Category Archives: Domestic Politics / Revolutions

Posts about internal politics that affect international relations, including revolutions and other changes of government

Shibley Telhami — Understanding Attitudes on Middle East Peace

Shibley Telhami photo[By Shibley Telhami. Part of the series “Global Challenges in 2030”  (Goldstein & Pevehouse), January 2010.]

One of the striking observations in the Middle East throughout the turbulent first decade of the 21st century is that people in the region, both Arabs and Israelis, continued to support a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that envisions two states, Israel and Palestine, roughly separated by the border that preceded the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Certainly, there remained important differences on details, but most embraced the principle of two states.

What is equally striking is that, behaviorally, there has been little indication of these attitudes: Israelis dumped the center-left from power and elected rightwing-led governments, and  Palestinians elected the militant Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, to lead their government. Across the Arab world, public opinion polls continued to show that militant leaders like Hassan Nassrallah of the Lebanese Hezbollah party were far more popular than conciliatory leaders like King Abdullah of Jordan.

In looking closely at public attitudes, one can get a better sense of what has been driving people’spositions. In six Arab countries in which I poll annually (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates),1 people’s openness toward a political solution has been matched by deep pessimism about the prospects for peace. Half of those polled in 2009 said peace will never come, and only 6 percent believed it will come within five years. While only about a quarter of the Arab public were in principle opposed to Israel, a majority of those who accepted a two-state solution did not believe the Israelis would ever accept it. This is a pattern that other polls found among Israelis and Palestinians as well, and one I found in a summer-2009 poll among Arab citizens of Israel.

The assessment of the prospects of failure to reach an agreement based on the two-state solution is another measure that sheds light on the public’s outlook. The vast majority of those polled believed that, if such a solution was not reached, the Middle East would face years of violence and instability. The net result of this deep pessimism was that many on each side assumed that the other will understand only the language of toughness and violence—and each felt a need to better position itself in case of failure.

These attitudes can be contrasted with the prevailing mood in the 1990s, when seemingly promising, if sometimes troubled, peace negotiations were seen by most as likely to lead to a peace settlement. Even those who were not especially happy with the kind of settlement that appeared likely had to prepare themselves to accommodate it. Preparing oneself for failure and preparing oneself for success entail dramatically different attitudes and strategies.

Prevailing public attitudes present extraordinary challenges to mediation diplomacy. At one level, the impact of public opinion is obvious: In places where free elections are held, such as Israel and the Palestinian territories, public attitudes affect the election outcomes and thus the governing coalitions. Following the collapse of the Clinton administration’s mediation efforts in July 2000, bloody confrontations ensued and Israelis elected a tough right-wing government headed by General Ariel Sharon. Among Palestinians, the failure of diplomacy to end Israeli occupation partly led to Hamas’s victory in the 2006 legislative elections, with subsequent conflict and territorial divide among the Palestinians.

Even beyond elections, public anger can be consequential. At the extreme end, it can be used by militant groups to spoil a possible deal they oppose. It can also sometimes lead to policy change. One such episode took place in the Fall of 2009 when the Palestinian Authority decided to ask the United Nations’ Human Rights Council to postpone a vote on the “Goldstone Report” prepared by a commission headed by South African Judge Richard Goldstone to assess human rights violations in the 2008–2009 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas. The report accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes. Mindful of Israeli and American positions, and with an eye on reviving peace negotiations, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, asked the UNHRC to postpone considering the report. The public reaction was so vociferous that Abbas reversed his position quickly and asked for an emergency session of the UNHRC to vote on the report.

One of the challenges to governments in the region is that their ability to shape public attitudes is diminishing by the day. Polls indicate that most people in the region get their news from media outlets, especially satellite television, outside their own countries, so that their government’s narrative is an increasingly small part of the information they get. And Internet use is rapidly expanding, making public attitudes harder to control or even predict.

The net result of prevailing public attitudes is that incremental approaches to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are unlikely to succeed. In theory, if a grand deal is put on the table that meets the basic needs of both sides, it could be embraced by majorities of Arabs and Israelis. The challenge is how to get to that point. Even in the 1990s when a sense of the inevitability of peace was common, incrementalism turned out to be problematic. Postponing key issues worked only to create opportunities for spoilers who helped undermine confidence instead. Leaders on both sides were less inclined to make short-term gestures as they feared giving up the leverage they needed to tackle the toughest issues down the road.

Public attitudes, even hardened ones, can of course change. But the sort of dramatic events that can lead to profound change are hard to anticipate. And given the moods of the Israeli and Palestinian publics and the complexity of their domestic politics, drama is unlikely to come from their leaders. That’s why the focus has been on international mediation, especially American—and aimed at the toughest issues from the outset, while striving for a comprehensive deal.


SHIBLEY TELHAMI is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of The Stakes: America and the Middle East (Westview Press, 2004).

Beth A. Simmons — Institutionalizing Human Rights

[By Beth A. Simmons. Part of the series “Global Challenges in 2030”  (Goldstein & Pevehouse), January 2010.]

International human rights have become a central feature of the international legal system. Governments have formally agreed to a bewildering array of treaties, resolutions, and reporting procedures that make them ever more responsible to each other for the way they treat their own people. They have also participated in the creation of a slew of non-binding “standards” and “understandings” about the nature of their human rights agreements. Some even allow their citizens to complain to specific international “oversight bodies” if they feel there has been a violation of the rights guaranteed by treaty. Figure 1 shows the proliferation of these regimes since World War II. Occasionally, some governments even take the views of these bodies seriously.

There is something puzzling about this state of affairs. Why should governments agree among themselves to respect the rights of their own citizens? For much of the 20th century, citizens’ rights were simply considered a domestic problem, beyond the competence of the international community to inquire. This is certainly no longer the case. Formal international rights accountability is probably stronger now than it has ever been at any other moment in history.

The challenge for the future will be to bring actual practices more in line with the promises outlined in international treaties. Despite the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that every person is “entitled to realization . . . of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensible for his dignity . . . ,” about 3 billion people worldwide live on less than $2.50 per day. Despite the fact that 165 countries have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides a right “to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections . . . guaranteeing the will of the electors,” probably no more than half the world’s population can really exercise such a right. Even though 186 countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), guaranteeing  nondiscrimination in employment, on average the women of the world earn only 60–70 percent of what men earn for equivalent work.

None of this means that international law has failed. In fact, some research shows that many of the most important treaties, including those discussed above, have made important contributions to better rights practices in the countries that have ratified them. But it does mean that there is no automatic correspondence between principles and practice. How can governments be encouraged to take human rights—and their obligations—more seriously?

One possibility is to strengthen international enforcement of these norms. One could start by making the United Nations a more credible body in this regard. The main forum for handling rights abuses at the United Nations has been the Human Rights Commission, but it was rightly criticized as terribly political and staffed by representatives from countries that had terrible rights records. Some improvements have been made with the new Human Rights Council, but do states really have incentives to be their brother’s keepers?

Some think that countries with a real commitment to human rights should take enforcement into their own hands by imposing economic conditionality. To a certain extent, this is already happening. The U.S. Congress, for example, can withhold foreign assistance if rights practices are unsatisfactory. The European Union conditions membership on acceptance of high rights standards, and even tries to extend its influence to trading partners outside the region through its so-called “democracy clauses” attached to trade agreements. While these kinds of sanctions can be applied to the smaller states, it is hard to imagine  applying such a strategy to China. Furthermore, imposing economic sanctions can hurt the people you are trying to help, sometimes as much as the repressive government does itself.

Perhaps human rights cannot be enforced from the outside. Perhaps people around the world should simply be encouraged to use international norms to fight their own domestic rights battles, in ways they see as appropriate, and according to their own priorities. This approach has already led to important improvements in rights practices for countries that have had some experience with or are transitioning to accountable government, but it may offer little hope for those living in the most oppressive regimes in the world. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that in some countries, to demand your rights is to invite a crushing reaction from a ruthless regime.

Addressing human rights violations worldwide is a long-term project. It probably cannot be solved in isolation from the other major human endeavors of the last century: finding a way to curb poverty, ending widespread civil and international violence, and implementing stable and accountable systems of governance. But none of these projects will be complete without the recognition that individuals have inviolable rights that must be recognized, protected, and even promoted by their governments.


BETH SIMMONS is Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. Her new book is entitled Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Simmons was elected in April 2009 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In Praise of Cease-Fires

The most important step in ending the world’s civil wars (there are no interstate wars these days) is to move from low-level fighting to a cease-fire agreement. Lately the world is making some progress in that regard, though with some movement backward as well.

Start with the progress.

In Burma (Myanmar), the government, as part of a general move toward (some) democracy and liberalization, has vowed to reach cease-fires in its ethnic wars, which have dragged on for decades along the borders. The most important, the Karen (Karin) ethnic group, signed a cease-fire with the government in January and, after some further fighting, a stronger cease-fire agreement last Friday (photo above). However, another ethnic group, the Kachin, has been fighting the government since a 17-year cease-fire broke down last June. China has backed the Burmese government and bought a lot of wood, minerals, and other natural resources there. China’s interests are in secure trade through quiet border regions, which cease-fires promote. (China does worry that Burma’s reforms are drawing it toward the west; Britain’s prime minister will visit Burma this week.)

In India, some similar little armed conflicts have also dragged on for decades. India’s government periodically battles several secessionists in the northeast, several Maoist groups in the southeast, and Islamist militants in Kashmir in the west. A few weeks ago the government and one Maoist group began observing a cease-fire and the Maoists named three negotiators to talk with the government. The Kashmir conflict used to cause skirmishing between India and Pakistan’s regular armies, but that has become rare. Today Pakistan’s president even visited India for brief talks, the first such visit in seven years.

In both Colombia and Peru recently, the government side has killed the rebel leader and greatly reduced the potency of the insurgency. What remains in each country is a drug trafficking gang with a thin veneer of political ideology. Peru’s war essentially ended many years ago, with unimportant remnants left, but Colombia suffered for decades with serious armed conflict until the recent years of lower violence. A cease-fire in Colombia could be within sight this year.

Less hopefully, there is a cease-fire at the moment in Mali. Ethnic Tuareg rebels have come home heavily armed from Libya, where they fought for Gaddafi, and seized the northern part of Mali, which they have declared independent. The government, trying to recovered from what seems likely to be a short-lived coup, has not mobilized to take back the territory with the help of the armies of ECOWAS countries (the West African regional organization). When it does, the war presumably will resume. The Tuareg rebels, with their Gaddafi connection and some al Qaeda fighters in their midst, are trying to violate the top principle of African countries since independence — no secessions by force. If the rebels are smart, they will try immediately for negotiations to retract their independence idea and work for autonomy, with local authorities and the central government sharing revenue. Since I’m not sure the rebels are that smart, the war will probably resume as ECOWAS takes back northern Mali for the restored civilian government of Mali.

In Somalia, there is definitely not a cease-fire, but the capital has enjoyed a resurgence since the government pushed out al Shabab rebels (fundamentalist Islamists affiliated with al Qaeda) last August with military force provided by the African Union. The government/AU offensive intensified in January. Ethiopian forces pushed back Somalia’s rebels on their side of the country, while Kenya pushed into Somalia on their side. The war continues, but the progress is welcome after so many years. The famine in southern Somalia has ended, although famine risk remains.

In Syria, there was supposed to be a cease-fire tomorrow, but the Assad regime is worming out of it as many expected. Now they say they won’t stop the killing until the opposition signs a pledge to stop violence and foreign countries promise not to send arms and support to the Syrian rebels. The opposition Free Syrian Army should have called the government’s bluff and signed off to stop violence when the government does, but instead they refused to sign.  So that conflict grinds on, as do the diplomatic efforts of the UN/Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to solve it.

In Gaza, the militant group Islamic Jihad, which had been fighting with Israel recently, declared a cease-fire on Friday. The larger group Hamas, which controls Gaza, was already in a cease-fire with Israel and did not participate in the recent fighting (airstrikes on Gaza and rocket attacks on Israel).

In Libya, last week a cease-fire ended ethnic fighting that had killed about 150 people in a southern city. The war in Libya is over but violence still breaks out as militias from different towns jockey for control.

In Afghanistan, as far as is publicly known, peace talks never really got off the ground, and there is no prospect for a cease-fire in sight. Pakistan is similarly far from a cease-fire. Other, lower-scale conflicts grind along, as in southern Sudan, northern Nigeria, and (still) Iraq. But the world continues to inch toward peace as the 21st century unfolds.

Democracy — Three Steps Forward

Democracy is a great force sweeping the world in slow motion. Today Burma (Myanmar) took an important step toward democracy with minor parliamentary elections that elected the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to a seat after 20 years of harsh military rule. She may run for president in  three years. The last elections, in 1990, were swept by her party and then ignored by a military government that kept her under house arrest for years at a time. The country has been isolated and under stiff international sanctions for decades. In 2007 the regime used massive lethal force to put down demonstrations led by Buddhist monks, just as it had shot protesting students in the streets in 1988. There is still a long way to go for Burma to reach real democracy — and end several long-running ethnic wars — but under its new reform-minded president it is moving vigorously forward.

In Senegal, meanwhile, a long drama of democracy ended six days ago when the incumbent president Abdoulaye Wade picked up the phone to call his challenger on election night and conceded defeat. This simple act, taken for granted in mature democracies, was anything but certain until the end. Wade had been in power for two terms, twelve years, and was running for a controversial third term. (The constitution limited him to two, but since that provision was passed after he first took office he said it did not apply, and the Constitutional Council led by his appointee agreed.)

Wade is officially 85 years old — many believe he is actually older — and seemed to be grooming his son to succeed him. All of this rubbed Senegalese the wrong way, and young people took to the streets in violent clashes with security forces before the election. In the end, Senegal’s traditions of democracy and non-dynastic succession carried the day. Wade has received great praise for accepting defeat graciously, and everyone hopes this will be a model for other long-term leaders who might prefer to cling to power.

Another long-standing African democracy, Mali, suffered a setback recently when young soldiers staged a coup — oddly, just before a presidential election was scheduled anyway. They claimed the government was not doing enough to combat a secessionist insurgency in the remote north of the country, where Tuareg ethnic rebels who had worked for Libya’s Gaddafi returned to Mali with their weapons after Gaddafi’s overthrow.

The results of the coup show democracy’s resilience these days. First, it was widely condemned by everyone from Mali’s neighbors to the great powers. Sanctions were to begin shortly if the coup leaders persisted. The presidents of nearby African countries tried to fly into the country to talk to the young coupsters, but couldn’t land after coup supporters blocked the runway. Meanwhile the coup had the opposite of the desired effect on the war in the north, since the Tuareg rebels took advantage of the chaos to go on the offensive and capture more territory and towns than ever. Currently they are attacking the ancient city of Timbuktu.

And today, under these pressures, the coup leaders backed down and declared that they would restore the constitution and return power to civilians. This process could still go astray, but what choice to they have really? The coup d’etat is so 20th century, and seems out of place in today’s world. Democracy will likely return soon to Mali. Dealing with the rebellion in the north will be much harder though — a reminder that wars that end in one country can pop up in another one, like Rwanda’s genocide triggering fighting in Democratic Congo, or Uganda’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” of Joseph Kony bringing murder and mayhem to Central African Republic and South Sudan.

So, although wars have not died out yet, democracy continues to strengthen worldwide. Three steps forward should be celebrated, even as we keep working to oppose murderous dictatorships in Syria and elsewere. Let’s give our moral and practical support to today’s democracy proponents, who have their work cut out for them — Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Senegal’s new president Macky Sall, and the civilians who will take back power in Mali.

Syria — International Community Finding Unity

A consensus has formed among the great powers about the desired next steps in Syria — a cease-fire, humanitarian aid, and political negotiations for a government transition, all led by Kofi Annan as the Envoy of the UN and Arab League.

Perhaps because of continuing ambivalence from Russia and China, the UN Security Council adopted its new position in a “Presidential Statement” agreed unanimously by the UNSC members but simply read as a statement by the UNSC president. It is weaker than a regular, numbered resolution, partly because it is not binding the way resolutions are. However, it does still show the parameters on which the great powers agree. As such, it is an overdue step in the right direction (and indeed just what I called for last week, although a regular resolution would have been better). Today UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon emphasized the Security Council’s unity and strong backing of the Annan plan.

Russia came around to supporting this position, watered down from earlier proposals that would have explicitly called for Syrian president Assad to step down, after the head of the international Red Cross went to Moscow to ask for help with the worsening humanitarian situation in Syria. Russia came out first in support of a daily two-hour cease-fire to allow for provision of humanitarian aid in areas of fighting. Later Russia expanded its support to include a cease-fire initiated by the government and followed by the opposition, instead of insisting on all sides’ ceasing simultaneously. The Security Council statement also calls for a transition to a more democratic government in Syria, which Russia also agreed to after it was made clear that military intervention or forced regime change were not on the international community’s agenda.

However, the actual path forward to such a transition is extremely challenging. It is widely assumed that a relaxation of violent repression by the Assad government would lead to an upsurge in opposition protests, and probably violent opposition as well. The situation also became more complex as three recent bombings (two in Damascus) appear to have been the work of al-Qaeda type Islamic militants, perhaps from next-door Iraq.

Notwithstanding all the problems, the UNSC statement represents a significant step forward. It “fully supports” a six-point Annan plan:

“1) commit to work with the Envoy in an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people, and, to this end, commit to appoint an empowered interlocutor when invited to do so by the Envoy;

“2) commit to stop the fighting and achieve urgently an effective United Nations supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilise the country.

To this end, the Syrian government should immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centres, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres.

As these actions are being taken on the ground, the Syrian government should work with the Envoy to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism.

Similar commitments would be sought by the Envoy from the opposition and all relevant elements to stop the fighting and work with him to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism;

“3) ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and to this end, as immediate steps, to accept and implement a daily two hour humanitarian pause and to coordinate exact time and modalities of the daily pause through an efficient mechanism, including at local level.

“4) intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons, including especially vulnerable categories of persons, and persons involved in peaceful political activities, provide without delay through appropriate channels a list of all places in which such persons are being detained, immediately begin organising access to such locations and through appropriate channels respond promptly to all written requests for information, access or release regarding such persons;

‘5) ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists and a non-discriminatory visa policy for them;

‘6) respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed.

“The Security Council calls upon the Syrian government and opposition to work in good faith with the Envoy towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis and to implement fully and immediately his initial six-point proposal.

“The Security Council requests the Envoy to update the Council regularly and in a timely manner on the progress of his mission. In the light of these reports, the Security Council will consider further steps as appropriate.”

One further step that the Council should consider is to pass a regular numbered resolution along the same lines. But the important point for now is that the great powers are on the same side in terms of the next steps. That’s a glimmer of hope among the dark clouds of continuing violence.

Syria and the “United” Nations

Today marks one year of the uprising in Syria, which has now taken nearly 10,000 lives according to the opposition. The response of the international community has been more or less a complete failure so far — failure to end the violence, to resolve the political stalemate, to help civilian victims, or even to establish enough unity among the great powers to chart a course forward.

In recent months, the western powers have seriously misplayed their hand and set back the effort to find a solution. They pushed a resolution at the UN Security Council that called for President Assad’s ouster from power, bringing a Russian and Chinese veto (which Hillary Clinton then called “despicable”). That only emboldened Assad to ramp up more violence against his armed and unarmed opponents, shelling the city of Homs for a month. Russia was pushed into actually supporting Assad more closely, and a new irritant in U.S.-Chinese relations was created. The overwhelming support for a similar resolution in the UN General Assembly highlighted the isolation of the Russia-China-Iran-Syria group, but did nothing to help the Syrian people. In recent days the Syrian government has blasted the opposition out of Idlib in the north, and has turned to blasting Dara’a in the south, where the uprising began a year ago.

The United States and its friends — led by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states — have been considering arming the Syrian opposition, and there have been calls for a Libya-style military intervention by the west. Trouble is, none of these options are at all practical. Arming up Syria’s fragmented, sectarian, underpowered armed opposition would only lead to a long bloody civil war that probably would not dislodge the Assad regime in the end.

While Clinton and other western officials have ramped up their rhetoric and pledged their undying support for the Syrian people in their just cause, etc., the only effect has been to make the Syrian opposition think, wrongly, that someone is going to give them arms or airstrikes to hold off their government’s brutality. When it doesn’t happen, they rightly feel a bit betrayed.

The underlying problem here is a familiar one for the international community when dealing with governments that do wrong — do you work to change the government (Iraq, Libya, Cuba) or do you work to change its behavior (North Korea, Burma). Western powers have been repeating lately that Assad must go, but as long as Russia backs him and China opposes forced regime change, the west has no way to make that happen. A strategy to try to force or induce Assad to change his behavior, on the other hand, has a chance to unite the international community and might begin moving things in the desired direction. Even Russia says that Syria’s government must stop using violence on its people.

The right path forward, the only path, is through the United Nations. The UN has been working to put very modest measures in place, such as humanitarian aid and monitoring missions. A humanitarian assessment mission is to visit this weekend. Meanwhile the most respected, experienced diplomat in the world, former secretary-general Kofi Annan, has been negotiating with all sides to try to find a solution. He is to brief the Security Council tomorrow.

Ban Ki Moon on Tuesday said, “First end the violence, all the violence; second engage in an inclusive dialogue for a political solution; and thirdly, establish an access for humanitarian assistance.” He asked the Security Council to pass a resolution that (quoting Colum Lynch’s summary) “would call on Syrians to immediately halt the violence there, permit the delivery of humanitarian assistance to besieged communities, and endorse the efforts of his envoy, Kofi Annan, to start political talks between the government and opposition over the future of the country.” These are the right steps. Indeed, what else do we have that could work?

The key first step, as in quite a few other violent political conflicts around the world, is to achieve a cease-fire. The western powers should focus on getting Russia and China to press Assad to agree to one. Since all the great powers agree on the need for a cease-fire, especially by the Syrian government which is doing most of the firing, it is perfectly feasible to get the international community back together, pass a resolution aimed at behavior change rather than regime change, and get the United Nations united. Tomorrow’s Security Council meeting to hear Annan’s report is a chance to move forward.

As 200 international aid and human rights groups from 27 countries said in a statement today demanding a Security Council resolution against Syria’s violence, torture, and detention, “the international community must unite and help Syrians bring an end to the horror.”  Yes we can!

Syria: Hamas, Annan, and the Friends

Everyone is getting in on the action in Syria these days.

First of all, the Islamist Palestinian faction Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and 1.5 million people, has switched sides in the Syria conflict. In so doing, Hamas has erased the one major exception to the rule that regional alliances follow the Sunni-Shi’ite divide. Hamas had been a Sunni Islamist organization in an alliance with a Shi’ite-oriented bloc made up of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.

Until recently Hamas’s top leader lived in Damascus under protection of the Assad government, but recently he moved out of Syria, and Hamas has sided with the Syrian opposition. The leader’s latest statement was delivered in Egypt, which may become Hamas’s new external supporter, replacing Iran. Hamas’s roots originally grew out of Egypt’s Islamic Brotherhood, which made it the enemy of Egypt’s government under Hosni Mubarak, who had repressed the Brotherhood for decades in Egypt. Now the Brotherhood in Egypt dominates the new parliament and is likely to see Hamas more sympathetically.

Meanwhile, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been appointed as the UN/African Union joint special envoy to the Syria conflict. It is a good choice, as he commands respect globally as a moral voice and knows the Assad regime from past interactions. Annan’s last such mission helped quell the violent aftermath of disputed elections in Kenya in 2008. Annan held talks with the foreign ministers of Iran and France, in Geneva where he is attending the opening of a UN human rights session. Syria’s best hope is some kind of cease-fire and negotiated agreement, perhaps similar to Yemen’s. If that is ever to be, someone has to get the two sides to an agreement, and if anyone can (which is unclear), Annan can.

And in Tunis on Friday, the “Friends of Syria” had its first meeting, with the major countries opposed to Assad in attendance.  The group recognized the opposition Syrian National Council as “a” (not necessarily the only) legitimate representative of the Syrian people. One problem the Friends face is the division and lack of coordination in the Syrian opposition. They called on the UN to prepare for a peacekeeping mission in Syria if the need for one arises. (Currently there is no peace to keep.)

Hillary Clinton took the occasion to call out Russia and China for vetoing the recent UNSC resolution that would have called for Assad’s resignation. Clinton called the vetoes “despicable.” China has responded by calling that kind of language “unacceptable” and by reminding Clinton that, basically, the USA has a lot of nerve criticizing others about Syria after what it did in Iraq right next door.

In Syria itself, the grim news keeps coming, especially for the civilians being shelled and sniped at constantly in the city of Homs, the heart of the opposition. Incongruously, in the middle of this massacre, Syrians voted by a 9-to-1 margin in a referendum to approve a revised constitution — a vote dismissed as meaningless by the Syrian opposition and the West. The bombardment of Homs killed two western journalists last week, and efforts to evacuate the wounded have been largely unsuccessful so far. The situation is getting only more desperate, and “the whole world is watching” thanks to cellphone footage posted to the Internet.

European Union countries have added new sanctions against the Syrian regime. Economic sanctions might help, but seem unlikely to cause the regime to change course. Overall, the Friends know what they want — Assad to stop the slaughter — but don’t have much idea how to get it.

Syria Heading for Civil War?

That sound coming from Syria these days is the sound of diplomatic doors slamming shut as the country lurches toward all-out sectarian civil war. If you can hear it over the sound of government artillery shells blasting civilians in Homs…

One of these doors slammed a week ago when Russia and China vetoed the UN Security Council resolution put forward by the Arab League, which called for Syria’s president Bashar al Assad to step aside in favor of a transitional government. Russia considers Assad a friend and customer, and therefore didn’t want to side with his enemies. China never likes the idea of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. The United States and other western powers pushed forward a resolution that Russia was sure to veto (an unwise course in my opinion), thereby giving up the potential to deliver a united message to Assad from the international community.

Assad responded by stepping up a lethal assault on neighborhoods of Homs that oppose his rule. The UN’s high commissioner for human rights today called it “an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force,” addressing the UN General Assembly where Saudi Arabia today took the case against Syria. Unfortunately nobody needs to slam the General Assembly door closed because that body has no power to do anything about the situation (as Secretary General Ban Ki Moon politely reminded the Saudis).

Yesterday the Arab League officially terminated its observer mission in Syria, another door closed. Instead it is now proposing a joint UN-Arab League observer mission in Syria. (Observers are unarmed peacekeepers, arguably the weakest form of peacekeeping force.) The proposal faces three big challenges: (1) Peacekeeping forces require the consent of the host government, which Syria says it will not grant; (2) They require authorization by the Security Council, where Russia may again use its veto; and (3) They generally can work only after a cease-fire is in place, lest they fall into a Bosnia-style dilemma of “keeping the peace where there’s no peace to keep.” So the peacekeeping door is probably firmly shut for the moment.

A cease-fire itself is no closer than ever. The opposition won’t negotiate with the regime, at least not while the killing continues. The regime does not want a cease-fire while it’s trying to use massive force to put down the opposition.

And so the violence escalates, as the government intensifies its crackdown and nonviolent protests slowly morph into an armed insurgency. Turkey and Saudi Arabia appear likely to support the opposition with arms and money, while Iran and Russia will do the same for the government.

During the Cold War, civil wars around the world were larger and longer because of the support pumped into each side by the opposing superpowers. These proxy wars faded away twenty years ago, and that is one important reason why levels of war violence have been lower around the world. But now, there is a new prospect of big powers fueling both sides in a proxy war in Syria. The fault line in Syria runs right down the Sunni-Shi’ite divide that pits Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah on one side (backed by Russia) against Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and most of the Arab League on the other (backed by the United States). Right under that fault line sits the world’s most important pool of oil, the one resource without which the world economy cannot function.

What is to be done? Well, the last deal that had legitimacy all around was the Arab League agreement with Syria last December 19 that let the monitors in and called for pulling back Syrian forces from cities, starting negotiations with the opposition, and giving human rights workers and journalists access to Syria. At the time, opposition leaders said it was just a stalling tactic by Assad, which was probably true, but nonetheless this agreement — especially the demand to pull forces back from cities under assault today — is the basis for moving forward, because Assad already agreed with it and Russia therefore can’t really oppose it.

With some effort, the western powers could line up Russian and Chinese support to put the stamp of the UN Security Council on this demand to pull out of the cities — not the demand that Assad step down — and then push measures to induce Assad to comply. Opposition leaders should be pressured to join negotiations for a cease-fire (it’s in their interest as the party being blasted), and if one can be achieved then the international community should move quickly to insert a UN peacekeeping force (I’m not so sure a joint force with the Arab League is the best way to go, given its lack of neutrality).

It may be that such an approach would fail to stop the slide into a sectarian civil war. It may fail to stop Assad’s slaughter of civilians, and on the other hand if it does stop that slaughter the Assad regime may not be able to stay in power, and a new strategy will be needed to hold the country together under a transitional government. In other words, the outcome probably will not actually be a stable cease-fire with an international peacekeeping force. But this is still the step to try next order to move forward — the step that U.S. policymakers skipped past in bringing to the UNSC what amounted to a demand for Assad’s resignation. Arming the opposition would be a disaster. Waiting and hoping is not likely to improve things. Playing “make Russia look bad” does not help the Syrians.

It is very worrisome that the Syrian conflict could ignite actual war between countries, in an unstable region at a pivotal moment, and with all that oil on the line. To my way of thinking, the best way to prevent this is to line up the international community for united, forceful diplomatic action and focus directly on reducing the violence, not just on changing the regime.

U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, recently told Foreign Policy magazine that the conflict with Russia over Syria (and Iran) did not necessarily portend a return to the Cold War. She pointed to successful cooperation in the UNSC on Iran and North Korea sanctions, the independence of South Sudan, and the UN support of the Afghan and Iraqi governments. “There are going to be issues that are difficult. We’ve had our share of those of late and they … divide us and even get rancorous. But I don’t think is a fair characterization of the body of work that we’ve been doing over the last several years…” Point well taken — now let’s kick that U.S.-Russian cooperation into gear to steer Syria away from civil war.


Syria and the International Community

The international community is not, as sometimes claimed, an oxymoron. It works surprisingly well and is improving through time. This week the international community faces a new challenge and opportunity, as the Syria problem lands squarely in the UN Security Council (UNSC), where I believe the world’s conflicts should be addressed.

For most of a year the situation has escalated both on the ground and in the international response. Syria’s violent suppression of nonviolent protests has led to armed resistance by some regime opponents and threatens to escalate into sectarian civil war. More than 5,000 have died. My predictions of a protracted stalemate are proving depressingly correct.  But the international response has not been static.

At first, bilateral relations played the major role. Individual countries such as Turkey tried to intervene diplomatically to convince the Assad regime to change course and stop the violence. This did not succeed, and Turkey among others turned against Assad. (Indeed, Syria’s only important reliable friends these days are Iran and Russia.)

Next the regional organization came into play. The Arab League developed a peace plan that required the Syrian government to pull back its forces from cities (some of which would then be de facto opposition territory). Syria resisted implementing this plan, and the Arab League sent in monitors to poke around in Syria and report whether progress was occurring. It wasn’t. First the Gulf states withdrew from the monitoring mission, and then the Arab League as a whole suspended it, called for Assad to hand over power to a transitional government, and asked for action by the UN Security Council.

That’s how the matter came to be discussed this week in the UN. And there they all were — the five permanent members, this year’s ten nonpermanent members, the ambassadors of Syria and of the Arab League. To underscore its importance, the USA sent secretary of state Hillary Clinton to sit in the U.S. seat, and European countries sent foreign ministers. It is a “world order moment.” (Syria, however, used the occasion mostly to attack the Arab League and particularly Qatar, which participated in the air campaign in Libya and has led efforts to remove Assad from power in Syria.) The discussions began Tuesday, continued today behind closed doors, and are expected to culminate in a vote on Friday or Monday. Here’s is a great video summary of the situation as of Tuesday, from al Jazeera:

In these UNSC discussions, the USA and Britain have called for Assad’s ouster and the imposition of economic sanctions on Syria if the violence continues. The United States declares that it is not looking for another Libya-type resolution, which authorized force to protect civilians but was stretched to include fairly direct assistance to rebels who overthrew the government. Russia and China were upset by the stretching of the Libya resolution, and want language in any new resolution that rules out military intervention.

Russia declares that trying to change Syria’s regime by force or even by sanctions could trigger a bigger regional war, presumably along the Sunni-Shi’ite divide between Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s allies. More fundamentally, both Russia and China have violently suppressed domestic unrest in the past, and they want the international community to uphold a strong norm of sovereignty, based in the UN Charter, that essentially says any country can do what it wants within its own borders. That old norm is being challenged of late by a new norm of sovereignty, the Responsibility to Protect, that says the international community may violate sovereign as a last resort if necessary to save civilians from mass atrocity events. The intervention in Libya was a successful application of that principle, halting an imminent massive slaughter in Benghazi, notwithstanding Russia and China’s grumbling about the later uses of air power to help the rebels overthrow Gaddafi.

Syria is no Libya, however. Russia has promised to veto any resolution that does not rule out military intervention, and this means any military intervention would have to occur without a mandate from the UN Security Council. That idea is tempting to some, and Anne-Marie Slaughter believes that the situation in Syria could become so dire as to warrant a Kosovo-style intervention, i.e. without UN authorization.

If you had a request from the Arab League backed by the protesters themselves and you had a – perhaps a super majority on the Security Council, meaning nine, 10, 11 out of the 15 vote to support, then I would be willing to countenance action even in the face of a veto as we did in Kosovo. When it comes down to this kind of humanitarian intervention, I think the rules surrounding the veto are more complicated, and there are precedents as in Kosovo for acting even in the face of a veto.

But this kind of coalition-of-the-willing action is becoming less attractive in recent years, and it seems unlikely that the west would use force against the Syrian regime without the unique legitimacy afforded by the UNSC.

My prediction (why not?) is that the international community will succeed in passing a UN resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s violence and telling Syria to halt it. Possibly it will even endorse the Arab League plan, which among other things calls on Assad to step down. It will not impose sanctions, or perhaps just weak symbolic ones, and it will make clear that the resolution does not authorize outside military force.

Daniel Serwer notes Russia’s interest in vetoing a resolution if only to look strong with an upcoming presidential election. But President Obama has his own election year and would in no way use military force against Syria, so there is not really any conflict about a Libya-style use of the UN to legitimize a western air campaign.

The western powers have every reason to want a resolution to pass, not be vetoed, and therefore they will be limited by what Russia will allow (abstaining but not vetoing). They will press for a few days to see how far they can get, and then take the deal. And that’s a good thing because it means the international community is functioning as it’s supposed to. Not good for Syrian civilians, perhaps, but good for world order. The region is unsettled and the Arab world split, so it is important for the international community to speak with one voice, and that voice is the UN Security Council.

The Sunni-Shi’ite Divide

The big fault line between Shi’ite and Sunni branches of Islam in the Middle East, centered on the rivalry of Iran and Saudi Arabia, is influencing conflicts in countries throughout the region, including Syria.

Today the Arab League monitors from the Persian Gulf states (Saudi Arabia and allies) left Syria, saying that their presence was not effectively changing the violent behavior of the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad (backed by Iran). The rest of the Arab League monitoring mission remains, and the League as a whole extended the mission and is expected to send replacement monitors, but the League’s head also called on the UN Security Council to help out. (In my opinion the pullout is not a bad thing, as both the Gulf states and Iran are too close to Syria to play as useful a monitoring role as other Arab states or the UN might.)

The Sunni-Shi’ite conflict was simple back in the 1980s. Iran, the world’s only Islamic Republic and a Shi’ite country, was locked in a war with Iraq. The war would kill close to a million people through trench warfare, the use of chemical weapons, and rocket attacks on each other’s cities. Backing Iraq and its Sunni leader Saddam Hussein were Saudi Arabia, the other Arab countries, and tacitly the United States.

Things are actually more complicated than that. No countries are purely Sunni or Shi’ite. Most have an interwoven patchwork of these sectarian communities — a village here, a city there — as this map shows (high res here):

Map of Sunni-Hi'ite areas

Two countries next to Iran — Iraq and Bahrain — had Shi’ite majorities ruled over and repressed by Sunni minority regimes. In the past decade, of course, Iraq is no longer Sunni-led but, thanks to George W. Bush, led by Shi’ite parties.  (One U.S. official claimed that Bush didn’t know the distinction between Sunni and Shi’ite before deciding to invade Iraq.)

A step further from Iran is Syria, with a Sunni majority ruled over by a Shi’ite-based (Alawite) minority. That is the regime we are all focused on currently, the one the Arab League is monitoring to no avail. Moving along westward, Lebanon is almost half Shi’ite and that community is the base of the armed militia Hezbollah. After decades representing the disempowered and fighting Israel, and after being implicated in the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s liberal prime minister, Hezbollah last year became the dominant party in Lebanon’s government.

To the south, meanwhile, in Bahrain last year the Shi’ite community rallied for democracy and was violently repressed with help from Saudi armed forces. The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, stayed pretty quiet. A quarter of the Saudi population is Shi’ite but they are in no position to cause trouble and the Saudi royal family has the money to buy out any discontent in the Kingdom. In Yemen, where Shi’ites make up more than 40 percent of the population, the Shi’ite Houthi tribe in the north has been in armed conflict with the central government for decades, even as Sunni al-Qaeda radicals wage war in the south.

Thus, in recent years the Arab side of the Persian Gulf (or is it the Arabian Gulf?) has remained firmly in Sunni control, while across the Gulf four countries in a line now have Shi’ite-affiliated regimes — Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Of these, Iraq and Lebanon have been relatively neutral on Syria (mixed interests and their own problems at home), but Iran has been the Assad regime’s most important external backer (along with more powerful but less enthusiastic Russia).

The emergence of a more solid Shi’ite bloc stretching from Iran to Lebanon is not a positive development in my view. It tends to polarize the region and to extend the ambitions of Iran, which acts in defiance of international norms on important issues. It also raises a legitimate concern that Iran’s creation of a nuclear weapon in the coming years would spark a rush by Saudi Arabia to follow suit. The danger of a terrible war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with their respective allies, is worth worrying about.

In the middle of it all, of course, is oil. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia all share one interest — they are the world’s three top oil exporters. They benefit from reliably high prices for oil on world markets (high price spikes that lead to crashes are less useful). On the other hand, both the western powers and China share an interest in a low, stable oil price. And there was China’s prime minister recently visiting Saudi Arabia, not Iran, for a friendly chat. Turns out that although China is Iran’s largest oil customer, China actually buys twice as much from Saudi Arabia, whose total oil exports are almost triple the level of Iran’s. China wants assurance, which it no doubt received, that Saudi Arabia would fill any gap in China’s supply created by new sanctions on Iran.

The United States supports the Saudi side, and Russia the Iranian side, but China really just wants oil and doesn’t care where it comes from. The main  interest of China and other consuming nations is political stability in the Middle East, to keep oil prices stable and the spigot turned permanently on. In the past, although oil is the world’s most traded commodity in terms of value, its price has seen wild swings triggered by political events like wars and revolutions. A little stability would be a really good thing for the world economy. Saudi Arabia alone has the vast reserves to keep world supplies steady even if another OPEC member stops exporting. And hence the Chinese prime minister’s visit.

As for the UN Security Council, its ability to play any meaningful role in Syria will depend entirely on Russia. As some Kremlin officials suggest their patience with Assad is wearing thin, the western powers are pressing Russia to back the Arab League’s recent call for Assad to step down. When that question comes to the Security Council, soon, Russia will have to decide exactly where it stands.