Friday, December 28, 2012

An answer to Hof on Syria

Frederic Hof, a member of the Atlantic Council and until recently Obama's special advisor for transition in Syria, has written a list of attention points (Syria: Seven Key Points). In the light of Obama's disastrous Syria policy I will discuss those points.

- In his introduction he says that While a diplomatic, managed transition from the Assad regime to an opposition-led consensus national unity government would be ideal, the likelihood of it happening is very low.
As long the opposition and the government aren't talking the chance of a unity government is indeed low. Unfortunately the US is encouraging the opposition leaders not to talk. Hof bears responsibility for this position.
The term "opposition-led consensus national unity government" is a contradictio-in-terminis. National unity supposes that there is a balance of power and common points are stressed. That is in fundamental opposition with the term "opposition-led".

- "1. Time is the enemy"
Under this point Hof is repeating some myths. One is to describe Assad's rule and survival strategy as "sectarian", ignoring the fact that Assad has considerable appeal beyond the sectarian borders. Another is that Assad enabled the influx of Al Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation there. This has been refuted by West Point studies: Assad could have done more to stop them but these were long existing smuggling routes outside the control of his government. Yet I can agree to the point that the longer the fighting goes on the worse it will get.

- "2. There is no silver bullet"
This point starts with an admission of the criminal proxy war that the US is waging: Many of those pressures—economic and diplomatic—were put in place with US leadership early in the crisis. And slowly the balance on the ground is shifting toward the rebels. Then follows some demonization about Assad being ready to use chemical arms. It ends with some discussion of an armed intervention. In the context of Libya his assertion that US bombing might "panic the regime into a rapid departure" seems rather unrealistic.

- "3. You can’t beat something with nothing"
This is a plea for having a opposition government in exile so that the many Syrians who are afraid of what will come if Assad leaves can see that it will not as bad as they fear.
It would be a welcome development to have a central body that feels responsible for what happens in the rebel occupied areas and that maintains law and order and takes care of food, fuel and other needs.
Such a body could also be a talking partner with the Assad government. Unfortunately Hof has at this point already forgotten about "national unity" and instead proposes to impose that provisional government on the country. He ignores the fact that that will tell the millions of Syrians who at the moment prefer Assad above the rebels that they have no say in the future of Syria.
The latter half of this plea however is nonsense. It is well known that millions of Syrians prefer Assad over the rebels. They see the defects of Assad but they see progress under his rule and consider him better than the primitive hatred of the rebels. Hof's claim is that these are all irrational fears fueled by Assad's propaganda and that when they see an opposition government in action these fears will vanish.
In fact it is Hof who is badly informed. The Syrian exile coalitions that the US support are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the same Brotherhood that around 1980 waged a murder campaign against Alawite government officials and its leaders never have taken distance from that period of terrorism. Besides that the developments on the ground in Syria give little reason for optimism. According to the UN around 80,000 Christians have left Homs due to rebel pressure. In Qusair Christians were told from the minarets that they had to leave the town. There are reports about massacres of Alawites and mass expulsion of Christians. Rebel fighters shooting at and killing peaceful protesters.

- "4. Guns will likely decide the outcome"
Again a misleading use of words when Hof suggests that Brahimi is supporting his regime chance program where in fact Brahimi is looking for a real compromise. No wonder Hof considers the chance of success low: the US plans to obstruct Brahimi just as it did with Annan. This hypocrisy becomes even more clear when he says that only representatives from the present government with "blood-free hands" are welcome. This is war - everyone has blood on his hands - rebels too. You can be sure that both sides will have clear ideas about who from the other side is welcome and who not. That is part of the negotiations.

- "5. Who gets arms and from whom is important"
This is the familiar plea that the US should give arms to the rebels in order to have influence. Not a word of critique for the US allies (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) who arm and support Al-Nusra. Instead some confused talk about cooperating with those countries to further the moderate forces in the Syrian opposition. Also not a word about the fact that it may be too late for that: by now Al-Nusra has become a magnet for the better fighters while the FSA increasingly is getting infected with criminal elements.

- "6. The post-Assad era will be messy"
Under this point Hof makes a number of recommendations to stabilize the situation after a regime change:
- Keep existing ministries and other institutions of state. Reform can come in time.
Hof seems incapable of understanding that that will be impossible once a victorious rebel army has occupied Damascus.
- Proclaim the necessity of national unity, the primacy of citizenship
It is a bit late for that - after all those months of rebel propaganda about Sunni exploitation by Alawites and appeal to sectarian sentiments.
- Request an international stabilization military force, working in coordination with the Supreme Military Council
After the dubious performance of NATO and the US in Kosovo and Iraq this is not very credible. Most likely the force will be used to oppress any remaining resistance - and in the process contribute to a worsening position for Syria's minorities.
- Open the country to UN aid and work on refugee return
Anyone who has heard the mocking tone in which diplomats in Kosovo talk about refugee returns will seriously doubt the sincerity of these intentions.
- Give the Syrian people a clear political horizon
This part contains a lot of nonsense about rule of law, civil society, elections, etc. All very nice, but useless as long as you don't have an agreement what the basic principles should be. The discussion about the Egyptian constitution is a good illustration of this problem.

- "7. The international community cannot be AWOL"
An interim Syrian Reconstruction Fund should be established by the Friends of Syria Group and provided with seed funding, mainly from Gulf sources.
It is easy to be generous with the money of other people. Fact is that the UN at the moment cannot even get enough money for food aid in Syria. That doesn't bode well for the future.

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