Saturday, July 16, 2011

Iran's Power Struggle Is Set To Escalate

Turmoil lies ahead as conservatives continue to push back against any political gains that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes

By Roshanak Taghavi

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Presidednt Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been mired in long-running political battles with the conservative-dominated Iranian parliament. Photograph: KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/Rex Features

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government has suffered an unprecedentedly harsh blow to its credibility during the last few weeks. The Iranian president has witnessed the arrest of officials close to high-ranking members of his cabinet, and has engaged in an escalating war of words with senior conservatives and Iran's judiciary. Even high-ranking members of the Revolutionary Guards, long believed to be politically aligned with Ahmadinejad, have sparred publicly with his administration, with both sides accusing each other of illegal financial dealings.

Despite this crisis, Ahmadinejad has not only maintained his clout but has also managed to break through many of the regime's traditional restrictions on executive power. His political standing has been weakened but not undermined. This has left Iranian legislators worried that Ahmadinejad can still gain long-lasting political influence through next year's parliamentary elections.

In an effort to extend his power beyond 2013, when his term ends, Ahmadinejad will continue to push the limits of Iran's government structure and pick fights to place allies in influential positions, according to Hossein Askari, who holds the Iran chair at George Washington University.

"If you are politically ambitious – and Ahmadinejad certainly is – the only way you can gain power is to cause a confrontation. He's not going to stop pushing," Askari said in an interview.

For much of his presidency, Ahmadinejad has treated the conservative-dominated parliament with contempt, boldly appointing loyalists in vital state organisations with the tacit approval of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. During the past six years, he has appointed and replaced political allies in key institutions, such as the ministries of oil, foreign affairs and economy, as well as the central bank. At the same time, he has either weakened or removed structural bodies, such as the Management and Planning Organisation, which were responsible for supervising government finances and strategy.

Meanwhile, the supreme leader has capitalised on the divide between Ahmadinejad and his conservative rivals, quietly encouraging parliament's recent verbal assault against the president and his advisers in an effort to restore political equilibrium. At the same time, Khamenei has reaffirmed his support for the president, calling for reconciliation between the conservative-dominated parliament and Ahmadinejad's administration.
Already, Khamenei has used his constitutional authority to make exceptions, such as allowing Iran's minister of housing, Ali Nikzad, to serve as caretaker for the transport ministry after parliament impeached its minister in February. By law, caretaker ministers may be appointed by the president for three months only, and an incumbent minister cannot simultaneously serve as caretaker of a second ministry. Nikzad remained caretaker of the transport ministry for five months and was subsequently approved by parliament when the housing and transport ministries were merged.
In May, Ahmadinejad ousted the ministers of welfare, industry and oil. He had earlier been rebuked by Khamenei after unilaterally sacking intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi – contrary to the established practice of consulting the supreme leader on intelligence matters.
The dismissal of welfare minister Sadegh Mahsouli was deemed a private victory for the president's inner circle of advisers, who have sought to eliminate any dissenting voices within the president's cabinet.
In the run-up to Iran's parliamentary elections next year, Ahmadinejad is expected to escalate his clashes with political rivals inside the traditional conservative establishment and Iran's judiciary, with the knowledge that doing so will result, at minimum, in a partial political victory for his administration.
The arrest in late June of Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh and two senior officials who are closely allied to Ahmadinejad's chief of staff was meant to serve as a warning to the president and his advisers that they have become too bold with the supreme leadership and too willing to bypass the legislature. All three officials have remained in state custody, which is significant because it means the president has not yet been able to get them out.
Even as conservatives magnify their efforts to regain political influence, Ahmadinejad will continue his own attempts to shore up his government's control over day-to-day administration. But conservatives will continue to push back against any political gains that Ahmadinejad makes, a veteran analyst and government adviser in Tehran tells me. "If the choice is between Ahmadinejad heading towards becoming almighty, or internal political turmoil, then they will opt for turmoil."
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 15/07/2011
- Roshanak Taghavi is a journalist specialising in the economics and politics of Iran and the Middle East

Now The Arab Spring Becomes An Arab Summer

By Robert Fisk
Motorised French troops in Syria, near the border with Palestine, in June 1941. After the Second World War the French were persuaded to abandon their former mandated territories
Motorised French troops in Syria, near the border with Palestine, in June 1941. After the Second World War the French were persuaded to abandon their former mandated territories (Rex Futures)

Syrians shot down in the streets across the country, tanks surrounding the major cities of Syria, soldiers killing unarmed, largely Sunni Muslim demonstrators as the authorities protest that "armed gangs" are themselves killing troops.

In northern Syria, citizens barricade their cities from armed assault, and Syrian nationalists carrying weapons and demanding freedom prepare to move into Homs and Hama. Local troops are said to be deserting en masse, while others, many of them Alawis of the Shia Muslim sect, are loyal to the authorities in Damascus. The uprising is infecting neighbouring Lebanon, while a British diplomat writes from Damascus that the authorities have "instituted nothing less than a reign of terror... This will surely spread throughout the whole Middle East".
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? And, of course, it should be, for I am describing Syria in May 1945. The regime doing the shooting is that of France's Charles de Gaulle; the nationalists are pretty much the fathers or grandfathers of the young men protesting so bravely in those same streets today against the ruthlessness of Bashir al-Assad's regime. The British diplomat is Terence Shone, formerly our "minister plenipotentiary" in Egypt, and now tasked by Anthony Eden to honour the promise – made by Anglo-French forces when they liberated Syria and Lebanon from Vichy forces in 1941 – to give full independence to both countries.

The French insist that they want independence for both nations – but that they also want a "special place" for themselves; in other words, a continuing, softer version of the post-First World War French mandate. To the horror of Shone, Eden and, indeed, Winston Churchill, the French went on to fire shells into the Syrian parliament and strafed the Hamidiyah souk in central Damascus from the air. Hence all the tiny perforations still visible in the bazaar's metal roof to this very day.
Eventually, the French were persuaded to abandon their former mandated territories – although not until they were on the verge of fighting their British allies – and the Sunni Syrian nationalists, led by brave men such as Jamil Mardam Bey, declared victory. Syria was independent and no longer subject to imperial rule. Or so they all believed. The ironies, needless to say, are many. Today's Syrian protesters are treated as little more than terrorists by the Baath party regime, which uses the old French military methods in an effort to destroy them in the very same cities. Assad's forces include a shabiha militia ("those that make ghosts") almost entirely composed of Alawis – just as the French Troupes Sp├ęciales were. I should add that Alawis also fought bravely against the French – which is why a recent Friday of demonstrations in Damascus was named after one of these heroes.

Instead of Terence Shone, we have the US ambassador, Robert Ford, expressing his opprobrium of the regime – along with his French opposite number – by visiting Hama. The Syrian Vice-President, Farouk al-Sharaa, looking visibly older after months of violence (he comes from Deraa, where the uprising began), this week tried to hold talks with the opposition, demanding dialogue and democracy "to turn a new page in the history of Syria" – almost exactly what the French said 66 years ago.
Of course, there is another, even darker irony. De Gaulle had been trying, vainly, to crush the Syrian nationalist revolt; his successor – physically much smaller than de Gaulle but with Napoleonic pretensions – waffles on about the iniquities of the regime and talks of EU sanctions. He has mercifully stopped short of the air attacks which de Gaulle permitted against Damascus in 1945. The French can be like that. One generation represses, and then up pops another, as keen as cheese to help the repressed.

No wonder the protesters, while glad to see Mr Ford in Hama, are more enthusiastic to learn about revolution from their Egyptian brothers and sisters. Many sent anti-Mubarak demonstrators tips on how to use Facebook and Twitter. Today, the Egyptians are returning the favour, posting advice on how to oppose the Baathist regime. Here, for example, is the advice of an Egyptian who says he "adores Syria", posted on the Syrian News Network: "Demonstrations must include whole cities, even if the protesters are few in number – the bigger the geographical area, the more difficult it is to suppress; demonstrate every day – don't make the Bahrainis' mistake of concentrating only on one location, the Pearl roundabout in Manama."
The advice is carefully thought through. "Try to wear out the security forces by protesting all day and all night. Gather in narrow streets, try to gain more sympathisers. Be brave; you will win the psychological war. Never attack the security forces." The last, of course, is easy for an Egyptian to say. Their army believed its job was to protect the people; the Syrian army's orders are to protect the Baathist regime. It uses live bullets promiscuously – hence Syria's estimated 1,400 dead already far outnumber Egypt's nearly 900 "martyrs".

But the remark about Bahrain is astute. Many Bahrainis now believe they started their "revolution" far too early. "We are not yet able to topple the regime," one told me this week. "We were ahead of our ambitions. The Americans and the Saudis won't let things happen yet. Old King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has got to die first." Then, he explained, Saudi Arabia will splinter into princely states and the Bahraini Shia majority can have democracy. Arab Spring, Arab Summer. Arab Winter, too. History suggests the awakening has only just began.
This commentary was published in The Independent on 16/07/2011
 

Say Hallelujah To This Week In Egypt

By Rami G. Khouri
What is happening in Egypt is stunning in the context of modern Arab history: Egyptians are compressing into months processes of national self-definition and governance configuration that other countries in the world conducted over decades, or even centuries, in their drive to stable and equitable democracy.
Every day, literally, we are witnessing developments in the Egyptian street and media that define three principal components of democratic transitions, and are particularly poignant in the annals of the modern Arab world’s bitter legacy of persistent security states: the role of the military and security agencies in governance; the empowerment of the citizen as the ultimate reference point for the legitimacy and efficacy of national decision-making; and the checks-and-balances relationships among the principal actors in politics – the citizenry, the presidency, the legislature, the judiciary, the Cabinet, the bureaucracy, civil society, the private sector, the religious-tribal forces.
Egypt today shows why so many of us in the region have felt confident, from the first stirrings of national awakening in Tunisia in January, that the Arab march toward democratic transformation will succeed. Key signs of this in Egypt are that empowered citizens have insisted on both engaging the transitional military council and the government in serious discussions and negotiations, while also resuming peaceful street demonstrations as needed, to achieve the full promises of the January revolution; the three main actors today – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the youth-led demonstrators and civil society movements, and the Muslim Brotherhood – have all shown that they are prepared to make concessions and step back from confrontation when the national interest demands this; and, through the rough-and-tumble of political contestation and deal-making, Egyptians are simultaneously defining core institutions and parameters of governance, establishing practical mechanisms of political life, and validating the legitimacy of all the actors involved in this exciting process.
I understand better now why Egyptians (and the Tunisians who first lit this torch) are seen again as proud and nimble people. Consider only the main events of the past week in Egypt: Egyptian demonstrators, led by but not limited to youth groups, took to the streets again in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez to demand that the transitional government and military council move more decisively to fulfil the demands of the January revolution, especially putting on trial officials accused of corruption, dismissing or trying police accused of killing demonstrators, and rejuvenating the governance system on the basis of equitable, accountable constitutional democracy. Some marchers wanted the military council to get out of governance, and others shouted, “The people want the removal of the field marshal” (referring to Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council who was defense minister for 20 years under President Hosni Mubarak).
This resurgent revolutionary populism triggered many swift developments. Deputy Prime Minister Yahya al-Gamal resigned (protesters saw him as being too easy on Mubarak regime business cronies); a court jailed several former ministers and a prime minister for corruption and fraud; the judiciary council recommended that court trials of former officials be made more accessible to public scrutiny and televised; Prime Minister Essam Sharaf promised to reshuffle the government soon; Interior Minister Mansour Essawy announced that 671 police generals and officers would be dismissed for their conduct during the revolution (37 of them are charged with killing protesters); the military conceded to protesters by announcing that elections scheduled for September would be postponed some months; and, the military said it would draft guidelines for choosing the 100-member assembly that is charged with writing a new Egyptian constitution (softening the fears of many that an Islamist-led parliament would write a constitution that favors Islamists and weakens secular groups).
Demonstrators also blocked access to some major government buildings and threatened to call a million-man march on the Cabinet office, to which the military rulers responded with a televised statement warning that they would not tolerate those who “deviate from the peaceful approach during demonstrations and sit-ins and obstruct the institutions of the state.”
This has been an extraordinary week of challenges, threats, retreats, enticements, promises, demands, street theater, cajolements, concessions and, ultimately, deals – in other words, the routine instruments of horse-trading-based democratic politics. All these acts together represent the birth pangs of a new Arab world that is legitimate and will endure because it is being crafted by the will of its own people, rather than by Western armies and neocolonial intellectual thugs masquerading as foreign ministers and other top officials.
The most important element to appreciate in this cornucopia of indigenous power and politics is the spectacle of civilian Arab citizens taking the first steps to successfully challenge – and limit – the role of their military and security agencies in public life.
To this we should say simply, in awe and appreciation of those brave men and women on the streets of Tunisia and Egypt who have inspired so many others in the Arab world: Hallelujah.
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 16/07/2011

Non-Violence Will Hurt Israel

It is a matter of time when apartheid in the country will go the way of apartheid in South Africa

By Shir Hever
Palestinians have been fighting for their freedom for many decades but so far they have failed to defeat the Israeli military on the field of battle, and the diplomatic efforts to gather recognition for an independent Palestinian state have been blocked by the US, which is likely to veto the Palestinian statehood bid in September.
A third form of struggle has emerged: non-violent popular resistance. The determination of the popular committees in West Bank villages, of Palestinian families in Gaza who march to the buffer zone to protest the siege and of growing protest among Palestinian citizens of Israel are a greater challenge to the Israeli authorities than rockets or tanks.

The organisers of the popular resistance realise that international solidarity is an essential component in a non-violent struggle. Only the threat of international sanctions can stay the finger of Israeli soldiers on the trigger, to keep them from massacring defenceless protesters. This protection is sorely needed in view of the killing of unarmed protesters trying to cross the border on Al Nakba Day. The campaign calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel was launched by Palestinian civil society organisations in 2005. In the past six years, the call has inspired activists around the world (and even a few in Israel) to organise campaigns to boycott Israeli goods and to cut ties with Israeli academic institutions. Dozens of artists have cancelled performances in Israel.
The BDS campaign has caught the attention of the Israeli public. Middle-class Israelis were distraught when their favourite artists cancelled planned shows in Tel Aviv. Israeli academics who arrogantly consider themselves as the sophisticated and ‘moderate' voice of Israel were shocked to discover that they are losing career opportunities because of the crimes committed by their universities (such as stealing Palestinian land or discriminating against Palestinian students). The Israeli business community is in a state of panic, some already in the process of moving their headquarters outside Israel.

Israeli politicians are trapped. On the one hand, they realise that BDS and non-violent resistance could undermine Israel's diplomatic strength, economic stability and academic prestige but any concession to put pressure would be seen as weakness that will be punished by Israeli voters. Israelis have a tendency to vote for strong, jingoistic leaders. Netanyahu's hardline government has no plan on how to deal with the pressure, except to preserve an appearance of strength. The Knesset recently approved a bill criminalising the call for boycott. Now Israeli citizens (such as myself) can be sued by any Israeli company for expressing a positive opinion about the boycott even if the company cannot prove that the call for boycott caused it any damage.
Irrational decisions

Israel has a very powerful army, unflinching support from the US and can cow European countries into supporting its every move by threatening anyone who criticises Israel by calling them anti-Semitic. However, every colonial power in history has reached a point in which corrupt and overconfident leaders, drunk on power, begin to make irrational decisions. When the consequences of these decisions begin to become apparent, panic sets in and these leaders try to defend their mistakes with further irrational actions.
In the past three years, the Israeli government has reached that point, and irrational decisions have become more and more frequent. Here are four examples:

 •Invasion of Gaza in December 2008 (Operation Cast Lead),,which resulted in the killing of more than 1,400 Palestinians, led to the Goldstone report accusing Israel of crimes against humanity.
•Appointing Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister compounded matters as Lieberman's racist remarks and ultra-nationalist agenda pushed away Israel's few remaining allies (such as Turkey).

•The killing of nine activists on the Freedom Flotilla shocked people around the world (and the more recent deportation of hundreds of activists who flew to Israel in order to visit the West Bank proves that the government learnt nothing).

•The anti-boycott bill approved recently proves that Israel does not allow freedom of speech, and makes even selective boycott campaigns against the products from Israel's illegal colonies in the West Bank illegal. It prevents international companies from offering their services in Israel but not in the West Bank. Now every international company which wishes to operate in Israel is forced to choose between violating international law or being punished by the Israeli government.
All of these actions by Israel have one thing in common — they bolster the BDS movement which grows rapidly with every additional act of cruelty committed by Israel's government and military. As an Israeli citizen myself, this is one ray of hope amid the despair — through Palestinian commitment to the struggle and with international solidarity, apartheid in Israel will eventually go the way of apartheid in South Africa.

-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 16/07/2011
-Shir Hever is an economist with the Alternative Information Centre, a joint Palestinian-Israeli non-governmental organisation

Lebanon: The "Bugbear" Of Civil Strife Is Over The Special Tribunal Or Over Power?

By Walid Choucair
More than a year ago, civil strife was just around the corner in Lebanon. Hezbollah was warning of this possibility in a number of news conferences, held by the party's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. In June 2010, when Nasrallah warned that the indictment by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which back then was predicted to appear in a few months' time, would cause civil strife, he said that then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri "knows what he should do". This led to the hurried convening of a summit between Saudi Arabia and Syria in Damascus on 29 July; then this was followed by the visit by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz and Syrian President Bashar Assad to Beirut the next day. There, they held the famous summit during which they agreed on Arab guarantees for continued stability in Lebanon. One day before the visit to Beirut, the Syrian president had informed the Saudi monarch that the issuing of the STL indictment would lead to unrest in Lebanon, and that the leaders of Hezbollah had visited him a day earlier, to express their anxiety, and that they had occupied the country and were spread out throughout most regions of Lebanon.
In his news conferences, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah indicated that Hariri and Arab leaders could do something. This "something" was, in the view of Damascus and Hezbollah, an attempt by Saudi Arabia, with Security Council states, to halt the STL or abolish it. When everyone discovered that this was an intentionally impossible request, and as a result of Arab and international contacts, there was a focus on attempting to delay the indictment until efforts to arrive at an inter-Lebanese settlement could provide a way out of the indictment, if it actually had to be issued someday and ended up accusing Hezbollah. The pressures exerted by the party at the time, even though it always declared it did not fear the indictment, or the "strife" that was being prepared for Lebanon, led to the establishment of what was later called, in the fall of 2010, negotiations over the S-S (Saudi Arabia and Syria) agreement. This should have led to a conference of reconciliation and coming-clean about the past, thereby treating the repercussions of the STL, which could not be abolished.
A few days ago (on 2 and 5 July), Nasrallah said there would be no civil strife between the Lebanese, and particularly between Sunnis and Shiites. This was a few days after the issuing of the indictment, which remains secret. Yesterday, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general, Sheikh Naim Qassem said, "Certain figures and media expected that a great and dangerous thing would take place in Lebanon after the issuing of the indictment. The indictment was issued, and went to Interpol. As far as we are concerned, nothing happened. It was a political-media discussion with no impact on the ground."
He, therefore, believed what Hariri said throughout 2010, namely that "there will be no civil strife in Lebanon, and we are able – Sayyed Nasrallah, Speaker Nabih Berri and I, and others – to prevent strife."
What changed between July 2010 and today, for the hints and threats of strife to disappear, as Hezbollah reassures the Lebanese that stability will not be harmed?
The only thing that is different is that Saad Hariri is not in power. Were the earlier threats about civil strife due to his being prime minister?
In fact, Hariri, while in that post, did not control things completely; his partner in government was Hezbollah, which was stronger on the ground than the state, whose government Hariri headed. In fact, the S-S agreement also covered finding a formula to move beyond the STL, through forgiveness, which would limit Hezbollah’s authority on the ground, in favor of a different type of partnership inside state institutions. It was hoped that this political settlement would unlock a dynamic of seeing the state recover some of its authority. This was the problem for Hezbollah, and not the STL indictment; it is confident about its surplus power, which allows it to confront and overcome the indictment.
A comparison of the political rhetoric that prevailed in 2010 and the discourse of today allows us to conclude that Hezbollah wanted total authority, instead of a settlement on dividing power between it and other groups or Hariri. The regional situation would not allow such a thing, while the time had not come for a settlement of that kind, especially since Iran was not a part of S-S.
Another conclusion generated by this comparison is that the "bugbear" of civil strife is used a lot these days, on the occasion of Arab revolutions, when it comes to giving up power or allowing others to share it through moving to political pluralism. It is a bugbear that disappears when power comes to rest with the side that is hinting at strife.
-This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 15/07/2011

Syria Unravels

By Diana Mukkaled
"From inside Hama: The true story."
"Interviews and eye-witness accounts obtained in Hama away from the prying eyes of the Syrian security apparatus."
"Our correspondent in Syria: Doctors treating protest casualties in secret clinics."
We have seen headlines such as this in western media outlets and newspapers over the past two weeks. These media outlets were recently granted permission by the Syrian authorities to enter the country. This new development, namely western media and press being allowed into Syria, is something that is happening for the first time since the outbreak of the popular demonstrations against the regime, which resulted in the regime's tanks, security apparatus and state media initiating a brutal campaign to suppress this uprising.
Although the regime taking this step came within the framework of it attempting to reduce internal and international pressure against it, the press correspondents are not being allowed to visit certain areas, including the anti-Bashar al-Assad demonstrations. Indeed the press is only being allowed to film and report on pro-regime demonstrations.
However it seems that the great resolve and determination of the Syrian protesters is only increasing and intensifying, to the point that they are now being able to get their message across to the foreign press correspondents. These correspondents have been stunned by the Syrian protesters initiative, for they did not wait for anybody to do them any favours but rather took their fate in their own hands and posted images and footage of the Syrian revolution on the internet themselves.
The conventional press reports that have begun to appear focusing on the Syrian protestors only confirm what we have already read, seen, and heard on the internet. The Syrian people were confronted with a vicious propaganda campaign, not to mention a brutal and violent campaign of suppression, at the hands of the Syrian regime. The Syrian regime attempted to portray the protestors as traitors, armed criminals, and foreign agents, but the facts that have begun to appear show that the Syrian protestors were ordinary people who took to the streets against the government, transforming themselves into paramedics, doctors, and citizen journalists. They took to the streets demanding freedom, filming their own peaceful protests. They defied the government sanctioned violence, exposing the regime's brutal and cruel suppression of the protests.
Indeed one protester even went so far as to film his own death! A few days ago, footage was uploaded on YouTube of a young man filming the "Shabiha" (Pro-regime militia) firing on demonstrators. The video clip then shows an unclear figure shooting at the youth, who falls to the ground, before the screen goes black.
The reports by conventional media outlets that have started coming out from Syria have broken the Syrian activists' monopoly on news coverage, without destroying the credibility of everything that they have filmed and posted on the internet over the past few months. However the fact remains that the western media's grace period in Syria will not last long, and this can be seen in the recent attack on the US and French embassies in Damascus. The Syrian regime seems to have realized that the confrontation is not taking place in the conventional media, however even if allowing the conventional media to visit the US and French embassies does not contain any political message, this will still result in a confrontation with the west.
We have all heard dozens of statements by Western officials who couple their demands for protests to be allowed to take place, with demands for free and unbiased media coverage of said protests. Any protest loses much of its significance if there is no camera recording it, and once media outlets are given the chance to get in and cover these protests, any sort of suppression or crackdown will backfire disastrously against the regime. Protests will grow stronger as more media outlets broadcast news of them and the regime would be further weakened. This is the vicious circle that the Syrian regime is trying to deal with.
The only option left for the regime is the confrontation option. Reform and dialogue are nothing more than lies being promoted by the regime to buy time. Indeed, Syrian officials were issuing calls for dialogues even while their "Shabiha" militia were shooting protests!
-This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 16/07/2011
- Diana Mukkaled is a prominent and well respected TV journalist in the Arab world, thanks to her phenomenal show "Bil Ayn Al Mojarada" (By The Naked Eye), a series of documentaries around controversial areas and topics which airs on Lebanon's leading local and sattelite channel "Future Television"

The Other Side Of Radicalization In Bahrain

By Justin Gengler
Burning the American flag during a protest in Manama

In a July 6 interview with Egyptian journalists carried in the Al-Ahram daily, a leading Bahraini revealed that his country's February uprising was "by all measures a conspiracy involving Iran with the support of the United States," the latter aiming "to draw a new map" of the region. "More important than talking about the differences between the U.S. and Iran," he insisted, are "their shared interests in various matters that take aim at the Arab welfare."

Who is this Bahraini conspiracy theorist? A radical Arab nationalist, perhaps? Or a leader of the popular Sunni counter-revolution that mobilized successfully against the Shia-led revolt? Not exactly. In fact, he is none other than Marshall Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Khalifa: Minister of Defense, Commander-in-Chief of the Bahrain Defense Force, and, as his name indicates, a prominent member of Bahrain's royal family. His outburst decrying American duplicity in Bahrain is but the latest in a string of similar incidents and public accusations that once more raise the question of political radicalization in Bahrain. But this time, in contrast to the usual narrative, the radicalization is not emanating from the country's Shia majority.
The rise of this anti-American narrative among Bahrain's pro-government Sunnis can be traced back, ironically, to a March 7 protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Manama organized by Shia political activists. Those present condemned the muted if not outright hostile American response to their then still-hopeful popular revolution. A seemingly trivial detail of that demonstration -- a box of doughnuts reportedly brought to the protesters by the embassy's then-Political Affairs Officer, who had ventured outside to hear their complaints -- provided fodder some weeks later for a widely-circulated online article portraying the official as a veritable enemy combatant. Photographs of him and his family, along with his local address and phone number, would soon appear on militant Salafi forums, where readers were urged to take action against this Hezbollah operative. Within a few weeks, the U.S. embassy had a new Political Affairs Officer; the old one had been very quietly sent home.

Around the same time, Bahrain's most hawkish government newspaper, Al-Watan, ran a series of editorials detailing the U.S.'s alleged duplicitous dealings in Bahrain. Titled "Washington and the Sunnis of Bahrain," the articles chronicled a wide range of U.S. policies and institutions meant to undermine Sunni rule of Bahrain and of the Arab Gulf more generally. These include the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative, the National Democratic Institute, Human Rights Watch, and the (subsequently "reorganized") American Studies Center at the University of Bahrain.
In late June, this series gave way to a new and even less-subtly titled one: "Ayatollah Obama and Bahrain," which draws on the president's Muslim name to portray not only a country whose strategic interests have led it to abandon the Arab Gulf to Iran, but a U.S. president who harbors personal ideological sympathies for the Shia. Spanning nearly a dozen issues from June 26 to July 6, the articles ended only after an official protest by the U.S. embassy.

This is more than a mere media campaign. Bahrain's largest Shia opposition society, al-Wifaq, held a festival last weekend to reiterate its demand for an elected government to be submitted at this week's sessions of an ongoing National Dialogue conference. Loyalist Sunnis countered with a rally of their own, one aimed not at domestic policy but at ending U.S. "interference" in Bahraini affairs. A 15-foot-wide banner hung directly behind the speakers' podium bore the flags of "The Conspirators Against the Arab Gulf," -- the United States, al-Wifaq, Hezbollah, and Iran. Below it was the message: "Bahrain of the Al Khalifa: God Save Bahrain from the Traitors."
Rising Sunni cleric Sheikh ‘Abd al-Latif Al Mahmud told listeners that, among other things, it is the United States that has divided Bahrain into Sunnis and Shia, just as it had done in Iraq. "If the regime is too weak to stand up to the U.S., they need to declare that so people can have their say," he continued. "And if the regime needs a ... rally ... in front of the U.S. embassy, the people are ready." And then the crescendo: "And if the U.S. is threatening to withdraw its troops and the facilities it gives to Bahrain, then to hell with these troops and facilities. We are ready to live in famine to protect our dignity."  This is from a man who just months ago led pro-government rallies that attracted several hundred thousand Bahraini Sunnis.

This anti-U.S. mobilization by regime supporters in Bahrain is ominous, and of course ironic inasmuch as the Obama administration's lukewarm response to the February protests was premised in large part on the assumption that a Bahrain controlled by the Shia would be a Bahrain without the U.S. Fifth Fleet. But unfortunately the story only gets worse.
Underlying this popular sentiment is a still more troubling cause: a longstanding political dispute dividing members of Bahrain's royal family that the current crisis has brought to a head. Post-February, Bahrain has seen the empowerment of the less compromising factions of the ruling Khalifa family -- in particular its prime minister of 40 years -- at the expense of the more moderate king and crown prince. The former holds precariously to power; the latter, despite concerted U.S. efforts to revive his political standing highlighted by a June 7 meeting in Washington with President Obama, has been all but banished entirely following his failure to broker a deal to end protests in the early days of the crisis.

What is most remarkable about Mahmud's exhortation of fellow Sunnis is not his threat directed at the United States, but the threat directed at his own government. His suggestion that if "the regime is too weak to stand up to the U.S., they need to declare that so people can have their say" is no less than an explicit challenge to Bahrain's ruling faction: either do what is necessary to guarantee the country's interests, or get out of the way of those who will.
That King Hamad has yet to put a stop to either strand of rhetoric -- the embarrassing months-long harassment of the American embassy and president, or the overt criticism of his own political handling of Bahrain's crisis -- evidences a fear of losing what precious little support he still enjoys from among the country's significant Sunni Islamic constituency. Indeed, rather than move to silence these radical voices, King Hamad has perhaps out of necessity legitimized them. On June 21, he went so far as to pay a personal visit to the home of Mahmud where, according to Bahrain's state news agency, he "lauded [him] for his efforts to serve his nation and religion."

When protests in Bahrain erupted in February, the primary storyline featured a friendly Sunni government under siege by a pro-Iranian Shia majority, an inherently anti-Western faction feared to have been only further radicalized by the sweeping security crackdown necessary to quell the unrest.  For U.S. policymakers, having now endured months of scrutiny for their unwavering support of the Bahraini government while backing pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere, the irony of the recent anti-American turn by Sunni Islamists must appear little humorous, particularly as the movement has been enabled if not cultivated outright by pragmatic members of the very family whose rule the U.S. has worked so steadfastly to preserve.
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 15/07/2011
-Justin Gengler is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University in Michigan and former Fulbright Fellow to Bahrain. He blogs at Religion and Politics in Bahrain

Friday, July 15, 2011

Washington Is Looking At A Post-Assad Era

By Gabriel G Tabarani
"I have seen no evidence yet in terms of hard changes on ground that the Syrian government is willing to reform at anything like the speed demanded by the street protestors. If it doesn’t start moving with far greater alacrity, the street will wash them away."
That was the blunt verdict offered by U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford in a wide-ranging telephone interview with Foreign Policy on 14th of July; this begs the question of what Washington wants to do or can do now to affect the situation in Syria.
In fact, after a decade of policies aimed at marginalizing and ignoring the Syrian regime, U.S. policymakers have come to realize that they have very little leverage to pressure President Bashar Al-Assad.
As protests enter their fifth month, Syrian troops have systematically sought to crush the opposition movement with draconian tactics, leaving over two thousand dead. Entire towns have been subjected to full-blown siege by Assad's crack military units. Mass arrests and torture is in full swing.
But whereas Obama moved with relative dispatch to condemn Egypt's Pharaoh and Libya's leader, in the case of Assad - as with Iran in 2009 - the president has gone mostly silent, timid and reactive, while several other U.S. officials have strongly condemned the violence and urged President Assad to reform. However, the administration statement of disapproval have been coupled with some blather that Assad still has time to implement reforms, which the Syrian President quite predictably, has interpreted as a sign of profound U.S. un-seriousness and a green light to continue his cracking down a bit longer.
However, it seems that the situation has changed lately. The positions of the U.S. government toward Syria now show that Washington is changing and moving step by step and close to the province of President Bashar al-Assad and his demand to step down. The Americans want to do it in a way that does not make them "inherit" the burden and identify or determine the nature of post-Assad alone. On the other hand U.S. message to the Syrian opposition and the world is that there is a qualitative shift in Washington's position.
For the first time since the uprising began in mid-March, President Barack Obama says that Assad "has lost his legitimacy in the eyes of his people" and that US government was working at the international level "to ensure the continuation of the pressures that bring serious change in Syria." Obama approached more than ever to the blessing of demand: people want to overthrow the regime.
U.S. officials and observers say that the visit of the  U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford to the city of Hama, and the statements of the secretary of state Hillary Clinton and later President Obama that Assad has lost his legitimacy, must be considered in the context of the gradual escalation pressures on Syria, which included sanctions on President Assad, his brother Maher, the children of his uncle,  his Deputy and his Prime Minister, to the leaders of the intelligence services for their role in suppressing the uprising by force.
However, U.S. officials continue to consider the imposition of new sanctions which will include a wide spectrum, such as the assignment of al-Assad and some of his aides to the International Criminal Court on charges of committing crimes against humanity, and the imposition of sanctions on the oil and gas sectors to deprive and deny the Syrian regime from the use of the proceeds of this sector to finance the acts of repression.
The highlight of the statements of Clinton, according to official sources, is that it undermined the saying that Washington (as well as Turkey, the state of regional capacity to influence the most prominent Syrian developments), cannot dispense with the regime of al-Assad, for many reasons, including the central role of Syria in the peace process, and the fear of political unknown in the event of the fall of al-Assad, as well as the prospects of a civil and sectarian war.
These sources say that Washington's policy now is based on the conviction that the regime of al-Assad is irreparable, and Al-Assad missed all the opportunities that Washington made available to him to lead the process of peaceful transition to a democratic regime. Until the uprising, Washington's policy toward Syria was based on dialogue to revive peace negotiations with Israel, and use that as an incentive "to move Syria from Iran's orbit." But it seems that these "illusions evaporated" as reported by sources.
During her visit to Turkey on 15th of July Secretary of State Clinton asked Ankara to better coordination of the positions of the two countries toward Syria. Furthermore U.S. diplomacy will be more active to mobilize regional support (Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries) to tighten the screws on the Assad regime and to deprive it from any political or financial support. The American administration will continue to work multilaterally with Europeans and with Syria's neighbours, to coordinate targeted sanctions on people in the regime responsible for repression, and to push the Security Council to take on the issue. What Washington wants now is the establishment of an international coalition and regional players to help the opposition to prepare for the post-Assad era, before asking for his stepping down.

This Commentary was published in the same time on thesop.org in USA and in Arabs Today in UK on 15/07/2011

The ‘Arab spring’ Brings On Regional Transformation

By Nassif Hitti
Several factors are shaping the current political order in the Middle East after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and amidst what has been dubbed the “Arab spring.” After years in which Arabs had limited influence over their political agenda due to a power vacuum that greatly profited non-Arab regional powers, namely Turkey and Iran, we are mow witnessing a number of new emerging patterns.
First, a rebirth or a return of mass politics in the Arab world. Henceforth, foreign policies can no longer be shielded from domestic scrutiny and will have to respond to acceptance by domestic constituencies as in democracies. Accountability has become part of the equation in Arab societies. At the same time governments will find it much more difficult to make strong declaratory policies, mainly on the Palestinian issue, to seek legitimization at home, and then choose to act differently against the will of their populations.
Flexibility on the Palestinian question was often viewed in the past as examples “moderation” in many instances – for instance the policies that were adopted by Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak on matters that affected Washington’s interests and the Arab-Israeli conflict. More Arab domestic resistance to pressure from external powers will influence developments in certain key regional conflicts.
Second, we are seeing the return of Egypt to its traditional and active role in the Arab world and in Africa. Egyptian officials have traveled to Sudan and there have been Egyptian declarations pointing to the country’s reintegration into and re-engagement in Gulf politics, a role much needed allowing Egypt to act as a counterweight to Iran. However, at the same time Cairo must also seek to engage Iran and differentiate itself from Washington’s policies toward Teheran.
Egypt will also return in force to the politics of the Mashrek, or the eastern part of the Arab world. It will do so by repositioning itself with respect to Palestinian domestic politics and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict while also seeking to step up its relations with Turkey. On July 21, Cairo and Ankara will establish a strategic council, one reflecting their mutual interest in expanding bilateral cooperation while also recognizing the special status of the other in the region.
Third, we are entering a period in which the Muslim Brotherhood in several countries will begin to engage in politics, as is their right, notwithstanding the fear and worries among some when it comes to this role. This will represent a challenge to the Brotherhood in terms of its capacity to engage in politics normally. This development comes in the wake of American and European calls for a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood and will impose key changes in regional politics
Fourth, we will see a continuation of the struggle for Syria, to borrow from the title of the famous book by the British journalist Patrick Seale. While Seale in his book was focusing on the 1950s and the struggle between Egypt and Iraq over Syria, what we are seeing emerge today because of Syria’s geopolitical location, its social structure, its weight and role in regional affairs, is a growing rivalry over Syria between Turkey and Iran. Turkey is seeking to push for change in Syria its main door to the Levant and the Arab world, while Iran sees Syria as its key ally in the Arab world, and its bridge to the Mediterranean. The more the situation remains unresolved in Syria, the more there will be room for Turkish-Iranian friction to grow.
Fifth, Iran’s position and policies on Bahrain, as opposed to its position and policies on Syria, place Tehran on a collision course with the Muslim Brotherhood movements with which the Iranians were once close. However, their disagreement over Bahrain could expand for sectarian reasons. At the same time, this and the growing role of Brotherhood movements in individual Arab countries will make likelier competition between an Iranian-led Islamism and a Muslim Brotherhood-led Islamism competing for influence in the Arab world, both in their behavior and discourse. At the heart of their competition will be resistance to Israeli occupation and to Western encroachment
These five developments show a more complex Middle Eastern situation will be the likely outcome of a reinvigorated Arab order. The “Arab spring” is truly transforming the region.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 15/07/2011
-Nassif Hitti is a political analyst and a former professor of international relations

Thrill Of The Sovereign Moment

By Rami G. Khouri
Events move so quickly in the continuing citizen revolts across the Arab world that an observer could easily feel lost or confused while trying to understand what is really happening, or just trying to sort out the really new and historic from the routine agitation of discontented men and women.
Two developments in Syria and Egypt on Thursday and Friday last week help clarify what is going on, and what is really at stake. They are the return of tens of thousands of demonstrators to Tahrir Square, in Cairo, and in other Egyptian cities to show their discontent with the slow pace of government trials of those in the Mubarak regime who are accused of corruption and killing, and the visit to central Hama by the American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford.
These two very different events converge in focusing our attention on the ultimate issue at stake in the ongoing Arab citizen revolts, the prize, if you will: national sovereignty.
This has been the heart of the ongoing political confrontation between Arab citizens and their ruling authorities since the current revolt started in December in Tunisia, but in reality the contest over Arab sovereignty dates back many decades.
The question of sovereignty is about who holds ultimate power and who is in charge of national decision making in the independent countries that have defined the modern Arab world during much of the past century. Most national decisions in most Arab countries for most of the past century have been made by small groups of unelected men who dominate the political elite. The current revolts across the region demand, at their core, the reconfiguration of this power system, to give citizens a major role in national policy making.
In fact, this is not simply a struggle between the rulers and the ruled. Four and a half parties can be identified as contenders for the sovereign authority in the Arab world: the existing governments, the security agencies and the citizens are the three key ones, but many Arabs also feel that decisions in their countries are actually made by major Western powers, and even by Israel (my half-party in the four and a half list) which is often accused of driving decision making in some states where deference to Israeli wishes is institutionalised in assorted peace agreements.
The developments in Cairo and Hama this week are significant because they touch the heart of the matter of who ultimately shapes national policy in Arab states. Egyptians who return to the streets in their hundreds of thousands send the message that they see power as being vested in the people, and thus they expect government to pursue policies that are shaped by the citizens and respond to citizen demands and rights.
It is important to recognise the political and historical significance of this development at this delicate and probably decisive transitional moment that will shape for many years the nature of national political sovereignty in Egypt - and what happens in Egypt always influences developments in many other Arab countries.
The January-February revolution overthrew the Mubarak regime, but it has not been replaced yet by a credible new governance system, and the transitional supreme council of the armed forces still holds ultimate power. The demonstrators want to make sure that power remains anchored in the will of the citizenry, thus affirming in practice the consent of the governed.
Some Arabs are finally experiencing the same thrill that French and American citizens experienced in the late 18th Century, followed by many other democracies: the exercise of citizen sovereignty.
US Ambassador Ford’s visit to Hama touches on a different dimension of this same process, but includes the added complexity of how foreign powers relate to events within the Arab world. The State Department explained the Ford visit as a show of solidarity with the residents of Hama, saying he had, “spent the day expressing our deep support for the right of the Syrian people to assemble peacefully and to express themselves”.
The battle in Syria, as in the entire Arab world, is not only about peaceful assembly and self expression, of course; it is about defining the ultimate authority for the exercise of power, and thus about sovereignty itself.
The United States says it believes that the citizens of Syria should participate in this process, and the ambassador’s visit is a dramatic gesture of support for citizen rights.
I ignore for now whether this is an appropriate ambassadorial gesture, and whether anyone believes the United States is sincere or credible in its support for Arab citizen rights. What matters now is to grasp the historic nature of this seminal moment in modern Arab history, when national sovereignty itself is at stake and being reshaped, in Cairo, Hama and hundreds of other cities and town across the Arab world.
-This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 15/07/2011

Netanyahu Does Not Seek Peace

He has eroded Israeli democracy by promoting an oppressive and racist ideology, which he wants to translate into law
By Patrick Seale
Yigal Amir has good reason for quiet satisfaction. Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin knows that the three shots he fired on the night of November 4, 1995, slammed shut the door on peace and changed the course of Israeli history.
As he sits in his comfortably-appointed cell in Beersheba, awaiting the visits of Larisa Trembovler, the Russian wife he married in jail, Amir must savour his decisive contribution to the extremist causes for which he killed Israel’s Prime Minister — the rise and rise of the far-right, ultra-religious Zionism to which he adheres; the ever-expanding West Bank colonies and the unrelieved suffering of the Palestinians, robbed not only of their land but of freedom, justice and human rights.
The assassin may be locked up for life, but his policies live on. In the nearly two-and-a-half years he has been Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has walked unswervingly down the path trodden by Yigal Amir. It is as if he were determined to consolidate the young fanatic’s heritage.
Netanyahu has done everything he can to avoid peace with the Palestinians. He has maintained the occupation of the West Bank; he has continued to wage economic warfare against 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in Gaza; he has attempted to seize what remains of Occupied East Jerusalem; and he has refused to negotiate with any semblance of good faith.
His land-hunger apparently knows no bounds. He has given fanatical colonists free rein to expand their illegal colonies and subject their Palestinian neighbours to systematic violence — burning their crops, cutting down their olive trees, and desecrating their mosques.
It is no wonder that the Palestinians, despairing of Israel’s intentions, have decided to seek recognition of their state at the UN next September, an initiative to which Israel has reacted with something like panic. Recognition of Palestinian statehood by a large majority of UN members will not end the occupation, but it will further underline Israel’s isolation.
At home, Netanyahu has allowed far-right and ultra-religious elements to acquire ever-greater influence in the Israeli army, in society and in his own government and he has eroded Israeli democracy by promoting an oppressive and racist ideology, which he has done his best to translate into law. The latest example is the Boycott Prohibition Law, which inflicts severe punishments on anyone calling for a boycott of Israel — or of the produce of its illegal colonies.
The cost to Israel of these policies has been very steep. Its reputation and international standing have suffered hugely. It is seen in many Western diplomatic circles as a real nuisance. That a notorious and most undiplomatic bruiser, Avigdor Lieberman, has been put in charge of Israel’s foreign relations has not helped.
Meanwhile, Israel’s cruel behaviour towards the Palestinians has led to the emergence of a world-wide non-violent civil-resistance movement, known as the BDS campaign — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — aimed at making Israel come to its senses before catastrophe strikes.
Adverse impact
Although Israel seeks to justify its uncompromising stance by the absolute necessity to protect itself in a hostile environment, Netanyahu’s policies have actually dealt the sacred cow of security a lethal blow. Washington will no doubt continue to guarantee Israel’s ability to defeat any combination of its enemies — a guarantee actually written into American law. But on a deeper level, Netanyahu and his fellow extremists have themselves helped to bring about adverse changes in Israel’s strategic environment.
 •Israel’s key alliance with Turkey has been all but destroyed. The last nail in the coffin was last year’s brutal assault by Israeli commandos on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship attempting to break the Gaza siege. Nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed. Turkey is seeking an apology and compensation for the dead. Lieberman says never.
•For all its relentless demonisation of Iran, Israel has failed to drag the United States into war with Tehran. This marks a real setback for Israel’s formidable propaganda machine. Few if any observers believe Israel would dare strike Iran alone — and risk the inevitable, and probably devastating, consequences. So Iran’s nuclear programme proceeds unchecked.
•Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt — which by removing the largest state from the Arab military line-up guaranteed Israeli supremacy for three decades — is under threat. The Treaty will probably survive, in form at least, but the revolutionary changes now taking place in Egypt have emptied it of its content. There will be no more Egyptian collusion with Israel against the Palestinians or against Iran.
•Despite all its efforts, Israel has failed to dismantle the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis which has been a major obstacle to US-Israeli regional hegemony over the past several years. In spite of intense lobbying against Syria in the United States by American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Washington Institute, AIPAC’s sister organisation, and in spite of a similar campaign in Europe by pro-Israeli groups, Syria and its axis have both so far survived.
•President Bashar Al Assad’s rigid and autocratic Syrian leadership is facing unprecedented opposition. Its attempt to silence the protests with violence has been rightly condemned. But the situation does not seem to be regime-threatening -- or at least not yet. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, Syria’s Hezbollah ally remains politically and militarily strong. Taken together, however, these developments mean that Israel’s military supremacy over all its neighbours looks unsustainable in the longer term. It may eventually have to accept to live — horror of horrors — with a regional balance of power.
Of all the consequences of Netanyahu’s policies, the real damage has been to America. Netanyahu has humiliated Barack Obama, arrogantly dismissing his attempts at peace-making. The contest between them has given the world a demonstration of American impotence. Netanyahu has made nonsense of Obama’s overtures to the Arab and Muslim world. Shackled by lobbyists and by a venal Congress, the president has been unable to discipline his errant ally.
There are, of course, several reasons why the United States now faces great hostility in much of the Arab and Muslim world. The main reason is its own wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and the huge material and human damage these have caused. But its blind support for Israel has also been a major contributing factor.
Netanyahu’s adamant refusal to make peace with the Palestinians has been extremely costly for the United States. The cost will only grow as the occupation is prolonged and the prospect of peace fades away.
Meanwhile, a minor, often forgotten casualty of the conflict is Gilad Shalit, the captured Israel soldier rotting in a Gaza cellar for the past five years. True to form, Netanyahu has not wanted to reward the hated Hamas by releasing, in exchange for his freedom, a few hundred of the many thousands of Palestinians rotting in Israeli jails.
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 15/07/2011
-Patrick Seale is a British commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs

In Syria: A Strange Political Beast

By Amir Taheri
For the past three weeks, Syrian ambassadors in Western capitals have been peddling the message that the appointment of a "reform commission" is the first step towards ending the country's revolutionary crisis. The ambassadors claim that President Bashar al- Assad, having "heard the voice of the people", is looking for "a peaceful way" out of the impasse created by his regime.
Whether that is true or not, we cannot tell. No does it really matter. The point is that the present system in Syria cannot be reformed because it lacks any mechanism for reform. Even with the best will in the world, a system cannot deliver what it does not have.
Since the crisis started, several labels have been used to describe the Syrian regime. These include "one-party state", "military regime", and "tribal rule."
However, none of those labels reflect the true nature of this most unusual of regimes.
As far as the constitution is concerned, Syria is a one-party state with the Baath holding a monopoly on power.
However, in reality, the Baath is an empty shell.
In the 1970s, President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, destroyed the leftist core of the party that clung to its Socialist claim. In the 1980s, it was the turn of the party's rightist factions, keeping alive the party's Nationalist pretensions, to be wiped out. By the time Bashar was put on the saddle, there was no such thing as an Arab Socialist Baath Party.
A one-party state has mechanisms for reform.
Its Central Committee, Politburo, or Plenum could stage a palace coup against a leadership that, for whatever reason, is no longer capable of responding to new challenges.
This is what happened in post-Stalin Soviet Union when Khruschev toppled the old-guard led by Malenkov. China experienced a similar "change from within" in 1970 when the Deng Xiao-ping faction eased the Gang of Four out of power.
In a classical one-party state, the legitimacy of the state, indeed its power, emanates from the party. In Syria, it is the other way round. The little legitimacy and what little power the Baath has come from the state.
Paradoxically, the Syrian Baath Party may be included among the victims of the Syrian regime.
The label "military regime" does not suit the Syrian state under the Assads. In a military regime, the armed forces, or at least part of them acting in the name of the whole, control the state.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, Latin America was full of such regimes. South Korea had a similar experience under Park Chung-hi. A similar mechanism was at work in Indonesia under Suharto. With minor differences, this was the kind of regime that ruled Egypt under Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia under Zin el-Abedin Ben Ali. In every case, when the army or at least its leadership deemed change inevitable it moved in to provide it either with a coup or by refusing to suppress a popular uprising. With a string of coups, Syria had similar military regimes.
However, the present Syrian regime cannot be labeled "military" because it is clear that the armed forces are all but excluded from decision-making. A hint that the Syrian military might not be happy about the almost daily killing of demonstrators in the streets came last month when the regime transferred the task of suppressing the revolt to "special forces."
Some observers wonder whether Syria still has an army. An army is set up to protect a nation's territory and guard its borders against actual and/or potential aggressors. Since the early 1970s, what is labeled the Syrian army has not been asked to do so. Nor has it been organized and armed for that purpose. It is interesting that almost 80 per cent of Syria's arms purchases consist of weapons and materiel that could be used for internal oppression, not defence against foreign aggression.
A military force that is used for internal control and/or oppression is no loner an army. It is a praetorian guard or, in today's parlance, a political militia.
It might sound odd, but one could include the Syrian armed forces among the victims of the Assads. The Assads have presided over the destruction of the Syrian army.
But, what about the label of "tribal rule"?
In the case of Bashar al-Assad's set-up, that, too, is hard to justify.
Arab history is full of instances when a tribe dominated the state with a mixture of force, myth and bribery.
However, no Syrian tribe is represented in the Assad regime let alone dominating it. True, Alawites fill a disproportionately large segment of the Syrian military and civilian plum jobs. But Alwaites are a religious community, not a tribe. What the Assads have been doing for the past four decades has little to do with Alwaites as a religious sect.
Like the Baath Party and the Syrian army, the Alawite sect, too, could be regarded as one of the many victims of the Assad set up.
Because it has systematically destroyed all institutions and historic, social and cultural interfaces between power and people, the Assad regime has left the country without a mechanism for change. There are no tribal leaders, religious and/or intellectual elites, political party or even military personalities with enough moral authority to mediate between a wounded populace and a frightened power.
The Syrian regime is a strange political beast.
There are few instances in recent history when a country has been led into such a tragic impasse.
Iraq under Saddam Hussein was one example. Libya under Muammar Gaddafi is another. One might add North Korea under Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il.
In all such cases, reform is impossible even if some within the regime secretly desire it.
A Syrian ex-diplomat tells me that some within the regime are "longing for reform." This may well be true. However, the problem is that the Assad set up can no longer be reformed even if President Bashar himself wanted it. With every day that passes, it becomes clearer that the sanest way out for Syria is regime change.
-This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 15/07/2011
-Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI)