Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: The Political “Solution” in Syria, and the Syrian End-Game

A comment made practically in jest by Secretary of State John Kerry, has become the centerpiece of the international communities “solution” to holding Assad accountable for chemical weapons attacks:

“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done,” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. Kerry’s remarks, especially the reference to the short window of time, underscored the urgency of the administration’s preparations for a strike, and it did not appear to signal a shift in policy. The State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, later clarified in an e-mail to reporters that Mr. Kerry was simply “making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied using.”

“His (Kerry’s) point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago. That’s why the world faces this moment.”

Officials in Syria embraced the idea, as did Britain, France, the United Nations and even some Republican lawmakers in Washington.

President Obama called a proposal by Russia on Monday to avert a United States military strike on Syria over chemical weapons use “a potentially positive development” but said he would continue to press for military action to keep the pressure up. But he said that “if we don’t maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will actually get the kind of agreement I would like to see.”

In another interview with NBC News, Mr. Obama said he would take the Russian proposal “with a grain of salt initially.” But he told the network that if Syrian officials accept the Russian proposal, “then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough.”

Reacting to another comment by Mr. Kerry — that any attack on Syria would be “unbelievably small” — Mr. Obama said any attack would not be felt like a “pinprick” in Syria.

“The U.S. does not do pinpricks,” he said in the NBC interview. “Our military is the greatest the world has ever known. And when we take even limited strikes, it has an impact on a country like Syria.”

I do not think dismantling Assad’s chemical stockpile is a bad idea, this should certainly be part of any long-term geopolitical strategy for a post-Assad Syria. But the idea that Assad will grant the international community full and unfettered access anywhere in Syria, or that such a mission would even be reasonably safe during a civil war, is ludicrous.  John Kerry said Assad lied to his face about using scud missiles to his face and is “a man without credibility”. Assad is not a man we can trust; even if he was, he may not even have the ability to give full access and cooperation to the international community. This so called “solution” is a non-plan as it is not credible and does not address the root causes of the problem in Syria.

For all of the tough rhetoric from Assad, it is very clear that Syria’s ability to strike back at the U.S. is virtually non-existent. Assad’s forces themselves are rightfully scared of the prospect of American military intervention, and the opportunities it will open up for the Syrian rebels (last week I advocated pairing U.S. military strikes with a redoubled effort to consolidate opposition power / rooting out extremist factions by creating Syrian national rebel army. For the record, I still believe more intelligence must be made available to the public to prove Assad’s forces used the chemical weapons themselves). 

Although commanders spoke of unspecified plans to fight back against U.S. attacks, junior service members described the notion of actually taking on U.S. forces as absurd.

“Our small warships are spread around the coast on full alert, and why? To confront the U.S. destroyers? I feel like I’m living in a bad movie,” said a Syrian Navy sailor reached on a vessel in the Mediterranean.

“Of course I’m worried. I know we don’t really have anything to confront the Americans. All we have is God.”

Obama is correct to take the stance he is taking; if Assad wants to avoid military strikes he must commit to a political resolution in Syria. The U.S. is not intending a “pin-prick”, even limited strikes over the course of 60 (or 90 if he gets a congressional extension) combined with redoubled efforts by the Syrian opposition could help turn the tide of the war.

If the ultimate goal is a pluralistic and democratic Syria, it would be wrong at this point to back away from military intervention. Assad continues to receive support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The opposition has received empty promises from Western allies and fierce fighting from extremist-linked allies. If the U.S. has any hopes of separating out extremist and legitimate factions in the Syrian opposition and truly pressure Assad to come to the bargaining table, it must maintain a “political-transition-or-military-strike” approach to Syria, while continuing to enhance the capacity of a parallel Syrian military and government to assume the power void in post-Assad Syria. 

The Syrian opposition and the Gulf Arab States have already opposed the proposed Syrian chemical arms deal:

Gulf Arab states said on Tuesday a Russian proposal calling for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to win a reprieve from U.S. military strikes would not stop bloodshed in Syria.

“We’ve heard of the initiative … It’s all about chemical weapons but doesn’t stop the spilling of the blood of the Syrian people,” Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa told a news conference in Jeddah.

If the international community wants any chance of having political capital in a post-Assad Syria, it must not renege on it’s commitments to the Syrian opposition now, when after years of inaction meaningful assistance appeared to imminent. Doing so would further sour already strained Western-opposition relations, and bolster the power of extremist groups who have willingly participated in the civil war (not out of the kindness of their hearts mind you, they will try to seize power for their role in the civil war unless a more powerful Syrian national rebel army exists to oppose them).

The Syrian civil war is at a cross-roads, or more like a stalemate that fosters misery, chaos, death, human rights violations and economic decline. It is time for all sides to stop posing behind their positions and try to find mutual ground. Both the international community and Assad wish to avoid U.S.-backed military intervention. The international community and the Syrian opposition want Assad to step down. To reconcile these positions, Assad could agree to hand over his chemical weapons stockpile and move forward with a road-map to democracy in Syria. However, If Assad is interested only in retaining power–which all signs indicate he is–the U.S. and its allies must ultimately show their hand as well and fully commit to overthrowing Assad with force.

There is no long term solution for Syria which involves Assad staying in power–only more years of lost economic growth and death. If the international community is truly interested in a pluralistic and democratic Syria, it must lay the groundwork right now. Failure to do so will mean that either Assad remains in power, or extremist factions fill the power-void after Assad’s ouster. We cannot turn our backs on the legitimate Syrian opposition, who only want the ability to live meaningful lives with dignity and freedom–things generally taken for granted in modernized democratic society. We cannot send the message that political Islam and democracy are irreconcilable, and that jihad is the only path to empowerment for young Muslims. This precedent has already been set in Egypt, it cannot be allowed to be driven home in Syria.

Secretary Kerry said that the public is right to debate the costs and benefits of limited strikes in Syria. But we must remember that we are not talking about “boots on the ground” or any other prolonged effort. We are talking about upholding international law, not some “red-line” Obama made up. “You’ve got to draw lines and there are consequences for crossing those lines.” “You’d say, ‘don’t do anything’. We believe that’s dangerous, and we will face this down the road in some more significant way if we are not prepared to take some sort of stand now.” The Syrian civil war cannot be left to fester unattended–the consequences currently are catastrophic for Syria and its neighbors and in the future could be for the world.


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Conflict Watch: Edward Snowden Offered Asylum in Latin America, and “Legitimate” Democratic Leadership

Original Article:

“Bolivia offered asylum on Saturday to former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, joining leftist allies Venezuela and Nicaragua in defiance of Washington, which is demanding his arrest for divulging details of secret U.S. surveillance programs.

Snowden, 30, is believed to be holed up in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo international airport and has been trying to find a country that would take him since he landed from Hong Kong on June 23.

Bolivian President Evo Morales had said earlier this week that he would consider granting asylum to Snowden. But he took a harder line on Saturday, angered that some European countries banned his plane from their airspace this week on suspicion it carried Snowden.”

“”I want to tell … the Europeans and Americans that last night I was thinking that as a fair protest, I want to say that now in fact we are going to give asylum to that American who is being persecuted by his fellow Americans,” Morales said during a visit to the town of Chipaya.

“If we receive a legal request, we will grant asylum,” he said. Bolivia’s Foreign Ministry was not immediately available to comment on whether a formal asylum request had been received.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro also offered refuge to Snowden late Friday. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, speaking in Managua, said he would gladly give Snowden asylum in Nicaragua ‘if circumstances permit.’ He did not say what those circumstances might be.

Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the Americas, has benefited greatly from financial support from Venezuela, and Ortega was a staunch ally of Chavez.

“Russia has shown signs of growing impatience over Snowden’s stay in Moscow. Its deputy foreign minister said on Thursday that Snowden had not sought asylum in that country and needed to choose a place to go.

Moscow has made clear that the longer he stays, the greater the risk of the diplomatic standoff over his fate causing lasting damage to relations with Washington.

Both Russia’s Foreign Ministry and President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman declined to comment on Venezuela’s offer.

‘This is not our affair,’ spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters.”

“The White House declined to comment. But one U.S. official familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity, said: ‘It’s fair to say in general that U.S. officials have been pressuring governments where Snowden might try to go to do the right thing here.”

“Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader and a former union leader for the country’s coca leaf farmers, and Maduro both condemned the U.S. spy programs that Snowden revealed and said he deserved protection.

‘Who is the guilty one? A young man … who denounces war plans, or the U.S. government which launches bombs and arms the terrorist Syrian opposition against the people and legitimate President Bashar al-Assad?’ Maduro asked, to applause and cheers from ranks of military officers at a parade.

‘Who is the terrorist? Who is the global delinquent?’

A bid by Snowden for Icelandic citizenship hit an impasse on Friday when the country’s parliament voted not to debate the issue before its summer recess.”

“Ex-intelligence contractor Edward Snowden has been charged with espionage and theft of government records after exposing a massive National Security Agency surveillance program known as PRISM.”

The Snowden issue is a loaded one, with national security and civil liberties implications. The U.S. government has had its hands full trying to balance the democratic principles of transparency and freedom of information with the national security responsibilities that modern warfare imposes on governments.

While PRISM was the first such program revealed, I think many people probably assumed that certain steps had been taken since 9/11 to ramp up intelligence gathering as part of a broader anti-terrorism mandate. In addition, intelligence gathering programs such as PRISM do not appear to be uniquely American.

“U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, on July 1 in Brunei series of meetings held during the East Asian correspondent conference. Asked about the recent burst of the U.S. National Security Agency of the EU institutions as well as some of the leaders of allies wiretapping issue, Kerry said that such behavior for most countries and there is nothing ‘unusual.'”

“But Kerry also said that such behavior for most countries, and there is nothing ‘unusual.’ He said: ‘I would say there is international relations of any one country, when it comes to national security, will take a variety of actions and collect all kinds of information to safeguard national security, which for most countries, and there is nothing unusual.'”

Recent reports suggest that France has a similar program, as more likely than not does any government with adequate information and communication technology (ICT) and manpower / resources. So long as this information is used for legitimate purposes and not as a tool for invading privacy, I support intelligence gathering programs.

I am of the mind that if you live transparently/legitimately, and have nothing to hide, then there is no reason to be afraid of government intelligence gathering. There is certainly lots of information on me out there on the internet, none of which I am concerned about. While some of it could be potentially embarrassing, none of it is illegal, and I do not believe the U.S. governments intelligence gathering has an “embarrassment mandate”. When the U.S. government starts selling personal information to US Weekly, then I will be concerned with PRISM.

I am getting off track, as the Snowden case could certainly be explored over the course of many blogs. I would like to turn focus to the inexplicable statements by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. It is not surprising to see a Venezuelan leader railing against the U.S. government. His predecessor Hugo Chavez was an adamant anti-American figure, and remains one of the most popular figures in the country despite the impediment of not being alive. Maduro has often made baseless claims of American-backed plots to undermine his Presidency in his short time as Venezuelan President. But this latest statement truly has me shaking my head:

‘Who is the guilty one? A young man … who denounces war plans, or the U.S. government which launches bombs and arms the terrorist Syrian opposition against the people and legitimate President Bashar al-Assad?’ Maduro asked, to applause and cheers from ranks of military officers at a parade.

‘Who is the terrorist? Who is the global delinquent?'”

The term “legitimate President”  has been tossed around a lot lately, mostly surrounding the military coup and ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.The term has been tossed around so much that I believe it has begun to lose its meaning, as highlighted by President Maduro’s anti-American rhetoric. This is unacceptable to us (me and my readers) here at NN, so I would like to set the record straight on what exactly constitutes a “legitimate presidency”

Where does legitimacy come from? In a democracy, a regimes legitimate claim to govern comes predominantly from the execution of free and fair elections. While this is obviously only the starting point of effective democracy, it is –as far as I can tell–an indispensable part of the democratic process.

Morsi was Egypt’s legitimate President not because he was a good leader or even particularly effective (it would appear he was not as calculating a politician as he or his supporters liked to imagine, unless his ultimate goal was martyrdom). Morsi was the legitimate leader because he and his constitution passed open and fair elections in Egypt.

The message being sent to Muslims everywhere by the coup in Egypt is simple–that democracy has no place for them. I cannot help but feel that the normative vision of a democratic and modernized Middle-East took a step backwards this past week. I can only hope that I am wrong, and the The Muslim Brotherhood is embraced as part of a pluralistic and democratic Egyptian government. While talks of a “road-map” to an inclusive democratic government are promising, actions speak louder than words. One has to question the Egyptian military’s commitment to a truly effective democracy, as it represents the strongest vested interest in Egypt that would ultimately lose power if effective democracy took hold.

Bashar-al Assad of Syria IS NOT a legitimate OR effective leader. He is illegitimate because he was never elected in a fair or free election (or any election at all for that matter), but instead succeeded his father in a hereditary autocracy that has lasted 40+ years. He is not effective for a number of reasons, chiefly because he managed to turn peaceful protests into a civil war and regional refugee crisis that has threatened regional stability in the Middle-East. While human rights violations have occurred on both sides of the Syrian Civil War, the majority of these violations have been perpetuated by Assad’s forces.

Regardless of how ineffectual Morsi’s rule was, he was more of a legitimate leader than Assad can ever hope to be at this point.

While it is true there are extremist factions amongst the Syrian opposition, the U.S and allies are taking all steps possible to ensure that military aid is channeled through the proper avenues. To claim that Assad is a “legitimate President” shows an alarming irrationality and hatred of America emanating from the Venezuelan government.

 

 

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Conflict Watch: The Deteriorating Syrian Civil War and Humanitarian Crisis

The Syria sinkhole

The Syrian opposition recently offered a dangerous ultimatum, which is symbolic of the overall deterioration for the prospect of a political transition in Syria:

“The Syrian opposition will not attend the proposed Geneva conference on the crisis in Syria unless rebel fighters receive new supplies of arms and ammunition, the top rebel military commander said Friday.

‘If we don’t receive ammunition and weapons to change the position on the ground, to change the balance on the ground, very frankly I can say we will not go to Geneva,’ Gen. Salim Idris said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in northern Syria. ‘There will be no Geneva.’”

“Mr. Assad’s military position has been strengthened by flights of arms from Iran and the involvement of thousands of fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group. The change of fortunes on the battlefield was illustrated last week when the Syrian military and Hezbollah fighters captured the town of Qusayr.”

“The proposal to hold talks in Geneva at a point when the Syrian opposition has suffered a bitter reversal has led many in the opposition to question the West’s strategy. In effect, they say, Mr. Kerry is insisting that the Syrian opposition sit down with representatives of a Syrian president who appears as determined as ever to hang on to power and at a time when the opposition’s leverage has been diminished.”

“‘There is agreement on one point within opposition circles: the regime, Iran and Hezbollah, supported by Russia, aim to win; the U.S. aims for talks,’ said Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former senior State Department official who worked on Syria transition issues. ‘This helps to explain the opposition’s reluctance to attend a Geneva conference and the difficulties it’s having organizing itself around a coherent goal.’”

“At the State Department, Mr. Kerry and his aides have long said that it is vital to change Mr. Assad’s “calculation” about his ability to maintain his grip on power in order to facilitate a political transition.”

“At a meeting in Istanbul in late April, Mr. Kerry announced that the Supreme Military Council should be the only funnel for providing Western and Arab military support to the opposition.”

“General Idris said that while the West has been debating how much military assistance to provide to the moderate opposition, extremist groups like the Nusra Front have begun to play a more prominent role in the struggle against the Assad government.

‘They are now winning sympathy from the people,’ he said. ‘They are very well financed.'”

This is essentially textbook protracted social conflict (PSC). The Syrian government denied the majority of Syrians the human rights they believed they deserved. Peaceful protests were met with violence, turning the ideological divide into a civil war. As the war has progressed, opportunistic extremist groups (Al Nursa for example), seeing a void in Western support for the rebels, have filled that void.

This further complicates American intervention, as arming the rebels could eventually lead to greater military capabilities for anti-American Jihadist organizations.

The call for greater European intervention is well heard, and steps have been made in order for Europe to put itself in position to provide weapons to the opposition should peace-talks not bear fruit (which is not unlikely, but they must at least be attempted). But the Syrian opposition has to realize it cannot try to force military aid, that it must play ball and prove in open forum that Mr. Assad’s “calculations” will not be changed (except to be further emboldened by bolstered support while the opposition loses momentum).

It is an order of operations thing; I truly believe that if the opposition comes to Geneva and makes a real attempt to negotiate a political transition, that if that attempt failed, European powers would provide more military support to the Syrian Supreme Military Council.

Another Western ally that is being dragged into the Syrian sinkhole is Israel. This past week, fighting broke out along the Golan Heights.

“The United Nations Disengagement Force (UNDOF) monitors the buffer zone between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.”

“Austria – which contributes about one-third of UNDOF’s troops – has announced its decision to withdraw its soldiers, reportedly citing a lack of freedom of movement and an unacceptable level of danger to its personnel.”

“‘Everyone agreed that UNDOF should continue in its mission, even if it is temporarily reduced in its ability to fulfill the current mandate,’ Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant of the United Kingdom, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council for June, told reporters after closed-door talks on the latest developments.

“‘Everyone felt that UNDOF played a key role in guaranteeing the 1974 ceasefire disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria and also acting as a conduit of communications, including in the last few days between Israel and Syria,’ he added. ‘It was therefore an important symbol of the stability across the Israel-Syrian border.'”

Russia has offered to replace the Austrian troops. Aside from the obvious conflict of interest Russian troops would represent in Syria, the offer was rejected on legal grounds:

The UN has declined a Russian offer to bolster the understaffed peacekeeping force in the cease-fire zone between Israel and Syria. Austria has said it would be withdrawing its troops from the Golan Heights.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said on Friday that permanent Security Council members were barred from deploying peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, under the terms of the 1974 cease-fire agreement between Israel and Syria.”

Israel would like to remain out of the Syrian Civil War, but the small military power continues to collect intelligence on the Syrian military and strongly reaffirms it’s right to protect itself:

“The confluence of events confronted Israel with the complex reality of a civil war just across the border in which both sides are hostile to the Jewish state. Hezbollah has vowed in recent weeks that it would facilitate attacks on Israel through the heights. And the most effective rebel force is made up of radical Sunnis aligned with Al Qaeda, while many of the other militias are led by self-identified Islamists.

The result has been a kind of paralysis in Israeli society, where options are debated but no clear consensus has emerged about which outcome of the Syrian crisis is preferable or how to prepare for it.”

If Western powers decided to intervene militarily, they would have to rely on Israeli military supremacy and geographic position to support the operation (Turkey is another important geopolitical ally, while Egypt remains a bit of a wild card). The Syrian opposition and Israeli leaders should be in communication with each other (if they are not already) as they are likely to need to have a working rapport in the foreseeable future.

All the while, the silent majority of Syrian refugees and internally displaced peoples continue to bear the brunt of the suffering and human rights violations, threatening regional stability in the Middle-East:

“The United Nations launched a $5 billion aid effort on Friday, its biggest ever, to help up to 10.25 million Syrians, half the population, who it expects will need help by the end of 2013.”

“The appeal comprises $2.9 billion for refugees, $1.4 billion for humanitarian aid and $830 million for Lebanon and Jordan, the biggest recipients of Syrian refugees.”

“The appeal updates and multiplies the existing aid plan for Syria, which sought $1.5 billion to help 4 million people within Syria and up to 1.1 million refugees by June. The worsening conflict soon overtook those projections.

The new forecasts expect the refugee population to more than double to 3.45 million from 1.6 million now, based on current numbers arriving in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

But it assumes the number of needy Syrians inside the country will remain static until the end of the year at 6.8 million. The number of internally displaced Syrians is also assumed to stay where it is now, at about 4.25 million.

That means the current plan could again turn out to be an underestimate if the fighting goes on.”

“‘We have reached a stage in Syria where some of the people, if they don’t get food from the World Food Programme, they simply do not eat,’ the WFP’s Syria Regional Emergency Coordinator Muhannad Hadi said.”

“A few months ago I would like to recall that there was a donors’ conference in Kuwait, and Persian Gulf monarchies promised to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to the U.N. agencies in order to help Syria,” Russian ambassador in Geneva Alexey Borodavkin added.

“I don’t think that the amounts mentioned in Kuwait ever reached these agencies and were ever used to help the Syrian people.”

World powers are famous for committing money for development / humanitarian purposes and falling short on those commitments. And often it is for understandable reasons, as it is difficult to be sure the money is going where it is supposed to go. But given the global attention and direct UN involvement in the Syrian humanitarian crisis, these fears need not prevent commitments from being fulfilled.

It is difficult to be optimistic about a political end to the Syrian Civil War. Mr. Assad seems recently emboldened, while the opposition continues to shoot itself in the foot. Hopefully the opposition rethinks its position; only with Western support can they hope to remove Assad from power, be it politically or militarily.  All Syria’s most vulnerable can do is sit back and watch, and hope the the UN can raise the aid needed to keep them alive as the conflict grinds towards its eventual conclusion.


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Conflict Watch: U.S. and its Allies Believe Assad Used Chemical Weapons (But What Does it Mean?)

A little mix-up from our normal schedule. When I saw this article in the NYT this morning I could not concentrate on any economics related news, I will put something out on that front tomorrow.

“The White House, in a letter to Congressional leaders, said the nation’s intelligence agencies assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the government of President Bashar al-Assad had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale.

But it said more conclusive evidence was needed before Mr. Obama would take action, referring obliquely to both the Bush administration’s use of faulty intelligence in the march to war in Iraq and the ramifications of any decision to enter another conflict in the Middle East.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the agencies actually expressed more certainty about the use of these weapons than the White House indicated in its letter. She said Thursday that they voiced medium to high confidence in their assessment, which officials said was based on the testing of soil samples and blood drawn from people who had been wounded.”

“In a statement last summer, Mr. Obama did not offer a technical definition of his “red line” for taking action, but said it was when “we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized.” In Jerusalem last month, he said proof that Syria had used such [chemical] weapons would be a “game changer” for American involvement.”

“The timing of the White House disclosure also suggested the pressures it is facing. It came the same day that the British government said that it had “limited but persuasive” evidence of the use of chemical weapons, and two days after an Israeli military intelligence official asserted that Syria had repeatedly used chemical weapons.

In a letter to the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, several weeks ago calling for a United Nations investigation, Britain laid out evidence of the attacks in Aleppo and near Damascus as well as an earlier one in Homs.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, reported that dozens of victims were treated at hospitals for shortness of breath, convulsions and dilation of the pupils, common symptoms of exposure to chemical warfare agents. Doctors reported eye irritation and fatigue after close exposure to the patients.

Citing its links to contacts in the Syrian opposition, Britain said there were reports of 15 deaths in the suburban Damascus attack and up to 10 in Aleppo, where the government and rebels have each accused the other of using chemical weapons.”

“White House officials gave no indication of what Mr. Obama might do, except to say that any American action would be taken in concert with its allies.

While lawmakers from both parties swiftly declared that the president’s red line had been breached, they differed on what he should do about it.”

And I honestly could have quoted the whole article; I highly suggest you read it if you are interested in this matter (and if you made it this far you are, so go read it).

Before I dive into the article, a little background on why chemical warfare is different from conventional warfare. “Chemical warfare is different from the use of conventional weapons or nuclear weapons because the destructive effects of chemical weapons are not primarily due to any explosive force.”

This means that chemical weapons can be detonated without the natural warning that conventional and nuclear weapons carry (the explosion). Chemical weapons can be silent, indiscriminate killers, and have the potential to cause mass destruction (yes chemical weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction).

The U.S. unilaterally denounced the use of chemical weapons in 1969, ratified the Geneva Convention in 1975, and ratified the Chemical Weapons convention in 1997. The U.S. has put a lot of effort into winding down chemical weapon stockpiles both at home and abroad. These are just some of the reasons why a small number of deaths (around 25), in a civil war that has claimed over 70,000 lives, is a “red line” issue.

Why, after appearing to have his “red line” crossed, is the Obama administration’s response unclear?

Most immediately, I would think of the shortcomings of conventional warfare. The Iraq war was costly, and recent sectarian violence in Iraq shows how unsustainable “nation building” can be (if it is imposed from the outside, accompanied by war, or generally pushed in an unrealistically small time-frame; the process of democratization and modernization is gradual and must come from a countries own citizenry).

There also needs to be concrete proof that Assad used these weapons. There are some who would argue that the opposition has reason to use chemical weapons. If the opposition made it appear that Assad used the weapons, it could tip the fight in its favor. While this is a morally reprehensible thought, “all is fair in love and war”. Realistically it is unlikely that the Syrian opposition, which has been hampered by an arms disadvantage throughout the 2 year civil war, has access to such weapons, even if it wanted to use them to draw outside support. Still, this unlikely scenario must be ruled out before the U.S. gets further involved in the war.    

The Obama administration has said any response would be carried out in coordination with our allies—good! But how much of the response is going to fall on the U.S? France and Britain have been particularly outspoken about EU intervention in Syria. However, a recent article highlights that U.S. military expenditure accounts for about 75% of the NATO budget. The U.S. may want its allies to take a larger role, and our allies may want to take a larger role, but unless leaders can push military expansion in a time when austerity has constrained spending even on important social programs (which I am not certain is the right thing to do or should be these countries top priority given constrained resources), it looks like America will likely be footing most of the cost of any coordinated effort.

But let us not forget our recent $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The stated purpose of such a deal was to deter a nuclear Iran, but such geopolitical allies would almost certainly have to play a significant role in any coordinated effort to support the Syrian opposition militarily.

Also, Russia and China, Syria’s two largest allies who have continually blocked UNSC intervention, have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention banning the use of chemical weapons. If there is evidence Assad used these weapons, China and Russia may allow a UN military intervention, ending an international stalemate almost as old as the war itself.

If allies in NATO, the Middle-East, and around the world (UN intervention) pitch in, the situation in Syria could change swiftly and drastically.

There are no easy answers. I would be shocked if the U.S. attempted unilateral and conventional warfare in response to this news (they have explicitly stated they won’t so I’m not exactly going out on a limb with that prediction). Likely, if it is confirmed that Assad indeed used chemical weapons, the U.S. and its allies would for the first time supply military aid to the opposition. NATO and strategic allies in the Middle-East would likely take up the majority of any ground forces deployed.

It will be interesting to see how this recent news plays out. The Syrian civil war has been stuck in a “hurting stalemate”, perpetuating a humanitarian crisis and causing regional instability. It appears that there may finally be evidence that demands multilateral international intervention that ultimately ends the war.

And when the war does end, a whole new host of issues will emerge…

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Conflict Watch: Two Very Different Approaches to Global Security

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President Obama had a very productive trip to the Middle-East this week. Say what you will about Obama’s domestic policy (I for one like his ideas, and believe he inherited a terrible situation and has been handicapped by the ineptitude of the U.S. Congress, but that’s another matter entirely and not the topic of this blog), but Obama has certainly been a very effective President in terms of diplomatic relations.

One area of diplomacy that the Obama administration has not historically been very effective is the Middle-East. Obama muddle relations with Israel early in his presidency when he condemned Israeli housing development in dispute lands in the West Bank. The territory in question has been seen as vital to a potential two-state solution between Israel and Palestine—Israeli development undermines the ability to potentially return the land to Palestinians as part of a negotiated settlement.

But in his most recent trip, Obama made headway in the contentious geopolitical arena that is the Middle-East. He renewed calls for a two-state solution, calling on the younger generation of Israelis and Palestinians to pressure their governments for a peaceful resolution. It may be cliché to say “the youth is the future”, but it is also accurate, and seeing as any durable two-state solution is at least years (if not decades) away, calling on the youth is an appropriate measure.

Obama fell short of calling for Israel to halt construction in the disputed land. He did call the construction “inappropriate”, but stated that halting construction should not be a precondition for negotiations.

Obama also visited Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, as a two-state solution requires two willing negotiation partners. Obama’s visit with Abbas was mainly symbolic—showing the U.S. stands with the Palestinian Authority, and that the government has an alternative other than aligning itself with extremists groups. The closer ties the Palestinian Authority has with the U.S., the better the chances of a two-state solution. The closer the ties with extremist factions within Hamas, the less likely such a solution will occur.

Perhaps most notably was the restoration of full diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey. Turkey and Israel had a history of close relations which stopped in 2010 after Israel boarded a Turkish ship attempting to bring supplies into disputed lands. The stand-off resulted in the deaths of 9 Turkish citizens and a suspension of diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey.

Obama was able to convince Prime Minister Netanyahu to apologize and offer compensation to the families who lost loved ones in the dispute. The apology was accepted, and full diplomatic ties were restored.

Turkey is an important geopolitical ally of the U.S., as is Israel. It can only be beneficial for regional and global security to have these two important partners on the same page.

President Obama also visited Jordan, another regional ally. During this visit, he pledged further financial support to Jordan, who receives thousands of Syrian refugees a day as civil war continues to envelop the country. This is the latest measure by the Obama administration to diminish Assad’s prospects by strengthening regional opposition, while still officially keeping the U.S. out of armed conflict.

Contrasting Obama’s proactive foreign policy agenda was Xi Jinping’s (the new Chinese President) speech in Moscow. Xi stated:

“We must respect the right of each country in the world to independently choose its path of development and oppose interference in the internal affairs of other countries,”          

These words mirrored a similar ideology of Vladimir Putin, Russia longtime President:

“Putin, who began a six-year term last May, has often criticized foreign interference in sovereign states.

Russia and China have resisted Western calls to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the two-year-old civil conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people.

They both criticized the NATO bombing that helped rebels overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and stood together in the Security Council in votes on the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.

Both China and Russia have bristled at U.S. and European criticism of their human rights records.

Putin said in a foreign policy decree issued at the start of his new term that Russia would counter attempts to use human rights as a pretext for interference, and his government has cracked down on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations.”

I have often condemned Chinese and Russian position of national sovereignty above all else. Surely national sovereignty is an important safeguard for good governments against malicious foreign intervention, but it should not be a tool for corrupt and disingenuous leaders to stay in power.

This is an unfortunate if not unexpected position for the Chinese President to take. Recent actions implied that Xi may be more open to protection of human rights, as evidenced by his call to support a higher standard of living for Chinese citizens over economic growth. After this most recent trip to Moscow, it appears Xi is taking 2 steps forward and 1 step back on human rights.

This position held by Russia and China also directly undermines the Responsibility To Protect initiative of the United Nations:

“The Responsibility to Protect has three “pillars”.

  1. A state has a responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocities;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to assist the state to fulfill its primary responsibility;
  3. If the state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions. Military intervention is considered the last resort.[3][4]

R2P safeguards national sovereignty without compromising individual human rights. It states that it is the responsibility of a state to protect its citizen’s rights and in a case where a state cannot protect these rights, the international community will lend assistance.

In a case where the state refuses help or itself perpetuates human rights violations, the international community can impose sanctions and other means to deter such actions. As a last resort, the international community can use military intervention to stop “mass atrocities”.

It is not surprising that China and Russia fear an undermining of national sovereignty, as both nations have strong autocratic regimes (in practice, despite what formal democratic structures they may have).

However, China and Russia must abandon this slippery slope argument and realize there are different degrees of national sovereignty. The international community has no interest in interfering in Chinese and Russian affairs, but it does have an interest in intervening in state perpetuated human rights violations.

Not only are human rights violations deplorable on moral and ethical grounds, they also compromise regional and global security. Protracted Social Conflict theory places humanitarian grievances at the root of most of today’s armed conflicts—and this theory is overwhelmingly supported by both qualitative and quantitative analysis.

Human rights violations lead to instability, which can  create a breeding ground for terrorism. The inability to evoke R2P in Syria has led the opposition to be hijacked by extremist groups, confusing the legitimate humanitarian roots of the conflict with an opportunistic power grab. This has made assisting the Syrian opposition much more difficult than it otherwise could have been.

Ultimately, China and Russia have the same goals as the U.S. and Europe—prosperity and peace through an open international system. This is not the Cold War, where the two sides were so ideologically opposed that only one could survive (capitalism v. communism). Eventually, China and Russia will have to learn that in order to protect their interests, limits must be placed on national sovereignty.

A useful mechanism for checking national sovereignty already exists in R2P; the next great challenge will be getting China and Russia on board with this initiative.

Hopefully it does not take a large terrorist attack in Russia or China to open these countries eyes to the interrelation of human rights violations and global insecurity, but for the time being it seems that these two countries have (unsurprisingly) not changed their positions on national sovereignty and R2P.

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Transparency Thursday: The Syrian Humanitarian Crisis

A lot has been written on the Syrian Civil War, and rightfully so. Over the last 23 months, the Syrian Civil War has claimed the lives of an estimated 70,000+ people. The Assad government remains in control mainly due to UNSC vetoes by Russia and China. These two countries, natural champions of “national sovereignty”, have tied the international community’s collective hands in the matter with no ideological shift in sight. Multi-lateral intervention has failed the Syrian people.

Therefore, it falls on individual nations to act either unilaterally, or more likely bi-laterally, to expedite the process of removing Bashar Al-Assad from power. It has become public knowledge that late last year President Obama rejected a plan from high ranking administration officials to arm the Syrian rebels.

It is not surprising that Obama has been very meticulous with regards to the Syria conflict. America is currently in the process of winding down its expensive “war on terror” in Afghanistan; no one has any interest in getting involved in another “conventional war” in the Middle-East.

There is also the fact that arming rebels can backfire. America has a history of backing a rebel group to topple an autocratic dictator who was seen as a threat to U.S. national security interests, only to bring to power another faction that also did not support “Western values”. For example, America armed a group led by Osama Bin-Laden to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s, that did not end up so well.

There is an element of worry regarding arming Syrian rebels as well. Certain factions fighting Assad, notably the Al Nusra Front, are believed to have ties to Al-Qaeda. It is important we do not empower a future enemy with advanced military technology and governmental authority.

This time, however, is different. The U.S. and its allies have been central in planning an alternative government in Syria–The Syrian National Coalition. This parallel government was designed to be an inclusive organization that will protect religious pluralism and democratic rights. The fact that such a parallel system exists should help put to rest fears of backing a potential future enemy.

Lost in this Civil War and subsequent power grab is the humanitarian crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). These are the people whom the Western world should be most concerned with supporting; those who have no aspirations of political power but merely want a chance to live a meaningful life. But in the midst of all the bloodshed and political jockeying, these people have generally been forgotten.

Oxfam recently put out a report that “…the United Nations’ “worst-case scenario” of more than a million refugees fleeing the country by June could be realized within weeks.”

“The surge was placing a “massive burden” on these countries, with the potential to “undermine stability in the region,” he warned.

‘The humanitarian crisis is worsening day by day, leaving agencies struggling to provide help that’s desperately needed,’ Lacasse said.

He also said that only 20 percent of the $1.5 million pledged by the U.S., other Western nations and Gulf Arab countries at a donor conference last month in Kuwait has been received.”

There is absolutely no excuse for Western nations to have not donated the $1.5 million necessary to support those most affected by the Syrian Civil War. While providing arms is riddled with political and military implications, providing humanitarian aid is a no-brainier. $1.5 million is nothing for the developed world, compared to the potential cost of regional instability associated with massive inflows of refugees into neighboring countries. One could argue that it has only been a month, but this financial aid has to be made available immediately—those on the ground who need the aid cannot wait while the Western world moves slowly to transfer the aid it has agreed to provide.

Yesterday, the White House agreed for the first time to directly assist the rebel forces opposing Assad with “non-lethal” support. While this is a good start to help bring an end to the Civil War, this support must occur in addition to, not instead of, humanitarian aid.

Update: U.S. non-lethal assistance will include $60 million in both non-lethal military aid AND humanitarian aid such as food rations and medical supplies. Good job John Kerry and the rest of the Obama administration! “The United States has also provided $385 million in humanitarian aid to the burgeoning flood of refugees outside Syria and displaced people inside the country.” Seems like I did not give the U.S. enough credit in it’s efforts to combat the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the surrounding region.

Humanitarian aid is a small sliver of the assistance the Western world will ultimately give in ending the violence in Syria. It is however the most beneficial in the short-run to those most affected by the civil war—Syrian refugees and IDPs. Guns and artillery have to be disseminated with great care to ensure the right people receive them. Humanitarian aid is not as sensitive a matter; credible NGOs such as Oxfam already exist to help the Syrian people, the only thing holding them back is a lack of funding.

There is no immediate end of the Syrian Civil War in sight; even Western artillery will only help topple Assad over a significant period of time. But providing aid to stop the humanitarian crisis is a much more immediate fix; once funding is available these people can receive whatever food, fuel, vaccinations and clean water they need to survive.

 Those who have died fighting for freedom can never be brought back. The years of lost economic and human development cannot be returned. All that can be done in the short term is to put an end to the humanitarian crisis affecting almost 1,000,000 Syrian refugees and IDPs. If the Western world wants to have a true Ally in a future democratic Syria, it must provide aid to those who will ultimately hold power in a democratic Syria—the Syrian people themselves.

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Conflict Watch: Syrian Rebels Advance, Assad’s Prospects Dim


(A video of Syrian’s burning a statue of Hazef-Al Assad, a symbol of the Assad families 40+ year rule in Syria)

 

Syrian rebels have made significant gains over the last few days, capturing strategic locations in their attempt to topple President Bashar-Al Assad. The Rebels seized the country’s largest hydro-electric dam, as well as military airports. Additionally, rebel troops have closed in on the capital city of Damascus, cutting off supply lines and highways on the way. While historically gains by the rebels have been short lived, as Assad has used aerial power to “shell” any areas the rebels captured, it seems that recent gains may be more sustainable. As Assad turns his focus towards fighting in Damascus, and his aerial supremacy is reduced, rebel gains in the periphery of the country (really anywhere not in firing range of Damascus) will become more permanent in general.

Cutting off the dam will compromise the ability of the Assad regime to provide water and energy to its loyal Alawite sect. If the advances at military airports are as significant as initial reports indicate, this could go a long way in forcing President Assad’s hand in negotiating a transfer of power in Syria. Aerial warfare has been the Assad regimes primary advantage in the 23 month Syrian civil war, without this advantage Assad prospects for military victory are virtually non-existent.

Without the ability to provide water, energy, food or security to Alawites, the regime may find its loyal supporters in a humanitarian crisis similar to the one currently affecting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons. Perhaps Alawite suffering will help convince Assad to negotiate in a way that suffering by the rest of Syrians has not.

Iran and Russia, Syria’s two strongest allies, have stated they will not send military help to the Assad regime. While one could question the legitimacy of these claims, it seems that without international help and in light of a diminishing aerial advantage, Assad will sooner rather than later realize he must negotiate with his opposition if he has any hopes of leaving the country alive (and if he hopes to secure the well-being of the Alawite minority he will leave behind).

The Syrian opposition has officially changed its message that Assad must step down in order for negotiations to begin. While it still remains firm that Assad must ultimately step down, it is willing to work with the President if it will help end the bloodshed in Syria. The opposition has offered to speak with Assad in a neutral country or in liberated areas of northern Syria.

It may seem counter-intuitive to increase military pressure while simultaneously offering a political solution to the civil war, yet this is a solid strategy. By appearing increasingly flexible, the opposition is putting the “ball in Assad’s court” in terms of ending the civil war. This will put pressure on Assad to come to the table, especially as his (Alawite) people are made to suffer and his military prospects seem increasingly bleak.

Of course, this potential for a political resolution rests on there being some element of rationality that so far has been absent from the Assad regime. Assad continues to refer to the opposition as “terrorists”, and has made no public which would leave us to believe he has backed off his position that he will never leave Syria. Still, Assad and his supporters ultimately live in the same world as us, and eventually Assad will face pressure from his own constituents to come to the bargaining table with the opposition.

Anything that weakens Assad’s position should help bring about a resolution to the Syrian civil war; a 23 month war that has claimed over 60,000 lives. Hopefully, a humanitarian crisis does not unfold for the Alawites, as most of them are innocent of any crime except being part of the group associated with Assad. However, cutting off vital supplies is certainly a tactic the opposition will consider in its attempt to “put the screws” to Assad and force him to negotiate his departure from power.

We will have to monitor the situation and see how it plays out, although advancements by the Syrian rebels are reason for cautious optimism.

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