Jun 4th 2013

Stop the Madness

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

In Looking at Iran a report on Iran's precipitous decline in Arab public opinion, our polling establishes several trends in attitudes unfolding across the Middle East. The most worrisome is the deepening sectarian divide that threatens to unravel several states, posing a long-term challenge to the region's stability. Several Arab states are already in turmoil, victims of this phenomenon. Sectarian tension in Lebanon is an old story, as it is in Bahrain. Iraq has once again exploded in sect violence. And the situation in Kuwait has become a concern.

Our polling shows that most Arabs blame Iran for fomenting this division, and point to the war that is destroying Syria as the major driver behind these sectarian tensions. Iran, one might say, has worked hard to earn this reputation. From the earliest days of the Islamic Republic, they agitated, they provoked, and they meddled. When challenged, they fell back on their time-tested claims to be the "leader of the resistance against the West" and a source of popular revolution. 

For a while, it worked. But in brutally crushing their domestic opposition "Green Movement" and in so overtly playing the sect card in Iraq, Bahrain, and now Syria, they have, our polling shows, defined their regional role as a sectarian power that is hell bent on defending, not the people's will, but their own self-interest.

While this is true, instead of working to defuse tensions and to eliminate the sources of sectarianism, too many regional players have stepped in pouring gasoline on raging fires -- with Syria being the best example. 

What began as a popular revolt against a brutal and ossified dictatorship, Syria has now degenerated into a bloody battlefield pitting sects and their regional allies against each other in a "dance unto death." On the one side, is the Ba'ath regime, supported by Russia, Iran, Hizbullah, and elements in the Iraqi government. Arrayed against them are a host of Syrians (some of whom have defected from the armed forces and others who have formed militias receiving arms and support from a number of Arab states and Turkey) and a cast of thousands of foreign Sunni fighters (some of whom have affiliated with al Qaeda) who have entered Syria to wage war on behalf of their brethren.

Listening to the rhetorical excesses coming from all sides can be quite disturbing. Using apocalyptic references, they warn of the calamities that will follow should their side lose, while promising that with victory all will be well. 

This deadly zero-sum game is both dangerous and fatally flawed, because in reality this is a war that no one can win, and the consequences of continuing it will only make the situation worse.

For months now, in battle after battle, both the regime and its opposition predicted victory. At one point, Aleppo was soon to fall. Then Damascus was threatened. Now it's the regime and its allies' turn to promise a "decisive" victory in al Qusayr. But it is all an illusion. There will be no decisive victory. There is only a stalemate bringing more death and more destruction. And in the end, there is the unraveling of Syria and the entire region which will, if this continues, only descend further into a sectarian hell. 

A month or so ago, a front page photo in The New York Times caught my attention. It was a picture of a bombed out street scene in Aleppo. The destruction was horrific. In the foreground of the photo was a young man, with a semi-automatic weapon in his lap, sitting in a chair that, from the looks of it, had been salvaged from someone's living room. The caption read "Syria's Rebels Make Gains in Aleppo." The question that occurred to me was "if this picture describes a "gain," what will victory look like?"

What consumes me in all of this are the innocents who have died at the hands of the regime's wanton violence, and those who have died in the continuing futility of this proxy war. Equally troubling are the millions who are languishing in refugee camps, and those who have been internally displaced -- their suffering and their loss is of nightmarish proportions. And I also lament the destruction of the country of Syria and the imminent danger a collapsed Syrian state poses to Lebanon, Jordan and beyond. 

Because so many have died and so many others have lost everything but their lives, and because so many Syrians, especially the vulnerable Christian minority, are living in fear, this madness must end. All sides and their sponsors must be made to realize that in continuing this conflict no one will win, and everyone will lose.

As the events of the last week have made clear, we're not there yet. The opposition coalition and its fighting forces remain hopelessly divided with a fractured leadership and competing agendas. And the regime, as tone-deaf as ever, still believes it will weather this storm. Their sponsors and supporters, East and West, appear determined to continue to fuel the conflict, in the belief that they can secure some advantage. 

My father-in-law, who possessed a delightfully sardonic wit, had an expression he would use in a situation like this. One day, while driving on the highway, he realized he was lost. But the road ahead appeared to be clear of traffic (a rarity to be enjoyed by a New Yorker), and so he joked, "we don't know where we're going, but we're making good time."

When I hear Senator John McCain calling for more arms, air strikes, no-fly zones and the like; when I hear the dangerous pronouncements coming from apologists for the various sides, I want to ask "do you know where you are going, and where is this taking Syria, its people and the region?" 

That is why it is imperative that negotiations take place bringing all the combatants and their supporters together to seek an end to this conflict. Talks will not be pretty. But those who fear that Iran will emerge victorious should a negotiated solution be found, are mistaken. That ship has sailed -- Iran has exhausted its regional standing. And those who fear that an extremist failed state will inevitably be the result of any compromise are also mistaken. In fact the best guarantee that both nightmare scenarios do not occur is that a negotiated solution be found that is endorsed and backed up by the international community.

It should be clear that at this point no resolution will be perfect. But even an imperfect peace will end the blood-letting, putting Syria on the long and difficult road to reconstruction and reconciliation. Peace will spare millions of lives and may save the region from the scourge of an unending sectarian conflict. That is why the Kerry-Lavrov proposal should be embraced. It remains the last best hope for Syria and the Middle East.

 




Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "