Saturday, September 8, 2012

Syria: The Gang That Can't Shoot Straight

The Syrian National Council has failed to galvanize international support for the rebellion -- and it has only itself to blame.


Last week, the Syrian opposition columnist Ghassan Muflih, writing in the online newspaper Elaph, informed his readers who was to blame for the failure to dislodge Bashar al-Assad. "The West is supportive of the demands of the Syrian people [to live in] freedom and dignity but does not encourage the success of the revolution," he wrote. "The reasons are related to the Israeli desire to see the destruction of Syria at the hands of the Assad gangs. The Western position is justified by flimsy arguments, for example, when they speak of Islamist militants or the unity of the opposition. However, the essence of the western position remains: Give Assad more time to kill."

It's understandable that some try to hold the West accountable for the continuing horrors in Syria. Last month was the deadliest so far, with the overall death toll surpassing 20,000 and the number of refugees that have fled the fighting exceeding 150,000. (The photo above shows a street scene in Aleppo earlier this week.) All UN attempts to end the bloodshed have so far come to nothing -- a dismal failure underscored by the resignation last month of UN-AL special envoy Kofi Annan. The prospects for his successor, Lakhdar Brahimi, are poor. Air support from the countries of the West would probably be far more effective when it comes to loosening Assad's grip - but the prospects for that appear remote.

But while the West recognizes the inadequacy of the international response and has clashed with Russia and China over the matter, the Syrian opposition appears to be blissfully unaware of its own role in prolonging the conflict. By failing to create a credible alternative that appeals to Syrians, as well as to the international community, the opposition has consistently put a damper on any plan for western military intervention. Their division and incompetence are now the main lifeline for a beleaguered Assad.

The Syrian National Council claims to be the largest, the best-financed, and the most well-organized of all the various Syrian opposition coalitions. According to its own books, it has received over $25 million from Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, not to mention assistance from the U.S. and the UK in the form of "non-lethal aid."

Last week, SNC President Abdulbaset Sieda lashed out at U.S. officials for saying that it was premature to speak about a transitional Syrian government. He described the many differences within the SNC as "normal." Normality is a relative concept, but in suggesting that the SNC's performance during the past year could in any way be considered "normal" in a country crying out for alternative leadership is as breathtakingly insulting as it is naïve.

SNC members like to cite the Western intervention in Libya as the sort of thing that needs to happen in Syria now. But the West's involvement in Libya came about partly because the Libyan opposition demonstrated a basic capacity for leadership. A transitional council was formed within one week of the first anti-Qaddafi protests. That council appointed a commander-in-chief to lead the rebel forces. It sent emissaries around the world to represent the opposition to foreign governments, and it immediately established contacts with grassroots constituencies inside the country. A respected defector, Mustafa Abduljalil, was elected to head an executive team tasked with implementing a clear-headed strategy to bring down Qaddafi at all costs.

The SNC has done nothing of the sort. Its control over the Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition groups remains tenuous, sustained only by payments of cash but little else. Repeated attempts to bring the armed opposition under its political wing have failed because there is little trust in the SNC as a representative body. The resultant void in leadership has been filled by radical jihadist groups that have emerged as powerful challengers to the SNC.

Despite its claims to "serve as a political umbrella for the Syrian Revolution in the international arena," the SNC has yet to appoint a single delegate or spokesperson in any of the world's major capitals.

Competing factionalism within the SNC means that ponderous and ineffective delegations of twenty or more fly around the world at great expense because none of the constituent parties trust each other to sit with foreign governments alone. It should come as little surprise that no country apart from Libya recognizes the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Among the Syrian revolution's rank-and-file, the SNC appears distant and increasingly irrelevant. Despite access to at least seven satellite television channels and dozens of websites and YouTube channels, the SNC was neither able to appeal to its own core constituency (Sunni Arabs) or to develop sophisticated messages to engage with the minority groups on whose continued support Assad relies.

To this day, the SNC does not have a discernible media strategy. It failed to understand that the key to winning the media war is not credibility but consistent messaging. Opposition activists have become obsessed with reporting details while the regime media machine keeps its eye on the big picture. "People don't have to believe what is being broadcast," says Nadim Shehadi, Syria specialist at Chatham House, "but the overall message [of the regime's propaganda] is ‘we're here and here to stay,' which is quite strong."

Leadership in the SNC is very much "by committee," and this precludes the emergence of a strong and popular leader. The SNC was created by a series of delicately constructed alliances between competitors: secularists and Islamists, Arabs and Kurds, party affiliates and independents, tribal chiefs and Facebook activists. What this means in practice is that decisions, more often than not, are compromises.

The SNC's first president, Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, was just such a compromise, and it showed. A Paris-based academic with no prior experience in front-line politics, his nine months at the head of the organization were marked by dithering and confusion over policy towards militarization and foreign intervention. Under his watch, the initial goodwill that was extended by the international community steadily ebbed away. His successor, a Stockholm-based Kurdish academic, did nothing to dispel the air of the exiles' elitist disconnect from the street.

Perhaps the most damning failure of the SNC was its inability to frame the struggle in Syria in its own terms. In what can only be described as a shameful case of intellectual cowardice, little attempt was made to define the revolution using the language of politics. Where is the list of specific grievances and demands? Where are the revolutionary slogans and symbols? Where are the thinkers that are shaping the way that Syrians understand their act of rebellion? What the revolution is about and what it aims to achieve are questions that invariably draw vague and emotional responses from SNC politicians -- responses that, though playing well to Al-Jazeera's audience, have left western observers feeling confused and underwhelmed.

The conflict exposed a series of ruptures within Syrian society -- be it sectarian, ethnic, class-based, or ideological -- which the SNC was expected to address head-on as part of a compelling new vision. The adoption by protesters of the pre-Ba'ath Party, green-white-black tricolor known as the Flag of Independence, a symbol around which Syrians rallied in their struggle against the French mandate, should have been enough to convince the SNC that they needed to seek legitimacy not in Doha or Paris but in Syria's "golden age." The post-independence liberal democracy (1946-58) is a reference point from which the SNC could have launched a progressive political program based on freedom, equality, and national reconciliation. What they actually came up with was an uninspiring four-page document called the National Covenant for a New Syria. It is doubtful whether any Syrian inside the country has heard of it, let alone knows what it says.

The regime, meanwhile, has been able to frame the conflict in terms favorable to itself: a struggle between secular urban sophistication and religious tolerance versus Islamist country bumpkins fuelled by petro-dollars and jihadist ideology. While this is not a wholly accurate portrayal, the SNC's failure to offer an alternative that allows for the role of rural religious conservatives and absorbs them into a broader liberal-national narrative, has allowed the regime to claim, not without sympathy from some in the West, that it is on front lines of the war on terror. The SNC's fundamental failure is not one of organization but of imagination.

The SNC claims to draw legitimacy from the Syrian people. In reality, it sources of legitimacy are external: Arab money and western recognition. For now, Arab money still flows into its coffers but the West has grown impatient and is looking for alternatives.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to meet an SNC delegation in Istanbul last month; she opted to meet with independent activists instead. Recent diplomatic activity points to an incipient consensus in London, Washington, and Paris that encouraging a credible alternative to Assad based around the SNC is a policy that has failed. And, that in turn, has prompted criticisms of the West from the SNC leadership.

But so what? Blaming the West has always been a useful crutch for failed political institutions in the Arab world. In this case, the SNC has concluded that it cannot afford to lose contact with the U.S. As a direct result of the recent snubs, the SNC announced on September 1 a restructuring of the organization that would see the group's general assembly grow from 300 to 400 members and each opposition group to be represented by at least 20 members. The idea is to make the SNC more representative.

In reality the SNC needed to slim down, not pile on weight. More members means more contenders jostling for position, more avenues for corruption and waste, and less chance for consensus-building and thoughtful policy formulation. It also means more meaningless posts, adding to the noxious mix of ego, ambition and incompetence that has stifled the SNC from its inception. It is a solution worthy of a committee of Arab bureaucrats.

Last week a key founder of the SNC resigned. Dr Bassma Kodmani had been involved in a tug-of-war with the Islamists for months, who reacted decisively by voting her out of the all-powerful executive committee. Her exit signals the end of the liberal-Islamist concord that established the SNC as a cross-party coalition. Now it is the Muslim Brotherhood who are firmly in the driver's seat.

The Syrian National Council has presided over a catastrophic failure of leadership. The West is right to seek an alternative, but in so doing, it will need to contend with the Muslim Brotherhood. Right from the start, the SNC was viewed by the Islamist movement as a useful tool to rebuild its own organization and position itself to capture power in Syria. Knowing that many in Syria and in the West dislike the Brotherhood, the SNC proved to be useful camouflage.

Sidelining the SNC means sidelining the Brotherhood, a task that poses considerable problems. Brotherhood leaders are well-versed in the arts of prevarication and backroom dealing, and they will try to smother any rival organization that attempts to compete with the SNC for money and international recognition. In the meantime, one can be sure that anti-western rhetoric will get louder.

It must surely be a worrying development when those working to bring down dictatorship are found to be borrowing from the dictator's manual. West-bashing will not save the SNC or the Syrian revolution. Only by demonstrating a modicum of effective leadership can the Syrian opposition hope to convince the international community that it is a credible alternative and worthy of a Libya-type investment in men, materiel, and political will.

A British diplomat summed it up nicely at a meeting with SNC representatives in April: "Spend less time communicating with us and more time communicating with your own people." The irony is that the SNC is now doing neither.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 07/09/2012
-Malik Al-Abdeh, an independent Syrian journalist and researcher

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Democratic Leaders Undermine Israeli-Palestinian Peace And Their Own Procedures

By Stephen Zunes

In a stunning violation of its own rules, the wishes of the majority of delegates at its national convention, and positions taken by the United Nations and virtually every country in the world, the Democratic Party leadership pushed through an amendment to its platform early during its proceedings on Wednesday, with barely half the delegates present and without allowing for any discussion or debate, stating that Jerusalem "is and will remain the capital of Israel” and should be “undivided.”

The language, as foreign policy analysts noted, is in "in direct opposition to longstanding U.S. policy on Jerusalem" that the status of the city should be determined by talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, both of whom desire Jerusalem as their capital, and that the city should not be unilaterally recognized as the capital of either Israel or Palestine until then. Most observers have recognized that a workable two-state solution would include having Jewish-populated western Jerusalem recognized as the capital of Israel and the predominantly Arab part of eastern Jerusalem—currently under Israeli military occupation—as the capital of a Palestinian state.

The amendment to the platform, however, ignores Palestinian claims to the city completely, which—combined with the insistence that the city be “undivided”—could be interpreted as a call for exclusive Israeli control. By contrast, a recent poll showed that Democrats by a nearly 2:1 margin believe that Jerusalem should be divided between Israelis and Palestinians rather than controlled exclusively by Israel.

Virtually no country currently recognizes Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Neither the United States nor any other country currently has its embassy in Jerusalem—nearly all foreign embassies are located instead in Tel Aviv. 

Convention chairman and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa put the amendment to the floor, along with another amendment to include mention of God in the platform, for a voice vote, noting that a two-thirds majority was necessary for adoption of the amendment. He looked surprised when the “nay” votes appeared to outnumber the “aye” votes. He called the motion a second time with the same results. He then called the motion a third time, still way short of the required two-thirds majority and probably still short of even a simple majority, but he claimed that the motion had somehow received at least two-thirds vote anyway and declared the motion carried.

Outraged delegates in the majority started booing at the chair for his extraordinary abuse of power. The media jumped on the unprecedented discord in what had until then been a very unified and orderly convention, while leading Republicans and conservative commentators began claiming that Democrats were “booing God and Jerusalem.”

As an illustration of the depth of the dishonesty in the Democratic Party leadership, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz claimed that the vote was “absolutely two-thirds” and that "there wasn't any discord." Afterwards, CNN’s Anderson Cooper observed that the DNC chair must live in an "alternate universe.”

Pushing through the amendment was in part a reaction to Republican criticisms that the Obama administration—despite providing record amounts of taxpayer-funded military aid to Israel’s rightist government and blocking the United Nations from challenging Israeli violations of international humanitarian law—was somehow not supportive enough of Israel. It appears, then, that President Obama and other Democratic leaders were more concerned about assuaging right-wing Republicans than honoring the beliefs of members of their own party or following their own convention rules.

Indeed, the Democratic leadership was so desperate to push through this right-wing amendment that the chair was willing to lie in front of a nationally televised audience that an amendment had passed by a two-thirds majority voice vote when it was obvious to any viewer or listener that, despite three separate attempts, it had not. And they did so despite the likelihood that it would create a chaotic and angry scene on the convention floor that the media and the Republicans would exploit to the fullest.

It was also a demonstration of just how determined the Democratic Party leadership is to undermine the Middle East peace process and weaken international law, even if it means running roughshod over their members and thereby hurting their chances in November.

The craven way in which the Jerusalem amendment was pushed through demonstrates that the Democratic Party is not a democratic party. It has shown to the world an essentially authoritarian mindset, both in terms of its willingness to undermine international law in its support of the expansionist goals of allied right-wing governments as well as its willingness to ignore its own rules and overrule the majority of the elected delegates at its national convention.

This raises some critical questions for Democrats as we move into the final three months of the 2012 campaign: If the leadership refuses to respect party members, why should party members respect the leadership? And why should ordinary Democrats work to re-elect leaders who put their own right-wing agenda ahead of the beliefs of the party’s more progressive majority?

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy In Focus on 06/09/2012
-Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco who, until Wednesday, had planned to support Obama’s re-election campaign

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Libya's Constitution Controversy

By Duncan Pickard

After widely applauded elections, Libya is preparing to draft its first democratic constitution after more than 40 years of Muammar al-Qaddafi's dictatorship. A 60-person committee will draft the constitution and reckon with key social issues facing Free Libya, including national identity and human rights, state and religion, and the distribution of political and economic power. The committee must frame a state in a country once characterized by weak social or political organization.

The process by which the constitution will be written is unclear. The National Transitional Council (NTC) -- which served as Libya's interim parliament after the ouster of Qaddafi until the July 7 election of the General National Congress (GNC) -- had proliferated a constitutional declaration to govern the transitional phase. The declaration called for the congress to appoint 60 experts to a constitutional committee, 20 from each of Libya's three historical provinces in the west, east, and south. But the NTC amended the declaration the week prior to the election, stating that the members of the constitutional committee would be elected rather than appointed.

While the overall number and 20-20-20 makeup of the committee is likely to stand, the question of appointment versus election is yet unsettled. The amendment is legally dubious due to its proximity to the election, and elected members of congress can overrule decisions made by the unelected NTC. Because an election would wrest the power from members of congress who are expected to hold the power of appointment, it is likely that they will overturn the NTC decision in the coming weeks.

The congress will consider other questions about the drafting process. The NTC declaration called for the committee to draft a new constitution within 60 days of its first meeting, and for a national referendum within 30 days after that. This timeline is unrealistic (Egypt's constitutional declaration allows for six months and the Tunisian constituent assembly, which has no legal time limit, may produce a constitution after about a year) and would allow for virtually no public input. Civil-society groups are preparing to lobby the congress to extend this timeline, and some in congress might push for congressional approval before the draft constitution is submitted to referendum.

Some Libyan lawyers and politicians favor a short timeline in part because they consider Libya's 1951 constitution -- drafted with significant assistance from the United Nations -- a solid basis for the new document. The constitution established a monarchy, but still it is seen to include good human-rights protections and strong national institutions.

Others believe that the 1951 constitution may be a poor starting point for the modern document. The 1951 constitution does not account for fundamental changes in Libyan political economy of the past 60 years. It constitution created a chronic imbalance of power and eventually failed because it did not account for the distribution of wealth after oil was discovered in 1959. The 1963 amendments to the constitution eviscerated the federal system, creating wide social instability and opening the door to Qaddafi's coup d'état six years later.

Indeed, the distribution of political and economic power is one of the most important issues that will face today's constitutional committee. The 1951 constitution established a federal system with three sub-national governments, each with specific executive and legislative branches and the authority to levy taxes. The 1963 amendments abandoned the federal model. After the revolution, Qaddafi established what he called a jamahariya, a Byzantine system of overlapping jurisdictions that allowed him to emerge as the sole national authority. The administration was centralized in Tripoli to the extent that residents of Benghazi (Libya's second city, 600 miles away) had to travel to the capital to renew their passports. Defining a method of ensuring both administrative and political representation in Libya's government will be one of the key puzzles facing the constitutional committee.

The protection of human rights is another priority. Libyans expect their new constitution to safeguard certain rights, but the debate of which rights will be contentious. Some women's advocacy groups, for example, are lobbying for equal-protection clauses, and more specifically the right to pass citizenship to their children and claim equal inheritance benefits to male relatives -- rights long denied to them in Libya. Rights of ethnic and linguistic minorities are also in question, including access to citizenship, recognition of official languages, and the right of return for internally displaced persons. The mechanisms by which rights will be protected and the extent to which the government will be able to lawfully curtail rights -- for public safety, for example -- will also be important.

The debate over the relationship between state and religion is becoming tenser after recent attacks by self-proclaimed Salafis against Sufi mosques. The major political parties in the recent election all agreed that Islamic law school be mentioned as at least one of the sources of law in the constitution, but the extent to which members of the committee will deploy interpretations of Islamic principles to other constitutional features -- such as the judicial system or human rights -- will be controversial.

Debates in the constitutional committee will take place in the background of pressing challenges now facing Libya, including domestic security, economic development, transitional justice, and much more. Fortunately, the expert members of the constitutional committee will not be bogged down with legislative issues -- unlike in Tunisia, where the constituent assembly is both a parliament and a constitution-making body.

But as it stands, the short timeline for the drafting process will put unnecessary pressure on the constitutional committee and effectively exclude important voices from civil society. Some Libyan politicians have countered critiques of the timeline by pointing to the referendum that will, in their view, satisfy demands of public participation. But a referendum limits a voter's opinion to "yes" or "no," which is no substitute to a robust debate on the issues. A more inclusive process will also increase the likelihood that the Libyan electoral will accept the final text, an essential element in establishing a constitutional order.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 05/09/2012
-Duncan Pickard is a constitutional specialist at Democracy Reporting International and a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

Why Obama Will Win

Whatever his failings, the president is likeable enough -- and incumbency is a powerful home-court advantage.


President Barack Obama

I love presidential trivia. And here's a piece that's going to make all the true believers gathered this week in Charlotte happy.

Should Barack Obama be reelected this November, it will be only the second time in American history we've had three two-term presidents in a row. You have to go way back -- Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe -- to ferret out the first and only such presidential trio.

Big deal, you say. Isn't this just another one of those mindless bits of presidential 411 that don't add up to much -- or anything at all? And the presidential scholars and political scientists who do this stuff for a living might agree with you, writing this trend off as irrelevant.

After all, what could we possibly conclude from a set of three presidents -- in this case, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama? A set of three can't have any statistical or empirical validity or relevance, can it?

Probably not. But I still think it holds the key to why Obama is likely to be reelected. And here's why I think this is one of the more meaningful bits of info cluttering up the presidential trivia attic.

First, incumbents have a big advantage, particularly against a weaker rival. With all of the bells and whistles of the modern presidency, and the respect, however grudging, most Americans continue to show toward the leader of the free world, running for president from the White House instead of a campaign bus in Iowa helps a lot.

After all, it isn't for nothing that Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the real presidency -- The West Wing -- once described the White House as the greatest home-court advantage in the world. Since 1980 -- that's 30-plus years, folks -- only one American president (still one of my favorites, though, George H.W. Bush) failed to gain a second term.

Second, presidents who are likeable, sentient beings have the edge. Clinton's political skills rivaled Reagan's; George W. Bush's regular-guy image trumped Al Gore's stiff public persona. And while Obama can be too professorial and detached -- both compared with Mitt Romney and in his own right -- he's a natural on the stump.

But it's more than that. Our politics are in crisis -- driven by deep political divisions, a dysfunctional Congress, and a 24/7 media that both mirrors and perpetuate the circus-like atmosphere that is the American political arena. We are uncertain, worried, and anxious about the economy and our nation's future.

As we watch all of this craziness in our politics, we crave not just certainty and stability, but hope as well. And so we seek out a measure of that stability in the only national institution that all Americans help shape -- the presidency.

Indeed the presidency has become the last bastion and repository of our willingness to give second chances in the hope that somehow things will get better. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were reelected for very different reasons, but both received this benefit of the doubt: Clinton gained a second term despite character issues because economic times were good; Bush was reelected because he showed strength and character in the wake of 9/11, when times were bad.

Neither commander in chief will ever get into the presidential hall of fame. They were deeply flawed and imperfect men. And they were not great presidents, even though at times they could be great at being president.

If those two leaders could be reelected, it is not a stretch to believe that Barack Obama will ultimately prevail over Mitt Romney. Our current president will benefit from this trend -- and despite their disappointment with many aspects of his performance, enough Americans will stay with a likeable if only slightly above average president who was dealt a very tough hand.

Whether or not this is the best thing for the country remains an open question. But given the impossible challenges we confront and our dearth of national leaders, it may well be the way Americans will now choose their presidents.

So Mr. President, your remark to Diane Sawyer in January 2010 -- that you'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre eight-year man -- isn't happening. Your challenge is going to be to avoid being a mediocre two-termer.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 05/09/2012
-Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published this year

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Assad's Massacre Strategy

The Syrian leader believes that a campaign of mass murder will be his path to victory. Is he right?


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

What is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad thinking? Over the past several weeks, his regime has escalated military operations throughout the country -- shelling neighborhoods in previously loyal cities, using airplanes to drop what rebel fighters call "TNT barrels" containing hundreds of kilograms worth of explosives, and unleashing its militias to commit gruesome massacres such as the one in the city of Daraya, where more than 400 people were slaughtered on Aug. 27. Approximately 5,000 Syrians were killed in August -- making it the deadliest month of the 17-month conflict.

At the same time, the Syrian regime has embarked on a PR offensive. Damascus invited the Independent's Robert Fisk into the country -- allowing him to interview Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, embed with Syrian forces battling insurgents in Aleppo, and interview imprisoned foreign fighters and Syria jihadists. Most prominently, Assad himself granted an interview to the pro-regime Addounia TV on Aug. 29 where he insisted "Syria will return to the Syria before the crisis."

Western and Arab media dismissed the interview as detached from reality: Assad's comments appeared to be directed at an outside audience, and he did not offer any concessions to the opposition. But the interview merits a closer look, as it can offer insights into a recent shift in the regime's thinking and tactics.

In the interview, Assad explained that a recent "public understanding" has allowed the regime to escalate its offensive, unlike during the early stages of the uprising. "Some wanted us to handle that stage as we handle the stage today," he said. "This is illogical. The stage was different, their [rebels'] modus operandi was different, even the public understanding of what's happening was different."

There is of course no public consent as such, but some of Syria's internal dynamics have shifted in favor of the regime. Many in Syria have made up their minds about standing with the regime until the end. Though some do not support the violence, they believe that blood is a price that has to be paid to prevent the country from lapsing into chaos. Others want a decisive end to the conflict, regardless of who delivers, and currently see the opposition as unable to tip the balance.

The country is more divided than ever. Syrians have largely split into two camps, whereas before there had been a large group in the middle that supported neither the regime nor the opposition. Slipping into the regime camp are mainly minority groups that were previously on the fence -- Christians, Druze, and Ismailis -- but have grown disenchanted with the rebels. Bassam Haddad, a Syrian commentator and director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University, addressed this theme in a recent article, writing, "both camps have solidified into two concrete walls, crushing nuance and humanity."

The opposition, having clearly failed to unite, present a viable alternative to Assad, and reassure the country's minorities, is partly to blame for the impasse. Last week, the opposition Syrian National Council was attacked by the Joint Military Council, which claims to represent around 60 percent of fighters, for failing to unite the opposition behind a coherent political alternative. The rebels have also engaged in some atrocious sectarian violence, such as the killing of five Alawite officers in a police station outside Damascus, while sparing the rest -- which three days later led the regime's militias to slaughter at least 20 of the town's residents on Aug. 1. International media have also reported extensively on the rise of extremism among the opposition's fighters, a trend the regime had long highlighted even before it became true.

The regime has also proven resilient, bouncing back from a July 18 bombing that killed four top security officials, as well as the defections of numerous other top generals and officials. Assad dismissed these defections as part of the regime's "self-cleaning" mechanism, claiming that the regime had facilitated the departure of certain unworthy individuals. "Practically, this process is positive," he said.

Assad's statement was not only meant to reassure his supporters, but also likely to make the point that defections can be seen as a way to shield his rule from any internal threats. From Assad's perspective, it is probably better to have a small, committed core of officials committed to crushing the revolt than a broader regime infiltrated by traitors.

By making regular Syrians suffer greatly for hosting rebels in their neighborhoods, the regime hopes residents will reject fighters -- a tactic that has already succeeded in several areas across the country. In Hajin, a city in eastern Syria bordering Iraq, residents told me they had recently asked fighters to leave the town after being shelled for at least three weeks. Similar scenarios occurred in various towns and neighborhoods in Damascus, Homs, and Hama. The regime believes the political opposition is losing popularity, and its support will not endure if the situation lingers on.

Analysis of the nature of the clampdown in Syria has so far focused largely on how the top leadership of the regime thinks, but the calculations of low- and mid-level security officers may be more important. According to one Syrian official, these officers have leeway to execute "directives" given by the top leadership without having to communicate with their superiors. While this policy increases the risk of massacres, it also grants ground forces impressive agility and flexibility. This explains the apparent discrepancies in the regime's clampdown in different areas across the country, and it is probably what Assad means when he reiterated in the interview, "mistakes have been made."

These bottom-up dynamics are important to explaining the situation on the ground. Rank-and-file security officers and ragtag shabbiha militias, which represent the tip of the regime's spear, believe in extreme violence and have little regard for compromise. They think the regime has been too lenient, should have acted decisively from day one, and that Assad failed where his father succeeded in crushing a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in the early 1980s. The regime had tried in the beginning to balance between "public understanding" and these elements. But even if Assad wanted to shift his strategy, these elements would now make it difficult to stop the violence.

Given the regime's new tactics, what is the way forward for Syria's rebels? If they continue to "bring problems" to neighborhoods, as many Syrians have started to complain, then time will be on Assad's side and his regime will maintain the upper hand. In light of the regime's reprisals on rebel hideouts inside the cities, the rebels either have to operate outside neighborhoods or be able to protect them from the regime's retribution. The opposition must also treat the battle against the regime as one struggle, and not focus on one city or another as "the final battle" while neglecting other fronts, as it has consistently done. This misguided tactic has bolstered the regime standing in people's minds -- after all, it has survived all the "final" battles so far.

It is also important to convince Syria's minorities and those fearful of rising extremism that their future is not tied to Assad. That can only be done with a truly representative political body. Over the past few months, many Syrians have given up on the Syrian National Council's ability to usher in a viable alternative to Assad. The council's stagnation is part of the problem and plays into Assad's hands in weakening support for the uprising.

The international community also has a role to play. In the absence of consensus on the U.N. Security Council, the United States and its allies in the region should provide military and financial assistance to the rebels that will allow them to repel catastrophic attacks, whether from land or air, on neighborhoods from which the fighters operate.

At the beginning of the uprising last year, the regime sought to justify its clampdown by claiming the civilian protests were militarized. It was a self-fulfilling, self-defeating prophecy. Assad will find that it is much easier to force people to pick up arms than to force them to lay them down. But it is not impossible.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 04/09/2012
-Hassan Hassan is an editorial writer for UAE-based The National newspaper

Lakhdar Brahimi: The Patient Peacemaker

He helped end Lebanon's 15-year civil war. Now Lakhdar Brahimi could be Syria's best hope yet.

By Oliver Miles

Lakhdar Brahimi
The new UN and Arab League representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. Photograph: Michel Euler/AP

The new UN and Arab League representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said on Monday that he is standing in front of a brick wall, that he can see no cracks in it at present, and that he is frightened of the weight of responsibility placed upon him – people are being killed, and "we are not doing much", he told the BBC. So what is the point? Can he possibly succeed where his predecessor, Kofi Annan, failed?

First, the Algerian is by far the best man for the job (except perhaps because of his age – he is 78). His experience in international affairs is extraordinary. When I first met him 30 years ago he already had 16 years as ambassador of his country, including eight in London, where he was considered an outstanding success.

Since then he has held many Algerian, Arab League and UN appointments including a key role as Arab League special envoy to Lebanon when he crafted the Taif agreement of 1989 which was the beginning of the end of the 15-year civil war. As UN representative in Iraq in 2004 following the American invasion, his proposals on the formation of an Iraqi government were ignored by the Americans with tragic results. His peacemaking and peacekeeping appointments for the UN also included South Africa, Haiti, Burundi and Afghanistan.

In retrospect it is clear that Annan's high international profile as former UN secretary-general raised expectations which could not be met. Brahimi raises no such expectations because he is less well-known and because of his modest personal style, as exemplified by his BBC interview. But he knows the protagonists in the Syrian crisis as well or better than Annan, and he has the advantage of being an Arab – from far-away Algeria, therefore not automatically seen as taking sides.

But what about the brick wall? What can he actually do? So long as the Syrians are determined to go on fighting, the fact – however unpalatable – is that nobody can stop them. But it is also a fact that even civil wars come to an end, either because the bloodletting goes on until one side or both can fight no longer, or because the parties realise in time that they cannot achieve a military solution and must compromise.

The Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, is an example. Lebanon is of course Syria's neighbour and the two countries have much in common, although the Lebanon war was a very different story. A feature of that war was countless ceasefires, broken countless times; the lesson to be drawn is not that ceasefires are useless, but that eventually the firing stopped. Peacemaking paid off.

Internally, there are some signs that both the Syrian government and the rebels may have begun to realise that military victory is not to hand. Externally, President Morsi of Egypt has proposed a Syria contact group made up of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. This could be important because it suggests that Egypt may be ready to resume its role as an important regional power, and also because it shows that the concept of a threatening Shia crescent and implacable hostility between Sunni and Shia Muslims is largely spurious.

There will be no quick results, and impatient commentators will argue that the role of the international envoy is useless. Let us hope that the UN's security council powers and the Arab League will take the long view.

So far, unfortunately – apart from the appointment of Annan and now Brahimi – they have shown no sign of a will to work together, and Annan was right to accuse them of "finger-pointing". It is disgraceful that the west on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, concentrate on accusing each other of arming the parties in Syria, rather than on working together to stop arms getting through to either side – not that a civil war has ever ended because of a shortage of guns.

Eventually there will be a "crack in the wall", a chance of peace. Brahimi is our eyes and ears to spot it when it comes.

-This commentary was published first in The Guardian on 03/09/2012
-Oliver Miles is a retired diplomat and the chairman of MEC International

Monday, September 3, 2012

Who Will Govern Syrian Kurdistan?

By Giorgio Cafiero


Last month, as the Free Syrian Army took over areas of the Syrian-Turkish border, a power vacuum emerged in northeastern Syria. It was not the Free Syrian Army that filled the vacuum, but instead the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most heavily armed Kurdish faction in Syria. In early August, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Kurdish political parties and paramilitary groups have almost completely usurped the Syrian state apparatus,” taking over municipal buildings and vital infrastructure, providing security, and controlling the distribution of resources.

Although the prospects for an independent state in Syrian Kurdistan remain dim, unprecedented Kurdish autonomy will likely result from the conflict. The implications extend beyond Syria’s borders as various governments and non-state actors have strong, and often conflicting, interests in the political fate of Syria’s Kurds and the territorial integrity of the Syrian state.

Turkey, Iraq, and Iran are alarmed by the prospects for greater Kurdish autonomy in Syria, primarily due to unresolved tensions with their own Kurdish communities. On the other hand, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, the state of Israel, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey welcome a semi-autonomous Kurdish state in Syria.

The Shadow of Saddam

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament, succinctly summarized the Syrian Kurds’ predicament of the last 18 months. “The Kurds in Syria have their own problems … They are against the Assad regime. They have been for years. They have no rights. But they are not sure about which people will come after.”

Syria’s Kurds remain divided over the “Syrian Revolution.” Supporting the regime risks a confrontation with vengeful rebels in a post-Assad era. But joining the ranks of the armed opposition risks brutal repression at the hands of the regime if Assad retains power—the fate of Iraqi Kurds who fought against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war is recalled by all in historic Kurdistan. Rather than choosing sides, many Syrian Kurds have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan with the intention of returning to their homeland when the conditions are safer.

Since the 1960s, Syria’s Kurds have been marginalized and subjected to a discriminatory legal code. In 1962, a census was conducted that deprived approximately 120,000 Syrian Kurds of their citizenship. After Hafez al-Assad became president, Bedouin tribes were brought into the Kurdish region to resettle as part of a state-sponsored campaign of Arabization. Within the last decade, the state security forces opened fire on peaceful Kurdish demonstrators protesting Arab-Kurdish inequality in Syria. Syria’s Kurds, according to Amnesty International, have “continued to face identity-based discrimination, including restrictions on use of their language and culture,” and thousands have been “denied equitable access to social and economic rights.”

But although Bashar al-Assad is not well loved among Syria’s Kurds, the opposition has failed to garner the Kurds’ unified support. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which holds a plurality of seats within the Syrian National Council (SNC), is not popular among Kurdish nationalists, who are overwhelmingly secular. By opposing Kurdish autonomy and insisting that Syria’s official title remain the “Syrian Arab Republic,” the secular Arab nationalists within the SNC have also earned little trust from the Kurds.

Most importantly, however, is Turkey’s relationship with the Istanbul-based SNC. Put simply, many Kurds of Syria view the SNC as a Turkish puppet.

Assad’s forces have made no effort to reassert control in the northeast. According to Patrick Seale, a leading British expert on the Middle East, three potential reasons explain the regime’s inaction. First, the Syrian military was bogged down in Damascus and Aleppo and could not control the Kurdish areas. Second, in retaliation for Turkey’s support for Syria’s armed opposition, Assad wanted to antagonize Turkey by granting his own country’s Kurds autonomy. Third, Assad wanted to win the hearts and minds of the Kurds to prevent them from joining the opposition. Most likely, each of these factors contributed to Assad’s subsequent decision to grant citizenship to 200,000 stateless Kurds and permit the PYD to rule Syrian Kurdistan.

Some have accused the PYD of being allied with the Assad regime. Although the PYD claims to oppose Assad’s rule, it favors a dialogue with the regime and supports demilitarizing the opposition. The faction has opposed all foreign intervention in Syria and has met with Russian, Iranian, and Chinese diplomats, whose governments have provided weapons to the Syrian regime throughout the conflict.

The Struggle for Syrian Kurdistan

The idea of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state in northern Syria alarms Turkey for two main reasons. First, Ankara fears that the PKK will gain a safe haven in Syrian Kurdistan from which it can launch attacks against Turkey. Additionally, the Turkish government is concerned that greater Kurdish autonomy in Syria would press Turkey’s own 14 million Kurds to demand greater autonomy in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority areas. According to Turkish nationalists, the implications of this sensitive issue threaten to undermine the Turkish Republic’s territorial integrity, leading to the formation of an independent Kurdish state within southeastern Turkey.

“Turkey is capable of exercising its right to pursue [the PKK] inside Syria, if necessary,” threatened Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. Seale reports speculation in the Turkish media that Ankara is considering a military campaign in northern Syria to create a “buffer zone” whereby the Turkish military could defeat the Kurdish militants and establish a safe zone for the FSA to continue waging war against Assad’s regime.

Unlike Turkey, Iraq’s government supports the Assad regime. Iraq was one of three Arab League members not to vote in favor of suspending Syria from the organization. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fears that a Sunni takeover of Syria, especially if led by radical Islamists, could reignite Iraq’s militant Sunni movements (including al-Qaeda affiliates) and rekindle their determination to destroy the Shia order that has emerged in the post-Saddam era, especially following the withdrawal of U.S. troops last year.

However, Baghdad shares Ankara’s interest in preventing the Syrian Kurds from gaining a semi-autonomous state along the border with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. As tensions heat up between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan — mainly related to disputes over ownership of Kirkuk’s oil, Washington’s sale of F-16s to Baghdad, and border standoffs — many analysts fear a looming military confrontation between central Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Iraq’s position vis-à-vis Iraqi Kurdistan would weaken if Barzani’s government, the KRG, had a new ally in Syrian Kurdistan. On July 23, Barzani confirmed that his government has been training Syrian Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq.

However, the triangular relationship among the KRG, central Iraq, and Turkey will limit Barzani’s capacity to support Syria’s Kurds in their quest for an autonomous region. While Ankara and Baghdad’s ties worsen, primarily related to opposing stakes in Syria and the deepening political and economic relations between Turkey and Barzani’s government, a Sunni alliance between Turkey and Iraq’s Kurds may be increasingly valuable to Barzani as he assesses the threat from Baghdad. Trade between Turkey and the KRG reached $4.5 billion during the first half of 2012.

Therefore, antagonizing Turkey could entail grave economic costs for Barzani. On August 1, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with Barzani in Erbil to discuss the situation in Syrian Kurdistan. Both leaders concurred that “any attempt to exploit the power vacuum by any violent group or organization will be considered as a common threat, which should be jointly addressed.” Moreover, if the PKK gains power in Syrian Kurdistan, Barzani will face a difficult dilemma, as support for a pro-PKK semi-autonomous government in Syrian Kurdistan will unquestionably jeopardize his relationship with Turkey. While opposing greater Kurdish autonomy in Syria, Maliki would likely love to see Barzani placed in such a tight spot.

Israel must be ecstatic over the thought of a divided Syria, especially if an area rich in oil resources falls out of Damascus’ control. Moreover, Israel would be delighted to see Iran’s Kurdish minority take inspiration from their Syrian counterparts and demand increased autonomy, or perhaps independence, from the Islamic Republic. In fact, like the PYD, the most militant Kurdish group in Iranian Kurdistan, the Party of Free Life Kurdistan (PJAK), is a PKK-affiliate group.

Unquestionably, the PKK has much to gain from increased Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. The PYD, formed by Salih Muslim Muhammad in 2003, has maintained close ties with the PKK. Many analysts even label the PYD as a political front for the PKK. If Turkey’s military invades Syrian Kurdistan to target Kurdish militants, the PKK has warned that it will turn “all of Kurdistan into a war zone.” Nonetheless, the PKK is not supported by all in northeastern Syria. Along certain parts of the Turkish border, Kurds only constitute 30-40 percent of the population, and relations with Arab tribes have often been tense in recent history.

Challenges on Both Sides of the Border

Despite the Syrian Kurds’ success in exploiting the Syrian civil war to gain autonomy, many delicate variables will determine their future. Will the Arab tribes in northeastern Syria peacefully accept de facto Kurdish control? Would either Assad or the Free Syrian Army accept an autonomous Kurdish region if or when the civil war ends? If Turkey invades Syrian Kurdistan, will Barzani’s government side with its fellow Kurds or be lured by economic pressure into remaining neutral?

Even as Turkey’s ruling Islamist party learns that the Middle East is a challenging region in which to pursue a “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy, it may one day regret its role in undermining the Assad regime. Although Assad’s ouster and the rise of a pro-Turkis h Sunni regime in Damascus could expand Turkey’s influence in a new Middle East, what price will they pay for this greater regional power?

As the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003 paved the way for a semi-autonomous Kurdish state on Turkey’s border with Iraq, the “Arab Spring” in Syria will likely create another one along the border with Syria. Although Turkey’s government has determined that ousting Assad would advance its interests, it may have to accept a PKK safe haven along the Syrian border as blowback from its role in further militarizing the conflict in Syria.

-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 31/08/2012

Democracy Is Discipline and Self-Restraint

By Odeh Aburdene

The Arab uprisings over the last twenty months have shown that power flows from the bottom up, and people eventually will defy unjust tyranny and oppression. The Arab uprisings are a testament to the power of the powerless. Nelson Mandela, while in prison, on Robben Island, picked out a favorite passage from Shakespeare regarding Julius Caesar’s meditation on bravery and the inevitability of death. The Arab youth who led these uprisings were echoing Julius Caesar’s motto:

“Cowards die many times before their death,/ the valiant never taste of death but once,/ of all the wonders that I yet have heard,/ it seems to me most strange that men should fear,/ seeing that death, a necessary end./ will come when it will come.”

The events in the Arab world since December, 2010 in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and other places, have shown that the Arab people no longer fear or respect their leaders. They are demanding freedom, fairness, and an honest government.

Unless the people who rose against tyranny pursue and agree on the following common principles, values and standards, a just and fair society will not emerge. These standards, values and principles are:

1) security of thought and speech and freedom for the people to express their ideas and thoughts;
2) freedom for painters, photographers, and other artists to create as they wish;
3) freedom for scientists and engineers to research and invent;
4) freedom to worship, which recognizes and affirms the variety of creeds and sects;
5) freedom from oppression;
6) freedom from arbitrary arrest;
7) freedom from secret police and their brutality;
8) freedom to express their opinions and criticisms of their own government; and
9) last but not least, freedom and equality of opportunity for women. These principles have to be adopted gradually, through institution-building and cannot be imposed or enacted instantaneously. First, they start with a good educational system that teaches reason, science, and tolerance.

Unless the new order in the Arab world meets on these common standards and principles, the Arab world will not have peace, stability, prosperity, and progress. As A.J.P. Taylor the most famous British historian of the twentieth century declared, “Without intellectual freedom, without tolerance, without love, no society can advance.” It is the duty of Arab writers and intellectuals to preach tolerance and not teach hate, as we constantly see in the Arab media. At a time when everybody is lying in the Arab world, journalists, teachers, government officials, business people, the Arab world needs a media (print and television), that would hold truth as its highest value and knowledge as its first responsibility.

The new Arab order, which clamors for popular government and liberty, must realize that popular government is not about what you want, or about your demands of others, but about not demanding of others to do what you do not want done to yourself. Popular government, freedom and liberty, mean “refusing to lay upon the backs of others the burdens we do not wish laid on our own.” Liberty and freedom is not about the liberty to do what you please without restraint to people in your society whom you deem unequal, because of their creed, sect, and ethnic background. True democracy “takes up the sword” against any faction or a group that wants to exploit another without any restraint at all. In sum, democracy is a discipline and self-restraint. It is about majority rule that will not infringe on the rights of those who lost political power and their followers. Democracy is about rule of law and that no one is above the law. Rule of law means people are governed by laws that are enacted by their elected representatives (Parliaments) and when their elected representatives exceed their authority under the Constitution or if the laws are misused, there is a strong independent judiciary that will repeal the Constitutional violation. Finally, rule of law is also about enforcement. 

Finally, democracy also requires a transparent capitalism. The Arab world has crony capitalism that has produced a greedy kleptocracy and lords of corruption, which benefits the few who are close to the people who have a monopoly on political and economic power. Democracy means economic and political competition that is based on fairness. In short, democracy is not just about free election, but also about treating all groups in society, regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds, as coequals. Democracy is a system that permits each citizen to feel “fully included and equally respected”. This is the essence of a democratic, just, and fair state.  As Brzezinski correctly pointed out, "Democracy is also a culture of compromise."

-This essay appeared in the Arab monthly Ad-Diplomasi in its September issue ,which is published in London. Editor: Raymond Atallah
-Dr. Odeh Aburdene is President of OAI Advisors and is a member of the Atlantic Council Board of Directors