Thursday, May 31, 2012

Give talks in Syria a real chance

Annan has now been more than a month in Syria but peace seems still far away. Annan and his staff remain optimistic and like to point to out that violence has diminished. And they proclaim the hope that with more observers the violence will be further reduced.

Annan’s Six Point Plan is based on a series of assumptions about the Syrian situation. Whether it will work out and result in peace depends to a large extent on the correctness of those assumptions

Assessing the situation
The Plan assumes that there is a democratic opposition that is in its heart peaceful. Confronting that it sees a regime that can only survive with brute violence. It sees the present violence by the opposition as a natural reaction to this government violence. If just the government would stop its violence then the opposition would revert to its prior peaceful nature too. At that point negotiations could be started and Assad would soon realize that he is outdated dictator and would transfer power to democracy as embodied by the opposition or to some interim figure appointed in a collaboration between the government and the opposition. After a short period elections might be held. Result should be a more prosperous and stable Syria.

Nearly all these assumptions are wrong.

Syria’s opposition was never really peaceful. Its idea of peaceful protesting was to organize ever larger demonstrations that should end with an overrunning of the parliament and the presidential palace. The opposition has the ample financial means that enable it to keep the momentum in this process with a large amount of propaganda. This is the scenario of the color revolutions. No self respecting government that is aware of this scenario will let it happen.

Many security people had been trained under the more ruthless rule of the present president’s father. Confronted with sudden demonstrations in Daraa they reacted in the way they were used to. But that doesn’t mean that – given enough time – they couldn’t have learned to react more peacefully. Assad has introduced some reforms since the start of the uprising. He might well have reformed here too but he never had a chance as the opposition used the event as an excuse to start a violent uprising.

It looks highly unlikely that the opposition will lay down its arms when the government does. What we see instead is that as soon as the government withdraws the armed opposition moves in. Given that a considerable part of the armed opposition was also involved in the armed resistance against the father of the present president in the 1970s and 1980s this is not surprising.

The opposition is also far from democratic. The core of Sunni fundamentalists aims for a religious state rather than democracy. The problems of the opposition in working together are well known and bode ill for the tolerance of diversity after the opposition has won.

Assad is also far from a lonely dictator. Before the present uprising started he was widely supported – even by many who now support the opposition. And although his support has fallen due to the violent way he has tried to suppress the uprising he has still considerable support, specially among the Alawites, Christians and parts of the Sunnites.

The road towards peace
Taking this into account much of the Annan Six Point Plan as it is implemented seems wrong:

There is no sign that the opposition is serious about the armistice as an opportunity to start a political process. Some follow the truce at least with words to avoid international condemnation. Others see it mainly as an opportunity to rearm and according to some news reports they have succeeded to a considerable extent. Some smaller segments of the opposition have openly rejected the truce and continue their attacks.

Given this situation the demand for withdrawal of Syrian troops from population centers becomes unrealistic. A withdrawal should serve to create a neutral space where everyone can breath freely, not to allow the opposition to advance. This is even more acute as some of the areas that the opposition would overrun are pro-Assad and it is well known that the opposition is not very friendly towards Assad supporters – expelling or even killing them.

In this climate it is also highly unlikely that elections can be held. Very likely the opposition will contest the results from government held territories and the Assad supporters those from the opposition held territories. We have seen this scenario in Ivory Coast. Democracy is not the dictatorship of the majority. It can only exist on the basis of a good constitution in which the main parties have worked out how they want to live and work together.

What Syria needs are talks. Talks that build trust between Alawites, Sunnites, Kurds, Christians and other groups and lead to a consensus on how Syria should develop towards more freedom, openness, human rights and democracy..

But until now Annan has done very little to achieve such talks. There are no local talks to achieve at least locally held armistices that could serve as building blocks for a wider truce. The opposition hasn’t appointed representatives and Annan hasn’t pressured them to do so.

Annan seems to believe that first peace must be established before talks can be held. There is no sign that this will work. He needs to work the other way: establish trust with talks so that the truce can hold.

Unfortunately the Western countries have unlearned the art of negotiations with the end of the Cold War. What goes under the name of “negotiations” is nowadays heavily contaminated with Western wishes, “principles” and demands. It is an attitude that did much to worsen the situation in former Yugoslavia and Ivory Coast. The question is whether we are prepared now to allow and support negotiations where the accent is on improving human rights and freedom and building trust between Syria’s groups rather than on the removal of Assad. Such negotiations may take months or even years. But it is the only way towards real freedom.

It’s about the economy …
The economies of the Arab world were growing fast before the Arab Spring started. So the oft mentioned assumption that the uprisings were caused by economic mismanagement don’t hold. Supporters of this theory sometimes want to save their position by claiming that all the benefits of the growth went to a small elite but there is little proof for that assumption: Middle Eastern countries score rather low on Gini index for inequality. It seems rather that the revolutions were a combination of long held discontent over non-elected leaders, rising food prices and a series of rather accidental events.

Tunisia’s regime had been weakened by the Wikileaks cables about the extravagancies of its leadership and the revelation of the critical way the US looked at them. Then came the uprising and president Ben Ali – an old man of 74 – preferred to leave rather than to engage a long fight. This gave the uprising momentum and led to similar uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world. These probably wouldn’t have lasted long if it hadn’t been for support from the US, Turkey and the Gulf States.

For much of the population of Tunisia and Egypt the revolution has become a disappointment as it destroyed the economy. The violence drove away the tourists and the many strikes damaged existing businesses and drove away potential investors. In both cases it is doubtful whether this will be repaired soon. The violence of the government may have stopped but it is doubtful whether the Salafi violence against liquor shops and their pressure on women to wear scarves will do much to bring back the tourists.

… and stability
It is well known countries need a middle class and a certain level of wealth before they can become really democratic. A middle class with a source of income that is independent of the government puts the right kind of demands on a government while a certain level of wealth makes that people have the time and education to make an educated choice between the candidates. Only Tunisia comes close to that threshold while the prospects for democracy in Egypt, Syria and certainly dirt poor Yemen seem poor.

If poorer countries are democratic it is often in a rather dysfunctional way. Often they have a one or two party system and when politicians are voted out they tend to come back four years later. Corruption tends to be high. Political discussion in poorer countries tends to be about zero-sum issues like the division of wealth while in richer countries it is usually about common goals like economic growth, law and order and foreign policy. Zero-sum issues like division of wealth and the relative power of ethnic, religious or other interest groups tends to be solved in richer counties by consensus and is sometimes laid down in the constitution.

Recently it has become in fashion to sell democracy as a solution to all problems. This has been times and again a resounding failure but thanks to gracious funding from Western countries it keeps popping up. The “democratic” secessions from Yugoslavia ended mostly in bloody wars thanks the refusal from the Western countries to admit that such secessions should happen in mutual agreement – what can take years. With the sorry excuse that Yugoslavia was falling apart the Helsinki Accords and the Yugoslav constitution were blatantly ignored. Later on we saw the color revolutions: Thanks to the skills of Western PR agencies they initially generated great enthusiasm – of which nothing is left. Instead the color revolutions caused mainly chaos and stagnation. But the democracy promoters marched on and found their next big project in the Arab Spring. The disappointment in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya is already quite common but that doesn’t stop them from targeting Syria as their next big project.

But Syria doesn’t need democracy now. Even in the best circumstances that would hardly work as the country is too poor and too divided. What Syria needs is more national consensus and for that extensive negotiations are needed. It needs to find a consensus where Brotherhood people can live together in peace with Alawites and Christians. It needs a consensus where most of the Syria’s refugees – who often have been living outside the country for decades – can return safely but where they will also promise not pursue armed struggle that upsets the country.

From that perspective Annan’s mission in Syria until now has been a resounding failure. Under the pretext that first violence should end he has refused to take even a single step towards negotiations between Assad and the opposition. He refuses to see that for violence to stop there has to be trust and that can only be created with negotiations.

… but not about bad guys
Western diplomacy likes us now to believe that all problems are caused by just a few bad guys. Nowadays the removal of Assad seems to be the priority for Washington.

Both Tunisia and Egypt would have been better off if those countries hadn’t had revolutions but instead had gone through the same steps as Western countries do when there are heavy protests: a give-and-take between government and protesters that ends with some kind of compromise. In the process they might have fired some corrupt officials, abolished a few corrupt monopolies and become a bit more open for dissent. The only problem is that such compromises don’t deliver the scalps that Western foreign policy nowadays seems to need to appear successful to its home audience.

This trophy hunting has already led to excesses, like the murder of a head of state in the case of Libya and the largely symbolic replacement of the president of Yemen by his deputy. It gives the West a special – dysfunctional – interest in what is going on the Arab countries.

Assad is now sold to us as the bad guy. But before the uprising started he enjoyed considerable popularity among Syrians who saw him as a reformer and modernizer. It is easy to discard him because of all the blood that has been shed. But it is also dishonest. Assad simply inherited the security system. One can blame him for not reforming it fast enough but that raises the question whether one shouldn’t blame as well the opposition with its refusal to compromise. And that raises the question whether their supporters in the West may be not so innocent as they pretend to be.

Singling out Assad as the only one responsible absolves the opposition from its responsibility. So far from ending the violence easing out Assad would encourage the opposition and increase their violence. Real peace for Syria can only start with the recognition that the parties there have to find a way to live together. That means negotiations and compromise.

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