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Middle East 2011
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Another way of doing it in the Middle East:
Competent international mediation

Birgitte Rahbek, TFF Associate


May 16, 2011

The Middle East is on the move, but in unpredictable directions and with surprising consequences. Thus in late April of this year the first specific positive outcome of the Egyptian revolution occurred, namely the reconciliation between the two Palestinian rival groups: Fatah and Hamas. For several years the two groups participated in reconciliation meetings in Egypt but to no avail.

Today we know that former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had committed himself to both the US and Israel to preventing just such a reconciliation and to accomplish this he would misinform each party about the position of the other. The objective was to keep Hamas at arm’s length as a “terror organization”. It wasn’t difficult for Mubarak to take on that role as it also fit his own design, i.e. to make sure that anything affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood did not gain any kind of legitimacy.

Mubarak is now out of the political game, and at the same time Hamas’ protector in Syria is busy dealing with something other than Palestinian Islamists. Whether the present reconciliation is due to the absence of foreign pressure or a reflection that the leadership in both Fatah and Hamas have listened to the Palestinian people’s demand for unity is difficult to tell. But the reconciliation reflects a new maturity within the Palestinian leadership, and it also reflects the fact that Israel can no longer reign supreme on the international scene. Netanyahu’s reaction that Fatah has to choose between making peace with Hamas or with Israel rings hollow, considering that Netanyahu and his government have not taken a single step towards peace all through their entire term in government.

The last time (in 2007) the Palestinians established a national unity-government, they had been promised that both the EU and the US would support them, but that promise was never met. On the contrary: Israel and the US, together with one of Fatah’s military leaders, planned a coup against Hamas in Gaza. However, Hamas foiled the coup, and one of the most tragic chapters in the Palestinian history ensued.

This time the EU and the US must learn from previous mistakes and support such a Palestinian unity government, which of course will be formed on the basis of international law and will be followed by democratic elections for the parliament and presidency. We must not once again destroy democracy’s good reputation by refusing to recognize what is until now one of the few democratic Arab elections in history.

For far too many years the West has supported the wrong rulers for far too long, and only when they take steps that not only bother their own people, but also the West, we impotently raise our hands and declare that force is the only way. That meant bombing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, invading Iraq, toppling the regime and executing Saddam Hussein. What else could we do: would you rather have Saddam Hussein back?

Hardly, but Article 33 in the UN Charter is still valid, and it stipulates that:

  1. The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.
  2. The Security Council shall, when it deems necessary, call upon the parties to settle their disputes by such means.

After the US’s and its allies’ war against the Iraqi troops in January 1991, it was revealed (i.a. in Pierre Salinger and Eric Laurent’s Guerre du Golfe, le Dossier Secret, 1991) that since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 there had been several attempts to negotiate Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in order to avoid a war. They were thwarted by the US and their friends in Cairo and Riyadh. Neither did the press do much to make these attempts known, after all war is more sexy and more profitable than reconciliation.

And here we go again, this time we are hunting down a new scoundrel, the Libyan dictator Moammer Ghaddafi. I admit that my heart this time wished for the West and others to interfere to prevent a bloodbath in Benghazi, at the same time my brain knew that we would fuck it all up, yet again. We were able to avoid the bloodbath in Benghazi, but it was instead moved to Misrata. We have interfered in an actual civil war, not like in Tunisia, Egypt and now Syria where it was/is a matter of unarmed civilians against the country’s military.

On the contrary it is an organized army against unorganized but armed groups who now try to make a bit of order within their ranks by the help of various dubious generals from either Ghaddafi’s army or from a long exiled compatriots close to the CIA headquarter in Langley, Virginia US. Contrary to the other Arab revolts there exist in Libya two distinct armed parties, where we have sided with one of them since 2003 to have raised the other from disgrace, polished him up and supplied him with arms and legitimacy.

We are rushing after the events, and in between we commit all possible mistakes. And now we have started considering how to punish Syria: with sanctions? The problem is they don’t buy much from us. With troops? Sorry, but they are otherwise engaged. With condemnations? Of course, just a pity that Mrs. Clinton about a month ago called president Bashar al-Assad a “reformer”.
So what is left? The answer is mediation and negotiations. Tableau!

I suppose the following analysis is valid, the population in Syria can in the present conflict broadly speaking be divided into three groups:

1) The protesters who with great courage and with contempt for death defy the brutal force and with all good reasons demand the removal of the regime. We do not know how many they are: Perhaps a fifth of the population, maybe more, maybe less, some people talk about only two percent.

2) A very large group that wants the same reforms but without regime change; they fear the consequences: who will take over – and after how much bloodshed?

3) A considerable group that with all its heart – or out of opportunism – support the regime. Either because they trust Bashar al-Asad, or because they also harvest the fruits of nepotism and corruption.

It goes without saying that it is impossible to tell how many there are in each of these three groups, and I am sure that more could be mentioned, e.g. the around 400,000 Palestinian refugees who are holding their breath, and the approximately one million Iraqi refugees who fled their own civil war.

Recently the British expert on Syria, Patrick Seale, said in a debate on BBC that Bashar al-Asad’s personality was formed by the many threats and conflicts during his reign. First of all, the war against Iraq with veiled threats that they might just as well continue into Syria. As good luck would have it for Syria, things didn’t go well in Iraq, so Bashar could sit it out. Then followed the murder of the former Lebanese prime-minister Rafiq Hariri, where the blame was immediately put on Syria, and later shifted to Hizbullah. These accusations don’t matter for the original accusation made its impact and drove Syria out of Lebanon. It was high time one could say! Later on followed the Israeli wars first against Gaza and then Lebanon and then Gaza again; add to that one or two bombings of suspicious installations in Syria.

Those kind of events cannot but create a certain paranoia, and don’t forget that even if you are paranoid, people can still be after you. If one seriously wants to break the impasse it is wise to try to get to know the history of your opponent and his way of thinking, not to accept his actions, but in order to be able to negotiate with knowledge.

One has to be more than moderately naive not to expect outside forces to play a role and try to influence Syria, be it an uncle or a former vice-president or groupings from Lebanon or from the other neighbouring countries. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a foreign conspiracy, for the demands of the protesters are legitimate and long overdue. But it means that there are forces in and outside of Syria who want to add fuel to the flames.

And this is where I propose to use a small watering can instead in order to put out the fire that could become so consuming that nobody who cares for Syria and its people can countenance the mere idea.

My suggestion is to gather a group of impartial people trained in international conflict mediation and experts on the area, who could try to find representatives from the above mentioned three layers in Syria. Perhaps they should not be found at the very top of the system – they seem to have gone into intellectual air cover – but a bit further down the ladder.

The process should be in the best way of conflict resolution to listen to the parties, get to understand their feelings (fear and dreams) and needs and then move towards a platform where they all feel their issues are being addressed and where they together can change the country that for so long has been in need of a revolution, but might have to pay too high a price for it.

Thus we should all put aside the automatic talk about sanctions and condemnations. Of course everybody should condemn the demonstration of force by the Syrian regime, but we are in need of much more inventiveness, creativity and moderation in order to change the situation by peaceful means which in the end will be much more enduring than resolutions and bombs.

Probably most people would consider the idea of mediation at this dramatic time in the Syrian history to be naïve and unrealistic, but Einstein is known to have said that if he presented somebody with an idea and that somebody said it was a good idea, Einstein would drop it, because then the idea wasn’t innovative enough. So may be the only realistic thing to day is to be unrealistic, because if we continue in the present reality the end result is given. The conflict is still young – in spite of so many people being killed – it is after all only a few weeks ago that those who demonstrated in Syria demanded reforms and not the demise of the president.

David W. Lesch, American professor of Middle Eastern history and author of “The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria”, wrote April 27th 2011 on the website Syria Comment that Bashar has three choices left to him: a) he could continue to unleash the hounds and brutally repress the uprising; he would stay in power, but then he would become an international pariah, b) he could muddle through as he has done, with a mix of reforms and crackdowns. In the long run he would thereby loose his legitimacy and share the fate of the other dictators, or c) he could accept the inevitable (and the reality of these other less desirable alternatives) and announce real political reform, including new party and election laws, the elimination of article 8 of the Syrian constitution that secures the rule of the Baath party, and, most importantly perhaps, setting presidential terms limits. Bashar needs to address the people directly, not indirectly via a sycophantic parliament and cabinet.
Let us - through mediation and dialogue - help Bashar al-Asad choose the latter option and lead him back to the track where Hillary Clinton and many others not so long ago thought he was.

Birgitte Rahbek
Conflict mediator and writer


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