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Syria and Saudi Arabia: tyranny versus tyranny

In the debate on Syria at the UN General Assembly last week, Bashar al-Jaafari, the Syrian representative, hit back at Arab Gulf states which have lined up against the Assad regime, accusing them of dishonest motives. To quote the Syrian government news agency's report of his speech ...

"Al-Jaafari added that some of the countries that adopted the draft, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, cannot be considered as examples of democracy and respecting human rights, as these countries are governed by oligarchic, tyrannical regimes that don't hesitate to suppress their people and murder protesters, adding that the state of human rights and basic liberties in them is considered among the worst in the world according to documented reports by human rights organisations and opposition sources abroad."

Bearing in mind that Jaafari was himself speaking on behalf of an oligarchical, tyrannical regime – and one that has committed atrocities on a far greater scale that the regimes that he named – he did nevertheless make a valid point. 

The Arab Gulf states' hostility towards Assad is not based on a principled stance against dictatorship, and this creates an opening that the Assad regime can – and probably will – exploit. 

Last year, just as the Syrian uprising was getting under way, Saudi Arabia sent its troops into Bahrain to protect the monarchy there against the rebellious Shia who form a majority of the population. Saudi Arabia also played a key role in stifling the Yemeni revolution.

As far as Syria is concerned, the Saudi regime clearly hopes that Assad's fall will weaken the regional influence of his ally, Iran – since it views Shia Iran as both a military and a religious threat. Part of this relates to fears about the kingdom's own marginalised and disaffected Shia minority. 

In the words of Leila Nachawati, a Spanish-Syrian professor and activist:

"Riyadh supports the Free Syrian Army by portraying it as part of a religious struggle between the Sunni faith and the allegedly anti-religious Assad regime. 

"At the same time, the Saudi regime is fearful of the Syrian revolution being framed as a liberation movement – a sentiment that could spread to Saudi Arabia, where the legitimacy of the ruling monarchy is increasingly being questioned. 

"The most profitable scenario, therefore seems to be a military struggle in which neither the regime nor the Free Syrian Army succeed – a struggle that would wear Syrians out and weaken the country as a whole."

This, of course, plays directly into the hands of the Assad regime which persistently denies the authenticity of the Syrian uprising and instead seeks to blame everything on meddling by foreign powers.

At the same time, the Assad regime can also point to an uprising (of sorts) in Saudi Arabia which the kingdom similarly blames on a foreign power – in this case Iran. Shia disturbances in the kingdom's eastern province have been rumbling on for months, though on a much smaller scale than what is happening in Syria. Even so, there is a possibility they will escalate, and last week two more people were killed. 

Reuters reports:

A Saudi soldier was shot dead patrolling an area populated by minority Shi'ite Muslims late on Friday, the Interior Ministry said, and one of the gunmen was killed in the ensuing shoot-out.

The deaths bring to 11 the number of people killed in the Qatif area since November in protests by members of Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite minority over what they see as entrenched discrimination.

"A security patrol was exposed to heavy fire from four armed rioters on motorbikes when pausing at a street intersection in Qatif," state news agency SPA reported, quoting Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Turki.

Turki said the gunmen had been arrested after an exchange of fire in which one of them was killed, and said another man suffering a bullet injury had been arrested at the hospital.

In an article for the Washington Post today, David Ignatius reports that Saudi Arabia has installed "what looks like a war cabinet" aimed in part at dealing with "growing internal dissent from its Shiite minority". Ignatius writes:

"The Saudis haven’t been able to stop the insurgency in al-Qatif; indeed, it appears to be worsening. The protesters may hope to provoke the Saudis into a bloody crackdown, which would leave scores dead and encourage much wider demonstrations and international outcry. 

"So far, the Saudis have avoided such an escalation through relatively restrained tactics. Saudi reformers argue that the best way to quell Shiite protests is to give them the full economic and political rights of citizenship."

This leads to an intriguing question. If the disturbances in Saudi Arabia did eventually turn into a full-blown insurrection, would other countries support the rebels as they have done in Syria?

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 August 2012. Comment.

Syrian regime warns: beware of imitations

Following last week's assassination of several key figures, there are signs that the Assad regime is beginning to feel seriously threatened. It has taken the unprecedented step of warning the public that two of its most central institutions – the Republican Guard and the state TV – should be viewed with caution.

On Thursday, it warned that men in the uniform of Republican Guards are not necessarily who they seem to be:

"Armed men in Tadamon, Midan, Qaa and Nahr Aisha [neighbourhoods of Damascus] are wearing military uniforms with the insignia of the Republican Guard. This confirms they are planning to commit crimes and attack people, exploiting the trust of citizens in our courageous armed forces."

Yesterday, it was the turn of the regime's media to be designated as potentially untrustworthy:

"[An] information ministry source on Sunday warned that western intelligence are planning in cooperation with some Arab parties to hijack the frequencies of Syrian satellite channels for some time to broadcast false news on alleged coup d'etat or certain military defections or the fall of certain cities and the like.

"The ministry source added that the frequencies of Syrian channels are to be hijacked through broadcast control stations in neighbouring countries, noting that false news might be broadcast by Syrian presenters and journalists who work for Arab and western channels or who might be or have been abducted and pressured to present such false news.

"The ministry stressed that any news that might be broadcast with regard to such alleged information are completely baseless and should be regarded by the citizens as being part of the misleading and fabrication campaign launched against Syria."

The report is careful to suggest that any interference with broadcasts would be the result of a foreign plot rather than, say, Syrians seizing control of TV stations inside the country. Even so, it is an extraordinary admission of cracks in the regime's once-unquestionable control.

The official news agency's report adds, of course, that its information ministry source "stressed normal life in Damascus, adding that the authorities, in cooperation with locals, are chasing vanquished terrorists in certain streets".

More and more, though, the regime is also having to formally deny stories that only a few months ago it could have ignored as preposterous – two of the latest being the claim that President Assad is "ready" to step down and that his wife has fled to Russia.

Such stories may well be untrue but the official denials, far from quashing such speculation, push it further into the realms of normal public discourse.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 July 2012. Comment.

Syria: Forget 'civil war' – it's armed conflict

So, is it a civil war or not? This question has dominated much of the public discussion about Syria over the last couple of days. Some say it is a civil war and some say it isn't, while others warn that if it isn't a civil war already it's going to become one very soon.

"Civil war", of course, is an emotive term and people use it for a variety of reasons – whether because it grabs readers' attention in a headline or because of what it implies for them politically.

Judging by the most widely-recognised definitions, Syria has been in a state of civil war for some time – not just because of the recently intensified fighting, as an article on CNN's website explains. 

At the same time, though, "civil war" is not a particularly helpful way to describe what is happening in Syria. The conflict, at root, is an uprising against a repressive regime and in that respect it differs from many of the more typical kinds of civil war: as Jeff White of the Washington Institute puts it in the CNN article, "the people are fighting the state not each other".

Also, although the violence in Syria is what gets the media's attention (for understandable reasons), we shouldn't forget that countless thousands are also struggling peacefully against the regime with strikes and demonstrations. That is a part of the narrative which can easily be overlooked, as EA WorldView pointed out yesterday.

In a Syrian context, the term "civil war" has already acquired a good deal of political baggage. For some, it strengthens the case for intervention, though supporters of the Assad regime have also invoked it as a way of denying that there's a popular basis for the uprising.

The Syrian Revolution General Commission objects to "civil war" on the grounds that it creates a false equivalence between the regime and its opponents: it "makes the killer and the victim equal and ignores all the massacres committed by the Assad regime". The SRGC also says it masks "the real demands of the Syrian people who are only asking for freedom and dignity".

The Assad regime doesn't like "civil war" either – perhaps because it implies too much strength on the other side. For the moment, the regime is still sticking to the line that it is fighting "armed groups that have chosen terrorism".

At a purely practical level, though, whether we call it a civil war or not makes very little difference to what is happening on the ground.

A far more relevant question is whether the events in Syria should be described as "an armed conflict". While it may seem obvious than an armed conflict is indeed taking place, "armed conflict" is also a specific legal term. This is important, because an armed conflict in Syria (in the legal sense) would impose obligations on both sides under international humanitarian law – the need to protect civilians, the possibility of war crimes, etc.

Labelling it an armed conflict thus has more significant consequences than the more dramatic label of "civil war" and, looking at the legal definition, "armed conflict" does seem an appropriate term to use:

First, the hostilities must reach a minimum level of intensity. This may be the case, for example, when the hostilities are of a collective character or when the government is obliged to use military force against the insurgents, instead of mere police forces.

Second, non-governmental groups involved in the conflict must be considered as "parties to the conflict", meaning that they possess organised armed forces. This means for example that these forces have to be under a certain command structure and have the capacity to sustain military operations.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 June 2012. Comment.

Yes, sovereignty is the issue in Syria

President Assad, like all dictators, is fond of talking about sovereignty. "Our guiding light is always Syria's sovereignty," he said in his speech on Monday. 

Sovereignty is indeed at the heart of the Syrian conflict, but not in the way that Assad imagines it. When Assad claims sovereignty what he really means in inviolability: the entitlement of his regime to maintain power through brute force regardless of what anyone else thinks of it.

Not only that. In his speech on Monday he had the gall to portray his regime's struggle for survival as that of "the homeland". Thus, anyone who challenges the regime's inviolability, from outside or within, is violating the homeland of the Syrian people.

Set against that, we have another – more honourable – claim to sovereignty: the right of Syrian citizens to determine their own future and make free choices as to how they shall be governed. In short: sovereignty of the people.

After many years of repression, the Syrian people are finally claiming their sovereignty – and amid all the agonised debate over what to do about Syria we should never lose sight of that. Whatever else happens, the people's sovereignty must be paramount.

It is a natural and human response that people outside Syria who value their own rights should ask what they can do to help – not entirely out of altruism but also out of self-interest, since by supporting the rights of others they are protecting your own.

Of course, it doesn't necessarily follow from this that we can do very much beyond expressing sympathy and solidarity. Any tangible support that we offer has to be within our means. Even if it is sought and we are capable of providing it, we also have to be confident that it will actually help. Help that proves counterproductive is worse than no help at all.

Intervention – a term now often assumed to mean only its most extreme form, military intervention – tends to be thought of as an all-or-nothing choice. In Syria though, as in many other situations, time the question is much more complex: what forms might intervention take, and to what ends?

At the international level, and taking into account all  the obstacles, most of what might usefully be done has already been done. Military intervention is not in prospect: there is little public appetite for it and in any case it would be extremely hazardous. Diplomatically – and economically too, to a large extent – the regime has been isolated. This is plainly having an effect, though the process is one of gradual attrition.

Inside Syria, the regime's resources are increasingly stretched by its efforts to contain the uprising, not to mention an economy that is almost on the rocks. No one can be sure how long the regime will last, though several more months of conflict seem in prospect, at the very least. To outward appearances, the regime still looks fairly solid, though once it seriously starts to crumble the end will probably be swift.

Meanwhile the Annan plan makes no headway. The ceasefire monitors have no ceasefire to monitor. Instead, they have become the official witnesses to atrocities or, far too often, belated witnesses to the aftermath of atrocities. While that was never their intended purpose there is still some value in keeping the monitors in Syria, since they are one of the few authoritative sources of information that can counter the regime's narrative.

All these frustrations have generated a sense of international impotence – hence the talk of needing a Plan B. The question is: would this hypothetical Plan B have any better chance of success than Plan A (the six-point Annan plan)?

There are two principal reasons why the Annan plan is going nowhere. One is that the Assad regime doesn't want to implement it; the other is that the regime's two key supporters – Russia and China – are blocking efforts to make him implement it. 

The Americans' focus now – the emerging Plan B, perhaps – is shifting to what Hillary Clinton described last week as "the essential elements of a democratic transition strategy" for Syria. There have been several recent indications that the US is beginning to favour the "Yemen solution" – essentially a political transition under international management or supervision.

In purely practical terms – apart from the difficulty of persuading President Assad to accept it – the "Yemen solution" is problematic in itself, as I explained here last week. It reeks of neo-imperialism: a weak president installed at the behest of foreign powers, legitimised after a fashion in a one-candidate election and dependent on external support. Apart from that, no one knows whether the Yemen "solution" will actually work.

Talk of an internationally-supervised transition brings us back to the question of sovereignty, and how the Syrian people might achieve it. Keeping up the international pressure on Assad – diplomatically and economically – and calling for a "full transfer of power" is one thing, but going beyond that could easily sabotage the revolution (as it appears to have done in Yemen).

The more international involvement there is in trying to manage a power transfer in Syria, the more likely it is that the goal of popular sovereignty will be lost. That is an even bigger problem in the case of Syria than in Yemen because of the multiple interests at stake – the US, Russia, China, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Sunni, Shia, etc. 

These competing interests have already complicated the Syrian situation and international meddling in a power transfer there would do so even more. For some, the main concern is how "Israel-friendly" a post-Assad government would be. For some, it's relations with Iran and the Sunni-Shia balance, while there are others who hope a negotiated transition would preserve something of the old regime, even if Assad is no longer part of it.

Amid the continuing horrific news from Syria, it is very tempting to say that "we" ought to be doing more. But we shouldn't assume that doing more will necessarily help, and we should try to distinguish between the needs of the Syrian people and the games that states play amongst themselves. Syrians have a right to shape their own future and will do so – if only we let them.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 June 2012. Comment.

Syria and the 'Yemen solution'

How does this sound as a way to end the conflict in Syria?

Step one: The Syrian parliament grants immunity from prosecution to President Assad and his closest associates.

Step two: Assad resigns as Syria's president but remains head of the Baath party, which in turn continues to control the parliament.

Step three: A presidential election is called and Assad's deputy, 73-year-old Farouk al-Sharaa, wins handsomely, since he is the only permitted candidate.

With a different set of characters, that is exactly what happened in Yemen earlier this year when the "international community" (but primarily the US and Saudi Arabia) decided it was time to take charge of the Yemeni revolution. It's also an idea that is now bandied about as a possible "solution" for Syria.

The Arab League first proposed it back in January and last month President Obama suggested it again in discussions with the Russian prime minister.

It's a dreadful idea. For a start, the "Yemeni solution" hasn't succeeded in Yemen – at least, not yet, and there are doubts as to whether it can ever succeed – so why should it work in Syria?

Following President Saleh's resignation, Yemen has embarked on what is supposed to be a two-year transition. Saleh's successor, President Hadi, does not have the political or military muscle to carry it through, so the whole process is basically controlled by the United States.

Meanwhile, Saleh is still there, purged of his crimes and fighting a rearguard action to preserve as much of his regime and its corrupt ways as possible. Mark Katz, who has followed Yemen for years, writes:

"It is true that Saleh stepped down, but much of his regime remains intact. His son is still in command of (partly thanks to American support) the best armed and trained security force in the country. Although the new president has dismissed some of them, Saleh loyalists remain in many key positions. Whether there will be a true political transformation in Yemen, then, remains to be seen."

Now that the revolution has been stopped in its tracks, the success or otherwise of the transition plan depends largely on how hard the US is prepared to push. One risk here, if it pushes too hard, is that Hadi will start to be perceived as a Karzai-type puppet president, thus strengthening the hand of the old regime.

But in any case, political change is not the Americans' top priority in Yemen. They are much more concerned about al-Qaeda (or what they think is al-Qaeda) – as is shown by all the recent drone attacks, combined with ground offensives by the Yemeni military. It has become very clear over the last few months that this is far more important to the Americans than helping the Yemeni people to achieve their rightful aspirations.

Attempts at a managed "transition" in Syria would face similar problems. Persuading Assad to step down, even if that were possible, would be only a token step. It would not address the basic demand of the protesters, which is to rid themselves of his regime and the corrupt, oppressive system that goes with it.

Of course it would be good to halt the bloodshed but the Syrians have to be allowed to determine their own future. The only way to ensure that is by allowing the regime to collapse (as it will do eventually), not by prolonging its existence through a managed "transition".

So long as the Syrian regime shows no interest in negotiating its departure terms, any attempt at a managed "transition" would have to be initiated from outside, and supervised from outside – as in Yemen. In effect, this would take the revolution out of the hands of the Syrian people and internationalise the conflict more than it is internationalised already.

That would probably make things worse rather than better. In Yemen at least, the international players are more or less agreed on what to do (even if some of their motives and goals are questionable). In Syria, on the other hand, there is no such consensus. In the unlikely event that a "transition" plan could be agreed upon, it is difficult to see a favourable outcome for the Syrian people. The US, Europe and the Sunni Arab states would be pushing it in one direction, while Russia, China and Iran would be pushing it in another.

Far from resolving the conflict, Bilaal Saab (in an article for Foreign Policy) suggests this could intensify it:

"How could the United States even be thinking about this exit strategy, which does nothing to address the roots of the uprising or hold anyone accountable for the crackdown? 

"The stakes in Syria are too high to resort to solutions on the cheap, especially when such solutions are more likely to make things worse and lead to the same unintended consequences that top US officials have been warning about: a full-blown civil war that engulfs parts of the Middle East, further Islamist radicalisation of Syrian society that could open new doors for al-Qaeda, and a generally chaotic and violent environment in which chemical weapons – suspected to be held in large quantities by the regime – are either lost, used or both."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 June 2012. Comment.

Previous blog posts




June-September 2012

Syria and Saudi Arabia: tyranny versus tyranny

Syrian regime warns: beware of imitations

Syria: Forget 'civil war' – it's armed conflict

Yes, sovereignty is the issue in Syria

Syria and the 'Yemen solution'


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Last revised on 02 October, 2012