1. The latest developments from the ongoing civil war in Syria show a great humanitarian crisis. According to the UN, since the beginning of the civil war (22 months ago), more than 60.000 civilians have lost their life and another 1.100.000 people have abandoned the country so far. What could be the “red line” for Bashar al-Assad’s future in power? Would the latest incident, related to a “possible” chemical weapons attack against the opposition, be the begging of the end of his governance?
The question, as I understand it, is really about foreign intervention to put an end to the Assad regime, with the expectation that the departure of President Assad will put an end to the humanitarian crisis. That was the premise of the Franco-British intervention in Libya but, in that case it is questionable whether the humanitarian crisis has come to an end simply because Col Gadhafi was removed from power.
Moreover, political decision-making has rarely been based on humanitarian concerns. The Rwanda genocide of the mid-1990s was probably the catalyst that brought the international community to the point of accepting that it should be the duty of States to intervene (legitimately) in the internal affairs of other states on humanitarian grounds. However, States have been applying this emerging rule of international law very selectively. I would argue that in the case of Syria, as in the cases of Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, former Yugoslavia and many others, States invoke this rule as justification for intervention which is in fact aimed at protecting or promoting their own interests. This leads me to conclude that the real red line in Syria would be when the key economic, political or strategic interests of those States which have the power to intervene, are seriously threatened or when those States see an opportunity to enhance their interests significantly.
Your question has been the subject of many in-depth scholarly analyses. Suffice it to say here that elements, which in my view need to be taken into account in an analysis of this question, include the following:
· In spite of initial expectations and forecasts, the Syrian establishment has not fallen apart. Except for a few senior officers, the Syrian military establishment has by and large remained loyal to President Assad. The Syrian Government also continues to enjoy the support of a large number of citizens. I don’t think we have fully understood the complex pattern of alliances, support and rivalry between the different ethnic and faith communities that make up the Syrian people. It does not seem at this stage that the Syrian Government is in danger of collapse by virtue of internal pressures, as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt.
· The Syrian opposition has not managed to come together in any form of credible, united movement or organization. It remains fractious and deeply divided.
· Interests of regional powers such as Russia, Turkey and Iran are at stake. The relationships between these three States have a long history and, through the complex interplay of their economic, energy, political and military interests, they have maintained some form of regional balance.
· The United States has clear and abiding interests in the region. However, its preponderant focus on the Gulf and its operations in
and Afghanistan have
prompted the US to diminish
the size of its fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean
significantly. Besides, in what way would US intervention in Syria serve US
interests, even if it had the capacity to intervene, which is a moot point?
· NATO took the exceptional decision in the wake of 9/11 to take part in the military intervention in Afghanistan, mainly in support of the US. The Franco-British intervention in Libya enjoyed the support of NATO allies but it was not a NATO operation. France decided to intervene in Mali, but it did so on its own. Against this background, it seems unlikely that NATO would be drawn into an operation in Syria.
· France has raised the question of material support to the Syrian opposition but, in the absence of significant support from its allies, given the fractured nature of the Syrian opposition and against the background of their ongoing operation in Mali, I would personally be surprised if whatever material support that France may in effect give, would be sufficient to put an end to the Assad regime.
· The League of Arab States has proven quite ineffectual in their attempts to deal with the Syrian crisis.
· Qatar’s attempts at assisting the Syrian opposition to structure itself have achieved some initial success, but two years after the start of the uprising, the results of Qatari mediation seem meager.
Against this background, I believe that the conflict in Syria will remain, for the time being and in spite of escalation by the Government forces, an internal one and that the key decisions will continue to be made by the participants in that conflict. Outsiders will continue to take positions and give moral support to one side or another, but I see no reason to expect decisive foreign intervention to put an end to either the humanitarian crisis or to the Assad regime.
2. For over a century, the Middle East balances between political instability and insecurity. You have experienced the power politics in the region at first hand, serving as a diplomat in Ramallah in the period (1995-1999). Do you think that the aggravation of the situation in Syria could lead the way for an arms conflict between Iran and Israel?
No, frankly I don’t see a necessary and direct link between the two issues. Of course everything in the region is somehow interrelated, but I don’t see a relationship of cause and effect in this case. It is true that Israel has always displayed a preference to settle conflicts militarily rather than diplomatically. However, the US does not want an armed conflict involving Iran and President Obama has successfully pressured Prime Minister Netanyahu to withdraw his threats of imminent Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear installations. In any event, the Israeli threats were not predicated on Iranian support for the Syrian Government, but exclusively on the development of nuclear warfare capability by Iran.
3. Since the US military intervention in Iraq, there is a growing sense among certain academic and journalistic circles that the US’s influence in the Middle East is on a steady decline. How accurate is such a perception, bearing in mind that president Obama, unlike his predecessors, is manly focused on vital domestic issues (at least during his first term in office), and what is your estimation of the US’s influence on the world in the near future?
The manner in which your question is phrased creates the impression that US influence is declining in spite of American efforts to the contrary. I don’t share that opinion. The US is by far the largest economic and military power in the world today and it can exert influence wherever it chooses. I would like to take you back to President Obama’s well-known address in Cairo on 4 June 2009, where he made clear, to my mind, that his Administration would not wish to manage the affairs of the Middle East, but to recognise the sovereignty of the nations of the Middle East (as indeed everywhere), as well as their capacity to act on their own behalf. The Obama Administration, for its part, set out to rebuild relations of friendship and mutual respect with the nations of the Middle East without, however, giving up the fight against terrorism, including terrorism with its roots in the Middle East. I therefore think it would be more accurate to say that the US has been following, under President Obama, a less interventionist policy with regard to the Middle East, while working hard on a diplomatic level, to restore relations of mutual trust and goodwill.
At crucial moments, the US has weighed in to secure outcomes that it considers to be in its interest, for example, the departure of President Mubarak, support for the Franco-British intervention in Libya, reining in Prime Minister Netanyahu when he gave notice that he was preparing to carry out an airborne attack against Iranian nuclear installations, etc. It seems that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are favouring using and projecting the ‘soft power’ at their disposal. Of course the exercise of ‘soft power’ is not always as clearly perceptible if one stands on the outside of a particular relationship.
What President Obama has, in my view, been communicating to governments and people in the Middle East is that it is first and foremost their own duty to resolve their problems and that they should not be turning to the US on every occasion. At the same time US practice has, to my mind, proven that the Obama Administration remains very clearly focused on American interests and that it would take action to promote or protect those interests.
4. South Africa is by far the wealthiest country in the African continent, with an estimated $524 billion GDP, as well as a rising political and financial power of the world. According to the South African Planning Commission deep poverty in South Africa is widespread, something which marks extreme inequality. How does this affect economic progress? What is wrong with the current system of income distribution?
Income inequality is a characteristic of most, if not all, emerging economies. In fact, the income gap has been widening markedly in the industrialised economies as well. But to turn to South Africa in particular: In terms of fiscal income redistribution measures, the South African government has done what it could. The problem is more deep-seated than “taking from the rich and giving to the poor”. There are various aspects to the fundamental problem, as I see it:
Firstly, a large segment of the South African population does not have the level of education or training demanded in the labour market. In other words, many people are simply unemployable. Some of these people live in urban environments while others lead a more traditional, rural life in a parallel, subsistence economy. Much has been said over the years about the “First World” and “Third World” economies existing side by side in South Africa.
Secondly, much has been done to upgrade wage levels of production workers in agriculture, mining and manufacturing. However, the South African economy is a relatively open one and prosperity therefore depends to a large degree on international trade. For South Africa to be able to export its products, these have to be priced competitively. Many analysts have already concluded that wage levels are too high, given the levels of productivity in the South African economy. The country experienced serious strikes, mainly in the mining sector, last year exactly because of further wage demands which mining companies could not afford (in spite of rapidly rising executive level remuneration, which is a problem in South Africa as in most other economies). In some cases the strikes were successful, while in others mining companies have threatened to mothball the mines and to lay off the workers, rather to exploit at a loss.
The upcoming Black middle-class is, at a philosophical level, attached to righting the wrongs of the past but they realise that this is a very long term project and, in the meanwhile, it seems that those who possess the necessary education and/or skills are aiming to improve their own situation rather than looking primarily at how to improve the situation of the unemployable “under-class”. This means, on the one hand, that people are looking for the most lucrative employment opportunities, which are in the private sector or, failing that, in the senior levels of public administration. This leads to a severe shortage of well-qualified educators. In other words, one of the fundamental problems, namely the lack of education and training is not being addressed effectively.
The (selfish) ambitions of the middle-class and even the urban elite have also led to widespread corruption and misappropriation of public funds, through a variety of mechanisms, including those put in place by the Government to promote greater equality of opportunities and of income.
In short, the problems faced by South Africa are not really different from those in other African countries. They are perhaps more acute because of the scale of the economy, but even that is debatable.
5. You have served your country for more than 15 years in Europe (Paris 1976-1979, 1988-1991, Brussels 1983-1986 and Athens 2003-2009) and since 2009 you live and work in France providing public policy analysis to clients. What is your interpretation of the current financial crisis in EU? The parliament of Cyprus a few days ago decided to decline the Eurogroup’s plan for a “bail in” and a slow death of the Cypriot economy. According to your valuable experience to the financial and political affairs in Europe and as an observer, are there any alternatives to the austerity approach?
This question has occupied too much space in the popular as well as the specialised media, in the activities of think tanks, in universities and in governmental planning agencies, that I don’t think I am qualified to add anything to the arguments and counter-arguments that have already been formulated by experts much more qualified than I. Suffice it for me to say that I support the body of opinion that maintains that we have come to the end of an era of ultra-liberalism promoted by Prime Minister Thatcher and President Reagan in the 1980s and that we are all groping in the dark to find new solutions to the problems of today. The drive of the developed economies to continually increase prosperity has absorbed a disproportionate part of the world’s resources, which are after all finite. I think that a sustainable solution to the current series of crises will have to involve, in some way, a decline in consumption. Given that this has been the driving force of capitalism as we know it, the solution will therefore in the end probably be a different economic model.
What I think Europe – and the world at large – lacks at the moment is a leadership with a vision for a sustainable, equitable societal model. I fear that establishing such a new world order (which has been talked about for at least a generation) will entail profound disruptions in all spheres of life. It will be painful for everyone.
Specifically about the situation of Cyprus, I can only say that the writing had been on the wall since the onset of the crisis in 2008 and that the leadership in Cyprus (both public and private) apparently did not see the inevitable crisis coming their way.
By Psyllos Panagiotis, Karakosta Elpinike and Siberas Lukas
We would like to warmly thank Mr. Viljoen for such an honor and useful insight.
Mr. Petrus Viljoen, was a South African diplomat from 1975 to 2009 and he served in
Paris (1976-1979 and again 1988-1991), Brussels
(1983-1986), Washington DC
(1987-1988) Ramallah (1995-1999) and
(2003-2009). In the intervening periods he served in Athens at the Foreign Ministry. Since June
2009 he works as an independent Consultant based in Pretoria . His consultancy consists in providing
public policy analysis to clients. Paris