Tuesday 29 October 2013

Lakhdar Brahimi: “It’s very complicated”

International troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi today held talks in Damascus, the last leg of a Middle East tour to lobby for a Syria peace conference, dubbed Geneva-2.

I am personally of the opinion he will keep huffing and puffing well into 2014 without getting up the steep Geneva-2 hill.

According to the Geneva Communiqué of June 2012, the principal objective of the proposed peace conference is to set up by mutual consent a transitional governing body with “full executive powers.”

I will come back to the prospects of Geneva-2 in a subsequent blog.

But here are highlights of what Brahimi told the Paris-based weekly newsmagazine Jeune Afrique in a 3,000-word interview published on the day of his arrival in Damascus yesterday.

The interview is fittingly titled “Mission Impossible”:

Jeune Afrique: Didn’t the agreement between the Russians and Americans [to remove Syria’s chemical weapons] put Bashar al-Assad back on the saddle?

Lakhdar Brahimi: He was an outcast; he became a partner… Bashar was never put off his stride -- so there is no reason to think that.

JA: Do you think he seriously considers running for re-election in mid-2014?

LB: Many of those around him take his running for another term as an accomplished fact.

He deems it as his absolute right, but that he would come to a decision in due time. He is adamant about completing his current term.

What I proclaim aloud and to all Syrians is this: History teaches us that after a crisis like this, there is no turning back.

President Assad could therefore significantly contribute to the transition from the previous Syria -- which is that of his father and his own -- to what I call the New Syrian Republic.

JA: What about the Syrian opposition?

LB: They are to consider who could represent them [at the peace table]. This is one reason why it takes time. Some of them even feel they should stay away from Geneva.

It's very complicated!

In this type of situation, there are many camps. Armed and unarmed opposition, opposition based outside and inside [Syria], Islamists, seculars, etc... We must realize Geneva-2, unlike the conference held in 2012, is not an end in itself but the beginning.

We hope the opposition will manage to agree on a credible and representative delegation. We must not delude ourselves: the whole world won’t be represented. However, the carry-over of this process will include as many people as possible.

JA: If the powerful Islamist rebels choose to boycott Geneva, it will be a real problem...

LB: Probably, but mind you there are two sorts of Islamists: those interested in the quest for peace, and those in the orbit al-Qaeda – such as Jabhat al-Nusra, for example. The latter wish to bring down the regime; they are not fighting to build a New Syrian Republic, but to set up an Islamic state. So they don’t give a hoot about Geneva.

JA: Is Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a reliable partner?

LB: Absolutely – we know each other well.

He was ambassador to the UN and is an outstanding professional. He is also extremely knowledgeable about the Middle East.

Where Syria is concerned, there is much talk about Moscow's influence and the Russians’ political relations with the regime.

The Russians have had a significant, longstanding and uninterrupted presence in Syria.

Everyone bears in mind the Russian officers who are out there, but there are chiefly a lot of engineers. Remember, there are nearly 20,000 Russian women in Syria married to Syrians.

The Russians know Syria very well. When [Tunisia’s  Zine al-Abidine]  Ben Ali, [Egypt’s Hosni] Mubarak and [Libya’s Muammar] Gaddafi fell, few thought Bashar would survive more than three months.

Only the Russians kept saying: "Careful -- this is not the case, we are familiar with the country, and we know how it works. Syria is more complicated. "
Some thought this was pretentious, that it was an unconditional expression of support for Bashar.

JA: Do you think Syria’s national fabric can still be patched up?

LB: Yes, I think so. What threatens Syria is not the country’s partition. I would be surprised if the Alawites really want to create some sort of a bunker in their small mountains. They know very well it won’t be viable.

The real danger threatening Syria is a kind of "Somalization," one which will be more sustainable and profound than what we’ve seen in Somalia so far.

JA: Does the idea of ​​a Shiite crescent fighting Sunnis across the Arab and Islamic worlds seem pertinent?

LB: Effectively, we do have a problem, which is far from being new. I remember discussing it with [the highest ranking Shiite religious leader in Iraq] Grand Ayatollah [Ali] Sistani, when I was in Baghdad in 2004. I explained to him we might have on our hands a Shiite-Sunni problem stretching from Indonesia all the way to Morocco.

He answered me saying Iraq was not Pakistan, where internecine strife was rife. He was wrong... We're not yet at the stage of a general confrontation, although [Shiite-Sunni] tensions are numerous in Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan or Bahrain. But we must be vigilant because we’re not too far off.

JA: What role is Iran playing in the Syrian conflict today -- that of a facilitator or an obstacle?

LB: You know, from my point of view, everyone represents an obstacle... Seriously, I met the new president, Hassan Rouhani, and his minister of foreign affairs in New York.

Iran's position is clear: there is no military solution to this conflict; an entente must be reached between the government -- towards which the Iranians are very close -- and the opposition that will result in free elections supervised by the United Nations.

I’m under the impression they [Iranians] think Bashar would win the ballot hands down.

JA: From [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to Rouhani, have you noticed a change in Tehran’s discourse and positions?

LB: On other issues, such as relations with the United States, certainly. But on the Syria crisis, no, absolutely not.

JA: What about Israel in all this?

LB: I feel that whatever the case, Israel is in a win-win situation. If Bashar goes, Syria will take a long time to stabilize. If Bashar stays, he will be broken-down. And if the internecine strife continues, it will be good for Israel... Moreover, chemical weapons were the only strategic weapons the Israelis feared. In short, Israel is in a win-win situation and I'm not sure the Arabs are aware of this...

Saturday 26 October 2013

Obama flees Syria, but what with Saudi Arabia?

File picture of U.S. President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah

By Saudi media star Jamal Khashoggi, writing for al-Hayat

There are many reasons for the Saudi-U.S. crackup.

The breach is mostly over Syria, where U.S. doublespeak has repeatedly been used to hide negativity. Incessant American statements denouncing the Assad regime are totally irreconcilable with happenings on the ground.

What infuriated the Saudis, who want a quick end to the Syria crisis, is what they believe to be America’s laid-back and indifferent attitude liable to prolong the crisis regardless of its consequences and its spillovers into regional countries.

The most conspicuous inconsistency in the American position is in the matter of arming the opposition.

America covertly bumps heads with its Saudi ally over the latter’s desire to raise the quality of arms supplied to the Syrian opposition, and even prevents its Saudi ally from delivering quality weapons by invoking bilateral arms sales agreements banning such transfers to a third party. At the same time, the U.S. does nothing about the shipments of Russian arms to the Syrian regime via Iran and Iraq.

The only time Washington intervened was to back Israel’s objection to Russia delivering game changing S-300 air defense systems to Syria.

The U.S. did not even try to thwart the participation in the Syria war of tens of thousands of Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militiamen although Washington has ample details about the role Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard and its Commander General Qasim Suleimani are playing in the war.

Unquestionably, the Americans’ answers – such as they cannot shut out Hezbollah or Iran’s Revolutionary Guard from Syria – are far from having convinced Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh is fully familiar with every aspect of America’s influence in Iraq, which has become the primary conduit for Iranian arm shipments and volunteers to Syria.

Israel did not hesitate to hit Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guard targets inside Syria when she felt they threatened her national security.

It did so without Syria or any of its allies reacting. If Israel can do this, so can America -- especially that Jordan paved the way for Washington, having offered the Obama Administration the chance to use Jordanian bases to deploy its armed drones against Syrian regime targets.

The U.S. Administration declined the Jordanian offer, which was repeated on several occasions in coordination with the Saudis, according to an informed source.

Paradoxically, the U.S. fully concurs with Saudi Arabia that the biggest threat to the security of the Arabian Peninsula comes from al-Qaeda, which is already active in Yemen. Both Washington and Riyadh are working hand-in-hand to fight it.

But at the same time, Washington is indifferent to the threat posed by al-Qaeda in Syria, which mushroomed with the arrival there of the original version of the terrorist group – namely, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which Saudi Arabia perceives as a serious menace to her security. And so do Jordan and Turkey.

By sinking roots in Syria, ISIL, which is also known by its Arabic acronym DAESH, would have set up a network of human ballistic missiles there capable of reaching all regional countries.

It would be in a position to send suicides to all regional cities.

The group has already moved against the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government by sending suicide car-bombers to Erbil in retaliation to KRG President Masoud Barzani’s avowed readiness to help Syria’s Kurds against terrorists in Syria’s north.

The Erbil bombings shocked regional capitals particularly that the enclave was calm for years and has a strong security network.

Experts claim that intercepting a surface-to-surface missile with a network of Patriots is easier than intercepting a lone, cross-border suicide who gets his explosives delivered to him via another route. Once the suicide receives his explosives the chance of foiling his terrorist bombing becomes negligible.

By nesting in northern Syria and welcoming foreign fighters, DAESH will become a magnet for young Saudis outraged by the abuses in Syria.

Such young Saudis have been swayed by calls for Jihad still ringing across the Kingdom, but mostly underground.

Estimates putting the number of Saudi “mujahideen” in Syria at 4,000 are probably inflated, as happened earlier in Afghanistan and Bosnia. But even if the figure were one-fourth of the estimate, the number is substantial enough to reinvigorate al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia after the Kingdom breathed a sigh of relief when its security forces succeeded in stamping out its activities.

Riyadh still has reason for concern. Young Saudis in Syria deliberately conceal their true numbers and shun the media.

They do not emulate al-Qaeda, which is always keen to boost its recruitment campaigns by uploading propaganda videos about the heroism of its members on YouTube.

One expert in Syria who works for the United Nations puts it this way: “You see video clips of Chechens or Libyans much more than of Saudis. But they are by far the more numerous. I believe the Saudis constitute the third largest group of fighters in Syria after the Jordanians and Palestinians. Their shunning the media is worrying.”

This is probably because they know fighting in Syria violates their government’s instructions. They also realize Saudi security is aware as to who left the country to fight in Syria and will surely apprehend the lot on their return.

Al-Qaeda in turn knows this very well and exploits the fact to build a recruitment reservoir for future underground action in the post-Syria stage. Al-Qaeda-watchers know there is always a post-Syria, post-Afghanistan and post-Iraq.

All these Saudi concerns won’t dissipate except with a settlement of the Syria crisis that ends the war that is currently serving as fertile ground for al-Qaeda and Iran to spread their respective influences, each in its own way and in keeping with its own purposes.

 And although neither al-Qaeda nor Iran is a friend of Saudi Arabia, recent leaks in the American press reveal the Obama Administration is not only unconcerned, but wants the Syria crisis to persist.

This is bound to deepen the Saudi American rift.

The hurtful surprise came in a recent New York Times quoting White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough as questioning how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.

He argued the status quo in Syria could keep Iran pinned down for years.

In later discussions, McDonough suggested a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda would work to America’s advantage.

His words evoke memories of “imperialist” statements made in the 1950s when the interests of arms dealers and oil companies determined American foreign policy with total disregard of peoples’ rights and interests.

We are not angels ourselves, but we cannot possibly be as wicked.

The price of such a policy will be paid by the Syrian people and by the whole region. The war between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah will drag in the region’s countries and armies.

U.S. President Obama considers U.S. health care reform more important than what he dubbed Syria’s inferno.

However, for us Saudis, Syria could be our heaven or our inferno.

So let us do something, albeit alone.

No matter what the cost turns out to be today, it would surely be less than what we would have to pay in three of four years.

Monday 21 October 2013

Taking leave from Syria… temporarily

Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Yassin al-Haj Saleh, 52, is a prominent Syrian writer and political dissident. He served 16 years in prison – from 1980 to 1996 -- under President Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez.

He was arrested while studying medicine in Aleppo and took his final examination as a general medical practitioner in 2000, but never practiced. He is a recipient of the Prince Claus Award for 2012 as “actually a tribute to the Syrian people and the Syrian Revolution.” He was not able to collect the award.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh stunned the Arab world October 12 by bidding his au revoir to Syria on his Facebook page. Here is what he said:

I did my utmost throughout the past two-and-a-half years to stay in the country.

This was important to me (1) as a writer wanting to live the conditions he wants to write about, and (2) as an intellectual wishing to live amidst and like his people to try and take in their circumstances.

I wanted to stay, not because I was doing indispensable work, but because it was my native habitat – one that I could not do without.

After spending half a century of my life seeing Syria motionless, I want to see her evolving.

Staying put in the country also called for great effort to avoid falling into the clutches of the criminal Assad regime.

Some two years into the Revolution, I had to leave Damascus where I lived a little more than 12 years -- the last two of them underground.

I first moved to Ghouta before heading, within 100 days, to ar-Raqqa, the city where I spent my childhood and adolescence years and which is home to my brothers -- or whoever is left of them.

The journey to ar-Raqqa was incredibly daunting – not because it lasted 19 scorching summer days and was fraught with danger. The phased journey was overwhelming because I was already monitoring ar-Raqqa prior to setting out.

The city had fallen under the occupation of a hostile foreign force – namely, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, better known by its Arabic acronym DAESH.

DAESH is a name that befits a ghoul in one of the folktales we used to hear in our tender age.

A few days before leaving Ghouta, I heard the ghoul had detained my brother Ahmad.

While still in Ruhaibeh, in the Qalamoun area, I learned -- when establishing contact to ask after Ahmad – that the ghoul had also abducted (my younger brother) Feras.

That exceeded all limits.

The trip to ar-Raqqa became meaningless, but I couldn’t turn back.

I wished the intimidating journey would end, sparing me the hardship that was alleviated by the company of two young army deserters and a young photographer friend who was documenting parts of our journey.

Concluding the odyssey was no more a personal objective. There was no special joy in ending the Herculean task.

I spent two-and-a-half months underground near ar-Raqqa, where I did not hear a word about Feras.

Nothing could have been worse.

Instead of being ecstatic in ar-Raqqa, I found myself living underground in my “liberated” city two-and-a-half years after the Revolution.

At the same time, strangers kept ar-Raqqa and its population under their thumb, destroyed a modest statue of caliph Harun al-Rashid, desecrated a church, appropriated public property, rounded up human beings – political activists specifically, rather than the regime’s shabiha and former lackeys -- and melted them away in their dungeons.

In addition to aggression against human beings, idols and objects, the new kid on the block (DAESH) doesn’t seem to have any sense of responsible authority.

I wanted to stay in ar-Raqqa as long as possible to understand the turn of events and form an opinion of Johnny-come-lately.

I learned useful things, but not as much as I would have wanted because I was unable to walk the city streets and hear people’s accounts first hand, let alone meet the so-called “emirs” and “jihadists” of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

To avoid walking the streets of ar-Raqqa in the fall was not the trigger of my au revoir.

In the early days of the Revolution, I used to tell my friends humorously, “I want to bring down the regime to acquire a passport.”

I longed for a passport in order to feel free – travelling whenever I wanted.

Today, I leave behind friends who are continuing the struggle. Our presence inside the country was a source of mutual comfort and support.

I am not bitter.

I am slightly angry.

I realize how desperate our situation is. But each time I thought I grasped something or shed light on something else, I felt I scored a point against the beast (with multiple heads and horns) wanting us to remain in the dark, mute and wanting nothing other than what it wants.

What I dread most now is to be in the dark outside Syria, failing to make sense of events at home.

I got the hang of Syria, my homeland.

I don’t exactly know what to do in “exile.”

In the past, the word “exile” unnerved me. It had the connotation of mocking those staying in the country.

The meaning of “exile” may change today to embody the saga of our uprooting, asylum, dispersion and homecoming hopes.

I don’t know what I will be doing, but I am part of this great Syrian exodus and the anticipated Syrian remigration.    

Though Syria looks like a slaughterhouse today, we have no other homeland.

I am also aware no country is more merciful to us than this horrific country.