Johns Hopkins SAIS last Wednesday hosted a panel on Syrian civil society as part of a conference on “Escaping the Cycle of Stagnation in the Middle East.” The panel, moderated by Peacefare’s own Yael Mizrahi, featured a broad cross-section of Syrian activists. While accepting past failures and current challenges facing Syrian civil society, the panel also highlighted the important contributions that civil activists have made throughout the conflict. The takeaways of this work will be decisive to any future reconstruction effort of Syria’s damaged society.
Kicking off the panel, Mohammad Ghanem (Syrian American Council) pointed out that prior to the 2011 revolution there was no real civil society in Syria. All civil institutions in the country were monopolized by the Baathist regime, which saw any opening space for civil society as a potential danger. This was best seen in 2005, when a group of youth from Daraya organized to clean up their neighborhood. Although they had no political message, a number of the participants were promptly arrested.
This changed after the revolution however. In the summer of 2012, when the regime had lost significant territory to the opposition (including 40% of Aleppo), civil society grew rapidly. First organizing around the organization of basic services, civil society also began holding the newly developed local councils to account.
Similarly, Ibrahim al-Assil (Syrian Nonviolence Movement) argued that civil society will play a critical role in any legitimate bottom-up solution to the Syrian conflict. In particular, al-Assil saw civil society as important in reconciling an increasingly divided Syrian society. By keeping channels of dialogue open between different sectors of the Syrian population, civil society can help Syrians make sense of an incredibly complex and multilayered conflict. Civil society also plays a role in de-radicalization, through providing counter-messaging. At the same time, the increasing violence of the Syrian civil war has made it increasingly difficult for civil society to operate. The fact that Syrian civil society needed to be built from scratch in the midst of heavy fighting has limited its capacity.
Al-Assil presented the Syrian Nonviolence Movement as an illustration of both the importance and limits of Syrian civil society. The organization was started in 2011 and has worked on educating Syrians about the methods of nonviolent resistance. Their work has been greatly curtailed by the war however, and is now limited to humanitarian assistance, including psycho-social support, as well as education for children, many of who have not known a Syria without conflict.
The establishment of Syrian civil society following the 2011 revolution has also been an important enabler for Syrian women. According to Hind Kabawat (Syrian lawyer and activist, now at USIP), women were marginalized in Syrian society prior to the revolution. However, they have since taken on important roles in the resistance. Their role in the revolution is sadly testified by the regime’s response: Syrian prisons are full of women. Women have been particularly important in refugee and IDP camps. During a recent visit to an IDP camp in Idlib province, Kabawat interviewed women who had assumed leadership roles in the running of the camp. Women are also filling important roles in the Local Councils, even if not adequately represented in their leadership.
Mohammed al-Abdallah (Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre) provided a critical appraisal of Syrian civil society in the decade prior to the revolution. Al-Abdallah had himself been part of early efforts to build a civil society in Syria. In retrospect, the civil society movement was too self-centered. Between 2000 and 2011, Syrian CSOs had been narrowly focused on political rights, and had not been unable to reach out to the wider population.
Looking ahead, al-Abdallah pointed to radicalism as a fundamental challenge to civil society in Syria. How can women play a role in society when they are unable to cross checkpoints without the accompaniment of a male relative? Al-Abdallah also made reference to the “Douma Four”: human rights activists Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Wael Hamadeh and Nazem Hammadi, who remain in the hands of Islamist rebels. Echoing the point made by al-Assil, he also pointed to the violence and the current humanitarian disaster as clear limits on the capacity of civil society. As long as Syrians do not even have access to essential services, messages of democratization as well as civil and political rights are unlikely to penetrate society.
On the other hand, Nidal Bitari (Syrian-Palestinian activist and writer) argued that Syrian civil society was not as weak as commonly described. Lack of international support to Syria has meant that civil society activists have been at the forefront of governance and humanitarian efforts within Syria. Bitari also pointed out that there had been a wave of civil society activism beginning in 2008 which became the core of the 2011 revolution. The Assad regime realized the danger of these groups and has sought to repress them. Meanwhile, the political leadership of the Syrian opposition has largely neglected these activists.
Bitari particularly pointed out the importance of the Palestinian civil society in Syria. It had initially been given some space to organize, as the government perceived the Palestinians to be aligned with the regime in their opposition to Israel. However Palestinian opposition activists have subsequently been severely punished for their perceived disobedience to the regime. Nonetheless, Palestinian activists have been important in reaching out to the international community, not least in their effort to convey the situation in Yarmouk refugee camp to the outside world. Despite the disintegration of Palestinian society in Syria, including the complete destruction of 14 refugee camps, Palestinian activists have remained active and adaptive, continuing to remind the world of their cause.
Finally, Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff (People Demand Change) lauded Syrian civil activists for their resilience in spite of incredible challenges. Ghosh-Siminoff pointed to the continued provision of services by such activists in areas under control of radical Islamists. One example is the Civic Education Center in Idlib, which continues to function despite the city mostly being controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra. This stems in part from these civil society organizations also providing some concrete services, winning them public favor and consequently protecting them from reprisals by Nusra or other opposition fighters.
Ghosh-Siminoff also pointed to significant shortcomings in the way in which donors perceive of Syrian civil society. Calling for donors to take a long view, he argued that support to activists is a generational project. Progress should therefore be measured not in terms of short term project execution but rather in terms of capacity building. Donors should also act in a coordinated way that does not create an atmosphere of competition among activists, but rather one of information sharing and cooperation.
The issue of donor support was also picked up on by a number of the panelists. Mohammed al-Abdallah warned that a number of Syrian CSOs had already picked up on donor language, producing ‘sexy’ grant applications that appeal to donor sensibilities but that might not reflect the genuine needs of Syrians. Going forward, Ibrahim al-Assil argued that donors will need to empower Syrians rather than simply funding their projects. To do this, donors will need to target core activities, helping to build capacity in the longer term.
Mohammed al-Ghanem called for greater input from Syrians, allowing them a greater say in how the funds are allocated. Meanwhile, donors should not be lenient on issues of corruption and graft among their CSO partners. Al-Ghanem warned that high salaries and benefits undermined these organizations’ standing among the Syrian public. Concluding the panel, Ghosh-Siminoff argued that donors will need to consider their funding of Syrian civil society as a long term investment. As the panel made clear, these groups will be essential to any final settlement of the Syrian conflict.
Last Friday, the Middle East Institute in conjunction with the Conflict Management Program at SAIS, Johns Hopkins held an event entitled “After Israel’s Election, Who Makes the Case for Peace?” Speakers included: Lara Friedman (Americans for Peace Now), Ghaith Al-Omari (WINEP), Ilan Peleg (MEI) and Shibley Telhami (University of Maryland)
Daniel Serwer opened the panel with the observation that since Netanyahu’s sweeping win, silence has descended upon the government formation process. What can we expect from Netanyahu’s fourth term? What can we expect from the Palestinian Authority? Is international recognition the Palestinians’ best alternative to a negotiated agreement? Are settlements Israel’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement? This discussion is taking place against the backdrop of major upheavals and uncertainty in the Middle East. How does this context affect the Israel/Palestine equation?
Ilan Peleg gave an overview of the forces at play during Israel’s latest election. Most surveys predicted that Netanyahu would loose, due to Bibi fatigue’, to the unprecedented rift with the White House, to the increasing socio-economic gaps in Israeli society, and the lack of progress on the peace process. Yet, Netanyahu prevailed.
Peleg attributes this to personality. Netanyahu’s charisma and oratory skills far outweighed those of his rival, Herzog. Netanyahu had a keen understanding of his right-wing constituency. In the final days of the election, he executed a clear cut plan, pulling out all the stops, whereby he was able to steal seats from his more right-wing rivals. Naftali Bennet’s party, Bait Hayehudi suffered, winning only 8 seats, down from 12 in 2013. Through statements like “there will be no Palestinian state under my watch”, and a call to action on the day of the elections with “Arab voters are moving to the polls en masse, and left-wing NGOs are bussing them in”, he reached out to the radical right. Peleg doesn’t see much change in policy likely during the next 2 years.
Gaith Al-Omari believes that is impossible to understand the current Palestinian situation without a broader regional understanding. He attributes the lack of Palestinian interest in the recent elections to two reasons: engaging with the left has proven only to empower Netanyahu, and secondly, they believe they have nothing to gain, as whether Likud or Labor win, it will not translate into political change, especially with regards to Israel’s settlement policy.
Al-Omari feels that Palestinians have no good BATNAs, as all ‘solutions’ will have problematic consequences. Joining international treaties and organizations has lost it’s attractiveness to the Palestinian street, as it has not led to any major advancements. Palestinians are also wary of an ICC bid, as it will have major implications for their relationship with the US, and they don’t want to use their last bullet.
A major issue arises with regards to a possible UN Security Council Resolution setting out the parameters of a peace agreement, including the right of return. Al-Omari says there is no way to ensure what this would entail. Palestinian Authority security cooperation with Israel presents a quandary, as does the lack of national unity. This must all be viewed agasint the backdrop of fears of a potential future intifada, which has a tendency to happen when you least expect it.
Shibley Telhami provided an overview of shift in the US-Israel relationship since the beginning of Obama’s tenure. Obama spent his first years in office trying to discern whether or not Netanyahu was capable of making peace. Kerry’s peace package was built to incentivize Netanyahu to create a coalition that would support a peace deal. The effort failed. After six years of trying, the US is not likely to gamble again anytime soon.
Currently, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dwarfed by more pressing issues: the Iranian negotiations and the fight against ISIS. The Administration still believes the conflict is of long-term importance and remains steadfast in favor of a two-state solution. It is conceivable that Obama may support or abstain from a UNSC vote on the issue. Telhami‘s recent polling shows that there is broad opposition to settlements across party lines, and that with regards to the Jewish-Democratic binary, the majority of Americans support Israel as a democratic state. However, when it comes to Congress, there is great divide between Democratic and Republican congressman and their constituencies.
Lara Friedman discussed the future likelihood of US administration efforts towards peace. The State Department has launched a reassessment of it’s policy. They are at a loss for how to proceed. At the end of the day, it will come down to Obama’s personal interest in making a difference. She takes hope from the recent rapprochement with Cuba and believes that the President will make some personal attempt to solve the Palestinian issue before he leaves office in 2016.
Diplomacy is generally a conservative occupation. It tries to change little with the times. There is a reason diplomats were the last people on earth wearing top hats. They will be the last wearing ties and pin-striped suits too.
But in the age of social media diplomats are under pressure to adapt. Many do, though typically in pretty conservative ways. Their Twitter feeds are not generally full of clever repartee. Their Youtube videos are on the staid side.
But there are exceptions to every rule. Here is my colleague Michael Steiner, Germany’s ambassador to India, in a Bollywood production his embassy has put out:
I suppose this is a needed corrective to Germany’s button-down reputation. I’ll be curious to hear what peacefare.net readers think of the experiment.
- Insurgency in the Middle East and Its Threat to the United States | Monday, April 27th | 9:00 AM- 12:00 PM Elliot School of International Affairs | REGISTER TO ATTEND | 9:15-10:30: ‘Understanding Civil War, Insurgency and Terrorism in Today’s Middle East: Jon B. Alterman, Senior Vice President, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham, Associate Professor, University of Maryland, Dafna H. Rand, Deputy Director of Studies, Center for a New American Security, Joseph K. Young, Associate Professor, American University 10:45-12:00: ‘Understanding the Threat to the United States and Europe from Returning Jihadists’, Tricia Bacon, Professorial Lecturer, American University, Dorle Hellmuth, Assistant Professor, Catholic University.
- Foreign Policy Towards the Middle East: Priorities and Problems | Monday, April 27th | 1:00-2:30 PM | Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Ambassador Anne W. Patterson is a career diplomat, who currently serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Prior to returning to Washington for this assignment, Ambassador Patterson served as the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt (2011-2013) and as the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan (2007-2010). She has served the State Department as Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Deputy Permanent Representative at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, and as the State Department’s Deputy Inspector General. She has also served as U.S. Ambassador to Colombia (2000-2003) and as U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador (1997-2000).
- Defeating the Jihadists in Syria: Competition before Confrontation | Tuesday, April 28th | 11:00-12:30 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Faysal Itani acknowledges these positive yet limited results, but also presents the unintended consequences of this air campaign and US policy options given local Syrian realities. Itani details how coalition efforts accelerated the rise of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and the near-collapse of nationalist rebel forces. He proposes a US strategy to assist nationalist insurgents to defeat ISIS and the Nusra Front–by enabling them to compete with and contain jihadist groups, and ultimately confront them. Speakers include: Robert Ford, Senior Fellow, Middle East Institute and Richard Barrett, Senior Vice President, The Soufan Group
- A Conversation with Ephraim Sneh | Tuesday, April 28th | 1:00-2:00 PM| Woodrow Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | How does Israel look at the emerging U.S.-Iranian nuclear agreement? What are the prospects of negotiations with the Palestinians? And what are the implications of recent Israeli elections for Israel’s national security policies? Please join us for the second in a series of conversations with prominent Israeli politicians and experts about the future of Israel in the region and the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Ephraim Sneh, Chairman of S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, Netanya Academic College, and former Israeli Deputy Minister of Defense. Aaron David Miller, Historian, analyst, negotiator, and former advisor to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations, 1978-2003.
- In Search of a Syria Strategy | Thursday, April 30th | 12:00-1:30 PM |Cato Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND| What is the United States trying to accomplish in Syria? Are its goals achievable with current strategies? Join our panelists as they discuss how we reached this point, and the extent to which the U.S. should or should not be involved in the ongoing conflict. Featuring Emma Ashford, Visiting Fellow, Defense and Foreign Policy, Cato Institute; Erica Borghard, Assistant Professor, U.S. Military Academy (West Point); and Nicholas Heras, Research Associate, Middle East Security Program, Center for a New American Security; moderated by Justin Logan, Director of Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute.
- Grassroots Governing: A Talk with Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun| Thursday, April 30th | 12:00-1:30 PM| Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Vera Baboun, the first democratically elected female mayor of Bethlehem, for a discussion about the challenges of leading the Bethlehem Municipality in the face of Israeli settlement construction, severe risks in public security, and persistent economic constraints. Mayor Baboun’s presentation will be followed by a panel discussion with Palestinian youth activists from Bethlehem, examining the role of municipal government and the civic engagement of youth in the West Bank today. Speakers include: Amb. Wendy Chamberlin, President, Middle East Institute, Lana Abu-Hijleh Country Director for the West Bank and Gaza, Global Communities, Betty Ba’baish Member, Bethlehem Youth Council Jacob Qara’a President, Bethlehem Youth Council Muna Shikaki, Correspondent, Al-Arabiya News Channel
- The Kurds’ New Clout in U.S. Ties with Turkey and Iraq | Friday, May 1st | 12:00-1:30 PM | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The rise of the Kurds as a key player in the fight against the Islamic State has put U.S. relations with the governments in Baghdad and Ankara to the test. If the U.S. collaborates with the Kurds with greater intensity and in broader areas of policy in the coming years, how will this affect U.S.-Turkish and U.S.-Iraqi relations? What will the implications be for the Kurdistan Regional Government? Panelists: Mohammed Shareef Fellow, Royal Asiatic Society and Lecturer, University of Sulaimani in Iraqi Kurdistan and University of Exeter in the United Kingdom Denise Natali Senior Research Fellow, National Defense University Gonul Tol Director, Center for Turkish Studies, Middle East Institute Daniel Serwer, Senior Research Professor of Conflict Management, SAIS, and MEI Scholar
Both had been doing the kinds of work many of my students at SAIS aspire to. Weinstein, a former political science professor, was working for a USAID contractor on rural development projects. Lo Porto, who studied peace and conflict issues at London Metropolitan University, was working for a German non-governmental organization on restoring drinking water in a flooded rural area. Experienced operators, they both nevertheless fell victim to kidnappings and ended up in Al Qaeda hands. Weinstein was taken in August 2011 in Lahore. Lo Porto in January 2012.
There was a time when aid workers of this sort might have been left alone by belligerents. No longer. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in particular, but also other “jihadi” groups, have made a thriving business of kidnap and ransom. The Italian government is widely believed to be prepared to deal, even paying substantial ransoms. The American government would like it believed it does not deal and in particular does not pay ransoms. Neither approach yielded the desired result in these two cases.
Kidnapping is not only a business. Increasingly, jihadi groups see aid workers as helping their enemies to establish legitimacy by providing services to the poor. The good works Weinstein and Lo Porto were undertaking might be welcome to the villages where they were undertaken, but not to those who want to undermine and destroy the Pakistani state. Many aid organizations are concerned about this and try to keep all belligerents at more or less equal arm’s length, but that is hard to do when it comes to belligerents who don’t acknowledge anyone as “neutral” or “humanitarian.”
The jihadi presence has caused a vast increase in the protection required to conduct humanitarian operations in today’s war zones, which in turn reduces the credibility of the humanitarian claim and raises your value as a target. If your warehouses, homes and offices all have to be protected 24/7 by armed guards, you start looking like just one more belligerent, or like one more extension of state power. As a non-governmental civilian, this makes me generally more comfortable in a conflict zone outside the envelope of visible security than inside it. Moving from one zone to the other–through checkpoints–is often your most dangerous moment.
Weinstein was reportedly taken in Lahore after his residential guards accepted an offer of a free meal. The circumstances of Lo Porto’s kidnapping are unclear to me. But the point is this: it could happen to any tens of thousands of aid workers in dozens of fragile states around the world. Few nongovernmental organizations can provide a level of physical protection to individuals that will foil a concerted kidnapping attempt by half a dozen toughs. Once taken, a victim in at least a dozen of these countries can be sold on quickly to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State.
The best defense is simply not to be at an expected place at the expected time. But strict adherence to that approach would make work on many development issues impossible. Everyone is working remotely to a greater extent than ever before, but it just isn’t possible to do a good job supervising or implementing aid projects, training people and providing advice without seeing the projects first hand and talking directly with the local implementers and beneficiaries.
It takes real courage and conviction to do what Weinstein and Lo Porto were doing. It should never be confused with careless adventure-seeking by those with no serious business in conflict zones. Nor should we blame for their deaths the drone operators and intelligence analysts who take on the enormous responsibility of trying to prevent collateral damage. It is the kidnappers who were responsible for Weinstein and Lo Porto being in the wrong place at the wrong time, no one else.
The people who do aid work in conflict zones merit our appreciation and support as much as those who serve in uniform. The risks they run and the sacrifices they make are far greater than they should be.
May their memory be a blessing.
Max Fisher offers Mike Doran a platform for his case against the nuclear deal with Iran. Here are ten ways in which Mike is mistaken:
1. MD: Detente is the strategic goal, and arms control is the means to achieve it.
President Obama has made it clear he would welcome a broader detente with Iran, but he has also made it clear the nuclear deal has to be judged on its own merits. I don’t see any evidence that he is prevaricating, but if that is Mike’s claim he should produce the support.
2. MD: I don’t think it [preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon] is achievable without a significant coercive component. I think this is one of the most faulty assumptions of the administration.
Trouble is, the Obama Administration does not make that faulty assumption. It has done much more than any prior administration to increase the sanctions pressure on Iran, far more than the Administration for which Mike worked.
3. MD: [The Iranians] want sanctions relief and they’re going to get it, and they see that they’re going to get it, and they will stick with this process as long as they get direct, immediate, and very desirable benefits from it.
That is precisely the point of the negotiations: to provide sanctions relief provided Tehran gives up its nuclear weapons ambitions for at least ten years and moves itself back from a “breakout” of two or three months to a “breakout” time of a year. This is not an argument against the deal. It’s an argument for it.
4. MD: In fact, the starting point is that the Iranians want hegemony in the region, and they’re reading American policy with respect to their regional aspirations. The goal of Iran’s nuclear weapons program is not to defend against the United States or Israel — it’s to advance its regional agenda.
That’s right, and it is also a very good reason for halting Iran before it gets nuclear weapons. Again: a very good argument for the deal.
5. MD: I’m in favor of a vigorous containment program across the board, and I’m also in favor of a policy that says we have all options on the table and we mean it. The president says all options are on the table, but he doesn’t actually mean it, and I think we should mean it.
This confidence that his opponents know better than what the president says is laughable. The debate over destroying the Iranian nuclear program has clarified the limited gains it would provide: only two or three years of setback and an enormous incentive for Iran to redouble its efforts. But the notion that showing resolution by sabre-rattling would improve the prospects for a good deal is simply wrong.
6. MD: For a time the Iranians certainly believed all options were on the table. They abandoned their weaponization program, or they put it on hold, in 2003. Well, what happened in 2003? The United States went into Iraq, and I think they were probably very concerned at that point about all options being on the table.
The Iranians were concerned then about an American invasion, which is no longer a viable threat no matter who is president. But they spent the rest of the Bush Administration building and spinning thousands of more centrifuges, a fact Mike conveniently forgets.
7. MD: The very process of the negotiation is destroying the sanctions regime we established, which is the greatest nonmilitary instrument we have for coercing them.
This is laughable. The process of negotiation is absolutely vital to building and maintaining the multilateral sanctions regime. Without negotiations, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese would not be on board for sanctions.
8. MD: Iran’s status in the international community is going to be greatly improved, and then there’s going to be an international commercial lobby and a diplomatic-military lobby, which includes the Chinese and the Russians, in favor of the new order in which Iran is a citizen in good standing in the international community that they can do business with.
This is true, but misleading. That “international commercial lobby” already exists. If no agreement is reached, the sanctions are mincemeat. The notion that we can continue to hold on to them indefinitely is nonsense.
9. MD: The key question in that regard is, “When did he start to see Iran as a partner in Iraq?”
When the whole question of the status of forces agreement in Iraq was alive in 2010, [former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta and [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus and everybody are saying, “Keep forces on the ground in Iraq,” and the president had a different inclination. Well, if the United States is not going to be directly involved in Iraq, then who is going to protect our interests and protect stability in Iraq? And I think that, although he’s never admitted this, he assumed the Iranians would play that role for him.
I would say it was the Bush invasion of Iraq that gave Iran its big opening in Iraq. But leaving that aside: George W. Bush, not Barack Hussein Obama, negotiated the agreement for the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. It was signed before he left office. What Mike is talking about here is an attempt to renegotiate that agreement, which the Obama Administration did pursue. But the Iraqis weren’t willing to give the US juridiction over its troops in Iraq and we weren’t willing to stay without it.
10. MD: If the Iranian regime — and I do believe they are rational — were truly put before the choice, if Ali Khamenei was put before a choice of “Your nuclear program or absolutely crippling, debilitating economic sanctions,” he would think twice. I think if he were put before a choice of “Your nuclear program or severe military strikes,” he would think twice.
So how do you get those crippling economic sanctions, whichc have to be multilateral, if you are not also negotiating with Iran? Absolutely no realistic proposal.
Here at last, the true agenda: get us into war with Iran, but note no mention of the only temporary setback to the Iranian nuclear program (and consequently the need to intervene repeatedly every couple of years), no mention of the likelihood the Iranians would redouble the efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, no consideration of the impact on the world economy, or secondary consequences (relations with China, Russia, the Europeans, Iranian responses in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, maybe also Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE).
Here is the kicker: if you really want to go to war with Iran, you’ll be much better off doing it because they violated an agreement than just doing it. So a nuclear deal is a good idea if that is your objective as well.