In the months after protests first erupted in Syria in 2011, a soft-eyed native of Deir al-Zour province did two things -- one he is proud of and another he deeply regrets. As an expatriate living in Kuwait, he was energized by the thought of change back home; he spent his money, devoted his time, and rearranged his life around sending food, medicine, and supplies into suffering Syrian communities.
"We were not heroes [before], but placed in such unusual circumstances, we are somehow heroes," he said, recalling how he gathered bags of rice, pleaded with his friends for help, and negotiated with stingy drivers to lower the cost of driving the goods from Kuwait through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and into Syria.
But not long after the charity work began, he and fellow expats joined up with Kuwaiti donors, and a decision was made to help mold military brigades from the opposition. He shook his head and lowered his voice remembering.
The Syrian National Coalition's recent decision to participate in the Geneva II conference on January 22 was welcome news to the U.S. government, which has promoted the negotiations as "the best opportunity" to end the violence in Syria. So surely U.S. policy would want to take into account the reflected wisdom of academics and policy thinkers who have studied how successful political settlements take hold. Academics rarely agree on anything, so it is notable when a consensus position emerges, as it largely has with the academic literature on civil war termination. Even more notable, perhaps, is that this position has almost no influence on government policy.
The academic literature on civil war termination holds that civil wars like the one in Syria usually last a long time and end only in victory by one side or another. The few that do end through a negotiated settlement usually require an agreement that permits a division of political control that roughly corresponds to the division of power on the ground, a parallel agreement among all of the external supporters of the various sides, and external military assistance to monitor and enforce the agreement.
Yet U.S. policy on Syria seems to take none of this into account. The United States seeks a negotiated settlement, but specifically rejects the idea that the Assad regime might maintain some degree of control; specifically (for now) excludes Iran, a key external supporter, from the negotiations; and rejects the idea of contributing to monitoring or enforcing the agreement despite the evident lack of alternatives. This is in part because these are difficult future questions that need not be posed until the negotiations actually begin -- which might actually be never. It is also because the idea of power sharing conflicts with the idea that war is about getting rid of President Bashar al-Assad, while the idea of inviting Iran conflicts with the higher priority U.S. interest in reducing Iranian regional influence.
One night during Ramadan this summer, Hamad al-Matar, a former Kuwaiti member of parliament (MP), invited guests over to donate "to prepare 12,000 Jihadists for the sake of Allah," a poster invitation advised. Anyone could come to his diwaniya, a space used for weekly gatherings to talk politics and sip sweet hot tea. And many did come, their pockets open and their contributions generous.
"I think we raised 100,000 KD [$350,000]," he later recalled in the same diwaniya, a long room lined on the perimeter with ornate couches. "That amazed me. I was thinking I would collect a couple thousand KD. Never in my entire life did I get such an amount of money in my pocket in one day."
But what happened to that sum of money next, Matar said, he isn't certain. "I'm not involved actually honestly speaking in where this money goes, because there are so many people much better than myself. Even I didn't know the map [of Syria]," he explained. "Honestly I don't know actually" where the money went.
A Palestinian official recently asserted that the "current Israeli negotiating position is the worst in more than 20 years." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the failure of talks could produce a "third intifada." Still more revealing, in late October Israel announced the final approval of 1,500 settlement units in occupied East Jerusalem and an additional 2,500 units elsewhere in occupied Palestinian territory. This settlement expansion plan was followed by the Housing Ministry's announcement of a staggering 20,000 new settlement units, which could prove to be the coup de grâce for the "peace process."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite pushing the Housing Ministry to "reconsider" the 20,000 new settlements, has not demonstrated a serious effort to rein in pro-settlement policies during the current peace talks. Recently and throughout his political career, Netanyahu has worked consistently and assiduously to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. By his own admission, Netanyahu helped subvert the Oslo process of the 1990s, and has continued to undermine a two-state solution by expanding settlements and appeasing the Israeli right-wing.
It is therefore incumbent upon the U.S. administration -- as an "honest broker" -- to state publicly that the current negotiations are at an impasse because of Israeli intransigence and ongoing settlement activity.
The Middle East Channel offers unique analysis and insights on this diverse and vital region of more than 400 million.