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Options for U.S. Strategy Toward Syria

A panel of scholars from the Saban Center for Near East Policy at the Brookings Institution met March 19 to discuss their recent memo “Saving Syria: Assessing Options for Regime Change” about the conflict in Syria.  The participants afterward conducted a Q&A session with attendees in Washington, DC and Doha, Qatar (connected via video feed).

The memo, prepared by Daniel Byman, Michael Doran, Kenneth Pollack, and Salman Shaikh, and the discussion sought to explain their opinions on the policy options facing the Obama administration with regards to the current conflict in Syria. There were a number of interesting points brought up in the resulting discussion that have so far flown under the radar of the U.S. media

1.  The possibility of war by proxy. With the NATO intervention in Libya there was a clear goal; it was “the world vs. Gaddafi.” NATO had a cut-and-dried mission with the support of the international community.  Syria, however, is not so simple. Syria’s strategic importance gives rise to consideration of a proxy war between Iran and the U.S., between the U.S. and Russia, or between the Gulf States and Iran. Consider that Russia supplied 78 percent of Syria’s arms imports from 2007-2011 (source: SIPRI), the presence of a Russian Naval Base at Tartus, and Iran’s close ties with Syria. If the U.S. or others supply weapons to the Free Syrian Army, it is increasingly likely that the civil war in Syria could become a drawn out proxy war. On March 19, the Twitter space was alight with reports of a Russian “counter-terror” team deploying to Tartus. Russia has since denied the reports, claiming that a Russian oil tanker simply had a security team on board. Regardless of the veracity of the reports, it is telling that for some Syrians the first assumption was that Russia’s military was directly supporting Assad’s regime.


2. Israel’s role in the conflict. A question came from the audience in Doha regarding Israel’s involvement in a possible intervention. Somewhat surprisingly, the questioner was looking for insight on Israel’s desire to maintain a weak and conflicted Syria to its north, perhaps indefinitely. There has been very little talk in the U.S. media space regarding Israel’s involvement in Syria, however it is a fairly hot topic in the Israeli media. This past weekend opposition leader Tzipi Livni said “the crimes committed by Assad give Israel a diplomatic opportunity…with the Arab League and the more moderate Arab countries against Syria- a partnership that can also help in the struggle against Iran in the future.” This may not be reassuring to Syrians, however, as some of them likely supported Assad’s strong anti-Israel stance.


3. What the Syrian opposition wants/needs.  Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institute in Doha, spoke extensively on what the Syrian opposition believes it needs and why. He said the opposition do not want “sympathy and tears” from the West. Instead, the opposition is in dire need of weapons. The will to fight is there but the ability is not. Shaikh discussed a recent interview with an opposition tribal leader in Syria who said, “[Ambassador] Ford’s visit was welcome, but conditional.” He went on to say the U.S. has the opportunity to open a new chapter in relations with the Arab world and “expunge recent memories.” A recent article published by the LA Times discussed the shortage of black market arms for the Free Syrian Army. In this article a Lebanese arms dealer said weapons’ prices have increased drastically as supply dwindled. Most weapons now costs Syrian opposition fighters more than double what they paid at the start of the conflict, if the weapons can even be found. According to this article a militia leader claimed, “We don’t want intervention or safe corridors… All we ask for are weapons to be able to protect the people.”

While the international community’s reactions to Assad may vary from its unanimous posturing against Gadaffi, the issue of arming revolutionary fighters is strikingly similar and concerns about the issue have not gone unfounded as the Libyan transitional government is still unable to rein in and demilitarize local tribes. The Libya example also demonstrates that despite the opposition’s support for varying levels of international assistance, it may be nearly impossible to intervene without resulting negative public opinion. In focus groups performed by Strategic Social in Libya during May and June of 2011, Libyans in Benghazi valued NATO assistance, but were quick to point out the possible self-serving aspects of the intervention. Alternatively, the respondents believed Arab countries’ assistance was purely humanitarian and came without the “strings” often attached by the West.


Kony 2012: A Ugandan Perspective

By Sarah Khederian and Jeffrey Lamoureux

Over the past week, American advocacy group Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video campaign has garnered nearly 84 million views on Youtube and prompted cause-touting celebrities, activists and professionals to express shock and awe at Kony’s long-underreported crimes. But a considerable amount of the enormous attention generated by the video has been less than flattering. While the Western media has tended to focus on the somewhat questionable finances of Invisible Children, the over-simplicity of the campaign and the group’s defense of the problematic Uganda People’s Defense Force, most reporters have largely ignored public reaction to the viral video in the country where it matters most: Uganda.

A small sampling of the Ugandan press presents decidedly negative coverage of the Kony 2012 campaign and its aftermath. The Ugandan government has warned of “misrepresentation of the LRA threat,” stating that, “They [LRA] are a diminished and weakened group with numbers not exceeding 300. The threat posed by the LRA in our neighboring countries is considerably reduced and we are hopeful that it will be altogether eliminated with the help of U.S. logistical support.” A New Vision op-ed titled “Is Kony 2012 film a hoax?” summarized what the author viewed to be the typical Ugandan response: “Ugandans were angry that once again, the West had hijacked an African struggle; putting themselves at the front line of the fight against Kony and making it look like Uganda was sitting by idly as Kony murdered, abducted and raped.” The author additionally cites one Uganda district representative who supports policies to capture Kony, but emphasized that longer-term rehabilitation policies are necessary to put Uganda back on track.

Al-Jazeera reported that a viewing of the Kony 2012 video in the Uganda town of Lira ended in violence as angry viewers began “throwing rocks and shouting abusive criticism.” One local woman drew a comparison that could serve to highlight to the international community how Ugandans have reacted: “[it’s like] selling Osama Bin Laden paraphernalia post 9/11 – likely to be highly offensive to many Americans, however well-intentioned the campaign behind it.”

Yet another op-ed in Uganda’s Daily Monitor, “LRA leader Joseph Kony and Western hegemony”, offers a more afflicted perspective as author Timothy Kalyegira points out that, “Uganda’s best-educated political, academic and media elite had tried their best to report on, analyze and publicize the story of Joseph Kony [for more than 20 years]…and by Thursday night March 8, 2012, the [Kony 2012] video has spread into every nook of the Internet…”

Ugandans and others from the region have also taken to social media to combat what they perceive to be the Kony 2012 campaign’s flawed depiction of the state of the conflict, exaggerated sense of self-importance, and marginalizing presentation of Africans more broadly. Others have collected samples of some prominent voices on the topic.

Rosebell Kagumire is a Ugandan journalist who filmed a video to describe the “danger of portraying people with one single story and using old footage to cause hysteria.”

TMS Ruge is a prominent Ugandan blogger who has also posted a longer, and widely circulated, critique of the campaign on his blog, Project Diaspora.

Angelo Izama is a journalist at Uganda’s leading independent newspaper, The Daily Monitor, where the controversy is currently making headlines. He has also posted a longer critique on his personal blog.


Numerous other critiques have sprung up from other Ugandans, members of the African Diaspora, and long time activists and scholars of the region. Some have taken to humor to present themselves: there is a drinking game and a spin of the “[Expletive] People Say” video meme making the rounds.

Through social media, Ugandans and others have been claiming their own place in the discussion about the affairs of their home country and continent, and for that they take a certain amount of pride:

Despite the criticism it has received, Kony 2012 is a masterful messaging campaign that has already partially achieved its goal of making Joseph Kony a household name.  Kony 2012 represents the crème de la crème of messaging campaigns, utilizing high-production values and tugging at the emotional heart-strings of its target audience (international youth with the time and money to devote to the new cause-celebre). However, in any digital awareness campaign, the message is only as good as the legitimacy of the communicator.  Therefore, Kony 2012’s flaw lies in its lack of local insight and cultural and historical accuracy to uphold Invisible Children’s credibility in the fight against insurgency and extremism in East Africa. It also doesn’t help when the campaign’s founder, Jason Russell, is detained and hospitalized for running around in “various stages of undress.”


The Big Picture from the Hill

This past Tuesday and Wednesday, the heads of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and Special Operations Command (SOCOM), General James Mattis and Admiral William McRaven, respectively, appeared before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees ostensibly to testify on the FY2013 Defense Authorization.  Though the commanders and representatives rightly addressed the most pressing issues facing U.S. security, it is perhaps very telling that the defense budget didn’t make the cut for discussion during this hearing, as advertised.

As many combatant commands see their budgets being markedly cut (read EUCOM and the 2011 dissolving of Joint Forces Command (JFCOM)), SOCOM and CENTCOM are unique.  Neither is at risk for significant budget cuts and each appears to be either maintaining or requesting additional funds. SOCOM’s role in the future of conflict was discussed in particular as some congressmen questioned the transparency and accountability of the command, especially as it collaborates with the CIA. These concerns are not new; a New York Times article in mid-February argued that Admiral McRaven has a desire for “[a] freer hand in deployment of elite forces.”

The bulk of the hearings served to justify budget increases by focusing on the ever-increasing threats to American interests emanating from the Middle East and Central Asia, areas which, according to Gen. Mattis, have never been so tumultuous.  These threats are fourfold:

  1. Iran – The commanders emphasized that Iran is the primary threat to U.S. security, due to its increased overseas activities, like the attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., and its influence in Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, and Sudan.  An Iranian attack could take the form of nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, blockades, or the clandestine Quds Force.
  2. Syria – The situation here is growing ever more chaotic, with over 7,500 now dead.  Gen. Mattis remarked that the situation will likely get worse before it gets better and that a longer conflict means a greater risk of civil war, as Assad might be capable of retaining power indefinitely.
  3. Al Qaeda – The organization is regaining strength, as evidenced by the recent killing of 139 civilians in Yemen and the reemergence of the group in western Iraq.  While Al Qaeda may be unable to significantly threaten any Middle Eastern government, it still poses a danger to the lives of their citizens.
  4. Afghanistan – The situation here has worsened recently due to the violent demonstrations against the U.S. military’s burning of Afghan prisoners’ Korans.  The commanders stressed that the military will not change the current strategy in Afghanistan but violence must be stemmed and security improved before the U.S. can pull out as planned in 2014.

This week’s Senate hearings generated a considerable amount of activity in the blogosphere and media space.  Interest was likely heightened by the recent statement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder arguing the legality of the U.S. targeting its own citizens abroad if they pose a risk to national security. Despite Holder not mentioning the role of SOCOM in these operations, both the traditional and digital media spaces were quick to draw the connection, with tweeters adding a SOCOM hashtag (#socom) to tweets regarding this announcement.

While the blogosphere and foreign policy community rage over the possibility of U.S. military interventions in Iran or Syria, the commanders’ comments on the post-2014 presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan appeared to gain the most traction the media space.