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.

The Arab League: More than the Sum of its Parts?

Of all the intergovernmental regional groupings, the Arab League is most likely the least effective.  Since the organization was founded in 1945, the League of Arab States has skillfully steered clear of taking any decisive action on virtually every international conflict in the region.  Except for the Arab-Israeli conflict, on which popular opinion in every member-state remains extremely pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli for obvious reasons, the Arab League has sought to avoid any divisive action within the Arab community.  The League even managed to sit out the ‘Arab Cold War’ of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, an international struggle between nationalist republics and Islamist monarchies in the region that paralleled to some degree the bipolar Cold War between the world’s two superpowers.  In this sense, the Arab League’s institutional weakness was its strength: irrelevance ensured survival.

Fast forward nearly 70 years to the ongoing Arab revolutions reshaping the modern Middle East.  It is ironic that in spite of being composed almost exclusively of autocratic and dictatorial regimes, the Arab League has taken bold and courageous steps in support of mass protests and popular uprisings against unpopular leaders and their governments in the Arab World.  Even more, the Arab League may finally be playing a positive role after decades of irrelevance.  In fact, one key sign that the League is acting in the collective interest of the public rather than in the much narrower self-interest of its member-states’ ruling elites is when the state threatened by internal upheaval lashes out at the Arab League, usually for criticizing the troubled state in the first place.

In Libya Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi described the no-fly zone eventually passed by the Arab League in March 2011 as a ‘colonialist plot’ by the West – in concert with the League, of course – to steal Libya’s oil.  His son and once heir-apparent Seif al-Islam strangely dismissed both ‘Arabs’ and the Arab League, mentioning that Libya would rather rely on African and Asian migrant workers than fellow Arabs.  The League had suspended Libya’s membership earlier in February, laying the groundwork for a more robust United Nations (UN) involvement in the pariah state’s increasingly bloody crackdown and authorization of NATO intervention in the eventual ouster of Qaddafi.  Arab League action in Libya was arguably made easier by its geographical location, sandwiched between two post-revolutionary states, Tunisia and Egypt, and relatively isolated from the rest of the Arab World in the sweeping deserts of North Africa.

The situation in Syria has garnered the most headlines in recent months for President Bashar al-Assad’s handling of an even more deadly and destabilizing civil revolt now approaching a year in duration.  Here the Arab League has waffled considerably more than in Libya, which is understandable given Syria’s traditional role as the lynchpin in an intricate web of Middle Eastern alliances and a frontline state in the never-ending war against Israel.  After a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria was vetoed by Russia and China in October 2011, the Arab League in November suspended Syria’s membership and imposed sanctions on the regime, but stopped short of calling for foreign intervention.  All along, Assad had accused the League of promoting an international (Western-led, lest we forget) conspiracy against his regime, repeating that the Arab states were mere stooges and that the League was just a platform in this foreign-led, foreign-funded effort to undermine Syrian sovereignty and diminish Arab pride.

In late December, after months of diplomatic wrangling, Syria agreed to allow League monitors into the country to monitor its implementation of an Arab League peace plan to resolve the crisis, an ambitious move for the regional organization that ultimately failed and unfortunately served only to prolong the bloodshed.  The monitoring effort and peace plan fell apart in late January 2012 after several Arab Gulf states pulled out of the mission and recalled their ambassadors from Damascus.  A second UN Security Council resolution critical of Assad, this one explicitly backed by the Arab League, was also vetoed by the Russian and Chinese delegations in early February.  Meanwhile, Assad continued to lambast the League by dismissing its oil-rich Arab Gulf members as countries lacking culture, scoffing that they could “rent and import some history with their money, but money does not make nations and cultures.”  The Arab League has recently called for a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping mission, but few are predicting its success.

More recently, the Syrian civil war has accelerated in scope and severity.  The Arab League and many of its member-states attended the Friends of Syria conference in Tunisia last February, along with representatives from dozens of Western and otherwise interested countries, in an attempt to boost the Syrian National Council’s status and effectiveness as the officially recognized opposition.  Amid Western fears of al-Qaeda infiltration into the Syrian rebel movement, the rebellion’s own inability to crystallize behind a solid front and the risks inherent in arming an unidentified group of anti-regime dissidents, no major breakthroughs occurred at the first Friends of Syria conference.  The Saudi representative made an especially public spectacle of walking out in disgust at its inaction while at the same time calling for arming the Syrian opposition.  As the second such conference approaches this March in Turkey and the man-made humanitarian disasters in Syria become more widely known to the world, one can only hope for progress in terms of uniting the opposition and ending Bashar al-Assad’s iron grip on power.

The Arab states of the Gulf have their own regional grouping, a more exclusive club known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  Composed of oil-rich sheikhdoms (except for Yemen), this organization has a mixed record as a positive player in the region and has acted more in the collective interest of regional stability and Sunni Arab dominance.  For example, the GCC mediated the transfer of power in Yemen to promote stability in the Gulf from 2011–2012 as President Ali Abdullah Saleh faced overwhelming opposition in the streets, insurgencies in the North, secession in the South, and several other threats to the state’s unity.  On the other hand, several Gulf Arab states effectively invaded Shiite-majority Bahrain in March 2011 in a blatantly anti-democratic operation to clamp down on widespread protests and ensure the survival of the fellow Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy.

Though the GCC clearly has a mixed record on its own turf, its key member-states (mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar) are today the leading forces in the Arab League for orderly resolutions of Arab revolutions.  Tunisia and Egypt transitioned to post-dictatorial regimes with little to no external influence.  Libya and Yemen, however, necessitated prolonged intervention by the Arab League (and GCC, respectively).  As populist movements in the Middle East topple authoritarian governments like dominoes, and the Syrian crisis drags on despite Arab League efforts, this regional organization’s next challenge is imminent.  Whether the Arab League continues its proactive policies or reverts to the irrelevance of the past remains to be seen.

Prying Eye: Putin’s Return to the Presidency

“Most of the violations we see happen at the local level.”  Liliya Shibanova, director of the independent election-observer group Golos (Voice), led the charge within Russia condemning the parliamentary elections of December 4, 2011 as anything but free and fair.

In the days and weeks following the vote, mass protests the likes of which Russia has not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union materialized in no fewer than 60 cities across the country, from Vladivostok in the East to St. Petersburg in the West.

At least 50,000 police and riot troops were deployed in Moscow alone ahead of one “For Fair Elections” rally on December 10, of which several such rallies – some bigger, some smaller – followed.

Turnout for this particular rally ranged from a government-sanctioned figure of 25,000 (meaning 2 riot police for every 1 protestor) to what protest organizers have pegged as high as 150,000.  These events are organized by a coalition of opposition parties and activists to protest ballot stuffing and vote rigging in Russia.

Popular dissatisfaction with what many perceive to be a growing tendency towards autocratic rule and endemic corruption in Russia – combined with the parliamentary election’s actual results – could boil over after presidential elections scheduled for March 4, 2012.

These elections saw the dominant United Russia party’s percentage of the popular vote fall from 64% to 50%.  Numbers like these would still be grossly inflated when considering the rampant reports of voter fraud by independent elections monitors both within and outside of Russia, but the numbers would still grant Vladimir Putin a solid majority in parliament with 238 seats in the 450-member legislative body, or 53% of them.

Gennady Zyukanov’s Communist party is the second-largest,and is clearly Putin’s favoured political partner among the parties, jumping from 12% to 19% in support since the 2007 parliamentary elections and carrying 92 seats in all.

Ever since assuming power in 2000, Putin has engineered his way to ever-increasing power over the domestic political environment and control of key officials at all levels of government, military and security services, media networks and propaganda, state-owned enterprises, and so on.

After handing the reins of the presidency in 2008 to his self-appointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and orchestrating the machinations of political life in Russia behind the scenes as prime minister (a post created by Putin and for Putin to circumvent constitutional limits on consecutive presidential terms), the former KGB officer announced his intention to run for a third term as president on September 24, 2011.

Although plotting a ‘constitutional’ return to power since 2008, this September pronouncement marked the official beginning of Putin’s return to the presidency and a decade of increasingly authoritarian rule.

Perhaps even more scandalous than Putin’s inevitable transition from prime minister to president is the manner in which the electoral process itself is already skewed in his favour.

News coverage routinely parades Putin’s accomplishments over the past 12 years and fosters a personality cult around him while simultaneously slandering his presidential opponents in the process, all of whom have struggled to top 10% in recent opinion polls (as opposed to Putin, who comfortably maintains 50–60% approval ratings).

Added to that is the pervasive anti-American tone and Cold War-style rhetoric at the heart of Putin’s campaign, where opposition candidates are portrayed as nothing more than lackeys of the United States and Russia’s societal ills are blamed on the American desire to “weaken Russia and push it back into the chaos that followed the Soviet collapse.”

Putin has even used foreign policy issues as political leverage for the domestic elections by insinuating that the U.S.-led ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe is an attempt to make vassals, not partners, out of the Russians.

The foreign policy card, in fact, is being played by Putin in many ways to signal his unabashed certainty in victory at the polls on March 4.  Apart from the ballistic missile row with the United States, Russia has been flexing its foreign policy muscles in Europe, Asia and the Middle East in a way that is almost never seen in countries unsure of their next governing party – in other words, in multiparty democracies with competitive, free and fair elections.

Cold spells in Eastern Europe and sanctions on Iranian energy exports to Europe have increased demand (and consequently, price) for Russian oil and gas to Europe, a reality readily exploited by Russia as their pipeline networks stand poised to transport these supplies from their vast reserves to the European states that need them most.

Russia continues to jockey for power with China in the Central Asian republics while ramping up operations on the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline, a conduit that increases Russia’s leverage with energy-hungry East Asian states as state-run corporations manipulate the flow of oil in an easterly or westerly direction to maximize raw profits.

And in the Middle East, Russia stymies Western progress on nuclear negotiations with Iran and vetoes any prospect of Arab League-United Nations intervention in a brutal Syrian crackdown.

These foreign policy adventures are undertaken with a bravado that reinforces the impression that Putin will easily win the presidency and carry the policies of the past 12 years forward into the next 12.  It is precisely this air of smugness on the part of Putin and the United Russia party that betrays any sense of democratic governance in Russia.

Dissent manifests itself in many ways, with online activism rising in intensity as activist bloggers and social media sites express their frustration with the current system.

Already, some of the 200,000 cameras installed in 90,000 polling stations across the country to monitor the March 4 elections have been hacked in distributed denial of service attacks.

If this is any indication of the population’s growing discontent with Putin’s authoritarian style, expect this election to be the catalyst for an ever-more broad-based, ever-more technologically-savvy opposition politics in Russia.