Thursday, 24 November 2011

Syria's revolution and the prospects for violence

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Syria after Assad: Averting the deluge

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad “just leave (his) seat.” He urged Assad to recall the case of the “Libyan leader who was killed 32 days ago.” Eight months after the outbreak of the first protests in Syria, Erdogan, however, is just one of many leaders insisting that Assad step down in light of the growing resistance movement as well as a worsening humanitarian situation in the country.

The Arab League in an unprecedented move suspended Syria from the regional organization earlier this month. The United States, Canada and the European Union have all levied new sanctions on Syria as well. While Assad may be circling the wagons, it now seems highly unlikely he will be able to resist internal and international opposition to his rule. Yet Syria’s future does not only depend on whether Assad departs the scene, but also on the manner by which he does so. This will determine whether the post-Assad transition in the country will be more akin to Tunisia — relatively peaceful — or to Iraq — horrifically violent.
There is no question that Assad’s days are numbered. The bare threads of his legitimacy are dwarfed by the deaths of the very people his regime purports to protect. It is estimated that on Tuesday of this week alone, 30 civilians were killed; the overall death toll has climbed well above 3,500, according to UN estimates. Leading opposition thinker Michel Kilo, a Syrian Christian, put it aptly when he said, “Syrians will never return to conditions prior to March 17.”

There has been far too much destruction and despair to simply negotiate a continuation of the existing regime. There are growing numbers of defections to what is loosely termed the Free Syrian Army, leading to more and more brazen attacks on the regime itself. An attack last week on the air force intelligence headquarters in the Harasta neighbourhood of Damascus was particularly dramatic, given the key role that agency plays in the country.

With Assad now seemingly on the clock, the nature of the opposition also appears to be transformed. Protests and demonstrations, while still occurring, are being overshadowed by audacious attacks by opposition fighters. One day last week more than two dozen Syrian soldiers were killed. In another incident several days ago, in Douma, an attack on a checkpoint by the Free Syrian Army is thought to have led to 22 deaths, according to Al Jazeera. This low-level conflict is a sign of what is to come. There are very few options being pursued to remove Assad except through violent overthrow. Most of the diplomatic manoeuvres by Turkey and the Arab League, as well as by the EU, now centre on censure and sanctions rather than mediation and de-escalation.

Syria, however, is not Libya. There is no Benghazi that can act as a base for the Syrian opposition. So far, there have been no high-level defections of senior military officers. And the opposition still appears to be largely fragmented. This means the growing violence could lead to each major population centre in Syria becoming a staging ground for the contestation of power by force. Imagine the destruction in Misurata in Libya replicated in six or seven cities.

What is even more disconcerting is that Syria is a diverse country ethnically and religiously, so there is the distinct possibility that any conflict could be engulfed by sectarian tensions. The internecine nature of Iraq’s conflict could very well be repeated if events spiral out of control. Imagine if an Alawite village were attacked and there was a massacre; there would assuredly be a counterattack on a neighbouring Sunni village. In many cases, villages in Syria are mixed, and this could lead to dire consequences.

This is the difficult situation facing Syria and the international community. Relieving the pressure on Assad would only further his ability to continue to commit widespread abuses. Yet, without leaving other avenues for his departure on the table besides force, the situation could deteriorate very quickly. Therefore, governments in the region in particular but also in the West, must ensure that aggressive mediation is still an option and that the humanitarian situation is prioritized above political preferences.

Assad does indeed need to leave his seat, as Erdogan said, but it should not be in a manner that sacrifices the future of Syria.


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

How the GCC aims to benefit from the turmoil in Syria

This article was originally published today in The National newspaper. What is important to note is that the article is not meant to objectively endorse the GCC's actions but rather indicate how it is pursuing its regional interests through the crisis in Syria.

GCC positions for a stronger role in tomorrow's Syria

In 2006 when Israel invaded Lebanon, Syria's President Bashar Al Assad pointedly referred to fellow leaders - particularly in the Gulf - as "half men" for what he contended was their lack of support for Arabs under assault by Israel.

Five years later, the tables have turned as Mr Al Assad's own regime continues to assault Syrian civilians on a daily basis and it is the Gulf Cooperation Council that is at the forefront of criticising his failure to stop the killing and destruction.

In the past two weeks, the bloc's condemnation of Mr Al Assad and implied preference for regime change has led to attacks on its embassies by government supporters in Damascus. Yet in the long term, the GCC has the opportunity to truly facilitate a geopolitical shift in its favour in the region as long as it does not overplay its hand.

The president's father, Hafez Al Assad, was a shrewd politician always looking for an edge in the regional power game. The elder Al Assad saw an advantage in supporting Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, turning against the fellow Baathist regime at the helm in neighbouring Iraq. Alongside Libya which also supported Iran, he put Syria at direct odds with the GCC, which was founded in 1981 largely to contest the perceived growing threat emanating from post-revolutionary Iran.

While the 1990s witnessed a slow detente between the GCC and Syria, in particular because of the latter's support for the US-led Gulf War, the geopolitical divisions re-emerged with the ascension of the younger Al Assad in 2000. Throughout the last decade, GCC leaders especially in Saudi Arabia found themselves at odds with the Syrian regime.

In Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, Syria supported factions and policies that undermined the GCC's own position in those countries. Moreover, the continuing and strengthening alliance between Syria and Iran continued to be a cause of tremendous concern across the Gulf.

Despite the divergent interests, in the initial days of the uprising in Syria the GCC (and for that matter, most of the international community) remained relatively silent. While there was no love lost between GCC countries and Syria in recent years, there had been efforts to pursue a cooperative relationship on regional affairs. Before the uprising, that cooperation was most notable in the joint visit by Mr Al Assad and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to Beirut in June 2010.

Since the March uprising, however, the growing violence and daily death toll pushed GCC nations to take a leadership position within the Arab League to condemn and further isolate Syria. The latest deadline for Damascus to end violence expired on Saturday, and the Arab League has crisis talks on Thursday.
GCC interests in Syria have now been framed in terms of a humanitarian position. This is in part a response to the sectarian dynamic in the country, where protests are largely seen as coming from within the Sunni majority. But more importantly, there is a regional political balance that is emerging.

So far, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been the most vocal critics of Damascus's behaviour, and in turn they have been subjected to the harshest Syrian attacks. Since Syria was suspended from the Arab League earlier this month, relations have got steadily worse. Pro-regime supporters have attacked embassies in Damascus, including the UAE's.

While the attacks and rhetoric aimed at the GCC may be harsh in the short term, if and when the Assad regime falls in Syria, there will probably be long-term rewards for the bloc. In term of the regional political balance, Syria will move farther away from Iran and look towards the GCC for support in terms of policy and governance.

Furthermore, ordinary Syrians and opposition members will be aware of the leadership position taken by the GCC - the significance of the Arab League suspension was the effect on Syrians' support for the regime more than international opinion. If GCC is careful not to abuse its influence, there will be more opportunities, both economic and political, as Syria opens up.

Given the continued violence and grim prospects for the Assad regime, it only makes sense for the GCC to strengthen its position, challenging human rights abuses by the regime and building closer relations with opposition groups in the Syrian National Council and the National Coordinating Committee.

In the coming months, the situation in Syria will probably become increasingly violent. The role of foreign powers will also become all the more complex to balance intervention on behalf of protesters' welfare and political change. Even while supporting change in Syria, GCC countries will have to work to curtail a more deadly civil war, which may mean exerting pressure on allies in the opposition.

It is difficult to see in the long term how Mr Al Assad can possibly outlast these protests. When he finally does depart from the scene, the GCC will have to temper its involvement and not overplay its hand. Syria has always been subject to foreign interference, and Syrians are naturally averse to manipulation from outside. Although today the dire situation confronting Syrian citizens has opened the door for external support, it will not always be welcome, especially if it is unsolicited, in the new politics of the future.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Miseducation of the Arab World

The Miseducation of the Arab World
Originally published on Huffington Post 
"Each year the private and public sectors need to create 85,000 jobs but they are only creating 55,000, which means we have 30,000 new unemployed people entering the labor market every year in Jordan."

This stark reality was conveyed by the outgoing Minister of Education for Jordan, Dr. Tayseer Al Noami, in an exclusive interview this past week, while attending the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Qatar. If we were to extrapolate that reality to the rest of the Arab world, and granted there are varying circumstances, this would mean that there are roughly 1.5 million new entrants added to the unemployment rolls every year. It is a daunting challenge in one of the most volatile regions in the world. As the Arab awakening continues, further attention is being paid to the policy challenges facing leaders, old and new, around youth, education, and employment. While the problem is clear thus far the solutions have been few and far between.
The volume edited by Tarik Yousef and Navtej Dhillon, Generation in Waiting, aptly describes the youth bulge in the Middle East, where there are an estimated 100 million people between the ages of 15-29. In Jordan, for example, a shocking 70% of the population is below 30. This is a scenario repeated across the region. These active, aware and agitated populations are the casus belli for the wider insurrection in the Arab world. These are entire generations that feel disenfranchised. In the short-term they are looking for economic opportunity but in the long-term for much deeper systemic changes. Nearly 10 months after the fall of former Tunisian dictator Zein el-Abedine Ben Ali, this situation is well-known to leaders within the region.
At the WISE gathering in Qatar last week, when speaking about the Middle East, the buzz-term was 'education for employment.' This is the idea that education needs to be relevant to the needs of the private sector. This is considered in many ways to be the panacea for the unemployment malaise across the region. When the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Islamic Development Bank released a major report on the region, it was entitled "Education for Employment." That report asserts that youth unemployment costs the Arab world between $40-50 billion annually. It finds that employers feel youth are not ready for the workplace and that vocational education and skills training are essential to combat widespread unemployment. There are a number of NGOs, international institutions, bilateral donors, and public sector entities, all dedicated to contributing to the effort, from Silatech to the World Bank to the EFE Foundation. Almost every regional government has a Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Ministry assigned to this issue as well. Even private sector initiatives such as Microsoft's Partners in Learning are mobilizing. But it is not enough.
Another report released last month (published by the World Economic Forum), stated that 25 million new jobs needed to be created to maintain current unemployment levels in the Arab world. Simply put, existing trends and initiatives in the region are insufficient. Moreover, the presence of a bold regional partnership is missing. Each country and organization is operating in an unrealistic vacuum releasing often stalled and stilted initiatives that eventually are mired in inefficiency, bureaucracy and ineffectiveness. Outside of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it appears that the funds allocated for combating unemployment and revitalizing education systems are in the hundreds of millions of dollars rather than the tens of billions that will be necessary. Moreover, while 'education for employment' is part of the answer, it cannot be the answer. When asked about what was needed, the outgoing Jordanian Minister of Education responded, "we need a commitment to the continuity of existing policies over the long-term." That in effect sounds like more of the same.
The above may seem like an unfair diagnosis but the reality itself is not a fair one. A regional partnership for change that truly tackles the entire ecosystem of challenges that lead to youth unemployment is essential. It must address not just education for employment but the wider economic enabling environment as well as the quality of the overall education system. It must be funded. It must involve all sectors. Most of all, it will require leadership. And all the while, the Arab youth are still waiting.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Identity Theft and the Modern Middle East

Damascus. Baghdad. Beirut. Cairo. Tripoli. The list can go on of centers of civilizations past in the Middle East. Centuries later, after these civilizations have come and gone, the region that has served as the crossroads of cultures for millennia has been tamed into a narrow circumscription of its own reality. The search for identity and independence has too often meant the theft of the very pluralistic identity that truly reverberates in the countries of the modern Middle East. Shaking off the shackles of autocratic rule is assuredly a step towards building a truly open and just society in the region, particularly in the Arab world. However, what has yet to come is the embrace of the diverse identities - in ethnicity, in religion, and in philosophy - that already characterizes each country. Instead, what dominates is the pretense of a monochromatic mainstream that maligns difference.

Persian. Shiite. Jewish. Christian. Sufi. Atheist. Secularist. These words betray pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism, the dominant currents of the last several decades within the Arab world. There are illusions of potential purity that have no basis in the history of the region. This is true in the Gulf. It is true in the Levant. It is true in the Maghreb. It is true in Egypt. It is true across each country because each one has a unique ethno and/or religious-centric narrative of nationalism (one that requires much deeper introspection and exploration than this post will allow). They belie what are the interwoven origins of the populations within.

Today, for example, Persian influence is denounced. It is deemed treasonous. Ideas from Iran are treated with derision and distance. There is of course, no natural place within the Arab world for such an intellectual invasion. As if for centuries there was one clean divide between what was Persian and what was Arab. If you walk the streets of any capital in the Arab world and search for a pharmacy, you will likely find the name of Ibn Sina somewhere if not in the very name of the store itself. Who was Ibn Sina? He is the father of modern medicine, who published the 14-volume Canon of Medicine. Yet he was not an Arab. He was Persian! Born in Bukhara and buried in what is now modern-day Iran (Hamedan).

 Just five years ago, then Senator and now Vice President, Joe Biden, declared that Iraq must be broken apart into three because of the intractable conflict between oppositional identities. Who could contest that the Kurd and Arab were distinct identities? Perhaps the most quintessential leader of the Arab world would contest that: Salah al-Din. He led the Arab armies in recapturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders -- and he was Kurdish.

These are only two (but prominent) examples of how the historical and cultural fabric of the Arab world is a complex one (and more abound from contemporary and more mundane realities). Yet, what is more important than such cases is the fact that most modern societies have a multiplicity of concurrent ethnicities, languages, and religions as well as contesting personal and political philosophies. The imposition from one to another of a uniform identity is bound to end in discord and lead to bloodshed. Efforts to erase difference are a form of social fascism, whereby individuality is discounted. As Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and soon Syria and Yemen, unlock the political stranglehold of dictatorial regimes, societies will have a chance to define themselves democratically. The danger will be when there is an attempt at a tyranny of the majority. This is not simply a philosophical or existential concern. It goes to the very heart of peace and security. Turkey is an instructive model, where the pursuit of 'Turkishness' has never allowed the full legitimate space of rights for non-Turkish citizens of the country. Until today, the Kurdish rebellion - as well as cases of terrorism - remains a symptom of this long unreconciled situation.

The belonging or naturalness of identity does not relate to its prevalence in society. Take the minority Shiite population. Simply because the Shiite population is in the minority in the Arab world does not make it any less organic than the Sunni population in Iran. The Shiites cannot be erased from Saudi Arabia. They cannot be erased from the United Arab Emirates. They cannot be erased from Bahrain. They cannot be erased from Kuwait. Or Qatar. Or Oman. Or the entire GCC. They are there. They have been there. And they are not Persian fifth columns. In fact, it was a Shiite empire, the Fatimids, that founded Cairo or Al-Qahira as well as the centre of Sunni thought today, Al Azhar University. Moreover, when the Fatimids controlled lands from Morocco to Mecca, most of Iran was still Sunni!

It is a strange thought, that apostasy remains a capital crime (at least on paper) in Iran, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Qatar, and Yemen, in a region that gave birth to the three Abrahamic faiths, all of whom when they emerged were persecuted by the majority. The Jews fled Egypt. The Christians fled Jerusalem. The Muslims fled Mecca. Today, to convert to Judaism or Christianity can bring you a death sentence. What does that tell those minorities within their societies of their true worth? Officially in Saudi Arabia the birthplace of Islam, there are no citizens who are Christians and there are no official churches. Why?

The challenge will be in the coming years for leaders and followers alike, to arrive at definitions of their societies that while inspired by their constituent linguistic, ethnic, and religious identities and histories are not dominated by them and especially by only one amongst them and against another. Rather, the ability to find ideologies that forge a common path based on common values that promote public good, will be essential. If that does not happen, the fears of sectarian strife, tyranny of the majority, and political instability will be realized in full force.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

What does the Shalit deal mean for Hamas?

This article originally appeared in The National newspaper in the UAE. You can find the original story by clicking here

Hamas trades Shalit for a new lease on its political standing

When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York last month, he demanded the release of about 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. At the time he was riding a wave of momentum due to the bid for recognition of a Palestinian state at the world body.

Nearly three weeks later, little progress has been made towards what had been only a symbolic goal. Meanwhile, Hamas – the political rival of Mr Abbas’s Fatah party – has achieved a tremendous coup: the release of more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for the return of the captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. Just when it seemed that Hamas had been losing ground on the Palestinian political scene to Fatah, it has returned to the forefront in a move that could dramatically affect its political fortunes.
It was always unclear how the Arab awakening would affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Would there be a mass movement of Palestinians advocating change? Against what forces would it be directed? Would it turn violent?

Mass protests in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip exerted pressure for a unity government between the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority and Hamas. That led to what should have been a ground-breaking agreement in Cairo in May. But “reconciliation” has yet to be implemented in anything but name.
As a result, Hamas has continued to be excluded from the internationally recognised leadership of key Palestinian political bodies such as the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Furthermore, with the growing turmoil engulfing Syria, the base of Hamas’s political leader Khaled Meshaal, the party appeared to be pushed even further to the margins.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank there has been increasing praise and support for the economic development plan captained by Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, a favourite of donors to the Palestinian Authority, and who is viewed derisively Hamas. More recently, the decisive move by Mr Abbas to seek recognition of the state of Palestine at the UN ,with or without Israel’s permission, generated new enthusiasm. Hamas did not have much to offer except for expressions of doubt and hollow claims that its approach would lead to real results on the ground.

When the news was confirmed yesterday that a deal had been reached between Hamas and Israel to exchange Sergeant Shalit for over 1,000 prisoners, it was a dramatic boost for the party’s flagging image. Hamas will receive direct credit for the release of an estimated one-sixth of the Palestinian prison population in Israeli jails. In contrast, Mr Abbas and Fatah, despite all the years of negotiations and security coordination with Israel, cannot point to a comparable achievement.

It is also significant that the deal was mediated by the new government in Cairo. Mr Meshaal made a point of thanking Egypt and Qatar for their role in brokering the deal, demonstrating its focus on developing support beyond Damascus.

The exact list of prisoners who will be released will not be revealed until 48 hours before the initial exchange and it is likely not to include such heavyweights as Hamas militant Abdullah Barghouti, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmed Saadat, or the widely popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. Yet, there are a significant number of key Hamas militants and activists who will be released, which will bolster the ranks of its current leadership. Moreover, it is expected that many of the Palestinians who are set free will be from other political factions, further enhancing the political goodwill that Hamas will garner with the deal.
It is expected that Palestinians will finally hold presidential and legislative elections in 2012 – although this could of course change. If elections are held, Hamas will now have a very strong narrative to put forward. Not only will it claim that it is governing in the Gaza Strip and has achieved a significant milestone with the prisoner exchange, but it will also be able to demonstrate an improved relationship with Egypt.

Thus, in the year of the Arab awakening, while it seemed initially that Hamas was caught off-guard, it has since adapted to the new conditions in the region and found away to seize the initiative from its rival Fatah.
Certainly developments in the West Bank and Gaza in coming weeks will be very fluid. More importantly, depending on the outcome of the UN vote and subsequent actions on the ground in Palestinian cities, the situation could change dramatically. It is hard, however, to see how other political factions will be able to demonstrate that they are working towards ending the Israeli occupation.

Perhaps – and it remains to be seen – we will see a new guard of Palestinians in Fatah and beyond emerge to consolidate a non-violent, but anti-occupation political movement. Unless this happens, expect Hamas to exert rising influence on the Palestinian political scene for the foreseeable future.


Thursday, 6 October 2011

What if Saudi Arabia was Iran?

What if Saudi Arabia was Iran? A simple question and likely a not so simple answer. Read the previous post by following the link:

"However, in recent weeks a series of incidents have brought again to the forefront how Iran continues to suppress women's rights systematically, only allowing token promises of addressing the situation. In addition, the overall human rights situation remains dire and recent reform-protestants have been categorically dismissed and disbanded. While Russia and China have dithered on the sidelines, the United States and EU have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the state of affairs in Iran...."

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Iran rightly singled out by the West

You may have missed it but Iran recently executed a worker from Sudan for the crime of 'sorcery' which while not on the legal statutes, is punished by the more stringent religious rules that still hold primacy in the religiously-guided judiciary. It was a shocking case but one that escaped the attention of the world's media with so much turmoil in the Middle East. However, in recent weeks a series of incidents have brought again to the forefront how Iran continues to suppress women's rights systematically, only allowing token promises of addressing the situation. In addition, the overall human rights situation remains dire and recent reform-protestants have been categorically dismissed and disbanded. While Russia and China have dithered on the sidelines, the United States and EU have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the state of affairs in Iran.

Although the Arab 'spring' has put democracy at the forefront of the agenda in the Middle East, it has not swayed authorities in Iran who have stymied reform attempts to open up the political system. While there are elections for some positions, analysts insist that real power is held in fact by the Supreme Leader; that position has always been beyond a direct vote of the country's citizens. Yet more poignant is that most positions of power are held by a small coterie of individuals; what exacerbates the situation is that there is a growing economic disparity in the country, despite populist attempts by the government to address the needs of the poorer classes. A significant part of the economy in the opaque country is controlled by a small oligarchy of companies and individuals with links to the ruling class, aided in obtaining government contracts often through corruption or nepotism or a combination of both.

Dissent is simply not tolerated and censorship is commonplace. Inspired by the wider movements in the Arab world, some Iranians have taken to the streets. They have been denounced by the regime, that accuses them of serving 'foreign interests' and trying to undermine public order. These protesters -with demonstrations as recent as this week - have insisted they are simply asking for human rights. There are worries that Iran will escalate the violence it will use if there is a widening of this movement, not to mention the untold numbers of political prisoners who continue to languish in prison.

Unlike in nearby Egypt when it was under Mubarak where there were some elements of political liberalism and openness, Iran is characterized by a complete vacuum of political activities. There are no political parties. In fact it refuses to even have a parliament or hold regular elections, opting for an experimental democratic process on the municipal level. While incremental democratic development itself could be appropriate for its context, what is particularly galling is that women have thus far never voted nor stood as candidates in these contests and are not expected to do so for another four years (if then). On women's rights, not only has Iran denied them political enfranchisement, it has also - as is widely known - enforced a strict dress code. If you are fortunate to see a woman in Tehran - the country's capital - which is rare to begin with, she will likely be covered head-to-toe. In fact, she cannot even leave her house without a male guardian; nor is she allowed to legally obtain a driver's license.

Russia and China guided by geopolitical and geoeconomic interests given Iran's strategic position in the region and vast oil resources, have refrained from voicing any real criticism of the country. Fortunately the U.S., Europe and other Western countries have been vociferous in continuing to denounce and condemn Iran's human rights record repeatedly. They continue to insist on the release of political prisoners and the protection of young Iranians when demonstrating for greater rights. Hopefully the world's eyes continue to remain on Iran and ensure that the rights of all in that country are respected.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Israel running out of time for a two-state solution

This article originally appeared in The National newspaper:

Time is running out for Israel to salvage a two-state solution

Sep 22, 2011 

In the fall of 2002, Prof Sari Nusseibeh, now the president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem, argued that Palestinians needed to adjust to practical realities on the ground, and should avoid living in the dream of a greater Palestine. It was a comment that went to the heart of the right of return for Palestinians to modern-day Israel, which continues to be a contentious point.

At that discussion at Princeton University, which I had helped to convene, Dr Nusseibeh was risking controversy particularly because at the time he was serving as the Palestine Liberation Organisation's Commissioner for Jerusalem Affairs. Nine years later, we see that it is the Israeli leadership that refuses to let go of the concept of "Eretz Israel", or Greater Israel.

It is a common refrain of critics that the Palestinians "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity". Today, however, it is Israel that is presented with an opportunity it cannot afford to pass up - and yet it is doing everything it can to avoid a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict.

For the past 23 years, the PLO has operated under the formula of seeking a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue. Since the initial PLO declaration of 1988 we have had the Madrid Conference, the Oslo Accords, the Taba negotiations, the Arab Peace Initiative, the Road Map and the non-directed Obama process, all in the service of creating two states.

This vision of course is of two countries living side by side with one another. Nevertheless, the Palestinians would have only 22 per cent of the original mandate of British Palestine, essentially consisting of the West Bank and Gaza Strip along with a presence in East Jerusalem.

It has not been an easy proposition for Palestinians and their leadership to accept a prospect predicated on inequality, one that in effect would necessitate the negation of the return of many refugees to their original homes. Yet that is what has been accepted by the mainstream Palestinian leadership, and supported by countless polls in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

What has been the Israeli response? For many years the assertion was that the so-called Six Day War of 1967, during which Israel seized the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, would lead to eventual peace. While the Sinai was in fact part of a land-for-peace deal with Egypt, Israel continues not only to occupy but also to populate and further entrench its presence in the Golan Heights and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In fact there are now nearly 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the vast majority of this population growth has come since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Rather than move closer to a solution, the current Israeli government, led by the Likud Party's Benjamin Netanyahu and influenced by right-wing populist Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, has shown utter contempt for any modicum of reconciliation. This reality was most vividly demonstrated last spring, when Israel announced a plan for the construction of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem during the visit of the US vice president Joseph Biden.

Tomorrow, when the Palestinians led by President Mahmoud Abbas present to the United Nations their proposal for full recognition of Palestine within the 1967 borders, they will in effect be giving one last breath to the two-state solution and to recognition of Israel. In years past Israel may have eschewed any recognition of a Palestinian state, but today that policy has become untenable.

The world around Israel has fundamentally changed. Economically Israel is no longer the superior force in the region. Politically, its influence is waning worldwide, and long-standing regional allies such as Egypt and Turkey are now far from its side.

Demographically, Israel faces the stark choice between peace and apartheid. If Israel in these crucial stages turns its back on recognition of Palestine, it might well be turning its back on the prospect of a two-state solution. A significant portion of the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories, and certainly in the diaspora, would be more than willing to pursue a one-state solution - practical or not - as in South Africa.

Yet all signs point to Israel continuing to read from the same old playbook, using the same language and making the same accusations against the Palestinians as in years past. It seems that Israel once again appears to be ready to miss an opportunity. This time, however, it may also be missing its last chance at the two-state solution and the last chance for its own statehood.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Canada plays the wrong hand on Palestine

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star, which you can find by clicking here:

Canada Plays the Wrong Hand on Palestine
Toronto Star 

“Canada views this action as very regrettable and we will be opposing it at the United Nations.”
This was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s response to the Palestinian campaign for international recognition, ahead of his trip to the United Nations General Assembly. It was blunt. It was clear. It was wrong.
For years Canada has played an even-handed role in the Middle East but today it finds itself clearly allied with one side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yet Harper’s position ahead of the meetings this week not only appears biased but it also undermines the prospects for peace and the interests of both Palestinians and Israelis.
In 1957, former prime minister Lester Pearson was the first and last Canadian recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for his efforts in resolving the Suez Crisis a year earlier, serving as an honest peacemaker between Egypt, Israel, the United Kingdom and France. That perception of even-handedness toward the region has slowly faded over time, in particular since Harper came to power in 2006. In a speech last year, he went so far as to say that Canada will maintain its pro-Israeli stand “whatever the cost.”
The government has doubled-down on its support, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Israeli Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman, a controversial figure at best. This week on his most recent visit, Lieberman labelled Canada “our best, most reliable friend in the world.” There is a lot to question about blind attachment in this impregnable alliance Harper has forged. Is it in Canada’s interest? Does it undermine our reputation globally? Are we unduly ignoring human rights abuses committed by Israel? However, what is most poignant is that Canada’s current position vis-à-vis the Palestinian push for UN recognition may in fact be against fundamental Israeli interests as well.
When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas puts forth an application for full recognition from the UN on Friday, it will be the culmination of a long struggle for self-determination for a people still without a state. We could debate the history of the conflict ad nauseam and evaluate fruitlessly who is more culpable, but the truth remains that the Palestinians legally and morally have the right to statehood.
The current drive for UN recognition derives from the moderate wing of the political spectrum and is designed to facilitate a diplomatic and peaceful resolution of the conflict. The vast majority of countries, including members of the European Union, are likely to vote for the recognition of Palestine as a state; even a recent BBC poll (2011) showed that 46 per cent of Canadians supported voting in favour while only 25 per cent were against. The Canadian position not only will be going against the grain internationally but will also fly against the face of public opinion domestically.
More important, what alternative is Canada supporting? A continuation of the status quo? The empowerment of the more extremist and perhaps violent elements in the Palestinian leadership that only further threaten Israeli security? If formal recognition of a Palestinian state is considered regrettable, then what message does that send Palestinians regarding the entire peace process?
Unfortunately, the Harper government has adopted a belief that being pro-Palestinian equates to being anti-Israeli and vice versa. In fact, this manufactured duality belies a more nuanced reality. By recognizing Palestine, the Harper government would not by any means have to give up its pro-Israeli stance. Canada would still condemn Hamas and other terror organizations. Canada would still support Israel against all existential threats. Canada would still stand against anti-Semitism in all its forms.
Conversely, the message Canada would send is that it supports a peaceful resolution to the conflict based on two states living side-by-side. A two-state solution, however, by its very nature requires recognition of Palestine. By going against this very basic principle at the United Nations, the Harper government is sending a very clear message to both Israelis and Palestinians — it is not just anti-Palestinian; it is anti-peace.

Israel's Legitimacy Flows Through Palestine

The original version of this post appears on Huffington Post at (


Israel's Legitimacy Flows Through Palestine

Huffington Post (September 20, 2011)

"It's impossible to impose peace from the outside. It won't happen," bellowed confidently long-time Israeli spokesman Mark Regev in his robust Australian accent. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon expressed incredulously, "They say they are against violence but then they use political violence." Even the Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu pointedly called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to "stop wasting time". Israeli officials have been pseudo-confidently telling whoever will listen that the Palestinian pursuit for recognition at the United Nations is an affront to the peace process. Didn't the Palestinians know that their legitimacy -- and the creation of their state -- flows through Israel? At some point in the last couple of years the mainstream Palestinian political leadership finally emerged out of Plato's cave and answered that rhetorical question: It's Israel's legitimacy that flows in fact through Palestine.
The claim that the Palestinian effort at the UN seeks to discredit the State of Israel is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. In fact it is Israel's future legitimacy that derives from the creation of a Palestinian state. The longer its political leaders procrastinate, the more tenuous its legitimacy as a democratic and viable state becomes.
What is remarkable about the recent campaign by the PLO leadership in pursuing recognition of Palestine at the United Nations, is that it is at its heart about arriving at a peaceful resolution to the conflict and recognizing Israel's right to exist. Explicit in the recognition of Palestine on the basis of previous UN resolutions (242 and 338) is that Israel has a right to exist on 78% of historic Palestine. Moreover, rather than pursue a resolution by way of violence, Abbas and his team have invested in the diplomatic and legal process. Instead of being praised or rewarded the Israelis and many U.S. politicians have invoked the spirit of Chicken Little and declared that the sky is falling. The moment presented in front of the world is one where 'moderates' (according to the West) can genuinely be empowered. Instead the opposite is occurring, as the U.S. Congress threatens to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if Abbas continues with his push for recognition.
While the U.S. will likely veto and thwart the Palestinian bid for recognition at the Security Council, this will not do much to end the effort. In fact, this is just the beginning of a last stand by Palestinians for a two-state solution before the latter idea is deemed itself to not have any viability. If the U.S. and Israel oppose even the symbolic recognition of Palestine at the United Nations, what prospects for a real two-state solution are there? There is a dreamy aspect to an Eretz Israel that encompasses Judea and Samaria in some hyper-Jewish state but it is precisely that -- a dream. The longer Israel punts a realistic and explicit commitment to a two-state solution the more it undercuts its own legitimacy. Israel today is surrounded by a changing Middle East, where it is losing its political, economic, and military edge; traditional allies such as Turkey and Egypt are quickly transforming into adversaries. Demographically it cannot continue to lord over the West Bank, Gaza (yes Gaza), and East Jerusalem (yes East Jerusalem) for time immemorial without facing a scenario of apartheid. The latter point is not made by a pro-Palestinian peacenik but rather byIsraeli defense minister Ehud Barak.
What is the alternative presented to the Palestinians by Israeli Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman or U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) for that matter? Thus far there is no light offered at the end of the tunnel. Moreover, by rejecting the current Palestinian attempt to enshrine a two-state solution at the United Nations, Israel risks opening the pandora's box of what's next. Who is to say that the Palestinian leadership in the face of a lack of progress won't switch to backing a bi-national democratic state à la South Africa? In the eyes of the world -- which is generally supportive including in U.S. popular opinion of the Palestinian attempt at recognition -- how legitimate would the State of Israel be without a Palestine?
It seems that both Israel and the U.S. have already made up their minds regarding the vote this week. However, this issue will not disappear and will continue to linger. The Palestinian leadership is trying to firmly establish the legitimacy of the two state solution and the existence of Israel. The question remains will Israel undermine its own legitimacy in response?

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Palestine belongs in the community of nations

On September 23, 2011, the Palestinians will likely submit their bid to the United Nations Security Council for an application for membership to the international body and acceptance into the community of nations. If accepted they would be the 194th member state -- over 62 years after Israel gained the same recognition. Yet, most likely their bid will be rejected and vetoed by the United States. In fact, some critics of the Palestinian maneuver have labelled the entire demand for statehood as anti-Israel or even worse. There is much to write about this but who is to deny that Palestine belongs in the community of nations? Does it really seem out of place?

List of Member States of the United Nations
1  Argentina ( 24-Oct-45 )
2  Belarus ( 24-Oct-45 )
3  Brazil ( 24-Oct-45 )
4  Chile ( 24-Oct-45 )
5  China ( 24-Oct-45 )
6  Cuba ( 24-Oct-45 )
7  Denmark ( 24-Oct-45 )
8  Dominican Republic ( 24-Oct-45 )
9  Egypt ( 24-Oct-45 )
10  El Salvador ( 24-Oct-45 )
11  France ( 24-Oct-45 )
12  Haiti ( 24-Oct-45 )
13  Iran (Islamic Republic of)  ( 24-Oct-45 )
14  Lebanon ( 24-Oct-45 )
15  Luxembourg ( 24-Oct-45 )
16  New Zealand ( 24-Oct-45 )
17  Nicaragua ( 24-Oct-45 )
18  Paraguay ( 24-Oct-45 )
19  Philippines  ( 24-Oct-45 )
20  Poland ( 24-Oct-45 )
21  Russian Federation ( 24-Oct-45 )
22  Saudi Arabia ( 24-Oct-45 )
23  Syrian Arab Republic ( 24-Oct-45 )
24  Turkey ( 24-Oct-45 )
25  Ukraine ( 24-Oct-45 )
26  United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland ( 24-Oct-45 )
27  United States of America ( 24-Oct-45 )
28  Greece ( 25-Oct-45 )
29  India ( 30-Oct-45 )
30  Peru ( 31-Oct-45 )
31  Australia ( 1-Nov-45 )
32  Costa Rica ( 2-Nov-45 )
33  Liberia ( 2-Nov-45 )
34  Colombia ( 5-Nov-45 )
35  Mexico ( 7-Nov-45 )
36  South Africa ( 7-Nov-45 )
37  Canada ( 9-Nov-45 )
38  Ethiopia ( 13-Nov-45 )
39  Panama ( 13-Nov-45 )
40  Bolivia (Plurinational State of)  ( 14-Nov-45 )
41  Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of)  ( 15-Nov-45 )
42  Guatemala ( 21-Nov-45 )
43  Norway ( 27-Nov-45 )
44  Netherlands ( 10-Dec-45 )
45  Honduras ( 17-Dec-45 )
46  Uruguay ( 18-Dec-45 )
47  Ecuador ( 21-Dec-45 )
48  Iraq ( 21-Dec-45 )
49  Belgium ( 27-Dec-45 )
50  Afghanistan ( 19-Nov-46 )
51  Iceland ( 19-Nov-46 )
52  Sweden ( 19-Nov-46 )
53  Thailand  ( 16-Dec-46 )
54  Pakistan ( 30-Sep-47 )
55  Yemen ( 30-Sep-47 )
56  Myanmar  ( 19-Apr-48 )
57  Israel ( 11-May-49 )
58  Indonesia ( 28-Sep-50 )
59  Albania ( 14-Dec-55 )
60  Austria ( 14-Dec-55 )
61  Bulgaria ( 14-Dec-55 )
62  Cambodia  ( 14-Dec-55 )
63  Finland ( 14-Dec-55 )
64  Hungary ( 14-Dec-55 )
65  Ireland ( 14-Dec-55 )
66  Italy ( 14-Dec-55 )
67  Jordan ( 14-Dec-55 )
68  Lao People's Democratic Republic  ( 14-Dec-55 )
69  Libyan Arab Jamahiriya  ( 14-Dec-55 )
70  Nepal ( 14-Dec-55 )
71  Portugal ( 14-Dec-55 )
72  Romania ( 14-Dec-55 )
73  Spain ( 14-Dec-55 )
74  Sri Lanka  ( 14-Dec-55 )
75  Morocco ( 12-Nov-56 )
76  Sudan ( 12-Nov-56 )
77  Tunisia ( 12-Nov-56 )
78  Japan ( 18-Dec-56 )
79  Ghana ( 8-Mar-57 )
80  Malaysia ( 17-Sep-57 )
81  Guinea ( 12-Dec-58 )
82  Benin ( 20-Sep-60 )
83  Burkina Faso  ( 20-Sep-60 )
84  Cameroon  ( 20-Sep-60 )
85  Central African Republic  ( 20-Sep-60 )
86  Chad ( 20-Sep-60 )
87  Congo  ( 20-Sep-60 )
88  Democratic Republic of the Congo [note 8] ( 20-Sep-60 )
89  Côte d'Ivoire ( 20-Sep-60 )
90  Cyprus ( 20-Sep-60 )
91  Gabon ( 20-Sep-60 )
92  Madagascar  ( 20-Sep-60 )
93  Niger ( 20-Sep-60 )
94  Somalia ( 20-Sep-60 )
95  Togo ( 20-Sep-60 )
96  Mali ( 28-Sep-60 )
97  Senegal ( 28-Sep-60 )
98  Nigeria ( 7-Oct-60 )
99  Sierra Leone ( 27-Sep-61 )
100  Mauritania ( 27-Oct-61 )
101  Mongolia ( 27-Oct-61 )
102  United Republic of Tanzania ( 14-Dec-61 )
103  Burundi ( 18-Sep-62 )
104  Jamaica ( 18-Sep-62 )
105  Rwanda ( 18-Sep-62 )
106  Trinidad and Tobago ( 18-Sep-62 )
107  Algeria ( 8-Oct-62 )
108  Uganda ( 25-Oct-62 )
109  Kuwait ( 14-May-63 )
110  Kenya ( 16-Dec-63 )
111  Malawi ( 1-Dec-64 )
112  Malta ( 1-Dec-64 )
113  Zambia ( 1-Dec-64 )
114  Gambia  ( 21-Sep-65 )
115  Maldives  ( 21-Sep-65 )
116  Singapore ( 21-Sep-65 )
117  Guyana ( 20-Sep-66 )
118  Botswana ( 17-Oct-66 )
119  Lesotho ( 17-Oct-66 )
120  Barbados ( 9-Dec-66 )
121  Mauritius ( 24-Apr-68 )
122  Swaziland ( 24-Sep-68 )
123  Equatorial Guinea ( 12-Nov-68 )
124  Fiji ( 13-Oct-70 )
125  Bahrain ( 21-Sep-71 )
126  Bhutan ( 21-Sep-71 )
127  Qatar ( 21-Sep-71 )
128  Oman ( 7-Oct-71 )
129  United Arab Emirates ( 9-Dec-71 )
130  Bahamas ( 18-Sep-73 )
131  Germany ( 18-Sep-73 )
132  Bangladesh ( 17-Sep-74 )
133  Grenada ( 17-Sep-74 )
134  Guinea-Bissau ( 17-Sep-74 )
135  Cape Verde ( 16-Sep-75 )
136  Mozambique ( 16-Sep-75 )
137  Sao Tome and Principe  ( 16-Sep-75 )
138  Papua New Guinea ( 10-Oct-75 )
139  Comoros ( 12-Nov-75 )
140  Suriname ( 4-Dec-75 )
141  Seychelles ( 21-Sep-76 )
142  Angola ( 1-Dec-76 )
143  Samoa ( 15-Dec-76 )
144  Djibouti ( 20-Sep-77 )
145  Viet Nam ( 20-Sep-77 )
146  Solomon Islands ( 19-Sep-78 )
147  Dominica ( 18-Dec-78 )
148  Saint Lucia ( 18-Sep-79 )
149  Zimbabwe ( 25-Aug-80 )
150  Saint Vincent and the Grenadines ( 16-Sep-80 )
151  Vanuatu ( 15-Sep-81 )
152  Belize ( 25-Sep-81 )
153  Antigua and Barbuda ( 11-Nov-81 )
154  Saint Kitts and Nevis  ( 23-Sep-83 )
155  Brunei Darussalam ( 21-Sep-84 )
156  Namibia ( 23-Apr-90 )
157  Liechtenstein ( 18-Sep-90 )
158  Estonia ( 17-Sep-91 )
159  Democratic People's Republic of Korea ( 17-Sep-91 )
160  Republic of Korea ( 17-Sep-91 )
161  Latvia ( 17-Sep-91 )
162  Lithuania ( 17-Sep-91 )
163  Marshall Islands ( 17-Sep-91 )
164  Micronesia (Federated States of) ( 17-Sep-91 )
165  Armenia ( 2-Mar-92 )
166  Azerbaijan ( 2-Mar-92 )
167  Kazakhstan  ( 2-Mar-92 )
168  Kyrgyzstan ( 2-Mar-92 )
169  Republic of Moldova ( 2-Mar-92 )
170  San Marino ( 2-Mar-92 )
171  Tajikistan ( 2-Mar-92 )
172  Turkmenistan ( 2-Mar-92 )
173  Uzbekistan ( 2-Mar-92 )
174  Bosnia and Herzegovina ( 22-May-92 )
175  Croatia ( 22-May-92 )
176  Slovenia ( 22-May-92 )
177  Georgia ( 31-Jul-92 )
178  Czech Republic ( 19-Jan-93 )
179  Slovakia ( 19-Jan-93 )
180  The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia ( 8-Apr-93 )
181  Eritrea ( 28-May-93 )
182  Monaco ( 28-May-93 )
183  Andorra ( 28-Jul-93 )
184  Palau ( 15-Dec-94 )
185  Kiribati ( 14-Sep-99 )
186  Nauru ( 14-Sep-99 )
187  Tonga ( 14-Sep-99 )
188  Tuvalu ( 5-Sep-00 )
189  Serbia ( 1-Nov-00 )
190  Switzerland ( 10-Sep-02 )
191  Timor-Leste ( 27-Sep-02 )
192  Montenegro ( 28-Jun-06 )
193  South Sudan ( 14-Jul-11 )
194  Palestine ( 23-Sep-11 )

Monday, 12 September 2011

The Global 150 - Who's more powerful - Governments or Corporations?

As the world is beset by economic troubles the question is raised over the role of corporations. Yet how significant is their influence? It is very difficult to determine how much influence is wielded by companies versus countries. In fact it is better to think of the influence of governments versus companies. At the end of the day a country has many constituent elements - individuals, companies, civil society, the media. Yet, what is the weight of the primary public sector entity? What does a government have at its disposal?

In that vein, I constructed a table below to contrast the national revenues of the world's leading governments with that of the world's leading corporations into a new global 150 - the G150. The top ten are all countries. The top five corporations are: Walmart, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Toyata Motors. Israel at #126 lands between Microsoft and Home Depot, while Apple at #133 is just above Ukraine.

What are the other results:

$27.7 trillion -- Total revenues of the G150.
$11.2 trillion -- Total revenues of the top 10 countries
$11.8 trillion -- Total revenues of all companies in G150
$153 billion -- Average revenue for government outside the top 10
$108 billion -- Average revenue for company on the list

73% -- Percentage of the list that are companies
27% -- Percentage of the list that are countries
38% -- Percentage of the companies on the list that are US-based
12% -- Percentage of the companies on the list that are Germany-based

What is interesting about this is that just like governments the companies have commitments that they must pay  that will of course take hold of the revenues. Additionally, while some governments may have surpluses others may not; companies may or may not be profitable. A government such as India has over $1 trillion in GDP but very low national revenue (in India's case just $154 billion). There are many implications to that.

This is a subjective analysis that is meant to be indicative rather than authoritative. This analysis uses publicly available information gathered from Wikipedia, the CIA Factbook and the World Bank, mostly from 2009/2010 but with some national revenue figures coming from 2007 (specific information on the dates is available on request). Adjustment for subsequent years of inflation is not made. 

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Day the Earth stood still was ten years ago

I was in Princeton, New Jersey just coming back for my sophomore year at college. We hadn't yet begun classes and I was planning to go to Walmart later that day to buy some much needed supplies. Just another day in the life of a student. As I slept, I was awaken on that fateful Tuesday by loud knocking on my dorm room door, followed by a classmate entering with frantic panic (yes I left my door unlocked) and jolting me out of my slumber, exhorting, "somebody's bombed the World Trade Center." I quickly ran into the adjacent room and watched with perplexed pause what was unfolding on the television screens. It was around 9:30 a.m. and we still did not know what was truly happening. The two WTC buildings were on fire and soon the Pentagon was just hit. Then all of a sudden news broke that a plane had gone down in Pennsylvania. It was a fast-moving story with many shifting headlines. Were there more attacks to come? Was this a full-scale war? One of the earliest thoughts that went through my head was 'I hope this isn't the work of Muslims.' At the time I was the (acting) Vice President of the Muslim Students Association at Princeton and I feared the consequences. Immediately, it was clear this was a transformative event and things would not be the same after. It was the day the Earth stood still.

Yet, as momentous as those events were, the subsequent apocalyptic jihad versus crusade vision never fully materialized. The decade that followed was indeed tumultuous and characterized by deadly violence, suspension of human rights, and a climate of fear. However, it is clear on the tenth anniversary of that moving moment (or moments), that the 9/11 era has come to a close and is fading in relevance to describe the world around us. The rise of China. The Arab awakening. The new globalized world. That is what we are now faced with.

Certainly, the 9/11 attacks were a historic event and at the time were not just central but essential to almost every policy-making decision being made in the following years. At Princeton one of the most energetic groups during my time was the Princeton Committee Against Terrorism (although there was no Committee for Terrorism). That narrative of 'with us or against us' became pervasive as well. I recall the climate of hostility, that in many ways persists even more today, against things and persons Muslim. Once after writing an article in the Daily Princetonian on Columbus and the history of Native Americans (without any reference to the Middle East) I received the following letter (redacted) from a trustee of a nearby university:
"Judging from your name you are probably muslim from a godforsaken Islamic country. When you are a guest in our country, it is not courteous to defame our heros especially when you don't have true heros of your own. If you can't handle this analysis, I suggest you consider going back to your deprived country and stick your head in your koran for the rest of your life."
Recent reports have shown that Islamophobia is not just extant but on the rise -- and well-funded. The bifurcation of the world by neoconservatives and binladenists alike contributed to a rise in endemic violence and competing mini-crusades and jihads. Attacks in Madrid, London and Bali caused hundreds of casualties. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caused thousands. Seemingly every country enacted anti-terror legislation (sometimes with more sinister anti-democratic motives). Mini Al-Qaedas popped up in countries ranging from the Philippines to Nigeria and everything in-between -- many of them persisting until today. In fact the toll of Islamic radicalist attacks within Muslim countries in the last decade dwarfs that of those on America itself. A decade after September 11 we see that these problems (multifaceted and not all of the same nature) have not been solved by any means. The Shabbab movement is influential in Somalia. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are robustly shaping events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nigeria just suffered a deadly attack. Threats against the American homeland still continue. Yet, the overall post-9/11 struggle is declining in relative significance and relevance in the changing world.

This year has seen historic events that have started to shape the post- post-9/11 era. Of course there was the assassination of Osama bin Ladin that parted a symbolic defeat to Al Qaeda. Yet, more influential was the flight of Ben Ali in Tunisia and the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt. Al Qaeda's number 2 had advocated the overthrow of Arab regimes by violent means and here was a direct example of success by different tactics; Al Qaeda terrorists were shown to be not-needed and ineffective by comparison. The Arab awakening that has jolted 300 million people is only just beginning but we can already see many examples of why we are in a different time. Just look at Libya where the commander of the National Transitional Council in Tripoli supported by Britain and the U.S. had in fact been 'extraordinarily renditioned' by the CIA and tortured in a Libyan prison at their behest.

More fundamentally it is clear that in most Muslim and Arab societies it is hard to find a plurality that believes their central concern is the United States. Even more poignantly the U.S.-Muslim divide is hardly seen as the defining relationship in the world; even in the Muslim 'world' the defining issue seemingly is across Shiite-Sunni lines rather than Muslim-Christian. The global landscape overall is much more complex and diffuse today as well. The rise of China has assured that. It was in the past decade that BRIC has entered our everyday lexicon. How the world will address the economic malaise besetting the West transposed with rise of the East and South is the dominant question.

Surely there will be localized expressions internalized by a sense of tradition of the 9/11 landscape that still permeate and often dominate. We won't be seeing the end anytime soon of anti-Western slogans in Peshawar. Cartoons may still inflame a populist march in Jakarta. Europe will still have to come to terms with immigrant integration. Anti-Shari'a legislation will be a convenient agenda in the American South. Wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere will take time to wind down. Islamic radicals may still seek to attack symbols of Western influence. Yet the notion of 'us versus them' has not just dissipated from its omnipresence (whether it should have been so or not in the first place is another discussion) but it is now almost stale as if part of a bygone past.

Today we are in a different world - and especially a different Arab and Muslim world. Policymakers are concerned about the 100 million Arab youth (many unemployed) less for becoming radical anti-Western militants but more about their penchant for revolutionary overthrow of their own Arab and Muslim governments. In Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. would be unable to sustain financially another decade of conflict even if it wanted to. In fact 'American' money itself is trumped by the cash flows of Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Saudi Arabia. Where there is so-called 'radical' violence its targets are far more local (and perhaps the internationalization was only a blip).

The fact that the so-called 9/11 decade has come to a close and the nature of the world has shifted does not mean that we can wear rose-tinted glasses. Conversely the challenges have simply changed and may in fact be even greater and more complex. I'm sure the Fukuyamas and Huntingtons of the world are already prognosticating (inevitably incorrectly) what will happen. Whatever does happen it will happen in the post-post 9/11 world. Ahlan wa sahlan!

Friday, 19 August 2011

Action not rhetoric needed on Syria

Here is an article I have written outlining possible international action on Syria. While some points may be controversial (as in oil sanctions), I believe that the time has come for such moves given the continuing death and destruction and complete closemindedness expressed by the regime thus far in the process.

Time has come for world action on the Syrian crisis

August 18, 2011 - Toronto Star

“Perhaps in the beginning (2000 and 2001) we moved too fast in opening up the country and people took advantage of that. . . . We are in a dangerous region and have to consider many things. We will make democratic reform but only at our own pace.”

These words were spoken by Syrian President Bashar Assad when I pressed him (as part of a delegation from Harvard) in 2008 on the role of political reform in building an open society. He was then, as he has demonstrated quite violently now, stubborn and resistant to what he saw as change beyond his own pace.

Today, Assad has effectively doubled down on a strategy of death and destruction to intimidate the opposition to his rule that has engulfed Syria. Despite the mounting death toll, the reaction from the international community — including Canada — has been far too little and much too late. While disjointed calls for condemnation have reverberated in Western capitals, there has yet to be a consolidated and, more important, effective initiative to bring about a resolution to the crisis.

It was in mid-March when the situation truly began to unravel in Syria. On March 18, demonstrations in the southern city of Dara’a led to four deaths. Since then, successive cities have seen protestors marching against the regime. The president himself has appeared deaf to the voices of opposition, instead blaming the unrest on “armed gangs” and “terrorists.”

The response of Assad’s government has been both incompetent and brutal and there has been too much blood spilled on the streets of Hama, Latakia, Homs, Deir el-Zour and elsewhere, including Damascus, for the country to return to the old political system. The result has been more than 2,000 deaths, the imprisonment of thousands more and the displacement of countless others. There exists the real prospect of a large-scale massacre in the near future.

The reaction of the international community, while high on bombast, has been anemic in action. Canada has scaled up its basic sanctions against the country but has not downgraded its trade or diplomatic relations, nor has it threatened to pull out of the $1.2 billion Petro-Canada/Suncor Ebla gas project, one of the largest foreign investments in Syria.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared initially that Bashar Assad had “lost legitimacy,” as did Foreign Secretary William Hague in London; President Obama raised the rhetoric on Thursday, demanding that Assad step aside but, while important, this likely will have a limited effect on Damascus. There have also been disparate statements of condemnation from within the Middle East, particularly from Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, but this has not resulted in much beyond headlines. Meanwhile, the United Nations and other international institutions have dithered.

Much more can and should be done, by the international community — including Canada. What is needed first is an international coalition that is ready to use non-military but robust actions to pressure the Syrian regime into ceasing all violence and entering into a process of political transition. The impetus for this has to be a high-level summit of interested states, including countries from Western Europe and North America but also Turkey, members of the Arab League and, in particular, Jordan and other neighbours, and quite possibly Russia or China.

A starting point must be an overall arms embargo on Syria. Just this past week Russian arms exporters were stating that they will continue their shipments to Damascus as usual.

Second, the UN Human Rights Council should immediately dispatch a monitoring body to protect against further harm to the civilian population.

Third, a high-level envoy, perhaps with the stature of Lakhdar Brahimi, could be appointed by the UN secretary-general to at least present a framework for political transition and help mediate a resolution. Up to now there has been no focal point for international energies and initiatives.

Finally, Canada and other like-minded nations should mobilize to draft an opt-in set of sanctions against Syrian oil exports to limit the cash reserves that Assad is using to finance his crackdown.

There are indeed practical steps that can be taken to build momentum toward resolving the crisis in Syria but they will not materialize without leadership from within the international community. Until now and perhaps in fear of the stalemate in Libya, countries have shied away from a more active role.

The situation in Syria, however, does not require military action but it does demand a level of assertiveness and cooperation from the international community, including Canada, to bring about peace and stability.

Taufiq Rahim is a political analyst based in Dubai and blogs regularly on He has visited Syria frequently.