The Middle East Channel

Syria's race against the clock

The Syria we knew is no longer. Together with the rest of the region, it has entered an era of uncertainty and incessant flux. For now it has settled into a slow-motion revolution, as protests both fail to reach a critical mass and prod authorities to successfully respond to far-reaching demands. Two conflicting trends currently coexist. The regime has laid out a body of reforms which have the potential to win over enough popular support to ensure a peaceful way forward.  But it has also failed to bring violence to an end, whether due to senseless scare tactics, well-ingrained habits of the security apparatus, possible provocations staged by the regime's many enemies (from dissident members of the ruling family to hostile parties abroad to home-grown die-hard Islamists) and the increasingly tense general atmosphere -- or a mix of all the above.

Although many view the present through the prism of the past, with memories still fresh of the ruthlessness with which the Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising of the early 1980s was crushed, it is doubtful that all-out repression today would put an end to protests that enjoy a much broader base -- even if they have taken on Islamist undertones in some places. Alternatively, quick-fixes, cosmetic changes and empty promises would only postpone an explosion.

This leaves Syrians the choice between two perilous journeys: either radical reform or outright revolution. Neither offers easy answers to the deep-seated issues at stake, including preserving Syria's fragile secular model, addressing its severe economic predicament and maintaining its regional standing.

The authorities' initial crude and predictable response did much to push people toward the second option. The dynamics then changed somewhat after President Bashar al-Assad's speech on March 30. Anticipated as the pinnacle of a strategy blending fear of chaos, a spectacular (albeit partly orchestrated) demonstration of popular support for the regime on the streets, and a package of reforms, the address in fact was an anticlimax -- a show of self-confidence and a demoralizing flashback to the ways of yesteryear.

This flop nonetheless had a flip-side: it served as a useful eye-opener to all. On one hand, it dispelled the broadly-shared perception of Assad as a savior who somehow could side with the people against the regime. On the other hand, it convinced many regime insiders that they would have to do better than simply count on the president's popularity to magically erase the legacy of generalized mismanagement.

The regime thus appeared to adopt a more constructive approach. A variety of officials expressed their realization that deadly clashes, whoever provokes them, create more problems than they solve. They stressed dialogue as a key component of their strategy, and showed an unprecedented willingness to listen. And they figured that the pace of reforms must not only keep up with the speed at which protests spread throughout the country, but beat them in the race for public opinion. Indeed, the regime began acting much faster than announced by Assad during his speech. 

And then more blood was spilled when protests picked up after prayers last Friday. Whatever positive trends were apparent lost much of their value. Striving to prove the regime's innocence --  for example by broadcasting on live state television the misdeeds of so-called agents provocateurs that state security somehow fails to stop -- will only add insult to injury for the many Syrians who believe that authorities are at least partly to blame. Worse still, the regime may now attempt to stamp out the more Islamist strand within the protest movement, triggering a vicious cycle of violence in more parts of the country than it can control.

Even assuming violence is contained in the days to come, there are several missing ingredients to what could qualify as a positive dynamic. Authorities have spoken to the public's craving for dignity only with respect to Syria's regional interests and principles, but this was achieved at the expense of domestic issues that now need to be addressed. Dignity must also be at the heart of how this is done.

Forthcoming elections to a parliament that is viewed as shameful by the population may have to be put on hold, pending new legislation that ensures the institution is truly representative. The army of cronies singing the regime's praise in the media and plastering propaganda in the streets must be reined in. Tackling tough economic issues will take time, patience and self-sacrifice, which is hard to expect when the symbols of corruption remain untouched. Most importantly, families of the martyrs will need far more than material compensation; they will settle for nothing less than full accountability.

The regime, pressed for time and seeking to placate numerous constituencies, has yet to define a framework that could lend consistency to its various decisions, lest today's steps lay the basis for tomorrow's crises. Before raising expectations, it must ask itself how far it is genuinely prepared to go on the path to political reform. In particular, can Assad's term be renewed in 2014 through yet another landslide plebiscite? To what extent is the leadership prepared to jeopardize secularism for the sake of containing the Islamists? And what resources is it willing to spend without risking either bankruptcy or a costly dependence on foreign donors?

Finally, the regime's efforts have been plagued by ill-communication on both sides. Authorities are struggling to identify reliable interlocutors within society even as the protesters are finding it hard to select credible interlocutors within the regime, given the depth of mistrust in its traditional representatives. Citizens currently express their deeply-felt frustrations in the most chaotic ways, and officials tend to respond in kind. There is an urgent need to base dialogue on a thorough and inclusive assessment of the specific grievances that have developed in each part of the country -- a legacy of negligence that is precisely what frustrated citizens want to see redressed above all.

Time is running out as every new casualty makes the clock tick faster. To open the space required for a radical reform agenda to take hold, the regime's top priority must be to ensure a period of relative calm. Prospects will look grim were the country to witness yet another bloody Friday.

Peter Harling is the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon project director with the International Crisis Group

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The Middle East Channel

Can the UN clean up Libya?

We don't know when Gaddafi will finally fall or accept a ceasefire that could pave the way for his exit. But we can be confident that, whatever the Colonel's fate, he'll leave Libya in an unholy mess. Cities have been pummeled by artillery bombardments and refugees cluster on the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. The tribal political settlement that underpinned Gaddafi's rule has broken down. The rebels have armed thousands of ill-disciplined young men who may not lay down their arms willingly.

In these circumstances, there will be no easy transition to peace. In Egypt, where the revolution was comparatively straightforward, the fall of Mubarak has been followed by ongoing unrest and religious violence. There may well be an even bloodier period of score-settling in Libya, possibly comparable to the wave of Albanian attacks on Serbs after NATO forced Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo in 1999. 

It's almost certain that some sort of international peacekeeping force will be required to stabilize the situation. At the London conference on Libya at the end of March, Hillary Clinton and her colleagues asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to start stabilization planning. What options does he have?

Ban oversees 100,000 peacekeepers worldwide, handling trouble-spots from Haiti to the Congo. But the UN's deployment mechanisms are cumbersome and forces rely heavily on poorly-equipped units from Africa and Asia. During the post-electoral crisis in Côte d'Ivoire, many UN units have all but refused to go out on patrol, while peacekeepers in Congo failed to stop mass rapes near their bases in mid-2010. Elsewhere, UN personnel have been involved in disgraceful acts of sexual exploitation themselves. In spite of these episodes, the UN has many impressive troops under its command -- the Brazilian troops who helped restore order in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake won rave reviews from U.S. marines. But the UN's systems for gathering forces and getting them into theater simply aren't equal to managing a rapid, messy deployment to Libya.  Under these circumstances, it might seem tempting to turn to NATO.

But a NATO deployment to Libya is politically unfeasible. It would fuel Arab suspicions that the West wants to occupy the country for its oil. Given German and Turkish qualms about the Alliance's existing role in the crisis, the North Atlantic Council might not reach consensus on a peace operation anyway. 

The European Union, which has launched a series of small stabilization missions in the last decade, is also divided over Libya. EU states have approved the use of military assets to bring aid to Libyan refugees, but it's likely that European personnel will only deploy in Egypt and Tunisia for safety's sake.

So when it comes to a post-Gaddafi peace operation, the UN will almost certainly take the lead. To do so, it'll have to drop "business as usual" and improvise ways to get decent troops on the ground fast. Luckily it has a precedent for this: the 2006 rapid deployment of European contingents to Lebanon to help end the war between Israel and Hizbollah. Although the European units answered to the UN, they used their own logistical mechanisms to speed up their deployment, and a special strategic cell was set up in New York to back-stop them with NATO-quality situation assessments and contingency planning.

If Ban Ki-moon wants to get ahead of the game in Libya, he should ask for Security Council authorization to establish a comparable cell to start planning for peacekeeping options now. He should also convene a series of closed door meetings with potential troop contributors -- including not only the Europeans, but also Arab militaries and militarily-capable non-Western powers like Brazil -- to see if they'll offer him troops.

Doing this would raise concerns among those Security Council members, not least Russia and China, who as it is aren't whole-hearted fans of the Libyan campaign. But Ban can emphasize that the UN won't deploy anything without a new Security Council resolution. To give his efforts more legitimacy, he could also set up a special advisory group of African and Arab nations that have peacekeeping experience and are concerned with Libya, ensuring regional buy-in for any future peace operation.

What would the actual operation look like? If Libya is extremely unstable, military planners will naturally argue for a heavily-armed force. But a large military force would be expensive to maintain and could become a high-profile  target for Islamist terrorists, just like the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

One option would be to deploy significant numbers of troops in the first phase of operations, with a mandate to disarm Gaddafi's forces and repatriate his African mercenaries, but draw down to a lighter presence after 3-6 months, as long as security conditions permitted it. This lighter force, tasked with monitoring military and political developments, could be backed up by an over-the-horizon reserve of heavy units based in Italy or France, ready to deploy at short notice to quell any resurgent violence.

Experience from the Balkans to Liberia also suggests that, to deal with disorder in cities such as Tripoli or Sirte, the UN should supplement its military presence with riot police, who tend to handle such incidents better. Uniformed personnel will also need to be accompanied by effective civilian experts -- there will be a particular need for Arabic-speaking political staff able to mediate between all Libya's factions.

This mediation process will be exceptionally hard: the UN will not only have to forge a basic agreement on consolidating peace between Libya's factions, but also guide the drafting of a new constitution and advise on post-conflict justice. Who, if anyone, from the old regime should face trials for the atrocities of recent weeks? Is it possible to integrate elements of Gaddafi's circle into a new, stable government?

These questions will be tough to answer in any case, but especially difficult if peace has to be negotiated on the basis of a fragile ceasefire -- which now looks like the most likely short-term outcome to the war. Even if Colonel Gaddafi leaves Tripoli, he will retain some ability  to manipulate events from abroad.

The UN is quite proficient at the technical aspects of these processes, such as constitution-writing and election management. But it has very limited knowledge of Libya's internal political dynamics. Although the UN already has political teams in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, good Arabists are in short supply. Ban Ki-moon should talk to countries like Qatar about seconding diplomats, just as he could talk to the European Commission about borrowing public finance experts to help restart Libya's stalled economy.

With Gaddafi holed up in Tripoli and the rebels bogged down in central Libya, it may seem premature to start designing the military and civilian elements of a post-Gaddafi stabilization mission in such detail. Yet time and again, whether in Kosovo or Sierra Leone, the UN has discovered that speed is the essence of effective stabilization: if a peace operation stumbles early on for lack of plans or personnel, it may never regain momentum. As the Libyan war drags on, the UN at least has extra time to plan the peace.   

Bruce D. Jones is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Director of the NYU Center on International Cooperation (CIC).  Richard Gowan and Jake Sherman are Associate Directors at CIC.

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