Friday, March 28, 2014

Field Marshal Pharaoh - Abdel Fattah al-Sisi makes his presidential move

There are two ways to look at the decision of the Egyptian army commander, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to resign his post in order to stand for Egypt’s presidential elections, whose date has not yet been set.

The pessimists will see Sisi’s elevation to the presidency as a major nail in the coffin of the Arab Spring. It is a setback to the democratic ambitions of the Egyptian people, which, ironically, the Egyptians themselves have been most responsible for undermining. The reason is that Sisi is expected to win the election with a substantial majority of votes.

The optimists will argue that there can be no returning to a pre-2011 situation, now that the Egyptian people have repeatedly demonstrated their power in the streets. This version holds that the country will steadily move forward toward a more democratic future. Just as the 1848 revolution in France initially brought in the authoritarian rule of Napoleon III, it was also followed by his defeat at the Battle of Sedan and the establishment of a more democratic Third Republic.

In a sense both are wrong, but the pessimists are likely much closer to the truth. Yes, Egyptians have tasted what it means to be heard, and Sisi may not be able to silence his people in the same way President Hosni Mubarak did for much of his presidency. Above all, Sisi will have to perform well in order to avoid having to engage in repression at every sign of dissatisfaction. He will come in with a strong mandate, but with this will also come great expectations he has to fulfill.

But at the same time, the army has returned to power. Gamal Abdel Nasser, too, entered office with considerable popular support, which he retained until the end of his life. But the fact is that the authoritarian, military-dominated order that Mubarak embodied was first put in place by Nasser and his successor Anwar Sadat. Sisi would merely be the latest iteration of a type of ruler with which Egypt is familiar.

Since the 2011 uprisings were about changing the way Arab countries were ruled, Sisi’s success would be a great disappointment. The optimists fail to take into consideration that Arab regimes are sophisticated machines of absolute control and political survival. They occasionally break down, but they are particularly adept at avoiding breaking down twice.

They also tend to give rise to remarkably callous and sinister men. In Libya and Syria, the Qaddafi and Assad regimes very quickly reached a conclusion once challenged: it’s either us or civil war. The wager was lost in Qaddafi’s case, thanks largely to French, British, and American air power. But the situation is different in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad may yet prevail, no matter how long the conflict lasts or the number of casualties.

In Egypt, too, the army sought time and again to negate the gains from the overthrow of Mubarak. This it first did in the context of the supreme military council soon after the president’s removal; then again when President Mohammed Morsi was in office, which his incompetence only facilitated. At no point was the military pleased with what happened in 2011. Not only did the uprising threaten its economic interests, it also threatened the military’s role in Egyptian political life.

Today, a Sisi presidency will be accepted by all, whatever it means for Egyptian democracy. Most of the Arab states will endorse his regime, even if some of them, such as Qatar, may continue to back the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States, which has shown singular ineptitude in managing its relationship with Egypt, will also come around. It wants to see a stable Egypt next to Israel, and will welcome any effort by the new Egyptian regime to repress jihadists in the Sinai.

But more broadly, what would the impact of a return to authoritarianism mean in Egypt? For one thing it would again bring to the forefront that old assertion that democracy in the Middle East is usually present in inverse proportion to stability: the more democracy, the greater the instability, therefore if one wants stability, there should be less democracy.

Given the instability in the region since 2011, the return to a stable, undemocratic Egypt will have a bearing on such places as Syria and Libya. Only Tunisia will have broken the pattern through its passage of a democratic constitution, and even then much will be determined by how the document is implemented.

But what is good for Egypt, Sisi’s supporters may find out, must also be good for Syria. Ultimately, Bashar al-Assad may welcome Sisi’s arrival in Cairo, because it will augur his own revival. Next July Assad will stand for re-election, if everything remains as it is today, and the implicit, if not explicit, message he will be sending is little different than Sisi’s: I embody stability and the end of three years of ruinous chaos. That Assad was largely responsible for such chaos will be left unmentioned.

Whichever way one cuts it, the developments in Egypt mark an essential moment in the post-2011 period, where the gains made three years ago have been reversed, and by popular acclamation. Even the most hardened optimists must shake their heads at this, and wonder if their hopeful narrative can hold. Hope is not something that survives for long in the region.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Kindly allow us to watch while you die

Three years into Syria’s conflict, one still wonders why the monumental magnitude of the suffering there continues to provoke so little outrage in the West.

In the New York Times last week, Anne Barnard highlighted the limited aid provided to alleviate the Syrian tragedy. For example, some $20 million in private donations were given to Mercy Corps, an international aid group, after the Haiti earthquake, while only $2 million has been given for victims of the Syria war.

Barnard wrote, “The disparities play into a rising frustration among international aid workers, and Syrians themselves, that the enormous human toll and strategic impact of the conflict have not mobilized a stronger and more urgent international response.”

Accounts of human misfortune can become very powerful and move reluctant political leaders. In the 19th century, there was a movement in Britain to support the Greeks in their war against the Ottoman Empire, and later the Bulgarians in their war against the Ottomans. Indignation at the massacres of Christians in Mount Lebanon and Damascus in 1860 led France to send an army to the Levant in 1860-1861. Similar reactions allowed President Bill Clinton to deploy American forces, along with NATO, to end the Bosnian conflict in 1995 and to intervene in Kosovo in 1998-1999.

In all these cases, public attitudes in the West served to buttress military interventions to end atrocities – real or exaggerated. As Gary Bass has written in his excellent “Freedom’s Battle,” on the origins of humanitarian intervention: “Humanitarian intervention emerged as a fundamentally liberal enterprise, wrapped up with the progress of liberal ideas and institutions.” In other words, it emerged from the way Western societies perceived themselves and from the liberal ideology defining their sense of purpose.

That liberalism was certainly visible when the Arab uprisings broke out in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011. The response in the West was broadly favorable, and Western governments came to reflect the mood of their publics. The Obama administration had no choice but to push its ally Hosni Mubarak out of office, or risk finding itself “on the wrong side of history” in Egypt, to borrow a sentence American officials seem to use indefatigably these days.

Recall that in 2012, the White House used the same formulation when describing the backers of President Bashar Assad, including Russia. As the spokesman, Jay Carney, put it at the time: “I would simply say that it is our belief ... that supporting the Assad regime is placing oneself or one’s nation on the wrong side of history.”

Perhaps, but those on the wrong side of history appear to be winning in Syria, while those on the right side stand by and do nothing. Meanwhile, Western publics look at the conflict, find it all very complicated, shrug their shoulders and avert their eyes.

Last week, Carla del Ponte, previously a prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and today a commissioner of the independent United Nations commission investigating human rights violations in Syria, made a surprising statement. At a news conference, she called for an international tribunal to judge those guilty of war crimes in Syria.

The statement was surprising because it went against the grain in the West. In the last two decades, several ad hoc tribunals have been set up under U.N. auspices – for the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the Sierra Leone conflict and the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. But today, there is no international impetus to create a tribunal for Syria, despite the mass of evidence justifying one.

Part of the problem is that the justification of humanitarian intervention often needs to be simplistic: It requires a clear victim and villain. In Syria, many in the West see a brutal regime fighting what they believe to be extreme Islamists. As one-dimensional as that impression may be, it makes taking sides more difficult.

Less understandable is Western indifference when a crime is well recognized. Last year, for example, a New York Times/CBS News poll, conducted after chemical weapons were fired against civilians near Damascus, showed that 60 percent of respondents opposed retaliatory strikes by the United States. Such opposition was expressed despite the fact that 75 percent of the respondents said they thought Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons.

On the basis of the evidence then available, this represented an abandonment of any notion of international norms of behavior. To admit that mass murder occurred and then to add that it’s not our problem, is roughly the equivalent in international terms of failing to come to the assistance of someone in danger. It ridicules any expectation of a rules-based international order.

But there is a more controversial reading of Western attitudes toward Syria also making the rounds. It holds that there will always be less sympathy for Arab victims from Western publics. While the evidence is scant (after all, the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian uprisings captured the Western imagination), there may be truth in that Syrian victims often seem strange. Many are from rural areas, ill-educated and poor, so they appear profoundly alien to Westerners in search of a moral cause.

This incomprehension can lead to unwanted outcomes. When global indifference is mixed with a sense of victimhood, it can make for an explosive cocktail. Those looking to strike against the West can draw on the ensuing resentment to justify their violence.

But beyond that, such apathy says something about Western societies themselves. It tells us that the universal values they claim to embody and that characterize them are worthless in some contexts. Worse, it makes us pity the Syrians for having revolted at a moment when the West has been so self-absorbed.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

There are many reasons why Assad is stronger than ever

Last Thursday, at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC, the former American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, admitted that the regime of President Bashar Al Assad would likely remain in power for the “medium term”.

This admission, after American officials had spent over two years affirming the opposite, was interesting for what Mr Ford did not say: that Mr Al Assad has remained in power partly because his regime has pursued a careful, if cynical, strategy of survival that Syrian leaders have used time and again.

Aside from Russia and Iran, who have helped keep him in power, the Syrian president can thank his own father. The late Hafez Al Assad perfected a system of control and of regional manipulation that has protected his son’s regime until now.

A constant in Syrian behaviour when the regime feels insecure is to export instability, in such a way as to create problems that only the Al Assad regime itself can resolve, or to show the prohibitive costs if the Al Assads are pushed out.

For instance, after the United States invaded Iraq, Syria funnelled jihadists into the country to compel the Americans to deal with the regime to stabilise the situation. This had a double objective: to heighten the contradictions and violence in Iraq, making it less likely that the US would turn on Syria; and to make Syria essential to any resolution in Iraq, thereby maintaining its political relevance there.

Indeed, when the Iraq Study Group appointed by the Bush administration to address the Iraqi conflict published a report in December 2006, it recommended that Washington engage with Syria and Iran to end the Iraqi fighting. This was important to Mr Al Assad, coming at a time when Syria sought to re-establish diplomatic ties with the US after it was accused of involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

A closely-related strategy pursued by the Assad regime has been to allow religious or political extremism to proliferate, in such a way as to portray itself as a foe of the extremists. This it has done in the Syrian conflict, releasing jihadists from prison, putting much less military pressure on them than on the more moderate opposition, and allowing them to control oil-rich areas to finance themselves.

The objective has, again, been two-fold: to create dissension within opposition ranks and provoke conflict between opposition groups; and to entice Western public opinion into believing the Al Assads are a barrier against extremism, therefore should not be overthrown.

This pattern is hardly new. Though the context was very different, in 1976 Syria sold itself as an actor that could contain what was portrayed as Palestinian radicalism in Lebanon.

That belief led to American backing for a Syrian military takeover of the country, with Israeli approval. Left unsaid, however, was that the Syrians had long supported Palestinian groups, and had even opposed Lebanon’s government when it fought armed Palestinian organisations in 1973.

A third approach is that the Al Assad regime has systematically sought to portray itself as a secular Arab nationalist regime, when in reality it has pursued profoundly sectarian policies reinforcing Alawite control over Syria’s military and security apparatus.

In so doing, the regime perpetuated a minority-ruled system in a Sunni-dominated region. For a long time its purported Arab nationalism gave the Al Assads credibility as champions of Arab causes, above all the Palestinian struggle against Israel.

The Syrian conflict exploded that myth, but it somehow created another, namely that the Al Assad regime is a defender of minorities. That is why Mr Ford, in his Wilson Centre remarks, observed that one of the opposition’s failures was an inability to reassure Alawites. Yet under the Al Assads, minorities, including Alawites, faced equal-opportunity repression with Sunnis.

A good example of this comes from next-door Lebanon. There has been a myth among some Lebanese Christians that the Al Assads were communal protectors. In fact, no one has done more to marginalise Lebanon’s Christians politically than the Syrian regime. Yet to this day there is an entrenched view in the West that a victory for Syria’s opposition would spell disaster for minorities in the Levant.

A fourth survival technique used by the Al Assad regime has been to empty negotiations of their content when these might threaten its authority. The Syrian regime went to the Geneva talks in January worried that there might be a Russian-American agreement on Mr Al Assad’s departure from office. That did not happen, but Mr Al Assad had no intention of allowing a process that might spell his ruin, and blocked all progress in the talks. Today he is preparing to seek re-election next July.

Since Geneva, the Syrian regime and Hizbollah have captured Yabroud, and Mr Al Assad feels no impetus to make concessions. He believes he can ultimately win militarily. He also sees that Russian-American relations are deteriorating over Crimea, so that any American effort to compel him to accept a transition to a new leadership will be met by a forceful Russian counter-reaction.

Mr Al Assad’s regime has a good sense of the vulnerabilities of its neighbours and of Western countries. While he has made mistakes, he and those around him have managed to hold on through great brutality, but also an accurate grasp of shifting power relations.

Opposing the regime are countries divided among themselves, and an indecisive American administration unwilling to devote much effort to the Middle East. With such enemies, who needs friends?

And yet Mr Al Assad’s friends have stuck by him without wavering, which is why he will prevail until someone can show him otherwise.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Into thin air - Why it’s past time to honor Lebanon’s disappeared

The decision of the Shura council to allow families of the disappeared to have access to the Lebanese government’s full investigation files on their relatives is welcome. The government conducted a nine-month investigation in 2001, but since that time the authorities have denied the families the right to look at the information uncovered.

While the decision was hailed as a victory by the families, some caution is in order. By 2001, many of the disappeared had already vanished for more than a decade, sometimes longer. On top of that, the pro-Syrian government at the time very likely investigated the fate of those who had disappeared in Syria in a cursory way, if at all. What is most disconcerting for the families of the disappeared is that the truth of what happened to their loved ones lies behind multiple walls of poor information, misinformation, disinformation, and deceit. 

Lebanon is not a country particularly good at remembering, and the families of the disappeared have felt this most harshly. For years they fought to gain some recognition. Yet the state has not often acted in a favorable way toward the families, and in a postwar environment characterized by laughter and forgetting, not a single monument was put up to honor those erased by the war, often without a trace.

My own very limited experiences with the matter of the disappeared allowed me to see what it means to live with an unresolved mystery. The world’s attention has been riveted on an airplane that fell off the radar screens two weeks ago. Imagine, then, what the families of the several thousand disappeared (the 17,000 number is probably exaggerated) have had to endure for decades on end, surrounded by the indifference or helplessness of the society in which they live.

In the summer of 1985 my friend Richard Salem, his sister Christine, and their uncle Georges were kidnapped in western Beirut. Richard’s and Christine’s mother Odette was always persuaded that they were alive, even when most of those around her thought otherwise. Her life subsequently was devoted to finding out what had happened to them.

In a pathetic addendum to the Salem tragedy, Odette was struck by a car and killed in May 2009, after attending a gathering of the families of the disappeared. A ceremony marking her death was held by the families at the small park near the UN ESCWA building. It’s not easy to forget the sense of defiant despair that surrounded that event, the feeling that those present were still fighting windmills.

Odette was better known than her sister-in-law by marriage, Claire, Georges’ wife. Claire was fairly advanced in age when her husband was kidnapped and her last years were the personification of desolation. She never complained, however, and having lost virtually everything she yet never lost her generosity and hospitality.

Doubtless it was a coincidence, but three of the people who disappeared at that time were somehow linked with one another. Richard Salem was a friend of Andre Cheaib of the Central Bank, who was kidnapped in western Beirut. And a cousin of Claire was the mother of Junior Kettaneh of the Lebanese Red Cross, who also was abducted at the same period. But rather than speculate about nonexistent conspiracies, perhaps a more mundane truth explains what happened: all were Christians vulnerable for living or working in a part of the capital ruled by Shiite and Druze gunmen.

It was not enough for the families to see their relatives disappear. In many cases pitiless individuals continued to exploit the families’ desire to uncover the truth, extracting money from them in exchange for bogus information on their fate.

A particularly poignant example of this was Andre Cheaib’s father, Emile, who was interviewed by the filmmaker Bahij Hojeij for a brilliant 1998 documentary on the disappeared. In the interview, he recounted how he had sold many personal possessions in order to pay a succession of charlatans for information about his son. Yet, even knowing that he was being taken advantage of, Emile Cheaib kept on selling his belongings, hoping he might learn something, anything.

The decision of the Shura Council will probably not address such issues in any decisive way. Nor will those who abducted and killed admit to their crimes, let alone provide details of what happened. The notion that any of the victims is still alive seems absurd. But this does not release the state of its responsibility toward them.

There are no monuments to the victims of the war in Lebanon. Only the militias, it seems, remembered their own in haphazard memorials one can still see in some quarters of Beirut or in mountain villages. The ideology of postwar reconstruction left no room for memory. The sole reminder of the war was the monument by Arman, titled Hope for Peace, which was supposed to be placed in the downtown area. Instead, it was banished to the Defense Ministry complex in Yarzeh.

A monument won’t answer the myriad questions still posed by the families of the disappeared, but it will show them that their relatives, like all those who were killed during the war, merit a position of privilege in the national memory. That’s not asking for very much.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Events in Syria and outside have turned in Assad’s favour

With President Bashar Al Assad’s term scheduled to end in July, the Syrian regime is apparently preparing for new elections that Mr Al Assad will surely win, by foul means if not fair. This has alarmed the United Nations mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has warned that it may doom prospects for future talks.

Elections have yet to be finalised, but Mr Brahimi told reporters that if they were held, the opposition would be unlikely to talk to the regime. A presidential election represents the last opportunity to transition away from Mr Al Assad, otherwise Syria’s conflict could be without political resolution.

Last December, the Syrian president was worried that the Geneva negotiations, scheduled for January, would precipitate his removal. At the time, Mr Al Assad had declared that he might run for elections this year, which prompted a rebuke from the Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, who told the Interfax news agency that the remark “makes the atmosphere heavier and does not make the situation calmer”.

There was speculation then that the Russians might view the end of Mr Al Assad’s term as a convenient point to hand over power to a more consensual leadership. Mr Al Assad would have completed his constitutional term in office, thus preserving his regime and bolstering Russian insistence that Syria’s sovereignty had to be respected.

That was the thinking at least, but it became increasingly untenable as the Russians showed no signs of giving up on Mr Al Assad. Subsequently there were other statements by Syrian officials mentioning that Mr Al Assad might stand for re-election, but these provoked no Russian response.

That’s not surprising. Mr Al Assad can see that both the domestic and international situations are turning in his favour.

Domestically, his army has made progress, most recently by recapturing the town of Yabroud, located just east of the strategic highway linking Damascus to Homs.

And internationally, Russia’s decision to annex Crimea has isolated it internationally. That means that Mr Al Assad will not soon have to worry about paying the price for a Russian-American rapprochement over Syria. If anything, tension between Washington and Moscow is bound to rise, giving the Syrian leader more room to pursue his own agenda.

In addition, the Geneva negotiations that had been supported by Russia and the United States utterly failed. They showed that the two powers were on very different wavelengths when it came to the outlines of a diplomatic solution for the Syrian conflict, making further cooperation doubtful.

But as Mr Al Assad consolidates his position, and seeks to anchor this reality with his own re-election come July, there remain two significant risks that his regime will have to address.

The first is that Syria has failed to respect several deadlines for the removal and destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal. If it continues to do so, this could trigger American military retaliation, particularly in a key Congressional election year for Barack Obama. Both Mr Al Assad and Vladimir Putin seek to avoid such an eventuality.

That is perhaps why Mikhail Ulyanov, the head of the security and disarmament department at the Russian foreign ministry, declared last week: “If there are no difficulties then in a month, on April 13, the removal [of the Syrian chemical weapons] will be practically finished.” In restating its commitment to the general deadline, Moscow clearly intended to head off any American military action against Syria.

A second risk for Mr Al Assad is the purported spring offensive planned by rebels based in southern Syria. News reports have suggested that southern rebel groups have been armed by Saudi Arabia and trained by the Americans and Jordanians. Significantly, they are to be supplied with anti-aircraft missiles stored in warehouses in Jordan. Their principal objective would be to attack Damascus and force Mr Al Assad to negotiate.

However, there continue to be doubts about the potential success of such an offensive. The Americans have not given, or not yet given, a green light to deploy the portable anti-aircraft missiles, or manpads, which would give rebels a decisive edge against the aircraft and helicopters of the Syrian armed forces.

Increasingly, it appears that Mr Al Assad is seeking a military solution to the conflict. That is easier said than done, and no one seriously believes it will lead to a decisive victory in the short term. Large swathes of Syria continue to be controlled by the rebels, with the regime focused on controlling Damascus and the Syrian coast, and the communication lines in between.

But Mr Brahimi is right: if Mr Al Assad were to go ahead with an election, that this would effectively undermine a negotiated outcome in Syria. And if the Russians were to sign on to this, it means they feel the Syrian president can prevail militarily. This attitude would no doubt be shared by Iran.

That is where the Saudi and American plan for a southern offensive become important. The outcome may decide whether Mr Al Assad goes ahead with his project to stand for re-election, or whether he and his sponsors must consider alternatives.

Mr Al Assad is little concerned by the legitimacy of the election process. More than 2.5 million people are refugees outside Syria, and 6.5 million are internally displaced, so there is little latitude to gauge real popular aspirations. But the Syrian leader has other priorities. His objective is political survival and a re-election, no matter how ludicrous, would help him do just that.

Is an Aoun presidency more realistic?

Some circles in March 14 are openly talking about the possibility that Michel Aoun, all 80 years of him, may be the next president of Lebanon after Michel Sleiman’s term ends in May.

While this may be speculation, that it is being discussed at all indicates how the political scene has changed since 2008, when Sleiman took office. So what would a serious Aoun presidency entail and how would it gain steam?

Earlier this year a rapprochement was organized between Saad Hariri and Aoun, thanks to the efforts of Gebran Bassil and Nader Hariri. While it is unlikely that any agreement was reached, those offering up theories of a deal suggest that it would go something like this: Aoun would have the support of the Future Movement in his presidential bid, while Hariri would return to Lebanon to be prime minister.

This is a bit too clear-cut to be convincing, but there is nevertheless a mood in Future ranks that Aoun as president would be very different than Aoun as presidential aspirant. Once he is in a position of authority, the argument goes, he would be less likely to cover for Hezbollah’s transgressions.

Sudden reversals are not new to March 14. In 2006-2007, Sleiman was widely viewed as Syria’s and Hezbollah’s candidate to replace Emile Lahoud. March 14 had put forward two candidates of its own, Nassib Lahoud and Boutros Harb, to block such an eventuality. Yet in November 2007 the mood in the Future Movement changed when it supported Sleiman, again based on a belief that most presidents will defend their institution and the state whatever their prior political positions.

Sleiman has doubtless lent credibility to that premise. But a successful Aoun candidacy poses a number of other questions as to who will support him and what may happen in the parliamentary elections come November.

The conventional wisdom is that Hezbollah, though an ally of Aoun, does not really want him as president. Rather, the party prefers to have a Maronite entirely beholden to it, which narrows the list to two front-runners: the Army commander Jean Kahwagi and the Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh.

The only problem with both individuals is that, given their status as grade-one civil servants, a constitutional amendment would be required to allow them to stand for election. And Hezbollah does not have the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to amend the Constitution.

The reality is that the party, whether it wants Aoun or not, would have little choice but to vote for him if he declared himself a candidate. The presidency cannot be seen in isolation from the parliamentary elections later this year, and Hezbollah cannot afford to forego Aounist Christian support in that contest.

What of Walid Jumblatt? His enthusiasm for an Aoun presidency is next to nil, but the Druze leader is a realist. If there is something vital to be gained by endorsing Aoun, then Jumblatt may go along with it. That is why he would seek guarantees that the parliamentary elections will be held on the basis of the 1960 election law. The law grants him political preeminence in Aley and the Chouf and is of existential importance to him.

Jumblatt’s support for Aoun would provide another advantage, this time to Hezbollah. With the Jumblatt bloc, Hezbollah and Aoun would hold a majority in parliament against what remains of March 14. Hezbollah does not want to depend on the Druze leader, but in the absence of alternatives it will probably accept a situation that grants Jumblatt a swing vote in Parliament.

Even if Jumblatt is unreliable, the Druze leader will almost certainly continue to side with the majority in order to remain politically relevant. That is doubly true in the event that Bashar Assad prevails in Syria, which would give Jumblatt much less latitude to turn against Hezbollah and its allies.

The 1960 law is equally of benefit to Aoun and Hezbollah. It gives them an unbeatable majority in several key districts where they are allied, and has repeatedly allowed Aoun to overcome his Christian rivals, above all the Lebanese Forces. Despite the Aounists’ public rejection of the 1960 law last year, if Aoun were to become president, he would do everything in his power to keep the law in place, as it would allow him to buttress his presidency with a significant Christian bloc in parliament.

Moreover, an Aoun presidency could be used to counteract the main Christian protest against the 1960 law: that it marginalizes Christians. The Aounists would argue that by reinforcing a President Aoun, the law would contradict that assertion.

A more realistic reading of the Aoun affair is that the Future Movement would not back Aoun’s candidacy, but that Hariri and Aoun may have agreed to something else. Constitutionally, a two-thirds quorum is required to hold a presidential election. Hariri might not persuade his parliamentarians to vote for Aoun, but he can oblige them to attend an election session, in that way ensuring there is a quorum allowing a vote to go ahead.

According to the Constitution, if a candidate cannot win a two-thirds majority in the first round of voting, a second round is held, in which candidates need only an absolute majority of 65 votes to win. Aoun, if he is backed by Hezbollah, which may then force Nabih Berri to go along, would have most of the votes. For him to win, however, Jumblatt would have to rally behind Aoun, which is plausible if the 1960 law is preserved.

A lot will happen between now and the May presidential election. Aoun may be a credible candidate, or he may not be. But one thing is increasingly obvious: Walid Jumblatt holds the balance of power in Parliament, and he will use the election to safeguard that weapon. His political survival may depend on it.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Abroad, alone - John Kerry feels little love from Barack Obama

US Secretary of State John Kerry has often seemed out on a limb, alone, when conducting American foreign policy. President Barack Obama has been supportive in general ways, but, overall, remains detached from foreign policy concerns.

On Syria, the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, and much else, Obama has stayed aloof. That’s not to say the president doesn’t meet foreign dignitaries or pick up the phone now and then. A crisis such as that in Ukraine certainly holds his attention. But on other matters rarely is there much direct engagement by Obama in America’s foreign policy agenda.

As anyone who has followed American foreign policy knows, personal involvement by the president is often regarded by foreign actors as proof of American seriousness. Without it, they often see no point in making significant diplomatic concessions, which can undermine the objectives of American diplomacy.

But the Obama White House is on a very different wavelength. Its message often seems to be: Why should the president expend valuable political capital on risky diplomatic ventures he does not consider a priority? Obama may not put it so bluntly, but the administration has made it clear time and again that his primary concerns are domestic, and that America’s attention overseas, when it is there, is directed far less at the Middle East or Europe, let alone Africa or Latin America, than at Asia.

And even in Asia, the president has really not done very much. The United States has kept a low profile on the major issue of the day: the maritime disputes between China and its Asian neighbors. And last October, Obama’s sense of priorities was starkly revealed when he cut short an Asian trip to return to Washington and deal with the government shutdown.

Kerry would doubtless never admit to frustration. However, there are telltale signs suggesting there is a quiet struggle going on between the State Department and the White House over the Middle East in particular. The secretary, it often seems, seeks to push the president ever so gently in a given direction, only to feel pushback from the White House.

Take Kerry’s statement in mid-February that Obama had asked for new options to address the conflict in Syria. White House spokesman Jay Carney very quickly responded that Kerry’s remarks should not be taken “as some new announcement or new consideration.” He added, “The president is always asking his team to evaluate where we are and where we could be… It’s not like this is a new review.”

The exchange came soon after Kerry was quoted as having told a group of American Congressmen that the administration’s Syria policy was failing. In reaction to this, Kerry was said to advocate a change in US strategy, including arming the Syrian rebels. That’s why his remarks about new options may have been viewed by the White House as a way of railroading the president into taking more forceful action in Syria – hence its decision to play down his comments, even if it meant embarrassing Kerry.

But then Obama has been good at putting his secretary of state in awkward positions. Last year, while Kerry was publicly defending the decision to launch an attack against Syria, in retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, Obama changed his mind, leaving the secretary in the lurch.

Obama has seemed, similarly, disinterested in Kerry’s efforts to negotiate a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Again, that’s not to deny that Obama has gone through the motions. He met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu two weeks ago and urged him to take the “tough decisions” required to salvage the peace process.

However, Obama has not staked his reputation on success. His credibility is in no way tied to the outcome of negotiations. If they accomplish something, he gains. If they fail, it will be Kerry who faces the backlash. The president has not invested much time, effort or political leverage in the venture. Indeed, Obama has expended little time and effort on the Middle East in general, hardly traveling to the region in the past five years.

For his misfortune, Kerry not only is serving a president who seems detached from foreign affairs, he was also not Obama’s first choice for the post of secretary of state. Obama initially wanted Susan Rice, a close aide, but her appointment was derailed by the controversy over her remarks relating to the attack against the US consulate in Benghazi.

If Kerry were to complain one day about the White House’s suffocating grip on foreign policy, he would not be the first. Vali Nasr, who served as an advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the late special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, last year wrote a harsh critique of the Obama administration, arguing that Obama’s political advisors had excessive influence over foreign policy decisions, despite their lack of experience.

Robert Gates, the former defense secretary, was equally disparaging of Obama’s approach to American involvement in Afghanistan, which seemed characterized by the same lack of conviction visible elsewhere. In his memoirs he wrote, “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.” Given that the president had sent thousands of US soldiers on that mission, the phrase was quite devastating.

There was a time when Obama was portrayed as a president with a cosmopolitan touch, which would shape his foreign policy in positive ways. After all, he had spent a few years in Indonesia and had a Kenyan father. The idiocy of that judgment is more evident by the day. But the one paying the highest price is the man Obama appointed to represent the United States in the world. John Kerry must feel very lonely.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Why barbarity wins, in Syria and Crimea

News that Syrian President Bashar Assad had been accepted into the Russian Academy of Sciences makes us wonder about the institution.

Perhaps not surprisingly, last year the academy was placed under tighter government control. Assad didn’t complain, declaring “Russia has re-established balance in international relations, after long years of hegemony” by the United States. For three years, Russia has indeed underwritten the most barbaric crimes of the Syrian regime. Yet it was only when President Vladimir Putin began preparing the annexation of Crimea that many people in the West realized the kind of individual they were up against.

President Barack Obama has declared any secession vote in Crimea illegitimate, and warned: “We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.” George Kennan once lamented the American tendency to make foreign policy pronouncements that had no practical consequences and that the United States was unwilling to bolster in a forceful way. We will have to see what Obama does in Crimea, but we can say that, when it comes to Syria, the U.S. has repeatedly confirmed Kennan’s doubts.

What does it tell us if Assad ultimately wins the Syrian conflict? This will surely take years, if it happens at all. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that it does happen. Will it not send a message even more damning to the notion of an international community based on the rule of law than Putin’s maneuvers in Crimea?

In the days of George W. Bush, it was easy for many governments to describe what they did not want in terms of international behavior. They would simply point to the American president. When candidate Obama traveled to Germany during his election campaign, he was greeted by the multitudes in Berlin, there to say that they did not want another Bush in Washington. That same impulse motivated the Nobel Committee when it awarded Obama the peace prize in 2009.

But saying what one doesn’t want is much easier than saying what one does want. And until now the international community has failed to work out effective standards for international behavior, based on a common understanding of international law. This is extraordinarily difficult given the structure of the United Nations, which grants the five permanent members of the Security Council the right to veto any decision with which they disagree.

At the heart of the international community, and the U.N. in particular, lies a glaring contradiction. It is commonly believed that the establishment of an international body after World War II was designed to serve as the cornerstone of a global order based on the rule of law. In reality, as historian Mark Mazower has written, the U.N., like its predecessor the League of Nations, “was a product of empire and indeed, at least at the outset, regarded by those with colonies to keep as a more than adequate mechanism for its defense. The U.N., in short, was the product of evolution not revolution...”

Yet over time, there have been numerous efforts to reinforce the universalist ideals of the U.N. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre a year later, there emerged a new notion in international relations that came to be called the responsibility to protect, or R2P. States had a responsibility to protect their citizens from crimes such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. When they failed to do so, the international community had the responsibility to intervene and could, as a last resort, act militarily after a vote in the Security Council.

In other words, a norm resting on an idealistic interpretation of the U.N.’s role was to be implemented by a body that had institutionalized great power dominance and state sovereignty – therefore was largely antithetical to the universalist aspirations of the R2P supporters.

This disconnect serves as a useful reality check whenever someone describes the U.N. in fulsome terms. One could make a good case that the Bush administration violated international law by invading Iraq in 2003; but one could make an equally compelling case that the U.N. repeatedly failed to implement its own resolutions on Iraq, particularly Resolution 688 of April 1991, which condemned the repression of the civilian population by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Today, the Security Council seems utterly incapable of agreeing to such a resolution when it comes to Syria. Mass slaughter is continuing, while room is being made for Assad in the Russian Academy of Sciences by a man directing the takeover of the sovereign territory of a foreign state. Meanwhile, publics in the United States and Europe continue to adamantly oppose any kind of military intervention in Syria, regardless of what happens to civilians.

This situation sets up a dilemma. A belief in implementing and expanding international humanitarian norms can only grow if there is a conviction that the international community will join together to take up such a burden. But the frequent inability of the U.N. to act decisively on humanitarian matters, as in Syria, has pushed states to act unilaterally in given crises, further eroding the idea of a common interest in defending human rights and international law.

This reality takes us back to the Hobbesian notion of “all against all.” But if so, if power and force alone are what shape foreign policy, then so be it, in Syria as in Crimea. Let’s stop wasting our time by evoking international law and principles in a world that seems so little disposed to ensuring they prevail or, worse, that cites international law as an excuse to avoid taking any humanitarian action whatsoever.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lebanon’s vacuum should push all sides to compromise

The optimism greeting the formation of a Lebanese government weeks ago soon gave way to pessimism, as the different political alignments failed to agree to a policy statement. If no statement is approved, either a new government would have to be formed, or the present government would continue in a caretaker capacity.

The main bone of contention is how to refer to the resistance, a byword for Hizbollah, and its independent weapons arsenal. This has divided two of the principal forces in the government of prime minister Tammam Salam: the March 14 coalition, led by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, and the March 8 coalition, which is led by Hizbollah and is allied with ministers named by Michel Aoun.

Hizbollah is keen to have a policy statement that legitimises the resistance, in that way securing implicit approval for the party’s retention of its weapons. March 14, in contrast, wants a statement that places the resistance under the authority of the state.

A ministerial committee set up to draft the policy statement has reached deadlock. On Tuesday, it decided to send the matter back to the full cabinet, which meets on Thursday, to try to find a solution.

In the past, a clash was averted through a compromise formula that affirmed a triad between the people, the army and the resistance. While March 14 accepted this, it was never truly satisfied with a sentence that placed the army and the resistance on the same level.

When Mr Salam’s government was formed, certain groups in March 14 criticised Mr Hariri for entering into a coalition with Hizbollah, particularly after its military intervention in the Syrian conflict. This pushed March 14 to take a firmer line on Hizbollah’s role and weapons.

Hizbollah has also refused to be flexible. The party sees no reason to make any concessions, feeling that it is regaining the initiative in Syria, alongside the regime of president Bashar Al Assad. It seeks to reflect and anchor this reality in the Lebanese system. The party’s goal is to strengthen its hold over Lebanon this year – first by bringing in a friendly president in May, then by winning a majority, with its allies, in parliamentary elections scheduled for November.

The parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, and the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt have presented a compromise, based on a statement by Lebanon’s Aounist foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, at an Arab League foreign ministers meeting last week. Mr Bassil defended Lebanon’s right to “resist any Israeli aggression or occupation with all legitimate and available means”. Reportedly, his remarks were coordinated with president Michel Sleiman and Mr Salam.

Mr Berri and Mr Jumblat hope an expanded version can serve as the basis for a statement all sides can accept. Hizbollah has the means to block any measure that officially challenges its arsenal. If the minimal benchmark for March 14 is to force Hizbollah to recognise the predominance of the state in national defence, then this may be an ambition too far, and the price could be a perpetual inability to form unity governments.

On the other hand, the Berri-Jumblatt proposal, while it merely sidelines the problem, would have the advantage of doing two things, albeit limited in scope: getting rid of the contentious triad that placed the resistance and the army on the same level; and inherently reaffirming that whatever Hizbollah does, it cannot avoid rising opposition to its weapons from other political groups in Lebanon.

That may not be much, but there is no direct way to push Hizbollah to surrender its weapons, which are essential to its identity and give it political relevance. At best, its adversaries must try to create political contexts that make it increasingly difficult and costly for the party to retain weapons. However, this is much easier said than done.

That’s why Hizbollah is focused on ensuring that it can consolidate its hold over Lebanon in the coming months. It is convinced that developments in Syria permit this. If it can bring in a president who defends its interests, followed by a parliamentary majority later in the year, it would control the three principal governing institutions in the Lebanese state, giving it greater latitude to protect its weapons.

That is why March 14 would do better to prepare itself for the likely battles ahead over the next president and a parliamentary election law. Already, March 14 and Mr Jumblatt, along with a number of independents, hold a parliamentary majority that can elect a president, or block a Hizbollah candidate they don’t want.

More complicated is agreeing to an election law. Last year, March 14 split over a draft proposal, with the Christian parties supporting a law that would have benefited them, but that was to the disadvantage of the Future Movement. Unless the coalition can coordinate its efforts and avoid such a scenario again, Hizbollah will exploit the differences to push through a law that is to its own benefit.

Mr Salam’s government is not expected to last for very long. Once a president is elected, a new cabinet will come in. Yet there remains a distinct possibility that there will be no accord over a replacement for president Michel Sleiman. If so, Mr Jumblatt, insisting that all major decisions must be taken by consensus, may refuse to side with March 14 behind any candidate rejected by Hizbollah.

If there is a void in the presidency, Mr Salam could conceivably remain in place longer than expected. For now, however, some sort of compromise over a cabinet statement remains a distinct possibility. In agreeing to join a government after a 10-month hiatus, the parties saw a pressing need to fill the debilitating vacuum in Beirut. That imperative remains as relevant today as it was then.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Doha Disconnect - What was behind Gulf states' diplomatic isolation of Qatar?

The decision of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar shows that the Arab world remains divided over the so-called Arab Spring.

The Saudi-Qatari rift (which was at the heart of the decision) is primarily linked to their very different attitudes toward the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Gaza. Whereas the Saudi regime supported the coup against President Muhammad Morsi, and sought to reinforce the military-dominated government that followed, Qatar has continued to back the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to Nabil Ennasri, a specialist on Qatar who was interviewed by the French daily La Croix, “the ambassadors crisis must be linked to the decision of a Cairo tribunal on Tuesday to freeze the assets of the Palestinian Hamas [movement] and bar it from Egyptian territory, as it is suspected of allying itself with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to commit attacks [in Egypt].”

The Saudis have reacted in contradictory ways to the Arab uprisings since 2011. They looked with a jaundiced eye on Hosni Mubarak’s exit in Egypt, but had no regrets about the downfall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and have supported the revolt against Bashar al-Assad.

Geographical proximity has been a major factor in Saudi thinking. What happens in Egypt and Syria are vital for the kingdom since both are close to Saudi Arabia, while Libya and Tunisia are not. Moreover, Iran, the Saudis’ main regional foe, has been active in Syria and the Palestinian territories, reportedly resuming its financing of Hamas.

According to Al-Monitor’s Hazem Balousha, citing high-level sources within Hamas, ties were re-established after two meetings, in Ankara and Doha, between Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’ Political Bureau, and an unnamed high-level Iranian representative. The rift between Hamas and Iran, caused by their differences over Syria, reportedly cost the Islamist movement some $23 million per month.

There was a time when Saudi Arabia acted as a refuge for members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had fled Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. However, much has changed since then. The Saudis were not pleased when their old ally Mubarak was replaced by Morsi, who was democratically elected after a popular revolution. For a conservative monarchy whose legitimacy springs from its link to Islam, the prospect of Islamists reaching power through an electoral process was an anathema, as this could have echoed favorably in the kingdom.

The Saudi devotion to stability has not been evident in Syria, however, where the kingdom supports the rebels and has pushed Qatar aside as their main sponsor. Recently, the Syria file was taken out of the hands of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who is said to be ill, and handed to the interior minister, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, a rising star in the Saudi system who one day may become king.

Prince Muhammad is known for combating Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and he survived an assassination attempt in August 2009. This has given the kingdom some credibility in Syria, where its foes have accused it of supporting Al-Qaeda groups. Prince Muhammad’s appointment was an indirect way of countering that accusation.

Saudi policies in Egypt and Syria have been aimed at getting a handle on a situation that, after 2011, was unpredictable for the royal family. The re-imposition of a military-backed regime in Cairo is within reach for the Saudis, with the likelihood that the army commander, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will win the presidency. Riyadh does not want anything to hinder that scenario, above all Qatari interference.

In Syria, the Saudis and Qataris may be on the same side, but their separate agendas were one reason for the opposition’s divisions early on. Both Qatar and Turkey backed the Muslim Brotherhood in the opposition coalition, creating profound rifts at a moment when the West was seeking a unified opposition partner. The Muslim Brotherhood was later shown to be utterly ineffective in Syria.

Since then, the Saudis helped create the so-called Islamic Front, an alliance mainly of Salafist groups that helped supplant the Free Syrian Army backed by the Western countries. While the objective was to impose some coherence in the ranks of the fragmented opposition, it was also, and more implicitly, to ensure that the Saudis would be in a better position to define the Syrian endgame not only with respect to other Arab states, but also the United States.

For now, the Saudis appear to have the upper hand. Qatari support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has an air of desperation about it. The prospect that Morsi will return to power seems ridiculous.

In Syria, the Saudis and Americans are allegedly preparing for a spring offensive against Damascus, directed from the south. Whether this will shake Bashar al-Assad’s regime and force him to negotiate remains unclear, but the Saudis and Americans are working together again. The Obama administration, despite its displeasure with Morsi’s violent removal, is also very likely to come around to a Sisi victory. After three years of chaos in the Middle East, the Saudis’ appeal for stability will receive a sympathetic ear in Washington.

That sense of renewed confidence, coupled with recognition that the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program will be arduous, may have prompted the diplomatic isolation of Qatar. With a new emir in Doha, the Saudis are flexing their muscles to push their own preferences in the region. Only time will tell whether the Qataris comply.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Hezbollah’s presidential headaches grow

The recent denigration of President Michel Sleiman by Ibrahim Amin, the editor of Al-Akhbar, is part of Hezbollah’s larger fight over the presidency. As a consequence, the justice minister, Ashraf Rifi, has taken legal action, accusing Amin of “defaming” the president and the prestige of the presidency.We eagerly await the day when that idiotic accusation will be deleted from the legal books. Amin’s newspaper has often adopted highly questionable journalistic tactics, but for Rifi to have begun his term in office with a decision that could very easily be spun into an attack against free expression was a mistake.

In an article last week, Amin was highly critical of Sleiman’s recent comments at Kaslik University, in which he called on the political parties to abandon “rigid equations” that were delaying agreement over the policy statement of the Salam government. In place of the people-Army-resistance triad, the president offered an alternative: “the land-the people-common values.” Hezbollah reacted violently to his speech, and Amin was enrolled to add bite to the counterattack.

Some viewed Sleiman’s remarks as an underhanded way of torpedoing an agreement over a Cabinet statement. Reportedly, Prime Minister Tammam Salam was unhappy. If the government cannot adopt a statement, the argument goes, Sleiman would be in a better position to extend his term come May, on the grounds that Lebanon cannot allow a void both in the government and the presidency.

The main purpose of the new government, namely to create a constructive atmosphere allowing for a consensus around a new president, may be quickly evaporating. Unless something gives in the coming days, we won’t have a Cabinet statement, and the government will then function in a caretaker capacity. And if ministers cannot reach a compromise over a Cabinet statement today, their parties are unlikely to agree over a president in May – let alone over the Cabinet statement of the next government if a presidential election takes place.

What has been flagrant in the past year is how destabilized Hezbollah has been by Sleiman’s criticisms. The president has only public statements in his scabbard, but Hezbollah has reacted with undue aggressiveness, suggesting that any break with the unanimity it once imposed over its weapons has become worrisome to the party.

Hezbollah is not pleased that two of the three top posts in the state are held by individuals who do not share the party’s vision or ideology. Even in the days after the so-called Cedar Revolution in 2005, Hezbollah still benefited from a sympathetic president and speaker of parliament, using this to block all efforts by the March 14 coalition to eat away at the props of the party’s political power.

While Hezbollah does not want a vacuum, its sense of vulnerability suggests that it would prefer one if it cannot guarantee control over a president, and if the Salam government seeks to challenge what the party views as non-negotiable, namely a justification for its weapons. Better no president or government unless both serve to reinforce what Hezbollah considers vital for its political and military survival.

What is risky in this proposition is that domestic stability is as important to the party as self-protection. If Lebanon were to descend into violence, particularly sectarian violence, Hezbollah could lose everything it has spent two decades building up. Any illusion that the party can dominate Lebanon militarily should have been dispelled by its performance in Syria. While Hezbollah has done well in some places, it has taken heavy casualties in others. It’s easier to fire at Israel from afar than to embark on a conflict in mixed areas, where the costs are bound to be high and there can be no clear victories.

In Hezbollah’s favor, Sleiman has not been able to draw enough Christians away from the party to pose a threat. For as long as Michel Aoun and his followers regard Sleiman as a rival, Hezbollah will retain the initiative. Christians often lament their divisions, but the reality is that their petty disputes have been among the most useful developments allowing Hezbollah to advance its agenda.

Watch as the year progresses and steps are taken to hold parliamentary elections next November. The underlying tensions between the Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement suggest that, unless the two agree to a compromise election law proposal, Hezbollah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri will use the debate over such a law to divide their opponents, as they did last year.

But Hezbollah is right not to be reassured about what lies ahead. The Syrian conflict will continue, and is likely to escalate further in spring, when the rebels are said to be preparing a southern offensive. The Shiite community, like all Lebanese, is suffering greatly from a combination of systematic bombings and economic duress. Amid all this, that the party and its mouthpieces should be focusing on statements by Sleiman suggests there is considerable uneasiness over Hezbollah’s ability to enforce compliance within Lebanon.

What Hezbollah has not considered is that whoever becomes president will have a natural tendency to challenge the party. The party’s very existence represents a daily contradiction of the state and its unity, whose prime representative is the president. Even if a successor to Sleiman is found, this reality will persist.

Any president, by definition, only gains by appealing to all sides of the political spectrum, and by not curtailing the authority of the state, hence his own. That applies as much to Sleiman as to Aoun, were he to enter the presidential palace. In the end the incompatibility between the state and Hezbollah will endure, whatever the party does.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ukraine affords Obama the opportunity to look strong

The crisis in Ukraine has been repeatedly linked to the conflict in Syria. Both have had a significant impact on Russian power, and both have been a test for American influence in the world. But events in Ukraine may well affect Syria in contradictory ways.

Russia has defended the regime of President Bashar Al Assad on the grounds that it is the legitimate government of Syria, and that its collapse might break the country apart. This was a clear statement of the sovereignty principle, which Russia has ignored in Ukraine.

Similarly, Russia’s justification for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty is that it fears for the Russian population in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But in Syria Mr Al Assad’s foes have employed a similar argument, backing the Syrian opposition in defence of a Sunni population repressed by an Alawite-dominated regime.

Consistency is rarely a deciding factor for powerful nations, and President Vladimir Putin’s actions are no exception. These may increase tension with the United States and even China, a staunch defender of state sovereignty, but ultimately national interests will prevail. The Europeans, Germany above all, have limited options against Mr Putin, given their economic ties with Russia.

However, Russian-American dynamics are a different matter. This is a Congressional election year for Barack Obama, and the American president must counter his growing reputation for indecisiveness in foreign affairs. To his advantage, he leads a more isolationist country than many of his predecessors. Yet Mr Obama also cannot allow the perpetuation of a sense that his administration is spineless.

That means that Washington must get Ukraine right. Mr Obama doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring the crisis there as he has ignored the war in Syria. One reason is that Ukraine is an overt test of those foreign policy principles Mr Obama has claimed as his own.

When he came to office, the American president underlined that his administration would adopt a realist approach in its interactions overseas, based on the pursuit of national interests. At the same time, Mr Obama promised to emphasise multilateralism and cooperation, which included a “reset” in the American-Russian relationship.

There was natural tension between the first part of those propositions and the second. The pursuit of interests usually means taking a hard-nosed approach to foreign policy challenges, while multilateralism implies a vision that is more collaborative.

Mr Putin is a realist, and has not hesitated to use force when he feels that this is to Russia’s advantage. Mr Obama, in turn, has shied away from deploying American military power, while his reliance on a multilateral approach has brought him few benefits in the world’s trouble spots, above all Syria and Ukraine.

In Syria, the Russians have not given an inch in their support for Mr Al Assad’s regime. Yet their approval remains necessary to achieve any diplomatic breakthrough. The standoff today makes a political solution more distant than ever. Mr Al Assad may be delighted that he is unlikely to pay a price for an international consensus over Syria, but many will lament that this means the war is bound to continue.

However, is that necessarily true? Mr Obama may finally come to accept that the policy he has pursued until now, which involves engaging Russia to help resolve the Syrian war, has utterly failed. This will have a particular bearing as the deadline approaches for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons – in a deal negotiated between Washington and Moscow and endorsed by the United Nations.

An interim February 5 deadline to remove chemical weapons from Syria has come and gone. It is highly improbable that the June 30 deadline to destroy all such weapons will be respected. At a recent closed-door meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, Russia defended Mr Al Assad’s regime, saying it needed more time, even as other states condemned the Syrians for their delaying tactics.

Mr Obama will have a tough decision to take if Syria retains much of its chemical arsenal after June 30. Russia neutralised an American military response in Syria last year, but now the president may have to reconsider his position on military force. Tensions with Moscow may prompt him to bomb Syria, both to give credibility to the chemical weapons agreement and to put Mr Putin on the defensive.

Above all, Mr Obama will have to think seriously about his own political destiny. He faces a dilemma of sorts. Many Americans have embraced his reluctance to enter into fresh conflicts, and opposed his threat last year to strike Syria after the chemical weapon attack in the Ghouta. When it comes to foreign policy, Mr Obama’s vacillation abroad has not cost him much domestically.

Yet Ukraine is not Syria. Mr Putin’s manoeuvres remind many Americans of the Cold War. So, if Mr Obama responds in such a way that he appears weak, this could erode the president’s authority at a time when he is already contested for a variety of domestic reasons. If Democrats were to lose in November as a consequence, Mr Obama’s agenda would be crippled during his final two years in office.

The US-Russia rift makes a political endgame in Syria elusive. But, paradoxically, this rift may also hinder a resolution of the chemical weapons controversy, obliging Mr Obama to resort to force, in accordance with his purported realism. That, in turn, might break the ugly stalemate in Syria, facilitating a political outcome.

Will Mr Putin pay a heavy price for his takeover of Crimea? It’s too early to tell. However, the Russian president had Washington just where he wanted it in Syria. That may change as Mr Obama reconsiders his options globally. Mr Putin has not left him with many.