The Future of Syria: Political Turmoil and Prospects of Democracy
Monday, November 28, 2011
Helena Cobban, Writer and Analyst
Erol Cebeci, Executive Director, The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
Kilic Kanat, Non-Resident Fellow, The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
by Emsu Gorpe
Kilic Kanat began with opening remarks by outlining the current situation in Syria’s ongoing unrest, noting that the Assad regime has failed to respond to international calls to end the violence. Kanat highlighted the recent decision by the Arab League to impose economic sanctions on Syria, which include travel bans on high-level senior officials, a ban on transactions with the Syrian Central Bank, and a halt to all commercial exchanges with the Syrian government. He added that Syria also faces serious pressure from the UN. A report released by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva has found patterns of gross human rights violations, arbitrary arrests, torture, and enforced disappearances
Helena Cobban discussed key differences between Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria, currently ruled by minority Alawites. One difference is the institutional development of the countries. In both Egypt and Tunisia, civil society organizations were involved in the uprisings, whereas in Syria, “you don’t have the same rich network of bar associations and journalists that operate more or less independent of the regime,” she said. Second, Syria is in a continuing state of war with Israel. Third, Syria has a unique geographic location bordering Sunni-dominated Turkey and Jordan, Shiite-dominated Iraq and Lebanon, as well as the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Cobban noted that Syria’s pluralistic pot of ethnicities and religious groups adds to the list of challenges.
Cobban then laid out several efforts that should be pursued by non-Syrians, including de-escalation of tensions. She stated, “Many communities in the country are opposed to a knife-edge of sectarian killings—a result of ‘fitna’.” She stressed that the international community should not provoke Syria’s long-simmering sectarian tensions. Cobban also urged for the provision of hope that is “all Syrian citizens, regardless of their religious and ethnic backgrounds, to have a hope that they can build a future in that country.” She noted that Assad’s regime is “acting out of a large degree of fear.” On the role of Turkey, Cobban stated that “Turkey is a remarkable role model for Middle Eastern countries,” with its successful economy, improved civil-military relations and continuance of democratization process. She also urged Turkey and South Africa to cooperate as “midwives of democracy” in Syria’s transition to democracy.
Erol Cebeci focused on Turkish-Syrian bilateral relations. He noted that Turkey had been in a state of cold war with Syria during the 1990s. One of the AKP’s foreign policy successes was improving relations with Syria, as a part of its ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy. “Without questioning the legitimacy of the governments,” he said, “Turkey advocated political integration to better economical and political relations while encouraging change in the region.” He noted that Turkey was instrumental in Iraq in successfully convening different ethnic and religious groups in the election process. Cebeci also stressed that Turkey has played an important role in a few areas, including providing safe haven for Syrian refugees, working closely with the Syrian opposition and allowing them to operate from Turkey. There are currently about 10,000 refugees sheltered in Turkey.
Cebeci added that even at a time when the Bush administration was calling for the isolation of Syria, Turkey continued to invest in Turkish-Syrian relations. As early as December 2010, Turkey had been a “good friend” to the Assad regime but that relationship left in tatters after Assad failed to keep his promises of reform. As a result, “in August, Turkey shifted its Syrian policy and started to support the demands of the Syrian people.” With regards to the Arab League, Cebeci noted that “Syria is an important part of the Arab World and events in Syria will have tremendous consequences for the entire region.”
The floor was then opened to questions, which revolved mainly around the effectiveness of sanctions. Both panelists agreed that sanctions must have a goal that is, in this case, to pressure the Assad regime to end violence against the citizens of Syria. Cebeci emphasized the need for Assad to negotiate a political outcome, suggesting a possible “free exile of the entire Assad family.” Emphasizing the lack of many good options in Syria and the Syrian leadership’s refusal to lead the transition to democracy, Cebeci quoted an analyst saying, “Assad was offered a rope by Turkey to pull himself out of the well, but he decided to place it around his neck.”
Helena Cobban is a veteran writer and researcher on global affairs. She contributed a regular column on global issues to The Christian Science Monitor from 1990 until the paper stopped having regular columnists in 2007. She is a Contributing Editor of Boston Review and since 2003 she has published "Just World News", a lively blog on international issues that has gained a broad international readership. In early 2010 she founded the publishing company Just World Books, which she continues to head. In May 2008, Ms. Cobban published her seventh book, Re-engage! America and the World After Bush. Congressman Lee Hamilton, Co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, described it as, "An impassioned, thought-provoking, and accessible brief from a highly esteemed journalist on how all of us - as individuals - can act to help better our country and world." She is also author of four books on Middle Eastern diplomacy, politics, and society, including most recently The Israeli-Syrian Peace Talks: 1991-96 and Beyond (U.S. Institute of Peace, 2000.) Born in England in 1952, Ms. Cobban received her B.A. and M.A. from Oxford University. From 1974 through 1981, she worked as a Beirut-based correspondent for print and broadcast outlets that included The Christian Science Monitor, The Sunday Times of London, the BBC, and ABC News. Since 1982, she has lived primarily in the United States, though her work has taken her back to the Middle East (many times), and to many parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. For many years, Ms. Cobban served for many years on the Middle East Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch; she was also one of two Quakers who were members of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. She currently serves on the board of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the Corporation of Haverford College.