Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Message from Cairo

The events unfolding in Egypt over the past 10 days are as historic as they are dramatic. However the Egyptian uprising ends, it will be a watershed event in the region’s quest toward freedom and democracy.

While the characterization of this uprising as an overdue popular revolt by a long-passive Arab street is true, this event must be viewed in the context of external factors, as well as internal ones, to fully appreciate its reasons and implications.

As always in the Middle East, domestic affairs are inextricably linked to foreign policy. While this uprising was certainly fueled by people’s frustration with such internal issues as an oppressive dictatorship, scarce opportunities, and rampant corruption, it’s no less about a deep sense of external failure, and national humiliation. Over the past 35 years, under Sadat and especially Mubarak, Egypt has pursued a pro-American regional policy that was fundamentally at odds with the sentiments and values of the Egyptian people. And in the last few years especially, Egypt, the natural leader of the Arab World, has seen its regional role diminished to being a pawn advancing a US and Israeli agenda against its own national interests. To Egyptians, proud of their history and civilization, this has been deeply frustrating and profoundly humiliating. Notwithstanding his tyranny and corruption, Egyptians have come to view Mubarak and his regime as an agent advancing a foreign agenda at their expense, rather than a patriotic leader defending Egyptian and Arab interests.

The revolt against Hosni Mubarak comes at the heel of the overthrow of another corrupt tyrant in Tunisia, and amid other smaller-scale uprisings in Jordan and Yemen. The common thread among those popular revolts is that they are all taking place in countries whose regimes have long been staunch US allies. And, while the rest of the Arab world is afflicted by the same ills of autocracy, unemployment and corruption, it is likely that other undemocratic regimes whose foreign policies are more in sync with their people will be spared the wrath of their populations.

In the context of other developments in the region over the past few years, the Egyptian revolt carries lessons far beyond Cairo. While the Egyptian people’s uprising certainly is about the freedom to elect their own government and the opportunity for a better future, it is just as much about freedom from US hegemony, and the opportunity to pursue an independent foreign policy that is consistent with their own sentiments, causes and national interests.

The fall of US-allied Arab regimes before millions of angry demonstrators represents the collapse of America’s political order in the Middle East. And, while it is imperative for other autocratic leaders in the region to learn from Cairo by heeding their peoples’ calls for reform and better governance, Cairo carries important lessons for US leadership as well. As the self-proclaimed champion of freedom and democracy, it is instructive for America to hear to the message of Arab masses in Egypt and elsewhere, and reassess its Middle East policy to bring it in line with these values and ideals. Otherwise, regardless of outcome, a key part of the message of Cairo will have been lost.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Syria: Lifting the Veil

Over the past 2 weeks, Western and Arab media have been vigorously reporting the recent decision by Syrian authorities to ban the niqab in Syrian schools and universities. Far from basking in Western accolades, I think this decision is, above all, a good one for Syrians of all stripes, and a positive step toward improving Syria’s battered image abroad.

Internally, from a social perspective, the ban on the niqab is a good one for the overwhelming majority of Syrian Muslims, whose long tradition of tolerance and moderation is undermined by the extremism and exclusion that the niqab symbolizes. The ban is also good for Syrian Christians and followers of other religious traditions who view the niqab as a symbol of the looming threat to their freedom of religion and right to equal citizenship. And, the ban is a good one for secular Syrians who have a justifiable fear of the tidal wave of Wahhabi-inspired extremism that is sweeping the region, including their country and its secular system. And, last but not least, the ban is great for all Syrian women who see in it a symbol of oppression and subjugation, and a threat to the gains they have made in Syrian society over the past century.

From a law enforcement viewpoint, the ban on the niqab is a long-overdue security requirement. In the age of indiscriminate terrorism where security is paramount, every country must do all it can to protect its citizens. Allowing the niqab effectively enables any person, including criminals and terrorists, to hide in public, with access to schools, shopping areas and government institutions, and represents a major security loophole that no society can afford. In that regard, the ban is a step in the right direction, and should be extended to include all public venues, not just schools and universities.

Externally, as a country that is unfairly depicted as hardline and anti-Western, this ban reminds the world that Syria remains the last bastion of secularism, and an oasis of religious moderation and sectarian coexistence in a region where extremism and fanaticism is quickly dominating the mainstream. There is no question that the media coverage of the ban, within the Syrian social and political context, serves to shed a light on Syria’s long history of religious tolerance and the relative harmony that characterizes its religiously-diverse society – all of which is great PR that Syria desperately needs.

Syria’s decision to ban the niqab is well-taken and justified. In spite of some protests from some religious hardliners, the ban will protect moderates from the forces of extremism, contribute to national unity and cohesion, and help lift the veil of misinformation that has long shrouded Syria in the West.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Campaign Against Turkey

The Western press has been rather harsh on Turkey lately. In the US, most of the coverage and analysis of Turkey’s new Eastward orientation by the Justice and Development-led government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been negative, often implying that the J&D party is dragging a secular Turkey toward Islamic radicalization, cozying up to hard-line states such as Iran and Syria, and supporting unsavory groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Though there has been a marked change in Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy toward internal reconciliation and a more active engagement in regional affairs, this framework is misplaced – either inadvertently or, as is more likely, deliberately.

Far from dragging an unwilling Turkey toward Islamicization, the current Turkish government was twice elected by the Turkish people in free and fair democratic elections, and as such, enjoys the support and renewed confidence of the Turkish people. The election of the J&D came after decades of an almost-monopolistic hold on power by a succession of nationalist, Western-oriented governments that were characterized by chronic corruption, slow reforms, and persistent tension with all of Turkey’s immediate neighbors.

Arguably, for the first time since the establishment of the modern Turkish republic, the current government is reflective of the true identity of the Turkish people. For decades, the hard-line secular parties steered Turkey too far to the West, leaving most Turks unable to reconcile their Eastern traditions and Muslim faith with the European national identity their governments so coveted. Though this European orientation suited a minority of the urban, secular Turkish elite, the majority of Turks never felt European. Today, the government, in profile and policy, has struck the right balance between the official Western-style secular democracy and the Islamic identity of the majority of Turks.

On policy, domestically, over the past eight years, the mildly-Islamic J&D government has, ironically, implemented more prolific, EU-mandated political, economic and legal reforms than any of its secular predecessors, securing the long-standing goal of launching negotiations for EU accession in 2005. And, the current government has gone farther than any of its Western-backed predecessors toward an internal reconciliation with its own restive Kurdish population.

Externally, the current government has pursued a policy of zero conflict with all of its neighbors, resolving long-standing problems with neighbors from Armenia and Greece, to Syria and Iran, based on engagement and dialogue. In addition, Turkey has leveraged its unique strategic position to attempt to broker deals between Iran and the West over the nuclear standoff, and between Syria and Israel, in search of an elusive peace agreement. As such, unlike its detractors, the majority of whom supported the invasion of Iraq and continue to support a confrontational policy with Iran, Turkey’s current foreign policy contributes to, rather than undermines, regional stability.

Turkey’s current government has done little to justify the wholesale alarm that many Western agitators are raising. From opposing the US invasion of Iraq to the vocal criticism of Israeli policies against the Palestinians, the evidence cited for Western concerns has more to do with a large, strong, modern Muslim democracy charting a more balanced and independent foreign policy that subordinates Western interests to its own, than a genuine fear of a slide toward radical Islam.

In light of the ascent of hard-line Islamic fundamentalism across the Muslim World, it should be self-serving for the West in general, and the US particularly, to support the current government of Turkey. Today’s Turkey provides a good example of relatively effective governance, true reform, and most importantly, a model reconciliation between an open, tolerant Muslim society and a Western-style, secular democratic system. This harmonious model of Islam and democracy deserves to be supported, celebrated and promoted, rather than criticized and vilified.

It is telling that according to mainstream US media, an institutional desert like Saudi Arabia where an absolute monarch rules over a fundamentalist society and a medieval system, is invariably coupled with the word ‘moderate’, while Turkey, a democratic, secular republic of mature institutions, and a modern legal framework is often described as ‘radical’ and ‘Islamist’. A cynic might conclude this to be a deliberate, smear campaign aimed at mischaracterizing and delegitimizing Turkey’s government, to influence its foreign policy. I guess this makes me very cynical.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Lebanon's non-vote at the UN Security Council

Once again, Lebanon has demonstrated a glaring lack of national unity and cohesion, and a remarkable failure to exercise national sovereignty. Perhaps, more dangerously, it has demonstrated, yet again, a unique inability to distinguish friend from foe.

As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Lebanon abstained from voting on the resolution to impose punitive sanctions on Iran for its pursuit of a civilian nuclear program. The decision to abstain was delivered in an amateurish, unprofessional way, leading the Lebanese UN representative to offer an awkward reason for the decision, that is different from the one delivered to him by his Prime Minister in Beirut.

It is embarrassing for Lebanon to shirk its responsibility as the Arab World’s representative to the UN Security Council and avoid taking a position on a vote that has vital implications for regional security, let alone direct impact on its own fragile national unity. Even far-away Brazil and European-oriented Turkey with large economies tied to those of Europe and the US, took courageous, principled positions to rightfully defend Iran’s right for peaceful nuclear power. This is particularly important considering that the two countries had just secured an agreement with Iran based on the same terms that the West itself was trying to extract from Iran until a few months ago. The resolution to impose sanctions so soon after the deal's announcement exposed the truth that the US, leading the other permanent members, was more interested in sanctioning Iran than in finding a reasonable and fair resolution to the dispute.

Lebanon has managed to squander a rare opportunity to use its seat on the UN Security Council to support the need to continue to seek a diplomatic approach to the Iranian nuclear issue based on the Turkish-Brazilian deal, but also to highlight the critical issue of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. While the West seeks to punish Iran for pursuing what is unarguably a national right for the development of civilian nuclear power, the same body continues to ignore hundreds of nuclear weapons stockpiled by Israel, not to mention the numerous other unfulfilled UN Security Council resolutions.

But, beyond the principled and self-serving reasons for voting against the resolution, it was embarrassing (if not shameful) for some Lebanese to impose a position of abstinence on the resolution to punish Iran, when their own country’s liberation from Israeli occupation in 2000 was achieved with the critical backing and support of Iran. Perhaps no country has benefited more from Iranian largesse than Lebanon, with hundreds of millions of Iranian dollars invested on infrastructure, and for rebuilding towns and villages destroyed during the Israeli war on it in 2006.

Rather than exercise the sovereignty it long sought outside help to restore, Lebanon yielded to pressure from the US, and its regional clients, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, whose intersection with Israeli interests on the Iranian issue are no secret, against its own interests and those of its regional brethren.

While I’m no supporter of any political system that is based on religion, Iran included, I do support any country’s right to develop nuclear power for energy and other civilian purposes, and reject the duplicity and hypocrisy of those who lecture the world on the “rightful use of nuclear power” while ignoring their own nuclear weapons stockpiles.

What was clear last week is that Lebanon failed miserably in its grand debut on the global stage. The lack of vote proved that Lebanon remains a fractious, rudderless and immature state whose political schizophrenia is dangerous, and whose leadership remains beholden to outsiders far beyond its borders. Until that changes, Lebanon's cries for more sovereignty will continue to ring hollow.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Syria in China's New Silk Road Strategy

An excellent, enlightening article from The Jamestown Foundation, by Christina Lin.

While the international community is fixated on Iran’s nuclear program, China has been steadily expanding its political, economic and strategic ties with Syria. Since Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited China in 2004 on the heels of the 2003 U.S. intervention in Iraq, there have been increased economic cooperation and more recently, a flurry of high-level exchanges on political and strategic issues. On April 5, while at the 7th Syrian International Oil and Gas Exhibition “SYROIL 2010” to attract local, Arab and foreign investors, Syrian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Sufian al-Allaw told the state-run Xinhua News Agency that he expects more contracts and cooperation with Chinese oil companies (Xinhua News Agency, April 5). This is in tandem with growing political and economic cooperation in the electricity, transport and telecommunications sectors dominated by Chinese enterprises such as CNPC, ZTE, Huawei and Haier (China’s largest white goods manufacturer) (Xinhua News Agency, March 31, 2008; The Syrian Report, May 11, 2009).

The Middle East was an important bridge between Asia and Europe along the ancient Silk Road and since 1991, China has been rebuilding the Silk Road through the construction of a network of highways, pipelines, and rail lines from China to re-link the countries of Central Asia and Europe along this historic corridor (Georgian Daily, January 27). Beijing's renewed interest in Damascus—the traditional terminus node of the ancient Silk Road—in spite of Syria’s current status as an international pariah, indicates that China sees Syria as an important trading hub and partner for Chinese interests in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Indeed, China dubs Damascus "ning jiu li," or "cohesive force," and Damascus is serving as a cohesive force as China’s Silk Road strategy converges with Syria’s "Look East" policy toward China (The Syrian Report, May 11, 2009; Gulf News, January 12).

China’s Perception of Syria and the Middle East

Syria is part and parcel of China’s broader Middle East strategy, which Jin Liangxiang, research fellow at Shanghai Institute for International Studie, argued is going through a new activism and that “the age of Chinese passivity in the Middle East is over” [1]. According to a 2004 interview with Ambassador Wu Jianmin [2], considered to be one of China’s most outstanding diplomats one who witnessed and contributed to the development of Chinese diplomacy, Chinese foreign policy was transforming from "responsive diplomacy" (Fanying shi waijiao) to "proactive diplomacy" (Zhudong shi waijiao) (China Youth Daily, Feb 18, 2004) [3].

Indeed, since the 2003 U.S. intervention in Iraq, China has become more active in prosecuting a “counter-encirclement strategy” against perceived U.S. hegemony in the Middle East [4]. Then Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen blasted U.S. foreign policy in a China Daily article that the United States has “put forward its ‘Big Middle East’ reform program … the U.S. case in Iraq has caused the Muslim world and Arab countries to believe that the super power already regards them as targets of its ambitious ‘democratic reform program’ (China Daily, November 1, 2004). Beijing fears that Washington’s Middle East strategy entails advancing the encirclement of China and creating a norm of regime change against undemocratic states, which implicitly challenges the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy at home. To counter that, China has increased economic and diplomatic ties with countries in the region, worked to establish a China-GCC free trade zone (Gulf News, March 28), established Sino-Arab Cooperation Forum (China Daily, January 30, 2004), and overall increased its footprint in the region. Jin Liangxiang declared that “if U.S. strategic calculations in the Middle East do not take Chinese interests into account, then they will not reflect reality” [5].

Syria as China’s foothold into the Mediterranean Union

Other than its geographic location as a terminus node on the ancient Silk Road, and hub for trade between the three continents of Africa, Asia and Europe, there are many reasons for China’s interest in Syria. First, it can serve as China’s gateway for European market access in the face of increasing protectionist pressures from larger countries such as France, Germany and Great Britain within the European Union (EU). As such, China has launched a strategy of investing in small countries and territories poised to join the EU in the Balkans or the Levant that forms the Mediterranean Union, which was initiated by the 1995 Barcelona Process to create a free trade zone between EU and countries in North Africa and the Middle East along the Mediterranean Coast. For example, Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping in October 2009 called on larger Balkan countries that were already EU members, such as Hungary, Bulgara and Romania, to serve as links to smaller Balkan countries that have yet to join the EU (See "Xi’s European Tour: China’s Central-Eastern European Strategy Reaches for New Heights," China Brief, October 7, 2009). Syria is close to the EU and Mediterranean, but has yet to sign an agreement with the Mediterranean Union [6].

China’s strategy in Syria as a beachhead into the EU market is similar to its strategy toward the Balkans. In recent years small countries in the Balkans such as Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Moldova and so on have seen an increase in Chinese investment in infrastructure projects and generous loans (World Security Network, March 8). Some European analysts such as Dusan Reljic from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) have described the Chinese arrival in the Balkans as an effort to get into Europe through its backdoor. Reljic says that a direct route to greater EU presence is more costly for China than investing in territories poised to join the EU within 10 to 15 years. "It’s cheaper to buy assets there than within the European Union," he said (Deutsche Welle, March 4). Similarly, with Syria poised to sign the Association Agreement with the Mediterranean Union, China’s investment in Syria would eventually gain a beachhead and foothold into the EU market via the Mediterranean Union (Global Arab Network, October 16, 2009) [7].

Syria as a trading hub for China’s interests in Africa, Middle East and Europe

Second, Syria’s proximity to a large trading bloc of the EU and some of the fastest growing economies in the world in Africa, the Middle East and Asia would enhance its role as a trading hub via the "neighborhood effect," whereby factories will be placed in locations closer to both suppliers and consumers of products. Thus, Syria as a node on the Silk Road can be reborn as a regional outsourcing distribution center poised to take advantage of positive externalities of this neighborhood effect. Syria is already on track to slowly reforming its economy; it is self-sufficient in energy with a power grid linked to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey; and it is taking steps to privatize the banking system and planning to set up a Damascus stock exchange. China thus is establishing first mover advantages to secure competitive pricing in a country that is methodically taking steps to reform its economy (Forward Magazine, January 26, 2009). Indeed, China is already using Damascus as a springboard to the region, with "China City" in Adra Free Zone industrial park located 25 km north east of Damascus on the Damascus-Baghdad highway, established by entrepreneurs from the wealthy Chinese coastal province of Zhejiang, to sell Chinese goods and as a major trans-shipment hub onto Iraq, Lebanon and the wider region (Forbes, May 21, 2009) [8]. China City is especially popular among visiting officials from Iraq, where China is currently the biggest oil and gas investor (Middle East Information, March 17; Aswat al-Iraq, April 1; Business Insider, February 2).

Syria as a key node for China’s Iron Silk Road

Third, China is interested in building a Eurasian railway network connecting Central Asia through the Middle East and onto Europe (Railway Insider, March 11; The Transport Politic, March 9). Under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China is already negotiating to change Kyrgyzstan’s soviet tracks of 1,520 mm to the international standard of 1,435 mm in order to connect with Turkish and Iranian railway systems (Georgian Daily, January 27). The network would eventually carry passengers from London to Beijing and then to Singapore and run to India and Pakistan, according to Wang Mengshu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a senior consultant on China’s domestic high-speed rail project (Daily Telegraph, March 8). There will be three main routes, with one connecting to Southeast Asia as far as Singapore, the second one from Urumqi in Xinjiang Province through Central Asian countries onto Germany, and the third from Heilongjiang in northern China with Eastern and South Eastern European countries via Russia (Xinhua News Agency, March 12). Wang said China is already negotiating with 17 countries over the rail lines, and is in the middle of a domestic expansion project to build nearly 19,000 miles of new railways in the next five years to connect major cities with high-speed lines [9].

Syria in December 2009 began discussing railway cooperation with Italian State Railway (Italferr) in Damascus, in order to upgrade the Damascus-Aleppo line as part of a network connecting Turkey toward Europe, and Jordan toward Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, said Syrian Minister of Transport Yarob Bader (European Business Centre (SEBC) Syria, December 6, 2009). Syria also wants to build railways from the coastal city of Tartous to Umm Qasr port in southern Iraq, and use its Mediterranean port to build trade routes between Iraq and Europe (The Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2009). This bodes well for China’s energy holdings in Iraq—where it is building a big presence—as China and Syria already held discussions on building a natural gas pipeline from Iraq’s western Akhas fields to Syria, which could be an attractive transit point for gas-starved Arab and European markets (The Wall Street Journal, April 1).

Syria’s ‘Look East’ Policy toward China

Similarly, China is of great strategic value to Syria during a time when the West is trying to isolate it. When the doors to Europe and the United States were closed to Damascus in 2005 following allegations of Syrian involvement in Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri’s assassination, foreign policy chiefs decided to look East to replace the vacuum of the West. Buthaina Shaaban, the current presidential adviser on media affairs, penned an article then outlining this approach: "Perhaps the time has come to bring the Arabs, from a state of complete submission to the hostile West, towards [sic] the East and countries that share with us values, interests and orientation." She added, "What did we get from the West, to which the Arabs affiliated themselves for the entire past century, except for occupation, hatred and war?" (Gulf News, January 12).


Syria is proving to be an important Ning Jiu Li node on China’s Silk Road. With China’s new activism and its aspirations to eventually join the Middle East Quartet in shaping the Arab-Israeli peace process (Xinhua News Agency, December 16, 2006), Syria is emerging as a key partner in China’s broader Silk Road Strategy for “peaceful and harmonious development” in the Mediterranean region. Indeed, Henry Kissinger proclaimed that in the Middle East, there is “no war without Egypt, no peace without Syria.” As China becomes more engaged in the Middle East region and Syria is "looking east" to what it perceives may be a new Pax Sinica, the international community needs to pay heed to this burgeoning partnership and begin to factor in China as an important player in the greater Middle East and Mediterranean geopolitical landscape.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reflections on the last decade

As 2009 draws to a close, and we prepare to welcome another decade, here are some reflections on the first 10 years of this century – from a global and regional perspective:

  • US: There can be no doubt that the past decade, dominated by the administration of George W. Bush, was a bad one for the US. Bush inherited a country at peace, with economic expansion and a budget surplus, and left it mired in two wars, heavily in debt and in the midst of the worst recession in more than 30 years. Internationally, Bush managed to squander an unprecedented reservoir of goodwill and sympathy following the September 11th attacks by initiating and mismanaging 2 wars; one of which was an unjustifiable outright aggression that the US and the rest of the world will be paying off for decades. The Bush ‘doctrine’ of achieving security by spreading freedom achieved neither. In short, the Bush Administration was a historical blemish that instigated what many observers consider the beginning of the end of America’s golden age. As a result, cognizantly or not, Americans elected Bush’s antithesis by race, background and intellect. Barack Obama’s election would be a hopeful sign that America can self-correct, were it not for the Sarah Palin phenomenon. With the rise of China and India, and amid corporate scandals, massive defaults and a weaker economy, the decade ends with American leadership diminished. While the US remains the world’s superpower, the next decade will surely be a more competitive one for the US, economically and politically.
  • EU: After spending much of the decade adding members, expanding its borders, and building its institutions, the European Union seems to be coalescing, though much remains before Europe emerges as a single rival to the US, or even China. Europe continued to struggle with an ageing population, rising immigration and restive ethnic and religious communities that are poorly assimilated and under-represented. As a result, several member countries have been leaning right in their elections, amid rising xenophobia. As the largest single market in the world, the EU will continue to wield significant economic influence, but will remain a follower to US leadership on global issues, as foreign policy continues to be driven more by member states rather than Brussels.
  • India & China: The last decade has seen the emergence of India & China as two new global giants, albeit with radically different economic and political systems. Both countries have managed to sustain high growth rates throughout the decade, while moving their economies from sources of low-cost manufacturing and services to centers of innovation and R&D. India emerges as a global technology powerhouse that is also developing other strategic industries. And China is very close to overtaking Japan as the 2nd largest economy in the world and the US’ largest foreign creditor. With economic power comes political and military power. China, in particular, is already becoming more assertive politically and is set to play a larger role in global affairs. One thing is for sure; the coming decades will see the end of US hegemony and the transition (again) to a multi-polar world, which will be consequential to the rest of the world, and the Middle East, in particular. The rise of India and China is a certainty, which will have an impact on the world’s economy, energy, environment and politics.

Regionally, in the broader Middle East, the decade saw significant changes to the strategic landscape of the region, as a result of the above:

  • Iran: Widely assumed to be on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, Iran has already become a regional superpower. Over the past decade, even as it was surrounded by the US, Iran managed to consolidate its influence in the broader Middle East through a strategic relationship with Syria, and support for Hamas, Hezbollah and others, and by taking advantage of the US quagmire in Iraq. However, in spite of extending its strategic reach, the country’s biggest challenges lie ahead: Most pressing is the need to find a solution to the standoff with the West over its nuclear program. Domestically, Iran must deal with a young and growing population that seems increasingly out of step with the direction of its government. The youth is more interested in jobs and opportunities than in ideological slogans. Strategic achievements aside, Iran ends the decade on a weak note as the post-election violence has shaken the system from within, though it’s unlikely to pose any serious challenge to its long-term stability.
  • Syria: With the death of an iconic figure, President Hafez Assad in 2000, Syria began the decade with a new leadership. While holding firm to his father’s core political strategy, the young President has been taking the young country through a careful process of transformation and reform that is slow but deliberate. Despite being the target of a US effort to destabilize and undermine it, with hard-nosed determination and flexible diplomacy, Syria has been able to steer through the minefield and emerge a regional winner, holding key cards in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. The country has been carefully opening up, economically and diplomatically. Syria’s major challenges remain ahead, with a fast-growing population in need of jobs, an education system that is in desperate need of reform and an old-world economy that needs to be leapfrogged to the next generation. Though recovery of the Golan through a regional peace deal remains an elusive strategic objective, development, energy and water may pose more pressing strategic priorities.
  • Lebanon: It was a busy decade for Lebanon. The country was liberated from Israeli occupation in 2000, and saw the departure of Syrian troops in 2005. Hezbollah has matured from a militia with political representation to a sophisticated political organization with a military arm that is more powerful than ever. Due to immigration, demographic changes and the result of the civil war, the Lebanese have long outgrown their sectarian political system, but the country remains too fragile and fractious to explore an alternative that balances proper representation with adequate privileges and protection to its many minorities. The country continues to struggle with mounting debt, internal security and most importantly, national identity. Given its internal divisions and the propensity of its leaders to solicit foreign support for domestic political advantage, Lebanon will remain a battleground for regional power players.
  • Iraq: In short, a critical country that served as the Arab counter-weight to Persian Iran was devastated by the US invasion, creating a huge void that remains to be filled. In a decade, the country went from an active regional player (though contained through sanctions) to a playground for regional players and a haven for religious extremists. As a result of the US invasion, Iraq sustained irreparable damage to its infrastructure, institutions, culture, sovereignty and social fabric. It will take generations before Iraq finds its equilibrium again. And given its religious composition (Sunni-Shiite) and ethnic mix (Arab-Kurdish), Iraq represents a microcosm of the regional fault lines. It remains to be seen whether Iraq remains intact and what regional role it will play, if any.
  • Palestinian Territories: The Palestinian tragedy continued with no end in sight. With the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, a new era began that is more difficult than the one before, leaving Palestinians more divided than ever, between those supporting the Palestinian Authority and those in favor of the elected Islamic Hamas. The ‘peace process’ is virtually dead, and the Palestinian dream of statehood seems more distant than at the beginning of the decade. And, as Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank, the future state continues to shrink. The most major issue facing the Palestinians is the lack of respectable leadership that is representative of an accomplished, highly-educated Palestinian population both at home and in the diaspora.
  • Israel: It is difficult to argue that the last decade was a good one for Israel. After 60 years of military dominance, Israel suffered serious setbacks beginning with the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon under military pressure from Hezbollah, and ending with a failed war against Gaza in 2008 that brought international condemnation (Goldstone Report). In the interim, Israel was militarily bruised in its 2006 war with Hezbollah. More importantly, the military deterrent that Israel enjoyed for so long has dissipated. The strategic relationship with Turkey is less so, and the relationship with the US is not as strong as it was under Bush. Iranian threats notwithstanding, there is no longer an existential threat to Israel but serious strategic threats remain. Those include demographic trends that will soon leave Israel facing a choice between being a democracy and retaining its Jewish character, and a steady erosion in support for Israel globally. The coming decade could be an opportune time for Israel to clinch a regional deal at favorable terms that will ensure its long-term survival and integration in the region. Otherwise, both micro and macro factors will make the region a more difficult environment for Israel in the next decade.
  • Turkey: The last decade saw drastic changes in the Turkish political landscape that have major regional, and possibly, global implications. Most significantly, the monopoly on power by the hardline Kemalist secular establishment has been broken, with the rise of the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party. Domestically, major improvements were made in Turkey’s relationship with its Kurdish population though discontent remains, while the tension has increased with the country’s traditional secular establishment. Just as dramatically, after decades of being spurned by Europe, Turkey finally turned East, and seems expanding its sphere influence at the expense of previous allies such as the US and Israel. It remains to be seen whether Turkey’s future governments continue with the new direction or make a U-turn back to the West.
  • Egypt: Egypt’s regional stature has steadily diminished, and the country ends the decade less relevant than at its beginning. Given its size and history, Egypt continues to punch below its weight. Both Turkey and Iran, the two other regional powers of similar size, are more pivotal, including in Arab affairs. While the country struggles with profound problems, the overriding concern is to ensure a smooth post-Mubarak transition; presumably to Mubarak Jr. This erosion in Egypt’s role is likely to continue, and even magnify, as the country’s next leadership takes control and addresses the monumental challenges of managing development, controlling the rising popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and providing opportunities to its fast-growing population.
  • Saudi Arabia: The strategic relationship with the US and the surplus from the high price of oil for much of the past decade continued to enable the Kingdom to play a regional role that is beyond its natural credentials. With the ascent of King Abdullah, minor reforms were set in motion, but remain glacially slow in pace, and far short of the challenges facing the country. After overcoming the discord within the next generation of royals over succession, the king must deal with a young and growing population of unemployed and frustrated youth, a disenfranchised Shiite community, and a conflicted population that has been radicalized by über-conservative Wahhabi teachings, but yearns for modernity. For now, the American and global thirst for oil will keep the money flowing in and the veil on.
  • Pakistan: After emerging as an unlikely nuclear power at the end of the last decade, Pakistan continued a steady descend into chaos and dysfunction. With the suspension of democracy, the killing and exile of its leaders, and the Taliban and Qaeda secure in remote areas away from government control, the country’s threats are more domestic than external. Today, Pakistan is likely the most dangerous frontier in the fight against extremist terrorist organizations.

Otherwise, a few key phenomena, trends and innovations in the last decade changed our very lifestyles.

  • Technology: More people are wired and even more are wireless. The words ‘Apple’ and ‘BlackBerry’ don’t invoke images of fruit as they do addictive technological wonders that connect us to the world. The collusion of available broadband, faster processors, cheap memory and advanced multimedia has shifted the consumption of news and entertainment from traditional computers and televisions to mobile devices. Social media and networking are changing the nature of social interactions and hastening the pace of life. More than ever, we live in fast forward mode in which life happens at web speed.
  • Terrorism: The attacks of September 11, 2001 continue to haunt the world, and terrorism has become an overriding global concern during the last decade. Al-Qaeda has morphed from a classic organization with established members and bases in Afghanistan and a few other countries, to a more dangerous, invisible, decentralized, ideological umbrella group operating globally and spawning numerous smaller local cells all over the world. In the past decade, Islam has been hijacked by a fringe of extremist adherents who have done more damage to it than any external enemy could have done. What remains baffling is the inefficacy of the proposed solutions, and the stubborn refusal of the West to recognize that this evil phenomenon does not have a security solution. Though law enforcement and security measures are necessary, the solution ultimately lies in depriving these groups of their best recruiting tool: a just cause.
  • Globalization: With the advent of technology and the growth of business, the world is more closely integrated than ever before, and the chain reaction that can be sparked by any seemingly-random event cannot be estimated. Economically, the collapse of the derivatives markets (credit default swaps and MBS) and the credit crisis impacted real estate and capital markets across the world. And politically, with the hyper-viral power of social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and others, information censorship has become virtually impossible as events in any corner of the world can now be transmitted to the global traditional and online media in real time.
  • Disparity & Polarization: Increasingly, there is a disparity between the have’s and the have-not’s. This applies not just to the North-South divide, but also within most societies. In the US, the decade ends with a wider economic disparity than ever; the same applies in the developing world, though some exceptions stand out (India). The social consequences of such trends are difficult to predict.
  • Energy & Environment: While no alternative energy source has become mainstream, awareness of the environmental cause has. However, with the rapid development of China and India, the fight for traditional energy resources will only intensify, particularly in the Middle East, Africa and, to a lesser extent, Latin America.

As the Latin proverb goes: Dum spiro, spero. In English, as long as I breathe, I hope.

Peace to those who seek it. Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Hariri in Syria: Reconciliation and Opportunity

Much has been made about Saad Hariri’s visit to Damascus. Far from the drama that some media had built it up to be, the visit itself turned out to be somewhat anti-climactic.

After 5 years of waging a campaign of personal accusations and political attacks against Syria, President Assad extended an exceptionally warm welcome to Prime Minister Hariri, signaling a willingness to start a new chapter in Lebanese-Syrian relations. Whether the relationship, which has been mired in deep mistrust for so long, actually improves depends, in large part, on Hariri himself.

For Hariri, the visit was a political requisite for many reasons that can be summarized in two:

First, as Prime Minister of a national unity government with the support of the Lebanese Parliament, Hariri is no longer the leader of a Sunni political party, but the official representative of all Lebanese, half of whom do not share his heretofore-adversarial approach to Syria.

Secondly, and more importantly, under the Lebanese constitution, the Prime Minister is effectively the Chief Executive responsible for governing the country and delivering on the people’s agenda. After the Doha agreement and the arduous process of forming his own government, Hariri understood well that, Saudi sponsorship notwithstanding, he needs Damascus’ blessing and support to govern effectively in Beirut. Without such support, his premiership could turn into a grinding series of political battles over minutiae that will prevent him from achieving anything but stasis. The Siniora government of the last few years serves as a dim example.

To secure Damascus’ support, Hariri will have to commit to some core values that are key to Syria: Re-affirming Lebanon’s Arab identity, securing an unambiguous position vis-à-vis the conflict with Israel, supporting the resistance (i.e. Hezbollah) and committing to a distinguished relationship with Syria. From Syria’s perspective, all other issues may be negotiated.

On the Syrian side, after a period of critical evaluation of its pre-2005 management of the ‘Lebanese portfolio’, there seems to be a genuine interest, among the leadership in Damascus, in adopting a new, more institutional approach to managing the relationship with Lebanon, which could present an opportunity for Hariri.

Personally and politically, the visit represented a difficult climb-down for Saad Hariri. However, the visit could serve as the beginning of a personal reconciliation between Hariri and Assad, and consequently, of a political reconciliation between Syria and Lebanon’s Sunni community. Most importantly, harvested well, the visit could be a harbinger for a new type of a relationship between the two countries.

Regardless of how things play out, one thing was clear: After the acrimony of the last 5 years, in form and substance, Hariri’s visit to Damascus symbolized the return of Syria’s preeminence in Lebanon.