Tag Archives: Syria

Depravity

by Rhodri C. Williams

It is hard to find words for Syria anymore. After 18 grinding months, the lengths that a cabal of pampered psychopaths will go to in order to preserve their unwarranted power becomes more appalling by the day.

The constant escalation of atrocities are wrecking the chances of any type of positive future for the country, but they also serve to confirm that almost any outcome would still be better than continued rule by the current regime. They are also a frontal rebuke to the legitimacy of the UN, with Russia and China seemingly no more concerned about dragging the Security Council to the bottom than the Assads are about destroying a country they can no longer rule.

And, at a personal level, the atrocities are a bracing reminder that man’s persistent inhumanity to man still retains the power to shock, even in this jaded age. Think you’ve seen it all, wise guy? Get a load of this!

In this case, the ‘this’ is the shelling and subsequent massacre of 400 or more civilians in the Damascus suburb of Darayya. As described by the BBC, Darayya was the birthplace of the peaceful, ingenious and almost insanely courageous protests that quickly exposed the hollowness and brutality of the regime. After what has happened now, I cannot imagine how one could reasonably expect any further forbearance from ordinary Syrians faced with the choice between peaceful protests and armed resistance. They stand an equal chance of violent death either way and the futility of the first option is now amply in evidence.

While the sheer number of people killed by indiscriminate shelling and up-close-and-personal murder by security forces in Darayya exceeds the toll of prior massacres, the moral collapse of the regime is most evident in a pornographic attempt by the state media to place the blame for these acts on the Free Syrian Army. As Robin Yassin-Kassab puts it in his incisive blog, it is a case of the murderer demanding sole speakers’ rights at the funeral. Where it goes from here, nobody knows.

Libya goes to the polls

by Rhodri C. Williams

Hamdulillah! After weeks of increasing tension over last minute objections to the allocation of mandates in what is to be Libya’s first properly elected and fully sovereign legislature, and months of increasing uncertainty over the interim government’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law, the BBC confirms that the people will now have their say.

Is Libya ready for the results? Robert Kaplan and Kamran Bokhari point to the new Libya’s “low level chaotic violence” as an argument for withholding “cold-turkey democracy” from any new Syria to emerge from that country’s ongoing bloodbath. But, by my lights, the Economist gets it on the money this time:

Building respect for the law, after 42 years of Qaddafi’s bizarre rule, will be the hardest task. Hundreds of pro-Qaddafi prisoners (some say more) are still in the hands of militias, who have also recently arrested an Australian lawyer from the International Criminal Court at The Hague after she had come to visit Saif Qaddafi, the colonel’s son, who is held in Zintan. The new government will have to act fast to tackle such judicial shortcomings if the country is to be put firmly on a path to the rule of law. A peaceful election would be a giant first step.

Beyond the policy argument – that democracy is part of the solution, not part of the problem – there is the intuitive rationale that will have struck anyone who has traveled to Libya recently. Saleh, who just undertook his seasonal shift to a shadier spot in Tripoli’s old town coffee shop, has registered. He had no idea who he was going to vote for, the list of approved parties hadn’t even been announced yet with less than a month to go, but he couldn’t wait to vote. If the Libyans are really to ever own Libya, it cannot be by the right of conquest alone.
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Foreign Affairs on Syria and the Alawites

by Rhodri C. Williams

Two interesting Foreign Affairs pieces on Syria raise the significance of the ethnic/sectarian dynamic in the conflict. Both articles raise many of the concerns related to the possibility of state collapse and sectarian conflict discussed on these pages earlier. However, both also present modulated views that give some rise to optimism.

First, Leon Goldsmith discusses the role of the Alawite minority that has come to be perceived as dominating Syria through its association with the Alawite Assad dynasty, as well as its overrepresentation in the security forces. He begins with the observation that the Alawites made a conscious decision to integrate into the emerging Syrian state in the 1930s, despite the demonstrated historical threat posed by the Sunni majority. For a time, this audacious decision seemed to pay off as both the Sunni and the Alawites supported the 1963 Baathist coup.

The significance of Hafez al Assad’s massacre of Sunnis in Hama in 1982 is therefore seen as a pivotal moment with high current significance. As tensions had grown after Mr. Assad’s 1970 coup, Sunnis had revived historical accusations of heresy against Alawites and the regime responded by a classic ‘compromising the villages’ strategy:

Even liberal Alawites, who criticized Assad’s aggressiveness at the outset of the revolt, remained silent in the aftermath of the Hama massacre. They had been transformed from victims into perpetrators.

However, Goldsmith evokes the continuing economic disparities within the Alawite community as one of a number of reasons that the current regime may not be able to indefinitely rely on the unconditional support of its base. In an interesting – and no less brave – echo of the 1930s, a small but significant number of Alawites have sought to integrate themselves into the Sunni-led uprising against the Assad regime. Just like the earlier decision to integrate with the state of Syria, the terms of such decisions reflect the existential choices facing minorities in such circumstances:

The fall of Assad presents several possible scenarios for the Alawites. It could launch a comprehensive reconciliation process, drive them back to their mountain refuge in northwestern Syria, or lead to open conflict with the Sunnis. No matter what, the Alawites face a dilemma. If Assad collapses, the community will have to fend off the criticisms of supporting the regime for this long.

In a second piece, former Syrian General Akil Hashem argues that the Syrian uprising has settled into a stalemate in which attrition remains a long way off and both sides will continue killing until they are physically stopped. He implicitly promotes a Western intervention that he asserts would rapidly overcome Syrian defences weakened by pervasive corruption. However, he provides a chilling account of the Assad regime’s mathematics of staving off intervention:

According to my sources, the regime actually regulates how many should be killed per day. At the beginning of the armed uprising, the number was about 50; after the assault on the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, the number increased to 100. Assad knows that if he commits a large-scale massacre, he will trigger intervention. So if the numbers climb to 30,000 or 40,000 dead, or many thousands are killed at once, then you may see the international community act.

With regard to the Alawites, the General does not take sectarian loyalty for granted. One possibility that he foresees for an end to the conflict would be “mass defection among the Alawite sect itself.” Meanwhile, he is sanguine – under the circumstances – about the possibity for the Alawite and other minorities to eventually be incorporated in a post-Assad Syria:

There will be chaos. It will be like Iraq — a totalitarian regime that controlled everything suddenly collapsing, opening the door for all kinds of problems, even sectarian violence. But anything that comes after the regime would be a million times better than what we currently have. The doomsday scenarios of the Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda taking over Syria are ridiculous. Eventually, the opposition forces in the diaspora and within the country will find a way to unite to establish a free, democratic country.

 Given the current departure point and the precedents in the region, this sounds almost pie-in-the-sky. Then again, Mr. Hashem really may not have so much to lose either way – if he is Sunni.

The Arab Spring – updated challenges and outdated responses

by Rhodri C. Williams

Just a quick Sunday morning posting inspired by two commentaries plucked out of the Swedish foreign ministry’s list of current readings. Taken together, they arguably reflect two fundamental factors at risk of being obscured by the frenetic flow of images and information constantly pumping out of the contemporary Middle East – namely the unprecedented nature of some of the underlying changes driving the unrest and the antediluvian inability of human governance institutions to react effectively.

First out is Thomas Friedman, with an NYT commentary on how the Arab Spring is driven “not only by political and economic stresses, but, less visibly, by environmental, population and climate stresses as well.” Friedman goes beyond my (and others’) observations last year that the Arab Spring was partly motivated by distributional inequalities related to land rights to observe that the productivity of land in the Middle East and North Africa is fundamentally threatened by climate change. For instance, a UN report found that persistent winter droughts wiped out 800,000 Syrian farmers in the five years leading up to the current revolt, and such trends appear to be the new rule rather than the exception.

Friedman extensively cites a report by Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security in Washington recommending a broader vision for responding to the environmental as well as the political risk factors in the Middle East:

“If climate projections stay on their current path, the drought situation in North Africa and the Middle East is going to get progressively worse, and you will end up witnessing cycle after cycle of instability that may be the impetus for future authoritarian responses,” argues Femia. “There are a few ways that the U.S. can be on the right side of history in the Arab world. One is to enthusiastically and robustly support democratic movements.” The other is to invest in climate-adaptive infrastructure and improvements in water management — to make these countries more resilient in an age of disruptive climate change.

However, a second commentary by Timothy Garton Ash demonstrates how difficult engineering such a response may be. Garton Ash alleges that Syria is being left to an “Ottoman fate” – one that is almost entirely subject to local and regional calculations of power and interest that have have little time for the suffering of ordinary civilians caught up in the violence. Garton alleges that the reason that Europe, in particular, has failed to recognize its interest in seeking a just resolution of the issue is related to its dithering over Turkey’s candidacy to the EU:

The balance of forces around Syria would be different if the historically new, shared sovereignty model of the EU had reached out to embrace Turkey, as it has been promising to do – incredibly, in both senses of the word – for nearly 50 years, since the association agreement of 1963. But it has not. Europe, as Europe, is inaudible on Syria as on so many other issues. And so the fate of that country’s brave resisters and suffering civilians depends on the old-fashioned regional competition of diverse sovereign powers.

 Garton Ash’s implication that a humanitarian intervention should be sought in Syria will be controversial, in the context of a much broader debate raging over this issue. However, his other implication – that Europe has still not learned that failure to positively engage with its periphery will ultimately bring negative consequences – is harder to dispute. This finding is particularly poignant on the 20th anniversary of Europe’s dithering over the breakup of the former Yugoslavia – and particularly worrisome in light of the new climate change-related challenges to regional and global governance that we were so blissfully unaware of back then.

Costing stability against freedom: The minority dilemma in Syria and Iraq

by Rhodri C. Williams

In a recent discussion with a member of Syria’s Christian minority here in Sweden, I found myself conceding the point that a majority of the population may still support the al Assad regime and that many of its opponents in the region clearly have a political axe to grind alongside their professed humanitarian motivations. It was easy enough to dismiss the notion that Assad had been seriously interested in reform, but my interlocutor’s most troubling argument was that the regime had been – and remained – the sole guarantee of her and her communities’ physical safety.

In a media world almost saturated with analysis of the Arab Spring, an increasingly historically oriented strain of thinking has begun to revive the arguments that had become too threadbare to save Mubarak and Ghaddafi – après moi le déluge: Continue reading

Week in links – week 17/2011

A somewhat abbreviated WiL this week as the family is on Åland for an extended Easter break.

BBC coverage of this week’s Communist Party congress in Cuba leads with the news that private property rights will be allowed again, though the details have yet to be released. The main rule at this point appears to be that “concentration of property” will not be permitted. One is tempted to wonder if part of the motivation is to cut off restitution claims by Cuban exiles. As a stratagem, this worked rather well in Cambodia, but that was the Eighties…

– The European Journal of International Law (EJIL) has released its latest issue online. The focus is on the ‘human dimension of international cultural heritage law’, with quite a lot on the restitution of cultural property but also a number of interesting articles on indigenous peoples’ rights, including to land.

– The New York Times reports that scientists met in Aleppo, Syria this week to develop strategies for combating new diseases afflicting wheat. Let us hope that they are not hit by any stray bullets from the strategies the Syrian security forces have developed for combating new diseases afflicting authoritarianism.

– Tim Dunne and Jess Gifkins do a nice job in OpenDemocracy of pushing along the debate on how the current Libya intervention may both support and undermine the new concept of ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P).

– Finally, the New York Times reported first on the pending collapse of a promising flurry of regional cooperation over damming the Mekong in Southeast Asia – and then its actual collapse.

What’s in a border?

by Rhodri C. Williams

The headlines these days still have me scratching my head and I can’t imagine I’m the only one. For example, this morning I learn that the Government of Syria, having solemnly declared that an armed insurgency threatens the life of the nation yesterday, duly responded  by lifting a thirty year state of emergency today.  I guess they figured there wasn’t much point closing the barn doors once the constituency had bolted.

It all seems a bit comical at times, but of course it is deadly serious and symptomatic of the way in which the ructions we are currently witnessing are straining the normal responses states would employ against civil unrest precisely because the neighborhoods involved are not inhabited by ‘normal’ states. Instead, places like Cote d’Ivoire, Libya, Nigeria and Syria tend to be recent confections, with a territory defined by borders drawn to the convenience of some other country, a population composed of whoever happened to be living within those bounds at the time and effective control now exercised by those who managed to scramble to the top of the heap or be successfully implanted and hang on. Much of the Middle-East is still a good decade short of a century of sovereignty and I’m older than a few independent states in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Its easy to forget much of this when things are going well. Somehow, describing a country as a state and giving it a little stenciled name tag at the UN General Assembly creates all of these reassuring associations that may or may not apply. Certainly, institutions might not be perfectly democratic and economies may be shaky, but statehood implies a totality that is greater than the sum of the parts, bound up in some kind of national identity that can accommodate and eventually subsume local ethnic, sectarian and tribal loyalties. As previously noted with regard to Sudan, however, the elites that inherited these foundling post-colonial states well understood their fragility and embraced the lesser risks entailed by retaining colonial borders over the greater ones that could be triggered should the question of borders be re-opened.

Continue reading

Week in links – Week 1/2011

I owe about a month in links this time, given the blur in which last December passed! However, I have tried to exercise a bit of restraint in order to keep things current.

– The New York Times covers Bashir’s conciliatory trip to Juba and sets out the case for a peaceful referendum on secession in southern Sudan next weekend, including hints that a last minute fix could resolve the territorial dispute in Abyei. Along with shared incentives over oil (the South will have the bulk of reserves and the North controls access to the world market), focused international attention and pressure is credited with keeping the parties on course. However, this observation underscores the risks presented as international attention wanders from other theatres of unresolved conflict. For instance, this week has also seen news of the forthcoming closure of the ostensibly short-term UN Mission established in Nepal in 2007 to consolidate what remains a very shaky peace deal there. The outgoing SRSG in Nepal is expected to move on to head a significantly curtailed UN Mission in Burundi, where large scale violence has ended but human rights abuses remain rife and rebel groups are said to be re-arming.

– The New York Times recently ran two pieces demonstrating how ostensibly local urban policies reflect and shape broader politics. The more straightforward of the two discusses how urban squatting in Buenos Aires reflect a national political rivalry in Argentina. However, the second piece, on the renovation of the Old City of Aleppo, Syria, came as a revelation. By involving poor communities rather than displacing them, this project is aimed not only at achieving truly sustainable preservation but also at retaining the traditional family housing models that are thought to avoid the social tensions that can fuel Islamic radicalism. The key question going forward is how to inspire similar approaches to the architecturally less interesting but socially volatile shantytowns at the edge of the city:

…how to make the final link between historic preservation and the creation of a contemporary city remains blurry. Many preservationists working here, including some at GTZ, see the last 70 years as unworthy of their interest. And most contemporary architects, whose clients are almost uniformly drawn from the global elite, are out of touch with the complex political realities of the poor in the region.

– Paul Krugman on how climbing commodity prices signal the fundamental good news/bad news arithmetic of our times – increasing global demand based on resilient growth in the developing world, climate change, and the absolute scarcity of the natural resources we depend on.

– Open Democracy contributors Christophe Solioz and Denis MacShane differ on whether the Kosovo organ trafficking allegations raised at the Council of Europe are a devastating indictment of the dark grip of the past and international passivity in the West Balkans or a glorified rumor hijacked by Serbian nationalist interests.