The Middle East Channel

Four U.S. officials have resigned after report on Benghazi attack

Four U.S. State Department officials have been disciplined after a report cited failures in the September 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attacks. According to State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, "The Accountability Review Board identified the performance of four officials, three in the Bureau of the Diplomatic Security and one in the Bureau of Near East Asia Affairs." Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell, Charlene Lamb and Raymond Maxwell, both deputy assistant secretaries, and one other unnamed official in the diplomatic security bureau resigned on Wednesday. According to the inquiry panel, the officials were responsible for "grossly inadequate" security at the Benghazi consulate and lacked "leadership and management ability." The report also cited a lack of coordination between the State Department's Diplomatic Security and Near East Affairs bureaus. The inquiry could prompt debate on the military's role in protecting U.S. diplomats abroad.

Syria

A United Nations panel has said that the conflict in Syria has become "overtly sectarian." The panel provided an interim report on developments in the conflict in the past two months to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The panel said feeling at risk, communities are arming themselves and "ethnic and religious minority groups have increasingly aligned themselves with parties to the conflict, deepening sectarian divides." The most severe division is between Syria's Sunni Muslim majority and President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, a Shiite Muslim minority. However other sects are increasing getting pulled into the conflict. Many opposition fighters interviewed in the inquiry were aligned with Islamist militias rather than the Free Syrian Army. Additionally, al Qaeda is capitalizing on deteriorating conditions in Syria and is building its presence. The al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, recently designated by the United States as a terrorist organization, is exploiting divisions and recruiting Sunnis. The Islamist militant group has claimed responsibility for deadly bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. Meanwhile, after days of fighting in the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, the Free Syrian Army has reported it has taken the camp from government forces, and it is back under Palestinian control. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency estimates about 100,000 Palestinians fled the camp due to the fierce clashes, but was called by the FSA to return on Thursday.

Headlines  

  • With his condition stabilized, Iraq's President Jalal Talabani has been moved to Germany for treatment after suffering from a stroke Monday.
  • Yemen's president has ordered sweeping reforms of the military, dismantling the Republican Guard and replacing former President Saleh's nephew, leader of the central security forces.
  • Ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has returned to Tora Prison after being treated at a military hospital after a fall caused a hip fracture and minor head injuries.
  • Israel has announced plans to build 3,600 homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank after the United States condemned "provocative" settlement building.

Arguments and Analysis

Israeli settlement plans should shake up American policymakers (Michael Cohen, +972 Magazine)

If there is one singular, yet frustratingly unattainable idea that has animated the Arab-Israeli peace process for the past two decades it is that of a two-state solution to the conflict - a Zionist and a Palestinian state living next to each other in peace within the confines of the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

It is an aspiration mouthed by all sides in the conflict - by the current Israeli prime minister, the head of the Palestinian Authority and U.S. and European policymakers - even if confidence in the achievement of this long-sought after goal seems more distant than ever, even if the present Israeli government has demonstrated little apparent interest in seeing its realization and even if we are perhaps further away from its realization at any point since Oslo.

The fact that the two-state solution is receding is too rarely uttered. For this reason, the recent announcement by the Israeli government that it intends to ramp up settlement growth in the West Bank, and begin construction planning in the E1 area, which connects Jerusalem to the Israeli settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, is both so controversial and also so clarifying.

Egypt's Economic Winter (Ben Heineman Jr., The Atlantic)

"The international media have made a huge story out of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's power-consolidating decrees and the balloting on his proposed constitution. How the fundamental political disputes -- between factions of the religious and secular, Islamic and Christian, and civilian and military, and between rich and poor and urban and rural -- will be resolved in the Middle East's most populous nation is seen as a harbinger for the political impact of the Arab Spring.

A companion story has received much less mainstream media attention: Egypt's escalating economic crisis since the Tahrir Square uprising. Yet the question of whether and how Egypt deals with these economic issues is deeply intertwined with the salient political questions, and has significant implications for the future. Indeed, a lack of economic opportunity was arguably as significant a cause of the Egyptian "revolution" as political repression.

The downward spiral of the Egyptian economy is reflected in almost every economic indicator. GDP growth has declined from over 5 percent to under 2 percent. Unemployment has climbed to 12 percent, with half of those aged 15-24 lacking jobs. Inflation has spiked to over 10 percent. Foreign direct investment has withered from $2.9 billion in the first quarter of 2011 to $219 million in the first quarter of 2012. Foreign currency reserves have dropped from $35 billion to about $15 billion, as both tourism and foreign investment have suffered a precipitous decline. The total market value of stocks traded on Egyptian exchanges has declined by more than half. The budget deficit has climbed to 11 percent of GDP. Twenty-five percent of the government's $84 billion in annual outlays subsidize food and energy, not just for the poor but for better-off Egyptians. Yet the number of those who are poor or near poor has climbed to nearly 50 percent of the population of 80 million. These trends have continued unabated from a year ago."

 --By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/KAREN BLEIER

The Middle East Channel

Endgame in Syria?

The view that the civil war in Syria is entering into a new phase, perhaps its final one, is rapidly gaining ground. Having successfully resisting the Assad regime's onslaught, the rebels have improved their military efficacy. They have seized significant military targets, have made significant progress toward centralizing their command structure, and are consolidating their stronghold over substantial parts of the country. More and better weapons are coming their way, and the war appears poised to come to Damascus, for what could shape up into the conflict's most decisive battle. But are we really witnessing the beginning of the end? Or is this just another phase in what may prove to be an endless Afghan-style quagmire?

To answer this question, we should look to Libya rather than Afghanistan. NATO's intervention, following U.N. Resolution 1973, made all the difference in this conflict: by strengthening the rebels' hand and severely weakening Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces, it turned military defeat into rapid victory, against all prognostications of protracted war. However, to understand how aerial bombing could make such a tremendous difference in Libya, especially when massive U.S. firepower has failed to turn the war in Afghanistan, we must probe deeper.

The analysis of civil wars has been plagued by an imprecise use of terminology. Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria are all described as "insurgencies," a term used as a synonym of civil war or guerrilla war. This is a problem, because not all civil wars are guerrilla wars. A guerrilla (or irregular) war is a type of military contest characterized by a steep military asymmetry between the rival sides, whereby the weak side has no alternative by fight a war of evasion and ambush against the strong side. The objective of rebel combatants in guerrilla wars is typically to win through attrition. This produces long wars that frustrate the ability of conventional armies to translate their military superiority into victory. Counterinsurgency is notoriously hard, like "eating soup with a knife," to use a well-known metaphor. No wonder that Vietnam and Afghanistan turned into military quagmires.

However, the civil wars in Libya and Syria are no guerrilla wars; despite the initial military superiority of the regime forces, these conflicts look more like conventional than guerrilla wars. Unlike guerrilla wars fought in mountains or jungles by elusive bands of fighters, conventional wars entail pitched battles and urban sieges across clearly defined frontlines. In fact, conventional civil wars go back a long way: just think of classic conflicts such as the American and Spanish civil wars. More recently, conventional civil wars were fought in Bosnia and Azerbaijan. In our research, we find that conventional civil wars are much more common than generally thought; they represent 34 percent of all major civil wars (i.e. those causing over a thousand fatalities per year) fought between 1944 and 2004. More significant is the fact that conventional civil wars have increased in proportion after the end of the Cold War: they account for 48 percent of all civil wars fought between 1991 and 2004. In contrast, guerrilla wars have declined from 66 percent during the Cold War to just 26 percent after its end.

In a recent paper, we compare conventional and guerrilla wars to find that the former tend to be less bloody on the battlefield, causing on average 62,000 fatalities, as compared to 84,000 for guerrilla wars. However, once we control for war duration, we find that conventional wars are much more intense, causing on average 3,000 deaths per month compared to 1,250 for irregular wars. Another striking difference between these two types of war is their duration: conventional wars are short, lasting an average of 3 years, whereas guerrilla wars last an average of 9 years. Lastly, 63 percent of insurgencies end with a government victory, compared to just 34 percent for conventional wars. In short, conventional civil wars are more intense, shorter, and less likely to end in regime victories than irregular civil wars. Seen from this perspective, the difference between Libya and Afghanistan begins to make sense.

How about Syria then? With its pitched battles and urban fighting, this conflict is much closer to the Libyan war than to the Afghan conflict. Both the increasing level of external support and the availability of a safe haven in Turkey have improved the ability of rebels to directly fight the regime's military and thus turn this conflict into an increasingly symmetric, conventional war. If past record can serve as a guide, the Syrian civil war may well turn out to be shorter than generally anticipated; it is also likely to result in the regime's defeat. These outcomes do not preclude the emergence of post-conflict anarchy and violence; but they should prompt policy makers to be much more proactive than they currently are in anticipating developments that may come much faster than they think.

Laia Balcells is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University; Stathis Kalyvas is Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science at Yale University.

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