Normative Narratives


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Trump’s Strategy: Possible Short-Term Gains, Definite Long-Term Pains

Image result for trumps long term damage

There is always a lag between when a policy is enacted and when its true long-term consequences are felt. This reality often works against societal wellbeing, as politicians pursue policies that are damaging in the long-run if they make them more popular here and now.

This shortsighted behavior is reinforced by the electorate. The combination of more pressing issues in their own lives, imperfect memory, and a lack of technical knowledge result in the voters not holding politicians accountable for the long-term consequences of their policies. When things come crashing down on someone else’s watch they are considered the fault of the person currently in charge, regardless of the root cause. One does not have to look far back to find two prime examples–President Obama inheriting the Great Recession and the turmoil in the Middle East.

The most obvious example of President-elect Trump’s shortsightedness is his stance on Climate Change. Trump has called Climate Change a hoax. He has stated he wants to overturn Obama’s signature environmental policy, the Clean Power Plan, which is also central to meeting America’s commitments under the Paris Climate Accord (the 194 nation pact covering all major emitters, which Trump has vowed to drop out of). His pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is a climate change skeptic–the fox is guarding the hen house.

Leasing public lands to private companies seems cartoonishly short-sighted. In the most extreme scenario, imagine a National Park being turned into a natural gas field, depriving future generations of its beauty. Unfortunately, this may be what the G.O.P is planning.

Trump’s War on Climate Change toolkit also features intimidation. His Department of Energy transition team asked the DoE for a list of employees who work on climate change related issues, to which one employee (who declined to comment for fear of reprisal) remarked “This feels like the first draft of an eventual political enemies list.” The DoE, for it’s part, has rebuffed the request, but who knows what will happen once Rick Perry is running the show. As a self-proclaimed “jobs President”, Trump should not do anything that could compromise America’s position as a leader in the emerging clean energy economy (a position coveted by a country Trump has promised to be tough on–China).

While environmental considerations are the most obvious example, they are far from the only shortsighted policies Trump has embraced. If he does not change his campaign promises, his fiscal and national security policies will prove equally as shortsighted.

Trumped-Up Trickle-Down Economics

While damaging in the long-run, Trump’s policies will not necessarily lead to an immediate recession, a point made in a recent article by Paul Krugman. As Krugman points out, even poorly designed fiscal stimulus has a positive impact on short-run growth.

Even if Trump’s policies do result in short-run growth, this does not mean the average American will benefit. In fact, if recent history is any indicator, Trump’s reliance on trickle-down economics to improve the lives of average Americans is all but sure to fail. If wages continue to stagnate (Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor has opposed anything resembling a livable minimum wage or expanding overtime pay), or if consumer prices rise dramatically due to Trump’s inflationary fiscal and protectionist trade policies, people may well feel the pain sooner rather than later.

Perhaps Trump, in all his deal-making brilliance, can buck the lessons of recent history and somehow make trickle-down economics work–I am highly skeptical. Even if he can, there are still the long-term ramifications of his economic agenda, which would outweigh any immediate benefits.

By greatly increasing the deficit—a certainty if his economic vision is implemented–Trump is pursuing the tried and failed “starve the beast” strategy. “Starve the beast” is a political strategy to cut taxes to deprive the federal government of revenue, in a deliberate effort to force it to reduce future spending.

Starving the beast is very dangerous; reducing “fiscal space” compromises the Government’s ability to respond to future economic downturns with stimulus spending to offset lower private sector demand. It also does not work–critical, broadly popular programs end up being financed through increased deficit spending. When push comes to shove, politicians will not risk losing support and widespread social instability in the name of fiscal responsibility.

But starving the beast can lead to underinvestment in certain areas by artificially creating a budgetary squeeze. Public R&D and investments in human capital development / productivity improvement are generally not considered “critical”, in that there are no immediate consequences for cutting them. Therefore, when budgets are tight, these are often the first programs on the chopping block. Such cuts erode America’s innovative capacity, compromising long-term economic growth.

National Security: Syria, the Islamic State and Beyond

No one knows exactly what course of action Trump will ultimately take with Syria, but we can make an educated guess based on his past comments. Trump has praised Saddam Hussein for being “good at killing terrorists“. He looks to improve relations with Vladimir Putin, Assad’s strongest backer. Most tellingly, Trump has said he will prioritize fighting the IS over fighting Assad. Taken together, these factors strongly suggest Trump will stop opposing Assad, if not directly support him in the fight against the IS.

In the short-run, backing Assad could make America safer by bringing stability to Syria, allowing the international community to focus on defeating the IS. Of course this strategy could also backfire by giving more fuel to anti-American parties in region, attracting more international terrorist attacks and inspiring domestic lone-wolf attackers.

But let’s just say, for arguments sake, that the IS already considers the U.S. its primary enemy, and is already doing all it can to attack America. Even if this is true, Trump’s strategy is still flawed. By failing to consider the root causes of the current instability of the Middle East—poor, unaccountable governance—Trump’s strategy will exacerbate the regions problems and create new ones.

In the long-run, not opposing Assad will embolden others to follow his playbook for staying in power at any cost. Rollbacks in human rights and governance will create future civil wars, resulting in power vacuums. From these power vacuums new terrorists groups will emerge, threatening America’s safety (with even more fodder for anti-U.S. propaganda). The only people this strategy will ultimately benefit are those who profit from the military-industrial complex. Humanitarian spending will also continue to rise from already historic levels if Trump abandons preventative peacebuilding through trade, development aid, and democratic capacity building in favor of aligning with dictators.

To be fair, when it comes to the Syrian Civil War, there are no good options. There are, however, worse options. Based on what he has said, and who he has nominated to be his national security adviser, Trump seems primed to pursue these worse options.

The Marks of a True Leader

All politicians must balance short-term needs with longer-term considerations. Focus too much on the long-run, and people will suffer in the short-run–to quote John Maynard Keynes, “in the long-run, we’re all dead”. But when it comes to Donald Trump, who has shown himself to be especially thin-skinned (constantly alleging media bias, demanding apologies from Broadway actors, attacking comedic parodies on SNL), whose main consideration has seemingly always been status and popularity, one can only imagine how greatly he will discount any future damage his policies might cause in order to look good now.

It is one thing to have policies not meet their intended long-term goals due to unanticipated consequences or unforeseeable changes in the world. But in the case of Trump’s proposed policies, the writing is right there on the wall. It is not that the Obama administration did not consider these “fixes”, it is that their negative consequences were deemed to be too great.

The other shoe will drop–it is a question of when, not if. Trump is counting on the negative consequences occurring on someone else’s watch, when they will be someone else’s problem. But what if they occur sooner than expected, while he is still in power? Well, there’s a scapegoat for that, and Trump has already proven himself to be a master scapegoater.

True leadership requires finding the right balance between short-term needs and longer-term considerations. It requires thick-skin, and the willingness to do what is right even when it is not popular. A good leader owns up to their failures and learns from their mistakes–there is not an ounce of accountability or introspection in Donald Trump.

Leaders can also benefit from a strong team with diverse opinions—people who challenge their views in order to create more robust, sustainable solutions. Throughout his campaign, Trump said he would appoint the best team possible to make up for his lack of governing experience. Looking at Trump’s current Cabinet nominees, I see mostly self-serving yes-men.

Based on these (and most other) definitions of leadership, President-elect Trump seems to be the furthest thing from a true leader imaginable.

It is important to identify and call out Trump’s shortsighted strategy now. People will point to immediate successes, should they come to pass, as vindication of his policy choices and governing style. Such celebrations would be premature.

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Turkey, Kurdistan and ISIL: The Case for Partitioning Iraq and Syria

kurdmap

The fight against ISIL has taken another complicating turn, with direct fighting between two of America’s most important regional allies, Turkey and the Syrian Kurds (YPG).

There is, however, something that can be done to address each sides concerns and uphold their interests. That something is abandoning the supremacy of Syrian and Iraqi territorial integrity, and carving a Kurdistan out of parts of Syria and Iraq.

This step, accompanied by the right conditions, can help resolve the longstanding feud between the Turks and Kurds and get the fights against ISIL and Assad back on track.

Take Land From Those Who Have Proven They Cannot Govern It

The Syrian and Iraqi governments have both lost their ability to govern the entirety of their respective country’s. These are not my opinions, they are the facts on the ground.

In Syria, Assad has committed numerous war crimes against his people in an attempt to squash a popular uprising against him. Even these violations of human decency and humanitarian law alone would not have kept him in power, as he has relied heavily on support from Russia and Iran.

The Iraqi military melted away in the face of ISIL advances in 2014, and the government has proven unable to address the underlying social and sectarian grievances that enabled this advance. Iraq as we know it would no longer exist without the support of America and its allies.

This is not to say there should be no Syria or no Iraq, but neither country’s government has done anything in recent years to suggest the idea of partitioning should not at least be on the table. The other countries with major Kurdish populations, Turkey and Iran, are still functioning states despite their varying degrees of poor governance.

The argument for creating Kurdistan out of parts of Iraq and Syria is strengthened when considering the strong arguments for Kurdish statehood. These arguments include justice for a large, stateless population, and a reward for bravery in fighting ISIL on the world’s behalf.

By giving the Kurds what they want in Syria and Iraq, it should ease pressure to create a Turkish Kurdistan. Some people may argue the opposite, saying such a development would only fuel Kurdish desires to expand into Turkey. But I think the Kurds, realizing how difficult statehood is to sustain in what is currently Iraq and Syria, would be content with the territory they are allotted. Of course my beliefs cannot be taken on faith–certain conditions would need to be put in place to ensure peaceful coexistence between Kurdistan and its neighbors.

Conditionality is Key

Kurdistan’s founding would be based on a set of conditions. Should these conditions fail to hold Kurdistan would loose international backing, which would basically be a death-blow to the newly formed state.

The main condition needed to make this plan work is the explicit understanding that the Kurds would lose support if they expand beyond originally agreed upon borders, unless it is in response to armed conflict initiated by another country or one of it’s proxy’s (such as Hezbollah for Iran). This condition would ensure two things:

  1. The Kurds will not try to expand, as international support would be needed to sustain a new Kurdistan.
  2. Kurdistan will not be invaded by its neighbors (at least by a national army, non-state actors such as ISIL are always wildcards). Both Turkey and Iran share the same primary concern with respect to Kurdish statehood–the effect it would have on their own Kurdish populations and ultimately their territorial integrity. Since invasion would be the one thing that could result in internationally recognized Kurdish expansion, it should act as a strong deterrent against invasion. 

The Benefits of Bold Behavior

People will say such a solution is untenable–Turkey will never “allow it”, Russia will never go for it, and the current American administration is opposed to it. Iran, for its part, will play the spoiler at ever turn.

First of all, America’s stance could well change in the following months with a new administration on its way. But more importantly, it is not the decision of any one country–not the U.S., not Russia, not Turkey or Iran–to “allow” something or not. Issues of global concern, such as armed conflicts and their resulting boundary-less extremism and refugee crises, must be resolved by the international community through the United Nations.

Much could be achieved by taking land from countries that have proven themselves unable to govern it (and were based on arbitrarily drawn borders to begin with) and giving it to the Kurds. It would:

  1. Reward a large, stateless people who have a commitment to democratic principles and have fought bravely against ISIL.
  2. Remove Turkey’s (and to a lesser extent Iran’s) fear of Kurdish expansion into its own territory.
  3. Refocus the fight against ISIL.
  4. Allow Turkish and Kurdish forces to focus their efforts against Assad, altering the calculus of the Syrian Stalemate.

Bold ideas that challenge the current balance of power tend to be met with skepticism and condemnation at first. But the current balance of power in the Middle East empowers extremist organizations and totalitarian governments–it should be challenged.


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Conflict Watch: Current Strategy Can Degrade But Cannot Defeat The Islamic State

Defeating ISIS means Western boots on the ground

UPDATE: With U.S. backed coallitons making advances in Mosul (Iraq) and Raqqa (Syria), and Sirte (Libya), with little news of IS expansion elsewhere, it seems like I may have been wrong on the need for a significant force of Western troops to defeat the IS on the battlefield.

I will leave this post up because it still contains important points about the multifaceted approach needed to defeat the IS ideology. But I believe it is important to admit when you are wrong, and in this case I was.

It is commonly accepted that the fight against the Islamic State (IS) is not solely a military fight.  When the U.S. led coalition outlined its plan for combating the group, three main fronts emerged:

  1. Social Media
  2. Financial
  3. Traditional Warfare

Let’s examine how we are doing on each of these fronts, before considering the larger goal of defeating the IS:

Social Media

It is notoriously difficult to police social media sites. Creating an account is free and monitoring content costs money. When an account is shut down, another one pops-up.

The IS has proven itself adept at using social media as both a recruitment tool and as a platform to amplify its message of terror. Good production quality has had the effect of making the group seem more permanent.

Social media sites, understanding the importance of countering the IS message, are stepping up to the plate (perhaps due to the fact that their own infrastructure is being exploited by these groups). One weak spot until recently was Twitter, but a new report shows the company has started to make a stronger effort:

The Islamic State’s English-language reach on Twitter has stalled in recent months amid a stepped-up crackdown against the extremist group’s army of digital proselytizers, who have long relied on the site to recruit and radicalize new adherents, according to a study being released on Thursday.

Twitter Inc (TWTR.N) has long been criticized by government officials for its relatively lax approach to policing content, even as other Silicon Valley companies like Facebook Inc (FB.O) began to more actively police their platforms.

Under intensified pressure from the White House, presidential candidates and some civil society groups, Twitter announced earlier this month it had shut down more than 125,000 terrorism-related accounts since the middle of 2015, most of them linked to the Islamic State group.

In a blog post, the company said that while it only takes down accounts reported by other users it had increased the size of teams monitoring and responding to reports and has decreased its response time “significantly.”

It does not appear social media will become less popular anytime soon. As long as it is a platform that billions of people use, extremist groups will try to use it to further their causes (especially given the success the IS has had).

Therefore, it is the responsibility of social media companies to do everything they can to fight this misuse–it should be a liability issue, a cost of doing business for a very profitable industry.

Financial

Fighting a war and running a “state” are not cheap–the IS has to at least appear to offer some social services and run certain institutions if it wants to claim it is a “state”.

The IS primary revenue streams are selling oil, taxing the people in areas it subjugates, seizing money from banks in those areas, and (to a lesser extent) other illicit activities (selling stolen antiques, ransoming hostages, drug trade, etc).

Recent drops in oil prices and sanctions have helped squeeze the IS finances. But we cannot and are not relying solely on market forces to disrupt the group’s revenue streams:

Air strikes have reduced Islamic State’s ability to extract, refine and transport oil, a major source of revenue that is already suffering from the fall in world prices. Since October the coalition says it has destroyed at least 10 “cash collection points” estimated to contain hundreds of millions of dollars.

U.S. military officials say reports of Islamic State cutting fighters’ wages by up to half are proof that the coalition is putting pressure on the group.

In January, the coalition said air strikes against Islamic State oil facilities had cut the group’s oil revenues by about 30 percent since October, when U.S. defense officials estimate the group was earning about $47 million per month.

[U.S. Army Colonel Steve] Warren said air strikes against Islamic State’s financial infrastructure were “body blows like a shot to the gut”.

“(It) may not knock you out today but over time begins to weaken your knees and cause you to not be able to function the way you’d like to,” he told reporters last week.

It is true there is a limit to what airstrikes can accomplish against the IS without more soldiers on the ground. But airstrikes can be very effective in disrupting oil production and blowing up known cash storage sites. This is an area where the U.S. could expand its efforts more or less unilaterally.

One way to do this could be reconsidering what an acceptable target is. The U.S. led coalition has made an effort to avoid striking areas with expensive infrastructure, in hopes it can be used if wrestled back from the IS. But, as Ramadi has proven, the IS will rig any areas it loses with explosives before it leaves, so perhaps we should rethink trying to spare infrastructure if it means we can make a more significant dent in the IS finances.

What we cannot do is disregard civilian casualties–“carpet bombing” IS held areas is not a viable option. Not only would such a strategy be morally reprehensible, but it would be counter-productive, reinforcing the IS anti-Western message.

Traditional Warfare

In recent months, the IS has lost significant territory in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, the groups practice of rigging areas it loses with explosives makes it very difficult to turn liberated areas back to “normal” (safe for displaced people to return and lead productive lives).

Furthermore, these gains have not always been made in “sustainable” ways. In Syria, the Assad regime has gained much of the territory the IS has lost (although the Kurds, natural allies to the West, have also gained territory). In Iraq, a Shiite dominated government has made advances with the aid of Iranian fighters, risking further alienating Iraq’s Sunni population (which paved the way for the rise of the IS in the first place).

Further curbing the benefit of IS loses in Iraq and Syria is the group’s expansion into Libya, where it has an estimated 6,000 fighters and rising, exploiting the post-Qaddafi power vacuum. The U.S. led coalition has started an aerial campaign against the IS in Libya, but absent a unified Libyan government, it will be difficult to stop the groups expansion.

In Libya’s incredibly important neighbor Tunisia, the freedoms associated the country’s successful democratic transition have created more space for the IS to operate. Ultimately effective pluralistic democratic governance, which respects the human rights of all people, is the only way to defeat the IS. We must provide Tunisia with all the support it needs, to ensure that democratization does not become a tool the IS uses to its advantage in the short-run. 

Degrading AND Defeating the Islamic State

The good news is we have made progress on each of the three main fronts in the fight against IS (Social Media, Financial, Traditional Warfare). The bad news is that while we are able to degrade the IS, we have done so in a way that ignores the underlying factors that led to the groups rise in the first place.

Let’s not downplay the very real benefits of degrading the IS. It limits the groups ability to spread misery and death. It compromises the groups ability to carry out attacks abroad, and reduces the likelihood it will inspire lone-wolf attackers.

But the fight against the IS is expensive, and the longer the group is allowed to operate, the more it’s assertion that it is a “caliphate” becomes the fact on the ground. Moreover, time gives the IS (which has proven itself quite tactical and resilient) room to metastasize and evolve. Imagine if the group connected its Middle Eastern territory with large swaths of Northern Africa, transforming its ideological link to Boko Haram into an actual military alliance? This may seem like an unlikely scenario, but everything the IS has done up until this point has defied the odds against it. 

To avoid perpetual war we must degrade the IS in a way that also attacks the groups underlying message–that there is no viable alternative for Muslims. On this front, much work remains. Governments in Islamic countries should put aside sectarian divides and treat the fight against the IS as the fight for the soul of Islam that it is. Unfortunately, there is little to suggest this will happen anytime soon, a point recently made by political comedian Bill Maher:

“Why don’t they fight their own battles? Why are Muslim armies so useless against ISIS? ISIS isn’t 10 feet tall. There are 20,000 or 30,000 of them. The countries surrounding ISIS have armies totaling 5 million people. So why do we have to be the ones leading the fight? Or be in the fight at all?”

If you consider the countries bordering Iraq and Syria — Iran (with 563,000 armed forces personnel), Jordan (115,500), Kuwait (22,600), Lebanon (80,000), Saudi Arabia (251,500) and Turkey (612,800) — you get a total of 1.6 million.

Add in Iraq (177,600) and Syria (178,000) themselves and that brings the total to 2 million. That’s less than half of Maher’s figure.

When we heard back from Maher’s spokesman, he said the comedian was also including the armies of Bahrain, Egypt, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

If they (reservists) are included as part of a country’s army, the total for those 13 countries Maher wants to include rises to 4.95 million, as Maher said.

If you don’t include the reservists, the number of troops in the countries cited by the comedian only rises to 3.6 million.

Looking at the largest Muslim players, there is little hope in sight. Turkey is more interested in fighting the Kurds–one of the strongest forces against the IS–than the IS itself. Saudi Arabia and Iran are wrapped up in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and are ideologically opposed to pluralism, democracy, and one another. Egypt under Sisi has become increasingly authoritarian, and as a result finds itself consumed by its own terrorist insurgency. Iraq, as mentioned earlier, is relying too heavily on Iranian forces. In Syria, Assad is hoping that with Russian and Iranian support he can knock out all opposition except the IS, completing his “fighting terrorism” narrative and cementing himself in power as he kills indiscriminately. Jordan seems like a true ally in this fight, but it itself is a monarchy that will not fight for democratic values, and even if it would it cannot be expected to take on this fight alone.

It often seems that the IS is everyone’s second biggest concern. The inability to rally a meaningful Pan-Arabic counter-insurgency against the IS is not ideal (and is actually quite sad), but it is a reality we must acknowledge if we are to put together a coalition that CAN end the group’s reign of terror.

To this end, we need more support from those who do share our values. America cannot be the World’s Police, but the world does need a “police force”. Every country that believes in and has benefited from democratic governance and human rights has a role to play. A global coalition (including ground troops) must include all these parties, and be proportionately funded and manned (meaning the U.S. will still have to play a major leadership role).

To some, such a coalition may seem even less likely than a meaningful Pan-Arabic counter-insurgency. But in my mind, corralling support from interdependent allies that share common values and coordinating financing to fairly and sustainably spreads the cost is more achievable than completely changing the behavior of historically adversarial actors.

We need this global coalition not just to defeat the IS, but to prevent the next Syrian Civil War. Global security is at a crossroads and must evolve–prevention is the cheapest way to maintain a peaceful international order. Having an effective deterrent, alongside promoting democracy and human rights, are indispensable elements of preventing conflict.

Global security is a global public good, absent visionary leadership it will be under-invested in, to the detriment of all.


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Conflict Watch: Kurdish Awakening

Original article:

Turkey and the United States have agreed in general terms on a plan that envisions American warplanes, Syrian insurgents and Turkish forces working together to sweep Islamic State militants from a 60-mile-long strip of northern Syria along the Turkish border, American and Turkish officials say.

The plan would create what officials from both countries are calling an Islamic State-free zone controlled by relatively moderate Syrian insurgents, which the Turks say could also be a “safe zone” for displaced Syrians.

And with only 60 Syrian insurgents having been formally vetted and trained by the United States under a Pentagon program, questions also remain about which Syrian insurgents and how many will be involved in the new operation. A larger number of rebels that American officials deem relatively moderate have been trained in a covert C.I.A. program, but on the battlefield they are often enmeshed or working in concert with more hard-line Islamist insurgents.

Such Syrian Arab insurgents would gain at the expense of the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia known by the initials Y.P.G. that is seeking to take the same territory from the east. While the United States views the group as one of its best partners on the ground, Turkey sees it as a threat; it is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant group whose longstanding conflict with Turkey has flared anew in recent days.

The plan does not envision Turkish ground troops entering Syria, although long-range artillery could be used across the border. Turkish ground forces would work on their side of the border to stem the Islamic State’s ability to infiltrate foreign fighters and supplies into Syria.

Awakening–an act or moment of becoming suddenly aware of something. Awakening is the word used to describe the coming together of disparate Sunni tribes and U.S. coalition forces to fight and defeat al Qeada in Iraq–the “Sunni Awakening”.

But there was another “awakening” for these factions–a rude awakening. After doing the heavy lifting on the front lines, these Sunni factions were largely shut-out of the political reunification of Iraq. This was not only unjust, it contributed to the government ineptitude and subsequent power-vacuum that has helped fuel ISIL’s rapid advance across Iraq.

There is a parallel in the fights against ISIS and Assad. This time, the YPG and PKK Kurdish forces are playing the front-line role. Furthermore, the Kurds are far more ideologically aligned with “Western values” than the Sunni Awakening tribes ever were.

My first thought when I heard Turkey was stepping up its fight against ISIS was “about time”. But my enthusiasm was quickly tempered as it became clear that Turkey’s plan is more about fighting the PKK and Turkish politics than the fights against ISIS and Assad. Turkey has the capacity to play a very important role in the fights against Assad and ISIL–this plan does not fulfill that role, and will likely be a net-negative.

The Kurdish pesh merga is a capable military with boots on the ground. Kurdish political leadership is stable and able to balance security and human rights better than any Middle-Eastern government aside from Turkey, Israel, and Tunisia. For a fraction of the financial and moral support sunk into failed ME regimes, Kurdistan could probably now be a fully functioning democratic state by now–I reiterate my support for an independent Kurdistan (although not on Turkish land, but in parts of Syria and Iraq).

For its part, Kurdish political leadership must denounce terrorist attacks against the Turkish government, and distance itself from any radical elements of their parties. Such terrorist attacks are counter productive–they cost the Kurdish statehood movement public support (which is a necessary element for ever becoming an internationally recognized state) and provide Turkey with legitimate reasons to attack Kurdish positions.

The Kurds should also expand their security mandate from solidifying their borders, to actively engaging and degrading ISIL. Backed by coalition airstrikes, boots on the ground are exactly what the fight against ISIL is most lacking. Despite war at it’s front door, Turkey will still not provide ground troops. The Kurds can use this cowardly position to their advantage, juxtaposing the importance of its ground troops against moderately useful Turkish air bases (yes they allow coalition airstrikes to get to positions faster, but without boots on the ground acting in concert with these airstrikes, they are largely ineffective in the fight against ISIL).

If the Turks want to stay out of the fight against ISIL and Assad, that is its prerogative as a sovereign nation. But the U.S. government and NATO should not sanction Turkey using this fight as a cover to degrade the one capable force on the ground fighting both ISIL and Assad. There is no longer a moderate Syrian opposition without the pesh merga. We should heed the lessons of abandoning our front-line allies after they have done “the dirty work” of war. The Kurds will not remain our allies if we abandon them at the first hint of Turkish intervention in the fight against ISIL.

(Update: In a further blow to the moderate Syrian rebels who figure so prominently in Turkey’s plan to fight ISIS and Assad, the leader of the only U.S. vetted force, Nadeem Hassan, was kidnapped along with 6 other rebels. This puts the number of vetted moderate Syrian rebels somewhere between 53 and 47, a reasonably large college lecture class, but not an army capable of fighting ISIS or Assad, regardless of the level of aerial support.)

Assad and ISIL cannot last indefinitely. The question is what morning-after do we want the Kurdish people to awaken to? The one where we stood by them as partners? Or the one where we gave the thumbs up for Turkey to bomb them after months of doing the world’s dirty work fighting ISIL? 

The Obama administration misplayed its hands in Syria and Egypt. Over time, what began as legitimate democratic movements became exactly what the Assad and Sisi wanted–a fight between “strong men” and radical extremists. We cannot let Kurdistan, a budding “Island of Decency” (in the words of Thomas Friedman), become another example of a failed democratic movement in the Middle East.

Some countries are truly not ripe for democratic modernization–it is a process. Failure to realize this can lead to costly wars and greater instability than before said interventions started. This is not to say the international community cannot or should not use it’s intelligence and resources to identify and support the civil elements within a country that are laying the socioeconomic and ideological groundwork for future democratic movements–we should. But we must be realistic when considering our willingness to dedicate resources and our partners capacities when determining whether direct intervention is a pragmatic decision; moving too fast is as bad as not moving at all.

At the other end of the spectrum, failure to support movements that have the capacity to solidify universal aspirations of freedom into sustainable political infrastructure and government administration–such as Kurdish leadership–should not be an option either. Not only does this go against “Western values”, it is geopolitically short-sighted. Furthermore, continuing to make this mistake makes the “democracy cannot exist in the middle east” narrative self-fulfilling.


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Conflict Watch: The Syrian Civil War is Deadlier Than Ever

2014 was the deadliest year of the Syrian Civil War–more than 76,000 people died in 2014, including 17,790 civilians (among them 3,501 children) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The injection of ISIL into the hurting stalemate between Assad and Syrian Rebels has further marginalized any peaceful, pluralistic forces that still exist in Syria.

Paradoxically, it seems that the Syrian Civil war has receded from international headlines. Surely the rise of ISIL has diverted both public attention and resources from removing Assad. The absence of a viable alternative to govern Syria has probably also muted calls to remove Assad. It is worth noting that both these phenomenon–the marginalization of the moderate Syrian opposition and the rise of ISIL–are partially the result of Western inaction in Syria.

By itself, lack of media attention is not such a big deal; highlighting the atrocities of war is a means to an end (pressuring parties to conflict and the international community to defend human rights / uphold humanitarian law), not an end itself. But when lack of media attention coincides with inaction by the international community, there is cause for concern:

Western states are focusing too much on tackling Islamic State and are forgetting the daily suffering of ordinary Syrians in areas of the country where the medical situation has become catastrophic, a group of Syrian doctors said.

The situation has been exacerbated since a U.S-led coalition began bombing areas of Syria controlled by Islamic State, which seized swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq last year.

“Between 30 to 60 people are dying each day since the bombings started,” said Tawfik Shamaa, spokesman for the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations (UOSSM), a non-governmental association that brings together 14 groups.

“There is only talk of extremism and Islamic State, but not the women and children who are killed, the bodies torn apart, the stomachs blown open, which is what doctors are dealing with each day.”

“There are only 30 doctors of all specialities,” he said adding that people were dying of diseases such as cholera, typhoid, scabies and tuberculosis because there were no treatments or vaccines available.

Talks of “humanitarian corridors“, which less than a year ago received unanimous support from most of the UNSC, have foundered. The introduction of a wildcard “spoiler” group like ISIL have made humanitarian corridors (which we’re difficult enough to negotiate between Assad and rebel forces) logistically impossible in areas under their control.

Support for Syrian refugees has been lacking, as Syria’s neighbors lack the resources and in some cases the desire to handle such a large influx of people.

“The economic, social and human cost of caring for refugees and the internally displaced is being borne mostly by poor communities, those who are least able to afford it.”

Mr. Guterres explained that enhanced international solidarity is a must to avoid the risk of more and more vulnerable people being left without proper support.

Among the report’s main findings are that Syrians, for the first time, have become the largest refugee population under UNHCR’s mandate, overtaking Afghans, who had held that position for more than three decades.

As of June 2014, the three million Syrian refugees now account for 23 per cent of all refugees being helped by UNHCR worldwide.

Assad tortures his opponents, he has used chemical weapons, and drops barrel bombs which kill indiscriminately. Diseases which are easily curable or had largely disappeared (polio) claim lives on a daily basis. Compared to ISIL Assad may be the lesser of two evils, but both parties are evils that must be dealt with.

To this end, the U.S. and Turkey are finalizing plans to train moderate Syrian rebels, a condition of Turkey’s in exchange for using its bases to carry out airstrikes against ISIL:

Turkey and the United States aim to finalize an agreement on equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels this month, a senior foreign ministry official said on Monday, part of the U.S.-led campaign to battle Islamic State militants.

The training is expected to start in March, simultaneously with similar programs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Turkish official said. The aim is to train 15,000 Syrian rebels over three years.

Turkey has by no means been a perfect partner in the fights against Assad and ISIL. Turkey has dragged its feet in the battle against ISIL, fearful that it will empower rival Kurdish factions in the region. But in this case Turkey is right–the rise of ISIL must not detract from the goal of removing Assad from power.

As a regional power and member of NATO, I would like to see Turkey lend use of its air bases, help in training efforts, and contribute ground troops in the fights against Assad and ISIL–I will not hold my breath.

A recent United Nations report found that Syria has lost more than three decades in human development in just three-year old civil war:

The report released by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) shows that almost 45 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line, compared to 12 per cent prior to the war.

The unemployment rate has also drastically increased, from eight to almost 50 per cent.

Abdalla Dardari, a senior economist at ESCWA, says that before the war, Syria was one of the few Arab countries which had surpassed all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Today, he says Syria is only more advanced in reaching the goals than Somalia.

The report predicts that if the crisis continues until 2015, 90 per cent of Syrians will be considered as poor.

Unfortunately, the ravages of war will not end when the fighting eventually stops. Many Syrian children are dealing with psychological trauma and a lack of schooling which will greatly inhibit their future earning potential. Others are being indoctrinated by ISIL, learning to hate “the West” instead of learning the skills needed to compete in a modern, globalized world.

The road to rebuilding Syria into a modern society will be a long, expensive one. It requires an immediate influx of resources from the international community to support refugees and their host countries, deliver aid to internally displaced peoples (whenever possible), and build the capacity of the moderate Syrian opposition.

The groundwork for slipping back into conflict will exist as soon as the civil war ends. It will require unprecedented political will, a dedication to pluralism and accountable governance, and support from the international community to rebuild a modern, peaceful Syria.

But in order for a future Syrian government to even have a chance to attempt this difficult feat, both Assad and ISIL must be defeated.

 


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Conflict Watch: Bypassing Assad To Get Humanitarian Aid To All Syrians

Recent gains by the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) in Iraq have temporarily reduced international pressure against the Assad regime in Syria. There is no rebel party with the military capability to counter ISIS, and diplomatic attention in the region has shifted towards trying to keep Iraq together and the Israel-Gaza war.

However, the Islamic State also presents a new challenge to the Assad regime; an organized, battle ready opponent. 700 people died over a two day span last week in fighting between the IS and Assad regime, marking the two deadliest days of the 3+ year Syrian Civil War:

The two-day death toll occurred last Thursday and Friday, with brutal fighting between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the IS that centered around a gas field, according to reports released this week from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based anti-Syrian government group that keeps tabs on the war’s dead.

For several months, the Assad government has held the upper hand against Syrian rebels, which have become increasingly fractured. That reality was underscored Tuesday, when the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition said it had voted to force out its “interim government” and form a new one within a month.

Attempts to form a viable government-in-exile for Syria’s opposition have been hamstrung by internal rivalries and by its inability to establish itself inside Syria.

So long as the opposition remains divided, a number of analysts have suggested that besides benefiting the Assad government, it may also bode well for IS prospects in Syria.

“The potential for ISIS [another name for the Islamic State] to engineer a similar resurgence in Syria [as Iraq] is real,” wrote Noah Bonsey, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, in the Huffington Post.

“Should it succeed, ISIS would be well-positioned to present itself to Sunnis in the region at large as the only remaining force with the strength to oppose reviled regimes in Baghdad and Damascus.”

Western powers have stated they would help the Iraqi government counter the IS, on the condition that Iraq creates an inclusive government. It would be hard to imagine any situation in which the Assad regime would be extended a similar offer (unless of course he offered to step down, but if 3 years of war and 150,000+ deaths haven’t convinced him, the IS will not). This new enemy, alongside his recent victory in Presidential “elections”, has only further embolden Assad, even as the humanitarian situation continues to devolve.

While deadlocked on the idea of taking punitive military action against Assad, the UNSC finally took concrete steps to address the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis:

Despite objections by Syria’s government, the United Nations Security Council voted 15 to 0 on Monday to authorize cross-border convoys of emergency aid for millions of deprived Syrian civilians in rebel-held areas, without prior approval by the Syrian authorities.

Nearly half of Syria’s population — 10.8 million people — need assistance because of the war, and roughly half of them live in rebel-held areas.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad had insisted that all international aid be channeled through Damascus, the capital, and very little, if any, had been getting to civilians in areas not controlled by the government. Mr. Assad’s political opponents said the inequity of aid distribution was part of an effort by him to use the assistance, including medicine, as a weapon of war to sicken and starve rebel-held areas into submission.

Under the resolution, which is legally binding, United Nations convoys can enter Syria through two crossings in Turkey, one in Iraq and one in Jordan, all of which are beyond the Syrian government’s control. United Nations officials had previously identified these crossings as important routes for getting aid to isolated civilians.

Sylvie Lucas, the ambassador from Luxembourg, said the Syrian government’s denial of aid to rebel-held areas was the main reason for the resolution. In remarks to the Council after the vote, she said the resolution’s sponsors had been “forced to seek other means, other ways to ensure that humanitarian aid is provided to more Syrians, wherever they may live.”

Under the resolution, she said, “the consent of the Syrian government will no longer be necessary.”

A group of 34 nongovernmental organizations that have worked with the United Nations in trying to help Syrian civilians, including Oxfam and Save the Children, also welcomed the Security Council resolution. In a statement, the group called it “a diplomatic breakthrough that must translate into real change on the ground.”

The Assad regime has withheld aid as a military tactic, hoping to break the will of pro-rebel groups by depriving them of basic needs. This is a diabolic act, in blatant violation of international humanitarian law.

With recent gains by the IS, what was once a matter of “will” (the Assad regime not wanting to deliver aid to rebel areas) has also become an issue of “capacity” (the Assad regime is likely no longer able to reach certain areas with aid). This confluence of factors has forced the UNSC, including Russia, to allow aid to be delivered to the 10 million+ Syrians who need it without the Assad regime’s approval. After 3+ years of fighting and untold human suffering, human rights have finally triumphed over “national sovereignty” in Syria.

Assad may be more confident now, but this confidence is further evidence of his delusion. Syria is fragmenting around him, while he trumpets a victory in a sham of an election. 

 

 


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Conflict Watch: The Determinative Role of Armed Forces In Regime Change (A Comparative Analysis)

Police leave their position around the Ukrainian p[arliament in Kiev on Friday after the country’s deputy army chief resigned in protest over government attempts to involve the army to put down the unrest rocking Ukraine. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Disgraced ex-Ukranian President Yanukovych (is it too soon to call him ex-President?) signed an agreement with the opposition for early elections and a new government, pulling Ukraine back from the brink of catastrophe. Do not confuse Yanukovych’s decision for altruism; rather it was a last resort after it became clear the Ukrainian army would not intervene on his behalf.

Today, the Ukrainian Armed Forces reiterated its commitment to neutrality. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel commended the move, and his support is well founded. A comparative analysis of recent protest movements shows the determinative role Armed Forces play in domestic political conflicts:

Egypt: In modern Egyptian history, the Army has been the strongest and least unaccountable force in domestic politics. It is therefore unsurprising those in control of the Army are determined to ensure their spot at the top of the pyramid (no pun intended) is preserved. The Egyptian military has a vested interest in a protracted civil conflict; by creating an adversary in the Muslim Brotherhood, it has secured an important role in Egyptian life and public support. Indeed, military supremacy was enshrined in a recently passed constitutional referendum.

The Egyptian military determined the outcome of Egyptian politics by removing democratically elected President Morsi by a coup (as opposed to allowing a political process of impeachment and new elections to decide who leads). The army has restricted media independence and cracked-down on all dissenters (including many who were instrumental in removing previous dictator Hosni Mubarak and the ineffectual President Morsi). Now General Sisi–the very man who organized the coup–is poised to take over as Egypt’s next “democratically elected” president.

Syria: In Syria’s dynastic authoritarian regime, the armed forces are controlled exclusively by President Assad; the military cannot be expected to support the will of the people. Assad ordered a military response to peaceful protests, resulting in a protracted civil war with no end in sight.

Thailand:  The Thai army is committed to remaining neutral in anti-government protests (which was not a given; Thailand has a long history of military intervention in politics), allowing the political process to play itself out (the army has positioned itself near protest sight for security purposes, but hasn’t taken a side).

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has proposed early elections; her opposition wants an appointed caretaker government to implement reforms before elections are held. In a recent development, Yingluck has been called in to answer for corruption charges related to a rice subsidy (a policy symbolic of her Pheu Parties popularity with Thailand’s poor), which could result in her impeachment.

Venezuela: Paratroopers we’re called in to “maintain the peace”, which is allegedly a cover for a brutal crackdown of the anti-Maduro opposition. The future remains uncertain in Venezuela; if reports of a bloody crackdown are true, a protracted civil conflict is likely.

When it comes to regime change, the means are just as important as the endsThe extent to which Armed Forces remain neutral / indiscriminately uphold security (in order to give the political process time to run it’s course) is a good indication of both how “ugly” protests will become, and the direction a country will move ex post facto.

In Egypt the military could have remained neutral, allowing the Egyptian people to impeach Morsi and setup elections. Instead, the military decided to intervene, securing it’s own interests. Morsi had to go, but the way he was removed has set the country on a path divergent from pluralistic democracy. In a similar vein, Sisi may indeed be the President Egyptians want. If so, why the need to crackdown on dissenters?

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck may indeed be a corrupt ruler unworthy of her office. If this is the case, allow the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to conduct an impartial investigation. If she is found guilty, there may be grounds for impeachment. If not, the vocal minority opposition will have to rethink it’s position.

Notably, the Thai Military is allowing the political process to determine the countries political future (as in Ukraine), increasing the likelihood that a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Thailand can emerge from this current bout of unrest (Unlike Egypt, Syria, and likely Venezuela).

If a countries Armed Forces are committed to the goal of pluralistic democracy, the best thing they can do is remain neutral and allow domestic political conflicts to be resolved politically. Democratic governance is derived from “soft power“–inclusive politics, non-violent protest, self-determination. The need to resort to force against non-violent protests is proof in and of itself that human rights rhetoric is being used to human rights violations.

When the global champions of human rights (U.S., E.U., U.N. etc) urge deescalation and dialogue, these are not empty words (as Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay has urged in Venezuela). Over the past few decades, “soft power” has played an increasingly important role in both domestic and international affairs. Governments that embrace this shift will ultimately be the most successful.


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Conflict Watch: Geneva 2

After a brief snafu over Iran’s presence, the Geneva 2 peace talks are set to get underway tomorrow (1/22). While it is difficult to be excited about the possibility of meaningful change coming out of this conference, the fatalism surrounding the talks is downright counter-productive:

It has been 18 months since a previous international peace conference in Geneva ended in failure, and all other diplomatic initiatives have also proven fruitless.

“At best, Geneva 2 will reconfirm agreements made during the first Geneva conference, call for ceasefires, maybe prisoners swap and so on,” said one Western diplomat.

“At the same time, those taking part in the talks are de facto giving legitimization to Damascus. They are talking to Assad’s government on the other side of the table.

“And so the show would go on while Assad stays in power.”

But Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, sets a lower bar for success. “We should think of this as a kind of ‘getting to know you,’ as a kind of sounding out the parameters of the possible here,” Joshi says, “what can be accomplished in terms of limited humanitarian access, for example.”

Normative Narratives is a place to discuss what we think “should happen”–there is no room for cynicism or fatalism here. Having both sides at the table (the SNC and the Assad regime), Geneva 2 presents an opportunity to set the stage for meaningful change in Syria. Meaningful change, of course, requires concessions from both sides. In the context of a civil war, agreements needs to be externally verifiable and include repercussion for reneging on said agreements.  Here is how that change could play out:

1) Bashar Al-Assad commits to having open elections on schedule (May 2014, or if that date is not possible as soon as the U.N. deems such elections feasible), allowing for international peacekeepers and elections committees to oversee the vote. Any interested party could run in these elections; the precondition stated by S.o.S John Kerry, that only parties agreed upon by both the regime and the opposition may run, would restrict the field of candidates to non-existent. Let the Syrian people decide what they want, and ensure their voices are heard.

There are logistical and security problems with holding an election in a country mired in Civil War, in which a third of the population is either internally displaced or has fled the country. These are major issues to be worked out by the U.N. between now and when elections are to be held.

2) In return for a commitment to Presidential elections, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and Bashar Al-Assad agree to a nationwide cease-fire. There are potential problems with this solution; Will both sides honor the deal? Can the SNC retain any legitimacy with the opposition if it agrees to such a deal?

While these concerns are legitimate, they continue a fatal theme that has (in part) allowed the Syrian Civil War to persist. This theme is the marginalization of the vast majority of Syrians (who want a ceasefire and elections), while placing the greatest emphasis on the desires of the most violent parties of the war. By agreeing to a ceasefire, it will become clear which factions of the opposition are committed to a democratic Syrian state, and which factions only wish to seize power / setup an Islamic state.

Assad has reason to agree to a ceasefire as well, even if he is not at risk of losing the war. With a third of the population displaced, and an estimated loss of 35 years of development gains, Assad has a long way to go if he has any hope of becoming the legitimate democratically elected leader of Syria.

3) Assad has used the narrative of “fight terrorists” to justify his brutal crackdown on the opposition. A ceasefire would force Assad to put his money where his mouth is. It can be assumed that ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) would not honor the ceasefire. Let those factions continue to pose a security threat, and force Assad to fight them (instead of sitting back and laughing at rebel in-fighting). This would also put to rest the claim that Assad is actually backing ISIS to undermine his legitimate opposition:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Syrian president of trying to hijack the agenda. “Nobody is going to be fooled” by Assad’s attempts to portray himself as the protector of Syria against extremists, Kerry said, “when he, himself, has been funding those extremists.”

It is a charge that the rebels have been leveling for months, that the Assad regime covertly backs the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a tactic to undermine any legitimate opposition.

“All of us know that the regime does not attack places held by ISIS,” says a Western diplomat. “There is an alliance of convenience between the two. It makes clear to the world where the defense against extremists lies.”

ISIS would also have to be countered from the Iraqi side in order to push this group to the margins.

4) A cease-fire would compromise the SNCs ability to take up arms again, by alienating the group from many of the opposition fighters on the ground. If Assad reneged on either the cease-fire or holding transparent elections, the SNC would be stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is therefore imperative that this deal is backed up by a commitment by the UNSC (including Russia and China) and NATO forces to intervene in the instance of meaningful deviations from this road-map to democracy.

Without such a commitment, the cost of reneging for Assad would be non-existent, while (as mentioned above) it would be disastrous for the SNC. Furthermore, a U.N. peacekeeping mission would need to be setup immediately to ensure Assad does not punish those opposed to him once they lay down their arms, while also establishing an environment conducive to transparent elections.

Lots of commitments between parties who do not like or trust each are needed in order to make this plan a reality. However, in the context of a “hurting stalemate”, growing regional instability, and gross human rights violations, there is no stomachable alternative. The international community has put in a great effort to make Geneva 2 a reality. The SNC has continued to put its faith in the international system, despite years of empty promises and inaction. The Syrian people cannot afford a meaningless convention, with a best-case-scenario of increased humanitarian access.

The world owes it to Syria to aim big, and make a full-faith effort to establish a ceasefire, expand access to humanitarian aid, and create a road-map to transparent democratic elections. I believe I have mapped out a good starting point, one that requires concessions from both sides and is mutually beneficial. If I can think of these ideas, one can only hope that diplomatic officials could come up with a realistic / workable solution.


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Conflict Watch: In the Push for Liberal Democracy in the Middle East, Time May be the Greatest Enemy

Well that might be a bit of an overstatement, but the passage of time continues to undermine the goals of the “Arab Spring”. Protracted Social Conflict theory identifies “grievances” or human rights abuses, as the root cause of social conflicts. Paul Collier takes the theory one step further, arguing that over time legitimate grievances are hijacked by opportunistic forces seeking wealth and/or power.

These theories have almost perfectly explained what has transpired over the past 2+ years in both Syria and Egypt:

Syria:

In Syria, peaceful protests for basic freedoms and liberal democracy (starting in March 2011) were met with violence from the Assad regime, sparking a civil-war. Over time, legitimate grievances were hijacked by opportunistic Islamic extremists who wish to setup an Islamic Syrian state.

Even internationally recognized factions of the Syrian opposition have become fractured. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the political arm of the Syrian opposition, has agreed to attend the “Geneva 2” peace talks, while the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the military arm of the Syrian opposition has refused to attend.

All the while, the moderate opposition has become increasingly marginalized and disillusioned:

“The ones who fight now are from the side of the regime or the side of the thieves,” he said in a recent interview via Skype. “I was stupid and naïve,” he added. “We were all stupid.”

Even as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria racks up modest battlefield victories, this may well be his greatest success to date: wearing down the resolve of some who were committed to his downfall. People have turned their backs on the opposition for many different reasons after two and a half years of fighting, some disillusioned with the growing power of Islamists among rebels, some complaining of corruption, others just exhausted with a conflict that shows no signs of abating.

“It’s undeniable that a lot of your early activists are disillusioned,” said Emile Hokayem, a Syria analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, adding that in revolutions, it is often “your most constructive, positive people who are engaged early on who find themselves sidelined.” 

Disillusioned activists say that early on, euphoric at being able to protest at all, they neglected to build bridges to fence-sitters, or did not know how. Homegrown fighters desperate for help welcomed foreign jihadists, and many grew more religious or sectarian in tone, alarming Mr. Assad’s supporters, dividing his opponents and frightening the West out of substantially supporting them.

With a ruthless foresight, following the playbook of his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, Mr. Assad’s forces cracked down early and hard on the civilian, educated opposition, erasing the space where a middle ground could have emerged. They used heavy weaponry on rebel supporters to an extent that shocked even their foes, while pursuing a deliberate and increasingly successful strategy of persuading Syrians and the world that their opponents were a greater danger.

The fracturing of the opposition has played into Assad hands (the regime still enjoys political and military unity). Assad’s narrative of fighting “terrorism” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; as Western aid has lagged, the opposition has become increasingly unorganized and radicalized. Moderate Syrians who favor liberal democracy represent a decreasing proportion of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian humanitarian crisis has become an after-though of the violent civil war.

Egypt:

The Egyptian revolution began in January of 2011 with protests which toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak. Who you believe “hijacked” the Egyptian revolution depends on your take of what transpired this past July. Was the military takeover a coup or did it represent the will of the people? Are these two answers mutually exclusive, or is there some middle ground in which both arguments have merit? The world many never come to consensus answers to these loaded questions.

One thing, however, is certain; as in Syria, Egyptian moderates who revolted for liberal democracy have become increasingly marginalized. The power players in Egypt are Islamic extremists (who have become more violent since the ouster of Morsi) and Mubarak-era loyalists:

A leading Egyptian social democrat fears the elite that thrived under former President Hosni Mubarak will once again dominate politics in elections promised by the army after it overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.

The 2011 popular revolt against Mubarak raised hopes for an end to decades of corruption and nepotism, but political turmoil since then has dimmed aspirations for genuine democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which came out on top in every national vote in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, may yet be allowed to contest next year’s parliamentary election via its Freedom and Justice Party, or by running candidates as individuals.

But even if the Brotherhood chose to take part, its electoral dominance might be over in a reshaped political landscape, where both state and private media condemn it as a terrorist organization – and lionise the police and military.

Liberals have failed to build popular new parties and look ill-placed to exploit the Brotherhood’s plight. This could allow a comeback by the “felool”, or Mubarak-era remnants.

“The terrorist attacks going on make the situation more difficult,” Abul Ghar [Liberal Activist] said, adding that the violence made it easy for any government to take anti-democratic actions.

These anti-democratic actions include a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, restrictions on protests, as well as further entrenching the Egyptian army’s role in politics (which is enshrined in a draft of Egypt’s new constitution).

Both of these situations are eerily similar. In both cases, revolution started as a legitimate push for rights, freedoms, and liberal democracy. In both cases, the party in power (the Assad regime in Syria, the “deep state” in Egypt) have claimed the opposition are “terrorists” (and used this claim as a justification to strengthen their grip on power in the name of security). In both cases, these claims have become self-fulfilling; over time, those favoring liberal democracy have become marginalized as those who seek power dominate the fight over the future of their respective countries.

The implications for global governance are clear. In the future, we cannot afford to allow the combination of the passage of time and power-grabs to marginalize those who seek basic human rights and a dignified life. We must instead–as a global community–muster the political will and economic / military resources to support legitimate factions before it is too late.

Failure to do so entrenches the wrong ideas–that the international community cares more power-politics/national sovereignty than about people/human rights (concerns the R2P was supposed to address), and that democracy simply cannot work in certain regions of the world.    

Hopefully it is not to late to achieve the goals of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria, although admittedly I see no end in sight to these particular conflicts. Going forward, we must do all we can to prevent similar situations from arising in the first place.


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Transparency Report: In Response to the Vladimir Putin NYT Op-Ed, and the Future of the International Community

Welcome to Russia’s Syria doublespeak

A few of my responses / comments on Vladimir Putin’s NYT Op-Ed seemed to form a blog that I felt compelled to share (and expand upon without character limits) with the NN community:

The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.

The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.

I had this to say in response:

Mr. Putin is using the UNSC, like he has the concept of national sovereignty, as a shield for human rights violators, and evoking the specter of past wars to paralyze the international community into inaction. Don’t trust Vladamir Putin because he writes an op-ed in the NYT. Do not trust Assad; while no one’s hands are clean in the Syrian Civil War, Assad has committed human rights violations on a drastically larger scale than have extremist elements of the Syrian opposition (perhaps supporting the argument that a legitimate Syrian opposition is still in control on the ground despite reports of increased extremist influence).

Syria’s civil war is a fight for democracy; it started as peaceful protests for basic human rights and dignity. The longer the international community is paralyzed, the further legitimate grievances are highjacked by extremists in the Syrian opposition. If Syria and Russia can hold out for long enough, there will truly be no champions of democracy in Syria–as time goes on, Assad’s assertions become self-fulfilling, explaining this desperate attempt to buy time. Assad continues to receive help from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah; the opposition receives only broken promises from the West and support from extremists.

Political Islam and democracy are reconcilable, the wrong message is currently being sent in the ME (in both Egypt and now Syria). The “responsibility to protect” (R2P) is about holding governments accountable for human rights obligations, and intervening in the case the government is unable to stop human rights violations, or even worse is perpetuating those violations themselves (as is clearly the case in Syria, and has been since before chemical weapon usage). In this sense, R2P supersedes national sovereignty in certain instances The future of R2P and modernization in the Middle-East and Africa are closely tied.

This is not the end failed of the Arab spring–democratization and modernization are time consuming and non-linear processes–the freedoms, human dignity, economic empowerment and security it bestows are well worth it.The time has come when global powers must be willing to use more than words in support of their ideals. Vested interests play by their own rules in trying to secure their hold on power–this is no accountability. The forces of democratization and modernization should recognize this, and know when to work within international mechanisms (such as the UNSC) and know when such mechanisms are being used to shield for violators of the very international laws they are meant to uphold!

The international community can’t say we can’t afford to intervene due to fiscal constraints at home–FIND A WAY through joint action! Currently, autocratic regimes in the M-E are weakened and peoples’ latent desire for effective democratic governance is well cited through social media / ICT usage, and reinforced through the results of the UN “My World 2015 Survey” and the Post-2015 Global Consultation on Governance. If we do not seize this opportunity now autocracy will take deeper root, and advocates for democracy will face another era of historic precedent reinforcing the inevitability of autocratic rule / democratic failure in the Middle-East and Africa. Simply put, if the international community does not find a way to protect the interests of civil societies in the M-E and Africa now, it may not get the opportunity again for decades to come.

Ultimately, it comes down to ideological differences within the international community. The G20 leaders summit reinforced the idea that we can all agree on the need to cooperate to grow in a sustainable economic fashion–the ideological split is no longer capitalism vs. communism, but human rights v. national sovereignty. How to make capitalism work for sustainable development remains the point of contention. The growing body of both empirical and theoretical evidence pointing to the merits of a human rights based approach for sustainable human development. The UN, the foremost organization for international relations, has adopted a human-rights based approach to development. However, Russia clearly is not committed to human rights, and despite soft rhetoric and better relations between the US-China in recent months, it appears the Communist Party–like the Kremlin–is more concerned with its own survival than the sustainable human development / desires of its’ civil society.

It would appear that the ideologies of major global powers a diverging, not converging, even as advancements in the social and physical sciences point alarmingly to the need for concerted global efforts to embrace sustainable human development.

I must call into question the merits of the U.N.S.C. veto system, a system in which an individual country can hand-tie the whole international community into inaction. A resolution could be a 3/4 veto-overrule by the UN General Assembly–such a high veto threshold would ensure the U.N.S.C. is only overruled in times of strong international consensus. Permanent Security Council members, including the U.S., would likely oppose such an amendment to the UN Charter. However, if the ultimate result is a more democratic and effective UN System, this is a power the U.S. should willingly give up and a reform we should advocate for.

I also wanted to share a response to a well thought out comment in response to the Op-Ed jfx from Chicago writes: Well written. I appreciate hearing Putin’s thoughts directly, and hopefully his open letter to the US can be reciprocated, allowing Obama to directly address the Russian people on important topics.

I wanted to share my response because this seemed like a rational and logical response; the hope that Obama could prepare a similar address to the Russian people to enhance communications between the two countries and possible effect Russian national consensus. 441 people recommended the response, and the NYT shared it as a “top response”–so clearly many support this notion. Unfortunately, this is not a realistic possibility (my response):

Due to media restrictions, Obama couldn’t do it; whenever a U.S. official tries to address an issue in Russia they are accused of conspiracy. Even if he could, the Kremlin is insulated from such unimportant things (/sarcasm) as the “will of the people”.

This was a smart move by Putin, he is a very calculating man. He knows the value Americans place on the freedom of speech and press, and is playing on that knowledge. This is a move that cannot be reciprocated, and even in the special circumstances it was allowed to happen, it would not have nearly the same effect on policy.

The international community will explore a diplomatic chemical weapons deal because it is our collective duty to attempt to destroy these WMDs. However, we must continue to assert our willingness to strike militarily should Russia / Assad appear to be stalling for time and / or restricting access to potential storage sites. Furthermore, Assad must commit to isolated cease-fires within a reasonable time period in order for intentional inspectors and chemical weapons disarmament experts to do their work in relative safety (if we can keep non-extremists from the opposition out of these areas too, and provide security against extremists in the opposition, the Syrian government would be the only remaining party capability of shelling these areas). Russia must also commit to cancelling all military contracts with Assad.

Assad and Russia have a lot of social capital to make-up if they want to be able to negotiate in good faith with the international community / the Syrian opposition; agreeing to these terms are where they must start. These terms should not be preconditions for diplomatic talks, but failure to agree to any of them could be considered “red-lines” in negotiations (I know we are all sick of that saying but they are a necessary component of any negotiation) and trigger a house vote on military strikes and serve as a signal for the international community to sanction military intervention (if not through the paralyzed UNSC, then individually / through regional blocs). Failure to push for these concessions would represent a failure by the intentional community to properly leverage the likelihood of military strikes against Assad.