Saturday, April 28, 2012

The divided rebels of Syria

The article "Rebel rivalry and suspicions threaten Syria revolt" by Erika Solomon discusses some aspects of the uprising.

It discusses the search for weapons - with rebels sometimes turning on each other to acquire weapons. To get weapons you need a sponsor and that means subscribing to his ideological agenda:

Such mistrust is compounded by the competing agendas of outside parties who are further fragmenting the rebel movement. Finding a donor usually means using personal connections, rebels say. They get relatives or expatriate friends to put them in touch with businessmen or Syrian groups abroad. But once fighters go to private donors for weapons, they have to negotiate, and the price may be ideological.

Many say Islamist groups, from hard-line Salafists to the exiled Muslim Brotherhood, bankroll many battalions that share their religious outlook. The Brotherhood has representatives in Antakya ready to meet interested rebels, fighters say.

Leftist politicians and other opponents of Islamists are trying to counter that influence by funding rival armed bands. "These groups are all making their own militias, like they are some kind of warlords. This is dividing people," said one activist who asked not to be named. "They aren't thinking about military strategies, they are thinking about politics."

Some rebel groups have broken with the FSA and ignore the truce:

Several rebel groups have formally broken with the FSA to form outfits such as the Syrian Liberation Army, the Patriotic Army and The Alternative Movement, whose real identity and clout are hard to assess, because the government restricts media access to Syria.

The FSA has pledged to honor the shaky U.N.-backed truce that took effect on April 16 if the army reciprocates. But the Syrian Liberation Army says it will keep fighting.

"We don't accept the ceasefire. We have slowed down a bit, only because we don't have enough weapons," its spokesman, Haitham Qudeimati, told Reuters.

The Brotherhood is accused of holding back in the fights in order to save its forces for after Assad has fallen:

A 60-year-old rebel commander called Abu Shaham, from the central city of Hama, accused the Brotherhood of hanging back from the battlefront to overpower other rebel groups later.

"The Brotherhood is pumping money into the rebel units yet their men don't fight as much as us. They are almost always the first to retreat. Why?" he asked.

"They are not thinking about this phase in the battle. They care about what comes next. They want to save themselves for the struggle after Assad falls, to come out the strongest."

No article would be complete without some Western war mongers:

"If we don't recognize the rebels, anyone can set up shop in Turkey and start funding opposing groups," said Joseph Holliday, of the U.S-based Institute for the Study of War. "We don't know who is arming who ... I'm afraid by the time the West decides to do something it may be too late."

It looks like mr. Holliday forgot to analyze what happened in Libya.

Again we see here talk about the killing of traitors:

Suspicion of "fleas" - slang for collaborators - has bred an environment where vigilante killing almost seems the norm.

"There are a lot of groups on the ground working alone and not all of them are good guys," said rebel commander Abu Shaham.

"Some are thieves or criminals taking advantage of the chaos. So we go after the fleas and chase them out or kill them. We don't have a problem shooting these people."

Last month, the commander of a rebel unit in Homs province, Amjad al-Hameed, who claimed to be funded by The Alternative Movement, criticized the leaders of several other groups.

"We have armed men among our civilians that are a burden to our revolution," he told a crowd in a March 17 YouTube video. "They are just thieves ... It is impermissible for anyone to rape women, otherwise we are no different from Bashar al-Assad."

The next day, unidentified gunmen shot him dead. Hameed's battalion did not blame the government but other rebels, vowing to "punish them as they deserve."

We see again too a reference to a culture of distrust in Syria.

Qudeimati says most rebels do not belong to any unified group because of a culture of distrust, fostered by years of fear under Syria's infamous secret police.

"The problem is the Assad regime had 40 years to create mistrust between Syrians," Qudeimati said. "The lack of unity has been part of the regime's strategy."

I find that too easy. It works always both ways. The Assad regime wouldn't have been as oppressive if it hadn't been confronted with murderous Brotherhood in the past. And the misdeed by the rebels now sow distrust for many years to come.

BTW. there is also an increase in violence among the Shiites of Saudi Arabia. See Gunfights in Saudi Oil-Rich Province Show Spread of Iran Political Tension.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

More German NATO troops to Kosovo

On 20 april Spiegel published an article on the emission of more German troops to Kosovo. Hereby an English translation.

Two weeks before the elections in Serbia threatens new violence, NATO fears for an escalation in northern Kosovo. According to SPIEGEL ONLINE sources, it has therefore asked in the German army for the emission of a rapid reaction force. Berlin has complied with the request.

Berlin - The German army sends on urgent request of NATO, again and in the short term, a 550 man strong German intervention force to the Balkans. Amplified by 150 Austrians should the Operational Reserve Force (ORF) prevent a feared escalation of violence in northern Kosovo around the elections in Serbia on 5 May. On Friday evening advised the Joint Operations Command in Potsdam selected parliamentarians that they have agreed to the desire of the commander of NATO troops in Kosovo, KFOR, to transfer the ORF. This was only a few weeks ago gradually withdrawal from Kosovo have been. Now it should, according to planning, from 1 May again be ready to use on site.

The deployment of the task force illustrates the tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. For months there are between Belgrade, that still regards Kosovo as a renegade region, and Pristina dispute over the elections. Originally Belgrade wanted to open polling stations in the Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo , but this was canceled. Now it rumbles in north Kosovo. "With the presently irreconcilable positions of Serbia and Kosovo to carry out the elections and the already volatile situation in northern Kosovo, there is the danger of escalation," said the Joint Operations Command. There was "considerable potential for conflict" for the entire Kosovo.

Currently, NATO has deployed about 5,800 soldiers of the KFOR troops in the Balkans, about 1,300 of them are provided by Germany. Basically, the task of the international troops there since the beginning of the operation in 1999 in the prevention of new conflicts between Kosovo and Serbia. In recent months, the actually planned further reduction of the international units of NATO was very questionable, as the situation in Kosovo worsened rather than relaxed. As recent as February Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere (CDU) called the situation in Kosovo difficult and a reduction of the units therefore not currently possible.

The task force ORF was recently recalled after a first emergency operation in Kosovo in Germany. In August of last year, the German commander of KFOR troops had first requested it due to the growing tensions in Kosovo. Background at that time were disputes about responsibilities concerning border controls between Serbia and Kosovo. Now the soldiers of the ORF must again turn out in the direction of Kosovo. The force will be composed from the NBC Defence Regiment 750 from Bruchsal and parts of the Artillery Battalion 295 from Immendingen.

Let's hope that this time these troops will do real peacekeeping instead of imposing Pristina's agenda.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Syria's stolen revolution

Christian Science Monitor has an article (Syrian activists to rebels: Give us our revolution back). It tells about a conference in Cairo of Syrian on 16 April of opposition leaders who believe that the FSA has stolen their peaceful revolution.

The article provides a multitude of viewpoints:

- “The regime is more afraid of the nonviolent protesters than it is of the armed Islamists. That’s why most of them have been forced to leave the country or are in prison," says Yara Nseir, who was forced to flee Syria last summer after she had been detained 18 days for distributing leaflets. "They wanted it to become an armed uprising because it allows them to tell the world that they are fighting terrorists.”
“Back then the regime would have armed troublemakers mingle with the protesters to have an excuse to open fire on us. Well, they don’t need to do that anymore: the Free Syrian Army has provided them with the perfect excuse to go on killing people.”

I doubt if it is that simple. The impression is that the Assad regime itself is divided and that Assad himself would be prepared to more reforms than some of his supporters. So he could use the mass demonstrations to swing the consensus inside the elite towards more democracy. But of course such a change takes time and their are lots of people in the police and army who are still stuck in older modes of thought.

- Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a telling remark at an Istanbul press conference April 13, when he was asked if “the Syrian regime is afraid of their own Tahrir.” He replied, “That is what we have believed from day one.”
I think the Syrian government has good reasons to afraid of revolutions. Even peaceful revolutions like in Egypt and Tunisia often end up sowing lots of antagonism and new suppression. A peaceful transition is much better. But it will be hard to explain that to Turkey's government that is having its own vendetta against the Turkish army.

- The Syrian opposition has called for mass demonstrations this Friday to test Mr. Annan's peace plan. One of the conditions of the plan is that the regime allow freedom of assembly.
As I have ofter stated I am against those demonstrations. The opposition has killed lots of people by now and some hate it just as much as others the government. So opposition demonstrations are just as provocative and controversial as an army parade in Homs. That is not the way to achieve reconciliation and peace.

- The Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition group, is supposed to provide a channel for working for political change. But even Ms. Nseir, who is the SNC's spokesperson in Lebanon, says the SNC is seen as too closely aligned with the FSA to present a real alternative to their armed rebellion.

"The SNC claims to be representative of the Syrian people. That’s just not true," says Nseir. "They talk only about arming the rebels. They never talk about nonviolent resistance and they certainly do not speak for the ramadieen, or grey people, the silent majority who support neither the regime nor the armed rebels.”

- In an open letter to the leaders of the Syrian opposition, Human Rights Watch cited “increasing evidence of kidnappings, the use of torture, and executions by armed Syrian opposition members.”

"I told them to their face they are criminals if they do such things, and that they know the meaning of the word freedom," says Ashamy.

Ashamy was told he had better not show his face around Tripoli again if he wanted to stay alive.

Note that this fragment tells that the FSA makes such threats in Tripoli in Lebanon.

"They have ruined everything," Ashamy says of the FSA. "In the beginning we were all Syrians. But when I was last in Homs [late last year] I found that people there were not even aware of what is happening elsewhere in the country. They see this as a purely Sunni Muslim insurgency, and I was accused of being a spy because my ancestry is Druze."

Postscript: This article Syrians questioning whether armed revolt works from 4 May 2012 also discusses the issue. It mentions that some of those who say to support peaceful action also support the uprising. They just don't see themselves as fighters with a gun and see the battle as a two track battle. In my opinion these people miss the point: "non-violent" is not really non-violent when it is meant to support the violence.

Postscript 2: The BBC article "Stuck in the middle - Syria's moderate voices" highlights some people in Damascus who try to stay in the middle and notes that the Assad regime is starting to see them more as a threat.

Postscript 3: Here (Preaching Nonviolence, Syrian Activist Heads Home) is an article about Sheik Jawdat Said who is presented as an 81-year-old Islamic scholar whose books and teachings helped inspire young Syrian activists to challenge the regime in peaceful protests last year. Unlike many "non-violent" protesters who praise the FSA he is against the armed uprising.

Postscript 4: This article (Syrian activists reach across sectarian divide) is about the Nabd (or Pulse) Gathering for Syrian Civil Youth - one of the many cross-sectarian movements that have emerged from Syria's 18-month-long revolt. As I see it one of the front organizations for the rebels aimed to get attract non-Sunni support.

Google also for "Musalaha Syria".

Industrial policy in former Yugoslavia

Euobserver has an article ("Mass unemployment in the Balkans – a need to act") by Kori Udovicki and Gerald Knaus.

It compares how in former Yugoslavia the textile industry has shrunk while in neighboring Bulgaria it has exploded. The difference: Bulgaria has an - EU supported - industrial policy that promotes this kind of industry by encouraging foreign investment, providing targeted education, etc.. In contrast in former Yugoslavia the anti-communist aversion against any kind of industrial policy still dominates.

Ideology is nice, but it shouldn't cloud common sense. Copying best practices from other countries should be standard routine.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Misinforming about Syria

In its latest articles the NY Times is quite distorting the situation in Syria in its effort to get an armed intervention:

- it claims that the ongoing army offensive is a prove that Assad is intending not to stick to the armistice. In fact it is quite usual that before an armistice both parties attempt to improve their position. So the fact that Assad seems to be doing just that seems to indicate that intends to take the armistice seriously.

The fact that that the opposition announces that it will even earlier stop with hostilities is not necessarily a friendly gesture. Due to the government offensive the opposition is losing territory so they are desperate to stop the government offensive as soon as possible.

- it claims that Assad's demands for written assurances from the rebels that they will stick to the armistice is a "new demand". But an armistice can only work when both parties stick to it. Assad is perfectly justified to ask additional guarantees if he think that the opposition will take advantage if he withdraws his troops from the cities. The fact that the opposition is refusing to do this should be a warning sign that they are not intending to stick to their part of the deal.

- the article claims that Assad is asking that the opposition "would be dismantled first". This is an exaggeration of his demands. But is it unreasonable to ask that the opposition will not create a state within a state and treat the areas it controls as liberated areas - where Assad supporters are not safe - but instead be committed to a Syria where everyone is free to move?

- the article claims that "Syria has undermined every truce plan it ostensibly accepted since the uprising started in March 2011". Every truce plan was undermined by the opposition that didn't participate but used it as an opportunity to expand its own power. Add to this the consistent refusal of the opposition to negotiate with Assad - what leaves an armed fight as the only alternative - and it is clear that the attitude of the opposition is a major problem.

If fact the government has repeatedly during periods been very reticent in military actions - only to see the opposition take advantage of that.

- the title of the article puts the blame of the shooting near the Turkish border on the Syrian Army. But as the article explains the army was attacked at that place. One can blame the Syrian Army for not showing adequate restraint. But most of the blame should go to Turkey that places a refugee camp right next to the border and allows it to be used as a staging ground for opposition fighters.

- the article mentions a recent HRW report about extrajudicial killings by government forces but fails to mention reports (like the Spiegel Online article) that the opposition is doing the same.

Mob rule revisited

As I mentioned before I am not a great fan of revolutions - even if they are peaceful. Even when it were just large demonstrations and a overrun of the parliament that threw over the government it was still a form of mob rule. And that sets the stage for more mob rule and anarchy.

Now the NY Times is reporting ("Tunisia Cracks Down Again on Protesters Defying a Ban") about how the new rulers of Tunisia are cracking down on protests. The article mentions clashes between liberal and conservative protesters (the ultimate consequence of mob rule) and discontent among the secular left who feel that they are facing the same kind of suppression as under Ben Ali - only now from the Islamists (a typical case of a revolution eating its own children).

That there is mob rule in Tunisia is by now well established. Women are under heavy pressure to wear scarfs, many shops selling alcohol have been attacked and destroyed and a multitude of strikes has paralyzed the economy.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Non-violent disobedience for Syria? A bad idea.

In the article "Merits of a Syrian Cease-Fire on the CFR website it is argued that the Syrian opposition should now "launch a civil disobedience program which doesn't include violence.".

I strongly disagree. There is only a subtle difference between "civil obedience" and mob rule. The purpose of civil disobedience is to make a point and to show that a considerable part of the population supports that point. At that point negotiations should take over and a compromise should be searched. But when it ends up in a semi-violent takeover of the power it has clearly passed this goal and degraded in mob rule.

I think it is no coincidence that none of the color revolutions has become a success. Mob rule breeds instability, not progress. Serbia is the least problematic of the color revolutions. But it can hardly be called a success when a country cannot vote for the opposition without risking the anger of Brussels. The heritage of mob rule can also be seen in the fierce protests and other actions by radical Muslims in Egypt and Tunisia. They are a minority. But they know that if they push hard enough they have a good chance to have it their way. Already it is reported that the women of Tunisia dress more conservatively and at Manouba Universiteit Salafists managed for one month to impose an obligated scarf.

There is one other factor. At this stage of conflict there is no more freedom to demonstrate. And that works both ways: those who not go will face sanctions if the revolution wins.

What Syria's opposition needs to do after an armistice is building bridges with the army and the government and to negotiate with Assad about the future. Civil disobedience and demonstrations would show that they are still in the destructive mode and not prepared to a constructive contribution.

It is easy to suggest that Assad won't negotiate seriously. But that ignores Assad's real position. Thousands of regime supporters have died too in the past year and there is a real risk that a revolutionary victory might lead to massacres and other retributions against his followers. So if he can have a good deal he will certainly consider it. But then the opposition has to go beyond asking steps toward surrender. Instead they should aim for a real compromise.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

UN rule in Somalia offers familiar scenes

While things seem to go better in Somalia there are a lot of complaints about the autocratic behavior of the SR (special representative) of the UN. It sounds like a variety of what happens in Bosnia.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Chinese-American antagonism

The NY Times has an article ("Chinese Insider Offers Rare Glimpse of U.S.-China Frictions"). It is written by someone who has access to high circles in both China and the US. He sees in China an increasing attitude that their country should be the next number one in the world. America's antagonistic policy certainly hasn't contributed much.

What led to World Wars I and II was the British and French unease with the rise of Germany. As Germany had a bigger population and its economy was growing faster it was destined to become the most powerful. That led to containment policies that led to distrust, antagonism and in the end to war.

Now we see America making the same mistakes regarding the rise of China. Instead of stressing international law and cooperation - what would open the door for a peaceful transition - it is doing the opposite. In the case of Libya and Syria it is openly thrashing international law. There was nothing wrong with the US stationing a few soldiers in Australia. But there was a lot wrong with the way it was advertised as a containment policy towards China.

If the US wants to prevent China from becoming no.1 its priority should be to get united once again around a common goal. Unfortunately there is no sign of that. All the hate talk only serves to distract the population from the increasing inequality and dubious deregulation.

Libya's future

The NY Times has an article ("Libyan Militias Turn to Politics, a Volatile Mix") about Libya's doubtful future. Some hope elections will bring more stability but it seems likely that some militia's will put pressure on "their" citizens to vote a certain way.

Some quotes:

In a poll of Libyans conducted in December and January by a research arm of Oxford University, only 15 percent of the more than 2,000 respondents said they wanted some form of democracy within the next 12 months, while 42 percent said they hoped Libya would be governed by a new strongman. Perhaps most worrisome: a significant minority, about 16 percent, said they were ready to use violence for political ends.
When a peaceful demonstration in Benghazi urged federalism, the interior minister — a militia leader from Misurata — publicly threatened to lead an armed force from his hometown to fight what he called a threat to national unity.
Former Qaddafi officials, who are also talking about forming a political party, say they hear an echo of the past. “They are speaking the same language we did,” said one former Qaddafi adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity for his safety. “We used force. They are using force. Nothing has changed but the flag and the national anthem.”

The solution would be for the West and all the other countries that supported the revolution to advocate the interests of all the disadvantaged groups of the moment like the Bedouin, the Gaddafi supporters and the black. Unfortunately this seems very unlikely given how hate-driven Western politics is nowadays.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Syria's "peaceful" opposition

Spiegel online has an article ("The Burial Brigade of Homs: An Executioner for Syria's Rebels Tells His Story")that gives a disturbing picture how deadly Syria's revolutionaries really are. It tells how this rebel group alone has executed nearly 150 government supporters in addition to 200 to 250 "traitors" from their own ranks. And this is only Homs and concerns only those who had first been captured and were then killed after a "trial".

Of course they mention government violence as an excuse. They also say that Syria has a very violent culture. But however you take it, it is clear that the rebels are contributing to the spiral of increasing violence too. And in a my bigger way than most of their Western supporters would like to admit.

Syria's government has its own claims on how deadly the opposition is. It talks about "6, 143 Syrian citizens killed by the terrorist groups and 1, 590 citizens who were kidnapped, the fate of two thirds of whom remain unknown".

20 June 2012: This article (In rebel-held Syria, revolutionary courts decide matters of life, death) reports about a more peaceful revolutionary court.

The carousel of elites in Egypt

An interesting article from the Egypt Independent ("The Brotherhood's businessmen") discusses the candidacy for the presidential elections of one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat al-Shater.

The Brotherhood hails free-market capitalism; wealthy businessmen whose economic agenda embraces privatization and foreign investment, the writer said, lead its party. The Brotherhood does not espouse the idea of redistribution of wealth, preferring charity instead as a means of combating poverty.

The article adds that Khairat al-Shater, arguably the most powerful man in the Muslim Brotherhood, is a multimillionaire tycoon whose financial interests extend into several fields of business. “A strong advocate of privatization, Al-Shater is one of a cadre of Muslim Brotherhood businessmen who helped finance the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party’s impressive electoral victory this winter and is now crafting the FJP's economic agenda,” the article reads.

After Egypt got rid of the National Democratic Party’s cabinet of businessmen, it seems we are currently witnessing another illegitimate marriage between capital and power. Paradoxically, Mubarak’s son Gamal — who is currently facing trial over several charges, including corruption — and Shater were both bankers in the past.

In fact, the military trial of Brotherhood members in 2006 to 2007 was only the result of underlying competition between two groups that controlled capital in Egypt, namely between Gamal’s group and the Brotherhood. All of those who stood trial were leading businessmen in the Brotherhood, the most important of whom was Khairat al-Shater.

Consequently, more than 70 companies owned by the Brotherhood were shut down. The trial was in fact a settlement of accounts between two capitalist rivals, one of whom was forced to leave power only to be replaced by the other.

The Brotherhood’s projects and the extent to which it has penetrated Egypt’s economic structure remains a secret, like much of the Brotherhood’s affairs. It is impossible to determine the number of companies it owns or how much the group makes every year. We have, however, a list of its companies that were confiscated during the 2007 military trial. A quick look at the trial gives us much insight into the Brotherhood’s business.

Seventy-two Brotherhood-owned companies were confiscated as a result of the trials. They were rentier-based and primarily produced consumer products that targeted upper and middle classes.

This is the least beneficial form of economic activity as opposed to building factories or inventing computer software.

Like the NDP’s businessmen, the Brotherhood’s businessmen registered their projects under the names of their wives or sons-in-law so they would be hard to track down. Shater is one example. The branches of the Shater’s shops are located in the most luxurious shopping malls in Cairo. One of the most famous stores is a furniture shop named Istiqbal, which sells couches for around LE6000, when many young men need a similar amount to finance their marriage. This probably explains the Brotherhood’s uneasiness when dealing with the revolution’s socio-economic demands.

It looks like Egypt is one of those classical cases where one part of the elite is replaced by another part while for much of the rest of the population there isn't much change. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose or as it was expressed in Il Gattopardo: If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

But Washington gets what it wants: a consistent sticking to the free market dogma no matter how harmful it is for the country.