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.)

Updates, Sept.26

I have found it really hard to find time and energy to blog recently. Lots has been going on with Just World Books. This very evening, we are launching Manan Ahmed’s terrific book Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination. I’m in New York to do this. It’s being hosted by the Asian-American Writers’ Workshop— starts 90 minutes from now!
Timely, huh? Also timely: our next book, Troubled Triangle: The United States, Turkey, and Israel in the New Middle East, edited by the fabulous William B. Quandt.
Wednesday, I’m leaving for the Algiers, where Bill the spouse and I are both taking part in a “Colloque” on the Arab Spring being organized in conjunction with the Algiers Book Fair. I am also hoping to meet some Arabic-language and French-language publishers who might be interested in buying other-language rights to some of our books.
I know there has been a lot happening recently (especially, here in New York) around Abu Mazen’s last-ditch effort to save his legacy by taking the “Palestinian statehood” request to the Security Council. There’s been a lot of dissension in Palestinian ranks about the value of this effort. And yes, it does seem very possible that the statehood request might just languish for months or years in some subcommittee of the Security Council… The matter would be a lot more straightforward if Abu Mazen and his people were to insist on taking a request for enhanced recognition to the General Assembly, and forcing a vote there…
Whatever happens to this particular initiative at this particular time, it already seems that pressure is mounting in the non-U.S. 95% of the global community that the United States has monopolized all Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy for too long now; and that the U.S. has proven itself uniquely unqualified and/or unable to do anything to bring about a fair and sustainable peace… and therefore, that some other, more authoritative and capable form of international sponsorship is needed in order to deal successfully with this important item on the world’s agenda.
I haven’t been able to blog much about this recently. Last week I had a flare-up of horrible back pain, which laid me somewhat low. But next week, on October 4, I’m speaking on the Palestinian statehood issue at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. (I think that’s an open meeting: Check their website over the next few days, for details. They don’t have any up there yet.)

‘Military-industrial complex’ conference: NC, Jan. 14-16

My friend Chuck Fager from Quaker House in Fayetteville, NC, and other peace movement friends have put together a terrific conference for next week, to mark the 50th anniversary of the great farewell speech in which Pres. Dwight Eisenhower warned Americans of the dangers of a “military-industrial complex” taking over too many of the affairs of our government…
The conference is at Guilford College in Greensborough, NC.
I’ll be speaking on Saturday afternoon– just in that time-slot right after lunch when everyone will be nodding off… H’mm… Let me think of ways to keep my presentation lively and engaging. My topic is “The MIC and the Middle East.”
Come if you can!

J Street blogger panel–next Monday!

J Street’s big inaugural conference starts next Sunday evening… And at lunchtime on Monday, Oct. 26, there’ll be a great affiliated event: a panel discussion involving a large number of pro-peace bloggers, including yours truly.
All JWN readers who are at the conference, come along! Blogs have played a large role in breaking the tight blockade that previously prevented real facts and fair-minded opinions about the Palestine Question from getting anything like a fair hearing in the American public discourse.
I’m really excited because I’ll get to meet, in real physical space, many bloggers whose work I have long admired but whom I have not yet actually met.
They include panel organizers Richard Silverstein of Tikkun Olam and Jerry Haber of the Magnes Zionist. Also Phil Weiss of Mondoweiss and Max Blumenthal, who blogs various various places– and also does those famous videos.
Laila El-Haddad of Gaza Mom is coming, and Matt Duss of the Wonk Room, and a bunch of other great bloggers. I imagine the best way to keep updated on the participant list will be to check Richard’s blog.
The panel will run 12:30 – 2:00pm, and be in the McPhearson Square Room at the Grand Hyatt. I think you have to be a registered participant in the conference to attend, and that lunch will be provided. (H’mmm. That probably means people will take 20 minutes going thru the lunch line so we won’t get started till around 1? People: go through those lunch lines as fast as you can, okay?)
Richard reminds us of the following:

    Our event is not officially sponsored by J Street and nothing said during our session should be construed as representing J Street’s views. We are bloggers and independent actors. We do not speak for J Street and they do not endorse our statements. They have graciously offered us a physical space during their conference. But that is where the relationship ends.
    …J Street has agreed to our panel and understands the independent role we play in the blogosphere and at their conference. That is something that is important and praiseworthy.

I hope to see many of you there!

MP3 audio: Who Speaks for the Palestinians?

For those who want to hear what I said in my talk on this topic September 24 at the Middle East Institute, you can now listen to it here.
Thanks to MEI President Wendy Chamberlain and vice-pres Kate Seeley for hosting the discussion– and to the other MEI staff members who worked it and then got this up onto their website so quickly.
(Can live-streaming be far behind?)