The Hizbullah factor in the Syrian conflict

Practically all westerners looking at the influence that Hizbullah’s entry into the Syrian conflict has been having on the conflict have focused wholly on the military role that Hizbullah’s very well-trained and highly motivated fighters have played on the battlefield, especially in helping bring about the Syrian government’s reassertion of authority on Tuesday night, in Qusayr. But having studied Hizbullah’s development and SOP’s in Lebanon over the course of many years (see e.g. here and here), I suspect that the main impact its involvement has on events in Syria could well be in civilian affairs– that is, if the Baath Party and its allies are open to receiving coaching from Hizbullah’s civilian-affairs cadres on how to organize and build resilience in traumatized communities in times of war, then that could make all the difference.

During both of Hizbullah’s “definitive” battles against the (militarily very much stronger) IDF, in 1996 and 2006, it was the strength of the party’s civilian mass organizing that allowed it to “win”: In both cases, the Israeli government’s key war aim was to inflict such terrible losses on all Lebanese citizens that they would turn against Hizbullah; and in both cases, the effectiveness of the civilian mass base and the network of strategic alliances that Hizbullah had previously built up ensured that those bullying– one could even say openly terroristic– tactics pursued by the Israeli leaders were completely ineffective (even, very counter-productive) at the political level. In both cases, Hizbullah emerged from the Israeli assault politically stronger than it had been prior to the assault, and with its core military infrastructure unbroken.

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Four important reads on Syria

The first two are excellent, on-the-ground reporting from Aleppo, by the seasoned, native Arabic speaker Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Dec 27 and Dec 28.
The second two are from the Carnegie Endowment: This thoughtful Dec 24 piece by Yezid Sayegh: Can the National Coalition Lead Syria?; and this very well-informed Dec 4 piece by Aron Lund: Aleppo and the Battle for the Syrian Revolution’s Soul.
I have been arguing for more than 18 months now that the Syrian “opposition” (more accurately, “oppositions”) is/are incapable of entering into any meaningful negotiations under their own steam– even should they want to do so; since unlike the Algerian FLN, the ANC in South Africa or all other successful national liberation movements they lack internal unity, political clarity, and internal discipline.
The developments of the past 18 months have surely shown this to be the case.
Of course the Syrian government has made many mistakes– at the strategic, tactical, and moral levels. But so has the opposition. It is past time for all the Western and other international groupies and enablers of the opposition to stop indulging it and to work in a concerted way with the rest of the international community to bring an end to the carnage, fitna, and intense human suffering the conflict has already imposed on Syria’s people, in the only way possible: That is, through the negotiations that UN/AL Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as been working tirelessly to convene.

Yes, I was right on Syria. (And what now?)

I realize it is unseemly, in the world of international-affairs analysis, for someone to say quite bluntly “I told you so”. I realize, far more importantly, that the situation in which Syria’s 25 million (or so) people find themselves is one of deep and very hard-to-escape crisis– one that, whether Pres. Asad stays or goes, will (as I noted here in early August of this year) continue to plague them for many, many years to come… and any contention among non-Syrian analysts as to who was “right” and who was “wrong” pales in importance to that deeply tragic fact.
But still, looking back, I think I have been fundamentally correct in my evaluations of the situation in Syria– from March 2011 until today. And that, at a time when a large majority of people in the U.S. (and ‘western’) political class had a very different analytical bottom line than my own. Their bottom line was, basically, that the Asad regime was weak, hollow, deeply unpopular, and would crumble “any day now.” And since people holding to this belief– which was nearly always, much more of a belief than an analysis– have been extremely strong inside the Obama administration as well as in the western chattering classes (including among many self-professed “progressives” or liberals), their belief in the imminent collapse of the Asad regime has driven Washington’s policy all along.
Of greatest concern to me has been those people’s rigid adherence to the policy of not negotiating or supporting the idea of anyone else negotiating with the Asad regime. Instead of any idea of negotiations, the overthrow of the regime was their overwhelming and primary goal. Negotiations about the future of Syria could, they said, be held only after the President’s removal.

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Two observations on the tragedy in Syria

1. War always inflicts grave rights abuses on residents of the war zone. Additionally, its fog allows– and its passions encourage– the commission of a large variety of atrocities such as are very rarely committed in times of peace. Hence, actions tending toward the exacerbation of tensions can never be said to “help” the rights and wellbeing of the numerous human persons who lives in– or or displaced from– the zone of contention… And all efforts undertaken to preserve and protect “human rights” should aim first and foremost at the de-escalation of tensions and a relentless search for negotiated rather than fought-for or imposed means of resolution.
2. In Syria, the situation of the country’s 22 million residents has already been grievously damaged by the past 15 months of tensions that have escalated to the point of an extremely damaging civil war. The social fabric of the country has been very badly eroded– a form of destruction that is even more damaging than the concomitant destruction of physical infrastructure. Whether President Asad goes or stays, it will take Syria many years (and leadership qualities very much stronger than anything we have seen to date from either the government or the extremely fissiparous opposition), in order to recover and heal.
Thus, the key issue now is not, as so many westerners still frame it, “whether Asad goes or stays.” The issue is how Syria’s people can best be helped to pull out of the vortex of sectarian violence into which they are now very rapidly being sucked. Based on all my research and experiences relating to societies mired in, or managing to escape from grievous inter-group violence, it is clear to me that only a pan-Syrian negotiation over forms of government, accountability, and intergroup relations going forward can achieve that.
And to succeed, this negotiation must include, not exclude, the current regime. It was a negotiation of this type that succeeded in South Africa in bringing about a relatively peaceful transition from vicious minority rule to full democracy. In Burma/Myanmar, Sec. Clinton is fully engaged in helping to broker just such a negotiation. The actions of the apartheid government in South Africa and the junta in Burma, were no less brutal than those of the Asad regime in Syria.
In addition, in Syria, it is clear that the opposition is far less committed than, say, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in Burma to the pursuit of a nonviolent path. In South Africa, the ANC did have a military wing. But its acts of violence were few and far between, and inside South Africa they were generally conducted along lines that respected the requirement to attack only military targets. In Syria, by contrast, far too much of the armed opposition has been involved in acts of sectarian violence or other kinds of inhumane violence. There is thus very little “moral” case to be made as between the acts of those men of anti-regime violence, many of them salafis or jihadis, and the acts of the regime– though the regime does command firepower far greater than that available to the oppositionists.

Sarajevo, 1914; Damascus 2012?

The killing, in Damascus today, of at least three powerful members of the Baathist regime in Syria, will almost certainly plunge that whole country– and quite likely also much of the rest of the Greater Middle East– into a maelstrom of inter-group violence far worse than any it has seen until now.
Ninety-eight years ago, on June 28, 1914, a small group of Serbian nationalists executed a similar kind of violent coup, killing the presumptive heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, during an official visit to Sarajevo, Bosnia. Though the original assassination plan was botched, conspirator Gavrilo Princip was able to shoot the Archduke and his wife dead a short while later.
The process of political/diplomatic breakdown thereby set in process unspooled with amazing speed– in a context in which major European powers had already, for some years, been arming and escalating tension and distrust among themselves. Within just one month, World War I had erupted– a confrontation that, though centered in Europe, soon engulfed the whole world, leaving tens of millions dead and tens of millions more displaced, dishonored, starving, and extremely vulnerable to disease.
The killing of President Asad’s powerful brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, along with Syria’s ministers of defense and interior, certainly escalates the internal tensions and the stakes of the conflict within Syria, a country of 19 million souls in which sectarian tensions and inter-sect violence have already been rising to a high degree over the past 16 months.
Each side to the fierce political battle underway in Syria today accuses the other of having (a) fomented the sectarianism, and (b) launched and escalated the violence; and there is considerable substance to these accusations on both sides. Assad, Shawkat, and most of the important figures in the regime’s security apparatus are members of the country’s Alawite Muslim minority. The Alawites, who are a branch of Shiism, make up around 12% of the country’s population. The opposition forces are almost completely dominated by Sunni Islamist movements. The Sunnis make up around 75% of the country’s Arab population. (The remainder are, mainly, Christians. The country also has sizeable populations of non-Arabs, including Kurds, Armenians, and Turkoman; and a very large and vulnerable population of stateless Palestinians.)
Today’s killings in Damascus mark the death-knell for the diplomatic initiative that former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been pursuing. He has, extremely laudably, been trying to find a negotiated end to the conflict in Syria– one that would include all the major political forces inside the country, along with concerned and influential other governments.
Among Syrians, there have been raucous sounds of jubilation among the oppositionists in exile, and some signs of jubilation among in-country oppositionists– though it is currently extremely hard to get any news at all out of the country. Until now, there has been no word from President Asad. The Reuters report linked to above said that the armed forces chief of staff, Fahad Jassim al-Freij, “quickly took over as defense minister to avoid giving any impression of official paralysis.”
Back in spring 2011, Mona Yacoubian, then an analyst with the (rather poorly named) U.S. Institute of Peace, laid out a plan for “controlled regime change” in Syria. Though she noted that this would not necessarily be an easy feat to achieve, she did nonetheless judge it to be achievable. I questioned her judgment on this point at the time. The events of the intervening 15 months have clearly brought home the lesson (that was clear to me back at the moment she offered her plan) that an action as deepseated and momentous as “regime change” cannot be “controlled”, unless there is clear buy-in to the process from the existing status-quo power— as there was, for example, from the National Party in South Africa in 1992; and as Hillary Clinton is (laudably) hoping to achieve from the Burmese junta today.
A regime that is subjected to the kinds of attacks that Damascus has seen today will have its back to the wall, and that hears from its opponents only the most gruesome and oft-repeated threats of what will happen to its leaders and supporters once they are vanquished, can certainly be expected to retaliate with great violence. The violence inside Syria will get worse; and there will almost certainly be a huge increase in calls for western military intervention…
Meantime, in Israel, here is what the rabidly rightwing analyst Barry Rubin had to say yesterday about the whole phenomenon of the Arab Spring:

“Every Arabic-speaking country is likely to be wracked with internal violence, conflict, disorder and slow socio-economic progress for years, even decades, to come… “

“the big Middle East conflict of the future is not the Arab-Israeli but the Sunni-Shia one… [A] series of conflicts have broken out all along the Sunni-Shia borderland as the two blocs vie for control of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Bahrain.

In addition, the Syrian civil war is wrecking that country and will continue to paralyze it for some time to come. When the dust settles, any new government is going to have to take a while to manage the wreckage, handle the quarreling, diverse ethnic-religious groups, and rebuild its military…”

And that was yesterday!
Of course, all this while– as throughout the whole of the past 44 years– Israel’s colonial land-grab of the land and resources of Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank, and Golan has continued. As has its acquisition of ever more capable and lethal military powers… As has its maintenance of Gaza as an extremely tightly policed open-air-prison for 1.6 million people.
The violence in Syria does not just, as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said today, threaten to “spin out of control”. It also threatens to draw powers from near and far into a conflict of still unimaginable proportions and extent. (And the fact that the U.S. has a presidential election this year makes the geopolitics of “controlling” this process much harder to plan.) I imagine that there are plenty of members of Israel’s current rightwing and expansionist elite who are hoping and planning that, as this conflict winds down– whatever its eventual dimensions– their command over the entire territory of the mashreq (the Arab East) will be far stronger than it is today.
For them, the whole “Iran threat” that their acolytes have hyped to such great effect in the west and much of the rest of the (western dominated) “international community” has always been something of a sideshow… a way, mainly, to divert attention from the colonialist facts they’ve been busy creating on the ground in the West Bank for the whole of the past 44 years. In regional political terms, Syria was always one of their main targets. It was clearly identified as such in the “Clean Break” document of 1996. And now, they don’t even have to lift a finger of their own, in order to see the country being torn apart… with the help of, it has to be said, many cynical sectarian forces from outside– including from those notably anti-democratic regimes, Saudi Arabia and Qatar…
Can the now-threatening collapse into a tsunami of sectarian violence that may well engulf the whole Middle East be prevented? Yes, it can, if enough people inside and outside the region, seeing both the human tragedy and the geopolitical instability that would ensue, can act together to use all the available tools of diplomacy and human reasonableness that will be needed to avert it.
It is, certainly, harder to see how it can be done in a year when that 5% of humanity who happen to be U.S. citizens are caught up in their (our) own periodic form of money-driven insanity known as a presidential election. But the good of the Syrian people– all of the Syrian people– must be the first priority. Determining what that is, and who can legitimately represent the aspirations of the country’s people is, of course, a central part of the current conundrum. Saving Syria’s people– and the people of the broader region– from the kind of sectarian breakdown and violence that we all saw occurring in Iraq over the past seven years… and that I had lived through, first hand, when I was in Lebanon in the late 1970s.. must be the top priority. That requires– now, as always– negotiations, including negotiations that draw in and involve the leaders on all sides who have committed some terrible deeds. There are pitifully few angels or innocents in Syria; and none of them are at head of either the current regime, or the opposition. But they are the ones who must be drawn into the negotiation.
That, it seems to me, is the only alternative to a 1914-type explosion of all-out war. And war, remember, inflicts severe harm on everyone who happens to live in the war-zone, with the most vulnerable members of society being (as we have seen in Iraq, and elsewhere) those who suffer the most. From that perspective, avoiding war is a supreme priority for all those concerned with the human rights of actual living people.
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Update, 9:07 pm:
David Ignatius, as well informed as ever, writes this:

The CIA has been working with the Syrian opposition for several weeks under a non-lethal directive that allows the United States to evaluate groups and assist them with command and control. Scores of Israeli intelligence officers are also operating along Syria’s border, though they are keeping a low profile.

Tragedies of liberal interventionist thinking in Syria and elsewhere

Where to start? Maybe with this piece by Le Monde Diplo’s Alain Gresh today (or anyway, recently.) In it, he writes:

    The opposition cannot bring down the government, and the government cannot put down an uprising that has a surprising determination and courage…

I was writing the exact same thing more than a year ago.
Who listened then? And here we are, one year later. And yes, there is still deadlock.
In the intervening twelve months, there have been several periods when the well-rewarded people sitting in comfy think-tanks in Washington DC, and their allies, were absolutely convinced that Pres. Bashar al-Asad was “just on the point of leaving office.” I recall one phone call three months or so ago with someone who’d recently left Thinktankistan for (equally nicely paid) “service” in the U.S. government when he said, “Yes, we in [this branch of the US government] have all been amazed that Bashar did not do as we thought he would, and take this opportunity to take Asma and the children on a lovely long vacation somewhere.”
(As though the departure of Pres. Asad would somehow have “solved” anything?)
But really, that was the entire gameplan of Hillary Clinton’s State department; and it was based on a completely faulty understanding of the situation inside Syria.
Back to Alain Gresh, whom I have met once or twice and is generally fairly smart about developments in the Mashreq. It is, however, his point of departure in this latest piece that puzzles me. He writes:

    Should we do nothing? There are other options than military intervention. Economic pressure on Syria has already made some middle-class government supporters reconsider, and this could be increased, as long as it targeted the leaders and not the population… ”

Who is the “we” in whose name he is writing there? That is the puzzle for me. Truly.
Are French (or one-generation-on, French-naturalized) intellectuals like Alain Gresh easily able to identify themselves with the policies of their national government, which would be one version of the “we” he is speaking of here? Or is it the kind of airy-fairy, untethered, liberal-universalistic “we” whom he is claiming to represent?
But really, why should anyone who is not a Syrian claim to have any kind of a right to speak about what should happen in that beleaguered country– now, or at any other point?
Maybe I’m just jaded about the claims of “liberal” universalism these days because so many of my liberal-universalist friends have found themselves so easily seduced by the claims of the militarists– in re Syria, as Libya, and elsewhere.
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But I truly do not understand how liberal universalists in the west, whose views, representations, and analyses of what is happening in Myanmar/Burma in these months are so uniformly calm and supportive of the wrenchingly negotiated transition to greater democracy there absolutely never stop to ask whether a similar process may not also be the best thing for Syria today (as it was for South Africa, 20 years ago.)
Why is Syria’s current government uniquely picked out by these so-called liberals as worthy of their rage, anger, and militarized “intervention” when those other authoritarian regimes, actually, committed far worse abuses against their citizens over the course of many decades?
Why the racism that is deeply embedded in these kinds of judgments?
And yes, “Avaaz”, I am speaking about you, too.
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This intense partisanship and Asad-hatred of the liberals in the west have had real conseuqneces, too. Among other things, they have helped strengthen the hand of the really nasty, neoconservative and neo-colonial interventionists within our respective western societies. And they have held out false hopes of significant western-government and western-society support to those among the oppositionists in Syria who have been open to the idea of exploiting western backing (including military backing) for their own gain.
As I tweeted a few weeks back: This has many of the same aspects of tragedy as Hungary 1956 and Basra 1991. Almost criminally irresponsible, I would say.
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It’s been hard, sitting on the relative sidelines over recent months, seeing so many of my longstanding warnings go unheeded– regarding Syria, as regarding Palestine, Iraq, U.S. militarism in general, and a number of other issues. But I fought the good (rhetorical) fight here at JWN and in other forums of public discourse, for so many years. Completely, I should note, unpaid by anyone; but that’s okay. Now, I am more in a phase of building up this institution that is my publishing company, Just World Books. It’s a different set of challenges, but also over the long haul extremely worthwhile and, I hope, transformative of the discourse. I am, it should go without saying, really proud of the publishing we’ve done so far, and excited about the projects we have immediately ahead.
(I really appreciate all support JWN readers can give to the publishing house. Check out our list of great titles– and buy profligately from among them!– at the JWB webstore, here.)
So here, anyway is a thought for Easter/Passover. Let’s work for a lot less militarism and lot fewer calls for “liberal interventionism” (which only too often ends up meaning only war), from everyone in the disproportionately powerful west… And let’s have a lot more focusing on how conflicts can be resolved in ways other than escalation and war; in ways, that is, that aim specifically at the de-escalation of tensions, an end to finger-pointing, and the knowingly partisan treatment of claims about each side’s commission of atrocities. Let’s remember that Syria is a complex, sizeable country that is the homeland of its own people. It is not, and should not be turned into, a playground for other countries’ grudge matches and competitions (as happened, only too tragically, to the citizenries of Lebanon and Iraq.) Let’s look at other examples around the world where peoples won expanded rights and empowerment through negotiated transitions. And let’s, honestly, forget all this misguided and misapplied business about outsiders having any pre-ordained “responsibility” or even, heaven forbid, “duty” to intervene.
I’m sorry, Alain Gresh. I don’t mean to take after you in person. I know you’re a smart, sensitive, and concerned analyst. But there was just something about that “we” you used in that article that seemed badly out of place…

The use of web-based disinformation by the ‘west’

Patrick Cockburn has an extremely important piece at the Independent today, in which he takes to task the major organs of the ‘western’ media– including, crucially, today’s Al-Jazeera– for the extremely uncritical and often openly inflammatory use they make of unsubstantiated or highly exaggerated “news reports” coming out of, in particular, Syria and Iran.
He writes,

    Governments that exclude foreign journalists at times of crisis such as Iran and (until the last week) Syria, create a vacuum of information easily filled by their enemies. These are far better equipped to provide their own version of events than they used to be before the development of mobile phones, satellite television and the internet. State monopolies of information can no longer be maintained. But simply because the opposition to the Syrian and Iranian governments have taken over the news agenda does not mean that what they say is true.
    Early last year I met some Iranian stringers for Western publications in Tehran whose press credentials had been temporarily suspended by the authorities. I said this must be frustrating them, but they replied that even if they could file stories – saying nothing much was happening – they would not be believed by their editors. These had been convinced by exile groups, using blogs and carefully selected YouTube footage, that Tehran was visibly seething with discontent. If the local reporters said that this was a gross exaggeration, their employers would suspect that had been intimidated or bought off by Iranian security.
    … [T]echnical advances have made it more difficult for governments to hide repression. But these developments have also made the work of the propagandist easier. Of course, people who run newspapers and radio and television stations are not fools. They know the dubious nature of much of the information they are conveying. The political elite in Washington and Europe was divided for and against the US invasion of Iraq, making it easier for individual journalists to dissent. But today there is an overwhelming consensus in the foreign media that the rebels are right and existing governments wrong. For institutions such as the BBC, highly unbalanced coverage becomes acceptable.
    Sadly, al-Jazeera, which has done so much to shatter state control of information in the Middle East since it was set up in 1996, has become the uncritical propaganda arm of the Libyan and Syrian rebels.

Then he comes to the nub of why all this is important

    The Syrian opposition needs to give the impression that its insurrection is closer to success than it really is. The Syrian government has failed to crush the protesters, but they, in turn, are a long way from overthrowing it. The exiled leadership wants Western military intervention in its favour as happened in Libya, although conditions are very different.
    The purpose of manipulating the media coverage is to persuade the West and its Arab allies that conditions in Syria are approaching the point when they can repeat their success in Libya. Hence the fog of disinformation pumped out through the internet.

I completely agree with Patrick’s analysis on this point. As I agree, too, with As’ad Abou Khalil’s broad view of events in Syria that, though the government is highly repressive and often criminally stupid, in the ranks of the opposition there are also many very anti-democratic and violence-loving elements and others who are working hard to trigger a western intervention in the country. (Hence my judgment that if you want to follow what’s happening in and toward Syria, Asad’s Angry Arab blog is one of the very best, and best-informed, sources to do that.)
In my view, the Syrian opposition consists of a number of elements, some of them extremely contradictory with each other. There is a genuine, in-country network of activists who seek real democratic reform and who’re working for it using mass nonviolent organizing. But there are also all kinds of opportunistic networks piggybacking on that movement, most of them based in or directed from outside the country… Among them are the openly violence-using people of the Free Syria Army. And though some people in the exile-based Syrian National Council claim that the role of the FSA is merely to “station armed people around mass demonstrations in order to protect the demonstrations”, that has never been a tactic endorsed by any genuine nonviolent mass movement. Indeed it is tactic that’s almost guaranteed to escalate the situation and cause far more casualties among the unarmed than if only nonviolent moral suasion/reproach is brought to bear on the regime’s forces.
We should not kid ourselves by imagining that there is no opportunistic exploitation of the Syrian situation underway, being undertaken by a whole range of anti-Damascus forces– some sectarian (as in the case of Qatar or Saudi Arabia; also, quite possibly, Turkey), and some pro-Zionist, or anyway easily exploited by Syria’s longterm opponents in the Zionist movement in Israel and in the ‘west’.
So how do those many western ‘liberals’ who seem to be so deeply invested in supporting the Syrian ‘revolutionaries’ fit into this scheme? To me, this is another key part of the puzzle, along with the enlistment by the ‘revolutionaries’ of so much of the western media, as documented by Patrick Cockburn.
Okay, I understand that the Syrian government has a really lousy human rights record. I have worked long enough (38 years) in and on the affairs of the mashreq to understand that better than probably 95% of the people in the human rights movement who currently present themselves as “experts” on Syria. But is getting out there to advocate a “Libya-style” overthrow of the regime (i.e. with the aid of outside forces) really a good way to bring rights abuses to an end?
No it is not! Wars and civil conflicts everywhere and always involve a mass-scale assault on the rights of civilian residents of the war-zones, with the most vulnerable residents being the ones whose rights (including the right to life) get abused the worst.
That is everywhere and always the case. No exceptions. That is why I am always really dismayed and upset when I see rights activists who claim to understand what they are talking about taking actions that escalate the tensions toward outright civil conflict and war… Remember that in the case of most rights activists who live in comfortable, secure western countries: These people have never had direct experience of living in a war zone. They are bombarded (by the military-industrial complex) with arguments that modern warfare can be a “precision”, “surgical” business… and most recently, in Libya, we saw the emergence of the keffiyah-ed warrior racing through the sand as a figure of popular heroism and adulation. (Lawrence of Arabia, anyone?).
I have lived in a war zone. I lived in Lebanon from 1974 through 1981. In six of those years the country was plagued by civil war. I lived within Lebanese society, being married to a Lebanese citizen. I was not a “visiting fireman”, as many western journos were– parachuting in to stay a few days or weeks in a relatively comfortable hotel from time to time. Everyone involved in fighting the Lebanese civil war, from all the multiple “sides” that were engaged in it, was convinced of the justice of his (or sometimes her) cause. Each one was fighting what he knew to be a “just” war… But the war and its associated atrocities ground on and on and on.
Another thing the western rights activists too often forget: Mass-scale atrocities– as opposed to a rampage by a lone, psychotic gunman– are nearly always, or always, committed only in the context of an ongoing civil conflict or war. Conflicts provide the heightened degree of threat and the dehumanization of the opponent that are essential ingredients in the organized commission of atrocities. They also, in the past, provided plenty of the “fog of war” in which those acts can be shrouded.
Thus, if you want to avoid the commission of atrocities: avoid war! Do everything you can to explore and enlarge the space for de-escalation and the negotiated resolution of grievances!
It is true that modern communications technology makes the shrouding of atrocities much harder (though not impossible) to achieve. That is, obviously, a very good thing! But this same technology also enables the fighting parties of all sides to do much more than they could previously, to frame and disseminate their own “stories” of what’s happening… Rights activists in other countries need to be very aware that this is not only a possibility– it is actually happening. And in the case of Syria, in particular, these reports are being used to whip up western (and worldwide) support for a ‘western’-led military campaign aimed at bringing forced regime change to Syria.
Colonialists have, throughout history, always tried to cloak their campaigns of military intervention, domination, and control in the lingo of “rights”, “progress”, and liberalism. Even the Belgians and their supporters, when they entered Congo in the late 1800s to initiate an era of control that was marked throughout by mass killings, mass enslavement, and outright genocide that within 23 years took the lives of some ten million persons indigenous to the area… did so in the name of a campaign sold tothe European publics as being one aimed at “liberating” the people of Congo from other (in truth, much less maleficent) Arab slave-traders.
We liberals need to be very careful indeed that we do not have our admirable sentiments of human solidarity abused by today’s architects of ‘western’ colonial invasion, control, and domination.
The situation that Syria’s people are living through today is extremely difficult. There are no easy answers. Both the regime and the opposition have demonstrated their resilience, and neither looks as though it is about to “win” the current contest any time soon. Given the degree of tension that now exists in Syrian society (due to the actions of the regime, of some portions of the opposition, and of several outside actors), it is hard to see how to simply ramp those tensions down and open up the space for the inter-Syrian dialogue and reform process that the people of Syria so desperately need…
But what kind of future do those of us who are westerners or other kinds of non-Syrians want to see for our friends in Syria? A future like that of today’s Libya– or even, heaven forfend, another “result” of western military action: today’s Iraq? Or would we want them to follow a negotiated-transition path like that taken by the people of South Africa, 1990-94… or the negotiated-transition path that the people of Myanmar/Burma now seem to be taking? Few of those western liberals and rights activists who are baying for “no-fly zones” or other forms of foreign military intervention seem to have ever thought about this question, so convinced are they of their own righteousness and the infallibility of their own judgments, however scantily informed these judgments may be in an era of instant You-Tube uploads of videos of, as Patrick Cockburn noted, often extremely sketchy provenance or representativity.

Syria, Myanmar, South Africa, Libya…

Just a quick note from an airport here… How come that western publics who applauded the negotiated transition to democracy in South Africa and who applaud the current openings in the same direction in Myanmar/Burma, generally seem so unwilling to pursue a similarly negotiated transition in Syria?
Why do so many western rights activists continue instead to give strong support to the forces of the increasingly militarized opposition in Syria? Do they really want a violence-driven outcome there similar to what we have seen in Iraq and now Libya? Or, do they not understand the basic facts of violence: that violence begets more violence and in the modern, heavily armed world the use of violence is highly inconducive to the building of an accountable, rights-respecting social/political order.
The situation in Syria remains complex. There are many elements inside the country’s opposition movement who are sincere democrats. There are others who are vicious sectarians and men of violence. The goal for political leaders inside and outside the country is surely to find a way to engage the former while marginalizing the influence of the latter. Sadly, Pres. Asad seems unable or unwilling to find a way to do this– and most of the numerous outside forces now supporting the Syria opposition seem very unwilling to do it, as well.
By the way, here is the record of the panel I was recently on, on Syria, at the (Turkish-American) SETA Foundation in DC.

Further thoughts on Syria, Turkey, and democracy

This Monday, Nov. 28, I’ll be speaking at a 2pm symposium in Washington DC on the topic “The Future of Syria: Political Turmoil and Prospects of Democracy”. It is organized by SETA-DC, the Washington DC branch of the Ankara-based SETA (Foundation for Economic, Political and Social Research.) Also speaking will be Erol Cebeci, Executive Director of SETA-DC and until recently a parliamentarian for the AKP.
Longtime readers of this blog will be aware that I have followed Turkish-Syrian relations for some time here; and back at the beginning of the current political turmoil in Syria I was arguing that Turkey’s AKP government was uniquely positioned and perhaps uniquely motivated to be the principal power mediating the regime-opposition negotiation in Syria that I saw, and still see, as overwhelmingly the best way out of Syria’s impasse.
Since I started expressing that position publicly, back in May, several important further developments have occurred. Principally, of course– and just as I predicted back in the March-May period– the confrontation between the regime and the opposition in Syria has continued; both sides have demonstrated resiliency; and the casualty toll has continued tragically to grow. There have also been these other developments:

    * Turkey’s AK government has shifted into a position of much stronger support for the Syrian opposition, with PM Erdogan now openly calling for the resignation of Syria’s President Asad, while leaders and members of the militarized, oppositionist ‘Free Syrian Army’ have been given considerable freedom to organize in the encampments of Syrian refugees in Turkey.
    * Attempts by western governments to win a UNSC resolution that would, as with Resolution 1970 in re Libya, have provided a basis for future military action against Syria were rebuffed when both Russia and china vetoed it.
    * The Arab League has launched its own strong-seeming diplomatic and political intervention that requires the Syrian government to end the use of repression and violence, engage in negotiations with the opposition, and allow the entry of Arab league monitors– actually, the deadline for that latter step is today.
    * The Arab League-cum-NATO military action against Libya (which was also supported by NATO member Turkey) had been cited as a desired precedent by many in the Syrian opposition. That action was eventually successful in taking over the whole of Libya and killing President Qadhafi. But it took them seven months and a lot of bloody fighting to achieve that; and the outcome inside Libya has been very far from what most pro-democracy, pro-rights activists in the west had hoped for.

So obviously, there will be a lot to discuss with my SETA colleagues next Monday.
One thing that has been much on my mind in recent days is the range of possible effects that the situation in Syria might have on the prospects for democracy not only in Syria but also in Turkey. Of all the Middle Eastern forces currently giving support to a Syrian opposition that claims to pursue the goal of democracy, the only one that any has any credible claim itself to uphold and practice the values of democracy is Turkey. The idea that Saudi Arabia, other GCC countries, Jordan, or the currently military-ruled regime in Egypt has any credibility in saying it seeks the goal of democracy is completely laughable. So it strikes me that sincere supporters of democracy around the world who want to see a democratic and accountable outcome in Syria should pay particular attention to the role that Ankara might yet play there.
It is also the case that for me, one of the bedrocks of any commitment to democracy is a commitment not to use violent means to resolve differences of opinion or politics among fellow-citizens, however deepseated and sensitive these differences may be. Democracy is not really– or perhaps, not only– about elections, which are at best only a technical means to reaching a democratic end. (Elections, remember, can be and are used by all kinds of profoundly rights-abusing regimes.) Democracy is about having a fundamental respect for the equality of all human persons and establishing a set of political mechanisms that allow citizens of one state (and eventually, of the whole world– though we are still a long way from that) to live together peaceably and over the long term while allowing the different communities within that state to live out their own vision of the good life so long as this does not impinge on the rights of others.
Turkey is a country in which many different kinds of social groups live together. These include members of the Sunni-Turkish majority. They also include members of ethnic, religious, and sectarian minorities. They include people who are highly secular and people who are highly pious and for whom “the good life” is necessarily one defined by religious norms. They include highly sophisticated, “Europeanized” urbanites, and people much more rooted to the traditional ways of villages and small towns. Yet somehow, as a result of decisions taken throughout the course of Turkey’s modern history– including both the Kemalist era and the post-Kemalist era– nearly all these different groups have been able to find a way to come together and agree on the (still-evolving) rules of a democratic order for their country.
I have long thought of this as an amazing achievement. Of course, it is still incomplete. But still, Turkey’s people have come so far away from both Ottoman-era theocracy and the intolerant, ethnocratic militarism of Kemalist rule that I think this is an achievement to be acknowledged and celebrated by democrats everywhere.
Turkey’s longest land border is its border with Syria– more than 500 miles long, as I recall. If there is ethnosectarian breakdown in Syria, can Turkey be insulated from that, I wonder? And if so, at what cost?
… Well, the events in Syria are moving fast, and will doubtless continue to do so over the coming three days. So I shan’t complete gathering my thoughts for Monday afternoon’s presentation until that morning.
As a side-note here, I also want to send my (only slightly qualified) congratulations to my friends at the Crisis Group for having once again produced a very sane and timely analysis of the situation in Syria. In the Conclusion to this study, they write:

    That the current crisis and future transition present enormous risks is not a reason to defend a regime that offers no solution and whose sole strategy appears to be to create greater hazards still. Optimally, this would be the time for third-party mediation leading to a negotiated transition.
    … However unlikely they are to succeed, mediation efforts ought to be encouraged in principle, and none should be automatically dismissed. The focus should remain for now on the Arab League initiative, the most promising proposal currently on the table. For international actors or the opposition to rule out dialogue or negotiations with the regime would be to validate its argument that nothing short of its immediate fall will be deemed satisfactory. At the same time, Damascus should not be given an opportunity to gain time, nor should it be offered concessions in the absence of tangible signs that it is acting in good faith. Should the regime present a genuine, detailed proposal backed by immediate, concrete steps on the ground – again, an implausible scenario – mediated talks with the opposition should swiftly begin.

The report goes to some lengths to spell out the massive risks involved in any non-negotiated resolution in Syria, which is good. And they highlight the extreme political incompetence of the Asad regime, which I also think is something well worth doing. But I think they let the opposition off too lightly; and I really do not see that that the Arab League as such is in any position to negotiate the kind of transition– that is, a negotiation to a truly democratic, rights-respecting and accountable political system– that I see as being the one best able to prevent the outbreak (or continuation) of further internal violence in Syria, going forward.
Throughout my years in Lebanon during the early years of the civil war there, I saw at first hand how an “Arab League peacekeeping mission” there was used all along by all the different Arab powers to pursue their own, often highly divisive agendas and thus became yet another factor that prolonged the fighting and the suffering there. And I have no reason to believe that the Arab League is in any better position today to plan and run a constructive peacekeeping mission in Syria. In addition, as noted above, it is amazing for anyone truly concerned about pursuing a more democratic and accountable Syria going forward to think that the governments now running the Arab League are well positioned or well suited to help realize that goal. Hence I would like to keep alive the possibility of a role for democratic Turkey in spearheading a serious push for negotiations– something that the Crisis Group’s report doesn’t mention.
(On the Arab League, and Qatar’s rapidly shifting political role in regional politics, As’ad AbouKhalil has had four excellent short pieces in Al-Akhbar English in the past couple of weeks. You can access them all via this web-page.)

Making sense of Syria

I have so many questions swirling around my head about what’s been happening in Syria. One is why the AK government in Turkey didn’t take my great advice and play a leadership role in trying to broker a serious, negotiated transition to democracy in Syria, but instead has been giving ever stronger support to the Syrian opposition. (So far, my main answer to that is that the AK is probably quite serious about pursuing a strongly Sunni-ist agenda, which seems to over-ride all the many Realpolitik-al and other reasons why positioning itself as a powerful mediator would have made more sense.)
Perhaps their motivation really was, in their minds, overwhelmingly a pro-democracy one, based on the demographic weight of Sunnis in the Syrian population. But in that case, surely they should have been eager (as an outside power) to put the opposition’s democratic claims to the test as soon as possible, that is, by working proactively with all concerned parties to negotiate the terms for a truly democratic election in Syria? Certainly, if they had done that, then they would have had a lot more credibility as “midwives to democracy” than the Gulf Arab states do…
Democracy, as the AK people should know as well as anyone, does not grow out of the barrel of a gun but is above all a set of tools that are used to resolve very thorny differences and disputes in a nonviolent and rights-respecting way. (As happened between “Whites” and non-“Whites” in South Africa in the early 1990s… and that, after the “White” South Africans had sustained a centuries-long reign of terror in the country that completely dwarfs anything the Baathists have done in Syria. But yet, democrats around the world all cheered loudly– and imho, quite correctly– at the news that the Apartheid-enacting National Party had agreed to take part in a free and fair national election against its rivals, rather than having its leaders all strung up on lamp-posts.)
Oh well, not worth my while sitting around for too long, regretting Ankara’s failure to play a truly democracy-promoting role in Syria…
So the next question I have in my head is a combination of two questions, really. Firstly, why did the GCC countries and other Arab League member-states step in last week with such (relative) speed and determination to position themselves as the main external mediators of a regime-opposition negotiation in Syria, thereby doing a lot to strengthen Pres. Asad’s position, at least temporarily… And the corollary to that is, why on earth should anyone inside or outside Syria take seriously a claim by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to have mainly “democratic” goals in mind in Syria? But really, the first half of this question is the more pressing one, and I’ll try to come back to it later.
The next set of questions I have are the ones concerning the linkages and interactions between developments in Libya and those in Syria. Now, I know that a lot of opposition people in Syria were fairly loudly calling for the imposition of a Libya-style “no-fly zone” in Syria. Maybe they still are calling for it. But it ain’t going to happen– for a large number of reasons. One important one is that the GCC countries, whose cooperation with the whole ‘NFZ’ project in Libya– and in the case of Qatar and the UAE, their actual participation in it, at least symbolically– was seen by western countries as crucial to its international “legitimacy”, very evidently decided at some point that they were not about to engage in the same kind of hostile act against Pres. Asad in Syria. Another was, of course, the clearcut and definitive Russian and Chinese use of their veto against the US-sponsored resolution in the UNSC which would have provided exactly the same kind of springboard for subsequent military action that resolution 1970 provided for 1973. And another is the fact that in both Europe and the U.S., the appetite for yet another act of military aggression against a distant Muslim land seems to have drained away almost completely– certainly, compared with the heady days of BHL’s bellicosity back in March.
The way things have turned out in Libya has also, I am sure, had its effect on the desire of just about all non-Syrians to engage in a repeat performance in Syria.
The anti-Qadhafi military operation in Libya, remember, was described by its boosters at the time, back in March, as the western-led “NATO-plus-Arabs” coalition finally “getting it right” regarding how to do a foreign military aggression “intervention”. Crucially– and this was especially sold as being a strong contrast to Iraq– there would not even be any need for western or other foreign “boots on the ground”. The whole western intervention would be accomplished from the air, while on the ground in Libya would be the boots only of Libya’s’ reputed throngs of eager democrats.
So now we have how many competing militias on the ground in Libya? Three hundred or more?
Actually, from the POV of the health and safety of the Libyan people, even a western occupation army might have have been better than this situation– which shows absolutely no signs of getting any better, any time soon.
So far from being an “exemplary” action by western armies to support local “democrats” in Libya, what has happened in Libya has turned out to be an application of Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”, on steroids. That is, the destruction not only of Libya’s anyway ramshackle state but also of many of the internal bonds of its society.
Thank you NATO.
(We can also note that if these anti-Qadhafi people who are now rampaging all over Libya had had a decent amount of democratic sensitivity and commitment, they would have been working hard throughout all this year to resolve the many differences among themselves through nonviolent deliberations or negotiations. But no. NATO powerfully modeled for them all that power grows out of the barrel of a gun, or a drone, and they proved eager learners of that lesson.)
So I imagine that even in some of Syria’s hard-pressed opposition strongholds, the “Libyan model” doesn’t look so irresistibly attractive now as it did, say, a month ago…
Over the past few weeks, various friends and colleagues have pointed me to a number of studies on Syria that they have found interesting. One was this one that Mona Yacoubian published on October 5, under the title “Saving Syria from Civil War.” Yacoubian’s policy prescription is truly mind-boggling: What she argues for is pursuit of “controlled regime collapse” in Syria– that is, a policy of deliberately stripping away successive layers of supporters away from the regime until it collapses.
Honestly, Mona Yacoubian should know better than to imagine that there is any such phenomenon in the world as “controlled regime collapse” of the kind she is talking about. Though she sells her policy as one that can “stave off civil war”, it seems almost certain to lead only to civil war.
Equally significantly, when she talks about stripping progressively greater sections of the officer class away from their allegiance to Pres. Asad– or “Bashar”, as she cozily calls him– she makes no mention at all of the extremely salient facts that Syria is still in a state of war with Israel and has some of its national territory occupied and illegally annexed by Israel, and that no patriotic Syrian inside the army or outside of it is easily going to take any action that would undercut the country’s military preparedness.
Then yesterday, we had ‘Meet Syria’s Opposition’ by Randa Slim, another Lebanese-American woman. This one gives a lot more informative detail about the make-up of the many disparate groups that are in the Syrian opposition, and doesn’t attempt to provide any big-picture prescriptions for American policy. The nearest she comes to making a policy point is this mild and fairly realistic observation, at the beginning of her article:

    Seven months into the uprisings, the Syrian opposition has yet to develop a united voice and platform. Unless these disparate groups unite and present a credible and viable alternative to the Assad regime, both Syria’s fearful majority and the international community will find it difficult to effectively push for meaningful change in Damascus.

Sadly, Slim’s piece is marred by some really bad editing, so that at many points it is really hard to figure out what she is trying to say. Thus, for example, she says this:

    [The opposition’s] fragmentation and disunity poses [sic] a formidable challenge. It makes it difficult to assess who is representing whom, the level of public support each enjoys among Syrians, and the role each is playing in the protest movement.

But then she immediately says this:

    While it is impossible to know which side commands a majority, a critical mass of Syrians has clearly opted for regime change.

So how on earth do the two halves of that last sentence fit together? In this context, what does the term “critical mass” actually mean?
This is far from the only place at which her piece is marred by internal inconsistency and lack of clarity. It is a pity, too, that though her piece came out the same day the Arab League delegation announced its “peace plan” for Syria, she makes no mention of the impact that will have. All she does is note that “Pro-Assad Lebanese allies told me that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were the main funders [of the opposition.] There is no independent evidence to substantiate such claims.” For his part, As’ad AbouKhalil has regularly pointed to links between Saudi Arabia and some members of the Syrian opposition, on his blog, e.g. here.
But if, as seems to me almost certainly to have been the case, various Saudi institutions have been supporting some of the Islamist portions of the Islamist/Ikhwani portions of the opposition– what has happened to that support in the wake of the Arab League peace effort?
Slim doesn’t explore that question at all. (She also makes no mention of Syria’s state of war with Israel.)
… So finally, we come to this paper, today, from the Crisis Group. Its tone is markedly different from the evident anti-Asadism of Yacoubian and Slim– though it is also written with the sensibilities of a Western audience very clearly in mind. The whole first paragraph sets the tone, as well as defining the policy prescription:

    Syria’s acceptance of the Arab League proposal to defuse the crisis presents an eleventh-hour opportunity to seek a negotiated transition before the conflict takes an even uglier turn. Despite understandable scepticism, both the protest movement and the international community ought to give this initiative a fair chance; for either one to dismiss or undermine it would be to offer the regime justification for rejecting both the deal and responsibility for its failure. The regime’s intentions soon will be put to the test. In coming days, protesters will take to the streets with renewed energy, probing President Bashar al Assad’s sincerity after months of rising repression; they cannot be expected to show patience for protracted political talks devoid of swift, tangible results on the ground. The various strands of the opposition ought to publicly reject violent attacks against security forces and accept to engage in a dialogue with no condition other than the regime’s implementation of the plan. Likewise the international community should fully endorse the deal and adjust its reaction to developments on the ground. Only by giving Damascus a genuine opportunity to live up to its commitments under the plan can the international community reach consensus on holding it accountable should it choose to flout them.

There is a lot of good sense in this paper. Which is nothing less than I would expect, since I have great respect for the careful, always extremely well-informed work of CG’s principal Syria analyst, Peter Harling.
Above all, the CG’s careful argument as to why the Arab League initiative should be supported and given a chance is really important. I wish, though, that the paper had done more to urge its mainly Western-official target audience to work hard alongside the Arab League mediators to push them much further toward pursuit of a truly democratic outcome in Syria than they might otherwise be inclined to go.
But even in this generally strong CG piece, frustratingly, I still could not find answers to my own two big questions about what has been happening in the orbit of the Syria issue, namely: Why has Ankara adopted such a strongly pro-opposition position, and why have the GCC countries intervened so strongly over the past week or so to let Pres. Asad off the hook?
The most plausible answers to the latter question have to do, I think, with two things: Firstly, a fear in many Arab countries that if Syria follows the path of Libya, it might end up following the terrifying path of social breakdown (fitna) that the Arab countries have seen come about not only in Libya, but also in Iraq, in the wake of Western military aggression “intervention”… and the fact that Syria, like Iraq, is much closer to the heartland of the populations and concerns of most Arab countries than is Libya.The past two weeks have seen the emergence of a lot of very bad news from Libya, remember, which could well help to explain the timing of the Arab League’s activism on the Syria-negotiation question.
Secondly, I don’t think any Arab governments can ignore– as Mona Yacoubian, Randa Slim, and even the Crisis Group all managed to– the fact of Syria’s continuing state of war with Israel and its close proximity to Israel.
Back at the beginning of October, did Asad tell Turkish foreign minister Davutoglu that “If a crazy measure is taken against Damascus, I will need not more than six hours to transfer hundreds of rockets and missiles to the Golan Heights to fire them at Tel Aviv,” as the Israeli website Ynet quoted the Iranian Fars news agency as having reported? A spokesman for the Turkish foreign ministry strongly denied this. But if the intention of the Iranian “leak” had been to scare the bejeesus out of the Gulf Arab countries in particular, maybe it had some effect.
(My view of that reported threat? I think six hours is ways more than Israel would need to undertake a devastating counter-strike, so what Asad reportedly “threatened” didn’t sound very threatening to Israel as such– but it certainly would threaten to inflame matters in the whole of the rest of the Middle East.)
There is, to put it bluntly, a bit of a protection racket being sustained by the Syrians (or perhaps, in this case, by the Iranians on their behalf) over some of the other Arab states, in a way that almost exactly mirrors the protection racket that has long been sustained by Israel over the United States… Both Syria (or Syria/Iran) threatens to blow up the whole Middle East by attacking Israel if the Arab states don’t do what Asad wants them to… Just as Israel periodically threatens to blow up the whole Middle East by attacking Iran if Washington doesn’t do exactly what Netanyahu wants it to (which in his case, is overwhelmingly to allow him to continue paving over the whole of the West Bank for the illegal Israeli settlers, without raising a finger in protest.)
Ah, Realpolitik. What a dirty business, eh?
In this case, however, it may well end up tending to take Syria’s people to a much better (because negotiated) outcome than they could ever expect if they choose to follow the path of Iraq or Libya. Yes, it would certainly be amazingly difficult for Syria to be able to democratize while it is still under threat and partial occupation by Israel. Yes, it would be amazingly difficult to reverse the terrible course toward increasing internal polarization and schism that Syrian society has been following for the past nine months. Yes, it seems amazingly unlikely that Riyadh or Doha would ever end up as champions of democracy!
But…. The alternatives to finding a negotiated outcome to the Syrian conflict are now all far, far worse…. As I’ve been saying like a broken record for six months now, in Syria both the regime and the opposition are resilient and won’t be defeated easily. Trying to find a negotiated and democratic way out of this impasse still seems like the best– indeed, the only– way forward. And this negotiation should only be over the form of governance inside Syria– that is, a negotiation for how a transition to democracy will be implemented– and not a negotiation over outcomes, i.e., that “Asad must go”, or whatever. It must be a negotiation that keeps a place at the table for the representatives of all significant forces in society on the basis of preserving the patriotic unity of the country and its people that they all so desperately need, despite– or rather, precisely because of– the depth of the wounds and resentments they bear from the recent and the more distant past. And they need it, too, because of the continuing state of war with Israel and the presence of very threatening Israeli forces looming on Jebel al-Shaikh right over the approaches to Damascus.
Look, you think it was easy for South Africans to overcome their resentments in 1992-94 and sit down at the table together? But who among the democrats of western countries is not glad today that they did so? Almost nobody. So why should we not support a negotiated transition to democracy in the case of Syria, also? (The Crisis Group report was quite right, by the way, to point out that Washington’s repeated calls for regime change in Syria have been extremely unhelpful…)