Tag Archives: peace

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

A Middle Eastern Perspective on Evangelii Gaudium

Today I read a commentary by Fr. Samir Khalil Samir on the sections regarding Islam in Pope Francis‘s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium from last November.  Fr. Samir is a well-regarded scholar of Muslim-Christian relations and Islamic Studies, as well as a Jesuit from Egypt.  As usual, I do not agree with everything he says about Islam, but he does have more experience than most people in actual inter-religious dialogue.  It is necessary to warn that the summary at the top just under the title significantly skews the balance of Fr. Samir’s remarks as a whole, so do not judge the whole based solely on the abstract.  I link to the article here as a thought-provoking perspective.

Louis Sako on Middle Eastern Christians

A few days ago the Telegraph ran an opinion piece by Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon.  Patriarch Sako is an Iraqi with a long history of calling for peace and dialogue in his country.  In this piece, he argues that just as Christianity contributed to Islam in the first centuries of the new religion, so it must learn how to do so again, that Middle Eastern Christians should refuse to emigrate from the Middle East, and that other countries should apply pressure to Middle Eastern countries to ensure that Middle Eastern Christians are not merely a tolerated minority, but citizens with full equality under the law.  It is an interesting piece and well worth reading.

Unfortunately many western readers may not be aware of the degree of the crisis that Middle Eastern Christianity is experiencing, and therefore Patriarch Sako’s points may sound like special pleading.  In part this is due to the human tendency to simplify for the sake of memory, and therefore the Middle East is (mis-)remembered as entirely Muslim for at least a millennium, if not since Muhammad himself.  An article I currently have under review reveals something of how mistaken this is for the case of Syria and Palestine, where even a millennium ago the rural population seems to have been almost entirely non-Muslim, and since in pre-industrial agrarian societies rural populations necessarily dwarfed urban populations, this means that the Muslims were a small portion of the population in the area we now know as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.  When did Islam become not only the religion of the rulers but also the religion of most of the subjects in the Middle East?  The answer must vary for different areas, but scholars presently have no plausible answer.  In the case of Syria and Palestine, I would guess it was after the Crusader period, into the thirteenth or fourteenth century.  In the case of Lebanon, it was in the early twentieth century.  There were still Christian bishops in Arabia in the tenth century (despite the rumor that Muhammad expelled all Christians from the peninsula).  Certain areas of Iraqi Kurdistan are still majority or exclusively Christian, although those areas are smaller and more remote with each passing decade.

One interesting statistic which Patriarch Sako cites is that 850,000 Iraqi Christians have left the country since the US invasion in 2003, which is over half of the Christian population in Iraq before the war.  When Patriarch Sako was born Christians were 10% of the Iraqi population, while today it must be around 2% (=(1,500,000-850,000)/31,234,000).  A similar trend happened slightly earlier in Palestine over the course of the last 90 years, and is ongoing with the Christian populations of Syria and Egypt.  When I was in Aleppo three years ago (before the current violence), I met an Iraqi Christian who was trying to get to Toronto.  The Middle Eastern Christian population is being erased culturally, historically, and demographically.

And yet, it is easy to understand why Christians leave the Middle East.  Extremist groups kill Christians because they view Middle Eastern Christians as foreign agents and illegitimate members of Islamic society, a view which is alien to historical Islam.  On the other hand, the dominant view of traditional Muslim legal authorities, that Jews and Christians should be tolerated as long as they pay an extra tax and never do anything to imply that their religion is better than Islam (such as riding a horse or ringing a church bell), has always left non-Muslim populations vulnerable to violence by extremists.  After Muslim Brotherhood supporters torched dozens of Coptic churches last August, the Coptic authorities again pointed out that they do not have equal or adequate protection from the Egyptian police.  That is why Patriarch Sako is calling not merely for Christians to be viewed as a “tolerated minority,” but as full citizens with equality before the law.  But when the law is not doing its job, finding a less dangerous place to live is fully understandable, even as it makes matters that much more difficult for those left behind.

What distresses me is the degree to which non-Middle-Easterners often unwittingly, through sheer ignorance, adopt the new xenophobic viewpoint of the extremists and consider Middle Eastern Christians as some kind of outsiders in Middle Eastern society.  They were part of that society long before Islam, and have never ceased to be a part of that society.  Indeed, Middle Eastern society is more dominantly Islamic now than at any point in the past.  And yet most educated people in the West are completely unaware of this past, and even historians with their over-developed desire to distinguish between terms still regard “Middle Eastern history” and “Islamic history” as fully synonymous.  (Neither is a subset of the other, for not only have non-Muslims always been a large portion of Middle Eastern society, but there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than in it, since Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country.)  I think progress toward a more inclusive and peaceful Middle Eastern society will be made when people recognize that that society has always been more diverse than today’s propagandists of whatever stripe would have us believe.

Watching and Waiting

I haven’t posted recently, in part because I’ve been waiting with such bated breath to see how the chemical weapons disarmament deal will play out.  It will be practically impossible to ensure Syrian compliance, and what happens when the next chemical weapons attack occurs (with again the US blaming the regime and Russia blaming rebel provocateurs, regardless of who actually sets off the attack) will be a sticky issue.  But an agreement is far better than no agreement, even if of course it does not go nearly far enough.  The appendices to the UN chemical weapons report were very incriminating to the Syrian regime, which predictably rejected the report along with Russia.  Since then, however, the horrible attack on the Nairobi shopping mall, the condemnation of Bo Xilai, and the US budget showdown have again removed Syria from the headlines.

At the end of this week I will be giving a 10-15 minute presentation on the crises in Syria (and Iraq as well) to a concerned church group.  What can one say in 10-15 minutes about a civil war as complicated as Syria’s, to say nothing of the resurgent sectarian violence across the border in Iraq?  We’ll see what I do end up saying.  I’ll post some version of my remarks here.

What America Forgets About Syria

As the US Congress appears to be inclining towards authorizing a unilateral and, by most standards, illegal military strike against Syria, here are some points that seem to be forgotten or overlooked in the news I’m reading:

1. One of the US government’s main concerns with the Syrian conflict has been that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists such as al-Qa’ida.  The presumption that al-Qa’ida does not already have chemical weapons is a crucial piece of the reasoning which blames the Syrian regime for the attack in the Damascus suburbs two weeks ago.  Yet attacking Syria, as President Obama is now proposing, will weaken the Syrian Army’s ability to defend those chemical weapons arsenals.  Since the most effective opposition fighting forces are jihadis affiliated with al-Qa’ida, terrorists are the ones most likely to benefit from any US attack on Syria.  It is worth contrasting John Kerry‘s assertion that “There is a real moderate opposition that exists” and 15-20% of the opposition are extreme with the view of an analyst located in Dubai: “For the U.S. and Western powers, there is a Syrian opposition that they’d like to see and that doesn’t exist.”  In light of al-Qa’ida’s dominance of the Syrian opposition, a US attack on the Syrian regime will increase the feasibility for jihadis to seize chemical weapons.  In other words, a US attack on the Syrian military will increase rather than reduce the threat of chemical weapons deployment against American civilians.

2. A foreign attack on Syria would be a very significant escalation of the conflict.  As I indicated last week, no foreign country has specifically and publicly attacked Syria during this civil war without first being attacked by Syria.  Foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War, both for and against the regime, has been limited to financial and material supplies and the provision of some foreign fighters acting under the commands of Syrian leaders, with only two exceptions.  Those two exceptions are Turkey, which has returned fire randomly into Syria whenever a Turkish civilian has been hit by bullets coming cross the border, and Israel, which has refused to acknowledge its targeted air strikes of what it alleges were rockets destined for Hezbollah.  For the US or any western country to attack with its own military would escalate the war beyond even a regional conflict into a world conflict.

3. When President Obama was first attempting to build support for attacking Syria, he proposed a “brief” or “surgical” military intervention as “a shot across the bow” in order to send a message to Assad without getting too involved.  Now the Senate Foreign Relations committee is recommending the President be authorized for 60 days, two months, for a war of limited duration.  A shot across the bow demonstrates one’s ability to kill without actually killing anyone, and I suppose the parallel case in Syria would be to bomb the uninhabited desert east of Damascus.  In seeking Congressional support, President Obama has also greatly broadened his notion of US engagement in Syria, which is exactly what the American public fears.

4. The Obama administration released an unclassified document outlining why it believes the Assad regime is behind the chemical weapons attack, intended to convince domestic and international skeptics of the obligation to punish Assad.  Most of the evidence cited in this document supports the assertion that chemical weapons were used, without specifying by whom.  Part of the argument is that the opposition couldn’t have done this, but the report treats the opposition as a unified group, and in particular it does not engage with earlier reports that al-Qa’ida has used chemical weapons in neighboring Iraq (here and here, to cite only Western media).  Much of the evidence in the report is only referred to in vague ways (“We have intelligence,” “streams of human, signals, and geospatial intelligence,” and “Multiple streams of intelligence indicate”) which will not convince a skeptic, but perhaps these bits of evidence cannot be revealed without endangering our informants.  That unfortunately leaves the argument largely still in the “trust us” category, which does little to assuage concerns.

There is one piece of evidence cited in next-to-last paragraph of the US intelligence report which could clinch the case against Assad: “We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21.”  If it exists and is authentic, this document should be enough to convince skeptics such as Russia that the charges against the regime are not merely “rumors.”  If this is truly an intercepted communication, then presumably it can be released without endangering the interceptor, who is neither the sender nor the recipient.  It should be reasonably straightforward for an Arabic linguistics expert to authenticate the language as educated Syrian Arabic of a sort likely to be used by senior officials.  And yet this document has not been released, and Russia is not convinced.

5. Although the US (and the British Prime Minister) have declared a potential attack legal, the United Nations has disagreed.  Not only the opinion of the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the man tasked with ending the conflict, even the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said US military intervention would only be legal in self-defense after UN Security Council approval.  The basis of the legality argument requires either that the United States be declared the universal police officer, which understandably no other country has recognized, or that in general any country can attack any other country if it thinks doing will help some people, perhaps at the expense of others, which is a dangerously low bar to international military conflict.  While a possible attack will not open President Obama to prosecution before the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice, this is because the US will presumably use its veto power on the UN Security Council to prevent the case from being referred to an international court.  The irony is that a Nobel Peace Prize recipient is advocating an illegal military action which will be sheltered from prosecution only by his country’s self-interested obstructionism in the United Nations, which is something Western media usually ascribe to Russia and China rather than the US.

6. There has been much talk about American “credibility” in the international community.  But credibility has far less to do with following through on threats and much more to do with holding on to principles even when they are inconvenient.  Since it is clear that the US military used chemical weapons in the Iraq War, the message sent to the international community by a US strike allegedly in response to chemical weapons use is that no one else is allowed to break our monopoly on extreme violence.  Is this the message the US government really wishes to send?  The international community expects US foreign policy to selfishly seek its own narrow interests at the expense of other countries.  As an international friend of mine said to me over dinner, “I would not mind living in America, but I would not want to be a target of American foreign policy.”  The only way to break this perception is to act in accordance with clearly stated principles such as the rule of international law even when it is distasteful and inconvenient, rather than using military means to oust regimes (even heinous and criminal regimes) that we have declared to be our enemies.

The Bottom Line

I believe a US attack on Syria would increase the death and violence of the Syrian Civil War and would escalate the conflict into a world-wide affair.  I do not think that the Syrian regime is fine or that the use of chemical weapons ought to go unpunished.  But I believe that the United States of America is not the body to enforce the chemical weapons ban, apart from authorization by the United Nations.  The fact that Russia and China have been obstructionist in that body does not authorize us to ignore it; instead Syrian blood is on their hands, but we must engage Russia and China diplomatically to break their deadlock.  By attacking Syria the United States will not support the chemical weapons ban, because its attack will be perceived as simply US self-interested foreign policy.

While I have been writing this post, those who stand to benefit from a US strike on Syria have taken the ridge above a Syrian village and shelled the civilian population below.  Does the United States really want to aid these particular rebels?

 

Syria’s Solution Depends on Moscow

On Wednesday hundreds of people (some sources say as many as 1400) died in Syria, evidently related to a chemical attack on a rebel-held area north-east of the capital, Damascus.  Apart from the scale of the casualties, there is much in this news which is not new or surprising.  As usual in Syria, rebels and regime accuse each other of deploying chemical weapons while denying their own use thereof.  Internationally, various governments support their chosen factions, as the US, UK, and France all publicly blamed the Assad regime, while Russia’s Foreign Ministry suggested that rebels staged the attack in order to provoke international intervention.  American rhetoric in favor of military intervention in Syria has certainly ramped up as a result of the attack.  Nevertheless, the Assad government puts forward a bold face, indicating that an American attack is very unlikely given the current international impasse.

What is more surprising is that Russia also called upon the Syrian regime and opposition to cooperate with UN chemical weapons investigators already in Damascus and permit them access to this fresh site.  The Syrian government has reportedly agreed to do just that.

This has put the western governments who have been consistently calling for Assad’s removal in something of a difficult position.  Before the Syrian regime announced it would allow UN investigators access to the site, the argument was made that they “must have something to hide.”  (The argument, though widespread, is always the argument of the group which controls the courts.  As the history of American criminal courts amply demonstrates, one can be found guilty of a crime one did not commit based on being the wrong color.)  Now that the Syrian government says it will facilitate the investigation, Western hawks are forced to argue that this cooperation is “too little, too late,” and that an investigation five days after an attack is worthless.  This despite the fact that the UN investigators were already in Damascus to investigate attacks from March.  If five days is too late for an investigation, it is unclear what good the UN investigators could do in Syria at all.

As Paul Thomas Chamberlin commented on the day of the chemical weapons attack, the US has a very bad track record for intervention in Muslim areas of Asia and Africa, a history of counter-productive intervention spanning decades.  The parallels between the proposed US support for rebels in Syria and the US sponsored Mujahhidun fighting against the Soviet-sponsored government in Afghanistan, which reduced Afghanistan to the rubble we see today, are frightening.  Of course, the Russians didn’t come out of Afghanistan looking like heroes either.

But the US track record even in the current Syrian conflict does not inspire confidence.  Given the long-standing hostility between the US and the Assad regime, a byproduct of Syria’s alliance with the USSR and cold antagonism to Israel, the US rashly called upon Bashar al-Assad to step down as soon as the protests started in March 2011.  Thus the US lost whatever positive influence it might have had over the regime (not that it ever had much).  With the recognition of the Syrian National Coalition and the progressive revelations how much the SNC has cooperated with the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the US has provided its critics with the easy tagline that the American government is supporting terrorism.  When the US and the Russians agreed about the importance of holding peace talks in Geneva “to find a political solution,” the Russians got the Assad government to agree to the talks, while the US-backed rebels refused to participate.  The Syrian government is still touting its willingness to participate in Geneva.  The US hasn’t mentioned Geneva recently.

I think it would be very foolish for the US to intervene militarily without waiting for word from the UN chemical weapons investigators.  To strike at Assad without UN support would convince many in the Middle East of American arrogance and willingness to act as judge, jury, and executioner for a “justice” tailored to suit its own ends.  (And although I prefer to give governing bodies the benefit of the doubt, I find myself troubled by the rising prominence of “defending our national interests” in US government statements about Syria.)  The mess in Syria will have no easy solutions, and for the US to enter Syria now will simply ensure that the mess which follows the war is blamed on the US intervention.  And as media reports almost invariably indicate, the information coming out of Syria could not be verified, meaning we really have little idea who is doing what to whom in the countryside around Damascus.

But I am not a quietist, and I certainly do not believe that the US should just “let them kill each other,” as certain callous Islamophobic westerners are arguing.  The US can certainly help now by continuing to provide defensive technology, by providing humanitarian assistance to refugee camps, and by helping the countries hosting the refugee camps provide police presence in those camps.  Although media reports have depicted Western politicians repeating the mantra of “no boots on the ground,” if a military intervention is needed, I think putting “boots on the ground” may be the best way to humanize the process, far better than raining terror from the skies.  “Boots on the ground” may deliver humanitarian assistance in ways that hellfire missiles cannot.

But in order to facilitate the end of the violence in Syria, and particularly of the secularist vs. jihadi rebel infighting which will inevitably follow Assad’s departure, the US needs to work diplomatically with Russia and wait for the UN chemical weapons inspectors to do their job.  When the US intervenes, I think it needs to do so as part of an international coalition including Russia.  Moscow has been much more effective about influencing the situation in Syria than the US has been.  If the US can get over its spat that Russia provided temporary asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden (which led President Obama to cancel his state visit to Putin, evidently because revealing that a government is flagrantly breaking its own laws is treasonous), then it just may be able to work with Moscow over how to bring the Syrian conflict to a halt.  Now, Russian president Vladimir Putin‘s civil rights record is also a problem, but if Russia can be disengaged from supporting Assad, Iran will not be in a position to hold up Assad, and China is unlikely to invest what Russia has been doing in order to keep Assad in power.  That is probably the surest way to ensure that Syria does not turn into an al-Qa’ida stronghold training terrorists for the next twenty years.

A critical component of the rule of law is due process, and due process takes time.  That time is costly, as thousands are dying in Syria.  But due process is precisely what distinguishes seeking the common good from self-serving bullying.  If the US is serious about seeking what is best for Syrians, then it needs to support all Syrians and not just its favored faction, and it needs to allow the UN chemical weapons inspectors to do their job.

Needed: (Near-)Consensus on Legitimacy

When Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi went on national television on July 2 to rebuff calls for his resignation, he repeatedly stressed his “legitimacy” (الشرعية), apparently using the word 56 times in this single speech.  His supporters are now protesting to demand his return to office using “legitimacy” as their watch-word.  His detractors insist that Mursi lost any legitimacy due to his divisive and economically damaging politics.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Civil War continues because the diplomatic log-jam has not been broken between countries who consider Bashar al-Assad the legitimate president of Syria and those who reject his legitimacy (some of which recognize the Syrian National Council as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people”).

In the ebb and flow of promises of military support and the accusations of promoting terrorism, there are two easy errors to make on the subject of legitimacy.  One, all too common for observers from far away, is to ignore legitimacy entirely, regarding it as unimportant relative to the issues of people dying and suffering, and the question how to end the bloodshed.  The other, all too common for participants and observers near at hand, is to consider legitimacy as something obvious, so that my view of legitimate government is the one that all right-thinking people must hold.  On this view, anyone disagreeing with me over legitimacy is a terrorist, a propagandist, or a dupe for one.  These two errors are not mutually exclusive, of course, and probably most people unreflectively hold to both, to one degree or another.

Legitimacy matters.  In peace time, legitimacy is the difference between taxation and extortion.  It is the difference between “necessary measures” and repression.  Some degree of legitimacy for government is necessary to enable stable social functioning, since people do not wish to pay taxes to or register with a government they view as illegitimate.  A loss of governmental legitimacy in the eyes of people with power will lead to an attempt to change the government.  For that reason, legitimacy is a crucial part of any ruler’s staying in power.

This was understood well by Timur Lenk (d. 1405, better known in English as “Tamerlane”), the last great Central Asian warlord, who conquered from the borders of China to the Bosphorus Strait (in modern Istanbul).  In his society, to be a legitimate ruler required two ingredients: giving your soldiers plunder, and descent from Genghis Khan (d. 1227), the Mongol conqueror whose grandchildren ruled from the Pacific to the Mediterranean.  Unfortunately for Timur, he was not descended from Genghis Khan himself, so while he was effective in battle he could not rule in his own name.  To get around this, he took a no-name Mongol who happened to be descended from Genghis and made him a puppet Khan, ruling in his name.  When his Khan got uppity, he killed him and replaced him with one more docile.  To increase his own standing in this society, Timur married a princess descended from Genghis Khan, acquiring the prestige of being a “son-in-law” (kuregen).  On his last campaign rumors were even circulating that he himself was descended from Genghis, certainly fostered by the ruler, perhaps planning to dispense with the puppet khan and rule in his own name.  Timur died en route to invading China, and he never ruled in his own name, but his sons did, so apparently the rumor worked.

In this progression from royal “protector” to royal son-in-law to would-be Khan, victory was not enough.  These rumors were not to flatter Timur’s vanity but to assuage his worries about legitimacy, for he knew his troops would not fight in the name of a nobody, and anyone not descended from Genghis Khan was a nobody.  If Timur had not very carefully cultivated these successive steps of legitimate rule, he would have been abandoned by his own army, as other Mongol and Turkic princes were at key moments in their own attempts to rule.  Legitimacy is the glue that holds the state together.  Legitimacy matters.

But as Timur’s example also shows, there are different ways of claiming legitimacy.  So the opposite error, that of assuming that legitimacy is obvious to everyone, and every “right-thinking” person must agree with me, is also wrong-headed.  Just as in civil society people disagree widely on the best way to solve issues such as the failing Egyptian economy or the priorities for urban development in Istanbul, so legitimacy is usually a subject of disagreement.  Dynastic wars in medieval Europe and the Middle East occurred between rival family members who each claimed to be the “legitimate heir to the throne.”  When Genghis Khan began to conquer Muslim-occupied territories in 1219, there was a debate among the Muslim religious leaders about whether the new “pagan” rulers were legitimate or not.  A verdict of illegitimacy would entail a personal obligation upon every Muslim to resist the new government to the point of death.  (Needless to say, those in favor of Mongol legitimacy won the argument, by claiming that their victory was given by Allah as punishment for Muslims’ sins and religious laxity.)  In the modern period, civil wars happen precisely when large segments of the population disagree with each other about what is the legitimate government, and are willing to kill or be killed to make the point.

But legitimacy is also not a discussion where everyone gets a voice.  Some people matter rather more where legitimacy is concerned.  Timur was worried primarily about the opinions of the other Turko-Mongol military leaders who commanded the personal loyalty of their troops, who might turn against him and challenge him in battle.  In 20th-century Turkey, democratic legitimacy for many decades was arbitrated by the military, which deposed any prime minister the generals deemed overly (and therefore illegitimately) religious.  Legitimacy is argued by those who have the means to make themselves heard or the means to act upon their decisions, so while popular opinion often matters in civil society, it is never simply a matter of polling.  Minorities and marginalized populations such as refugees are not the ones determining the legitimacy of the government.

In those Middle Eastern countries experiencing instability today, legitimacy is a key issue which needs to be recognized and addressed on its own terms.  Legitimacy is not a war that can be won exclusively with funding or funneling arms, the favored strategies of Western diplomacy, and any country which wishes to intervene positively in the Middle East must engage with these debates directly.

In Egypt, supporters of Muhammad Mursi contend that legitimacy is granted exclusively through the ballot box, and a military deposing a president elected by even a narrow margin is necessarily a coup.  Opponents of Mursi contend that democratic legitimacy requires “playing well with others” rather than playing “winner-take-all,” and Mursi’s decision to rush a constitution through a rump parliament consisting only of his party members and boycotted by other groups cost him whatever legitimacy was conferred at the ballot box.  (They also often point to his presidential decree last November which made his actions above judicial review, which he eventually retracted in light of continued pressure, but only after the constitution was pushed forward.)  Both sides have accused the West of betraying its democratic principles by siding with the other party, either by refusing to call the military’s ouster of the elected president “a coup” or by refusing to call Mursi “illegitimate.”  To avoid increasing bloodshed, Egypt needs a nation-wide dialogue, involving supporters as well as detractors of Mursi, to establish the criteria for legitimate government.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his father before him contended that legitimacy was measured in social stability rather than political participation or particular freedoms.  (This is actually a very ancient defense of a ruler’s legitimacy, from the days when monarchs were considered to be the bridge between the gods’ favor and the prosperity of the land and its people.)  But his attempts to enforce social stability by military force have progressively alienated those segments of the Syrian population who identified more with the people being killed than with the government.  The rebels contend that the Assad regime has lost all legitimacy due to the deaths of around 100,000 people in the civil war.  Meanwhile the increasingly prominent role played by jihadis within the rebel forces have caused Assad’s supporters to believe his claims to be the bulwark between them and social disintegration, blaming those 100,000 dead on the rebels instead of the regime.  The Assad regime, along with Russia and China, have viewed the West’s threats to arm the rebellion as illegitimate foreign trouble-making against the legitimate government.  Meanwhile the rebels have felt betrayed by the West’s failure to provide greater firepower against the illegitimate regime.

Legitimacy also plays a vocal role in the protests in Turkey against the Erdoğan government’s development plans in Taksim Square.  Supporters of Erdoğan insist on his electoral victory at the ballot box, labeling the protesters looters and trouble-makers, while his critics call him the prime minister of the 51% who voted for him, namely not the legitimate prime minister of all Turkey.

The lack of revolutions in a generation in Western Europe, and longer in North America, has made westerners complacent about government legitimacy.  Sure, there are a few quacks on the far right and the far left who are trying to bring down the government, but most westerners feel these fringes are not much of a threat, and are amply dealt with by the police structures in the various countries.  But the lack of serious challenges to government legitimacy in the West should not obscure analysts’ engagement with the issues around the presentation of legitimacy in the various Middle Eastern conflicts.  In each case, a plausible account needs to be given within the cultures present as to how a legitimate government is to be instituted and maintained.  This has not been done, but a lasting peace requires it.  The conflicts in the Middle East will not be won by force alone.  They will either be won with words, or postponed for later.

Also about Egypt:

Also about Syria:

Lost or Found: Driving a Hard Bargain?

One aspect of Middle Eastern culture which is almost completely foreign to me personally is the culture of bargaining.  Where I grew up, we bargained for baseball cards and used cars, and nothing else.  But in most of the Middle East, prices are negotiable.  You ask the price of an object, you do some quick arithmetic to see how far above what you want to pay that price is, you take the difference off what you want to pay, and you make a counter-offer.  At that point it’s a game between seller and buyer to see who can give up less.  A Middle Eastern friend of mine told me before my first visit to the region, “You can always play the walk-out.  If there’s something you really want, and you can’t get the price you want, just start to walk away.  Don’t worry, the shopkeeper will call you back!”

What I do not know, but very much hope, is whether some of the positions and statements of Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian National Coalition are simply posturing in order to secure a more favorable outcome of the Geneva 2 dialogues next month.  It is worth remembering that Russia insisted that there must be no preconditions to these talks, largely as a way of disqualifying the Syrian National Coalition’s previous position of seeking the removal of Bashar al-Assad before agreeing to dialogue.  Since then, both the Syrian National Coalition and the Assad regime have made statements that sound like preconditions to Geneva 2, and the question is what these statements are intended to achieve.

On the regime’s side, President Bashar al-Assad has agreed “in principle” to participate in the Geneva 2 dialogues, with the goal of seeking a political solution to the violence (which US Secretary of State John Kerry has stated will create a transitional government acceptable to all parties and thus ensure the removal of Bashar al-Assad).  But al-Assad has also said that he does not intend to step down, but will seek re-election in the 2014 elections.  He has declared that the loyal Syrian Army is defeating the rebels.  He has stated (in a press release for an interview) and implied (in the actual interview) that he has received the first shipments of Russian missiles, although Russian sources contradicted him.

On the opposition side, although the lesser-known National Coordination Coalition has agreed to the talks, the Syrian National Coalition has rejected the notion of dialogue with the regime as long as the “massacres” continue.

This rejection by the Syrian National Coalition seemed short-sighted to me.  Certainly, one can understand the emotional reasoning and the dread of “striking a deal with the devil” in their eyes, since they blame Bashar al-Assad personally for all of the awful things of this war.  But their position seems absurd: they require the regime to unilaterally declare a ceasefire and the president to voluntarily step down, before dialogue can happen at which sides might agree to a ceasefire.

But the interchange regarding the Russian missiles reminded me that not all is as it seems in the Middle East, and words mean different things in different contexts.  If, as seems likely, the Russian sources are correct that the missiles haven’t shipped (and won’t get there for at least a few months), then the president’s claim to the contrary is an attempt at intimidation and indicating a strong position from which to bargain.  He does not need to drop his price very much.  Because the other side of bargaining is that the buyer needs to be willing to pay a price which the seller is willing to take seriously.  From the opposition perspective, since they want al-Assad to go, the opposite counter-offer of his insisting he’ll seek re-election is to insist that he leave from the start.  Are these statements just rhetorical preparation for bargaining at Geneva 2?

I do not know.  They could be, and I hope they are.  That would make a lot more sense of the Syrian National Coalition’s position.  On the other hand, Bashar al-Assad last November vowed to “live or die” in Syria, so it may be that he fully intends not to compromise on his re-election bid.  And the Syrian National Coalition must know that a public refusal to take part in the Geneva 2 dialogues, even only a temporary refusal, is costing them a lot of international support.  The strife of their meeting in Istanbul last week already cost them a lot of support within Syria (here, and here).  If these statements are not driving a hard bargain, the talks can still go on even without the Syrian National Coalition (after all, the National Coordination Coalition agreed to participate), but the Geneva 2 are even more unlikely than they already seemed to bring an end to the Syrian Civil War without some involvement from the Syrian National Coalition.  A lot is now riding on whether the bargaining culture of the Middle East is found or lost in these statements of both the Syrian regime and the Syrian National Coalition.

Found: Syria’s Other Secularist Opposition

First let me say that I know there is bigger news about Syria today, such as US Senator John McCain‘s surprise visit to the Free Syrian Army and the European Union’s decision to end the arms embargo against Syria.  I am not yet commenting on those, as I wait to learn more about what each development will mean.  I also have yet to post regarding the effectiveness of drone attacks, as I still intend to do.

But what caught my eye earlier today was a small article from the Chinese government news agency Xinhua, which reported that Hasan ‘Abd al-‘Azim, the leader of the Syrian secularist opposition group the National Coordinating Body, promised to participate “positively” in the US-Russia backed “Geneva 2” negotiations to seek a political end to the bloodshed in Syria, widely expected to occur some time in June.

Wait a sec, you say?  The Syrian opposition is divided between jihadis (such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Islamic Front, Ghuraba al-Sham, and the Muhajireen Brigade) on the one hand, and the secularists in the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army on the other, right?

Well, yes, I mean, well, sort of.  The Syrian National Council brings together secularists like George Sabra and non-jihadi but distinctly non-secularist politicians such as past president Burhan Ghalioun, who was criticized for being “too close to the Muslim Brotherhood.”  The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (هيئة التنسيق الوطنية لقوى التغيير الديمقراطي, often known as the “National Coordination Committee” or NCC), on the other hand, is a coalition of secularist opposition parties which is not recognized by the Syrian National Coalition, many of whose members suspect that they are a front for regime sympathizers or double agents working for the Assad regime.  It is true that the Assad government is secularist as well, and the NCC did not formally call for Assad’s removal until September 2012.  On the other hand, the NCC is now calling for Assad’s removal, which puts them more squarely with the rest of the opposition, despite the suspicions of other opposition groups.  They have rarely been noticed by Western media outlets, which have tended to focus on the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition, perhaps viewing them by analogy with Libya’s National Transition Council.

Why is China picking up on the NCC?  While the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition are calling for foreign military aid, the NCC rejects external military intervention.  This accords very well with China’s (and Russia’s) repudiation of “foreign meddling” in Syria, seen in their repeated UN Security Council veto of any UN military action in Syria, and this mutual interest in “non-interference” explains why the NCC has received diplomatic support from both China and Russia.  If China and Russia cannot have the Assad regime, the NCC is their opposition of choice.

The NCC also used to have a number of Kurdish member parties, but those parties have withdrawn to form the Kurdish National Council, which is separatist as well as secularist and leftist.  The KNC is arguing that the part of Syria where Kurds form the majority (in the northeast of the country) should be given full Kurdish autonomy, while the SNC and NCC both are pushing for maintaining Syria’s current borders.

With so many opposition groups to choose from, the Geneva 2 meeting may end up with every foreign country having its preferred Syrian opposition coalition.

Are Drone Attacks Legal?

Yesterday I responded to President Obama’s speech defending the use of drone attacks and targeted killing (full transcript of the speech here) by giving some moral objections to the use of killer drones away from a battlefield.  (As I indicated in that post, the notion that the whole world is a constant battlefield in the War on Terror, as it is sometimes claimed, is patent nonsense.)  In this post I will consider the legality of the use of drone strikes away from a battlefield scenario.

Three caveats first, however.  One, I am not a lawyer (although my parents always said I should be), and am very aware that my ideas in this domain are only suggestions to be taken up or discarded by those who have the training.  Second, I do presume that actions are legal unless proven otherwise, so the burden of proof is on the claim of illegality.  Third, although we would like laws to be good and just, legality and morality are in fact logically independent: something can be illegal and yet morally neutral (driving one mile over a very low speed limit, for example), and something can be legal and yet morally wrong (at least until a law is passed to prohibit, for example, the widespread abuse of workers in nineteenth-century factories).

Legal Reasoning

President Obama explicitly asserted the legality of drone attacks, even drone attacks upon US citizens who are plotting to attack the US (although not upon US soil, interestingly).  The main argument for the legality of drone attacks is that they are part of a defensive war between the United States and al-Qa’ida:

We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.

By contrast, critics of the legality of “targeted killing” liken it to assassination, which is prohibited under Reagan’s Executive Order 12333 (thanks to Jurist for this detail).  That is why the Wikipedia article “Assassination” contains a section entitled “Targeted Killing,” although at the time of this writing a little over half of that section consists of a rehearsal of which legal scholars have asserted the distinction between “assassination” and “targeted killing.”  (The discussion in the “Legality” section of Wikipedia’s “Targeted Killing” article is a bit fuller.)  The article by Jeffrey Addicott on Jurist (cited above) lays out an argument for the distinction between assassination and targeted killing, noting that EO 12333 did not define “assassination” (so we are evidently free to define it circularly as illegal murder, and thus the prohibition in EO 12333 is merely tautological), that the US is at war with “the virtual-State al-Qa’eda,” and that the “law of armed conflict describes lawful targets.”  According to Addicott’s interpretation of this “law of armed conflict,” “An enemy combatant – whether part of an organized military or a civilian who undertakes military activities – is a legitimate target at all times and may be lawfully killed, even if by surprise.”

Now, I’m not going to lay out an argument why “targeted killing” is a form of assassination.  I think it is, but I suspect the use of those words is sufficiently slippery that such a case will be mired in meaningless assertions regarding rival uses of language.  Instead, I have two considerations which lead me to suggest that “targeted killing” and drone attacks away from an active battlefield are probably illegal.

The first consideration is to ask whether the laws of war apply.  President Obama’s legal defense of “targeted killing” relies upon the “War on Terror” being a defensive war.  He explicitly states, “at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces,” and this war is just because it is “a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”  I do not in any way deny that al-Qa’ida has attacked US people and property illegally and unjustifiably.  I merely question whether one can be “at war with an organization,” as President Obama puts it, in a way that the “laws of armed conflict” apply.  It is revealing that in Professor Addicott’s version of this argument, he refers to “the virtual-State al-Qa’eda.”  Does the invocation of the laws of war require that al-Qa’ida be considered a state?

Of course, the rhetoric of the “War on Terror” built off earlier American public campaigns designed to rally popular sentiment behind some unpopular measures, such as the “War on Poverty,” the “War on Cancer,” and the “War on Drugs.”  But in the first two cases (and in the domestic policies attached to the third) we recognize a metaphor, namely that the opposing threat to be battled is not to be fought militarily according to the laws of warfare.  The “War on Drugs” is more ambiguous, because it has been used as a motivation for foreign military intervention, although the rhetoric has fallen on hard times.  But it seems to me that, rhetoric aside, the applicability of the rules of war requires there to be a recognizable war, which I would characterize as requiring hostility between two countries/states.  The Oxford English Dictionary similarly defines “war” as armed conflict “between nations, states, or rulers, or between parties in the same nation or state,” although Wikipedia includes “non-state actors” as potential combatants.

It is obvious that al-Qa’ida, whatever else it might be, is not a state.  It has no legitimate sovereignty, it has no constituent population which it serves, it has no territory it governs or could govern justly.  As President Obama’s speech acknowledged, it is an organization.  And organizations can be illegal and violent (think “organized crime”), but the response to organizations is not warfare.  The declaration of war requires a state upon which war is declared.  Without a state which can be held accountable to the Geneva Conventions, the laws of warfare simply do not apply to the “War on Terror.”

The inapplicability of war-time legal reasoning is also apparent from the evident domestic peace in the US.  Certainly terrorist attacks shake us, and for those killed and maimed there is no recovery, but compared to the continuing violence in the civil war in Syria, or the sectarian violence in Iraq, terrorist attacks are one-off events.  This is not to minimize the horror of them, but to indicate the different timelines of violence between warfare and terrorism.

But challenging the “War on Terror” as a vehicle for legal reasoning does not necessarily demonstrate the illegality of drone strikes.  Perhaps “targeted killing” is legal in peace-time, and as I indicated above, all actions are presumed legal unless demonstrated otherwise.  It is here that my second consideration comes in, by analogy.

Apart from times of war and active battlefields, civil society depends for its continued operation on certain legal norms which restrict (for example) vigilantism and blood feuds.  Among these legal norms are due process, which mandate that when a crime has been committed, a person accused cannot be punished before being tried and found guilty in a court of law.  To take an interpersonal example, most legal systems justify violence in self-defense: if you are being attacked, you can fight back.  But this justification ceases to be relevant when the attack ceases: if you have been attacked and your assailant is walking away, attacking your assailant is not justified.  Instead you must seek redress through the criminal or civil legal systems.  The self-defense justification is also not applicable to pre-emptive strikes: just because you suspect that someone is planning to harm you, attacking them before they make an aggressive move is not self-defense.  Plotting to commit a violent crime is indeed itself a crime and punishable as such, but does not give rise to a justification of violence against the person so plotting, until the attack is initiated.  Even if people have previously committed violent crimes and are suspected of plotting further violent crimes, if my understanding is correct, nevertheless the self-defense justification cannot be invoked simply because they are the sorts of people who commit violent crimes (although greater than normal police caution is certainly called for).  The self-defense justification must be based on an actual ongoing attack initiated by them as aggressors.

If the “War on Terror” is not in legal terms a war to which the Geneva Conventions apply, then the rules of peace-time due process must be upheld.  A government therefore cannot invoke the self-defense justification for violence except where there is an open confrontation initiated by a hostile outside force.  Thus shooting terrorists attempting to detonate a bomb clearly falls under the self-defense justification, but tracking down people who have attacked you and killing them there falls outside self-defense justification.  The key component of Professor Addicott’s argument that an “enemy combatant” is a “legitimate target at all times” (emphasis his) requires there to be a state of war.  In the absence of a state of war, a violent assailant is not “a legitimate target at all times” but only when actively prosecuting an attack.  Apart from an initiated terrorist operation, a terrorist is a criminal who must be treated with due process.

It is particularly important for the US to recognize that the “War on Terror” is a rhetorical turn of phrase and does not give rise to a state of warfare in light of the disparity of suffering.  Americans know we are not living in a warzone.  Pakistanis, especially those living in Waziristan, might be more inclined to consider themselves as living in a state of warfare.  But for the many non-al-Qa’ida aligned Pakistanis in Waziristan (almost a million), if there is a state of warfare, then the US is clearly the aggressor, because those non-al-Qa’ida aligned Pakistanis have done nothing against the US.  I would suggest that the US government should weigh carefully whether it wants to assert that the drone strikes are part of a state of warfare, a state in which the claims of self-defense may be found unconvincing.

Again, let me repeat that I am not a lawyer.  But it seems to me that the legal justification of targeted killing and lethal drone strikes depending on America’s defensive war against al-Qa’ida, invokes obviously inapplicable “rules of war”.  The “War on Terror” is a rhetorically savvy American public relations push, but it is not a war to which the “rules of war” could possibly apply.  In the absence of a state of warfare, the due process requirements of the rule of law in civil society outweigh the national interests in the targeting killing of known or suspected criminals by surprise when they are not actively carrying out criminal operations.  President Obama indicated his “strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists,” but a strong preference is not enough.  “Self-defense” should never be a legal cloak for violent counter-aggression which bypasses due process.