Syria: The strong risk of fitna, and how to prevent it

Josh Landis has a truly excellent piece on his blog today. It is a lengthy account that he’s publishing there, that was written by someone identified only as “An American in Syria.” Whoever the writer is, the writing shows the closeness of her/his own connectedness to Syrians in Damascus of a variety of views and backgrounds, the acuity of his/her ability to understand the dangerous social fragmentation that seems to be ripping through the heart of Syrian society right now, and her/his own deep humanity.
The writer– or Landis?– identifies the following eleven themes in the essay:

    – the new phenomenon of Dera’an separateness
    – the challenging experience of Shia minority in the Dera’a muhafiza
    – effects of the suppression on the entire muhafiza, not just the city
    – identity as geographical, not only tribal/sectarian
    – new Damascene attitudes toward Dera’ans
    – Christian passivity and approval for the suppression
    – conservative trends in Sunni society vs. denial of Salafist presence
    – Alawi movement from prior measured criticism of the regime to a new, fanatical patriotism
    – reaction of Lebanese Shia, effect on large, extended family groups that span the Lebanon-Syria border
    – Hizbullah’s rapidly declining popularity among opposition Syrians
    – experience of opposition-oriented Syrian AUB students in Lebanon, threats

This piece is part of a fine tradition of great descriptions of how it feels to be inside a country that is undergoing a social fragmentation that is speedy, deep, and often comes as a huge surprise to the people who are undergoing/participating in the process, themselves… In Spring 1994, I published a review of two great books that explored the process from the inside, in both Lebanon and former Yugoslavia… I already archived the text of that review on JWN, several years ago. You can find it here.
One key lesson from both books is just how fast the ruptures, fissures, fears, scars, and worldview of fitna can spread through a whole society.
Since Spring 1994, of course, we have seen many other instances of seemingly stable societies splintering in a shockingly speedy and violent way. Right then, in April 1994, there was Rwanda… Since then, the first big examples that come to mind are post-invasion Iraq and Kenya.
There are many, many things that a responsible national government, responsible opposition politicians, and deeply engaged outsiders can do to arrest and even reverse this process of social breakdown (fitna.) Thus far, neither the Syrian government nor– as far as I can see– the opposition leaders, nor any outsiders have done anything effective in this regard.
The time to act is now (or yesterday.) The tools are widely available in all the annals of diplomacy and negotiation. Various governments (Norway, Qatar, Turkey, Switzerland) and non-governmental organizations like the Sant’ Egidio group in Rome have a lot of experience in figuring out how to stop and reverse the process of iftitan.
A basic agreement not to demonize or diminish any “other” group of human beings, just for being members of that group, is key. So is a commitment to always be conservative in the way people report atrocities, tragedies, or other harms, as opposed to allowing exaggeration, fearmongering, and warmongering to enter into and take over the discourse. Finally, focusing on a strong concept of equal co-citizenship in the one country is an excellent way to restore respect among all the co-citizens, to underline their joint commitment to the wellbeing of their one country, and to pave the way for establishment of a democratic and accountable political system going forward.
But as I said, the time to act is now. Otherwise, Rwanda beckons.

Notes on Turkey and Syria, #2

Turkish FM Davutoglu today told a couple of media outlets (including the NYT) that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad should launch a “shock therapy” version of political reform. Did he use those words in English? If so, it is a truly lousy turn of phrase. “Shock therapy,” as administered to the Russian economy by Jeffrey Sachs back in the day resulted in the evisceration and destruction of the nation’s economy. Shock therapy, as previously used in psychiatry, was violent, deforming, and usually unsuccessful.
Please, Ahmet Davutoglu, get a better turn of phrase. Something like “truly transformational reform”, perhaps?
* * *
On Tuesday, Turkey is hosting a meeting of Syrian opposition activists and leaders in Antalya. The goal is, I think, to enable them to form a joint coordinating body. Sevil Kucukkosum of Hurriyet writes that the Syrian NGO the National Organization for Human Rights is the sole organizer of the gathering. Syrians do not need visas to visit Turkey. But I imagine the Turkish government is allowing this gathering to proceed.
The Hurriyet report says that representatives of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, “could participate at the Syrian opposition meeting.” The Syrian MB has never systematically followed the decision its Egyptian counterpart took in the early 1980, to hew to a solely nonviolent path.
* * *
If Syria is really to enter the “grand constitutional process” that will be necessary to transform the country into a democratic, accountable, and inclusive democracy, then all parties (including above all, the government) will need to agree to a cessation of armed operations. All parties will also need to be able to negotiate the terms of the democratization, the rules going forward, and what to do about the many painful legacies of the past. The government needs to prepare and organize itself for this negotiation; and so does the opposition. From that perspective, having the opposition get organized is an excellent step. And it is doubtless good that the government is sending a (relative) reformer, Abdullah Dardari, to Ankara as ambassador in place of the harder line Nidal Kabalan.
Still reading the Hurriyet report there, however, I see it says this:

    Turkish officials have urged al-Assad to conduct a national dialogue that would include the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps even bringing that group into the government by granting it two ministries, according to a report in The New York Times. They have also suggested an anticorruption campaign, which would undoubtedly reach into al-Assad’s inner circle, and greater accountability for the security forces that have often been granted free rein in suppressing dissent.

Honestly, I don’t think any of this goes far enough. What is needed is a thoroughgoing transformation to a real, functioning, one-person-one-vote democracy, not just bringing two MB members into a Baath-dominated government. And this transformation will involve many other changes, as well, including institution of a transparent economic system and a system for ensuring civilian control of the military.
* * *
Can this be achieved while a portion of Syria is still chafing Israeli occupation, while the Israeli military daily threatens Damascus and the whole of Syria and Lebanon, and while Syria is still in a formal state of war with Israel? I believe it can. If the United States is able to do only one thing to help support the process of democratization in Syria it should be to use all the levers at its command to tell the Israelis not to intervene in any way in Syria, and to assure Syrians that the U.S. still fully supports the concept of a “full land for full peace” deal between Israel and Syria and will work actively to see its speedy implementation.
The Asads, father and son, both pursued the “full land for full peace” deal actively with Israel through negotiations. But the negotiations were always stymied and blocked by Israel (with help from Dennis Ross and others) and never got anywhere. Though the Asads maintained a strategic posture toward Israel based on general military deterrence, over time that deterrence became puny in the extreme; and it cannot serve any longer to “justify” the maintenance of the bloated national-security apparatus that currently hangs over the whole society like a very heavy weight.
* * *
Syria has been reeling from several years of drought and many more years of economic mismanagement and the economic burden of its national-security apparatus. It urgently needs economic help and the institution of sound economic policies. Turkey can do a lot to help in both regards, but it cannot do it alone.
* * *
The two countries are extremely important to each other. Each is an important gateway between the other and a significant hinterland. They have many geopolitical interests in common. Turkey is about four times the size of Syria in population and about 12 times as big as it in GDP.
This report from the Ankara-based think-tank the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) looks very interesting.
that report on it, from Today’s Zaman, says,

    A report released by an Ankara-based think tank indicates that as the Syrian regime faces hardships with the continuing public uprisings for a more democratic regime, Turkey should develop policies to influence the process to evolve democratically, since Syrian matters are “family matters” to Turkey.
    The report released on May 9… titled “The Name of Walking in a Mine Field: Forcing Change in Syria,” indicates that Syria is in need of “urgent change” and Turkey needs to develop policies in the direction of democratic change, as human rights groups say the death toll from Syria’s crackdown on a nine-week uprising has exceeded 1,000.
    The report states that Turkey’s priority should be preventing a foreign intervention.
    “A foreign intervention in Syria means disaster for both Turkey and the region. A solution is necessary before it reaches that point. Turkey should focus on Syria with all of its power. If the issues in Syria are not solved as soon as possible, Turkey’s initiatives in the region will fail,” the report said and continued: “Turkey’s assertion to be a model state in the region will weaken in particular. A Turkey that cannot be influential in solving matters in Syria will lose its positive image in the eyes of the Arab public. The situation in Syria could be seen as a foreign policy problem in other countries, but it is a family matter for Turkey. Events in the region will greatly affect Turkey.”

I’d love to see an English-language version of the whole report…
* * *
As I noted in this piece that I blogged on Tuesday, I do think South Africa’s experience of a negotiated transition from minority rule to full democracy is one that can be very valuable for Syria. Of course, the South African parties and movements were able to complete their big constitutional transformation more or less on their own, while the Syrians evidently need a friendly outside force to act as mediator, convenor, and general chivvier, and structurer of the incentives. But still, there are a lot of excellent lessons the South Africans can offer.
One key one, I think, is that the focus of all participants should be determinedly forward-looking– laying the basis for a decent, egalitarian, accountable, and cooperative system going forward– rather than vindictive and backward-looking, seeking to settle endless old scores here and there. The Spaniards could offer some good lessons in this regard, too.

My CSM oped on need for negotiated transition in Syria

People with an interest in escalating tensions and sowing conflict within Middle Eastern countries always say “There is no time!” for diplomacy or negotiation…. and that “If lives are to be saved then we have to take military action…”
In mid-March, I was stunned to see how rapidly those arguments took hold among “western” political elites, within the space of just a few days, with regard to Libya. So I looked around to see where they might be deployed by those same people again and, in the interest of trying to head off yet another horrendous western military adventure (conducted, as in Libya, under the guise of an “urgent humanitarian intervention”) I started thinking about what all of us in the global antiwar movement could do to draw up constructive and timely proposals for determinedly non-violent policies that could help to de-escalate the tensions in troubled countries and then move speedily to defusing the and resolving the very real political problems that have been the cause of these conflicts.
On March 28, I published this modest blog post, titled “What can be done in Syria (and could have been done in Libya)”.
Then I thought about it all a bit more. I have of course been following the news from Syria: Gradually escalating protest gatherings, many of them nonviolent but with some acts by armed insurgents at the fringes of some of them (as in Banias on April 10); A regime response on the streets that has been considerably more measured than that of the Bahraini-Saudi security forces in Bahrain (or, that of Qadhdhafi, in Libya) but that has still, by now, killed just over 200 people: The president, Bashar al-Asad, trying to announce some small steps of reform– but probably far too little, too late; and his and the Baath Party’s organizing of sizeable counter-demonstrations.
I’ve also taken notes of interventions like this one (Ar.) from veteran Syrian democracy activist Michel Kilo, which is titled “Yes, there is no alternative to a political solution”.
So on Tuesday I wrote an op-ed on the subject for the Christian Science Monitor— my first piece there for a long time. It was published on their website today under the title Syria protests: Is there a peaceful path to democracy?
I really want people, here in the U.S., there in Syria, and everywhere else, to be thinking a lot harder about how all the many wonderful tools of diplomacy can be deployed in the interest of helping people from all sides and factions in Syria start to figure out new, much more democratic (that is, egalitarian and accountable) ways to organize their political life together.
I based this particular proposal on some writing I did in Al-Hayat back in the 1990s, when I was arguing that the political situations inside both Iraq and Syria were similar to Apartheid-era South Africa in that in both those countries, members of a minority group were controlling all the levers of power (and in effect using the pan-Arabist ideology of Baathism to mask that fact), and using their national-security apparatuses and the ever-present risk of war to quell any internal dissent in the name of protecting that part of the Arab homeland…
In Syria’s case, I know the country has real enemies. Israel is still, quite illegally, occupying Syria’s fertile Golan region which it has also (even more illegally) annexed to itself! The U.S. has had a determined policy of supporting a covert form of regime change in Syria, for many years. But just because a country has real enemies doesn’t mean that the government doesn’t also exploit fears of “national security” threats in order to quell internal dissent.
So because I care a lot about Syria and have friends at every point on the country’s political spectrum, I really do want them to be able to escape the complex and harmful political tangle they have found themselves in after 48 years of single-party, Baathist rule… And I really hope they can do this without suffering the train of even worse worse consequences that followed the overthrow of the (as it happens, deeply competing) Baathist regime in Iraq at the extremely violent hands of the U.S. military.
Which brought me– back in the 1990s, and again today– back to South Africa, and the way that the 40-plus years of single-party “National Party” minority rule there was ended through the four-year-long, on-again-off-again negotiation that ran from 1990 through 1994. That transition to democracy was very far indeed from wholly peaceful, and it has been very far from successful in resolving all the country’s problems in the 17 years since 1994. But still, South Africa’s transition was successful at the political level in creating a new, much more democratic and inclusive political system and a new, much more inclusive political culture and sense of national belonging among all the country’s people.
And crucially, the “slaughter of whites” that many “white” South Africans feared would happen once the people of other races were given political power… never happened. Despite all the centuries of violence and repression that the country’s people had experienced since the arrival of the first “white” colonists, the negotiations of 1990-94 finally allowed them to escape from the previous, long-sustained cycles of killing, retribution, despair, more killing, and mayhem without end.
So that kind of a negotiated “grand bargain” is what I would hope, for Syria’s people. I could write a lot more about this… And I am sure there must be some other, better ideas out there, too. So let’s talk about them! Let’s focus on discussing nonviolent, political and diplomatic actions that can be taken… so that no-one again can stand up again and make the claim that “There is no time for diplomacy at this point! There is no alternative to taking military action!”
There is always an alternative. Here, in the case of Syria, is one modest sketch of a suggestion.

More on Turkey/Syria

On Monday, I blogged that I thought Turkey’s role in helping urge/midwife a successful push for reform in Syria could be key. I gave a few reasons for this– chiefly, the good relations between the two countries and the length (800 miles) of their common border.
Yesterday, Turkey’s intel chief Hakan Fidan was in Damascus, and reported to have been discussing the need for reform with his hosts. (Meanwhile, Turkish PM Erdogan was in the Kurdish-Iraqi capital of Irbil and the Shiite-Iraqi capital, Najaf. As I tweeted at the time: “It’s hard work running a neo-Ottoman empire!” But really: Erdogan’s outreach to neighbors all round, including to Kurds, has been very notable.)
I’ve written quite a lot about Turkey and Syria on this blog over the past two years– check out the archives, including for reporting from good trips I’ve made to the two countries since summer 2009.
Based on all this, I could summarize my views on what Turkey can “offer” to a democratizing Syria– and, perhaps, to a number of other truly democratizing Middle Eastern countries– as follows:

    * Between them, Turkey’s current AK Party government and its longstanding and increasingly sturdy democratic constitution offer a great model for how a country can both be an open, west-friendly liberal democracy and be ruled by a party that is intentionally mildly Islamist. Turkey’s political history– through the aggressive secularism and tight ethnonationalism of the Kemalists, to the point it has arrived at today– is fascinating. The Kemalists made several good contributions to the country’s political and economic development. But it took the AKP to transcend the boundaries of ethnonationalism that constrained Ankara’s ability to have good relations with most of its neighbors– and indeed, with all those of its own citizens who are not ethnic Turks.
    * Turkey offers a great example of a generally peaceful transition from a regime in which the military used to have a commanding sway (underlined by periodic coups and soft coups against the elected government) to one in which the democratic principle of civilian control of the military is now much more deeply entrenched and respected. For Syria, this could be a very valuable lesson– though we need to remember that Syria is still in a state of war with Israel, which continues to occupy (and indeed, has annexed) the strategic Golan region. So the military’s role in politics and society is more complex there than in Turkey. Of course, a truly engaged and fair-minded U.S. diplomacy could– and should– speedily bring an end to Israel’s occupation of the Golan. That would be one of the best contributions Washington could make to democratization in Syria! The record of the peace negotiations of the 1990s (about part of which, I wrote a book for USIP) is a great basis from to start.
    * Turkey offers a great economic model to Syria and other Middle Eastern democratizers. The Turkish economy has been booming in recent years– including during the period after the west’s financial collapse of September 2008. It seems to be sturdily structured; and Turkish business leaders (like many other Turkish institutions) have done a great job of extending their contacts, their contracts, and their influence into many areas of the former Ottoman space– as well as the former Soviet space.
    * Turkey has offered a great “social” model to Syrians and other Middle Easterners, as well. Syrians at different levels of society with whom I have spoken in recent years emphasize that they strongly welcome the Turkish model as much more attractive than the Iranian model of society, which is the other major pole of influence on governmental thinking.

Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that for the past few years many Syrians have been deeply in love with Turkey– for a number of reasons. One of these, certainly, has been the straightforward, principled stance that the AK government has adopted toward Israel. Remember that in 2008, Ankara did a lot to spearhead and facilitate a very promising round of quiet peace talks between Syria and Israel. Then, in December 2008 Israeli PM Olmert abruptly broke off the proximity talks he was holding in Turkey in connection with that effort– and he returned to Israel to launched the assault against Gaza that was so appropriately named “Cast Lead.” The Turks felt completely betrayed and used by Olmert in that regard– a fact that led to Erdogan’s stiff behavior toward Israeli Pres. Shimon Peres at Davos shortly after. But Erdogan felt betrayed precisely because he had been deeply committed to the success of the earlier peace talks. That good motivation and good energy should certainly not be forgotten.
Syrians across the board also really appreciate the kind of lifestyle model they find when they visit Turkey– as, increasingly, they do in droves, thanks to the abolition of visa requirements across the long shared border. Syrian intellectuals wonder earnestly how long it would take their country to catch up with the kind of economy and life they see in eastern Turkey– and that they see portrayed on the many Turkish soap operas that now compete very well, along with their own, Damascus-produced soaps, across the whole Arab media market.
One notable thing that’s happened along the way is that the resentment that an earlier generation of Syrians still felt at the fact that colonial France had gratuitously (in their view) “given away” the whole ethnic-Arab province of Alexandretta to Turkey on the eve of WWII has now just about completely dissipated. That province, now Hatay in Turkey, is just another part of Turkey that Syrians like to visit.
… Well, I don’t have time to write more here about this. Democratizing this regime in Syria is not an easy prospect for anyone to undertake, even if Pres. Asad has the best of intentions. (And, as I noted, trying to do this while a belligerent Israel still occupies Mount Hermon and an additional huge chunk of Golan, and makes periodic belligerent declarations towards Syria makes it even harder.) But as I noted in my last blog post, Turkey has a strong incentive to try to undertake the task successfully. The suggestion I lightheartedly made there that Syria might benefit from having its own AK Party– a moderately Sunni-Islamist party that delivers good governance in a climate of great respect for ethnic and religious minorities, and that deals generally successfully with the complexities of disentangling the military from the reins of governance– is actually one that might be worth exploring further… Though we should note that Turkey’s AK (“Justice and Development”) Party took many years, and several rounds of serious problems, before it was able to come to power.
And what might Washington’s position in all this be? I am still very concerned that the State Department holds far too many people at high levels who furthered their careers under the aggressively Israeli-controlled parameters of the Clinton and GWB administrations, and who therefore harbor far more kneejerk opposition to this Turkish government than is warranted. (As we saw, indeed, with their disgraceful response to the Mavi Marmara incident last year.) But it is high time Washington overcame those biases and sensitivities. Indeed, given how deeply involved the Obama administration has now, willy-nilly, become in issues of hands-on governance in numerous Arab countries, those old-fashioned biases toward Israel are now much more of a burden than they ever were before. So let’s hope that– at least when dealing with decades-long NATO ally Turkey, and its role in the Middle East– they can figure out a different, more constructive way to proceed.

What can be done in Syria (and could have been done in Libya)

Syria is, like Libya, a one-man-ruled country with a long history of having been on Washington’s hit-list that in the past two weeks has witnessed mounting popular protests and government attempts to crack down.
I have made periodic reporting trips to Syria for 35 years now and have a broad range of contacts among people in the regime, in the opposition, and among the country’s intellectuals. For many (perhaps most) Syrians, the main challenge they face is how to reconcile the strong desire they have for a government that is much more accountable and less repressive than the present one with the (also strong) fear they have that any political opening-up might lead to the kind of all-pervading fitna (social breakdown) that they saw in post-Saddam Iraq. Remember, Syria has been host to maybe a million refugees from that fitna in Iraq, and they have seen at first hand the horrendous social and psychological devastation that it involved.
In the past, many Syrians have also muted their calls for political rights and a real multi-party system because they feared that any situation of political uncertainty in the country might invite Israel– with which Syria is still in a state of war, since Israel continues to occupy most of Syria’s strategic Golan region– to take further actions against the country and its people.
It goes without saying that the members of Syria’s numerous overlapping security services have always played very strongly on the fears of Israeli adventurism or Iraq-style (or Lebanon-style) fitna as they brutally shut down any attempts to build autonomous political or civil-society networks.
Now, however, it seems that the Asad regime’s long-sustained attempts to intimidate Syria’s 22 million people into political quiescence have started to fail. Under the pressure of the social-media led activities emanating from Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region, Syrian community groups in various parts of the country have launched and apparently managed to sustain a serious challenge to the regime’s authority. The first ground zero for this movement has been the small southern city of Deraa, where a cycle of small actions leading to arrests leading to big demonstrations leading to crackdown, leading to deaths among protesters, leading to escalating demonstrations has been in motion throughout the past ten days, and continue today.
Other parts of Syria have also seen sizeable protests, including the Mediterranean port city of Lattakia and some exurbs of the capital, Damascus. And there have been other signs of possible regime fracture. Syria’s ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha, wrote a blog post on March 25 that was an elliptical and meandering exploration of the concept of sadness… But the most direct aspect of it was the dedication he put in at the top: “(This is dedicated to the martyrs of Daraa).”
Also, over the weekend, “Angry Arab” Asaad Abou-Khalil reported that vice-president Farouq al-Sharaa had resigned– though it subsequently appeared that Sharaa might have had second thoughts.
In the past couple of days it has been widely reported that President Bashar al-Asad is about to speak to the nation and will announce significant political reforms in his speech. However, a couple of deadlines for that address have now come and gone. It feels a little like that momentous but long-delayed Mubarak speech in early February, but less intense. After all, on that occasion the expectation was that Mubarak would use the promised speech to announce his resignation. This time round, in Syria, no-one is expecting Pres. Asad to resign– and significantly, very few of the demonstrators themselves have thus far been calling for his resignation.
Even more intriguing, though: neither the the U.S. nor any other western power– nor even that little Middle East power on Syria’s southwestern border– has been calling for all-out regime change in Syria!
In one commentary I read, the explanation was “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t know… ” Other explanations are also possible. And indeed, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the complete overthrow of Asad and his Baath Party might well lead either to Iraq-style fitna right there in Syria’s strategically important space or to the emergence of a regime that far better represents the interests of Syria’s majority Sunni-Muslim population, many of whom are inclined to be political Islamists of one type or another, as opposed to the longheld secularism of Asad’s Baath Party.
In these circumstances, several voices in western elites have started to call for an urgent political/diplomatic engagement with Syria, the goal of which would be to persuade/pressure Asad to insist on restraint in his forces’ response to protesters while moving speedily to transform his political system into one that is much more pluralistic and inclusive. This is the thrust, above all, of the call that the International Crisis Group issued on March 25.
Here is what the ICG is calling for:

    President Assad must show visible leadership and do so now… He alone can prove that change is possible and already in the making, restore some sense of clarity and direction to a bewildered power apparatus and put forward a detailed framework for structural change. This should include several steps:
    * The President should speak openly and directly to his people, recognise the challenges [Syria faces], stress the unacceptable and counterproductive nature of repression, offer condolences to the families of victims, order a serious, transparent investigation into the violence in Deraa, present a package of measures for immediate implementation and suggest an inclusive mechanism for discussing more far-reaching reforms.
    * He should announce the following, immediate measures: release of all political prisoners; lifting of the emergency law; authorisation of peaceful demonstrations; opening of new channels for the expression of complaints, given lack of trust in local officials; and action on the many cases of corruption that already have been compiled by the security apparatus but lie dormant due to nepotistic intervention.
    * Upcoming parliamentary elections should be postponed pending a referendum on sweeping constitutional amendments which should be discussed with a wide and inclusive range of Syrians. Deeper change requires broad consultation and cannot be arbitrarily implemented.

Also apparently supporting the “speedy reform” project in Syria is Turkish prime minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country– as he noted in Ankara earlier today– shares an 800-mile border with Syria.
That report, from Reuters, included this:

    Erdogan, speaking at Ankara airport before leaving for a visit to Iraq, said he had suggested to Assad that he meet some of the demands of thousands of people who have taken part in pro-democracy demonstrations across Syria.
    “[Subject of verb not given, but presumably Asad?] said they were working on lifting the state of emergency to meet demands. They told us they were working on political parties … we hope these measures are actually implemented rather than remaining promises,” Erdogan said.
    “We did not receive a negative answer when we urged Mr Assad to listen to the voice of people. I hope he makes the announcement today or tomorrow.”

This approach to the developments in Syria is very notably different from the approach that Washington (and France and Britain) adopted toward Libya. The biggest difference is that in Syria, the western governments have been addressing their political demands to Pres. Asad, and thus (presumably in good faith) wanting him to engage with the demands and with their authors. In Libya, by contrast, Pres. Obama and Pres. Sarkozy have been explicitly calling for Qadhdhafi’s ouster– a stance that provides no incentive at all for Qadhdhafi to engage or respond positively in any way.
Allied to these differing political stances (and, in all truth, probably antecedent to them in the decisionmaking in Washington and Paris) was an early desire by France and Washington to intervene militarily in Libya, in contrast to the deliberate military restraint they have announced toward Syria.
Erdogan’s role is, I think, key. Given the length of its common border with Syria, Turkey has a strong interest in preventing a number of outcomes in Syria:

    * Fitna;
    * Emergence of a regime that is much more strongly Islamist than Erdogan’s own AK Party;
    * An outright western or western/Israeli military intervention in the country; and
    * The west’s imposition of much tighter sanctions on Syria, such as would drive the regime and many Syrian citizens toward extremism and further anti-westernism.

Erdogan is also in a unique position to be the spearhead of the “speedy reform” project in Syria, on account of the following factors:

    * The high esteem he enjoys both from Pres. Asad and those around him– and, crucially from the great mass of the Syrian people;
    * Turkey’s geographic proximity to Syria: This allows Turkey to do things (like increasing or easing pressure on trade routes or flows of Euphrates water) that can act as incentives or disincentives for the Syrian reform process. It also means that Turkey’s political elite and public all widely understand that they need to deal successfully with the Syrian challenge, even if it costs them something, because the cost of failure could be huge for Turkey itself.
    * The fact that the AK Party, with its west-leaning and generally moderate form of Sunni Islam, is in a generally good position to be able to interact with emerging leaders from Syria’s own long-repressed Sunni majority community. (Come to think of it, a democratizing Syria could also usefully have a “Justice and Development Party”– AKP– of its own, why not?)

Will Asad engage with this opportunity that western powers and Turkey appear to be offering him? I don’t know, though I strongly hope that he will. The alternatives are too horrible to contemplate. This Pres. Asad cannot, in 2011, hope to undertake a repeat of the “shell them all to smithereens” approach to repressing protesters that his father used in Hama in 1982– and survive.
… All of which does lead me to note, as an important footnote here, that this posture of western governments issuing a clear demarche to Syria against using excessive violence against protesters and then enrolling a variety of international diplomatic mechanisms to monitor and report on the situation with a view to incentivizing or disincentivizing good or bad behavior on the streets and real, significant moves to political reform is one that could and should have been used in both Libya and Bahrain.
Instead of which, what we had was: in Libya, the rush to a terrible war whose consequences (and even, whose goals) are quite impossible to discern; and in Bahrain– nothing, a complete carte blanche to that very repressive regime to do whatever it wanted against the well-organized and above all nonviolent protesters who were gathering in a disciplined way to seek basic human rights.
(Regarding Qadhdhafi, I realize that the bellicose threats that he and his son Seif al-Islam made in the lead-up to the passage of UNSCR 1973 indicated quite the opposite of any willingness to engage with the political demands of the UN or other international bodies. But still, Ban Ki-Moon never even made any attempt to push forward the political parts of 1973; and he and others prevented the AU from doing so, either. The western-led rush to war there was, as I noted yesterday, both tragic and criminal.)

Arrest campaign against Syrian citizens in occupied Golan

The Syrian citizens who live in Israeli-occupied Golan don’t get nearly as much international media coverage as the Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza. But the situation they live in is just about equally harsh. Indeed ever since Israel committed a unilateral (and globally quite unrecognized) act of Anschluss against Golan in 1980, the situation of Golan’s legitimate, indigenous residents has been as tough as that of the legitimate, indigenous residents of occupied East Jerusalem.
Yesterday, Haaretz had this report about the arrest of Mona Sha’ar, a resident of the Golan town of Majdal Shams.
Haaretz’s Jack Khoury writes that Sha’ar was arrested

    for allegedly committing crimes against the security of Israel.
    Her son, Fada Sha’ar, was the first in this case to be arrested several weeks prior for alleged espionage and committing crimes against Israeli security. Her husband was also been arrested in connection to the case.

Khoury described Majdal Shams in the piece as a “northern Druze village”, which implies that it is in Israel. It is fairly depressing to think that even the editors at Haaretz, which is sometimes fairly liberal, do nothing to question Israel’s longstanding official narrative that Golan is “just another part of Israel.”

The return of geography: Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia

I realize I probably haven’t put anything on the blog yet that tells my ever-waiting readership (!) that last week I was in Syria. Well, I was. I went as part of a quiet, non-governmental effort to find ways to improve our country’s currently troubled relations with Syria. More info later, as appropriate.
Anyway, I’ve just finished writing a piece for another publication about Syria’s current diplomatic situation. Y’all will get the link when it is published.
Last night, as I was figuring how to frame the piece, I thought really the most significant thing that has happened for Syria’s situation in recent years was last year’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Along with the excellent rapprochement that Damascus has made with Turkey over the earlier 5-6 years, those two new relationships with significant Middle Eastern powers strengthen Syria’s position considerably, compared with where it was in the dark days of 2003-04 when so many American neocons were confidently predicting that “after Baghdad, Syria will be the next to fall to U.S. power.”
These new relationships also give Syrians a valuable counterweight to the power and influence of Iran. It’s not that anyone in the present Syrian government wants to abandon the ties with Tehran that have been so important to their regime’s survival over the past 30 years. But at least now they can balance those ties with these other new relationships with Turkey and Saudi Arabia…
So this morning, I Googled “Syria Saudi Arabia Turkey” and guess what came up? This fascinating news item from today’s Hurriyet, reporting that,

Continue reading “The return of geography: Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia”

Syria once again at the regional pivot

Last week, there was considerable fuss in much of the U.S. media because, just a couple of days after the Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Bill Burns, visited Damascus and announced that after a five-year absence Washington would finally be returning an ambassador to Syria, President Bashar al-Asad turned to hosting some other political figures important to him, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the heads of Hamas and Hizbullah.
Various U.S. commentators (many of whom were anyway just primed to pounce on anything the Obama administration does) became apoplectic in their fury, arguing that Asad’s meetings with his other allies just “proved” that Burns, Secretary Clinton, and Pres. Obama had all been taken royally for a ride.
So I’m glad that we can now read the calm voices of Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett on the subject. The Leveretts were actually in Damascus, and had a meeting there with Pres. Asad, shortly before Aasad’s meeting with Ahmadinejad and the rest of the Jabhat al-Mumana’a (though maybe I should find a better name for the Jabha… That one, which means “Blocking Front” is very Bush-era-ish… Anyway, I guess readers will know whom I refer to.)
The Leveretts:

    A week before Ahmadinejad’s arrival in Damascus, we had our own conversation with President Assad—a conversation that came one day after… William Burns met with the Syrian leader. In our session with him, Assad expressed satisfaction over his meeting with Undersecretary Burns. However, Assad also made clear that Syria’s relations with Iran, as well as its ties to Hizballah and HAMAS, are not on the table.

They note that, also shortly before Ahmadinejad’s visit to Damascus, Hillary Clinton had told the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee that,

    “We have laid out for the Syrians the need for greater cooperation with respect to Iraq, the end to interference in Lebanon and the transport or provision of weapons to Hezbollah, a resumption of the Israeli/Syrian track on the peace process which had been proceeding through the offices of the Turks last years, and generally to begin to move away from the relationship with Iran which is so deeply troubling to the region as well as to the United States.”

So, there goes Hillary, in the fine nanny-ish tradition established by Condi Rice before her, of trying to publicly dictate to other sovereign governments what their policies should be.
Asad’s laconic response was to say,

    “We must have understood Clinton wrong because of bad translation or our limited understanding… I find it strange that they [Americans] talks about Middle East stability and peace and the other beautiful principles and call for two countries to move away from each other.”

I do think that Clinton (like everyone else from both party leaderships here in the U.S.) has a pronounced and very worrying tendency to continue to see every actor in the Middle East as being “either with us or against us” on the question that continues to preoccupy most of official Washington, that of Israel vs. Iran.
But matters aren’t as simple as that in the region, any more. At least two very significant actors in the region can no longer be clearly categorized as being in either the “pro-Iranian” or “pro-Israel/western” camp. They are Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of which have many close ties to the west as such, but a lot of reservations about Israel; and both of which believe that negotiating in good faith with Iran is greatly preferable to continuing to saber-rattle and escalate the tensions against it.
Significantly, both these governments now have good relations with Syria. In the case of Turkey, these relations are of some years’ standing at this point. In the case of Saudi Arabia, they are more recent, dating from the landmark visit that King Abdullah made to Damascus last year. Prior to that, for several years– and most especially since the February 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, which has been widely but not categorically blamed on Syria– Riyadh’s relations with Damascus were extremely hostile. (Though prior to that, too, the present Saudi King, Abdullah, also had a long history of friendliness to Syria’s rulers; so go figure that.)
All of this provides some background for the judgment the Leveretts make in their blog post about their meeting with Asad, that,

    the perceived value in Damascus of strategic realignment with the United States through a carefully conditioned peace deal with Israel is slowly declining as America’s hegemonic standing and influence erode.

They go on to write,

    Certainly, the Syrian leadership was relieved by President George W. Bush’s departure from office and his replacement by President Obama. But, with a right-leaning coalition headed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in power in Israel, expectations in Damascus for what Syria would see as major improvements in America’s Middle East policy are not high. And, as President Assad noted to us, poor policy choices in the Middle East by the United States over the last decade have created “vacuums” which “others [Iran and Turkey] filled”. (In this context, Assad argued that Iran’s evolving regional role does not represent “new ambitions” on Tehran’s part.) This has expanded Syria’s strategic optionality. In this context, Assad underscored that the rise of Iran and Turkey to new levels of regional influence has not come at Syria’s expense; rather, all three states have been able to improve their own relations and bolster their regional influence.
    This is not to say that Hafiz al-Assad’s preferred strategic option of realignment toward the West through a “principled” peace with Israel does not remain deeply attractive to his son and successor. But, the longer that Damascus must wait for the United States to deliver on its end of the peace process, the more time that Bashar and his advisers have to internalize what they see as the reality of America’s slow decline. And that has a palpable effect on the price they are willing to pay for realizing Hafiz al-Assad’s preferred strategic option.

I see that the well-informed Syrian analyst Sami Moubayed also focuses a little on King Abullah’s role in this recent article on Syria’s diplomacy.
I’m not quite sure how Moubayed manages the feat of “reading” King Abdullah’s mind… But what he writes here is nonetheless very interesting:

    King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia shares this view [that Syrian-Iranian relations are in the best interest of the international community, and should be seen as a blessing in disguise for the United States], believing that Syria can indeed walk the tightrope between the so-called moderate and radical camps in the Middle East, helping influence and moderate the behaviour of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. Syria has repeatedly used its influence with these players in meetings like the ones that just took place in Damascus (which perhaps were not as high profile) to get Hamas to accept the Arab Peace Initiative, for example, or to get Hezbollah more involved in the political process in Lebanon. In Iran, Syria used its influence to free 17 British sailors captured in 2007, as well as a French prisoner in the summer of 2009. Syria, after all, doesn’t have a history of anti-Americanism, and has proven since 1990 that it is a credible peace partner, with whom the West can do business.
    The Damascus Summit [with Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah, and Meshaal] by no means indicates that engagement has come to an end between Syria and the US. Far from it; the meeting is a reminder of how helpful Syria can be in dealing with these non-state players. Nevertheless, it sends another strong message: Think twice before waging another war on Lebanon, because neither Syria nor Iran will allow it. Rather than escalate the conflict, the tripartite meeting in Damascus actually forced Israel to recalculate, thereby minimising the chances of war next summer. The leaders assembled in Damascus are clearly very confident of their abilities, and feel that neither Israel nor the US can deal with them as they have in the past. Much has changed since Obama came to power in 2009, but much remains the same, given that the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah alliance has outlived five US administrations since that of Ronald Reagan, and will likely outlive the Obama administration as well. Persuading the US to pressure Israel into seeking peace is high on Syria’s agenda, and this explains the recent Damascus Summit.