Syrian security forces fire on protests

The widespread discontent with governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa continues, as troops in Yemen, Bahrain, and now Syria use lethal force against its citizens in an effort to stop the organization of dissent that has toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

Get used to seeing this map, too. The Middle East is undergoing a prolonged titantic shift as democratic protests topple governments after years of repression and stagnation.

The use of lethal force has become the fulcrum on which U.S. diplomacy and military intervention turns, and in an interesting development about  the brute fact that events are moving too quickly for our comfortable categories to keep up with, the U.S. is dropping the ball. Once again, U.S. intelligence, and therefore policies of diplomacy and military intervention, are lagging in ways that reveal deep inconsistencies about the way we define self-interest and sovereignty in relation to ourselves and in relation to other peoples and states. Our assumptions about the Muslim world and its people, and our willful ignorance of the diversity of economic, social, and political dynamics in different countries, have literally exploded in the last two months as the Middle East experiences a sudden seismic shift in a direction that, like it or not, we cannot ultimately control.

Two questions. Why are we continuing to support some dictatorships in countries that either collaborate with us in the war on terror, or provide us with oil, or both? The governments in both Bahrain and Yemen have been firing on protests and using violent suppression to stop protesters from regrouping, but the U.S. ignores the pleas of those people while barely condemning the actions of their governments with strong language. Yet in the case of Libya the situation apparently warrants military action? Perhaps the economies of scale warrant the change in policy, if the systematic use of indiscriminate military force against civilian populations changes the equation.

How many countries will the U.S. have to intervene in before there is stability? The scene is worrisome in the Middle East because as governments topple and fragile democracies are formed, there is an explicit conservative element of religious fundamentalism (not unlike the religious-right in this country) that will fill that void and use the state for its own puritanical and tyrannical ends, and this would be a dangerous turn for our war on terror. The more there is instability, the more imperatives arise for military intervention, and the more military intervention, the more resistance to U.S. military presence will grow throughout the Middle East. The U.S. position in the Middle East is growing weaker, and expanding the use of force is probably to make its position even worse off in the long run, unless our policies of engagement in this region are reformed from the ground up.

UN moves against Qaddafi regime

Developments in the Libyan conflict moved quickly last week as the United Nations Security Council voted to impose a “no-fly zone” over Libya in order to help rebel forces there, who have had several setbacks at Kaddafi’s loyalist forces and mercenaries have driven them from previously kept rebel strongholds in the eastern part of that country.

President Obama announced that an international coalition led by France, UK, and America would impose the “no-fly zone” as well as target Kaddafi military forces that are targeting civilians. France and the UK took the lead on Saturday by immediately bombing military targets in Libya, including anti-aircraft missile sites and radar installations. In addition, U.S. military warships launched Tomahawk missiles at similar targets.

In less than 10 years now the U.S. has engaged in its third military action in the Middle East, raising questions about the coherence of its piecemeal response to ongoing crises in various Muslim countries as well as its long term strategy for promoting peaceful transitions to democratic regimes. For example, many people are asking why the U.S. is intervening in Libya but not in Bahrain or Yemen where authoritarian regimes have cracked down on pro-reform demonstrators and hundreds of protesters have been killed by military and police forces. On Sunday, demonstrators seethed with rage in Manama, Bahrain as the government  tore down the giant tower in Pearl Square, which had become the central battleground, and effective symbol, for protesters demanding democratic reforms.

The problem with asymmetries in U.S. foreign policy in the region was highlighted on Saturday as Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that imposing a “no-fly zone” in Libya amounted to a war because it would require destroying key military targets, radar, and airfields. He also was skeptical of the usefulness of “no-fly zones,” but claimed that this would be the only limited the step the U.S. would take at this time, warning that no ground troops would be sent in to support the rebel forces. Gates stressed this was a conflict for the Libyans to solve, and that imposing a “no-fly zone” is to protect the mass murder of innocent civilians by loyalist forces of Kaddafi.

The situation in Libya is growing tense. Many fear that if Kaddafi is not deposed soon, the struggle will turn into a long and bloody one for control of different regions of Libya, exacerbating long and deep tribal and clan divisions. The best hope is that the international coalition provide support and aid to the rebel coalition in an effort to defeat Kaddafi’s loyalist forces before bloody civil war becomes a permanent part of Libyans’ lives.

Middle East protests revive democratic spirit

In the wake of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, the nearly peaceful overthrow of Egypt’s President Mubarak, and now Libya’s brutal crackdown on opposition protests, hundreds of thousands of protesters have turned out in the streets of major cities across the Middle East from Iran and Iraq to Yemen and Bahrain. Opposition leaders and religious figures are calling everywhere for people to demand more accountability from their governments, and the democratic consequences will be far reaching for years to come.

Thousands of protesters choked Pearl Square on Friday in Bahrain's capital.

Many Arab governments including monarchies in these oil-rich but desperately poor states are now calculating whether to engage the opposition in an effort to bring economic and political reform to the region, or whether to hold onto power with all the desperation and violence that has marked the upending of Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. The country continued descending into chaos as opposition forces, now well-organized, have armed themselves, taken much of eastern Libya, and are marching on the capital Tripoli, where Qaddafi has hired hundreds of mercenaries from nearby Chad and other countries to do much of his fighting. The scene in Libya is sure to get more bloody as the opposition works to unseat the Libyan dictator, who has come under international condemnation for using tanks and planes to kill hundreds of his own people.

In Bahrain, where an earlier crackdown by government forces cleared Pearl Square in that countries capital city Manama, and led to the deaths of dozens of protesters, there is a renewed effort by the country’s Shiite majority to push the Sunni minority out of power. Thousands of protesters throng in Pearl Square, setting up camps, staging demonstrations, and calling for the removal of the country’s long-entrenched monarchy.

In Iraq, America’s difficult democratic experiment is now suffering from “shock and awe” as thousands of protesters there poured into the streets demanding more reform, an end to corruption, and a withdrawal of U.S. military presence. Despite calls by the government for people not to take to the streets, and a security ban on vehicles in the streets, thousands of people are protesting in Iraq’s major cities, and there is information coming in that government troops and police have fired on crowds, killing some protesters.

Libyan dictator escalates violence against civilians

Falling like dominos...

The cycle of violence in the Middle East escalates daily as democratic protesters confront dictators and authoritarian regimes demanding reform. In Libya, the situation is getting especially ugly as the world’s longest-reigning dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, promises never to bow out of the conflict in spite of hundreds of people who have been killed in recent violence and thousands who are demanding he leave. The cycle is starkest where military forces and police fire on mourners marching in funeral processions honoring the dead, creating more funerals, more marches, and more anger.

Yesterday the son of Qaddafi, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, went on public television to inform Libyans that there would be no concessions and that they would never cede power, setting up a conflict that will surely cripple the nation and inevitably lead to the downfall of this regime. He also warned of civil war and occupation, and defiantly said that the regime would fight until the last man.

“Libya is made up of tribes and clans and loyalties,” Qaddafi claimed. “There will be civil war.” He also warned, “The West and Europe and the United States will not accept the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Libya.”

The people of Libya are angry, and the more the dictatorship turns its guns on them the more of them will turn out into the streets demanding change, the more will be shot, the more people will march in funeral processions, the more people will be shot. This cycle of violence and the stubborn insistence of the regime will lead to an all out insurgency, revolution, and possibly civil war. This is the ultimate price that must be paid for political transformation in countries that are deeply authoritarian and long overdue for substantive change.