Day: June 30, 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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