This week's guest editors

South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy

In the space of a few days, a conflict over a tiny piece of land has sparked an unfolding catastrophe in the Caucasus. At its heart of this catastrophe is great human suffering - a dimension which is not being given its proper weight as too many commentators muse on the geopolitical significance of the conflict.

China and India: heartlands of global protest

The exponential growth of the economies of China and India has won for these Asian giants a position of global economic and political prominence. But this process has been accompanied by profound internal discontent, some of which takes violent forms. The respective domestic experiences may be very different, but there are enough commonalities to suggest a lesson for the dominant economic model to which both states now adhere.

The east's far west

Pakistan’s democracy: after the honeymoon

Pakistan's prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has entered his fifth month in office since being confirmed by a unanimous vote of confidence in the national assembly on 29 March 2008, four days after taking the oath of office. It has been a short honeymoon: for the euphoria which followed Pakistan's return to democracy, symbolised by the elections of 18 February 2008, has already been ended by mounting economic, political and security crises. The hopes that the electoral defeat of the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) - the party which supported and lent legitimacy to Pervez Musharraf during his near-decade of authoritarian rule as Pakistan's president - would usher in a new era is giving way to a growing sense of foreboding.

Ian Talbot is professor of history at the University of Southampton. His books include Pakistan: A Modern History (C Hurst, 2005)

Indeed, the change in the political atmosphere since Gilani's appointment was already apparent when he passed the landmark of 100 days in office on 5 July; on that occasion, the PML-Q issued a "white paper" boldly characterising Gilani's performance as "100 days of betrayal". It seemed that one of the few achievements of Pakistan's new democracy was to allow the previously discredited PML-Q and the formerly beleaguered - though still unpopular - President Musharraf to acquired a renewed self-confidence.

To understand these varying political and psychological currents, it is helpful to step back a little and reflect on the historical parallels and problems which contextualise the contemporary scene.

The price of democracy

Pakistan's history has been littered with failed transitions from the rule of (or backed by) the military to rule by politicians. Indeed, analysts and commentators have tended to overestimate the ability of a single election to alter the entrenched power of the military and a political culture which is marked by infighting and opportunism, rather than accommodation and statesmanship.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan politics:

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamabad" (4 June 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan's peril" (19 July 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan: the power of the gun" (7 November 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's multi-faceted crisis" (12 November 2007)

Iftikhar H Malik, "Pakistan: misgovernance to meltdown" (19 November 2007)

Saskia Sassen, "Lahore: urban space, niche repression" (21 November 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The assassin's age: Pakistan in the world" (28 December 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Benazir Bhutto: the politics of murder" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2008)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's critical moment" (11 February 2008)

Furhan Iqbal, "Pakistan and violence: memory, shame, and repression" (18 February 2008)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's judgment day" (22 February 2008)
The pattern of euphoria followed by disillusion which surrounded Benazir Bhutto's first election victory in 1988 has some echoes in Pakistan's situation in 2008. The original joint government leaders - Asif Ali Zardari (Benazir's widower, and leader of her Pakistan's People's Party [PPP]) and Nawaz Sharif (of the PML-N, and like Benazir twice prime minister in the era between the military rule of Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf) - began by showing some effort to learn lessons from the past. But they have not been able to escape disturbing parallels between the 1990s and today: in the collapse of their coalition cabinet on 13 May after just six weeks in office, in the existence of multiple centres of power that work against coherent leadership, and in the way that day-to-day political pressures overwhelm the space for strategic thinking.

There is no easy way to address these problems. But it does seem clear already that in the absence of a concerted effort to strengthen Pakistan's political institutions and restructure civil-military relations, the possibility of future military intervention cannot be ruled out.

The question of political legitimacy and the consolidation of democracy is closely tied to Pakistan's economic predicament. For it is equally clear that Pakistan can only strengthen its economy in the face of external economic storms if it addresses the need to diversify its exports, increase its tax base and reduce its expenditure imbalances. The Gilani government has already been buffeted to the extent that mounting inflation - now running at an annual rate of 13%, far above projections for 2008 - is eclipsing its early achievements (for example, on income support for the poor, higher minimum wages and increased salaries for government officials).

Thus poor Pakistanis are today bearing the brunt of rising food, petroleum and gas prices much as the impact of "structural-adjustment policies" recommended by Pakistan's creditors in the 1990s fell on their shoulders. Then, growing poverty and economic dislocation helped to undermine democracy, and the signs are that even in a very different macroeconomic environment the effects now could be similar.

Pakistan's economy was boosted by a post-9/11 boom, which was always built on less than solid foundations and in any case now seems to have faded. The country faces slowing rates of growth (from 7.2% to 5.5% on current calculations), a rising fiscal deficit and a widening trade gap as it continues to live beyond its means. Moreover, behind these indices are deeper structural problems which must be addressed if democracy in Pakistan is to be strengthened. over the long term. A strategy to this effect would require concerted action to reduce Pakistan's glaring inequalities of income, power and access to public services. Where 10% of the population possess 26.3% of the national income, and the poorest are excluded from any meaningful share, social progress cannot be guaranteed merely by relying on the trickle-down effects from a declining rate of economic growth.

The Islamabad tussle

The government formed after the 18 February election was always going to face difficult problems of political and economic management, given its inheritance and mixed composition. These were not long in coming to a head, as the PML-N decision to quit the cabinet on 13 May included the departure of the experienced finance minister Ishaq Dar. But it is the controversy over the judiciary which marked the last months of Pervez Musharraf's rule - and in particular, the failure of the new government to reach agreement on when and how to restore to office the judges who refused to take the oath demanded of them when Musharraf imposed emergency rule on 3 November 2007 - which has dominated the political scene.

The different approaches to this issue on the part of the PML-N and PPP were visible during the election campaign, though they seemed to have been resolved when the coalition was sealed in the Murree declaration on 9 March. But the timetable to re-instal the judges was not met, and the historic alliance between the two parties was further strained by the PPP's insistence on seeking to resolve the issue as part of a constitutional package rather than by means of a straightforward resolution in the national assembly. The withdrawal of the PML-N from the cabinet that followed has been presented as a mistake by Asif Ali Zardari and some of his close aides; viewed in a longer perspective, it is hardly surprising that these two parties - whose rivalry has lasted for a generation - found it hard to work together.

The rivalry is likely to persist, for many issues large or small are subject to instant partisan interpretation. The rift between the PPP and PML-N has, for example, been further exposed by the security campaign launched on 30 June in the Khyber Agency (about which the PML-N complained that it had not been consulted). The beginnings of a future tussle for influence can also be seen in the key state of Punjab, where Mian Shahbaz Sharif's return to the post of chief minister on 21 June (following a by-election success, though pending confirmation after legal challenges) contrasts with the appointment (with effect from 17 May) of a PPP-leaning governor in the person of Salman Taseer.

Such internecine political disputes both distract attention from more pressing economic and security issues, and prevent the introduction of progressive reforms (such as a new freedom-of-information law, the establishment of promised literacy and health corporations, and the formation of an employment commission). The Yousuf Raza Gilani government also failed to deliver on its promise to have set up a truth-and-reconciliation commission in troubled Balochistan within its first three months in office.

Pervez the ghost

All this is bad news for Pakistan's tussling political parties and for Pakistani democracy - but it, and especially the dispute over the judges, has brought breathing-space for a President Musharraf whose career and reputation looked over at the time of the election in February 2008.

As Pakistan's political and legal crises multiplied in 2007, it seemed that Musharraf's fall would be followed by his impeachment. If that now looks unlikely, so does the prospect of there being sufficient parliamentary support for a constitutional package designed to remove the president's power to dissolve the assembly and remove the prime minister.

Musharraf's continued presence may overshadow the political parties he long repressed, but it is reassuring for western powers - principally Pakistan's chief ally the United States - which have become increasingly alarmed by the impact of cross-border infiltration from Pakistan into southern Afghanistan. Washington delivered a number of messages in July 2008 that it was prepared to deploy its forces in "hot-pursuit" operations across the border into Pakistan and to undertake unilateral action against militant strongholds in the tribal areas.

Such a step would be vigorously opposed within Pakistan, where the casualties inflicted on civilians and Pakistan's security personnel by wayward US targeting is already a source of anger. It would also squeeze the new government even further. Gilani's cabinet has extended the policy of seeking peace deals with militant groups - introduced when Shaukat Aziz was prime minister, with the Miramshah agreement in Waziristan in September 2006. It remains highly unpopular among Pakistan's western allies, as well as beset by problems of implementation.

The growing concerns within Pakistan of a creeping "Talibanisation" - from the tribal agencies to the settled areas - have led to military action in Swat and the Khyber Agency. The persistent fighting between the Pakistani army and Taliban militants in Swat has claimed the lives of dozens on both sides, as well as civilians). Against this, the situation in Malakand improved after the banned Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) renounced militancy, following the release of its leader Maulana Sufi Mohammed on 21 April 2008 after six years in detention. Though even here, Sufi Mohammed's son-in-law Fazlullah - who led the TNSM leadership in the older man's absence - has promised to continue the struggle.

A neighbourly fallout

The sense of an ominous opening to the new democratic era is compounded by the way that the tensions between India and Pakistan have actually seemed to worsen, in a number of ways:

* the already stalled "composite dialogue" between the two states have not progressed in the wake of Pakistan's elections as had been hoped

* a number of internal developments within Indian-administered Kashmir culminated in the introduction of direct rule and the resumption of firing along the "line of control" (LoC), breaking a 2003 ceasefire; there were four exchanges of fire between Indian and Pakistani troops in July 2008, and India alleged that Pakistani forces had actually twice breached the line

* New Delhi more or less openly accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of responsibility for the bombing of its embassy in Kabul on 7 July 2008 - a charge reinforced by United States intelligence agencies on the basis of electronic interception (see "Pakistan Aided Attack in Kabul, U.S. Officials Say", New York Times, 1 August 2008)

* the political controversy inside India over its nuclear agreement with the United States, whose chances of ratification were improved by the Indian parliamentary vote on 22 July, has highlighted the unresolved nuclear rivalry between the two states.

All this has had the effect of signalling that the improved relations of the 2002-07 period are not irreversible. The successive bilateral meetings of the foreign ministers and prime ministers of India and Pakistan on 31 July and 2 August 2008 on the margins of a south Asian regional summit in Sri Lanka - the most senior encounter between the sides since April 2007 - is notable in this context, though the results of Gilani's promise to investigate concerns over the Kabul bombing remain to be seen. 

At a time of mounting domestic crisis, Pakistan thus faces the uneasy prospect of deteriorating relations both with its main ally and with its inescapable neighbour. It is hardly surprising that Yousuf Raza Gilani's first four months in office are an occasion for accumulating worries and stern criticism. After the short honeymoon, Pakistani democracy is again in trouble.

Iraq, Iran and the United States: problems and prospects

The restoration of a semblance of normalcy in key parts of Iraq, the Nouri al-Maliki government's new assertiveness and a growing clamour for a timetable for the withdrawal of United States troops all demand a reassessment of the US's military "surge" policy and a fresh look at Iraq's future. The questions are interlinked and pressing:

* did the surge succeed?

* has the al-Maliki government really been successful in restoring law and order?

* are political conflicts on the way to resolution, via legislation and provincial elections?

* what would happen if US forces began to withdraw after January 2009?

Joost R Hiltermann is deputy programme director in the middle east and north Africa division of the International Crisis Group. He is the author of A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Also by Joost R Hiltermann in openDemocracy:

Halabja: the politics of memory" (14 March 2008)
The cautious conclusion must be that while significant progress has been made on the security front, it has not been matched by progress on the political front. Without political accommodation at the top, the gains wrought by the surge are likely to prove unsustainable. To understand this requires in turn a closer and more nuanced look at Iraq's current security situation and political dynamics.

The Iraqi inheritance

The basic challenge Iraq faced after April 2003 was how to fill the political, security and managerial vacuums which the US's had created when it removed the regime, disbanded the army and other security forces, and decapitated the bureaucracy through blanket de-Ba'athification. The seed and fruit of these policies - reality-blinding triumphalism, misdirected policies, endemic administrative dysfunction and crippling corruption - conspired to thwart the aim of the US and the successive Iraqi governments it helped instal in the effort to stabilise the country. Iraq spun out of control. Deep-seated ethnic and sectarian differences were allowed to come to the fore and set the tone of the political debate, prompting a descent into violence and chaos.

The military surge begun in early 2007 was designed to fight the symptoms (that is, to dampen the sectarian war) and, if successful on the military front, generate a new opportunity to tackle the original challenge of recreating the Iraqi state. Thanks in large part to unanticipated salutary developments triggered by the US's re-commitment to Iraq - evident from the insertion of extra troops at a time when the US public was calling for withdrawal - the surge made a significant difference.

The most violent actors, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi army (MA), were either pushed back or forced to change their posture. Sunni Arab "awakening" councils - which had cautiously emerged a few months before the surge but found critical protection only once it got underway - succeeded in driving AQI out of Anbar and Baghdad. AQI remains active in Diyala but is on the defensive; and, having learned its lesson, it melted away in Ninewa ahead of a combined US-Iraqi government assault earlier in 2008. Its fighters are biding their time; they may join legitimate structures if these open up to them or rejoin the insurgency if and when Arab leaders determine they have failed in their bid to reinvest in state structures.Among the many articles on the politics of Iraq in openDemocracy:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)

Fred Halliday, "Looking back on Saddam Hussein" (7 January 2004)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (8 May 2007)

Tareq Y Ismael, "The ghost of Saddam Hussein" (30 January 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Iraq in 2012: four scenarios" (11 September 2007)

Charles Tripp, "Iraq: the politics of the local" (25 January 2008)

Robert Springborg, "Uncle Sam in Iraq: the war of narratives" (19 March 2008)

Reidar Visser, "Basra's second battle decoded" (31 March 2008

The Mahdi army has gone to ground as well. The al-Sadr movement, unlike AQI, has popular support (among Shi'a); its main rival is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). The MA has no interest in a military confrontation with combined US/Iraqi forces that would decimate its ranks and thus could only serve ISCI's interests. It knows the Americans will leave eventually, and al-Sadr expects at that point to have the strongest force: capable of prevailing over ISCI, practiced in guerrilla tactics, experienced in popular action, and ensconced in the security apparatus. Muqtada al-Sadr's political cleverness can be seen in the way he kept in place a unilateral ceasefire in the face of ISCI-inspired provocations, and facilitated government forces' entry into neighbourhoods the MA controlled by allowing them to take over his movement's offices in Basra, Baghdad and Amara.

The Nouri al-Maliki government has been the main short-term beneficiary of al-Sadr's clear-eyed strategy not to elicit violent confrontation but wait out the storm. The citizenry of once-turbulent districts could breathe a sigh of relief; al-Maliki was able to project himself as a non-sectarian leader (even though his Dawa party is intrinsically sectarian); and he convinced the US that at present there is no viable alternative to his government.

The three-way options

The drop in violence is significant; but the current relative security is both fragile and (even more important) not sustainable unless it is buttressed by a set of basic accords that cut across the ethnic, sectarian and political divide. In approaching such a project, however, fundamental questions remain unresolved:

* how much power should regions have vis-à-vis the federal government?

* should new regions be allowed; if so, how and how many?

* who has the right to manage the country's oilfields? How will revenues be shared?

If agreement is found on these issues, it would lay the basis for rebuilding a non-sectarian state apparatus and its security forces.

The current immobility derives from a number of factors:

* the conflict over Kirkuk, which has contaminated other main issues (such as the debate over the oil law and the constitutional review)

* a lack of trust between the principal stakeholders, who could only find accommodation if pushed to do so by outside actors

* the weakness of the George W Bush administration, which cannot muster any bold initiatives at this late stage

* the spoiler role Iran plays as long as it feels under military threat from Israel and the US over its nuclear activities. Iran has serious strategic interests in Iraq - that it be friendly but weak, without weapons of mass destruction, and relatively coherent. The bottom line is that there will not be substantive progress in Iraq without Iran's green light and active participation.

In this uncertainty, politics is deadlocked while the actors themselves are in flux. Between now and the end of 2009, elections in the United States, Iran and Iraq promise to bring changes, possibly with dramatic impact:

* a new US president might reach out to Iran and offer to engage in meaningful negotiations on a range of concerns

* a new Iranian president might reciprocate, and this alone could lead to a lessening of tensions throughout the middle east

* the provincial elections in Iraq could spawn a new generation of local leaders less beholden to the unpopular former exiles who have ruled Baghdad since 2003, untarnished by the record of corruption and overall poor governance of the Nouri al-Maliki government and its provincial representatives, more in touch with the needs of their constituents, more nationalist and thus protective of the country's unity, and potentially therefore enjoying a great deal more legitimacy than the current local leadership. There could be further effects: some local leaders could start graduating to national office via parliamentary elections that should take place before the end of 2009.

Such developments would lead to further progress inside Iraq, and in the region.

True, the reverse of these three developments could happen instead:

* a new US president could continue the George W Bush administration's hawkish approach toward Iran

* the Iranian leadership would respond in kind, or serious negotiations between the two sides could falter over unbridgeable differences

* Iraq's ruling parties could perpetuate their power at the local level by rigging elections or pushing out their competitors.

Such developments would be fatal for stability, in both Iraq and the region.

An American choice

Amid these imponderables, the fundamental questions in 2009 will be:

* whether and how fast a new US president will withdraw American forces from Iraq

* whether this will occur in the context of a new US-Iran understanding or unremitting rivalry

* what the impact of this change will be on Iraq and the region.

The first possible option, an indefinite deployment of US troops in Iraq, would be opposed by Iraqi nationalism, a potent force that has been underestimated repeatedly (and at great cost to the liberators/occupiers). While the ruling parties need US troops for protection and training, a majority of the Iraqi people would rather see them go. This popular feeling means that Iraqi government leaders cannot afford not to sound nationalistic; hence al-Maliki's call for a timetable as part of a status-of-forces agreement with the US.

The second possible option is a major drawdown of US troops, occurring in the absence of key political deals and without viable Iraqi security forces supported by a unified state structure ready to replace them. This could trigger a return to violent conflict between a number of actors; encourage centrifugal forces; and, in the worst-case scenario, drive the country to chaos and break-up. Large swathes of Iraq would fall under foreign influence: in Baghdad and the south (Iran), in the Kurdistan region (Turkey), in the Sunni Arab areas on Iraq's various borders (Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria).

There is unlikely to be a neat division between these spheres, however, nor settled boundaries; instead the prospect will be one of endemic conflict that could suck in local actors' external sponsors and bring them into direct confrontation. In such a scenario, the US would keep sufficient forces on hand (special forces and air support) to intervene in conflicts when needed and protect its strategic interests through a divide-and-rule approach. The situation would be highly unstable, with the potential for regional war.

The third possible option is a gradual drawdown of US forces, with clear benchmarks and some kind of defined time-horizon. This outcome would far the most preferable. It would require above all a new US initiative to bring rival groups together and, with an appropriate package of incentives and sanctions, induce them to make compromises on power, resources and territory in order to forge a new national compact.

In its reporting, the International Crisis Group has suggested what an overall compromise might look like. It would have to involve some concessions by the Kurds on territory they claim, especially Kirkuk, in exchange for the right to manage oil resources in the Kurdish region; there would have to be agreement also on an asymmetric federal structure that recognises the Kurdistan region but decentralises power in the rest of Iraq along governorate boundaries. These deals would need to be reflected in the constitution, currently under review.

It is highly unlikely, however, that Iraqi groups would agree to such compromises, or even negotiate them in an official forum; it is significant here that current discussions have excluded some key stakeholders, such as leaders of the "awakening" councils and the so-called Sons of Iraq amalgam of groups, who are predominantly Sunni Arabs. This heightened approach would require a increased role for such recognised multilateral actors as the United Nations; and equally important, some basic consensus of, coordination with, and active input from all of Iraq's neighbours. This latter requirement cannot be fulfilled as long as US-Iranian hostility endures.

The conclusion is also a dilemma. If accommodation between Iran and the United States that is sufficient to reach an understanding of shared interests in Iraq proves impossible, should the US nonetheless withdraw its forces from Iraq - knowing that in doing so it will bequeath to Iraq and the region a legacy of chaos? In turn, this will force the question whether for the US the harm from having an over-stressed and over-extended military and a reputation at an all-time low internationally exceeds any damage to its strategic interests in the Persian Gulf.



Radovan Karadzic’s capture: a moment for history

The arrest in Belgrade of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' political leader in the war of 1992-95, is both welcome and surprising news. The circumstances and timing also provide some hopeful indications that it - and the trial that will follow - will become an important moment over the longer term, in helping to lift the burden of the past that still weighs so heavily on the peoples of the region.

Dejan Djokic is lecturer in history at Goldsmiths College, London. He was formerly lecturer in Serbian and Croatian studies at the University of Nottingham. He is the editor of Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea (C Hurst, 2003 and University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), and author of Elusive Compromise: A History of Interwar Yugoslavia (C Hurst, 2007)

Also by Dejan Djokic on openDemocracy:

"Serbia: one year after the October revolution" (17 October 2001)

"A farewell to Yugoslavia" (10 April 2002)

"Serbia: monarchy and national identity" (30 May 2002)

"Ex-Yu rock" (6 August 2002)

"Serbian presidential elections" (17 September 2002)

"A conflict of loyalties: 1999 and 2003" (6 March 2003)

"The assassination of Zoran Djindjic" (13 March 2003)

"A democracy of suspicion" (27 May 2008)

That the news which arrived on the evening of 21 July 2008 should be welcomed needs little further elaboration. Karadzic was the figurehead of a Bosnian Serb breakaway statelet (the Republika Srpska) within Bosnia-Herzegovina, which itself broke away from Yugoslavia in 1992 - contrary to the wishes of most of its Serbs, who formed around one-third of the republic's population. The "wars of Yugoslav succession" were bloody, but nowhere more so than in Bosnia and nowhere in Bosnia more than in areas controlled by Bosnian Serbs. The ethnic cleansing and massacres of eastern Bosnian Muslims and the shelling of Sarajevo in the first half of the 1990s were among the final dark chapters of Europe's violent century.

Together with general Ratko Mladic - the Bosnian Serb military commander still at large - Karadzic is alleged to have been responsible for some of the worst crimes committed in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. His likely trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague will in principle mean both that justice will be served, and that further light will be shed on the regional and international dimensions of the Bosnian war. It may even lead to Mladic, if he is not arrested before the start of the trial, himself being captured.

Karadzic's arrest, after he had spent nearly thirteen years in hiding, comes as a surprise for at least two reasons. First, of the three remaining war-crimes suspects (the other is the Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic, who is generally considered a minor player), Mladic seemed the most likely to be arrested first, certainly before Karadzic. While Karadzic was believed to be concealed somewhere in the mountains of eastern Herzegovina and Montenegro, possibly in a remote Serbian monastery, it was widely assumed that Mladic was in Serbia, shielded by renegade elements of the Serbian security and military forces.

Second, it was Mladic's arrest that was demanded of Belgrade if Serbia was to move closer to European Union membership. The arrest on 11 June 2008 of the former Bosnian Serb police commander Stojan Zupljanin, and his extradition to The Hague, was seen as a sign that the circle around Mladic was closing. So, the news that Karadzic was arrested - allegedly in or near Belgrade itself, where he had apparently been working in disguise as a practitioner of alternative medicine - comes as a surprise even to those who follow Serbian politics closely.

Those who believed that Karadzic would never be caught might have been less confident had they known how close the fugitive was to those charged with finding him. The news of his location and new "occupation" in Belgrade was revealed at a press conference on 22 July hosted by Rasim Ljajic, president of the national council for cooperation with The Hague tribunal, and Vladimir Vukcevic, the chief war-crimes prosecutor. They reported that he used the pseudonym "Dragan Dabic", while the photo presented by Ljajic underlined the change in appearance: Karadzic looked notably thinner, was bespectacled, and wore long white hair and a long beard. His real identity was apparently not recognised even by his colleagues and patients, and allegedly "Dragan Dabic" even published articles and gave several public lectures on healthy living and alternative medicine.

A fresh politics

What most initial reactions to the arrest have failed to acknowledge is the context in which the arrest took place and the likely implications for Serbia and the region. Karadzic was comprehended only three weeks after the formation of a new Serbian government led by Mirko Cvetkovic - a coalition between president Boris Tadic's Democratic Party, several smaller democratic and ethnic-minority parties and the Socialists (the party founded by the late president Slobodan Milosevic). The interior ministry went to Ivica Dacic, Milosevic's successor as party leader, who also became the deputy premier.

Tadic was scorned for this alliance - more in Serbia and the region than in the west, where there was a sense of relief that the Socialists (rather than the Serbian Radical Party [SRS] and the Democratic Party of Serbia [DSS] of former prime minister Vojislav Kostunica) tipped the balance in favour of the Democrats. Tadic's critics feared in particular that Dacic's appointment as interior minister would mean that the Socialists would take control of the intelligence services, rehabilitate Milosevic and essentially return the country to the dark days of the last decade. Yet, Karadzic's arrest and its timing confirm that Serbia's president is far shrewder a politician than he is often given credit for. This fact should already have been more widely acknowledged, given that Tadic has defeated the Radicals at several "historic" elections since 2004.

Also in openDemocracy on transnational justice after the wars of ex-Yugoslavia:

William Schabas, "The enigma of the International Criminal Court's success" (17 February 2006)

Anthony Dworkin, "The Hague tribunal after Milosevic" (14 March 2006)

Martin Shaw, "The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide" (28 February 2007)

Nick Grono, "The International Criminal Court: success or failure?" (9 June 2008)

Alex de Waal, "Sudan and the International Criminal Court: a guide to the controversy" (14 July 2008)

Victor Peskin, "The Omar al-Bashir indictment: the ICC and the Darfur crisis" (15 July 2008)

Marlies Glasius, "What is global justice and who is it for? The ICC's first five years" (21 July 2008)

Eric Gordy, "Radovan Karadzic: the politics of an arrest" (22 July 2008)
Moreover, Tadic appears to have eliminated the nationalist, conservative democrat Vojislav Kostunica as a serious political rival - thus trumping the many past accusations that he gave in too easily to Kostunica's demands. Kostunica had for years refused to apprehend either Karadzic or Mladic, claiming that they were not in Serbia; Tadic, who no doubt played a central part in Karadzic's arrest, has now shown the former prime minister how it could have been done. For his part, Kostunica will be now at pains to explain how was it possible for the new government to arrest Karadzic only weeks after its inauguration.

In addition, Tadic has deftly gained advantage over Ivica Dacic, and placed him in a delicate position: by staying inside the government the Socialist leader and deputy prime minister would thus accept the new course, by resigning he would lose the position of power that only a few weeks ago appeared permanently beyond his party's reach. Either response carries the risk that Dacic will lose credibility among his constituency. It is significant here that Karadzic was arrested not by the police - nominally under the control of Dacic - but by the secret services.

The arrest took place only days after Sasa Vukadinovic was appointed the new head of Serbian intelligence services. Vukadinovic is an uncompromising young police inspector from southern Serbia, believed to be close to president Tadic. He came to prominence after the assassination in 2003 of Zoran Djindjic, Tadic's predecessor as the Democrats' leader, masterminding arrests of members of one of the major mafia clans in the country. Significantly, Vukadinovic had never worked for the secret services before and is thus not associated with the organisation which has seemingly remained immune to political changes in the country.

The dramatic event of 21 July therefore is likely to have wide implications. The arrest of Karadzic and the reform of the intelligence services it reflects are both long overdue, and could be followed by the arrest of Ratko Mladic in the near future. In all this, Boris Tadic may finally succeed where Djindjic failed - or was prevented from succeeding by his assassination. This would be good news for the Serbian president, but even more for Serbia and for the region, which should now move closer to the European Union and become more attractive to foreign investment. The main remaining obstacle for Serbia gaining a candidate-country status is its inability or refusal so far fully to cooperate with The Hague. The tribunal's new chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, is due to visit Belgrade on 23 July and his report will undoubtedly be positive.

A turned page

It must not be forgotten that Karadzic's arrest will be welcomed first and foremost by the families of victims of his policies. If - or probably when - his guilt is proven, they would feel that justice was served, even though their loss will never be compensated.

In any event, the whole region is now a significant step closer to getting rid of some of the past's burden. The news of Karadzic's arrest has overshadowed the death on the same day of two figures from Yugoslavia's turbulent history, who embodied radically different ideologies: Adil Zulfikarpasic, a Bosniak businessman and politician, and once a member of the pro-Yugoslav "Democratic Alternative" émigré group; and Dinko Sakic, commander of the notorious Croatian concentration-camp at Jasenovac, where during the second world war tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-Ustasha Croats were murdered.

The lives of these personalities were also entwined, in that Zulfikarpasic was nearly killed by the Ustashas in the early 1940s. Half a century later he tried in vain to strike a deal with Karadzic and Milosevic in order to avoid war in Bosnia, and in the process fell out with Alija Izetbegovic, the first president of Bosnia. Yet in a larger frame Zulfikarpasic's most significant contribution and legacy may well lie elsewhere, in the founding of a large library in Sarajevo that would serve as a research institute devoted to the study of Bosnia's culture and history. History that both Dinko Sakic and Radovan Karadzic, in their own ways and in different historical contexts, once tried to erase.

Serbia's tipping-point arrest

Each year since the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, the anniversary underscores the failure to apprehend its two alleged architects, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Days after the thirteenth commemoration of the murder of around 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys by Bosnian Serb paramilitaries, there was a break in this particular cloud: namely, the news of the arrest late on 21 July 2008 of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb president, found to have been living in Belgrade.

Radovan Karadzic: the politics of an arrest

The news that Radovan Karadzic had been arrested came suddenly late in the evening of 21 July 2008. The known facts surrounding the detention remain meagre, even after the Serbian government press conference in Belgrade the following morning. It appears that he was arrested in the early evening; that the arrest took place in Belgrade itself, where Karadzic had been working in disguise as a practitioner of alternative medicine; and that the operation was conducted (as a statement by Serbia's national-security council was quick to attest) by "Serbian security forces". There also appears to have been some conflict over how the arrest was carried out and over who should be accorded (and be able to disown) responsibility: Serbia's interior ministry, now under the control of the party that sponsored and financed Karadzic during his rise to power and throughout the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1992-95, rushed to issue a statement declaring that its forces were not involved.

Two states for two peoples: solution or illusion?

Is it already too late for the "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is a "one-state solution" the realistic as well as alluring alternative, where the energies of those committed to a peaceful outcome should be invested?

Tony Klug is a special advisor on the middle east to the Oxford Research Group. He is the author of How peace broke out in the Middle East: a short history of the future (Fabian Society, 2007)

Also by Tony Klug in openDemocracy:

"The West Bank and Gaza Strip: an international protectorate?" (7 May 2003)

"Israel-Palestine: how peace broke out" (5 June 2007)

This article will also be published in the forthcoming edition of the Palestine-Israel Journal

Two steps to zero

It may be apocryphal but it still says a lot. An inner-cabinet group of Clement Attlee's post-1945 Labour government was discussing whether, in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Britain should develop its own nuclear weapons. Why not instead rely merely on close cooperation with the United States? The ebullient foreign secretary and former trade unionist, Ernest Bevin, was emphatic: "I don't care what sort of bomb it is, as long as it has a bloody Union Jack on top of it" (see Brian Cathcart, "Britain and the atomic bomb", 5 August 2005).

India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure

A suicide car-bombing in front of the Indian embassy in Kabul on the morning of 7 July 2008 killed at least fifty-four persons and wounded more than 140. The blast also destroyed cars and shops outside the building. It seems that the suicide-bomber launched the attack after trailing two embassy vehicles as they were entering the premises. The highly guarded embassy is located on a busy street in central Kabul near Afghanistan's interior ministry.

The dead included four Indian nationals: the military attaché Brigadier R Mehta, press counselor V Venkat Rao, and two Indian paramilitary troopers (Ajai Pathania and Roop Singh) guarding the embassy.

A statement from Afghanistan's interior ministry said that the suicide-attack was carried out in coordination with "a regional intelligence service" - clearly hinting at the involvement of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The establishment in Pakistan, and the Taliban / al- Qaida "combine" in that country, have always opposed India's role in the reconstruction of a war-ravaged Afghanistan; as a result, the awareness of threat at the Kabul embassy, and in relation to India's many Indian developmental projects in Afghanistan, has always been high.

India's role

Since 2002, the Taliban has demanded the departure of all Indian personnel working on various projects with the Afghan people and government for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country. There are approximately 3,000-4,000 Indian nationals working on several such projects across Afghanistan. India has committed aid to Afghanistan in the 2002-09 period amounting to $750 million, making it the fifth largest bilateral donor after the United States, Britain, Japan and Germany.

Kanchan Lakshman is a research fellow in the Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. He is also assistant editor of the journal Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution

A longer version of this article appears in the South Asia Intelligence Review

These projects and personnel have offered the Taliban a rich array of choices in attempting to prosecute its demand for Indian withdrawal. It has conducted multiple attacks against Indian targets. Many of these have been concentrated in the southwest province of Nimroz (which is at the heart of the strategic Zarang-Delaram highway project being built under the auspices of the the Indian army's Border Roads Organisation (BRO). They include the abduction and murder of Ramankutty Maniyappan, an employee of BRO in November 2005; the killing of two soldiers of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) on 3 January 2008 in the first-ever suicide-attack on Indians in Afghanistan; and the killing of another ITBP trooper on 5 June 2008.

The vulnerability of India's initiaitves and presence in Afghanistan - and now, evidently, Kabul itself - is part of the increasing susceptibility of the Afghan capital to terrorist operations. The embassy attack is part of a pattern here that includes (on 27 April 2008) an assault on an annual military parade about to be addressed by President Hamid Karzai, which killed a legislator and two other Afghans.

This in turn reflects the augmenting violence in Afghanistan as a whole (see Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan: state of siege", 10 July 2008). More United States and Nato troops were killed in June 2008 than in any other month since military operations began in the aftermath of 9/11. The monthly total, forty-five, for the first time exceeded coalition fatalities in Iraq. This distressing trend includes a rise in civilian deaths too; a report by John Holmes, the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, states that the number of documented civilian deaths in the first six months of 2008 (698 in all) represents an increase of 62% compared with the same period in 2007. The UN "blamed the actions of US, NATO and Afghan Government forces for 255 deaths and anti-occupation insurgents for 422."

The jihadi prospect

Afghanistan's struggle to overcome those seeking a restoration of Taliban rule is expected to be a long haul, much more than what was imagined even in 2007. Major-General David Rodriguez, head of the US-led coalition force, suggested in February 2008 that it will take "a few years" to defeat the Taliban-led insurgency. But the idea that the forty-nation International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) and parallel US military deployments can ultimately be successful is being increasingly questioned - and Pakistan is at the heart of the doubts.

Also on India's security issues in openDemocracy: Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, "Delhi's bombs: landscape of jihad in south Asia" (2 November 2005)

Ajai Sahni, "India and its Maoists: failure and success" (20 March 2007)

Suhas Chakma, "India's war with itself" (2 April 2007)

Animesh Roul, "Al-Qaida in India" (15 August 2007)

Ajay Sahni, "India: states of insecurity" (28 November 2007)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "India and Burma: time to choose" (14 January 2008)

Manjushree Thapa, "India in its Nepali backyard" (2 May 2008)

The dangers of anarchy within Afghanistan and across areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are predominantly sourced in Pakistan, to a far greater extent than in the debilitated state of Afghanistan itself. Nato has said that successive peace deals between the Pakistan government and the Taliban have - as a result of "decreased activity by the Pakistani army on the Pakistan side of the border" - led to increased violence within Afghanistan.

The Taliban / al-Qaida combine has evidently regrouped rather well, particularly in the rural Afghan provinces dominated by the Pashtuns along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Islamabad has evidently allowed militant elements to regroup on Pakistani territory and to launch attacks across the border. Despite selective military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North West Frontier Province (NWFP), there is no indication that Pakistan intends to cut the Taliban's lifeline on its soil.

Indeed, two groups of local Taliban - the Mullah Nazir group of South Waziristan and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group of North Waziristan - reportedly reached agreement on 30 June 2008 to join forces and fight against the Nato troops in Afghanistan. Their spokesman, Mufti Abu Haroon, disclosed that the Taliban militants would go to Afghanistan to fight Nato troops under the command of Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

Pakistan's deals with the militants and other strategic inconsistencies have amplified the already extensive insecurity in Afghanistan. Pakistan's own multiple internal convulsions notwithstanding, its capacities for power-projection into Afghanistan have not been significantly undermined, and it remains the case that it shares strategic goals with the Taliban in this theatre.

For his part, Hamid Karzai in some desperation has threatened to send Afghan troops across the border to fight Taliban militants within Pakistan. In accusing Pakistan of sheltering most of the militants involved in recent incidents in the Garmser district of Helmand province, he told a press conference on 15 June 2008, that Afghanistan had the right to self-defence; since militants cross over from Pakistan "to come and kill Afghans and kill coalition troops, it exactly gives us the right to do the same."

Meanwhile, after the Kabul embassy bomb India's ministry of external affairs reiterated New Delhi's determination to continue to support Afghanistan's development, and stated that "(such) acts of terror will not deter us from fulfilling our commitments to the government and people of Afghanistan." Afghan foreign minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, declared further: "India and Afghanistan have a deep relationship between each other. Such attacks of the enemy will not harm our relations."

It is evident that the Taliban / al-Qaida combine and the transnational jihadi groups based within Pakistan remain the principal instruments of Islamabad's response to India's deepening cooperation with Afghanistan; at the same time, ISI-supported terrorist groups remain Pakistan's principal tool of policy-projection in the Indian province of Jammu & Kashmir. Despite the country's rising internal difficulties and contradictions, the Pakistani inner establishment's deep engagement with Islamist extremism and terrorism is far from over.

Afghanistan: state of siege

On 7 July 2008 a suicide-bomber detonated a large car-bomb at the gates of the Indian embassy in Kabul, killing fifty-four people and injuring more than 140. The embassy stands in one of the most secure parts of Afghanistan's capital, yet this did not protect it from what security forces described as the worst bombing in the city since the termination of the Taliban regime in November 2001. Taliban sources denied that the movement was responsible, while Afghan sources implied (albeit without supporting evidence) a Pakistani intelligence connection. The high death-toll is in part attributable to the fact that many people were queuing at the embassy at the time; this may be a factor too in the Taliban reaction, for it has been a regular practice of the group to deny responsibility for attacks where large numbers of civilians are killed.

Iraq task, Iran risk

The architects of the "war on terror" in the George W Bush administration will soon be leaving office. But the four months until the United States presidential election on 4 November 2008 could be momentous. In Iraq and Iran, what happens in the next four months - or does not happen - will shape events in the next four years and even beyond (see "Washington's choice: subdue Iran, secure Iraq", 12 June 2008).

A small bomb in Gali

The Svetliachok cafe has seen better times. The blue-and-red canvas cover has been torn from its awning, scattering in its wake sweet-wrappers and napkins. They lie in puddles around the cafe entrance amid the continuing drizzle. It is a miserable scene. But people in the town of Gali, near the Georgian border in eastern Abkhazia, have more than rain and repair to worry about. For the debris represents the work not of the weather but of a bomb. Nikolaj Nielsen has just completed a masters degree in journalism and media. He is a former editorial intern at terrorism.
. His work has been published in New Internationalist and Pambazuka News.

The journey south here from Abkhazia's capital Sukhum (Sukhumi), an hour by pot-holed road, is a minor lesson in the intractability of the conflict that has kept Abkhazia in limbo since the small Black Sea region wrested itself from Georgia's control in the war of 1992-93. The traffic we passed en route to the Georgian border was sparse: the occasional United Nations vehicle, a dilapidated red bus, three Russian MC trucks, and several dozen cows - all heading the other way towards. Everywhere, shelled-out homes from the war were a constant reminder that - the faded evidence of Sukhum's former resort status (and even a few Russian tourists) notwithstanding - Abkhazia is a conflict-zone.

For the fifteen years since they established a fragile autonomy after decades as part of Georgia and the Soviet Union, the Abkhazians have been struggling for recognition as an independent state. "It's about our identity, security, dignity, healing wounds, and being able to interact on a equal basis", says Liana Kvarchelia, deputy director for the Centre for Humanitarian Programmes in Sukhum says. Abkhazians' deep desire to be seen as a distinct people with the right to determine their own future is, however, viewed with outright opposition by Georgia, suspicion by the international community, and scepticism even by Abkhazia's main protector and ally, Russia. Also on openDemocracy:

Andrew Mueller, "Abkhazian futures" (23 August 2005),

Thomas de Waal, "Abkhazia's dream of freedom" (10 May 2006),

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006),

Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007),

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007),

Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bitter victory" (11 January 2008),

Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008),

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008).

Amid political isolation and constant insecurity, the Abkhazians have managed to establish an elected government and a nascent civil society. But they have been forced increasingly to rely on Russia, in a relationship they concede is often ambivalent. Their primary concern, as long as a return to war with Georgia remains the main threat, is security. When that is guaranteed, the rest will follow, or so they hope.

Before leaving Sukhum, I call Abkhazia's deputy foreign minister to get an assessment of the situation in Gali to find that the area has been declared an emergency-zone after the bomb explosion late on the previous evening killed four people and injured six. Natella Akaba, chair of the Association of Women of Abkhazia, advises me not to travel. But no one it seems has told the guards at a succession of Russian military checkpoints, and we arrive in the centre of Gali where - against the background of a Soviet-era mural depicting white doves and a cosmonaut - two investigators are picking through debris in the blast-site.

A single checkered white-and-red ribbon, tied to the pine trees that surround the tiny Svetliachok cafe, cordons off the area where on 6 July 2008 four people died: Jansukh Muratia, the acting head of Abkhaz security in the Gali district; Sukhran Gumba, an Abkhaz border officer; Anzor Lagvilala, a United Nations translator; and Iveta Toria, a local resident. It was another episode in a deteriorating situation that had already seen four bombs explode in Gagra and Sukhum on 29-30 June, injuring twelve people. For the Abkhazians, the situation is clear. "This is a specific action made by Georgian special agents. Their goal is to show that Abkhazian and Russian peacekeepers cannot control the situation", said Rusland Kishmaria, special representative of the Abkhaz president in Gali region.

Most local residents refuse to talk to a curious stranger. But further away from the scene, one - a Georgian who fled Gali in the war, only to return in 1997 - tells me: "You can see what life is like here. So long as the Russians are here, our lives will not change. The Russians are satisfied with an unstable situation. There is a lot of tension. If something happens we can't rely on either the Russians or the Abkhazians. We can only rely on ourselves."

A few hours later, back in Sukhum, Abkhazia's defence minister Mirab Kishmaira looks nervous as he refuses point-blank to comment on the bombings. The words are defiant: "We are prepared to face the Georgian soldiers anywhere, anytime. As soon as we get the word, we'll start military operations." Kishmaira has seen war in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as his own country, and has no desire to see blood. But when asked if military operations could ever resolve the current conflict, he says: "I wish that Abkhazia will be recognised in a beautiful way and that we can become a model for other countries."

For the Abkhazians, it was and remains a zero-sum conflict: independence or nothing. Whoever planted the bombs in Gali is accentuating the choice.

British Muslims and the Muslim Council of Britain: the next decade

As the Muslim Council of Britain marks its first decade, it seems an appropriate moment for reflection. As the country's largest Muslim umbrella body, it still remains the "first among equals" in relation to an increasingly large alphabet-soup of representative institutions. The British Muslim Forum, the Sufi Council of Britain and British Muslims for Secular Democracy have all emerged in the three years since 7/7, alongside a profusion of Muslim commentators and other bodies that seek to reflect the government's "rebalancing" in 2006 of its relationship with Muslim communities to emphasise counter-terrorist imperatives.

Letter from wounded London

It was a cruel contrast. On Wednesday, Londoners rejoiced at the news that the city had won its bid to host the Olympic games in 2012. Thursday’s front pages were given over to scenes of jubilation. But as those editions reached the newsstands, London was already a darker, grimmer place, as a series of coordinated explosions ripped through its transport network.

War comes to Ingushetia

It used to be peaceful here. The border of Chechnya and Ingushetia marked the line between war and peace. Crossing this line, returning from war to peace, you sighed every time: "Now everything will be fine. It's safe here..." Of course, there's poverty, dirt, corruption, but people don't get killed, shot or kidnapped here. There it's part of everyday life

Guantánamo: the inside story

Listen to the full interview (37.42 mins)
High bandwidth: 128kbps / Low bandwidth: 64kbps

Iran and the American election

The possibility of a war involving Iran has been raised on several occasions since 2004. The likely trigger has moved between Iran's nuclear ambitions and claims of its interference in Iraq; the likely instigator has been variously seen as the United States and Israel - though it has been argued too that radical elements within Iran's Revolutionary Guards might provoke a confrontation with the American "great satan" to rebuild their own status within Iran's power-structure.

Syria: conversations in a pariah state

The image of Syria and Israel as inveterate enemies made the revelation on 21 May 2008 that the two states had been conducting negotiations for the past year - with Turkey acting as intermediary - all the more surprising. The news serves to refocus attention too on Syria itself, more often subject by foreign observers to broad-brush characterisation than close observation that attends to the country's internal complexities. Whether or not the talks with Israel develop into something substantial, the world needs to know more about Syria. This article is a modest contribution to that end.

The Syria-Israel talks: old themes, new setting

The flow of rumour, speculation and argument about negotiations between Syria and Israel has oscillated over many years and around many occasions. Even at times of the highest tensions, close observers of the region would be able to make a sure bet that some kind of channel (as informal or as indirect as it may be) between these adversaries remained open. This makes the most recent revelation of intermediated peace talks between Syria and Israel, on 21 May 2008, less surprising than the often breathless reportage and commentary that accompanies the news suggests. The question, now that an expectant world has had time to digest the story, is whether this phase represents a new beginning or merely a rehashing of old constellations and positions.

Carsten Wieland is the author of the book Syria - Ballots or Bullets? Democracy, Islamism, and Secularism in the Levant (Seattle, Cune Press, 2006), published in Europe as Syria at Bay: Secularism, Islamism, and "Pax Americana" (C Hurst, 2006)

Also by Carsten Wieland in openDemocracy:

"Syria's quagmire, al-Assad's tunnel" (9 November 2006)

"The Syrian conundrum" (16 April 2007)

A first inspection might favour scepticism. It is difficult to imagine a new take on such issues as the Golan heights, security guarantees, or demanding that Syria renounce terrorism. After all, previous negotiations have addressed these issues in the form of a demilitarised zone in the Golan and the creation of a natural park, and even clear borders between the two states.

Moreover, a deal between Syria and Israel was within close reach in the January 2000 negotiations in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. United States participants testified that Syria's then president, Hafez al-Assad, had made exceptionally far-reaching concessions in security issues and in matters of normalising relations (involving, for example, diplomatic exchange and trading across open borders). But his counterpart, prime minister Ehud Barak sensed growing opposition among the Israeli population to the return of the Golan heights to Syria. Barak retreated from compromise on this crucial issue and on a commitment to a complete withdrawal to the borders of 4 June 1967. Syria saw this as a betrayal. These negotiations were a missed opportunity.

In Geneva in March 2000, the then US president Bill Clinton made an attempt on Barak's behalf to persuade the terminally ill Hafez al-Assad to surrender land east of Lake Galilee that had - according to the international borders of 1923 - belonged to Syria before 1967 (and in which the Syrian leader had reputedly splashed around as a child. Al-Assad remained unbending in what proved to be the last big decision of his life. He refused to take part in any further discussions and in a rage flew back to Damascus where he died on 10 June 2000.

The difficulties then notwithstanding, peace talks and possible compromises looked more plausible in 2000 than they do today, when the circumstances of any negotiations are far more difficult. Even a few years ago - say, before the 2003 war in Iraq (after which Syria drifted further away from the orbit of western politics) or as recently as before the Hizbollah-Israel war in Lebanon in summer 2006, the respective states' positions did not seem as entrenched as in 2008.

Also on Syria and the region in openDemocracy:

Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria" (9 March 2005)

Hazem Saghieh, "Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

Anoushka Marashlian, "Syria cracks down on dissent" (19 June 2006)

Abigail Fielding-Smith, "Out of cold peace" (13 September 2006)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh" (11 May 2007)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel at 60: the ‘iron wall' revisited" (8 May 2008)

Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state" (21 May 2008)

A change in the weather

In the intervening period, seven developments have occurred which make a rapprochement look more remote than before:

* Any Israeli government will have a harder time now selling to its voters the idea of giving up another stretch of occupied land, after parts of the country have experienced relentless shelling from the Gaza strip after Israel's withdrawal in August 2005. The strength of Hizbollah on the northern border after the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000 - exemplified in the 2006 war - further contributes to induce a sense of insecurity in the Israeli public

* Israel's negotiations with authorities in the Palestinian territories as a whole are much more difficult after the intra-Palestinian split between Fatah and Hamas. Indeed, on both sides, insecurity and unpredictability rule the agenda

* Both the Israeli and the Syrian governments are, for different reasons, at present relatively weak and threatened by domestic adversaries. But peace talks need strong governments that can fulfil their promises and persuade their people to accept tough decisions

* After the war in Iraq, Syria has increasingly drifted towards making alliances with anti-western actors such as Iran, and even Venezuela and North Korea. This is mainly due to a lack of foreign-policy alternatives after isolationist measures from the United States and its allies - fuelled by Washington's manichean "war on terror" and by the European Union's disillusionment with Syrian politics

* To ask Syria to cut its links with Iran and Hizbollah is an even harder demand after Hizbollah's demonstration of force against its domestic adversaries in May 2008, which enabled it to acquire an increased veto-capacity within Lebanon's delicate political fabric (see Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state", 21 May 2008). In addition, Syria's oil reserves are fading, while Iraq, Iran and Venezuela's strong resources have increased their own strategic importance

* The post-2006 political developments in Lebanon have encouraged Syria partially to regain its lost grip on its close neighbour, with the help of Hizbollah. However, whereas Syria was the main actor in this relationship during the Hafez al-Assad era, the roles now have changed: Syria seems to need Hizbollah more than Hizbollah needs Syria

* In contrast to 2000, the Israel-Syria talks are not sponsored by the United States. Moreover, they are taking place in counterposition to the foreign-policy concept of George W Bush, who insists on ignoring and isolating "rogue states" on the extended "axis of evil" instead of engaging them. Indeed, Israel has turned more pragmatic than its most important ally.

An unsettled climate

These seven developments offer solid reasons for pessimism. Yet the present situation is less wholly bleak than dialectical - requiring careful inspection to locate the kinds of initiative that could genuinely shift matters forward. Two points in particular (at first sight contradictory) can be made here: peace efforts in the region can only become stable and sustainable if an overall solution is found that includes all actors in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Lebanon, since they are so interrelated; yet it is an advantage that the Syrian and the Palestinian portfolios have been separated.

In May 2003, Hazez al-Assad's son and successor Bashar al-Assad promised to accept any decision by the Palestinian leadership in peace negotiations with Israel. Until then, Syria had always officially insisted on co-representing the Palestinians, though in the January 2000 peace negotiations with Israel in West Virginia, Hafez al-Assad had already secretly signalled that he would accept a peace settlement even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had not been satisfactorily resolved.

This strategy of pragmatism concerning the Palestinian issue could help to break the vicious circle. However, the Syrian political analyst Samir Altaqi said in an interview in November 2003: "Syria is not able to make any further concessions (in the Palestinian issue) ... This would harm the regime's identity." Altaqi himself is now said to be part of the negotiation team with Israel.

Bashar al-Assad signalled his readiness to hold talks with Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war; he has repeated his offer several times since (most prominently at the end of 2003, and despite the continuation of the second Palestinian intifada). He is said to have sent his younger brother Maher al-Assad to Amman for secret negotiations with Israeli representatives.

As tensions and hopes run high, every incident, no matter how minute, is subject to worldwide public scrutiny. This was certainly true of the first handshake between a Syrian and an Israeli president, which took place at the funeral of Pope John Paul II on 9 April 2005, in Rome. When speculation arose, the Syrians hastened to clarify that this gesture between Bashar al-Assad and Iranian-born Moshe Katzav was nothing but "a formality".

In Israel, especially within the intelligence community and within moderate political camps, there have been more voices calling for serious negotiations with Syria, though with no preconditions. Syria had always insisted on resuming negotiations at the point where the two sides had broken off in March 2000. Under these conditions, Syria would regain the entire Golan heights in line with the borders of 1967.

At the end of 2003, Bashar al-Assad surprisingly dropped this condition - which was based on a promise from the assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin - thus placing Israel in a temporary predicament. Bashar directed his strategy toward Washington in order to demonstrate his goodwill and avert pressure on Syria. He has reaffirmed his readiness to negotiate without preconditions several times, as in the speech to parliament in Damascus on 5 March 2005, when he announced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

The Syrian minister of expatriates, Buthaina Shaaban, insisted in an interview in 2004 that "Syria would be prepared to resume peace negotiations today if only the United States would induce Israel to negotiate." But Washington has not been interested, she continued, because it wants to hold on to arguments for putting pressure on Syria in the "war on terrorism." Until now, Israel has had no major interest in peace negotiations because it would rather wait and see how much US pressure is softening up Syria, which would strengthen the Israeli position in negotiations over the Golan heights.

However, after the overt failure of the Bush administration's policy in the middle east (and beyond), Israel has wisely decided to go its own way. Above all, it is both in Israel's and even in the US's interest not to undermine a stable regime in the neighbourhood (which is a reversal of the widespread regime-change rhetoric after the invasion into Iraq). A toppling of Bashar al-Assad and his clique in Damascus could result in an outcome that is even worse from the perspective of Israel's national interest. Despite all, the Ba'ath regime is still a secular player with a strong record of pragmatism in crucial issues, as well as a history of stern opposition to Islamist militants.

A crescent in the sky

It will not be easy to follow up the failed negotiations of 2000 when a "normalisation" of relations was part of the package. A step-by-step approach focusing on security guarantees and terrorism issues first seems more likely, if at all. Maybe it is not even so bad that the United States does not play an active role in the rapprochement this time, but has acceded its place to a regional actor: Turkey. Washington and Europe's efforts have failed in the past; now there is a first opportunity for a purely regional constellation to be given a chance.

Turkey is respected by Israel because of its long-term membership of Nato, and as a traditional US ally. More recently, Turkey has gained respect among Arabs and Muslims in the region because it is the only country in which democracy and Islam have combined in a fruitful relationship. The ruling AKP's foreign policy has focused on rekindling Turkey's relationships with neighbouring states, above all Syria. Turkey serves as a model for moderate and for even more conservative Islamic opposition movements in the region's (mostly secular) dictatorships.

This political and strategic constellation is a novelty. It may also become the foundation of an integral approach in this battered region - and at least be given a chance to do so. By the time the United States has its new president in January 2009, a new momentum and new confidence-building ideas may just come from this direction also. If the constellation survives intact over the next critical period, the Syria-Israel talks may become more than a footnote to history. But it is a big "if".

The mufti and the general: lessons from Somalia

I recently visited Somalia to attend a meeting of religious figures, clan elders and women leaders.Ram Manikkalingam is an advisor to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam.

A world beyond control

George W Bush used the occasion of his speech to the Knesset on 15 May 2008, marking the sixtieth anniversary of Israel's foundation, to liken a willingness to negotiate with Iran with appeasing the Nazis - a remark clearly aimed at Barack Obama, even if the favourite to win the Democratic Party's nomination for the United States presidency was unnamed in Bush's address.

Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state

The military campaign launched in May 2008 by the Shi'a Islamist party Hizbollah to control Beirut has raised fundamental questions about the very existence of Lebanon as a nation-state. But the ten days of armed confrontation that followed, which took the lives of more than sixty people, have also shed new light on the myths surrounding Hizbollah itself (not least its status as a "resistance" movement).

Kosovo to Kashmir: the self-determination dilemma

Consider this sequence of events. The central government of a country removes the political leadership of an autonomous province of the country in a purge-like act. It then sets about revoking the self-rule powers of the province, which has a different ethno-religious majority from the population of the country as a whole. Public protests in the province are met with heavy-handed police tactics. A repressive regime is instituted in the province, with both democratic institutions and the civil rights of citizens effectively suspended.Sumantra Bose is professor of international and comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His books include Bosnia after Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention (Oxford University Press, 2002), Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace (Harvard University Press, 2003) and Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka (Harvard University Press, 2007)

Also by Sumantra Bose in openDemocracy:

"Contested lands: paths to progress" (14 May 2007)

"Uttar Pradesh: India's democratic landslip" (29 May 2007)

"Sri Lanka's stalemated conflict" (12 June 2007)

"The partition evasion" (23 August 2007)

Eventually, political radicalisation sets in and some among the misruled province's younger generation pick up the gun to fight for "liberation". The nascent insurgency draws a fierce response from the state's military and police organs. The security forces crack down hard, and in so doing victimise the civilian population. Massacres of civilians and other serious abuses occur. The militants are not stamped out; instead, their struggle evokes large-scale popular support. A major crisis has developed.

This may read like a potted history of Kosovo between 1989 and 1999. It is, however, a potted history of Indian policy towards Kashmir, and its consequences, between 1953 and 1990. So do the United States and its allies in Europe support self-determination for Kashmir, and threaten multilateral intervention to that end?

Of course not. The oft-stated American position on Kashmir is that India and Pakistan should negotiate a bilateral solution to the Kashmir dispute while taking into account the wishes of "the Kashmiri people" (a description that itself grossly over-simplifies the society and politics of Kashmir, which contains a diversity of regions, religions, ethnicities and languages, and whose citizens are split into pro-independence, pro-Pakistan and pro-India segments).

Nonetheless, the caution and circumspection that define the stance of the United States and major European Union countries towards the Kashmir dispute are typical of the attitude of the "international community" and its dominant players towards claims to self-determination. The record of the international order since 1945 is that self-determination movements tend to receive a sceptical hearing at best, and no hearing at all in many cases. The vague and somewhat outdated principles of international law relevant to the issue of secession are broadly supportive of the territorial integrity of states, and recognise the legitimacy of self-determination only in situations of colonialism. Between 1945 and 1990 the only fully realised case of national self-determination outside the decolonisation framework was Bangladesh in the early 1970s, facilitated by an Indian military intervention that resulted in the total defeat of Pakistani forces in the former East Pakistan. During those decades, dozens of other self-determination movements struggled in vain.

Pakistan’s rivalrous coalition

Pakistan's newly minted coalition government, in office only since 25 March 2008, is presently lurching from one crisis to another. Its political core, the partnership between the Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) ended - for the moment at least - on 13 May 2008 when Sharif withdrew his quota of ministers from the federal cabinet over the ostensibly arcane issue of how to restore to office the senior judges sacked under President Pervez Musharraf's declaration of emergency on 3 November 2007.

Syndicate content