Month: June 2012

Diplomacy doesn’t end with the communiqué

The final communiqué of the “action group” for Syria is a good one.  It goes further in defining next steps in the “Syrian-led” transition than the Annan plan did, in particular in insisting on the appointment of negotiators by the “parties” (presumably the government and opposition), establishment of a transitional governing body, preparation of a new “constitutional order” and holding thereafter of free and fair multiparty elections.  All well and good, but it leaves to the imagination that in order for all this to happen Bashar al Asad needs to step aside.

But that is the rub.  There is no indication that he is prepared to do that, and lots of indication that he thinks he is winning.  As Hassan Mneimneh puts it:

The Bashar al-Assad regime’s stated position is that the conspiracy to topple it has been contained, but will require some time to eradicate because of its concerns for civilian casualties. Western and regional co-conspirators have exhausted all means available to them because of the steadfastness of the regime’s bases of support — the armed forces, security apparatus, popular committees, and the population as a whole — as well as the robust support of international actors who resist Western hegemony:  the BRICS, Iran, and Asian and Latin American voices. The regime will prevail, and its enemies will return to an unshaken Damascus, once again seeking reconciliation. The regime’s international standing will also be restored:  the alleged atrocities, it would argue, were either committed by foreign-funded terrorists, were outright lies fabricated by outside media, or were unfortunate collateral damage in legitimate efforts to squash an illegal insurgency.

This may appear delusional to those of us who follow events in Syria mainly from the Western press.  The issue is how to puncture the delusion.

It is tempting to think that this can best be done using military force, in particular air attacks.  There is no reason to believe that this would work quickly.  Even in those cases where they have worked (Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan), air assaults have taken weeks and even months to convince opponents that they cannot hold on to territory or power.  Nor am I detecting even the slightest willingness to use military force on the part of the Americans, the Turks or the Arab League, who are the major potential contributors to such an effort.  The reasons are many but compelling:  for the Americans the need to keep Russia in the P5+1 and to continue to provide access to the northern distribution network for Afghanistan, for the Turks the Syrian capability of striking back by unleashing Kurdish terrorists, and for the Arab League an aversion to military risk unless someone else is out front.

In any event, nonviolent means have a much better track record.  Before you all send me notes about how unreasonable it is for Syrians to return to nonviolence, let me insist on this:  nonviolent methods have never shut down in Syria.  Every day sees protests, strikes, boycotts and more.  We are not hearing about this because the Western press doesn’t report it much.  If it bleeds it leads. It is the rare reporter who like Deb Amos makes her way to Hamadiya souk to interview merchants who closed down for a general strikes, as well as talking to people in the Christian Quarter who support the regime.

The quickest route to political transition in Syria is still an end to the violence and implementation of the Annan plan’s provision for freedom of assembly.  If Bashar al Asad can be convinced for even a week to shut down his military assaults on the population, Syrians will puncture his delusion, not by violence but by massing in unprecedented numbers in support of a democratic transition.

That’s Kofi Annan’s job:  to get Bashar to make the mistake of allowing freedom of association and the right to demonstrate.   Overconfident autocrats do make such mistakes:  Slobodan Milosevic famously called an election and lost it.  Ironically, forcing this mistake will require pressure from both Russia and Iran, neither of which is big on freedom of association or the right to demonstrate.  Threatening the use of force, as Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice would clearly like to do, might also be helpful, but it is awfully hard to make the threat credible without a major shift in attitudes in the U.S., Turkey and the Arab League.

Diplomacy doesn’t end with the communiqué.

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Libya and Egypt are not in the same place

It will strike some as strange to write about Libya on the day Egypt’s new president takes the oath of office, but the contrast is instructive.

Oil- and gas- rich Libya had a violent revolution that swept away Muammar Qaddafi’s one-man dictatorship and has proceeded more or less on schedule with a transition roadmap laid out almost a year ago.  Virtually 100 per cent Muslim and predominantly Arab, Libya has big problems with armed militias and many local conflicts but little in the way of organized national resistance.

Egypt, a far larger, poorer and more diverse country with limited natural resources, underwent a largely peaceful revolution (violence came mainly from the regime) that forced out President Mubarak but failed to sweep away a highly institutionalized military autocracy.  Egypt’s political roadmap has changed many times in the past year and a half, so much so that Marc Lynch has satirized the process as #calvinball.  Experts can’t agree whether Egypt has even yet begun a democratic transition.  With lots of help from the Supreme Constitutional Court, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been very much in charge, though it now faces a serious challenger in President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

None of this means that Libya will necessarily come out all right or that Egypt won’t.  But the odds are in that direction.  A lot depends on Libya’s election July 7, which I’ll be observing as a Carter Center monitor.  Voting for real for the first time in more than 40 years, Libyans will be choosing an assembly (called the National Public Conference in English) with two main tasks:  to select a committee to write the country’s new constitution and to name a government that will replace the National Transitional Council, the oft-maligned, self-appointed body that has steered Libya’s revolution for the past year and a half.  Scheduled for drafting within 120 days (recently extended from 60), the constitution will then be approved (or disapproved) in a referendum, followed by new elections.  This is a sensible sequence, even if the schedule remains tight.  There is some discussion of whether the draft constitution should be sent to the assembly before the referendum.

By contrast, Egyptians have already elected a president, whose powers are uncertain because the military has continued to issue obiter dicta.  While many of us assume these will be decisive, a great deal depends on how the tug-of-war between democratically elected president and judicially empowered military officers comes out.  Nor is it clear how the constitution will now be written.  The SCAF claims to have arrogated to itself legislative authority, dissolving a parliament elected only a few months ago in more or less democratic polls but declared illegitimate by a court mouthing what the military wanted said.  It is completely unclear when a new parliament will be elected, or even when the next presidential election will be held.

Libya’s big challenge is to stay on track.  The militias are the greatest threat to doing that, so it is important that the new assembly and government make more progress than the NTC has on dissolving them.  If they become entrenched, or aligned with political forces, a revolution that seemed to be headed in the right direction could be pulled seriously off course.

Egypt’s big challenge is to find where the right tracks that lead to serious democracy lie.  It is hard to believe that either the military or Morsi acting alone will find them.  But the interaction between the two, guided in part by the Egyptian courts, may have a better chance.  I suspect the Americans are also playing a role in pushing the military to turn over real authority to the civilians, but Morsi’s advocacy yesterday of freedom for a terrorist convicted in a U.S. court may make them hesitate.  Admittedly, Morsi is navigating in difficult waters.  He’d better learn quickly where the shoals lie.

Libya is freer of external constraints, but in some sense just as fraught with its own internal difficulties, on a far smaller scale than Egypt.  What can a single American election observer hope to contribute in such a situation?  Not much.  Local observers who know the terrain and the people, never mind the language and culture, are likely to have a far bigger impact.  But having a few of us around in Carter Center shirts may provide some top cover for Libyan political parties and nongovernmental organizations to be bold in insisting  on good procedures in preparation for the polling, on election day and in the subsequent counting.  Most newly democratic regimes would like a seal of approval, not a Bronx cheer, from the foreigners.

This is also an opportunity for me to sniff the atmosphere in Libya nine months after my last visit, when I returned more hopeful than I had been previously that Libya was on the right track.  Circumstances in post-war and revolutionary places change rapidly.  The security environment is nowhere near as permissive as it was last September, when I ran along the quay in Tripoli.  I am most interested in talking with ordinary Libyans:  what do they think about what they’ve wrought?  Are they longing for a return to a strongman, as many Iraqis seem to be doing, or are they determined to forge ahead in the democratic direction?  Do they have confidence in the electoral process?  Will they view the results as legitimate, even if the results aren’t what they prefer?    What are their priorities, and how do they think their needs can best be met?

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Keep quiet and send money

Yesterday’s discussion of Egypt moderated by Freedom House’s Charles Dunne and sponsored by the Middle East Institute at the Carnegie Endowment was way more optimistic than many, but not convincingly so.

Hafez al Mirazi of the American University in Cairo was the most upbeat.  He is pleased that the revolution’s secularists joined forces with now President-elect Morsi in a civilian front intending to oust the military from power.  This alliance will continue until the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) hands over power.  Morsi, two of whose children are American citizens, is intending to bring a broad spectrum of people into his government.  SCAF will have little influence, beyond the power to declare war.  But then a few minutes later he admitted that the SCAF and the “deep state” (not further defined) will be a corrupting influence.  There is a lot to be done to ensure accountability, including investigation of the secret police and publication of archives.

Khaled Elgindy of Brookings was less upbeat.  The liberal consituency that brought about the revolution is now fragmented.  None of its components seems to be capable of a good “ground game”  among the Egyptian people.  Morsi will try to maintain good communication with Egypt’s Christians, but he needs to go beyond tokenism if he is going to win them over.  There is a real need to strengthen the judiciary and rule of law, including transitional justice.  But it is unclear how strong the commitment to accountability of the old regime is.  There is a palpable reluctance to dig up the past.  Economic development and security may take priority.  The “deep state” will persist, opening up to newcomers and trying to preserve its privileged hold on economic resources.

Nathan Brown of George Washington University was somewhere in the middle.  The West has gotten used to the idea of Morsi as Egypt’s president and support has been more forthcoming than anticipated.  The Americans have gotten the reassurance they need on Israel; the Europeans have gotten what they need on human rights.  The problem for Morsi is lack of resources.  The naming of a Christian vice president will be seen as a big and controversial step by the Muslim Brotherhood, but it won’t count for a lot with the Christians if it is tokenism.  Morsi’s primary concerns will be security and the economy.  The stock market rose 15% on his win, but he will have to sort out priorities among the Brotherhood’s economic directions:  social justice, sharia compliant finance and liberal “Washington consensus” policies.  The courts, which have played a major role in the transition so far, will now have to tussle with a democratically legitimated president.  SCAF influence in the courts remains substantial, with individual Supreme Constitutional and administrative judges beholden to the army.

Tellingly, the three presenters gave different answers to the question whether Egypt was really in a democratic transition, or not.  Hafez al Mirazi said yes, of course.  Morsi represents the revolution, which is now beyond the violent stage.  Khaled Elgindy said no, it has not yet really started.  Only now with Ahmed Shafiq’s concession of defeat can a real transition begin.  Nathan Brown thought there had certainly been a move towards democracy after the fall of Mubarak, but the process is unclear and losing momentum.

On the U.S. role, the advice was the same as I used to give alumni when I was an undergraduate:  keep quiet and send money.  That’s going to be hard to sustain unless there is clearer evidence that Egypt is moving in a direction the West finds acceptable.  Morsi’s vow today to seek freedom for Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is serving life in prison for conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center eight years before 9/11, is not going to endear him to Americans.

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Putin was right

Russia’s President said earlier this week:

It is better to involve Iran in the settlement (of the Syrian crisis)…The more Syria’s neighbors are involved in the settlement process the better. Ignoring these possibilities, these interests would be counterproductive, as diplomats say. It is better to secure its support. In any case it would complicate the process (if Iran is ignored).

Putin is right.  UN/Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan is too:  he also wanted Iran at Saturday’s meeting in Geneva, which is scheduled to include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Turkey as well as Arab Leaguers Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar.

The Americans have been blocking Iran from attending, on grounds that Tehran is providing support–including lethal assistance–to the Assad regime.  That is true.  It is also the reason they should be there.  So long as they meet the Americans’ red line–that attendees should accept that the purpose of the meeting is to begin a transition away from the Assad regime–it is far better to have them peeing from inside the tent out than from outside the tent in.  No negotiated transition away from the Assad regime is going to get far if the Iranians are dead set against it.

If they agree to attend, it will cause serious problems inside Tehran with the Quds Force, the part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard responsible for helping Bashar al Assad conduct the war he declared yesterday on his own people.  Discomforting the Iranians should be welcome in Washington.  If Iran had refused the invitation, which was likely, it would have been far easier to drive a wedge between them and the Russians, who are at least saying that they are not trying to protect Bashar al Assad’s hold on power.

Of course if they were to attend the Iranians would have raised issues that make Washington and some of its Arab friends uncomfortable.  Most obvious is Saudi and Qatari arms shipments to the Syrian rebel forces, who this week attacked a television station, killing at least some civilians.  But that issue will be raised in any event by the Russians, whether the Iranians are there or not.

The Iranians would likely also raise Bahrain, where a Sunni royal monarch rules over a largely Shia population.  The repression there has been far less violent and abusive than what Alawite Bashar al Assad is doing in Sunni-majority Syria, but the Iranians will argue that if transition to majority rule is good for the one it is also good for the other.  Does it have to get bloodier before the international community takes up the cause of the Bahraini Shia?  This argument will get some sympathetic noises from Iraq, which is majority Shia, but not from Sunni Qatar, UAE or Kuwait.

Turkey, meanwhile, has downplayed the  Syrian attacks on its fighter jets, which I am assured by a Turkish diplomat were in fact on reconnaissance, not training missions, as Ankara publicly claimed.  The reconnaissance flights routinely cross momentarily into Syrian airspace because it is impossible to fly strictly along the irregular border between the two countries.  Damascus shot down one, probably as a warning to its own pilots not to try to abscond, as one did last week.  Israeli jets also routinely violate Syrian airspace, but it is a long time since Syria took a shot at one of them.

The Turks seem to have gotten what little moral support they wanted out of consultations on the Syrian attacks at NATO  earlier this week.  Ankara has decided to low key the affair, thus avoiding further frictions with Syria, which can respond to any Turkish moves by allowing Kurdish guerrillas to step up their cross-border attacks into Turkey.

This is a complicated part of the world, where there are wheels within wheels.  Much as I dislike saying it, Putin was right to try to get all the main players in the room, lest some of those wheels continue to spin out of control if their masters haven’t been involved in the decisionmaking.  But that isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind in Washington, where electoral pressures preclude inviting Iran to a meeting on Syria.  Let’s hope that the meeting is nevertheless successful and that the plan it produces can be sold after the fact to Tehran, which otherwise may prove a spoiler.

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Schizophrenic Turkey

The closing panel yesterday at the Middle East Institute’s Third Annual Conference on Turkey, on “Turkey’s Leadership Role in an Uncertain Middle East,” found plenty of uncertainty in Turkey’s role as well. Al-Jazeera Washington bureau chief Abderrahim Foukara opened the discussion with a look at the “schizophrenic” face of Turkey’s ascendancy in the Middle East. While many Arabs look to Turkey as a leader as well as a model of successful moderate political Islam, others see its rising profile in the region as a threat. This tension in Turkey’s regional role is evident in its relationships with Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Israel.

International Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann covered Turkey’s relations with Iraq, which appeared to be the most schizophrenic case. Turkey’s worsening relations with Baghdad and ever-growing partnership with Irbil are contributing to the centrifugal forces tearing Iraq apart, counter to Turkey’s stated objectives. Hiltermann’s recent trip to Ankara left him still confused about what Turkey hopes to achieve in Iraq, but he sees the current dynamic as negative.

Turkey wants a stable and unified Iraq as a way to provide regional stability, regional economic integration, a buffer against Iran, access to Iraqi oil and gas, and tempering of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. On the last point, Ankara hopes to harness the Kurdish Regional Government as a counterweight to the PKK, but its other main interests depend upon Iraqi unity and amicable ties with Baghdad. The current strain in relations stems from tension with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Syrian crisis. Turkey’s overt opposition to al-Maliki’s party in the 2010 elections backfired when he won the day. Ankara-Baghdad relations have broken down further with suspicion in Iraq that a Sunni (Turkey-Gulf) alliance is gunning for the Syrian regime and will come after the regime in Baghdad next. The best way forward would be a rapprochement between Ankara and Baghdad, particularly an exchange of envoys, in order to prevent mutual suspicions from becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

Freelance journalist Yigal Shleifer had the simplest diagnosis: Turkish-Israeli relations are anywhere from “dead and frozen” to “completely dead and deeply frozen.”  The Gaza flotilla incident was simply the nail of the coffin, and since then the two sides have painted themselves into a corner. Turkey wants nothing less than a full apology, restitution, and the lifting of the blockade, while Israel is only willing to apologize for operational mistakes and cover some damages. In dealing with the crisis Israel was looking to “make up after the breakup,” while Turkey was negotiating “the terms of an amicable divorce.” Indicators for the near future are discouraging, particularly as both publics have become deeply skeptical of the other. Strategic partnership with Israel simply does not fit into Turkey’s evolving sense of purpose in the region, one piece of which is to be more outspoken in support of the Palestinian cause.

The lack of high-level communication is a recipe for disaster; the flotilla incident would likely not have gone so sour if relations had not already been strained to the point of stymying communication. Shleifer’s recommendation is a concerted diplomatic push, which will have to be American. Restoring relations to a level of trust is imperative for both. For Israel, it’s a question of security, but for Turkey it’s necessary for the development of its role as regional mediator as well as political, economic, and religious crossroads.

Robin Wright of the Woodrow Wilson Center characterized Syria and Iran as representing some of the profoundest achievements and toughest challenges of Turkish politics in the last few years. The AKP has been fond of talking about 360-degree strategic depth, but Iran and Syria have called this approach into question. Iran has become an important energy source and trading partner for Turkey under the AKP. It has also provided an opportunity for Turkey to flex its diplomatic muscle, as the biggest player in nuclear negotiations outside the P5+1. But Iran’s recalcitrance has proven increasingly frustrating for Turkey, and Turkey may find itself having to choose between closer relations with Iran or with the emerging bloc led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Syria is an even starker challenge. Erdogan and Asad used to call each other personal friends, and the countries even engaged in joint military exercises. The rebellion has flipped the situation, with Turkey becoming the base for the opposition Syrian National Council and Erdogan calling Asad’s tactics savage and his regime a clear and imminent threat. Wright does not see the possibility of normalized relations anytime soon, especially under the current leaders.

The conflicts over Iran and Syria have pushed Turkey ever more toward the West, undermining its 360-degree diplomacy. What Turkey does in the next year in terms of its alliances in the East and the West will do a lot to determine the direction of its development as a regional and international player.

The overall impression was one of Turkey at a historical crossroads paralleling its traditional role as geographic and cultural crossroads. Turkey now has issues with most of its neighbors, yet its potential for political and economic growth is huge. It has successfully cast itself as the indispensible mediator. The political role it envisions is both regional strongman and regional middleman. It will also play an important role in helping the Arab world define a new order in the wake of the Arab Spring, as a model and as a political partner.

Turkey has been steadily strengthening its economic ties with its European and Middle Eastern neighbors, but the political realm will require more tradeoffs: between Europe and Asia, Iran and the Sunni powers of the Gulf, Israel and Arab states. Yigal Shleifer’s recollection of a Turkish airline ad touting Istanbul as a connection to both Tel Aviv and Tehran was illustrative.

The consensus on the panel was that even with these ambiguities of strategic direction, Turkey has carved an independent place for itself on the regional and international scene. Turkey’s clout will almost certainly increase with the rise of moderate Islamist governments in Arab Spring countries, but to navigate the new environment it will have to make tough choices about its alliances and its guiding foreign policy principles.

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A milestone, again

Today is Vidovdan, Saint Vitus’ Day for Serbs.  It is the 623rd anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje, commemorated as a religio-national holiday by Serbs worldwide.  It is also the date on which Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, precipitating World War I, as well as other major events in Serbian history.

Today there is one more:  newly elected nationalist Tomislav Nikolic asked nationalist Ivica Dacic, leader of Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist party, to form a new government, with the support of Nikolic’s own Progressive party as well as several smaller parties in the governing coalition.

There is nothing socialist about Dacic or progressive about Nikolic.  Both are nationalists and pragmatists who draw support from an electorate disappointed in the performance of the more moderate nationalist Boris Tadic, who lost this month’s presidential election after more than seven years at the helm.  All claim to be pro-European, but Tadic more loudly, definitively and effectively than Nikolic and Dacic.

Alternation in power is a vital part of democratic governance.  Dacic participated as Interior Minister in Tadic’s last government, but Nikolic and his “progressives” are new to governing responsibility. It is a sign of the maturity of Serb’s still young democracy that the international community is taking Nikolic’s accession to power in stride, even if many might have preferred that Tadic win.

Both Nikolic and Dacic have already gone out of their way to consult with Moscow during the government formation process.  That gives more than a hint of where they plan to steer Serbia, which even under Tadic has flirted with Russia and vaunted itself as non-aligned (whatever that means in the post-Cold War world).

What does this augur for Washington and Brussels?  For Brussels, it likely means a deceleration in Serbia’s technical preparations for European Union membership, which proceeded apace under Tadic.  A slow-down won’t cause any handwringing in Brussels, where the prospect of any new members before 2020 is unwelcome.  The EU will want to keep Serbia on track for eventual membership, but it likely will feel far less pressure to offer a date to begin accession negotiations with a Dacic-led government.

That’s a good thing from Washington’s perspective.  Serbia continued under Tadic to monkey in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in Kosovo in unhelpful ways.  Washington was hesitant to ask too much of Tadic, who argued that would strengthen his more nationalist competitors.  A tougher EU stance is vital to moderating Serbia’s efforts to maintain strictly separate governing structures in both Bosnia’s Republika Srpska and northern Kosovo.

The day also saw the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia throw out one charge of genocide against Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic.  I hope this is seen in Bosnia and Serbia as evidence that he is getting a fair trial.

More important was the decision on Tuesday in a Serbian court finding 14 people guilty of killing civilians in late 1991, during Serb efforts to seize parts of Croatian territory and cleanse it of Croats.  As I argued at the OSCE earlier this week, acknowledgement of responsibility for wrongdoing is a key step in reconciliation.  If the new nationalist leadership in Belgrade plays it right, the Serbian courts have given them an opening to acknowledge the past and by doing so improve relations between Serbia and its neighbors in the future.

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