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.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Syria: the Tragic Impasse


        
Syria: the Tragic Impasse                     
 By
Dr. Michael Sakbani* 

The historical narrative of Syria and its People
In recent weeks the observers of developments in Syria have alternated between unjustified optimism and unwarranted pessimism. The roller coaster of hope and despair runs the course while the Syrian people keep adding to their tragic list of 100,000 deaths perhaps ten times that wounded four million displaced people within and without the country and destruction on a scale not seen since Berlin in 1946. Why is it that this simple revolution for justice, freedom and democracy has notgathered behind it the determined will of the decent people of the world and their governments to end this massacre?

There are 149 members of the UN who call themselves the friends of the Syrian people who met three times and produced nothing concrete. 19 members of the 22 countries of the Arab League declare support for the revolution, yet for all their billions and heaps of arms, they have not broken the stalemate grinding down the Syrian people. Why is this inferno going into its third year?
It is often said that Syria is a complex problem with a demographic mosaics and boomerang effects on its neighbors. While that is true to an extent, the real complexity is the muddle of the interested parties and the regional and international players. The first muddle is the wrong perspective of the so-called policy experts. 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 75% Muslim Sunnis, of whom 5 to 6 percent are Kurds, 8 to 9 % are Arab Christians, 2 % Arab Druze, 11 % are Arab Alawites and 1to 2 % others. In other words, one is talking about 93 % ethnic Arabs and 91 % Muslims of whom 80 % are not Alawites. These statistics show a population of a very high degree of commonness with a long history of living together. There are few countries in the world that can boast such majorities.

. Nevertheless, Syria is not a set of communities living side by side for 5000 years. It is the birthplace of Arab Nationalism, an ism 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 have been inter-communal and among Muslims, intermarriage is quite common. 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


A Government incapable of compromise 

The refusal of the government to deal politically with the just and peaceful demands of the first seven 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 he changed faces inherited from his father but did not change the institutions of the regime and its governance philosophy. Assad senior came on 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 Bashar 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. It is a puzzle: why has this mild-mannered man, who married into the Sunni middle class and along with his sophisticated wife are both educated in Britain unable to resist his father`s brutal inheritance.


 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 strategy. Thus, the international community, largely united on backing the revolution, does not know whom it will 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. It is really ironic that Syria, the most secular and socially advanced of all the Arab the country should become a battleground for medieval fundamentalists and sectarian partisans.



 The international community and the divided Syrian opposition

Despite the recent quasi unification of the outside political opposition in Doha, the opposition has not succeeded in controlling the fighters inside and in proving the unity of vision and strategy. The free Syrian Army has failed to convince or force the Jihadists to follow its orders. Hence, the US is frightened of giving lethal arms, lest they might end up in the hands of the Jihadists and be used against it. Libya left a very bad taste in the American mouth.
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. The Geneva I meeting resulted in setting up six principal planks for such a solution. These are: setting up a transitory governing body with full authority, cessation of hostilities, withdrawal of the army from urban places, the release of prisoners and allowance for journalists to enter the country and finally preparing a constitution and elections. Russia in addition to the US has agreed to these planks, but so far, the regime has said nothing in this regard and it has given every sign that it would not surrender power. There are some truly thorny issues here: specifically, 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 the 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 and not in the hands of the Assad regime in Damascus.  The goal of the dialogue should be according to Geneva I the transfer of 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 the destruction immediately. I do not believe the regime will ever accept voluntarily such a road map.

The requisites of a political solution

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. The Geneva I meeting resulted in setting up six principal planks for such a solution. These are: setting up a transitory governing body with full authority, cessation of hostilities, withdrawal of the army from urban places, the release of prisoners and allowance for journalists to enter the country and finally preparing a constitution and elections. Russia in addition to the US has agreed to these planks, but so far, the regime has said nothing in this regard and it has given every sign that it would not surrender power. There are some truly thorny issues here: specifically, 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 the 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 and not in the hands of the Assad regime in Damascus.  The goal of the dialogue should be according to Geneva I the transfer of 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 the destruction immediately. I do not believe the regime will ever accept voluntarily such a road map.

 In securing such a solution, many consider Russia indispensable. I never thought that Russia is a neutral party, not only because of its interests in Syria but for large other reasons as well. 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.

 Faced with an uncertain future of Syria after Assad, the US is trying to negotiate a deal whereby the Islamists will be excluded from playing a leading role. However, the opposition cannot guarantee a future without the Islamists and the Free Syrian Army cannot implement that unless it has superior arms and field control. The US and the rest of the international community had extended no support to the moderates while the Saudis, Qatries and the rest of the reactionaries have armed the fundamentalists. Moreover, the timing is rather inappropriate; in the words of the opposition chief in Davos" you do not refuse the help of somebody 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 of the extremist Jihadists. However, the Russian position has not evolved to make them helpful. The Saudis, after prince Bender's appointment as head of 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 wish to exclude the Jihadists as well.

Syria, therefore, is caught between the divisions and political inexperience of its opposition and the doubts of the Americans and lack of certainty about the future as far as the other regional players are concerned

I believe the regime has neither the means to win nor the ability to survive. And equally, I do not believe the regime can 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. Meanwhile, the brave and stoic people of Syria are 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 gave him all the time to thwart the popular revolution.

 This is where we are, and that is the heart of darkness in this tragedy.

Geneva 29/3/2013.