Syria: The impossible art of predicting the future
(By Magdi Abdelhadi, BBC News, July 23, 2012)
It was never only opposition by the Russians and the Chinese that stood in the way of effective international intervention in the Syrian conflict.
Fear of what might happen when and if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is toppled has always played a crucial role in making the prospect of wading into the unfolding conflict unpalatable and even frightening.
The worst-case scenario is that the regime, feeling cornered, might be forced to press the "Samson" button - to collapse the temple on its enemies as it goes down with them.
This could mean maximising the cost of Syria's downfall for all her adversaries, at home and abroad. In a final act of callous vindictiveness, the regime would destroy as many as possible as it perishes.
The effects of such a downfall, like nuclear radiation, might live on for years to come with tens of thousands dead and displaced and many wounds to heal. There could also be internal and regional instability with the possible shake-up of precarious political and social structures across the entire region.
There are historical and more recent reasons why Syria's fate has been so intricately intertwined with that of its neighbours.
Syria is the heart of what was once known as the Levant during Ottoman (Turkish) rule of the Middle East - a vast region which encompassed Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
The entire area has been a patchwork of sectarian and ethnic enclaves that has seen bouts of religiously motivated violence many times before.
The nation state is also still a relatively recent invention in this part of the world. Cross-border loyalties to the sect and the tribe trounce fear of the state.
The spillover into Lebanon, for example, is no longer a theoretical possibility.
More than 20 people were killed in violent clashes earlier this year between the Alawite minority - the same sect as President Assad in Syria - and the Sunni majority in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
Indeed, no other country in the region is likely to feel the impact of the events in Syria more than Lebanon.
The war in Syria has aggravated an already polarised Lebanon between supporters of the Syrian rebels and friends of the Assad regime.
Among the regime's supporters are the Shia Hezbollah group and its powerful militia, whose emergence and survival has, for many decades, depended on vital ties with Damascus and its allies further afield in Iran.
The demise of the Assad regime in Syria does not bode well for either of them, and no-one can predict, with any degree of certainty, how they will respond.
Optimists believe that Hezbollah will not plunge the country into civil war and will resign to reconfiguring itself as a domestic player defending Shia interests inside Lebanon instead of trying to flex its regional muscles.
Traditional sectarian and ethnic loyalties aside, no other political order in the region has tied its fate and future to a network of non-state actors like the Assad regime. These include the fundamentalist Shia Hezbollah group in Lebanon, Palestinian militants in Gaza and the West Bank, Turkish Kurdish separatists and Sunni jihadists in Iraq.
For decades, it has relied on such allies to wage proxy wars in the geopolitical struggle for survival and supremacy.
Iraq is another case in point. Some analysts have noted a possible link between events in Syria and the sudden spike in violence in Iraq.
Although it is possible that Sunni militants in Iraq may have simply felt encouraged to challenge the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Damascus is, once again, pulling some strings.
It would not be without precedent.
At the height of the Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq six years ago, Syria was home to leaders of the Iraqi insurgency and allowed its territory to be used to co-ordinate attacks on the US soldiers stationed in Iraq.
The aim back then was to frustrate the emergence of a political order hostile to Damascus or its allies in Tehran.
Exporting chaos to its neighbours to save its own skin is a well-rehearsed tactic used many times before by the Assads.
It has already been noted that Syria is rapidly developing into a battlefield in the struggle for regional hegemony between Shia Iran and powerful Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, who provide the rebels with cash and weapons.
However, one should not overplay the strictly sectarian dimension in a region known for its mercurial alliances that have sometimes criss-crossed religious lines.
Lebanon and Syria themselves are the best example of that, where Shias and Christians have at times found themselves on the same side of the barricade as secular Sunni nationalists, against Sunni fundamentalists.
The number of actors and shifting alliances will make predictions a difficult art.
Equally worrying for Syria's neighbours, and the world at large, is what may happen with its stockpiles of chemical weapons.
In an attempt to assuage fears, the Syrian government has said it will only deploy them when under attack from "external aggression".
But, given that Damascus has already designated the insurgents as agents of foreign powers and Arab mercenaries, many will wonder whether this was meant as an assurance or as a thinly veiled threat.
Gene Sharp, Nonviolent Warrior
(Sasha Abramsky | The Nation | March 16, 2011)
Gene Sharp has labored in obscurity for much of his life. In the past few weeks, however, he has been propelled into the media spotlight—hailed in news reports as the world’s top theorist of nonviolent strategy and cited as an inspiration by leaders of the campaign that brought the Mubarak regime down. He has been called a “nonviolent Clausewitz,” in reference to the grand military strategist of the early nineteenth century. And in some ways he could also be seen as a nonviolent equivalent of Leon Trotsky—another brilliant strategist, with a penchant for pithy aphorisms, whose ideas (albeit framed in dramatically different ways) offered up the possibility of rolling, and transformational, global revolutions.
Sharp admits that bold claims about his impact on events in the Middle East make him slightly uneasy; he doesn’t think he can substantiate them. It is true, though, that his early works—including, most notably, his three-volume treatise The Politics of Nonviolent Action—established his reputation as a leader in the small field of nonviolence studies. And in recent years, From Dictatorship to Democracy, an enormously influential handbook published in 1993 that synthesized and condensed his major findings, has been translated into more than thirty languages. For nonviolent protest organizers, the book has become something akin to Saul Alinsky's famed Rules for Radicals.
Sharp is also the founder and head of the Albert Einstein Institution, a bare-bones, privately funded operation that has been spreading the word about nonviolence for nearly three decades. The organization argues that it reacts to events rather than pushing people in specific countries to embark on specific actions. But despite the modesty of the institution and the man at its helm, there’s no doubt that Sharp’s ideas have greatly influenced opposition groups from Burma to the Balkans and, most recently, the Middle East.
Robert Helvey, who met Sharp while completing an Army fellowship at Harvard and who subsequently joined the Albert Einstein Institution’s board, describes his friend as “obsessed with the need to share his insights into power to stop or reduce the killing of people, especially civilians, in war.”
The force of Sharp’s emancipatory thinking was on full view in Egypt last month, as a population long thought to be too passive to throw off the yoke of tyranny finally found its voice. “I was surprised by the Tunisian and Egyptian developments,” Sharp says. “It was never thought that Arabs could do this, that Muslims could do this. Now the Muslims are doing it. In some cases it’s not very disciplined, but in other cases it’s very disciplined. In Egypt, it’s unbelievable. The stereotypes are all gone.”
From now on, he adds, no American president can claim that US intervention is necessary to free an oppressed Muslim population from dictatorship. “These people are capable of freeing themselves,” he says. “No outside messiah was needed. It’s a great realization.”
Despite the fever for democracy that seems to be spreading across the region, though, Sharp does not assume that Egypt’s neighbors will necessarily enjoy the same success. “Egypt is bound to inspire people,” he explains, “but inspiration alone doesn’t do much.” Nor does Sharp put much stock in historical determinism. “I don’t think it’s inevitable, or that there’s a force sweeping the world that’s sort of mystical. I don’t think on those terms,” he says.
Nonviolent uprisings are, at their essence, political campaigns. According to the complex analysis of power that Sharp has painstakingly developed over the years, the success or failure of any peaceful revolt largely depends on the campaign’s ability to weaken the allegiance of civil servants, police and soldiers to the regime; to persuade fence-sitters to join the opposition; and to prevent tyrannical and violent responses to civilian protest from being implemented—or, if implemented, from undermining the nonviolent movement's strategic game plan. “As that know-how becomes available,” he explains, “it’s more likely that people will use it skillfully and not just in terms of inspiration and a surprise victory here and there. And that will contribute to profound change—not because of a sense of inevitability but because people have made new possibilities possible.”
Of course, one could argue that the limits to such thinking are on display in Libya, where the ruthless (some would say maniacal) dictator Col. Muammar Qaddafi has shown no compunction in unleashing maximum force against his opponents. In such a situation, say critics—and even some of Sharp’s friends—strict adherence to nonviolence demands that the protesters pay too steep a price. Imagine, for example, calling on Jews to remain nonviolent during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. There might be, says Sir Adam Roberts, president of the British Academy and a longtime friend of Sharp’s, limited instances in which violence is both legitimate and required to stop fast-evolving atrocities.
Sharp disagrees. Although he doesn't claim to be a pure pacifist, he's also unwilling to delineate specific situations in which violent resistance might be appropriate. “The power relationships exist only when completed by the subordinates’ obedience to the ruler’s commands and compliance with his wishes,” he opined in volume one of The Politics of Nonviolent Action. “Even where subjects wish to alter the established order, they may remain submissive because they lack confidence in bringing about the desired changes. As long as people lack self-confidence they are unlikely to do anything other than obey, cooperate with, and submit to their rulers.”
According to this logic, the ineffectiveness of nonviolent protest in Libya right now does not stem from Qaddafi’s aggressive use of force but from the rebels’ inability to plan ahead and to identify and exploit the regime’s vulnerabilities. Events in Libya simply unfolded too fast for a sophisticated nonviolent strategy to take root. The key, he says, is “to maximize the areas where nonviolent struggle can be powerful and effective” and “to narrow the area in which violence appears to be the only effective option.”
All regimes have fundamental weaknesses, Sharp explains. Nonviolent struggle “concentrates on weakening them further and cutting off their sources of power” until the regime dissolves. “That’s the ultimate goal. But it won’t happen easily, or quickly, or always.”
Belarus admits air invasion by teddy bears
(By Douglas Stanglin, USA TODAY, July 27, 2012)
After weeks of denial, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko admitted that a small Swedish plane entered his country's airspace July 4, dropping hundreds of teddy bears on tiny black parachutes, the Belta news agency reports.
The teddy bears carried signs reading, "Belarus freedom" and "We support the Belarus struggle for free speech."
The toy bears drifted down over the town of Ivyanets, outside of Minsik, The Local, a Swedish news agency reports.
The stunt was mounted pro bono by a Swedish ad agency on behalf of the pro-democracy group Charter 97.
The plane was flown from neighboring Lithuania, The Local says.
What is to be done [when faced with dictatorship]? The obvious possibilities seem useless. Constitutional and legal barriers, judicial decisions,
and public opinion are normally ignored by dictators. Understandably, reacting to the brutalities, torture, disappearances, and killings, people often have concluded that only violence can end a dictatorship. Angry victims have sometimes organized to fight the brutal dictators with whatever violent and military capacity they could muster, despite the odds being against them. These people have often fought bravely, at great cost in suffering and lives. Their accomplishments have sometimes been remarkable, but they rarely have won freedom. Violent rebellions can trigger brutal repression that frequently leaves the populace more helpless than before.
Whatever the merits of the violent option, however, one point is clear. By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority. The dictators are equipped to apply violence overwhelmingly. However long or briefly these democrats can continue, eventually the harsh military realities usually become inescapable. The dictators almost always have superiority in military hardware, ammunition, transportation, and the size of military forces. Despite bravery, the democrats are (almost always) no match.
-- Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy
Egypt’s president alarms pro-democracy alliance
(By The Associated Press, July 28, 2012)
CAIRO — An alliance of pro-democracy advocates on Saturday criticized Egypt’s new Islamist president for unilaterally choosing a prime minister with no track record, while leading without transparency and alienating political groups with liberal leanings.
The National Front alliance — an umbrella group of secularists and moderate Islamists behind the uprising that drove Hosni Mubarak from power last year — said Mohamed Morsy has reneged on campaign promises to form a national unity government.
On Tuesday, Morsy surprised the country by choosing an unknown technocrat and former water minister, Hesham Kandil, as his prime minister. Many advocates see Kandil, a U.S.-educated engineer in his 40s, as a political lightweight.
Morsy’s government is confronting lawlessness, a flagging economy, and public frustration. Hospitals have come under attack by angry Egyptians, while demonstrators block roads in frustration over frequent power outages and a lack of running water. Labor strikes are widespread.
In a news conference, the Front said Morsy’s decision-making “lacks transparency and clarity,” creating “a clouded political scene.” They reminded the president of his debt to allies who supported him last month in the decisive round of voting, helping him beat old-guard rival Ahmed Shafiq.
In return for the support, Morsy, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, had pledged inclusiveness. In a meeting with the Front last month, he said he would choose an independent, nationalist politician to be Egypt’s prime minister.
“It was surprising that the person named ... didn’t meet the criteria and this is the first indicator of the path we are taking,” said Heba Raouf, a moderate Islamist political science professor.
Syrian Activists Report Continued Fighting
(Voice of America, July 31, 2012)
Syrian opposition activists have reported widespread clashes, including continued fighting in the country's largest city, Aleppo.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says government forces were shelling several neighborhoods in Aleppo, and soldiers were clashing with rebels in the city.
The Observatory, whose reports from witnesses inside the country cannot be confirmed because of restrictions on foreign media, said President Bashar al-Assad's forces were also shelling parts of Deraa province and carrying out raids there.
Activists said fighting also took place in several areas of the capital, Damascus, and in Homs province.
Also Tuesday, Syrian opposition figures meeting in Cairo said they will begin forming a transitional government in exile.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday he is extremely concerned about the impact the shelling and heavy weapons is having on Syrian civilians. He also called on Mr. Assad to promise not to use chemical weapons under any circumstances.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos says an estimated 200,000 people have fled Aleppo over the past few days – the city at the center of the rebel and government's fight for control.
Belarus Expels Diplomat After Teddy Bear Drop
(Sky News, August 3, 2012)
Sweden has claimed that Belarus has expelled its ambassador to the country after a pro-democracy stunt involving hundreds of teddy bears.
On July 4, a Swedish public relations firm used a light plane to dump 879 teddies bearing slogans supporting human rights over Belarus.
The invasion of the toys into Belarus airspace prompted the president, Alexander Lukashenko, to sack his air defence chief and head of the border guards.
According to Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, Mr Lukashenko has now expelled his country's ambassador, Stefan Eriksson.
Stockholm retaliated by telling Belarus its ambassador is "not welcome" in the Scandinavian country.
It is the latest in a series of diplomatic spats and tit-for-tat expulsions between the authoritarian state and other European nations.
Mr Bildt said the Lukashenko regime had expelled his country's envoy "for being too supportive of human rights".
He added: "They have made accusations against the ambassador. They are groundless. Fundamentally, this is about Sweden being engaged in democracy and human rights in Belarus."
In the Belarus capital of Minsk, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh said the Swedish ambassador had not been expelled, but his accreditation had not been extended.
"Mr Eriksson has worked in Minsk for seven years. In this time his activity has been directed not at strengthening Belarusian-Swedish relations but at destroying them," he said.
Mr Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and was once described by former US President George Bush's administration as Europe's last dictator.
Tensions are on the rise between Belarus and the West, especially after the EU voted in February to add 21 names to a list of some 200 Belarusian officials who face an assets freeze and are prevented from traveling to EU countries because of alleged human rights violations.
Following the teddy bear drop by Swedish activists, the Belarus president told his new border guards chief not to hesitate to use weapons to stop any future air intrusions from abroad.
The Swedish plane dropped the toys near the town of Ivenets and near Minsk, each carrying a message urging the former Soviet republic to show greater respect for human rights.
Mr Bildt said the incident had not been mentioned directly in the context of the expulsion of the Swedish envoy but noted that "it might have had an impact on the general atmosphere".
Following the teddy bear drop by Swedish activists, the Belarus president told his new border guards chief not to hesitate to use weapons to stop any future air intrusions from abroad.
Whispers of peace in Syria
(The Christian Science Monitor Editorial Board, August 3, 2012)
With the resignation of Kofi Annan as United Nations peace envoy for Syria, is war now the only path forward in that troubled Middle Eastern country?
International diplomacy may be at a standstill. Other nations such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States may be supporting either the regime or the rebels with arms, money, or intelligence. But by the credible reports coming out of war-ravaged Syria, more people there are quietly turning against Bashar al-Assad without resorting to violence.
As friends and families see their desperate situations, they are uttering whispers of peaceful dissent to each other, creating a “silent majority” that will do more than weapons or diplomacy by showing where they stand.
“Polarized and paralyzed, the international community’s behavior puts the onus on Syrians to work it out among themselves,” states the International Crisis Group (ICG), a keen watcher of world conflicts. “Housewives and civil servants have become shrewd and fearless activists. People speak of inspiring friendships. The pride taken in collective achievements plays no small part in providing individuals with this sense of personal accomplishment.”
More Syrians are creating a remarkable, courageous network of assistance to keep violence in check, the ICG states. “In the tug of war between society’s demons and its ability to resist them, the most encouraging aspect has been Syrians’ at times striking self-awareness, grasp of dangers ahead and attempts at course correction.”
This is how the best revolutions take place – from below. Or as President Obama put it in a speech at the Holocaust Museum last April about how to counter mass atrocities: “You don’t just count on officials; you don’t just count on governments. You count on people mobilizing their conscience.”
President Assad, whose armed forces have turned into one big militia defending a shrinking number of supporters, claimed in a recent interview that he has legitimacy to rule. “I still have public support,” he said flatly.
Not according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, based on reports from the UN monitoring mission in Syria. The regime has “lost its fundamental humanity” while the Syrian people “want peace and dignity,” he said.
Journalist Stephen Starr, who lived in Syria from 2007 until February of this year, says a silent majority will finally take sides as it sees more of the brutality of the regime. His new book, “Revolt in Syria: Eye-witness to the Uprising,” looks at the many fears of the country’s ethnic and religious groups but also finds a common revulsion at violence and a desire for freedom from fear.
Or as the ICG put it: “As society inches toward collapse, collective self-defence mechanisms appear to be kicking in to prevent – or, at a minimum, contain and postpone – the looming prospect of all-out civil strife.”
Amid all the finger-pointing over Syria’s war – including a UN Security Council unable to unite on this issue – the one constant has been a slow-motion mental shift among Syrians. Guns and big-power maneuvers are almost useless against that.
Poland in the 1970s and 1980s provides a clear example of the progressive reclaiming of a society's functions and institutions by the resistance. The Catholic church had been persecuted but never brought under full Communist control. In 1976 certain intellectuals and workers formed small groups such as K.O.R. (Workers Defense Committee) to advance their political ideas. The organization of the Solidarity trade union with its power to wield effective strikes forced its own legalization in 1980. Peasants, students, and many other groups also formed their own independent organizations. When the Communists realized that these groups had changed the power realities, Solidarity was again banned and the Communists resorted to military rule.
Even under martial law, with many imprisonments and harsh persecution, the new independent institutions of the society continued to function. For example, dozens of illegal newspapers and magazines continued to be published. Illegal publishing houses annually issued hundreds of books, while well-known writers boycotted Communist publications and government publishing houses. Similar activities continued in other parts of the society.
Under the Jaruselski military regime, the military-Communist government was at one point described as bouncing around on the top of the society. The officials still occupied government offices and buildings. The regime could still strike down into the society, with punishments, arrests, imprisonment, seizure of printing presses, and the like. The dictatorship, however, could not control the society. From that point it was only a matter of time until the society was able to bring down the regime completely.
Syrian prime minister defects
(The Associated Press, August 6, 2012)
BEIRUT — Syria’s prime minister defected and fled to neighboring Jordan, a Jordanian official and a rebel spokesman said Monday, evidence that the cracks in President Bashar’s Assad’s regime have reached the highest echelons of government.
Ahmad Kassim, a senior official with the Free Syrian Army, said Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected to Jordan along with three other ministers. A Jordanian government official confirmed Hijab defected with his family but did not comment on the three other ministers. The Jordanian government official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he was not allowed to make any public statements on the defection.
Hijab is the highest-level government official to defect since the uprising against Assad’s authoritarian rule began 17 months ago. The other ministers’ identities were not immediately known.
“Don’t be scared. Defect from this criminal regime,” said Mohammad Otari, who identified himself as a spokesman for Hijab. He spoke on Al-Jazeera TV, urging other Syrians to join the defecting ministers.
Otari said Hijab is now a “soldier” of the revolution and added that his defection was planned for more than two months. He said the minister was now in a safe place, adding that Hijab took the job two months ago because the regime gave him a choice: Be killed or accept the post.
Earlier Monday, Syrian state-run TV reported Hijab was fired from his post. A former agriculture minister, Hijab took office less than two months ago and was considered a loyalist in Assad’s ruling Baath party.
Otari said Hijab is from eastern province of Deir el-Zour from the Sikhni tribe. He said Hijab defected along with 10 families who are his relatives, adding that some of them held government posts including in various ministries.