the Blog Papers of Dr. Michael Sakbani; Economics, Finance and Politics

Dr. Michael Sakbani is a professor of economics and Finance at the Geneva campus of Webster-Europe. He is a senior international consultant to the UN system, European Union and Swiss banks. His career began at the State university of NY at Stoney Brook,then the Federal Reserve Bank of New York followed by UNCTAD where he was Director of the divisions of Economic Cooperation, Poverty Alleviation, and UNCTAD`s Special Programs. Published over 100 professional papers.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The Syrian Tragedy on the Eve of 2013


       The Syrian Tragedy on the Eve of 2013
                                        By  
                         Dr. Michael Sakbani



The New Year was the occasion for many commentators to express their bleak views of the future of Syria. Among them was Abdul Wahab Badrakhan in two articles in the London based al Hayat and Patrick Seal and others on various media. Many of the points and facts marshaled by such commentators are valid. However, from this author’s prism, they lack perspective. In this category, I would also put the comments emanating from the Russian officials and even some US officials. The lack of perspective concerns their view of the Syrian population, of Syrian history and of the nature of the Assad regime.
Syria’s 24 million people are 78 % Muslim Sunnis, of whom 6 to 7 % are Kurds;  7  % are Arab Christians; 2  % are Arab Druze, 11 % are Arab Alawites and  3 % others. In other words, one is talking about 93 % ethnic Arabs and 91 % Muslims of whom about 82 % are not Alawites. and among Muslims, intermarriage is quite common. These statistics show a population of a very high degree of commonality.  Syrian society has had a long history of peaceful communal peace. There are few countries in the world that can boast such majorities. Yet, sectarian pluralism has been the focal point of most of the Western commentators and their main concern. 
Syria is not only a set of communities living side by side for 5000 years. It is the birthplace of Arab Nationalism, an nationalist ideology that recognizes no sectarian demarcations in principle and in practice. Syria is also a country that has had 93 years of an uninterrupted secular system of education, the longest in the region. There have been Prime Ministers and Ministers from all these communities. All the Syrian political parties since 1918, except for the Muslim Brothers, have been inter-communal. Thus, to talk about Balkanization and Libanonization is not only misleading but is essentially outside the historical narrative of the country. The Syrian problem is political and developmental: 55 years of dictatorships, humiliation and injustice and a failed record in the economic, political, educational and developmental domains. It suffices to point out that in 1955, Syria was better off than South Korea on most development indicators and is now way bellow SK on every indicator. The Syrian revolution is the story of a people who have given their ruling circles a great deal of slack but got very little in return. Thus, they rose to demand Justice, human rights and the rule of law.

The refusal of the government to deal politically with the just and peaceful demands of the first six months of the revolution and its unequivocal brutal security reaction from the very first day has transformed an internal problem into an international humanitarian catastrophe and a regional power game. The regime has only itself to blame for that, it opened the door for the outsiders. The crux of Mr. Assad's problem is that although he changed many faces inherited from his father, he did not change the institutions of the regime and its governance philosophy. Assad senior came by a military coup and held power by his grip on the army and the security forces. He neither paid attention to economic development nor to modernization. He also had the complex of an insecure and paranoiac minority member loath to the rights of the democratic majority. His son could have changed all that but the institutions of the regime and the Assad clan interests drowned him, and he proved incapable or unwilling to effect change.

 The commentators are also swayed by the hesitant reaction of the international community to the events and its seeming disregard for the unfolding tragedy. Fears of the unknown future and the divisions of the Syrian opposition have also contributed to the scary scenarios and the uncertainty of the major outside players. The complexity of the Syrian situation resides in the incapacity or unwillingness of the regime to concede much; it is a clannish setup where gains and privileges are dependent on staying in power and where trust is only accorded to sect members and the regime’s beneficiaries.  The regime cannot accept democracy, because it cannot abide by majority rules. This is compounded by the inability of the opposition to command and unify its ranks and clearly map out a future vision. Thus, the international community, largely united on backing the revolution in principle, falls short in action. It has given the secular  Syrian opposition no logistic support and no qualitative arms and limited its support to rhetoric and some humanitarian aid for the refugees. Moreover, the fact of the opposition division and its lack of control of the fighting forces made major countries, like the US. unsure with whom to communicate and deal with on behalf of the Syrian people after Assad.

The revolution is now about to enter its third year, a period so long and so bloody (70,000 killed according to official statistics and perhaps 100,000 in reality) that it has allowed time for the Jihadi Islamists, hitherto unknown in Syria, to come in and establish a platform for political Islam, and the more this stalemate continues, the more will the extremists spread their writ on the ground. On the other hand, Assad will sooner or later realize his inability to stop this uprising and will invite Iran and possibly Russia to come to his protection.

 Despite the recent attempts at unifying the external political opposition in Doha, the opposition has not succeeded in controlling the fighters inside and in proving the unity of vision. The free Syrian Army has failed to convince or force the Jihadists to follow a unified command. Hence, the US is reluctant and unwilling to give lethal arms to the SFA, lest they might end up in the hands of the Jihadists.  Libya has left a very bad taste in the American mouth. The USA's failure to directly lead the Friends of Syria in providing the Syrian revolution with logistical- economic and military support, weakens the non-islamists revolutionaries and opens the door to the Islamists backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and UAE and to potential Assad`s allies. The US has so far chosen to play back-stage support for these Arab states which in essence have no interest in having Democracy in Syria.
Almost everybody, including this author, believes in a political solution produced by dialogue. But, the concept of political dialogue trumpeted by all mediators is really meaningless without precisely specifying on what basis and under what authority and following what guidelines. To be specific, it is not conceivable to dialogue with the war criminals in the Assad regime. There has to be a designation of figures unencumbered by the violence and suppression of the regime.  But such figures would have no clout. During the dialogue, the authority should be totally in the hands of the parties involved in the negotiations and not in Mr. Assad's hands.  The goal of the dialogue should be to transfer power to an entirely new setup under a new transition government followed by new elections under a new constitution within a short period of time. And an essential prerequisite is to stop the bloodletting and destruction immediately. It is doubtful that the regime will ever accept voluntarily such a road map.

 In securing such a solution, many consider Russia indispensable. But given the Russian support for the regime, Russia is not a neutral party, not only because of its interests in Syria but for larger other reasons. Russia does not want the principle of interference in domestic affairs “Droit d’ ingèrance” for any reason to become acceptable, if such were to happen then its veto power on the Security Council becomes unimportant and its own Muslim population ( 20- 25 million) will claim the same "Droit d' ingèrance", i.e. interference. Putin`s Russia` wants to have its own voice in every international problem, regardless of the validity of its stands.  And that is the same reason for the totalitarian Chinese. Russia is in effect a part of the problem.

 Faced with an uncertain future of Syria after Assad, the US preaches a negotiated deal whereby the Islamists will be excluded from playing a leading role. However, the opposition cannot guarantee a future without the Islamists because the Free Syrian Army cannot implement that since it has minimal outside backing. Moreover, the timing is rather inappropriate; in the words of the opposition chief in Davos this year, " you do not refuse the help of somebody (the Islamists) when your neck is in the rope" Unfortunately, neither some segments of the opposition nor the Jihadists understand this US- European concern, nor even try to go around it by a modicum of political skill; the minute the free Syrian Army declared its unified command, the Jihadists declared that that does not concern them.

The result is that the US has effectively tried to enlist the Russians to find a compromise that gets rid of Assad and his regime but as well as the extremist Jihadists. However, the Russian position has not evolved to make them helpful. The Saudis, after prince Bender appointment as head of Saudi  Security, agree with the US. The Qataris do not entirely agree but would not face the US, and the Turks and Egyptians make a distinction between the Jihadists and the Muslim Brothers and each wishes to exclude the Islamists of the other.
Syria, therefore, is caught between the division and political inexperience of its opposition the doubts of the Americans and lack of certainty about the future as far as the other regional players are concerned

On the available evidence, the regime has neither the means to win nor the ability to survive. And equally, the regime cannot negotiate, because it has little to offer and believes that any changes are a zero-sum game. On the other hand, the opposition cannot retreat but it does not have the capacity to control the situation and demonstrate its ability to win convincingly. This has produced a military stalemate on the ground which has to be broken by shifting the military balance in favor of the revolution in order to bring the government to meaningful negotiations. But the question for the US and the West is who is the opposition now? the Syrian Free Army is weak and the Islamists are gaining ground on it. 
Meanwhile, the brave and stoic people of Syria is left alone without effective arms or even humanitarian aid paying an incredible price in blood and physical infrastructure and witnessing some sixty years of work destroyed. 

This is a cynical and shameful stance by the international community. It might be that the international community does not support Assad, but it has through its hesitance and inaction has given him all the time to thwart the popular revolution and pull into this tragedy outsiders and militant Islamists.
This is where we are, and that is the heart of darkness in this tragedy.

Geneva 7/1/2013.