Saturday, February 4, 2012

Syria

Political protest in Syria — and the Assad regime's violent response — continues to be one of the primary international news stories. There have been 5,000 to 6,000 deaths from the violence in the past year.

The bizarre recent twist to the story is Russia's unwillingness to join the international effort to compel Assad to step down.

The international consensus (in favor of Assad's removal) has coalesced during the past few months, following the Arab League's statement in November demanding that Syria's government (1) withdraw its troops from the cities and (2) release all political prisoners.

520. I was (and remain) surprised by the Arab League's firm position against Assad. I anticipated that they would give Assad more leeway, as a show of Arab solidarity. What is motivating them? Is it the desire to improve Arab states' standing in the international community?  A genuine turn toward democracy?

521. Is there a political or non-political figure (a literary figure, perhaps?)  in the Arab world who is particularly respected across national borders? 

522. Are the individuals behind the Arab League's actions analogous to "Euro-zone diplomats" or are they identified with their national governments?

523. How do everyday Syrians feel about the Arab League's position?  Do they see it as a capitulation to the West?

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The Post is reporting this morning that more than 200 protesters were killed yesterday in the city of Homs.  This is one of the largest episodes of violence so far.

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Vitaly Churkin is Russia's representative at the United Nations.

According to several recent articles, Churkin has stated unequivocally that Russia will not support a UN-sponsored transition from Assad to a new Syrian government.

Here's an exerpt from a January 28 article in the Post:
Critics say Moscow’s tough line at the United Nations reflects what one senior council diplomat described as “the Putinization of Russian foreign policy,” on the eve of what many expect will be the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency.

Other analysts say Russia is trying to reassert its authority in the council following a period in which the United States and Europe prevailed in the handling of several major crises, engineering the downfall of former Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo and, more recently, of Moammar Gaddafi in Libya.

“The Russians looked diminished in the first half of 2011, and the strategy is to show, one, they are prepared to act as a spoiler, but, two, they can also lay out a more proactive agenda,” said Richard Gowan. 
524. What are the practical (non-symbolic) reasons for Russia's support of Assad?  I have read about two reason so far: (1) Russian manufacturers sell military supplies to Syria, and (2) there is a Russian naval port on the Mediterranean coast of Syria, in the city of Tartus.

I had not realized that Syria has coastline on the Mediterranean.  I guess I thought that Lebanon had all of the coastline above Israel.  Here's a map:


525. What does the Russian navy do in Tartus?  Is this base a remnant of the Cold War "spheres of influence," or has it been built more recently?

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We saw an interesting interview recently, on the PBS Newshour, with the King of Jordan, Abdullah II.

He struck me as brilliant - thoughtful, complex, cosmopolitan. I pictured him, Obama and Clinton talking long into the night about global politics.

King Abdullah talked about his family being socially acquainted with Assad's family, and he said that he thinks Assad is being controlled by forces larger than him.

Unfortunately he was not clear about the nature of those forces. I assume that he meant the Syrian military calls the shots, but I would think that Assad could influence the military, rather than vice versa.

526. Which of the following cities would I most like to visit: Damascus, Baghdad, or Tehran?  My initial thought is Baghdad (perhaps Father Hicks is still there?), but any of the three would be amazing.

527. Has an American President ever traveled to Damascus, either before or after his term in office? I imagine that Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton may have done so in the past ten years.  Is either of them talking with the Syrians or the Arab League about possible solutions?

528. In America, I often see Afghan, Turkish and Lebanese restaurants, but I cannot remember a Syrian restaurant. Why not? What's the most popular food in Syria?

King Abdullah II of Jordan

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