Friday, July 13, 2012

Will Syria’s Conflict Spill Over Into War-Weary Iraq?

As the violence in Syria spirals into an increasingly bloody maelstrom, Iraq's Foreign Minister voices his country's fears that the chaos is spilling across the border—and that Baghdad won't be able to contain it


Karim Kadim / AP
Iraqi Foreign Affairs Minister Hoshyar Zebari speaks at a press conference in Baghdad, Iraq on July 5, 2012

For months, Syrian opposition groups have smuggled weapons and fighters into the country across the borders of Turkey and Lebanon. Now another of Syria’s influential neighbors—Iraq—says its territory is being used as a base for al-Qaeda attacks against the regime of President Bashar Assad. Speaking to a handful of reporters in Paris on Thursday morning, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said both U.S. and Iraq believe that Al Qaeda operatives are sneaking into Syria across Iraq’s western border, despite the fact that the U.S. military during the Iraq War turned that remote desert area into the country’s best-secured frontier. “It is very, very difficult to control 680 kilometers of borders,” Zebari said, claiming that Al Qaeda’s infiltration into Syria was now “a fact.” For jihadis, he said, “Syria is a good environment, because of the lack of security, the lack of control of the government.”

The possibility that al-Qaeda might be involved in the Syrian revolt is hardly surprising, since al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri last February called on supporters to go join the fight. But Zebari’s statement about Al Qaeda’s infiltration from Iraq was his second such warning in just six days. That is a measure, perhaps, of Iraq’s mounting anxiety that the Syrian turmoil might increasingly be playing out within its own war-weary country, which is still digging out from the eight-year Iraq War; the last U.S. combat soldiers left just seven months ago. If Zebari’s assessment is correct, it could greatly increase the chances of Iraq being dragged into Syria’s 17-month conflict, with the upheaval spreading far further across the region. Zebari said Iraqi officials had told U.N. envoy Kofi Annan in Baghdad earlier this week that they feared “the spillover from the Syrian crisis.”

Until now, Iraq has claimed to be neutral in the crisis—a stark contrast to its eastern neighbor Iran, which is one of Assad’s most crucial allies, and an ever-closer ally of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Iraq’s southern neighbor Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is backing Syria’s revolution. Zebari said Iraq backed Annan’s plan for a transitional government in Syria, through dialogue between the opposition and the regime. Yet when TIME asked him whether Assad should leave, he said only, “It is up to the Syrian people to determine their future and to choose their leaders.”

But Iraq’s stated neutrality is eroding. Instead, the “spillover” from the Syrian crisis might already have begun, as the devastating violence next door deepens Iraq’s existing sectarian divisions, including those between Shiites and Sunnis. Earlier this week, al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate claimed on its website that it was responsible for several bombings last month, which targeted largely Shiite sites, and in which hundreds were killed. “There are those who support the [Syrian] regime and those who don’t,” says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “There is a real scenario here whereby the two conflicts [in Syria and Iraq] will feed off each other,” he says. “The Syrian conflict will expose Iraq’s divisions more and more, the longer this goes on.” That scenario, says Shaikh, is already at work in Lebanon, where ethnic conflicts have revived by the chaos within Syrian.

Far from Iraq’s government being neutral over Syria, Shaikh believes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is under pressure from his Shiite allies in Iran to “assist Assad where he can.” Zebari, a Kurd serving in a heavily Shiite government, denied that Iran was calling the shots. “They have influence, there is no doubt about that,” he says. “But when it comes to matters of Iraqi national interest, we act independently.”

In a sign that Assad’s regime might finally be cracking, the Syrian ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, announced on Wednesday that he was defecting—the first high-level diplomat to ditch Assad—telling al-Jazeera that he was “siding with the revolution.” Fares’s move came just a week after one of Assad’s inner circle, Republican Guard general Manaf Tlas, defected, apparently to Paris. Zebari said on Thursday that he had not expected Fares, with whom he had met multiple times, to abandon Assad. “We were surprised by his defection because he was a loyal member of the regime,” he said.

Iraq has good reason to be nervous, too. If Assad’s regime collapses, it is likely to set off a drastic reordering of the region’s power. Those kinds of shifting alliances are hardly new in the region—as was clear even on Thursday in Paris, where Zebari had flown in to inaugurate Iraq’s new embassy. The elegant eight-story house sits on the city’s most expensive street, Avenue Foche, and had originally been purchased by Saddam Hussein during the 1980s, as an offshore base for Iraq’s large military procurements. It was refurbished at a cost of more than 80 million euros, according to a video presentation during the embassy reception.

For Iraqis, the prospect of further political turmoil is especially unsettling, having only just emerged from years of war. Earlier this week, Stratfor, the U.S. private intelligence company, wrote that the Syrian conflict could result in a new generation of “battle-hardened and ideologically driven militants…. It is easy to imagine a revived militant flow into Iraq, and this time under much looser control.” At the Paris reception on Thursday, Khaman Zrar Asaad, the representative in France for Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, said she was “very, very worried” about “post-Assad Syria,” and that the 30,000 Kurdish Syrians who had fled to northern Iraq during the crisis might not feel safe to return once Assad is gone. “There are no guarantees about what comes after Assad, whether it will be secular or Islamic,” she says. As Iraq weights up its prospects under either of those outcomes, it might feel its safest bet is—as Iran believes—the status quo in Damascus.

-This commentary was first published in Time on 13/07/2012

The Turkish-Iranian Alliance That Wasn't

How The Two Countries Are Competing After The Arab Spring

There has been considerable hand-wringing in western capitals about Turkey and Iran building a closer relationship. But such worries exaggerate the common interests of Ankara and Tehran, especially in a post-Arab Spring Middle East. Beneath the amicable veneer, Turkish-Iranian relations are marked by mistrust and unease.

By F. Stephen Larrabee

Turkish PM Erdogan (left) with Iranian President Ahmadinejad last September. (Courtesy Reuters)

One of the most controversial elements of Turkish foreign policy has been the attempt by the Justice and Development party (AKP) to cultivate closer ties to Iran. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rapprochement with Tehran has raised concerns in Western capitals that Ankara is drifting away from the West. Differences over Iran's nuclear program have heightened these fears. In defiance of the United States and other key NATO members, such as the United Kingdom and France, Turkey has downplayed the danger posed by Iran's nuclear policy and attempt to elude constraints imposed by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The most acute example was in June 2010, when, bucking its Western allies, Ankara voted against a new UN sanctions regime that would target Iran's military.

Worries about Ankara's eastward drift, however, exaggerate the degree of common interests between Turkey and Iran. Beneath an amicable veneer, relations between the two countries are marked by mistrust and unease. Turkey and Iran have been strategic rivals since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Persian Safavid dynasty blunted the Ottoman Empire's eastward expansion. The Arab Spring has given this historical rivalry new life. Since the summer of 2011, conflicts between the two countries have become more visible on Syria, missile defense, secularism, Palestine, Iraq, and the Kurdish issue. As pressures for greater democracy in the Middle East have intensified, Turkey and Iran have clashed more openly and each side has sought to expand its influence at the expense of the other.

Syria marks the most serious source of discord. Ankara's vociferous criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as its support for the Syrian opposition, has angered Iranian leaders. Syria is Iran's closest ally. Assad's downfall would deal a major blow to Iran's regional ambitions and leave Tehran ever more isolated. Consequently, in recent months, the ayatollahs in Iran have stepped up military support for Assad and, at the same time, accused Erdogan of openly interfering in Syrian internal affairs. Tensions increased at the end of June, after Syria downed a Turkish fighter jet. In response, Erdogan bluntly warned Damascus to keep troops away from the Turkish-Syrian border and requested a special meeting with its NATO allies to discuss a common approach.

Beyond Syria, Ankara's agreement last September to host a NATO early-warning radar on Turkish soil has also infuriated the ayatollahs. Iranian commentators have claimed that the missile shield aims to protect Israel and target Iranian missiles. Last October, General Massoud Jazayeri, the deputy head of the Iranian armed forces, called on Turkey to "rethink its long-term strategic interests and draw lessons from the bitter historical experiences of other countries." Turkey, however, has shown no sign of backing down.

To add insult to Iranian injury, the same month as the announcement about the NATO radar, Erdogan made a tour of northern Africa. In Cairo, his remarks about the importance of secularism drew strong criticism from the Iranian leadership. Clerics in Tehran, including Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a former chief of the judiciary and a close adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, accused Turkey of promoting a westernized version of Islam to advance its regional ambitions. Shahroudi's criticism reflects Tehran's concern about the popularity of the Turkish model, with its emphasis on democracy and secularism. But it also speaks to fears in Iran that Turkey is winning the political-ideological struggle for the allegiance of an increasing number of Muslims across the Middle East.

But it is not only in Cairo that Erdogan has trampled on issues that Tehran considers its own. In championing Palestinian rights, Erdogan has, in effect, hijacked the Palestinian issue and stolen Iran's thunder. His support and his strident criticism of the Israeli offensive in Gaza increased his popularity on the Arab street. Today, he is seen by many Arabs as the only Muslim leader willing to stand up to Israel and forcefully defend Muslim interests. This has left the Iranian leadership fuming on the sidelines, struggling to get back in the game but with no viable plan for doing so.

Since the end of 2011, Iraq has also emerged as an important battleground between Turkey and Iran. The withdrawal of U.S. combat forces has left a power vacuum there that Iran has sought to exploit. Turkey has an interest in a stable, economically prosperous, and independent Iraq. It does not want to see the country turned into an Iranian satellite or become a springboard for the expansion of radical Islamist ideology.

However, over the last year, Erdogan's relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has deteriorated. Maliki is widely viewed by Ankara as Tehran's man in Baghdad. He has close ties to the Iranian leadership, built up during his years of exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein's rule. Since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, he has steadily sought to consolidate his political power. His attempt to strengthen ties with the radical militant group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which the U.S. military claims is financed and trained by Iran's elite Quds Force, has alarmed Turkish officials who fear that these ties could shift the balance of political power in Baghdad in Iran's favor.

The tension between Maliki and Erdogan intensified last January, after Maliki issued a warrant for the arrest of Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni who was charged with abetting terrorism. Hashimi subsequently fled to northern Iraq, where he has been under the protection of the Kurdish regional government, which has refused Baghdad's request for his extradition. Turkish officials saw Maliki's gambit as an effort to undercut the Sunnis and Kurds and increase Shia political dominance. They fear that Maliki's attempt to curtail Sunni and Kurdish influence could increase the risk of a return to sectarian violence and lead to the breakup of Iraq, with the Kurds in the north gaining full independence.

Moreover, as a result of the increased unrest in Syria, the Kurdish issue is rapidly acquiring an important new dimension. It is no longer a disparate issue in separate countries where Kurdish communities reside. Contact between the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey is increasing in an attempt to develop a coordinated approach. At the same time, the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has been fighting Turkey for Kurdish independence since 1984) has stepped up its attacks from its havens in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq. Turkish officials worry that Iran and Syria could actively support the PKK, as they did in the l980s and early 1990s, in order to try to weaken Ankara.

Economic problems between Turkey and Iran have risen as well. In the last decade, trade and financial ties have expanded significantly, especially in the energy field. Iran is the second-largest supplier of natural gas to Turkey, behind Russia. It also provides 30 percent of Turkey's crude oil imports. But on several occasions, Iran abruptly cut off gas to Turkey for several weeks. Those stoppages, largely due to Iran's antiquated distribution infrastructure, have caused considerable economic hardship for Turkey's population and tarnished Iran's reputation as a reliable partner. The closed nature of Iran's economy has created significant difficulties as well. Turkish exporters face high tariffs on consumer goods, frequent changes in tariff rates, delays in import permits, overpriced fuel during transport, and prolonged delays at customs gates. These obstacles have caused many exporters to curtail business with Iran and seek more hospitable markets for their goods.

Finally, the growing instability in the Middle East unleashed by the Arab Spring has prompted Ankara to align its policy more closely with Washington. In addition to the decision to deploy the NATO early-warning radar, in April Erdogan, in tandem with U.S. sanctions, agreed to reduce oil purchases from Tehran by 20 percent. These moves do not, however, mark a fundamental shift in Turkish policy toward Iran. As in the past, Ankara is likely to remain reluctant to join an openly anti-Iranian coalition. However, any honeymoon between Turkey and Iran is clearly over. In the coming decade, the struggle for regional influence between the two powers is likely to grow and increasingly reshape the politics of the Middle East.

-This article was first published in Foreign Affairs on 11/07/2012

Building On Libya’s Electoral Success

By Sean Kane

Libya's elections did not need to be perfect, but the country plainly needs a popularly elected government to tackle the difficult and unpopular decisions involved in building the new state. The polls thus could have been judged a success merely by taking place without major disruption, a test they aced with flying colors following reports of 65 percent turnout and over 98 percent of polling centers opening without incident. Around the country, the long-awaited vote was justifiably treated as cause for national celebration.

But the seeds for political contention at the next stage may have been sown in the run-up to the polls. Less than 48 hours prior to elections, the National Transitional Council (NTC) stripped the to be elected national congress of its core mandate: supervising the drafting of Libya's new constitution. Rather than being appointed by the new congress, the constitutional commission actually drafting the charter will theoretically now be directly elected in a second set of polls that give all parts of the country equal representation. This legal bombshell risks acrimony later this year between different parts of the country as well as rejection by the newly ascendant political parties, who on paper find themselves in charge of a congress suddenly relegated to bystander status on constitutional matters.

A Libyan proverb has it that "laws are made in Tripoli, observed in Misrata and die in Benghazi." It captures Tripoli's status as the seat of government, the highly organized nature of the commercial port city of Misrata, and the hotbed of activism that is Benghazi. True to form, as a long-running center of opposition to Qaddafi's rule, Benghazi was the birthplace of the Libyan revolution. It should not then be a surprise that the city sees itself as the watchdog of the revolution and the new authorities in Tripoli.

Normally the vigilance of Benghazi is a healthy thing, helping the country avoid a return to the excessive concentration of power and wealth in Tripoli that marked the Qaddafi regime. But somewhere in the last few months Benghazi took a wrong turn. Following the revolution it was the most stable and institutionally advanced city in Libya, but now residents describe it as increasingly troubled. The city has become a locus of aggressive street actions by federalism supporters, seemingly politically motivated assassinations, and had its international presence targeted by small groups of Islamist militants. Underlying all of this is a deep current of resentment of the more wealthy and populous Tripoli.

Libya has of course been no stranger to unrest since the triumph of its revolution in October, 2011. But what is happening in Benghazi is qualitatively different. Other clashes around the country have generally been micro-conflicts, locally contained and concerned with parochial issues rather than larger ideology or proposed alternatives to the new order.

This is not the case among backers of an Islamic emirate or with the harder core of federalism supporters in eastern Libya. The latter include the self-declared Barqa Council (Barqa is the Arabic name for Libya's eastern region), who periodically threaten separation from the rest of the country. Both groups have been willing to go outside of the political process to pursue their respective visions. And while high electoral turnout in the East was an emphatic demonstration that neither faction has widespread support, both have shown an ability to exploit broader regional feelings of maltreatment to act as violent spoilers.

Fringe Islamic militants are thought to be behind a spate of recent bombings of diplomatic and humanitarian offices in Benghazi and graffiti has sprung up in the conservative eastern city of Derna warning that "Elections = bombings." Meanwhile, suspected sympathizers of the Barqa Council unsuccessfully attempted to enforce its call for an electoral boycott by ransacking and setting fire to election centers in two eastern cities and shooting down a Libyan air force helicopter that was carrying electoral supplies to Benghazi.

The task that confronts the newly elected government is to neuter these spoilers by taking advantage of the opportunity provided by eastern Libyans' literal vote of confidence in the political process. This can best be achieved by separating out and transparently addressing legitimate anxieties in eastern Libya about marginalization from more extreme demands. Benghazi cannot realistically expect to regain the status it held as Libya's revolutionary capital and a center of worldwide attention last year, but it and other parts of the country's periphery should be more integrated into national political decision-making, government administration, and economic planning.

A proactive approach is now required to break the pattern set by the NTC of only making significant concessions to Eastern opinion following provocative actions by the Barqa Council in particular. (These include a unilateral declaration of an autonomous Eastern region in March and armed attempts to blockade election materials from reaching the East over the last month). Continuing a reactive policy, as seen in the NTC's dramatic last minute move reopening the basic tenets of the country's constitutional roadmap would seem to reward and invite further pressure tactics and militancy.

The key political issue that the Barqa Council has been able to agitate around is the representation of eastern Libya in the 200-person national congress. Arguing that a congress supervising the writing of a constitution is different from an ordinary parliament, the East has held that each of Libya's three geographic regions should have equal representation in the body despite the western region of Tripolitania making up two-thirds of the country's population. The issue has become the shorthand by which the Eastern region as a whole -- not just Barqa supporters --evaluates its position in the new Libyan political constellation.

Widespread eastern dissatisfaction with the 60 seats for their region ultimately received in the national congress (especially compared to 100 for Tripoli) was used by the Barqa Council as a jumping off point for its calls for eastern Libya to go its own way. The irony is that the distribution of the seats, tortuously negotiated within the NTC based on Libya's contested 2006 population census, appear in hindsight to be quite reasonable. Take a look at the seats for each region as compared to the number of people who actually turned up to register to vote this May:

Benghazi and eastern Libya, in fact, received a slight bump in representation over its share of registered voters. More significantly, western Libya took a substantial haircut as compared to its presumed population weight (mainly to the benefit of the perennially overlooked south of Libya). This compromise seat allocation recognizes Tripoli's preponderance in population but also acknowledges Benghazi's fear that a super-majority for western Libya in the national congress could have enabled it to steamroll the other regions in the writing of the constitution.

So what exactly is the problem? How has this seat allocation fed such unrest in and around Benghazi? Part of the answer is that symbolism matters. The seat allocation was negotiated behind closed doors in luxury Tripoli hotels, directly playing into the insecurities of easterners living over a thousand kilometers away. More substantively, it is possible that the debate became too caught up in a zero-sum tug of war over seat numbers. Recall that the underlying eastern concern is Tripoli being left unchecked to constitutionally recreate Qaddafi's centralism. One way to address this is to equally distribute seats in the national congress.

But it is not the only way. There are a plethora of complementary safeguards that could have been put in place to avoid a purported tyranny of a western Libya majority. These include requiring two-thirds majorities on key constitutional decisions by the national congress and inclusive agreement on a statement of principles that the constitutional commission must observe in preparing the text.

The NTC had access to a wealth of international expert advice on the organization of elections, including access to best practice on seat allocation methods. But the international community is not as well mobilized to provide technical advice on procedural options for writing constitutions. Libyans see the elections and constitution stage as flowing together, but were only really getting detailed technical advice on the former. This might partially explain why the NTC was able to develop a sound technical compromise on allocating electoral seats while its efforts to recast the constitutional process were more maladroit and set up a post election political stand-off.

Last week's surprise from the NTC serves as a fitting coda to its somewhat chaotic post-revolutionary turn in office. To be fair, the council justified the decision as necessary to preserve the peace on election day in Benghazi. Who is to say they were wrong? The decision was undoubtedly well received in the East, even if it is impractical to quickly organize a second round of elections for a constitutional commission. But as the euphoria of voting fades, any effort to walk back the order will likely be seen in the East as taking something away something them. This could create fertile ground for further agitation by federalists or even Islamic militants.

Yet an attempt to repeal is almost certain. Senior officials in Mahmoud Jibril's National Forces Alliance, the early leader in election returns, and the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Building Party previously told me that they were not running to merely head a coalition government scheduled to be dissolved in a matter of months. Rather the prize was to shape the constitution. Along with political actors from western Libya, they were explicit that once the national congress is seated they will push to reverse any weakening of the body's supervisory role over the constitutional process.

What happens next, as it has been all along, will be a decidedly Libyan matter. As a government official explained to me after the NTC first attempted to reshuffle the constitutional deck back in March: "don't take this as the final word, all the council has done is signal that the roadmap is now up for negotiation." With the NTC effectively hitting the reset button on the entire constitutional process on its way out the door, this is now truer than ever.

Fortunately, the rousing success of the elections provides an opportunity to reimagine the constitutional framework and get it right. The winning political parties received electoral endorsement across the country, and are well situated to intermediate regional expectations. Likewise, the Barqa Council has been chastened by the strong public will to vote displayed in the East. Jibril's extension of an invitation to dialogue with federalists and other easterners, whom he described as "patriots" that "care about Libya," is a positive early sign. The international community should support such dialogue by producing a comprehensive menu of technical options so Libyans can consider the range of ways in which the national congress and constitutional commission can relate to each other and take decisions that factor in Libya's political geography.

Addressing diffuse feelings of resentment in the East and getting the region fully vested in rule-bound democratic politics is certainly a wider challenge than just technical arrangements for drafting the constitution. More far-reaching inter-regional dialogue will be required. Also necessary is a strong interim government willing to provide symbolic reassurances such as perhaps placing ministries in the East or launching high-profile infrastructure projects to counter strongly held regional feelings of marginalization. But getting an accepted constitutional drafting configuration in place is the first item on the national congress' docket, and if this doesn't happen, the prospects for broader rapprochement will surely suffer.

-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy on 12/07/2012
-Sean Kane is a Truman Security Fellow. From November 2011 to May 2012 he lived in Benghazi and worked with Libyans on promoting conflict resolution

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The End Game In Syria

By Steven Heydemann

Friends of Syrian People conference in Paris

Even as the Assad regime pursues Syria's descent into a sectarian wasteland, its cruelty cannot obscure a discernible shift in the violent stalemate between the regime and the revolution that has endured for the past year. In recent months, the erosion of the Assad regime has acquired new momentum. The regime may have retaken the ruins of Douma, yet its military is unraveling both from below and, increasingly, from above. The defection of Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, once a close friend of President Bashar al-Assad, has exposed deepening rifts among the regime's inner circles. Tlass's defection will not be the last.

The armed opposition, on the other hand, is becoming better coordinated and more effective. The Turkish military is massing on the Syrian border. Turkey's government gives an increasingly free reign to opposition fighters who use its territory as a de facto safe haven. Sanctions have driven Syria's economy into a freefall. The business communities of Damascus and Aleppo have largely "flipped," though without the public disavowals of the Assads that the West would prefer.

These trends all point to one conclusion: the end of the Assad regime is drawing nearer. The relevant question is no longer whether the regime will fall, but when and, even more importantly, how. If the exact timing of its demise cannot be predicted, there are nonetheless growing indications that governments opposed to the Assad regime, and even those still supporting it, are increasingly concerned with how to manage the end game in Syria and protect their interests in a post-Assad era.

This new emphasis was evident in the June 30 Geneva meetings between the United States, Russia, and Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan, in the Cairo meeting of the Syrian opposition on July 2 and 3 under the auspices of the Arab League, and in the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris on July 6. It has manifested through three significant shifts. One of the three is playing out in full public view, and underscores why both the United States and Russians continue to find value in Annan's work despite his failure to deliver meaningful results. The other two are less visible but not less important. They shed useful light on how the United States is working to manage the end game in Syria through an opposition that it continues to view as hopelessly fragmented, but now acknowledges, grudgingly, that it must work with nonetheless.

First, there has been a growing stress in U.S. and Russian diplomacy on efforts to ensure that a transition happens through negotiations rather than regime collapse. Negotiations have been a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Syria since the uprising began. They have acquired new significance, however, in part because they hold out hope of mitigating the chaos and violence that is expected to follow Assad's demise, but also because they offer virtually the only way in which the United States might be able to influence how a transition unfolds -- a process that is now seen as far more imminent than it was only a few months ago -- and, potentially, establish a counterweight to regional actors who have invested far more heavily than Washington in cultivating Syrian clients and have their own ideas about where a post-Assad transition should lead. Recent shifts in Russian policy in favor of negotiations reflect a similar logic. Without negotiations in which regime figures close to Russia play an active role, Moscow stands little hope of preserving its position in a post-Assad Syria.
In her comments at the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reinforced this new emphasis on negotiations, praising the agreement reached in the meeting Annan brokered in Geneva on June 30. For the first time, she noted, Russia accepted that a political transition must occur, and for the first time, the agreement places the Syrian opposition on an equal footing with the Syrian government -- without, however, designating any particular group within the opposition as "the" legitimate counterpart of the regime in negotiations.

Later, Russian President Vladimir Putin added his voice to the negotiations chorus. On July 9 he stressed the need for Assad to enter negotiations, saying "We must do as much as possible to force the conflicting sides to reach a peaceful political solution to all contentious questions." To buttress his point, Russia also announced that it was suspending new arms contracts with Syria "until the situation calms down." Bashar seems to have gotten the message. On the same day that Putin spoke, Kofi Annan reported that he had secured Assad's agreement to a negotiating framework -- though did not release any further details. Even as it continues providing Assad with arms and supplies under existing contracts, the Kremlin no longer seems willing to bet the house on Assad's survival. After 16 months, and even as the regime continues its assault on Syrian civilians, the prospects for some form of negotiations are gaining serious momentum.

Second, the Arab League, the United States, and core Friends of Syria governments are working to equip the Syrian opposition to engage in negotiations, elevating the priority they attach to transition planning among the opposition. The core purpose of the Cairo conference, which it (miraculously) achieved, was to secure agreement on a bare bones transition strategy that all factions of the opposition could endorse. This focus carried over into the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris. Representatives of several opposition groups addressed transition planning, and Abdel Baset Sayda, president of the Syrian National Council (SNC), publicly endorsed "The Day After" plan, a document developed by Syrian opposition activists who worked together in Berlin over a period of six months to craft a detailed transition strategy (Full disclosure: USIP and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs facilitated the series of Berlin meetings that generated The Day After document).

Third, the Arab League, the United States, and other key actors have begun to downplay their demand for opposition unity, acknowledging, however reluctantly, that fragmentation can no longer be an obstacle to engagement. Instead, unity has been overtaken as a priority by an interest in securing opposition consensus on how to manage the challenges of regime transition. In Cairo, the Arab League unilaterally appointed a Preparatory Committee, essentially compelling opposition figures who would not normally sit in the same room to spend almost two weeks working together to develop the transition documents that were later approved by the full conference. The Friends meeting in Paris was also notable for the absence of discussions about opposition unity. In place of unity talk, member states showed more interest in strengthening the position of individuals seen as potential leaders in future negotiations, whatever faction of the opposition they might represent.

Competition to define a post-Assad transition will only accelerate as the fall of the regime grows nearer. Whether these efforts will pay off for the United States or for Russia, however, is uncertain. The scale of Russian support for the regime poses severe obstacles to Moscow's future influence in a post-Assad Damascus, while the limits of U.S. support for the opposition will likely constrain Washington's future influence, as well. Moreover, there are regional players in the game and they enjoy significant advantages. For the United States to maximize its leverage it would need to overcome its reluctance to support the armed opposition, yet this remains a large step further than Washington is willing to go. Not least, there are revolutionary forces on the ground, that have no intention of permitting Syria's future to be dictated by outsiders, who, together with the external opposition, have little confidence in Kofi Annan and are appropriately cynical about efforts to force them into negotiations with elements of the Assad regime. In this critical period, the Syrian opposition remains a diffuse and elusive target in Washington's efforts to manage the end game in Syria.

-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy on 11/07/2012
-Steven Heydemann is a senior advisor at the US Institute of Peace's Middle East Initiatives

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Champagne Flows While Syria Burns

A country at war with itself. Bombs and civilian massacres. Yet, in Damascus, the music plays on.

By Janine di Giovanni
 While Syria Burns
At a Damascus wedding, as elsewhere in the capital, citizens try to tune out the violence. (Kate Brooks for Newsweek)

By the pool, glistening, oiled, and muscular bodies gyrated to a juiced-up version of Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Atop huge speakers, a Russian dancer swayed suggestively in front of the young, beautiful Syrian set drinking imported Lebanese beer with salt and lemon. Behind them, columns of smoke were rising—signs of car bombs and explosions, of an encroaching war.

One woman in a tight swimsuit playfully squirted a water gun, joking that she belonged to the pro-government militia, the Shabiha, meaning ghosts or thugs, which is believed to be responsible for a recent massacre of more than 100 people, many of them women and children. “The opposition wants to kill us—they even announced it on Facebook,” the woman said, and blithely went back to spraying herself with water.

The pool party at the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus was just getting started.

For 15 months now, Syria has been engaged in increasingly bloody fighting, pitting antigovernment rebels against the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad, costing the lives of at least 10,000 people, according to the United Nations. What began as a protest against his autocratic rule has developed into a violent conflict with sectarian overtones that now threatens to spill into neighboring countries.

For journalists, Syria has been difficult and dangerous to cover, and many dispatches have focused on the rebels’ fight to overthrow the dictator in cities and villages such as Homs and Houla. Life in the capital among the pro-Assad elite is less known to the outside world. What emerges from a recent trip to Damascus, and conversations with dozens of people there who say they still support the government, is a deep sense of dread, kept at bay by distraction and, perhaps, delusion. Damascus has long been a stronghold of Assad supporters who count many Alawites and Christians but also (mostly secular) Sunnis. To them, Assad is a guarantor of stability. And many express fear that if the rebels win, they will turn Syria into a more conservative religious country, along the lines of Saudi Arabia or Yemen. But with government forces unable to quell the uprising, the scariest scenario now also seems the most likely: continued fighting widening into a civil war.

For days, I listened to the thumping music and watched the beauties in their fluorescent Victoria’s Secret bikinis partying at the pool at the Dama Rose Hotel, where I was staying. (More than once, I thought of Nero fiddling as Rome burned.) Syria, I realized, has become a schizophrenic place; a place where people’s realities no longer connect.

On one hand, there are the (in Damascus, largely invisible) activists who are trying to bring down Assad. By the time I arrived, shelling, gunfire, and a spate of “sticky bombs”—handmade bombs taped to the bottom of a car at the height of rush hour—had spawned fear in the capital and solidified anger against the opposition, which the government claims is supported by “foreign interventionists.”

There were daily clashes in suburbs such as Douma and Barzeh, and, according to human-rights groups, there are currently as many as 35,000 people being held in Syrian detention.

On the other hand, there is a class of Assad supporters who go about their daily business—pool parties included—while the skyline burns. As if the war is happening in some other place, people drink champagne in the Damascus neighborhood of Mezzah and partake in glamorous fashion photo shoots and go shopping for Versace and Missoni at the luxurious boutiques that line the Shukri al Quatli Street. Despite armed checkpoints and the threat of kidnapping, some still go out at night, attending the opera, meeting friends for dinner, and hosting elaborate wedding parties at the upscale restaurant Le Jardin.

“I have more work than ever,” says Dima, a television star who was being elaborately made up to be photographed by Gala Magazine. “I would love to work in Lebanon or the United States, of course, but at the moment, there is a lot of shooting here.” She laughs and lets the makeup artist—the best in Syria, she points out—apply another layer of purple eye shadow and tease her long, dark hair into a high chignon.

The jeunesse dorée of Damascus seem not to see that they are at war. Despite reports of civilian massacres by government fighters, the uprising has, thus far, not tainted their lives, and they don’t intend to let it. “Look, I still get my hair done when I go to a big party, which is about twice a week,” says a young woman I met. “I still get a manicure every week. I am still alive! Either you choose to be afraid all the time or you choose to live.”

Four years ago, Damascus was chosen as the Arab world’s Cultural Capital by UNESCO, and some people seem determined to hold on to that sobriquet, despite the many dead. Indeed, at the Damascus Opera House, the orchestra’s musicians believe it is their noble duty to keep playing. “People say that we should not make music while people are dying; I say it is imperative to give people hope,” says one violinist. “Even to have the house one quarter full in these times is a great achievement. People have to drive at night through dangerous checkpoints to get here, and most people just want to stay home and be safe.” A female musician agrees. “I don’t want to give the impression that we are like the Titanic—the orchestra plays on while the ship sinks,” she says. Her fate in Damascus has more in common with the Russian musicians who kept playing during the German siege of Leningrad, she says. “Music and art, in times like these, fuel the soul.”

One night I attend a classical concert at the elegant boutique hotel, Art House, in Mezzah, an area dominated by chic boutiques, gilded restaurants, and diplomatic villas. Built on the site of an old mill, the hotel has water streaming over glass panels on parts of the floor and would not be out of place in the Hamptons or Beverly Hills—except that, before the program begins, everyone rises to pay homage to the “war dead” with a minute of silence. The 34-year-old violinist and director general of the opera, Maria Arnaout, and a pianist then perform pieces by Bach, Gluck, and Beethoven for the select audience of bohemian-looking men in sandals and chinos and fashionable women in evening dresses and spiky shoes by Christian Louboutin, the French designer who keeps a summer residence in Syria and whose shoes are favored by the first lady, Asma al-Assad. Arnaout, in a strapless red silk dress and high heels, gets a standing ovation.

Afterward, as everyone files out to the hotel’s open-air restaurant, sipping champagne, I overhear hushed conversations about what has happened that day in Damascus; of bombs and fighting. This part of the city, a wealthy neighborhood of mixed ethnic and political persuasion, has been a particular place of tension. Lately, residents have noticed the sound of explosions, machine-gun fire, and helicopters in the sky.

A few days later, I’m standing with an architect on the balcony of her elegant, Italianate villa, watching people line up for gasoline down below. (International sanctions have created severe economic problems—even for the wealthy.) As we hear the ominous choppy noise of helicopters overhead, she comments, “This is the music we live by. And I fear this will be our symphony for the next few years.”

Bashar Hafez al-Assad, 46, is something of an enigma. Rarely seen in public, his long face is ubiquitous: portraits of the president hang on most government walls, and giant posters of Assad are displayed from downtown buildings.

Shy as a child, he was said to have had no intention of following his father, Hafez, into politics. Instead, he studied medicine in Damascus and London, specializing in ophthalmology. But when Bassel, the heir apparent, was killed in a car crash in 1994, Bashar was called home. In 2000, he inherited the presidency from his father and married Asma al-Akhras, a British-Syrian beauty who had been brought up in the U.K. To many it appeared that Asma modeled herself on Princess Diana and tried to win the hearts of the people through charity work and understated glamour. “She was really loved until this started,” one activist told me. “People admired her greatly.” Rumor in Damascus has it that, at one point during the early days of the uprising, Asma tried to flee the country with her children but was prevented by Assad’s brother, Maher, who commands the Republican Guard.

But gauging the truth is hard. As in neighboring Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or in Libya during the days of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, even ardent supporters of Assad worry about speaking their minds about the dictator for fear of retaliation and torture, and most of the people I meet only speak on the condition that their names not be printed.

The secret police, the Mukhabarat, hover in hotels, restaurants, and cafés. They bug telephones and hack into people’s emails, trying to weed out those who may not sympathize with the regime, clouding everything with suspicion.

One steaming Saturday morning, I drive to Barzeh, one of the hotspots around Damascus, where protests, arrests, and shootings are frequent. It’s also the home of a large military hospital, and on this morning I watch as men silently load the mangled bodies of 50 government soldiers—disfigured and broken by car bombs, explosives, bullets, and shrapnel—into simple wooden coffins. They drape the coffins with Syrian flags and march in procession into a courtyard to the sound of a military marching band. Here, the soldiers’ families and members of the regiment stand in attendance, most of them weeping. It’s an acute reminder of how hard Assad’s forces are getting hit by the opposition, whose guerrilla tactics are proving fatally successful. The hospital director, who refuses to give his name, says around 100 soldiers are killed every week.

On the seventh floor of the hospital, Maj. Firas Jabr lies in a hospital bed, his anxious fiancée standing attentively nearby. His right leg and right arm have been blown off.

At the end of May, the 30-year-old Alawite soldier fought the rebels during a battle in Homs; he says he was ambushed by “foreign fighters,” including men from Lebanon and Yemen. “After I lost my leg and hand, I knew I was wounded, but I kept on shooting until [government forces] came to evacuate me,” says Jabr.

His favorite story, he says, is the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. “This is Camelot,” he says. “Assad is King Arthur, and I am a knight.” Despite the fact that much of his body is gone, Jabr has a huge smile on his face. Like nearly all the Assad supporters I meet, Jabr says he believes in the Syrian dictator, and he will continue to fight, he says, once he gets his prosthetics. “I have two loves,” he tells me, trying to lift himself up: “My fiancée and Syria.”

It’s a common belief among the elite that the bombs and chaos spreading throughout the country are caused by a “third element”: an influx of foreign fighters with radical Salafist beliefs who want to turn Syria into an oppressive and conservative state. After one car bombing during my stay in Damascus, the paranoia of the regime supporters was suddenly on full view. “Our only friend is Russia!” one well-dressed man shouted, his face contorted with rage, at the site of the bombing that left the smoking skeleton of a car but injured no one. “These are foreigners that are exploding our country! Syria is for Syrians!”

Maria Saadeh, a political novice who was recently elected to Parliament, is among those who doesn’t believe Assad or his cronies are behind any atrocities, despite mounting evidence of regime forces massacring civilians in Houla and destroying the Baba Amr district in Homs. “Do you think our president could put down his own people?” she asks incredulously. “This is the work of foreign fighters. They want to change our culture.”

Educated in France and Syria as a restoration architect, Saadeh lives in Star Square in the old French section of Damascus, in an elegant 1920s building that she helped renovate. Sitting on the roof terrace of her chic apartment—a Filipina maid serving tea and her two children, Perla and Roland, peeking their heads through the windows—she looks like a model in a lifestyle magazine: tall and blonde and successful, a yuppie member of the elite. When I ask her about regime change, she simply says, “Now is not the time.”

One night, over dinner with an affluent family in its villa in Mezzah, which has several terraces and elaborate shrubbery in the garden, the 17-year-old son lays out his firmly pro-Assad views. “Look at what happened in Tunisia, look at what happened in Libya, look at the results of Egypt,” he says. Ahmed, who wears a pink Lacoste shirt and faded jeans and trainers, is about to do his military service; after that, he plans to study political science at a university in the United States. Like his mother, grandmother, aunt, and cousin, he is educated, multilingual, and the holder of two passports. He doesn’t believe that everything Assad does is right, but he is 100 percent behind the government because he believes, like Saadeh, that the time isn’t right for change. And, he says, in any case, change shouldn’t be imposed by other states, some which may not be democratic themselves. “Why should we take democracy lessons from Saudi Arabia, who arms the opposition?” he says, helping himself to hummus. “They don’t even let women drive!”

Outside on the streets of Damascus, there are gas lines and rising inflation, with the price of some imported goods rising almost 60 percent.

The sprawling bazaar of the historic Old City, once teeming with tourists, now rarely gets visits from travelers. The beautiful, old Talisman Hotel is without guests, empty and quiet except for birdcalls and the sound of running water in the fountain.

Still, a certain class of Damascenes lives life untouched by the violence, in beautiful, spacious homes, hosting grand dinner parties underneath glistening crystal chandeliers, seeing friends during the balmy summer evenings on outdoor terraces fragrant with jasmine—too stubborn or too afraid to see their world has irrevocably changed.

“I’m still jogging and swimming every day,” says Wael, a wealthy businessman who’s eager to argue that this isn’t a civil war or a sectarian conflict. He is a Shia but members of his family are Sunni, and his list of friends includes Christians, Armenians, and Alawites, he says. “This is not a war. Our regime is strong. Seventy percent fully support Assad.” His wife, Nadia, who wears a headscarf and goes to the opera as often as she can, says the rebels threaten people—telling them to close their shops and join the protests. If they refuse, “they burn them down,” she says. “This is why I am supporting the government.”

When I ask them if they’re afraid, they deny it. “Not at all,” says Wael. “Last week we had a party of 20 people on our balcony. We were all relaxing and smoking the nargila,” the water pipe. “We heard gun shots in the background—but it seemed a long way off.”

-This report was published first in The Newsweek Magazine on 09/07/2012

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How Not To Host A Summit

The 2000 peace talks at Camp David offer three key lessons on how not to solve the world's most intractable conflict.


Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, former US President Bill Clinton and the late Palestinian Yaser Arafat

Twelve years ago this week, U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat gathered at Camp David to launch a historic bid to put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The historic nature of the gathering can't be denied. The discussions there began the excruciatingly painful process of coming to terms with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict's toughest issues. Indeed, for nearly two weeks in Maryland's stunningly beautiful Catoctin Mountain Park, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators wrestled with the core issues of the conflict -- territory, refugees, security, and, of course, Jerusalem -- in front of a U.S. president. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is finally resolved, what happened at Camp David that summer will be viewed as an important part of the negotiating history.

There were movies -- Gladiator and the submarine World War II classic U-571 (wasn't this a peace summit?) -- and spectator sports (watching Israelis and Palestinians race around the narrow walking paths on golf carts at breakneck speeds chattering in Arabic and Hebrew). One of the carts went missing at the summit's end. We joked that maybe one of the Palestinians and Israelis had tried to drive it home.

There were crises (Barak nearly choked to death on a peanut, only to be saved by the youngest member of his delegation). There were comedic highs (Arafat watching the baseball All-Star Game and earnestly asking in the fifth inning when the game was going to start). And dramatic lows -- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in an effort to cheer up a brooding Barak, offered to move a piano into his cabin after he retreated there, sulking like Achilles at Troy over prospects that Arafat really wasn't interested in reaching an accord. And there was fantastic food, and plenty of it -- three squares and then some. Indeed, the food was about the only thing at Camp David Israelis and Palestinians seemed not to complain about.

What was not evident at the Camp David summit was a sustained, well-organized, and serious negotiation, let alone a directed effort, to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

The debate over who lost Camp David rages on still. Many blame Arafat (rightly) for failing to negotiate in any meaningful sense of the word; others, mostly the Palestinians, blame the Israelis for not putting enough on the table if what they sought was a conflict-ending agreement (true enough) and the Americans for siding with the Israelis.

As one of the dozen or so Americans at the summit, my view of these matters is decidedly less personal and moralistic. To put it bluntly, this summit should never have been held with the goal and expectation of reaching an agreement -- any agreement, let alone one to end the conflict. None of the big three -- Arafat, Barak, and Clinton -- were ready, willing, or able to pay the price for that.

Instead, Camp David represented the ultimate How Not to Summit -- a poster child for what to avoid, what not to do, and how not to think about reaching an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Let's be clear: America didn't cause the failure of the summit. The gaps on the big issues were simply too large to be bridged, and neither the Israelis nor the Palestinian were willing or able to do it. But it was our house, our credibility, and our good name. We invited them to only the second negotiating summit at the leader's level in the history of America's involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and thus we do bear a share of the responsibility as a facilitator of the failure. But as I look back now 12 years later, three mistakes on our side seem emblematic of the summit's fate.

Mistake 1: Don't issue the invites before you brief the president and gauge your chances.

To this day, the more I think about this, the more extraordinary it seems. Before we had a chance to actually sit down with Clinton to determine where the gaps on the key issues were, to assess whether they could be bridged, and whether the president was prepared to develop a strategy to bridge them, we had already issued invitations to the party.

To the president's credit, he resisted Barak's repeated calls for the summit at an earlier date, but in the end, he wouldn't or couldn't hold out against Barak's determination to plunge headlong into a last-ditch effort to achieve an agreement and test Arafat's intentions and his own desire for legacy. Having failed to achieve a Syrian agreement, worried about the possibility of violence and a collapsing ruling coalition, Barak was a man in a hurry.

Barak was bold and ready to take risks. The proposals he offered went further than any of his predecessors' (more land, more flexibility on Palestinian sovereignty on parts of Jerusalem). But they were nowhere near what was required to end the conflict. And from Arafat's perspective, as the weakest party, they were not nearly close enough. After all, Barak had offered Syria's Hafez Assad earlier that year all of the Golan Heights minus 300 meters off the northeastern shore of Lake Tiberias; the offer of 90 to 92 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians just wasn't going to cut it.

Clinton cared a great deal about the issue. He was emotionally affected by both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's murder and Jordanian King Hussein's death, and he saw Middle East peace as the altruistic legacy it was his obligation to forge. And saying no to a willful Israeli prime minister is never easy.

But none of this is a justification for not thinking things through. That none of his advisors made the counterarguments strongly enough, or much at all, didn't help much. There are no guarantees in this business. Risks are part of the job description, as are moving forward often with imperfect options. But gauging those risks honestly and weighing the consequences of failure are critical. And it wasn't done. I blame myself plenty: I remember how impressed I was by Clinton's comment after the briefings that trying and failing was better than not trying all.

But what was I smoking? This was a presidential summit. And while it was long on good intentions, it was short on honesty, clarity, and good analysis. The president's credo was appropriate for high school and college sports; it can't be the working assumption on which the world's greatest power bases its approach to negotiations or foreign policy.

Clinton had a great relationship with both Arafat and Barak. He should have said separately to each leader before the invitations went out: Give me your bottom lines in confidence on the core issues. And while both would have held something back, to be given up only in the heat of the summit, we would have had a pretty good sense of where the gaps were.

At that point, we could have assessed whether those gaps could be bridged and whether the president was willing to try. If the answer was no, they can't be bridged, Clinton could have said to both: We need more time; or he could have said: We'll have a different kind of summit, with the expectation that we can meet again if we can't work matters out. But neither of you will blame the other.

But Barak's desperation, combined with the president's own determination to try, made this impossible. The rest -- the summit's failure, blaming Arafat, the mounting frustrations of Palestinians under occupation, even resumed talks, and Arafat's decision in September to exploit Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and embrace violence -- is history.

Mistake 2: Don't coordinate with one side only.

America has a special relationship with Israel. You can hate that fact or revel in it, but it's unlikely to change anytime soon. A unique confluence of shared values, moral obligation, domestic politics, and strategic concerns have created a unique bond quite different from America's ties with just about any other country, with the possible exception of Britain.

Yet, to be an effective and successful mediator, even facilitator, you need detachment, credibility, and enough impartiality to get all sides to trust and do the deal. In every example of successfully brokered U.S. diplomacy -- Henry Kissinger's disengagement agreements of 1973 to 1975; Jimmy Carter's 1977 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; and James Baker's 1991 Madrid peace conference diplomacy -- the United States was able to play this role.

At the second Camp David summit, it didn't. Not only did we consistently coordinate our positions with the Israelis, showing them our negotiating texts first -- a practice I might add the Palestinians had come to expect -- but we saw the issues largely from Israel's point of view. I remember how impressed we all were when we learned that Barak was willing to concede 80 percent of the West Bank.

There were two parties to this deal, and while that registered on one level, it didn't really on another. In the end, our own views of the issues were guided by and large by what the Israelis would accept. On the security issues, this might have been understandable, but when it came to Jerusalem -- even borders -- we just weren't thinking clearly about factoring in the needs and political requirements of both sides.

The Israelis' red lines, which would later became pink ones, reflected our baseline, even if we were prepared to push them a bit further. We rationalized this of course by the historic nature of what Barak was prepared to give and by Arafat's refusal to budge much off his need for 100 percent of everything. But the idea that the Palestinians would have to come down to Israel's positions rather than the Israelis moving closer to theirs was built in to our negotiating DNA.

The irony, of course, is that if you look at the 10 years of on-again, off-again negotiations since Camp David, precisely the opposite has occurred, and most of the time without American involvement. During the last round of serious discussions, those between then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, in 2007 and 2008, Israel has moved much closer to the Palestinians on almost every issue.

Mistake 3: Don't lose control.

Camp David lasted 13 days, but the summit actually was over on the fourth day. That was the day we lost control of the negotiations and undermined our own credibility and respect as a mediator. Again, let's be clear: This conflict isn't owned by the United States, and the country isn't going to be in a position to force either side to do things it doesn't want to do. But to succeed, the American side requires the respect of both sides and a refusal to be pushed around at key moments.

One of those moments arrived on the summit's fourth day, and it involved something we never took seriously enough -- a negotiating text. Samuel Goldwyn, the great Hollywood producer, once quipped that a verbal agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on. At the first Camp David summit, involving Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, and Carter, the Americans controlled the text -- incorporating changes from each side, working through compromises, accepting some, and rejecting others. That text went through 20-plus drafts before an agreement was reached.

On that fateful fourth day, July 14, we had prepared a text designed to identify where the gaps were on key issues. We showed it to Barak first. He hated it, and we changed it to accommodate him. We then showed it to the Palestinians, and Arafat rejected it too.

The exercise was dead -- and so, frankly, was our credibility. The president was reluctant to "jam" the Israelis, as he put it. Lead negotiator Dennis Ross reflected that we did have a substantive approach of our own, "but Barak says no, so we back off." The summit would go on for another nine days. That night, I concluded it was over.

In America, everything seems to begin today or yesterday. Maybe, we'll be more respectful of history's power and lessons next time around.

We also have to understand something else: Failure has consequences. There's no doubt that Clinton's successor -- George W. Bush -- and his advisors drew the conclusion that Camp David and the strategy of engaging Arafat (the most frequent visitor to the Oval Office in 2000) had been a disaster, sparking violence and making America look weak. And that, combined with the Second Intifada, persuaded them to walk away. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell -- without a doubt the most sympathetic voice in the Bush administration on the peace process -- couldn't believe that his predecessor had sat with Barak and Arafat for nearly two weeks (Albright really does deserve a medal for it). Powell quipped to me in early 2001: I'll be damned if I'd let my young president do that.

Had we bothered to take seriously the reasons why the 1977 Camp David summit succeeded, we might have understood why the 2000 Camp David gathering was doomed to fail. What made the earlier summit a success? Two strong leaders willing and able to make a deal, issues that were deemed to be manageable where the gaps were bridgeable, and a relentless mediator in Jimmy Carter.

There's no way to fairly compare the two experiences. Camp David 2000 was simply much harder -- with leaders who were more constrained and issues such as Jerusalem and refugees that were infinitely more complex than Sinai and airfields.

But that's exactly the point, isn't it? Jonathan Schwartz, our lawyer on the delegation and perhaps the most gifted mind in the negotiating business, said it best: We had no respect for the issues and how complex they really were. Perhaps, if there's ever another Camp David summit, we will.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy in 10/07/2012
-Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His forthcoming book is titled Can America Have Another Great President?

The Rebel Sheikh Defying Hezbollah To Take Aim At Assad

By Robert Fisk

Sunni Muslim Salafist leader Ahmad al-Assir

Yes, the former president of Syria and father of the president regime incumbent is roasting away there, and has been since he died of a heart attack while chatting on the phone to the Lebanese president in 2000.

I have this on the authority of Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, the Sidon Salafist who has blocked the road between Sidon and Beirut and who promises me that his huge beard –a great field of graying hair that hangs proudly down his chest – took 20 years to grow. Being a sceptic about religion as well as biology, I’m not sure I accept either the Assad-in-hell or the beard claims.

But Assir, a Sunni Muslim who is demanding that Syria’s militia ally Hezballah should hand over all its weapons to the Lebanese state is fast becoming a phenomenon in Lebanon, putting the heebejeebies into the pro-Hezballah government, the Hezballah and a lot of other factions in a country which still prays to keep out of the Syrian conflict. This weekend, another five Lebanese, at least three of them children, were reportedly killed by Syrian shellfire in the north of the country. In Sheikh Assir’s eyes, it’s another stake in the heart of Hafez el-Assad’s son.

The odd thing is that when you meet him, Sheikh al-Assir is so forthcoming in all he tells you about himself that it’s impossible not to have a sneaking respect for the guy. Ask him if he’s married, and his sloping eyes twinkle merrily away behind his frameless spectacles. “I have two wives and three children,” he says. And an older man – the Sheikh is 44 – sits down on a plastic seat beside me, beaming away happily.

“My father used to be a singer and sang love songs and sang at weddings but now he is a muezzin and calls Muslims to prayer at our mosque.”

Tch, tch, I say; the calls to prayer are no longer chanted from minarets by real priests; across the Muslim world they have adopted the boring practice of playing a CD of prayer calls over amplified loudspeakers. “No,” says Mohamed al-Hillal Al-Assir al-Hussain defiantly, “I actually climb the minaret and call for prayers myself from the top.” Independent readers sceptical of this may turn up at the Mazjid Bilal bin Rabah mosque in the Sidon suburb of Abra five times a day to check it out. But you see what I mean; interesting family. Money comes from his own family – “we built the mosque ourselves”.

Hezballah suspects, of course, that Qatar and Saudi Arabia, those great Sunni fortresses currently bestowing cash and guns to the rebels of Syria, are behind the sudden appearance of Sheikh Assir. Why does he preach against Syria in the Friday prayers in Tripoli? Why has he blocked the main coastal road north of Sidon, claiming he will not leave until the army hoovers up Hezballah’s weapons – from pistols to rockets – and thus cutting south-west Lebanon off from the capital? There are no guns (to be seen, of course) at the sheikh’s sit-in, and just a truck turned across the road to block it and a lot of black-chadored ladies hovering around. And a lot of enraged Sidon (Sunni) shopkeepers complaining that they can no longer take their famous patisseries up to Beirut for sale. No wonder even the Sunni opposition in parliament is against the sheikh’s sit-in.

Sheikh al-Assir says that the Hezballah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, whom he has never met, is making a terrible mistake by leading “political Shiism” away from the people of Lebanon. “I grew up in the civil war as a young child and we all used to be happy and play and go to school. But then we had to live in the basement. We were never secure in our homes, we were losing our childhood friends who were Christian and Shia. Today, the political Shia are making the same mistake which ruined us before. And because of this, I am against all arms – so my grandchildren do not grow up with a childhood like mine.”

But it is Syria which claws at the Sheikh’s anger. “Bashar will fall and he is one of the most serious problems in the region. And Iran will fall….Syria is a catastrophe. Assad is now in hell for killing 20,000 people in Hama in 1982. We will ask the Syrian people that they have a trial of the al-Assad family after the fall of the regime. Bashar will be killed, hopefully. He will not leave Syria. The people of Syria will not accept all these innocent victims of the regime. Those of the regime who die and go to hell – they go straight to hell the moment their soul leaves their body. If I die and I don’t go to paradise, then I have lost everything. If I go to paradise, then it is with the blessing of God.”

Strong stuff. But not exactly messianic. The Sheikh has nothing against the West although he has visited Abu Dhabi, Yemen, India, Ukraine and Pakistan, the latter making an impact on him – the very poor and the very rich being a microcosm of the world. “I come to my religion with serious convictions,” he adds. I’ll say.

-This commentary was published in The Independent on 09/07/2012

Bashar al-Assad Has Some Thoughts On The English Language

By David Kenner

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

WikiLeaks' document dump of emails from Syrian government officials has so far been light on scandalous details about either the Assad family or the opposition. But today's release did provide one unexpected revelation: Bashar al-Assad appears to be an avid student, and critic, of English. It's not exactly George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," but the Syrian president forwarded the following Internet joke to his translator with the subject line "ENGLISH IS A STUPID LANGUAGE!"

Let's face it. English is a stupid language.
There is no egg in the eggplant,
No ham in the hamburger
And neither pine nor apple in the pineapple.
English muffins were not invented in England.

We sometimes take English for granted,
But if we examine its paradoxes we find that
Quicksand takes you down slowly
Boxing rings are square
And a guinea pig is nighther from Guinea nor is it aa pig.

If writers write, how come fingers don't fing?
If the plural of tooth is teeth
Shouldn't the plural of phone booth be phone beeth?
If the teacher taught,
Why didn't the preacher praught?

If a vegetarian eats vegetables
What the heck does a humanitarian eat?

Why do people recite at a play
Yet play at a recital?
Park on driveways,
And drive on parkways?

How can the weather be as hot as hell on one day,
And cold as hell on another?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy
Of a language where a house can burn up as
It burns down.

And in which you fill IN a form
By filling it OUT.
And a bell is only heard once it GOES!

English was invented by people, not computers
And it reflects the creativity of the human race
(Which of course isn't a race at all)
That is why when the stars are out they are visible
But when the lights are out they are invisible.

And why is it that when I wind up my watch, it starts,
But when I wind up this poem,
It ends!!!!

Assad also seems to have a fascination with American idioms (admittedly tricky devils). In another email to his translator, he includes a multiple-choice quiz with such questions as:  "My friend likes hardcore trance music but it's not (my preference)." A) my cup of tea B) a fine kettle of fish C) the icing on the cake D) the cream of the crop.

Assad appears to be a very good student -- there are reportedly more than 800 emails between him and his translator in the WikiLeaks files.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 09/07/2012

Monday, July 9, 2012

What Netanyahu Learned From Shamir (And Others Didn't)

By Daniel Levy

The late former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir with the current Israel's Premier Benjamin Netanyahu

Last week Yitzhak Shamir, Israel's seventh Prime Minister, passed away. Israel's current premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, will shortly overtake Shamir as the second longest serving PM in the state's history. At first glance Shamir and Netanyahu strike two very contrasting profiles: Shamir was modest and private; Netanyahu is the in-your-face, cigar-smoking friend to billionaires -- "King Bibi."

Yet in terms of ideology and its political application, they are probably the two most kindred spirits to have ever held Israel's highest elected office. A week of remembering, commentary, and eulogies of Shamir are a timely portal into understanding both the current PM's policies and the journey Israeli politics has taken in reaching an era of almost unchallenged dominance for the politics of intolerant, ethnocentric nationalism.

On entering the PM's office Shamir was only the second Likud leader (or Herut, the political party forerunner to Likud) to break the near 30-year stranglehold on power of the state-founding Labor Zionist movement. Labor was first booted out of office in 1977. Since then (now the majority of Israel's time in existence), Yitzhak Rabin has been Israel's only leader who either did not hail from the Likud or who did not end up leaving Labor for a more center-right or Likud-inspired political home.

So, while the recollections of Shamir this week often had a nostalgic, bygone era feel to them, the real story is of just how faithfully the Shamir path is currently being pursued.

As Prime Minister Shamir oversaw much of the Lebanon War and first intifada, rejected the 1987 Peres-Hussein deal, the so-called "London Agreement" for the occupied Palestinian territories to revert to Jordanian control, held Israeli fire in response to Scud missiles during the first Iraq Gulf War, and attended the Madrid Peace Conference that followed. He was also at the helm for the massive initial wave of post-Soviet immigration to Israel and fought to deny their admittance to the U.S. (making Israel their only escape option), fell out with the George H. W. Bush Administration over the use of loan guarantees for settling those immigrants over the green line, and faced growing discontent over corruption in the ruling Likud party and general economic mismanagement. He even abstained in the Knesset vote on approving the peace treaty with Egypt.

As Chemi Shalev, who covered Shamir extensively during his tenure, put it: "Yitzhak Shamir was a true zealot...a fanatic devotee of his vision of the Jewish people and the Greater Land of Israel...He kept his eye on the only ball that mattered to him -- the preservation of the Greater Land of Israel -- and viewed everything else as subservient diversions."

And ex-Haaretz editor David Landau reminded his readership: "'For Eretz Yisrael it is permissible to lie,' Shamir coined his own criteria of honesty...He had negotiated endlessly about negotiating, he said, and had intended the peace negotiations to go on endlessly, while he meanwhile went on building the settlements that made peace impossible...Every day of non-progress that passed was a victory for him."

For Shamir, the Madrid peace process was translated into avenue to buy time, non-involvement in the Iraq war was a way to avoid potential pressure regarding a quid pro quo on the Palestinian territories, and the ingathering of ex-Soviet Jews was both part of the Jewish state mission and a way of securing demographic advantages and of encouraging the populating of Greater Israel by Jews. The Israeli daily Maariv's lead analyst, Ben Caspit, noted that "he believed the goal was clear and simple: for nothing to happen...He believed that time was working in our favor."

Netanyahu's own eulogies to Shamir, both at the weekly Cabinet meeting and at the funeral ceremony, were revealing. Netanyahu first acknowledged that it was Shamir who gave him a crucial leg-up on the political ladder, appointing Bibi to the post of Ambassador to the U.N. -- "one of his many appointments of young people whom he advanced" Netanyahu re-called. His graveside farewell never mentioned the existence of the Palestinians by name (something Netanyahu avoids acknowledging whenever possible, similar to Shamir himself) but he did say this (one assumes approvingly) about Shamir and land: "He was stubborn and suspicious when faced with any idea that meant a reduction in the borders of the homeland."

Netanyahu's Cabinet meeting comments went further. A memorable Shamir saying was that "the sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs" -- a rhetorical flourish suggesting that Arab "rejectionism" is insurmountable, but also one laced with racism. In referencing this Shamir quote, Bibi commented that  "it could be that these remarks, which invoked strong criticism, even contempt -- today, there are certainly many more people who understand that this man saw and understood fundamental and genuine things and never bent either himself or the truth to fit the fashion of the time." Netanyahu is in effect embracing a most notorious and controversial "Shamirism".

Netanyahu's endorsement of the words "two states" at a Bar Ilan University speech in 2009, when set against his policies and actions on the ground, resembles Shamir's acceptance of the "land for peace" formula as part of the Madrid Conference letter of invitation. Meaningless.

Netanyahu learnt the lessons of tactical and minor rhetorical retreat (as long as nothing real was derailed on the ground -- the had-no-effect "settlement moratorium" being a case in point), of utilizing distractions but not allowing them to be used to generate pressure regarding the core goal of settling Greater Israel (Iraq for Shamir, Iran for Bibi), and of playing for time in the hope of unanticipated developments (the Soviet immigration wave for Shamir; perhaps opportunities for re-shaping the region created by the "Arab uprisings" is viewed similarly by Netanyahu).

Neither Shamir nor Netanyahu act in a vacuum. Those around Shamir and impacted by his policies responded, whether that was his domestic opposition, the U.S. or the Palestinians themselves. But while Netanyahu seems to have learnt from this history, the same can hardly be said for those other actors.

Israel's then Labor opposition seized on Shamir's foot-dragging in peace talks and in particular his choosing of settlements over Israel's most important strategic relationship with the U.S. to attack Shamir and call for a re-prioritization of resource allocation. A popular slogan in the 1992 election was "money for poor neighborhoods, not settlements." Rabin's Labor, and their Meretz allies, won that election of course. The situation is different today -- the center-left Zionist opposition being a shadow of its former self (with 46 seats on the eve of the ‘92 elections, going up to 56 after the vote, compared with 11 today). But Labor (unlike Meretz) now avoids campaigning on the settlements issue or even Netanyahu's antediluvian foreign policy.

Washington, too, has changed in the intervening two decades. The first Bush administration threw down a challenge to Shamir's settlement policy and backed that up with action, impacting the debate inside Israel in a calculated fashion. Obama also identified the settlements as a fault line, but then caved when Netanyahu said "boo". Sure, current realities in Jerusalem and Washington (and notably on the Republican side) mean that similar options are not available to the Obama administration. Yet the Obama team has singularly failed to develop any tools for impacting Israel's calculations or even the public debate there.

Finally, the Palestinian leadership. Their response to the current Shamir-redux Israeli policy is the hardest to fathom. Palestinian leaders, both under occupation and in exile, developed strategic challenges to the Shamir approach of the late 80s and early 90s. They launched the largely unarmed civilian uprising of the first intifada, adopted a two-state platform at the Algiers Palestine National Council meeting in 1988, and joined the 1991 Madrid talks as part of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. At times, the Israeli government was diplomatically wrong-footed, with the Palestinians accumulating leverage and political support.

Today's initiatives -- abortive appeals at the U.N., pursuing recognition of heritage sites at UNESCO, enhanced security cooperation with Israel and prioritizing PA-funding -- seem by comparison marginal, irrelevant, or even co-opted. Perhaps, though, Palestinians are also playing the long game, now convinced that from Shamir to Netanyahu, division of the land has been rendered inoperable.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 09/07/2012
-Daniel Levy is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, senior fellow and director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and co-editor of the Middle East Channel

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Tunis Lessons Of The Arab Spring And The Way Ahead

The new citizens of the Arab world do not have time for make-believe speeches. They want the real thing and want it now.

By Oussama Romdhani

Tunisians gather at Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis to celebrate the first anniversary
This file photo shows Tunisians gather at Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis to celebrate the first anniversary of the revolution.

Of the many cataclysmic shifts brought about in the Middle East and North Africa by the Arab Spring, perhaps the most significant is the demise of the old notion of “politics-from-above”. In pursuit of its diplomatic objectives, the US used to work around the very centralised nature of the decision-making process in the Arab World. From that perspective, I was not personally surprised to read in a 2007 Wikileaks cable, originating from the US Embassy in Tunis, that contacts with me, at that time, were considered a “key aspect of [the US] freedom agenda”.

I owed that description, not to any real foreign policy or domestic decision-making clout, but to the fact that I occasionally served as interpreter to the former president of Tunisia. The US Embassy simply thought it could count on my “access to the highest levels of the government” to convey messages to an increasingly autistic leadership. That was true on certain occasions, especially when I was able to use that access to push for decisions such as ending incommunicado detention, freeing jailed reporters or allowing some dissidents to return home. More often, however, I could only watch haplessly as things unravelled around me in the wrong direction.

For better or (mostly) for worse, decisions big and small in most of the region used to depend essentially on the whim of Arab leaders. Tunisia was no exception. Election results used to be quite predictable. Autocrats could shift economic systems from socialism to liberalism, or vice versa, overnight, or decide to merge their country with its neighbour. That kind of decision-making model is no longer viable. Rulers in the region must now be much more attentive to domestic public opinion. They have to deal with a younger generation that is better educated and more attuned to global democratic values. The new citizens of the Arab world do not have time for make-believe speeches. They want the real thing and want it now.

What does this mean for the US? New opportunities, but also unprecedented challenges.
Classified US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks have bestowed credibility on the US government by showing it not necessarily on the side of greedy and corrupt rulers. And by taking positions in favour of the Arab Spring uprisings, Washington has gained further mileage in the court of Arab public opinion. The latest Pew global survey reflected a lot of distrust by Tunisians of US policies in the Middle East and the Muslim World. It did, however, reflect support by no less than 60 per cent of the Tunisian population to US democratic ideals. That level of support shoots up to 72 per cent among the under-30.

The bad news for Washington, however, is that this new Arab opinion is likely to be, at least in the short run, even more critical and suspicious of US policies, especially over the Palestinian issue. Anti-Israel forces among Arab elites will be more vocal, will have better ability to get organised and will be able to put both religious sentiment and electoral politics in the service of their cause. The new Arab systems are not likely to try to suppress criticism of the US. Visiting American leaders in the region are likely to be challenged by more aggressive reporters and civil activists. Sanitised departure statements will no longer suffice, even though they were not of much use in any case.

In the long run, however, this new landscape offers the US the advantage of dealing with Arab diplomats who are more in sync with their domestic public opinion. Gone are the days of foreign policy decisions taken by Arab rulers, alone, beyond the realm of accountability. Regional conflicts will not be blown out of proportion by “charismatic” leaders. International issues will no more be the sole prerogative of any one man.

This new environment offers opportunities and dividends for non-state actors. Outreach programmes by citizen groups interested in world affairs will only gain in pertinence. With the emergence of political discourse from the shadows in the Arab World, Israelis are more likely than ever to be confronted by the breadth of the chasm which separates them from Arab populations. But they will probably be able to better measure the impact of genuine peace initiatives and the possibility of building bridges across this divide, once fair and durable solutions are reached. In spite of the controversy over anti-Jewish slogans attributed to fringe groups, there is already an unprecedented legislative debate in Tunisia about the constitutional and political rights of the country’s Jewish minority.

Considering the inability of most of us to foresee the outcome of the protest movements which sparked the 2011 revolutions, humility should compel us all to admit that nobody can guess with accuracy what the future holds for this region. The only certainty we can bet on is that the ways of yesteryears are gone.

-This commentary was published first in The GULF NEWS on 08/07/2012
-Oussama Romdhani is the former Tunisian Communication Minister

The Lebanese Have More In Common Than You Think

By James Zogby

With neighbouring Syria imploding, tensions with Iran mounting, and Israel ever threatening, Lebanon appears to be on the brink of conflict.

But then that has been the story of Lebanon for decades now. This remarkably beautiful country, filled with extraordinary people, has long been a victim of its history, its own leaders and the machinations of outsiders. This may be Lebanon's past and present, but if we listen to the Lebanese people, it need not be the country's future.

It was the French who created Lebanon and its sect-driven patchwork-quilt system of governance, designed to serve France's imperial interests.

During the past 80 years, operating within this imposed framework, Lebanon's sectarian elites have jockeyed for advantage, seeking the support of external "partners" to buttress their positions. Only too obliging, these foreign "partners" often had their own interests to promote or scores to settle. As a result, Lebanon was time and again transformed into a battlefield where sects clashed and regional power struggles were fought. And so it is today.

Two generations ago, Lebanon was an East-West Cold War battleground. Today it is an arena in which the conflict between the West and its allies versus Iran and its surrogates plays out - with fragile Lebanon hanging in the balance, with its security, stability and prosperity constantly at risk.

Some may shrug dismissively and say "this is Lebanon", or point to the country's warlords and armed gangs and say "they bring it on themselves".

But this precarious state of affairs need not be Lebanon's fate. If we listen to Lebanon's people, it is possible to imagine a very different country, based on a common identity and sense of purpose.

If polling has taught me anything, it is that people almost always know more than the politicians who lead them. In this regard, Lebanon's people have a great deal to say - and deserve to be heard.

There are, to be sure, issues that divide the Lebanese. For example, two recent polls found discordant views with regard to Syria and Iran: Lebanese Shi'a appear to be supportive of the Ba'ath government of Bashar Al Assad in Syria, and also favour close ties with Iran, while the country's Sunni community holds the opposite view. Christians are divided in their opinions.

But these attitudes while reflecting the positions of the leaders of the various groups, tell only part of the story of what Lebanese really think. On most issues there is a strong domestic consensus - and it would be wise for leaders in Lebanon - and the rest of us - to focus on the issues and policies that could bring most of the Lebanese people together, not those that divide them.

There are many places where the Lebanese find common ground. They agree on the country's sorry state of affairs, political priorities that must be addressed, the importance of national identity and unity, and on fundamental political reforms they think are needed.

When, for example, we ask Lebanese whether they are better or worse off than they were five years ago, all agree they are worse off. Similarly, when we ask them if the country is currently on the right or the wrong track, all groups say "wrong".

And when we ask Lebanese to identify their top political concerns, once again there is a remarkable convergence in attitudes.

All Lebanese, across the board, rank "expanding employment opportunities" as their number one concern, followed by "ending corruption and nepotism", "political reform", and then "protecting personal freedoms and civil rights".

Foreign policy issues are not considered priorities, and at the very bottom of the scale is "promoting political debate" - something most Lebanese have wearied of.

What is also striking is that when we ask Lebanese for their principal source of identity, they do not name their religion or sect, nor do they cite family, or "being Arab". Instead, all groups say it is "being Lebanese" that is the focus of identity. Arabs in other countries usually offer responses nearly evenly divided among "Arab", religion, and their country of origin.

When we ask Lebanese whether they prefer to maintain the sect-based power-sharing system or replace it with a "one man, one vote" political structure, there is broad agreement that it is time to implement the latter. They all agree that national unity is a must. And they reject the notion that any one group should dominate.

Almost a century ago, Lebanon's internationally renowned poet Khalil Gibran wrote a marvellous piece, You have your Lebanon, I have my Lebanon, in which he contrasted the country's self-centered, plundering, bickering elites with the common folk who are Lebanon's heart and soul.

Gibran was right then, and his observations hold true today. Lebanon's leaders and those who care about the future of the country ought to take note, listen to the people, and help pull the country back from the brink.

-This commentary was published first in The National on 08/07/2012
-James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington DC