A former CIA officer says it’s time for the Obama administration to stop turning a blind eye to atrocities in the Middle East.
Emile Nakhleh, last updated: November 08, 2012
Inter Press Service
Several critical issues of unfinished business in the Middle East face President Barack Obama as he begins his second term. Washington must become more engaged come January because these issues will directly impact regional stability and security and U.S. interests and personnel in the region.
The issues include the Syrian uprising and increasing atrocities by extremist elements within the uprising, the Arab Spring and the future of democratic transitions, the growing influence of radical Salafi “jihadism” across the Arab world, Bahrain, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Pakistan, and Guantanamo and global terrorism.
The Obama administration’s engagement in these issues in the past year has been marginal and uneven, influenced largely by domestic politics and to some degree the ghost of Libya. Washington’s public support for democracy following the start of the Arab Spring was welcomed in the region, especially as dictators in Tunisia and Egypt fell precipitously.
The U.S. image became more tarnished, however, as repression escalated in Bahrain against the Shia majority and as Assad’s killing machine became more vicious, and Syria descended into a civil war.
Washington’s benign response to repression and torture in Bahrain, according to advocates of this policy, is justified by the presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and the special relationship with Saudi Arabia. Yet, the U.S. and its Western allies have not used their significant leverage in either country to advance democracy. Nor has the Fleet deterred the Al Khalifa regime from repressing the pro-democracy movement.
The ghost of Libya and the U.S. presidential election also drove Obama’s hesitancy to act against the Syrian dictator. During the foreign policy presidential debate before the U.S. elections, President Obama and Governor Mitt Romneyargued lamely that Syria was different from Libya, and therefore the U.S. military even under the NATO umbrella should not be used against Assad.
The fate of emerging Arab democracies and the legitimate aspirations of millions of Arab youth, which the U.S. and many countries worldwide have endorsed, should not be held hostage to political expediency or become a casualty of electoral politics.
U.S. prestige and Obama’s credibility at home and abroad will be tested by whether Washington stands with the peoples of the region against their entrenched dictators, regardless of the so-called Libyan model. Calls for justice and dignity in the Arab uprisings signaled a historic moment that resonated across the globe. The U.S. should embrace this moment and place itself on the right side of history.
President Obama was hailed across the Arab Muslim world in June 2009 when he called for engaging credible indigenous communities on the basis of common interests and mutual respect. A retreat from those ideals would be disastrous for the U.S. and its allies, especially as regime remnants and radical Salafis endeavour to derail the democratic process.
An autocratic tribal ruler in Manama, who has just revoked the citizenship of 31 Bahraini nationals, or a brutal dictator in Damascus should not turn the clock back on the moral inroads that Washington made in the region in the post-Bush era.
The unfolding of events at a dizzying speed and increasing threats to U.S. interests and personnel demand serious attempts to address theses critical issues. In his second-term, President Obama cannot remain oblivious to rising sectarianism, growing Salafi extremism, continued repression, and suppression of minorities and women.
On day one after taking office, the president must turn his full attention to Syria.
Assad must be forced out, and soon. Over 25,000 Syrians have been killed since the uprising began in early 2011, and equal numbers have been “disappeared” by the regime. Hundreds of thousands have become refugees. Atrocities committed by the regime and by some of the rebels are inflicting untold suffering on innocent civilians in Syria.
The Syrian uprising, like those in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, started peacefully. Regime intransigence and repression, however, forced the uprising to become violent. Lawlessness and the porous borders have opened Syria to radical “jihadists” from neighbouring Arab countries.
Whereas, the uprising was initially non-ideological and non-religious, the incoming “jihadists” are Sunni Salafis bent on fighting a religious war against an “infidel” dictator. These “jihadists” have exploited the factionalism of the opposition for their intolerant religious extremism.
They also gained acceptance by the poorly armed rebels because they brought in weapons and money from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and elsewhere. The rise of violent “jihadism” in Syria had been a direct consequence of continued regime intransigence.
A prolonged proxy war between Iran, which supports Assad, and Saudi Arabia, which supports the uprising, over Syria and a resurgent radical Salafi “jihad” within the insurgency cannot be good for regional stability and for the international community.
How to speed up Assad’s exit? Short of putting boots on the ground, Washington and its NATO allies, especially the UK, France, and Turkey, should declare a no-fly zone and provide the Free Syrian Army with adequate anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to fight the regime’s military machine. NATO should seek the consent of Arab and Asian countries for the Syria initiative, including patrolling the no-fly zone.
Media reports reveal that Turkey, with U.S. approval, has deployed Patriot missiles close to the Syrian border. This action seems to signal Turkey’s intention to create and possibly defend a no-fly zone. President Obama and other NATO leaders should vigorously push this action forward.
Syrian refugees cannot spend another winter in tents and under intolerable conditions.
NATO partners also should help streamline the opposition groups and recognise whatever group emerges as a legitimate political representative of Syria. Admittedly, factionalism among the rebel groups on the ground and within the Syrian National Council outside the country is a major impediment to diplomatic recognition and international action.
Once a unified leadership emerges, NATO should provide it with logistics, intelligence, and command and control training. Furthermore, Washington and London should put the Assad regime on notice that attacking Syria’s neighbours or using chemical and biological weapons in any form against any target will result in a massive military response.
Lakhdar Brahimi’s U.N.-Arab mission to Syria has failed to persuade Assad to stop the killing, and any talk of a temporary ceasefire is no more than wishful thinking. Russian and Chinese obduracy in the U.N. Security Council on Syria justifies an immediate and more robust NATO action against the regime. The Syrian dictator has already rejected British Prime Minister David Cameron’s offer for a safe passage out of Syria.
It’s morally reprehensible for the international community to remain insensitive to the continued atrocities against the Syrian people, whether by the regime or the opposition. Moral platitudes no longer cut it.
Once the regime is toppled, the international community should help the post-Assad government with economic recovery and empower the Syrian business community and entrepreneurial civil society to start creating jobs. When that happens, the “Arab Spring” would rightfully claim its fifth trophy.
Emile Nakhleh is former director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at CIA and author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.
Brigette Gabriel, a Lebanese-born anti-Islamic activist and founder of the right-wing group ACT! for America, is notorious for making fear-mongering claims about terrorism and Islam. She has called the Islamic faith “not compatible with Western civilization” and insisted that a practicing Muslim “cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States.” At a Heritage Foundation event earlier this year, Gabriel drew scrutiny after she verbally attacked a Muslim American law student, questioning whether the student was an American. More recently, capitalizing on right-wing hysteria over immigration and extremist groups in the Middle East, Gabriel alleged that ISIS members were crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, citing reports from unnamed “members of the Department of Homeland Security.”
As a director of the Project for the New American Century in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Gary Schmitt helped spread inaccurate information about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction and promote the invasion of Iraq. Schmitt subsequently supported U.S. intervention in Syria, whose own civil war was directly linked to the fallout from Iraq. Schmitt has also been a vocal advocate of NATO expansion, which many observers think has contributed to the current tensions between the West and Russia. Schmitt has also advocated revoking U.S. security guarantees for Western European countries unless they increase their military budgets and adopt a more controversial approach to Russia.
AIPAC’s failed efforts to force U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war and to scuttle U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran, along with its increasing alienation from younger Jewish Americans on the Palestinian issue, have led many critics of the lobby to conclude that its formidable influence is slowly eroding. “Today, a growing number of American Jews, though still devoted to Israel, struggle with the lack of progress toward peace with the Palestinians. Many feel that AIPAC does not speak for them,” reported The New Yorker in a lengthy profile last August. On the other hand, the group was still able to push through emergency funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, prompting one GOP Senate aide to complain, “The worst part was having to vote for this at a time we are all so upset by the killing in Gaza. It's as if AIPAC knows how angry we are so the whole Senate has to take their test. They will make us cast a totally symbolic vote, just to show who's in charge.”
Despite the origins of the terrorist group ISIS in the fallout of the Iraq War, leading Iraq hawk Bill Kristol has no qualms about potential blowback from sending U.S. troops back to the country. “Intellectuals overthink things,” he said in August. “We got involved in Afghanistan to bring down the Soviet Union and probably helped create, indirectly, some of what came about in Afghanistan and ideas that led to 9/11. That’s life. Maybe we could have been cleverer in all these cases, but often, when you mess around in the real world, you have unintended effects and some of them are bad.” Seeming to forget his previous point, Kristol concluded by wondering, “What’s the harm of bombing [ISIS] at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that could be bad there. We could kill a lot of very bad guys.”
The controversial anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller—notorious for her “pro-Israel” ads in subway systems referring to Muslims as “savages”—recently convened a small rally in New York in support of Israel’s latest war on Gaza. Attempting to link Hamas to ISIS and other far-flung terrorist groups, Geller said the rally was aimed in part at stopping “the enemedia”—Geller’s term for most media outlets—“from separating the threat to the Jews from the threat to everybody.” When a writer for the Huffington Post estimated the turnout of the rally at 150—as opposed to the “thousands” claimed by Geller—Geller responded, “Who is the Huffington Post shilling for—the Islamic State? Clearly, they'd like to see my severed head on a pole.”
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