undermining the regime's threat of sectarian chaos, although sectarian tension and even violence is still possible.

As Syrians rise up against the regime, says Melhem, the US needs to take a stand:
If the Obama administration wants to be "on the right side of history" in Syria, as it was in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, it has to forcefully say that and act on it. The U.S. cannot of course determine the future of Syria; this is the responsibility of the Syrian people. But the U.S. can help shape and influence the behavior of both the regime and the opposition, assuming that the demonstrations will continue and produce a more cohesive leadership. Clear, consistent messages of support should be sent to all those Syrians willing to invest in positive political change. The U.S. should assure the Syrian people that it will use its influence to prevent and avoid sectarian violence, that it will not tolerate retribution by any group, and that it will lean on its friends in the region to refrain from exploiting events to serve their narrow interests.

We've already begun to see US commentators exhort Mr. Obama to apply American leverage to Assad, via sanctions and other means. . . .

Which, of course, is how the US and its allies started off in their support of the rebels who rose against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.  We're way past that now.  Having promised the nation a military intervention in Libya that would last days, not months, Obama has taken us from no-fly zone, to air-strikes, to a non-withdrawal withdrawal of US air power, to - as of yesterday - a recommitment of US Predator drones, armed with missiles.  The rebels now claim that they've taken the western city of Misrata (not confirmed), and say that NATO strikes helped with that and that drones will now help even more.  Now, John McCain (who tends to grandstand and likes to piggyback when he spots heroes - perhaps to remind us that he was one once) has taken himself to Benghazi to dub the rebels as heroes (no quarrel from me on that), but also used the photo-op to demand that the US recommit AC-130 gunships to back up rebel ground forces.  (If you recall, Obama pulled them out - perhaps owing in part to the fact that they're propeller-driven, relatively slow, must fly low to do the job - ergo, vulnerable to ground fire; think: Black Hawk Down scenario, which would require the insertion of US boots on the ground = the last thing Obama wants or needs at this point.)

Disturbing, though, is the growing sense that drones are becoming the US's default option for military intervention.  The reliance on drones in Pakistan - especially since Obama took the reins from Bush - has become obvious, and increasingly a source of friction with the Pakistani military.  The latest strike there - conducted after General Kayani's vehement protest to Admiral Mullen - as the BBC reports, killed 25, including 5 women and 4 children.  This collateral damage has occurred all too often in Pakistan, and it belies William Saletan's comments today (in Slate) that drones, although they can't win wars by themselves, "increase our ability to kill the enemy while sparing civilians and avoiding risk to ourselves. To that extent, the unmanned invasion of warfare is a force for good."

David Ignatius makes a different point:
 My quick reaction, as a journalist who has chronicled the growing use of drones, is that this extension to the Libyan theater is a mistake. It brings a weapon that has become for many Muslims a symbol of the arrogance of U.S. power into a theater next door to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the most promising events in a generation. It projects American power in the most negative possible way. I wrote late last year that the problem with the Predators is that they provide too easy an answer to political and military problems. They Saudis asked for them last year to go after Yemenis they didn’t like; the Turks use them (looking over our shoulders) to target Kurdish extremists in Iraqi Kurdistan. And now the United States will use them to beef up a stalemated NATO campaign in Libya, on behalf of a rebel army that very well may include Islamic radicals who, under other circumstances, might themselves have been targets of Predator attack. Not a good idea, Mr. President. And a rare error of judgment by Secretary Gates.

(John McCain, on the other hand, would hasten to assure Mr. Ignatius, and us,  that there are no al-Qaeda among the rebels. After all, he says, he's been to the Benghazi hospital and seen them.  Gosh, senator, thanks; for a minute there I was worried.)

Extremely timely in this regard is Michael Beschloss' review of Martin Van Creveld's new book, The Age of Airpower (at the NYT site).  He concludes:
the widespread faith of the American people and the American political class in air power’s potential to win quick victories has been a dangerous delusion, especially when combined with the eagerness of presidents to plan military engagements that will be finished swiftly and with few casualties. Much-ballyhooed successes — like bombing Saddam Hussein’s armies out of Kuwait and helping to drive Slobodan Milosevic from power — as well as minidramas like the 1975 rescue of the American cargo ship Mayagüez from the Khmer Rouge and the 1983 invasion of Grenada, have encouraged Americans to go on believing that our awe-inspiring air power will enable us to win major wars without paying a heavy price. As Iraq has most recently shown, it won’t. I hope that this spring, van Creveld’s timely book will remind NATO leaders supervising the bombing campaign in the Libyan civil war of how often in history we have watched air power lead unexpectedly to ground fighting on quicksand.
That slippery slope again, and Obama's insertion of drones takes us a few yards farther down it. . . . 

Which brings me back to Syria, and its pro-democracy and pro-dignity uprising against a regime that the US numbers - like Qaddafi's in Libya - among those we love to hate.  One wonders if today's Good Friday massacre might have moved popular opposition there beyond a tipping point, and people are going to start rising up - and being killed - in even greater numbers.  Add to that the reports that have already appeared that accuse Iran - whose regime certainly does not want to see Assad's go down - of furnishing material support to Assad as he tries to crush the uprising, and you have lots of ammo for the Max Boots and William Kristols of the neocon establishment (and perhaps our pals at AIPAC, even though one could argue that from Israel's standpoint, a known Assad might be preferable to the unknown that would follow him) to urge Obama to use US military leverage to give Assad a little push.  There's no need for boots on the ground.  After all . . .

We have Predator drones, with Hellfire missiles.  Instant regime change.  Sound absurd, ridiculous? Surely.  But three months ago, could any of us have predicted drones over Tripoli?

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