Syria at Risk? A country divided

By Rana B. Khoury

I was simmering with emotion after spending a day amid the rubble of razed houses, wrecked mosques and churches, a shot-out hospital, and with Israeli military outposts in the distance all the while. But my outrage was only partially a result of the scenes of destruction in the city of Quneitra, the former capital of the Golan Heights handed back to Syria after the Israelis razed everything in sight and sent thousands of refugees packing in 1974. Rather, my anger was at the apathy of the Syrians that was to me even more disheartening and unacceptable than I had previously thought. But my grandfather swiftly humbled me. Placing his hand on my shoulder, he explained, “when the body hurts for so long in so many places, eventually one stops saying ouch.” His eyes that had seen so much – his country’s liberation from the French, countless coups and political experiments, the occupation of the Golan Heights and Palestine, the inside of a prison cell in which he refused to renounce his leftist politics, and an opening to the West – turned away. His hand remained on my shoulder.

Despite my frustration at the time, I know that Syrians and Arabs are not politically apathetic. That knowledge can come from spending just one hour in the living room of an Arab home. In a kitchen, no dish goes unappreciated by those who know that politics itself has the power to put food on the table. For anyone who may have still thought so, the Arab awakening has dissipated notions of apathy and ambivalence in the Middle East We should celebrate this new era, and most of all the crumbling of the psychological wall of fear that my generation has exhibited. We should also analyze it and consider the consequences.

The most prominent scholars of Syria are telling us that Syria’s is a complex social fabric. Bassam Haddad describes the heterogeneity of Syrian society in its religious, ethnic, socio-economic, and ideological groups. Joshua Landis warns that the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam which has ruled majority-Sunni Syria for decades, presents a precarious situation that can easily become a violent one. Least is the geographic dissonance. As’ad AbuKhalil, recalls an exchange he had with the late academic Hanna Batatu: “I was once making a presentation about my paper on the Syrian opposition under Hafidh Al-Asad taught by the great, Hanna Batatu. After I finished Batatu looked at me and said, ‘when in the contemporary politics of Syria did Aleppo, Hama, Hums, and Damascus move together?’ I did not have an intelligent answer, I remember.”

I would dovetail AbuKhalil’s point with something I do remember. Syrian cities do not move together, nor do they resemble each other. When I lived in Syria after college I visited thirteen of the country’s fourteen provinces. In the eastern city of Deir az-Zor, up the Euphrates River from Iraq, the contrast with the coastal cities was stark. Residents spoke in an accent unfamiliar to me, services were seriously limited, and I struggled to find other women on the streets. The local men drove in this latter point with their quizzical stares; in one instance a group of them were chattering in my direction when one stated, “she’s from Damascus,” and the rest exuded a collective “aah” of understanding.

Yet I did not need to venture across the desert to know of the cleavages. My own story embodies to some extent three significant paradigms in Syrian society – supporters of the status quo, the Islamist center, and the Palestinian question.

For one, my family is of Christian heritage and generally exemplifies the protected minority that prefers a strong-handed but secular ruler to the frightful alternative of extremist Islam. Most of them are liberal-minded people who understand the flaws of the system and desire more. But after so many years of uncertainty in an unstable region, most of them opt for the devil they know. Yesterday a cousin forwarded me a question on Facebook asking in Arabic if I prefer aman or hurriya, security or freedom. Syrian minorities, however, are not alone in supporting the regime. As counterrevolutionary demonstrations have exhibited, many middle class Sunnis believe in the current system. This sector is probably economically comfortable, and, more often, supports Bashar al-Assad’s shepherding of a pro-Arab and anti-imperialist foreign policy.

Meanwhile, my mother’s family is from Hama, a city known for the brutal crackdown it suffered at the hands of the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, in 1982. Under the pretences of preventing an Islamist uprising, Assad decimated the city. Estimates of the killed hover around twenty thousand. Like all others in the city, my family lived under lockdown for weeks, their houses were looted, they were beaten by government soldiers, and they buried loved ones. And like all their neighbors, they will never forget. Even if they wanted to do so, the bullet holes in old houses and the bombed-out buildings would not let them. The sad irony today is that Hama is as conservative and marginalized as ever.

The atmosphere in Hama is a world away from the bustling alleyways of Old Damascus, the sophisticated air of Aleppo, the laid-back atmosphere of Tartous, and the spiritual ambiance in the towns of Sayd Nayya and Ma’ara, where some inhabitants still speak Aramaic.  And all of this is different yet from the Palestinian refugee camp where I taught English to primary students at an UNRWA school (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Near East Refugees). A few weeks ago I was taken back to Husseinieh in a YouTube video on the Facebook page of the Syrian Revolution. It exposed the decrepit conditions of this neighborhood primarily inhabited by Palestinian refugees.

When I initially began working there, I made the following observations in my personal blog: The bus I was instructed to take uses an illegal route, adding a guilty sense of complicity to my relative-induced trepidation… I sit in a bus full of men scantily concealing their curiosity at the sight of me… I wonder if they can sense my nerves. Thirty minutes later, we pull into the Husseinieh refugee camp, the entrance of which doubles as the community garbage dump. I absorb the sights as inconspicuously as possible, trying to appear natural as I walk up the unpaved roads towards the school.

I soon developed a close attachment to my students and the harshness of the poverty surrounding us softened. But I also became acutely aware of the complexity of their relationship to the state they live in – Syria – and the nation they are a part of – Palestine. It is this precariousness of diasporic existence that the regime is utilizing to blame foreign elements for the unrest. This is not new in Syria; the former president led brutal campaigns against Palestinians in Lebanon during that country’s civil war. But it is as shameful as ever when Arabs around the region are demanding to be treated with dignity, something the Palestinians have not enjoyed for far too long.

The consequence of this complex social fabric is not apathy but division. It is inspiring to see Syrians rising up against a brutally suppressive security state. But the chance the revolutionaries have of overcoming their divisions and forming a united critical mass remains limited. Bashar al-Assad is poised to retain the minimal threshold of legitimacy that keeps him in power unless he dissipates it with more killings of civilians. And should he manage that, I cannot help but fear the consequences for those who tried to stand up for what is rightfully theirs.

Ms Rana B Khoury is the head of publications at the Middle East Institute and a Masters student at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. She can be reached at The views expressed herein are her own.

Insight 19 Khoury


26 October 2010

By Prof Alon Ben-Meir

Despite efforts to internationally isolate Syria, especially during the Bush era, Syria has reasserted itself as a central player in the Middle East.


Following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the United States withdrew its ambassador to Beirut, intensified sanctions against Damascus and sought to deepen Syria’s isolation from the international community. The recent array of high-level visitors to Damascus-including United States officials-demonstrates that President Bashar al-Assad has weathered the storm of isolation and has emerged as an essential actor in resolving regional disputes, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel should now respond favorably to Damascus’ call for renewed peace talks, and in so doing utilize Syria’s influence to advance peace, rather than thwart it.


The remarks at the United Nations General Assembly by President Shimon Peres that Israel is prepared to begin negotiations with Syria “right away,” and those by Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem that “Syria is ready to resume реаcе negotiations,” are more than just political posturing. They are signs that both sides recognize the benefits of achieving a genuine peace accord. The meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Muallem in New York-the highest-level meeting between the two countries since 2007-indicates that the United States recognizes Syria’s central role. But for progress to be made, the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must now make a choice: does it want peace with security or territory?


Speaking with reporters in May 2009, Netanyahu said that he would never leave the Golan Heights, stating, “Remaining on the Golan will ensure Israel has a strategic advantage in cases of military conflict with Syria.” The truth is that the continued occupation of the Golan will sooner or later instigate military conflict with Syria. Mr. Netanyahu must now realize that as Syria emerges from its international isolation and peacemaking efforts languish, Israel is becoming increasingly more isolated. The geopolitical benefits of a durable Israel-Syria peace are numerous, and the opportunity at this moment is ripe. Whether Netanyahu recognizes these benefits-and seizes the opportunity to advance peace-will be a significant test of his leadership. Whether Syria’s peace overture is rhetorical or real, there is no better time to put Damascus to the test.


While some Israelis and Americans believe Syria should sever its relations with Iran to qualify sitting at the negotiating table, the opposite is actually true. Continued relations between Damascus and Tehran make the need to engage Syria even more critical. Syria’s relationship with Iran is currently one of geopolitical convenience, but it is not one that will easily be discarded. The most glaring difference between the two countries is that while Iran is calling for Israel’s destruction, Syria is calling for peace. But Syria’s good relations with Iran could actually put it in a better position to help loosen Iran’s grip on Hezbollah in Lebanon and maintain stability throughout the region. Syrian President Basher Assad’s comments after Israel’s raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla this summer, “If the relationship between Turkey and Israel is not renewed it will be very difficult for Turkey to play a role in negotiations,” and that this would “without a doubt affect the stability in the region,” indicate that Assad recognizes the importance of strategic regional ties with Israel because Israel’s reality is far more enduring than the current Iranian regime. Indeed, Assad’s greatest interest is a strategic relationship with the United States, and by beginning peace talks without pre-conditions, Syria’s strategic ties with Iran could be utilized and stability in the region immeasurably enhanced.


Syria’s renewed influence in Lebanon makes Israel-Syria peace talks even more critical and especially opportune at this time. The visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with President Assad to Beirut in late July, and the statements last month by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri absolving Syria from responsibility for his father’s death, underscore Syria’s renewed control over Lebanon. But while Syria has strengthened its position in Lebanon, it has also become responsible for Hezbollah’s actions in the south of the country. Syria can no longer disavow responsibility should Hezbollah provoke Israel or commit any act that might undermine Israel’s national security interests. As such, Syria has a strategic interest in maintaining calm in the region, which would be conducive to renewed dialogue with Israel.


Restarting Israel-Syria negotiations would also provide Damascus with an incentive to be helpful with the Israeli-Palestinian track. Syria has become an indispensable player in helping to resolve the intra-Palestinian dispute between Fatah and Hamas, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reconciliation talks held recently in Damascus between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leaders highlight the crucial role Syria can play in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and in relations to Hamas in particular. While Egypt has traditionally hosted Palestinian unity talks, Hamas deeply mistrusts Cairo and is greatly dependent on Damascus. As such, Syria has significant influence on Hamas. Most importantly it can keep Hamas from torpedoing Palestinian peace efforts, enabling negotiations to proceed with its tacit cooperation. In recognition of this influence, King Abdullah II of Jordan recently traveled to Damascus and emerged from his meetings with a joint Jordanian-Syrian statement in support of the Arab Peace Initiative. Should Israeli-Palestinian peace talks succeed in achieving a framework for a lasting agreement, Syria’s role could also be critical in bringing Hamas into the process in order to accept and implement an Israeli-Palestinian deal.


Israel-Syria peace talks would also benefit Israeli-Turkish relations. Since Israel-Turkey talks became especially strained following the flotilla episode, Israel has sought to strengthen its alliances with Greece and others. But Turkey cannot be ignored. It remains a significant power in the Middle East and it asserts its influence in all directions. Reopening peace negotiations with Syria could provide a useful context for Israel to reassess its position towards Turkey. The significant progress that was made through indirect talks between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, suggests that Turkey, at that juncture, not only gained the trust of both sides, but was also deeply committed to achieving an end to the conflict as a part of its larger regional strategic objectives. For this reason, despite recent tension with Israel, Turkey remains eager to play a pivotal role in mediating between Damascus and Jerusalem. Once Israel signals its desire to resume peace talks with Syria, it would doubtlessly lead to ameliorating the Turkish-Israeli rift as well, because Turkey places its overall strategic interest certainly above the “Cast Lead” operation and the flotilla incident. Ankara knows, however, that it must first regain Israel’s trust, starting, for example, by sending back its ambassador to Israel.


Finally, relations between the Netanyahu government and the White House would also improve with movement toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Syria. The Obama administration has made clear that it seeks to engage Damascus in an effort to change its calculus in the region and improve U.S.-Syria relations. Toward this end, in February, the White House nominated Robert Ford to serve as U.S. ambassador in Damascus, after a five-year absence of U.S. representation. However, Ford’s nomination is still being blocked by a dozen U.S. Senators opposed to sending an ambassador to Damascus while Syria maintains its support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Positive signals from Israel regarding a resumption of dialogue with Syria could significantly advance the Obama administration’s engagement strategy and undercut the rationale for Congressional opposition to Ford’s nomination.


Those who oppose negotiations with Syria argue that an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan would create a security risk, and that engaging Syria only rewards them for their support of terrorist groups and ties with Iran. First, this security argument is no longer valid, not only because of the changing nature of warfare today, but also because Israel and Syria have come incredibly close to reaching an agreement on a withdrawal from the Golan in previous negotiations while Israel’s security concerns were taken into full consideration. It is clear that any agreement would consist of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, demilitarization of the area and ironclad security guarantees for Israel from the United States and Syria. Moreover, Damascus knows only too well that any violation of the security terms of the peace agreement would instigate retaliatory attack by Israel of such a magnitude that such an option would be inconceivable for Damascus to contemplate. It should be noted that Damascus has not once violated the 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel. In fact, as Israel’s international isolation intensifies, the Golan has become more of a liability than an asset.


Second, the effort to isolate Syria has proved to be counterproductive. Rather than encourage Damascus to moderate its behavior, the efforts to isolate Syria pushed it further into the arms of Teheran, and into an alliance with Hamas and Hezbollah. Syria has stated its intention to make peace, its desire for strong ties with the West is well-known, and its ability to eliminate threats to Israel’s security is significant. Syria’s recent efforts to liberalize its economy cannot be successful without expanding its global relations and creating a peaceful and secure environment for new business and major foreign capital investments. In short, an Israeli-Syrian peace accord is exactly what both Israel and Syria need.


An Israeli-Syrian peace accord is clearly in the interest of Israel, Syria, the United States and the international community. The contours of a lasting agreement with Syria are known, and Damascus has clearly reasserted its centrality to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. It is up to Israel to put Syria’s renewed call for peace talks to the real test.


Alon Ben-Meir []   –   25 Oct 10



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All Roads Lead to Istanbul

Turkey is more popular now than it has been since the Ottoman Empire. But can it please all of its new friends at the same time?




ANKARA, Turkey – It’s great to be Turkey just now. The economy, barely scathed by the global recession, grew 11.7 percent in the first quarter of this year, and 10.3 percent in the second.  Like the Ottoman Empire reborn, Turkey has sponsored a visa-free zone with Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, and is moving toward creating a free trade zone as well. And Turkey is a force not just in its neighborhood but, increasingly, in the world. It’s the next president of the Council of Europe, an observer of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and a new friend of ASEAN and Mercosur. 


And the world is beating a path to its doorstep: When I was in Ankara this week, the Sudanese foreign minister was in town; the French, the Austrians, and the Poles had just visited. Senior Iraqi politicians were making regular pilgrimages. Turkey has become a net exporter of diplomatic services.


“For the first time,” says Selim Yenel, the highly Americanized deputy undersecretary of foreign affairs responsible for relations with Washington, “they’re asking us for advice.”


Like its fellow emerging powers Brazil and South Africa, Turkey was once a right-wing state that the West could safely pocket during the Cold War. And like these countries, the Turks now have the self-confidence to feel that they no longer need belong to anyone. Such states are now a force unto themselves, as Turkey and Brazil demonstrated — to Washington’s chagrin — when they reached a deal with Iran this past May to ensure that Tehran would not produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel. Intriguingly, Turkey, Brazil, and Nigeria currently serve on the U.N. Security Council, and South Africa and India will next year — a murderers’ row of emerging powers, and a glimpse of a post-hegemonic, polycentric world.


But diplomatically, Turkey matters more than the others do. Among them, only Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim and located in the Middle East, within hailing distance of practically every crisis zone on the planet. And thus the question of what kind of force Turkey will be matters more as well. Turkish diplomats, well aware that the eyes of the world are on them, are quick to give assurances that they are a liberal, secular, and, above all, responsible influence in their neighborhood and beyond.


The question arises, of course, because of the events of this past spring, when, in dismayingly rapid succession, Turkey delivered the unwanted gift of the Iranian deal and voted against a U.S.-sponsored U.N. resolution to impose sanctions on Iran — and then erupted in outrage when Israeli commandos, determined to stop a flotilla sailing from Turkey to Gaza, killed eight Turkish citizens in the course of a terribly botched operation. The accident of timing left the toxic impression that Turkey viewed Iran as a friend and Israel as an enemy. Turkey’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors” seemed to mean that it was prepared to alienate its old friends in the West in order to mollify countries in its own backyard, including the worst among them. The New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman wrote that Turkey seems intent on “joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel.”


I think that’s a bum rap. On Israel, virtually everyone I’ve spoken to here, including harsh critics of the ruling AKP, has said that popular opinion was so outraged by the event — the first time since the Ottomans, as one is constantly told, that Turkish civilians had ever been killed by a foreign army — that no government could have preserved its popular legitimacy without demanding an apology (though whether leading figures had to describe the incident as state terrorism is another matter). Turkey is still waiting for that apology. As for Iran, it’s clear that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his team really did believe that the West would welcome the deal they struck, by which Iran would agree to transfer 1,200 kilograms of uranium out of the country to be enriched for civilian purposes. The fact that they were wrong probably says as much about U.S. President Barack Obama’s ambivalence about engaging Iran as it does about Turkish tone-deafness or disingenuousness.   


Still, Turkish officials recognize that they’ve jeopardized their emerging brand identity and have some serious repair work to do. “We’ve got to find something flashy,” Yenel told me. Maybe Turkey could persuade Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier? (Good luck with that.) Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has backed off on his apparent obsession with Gaza and Israel’s perfidy, and a U.N. investigative panel may deliver a definitive judgment on the flotilla incident in early 2011 (compelling an Israeli apology, Turkey hopes).


It’s a caricature to say that Turkey has chosen the Middle East, or Islam, over the West. Turkey’s aspiration for full membership in the club of the West, including the European Union, is still a driving force. But Turkey aspires to many things, and some may contradict each other. The country wants to be a regional power in a region deeply suspicious of the West, of Israel, and of the United States; a Sunni power acting as a broker for Sunnis in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere; a charter member of the new nexus of emerging powers around the world; and a dependable ally of the West. When Turkey is forced to choose among these roles, the neighborhood tends to win out, and that’s when you get votes against sanctions on Iran. At this week’s NATO summit in Brussels, for instance, Davutoglu has expressed skepticism about missile defense, because any such system would be aimed at countries like Iran and Syria, which Turkey declines to characterize as threats.


Turkish officials insist that they embrace the “universal values” that drive public discourse, if not necessarily policy, in the West. But they seem to give their Muslim brothers a pass on human rights. Erdogan notoriously exonerated Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir by saying “A Muslim can never commit genocide.” Erdogan also publicly congratulated Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his victory in the 2009 election, widely condemned elsewhere as grossly rigged. Turkish diplomats say that they use tough language in private — but autocratic regimes shrug off private recriminations.


Unlike China or even India, Turkey does not resort to the language of “sovereignty” when defending abusive regimes — it takes the “Western” view of international law. Rather, its dilemma has to do with its neighborhood: You can’t be a regional leader in the Middle East if you take human rights too seriously. But the problem might also have to do with the unresolved state of Turkey’s own democracy. Eight years after Erdogan gained power, secular Turks continue to doubt his commitment, and that of the ruling AKP, to human rights, tolerance, and the rule of law. Although many of the people I spoke to saw the country’s recent constitutional referendum — which among other things reduced the power of the army over the judiciary — as a further consolidation of Turkish democracy, plenty of others viewed it as a dangerous ploy by the AKP to increase its control over the state. Secular Turks fear that the country is becoming steadily more conservative — certainly in the Anatolian heartland, if not yet in the big cities.


From the time of Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has been committed to its “European vocation.” But Ataturk was a modernizer, not a liberal; one of his slogans was “For the people, despite the people.” And if Kemalist secularism was not a formula for European-style liberal individualism, it’s scarcely clear that the AKP’s market-oriented moderate Islamic restoration is, either. Turkey’s democracy is not yet “consolidated,” as political scientists put it.


Turkey is a success story that the West has every reason to welcome. The image of moderation and tolerant cosmopolitanism that it offers to Middle Eastern audiences contributes not only to Turkish soft power but to global peace and security, at least in the long run. That’s already a pretty solid record. But Turkey is not content with being the brightest star in its benighted neighborhood; it wants to play on the world stage. And that ambition may force Turkey to find a new balance among its competing identities.


James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of, most recently, The Freedom Agenda. “Terms of Engagement,” his column for, runs weekly.

Foreign Policy, Washington   –   15 Oct 10