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Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Syria and Egypt Can't Be Fixed"


Syria and Egypt are dying. They were dying before the Syrian civil war broke out and before the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Cairo. Syria has an insoluble civil war and Egypt has an insoluble crisis because they are dying. They are dying because they chose not to do what China did: move the better part of a billion people from rural backwardness to a modern urban economy within a generation. Mexico would have died as well, without the option to send its rural poor – fully one-fifth of its population – to the United States.

It was obvious to anyone who troubled to examine the data that Egypt could not maintain a bottomless pit in its balance of payments, created by a 50% dependency on imported food, not to mention an energy bill fed by subsidies that consumed a quarter of the national budget. It was obvious to Israeli analysts that the Syrian regime’s belated attempt to modernize its agricultural sector would create a crisis as hundreds of thousands of displaced farmers gathered in slums on the outskirts of its cities. These facts were in evidence early in 2011 when Hosni Mubarak fell and the Syrian rebellion broke out. Paul Rivlin of Israel’s Moshe Dayan Center published a devastating profile of Syria’s economic failure in April 2011.



Sometimes countries dig themselves into a hole from which they cannot extricate themselves. Third World dictators typically keep their rural population poor, isolated and illiterate, the better to maintain control. That was the policy of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party from the 1930s, which warehoused the rural poor in Stalin-modeled collective farms called ejidos occupying most of the national territory. That was also the intent of the Arab nationalist dictatorships in Egypt and Syria. The policy worked until it didn’t. In Mexico, it stopped working during the debt crisis of the early 1980s, and Mexico’s poor became America’s problem. In Egypt and Syria, it stopped working in 2011. There is nowhere for Egyptians and Syrians to go.
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This background lends an air of absurdity to the present debate over whether the West should arm Syria’s Sunni rebels. American hawks like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, to be sure, argue for sending arms to the Sunnis because they think it politically unwise to propose an attack on the Assad regime’s master, namely Iran. The Obama administration has agreed to arm the Sunnis because it costs nothing to pre-empt Republican criticism. We have a repetition of the “dumb and dumber”consensus that prevailed during early 2011, when the Republican hawks called for intervention in Libya and the Obama administration obliged. Call it the foreign policy version of the sequel, “Dumb and Dumberer”.

Even if the Sunnis could eject the Assad family from Damascus and establish a new government – which I doubt – the best case scenario would be another Egypt: a Muslim Brotherhood government presiding over a collapsed economy and sliding inevitably towards state failure. It is too late even for this kind of arrangement. Equalizing the military position of the two sides will merely increase the body count. The only humane thing to do is to partition the country on the Yugoslav model, but that does not appear to be on the agenda of any government.
 On a related note, Stratfor suggests that Assad's forces are unlikely to retake much more rebel territory, including Aleppo.

For all the regime's announcements of an imminent victory in Aleppo, it is important to remember the very significant obstacles. Many of these are in fact the same that prevented the regime from ousting the rebels from the city in summer 2012.

First, the main concentration of regime forces is a considerable distance from Aleppo and is largely isolated due to rebel efforts to sever its supply lines. The closest significant concentration of regime forces is in Idlib city, but those troops are mostly cut off from the south. Therefore, any serious advance on Aleppo would have to come from the main concentration of loyalist forces in the core. The closest realistic staging point for these forces to advance northward would be from Hama governorate.
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Complicating the regime's future battle plans even further is the recent U.S. decision to increase the arming of the rebels. There will likely be a combination of more direct aid from the United States and looser restrictions on the quantity and quality of weapons that other states are already providing. The United States is moving toward a more prominent role in arming the rebels, but at least initially its involvement will be heavily tempered by its desire to avoid putting weapons, particularly man-portable air-defense systems, in the hands of extremist groups.

Regime forces are making progress, but they need a victory in Aleppo before they can legitimately claim to be close to undermining the rebellion. In order for the loyalists to seriously threaten the rebel position in Aleppo, they need to be able to reach the area with a force of considerable size and to keep that force supplied.

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