Saturday, April 30, 2011

Israel's 'Syria Option' Was Never One

Many Israelis assumed Assad's Iran alliance was not a happy one. On the contrary, that axis is ensuring the dictator's survival

By Jonathan Spyer
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 30/04/2011

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Bashar Assad
'If you mess around with Assad [right], you are issuing a challenge also to Iran [and Ahmadinejad, left] … the west doesn't want to do that.' Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP
One early casualty of the Syrian uprising has been the "Syrian option" favoured by an influential section of Israel's policymaking elite. The case within Israel for engagement with and potential concessions to Damascus rested on a number of assumptions.

Most centrally, Syria's strategic alliance with Iran was thought of as an uncomfortable fit for the non-Islamist rulers of Syria – so it was assumed that President Assad was looking for a way out if it. Assad's relations with allied Islamist movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas were considered similarly instrumental in nature, and hence similarly susceptible to alteration. The Israeli "Syria firsters" therefore advocated a process whereby Syria would receive territorial concessions from Israel in return for a strategic realignment away from Iran and toward the US.

These assumptions were noteworthy in that they were not only untrue, but in many ways represented the precise opposite of the truth. Syria's alignment with Iran and its backing of local paramilitary and terrorist clients are not flimsy marriages of convenience. They were and are the core of a successful regional policy. Through it, Damascus has magnified its local and regional influence, and obtained an insurance policy against paying any price for its activities.

This insurance policy is now paying dividends. Syria's alignment with the regional axis led by Iran represents Assad's best hope of survival. Indeed, western fear of Iran is the crucial factor making possible the crackdown in Syria and hence the survival of the regime.

The pro-western Arab authoritarian rulers, Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, were forced aside by a combination of internal and subsequent western pressure. Non-aligned, isolated Muammar Gaddafi now finds himself fighting in Libya against a coalition of local rebels and western air power.

Assad, by contrast, who is aligned with the coalition of anti-western states and movements led by Iran, is currently facing only nominal and minimal western pressure. This is despite the fact that he appears to be engaged in the energetic slaughter of his own people.

The US administration disapproves of the repression, but the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, remains firmly in place. The British foreign secretary finds the violence unacceptable but the defence secretary makes clear that a Libya-type option is not on the cards.

This is because if you mess around with Assad, you are issuing a challenge also to Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and their various regional allies and interests in Iraq and further afield. The leaders of the west don't want to do that.

According to opposition reports, Iranian personnel are on the ground helping to crush the rebellion in Syria. Many Syrians believe that the snipers whose bullets are reaping a terrible toll among the protestors are Iranians. Syrian-Iranian military co-operation is formalised (a co-operation treaty was signed in 1998) and intensive. Syria gives Iran a presence on the Mediterranean, and is the key arms conduit between Tehran and its Hezbollah client in Lebanon. It is also a major recipient of Iranian arms and aid. And Iran, evidently, sticks by its allies.

Since the west's commitment to regional liberty and freedom does not appear to extend to entangling itself in a general confrontation with the Iran-led regional bloc, Assad may feel reasonably confident. Now he just needs to crush the internal challenge.

Which brings us back to our Israeli Syria-firsters. There is now an interesting split developing in this camp. Some of its members have realised the moral and political absurdities of advocating concessions to a bloodstained dictatorship (and not even a stable one) and are issuing mea culpas. Others are recommending that the west offer to underwrite Assad's regime in return for his aligning away from the Iranians.

But in the end, the Israeli "Syrian option" advocates don't matter much. Israel is not going to decide whether Assad survives or not. And Assad is not going to align away from his key Iranian guarantor – whatever his would-be Israeli friends want.

There are more crucial matters at stake here than the fate of a dead-end policy option in Israel. The Syrian dictator is currently getting away with slaughtering large numbers of his people because of western fear of Iran and its proxies. The question of whether the Arab spring stops at the borders of the Iran-led regional alliance will thus be decided in Syria.

The Iranians and their allies, who enthusiastically cheered the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, are keen to ensure that it does end there. Western policy, meanwhile, looks likely to be too confused and hesitant to ensure that it does not. This matter will be decided in the weeks and months ahead.

The fall or weakening of the Assad regime in Syria would constitute a serious body blow to Iranian regional ambitions. Its resurgence under the protective tutelage of Tehran, by contrast, would prove that membership of the Iranian alliance provides a handy guarantee for autocratic rulers hoping to avoid the judgment of their peoples. In the ongoing cold war that remains the key strategic process in the Middle East, the west should see preventing this outcome as a key objective.

Gaddafi Offers Ceasefire, But Says He Will Not Leave

Associated Press
Saturday, 30 April 2011

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi called for a ceasefire and negotiations with Nato powers in a live speech on state TV early today, as Nato bombs struck a government complex in the capital, Tripoli.
The targeted compound included the state television building and a Libyan official alleged that the strikes were meant to kill Colonel Gaddafi. However, the TV building was not damaged and the leader spoke from an undisclosed location.

Since the start of the uprising against him in February, Col Gaddafi has made only infrequent public appearances.
In the rambling pre-dawn speech, which lasted for more than an hour, he appeared both subdued and defiant, repeatedly pausing as he flipped through handwritten notes.

"The door to peace is open," he said, sitting behind a desk. "You are the aggressors. We will negotiate with you. Come, France, Italy, UK, America, come, we will negotiate with you. Why are you attacking us?"
He said Libyans have the right to choose their own political system, but not under the threat of Nato bombings.

Rebel leaders have said they will only lay down their arms and begin talks on Libya's future after Col Gaddafi and his sons, some of whom hold powerful positions in the country, step aside. Col Gadhafi has repeatedly refused to resign.

Today's pre-dawn air strikes targeted a government complex, and reporters visiting the scene were told the two damaged buildings housed a commission for women and children and offices of parliamentary staff.
One of at least three bombs or missiles knocked down a huge part of a two-storey Italian-style building. In another building, doors were blown out and ceiling tiles dropped to the ground. One missile hit the street outside the attorney-general's office, twisting a lamppost and gouging out a crater.

A policeman said three people were injured, one seriously.
In his speech, Col Gaddafi lamented the air strikes, which began in mid-March under a UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians. The strikes have mainly hit Libyan military targets, but three did hit Col Gaddafi's residential compound.

"Why are you killing our children? Why are you destroying our infrastructure," he said today, while denying that his forces had killed Libyan civilians.
Yet, even as he called for a ceasefire, he appeared to dismiss the possibility of one, saying his enemies were al Qaida operatives who did not understand what a truce meant.

He promised the young rebels fighting his regime that if they gave up their guns, he would give them cars and money, saying they were children "tricked" by Nato promises.

"When Libya returns as it was, before this conspiracy, you'll take cars... the money will come to you!" he vowed.
A TV transmission tower stood near the buildings struck today. During Col Gaddafi's speech, which began at around 2.30am, the TV screen went dark three times, but he completed his address.

Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim denounced the strikes as a crime and alleged they were meant to kill Col Gaddafi. "We believe the target was the leader," he said.
He said it had been announced earlier that Col Gaddafi would be speaking live. Coalition forces "thought he was speaking adjacent to the Libyan broadcasting centre", Mr Ibrahim said.

Hours earlier, however, government forces shelled the besieged rebel city of Misrata, killing 15 people, including a nine-year-old boy, hospital doctors said. The city of 300,000 is the main rebel stronghold in western Libya and has been under siege for two months.
The port is Misrata's only lifeline. Yesterday, Nato foiled attempts by regime loyalists to close the only access route to Misrata, intercepting boats which were laying anti-ship mines in the waters around the port.

The regime signalled yesterday that it is trying to block access to Misrata by sea.
Mr Ibrahim said he was unaware of the attempted mine-laying. However, he said the government is trying to prevent weapons shipments from reaching the rebels by sea. Asked whether aid vessels would also be blocked, he said any aid shipments must be co-ordinated with the authorities and should preferably come overland.

Col Gaddafi's forces have repeatedly shelled the port area and his ground troops are deployed on the outskirts of Misrata, after having been driven out of the centre by the rebels last week.
With the rebels holding much of eastern Libya, Col Gaddafi needs to consolidate his hold over the western half, including Misrata and a mountainous region on the border with Tunisia.

Yesterday, fighting between rebels and regime loyalists over a key border crossing spilled over into Tunisia, drawing a sharp rebuke by Tunisian authorities.
The Foreign Ministry summoned Libya's ambassador to convey its "most vigorous protests" for the "serious violations" at the Dhuheiba border area, a ministry statement said.

The crossing is a strategic lifeline for Libya's western Nafusa mountain area where members of the ethnic Berber minority - who have complained of systematic discrimination by the regime - have been fighting the Gaddafi forces for several weeks.
Elements of Libyan government forces crossed the border following the fighting with the rebels, prompting the Tunisian army to mount searches for them in the frontier town of Dhuheiba.

At one point yesterday, 15 Libyan military vehicles, carrying troops armed with anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers, were spotted in Dhuheiba.
Town resident Mohammed Hedia said local civilians and the families of Libyan rebels who had been staying there set upon the Gaddafi troops, creating a "chaotic situation".

The Tunisian news agency, citing military officials, said dozens of Libyan troops and rebel fighters were killed in the two-day battle over the Dhuheiba crossing which ended with rebels regaining control yesterday, after Libyan forces held it for a day.
Thousands of residents of the mountain area have fled to Dhuheiba and other Tunisian border towns. TAP said thousands more Libyan refugees streamed into Tunisian overnight.

 Nato said this morning that it wants Moammar Gadhafi's forces to end their attacks on civilians before it considers the Libyan leader's cease-fire offer.
An official said that the alliance wants to "to see not words but actions" as Gadhafi's regime has announced cease-fires several times before and continued attacking cities and civilians.

The official, who could not be identified in line with standing regulations, said just hours before Gadhafi proposed the truce, his forces indiscriminately shelled the besieged port city of Misrata, Libya, killing several people.
"All this has to stop, and it has to stop now," the NATO official said, adding that a cease fire must be "credible and verifiable."

Friday, April 29, 2011

Sanity Returns Egypt To The Arab Fold

By Rami G. Khouri
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 30/04/2011

Sometimes you can almost physically feel the political earth shifting beneath your feet. One of those moments occurred in Cairo a few days ago, when the main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, signed an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement to reconstitute a single Palestinian government.
This event will be seen in retrospect as a historic turning point in the contemporary history of the Middle East – not so much for what it means for the Palestinians, but more for what it tells us about the return of Egypt to its natural role in regional diplomacy. This is the first tangible sign of the return of sanity and dignity in the affairs of state and diplomacy in Cairo’s foreign policy, after decades of emasculation, subservience and marginalization.

Other signs will follow quickly, including the opening of the Gaza-Rafah crossing, the resumption of normal relations with Iran, rational relations along the Nile Valley, more effective and realistic regional nuclear policies, and greater regional trade and economic complementarities.

(Egypt’s relegation to the sidelines of contemporary politics and diplomacy since the 1980s was due largely to its foreign policy being captured by a combination of money-obsessed conservative Arabs and narrow-minded ideologues in Washington who were almost totally under the sway of pro-Israeli Zionist zealots. This is a fascinating tale that deserves its own accounting another time, so that other newly liberated and re-legitimized Arab governments can have a documented handbook on how to preserve their sovereignty and how not to conduct foreign policy in the future.)
The Egyptian government’s constructive and impartial mediating role that brought about Palestinian reconciliation stands in stark contrast with the pro-Fatah and anti-Hamas tilt of the Mubarak regime and its prime purveyor of political and intellectual dishonesty, former intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman. The differences between Fatah and Hamas were all related to political and security matters that had logical solutions, because they emerged from short-term political actions rather than long-term structural differences.

Israeli-American-Mubarak-Suleiman resistance to dealing with Hamas in power and the decision to accord Israeli concerns greater importance than Palestinian rights prevented a reconciliation earlier on. The agreement now, so soon after Mubarak-Suleiman have left the scene, is a telltale indicator of where the problems really were. So was the speedy, almost Pavlovian, comment by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu within hours of the reconciliation accord that Fatah could have peace with Hamas or with Israel, but not with both.

The implications of a unified Palestinian government and a reintegrated national political system for wider Arab-Israeli and regional matters are enormous, and they will play themselves out gradually. The more significant development now is that Egypt’s resumption of its traditional role as Arab power will slowly influence some of the key other ideological and diplomatic confrontations that have defined the Middle East for decades, because the Palestinian-Israeli and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts are at the heart of many of those regional and global dynamics.
Four main types of relationships will now be impacted by the Egyptian shift back to a rational foreign policy: the Arab-Israeli, Arab-Iranian, inter-Arab, and Arab-Western conflicts, or at least recurring tensions.

The reactivation of Egypt’s regional role is also significant because it comes at a time when four other important foreign policy developments are under way in the Middle East. The first is the dynamism among some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, three of which (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar) have, unusually, sent troops beyond their borders to engage in martial diplomacy in Bahrain and Libya.
The second is the global intervention in Libya through the U.N. Security Council, now aiming to overthrow the Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi. The third is the increasingly important counsel and role of Turkey in the region. And the fourth is the increasing regional and global pressure being brought to bear on the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis, combined with Damascus’ preoccupation with its domestic condition.

In this context of an ongoing structural reconfiguration of Middle Eastern foreign policy actors and influences, an Egyptian foreign policy refreshingly based on integrity, national self-interest and plain old common sense represents the first significant move toward redressing the most glaring imbalance in the region since Egypt slipped out of the Arab order in the late 1970s. The region’s security architecture since then has been defined by interactions among four non-Arab powers – Israel, Iran, Turkey and the United States – which has left this area as a playground for their scheming and rivalries. A robust Egypt that may coordinate more closely with the GCC states, while Syria is preoccupied at home and the Palestinians present a unified face to Israel and the world, means we should expect important changes ahead in the four overriding regional dynamics that continue to link the Arabs, Israelis, Iranians and major Western powers in mostly uneasy relationships.
As pro-democracy revolts continue to spread around the region and install governments that more accurately reflect their public opinion, we should expect more such seismic shifts in regional and foreign policies, most of which will be welcomed by Arabs who long for integrity, sovereignty and national self-interest in the foreign policy of their states.

Advice And Responsibility

Christopher Hill writes: We need to show patience with the new governments of countries we hope to see evolving towards democracy
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 30/04/2011 

Dropping bombs as a solution to the world's trouble spots may be falling out of fashion (with the notable exception of Libya), but finger-wagging is definitely back in. Hardly a day goes by without a major newspaper somewhere in the West offering sage and specific, but often not-so-friendly, advice to distant struggling democracies on what they ‘must' do to earn the ‘international community's' approbation.

Of course, such advice, like much of newspapers themselves nowadays, comes free of charge. But it is also advice that is free of responsibility, and, as Stanley Baldwin once said, power without responsibility is the prerogative of the harlot. There is a considerable gap between offers of advice one cannot refuse and the responsibility to deal with the consequences when that advice proves wrong or extremely difficult to implement. The world's advice givers might try to keep this in mind when offering to help leaders of distant countries that are grappling with problems with which the adviser has little or no first-hand experience. Every once in a while, a profession (most frequently, economics) determines that it has reached a consensus on how to solve a problem. The so-called ‘Washington Consensus' that held sway before the recent financial crisis was a good example.

In the case of nascent democracies, the formula that is now often made compulsory is this: lift all bans on political activities, liberalise the media, hold elections (the sooner, the better), resolve all minority issues in favour of the minorities, abandon trade barriers, and rid the country of corruption, preferably overnight. New governments are urged to tackle all of these problems immediately and simultaneously, lest they lose ‘momentum' and begin backsliding. The subtext is clear: be like us now.

How to do this is left up to the new leaders, who are often credited with goodness and powers of persuasion they never had and never will have. In many cases, the cohesiveness of opposition movements that come to power in the wake of a political upheaval may not be what the international media presume it to be.

Human rights

Indeed, some components of these so-called ‘democratic coalitions' may not be democratic at all. Some leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, rose to the historic occasion, against all odds. Others, such as Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev (popular with western media when he first came on the scene) plainly has not. How can we help ensure these movements' sustainability in such fluid moments?

Modesty is a virtue in private life. It should also be a guide in dispensing political advice. I would start by keeping in mind that some countries' capacity to absorb advice is limited, so it should be offered in smaller portions. Where to start? The most important and potentially sustaining feature of a new democracy lies in its effort to commit itself to observing international human-rights standards. In fact, there is a large body of literature that indicates that even countries in the aftermath of internal conflict can reach a higher level of compliance with these standards.

But human rights should not be conflated with democracy. While democracy is, no doubt, the form of governance that best preserves human rights, the two are not the same thing.

Human rights will not co-exist with dictatorship, or with any other non-democracy, for long. Setting standards and goals of human rights is a powerful signal that a country is pointing itself in the right direction. The country is in effect announcing that it is moving towards democratic institutional arrangements. Banning torture, complying with international standards of prisoners' rights, and enshrining rights of association and public assembly all immediately come to mind.

The embrace of essential human-rights standards as a cornerstone of a country's development is one of our era's seminal innovations. The notion that a dictator can claim the sovereign right to abuse his people has become unacceptable. A country that makes progress on human rights and commits to the change of behaviour required to meet these international standards can also make a decisive turn towards a better future.

We should therefore focus on meeting international human-rights standards as a goal that a new democracy ‘must' (to use a favourite word of Western editorial writers) move towards quickly. But we should not confuse these values with the other essential elements of progress, such as establishing liberalised trade regimes, creating institutional structures with a separation of powers, and rooting out corruption. These are absolute necessities for democratic success, but they require longer-term development of institutional capacity.

Corruption, for example, may have cultural antecedents and is part and parcel of institutional weakness. In most cases, neither can be remedied overnight.

Above all, the we need to show patience with the new governments of the countries we hope to see evolving towards democracy, and avoid the tendency to expect instant gratification. A few months of politics will never overcome a few centuries of sociology. So, as we watch and wait, we need to be as supportive — but not overbearing — as possible.

Christopher R. Hill, a former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, is now Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

Lebanese Fear

By Walid Choucair
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 29/04/2011

Fear is prevailing in Lebanon, among all of the country’s factions and groups. They are fearful of the likely repercussions of transformations in the Arab world. This fear is growing amid the course that popular protests are taking in the neighboring country that is influential in Lebanon’s political life – Syria – and the oppressive and bloody reaction that the authorities there have had to the protests.

As usual, the Lebanese are divided in their fear and anxiety about their future, even though this should presumably unite them. In Lebanon, one group is fearful that the course of Arab transformations will undermine its power and weaken its dominant role, even if this is based on a surplus of military force, which has played a role in the domestic balance of power in recent years – this group is represented by Hezbollah and its allies. It is natural for the party to be worried that the Arab transformations will lead to a new regional order that will allow many Arab countries to reclaim their regional roles. This is after their retreat from these roles allowed Iran to fill the vacuum in the Arab state order, by relying on tools that it had succeeded in cultivating in recent decades, the most important among them being Hezbollah itself. One of the first signs of Arab states reclaiming these roles has come via the significant success by the new Egyptian Foreign Ministry in achieving an inter-Palestinian reconciliation, which the regime of Hosni Mubarak had failed to do over the last four years. This undeniable success, as long as Israel is a leading opponent, was accompanied by Cairo’s policy of restoring balance to its regional relations: discussing the resumption of diplomatic relations with Tehran, at the level of ambassadors, and restoring Saudi-Egyptian coordination, and Gulf-Egyptian coordination. This policy has been characterized by a new dynamism this time, based on political and economic support from Riyadh for the new Egyptian regime, while this activity has had an impact in important regional arenas, from Iraq to Palestine, and perhaps Lebanon, over the medium-term. In short, Egypt’s return to playing its role is leading to a reduction of the role that Iran used to play in the absence of the former.

There is growing fear about what is taking place in Syria on the part of Hezbollah and its allies, even if we do not openly see the questions and daily attention by their leaders to internal Syrian affairs. If the hearts of Hezbollah leaders are with the regime, then their minds are leading them to hope that the regime meets the public’s demands, so that it can ensure its continuity. This group is fearful that if the regime is weakened, or if the developments lead to a drawn-out domestic crisis, in which further confrontations are seen, then Syria will drown in division. This in turn will have an impact in Lebanon in terms of an escalation of Sunni-Shiite contradictions, and the party will lose Syria, its primary source of support for all its policies in Lebanon, as well as the capacities it has relied on to carry out these policies, against local rivals and their foreign allies. In other words, Hezbollah is worried that it might lose out in terms of the strength of its geographical depth, politically, militarily and in terms of its armaments, since Syria represents this natural bridge between Tehran and Beirut. It is worried that its Lebanese rivals will become bolder, under the slogan of “rejecting the power of (Hezbollah’s) weapons” on the domestic scene; this rallying-cry has harmed Hizbullah’s image and is painful for the party to hear, even though it ignores the rhetoric. Or, Israel might benefit from this situation, to launch a war that it has promised Lebanon, in the absence of a minimum level of domestic solidarity, as accusing the other side of treason remains prevalent.

Meanwhile, the March 14 camp also has it fears. The members of this coalition fear that the Syrian regime, and Hezbollah along with it, might respond to the possibility of being weakened by developments in Syria by adopting a policy of oppression in Lebanon, as in Syria. This policy would see March 14 members accused of intervening in the Syrian protests, even though the leaders of March 8 and its public are unconvinced by these accusations. However, the accusations serve as a means by which Hezbollah can enhance its grip on power in Lebanon, and this involves certain measures and steps. But the fears of March 14 go farther than this. Although its leaders feel no solidarity with the Syrian regime, due to the multiple blows its leaders have suffered from Damascus in recent years, these groups share with March 8 a fear that a drawn-out confrontation in Syria between the regime and its opponents, and its spilling over into clashes with multiple aspects, will lead to an escalation in sectarian tensions in Lebanon, as Hezbollah devotes itself to a parallel, hard-line policy, to retain power.

Some people prefer to urge a resumption of dialogue in order to avoid civil strife, which both parties fear equally. However, these individuals neglect the fact that the initiative for dialogue lies with the group that has undermined dialogue, namely Hezbollah and its allies. The party felt that there was no longer a need for dialogue after it succeeded with Syria in scuttling the Saudi-Syrian political settlement at the beginning of January, when it brought down the Lebanese government. However, it failed to establish an alternative political formula, which is evident today in the stumbling process of forming a new Cabinet. The tardiness in evaluating all of these developments means only that opportunities to treat the fears in Lebanon are being wasted.

Has'nt Al-Assad Learnt His Lesson?

By Abdul Rahman al-Rashid
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 29/04/2011

He watched them all on his television screen. He saw how the Egyptian President Mubarak was overthrown, and three weeks earlier, how the Tunisian President Ben Ali was ousted, and now he can see Gaddafi struggling to maintain just a quarter of Libya, and how Yemeni President Saleh is trying to improve the conditions under which he will step down from power.

Indeed, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad watched all those before him meet their destiny, and he had time to heed warnings and learn lessons from what happened. He is not like the Tunisian President, who was taken by surprise by the mass uprising, and was forced to flee the country in his private jet after he failed to suppress the revolution. The Egyptian President also run out of time as events developed quickly, and when he failed to control the situation, he sought assistance from the army, which ultimately ousted him from power. Bashar al-Assad can now see that Gaddafi, who adopted a variety of military means of suppression, has brought international intervention upon himself, and his regime is on the verge of collapse as a result of this. As for the Yemeni President, he adopted a strategy of political maneuvers to quell calls for him to step down, yet the public are still calling on him to step down, whilst others are demanding he face trial for last Friday's massacre.

Syria is the fifth, not the first, country in this "revolutionary queue", and so President al-Assad should have collected enough practical thoughts and advice to know how to handle any disturbance. However, in reality, the Syrian President addressed the first protest by killing five people in the periphery city of Daraa, a city formerly believed to be a pro-regime stronghold that has been transformed into a symbol of the uprising.

What is extremely odd is that the Syrian President did not justify the use of force by offering any concessions to the demonstrators; he did not dissolve the parliament, whose term will come to an end in weeks, and then hold early elections under international supervision. He did not announce changes in his security apparatus which is actually a source of the problem, and has been for many decades in Syria, being internationally deemed a "bad example.' He refused to release political prisoners, the majority of whom are civilians, who are not nearly as troublesome as the rest of his opponents in the streets. In fact, he did practically nothing, except verbally announcing an end to the state of emergency, in order to justify sending his military troops to confront the demonstrators.

It is clear that the Syrian regime is imitating Gaddafi; it is distorting the image of its opponents and suppressing them via military force. It has accused the demonstrators of being Salafists, terrorists, insurgents and armed militia, allowing the government troops and security apparatus full reign to crush them. We do not know how the army will quell tens of thousands of demonstrators in dozens of cities, especially as whenever a demonstrator is killed, a funeral precession is arranged and hatred intensifies. If a military or security solution was actually effective, Gaddafi would have won his battle, particularly as he employed fighter jets, heavy artillery and mercenaries, but ultimately failed to stop the demonstrators. Further killings will only cause the Syrian public to support the opposition, push the opposition towards armament, and peaceful demonstrators will turn into armed revolutionaries.

I do not mean to belittle the concerns of the Syrian leadership; which firstly believes that a regional and international plot is being hatched against it – and certainly there are many who wish to see the collapse of the Syrian regime – and secondly, believes that offering concessions will undermine its prestige and further fuel the uprising against it. Even if these doubts were true, a military solution in particular will not help the Syrian regime. It is true that political concessions may cause the regime to lose some of its power, but it will survive, or at the very least it will have an excuse to resort to a military solution. No regime in the world today exercises so much control over the lives and destinies of its people as the Syrian regime. The iron fist is supposed to be a relic of a bygone era, and that is why the Libyans revolted, and now the Syrians are doing the same.

Who Will Reshape The Arab World: Its People, Or The US?

Phase one of the Arab spring is over. Phase two – the attempt to crush or contain genuine popular movements – has begun

By Tariq Ali
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 29/04/2011
The patchwork political landscape of the Arab world – the client monarchies, degenerated nationalist dictatorships and the imperial petrol stations known as the Gulf states – was the outcome of an intensive experience of Anglo-French colonialism. This was followed after the second world war by a complex process of imperial transition to the United States. The result was a radical anticolonial Arab nationalism and Zionist expansionism within the wider framework of the cold war.

When the cold war ended Washington took charge of the region, initially through local potentates then through military bases and direct occupation. Democracy never entered the frame, enabling the Israelis to boast that they alone were an oasis of light in the heart of Arab darkness. How has all this been affected by the Arab intifada that began four months ago?

In January, Arab streets resounded to the slogan that united the masses regardless of class or creed: "Al-Sha'b yurid isquat al-nizam!" – "The people want the downfall of the regime!" The images streaming out from Tunis to Cairo, Saana to Bahrain, are of Arab peoples on their feet once again. On 14 January, as chanting crowds converged on the ministry of interior, Tunisia's President Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. On 11 February the national uprising in Egypt toppled the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak as mass rebellion erupted in Libya and the Yemen.

In occupied Iraq, demonstrators protested against the corruption of the Maliki regime and, more recently, against the presence of US troops and bases. Jordan was shaken by nationwide strikes and tribal rebellion. Protests in Bahrain spiralled into calls for the overthrow of the monarchy, an event that scared the neighbouring Saudi kleptocrats and their western patrons, who can't conceive of an Arabia without sultans. Even as I write, the corrupt and brutal Ba'athist outfit in Syria, under siege by its own people, is struggling for its life.

The dual determinants of the uprisings were both economic – with mass unemployment, rising prices, scarcity of essential commodities – and political: cronyism, corruption, repression, torture. Egypt and Saudi Arabia were the crucial pillars of US strategy in the region, as confirmed recently by US vice-president Jo Biden, who stated that he was more concerned about Egypt than Libya. The worry here is Israel; the fear that an out-of-control democratic government might renege on the peace treaty. And Washington has, for the time being, succeeded in rerouting the political process into a carefully orchestrated change, led by Mubarak's defence minister and chief of staff, the latter being particularly close to the Americans.

Most of the regime is still in place. Its key messages are the need for stability and a return to work, putting a stop to the strike wave. Fevered behind-the scenes negotiations between Washington and the Muslim Brotherhood are continuing. A slightly amended old constitution remains in force and the South American model of huge social movements producing new political organisations that triumph at the polls and institute social reforms is far from being replicated in the Arab world, thus not posing any serious challenge, until now, to the economic status quo.

The mass movement remains alert in both Tunisia and Egypt but is short of political instruments that reflect the general will. The first phase is over. The second, that of rolling back the movements, has begun.

The Nato bombing of Libya was an attempt by the west to regain the "democratic" initiative after its dictators were toppled elsewhere. It has made the situation worse. The so-called pre-empting of a massacre has led to the killing of hundreds of soldiers, many of whom were fighting under duress, and permitted the ghastly Muammar Gaddafi to masquerade as an anti-imperialist.

Here one has to say that whatever the final outcome, the Libyan people have lost. The country will either be partitioned into a Gaddafi state and a squalid pro-west protectorate led by selected businessmen, or the west will take out Gaddafi and control the whole of Libya and its huge oil reserves. This display of affection for "democracy" does not extend elsewhere in the region.

In Bahrain, the US green-lighted a Saudi intervention to crush local democrats, enhance religious sectarianism, organise secret trials and sentence protesters to death. Bahrain today is a prison camp, a poisonous mixture of Guantánamo and Saudi Arabia.

In Syria the security apparatus led by the Assad family is killing at will, but without being able to crush the democratic movement. The opposition is not under the control of Islamists: it is a broad coalition that includes every social layer apart from the capitalist class that remains loyal to the regime.

Unlike in other Arab countries, many Syrian intellectuals stayed at home, suffering prison and torture, and secular socialists like Riad Turk and many others are part of the underground leadership in Damascus and Aleppo. Nobody wants western military intervention. They don't want a repeat of Iraq or Libya. The Israelis and the US would prefer Assad to stay as they once did Mubarak, but the dice are still in the air.

In Yemen, the despot has killed hundreds of citizens but the army has split, and Americans and Saudis are trying desperately to stitch together a new coalition (as in Egypt) – but the mass movement is resisting any deals with the incumbent.

The US has to contend with an altered political environment in the Arab world. It is too soon to predict the final outcome, except to say it is not over yet.

Out Of Syria's Darkness Come Tales Of Terror

Witnesses who fled across the Lebanon border tell our writer what they saw

By Robert Fisk
This commentary was published in The Independent on 29/04/2011
In Damascus, the posters – in their tens of thousands around the streets – read: "Anxious or calm, you must obey the law." But pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez have been taken down, by the security police no less, in case they inflame Syrians.

There are thieves with steel-tipped rubber coshes on the Damascus airport road at night, and in the terminal the cops ask arriving passengers to declare iPods and laptops. In the village of Hala outside Deraa, Muslim inhabitants told their Christian neighbours to join the demonstrations against the regime – or leave.
Out of the darkness of Syria come such tales.

And they are true. Syrians arriving in Lebanon are bringing the most specific details of what is going on inside their country, of Fifth Brigade soldiers fighting the armed units of Maher Assad's Fourth Brigade outside Deraa, of random killings around Damascus by the ever-growing armed bands of Shabiha ("the mafia") from the Alawite mountains, of massive stocking up of food. One woman has just left her mother in the capital with 10 kilos of pasta, 10 kilos of rice, five kilos of sugar, box after box of drinking water.
In Deraa – surrounded, without electricity or water or supplies – the price of bread has risen 500 per cent and men are smuggling food into the city over the fields at night.

But it is the killings which terrify the people. Are they committed by the Shabiha from the port city of Lattakia – created by the Assad family in the 70s to control smuggling and protection rackets – or by the secret police to sow a fear that might break the uprising against Assad? Or by the murderers who thrive amid anarchy and lawlessness? Three men carrying sacks of vegetables outside Damascus at night were confronted by armed men last week. They refused to stop. So they were executed.

The Syrian government is appealing to the minorities – to the Christians and the Kurds – to stay loyal to the authorities; minorities have always been safe in Syria, and many have stayed away from protests against the regime. But in the village of Hala, Christian shops are shut as their owners contemplate what are clearly sectarian demands to join in the uprising against Assad. In an attempt to rid Syria of "foreign" influence, the ministry of education has ordered a number of schools to end all English teaching – even banning the names of schools in French and English from school uniforms. Even the kindergarten where the President's two young children are educated has been subject to the prohibitions.

There are bright lights, of course, not least among the brave men and women who are using the internet and Facebook to keep open the flow of information from Syria. The Independent can reveal that a system of committees has been set up across the cities of Syria, usually comprising only 10 or 12 friends who have known and trusted each other for years. Each of them enlists 10 of their own friends – and they persuade 10 more each – to furnish information and pictures. Many were put in touch with each other via the cyber kings of Beirut – many of them also Syrian – and thus "circles of trust" have spread at the cost of the secret police snooping that has been part of Syrian life for four decades.

Thus there now exist – in Damascus alone – "The Co-ordination of Douma", "The Co-ordination of al-Maydan" (in the centre of the city), "The Co-ordination of Daraya", "The Co-ordination of Harasta" and others. Some of them are trying to penetrate the mukhabarat secret police, to get the brutal cops to work for them on the grounds that – come the end of the Assad regime, if that end ever comes – they will be spared the trials and revenge punishments to come. One Beirut blogger says that several of the cops have already declared themselves for the uprising – but are unwilling to trust them in case it is a trap to discover the identity of those behind the committees.

Yet Syrians in Lebanon say that the Syrian security police – often appointed through graft rather than any technical or detective abilities – simply do not understand the technology that is being used against them. One Syrian security official sent three Facebook posts. The first said: "God, Syria and Bashar al-Assad or nothing." The second read: "It's the time to declare war for Allah." The third announced: "The legacy of God on earth is an Islamic Republic."

"The fool was obviously supporting Bashar – but then wanted to frighten people by suggesting Islamists would take over a post-Assad Syria," one of the Syrian bloggers in Beirut says. "But he didn't realise that we could tell at once that they all came from the same Facebook page!" The same man in Beirut found himself under interrogation by Syrian state security police several weeks ago. "He was a senior officer – but he didn't even know what Google was." Many of the Syrians sending information out of their country are anxious that exaggerations and rumours will damage the credibility of their reports. For this reason, they are trying to avoid dispatches which cannot be verified; that two Iranian snipers, for example, have arrived to help the security police; that one man was actually interrogated by two Iranians – a friend suspects that the cops were from the north and spoke in the Kurdish language, which the detainee misidentified as Iranian.

More serious – and true – is the report that Khaled Sid Mohand, an Algerian journalist working for France Culture and Le Monde, was arrested in Damascus on 9 April and has disappeared into a security prison. A released detainee says that he saw Mohand in Security Section 255 in Baghdad Street in the capital some days later. But this story may not be correct. Diplomats have been unable to see the missing journalist.

There are also reports that two young European women working for a Western embassy were arrested and gagged when they left a party at 3am several days ago, and only released several hours later after interrogation. "It means that there is no longer any immunity for foreigners," a Syrian citizen said yesterday. "We heard that a North American had also been taken from his home and questioned by armed men."

Especially intriguing – because there are many apparent witnesses of this episode – is a report that Syrian Fourth Brigade troops in Deraa dumped dozens of weapons in the main square of the city in front of the Omari mosque, telling civilians that they could take them to defend themselves. Suspecting that they were supposed to carry them in demonstrations and then be shot as "terrorists", the people took the weapons to the nearest military base and gave them back to the soldiers.

The rumours of army defections continue, however, including splits in the Fifth Brigade at Deraa, whose commander's name can now be confirmed as General Mohamed Saleh al-Rifai. According to Syrians arriving in Lebanon, the highways are used by hundreds of packed military trucks although the streets of most cities – including Damascus – are virtually empty at night. Shops are closing early, gunfire is often heard, checkpoints at night are often manned by armed men in civilian clothes. Darkness indeed.

Obama's Inconsistency Doctrine On The Arab Spring

International criticism is mounting and Syrian protesters are planning another day of rage after Assad regime’s brutal crackdown left hundreds dead. So why, asks former Assistant Secretary of State Philip.J. Crowley, isn’t the president telling Bashar al-Assad to step down, like Muammar Gaddafi in Libya?
This commentary was published in The Daily Beast on 29/04/2011

Article - Crowley Obama Policy Kathy Willens / AP Photo
President Obama

When President Obama authorized an intervention in Libya in March, pundits rushed to declare an Obama Doctrine.
But one decision does not a doctrine make, despite the popular idea that every modern president must have one. Although Obama seemed to embrace the concept of “responsibility to protect” in intervening in Libya and calling for Muammar Gaddafi to step down from power, he has not done the same in Syria. If Gaddafi must go because he is unwilling to reform and has employed extreme state-controlled violence against a population that no longer fears him, so should President Bashar al-Assad.

The responsibility to protect, or the notion that the international community has an obligation to intervene when governments threaten their people with mass atrocities, leaves undefined a specific trigger for intervention. Obama, supported by a U.N. Security Council resolution and a clear call for action by the Arab League, pointed to Gaddafi’s threat to attack Benghazi, the center of the rebellion against the Libyan dictator. So far, so good.
But the president went beyond simply justifying military action. Because of Gaddafi’s explicit threat, Obama said, the Libyan “lost legitimacy with his people” and “needs to step down from power.” While for Egypt the president publicly encouraged only a transition, Obama called for regime change in Libya. Transformation became personal.

The White House was quick to downplay the idea of a precedent. “We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent,” said Denis McDonough, the deputy national-security adviser.

So we have the Doctrine of Inconsistency, which is becoming ever clearer as the administration struggles to develop a coherent approach to events in Syria in light of our statements on and actions in Libya.

If Libya, then why not Syria?

Let’s stipulate that, in the face of truly transformational change, any government will be challenged. Whether televised or tweeted, history is unfolding in real time and policymakers—and spokesmen, of which I was one until mid-March—are constantly playing catchup with events the U.S. cannot control.

Throughout this Arab awakening, the administration’s words and actions have actually been pretty consistent. Starting with Secretary of State Clinton’s speech in Doha in January, the Obama team has urgently called on the region to embrace political, social, and economic reform. It laid down broad principles to guide change: no violence, respect for human rights and universal principles including freedom of speech and assembly, and real reform. The administration has made clear repeatedly that specific actions would vary country by country.

And in contrast to Libya, there is no viable military option in Syria. But what about the question of legitimacy? As the crackdown in Syria escalates, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish Gaddafi’s sins from those of Assad. Having publicly called for Gaddafi’s departure, the administration is hesitating to do the same with Assad. It shouldn’t.

No bright lines determine crimes against humanity; as Potter Stewart once said about obscenity, we know it when we see it. Gaddafi has killed thousands while Assad reportedly has killed hundreds—so far. But both are aggressively employing the full weight of their security forces to violently quell all political opposition.

While some regional leaders are still heeding calls for reform, potentially sooner in Yemen and later in Bahrain because of Saudi opposition, Gaddafi is not listening to anyone—and neither is Assad. For more than a decade, Assad has always chosen survival over reform. There is no indication he will make a different choice with his back against the wall.

The administration’s caution with Syria is certainly due in part to the uncertainty that what follows Assad would be better. But if that were the criteria guiding us, we would have stuck with Hosni Mubarak. Another factor is the absence of the strong regional support that crystallized around Libya. Again, if that is a precondition, the Arab Spring will end in Tripoli or Sana’a, depending on which leader holds out the longest.

And yet the political case for regime change in Syria is compelling, and far more fundamental to long-term regional interests. We want Gaddafi to go, a leader we took off the state sponsor of terrorism list. We appear prepared to tolerate a leader whose regime remains on the list—and for good reason.

While Assad has kept the border with Israel quiet, every other action he has taken, most particularly his alliances with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, undermine the overarching U.S. objective in the region: comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

If the United States is committed to promoting responsible, accountable, and representative government around the world, it cannot just do so where it is easy. It should do so where it matters. If Gaddafi has forfeited his legitimacy, then Assad has as well, and the world’s most powerful democracy should say so now, when it matters.

Philip J. (P.J.) Crowley is the 2011-2012 Omar Bradley Chair for Strategic Leadership at Dickinson College, Penn State University Dickinson School of Law and School of International Affairs, and the Army War College. He served as the assistant secretary of state for public affairs and spokesman for the State Department from May 2009 until March 2011.

The Damaging Deal Between Hamas And Fatah

By Elliott Abrams
This opinion was published in The Weekly Standard on 29/04/2011

The agreement between Fatah and Hamas may not last very long. The last agreement, in 2007, failed and led to increased violence between the two groups—and finally to Hamas’s coup in Gaza. Hamas and Fatah militants have been killing each other for decades and reconciliation seems more a ploy for public consumption than a serious goal.
But the deal will have extremely harmful effects that deserve attention. To understand them one must remember the tripartite division of roles in Palestinian politics. Fatah is a political party and movement, whose chairman is Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian government is the Palestinian Authority or PA, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The PLO is the organization that negotiates with Israel as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," so recognized by the United Nations. The PLO is headed by … Mahmoud Abbas. 

The agreement that has been announced is solely between Fatah and Hamas, and President Abbas has lately been saying that it will have no impact on the government run by the PA or the negotiations handled by the PLO. This cannot be right, and herein lie several great problems. 

For one thing, this party-to-party agreement has already caused the end of the current PA government, and seems to require the departure of Prime Minister Fayyad. Fatah officials hate Fayyad because he has been the guarantor of fiscal probity. Few donors will trust Fatah to avoid old habits and escape corruption if Fayyad is gone. Hamas officials hate Fayyad because he is the real leader of the PA security forces, which have been trained by the United States in recent years. Those forces have established a working relationship with Israel's own, and together they have fought to stop terrorism in the West Bank. With Fayyad gone, PA financial agencies and PA security forces lose the man who has insisted on principled and effective work.

How is it possible that, in the context of this new agreement, President Abbas and the new prime minister will order PA security forces to continue to attack Hamas terrorists?  How likely is it that cooperation with Israeli counterterrorist efforts will be maintained at the same level? It seems inevitable that the PA forces will step back, as their political masters order them to avoid creating confrontations. As the American effort to train PA forces is based on the assumption that they will fight terrorist groups like Hamas, our training program may come to an end. And far more important, of course, terrorist groups may reclaim lost ground in the West Bank.

The other change worth noting is that Hamas has never been part of the PLO, but has always seen conquering it as part of the long-term Hamas plan to take over. The new agreement appears to call for reconfiguring the PLO over the next year, permitting Hamas to enter the PLO and run in PLO elections. This is a grave development. How can negotiations be conducted between Israel and a PLO that contains a viciously anti-Semitic terrorist group dedicated to its destruction?

It is in this context that Israeli complaints that Abbas has chosen peace with Hamas over peace with Israel must be understood. Some argue that these are steps toward the ultimate moderation of Hamas, and its substitution of politics for terror. There is no evidence for this view. The argument that the IRA did the same thing is wrong in so many ways: to take only two, the IRA was not religiously motivated as Hamas is, and in any event gave up terror only when it had been conclusively defeated by the British Army. 

This agreement between Hamas and Fatah may break down in months. Nevertheless it does great damage to any hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace, for now and in future years.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.

In Shift, Egypt Warms To Iran And Hamas, Israel’s Foes

Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press
Israel has relied on Egypt's help to police the border with Gaza, above in 2006, but Egypt says it is planning to end its blockade.

Crunch-Time For The Syrian Regime

By Peter Harling
This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 29/04/2011 

Seen from Damascus, the crisis that is gripping Syria is fast approaching crunch-time. The regime appears to have stopped pretending it can offer a way out. More than ever, it portrays the confrontation as a war waged against a multifaceted foreign enemy which it blames for all casualties. This narrative, which informs the security services' brutal response to protests, has cost the authorities the decisive battle for perceptions abroad, at home, and even in central Damascus -- a rare bubble of relative calm that has now entered into a state of utter confusion.
The primary benefit of observing events from the Syrian capital is to measure just how unreliable all sources of information have become. Local media tell a tale of accusations and denials in which, incredibly, security services are the sole victims, persecuted by armed gangs. Where the regime initially acknowledged civilian martyrs and sought to differentiate between legitimate grievances and what it characterized as sedition, such efforts have come to an end.

For its part, the foreign media, denied access by the regime, relies virtually exclusively on material produced by on-the-ground protesters, the dependability of which has proven uneven. The novel phenomenon of "eye-witnesses" further blurs the picture. Outside observers have sought to counter the state-imposed blackout by recruiting correspondents, often haphazardly, flooding the country with satellite phones and modems. Several cases of false testimonies have cast doubts on such procedures but, for lack of an alternative, they largely continue to shape coverage of events.

Under the circumstances, Damascenes have but one option: to work the phones, calling relatives, friends, and colleagues throughout the country in a desperate attempt to form their own opinion. They hear and tell stories that are self-contradictory. Some tend to confirm the existence of armed agents provocateurs; many others credibly blame the regime for the bulk of the violence. Instances of sectarian polarization surface in some areas, while examples of cross-community solidarity burgeon in others. Neighbors often provide inconsistent accounts while people who share socio-economic backgrounds react to similar events in contrasting ways.

Such chaos is inherent in times of crisis, but it also is a reflection of the profound mistrust between citizens and their state, which has failed to offer any point of reference around which undecided Syrians could rally. To the contrary: the regime has systematically fostered a sense of bewilderment and anxiety. Most damaging of all has been the constant contradiction between its words and deeds.

Regime assertions notwithstanding, evidence regarding excessive use of force by security forces in circumstances that cannot plausibly be described as representing an immediate threat is piling up. Given the extraordinary deployment of forces and security lockdown in and around the capital last weekend, it is simply impossible to imagine that so-called agitators could be behind the bloodshed. Even where the regime's responsibility in both the onset and escalation of confrontation is beyond doubt, as in the southern city of Deraa, the regime feels the need to undertake an endless "investigation" before holding anyone accountable, even as arbitrary arrests remain the norm when dealing with protesters.

On the political front, the regime has lifted the emergency law but allows security services to conduct business as usual, illustrating how irrelevant the concept of legality was in the first place. It authorizes demonstrations while stating they are no longer needed and labeling them as seditious. It speaks of reforming the media and, in the same breath, fires an oh-so-loyal editor-in-chief for straying from the official line. It insists on ignoring the most outrageous symbols of corruption. It promises a multi-party law even as it proves how little power is vested in civilian institutions. Finally, and although it has engaged in numerous bilateral talks with local representatives, it resists convening a national dialogue, which might offer a slim chance of finding an inclusive and credible way forward.

In more parts of the country than one can count, protesters now face only the most brutal, repressive side of the regime. For those who mourn the dead and know them not as saboteurs and traitors, but as relatives, neighbors, and friends, there is nothing left to discuss. Slowly but surely, these ink spots of radicalized opposition are spreading and joining in an increasingly determined and coordinated movement to topple the regime.

Many Syrians -- even among those without sympathy for the regime -- still resist this conclusion. Their arguments should not be ignored. They dread the breakup of a state whose institutions, including the military, are weak even by regional standards. They fear that sectarian dynamics or a hegemonic religious agenda could take hold. They suspect Syria would cave in to foreign interference. And they distrust an exiled opposition that is all too reminiscent of Iraq's.

The regime appears to be calculating that the prospect of a bloodbath will prove the strongest argument of all. The scenario is both risky and self-defeating, for if it will be a tragedy for the Syrian people, it will also spell disaster for the regime itself. Instead, it should immediately rein in security services, take decisive action against those responsible for state violence, and initiate a genuine, all-inclusive national dialogue. This could provide an opportunity for representatives of the popular movement to emerge, for their demands to be fleshed out, and for authorities to demonstrate they have more to offer than empty words and certain doom.

Peter Harling is the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon project director with the International Crisis Group