Saturday, 24 March 2012

Forget Plan 'B', They Need Plan 'A'

The ruthless Syrian regime may be losing the international public relations war. But it is slowly and viciously grinding down the remnants of opposition, and remains entrenched  in power.  It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Just as in Libya the forces of ‘good’ in the world were supposed to use their power and prestige to help the long-suffering Syrian people free themselves from the strangle-hold of a despotic regime. Instead, Syria is proving to be the place where the so-called Arab Spring could turn into the deep freeze of the Arab Winter.

Our friend Rainer Hermann, long-time Middle East correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is in frequent contact with all sides in the Syrian conflict and offers valuable insights into the problems there. Rainer speaks fluent Arabic, and his constant travels throughout the region and huge list of contacts give him a unique and valuable perspective on these developments.

The first problem facing the opposition groups is that the bulk of the Syrian army is remaining loyal to the regime. A few soldiers and a handful of officers have defected to the opposition, but so far the vast bulk of the military together with all the heavy weapons remain with the regime. The opposition is left with light weapons and dedicated volunteers who are no match for a trained military force willing to resort to any degree of barbarity to stay in power. There is no quarter in this battle, no compromise possible where the leadership of the military is closely allied with the minority Alawite regime. The military leadership realizes its future would be grim indeed if the majority Sunni part of the population were to assume control.

The second major problem is that the opposition is bitterly divided. Various groups and a myriad of splinter groups often cannot even sit in the same room, let alone decide on a common strategy. Some want a stronger military presence, others demand negotiations with the regime. Many of the local coordinating councils detest the national council. Many resent those who spend all their time talking with foreign diplomats instead of fighting on the ground. Essentially, there is no common platform, and the opposition has been unable to convince the ‘silent majority’ to join the struggle. Many of the Syrian bourgeois middle class are remaining on the sidelines unconvinced that the opposition has a clear plan, let alone a decent chance to succeed and install a regime any better than the one they already have.

“Forget Plan B. There’s no Plan A,” one frustrated Syrian friend said.

This critical mass of people may not like the Al-Assad regime, but they like the confusion that followed uprisings in Egypt and Libya even less. We have Christian Arab friends in London who are very nervous about the potential for fundamental Sunni control of Syria.

“Up to now, the Christians in Syria have had a decent time. The churches and monasteries are open. No one hassles them. Look at Egypt now. See how the Copts are being mistreated. The Western countries have no idea what will follow the overthrow of Al-Assad. They have to be very careful,” our neighbour said.

The third major problem faced by the opposition is the complete paralysis of the international community. Remember Bosnia? This is just as bad. There has been a torrent of words, but so far precious little action. The Al-Assad regime can hide behind its Russian and Chinese protectors and ignore the pious protests from the European Union, the United States, and the toothless United Nations. A few U.S. senators have called for military intervention, but fortunately cooler heads have prevailed. One hopes the Americans have learned the dangers of ‘regime change’ forced from the outside.

Turkey is in a very difficult position. Thousands of Syrian refugees have fled across the border into Turkey. The Turkish government has turned against its one-time friend Bashar Al-Assad and issues daily verbal thunderbolts against him. There is a lot of loose talk about the Turkish army setting up a buffer zone inside Syrian to protect civilians caught in the middle. I doubt very much that Turkey would ever act on its own. The geopolitical/economic balances in this part of the world are extremely delicate. Turkey’s large Kurdish population is already restive, and the militant wing of fighters in the PKK shows no sign of giving up its attacks. However unlikely, the last thing Turkey needs is for Syria to start helping the Turkish Kurds in retaliation for any incursion by the Turkish military. Then there is Iran, also a strong supporter of the Al-Assad regime. Turkish – Iranian relations are already tense, and any overt move against Syria would only heighten those tensions.

The hard, cruel fact is that right now there is no obvious solution. The only thing that is clear at this point is that any sustainable solution is going to have to come from within Syria itself. Outside intervention on behalf of the opposition is just not going to happen. If the opposition could unite and develop a common platform for a non-Assad Syria the hitherto ‘silent majority’ might just become a little less silent and lend its voice to the opposition. But that, unfortunately, is a very big ‘if’.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Is The Natural Beauty Getting Buried?

It used to be that trips to the islands were a blessed respite from the confusion and mind-numbing negotiations, strikes, and political maneuvering that pass for normal life in Athens these days. After listening to debates about abstruse acronyms such as PSI, CAC, ECB and so forth it was a relief to get on a ferry and head to an island, any island, where life tends to run at a slower speed and reduced decibels.

Sadly, this year a winter trip to Andros served mainly as a reminder of official lethargy and confusion in the face of a long-term and increasing problem. This problem has nothing to do with the much-debated Greek pension plans, strikes, or debt repayments. The problem is quite simply the growing mounds of rubbish that blight all corners of this otherwise lovely island.

An all-too-common sight
This is by no means a new issue for Andros. The previous municipal administration also had no answers, and tried to solve the problem by burying it, literally. Unfortunately, the place they chose to bury it collapsed under heavy rains about a year ago sending tons of Andros rubbish into the sea and, eventually, onto other islands miles away. People on those islands were not amused.

That was more than a year ago. Since then, despite several official promises that ‘things were going to get resolved’ nothing has been done. Consequently, large mounds of rubbish pile up all over the island. From time to time they are collected and even shipped to treatment plants in Athens as a last resort at vast expense. Sometimes they resort to the very clever solution of turning streets leading to the main town into improvised garbage dumps.

One of the main streets turning into a dump

Even the streams are clogged
This year the locals have greeted the advent of the Orthodox Lenten season with more than the usual religious fervor and expectation of miracles.

“Thank God for Clean Monday (the beginning of Orthodox Lent). Before then the rubbish was even worse than you see now. You could barely walk anywhere. Suddenly the officials got busy and started to clean things up about a week ago. I have no idea where they’re taking it, but at least the mountains of rubbish are somewhat reduced. Fortunately we have had a cold winter so the stench was somewhat controlled. We will probably have another break for Easter when I’m sure they will find another place to hide it as the island starts to fill up again. We could do with another miracle. God knows what they will do in summer when it gets really hot and the population of the island more than triples,” said one disgusted local.

It’s not as if they are no solutions. Several have been proposed, but for some mysterious reason none has been acted upon, or even widely discussed. One of the better ones seemed to be the construction of a treatment plant at the southern tip of the island far from any population center. One land owner even said he would make more than enough land available. One attraction of this plan would be that the plant could also handle the rubbish that could be brought from the neighboring island of Tinos, only a few hundred yards away. There may be no Greek government funding available for such a project right now, but officials could at least research the possibility of a European Union grant on environmental and health grounds.

But so far, there is only thundering silence from local officials. Andros is blessed with unparalleled museums, wonderful neo-classical buildings, beautiful hills, ancient pathways, green valleys, rushing streams, and, of course, the Aegean Sea. With these natural resources and rich maritime tradition Andros could be a magnet for up-market, high quality tourism. But sadly, this opportunity seems to be slipping away under ever increasing mounds of rubbish.

While I’m at it . . . I have no idea who is responsible for maintaining historic monuments on Andros, but I really do wish someone would take a look at the remains of the Venetian castle that guards the entrance to the harbor of the main town Chora. This castle used to be graced by a tall flag pole with a large Greek flag  flying proudly above. For more than a year the flag pole has stood barren and rusting with no flag. A flag is a powerful symbol of pride and determination. In these difficult times it would be fitting to see that symbol returned to its rightful place. “We may be in tough shape, but we’re still here.”

Where is the flag?