The UN backed six-point ‘Annan Plan’ for Syria is ‘on track’, according to Ahmed Fawzi, a spokesman for Kofi Annan, despite the continuation of violence throughout a number of cities in Syria. Whilst it has been acknowledged that the signs of progress, and indeed cooperation from the Assad regime, have been rather small, there still seems to be an expectation that the Annan plan is the best possible option with which to go forward. At least for the time being.
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When the uprisings started in Syria, just over a year ago, the regime denied that any such movement had started to swell up amongst the ranks of the Syrian people. It was easy to see why they would be in denial; between Bashar Al Assad’s slow moving reforms, an attempt to placate a population so often restless under his father’s rule, and the unrelenting comprehensive system of torture employed against any dissidents, those who were not so enamoured with their leader were at least fearful of voicing their opinions against him.
The outside world, too, for a time believed that the uprisings were nothing more than a faded mirror image of what was happening in the rest of the Arab world – a few isolated groupings trying to seize the regional momentum to push personal agendas. For state leaders in the United States, the UK and across Europe, their involvement in Libya meant that accepting that the uprising was factional, regional, and minor fitted better with their strategic military capabilities – with active engagement in two conflicts, in Afghanistan and Libya, they were not able to, nor were they prepared to, stretch themselves any further than they already had. The result was that the international community, its eyes turned towards its interests in Libya and elsewhere, largely ignored the increasingly bloody violence that was smouldering in Syria’s cities and the outskirts of Damascus.
When it did finally wake up to the fact that the conflict in Syria was not only more serious than they had first anticipated, but that it was also fragmenting along sectarian lines, there was a timid showing from the Arab League who made statements against Assad, and sent observers to the country, before trying to persuade the United Nations Security Council to step in and take action. But even then only in the form of selective sanctions.
By this time thousands of Syrians – military personnel, civilians, men, women, children and the aged – had lost their lives through gun battles which would erupt spontaneously in a suburb of Damascus, in the centre of Homs or Hama or Daraa, or through the torture and imprisonment dealt out by the Mukhabarat (Assad’s Secret Police) by anyone who voiced disagreement with the regime – notably this also includes children from the age of ten.
The regime weren’t even trying particularly hard to cover up the fact that the violence was happening, noting that the deaths had occurred, but asserting that it was limited to the suppression of extremist Islamist rebels. Throughout this time, and right up until Libya found closure with the death of Muammar Gaddafi, it didn’t really matter what Assad said – no journalists were in the country and, again, no one was really listening.
Then, towards the end of last year and after Gaddafi’s death – recorded as so much of that conflict was by crude camera phone video – the world finally woke up to the fact that Syria’s internal conflict was spiralling out of control. As already highlighted above, the response was still tepid, but as action started to slow in Libya US, UK and French rhetoric in particular started to acquire the sharp tones of impatience with the slow moving international efforts. The Arab League’s insistence that the UN acted in this matter, possibly out of concern for the impact on their own domestic situations just as much as the civilians suffering the brutal force of Assad’s military outfits, was not enough to get the gears in motion – however – as they ground to a halt with Russian and Chinese spanners thrown into works.
Now, as it stands, the international community are toothless – sanctions without Russia (Syria’s chief source of weaponry) and China (where Syria acquires the majority of its imported non-military goods) are a waste of time, and a military solution in a region that is currently chaotic in some corners, petrified of revolution in others, and has Israel and Iran staring at each other over nuclear potential, is simply not viable without creating a perfect storm for widespread and enduring sectarian conflict. What is more, there is not even a truly identifiable opposition with which to negotiate, to recognise, or even to support – with many different factions battling each other as much as they are battling the military mechanisms of Assad’s regime. For this to change, and it must change soon, a number of things have to happen.
First, the anti government forces in Syria need to form a single viable council or leadership group that acts as an umbrella group for all the disparate groupings that currently fight in amongst each other as much as they fight regime forces. This will not be easy, and it must find common ground and a common idea of what comes after the regime, not simply a path to its downfall, to avoid the country falling into chaos if the Assad regime does fall. This will provide a diplomatic core for the opposition which will offer an alternative instrument of government for the international community to back and rally around, but it will also ensure that grievances by and against opposition troops are addressed.
Second, once this entity has been forged, Russia and China must recognise that it is important to make new ties with the new representative body – in a similar way the international community did with Libya’s NTC – and resist blocking any movement in the United Nations. If they do not, it may be that frustrated members start acting outside of the organisation and end up risking a polarising of more than just Syria’s domestic situation. Worse, however, is if they do not act without the United Nations, and stand back to let the situation unfold by itself. The violence and torture against Assad’s opponents has increased dramatically since the failed UN resolution was vetoed, and the longer the international community stands by the more Assad will feel he can act with impunity.
Gilad Shalit, the most high profile prisoner in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, will be released at some point over the next week. In exchange, 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, currently residing in Israeli prison cells, are to be released in stages with female prisoners – all 450 in Israeli custody – being given priority on the time scale. The huge number of prisoners given to the Palestinians, not all of which will be given leave to remain in Israel of the Palestinian Occupied Territories, signifies the growing importance to the Israeli government, and more particularly to Netanyahu, that the hostage situation involving Shalit should be resolved. Whilst it may seem absurd to some that so much is being put at stake to secure the life of one Israeli Soldier, the implications of his release, and the manner in which both sides conduct themselves through the remainder of the deal’s delivery, have hugely wide-scale implications.
Legislation passed by the Israeli Knesset last week made it illegal for anyone living in the Israeli territories to actively boycott goods made in the settlements. As part of the law, settlement-based producers are able to sue those who are, or have, boycotted their products without having to actually provide tangible evidence of damages to their business which, given the complexities of domestic trade within Israel, would be almost impossible t0 prove or at least allocate blame to a specific quadrant of society. All that has to be proved, in any cases brought forward, is that there was an intent to do economic damage by organised boycott. This begs the question then, how effective are boycotts in establishing political change?
After a month of focus around the North-Western regions of Libya, where the Liberation Forces have been slowly advancing from the West towards Tripoli, the fight seems to be erupting in the East again, in the oil-port of Brega. This advance on Brega by Gaddafi forces earlier this week was a surprise for two reasons: first, because the city lies so far to the East, and second, because it’s unusual these days to hear anything of Gaddafi’s troops advancing. Continue reading
News of the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the two elected halves of a Palestinian National Authority Government, was met with almost universal apprehension by the international community and Palestinians alike. Israel, fearful of a side that could finally negotiate itself into a stronger position, condemned the move. The United States barely fluttered in what were supposed to be the winds of change, and across Europe there was a mix of disdain for Hamas and desire for a resolution. There was, though, some hope that this would end the ongoing disunity, and that yet another round of negotiations with Israel would be attended by both factions in a much needed showing of unity.Today though, the meeting that was scheduled for the negotiations has been postponed. Not in itself a damning statement, until you add the word ‘indefinitely’ to the end.
The reception was always going to be warm for Netanyahu at the US Congress, but then, these are friendly waters. Support for the state of Israel amongst US voters is pretty much a no-brainer if you look at it in terms of demographic. The number of Jewish citizens in the United States is double that of those adhering to Islam, and the jewish-Israeli lobby is one that is renowned for being both exceptionally wealthy, and for having huge reach into the depths of the US governing institutions – particularly at the highest levels. The Islamic and Arabic lobby, on the other hand, is non-existent, and even if there were one reception would be extraordinarily frosty as a huge proportion of the United States, as ill informed as it may be, associate Islam and the Arab world with acts of terrorism committed by extremists and resistance against US forces in the Afghan and Iraqi wars. Whilst these acts are committed in the name of Islam, there are no strong a decisive voices to counter this, at least none with the courage to do so.
After the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, and the subsequent occupation of both of these countries by ‘international’ – but mainly anglophone – states, the notions of regime change, of political interference, and of military interventionism sent half the world reeling in disgust. There were abundant arguments emanating from both sides of the political spectrum who felt – and still feel – that the presence of these states as occupation forces in these two predominantly Islamic countries is abhorrent. The right wingers, gagging for a good war but only if it brings in enough profit, started to reason that the losses – both in human life (though only those of the troops they sent) and financially – were causing more problems than they were returns. The left wingers, ranging from absolute pacifist to people who simply didn’t want to aggravate two already volatile political situations, weren’t inclined to get involved in a war that would hurt more people than it would help, and felt queasy at the mention of oil reserves – or indeed George W. Bush.