Day: September 19, 2017

What kind of elections?

The major conflict phase of the Syrian war is ending, with the American-supported and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces taking Raqqa and the Syrian regime with Iranian help likely taking Deir Azour. Only a few opposition-controlled enclaves remain in Idlib, north of Homs, northeast of Damascus, and in the south along the borders of Israel and Jordan. All are now more or less “de-escalated” zones. The regime, with heavy Russian and Iranian support, has mostly won the military contest, but that does not quite end the war.

The next phase will be more political. It is already outlined in general terms in UN Security Council resolution 2254 (2015). While all the deadlines in that resolution are blown, no one seems to doubt that the outlines of a “road map” for a supposedly “inclusive and Syrian-led process” remains valid:

  1. A political process lasting six months that sets a schedule for preparing a new constitution;
  2. Elections within 18 months pursuant to the new constitution, and administered under UN supervision.

The de-escalation zones have in some sense superseded the ceasefire, though that of course is still in principle desirable.

While there are many aspects of 2254 that have been ignored or superseded, these two pieces seem still to loom in the future, even if the time line may be significantly longer. During my visit to Turkey last week, opposition-affiliated folks were naturally anxious about what they could do in the next phase of this war.

How can an opposition that has largely lost the war gain some satisfaction in the peace? There will presumably at some point be a new UNSC resolution. The devil is in the details of that one. Here is what I think desirable with respect to elections. A future post will treat the constitution.

First, elections. While the first rule of post-war societies is that context matters and needs to be taken into account, as a general rule local elections should be held before national ones. It is rarely done (Kosovo is the only recent case I am aware of), largely because the internationals want to show progress. A national election usually satisfies their capitals, but local elections don’t.

There are at least five good reasons for doing local elections first, especially in Syria:

  1. Syria has never conducted anything resembling a free and fair election. Doing local elections first will be a test of the electoral mechanism and help to identify areas where it needs repair.
  2. Local elections will also help to identify who is emerging as political leaders: is it war criminals or extremists? If so, some rethinking by the internationals is in order. If not, the local elections will help the different political forces that emerge team up behind candidates for higher office.
  3. At the local level, voters are more likely to vote for people who can deliver services or advocate on issues, rather than on the basis of gender, ethnic, or sectarian identity. What do I care if the woman best equipped to collect the garbage, remove rubble, and pave the streets does not belong to my sect or ethnic group?
  4. Minorities and opposition are more likely to win at the local level than at the national level, because they are better organized and more numerous in particular communities. This matters a lot if the objective is inclusion, as it should be.
  5. National elections will favor the candidate with the best national organization backing him. That is still the Ba’ath party, which will of course back Bashar al Assad. Next in line nationally is likely the Muslim Brotherhood, though that is less clear.

So I’d be for local elections first, but only if they meet some exigent criteria.

First among these is absentee voting. More than half of Syrians are displaced. The standard in post-war elections since Bosnia is that recently internally displaced people and recent refugees should be permitted (not required) to vote where they came from. Otherwise, the election confirms ethnic, sectarian and political cleansing and makes it less likely that people will ever return (because those elected exclusive by those who remain in place may be hostile to returnees).

The problem with absentee voting is that it is complicated, especially in local elections. The ballot for each community has to be available in every other community, as well as in all polling places abroad. This can and has been done, but the UN resists it. No Syrian should be satisfied without absentee voting.

Nor should they be satisfied without intensive observation of the vote, including not only the procedures and counting on election day but also the performance of political parties and media during the campaign and the tabulation of the final tally. Intimidation often occurs far from the polls, both in distance and time. With armed groups likely still hanging around, observers need to be people who speak the local language and are willing to challenge malfeasance through whatever procedures are established by the electoral commission. Read more

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The fragmented Syrian opposition

Not only is Syria fragmented, its opposition is too. That has been true since the 2011 uprising, but things have gotten worse. The history since then is littered with opposition organizations: the Syrian National Council (SNC), the Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC or Etilaf), the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), and the High Negotiation Commission (HNC), not to mention the Syrian Free Army (SFA) and its many components. What, I asked last week during my talks with Syrians in Turkey, is the relationship among them. I won’t even try to recount the fate of Friends of the Syrian People and other ill-fated efforts to help.

The SNC, I was assured, has melted into the SOC.

The SOC still exists and claims to be the principal political body of the moderate opposition. It sees itself as setting the policy parameters and emphasizes it is100% committed to the fight against terrorism (principally Al Qaeda and the Islamic State), a point it intends to incorporate more fully into its narrative. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are SOC’s enemies, as much as the Assad regime, as the terrorists have frequently deprived the opposition of territory it controlled. This is an implicit critique of the SOC’s past exclusive focus on Assad.

The SIG is the executive branch of the opposition, whose eight ministers, including the Prime Minister, have relocated into Syria (presumably Idlib). They are trying to provide education, health, and other services in areas where opposition local administrative councils are able to operate. They are also making a big effort to coordinate the local councils (both those inside Syria and those in exile), whose representatives meet regularly under the chairmanship of the prime minister.

While now largely disregarded and unsupported by the internationals, the SOC and the SIG want to preserve the Syrian state by separating its security organs from its civilian apparatus, which will be welcome to return to opposition areas. The opposition is aiming to regroup and rebuild both its armed factions  and its civilians apparatus. It seeks broader appeal through its disassociation from extremists and intends to maintain a more united armed wing under the Syrian National Army rubric.

The HNC is the technical negotiating arm of the SOC and SIG, from their perspective (I did not speak with anyone from the HNC last week). There is talk about a reform of the HNC, whose leader Riyad Hijab has been spending a lot of time in medical care in the US. The UN-sponsored Geneva negotiations in which it has been most involved have been unproductive. The regime and Iran see no need to negotiate seriously with the HNC, even if the Russians appear a bit more inclined in that direction.

The Americans do little to support the SOC and SIG, and only a bit more for the HNC. Most of their financing goes directly to local administrative councils and civil society organizations, thus contributing to fragmentation. The Europeans pay a bit more attention to the SIG, which however seems to be penniless at the moment and reduced to begging from Qatar, which has supported it in the past. The HNC was formed in Riyadh and still seems to have Saudi support.

One wag described the SOC, SIG, and HNC as “competing in weakness.” But the fighting has also dramatically weakened the Syrian regime, which depends on the Iranians and Shia militias for ground forces and on the Russians for support from the air. The way to strengthen the opposition is to unify its fighters and connect them more strongly to the civilian opposition local councils. The Russians have some sympathy with this approach. Moscow is interested in particular in using the opposition to fight terrorists in the communities the opposition controls.

Post-war, the SOC wants to see no reconstruction aid or diplomatic recognition for Assad, though some stabilization efforts could be appropriate. Provisional elections at the local level could be a prelude to allowing state institutions back into opposition-controlled areas. Property rights will be a big issues, both in the countryside and in urban areas, where there is extensive destruction of multi-story apartment buildings. Even permission to clear rubble will be a big issue.

One of my interlocutors argued vigorously that efforts at unification are the problem, not the fragmentation. From this perspective, there has been too much effort to smooth over differences between real liberal democrats and Islamists. That has weakened the opposition, which needs to remain true to its initial inspiration: a non-violent rebellion for human rights and freedom. What is needed now is for people who reject Islamism to unify and form the kind of political movement that can eventually win the day in Syria.

The Syrian opposition is fragmented. But it is also fertile, courageous, and determined. I wish those who want human rights and freedom success. They don’t merit the mess that Syria has become.



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