International Politics Redux
The Syrian Kerfuffle

In the discourse of international politics, it is rarely warranted to label a situation a kerfuffle.  Syria is definitely one such kerfuffle.  The international community has failed to broker a solution to what has now become more than a year-long conflict in which the government of Bashar al-Assad is fighting for its very survival against an opposition movement loosely united by the desire to oust him.  Ever since February 2011 when some disenchanted young students in the southern city of Deraa spray painted anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their school, were arrested, and local residents protested against those arrests, the Syrian uprising has escalated to a point beyond any previous predictions.  The international community’s interest in and involvement with Syria’s difficulties has ebbed and flowed in the past year, with very little in terms of results to show for it.

For most of the summer of 2011, the world stood by and refused to engage in any serious action because the Syrian regime looked fairly stable, notwithstanding the demise of local autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt (and soon to be Libya and Yemen).  When the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (which began in August) arrived, the Saudi king symbolically spoke out in defence of the thousands of Sunni Muslims ostensibly being killed, imprisoned and displaced by the Shiite Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, followed in turn by several other Gulf Arab states.  Turkey, which had until the fall of 2011 gently prodded the Syrian government towards reforms, began to harden its stance as well, allowing Syrian refugees and opposition dissidents to operate from its territory.  The United Nations (UN) failed to pass any resolutions in the Security Council critical of al-Assad’s Syria because of Russian and Chinese vetoes, as well as Russian political and military support, while the Arab League rallied behind the opposition, albeit hesitantly and haphazardly.  Most recently, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has travelled to Syria, Russia and China to gain support for a new peace initiative, but the bloodshed continues.

It is interesting to note some of the comparisons between Syria in 2012 and similar events in the region.  The civil unrest in Yemen began in earnest in January 2011, but President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ultimately convinced to step down as the country teetered on the brink of civil war and after repeated attempts were derailed by delaying tactics because the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United States (US) were able to negotiate the power transfer from Saleh to the Yemeni ruling class in 2012, which was not so much a revolution as it was an evolution in the political and military elite’s composition.  In Libya, where the unrest began only slightly earlier than in Syria, Muammar Qaddafi was only defeated because a broad coalition of countries was assembled and ultimately enabled by the Arab League’s authorization of military force in the form of a no-fly zone, a UN Security Council resolution allowing for humanitarian protection and the combined military strength of key countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as token Arab support from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.  Finally, in Iraq in 1991, after the US-led coalition forces ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, the southern Shiites and the northern Kurds rose up in revolt as a direct result of US encouragement, but the US was too afraid of the spectre of another fundamentalist Islamic regime neighbouring Iran to allow these revolts to succeed, a dynamic that is all too similar in the way the Syrian crisis is playing itself out.

The great power interests at work were alluded to earlier, but it is worth pausing for a moment and spelling them out in greater detail.  It is clear enough that US interests in the Middle East typically run parallel to those of the Western Europeans, at least in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 era, and are often seen as antithetical to those of Russia and China, the other permanent members and veto-holders of the UN Security Council.  Both Russia and China have saved Syria from condemnation in the UN and strongly defended its sovereign right to conduct its internal affairs with discretion while simultaneously denouncing Western imperialism and contradictory foreign policies.  Without Russian diplomatic cover and military support, it is seriously doubtful that the Syrian regime could have lasted this long, and as the only Mediterranean port in the Middle East friendly to Russian warships, this makes eminent sense from Russia’s geostrategic perspective.  China is also concerned about its long-term influence in the region, which is perhaps why it has thrown its weight behind Syria, but as the oil-rich countries of the Gulf and the collective countries of the Arab League condemn the atrocities in Syria, China’s position remains tenuous at best.  In addition, regional stability and the economical transport of energy supplies through the Middle East are in China’s direct national interest since they keep commodity prices low, something which cannot be said of Russia’s growing status as a petro-state and an energy superpower.

On a deeper level, the regional interests battling for supremacy in the Syrian kerfuffle are also scarcely as evident and troublesome as they are in this particular case.  Backing Syria from day one have been the Iranian government and its Revolutionary Guards Corps, the militant resistance movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which have provided military training and assistance, and tacit support from the Palestinian movement Hamas until early 2012.  Weak neighbours have also tacitly supported the Syrian regime because they have little choice; they are either directly under its sphere of influence (Lebanon), economically tied to it via imports for their own survival (Jordan) or so penetrated by cross-border clandestine activity that their own tenuous domestic stability would be threatened by a rebuke of any kind (Iraq).  Like Hamas, Turkey formerly considered Syria a strategic asset but has come to the eventual conclusion that the regime cannot be permitted to survive in its current form, even going so far as to host Syrian opposition gatherings and international conferences with the goal of supporting these anti-regime rebels and toppling the al-Assad power structure.  The Saudis and the Gulf countries have been calling recently for much more action on the part of the international community in terms of arming and financing the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, with 70 countries recognizing these groups as the official representatives of the Syrian people and pledging concrete support for them at the most recent ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Istanbul in April 2012.  Israel has managed to stay out of the fray for the most part, and other countries have treaded very carefully.

And so the bloodshed continues, more than a full year after the Arab Spring-inspired revolts first began.  The lack of a credible response to the Syrian situation is not directly attributable to any group of actors or individuals, nor can it be chalked up to a failure of the international system of states to act in the interests of the international community.  The UN Security Council was designed with vetoes in mind so as to take into account the collective interests of the world’s post-war great powers.  Regional organizations like the Arab League are also powerless to act forcefully since they are just symbolic expressions of the once-revolutionary ideals that pan-Arabism espoused nearly a half-century ago.  Since unilateral interventions would be suicidal for regional countries and downright disastrous for stronger ones like the US, a multilateral option or an internal revolution would seem to be the best solutions.  But as we have seen up until now, these have only been even more spectacular failures.

Arab democracy: Just a revolution away?

Much has been made in the past year about the prospects for democracy in the Arab world after the unexpected revolutions that began in Tunisia spread like wildfire throughout the rest of North Africa and the Middle East.  The US-based NGO Freedom House touted the accomplishments of the Arab Spring in its annual report, Freedom in the World 2012: “In a region that had seemed immune to democratic change, coalitions of activist reformers and ordinary citizens succeeded in removing dictators who had spent decades entrenching themselves in power.”  More than one year after it all began, does the democratic hype really live up to the revolutionary reality?

To better understand this question, consider how these revolutions have played out differently in different Arab states. In Bahrain, for instance, popular demands among the majority Shiites for representative government, constitutional democracy and respect for human rights have been stonewalled by the dominant Sunni monarchy, mainly because of external intervention on behalf of its Gulf Arab neighbours and its geopolitical alliance with the United States.  To its credit, the Bahraini government did authorize an independent commission to investigate the causes, killings and injustices of the so-called Pearl Revolution.  Released in late 2011, this report has been surprisingly candid in detailing human rights abuses committed by the regime and making public policy recommendations for the minority monarchy to reform its politically unrepresentative system.  The Bahraini case shows us how the revolutions in some countries have simply failed.

In other places, mass protests have yielded modest reforms on the part of benevolent autocrats – progress, to be sure, but nothing like a genuine revolution.  This reaction is typical of the more progressive monarchies of the region, like Morocco and Jordan, which have shrewdly managed limited reforms and maintained steady levels of popularity, thus ensuring their own survival.  The sheikhs and emirs of the Gulf, as in Kuwait and Oman, have made modest reforms too, just not the political kind.  Together with Saudi Arabia, these oil-rich countries spent at least $150 billion on their citizens in new economic grants and subsidies, effectively bribing their own people into submission – and since September 2011, that sum has only increased.  Here, evolution is a much better descriptor of the changes taking place than revolution.

Then there are the cases of ongoing revolutionary turmoil, the most prominent examples being Yemen and Syria.  After agreeing and to step down and then reneging on that commitment more times than most care to count, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh seems to have finally ended his 33-year rule after he bid farewell to the country and headed to the US for ‘medical treatment.’  Even with national elections scheduled for later in February, Yemen needs at least $15 billion to survive the transition to democracy – an impossible feat for a country wracked by mass poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, unemployment, separatism and terrorism.  Similar forces are fueling popular outrage in Syria, with the various opposition groups coalescing around their opposition to four decades of the al-Assad family’s authoritarian rule and increasingly bloody crackdowns.  The stability and legitimacy of these regimes is extremely tenuous, and the political destinies of these countries are extremely fluid as a result at this point in time.

What about the post-revolutionary scenarios?  In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, it is now possible to discuss free and fair elections, civilian government as opposed to military control, independent judiciaries, freedom of the press, the rule of law and constitutional principles as never before.  In Tunisia the Salafi Islamist hardliners are beginning to openly challenge the ruling Ennahda Party’s moderate Islamist dedication to these principles.  The Transitional National Council in Libya faces enormous challenges preparing a country with no representative political institutions and no history of democracy for elections this summer while maintaining law and order, battling the remnants of pro-Qaddafi troops, unifying dozens of armed tribal factions, and facing fresh allegations of torture.  Although elections have been held in Egypt, they have handed Islamists with questionable commitments to democratic values over two-thirds of the seats in Parliament and glossed over the civil-military tensions between Egypt’s government and the ruling generals.

To get back to the original question, democracy as we know it in the West is far from assured in any of these revolutionary countries.  Many of them are still undergoing traumatic transitions in which the removal of the old guard has not yet given way to a stable post-authoritarian political order.  In other cases, a dictatorial figurehead has been substituted for an equally oppressive administration, dashing public hopes for democratic governance.  Only in a select few country cases does genuine transformation of the entire system of governance seem to be on the horizon, and even then a hybrid Islamic democracy (Tunisia) or a reformist democratic Islam (Morocco) might better reflect the will of the people.

Who knows if a full-fledged, representative democracy is the inevitable end-result of all these protests, uprisings and revolutions?  As many of these national leaders crackdown on dissent and adapt to survive, it is simply too early to say if entrenched authoritarianism will surrender to the forces of popular self-determination or continue fighting the losing battle for despotism.  The two new Islamist prime ministers of Morocco and Tunisia publicly defended the prospects for Arab democracy at this year’s annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  Only time will tell if other states in the region emulate the Tunisian and Moroccan models of democracy in this second year of the Arab Spring.  Regardless, an astonishing amount of progress has already been made since that first domino fell in the fateful month of January 2011 that it is difficult in these revolutionary times not to be optimistic – at last – about the future of the Middle East.

The Arab Revolutions Considered

2011 could be characterized as the year of the Arab.  The year has yet to end, and several Arab regimes, relics of an age quickly gone by, have been toppled by their own people.  The pattern is by now familiar: popular protest in the streets, the capital city swarmed by the disaffected masses as new flags and populist slogans make their appearances.  Then the crackdown begins, brutality and repression remind the world of how these authoritarian despots ever attained and remained in power in the first place.  Funeral processions for the martyrs follow and even bigger crowds are drawn into the streets as these mourning events coincide with Friday night prayers or religious holidays on the Islamic calendar.  This cycle repeats itself, rallies followed by repression followed by more rallies, until something gives.  Eventually, the old sovereign surrenders power to the collective force of the citizenry or is defeated in long and drawn out bloodbaths between the rebellion and the establishment.  In any case, inevitable regime change is afoot in the Middle East, and it is changing the nature of the region’s politics.

Consider what has happened up until now.  Barring Bouazizi, Ben Ali arguably began this chain reaction by refusing to militarily crush the protests in Tunisia and fleeing to Saudi Arabia instead.  This directly inspired the Egyptians to march on Cairo’s Tahrir Sqaure in Egypt and pressure Mubarak to step down, in effect ceding power to the highly regarded military establishment.  The following outbreaks of revolution were no so peaceful.  Libya descended into civil war almost as soon as protests spread from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to other coastal cities, threatening Qaddafi’s hold on the capital city of Tripoli.  Activists in Yemen and Syria publicly organized anti-regime protests for the first time in decades, prompting both Saleh and Assad to wage open warfare on their own people, deploying heavy machinery in residential areas and massacring unarmed protesters.  Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority rose up against the Khalifa ruling family, but little change resulted because fellow Sunni monarchs in the Arabian Gulf actively suppressed this uprising.  Nobody could have predicted change like this just one year ago.

As of December 2011, three Arab despots have been removed from power: Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Qaddafi.  Two more are fighting for their very survival: Saleh in Yemen and Assad in Syria, with little hope for either of them in the early months of 2012.  Arab monarchies have felt the same populist pressures, but have succeeded so far in avoiding the fate of their secular autocratic neighbours.  The massive oil wealth of the Gulf Arabs prolongs their popularity and subsidizes their survival.  Others, like Jordan and Morocco, have amended their constitutions or replaced the sitting parliaments in an effort to appease the protesters, cosmetic changes which seem to have worked for the time being.  But what are the long-term implications of such rapid and massive structural changes?

Three worrying trends are immediately apparent: democracy, inequality and instability.  The rationale for intervention from Western countries in Arab revolutions (from Libya lately to Syria soon) has been twofold, humanitarianism and democratization.  First protect the civilian population from the dictator’s massacres, then remove the dictator and install democratic government.  The problem is that democracy is not automatic: in Tunisian and Moroccan elections, for example, the first and fairest of the Arab uprisings, Islamist parties have garnered the most votes and have led coalitions in both countries to form national governments.  Even the transitional governments in Egypt and Libya have encountered practical difficulties in rewriting constitutions and organizing elections, which means that democracy might not be the end result in these situations, regardless of how ideal it may be.

Unequal and unstable conditions are also unlikely to disappear any time soon.  Poor performance along basic social measures like inequality, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, malnutrition, infrastructure, and life expectancy, while improving somewhat, still threaten to derail any progress achieved by toppling dictators in the Arab world.  Dissatisfaction with one’s quality of life can just as easily be directed against newborn democracies as it was against the former dictators and despots.  Instability breeds inequality, however, since the foreign infusions of capital and investment needed to remedy this state of affairs will not materialize if potential investors lack any security.  Strategic oil and gas conduits must also remain open for the energy-hungry world to support these kinds of structural changes in this part of the world.  In addition to stabilizing national governments, this means also avoiding international wars, also an unlikely scenario in such an unpredictable region.

Another more global concern is the international community’s growing tendency to violate supposedly inviolable legal and normative precedents when it suits powerful interests to do so.  For example, the original pretext for the NATO-led intervention in Libya only secured support from the Arab League and United Nations because it aimed to prevent Qaddafi’s forces from slaughtering thousands of Libyan civilians.  It became obvious almost immediately that the unstated goal of this operation was to remove Qaddafi from power and enable regime change, as Western heads of state and foreign ministers repeatedly claimed.  This is a violation of international legal jurisdiction.  In a related case, the United Nations included an arms embargo in the push to authorize humanitarian intervention in Libya, but France overtly (in addition to the covert actions of other NATO countries) parachuted munitions into rebel strongholds in the Libyan mountain ranges.  This clearly violates arms proliferation norms.  Finally, in the case of the Syrian uprising which has only taken up arms recently, Syrian military defectors and other rebel leaders have taken refuge and received military protection across the border in Turkey.  From this base of operations, they have repeatedly launched cross-border raids and incursions into Syria, attacking military buildings and groups affiliated with the government in clear violation of the norms of national sovereignty and territorial inviolability.  As morally justifiable as these actions may seem against one of the world’s biggest violators of human rights, they cannot be defined as legal.

The wave of unrest sweeping across the Arab world is far from over.  Up until now, the long-term strategic consequences of such a momentous event have been overlooked and understudied.  As the Arab world voices its demands, a window for democratic change in the Middle East presents itself.  Whether that window is opened and democracy indeed replaces despotism remains to be seen, but it remains the civic duty and ethical obligation of every democratic society to do what it can to encourage reform and catalyze progress.  It is difficult to say how a more representative and politically engaged Middle East will differ from yesterday’s, but at the very least it will be a more hopeful one.