Category Archives: US Middle East Politics

Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game

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Author: Musa al-Gharbi – Middle East Policy
Volume 20, Issue 1, pages 56–67, Spring 2013

The popular discourse on the Syrian conflict has largely taken for granted that Bashar al-Assad and his regime are unpopular in Syria, the revolution is widely supported domestically, the rebels are “winning” the war, and the fall of the regime is inevitable and imminent. To justify their interpretation of the conflict, opposition activists, Western policy makers and media outlets make frequent reference to a number of “facts,” often statistical in nature. However, should we contextualize this data more rigorously, it becomes apparent that a radically different dynamic may be at work “on the ground” in Syria. This becomes important, as a more nuanced understanding of what is happening will have implications for what strategy the United States should pursue, particularly given our experience in Iraq.
60,000 Syrians Killed

One of the primary reasons offered for supporting regime change in Syria is the Assad regime’s supposed “indiscriminate butchering” of its “own people.” On January 2, 2012, the United Nations released its first comprehensive study,1 estimating that more than 60,000 lives have been lost in the Syrian conflict since March 2011.2 The obvious problem with this statistic is that, independently (as it is usually presented), it provides no differentiation of who has been killed in the conflict (How many are civilians, how many combatants, from which sect/ethnicity?) nor who killed them (Did they die at the hands of the regime, the rebels, or is it unclear?) nor how they died (Were their deaths accidental? Were they combatants? Were they victims of a massacre or other war crime?).

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Author Information

Musa al-Gharbi: Outreach scholar with the University of Arizona’s  Center for Mideast Studies, and a research fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Mideast Conflict (SISMEC). He is a former FLAS Fellow and graduate teaching assistant in the Philosophy Department at the University of Arizona.

The Free Syrian Army doesn’t exist

Aron Lund for
March 16th, 2013-

Is the FSA losing influence in Syria? How many people are in the FSA? Is the FSA receiving enough guns from the West, or too many? Will the FSA participate in elections after the fall of Bahar el-Assad? What is the ideology of the FSA? What’s the FSA’s view of Israel? Is Jabhat el-Nosra now bigger than the FSA? What does the FSA think about the Kurds? Who is the leader of the FSA? How much control does the central command of the FSA really have over their fighters?

All these and similar questions keep popping up in news articles and op-ed chinstrokers in the Western media, and in much of the Arabic media too.

They all deal with important issues, but they disregard an important fact: the FSA doesn’t really exist.
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Syria’s expensive fight for freedom

The common man is paying the price for a brutal regime, pathetic opposition and an international society that cares only about its own national interests

  • By Marwan Kabalan | Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 March 7, 2013

As the Syrian revolution is about to enter its third year, a political solution to the crisis remains as remote as ever. The regime has so far locked itself in a state of denial as it continues to claim that it is fighting a global conspiracy aiming at destroying ‘the axis of resistance’. This conspiracy is executed by transnational terrorist organisations, most notably Al Qaida. Whether this argument makes sense or not, it lets the Syrian regime justify the use of deadly force, including medium range Scud missiles, against its own people.

The opposition, on the other hand, remains as politically naive as it ever; believing that its regional and international allies have a real interest in the success of the Syrian revolution. The opposition is yet to accept the fact that the West is interested only in protecting its most basic interests rather than establishing democracy or stopping the shedding of Syrian blood. It will also have to cease calling upon President Bashar Al Assad to step down and look for other ways to force him to do so.

In fact, the positions of the regime, the opposition, and the regional and international actors with interest in Syria have not changed much since the early days of the revolution. The reason for that might simply lie in the fact that nobody was really prepared to deal with a problem of such magnitude and fraught with complications because nobody had expected the Syrian people to ever revolt against Al Assad’s regime in the first place. The failure to spot signs of a brewing storm led to disastrous consequences.

The regime in Damascus thought that it was immune to revolution. Merely six weeks before the uprising, Al Assad told the Wall Street Journal that his country is very unlikely to go through the turmoil that hit Tunisia and Egypt because the foreign policy of his country had tremendous support among Syrians.


“If you want to talk about Tunisia and Egypt, we are outside of this … We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries, but inspite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance. So people do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas,” Al Assad said.

Indeed, this line of argument helped explain the protest movement in terms of foreign conspiracy, but that proved to be another fatal mistake. Instead of bowing to popular pressure for reform, Al Assad decided to punish those who dared revolt against his political and economic policies.

By using deadly force to suppress the uprising from the very beginning, Al Assad was wittingly turning peaceful demonstrators into armed militias, fighting not only to bring his regime down but also to protect their lives, honour and properties. Furthermore, by getting his own sect — the Alawites — to commit heinous crimes against their Sunni brethren, he prepared the ground for a full-fledged civil war and drew in jihadists from all over the world to take part in a conflict that is increasingly turning sectarian.

Grand sectarian war

Given the inhomogeneous societies of the Levant, Al Assad’s intention might be to get the region involved in a grand sectarian war. To survive, he may even decide to play his final card — starting a regional war. On several occasions, he threatened to set the whole region on fire should his regime collapse. His arsenal of Scud missiles with approximately 700 warheads can hit deep inside Turkey. His arsenal of chemical weapons is also frightening and, should he approach the end of his political life, he might choose to use it. This is what many dub as the Samson Option — the choice in the absence of choices.

This was Al Assad’s strategy and intention as he faced the much unexpected revolution. So what was the opposition’s? The opposition’s response to the revolution was pathetic, to say the least. Having been absolutely illiterate about the regional and international context, it called for foreign military intervention that would never come.

The opposition also estimated that the regime would collapse in a matter of weeks or months under pressure from peaceful demonstrators. It underestimated the regime’s determination to fight and misjudged the US and the Russian positions. The inability of the opposition to provide reliable leadership for the revolution is also prolonging the life of the regime and presenting those who are looking for excuses for not supporting the revolution with what they need.

All in all, Syria is paying today the price for a brutal regime, pathetic opposition and an international society that cares only about its own national interests.

Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.

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.

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).

How Syria is Being Ripped Apart by Foreign Meddling and Sectarian War

One can no longer say that Syria is a moderate, pragmatic, stabilizing and secular regional centre keeping extremism at bay.
December 20, 2012  |

Everything about Syria is steeped in miasma: is this conflict politically and sociologically definable as a civil war? Has it become a sectarian war? How strong and widespread is the Salafist (and global Jihadi) presence? Was militarization wise or did the opposition have no choice in this regard? Are the armed groups able to defeat the regime’s forces or will there be a perpetual, bloody stalemate whose only certainty is Syria’s complete physical destruction and long-term division? Is a negotiated outcome, that is, a political solution the only possibility, or is it uninformed to speak of political solutions at this stage of the conflict?

Despite this fog, there are, in my mind, several certainties. One, Syria is not a clear-cut case of bad regime versus good society, for that society is not at one regarding the violent overthrow of the state. This is not a mass, democratic revolution but a Sunni rebellion. Any spontaneity to its genesis, including the goal of non-violent resistance, came to a speedy end, provided with a significant impetus by the flow of foreign arms, money, and intelligence, including from the US. A substantial ‘silent’ majority desperately wishes to avoid Syria’s disintegration because they simply love their country, not the regime or armed rebels, and prefer reform and a negotiated settlement.

Two, it is false to equate, as the regime portrays it, every Syrian’s opposition to the Ba’athi state with acting on behalf of Zionists and imperialists, and equally false to suggest that advocating a negotiated settlement equates to buying into the regime’s self-narrative of an indispensable anti-imperialist frontline.

Three, foreign powers, especially Washington, several of its NATO allies, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, the latter essentially monarchic police states, are violating international law in pursuing subversion and violent regime change, and share primary responsibility for the radicalization, destabilization, and horrific violence inflicted on the people of Syria. Washington is interested in regime change, not in ensuring that neither side prevails to force a settlement.

Four, the fundamental truth is the Syrian people’s case for dignity and freedom, rights brutally denied and violated for so long by fearsome regimes such as the Syrian Ba’ath. The revolt against the Ba’athist regime, despite its now tainted nature, is not a conspiracy.

Five, despite Syria’s social diversity and divided loyalties, the fact that the regime has many supporters, and that a majority desires peaceful change, calls for the Syrian socio-political system to become no less than a civil, human rights-respecting, citizenship-based state. Still, Syria’s internal complexity and regional role requires special care and objective realism. Take Aleppo as a microcosm of Syrian complexity, the largest Syrian city containing some 82% Sunnis. Listening to the western, Qatari, or Saudi media, one would think that the city erupted into spontaneous rebellion and from the beginning was fighting a heroic war against the regime’s military and security forces. By objective accounts, however, Aleppo’s denizens supported the Damascus government by a large majority, many of them paying the price of Free Syrian Army reprisals. Now, since the penetration of armed groups and the violent zealotry of Salafists and foreign Jihadis, with their suicide bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings, looting and rape, as well as heavy, indiscriminate government firepower leading to the slow obliteration of this great historic and commercial city – one wonders what has happened to its people and their loyalties.

We only know that government forces and loyalists still hold the city, minus a couple of districts, as they do most of the country. Countless people have fled, many of their empty homes looted and ransacked by their would-be liberators, fearful of returning to rebel reprisals. Aleppo’s Islamist leaning al-Tawhid Division, ostensibly part of the FSA, contains numerous-armed factions, including many Salafi Islamists, who, themselves, are varied, ranging from Brotherhood types to al-Qaida-like extremists. There is also quite noticeable and significant Salafi literalist influence among the armed rebels generally. The disparate factions that make up the FSA are largely Islamist-dominated. Its battalions contain thousands of fighters of the Salafi/Jihadi group, Jabhat al-Nusra, a mainstay of the al-Tawhid in Aleppo.

In a situation of decentralized and disparate commands, such people are there at the front lines. All these groups, including the FSA, have an uneasy, distrustful relationship with the newly minted National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, as they previously did with the now discarded Syrian National Council, and as they have with the western powers. Fortunately, Syria does not have a tradition of extremist political Islam. On the contrary, given its pluralist diversity, its geostrategic location, and secular nationalist history, Jihadi-type extremism does not fit in Syria.

The chaos and physical destruction, the ever-present danger of the regime-Sunni war transmuting into a sectarian civil war are deeply worrying, and the Salafists thrive on such an environment. No question, though, in its militarist, violent manifestations, this is essentially a rebellion of the Sunni Muslims, at core from the regions of Hama and Homs, and battle-tested foreigners, including Salafis, supported by the Sunni autocracies and wealthy donors of the peninsula. It is unlikely that a literalist Salafist regime will come to power, much less global Jihadis, but likely that a Sunni-Brotherhood dominated regime, sidelining the National Coalition, will.

The defunct National Council’s main obsession was arming without a clear political programme. The new National Coalition has got itself political recognition as a sort of provisional government—even as Syria remains a member state of the UN led by the al-Assad government—from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, Britain, and Turkey, followed by the US, which, however, consigned one rebel group, the Jabha, to its terrorist blacklist. (This prompted all the rest of the armed rebel groups to declare their support for the Jabha.)

Western support is predicated on the promise that the Coalition will unify the opposition, at least act as an umbrella, and be a better watchdog that presumes to undertake the impossible, even inane, task of vouching for and endorsing those groups deserving of armed support, which Washington reckons amounts to two-thirds of the fighting groups and their commanders. These parties essentially cajoled through the expansion of the new Coalition’s membership to three times the previous Council’s size and which includes most of the old Council’s members. The new body’s composition is a safeguard to dilute Islamist influence.

Washington in particular rejected the Brotherhood-dominated Council because it could not deliver unity, or control or exclude extremist Islamists, even though Council members did what the US wanted most of all: they talked about peace and good relations with Israel.

Whether the US is willing to advocate a negotiated solution is in my view not an open question. Its apparent caution in providing advanced, or heavy, weaponry, unlike the reckless monarchic allies it shakily controls, is due to its fear of uncontrolled, unmanaged violence leading to an incompliant, even hostile, Islamist regime. The Obama administration’s ambivalence stems from the tension between aggressive regional allies and its recognition of several realities: the proliferation of extremist groups, the possibility of a bloody stalemate that will destabilize the region, and the potential that an armed group will get its hands on chemical weapons.

Thus, Washington’s most urgent and immediate goal, when not obstructing UN peace and dialogue missions, is to pressure the Coalition to construct a centralized military command and political unity and ferret out the extremists, supposedly one-third of the armed rebels. Its version of a negotiated solution is not genuine internal talks between Damascus and the rebels, but Assad’s departure, which Washington defines as a ‘transition’, but which is actually a precondition.

This, the US imagines, would avoid the concomitant augmentation of Salafi extremist power caused by protracted violence and keep international law and Russia out of the equation, ensuring an obeisant Coalition’s rule. Washington’s conception of ending Syrian suffering is not via morally, legally, diplomatically urgent negotiations between rebels and government. Instead, it repeatedly stresses Assad’s inevitably violent downfall, as only he is responsible for his people’s calamity, thereby absolving it and its allies of complicity in Syria’s torment and prolongation of this horrific upheaval.

Yet the foreign arming of the rebels – that is, the militarization of this conflict – has been Syria’s worst affliction. For Syria does not need lethal arms and war, but a coherent, truly representative opposition built without interference, and ready to find a negotiated political solution to violent conflict. This requires internal Syrian national agreement on a transitional regime change through supervised elections. This at least is the ideal, though not the reality; for everyone, from assorted rebels, hell bent on acquiring advanced weaponry to Coalition members to Washington to local Gulf regimes, wants Assad’s head. The Alawite core of the regime not surprisingly sees this as an existential threat.

What prevails in Syria today is maddening ambiguity and galling hypocrisy on all sides: of the relationship between the Coalition and armed rebels, the craziness of inter-Arab politics, Gulf and Turkish hatred of the Shi’i Alawite Syrian regime—which I call the Sunni Syndrome—nation-destroying French and British actions characterized as advocacy of democracy, and single-minded US control of Syria couched as constructive, responsible diplomacy.

With multiple external players violently pursuing their own agendas supporting multiple factions with their own visions, such as these are, the chance of Syrians reaching a negotiated political solution, much less a compromise leading to such, is virtually nil. In reality, the Ba’ath, the Syrian regime, al-Assad, the socio-political system that prevailed in Syria for nearly a half century all have ended, or at least will not be restored. This in itself is extraordinary. Ultimately, the horrific violence and terrorism from both the state and its opponents is the responsibility of the regime, for it chose to let the country go to hell, and unwittingly invited outside intervention, rather than peacefully oversee a democratic transition in the early phase of the rebellion.

This is an enduring quality of Arab ruling regimes, mostly because they lack fundamental legitimacy and rule over divided societies. One can no longer say Syria is what it used to be, a moderate, pragmatic, stabilizing and secular regional centre keeping extremism at bay. This political role is a natural function of its geography and relatively diverse ethno-sectarian make-up, as well as the political sophistication of its people. Under radically changing circumstances, most importantly, a weakened and fractured Syria, it may not be able to play that role again for decades to come. The west and their autocratic Middle Eastern allies are destroying one ruling group in exchange for another dominated by Brotherhood Islamists. And those Salafists/Jihadists on the front lines will not only want a share of power, but some of them may continue post-Assad violence and insurgency, to the continuing danger of many Syrians.

Issa Khalaf, a Palestinian-American, has a D. Phil. in Politics and Middle East Studies from Oxford University

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.

The Destruction of Syria

By Patrick Seale | September 2012|
Once one of the most solid states in the Middle East and a key pivot of the regional power structure, Syria is now facing wholesale destruction. The consequences of the unfolding drama are likely to be disastrous for Syria’s territorial integrity, for the well-being of its population, for regional peace, and for the interests of external powers deeply involved in the crisis.

The most immediate danger is that the fighting in Syria, together with the current severe pressure being put on Syria’s Iranian ally, will provide the spark for a wider conflagration from which no one will be immune.

How did it come to this? Every actor in the crisis bears a share of responsibility. Syria is the victim of the fears and appetites of its enemies, but also of its own leaders’ mistakes.

With hindsight, it can be seen that President Bashar al-Assad missed the chance to reform the tight security state he inherited in 2000 from his father. Instead of recognizing—and urgently addressing—the thirst for political freedoms, personal dignity and economic opportunity which were the message of the “Damascus Spring” of his first year in power, he screwed the lid down ever more tightly.

Suffocating controls over every aspect of Syrian society were reinforced, and made harder to bear by the blatant corruption and privileges of the few and the hardships suffered by the many. Physical repression became routine. Instead of cleaning up his security apparatus, curbing police brutality and improving prison conditions, he allowed them to remain as gruesome and deplorable as ever.

Above all, over the past decade Bashar al-Assad and his close advisers failed to grasp the revolutionary potential of two key developments—Syria’s population explosion and the long-term drought which the country suffered from 2006 to 2010, the worst in several hundred years. The first produced an army of semi-educated young people unable to find jobs; the second resulted in the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of farmers from their parched fields to slums around the major cities. Herders in the northeast lost 85 percent of their livestock. It is estimated that by 2011, some two to three million Syrians had been driven into extreme poverty. No doubt climate change was responsible, but government neglect and incompetence contributed to the disaster.

These two factors—youth unemployment and rural disaffection—were the prime motors of the uprising which spread like wildfire, once it was triggered by a brutal incident at Dar’a in March 2011. The foot soldiers of the uprising are unemployed urban youth and impoverished peasants.

Could the regime have done something about it? Yes, it could. As early as 2006-7, it could have alerted the world to the situation, devoted all available resources to urgent job creation, launched a massive relief program for its stricken population and mobilized its citizens for these tasks. No doubt major international aid agencies and rich Gulf countries would have helped had the plans been in place.

Instead, the regime’s gaze was distracted by external threats: by the Lebanese crisis of 2005 following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri; by Israel’s bid to destroy Hezbollah by its invasion of Lebanon in 2006; by its attack on Syria’s nuclear facility in 2007; and by its bid to destroy Hamas in its murderous assault on Gaza in 2008-9.

From the start of Bashar al-Assad’s presidency, Syria has faced relentless efforts by Israel and its complicit American ally to bring down the so-called “resistance axis” of Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah, which dared challenge the regional dominance of Israel and the United States.

Syria had a narrow escape in 2003-4. Led by the Pentagon’s Paul Wolfowitz, the pro-Israeli neocons embedded in President George W. Bush’s administration were determined to reshape the region in Israel’s and America’s interest. Their first target was Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, seen as a potential threat to Israel. Had the United States been successful in Iraq, Syria would have been next. Neither Iraq nor the United States has yet recovered from the catastrophic Iraqi war, of which Wolfowitz was the chief “architect.”

Syria and its Iranian ally are once again under imminent threat. The United States and Israel make no secret of their goal to bring down both the Damascus and Tehran regimes. No doubt some Israeli strategists believe that it would be greatly to their country’s advantage if Syria were dismembered and permanently weakened by the creation of a small Alawi state around the port city of Latakia in the northwest, in much the same way as Iraq was dismembered and permanently weakened by the creation of the Kurdish Regional Government in the north of the country, with its capital at Irbil. It is not easy to be the neighbor of an expansionist and aggressive Jewish state, which believes that its security is best assured, not by making peace with its neighbors, but by subverting, destabilizing and destroying them with the aid of American power.

The United States and Israel are not Syria’s only enemies. The Syrian Muslim Brothers have been dreaming of revenge ever since their attempt 30 years ago to topple Syria’s secular Ba’athist regime by a campaign of terror was crushed by Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s president at the time. Today, the Muslim Brothers are repeating the mistake they made then by resorting to terror with the aid of foreign Salafists, including some al-Qaeda fighters flowing into Syria from Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and other countries further afield. The liberal members of the Syrian opposition in exile, including several worthy academics and veteran opponents, are providing political cover for these more violent elements.

Some Arab Gulf States persist in viewing the region through a sectarian prism. They are worried by Iran’s alleged hegemonic ambitions. They are unhappy that Iraq—once a Sunni power able to hold Iran in check—is now under Shi’i leadership. Talk of an emerging “Shi’i Crescent” appears to threaten Sunni dominance. For these reasons they are funding and arming the Syrian rebels in the hope that bringing down the Syrian regime will sever Iran’s ties with the Arab world. But this policy will simply prolong Syria’s agony, claim the lives of some of its finest men and cause massive material damage.

America, the dominant external power, has made many grievous policy blunders. Over the past several decades it failed to persuade its stubborn Israeli ally to make peace with the Palestinians, leading to peace with the whole Arab world. It embarked on catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It failed to reach a “grand bargain” with Iran which would have dispelled the specter of war in the Gulf and stabilized the volatile region. And it is now quarrelling with Moscow and reviving the Cold War by sabotaging Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria.

There can be no military solution to the Syrian crisis. The only way out of the current nightmare is a cease-fire imposed on both sides, followed by a negotiation and the formation of a national government to oversee a transition. Only thus can Syria avoid wholesale destruction, which could take a generation or two to repair.

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). Copyright © 2012 Patrick Seale. Distributed by Agence Global.

Why political endeavors to solve Syria’s crisis always fail?

DAMASCUS, Sept. 2 (Xinhua) — Syrian analysts and experts have been divided over finding a main reason behind the continuous faltering of the numerous international and regional endeavors that originally aimed to find peaceful solutions to Syria’s prolonged and intractable crisis.

As some blame the administration of not abiding by its international pledges, others hurl accusations at the fractured opposition for not keeping its end of the bargain, while still some others blame the lack of international consensus of being the major reason.

Several initiatives have been put forward — the foremost of which is the one by the outgoing UN-Arab League joint special envoy Kofi Annan, which has called for a cessation of violence by all parties in a bid to pave the way for a political dialogue to settle the simmering tension.

At the beginning, all parties said they will comply with the plan, which has taken hold for hours before the clashes and the urban fighting kicked off once again. But both sides later assigned blame on one another for the failure of the cease-fire.

Annan’s initiative has been preceded with several Arab proposals in addition to regional and international ones. However, none of them succeeded in curbing the violence or bridging the widening crack between Damascus and the rebels.

Yahya Salaiman, a political researcher, expressed his pessimism toward all the various proposals, pointing out that “all endeavors carried their seeds of failure within them.”

Speaking to Xinhua, Salaiman attributed his disappointment to the “content of each endeavor, because they either lack a clear working mechanism for their implementation or they are disconnected from the fever of the Syrian reality and all its contradictions, or the bias of the countries that are sponsoring those initiatives to a certain party in the conflict.”

He said the partiality of the sponsoring countries lead to the infanticide of the initiatives.

For his side, Ammar Rifai, vice-chairman of the oppositional al- Ansar party, said the proposed initiatives are “theoretically ambitious,” but noted that “it’s practically inapplicable.” He held the Syrian government responsible for the failure of most of the initiatives and accused it of non-complying by the items of the plans that it officially agrees on.

However, Sharif Shahadeh, a Syrian parliamentarian, disagreed with Rifai and contended that the Syrian government has abided and committed to all its pledges, holding the Syrian opposition the responsibility for the whole fiasco, as “it doesn’t accept to lay down the weapons and keeps on applying foreign agendas needless to say that is already scattered and fragmented.”

Shahadeh told Xinhua that “every initiative holds its own mines that blast it fast.”

He gave the latest Egyptian initiative as an example, saying it has been buried alive after Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi gave his blistering speech on Syria at the Non-Aligned Movement summit held recently in Tehran, in which he branded Damascus as ” oppressive” and urged the world countries to side with the Syrian opposition.

Morsi has recently proposed that Iran take part in a four- nation contact group including Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia that would mediate in the Syrian crisis.

Meanwhile, Shahadeh said that all the previous plans have not been that different than the Egyptian one “because all of the countries that have sponsored them are actual parties of the conflict and hold grudges toward the Syrian resistive and patriotic regime.”

Even though all endeavors have been rendered useless, the international community seems to keep pressing with the political approach despite some voices that have called for imposing buffer zones in Syria.

The latest move by the United Nations to keep with the diplomatic efforts is the appointment of veteran troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi as a new special envoy to Syria, replacing Annan who resigned last month after the failure of his mediation.

Brahimi on Saturday officially became in charge of picking up where his predecessor Annan left off in mediating the intractable Syrian crisis.

The Algerian figure discussed with Chinese officials Saturday the prospect of the Syrian crisis. He, who will pay visits to several regional and international capitals to garner support for his efforts, is also expected to set foot in Syria by the end of the current week, according to sources who told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.

Hasan Abdul-Azim, a prominent opposition leader, told Xinhua in a recent interview that the solution to the 18-months-old crisis in Syria does not rest in efforts of the UN and Arab League envoy but the achievement of a workable consensus among regional and international powers.

Also, Luai Hussain, head of the opposition current “Building Syrian State,” agreed with Abdul-Azim that any true and workable solution requires a wide-scale international effort and a consensus between the superpowers and regional ones as well.

He said the Syrian crisis is more complicated and intractable that makes the sole act of a certain organization insufficient to unravel it.

Experts believe that had the international community was sincere about solving the Syrian crisis without being biased to certain parties, the Syrian bloody crisis would have already been solved.