The Syrian question

Obama’s appetite for a fight

David Ignatius has a good article in the Washington Post arguing that US credibility is at stake in Syria, and the consequences of a tattered credibility will hurt US interests in the region and beyond. In articulating what the Obama administration should do, he reflects what many commentators in Washington are saying: carry out a military strike to punish the Bashar Assad regime and deter it from carrying out further atrocities.

The main rationale for military action by the United States and its allies should be restoring deterrence against the use of chemical weapons. The strike should be limited and focused, rather than a roundhouse swing aimed at ending the Syrian civil war. But it should be potent enough to degrade Assad’s command-and-control structure so he can’t conduct similar actions in the future. Officials hope the strike will make a diplomatic settlement more possible; they don’t want a decapitation of the regime that would leave no counter-party for negotiation.[WP]

This prescription should sound reasonable to Barack Obama, a man too liberal to ignore the atrocities in Syria but too prudent to launch into a muscular military interventions abroad. The problem, though, is that while Mr Obama’s stakes are limited to shoring up US credibility, Mr Assad is battling for survival. So there is a good chance that Mr Assad will not be deterred or punished at any level short of being overthrown. Should this happen, Mr Obama will have a choice between a dented credibility (should Mr Assad brazen it out) or a much bigger military operation, that could trigger other conflicts.

Also, if the international intervention is ‘limited and focused’, the risk to civilian lives does not disappear. If the Assad regime continues, we can expect more bloodbath. If the Assad regime collapses, we can expect more bloodbath. It is not as if Mr Assad’s adversaries are liberal democrats who will spare the lives of members of the Assad regime or the sectarian/ethnic communities that are aligned to it.

There is enough happening in Syria for the United Nations to invoke the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm. It is quite unlikely that the dynamics of the UN Security Council will allow it. Even if there is an international intervention now, the expectation that it will be limited, focused, inexpensive or quick is likely to be unfounded. Protecting lives in Syria requires the United States to have the appetite for a big fight, and the tenacity to embroil itself into a longish peace-enforcing mission. If this is not forthcoming, it may perhaps be better to let events take their course and deal with the consequences.

From India’s perspective, any steps that heighten the risk of a conflict that raises oil prices and might cause supply disruptions will be undesirable. The domestic economic situation—and the current account deficit—looms larger on the minds of India’s political leaders than events in Syria. Expect Indian diplomacy to reflect this concern.

Post-deluge Pakistan

An assessment

At the risk of being entirely wrong, here is an assessment of the political implications of floods in Pakistan.

1. Fears of Pakistan ending up as a “failed state with nuclear weapons” are overblown. The disaster is unprecedented and the response understandably inadequate but it does not set off an explosive dynamic along political faultlines.

2. Political changes are unlikely. The disaster has further cemented the army’s popularity, allowing it to claim credit for the government’s successes (for it is a part of the government) but avoid the blame for the failures (which accrue to the civilian political leadership). Given the immense challenge of rehabilitation and reconstruction that lies ahead, General Ashfaq Kayani would have to be a conceited fool–which so far at least, he has shown no signs of being–to want to countenance a change in the political set-up. A weak, powerless and unpopular President Asif Zardari is just what he needs. Nawaz Sharif’s hopes to become the prime minister are unlikely to fructify before the next election because he is popular, has political weight and could challenge General Kayani’s hold on power.

3. Pakistan will not only receive debt waivers but also see a relaxation of conditions relating to financial assistance. While this will come as a relief for the government and the elite, it will weaken the endogenous factors that will aid recovery by delaying the implementation of important macro-economic reforms. It will also ensure the perpetuation of the current political setup because debt waivers and unconditional assistance will come much easier if there’s a facade of a democratic government. Furthermore, given that a significant part of the international assistance will be routed through international agencies and NGOs, it will not strengthen the Pakistani government’s civilian capacity.

4. Jihadi militant organisations will become more powerful but will not be allowed to increase their political profiles. This disaster, like the 2005 earthquake, is being used by organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to bolster their credentials as a providers of social services. However, to the extent that the Pakistani government will be dependent on international assistance–and it will become more so in the immediate future—the military establishment will not allow such organisations to make a direct play for power. Let’s not forget that the LeT is a surrogate of the Pakistani military establishment, which, if it wants to, can directly seize power in a coup.

5. The military establishment will use the disaster as an alibi for downgrading its war against the Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan in North Waziristan and elsewhere. Engaging in disaster relief will draw on military resources from the battle against the taliban, but there are deeper reasons for the army’s unwillingness to sustain battle against them. How quickly and to what extent it will resume the fight depends almost entirely on how much the United States can coerce the army.

6. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan will not be interrupted. The US will find it difficult in the coming months to press the Pakistan army to cooperate in counter-insurgency operations because of the alibi. The direction of the war in Afghanistan will therefore depend on the Obama administration’s political will and determination.

7. Pakistan’s domestic stability is set to worsen. In the short-term, resettlement of internally displaced persons will complicate the ethnic and sectarian tensions in cities like Karachi, Hyderabad and Quetta. While this is likely to result in greater violence, it is unlikely to lead to collapse of the state. Instability will place an economic cost on Pakistan, damaging endogenous factors that can aid recovery.

8. The insurgency in Balochistan is likely to be contained. To the extent that the army is willing to use brute force and targeted killings to keep the lid on the conflict, and to the extent that the Baloch lack outright political support internationally, the prospects of secession are dim.

9. While radioactivity-leakage risks are low there is some risk to the security of nuclear plants, equipment and material. Such facilities are likely to have been built to withstand such contingencies. However, in the confusion that accompanies such events, there is a higher chance that physical security of nuclear installations can be breached. So far, there are no media reports flood waters affecting nuclear installations.

10.Disaster relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation will be decently funded. Despite the slow start in fundraising, despite concerns over aid distribution, the international community is unlikely to ignore humanitarian needs during the relief phase. However, it is unclear if the Pakistani government has the inclination and capacity to use the funds and goodwill to sustain its efforts beyond the short-term relief phase into the medium-term rehabilitation & reconstruction phase.

11. The US will make only small gains in popularity despite playing a leading role in relief and reconstruction. China and Saudi Arabia are likely to make disproportionately large gains. (In the short-term though, the situation is likely to be the opposite, because the narrative will be factual.)

Tailpiece: Pakistani officials and commentators would do well to avoid using the “unless the world gives money Pakistan will become a nuclear-armed failed state” bogey as it has been used so many times by so many people that it reeks of a shakedown. The humanitarian tragedy is serious enough a reason for well-meaning people and governments around the world to help.

Militants, disaster relief and policy

Should the international humanitarian response use militant groups for emergency relief?

As Pakistan grapples with a natural disaster, the charitable fronts of jihadi organisations have begun playing a significant role in providing emergency relief. Even as international humanitarian actors consider their response, it is important to understand that the way the aid is delivered affects political outcomes. Done properly, aid can bolster the capacity of the civilian government. Done wrong, it can strengthen jihadi groups, both financially and in public esteem. This is an unpublished case study I did in May 2008—and is relevant in the current circumstances.


In circumstances—like post-earthquake PAK or post-tsunami Jaffna (Sri Lanka) and Aceh (Indonesia)—non-state actors were arguably the most effective organisations. Should international actors refuse to co-operate with such organisations, even if this means blunting the humanitarian response? Alternately, can the international community escape the moral (and geo-political) consequences of rendering terrorist and radical regimes legitimate in disaster affected regions?

Towards a politically aware intervention.

A practical way to address this quandary is to evolve international consensus on responsibility for political outcomes. Purely humanitarian organisations (like the ICRC) could take a value-neutral approach towards short-term rescue and relief. Their intervention policies should be made transparent to their donors, recipients and the international community. On the other hand, governments and government-linked organisations (like USAID) could be more discriminating in their partnerships and attach conditions to bring about desired political outcomes. This means that different governments could choose their local partners and strategy according to their own values and interests.

Post-disaster events in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia call for an international humanitarian response framework that balances immediate relief with long-term political outcomes. Even as the world moves towards this, individual international actors would do well to define whether or not their mission includes responsibility for political outcomes. Ambiguity will almost certainly lead to outcomes as in Pakistan, where the strengthening of the military-mullah nexus contributed in no small part towards deepening that country’s political crisis and worsening regional and international security.

You can download the whole case study here (250 KB, PDF)

Colombo is in no mood for lectures

India’s (and the world’s) priority should be to avert a humanitarian disaster

If the fate of the hapless Tamil civilians is the world’s principal consideration with regard to the war in Sri Lanka, then it stands to reason that that war itself must come to an end as soon as possible. It is unrealistic to expect Mahinda Rajapakse’s government to heed calls for pausing the military offensive—at a time when the Sri Lankan army believes it is close to a complete victory against the LTTE, and after the LTTE leadership rejected a call to surrender and decided to fight to the finish. Colombo, as James Traub writes in the New York Times, is in no mood for lectures.

Also, regardless of whether ethnic relations between the Sri Lankan Tamil minority and the Sinhala minority improve or worsen after the current phase of the war, the elimination of the uncompromising LTTE leadership cannot be a bad thing.

There are conflicting reports on how bad a situation the civilians find themselves in: absent independent reports, one has to choose between claims made by the two combatants. Even so, it is clear that Sri Lanka faces a massive humanitarian crisis in the coming days and months. Given the state of ethnic relations, it is reasonable to expect that the displaced Tamils will have misgivings about how they will be treated by the victorious Sri Lankan government in general, and by the Sri Lankan security forces in particular. These misgivings will be shared, perhaps amplified, among the Tamil population in India as indeed among the Tamil diaspora around the world.

The LTTE bears a moral responsibility for bringing the Sri Lankan Tamils into this humanitarian crisis. But only till the point that they come under the custody and protection of the Sri Lankan government. From that point on, the moral responsibility for their security, well-being and human rights rests with the Sri Lankan government. And it is incumbent on the Indian government to hold the Rajapakse government to account on this. One the one hand, India should demand greater transparency and access to the displaced civilian population and a fixed timetable for their return to their original homes. At the same time, India should offer financial, technical, logistical and military assistance to the Sri Lankan government to ensure that the humanitarian crisis does not turn into a humanitarian disaster. The immediate task for Indian foreign policy is to ensure that the Rajapakse government delivers on this.

Related Link: Colonel Hariharan’s answers to inconvenient questions.