Thursday, July 23, 2009

Time to put Europe back on the map

As the recession bites, the demands for more economic nationalism, protectionism and restrictions on immigration have grown in Europe, but the pro-European camp in the UK needs to find its voice again, writes Adam Hug for Public Servant.

(N.B this article was written in mid-June but published late July at http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=12331)

Amid all the hoopla of cabinet resignations, alleged plots and general infighting that threatened to unseat Gordon Brown, the actual results of the European Elections somehow seemed something of an afterthought. The lowest share of the vote for the Labour Party since Keir Hardy was in short trousers was duly noted alongside real anger, though not surprise, at the election of BNP MEPs for the first time. What the result means for the UK's relationship with Europe has been mostly overlooked in the commentary.

The election campaign by the main parties was perhaps most notable for its almost complete lack of European content with occasional Conservative attacks on the government's decision not to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty the only issue gaining significant coverage. John Prescott, not the most devout of pro-Europeans, was stinging in his attack on the government's 'non-campaign' saying it lacked a clear message. The retreat from making a positive case for Europe by the Labour Party, although perhaps for tactical reasons at this election, is part of a longer term trend that leaves the way open for a strategic defeat for pro-Europeans at the hands of Eurosceptic media and parties.

Even before the first vote was counted the Conservatives' decision to leave the EPP-ED to create a new Eurosceptic group 'European Conservatives and Reformists' meant it was always likely that Britain's delegation for the first time would have a clear majority of MEPs (43 MEPs) sitting in explicitly Eurosceptic groupings in the Parliament. The actual result gave the Eurosceptic camp 43 members and with 29 UK MEPs remaining in the main groupings or smaller pro-European coalitions. The Tories move from the EPP is likely to preclude them from gaining high ranking positions in the Parliament's Committees, reducing their ability to directly influence legislation. When the poor result for Labour and the PES across Europe that reduced their bargaining power for committee posts is taken into account it is clear that the UK will have considerably less clout in the new Parliament than it has previously been able to exercise.
While the corrosive effect of the drip drip revelations on MPs expenses clearly helped to depress both the turnout and support for the main three parties, the scandal simply added to an anti-establishment sentiment seen in several European Countries. In Western Europe the hard right strengthened its position in some countries including the Freedom Party in the Netherlands led by recently banned from the UK Geert Wilders, the True Finns Party in Finland and the Freedom Party in Austria. On a more positive note the Front National fell back in France from 7 to 3 seats while the German far right failed to make a breakthrough.

The trend was perhaps most pronounced in Eastern Europe, where the economic crisis hit hardest, seeing a significant rise in support for anti-EU parties and large falls in turnout in many countries, amid complaints that the EU is not doing enough to assist them. Among them include the anti-Roma Hungarian nationalist JOBBIK party achieved 3 MEPs and 14.8 per cent of the vote, while the Greater Romanian Party whose pet hates include ethnic Hungarians will join them in Brussels after also gaining 3 seats.

While commentators have pointed out that the elections were a bad day for Europe's Centre-Left, looking at the relative successes and failures it seems that the overall trend in the election may be seen as a setback for openness and internationalism rather than a post-crunch endorsement of free market values in the face of a socialist critique. The election saw call for greater economic nationalism, protectionism, restrictions on immigration and opposition to Turkish accession grow louder. However for the most part the parties of the right were able to respond to the economic crisis by co-opt the criticisms of 'Anglo-Saxon' capitalism, arguing that they had always preferred a more continental capitalism with an activist, regulating state.
The challenge across Europe is to reverse this nationalist, insular trend while holding a measured debate about the EU's future economic direction. However here in the UK there is a pressing need for pro-Europeans to start making the case about why we benefit from EU membership and the damage a diminished relationship with other European partners or withdrawal would do to Britain.

The pro-European camp in the UK has been without a focus for several years lacking an issue such as Euro membership to unite behind and since the decline of the 'Britain in Europe' campaign. There is a clear need to re-establish a broad based coalition in favour of the European Union, not for any new grand projet, but to reassert the importance of the European Union for the UK's long-term economic prosperity and its status as a key player on the world stage. Politicians of all parties, business, trade unions, NGOs and grass roots activists must unite to make the case that only by working together with our European partners can we effectively address the cross-border challenges we face such as climate change and repairing the global economy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Can Syria end the Arab cold war?

Chris Phillips (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jul/14/syria-saudia-arabia-cold-war)

One by one the diplomats are returning to Damascus. In the wake of Barack Obama's decision to appoint a new ambassador to Syria, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has followed suit. However, a new Saudi ambassador represents more than a mirroring of western rapprochement with the Ba'athist regime – it is an olive branch between two states that have been locked in opposition for the last four years.

While Washington seemingly steps up its attempts to woo President Bashar al-Assad away from Iran, Saudi Arabia is working in conjunction to lure him into the so-called moderate Arab camp. With King Abdullah himself expected to visit Syria soon, could this ambassadorial appointment mark the first step in ending the latest round of the Arab cold war?

Malcolm Kerr described the 1950s and 1960s in the Middle East as an "Arab cold war" pitting Nasser's Egypt and allies against conservative Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Though the actors and ideologies have changed, some form of cold war in the Arab world has remained ever since, whether Cairo's temporary exclusion after making peace with Israel in 1979, or Syrian-Saudi-Egyptian collusion with the US against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991. Its latest embodiment is well known: Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, under the patronage of Iran, face allies of the US in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. While verbal attacks have dominated, with the "moderates" stoking fears of a "Shia Crescent" challenging Arab Sunni hegemony and the "radicals" lambasting Egypt's inaction during the Gaza war, violence has erupted too, notably when Saudi and Syria's proxies fought gun battles in Beirut last year.

So why is Saudi, arguably the bitterest of Syria's Arab rivals, extending a hand to end this cold conflict now? Riyadh has three priorities that promote reconciliation with Damascus. Firstly, it wishes to contain Syria's close ally, Iran, and particularly fears its nuclear programme. The Sunday Times recently reported a green light from Riyadh for an Israeli attack on Iran through Saudi airspace. Though this has not been confirmed, it is fair to say Riyadh would shed no tears over an Israeli strike. However, it would fear a domestic backlash should Hezbollah and Syria retaliate against Israel, and prying Assad from Ahmadinejad's embrace seems the best way to avoid this. The uncertainty in Tehran following the recent post-election protests has catalysed Saudi's renewed effort to detach Syria from Iran.

Another key factor is Lebanon. Saudi has long backed Saad Hariri and his supporters in the "March 14" group who emerged victorious in June's elections. Yet despite their victory Syria's allies – Hezbollah and the "March 8" group – remain powerful and some kind of compromise is needed if a functioning government is to be formed in Lebanon. Having already tried and failed to neutralise the opposition by military force, when Saudi-backed Sunni militants were swiftly defeated by Shia gunmen in May 2008, Riyadh understands it must enter dialogue with Damascus to keep the peace with Hezbollah and consolidate Hariri's electoral victory.
The final and arguably greatest priority for Riyadh is to toe Washington's line. Under George Bush, when the US's tone was confrontational, Saudi was similarly demanding of Syria. In contrast, following Obama's less antagonistic approach, Saudi and other Arab allies are softening their stance. King Abdullah of Jordan, the inventor of the "Shia Crescent" theory, has been in Damascus recently trying to sell Obama's peace initiative to Assad. Egypt has similarly invited Syria to help moderate Palestinian reconciliation talks, while Saudi's new ambassadorial appointment is the latest of several gestures of reconciliation during 2009.

So will these measures win over Syria and end the latest Arab cold war? Ostensibly Damascus is weak and in need of allies: Hezbollah is still reeling from electoral defeat and Iran is subdued domestically and isolated internationally. Moreover, US sanctions are starting to have an impact on the Syrian economy, and Obama's support is crucial if the long-occupied Golan Heights are to be recovered. Surely ditching Iran and embracing the Arab moderates is the best way to ensure the dual goals of economic development and returning territory?

Yet from a position of seeming weakness Assad is proving to be increasingly shrewd in foreign relations. He has turned the Lebanese defeat to his advantage by emphasising Syria's lack of interference – something that has won plaudits from the French president Nicolas Sarkozy among others. Similarly, a recent interview on western television has helped his British-born wife Asma present a more positive view of the country. Yet, at the same time as promoting western and Arab rapprochement, Assad has shored up the Iranian alliance by being the first leader to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his re-election.

Contrary to American and Saudi wishful thinking, it is the Iranian alliance that has given Syria its regional importance and allowed it to confront the moderate Arab states despite military and economic weakness. Assad has spoken of a desire to be the bridge or back-channel for the west to Tehran – and for this he needs to retain the alliance, not abandon it in some grand bargain for diplomatic realignment and economic investment. While his strategy of playing both sides to maximise gains for Syria might include welcoming Saudi's advances, this won't permanently end the latest Arab cold war and may ultimately make it slightly colder.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Time to take Sharia in Pakistan more seriously?

Ella Rolfe

Swat residents have my sympathy if they are skeptical at the Pakistan Army’s announcement of imminent victory there. No post-conflict plan has been outlined; Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid recently said people are afraid the government will strike another deal with the Taliban.March’s ceasefire deal, giving effective judicial power to sharia courts in line with Taliban demands, excited much chatter. Was the Pakistani government so weak that it would risk international opprobrium? Or trying to move away from the American-sponsored Musharraf era? Some detected the nudging hand of the ISI, the secret service notorious for undermining the government to empower its client militias.

What many missed, though, is that sharia law was only a small part of the story. Partial sharia already operated over parts of northern Pakistan, including Swat - brought in by the dictator Ziaul Haq in the 1980s and never lifted. The recent deal therefore represented an expansion of powers – certainly not an ideological or systemic shift.

Sharia itself is not behind people’s fears. Popular relief at the deal did not necessarily express a pro-sharia groundswell – only 3% of votes in the 2008 elections went to parties advocating it – but people welcomed an end to fighting, and many found the new sharia courts quicker and cheaper than state courts.

But relief quickly evaporated as the army left Swat and the Taliban’s grip on judicial systems returned. The resulting lack of rule of law explains the fear now - not of sharia but of chaos. Emboldened not by an ideological underpinning to their dominance but by the withdrawal of the only effective opposition, the Taliban seek not true sharia but pure power - and they got it with the last deal.

With the renewed army operation, the government can’t claim that the deal was likely to bring reconciliation. Soon after the ceasefire there were several skirmishes involving insurgents loyal to Mullah Fazlullah, a Taliban commander whose father-in-law, Pakistani Taliban leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad, had signed the deal. Although the government may have had little choice of broker, their mistake was to trust too much in Sufi Muhammad’s authority over Fazlullah.

As another ceasefire looms, crucial questions remain unanswered. Where are the results of the army operation? Who has been killed or battered into submission, and who brought into agreement; what is different this time? There is widespread suspicion that after the army’s withdrawal the area will revert to de facto Taliban control, proving the military operation worthless. Is this really all 60% of Pakistan’s budget can achieve?

The collapse of the previous deal may or may not exemplify the government’s incompetence (let’s not forget the scale of the problems), but it does show the emphasis on high-level political deal making which consumes so much of its time. Pakistan, a society so status-ridden it makes Victorian Britain look like Big Brother, suffers particularly acutely from this. As in Numeri’s Sudan in 1983, sharia law has been used by the top to squeeze support from an opposing faction. Ideology has never mattered less: had the Taliban demanded that their role in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan be justified by compulsory pink ra-ra skirts, the government would most likely have complied.

The cynical use of sharia shows deep confusion in Pakistan’s identity, starting with the use of Islam by a supposedly secular state as the primary reason for its existence. As such, Islamic law has been sporadically and arbitrarily thrown into a mish-mash of hangovers in Pakistani law, including the still-used Frontier Crimes Regulation introduced by the British in 1901. The largely secular elite seems to think that the people need occasional tidbits of Islamic rule to prevent them revolting while it carries on its game of high-level musical chairs. While a small minority with AK47s is talking to a small minority with an electoral mandate, everyone else has been sold short.

The preponderance of power politics means that rulers of Pakistan seem to exist to posture rather than to govern. After the Mumbai bombings, in the context of various border skits, warlike press statements by both governments and an infuriatingly pointless press debate over whether or not the surviving bomber was Pakistani, the Swat deal was struck just as most of the army was redeployed to the Indian border. The ceasefire was not brokered with the local situation foremost in mind.

The Swat deal may also have been an attempt to distract attention from the anti-government lawyers’ movement - one that grew ever more ridiculous as the removal from office of the movement’s champions the Sharif brothers in late March enflamed it further. Amid threats of revolution and the deployment of container blockades on all roads into Islamabad, the government announced that the national kite-flying festival, Basant, would be held the same day as the lawyers’ march into the capital. Basant should have happened in February, when it was fairly successfully banned by the government because of the lethal habit of covering kite strings with broken glass to cut down rivals’ kites.

So anything the government does now in Swat will be deeply distrusted, and probably too myopic to make any difference. As Ahmed Rashid said, the army is not fulfilling its duty to protect civilians in Swat by simply telling them to leave before it bombs their houses. Civilians are being treated as inconvenient dust on the agenda of defeating whichever ‘enemy’ best serves the maintenance of power today. This means not only that the army has the wrong mentality and the wrong type of warfare to defuse the Taliban, but also that it doesn’t seem to care.Because of this, sharia law - or indeed any real reform - is inconsistently implemented and barely integrated, and the government is not taking responsibility for oversight. This hands-off, high-political rather than legal approach is the root of the government’s troubles. If it took sharia more seriously, as law rather than bargaining chip, and integrated sharia into an accountable and functioning legal system, it might manage to dent the Taliban’s power.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Can Syria be internationally rehabilitated without negotiations with Israel?

Chris Phillips. Source: The Majalla

Until very recently, the political climate regarding Syria's relationships with Israel, US and the West improved considerably, and an agreement on the Golan Heights issue seemed likely. However, elections in Israel changed the whole rationale, and the main question now seems to be whether the West-Syria rapproachement is possible, without negotiations and the improvement of relations with Israel.

The view from Damascus has improved recently. The twilight years of the Bush administration saw European and American politicians gradually end the White House's diplomatic boycott to court President al-Asad. At the same time, indirect negotiations with the departing Israeli government of Ehud Olmert signalled that peace talks with Tel Aviv could soon be revived. Finally, on assuming power in January, Barack Obama spoke of engaging with pariah states and indicated a desire to promote a regional multi-lateral peace, perhaps in the shape of the 2002 Arab peace initiative. There were whispers in Damascus that a reengagement with the US and peace talks with Israel were a real possibility.

Unfortunately, the Israeli electorate did not read the script. The right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu elected in February, though stating its willingness to negotiate with Syria, has already ruled out returning the Golan Heights - Asad's precondition for talks. The Syrian President has long wanted to tie any Israeli talks with a renewed engagement with the US, and waited for a compliant US administration to mediate peace negotiations. However, with Asad now facing an uncompromising partner in Tel Aviv and President Obama already showing more contempt for Israeli procrastination and inaction than his predecessors, this article considers how the Syrian-US-Israeli triangular relationship is changing and the consequences for peace negotiations.

Syria's relevance to US Middle East policy since 9/11 has been curiously paradoxical, becoming both weaker and more important. Ostensibly, the Ba'ath regime has less regional power under Bashar than under his father, Hafez al-Asad. The armed forces have continued to decline following the collapse of their Soviet sponsor and are no longer anywhere near the 'strategic parity' with Israel that Hafez once dreamed of - a position emphasised by Israel's unchallenged recent air raids deep into Syrian territory. Internationally, Syria was forced out of Lebanon in 2005 and has only recently circumnavigated the subsequent diplomatic boycott from Western powers. Financially, market reforms have been limited and, aided by US sanctions, the economy has developed sluggishly.

Yet in its relative isolation, Syria has found new levers to ensure it remains too great an irritation for Washington to ignore - a situation compounded by America's increased involvement in the region. Now that containing Iran has emerged as a US priority, Damascus' three-decade-long alliance with Tehran has become a useful bargaining chip for Asad. As Obama tries to stabilise and exit the Iraq quagmire, the extent to which Syria tightens its border to prevent the passage of insurgents has become another lever of negotiation. The degree of intervention in Lebanese politics since the 2005 withdrawal has similarly emerged as a bone of contention with Washington. Whilst continuing to press for an end to Syrian support of Hamas and Hezbollah remains a priority, Obama finds himself needing to engage with Damascus on a myriad of issues away from the exclusively Israeli track.

The shift in the international climate has prompted a change in priorities in Damascus as well. Whilst the return of Golan and the need for a 'just peace' with Israel remain a fundamental concern for the regime, immediate worries are economic. A limited embrace of the free market has failed to counter the impact on Syria's economy of either the present economic crisis or US imposed sanctions. Whilst the orthodox view in Damascus has previously been that a peace with Israel would eventually bring an economic windfall from the US - though more in terms of investment than Jordan and Egypt's direct aid - regime figures are now suggesting immediate capital with or without an Israeli peace is essential. Deputy Prime Minister and economic planner Abdullah Dardari recently admitted in an interview to Reuters that sanctions were having an impact and that the economy was not growing at the anticipated rate. With almost 20% unemployment, a bloated inefficient bureaucracy, and decaying infrastructure, Syrian policy planners seem now to recognise that mending ties with the US and the investment and ending of sanctions that comes with it, is of greater priority than negotiating with Tel Aviv.

Conversely, were Damascus able to secure US goodwill in the short term without negotiating with Tel Aviv, it might suit the regime domestically. Whilst the return of the Golan Heights will never cease to be a priority for the government, its continued absence provides an excuse to maintain authoritarian rule. The 'war' with Israel is used to justify the continued state of Emergency since 1963, the suspension of the rule of law and the delay in Bashar's promised political liberalisation. Having promised 'bread before freedom' on coming to power in 2000, if US rapprochement and investment can secure greater material wealth, the status quo with Israel might prove a useful way of avoiding calls for domestic reform.

Much hangs on the approach taken by the new White House. Though Washington recently extended sanctions on Damascus for a further year, much to the dismay of pro-Obama figures such as Dardari, diplomatic contact is becoming more regular. Hillary Clinton and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry have made several recent phone calls to Damascus, and Special Envoy George Mitchell is rumoured to be visiting soon. At the same time, whilst the administration seems more willing to force Tel Aviv into action than past US governments, pressure thus far seems to be limited to settlements and engaging with the Palestinians rather than the Syrians.

In the Syrians' favour it seems that the administration is willing to renew contact and enter dialogue with Damascus without relating it to a renewal of talks with Israel. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the strong anti-Syrian pro-Israeli voices on Capitol Hill will allow sanctions to end without linking it to peace talks with Tel Aviv. Obama might be willing to overrule such critics and fully restore economic and diplomatic ties with Damascus anyway. Alternatively, he might adopt the same strong-arm approach to pressure Israel into negotiations with Syria as he seems to be adopting with their settlements in the West Bank. Yet to do so he will want something in return. Syria has successfully acquired a decent arsenal of bargaining chips with Washington in recent years. If negotiations are to progress with either Israel or the US, it needs to start playing them.