Saturday, June 23, 2018

An assured Assad

By Roula Khalaf and Anna Fifield–
Not long ago, the Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad was shunned as a dangerous pariah, a troublemaker that meddles in Iraq, provokes unrest in Lebanon and cheers at the Middle Eastern misfortunes of the west.

The Syrian president, who inherited his rule from his father in 2000, was ostracised even by Arab friends infuriated by his tightening alliance with Iran and by the repeated promises of co-operation that were never kept.

These days, however, it must feel like the “Bashar Spring” in Damascus. The 43-year-old Mr Assad is enjoying a rare run of fortunate events that are easing the international pressures and offering a chance at rehabilitation.

With a new US administration determined to turn the page on the policies of George W. Bush and transform past enemies into friends, Syria has emerged as a test case for American policy. If Washington can find a way of convincing Damascus to work with it rather than against it, the bigger goal of defusing other tensions in the region would gain a significant boost.

With its ties to militant groups across the region such as Hizbollah and Hamas, and its resulting ability to undermine western interests, a more co-operative Assad regime could facilitate policy towards Iran as well as the pursuit of Middle East peace.

Although it remains far from clear that the Assad regime will change its behaviour, Washington has already changed its tone. US officials now travel to Damascus for talks; they even show up at the national day celebrations of the Syrian embassy in Washington. European and Arab governments have also been warming to Mr Assad, hoping that engagement will prise him away from the clutches of Tehran.

Mr Assad’s luck has recently also been good on other fronts. An alliance of the Syrian exiled opposition that had grouped Islamists and a leading regime defector has broken up, further weakening a feeble dissident movement.

Most recently, four pro-Syrian former Lebanese generals jailed for the 2005 killing of Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon and Syrian opponent, were released amid a lack of evidence. Though a United Nations investigation into an assassination that was widely blamed on Damascus continues, the release of the four men was a boon to Syria, which had denied involvement and had sought to bring an end to the probe.

“It’s a remarkable run for a guy who had his back against the wall,” remarks Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Syrian officials are basking in self-confidence as a result. Imad Moustapha, the country’s ambassador in Washington, told the Middle East Institute this month that he had been “overjoyed” by Mr Obama’s election, describing the change in Washington’s attitude towards Syria as dramatic. “Now, instead of pointing fingers at us, they are telling us how can we work together to address this and that issue. The tone is friendly and respectful and the style is different,” he said. Syria, he added, was not changing. Instead, it was the US that had recognised its mistakes and was seeking to correct them.

“The Syrians now believe they are the centre of the Middle East,” quips Andrew Tabler, a political analyst who spent years in Syria. “They think nothing can be done without them.”

Yet Damascus should not rejoice yet. A better relationship with the west largely depends on how the Syrian ruler plays his hand. US officials fear that Syria might be overestimating the change of tone of the Obama administration and misreading its intentions. To stress that point, a day after a senior US envoy was in Damascus at the end of last week, the administration renewed its unilateral sanctions against Syria, citing the regime’s support for terrorism and weapons trade.

“We want to see a change in Syria’s outlook, away from being a spoiler and more towards being a constructive problem solver, at least willing to deal with some of the problems in the region,” says one US official. “It is not that we want them to cut off relations with Iran but to recognise that the west can offer things that Iran can’t – like economic prosperity and peace with Israel.”

A country of 20m people, with a weak economy and dwindling oil reserves, Syria has always  been a hardline state in the region, determined to punch above its weight. Under the late Hafez al-Assad, it was adept at manoeuvring diplomatically and shifting strategies when the international environment demanded it – most famously during the first Gulf war in 1990 when Syria joined the US-led alliance to free Kuwait.

This ability, however, appeared to have been lost when the younger Mr Assad took over the presidency on the death of his father. Tall and given to grandstanding – much to the annoyance of older Arab leaders – the trained eye-doctor was ill prepared to rule over the Baathist regime, concentrated in the hands of the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam dominant in the Latakia region on the Mediterranean, and underpinned by a web of competing and corrupt intelligence agencies. It was, after all, his brother Bassil who had been groomed to take over but was killed in a car accident.

Fearing that he would be next on the list of US targets for regime change following the 2003 fall of Baghdad, Mr Assad drew closer to Tehran, backed Iraqi insurgents and used Syria’s support for Lebanon’s Hizbollah and the Palestinian Hamas to undermine western interests in the region.

The cost has been high, and not always obvious. Mr Assad consolidated his power internally, sidelining the old guard and promoting trusted members of his family. He has kept a firm grip on society, repressing pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders.

Damascus also has taken blows: in 2007, Israel bombed a suspected nuclear site in the Syrian desert, which the US said had been built in collaboration with North Korea. A top military aide to Mr Assad was assassinated last August; and Imad Moughniye, Hizbollah’s military chief, was killed a year earlier by a bomb in Damascus. Both killings remain unexplained, with Syria never directly accusing Israel.

Economically too, Damascus has suffered. A trade association agreement under negotiation with the European Union has been frozen since 2005. The killing of Hariri turned large parts of Lebanon against Damascus, forcing it to withdraw its troops – the end of a nearly 30-year presence from which the military establishment had profited financially.

Despite the setbacks, Syria considers that it has been vindicated, with its diplomatic clout enhanced by the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq and the decline of American influence in the Middle East. Iran’s authority in the region has been boosted. In Lebanon, meanwhile, Syria’s allies, including Hizbollah, remain powerful and could win next month’s legislative elections. “The Syrians are convinced that by resisting the [last] US administration they survived, they won,” says a western diplomat in Damascus.

The self-satisfaction could lead to Syria holding out for US concessions but giving little in return. “In absolute terms, Assad is in a weak position, in the region and economically, but not in relative terms,” says Mr Alterman of the CSIS. Damascus, he argues, has no intention of changing its foreign policy, but even a modest correction could give it a different relationship with the US. America’s troop withdrawal from Iraq, scheduled to be completed in two years, could represent an opportunity if Syria is willing to crack down on insurgents who pass through its territory – a big US complaint. Arab officials who have dealt with the regime say engagement with Damascus has a better chance of success if the economic benefits are made clear.

While the US explores prospects of improved bilateral relations, it is also making clear that it would be willing to mediate in peace talks with Israel in order to secure Syria’s main demand – a return of the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967. George Mitchell, the US envoy for Middle East peace, recently added to his team an expert in Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

Quick progress is, however, expected by no one. A day before the US officials arrived in Damascus last week, Mr Assad hosted Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Iranian president. “We have strategic ties…which…serve the stability and strength of this region,” Mr Assad insisted. “Our duty is to strengthen these kinds of ties.”

“I think that we will see a very gradual, cautious, sceptical approach on both sides,” says Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. Syrian officials, he argues, are fully aware that although Mr Obama’s election might have been revolutionary, his Middle East policy may not be.

The fate of US engagement, more­over, will be closely linked to that of Syrian-Israeli talks. The Israeli defence establishment sees the strategic benefit of peace with Syria but Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s new rightwing prime minister, appears to have little enthusiasm for reviving negotiations. Analysts predict that talks will eventually start, though they will prove hard to conclude with a peace deal.
Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst, says that while confidence-building between Washington and Damascus is important, there will come a stage when concrete actions are required. “Unless the Golan Heights issue is given a high priority on Obama’s regional agenda, sooner or later we will be back to square one. There has to be something concrete related to the peace talks.”

One US official meanwhile outlines a bewildering list of conditions for the success of American engagement. “I think that in the next year, if Syria is in negotiations with Israel, if there is a stable government in Lebanon, if there are better relations between Syria and Iraq, if the Palestinians are working towards elections, the conditions for Syria to play a more positive regional role will be largely in place,” he says.

The Bashar Spring could prove enduring. But it does well to remember the fate of the so-called Damascus Spring, the flourishing of democratic debate that Mr Assad tolerated when he took over – but then suppressed.


UN report accuses Israeli military of negligence in Gaza war

Ed Pilkington in New York and Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem–

Inquiry finds Israel responsible for deaths, injuries and damage to UN buildings

A UN inquiry accused the Israeli military today of “negligence or recklessness” in its conduct of the war in Gaza.

The summary of the UN report, commissioned by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, censured the Israeli government for causing death, injuries and damage to UN property in seven incidents involving action by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).

It said: “The board concluded that IDF actions involved varying degrees of negligence or recklessness with regard to United Nations premises and to the safety of United Nations staff and other civilians within those premises, with consequent deaths, injuries, and extensive physical damage and loss of property.”

However, in a blow to human rights campaigners, Ban said there would be no further investigation despite the report calling for a full impartial inquiry.

Although the full, 184-page findings of the UN board of inquiry will not be made public, the 27-page summary emphasised that UN premises are inviolable, and that inviolability cannot be set aside by the demands of military expediency.

“UN personnel and all civilians within UN premises, as well as civilians in the immediate vicinity of those premises, are to be protected in accordance with the rules and principles of international humanitarian law,” the summary says.

Among the incidents for which the Israeli government is held responsible are:

• The deaths of three young men killed by a single IDF missile strike at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Asma school in Gaza City on 5 January;

• The firing of heavy IDF mortar rounds into the UNRWA Jabalia school on 6 January, injuring seven people sheltering in the school and killing up to 40 people in the immediate vicinity;

• Aerial bombing of the UNRWA Bureij health centre on the same day causing the death of a patient and serious injuries to two others;

• Artillery firing by the IDF into the UNRWA field office compound in Gaza city on 15 January that in turn caused high explosive shells to explode within the compound causing injuries and considerable damage to the buildings. The summary notes that it disrupted the UN’s humanitarian operations in Gaza;

• Artillery firing by the IDF into the UNRWA Beit Lahia school on 17 January, causing the deaths of two children

• Aerial bombing by the IDF of the Unesco compound on 29 December causing damage to UN buildings and vehicles.

In his accompanying letter to the summary, Ban noted that the Israeli government had significant reservations and objections to the document. He said he was reviewing the inquiry boards recommendations “with a view to determining what courses of action, if any, I should take”.

Those recommendations include demanding from the Israeli government that it retract earlier claims that Palestinians had been firing at the IDF from within UN premises, and that the UN should pursue Israel for reparations and reimbursement for all expenses incurred. Those reparations would cover the death or injury of UN personnel or third parties, and the repair of UN property.

Israel had dismissed the report, given to an Israeli foreign ministry official, as “tendentious” and “patently biased”.

The UN investigation is the first into the war, and looked only at deaths, injuries and damage caused at UN sites in Gaza during the three-week conflict.

The document was compiled by a board of inquiry – a team of four led by Ian Martin, a Briton who is a former head of Amnesty International and a former UN special envoy to East Timor and Nepal.

Israel’s foreign ministry attempted to pre-empt the report today, saying the Israeli military had already investigated its own conduct during the war and “proved beyond doubt” that it did not fire intentionally at UN buildings. It dismissed the UN inquiry.

“The state of Israel rejects the criticism in the committee’s summary report, and determines that in both spirit and language the report is tendentious, patently biased, and ignores the facts presented to the committee,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

It said the inquiry had “preferred the claims of Hamas, a murderous terror organisation, and by doing so has misled the world”.

International human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused Israel’s military and Palestinian militant groups of serious violations of international law and possible war crimes during the conflict.

The UN board of inquiry report has limited scope: it is confined to investigating death or injuries or damage at UN buildings or during UN operations. The UN human rights council is also to dispatch a fact-finding mission to Gaza, but Israel has already suggested it will not co-operate, saying the council is biased.

Source: Guardian UK

Don’t Forget About Foreign Aid


President Barack Obama’s inaugural address included a ringing endorsement of U.S. engagement with the developing world: “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

The president reiterated his commitment to making development a pillar of American engagement with the world at the recent G-20 conference in London. There, he joined with other world leaders in pledging support for poor countries as they deal with the effects of the global economic crisis. He also announced plans to work with Congress to double support for agricultural development, a driver of economic growth in many of the world’s poorest countries.

We fully support this steady commitment and generosity, especially during these times of great economic hardship.

Our country’s economic health and security are inextricably linked to the prosperity and security of the rest of the world. The current economic crisis brings with it a strong temptation to turn inward and focus on the pain we are experiencing here at home. But pulling back from global engagement is not an option. Stability and prosperity go hand in hand, and neither is possible in the presence of widespread and extreme poverty.

U.S. efforts to promote development and reduce poverty around the world make up a vital component of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the “three Ds” of U.S. foreign policy: development, defense and diplomacy. We have a responsibility to use our foreign aid dollars as effectively as possible, to keep our markets open to the poorest countries, and to integrate trade into our overall economic development strategy.

There is also a critical role for the private sector. Businesses must do what they do best by expanding economic growth and enterprise development around the world. If we are serious about making global development a strategic priority, we must explore new opportunities for businesses and government to leverage each other’s efforts and resources. Only a strategy that combines smart government policies with the engine of business and entrepreneurship will be powerful enough to overcome the enormous challenges we face.

This is the mission of the Initiative for Global Development (IGD) — an organization whose leadership council we co-chair. At the IGD National Summit in Washington, D.C., on May 6, business and government leaders will gather to advance new strategies for reducing global poverty. Participants will focus on ways to promote better public policies, and to integrate the best practices of business and government in order to lift up the lives of the world’s poorest people through economic growth.

The IGD Summit will include some of the brightest business minds from Africa, who know too well the urgent needs of the world’s poorest people and the unique barriers facing African entrepreneurs. These African business leaders will join with U.S. CEOs to advance the shared objective of reducing poverty through enterprise development.

It is clear that the vision outlined in President Obama’s inaugural address will require new thinking. We have to focus our efforts where they can have maximum impact, and draw on the strengths of the public and private sectors alike. Especially now — as the economic crisis threatens to reverse the immense progress we have made against global poverty in the postwar era — we have a shared responsibility to continue this progress or risk the grave threat of backsliding.

The challenges our own economy must overcome are daunting. But if we combine our strengths and talents in a focused effort to reduce the most severe poverty, we can create a brighter future for all of us.


Permanent Mission of Afghanistan