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…)

Syria, authoritarianism, war, and peace

I regret that I haven’t had much time in recent months to blog and write about the many developments in the still-unfolding ‘Arab Spring.’ However, I think that much of what I was writing back in March and April– especially on the extremely upsetting and complicated series of events in Libya and Syria– has stood the test of time pretty well. That has been particularly the case, I think, with regard to the warnings I issued ( e.g. 1, 2) about the danger of trying to use military tools, as in Libya, in order to pursue a claimed human-rights agenda, and with regard to the calls I made (e.g. 1, 2, and in this late-May discussion at the Middle East Institute, MP3) for people to focus on achieving a reform process in Syria that is negotiated, inclusive, and wide-ranging rather than continuing to pursue only shrill and personalized “rights” campaigns that all too easily and often shift over into highly politicized calls for regime change.
I repeat: War and extreme social conflict are always and necessarily injurious to the rights of the civilian residents of the conflict zone, especially the most vulnerable. Armchair activists in the west who have never lived in a war zone often have zero understanding of this fact.
(Though I am strong critic, on pacifist grounds, of the whole concept of a “just” war, I do think the first proponents of that originally Christian doctrine understood the always-injurious nature of war; and they coded that understanding into their injunctions that wars should only be undertaken when there was a strong chance of a speedy and decisive victory, and when the goods to be gained through any proposed war could be seen to clearly outweigh the evils that would necessarily accompany it. No-one back then ever proclaimed the idea of an “easy” war that would be a “cakewalk” or that would bring “only” good to the world! How tragic that so many in the west have lost sight of that deep wisdom embedded into the “western” tradition… )
Back to Syria, though. There, as in Libya, we have a situation in which both the regime and the opposition have now proven their resilience. This is, of course, a recipe for stalemate and prolonged conflict that, so long as it lasts– and it has now lasted several months– will cause immediate harm to Syrians of all political persuasions while also sowing the seeds of a possible much more serious social breakdown (fitna) in the future.
I want to ask two questions:
1. How many of those in the west who are now clamoring for immediate regime change in Syria think the negotiated transition from minority rule to democracy that occurred in South Africa in the early 1990s was a good thing? I would imagine the vast majority of them (of you) do.
So has the violence enacted by the minority regime in Syria even come close to the violence enacted by the former minority regime in South Africa against its people?
No. I thought not.
So why was a negotiated transition to democracy good in South Africa, while most western rights activists shudder at the very idea of one in Syria? (I hope the answer is not a racist one: Namely, that westerners were prepared to give a generous pass to members of the minority regime in South Africa because they were “white”… but they’re not prepared to do so to members of the Alawite regime in Syria because, um, they’re just another bunch of Ay-rabs… )
2. Can I invite you to a thought experiment?
I know from my own extensive research that Israel came very close to concluding a peace agreement with Syria at two points since the 1991 Madrid Conference: firstly, in 1994-95, and secondly, in 2000.
Imagine if one of those attempts had succeeded… Then, in early 2011, when the winds of the Arab Spring started blowing in Syria they would have been blowing in a country that (like Egypt) had regained all the national territory seized by Israel in 1967 and held for many years thereafter, and that was in a state of fairly well-entrenched final peace with Israel.
How different would such a Syria have been? How different would have been the role of the “security” forces in the country’s politics and national culture? How different would Syria’s whole society and economy have been from what we see there today?
Note that I am not here just mindlessly “blaming Israel” for all the woes currently besetting Syria and its people. The people inside Syria– on both sides– who have been pursuing their agendas through violence must bear the first responsibility for the losses inflicted. (And there, as in South Africa or U.S.-occupied Iraq, or anywhere else, it has been the dominant security forces that have inflicted the vast majority of the casualties…)
But still, it is worth noting that the security forces in Syria in general have only continued to occupy the bloated social, economic, and cultural role that they have been occupying because of Israel’s steadfast intransigence in the peace negotiations over the years, and because of the extreme reluctance of Israel’s negotiators to abide by the Security Council resolutions (and longstanding international norms) that insist that Israel cannot hang onto any of the Syrian territory that it occupied through war, back in 1967.
If Syria in 2011 had been in a situation of peace with Israel since 2000– even a “cold” peace, as between Egypt and Israel– then might not the internal interaction between pro-democracy forces and the military look more like what happened in Tahrir Square, and since then, in Egypt this year?
In Tahrir Square, the leaders of the military were abiding by an arrangement they had reached with the political leadership (in that time, Pres. Sadat) back in 1977, under which they vowed they would never turn their tanks against civilian protesters. Yes, I realize that pledge was given even before Egypt concluded its peace with Israel in 1978-79. But still, the fact of the peace with Israel made it a lot easier for the Egyptian military in 2011 to once again abide by the pledge they had made in 1977.
… Ah, it’s too late now to “imagine” what Syria might have looked like today if either the 1994-95 or the 2000 peace talks with Israel had succeeded. Those of us around the world who care deeply about the wellbeing of Syria’s 21 million people face the situation we face.
For my part, I’ll continue to call for a reform process in Syria that is negotiated, wide-ranging, authentically Syrian, and inclusive (including of representatives of the present regime, as well as, of course, the different strands of the opposition)– rather than calling for any specific outcome such as either the downfall or the continuation of the present regime.
(In South Africa, putting the focus on the need for real reform and respect for a truly democratic nationwide election proved to be the key that winkled the pro-apartheid National Party out of office– and gave them a decent, respected position in the political opposition… until the NP withered completely on the vine around ten years later.)
I call for the same kind of negotiated outcome in Libya, where goodness knows the damage caused by this terrible, tragic war that NATO has waged for the past five months has been unconscionable.
But in the case of Syria, let’s also not forget that the country is still one that it is in a state of war with its neighbor, Israel; and that the only way to end that state of war is through conclusion of a final peace agreement that implements all the conditions of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. If westerners in countries that have given huge support to Israel for the past 40 years truly want to help the people of Syria– including the very numerous Syrian citizens still prevented from returning to their families’ homes and farms inside the occupied Golan– then surely they (we) should be agitating hard for Israel to conclude the kind of rules-based peace with Syria that it concluded with Egypt back in 1979. Certainly, no U.S. government aid to Israel, whether economic or military, should be given in a way that entrenches and strengthens Israel’s hold on the occupied Golan.

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.”