Wednesday, 24 October 2012

To Intervene Or Not To Intervene in Syria

A recent lecture in London highlighted the perils of any sort of foreign intervention, military or even humanitarian, in the meat-grinder of current day Syria. With the violence and bloodshed mounting and spilling over into Lebanon, with the flood of refugees pouring into Turkey and Jordan the pressure is increasing to ‘do something.’ But what, exactly? What assistance? To whom should it go? How should it be delivered? And, most important of all, what would be the consequences of any external assistance?

One of the biggest issues dividing the Syrian opposition is this question of external assistance. Is it good, bad, or even necessary? To briefly summarize the current line-up: Russia and Iran are actively supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The opposition, meanwhile, receives overt support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Other countries like Turkey are supporting the opposition, but so far have stopped short of providing heavy weapons or soldiers.

The United States, for its part, still bears the scars from its lethal aid to the mujahideen fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The U.S. is also concerned about the alleged stockpiles of chemical weapons held by the Syrian regime falling into the hands of jihadist elements that have infiltrated the Syrian opposition forces.
Your new best friends in Syria?
 And then there are people like Dr. Haitham Manna, the Paris-based spokesman for an opposition group called the National Committee for Democratic Change who pleaded with an audience at the London School of Economics to work for a non-violent solution that avoided taking any external assistance. According to Dr. Manna any external assistance would merely distort what started as a non-violent anti-regime protest against the arrest of 15 school children in Dar’a in March 2011. He maintains that such external assistance would merely make the country hostage to people supplying the assistance. He said the original goal of protestors was to create a non-sectarian, democratic Syria, and that it is na├»ve to think that this could be accomplished merely by changing its political alliances or resorting to violence.
Dr. Haitham Manna
 In an earlier interview with Jadaliyya he said Syria “will become prisoners to international aid and those non-democratic forces in the Gulf States who wish that there will be a fiscal crisis.” He was referring to the support that Qatar and Saudi Arabia have given to the opposition forces in Syria. He also questioned how much would be gained in the long term by swapping Russian support for American support.

This position puts him at squarely odds with other opposition groups, namely the Syrian National Council, that want ‘friendly’ countries to mount a Libyan-style attack and force a military solution to the civil war. The situation is further complicated by sectarian divisions among the regime’s opponents. Some want a bloody Sunni-Alawite confrontation, some want a jihadist Islamic state, others simply want a democratic state controlled by and for Syrians.

Dr. Manna kept stressing the point that Syria is not Libya, and that it has several different ethnic and religious groups. “Any solution that does not include all the different groups in Syria is bound to fail,” he told the largely sceptical audience.

“If we take Arab nationalism too far we marginalize the non-Arabs such as the Kurds and others. If we take Islamic ideology too far then we do away with approximately 40% of the people. We have no right to do any of this,” he said in the Jadaliyya interview.

The tone of the questions from the audience in London indicated that Dr. Manna’s plea for non-violence was falling on rocky ground; that it was too late to wind the clock back to the days of peaceful demonstrations of unarmed civilians.

“What do you expect me to do when someone comes to my home with a gun and threatens me and my family? Meekly give in?” one person asked bitterly. Others pointed out that Dr. Manna is based in Paris and questioned his right to give advice to people fighting for their lives every day.

He bravely responded by noting that his own brother was killed by the regime and poignantly asked the questioners “How has the situation improved since we began fighting?” He has a point, but at this stage not too many people are listening.

So what is the end-game to the bloody stalemate in Syria? The opposition forces do not seem to have the heavy weapons required to defeat the well-armed forces of the regime, and the regime seems incapable of finishing off the rebels. Some say there is no solution as long as Bashar al-Assad and his ruling clique remain in power or even in the country. Others, like Dr.Manna, insist that any solution ignoring the legitimate fears of the minority Alawite regime and its supporters would be short-lived.

‘Compromise’ is not a frequently used word in the Middle East. But just possibly in this situation a compromise worked out by the Syrian people themselves and supported by the contending external forces may be the only way to keep the country from splitting into bitterly opposed mini-states established on ethnic and religious grounds. Wildly optimistic? Perhaps, but it is difficult to see any other result that doesn’t increase the instability of an already unstable region.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Time To Recognize New Realities

With much of the world’s attention focused on the expanding war in Syria and increasing tensions with Iran it is easy to ignore the serious potential for major problems in an area largely overlooked for the last 30 years – the Sinai Peninsula. The scene of at least four major conflicts between Israel and Egypt from 1948 to 1973 this 61,000 km2 triangle of desert, jagged mountains, glittering tourist resorts and deep biblical significance has once again become a flash point in a region that does not need any more flash points.

The Sinai Peninsula

In a paper published last month by Chatham House (The Royal Institute ofInternational Affairs) Nicolas Pelham, The Economist’s correspondent in Jerusalem, notes that the Sinai used to serve as a buffer ‘cushioning the geopolitical aspirations of Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinians.’ Now, however, he cautions that that buffer has eroded as new players have asserted themselves in the vacuum created by the collapse of the old Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak.

For more than 30 years the Sinai was more or less ruled according to the so-called Camp David Accords signed by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel in September 1978. Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai that it had conquered in 1967, evacuate 4,500 civilians, guarantee freedom of passage between Egypt and Jordan, and return the oil fields in the western Sinai. Egypt agreed to limit its forces in the Sinai, and guarantee freedom of passage for Israeli ships through Suez Canal and the straits of Tiran. The two antagonists opened formal diplomatic relations in 1980.

As Pelham notes, however, “the old accords underpinning regional stability have failed to keep pace with the changing times.” These accords were created when Egyptian and Israeli security forces ruled supreme. Now the emergence of the Hamas government in Gaza, newly assertive indigenous Bedouin tribes, jihadis, and other ‘non-state’ players in the region coupled with the weakened central control of the Egyptian government in Cairo has created a volatile situation filled with conflicting interests just waiting for the right fuse.

These simmering tensions have resulted in repeated attacks on the gas pipeline from Egypt to Jordan and Israel. More serious was the attack in August 2012 on an Egyptian military base in which 16 soldiers were killed. On top of these incidents have been the cross-border raids where militants killed several Israelis. There was also a missile attack on Eilat on the eve of the 2012 Passover holiday. Israel has responded in predictable fashion by moving additional troops into the area and building a high wall along the 240 kilometre border with the Sinai. Tourism in the area was hit by attacks on the Gold Coast of Sharm al-Sheikh. Egypt’s response to the August 2012 attack was to move against the vast tunnel system used to transport goods and weapons into Gaza from Sinai.
The key tourist town of Sharm al-Sheikh
 Local Bedouin tribes in the area have long been frustrated by wide-spread discrimination against them by the Egyptian authorities in everything from employment to land titles. Pelham notes that the rampant development of the ‘Red Sea Riviera’ in the 1990s and 2000s that was protected by a military cordon created a great deal of resentment as local Bedouin were pushed away from the southern coast. Since the fall of Mubarak these tribes have seized the opportunity to create new facts on the ground.

Relations between the Hamas government of Gaza and the Mubarak regime had been marked by mutual suspicion. Egyptian suspicion of Hamas’ anti-regime activities led to frequent closure of the Gaza-Sinai border and arrest of Hamas members accused of helping the militant bombings of the southern Sinai tourist resorts. With the election of the allied Moslem Brotherhood government in Egypt Hamas has attempted to show that it can be a force for regional stability rather than a home for militant Islamist attacks on Egypt as well as Israel. Hamas has pledged not to use Egyptian territory for back-door attacks on Israel and has curtailed the operational freedom it had given to some Islamist groups for actions against Israel.

Part of the elaborate tunnel system between Sinai and Gaza
Many in the United States Congress want to know if the new Egyptian government will continue to honor the Camp David Accords. A much better question is how to bring these accords in line with realities that did not exist in 1978. The time has come for some fresh thinking on how to bring stability to this region before it erupts even more. A good place to start would be Pelham’s suggestions of formally including Hamas in discussions of regional stability, fully integrating the Bedouin into formal structures of Egyptian rule in the Sinai, and formalize the access and trade relations between Gaza, the Sinai and Israel. Bringing these disparate groups inside the tent may be unwieldy and distasteful to many. But maintaining the fiction that they exist only at the margins will only lead to more unrest for all concerned.