Syria: You Can Pick Your Friends, But …

I think if I were a Syrian, I’d be looking around for some new friends.  This current crowd just isn’t measuring up in the amigo department.  After all, if your BFF is Iran, it doesn’t take a PHD in WTF to figure out you’re in trouble.  Meanwhile, when two superpowers (one past, one future) are playing nice with you and nasty with the UN, I’d be counting the silverware.  No accusations, but the last time the Russians went all warm and fuzzy in the Middle East, Gamal Nasser was building the Aswan dam.  And China’s newfound foreign muscle needs no introduction.  Something’s rotten in Damascus.  I’m not sure what it is, but I’ll bet Syrian pounds to a pile of camel poop it’s not going to go well for the average guy on that Arab street.

Despite what most second tier Western diplomats will tell you, Syria is not on the top of anybody’s talking list right now.  Even the big boys at the Tunis conference over the weekend didn’t have much to say.  Of course, they made all the right noises: condemning the killing, promising aid and other such vagueries, but I imagine the afterhours parties were long on nuclear Iran and short on dead dissidents.  It’s not that Syria isn’t sexy; what’s not to like about democracy going toe to toe with a ruthless dictator?  Besides, it might only be Homs, but even the French have heard of the Alamo.  The problem is deeper than that.

Just a little background.  Less than a year ago, Sarkozy and his buddies couldn’t gas up the F-18s fast enough to go and knock the snot out of Muammar Gaddafi.  They put on a textbook (limited) military campaign that surprised everybody, including me and Muammar.  Now, another flowering of Arab Spring is raising its lovely head north of Damascus, but the day before yesterday, those same eager beavers, forgot where they put the launch keys.  What gives?  I’ll grant you, some of the hurtin’ they put on Gaddafi was payback for being a forty-year-on pain in the ass, but, in general, Western motivations in Libya were honest.  Yeah, yeah, yeah; “Blood for Oil.”  But I’ll let you in on a little secret: that Mad Men slogan is just another clever way to sell bumper stickers.  I’m not naive enough to think Libyan oil wasn’t an issue, but for all those who still believe in Santa Claus and the Great Satan, they both get their oil from Canada and the Saudis.  The difference is Muammar didn’t have any friends left at the end, whereas Basher al-Assad still does — and they’re walking with a swagger these days.

Remember when you where in high school and there was that nasty kid most people avoided?   The one who thought it was funny to hold the washroom door closed or spray Coke™ on the back of your head?  The guy whose face still says, “Oh, yeah!  Him.” in the Yearbook.  Then there were those rowdy kids who had their lockers at the end of the hall, the ones the Glee Club and the cheerleader crowd stayed away from.  They weren’t really hardcore but nobody messed with them ‘cause they had a bad reputation, kinda like Kenickie and Rizzo from Grease.  Well, if the world were just a great big high school (and I’m not saying it isn’t) Syria is that nasty kid.   But instead of being a jerk all by himself, he decided to suck up to the rough bunch down the hall.  He doesn’t really belong to that group, but they don’t mind him hanging around.  In a nutshell, Syria thinks it can get away with all kinds of idiot antics because it has some tough friends.

Unfortunately, Bashar and his crew have forgotten the one essential element of friendship in the world of international relations: what do you bring to the table?  It’s obvious.  They don’t bring a lot.  In the great scheme of things, Syria is pretty much a backwater and has been — ever since the Mongols burned it down in the 13th century.  Its only claim to fame is the mess they’ve made of Lebanon and the always ill-tempered Hezbollah, both of whom are putting some distance between themselves and Damascus.  Right now, China and Russia don’t mind that Syria is a thorn in the foot of the Western world.  It suits them.  However, that’s going to change.  Eventually, Bashar’s going to be more trouble than he’s worth.  When that happens, Syria will have even less to offer a burgeoning Asian Superpower, and I doubt very much that Vladimir Putin ever got any awards for being a nice guy.  Bashar’s cling to power has a limited shelf life.  Regardless of who he thinks his friends are, he’s not going to last anywhere near the Presidential term yesterday’s farce referendum gave him.  When the proverbial ship hits the sand even his best buddy, Ahmadinejad, who has a few problems of his own, is going to make himself scarce.

The problem is, it isn’t Bashar who’s going to pay the price.  (Although a show trail a la Hosni Mubarak would be nice.)  It’ll be the ordinary Syrian, who doesn’t really know who his friends are anymore.

Arab Spring/Chaos Summer

In a fortified bunker somewhere in Tripoli, Muammar Gaddafi is saying, “What’s the deal?  I shoot a couple of protesters, who were probably Al Qaeda anyway, and NATO goes berserk.  Meanwhile, over in Syria, Assad’s gunning down civilians like there’s a deposit on them.  What happens?  Nothing!  All Bashar gets is a couple of nasty e-mails from Ban Ki-moon, and he walks away smilin’.  Where’s the justice?  And that’s not all.  In Iran, Ahmadinejad is building a bomb the size of Baltimore.  In Bahrain, Al Khalifa called in the Saudi tanks five minutes after CNN turned its back, and nobody even knows who’s killing who in Yemen – or how many!  So why am I the goalie on the Cruise Missile team?”  Actually, Muammar has a point.  Protecting civilian populations seems to be a selective process at the UN these days.  I’ll grant you, NATO can’t bomb everyone they’d like to, but just exactly what is the UN mandate?  Something is going disastrously wrong in North Africa and the Middle East.  The Arab Spring that started out with such hope in Tunisia is rapidly deteriorating into Chaos Summer.

The rebels in Libya aren’t going to win anytime soon – not without a lot more help than they’re getting.  NATO’s been blowing up everything bigger than a Safeway cart for nearly three months now.  Some countries are actually running out of ordinance, for God’s sake.  Yet, all I see on TV are smoke plumes in the distance and some scrubby guys with automatic weapons, firing wildly into the desert.  No offence, but what are they shooting at?  One would think, Gaddafi couldn’t have enough hardware left to defend himself against my nephew’s hockey team.  Not so.  Apparently, Muammar is just as nasty as he always was and about twice as defiant.  Again I ask, what is the UN mandate?

The Canadian commander of the mission, General Charles Bouchard, has called this Libyan adventure “a knife fight in a phone booth.”  I have never been in a knife fight — either in or outside a phone booth — but common sense tells me the object would be to stick the other guy.  Unfortunately, the UN won’t let anybody do that: regime change is not on the table.  I hate to keep asking obvious questions but…  what, then, is the purpose of this Libyan debacle?  Honestly, it’s beginning to look like the only way to get a favourable result is if NATO somehow manages to kill Muammar – accidently.  Pack a lunch, folks: we could be here for a while.

Of course, the unforeseen side effect reality of sixty missions a day in Libya is every other dictator within F-18 distance of Tripoli can do as he damn well pleases.  Bashar al-Assad isn’t really too worried about shooting protesters out of season in Syria when NATO is otherwise engaged.  He knows the Western powers aren’t going to launch anything more than a stern warning in his direction, and he’s acting accordingly.  The same goes for whoever is trying to be in charge in Yemen.  The extra added attraction there is Al Qaeda already has a firm presence.  Fortunately, Ahmadinejad in Iran has his own problems.  He’s just one magic lamp away from getting charged with sorcery or cavorting with genies or some other such madness.  Otherwise, he’d be putting the boots to his dissidents, as well.

What’s happened here is the West has squandered its power to influence events by actually using it.  It has always been the threat of unleashing unlimited Hell that has kept the more petty of the dictators in line.  They knew they could only go so far, dishing out nasties to their own people, before Hillary, Cameron and Sarkozy said enough is enough.  The problem is power is not what you do, necessarily; it’s what you’re willing to do.  If dictator A knows you’re willing to blast him out of his jackboots, he tends to tiptoe.  Once he knows you’re not, he’s kinda got you over a barrel.

Everybody knows that the West can’t disentangle itself from Libya now without looking like jackasses.  If Gaddafi’s still there when NATO goes home, Bashar and the boys aren’t going to worry about the UN, NATO — or anybody else, for that matter.  Syrian dissidents might as well be put on the Endangered Species List.  The best bet is for NATO to forget about UN Resolution 1973 and get rid of Muammar as quickly as possible.  From there, the West could relax and rearm and tell guys like Assad to shape up and fly right — or there’s a good possibility they’re going to get the same treatment as the last guy who pissed us off.  Maybe then the West could start directing traffic again — instead of standing on the curb watching the world go by.

Barack Obama: Partying like it’s 1967

I’ve never seen the movie Dumb and Dumber; I don’t have to.  All I have to do is sit back and watch President Barack Obama and the US State Department stumble around, stomping on the flowers of the Arab Spring, and I’ve pretty well got the storyline.  These guys make the Keystone Kops look like Sherlock Holmes.  Obama’s most recent foray beyond the Beltway, on May 19th, was one of the oddest speeches I’ve ever heard.  Apparently, it was a major policy statement.  Who knew?  From my point of view, Barack Obama’s Middle East policy sounds, looks and acts like a 2011 cut rate rerun of the much despised Bush Doctrine.  To be sure, Obama stuck to his guns and threw in a lot of rhetoric about change, but that was probably just force of habit.  After all, he’s been yipping about change for nearly four years now — without very much of it actually happening.

Anyway, according to Obama, the way America will effect change in the Middle East is by throwing a couple of billion dollars at the Egyptians, starting a civil war in Libya and ignoring Tunisia and Yemen altogether.  Furthermore, if Bashar al-Assad in Syria doesn’t quit shooting people in the streets America is going to get really, really angry.  And, if Ahmadinejad in Iran continues his reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons, Barack will personally denounce him and call on the world to apply more sanctions, more often.  None of this is new or even news.

After that, the speech was padded out with some fancy footwork, dancing around the situation in Bahrain, where, it seems, there are several different ways to ruthlessly suppress political opposition — and America recognizes all of them.  There were some further admonishments of Iran – like Ali Khamenei cares what Obama thinks – and a friendly wave to the women in the crowd.  However, absolutely glaring by its absence from the Obama Doctrine was any mention of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.  To be fair, Pakistan is not technically in the Middle East, and perhaps Obama will get around to them later, but Saudi Arabia is smack dab in the middle.  In fact, its importance in the area is what most presidents have called “paramount.”  Talking about the Middle East without talking about Saudi Arabia is like singing the Old Macdonald song without any of the animals: it doesn’t make any sense.  I hate to resort to rhetorical questions but: Is the Kingdom so perfect as to resist the forces of change and self-determination Obama’s talking about?  Or did they just get lost in the desert?   Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind the realpolitik that says leave the Saudis alone; I just distrust the motivation.  After all, those are Saudi troops in Bahrain.

Of course, Obama saved the best for last – Israel — and the guy was on a roll.  He started off by saying “the status quo is unsustainable” then went on to say “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines…”  I’m not even going to grace this with an argument.  Obviously, the people in the State Department have never seen a map of the Middle East.  Israel’s pre-1967 borders were indefensible; that’s why they had a war!  Granted, it only lasted six days, but it was pretty memorable.  Who, in their right mind, would think those same borders could be defended any better in 2011?  Wild guess?  Nobody!

The world has changed since 1967.  For example, back then, Elvis was a newlywed, Che Guevara was still alive and a guy by the name of John McCain had just got himself shot down over North Vietnam and was checking in for an extended stay at the Hanoi Hilton.  We were watching Get Smart, The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island on TV and Aretha Franklin was about to record “Respect” – the first time.  Personal computers were unheard of, phones were attached to the wall and most cars got three miles to the gallon.  Hell, we didn’t even have the metric system!  If “the status quo is unsustainable,” how does turning the clock back 44 years help the situation any?

The problem is that it’s not Obama’s fault.  He doesn’t know anything about foreign relations.  Niall Ferguson, a well known British historian, has said — on more than one occasion — that the guy’s clueless.  He’s depending on the State Department to treat him right; this is where you get the dumber part of the equation.  The US State Department has never been the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, and recently they’ve been spending most of their time unplugged.  This latest adventure in the world of the unknown is just a continuation of the stumble/fumble in the Middle East that started last December.  For example, now that the Egyptians are going to try Mubarak for murder, do you think Gaddafi’s is going to go quietly?  Sometimes I think Hillary’s recruiting her researchers and diplomats at WalMart.

Luckily, Hezbollah and Hamas are still going way too fast on the Crazy Train to let the Palestinians take advantage of the situation.  Nothing is going to happen
for a while, and by that time maybe the American people will quit relying on Hope and Change and take a look around them.  Me?  I’m going to give up
downloading movies and just watch CNN for laughs.