Tag Archives: MENA

Happy Holidays (and on to 2014)

First of all, a happy holiday season to all TN readers who are so geographically located and culturally inclined. I’ve been taking some badly-needed time off on the winter dark Åland Islands and am happy to observe many of the rest of you are getting some downtime too, at least based on the cratering hit numbers during the last week. So, if you are reading this, many thanks but now close your laptop please, and go play Legos with your kids (thats my plan).

Second of all, because after all this is a blog that follows international affairs, here’s to 2014 because 2013 felt like a pretty lousy year. I don’t really go in for conspiracy theories or notions about auspicious and inauspicious years, but it felt like the world overdid it a bit during 2011, slept through 2012 and had a debilitating global headache in 2013.

Most obviously, of course, was the scramble to find a suitably lousy epithet to re-dub the events-formerly-known-as-the-Arab-Spring. As Tunisia stagnated, Egypt reverted to form, Libya seethed, Yemen and Bahrain dropped off the media horizon, Iraq re-ignited and Syria dragged everyone into a pit of fear and loathing. The only arguable bright spot was an apparent opening in Iran, although it remains to see whether the “worst ever” US Congress will tank the modest progress made this year by piling on further sanctions in 2014.

In light of general developments in the Middle East, the commentariat was quick to proceed from predictions of Syria’s breakup to a vision of redrawn lines throughout the entire region based on the abandonment of the ‘Sykes-Picot’ agreement that carved up the region after the First World War. Last year saw the eruption of both old and relatively new fissures. Events in 2014 will be decisive in determining whether these can be bridged or will further harden into boundaries and borders, endangering tens of thousands of civilians that may ultimately find themselves on the wrong sides.

Similarly worrying (if less threatening to global security) is the failure of Myanmar to fully emerge from the miasma of ethnic tensions that erupted into the full light of day in 2013 – again two years after a spectacular opening in 2011, with the dissolution of the military junta, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and a sprinkling of Clinton fairy dust.

And most recently, 2013 is set to close to the tune of yet another meltdown – in less than a week of bloody ethnic conflict – of Africa’s newest state. As in all the above cases, South Sudan was consecrated in a burst of optimism – in retrospect, perhaps naive – that followed from the surprisingly peaceful and well-organized referendum on independence from Sudan proper, again in 2011.

So let’s hold the auld lang syne this year and move on expeditiously to a better 2014.

Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: The durability of Middle Eastern Civil Codes and durable solutions to displacement

by Dan E. Stigall

Dan E. Stigall is a Trial Attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of International Affairs. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor of International Law at the The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School (U.S. Army). He previously served on active duty in the U.S. Army JAG Corps from 2001-2009. Any opinion expressed in this Article is solely that of the author and not necessarily that of the Department of Defense or the Department of Justice.

Stigall wrote on “ Refugees and Legal Reform in Iraq: The Iraqi Civil Code, International Standards for the Treatment of Displaced Persons and the Art of Attainable Solutions” in Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and provides an update in this guest posting.

Even on something so small as a blog post, it is always a privilege to be able to collaborate with Rhodri Williams, whose work I have been citing and whose friendship I have valued since my time as Captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps.  As an Army officer, I served in Iraq – mostly in Tikrit – during the era of the Coalition Provisional Authority.  That assignment gave me my first exposure to the problems associated with displaced persons, housing, and land issues attendant to conflict and post-conflict environments.  That assignment also permitted me to work closely with Iraqi jurists and Iraqi civil law, and intensified my interest in Middle Eastern legal systems, comparative law, and the nexus between comparative law and the myriad issues relating to post-conflict reconstruction.

Years after that initial experience in a conflict zone, a wave of social and political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa has now resulted in new areas where state security governance is lacking and nascent democracies (or crumbling autocracies) find themselves unable to cope with new sources of instability.  Libya and Syria, in particular, have been profoundly impacted by this phenomenon, which has come to be known as the Arab Spring.  Both Libya and Syria have experienced the collapse of their governments’ key institutions and, in the wake of enormous political upheaval, each country now contains ungoverned spaces which are attracting and incubating a variety of unsavory and destabilizing transnational actors, such as terrorist organizations.

Moreover, as TerraNullius has reported, both Libya and Syria are each now experiencing destabilizing and significant displacement crises.  The number of internally displaced persons in Libya at the end of August 2012 was between 65,000 and 80,000, a population composed mostly of minorities who are unwilling or unable to return because of potential reprisals.  With regard to Syria, it was estimated that, as of early June 2013, as many as 4.25 million Syrians have been internally displaced and more than 2 million Syrians have fled and are living as refugees in neighboring countries.  This has prompted UNHCR to note, “Syria is haemorrhaging women, children and men who cross borders often with little more than the clothes on their backs.”

The acute problems facing Libya and Syria were, in part, the catalyst for my forthcoming articleThe Civil Codes of Libya and Syria: Hybridity, Durability, and Post-Revolution Viability in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring.  My research into Libyan and Syrian civil law systems follows as something of an extension of my work on Iraqi civil law, but was also inspired by a comment in Chibli Mallat’s masterful text on Middle Eastern legal systems in which he notes that:

Civil codes in the Middle East are peculiar in two ways: they have proved more resilient than their public law counterparts, and modern civil codes function as stable institutions offering legal anchors which transcend political changes.

This observation is an important one – especially as it relates to post-Arab Spring countries and countries in turmoil – because of the fact that international actors seeking to create the conditions for peace and stability in the post-conflict environments of Libya and Syria must ultimately support or enable durable legal institutions.  Experience has taught that the durability of organic legal institutions is central to the task of restoring order and government functionality in post-conflict states.

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Syria is hemmorrhaging

As the Syria crisis reaches yet another crescendo, the UNHCR comes out with a really quite astonishing tweet:

Whether born of calculation or desperate spontaneity, the composition of the thing effectively conveys a seasoned humanitarian agency that is on its knees in the face of unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. It will be a hard act to follow. Lets hope it never needs to be.

For a glimpse of the pressure cooker life in a camp in Hatay province, Turkey, see Robin Yassin Kassab’s latest in Foreign Policy. The manner in which camp life produces hyper-compressed vignettes of the windy discourses we are all so familiar with now is striking – and worth quoting at length:

Part of the problem is Western fear of the opposition’s greatly exaggerated Islamist-extremist element. The irony is that the longer the tragedy lasts, the greater the empowerment of once minor and irrelevant jihadi forces.

Atmeh village, on a hill behind the camp, has been turned into a barracks for the foreign Islamist fighters of Hizb ut-Tahrir. These men are not, apparently, fighting the regime, but waiting for “the next stage” — in other words, the coming struggle between moderates and Islamist extremists after the fall of the regime. Syrians, including democratic Islamists, refer to them derisively as “the spicy crew” and shrug off the risk they represent. One assured me it would take “two minutes” to expel them once the regime falls.

But sectarian hatreds — stoked by the regime’s propaganda, its Alawite death squads, and assaults on Sunni heritage — are certainly rising. I met a man whose wife and 11 children were killed in an airstrike and who plans to marry again and produce 11 more children, “just so I can teach them to kill Alawites.” There’s a teenager who boasted, “Afterwards, we won’t leave a single Alawite alive.”

This deliberate attack on the social fabric is perhaps the regime’s greatest crime. When tyrants light the fuse of sectarian war, they are unleashing passions that extend beyond politics. They are killing people who have not yet been born.

Yassin-Kassab’s account is included in a recent list of articles on Syria recommended by Syrian activists. See also the Guardian here for a description of the effect of the conflict in neighbouring Syria – as well as dubious sectarian populism by the Turkish government – on the  mixed but traditionally tolerant population of Hatay province.

Meanwhile, for a refreshingly clear explanation of the dynamics behind the latest, mysterious wave of Syrian Kurd refugees that broke over Iraq two weeks ago (and which for UNHCR must have been the final straw), see Hugh Eakin in the NYRB blog.

And finally, a new Oxfam report, written together with the ABAAD-Resource Center for Gender Equality, shows that women refugees are both disproportionately represented in and impacted by displacement, going hungry to feed their families and facing heightened domestic violence.

Beware philosophers bearing simple answers – Sharia and democracy

by Rhodri C. Williams

The BBC Magazine is currently running a series by philosopher Roger Scruton on democracy. In the latest installment, he gives his views on the compatibility of Islamic Shari’a law and democracy. As with a fair bit of what I read on these topics, I took issue. A little more unusually this time, I took issue strongly enough to be moved to reply.

Scruton’s starting point is a comparison of the states of Eastern Europe that resulted from the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 with the states that resulted further south from the simultaneous dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. While such a comparison undoubtedly provides a useful analytical window into the current tumult in the Middle East, that is where my agreement with Mr. Scruton ends.

Quite simply put, Scruton’s analysis treats the two categories of post-imperial states as antithetical, positing a nearly unbridgeable divide in historical experience and political culture and going on to issue a fatwa on the incompatibility of Shari’a with democracy. To me, this argument not only essentialises and oversimplifies the diverse experiences of entire regions but also misses the wonderful opportunity that the recognition of obvious commonalities would provide to draw historical lessons relevant both to the Middle East and the (less dramatically so but undoubtedly troubled) frontiers of Europe.

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Cleaning up the maps? Portents of unilateral partition in Syria

by Rhodri C. Williams

One of the chilling by-products of the wars in the former Yugoslavia two decades ago was the development of antiseptic terminology like ‘ethnic cleansing’, a neologism that managed to obscure the most visceral and intimate fratricide Europe had seen in decades behind a whiff of wiper fluid. Personally, I was always most disturbed by the related idea of ‘cleaning up the maps’, a notion that departed entirely from any notion of humanity (at least the cleansing was admittedly ‘ethnic’) and equated living communities with any other natural barriers that might impede the march of progress.

Map-cleaning emerged as a term of art at the time of the fall of Srebrenica, one of a number of embattled enclaves in Bosnia that presented both logistically and strategically challenging anomalies in the territorial carve-up then viewed as an essentially inevitable outcome of the war. Get everybody on the right side of defensible lines, so the theory, and the map becomes a blueprint for a durable peace. The problem, as demonstrated in Srebrenica in July 1995, is that the tidying can take the form of flight, or forced removal, or mass murder, depending on the circumstances. Whatever capacity maps may have to be tidy, wars rarely are.

For some time now, the specter of partition has hung over Syria, albeit in a context in which it was not seen as a desired option for any of the parties to the conflict. Rather, as described by Jim Muir at the BBC, de facto partition of the country is likely to result as an inevitable status quo from a situation in which no side is likely to be able to achieve a complete victory over any other. Meanwhile, commentators such as Robin Yassin-Kassab (here) and Marwa Daoudy (in Open Democracy) remain at pains to point out that the Syria conflict is only sectarian to the extent that the Assad regime has made it so in a bid to consolidate and militarize its most reliable constituencies and demonize peaceful protesters.

As described by Daoudy, this tactic may have taken on a dynamic that the regime may now no longer be able or willing to control: Continue reading

If it’s broke, destroy it? The partition debate arrives in Syria

by Rhodri C. Williams

Almost inevitably in appalling situations like the conflict in Syria, there comes a moment when inhibitions seem to drop among certain sectors of the commentariat and a note of petulant, provocative resignation enters the debate. They can’t live together, goes the standard line, and they have well and truly proved it now. Why should liberals in the West be indulged in their Benetton fantasies? Why spend blood and treasure to preside over the shotgun remarriage of nations so fundamentally unable to tolerate each other’s presence that they engage in fratricide?

The infuriating thing about such ‘partitionist’ arguments is not (only) the curiously visceral satisfaction some commentators seem to take in espousing a vision of humanity unable to accommodate difference by any other means than forced assimilation or strict separation. Nor is it the fact that such arguments tend to rely on speculation about what ordinary people actually want, often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. Nor the way that they play into the hands of unprincipled and frequently undemocratic elites and conflict entrepreneurs. It is the fact that they may in some cases be right but for all the wrong reasons.

My first brush with ‘partitionist’ lines of argument came in Bosnia where my initial receptivity to them was challenged not only intuitively (by my unreconstructed persistence in the belief that people can find ways to rub along together) but also structurally (by my job specifically seeking ways to support Bosnians in doing so). However, my best efforts notwithstanding, the partition bandwagon rolled along, perhaps in most raucous form when splitting Bosnia looked like a real option, yet gaily undeterred long after it was clear that partition was neither particularly feasible nor especially desirable.

Perhaps as a result, there was a certain satisfaction in having worked on something as seemingly pollyanna-ish as property restitution in post-conflict Bosnia and seen it succeed. Granted, not everyone returned, but the result was segregation based largely on individual and household choices, rather than partition based on a political sew-up. And, safe in an unprovable negative, I will propose that the brute fact of restitution – the resolution of 200,000 claims that intimately affected many of the families most victimized by the conflict – cannot but have had a calming influence that has helped keep Bosnia’s notorious post-war ethnic politicking from spilling over into new bloodshed.

One can even argue that the pollyannas have been vindicated once again by the recent post-nationalist demonstrations in Bosnia. Perhaps the new generation we have all been going on about so long has now come of age. If this is the case, a new politics could result. Certainly not a politics that transcends nationalism (not even Sweden can manage that), but one that could at least reveal the hollowness at the core of the ‘inevitability’ discourses surrounding partition proposals in places like Bosnia.

Nevertheless, in 2004, the very year that I left Bosnia convinced that partitionism was en route to the dustbin of history, ethnic riots in Kosovo sent carefully orchestrated plans for national reconciliation there into a tailspin. A familiar call and response ensued, with aggrieved international observers eager to wash their hands of the mess and earnest liberal interventionists arguing that the preservation of a multiethnic society was not only possible but necessary.

At that point, my former Bosnia colleagues Marcus Cox and Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) were prompted to mount one of the most spirited defenses of ‘post-partitionism’ to date, contrasting the integrity of international efforts to hold places like Bosnia together with the cynicism of an earlier generation of peace agreements in which population transfers were as routine as border demarcations. But in 2004, one year into the US invasion of Iraq, the partition debate had barely begun. Two years later, the festering dispute between Arabs and Kurds over the region surrounding Kirkuk and the spiraling sectarian violence in Baghdad placed partition squarely on the international agenda.

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A problem from hell for the 2010s

by Rhodri C. Williams

In listening to the Obama administration’s latest contortions on the ever-shifting red-line in the face of ever-clearer evidence of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, it is hard not to be transported back in time to another Democratic administration facing another problem from hell twenty years ago.

In 1994, it was President Clinton facing a similarly impossible red line in Rwanda, unable to publicly recognize the brute reality of what was happening on the ground because of the legal responsibility it would entail to intervene. As described here by the Guardian in 2004, it would take a decade for the obvious to become a matter of public record:

President Bill Clinton’s administration knew Rwanda was being engulfed by genocide in April 1994 but buried the information to justify its inaction, according to classified documents made available for the first time. Senior officials privately used the word genocide within 16 days of the start of the killings, but chose not to do so publicly because the president had already decided not to intervene.

Meanwhile, as the assault on moderate Hutus and any Tutsis continued, officials in Washington, D.C. were reduced to the demeaning sophistry of discussing formulations rather than condemning mass-murder. For a sobering  reminder, witness the agonies of State Department spokesperson Christine Shelly in April 1994:

In Rwanda, as in Syria, there were tremendous risks associated with intervention and little domestic political support for becoming bogged down in another sticky regional conflict. Indeed, in Syria, commentators are only beginning to awaken to the historical complexities that have shaped the region, providing a more accurate accounting of the difficulties that would face any intervention while at the same time feeding the risk of dismissive ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ narratives of the type that arguably delayed a meaningful international response to the crises in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

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