March 19 - 25
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for March 19-25!
You may have noticed the Dispatches have been short recently – this is largely due to time constraints. I’m still looking for a good way to handle smaller stories that tend to get cut on Sunday night. One step I am taking, though, is in being more aggressive about retiring stories whose fundamental details haven’t changed. The GOP nomination was the first such story, and Syria has become the second - I’m hoping clearing stories in which there’s nothing new to report will give some breathing room for the rest of the world.
For now, though, let’s get to the Dispatch!
A group of junior army officers ousted the Malian president on Thursday, citing the government’s poor handling of the struggle against a Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country. Coming just days before a scheduled election, the coup was widely denounced by the UN and across Europe, though at the end of the week it was still uncertain whether the soldiers were fully in control of the country.
The coup is an echo of the Libyan revolution: many of the Tuareg rebels fought for Gaddafi and returned home with better arms and training. The Malian army, at 7,000 strong, has been at a severe disadvantage in the fight; it’s unsure what the coup leaders hope to accomplish to solve this imbalance. On a broader level, this is the first big ripple in Africa from Gaddafi’s fall: the former Libyan dictator spent a lot of money on a lot of weaponry, quite a bit of which was never accounted for. Dispersing large amounts of new cash and weaponry into an already politically unstable region isn’t a recipe for smooth seas: I suspect we’ll be seeing the ghost of Gaddafi again in Africa.
A week after the Communist Party purged Bo Xilai, a prominent party member, rumors of gunfire in Beijing, military vehicles on the street, and potential coup attempts swept Chinese blogs.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t cover this story, as none of the claims are verifiable, but NightWatch had some excellent commentary on Thursday and Friday. NightWatch’s argument is that, while the rumors themselves are not particularly credible, the fact that a large part of the web-using Chinese populace finds reports of gunfights between political factions plausible casts a sharp light on the image of stability and solidarity China has projected in recent years.
Clashes in an upscale neighborhood of Damascus early in the week and military action in regions the government thought cleared of rebels showed the insurgency’s resilience in the face of continue government action. The UN Security Council passed a resolution exhorting the Syrian government to call a cease-fire and promoted Kofi Annan’s peace plan, the first time China and Russia have backed such a resolution.
The Syrian narrative now is well-established: The insurgency, well rooted but poorly organized, too widespread to be easily quashed; The Syrian government, able to take territory and inflict damage, yet unable to truly impose its will on the country; the International community, horrified at the civilian massacres, but stymied by divisions among nations and among the rebellion. There’s little prospect for any dramatic changes for now, and less still for any resolution to the Syrian situation anytime soon. For the time being, the Syrian situation is in stalemate.
In anticipation of the Arab League meeting in Baghdad next week, followers of Moqtada al-Sadr staged a rally in Basra, with nearly a million people marching in the streets. Al Qaeda in Iraq staged their own demonstration, setting off dozens of car bombs across the country on Tuesday, killing nearly 54 people and underlining continuing insecurity in the nation.
The common thread between Sadr’s display and Al Qaeda’s attacks is Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki’s recent moves to consolidate his power. Following the US departure, Maliki, a Shi’ite, had the Sunni Vice President arrested, and has worked to both marginalize the Sunnis in government and shore up his own base. Al Qaeda, primarily a Sunni group, has been resurgent in the region due to Sunni anger at the Maliki government. Sadr, on the other hand, sees Maliki’s intransigence as an opportunity. Formerly the head of the Mahdi army, Sadr commands widespread support in Iraq - witness this week’s demonstration, which put more people on the streets than the demonstrations in Tahrir Square - and looks to be positioning himself to take advantage of Maliki’s declining popularity to boost his own power.
I had the opportunity this week to attend a panel on the Iran-Israel crisis. The speakers were Avner Cohen, a nonproliferation expert who wrote the history of the Israeli nuclear program; Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran who’s written extensively about the Iranian government and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and Shibley Telhami, who for 10 years has been one of the principal investigators in the Arab Public Opinion Survey (full bios).
Avner Cohen spoke on the Israeli perspective. His assertion is that Israel’s principal concern is the loss of their “Benign Monopoly” on nuclear weapons in the Middle East: the Israelis currently enjoy the ability to escalate a military conflict as quickly as necessary. Cohen expressed concern over the volume and severity of Israel’s rhetoric, fearing it could bind Israel to take some extremely costly and inadvisable military action.
Karim Sadjadpour addressed the Iranian side of the conflict. He stated the three defining features of the current Iranian leadership (composed of “Principalists,” the more conservative school of Iranian leaders) are “the Hajib, Hatred of the US, and Hatred of Israel.” He believes the current regime will resist engagement with the West out of fear it could lead to reforming Iranian society; the Principalists feel this would be the death of the Iranian Revolution. However, the regime is not suicidal, either: it can be bargained with, cajoled, or otherwise influenced, and containment is a definite possibility.
Shibley Telhami spoke largely about the results of polling in the Middle East. He said that, when asked what the most dangerous country in the region was, the consistent answer across the Middle East was Israel. Telhami also mentioned that support across the region for international intervention in Iran was nearly non-existent, largely due to mistrust of the West and a feeling of double standards concerning the Iran. Among Israelis, 90% of those polled thought Iran would eventually get a nuke, and 2/3rds said they could live with that.
The three speakers generally agreed on several things: First, if Iran does get a bomb, the odds of it winding up in terrorist hands are essentially nil - it’s just not a narrative that works out. Likewise, the odds of either Iran or Israel ever using a nuclear weapon are vanishingly small. The primary concern for the US is Iran’s antipathy towards Israel: Telhami quoted David Frum, George W. Bush’s speechwriter, as saying “You can hate Israel or build nukes, but you can’t do both.”
Ultimately, the problem was succinctly summed up by Shibley Telhami: Any resolution must be agreeable to Israel, Iran, and the US. Israel won’t agree to just containing Iran’s nuclear program, Iran doesn’t want to reconcile with the West in any meaningful way, and the US doesn’t want to go to war. That leaves an awful small amount of ground for an attainable agreement.
The NATO intervention in Libya and its aftermath show how even military actions we would consider highly successful have ripples across the world. The Malian coup is a particularly dramatic outcome, but Libya figures in the Iranian nuclear crisis as well: Gaddafi gave up his nuclear program in 2003, and 10 years later, NATO forced a regime change in the country. To the Iranian leadership, this is a cautionary tale. The Syrians learned from Gaddafi that the international community’s apparent red-line is air power: the Syrian army has largely kept their planes grounded while attacking the rebellion. The NATO intervention in Libya, which started as a no-fly zone and turned into regime change, factored highly into Russia and China’s veto of UN Security Council action against Syria: both countries felt duped after their vote for the Libyan no-fly zone, and neither is particularly inclined to support NATO adventurism now. Even in Libya itself, the promised democracy has not yet materialized: stitching together a society from highly disparate elements is proving highly challenging. This is the danger in military action: we don’t know where all the threads lead. Even in something as laudable as the intervention in Libya, which almost certainly saved thousands of lives, if not the whole city, has had consequences across the globe. It’s a lesson to keep in mind when considering foreign intervention: chaos is the rule of the world.
Thanks for reading, and my best for the week ahead!