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…)