Is there hope for the “Friends of Syria” meeting on Wednesday?

As Jordan prepares to host a Friends of Syria meeting on Wednesday to be attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the conflict in that country seems only to be getting worse. Prospects for a solution to the conflict seem dim, and Jordan is the country most affected by it apart from Syria itself. The Geneva 2 conference sponsored by the United States and Russia that is expected to take place next month is still plagued with uncertainty as the opposition has been unable to agree on who exactly will represent it in the negotiations. President Assad took a hard line in a recent interview in which he called opposition forces “terrorists” who he would not negotiate with, while the opposition remains divided amongst itself. Despite tens of thousands of deaths and 1.5 million refugees the conflict shows no sign of concluding anytime soon.

At the meeting on Wednesday, the foreign ministers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar, the United States, Britain, France, Turkey, Germany, and Italy will meet to dicuss events in Syria. They will also try to decide on common positions ahead of the Geneva 2 Conference.

In perhaps a disturbing analogy, an article on Al-Monitor says that the negotiations would begin “Vietnamese Style” without a ceasefire. The issue is that if an agreement is reached while fighting continues there is a risk that it will be meaningless on the ground even as its signing appears to be a major achievement.

Meanwhile, the conflict continues. Jordan is now hosting 500,000 Syrian refugees with more entering the country every day as the conflict has escalated. Al-Jazeera reports that the Zaatari refugee camp will become the world’s largest by the end of the year if the conflict continues, and that if it were a city it would be Jordan’s fifth largest. In addition, it is also important to recognize that things could get worse, a lot worse, if this conflict continues. Syria has approximately 22.5 mllion people, with 1.5 million of them living as refugees. Of those refugees, one third of them are in Jordan, temporarily increasing the population from 6.5 million to 7 million. It is not difficult at all to envision hundreds of thousands more refugees entering Jordan if the conflict continues. In addition, every single regional actor has been drawn in, and the recent battle in Qusair had Hezbollah fighting alongside Syrian troops, with Israel threatening more air strikes.

Where do things go from here? This conflict is not and should not be portrayed as a manichean struggle between a virtuous opposition and an evil regime. Some in the opposition undoubtedly support an authoritarian state, albeit one of a different kind, and many countries backing the opposition have either problematic histories in the region, or human rights abuses of their own. But one also cannot escape the recognition that in Syria there is a regime that believes it should be in power regardless of what the Syrian people decide. Even if one were to pretend, for a moment, that most of the population supported Assad, there is nothing in his past actions that indicates a willingness to take the opinions of the Syrian people into account. Of this there is no doubt. Coupled with the regime’s willingness to retain power at any cost is the notion that loyalty to the regime and to the country of Syria are bound together, creating a bizarre logic in which those taking up arms against a regime that has shown its willingness to commit brutal atrocities are “terrorists” and where Syria must be defended against its own people. It’s a worldview where Syrians opposed to the regime are agents of foreign influence but Hezbollah fighters are not.

There is little immediate prospect of a solution to the conflict, and it seems that for the time being Jordan will continue to bear the greatest proportional burden as fighting continues.

Musallam al-Barrak and the Competing Arenas of Kuwaiti Politics

Today, Musallam al-Barrak is scheduled to return to court for his appeal against a five-year prison sentence he received for allegedly insulting the Emir. Whatever the court rules today, the ruling will highlight the increasingly bisected nature of Kuwaiti politics between the regime-dominated political system and the opposition’s arena of popular mobilization.

Today’s hearing was scheduled on April 22nd, when Barrak appeared in court and was granted bail by the judge. Following the judge’s decision to grant him bail, thousands of his supporters gathered in the seuare next to the main prison in Salibiya region and lifted him onto their shoulders in an impromptu parade. Barrack said that it was his supporters who had him released after the hearing rather than his bail payment. He feels, not without justification given the fate of many other opposition supporters, that he must rely on public opinion to protect him from the regime’s crackdown on dissent. Last year’s nullified election in February demonstrated the extent of his backing as he received more votes than any other candidate (he boycotted the December election).

During the week between his sentencing on April 15th and his court appearance on April 22nd, Barrack repeatedly insisted that he would comply with the law and surrender when he saw a copy of the original arrest warrant, which he insisted police did not have. He evaded several attempts to arrest him, including a raid on his home (he was not there at the time), which he called a “cowardly action” by the government, which provoked a crowd of about 10,000 protesters to clash with riot police outside of a police station. He denied that his comments from an October rally that the Emir must not rule autocratically were an insult, and his supporters took to repeating his words as a show of solidarity. He insisted publicly that he would comply with the court’s rulings but his actions prior to the court hearing on April 22nd were those of a political figure confident of popular backing and intent on defiance.

The regime’s actions in the recent political crisis, including regarding the case of Barrak appear to be based on the calculation that these protests do not pose a fundamental threat to overthrow the regime. The regime seems also to be attempting to take advantage of the dominance of the political system that the opposition yielded to it by boycotting the election in December.

The stage was set when the February 2012 election resulted in the election of a parliament with a majority of opposition MPs, which meant that the regime could expect more opposition from parliament, including efforts to grill ministers. A series of events following the election took place which suggested that the regime may have been attempting to regain by decree what it lost at the ballot box. Over the summer a court ruling dissolved the parliament elected in February 2012 and reinstated the one elected in 2009. Subsequently, the regime attempted to have the courts overturn the 2006 electoral law, and when this failed, the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, issued a decree seen to favor the regime by reducing the number of votes Kuwaitis could cast from four to one, in a decree seen to favor the regime. This decree, along with the court ruling dissolving the parliament elected in February 2012 was the main catalyst for the opposition’s boycott of the December 2012 elections.

The central calculation by the regime appeared to be that its support would be high enough that they would be able to claim the boycott was a failure, or at least not an unmitigated success. The new parliament legitimized the electoral decree, and actually held a recent debate where MPs criticized the Interior Minister for not cracking down hard enough. The regime’s control of the formal political system has enabled it to have legal justification for cracking down on what it terms to be dissent (e.g. the allegations directed against Barrak for “insulting the Emir”).

Whatever happens in court today, the decision is likely to underline the divisions between Kuwait’s formal and informal political spaces. A denial of the appeal would trigger protests that could potentially be larger than those that have occurred in recent months, but the regime may be able to weather them. A decision to release Barrack – and the decision is up to the judge – would embolden his supporters and also set the stage for further protests on other issues, as well as future legal battles as the opposition would seek to contest the regime’s dominance of the political system. Either way, Kuwait is likely to experience demonstrations this week, and the ruling will be a key factor in determining their nature, their demands, and the degree to which they are violent or peaceful. This is the immediate implication of the decision to be handed down later today.

What Does the Recent Violence in Maan Mean?

Over the last week there have been recurrent episodes of violence in Jordan, triggered by the tribal violence at Al Hussein Bin Talal University in Maan. On Friday there were rallies held across Jordan condemning this violence and the regime for failing to stop it. This violence at the university, which announced that classes would be cancelled for a third day is tragic, and the risk is that if it spreads it could harm Jordan’s educational system, which is one of the country’s strongest assests. Over the last two decades the literacy rate and the enrollment rates have both increased, despite continuing issues with the exam-based selection process for universities and other secondary education such as medical school. Preventing this type of violence is critical because if it continues for a long enough period it will do lasting damage to Jordan’s educational system even if it were eventually brought under control.

The educational system’s improvements are not merely statistics printed on a sheet of paper. They have produced real benefits for Jordan and is an asset that the country possesses. One of the assets that this has produced is a health care system that is one of the best in the region, where foreigners come to obtain medical treatment. For example, Jordan is currently in a major dispute with Libya over hospital bills that the Libyan government has refused to pay, leading Jordanian private hospitals to stop accepting the Libyan government’s promises of future payment. Why did Libya, an oil-rich state send its patients to Jordan? They were sent there because the medical care was among the best, if not the best, in the region, and the reason why Jordan is able to offer such care is the quality of its education system and medical schools. This is why this type of violence cannot continue.

What is significant about these protests is what the protesters are actually calling for is security and stability and this is what the regime has failed to provide by failing to stop these clashes. This violence is outside the traditional dynamic of regime/opposition clashes. It involves a tribal dispute of unclear origins involving students and their relatives that turned violent in a public place, where anyone could have been caught in the crossfire. Justice Minister Hussein Majali has said that there were 22 arrested for weapons possession but time will tell if this incident is adequately investigated.

At a time of intense political turmoil and a newly-reappointed government steps have to be taken to make sure that this type of incident will never happen again. Many opponents of reform may argue that security and reform are diametrically opposed, but this incident – in which violence occurred