Tag Archives: Syria

Finding Truth in Syria

16 Nov

I have been perplexed by the intense divergences of perception when it comes to the Syrian reality, and the allocation of blame and responsibility for the havoc that has been experienced by the Syrian people.

In ‘the fog of war’ there are many ambiguities that allow ideological predisposition to color what we believe is happening. There is very little basis for trust, and the extraordinary complexity and shifting priorities of the many participants precludes a simple diagnosis.

This makes it all the more crucial not to succumb to explanations that confirm our political outlook, especially by doubting the conclusions that have been confirmed by multiple generally reliable sources of information. George Monbiat, a prominent and respected Guardian columnist supports the view that the main element of the anti-Assad narrative are true, and truer than the contrary interpretations offered by a variety of anti-imperialist commentators and dissident journalists:

<https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/15/lesson-from-syria-chemical-weapons-conspiracy-theories-alt-right&gt;

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Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

13 Nov

 

Failing the people of Syria during Seven Years of Devastation and Dispossession

 

[Prefatory Note: What follows is a wide-ranging interview in November 2017 that that concentrates on the failure of the UN and the world to rescue the people of Syria by a timely and effective humanitarian intervention. The interview was conducted by a Turkish journalist, Salva Amor, and is to be published in a magazine, Causcasus International. The text of the interview has been slightly modified.]

 

A missed chance 

 

  1. You previously referred to Syria as “an ideal case for humanitarian intervention” however, rather than becoming a prime example of positive humanitarian intervention it has turned into one of the greatest humanitarian crises with half of the country becoming refugees or internally displaced. 

 

What turned such an Ideal case for humanitarian intervention into one of the worst humanitarian responses we have seen in recent times?

 

Answer: I do not recall this reference to Syria as ‘an ideal case,’ but I must have meant it in a hypothetical sense, that is, as if ‘humanitarian intervention’ was ever called for, it was in Syria, especially at the early stages of the conflict. And yet I am inclined to think that regime-changing intervention was at all stages a mission impossible. We should keep in mind that the record of actual successful instances of what is labeled as ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been dismal, and when successful the motivation was not predominantly humanitarian, but rather a confluence of strategic interests of one sort or another with a humanitarian challenge. In Syria the strategic interests were not sufficiently strong to justify the likely costs, especially in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Sometimes, the intervention is a cover for non-humanitarian goals, as in Afghanistan (2002), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011) and may be effective in attaining its immediate goals of regime change but is extremely costly from the perspective of humanitarianism if assessed from the perspective of prolonged violence, societal chaos, and human suffering.

And only marginally successful strategically given the resilience of territorial resistance and the pressure for long-term occupation if the original gains of intervention are to be preserved.

 

At other times, the humanitarian rationale is present, as in Syria, but there is no strategic justification of sufficient weight, and what is done by external actors or the UN is insufficient to control the outcome, and often ends up intensifying the scale of suffering endured by the population. In effect, humanitarian intervention rarely achieves a net benefit from the perspective of the population that is being supposedly rescued. Perhaps, Kosovo (1999) is the best recent case where an alleged humanitarian intervention enjoyed enough strategic value to be effective, and yet seems to have left the Kosovar population better off afterwards, although even Kosovo is not a clear case.  

 

 

Failures & implications of inaction

 

  1. The humanitarian failures in Syria and for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries including Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq have had far-reaching implications for the EU with millions of refugees choosing to risk their lives in order to enter Europe causing the largest exodus since WWII. 

 

Could the surge of refugees fleeing to Europe have been avoided had a more positive and organized humanitarian intervention taken place?

 

Answer: It is possible that had Syria possessed large oil reserves, the intervention against the Damascus regime would have been robust enough to topple the regime, and create stability before combat conditions prompted massive internal population displacements and gigantic refugee flows, including the European influx. In this sense, Libya with oil, did prompt such an intervention, although it was an easier undertaking, as the Qaddafi regime had much less popular support than did the Assad regime, and was less well equipped militarily and lacked regional allies. In Syria, because of regional and global geopolitical cleavages, the politics of intervention and counter-intervention was far more complicated, and inhibited potential anti-regime interveners from making large commitments. At the early stages of the conflict Turkey and the United States miscalculated the costs and scale of a successful intervention in Syria, supposing that an indirect and low level effort could be effective in achieving regime change, which misunderstood the conditions prevailing in Syria.  

 

 

The best response

 

  1. In your experience, what would have been the ideal humanitarian response to the war in Syria? And who would have been best to implement it? 

 

Answer: As my earlier responses hinted, there is no ideal response, and the current world order system is not reliably capable of handling humanitarian intervention in a situation such as existed in Syria. To have any chance of effectiveness would require entrusting the undertaking to one or more powerful states, but even then the situation that would follow, is highly uncertain. In a post-colonial setting, there is bound to be strong nationalist and territorial resistance to outside intervention and occupation, generally producing serious prolonged chaos. If the country is very small and can be overwhelmed (Granada, Panama) without counter-intervention the undertaking will sometimes work. Iraq serves as a clear example of an intervention that did rid the country of a brutal tyrant, but produced internal violence among competing regions, tribes, and generated extreme sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as a series of ethnic, tribal, and regional battles.

 

In a better governed world, which is far from existing, the UN would have acted robustly and with the support of the regional governments in the Middle East, the geopolitical actors (U.S. and Russia) would have not pursued their strategic agendas, and a politically neutral intervention would have created the conditions for a post-Assad democratic political transition, including imposing accountability for past crimes. Merely mentioning this desirable scenario is enough to reveal its utopian character. Especially in the Middle East, geopolitics of a regional and global scope badly distort all efforts to fashion a humanitarian response to repression and severe violations of human rights. In the background, but not far in the background, is the relevance of oil. The countries that have experienced massive interventions (Iraq, Libya) possessed abundant oil reserves, while those that have little or no oil have either been ignored or endured prolonged bloody conflict, of which Syria is the worst case, having become the scene of competing and offsetting interventions motivated by political and strategic ambitions with only a thin propaganda rationale associated with alleviating a humanitarian crisis, which at best, was a much subordinated goal of the interveners on both sides.

 

 

Lessons for Future

 

4a. How can the world learn from the humanitarian failures and inaction that occurred in Syria for the past 7 years? What opportunities to protect, defend or support the Syrian people have we missed?

 

Answer: In my view, it is a mistake to speak of ‘inaction’ in the Syrian context. There have been massive interventions of all sorts on both sides of the conflict by a variety of actors, but none decisive enough to end the conflict, and none primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns. Of course, here and there, lives could have been saved, especially if the balance of forces within Syria had been better understood at an early stage of the conflict in the West. What intervention achieved in Syria was largely a matter of magnifying the conflict, and attendant suffering. The conflict itself was surrounded by contradictory propaganda claims making the reality difficult to perceive by the public, and therefore there was political resistance to more explicit and possibly more effective regime changing intervention. 

 

Indifference:

 

4b. Is there any correlation between the rise of Islamophobia and the world’s inaction towards Syrian people’s suffering? Has the ongoing drumming of hatred towards the Islamic religion created a generation of indifference towards those of them who are suffering? Or is such wide indifference a natural response to such overwhelming humanitarian crisis?

 

Answer: The indifference in relation to Syria is mainly a matter of public confusion and distrust. Confusion about the nature of the conflict and distrust as to the motives of political actors that have intervened on either side. The spike in Islamophobia is attributable to the interplay of the European refugee crisis and the occurrence of terrorist incidents that are perpetrated by ISIS and its supporters. Of course, the massive refugee flow was prompted by the violence in the Syrian combat zones, which has made Europe most interested in resolving the conflict even if meant allowing a criminal regime to remain in power.

 

I suppose that the indifference noted in your question is more evident in relation to the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar that in response to Syria where, as I have been suggesting, the political context dominates the human suffering, and the Islamic identity of the victimized people is secondary. Also, it is worth recalling the global indifference to genocide in Rwanda (1994) that could have prevented,

or at least minimized, by a timely, and relatively small scale intervention. And on occasion, if the strategic context is supportive, the West will intervene on the Islamic side as in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and there in opposition to the Christian side.  

 

 

  1. The UN has handed over a large portion of the $4bn of its aid effort in Syria to the Syrian regime or partners who have been approved by Bashar Al Assad. How does the UN justify providing tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to one of the worst governments, that has besieged, starved, bombed and killed hundreds of thousands of its own people? 

 

Answer: I suppose the basic justification for this behavior is that from the viewpoint of the UN the Damascus regime remains the legitimate government of Syria representing the country at the UN. This is of course a legalistic justification, and evades the real humanitarian crisis as well as the crimes of Assad’s regime. So far, because there is a geopolitical standoff, regionally (Iran v. Saudi Arabia) and globally (Russia v. the U.S. and Turkey), the UN has tried to remain aloof from the ambit of political controversy to the extent possible while doing what it can to alleviate human suffering. I am not knowledgeable about whether the UN aid is reaching the civilian population as claimed. The language of your question suggests that there should be some mechanism for disqualifying a government that commits repeated crimes against its own people from being treated by the UN as a normal member state, but this is not likely to happen anytime soon, and it is tricky as the UN System is built around state-centric ideas of world order.

 

 

The right to torture

 

  1. The world was shocked in 2015 when the Caesar files were releasedrevealing human stories behind 28,000 deaths in Syrian prisons, most, if not all were tortured prior to their death.Two years later no action has been taken in regards to detainees and torture in prisons. There has been no action or desire to send observers to Syrian Prisons nor to investigate those who were named in the Caesar files for war crimes.What must a dictator have to do for the international community to respond to his crimes? Comparing Libyan intervention with Syria

 

Answer: I took part recently in a ceremony in Nuremberg Germany that awarded a human rights prize to the photographer, whose identity is kept secret for his safety, responsible for the Caesar Report containing photographic images of Syrian prison torture of some 11,000 prisoners, most of whom are reportedly now dead. There is no question that these images are horrifying, but serious issues have been raised as to the authenticity of this photographic archive. It has been authenticated as genuine by Human Rights Watch, but has also been used by persons closely connected with the U.S. Government to build a case for war crimes prosecutions, particularly against Bashar al Assad. I am not in a position to assess the controversy, yet do not doubt that the Damascus regime has committed many atrocities and are responsible for the great majority of civilian deaths over the course of the last six years in Syria. At the same time the anti-regime forces, which are fragmented, have also committed many war crimes.

 

These issues of criminal accountability cannot be reliably answered from a distance, or merely on the basis of media reports. What is required is a credible international fact finding commission of inquiry with adequate access to whatever evidence and witnesses remain available.

 

 

 

  1. Human rights groups have estimated that no less than half a million people have died in the last 7 years in Syria. Although there are many violent factions in Syria, more than 94% of all deaths have been caused by Syrian Government or Russian strikes. In comparison Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi had killed an 257 people including combatants and injured 949 with less than 3% being women and children when UN security council intervened. On March 17, 2011, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 (2011) authorizing “regional organizations or arrangements…to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” in Libya. The resolution was adopted with ten votes for, none against, and five abstentions. In hindsight, many have now questioned whether that intervention was purely to “protect civilians”. Is the UN Security Council still a reliable body that can be relied upon to protect the civilian? The UN’s Responsibility Not – To Protect the Civilian Population

 

Answer: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) UN norm is interpreted and practice is governed by the UN Security Council, and hence is completely subordinated to the manipulations of geopolitics. In this regard, the lesser humanitarian hazard in Libya led to a UN regime-changing mission because the Permanent Members opposed to intervention (China, Russia) were persuaded not to cast their veto for what was being proposed, which was a limited humanitarian mission to protect the then entrapped civilian population of Benghazi. In fact, the NATO undertaking expanded the mission far beyond the Security Council mandate from its inception, angering Russia and China that had abstained out of deference to pleas relating to the humanitarian claims put forward by the NATO members of the Security Council. They later justified their opposition to a more pro-active UN role in Syria by reference to this failure of trust, the unwillingness of the intervening states to respect the limits of the mandate.

 

What is important to appreciate is that R2P and other UN undertakings must adhere to the constraints of geopolitics. As disturbing as inaction with respect to Syria, is the UN silence with regard to the abuse of the civilian populations of Gaza and Rakhine (Myanmar). It is only when a geopolitical consensus exists, which is quite rare (e.g. failure with respect to Yemen) that it is possible for the UN to play an important humanitarian role in shaping behavior and protecting civilians.

 

 

  1. Why was The UN’s responsibility to protect (R2P ) invisible in the last 7 years in Syria? What must be done now, in order to implement an R2P operation in Syria to avoid further suffering? In past years vetoes have blocked humanitarian intervention.

 

Answer: Part of my response here has already been given in relation to the prior question. I would only add here that the abolition of the veto would be a crucial step, or even an agreement among permanent members of the Security Council to refrain from casting a veto in humanitarian contexts such as Syria. The problem is that the veto powers are extremely unlikely to give up their right of veto, partly because such states do not voluntarily give up power and partly because humanitarian issues are almost always inseparable from diverse and often antagonist geopolitical interests, and therefore the claims are not perceived as humanitarian. This is certainly the case with regard to Syria. The take away conclusion is that the international system as it now functions is rarely motivated by humanitarian considerations when they come into conflict with the strong political preferences and strategic priorities of principal states, and this is true even when the humanitarian crisis is as severe and prolonged as in Syria.

 The most constructive response, in view of these realities, is to advocate global reform, but this will not happen without a major mobilization of people throughout the world or as a frantic response to some earth-shaking catastrophe.

 

 

  1. I understand that there was a veto by Russia and thus a solution was not passed, however, in such cases, when one of the countries that is involved in the atrocities is allowed to veto, does it not raise the alarm?Surely, this situation in Syria and the human cost provides enough of a precedent for (if not the UN, those who care about preventing further atrocities) a new chapter to be drafted and implemented into the UN. –Do you believe that it is time for the UN to adopt a new chapter into itsCharter that would prevent dictators or countries with vested interest in a war from overpowering UN Security Council votes? Normalizing atrocities at the global level.

 

Answer: Yes, there was much criticism of Russia for blocking action on Syria, but Russia was acting in accord with the constitutional structure of the UN. The U.S. uses its veto in a comparable way to protect Israel and other allies, and equally irresponsibly, from a moral or humanitarian point of view. It should be remembered that the League of Nations fell apart because major states would not participate, including the United States. The idea of the veto was designed to persuade all major states to participate, with the goal of universality of membership, but at the cost of engendering paralysis and irresponsible obstructions to action whenever veto powers disagree sharply. Your questions raise the crucial issue if this was too high a price to pay for the sake of maintaining universality of participation. One consequence of this tradeoff between geopolitics and effectiveness is to weaken public respect for the UN as an agency for the promotion of justice and decency in global affairs.

 

As specified in Article 108 of the UN Charter requires the approval of 2/3rds of the entire membership of the UN as well as all five Permanent Members of the Security Council, which means that it will not happen in the foreseeable future in relation to any politically sensitive issue. When World War II ended there was the hope and illusion that countries that cooperated against fascism would continue to cooperate to maintain the peace. As should have been anticipated, it was a forlorn hope.

 

 

  1. The White House accepts Assad’s continued rule in Syria as a “political reality” while European leaders have also taken a soft approach with French president declaring he no longer saw the removal of Assad as necessary. In your view, how do such civilized countries justify good relations with Assad? ISIS the monster that invites intervention: ISIS Affects the West, Assad does not.

 

Answer: Your comment on ISIS is a way of expressing my view that these issues are dominated by geopolitical calculations. ISIS as horrible as it is has not been nearly as responsible for the quality and quantity of suffering inflicted upon the Syrian people by the Damascus regime.

 

At this point, and given the unavailability of humanitarian intervention, the best Plan B for Syria is to seek a sustainable ceasefire, and this would undoubtedly require making some unpalatable compromises, including the possible retention of Assad as head of state. After all, there are many heads of state with much blood on their hands, and yet their legitimacy as rulers is essentially unchallenged. The way the world is organized makes it unable to impose criminal responsibility on the leaders of sovereign states except in special circumstances of total victory as in World War II, or more recently, in relation to the criminal prosecutions of Saddam Hussein and Milosevic, particular enemies of the West.

 

 

  1. Many Syrian groups have released statements to express their dismay at the international community for only intervening to strike ISIS. The Global Coalition’s planes hover over Deir Al Zour and Raqa to target ISIS (often causing civilian casualties) while in the same sky Assad Planes carrying deadly Barrel Bombs hover over nearby towns unperturbed. A) Is there balance in the international community’s actions in Syria? While Assad only kills or affects the lives of Syrians in Syria, ISIS became a threat to western countries. Terrorist attacks in the west killed and injured civilians in the west.
  2. B) Is there an underlying message that the West will “Fight against ISIS in Syria, because it affects people in our countries, but leave Assad because he has no impact on their own people?”

 

Answer: Yes, this is certainly a perceptive observation. When the issue is fairly large scale and internal, and where Muslims are the victims, any effort to intervene is bound to be feeble, at best, which it was in the early stages of 2011-2013 when Turkey and the U.S. cooperated in supporting Friends of Syria, which was mistakenly thought capable of shifting the balance sufficiently in Syria to produce the collapse of the Damascus regime. When that failed, it became obvious that the costs of an effective intervention were viewed in the West as too high and dangerous. Considering the Iranian and Russian alignments with the Syrian government doomed an anti-Damascus intervention.

 

And as you suggest, the West views ISIS as dangerous enemy, and is prepared to take bigger risks and bear higher costs because Western homeland security is at stake. ISIS is a proclaimed enemy of the West that is perceived as responsible for violent acts, Syria is not, being regarded, at most, as an unattractive regime, partly because in the past, hostile toward Israel. Taking account of these circumstances, the political realist seeks a ceasefire in Syria while going all out to achieve the destruction of ISIS.

 

 

  1. Please kindly note any comments, suggestions, opinions, thoughts you have on the Syrian conflict and in particular on the west’s reaction to it and the UN’s role. Also, on what you feel can and should be done from now on. Thanks so much.

 

Answer: From my earlier responses I am skeptical about what can be done beyond the obvious: give up any hope of securing support for an R2P mandate to protect the Syrian people, and pursue a ceasefire so as to end the suffering. This is not justice, but it may at least spare the Syrian people further trauma and bloodshed.

 

What the Syrian tragedy and ordeal reveals vividly is the inability of the international community, as now organized, to deal with a humanitarian crisis unless a geopolitical consensus is present in a relatively strong form, regionally and globally. Such a consensus is not even enough if the difficulties of intervention are seen as producing heavy casualties for the intervening side and would impose burdens of a prolonged occupation to achieve post-intervention political order and security.

 

Europe would benefit at this time from a Syrian ceasefire and the restoration of political normalcy. It would undoubtedly reduce the pressure on European countries created by the Syrian refugee flow, which has given right wing political parties their greatest strength and largest level of popular support since the end of World War II.

The U.S. Attack on al-Shayrat Airfield

8 Apr

 

 

In early morning darkness on April 7th the United States fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian al-Shayrat Airfield from two American destroyers stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean. It described the targets as Syrian fighter jets, radar, fuel facilities used for the aircraft. It asserted prior notification of Russian authorities, and offered the assurance that precautions were taken to avoid risks to Russian or Syrian military personnel. Pentagon spokespersons suggested that in addition to doing damage to the airfield, the attack had the intended effect of “reducing the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons.”

 

President Donald Trump in a short public statement justified the attack as a proportionate response to the Syrian use of chemical weapons against the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the western Syrian province of Idlib a few days earlier, which killed an estimated 80 persons, wounding hundreds more. Although there were denials of Syrian responsibility for the attack from Damascus and Moscow, a strong international consensus supported the U.S. view that Bashar al-Assad had ordered the attack allegedly as a means of convincing opposition forces concentrated in Idlib that it was time to surrender.

 

In the background, is the conviction among the more militaristic policy advisors and political figures, including Trump, that President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his 2012 ‘red line’ warning to Syria emboldened Assad to launch this latest attack with chemical weapons. Of course, this is all hawkish speculation that can be neither proven nor disproven, but it undoubtedly influenced the Trump entourage to suppose that it was presented with an opportunity to exhibit a greater readiness to use American military force in the Syrian conflict, incidentally, an outlook long advocated by Hillary Clinton and many of her advisors and foreign policy supporters. To do so, abandoned one of Trump’s signature pledges, to avoid military engagement in the conflicts raging throughout the Middle East, which he portrayed as a costly failure of prior American political leaders. Trump under pressure due to the growing evidence of ties with Russian political leaders during the 2016 presidential campaign may have welcomed an occasion on which to demonstrate his independence from Moscow and Putin. The departure from the Trump campaign agenda is particularly pointed as there were no American casualties resulting from the attack on Khan Sheikhoun 60 hours earlier than the Tomahawk response.

 

In Trump’s brief public rationale, the red line argument was not relied upon, but rather the combination of humanitarian outrage and grief with an assertion of the “national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” This geopolitical purpose was reinforced by a cursory appeal to international law and even the UN Security Council: “There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.” Yet identifying Syria’s evident violation of international law should not be confused with an international law justification for the use of retaliatory force. In using this language Trump was evidently seeking to weaken the impression of an irresponsible unilateral American recourse to non-defensive force without bothering to seek an endorsement from the U.S. Congress or the UN. Not surprisingly Moscow and Damascus both condemned the attack as an act of ‘aggression’ and ‘a flagrant violation of international law.’

 

Trump used some additional words designed to draw attention away from the unilateral nature of the attack by contending that it fulfilled the common goals of “civilized nations” to deter Assad and defeat terrorism, thereby linking the American initiative to what he called ‘justice’ rather than basing legitimacy exclusively on an appeal to ‘law’ or ‘order.’ Trump expressed this sentiment as follows: “And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will in the end prevail.” This is very different in tone, substance, and policy from Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which stridently stressed ‘America first,’ clarified as a call to act with reinvigorated resolve to devote military capabilities exclusively to promoting U.S. material national interests, and to stop wasting resources and energy by trying to address the larger concerns of the world, especially in the Middle East. This abrupt affinity with an internationalist spirit is made explicit in Trump’s final words—“Good night, and God bless America and the entire world.” As far as I know, this ritualistic invocation of God so much associated with George W. Bush and mimicked by Barack Obama never was extended to include “the entire world,” which is such an unfamiliar wording as to suggest that it was deliberately inserted to stake a quite unexpected and renewed claim to American moral leadership in world affairs. As with the attack itself, it seems likely to be a one/off embrace of cosmopolitan sentiments, but it is still worth noting. After all, language matters.

 

As has been suggested, bombing a Syrian airfield is unlikely to help Syrian children exposed to the terrible ravages of this war, that is, unless it does create a new momentum for a sustainable ceasefire. Already, the Russian reaction signals a worsening of relations with the United States in Syria and generally, and may end up producing the kind of confrontation that had led Republicans in the national security establishment to abandon Trump during the presidential campaign a year ago. With the removal of Bannon from the National Security Council it may not be premature to suggest that the deep state has found ways to reestablish its influence on national security policy after all seemed lost due to Trump’s electoral victory and vindictive attitude toward ‘the intelligence community.’ It is far too early to say that bureaucratic wars are over, but there is at the very least clear movement evident toward the restoration of the pre-Trump established order in Washington.

 

The Khan Sheikhoun attack raises more fundamental questions that are neither raised nor resolved by Trump’s speech. Despite making a gesture in the direction of international law by reference to the Chemical Weapons Convention and Security Council directives, the strike against al-Shayrat Airfield was a non-defensive use of force by the United States that violates the core UN Charter prohibition unless carried out on the basis of an explicit Security Council authorization. It is precisely the sort of unilateralism that the Charter, and post-1945 international law, made unlawful. In this context there was no urgency or necessity to strike immediately that might have made the departure from Charter norms seem more reasonable. Of course, Security Council authorization would not have been forthcoming, given the near certainty that Russia would use its veto. In that sense, assuming the attribution of responsibility for the chemical weapons attack to the Assad regime holds up, which is by no means assured, there is a dilemma presented when the moral and political case for action is strong, but lacks an ample justification in international law.

 

Of course, international law has for more three decades given way to the dictates of counterterrorism policies, which have featured retaliatory strikes ordered by American presidents without international authorization. Has this pattern of essentially unchallenged practice by the U.S. Government done away with the legal constraints of the UN Charter? Some jurists suggest that state practice of this character creates new expectations about the scope of legality of international uses of force by states in addressing security threats posed by non-state actors or by internal threats of state/society atrocities as here and in the Kosovo War of 1999. In a decentralized world, lacking governmental authority at regional and global levels, it seems regressive to endorse this return to a state of affairs where warfare is discretionary, and international law and respect for the authority of the United Nations are reduced to considerations of convenience and self-interest, and thus, as here, when inconvenient, a powerful state can use force with unconditional impunity in pursuit of its foreign policy goals.

 

There are also accompanying prudential questions about recourse to a military response in this instance where the intended target is the internationally recognized government of a sovereign state that is engaged in a protracted civil war. Is this a further challenge to state-centric world order? Will the attack magnify the conflict still further rather than deter Assad and make a political compromise more likely? Will the antagonism of Russia and Iran make it more difficult to bring the conflict to an end by reliance on diplomacy? There is no way to answer such questions beyond the observation that where, as here, international law opposes recourse to force, the risks of further escalation are considerable, and the rise of geopolitical tensions inevitable, the presumption should be strongly against a military response.

 

Then there are domestic questions about whether it is okay for an American president to resort to an international use of force without some sort of Congressional debate and authorization (short of a Declaration of War). Again Trump has plenty of precedents for acting without a specific Congressional authorization from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Executive warmaking authority was definitely increased after the 9/11 attacks, and given a limited, although broad, legislative imprimatur in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) statute of 2001. AUMF is limited to those forces responsible for the 9/11 attacks and ‘associated forces,’ which the Obama presidency interpreted to extend to Al Qaeda wherever located, and without any time horizon. It seems beyond doubt that constitutionalism in the war/peace context has been severely weakened over the course of the last 70 years, and this latest episode just continues the trend. It would seem that where there is no necessity to act instantly and where there is no formal UN authorization, the underlying republican commitment to checks and balances to avoid abuses of power, should have led Trump to seek authorization from Congress, and in light of his failure to do so, a critical reaction from Congress.

 

There are two clusters of serious questions raised. Is this a new turn toward belligerent internationalism by the Trump presidency that will shape the near future of American foreign policy in the Middle East, and possibly elsewhere? Does the reversion to unilateralism with respect to international uses of force heighten the risks of geopolitical escalation and large-scale warfare, including possibly the threat or use of nuclear weapons?

 

 

 

 

Rethinking the Arab Spring: Uprisings, Counterrevolution, Chaos, and Global Reverberations

16 Dec

[Prefatory Note: the post below was previously published in the Third World Quarterly 37 (No. 12): 2322-2334 (2016). At this point, following the election of Donald Trump as the next American president, there are likely to be significant geopolitical adjustments with related regional impacts. It is possible that cooperation between Russia and the United States will be forthcoming for the purpose of ending civil strife in Syria and Yemen, defeating religious extremism in the region, and maintaining the Iran nuclear agreement. If Trump carried out his campaign pledges to avoid regime change, democracy promotion, and violent conflicts in distant countries, there could be a gradual lessening of turmoil throughout the Middle East. Yet such a hopeful course is not by any means assured, given Trump’s impulsive tendencies and the kind of ultra-militarists he will be relying upon to shape national security policy. The coming years are likely to be a rough ride for various reasons, including the swing in parts of Asia and Europe, as well as the United States, toward an embrace of right-wing populism that includes the rise of the popular autocrat. The most relevant reflection relating to my essay is ‘What became of the Arab Uprisings? Why did their promise dissipate so quickly? What can we expect in the next five years?’]

 

 

Rethinking the Arab Spring: Uprisings, Counterrevolution, Chaos, and Global Reverberations

 

Attaching the label ‘Arab Spring’ to the remarkable events of 2011 already seems quaint, if not a complete misnomer. Looking back five years later, rather than a pathway to a better future, what is unfolding is a darkening of an already quite dismal regional political canvas. Yet whether this darkening is the final outcome rather than a midway point in a process whose outcome cannot now be foreseen lies at the core of interpretative uncertainty.

 

This article attempts an overview of salient developments during this turbulent period, as well as an extremely selective mention of antecedent occurrences that deepen our understanding of what I continue to call the Arab Spring, partly for convenience, but also to acknowledge the excitement that was brought about by a series of dramatic popular uprisings against entrenched authoritarian regimes that occurred throughout the Middle East during the year of 2011.

 

One significant observation centers on the much weaker resonance of the Arab Spring experience and counterrevolutionary aftermath in relation to the various monarchies in the Arab world as compared to the states with secular governing processes. Explaining more adequately this apparent structural difference requires consideration of the situation prevailing in each monarchy, but the monarchies as a whole seemed to possess greater legitimacy than their secular neighbors. This was reinforced by some transnational connections among royal families, various ties with the Islamic religious establishment and as a result of their relative wealth that enabled the population to be pacified through state subsidies and other material benefits.

 

Antecedents

 

The Arab uprisings of 2011 were preceded by a variety of developments that set the stage for what happened additional to the obvious conditions pertaining throughout the region: a governing process that was corrupt and repressive producing deep discontent and sharp class divisions; massive poverty and joblessness accentuating growing gaps between the privileged wealthy elite and the rest of society. Of course, these overall regional conditions produced different political configurations depending on distinct national circumstances that prevailed in each country, including the character of political leadership and the quality of the governmental machinery.

 

There were four developments in the Middle East that gave religion a particular relevance to these political events. First of all, the widespread sense that secular nationalism had not performed effectively during the period of independence, a view that was intensified by the disappointed post-colonial expectations of the population and the unfulfilled promises of the early post-independence leaders. This disillusionment among the citizenry also extended to the failure of these recently independent states to uphold the sovereign integrity of the country in response to Western intrusive designs.

 

These perceptions in the Arab World were strengthened by a decade of success enjoyed by the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, which was perceived as partly a beneficial result of the Islamic orientation of the political leadership. Secondly, the resilience of the Iranian Revolution that had assumed power in 1979, imposed theocratic rule on the Iranian people, and yet managed to withstand a variety of hostile pressures mounted from outside its borders. Thirdly, the deployment of major resources by Saudi Arabia to spread Islamic militancy throughout the region, and beyond. Fourthly, the unlawful 2003 military intervention in Iraq and its subsequent occupation as a result of the joint efforts of the United States and the United Kingdom. One feature of this occupation was to deepen the Sunni/Shi’a rivalry in ways that contributed to the rise of jihadism throughout the Middle East and to foster sectarian alignments that magnified the scale of violence in Syria and Yemen.

 

Further in the historical background, but exerting a significant influence in the shaping of events and helping to explain the varied national experiences of order and chaos that afflicted Middle East countries, were two other impositions by extra-regional forces of the West.[1] Above all, the diplomacy that ended World War I created conditions that generated internal conflict and regional instability in forms that persist a century later. Perhaps, the most notorious of the results of the aftermath of World War I was the implementation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which exhibited the colonial ambitions of the UK and France with respect to the allocation of the territorial spoils associated with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.[2] Such a development not only represented a European betrayal of promises made to Arab nationalist leaders during World War I, but it inflicted arbitrary borders and artificial political communities on the region.[3] Under such conditions, only coercive and authoritarian rule could hope to achieve stability. The ‘Democracy Promotion’ ideas implemented during the George W. Bush presidency as a legitimating goal of military intervention in Iraq was a spectacular and discrediting failure. Tragically, Iraq since 2003 has vacillated between severe domestic violent chaos and restored and abusive authoritarianism that reflected the Shi’a sectarian bias of the American governing process imposed upon the country to carry out its project of neoliberal state-building, a dynamic that is significantly responsible for the emergence of ISIS.[4]

 

The Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising the world Zionist movement British support for the establishment a Jewish homeland in Palestine, has also been a major contributor to the troubles of the region.[5] emergence of the state of Israel reflected contradictory European motivations. It was at once a consequence of colonialist interference with the rights of self-determination enjoyed by the Palestinian people and much later a humanitarian/political response to the horrifying Jewish experience of the Holocaust. Whatever its origins, the rise of Israel as a regional military power in defiance of Palestinian rights and the views of Arab majorities has injected a permanently destabilizing element that is both a cruel legacy of the colonial era and a periodic source of political tension and confrontation that has given rise to a series of wars in the region and a constant atmosphere of tension.

 

It is against this background that the Arab Spring erupted in 2011 as a shock to the widely shared perception that regardless of these deficiencies of the regional order, the established political order was ultra-stable for better or worse. It was believed that the Arab publics were disposed to be submissive and passive, making prospects of populist challenges to the political status quo out of the question.[6] Intelligence agencies and academic experts completely overlooked the political relevance of these antecedents to the Arab Spring, and thus failed to take note of forces at work that were below the surface, becoming dramatically active as agents of challenge, even if not in the end successful as agents of change.

 

 

The Arab Spring can be interpreted from various angles. It seems sensible to distinguish developments in Egypt and Tunisia from those in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. And further to distinguish between the secular states in the region that experienced sustained uprisings and strong countervailing forces from the monarchies that remained stable although despite signs of widespread discontent.

 

 

The Arab Uprisings: Tunisia and Egypt

 

As is now widely known, the series of uprisings in the Arab world started with a typical incident illustrative of the suffering of the poor, but rarely giving rise to political repercussions of national, and even regional and global proportions. The chain reaction of political escalating political developments that produced widespread turbulence in Tunisia started on 17 December 2010. A small vegetable street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi in the interior Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzed set himself on fire after being humiliated and his plea rejected by a minor municipal official, dying a few days later amid a growing furor. Apparently, the underlying situation was so unstable that this single act of self-immolation provided the spark that produced a massive uprising challenging the dictatorial and repressive leadership of the country on the basis of a series of grievance associated with joblessness, massive poverty, corruption, food inflation, and the denial of elementary freedoms. The protest activity continued for many days, concentrating its anger and demands on the person of Zine Abidine Ben Ali, a Tunisian strongman who had ruled the country since 1987. By 14 January Ben Ali abdicated to Saudi Arabia where he was given asylum, and a struggle for a new governing process ensued.

 

What was notable in Tunisia, and the pattern elsewhere, was the mismatch between wildly ambitious expectations of those on the streets for a new social, economic, and political order and the relatively limited demands for change set forth by the militants. The only specific demand was for Ben Ali to give up his leadership role, and for a reformist constitutional process to be put in place. As elsewhere in the Middle East, the Islamic forces were best organized among the opposition groups, and quickly assumed control of the political process under the leadership of Mohamed Ghannouchi of the Ennahda Movement. The process was not smoothe, and two sets of forces created trouble for this effort to reform the Tunisian governing process. One was militant Islam that rejected the pluralist and inclusive approach favored by Ghannouchi and the other was the secularists who were opposed to the slightest taint of Islamic influence in the governing process. There were political assassinations, turbulent elections, terrorist incidents, but also a willingness to allow a process of compromise take hold that ended up maintaining continuity with the past and ensuring moderation in the present. In this regard, for all its trials and tribulations, Tunisia not only initiated the Arab Spring but has alone among the states affected, achieved so far achieved a steady forward democratizing momentum.[7]

 

Egypt, in many ways the most important of Arab states, followed a much different path than Tunisia after its own spectacular movement succeeding Hosni Mubarak who had ruled the country for three decades. Its uprising centered in Tahrir Square, and was initially notable for its relative nonviolence and for the use of social media to mobilize support, succeeded in getting Mubarak to give up power, and accept internal exile in summer home. It appeared in early 2011 to be a great victory for democratic forces that inspired activists in many parts of the world, a major stimulant of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. and Britain.[8]

 

The formidable Islamic presence in Egypt was centered in the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), whose leadership has long been kept in prison and was confined to largely underground political activities and the dispensing of social services in communities throughout the country. At first, the MB calmed secular concerns by pledging not to compete in many of Egypt’s political provinces during a series of legislative elections and also not to field a candidate of its own in the all important presidential elections. When it turned out that the MB won dominating support in the legislative elections, results augmented by electoral successes of new Salafi parties, it prompted both the MB and its rivals to reconsider the future of the country. It was this show of strength that undoubtedly led the MB to withdraw their pledge, and compete everywhere in the country and to put forward a MB leader when it came time to elect a president. And there is no doubt that the prospect of Islamic control of the political destiny of the country caused worry and a shift in outlook on the part of many urban Egyptians who had originally supported the uprising.

 

These developments cast a cloud over the victories of Tahrir Square. Although there was an initial consensus that the MB should be allowed to compete politically as part of a move toward inclusive democracy, this mood among the secular elites of Egypt quickly dissipated. The secular elites had originally supposed that MB strength would be no more than 30% in terms of legislative participation, and this could be accepted, but when it turned out to be double that level, a dire prospect confronted secularists: Either Egypt will become dominated by the secretive, hierarchical MB and sharia law or it must revert to an authoritarian form of governance. The seeming unanimity of the Tahrir period disappeared, with the liberal supporters of the anti-Mubarak movement now either withdrawing or joining forces with falool, or remnant of the Mubarak Era. It became clear that the old regime had substantially survived the downfall of the leader, and that the Egyptian armed forces held the key to the future of the country.

 

It seemed that the Egyptian armed forces remained passive in the early stages of the uprising and its aftermath. In an important respect, the uprising achieved an outcome to the liking of the armed forces, namely, disqualifying Mubarak’s two sons from succeeding their father in the governance of the country. There were even indications that the MB and the armed forces had made a deal exchanging political support for assurances that the privileges of the military with respect to budget and a large stake in the private sector would not be challenged. But then things started to go wrong. The MB candidate, Mohamed Morsi, narrowly won the national elections, and secular forces in the government and society refused to accept this outcome, doing their best to create a crisis of legitimacy that would destabilize the elected government. At the same time, Morsi once sworn in as the Egyptian president displayed no skill or tact in managing the governing process, and quickly alienated and frightened minorities, especially the Copts, and handled the economy in a manner that gave few hopes of either equity or growth. Tourism and commercial life declined sharply, and within a few months there were many whispers from former supporters of the uprising that things had been better under Mubarak. At least tourists came then, and small businesses flourished.

 

A second popular movement took hold, actually larger than the one that captured the world imagination in 2011, culminating in huge street demonstrations and a widely supported coup led by General Abdel Fattah el- Sisi, the current president. The coup has been followed by a bloody repression of the MB, and more recently, anyone who criticized the regime faced torture and prison. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt is now more authoritarian than under Mubarak, and although enjoying vast economic support from the Gulf countries and strong backing of the Egyptian armed forces, it has not found a way to revive the economy or to satisfy the grievances of the poor and unemployed.

 

We note then that Tunisia and Egypt as of 2016 have seemingly reached very different outcomes, but perhaps examined more closely, the present phase of governance is not that dissimilar. To be sure, Tunisia has managed a transition to a democratic process, although it is beset by unresolved problems and faces serious threats of disruption. Yet as of now, it has navigated the turbulent waters, partly by not threatening the Ben Ali bureaucracy or class structure, and partly by working out some viable accommodation with Islamic forces and their flexible and realistic leadership.

Egypt, in contrast, has achieved comparable continuity with the past, but by

jumps and starts, accompanied by harsh and bloody crackdowns. Neither country has found a way to overcome the fundamental economic difficulties arising from mass poverty, accompanying unemployment, corruption, and gross forms of inequality, and both are vulnerable to spikes in food prices or renewed global economic recession, and possibly to renewed political agitation.

 

 

The Arab Uprisings: Syria, Libya, and Yemen

 

The same societal longing for change evident in Tunisia and Egypt was experienced elsewhere in the region. This anti-regime political mood led quickly to a further series of popular uprisings in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Unlike the Tunisian achievement of an incremental transition to a more democratic form of governance and in contrast with the Egyptian moves toward democracy generating a counterrevolutionary reaction that restored authoritarian governance, Syria, Yemen, and Libya have each in its own way experienced sustained civil strife that has caused major suffering for the civilian population and led to the collapse of orderly governance. Although the regional dimensions of state/society relations helps explain the similarity of the challenges mounted against the status quo, the specific situation in each country, especially the contrasting national reactions of the governmental leadership account for the great differences from country to country. One further similarity is the presence of a resolve by the ruler and his immediate entourage to use state police and military power to override the societal demands for drastic reforms.

 

A significant point of contrast with Tunisia and Egypt concerns the presence and degree of foreign intervention in the conflict arising subsequent to the uprising. It is notable that the events in Tunisia and Egypt unfolded primarily in response to the play of internal political forces, although especially in Egypt outside hidden influences, especially on the armed forces and via foreign economic assistance, were exerted to uncertain degrees by both the United States and Saudi Arabia.

 

In the cases of Syria, Yemen, and Libya, all currently beset by severe disorder the magnitude of the political violence following upon a challenge to the established national governing process was greatly increased by direct and indirect forms of foreign intervention emanating from the region and beyond. The unfortunate effects of these interventions, although very different in the three instances, adds to the strong arguments against military intervention, even when it is authorized by the UN as was the case with Libya.[9]

 

Syria. In Syria, the leadership from the initial expressions of protest in the southern city of Daraa, responded violently and the movement of opposition seemed to grow and spread rapidly, assuming the form of an armed insurgency. The United States and Turkey after a short interval were open in their support of the Syrian rebel forces, as was Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although it soon became evident that the opposition to the Damascus regime headed by Bashar al-Assad was very fragmented. At the same time for the first year or so of the insurgency it was widely believed that Assad regime would be quickly overthrown.

 

Such an expectation turned out to be misguided. The armed forces of the Syrian government were well equipped and trained, possessing advanced anti-aircraft defense systems and other modern weaponry. Furthermore, the Alawite leadership in Damascus had the backing of the Christian and Druze minorities in the country, except for the Kurds, and were largely supported by the urban business community. Beyond this, Russia and Iran were engaged allies, and rendered material and diplomatic assistance, as was Hezbollah, which supplied significant number of combat troops. The Syrian struggle was bloody from the outset, and casualty totals are now put at over 250,000 killed, and at least half of the total population of an estimated 23 million either internally displaced or refugees.

 

There have been many international initiatives seeking both ceasefire and a more vigorous Western intervention.[10] The situation has grown ever more complicated with the rise of ISIS as a leading anti-Assad force and the efforts of Syrian Kurds both to fight on the ground against ISIS and to establish a de facto state of their own on the ground. These developments have greatly confused the alignments of intervening state and non-state political actors. Priorities for the United States and Europe have shifted to emphasize the struggle against ISIS, minimizing the goal of replacing the Assad leadership, while those of Turkey alternate back and forth between anti-Kurdish and anti-Assad objectives.

 

What has given the Syrian aftermath of the Arab Spring a particular historical relevance is its character, which seems to epitomize the new shape of warfare in 21st century.[11] The originality of this terrible civil strife is the extent of extra-national spillover from the struggle in the form of massive flows of refugees and transnational terrorism extending the battlefield beyond Syria to include the foreign sources of intervention including Turkey, Europe, and even the United States; the multi-layered and contradictory mix of state and non-state actors involved pursuing shifting and sometimes inconsistent goals, and the intermixture of regional and global intervening governments and political movements. The Syrian struggle exhibits also a distinctive form of hybridity, mixing a conflict between the state and a mobilized domestic opposition with both a struggle to contain a terrorist actor that controls substantial territory, sectarian alignments, and involving an armed effort by the Syrian Kurdish minority to achieve de facto statehood. As well, the intervening actors have their own diverse goals that are often at cross-purposes and confused by shifting and contradictory priorities: anti-Assad at first, then anti-Russian and anti-Iranian, then pro- and anti-ISIS as well as pro- and anti-Kurdish, and not to be overlooked, pro- and anti- Islamist, pro- and anti-Sunni. It is hardly an exaggeration to contend that there has never been such a multi-dimensional and hybrid war in all of history. It is also evident that geopolitical standoffs and the limits of interventionary leverage make it dangerous and imprudent to act coercively to shape the political outcome of the conflict.

 

Libya. Libya, at first, seemed to follow closely the pattern established by Tunisia and Egypt. A popular uprising against an abusive dictatorial leadership under Muammar Qaddafi who ruled the country for decades, managing to suppress the ethnic and tribal tensions that defied national cohesion and sustained by abundant energy resources. The uprising quickly turned violent, abetted by the involvement of European foreign advisors, and Qaddafi responded violently, refusing to give ground, and raising global concerns by condemning opposition forces with hysterical rhetoric that had a genocidal edge. Several Western countries expressed humanitarian concern, convened the UN Security Council, and despite skepticism achieved a mandate to establish a No Fly Zone to protect the imminently threatened civilian population of Benghazi. The limits embedded in the Security Council mandate, which was a weak endorsement of military force in view of abstentions from five important countries, were ignored from the outset of the military operation carried out under NATO auspices.[12] Instead of protecting the beleaguered Benghazi population from advancing government troops, Tripoli was bombed, and a regime-changing undertaking was implemented, ending with a grisly execution of Qaddafi by rebel forces.

 

What ensued in Libya has been a series of failed state-building undertakings that have left the society in chaotic turmoil, dominated by local militias and

tribal rivalries, lacking an effective central government. The political disorder has also created a situation in which ISIS has been able to establish a strong presence, posing a threat to local and Western security interests that had not existed during the Qaddafi period. Libya’s instability seems likely to persist, and contrasts with the kind of repressive stability (except in the Sinai) achieved in Sisi’s Egypt and the sort of fragile constitutionalism that has so far survived in Tunisia.

 

The Libyan aftermath is distinctive in several respects. Above all, as with Iraq, it suggests that from a Western perspective and in terms of domestic public order, military intervention does not deliver on its promise to produce a more humane form of governance even when it succeeds in toppling the authoritarian regime and encouraging the emergence of a constitutional order. In Libya as in Iraq the abuses of the old political order seem far less destructive than the violence, devastation, and displacement caused by a heavy handed foreign intervention. Instead of ‘democracy promotion’ what took place in Libya, as earlier in Iraq, is best described as ‘chaos promotion,’ and as the region is now constituted, this also opens the door to political extremism that can flourish in ways that were never possible in the old order.

 

The Libyan intervention was costly in other ways, as well. The manipulation of the Security Council by understating the goals and nature of the contemplated intervention completely undermined the trust that had led the five skeptical members to abstain rather than cast negative votes, which in the case of Russia and China would have nullified any UN authorization due to their right of veto. As it turned out, these memories of institutional manipulation from Libya, impeded a possibly more constructive role for the UN in response to the strife in Syria.

 

Of course, there are relevant questions raised about why intervention in one country but not in others. Is the oil dimension part of the explanation of large-scale interventions in Iraq, and then later after the Arab Spring, in Libya, but not to anything like to the same degree in Syria or Yemen, which lacked oil and did not offer lucrative prospects for construction arrangements to repair the damage wrought by the ‘shock and awe’ tactics relied upon by foreign interventions from the air.

 

Yemen. As elsewhere, the popular uprising in Yemen was at first directed at the hated, corrupt, and abusive ruler, Ali Abdellah Salah, producing a raging state/society struggle that remains inconclusive. The challenge to the established order also revived geographic and ethnic tensions involving the Houthi minority in the north, and introduced a regional proxy dimension to the internal conflict. The Houthi were Shi’a and perceived by the Gulf monarchies as an extension of Iran’s influence, which induced Saudi Arabia to side with the challenged regime, eventually producing a large-scale intervention taking the form of punishing air attacks, causing widespread devastation and considerable civilian loss of life, and yet not managing so far to control the political destiny of the country. The outcome in Yemen hangs in the balance, remains in doubt, but once more reinforces the impression that external intervention to control the political dynamics of a country in the wake of the Arab Spring is likely to produce negative results, and make the old order, as objectionable as it was, seem less damaging to the society than the counterrevolutionary effort to defeat the societal forces seeking change.

 

Several conclusions emerge: (1) the original uprising in Yemen was a further regional indication that the authoritarian political order was deeply resented by significant portions of the citizenry; (2) unlike Egypt and Tunisia, but in manner resembling Syria and Libya, the challenged regime fought back rather than gave way to the popular movement; (3) as with Syria, the internal balance led to a prolonged struggle that remains unresolved, with no transition to a new normalcy in the offing; (4) Yemen’s difficulties were compounded to the extent that the internal struggle was also perceived as containing sectarian implications, prompting a ferocious Saudi intervention, but unlike the anti-regime intervention in Libya, the intervention in Yemen was pro-regime.

 

The Monarchies. The Arab Spring phenomenon had clear reverberations in the main monarchies in the MENA region, especially Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco. Protest demonstrations occurred in these countries but were quickly contained, often accompanied by royal pledges of economic and political reforms that promised the citizenry greater economic equity and more meaningful participation in the governing process.

 

As with secular governments, the monarchies had their own distinctive national characteristics that explain some differences in the response of governments and regional actors. For instance, Bahrain, partly because of its Shi’a majority and the presence of a major American naval base was perceived as the most vulnerable to a credible internal insurrectionary challenge. To forestall such an eventuality, Saudi Arabia intervened with ground forces and helped the kingdom restore stability by suppressing the opposition, and imprisoning civil society leaders, including advocates of human rights. Jordan and Morocco, both having strong internal security forces, met opposition activity with police discipline and some royal gestures of accommodation. In Morocco and especially Saudi Arabia the relationship between Islam and the state contributed to the stability and legitimacy of the prevailing political order, although in Saudi Arabia these conditions were reinforced by a pervasive set of oppressive constraints, which included human rights outrages that rivaled the behavior of ISIS in their disregard of standards of civilized law enforcement, especially with respect to women and the Shi’a minority.

 

The case of Saudi Arabia is particularly illustrative of the interplay between the Arab Spring and geopolitics. Because of the special relationship with the United States, Saudi Arabia like Israel, enjoys unconditional support from Washington. This included turning a blind eye to beheadings and public displays of severed heads of dissidents and more incredibly, overlooking Saudi support for jihadi terrorism throughout the region, including evidence of startup funding of ISIS.[13] This special relationship was initially based on the importance of positive relations for the West with Gulf oil production and reserves, seen as a vital strategic interest ever since the end of World War II, but it has persisted in recent years despite the falling price of oil and the diminished dependence on Gulf reserves due to the development of other energy sources.

 

There are other developments in the five years since the Arab Spring that help

explain the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser degree, the other monarchies. Principal among these are the combined search for regional stability, positive connectivity to the neoliberal world economy, and the encouragement of convergent interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel. This latter development became especially evident in Saudi tacit support for Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014. The rationale for convergence was the supposed links between Hamas and Iran, as well as the perception of Hamas as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. As is evident both Hamas and the MB are Sunni in orientation, making it clear that the overriding Saudi priority is the insulation of its royalist regime from hostile forces regardless of whether Sunni or Shi’a. In this regard, the sectarian card is played pragmatically to oppose the regional ambitions of Iran in several national settings, but sectarianism does not explain Saudi hostility to MB grassroots Islamic movements, which are seen as possibly encouraging to anti-royalist social movements throughout the region and hence treated as threatening.

 

Concluding Observations

 

The most striking conclusion is to appreciate that from the perspective of 2016, the counterrevolutionary reaction to the Arab Spring seems far more durable than the challenges posed by the 2011 uprisings, none of which created an enduring discontinuity with the authoritarian antecedents. Tunisia came closest, but it preserved relative stability after the uprising, despite being punctuated by Islamic extremist challenges and secularist anxieties. The political leadership maintained continuity in both the governmental bureaucracy and among the privileged elite. It did permanently rid the country of the authoritarian leader, as did Egypt, but with the latter, authoritarianism returned to govern in an even more oppressive form.

 

In many ways, the Egyptian and Syrian stories are the most influential and pronounced legacies of the Arab Spring. Egypt is the keystone state of the Arab World with the secretariat of the Arab League located in Cairo. The Egyptian uprising seemed to expressed the highest hopes of the Arab Spring through the remarkable upsurge of peaceful oppositional gatherings in Tahrir Square. Yet two years later the uprising and its reformist hopes were completely erased, and replaced by the restoration of the old order, astonishingly with the blessings of the overwhelming majority of Egyptian people. Mass disillusionment with the post-Tahrir political process had resulted from the failure of electoral democracy to bring either improvements in material circumstances or respect for the new political leadership.

 

In contrast to Egypt, Syria is emblematic of what can ensue when the inspirational encouragement of the Arab Spring challenges a regime that is determined to prevail even at the cost of unleashing virtually unlimited warfare against its own people and destroy its own cities. The Syrian experience is illustrative of the tragedies that befall an insurrectionary challenge that cannot shift the balance of forces against the status quo. Syria also illustrates the regional stakes of such a national struggle, as well as sectarian rivalry that produced a regional proxy war, with Iran and Hezbollah supporting the Assad government and Saudi Arabia siding with the rebel forces. Additionally, Russia with its only warm water naval base in Syria, a circumstance similar to that of the United States in Bahrain, not surprisingly allied with Damascus, while an opposing geopolitics led the United States to support anti-Assad so-called moderate forces.

What seems evident in retrospect is that none of the movements that followed the Tunisian uprising were sufficiently revolutionary to create the intended discontinuity in terms of freedoms, constitutional governance, and economic growth and equity. Again the Egyptian case is most illustrative. The very qualities of mounting a nonviolent challenge against Mubarak based on stirring displays of religious and societal unity, with an avoidance of program or leadership, produced a political vacuum filled on the one side by the Muslim Brotherhood and on the opposite side by adherents of the established order. When a showdown came, as might be expected the armed forces, relied upon to manage the political transition, mounted a counterrevolutionary coup and suppressed the MB. It completed a dynamic featuring a triumphant and popular counterrevolution following upon a fractured series of failures to create societal progress in post-Mubarak Egypt.

 

Finally, what we learn from these developments in the Middle East that have occurred during the past five years is the close links between national, regional, and global confrontations and differential priorities. Such strong interconnectedness gives alignments and military interventions of varying degrees of overtness, with the Libyan experience being at one end of the spectrum and Egypt at the other end due to its apparent relative national autonomy. Syria, above all, has been grossly victimized during the past five years by seeming to invite struggles for ascendancy by an array of external state and non-state political actors compounding the state/society strife occasioned by the Arab Spring.

 

As this time, the only future that can be discerned is seen through a glass darkly, meaning persisting chaos or oppressive authoritarian governance. [14]There are no trustworthy bright spots, although the fragile polities of Tunisia and Lebanon seem at least for the present to have avoided the worst of the counterrevolutionary storm, but neither has much assurance that future developments could bring chaos and internal strife.

 

 

[1] For perceptive overview see Mohammed Ayoob, Will the Middle East Implode?

[2] See Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans

[3] For assessment of World War I peace diplomacy on contemporary Middle East see Richard Falk, Power Shift: On the New Global Order, Chapter 9.

[4] See Daniel Byman, Al Qaeda, The Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement; also helpful, Phyllis Bennis, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.

[5] Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict;

see also Victor Kattan, From Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1891-1949.

[6] See Farhad Khosrokhavar, The New Arab Revolutions that Shook the World; also, Richard Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring

[7] See Khosrokhavar, Chapter 2.

[8] An insider account is Wael Ghonim, Revolution 2.0; see also Khosrokhavar, Chapter 3.

[9] On humanitarian intervention see Fabian Klose, ed., The Emergence of Humanitarian Intervention; Rajan Menon, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention;

Richard Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution

[10] For a range of views see Nader Hashemi & Danny Postel, eds., The Syria Dilemma

[11] What has ensued in Syria goes far beyond Mary Kaldor’s innovative analysis of new wars in Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars, 3rd ed..

[12] For text see Security Council Res. 1973 (2011), including its provocatively ambiguous phrase authorizing ‘all necessary measures’ to enforce the No Fly Zone.

[13] See citations Note 4.

[14] For varied assessments see Marc Lynch, The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East; Richard Javad Heydarian, How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings; Falk, Chaos and Counterrevolution.

A Warming of US/Turkish Relations?

19 Sep

 

[Prefatory Note: a prior version of this post was published by Al Jazeera Turka; there are continuing concerns in Washington and Ankara about whether and to what degree United States-Turkey relations can be restored; it depends on the behavior of the two governments, and likely will be influenced by the outcome of the American presidential elections.]

 

 

It may seem a bit strange that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Barack Obama had to travel all the way to Hangzhou, China to take a welcome step toward restoring good relations between the two countries. But this is the way with 21st century diplomacy. Leaders meet in groups all over the planet, and were in Hangzhou between September 4 and 6 for the annual G-20 gathering devoted to global economic policy, and some seized the opportunity to conduct bilateral diplomacy. In this vein the most notable achievements of the 2016 G-20 meeting is probably best associated with so-called ‘sideline meetings’ that are not part of the group agenda. What is likely to be longest remembered such occurrence after the political leaders go home is not what was agreed upon about global inequality or stimulating growth but rather the dramatic joint ratification of the Paris Climate Change Agreement by China and the United States, the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses.

 

Another feature of modern diplomacy is the importance of tone, nuance, and atmospherics. What Erdoğan and Obama achieved was mainly in this realm of intangible signs of mutual appreciation and understanding. It was undoubtedly pleasing for Erdoğan to hear the American president refer to the events of July 15th as “terrible coup attempt.” And further, when Obama expressed his admiration for the way the Turkish people took to the streets to defend democracy and support the elected government. Such sentiments convey a spirit of solidarity that was noticeably missing throughout the earlier diplomatic discourse. It contrasts, for instance, with what John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, said on July 15th, the night of the failed coup, which seemed indifferent to the fate of Turkey’s democratic government even when violent challenge by the failed putsch. In his statement Kerry called for “stability and peace and continuity within Turkey,” which was correctly heard by the Turkish people and their leaders as, at best, a statement of neutrality as to which side was favored by Washington, and seemed to express the view that as long as there was stability in Turkey and continuity with respect to the West, the United States ‘had no dog in the fight.’

 

When Obama personalized his message by saying “this is the first opportunity that I have had to meet face to face with President Erdoğan” since July 15, and then added, “We’re glad you’re here, safe, and that we are able to continue to work together” it contributed a tone of personal warmth to the reaffirmation of the critical strategic relationship between the two countries. When it came to the issues that have recently caused tensions between Turkey and the United States nothing very concrete transpired, at least in public. Obama talked about unity in fighting against ISIS, while Erdoğan stressed the importance of opposing all terrorist groups. Underneath these vague assertions was the apparently persisting disagreement about how to deal with Kurdish anti-ISIS and anti-Assad political actors, especially the Syrian militia, YPG (Popular Protection Unit) that the US treats as an ally and Turkey views as a Syrian extension of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), and as such, regards as a terrorist organization. From what was made public no steps were made by either side to change their approach, but the atmosphere of collaboration at Hangzhou suggests that the two leaders at least listened to each other’s concerns, and were careful to avoid any confrontation.

 

Without doubt the complexity of the Syrian conflict is such that none of the participants have pursued a consistent course of action that avoids contradictions, and this is certainly true of the United States and Turkey. I would expect a tacit understanding of the differing priorities of the two governments to emerge, allowing tensions over Syrian policy to diminish, if not disappear. Turkey and the United States agree on ISIS and support for anti-Assad forces, but also on urgently seeking a prolonged ceasefire as a prelude to some kind of political compromise that ends the conflict. It seems likely that the U.S. will quietly defer to Turkey’s insistence on avoiding a Kurdish de facto state bordering Turkey in northern Syria. This will not be the first time that the United States has opportunistically relied on Kurdish armed militias during a conflict only to withdraw their support at a later stage when greater strategic interests, as here, present themselves. In this regard, American relations with the YPG are likely to deteriorate as those with Ankara improve, especially on joint policy in Syria.

 

The same reliance on atmospherics rather than tangible results was evident in dealing with the equally delicate issue of the extradition of Fethullah Gülen. Obama affirmed the importance of bringing the coup perpetrators to justice and offered full cooperation on the mechanics of the extradition process. For his part, Erdoğan spoke of gathering evidence to establish convincingly the link between the allegations and the event. In Turkey there is virtually no dissent from that part of the official version of the coup attempt that charges Fethullah Gülen with being the mastermind, which underlies a strong consensus that he should be extradited to face criminal charges in a Turkish court. In Europe and the United States where Gülenist influence remains surprisingly strong, skepticism remains as to who should be blamed for the coup, and there is a tendency to doubt the Turkish insistence that it was the work of the Gülen movement, and its mysterious leader who claims spiritual power and supposedly runs the organization with an iron hand. The Hangzhou meeting sidestepped this underlying awkwardness probably to avoid spoiling the efforts of both leaders to reaffirm the relationship and even to imply adherence to common goals in Syria.

 

Shortly before the meeting in China, Obama made a constructive statement in a CNN interview: “What we want to do is indicate to them [Turkey] the degree to which we support the Turkish people, but like any good friend we want to give them honest feedback if we think the steps they’re taking were going to be contrary to their long-term interests and our partnership.” What is notable here is Obama’s careful phrasing that avoids condemning the Turkish government for its post-coup attempt efforts to find elements throughout the government and society that were directly or indirectly complicit in the events of July 15. Again this kind of statement contrasts with the many shrill and decontextualized international condemnations of Turkish security measures without any appreciation of the subversive nature of the persisting threat faced by the government. Obama’s statement reaches for higher ground in the ways that Washington conveys concerns about human rights and democracy to Ankara, and although still somewhat patronizing (making it hard to imagine Turkey giving friendly advice to Washinton), it seems fully consistent with the geopolitically conditioned friendship between the two governments. Of course, if Turkey has similarly lectured the United States after the 9/11 attacks about torture or the detention of Muslims it would have been met with anger, but this merely reminds us that international relations is not conducted between equals.

 

In the end, we are left asking whether the spirit of Hangzhou restores the constructive side of the US/Turkish relationship in a lasting manner, seemingly so vital for the future of the region, or whether this is a flash in the pan soon to be forgotten. The fact that Obama’s term is about to end is of concern in this respect, but there is some confidence that Obama’s approach represents a US Government consensus that will endure. What will clarify this prospect, above all, will be the approach taken by the winner of the American presidential elections this November. Also important, the manner that the two governments handle their substantive differences (on Syria, extradition, and likely Russia and Iran), and whether Erdoğan is able to sustain the inclusive approach (unfortunately excluding Kurdish participation) that he has so far mainly taken in Turkish domestic politics after July 15.

 

Undoubtedly, although these issues are all quite explosive, the one that poses the most danger to the future of relations between Turkey and the United States, involves how the extradition request will be handled with respect Fethullah Gülen in the months ahead. A Turkish journalist, Ogüz Kaan Salıcı captured the prevailing mood in Turkey by calling attention to a comment by a member of the Turkish Parliament—“there are only two things 90% of Turks agree upon: That there is a god and that FETO (Fethullah Terrorist Organization) was behind the coup.” If as seems quite likely, the extradition request will be denied in the United States for respectable legal reasons, the Turkish leadership and the public are bound to view the legalistic explanations as political evasions. If this interaction occurs, it will take a diplomatic miracle to avoid a collapse in the long cooperative relationship between the two countries. Their shared interests and long history of close collaboration will be put to one side, at least temporarily. Some wounds are just too deep.

 

Slouching Toward Global Disaster: Chaos and Intervention in the Middle East  

22 Dec

 

The Geopolitical Foreground

 

There are many disturbing signs that the West is creating conditions in the Middle East and Asia that could produce a wider war, most likely a new Cold War, containing, as well, menacing risks of World War III. The reckless confrontation with Russia along its borders, reinforced by provocative weapons deployments in several NATO countries and the promotion of governing regimes hostile to Russia in such countries as Ukraine and Georgia seems to exhibit Cold War nostalgia, and is certainly not the way to preserve peace.

 

Add to this the increasingly belligerent approach recently taken by the United States naval officers and defense officials to China with respect to island disputes and navigational rights in the South China Seas. Such posturing has all the ingredients needed for intensifying international conflict, giving a militarist signature to Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia.’

 

These developments are happening during the supposedly conflict averse Obama presidency. Looking ahead to new leadership, even the most optimistic scenario that brings Hilary Clinton to the White House is sure to make these pre-war drum beats even louder. From a more detached perspective it is fair to observe that Obama seems rather peace-oriented only because American political leaders and the Beltway/media mainstream have become so accustomed to relying on military solutions whether successful or not, whether dangerous and wasteful or not, that is, only by comparison with more hawkish alternatives.

 

The current paranoid political atmosphere in the United States is a further relevant concern, calling for police state governmental authority at home, increased weapons budgets, and the continuing militarization of policing and law enforcement. Such moves encourage an even more militaristic approach to foreign challenges that seem aimed at American and Israeli interests by ISIS, Iran, and China. Where this kind of war-mongering will lead is unknowable, but what is frighteningly clear is that this dangerous geopolitical bravado is likely to become even more strident as the 2016 campaign unfolds to choose the next American president. Already Donald Trump, the clear Republican frontrunner, has seemed to commit the United States to a struggle against all of Islam by his foolish effort to insist that every Muslim is terrorist suspect Islam as a potential terrorist who should be so treated. Even Samuel Huntington were he still alive might not welcome such an advocate of ‘the clash of civilizations’!

 

 

 Historical Deep Roots

 It has taken almost a century for the breakup of the Ottoman Empire to reap the colonialist harvest that was sown in the peace diplomacy that followed World War I. In the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement diplomats of England and France in 1916 secretly negotiated arrangements that would divide up the Middle East into a series of artificially delimited territorial states to be administered as colonies by the respective European governments. Among other wrongs, this devious undertaking representing a betrayal of promises made to Arab leaders that Britain, in particular, would support true independence in exchange for joining the anti-Ottoman and anti-German alliance formed to fight World War I. Such a division of the Ottoman spoils not only betrayed wartime promises of political independence to Arab leaders, but also undermined the efforts of Woodrow Wilson to apply the principle of ethnic self-determination to the Ottoman aftermath.

 

As a result of diplomatic maneuvers the compromise reached at Versailles in 1919 was to accept the Sykes-Picot borders that were drawn to satisfy colonial ambitions for trade routes and spheres of influence, but to disguise slightly its colonialist character, by creating an international system of mandates for the Middle East in which London and Paris would administer the territories, accepting a vague commitment to lead the various societies to eventual political independence at some unspecified future time. These Sykes-Picot ‘states’ were artificial political communities that never overcame the indigenous primacy of ethnic, tribal, and religious affinities, and could be maintained as coherent political realities only by creating oppressive state structures. If World War II had not sapped European colonial will and capabilities, it is easy to imagine that the societies of the Middle East would remain subjugated under mandate banners.

 

After World War II

 

Is it any wonder, then, that the region has been extremely beset by various forms of authoritarian rule ever since the countries of the Middle East gained their independence after the end of the Second World War? Whether in the form of dynastic monarchies or secular governments, the stability that was achieved in the region depended on the denial of human rights, including rights of democratic participation, as well as the buildup of small privileged and exploitative elites that linked national markets and resources to the global economic order. And as oil became the prime strategic resource, the dominance of the region became for the West led by the United States as absolutely vital. From these perspectives the stable authoritarianism of the region was quite congenial with the Cold War standoff between the United States and Soviet Union that was interested in securing strategic and economic partnerships reflecting the ideological rivalries, while being indifferent to whether or not the people were being victimized by abusive and brutal governments.

 

The American commitment to this status quo in the Middle East was most vividly expressed in 1980 after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution of the prior year by the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine. President Carter in his State of the Union Address was warning the Soviet Union by a strong diplomatic signal that the United States was ready to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf by force, which because of supposed Soviet superiority in ground warfare was understood at the time as making an implied threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary.

 

After the Cold War

 When the Cold War ended, the United States unthinkingly promoted the spread of capitalist style constitutional democracy wherever it could, including the Middle East. The Clinton presidency (1992-2000) talked about the ‘enlargement’ of the community of democratic states, implying that any other political option lacked legitimacy (unless of course it was a friendly oil producer or strategic ally). The neocon presidency of George W. Bush (2000-2008) with its interventionist bent invoked ‘democracy promotion’ as its goal, and became clear in its official formulation of security doctrine in 2002 that only capitalist democracies were legitimate Westphalian states whose sovereign rights were entitled to respect.

 

This kind of strident militarism reached a new climax after 9/11. The White House apparently hoped to embark on a series regime-changing interventions in the Middle East and Asia with the expectation of producing at minimal cost shining examples of liberation and democratization, as well as secure the Gulf oil reserves and establish military bases to undergird its regional ambitions. The attacks on Afghanistan, and especially Iraq, were the most notorious applications of this misguided approach. Instead of ‘democracy’ (Washington’s code word for integration into its version of neoliberal globalization), what emerged was strife and chaos, and the collapse of stable internal governance. The strong state that preceded the intervention gave way to localized militias and resurgent tribal, clan, and religious rivalries leading domestic populations to wish for a return to the relative stability of the preceding authoritarian arrangements, despite their brutality and corruption. And even in Washington one encounters whispered admissions that Iraq was better off, after all, under Saddam Hussein than under the kind of sectarian and divisive leaders that governed the country since the American occupation began in 2003, and now threaten Iraq with an implosion that will produce at least two states replacing the shattered one.

 

 

 The Arab Spring

 Then came the Arab Spring in 2011 creating an awkward tension between the professed wish in Washington for democracy in the Arab world and the overriding commitment to upholding strategic interests throughout the Middle East. At first, the West reacted ambivalently to the Arab uprisings, not knowing whether to welcome, and then try to tame, these anti-authoritarian movements of the Arab masses or to lament the risks of new elites that were likely to turn away from neoliberal capitalism and strategic partnerships, and worst of all, might be more inclined to challenge Israel.

 

What happened in the years that followed removed the ambiguity, confirming that material and ideological interests took precedence over visionary endorsements of Arab democracy. The reality that emerged indicated that neither the domestic setting nor the international context was compatible with the existence of democratic forms of governance. What unsurprisingly followed was a series of further military interventions and strategic confrontations either via NATO as in Libya or by way of its regional partners, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as in Iran, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. With few tears shed in Washington, the authentic and promising democratic beginnings in Egypt that excited the world in the aftermath of the 2011 Tahrir Square were crushed two years later by a populist military coup that restored Mubarak Era authoritarianism, accentuating its worst features. What amounted to the revenge of the urban secular elites in Cairo included a genuine bonding between a new majority of the Egyptian people and its armed forces in a bloody struggle to challenge and destroy the Muslim Brotherhood that had taken control of the government by winning a series of elections. Despite its supposed liberalism the Obama leadership played along with these developments. It obliged the new Sisi-led leadership by avoiding the term ‘coup’ although the military takeover was followed by a bloody crackdown on the elected leadership and civil society leadership. This Orwellian trope of refusing to call a coup by its real name enabled the United States to continue military assistance to Egypt without requiring a new Congressional authorization.

 

The folk wisdom of the Arab world gives insight into the counterrevolutionary backlash that has crushed the populist hopes of 2011: “People prefer 100 years of tyranny to a single year of chaos.” And this kind of priority is shared by most of those who make and manage American foreign policy. Just as clearly as the Arab masses, the Pentagon planners prefer the stability of authoritarianism to the anarchistic uncertainties of ethnic and tribal strife, militia forms of governance that so often come in the wake of the collapse of both dictatorial rule and democratic governance. And the masters of business and finance, aside from the lure of post-conflict markets for the reconstruction of what has been destroyed militarily, prefer to work with dependable and familiar national elites that welcome foreign capital on lucrative terms that benefit insiders and outsiders alike, while keeping the masses in conditions of impoverished thralldom.

 

In many respects, Syria and Iraq illustrate the terrible human tragedies that have been visited on the peoples of these two countries. In Syria a popular uprising in 2011 was unforgivably crushed by the Basher el-Assad regime in Damascus, leading to a series of disastrous interventions on both sides of the internal war that erupted, with Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in a proxy war on Syrian soil while Israel uses its diplomatic leverage to ensure that the unresolved war would last as long as possible as Tel Aviv wanted neither the regime nor its opponents to win a clear victory. During this strife, Russia, Turkey, and the United States were intervening with a bewildering blend of common and contradictory goals ranging from pro-government stabilization to a variety of regime changing scenarios. These external actors held conflicting views of the Kurdish fighters as either coveted allies or dangerous adversaries. In the process several hundred thousand Syrians have lost their lives, almost half the population have become refugees and internally displaced persons, much of the country and its ancient heritage sites devastated, and no real end of the violence and devastation is in sight.

 

The Iraq experience is only marginally better. After a dozen years of punitive sanctions following the 1991 ceasefire that exacted a heavy toll on the civilian population, the ‘shock and awe’ of US/UK attacks of 2003, an occupation began that rid the country of its cruel and oppressive leader, Saddam Hussein, and his entourage. What followed politically became over time deeply disillusioning, and actually worse than the overthrown regime, which had been hardly imaginable when the American-led occupation began. The Iraqi state was being reconstructed along sectarian lines, purging the Sunni minority elites from the Baghdad bureaucracy and armed forces, thereby generating a widespread internal violent opposition against foreign occupation and a resistance movement against the Iraqi leadership that had gained power with the help of the American presence. This combination of insurgency and resistance also gave rise to widespread feelings of humiliation and alienation, which proved to be conducive to the rise of jihadi extremism, first in the form of al-Qaeda in Iraq and later as ISIS.

 

Toxic Geopolitics 

It is impossible to understand and explain such a disastrous failure of military interventionism without considering the effects of two toxic ‘special relationships’ formed by the United States, with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The basic feature of such special relationships is an unconditional partnership in which the Israelis and Saudis can do whatever they wish, including pursuing policies antagonistic to U.S. interests without encountering any meaningful opposition from either Washington or Europe. This zone of discretion has allowed Israel to keep Palestinians from achieving self-determination while pursuing its own territorial ambitions via constantly expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, fueling grassroots anti-Western sentiment throughout the Arab world because of this persisting reliance on a cruel settler colonialist approach to block for seven decades the Palestinian struggle for fundamental and minimal national rights.

 

The special relationship with Saudi Arabia is even more astonishing until one considers the primacy of economic strategic priorities, especially the importance of oil supplied at affordable prices. Having by far the worst human rights record in the region, replete with judicially decreed beheadings and executions by stoning, the Riyadh leadership continues to be warmly courted in Western capitals as allies and friends. At the same time, equally theocratic Iran is hypocritically bashed and internationally punished in retaliation for its far less oppressive governing abuses.

 

Of course, looking the other way, is what is to be expected in the cynical conduct of opportunistic geopolitics, but to indulge the Saudi role in the worldwide promotion of jihadism while spending trillion on counter-terrorism is much more difficult to fathom until one shifts attention from the cover story of counter-terrorism to the more illuminating narrative of petropolitics. Despite fracking and natural gas discoveries lessening Western dependence on Middle Eastern oil, old capitalist habits persist long after their economic justifications have lapsed and this seems true even when such policies have become damaging in lives and financial burdens.

 

Finding Hope is Difficult

 In such circumstances, it is difficult to find much hope in the current cosmodrama of world politics. It is possible, although unlikely, that geopolitical sanity will prevail to the extent of finding a diplomatic formula to end the violence in Syria and Yemen, as well as to normalize relations with Iran, restore order in Iraq and Libya, although such sensible outcomes face many obstacles, and may be years away. The alternatives for the Middle East in the near future, barring the political miracle of a much more revolutionary and emancipatory second Arab Spring, seems to be authoritarian stability or anarchic strife and chaos, which seems far preferable if the alternative is the deep trauma associated with enduring further American military interventions. If you happen to hear the Republican candidates give their prescriptions for fixing the Middle East it comes down to ‘toughness,’ including the scary recommendations of ‘carpet bombing’ and a greatly heightened American military presence. Even the more thoughtful Democrats limit their proposals to enhanced militarism, hoping to induce the Arab countries to put ‘the boots on the ground’ with nary a worry about either igniting a regional war or the imaginative collapse that can only contemplate war as the recipe for peace, again recalling the degree to which Orwellian satiric irony is relied upon to shape foreign policy prescriptions by ambitious politicians. Imaginative diplomacy, talking and listening to the enemy, and engaging in self-scrutiny remains outside the cast iron cage of the military mentality that has long dominated most of the political space in American foreign policy debates with the conspicuous help of the passive aggressive mainstream media. In this respect, American democracy is a broken reality, and conscientious citizens must look elsewhere as a prison break of the political imagination is long overdue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hopes for the Morning After in Ankara: Taking Stock (2002-2015)

3 Nov

 

The stunningly unexpected electoral triumph of the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan creates a window of opportunity for Turkey that will not remain open very long. The country is most likely to experience another damaging cycle of polarization of the sort that has been so divisive ever since the AKP first came to power 13 years ago. Only a radical rupture can disturb this tormented continuity by making a determined move toward moderation. Such a rupture will require a convergence of the unlikely from two directions: an embrace of responsible democratic leadership by Erdoğan and the formation of a responsible opposition platform by the various forces that have been battling against the AKP all these years. Only such a dual embrace has any hope of success, one side without reciprocity from the other side will probably only engender anger and frustration.

Ever since the AKP gained electoral leverage in 2002 sufficient to shape the governing process in Turkey, an intense polarization has been evident. It pitted the displaced Kemalist urban elites of the West that had run the country since the founding of the republic in 1923 against the emergent Anatolian elites who gathered their strength from the religious and socially conservative ranks of Turkish society. The Kemalist opposition initially depicted this ongoing struggle for Turkey’s soul and political future as between the democratic secular legacy bequeathed by Kemal Ataturk, and the Islamic militants that supposedly ran the AKP, and thirsted to make Turkey into an Islamic Republic along Iranian lines. Secularists whispered to one another that regardless of its public utterances of adherence to the Constitution what really motivated the AKP was commitment to this secret Islamic agenda. From the beginning, Erdoğan the dominant political figure in the AKP, was an  anathema to secularists. Also, expressive of this oppositional fervor that accompanied the AKP initial electoral victory were secularist objections to the presidential appointment by Parliament of Abdullah Gul, above all complaining that because his wife wore a headscarf he could not properly represent Turkey in diplomatic circles.

In this first phase of polarization the AKP hardly fought back, but rather tried to compile a record that would make the secularist allegations appear irresponsible, and hence largely to blame for poisoning the quality of Turkish political life. The credibility of this style of response was augmented by the high priority initially accorded by the AKP leadership to seeking European Union membership, a goal also espoused by the opposition. This mainstream posture was reinforced by the achievement of economic success along neoliberal lines and through regional and extra-regional activist diplomacy that seemed at once to enhance Turkish prestige in the Middle East and to be dedicated to the peaceful resolution of all international disputes, what was called, it turns out prematurely, ‘zero problems with neighbors.’ These achievements were acknowledged by the Turkish citizenry in a series of electoral victories of the AKP. By and large this Turkish role was also internationally appreciated, as signaled by its election to term membership m the UN Security Council and by a new acknowledgement of Turkey as an important actor.

Yet these AKP achievements did not mollify the opposition. This passivity only added to the frustration of the anti-AKP forces, even rage as power slipped from their hands, with no prospect of recovery in sight. These electoral rejections of the opposition parties created a depressive mood among the secularists who increasingly, yet rarely openly, pinned whatever hopes they had on a military coup that alone was capable of restoring their rightful place at the top of the Turkish political pyramid. A second disruptive strategy in the early years of AKP governance was to seek the closure of the party by accusing the AKP and its leaders of criminal culpability due to their alleged policies of undermining the Kemalist principles embedded in the Turkish Constitution, and the Turkish Constitutional Court came within vote of dissolving the AKP.

Those in the opposition not willing to endorse such radical initiatives as a military or judicial coup, were still deeply dissatisfied with AKP governance. These milder opponents expressed their discontent verbally. They discounted the seeming success of the AKP economically and politically by insisting that the AKP claim to enact democratizing reforms were not sincere, but were adopted cynically to improve the prospect of qualifying for EU membership. The economic success was also discounted as a lucky windfall, an unearned result of policies put into operation under the guidance of Kemal Derviş, and instituted well before the AKP took over the government.

Even in the face of such mean spirited provocations, the AKP did not counter-attack as it could have, but concentrated its energy on the reform process, seeking to insulate the governing process from the notorious ‘deep state’ that had undermined elected governments in the past at the behest of the unaccountable Turkish intelligence services and the armed forces, and on several occasions mandated coups. The civilianization of the Turkish government should have been celebrated by all democratically inclined sectors of society as a major and unexpected achievement. Instead the elimination of the deep state was totally ignored by the opposition, and probably even resented, as it tended to undermine prospects for an extra-constitutional return to power, which was bad news given the unlikelihood in the foreseeable future of any kind of victory via the ballot box. Privately, many secularists regarded the Turkish armed forces as a brake needed to block AKP ambitions and protect the country against an Islamic tsunami.

As allegations of an AKP plan to turn Turkey into a second Iran faded more and more into a domain of implausibility, a new scare scenario was contrived by the hardcore opposition. It centered on the contention that Erdoğan was intent on becoming a second Putin, pushing the country toward autocratic rule and fostering an unacceptable cult of personality. Ignoring AKP achievements with the help of a strong media presence that demonized Erdoğan, contributing to this nihilistic posture of uncompromising polarization, which actually deprived Turkey of what every healthy democracy needs—a responsible party of political opposition that projects alternative policies, programs, including an alternative vision. It was not in the country’s interest to have one hegemonic party govern all these years in what amounted to a political and ideological vacuum, with no credible alternative leadership competing for power.

This overall portrayal of the Turkish scene changed in 2011 due to two major developments. First, the Arab Spring unexpectedly erupted generating waves of instability throughout the entire region. Ankara quickly and enthusiastically welcomed the Arab uprisings, and Erdoğan’s popularity in the region reached peak levels. But when the regional unrest spread to Syria, there soon arose a growing challenge to the zero problems diplomacy as a result of the draconian response of the Damascus regime to the first stirrings of revolt. If we recall that Syria was put forward as the centerpiece of zero problems diplomacy, we can realize that Erdoğan must have felt great pressure to distance Turkey from this display of Syrian brutality. When Ankara’s efforts failed to persuade Bashar al-Assad, the real autocrat next door, to stop killing Syrian civilians and adopt a reform program, the dye was cast. Turkey found itself gradually drawn into the wider regional turmoil by stages, initially in Syria when it sided with the anti-regime insurgents.

Turkish foreign policy had previously been challenged on other fronts, especially by deteriorating relations with Israel that reached a negative climax in 2010 when Israel boarded a Turkish merchant ship, Mavi Marmara, in international waters killing nine Turkish nationals who were taking part in an international humanitarian mission that consisted of several ‘peace boats’ determined to deliver assistance to blockaded Gaza, whose people had been suffering for years from collective punishment.

Secondly, in 2011 the AKP won their biggest electoral victory ever, leading Erdoğan to adopt a more aggressive style that expressed itself in ways that antagonized the opposition even more. He seemed to be disregarding critics and claiming a populist mandate in the spirit of majoritarian democracy, that is, a mode of ruling that stressed effectiveness and central power, and rejected the republican stress on checks and balances. This shift enraged the opposition, and led to the portrayal of Erdoğan as a dark angel intent on destroying Turkish republicanism in the process of becoming a reigning tyrant. After 2011 Erdoğan’s aggressiveness toward the opposition gave polarization a more symmetrical quality for the first time. This polarization was, however, misrepresented in the international media as solely the consequence of Erdoğan’s autocratic ambitions and brash governing style rather than being a belated reaction to an earlier circumstance of unilateral polarization that the opposition to the AKP had foisted upon the country from the first moment that Erdoğan grasped the reins of power.

Anti-AKP waves of harsh criticism, especially in liberal circles of government and media, began blaming Ankara for alienating Israel and the United States, as well as pursuing an imprudent policy toward Syria. The AKP leadership was accused of abandoning its traditional reliance on American guidance, thereby undermining Turkish security. This was coupled with the insistence that the AKP was at last showing its true Islamic and sectarian face, favoring the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Egypt, and Gaza, pursuing a foreign policy shaped by its Islamic identity rather than based on adherence to secular realism as offering the best approach to the protection of Turkish national interests.

In May of 2013 the Gezi Park demonstrations took place, at first peacefully and later increasingly in confrontational modes, taking slanderous aim at Erdoğan who was being compared by demonstration leaders to Hitler. As the protests against the government intensified after their opening rather mild phase, it became obvious that the ambition of the activists was to create a crisis of legitimacy in Turkey that would produce so much unrest that the country would become ungovernable, and a political process would ensue that brings the military out of the barracks to rescue a country on the brink of collapse. This is what was starting to happen in Egypt, and in a couple of months was consummated by a popularly backed military coup headed by General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to power. Why not also in Turkey?

 

The government response to Gezi led by Erdoğan was defiant and suppressive, with police relying on excessive force that resulted in the tragic and unwarranted death of several demonstrators and injury to many more. The protests failed to ignite the hoped for groundswell of anti-government activism, although it did reinforce the international impression that Turkey was on its way to becoming a police state and it stimulated the domestic opposition to believe that it could build a powerful anti-AKP movement.

Another factor that riled the atmosphere at this time was the sharp break with the Hizmet movement led by the mysterious Islamic figure, Fetullah Gulen. Formerly allied with the AKP, tensions had been mounting, and exploded in response to the December 2013 Hizmet allegations of widespread corruption in the Erdoğan cabinet leading four ministers to resign, and implications that the trail of corruption if properly followed would lead to Erdoğan and his family. As would be expected, Erdoğan struck back, accusing the Hizmet movement of establishing ‘a parallel government’ that was subverting proper lines of authority and policy in the Turkish state bureaucracy. The claim was made that Gulen followers had succeeded in penetrating the police and the prosecutors’ office, and were responsible for bringing false charges against the military leadership, and doing other subversive things.

This accumulation of tactics designed to undermine the AKP and Erdoğan should be taken into account when addressing his still questionable effort to move toward an executive presidency. After all there were credible reasons for the AKP leadership to believe that it had been multiply targeted: polarization, judicial invalidation via party closure, aborted military coups, popular uprising, parallel government. In reaction, it is not altogether unreasonable for Erdoğan to arrive at the view that only a strong presidency could achieve security and stability that was needed if Turkey was to cope with the many challenges that it faces at home and in the region. It is understandable, but still highly imprudent as deep cleavages in the population persists. Even after the election landslide victory of the AKP and Erdoğan half the country remains deeply alienated, and would be susceptible to temptations of insurrection if these ambitions to revise the Constitution go forward.

In essence, this is an occasion on which Erdoğan alone has the capacity to move the country in a more grounded democratic and peaceful direction, softening if not overcoming polarization. Seizing such an opportunity would require Erdoğan to acknowledge the divided polity that Turkey has become, and to respect widespread fears of authoritarian rule. The most convincing way to do this would be to defer to the prime minister and head of the party, Ahmet Davutoğlu in the formation of a new government, and welcome a working partnership that divided authority harmoniously between these two highly gifted political leaders. It is not encouraging to hear Erdoğan talk vaguely of the added de facto powers that the Turkish presidency has somehow acquired without the benefit of constitutional reform and of his intentions to renew his personal crusade to create an enhanced presidency on a de jure basis.

Also menacing Turkey’s future has been the revived violence of the Kurdish struggle, giving rise to a strong military response. After this electoral outcome it is up to Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to take the initiative in declaring a ceasefire to take effect immediately, to welcome the HDP deputies to the Parliament, and to commit to a reopening of the reconciliation process, possibly even giving some sort of role to the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

Let’s hope than when Erdoğan awakens the morning after his glowing victory, he chooses what is best for Turkey rather than to settle for becoming a grandiose figure who is certain to be both revered and feared. Only if he tames his ambitions will Erdoğan ensure his legacy as a great Turkish leader, second only to Ataturk. Such speculations are admittedly in the realm of the fanciful, but little else seems relevant at this stage if Turkey hopes to find ways to reverse the downward spiral of recent years, and move back from the brink of turmoil that is engulfing much of the region.