Red Line: Crackdown in Syria, U.S. debt crisis and Hosni Mubarak

Lebanese intellectuals and journalists protest during a vigil sit-in to show their support to the Syrian protesters who demonstrate against the Syrian President Bashar Assad, at the Martyrs square, in downtown of Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday Aug. 8, 20

Lebanese intellectuals and journalists protest during a vigil sit-in to show their support to the Syrian protesters who demonstrate against the Syrian President Bashar Assad, at the Martyrs square, in downtown of Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday Aug. 8, 20

Each week, Voice of Russia hosts Red Line, a discussion about the events of the week, as seen from Moscow. This week, more problems in Syria, the U.S. debt crisis and Hosni Mubarak.

Participants: Ekaterina Kudashkina, Sergei Strokan, Mira Salganik, Murhaf Jouejati, Ivan Tchakarov


Ekaterina Kudashkina: This time we start with a look into what’s happening in Syria. A major offensive launched by the Syrian government against protesters in the city of Hama is being seen as a turning point in the Syrian uprising. At the same time another crisis, just across the Atlantic, seems to have been postponed for at least another year or so – the U.S. debt crisis. Another drama, though of different nature, is the story of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. After 30 years at the helm of the country, he is facing judges from a hospital bed in a cage in court.

Beyond the Headlines is our first heading, in which we will try to determine whether Syria will turn into another Libya. The events in the Syrian city of Hama, with government forces launching unprecedented offensive against protesters, have come as a major surprise for the world community.

Sergei Strokan: The world community is engaged in a fresh round of diplomacy to work out a consolidated approach to the Syrian crisis, and this is an uphill battle. After the Security Council kick-started new deliberations on Syria, eyes focused on China, Russia, India, Brazil, Lebanon and South Africa. Their stance remains a sort of a puzzle for their Western partners.

Mira Salganik: President Obama pledged: “In the days ahead to continue to increase pressure on the Syrian regime, and work with others around the world to isolate the Assad government and stand with the Syrian people.” 

Sergei Strokan: Let me quote Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN: “We want to understand why others wouldn’t do the same, particularly in the light of what has transpired in the last few days.” All in all, I have a feeling that the world has been dividing into two camps – good policemen and bad policemen.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: But let me tell you that the divide is shrinking. In a recent interview, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that if Assad failed to solve his country's problems, he's destined to "a sad fate, and ultimately we will also have to make some kind of decisions."

Sergei Strokan: Yes, but British Foreign Secretary William Hague also said recently: “There are nations on the Security Council opposed to any resolution – or they have certainly been in recent weeks. We will revisit this in the coming hours and days.”

Mira Salganik: I believe Mr. Hague made a clear sign that Western powers are launching a fresh diplomatic offensive, aimed to convince Russia and China, as well as the other regional players from another camp, to join the West, the way it worked this February with Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya.


Sergei Strokan: If we analyze Russia’s position in recent months, I think it has undergone considerable changes. During the G8 Summit in Deauville, Medvedev made a strong statement saying that under no conditions would Russia support a new resolution on Syria, even if it was requested by Western partners. There was a logic behind these reservations, because Russia is very embarrassed and confused by how Western partners mishandled the resolution on Libya. But, on the other hand, President Medvedev has turned out to be a flexible leader – he cannot simply ignore the changing realities in Syria. All those killings of civilians require definite actions. This is the reason I think that despite Russia’s reservations on a new resolution, it tried to bridge the gap in understanding.

Mira Salganik: As to the comparison of Syria and Libya, of course, it springs to mind immediately, but there is a difference, and Libya, I believe, has taught everybody a very bitter lesson.


Sergei Strokan: On the other hand, while the gap in understanding of the situation between the two camps is definitely becoming more and more narrow, there is every reason to believe that Western powers are confused by what they believe to be the stubborn approach from Russia, China, India and the others.


According to Western analysts, the West cannot expect anything else from China and Russia, which value sovereignty and territorial integrity much more than the basic democratic values which have to be protected.

Mira Salganik: I am sorry, but I think this approach holds no water. India is the most populous democracy in the world, but it is not going to support this resolution on Syria, it made the problem clear and it is not alone – there are others.

Sergei Strokan: Yes. Lebanon, which is probably the most democratic and pro-Western state of the Middle East, also has its own reservations. Neither Brazil, nor South Africa are autocracies which could have sided with President Assad on the principle: “Autocracies of the world, unite.”


Ekaterina Kudashkina: So, what is the reason for the strong reservations that are voiced by the opponents of large-scale international interference in Syria with a stamp of approval from the Security Council?

Sergei Strokan: The answer to the question obviously lies in the situation in Libya. As you know, Security Council Resolution 1973 is being grossly mishandled and misinterpreted by the NATO-led coalition to the disappointment of both Moscow and Beijing. The last thing Russia wants is just to repeat Libyan scenario in Syria. Not surprisingly, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, while spelling out the reasons for Moscow’s opposition to the new Security Council resolution on Syria noted: “We are still under the shadow of events in Libya” and the “frivolous actions” taken under the Security Council umbrella.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: I have seen that statement. But I have also noticed that Mr. Churkin, who is one of the most experienced, seasoned and high-profile diplomats in Russian Foreign Service, called on the Security Council “to send the strong signal for secession of the hostilities.” And that is what they do.


Sergei Strokan: By the way, President Medvedev’s special envoy to the Middle East, Mikhail Margelov, went even further, denouncing in unexpectedly strong language President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on opposition and predicting: “international condemnation might be followed by sanctions.”

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Getting back to Syria, it really looks like the government has passed a point of no return. Here is our expert, Dr. Murhaf Jouejati, professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University and professor at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.


Murhaf Jouejati: The situation changed and this was massive violence against civilians in the cities of Hama, Deir ez-Zor and Daraa. This huge toll of civilian casualties has moved the violence to a new level, which has prompted several governments to not only further condemn Syria, but to begin to take even further measures against the Syrian government.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: But what would you say has triggered this kind of change?

Murhaf Jouejati:I think that the Syrian authorities fear the coming month of Ramadan. In Ramadan after the sunset, after the break of the fast, people go to the mosque, this is a daily ritual in the evenings, and so the fear of the authorities is that the uprising is going to be further intensified. So, this may have been the Syrian authorities’ message to the protestors that they will deal with any unrest with even further violence.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: As far as I understand, the army is one of the key players in the situation in Syria, but do you think that perhaps shooting at its own people imposes too much stress, even on the military?

Murhaf Jouejati: It is causing a lot of stress, there have been even further defections, a number of defections from the Syrian army now are quite significant and they are coming in to the side of the protestors even with their materiel.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: But let’s imagine that they stopped the violence, what would be the reaction of the people?

Murhaf Jouejati: It will at least calm the people down, because the more violence the authorities use, the further they enrage the protestors and making the protests swell; the number of protestors has swelled dramatically in the past two weeks.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: But then how should we explain such a short-sighted policy?

Murhaf Jouejati: The thinking in the Syrian authorities for the past 48 years has really been about its absolute control of society. The Ba’ath Party, the security apparatus, has never tolerated much dissent, and so they are in this security culture, they are socialized in the security culture and they do not want to show any signs of weakness. It is totally counterproductive, it is isolating the Assad regime internationally, it is isolating the Assad regime domestically, and the Assad regime, I think, is digging its own grave in pursuing this highly negative policy.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: As I have been talking to various experts in Syria, they kept telling me that until now, there has been no alternative to Mr. Assad as the head of this country. Do you think that there is at least some opportunity that the government might introduce any changes in its stance and under certain conditions Assad could survive as the head of Syria?

Murhaf Jouejati: I think the more this goes on, the more it becomes unrealistic. The Assad regime has made itself to be no longer the legitimate leader of Syria. There is an emerging opposition, the opposition is increasingly united and providing the people with an alternative to the Assad regime.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: What could be done to prevent Syria from crumbling against ethnic or religious lines, for instance?

Murhaf Jouejati: The fear of ethnic or civil strife in Syria is one tactic that is used by the authorities themselves; they are trying to scare Syrians, to scare the international community into believing that if Assad goes there is going to be a civil war in Syria. Well, the protestors have shown themselves to be united across ethnic lines and across sectarian lines, and it is a national uprising, it is not a sectarian uprising.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: And now we are moving to our next section – Between the Line –in which we usually discuss what we consider to be a most notable and often provocative publication of the week. This time we’ve chosen a column by Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton and currently a professor and president emeritus at Harvard University, which appeared in the Financial Times. The column is entitled “Relief at an agreement will give way to alarm” and focuses on the recent U.S. debt crisis and its resolution. His basic point is – just let me quote from it – “America’s current problem is much more a jobs and growth deficit than an excessive budget deficit.”

Mira Salganik: Before we start discussing the future of the U.S. economy at large, do you think that  we could take a closer look at the budget issue?

Sergei Strokan: And I suggest we might remind our listeners of the basics – just for starters?

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Sure. The U.S. government has a legal limit on the total amount of debt it can run up to pay its bills. The “debt ceiling” has been there since 1917, and since then it has been raised quite a number of times which is generally seen as a formality. The limit just before the debt ceiling deal was closed, was fixed at $14.3 trillion, but the figures are impressive. Meanwhile, for the past decade the level of public spending has been soaring while tax revenues were not catching up with its growth.

Mira Salganik: So the debt ceiling had to be raised and the spending has to be trimmed. Now, one of the ways to reduce budget deficit is to raise taxes.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Quite so. But the Republicans who control the House of Representatives were opposing the tax increases. At the same time they were also saying that they wanted to bring the deficit back under control and - threatened not to raise the debt ceiling unless a deal was reached.

Sergei Strokan: So, apparently a compromise has been reached, involving spending cuts of more than $900 billion in return for an equivalent increase in the debt ceiling.


Ekaterina Kudashkina:Well, you know, most analysts agree that the White House has achieved its goal of securing enough of an increase in the debt ceiling to get it past the 2012 election.

Mira Salganik: And not of resolving the debt issue?


Ekaterina Kudashkina: I’m afraid not. In fact, Mr. Summers made several observations on the essence of the deal reached. “The deal confirms the low spending levels already negotiated for 2011 and 2012, and caps 2013 spending where most would have expected this Congress to end up,” he writes. “Beyond that, the outcomes are anyone’s guess. The reality is that Congress approves discretionary spending annually, and the current Congress cannot effectively constrain future actions. The reality was, and still is, that discretionary spending will reflect the will of future congresses.”

Sergei Strokan: Looking at the political side of it – Reuters quoted Michael Fullilove, of Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy, as saying that Washington’s handling of the crisis could have shaken confidence in the world’s biggest economy, which is definitely a really valid point.

Mira Salganik: And the Chinese called U.S. handling of the crisis irresponsible and immoral.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Little wonder, because China is the largest holder of the US government debt. Japan, by the way, comes second, and the Japanese, too, sounded quite distressed. They said Japan hoped the United States would take additional steps to stabilize the finances. Here’s what Ivan Tchakarov, chief economist on Russia and CIS countries at Renaissance Capital, told us about that.

Ivan Tchakarov: Probably, we should start from the fact that the United States is still the largest economy in the world in terms of GDP. I think despite the rising importance of many emerging market economies, in particular in Asia, many look at the United States as the beacon of growth. I think that once again if we see some kind of downgrade there, it would have implications for many, many economies.

I think that actually the European economy might suffer more in relative terms than Asian economy. The European economies themselves are undergoing severe debt troubles at the moment. I think that China could be affected, but much more marginally, because it is more robust.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: What do you think could be done to sustain the U.S. economy if the need is really there?

Ivan Tchakarov: I think it is very difficult for the United States to do something because, if anything, the government has to start cutting expenditures, and given the weakness of the U.S. economy, this could actually make the situation even more difficult. From another perspective, if we look at what the Federal Reserve could do, they are already doing a lot, and I think they have their interests in keeping interest rates very low. Some have started to imply that maybe the Federal Reserve might engage in another round of quantitative easing as a possible way to counteract a slowdown in the U.S. economy, but I really doubt they will do it.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Now we will move on to Red Line’s concluding section, Person in the news. This week we are going to talk about Hosni Mubarak, former president of Egypt who was flown to Cairo to be tried on charges of corruption and the killing of protesters. Some 850 people were killed and 6,000 injured in the mass demonstrations that finally forced Mubarak to step down.

However, what is supposed to be a historic trial – the first such trial of a former Middle East ruler after being ousted from power during the Arab Spring may turn into a double-edge sword. At its start, the trial has already divided Egyptians into those who blame Mubarak for all the problems of his 30-year rule and those who feel nostalgic for the old “golden age.”

Sergei Strokan: Ironically, Mubarak is the only Arab leader who resigned without dragging his country into a bloody nightmare, like Muammar Gaddafi and now Bashar al-Assad who are bombing and shelling their own people.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Don’t you find that the government’s decision was prompted by the necessity to somehow placate masses of protesters equally skeptical of new authorities’ ability to bring about changes in the country? Mubarak’s trial might reveal facts the military would rather keep undisclosed.


Sergei Strokan: Egypt is now going through a highly volatile political phase. There are new waves of protests, and it appears that protesters have made their key demand swift prosecution of top officials of the former regime. But what is the list of the charges against Mr. Mubarak? What specifically he is accused of?

Mira Salganik: Well, the list is very impressive. It is, of course, ordering to kill the protesters during the Egyptian revolution, then impropriety in the sale of villas and palaces, and also there is corruption and despotism, just to name a few.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: And, please, note that Mubarak is tried alongside his two sons, Alaa and Gamal and former Interior Minister who has already been sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for corruption.


Sergei Strokan: The justice minister said Mr. Mubarak could face the death penalty if he is found guilty of murder.

Mira Salganik: If he is found guilty! But how can you find out who gave the orders to shoot, or whether there were written or spoken commands given? Finding the evidence against Mr. Mubarak is a rather vague prospect.


Sergei Strokan: Moreover, I believe that if Mubarak does get the death penalty, which is traditionally carried out by hanging, even this will not solve the enormous problems of Egypt.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Before we proceed any further, we ought to remind our audience of Mr. Mubarak’s role in the 30 years of his presidency as well as of the problems it has left. Mr. Mubarak took the office in 1981, soon after the assassination of president Anwar Sadat, and understandably he made stability the watchword of his rule. Emergency law, which prevented gatherings of more than five people, lasted throughout the 30 years of his stay in power.

Sergei Strokan: Yet, internationally Mr. Mubarak became known for his involvement in Camp David peace agreement with Israel.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: The deal cemented his relations with the U.S., which supplied the country with billions of dollars as military aid. To the West, Egypt became a key ally - a voice of moderation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Mira Salganik: However, many in Egypt did not support his policies.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Not all of them could be really called Islamic extremists, although the government branded them as such to justify its draconian regime, Egypt was regarded as the most stable country in the Middle East, but what was the price it had to pay for the stability?

Mira Salganik: It was a combination of poverty, social exclusion, anger over corruption and personal enrichment among the political elite, and a demographic bulge of a younger generation that could not find work.


Mira Salganik: While expectations raised by the revolution are high, the economic conditions are poor, there are shocking levels of unemployment and underemployment, a volatile security situation. And there is no scapegoat like Mubarak any longer.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Yes, that’s right. The reasons for the present unrest in Egypt are more pragmatic that ideological. The country’s population is over 80 million; 17 percent - which is a considerable portion of the population - live below the poverty line; the median age is 24, and 43 percent of young people are out of work. The outcome of Mubarak’s trial is not going to determine the immediate future of Egypt.

Mira Salganik: Still it doesn’t detract from the significance of the trial, as a kind of summing up results of these decades of rigid authoritarian rule.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: My final point is that we do not know whether the whole process is going to be a boost for the democratic change in Egypt, but it could backfire. After 30 years of stability, seeing the president who presided over that period in the cage on a hospital bed could really make people sympathetic.


Sergei Strokan: But as far as democratic changes in this country, I would like to quote Evgeny Primakov who is a former Russian foreign minister and a notable expert in Middle East affairs. In one of his recent interviews he said: “I don't think that democracy based on a European model is possible in the Arab Spring countries.”

Mira Salganik: I totally agree, and if there are democratic changes, whatever they are, they are not going to be the Westminster type.

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