Aleppo Hopes 

Published in Bergens Tidende, 19 August 2016. See the article (in Norwegian) here. 

Last week the Syrian army, supported by Russian bombardments, cut of the last opposition held supply route to the city of Aleppo. Despite rebel counter offensives, it meant that opposition held neighborhoods have since been effectively cut off from the outside world. In these neighborhoods between 200.000 and 300.000 still live. An inhabitant told an opposition channel last week: “We don’t have anything here: The stalls are empty, there are no vegetables, no food… nothing at all. And if there is anything, it is incredibly expensive.”

From the moment Aleppo was under siege there were, as will be the case in the following weeks, many decrying the fate of those caught in the city. And rightly so.

Still, we should not forget that Aleppo is part of and mirrors the general developments of the Syrian uprising. It thereby also mirrors something else: the failure of Western states, despite their frequent and public stated outrage, to effectively influence the Syrian crisis.

How did we get here?

In March 2011, following the Tunisian example, Syrians rose up against their authoritarian regime. They were met by bullets. In the following six months protesters were not able to dislodge the regime through peaceful means. Some Syrians fled, others decided that the use of violence was the only option left.

In July 2012 an alliance of rebel groups launched a surprise attack on Aleppo: Within weeks a stalemate emerged in which the city was carved up between opposition and regime forces. This situation, until a few weeks ago, changed little.

What did change was the overall nature of the uprising, which was mirrored in the conflict around the city. The increasing organization of rebel groups, the expanding role of Jihadists in the uprising and the relentlessness, and random, regime bombings: all were readily apparent in the fight over Aleppo as well.

In its initial phase, it was pragmatic Islamic rebel groups, such as Liwa al-Tawhid, that were most powerful. As these groups succumbed to infighting, corruption and regime attacks it was ever more radical and sectarian Jihadist movements that were empowered: starting with Ahrar al-Sham, and culminating in the emergence of Jabhat al-Nusra (now going by Jaish Fatah al-Sham) and ISIS in April 2013. Even before the Western campaign against the group, it would be in Aleppo that ISIS and opposition groups clashed.

Aleppo also mirrors the various civil society and governance initiatives that would emerge across the country. Even though they were fraught with tensions, corruption, and were sometimes explicitly anti-democratic, all these initiatives were at least attempts at articulating a new type of Syrian polity and part of an emerging independent and diverse civil society.

Examples from Aleppo abound. The Regional Council of Aleppo is one of the largest independent, and democratic, organizations providing public services in the country. Also initiatives to implement a type of “Islamic rule” in the city emerged but were mostly rebuffed, especially after ISIS was expelled from the city.

On top of this, the Halab Today (“Aleppo Today”) television channel is one of the most popular opposition channels in the country; the White Helmets (an independent organization for first aid after regime bombardments) have continued to work in Aleppo despite continued losses; and so has a network of independent hospitals. Now, with the encirclement complete, these initiatives start to falter.

Aleppo, finally, mirrors the issues of foreign involvement in the uprising. The limited success of US policies to selectively support “moderate” rebel groups is apparent in the strength of Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra among opposition groups in the city. Also the support for Kurdish groups in their fight against ISIS helped the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region in North Syria, inadvertently facilitating last week’s encirclement.

Finally, and most obviously, Russian involvement has shifted the balance between opposition and regime forces – also in Aleppo.

So now what?

Western states made a point of not getting “caught” in the Syrian conflict. From its very beginning Europe and Norway publicly supported attempts at democratizing Syria, and have never seized to criticize Human Rights violations from all sides in the conflict. Europe, and especially Norway, have contributed financially to the international relief effort. But direct involvement to minimize Human Rights violations inside Syria was, for a variety of reasons, off the table.

In a globalized world conflicts never stand on their own, and a civil war so close to its borders would eventually spill over into Europe. But as result, when forced to act, policies have been guided by narrow perceived self-interests: with the US and a number of European countries attacking ISIS in Northern Syria and closing EU borders to Syrian refugees.

Despite what is commonly thought, we could have acted on our moral standpoints: implementing a no-fly zone with a mandate to safeguard Syrian citizens and minorities. It would have put a check on the use of barrel bombs, on the sectarian tendencies among opposition ranks, and would have given more space for developing experiences with democratic forms of rule. It would have still left Syria with a grueling conflict that it alone could resolve, but with an outside power to safeguard the lives and rights of all Syrian citizens.

But with the Russian air force controlling Syrian airspace, and the situation in opposition held territories imploding, this option has become impossible.

So we find ourselves with Aleppo under siege. Following the item by Halab Today cited above, another inhabitant, Abu Ahmad, remarked that: “This is our land, and we will not give it up. We will not disgrace ourselves by giving in to [Bashar’s] demands. He is trying through lies and deception – “we will open a humanitarian corridor” – to expose and defeat us. We will never give in.” It is a beautiful sentiment. But the Russian air force continues to support the Syrian regime, a no-fly zone is further away than ever and Aleppo is still starving.

We took a moral high ground in words, but not in actions. For this we paid a price. At this stage pragmatism is the only policy choice left in Syria. Ending the war in anyway possible. It will probably mean that a negotiated peace will leave Assad in power.

Teije Hidde Donker, UiB, August 2016.

The Shadows Side of the Peace Prize   

Published in Bergens Tidende, 10 December 2015. See the article (in Norwegian) here.

On 10 December the Norwegian Nobel committee will award the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet the Peace Prize for “its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.”

It would seem to be the crown on the only successful democratic transition in the Arab world. Following the wonderful words of the committee, you would expect to find Tunisians basking in their pride over winning the prize. Right?

“I think it is great that our country received the Nobel Prize, especially as an example to other countries around us. We at least resolved our problems through mediation.” says Muhannad, a 32 year old engineer while sipping a coffee direkt at the Avenue Bourguiba in the center of Tunis. But “the thing is.. they don’t deserve it. Personally I can’t think no one in Tunisia does.” Muhannad is not alone: it is a widely shared sentiment in Tunisia these days. Why would the quartet – nor any other Tunisian actor – not deserve the Nobel peace Prize?

A botched process

Two reasons are often mentioned. First: the quartet wasn’t neutral nor benevolent. The General Tunisian Labor union (UGTT), the most powerful actor in the quartet, has dominated union activism in the country for more than half a century. It is not just a union, it is also one of the most powerful political actors in the country.

It is widely accepted that the quartet was a crucial player in the change from a Troika government to a technocrat one. Consisting of the Islamist Ennahda, the Centrist CPR and Leftist Ettakatol, the Troika was marred by internal gridlock. It was also increasingly challenged by a coalition of leftist groups, former political elites and business groups unified in a new political party: Nida Tunis.

The months leading up to the creation of the technocrat government were marked by immense political polarization. In this context many Tunisians perceived the quartet not as a neutral mediator, as described by the committee, but rather one with specific political interests. Their actions were often interpreted – rightly or wrongly – not being aimed at the general good, but as part of safeguarding their own positions in a future Tunisia.

Muhannad: “From the start the quartet was an outspoken enemy of the Troika government. If the situation would have been as in Egypt at the time, the whole Troika would have ended up in prison. But the Tunisian street was split along different groups so they did not have enough support to pull this off. They took up a mediating role instead as a strategy to reign in the power of the Troika.”

Second: the quartet’s mediating role set the stage for a weakened Tunisian democratic transition. The quartet brought together two representatives of the most powerful political blocks to work out the details of the technocrat government: Rashed Ghanouchi, as president of the Islamist Ennahda party, and Beji Caid Essebsi, as president of the Nida Tounis political alliance.

Neither had been elected in parliament and neither fulfilled any formal political role at the time. The technocrat government was not the result of a pluralist political process. It was born out of the mediation between representatives of the two largest political groups in Tunisia at the time. Should a group that acted explicitly undemocratically receive a Nobel peace prize?

What future for Tunisia?

Even if the above points would be true, we could say that the end justifies the means. Despite the messy process that a democratic transition necessarily is, Tunisia ended up right on track. The mediation process – enforced and mediated by the quartet – let to a better Tunisia. Right?

In reality, the mediation process has led to a Tunisian politics that prefers back door mediation over democratic public deliberation. It led to the creation of a new stable political playing field with a set number of actors: the main ones being Ennahda, Nida Tunis and the UGTT. It led, in the end, to stifling of a vibrant, but polarized, pluralistic democratic system.

The outcome shows: Representing the two main political poles in the country, the elections of October 2014 ended up dividing most seats between Ennahda and Nida Tounis. A grand coalition between the two parties was forged. The two most powerful men of Tunisian politics worked out a grand deal for the future of the country: Caid Essebsi was elected president, Ghannouchi could remain as leader of mainstream political Islam in the country. Both Essebsi and Ghannouchi remain as leaders of their respective parties.

It resulted in a political situation where no real opposition exists. Many among the left, business elites and former Ben Ali related politicians are active under the umbrella of Nida Tunis. Ennahda is relatively quiet, and moves along as they are petrified to lose the security formal politics provides them against a return of state repression. Union activism in the country is dominated by the UGTT. It does not help that the other groups in the quartet are perceived as paper tigers (the Tunisian Human Rights League, LTDH) or, worse, as representatives of interests from the previous regime (the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, UTICA).

In the absence of an active political opposition old problems reappear. Social activism has declined, fragmented along political lines and is currently near moribund. The press – so vocal and free during the tumultuous years of polarization – has gone dangerously complacent. Corruption resurfaced and police brutality slowly returns. As if this wasn’t enough, multiple terrorist attacks have enabled the security apparatus to repress a wide range of independent activists and religious groups under the banner of anti-terrorism legislation. These days many Tunisians deny a revolution even happened.

Souad, a young higher educated secular Tunisian woman, answers to the question if they deserve the prize: “It depends. If it concerns this period of July 2013, and for the basic reasons behind the creation of the quartet: then yes, it is good and gives hope. It would then really reflect the general Tunisian reaction: peaceful, demanding rights and putting pressured on the government.” But if the prize is for the role the quartet played in the process of political change … “it would mean we only get the prize for being the sole Arab country that did not go to war after the uprisings of 2011”, apart from this the quartet achieved little. “Isn’t that a bit sad?”

Teije Hidde Donker, UiB, December 2015.

More coming soon.