A fresh ‘makeover’ for Syria’s opposition?

As the UN’s Syria envoy prepares to go to Damascus to seek a ceasefire in the border conflict with Turkey, NATO has drawn up plans to defend a key member.

The NATO move raises the prospect of international intervention in the increasingly violent conflict although some observers believe Ankara’s leaders remain  wary of a Turkish ‘Vietnam.’

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 90 people were killed on Tuesday, including 29 soldiers, following Monday’s death toll of 210.

While some Syrian opposition figures are dismissive of Brahimi’s efforts, others extended a tentative olive branch to the regime, suggesting that the ruling Baath party could play a role in a post-Assad Syria.

“Kofi Annan had the support of the Security Council and was unable to achieve anything. It’s obvious that Brahimi doesn’t even have the support of the Security Council, so I don’t think he can achieve anything at all in the near future,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a spokesman for the opposition Coalition for a Democratic Syria who met with Brahimi in New York recently.

But the head of the Syrian National Council struck a more conciliatory note, indicating that current regime officials could figure in transitional arrangements. “We will not repeat the failed experience of de-Baathification,” said SNC head Abdulbaset Sieda.

“We will just remove all its (Baath party’s) illegitimate privileges and officials who committed crimes will be put on trial,” he added. “The Baath party will practice its activities in accordance with the democratic process. We will not have a revenge policy and we will preserve state institutions,” he said.

Some 25 civil society groups will join the SNC as part of a major makeover at a meeting in Doha next week.

“The most important point which will be discussed is restructuring the bloc and expanding it as a further step towards uniting the Syrian opposition under a broader framework,” said council member Louay al-Safi.

Safi said new political and civil society groups will join the SNC — the main opposition bloc — including a Turkmen bloc and Nasserist socialists “as well as several political blocs, most of them from the revolt groups inside the country.” ….Last month, the SNC agreed to expand to include more opposition groups, but not the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which favours non-violent regime change and opposes foreign military intervention in Syria.

Demands for Western intervention continue to be driven by concerns that abstention is undermining democrats and empowering radical Islamists within Syria’s fractious opposition.

Syrian rebels and the West’s Arab allies offered a warning to the West, The New York Times reports:

The Syrian people are being radicalized by a combination of a grinding conflict and their belief that they have been abandoned by a watching world. ….Wearied by violence, heading into another winter of fighting, and enraged by what they see as the inaction and hypocrisy of powerful nations, frontline leaders of the rebellion say that the West risks losing a potential ally in the Middle East if the Assad government should fall.

The corollary is frequently sounded, too: The West may be gaining enemies where it might have found friends. As anger grows, armed groups opposed to the United States may grow in numbers and stature, too.

Rebel groups are dismissive of the small donations of nonlethal assistance from Washington, the Times reports:

“We haven’t received anything from the outside,” said a member of the ad hoc governing body in Kafr Takharim known as the revolutionary council. “We read in the media that we are receiving things. But we haven’t seen it. We only received speeches from the West.”

Other men echoed this sentiment, and accused the United States and Europe of playing a double game, in effect of conspiring with the Kremlin to ensure that no nation has to act against the Assad government or on the rebels’ or civilians’ behalf.

Western powers have called for the opposition to unite but the problem facing the Aleppo Military Council and others trying to coordinate the rebels is due to “the fact that this is an authentic, bottom-up revolution,” writes The Washington Post’s David Ignatius.

“It arose spontaneously in different parts of Syria, and every area has spun off its own battalions, many seeking funding from wealthy Arabs in the Gulf,” he notes. “Unless these militia-like groups can be gathered around a single source for money and weapons, they’re unlikely to mount a unified resistance to Assad. “

Ignatius highlights the Washington-based Syrian Support Group’s efforts to help organize the opposition, but officers of the Free Syrian Army warn him that they are losing out to better-funded and better-armed radical Islamist groups.

“They say they’d like help from the United States, but that it hasn’t materialized. Without money or weapons to distribute to the fighters, these U.S.-friendly military councils will quickly lose their coordinating power,” Ignatius writes.

“The alternative power center in the revolution is the emerging Salafist jihadist network,” including such groups as the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Idlib-based Soukor al-Sham Majlis al-Shura, or Shura Council, whose former leader was killed recently after raising al-Qaeda’s black flag at a Syrian border crossing.

US allies and analysts alike argue that the U.S. has a strategic interest in taking a more interventionist position, not least by countering and undermining Iran’s Islamic Republic.

“Syria is Iran’s entry into the Arab world,” said one Saudi official. “Take down Assad and you inflict a strategic blow on Iran.”

U.S. allies are also eager to avoid an Afghanistan-like blowback if Syria becomes a magnet for radical Islamist groups, the Times reports:

Many Saudi and Qatari officials now fear that the fighting in Syria is awakening deep sectarian animosities and, barring such intervention, could turn into an uncontrollable popular jihad with consequences far more threatening to Arab governments than the Afghan war of the 1980s.

“If the killing continues, the youth will not listen to wise voices,” said Salman al-Awda, one of this country’s most prominent clerics. “They will find someone who will encourage them, and they will go.”

While the West shies away from arming pro-democratic factions in Syria’s opposition, Islamist groups are enjoying patronage from the Gulf, reports suggest:  

The Saudi government appears to be trying to finance more secular rebel groups….while the Qataris appear to be closer to the Muslim Brotherhood. But these distinctions are slippery, in part because rebel groups adapt their identities to gain money and weapons. One group, in an almost comical bid for support, named itself the Rafik Hariri brigade, after the former Lebanese prime minister and Saudi ally who is believed to have been assassinated by the Syrians, and whose son Saad is influential in doling out Saudi support to the rebels.

One rebel commander appeals to the Post’s Ignatius:

If the United States can help him get modern antiaircraft and antitank weapons, “I will keep them away from extremist groups,” he promises. He hopes America can provide training, too — even a two-week basic course that could help create a real army.

“If the United States wants the rebels to coordinate better, it should lead the way by coordinating outside help,” Ignatius concludes. ‘The shower of cash and weapons coming from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and other Arab nations is helping extremist fighters and undercutting any orderly chain of command through the Free Syrian Army.”

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Corruption eroding politics in the ‘Brics and the sicks’

“Over the past three years, conventional wisdom divided the world’s major economies into two basic groups – the Brics and the sicks,” notes a leading analyst:

The US and the EU were sick – struggling with high unemployment, low growth and frightening debts. By contrast the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and, by some reckonings, South Africa) were much more dynamic. Investors, businessmen and western politicians made regular pilgrimages there, to gaze at the future.

“But now something odd is happening. The Brics are in trouble,” in part because “all five nations are finding that endemic corruption is eroding faith in their political systems, and imposing a tax on their economies,” writes the FT’s Gideon Rachman:

There is no straight line that links unrest at South African platinum mines to troubles at Chinese electronics factories, via a power cut in India, a protest in Moscow and a corruption probe in Brazil. Yet there are broad themes that link the troubles of the Brics. First, declarations of “decoupling” from the west were premature. ….Second, all the years of rapid growth have not brought political harmony to the Brics. One theme that I have come across repeatedly, visiting each of these countries – democracies and autocracies alike – is that popular rage against corruption is central to politics. That makes both politicians and investors nervous about potential instability.


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Jordan: dialog, not regime change, the route to democratic reform?

Thousands demonstrated in Amman over the last weekend at a pro-reform protest organized by the Islamic Action Front, the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The protesters’ demands were summarized on a huge banner calling for “democratic electoral law, constitutional changes, parliamentary governments, independent judiciary, constitutional court, effective anti-corruption efforts and preventing security services from interfering in political life.”

While the rally failed to attract the anticipated 50,000 participants – 15,000 reportedly attended – it was nevertheless the country’s largest demonstration since the start of the Arab Spring. But the government jumped on the largely Islamist composition of the demonstration.

“Obviously this demonstration represented no one but the Muslim Brotherhood,” Information Minister and government spokesman Samih Maaytah told AFP.

“If this was the best gathering they could come up with, then the Islamists should really consider taking part in elections and join parliament to seek reform there instead of on the streets.”

The Brotherhood has said it would boycott polling as it did Jordan’s last elections in 2010 to protest a lack of meaningful reforms. It demands a parliamentary system where the premier is elected rather than named by the king.

Last weekend’s rally heard Islamist leaders repeat their threat to boycott forthcoming elections.

“We demand genuine constitutional reform that would help empower the Jordanian people,” said Hammam Said (above), leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“We will not take part in the elections because we demand parliamentary governments and a real parliament.”

That would be a strategic mistake, says the country’s monarchy.

“I am telling the Muslim Brotherhood that they are making a tremendous miscalculation” with their threat to boycott, the king told AFP in an interview last month.

“This elections law is not perfect. We all understand that. But there is no better consensus on an alternative. What is critical is that we keep going forward,” the king said.

“So I am telling the Muslim Brotherhood, you have a choice. To stay in the street or to help build the new democratic Jordan.”

Labor unions and professional syndicates, similarly suspicious of the Islamists’ agenda, boycotted the rally even though they share the frustration with the glacial pace of reform and hostility to a new electoral law which discriminates against Jordanian citizens of Palestinian descent.

The protests are the latest in a series of mobilizations since early January 2011 by a growing reform movement.

“While the movement has not requested regime change, it seeks profound constitutional reforms that would strip the King of Jordan of his executive and legislative authorities,” writes Mohammad Yaghi, a researcher at the University of Guelph, Canada, who focuses on mobilization and democratization in MENA:

Above all, the movement seeks to immunize the parliament (the National Council) from being dissolved by the King, in addition to parliamentary control over the formation of the government (instead of being appointed by the King), and a direct election of the upper house (currently, it is appointed by the King). Thus, the ongoing debate in Jordan over electoral reform lies at the heart of the power struggle between the government and the opposition, and contributes to a poisonous political environment as Jordan approaches parliamentary elections, scheduled to take place by the end of this year.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been able to dominate the opposition, analysts suggest, in part because of restrictions on civil society, including the freedoms of association and expression.

Jordan has made significant strides in developing media pluralism, not least on the Internet.

“Online activity is so energetic that Princess Sumaya said in 2011 that 75 percent of all Arabic content on the Internet comes from Jordan, a boast that King Abdullah II made in August to U.S. journalist Charlie Rose,” writes Daoud Kuttab (left), director general of the Community Media Network which operates AmmanNet.net, the Arab world’s first Internet radio station and a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy:

AmmanNet.net started as an electronic media experiment. It was created with support from the Open Society Institute and was sponsored in its first year by UNESCO and the city of Amman. Initially our online broadcasts were barely followed in Jordan. By collaborating with a Palestinian FM radio station, we were able to bypass government restrictions on radio broadcasts; the Palestinian station rebroadcast our signal into Jordanian air space, using our Internet Webcast. Since 2003, Jordan has allowed independent radio stations, but the Internet has continued to be a lifeline for freedom of expression.

But recent progress is now under threat from a recent amendment to the Press and Publications Law, says Kuttab, a former Princeton University professor of journalism.

“Jordan’s Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists says there were 16 cases of violations against media freedoms and journalists’ rights between May and August,” he notes.

“Activists say the government’s real aim is to stop Web sites from exposing corruption and official excesses. They note government’s heavy hand in stopping recent attempts by parliament to investigate corruption accusations against individuals close to the ruling powers.”

The prospect of non-Islamist opposition emerging from within civil society is constrained by its tribal roots which are “deeply embedded in society and operate alongside the formally established legal system,” according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

“The tribes in Jordan play a political role, offer an alternative judicial system and provide services to communities. Indeed, the formal legal system, in defining societies, does not eliminate the tribal concept of ‘families’,” ICNL notes:

Once Jordan acceded to international conventions, such as the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, some CSOs emerged to raise public awareness in relation to human rights, including the rights of assembly and association. At the same time, however, fundamental rights and freedoms are still subject to governmental interference, due to the Government’s claims of fighting terrorism and protecting national security.

The most preferable route to reform would be via a national dialogue between government and the opposition groups “ in order to agree on the best electoral law that will ensure the participation of all political parties and movements in the election and provide fair representation for all Jordanians,” Yaghi suggests on the Fikra Forum.

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A new ‘sociography’ of democracy?

A regime’s geographical location may provide access to resources and a temporary respite from democratic demands, but not for long, according to a new analysis.

In Russia, for instance, Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, “have had no uplifting ideas to offer, no ideology of any kind, in fact: what they do have in their favor is only geography. And that is not enough,” writes Robert D. Kaplan, in The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate.

“That same geography ‘commands a perennially tense relationship between Russia and China,’ even as a shared commitment to authoritarian government and sovereign prerogatives pushes their regimes together,” writes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Prince­ton professor of politics and international affairs.

But, contrary to Kaplan’s determinism and foreign policy ‘realism,’ geography is not destiny, says the former State Department policy planning director:

Social media and mass data flows of all kinds now give us the ability to see and represent human interactions as never before, mapping emotions, desires, aspirations and connections. The intersection of millions of small worlds can now be tracked and visualized: human galaxies every bit as dense and complex as the stars above.

“The result will be a new discipline of sociography,” says Slaughter, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:

In the end, the revenge of geography will be the revenge of human as well as physical geography: a world much more, and much more democratically, of our making.

Kaplan may argue that the brightly colored patches of sovereign territory on a two-­dimensional map obscure Nature’s primordial blueprint, but citizens now have incentives to obscure the lines of their governments with the demarcations of their own communities, imagined and real.

In the end, the revenge of geography will be the revenge of human as well as physical geography: a world much more, and much more democratically, of our making.


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Venezuela: post-election ‘power grab’ seeks to entrench Chavismo

The re-election of Hugo Chávez “represents a serious challenge to what remains of Venezuela’s weakened institutional framework, and to the further erosion of political plurality,” says a prominent analyst.

Alternatively, chastised by a newly resurgent opposition and reportedly recovering from cancer, is Venezuela’s re-elected populist president likely to adopt more moderate policies?

“The answer is a resounding no, for some of Mr. Chávez’s electoral promises and past experience suggest that the president is likely to take an even more radical stance,” writes Federico Barriga, a Latin America analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Most importantly, Venezuela might see the emergence of a “sub-system” of political and economic organizations that will grant the executive even greater power at the expense of institutional stability and political plurality,” he suggests.

Chávez is likely to target his critics and opponents “with various tactics and degrees of radicalism,” Barriga writes for the Huffington Post:

The local private sector is particularly vulnerable, as it already suffers from price and exchange controls and overregulation. Although a move to a fully state-controlled economic model is highly unlikely, expropriation would remain a constant threat…..

 More challenging will be to reduce the influence of groups such as autonomous universities, student groups, NGOs and the church. In contrast to Venezuela’s traditional political parties, they have operated as an effective counterweight to chavista hegemony in the public sphere. To move definitively against any or all of them would be to take a more open authoritarian style, and it is uncertain whether Mr Chávez would be willing to risk making that step. Moreover, despite its recent withdrawal from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, Venezuela is still bound by constitutional and treaty commitments that are not so easy to evade, including those derived from its recent entry to the Mercosur trading bloc. That said, the government is still likely to use judicial intimidation and financial repression to reduce the sphere of influence of these groups.

Other observers agree that the regime is likely to become more authoritarian.

“Every time he’s won elections he’s tried to use it to claim a mandate,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas. “It’s quite conceivable that he’ll try to implement his vision even quicker now because he’s not sure how long he’ll be around.”

Chavez, who has seized more than 1,000 companies or their assets since taking office, will probably now pursue more expropriations and extend state control over the economy, he said.

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles was defeated despite running what analyst Moses Naim called a “perfect” campaign.

The democratic opposition was also unable to contend with Chávez’s abuse of state resources, observers suggest.

“I think he just cranked up the patronage machine and unleashed a spending orgy,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

Chávez’s win will be a boost to Latin America’s illiberal forces, say observers.

“Raul Castro will be relieved that the approximately $4bn worth of subsidized oil that Cuba gets from Venezuela each year will continue,” while Argentina’s Cristina Fernández “will meanwhile be relieved to see that a populist president can prevail, despite a thwacked private sector,” writes the FT’s John Paul Rathbone.

“The first of the two big questions now facing Chávez is the Venezuelan economy,” he contends:

The vote-winning 30 per cent ramp up in government spending this year has opened up a fiscal deficit. Many expect a devaluation soon; the black market exchange rate is already four times the official fixed rate. It is Mr Chávez, the socialist, rather than the “neoliberal” opposition that will have to preside over any adjustment. Ouch.

The second big question is his health. After three operations to remove two tumours, has Mr Chávez really recovered from cancer as he claims? 

Probably not, as “several foreign ministries …. believe that Chávez’s disease is a terminal condition,” says Naim, a former Venezuelan oil minister and a board member at the National Endowment for Democracy.

The regime is likely to implement “constitutional reforms and faster implementation of controversial laws that have already been approved, [including] reforms to increase the power of the executive (or of organisations dependent on the president)” because the president’s ambition “to establish Chavismo as a viable long-term political option would depend on the ability to control those who remain in opposition,” writes the EIU’s Barriga:

Enter the communes. Although originally based on ideological precepts, Mr. Chávez’s increased interest in communal entities stems in large part from political calculations, specifically in trying to erode the power of the opposition at the state and local levels. Thus far, the president has sought to tame regional and local authorities by denying them the share of the national budget to which they are entitled under the constitution — mainly by understating oil revenue. A next stage could potentially involve the transfer the existing political responsibilities (as well as economic resources) that local authorities still enjoy to the communes.

Chávez’s post-election power grab is likely to generate considerable institutional instability, Barriga contends:

The health of Venezuela’s democracy would depend on society’s capacity to maintain a counterweight to the executive, and to a lesser extent on international pressure. While the economy, and in particular movements in the international price of oil, will continue to play a role, Mr Chávez has proved that he can withstand periods of austerity and economic contraction, suggesting that political considerations — and in particular the push to advance his radical agenda — would take precedence over all else.


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