Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Syrian rebels’ rejection of Geneva will only help Assad

The Syrian National Council has announced that it will not attend the Geneva II conference, which may take place in November, and will withdraw from the National Coalition if the coalition participates in the conference. As the largest group within the coalition, the council may have effectively undermined Geneva even before it occurs.

Not that Geneva is a particularly promising forum. When the idea of holding a conference on Syria was first broached between the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, earlier this year, it seemed more an act of desperation than the consequence of a well-thought-out peace strategy – a way for two rivals, the United States and Russia, to find common ground over a conflict that had hopelessly divided them.

The Syrian opposition reacted with ill-concealed hostility, sensing that a conference would evade the issue of Bashar Al Assad’s departure from power. Nor did there seem to have been any prior consultation between the Americans and the National Coalition. Soon thereafter, the Syrian opposition lost ground in Qusair and around Damascus, and became even more reluctant to attend a conference that might secure Mr Al Assad’s gains.

In announcing the council’s position this week, its president, George Sabra, told AFP: “The international community has focused on the murder weapon, which is the chemical weapons, and left the murderer unpunished and forgotten the victims.”

He went on to say that the “regional and international context does not give the impression that Geneva II will offer anything to the Syrians”, adding, “we will not participate in a conference that is intended to hide the failure of international politics”.

While Mr Sabra’s disgust with the international community was understandable, his reaction appeared to be motivated by something else: the fact that the National Coalition has limited authority on the ground in Syria, and could be permanently damaged if it embarks on negotiations that are perceived by armed opposition groups inside Syria as compromising the aims of the revolution.

At the same time, Mr Sabra knows there is a conflict within the wider Syrian conflict, with jihadist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now focusing on bringing to heel more moderate rebel groups.

In recent weeks, ISIS has expanded its rule to areas north of Aleppo, effectively controlling the land passage to Turkey and the revenues that come from the transit trade, but also the supply of weapons and other necessities to rebel groups further south.

In this context, the National Coalition risks further irrelevance if it participates in a conference that ignores these developments and that seeks to impose on the opposition acceptance of Mr Al Assad’s continuation in power.

Given that the United States has been so unreliable over Syria and may accept imperfect solutions before turning attentions elsewhere, there are no guarantees that by associating itself with the American-Russian effort the coalition will benefit.

And yet the National Coalition’s decision simply to refuse to go to Geneva poses considerable risks. Refusal will allow Mr Al Assad to reaffirm that the opposition has no desire for peace, an attitude that may find a sympathetic echo in Washington and Moscow, where a negotiated settlement remains a priority.

More problematically, by rejecting the principle of negotiations, the National Coalition will deny itself a natural venue in which it can participate. Neither the council nor the coalition is a military force. Their comparative advantage comes from their role as political representatives, requiring negotiations without which it is difficult to see what role the coalition can play, beyond issuing statements.

The response of the Syrian National Council will only further discredit it and the National Coalition internationally. This may not mean much today; the opposition has been disappointing and its international and domestic performance has been inadequate. Relations between the two are at low point, but that does not mean the National Coalition can afford to let this situation worsen and to be regarded as an obstacle to a settlement.

As the jihadists gain ground, many countries will buy into Mr Al Assad’s narrative that his regime is a barrier to extremist groups. That he has done everything in his power to bring about this outcome is secondary. If the conflict is redefined as one between a supposedly “secular” regime and religious extremists, Mr Al Assad will have the latitude to gradually regain lost territory and many governments will turn a blind eye to his most barbaric crimes.

That is why Mr Sabra and his colleagues should maintain themselves as a reasonable, temperate alternative to the armed groups and to Mr Al Assad. A continuation of the military status quo is likely, which means that at some point the parties, out of sheer exhaustion, will have to negotiate, whatever their prior conditions.

To insist that the Syrian president must step down as a precondition for talks, no matter how desirable this is, will not work today. Only a favourable military balance can allow such a condition, and today the opposition is at a disadvantage.

Geneva is no panacea for the Syrian tragedy, but one day negotiating may become the only game in town. Syria’s opposition must prepare for it, rather than fight it, marginalise itself, and allow others to impose their agenda on Syria.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Barack Obama: real, unreal, for real?

Turn to your manual of realpolitik, dear reader, and contrast two very different forms of political behavior.

The United States decides to cut military assistance to Egypt because it is displeased with the slow pace of democratization after the coup against President Mohamed Morsi. But then, off the record, officials characterize this as “temporary,” and say they hope assistance will resume as democratic practices are adopted.

Then look at what is happening in Syria. A psychopathic regime has carried the country into a civil war that has quickly become a regional and international free-for-all. It uses chemical weapons against its own citizens, but somehow manages to make it sound relative by killing not far from 100,000 people, most of them civilians, in other ways. Despite all this its Russian ally continues to supply weapons, defend the Syrian leadership, and look the other way on its most monstrous crimes, all the while retaining its influence.

Morally, the United States is right and Russia wrong. But politically, Washington is ensuring that it becomes less relevant in a country that had been a cornerstone of its regional policy until not so long ago. Russia, in contrast, has used stubbornness over Syria as a trampoline back into regional relevance after a long period of marginalization.

But are things as clear as that? The zeal with which American officials sought to play down the measures against Egypt was reminiscent of Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that an attack against Syria would be “unbelievably small.” The effective consequence was to negate the very policy Washington was implementing--without, however, tempering Egyptian annoyance, since nothing is more annoying than to be penalized by a country unconvinced by the penalty.

The Obama administration is still not clear about what it wants in Egypt. That’s partly because Egypt presents such a litany of contradictory reactions and impulses. In 2011 the Americans called on their old ally President Hosni Mubarak to step down, fearing that by not doing so the US would be overtaken by events and fall on the wrong side of the revolution. They then supported the democratic process, which brought in an Islamist majority to parliament and Morsi as president. When he was overthrown by the army, the US found itself again caught up in a dilemma of either supporting a legitimate president or backing the army with whom it had close ties.

Barack Obama’s choice satisfied nobody. The president tried to play the middle ground--neither calling the military intervention a coup, so as not to be legally bound to cut funding to Egypt (a charade that convinced nobody), nor endorsing the actions the military took against the Muslim Brotherhood--even as it warned against the consequences of repression. For this ambiguity it was accused of sympathizing with the Brotherhood, a ridiculous charge, but one which the cutoff in military aid will not help to discredit.

Russian behavior has been less angst-ridden. President Vladimir Putin opted to go all the way with a barbaric Syrian regime, whatever the consequences. That meant aiding and abetting mass murder, but apparently with no lingering consequences to date, since Putin has been hailed around the world as a master tactician while Obama is routinely (and justifiably) dismissed as a tiresome ditherer.

How strange it is to hear that. Recall that political realists welcomed the president’s election as a refreshing contrast to George W. Bush, whose alleged neoconservatism and taste for democratization jarred with the practical and calculating realist mindset. But it very quickly became apparent that Obama’s desire to disengage from the Middle East did not really qualify as “realism,” because as the region dissolved into violence, American interests were seriously harmed.

The Arab Spring provided both challenges and opportunities for Washington. In retrospect the US failed on both counts. While Obama managed the initial revolution in Egypt well, he has since lost much ground. Ironically, this happened once Morsi was overthrown, which should have been a moment the Americans would welcome. Instead they waffled, allowing Saudi Arabia to intervene with a generous cash injection that bolstered the military’s credibility.

Now the Egyptian Army is far more concerned with Saudi approval than with American disapproval. And many Egyptians agree.

In Syria, a true realist would have exploited the opportunity in 2011 to help get rid of the Assad regime, and in that way undermine Iranian power in the Levant. Obama opted to do nothing, neither arming the rebels with weapons that could have threatened the regime nor using its influence to impose unity on the fragmented Syrian opposition groups and the divided countries bolstering them.

The delay (for Obama, typically, would later reconsider and start arming the rebels) gave Iran and Russia the time they needed to send weapons and reorganize Bashar Assad’s army, allowing him to regain his footing. While Washington was emptily calling on Assad to step down, the Iranians and Russians were making sure he wouldn’t do so.

So what are the lessons of the story? There are several. That being morally right but politically indecisive is worse than being morally wrong yet clear-minded about one’s objectives. That Barack Obama is a realist only in the imagination of his admirers. That America in two years has lost in Egypt much of what it spent more than three decades building up. And that nothing is more wretched than a president who wants to be a moral paragon and a cool calculator at the same time.

Above all, that a successful leader is the one who seizes the moment, not the one who has the hubris to believe that the world will somehow bend itself around his priorities and hesitations.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A world of humanitarian indifference

Reading the bulletins of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, it seems that about the only thing the institution has not done until now among its parallel activities is organize a cooking contest between the wives of the alternative judges. Meanwhile the Lebanese still await a trial. The wheels of justice may be slow, but in the STL’s case they are positively glacial. One strains to see any movement at all.

And yet in the last decade there have been several instances where it seemed international justice was about to make significant headway, and that human rights would benefit as a consequence.

The STL was one example cited by the optimists, as was the International Criminal Court’s indictment in 2008 of the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. In May 2012, the former Liberian President Charles Taylor was sentenced by the ICC to a 50-year prison term for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international law during the conflict in Sierra Leone.

However today, with the war in Syria setting new benchmarks in terms of barbarity, the belief that international justice will punish the guilty seems fanciful. The other day the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, even praised the Syrian regime for moving to implement the agreement for the destruction of its chemical weapons. In other words Kerry applauded a man who used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of civilians because he was fulfilling an agreement that allowed him to escape retribution for engaging in mass murder.

Perhaps someone at the ICC is preparing an indictment of Assad and other regime figures, but there are no obvious signs of this. One problem is that Syria is not a signatory to the ICC convention. The Rome Statute establishing the court allows the Security Council, under Chapter VII, to refer cases to the ICC. But as Russia has veto power, the likelihood of this happening is extremely low.

The slowness of the legal reaction to the Syrian conflict is also tied in to politics. For as long as the major powers view a negotiated solution as the only way to end the killing, judges will have to tread carefully, so that an indictment does not undermine political outcomes. Assad will not voluntarily leave office only to land in a trial chamber.

Aside from legal and political realities, which are most essential to advancing international humanitarian norms, there is another factor that cannot be underestimated: attitudes in liberal Western societies in favor of such an objective. Why the liberal West? Because the principles held up by international humanitarian law, which governs armed conflict, have emerged from a Western historical and cultural tradition going back to the Enlightenment.

That’s not to say that non-Westerners are incapable of embracing such values nor that Westerners have not violated them. But when societies that uphold such values, and have given them life, become indifferent to their realization in the world, this represents a severe blow to international humanitarian law.

Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons was a case in point. In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in early September, as President Barack Obama was considering airstrikes against Syria, 60 percent of respondents said they opposed such action. This forceful rejection came even though 75 percent of respondents said they thought Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons.

Instead, the focus among Americans was on domestic tribulations. As Jeanette Baskin, a social worker on Staten Island, told the New York Times: “What our government needs to do is work on keeping our country safe. We invest all this money in foreign countries and fixing their problems, and this country is falling apart. Makes no sense.”

Attitudes in Western Europe were little different, and helped undermine efforts by British Prime Minister David Cameron to deploy his forces alongside those of the United States.

In France, where President Francois Hollande didn’t face the same institutional barriers as did Obama and Cameron, public opinion was nevertheless stalwartly opposed to military involvement in Syria.

When three out of four Americans admit that a regime used one of the most lethal and vilified weapons on earth, killing hundreds of people, including numerous children, and still refuse to do anything about it, they essentially undercut any solidarity that would help reinforce and further humanitarian principles in the international system.

Americans complain that they are not the world’s policeman. But the global order in the past 60 years or so has rested on a foundation of principles and institutions that the United States has been instrumental in creating and defending. By virtue of its vast power, America cannot be just another state. Moreover, the new self-centeredness ignores that when Americans are the victims, as they were on Sept. 11, 2001, they rightfully expect the rest of the world to sympathize with their predicament and take their side.

Syrians justifiably lament that they are treated as second-class citizens in a world that has rallied for foreign victims in countless other places. The tragedy is that as most Westerners look at Syria, their revulsion with the inhumanity of the conflict makes them react in a paradoxical way: They want to have nothing to do with the savagery there, because what is happening conforms so little to the standards of humanitarian behavior to which they aspire.

But those standards don’t descend from heaven. They only become stronger and more widespread if states make this a priority. And that can only happen when societies back their governments in making it possible. We’re nowhere near that stage today, especially in the West, where all politics appear to have become domestic politics.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

America gathers little return from its long war on terror

Last Saturday, American Delta Force commandos abducted a Libyan, Nazih Abd Al Hamed Al Ruqai, known as Abu Anas Al Libi, in Tripoli. This came hours after Navy Seals sought to capture a leader of the Al Shabab movement in Somalia, an operation that was called off in the face of resistance by Al Shabab militants.

Both operations cast fresh light on the American antiterrorism strategy after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Only nine days after that, George W Bush declared a global war on terror, a term that his successor Barack Obama discarded.

And yet the war continues with no apparent end in sight, since wars have a finality to them and conclude with either a victory for one side or a truce, and in the war against terrorism neither is likely to happen.

The American focus on terrorism, while entirely understandable, has led to negative consequences with which the United States is still wrestling: the formulation of a questionable legal framework for dealing with terrorist suspects, the abuse of human rights, the expansion of, at best, loosely accountable military and surveillance programmes, and a growing reliance on assassinations, often at the expense of sustained political initiatives.

The Bush administration created a rod for its own back by creating a special legal framework for captured terrorists. It refused to recognise them as foreign combatants, denying them the protections of the Geneva conventions, while many in Congress opposed giving them American legal protections. Instead, the US has referred to captured suspects as “unlawful combatants”, placing them in a legal vacuum that persists to this day, delaying the closing of Guantanamo prison.

Ironically, Mr Al Libi is in no such predicament. He was indicted by an American court for the bombings in 1998 of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. This means he will not enter into the network of often secret prisons controlled by the CIA or the Joint Special Operations Command that prevailed during the Bush years, because he will have to be brought to trial fairly quickly.

Nor will he be tortured as were many of his alleged former comrades, since that is unlawful in the US and would taint any evidence prosecutors might bring to court. Mr Obama, even as he pursued and expanded Mr Bush’s policy, also sought to do away with the previous administration’s very loose definition of torture, which had provoked so much condemnation of the United States.

That many of the anti-terrorist military or intelligence activities in the war on terror were shrouded in secrecy also meant that oversight was, at best, imperfect, even as their scope expanded to new levels.

For instance, the recent scandal over National Security Agency data collection on Americans and non-Americans has yet to die down. The NSA and the Obama administration affirmed that the proper safeguards were in place to protect Americans. But for a time it seemed that every day brought new revelations undermining that defence. And many foreign allies of America remain angry that they were, and probably remain, the targets of surveillance efforts.

The most controversial facet of the war against terrorism has been the American assassination campaign, usually using drones. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have claimed great success, yet the potential consequences are less commendable. First, international law and justice benefits little from a normalisation of assassination, especially if other countries begin doing the same thing.

Assassinations, whether using drones or special operations forces, have also often been substituted for politics, giving American officials a false sense that they were resolving problems they were only exacerbating. Targeted killings have not shifted the balance in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, and have heightened resentment of the US by killing innocent civilians, bolstering America’s enemies.

Most disturbingly, assassinations have undermined the very principles upon which the US system is based. The separate killings of Anwar Al Awlaki and his son Abd Al Rahman, both American citizens, denied both men their constitutional right to due process, and were severely condemned by many in America.

The growing backlash against the wantonness of drone attacks may have made the Obama administration decide to capture Abu Anas Al Libi and the Al Shabab official, Abd Al Kadir Mohammed Abd Al Kadir, rather than kill them. In spring, the Obama administration tightened guidelines on the use of lethal force, after congressional pressure on the administration to publish its legal justifications for targeted killings, especially of Americans.

And yet Mr Obama will continue to face displeasure with his pursuit of the war on terror, however he labels it. The Libyans, at least officially, resented the abduction of a citizen in their capital, with no apparent effort made by the Americans to have Abu Anas arrested by Libya. The perception internationally that a separate set of laws governs US behaviour is not something Mr Obama will readily dispel, despite making international law a principle of his foreign policy.

Mr Al Libi’s abduction also raises a question about whether it was possible to arrest Osama bin Laden. Certainly, his assassination eliminated the headache of having to detain him. But even if bin Laden merited no compassion, detractors will say that America’s propensity for killing mirrors that of the terrorists they are fighting.

Mr Obama was one of the sharper critics of the Bush administration while in the Senate. For him, the war on terror will effectively end when its most egregious manifestations end. He may be right, but meanwhile America must begin assessing whether it will come out of the 12-year experience better or worse off.

Friday, October 4, 2013

All against all in Syria

Like a raft in a rough sea, the Geneva II conference on Syria is still sought out as a means of salvation by many states. Even though there is no agreement over what the conference should address, the idea continues to make headway while the situation in Syria deteriorates.  

The latest blow to a potentially successful conference was the decision last week of 11 of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria to issue a statement saying the opposition could only be represented by those who have “lived their troubles and shared in what they sacrificed.” Effectively, this was a repudiation of the opposition in exile, which would have spoken in the rebels’ name in Geneva.

If the opposition groups abroad, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, cannot deliver on commitments made in Geneva, then the entire premise of the conference collapses. Nor are Western relations with the moderate Supreme Military Council under Salim Idriss a panacea: three groups aligned with the council signed on to the statement.

Those endorsing the statement also made it clear they had an ideological agenda in Syria. As an activist close to the Liwa al-Tawhid brigade told the New York Times, “We found it was time to announce publicly and clearly what we are after, which is Shariah law for the country and to convey a message to the opposition coalition that it has been three years and they have never done any good for the Syrian uprising and the people suffering inside.” This echoed the statement’s call for all groups in Syria to “unify in a clear Islamic framework.”

The statement coincided with an expansion of the jihadists’ efforts to consolidate and expand the territory under their control. Alarmingly, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which was not a signatory to the statement, last week took over the strategic northern towns of Azaz and al-Bab, which sit on the lines of communication between Turkey and Aleppo. Control over the towns will give ISIS considerable leverage over other rebel groups in the Aleppo area, as well as funding from the traffic of goods to and from Turkey.

The strategy of ISIS and another al-Qaeda-affiliated group, Jabhat al-Nusra (with whom ISIS has been in competition and occasional conflict), has been far less about fighting the Assad regime than about tightening control over a swathe of territory stretching from western Iraq to northern Syria. Clashes between rebels of the Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda groups have escalated, a situation that the Assad regime has welcomed and indirectly encouraged.

That’s because, as many observers have pointed out, the Syrian regime has generally avoided attacking the al-Qaeda groups, and has even collaborated with them in certain districts. This has allowed the jihadists to gain ground and in that way confirm the regime’s narrative that it is the last line of defense against extremism.

A similar strategy was successfully adopted by the former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. He permitted al-Qaeda to expand in Yemen because this allowed him to go to the United States and request more military and financial aid. In turn he used that aid to strengthen himself and prevent what he considered the greater threat to his rule: the breakup of Yemen between North and South.

The problem for the opposition is that Assad is effectively using the al-Qaeda affiliated groups against the Free Syrian Army in places where his army does not have the ability to fight. Infighting among Assad’s enemies is precisely what the regime needs, and if ISIS and al-Nusra begin making serious headway, it would not be long before states, even enemies of the Syrian regime, begin seeing the Syrian army as the only force that can ultimately defeat the jihadists.

This cynical game was obvious from the beginning of the uprising in Syria in 2011, and it is astonishing how easily Assad managed to put it in place, and how easily he pulled the wool over the eyes of the Obama administration and many others. The United States, rather than read the signals early on and arm the Syrian opposition when it was making substantial gains, allowed a vacuum to form and then fretted when that vacuum was filled by jihadists.

Now its policy of bringing “moderates” to the table and asking them to negotiate a settlement for a peaceful transition away from the Assad regime is in shambles. The absurdity of American policy is evident in that the CIA is training friendly rebels militarily – so they will not lose the Syrian conflict, even as it does not want them to win. Assad’s continued presence will only keep the rebellion alive; but today none of his enemies can realistically base Geneva II on the principle of Assad’s exit from office when the opposition is in such disarray.

There has been discussion of an “awakening” among Syrians, as in Iraq, that would sweep al-Qaeda away. The intolerant ideology of such groups jars with the tradition in Syria for a more compromising version of Islam, one that accepts communal coexistence. However, it is not clear who would sponsor and help organize such an effort.

As Martin Chulov wrote in The Guardian, among those who broke away from the National Coalition are groups justifying the move by saying it would isolate ISIS. “This is still a Syrian revolution. We will not let it become a toy for them,” a leader of Ahrar al-Sham noted. Nor is al-Nusra well disposed to ISIS, having been greatly weakened in northern Syria by the emergence of its fellow al-Qaeda affiliate.

These fault lines can yet be exploited by those who fear that the Syrian uprising has been hijacked and will ultimately be undermined by the extremists in the rebels’ ranks. But for now the chaos benefits only Assad, while Geneva II seems a pipe dream. And Barack Obama, America’s Hamlet, will do everything to avoid doing anything, for like the prince of Denmark he is pigeon-livered and lacks gall.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Lebanon’s refugee problem from hell

President Michel Sleiman has recently placed the fate of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon at the top of his list of priorities when meeting with foreign officials. This comes after a meeting in September that brought together the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the governments of Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. At the meeting, they promised to work together to expand international assistance to the region as it struggles with the ongoing influx of refugees.

Lebanon, which hosts more than 1 million refugees, between those officially registered and those who are not, is especially vulnerable. Some 20 percent of the total population in the country is now made up of Syrians, many of them poor and competing for low-paying jobs and resources at a time of severe economic crisis.

At a meeting in Geneva earlier this week, participants, including Syria’s neighbors, the United States and European states, appeared to shift the focus of refugee assistance from emergency aid to what the head of the UNHCR, Antonio Guterres, described as a more comprehensive and longer-term social and economic intervention.

“Everything is being put in place for effective development-related programs,” Guterres said, adding that the next step would be presenting appeals to finance the programs. The shift in the nature of assistance stems from a realization that the Syrian refugee problem will not soon end. Regardless of Guterres’ optimism about the Geneva gathering, it will resolve none of Lebanon’s immediate problems.

The caretaker social affairs minister, Wael Abu Faour, suggested as much Tuesday, when he complained that the international community had done little to alleviate Lebanon’s refugee problem. He was angry that countries were not providing direct assistance to the state and suggested that Hezbollah’s participation in the government was an obstacle. “Continuing to block international support to the Lebanese government and the local Lebanese communities under the pretext of discouraging past experiences is not valid,” he said in Geneva.

Abu Faour is right that not enough outside assistance has come through, but he failed to mention that the nature of the refugee problem in Lebanon, the fact that refugees are not housed in camps, has made international donors resistant to feeding money into a country where no mechanisms of oversight are in place. There are many downsides to refugee camps, but they do allow for a more coordinated and transparent method of distributing aid, as compared to simply pouring money into the black hole of a corrupt Lebanese state in which there is no accountability.

Sleiman’s recent proposal that Syrian refugees be placed in “safe zones” inside Syria territory showed the president’s legitimate worries of the long-term implications of their presence in Lebanon. Though his proposal is unrealistic without assurances that the safe zones can be protected, a condition that would require international guarantees, the president was really saying something else: Lebanon’s stability is threatened by the possibility of a permanent settlement of the refugees, and the president underscored this when he said the crisis was beginning to take on an “existential” dimension.

But the Syrians are not Palestinians, some may protest, and will eventually go home. Perhaps, but the bulk of the refugees in Lebanon have come from the areas of Homs and Damascus, which are of strategic importance to the Syrian regime. Homs is a vital link between Alawite areas along the Syrian coast and Shiite districts in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. If any settlement consolidates the existence of religious or ethnic enclaves, the refugees, most of whom are Sunni, may not have a place to which to return, or may not be allowed to return.

No one likes to use terms such as ethnic cleansing when it comes to Syria. On both sides of the political divide there, the narrative is bathed in nationalistic language. And yet the impetus for carving out and protecting sectarian enclaves is high in a war that has taken on a religious-communal coloring, much as the war in the former Yugoslavia did during the 1990s. Sleiman is right to be concerned about this, and it’s time for the international community to do the same.

One of the ironies of Lebanon’s situation is that any decision by the Syrian regime to prevent the return of Sunni refugees to areas of strategic importance may harm its allies in Lebanon. A significant de facto enlargement of the Sunni population in Lebanon, thanks to the refugees, would only threaten Hezbollah and Shiite interests. If this were to become a long-term phenomenon, the negative repercussions for Shiites could be multiplied not only demographically but also economically and geographically. That is why everyone in Lebanon has a stake in a resolution of the Syrian conflict that is fair, comprehensive and does not congeal wartime facts on the ground.

Syrian villages have been destroyed, Syria’s infrastructure is in a shambles, and its economic situation is catastrophic. All these factors are obstacles to a return of the refugees. The international community knows this, which is why it is looking for solutions that can alleviate refugee hardship into the medium term. But the challenge will be avoiding new forms of dependency that only end up imposing on Lebanon another refugee crisis that may take decades to resolve, and that may carry the country into new cycles of infernal conflict.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Lebanon’s postwar rebuilding has valuable lessons for Syria

A legitimate criticism levelled against many countries that have supported the Syrian opposition is that they have sought to shape the political aftermath in Syria even before they ensured that President Bashar Al Assad would be removed from power.

Such an approach has proven to be premature and detrimental. But in one specific case, that of post-war planning and reconstruction, thinking ahead would help define what kind of country Syria becomes. When the war ends, who comes out on top and what Syria’s political future holds are all questions impossible to answer today. However, whoever controls post-war reconstruction will have great influence over the possible outcomes.

The most illustrious case is the Marshall Plan after the Second World War. At the time, the United States offered economic aid to European countries ravaged by war, including former wartime rivals, the objective being to contain the spread of communism. This helped spur rapid economic growth on the continent starting in the 1950s, and ultimately helped provide an impetus for European integration.

In the Middle East, the case of Lebanon after 1990 is equally instructive. The Lebanese conflict of 1975-1990 was ended through the defeat of Michel Aoun’s military government and the implementation of the so-called Taif accord – effectively a Saudi-Syrian deal over Lebanon sponsored by the United States.

It was not until 1992 that former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was the Saudis’ man in Lebanon, began implementing his reconstruction programme. Though Syria dominated Lebanon militarily, Hariri’s control over Lebanon’s reconstruction gave him and the Saudis substantial leverage in national politics, a fact with which the Syrians were never comfortable because it eroded their power.

Hariri had two primary instruments: the confidence he elicited abroad, which allowed him to attract money and investments to Lebanon, from Lebanese and foreign institutions alike; and his plan for the rehabilitation of Lebanon’s devastated infrastructure, at the centre of which was a scheme to rebuild the destroyed downtown area, the jewel in the crown of the reconstruction effort.

The first, the ability to bring in money, gave him considerable political clout, as it stabilised the economy and permitted Hariri to be seen as indispensable to Lebanon’s economic revival. The second, his authority over major infrastructure contracts, gave him considerable patronage power, as both the Syrians and Lebanese politicians benefited in one way or another from what was going on.

The Syrians enjoyed the financial advantages of their leverage in Lebanon, made possible by the post-war confidence that only Hariri’s presence made possible. But their relations with the prime minister were always tense as they sought ways to contain his power. Their most decisive step in that direction came in 1998, when they decided that the former army commander, Emile Lahoud, would be president, with one of his principle tasks being to inhibit Hariri.

Syria’s obsession with Hariri ultimately led to the collapse of Syrian power in Lebanon when, in 2004, the former prime minister opposed a Syrian-led extension of Mr Lahoud’s mandate. Under Syrian pressure he was later forced to endorse it, but by then it was clear that Hariri intended to challenge the Syrians in the parliamentary elections of summer 2005. This is probably the reason why Hariri was assassinated in February of that year.

With respect to post-war Syria, the results will almost certainly be much more complicated than in Lebanon. If Mr Al Assad stays in office, the hostility he has aroused may mean that capacity to secure foreign assistance will be hindered, even if the Gulf states sign on to a peace deal. If the opposition wins militarily, the aftermath may be as uncertain, as this may be followed by a prolonged period of instability that postpones reconstruction.

Because the devastation in Syria is so widespread and many regional countries are looking for a say in what comes afterward, there is likely to be a division of the reconstruction pie. Unlike Lebanon, where the worst destruction was concentrated in Beirut, many Syrian cities will have to be rebuilt. Politically, a Balkanised reconstruction project may exacerbate inter-Syrian divisions, as specific countries focus on helping those areas where they can advance their political agendas.

This would defeat the primary aim of reconstruction, which is to act as a lever for national reconciliation. That is why any broad political resolution agreed must be accompanied by a reconstruction plan that underpins the political process. This could be tricky, however, as those who would assure such a direction both regionally and internationally have remained divided over Syria.

So too have Syrian politicians and factions, all of whom have an interest in becoming channels for post-war foreign assistance, and will seek to transform this into political power. As things stand today, what comes after the conflict may well, worryingly, reflect what we are witnessing during the conflict – namely chaotic, fragmented, self-interested efforts to shape political endgames, in which Syrians in general will have relatively little say. This may be the situation whether Mr Al Assad stays in office or whether he is removed from office.

More advisable would be an international committee tasked with overseeing the reconstruction of Syria, which could draft a coordinated national master plan in which Syrian representatives would have a voice. It could be placed under UN authority and establish, even manage, a transparent contract allocation system.

Even while the Syrian war continues, more thinking must be put into a post-war plan and creating safeguards to ensure it will not be hijacked for political purposes. This will be difficult, given the high stakes in manipulating post-war reconstruction. If anything, reconstruction can frequently be war by other means.