Syria: Regime Change Will be Bloody Without a Diplomatic Endgame Plan

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from the June 7, 2012 blog post by Ambassador John Price


The Wall Street Journal article, “U.S. Envoy Paints Dire Syria Scenario,” of May 31, 2012, writers Joe Lauria and Nour Malas note remarks by Ambassador Susan Rice made at the UN. “Urging Security Council penalties on Syria, [Rice] sketched out an alternative situation in which violence escalates, spreads to other countries in the region and finally breaks into a sectarian proxy war with arms flowing in from all sides…Security Council members would be left to consider taking action outside the UN, a scenario the U.S. and allies have sought to avoid.” These same words could have been applied to the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen when the Arab Spring began.

In Tunisia the revolt ousted the president, and a new national unity government led by Mohammed Ghannouchi is already being undermined by Islamic factions. Democratic regime change as the U.S. has envisioned, may not take hold without our underpinning the fragile government.

Regime change has proven to be chaotic Egypt, Libya and Yemen. The Arab Spring uprisings took out President Hosni Mubarak, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Col. Muammar Gaddafi and President Ali Abdullah Saleh, yet demonstrations and instability have not subsided, with radical Islamists adding to the disruption.

In the destabilization process in Libya, rebel militia factions and al-Qaeda have ended up with large caches of arms which now are in the hands of radical Islamists, all across the Sahel and Horn of Africa. The U.S. and its NATO allies did not protect these arms from flowing outside of the country. These Islamist groups fortified with weapons are destabilizing governments in the region. Al-Qaeda linked organizations control large tracts of land which serve as a safe haven, and a base of operations to carry out their terrorist acts.

The Republic of Mali a fledgling democracy, has been destabilized as a result of the Libyan revolution. Northern Tuareg mercenaries returning from Libya brought with them a large cache of arms, and joined rebel separatists and the Ansar Dine Islamist group, linked to al-Qaeda, to take control of northern Mali. The northern region instability was a catalyst for the rebellion within the military ranks, leading to a coup which deposed the retiring President Amadou Toumani Toure. The planned elections for a new president set for April 29, 2012 had to be canceled, bringing chaos to the country.

In Nigeria the Christian populated south and the northern predominantly Muslim region have both become destabilized by the Boko Haram terrorist group allied with al-Qaeda, which are responsible for numerous bombings and killings that have increased in the past several months. This radical Islamist group received arms resulting from Libya’s regime change.

In Somalia the al-Shabaab terrorist group has also received arms from Libya. Radical Islamists have controlled much of the southern part of the country for over twenty years. When Siad Barre the dictator was overthrown in 1991 there was no endgame plan to fill the void. In the ensuing chaos the U.S embassy was closed and we withdrew from the country. In the instability that followed thousands of Somalis were killed. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has been ineffective, resulting in a humanitarian crisis, one of the worst in sub-Saharan Africa.Yemen based al-Qaeda insurgents have joined al-Shabaab in destabilizing the country and neighboring areas.

The Arab Spring uprising started in Tunisia, with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in protest of police brutality and corruption, on December 18, 2010, sparking the growing public discontent. Demonstrations swelled leading to the ousting of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

In Egypt President Hosni Mubarak had ruled since 1981 with a military regime. Challenged by uprisings, with thousands protesting of corruption, military oppression, rising food costs, and unemployment, and spurred on by radical Islamic leaders, led to the downfall of Mubarak. The beneficiaries of the uprising are the conservative Islamists who want to rule under ancient Islamic law, which would bring Egypt back to the Twelfth Century, when Sultan Saladin ruled much of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

In an EMET article on June 1, 2012, “The Egyptian Election: Why the Western Media Continues to Be ‘Surprised’ by the Inevitable,” writer Kyle Shideler noted “The people of Egypt are presented with a choice between oppressions, autocratic, or theocratic, since the two leading candidates represent the Muslim Brotherhood and a conservative Salafist. Both vow to rule under the influence of Sharia.” The article quoted the Egyptian philosopher Murad Wahba saying, “The Muslim Brotherhood is ideologically required to start wars.”

Muammar Gaddafi had autocratically ruled Libya for over forty years. The U.S. and NATO allies supplied weapons, and air power, in support of rebel and opposition militia factions to take him out. However the endgame did not bring about a democratic solution. The payoff for Gaddafi’s tribal members in the town of Sirte, was being butchered by radical rebels. These people suffered for no other reason than being in the same tribe as Muammar Gaddafi.

Abdel Jalil Mustafa, leader of the National Transitional Council (NTC) speaking in Martyrs’ Square stated that he would institute Sharia as the Islamic law of the nation. Gaddafi under attack when the Arab Spring began warned, “That if he were ousted, Libya risked becoming a base for operatives of al-Qaeda, to launch attacks on Europe from the Mediterranean shores.”

The unrest in North Africa brought about similar protests in the Arabian Peninsula, where Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh had ruled for over thirty years. In early 2012, Saleh was forced out. In the regime change that followed his vice president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi was elected president, offered as the only candidate. Chaos and turbulence have continued as a result in the southern regions of the country, which are controlled by rival tribal chiefs and al-Qaeda. The U. S. has underpinned Al- Hadi’s administration with financial aid and military advisors.

In Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, and Oman major concessions have been made by the Arab rulers to avoid regime change; civil uprisings in Bahrain and Lebanon continue; in Saudi Arabia and Morocco discontent is festering; in Mauritania, Sudan, and Western Sahara fundamentalists are firmly in control.

The U. S. policy makers believe we are on the road to democracy in these countries. The dissident groups in the Arab Spring uprisings used the U.S. and its allies for financial aid and military support, which helped lead to regime change, but not to a democratic outcome. Islamist factions could became the beneficiaries. The new leadership, I believe, will ultimately rule by instituting Sharia. Time will tell how tolerant these new regimes will be towards all factions of society.

We may see more bloodshed spilled in these countries, since attaining democracy in a tribal society is difficult to institute, with Islam’s strict tenets going back to ancient times. The protesters have said they want “change”, which we interpreted as our form of democracy, which is a cliché in this part of the world. The State Department noted, “[I]t was the process that matters, not the ideologies of those taking part”, and that “Along the way we trained and gave guidance to the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist candidates in the electioneering process.”

Al-Qaeda intrenched in Yemen, continues to send insurgents to North Africa, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Recently they moved into Syria, adding to the chaos there. “The threat of Syrian rebel forces being co-opted by terror groups like al-Qaeda has been the main crux of the Pentagon’s argument against providing arms and military support to the rebellion.” General James Mattis, head of Central Command stated “that if heavy weapons are funneled into Syria, it’s possible those arms could later be turned against American or allied troops by al-Qaeda fighters.” In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee he stated, “There is already evidence that al-Qaeda operatives have infiltrated the rebel’s ranks and could have access to weapons supplied by the United States or its allies.” Recent suicide car bombings and other attacks have been linked to al-Nusra, the terrorist group there associated with al-Qaeda.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was told by members of his Alawite tribe that they fear being butchered, if he were ousted from office. In the regime change sought, many innocent people could be killed just for belonging to the wrong tribe. A regime change in Syria will most likely continue to see both Shi’a and Sunni militia members killed as they fight for control of the country. The endgame result will not bring a peaceful democratic solution as we envision it.

The Arab Spring in North Africa and Arabian Peninsula has been about democratic governance. Going back in history however, the U.S. was involved in regime change in Iran shortly after World War II. It was in 1953 when the United States and United Kingdom helped to overthrow the democratic regime of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had nationalized the oil industry in 1951. In the coup hundreds of innocent people were killed. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company did not want to give up the oil reserves and Abadan refinery, so the British government took action to preserve its interests. The U.S. was complicit in the plan which brought to power Mohammad-Rezā Shāh Pahlavi the constitutional monarch, as the new authoritarian ruler. The U.S. underpinned the Shah until he was overthrown in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Shi’a fundamentalists replaced him with the extremist leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini.

In the Bikya Masr article, “I am a modern-day slave: Sub-Saharan Africans in Libya,” Diana Eltahawy discusses how African workers continue to be brutalized in the vacuum that was created by the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Escaping poverty and destitution many had traveled long distances from home seeking work. Once in Libya they became enslaved. The article notes that “Just like during Colonel al-Gaddafi’s rule, European countries continue to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Libya when they help to stem the flow of migrants to their shores.” In sub-Saharan Africa since independence from these European colonial rulers, over fifty years ago, little has changed for the destitute people.

The reason for regime change in Iran, which was democratically ruled at the time, was about oil. Today’s regime change to remove the autocratic leaders is about democracy in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.While we are focusing on the countries in these regions, the U.S. should revisit our Foreign Policy, and also focus on the poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.