Update on Syria

New polls released last week show that the large majority of Americans don’t think the US should get involved with Syria- an overwhelming 68% of those polled say the US should stay out. Only 24% said the US should intervene.  Seems that John McCain’s surprise visit and his making the rounds at think tanks and political talk shows isn’t convincing anyone that ‘he knows who the good guys are’.

With the US and Russia attempting to organize talks between the opposition and Assad, the opposition is refusing to participate. George Sabra, head of the National Coalition, said that what is happening in Syria has ‘shut the door’ to any negotiations. Just last week, the rebels lost the city of Qusayr to Assad forces (which has been refreshed with fighters from Hezbollah). The rebels are refusing to come to the table until the West agrees to arm them, stating that negotiating from a weakened position is not a real negotiation, and the playing field must be level again before they will talk.

Violence from the conflict is spilling over in to Lebanon, with one person dying after  a protest in front of the Iranian embassy in Beirut. Hezbollah has sent fighters and support for the Assad government, increasing the gains made on the ground by the national forces.

Things inside the country are getting worse- the UN is currently asking for $5 billion in aid to help Syrian refugees, and predicts that almost 1 out of every two Syrians need help. 10 million people need aid, and the refugee population is expected to double to 3.45 million in the coming months. Meanwhile, foreign fighters inside Syria are taking hardline positions, recently executing a teenage boy in front of his family for ‘insulting the prophet’.

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What’s AFRICOM to do?

If you weren’t paying attention to Africa during the Bush administration you might have missed the creation of United States Africa Command, or AFRICOM. Basically, the Bush administration took three separate ‘Africa’ military departments (EUCOM for West Africa, CENTCOM for East Africa, PACOM for Indian Ocean waters and islands off the east coast of Africa) and combined them into one. Why? Well, originally, AFRICOM was branded as a new partnership between African states and the US as a force for ‘good’. You know, we’ll train the rag tag armies of African countries and make them in to real forces, and we’ll dig some wells, and build some clinics, and be sure to take lots of pictures so that everyone across Africa and around the world sees what ‘good’ the US is doing with its military.

Lately, though, with the rise of Islamic terrorism on the continent, congressmen and senators have been looking to AFRICOM for answers and action. On Thursday, while most wonks and policy addicts were watching the debacle that was the Hagel hearing, Army Gen. David Rodriguez was also undergoing a hearing. Rodriguez was nominated last year to lead AFRICOM. Just a few months ago no one, outside of those who follow Africa, really cared. Now, since Mali, Libya, and the influence of al-Qaeda, Congress seems to have decided to start to pay attention. Even senators that would fail a map quiz locating African countries (looking at you, Inhofe) want MORE troops for AFRICOM, MORE money, and MORE results.  See, according to Rodriguez, there are four major threats on the African continent at the moment:al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; al Shabaab in Somalia; Boko Haram in Nigeria; and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.  Congress feels that’s bad for the US. Bad for the world. Because of terrorism. So we should do something.

Yet, Obama doesn’t want the US to expand its military engagements in Africa. But now Congress does.

It will be interesting to see what use AFRICOM can be in combating the spread of terrorism throughout North Africa and in the Sahel. The point of the organization was to strengthen military ties between the US and African states, as well as the whole ‘force of good’. For AFRICOM to function properly, it can’t be seen as the US attempting to gain a military foothold on the continent. It has to be a willing, mutually beneficial relationship. That’s hard to accomplish, due to the long history of western domination of Africa. Obama has almost a ‘hands off’ approach to Africa and its myriad issues; he let France deal with Mali, has allowed the UNSC to handle the tragedy of the continuing war in the DRC, and, in truth, has barely mentioned the continent at all (except Mali in the State of the Union, and that was only in the context of the larger ‘war on terror’.)

All bets are that this will be another area of tension between the White House and Congress. And that is not good for anyone.

This post, along with other information on Africa, can be found at http://subsaharanroundup.blogspot.com/. An academic blog on politics and rebellion in Africa.