The Middle East Channel

Nuclear talks to take place in Istanbul as Iran gives mixed signs

Iran announced that the first round of nuclear talks with the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) will be held in Istanbul later this week after tensions over disagreement about the location. Iran proposed last week that talks be held in Damascus or Baghdad, claiming Turkey is not neutral. Iran has sent signals that it would be willing to shift toward a compromise during the negotiations to meet some Western concerns, but was adamant that it would not allow for any preconditions. According to state media, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said: "Setting conditions before the meeting means drawing conclusions, which is completely meaningless and none of the parties will accept conditions before the talks." These will be the first direct talks in over a year, and will focus on a demand that Iran dismantle its Fordo underground nuclear facility. U.S. President Barack Obama called it a "last chance" to resolve the nuclear dispute with Western countries diplomatically.

Syria

The peace plan proposed by United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan may be threatened after the Syrian government demanded Sunday that opposition fighters provide written commitments to lay down their arms. The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) has promised to halt fighting if Syrian forces implement a ceasefire, but according to FSA leader Col. Riyad al-Asaad they do not recognize the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and so "will not give guarantees." This has spurred fears that fighting will continue past this week's deadline for a ceasefire. Syrian forces have stepped up attacks since Assad agreed to Annan's peace plan. Around 69 people were killed on Sunday mostly in Idlib, as well as in heavy fighting in Aleppo and Homs, which included women and children. Tensions have also escalated along the Turkish border with Syria after gunfire from Syria crossed over the border and injured up to five people in a refugee camp in Turkey. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch released a report saying that the Syrian regime has executed over 100 people in the past four months, most of whom were civilians.

Headlines  

  • Registration for candidacy in Egypt's presidential elections ended Sunday after the main Islamists parties declared back-up candidates.
  • Al Qaeda-linked militants attacked a Yemeni army base killing at least 24 people in the Abyan province city of Loder following weekend airstrikes targeting militants.
  • Libya said Saif al-Islam, son of Muammar al-Qaddafi, will be tried in Libya and will not be given up to the International Criminal Court despite an ICC demand.
  • Blasts hit an Egyptian pipeline that runs to Israel and Jordan for the 14th time since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Arguments & Analysis

'Syria's crisis: weapons vs. negotiations' (Mariano Aguirre, Open Democracy)

"The temptation of force displaces political negotiations and non-violent strategies. The former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, now the UN and Arab League special envoy charged with negotiating an end to the Syrian crisis, is facing two linked problems: the Syrian president feels strong enough to survive, and part of the opposition and the international community say that it is impossible to negotiate with him. Yet if Assad is wrong in thinking that he can stay in power forever, part of the opposition seems to forget that other means than violence -- sanctions, isolation, delegitimisation of power and negotiations -- have been used in many experiences of transition from dictatorship to democracy. But in Syria as in Libya, there is confusion between stopping the carnage and changing the political regime -- and as a result, holding out for an ideal solution nullifies any chance at achieving an immediate objective, particularly ending the slaughter."

'Populism threatens to undue Egypt's Mubarak-era economic reforms' (Mohsin Khan, The Daily Star)

"Today, Egypt not only remains vulnerable to unstable domestic politics; owing to the depletion of its international reserves -- at a rate of roughly $2 billion a month since last October - the country now also faces the threat of a currency crisis. Moreover, this decline in reserves almost certainly underestimates the extent of the losses, because it does not exclude inflows of $3.5 billion since November of last year from auctions of United States dollar-denominated Treasury bills. In addition, the Egyptian military has provided a $1 billion loan to the government, and another $1 billion was received through grants from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This brought the loss of foreign currency reserves since December 2010 closer to $22 billion. The other source of international reserves, tourism, brought in only $8 billion last year, down sharply from the $12 billion that was earned in 2010. Egypt continues to import almost double what it exports, which had resulted in a trade deficit of over $10 billion by the end of 2011."

'The Syrian National Council wins recognition abroad, but may lose out at home' (Yezid Sayigh, Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace)

"Although the approach embodied in the Annan plan may be slow and painful, it crucially offers a means for the opposition to shift the confrontation from the military arena, where the regime is strongest, to the political and moral one, where the opposition is strongest. Without this, it is difficult to envisage the minority communities that are fearful of a sectarian or Islamist backlash-Alawis and Christians, in particular-and a large section of the Sunni middle class changing sides willingly. That is why the Annan initiative is significant: By committing to dialogue and prioritizing a negotiated solution, the opposition will not persuade Assad to share or leave power. But it will reassure the large middle class and the minority communities, whose participation in post-conflict political reconciliation and economic reconstruction will be critical, and will generate internal pressures within Assad's own camp."

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images

Marc Lynch

Making the Arab League Matter

Few international institutions have been more congenitally irrelevant than the League of Arab States. It's problems are structural: a Charter rooted in the protection of state sovereignty, an autocratic and inept membership, a façade of Arab unity hardly concealing the reality of deep political divisions. The Arab League for long decades has been little more than a punchline for sad jokes about the failed hopes of unified or effective Arab action.

Some believe that this began to change over the last year. Certainly, it was startling to see the Arab League suddenly acting on regional security issues. Its rapid, unified response to Muammar al-Qaddafi's brutal crackdown in Libya, likely tipped the balance at the United Nations in favor of NATO's military intervention. It has played an important role in the Syria crisis, from its suspension of Assad's Syria to its unprecedented (albeit failed) observer mission and (also failed) bid for to a Security Council resolution. Some of its steps were intriguingly novel, such as the unprecedented suspension of Libyan and Syrian membership over the killing of their own people. And the summit recently held in Baghdad may have finally prodded some baby steps towards Iraq's reintegration into the Arab world.

But this burst of activity was misleading. The revitalized Arab League was really a puppet show, as the GCC led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia used the conveniently empty vehicle of a moribund Arab League to pursue their agendas. The Arab League offered a more useful regional organization than the GCC for acting on Libya and Syria, especially at the United Nations. With traditional Arab powers like Egypt, Iraq and Syria flat on their backs there was nothing to block them from doing so on such issues. The focus of attention at the Security Council debate on Syria was Qatari Foreign Minster Hamed Bin Jassem, not Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Arabi. The supposedly revitalized Arab League has shown little ability to act effectively on more contentious issues, to coordinate policies on Syria, to provide meaningful assistance to transitional member regimes, or to generate new ideas on the Palestinian issue. The GCC more often looked to non-Arab Turkey than to its Arab League partners for concrete support.

But this could change. Indeed, implausible as it sounds to long-time observers of the region, the Arab League may over the next few years emerge as a more interesting institution than it has ever before been -- and more consequential than the currently dominant GCC. The key GCC states only dominate today because of their wealth and general lack of internal problems, the unusual cooperation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the internal weakness of traditional Arab powers such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. As those states get their acts together, and the inevitable conflicts within and between Gulf states reappear, the Arab League might actually become interesting.

The Arab League, for all its flaws, has one core advantage: it is the only regional organization which brings together all of the self-identified Arab states. As such, it will likely remain the privileged regional interloctor for the United Nations and the focus of any kind of pan-Arab diplomacy. It can not easily be replaced by the GCC, no matter how much that idea might appeal to Doha or Riyadh, or by some sort of Parliament of Arab Peoples which would lack official standing or institutional cohesion.  

There will be a need for such a regional organization. Pan-Arab identity at the popular level has grown vastly stronger through the Arab uprisings of the past year and a half. This emergent pan-Arabism will ensure both their continuing focus on these shared regional issues -- whether Syria or Palestine -- and their relentless disappointment with the performance of their leaders.  Young Arabs may have little use for the Arab League as an institution, but it's the only regional organization they've got. It is the only formal site for the robust political battles over collective Arab norms, initiatives, or policies.  

The GCC has clearly taken the lead role in Arab diplomacy over the last year. But the current dominant GCC position within the Arab League is a bubble. At least some of the traditional Arab powers such as Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria which are currently consumed by domestic chaos will in the coming years get their houses in order and retake their place as regional great powers. As they do so, the GCC will not be able to sustain its artificial domination of Arab institutions. Egypt, in particular, is likely to seek to use its traditional leadership of the Arab League (which is physically based in Cairo and has long had an Egyptian Secretary-General) as a pathway back into regional politics once its domestic transition resolves sufficiently to actually have a foreign policy. Potentially emergent powers excluded from the GCC, such as a new Libya or new Iraq, will likely try to empower an institution which includes them.

The biggest driver of change in the Arab League will be the increasing domestic diversity of its members. For decades, Arab states increasingly resembled one another in their internal political structures. Almost all Arab states were entrenched autocracies, with at best limited forms of superficial democratic participation. Almost all were close American military and political allies and part of a common security architecture. Almost all were content to sideline the Palestinian issue and cooperate with the United States against Iraq, Iran and al Qaeda, regardless of the feelings of their people. Even the traditional divide between monarchies and republics lost meaning as presidents such as Hafez al-Assad and Hosni Mubarak sought to hand over power to their sons.  

The Arab uprisings have introduced significant diversity into this isomorphic mix. It's impossible to know how any of these emergent transitions will turn out, of course -- can anyone really offer a firm prediction about how the Egyptian mess or the nascent Libyan state will resolve? But more diversity seems almost inevitable, as does a greater role for public opinion in foreign policy. Most Arab regimes -- including monarchies like Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco -- will face turbulent politics and be more responsive to public opinion, whatever constitutional forms they take (or else, like Bahrain, retreat into sullen alienation and stifling repression at great cost to their own future). The need of these governments to respond to public opinion will likely push them toward more popular foreign policies, even if some continue to try to stick to the old games. 

Identity will also increasingly divide as well as unite -- though, as should be obvious to all students of pan-Arabism, this has always been the case. The potent popular pan-Arabism ensures that there will be no easy shift to local or domestic issues alone. But the definition of Arabism will remain deeply contested, with very concrete implications. For instance, the GCC prefers to use Sunni identity as a unifying force amongst its Arab allies and a useful weapon against Iran, the Syrian regime, and their own domestic Shi'a populations -- a formula potentially challenged by a Shi'a-led, semi-democratic Iraq. Islamists of some variety seem likely to play a greater role in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya (at least), which poses a challenge to regimes which have demonized and repressed their own Islamists.   

The Arab League might therefore take on a very different feel as these domestically transforming states begin to play a meaningful regional role. The Gulf monarchies will remain influential, of course, though they will likely return to their bickering ways. An Egypt which pursues a relatively popular foreign policy might regain the regional power and influence which the decrepit Mubarak regime had squandered. A Libya not completely eccentric and self-marginalized could compete at the level of wealth. A successful, inspirational Tunisian democracy could offer a voice of moral authority. A somewhat stabilized Iraq actively engaged in Arab politics could introduce new views of Iran and of the political role for Shi'a communities with implications for regional security arrangements. And what role might be played by a new Syria -- either with an Assad regime which has survived as an international pariah engulfed in protracted civil war or with some new kind of regime?

Decisions made over the last year might also provide an entry for new kinds of collective action through the auspices of the Arab League. The Saudis and Qataris might have had purely strategic goals in mind when they invented a new standard of Arab legitimacy by which leaders should not kill their own people. But that normative standard has now been articulated repeatedly and used to suspend the membership of both Libya and Syria. This is a major departure from the Arab League Charter's traditional endorsement of state sovereignty. It is not inconceivable that emergent new powers could seek to institutionalize this new norm of conditional sovereignty.  Could Aryeh Neier's creative idea of an Arab War Crimes Tribunal gain purchase? Could Bahraini or Saudi Shi'a begin to find a forum not dominated by the Gulf states to press their grievances?

I would not want to push this argument too far. I certainly wouldn't predict the inevitability of an effective, unified Arab League. Little in history or current trends would suggest any confidence in that. I don't expect the Arab League to follow the EU template any time...well, ever (ASEAN might be a more useful comparison, with more regional identity but less economic complementarity). But as we all attempt to peer ahead into the kind of regional politics to which the Arab uprising might give birth, it seems worth considering how an Arab League which incorporates these changing states could  become a far more interesting organization...and even a valuable part of a transformed, better Middle East. 

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images