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US Congressional Panel Seeks to Aid Syrian Opposition December 15, 2011

A congressional subcommittee panel on Wednesday examined U.S. policy toward Syria, asking what lawmakers can do to help the opposition as the Damascus government crackdown on the Syrian people continues.  Some lawmakers questioned whether the Obama administration should continue to advocate for a peaceful resolution in Syria in the face of widespread violence.

Members of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs who attended the hearing echoed calls by President Barack Obama for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and end the nine months of killing, detention and torture of demonstrators.

But some lawmakers, including Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee Chairman Republican Steve Chabot, questioned calls by the Obama administration for a peaceful resolution to the uprising in Syria.

“This puts us into a difficult position insofar as it brings into question whether we would continue to support the opposition if it were to fight back against the regime’s brutality,” said Chabot.

Speaking for the Obama administration, the Special Coordinator for Regional Affairs of Office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, Frederic Hof said that is what the Damascus government is trying to provoke.

“It is clear what the strategy of the Assad regime is,” said Hof.  “It is to attempt to channel peaceful resistance, which it cannot handle – it has no clue how to handle peaceful resistance – channel it as best it can in the direction of insurrection because it believes it knows how to handle insurrection.”

Hof said the Obama administration respects the right of the Syrian people to defend themselves in the face of government violence.  He said the Syrian opposition is working with the Arab League to plan for a peaceful transition when the current Syrian government is gone.  Hof said the “nightmare” of repression for the Syrian people might continue for some time, but that it will end.

“When the regime is gone, the Syrian people can be assured that they will have plenty of help in rebuilding and reforming their state, and recovering the honor and dignity squandered by those who have served themselves at Syria’s expense,” added Hof.

Hof called on the Syrian opposition to reach out to religious minority groups in the country and assure them that change is coming, and that they will be invited to play a central role in that change.

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Palestinians plan to oust Tony Blair as Middle East peace envoy over ‘bias to Israel’ September 30, 2011




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Arab Spring Added Pressures to Middle East Peace Process September 28, 2011

The impact of the Arab Spring has been obvious in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, where popular uprisings forced longtime leaders out of power, or in Syria and Yemen where ruling governments continue bloody campaigns against their countries’ own people. But in the rest of the Middle East region, the effects have been more subtle, though not insignificant, as leaders hedge to hang onto their own power.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, King Abdullah announced Sunday that women will be allowed to vote and run for the first time ever in municipal elections in 2015, a symbolic change in a nation that retains its monarchy and where women are still forbidden basic rights like driving. The Arab Spring protests also put added pressure on leaders from Israel and Palestine as they consider the changing context of the region and what it means for the path to peace.

For leaders like King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Arab Spring was an alarm bell, says Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director and fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, an extension of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy in Qatar. “It was a wake-up call to the international community that people can take things on their own, and they will not be waiting for the leaders forever to make decisions for change,” he says. “Change can happen from the bottom up.”

[See political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.]

There’s no doubt, Sharqieh says, that the recent announcement in Saudi Arabia was brought on by this renewed awareness. Recent top-down tactical reforms in other nations, like Morocco, Algeria, and Jordan, may also stem from popular pressures. “Now is the right time to change or you will be on the wrong side of history, that’s for sure. The Saudis realized this,” Sharqieh says.

Abbas, who addressed the United Nations last week to request statehood status for Palestine, seems to have reached the same conclusion, according to Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. “You saw the Palestinians looking around the region, looking at Egypt and Tunisia, saying, ‘Hey, that could be us too. What the hell are our leaders doing?'” Katulis says. “The most pressure right now is on Abbas to do anything, get anything, which is why he declared this Palestinian Spring. He’s trying to claim the mantle or co-opt or head off any sort of popular discontent.”

Palestinians greeted Abbas with cheering and praise when he returned from the UN on Monday. Although the United States has promised to veto Palestinian statehood, Abbas’s gesture at the UN seemed to assert Palestine’s status among other world nations. “We have told the world that there is the Arab Spring, but the Palestinian Spring is here,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “A popular spring, a populist spring, a spring of peaceful struggle that will reach its goal.”

Despite his optimism, the Middle East Quartet, which includes the United States, Russia, the UN, and the European Union, is pushing the Palestinians and Israelis to engage in direct negotiations “without delay or preconditions” as an alternative to their UN plea for statehood. Abbas has made clear that he will not negotiate if Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank, which the Palestinians consider to be their land. But if stalemate continues in the peace process, Abbas could face internal repercussions, Katulis says. “You can only contain the political aspirations of the Palestinian people for so long,” he says.

[Read about the challenges for Libya's new leaders.]

For Israel, the Arab Spring also brought new pressures as the region’s political landscape became more uncertain. When Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarek fell earlier this year, for instance, many in Israel feared that its long-standing peace agreement with Egypt would also be lost. Egypt’s current leaders have since promised to keep obligations to Israel, but with Egypt’s future unknown, its relationship with Israel could prove to be equally tentative. Similar unknowns exist regarding Israel’s relationships with the Arab world as a whole, according to Josh Muravchik, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ Foreign Policy Institute.

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David Cameron outlines foreign policy philosophy – but don’t call it a doctrine September 22, 2011


It doesn’t really get much better than this on the world stage for a British prime minister.

David Cameron pitched up in New York at lunchtime on Wednesday for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly less than a week after an ecstatic reception on the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi.

With many leaders of the Arab world hailing Britain and France for their leadership on Libya, Cameron was love-bombed by Barack Obama in a 30 minute meeting on Wednesday evening. US presidents know they have to say warm words about the Anglo-American special relationship. But Obama was gushing as he said:

Obviously there is an extraordinarily special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom…I have always found prime minister Cameron to be an outstanding partner, so I am very grateful for his friendship, his hard work, his dedication and his leadership on the global stage.

To cap it all, relations could not be better with a traditional foe. Yes, France and Britain are enjoying a late summer romance after Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy led the way on Libya.

So, all in all, the contrast with Tony Blair could not be greater. It is true that the former prime minister had little difficulty in prompting gushing words from George Bush, particularly over Iraq. But he didn’t manage to win praise from the Arab world at the same time and keep relations with France on an even keel.

And yet Blair, who is also in New York as the Middle East peace envoy, will hover over Cameron (not literally of course) when the prime minister delivers his first speech to the UN General Assembly on Thursday. Minds will be cast back to Blair’s famous Chicago speech of April 1999, during the Kosovo conflict, when the former prime minister outlined what became known as the Blair doctrine of liberal interventionism.

The prime minister’s aides groan at the comparison with Chicago and they recoil at talk of a Cameron Doctrine. Cameron is, after all, a traditional Tory who does pragmatism, underpinned by his values. They don’t do ideology in Peasemore, he would say.

So is it fair to draw comparisons with Chicago? At one level it is. This will be Cameron’s most important speech on foreign policy as prime minister. He has known for a year that he would be delivering it after he despatched Nick Clegg to UNGA last year following the birth of baby Florence. He obviously did not know exactly what speech he would be delivering until events in Libya reached a (semi) conclusion last month.

As with Chicago, which was heavily influenced by Kosovo, Cameron’s thinking on foreign policy has been utterly transformed by Libya. His central message on Thursday will be that world leaders must be prepared to intervene if oppressive regimes slaughter their people. In contrast to the Blair-Bush approach, however, Cameron believes this must be done through the UN and with the approval of other countries in the relevant region. On most occasions, such as Syria, the intervention will involve sanctions rather than military action.

Cameron’s plea for the UN to be prepared to intervene again does appear to show an evolution in his thinking. In his most famous speech on foreign affairs before he became prime minister, Cameron indicated that he belonged more to the Douglas Hurd school of thought. The former foreign secretary famously rejected supplying Bosnian Muslims with arms on the grounds that that would create a level killing field.

Speaking in 2006 on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Cameron caused great offence in the US when he said:

The ambition to spread democracy is noble and just. But it cannot be quickly achieved to suit a political timetable. Because it takes time, it cannot easily be imposed from outside. Liberty grows from the ground – it cannot be dropped from the air by an unmanned drone.

But Cameron would say that Thursday’s speech includes similar thinking. He will say:

Now the mistake we often make in the West is to think that because the people in this region [the Middle East and North Africa] want democracy, they will want it in the same way with the same outcomes that we do. We should not be trying to impose Western values or a single template on the region.

In his speech back in 2006 Cameron also said there would be times when it would be right to intervene:

I believe that we should be prepared to intervene for humanitarian purposes to rescue people from genocide.

On Thursday he will say:

You can sign every human rights declaration in the world but if you stand by and watch people being slaughtered in their own country, when you could act then what are those signatures really worth?

The similarities – and differences – between those two sentences show that the prime minister’s thinking has evolved in the past five years. There is a similar sentiment – it is right to intervene – though the conditions have changed. In 2006 he set the bar very high by citing genocide. Once genocide is declared countries have a duty to act under the Geneva Convention anyway. Now he talks of acting if there is a slaughter. Any slaughter is horrific, but that does not necessarily amount to genocide.

So Cameron will agree that his thinking has evolved on foreign policy, though he will say there is no great break with the past. But one thing is for sure. He will still agonise over foreign affairs. This is of course the man who sweated before eventually casting his vote in favour of the Iraq war in 2003.

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