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The logic of influence in Syria

Fred Kaplan wrote in a recent Slate article on how events in Syria may play out:

"Even if our largesse did buy us influence, that doesn’t mean we’re influencing the right people."

The context of Kaplan's comments in based around a New York Times report that CIA agents are helping provide weapons to Syrian opposition fighters.

The whole idea of providing weapons to rebels in the hope of undermining an opponent and influencing the outcome of the struggle is probably older than war itself. But that doesn't mean it works. (In fact, if anyone has done a study on how often it deosn't work, Londonstani would be very interested in reading it). 

In this day and age, Londonstani was kinda hoping we'd moved past the whole "take me to your leader" approach and could come up with something that combines the best of politics, diplomacy and communications. Maybe, just maybe, the people to reach out to here aren't warlords, but the average Syrian. After all, the warlords are going to be seeking constituencies to wield power on behalf of in the post-Assad Syria. So, whatever happens, it's the Syrian people who will set the frame in which the future of their country is cast - whether good or bad. 

If there are international bodies out there putting together contingency plans, Londonstani's requests would be:

1 - Please do lots of research

2 - Please read your research

3 - Please don't put all you eggs in baskets owned by opportunistic gangsters (Syria has many)


The tombs of Timbuktu in pictures

Reuters reported today that fighters from Malian extremist group Ansar Dine, which recently took control of the north of the country, have been destroying historical Islamic sites.

"A local Malian journalist, Yeya Tandina, said Saturday that the Ansar Dine fighters had already destroyed the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud, one of the 16 shrines in Timbuktu, and had declared that they would demolish all the others. Later, residents said at least two other mausoleums and seven tombs had also been destroyed," the Reuters story re-printed in the NYT stated.

Londonstani is not an expert on the politics of the Sahel (unlike Andrew Lebovich, who you can follow at @tweetsintheME), but has visited and reported from Timbuktu in his old journalism days. Reading about the rampaging extremist gunmen, Londonstani can't help thinking back to what he saw and heard in Timbuktu and the capital Bamako, which had seemed at the time like havens of Islamic tolerance after Pakistan.

"In countries, where the austere Takfiri ideology has grown, Sufis – who practice a spiritual and inclusive understanding of Islam – have been targeted. In Pakistan earlier this month, extremists blew up the shrine of a 17th century Sufi poet," Londonstani wrote for the Sunday Telegraph.

"Back in Bamako's main market, a shopkeeper who spoke Arabic because of his education in one of the capital's Islamic schools, and sold traditional carved wooden statues of nude women said he could not comprehend an Islam that attacked the tombs of revered figures.

"If they did that here, there would be civil war," he said."

When it happened, the civil war came first; then the desecration.


Timbuktu's Cemetary of the Saints


Local religious figures visit tombs of local saints


In praise and remembrance


Amongst one of the targeted tombs


Timbuktu is famous for its libraries - hopefully they escape the attention of Ansar Dine


Egypt's Pakistani future?

Having living a long-time in Egypt, Londonstani has been following the election news  quite closely. Amongst the claims of counter coups etc, there's little giving a sense of where Egyptian politics is going. 

The ever insightful Juan Cole, however, has been one of the few observers putting events into a long term and wider regional context. 

In his most recent blog post the Middle East scholar compares political developments in Egypt to Pakistan, that other heavily populated, cultural hub of political Islamist ideology. 

"Ironically, in Pakistan since 2008, the president’s powers (originally based on martial law amendments to the constitution made at will by a series of military dictators after their coups) have been much reduced as a result of popular pressure, the insistence of opposition parties, and the country’s feisty courts. Pakistan may be the sort of system toward which Egypt’s SCAF is groping, where the officer corps controls aspects of foreign policy (e.g. Afghanistan) and has huge economic holdings that the civilian government cannot easily challenge. But the continued power of the military in Pakistan derives in part from the war the country is fighting against elements of the Taliban in the tribal belt, and from the weakness and corruption of the parliamentary parties. And, even in Pakistan, it should be remembered, a military dictator (Gen. Pervez Musharraf) was successfully removed in 2008 under threat of impeachment by the elected parliament, and the prerogatives of the officer corps have been whittled down in subsequent years. In Pakistan, big street protests and marches gave support to parties’ demands, a dynamic that we’ve seen in Egypt in the past year and a half."

Having spent a fair amount in each country, Londonstani would say that they main difference between Pakistan and Egypt right now is that Egyptians have found a public voice and a confidence to say what it is they expect from their leaders. And, this new-found expression is being tentatively exercised on a daily basis. Pakistanis, on the other hand, have little faith in the political system or their collective ability to change things for the better through the systems that presently exist. Despite talk of the lawyers marches a few years ago, in Pakistan there really is no such thing as "popular" dissent. Public protest in Pakistan only reaches significant levels when it is backed by an established political force. 

In Egypt, political actors have learnt to fear "the people". In Pakistan they fear particular political parties, the military, families that run madrassa networks or media bosses. 

The obvious exception to this rule is Imran Khan. He is still a political actor, but has managed to gain legitimate political following based on his ideas. In other words, he's not bribing people to back him. In Egypt, popular opinion has only become a political force since Mubarak's ouster. In Pakistan, politics has begun to be based on ideas since the rise of Imran Khan. Perhaps the real similarity between the two countries is that both have, for different reasons, discovered real politics very recently. 



The new order of engagement

The CNAS crew in Washington DC have put together a report a new report on future US policy towards the new dictator-unfriendly Middle East.

Two observations stand out.

1 - People have become important.

The report notes;

"A new Arab public sphere has been developing in the Middle East since at least the mid-1990s. While the region remains divided by state boundaries, a shared political dialogue – enabled by diverse media, ranging from Al-Jazeera to Twitter – has emerged in which the people of the region have the freedom to voice their desires and frustrations in ways they could not two decades ago.

...The monopoly over information once enjoyed by regimes has been lost to new technologies and media. No longer can ministries of information shape what publics know and do not know about the world and their condition relative to other peoples."

The simple fact is that; any international actor looking to engage in the politics of the Middle East, or wider Muslim world, will have to figure out how to talk, and listen, to the people. Much like the same actor would have to do at home. It will no longer be possible to force a pliant local dictator to push through policies that local people don't believe to be in their interest.

2 - Islamists, and their followers, can't be avoided

Whereas only a couple of years ago, the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom could declare they would not be speaking to Islamists, confident in the belief that their refusal to speak to a political group would render it insignificant. Today, not talking to a group that generates popular support is likely only damage your own significance.

"Thus, the protection of U.S. interests requires the United States to interact with parties and leaders that only a few years ago were dismissed as radicals."

And, in case anyone thought any of that was easy, an article today in the Guardian about engagement and divergence between Islamist groups shows just how complex the political environment is.

Anyway, make Ex's day and download the report Strategic Adaptation: Towards a New U.S. Strategy in the Middle East here.


The point of foreign policy

Londonstanis original blogging home, Abu Muqawama, has a fascinating post by Adam Elkus on the "domesticisation of European national interest".

The bit that caught Londonstani's eye was this:

"By proposing the idea that domestic and international security threats were inescapably linked, Blair and others did not internationalize the national interest. Rather, Blair domesticated the international."

The idea being that instead of striding onto the world stage to address domestic concerns, as they claimed, policy makers were bringing the international arena onto the domestic stage.

At first glance it might seem like arguing over shades of grey, but for a country that's in a period of cost-cutting and retrenchment it goes to the heart of a question that the UK has failed to settle for close on a century; what's abroad actually for?

While you're at it, have a look at the Aaron Ellis' post at Tory Reform Group mentioned by Adam.