Category Archives: Turkey

Piling mistake upon mistake

The only way to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy in Syria is through the regime. Destroying the state will lead to a power vacuum and chaos

For two years, the United States and the European Union have done everything short of sending their own troops and aircraft into battle to evict Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria. Only recently have they begun to realise that they have made a historic mistake: in the euphoria created by the Arab Spring, they are in imminent danger of handing over the entire Arab world to Islamists for whom democracy is anathema.

In a front page editorial titled ‘The Death of a Country,’ The Economist has warned that if the West now simply draws back and lets the civil war run its course, Syria will become “a new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Levant.”

“Almost everything America wants to achieve in the Middle East will become harder. Containing terrorism, ensuring the supply of energy and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction … Syria’s disintegration threatens them all.”


Where The Economist goes dangerously wrong is in heaping all the blame for this on Mr. Assad. Had he not “embraced a policy of violence from the start” and “attacked the Arab Spring with tanks and gunships” and turned his Alawite praetorian guard upon Sunnis, he would not have “turned peaceful demonstrators into armed militants” and drawn the jihadi hosts into Syria.

To prevent Syria from turning into another Mali, therefore, it asks the U.S. and the EU to administer the same medicine it fed to Qadhafi in Libya — impose a no-fly zone, destroy Syria’s air force and missiles, and arm ‘non-Jihadi rebel groups’ with surface-to-air missiles. These prescriptions reveal a profound ignorance of the situation in both Libya and Syria.

What is more immediately relevant is that its view in not shared by any leader of the democracy movement in Syria. On the contrary, in an article in The Guardian on June 22 last year, Haytham Manna, the chairman of the 16-party National Coalition for Transition to Democracy, and Mr. Assad’s most trenchant critic in the early days of the insurgency, placed the blame for the sidelining of the democracy movement squarely upon the West’s complicity in allowing the Istanbul based Free Syrian Army to recruit Islamist foreign fighters for the assault on Syria.

Six months later, on December 18, he wrote that the Syrian people had come to regard the foreigners not as liberators but as oppressors. “When the Syrian army attacks al-Nusra it is not as the suppressor of the popular movement, but the guarantor of the unity of Syria’s diverse society … It is the alliance between foreign jihadists and some Syrians that risks tearing the country apart, leading to religious extremism, long-term sectarian war, and the persecution of minorities and various civilian groups.”

The Economist correctly perceives that as Syria disintegrates, the jihadis could use “lawless territory as a base for international terror (and) menace Israel across the Goal Heights.” But what it does not perceive is that the collapse of the Assad regime will hasten this process and end by putting Israel in mortal peril. One has only to trace the likely aftermath of its collapse to understand why.

First, the end of Mr. Assad will not necessarily mean the return of peace. As happened in Afghanistan, it will make 5,000 to 6,000 foreign jihadis redundant and turn them into loose cannons in the country. Repatriating them will be far from easy because the ‘Arab Spring’ has shattered their home economies and left millions without work. This is why Libyans make up the largest contingent among the foreign fighters in both Syria and Mali.


But they cannot stay on indefinitely in Syria either for, with no common purpose left to unite them, the rivalry between the jihadis and more moderate opponents of Mr. Assad will almost certainly erupt into a struggle for power. Unlike the proxy war that it was able to wage upon Mr. Assad, this is a war the West will not be able to stay out of.

The moderates within the newly created Syrian National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary forces (SNCORF) already fear this. That is why within three months of being elected, its President Moaz al Khatib, a former Imam of the Omayyad mosque in Damascus, declared himself willing to attend a conference with Bashar al-Assad to chalk out a peaceful transition in Syria. But his weakness was exposed when the diehards in the SNCORF forced him to retract his offer within days. The only remaining option is also the easiest. This is to channel their fervour into a new jihad. The inevitable next target will be Jordan because it lies on the direct route to Al Quds (Jerusalem) and the Al Aqsa mosque, the second holiest shrine in Islam.


Jordan will either cave in or give them free access to the West Bank. That will leave Israel surrounded, and isolated. Any pre-emptive action it takes to make its borders more secure such as re-occupying the Sinai to block access to Gaza will alienate the Arabs, increase the sway of the jihadis, and blight the prospect for a return to democracy and religious moderation in the foreseeable future. It could also put a question mark over the long-term survival of Israel.

If Barack Obama wishes to arrest the development of another, infinitely more dangerous, quagmire in Syria and Jordan, he must do the opposite of what The Economist is proposing and heed, however belatedly, the pleas of the original Syrian National Council, and other leading democracy activists like Manna, to stop the inflow of arms and foreign fighters. This will, admittedly meet stiff opposition from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Libya. But Mr. Obama does not have the choice of shirking hard decisions, because he or his successors will face worse ones in the future.

Second, Mr. Obama needs to recognise that the only way to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy is through the regime, as is happening in Myanmar, and not after its destruction. Creating a power vacuum by destroying the state does not make way for democracy but chaos. The resulting vacuum is always filled by the most organised, ruthless and therefore undemocratic groups in a society.

In his January 7 speech to his country, Mr. Assad invited all remaining Syrian opposition groups to a second conference on democracy and threw the doors open to a fresh election and the formation of a new government. He should be strongly urged to hold it as soon, and with as few preconditions, as possible. Haytham Manna and his colleagues should be encouraged to attend the conference. Moaz al Khatib also wants to attend it: Mr. Obama should make it possible for him to do so.

Note: This article has been withdrawn from the website without any explanation

(The writer is a senior journalist)

Alawites, From Separatists to Masters

By Amin Elias

Merely by surveying the events of the last hundred years, we can see just how much is happening today in Syria. What is going on there in fact is not simply a battle between the Baath Party and its opponents, nor a merely regional conflict, but a settling of accounts that could change the whole international equilibrium.

Territory divided up between numerous vilayet during the Ottoman epoch (1516-1918), and then a region made up of four states during the French mandate (1920-1946), Syria took on its present form only with the Franco-Syrian Treaty that was signed in Paris on 9 September 1936 when the ‘independent State of Damascus’ and the ‘government of Aleppo’, which had already been unified in 1923, the ‘autonomous territory of the Alawites’ and the ‘Jebel-Druze’, were fused into a single entity – the Syrian Republic.

One section of the Alawites was not favourable to this fusion. The archives contain documents that demonstrate their hesitation as regards this new Syrian entity. In two letters addressed in 1936 by Alawite notables to the Lebanese President of the time, Emile Eddé, and to the Maronite patriarch, Antoine ‘Arîda, the authors proposed to annex the Alawite region to the ‘state of Greater Lebanon’ proclaimed by General Gouraud on 1 September 1920 and seen by the Maronites as the ‘end of their struggle’ and the ‘achievement of their historic dream’. In a memorial (n. 3547) addressed by these notables to the French Prime Minister, Léon Blum, on 15 June 1936, they rejected the fusion of their region with a Syrian state dominated by the Sunnis. According to this document, the ‘Alawite people’ was different from the ‘Sunni people’ both because of its ‘religious beliefs and because of its traditions and its history’. The ‘Alawite people refuses to be annexed by Muslim Syria’ because the Muslim religion, the ‘official religion of the state’, sees the Alawites as ‘infidels’ (kuffâr). This refusal was translated at the beginning of 1939 into a separatist revolt in the Alawite region against the central Syrian power of Damascus. But this insurrection failed.

In parallel with this separatist current, there also existed amongst the Alawites a current made up of intellectuals and activists which shared Arab nationalist aspirations with other personalities of the various confessions that then existed in Syria and Lebanon. One of the primary figures of this current was Zakî al-Arsûzî. After finishing his studies in philosophy in France, al-Arsûzî returned to Syria and in 1932 he became a teacher at a school in the Sanjak of Alexandretta. A strong defender of the arabness, in 1934 al-Arsûzî founded the Arab Resurrection Party (al-ba‘th al-‘arabî). In 1938 he reached Damascus after being expelled from Alexandretta by the authorities of the French mandate. He announced the rebirth of the Arab nation and brought together many young men around his ideas. After being persecuted and forbidden to teach in all schools by the French, he abandoned active politics to dedicate himself to the study of the roots of Arabic words in a philosophical work which glorified the contribution of the arabness to history: ‘The Genius of the Arabic Language’ (Al-abqariyya al-‘arabiyya fî lisâniha).

For the Sake of Arab Resurrection

In parallel with the political activity of al-Arsûzî, two young Syrian intellectuals became involved in Damascus in political life and exalted the Arab rebirth. The first, Michel ‘Aflaq, a Greek Orthodox who had graduated in history at the Sorbonne, and the second, Salâh Bîtâr, a Sunni who had taken a degree in mathematics, managed to unite around them a large number of teachers and students. In 1942 they called their group the ‘Baath movement’ (harakat al-ba‘th). This provoked a reaction from al-Arsûzî who argued that they had misappropriated the name of his movement. Despite a large number of attempts at reconciliation between ‘Aflaq and al-Arsûzî, the two men continued to hold irreconcilable positions. But this fact did not impede a fair number of the ‘Arsûzîsts’, including Wahîb Ghânim and Hafez Assad, from joining the Baath movement founded by ‘Aflaq and Bîtâr, above all after the withdrawal of al-Arsûzî from political life. The movement was baptised at the beginning of 1945 with a new name: the ‘Baath Party’ (Hizb al-ba‘th). This party brought together the followers of al-Arsûzî, amongst whom were a fair number of young Alawites, and the ‘‘Aflaqists’.

Immediately after the withdrawal of French and English troops from Syria at the end of December 1946, and a few days before the declaration of the independence of the ¬Syrian Republic, 247 young men from all the regions of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Trans¬jordan took part on 4 April 1947 in the first conference of the Baath Party. The participants in this conference, who elected Michel ‘Aflaq president of the party as well as an executive committee, adopted a constitution. This date is seen as the official date of the creation of the ‘Arab Baath Party’ (Hizb al-ba‘th al-‘arabî).

During the first years of independence, Syria experienced a notable democratic vitality and a political plurality which was translated into the birth of a large number of parties. In addition to the Baath Party, another six parties occupied the political scene. The National Party, which was formed in 1947, was the child of the National Bloc which was founded in 1927 to call for Arab unity and the independence of Syria. It brought together numerous famous figures such as Shukrî al-Quwatlî, Fâris al-Khûrî and Jamîl Mardam, as well as other representatives of families in whose hands the wealth of the country was concentrated, above all in Damascus. The second, the People’s Party, was created from a scission within the National Party. It brought together personalities who represented the economic interests of Aleppo and the northern region of the country. The third was the Syrian People’s Party which had been founded by Antûn Sa‘âdih in 1932 and whose project was a ‘Greater Syria’ that would include Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq and Cyprus. The Muslim Brothers, a movement founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Bannâ, had supporters in Syria, above all in Hama, Homs and Damascus. Communism was also represented on the political scene by the Syrian Communist -Party, which was led by the inevitable figure of Khâlid Bikdâsh. Lastly, the Arab Socialist ¬Party was founded by Akram Hûrânî in 1950. It was with this party, on the occasion of the ¬second congress of June 1954, that the Arab Baath Party decided to merge in order to create the Socialist Arab Baath Party (Hizb al-ba‘th al-‘arabî al-ishtirâkî).

A Midland

Situated between Egypt and Asia Minor, on the one hand, and between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, on the other, and being the northern door of the Arab peninsula, ¬Syria was seen as the key to the East. For this reason, during the second part of the 1940s and for the whole of the 1950s, the country was the subject of a conflict between the two principal poles of the Arab political scene: Iraq and Egypt. For both of these countries leadership of the Arab States as a whole was possible only through the conquest of ¬Syria. This last was, in addition, that axis around which revolved the principal diplomatic moves of the international powers. Many decisive battles took place in the field of internal politics at the time of the adoption of the Pact of Baghdad and the Eisenhower doctrine (which Syria rejected).

These rivalries between the regional and international forces were a part of the shift from simple democratic competition to the brutal coups d’état carried out by the generals of the Syrian army. The seven coups led by these officers between March 1949 and March 1963, and the union with Egypt between February 1958 and September 1961, clearly demonstrated the increasing role of the army. As regards the relationship of the Baath Party with Nasserism, at the beginning of the 1960s a Baathist Military Committee (BMC) was formed which was made up of five members, three of whom were Alawites: Mohammad ‘Umrân, Salâh Jdîd, and Hafez Assad. These figures opposed the policy of ‘Aflaq and ¬accused him of accepting the ‘Egyptianisation’ of Syria. After the failure of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in September 1961, in secret they prepared a double coup d’état against the Syrian government and the political office of the Baath Party chaired by ‘Aflaq.

Alawites Step Forward

The 1960s witnessed the appearance of the Alawites, and above all their generals, on the Baathist and Syrian scene. In his book Al-Nusayriyyûn al-‘alawiyyûn (‘The Alawite Nusayris’), Abû Mûsâ al-Harîrî observes that certain Alawite notables and Baathist generals, amongst whom ‘Umrân, Jdîd and Assad, met on a number of occasions between 1960 and 1968 with the aim of finding a way of taking over the Baath Party and the Syrian army in order to control central power in Damascus. Al-Harîrî also refers to another plan which sought to encourage the emigration of the Alawites from their mountains (Jibâl al-nusayriyya) towards the major cities of Tartus, Latakia and Homs with a view to founding an Alawite state with its capital in Homs. This information is not based upon certain evidence but on 8 March 1963 the coup d’état of the BMC was successful. After eliminating the Nasserites and the Communists, the BMC, dominated by Salâh Jdîd and Hafez Assad, was faced by the historic leader of the Baath Party, Michel ‘Aflaq. Three years later, the BMC carried out a second coup d’état on 21-25 February 1966 against ‘Aflaq. The Constitution was suspended. A new regime was created in which any separation of the Baath Party and power was impossible: ‘power is the Baath Party’. The ‘Aflaqists were eliminated and he himself had to flee to Lebanon before later finding refuge amongst the Baathists of Iraq.

However, the struggle for power between the two new leaders, Jdîd and Assad, was not late in beginning. Their rivalry emerged after the defeat of the Syrian army during the Israeli-Arab war of June 1967, a defeat which led to the loss of the Golan Heights. To this defeat were added ideological debates between the group led by Jdîd, who aspired to a radical Marxist doctrine, and the group led by Assad, whose principal concern was to restore the Syrian army without increasing ties of dependence with the USSR. This group wanted economic and military cooperation with the other Arab countries without adopting a Marxist or progressive approach toward them.

The annihilation of the ‘Palestinian resistance’ by King Hussein of Jordan in September 1970, and the attempt by Jdîd to involve the Syrian army in this battle on the side of the Palestinians, something to which Assad was opposed, made the relations between the two leaders of Syria irretrievable. This situation, made worse by the death of Nasser, led Assad to act. He first proceeded to arrest members loyal to Jdîd and to take control of the most important sections of the army. On 19 October 1970 he ordered his soldiers to surround the offices of the civil organisation of the Baath Party and the next day they arrested its most important leaders, including Jdîd. From that moment onwards Assad concentrated all the powers of the Baath Party and the Syrian government in his hands and appointed one of his followers, Ahmad al-Khatîb, as Head of State in Syria. Knowing that the promotion of an Alawite to the office of president would have wounded the sensitivity of Syrian Sunnis (the Alawites are seen as non-Muslims), Assad asked the Lebanese Shi’ite imam, Mûsâ al-Sadr, a friend of his, to promulgate a fatwa which proclaimed that the Alawites were Shi’ite Muslims. Nominated by 173 members of the Assembly of the People as candidate for the presidency of the Republic, Assad became president on 12 March 1971 following a referendum. This action of Assad was baptised ‘the rectification movement’ (al-haraka ¬al-tashîhiyya). In 1973 he proceeded to modify the Syrian Constitution and to eliminate the clause which laid down that Islam had to be the religion of the President. He then had to address fierce opposition on the part of the Syrian Sunni ‘ulamâ’ who threatened to mobilise Muslim crowds against him. As regards military policy, Assad governed everything connected with the army with an iron fist. Because of this policy, top army positions could be held only by Alawite officers or by Sunni or Christian Baathists who had demonstrated strong loyalty to Assad. The opponents of the Baath Party, and in particular the Muslim Brothers, were not authorised to attend military academies. These same rules were applied in the recruitment of members of the secret services. The system was handed down from father to son. Aware of the importance of the army, the current President, Bashar al-Assad, has managed to maintain control over it. No soldier can be mobilised without his approval, as is demonstrated by the challenge that this army has had to address since the outbreak of events in Syria in March 2011.

It was with Assad that Syria, up to that time the subject of conflict between the regional and international powers, was transformed into an active regional force which exercised its influence on the Middle Eastern scene. After establishing a strong central power in Damascus and imposing its authority with all means, including violence, in all the neighbouring regions, the Assads were able to make Syria the central core of a political, military and geo-strategic alliance running from Iran to the Hezbollah in Lebanon, passing by way of Iraq. The Sunni leaders of the region such as the King of Jordan, ‘Abdallah; the former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak; and the King of Saudi Arabia, ‘Abdallah, identified this alliance with Shi’ite Islam and called it the ‘Shi’ite crescent’ (al-hilâl al-shî‘î). This was condemned by the United States of America which was able to place it in the ‘axis of evil’. It is in this context of geopolitical rivalry between the United States of America and its allies, on the one hand, and Iran and its allies, on the other, aggravated by Jewish and Sunni and Shi’ite Islam confessional effervescence, that one may understand more effectively what is presently happening in Syria. The positions of Russia and of China in relation to the events in Syria make the landscape more complicated. For many observers, the crisis in Syria is no longer an internal question between the Syrian opposition, on the one hand, and the Baathist regime, on the other, nor a regional confrontation between the Sunni axis, on the one hand, and the Shi’ite axis, on the other. It has become a question that may shift the international balance that was established after the fall of the USSR.


Georges Corm, Le Proche-Orient éclaté, 1956-2010, Gallimard, Paris, 2010.

Henry Laurens, L’Orient arabe. Arabisme et islamisme de 1798 à 1945, Armand Colin, Paris, 1993.

Pierre-Jean Luizard, Laïcités autoritaires en terres d’Islam, Fayard, Paris, 2008.

Patrick Seale, Asad. The Struggle for the Middle East, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990.

Al-Dustûr (the Constitution of the Baath Party), Baath Party Information Office, Damascus, 1976.

Turkey, the Unhelpful Ally


AMERICA’S stated goal is to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria. The United States also insists that any solution to the Syrian crisis should guarantee religious and ethnic pluralism. However, this rosy vision of a moderate and secular Syria after Mr. Assad’s downfall will not be achieved if the United States continues to depend on regional allies that have little interest in such an outcome.

President Obama has relied heavily on Turkey in seeking to oust Mr. Assad and Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit the Turkish capital, Ankara, later this week. But Turkey is part of the problem. It is exacerbating Syria’s sectarian strife, rather than contributing to a peaceful and pluralistic solution.

While the Obama administration has encouraged a broad Syrian opposition coalition, in which the influence of Islamists would be circumscribed, Turkey has not been of any assistance whatsoever. Instead, the Turkish government has continued to throw its weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood dominated the Syrian National Council, which is headquartered in Istanbul, and has succeeded in eclipsing other groups within the new opposition coalition, effectively thwarting the American effort to empower non-Islamists.

Moreover, while sponsoring the Sunni cause in Syria, the Turkish government has made no attempt to show sympathy for the fears of the country’s Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities. The Alawites and the Christians have backed the government in large numbers and fear retribution if Mr. Assad is toppled.

Turkey has provided a crucial sanctuary for the Sunni rebels fighting Mr. Assad and has helped to arm and train them. Even more ominously, Turkey is turning a blind eye to the presence of jihadists on its territory, and has even used them to suppress the aspirations of Kurds in Syria. Last November, Islamist rebels from Jabhet al-Nusra, which has reputed links to Al Qaeda in Iraq, entered the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain from Turkey and attacked fighters from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, known as the P.Y.D., which had wrested control of parts of northeastern Syria. The Nusra fighters were initially repelled, but have continued to cross into Syria from their safe haven in Turkey.

Mr. Obama has invested considerable political capital in Turkey, cultivating a close relationship with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. American and Turkish officials have held regular operational planning meetings since last summer, aimed at hastening the downfall of Mr. Assad. In a recent interview with the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, Mr. Obama thanked “the Turkish government for the leadership they have provided in the efforts to end the violence in Syria and start the political transition process.”

But this praise is undeserved. America can’t expect the Sunni Arab autocracies that have financed the Syrian uprising, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to help empower secular and moderate leaders in Syria. However, Turkey, a NATO ally, should be expected to promote a pluralistic, post-Assad Syria. It has not.

The Obama administration must therefore reassess the assumption that Turkey is playing a constructive role in ending the violence in Syria; it must also take a hard look at its own role in contributing to religious strife.

America’s policy of punitive sanctions and not-so-veiled military threats toward Iran has encouraged Turkey to assert itself as a Sunni power. The perception that Turkey enjoys American “cover” for a foreign policy that directly confronts Iranian interests emboldened the Turkish government to throw its weight behind the armed Sunni rebellion against Mr. Assad, Iran’s main regional ally.

Turkey quickly abandoned its stated ambition to have “zero problems with neighbors” and decided to join the United States in confronting Iran. It agreed to the deployment of parts of NATO’s antimissile shield, which is meant to neutralize a supposed Iranian missile threat.

Turkey’s shift flowed from the belief that it would gain power and stature and reap the benefits if America succeeded in rolling back Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

All of this suited the United States. Washington no longer had to fear that Turkey might be “drifting eastward,” as it did during the short-lived Turkish-Iranian rapprochement a few years ago, when Turkey broke ranks with its Western partners over the Iranian nuclear issue. Turkey also appeared to be an American asset insofar as it could potentially offset the influence of more conservative Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia.

But the Syrian crisis has had a radicalizing effect on all parties, including Turkey’s more moderate Islamist government. Under more peaceful circumstances, Mr. Erdogan might be able to live up to American expectations and promote a pluralistic vision for the Middle East. That won’t happen if the region is increasingly torn apart by violent religious conflict and its leaders believe that playing the sectarian card will enhance their power.

Removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq in 2003 had the undesirable consequence of empowering Iran. A decade later, America’s effort to remove Mr. Assad is partly an attempt to remedy this geopolitical setback. But, as in Iraq, it has had unwelcome consequences. Moreover, American policy toward Iran is encouraging opportunistic Sunni assertiveness that threatens to trigger Shiite retaliation.

The United States must beware of doing the bidding of Sunni powers — especially Turkey — that are advancing sectarian agendas that run counter to America’s interest of promoting pluralism and tolerance. Left unchecked, rising sectarianism could lead to a dangerous regional war.

Halil M. Karaveli is a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program, which are affiliated with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in Washington, and with the Institute for Security and Development Policy, in Stockholm.

Post-revolt Arab Transitions: Driven by Distrust and Inexperience

Post-revolt Middle Eastern and North African countries are struggling to manage the transition from autocratic to more transparent, accountable societies. Increasingly prejudice, distrust and inexperience are proving to be greater obstacles, argues James M. Dorsey.

Post-revolt Arab nations are experiencing tumultuous times. The assassination of a prominent Tunisian opposition leader has sparked mass protests against Islamists held responsible for his death. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has called for the replacement of the Islamist-dominated Cabinet by a government of technocrats that would lead the country to elections, to the chagrin of his Ennahada party that fears loss of power.

Egypt has been wracked by violent street protests that have left more than 60 people dead in three Suez Canal and Red Sea cities, forcing President Mohamed Morsi to declare emergency rule and bring the military back into the streets and soccer stadiums to maintain law and order.

Underlying Fault Lines

Underlying the volatility in Egypt and Tunisia as well as difficult transitions in Libya and Yemen is the increasing lack of confidence between Islamists and non-Islamist forces. That fault line is fuelled by an ever deeper secularist suspicion that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who by and large have emerged from the revolts as the largest, most organised political force, are bent on creating Islamist states and enforcing Islamic law. This mistrust drives the weakening of the civilian and armed opposition to President Bashar Al Assad in the continuing civil war in Syria.

For their part, Islamists, including moderates, are not certain where the allegiances of non-Islamists lie and whether significant segments of the secularists would opt for a less free society in cooperation with institutions like the judiciary, the police and security forces in a bid to halt what they see as an Islamist power grab.

To be sure, the militancy and violence of more radical Islamists in Tunisia in recent months as well as Morsi’s imperious style of government, his failed attempt to acquire absolute power, his unilaterally pushing through of a controversial constitution, his failed attempt to fire a state prosecutor and increased reliance on the despised police and security forces, have done little to assuage anti-Islamist fears.

Similarly, Syrian opposition forces with Islamists in the lead have failed to convince the country’s key minorities who could have made a difference in reducing the regime’s power base, that there would be a place for them and that their rights would be secured in a post-Assad Syria.

Yet, lost in the mixture of misperception and prejudice is the recognition that Islamists came to power virtually unprepared for government, having a history of a pressured existence either underground, a legal nether land or exile. The Muslim Brotherhood, two years after the overthrow of Mubarak and seven months after Morsi’s election as president, remains nominally an illegal organisation in Egypt. As a result, this reinforces a sense that he and the Brotherhood fail to truly understand the concept of democracy and are more focused on fending off threats and settling old scores.

A Mental Transition

Morsi, like his counterparts in other post-revolt Arab nations, (apart from Libya that suffers the consequences of Muammar Gaddafi’s refusal to build institutions), have inherited states dominated by police and security forces and populated by institutions moulded by the former autocratic regimes with their own vested interests. It takes a degree of political savvy, mastering of electoral politics, backroom horse trading, give-and-take and an ability to manage public expectations rather than the bunker mentality in which Islamist leaders operated in the past. With few exceptions, they have yet to demonstrate that they can make that mental transition.

In retrospect, Morsi’s deft alliance late last year with the second echelon of Egypt’s military command that allowed him to sideline long-serving commanders who unsuccessfully sought to grab power in the period between his election and his assumption of office, seems more an exception than an indication of his ability to manoeuvre the minefield that constitutes Egyptian transition politics.

Jebali’s call for an interim technocratic government in a bid to avert a second popular revolt in Tunisia comes closest to Morsi’s rare display of political deftness in his handling of the military. It contrasts starkly with Morsi’s surprising reluctance to tackle reform of the police and security forces who for many years targeted the Muslim Brotherhood, his seeming willingness to maintain Mubarak-era structures and his increased reliance on them despite the existence of reformists within all of those institutions.

Relative calm has returned to the streets of Egyptian cities, giving Morsi at best a month to build bridges in advance of the country’s next flashpoint when a court in Cairo pronounces verdict in the case of the remaining 52 defendants accused of responsibility for the deaths of 74 soccer fans a year ago in a politically-loaded brawl in Port Said.

Flashpoint Offers Leverage

To do so, Morsi would have to convincingly reach out to his detractors in a bid to convince them that he has put the bunker mentality behind him, wants his government to be inclusive rather than exclusive and that he is serious about reform of key state institutions and is focusing on a turnaround of the country’s economy.

As much as the Port Said case constitutes a flash point – the court’s sentencing last month of the first batch of 21 defendants to death sparked the most violent protests – it also gives Morsi leverage. In the absence of a justification of the court’s ruling, a leaked summary of the prosecution’s case put the blame for the brawl as much on the police as it did on spectators in the stadium.

The prosecutor’s case, coupled with human rights reports that document that the police and security forces are a law unto themselves, provide Morsi with the ammunition to start the difficult process of reforming law enforcement. It is a move that would prove immensely popular and would help restore political calm needed to embark on a road of economic recovery.

A convincing move to amend the constitution in ways that removes fears of an Islamist takeover would further serve to bridge the widening gap in Egyptian politics. It is too early to write Morsi off as a failed leader. The ball is in his court, though time is running out.

James M. Dorsey is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

A Peace Package for the Middle East

Three highly-dangerous Middle East problems — Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the bloody civil war in Syria, and the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict — pose a grave challenge to President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team of John Kerry at State, Chuck Hagel at Defence and John Brennan at the CIA, notes Patrick Seale.

Three highly-dangerous Middle East problems — Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the bloody civil war in Syria, and the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict — pose a grave challenge to President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team of John Kerry at State, Chuck Hagel at Defence and John Brennan at the CIA. America’s vital interests in the Middle East, its political reputation, its ability to project power and influence are intimately tied up with the way it deals — or fails to deal — with these problems. So what advice might one be bold enough to give to President Obama and his team?

Each of these three problems is profoundly destabilising for the region as a whole and risks triggering a war of unpredictable consequences. Taken separately, each of them has so far defied resolution. One suggestion is that tackling them as a package might prove more effective.

Consider, for a moment, how closely inter-connected they are. No one is more concerned than Israel about Iran’s nuclear programme, which it sees as a threat to its military supremacy and ultimately to its security. It fears that a nuclear capable Iran would restrict the freedom — which Israel has enjoyed for decades — to strike its neighbours at will, when they seem threatening.

Iran, however, does not stand alone. Its fate is closely linked to that of Syria, its principal regional ally. Syria has also been the most ardent champion of Palestinian rights and of Lebanon’s freedom from Israeli control. Indeed, the so-called ‘resistance axis’ of Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hizballah has sought to deter or contain Israeli attacks while challenging U.S.-Israeli hegemony in the Levant.

Needless to say, Syria’s calamitous civil war has gravely weakened the resistance axis. Israel’s dearest hope is to destroy what remains of it by urging the United States and its allies to bring down the Tehran and the Damascus regimes, thus freeing Israel from any constraint from these powers in its relentless drive for a ‘Greater Israel’.

It can thus be seen that Iran’s nuclear programme, Syria’s existential crisis and Israel’s land hunger are inextricably linked. Attempts to deal with these problems separately have so far failed. The obvious conclusion is that they may be better dealt with as a package. These are not marginal problems which can be left to fester. If the United States wishes to protect itself, its interests and its allies in a highly turbulent environment it must make a supreme effort to resolve them.

Moreover, this is a unique moment: President Obama has been re-elected for a second term. His political authority has been enhanced. The world is looking to him for leadership. Although many other foreign policy problems clamour for his attention — the rising colossus of China first among them — he knows that the Middle East, for all its maddening complexity, latent violence, and the current resurgence of Al-Qaeda, not least in Syria, cannot be ignored.

He should consider the possibility of a trade-off between Iran’s nuclear programme and a Palestinian state. The proposal is simple enough: If Iran were to agree — under strict international supervision — to give up, once and for all, its ambition to become a nuclear-capable state, Israel would, in exchange, agree to the establishment of an independent Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem. The exact terms of the trade-off would evidently need negotiation and refinement, but the main lines and necessary mutual concessions of an Israeli-Palestinian deal have been extensively debated and are widely known.

Such a bargain between Iran’s nuclear ambitions and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is not as far-fetched or as fictional as it may sound. Iran has boxed itself into a corner. It knows that the United States will not allow it to become a nuclear power. It wants a dignified exit from its present predicament and an end to crippling sanctions. Israel, in turn, faces international isolation — not to speak of the permanent threat of terrorism — if it insists on stealing what remains of the West Bank. It, too, needs a dignified exit from the insanity of its fanatical settlers and religious nationalists who, if unchecked, would condemn Israel to pariah status and permanent war. A trade-off would resolve two of the region’s most intractable problems to the great benefit of everyone concerned. Peace and normal relations with the entire Muslim world would be Israel’s very substantial reward.

What about Syria? It lies at the very heart of the regional power system. Its on-going civil war is threatening to destabilise its neighbours — Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Israel itself will not be immune. Islamist fighters, some linked to Al-Qaeda, are flowing into Syria, while refugees are fleeing out to neighbouring states in very large numbers. The toll of dead and wounded is heavy, material destruction great and human misery incalculable.

It is by now abundantly clear that there is no military solution to the conflict: Neither the regime nor its opponents can hope to win an outright victory. No outside power wants to intervene militarily. Yet the regime and its enemies are incapable of negotiating an end to the conflict without outside help.

What should the international community do? First, the United States and Russia (with active support from other powers) should join together in imposing a ceasefire on both sides of the conflict. This could involve deploying an international force around Syria’s borders to prevent the inflow of fighters, weapons, and other military equipment to both government and rebels.

Secondly, major external powers — Arab, Western, Chinese, Russian and others — should solemnly pledge to contribute to a Syria Reconstruction Fund of some $10bn-$15bn. The money would be entrusted to the World Bank and disbursed only when a permanent ceasefire is in place and when some clear progress is made towards a negotiated settlement. The existence of the Fund will provide a real incentive.

Thirdly, the United Nations Secretary General, with unanimous backing from the Security Council, should summon a conference of national reconciliation in Damascus attended by regime representatives as well as by all Syrian factions, groups, parties and prominent individuals prepared to renounce war.

The task will not be easy. The wounds of the conflict are very deep. But for the sake of Syria and its neighbours — for the sake of peace in the region — a supreme effort must be made to prevent the collapse of the Syrian state and its possible fragmentation. The difficult task will be to reshape Syria’s political system on democratic lines. Political freedoms will have to be guaranteed, individual rights respected, police brutality ended, the rule of law observed, government services restored and minorities protected. An essential goal must be the preservation of the Syrian Arab army as the indispensable institution of the state. In Iraq, it was the disbanding of the army which led to the collapse of the state, triggering the catastrophic civil war from which the country has yet to recover.

If Barack Obama were to adopt the programme outlined above and throw his full weight behind it, his place in history as a great peacemaker would be assured.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).

This Is Not a Revolution

The New-york review of books|

November 8, 2012
Hussein Agha
and Robert Malley|

All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest

—Paul Simon

Darkness descends upon the Arab world. Waste, death, and destruction attend a fight for a better life. Outsiders compete for influence and settle accounts. The peaceful demonstrations with which this began, the lofty values that inspired them, become distant memories. Elections are festive occasions where political visions are an afterthought. The only consistent program is religious and is stirred by the past. A scramble for power is unleashed, without clear rules, values, or endpoint. It will not stop with regime change or survival. History does not move forward. It slips sideways.

Games occur within games: battles against autocratic regimes, a Sunni–Shiite confessional clash, a regional power struggle, a newly minted cold war. Nations divide, minorities awaken, sensing a chance to step out of the state’s confining restrictions. The picture is blurred. These are but fleeting fragments of a landscape still coming into its own, with only scrappy hints of an ultimate destination. The changes that are now believed to be essential are liable to be disregarded as mere anecdotes on an extended journey.

New or newly invigorated actors rush to the fore: the ill-defined “street,” prompt to mobilize, just as quick to disband; young protesters, central activists during the uprising, roadkill in its wake. The Muslim Brothers yesterday dismissed by the West as dangerous extremists are now embraced and feted as sensible, businesslike pragmatists. The more traditionalist Salafis, once allergic to all forms of politics, are now eager to compete in elections. There are shadowy armed groups and militias of dubious allegiance and unknown benefactors as well as gangs, criminals, highwaymen, and kidnappers.

Alliances are topsy-turvy, defy logic, are unfamiliar and shifting. Theocratic regimes back secularists; tyrannies promote democracy; the US forms partnerships with Islamists; Islamists support Western military intervention. Arab nationalists side with regimes they have long combated; liberals side with Islamists with whom they then come to blows. Saudi Arabia backs secularists against the Muslim Brothers and Salafis against secularists. The US is allied with Iraq, which is allied with Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, which the US hopes to help topple. The US is also allied with Qatar, which subsidizes Hamas, and with Saudi Arabia, which funds the Salafis who inspire jihadists who kill Americans wherever they can.

In record time, Turkey evolved from having zero problems with its neighbors to nothing but problems with them. It has alienated Iran, angered Iraq, and had a row with Israel. It virtually is at war with Syria. Iraqi Kurds are now Ankara’s allies, even as it wages war against its own Kurds and even as its policies in Iraq and Syria embolden secessionist tendencies in Turkey itself.

For years, Iran opposed Arab regimes, cultivating ties with Islamists with whose religious outlook it felt it could make common cause. As soon as they take power, the Islamists seek to reassure their former Saudi and Western foes and distance themselves from Tehran despite Iran’s courting. The Iranian regime will feel obliged to diversify its alliances, reach out to non-Islamists who feel abandoned by the nascent order and appalled by the budding partnership between Islamists and the US. Iran has experience in such matters: for the past three decades, it has allied itself with secular Syria even as Damascus suppressed its Islamists.

When goals converge, motivations differ. The US cooperated with Gulf Arab monarchies and sheikhdoms in deposing Qaddafi yesterday and in opposing Assad today. It says it must be on the right side of history. Yet those regimes do not respect at home the rights they piously pursue abroad. Their purpose is neither democracy nor open societies. They are engaged in a struggle for regional domination. What, other than treasure, can proponents of a self-styled democratic uprising find in countries whose own system of governance is anathema to the democratic project they allegedly promote?

The new system of alliances hinges on too many false assumptions and masks too many deep incongruities. It is not healthy because it cannot be real. Something is wrong. Something is unnatural. It cannot end well.

A media war that started in Egypt reaches its zenith in Syria. Each side shows only its own, amplifies the numbers, disregards the rest. In Bahrain, the opposite is true. No matter how many opponents of the regime turn up, few take notice. It does not register on the attention scale. Not long ago, footage from Libya glorified motley fighters with colorful bandanas and triumphant spiel. The real battles, bloody and often from the skies, raged elsewhere. Casualties were invisible.

Throngs gather in Tahrir Square. The camera zooms in on protesters. What about the unseen millions who stayed at home? Did they rejoice at Mubarak’s overthrow or quietly lament his departure? How do Egyptians feel about the current disorder, unrest, economic collapse, and political uncertainty? In the elections that ensued, 50 percent did not vote. Of those who did, half voted for the representative of the old order. Who will look after those who lie on the other side of the right side of history?

Most Syrians fight neither to defend the regime nor to support the opposition. They are at the receiving end of this vicious confrontation, their wishes unnoticed, their voices unheard, their fates forgotten. The camera becomes an integral part of the unrest, a tool of mobilization, propaganda, and incitement. The military imbalance favors the old regimes but is often more than compensated for by the media imbalance that favors the new forces. The former Libyan regime had Qaddafi’s bizarre rhetoric; Assad’s Syria relies on its discredited state-run media. It’s hardly a contest. In the battle for public sympathy, in the age of news-laundering, the old orders never stood a chance.

In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain, no unifying figure of stature has emerged with the capacity to shape a new path. There is scant leadership. Where there is leadership, it tends to be by committee. Where there are committees, they emerge mysteriously to assume authority no one has granted them. More often than not, legitimacy is bestowed from abroad: the West provides respectability and exposure; Gulf Arab states supply resources and support; international organizations offer validity and succor.

Those in charge often lack the strength that comes from a clear and loyal domestic constituency; they need foreign approval and so they must be cautious, adjust their positions to what outsiders accept. Past revolutionary leaders were not driven by such considerations. For better or for worse, they were stubbornly independent and took pride in rebuffing foreign interference.

Not unlike the rulers they helped depose, Islamists placate the West. Not unlike those they replaced, who used the Islamists as scarecrows to keep the West by their side, the Muslim Brotherhood waves the specter of what might come next should it fail now: the Salafis who, for their part and not unlike the Brothers of yore, are torn between fealty to their traditions and the taste of power.

It’s a game of musical chairs. In Egypt, Salafis play the part once played by the Muslim Brotherhood; the Brotherhood plays the part once played by the Mubarak regime. In Palestine, Islamic Jihad is the new Hamas, firing rockets to embarrass Gaza’s rulers; Hamas, the new Fatah, claiming to be a resistance movement while clamping down on those who dare resist; Fatah, a version of the old Arab autocracies it once lambasted. How far off is the day when Salafis present themselves to the world as the preferable alternative to jihadists?

Egyptian politics are wedged between the triumphant mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, more hard-line Salafis, anxious non-Islamists, and remnants of the old order. As the victorious Brotherhood tries to reach an arrangement with the rest, the political future is a blur. The speed and elegance with which the new president, Mohamed Morsi, retired or sidelined the old military leaders and the quiet with which this daring move was greeted suggest that the Islamists’ confidence has grown, that they are willing to move at a faster pace.

Tunisia is a mixed tale. The transition has been largely peaceful; the an-Nahda party, which won the elections last October, offers a pragmatic, moderate face of Islamism. But its efforts to consolidate power are a source of nervousness. Mistrust between secularists and Islamists is growing; socioeconomic protests at times become violent. Salafis lurk in the wings, assailing symbols of modern society, free speech, and gender equality.

In Yemen, former president Saleh is out of power but not offstage. One war brews in the north, another in the south. Jihadists flex their muscles. The young revolutionaries who dreamed of a complete change can only watch as different factions of the same old elite rearrange the deck. Saudis, Iranians, and Qataris sponsor their own factions. Minor clashes could escalate into major confrontations. Meanwhile, US drones eliminate al-Qaeda operatives and whoever happens to be in their vicinity.

Day by day, the civil war in Syria takes on an uglier, more sectarian hue. The country has become an arena for a regional proxy war. The opposition is an eclectic assortment of Muslim Brothers, Salafis, peaceful protesters, armed militants, Kurds, soldiers who have defected, tribal elements, and foreign fighters. There is little that either the regime or the opposition won’t contemplate in their desperation to triumph. The state, society, and an ancient culture collapse. The conflict engulfs the region.

The battle in Syria also is a battle for Iraq. Sunni Arab states have not accepted the loss of Baghdad to Shiites and, in their eyes, to Safavid Iranians. A Sunni takeover in Syria will revive their colleagues’ fortunes in Iraq. Militant Iraqi Sunnis are emboldened and al-Qaeda is revitalized. A war for Iraq’s reconquest will be joined by its neighbors. The region cares about Syria. It obsesses about Iraq.

Islamists in the region await the outcome in Syria. They do not wish to bite off more than they can chew. If patience is the Islamist first principle, consolidation of gains is the second. Should Syria fall, Jordan could be next. Its peculiar demography—a Palestinian majority ruled over by a trans-Jordanian minority—has been a boon to the regime: the two communities bear deep grievances against the Hashemite rulers yet distrust each other more. That could change in the face of the unifying power of Islam for which ethnicity, in theory at least, is of little consequence.

Weaker entities may follow. In northern Lebanon, Islamist and Salafi groups actively support the Syrian opposition, with whom they may have more in common than with Lebanese Shiites and Christians. From the outset a fragile contraption, Lebanon is pulled in competing directions: some would look to a new Sunni-dominated Syria with envy, perhaps a yearning to join. Others would look to it with fright and despair.

In Bahrain, a Sunni monarchy intent on retaining power and privilege violently suppresses the majority Shiites. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states come to their ally’s rescue. The West, so loud elsewhere, is mute. When Libya holds elections, Islamists do not fare well; their opponents believe they finally achieved their one victory in a country that has no tradition of political openness, lacks a state, and is sated with armed militias that regularly engage in deadly clashes. An octogenarian leadership in Saudi Arabia struggles with a looming transition, lives in fear of Iran and its own population, doles out cash to fend off dissatisfaction. How long can all this last?

Mohamed Morsi; drawing by John Springs

In some countries, regimes will be toppled, in others they will survive. Forces that have been defeated are unlikely to have been crushed. They will regroup and try to fight back. The balance of power is not clear-cut. Victory does not necessarily strengthen the victor.

Those in power occupy the state, but it is an asset that might prove of limited value. Inherently weak and with meager legitimacy, Arab states tend to be viewed by their citizens with suspicion, extraneous bodies superimposed on more deeply rooted, familiar social structures with long, continuous histories. They enjoy neither the acceptability nor the authority of their counterparts elsewhere. Where uprisings occur, the ability of these states to function weakens further as their coercive power erodes.

To be in the seat of power need not mean to exercise power. In Lebanon, the pro-West March 14 coalition, invigorated while in opposition, was deflated after it formed the cabinet in 2005. Hezbollah has never been more on the defensive or enjoyed less moral authority than since it became the major force behind the government. Those out of power face fewer constraints. They have the luxury to denounce their rulers’ failings, the freedom that comes with the absence of responsibility. In a porous, polarized Middle East, they enjoy access to readily available outside support.

To be in charge, to operate along formal, official, state channels, can encumber as much as empower. Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 did not curb its influence; Damascus simply exerted it more surreptitiously, without public glare and accountability. Tomorrow, a similar pattern might hold in Syria itself. The regime’s collapse would be a significant blow to Iran and Hezbollah, but one can wonder how devastating. The day after such a long and violent conflict is more likely to witness chaos than stability, a scramble for power rather than a strong central government. Defeated and excluded political forces will seek help from any source and solicit foreign patrons regardless of their identity. To exploit disorder is a practice in which Iran and Hezbollah are far better versed than their foes. Without a Syrian regime whose interests they need to take into account and whose constraints they need to abide by, they might be able to act more freely.

The Muslim Brotherhood prevails. The newly elected Egyptian president comes from their ranks. They rule in Tunisia. They control Gaza. They have gained in Morocco. In Syria and Jordan too, their time might come.

The Muslim Brotherhood prevails: those are weighty and, not long ago, unthinkable, unutterable words. The Brothers survived eighty years in the underground and the trenches, hounded, tortured, and killed, forced to compromise and bide their time. The fight between Islamism and Arab nationalism has been long, tortuous, and bloody. Might the end be near?

World War I and the ensuing European imperial ascent halted four centuries of Islamic Ottoman rule. With fits and starts, the next century would be that of Arab nationalism. To many, this was an alien, unnatural, inauthentic Western import—a deviation that begged to be rectified. Forced to adjust their views, the Islamists acknowledged the confines of the nation-state and irreligious rule. But their targets remained the nationalist leaders and their disfigured successors.

Last year, they helped topple the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, the pale successors of the original nationalists. The Islamists had more worthy and dangerous adversaries in mind. They struck at Ben Ali and Mubarak, but the founding fathers—Habib Bourguiba and Gamal Abdel Nasser—were in their sights. They reckon they have corrected history. They have revived the era of musulmans sans frontières.

What will all this mean? The Islamists are loath either to share power achieved at high cost or to squander gains so patiently acquired. They must balance among their own restive rank-and-file, a nervous larger society, and an undecided international community. The temptation to strike fast pulls in one direction; the desire to reassure tugs in another. In general, they will prefer to eschew coercion, awaken the people to their dormant Islamic nature rather than foist it upon them. They will try to do it all: rule, enact social transformations incrementally, and be true to themselves without becoming a menace to others.

The Islamists propose a bargain. In exchange for economic aid and political support, they will not threaten what they believe are core Western interests: regional stability, Israel, the fight against terror, energy flow. No danger to Western security. No commercial war. The showdown with the Jewish state can wait. The focus will be on the slow, steady shaping of Islamic societies. The US and Europe may voice concern, even indignation at such a domestic makeover. But they’ll get over it. Just as they got over the austere fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia. Bartering—as in, we’ll take care of your needs, let us take care of ours—Islamists feel, will do the trick. Looking at history, who can blame them?

Mubarak was toppled in part because he was viewed as excessively subservient to the West, yet the Islamists who succeed him might offer the West a sweeter because more sustainable deal. They think they can get away with what he could not. Stripped of his nationalist mantle, Mubarak had little to fall back on; he was a naked autocrat. The Muslim Brothers by comparison have a much broader program—moral, social, cultural. Islamists feel they can still follow their convictions, even if they are not faithfully anti-Western. They can moderate, dilute, defer.

Unlike the close allies of the West they have replaced, Islamists are heard calling for NATO military intervention in Libya yesterday, Syria today, wherever they entertain the hope to take over tomorrow. One can use the distant infidels, who will not stay around for long, to jettison local infidels, who have hounded them for decades. Rejection of foreign interference, once a centerpiece of the post-independence outlook, is no longer the order of the day. It is castigated as counterrevolutionary.

What the US sought to obtain over decades through meddling and imposition, it might now obtain via acquiescence: Arab regimes that will not challenge Western interests. Little wonder that many in the region are persuaded that America was complicit in the Islamists’ rise, a quiet partner in what has been happening.

Everywhere, Israel faces the rise of Islam, of militancy, of radicalism. Former allies are gone; erstwhile foes reign supreme. But the Islamists have different and broader objectives. They wish to promote their Islamic project, which means consolidating their rule where they can, refraining from alienating the West, and avoiding perilous and precocious clashes with Israel. In this scheme, the presence of a Jewish state is and will remain intolerable, but it is probably the last piece of a larger puzzle that may never be fully assembled.

The quest to establish an independent, sovereign Palestinian state was never at the heart of the Islamist project. Hamas, the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, harbors grander, less territorially confined but also less immediately achievable designs. Despite Hamas’s circumlocutions and notwithstanding its political evolution, it never truly deviated from its original view—the Jewish state is illegitimate and all the land of historic Palestine is inherently Islamic. If the current balance of power is not in your favor, wait and do what you can to take care of the disparity. The rest is tactics.

The Palestinian question has been the preserve of the Palestinian national movement. As of the late 1980s, its declared goal became a sovereign state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Alternatives, whether interim or temporary, have been flatly rejected. The Islamists’ plan may be more ambitious and grandiose but more flexible and elastic. For them, a diminutive, amputated state, hemmed in by Israel, dependent on its goodwill, predicated on its recognition, and entailing an end to the conflict, is not worth fighting for.

They can live with a range of transient arrangements: an interim agreement; a long-term truce, or hudna; a possible West Bank confederation with Jordan, with Gaza moving toward Egypt. All will advance the further Islamization of Palestinian society. All permit Hamas to turn to its social, cultural, and religious agenda, its true calling. All allow Hamas to maintain the conflict with Israel without having to wage it. None violates Hamas’s core tenets. It can put its ultimate goal on hold. Someday, the time for Palestine, for Jerusalem may come. Not now.

In the age of Arab Islamism, Israel may find Hamas’s purported intransigence more malleable than Fatah’s ostensible moderation. Israel fears the Islamic awakening. But the more immediate threat could be to the Palestinian national movement. There is no energy left in the independence project; associated with the old politics and long-worn-out leaderships, it has expended itself. Fatah and the PLO will have no place in the new world. The two-state solution is no one’s primary concern. It might expire not because of violence, settlements, or America’s inexpert role. It might perish of indifference…..

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Is the Glass Half Full for Syria’s Assad?

He may no longer control huge swathes of Syrian territory, but his forces appear nowhere near collapse. Over the past 18 months, at least, the dictator has beaten the odds
By Tony Karon | @tonykaron | October 11, 2012 | 1

Winter is coming, and with it the near certainty that the lot of millions of suffering Syrians will get substantially worse. Some 335,000 and counting find themselves in refugee camps in neighboring Turkey and Jordan, the lucky among them in pre-fabricated structures provided in some of the Turkish camps, the vast majority huddled in tents. But for millions more back home, the brutal ravages of an 18-month civil war that has claimed as many as 30,000 lives must now be endured under the growing privations of a siege economy imposed by war and sanctions, the winter chill and shortages of everything from fuel to medicines and foodstuffs raising the specter of disease and hunger along with the threat of instant death from rockets and bombs.

But one group of Syrians may be greeting the oncoming winter with a grim sense of satisfaction: As bad as things may be, President Bashar al-Assad and his entourage — and those who are willing to fight and die to keep in power — know that for them, things could be a whole lot worse. Sure, the regime has lost control of vast swathes of territory that appear to be intractably under the control of insurgents. But if the rebels are able to control much of the countryside, they remain hopelessly outgunned in the head-to-head fight for the major cities, with no sign of any heavy weapons deliveries from their allies abroad, much less a NATO cavalry riding to the rescue as it had done in Libya. The rebels continue to be plagued by divisions, and Western powers are increasingly anxious over the influence of salafist extremists within the armed insurgency.

The expected collapse of Assad’s armed forces has failed to materialize, and defections to the rebel side have slowed to a trickle. Instead of signaling an imminent denouement, the incremental gains and losses of each side along the shifting front-lines suggests a strategic stalemate, in which neither side is capable of delivering the other a knockout blow. Against that backdrop, the latest developments on Syria’s borders with Turkey and Jordan in recent days and weeks appear to be symptoms of that stalemate, rather than signs of imminent outside intervention. ”If this continues we will respond with greater force,” said Turkey’s military chief, General Necdet Özel, Wednesday, during a visit to the Turkish border town of Akçakale, which had suffered six days of artillery fire from Syria. Turkey had responded in kind to the shelling that began last week, and on Wednesday it intercepted and inspected (and later released, after confiscating communication equipment) a Syria-bound civilian airliner on suspicion of carrying weapons from Moscow.

But for all Turkey’s bluster — and NATO’s obligatory vows “to protect and defend Turkey if necessary” — the fact that the provocative shelling from the Syrian side continued for six days suggests that Assad is calling the bluff of his old friend, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A majority of the Turkish public opposes sending troops into Syria; the war has already imposed an economic burden on Turkey through the cutoff of trade and the refugee crisis, and it has also boosted the fortunes of the separatist PKK insurgency among Turkey’s Kurds as well as raising tensions with its Alawite and Alevi minorities. The Western powers without whose active involvement most analysts concur Turkey might find its capabilities stretched by a solo Syria intervention show no appetite for that option.

Alarmed by the sense that Washington is preparing for a scenario in which the Syria war drags on for many months yet, some of Turkey’s recent moves may point to a growing urgency in Ankara about quickly resolving the Syria crisis, rather than living with the consequences of a long war.  Foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu last weekend publicly nominated Assad’s deputy president, Farouk al-Sharaa, as an acceptable figure to head a transitional government, a suggestion quickly rejected by rebel groups.

Even the reported deployment of some 150 U.S. soldiers in neighboring Jordan to help that country plan for various Syria contingencies is unlikely to unduly trouble Damascus. Reports of the deployment suggests its purpose is to help “insulate” a key regional ally from the fallout on its own terrain from Syria’s civil war, and perhaps to prepare for an emergency contingency of securing Syria’s stock of chemical weapons should the regime be in danger of losing control of them. The political consensus in Washington opposes direct military intervention in Syria, even if there are differences over the question of facilitating arms transfers to the rebels.

Insulating Jordan could even be a two-way street, not only preventing the Syrian military from conducting cross-border operations but also preventing anti-Assad insurgents using it as a sanctuary from which to stage attacks: The salafist current in the Syrian insurgency would, in the long-term, pose as much threat to the Hashemite monarchy as to the Assad dictatorship, and Jordan hardly wants jihadists operating on its own soil, even if their immediate target is in Damascus. It may also want to avoid the sort of artillery barrages that raged across the Turkey-Syria border last week, which are likely to have begun because the border territory on the Syrian side is in rebel hands, and Turkey has been allowing the rebels to operate from its territory. Unable to directly retake that ground, Assad’s forces have instead resorted to shelling rebel held border areas, and apparently deliberately firing into Turkey, too.

Things are hardly looking good for Assad at this point.  His prospects for defeating the rebellion and restoring control over all of Syria appear remote. He governs by naked force and fear of the alternative, and even then, over a shrinking domain. Still, he’s far from beaten, and if anything, the more immediate danger may be that Syria itself is breaking up into warring fiefdoms along the lines seen in neighboring Lebanon from the 1970s until 1992.

Assad’s opponents, of course, had hoped that he would, by now, have been removed from the scene, either by exile, imprisonment or death.  But the regime itself appears to have either chosen, or stumbled onto,  the terrain of sectarian civil war — the “Milosevic Option” we dubbed it last January – stirring fears of an extremist-led Sunni rebellion to rally his own Alawite sect and other minorities, and even the urban Sunni bourgeoisie, and then making that a self-fulfilling prophecy by violently suppressing peaceful protests. Assad also coolly assessed the regional and international strategic balance and concluded that he could count on strong backing from Iran and Russia against any attempt to dispatch him a la Gaddafi.

Milosevic, of course,  eventually got his comeuppance at the hands of his own people, and died in a prison cell at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It may well be that a similar fate eventually awaits Assad. But Milosevic was ousted eight years after the beginning of the wars that ended Yugoslavia, and in the interim, the Serbian strongman had succeeded in making himself indispensable to the process ending the very wars he’d played a major role in starting. That moment came when ending the war became a greater priority in the minds of the global power brokers than changing the power arrangements. Assad if far from achieving that goal, and he may never do so. But with the second anniversary of the Syrian rebellion just over four months away, he may have more reason for satisfaction over the course of events, at this point,  than do his adversaries.
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On Syria and way beyond, an interview with Guenter Meyer

On Syria and way beyond
By Lars Schall

One of Europe’s most outstanding experts on the Middle East, Professor Guenter Meyer, addresses in this exclusive in-depth interview for Asia Times Online the Syrian civil war and its international dimensions.

Professor Dr Guenter Meyer has for almost 40 years carried out empirical research on the social, economic and political development in Arab countries and has published more than 150 books and articles, especially on Syria, Egypt, Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. He directs the Center for Research on the Arab World at the Johannes Gutenberg

University in Mainz, Germany, which is one of the world’s leading information centers for the dissemination of news and research on the Middle East. Professor Meyer is chairman of the German Middle East Studies Association (DAVO), president of the European Association for Middle Eastern Studies (EURAMES), and chairman of the International Advisory Council of the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES).

Lars Schall: Professor Meyer, since our perceptions are framed by the media, how do you feel about the coverage of the conflict in Syria in the Western media?

Guenter Meyer: My perceptions are not only framed by the media, but also by my own experience in Syria and by contact with Syrians, other Arab experts and political activists of the Arab spring. The information I receive from these sources and also from Arab news media covers a much wider range of views and assessments than the rather one-sided reporting in the majority of the Western media.

LS: What kind of things do you have to criticize in particular?

GM: Until recently mainstream reporting in most Western media was clearly biased. It focused mainly on the distinction between the “bad” Syrian regime, which has to be toppled, and the “good” opposition, which has to be supported because it is fighting against a corrupt, authoritarian and brutal government. This perception has changed gradually during the past few months. More and more media are reporting about the conflicting interests of the highly fragmented oppositional groups as well as about the atrocities of the rebel groups and their crimes committed against the civilian population, especially against Alawites but also against Christians.

The influx of Salafis, jihadis and followers of al-Qaeda and the expectation that radical Sunni Islamists will control Syria after the fall of Bashar al-Assad are disturbing themes that are now also reported in Western media. After a long delay, the news coverage of the development in Syria does no longer focus only on spreading the political view of the “Friends of Syria”, but has started to provide a more comprehensive picture about the highly complex situation in Syria.

Nevertheless, there is still a bias when it comes to the reporting of massacres. The majority of Western media – and also Western governments – tend to take the information offered by oppositional sources for granted that government forces, in particular the Shabiha militia, are responsible for the cruel killings of civilians, many of them women and children. At the same time, evidences of a systematic “massacre marketing strategy” [1] by the rebels are rejected as propaganda of the Assad regime. It is obvious that in many cases, especially in the massacres with the highest number of victims at Houla [2] and Daraya [3] oppositional forces committed brutal crimes against civilians in order just to blame the government for these massacres. Through this strategy they try to manipulate public opinion and influence political decision making against the Syrian regime.

LS: Would you say that those who want to explore the interests that collide in the conflict in Syria would do well to examine the geopolitical importance of Syria for the Eurasian energy chessboard? I mean, ultimately Syria is a main transport hub for future oil and gas pipelines, right?

GM: Whenever you try to analyze political conflicts in the Middle East and get to the bottom you are likely to find oil or gas. The present conflict has been linked to Syria’s role as transit country for Iranian gas export. Last year, a contract was signed between Iran, Iraq and Syria to build a natural gas pipeline by 2016 from Iran’s giant South Pars field to the Syrian Mediterranean coast in order to supply Lebanon and Europa with gas. As a result Turkey would loose her highly profitable and political important position as the dominant transit country for gas from Russia and the Caspian Basin. [4]

Could this expected competition have been a reason for the Turkish government to give up its good relations with the Syrian regime and support the opposition? This is rather unlikely. During the last few years, Iran has signed numerous Memoranda of Understanding and contracts with foreign governments and companies to exploit Iranian gas and oil fields and to build pipelines. None of these schemes has been executed, as a result of the US embargo against Iran. Therefore, it has to be supposed that the contract to build a pipeline to Syria was signed mainly for domestic political reasons of the Iranian government. One has also to question the economic viability of this project. Why should gas from Southern Iran be exported to Europe when the highest demand for Iranian gas comes from neighboring Pakistan and India?

There is another project that would make much more sense. In 2009, Qatar had proposed to build a pipeline from the emirate’s giant gas fields via Syria to Turkey to be connected with other pipelines to Europe. [5] Based on this scheme, Assad loyalists had claimed that the unrest in Syria is not an uprising but a Qatari-instigated aggression designed to dominate the country and ensure Qatari access to the Mediterranean Sea for its gas export. However, this argument can be regarded as a conspiracy theory. [6]

LS: Are the discovered energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean and Levantine Basin also of interest here?

GM: The untapped natural gas finds are extremely important for Israel, which will no longer have to rely on the insecure supply of gas from Egypt. The discovered gas reserves are so huge that Israel can not only achieve energy independence but will also benefit from lucrative export deals. Further gas and even oil reserves are expected to be discovered in the offshore areas of Syria and Lebanon. [7] Nevertheless, the newly discovered resources have no direct impact on the present crisis in Syria.

LS: When it comes to the Western powers, are they especially intended to weaken the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis?

GM: There are numerous statements from the US government which stress the geostrategic importance of the ousting of the Syrian regime so that both Iran and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon will loose their most important ally. The Iranian and Syrian supply of military equipment to Hezbollah will no longer be possible. The weakening of the military force of this Shiite organization means that its impact on the power structure of Lebanon and especially its ability to attack Israel will dramatically decline. [8] The fall of Bashar Al-Assad will also weaken the influence of Russia and China in the Middle East and strengthen the role of the US and Saudi Arabia in this region.

LS: Are we currently experiencing a “Balkanisation of Syria” or a “Balkanisation of the Middle East” in general?

GM: During the last decades Syria has been a secular state with a strong focus on pan-Arabism. Now the ethnic and religious frictions have become a dominant factor and threaten the unity of the Syrian state. The worst case scenario would indeed be a “Balkanization” for Syria, which means that the country is split into a northeastern Kurdish state providing a safe haven for the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] and a nightmare for Turkey, an Alawite state in the western mountains and the coastal area, a tiny Druze enclave in the south, and a Sunni state in central Syria. Only the last one would probably have sufficient economic potential to exist on the long run.

Other experts suggest a “Lebanonization” scenario that pins down the Syrian army and weakens the central government in Damascus. [9] The model of an “Iraqization” of Syria might also have chances to become reality, with several autonomous or semi-autonomous regions. Similar demands are also raised in the oil-rich east of Libya, where large parts of the population no longer want to be dominated by the center of the political power in Tripolitania, the western region of Libya.

LS: Do we see in Syria a similar situation as earlier in Libya or is it very different?

GM: The situation in Libya was completely different. Gaddafi’s military forces were far too weak to resist the combined military power of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] which was authorized by the UN Security Council to intervene in Libya. Large parts of the population and almost the entire east of Libya opposed the authoritarian regime so that foreign advisers were able to move freely in this part of the country, support the oppositional fighter groups with heavy weapons and train them how to use the sophisticated military equipment.

Bashar Al-Assad, on the other hand, can rely on the excellently trained and best-equipped Republican Guards and the 4th Armored Division – elite troops who are almost entirely Alawites. The Syrian air force and in particular the air defense force are equipped with the latest Russian military technology. A recent analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came to the conclusion that the Syrian air defense is five times more sophisticated than [former Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi’s. [10]

A military offensive by foreign troops to oust Bashar al-Assad would be an extremely risky and expensive operation. In addition, there is no chance that Russia and China will accept a UN resolution for a military intervention in Syria. Under these circumstances, the US, France and the UK have so far only resorted to training opposition fighters on Turkish territory close to the northwestern border of Syria and to supplying them with communication means and other non-lethal equipment. At the same time, Iran is using civilian aircraft to fly military personnel and large quantities of weapons across Iraqi airspace to help Syria crush the uprising, according to a Western intelligence report seen by Reuters. The Iraqi government, however, denies that such flights are taking place.

LS:We know that forces of al-Qaeda are fighting on Syrian soil. Ed Husain, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote about this:

By and large, Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalions are tired, divided, chaotic, and ineffective. Feeling abandoned by the West, rebel forces are increasingly demoralized … Al-Qaeda fighters, however, may help improve morale. The influx of jihadis brings discipline, religious fervor, battle experience from Iraq, funding from Sunni sympathizers in the Gulf, and most importantly, deadly results. In short, the FSA needs al-Qaeda now. [11]

That’s quite a statement after more than 10 years of the so called “War on Terror”, isn’t it?

GM: Indeed! There are many similar reports – among others from the Eastern Euphrates valley near the Iraqi border – where opposition fighters had for several months tried in vain to take over garrisons from the Syrian army. At last, they asked an al-Qaeda group for support. As a result of their attacks the army withdrew from this base within a few days.

The al-Qaeda fighters and jihadis are not only from Arab countries, especially from Iraq, Libya, the Arabian Peninsula, but also from Pakistan and include even radical Islamists from European countries. Their number is rapidly growing. This is the major reason why the US government has been so reluctant to supply the opposition fighters with surface-to-air missiles, which might end up in the hands of al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. It has only recently been reported that the Free Syrian Army acquired 14 Stinger missiles. So far, however, it has not been confirmed that these weapons were used to attack Syrian fighter planes and helicopter gunships [12].

LS: What kind of importance has it that al-Qaeda is a Sunni terrorist organization?

GM: About 70% of the Syrian population are Sunnis. Many of them regard the ruling Alawites not as real Muslims. The same applies to al-Qaeda, which demands that all Muslims should unite in order to eradicate the Alawite “infidels”. However, this does not mean that al-Qaeda and other foreign jihadis are supported by all Syrian Sunnis. Quite the contrary. The vast majority is rejecting both the extremist views and the intervention of radical foreign Islamists.

LS: It is said that Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, could use chemical weapons. What is your view on that?

GM: The regime has assured that it will never use chemical or biological weapons. This statement can be regarded as reliable because the use of weapons of mass destruction or even the movement of such weapons would mean “crossing the red line”, as President Obama threatened. A massive military intervention against the Syrian government would be the consequence [13]

However, there are detailed reports that NATO powers in coordination with Saudi Arabia are preparing a fake attack with chemical weapons in southern Syria for which the Assad regime will be blamed in order to justify a massive international invasion. [14]

LS: Do we observe in the Syrian conflict certain developments like under a microscope: the US can no longer afford financially some certain types of adventures and has reached the limits of its influence, while the Russians and the Chinese don’t want to be told what to do in the Middle East?

GM: The financial aspect is very important from the perspective of the US government, but there is also President Obama’s promise “to bring our boys back home”. A new American involvement in another war is extremely unpopular, especially during the present presidential election campaign. Concerning Russia and China, they have important geostrategic interests in Syria. There is no compelling reason why they should give up this comfortable and influential position.

LS: With regard to the external influences, it was written recently that European and Arab states pay high government officials, if they turn away from Assad. [15] Your thoughts on this?

GM: This applies not only to leading representatives of the Syrian regime, but especially to members of the Syrian army. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have publicly announced that they will spend at least US$300 million to pay the salaries of the oppositional fighters and also financial incentives to motivate soldiers from all ranks to defect from the military forces and to join the oppositional troops. Under these circumstances, it is really astounding that only so few officers, generals and leading members of the regime have defected until now. This underlines how stable the power of the government, the military and the security services still is.

LS: How would a European attitude look like be considered worthy of support?

GM: Let me start by explaining why the present European attitude is not worthy of support. The leading governments of the EU have discarded a political solution of the Syrian conflict and opted instead for the – at least indirect – support for a military ousting of the Assad regime. They are co-operating in particular with the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and which consists mainly of Syrians who have lived for a long time in Western countries, especially in the US. These people want to rule post-Assad Syria, but they are by no means accepted by the majority of the population living in Syria.

In Berlin, for example, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) in cooperation with the US Institute of Peace arranged the facilities for members of the Syrian opposition and international experts to meet in order to plan for “The Day After”. [16] The result is an agenda to create a new political system in Syria according to Western democratic standards and values after the fall of the present regime.

This plan was designed without any knowledge about the future distribution of power among the various forces that might be involved in the toppling of the government, and with only a little participation of the numerous oppositional groups inside Syria. It is not surprising that such a plan was rejected by members of the inner Syrian opposition as an “academic exercise” with no relevance at a time when the outcome of the Syrian crisis is still completely open. The same applies to various government-sponsored committees planning the Syrian future in Paris, Rome, Istanbul and Cairo.

The frequent demands that the extremely heterogeneous opposition should unite have turned out to be futile. This applies also to the latest attempt of the French President Francois Hollande, who also offered to recognize a new Syrian government-in-exile. The proposal was immediately rejected by the US government as untimely due to the lack of unity among the opposition groups.

Much more relevant for the present development of the crisis is the proposal to establish a safe haven for Syrian refugees. This was first demanded by the Turkish government and was recently supported by the French president. At present, more than 80,000 Syrians have arrived in refugee camps in Turkey; 100,000 have been declared by the Erdogan government as the maximum number of refugees to be accepted on Turkish territory. Additional refugees have to be accommodated in a safe buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. The same has been proposed along the Jordanian border.

At first sight such a demand might appear to be rather harmless and unproblematic, involving only a limited military intervention. However, the establishment of a safe buffer zone in Syria can only be achieved by a full-scale war of NATO and allied troops from Arab countries against the strong Syrian armed forces. To protect the refugees in the safe haven, a no-fly zone has to be established, which can only be controlled after NATO has gained air superiority over the total Syrian territory.

This would involve the destruction of the Syrian air force with about 400 fighter planes and the huge arsenal of highly sophisticated anti-air craft missiles. The size, expenditure and duration of such an intervention would be tremendous as the MIT analysis showed. [10].

One has also to keep in mind that in legal terms such an attack could be carried out under the rather controversial international norm of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). But its application has to be approved by a resolution of the UN Security Council, where a veto from Russia and China can be taken for granted.

Coming back to the question about the position which should be supported: the most sensible position and the only one that would allow a peaceful solution is still the [Kofi] Annan plan [proposed by the former United Nations secretary general] involving not only the opposition and their supporters, but also the governments in Damascus and Teheran in the negotiation about the future development of Syria. However, there is no chance that this proposal will be accepted by the opposition in exile and its supporters in the US, the Arab League, Turkey and the EU.

LS: What do you think about the helping hand that the Bundesnachrichtendienst [BND – Germany’s foreign intelligence agency] is giving to the rebels?

GM: The German newspaper Bild had revealed that members of the BND stationed on ships near the Syrian and Lebanese coast and at the NATO base near Adana collect intelligence on the movement of Syrian government troops and share this information with the forces of the Free Syrian Army. [17] The same applies to agents of the British intelligence service based in Cyprus and also to the activities of US intelligence agents and spy satellites.

more …

Turkey is gearing down in Syria

Mehmet Ali Birand |

Turkey is hitting the brakes on the issue of Syria, some news reports claim. As a matter of fact, the voice of the government is not as loud as it used to be. It looks as if the tempo has slowed down. I think Turkey is doing the right thing.

At the beginning, mostly with the agitation of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, we set off as a large group headed by Washington and Europe. For the sake of humanity, despite Russia and Iran, the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship should have been brought to an end. If need be, there would be embargoes imposed and no-fly buffer zones formed, leaving al-Assad with no breathing space.

And it was our roaring voice that was heard the most.

We yelled and cried a lot and have been dragging him through the mud until now. We gave him five- or six-month deadlines. It didn’t happen. We raised our voice more. We thought he would not be able to resist too long and would leave in a few months; it didn’t happen. We postponed the deadline to one to two years; again, it didn’t happen.

We opened our doors; we accepted Syrian refugees. We said we would be able to handle them until their numbers reach 50,000. Now, they are reaching 100,000. But, they are still flowing in; the costs are reaching $400 million. Nobody seems to be willing to contribute either.

We provided facilities for the Syrian opposition in our lands. Not knowing most of the details, we did what we could. Then we saw that their power was not sufficient. On top of that, all of a sudden, we found ourselves being accused of “arming the Syrian opposition, providing bases for them.”

Frankly, we jumped into dangerous waters first, thinking we were leading other nations that we assumed would jump together; however, we looked back and saw that no one was behind us. We have been left all alone. Moreover, the Washington that set off together with us is now holding us back. It wanted us to calm down. It urged us not to conduct a military intervention.

Well, why? Why did the calculations not come out as we expected?

First, the presidential elections in the United States are close. U.S. President Barack Obama does not want to take any risks. There is no guarantee after the elections either. Regardless of who sits in the White House, nobody is in favor of a military intervention. Because the American public does not want to send its children to wars in Middle Eastern deserts and spend trillions of dollars anymore. It is fed up with continuous casualties and losses. The Iraq and Afghanistan experiences have hurt everyone.

Another reason why the West took the government change in Syria so slowly is the worries over the Christians living in the country, and more importantly, the questions of Israel on who will rule Syria after al-Assad.

When questions such as “What if after al-Assad, Islamic fundamentalists take over power and end secularism?” started being asked, this time both the United States and Europe hit the brakes.

Turkey raised its voice, it cried; it said, “Help the Syrian people for the sake of humanity.” It cried, “You are committing crime against humanity;” nobody listened.

It did not serve anybody’s interest to upset the equilibrium Syria had set up.

Especially when Iran stood behind al-Assad with all its power, the Baath government nowadays has been able to breathe again. It is indefinite how long this will last.

Ankara used to issue a statement almost every week. When the situation is like this, voices are hushed. It was said that the number of Syrian refugees was not to increase at this pace. The Syrian opposition has said it has moved its headquarters from Turkish soil to the liberated zones in Syria.

We will now proceed in a lower gear as we now have to make a turn after speeding excessively in the beginning.


Egypt’s Morsi resets ties with US

By M K Bhadrakumar | 25 September 2012

The confusion in the American mind about Egypt ended this past weekend, a mere nine days since President Barack Obama made the famous remark in a television interview that he wasn’t sure of post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt being the United States’ ally.

The confusion actually arose when US National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor scrambled to clarify that “ally” is a “legal term of art”, whereas Egypt is a “long-standing and close partner” of the United States, and, thereupon, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland butted in to contradict both Obama and Vietor by insisting Egypt was indeed a “major non-NATO ally”.

In an interview with The New York Times on Saturday, Egyptian
President Mohamed Morsi offered to clear up the confusion. Asked whether Egypt was an ally, Morsi smilingly remarked: “It depends on your definition of an ally.” He then helpfully suggested that the two countries were “real friends”.

Growing up with the Brothers
Now, as Morsi probably intended, the thing about “real friends” is that they don’t expect either side to fawn, as a poodle might do by wagging its tail. Thus when he travels to the US to address the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Morsi doesn’t have to meet with Obama. Yet they will remain “real friends” – although they’ve never met.

According to The New York Times, Obama cold-shouldered Morsi’s request for a meeting. Cairo maintains that it is all a scheduling problem and the planning of a visit by Morsi to Washington was work in progress. Meanwhile, Morsi has “quite a busy schedule” in New York and Obama too happens to have a “tight schedule” – this according to Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr.

In fact, Morsi’s only meeting with US officials during this week’s visit to that country may be at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (which, by the way, Obama also is attending).

There is hardly any excuse left now for the American mind to remain confused about the bitter harvest of the Arab Spring on Tahrir Square. The spin doctors who prophesied that Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood would ipso facto pursue the Mubarak track on foreign policies have scurried away.

This is especially so after watching Morsi’s astounding televised interview on Saturday, his first to the Egyptian state TV since his election in June. He spoke at some length on the Iran question, which has somehow come to be the litmus test to estimate where exactly Egypt stands as a regional power.

Morsi affirmed that it is important for Egypt to have a “strong relationship” with Iran. He described Iran as “a major player in the region that could have an active and supportive role in solving the Syrian problem”. Morsi explained his decision to include Iran in the four-member contact group that Egypt has formed – along with Turkey and Saudi Arabia – on the Syrian crisis.

Dismissing the Western opposition to engaging Iran, he said: “I don’t see the presence of Iran in this quartet as a problem, but it is a part of solving the [Syrian] problem.” He said Iran’s close proximity to Syria and Tehran’s strong ties Damascus made it “vital” in resolving the Syrian crisis.

Morsi added: “And we [Egypt] do not have a significant problem with Iran, it [Egypt-Iran relationship] is normal like with the rest of the world’s states.”

Equally, Morsi spoke defiantly in his interview with The New York Times regarding Egypt’s ties with the US and the latter’s relations with the Arab world. The overpowering message is that Cairo will no longer be bullied by Washington. He said:

  • “I grew up with the Muslim Brotherhood. I learned my principles in the Muslim Brotherhood. I learned how to love my country with the Muslim Brotherhood. I learned politics with the Brotherhood. I was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
  • “Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region.”
  • It was up to Washington to repair relations with the Arab world and to revitalize the alliance with Egypt.
  • The United States must respect the Arab world’s history and culture, even when that conflicts with Western values.
  • “If you [US] want to judge the performance of the Egyptian people by the standards of German or Chinese or American culture, then there is no room for judgment. When the Egyptians decide something, probably it is not appropriate for the US. When the Americans decide something, this, of course, is not appropriate for Egypt.”
  • The Arabs and Americans have “a shared objective, each to live free in their own land, according to their customs and values, in a fair and democratic fashion … [in] a harmonious, peaceful co-existence”.
  • Americans “have a special responsibility” for the Palestinians because the United States signed the 1978 Camp David accord. “As long as peace and justice are not fulfilled for the Palestinians, then the treaty remains unfulfilled.”
  • If Washington is asking Egypt to honor its treaty with Israel, Washington should also live up to its own Camp David commitment to Palestinian self-rule. The last bit in particular is ominous. Morsi could be hinting that Egypt intends to seek changes to the 1978 peace treaty. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman hurried to declare on Sunday that there was not the “slightest possibility” that Israel would accept any such changes. “We will not accept any modification of the Camp David Accords,” Lieberman said.

A ‘fast-forward’
The refrain by Western experts used to be that Egypt’s Brothers depended on US and Saudi generosity to run their government in Cairo. More important, Washington spread an impression that it enjoyed a larger-than-life influence over the New Egypt. The US was supposed to have acted as a mediator between the Egyptian military and the Brothers.

But Morsi scattered the thesis. “No, no, it is not that they [military leadership] ‘decided’ to do it [stepping down]. This is the will of the Egyptian people through the elected president, right? The president of the Arab Republic of Egypt is the commander of the armed forces. Full stop … We are behaving according to the Egyptian people’s choice and will, nothing else – is it clear?” he asked the New York Times editors.

The picture that emerges from Morsi’s stunning interview is that the US has suffered a huge setback to its regional strategy in the Middle East. The fact that Obama has shied away from meeting with Morsi this week underscores the gravity of the deep chill in the US-Egyptian ties. And Obama’s snub comes after he took the initiative to invite Morsi to visit the US and insisted it should be an early visit, even sending Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to deliver the invitation letter and thereafter following up with visits by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to Cairo.

Morsi has taken a series of steps since he took over in July, which, in retrospect, had the principal objective of conveying to Washington that he resented the US diktat and intended to follow an independent foreign policy. His decision to visit China and Iran was a calculated one, intended to signal his empathy with countries that challenged US hegemony in the Middle East and to underscore that he hoped to reduce Egypt’s dependence on the United States. But Washington kept pretending that it didn’t take notice.

However, there has been a “fast-forward” in the past 10 days, since the anti-Islam American film, the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi and the storming of the US Embassy in Cairo by Egyptian protesters. Morsi didn’t react to the storming of the embassy for a full 36 hours. Simply put, he could sense the Arab street heaving with fury toward the US and he decided that it would be politically injudicious for him to do anything other than let the popular anger play out.

Morsi’s deafening silence or inertia provoked Obama to call him up to admonish him (according to leaked US accounts), but all that Morsi would do was to send police reinforcements to protect the embassy compound. He never condemned the storming of the embassy as such.

Living with yesterday’s tyrant
Things can never be the same again in the US-Egypt relationship. A 33-year slice of diplomatic history through which Cairo used to be Washington’s dependable ally is breaking loose and drifting to the horizon. Uncharted waters lie ahead for the US diplomacy in the Middle East. Clearly, the axis that is pivotal to the US regional strategy in the Middle East – comprising Israel and the so-called “moderate” Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, etc – cannot hold together without Egypt, and the strategy itself is in peril.

In immediate terms, the fallout is going to be serious in Syria. A Western intervention in Syria now can be virtually ruled out. On the other hand, without an intervention, a regime change will be a long haul. In turn, Turkey is going to be in a fix, having bitten more than it could chew and with the US in no mood to step in to expedite the Arab Spring in Damascus. (Obama called up Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan last week to extend moral support.)

The good thing is that the US and its allies may now be open to the idea of a national dialogue involving the Syrian government. In fact, the most recent Russian statements on Syria hint at an air of nascent expectations. On the contrary, nervousness with a touch of bitterness is already apparent in the comment by the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper on the weekend, while taking stock of the United States’ growing difficulties with Egypt’s Brothers:

Will the US president allow his legacy to bear the headline of having kept Bashar al-Assad in power? It would be a terrible legacy to leave behind, no matter how much it could be justified by such arguments as the wisdom of living with yesterday’s tyrant because today’s tyrant could be worse – and what is meant here is not just the tyrant of unruly mobs, but also the tyrants of Muslim extremism and its relations with moderate Islamism in power.

Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia stayed away from the meeting of the quartet on Syria that Cairo hosted last Monday, without offering any explanation.

Simply put, Riyadh is unable to come to terms with Egypt’s return to the centre stage of Arab politics after a full three decades of absence during which the Saudi regime appropriated for itself Cairo’s traditional role as the throbbing heart of Arabism. Riyadh will find it painful to vacate the role as the leader of the Arab world that it got used to enjoying. Almost every single day, Saudi media connected with the regime pour calumnies on Egypt’s Brothers, even alleging lately that they are the twin brothers of al-Qaeda.

Uncontrollable anger
Again, the elaborate charade that the Saudis stage-managed – propagating the Muslim sectarian discords as the core issue on the Middle East’s political arena – is not sticking anymore, now that the two biggest Sunni and Shi’ite countries in the region – Egypt and Iran – are holding each other’s hands, demonstrating goodwill and displaying willingness to work together to address key regional issues. The worst-case scenario for the Saudi regime will be if in the coming months the Arab Spring begins its fateful journey toward Riyadh and the Arabian Peninsula, where the Brothers have been active for decades, welcomes it as a long-awaited spring.

The heart of the matter is that on a regional plane, the Iranian viewpoint that the Arab Spring is quintessentially “Islamic” stands vindicated. In an interview with the Financial Times last week, the Speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, made the stunning disclosure that Iranian diplomats had met members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria as well as the Salafis (who are being financed by the Saudis) to encourage them to accept “democratic reforms through peaceful behavior, not violence”. This made complete mockery of the Syrian logarithm as per the Saudi (and Turkish and US) estimation – Sunni militancy as the antidote to (Shi’ite) Iran’s influence in the region.

In sum, Morsi’s friendly remarks about Iran point toward a regional strategic realignment on an epic scale subsuming the contrived air of sectarian schisms, which practically no Western (or Turkish) experts could have foreseen. It is a matter of time now before Egypt-Iran relations are fully restored, putting an end to the three-decade-old rupture.

The biggest beneficiary of this paradigm shift in Middle Eastern politics is going to be Iran. Arguably, we are probably already past the point of an Israeli attack on Iran, no matter Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tilting at the windmill. In the prevailing surcharged atmosphere, the Muslim Middle East would explode into uncontrollable violence in the event of an Israeli (or US) attack on Iran.

In the event of such an attack, Egypt’s Brothers would most probably annul the peace treaty with Israel – and Jordan would be compelled to follow suit; Egypt and Jordan might sever diplomatic ties with Israel. Baghdad is seething with fury that the US and Turkey are encouraging Kurdistan to secede; Lebanon’s Hezbollah has been threatening retribution if Iran is attacked.

Even more serious than all this put together would be the domino effect of region-wide mayhem on the Arab street on the fate of the oligarchies in the Persian Gulf, which lack legitimacy and are allied with the US – and where the Brothers have been clandestinely operating for decades.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.