Today at the Liberal International Executive in Beirut there was a special session on Syria, its title asking the provocative question whether the crisis and the international community’s failure to find a resolution to it signals an end to the Responsibility to Protect. Keynote speakers included former LI President John Alderdice, who I have often worked with, and former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, who I had dealings with when I was doing project evaluation and training for his Democrat Party in Bangkok a few years back. I not surprisingly agreed with almost everything John said though I argued that to call R2P a “doctrine”m as he did, was unfortunate as it is rather a principle of evolving International Law. Kasit, as a good Buddhist, argued that the lessons from Indonesia (Suharto) and Burma (the military junta) suggest that we should not seek revenge for what Bashar al-Assad and his family and cohorts have done, but rather show forgiveness. I countered that the Syrian regime’s crimes have been so heinous that for justice to be done he and his brother Maher should be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague (which got a gratifyingly hearty round of applause from the Lebanese present, in particular). I maintained that Western military intervention in Libya had been correct, under R2P, even if the outcome is not entirely smooth, whereas I fear any Western military intervention in Syria would only make things worse. Instead, the Arab League — possibly with the addition of Turkey — should take the lead and try to convene a workable peace conference, though in the meantime considerable diplomatic pressure needs to be brought to bear on Russia and China, two of Syria’s strongest allies.
Posts Tagged ‘Syria’
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th April, 2013
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Bashar Al-Assad, Burma, Indonesia, John Alderdice, Kasit Piromya, Lebanon, Liberal International, Maher al-Assad, R2P, Responsibility to Protect, Suharto, Syria, Thailand | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 2nd December, 2012
One of the most striking developments of the past decade has been the rise of Turkey, not only as a regional power but increasingly as a global player. The AKP government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that it wants to see the Republic amongst the top 10 world economies by 2023 — the centenary of its foundation. This is no idle boast, as Turkey enjoys growth rates that European states can only envy. On the diplomatic front, Ankara has seized the opportunities offered by the Arab Awakenng to recalibrate and extend its relations in the eastern and southern Mediterranean. Of course the goal of EU membership remains elusive, though officially Turkey still wishes to accede, even if many Turkish voters have become disenchanted with the idea. All these issues were discussed earlier this week at a seminar organised by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), moderated by Jonathan Eyal, at which Omer Celik, the AKP’s Vice-Chairman with responsibility for Foreign Relations, and Ibrahim Kalin, Senior Advisor to Prime Minister Erdogan, spoke. Omer Celik pointed out that before the AKP won its first landslide election victory in 2002 the economy in Turkey had collapsed and inflation was rampant. There was no effective foreign policy. Some in Turkey have described what then happened as a Silent Revolution as the country was turned around. Ibrahim Kalin stressed how the rise of a comopolitan world has offered new challenges, not least to th eurocentrism of recent centuries. He thought the evolving relationship between Turkey, the new government in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East coul be a crucial turning point. Mr Celik said that Mr Erodgan has lobbied Bashar al-Assad to help Kurds in Syria gain equal rights, though this rather begs the enormous question of why no workable settlement with Turjkey’s own Kurds has yet been achieved.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 15th October, 2012
This evening I took part in a lively and well-attended debate at the University College London (UCL) Debating Society, speaking on behalf of a proposition in favour of international intervention in Syria. I pointed out that there already has been intervention of various kinds on both sides of the conflict for several months, with the Russians, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah notably helping the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad try to cling onto power, while countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — not to forget jihadis from all over the world, including the UK — have backed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or other armed opposition groups, including the Muslim Broherhood. So the real question to answer is: what sort of intervention is desirable? I emphatically ruled out an Iraqi-style US-led invasion (which I, along with the Liberal Democrat Party, vociferously opposed in 2003). But I also excluded a Libyan-style intervention (which I did support), as the situation on the ground in Syria is so utterly different; as Syria’s population density is much greater and there are no big centres of opposition strength, such as Benghazi. No great military intervention would be likely to achieve much except raise the casualty levels, which probably top 35,000 deaths already. On the other hand, the world cannot just stand by and watch Assad and his cronies slaughter the Syrian people (and destroy the country’s rich cultural heritage in the process). We are morally and legally obliged to do something, now that the Responsiblity to Protect is part of International Law, i.e. that when a leader is unable or unwilling to protect his own people then there is an obligation on the international community to come to their aid. I argued that Lakhdar Brahimi’s new plan — which involves a ceasefire and a UN-organised peacekeeping force — should receive strong international endorsement as a good starting-point. I believe even Russia could be won round to this, as Moscow is desperate for some face-saving exit from its current embarassing alliance. Today, even Assad said he would go along with the plan, though the FSA has turned it down. A ceasefire is an essential step in the direction of a workable and lasting solution, but clearly the departure of Assad and some of his closest associated would have to be part of the package.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Bashar Al-Assad, Free Syrian Army, FSA, Hezbollah, Iran, Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, Lebanon, Libya, Qatar, Responsibility to Protect, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, UCL, UN, University College London | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th September, 2012
The worsening civil war in Syria delivers ghastly images into our living rooms every day — at least for those of us who watch Al Jazeera. But today I watched one of the most heart-breaking pieces of footage so far: the burning down of much of Aleppo’s medieval souq, which is part of the UNESCO world heritage site in the old city centre. Even Aleppo’s famous citadel has been under fire. I weep internally for the residents of Aleppo (which I first visited in 1969) and other Syrian cities, whose families have been torn apart and whose homes or shops have been destroyed. Since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in March 2011 — I happened to be in Syria at the time — a country that was home to vibrant civilizations for thousands of years has been in the process of destroying itself, while Assad sits stubbornly in his palace, determined to hang on to power no matter how many lives are lost. At least 30,000 people have died so far, a majority of them civilians. Indiscriminate shelling of residential and commercial areas by government forces, as well as fighting by some of the armed groups ranged on the other side, are taking a terrible toll. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries; millions are internally displaced or destitute. When it is all over, those who are still alive will try to rebuild their shattered lives. But who will rebuild the physical heritage that has been demolished? I am not suggesting that ancient bricks and mortar or works of Art have a higher value than human life, but their wanton destruction is to my mind clearly a crime against humanity.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 3rd September, 2012
The veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has taken over the poisoned chalice of trying to mediate a solution to the Syrian conflict. As he told the BBC, ‘I know how difficult it is — how nearly impossible. I can’t say impossible — nearly impossible.’ Well I can say it and I do. If Kofi Annan was unable to succeed in bringing an end to the fighting in Syria then there is no reason to assume Brahimi will have more success. On the contrary. The hatred between Assad’s government and the various rebel forces grows by the day as the death toll mounts — 26,500 to date, according to conservative estimates. Moreover, while Annan made clear that he thought a negotiated settlement ought to involve the departure of Bashar al-Assad, Brahimi has not been as firm. Alas, he is on a fool’s errand and his presence in Damascus, giving Assad respectability by being filmed talking to him and shuttling between various capitals of countries lined up in moral support of one side or the other in the conflict risks prolonging, not curbing, the conflict. Moreover, the UN’s tattered reputation suffers yet more damage the longer this charade of mediation goes on. The Security Council is blocked by Russia and China’s refusal to condone the imposition of safe havens or other such international action. Yet at some stage, if the carnage continues, the Responsibility to Protect the civilians of Syria must kick in. Assad, like his father, has no qualms about slaughtering his own people and destroying the fabric of parts of Syrian cities. He has to go, along with the murderous clique around him, and I suspect that someone — either the rebels or even one of his own entourage — will see him off somehow over the coming months. Bomb attacks have been getting ever closer. I wish Lakhdar Brahimi did have some chance of averting further bloodshed and of bringing a peaceful settlement to the country, but I fear he is on mission impossible.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 15th August, 2012
In February, US President Barack Obama declared the fall of his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad ‘is not going to be a matter of “if”; it’s going to be a matter of “when”.’ Six months later, Assad is still hanging on in there in Damascus, though the country is riven by civil war. So it was maybe a bit premature for David W Lesch to entitle his new book Syria:The Fall of the House of Assad (Yale University Press, £19). Yet this is not just a case of wishful thinking. Professor Lesch (who teaches History of the Middle East at Trinity University at San Antonio, Texas) is a distinguished authority on Syria and a longtime advisor on Middle East policy to the US State Department. Moreover, he was one of those who believed that when Bashar al-Assad assumed power following the death of his father Hafiz in 2000 that this could be the dawn of a new, less repressive era for Syria. Indeed, Lesch wrote an eqarlier book that portrayed Bashar as a potential saviour (The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria, 2005). Lesch interviewed Bashar on numerous occasions — though not recently — and has travelled widely round the country. But rather like a lover scorned he is now totally disillusioned with the Syrian President. ‘Many of us hoped that Assad would change the system,’ he writes in the conclusion of his new book. ‘What seems to have happened is that the system has changed him.’ Indeed, the once rather gauche opthalmist, who was plucked from his higher studies in London because his elder brother — and Hafiz’s presumed heir — Basil had been killed in a car accident, has changed dramatically. Some analysts argue that he is a prisoner of the system, unable to resist the pressure from other members of the regime, including his thuggish younger brother Maher. But that is not the whole stoy. Bashar does now seem to believe that he has a God-given role to ‘save’ Syria from the forces of insurrection, whereas in reality he is leading it to perdition. He and his cohorts denounce the opposition forces — including the somewhat disjointed Free Syrian Army — as ‘terrorists’, while it is the government that is terrorising the peopulation. Nonetheless, it remains true, as Lesch points out, that a significant proportion of the Syrian population — notably the dominant Alewite minority and the Christians — would prefer Assad to stay in power as the prospect of a salafist Sunni alternative alarms them. But a resolution to the Syrian crisis does not seem imminent. Lesch was doubtless under pressure from his publishers to get his book written fast and they have turned it round in a couple of months. But the endgame is not yet in process. The short-lived Assad dynasty may be going, probably it is going, but it certainly isn’t gone yet.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 31st July, 2012
London’s 2012′s House of Hellenes (in normal life that bastion of the Conservative Party, the Carlton Club) this lunchtime hosted a panel on the state of the Olympic Truce. For those whose ancient history is a bit rusty or non-existent, this was the truce ordained in Ancient Greece at the time of the original Games at Olympia during which the various city states pledged not to fight each other. There were (probably not deliberate) echos of this in 1914 when fighting in the Great War halted for a brief while and the German and Allied troops facing off against each other in bloody trench warfare in Flanders played a game of football on Christmas Day instead. The run-up to the London2012 Olympics was unusual, in that all 193 member states of the United Nations not only signed but co-sponsored a UN resolution endorsing the Olympic truce. Alas this has not stopped the carnage and brutality in Syria (not to mention Afghanistan and elsewhere). The Syrian Olympic committee was barred from coming to London but there are 10 Syrian athletes here. I asked the distinguished panel how those athletes are interacting with their colleagues in the Olympic Village and how the Olympic Truce movement (if one can call it such) has reacted or should react. The more official members of the panel were unsurprisingly unwilling to say much on that, but Lord (Michael) Bates — who walked from Olympia to London over 10 months to highlight the message of the truce — was more forthcoming. He pointed out that the Syrian athletes, in common with all the others, had signed the Olympic truce and that they should convey that message back to their countrymen. It is interesting that the wall in the Olympic Village, on which people can sign up to express their support, is already completely full. So it probably needs extending! In the meantime, I, along with many others at today’s event, signed my support. Sport is a way of bringing peace between nations and communities and that message should not be lost when the Games themselves are over.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 19th July, 2012
It’s a brave man (or woman) who risks publishing a book about an ongoing situation, as it can all too easily be overtaken by events. But Tariq Ramadan’s The Arab Awakening (Allen Lane, £20) gives more than temporary relevance to his text by relating the events of the past 18 months to a reappraisal of Islam and Islamic values in the 21st century. He is one who believes that Islam and democracy are compatible and although he does not see Turkey as a perfect role model he does feel it teaches valuable lesssons. As a radical academic he not surprisingly sometimes harks back to the narrative of the MENA region being a victim of the machinations of the West (and Israel) to what many readers may find an irritating degree. Though criticism of American and to a lesser extent European attitudes and their relation to resources such as oil has some validity, the evolving relatinship between the US, EU and the MENA region is far more complex than that. Arab countries must find their own way forward — and Libya’s electoral outcome shows that need not necessarily be a victory for Islamic parties. Professor Ramadan rightly rails against the simplistic Western media and politicians’ distinction between ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ Muslims. But much of his book is a sombre reflection on how the MENA region can move forward towards greater participatory democracy and human rights. His main text, with case studies from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, is supplemented by appendices made up of articles he has written for a variety of outlets, including his own website. It was interesting to see him predicting the overthrow of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as early as June 2011.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 11th April, 2012
Iran has said it supports the UN special envoy Kofi Annan’s Peace Plan for Syria, which is a welcome development and highlights the fact that any workable settlement may only be possible with Iran’s active diplomatic engagement. Tehran has long been Bashar al-Assad’s closest ally and one of the reasons it was able to endorse the Annan Plan was that that does not call for the removal of Assad, even if that is what many Syrians and Western countries, including Turkey, would prefer. So far, the Assad regime has remained deaf to pleas to end the assaults that have cost thouands of civilian lives as well as fuelling an inevitable armed opposition. But if Assad will listen to anyone, it would be the Iranians. And there is a wider point at stake here. Iran historically was a major regional power, indeed once the centre of a great empire. Recently, it has been trying to reassert its influence, not only in Iraq, which now has a Shiite-led government, but more widely. However, the policy of Washington and the EU — not to mention Israel — has been to isolate Iran and indeed subject it to punitive sanctions, because of the country’s nuclear programme, which may or may not be working towards the production of a nuclear weapons capability, according to who you believe. Certainly Iran’s Gulf neighbours don’t want to see a nuclear-armed Iran and two of them — Bahrain and Qatar — play host to US military forces. However, most of the Arab states in the Gulf are nonetheless engaging with Tehran, as they recognise that whatever differences they may have with the current government there, engagement is more likely to produce a modus vivendi than belligerency. This is a lesson the West could usefully learn. Of course there are many aspects of the Islamic Republic which leave Western governments uncomfortable, not least regarding human rights and President Ahmadinejad’s comments about the Holocaust, but that should not blind people to the fact that through engagement it is possible to work with countries which have totally different political systems or religious beliefs towards achieving common aims.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 29th February, 2012
This evening I was one of the speakers at a solidarity event for the people of Syria organised at the London Muslim Centre at the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. Since the beginning of the uprising last spring, maybe as many as 8,000 people have been slaughtered in Syria by the despotic regime in Damascus, which seems determined to carry on the killings, disappearances, torture and harrassment in a desperate attempt to hang on to power. In 1982, an estimated 38,000 people were killed in a devastating onslaught on the city of Hama, the centre of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. But little news of this filtered out to the outside world at the time, despite the valiant efforts of journalists such as Robert Fisk. Today, the murderous Assad government cannot act unseen. Even if most foreign journalists are banned — and those who are allowed in officially are strictly controlled — new media and social networks mean we get up-to-the-minute reports on what is going on from people on the spot, even in Homs, the city currently effectively under siege. Indeed, there was a direct link to a Free Syria activist in Homs at this evening’s event. Other speakers physically present at the meeting included Walid Saffour of the Syrian Human Rights Committee, Wael Aleji, a (Christian) member of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, and the human rights lawyer Toby Cadman. I spoke of the urgent need to get medical and other humanitarian supplies into beleagured communities, as well as for increased international pressure to get the Syrian authorities to stop their assault on the people, and finally supporting moves by other Arab states to oust the regime. When Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, there were widespread hopes in the West that he would introduce reforms. Some economic reforms did indeed take place and he opened Syria up to tourism. However, when the waves of the New Arab Awakening (aka Arab Spring) started to sweep across North Africa and the rest of the Arab world, prompting street demonstrations beginning in the southern town of Deraa, he adopted an iron-fist approach, with the aide of his brother Maher, the head of the security forces. Both will one day, I hope, be arraigned before the International Criminal Court (ICC). But in the meantime, everything needs to be done to express support for those brave people in Syria who are resisting oppression. British MPs should sign the Early Day Motion demanding the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador from London and more should be done to publicise the fact that the British government, through William Hague, has acknowledged the oppposition Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. After nearly three hours of presentations, videos and pra7yers, the East London Mosque evening ended with a collection from people present for emergency relief for Syria, which raised several thousand pounds.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Arab Spring, Damascus, Deraa, East London Mosque, Hama, Homs, London Muslim Centre, Maher al-Assad, Muslim Brotherhood, New Arab Awakening, Robert Fisk, Syria, Syrian National Council, Toby Cadman, Wael Aleji, Walid Saffour, Whitechapel, William Hague | 1 Comment »