Is Assad overplaying his hand?

The BBC reports:

The head of the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has made a rare public appearance in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Sheikh Nasrallah attended a dinner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This is part of a visit to Damascus from Iranian President Ahmedinejad. Predictably, as a result of this meeting – and spectacular photo-op (see above) – Israel is calling on the US to delay sending its new envoy to Damascus. How the US respond to this is interesting. It is highly likely that Obama and co will ignore Tel Aviv’s calls and continue engaging Syria as they plan. However, perhaps Assad should be cautious not to overplay his hand on this.

Whilst Syria clearly has no intention of severing its ties with either Iran or Hezbollah – they give it regional prestige as an intermediary for the West to talk to – Damascus must be aware of the debate about engagement with Syria currently underway in Washington. Evidently, Hilary Clinton and others have been arguing that engaging Syria is part of the wider, more pressing issue of dealing with Iran, and are trying to sell this idea of ‘detaching’ Damascus from its alliance from Tehran. This debate is still far from won in the US and there were many objections in the right wing press, notably the Washington Post, following Obama’s decision to appoint a new ambassador.

It strikes me that whilst Syria need not even pay lip service to this theory that they can be ‘flipped’ it is important at this delicate stage not to appear to be overtly reject it. Photos like the one above will make it much harder for pro-Syria engagement advocates in Washington to win the argument. Perhaps it might have been wiser to reassure Iran privately of Syria’s good intentions until the US ambassador had arrived and relations normalised, and leave the more public endorsement seen above until later down the road.

That said, in a game of brinksmanship, Assad might still win this one. If the US ignores Israel’s pleas and sends the envoy on time, the extent of Obama’s realism will be there for all to see. Syria will feel legitimized in being able to maintain its ties with Iran whilst reengaging with the US. Watch this space.

Military Arrests in Turkey

AP in The Guardian 22 February 2010

“Police in Turkey today detained more than 40 high-ranking military commanders for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Islamic-rooted government.

The arrests highlighted the ongoing struggle between the secular establishment and the government and leaves question marks over the traditional role of the military as the pillar of the secular state….

The military’s image was already tarnished by allegations it was secretly planning to depose Erdogan’s elected government for undermining secularism in the predominantly Muslim but officially secular country.

The commanders detained today are reportedly accused of seeking to foment chaos by blowing up mosques to trigger a military takeover. The military denies the accusation….

The detentions followed revelations of wiretap evidence and the discovery of secret weapons caches, which dealt a blow to the military’s credibility.

Turkey’s secular military has ousted four governments since 1960, which is why many Turks believe it has been the real power since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created the republic out of the Ottoman Empire.”

Elsewhere Robert Tait claims:

“Turkey’s once all-powerful military is facing the biggest challenge to its authority in decades…

…Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based specialist on Turkish military affairs, said the arrests could trigger a major crisis. “The prosecutors have four days to turn these detentions into formal arrests and if they do that, there is no way the army will sit back and not respond,” he said. “This is a power struggle between two authoritarian forces.”

Syrian Schools – A must watch for UK residents

The brilliant but often overlooked digital channel BBC4 is midway through a fantastic series charting the lives of everyday children growing up in the Syrian Schools System. I recently caught the second episode which followed the lives of four Palestinian Syrian girls living in Yarkmouk ‘refugee camp’ in southern Damascus. We see two of them struggle to convince more conservative elders that rap music is a new and effective medium to tell the story of the stateless Palestinians still living in exile after 3 generations. A similarly touching tale shows a girl hoping to compete in the national schools discus championship, only to be held back by her traditional father. Eventually, aided by her supportive grandmother, she is able to take part in the competition at Tishreen stadium, converting her father to her cause along the way.

The program, which still has three episodes to go and can be watched on iplayer by UK viewers here, is a great introduction to Syria for those who have never visited. Having taught in a Syrian school myself, it really does seem to be a fair reflection of the life there and hasn’t been particularly ‘polished’ for TV. Hopefully, if British viewers get to see this kind of everyday life, which shows Syrian teenagers to (obviously) have much the same interests and concerns as their western equivalents, barriers can be broken down. A good step in the long process of debunking inaccuracies and misperceptions of Syria and the Middle East in general.

Turkey: Reengagement is not realignment

By Christopher Phillips, Shifting Sands 19 February 2010

Turkey’s reengagement with the Middle East in recent years has been widely misunderstood. The AKP government’s perceived falling out with long-standing ally Israel, its drawing closer to Syria, Iraq and Iran, and a seemingly less enthusiastic approach to EU accession has led many to conclude that Ankara is shifting Eastwards in its foreign relations priorities. Yet this reorientation should not be over-exaggerated. Far from abandoning old alliances in the West for new friendships in the Muslim world, Turkey is instead settling into a new role as a regional power that was thrust on it after the power vacuum produced by the Iraq war and a decade of economic growth.

To an extent, Turkey’s past disconnection with the Middle East has been exaggerated. Turkey’s longest borders are with Arab states and basic issues such as security and trade have long been discussed between governments. Nevertheless the extent of Ankara’s involvement since 2003 is substantially more than before. Turkey has concluded free-trade and visa-free agreements with Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran, and has invested heavily in each economy. Improved ties with Syria have been particularly fast-paced. President Bashar al-Assad became the first Syrian leader to ever visit Ankara in 2004, after 60 years of relations, yet now trade between the two states has doubled and April 2009 saw the first ever Syria-Turkish joint military exercise.

Parallel to this, Turkey’s older political, economic and military alliance with Israel appears to foundering. Prime Minister Erdogan heavily criticised Tel Aviv’s assault on Gaza in winter 2008-9 and subsequently cancelled joint military exercises. Many see the various diplomatic spats that followed, coupled with the AKP’s Islamist origins, as evidence that the alliance cannot last.

Yet such an analysis is too Middle East focused and ignores the wider changes in Turkey’s foreign policy. Since the Iraq War, the AKP have pursued an increasingly realist foreign policy devised primarily by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. He argues for, “zero problems with neighbours,” whatever their past or current misdeeds. This has allowed the regime to put aside its ideological differences and historical disagreements with not just Syria, Iran and Iraq, but also older enemies in Armenia, Greece and Russia. Israel, whilst also a neighbour, had a privileged position in the past and, in effect, Erdogan’s admonishing has simply stripped it back to a place of average importance. Yet there is no chance of the alliance ending completely. Military cooperation in particular is deep and unlikely to end. Moreover, even Turkey’s Arab allies in Syria have voiced their support for a continued Tel Aviv-Ankara alliance, recognizing its ally’s ability to restrain its enemy.

Another reason behind Turkish reengagement south is its desire for new markets. Following an impressive decade of economic growth, Davutoglu advocates increased Turkish ‘strategic depth’ with its neighbours – promoting its cultural, economic and political influence further than in the past. Turkey’s under-developed Middle Eastern neighbours may provide appealing markets, but they will be explored alongside, not instead of the European trade that built Ankara’s strong economy.

Finally, Turkish reengagement is based on military necessity following the collapse of Saddam’s Iraq. Still fighting Kurdish insurgents in its south, Ankara fears instability in the Arab states will provide safe havens for its enemies to rearm and train. This fear was demonstrated in 2007 when Turkey invaded northern Iraq to smoke out Kurdish rebels. A desire to use its economic, political and military clout to co-opt stability in its southern neighbours is therefore driving policy more than any desire to refashion the region around its interests.

Turkey may be reengaging in the Middle East both out of necessity and out of choice, however this does not mean ideological realignment. Far from pursuing an Islam-centric foreign policy, Ankara is displaying the traits of an emerging realist regional power: extending its influence wherever it can, whenever it can.

Silent Majority? Palestinian Jordanians and the search for identity

By Christopher Phillips, IDEAS Today December 2009

Amman’s Downtown district is no postcard picture. Whilst neighbouring cities Damascus and Jerusalem are blessed with ancient architecture, the centre of Jordan’s capital seems to be inspired primarily by 1960s Soviet aesthetics. Hemmed in by barren hills and subject to a never-ending deluge of polluting traffic that has blackened most of its grey concrete buildings, Downtown feels like its already operating beyond capacity. This is not surprising given Amman’s sudden transformation from a provincial backwater of 50,000 during the Second World War into a bustling metropolis of 2.5 million today, caused by numerous waves of Palestinian refugees crossing the Jordan river, first in 1948, then again in 1967. These refugees and their descendents have long outnumbered the original ‘East Bank’ Jordanians, yet their integration and acceptance into the social, economic and political fabric of the Hashemite Kingdom is still far from assured.

One such refugee is Mohammad, a tailor in his late 50s who runs a workshop in the centre of Downtown. A remarkable multi-tasker he keeps one eye on the gridlocked traffic outside his shop, the other on the small television broadcasting Al-Jazeera suspended above the door, all the while operating a sewing machine and engaging his customers in conversation. “When my father came here from Jaffa in 1948,” he explains, “there really was nothing here. A road, a mosque, a few shops maybe, but that’s it. We had to build our lives from scratch, we came with nothing.” He finishes the last stitch and pauses to inspect his handiwork. “You know, I will never forget Palestine, but Jordan is my home now. I’m proud of what we built here.”

Mohammad’s friend Abu Khaled, seated beside the television, chain-smoking and sipping bitter black Arabic coffee, scoffs at this optimism. In his late 40s and visibly poorer than his shop-owning companion, Abu Khaled has a less positive spin on the life of Palestinians in Jordan. “We will always be second class here,” he says, pensively dragging on his cigarette. “I am forbidden from doing things because I am a Palestinian. I am a hotel porter, but all the good jobs go to the Jordanians, so I cannot work at the five, four and three star hotels where the pay is decent and the tips are high. Instead, I can only work at cheap hotels, where the money is lousy. I came here from Palestine over thirty years ago, but people still deny me work when they see ‘Bethlehem’ as the birthplace on my ID card. At the same time, I am not allowed a visa to return to Palestine. So I am trapped.” Continue reading

Syria’s Assad: pariah to power-broker

By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian 17 February 2010

Washington’s decision to send a new ambassador and top diplomat to Damascus this week represents a remarkable turnaround for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Five years ago, President Assad appeared weak and isolated as he stood before parliament to announce his army’s withdrawal from Lebanon. Greeted by rapturous applause in Beirut and nervous surprise in Damascus, the optometrist who had inherited power barely five years before undid in one speech what had taken his father 24 years to secure: domination over Syria’s western neighbour.

Western, UN, Arab and popular Lebanese pressure had proved too much for the young president and within six weeks of the car bomb that killed Rafiq Hariri and prompted the crisis, Syrian troops were gone and Assad looked vulnerable. Some even questioned how long he could hold on to power.

As Beirutis last weekend commemorated the fifth anniversary of Hariri’s death, much has changed. In Lebanon, Syria’s allies dominate, giving Damascus compliance without the need for troops. In the Arab world, the various leaders have one by one ended their cold war with Damascus, notably Saudi Arabia who effectively endorsed Syria’s renewed dominance in Lebanon last October.

Internationally, the EU have finally offered Syria the association agreement that it suspended in 2005, and Obama’s new ambassador and diplomatic mission this week represents a renewed engagement from the White House, which many hope will end the mistrust and sanctions of the Bush era.

Far from being a pariah, Assad is now courted by the west and Arabs alike as potential power-broker in their disputes with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Fuelled by Syria’s surprising recent economic resurgence, its flourishing new alliance with Turkey, Assad’s regime security and Arab-wide popularity, the younger Assad is swiftly earning a reputation for diplomacy and prudent exercise of power that eclipses even that of his revered father, Hafez. How has Assad achieved this sudden turnaround in fortunes?

On the one hand, even at the height of crisis in 2005, the threat to Assad’s internal power in Syria was exaggerated. While neocon commentators wanted the US army to march from Baghdad on to Damascus, Iraq’s insurgency was already bogging down American hopes of militarily transforming the Middle East. Such hopes were finally scuppered by Israel’s failure to defeat Hezbollah in 2006.

Similarly, though congressmen passed sanctions on the Ba’ath regime, they lacked the teeth to topple the government. At the same time, the domestic opposition in Syria remained weak and, though a government in exile was formed by an unlikely alliance of the defecting former vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2006, they lacked any significant internal support.

That said, Assad took no chances and demonstrated unexpected political fortitude within months of the Lebanon withdrawal to consolidate his rule. Most of his father’s cronies, the “Old Guard” who helped engineer Bashar into power, found themselves honourably retired and replaced by a “New Guard” of technocrats and loyalists after the June 2005 Ba’ath congress. Many of these new figures, such as foreign minister Walid al-Muallim and deputy prime minister for economic affairs Ali al-Dardari, have been instrumental in the diplomatic and economic successes that have enabled Syria’s swift recovery.

More challenging than maintaining power at home was ending Syria’s international isolation, and Assad again surprised sceptics with his diplomatic skill. He drew closer to fellow outcast Iran, while opportunistically wooing other regional players. He rapidly endorsedTurkey’s 2007 incursion of Iraq to consolidate a burgeoning alliance with Ankara and was quick to visit Moscow to back Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, securing much-needed defence supplies in the process.

Vital support and investment was also sought from Qatar, culminating in its mediating the 2008 Lebanese peace agreement that paved the way for a return to Syrian dominance. Assad’s successful cultivation of these allies ensured the failure of the Washington-led diplomatic boycott and, alongside Bush’s failures in Iraq and instability in Lebanon, prompted the gradual realisation by Europe, the “moderate” Arabs and finally the US that Syria could not be sidelined.

Assad’s liberalising economic policies have also reaped rewards, with Syria’s unexpected growth enhancing Damascus’s emerging international confidence. New trade from Turkey, Iraq and the EU has eased fears that economic demands would force Syria to compromise with the US and Israel. Instead, western investors are flocking to Syria, and even the tourist industry is expanding, with Damascus recently named by the New York Times as seventh top destination for 2010. Not surprisingly, Assad’s domestic popularity is enhanced by the developing middle class, who credit their president for this economic success.

This popularity is mirrored in the wider Arab world, where Assad wasvoted most popular Arab leader in a 2009 Zogby poll. This further boosts Damascus’s regional clout, already vying with Egypt and Lebanon for cultural dominance over the Arab world following the widespread popularity of the Syrian drama and soap-opera industry which further projects a positive view of Syria into Arab living rooms.

While sharing his father’s unwillingness to bend to US pressure and, perhaps less ruthlessly, stifling of opposition at home, Assad has shown himself to be a different kind of leader. Since the Lebanon withdrawal he has demonstrated opportunism when backed into a corner and a sound reading of the international climate. After the initial disaster of 2005, Assad was quick to adapt the hard power exercised over Beirut by Hafez into the soft power and indirect influence that has seen Syrian dominance in Lebanon return.

As the US ambassador’s residence in Damascus is once again inhabited, its occupier will find himself dealing with a more confident and influential Syrian president than the one his predecessor left behind in 2005.

Autocracy-lite in Jordan

By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian 29 January 2010

The Arab Middle East is the least democratic region in the world and it is getting worse, according to Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report. Only Morocco, Kuwait and Lebanon now pass as “partly free” while Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan have this year regressed into the same “not free” group as all the other Arab states. Jordan’s relegation is particularly alarming.

King Abdullah II‘s decision to dissolve Jordan’s parliament barely two years into its term, and delay fresh elections until late 2010 was interpreted by Freedom House as “an attempt to manipulate the political process” and a decline in political rights. In spite of this, Jordan retains a carefully fashioned friendly image in the west and remains a key US regional ally, with Abdullah becoming the first Arab leader to visitObama’s White House in April last year. With US strategy under Obama seemingly shifting from democracy promotion towards stability-focused realism, is Amman’s backsliding the shape of things to come? Is Jordan’s friendly-faced “autocracy lite” the best that democracy advocates can hope for?

For decades Jordan has been viewed by the west as the best of a bad bunch in the Arab world. During the cold war the late King Hussein’s pro-American autocratic rule was deemed more benevolent than that of his neighbours in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, and hopes were high for the democratic reforms he initiated in 1989. Since then, Jordan has had an elected parliament with quotas for women, a partly independent press, increased civil society and cooperation with NGOs. It also legalised the Jordanian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). Adding the shine to this friendly image have been the half-British King Abdullah and his glamorous Palestinian Queen Rania, darlings of the western media for their support for charities, progressive values and tolerance.

Yet beneath the kingdom’s glossy surface lies an autocratic underbelly. Despite economic liberalisation, the political reforms of the early 1990s have stalled. While Abdullah talks the language of change, domestic supporters have grown frustrated at his inability or unwillingness to push reform past Jordan’s entrenched elites. No international observers were permitted during the 2007 elections, amid recurring claims that electoral boundaries were re-drawn to ensure a pro-regime result, particularly at the expense of Jordan’s under-represented Palestinian majority. Even this engineered parliament had restricted power, with the king legally able to rule for long periods without it. Furthermore, strict laws muted the fledgling independent press and Jordan recently slipped behind Egypt in its ranking for journalistic freedom. Human Rights Watch complains of regular prisoner abuse and of governors bypassing the judicial system to detain people without trial.

The Obama administration, however, seems unconcerned by this creeping autocracy. Washington recently allocated an additional $150min annual assistance to the Hashemite kingdom, at the same time as Congress cut democracy and governance aid for Egypt and Jordan. Though the White House has spoken of support for reform in Jordan, notably in education, refugees and the assimilation of Palestinians, it also sees the benefits in continued support for undemocratic rule.

Obama needs a consistent ally to fight his corner should he redouble his efforts in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2010, and won’t want to risk the instability of forcing reform. Furthermore, Washingtonmakes widespread use of Jordan’s Intelligence Directorate, recently highlighted by the gruesome murder of CIA operatives in Afghanistan. Such services thrive on the unaccountability of autocracy.

The EU has proven equally reluctant to hold Jordan to account. Indeed,reports suggest that Jordan’s “strong commitment” to the social and economic reforms required as part of its Association Agreement are deemed sufficient to continue financial support despite the lack of progress in political and electoral reforms.

It appears that western reluctance to promote and support Arab democracy is still shaped by George Bush’s failures. Bush’s aggressive attempts to democratise the Middle East were unpopular, ineffective and hypocritical. While some have noted improvements in Lebanon and Iraq as a result of Bush’s “freedom agenda”, the Bush administration also oversaw increased authoritarianism in Egypt and the subversion of democracy in the Palestinian Territories. Keen to rebuild America’s image in the region after such disasters, Obama has adopted a more restrained approach.

But Obama should not abandon the cause just because Bush’s method was flawed. Opposing regime change should not mean opposing regime improvement. Jordan has shown a willingness to reform in the past and should be actively encouraged to do so again. Both the US and EU have vast reserves of soft power that they seem reluctant to use in promoting democratic change, most notably the huge sums of aid sent to Amman each year. Jordan has an internal reform movement upon which to focus and a seemingly progressive leader. If Jordan, with this potential and reliance on western aid, cannot halt its democratic decline, what hope for the more authoritarian Arab states?

Tough Love: The Paradox of Syrian-Iraqi Interdependence

By Christopher Phillips, The Majalla 21 December 2009

Iraqi Prime Minister Nour Al-Maliki’s response to the 8 December Baghdad bombings that left more than 110 dead, carried with it a sense of déjà vu. As with a similar bloody attack on 19 August, Maliki claimed militant former Ba’athists based in Syria were behind the attack and accused Damascus of harbouring Baghdad’s enemies. These accusations are symptomatic of a recent decline in Syrian-Iraqi relations which has seen both sides exchanging insults that echo the days of hostility seen under Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad. However, despite this recent increase in aggressive rhetoric between the regimes involving both ambassadors being recalled in the summer, instances of economic and cultural cooperation between the neighbours is at its highest level in years. Are Maliki’s accusations mere short-term politicking, rather than a return to the dark years of enmity?

Hostility between Damascus and Baghdad is nothing new. Though both adopted Ba’athist governments in the 1960s, Iraq and Syria were ruled by different wings of the party following an ideological schism. Once Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein assumed power in each state this theoretical opposition was transplanted by a deep personal disdain. This contributed to Damascus breaking Arab ranks and supporting Tehran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and then sending troops to Kuwait in alliance with the US in the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis.

However, the fall of Saddam in 2003 and subsequent insurgency made Syrian-Iraqi relations far more complex. On the one hand, Damascus feared the success of the US neo-conservative project in Iraq and President Bashar Al-Assad, like most Arab leaders, publicly opposed the US invasion. Syria was accused of promoting instability by the Bush administration claiming Damascus was facilitating the insurgency by allowing Iraqi militants to use its territory as a base. On the other hand, Assad moved to mend relations with the new Iraq regime. Damascus recognised Maliki’s government by fully restoring ties in 2006, and the US reported a notable decrease in militant activity originating in Syria.

Central to Damascus’ seeming ambivalence to the success or failure of the US-led transformation of Iraq have been economic and political concerns. The early years of the insurgency, where Damascus at the minimum turned a blind eye to militants crossing its borders, coincided with a huge wave of at least 1.2 million Iraqi refugees fleeing to Syria. Whilst some brought needed skills and capital, the majority were poor Sunnis fleeing sectarianism who overwhelmed Syria’s already over-populated cities and over-stretched services. Moreover, it was in these early years that Assad’s regime appeared most threatened by the Bush neo-conservatives, with many in Washington arguing for US forces to continue on to Damascus after Baghdad. Chaos in Iraq was therefore of greater value to Syria than prosperity.

However, the picture has changed in recent years. The threat of US-imposed regime change has diminished as prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan dissuaded American policy makers from seeking to repeat the model in Syria or elsewhere. Moreover, the improved stability in Iraq has fed economic growth in Syria, with GDP up to 6.5%. In 2008 Iraq was Syria’s largest export partner, with 30% of Syrian exports heading East, and Syria was Iraq’s greatest import partner, with 26% of Iraq’s imports originating from its immediate West. More importantly, last year work began to restore the crucial Kirkuk- Banyas oil pipeline, from which Syria is expected to earn up to $1.5 billion a year in transit fees.

Yet the advantages are not one-sided, and Iraq benefits enormously from its renewed ties to Syria. The new pipeline with Banyas, like the existing Kirkuk-Ceyhan route through Turkey is essential to both maintain economic autonomy for Iraq’s northern provinces and also to guard the whole oil economy against any future disruption to routes via the straits of Hormuz. Additionally, Baghdad recently agreed to link its electricity grid to Syria alongside Iran and Turkey. Iraq also relies on Syrian good will to maintain the flow of the Euphrates river – an issue of vital importance given Iraq’s recent droughts. A further factor for Baghdad to consider is the millions of refugees still living in Syria. A recent report by Al-Arabiya illustrated how a worsening of ties between Baghdad and Damascus might lead to their expulsion – thrusting an unwelcome influx of people onto the fragile Iraqi state.

Maliki’s blaming of Damascus after the bomb attacks therefore appears unwise given the increased level of interdependency between the two states. His motives for doing so are likely political and short term. Iraqis soon go to the polls and Maliki will be seeking re-election on a platform of security and unity – something questioned by the devastation of such bomb attacks. Blaming an outside power is a convenient scapegoat and Syria, given its history with the insurgents and its comparative weakness compared to other influential neighbours like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, fits the bill best.

For now Syria is too dependent on Iraq for continued economic growth to register its frustration in a manner more substantial than rhetoric and back-biting. Moreover, Damascus may chose to stay its hand until after the Iraq elections when it may well be facing a new Premier in Baghdad. Yet Syria’s reaction to these accusations will be swayed by the paradox of its relationship with Iraq. Both sides need each other and are becoming more and more interdependent through economic and cultural ties every year. However, on a political level hostility does have its shot term advantages.