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Syrian President May Survive For a While But World Knows His End!

Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khan

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The Syrians are going through a unique trauma when the country leadership is presiding over massacre of its own people for last one year. It is not for the sake of rendering sacrifices to achieve any grand Napoleonic design but just because an authoritarian ruler is ruthlessly determined to perpetuate his rule.

The protesting ‘opposition’ demonstrated peacefully to begin with. The Syrian regime opted to wield hammer to kill flies, its own people, instead. Bashar al-Assad employed elite troops and mechanised division to flush out ‘foreign mercenaries’ from the ‘opposition’ resistance pockets, Homs and others, in the restive districts.

The intensity of disproportionate reprisal, to the verge of over-kill, mocked the huge reservoir of the majority’s patience that has lived under minority ‘Alawites’ yoke for over four decades. Perhaps driven by the wind of change that is gushing through Arabian Peninsula as well as North Africa, Syrians yearn for freedom from al-Assad’s repressive rule. Instead of respecting own peoples’ dream, they were showered upon with the barrages of deadly munitions that pierced through their mortal torsi. Homs has been depopulated when its 100,000 population has been ‘cleansed’ to a few thousands. They were either killed or made to flee. UN workers found recently to their horror that the town was inhabitable.

Syrian president is lucky until he sustains himself. His survival prescription is simple but deadly. If tyranny does not work, more tyranny is the answer. He has rubbed the UN, Arab League, US and European Union’s protests on his toes. The ‘Alawites’ minority, desperately clings to al-Assad now because both have become a necessity to each other. He must have been proficient in calculus or circumstances have taught him to be so because he alienated the supportive minority in cunning ways to secure its unflinching loyalties, raising simultaneously the bogey of Islamists, even al-Qaeda, to snub some regional as well as extra-regional actors who stand aghast at the sight of almost blind alley they have come across.

Perceptional dichotomy among UN Security Council (UNSC) permanent members has enabled el-Assad to turn R2P, ‘Responsibility to Protect’, doctrine redundant. In 2001, ‘International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’ recommendations led to R2P, which emerged finally as UNSC Resolution 1674. It encumbers the international community to act and prevent if any state is unable or unwilling to prevent mass atrocity crimes. Lack of consensus among P5 suggests that Syrian narrative of conflict is not only intricate; it is packed with several other corollary scenarios, which have been graded as existential threats. International community thus has limited options against al-Assad’s obduracy. Thanks to the Middle East, precarious geo-politics and some of al-Assad’s allies support for him that nourish and sharpen his lust for power-gamut without any apparent sense of remorse. His allies, shedding occasional sympathy-tears on his massive blood letting that goes on incessantly, are finding it expedient to nurture their own ‘national interests’. ‘End justifies the means’ becomes their final refuge to lull their erring conscience. In other words, geo-political manoeuvres focused at Middle East are pivoted upon several thousand innocent Syrians who have been victimised one way or another. The expense is great for the humanity to mourn but for the actors, perpetuating or abetting the genocide, it is Syrian’s ‘internal issue’…a tragic deduction. To the contrary, al-Assad struggles to rubbish the universal demand to step down or ensure transition of power to the people in democratic traditions.

As the peace hinges unpredictably in the wake of brewing Middle East nuclear tangle, al-Assad finds the legitimacy leash longer to persist in cleansing the ‘foreign bandits’. He has successfully exploited the prevailing conflict scenario in the region, the stand off among P5 on certain issues of politico-military implications globally and Iran, Israel and Arab world regionally.  His balancing acts are fantastic and his capacity to persecute his own people is unprecedented in an era when bloodshed and repression would have been ordinarily evitable curses. He has found an armour shield in the fault lines among the powers that run across the continents. Abundant scholarly brainstorming has gone in the Syrian conundrum but just one hypothesis emerges clear so far, i.e. the Syrian plight would exacerbate yet more before the evil gets off their back. Will it get off at all…is also an extremely complicated question?

The world generally is saturated by the Western media assumptions which al-Assad and his allies brand them as a blatant interference in internal matters of a sovereign state. In the global setting, one may grant such an understandable power play while the realist theorists of states wishing to decapitate the Syrian regime, would be painting legitimacy of their posture. Western as well regional media is indeed a powerful tool to shape the conflict contours that is simmering within Syria. One would not reject Syrian regime claims out-rightly about the Western media perverting Syrian masses and Russia Foreign Minister recently accusing US to have manipulated UNSC over Libya and Syria, yet the Eastern hemisphere, China included, has not been able to bring forth convincing logic that could afford el-Assad a cause to eliminate his own people. Certainly, visits by Russian and Iranian naval flotilla to Syrian ports were potent moves to let the world know how the allies are poised towards Syrian solidarity.  Even then, the fault appears deeply embedded in the dynastic hold of the Syrian regime. The loss of masses support and desertions of Syrian soldiers including some senior brass in a country where democratic norms remained absent for decades, emerge as the potent factors to disarm al-Assad of dialectic of counter arguments. If he wants to recapture some grace, he could opt to lose like a defiant boxer who fought through all rounds but lost on points with narrow margin. Yemeni President calling ‘quits’ is a recent model, he could emulate.

However, Bashar al-Assad is adrift to the precipice, which is every despot’s destination. He pretends, not registering the end-time of Moamer al-Gaddafi whom huge stashes of gold could not buy mercy when he desperately implored to be spared of the wrath of the revengeful mob. Similarly, he would loath to see the caged Egyptian tyrant when the government prosecutor demanded death penalty for him during the trial. Taking him further back in the history,  Czar Paul-I would summarily execute his soldiers for a missing button on the uniform and boast about ‘ennobling’ them when the emperor spoke to them. Once his murderers approached him, the mighty Czar attempted to sneak into a chimney to ‘ennoble’ it but was pulled back and butchered. There is a long history of tyrants when they were consumed by the guilt gradually but consistently. Most of them behaved like neurotics and wished for death if it did not come because conscience would sting them incessantly. Bashar al-Assad’s expression-less face, despite mass murders, bears strong indicators that he is headed for the similar end game, which is the destiny of all despots. While he may persevere in his atrocious pursuits for a while, the world knows, what ultimately lies for him in the store—of course, an agonising death if he fails to see clear writing on the wall.

Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khan is a retired Brig Gen from Pakistan Army, served 32 years. A veteran of ‘1971 Indo-Pak War’ has been instructor in officers’ Pakistan Military Academy, commanded Divisional as well as Corps Artillery. Holds first class Masters degree in International Relations and PhD degree, acquired in 2002-2007 from University of Peshawar, Pakistan. Authored a book, writes frequently in national and international media. Has attended several seminars and conferences within the country and abroad on invitation. Travelled to Switzerland (twice), UK, US, UAE, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Germany (twice). Cambodia and Thailand. Email: dr.makni49@yahoo.com

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Middle East

Battling for the Future: Arab Protests 2.0

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Credit: Institute of Security Studies

Momentous developments across Arab North and East Africa suggest the long-drawn-out process of political transition in the region as well as the greater Middle East is still in its infancy.

So does popular discontent in Syria despite eight years of devastating civil war and Egypt notwithstanding a 2013 military coup that rolled back the advances of protests in 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak and brought one of the country’s most repressive regimes to power.

What developments across northern Africa and the Middle East demonstrate is that the drivers of the 2011 popular revolts that swept the region and forced the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen to resign not only still exist but constitute black swans that can upset the apple cart at any moment.

The developments also suggest that the regional struggle between forces of change and ancien regimes and militaries backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is far from decided.

If anything, protesters in Algeria and Sudan have learnt at least one lesson from the failed 2011 results: don’t trust militaries even if they seemingly align themselves with demonstrators and don’t surrender the street until protesters’ demands have been fully met.

Distrust of the military has prompted an increasing number of Sudanese protesters to question whether chanting “the people and the army are one” is still appropriate. Slogans such as “freedom, freedom” and “revolution, revolution” alongside calls on the military to protect the protesters have become more frequent.

The protests in Algeria and Sudan have entered a critical phase in which protesters and militaries worried that they could be held accountable for decades of economic mismanagement, corruption and repression are tapping in the dark.

With protesters emboldened by their initial successes in forcing leaders to resign, both the demonstrators and the militaries, including officers with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are internally divided about how to proceed.

Moreover, neither side has any real experience in managing the crossroads at which they find themselves while it is dawning on the militaries that their tired playbooks are not producing results.

In a telling sign, Sudan’s interim leader Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan praised his country’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as he met this week with a Saudi-Emirati delegation at the military compound in Khartoum, a focal point of the protests.

Saudi Arabia has expressed support for the protests in what many suspect is part of an effort to ensure that Sudan does not become a symbol of the power of popular sovereignty and its ability to defeat autocracy.

The ultimate outcome of the dramatic developments in Algeria and Sudan and how the parties manoeuvre is likely to have far-reaching consequences in a region pockmarked by powder kegs ready to explode.

Mounting anger as fuel shortages caused by Western sanctions against Syria and Iran bring life to a halt in major Syrian cities have sparked rare and widespread public criticism of president Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The anger is fuelled by reports that government officials cut in line at petrol stations to fill up their tanks and buy rationed cooking gas and take more than is allowed.

Syria is Here, an anonymous Facebook page that reports on economics in government-controlled areas took officials to task after state-run television showed oil minister Suleiman al-Abbas touring petrol stations that showed no signs of shortage.

Is it so difficult to be transparent and forward? Would that undermine anyone’s prestige? We are a country facing sanctions and boycotted. The public knows and is aware,” the Facebook page charged.

The manager of Hashtag Syria, another Facebook page, was arrested when the site demanded that the oil ministry respond to reports of anticipated price hikes with comments rather than threats. The site charged that the ministry was punishing the manager “instead of dealing with the real problem.”

Said Syrian journalist Danny Makki: “It (Syria) is a pressure cooker.”

Similarly, authorities in Egypt, despite blocking its website, have been unable to stop an online petition against proposed constitutional amendments that could extend the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi until 2034 from attracting more than 320,000 signatures as of this writing.

The petition, entitled Batel or Void, is, according to Netblocks, a group that maps web freedom, one of an estimated 34,000 websites blocked by Egyptian internet service providers in a bid to stymie opposition to the amendments.

Mr. El-Sisi is a reminder of how far Arab militaries and their Gulf backers are potentially willing to go in defense of their vested interests and willingness to oppose popular sovereignty.

Libyan renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is another, Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is attacking the capital Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations recognized Libyan government that he and his Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian backers accuse of being dominated by Islamist terrorists.

The three Arab states’ military and financial support of Mr. Haftar is but the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Haftar has modelled his control of much of Libya on Mr. El-Sisi’s example of a military that not only dominates politics but also the economy.

As a result, the LNA is engaged in businesses ranging from waste management, metal scrap and waste export, and agricultural mega projects to the registration of migrant labour workers and control of ports, airports and other infrastructure. The LNA is also eyeing a role in the reconstruction of Benghazi and other war-devastated or underdeveloped regions.

What for now makes 2019 different from 2011 is that both sides of the divide realize that success depends on commitment to be in it for the long haul. Protesters, moreover, understand that trust in military assertions of support for the people can be self-defeating. They further grasp that they are up against a regional counterrevolution that has no scruples.

All of that gives today’s protesters a leg up on their 2011 counterparts. The jury is out on whether that will prove sufficient to succeed where protesters eight years ago failed.

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Middle East

As Marsha Lazareva languishes in jail, foreign businesses will “think twice” before investing in Kuwait

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IF THERE IS one thing to glean from the case of Marsha Lazareva, it’s that foreign businesses must now think very carefully before investing in Kuwait.

For more than a year, Lazareva, who has a five-year-old son and is one of Russia’s most successful female investors in the Gulf, has been held in the Soulabaiya prison by Kuwaiti authorities. Those authorities claim she ‘stole’ half a billion dollars, a claim she strenuously denies.

Human rights groups and prominent officials, including the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, and Jim Nicholson, former Chairman of the Republican Party and former US Ambassador to the Vatican, have called for her release and expressed concerns about the apparent absence of due process in a country where Lazareva has worked for over 13 years. Both Freeh and Nicholson visited Kuwait in recent weeks with Neil Bush, son of the late President George H. W. Bush. Bush has said Lazareva’s incarceration ‘threatens to darken relations between the U.S. and Kuwait, two countries that have enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship.

Russian officials have been equally concerned. Vladimir Platonov, the President of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry, confirmed that a single witness gave testimony in Kuwaiti court, and only for the prosecution. ‘I myself worked in prosecution for more than eight years, and I cannot imagine any judge signing off on an indictment like this,’ he said. ‘One fact of particular note is that Maria was given 1,800 pages of untranslated documents in Arabic.’

Serious questions surrounding the safety and future viability of investing in Kuwait are now being raised. Through The Port Fund, a private investment company managed by KGL Investment, Lazareva has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to local infrastructure and economic development projects during her time in the country. Until 2017, when a Dubai bank froze $496 million without cause, she had worked largely unobstructed.

But as things stand, more foreign investment is unlikely to be forthcoming. Jim Nicholson has said that the ‘imprisonment and harassment’ of Lazareva ‘threatens’ U.S. support. adding that the ‘willingness of the U.S. to do business with Kuwait’ is based on ‘its record as a nation that respects human rights and the rule of law’. Mark Williams, the investment director of The Port Fund and a colleague of Lazareva’s, has called on international investors to ‘think twice before doing business in this country’. 

These comments will surely concern the Kuwaiti government, who said last year that FDI was ‘very crucial’ to the success of its Kuwait Vision 2035 road map. In September 2018, the FTreported that the government planned to reverse its traditional position as an investor in order to diversify its economy, carrying out a series of reforms designed to facilitate foreign investment and assist investors.

But despite these changes, which have propelled Kuwait to 96th—higher than the Middle East average—in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ report, investors may be unwilling to take the risk so long as Lazareva remains in jail. Lazareva’s lawyers have accused Kuwait of violating international law by breaching a long-standing bilateral investment treaty with Russia. Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC has brought the case to the attention of the British public and the EU, writing in The Times that ‘there is no evidential basis to justify any claim of dishonesty, corruption or any other criminal wrong’. He added: ’Anyone thinking of doing business in Kuwait should read on with mounting concern.’

What’s worth remembering is that Kuwait is an important, long-standing ally of the UK, and a country generally seen as stable and fair. It is equally a major non-NATO ally of the United States, where there are more than 5,000 international students of Kuwaiti origin in higher education. But these relationships, and the investment to which they have historically led, have been cast into doubt. And it now seems certain that relations will continue to sour so long as Marsha Lazareva languishes in Soulabaiya.

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Middle East

Economic reform in the Gulf: Who benefits, really?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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For Gulf leaders, long-overdue economic reforms were never going to be easy.

Leaders like the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, quickly discovered that copying China’s model of economic growth while tightening political control was easier said than done. They realised that rewriting social contracts funded by oil wealth was more difficult because Gulf Arabs had far more to lose than the average Chinese. The Gulf states’ social contracts had worked in ways China’s welfare programmes had not. The Gulf’s rentier state’s bargain—surrender of political and social rights for cradle-to-grave welfare—had produced a win-win situation for the longest time.

Moreover, Gulf leaders, struggling with mounting criticism of the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and the fall-out of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, also lacked the political and economic clout that allowed China to largely silence or marginalise critics of its crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled northwestern province of Xinjiang.

The absence of a welfare-based social contract in China allowed the government to power economic growth, lift millions out of poverty, and provide public goods without forcing ordinary citizens to suffer pain. As a result, China was able to push through with economic reforms without having to worry that reduced welfare benefits would spark a public backlash and potentially threaten the regime.

Three years into Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for diversification of the economy, Saudi businesses and consumers complain that they are feeling the pinch of utility price hikes and a recently introduced five per cent value-added tax with little confidence that the government will stay the course to ensure promised long-term benefit.

The government’s commitment to cutting costs has been further called into question by annual handouts worth billions of dollars since the announcement of the reforms and rewriting of the social contract to cushion the impact of rising costs and quash criticism.

In contrast to China, investment in the Gulf, whether it is domestic or foreign, comes from financial, technology and other services sector, the arms industry or governments. It is focused on services, infrastructure or enhancing the state’s capacities rather than on manufacturing, industrial development and the nurturing of private sector.

With the exception of national oil companies, some state-run airlines and petrochemical companies, the bulk of Gulf investment is portfolios managed by sovereign wealth funds, trophies or investment designed to enhance a country’s prestige and soft power.

By contrast, Asian economies such as China and India have used investment fight poverty, foster a substantial middle class, and create an industrial base. To be sure, with small populations, Gulf states are more likely to ensure sustainability in services and oil and gas derivatives rather than in manufacturing and industry.

China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road initiative may be the Asian exception that would come closest to some of the Gulf’s soft-power investments. Yet, the BRI, designed to alleviate domestic overcapacity by state-owned firms that are not beholden to shareholders’ short-term demands and/or geo-political gain, contributes to China’s domestic growth.

Asian nations have been able to manage investors’ expectations in an environment of relative political stability. By contrast, Saudi Arabia damaged confidence in its ability to diversify its oil-based economy when after repeated delays it suspended plans to list five per cent of its national oil company, Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or Aramco, in what would have been the world’s largest initial public offering.

To be sure, China is no less autocratic than the Gulf states, while Hindu nationalism in India fits a global trend towards civilisationalism, populism and illiberal democracy. What differentiates much of Asia from the Gulf and accounts for its economic success are policies that ensure a relatively stable environment. These policies are focused on social and economic enhancement rather than primarily on regime survival. That may be Asia’s lesson for Gulf rulers.

Author’s note: first published in Firstpost

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