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Yes, I was right on Syria. (And what now?) September 30, 2012

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.
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I realize it is unseemly, in the world of international-affairs analysis, for someone to say quite bluntly “I told you so”. I realize, far more importantly, that the situation in which Syria’s 25 million (or so) people find themselves is one of deep and very hard-to-escape crisis– one that, whether Pres. Asad stays or goes, will (as I noted here in early August of this year) continue to plague them for many, many years to come… and any contention among non-Syrian analysts as to who was “right” and who was “wrong” pales in importance to that deeply tragic fact.

But still, looking back, I think I have been fundamentally correct in my evaluations of the situation in Syria– from March 2011 until today. And that, at a time when a large majority of people in the U.S. (and ‘western’) political class had a very different analytical bottom line than my own. Their bottom line was, basically, that the Asad regime was weak, hollow, deeply unpopular, and would crumble “any day now.” And since people holding to this belief– which was nearly always, much more of a belief than an analysis– have been extremely strong inside the Obama administration as well as in the western chattering classes (including among many self-professed “progressives” or liberals), their belief in the imminent collapse of the Asad regime has driven Washington’s policy all along.

Of greatest concern to me has been those people’s rigid adherence to the policy of not negotiating or supporting the idea of anyone else negotiating with the Asad regime. Instead of any idea of negotiations, the overthrow of the regime was their overwhelming and primary goal. Negotiations about the future of Syria could, they said, be held only after the President’s removal.

Now, I guess I can understand, in the rosy months after the street protesters in Tunisia and Egypt managed to topple their dictators through the use only of mass civilian organizing– and while they resolutely rejected all the attempts of their dictators to “negotiate” a way to stay in power– that many supporters of democracy in Syria thought that that line was not only principled but could also be effective in Syria.

Back then, in the spring of 2011, I said No: Syria’s different. The regime, I argued, had undoubtedly built its support in good part on a core of chronic and deep repression– and also by appealing to all the insecurities of all the religious and ethnic minorities in the country that they would do a lot better to hang together than to hang separately. But nonetheless, I argued, it did have other bases of legitimacy. And it did  have support even from several significant parts of the country’s majority Sunni Arab community… In sum, the situation there was very different from that in Tunisia or Egypt.

The opposition movement in Syria seemed to be, I argued in two public panel discussions in May and November of 2011, quite resilient. But so did the regime. Therefore, the only even possibly effective way out of the impasse between the two sides would be– as in South Africa or Burma/Myanmar– a grand negotiation among all the significant currents in Syrian society… That is, one including the regime, as well as the opposition.

So many people in the Washington DC commentatoriat derided my analysis. “The regime is hollow and will collapse any day,” they said… Oh yes, and then there was the nicely funded Mona Yacoubian, then with the U.S. Institute of “Peace”, with her bizarre idea of a “controlled regime collapse.”(I think one of the things that most riled me about that proposal was that she was purporting to “save” Syria from civil war while proposing policy steps that did nothing except escalate tensions and lead to civil war.)

Right, Mona, how’s the “controlled collapse” thing going?

Back in April of this year I had a conversation with someone inside the State Department’s structure who was working on this issue; and this person said s/he was “amazed that Mr. and Mrs. Asad hadn’t pulled up their stakes and left for a comfortable exile a long time ago!” This person, moreover, is one of the better-informed people inside the Obama administration… (I replied by noting that s/he should just have been reading my analyses more closely. Then s/he might have understood Syria’s internal dynamics a little better.)

* * *

When I said it was my judgment that the Asad regime had deeper resilience than, say Pres. Mubarak’s regime in Egypt or Pres. Ben Ali’s in Tunisia, I was basing that on long experience as a Syria-watcher, or more precisely as a watcher of the Asad family dynasty in power in Syria.

I was working as a journalist in Lebanon and Syria back in 1976, when Pres. Hafez al-Asad sent his own troops and those of his puppet-‘Palestinian’ organizations into tough, often brutal, battle in Lebanon against the combined forces of the PLO and their leftist, anti-Israeli allies. Many people in West Beirut back then said that the Asad regime– which still held to the pro-Palestinian rhetoric of the Jabhat al-Sumoud— could never survive the damage to his pro-Palestinian credentials that that move would cause.

It survived.

Then again, in February 1982, Hafez al-Asad sent his troops brutally against the Muslim Brotherhood centers of influence in Hama and elsewhere. That time, there were many people questioning whether he could survive. He survived.

Just a few months later, his troops in Lebanon stood idly by and were completely humiliated when Israel launched a hard-fought invasion of and advance deep into the country. He survived.

From late 1982 through 1986 or so, his proxy forces in Lebanon fought terrible battles against the PLO’s remnants in Lebanon, including during the ‘Camps War’ of 1983-85t when his supporters from the Amal militia laid deadly siege to the very same two refugee camps– Sabra and Shatila– whose residents were still reeling from the massacres that Israel’s proxies had committed there in 1982.

Asad pere survived the negative political fallout that all those various actions had on his claim to some form of Arab-nationalist legitimacy inside Syria. His was a tough regime– but it always drew its legitimacy from a number of sources, not just one or two. In 2000, after his son Bashar succeeded him, many pundits in the west (particularly those who had never been to Syria and knew little about the country– but also some who did) confidently predicted that he “would not last long”, or “would not be able to control the generals”, etc.

Here we are, twelve years later. Pres. Bashar al-Asad has survived not only the many challenges of the past 18 months– but also the six years that preceded 2011, a period during which, as we now know, Washington was actively funding and supporting many Syrian opposition groups in pursuit of a covertly but resolutely pursued policy of regime change for Syria.

* * *

We can ask another day how it was that so many people– in Washington but also, importantly, in Ankara, which is a key player with regard to Syria– basically got it so wrong in their analysis of the strength and nature of the Asad regime and the resulting balance of power between the regime and the opposition. That “error of judgment” has had profoundly tragic consequences for the people of Syria– and threatens bad consequences for many of their neighbors. (Oh, we have already seen some of these, inside various parts of Turkey. Turkey’s longest land border, after all, is that it shares with Syria… )

Being a convinced pacifist, I am not a supporter of the idea that any war can be “just”. However, the fathers of the Catholic church who developed the whole doctrine of the “Just War” (one that has seeped deeply into the consciousness not just of the west, but of much of the rest of global society, too) did have a rough and realistic understanding of the always deeply harmful nature of warfare, especially when they stipulated that no war could be just unless (a) it had a clear chance of succeeding (rather than dragging on in an indeterminate and harm-inflicting kind of way), and also (b) that the “gains” to be won from the act of war were clearly greater than the harms which– as they well understood– warfare always causes.

The people in today’s “west” who have been arguing against any negotiations with the Asad regime– and therefore, ipso facto, for a continued escalation in tensions in Syria up to and including the use of violence against the regime– by and large have nothing like as vivid and well-informed understanding of the true nature of war as those historic fathers of the Catholic church. But still, they have generally been eager to present their escalatory policies as falling largely within the constraints set by the “Just War” doctrine. That has, all along, been the significance of their assurances that “Sure! The Asad regime is about to fall!”– along with their blithe avowals that (1) The opposition movements are wonderful, united, capable, and basically (apart from a few “rotten apples” who can easily be weeded out) lovers of peace, democracy, and apple pie; and (2) The regime has zero redeeming features; ZERO: It is all bad, and rotten to the core, and deserves no fate but regime change and persecution.

The people in the “west” who have continued giving blind support to the opposition movement despite the long-clear and growing body of evidence that it contains many advocates and practitioners of deadly violence have brought forth two major excuses for that violence. The opposition “had no alternative”, they said, faced with the horrible repression of the regime. Or secondly, they said that the deployment and activities of the men of violence was somehow necessary to “protect” the nonviolent demonstrations.

Both those arguments are mendacious. Yes, the nonviolent demonstrators in Der’a and elsewhere who started the mass, unarmed civilian protests against the regime met with terrible– often lethal– repression. But you know what? That was no different from what was happening along the length and breadth of Egypt during the days between January 25 and February 11, 2011. In that period, an estimated 800 unarmed demonstrators in Egypt were killed by the regime and its thugs– often in extremely brutal circumstances. (Many westerners tend to forget that.) Generally– in Egypt as during the early months of the uprising in Syria– the worst regime repression occurred far from the capital and the many TV cameras therein. But it certainly happened in Egypt.

Did the leaders of the opposition movement there– who knew a lot about the killings in provincial towns throughout the country even as it was happening– conclude that they had “no alternative” but to resort to violence? Indeed, no. They concluded just the opposite: Namely, that given the overwhelming imbalance of access to arms between their own supporters and the regime’s, their very best bet was to hew even more closely to the policy of “salmiyan, salmiyan” (peaceefully, peacefully!)

So they saw that they had an alternative to violence; and with amazing discipline, dignity, and courage, they took it. And they won. Pres. Mubarak was forced to leave office in ignominy; and despite the country’s many remaining problems Egypt’s people are now on the path to building a new Egypt.

So I don’t give any credence to that argument of “no alternative but to use violence.”

I also don’t give any credence to those claims that the armed men were somehow “necessary” in order to “protect” the peaceful demonstrators.

Once again, remember Egypt, and those amazing scenes of unarmed people, en masse, peacefully challenging the power of the regime. If those demonstrators– in the square, on the bridge, everywhere that those confrontations took place– had had snipers or other armed men standing at the corners of their demonstrations, how differently everything would have turned out!

* * *

I am still very surprised at the abruptness and vehemence with which the Turkish government turned against the Asad regime in August 2012 and committed itself to strongly to his ouster. When I spoke at this panel discussion at the Turkish-American SETA Foundation in Washington DC in November, I expressed my basic view about both the opposition and the regime having resilinece and said that in that circumstance, if Syria was to escape from its conflict then it needs a broad, serious intra-Syrian negotiation involving leaders from both sides. But I noted too (as I had done in this May 2011 panel discussion at the Middle East Institute) that the demonstrated lack of leadership capabilities on both sides– as contrasted with, for example, the situation in 1990 South Africa– meant that the Syrian sides themselves almost certainly would not (or perhaps could not) get themselves to the table for this negotiation… So the negotiation would need a midwife.

At SETA, in November, I somewhat naively tried to make the case that the Turkish government was the party the best placed to play that midwifing role. (And I adduced a whole of reasons why. Read them there, on their website.) Certainly, one of the reasons I adduced was the fact that over the past 15-20 years Turkey itself has undergone an admirable transition from military/security rule to a becoming robust democracy. “If we want to see a democratic outcome in Syria, who would be best positioned to help midwife this process– Turkey, or the very non-democratic Gulf states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia?” I asked.

I pointed out, too, that not only was Turkey well qualified to play this midwifing role; but it was also in Turkey’s interest to do this, since any descent into further escalation and bloodshed inside Syria could not but blow back and affect Turkey, a country with a very hard-to-control, 500-mile-long land border with Syria.

So yes, I was naive. Mainly, because the die has already been cast in Ankara, where the government had– as it soon became clear– already cast in its lot precisely with the Qataris and the Saudis and their hangers-on among the “Free Syrian Army” and the other fighting groups. And there was zero interest in Ankara in November– or since– in the idea of exploring a negotiated outcome for Syria. And Turkey has been having ever worse problems– in its ethnic-Kurdish areas, in Hatay province, and elsewhere, ever since.

* * *

I am not going to say “I told you so.” I am going to say that I think that on all the major points about the current situation in Syria, I gave a better analysis than the vast majority of the people who get quoted day-in-day-out in the western media (and that of other countries, like Al-Jazeera and the BBC– both of which have acted as shrill and uncritical mouth-pieces for the some of the worst elements in the Syrian opposition throughout most of the current crisis.) I will say, too, that I’m sorry that I have not done more in recent months, pro-actively, to build on my decades of experience as a Syria watcher– including the publication of two books, in 1991 and 2000, that dealt centrally with aspects of the country’s politics– and my multi-layered understanding of the dangers of war and escalation, to get my analyses of the Syrian situation well disseminated. But there is only so much that one person, who is not backed up by any fancy money, position, or staff such as those enjoyed by the warmongers at places like the Council on Foreign Relations or Brookings, can do. And by and large, too, I have been busy with building my publishing business.

But I weep for Syria and its people, caught up as they are in the madness of this internal/external war… A war that is horrifyingly similar to the one that I lived through in Lebanon 35 years ago– and to the one that Iraqis went through in 2006-2007– and indeed, to some extent until today.

This war inside Syria was absolutely avoidable. And if the vast majority of the peaceful opposition people from inside the country had had their way, it would have been avoided. But no. The Sunni-ist ideologues of the Syrian diaspora– many of whom had been living in the Gulf countries since the horrors they escaped in Hama and elsewhere back in 1982– backed up by their co-ideologues from the governments of Qatar, Saudia Arabia, and sadly also Turkey seemed determined to make this an armed conflict. Washington, which under Obama as under George W. Bush has been fundamentally supportive of “regime change” in Syria, gave them all a green light. And, most shockingly of all to me, large numbers of people in the “progressive”, “human-rights”-oriented movement inside the United States– including large portion of people who had been in the movement that always opposed the U.S. war in Iraq– were cheering them all on from the sidelines.

How to explain this?

By and large, most of these people do not know a lot about Syria and its history. They (like me) had cheered on the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Then, regarding Libya, most of those people had cheered on not only the multifaceted popular uprisings there but also the NATO attacks that led to Pres. Qadhafi’s collapse. In Libya, the use of external (in that case, western) military force was presented to and by many people on the “left” in the west as not only “necessary” but also speedy, decisive, and effective in “saving thousands of lives”.

(Right, Libya. How’s that going?)

But supporting NATO in Libya was those people’s gateway drug to supporting Saudi and Qatari-instigated acts of violence in Syria. That and the whole thing, as noted above, about “no alternative”, “only protecting peaceful protesters”, etc etc.

What makes me incredibly sad is just how quickly so many of those people who were at the forefront of the antiwar movement regarding Iraq seemed to have forgotten what they seemed to know so well in 2002-2003 about the dysfunctional, quintessentially anti-humane nature of war.

After everything that we’ve seen in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the whole of the past decade, there are still so many armchair “liberal interventionists” in the United States who think that a salutary little war could be good for Libya’s people, or for Syria’s???? What on earth are they smoking? And why should anyone anywhere in the world take their views and their analyses seriously?

* * *

So, as promised in the headline here: What now?

Actually, from me, nothing new. Nothing different from what I’ve been saying almost nonstop for the past 18 months: Syria’s people need a negotiated end to their terrible current tragedy. Violence and continuing escalation or maintenance of tensions in Syria is not going to do anything to improve the currently terrible situation of the country’s people.

People! UNHCR is telling us today that “There are 294,000 Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration in neighbouring countries, compared to 41,500 Syrians in March.” And that is only those who are registering for refugee status in other countries. It doesn’t count (as UNRWA’s basic 1950 census didn’t count, for the Palestinians) the large numbers of cross-border refugees who for whatever didn’t even seek to register as refugees. And it doesn’t count the far larger number of Syrians who have been displaced within their own country…

The proud nation of Syria is becoming– like Mozambique or Nicaragua in the 1980s– a country torn apart, rent asunder, torn limb from limb. And for largely the same reason: the deliberately anti-humane and anti-infrastructure activities of brutal, western-backed insurgent forces. The Contras and Renamo… Okay, in the case of Syria, the regime itself is much more violent than either of those other governments. But as an American citizen I am not in any way responsible for the violence of the Damascus regime (though I dearly wish there were more that i could do to stop it.) I am in some way responsible for the violence of my government: Both the violence that it engages in directly, and the violence undertaken by others that it supports. Plus, the longstanding and also harmful violence– in the case of Syria, as of Iran and, earlier, Iraq– of punitive economic sanctions wielded for more than three decades now against Syria’s people by a U.S. Congress acting at the behest of the pro-Israel lobby.

All those forms of violence, from all parties, need to end. Our government should join all the other governments and non-governmental bodies in the world who are searching for a negotiated end to the impasse in Syria. The principal parties in and to the negotiation should be the representatives of Syria’s people– all of them, absolutely not excluding the current regime. But to get to the negotiation they need, they need to see wise leadership from all the important outside parties. Turkey turned out to be, from my point of view, a weak and unwilling reed on which to build a negotiations-based strategy. Now, I guess that the mission of Lakhdar al-Ibrahimi is the best hope we have. But he can only ever be as effective as the Security Council allows him to be. We need to add our voices to those raised by so many people (of all political stripes) inside Syria: An end to the violence; let the real negotiations over how to build a better Syria and heal the wounds of the past begin.


Damascus today: Sarajevo, 1914? July 18, 2012

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.
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The killing, in Damascus today, of at least three powerful members of the Baathist regime in Syria, will almost certainly plunge that whole country– and quite likely also much of the rest of the Greater Middle East– into a maelstrom of inter-group violence far worse than any it has seen until now.

Ninety-eight years ago, on June 28, 1914, a small group of Serbian nationalists executed a similar kind of violent coup, killing the presumptive heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, during an official visit to Sarajevo, Bosnia. Though the original assassination plan was botched, conspirator Gavrilo Princip was able to shoot the Archduke and his wife dead a short while later.

The process of political/diplomatic breakdown thereby set in process unspooled with amazing speed– in a context in which major European powers had already, for some years, been arming and escalating tension and distrust among themselves. Within just one month, World War I had erupted– a confrontation that, though centered in Europe, soon engulfed the whole world, leaving tens of millions dead and tens of millions more displaced, dishonored, starving, and extremely vulnerable to disease.

The killing of President Asad’s powerful brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, along with Syria’s ministers of defense and interior, certainly escalates the internal tensions and the stakes of the conflict within Syria, a country of 19 million souls in which sectarian tensions and inter-sect violence have already been rising to a high degree over the past 16 months.

Each side to the fierce political battle underway in Syria today accuses the other of having (a) fomented the sectarianism, and (b) launched and escalated the violence; and there is considerable substance to these accusations on both sides. Assad, Shawkat, and most of the important figures in the regime’s security apparatus are members of the country’s Alawite Muslim minority. The Alawites, who are a branch of Shiism, make up around 12% of the country’s population. The opposition forces are almost completely dominated by Sunni Islamist movements. The Sunnis make up around 75% of the country’s Arab population. (The remainder are, mainly, Christians. The country also has sizeable populations of non-Arabs, including Kurds, Armenians, and Turkoman; and a very large and vulnerable population of stateless Palestinians.)

Today’s killings in Damascus mark the death-knell for the diplomatic initiative that former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been pursuing. He has, extremely laudably, been trying to find a negotiated end to the conflict in Syria– one that would include all the major political forces inside the country, along with concerned and influential other governments.

Among Syrians, there have been raucous sounds of jubilation among the oppositionists in exile, and some signs of jubilation among in-country oppositionists– though it is currently extremely hard to get any news at all out of the country. Until now, there has been no word from President Asad. The Reuters report linked to above said that the armed forces chief of staff, Fahad Jassim al-Freij, “quickly took over as defense minister to avoid giving any impression of official paralysis.”

Back in spring 2011, Mona Yacoubian, then an analyst with the (rather poorly named) U.S. Institute of Peace, laid out a plan for “controlled regime change” in Syria. Though she noted that this would not necessarily be an easy feat to achieve, she did nonetheless judge it to be achievable. I questioned her judgment on this point at the time. The events of the intervening 15 months have clearly brought home the lesson (that was clear to me back at the moment she offered her plan) that an action as deepseated and momentous as “regime change” cannot be “controlled”, unless there is clear buy-in to the process from the existing status-quo power— as there was, for example, from the National Party in South Africa in 1992; and as Hillary Clinton is (laudably) hoping to achieve from the Burmese junta today.

A regime that is subjected to the kinds of attacks that Damascus has seen today will have its back to the wall, and that hears from its opponents only the most gruesome and oft-repeated threats of what will happen to its leaders and supporters once they are vanquished, can certainly be expected to retaliate with great violence. The violence inside Syria will get worse; and there will almost certainly be a huge increase in calls for western military intervention…

Meantime, in Israel, here is what the rabidly rightwing analyst Barry Rubin had to say yesterday about the whole phenomenon of the Arab Spring:

“Every Arabic-speaking country is likely to be wracked with internal violence, conflict, disorder and slow socio-economic progress for years, even decades, to come… “

“the big Middle East conflict of the future is not the Arab-Israeli but the Sunni-Shia one… [A] series of conflicts have broken out all along the Sunni-Shia borderland as the two blocs vie for control of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Bahrain.

In addition, the Syrian civil war is wrecking that country and will continue to paralyze it for some time to come. When the dust settles, any new government is going to have to take a while to manage the wreckage, handle the quarreling, diverse ethnic-religious groups, and rebuild its military…”

And that was yesterday!

Of course, all this while– as throughout the whole of the past 44 years– Israel’s colonial land-grab of the land and resources of Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank, and Golan has continued. As has its acquisition of ever more capable and lethal military powers… As has its maintenance of Gaza as an extremely tightly policed open-air-prison for 1.6 million people.

The violence in Syria does not just, as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said today, threaten to “spin out of control”. It also threatens to draw powers from near and far into a conflict of still unimaginable proportions and extent. (And the fact that the U.S. has a presidential election this year makes the geopolitics of “controlling” this process much harder to plan.) I imagine that there are plenty of members of Israel’s current rightwing and expansionist elite who are hoping and planning that, as this conflict winds down– whatever its eventual dimensions– their command over the entire territory of the mashreq (the Arab East) will be far stronger than it is today.

For them, the whole “Iran threat” that their acolytes have hyped to such great effect in the west and much of the rest of the (western dominated) “international community” has always been something of a sideshow… a way, mainly, to divert attention from the colonialist facts they’ve been busy creating on the ground in the West Bank for the whole of the past 44 years. In regional political terms, Syria was always one of their main targets. It was clearly identified as such in the “Clean Break” document of 1996. And now, they don’t even have to lift a finger of their own, in order to see the country being torn apart… with the help of, it has to be said, many cynical sectarian forces from outside– including from those notably anti-democratic regimes, Saudi Arabia and Qatar…

Can the now-threatening collapse into a tsunami of sectarian violence that may well engulf the whole Middle East be prevented? Yes, it can, if enough people inside and outside the region, seeing both the human tragedy and the geopolitical instability that would ensue, can act together to use all the available tools of diplomacy and human reasonableness that will be needed to avert it.

It is, certainly, harder to see how it can be done in a year when that 5% of humanity who happen to be U.S. citizens are caught up in their (our) own periodic form of money-driven insanity known as a presidential election. But the good of the Syrian people– all of the Syrian people– must be the first priority. Determining what that is, and who can legitimately represent the aspirations of the country’s people is, of course, a central part of the current conundrum. Saving Syria’s people– and the people of the broader region– from the kind of sectarian breakdown and violence that we all saw occurring in Iraq over the past seven years… and that I had lived through, first hand, when I was in Lebanon in the late 1970s.. must be the top priority. That requires– now, as always– negotiations, including negotiations that draw in and involve the leaders on all sides who have committed some terrible deeds. There are pitifully few angels or innocents in Syria; and none of them are at head of either the current regime, or the opposition. But they are the ones who must be drawn into the negotiation.

That, it seems to me, is the only alternative to a 1914-type explosion of all-out war. And war, remember, inflicts severe harm on everyone who happens to live in the war-zone, with the most vulnerable members of society being (as we have seen in Iraq, and elsewhere) those who suffer the most. From that perspective, avoiding war is a supreme priority for all those concerned with the human rights of actual living people.

* * *

Update, 9:07 pm:

David Ignatius, as well informed as ever, writes this:

The CIA has been working with the Syrian opposition for several weeks under a non-lethal directive that allows the United States to evaluate groups and assist them with command and control. Scores of Israeli intelligence officers are also operating along Syria’s border, though they are keeping a low profile.


Turkey and the transition in Syria May 24, 2011

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.
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AFP and other outlets reported today that leaders of Syria’s still very inchoate opposition movement will be holding an organizing meeting in Antalya from May 31 through June 2.

Just around the same time this news came out, I made a presentation at a small panel discussion on Syria organized by the Washington, DC-based Middle East Institute. My charge was to survey the various regional dimensions of the ongoing events in Syria. I ended up focusing mainly on the role Turkey potentially might play in helping to facilitate the successful transition to a functioning and egalitarian democracy in Syria that I believe would be far and away the best outcome for the country’s 21 million people. The following are notes based on the most important things I said there…


‘Arab Spring’ heads for Palestine May 14, 2011

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.
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It looks as if the civilian mass organizing that has been a feature of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere is now heading seriously for Palestine. In the AS’s early weeks, several Western commentators made a point of writing both that the AS itself hadn’t really happened much inside the OPTs, and that the content of the way the AS was being undertaken in all those other Arab countries was tightly focused on domestic affairs and somehow “proved” that the Arab masses didn’t care about Palestine any more.

And then, there was the Carl Gershmann (NED)- financed, Astroturf-like “movement” in Gaza whose actions seemed designed above all to embarrass and undermine Hamas.

Now, it looks as if the civilian mass organizing is occurring within the Palestinian body politic, and among the Palestinians’ brothers and sisters who are citizens of other Arab states, in a new and significant way. This organizing is going on inside and outside the OPTs– including in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon— and the main theme in it (as articulated by the activists in Lebanon) is “The people demand the return to Palestine.” (Ash-sha3b yurid al-aw3da ila filas6een.)

This is a bit of a riff on the main– and stunningly successful!– slogan of the popular movements in Tunisia and Egypt: “The people demand the overthrow of the regime.” In both Jordan and Lebanon there are many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians whose internationally recognized (Univ. Dec. of Human Rts., etc) right to return to the land of their birth has has been prevented by Israel from 1948 until this day. Indeed, over recent decades, successive Israeli governments have refused even to allow the Palestinians to place their refugees’ “right of return” on the negotiating agenda in any meaningful way: Not only they can’t implement the return; they are not even allowed to talk about it!

For the 7-8 million Palestinians around the world who are currently prevented by Israel from returning to the land that they or their immediate forebears were exiled/”cleansed” from in 1948, the right of return has always been a central focus of longing and political activism.  The PLO grew up in the Palestinian diaspora, and was organized centrally around the demand of the right of return. But with the 1993 Oslo Accord, PLO leaders Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, and Co. traded their support of that demand for something that turned out to be no better than a mess of potage: their own personal “return”– but to Ramallah, not to Jerusalem; and that of a small number of their chosen followers. And the “right”– always heavily circumscribed, and sometimes simply quashed/rescinded, by Israel– to administer a few municipal-type things in and around Ramallah.

The demands and very burning needs of the Palestinian refugees whose support had boosted Arafat, Abbas, and Co. to political prominence were simply jettisoned. As were the demands and burning needs of the broad networks of Palestinians within the OPTs whose steadfast support for the exiled PLO leaders always successfully blocked the plans the U.S. and Israel had to groom an “alternative leadership” from within the OPTs. But once Arafat and Co. returned to Ramallah, they clamped down fast and hard on the till-then semi-autonomous networks of civilian activists that had run the First Palestinian Intifada (1987-93.)

And let us remember that that intifada– and the early weeks of the Second Intifada, in Sept.- Oct. of 2000, which like the First Initfada (uprising) were also overwhelmingly nonviolent and marked by the lengthy and widespread reliance on civilian mass organizing, though by the end of 2000, Israel’s terrible and lethal counter-violence successfully drove many of the shabab into the big tactical mistake of using their own violence, too.

So now, civilian mass organizing of the kind pioneered in the 1980s by the Palestinians of the OPTs, seems to be coming in a big way to the Palestinians of the immediate diaspora– acting in alliance with their sisters and brothers from the Arab states that have hosted them nigh these many decades. As I chronicled in great detail in the study of the PLO that I published in 1984 with Cambridge U.P., the earliest impulses of those who formed the guerrilla groups that took over (and became) the PLO in 1968-69 were all for armed action against Israel. It was the Palestinians of the OPTs who really pioneered civilian mass organizing.

Anyway, what is happening now is significant, and it may well end up being huge. Citizens of the Arab states that have seen the flowering of the Arab Spring never– as Tom Friedman and others claimed– “forgot” or turned their backs on the Palestinian issue… And now, with the promise that arose as a result of the recent Fateh-Hamas agreement, there is to be a democratization of the internal governance, carried out among the entire Palestinian national community, worldwide. Stay tuned.

Moving to backup blogging here May 14, 2011

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.
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Something (perhaps Ntrepid hacking?) has been happening to my main JWN site, so I’ve decided to do a bit of backup blogging here. Anyway, WordPress is so much easier to compose on, than venerable ol’ Movable Type. (I have plans on hold to move the whole of JWN over to a WP platform, anyway. Some day, some day… )

Bottom line: I plan to blog here till my CTO can help me fix the MT version of JWN.

Can Obama stand up to Israel? November 25, 2009

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Can Obama stand up to Israel?

It won’t be easy, but President Obama must hold Israel to account, both for the two-state solution and the safety of US troops around the world.

By Helena Cobban

from the November 24, 2009 edition of The Christian Science Monitor

Washington – President Obama urgently needs to distance Washington from the provocative – and illegal – actions the Israeli government has been undertaking in Jerusalem.

He needs to do this to save the two-state solution that he supports between Israelis and Palestinians. He needs to do it, too, because it will help protect US troops around the world. Jerusalem is a core concern for many of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, and with US forces now facing tense situations in several majority-Muslim countries, Washington has a stronger need than ever to keep the goodwill of the peoples of those lands.

This is one of the main findings from a study-tour of the region I co-led earlier this month. In Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and the West Bank, strongly pro-US leaders underlined to us the importance of Jerusalem to their own political fortunes and those of other American allies throughout the Muslim world.

Israel took control of the eastern portion of Jerusalem, including the historic, walled “Old City,” in the 1967 war. Since then, Israeli governments have invested heavily in implanting Jewish settlers into East Jerusalem, while squeezing out the area’s indigenous Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians.

In recent months this campaign of ethnic transformation has intensified. On Nov. 16, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans for the construction of 900 new housing units in the southeast settlement of Gilo. He reportedly did this right after Mr. Obama’s special envoy to the region, George Mitchell, had pleaded with him not to. But aside from expressing “dismay,” have we seen any visible consequences from Washington? Not yet.

Today, Jerusalem is a tinderbox. If it ignites, American interests will be at risk, because Washington is seen as acquiescing in Israel’s harmful actions there.

In decades past, when policy differences arose between Israel and the United States, many of Israel’s supporters argued that it was on the front line against terrorism, so Americans should not second-guess its judgments or policies.

That was never a wholly convincing argument. But now, the situation has turned quite around. Today, it is American men and women who are on the front lines and it is their – and our – interests that are most at risk.

By not holding Israel to account, Washington is needlessly – and recklessly – offending hundreds of millions of Muslims on whose goodwill our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere depend.

While in Jerusalem, we saw Israel’s destructive policies firsthand. The Jewish state is:

•Expanding the large Israeli-only settlements that ring the city to the east, north, and south.

•Supporting smaller settler “outposts” in the heart of Jerusalem’s remaining Palestinian enclaves.

•Completing the 24-foot-high Separation Wall that encloses many Palestinian portions of the city and slices through the center of others.

•Delegating responsibility for archaeological excavations in sensitive areas to settler organizations that have worked feverishly – and quite unscientifically – to push tunnels right under the historic “Muslim Quarter” of the walled Old City.

•Making it almost impossible for the city’s Palestinians to expand their housing stock, and conducting regular demolitions of Palestinian housing it deems “illegal.”

All these Israeli actions are themselves illegal under international law, since Israel controls East Jerusalem and the surrounding West Bank only as a military occupying power, not a rightful sovereign government.

Imagine if, when the US military occupied Baghdad after 2003, Washington had taken steps like these! Fortunately, it didn’t. Instead, it steadily delegated authority back to Iraqis themselves.

The US is far and away Israel’s biggest external supporter. The aid America gives to her allies should not be unconditional but used to uphold US interests. In the Middle East, that means US dollars and diplomacy should support a fair and sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians and the rule of law in an otherwise chaotic world.

It’s true that over the years many Americans have become persuaded that Greater Jerusalem has been “unified,” that it all belongs to Israel, and indeed is “Israel’s eternal capital.”

The rest of the world – and international law – doesn’t agree. What people in other countries see is Israel thumbing its nose at international law as it works to transform the city’s ethnic composition.

This is disastrous for Washington’s peace diplomacy, which has always been based on the principle that the city’s final disposition should be negotiated, rather than unilaterally determined through the creation of new facts on the ground.

In his landmark Cairo speech to Muslims in June, Obama said he would “personally pursue” a two-state solution “with all the patience and dedication that the task requires.” Today, Obama may feel that the political price of standing up to Israel – which few US presidents have done – is too high. It is high – but the risk that continued acquiescence to Israel’s policies in Jerusalem poses to American lives (and those of Palestinians and Israelis) is now even higher. This is Obama’s chance to set a new, just course for the Middle East on a firmly pro-American basis.

He can do this by linking US aid to Israel to its compliance with international law in the city, by supporting action by the UN Security Council to uphold international standards there, and in other ways.

The 250,000 remaining Palestinians of Jerusalem desperately need this action. So does Obama’s peace diplomacy.

And so, too, do the 200,000-plus US service members deployed today in tense, majority-Muslim lands.

Helena Cobban, a longtime correspondent and columnist for the Monitor, was recently appointed executive director of the Washington-based Council for the National Interest.

IRAQ: U.S. Diplomatic Adviser’s Troubling Role in Oil Politics October 17, 2009

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WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (IPS) – In 2003, U.S. diplomatist Peter Galbraith resigned at the end of a distinguished, 24-year government career. Over the years that followed, he worked as a contract-based adviser to leaders in Iraq’s Kurdish community, while also arguing passionately in public media that Iraq’s Kurds should be given maximum independence from Baghdad – including full control over any new sources of oil.

But in June 2004, more quietly, Galbraith also established a small, U.S.-registered company, Porcupine, that held a five percent stake in a newly exploited oilfield in Iraqi Kurdistan, a Norwegian daily revealed last Saturday.

The daily, Dagens Næringsliv, had been investigating the increasingly troubled relationship between Porcupine and a privately-owned Norwegian firm, DNO, which partnered with Porcupine in the Kurdish-Iraqi oil project. Journalists at the daily said that discovering that Porcupine’s hitherto secretive owner was Galbraith came as a complete surprise.


U.S. Strategy in Doubt as Abbas Loses Popular Support October 11, 2009

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WASHINGTON, Oct 9 (IPS) – Just two months ago, many western commentators were jubilant that Mahmoud Abbas, the U.S.-supported head of both the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the interim Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA), was making a comeback and reducing the influence in Palestinian society of the Islamist movement Hamas.

But a series of events in recent weeks has sent Abbas’s level of support from his people into a nosedive. The most serious has been the reaction among Palestinians to a decision Abbas or someone close to him made to postpone any further U.N. action on the recommendations of the Goldstone Report into the atrocities committed during last winter’s Israel-Gaza war.

Richard Goldstone, a very distinguished South African jurist and war-crimes prosecutor, presented his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva on Sep. 29. It contained a recommendation that the HRC forward the report’s lengthy and detailed findings regarding wrongdoing by both sides to the Security Council for possible further action.


IRAN: Non-Western Big Powers Enjoy Growing Influence October 2, 2009

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WASHINGTON, Oct 2 (IPS) – Thursday’s seven-party talks in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear programme resulted in a breakthrough agreement on Russian enrichment of materials Tehran needs for nuclear-medical work.

Proponents say that step considerably reduces western fears that Tehran was heading for nuclear weapons, and is a good move toward rebuilding the long-broken confidence between Tehran and most western governments.

It also reveals the degree to which western governments now find they must take due account of non-western powers like Russia and China, rather than continuing to allow their policies to be dictated by the more hawkish tendencies among their own citizenries.


A Week of Dimming Peace Prospects September 26, 2009

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WASHINGTON, Sep 25 (IPS) – Eight months after Barack Obama launched his presidency by promising a speedy push for Palestinian-Israeli peace, that effort has stalled badly. And there are now growing fears that the top levels of Obama’s peace team are torn by internal disagreements that may undermine the whole peace effort.

Some of these problems were on view during two high-level appearances Obama made in New York this week.

On Tuesday, speaking to the media after the three-way meeting he held with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Obama notably avoided saying anything about the failure of the high-profile campaign he and his chief peace envoy, George Mitchell, have pursued to “persuade” the Israeli government to stop building settlement housing in the occupied West Bank.

Obama instead announced a new project: the resumption of the long-suspended negotiations between the parties over the terms of their final peace.

Most observers – in Palestine, Israel, and the U.S. – interpreted Tuesday’s events as marking two distinct victories for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.