The Middle East Channel

Geneva 1.5

As currently conceived, Geneva II -- the diplomatic process aimed at reaching a political settlement in Syria -- is headed for near-certain failure. Continued difficulty in setting a firm meeting date underscores a fundamental obstacle: the Syrian protagonists -- particularly the opposition -- are not yet ready to talk. Even if both sides come to the table, deep-rooted differences over the purpose, structure, and conduct of the talks as well as a widening rift between the political opposition and armed fighters, likely would lead to the negotiation's immediate unraveling -- with dire consequences on the ground.

Instead, the United Nations should reconceive the Geneva process by adding an interim phase -- call it Geneva 1.5 -- before attempting to bring the Syrians to the table. Geneva 1.5 would center on a multilateral conference assembling key international and regional actors to address some of the most pressing issues feeding the conflict and to lay the foundation for an eventual Syrian negotiation process. 

The Syrian conflict's severity underscores that neither a disavowal of diplomacy nor its failure are options. Indeed, as Syria burns, the conflict demands a heightened urgency for an international response. The world cannot simply wash its hands of Syria. Nor can it afford to embark on a diplomatic process that is doomed to fail. In either event, Syria would continue its precipitous spiral toward chaos.

As it stands, the Syrian conflict may be at a phase change, transforming from a sectarian civil war to a humanitarian and security nightmare with broad regional spillover. While regime forces appear to be consolidating control over key areas, the overall trajectory remains one of protracted stalemate, with neither the regime nor the rebels likely to prevail militarily.

As the conflict deepens, the precipitous deterioration on the ground has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe amid the growing presence of both jihadist and Shiite foreign fighters. Forty percent of Syria's population requires humanitarian assistance, and millions are now displaced. Meanwhile, Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters, surpassing Iraq and soon Afghanistan as a destination for jihadist and other militants. Taken together these developments threaten to put Syria, once a solid middle-income country, on a steep slide toward becoming the region's next Somalia or Afghanistan.

A phased approach to the Geneva process would adopt an "outside-in" strategy to resolving the Syrian conflict. It would build consensus among global and regional players around the need to address critical issues in advance of Syrian talks. This U.N.-sponsored Geneva 1.5 conference would include the United States, Russia, and the European Union. Most importantly, it would gather key regional stakeholders: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.

Its agenda would center on three goals: improve humanitarian access to besieged areas inside Syria; diminish mounting sectarian tensions in the region and their related proxy dimension in Syria; and provide significant funding for Syria's beleaguered neighbors, especially Lebanon and Jordan which are hosting the largest refugee populations.

Concerning humanitarian access, the conference should build on October's U.N. Security Council presidential statement demanding immediate access to 2.5 million Syrians who remain inaccessible to aid convoys. The United Nations is reportedly planning an international meeting to address Syria's humanitarian crisis that would include the United States, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, further confirming that Syria's pressing challenges require broader multilateral diplomacy.

By bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran to the table -- admittedly a diplomatic heavy lift -- Geneva 1.5 would begin to address the core proxy dimensions of the Syrian conflict as well as its broader ripples into Lebanon and Iraq. The recent double suicide bombing targeting the Iranian Embassy in Beirut only underscores how acute the dangers have become. Both regional powers have fueled the crisis via their proxies on the ground, funneling financing, arms, and fighters into the expanding conflict. Opening a dialogue between these key regional players could begin to tamp down sectarian tensions, potentially marking a significant milestone in de-escalating Syria's conflict.

Securing additional funding to support refugee and host populations in Lebanon and Jordan is also critical. Both countries bear a disproportionate burden of Syria's spillover and have suffered significant negative impacts on their economies. Hosting more than one million Syrian refugees, Lebanon in particular has paid a huge price. A recent World Bank study notes that Lebanon will lose $7.5 billion and double its unemployment rate as a direct result of the Syrian refugee flows. Jordan, with more than 600,000 Syrian refugees, has witnessed far slower economic growth due to the costs of hosting the Syrian refugee population.

Yet, while the United States has contributed nearly $1.4 billion to Syrian humanitarian assistance efforts, Russia, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have contributed far less. A Geneva 1.5 conference should seek to dramatically increase the humanitarian contributions of key countries that are not paying their fair share, with a particular focus on assistance inside Syria and to the most vulnerable neighbors -- Lebanon and Jordan.

Addressing these critical challenges would not only help to de-escalate the conflict, but would also begin to pave the way toward meaningful negotiations among Syria's warring parties. This approach would seek to assuage the suffering of Syrian civilians by insuring humanitarian access. It would look to de-escalate sectarian tensions that help fuel Syria's raging conflict and broader regional sectarian spillover by bringing together key regional adversaries. Finally, it would look to provide much-needed support to Lebanon and Jordan, which are suffering disproportionate and potentially destabilizing effects from the Syrian conflict. Taken together, these three goals for a reconceived Geneva process could begin to take the oxygen out of Syria's raging wildfire and create conditions on the ground that are more propitious for negotiations.

Mona Yacoubian is a Senior Advisor on the Middle East at the Stimson Center.


The Middle East Channel

Kuwait's Muslim Brotherhood under pressure

The Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated political party, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM, known by its Arabic acronym Hadas), have a long history as accepted participants in Kuwaiti politics and society. Yet the movement has not been immune to the growing regional backlash against Islamist movements. In recent months, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was removed from office by the military, Tunisia's secular political parties have used months of street protests to pressure the Ennahda-led government into resigning, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) put 20 Egyptians and 10 Emiratis on trial for alleged links to the Brotherhood, and opposition to the Libyan Justice and Construction Party has grown increasingly shrill. While it is unlikely to be subject to full repression, Kuwait's Muslim Brotherhood similarly is feeling an unfamiliar pressure. 

The Kuwait branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was built slowly in the 1950s and 1960s, following the model of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It spent much of its first few decades focused primarily on charitable, educational, and social activities to propagate its message of building a more Islamic society. The Brotherhood dabbled in politics as well, running candidates in parliamentary elections and participating in student government, but it proceeded cautiously and earned a reputation for being loathe to alienate the regime. 

In the aftermath of the 1990 Iraqi invasion, the Kuwait Brotherhood underwent a period of significant change, breaking organizational ties with the international Muslim Brotherhood over Islamist support for Iraq and founding a political party, Hadas, to participate fully in Kuwaiti politics. Throughout the 1990s, the Brotherhood stepped up its domestic focus and increased its investment in electoral politics. With its superior organization and relative independence from its parent movement, Hadas quickly established itself as an effective political party, working with other opposition forces and regularly winning several seats in parliament throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

This energetic plunge into political activism was made possible by the nature of the Kuwaiti political system. It is more liberal than other monarchies in the region, with its history of lively, though still limited, parliamentary politics (the ruling family dominates the position of prime minister and much of the cabinet). At the same time, it is also more politically diverse, with everyone from Salafis, tribal figures, Shiites, liberals, nationalists, and even the ruling family actively jockeying for political influence alongside the Brotherhood. Hadas generally struck an oppositional pose, though it did occasionally send members to the cabinet. It had neither hope nor ambition of winning a parliamentary majority. These limited aims reflect the organization's attempts to calibrate its image as both an opposition movement and a political party that appreciates gradual change within the political system, a posture that enabled it to avoid government repression and build relationships with other opposition factions.

Yet over the past few years, Kuwaiti politics has grown increasingly divisive, chiefly on domestic issues (especially centered on the prerogatives of the parliament). The rules for parliamentary elections have become as much a matter of contestation as the results, as Kuwaitis have been summoned regularly to the polls in a more polarized climate. As the political debate became increasingly heated, Hadas joined a very diverse coalition pressing for further political opening. Following a successful electoral boycott in December 2012 that resulted in significantly lower voter turnout, that coalition was dealt a setback in parliamentary elections this summer when it called for a second boycott  that was less effective than hoped and led to an exclusion of the coalition from parliament.

This was an environment that allowed events in Egypt to reverberate in Kuwait. And indeed, rising regional tensions more generally began to break apart the post-1990 Kuwaiti consensus on foreign policy issues. Not only did some groups (especially Hadas) criticize the anti-Morsi line taken by the Kuwaiti government, but different reactions to events in Syria and Iran have led to domestic debates within Kuwait. The UAE linked some prominent Kuwaitis to the Brotherhood group it arrested, again providing fuel to Hadas critics who portray it as part of an ambitious regional movement rather than a Kuwaiti political actor. While there has been some discussion within Kuwaiti Brotherhood circles about how much the movement should stake out a position on regional events, the sense of outrage over the overthrow of Morsi and events in Syria has led the main body of the movement to take a far stronger foreign policy line.

Rather than retreating and attempting to deflect claims of its allegiance to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hadas has responded to events in Egypt by escalating its criticisms of both the Egyptian and Kuwaiti governments. Since July 3, Hadas's Facebook and Twitter pages have been filled with posts condemning the "coup" in Egypt and the anti-democratic actions of the Egyptian government. Those same pages have also been critical of the Kuwaiti government for its support of Morsi's removal; for instance, when the emir welcomed interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour in a recent state visit to Kuwait, Hadas criticized the reception of a coup-president and the financial largesse he has received.

And Hadas's adversaries have sensed that the moment is ripe for a strong attack on the movement.

Immediately following Morsi's removal, Kuwaiti politicians began to accuse Hadas of being subservient to the Brotherhood in Egypt, engaging in terrorism and money laundering, and plotting a coup against the Kuwaiti government. Others called Hadas "dangerous," warning of the Brotherhood's infiltration of sensitive government ministries, which could be used to spread its influence at the expense of the state. One article reported a growing campaign prior to the parliamentary elections in July to "uproot" the Brotherhood from political life, while political leaders called for the government to confront the movement more forcefully. In the past several weeks, articles in Kuwaiti newspapers have maintained the drumbeat of criticism against Hadas and the Brotherhood. Anonymous sources have accused the movement of corrupt activities such as misusing public funds and manipulating its influence in Kuwaiti institutions for its own benefit.

The government, too, has seized the opportunity to push back against the Brotherhood. Internationally, Kuwait has joined Saudi Arabia and the UAE in providing financial and diplomatic support to the Egyptian government that replaced the Morsi administration; at home, the government has arrested and deported Egyptians that it accuses of membership in the group. Meanwhile, newspapers hostile to Hadas have reported on a purge being carried out against Brotherhood supporters in the government. Newspapers have quoted anonymous sources claiming that Brotherhood supporters in the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, the Zakat House, and other governmental bodies have been retired or moved to marginalized offices. One source justified the purge as a legitimate defense against a subversive and foreign organization that does not recognize the state. 

The reality is a bit more prosaic, though still a sign of tension: as part of the opposition coalition, Hadas is finding that membership in the movement may be an obstruction for government service for some, and ministers most hostile to Hadas find the climate appropriate to rid themselves of some staff. So while there may be no draconian purge, the public environment is one that has worked against the movement. There is no sign that the government is treating Hadas as a security threat -- just the opposite, in fact, as the movement continues to operate openly and vociferously and its leaders evince confidence that it will continue to be regarded more as a political nuisance than a security threat. 

Yet if the reality is slightly tamer than expressed in the sometimes lurid Kuwaiti press, the fallout over Morsi's removal could have significant repercussions for Kuwaiti politics. For one, the toxic mix of the regime's support for the Egyptian government, the anonymous accusations against the Kuwaiti Brotherhood, the persistent rumors of purges, however exaggerated, and Hadas's strident support for Morsi suggests that the relationship between the regime and Hadas could be moving away from its history of tolerance and toward one of deepened domestic conflict. Kuwait's post-1990 consensus on foreign policy had already begun to fray; regional events have now lent a sharper and bitterer edge to domestic political struggles that had already become divisive and shrill.

Scott Williamson is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Cornell University Press, 2012). This essay is part of a special series on Islam in a Changing Middle East supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.