Questions about Syria’s Future

An interview with Prof. Joshua Landis addressed some important questions about Syria’s future. Read the interview if you want to see how Landis views where things are headed. I just wanted to flag some questions it left me pondering:

Does the Kurdish region of Syria remain autonomous or even become independent? Does the US use that region as a military ally and base, in part to be less dependent on Turkey (Erdogan) and Iraq (too close with Iran)? Does Turkey eventually accept – rather than oppose – an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, as it eventually did with the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq?

How long will Jordan, the US, and Saudi Arabia seek to maintain a pocket of supportive militias in the southern Daraa province as a source of leverage versus the Assad government? Will the US require some concessions (what?) vis a vis Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria before relenting for fear that Hezbollah could use control of southern Syria to get closer to border with Israel, its adversary?

Can Alawite-led Syrian (secular) nationalism maintain supremacy over “a very powerful Sunni national spirit” whose organizational manifestations – ISIS, AQ, other Islamists – mostly have been defeated in the civil war? Will that Sunni spirit rise again to challenge the Syrian state? Is it just a question of when, not if, that happens?

Can the Assad state re-establish itself as a strong state in the territory it controls? Or is it more likely to remain weak and rely on greater de-centralization than pre-2011 in terms of things like the provision of social welfare and state services, tax collection, and the control of security personnel?

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Using the term “refugee”

For people in the United States, admitting refugees could, in theory, easily be perceived as a safer bet than other categories like asylum-seekers and tourists. After all, tourists seeking to visit the United States are not generally subjected to anything near the same level of scrutiny as refugees who face 1 ½ to 2 years of document gathering, interviews, and background checks. Asylum seekers also face extensive scrutiny by the US government, but many are already in the United States while that process is underway.

My point is that if you chose one of these categories about which to be afraid, I am not clear why “refugee” would be number one. But that assumes something that we should not take for granted: that we all mean the same thing when we say refugee. Yet what is apparent is that we do not. Instead the word refugee has becomes a catch-all for any foreigner coming to the United States, thus erasing a distinction, say, between refugees and asylum seekers. The crucial nuance is lost.

Moreover, for proponents of greater restrictions on US immigration, refugees may be thought of as less in terms of foreigner writ large and more in terms of Muslim. The general danger, especially after the attacks in Paris, is seen as letting in more Muslims. Take the House bill that passed. It does not ask for extra certification for all refugees, just those from Syria and Iraq. Or: Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz are fine with Christian refugees but keep out the Muslims, thank you very much. You get the idea.

I mention this as a warning to those explaining the intricacies of migration. By all means, carry on, but recognize that the subtleties and distinctions that are so central to understanding human movement are not necessarily heard, especially by those who either don’t follow migration issues regularly, oppose immigration, or both.

A Reply to Kristof: Come Visit My Class at UConn

Dear Mr. Kristof,

I was sad to read your dismissal of political science. While you had a few useful thoughts, much of it was dated and ill-informed. I think you need to learn about political science in 2014.

So please, come to my undergraduate class on recent events in Egypt and Syria. OK, officially it is Contemporary International Politics (POLS 3402). We meet TuTh, 9:30-10:45 am in Storrs, CT. [TuTh is academic jargon for Tuesday & Thursday.] Not far from New York at all. If you email me, I’ll send you the room number.

In this class we discuss political change in Egypt and the war in Syria, real-world events. We read ACTUAL political scientists (and others) who have written in academic journals, blogs, and mainstream publications. We talk about violence, civil war, military intervention, dictatorship, democracy, gender, refugees, and many other issues you would understand without a poli-sci decoder.

I very much look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Prof. Jeremy Pressman

Politics and Pathologies in Israeli National Security Decision Making

Yesterday in The Atlantic I wrote about the politics and pathologies in Israeli national security decision-making, with a specific focus on the National Security Council.

Here’s how it starts:

Imagine this: Israel strikes Iranian nuclear facilities, destroying some and damaging others. Iran fires missiles back at Israel and “activates” Hezbollah on the northern border. Hamas, deciding this is an opportune moment, starts shooting its own rockets into the southern and coastal areas of Israel.

This is an entirely plausible scenario. It’s also one that Israel expects. What’s less clear is whether Israel has thought through the rest of the implications of a strike on Iran: the impact on the economy; the length of time citizens will need to be mobilized for military service; the reaction of its friends, allies, and neutral states; and how it will coordinate a multi-tiered response on all these fronts.

Follow the link for more.

Was Taksim Inevitable?

The events unfolding in Turkey over the last few days are very telling. I’m not on the ground there, but plenty of people who are have been tweeting and posting on Facebook their experiences and impressions. It’s too early to convincingly declare the implications of the protests, but there are some larger processes at work here that are important to think about that, I think, will inevitably have some effect.

The AKP has been in power since 2002. No government—in a democratic, authoritarian, or mixed system—can be in control for that long without generating some frustration, resentment and opposition among the public. This is especially the case when the party in power pursues a specific political-ideological-economic agenda, bound to cause some dislocation and alienation.

The AKP has certainly done so. When it first came to power, analysts and pundits debated whether the party, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, were really moderate, reformed Islamists or simply disguised fundamentalist Islamists of the Welfare/Virtue/Felicity Party and Necmettin Erbakan kind.

I argued that both were Islamist, but just had different ways of expressing it in policy. Where Erbakan was belligerent and bulled his way forward, Erdoğan was more politic—and in doing so managed to get a lot more done than his predecessor, including removing the military’s ability to intervene in civilian politics.

With the Turkish Armed Forces no longer a serious threat (of its own volition, in addition to being forced out), other parties more a cardboard cutout than a serious political opposition, an economy that was already growing before it came to power, and broad support across different segments of the population, the AKP won an increasingly large share of the popular vote over three elections, culminating in about 50% of the vote in the 2011 poll.

This allowed the AKP to implement its foreign and domestic policy agendas, which were, in fact, tied together by a broader economic plan. Erdoğan’s own populism and ego increasingly came to the fore, engendering a detached approach to the average Turk (even while he displayed deep concern for and emotional attachments to Palestinians and Syrians) and underlined by expanding authoritarianism, shrinking tolerance for criticism, and a sense of infallibility.

All this came to a head in the case of the construction plans for the Taksim Square area. Hugh Pope’s description of the protests highlights the variation of motivations behind them.

At the moment there’s no serious contender to take advantage of these wide-ranging dissatisfactions; and anyway, Turkish politics has long been marked by the inability of a single party to represent a variety of interests (until the AKP). But perhaps one or more might arise before the next election, riding the momentum of the protests—if it can be maintained.

Depending on how events in Syria unfold—if more refugees stream into Turkey, more shells strike it, or more bombs target Turks—Erdoğan’s room for maneuvering might be further constrained.

On the other hand, Erdoğan might make some concessions here and there and be able to ride things out, weakened but not in danger. Especially if he’s able to move into a strengthened presidency, the protests will become more a footnote to him than a warning or something to be taken seriously. This could still, though, have an effect on the party’s ability to maintain its dominance.

Either way, we should think about the Taksim/Gezi protests as part of a long-term process. Turkey’s political, social, and economic structures are still changing, and the insertion of such a dramatic event could well alter their trajectories—either by the government consciously accounting for the protests, or by the government trying to ignore them and then having to account for the consequences of it.

Scoring Balmer on Syria

Here is a quick scorecard of Crispian Balmer’s analysis of who is winning the Syrian civil war.

Opposition wins: (or leaning opposition)

German intelligence five months ago
Senior Israeli official
Barbara Walter, UCSD
Jonathan Eyal, Royal United Services Institute

Assad wins: (or leaning Assad)

German intelligence today
Ahmed, anti-Assad activist

Mixed:

Peter Harling, International Crisis Group
James Fearon, Stanford

(Though I think the article is more back and forth than this list appears.)

 

Israel-Syria Tension

Dan Byman and Natan Sachs offered many insights about Israel’s alleged attacks on Syria. Three follow-up questions/comments:

1. If Assad’s fortunes decline and he becomes desperate to attack Israel to divert attention from his problems and/or to try to unify Syrians, does it really matter whether Israel has attacked recently? Isn’t Israel already an all-purpose bogeyman given the last 65 years?

2. I think we should be more careful about the context in which we talk about quiet borders. Yes, Israel’s border with Hezbollah has been quiet since 2006 when compared with before. Yes, the Israel-Syria line in the Golan has been quiet. But in the last decade, Israel attacked an Islamic Jihad camp in Syria, bombed Syria’s nuclear facility, and hit weapons 3x (so far) during the civil war. The authors also note “the Assad regime tried to create a crisis by pushing Palestinian refugees living in Syria to return to Israel to divert attention from the crackdown.” Is that quiet?

Moreover, when one mode of attack gets quiet (e.g. fewer border skirmishes), others may heat up. Israel and Syria did not fight in the Golan in the 1980s but they both contributed to a violent mess in Lebanon next door. Hezbollah may not be launching missiles at Israel but it may have poked Israel via drones and allegedly organized an attack that killed Israelis in Bulgaria. Quiet in one aspect or area of the relationship may only be part of the full picture of relations.

3. The authors would like the United States, “to coordinate allied interventions so together they make it more likely that Bashar’s regime will fall and Syria will return to stability.” Does that have to be overt coordination or could it be done in private?