Saturday, January 28, 2012

Moscow plays Chess with just one pawn!

Moscow reportedly approves of the Arab League initiative for a peaceful transition to multi-party democracy in Syria (see previous post) but wants Assad to remain as president.

That's very interesting. It seems that the Syrian people have been out on the streets demanding that Mr Putin picks a suitable president for them, when I was asleep.

Sarcasm aside, the Russian pronouncements are in fact quite exciting! They now seem ready to ditch Assad and his cronies but want to ensure that, post-Assad, Syria remains their one and only client state in the Arab world.  The Arab League, NATO and the Gulf states can see Moscow's red lines and are unlikely to be able to cross them. The Americans certainly don't want to.

So, following the destruction of Iraq and Libya (Washington:2, Moscow: nil)  the two superpowers compromise again over the carve up of the Middle East.  The rich Arabs continue to recycle their petrodollars by stockpiling sophisticated US military hardware they neither need nor can use and the Persians and Syrians continue to pay for second rate Russian weapons so they can fight phantom wars against the Israelis and "imperialist Americans". The Europeans are happy to move in  like vultures to "rebuild" what the superpowers have destroyed. When they charge too much for their services to humanity, the Chinese get invited in to re-build it better, quicker and cheaper.

No, it is not a global conspiracy against the Arabs. The nations of the Middle East are their own worst enemies and generally deserve the governments they get. They should not blame other countries for pursuing their own interests.  Weak, dictatorial, crony or exploitative governments reflect their own dysfunctional and fragmented societies.

Autocracy and theocracy feed on weak and divided societies and are never the answer. Dictators just paper over the cracks or do their best to sow divisions in society, or find a foreign enemy to justify their existence. Fundamentalist religious leaders promise paradise, indoctrinate the young, exploit people's yearning for justice, honesty and fairness, stifle social development and peddle DIY edicts to stay in power. Ultimately, it is down to the people to determine their own destiny and guard their hard-won freedom through education, sweat, blood and tears.

Syrians have been shedding a great deal of blood and tears for nearly a year but they risk being pulled out of the frying pan and dumped into the fire by well-meaning and not-so-well meaning forces. The difficult birth of opposition forces in Syria reflects four decades of suppression. The opposition, understandably, have limited resources and experience of political activism, building democratic structures, managing civilised discourse or selling a convincing long-term vision to the nation. The most prominent thinkers and activists in the Syrian National Council (SNC) come across as generally too idealistic or too academic, detached from reality on the ground and simply unable to connect with ordinary people. Some seem  perhaps a little too eager to involve foreign powers in their struggle, and at too high a price for most Syrians.

In contrast, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change in Syria (NCC) seems more in tune with popular sentiment in the country but is seen as a little too trustful of the regime and too mistrustful of foreign powers, so it is losing tactical maneuverability and effectiveness. Without a charismatic and inspirational leader, who can negotiate a peaceful transition both with the regime and foreign powers, the NCC is in danger of becoming a prisoner of its own nationalistic ideals and fading away into oblivion.

The more violent the uprising the longer it will take to rebuild Syria into a modern state that truly cares about all its citizens. The signs are violence will increase. Yet, we have to remain optimistic, cohesive and patient. Syrians, in the longer term, will not allow autocracy, theocracy or superpower cronyism to rule over them again. Syria has sufficient natural resources and well-educated, enterprising and hard-working people both in the country and the Diaspora. Some young people may be temporarily swayed by fundamentalist ideals but most are independent thinkers and resourceful. They want nothing but freedom, opportunity and progress for themselves and their friends and families.  

Monday, January 23, 2012

Arab League "get out of jail free" card for Assad

Say what you will about the impotence and Western bias of the Arab League, but its bold call to Assad to hand over power to his deputy, Farouk Al-Sharaa, and hold multi-party elections in six months is both wise and measured.

The Russians, who are deeply concerned about losing their only naval base in the Mediterranean and remaining client state in the Arab world, are unlikely to object to this compromise and potentially peaceful resolution to the crisis. Indeed, there are rumours that they had been consulted about this call beforehand.

If the stubborn mountain goats of Al-Qardaha do not seize this opportunity for a safe and gradual exit from dictatorship, then all bets are off.

The regime's strategy has, all along, been to turn peaceful protests into a "controllable" armed insurgency through gratuitous killings, incarceration and torture. Their aim has been to whip up and internationalise the domestic power struggle to the point where the Russians, Iranians and Chinese spring to their defence.

Time is running out for the regime but they are not yet totally desparate. They have refrained from attacking the "rebel-held" mountain town of Zabadani (north west of Damascus) to give the impression that they are losing control (to keep the Russians, Iranians and Islamophobes on edge). They have stage-managed suicide bombings in Damascus for the same reason. More importantly, they have refrained from using air power (presumably on advice from the Russians and learning from the Libyan experience) to keep the Americans, Turks and NATO at bay.

The Syrian National Council, led by the Paris-based Mr Burhan Ghalyoun, has been moving far too close to NATO while the National Coordination Committee (for Democratic Change) in Syria , led by the Cairo-based Mr Haitham Al-Mannaa, believes in peaceful dialogue and opposes any foreign intervention. The deep rift between these two opposition forces was beginning to play into the regime's hands. The Arab League's latest move may help to reconcile opposition agendas and potentially stem the bloodshed and pre-empt foreign intervention. It is a masterstroke in diplomacy and crisis management.

Friday, January 20, 2012

13 Ways to Support the Syrian Opposition

From: - Please circulate widely

In light of the dire news out of Syria, international action is ever more urgent. In my judgment, Syria reflects one of the paradoxes of international politics: its strategic importance in the region renders international military action nearly impossible–or at least extremely unlikely. Regional and global powers are not willing to risk the potential regional  or global conflagration that would result from foreign military intervention in such a key state, even if inaction means that they will be witnesses to the senseless slaughter of thousands of civilians.

But when governments and international governmental organizations are unwilling or unable to act, civilians across the globe can still play a vital role. It’s time to channel the power of “civilian diplomacy”–a concept that has some real potential to change the course of the Syrian revolution and to help the Syrian people realize their aims regardless of the dilly-dallying of foreign states.

This means you.

A colleague of mine, who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic, asked me to post the following information. Please read, circulate, and (if you are in a position to do so), help to implement these 13 ways to support the Syrian opposition:

Support from Damascus (though working with exiles w/ links on the inside also possible):
  • Support forums for civil resistance planning and evaluation:  Any plan to force Assad’s nonviolent ouster and usher in a transition should ideally be drafted by Syrians living inside Syria.  Because intense repression inside Syria makes this very difficult, such a plan could be generated through an iterative process involving inside and outside activists. There are NGOs already working with Syrian exile members to help them think through civil resistance options. We should help a small team of savvy Syrian strategists develop a plan, in coordination with Local Coordination Committees (LCCs)/activist youth on the inside (via secure communications), and evaluate the execution of that strategy to know which tactics/approaches are working and which are not. Tactics flow from strategy, not vice-versa. LCCs and other inside groups are best positioned to operationalize whatever strategic plan is developed. This would be an obvious division of labor between the outside and inside opposition.
  • Encourage the opposition to consider unity “shock tactics”: ordinary Christians and Alawi may not like the regime, but they prefer an unsatisfactory status quo to an uncertain and potentially hostile future. They need reassurances that go beyond words. Potentially powerful symbolic actions include: a Friday “protest” whose theme is unity and involves repairing Christian churches and picking up trash in mixed communities; candlelight vigils in Damascus and Aleppo organized by a cross-confessional group of Syrian women to commemorate all victims of the uprising; strong, well-publicized denunciations of violence targeting minorities by influential Sunni leaders; letters hand-delivered to Christian leaders requesting their participation in the Arab League monitoring mission.
  • Encourage inside opposition to strengthen parallel structures and institutions: In an environment where street protests and labor strikes are risky, the opposition should be encouraged to continue to strengthen autonomous local institutions. It is difficult for the regime to target large numbers of people who stop supporting state-run schools and clinics and instead set up their own parallel systems – but the message of non-cooperation with the regime would be clear.  The diaspora and business community should be involved in supporting private clinics and charities to help build local autonomy, possibly under the LCCs’ organizational umbrella.
  • Connect/train Syrian opposition in crowd-sourcing technology:  Crowd-sourcing technology can help the Syrian opposition plan and execute protests, monitor security force movements, collect and document evidence of human rights abuses and atrocities, etc., like this. There are teams that follow and help apply all the technology tools (Martus, Mobile Accord, Frontline SMS, Ushahidi, Cognitive Edge) that could provide the Syrian opposition a very useful parallel communication structure.
  •  Help the nonviolent opposition publicize successes: Syrians need to see that civil resistance is working to discourage them from giving up, taking up arms, or waiting for outside military intervention.  Every regime concession (e.g. release of prisoners, allowing in monitors, etc.) and concrete sign of regime isolation needs to be credited to the courageous nonviolent resistance.  Embassies should publicly credit the nonviolent opposition for successes and help them publicize victories over the TV, radio and other channels of communication.
  • Encourage the opposition to strategize around elections (maybe):  It is unclear how the regime will approach upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, whether Article 8 is on the table and/or whether those outside of the “loyal opposition” would even be allowed to run, but the opposition should at least have a plan for whether and how to participate in elections. Boycotting might seem like the obvious thing to do unless the opposition could take advantage of any political space opened up by elections. Although it is likely that Assad would rig the elections, this course of action is fraught with risk, particularly if the opposition is prepared to show the fraud and mobilize around it.  Training Syrian youth in election monitoring and parallel vote tabulation (ideally by an Arab NGO) could be very helpful down the road.
 Support from the international community:
  • Press Al Jazeera (and other satellite stations) to broadcast Arabic-language documentary films on civil resistance, including Bringing Down a Dictator, A Force More Powerful, and Civil Resistance: A First Look into Syria:  These films are powerful, they are in Arabic, and they will show Syrians what nonviolent movements in other repressive environments have done to communicate around repression, pull key pillars of support, innovate tactically, and outmaneuver a militarily superior adversary. These films should be played repeatedly by multiple stations – obtaining copyright permission is easy.
  •  Strengthen the opposition’s strategic communication capabilities:  Get as many Syrian opposition leaders as possible, Syrian National Council (SNC) and non-SNC (inside and outside), trained in how to craft pillar-specific messages, communicate an inclusive vision of tomorrow, and declare small victories for the nonviolent opposition using traditional and non-traditional means. LCCs and similar Facebook pages are the most effective messengers right now.
  • Help the opposition think through strikes and boycotts: There are dozens of different types of strikes, boycotts, and “go slow” tactics available to nonviolent activists. These dispersed actions could allow more Syrians to participate in the opposition while minimizing the risk of regime repression. Syrian activists and sympathetic businessmen should be encouraged to first analyze which businesses (in Syria and outside) would be most vulnerable to consumer boycotts, which industries would be most susceptible to worker strikes or collective “underperformance”, and then develop a plan to target those businesses and industries.  The oil sector, pro-regime businesses, and companies whose workers are unhappy with pay or working conditions would be obvious candidates.  Syrian exile communities could be encouraged to develop campaigns targeting pro-regime businesses on the outside using well-publicized boycotts, sit-ins, and pickets.
  • Encourage diaspora and business community to develop a solidarity/strike fund: Striking Syrians need to know that there is funding available to support themselves and their families, particularly in the event that they lose their jobs or other sources of income. Bank accounts could be set up in Lebanon, Dubai, Turkey or elsewhere for that purpose (and other Embassies in Damascus could help distribute quick response funds to needy families). This is currently being done piece meal, but greater coordination would help the nonviolent protestors.
  • Tap into celebrities and famous Syrian diaspora: There are a number of famous Syrians (actors, singers, comics, etc.) in the exile community whose popularity transcends sect, ethnicity or confession. These are the figures whose star power could help spread support for the opposition, make special appeals to minorities, and focus media attention on the nonviolent resistance. We should encourage the Syrian opposition to tap into this potentially huge resource. Ideally, famous Alawi and Christian Syrians who sympathize with the opposition (ex. Nadia Souliman) should lead outreach efforts to prominent Christian leaders.
  • Encourage the opposition to embrace tactical negotiations: By demonstrating openness to negotiations, the opposition reinforces its image as a force of moderation rather than a bunch of extremists (as the regime would have it.)  The perception of moderation, in the case of Syria, could help sell the opposition to minority members and fence-sitters.  More importantly, being open to informal negotiations with members of the regime’s remaining pillars (security forces, bureaucracy, business elite), whose loyalties might be wavering, allows the opposition to communicate their intentions related to a post-Assad Syria – i.e. that these individuals have a future in it. On the other hand, the opposition risks losing the street if they negotiate with a regime with so much blood on its hands. For this reason, whoever from the opposition leads the negotiations should be respected by the street.  He/she must be able to explain the purpose and parameters of the negotiations to the resisting population and maintain transparency. Most importantly, opposition movements who choose to negotiate should never lose the ability to mobilize the masses and target the regime with nonviolent sanctions.
Dealing with the armed opposition: It is unlikely that the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups will disappear. The nonviolent opposition should maintain informal but regular communication with the armed groups. Ideally, defectors will be kept busy in neighboring countries and limit their armed attacks inside the country. Also, defectors could be involved in nonviolent forms of sabotage that obstruct the regime’s killing machine but do not result in injuries or deaths.  To the extent possible, defectors should be exposed to civil resistance materials and trainings

10 December 2011