Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: Geneva 2

After a brief snafu over Iran’s presence, the Geneva 2 peace talks are set to get underway tomorrow (1/22). While it is difficult to be excited about the possibility of meaningful change coming out of this conference, the fatalism surrounding the talks is downright counter-productive:

It has been 18 months since a previous international peace conference in Geneva ended in failure, and all other diplomatic initiatives have also proven fruitless.

“At best, Geneva 2 will reconfirm agreements made during the first Geneva conference, call for ceasefires, maybe prisoners swap and so on,” said one Western diplomat.

“At the same time, those taking part in the talks are de facto giving legitimization to Damascus. They are talking to Assad’s government on the other side of the table.

“And so the show would go on while Assad stays in power.”

But Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, sets a lower bar for success. “We should think of this as a kind of ‘getting to know you,’ as a kind of sounding out the parameters of the possible here,” Joshi says, “what can be accomplished in terms of limited humanitarian access, for example.”

Normative Narratives is a place to discuss what we think “should happen”–there is no room for cynicism or fatalism here. Having both sides at the table (the SNC and the Assad regime), Geneva 2 presents an opportunity to set the stage for meaningful change in Syria. Meaningful change, of course, requires concessions from both sides. In the context of a civil war, agreements needs to be externally verifiable and include repercussion for reneging on said agreements.  Here is how that change could play out:

1) Bashar Al-Assad commits to having open elections on schedule (May 2014, or if that date is not possible as soon as the U.N. deems such elections feasible), allowing for international peacekeepers and elections committees to oversee the vote. Any interested party could run in these elections; the precondition stated by S.o.S John Kerry, that only parties agreed upon by both the regime and the opposition may run, would restrict the field of candidates to non-existent. Let the Syrian people decide what they want, and ensure their voices are heard.

There are logistical and security problems with holding an election in a country mired in Civil War, in which a third of the population is either internally displaced or has fled the country. These are major issues to be worked out by the U.N. between now and when elections are to be held.

2) In return for a commitment to Presidential elections, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and Bashar Al-Assad agree to a nationwide cease-fire. There are potential problems with this solution; Will both sides honor the deal? Can the SNC retain any legitimacy with the opposition if it agrees to such a deal?

While these concerns are legitimate, they continue a fatal theme that has (in part) allowed the Syrian Civil War to persist. This theme is the marginalization of the vast majority of Syrians (who want a ceasefire and elections), while placing the greatest emphasis on the desires of the most violent parties of the war. By agreeing to a ceasefire, it will become clear which factions of the opposition are committed to a democratic Syrian state, and which factions only wish to seize power / setup an Islamic state.

Assad has reason to agree to a ceasefire as well, even if he is not at risk of losing the war. With a third of the population displaced, and an estimated loss of 35 years of development gains, Assad has a long way to go if he has any hope of becoming the legitimate democratically elected leader of Syria.

3) Assad has used the narrative of “fight terrorists” to justify his brutal crackdown on the opposition. A ceasefire would force Assad to put his money where his mouth is. It can be assumed that ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) would not honor the ceasefire. Let those factions continue to pose a security threat, and force Assad to fight them (instead of sitting back and laughing at rebel in-fighting). This would also put to rest the claim that Assad is actually backing ISIS to undermine his legitimate opposition:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Syrian president of trying to hijack the agenda. “Nobody is going to be fooled” by Assad’s attempts to portray himself as the protector of Syria against extremists, Kerry said, “when he, himself, has been funding those extremists.”

It is a charge that the rebels have been leveling for months, that the Assad regime covertly backs the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a tactic to undermine any legitimate opposition.

“All of us know that the regime does not attack places held by ISIS,” says a Western diplomat. “There is an alliance of convenience between the two. It makes clear to the world where the defense against extremists lies.”

ISIS would also have to be countered from the Iraqi side in order to push this group to the margins.

4) A cease-fire would compromise the SNCs ability to take up arms again, by alienating the group from many of the opposition fighters on the ground. If Assad reneged on either the cease-fire or holding transparent elections, the SNC would be stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is therefore imperative that this deal is backed up by a commitment by the UNSC (including Russia and China) and NATO forces to intervene in the instance of meaningful deviations from this road-map to democracy.

Without such a commitment, the cost of reneging for Assad would be non-existent, while (as mentioned above) it would be disastrous for the SNC. Furthermore, a U.N. peacekeeping mission would need to be setup immediately to ensure Assad does not punish those opposed to him once they lay down their arms, while also establishing an environment conducive to transparent elections.

Lots of commitments between parties who do not like or trust each are needed in order to make this plan a reality. However, in the context of a “hurting stalemate”, growing regional instability, and gross human rights violations, there is no stomachable alternative. The international community has put in a great effort to make Geneva 2 a reality. The SNC has continued to put its faith in the international system, despite years of empty promises and inaction. The Syrian people cannot afford a meaningless convention, with a best-case-scenario of increased humanitarian access.

The world owes it to Syria to aim big, and make a full-faith effort to establish a ceasefire, expand access to humanitarian aid, and create a road-map to transparent democratic elections. I believe I have mapped out a good starting point, one that requires concessions from both sides and is mutually beneficial. If I can think of these ideas, one can only hope that diplomatic officials could come up with a realistic / workable solution.

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Conflict Watch: In the Push for Liberal Democracy in the Middle East, Time May be the Greatest Enemy

Well that might be a bit of an overstatement, but the passage of time continues to undermine the goals of the “Arab Spring”. Protracted Social Conflict theory identifies “grievances” or human rights abuses, as the root cause of social conflicts. Paul Collier takes the theory one step further, arguing that over time legitimate grievances are hijacked by opportunistic forces seeking wealth and/or power.

These theories have almost perfectly explained what has transpired over the past 2+ years in both Syria and Egypt:

Syria:

In Syria, peaceful protests for basic freedoms and liberal democracy (starting in March 2011) were met with violence from the Assad regime, sparking a civil-war. Over time, legitimate grievances were hijacked by opportunistic Islamic extremists who wish to setup an Islamic Syrian state.

Even internationally recognized factions of the Syrian opposition have become fractured. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the political arm of the Syrian opposition, has agreed to attend the “Geneva 2” peace talks, while the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the military arm of the Syrian opposition has refused to attend.

All the while, the moderate opposition has become increasingly marginalized and disillusioned:

“The ones who fight now are from the side of the regime or the side of the thieves,” he said in a recent interview via Skype. “I was stupid and naïve,” he added. “We were all stupid.”

Even as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria racks up modest battlefield victories, this may well be his greatest success to date: wearing down the resolve of some who were committed to his downfall. People have turned their backs on the opposition for many different reasons after two and a half years of fighting, some disillusioned with the growing power of Islamists among rebels, some complaining of corruption, others just exhausted with a conflict that shows no signs of abating.

“It’s undeniable that a lot of your early activists are disillusioned,” said Emile Hokayem, a Syria analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, adding that in revolutions, it is often “your most constructive, positive people who are engaged early on who find themselves sidelined.” 

Disillusioned activists say that early on, euphoric at being able to protest at all, they neglected to build bridges to fence-sitters, or did not know how. Homegrown fighters desperate for help welcomed foreign jihadists, and many grew more religious or sectarian in tone, alarming Mr. Assad’s supporters, dividing his opponents and frightening the West out of substantially supporting them.

With a ruthless foresight, following the playbook of his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, Mr. Assad’s forces cracked down early and hard on the civilian, educated opposition, erasing the space where a middle ground could have emerged. They used heavy weaponry on rebel supporters to an extent that shocked even their foes, while pursuing a deliberate and increasingly successful strategy of persuading Syrians and the world that their opponents were a greater danger.

The fracturing of the opposition has played into Assad hands (the regime still enjoys political and military unity). Assad’s narrative of fighting “terrorism” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; as Western aid has lagged, the opposition has become increasingly unorganized and radicalized. Moderate Syrians who favor liberal democracy represent a decreasing proportion of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian humanitarian crisis has become an after-though of the violent civil war.

Egypt:

The Egyptian revolution began in January of 2011 with protests which toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak. Who you believe “hijacked” the Egyptian revolution depends on your take of what transpired this past July. Was the military takeover a coup or did it represent the will of the people? Are these two answers mutually exclusive, or is there some middle ground in which both arguments have merit? The world many never come to consensus answers to these loaded questions.

One thing, however, is certain; as in Syria, Egyptian moderates who revolted for liberal democracy have become increasingly marginalized. The power players in Egypt are Islamic extremists (who have become more violent since the ouster of Morsi) and Mubarak-era loyalists:

A leading Egyptian social democrat fears the elite that thrived under former President Hosni Mubarak will once again dominate politics in elections promised by the army after it overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.

The 2011 popular revolt against Mubarak raised hopes for an end to decades of corruption and nepotism, but political turmoil since then has dimmed aspirations for genuine democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which came out on top in every national vote in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, may yet be allowed to contest next year’s parliamentary election via its Freedom and Justice Party, or by running candidates as individuals.

But even if the Brotherhood chose to take part, its electoral dominance might be over in a reshaped political landscape, where both state and private media condemn it as a terrorist organization – and lionise the police and military.

Liberals have failed to build popular new parties and look ill-placed to exploit the Brotherhood’s plight. This could allow a comeback by the “felool”, or Mubarak-era remnants.

“The terrorist attacks going on make the situation more difficult,” Abul Ghar [Liberal Activist] said, adding that the violence made it easy for any government to take anti-democratic actions.

These anti-democratic actions include a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, restrictions on protests, as well as further entrenching the Egyptian army’s role in politics (which is enshrined in a draft of Egypt’s new constitution).

Both of these situations are eerily similar. In both cases, revolution started as a legitimate push for rights, freedoms, and liberal democracy. In both cases, the party in power (the Assad regime in Syria, the “deep state” in Egypt) have claimed the opposition are “terrorists” (and used this claim as a justification to strengthen their grip on power in the name of security). In both cases, these claims have become self-fulfilling; over time, those favoring liberal democracy have become marginalized as those who seek power dominate the fight over the future of their respective countries.

The implications for global governance are clear. In the future, we cannot afford to allow the combination of the passage of time and power-grabs to marginalize those who seek basic human rights and a dignified life. We must instead–as a global community–muster the political will and economic / military resources to support legitimate factions before it is too late.

Failure to do so entrenches the wrong ideas–that the international community cares more power-politics/national sovereignty than about people/human rights (concerns the R2P was supposed to address), and that democracy simply cannot work in certain regions of the world.    

Hopefully it is not to late to achieve the goals of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria, although admittedly I see no end in sight to these particular conflicts. Going forward, we must do all we can to prevent similar situations from arising in the first place.