Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Syrian Vision: Harnessing Regional Potential

In al Hayat newspaper interview on Oct. 27th, Syria's Bashar al Asad indentified the region as a strategic hub, connecting the five seas (Red, Mediterranian, Black, Caspian, Persian Gulf) through Oil, Gas and communication lines. This vision has passed the rhetoric stage and phased implemetation has been underway.

What is striking, yet not surprising, is that Syria is reinforcing its regional role over and beyond what might be described by "Syria as a key player" in any Arab-Israeli Peace deal.

The expansion of the geopolitical focus of Syrian foreign policy, is transcending its mediation role in the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, and mediation roles in Iraq, Sudan and Yemen, political management of Lebanon, to include a creative look at how power centers are allocated in the Middle East.

First, from the Syrian perspective there has been a strategic breakthrough in the region. Arab states are not encircled by the Shah of Iran, a hostile Turkey and Ethiopia in the south anymore. Thereby, the contemporary promoting of Turkey and Iran as power centers to the benefit of Arab revival and prosperity of the region is vital for Syria.

Second, from the Syrian perspective, Arab identity (as a cultural reference) needs to be reinforced in the face of ethnic and religous factionalism, like the prevailing political systems in Lebanon and Iraq.

Third, the traditional delineation of the Middle East: Arab states in addition to Israel, Turkey and Iran is too limiting and does not live up to the potential of the region. Recent Syrian talks in Bulgaria, Romania and Azerbaijan are necessary precursors to the natural definitional expansion of what a viabale Middle East could be.

Hariri's visits to Syria and current visit to Iran, is not news anymore. Fatah and Hamas holding talks in Damascus is not news anymore. Ordogan's warm welcome in any Arab state he visits, is not news anymore. Arab states not buying the argument of Iran being the altmimate threat to the region, is not news anymore.

The ME is ripe for a regionally produced plan, and Syria is making use of the podium.

** Warm wishes to King Abdullah of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a quick recovery.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Christians in Iraq: Mercy Lost

Just when one thought it could not get any worse on the social and political scene in Iraq, given that seven months have past since the election and still no government. The church massacre in Baghdad reminded us that chaos, perpetrated by mercyless killers, has always room to grow in Iraq. Again today, more than seventy people died in bombings across Baghdad. Maliki sure likes holding on to power more than holding Iraq together.

The vulnerability of the security situation in Iraq is not a surprise, what is a surprise however is that Iraqi politicians seem to believe that they are entitled to "play" the political game of trying to outlast and outsmart their political opponents. As if Iraq is not going through an extraordinary period of its history, no government, no security, armed groups roaming free, Islamized militias with an uncomprimizing agenda of eliminating the "other". The other being : moderate Muslims, Christians, Jews, Yazidies,.. plenty of what could be considered "other" from ones own standpoint in the Middle East.

Factionalism seems to be too obvious, too ugly, too scary in countries that are "democratic" in the Middle East, like Lebanon and Iraq, Both countries seem always on the edge of civil war, which continously invites the "broker" role of neighboring countries, the US or Europe to intervine and mediate between the different factions. Factionalism is clearly stated and incorporated in the constitution of both countries, a democratic model that has only inflamed differences.

Those two countries might not be the envy of other Arab countries in the Middle East at this moment.

I have to commened NGOs in Syria and Jordan. Civil society in both countries have made conscience efforts over many years to gloss over religious and ethnic differences, make a point of minimizing the role of such preferences in the community, and by celebrating diversity in their organizational makeup. Granting economic and political rights have a central role in pushing ethnic and religious differences to the backburner, I believe on that front there is always more to do. Minimizing the reference to ethnicities and religious differences, might not be a bad lesson to learn from these two countries. Civil society and government support for such activism in these countries is not sufficient to eliminate the possibility of descending into chaos, that is why gradual reform, economic and political, is key.

Referencing ethnicities and religious differences in politics "factionalism" must be shamed and looked upon with disgust.

Mercy lost on that Sunday in Baghdad, Mercy lost on many days in Baghdad.

Monday, October 11, 2010

الكرامة الوطنية و كرامة الفرد في سوريا

لا تحتاج السياسة الخارجية السورية لمن يبرهن على فعاليتها و مهنيتها العالية, خاصة في العشر السنوات الأخيرة. السياسة الخارجية السورية أعطت لمفهوم الكرامة الوطنية نهجا وخطوات عملية ريادية يحتذى بها.

يكثر الحديث عن الثمن الذي تضطر لدفعه الدول التي تعتز باستقلالية الرأي والتي لا تبدي أولوية للتناغم مع سياسة الدول العظمى. فهناك من يشير إلى العقوبات الإقتصادية, و هناك من يشير إلى العزلة الدولية. هناك من من يشير بالتحديد إلى وضع الفرد في داخل سوريا, و يربط بين النهج السياسي الخارجي لسوريا و بين حالات فساد في مؤسسات قضائية و مالية, أو الوضع الإقتصادي المتدهور لفئة ما من التجار, أو هجران المزارعين لأراضيهم, وبدهاء يشير إلى أن الكرامة الوطنية تكلف الفرد في سوريا... نعم كرامته.

ان الكرامة الوطنية هي كرامة الفرد في سوريا, و كرامة الفرد جزء لا يتجزأ من كرامة الوطن

نعم, استطاعت السياسة الخارجية السورية تجاوز محنة العزلة و التضييق الإقتصادي, لكن سوريا الآن أمام استحقاق داخلي بأبعاد إقليمية. التجارب الدمقراطية في المنطقة, مثل لبنان و العراق, تظهر الطائفية عارية و ترغمنا على تقبل فكرة أن تكريس الطائفية والدمقراطية (أو الإصلاح السياسي كمفهوم أدق) جزء لا يتجزأ.

لسوريا دور في طرح بديل إصلاحي داخلي محلي , لا يرتكز على الطائفية. كما سياسة سورية الخارجية ريادية بحيث أثبتت صواب وجهة النظر السورية في أمور إقليمية عدة, طرح بديل للدمقراطية المطبقة بالعراق, والإصلاح السياسي هو استحقاق سوري بامتياز.

أرى في الأفق مرتفع آخرفي منطقة الشرق الأوسط ينتظر من يقود و يرفع العلم عليه, هو مرتقع منهاج للإصلاح الداخلي النابع من الشرق الأوسط و الذي يخدم الشرق الأوسط. بهكذا نهج تتكامل الكرامة الوطنية وكرامة الفرد, ويلام حينئذ كل من يحاول الفصل بينهما.

سوريا أنت لها.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Syria's Good Week

The Syrian Lebanese relations are progressing and producing dividents, as they should. Hariri's clear statement in an interview with al Sharq al Awsat this week exonerating Syria; saying that Syria was wrongly accused in his fathers assasination in 2004, will only advance the bilateral relations further.

Syria's foreign policy towards Lebanon had adjusted to the Syrian military withdrawal five years ago in record time and was able to utilize Lebanese factionalism to turn around key Lebanese players. Aun, Jumblat and Hariri are but some of Lebanese officials who admitted a fundamental geopolitical reality: Syria can be a strong Lebanese ally in the region.

The Economic and trade relations between the two countries are vital, while Syria was able to redirect its flow of hard currency after 2005 by improving its own finacial infrastructer, especially the private one, Lebanon was and is still reliant on open boarders with Syria. While Lebanon has strong political leverage and economic linkeges with western countries, Syria is the strong man in the neighborhood. Both countries might have finally come to terms with their own strengths and how they can be best utilizied for the benefit and interests of both countries.

In addition, Syria recieved its first international financial rating, by Capital Intelligence which is based in Cyprys but owns a subsidiary in Lebanon. This rating of (BB minus) of Syria's foreign credit profile is important as it highlights Syria's strong solvency and liquidity indicators, hence Syria's commitment to economic reform. The usual weaknesses of political risk and underdeveloped financiall system are still relavent, but achieving this rating is a step forward for Syria's economic developments

It has been a good week for Syria..Looking forward to many more to come.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Syria’s Involvement in Palestinian Affairs: An Inavitable Role

As expected, 11 Palestinian factions in addition to Hamas have announced, from Damascus, their boycott of current peace negotiations between PNA's Mahmoud Abbas and Natenyahu, predicting its doom. During the first round of negotiations, that ended last week in Washington, there was an increase of inflamed rhetoric in Syrian and Iranian newspapers concerning "disgrace" and "loss of the remainder of Palestinian rights" in these negotiations. While most Arab countries view these latest negotiations with some optimism, Syria positioned itself again on a particular platform , closely resembling that of Iran and Hezbollah. The question becomes: How much of Syria's negative reaction to the negotiations is to contradict and downsize Egypt? How much of it is a reaction to the pressure exercised by the Lebanese authority against Palestinian arms in Lebanon (Ahmad Jibreel faction)? How much is to reassert the value of Syria's role in "any" peace negotiations in the region? And how much of Syria's position is involuntary?

All those factions that decry the illegitimacy of Abbas's claim that he is representing the Palestinian people, carry a political weight. This political weight is managed by Syria. Palestinian personel, their whereabouts and contacts, is closely monitored in Damascus. One can safely assume that the timing and the content of Mishaal's announcements from Damascus are thoroughly discussed between Syrian and Palestinian officials.

Characterizing Syria's involvement in Palestinian affairs thru Hamas and others, as a political card in Syria's hand, is a gross understatement. For one, it leads to the false assumption that this relation can be dismanteld given that the appropriate price can be offored to Syria. The other false assumption would be that one can isolate Syria's role in Palestinian affairs from Syria's interest in a malleable Lebanon and Syria's interest in a friendly Iraq.

Declaring the defense of "Arab Rights" as Syria has done over the past 40 years, has created an expectation parameter, noticable and measured by all the politically relavent groups in Syria. This parameter shaped Syria's proclaimed role in the region as the defender of Palestinian rights of return and land. This parameter is at the same time independent from any pragmatism expressed by one Syrian official or another. No one, in the current Syrian political configuration can overide or undermine the interlocked relation between Syria and the proclaimed Palestinian and Arab rights, as it has defined and informed Syrian foreign policy for over 40 years.

Syria was able to manage its involvement in Palestinian affairs, especially after Arafat's death. Syria extended its perspective on Palestinian concerns to third parties like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Iran and Turkey in the last 10 years. Syria kept its pressure on Egypt with regards to the terms of a Palestinian - Palestinian reconciliation (The Egyptian Paper 2010).

In short, 400,000 Palestinian refugees residing in Syria do affect Syria's position from the peace negotiations. Palestinian militants in Syria and Lebanon, not represented in the peace negotiations, do affect Syria's position from the peace negotiations. Syria's strategic allience with Iran has a Palestinian focal point, and hence the congruence with the Iranian position from the negotiations is vital. Syria's own definition of its "Defense of Arab Rights", which created Syria's regional role in 1970s, and is now an independent ligitimacy parameter, affects Syria's position from the negotiations. As one Syrian official said: "even if we wanted to disengage from Palestinian affairs..Palestinian affairs will not disengage the Syrians".

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Syria: How does one Calculate the Legitimacy of a Regional Role?

Syria’s role in facilitating the Madrid peace talks, in 1991, gave the “Ok” to other Arab countries to imagine and work on a new era in the region. The prospect of an Israeli Syrian peace agreement between 1993 and 1996 opened up channels to various negotiations, treaties, and dialogue between Israel and most Arab countries in the 1990s. What this period 1993-1996 missed was an actual realization of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Oslo I and II in addition to the Israel- Jordon 1994 peace agreement, bypassed Syria, and complicated its negotiations with Israel. The start of the Syrian Israeli peace talks gave the rest of the Arab countries a strategic opening to come to friendlier understandings with Israel , all the while the Syrian peace track was lingering and dragging without any tangible results until the direct peace talks ended in 1996.

Many analysts concerned themselves with “why” the negotiations derailed between Israel and Syria in 1996. There are many contradicting and politicized interpretations, but one can easily extract a common theme of factors, namely: withdrawal concerns vs. security concerns, the distinct Syrian negotiating style and persistence on the 1967 line, the effect of Peres and Rabin’s rivalry, the Israeli election and public opinion, the Republican hold on the house and senate in 1994, the role of the Golan Lobby. Rabin’s assassination and many more factors contributed to the dead end reached by both parties.

Fast forward to 2010, The Israeli scene has changed, the right and conservatives have an upper hand in making or breaking coalitions, now more than ever. Israeli politicians are bound to fragile political alignments that can only play into the hands of the right in Israel. The question becomes: How much does a promise of a political opening for peace actually weigh nowadays in Israel?? Because of the fear of being scrutinized as “giving in” or selling out on Israeli security, can any Israeli politician afford to talk about peace, career wise? If a start of a peace talk with Syria, opened up Israel’s potential in the region in the 1990s which quickly faded after 1996, how can Israel calculate a normalization of relations of some sort in this region without addressing the Syrian equation head on?

If the interpretation of Israel’s position and military might in the region coincides with Ambassador Yoram Ettinger’s future vision for Israel,,7340,L-3851844,00.html , then one can find a latitude of excuses for Syria’s regional maneuvering since 2000. The strategic creativity of Syria’s foreign policy conduct, given economic and political isolation, has produced a favorable regional outcome for Syria. Hezbollah political accommodation in Lebanon, friendly Iraq, strategic and economic relations with Iran, good relations with Turkey. Regional realities and Syria’s carefully crafted web of interests can not be erased by military threats, those threats have emboldened and tightened the regional net effect in Syria’s favor. So how can one calculate the legitimacy of a regional role?...definatly not in threatening words, but based on outcome.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Iran and Syria managing the "New Middle East"

From an American perspective, there is something odd about Syria's foreign policy conduct, especially after William Burns announced, on Feb.17th in Damascus, that Robert Ford will be the next American ambassador in Syria. Syria did not have an American ambassador for 5 years.

Syria welcomed Ahmedinajad's long visit to Damascus few days after this announcement. Both Ahmedinajad and al-Assad held a joint press conference in Damascus announcing the "New Middle East" as defined by both Iran and Syria. A celebration of a regional alliance that is based on mutual interests and the stability of the region. Stability understood as friendly regimes in Lebanon and Iraq, increased nuclear capability in Iran balancing that of Israel, and an increasing role for both Iran and Turkey as regional power brokers.

Nothing is wrong with this picture except for the fact that US foreign policy is not up to speed with the regional counter reaction to its mid-east policy since 2003. The basic message of the recent Iranian Syrian alliance parade is that the rules have changed in this region. American mid east hegemony is declining as far as the ability of the U.S. to exert control over international outcomes and patterns of inter/intra state behaviour. Yet, U.S. foreign policy makers are criticizing, reacting and denouncing as if we are in the 1990s. Nationalism, the revolutionary style, is making a comeback with a distinctive Moussadigh ring. A part from earlier revolutionary versions such as pan -Arabism or Islamic Caliphate, which were guided by ideologies, this regional resistance front is guided by regional interests, with security, regional and economic stability at the forefront. A united front that does not hesitate to announce with pride its alliance with Hezbollah and Hamas.

The article by former U.S. ambassador to Morocco at the Huffington post, is a clear example of the debilitating detachment from regional reality expressed by American officials. If the only reaction to such alliance is to encourage Israeli and American strikes or to play on minority (ethnic or religious) cards and the threat of potential internal unrest in both Iran and Syria, then my fear is intellectual bankruptcy on this side of the Atlantic.

Syria is not shackled to Iran. Syria is getting a great payoff from its relations with Iran. Cheap oil, scores of Iranian tourists, trade relations, strategic defence agreements, military capabilities..etc. A U.S. foreign policy focused on detangling this relation is a waste of time if it does not include the return of the Golan Heights, all of the Golan without Israeli sovereignty detracting security stations and /or military posts, and regrettably accepting a nuclear Iran. A U.S. foreign policy that ...... (this space was designated to say something about the Israeli Palestinian ordeal, but what's the point).

Hmmm, now thinking about it...Accepting a nuclear Iran could make an Arab Israeli deal a possibility. For one, Israel military power is relatively balanced by that of Iran. Negotiation leverage is tilted towards the Palestinian and Syrian side. Israeli military strikes will be regionally scrutinized. In addition to having an upperhand on Gulf politics. Actually a deal could be struck were by the U.S. could have a say in the "how" of Iranian nuclear developments and secure strategic agreements with the Iranian regime in order to secure nuclear facilities.

Another option would be to declare war on Iran as advocated by recent war rallying cries in the Washington post and NYT. Another option is to work really hard on destabilizing Iran from the inside. There are the Arab Sunni population in the south who have numerous grievances against the Iranian regime.. there are the Iranian Kurds in the north east and of course Alqaida in the Khurasan region. And maybe the U.S. can get Iran to follow the Pakistani scenario, with military coups, nuclear capabilities, civil unrest, ethnic and religious divisions and put additional strains on an already struggling civil society.

I will try to think about a fourth option.

Meanwhile, knowing that he still has to be confirmed by the senate.. I would like to extend a warm welcome to Ambassador Robert Ford to Damascus. Syria is a happening place!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Sobering (Re)assessment

There used to be a fundamental contrast between those who solely advocate the ideals of freedom and democracy in the Middle East by means of US and western intervention, and those who account for realities and contingencies on the ground. This contrast/rift is getting fuzzy with president Obama’s second year in office.

Advocating abstract ideals in general relieves the activists/policy maker initially from attending to questions about specifics. For example: Dictators are evil, Freedom and Democracy must prevail. Would anyone disagree? Certainly not. With an element of nobility and a handful of ethical shimmer, this call for light to the dark quarters of the world has a wide audience and willing supporters. Is your intended target ready for prime time enlightenment? That becomes an unnecessary question since the act of “voting” is documented by inked thumbs, or overworked donkeys traveling uncharted roots carrying ballot boxes. White man saved brown man, yet again.

Furthermore, the idealist abstraction becomes a nice broad umbrella that can shade all sorts of national and security objectives while eliminating a tyrant. (No comment on Afghanistan, except for: al-Qaida is and was our target why on earth did we end up fighting the Taliban and their extended families, friends and emerging Taliban tribal allies all over Afghanistan and Pakistan? I have faith in Iraqis being able to work the democratic system to the benefit of Iraq).

Back to the contrast/rift. On the other side are equally committed supporters of Democracy and Freedom in the Middle East but who argue that the advancement of civil society should be propelled from within. There are numerous indigenous routes for reform: elite negotiation, growing civil society..etc. . There is no instant gratification and the process might take decades. Democratization will not live up to its true colors unless it is woven, articulated and sustained from within. Lebanon, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, imperfect as they are to us in the western hemisphere, are striving towards accommodating their respective growing civil society; and adjusting to their respective norms. The problem with imposed “western freedom and democracy agendas" is that they create a regional top-down backlash which in turn defeats the efforts of democracy activists and civil society in the region

The domestic pressure on President Obama, Health care initiative/bill and struggling economy, will squeeze him into a corner on the Foreign Policy front, precisely into the comforts of abstractions and broad “easy on the ear” agendas. Nothing is more soothing then talking about freedom and democracy in the Middle East, even the “War on Terror” is making a comeback, it soothes ears, boiling think tanks, agitated political opponents.. the list goes on. The implication of resorting to such a strategy is precisely the fuzziness it creates. So are we, when it comes to the Middle East, going to sing the tunes of the “New Middle East” and Creative Chaos again? Who knows. The question becomes is president Obama trying to decorate a pragmatist approach to foreign policy with idealist sound bites to appease domestic political opponents? Or is his Foreign Policy experiencing a fundamental shift at the core?