The Middle East Channel

Syria Peace Conference Opens With Bitter Remarks

A long-planned peace conference opened Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland with the Syrian government and opposition meeting face to face for the first time since fighting began in March 2011. In his opening remarks, opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of war crimes, bringing up new evidence of torture investigated by three war crimes prosecutors, and demanded the government delegation agree to the "Geneva I" transition of power. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem accused the West of "pouring arms" into Syria and backing terrorism. He addressed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who said Assad had lost legitimacy and that there could be no place for him in a transitional government, asserting, "No one, Mr. Kerry, has the right to withdraw legitimacy of the [Syrian] president other than the Syrians themselves." U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appealed to the warring parties to seize the opportunity to resolve their conflict. The conference began with more than 30 international governments, but is expected to be followed by mediated talks between government and opposition representatives at the end of the week. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose invite to the conference was withdrawn on Monday, said the peace talks were unlikely to succeed due to the lack of influential players at the meeting. Russian and U.S. officials noted the talks would be complicated and the process would not be quick, though according to a senior U.S. administration official, "the opening of the process is important." Meanwhile, clashes were reported in several areas of Syria on Wednesday including the suburbs of Damascus, Daraa, Idlib, and Homs. Additionally, a government airstrike killed 10 people in the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Headlines  

  • An Israeli airstrike on Wednesday killed two Palestinians, one of whom the military claimed fired rockets into southern Israel during last week's funeral for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
  • Yemeni parties at the National Dialogue Conference have agreed on a document upon which a new constitution will be based, after a Houthi representative traveling to the meeting was killed.
  • Algeria sent 3,000 police officers to the southern desert city of Ghardaia in efforts to calm weeks of clashes between Sunni Muslims and Berbers, arresting seven men.
  • Israel has announced plans to build 381 additional West Bank settlement homes, threatening Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said would not extend past nine months.
  • Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said he will remain in his position despite the resignation of five Islamist ministers from his government protesting continued insecurity. 

Articles & Analysis

'Reflections on a Referendum' (Tarek Radwan and Lara Talverdian, Atlantic Council)

"Overall, however, observers reported no systematic flagrant technical violations that could have jeopardized the integrity of the vote and none of the individual violations would have a statistically significant effect on the results. The official announcement of the more than 98 percent approval vote and 38.6 percent turnout was more than believable and matched our impressions of the process, but the politics of the referendum never took place inside the polling centers.

The bigger questions related to the inarguably politically repressive climate in which the referendum was held. In and around the polling centers Egyptians were gripped by a festive fever, as if proudly affirming to themselves, and the world, that they have a handle on their country's democratic transition. Between the music, banners, and ululation, there was a pervasive feeling that the country was celebrating a range of conflated issues: support for Sisi and the military, support for Morsi's removal, support for the constitution and the implicit rejection of terrorism, with the Muslim Brotherhood having recently been designated a terrorist organization. As the man at the sugar cane stand revealed, however, a large cross-section of the population was never invited to the party. Although the government announced turnout figures higher than the 2012 referendum (figures impossible to verify independently), the tally reveals a significant portion of population opted to stay at home. Unclear, however, is how many abstained from voting as an active boycott or due to a returning sense of apathy pervasive under the Hosni Mubarak regime."

'Syria's Polio Epidemic: The Suppressed Truth' (Annie Sparrow, New York Review of Books)

"Once the most feared disease of the twentieth century, polio in most countries had long ago passed into the history books. Syria was no exception. Polio was eliminated there in 1995 following mandatory (and free) immunization introduced in 1964 after the Baath party took power. Yet wildtype 1 polio -- the most vicious form of the disease -- has been confirmed across much of Syria.

Ninety or so afflicted children may sound like a small number, but they are only a tiny manifestation of an enormous problem, since for each crippled child up to one thousand more are silently infected. Polio is so contagious that a single case is considered a public health emergency. Ninety cases could mean some 90,000 people infected, each a carrier invisibly spreading the disease to others for weeks on end.

This man-made outbreak is a consequence of the way that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chosen to fight the war -- a war crime of truly epidemic proportions. Even before the uprising, in areas considered politically unsympathetic like Deir Ezzor, the government stopped maintaining sanitation and safe-water services, and began withholding routine immunizations for preventable childhood diseases. Once the war began, the government started ruthless attacks on civilians in opposition-held areas, forcing millions to seek refuge in filthy, crowded, and cold conditions. Compounding the problem are Assad's ongoing attacks on doctors and the health care system, his besieging of cities, his obstruction of humanitarian aid, and his channeling of vaccines and other relief to pro-regime territory."

'America Must Stand Firm on Syria at the Geneva II Conference' (Fred Hof, The New Republic)

"Diplomacy is often a matter of making chicken salad out of another substance entirely. Given the unlikelihood of Bashar al-Assad taking practical responsibility for the ruin he has brought to his country, is there anything at all to be gained by the West at Geneva II?

Washington would do well to come to Geneva with a hard-edged, take-no-prisoners attitude. This is no time for even-handed equivocation. Russia can be counted on to support the regime. Any American inclination toward mediation will result in the opposition delegation being isolated and perhaps stampeded out of Geneva.

The Syrian delegation, led by the Syrian National Coalition, should use the Geneva spotlight to reintroduce itself to Syria and to the world. Specifically, it should table the long-awaited alternative to the Assad regime: a transitional governing body roster reflecting excellence, experience, inclusiveness, and decency. Assad has convinced the credulous that the only alternative to him is Islamist extremism, including Al Qaeda. Geneva II is where the Syrian National Coalition can expose Assad's big lie for what it is. It is vital that the opposition keep the conference focused on political transition and that it be supported unequivocally by the United States and its allies to this end."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Not Losing the Arab Awakening

When a Tunisian peddler set himself on fire in December 2010, launching the Second Arab Awakening, many were taken by surprise. While I cannot claim prescience, I did have a powerful sense that we had been there before -- and that if we did not learn the lessons of the past, we would fail this time as well.

Those fears proved well founded. One transition after another has struggled or failed to produce governments that can respond to citizens' longing for freedom and opportunity. The fragility of the once-promising Arab transitions clearly shows the urgency of beginning the painstaking process of constructing an Arab world defined by pluralism and tolerance. Only then can what I call The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism be realized.

Looking back to the "first" Arab Awakening, which began in the mid-19th century, can be illuminating. That awakening took the form of an intellectual revolution in which a wide array of Arab thinkers started questioning the control of distant Ottoman despots over their nations and criticizing their own limited contact with the outside world. Their calls for intellectual, economic, and political change laid the groundwork for a new Arab world, eventually resulting in a wave of independence struggles in the 1940s and 1950s.

Ultimately, however, the first Arab Awakening fell short of the aspirations of many of those who inspired it. In the end, colonial autocracies were replaced with domestic ones -- often military-backed single-parties that took advantage of their revolutionary legitimacy to cement their grip on power. New regimes paid little attention to developing political systems whose checks and balances guaranteed access for all. They saw pluralism as a potential threat and took heavy-handed measures to prevent its realization.

That rejection of pluralism doomed the Arab region to decades of political failure. Unrealized political and economic expectations, the failure to solve the Palestinian issue, and the unwillingness to provide good governance marked the post-independence era in the Arab world. For years, the only groups that contended with the ruling elites were those whose organizing principle was religion. Political Islam emerged as the only alternative to one-party rule. Abuses by government personnel, especially the security and intelligence services, and wealth concentrated in the hands of a few kept tensions seething just beneath the surface.

While the uprisings that breathed new life into the Arab world in 2011 seemed unstoppable, achieving the protesters' goals is not. Whether they succeed in establishing pluralistic governments ultimately rests the hands of the people of the countries involved, and the new generation that demands change. Outsiders however, including powerful Western governments, can affect events. To do so in a constructive fashion requires clear thinking about events and their root causes.

But faulty Western thinking about the awakening has led to misguided, if well-intentioned, policies. In the span of three short years, the West lurched from calling this awakening an "Arab Spring" -- a name that implied expectations of an immediate transition from autocratic regimes to democratic ones -- to seeing it now as some kind of an Arab inferno, because of the rise of Islamic parties with their implicit or perceived threat to liberal democratic advances and their potential flirtation with jihadi violence.

Neither of these two scenarios need be permanent or inevitable. We should take seriously the common refrain that the profound transformations Arab countries are undergoing will take time. Although some eastern European countries can be said to have sped up the clock after the fall of the Soviet Union, revolutionary political transformation usually takes decades, not years. Western observers and policymakers need to have strategic patience as they follow unfolding events.

The rise of Islamist parties was also to be expected, and should neither surprise nor overly alarm anyone. They alone had the pre-existing organizational capabilities required to run nationwide campaigns, and that allowed them to score electoral victories far beyond their level of popular support. But it should also be no surprise that their success in first-ever elections did not necessarily translate into permanent control. Their promise of better governance, which helped attract support from many Arabs fed up with the status quo, was being put to the test. And as they entered the political fray, this time as decision-makers, their perceived "holiness" was confronted with reality, and their ability to deliver was what mattered most. Arab publics are beginning to judge Islamists and secular forces alike based on performance, not ideology.

It will take decades to build the foundations of political systems that actually defend democracy and preserve its basic tenets year after year. It is a process in which some countries will succeed, others will struggle, and yet others will fail. What will help determine any country's outcome is which elements of society will lead the transformation. The Arab world has long been dominated by two forces --an entrenched, unaccountable elite on the one hand and Islamists on the other. But neither of these groups -- which often achieved an uneasy modus vivendi -- has ever demonstrated a genuine commitment to pluralism.

The real hope rests with a new generation, the youth who started it all in the streets and are far more committed to the principles of democracy than their elders. It is this third force that might break the cycle of oppression. So far, this revolutionary young generation has done a better job of defining what it is against than what it is for, and it will take years to establish the organizational capacity and financial wherewithal to achieve a lasting break from the past. This is where Western assistance might most usefully be offered.

If it is to succeed where the first Arab awakening failed, this Second Arab Awakening needs to be an assertion of universal values: democracy, pluralism, human rights. These are not ideals that can be imposed upon a region from outside, but they can be encouraged to grow. This requires patience and an accurate understanding of both the actual conditions and the kinds of actions that are likely to be effective. Only when societies and their elected leaders truly embrace tolerance, diversity, the peaceful rotation of power, and inclusive economic growth will the promise of a new Arab world be realized.

Given the grim news coming out of the region today, some will regard my arguments as a naïve, almost romantic view of an Arab world that does not exist --a mirage in the desert, totally detached from reality. They will point out the tumultuous state of affairs -- and that regional political grievances are turning sectarian.

But do not mistake the grim early skirmishes for the outcome. The battle of ideas has finally started to unfold in the contemporary Arab world and is far from ended. The region will go through a period of turmoil in which exclusionist forces will attempt to dominate the landscape with absolute truths and new dictatorships. In the end, however, these forces will also fade, because exclusionist, authoritarian discourses cannot answer the people's need for a better quality of life --economically, politically, culturally, and otherwise.

There are no short cuts to democracy or prosperity. The Second Arab Awakening has only just begun, and the end may not be known in this generation's lifetime. After all other alternatives to diversity have been exhausted, perhaps the people of the region will finally reject the prospect of waiting so long, and devote their energies to creating a pluralistic Arab world now. Their battle for pluralism is worth waging and winning.

Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan. This article was adapted from The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism (Yale University Press, 2014).

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