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Will Assad or the Syrian Economy Collapse First

Most analysts are coming to the conclusion that the Syrian economy must collapse before the military will turn on the government or split. There are growing signs that economic pressure is mounting on the regime.

So says author of Syrian Comment, Joshua Landis, a Syrian expert at University of Oklahoma.  Tour companies in the area are avoiding Syria completely.  Banks have been asked to post $300 million in cash reserves by year’s end, up from $30,000.   Twenty-five top business leaders me with President Assad this week to protest stringent new financial rules.

The opposition is determined to stay its ground.

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Syrian Opposition Holds 3-day Meeting in Turkey

The young guys were impressive. “Anyone in Damascus who doesn’t take these guys seriously is stupid,” my source explained. They are no where near where they should be, but for a first meeting this was impressive.” There were many arguments between the young, new leaders and the old, established leaders who have been in exile for decades. The young leaders had no patience for the committees and bureaucracy of the older generation. They are getting communication lines in place, developing networks between towns and did not have time for the endless haggling of the older generation.   -Syria Comment

The media is full of news about the Syrian opposition meeting held the last few days in Damascus.  Joshua Landis, noted Syrian scholar and author of the blog,  Syria Comment, carries more of the above first-hand report of the meetings. Broad representation and election of a 31 member executive body.  The meeting rejected any foreign intervention and after heated debate, agreed to maintain the secular nature of the government.

The Assad government is determined to stop the movement against it and  has ratcheted up violence against unarmed protesters and arrested thousands.   More here and here.

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Human Rights: the Demands of Resistance

A friend invited me to see the film “Hebron”, about an Israeli settlement of 500 people surrounded by 150,000 Palestinians, at an event sponsored by Human Rights Watch last night.   An English HRW official from D.C., with a long journalistic career in the Middle East, spoke beforehand.  After giving an overview of the Arab Spring in various countries, he concluded by describing the recent Palestinian demonstrations at Israel’s border sites (with West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan) as the same in nature as the Arab Spring democracy movements.

Yes and no. The Arab Spring uprisings are by citizens of one country against that country’s ossified autocratic or royal leadership.  The border demonstrations by Palestinians are legitimate actions against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and also their lack of democratic rights.  But the Palestinian-Israeli clashes on the Day of Catastrophe (when Israel declared itself a state in 1948) were also border clashes where, in some cases, the Palestinians surged and began to over-run border fences.  For better or worse, this is a mitigating element.  A country shooting to defend its borders is not the same as one gunning down its citizens who threaten the established order of their shared state.  This is political reality, nothing else.

This doesn’t mean that the Israeli military was justified in firing into an unarmed demonstration.  With tear gas at its disposal, it’s hard to justify the IDF using live bullets.  But facts shouldn’t be muddied for partisan purposes or organizational agendas.  They must be clear and reported accurately.   The impasse in peace negotiations has heightened tensions throughout the Middle East.  Organized political forces, either governmental or independent, will try to provoke clashes and steer the narrative of events to their own advantage.

The PLA has officially endorsed non-violent peaceful resistance to the Israeli occupation.  They are taking cues the Tunisian and Egyptian democratic movements and are endorsing a non-violent strategy in opposition to past strategies that included armed struggle and terrorism.

Unfortunately,  Palestinians face severe problems in carrying out non-violent resistance.  First, there is no tradition of Ghandi/MLK-type resistance in this struggle.  Second, the governments of the area, as well as organized armed resistance groups, will try to co-opt and direct any significant Palestinian resistance to their own Syrian, Lebonese, Hezbella or Hamas agendas.  Third, if Palestinians youth throw stones or surge against border fences, expect the Israeli military to over-react with live ammunition.

Both sides are playing with fire.  That’s why it’s dangerous for human rights activists to equate internal political struggle for reform in one country (Egypt) with border clashes in a region where borders are the do-or-die issue.  This goes beyond who has this most legitimate grievance or who is morally justified.  Effective non-violent resistance as a serious political strategy takes constraint – from both sides.

If Palestinians allow themselves to be provoked in border demonstrations by Israeli soldiers, militants in Hamas, agents of nearby countries or anyone else, including human rights activists who pretend borders mean nothing against moral certitude,  their strategy fails.  Civil disobedience and resistance against occupation can work.  But a few rocks thrown, live bullets in response and we’re on the way to a third infatada.  As Obama said, the world is tired of this never-ending conflict and wants it to end.  In the meantime, it searches for whom to blame.

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After Bin Laden: Middle East Peace

This is a direct link to my guest column in today’s Informed Comment.

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Don’t Be Quick to ‘Blame’ Nakba Clashes on Syria and Hamas

Reactions to the multiple protests at Israeli borders in commemoration of what the Palestinians call ‘nakba’ (catastrophe reflected the wildly competing forces in the region, the leadership paralysis in Israel and continued American passivity. Some analysts think the Syrian Assad regime tacitly encouraged Palestinian demonstrations at the Golan Heights because protesters broke through to a restricted area. Maybe. Other saw the hand of Hamas, although reports say Hamas pushed crowds back as they neared the Israeli border.

It would be a grave mistake to believe that Hamas, Hezbellah or Syria were the main instigators behind the protests.
On my trip last week to the area, I met a number of young Palestinian activists who had totally bought into the non-violence creed and tactics of the Tunisian, Egyptian and other Arab democratic movements and were using social media to mobilize for May 15th. In fact, leaders of the PLA made it clear a few weeks ago that they would encourage non-violent resistance to the occupation as an alternative to the many, ineffective years the PLO called for armed resistance. In our meetings with President Abbas and PM Fayyad, both emphasized that a commitment to non-violence is fundamental to Palestinian unity as envisioned in last month’s Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement.

Israeli reaction to the border clashes was typical. PM Netanyahu blustered that the protests proved negotiations for peace are useless. MK Danny Danon upped the ante, calling for Israel to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank if Palestinians ‘unilaterally’ seek a declaration of statehood from the UN in September.  Reported by The Jerusalem Post:

“We came today to tell Netanyahu that we support him but we expect him to be strong and loyal to the principles of the Likud, despite the pressure he is facing,” Danon said at the event. “Netanyahu needs to ask Obama who he wants us to make a deal with? With the people who support Osama bin Laden? He needs to tell him, if you want us to create an al-Qaida state, we say no thank you.”

Mr. Netanyahu is close to reality about one thing however:

“The leaders of these violent demonstrations, their struggle is not over the 1967 borders but over the very existence of Israel, which they describe as a catastrophe that must be resolved,” he said. “It is important that we look with open eyes at the reality and be aware of whom we are dealing with and what we are dealing with.”

At least some of Sunday’s demonstrators called for the right to return to their homes in Palestine (Israel).  This sentiment is growing among Palestinians, just as the divestment movement is gaining steam in the international community.  The former undermines the decades-old demand of Palestinians for an independent state next to Israel.  The latter compares the occupation of the West Bank to South African apartheid.

But Netanyahu is doing nothing to develop an effective Israeli counter strategy.  In a Jerusalem speech on Holocoust Memorial day, he told the audience that Israel is once again alone in this fight, as it has been for most of its history.  How long can he hide behind the armor of defeatism?  Do Israelis feel more secure now than they did three years ago?  I doubt it.

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Bashir Assad: How Long Can he Hold Out?

Despite warnings of government reprisal, demonstrators have become emboldened in recent days, escalating demands from the kind of changes Mr. Assad has announced to louder calls for the end of the regime. “The window of opportunity is closing for Assad. The government got behind in this race,” said David Lesch, a Syria expert and professor of Middle East history at Trinity University. “The opposition is not a monolithic mass and many of them have different agendas and objectives but more and more they are coalescing around the idea that Assad must go.”


Over 80 dead are reported in the government crackdown on Friday April 22. The government is struggling to contain the demonstrations. Some think that they would not grow indefinitely were the government to permit them to go ahead. Who knows? Clearly the government is not prepared to find out. Many Syrians fear chaos and are staying inside. It is hard to figure out how many are coming out to demonstrate; the numbers continue to grow. The Maydan district at the heart of traditional Damascus was the site of several killings. [Correction the day after - Reuters: "In Damascus, security forces fired teargas to disperse 2,000 protesters in the district of Maydan." No deaths are reported today in the Maydan and only small numbers of demonstrators. This can be read as "good news"  for the regime because the demos were very small, or "bad news" because demos began in the heart of traditional Sunni Damascus.] -  Syrian Comment

Dozens were killed as protests in over 10 Syrian cities showed no sign of letting up.  Hundreds braved police lines in Damascus before being beaten back, as opposition forces clearly rejected the ending of the Emergency Law as too little too late.   Assad has failed miserably to strike a balance between repression and granting reforms to quell the opposition.   Now the democracy advocates want an end to the Assad regime.

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Arab Renaissance: “Forget about Nassar. Time for Arab Unity is Now”

Pareg Khanna of the New America Foundation writes one of the most insightful pieces I’ve read about a coming Arab Renaissance in Foreign Policy:

From the time that Gamal Abdel Nasser took hold of Egypt in 1954 to Muammar al-Qaddafi’s charismatic coup in Libya in 1969, a generation of leaders came to power riding the wave of anti-colonial Arab sentiment. But decades of post-colonial entropy and decay have culminated in collapse. The Arab world is now graduating from anti-colonial to anti-authoritarian revolutions.

I’ve thought that the rise of Al Queda and like-minded religious-anarcho groups gained steam in the last thirty years in the wake of a failed Pan-Arab nationalism as envisioned by Gamal Nasser.  Mr. Khanna traces today’s revolts and the promise they hold for the region from the post-WW1 partition through the betrayal of Arab independence by coups and autocratic power grabs during the ’50s and 60s.  He makes the case that today’s uprising can restore and complete the promise of Arab independence won over 50 years ago.

Why have these democratic movement swept the Arab world now, in the first months of 2011, and not five years or 8 or 12 years before?  That seems to be the burning question for academics and policy-makers.  The Nasser generation, like Mubarak and Seleh, would generally be the grandparents (maybe some the great-grandparents) of current pro-democracy activists.  They would have grown up under colonial regimes.  The current generation grew up under mature and ossifying autocracies who played the post-colonial powers against each other but couldn’t grow stuck in their shadows.

I’ve heard several Palestinians, now in the 40-50 age bracket, say that peace won’t come to the Middle East for at least two more generations.  The memories of  the past and current behaviors based on resentment of those memories have to die off with the generations that harbors them.  Only then will the new generations be able to solve the problems, even the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, for their own benefit and progress.  Maybe this generation is the first fully cleansed of historical demons.





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Saudis Push Bahrain on Crackdown

As the government avoids any hint of compromise and continues its campaign of arrest and intimidation, it may be pushing Bahrainis into the arms of groups like the Haq Movement. Unlike Al Wefaq, Haq explicitly calls for the downfall of Bahrain’s ruling family. Many blame Haq, along with two other groups that formed a coalition calling for a republic in Bahrain, with inviting the crackdown and ruining the chances for a political solution.

Bahrain is majority Shia with a minority Sunni royal family.  It sits across a causeway from Saudi Arabia, and two months ago, the Saudis sent troops in to help quell demonstrations of protesters calling for a constitutional monarchy.  Before Saudi interference, a Bahrain crown prince worked on a dialogue with the constitutional movement.  Now Bahrain has resorted to raw force, intimidation and arrests to stop the protests. That is driving more people to demand a dismantling, instead of reform, of the current system.


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