Friday, March 30, 2012

How the US deals with a popular uprising

We know what happened in Iraq but the US is also heavily involved in the fighting against a popular uprising in Colombia. The country - with about twice the population of Syria - has 5 million internally displaced.

I couldn't find number of casualties but those must be thousands a year.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Syrians fleeing for whom?

The Media Line has an interesting look on the increase of the number of Syrian refugees in the neighboring countries:

“The West wants to punish Al-Assad by imposing sanctions on his regime, but they are also punishing the people. Citizens are suffering as a result of the sanctions and uncertainty in the pound value,” says activist Islam Abdullah from the Syrian Media Center.

He says hundreds of Syrian families have chosen to flee to Jordan and other neighboring countries in search of food rather than for safety. In Jordan, they receive aid from non-government organizations and ordinary Jordanian citizens.

According to this article ("Exclusive: Syria buys grain via Lebanon to beat sanctions"): Growing numbers of Syrians are struggling to obtain food, with prices of staples more than doubling.. This may have been caused by the fact that the exchange rate of the Syrian currency has fallen to half.

There is also a shortage of LPG gas that is mainly used for cooking and hearing.

Here is an article in Spiegel and here the German original about war profiteers in Syria. Just like in any other sanctioned country those connected to the regime profit from the sanctions while the common man suffers.

Citizen journalism

Business Week / GigaOm has an article ("Syria, Citizen Journalism, and the Capital 'T' Truth") on citizen journalism. It discusses both the advantages (more news) and the disadvantages (partial and embellished stories) and how professional journalist react (shifting through and selecting citizen stories - sometimes on Twitter).

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Some tips for Annan on Syria

The Security Council just adopted a resolution of Syria after a report from Annan who proposed a six-point peace proposal.

Here some thoughts on how I would approach negotiating the Syrian conflict. This is a blog and I am not a diplomat so I will use a style that stresses clarity over diplomatic niceness.

Vs Assad:
- stress the need to discipline his troops. Torture and unnecessary destruction may work in the short term to relieve the stress from the troops and to intimidate the enemy. But it makes him a loser in the fight for hearts and minds.
- encourage him to make local compromises. Building trust with the opposition will take time so cherish small compromises.
- tell him that he is the president of all Syrians and that he should show that. One can discuss whether the devastation in Baba Amr was necessary or not. But one should feel sorry for the population that now has to live in devastated houses and may have lost relatives.
- ask him to make openings for the opposition to come back.
- stress that he cannot ignore the Muslim Brotherhood. He must find a way to engage them.
- discuss local leaders who keep their community together in the present climate. Stress that such behavior should be encouraged and copied.
- tell him that we no longer live in 1982. With internet, easy money transfers, cheap telephone and travel and widespread car possession the world is now much more connected and he needs to reach out.
- Assad has shown himself prepared to negotiate and has introduced some reforms and released many prisoners. Discuss with him a road forward.
- tell him that if he doesn't play his cards well there is a real chance that he will lose power in a revolutionary way. So he should do better to prevent unnecessary polarization between Alawites and Sunnites as that might backfire later on.
- tell him that one day Syria will be a prosperous democratic country and that he should work towards that goal. Ethnic polarization will harm the progress towards that goal and may also harm the long term position of Syria's minorities.

Vs the opposition:
- Talk with many different opposition leaders. Be prepared to form a "coalition of the willing".
- Stress the costs of revolution. Let them have a look at the devastation and human costs of the revolution in Libya and ask them is them if this is really what they want.
- condemn their offensive at the end of January for destroying chances for peace.
- challenge the exiles and emigrants. It is very comfortable to be radical from your arm chair in Los Angeles. It were the exiles who destroyed Yugoslavia and the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka with their support for radicals. Don't give them a chance here.
- challenge the revengeful: some who lost relatives in 1982 or recently may just be filled with hatred against the Assad government. But such an attitude does not offer hope for finding a compromise between Syria's many different political groups.
- Tell them that a peaceful transition with compromise offers a much better long term chance for democracy than a revolution. Compromise is the heart of democracy. With a zero-sum winner-takes-it-all mentality democracy is doomed and you are on your road to the next dictatorship.
- Stress that any compromise will contain a clause to reintegrate opposition fighters. Many of the young fighters have the feeling that they have burned the bridges behind them and that they have no choice but to fight till the bitter end.
- stress that "Assad must go" demonstrations are revolutionary and not democratic. This is not how peaceful opposition should look.
- tell them to focus on content and not on people. The primary goal should be more freedom and prosperity for the Syrians - not having some other people in the power seats. The task of the government is to serve the population and if Assad is prepared to do that it is ok. And it is much better than some revolutionary place holder who thinks he entitled to a high position because of what he did in the revolution. They will notice that once this mentality change happens the step towards democracy will become much smaller.
- tell them that a revolution always brings a backlash against the former rulers and their supporters. This applies the more as Syria's opposition lacks any leader of the stature of Mandela who might be able to impose his own vision. Tell them that for that reason you think it very unlikely that Syria after a revolution will be democratic and tolerant - no matter how well the intentions of some insurgents may be - and that you see an real need for a negotiated solution.

Vs the US:
- see also opposition part
- talk with Obama about how disgusting you find his behavior in Libya where the Western resistance to compromise led to a protracted civil war, many unnecessary deaths, a devastated country, anarchy and needless polarization.
- stress that the policy of regime change results in a world where everybody feels bullied not to speak out against the US but where at the same time there a great resentment against it.
- discuss how America's previous democratization project - the color revolutions - ended. Stress that the sorry results were not coincidental but a logic consequence of revolutionary change.
- Stress the value of negotiations in democracy and how undemocratic America's refusal to talk with Assad is.
- condemn hypocrite US behavior such as demanding Assad to withdraw his troops from the cities while at the same time encouraging and equipping the rebels to enter there.
- discuss the issue of Syria's "support for terrorists". Talk about how real this still is and suggest other solutions.

Vs Saudi Arabia:
- see also the US part
- ask them what they really want. As stricter dictatorships than Syria they can't be really interested in democratization.
- discuss the Saudi Iran obsession. Mention that secular Syria is not a natural ally for fundamentalist Iran and that Saudi policies have driven them in each others arms.

What not to do:
- don't ask for regime change. How Syria should be governed in the future should be the subject of negotiations and not be predetermined.
- don't ask for surrender. Asking the government troops to withdraw from the cities means that the government should surrender the cities - including their pro-Assad areas - to the rebels. This is not a realistic demand. As the rebels lack a central command the only way to arrange for armistices is to have local negotiations where both sides commit to specific rules that prevent one side to draw disproportional advantage from an armistice.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

How (not) to negotiate on Kosovo

In its heart the problem of Kosovo is rather simple. Serbia wants better living conditions for Kosovo's Serb minority - and to a lesser extent also for its other minorities - and the Kosovo's Albanians want international recognition of their independence. The balance of power is rather in the middle and a solution should be easy to reach. But such negotiations have never been held.

After the 1999 War the West blocked all negotiations for the first five years claiming that Kosovo was not ready. In the later years this was called "standards before status". After the march 2004 riots this policy was given up. Not only were standards no longer needed for negotiations: the West stopped asking for compliance to standards at all. The Ahtisaari negotiations were clearly fake: the Albanians knew they would get their state no matter what so they didn't see any need to placate the Serbs with concessions. And now we have the "technical dialogue" facilitated by the EU.

There have now been 9 rounds of talks. The result of the latest round of talks was that Serbia allowed Kosovo greater representation at international meetings and consented in some border procedures. In exchange it got candidate membership for the EU. So basically these are negotiations between the EU and Serbia. It is the EU and not Kosovo that makes concessions to Serbia. Sure, the Kosovo government has to agree and sometimes it or Albin Kurti protests. But that is always about wanting bigger steps towards full recognition. Not about Serbia's demands on minority rights, refugee returns and monument protection. These are not even discussed.

So one can conclude that these technical talks are not real negotiations but just serve to placate those in the EU who have tied their political fate to the independence of Kosovo. They do this by using blackmail - what unfortunately has become an accepted feature of our supposedly superior Western civilization. This way these "negotiations" do nothing to build trust between Serbs and Albanians and they do nothing to achieve a negotiated solution. On the contrary, by giving the Albanians the feeling that what they do won't influence the process it seduces them to anti-Serb policies.

The Serbian government has been reproached for not having more concrete demands regarding Kosovo. But the problem is that agreements tend to stay on paper. What is the use of talking about improvements to the Ahtisaari Plan when the plan is just a cover-up for a reality where 200,000 refugees cannot return home? The only thing that might achieve some results is setting concrete numerical targets. But after the failure of "standards before status" it is doubtful whether the EU is prepared to support once again concrete targets.

It is doubtful whether it was a good idea to have the EU as mediator (see "Belgrade cannot control political will of northern Kosovo" as to many of its members have - by supporting Kosovo's independence against international law and public opinion - have tied their own reputation to the success of Kosovo.

In fact Albanians and Serbs might achieve a solution rather soon when left alone. But when some time ago Albanian intellectuals started discussing deals with Serbia - including the possibility of border changes this was interrupted by the US that flew in its highest diplomat to warn that this was not acceptable.

I am afraid the Serbs and Albanians will have to muddle through until the West gets finally tired of the Balkans.

Some people like to argue to the period before 1999 as a proof that Serbs and Albanians cannot be trusted to settle the subject among themselves. But until Milosevic introduced his discriminatory policies around 1990 the Kosovo Albanians did have adequate rights.

Western politicians now like to stress how bad Serbia treated Kosovo's Albanians in the 1990s. But they forget that many of those discriminatory policies were copies of similar measures that Croatia had taken against its Serbs - with silent support of the Western countries. This one of the things the West likes to forget: how it contributed to the poisoning of inter-ethnic relations by the condoning and encouragement of unilateral measures.

Even if he had wanted later in the 1990s Milosevic was politically too weak to take measures to improve the fate of Kosovo's Albanians - measures that certainly would have been unpopular in Serbia. Some Western pressure could have helped here. But the West was not interested in improving the fate of the Albanians: they only wanted to overthrow Milosevic. And so - instead of exercising just enough pressure to get Milosevic to introduce better rights for the Albanians - the West supported an Albanian guerrilla war and then held a "peace conference" at Rambouillet where it made proposal that it knew would be unacceptable to Serbia so that it had an excuse to start a war.

How (not) to negotiate in Syria

The International Crisis Group has a released a report "Now or Never: A Negotiated Transition for Syria" in which it advocates a plan that:

- comprises an early transfer of power that preserves the integrity of key state institutions;
- ensures a gradual yet thorough overhaul of security services; and
- puts in place a process of transitional justice and national reconciliation that reassures Syrian constituencies alarmed by the dual prospect of tumultuous change and violent score-settling.

I don't believe this will work.

The first problem is that it has copied the Arab League (read: Wahabi) demand for immediate regime change. But there is no organization ready to replace the regime. The opposition is hopelessly divided. So we would see a lot of infighting before Syria has once again a stable government.

The claim that the "integrity of key state institutions" should preserved is in this context an empty shell. It is very unlikely that in such a climate of infighting the politicians will be inclined to respect certain institutions. Politicians want to profile themselves and one of the obvious targets for that will inevitably be the Baath institutions.

But the biggest problem is that it is a "camel's nose" tactic. Nobody expects replacing Assad with some deputy will solve anything. The only reason to ask it is that it is believed that it has a better chance to be accepted than a demand for an immediate replacement of Assad by someone from the opposition. But the calculation is that it will weaken the regime so that such a demand for an opposition takeover becomes more feasible. Assad and his supporters will of course recognize this and can be expected to resolutely resist it.

A second problem is that this proposal ignores the value of negotiations in itself. Negotiations can serve to let people learn to know and trust each other. They would offer a forum where people from the government and the opposition can develop a common vision on the future of Syria. They would force the government to take the opposition more seriously. But they would also force the opposition to find a common view.

Having an “early transfer of power” is the wrong idea. Negotiations should initially focus on trust-building measures like gradual release of prisoners, withdrawal of rebel forces and an end to the demonstrations. Demonstrations are nice to express popular demands but they should not degenerate into mob rule: in the end solutions should be negotiated. Next would be a government of national unity with opposition representatives. The focus should be on agreeing how the new Syria should look like. Not on which people will play what roles.

The often repeated argument not to negotiate is that Assad would just negotiate to buy time and would only use the opportunity to repackage reforms he is already introducing. I think this argument is wrong for several reasons:
- the fact that Assad is already introducing reforms should be appreciated. The attitude should be that these are not enough - not that they are fundamentally wrong. One may question Assad's sincerity for reform but his claim that controlled reform is better than a revolution is sound.
- one may ask Assad to release some prisoners as a specific gesture of goodwill before the negotiations.
- it ignores that the opposition - and specially the foreign-based SNC - has good reasons not to want to negotiate: they are too divided and not representative. When they have to take positions for negotiations this will show and they are likely to fall apart. Yet one may ask whether it would be in the interest of Syria when that division comes out after they have acquired power. In addition many opposition "leaders" represent nobody and are incapable as politicians. They were simply picked out for having an impressive resume when the uprising needed spokesmen.
- protests can always be restarted. Assad wins nothing with delaying tactics.

The call for an "overhaul" of security services has problems too. It is clear that in a peaceful Syria there is no place or need for Shabeeha. But the police and military is a different thing. Sure, the police could do with less torture and the military could have done more to avoid damage and civilian casualties when it conquered Baba Amr. But to a large extent these are problems that play in many Arab countries and mainly reflect a lack of appropriate training and expectations. Replacing these guys with amateurs from the opposition would lead to a deterioration of standards - not an improvement - as can be seen in Libya. Bringing improvements would primarily mean better training and political agreement. There is also a need to bring more Sunni's in the higher positions of the security services, but these two issues should not be confused. Trying to use the present problems of the security services as a wedge to introduce more Sunni's might very well backfire and result in neither of the goals being achieved.

Then there is the issue of trust. You cannot both aim for a revolution and reform. One of the reasons the opposition achieved so little in the beginning was that it only wanted regime change and didn't even want to negotiate about that. The same issue could be seen in the Security Council resolution that was rightly rejected by Russia and China because it asked the government to stop hostilities but refused to ask the same from the opposition. Real negotiating means that the opposition should give up on revolutionary regime change and seriously starts negotiating with the regime about building trust and making reforms. They might at some time conclude that it doesn't work and return to a revolution but before that they should be really prepared to give peaceful reform a chance. That would mean that their proposals should be aimed at real improvements and not at weakening the regime so that later on it can be overthrown more easily.

A revolution would cause serious problems in a country like Syria. Revolutions tend to polarize. Despite all the nice statements we hear now there is a considerable chance that after a revolution the country will evolve towards de-Baathisation and discrimination of the Alawites and other groups while the former rebel fighters demand their "rightful rewards". A gradual transition on the other hand can do a lot to preserve and improve the equality of people.

Bashar Assad will not be the easiest person to negotiate with. He is known to be rather reserved and often to leave negotiations to others. Also his political instincts are seen as less developed than those of his father. Occasionally some Western pressure may be needed but the main accent should be creating a vision on how Syria should go forward.