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.