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A Recipe for Violence

Obama’s ‘offshore balancing’ and the New Middle East

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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And rather than use the political capital won in Gaza to bank aid from the United States or a badly needed bailout from the International Monetary Fund, Morsi chose to tighten his grip on power. For a generation, we have thought of Egypt as the beginning to a Middle East solution, “a cornerstone of regional stability and peace,” as Clinton said. At best, that’s premature, and it may well represent the triumph of hope over the experience of the past weeks.

One step to the west, in Libya and Tunisia, where the Arab Spring first bloomed, the situation is even more chaotic. The post-dictatorial governments in Tunis and Tripoli face challenges from al Qaeda-affliated Salafist groups. How powerful these groups are is very difficult to tell, but at least on September 11 in Benghazi they were fatally powerful. Indeed, the strongest indictment of the Obama administration’s reaction to the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is that, in what was no doubt a very confusing time, it could only hear an echo of its own propaganda: Al Qaeda was on the ropes, therefore the consulate attacks could not have been conducted by an affiliated terrorist group. Whether it lied or not, the White House clearly couldn’t grasp an inconvenient truth.

Two steps from Egypt, in Algeria, there was good news recently: Makhfi Rabah, also known as Sheikh Abdenacer, a senior leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, was killed by Algerian forces. But that’s also a reminder that Algeria has long been under assault from Islamists. And North Africa’s problems have also migrated southward, particularly into Mali, once offered as an exemplar of American success in the global war on terrorism. Driven from Libya, the Islamists of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) temporarily made common cause with the Tuareg rebels in Mali to capture Timbuktu, but of late they’ve taken to committing atrocities against one another.

Mohamed Morsi’s Egypt remains by far the most important piece of the North Africa puzzle. The U.S-Egypt partnership has been a pillar of American Middle East strategy. Now it’s an uncertain and shaky foundation for the future.

The Levant

The civil war in Syria has claimed 40,000 lives. Probably 10 times that many are homeless. The longer the war continues, the uglier the aftermath is likely to be.

It’s been more than a year since President Obama declared that Bashar al-Assad “must go.” But as long as his forces retain a decisive firepower advantage over their opponents, no one’s going to make him go. The opposition is on a roll militarily, overrunning a Syrian Army regiment in Aleppo, shooting down a helicopter and a fixed-wing fighter. But even if it can overthrow Assad, that’s not likely to be the end of the Syria mess.

There’s been a lot of handwringing, and rightly so, over the radicalization of the Syrian opposition. But it would be almost as bad to have a Syria that breaks up into local fiefdoms—warlordism may not be as bad as Islamism, but it’s not that much better; and as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani family have demonstrated in Afghanistan, warlordism and Islamism are compatible bedfellows.

And so Syria might go the way of Lebanon. The rump regime in Damascus would be weak, and in that sense less dangerous than the Assad family has been. But it would also be a recipe for constant strife, this time involving Turkey, a NATO ally, and with a clearer Sunni-versus-Shiite sectarian overlay. Iran will have lost an ally but retained a playground.

Obama’s let-it-burn approach to Syria has badly damaged U.S. credibility. In recent weeks, Britain and France have made more interventionist moves, and there has been speculation that the White House might do the same, now that the election campaign is over. Better late than never, perhaps, but the dithering over the last year has also foreclosed some options. Syrians who have been fighting and suffering won’t take kindly, for example, to government by exiles. The hard men who end up surviving are less likely to be democratically inclined, or Western-oriented. And establishing government control throughout the country won’t be easy. Either an Iranian-backed Shiite or an al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni insurgency—or both—seems a good prospect, and Iran can cause immense trouble in the outside world even from small sanctuaries in Syria.

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