Saturday, July 21, 2012

Inside The Quiet Effort To Plan For A Post-Assad Syria

 By Josh Rogin

For the last six months, 40 senior representatives of various Syrian opposition groups have been meeting quietly in Germany under the tutelage of the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) to plan for how to set up a post-Assad Syrian government.

The project, which has not directly involved U.S. government officials but was partially funded by the State Department, is gaining increased relevance this month as the violence in Syria spirals out of control and hopes for a peaceful transition of power fade away. The leader of the project, USIP's Steven Heydemann, an academic expert on Syria, has briefed administration officials on the plan, as well as foreign officials, including on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul last month.

The project is called "The day after: Supporting a democratic transition in Syria." Heydemann spoke about the project in depth for the first time in an interview with The Cable. He described USIP's efforts as "working in a support role with a large group of opposition groups to define a transition process for a post-Assad Syria."

The opposition leaders involved in the USIP project have been meeting since January and providing updates on their work to the Arab League, the Friends of Syria group, the team of U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, and the opposition Syrian National Council.

The focus of the group's effort is to develop concrete plans for the immediate aftermath of a regime collapse, to mitigate the risks of bureaucratic, security, and economic chaos. The project has also identified a few things can be done in advance to prepare for a post-Assad Syria.

"We organized this project along systematic lines, including security-sector reform," Heydemann said. "We have provided technical support for Syrian opposition participants in our project, and the Syrians have identified priorities for things that need to be implemented now."

He emphasized that USIP's involvement is primarily in a facilitation and coordination role. "The Syrians are very much in the lead on this," he said.

USIP intends to release a report on the project in the coming weeks that will serve as a transition strategy document to be used by the next government. The next phase is to stand up a transition support network "to begin to implement these recommendations about stuff that needs to happen now," Heydemann said.

In addition to security-sector reform, the group has come up with plans to reform the justice sector and a framework for the role of the armed opposition in a post-Assad Syria. The idea is to preserve those parts of the Syrian state that can be carried over while preparing to reform the parts that can't. For example, large parts of the Syrian legal system could be preserved.

The group has come up with a few innovative proposals to make the post-Assad transition less chaotic. One example Heydemann cited was the idea of mobile judicial review squads, which could be deployed to do rapid review and release of detainees held by the regime after it falls.

The project has also tried to identify regime personnel who might be able to play an effective role in the immediate phase after Assad falls.

"There's a very clear understanding of the Syrians in this project that a transition is not sweeping away of the entire political and judicial framework of Syria," Heydemann said. "We have learned an enormous amount about the participants so that we can actually begin a very crude vetting process."
The USIP-led project has been careful to avoid working to push the Assad regime from power.

"We have very purposely stayed away from contributing to the direct overthrow of the Assad regime," Heydemann said. "Our project is called ‘the day after.' There are other groups working on the day before."

The project has been funded by the State Department, but also has received funding from the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as Dutch and Norwegian NGOs. USIP partnered with the German Institute of International Affairs, which is why all of the meetings have been held in Berlin.

The absence of Obama administration officials at these meetings, even as observers, was deliberate.
"This is a situation where too visible a U.S. role would have been deeply counterproductive. It would have given the Assad regime and elements of the opposition an excuse to delegitimize the process," Heydemann said.

He also said that none of the groups that fall beyond the mainstream of the opposition have any connection to the project, although the participants assume that Islamist politics will be a significant part of any future Syrian political order.

The idea is not to predict if, how, or when the Assad regime might fall, but rather to do as much as possible, as quietly as possible, to get ready for any contingency.

"Regime collapse offers one set of challenges; a negotiated transition offers another. Even if we are not certain a transition will occur, it would be profoundly irresponsible not to prepare for a transition," Heydemann said.  "We are providing the opposition with an opportunity for the opposition itself to demonstrate its ability to undertake this work, which is actually quite significant."

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 20/07/2012
-Josh Rogin reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable

Holier Than Thou: Rival Clerics In The Syrian Jihad

By Aron Lund

Jabhet al-Nasra (Source: Veterans Today)

The Syrian conflict is emerging as an extremely attractive recruiting ground for jihadi groups - in February, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the emir of al-Qaida, called upon “every Muslim and every honorable and free person in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to go to aid his brothers in Syria” (as-Sahab Media Productions via, February 11). The uprising is largely Sunni Muslim in character, with the armed insurgency against Bashar al-Assad’s secular Alawite-dominated regime almost exclusively focused in rural Sunni Arab regions: Deraa, Homs, Hama, Idleb, parts of the Aleppo and Damascus countryside, and Deir al-Zor, as well as some Sunni enclaves on the Mediterranean coast. [1] Most fighters are locally recruited Sunni Arab civilians and army defectors, while ideological Islamists form only a small minority of the rebel manpower, albeit of growing influence.

The Free Syrian Army and Sunni Radicalism

The most well-known Syrian rebel formation is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a poorly defined network of largely autonomous rebel groups self-described as ”brigades” regardless of their actual size. The FSA itself is almost entirely Sunni Arab, but lacks a distinct ideology. It is loosely allied to the Syrian National Council (SNC), based in Turkey and supported and funded by Western and Gulf Arab states. It includes some of the largest militia formations inside Syria, such as the Farouq Brigade of Homs, and has the nominal support of many more. [2]

The FSA’s leadership, a collection of mid-ranking Sunni Arab military defectors headed by  Colonel Riyad Musa al-As’ad from a base in Turkey, is actively courting Western support and has unambiguously condemned jihadi groups. This attitude is not necessarily shared by the fighters on the ground, who tend to label themselves FSA whether or not they are in actual contact with the FSA headquarters. With Sunni sectarian perspectives becoming more central to the armed uprising as time passes, most FSA factions are now steeped in religious rhetoric and there are a number of explicitly Islamist groups calling themselves part of the FSA, some of whom use radical jihadi slogans. One such group is the al-Bara bin Malek Brigade, which uses the Salafi-Jihadi flag made famous by al-Qaeda in Iraq and vows to carry out “martyrdom operations.” [3]

Outside the FSA umbrella, there are other groups which are more radical and more hostile to Western influence over the uprising. These include the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades, a network of Islamist militias spread over several provinces, as well as a Salafist group in Homs called the Ansar Brigade. Others, such as Fath al-Islam, a Syrian-Lebanese-Palestinian group, predate the uprising. There is not, however, a formal al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, after the failed attempt to establish al-Qa’ida fi Bilad al-Sham (”al-Qaeda in the Levant”) in the mid-2000s, though this situation may be about to change (al-Hayat, September 28, 2010).

The Rise of Jabhat al-Nusra

The most prominent Syrian jihadi group, by far, is the Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham min Mujahedi al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad (”The Support Front for the People of the Levant by the Levantine Mujahedin on the Battlefields of Jihad”). Jabhat al-Nusra (as it is known) emerged in early 2012 and has rapidly captured the imagination of jihadi activists and the attention of international news media through spectacular suicide bombings (, January 24, 2012).

While non-jihadi Syrian dissidents often accuse Jabhat al-Nusra of being a regime creation, most signs indicate that it may be a spinoff from the al-Qaeda-affiliated ”Islamic State in Iraq”  (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 22). U.S. government sources have repeatedly linked Jabhat al-Nusra to al-Qaeda generally and the Iraqi branch specifically, and the group has a very active branch in the Deir al-Zor region along Syria’s eastern desert border, where tribal smuggling networks have remained active since the Iraq war (McClatchy, February 10; Guardian, March 22; see also Terrorism Monitor, June 1). Jabhat al-Nusra is now seen by the vast majority of international Salafi-Jihadis as ”their” group in Syria, despite the presence of other contenders. It has been actively promoted by the major jihadi web forums, perhaps indicating that trusted sources have vouched for its credibility.

A number of prominent Salafi-Jihadi scholars have also endorsed Jabhat al-Nusra in the past months, further raising its visibility. Examples include Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, who is based in Irbid in northern Jordan (an area tribally linked to Syria’s Dera’a region), where he supports Jordanians who seek to join the jihad in Syria (, March 14; al-Jazeera, June 6). Another locally influential name is Abu al-Zahra al-Zubeidi (a.k.a. Osama al-Shihabi), a Lebanon-based preacher and activist considered a leading authority for Fath al-Islam. While some sources claim that al-Zubeidi is in fact the amir of Fath al-Islam since Lebanese intelligence killed its former leader Abd al-Rahman Oud in August 2010, al-Zubeidi emphatically denies even being a member of the group (al-Akhbar [Beirut], January 24). In a written statement released to jihadi forums in May, al-Zubeidi called on everyone – including other jihadi organizations – to “join Jabhat al-Nusra to strenghten it and to avoid fragmenting the efforts” (, May 15). Abu al-Mundhir al-Shanqiti, a Mauritanian scholar who issues religious edicts for the influential Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad website, has also strongly backed Jabhat al-Nusra (Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, June 6).

Abu al-Mundhir al-Shanqiti vs. Abu Basir al-Tartusi

However, there are dissenting voices in the jihadi community, chief among them the London-based Salafi-Jihadi theologian Abu Basir al-Tartusi (a.k.a. Abd al-Mun’im Mustafa Halima).  Abu Basir, who fled his native Syria during the the 1979-1982 Islamist uprising against Hafez al-Assad, is a leading light of the contemporary jihadi movement. He has been strongly supportive of armed jihad against the Assad regime, and has established a minor group called al-Mu’arada al-islamiya lil-nizam al-souri (Islamic Opposition to the Regime in Syria). [4] In May 2012, a short video clip was published of Abu Basir alongside armed rebels, implying that he had now joined the fighting inside Syria, although the scene could also have been shot in the border regions of Lebanon or Turkey. [5]
Abu Basir has regarded Jabhat al-Nusra with skepticism from the very start, raising doubts about its authenticity and asking why there is no known spokesman for the group (its leader, known by the nom-de-guerre al-Fatih Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, appears only through distorted voice recordings). [6] Abu Basir has angrily refuted jihadi complaints about the FSA. These have tended to focus on the concept of al-raya, ’the banner’ – i.e., the requirement that mujahideen should flock to a single legitimate leadership, fully committed to Islamic rule, for their jihad to be legitimate. According to Abu Basir, what matters at this stage is to topple the regime, not to split hairs about theological concepts such as al-raya. He considers the FSA to be  ”heroic mujahideen” and their detractors to be ”present-day Kharijites.” [7]

This position has led to a public clash with Abu al-Mundhir al-Shanqiti, who states that by ”announcing his support for those who adopt the democratic program and at the same time attacking those who will apply Islamic Shari’a,” Abu Basir displays “a great shortcoming” (Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, May 21).  In contrast to Abu Basir, Abu al-Mundhir has been wary of the FSA all along. He believes that jihadis need to maintain working relations with the FSA on the battlefield, but laments that the FSA ”doesn’t fight under the banner of Shari’a, [but] to implement democracy and consecrate Western values” (Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, May 21).  Muslims should instead ”hurry to join the mujahideen in Jabhat al-Nusra, the existence of which has eliminated the need for any other group,” because unlike the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra fulfills the demand for al-raya. On a more flexible note, Abu al-Mundhir supports the use of secular-sounding movement names as a tactical ruse, and says that jihadi groups can also cooperate with the FSA in order to tap into its foreign funding. (Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, June 6).

Personal or Political, Local or Global?

Some of the differences between Abu al-Mundhir and Abu Basir could perhaps be explained by Abu Basir’s special relationship to the conflict. As analyst Joas Wagemakers notes, the Tartus-born jihadi ”obviously cares about Syria,” and has been striking a much more nuanced tone than is usual in jihadi politics – ”one of concern for his native land.” [8]  How deeply personal the struggle against the Assad regime is for Abu Basir was illustrated by his post to Facebook on May 31 - a wrinkled and yellowed photograph of his brother Abd al-Qadir, abducted by Syrian intelligence in 1981 and never heard from since. [9]

But the difference in perspective is not simply personal, nor is it limited to Syrian affairs. Abu Basir has always been an odd bird in the militant community due to his negative view of suicide bombings. Almost alone among the major Salafi-Jihadi scholars, he opposes this favorite jihadi tactic on theological grounds. [10] His FSA dispute with Abu al-Mundhir has also coincided with a similar public conflict about jihadis in Yemen, with Abu Basir criticizing the extremist tendencies of Ansar al-Shari’a and Abu al-Mundhir attacking Abu Basir’s “disgusting deviation.” [11]

As obscure as these intra-jihadi quarrels may seem, they are not unimportant. As Wagemakers points out, Abu al-Mundhir and Abu Basir “may well be the most influential and most prolific radical scholars in the world right now,” if only because the other contenders are dead or in prison. [12] Their conflict is not simply one of egos, but an example of the tension between principled radicalism and business-minded pragmatism which has long dogged the jihadi movement. In a situation where the core leadership of al-Qaeda has been decimated and militant Salafism becomes ever more decentralized, the fact that two of its most senior theologians have started to appear as ideological polar opposites will further fragment the global jihadi community.

Notes & References:
-This report was published in the Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10, Issue: 14, on 16/07/2012
- Aron Lund is a Swedish journalist specializing in Middle Eastern affairs

1. Fabrice Balanche,”GĂ©ographie de la rĂ©volte syrienne”, Outre-Terre, no. 29, 3/2011.

2. For the FSA, see Joseph Holliday, “Syria’s Armed Opposition”,     Middle East Security Report 3, Institute for the Study of War, March 2012. For the SNC, see Aron Lund, “Divided they stand: An overview of Syria’s political opposition factions,” Foundation for European Progressive Studies and the Olof Palme International Center, May 2012,
3. See ”Ansar al-Sham, in steadfast Homs: Announcing the formation of the al-Bara bin Malek Brigade under the banner of monotheism,” February 17, 2012,
4. A packet of Abu Basir’s collected writings on the Syrian revolution are available for download on his website. See Abu Basir al-Tartusi, “Daftar al-thawra wa’l-thuwwar” (Notebook of the revolution and the revolutionaries), 
5. See (May 12, 2012).
6. Abu Basir al-Tartusi, “Al-muarada al-islamiya lil-nizam al-souri,” Facebook, February 27, 2012,
7. See, February 15, 2012.
8. Joas Wagemakers, “Al-Qaida Advises the Arab Spring: Syria,” Jihadica, November 19, 2011,
10. Abu Basir al-Tartusi,”Suspicions of Sin in Martyrdom or Suicide Attacks,” November 11, 2005,
11. Wagemakers, op cit.
12. Ibid

What Comes After Assad In Syria?

President Bashar al-Assad’s regime may soon collapse. What that means for the Middle East.

By Bruce Riedel

Bashar Al Assad
A member of Free Syrian Army burns a portrait of Bashar Al Assad in Al Qsair, Syria. (Alessio Romenzi / Corbis

The fighting and bombings in Damascus suggest the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is finally coming to an end. It will likely be ugly and dangerous. Some kind of international peacekeeping force is probably going to be needed, perhaps sooner rather than later.

The brutal and violent civil war between Assad loyalists and the rebels has served to inflame bitter sectarian tensions in Syria. Many Sunnis hated the long dominant Alawite minority and its Christian supporters before the conflict began in March 2011. After all, Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, killed up to 20,000 Sunnis in Hama in February 1982. It was an appalling mass slaughter. The legacy of Hama terrified Syrians for 30 years. After the many massacres of the last year, the Sunni desire for revenge has only become stronger.

So, paradoxically, one of the priorities of the international community after Assad falls will be to protect the Alawite community and its allies from vengeance. Most live along the mountainous coast bordering the Mediterranean Sea, and they may try to set up a ministate there, an Alawi fortress to protect themselves. That would only prolong the civil war. A peacekeeping force to protect the region makes sense. Since many Alawis and most Christians live outside the coastal region, some means of ensuring their safety will also be needed in the rest of the country as well. It will need to be strong enough to deter revenge, but also credible and impartial enough to gain Sunni support.

Bashar also sits on the Arab world’s most lethal arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, hundreds of chemical warheads and dozens of Scud missiles that can deliver them anywhere in the Levant. Now there are reports that the regime is moving these weapons out of their usual storage facilities for reasons unknown. They will need to be secured.

Like almost everything else in Bashar’s Syria, the country’s arsenal of missiles and chemical weapons is his father’s legacy. After Syria was defeated by Israel in Lebanon in 1982, Hafez ordered the development of chemical weapons as a deterrent against his Israeli enemy. Syrian scientists developed an effective chemical-weapons program using the nerve agent sarin, a substance discovered by German scientists in the 1930s that is 500 times more toxic than cyanide. Syria paired the nerve agent with Scud missiles acquired from the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s.

Would Bashar use chemical weapons against his own people? We can’t rule it out as the regime collapses. Using them on Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority would antagonize the entire world and set Bashar and his cronies up for even more war-crimes trials. It would mean terrible reprisals by the Sunni sooner or later. Would he fire some Scuds at Israel as a final act of vengeance against the Jewish state? We can’t rule that out either.

The fact of Syria’s chemical and missile arsenal is well known to NATO governments and Israel. There is no reason it should discourage support for ending the Assad dictatorship. It does argue for caution in how to do so. Any military operation to end the Syrian civil war or a peacekeeping for after Assad collapses needs to be prepared to operate in a deadly chemical environment.

The end game in Syria is particularly bad news for Iran and its Lebanese ally Hizbullah. Syria has been Iran’s key ally in the region since the early 1980s, when the two states collaborated to create Hizbullah after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. Its first act of terror was to murder my boss Bob Ames and several other CIA officers by blowing up the American Embassy in Beirut. Syria has been a major source of Hizbullah’s missiles (now estimated to number more than 50,000) since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. Bashar is a particularly enthusiastic Hizbullah supporter, and there is a good chance he will try to get at least some of his chemical arsenal into its hands now.

What comes after Assad is unknowable today. It could be chaos like the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s. A Sunni military dictator may emerge. The Muslim Brotherhood, which led the 1982 Hama revolt and plays a large role in the current insurrection, may emerge dominant. Almost any conceivable successor regime to Assad’s will likely be hostile to Hizbullah and Iran. A hostile Syria will find many allies in Lebanon eager to turn on Hizbullah.

Hizbullah may already be preparing for a post-Assad world. Former Israeli national security adviser Uzi Arad has blamed Hizbullah for the deadly bombing in Bulgaria that killed Israeli tourists this week. Arad believes it was retaliation for the Israeli assassination of Hizbullah master terrorist Imad Mughniyah in Damascus in February 2008. It may also be Hizbullah’s effort to refocus Arab attention on Israel and away from the Syrian end game. That would also be very dangerous. The Mossad appears to have foiled another plot in Cyprus on July 7 to attack Israeli tourists there. It is too soon to come to hard judgments about these attacks—other evidence points to al Qaeda, which has attacked Israeli tourists before in Kenya—but it suggests that a very hot summer in the Middle East is getting hotter.

Any international effort to get a peacekeeping force into Syria will need Turkish assistance and bases. Jordan can play an important supporting role, but Turkey is the key. That is the lesson of a recent war game on Syria played out at the Brookings Institution. Geography alone makes Turkey’s role critical, but so too does its credentials as a moderate Islamist state and NATO member. A peacekeeping force should be primarily but not exclusively Muslim in composition. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar should pay for it. If Russia and China refuse to support it at the United Nations, then the Arab League should be the sponsor.

President Obama has been cautious in responding to the Syrian civil war for the last 18 months. We can be certain that extensive contingency planning and consultations with allies have been underway for the next stages in this crisis. Now we will see how Obama manages an ugly and dangerous challenge in the most volatile place in the world.

-This commentary was published in The Daily Beast on 20/07/2012
-Bruce Riedel, a former longtime CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At President Obama’s request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future

Friday, July 20, 2012

Oh, Brother

Why Egypt's new Islamist president is keeping the Saudis up at night.


Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy

Mohamed Morsy's young presidency in Egypt hasn't started all that smoothly. It's largely been characterized by a series of standoffs with the Egyptian military, including this week's controversial court case on the legality of an assembly tasked with drafting the country's new constitution. But Morsy is also performing a less publicized high-wire act in trying to court vital benefactors in the Persian Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. How this endeavor plays out could prove just as consequential for his political survival.

Since Morsy became president last month and resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood, he has worked hard to ease tensions with jittery Gulf countries. Dubai's police chief has been warning Gulf leaders since March that local Brotherhood cells "want to stir the streets" against them, but Morsy's real challenge is to reassure a visibly nervous Saudi Arabia, which lost its key ally Hosni Mubarak to Egypt's popular uprising. In an effort to secure Saudi aid, Morsy has done all the right things: pledging not to export Egypt's revolution, describing the Gulf countries' security as a "red line" that should not be crossed, and making the kingdom his first foreign destination as president last week.

So far, Morsy's overtures appear to have placated the Saudis, who have continued sending Egypt financial support. But while there are similarities between the Brotherhood's ideology and Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi brand of Islam -- both are Sunni, religiously zealous, and critical of Western influence in Muslim countries -- it's safe to say that the Saudis preferred Egypt's old order.

As a Sunni Islamist who came to power through democratic elections, Morsy challenges the autocratic system that Saudi Arabia's rulers have been fighting tooth and nail to uphold. Just last year, the Saudis doled out nearly $130 billion in aid packages to their citizens to assuage discontent. But they did not simply rely on cash to save themselves. The kingdom's leaders also preempted planned "day of rage" protests in March 2011 by sending thousands of troops to Shiite-majority provinces, locking down the capital, and unleashing loyal clergy to threaten potential protesters with violence.

Those measures brought some calm to Saudi Arabia, but not for long. Violent protests erupted last week in the Eastern Province -- home to the country's oil and most of its Shiite population -- after security forces shot and arrested prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr for instigating "sedition." With restless Shiite citizens in the region already chafing at the state's discrimination, Saudi authorities poured gasoline on the fire when they fatally shot two men during the demonstrations. More than a week later, crowds are still taking to the streets in protest and showing no signs of letting up.

The Shiite question is just one of several reasons why the Saudis worry about the future of Egypt. Long before Morsy's election, the Saudis were nervous that Shiite Iran would exploit Egypt's transition. Although Egypt and Iran severed diplomatic relations in 1980 because of Egypt's close relationship with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and its signing of a peace treaty with Israel, the two countries have maintained economic ties. One example is the Misr Iran Development Bank, a joint venture that was founded in 1975 and survived the next 30 years of turmoil in the Egyptian-Iranian relationship. Today, U.S. Treasury officials suspect that Iran may use the bank as a means of skirting international sanctions on its nuclear program.

Saudi anxieties only deepened in February when Egypt allowed Iranian naval ships to pass through the Suez Canal -- an act Mubarak's regime prohibited. In May, Morsy said that he hoped to have "relations" with Iran during a televised interview with Egypt's CBC network, though he was careful to not specify what type of relationship he wants with Iran and to emphasize that the relationship would not come at the expense of Gulf countries' security (Iran's Fars News Agency later quoted Morsy as saying that he wanted to strengthen ties with Iran to strike a strategic "balance" in the Middle East, in a purported interview that Morsy vehemently denies giving).

In response to these growing concerns, the kingdom is doing what it always does: throwing petrodollars at the problem. In June, the Saudis gave Cairo $1.5 billion toward the state budget (the Financial Times has reported that the Egyptian government expects a budget deficit this year of 7.6 percent). The kingdom, which currently funds more than 2,300 projects in Egypt and maintains investments there that are estimated to be worth anywhere from $12 billion to $27 billion, also provided Cairo with a $750 million credit for Saudi oil imports, $230 million for a range of water and agriculture projects, and $200 million for Egyptian businesses.

These goodwill gestures come on the heels of an April spat in which the Saudis arrested Egyptian lawyer Ahmed al-Gizawy on charges of smuggling narcotics into the kingdom, sparking large-scale protests near the Saudi embassy in Cairo. In response, Riyadh quickly postponed negotiations over a $2.7 billion aid package to Egypt, closed its embassy and consulates in the country, and recalled its ambassador.

For Egypt, which is battling an official unemployment rate of around 12.6 percent, ending the dispute was critical. An estimated 1.6 million Egyptians work in the kingdom and provide important remittances to their families back home  -- the Central Bank of Egypt estimated that these remittance flows amounted to $785 million in 2006. And bilateral trade between the countries reached a record $1.2 billion during the first quarter of 2012, with Egyptian exports to Saudi Arabia totaling $528 million.

Eventually, the Saudis restored relations and agreed to deposit $1 billion in Egypt's central bank and sign other financial agreements, but not until a Brotherhood-led parliamentary delegation traveled to Riyadh and apologized directly to King Abdullah. As for Gizawy, he remains in a Saudi prison and is slated to stand trial this Wednesday.

Amid all this, the Saudis remain deeply ambivalent about Morsy. Since his election victory, Saudi and Saudi-owned pan-Arab news outlets have complained that challenger Ahmed Shafiq's campaign was undermined by mistrust and intimidation, and that Iran may be able to manipulate Morsy. They have also questioned Morsy's current affiliation with the Brotherhood, in light of his resignation from the group after assuming the presidency, and one paper speculated that he might mishandle touchy foreign-policy issues such as clamping down on "Tehran's support for local groups and attempts to spread the Shiite ideology" in Egypt.

The Saudi-Brotherhood relationship has always been complicated. The Saudi royals -- led by King Abdullah, who is formally known as the "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" -- fancy themselves the leaders of the global Muslim community, and rely on clerics to shore up their rule and command political submission from their people.

The Brotherhood, by contrast, originated in Egypt as a response to Western colonialism and decadence, which its founder, Hassan al-Banna, felt were degrading Muslim societies. The Brotherhood relies on religious pretexts to advance a populist political movement.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Saudis embraced their common ground with the Brotherhood, encouraging thousands of its members to emigrate from Egypt, Iraq, and Syria to the kingdom as a means of counteracting Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arab socialist advances. The Brothers quickly became influential in Saudi society and particularly in the education system, where they composed a large portion of the university faculty.

At first, the alliance was mutually beneficial, but Brotherhood activists soon challenged the kingdom's political establishment. The most infamous byproduct of Saudi exposure to the Brotherhood was Osama bin Laden himself, who took inspiration from Palestinian Brother and jihadi theorist Abdullah Azzam's lectures in Jeddah during the early 1980s. After the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991, the Saudis suffered another Brotherhood-induced headache from the Sahwa ("Awakening") clerics, a group of ultraconservative Islamists who directly challenged the monarchy over the "infidel" U.S. military presence on the Arabian Peninsula.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the late Saudi Crown Prince Nayef blamed all his country's problems on the Brotherhood. Those charges only intensified in 2003 when bin Laden's foot soldiers carried out attacks inside the kingdom for the first time. In the ensuing years, the Saudis appeared to regain the upper hand in their struggle to contain "deviant" interpretations of Islam, breaking up local al Qaeda cells, arresting or killing suspected militants, launching a "counter-radicalization" program, and monitoring thousands of mosques, schools, and websites.

But the Arab uprisings that began last year reversed that momentum, toppling several Saudi allies and heralding the rise of Brotherhood movements across the Middle East. The Saudis reacted with immediate alarm. Following Mubarak's overthrow, according to Egypt Independent, the Saudi government pulled all public school books that mentioned Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna from circulation because they incited "violence."

With this troubled Saudi-Brotherhood relationship hanging over his head, Morsy is walking a delicate line with Riyadh. The Saudis are ambivalent about his Islamist credentials, but they also want to thwart Iranian aspirations in the Arab world. Their main goal now is to pull the new Egypt into their sphere of influence.

Luckily for them, Morsy desperately needs Saudi money to repair Egypt's economy and has virtually no choice but to accept the terms that come with it. Unlike Iran, the Saudis are free to sell their oil. And for now, they have Morsy exactly where they want him: over a barrel.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 20/07/2012
-Steven Miller is research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and co-author of Facebook Fatwa: Saudi Clerics, Wahhabi Islam and Social Media

Syria's Alawite Refuge

As fighting takes place along Syria's central artery running northward from Homs to Idlib, minority Alawites are increasingly setting up shop in a costal enclave, looking to cordon themselves off from the chaos that they believe will come as President Bashar al-Assad's grip on the country weakens.

By Katie Paul from Tartus

The Syrian city of Tartus on the shores of the Mediterranean. (Khaled Al Hariri / Courtesy Reuters)

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Syrian port city of Tartus buzzed in the summer heat. Car showrooms displayed lines of new vehicles. Markets full of clothes, furniture, and household knicknacks bustled with customers. Clouds of nargileh smoke wafted from hookah pipes at the see-and-be-seen restaurants lining sandy Mediterranean beaches. Yachts bobbed indifferently in the port.
This Middle Eastern haven, however, lies just 60 miles west of Homs, the battle-broken city that is the center of gravity in the civil war that has shattered Syria, killing more than 16,000 people and displacing a quarter of a million more. Tartus, though, has become a refuge for the country's minority Alawi Shiite population. "As an Alawi, I don't really care about Bashar al-Assad," says 30-year-old Majed, referring to Syria's president, who is also Alawi. "The only thing that concerns me is security."

Eight months ago, after losing his job and fearing for his safety, Majed escaped Homs. (Like others interviewed for this article, Majed chose to keep his last name private for security reasons.) In Tartus, he has found work as a telecommunications salesman. "Everyone thinks we defend the regime and the authorities, but the opposition has given us no choice but to flee to the coast," he says. "It's like I'm not even in the Middle East here, I feel so secure."

Similar sentiments are easy to find in Tartus. Fayez, a 35-year-old import-export business owner, also abandoned Homs last year after opposition fighters operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army kidnapped his cousins and wrote "Get out" on the door of his home. "Revolutionaries," Fayez describes them sarcastically, holding up his fingers in bitter air quotes. "Tartus is my new home. I don't ever intend to leave," he says. "In the end, Bashar al-Assad will go and our children will be left, and we have to defend their future here."

Eighteen months of fighting have hardened both men's sectarian resolve. In their view, Alawites are under attack by a Sunni majority, which uses its religious identity as an organizing principle for mobilizing the militias operating under the Free Syrian Army umbrella. In turn, the coastal Sahel region is the only safe haven, and this stretch of land -- encompassing the port cities of Latakia, Baniyas, Jableh, and Tartus, and the mountains separating them from the rest of Syria's plains -- must be protected against Sunni encroachment at all costs.

Far removed from the shabiha, Assad's vigilante militias notorious for carrying out the regime's crackdown against the uprising, these men in the Sahel are neither fanatic nor armed. But they represent a demographic force creating another de facto divide in the country. As fighting takes place along Syria's central artery running northward from Homs to Idlib, Alawites are increasingly setting up shop in the Sahel, looking to cordon themselves off from the chaos that they believe will come as Assad's grip on the country weakens.

In several conversations, Alawites said that thousands of families have relocated to the coast. Others spoke of friends and family members who have not yet moved but have purchased homes there in anticipation of a shift in fortunes. Although the real figure is impossible to determine, visits to Damascus, Homs, and Tartus indicated that such numbers are plausible. Official tallies -- from the UN agencies operating inside Syria, for instance -- are nonexistent.

Such movement could be an early harbinger of territorial entrenchments of Syria's sectarian fault lines. "At this point, the regime is not looking at itself as a small state within Syria," says one Alawi academic who lives in both Damascus and Latakia. "It wants all of Syria, and it will stay that way until the last possible moment." Alawites talk of a return to the coast is specious, he says, the product of a regime "game" of hyping threats in order to instill fear in minorities. Still, he adds, "Just like the weapons game, the sectarian game is a dangerous one. People are hearing rhetoric like, 'We want to annihilate Alawis. We want their deaths.' You never know if it will pass a point at which you can't stop it, you lose control."

That fear is rooted in the community's historical marginalization. Throughout centuries of Mamluk and Ottoman rule, Alawites, a heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam, largely confined themselves to the mountains east of Latakia. Aside from tiny minorities in the villages around Homs and Hama, they emerged from their "wild hills" only occasionally to work as menial laborers. After World War I, French mandate authorities codified these isolationist impulses, creating a sovereign Alawi territory extending from Latakia to Tartus in 1920. Though Alawi leaders initially cheered their region as a bulwark against Sunni domination of the interior, even French protection could not make the state viable. Alawites constituted a majority of the population, but city-based Sunni and Christian communities lagged behind by only a third, possessed far greater wealth and education, and were strongly in favor of union with Damascus. By 1937, the experiment had failed; the state was incorporated into modern-day Syria.

Alawites eventually entered the Syrian mainstream via new national military and educational institutions in the cities, assuming posts in the full spectrum of professions: public service, the security forces, academia, and business. Eventually, that process put Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite air force officer, in position to seize the presidency in a 1970 coup. Today, Alawites constitute about 12 percent of Syria's population of 22 million, primarily concentrated on the coast but with significant numbers in Damascus and Homs. The mainstreaming process has not been even or complete. Like his father, Bashar al-Assad has kept the top ranks in the military and security services reserved for well-connected Alawites. Meanwhile, fueled in large part by a stifling ban on discussion of sectarian issues, identity within Syrian society remains strongly determined by sect.

Today in Damascus, people living in Alawi districts such as Mezze 86, a middle-class neighborhood, are weighing their future. Ask them how they feel about the city, and it is not uncommon to hear a refrain repeated: "Damascus is my maskan, my residence, but Latakia is my ma'man." Ma'man translates roughly to "home" but derives from a root meaning "security." It means, more precisely, "the place where I am safe." Khalil, a medical student born and raised in Mezze 86, is only in his 20s, but he repeats it, too. "I have friends, and everything is comfortable for me here," he explained to me in May, "but something inside me still feels alienated." For now, he chooses to remain in Damascus to finish his studies, but he keeps one eye trained on encroaching opposition forces and the other on the coast. "If it becomes dangerous for us Alawis, then we can't stay here."

But although the Alawites are minorities, they hold disproportionate power, which makes it unlikely that they would accept a Sunni leadership without a fight. "If Assad leaves tomorrow morning, the war in Syria will not end," says Firas Abi Ali, an analyst at the London-based risk consultancy Executive Analysis. "A core of Alawis would continue fighting. The conventional army would become a lot weaker, since so many powers are centered in the presidential office. But you would end up with a very well-armed core still fighting with tanks, special forces, possibly airplanes."

The most likely scenario, Abi Ali says, is that rebel forces would concentrate on Daraa, Deir al-Zour, the Homs-Idlib corridor, and rural areas around Aleppo and Damascus, while government forces could continue to hold Aleppo, Damascus, and the coastal areas. As the capabilities of the two sides equalize, fighting would gradually progress into conventional warfare, with much of the Alawi civilian population forced toward the coast.

The problem is what comes afterward. As history has shown once before, the odds are stacked against the viability of a state in the mountains of the sea. For one, there is the coast's restive Sunni population. Even Latakia, commonly cast as an Alawi stronghold, is more than 50 percent Sunni province-wide and more than 70 percent Sunni in the city itself. Baniyas, too, is evenly split. Overwhelming force has thus far been sufficient to quell protests in both cities, but, according to one Latakia-based activist, even mountain areas such as Jabal Akrad and Haffeh are beginning to see Free Syrian Army activity. Many Sunnis of means are leaving the city for Turkey, including the activist's own family, fearing a final showdown there as Alawis retreat.

A fledgling "state within a state" would then face the same economic dilemmas that doomed it a century ago. Import-export businesses fuel the economies of Tartus and Latakia, and those would suffer if a de facto partition develops further, since merchants would be unable to move their goods to market in Damascus and Aleppo across a hostile border. Although there is some discussion among the Alawi elite that they might find oil and gas on the coast offshore, according to Abi Ali, sectors such as tourism and agriculture are not enough to sustain an Alawi state on their own. The entity's regional neighbors, wary of their own domestic secessionist movements, would be loath to recognize it.

With these odds in mind, Alawi elites are divided on the future of the coastal mountains, seeing little choice but to fight for control of the entire country. According to one high-ranking Alawi general in Homs with direct knowledge of the thinking in Damascus, the regime leadership is not formulating any plans for separation. At the same time, he says, the demographic changes are happening organically on their own, driven by the violence in central Syria and fear of the unknown in Damascus. He has already sent his own family coastward, citing the area's security and environment as "suitable for us."

"We're Alawis, so we can't live among the other groups," he says. "We have a different, more open culture, so the coast is best for us. This is our only option."

As the war grinds on, other possibilities may become more attractive to the general. These are still the early days of Alawi migration, a relatively mild flow that could be stanched if a political deal convinces enough of the population that they would have a stake in the country's future government. But Syria's chronically squabbling opposition figures have so far failed to make such overtures, while Assad's forces, fighting what they consider an existential battle, appear unlikely to put down their weapons voluntarily. Whether those forces choose to make their final battle in Damascus or retreat to the mountains, the stage in Syria is set for a long war and deepening social divisions.

For Majed, settling comfortably into his new home in Tartus, there is no going back. "It's true that there aren't the right ingredients for a state, but the Syrian coast is basically the center of gravity for the sect," he says. "If the war continues in Syria, I'll be among the supporters of separation. There is enough blood."

-This article was published first in Foreign Affairs on 18/07/2012

Attack On Israeli Tourists Prompts Fears Of Escalating ‘Shadow War’

By Joby Warrick

At least 7 killed in Bulgaria in blast on bus carrying Israeli tourists: Bulgaria said Thursday that a suicide bomber carrying a fake Michigan driver’s license was responsible for an explosion the day before on a bus carrying Israeli tourists, an attack Israel blamed on Iran.

The suicide bombing of a Bulgarian bus packed with Israeli tourists has stoked fears of a deadly new phase in the long-running “shadow war” between Iran and Israel, with ordinary civilians now apparently replacing diplomats as primary targets.

U.S. and Israeli officials on Thursday pointed to similarities between the Bulgarian attack and three recently foiled plots also aimed at civilians, including a nearly identical plan to kill vacationing Israelis in Cyprus. While the identity of the bomber in Wednesday’s attack remained unclear, the earlier attempts have been tied to Iran or Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militia movement closely aligned with the Islamic republic.

Even before the blast in Bulgaria, intelligence officials were seeing signs of a dangerous escalation in what had until recently been a campaign of covert, tit-for-tat strikes targeting diplomats and — inside Iran — nuclear scientists.

Earlier this month, Kenyan authorities arrested two Iranian men in connection with a plot to bomb several Western and Israeli businesses in that East African country. The suspects, identified by Kenya as members of an elite Iranian military unit, had brought with them more than 220 pounds of RDX, a powerful military explosive strong enough to destroy a large hotel.

As far back as January, the Israeli government has sounded warnings about a growing terrorist threat in Bulgaria, a country whose Black Sea beaches have become a popular destination for thousands of Israelis each year.

After Wednesday’s attack, Israeli officials were quick to blame Iran, but Israel did not release evidence linking Iran or Hezbollah to the incident. U.S. intelligence officials said they have not seen proof, though they did not dispute the link.

A series of Iran-linked plots in the fall and winter had mostly targeted diplomats and embassies. Iranian nationals and Hezbollah operatives had been implicated in attempted assassinations of Israeli, U.S. and Saudi figures in five countries. In one incident, Iranian operatives allegedly sought to hire Mexican gang members in a foiled plan to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington.

The attacks paused for several months during the spring, a lull that coincided with preparations for nuclear talks between Iran and the United States and five other world powers. But as the negotiations faltered in June, new plots surfaced, this time with civilians as primary targets.

In a plot eerily similar to Wednesday’s attack, authorities in Cyprus announced July 7 that they had detained a Lebanese man who confessed to entering the country to plan attacks on planes and buses used by Israeli tour groups.

The 24-year-old Lebanese man arrested by Cypriot police had traveled to the country on a Swedish passport, and he acknowledged under questioning that he was affiliated with Hezbollah, according to Israeli officials and Cypriot police reports. A search of his hotel room turned up documents detailing plans to blow up either a plane or tour bus. The material also revealed that the man had been collecting information about flight schedules of charter planes from Israel, as well as the routes of tour buses.

Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism expert who is writing a book on Hezbollah-sponsored terrorism, said the new plots pointed to a tactical shift by Iran that suggested both a deliberate escalation and an acknowledgment of the difficulty of going after embassies and other heavily guarded installations.
“They’re going after softer targets,” said Levitt, a researcher with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.

The new plots “fit within the pattern of the shadow war” that pits Iran and its proxies against the West, he said. “But what is shocking is the fact that, while the modus operandi is the same, this time they succeeded.”

U.S. officials cautioned that there was, as yet, no firm evidence linking Iran or its allies to Wednesday’s attack in the Black Sea port of Burgas. In the latest incident, a suicide bomber, disguised as a tourist and carrying a fake Michigan driver’s license, managed to blend in with an Israeli tour group at the city’s airport before detonating his explosives, killing five Israelis as well as their Bulgarian bus driver and himself.

A succession of Israeli government officials blamed Iran and Hezbollah for the attack, citing unspecified intelligence. One of the country’s top former defense officials went further, directly linking the suicide bombing to the broader covert war with Iran. A spate of car bombings since 2010 killed four senior Iranian nuclear scientists and, in a separate phase of the covert battle, sophisticated cyberattacks have slowed Iran’s nuclear program.

“We are in a battle against Iran,” former Israeli national security adviser Uzi Arad said in an interview broadcast on Israel’s Army Radio. “We are an active side. We are not passive. . . . Any person with eyes in their head understands that this is what is behind us and ahead of us.”
Iran denied having any role in the Bulgarian attack, and its official media dismissed Israeli accusations as “ridiculous.”

Both Iran and Hezbollah have publicly blamed Israel and the United States for the assassinations of nuclear scientists and the assassination of the militia’s former security director, Imad Fayez Mughniyeh, who was blown apart in Syria in 2008 by a car bomb detonated by remote control.

Iran has also accused U.S. and Israeli operatives of launching sophisticated cyber attacks in recent years aimed at disrupting its nuclear program. The main attack involved a computer virus called Stuxnet, which crippled Iran’s main uranium enrichment plant.

While refusing to elaborate on specific programs or incidents, both Israel and the United States have acknowledged using an array of covert means to slow Iran’s nuclear program. Both countries and other Western nations believe the effort is aimed at providing Iran’s leaders with a nuclear-weapons capability. Iran contends that it seeks nuclear power only for peaceful, civilian applications.

The Obama administration said Thursday that it would continue to use of a variety of measures to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions. It also vowed to punish whoever was responsible for the deaths of Israelis in Bulgaria.

“We will work with and provide assistance to both Israel and Bulgaria in the effort to find out who was responsible for the attack in Bulgaria,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “and to hold accountable the responsible party or parties.”

-This report was published in The Washington Post on 20/07/2012

Tales Of Omar Suleiman

Egypt's feared domestic enforcer is dead, but not the regime he left behind.


"I am responsible for the stability of Egypt," Lt. Gen. Omar Suleiman said, his voice rising as his large fist slammed on the table to accentuate the point. That was my first experience with Suleiman, then President Hosni Mubarak's spy chief and all-seeing eye of Horus. It was the spring of 2005, and I was seated around a conference table in downtown Washington with a group of people far more senior than I. The conversation over stale bagels and bad coffee that morning  dealt mostly with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The fist-on-table incident came at the end of the hour, when someone brought up the possibility of democratic change in Egypt -- almost as an afterthought.

On July 19, Suleiman died of a heart attack while undergoing medical tests in a Cleveland hospital. He had been suffering from amyloidosis, a chronic disease related to abnormal protein deposits in tissue that affects the heart and liver, and his sudden passing came as a shock to his enemies and admirers alike.

Suleiman's dismissal of reform was just as startling. It wasn't just the sound of his ample fist hitting the faux oak, but because his rejection of the idea was so straightforward. Even early in the days of President George W. Bush's "Freedom Agenda," Egyptian officials had become adept at bobbing and weaving their way through conversations about political change. It was a game in which they refused to say yes or no. But Suleiman -- the man closest to the apex of power in Egypt save members of the Mubarak family itself -- was having none of it.

The perspective of Omar Pasha, an honorific title dating back to Egypt's Ottoman period, was perfectly consistent with everything that I had read (not much), or heard (mostly rumor), and subsequently learned about the man. He -- like the president he served -- emphatically believed that he understood Egypt better than anyone. This conviction, which all too often was expressed through manipulation, coercion, and the use of violence, was to be his political undoing.

Suleiman and I were hardly friends, and I certainly didn't know him personally, but he graciously accepted my requests for meetings. Between the spring of 2005 and Jan. 24, 2011 -- the eve of the revolution, and the last time I saw him -- I met Suleiman four times: twice in one-on-one interviews, once with another colleague, and once more in a group setting. Through Egyptian friends of friends and Americans who knew him, Suleiman graciously accepted my requests for off-the-record interviews. This took a certain amount of ingratiation, though I never let it compromise my moral compass.

I can't tell anyone where exactly the General Intelligence Service, Egypt's foreign and domestic intelligence organ that was the seat of Suleiman's power, is located other than it is in the posh Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. Unlike in the movies where visitors are hooded before entering a secret or sensitive location, I guess the Egyptians just thought they would confuse me before my first private audience with Omar Pasha. It worked: I was driven around for 30 minutes, doubling back and forth, going in circles, and speeding through unfamiliar neighborhoods until I completely lost my bearings. When the car finally passed through massive steel gates, I was in a pristine compound with grass and trees. There were other buildings, but not a soul to be seen.

I was driven up to the first building and told to wait in the car. Eventually, two men in uniforms that I had never seen before met me and motioned to follow them into the building, where I was handed off to another uniformed officer who brought me up a few floors in a carpeted elevator, where I was then met by an affable man in a very nice navy blue suit. He took me to a large waiting room with bright lights, gaudy furniture, and large murals of Egypt's military triumphs from antiquity to the crossing of the Suez Canal in October 1973. After what seemed like forever, the same man in the blue suit escorted me to what can only be described as a fairly understated, American-style living room with bookshelves, a couch, a large easy chair, and two arm chairs at the end of a coffee table. I was asked to sit at the end of the couch closest to the easy chair. Omar Pasha entered a few seconds later with two note takers in tow, and said in a deep voice, "Good morning."

Our conversation focused almost exclusively on foreign relations. He was deeply hostile to America's enemies in the Middle East, complaining bitterly that every time he thought he had a deal between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the Syrians and Iranians would scuttle it. He also offered his view that the United States, Egypt, and other friendly countries in the region should work together to keep "Iran busy with itself." His implication was clear -- Egyptian intelligence, the CIA, Mossad, Saudi intelligence and others should engage in clandestine operations to destabilize the clerical regime in Tehran.

Suleiman's hawkish language was part and parcel of a larger shift in Egyptian rhetoric in the late Mubarak era. In those years, the Egyptians were always looking for ways to make themselves useful to Washington besides tangling with Hamas, participating in renditions of terrorist suspects, and being the occasional caterer for talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Omar Pasha did not take my bait to discuss domestic Egyptian politics, and when my 60 minutes were up, he excused himself and left with his note takers. The man in the blue suit then returned me to the elevator and everything played out in reverse.

The drill was exactly the same on my subsequent visits, during which Suleiman invariably steered the conversation to foreign affairs. He was expansive on the various challenges on the Palestinian front -- President Mahmoud Abbas's weakness and Hamas's connection to what he later infamously called the "Brothers Muslimhood." For all the lore about his close ties with the Israelis, he harangued me in one meeting that the Israelis were whipping up anti-Egyptian sentiment in Congress with videos of smuggling across the Gaza border. He also resented Turkish efforts to mediate between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, complaining that the Turks didn't understand Hamas. That may well be true, but Suleiman was also clearly annoyed that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was encroaching on Egyptian turf.

The last time I saw Omar Pasha was on Jan. 24, 2011 -- on the eve of the Egyptian revolution. I was with a group of foreign-policy experts, business leaders, and philanthropists and we met in an auditorium at the GIS headquarters. It was hard not to notice the freaky, yoga studio-like music that was playing over the sound system. When Suleiman arrived, he sat alone on a dais and spoke into a microphone, even though the delegation numbered only about 25 people seated in the second row of the auditorium, behind a gaggle of GIS courtiers. During the meeting, we learned that the United States had supplied Egypt with the technology to turn off the Internet -- something the Egyptians would employ in earnest, though not terribly effectively, less than 24 hours later.

By Jan. 24, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had already fallen and a wave of self-immolations in Egypt had led to widespread speculation about whether the revolution was headed east. Naturally, therefore, someone in our delegation asked Suleiman whether the Tunisian revolt could happen in his country. But even at this late hour, he was as contemptuous of change as he had been six years ago, when he slammed his first down on the Washington conference table. "No," he responded. "The police have a strategy and the president is strong." Even at the time, the hubris was astonishing.

A little more than two weeks later, it was an ashen-faced Suleiman who brought the Mubarak era to a formal end in a short televised address. "Citizens, in these difficult circumstances the country is going through, President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave his position as president of the republic, and has entrusted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to administer the nation's affairs," he said.

Some of my Egyptian friends still have a hard time processing the fact that Suleiman was unable to quell the Egyptian uprising. To them, this was a man who -- despite being shrouded in secrecy -- loomed impossibly large. Wasn't he was a master manipulator, a man to be feared? After all, he had kept the Muslim Brotherhood down, brutalized the regime's other opponents, served as the trusted interlocutor of Americans and Israelis alike, and was on the short list of Hosni Mubarak's possible successors. For some Egyptians, it is hard to make sense of the fact that Suleiman turned out to be more Wizard of Oz than Dark Lord of the Sith.

Omar Pasha's failure to put a stop the uprising was a direct result of his arrogant conceit that people power could never threaten the regime. His bellicose conviction that he alone could work Egypt's levers of power was ultimately misplaced: In the end, he misunderstood his own people, who ultimately refused to submit to the brutal methods that Suleiman had worked to perfect.

I cannot say that I will miss Omar Pasha, but in an important way I am glad to have met him. By granting me an audience, by being unfailingly polite, by answering my questions, he gave me some insight into how he thought -- and thus how the regime thought and justified its actions. I know he believed his endless attempts at manipulation and coercion were acts of patriotism, but that is hard to justify given his complicity in the Mubarak regime's sundry crimes and abuses.

Suleiman's death has provoked a sense of satisfaction -- even glee -- among some of the Mubarak regime's opponents. That is understandable, but the happiness is misplaced. He was just the product of a system that has yet to be overturned. Whatever energy is expended celebrating his death is wasted at the expense of building a new political order.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 19/07/2012
-Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Assad Holds Alawites In Reserve

By Roula Khalaf in Beirut

Bashar Al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

The whereabouts of Bashar al-Assad have become the source of much speculation since the bomb blast that struck a spectacular blow to his inner circle on Wednesday.

As soon as the explosion was revealed activists claimed that the Syrian president had also died, only to be contradicted by others who insisted that he never attended the weekly security meeting hit in the attack.

By Thursday morning, fresh reports emerged that the president was in Latakia, the coastal stronghold of the Alawite community, the minority sect to which the Assad family belongs, and on which it has heavily relied in the battle against a mostly Sunni revolt.

But amid an intense psychological war waged by both the regime and the opposition this week – the first to try to show loyalists, not least the Alawite community, that it remained in control, the second to show the regime’s disintegration – western diplomats said the embattled president was not at a point of abandoning the capital. Such a move would mean his regime, at least in its present form, was in effect over.

Mr Assad is attempting to hang on and lashing out against his opponents. His officials are telling their regional allies that they can overcome the massive shock of a brazen rebel penetration of the regime’s security umbrella. They will, they say, in a few days, drive the rebels out of the capital and reassert their control.

The sectarian nature of the Syrian leadership and the viciousness of the campaign it has waged against the Sunni population means that Mr Assad is likely to fight until the end. If he fails to impose his authority over Damascus, he could fall back on an Alawite militia to pursue a desperate bid for his family’s survival.

Indeed, among the scenarios envisioned by diplomats and analysts is a disintegration of the state into an even bloodier civil war in which the Alawites, for whom this is now an existential struggle, regroup in their strongholds on the coast and continue their war.

“The regime is shedding layer after layer of what made it a state. The risk now is that it will just shed that last layer that still makes it different from a large militia,” says Peter Harling, Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Since the start of the crisis, western governments have urged opposition groups to reach out to the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shia Islam who make up around 12 per cent of the population but whose members occupy a majority of the middle and top ranks of military and security institutions.

The Assads, however, have held the Alawites hostage. Haunted by historic anxiety over Sunni domination – a once impoverished community that had been persecuted by Sunni regimes – the Alawites were empowered after the takeover of the late Hafez al-Assad, father of the current leader who became Syria’s first Alawite president in 1971. Encouraged to integrate within the Sunni community, the Alawites’ traditional tribal and religious leaderships were weakened and they became the security pillar of the Assad regime, packing the middle and top ranks of military institutions.

Since the eruption of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, Mr Assad has deliberately depicted the crisis as an extremist Sunni campaign to seize power, and enlisted the Alawite community in his fight.

In a pattern that has been repeated across the country, shelling of towns and villages are often accompanied by attacks by the shabbiha, the Alawite pro-government militia. The fear of many Alawites today is that the collapse of the Syrian regime will unleash harsh retribution against the community, a nervousness reinforced by evidence of some sectarian attacks on minorities.

For months now, opposition activists have been claiming that the regime’s long-term survival plan is to create an Alawite enclave. They say the military strategy has been designed to secure religiously mixed areas around the cities of Homs and Hama that could be connected to the coast, and crucially also to nearby Lebanon. The displacement of population in the fighting has meant that more Alawites have moved to the coastal areas, and more Sunni have left the mixed areas in central Syria.

Emile Hokayem, Beirut-based analyst for London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, is among those who question whether an Alawite militia could be sustainable. The Assad regime would have little strategic value for its allies, be it the Russians or the Iranians, or even Lebanon’s Hizbollah, if it ended up defending an Alawite enclave. If that happened, Mr Hokayem points out, it would be solely focused on survival – and on revenge.

-This report was published in The Financial Times on 19/07/2012

Beyond Libya's Election

By Giorgio Cafiero

Libya elections
A happy Lybian woman who voted for the first time

On July 7, 2012, 1.7 million citizens participated in Libya’s first democratic election with multiple parties in nearly half a century, marking a historic achievement. Approximately 60 percent of Libya’s registered voters cast their votes to elect a 200-member national assembly that will replace the unelected interim government, the National Transition Council (NTC).

Violence on July 7, which resulted in one death and the burning of several ballot boxes, was substantially lower than many anticipated following months of violent clashes between various factions, including those seeking to undermine the NTC’s capacity to administer the election. Alexander Graf Lamsdorff of the European Union Assessment Team stated, "It is remarkable that nearly all Libyans cast their ballot free from fear or intimidation.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praised the Libyan candidates for engaging “in a peaceful, democratic spirit” and United States President Barack Obama credited the Libyan voters with “another milestone on their extraordinary transition to democracy.”

Nonetheless, Libya’s transition to democracy will require far more than a peaceful and democratic election. The legitimacy of the elected government depends on its capacity to disarm local militants while ensuring all Libyans’ security, effectively distributing Libya’s petro-wealth and specifying Islam’s role in governance. The resolution of these polarizing and controversial issues -- peacefully within the framework of democratic institutions or through continued violence and authoritarianism -- will define the post-Gaddafi era in Libya.

Tribal Score Settling

After Gaddafi’s regime fell to rebel forces, many Libyans celebrated the end of a 42-year dictatorship. But not everyone rejoiced. The tribal and ethnic communities that fought alongside the regime, often due to Gaddafi’s bribes and threats, soon experienced the revolution’s dark side. One year after the “Arab Spring” reached Libya, Amnesty International reported on widespread atrocities committed by fighters seeking to settle old scores with their rivals. The report emphasized the NTC’s failure to protect marginalized Libyans from ex-rebels who have thus far refused to lay down their arms after Gaddafi’s ouster.

The dark-skinned Libyans of the Tawargha community, for instance, will remember the Libyan revolution as a tragedy. Tawarghans were a favored tribe during the Gaddafi years, their loyalty to the regime purchased with money and a town, logically named Tawargha, outside Misrata. “Gaddafi favored them as part of his project to integrate Libya with the rest of Africa,” according to Lindsey Wilsum. When the violence between government forces and the rebels erupted, Tawarghan forces hosted Gaddafi’s armored brigades as they shelled Misrata. According to many Misratans, Tawarghan fighters carried out atrocities such as rape to terrorize Gaddafi’s opposition. In retaliation, once Misrata fell, the rebels subjected countless innocent Tawarghans to “torture, beatings, detentions and executions” and carried out raids against Tawarghan refugees in the Janzur camp, twelve kilometers west of Tripoli. Most residents of Tawargha were forced to flee in August 2011 when anti-Gaddafi forces looted, vandalized, and torched their homes and infrastructure. Former rebels determined to continue their score settling frequently hunted down the 30,000 Tawarghans displaced all over Libya.

The Mshashiya and Qawalish tribes from the Nafusa Mountain area have suffered a similar plight. Opposition fighters from Zintan waged revenge attacks, which resulted in hundreds of deaths in June 2012 alone, against the members of these tribes for alleged loyalty to Gaddafi. After rebels gained greater control, many tribal members fled for Tripoli and continue to live as internally displaced refugees for fear of returning home.

Throughout the summer of 2012, vengeance and historic grievances between the black Tabu and Arab Zwai tribes have stained southeastern Libya with bloodshed. The majority of the Tabu tribe lives in neighboring Chad, with some inhabitants in Libya, and they have been accused of bringing foreign mercenaries into Libya to fight for Gaddafi’s regime. Although Gaddafi did hire foreign African mercenaries, primarily from Niger and Mali, to shell unarmed demonstrators with machine guns in Benghazi as the initial protests began during February 2011, today all dark-skinned Libyans and economic migrant workers from Sub-Saharan Africa are vulnerable to revenge attacks motivated by racist sentiments deeply rooted in Libya’s history. The Tabu tribe’s leader in Libya, Issa Abdel-Majid, stated that his tribe’s members would boycott the election in response to the NTC’s handling of deadly clashes between the Tabu and the Zwai.

Provided its limited power and legitimacy, the NTC was unable to quell the violence between locally armed militias and protect the Libyan peoples’ human rights, despite its obligation to do so as outlined by the NTC’s Constitutional Declaration of August 2011. Gaining these destitute tribes’ trust and respect will be a challenge for the next government and its capacity to establish democratic institutions.

East-West Divide

Libya’s next government will also face the daunting task of resolving the question of regional autonomy. Many in Libya’s eastern region, Cyrenaica, advocate federalism or increased autonomy, and some even demand independence. By contrast, most from Libya’s western and southern regions, Tripolitania and Fezzan, strongly oppose the decentralization of power. Approximately 80 percent of Libya’s oil lies in Cyrenaica, a major point of conflict.

When oil was discovered in Libya during 1959, the country was a federation. Consequently, the oil fields of Eastern Libya poured wealth into Cyrenaica, where King Idris came from and governed and where the Sanusi brand of political Islam flourished, while Tripolitanians and Fezzanites lived without the proceeds of Libya’s oil sales. Gaddafi, who belonged to a desert Bedouin tribe from Tripolitania that valued equality, grew up with resentment for the privileged Libyans from the Mediterranean coast in Cyrenaica. This powerful grudge was shared by the other members of the Libyan Free Unionist Officers who helped Gaddafi overthrow the monarchy on September 1, 1969. According to American University professors Akbar Ahmed and Frankie Martin:

Gaddafi reserved special vitriol for the Sanusi and people of Cyrenaica. He marginalised the Cyrenaica tribes in favour of his own tribe - the Gaddafa - and other western tribes. Gaddafi hunted down Sanusi figures, smashed Sanusi graves - scattering their bones in the desert - and disinterred the body of the Grand Sanusi. In 1988, Gaddafi blew up the Sanusi University in Jaghbub.
When the initial protests of February 2011 began in the Cyrenaican Benghazi and Al-Bayda, protestors chanted anti-Gaddafi slogans, waved the Sanusi flag that represented Cyrenaica during its shortly lived independence from 1949 until 1951, and held up portraits of King Idris. Several weeks after the uprising began, the Benghazi conference of tribal leaders selected King Idris’ nephew, Zubair Ahmed al-Sanusi, to lead the newly established Cyrenaica Transitional Council, which announced its self-proclaimed independence from Tripoli in March 2012.

Although the interim government allocated the 200 seats in the parliament to the three regions based on population (100 for Tripolitania, 60 for Cyrenaica, and 40 for Fezzan), many Cyrenaicans allege that the allocation is unequal and invests too much power in Tripoli. Many Benghazians take credit for starting the uprising and sacrificing the most for the revolution and thus feel entitled to greater representation within Libya’s next government. One week before the elections, hundreds of pro-federalism Cyrenaicans stormed the High National Election Commission’s building in Benghazi and burned voting materials to protest the allocation of seats.

However, voter turnout was high in Cyrenaica, suggesting that the majority of Eastern Libyans believe that it is in their interest to participate in the democratic process regardless of how much autonomy they are granted. The calls for independence and separatism in Eastern Libya likely issue from a vocal minority that does not represent most in Cyrenaica, thus decreasing the probability of Libya undergoing partition. Nonetheless, the next government will have to resolve tensions between Cyrenaicians and Tripolitanians over the issue of resource allocation if it seeks to possess greater legitimacy in the East than the previous regime had. 

Secular or Islamist

Although Libya is a conservative Muslim country, its citizens hold a diverse set of views on the proper role of Islam in politics. Most Libyans fear religious extremism, yet many still demand that Islam play a central role in governance. In 1989, Gaddafi claimed that Islamists were “more dangerous than AIDS,” and for several decades he harshly suppressed the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood. Nevertheless, when he took power, the Libyan leader also legalized polygamy and prohibited alcohol in accordance with sharia law. The political opening created by Gaddafi’s ouster has certainly provided Libya’s Islamists the opportunity to gain influence. Although Mahmoud Jibril’s liberal coalition, which won 39 out of 80 seats reserved for political parties, triumphed over the Muslim Brotherhood bloc, which only won 17, on July 7, Islamists will remain an influential force in Libyan politics with the capacity to influence the democratic transition, for better or worse.

The Islamists of Libya possess a diverse set of views on democracy. The newly formed Libyan Islamic Movement for Change consented to the NTC’s rule in March 2011, indicating a willingness to work alongside non-Islamist political entities. Considering that most of its members were armed jihadists in the 1990s, the organization has become increasingly pragmatic about politics. Muhammed Suwan, the President of the Justice and Construction Party (the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing), has “reiterated his rejection of violence and the need to accept the results of the election peacefully.”

By contrast, Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) condemned the election as “un-Islamic,” suggesting that the electoral victors will possess no legitimacy within this hard-line circle. Militant Salafists’ conduct also indicates that certain Libyans will not respect democratic procedures and institutions or human rights. If radical elements oppose their fellow citizens’ right to religious freedom and wage deadly attacks against those who peacefully practice a different version of Islam, the transition to democracy will be hindered.

Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace documented the tension between Islamist extremists and others during the months preceding the election: “[Ansar al-Sharia] arrived in technical vehicles to Benghazi’s Liberation Square, demanding the imposition of Islamic law. They were quickly dispersed, however, by a counterdemonstration of civil society activists bearing flags emblazoned with ‘Libya Is Not Afghanistan.’”

Sufian bin Qumu is a former Libyan rebel who once worked as Osama Bin Laden’s truck driver before six years of detainment in Guantanamo Bay. Today he remains armed and, according to The New York Times, he knows only the Koran as his constitution and is committed to remaining armed until Libya adopts a “Taliban-Islamic style government.” In his hometown of Darnah, which, according to the US Army, sent more Libyan jihadists to join the insurgency in Iraq against U.S. troops than any other Libyan town, Qumu leads a militia that flies the black flag of militant Islam and has been accused of committing violent acts against more moderate Islamists since Gaddafi’s ouster. Considering that most Libyans, including Islamists, do not favor hostile relations with the West, Qumu and like-minded militants will not likely win at the ballot box should they decide to run at some point.

Looking Ahead

The struggle for democracy and respect for human rights in Libya is far from over. On balance, the prospects for democratization in Libya appear mixed. One major reason for pessimism is the “resource curse,” which holds that economies dependent on non-renewable natural resources develop more slowly and inevitably fall under control of authoritarian governments. Libya, dependent on hydrocarbons for 95 percent of export earnings, 80 percent of its revenue, and 65 percent of its GDP, has certainly fallen victim to oil dependency. If Libya achieves democratic transition without gaining economic independence from hydrocarbons, it will be the first oil-dependent economy to democratize after discovering oil. (The only democratic country that is economically dependent on oil is Norway, which achieved a democratic transition before discovering oil).

At the same time, Libya’s oil reserves, ranked 18th worldwide, can provide the small population of nearly 7 million with many resources to rebuild the country and undergo economic development. Compared to Egypt, where there is a dearth of natural resource wealth and many of its 84 million citizens live below the poverty line, the Libyans may have reason for gratitude. Moreover, one of Gaddafi’s legacy’s that may bode well for democratization was the improvement in education during his 42-year reign. After Libyan oil was nationalized following the 1969 revolution, the government channeled massive amounts of petro-wealth into education, providing many Libyan students the opportunity to study overseas at Western universities. Today, Libya’s literacy rate of nearly 83 percent is the highest in North Africa, and many Libyans are professionals capable of working highly skilled jobs. Libya’s elite intellectuals who spent many years abroad in liberal democracies are positioned to play a positive role in the establishment of national democratic institutions.

Libya’s lack of a civil society, another legacy of Gaddafi’s regime, will hinder the democratic transition. Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, has argued that democracy depends on non-government entities within civil society. Along Putnam’s line of reasoning, Arab states with a more vibrant civil society, such as Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon, are more likely to successfully transition to democracy. Libyan commitment to civil society organizations remains quite weak, particularly in comparison to tribal loyalties.

Libya’s tribal divisions are far more deeply rooted in the people’s history than national Libyan identity. In fact, Libya’s three regions were separate Ottoman provinces until the Italo-Turkish war (1911-1912), which transferred the territory to the Italian Empire. Only in 1934 did Mussolini’s regime unite Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan into the colony of Libya, thus inventing the political entity that achieved national independence in 1951. It was no surprise, then, that after Gaddafi’s ouster, many Libyans resorted to tribal structures for survival when a power vacuum emerged in Tripoli. The deep-seated grievances that various tribes have against their rivals, a tension that Gaddafi’s regime effectively exploited to consolidate its control over society, only fan the flames of racism and intolerance. Such a political culture does not bode well for democratization. On the other hand, the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide that has caused much bloodshed during modern history in Lebanon and Iraq and threatens to destabilize Syria, is irrelevant in Libya where nearly 99 percent of the population practices Sunni Islam.

The election of July 7 was held in relative peace and security with a high voter turnout. Whether Libya can establish the more rooted institutions and processes of democracy, however, depends on the ability of the new government to deal with the “resource curse,” the ethnic and national divisions, and the toxic legacy of the Gaddafi era.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy In Focus on 18/07/2012

As Syria's Civil War Explodes, Preparing For The Aftermath

By Michael Young

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, left, stands with defence minister Dawoud Rajha, right, during a ceremony in October last year. Rajha is the most senior government official to be killed in Syria’s civil war.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (left) with his former Defence Minister Dawoud Rajha (right) who was killed yesterday

The bomb attack on Wednesday that killed Syria's defence minister, Dawoud Rajha, and more importantly his powerful deputy, Assef Shawkat, brother-in-law to President Bashar Al Assad, underscores that we are in a radically new phase of the Syrian conflict.

This was indirectly affirmed last weekend, when the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the situation in Syria to be a "non-international armed conflict" - in other words, a civil war. This the ICRC did to ensure that combatants would respect international humanitarian law.

However, definitions mean a great deal, especially when the Syrian opposition prefers to define its struggle as one directed against a homicidal regime bent on retaining power.

Even emancipative crusades can still qualify as civil war, or a stage of civil war, when the enemy principally includes one's countrymen, and when fighting becomes institutionalised and rationalised. Rather than tussle over words, it may be better to accept the reality of civil conflict in order to neutralise its worst manifestations.

Where those unhappy with the civil war appellation may have a point is in arguing that events in Syria have taken on the characteristics of a proxy war. Some describe it as an Iranian-Saudi confrontation; others as a battle between Russia and the West; yet others as a complex array of conflicts fuelled by outsiders.

Perhaps, but without Syrians firing on Syrians there would be no hostilities. Many civil wars transform themselves into proxy wars.

It's not surprising that the ICRC can now identify Syria as a country in civil war, given the breakdown of efforts to resolve the crisis. Diplomats are the most resistant to adopting terms such as "civil war", because it limits their options. The plan of the United Nations-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, is a dead letter, despite Mr Annan's efforts to find common ground between the western countries on the one side, and Russia, China and Iran on the other.

Mr Annan's failure derives precisely from the fact that the former UN secretary general underestimated domestic Syrian animosities in the initial formulation of his peace plan. By calling for negotiations between the regime of President Assad and the opposition - even though Mr Al Assad's forces had by then killed between 10,000 and 15,000 people - Mr Annan ignored the deep gulf in Syrian society.

It is easy, and perhaps unfair, to blame Mr Annan for dynamics that have largely remained outside his control. When he arrived, his task was to engage with all sides. This was never made easy by the significantly different aims of his official sponsors - the Arab League, which was looking for a transition away from Mr Al Assad, and the United Nations, where there was no consensus over such an outcome.

But Mr Annan has also found himself too much a believer in, and a prisoner of, the negotiating process. When those in Syria's opposition cast doubt on whether they are in a civil war, they should admit that it was their understandable and laudable refusal to reconcile themselves with Mr Al Assad, or to give him leeway to survive politically, that made them dismiss Mr Annan's project. To say no to a mass murderer, even if civil conflict ensues, is not always reprehensible.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the direction of events in Syria will be determined by the Syrians themselves, not foreigners. The spread of fighting to Damascus in the past days was never in doubt. For months the regime had been losing support in the capital, particularly among the Sunni-dominated merchant class, which had so decisively swung behind Hafez Al Assad during the early 1980s when he was in a showdown with the Muslim Brotherhood.

While the armed opposition is still incapable of taking control of Damascus, its ability to seize the initiative at the very centre of the regime's power base, after months of savage military assaults by Mr Al Assad's units, indicates that the tide is turning. Yesterday's suicide bombing in the heart of the capital underscores this trend. Those vital intangibles in winning wars - will, persistence, confidence - have shifted decisively to the president's enemies.

Eventually, this will trigger a collapse in the will, persistence and confidence of Mr Al Assad's followers, who may have no choice but to contemplate retreating to Alawite areas in north-western Syria. If that happens, Syria could possibly enter into a more devastating phase of its conflict.

To assume a rapid endgame once Mr Al Assad flees Damascus may be simplistic. Centrifugal forces have been unleashed, and if the Alawites decide to go one way we should expect the Kurds in north-east Syria to go a way of their own. This could undercut the emergence of a unitary Syria and even lead to ethnic cleansing in districts where communities live side by side. The only way to avert such a nightmare scenario is to begin working now to try reconciling the different religious and ethnic groups.

That is why recognising the civil component of the ongoing war is crucial. If it's merely about ousting Mr Al Assad, then the opposition could one day be surprised to find itself triumphant but also ruling over a fragmented Syria where communities mistrust one another - and specifically where the Sunni majority is feared by minorities.

The Lebanese are still paying for their inability to accept that they were caught up in a civil war. Post-war reconciliation was never regarded as important enough to be made even a secondary priority. That is why the society is riven with doubt today, lacking in cohesion. Syrians should avoid that mistake, and they still have time to do so.

-This commentary was first published in The National on 19/07/2012
-Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut