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, October 29, 2017

Self-dtermination: a right or an invitation to chaos

Self determination ;


          Dr. Michael Sakbani
The Kurdish a referendum in Iraq and the Catalan referendum in Spain have raised the issue of self-determination in the context of the modern state. Many in the West were well disposed towards the Kurds. The observed equality of men and women in their military ranks, and the advocacy by the Kurdish nationalist of a civil state are remarkable and noteworthy in a region where women have few human rights and where Islamists of all types want to go back 10 centuries backward.
Like many, the author has a prima facia sympathy for the Kurds `aspirations. However, nationalism and religion have done a lot of harm to the world and Kurdish nationalism is not exempt from that.
       On the ground, Kurdish nationalist separatists unleashed in Turkey, a merciless war whose victims were ordinary civilians, Kurds, and Turks. These were innocent bystanders and low- level security officials whose misfortune was to work for the government. These PKK terrorists acted in the name of nationalism and a convoluted Marxist ideology in a claim of blood-soaked self-determination. Their followers in Syria, the Protection Forces, known as the PYD, unleashed a campaign of ethnic cleansing against their Arab neighbors in areas where the Kurds are a minority and killed or put in jail Kurds who opposed them. In Iraq, Mr. Barazani and the nationalists' separatists around him, took advantage of Iraq`s chaos to cut off his region from Iraq and to expand into areas where Kurds are not a majority and tried in the process to change the demography of the disputed areas, all in the name of nationalist self-determination. The Kurdish region at the time of the referendum was 40% larger than the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan. Mr. Barazani ruled in a tribal fashion, adjourned the Parliament, depressed his elected term, and put all the oil revenues in accounts he controls.this was a self. serving ploy all in the name of nationalism.

 It is instructive to look at some facts. According to sources published in Wikipedia, October 2017, the Kurds in Iraq constitutes 16.0 % of its population, including some 550,000 immigrants in various countries. In Syria, they constitute 7 % of the population. In Iran, Kurds are 10% and in Turkey 17.5 % of the respective population. Turkish Kurds include 750,000 emigrants in Germany and a couple of hundred thousand in other countries. 
The Kurds in all these countries live everywhere and there is wide-spread intermarriage with other inhabitants. Separating these people is a very vexing problem. If one gives the Kurds independence in the majority Kurdish regions, what will one do with those in the major population centers where they are minorities? If they were to vote, even if they say no, but the overall result is yes, they become sudden foreigners in their places of residence. If they were not given the right to vote, then how does one accept the separatist Kurds to speak for them? We are not talking about minor numbers, but something in the order of a fifth to a third of the total Kurds.

The Right of Self Determination

To be sure, the UN Charter grants the right of self-determination to people according to certain conditions. The Charter is clear that this applies to people under occupation or persecuted or threatened in life and possessions. Looking at the Kurds' situation, none of the UN Charter provisions for self-determination apply. 
In Iraq, all the Presidents since 2003 have been Kurds. The Kurds occupied the finance ministry and foreign affairs for 8 years and the chief of staff of the armed forces for 4
years plus other cabinet positions. The Peshmerga have been paid by the Iraqi government and the region is promised in the constitution 17% of the gov. budget.-revenues even though only 80% of the Kurds live inside it. Where is the prosecution or diminished rights in this?

In Syria, Shukri al Qwatly and Husni al Zaiem two Syrian Presidents were of Kurdish descent. One-third of the Kurds in Turkey are in the major Turkish cities. Istanbul has an estimated 2.0 million Kurds. And the Turkish Parliament has more than 20 % deputies of Kurdish descent.

If the right of self- determination is granted without conditions, then
 we have to give the Basques and the Catalans their right to separate from Spain.
The same goes for the Flamandes and the Walloons in Belgium. The same for the Lombards, Venetians and Tirolians in North Italy and the Corsicans in France. The same must apply in India for the Tamils and those in North East India and to Kashmire. The same holds for all the Russian speaking people outside Russia. In Africa, we have to break up most of the African state and redraw the maps on tribal lines.

In Syria and Iraq, Kurdish nationalism has been driven by a state of ill-being in these countries shared by all the citizens. The repressive states in Syria and Iraq have broken the implicit social contract. They failed to deliver human and political rights to their citizens and cordoned off their participation in public affairs. They also achieved no economic or social developments and suppressed the private sector. The surfacing of the Islamists since The 970s has also permeated the public place and hued it with a backward violent atmosphere, making escape and separation viable modes of survival. Kurdish nationalism was such a mode of escape for the Kurdish part of the population while packing up and leaving was the escape for the other parts of the population. So, the rise of nationalist Kurdish sentiment was a reaction to state claustrophobia. 

t would be, in this author's opinion, better for the Kurds to be a part of their surrounding societies if they are given a measure of autonomy within confederate states that respect and equally treat all their citizens. Kurdistan is rather poor in resources and land-locked. The political sociology proved during Barazani`s years to be tribal and rather corrupt. Without cooperation from its regional neighbors, it would not prosper. Therefore, Kurds are certainly better off economically and socially and perhaps politically living in pluralistic decentralized states.


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Syria and Iraq after Kirkuk and Raqqa; the Tasks to Come

Top of Form
Bottom of Form


Iraq and Syria after Kirkuk and Raqqa; the Tasks to Come


                       Dr. Michael Sakbani

Predictably, the referendum on Kurdish independence engineered pushed forward and promoted by the Kurdish leadership in Erbil, has fired back on Kurdish chauvinists. Once again, the historical leadership of the Barazani tribe showed its shortsightedness in seeking alliances with outside powers against their national brethren to further their cause. At the time of Massoud Barazani`s father Mulla Mustafa, the outsiders were the USA, the Soviet Union, the Shah of Iran and Israel. At the time of Massoud, they were Israel, the US and some Europeans. When the Pan- Kurdish aspirations were frustrated by their compatriots, the outside powers left the Kurds in the lurch.  
         This time, however, it was not only the outside powers that abandoned the separatist Kurds, but even Kurds in their own region were split on the referendum. The opportunism of Masoud Barazani and his clique in Erbil, in taking advantage of the chaos and weakness of Baghdad to go for separation and territorial expansion in the disputed territories has robbed him of any legitimacy and exposed the personal ambitions, political and financial, behind his nationalist advocacy.
      After the failure of all enteritis to dissuade ErbilI of its separatist path, the government of Baghdad took back in two days all the opportunistic territorial expansions of June 2014 (40 % of the territory) and the Kurdish separation project was thus blunted by the real developments on the ground.  
It is not that the Kurds national aspirations are wrong, rather, their chauvinist separatism has blinded them to the“ réal politique” around them. Unless Kurdish nationalism becomes cognizant of the threats it engenders to the territorial integrity of its surrounding states and accommodates itself to realistic demands of administrative autonomy within federated states, it is bound to meet with opposition and rejection by its regional states.
      At this time and era, chauvinist Kurdish nationalism, despite its progressive stance on the issues of women's rights and civil state is a throwback to the 19th-century nationalism, which proved disastrous in Europe, in the Arab World and elsewhere. The whole idea that one belongs to a group of people among whom one is born and therefore one relates exclusively to them, is a rather simplistic idea devoid of much meaning. What matters in our times is for one to live in a country of equal citizenry and to be able to pursue one`s ambitions, well-being and happiness, and participate in public affairs on equal footings with everyone else. The fate of the Middle East is for its peoples to live in peace and partnership across ethnic, religious and sectarian lines.
          In Iraq, the Kurds live everywhere in addition to their three provinces and they cohabit with other groups. This cohabitation has been, outside politics, peaceful and fraternal. Of all Iraqi cities, Kirkuk is the proof of this reality. There are more points in common between Iraq`s Kurds, its Arabs and Turkomans than between them and the Kurds of Turkey. This is true culturally (they speak different dialects) and religiously and of course, economically. Mr. Barazani has chauvinistically decreed to exclude teaching Arabic to a generation of Kurdish youth. This is a historical disservice to all.

          With Kurdish independence and its referendum behind us, Iraq under Prime minister Abadi seems to hit the right chord by invoking national inclusiveness and equal citizenry. This might signal facing the challenge of a new political start. The US invasion has ushered into Iraq a political system and body- politics that proved to be discriminatory, corrupt and sectarian. For 14 years Iraq has moved from one crisis to another and has achieved no economic, social or political improvement. Mr. Abadi can henceforth start reforming the Iraqi failed political system and gradually change the ethos of its body -politics. This should resolve several problems. The first is reconciliation between Baghdad and Erbil and the second between its Shiites and Sunnis. Then he faces the daunting problems of rebuilding the ruined Arab cities in its north and middle and cleaning up corruption.
     The body politics installed in Iraq by the US in the wake of its invasion has resisted such reconciliation and has placed sectarian considerations above national ones. The time for a true Iraqi compact in a modern state of equal citizenry seems now to be upon the country. If Iraqi politicians led by Mr. Abadi succeeds in meeting these challenges, Iraq would begin its road to recovery.

Is this aspiration realistic?

The record of the Iraqi politicians that came with the US invasion, has more dim than bright points. Iraqi politics came up with Mr. Maliki and numerous sectarian politicians like him who defined themselves first as Shiites and only second as Iraqis. It also came up with Kurds like Masoud Barazani and his supporters of separatists willing to make alliances that serve their cause regardless of the Iraqi national interests. There were also Sunni politicians, who invoked tribal and provincial identities. There were however exceptions, such as Mr. Iyad Allawi and Muktda al Sadre, who advocated, on and off, Iraqi national interests.
    Building a modern Iraq requires politicians with allegiance to a civil pluralistic Iraqi state. In this regard, Iran which is a sectarian theocracy has come after the US invasion to play an outsized influence in Iraq. Iran is motivated by its strategic and sectarian interests and not by the interests of Iraq. What makes this interference dangerous is the existence of armed Shiite militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces who are trained and supplied by Iran and are active on the scene. The long-run stability of Iraq requires in our view dissolving and disarming such militias and limiting therefrom the Iranian interference. 

        The recovery requires securing Iraq national unity by giving the Kurds a wide federal autonomy permitting them to feel masters of their daily lives. This can be done by granting a federated autonomy to the Kurdish three provinces within their borders before the invasion. It is up to the Kurds leadership in these provinces to negotiate with Baghdad the demarcations and modalities of such an autonomy; whether there should be one region or separate provinces. But this must involve the Kurds' acceptance of the national sovereignty of Iraq over their region. Separatist manifestations such as having diplomatic relationships with other countries and control of their borders and underground wealth in addition to having the Peshmerga subject exclusively to Kurdish control is not and has never been a part of functional federated states in contemporary history. The 5 million Kurds of Iraq-16.5 % of the population- are an integral part of the national social tissue and they should view themselves and be treated as such by Iraq

       The Iraqi Constitution remains, despite many of its excellent provisions, a product of the US occupation. The Kurds were deeply involved in drafting it and used the occasion for inserting many self-serving provisions. Similarly, the Shitte politicians inserted provisions regarding their religious authorities which threaten a modern civil state.  A new Constitution will be needed for future Iraq that recognizes the above realities and preserves Iraq`s territorial integrity. This has been a demand of many political bodies in Iraq.

        Iraq cannot prosper if the Sunni-Shiite schism persists. Parties of sectarian orientation or membership, such as the Daawa Party of the Prime Minister, have no place in an Iraq of equal citizenry. The same goes for nationalist chauvinist parties such as the Baath. The crimes and mistreatment by Saddam Husain of the Shiites and the Kurds should not serve as an excuse for sectarian or separatist politics. Turning this sad page is essential for national reconciliation. 

Syria after Raqqa   

The liberation of Raqqa from the control of ISIS tolls the beginning of the end of the Khilafat in Syria. Added to Iraq`s recovery of its north, the two countries can look now to the post-ISIS future. The Problem in Iraq however, is fundamentally different than Syria. In Iraq, there is a central authority that needs to reform the political system and effect national reconciliation. Iraq has the material resources to rebuild, but it needs the return of its wealth of educated people from exile.

         Syria now faces squarely the issue of transition from the present Assad regime, which caused all its problems. ISIS and al Nusra Front were the distractive interludes which masked what the revolution was all about and justified the neglect of dealing with the main issue: the corrupt, sectarian and brutal dictatorship of the Assad family. The past six years introduced into Syria many players: the Russians, the Iranians, the Turks, the Shiite militias, the divided Islamists, the Sunni terrorists and the militias of the regime.
       All of those are by-products of the disintegration and illegitimacy of the Syrian state in place and the conflict of interests of the various players on the Syrian soil. There are two principles that are accepted by all parties: the integrity of the Syrian national territory and the need for a political solution to the problem. These two principles are embodied in all the UN and international decisions on Syria. Thus, the political future of Syria has to involve all the international state players in forging an outline of a political compromise. This compromise has to be negotiated and fleshed out by a unified Syrian opposition and the regime. The goal of such negotiations is to transit the country into a new and different system of governance and clear out all the non-state foreign players. 
Towards this end, there have been 7 rounds of Geneva negotiations without results. There is no secret to this: the Syrian regime does not and cannot accept transition because its existence depends on its continuity in power. The regime cannot accept any democratic transition outside its control. This stance was emboldened and given sustenance by the Russian military intervention in 2015. Russia ostensibly intervened to combat ISIS and other terrorists. But in reality, its aim was to bolster the Assad regime and prevent its fall. This was accomplished by the brutal bombing of every opposition force in Syria. At the same time the regional supporters of the opposition: Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and Qatar reordered their priorities and diminished drastically their military support of the armed opposition, while the US and Europe stood by watching.
In the successive rounds of meetings on Syria, Russia tried with no success to create alternatives to the Geneva process outside the UN mandates, while Iran continued its full engagement with the regime. This has created an asymmetry on the ground which strengthened the position of the regime and freed it from the pressure to negotiate. Thus far, Russia has either not been willing or turned out incapable of forcing the regime into meaningful negotiations in Geneva. In its stand, the regime follows Iran, which wants no transition.
We are now looking forward to the 8th round of Geneva. There is an optimism that this round held in the wake of ISIS defeat and the enlargement of the opposition delegation might bring about serious negotiations. It is an educated guess that the 8th round of Geneva this coming December will produce nothing as the regime feels it is dominant on the ground and free of international pressure.

The future challenges: Things to be done

If somehow a transition can be forged for Syria- and that is a big if- the future governments of Syria must face five  fundamental problems: reconstruction, national reconciliation, re-hauling the educational system, revamping the security and armed forces and modernizing the institutions of the state and civil society.

Syria has been destroyed by the regime, the foreign players, and the grinding of its civil war. Its reconstruction is estimated to cosupwards of $300 billion. Sadly, Syria`s reconstruction needs multi-donner help; the country simply does not have the resources to do it alone. Possible donner: the US, the Arab countries, the Europeans, have all declared that they will not contribute unless there is a real transition from the current regime. Neither the Russians nor the Iranians can be of much help in reconstruction: they do not have the means to do so. That cements the need for true political transition as a condition for help. Knowing the ways of the regime, It is likely, however, that it will use the return of refugees to Syria as a bargaining card in its fractions with the international community on Reconstruction. An additional related problem is the laws and regulations promulgated by the regime which punishes the refugees outside Syria. These have to be rolled back for refugees to think of returning.

        National reconciliation requires an inclusive government with a degree of administrative decentralization. The reconciliation must be based on justice, which implies calling for a judicial account all individuals who were involved in crimes against the population. Such transition justice is essential to turn over the page. However, Syria has experienced a barbaric state for the last 54 years with a cumulative record of suppression and neutering of the largest segment of its society, the Sunni urban population. The regime also wiped out all of the civil society institutions. Thus, it would not be enough to punish the culpable during its civil war but to open the record of this savage regime and effect a national catharsis of its cumulative sins, as was done in South Africa.
       Part of the national conciliation pertains to the Kurds. The Kurds in Syria are anywhere between 6 and 8 percent of the population- about 2.1  million-. Many of the Syrian Kurds came to the country North East after the failure of their revolt against the Turkish republic in the mid-1920s. Syrian Kurds had for centuries before that lived in various Syrian cities and have been an integral part of the social fabric of the society. There have been prominent national Syrian Kurds at the highest levels of politics and civil society (two Presidents and several ministers). The national Kurdish sentiments are rather recent in Syria. It came to the country as a result of two combined factors: the rise of Kurdish national sentiment in Iraq along with the accomplishments of Iraqi Kurdistan and the suppression of the regime and its chauvinist rejection of non- Arab identities. Thousands of Kurds living in Northern Syria were deprived of their nationalities by decree 93, until a few years ago. 
            After the first year of the revolution, the Syrian regime abandoned control of the North East of Syria. This created a vacuum into which local control was assumed by separatist Kurds known as the PKY with a close relationship to the Turkish PKK and the teachings of its leader Abdullah Ocalan. The PKY was encouraged and partially armed by the regime to create a problem for Turkey, the Syrian opposition`s backer. Other Kurds under the banner of the Syrian Kurds Council joined the revolution and have been a part of the Syrian opposition. The separatist Kurds under Salih Muslim, claim their goal to be a federated democratic Syrian state. But their behavior has been anything but that. They practiced ethnic cleansing against the majority Arab population and suppressed all Kurds who do not follow their line. Moreover, they put themselves in the mercenary service of the US to fight the Islamic State and cooperated tacitly with the Assad regime. 
To further their separatist aspirations, they swept over a vast territory in Syria to create a contiguous enclave linking Afrin to Kobani and that to Kamishli, which they called Rohgova and expelled in the process the majority non-Kurdish population of the area. In 2016  they enlisted themselves in the service of the USA, which armed and supplied them to fight ISIS. In this episode, they followed an established tradition of Kurdish Nationalists: to ally themselves with outside powers against their states of residence. As in the past, they will be abandoned by those outsiders after their use expires. In any future Syria, the separatist Kurds will be a danger to the territorial integrity of the country and a threat to Syria`s neighbor Turkey. They have to be disarmed or even suppressed by state force.

      Syria, like most of the Arab World, has had a poor- performance educational system. On the whole, this system has failed to produce a modern generation possessed of critical rational thinking with regard to the cultural heritage, including Islam. The young educated Syrians are on the whole not open on the outside world and often do not adhere to rational empiricist thinking. Since the 1970s, the Alawite domination and arrogance have led the Sunni Syrian majority into recoiling upon itself or, for some, to harboring “revanchist” and fundamentalist thinking. This has opened a space for Salafist Islamists to emerge in Syria like they did in other Arab countries bringing with them backward referencing culture and sociology which refuses modernity and undermines the emergence of a civil inclusive state. This culture mixes up between what is a belief system and what is a societal concern. It subjects society matters to literal non-examined givens from the past, away from rational questioning. Reforming that is a Herculean challenge. but is necessary for modernization and development. The interested reader is referred to recent publications by the author illustrating the "problematique "of Islamist thinking and the Salafists' selective view of Islam.

Cultural and societal evolution does not happen without economic development. Furthering material well-being is a precondition for liberating human minds and unleashing creative energies. Human history has no alternative to this coupling. Syria has been stagnating since the early 1990s. In the 1990s, the average GDP growth per annum was only 1.1 % (Wikipedia, 2010). In the years 2001-2011, the GDP annual growth averaged about 3.0 %, while the growth of the population ran 2.8 %. From 2008 to 2010, the GDP grew by 4.3 %, 5.0% and 4.0 % respectively (Economy watch &CIA,2011) . These are modest and unstable figures in comparison to well-performing developing countries (World Bank data) There is rapid population growth and consequent high, 20%, unemployment (CIA, 2011) Adding to these problems is the secular decline in oil revenues and the failure of agricultural crops the four years prior to the revolution. As a result, the Syrian per capita income fluctuated at a staggering amplitude over the years. At any rate, over 2008-2010, the per capita income (on PPP basis) ranged from $4600 to $ 4800 (CIA, 2011).
The Syrian economy suffered from the wrong macroeconomic policies of the regime Specifically, the domination of the public sector which was inefficient (54 of 93 public sector enterprises were in the red in 2010) and insular. The domestic investment in Syria was modest and could not generate acceptable growth. The lagging investment was not helped by the domestic private sector seeming practice to exploit its connections to the decision-makers to invest where it gains quick monopoly profits rather than building up the economy. Part of the explanation is the decline in public sector investment in the years before the revolution. Despite laws and measures to encourage foreign investment, Syria’s share of all types of such flows was modest by the standards of other developing countries. In general, an aura of mistrust and apprehension about the heavy hand of the public sector and the corruption of the state condemned the foreign investment prospects in Syria. The Syrian middle class is reputed for its entrepreneurial spirit. Yet, the policymakers were not willing to loosen their control of the economy for obvious corrupt motives.
With the above catalog of performance failures, the future Syrian state will have to break with the present ”dirigist “economic model and its public sector orientation. Syria has a relatively literate population with a strong and very enterprising middle class. It would be an excellent destination of Arab capital if its economy were open. An open market economy with export orientation can bring back to Syria billions of emigrated capital and attract foreign capital, especially foreign direct investment. A market economy is not only more efficient but, if it has proper competition laws, is a guard against political domination by the state and the tyranny of rulers. 

The top priority of the dictatorship of the Assad family has been to stay in power at any price. Towards this end, Hafez al Assad built a personal dictatorship based on his Alawite sect  and more specifically on personal loylty to him. To clear out any resistance to this family dictatorship he wiped out all the institutions of the state and civil society that existed before. He started by massive firing of almost the entire officer corps of the army and replaced them by officers he trusts who hailed overwhelmingly from his sect or were committed Baathists. These officers were often without military background and of poor training and education. The result was the defeat of 1967, in which Assad gave up without a fight the Golan heights and withdrew the army to Damascus to protect the regime. 
To cement his grip on power, he created multiple security apparatuses whose function was to protect the regime and spread fears among the citizens. These apparatuses were exempt from legal questioning and designed to compete with each other in showing loyalty to the regime. Their Modus Operandi was simply to intimidate the citizenry by the most barbaric means. Seventeen such repressive institutions of Gulag operated in Syria and controld every aspect of life and every part of the Government. By 1984, the security bodies marginalized the army, the state apparatus and neutered the society. In the process, they committed untold crimes against the people. 
This police-security state soon took over the economy and a corrupt regime beneficiariy class dominated the economy. Bashar simply continued in his father`s ways. and exceeded him in his brutality.
    Throughout the revolution, the Syrian armed forces have operated as regime militias using every arm in their possession against the population.  The air force, in particular,  staffed by regime supporters, has destroyed the country`s infrastructure and bombed the civilian population with every legal and illegal device known to arms manufacturers. Clearly, all of that has no room in a future civilized Syria. This part of the Syrian state has to be revamped thoroughly and the criminals involved have to face justice. Most of the gangster security forces have to be abolished and replaced with a true security apparatus whose function is to protect the country and not the regime. And such security bodies must operate under the law and be accountable for their actions. All of these armed organs of the state must be placed under civilian control and the army personnel should be banned from entering urban centers with their arms and uniforms. Moreover, to guard against future military takeovers ambitions, no uniformed soldier should be permitted to occupy any senior civilian post in government before 5 years of separation from armed services. 

The conversion to a democratic open state requires many things in place: independent judiciary; the rule of law; separation of executive, judiciary, and legislative powers and checks and balances among them in the exercise of authority. There should be constitutional guarantees of freedoms of association, assembly and expression in a pluralistic political life of free civil society bodies. This is the foundation on which free and transparent elections can lead to democracy. The rule of tyrants in Syria has bulldozed all these institutions. 

  When Syria started its socialist state-controlled regime at the time of Naser in 1958, it had a higher per capita income, higher literacy rate and better infrastructure than South Korea. Sixty years later, South Korea has become a highly developed country while Syria is stock in under development. That is history`s testimony on what the wrong policy choices and bad governments have wrought.

Geneva, 24/10/17