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Reconstituting Syria

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Public discussion of the Syrian situation has tended to focus on the plight of the Syrian refugees and their effects on neighboring countries, the internal fighting there, and the interplay between external States seeking to influence the outcome of the Syrian civil war.

Much less attention is given to what it would take to restore a well functioning society, or a set of well functioning societies, in the area of Syria. But there is reason to focus on that question now. If that is the end result which local, regional and global actors should seek, then those actors need to be shaping their undertakings accordingly, from this point forward, and avoiding actions which, though appealing from an individual actor’s perspective, continue or make worse the current turmoil and suffering.

Syria has, in economic terms, deteriorated badly, as Chatham House has well documented . Syria has lost control of rich agricultural areas and a large portion of its petroleum production facilities. Thus, the energy bases for economic and social performance have been greatly diminished. A recent World Bank report suggests that Syria’s gross domestic economic production has plummeted in recent years, and “the current account balance is estimated to continue its trend and reach a deficit of 13 percent of GDP in 2015. As a result of the civil war, total international reserves have declined from $20 billion at end-2010 to an estimated $2.6 billion at end-2014, and are estimated to fall further to $0.7 billion by the end of 2015.”

The same report states “As of September, 2015, 4 million Syrians have registered as refugees with the UNHCR, and are mostly hosted in Syria’s neighboring countries, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, but also in Egypt and, increasingly, in European countries. More than 12.2 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian aid, including 5.6 million children (UNOCHA, Syrian Center for Policy Research-SCPR).”

Though Russia and Iran have made investments in Syria in recent years, there is reason to suggest that Syria has disintegrated so far as to be only a liability for any other State, or the citizens of such other State — including the prominently mentioned States such as Russia and Iran, as well as Europe (as a whole), the United States, Saudi Arabia, and others. ISIL, the international outcast, is the only exception. As Syria now stands, it is hard to see it as a substantial current economic asset to anyone.

There is reason to suggest that rivalries among external State actors, including the United States, have, wittingly or unwittingly, contributed to the current breakdown in Syria. The authors of a 2014 Foreign Affairs article suggest that “Syria has become a dividing line among rival powers — a twenty-first-century iron curtain of sorts.”   This perspective is subject to the interpretation that the ’Western’ steadfast rejection of Assad has to do not only with that Assad’s bloodthirsty reaction to political challenge, but also with his economic and military alignment with Russia, Iran and China. In overview, the combination of Western economic sanctions, a drought, local citizen disenfranchisement and abuse, civil war and ISIL is what has pushed Syria nearer, if not to, the brink of state disintegration.

The net economic and humanitarian result of this history seems to underlie the current degree of coordination between external State actors, including both Russia and the United States, directed to some degree toward ISIL, and perhaps to underlie some ambiguous statements by Russian spokespersons. This suggests that there may be some possibility of setting up a political reorganization of Syria through international concord, leading to workable domestic concord over some several months or years. The United Nations appears to be playing a constructive role in this process.

This certainly is to be encouraged. But Russia’s interjection of military hardware, and its currently continued protection of Assad, suggests it still seeks heavily to tilt any resolution of the Syrian State in its favor, and attempt to benefit economically and geopolitically thereafter. One can assume that Europe and the United States have an opposite set of preferences.

However, from a global standpoint, it is more important that there be normal and productive economic and social activity in and near Syria than that any of these State actors gain advantage over the others. A functional Syria without an inimical agenda toward any of its neighbors need be no threat to any of them. Such a functional Syria, with adequate agricultural production, petroleum production, banks, utilities, medical and educational systems, could engage in productive economic and social interaction with any and all nearby and global entities — Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Europe, the United States, etc.

Such a result need not be entirely blind to history, For example, the Russian naval base on the Mediterranean would not need to be excised, assuming it were not used for war support purposes.

Let us briefly review what will be required successfully to reorganize Syria, or something like it.

The agricultural areas of Syria need to be reintegrated, and well serviced.

Oil and gas production areas need to be restored, in normal production, transport, and sales patterns, with new investment.

The population needs to be protected from ISIL, and any other external incursion.

Banks, insurance, and similar financial institutions need to be reliably in place at reasonable scale. Though calculation of investment needs in Syria may not be obvious or easy in the current fog of war, it may not unreasonable to expect that up to or over a hundred billion dollars of investment, of various sorts, will need to be mobilized over time.

Such of Syria’s population as its State can absorb need to find or build homes to return to. They will need reliable educational and medical institutions.

All of this needs to be in place, using a workable political entity, and reliably maintained for many years, if not some decades.

This is a great deal to ask of the loose collection of political entities now addressing Syria, with all their diverse interests, notwithstanding the involvement of many able persons who, presumably, are not insensitive to the ongoing human tragedy in and around Syria.

Thus, the recent suggestion of Don Kraus that an international trusteeship for Syria, under United Nations auspices, deserves, this author suggests, widespread and receptive attention, even as the current efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis proceed.

Given all the diverse actors involved, natural reluctance to give up or compromise individual State or sectarian interests, and intricacies of construction of an institution of this sort, a massive reorganization of prevailing thought and a massive UN level organizational effort would be required. Americans, for example, seem divided over just the American role concerning Syria. This state of consciousness is well short of considering that the United States sponsor a new UN organization to deal with Syria, even though such a sponsorship might be appealing in some respects.

Thus Kraus recognizes that his proposal would seem to many to be a ‘radical’ solution. In concept, the proposal is not all that radical. Indeed, a branch of the United Nations has already begun planning for a Syrian reconstruction effort, whomever wins the current civil war.

Even so, such an action would be a rare and demanding departure from current international practice.

Such a departure might be seen as necessary if conflicts between participants in the nascent coalition of State actors concerning Syria were to escalate. An important benefit of a UN Trusteeship would be diminution of the possibility of armed conflict between the various nations participating in trying to quell the ISIL activity, and jockeying for position in the resolution of the conflict in Syria. One entity in control of Syria, known not to have global ambitions or alliance with any of the contending camps, would seem a much safer approach than we now see, with multiple national warplanes and surface missiles, cruise missiles, and ground forces intermixed. We now have a classic tinderbox situation.

Lastly, from the viewpoint of the United States, a functional Syrian State which neither favors nor opposes our particular interests, or those of Russia, or Iran, or Shia muslims, or Sunni muslims, would be a major improvement over the current tragic state of affairs. If ‘better off’ is good enough, the United States need not control a reconstituted Syria, or make it our own salient in a cold or slow motion war with Russia. Nor do we need to make it an instrument with which to bludgeon Iran, or Shiites in general, or in particular situations, as some have seemed to suggest. This would be likely only to make matters worse.

In sum, the US and Europe would be better off if Syria were just a normal State which is not hostile to them (or anyone else). Russia and Iran would continue to have geographic proximity and long term connections favoring productive relationships with such a State. From the perspective of millions of Syrians, some long term relief from ongoing personal suffering is urgently needed. Speaking from the viewpoint of the global citizen, a UN trusteeship would seem an appropriately global, and potentially much safer, solution. And whatever the form of workout for Syria, one may suggest that the perspectives here offered might be integrated in the process.

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Middle East

Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce

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Iran and elections have not been two synonymous terms. A regime whose constitution is based on absolute rule of someone who is considered to be God’s representative on earth, highest religious authority, morality guide, absolute ruler, and in one word Big Brother (or Vali Faqih), would hardly qualify for a democracy or a place where free or fair elections are held. But when you are God’s rep on earth you are free to invent your own meanings for words such as democracy, elections, justice, and human rights. It comes with the title. And everyone knows the fallacy of “presidential elections” in Iran. Most of all, the Iranian public know it as they have come to call for an almost unanimous boycott of the sham elections.

The boycott movement in Iran is widespread, encompassing almost all social and political strata of Iranian society, even some factions of the regime who have now decided it is time to jump ship. Most notably, remnants of what was euphemistically called the Reformist camp in Iran, have now decided to stay away from the phony polls. Even “hardline” former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad realizes the extent of the regime’s woes and has promised that he will not be voting after being duly disqualified again from participating by supreme leader’s Guardian Council.

So after 42 years of launching a reformist-hardliner charade to play on the West’s naivety, Khamenei’s regime is now forced to present its one and true face to the world: Ebrahim Raisi, son of the Khomeinist ideology, prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, death commission judge, perpetrator of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, chief inquisitionist, and favorite of Ali Khamenei.

What is historic and different about this presidential “election” in Iran is precisely what is not different about it. It took the world 42 years to cajole Iran’s medieval regime to step into modernity, change its behavior, embrace universal human rights and democratic governance, and treat its people and its neighbors with respect. What is shocking is that this whole process is now back at square one with Ebrahim Raisi, a proven mass murderer who boasts of his murder spree in 1988, potentially being appointed as president.

With Iran’s regime pushing the envelope in launching proxy wars on the United States in Iraq, on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and on Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, and with a horrendous human rights record that is increasingly getting worse domestically, what is the international community, especially the West, going to do? What is Norway’s role in dealing with this crisis and simmering crises to come out of this situation?

Europe has for decades based its foreign policy on international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The International community must take the lead in bringing Ebrahim Raisi to an international court to account for the massacre he so boastfully participated in 1988 and all his other crimes he has committed to this day.

There are many Iranian refugees who have escaped the hell that the mullahs have created in their beautiful homeland and who yearn to one day remake Iran in the image of a democratic country that honors human rights. These members of the millions-strong Iranian Diaspora overwhelmingly support the boycott of the sham election in Iran, and support ordinary Iranians who today post on social media platforms videos of the Mothers of Aban (mothers of protesters killed by regime security forces during the November 2019 uprising) saying, “Our vote is for this regime’s overthrow.” Finally, after 42 years, the forbidden word of overthrow is ubiquitous on Iranian streets with slogans adorning walls calling for a new era and the fall of this regime.

Europe should stand with the Iranian Resistance and people to call for democracy and human rights in Iran and it should lead calls for accountability for all regime leaders, including Ebrahim Raisi, and an end to a culture of impunity for Iran’s criminal rulers.

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Middle East

Powershift in Knesset: A Paradigm of Israel’s Political Instability

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The dynamics of the Middle East are changing faster than anyone ever expected. For instance, no sage mind ever expected Iran to undergo a series of talks with the US and European nations to negotiate sanctions and curb its nuclear potential. And certainly, no political pundit could have predicted a normalization of diplomacy between Israel and a handful of Arab countries. The shocker apparently doesn’t end there. The recent shift in Israeli politics is a historic turnaround; a peculiar outcome of the 11-day clash. To probe, early June, a pack of eight opposition parties reached a coalition agreement to establish Israel’s 36th government and oust Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. While the political impasse has partly subsided, neither the 12-year prime minister is feeble nor is the fragile opposition strong enough to uphold an equilibrium.

Mr. Netanyahu currently serves as the caretaker prime minister of Israel. While the charges of corruption inhibited his drive in the office, he was responsible to bring notable achievements for Israel in the global diplomatic missions. Mr. Netanyahu, since assuming office in 2009, has bagged several diplomatic victories; primarily in reference to the long-standing conflict with Palestine and by extension, the Arab world. He managed to persuade former US President Donald J. Trump to shift the American embassy from Tel Aviv to the contentious city of Jerusalem. Furthermore, he managed to strike off the Palestinian mission in Washington whilst gaining success in severing US from the nuclear agreement with Iran. To the right-wing political gurus, Mr. Netanyahu stood as a symbolic figure to project the aspirations of the entire rightest fraction.

However, the pegs turned when Mr. Netanyahu refused to leave the office while facing a corruption trial. What he deemed as a ‘Backdoor Coup Attempt’ was rather criticized by his own base as a ruse of denial. By denying the charges and desecrating the judges hearing his case, Mr. Netanyahu started to undercut the supremacy of law. While he still had enough support to float above water, he lost the whelming support of the rightest faction which resulted in the most unstable government and four inconclusive elections in the past two years.

While Mr. Netanyahu was given the baton earlier by President Reuven Rivlin, he failed to convince his bedfellow politicians to join the rightest agenda. Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu probably hoped to regain support by inciting a head-on collision with the Palestinians. The scheme backfired as along with the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the tremors overtook Israel’s own Arab-Jewish cities resulting in mass chaos. The burning of Mosques and local Synagogues was hardly the expectation. Thus, both the raucous sentiment pervading the streets of Israel as well as the unstable nature of the Netanyahu-government led the rightest parties to switch sides.

As Mr. Netanyahu failed to convince a coalition government, the task was handed to Mr. Yair Lapid, a centrist politician. While the ideologies conflicted in the coalition he tried to forge, his counterparts, much like him, preferred to sideline the disputes in favor of dethroning Netanyahu. Mr. Lapid joined hands with a pool of political ideologies, the odd one being the conservative Yamina party led by the veteran politician, Mr. Naftali Bennett. While Mr. Lapid has been a standard-bearer for secular Israelis, Mr. Bennett has been a stout nationalist, being the standard-bearer for the rightest strata. To add oil to the fire, the 8-party coalition also includes an Arab Islamist party, Raam. A major conflict of beliefs and motivations.

Although the coalition has agreed to focus on technocratic issues and compromise on the ideological facets, for the time being, both the rightest and the leftish parties would be under scrutiny to justify the actions of the coalition as a whole. Mr. Bennett would be enquired about his take on the annexation of occupied West Bank, an agenda vocalized by him during his alliance with Mr. Netanyahu. However, as much as he opposes the legitimacy of the Palestinian state, he would have to dim his narrative to avoid a fissure in the already fragile coalition. Similarly, while the first independent Arab group is likely to assume decision-making in the government for the first time, the mere idea of infuriating Mr. Bennett strikes off any hope of representation and voice of the Arabs in Israel.

Now Mr. Netanyahu faces a choice to defer the imminent vote of confidence in Knesset whilst actively persuading the rightest politicians to abandon the coalition camp. His drive has already picked momentum as he recently deemed the election as the ‘Biggest Fraud in the History of Israeli Politics’. Furthermore, he warned the conservatives of a forthcoming leftist regime, taking a hit on Naftali colluding with a wide array of leftist ideologies. The coalition is indeed fragile, yet survival of coalition would put an end to Netanyahu and his legacy while putting Naftali and then Lapid in the office. However, the irony of the situation is quite obvious – a move from one rightest to the other. A move from one unstable government to a lasting political instability in Israel.

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Middle East

The Gaza War

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Destruction in Gaza following an Israeli strike in May 2021. UNOCHA/Mohammad Libed

On May 22, 2021, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei’s website, posted a congratulatory message from one of the Hamas group’s leaders, Ziad Nakhaleh. In his message, Ziad Nakhaleh addresses Khamenei and says, “Qasem Soleimani’s friends and brothers, especially Ismail Ghani (Iran’s IRGC commander) and his colleagues, led this battle and were present with us during our recent conflict with Israel. … We pray for the preservation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its brave soldiers.”

Since the regime’s establishment 42 years ago, Iran has been instrumental in inflicting war and chaos regionally. When Iran finds itself cornered and entangled with its internal problems or facing an impasse, a war or bloody conflict gets ignited by the regime to divert the Iranian people’s attention. This undeclared policy of the Iranian regime frees itself from the most pressing internal issues, even temporarily.

Today’s Iranian society is like a barrel of gunpowder ready to ignite. Last year, the Iranian parliament declared that more than 60 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. According to the media close to the regime, close to 80% of the population below the poverty line this year. It is worth mentioning that Iran is one of the top 10 wealthiest countries globally, despite the challenges of the current sanctions.

This poverty is mainly the result of rampant institutionalized government corruption. According to Qalibaf, the current speaker of Iran’s parliament, only 4 percent of the population is prosperous, and the rest are poor and hungry. The two uprisings of 2017 and mid-November 2019 that surprised the regime were caused mainly by extreme poverty and high inflation. The regime survived the above widespread uprisings by opening direct fire at the innocent protestors, killing more than 1500 people. There is no longer any legitimacy for the regime domestically and internationally.

The explosive barrel of the Iranian discontent is about to burst at any given moment. To delay such social eruption, Khamenei banned the import of COVID-19 vaccines from the US, Britain, and France, hoping the people will be occupied with the virus and forget about their miserable living conditions.

On the other hand, the Iranian regime is in the midst of new negotiations with the western countries regarding its nuclear program. These negotiations may force the regime to abandon its nuclear plans that have cost billions of dollars, its terrorist activities in the region, and its ballistic missiles stockpile. This retreat will inevitably facilitate the growth and spread of the uprisings and social unrest across Iran.

The Deadlock of the Regime

The regime is facing an election that could ignite the barrel of gunpowder of the Iranian society. In 1988, when Khamenei wanted to announce Ahmadinejad as the winner of the presidential ballot boxes but faced opposition from former Prime Minister Mousavi. Widespread demonstrations were ignited. The same scenario is repeating itself in this year’s presidential election, where Khamenei intends to announce Raisi as the next president of Iran. There is a legitimate fear that demonstrations will ignite once again.

To avoid the happening of the same experience, Khamenei is forced to make an important decision. Like any other dictator, he pursues a policy of contraction during these challenging and crucial times, deciding to favor those loyal to him and his policies. Khamenei needs a uniform and decisive government to exert maximum repression on the Iranian people.

By disqualifying the former president (Ahmadinejad), the current vice president (Jahangiri), and most importantly, his current adviser and speaker of the two parliaments (Larijani), he has cut loose a large part of his regime. One way or another, Khamenei’s contraction policy is going to weaken his grip on power.

On the other hand, the Iranian regime must comply with the West’s demand for nuclear talks. In 2021, the political landscape is entirely different from 2015 in the balance of regional and global forces. The regime’s regional influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria has been severely weakened.

There is an explosive situation inside Iran. The resistance units spread throughout Iran after the 2019 uprising and have rapidly increased in recent months. They are spreading the message of separation of religion from the government, plus equality between men and women in a society where women do not have the right to be elected as president or a minister. The resistance units call themselves supporters of Maryam Rajavi, the Iranian regime’s sworn enemy. These units can direct a massive flood of people’s anger towards the Supreme Leader’s establishments with every spark and explosion.

Khamenei wanted to force the West to lift all sanctions and demonstrate a show of force within Iran and the region by initiating the Gaza war. The Gaza war was intended to divert the attention from Khamenei’s decisions on Iran’s presidential election. In this situation, the regime wanted to break its presidential deadlock by firing rockets through Hamas and carrying out a massacre in Israel and Palestine.

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