Normative Narratives


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Could Venezuela Become “America’s Syria”?

Recently President Trump, seemingly out of nowhere, threatened Venezuela’s increasingly authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro with the possibility of military intervention. Where did this idea come from? How crazy is it? Lets dive in.

To answer the first question, I can just imagine at some point during a National Security Council meeting, someone mentioned the need for a military option should the situation in Venezuela continue to deteriorate. Trump, never missing an opportunity to put his foot in his mouth, turns that into his ad-libbed “military option” line.

It’s like a game of telephone that never should’ve happened between the National Security Council, Trump, and Maduro. What was supposed to be implicitly understood–that America will defend its interests and regional allies–was instead explicitly said in the worst way possible (much to the joy of Maduro, who is using Trump’s words as a rallying cry in hopes of gaining domestic and regional support).

But what about the second question, how crazy is the idea of a limited American military intervention in Venezuela? The answer: not as crazy at is sounds.

I have always said America would never let something like the Syrian Civil War happen in Latin America. For all the anti-interventionists out there, lets take stock of what European inaction in Syria has cost it–a refugee crisis and a crisis of identity: Brexit, a rise in right-wing populism, and the continued inability to address the large scale economic and social problems that have plagued the continent since the Great Recession and whose solutions require closer European integration. And that’s not even considering the suffering realized by the Syrian people.

So the next questions are obvious: is Venezuela “America’s Syria”? Could inaction in Venezuela lead to similar horrors in the United States?

Long answer short, no. There are some key differences between these two crises.

Most significantly, while there is certainly a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, the government has not been particularly violent in its crackdown on dissent (at least compared to Assad’s response to protesters in Syria). The Venezuelan military, however, is loyal to Maduro, so it’s actions are certainly something to keep a close eye on as the situation unfolds.

Latin America as a region is more stable than the Middle East. It has experience with democratic governance and resolving disputes peacefully. At this point, it still seems unlikely that full scale civil war will break out in Venezuela.

The U.S., for its part, has vastly superior military and border control capabilities compared to the EU. Venezuela is also further from the Southern U.S. than Syria is from Southern Europe; greater physical distance will help insulate America from any negative spillover effects.

There is, however, one common thorn in the side of a reasonable solution–the spoiler you love to hate, Vladimir Putin. Putin has worked out a weapons and financing for oil deal with Maduro, giving Russia a strategic partnership in the region similar to what he had with Assad in Syria.

Putin’s Puppet?

As Maduro has been ostracized by the international community and seen the value of the Bolivar deflated away due to economic mismanagement, he has increasingly relied on Russian financing to keep his regime afloat. In exchange, Maduro has offered access to Venezuela’s lucrative oil reserves on very preferential terms.

In an attempt to stop this damaging, shortsighted behavior, the Venezuelan Congress took away Maduro’s authority to make oil deals without legislative approval. Maduro responded by using the courts to circumvent the rule:

“In March, the nation’s Supreme Court – whose members are loyal to Maduro – took over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. A majority of elected Assembly members opposed any new oil deals with Russia and insisted on retaining power to veto them.

Days later – after fierce national protests against the action – the court returned most powers to the national legislature at Maduro’s public urging. But the court allowed the president to keep the legal authority to cut fresh oil deals with Russia without legislative approval.

The episode was pivotal in escalating daily street protests and clashes with authorities that have since caused more than 120 deaths.”

Of course the Venezuelan Congress has since been dissolved and replaced with a rubber stamp assembly, so at this point it doesn’t matter what the Congress had ruled.

With this entanglement of Russian and Venezuelan money, arms, and oil, you can forget about any meaningful UN Security Council action against Maduro. Russia will shield him with its veto power under the guise of “national sovereignty”, because if Maduro falls, Russia’s influence and its oil deals would likely be in jeopardy:

“The Russian strategy has its risks. Many of the world’s top energy firms took a hit when Chavez nationalized their assets, and an opposition-led government could later reverse or revise any deals Maduro cuts without their blessing.”

Funny, I thought Maduro said America was trying to steal Venezuela’s oil? It seems like he’s doing a fine job of that himself, leveraging his country’s future in a desperate and costly attempt to remain in power.

Not Syria, But a Serious Situation

So if Venezuela is not “America’s Syria”, why did I say earlier that the idea of limited American military intervention is “not as crazy as it sounds”? This is because bad situations–and the Venezuelan crisis absolutely qualifies as one–usually fester and become worse if left unaddressed.

Anti-Maduro activists are becoming fed-up with the official opposition. If the people believe the organized opposition is ineffective, it could lead to more extreme measures like guerrilla warfare, which could ultimately lead to civil war. Venezuelan’s will not sit idly by as the collapsing economy and shrinking political space encroach upon their human dignity.

The fallout from a failed Venezuelan state would not be confined to the country’s borders. It could, for instance, trigger a refugees crisis. While Latin America is more stable than the Middle East, the region is not particularly wealthy or able to absorb large numbers of refugees. There could be cascading crises as other Latin American nations struggle with such an influx, ultimately threatening America’s national security and economic interests.

But most importantly, making sure Maduro does not turn Venezuela into a fully failed state (like Syria) is the right thing to do for the Venezuelan people. Sometimes the right thing to do aligns with short term national security and economic interests (they always align in the long run). When they do align, taking action suddenly seems less crazy, and inaction seems less defensible.

If the situation deteriorates further, America must be ready to commit resources to its Latin American and Venezuelan allies to remove Maduro. This would enable an interim government to restore Venezuelan democracy. Only then can the hard work of rebuilding Venezuela’s economy begin.

Trump wasn’t wrong that a military plan should be in place in case the situation in Venezuela further deteriorates–being prepared is a good thing. What he was wrong for doing, as usually, was not fully comprehending the situation and opening his big fat mouth. The “military option” should be a contingency plan, not a threat. Trump’s inability to say nothing, to not be the tough guy, has made a bad situation worse.

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The Greek Bailout Deal Is A Failure of Leadership in Both Greece and Germany

Kick-The-Can2

The terms of the 3rd bailout deal between Greece and its creditors brought a lot of issues to the forefront.

Silly me for thinking negotiations had to with economics–modernizing the Greek economy by enacting needed structural reforms, while providing the Greek government with the fiscal space needed to promote growth and address it’s pressing humanitarian crisis (which said structural reforms would only exacerbate in the short run). Instead, the defining elements of the deal were related to personality and politics.

The Germans were mad at the Greeks, so much so that German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said perhaps Greece might be better off leaving the Euro–this short-sighted self interest is not suitable behavior for Europe’s de facto leader. Tsipras’s government, for it’s part, apparently did not have a backup plan in case it’s creditors failed to offer a reasonable deal. I know Syriza is new to politics, but you don’t have to be a master negotiator to know that going into negotiations without a backup plan is a flawed strategy.

I was a fan of Tsipras’s government because of the interim agreement it secured in February–the potential for trading structural reforms for fiscal space. But since that point it terribly misplayed its hand. It went into negotiations without a backup plan. It held a referendum at least a month too late–the overwhelming “no” vote would have been a strong bargaining chip had Greece been able to take it back to the negotiating table while still covered under the terms of its prior bailout.

But once those terms expired, and Greek banks closed, the only choices for Greece were Grexit or capitulation. Since there was no plan in place for a Grexit, Greece ended up with the terrible deal it got. That deal–as it currently stands–fails in all regards: financial sustainability, growth prospects, and short term humanitarian concerns.

Not Financially Viable:

The International Monetary Fund threatened to withdraw support for Greece’s bailout on Tuesday unless European leaders agree to substantial debt relief, an immediate challenge to the region’s plan to rescue the country.

A new rescue program for Greece “would have to meet our criteria,” a senior I.M.F. official told reporters on Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “One of those criteria is debt sustainability.”

The I.M.F. is now firmly siding with Greece on the issue. In a reportreleased publicly on Tuesday, the fund proposed that creditors let Athens write off part of its huge eurozone debt or at least make no payments for 30 years.

The I.M.F. said in its report that a write-down could be avoided, but only if creditors extended the schedule for Greece to repay its debt. The only other alternative to a haircut would be for the eurozone countries to give Greece the money it needs to repay them.

“The choice between the various options is for Greece and its European partners to decide,” the I.M.F. report said.

Greece would need to spend a sum equal to more than 15 percent of G.D.P. annually to pay interest and principal on its debt, according to the latest I.M.F. report.

Does Not Fulfill Greek’s Human Rights:

The implementation of new austerity measures in Greece amid the country’s deteriorating economic crisis must not come at a cost to human rights, a United Nations expert warned today as he urged international institutions and the Greek Government to make “fully informed decisions” before adopting additional reforms.

“I am seriously concerned about voices saying that Greece is in a humanitarian crisis with shortages in medicines and food,” Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, the UN Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights, stressed in a press statement today. “Priority should be to ensure that everybody in Greece has access to core minimum levels of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health care, food and social security.”

“A debt service burden that may be sustainable from a narrow financial perspective may not be viable at all if one considers the comprehensive concept of sustainable development, which includes the protection of the environment, human rights and social development,” he added.

And of course, as the IMF report highlights, the deal is not even “sustainable from a narrow financial perspective”.

Kicking the Can or Letting Heads Cool?

If Greece’s creditors, led by Germany, ultimately want to see Greece stay in the Eurozone (for the long run), a friendlier deal is needed. If a “Grexit”, with its short term pain but long term possibilities to return Greece to economic health, is indeed in Greece’s best option given what it’s creditors are willing to offer, why not take that tough medicine and let the healing start? The current deal represents the worst of both worlds–economic pain now and a likely Grexit in the future.

The one positive of this deal is that it did buy time, which should not be undervalued as “Grexit” would be permanent and have terrible geopolitical consequences. But  without stimulus (there are talks of a 35 billion euro stimulus fund by 2020 if reforms are fully implemented, but this may be too little too late) and debt restructuring (which cannot be ruled out, but also cannot be counted on), the deal is little more than kicking the can down the road–all while the Greek people continue to suffer.

Greece’s creditors cannot keep dangling future carrots while imposing fiscal restraints which hurt Greece’s already beleaguered citizenry in the here and now. Aid must be synced with structural reforms, or else the Greeks will see their situation go from terrible to worse and reject the terms of this 3rd bailout. 

Doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Greece has tried to implement reforms in order to unlock future aid before, and we see where that got it--a severely contracted economy, depression level unemployment rates, and costly political instability. 

This is not the time for more business as usual; this is the time for bold action and trust between Greece and it’s creditors. Unfortunately nothing about the past few months of negotiations suggest this is outcome will be realized.

 


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Greece, Birthplace of Democracy, Needs A Democratic Lifeline

No More Blood From A Greek Stone:

It appears Greece’s government has come up with a list of reforms it and its creditors can agree upon in return for 4 months of bridge financing to restructure the conditions of a longer-term growth strategy.

By trading structural reforms for fiscal space, each major player (Greece and Germany) is making major concessions in the name of pragmatism. Germany is relaxing its dogmatic belief  in fiscal targets to provide the Greek government with the fiscal space needed to restructure its economy without exacerbating its “humanitarian crisis”. Greece, in return, must officially bring to an end the era of lax tax collection and over-rigidity in the labor market.

Both sides are making major concessions, neither side is 100% happy, and its appears as if middle ground has been found–all signs of a meaningful compromise. One can only hope that when Greece’s list of reforms comes in on Monday, both sides of this debate remain on the same page:

Greece’s list of reforms to be submitted to the euro zone on Monday comprises pledges on structural issues such as tax evasion and corruption over the next four months without specific targets, a government official said on Saturday.

The accord requires Greece to submit by Monday a letter to the Eurogroup listing all the policy measures it plans to take during the remainder of the bailout period.

If the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund are satisfied, the Eurogroup is likely to endorse the list in a teleconference without the need for a formal meeting. Then euro zone member states will need to ratify the extension, where necessary through their parliaments.

There will not be specific figures or targets to be achieved tied to the goals, the official said, adding that the two sides had not yet discussed how Greece would be evaluated on the reforms.

EU officials and euro zone ministers said they had no reason to think Greece would not come up with a satisfactory list of measures on Monday night. However, some hawkish countries have insisted that if there are doubts, the Eurogroup would have to reconvene in Brussels.

Structural reforms are inherently difficult to implement. In order to make the difficult task of taking on strong interest groups politically possible, an overwhelming popular mandate is needed. The need for strong public backing becomes even more important during times of high unemployment, when those lucky enough to remain employed are (quite rationally) more afraid of losing their jobs.

According to a recent opinion poll, 68% of Greeks want a “fair compromise” with the EU; even after years of economic suffering, the vast majority of Greeks remain steadfast in their believe in the E.U.. Such support must be seized upon, it will not last forever.

What Greece needs now is a pro-growth, structural reform based bailout plan, not a continuation of its failed blood-from-a-stone internal-devaluation based “recovery”. Reducing it’s primary surplus while collecting greater tax receipts would open up the fiscal space Greece needs to both deal with its humanitarian crisis and create a safety-net for those adversely affected by labor market reforms as the economy readjusts. 

The past 6 years have had a deep psycho-economic effect on the Greek people. With overall unemployment at 26% and youth unemployment at 50%, to go along with a 24% contraction in GDP, the Greek economy has been ravaged. Lack of control over monetary policy (as all members of the Eurozone face) has limited Greece’s policy space, it must be allowed to regain some control over fiscal policy.

Greeks have suffered enough and have learned their lessons–these next four months are an opportunity to prove it. In addition to any external monitoring imposed as part of this deal, the Greek people must prove they can be their own corruption watchdog and can pay their taxes.

Fighting wealthy tax evaders may be a popular political platform and merited on social justice grounds, but in order to pay-down Greek debt without compromising human development, a widespread cultural acceptance towards paying taxes is required. There is no doubt Greece has been too lax in collecting taxes in the past, but this does not need to be an irrevocable problem. Through legislative reform and social accountability, Greece can overcome it’s culture of tax evasion.

Locking in long-term labor market reforms, without driving more people into poverty and exacerbating the “lost generation” of young Greeks, should be the mutual goal between Greece and it’s creditors. In fact, this could be a potential blueprint for other economically depressed European countries to renegotiate their social contracts with the EU. Democratic governance derives its legitimacy from the will of the governed; if peoples basic needs are not met, democratic governance cannot be sustained.

Greece is not in the clear yet. But by finding this acceptable middle ground, the foundations of a sustainable solution for keeping the Eurozone intact may have been laid.

Reversing the Democratic Recession:

Neither side of this debate should have to pretend that keeping the Eurozone unified is an unimportant political, economic, foreign relations and security consideration. Greece staying in the E.U. is important for Greece, Germany, the E.U. and any country with aspirations of democratic governance:

[Stamford University democracy expert] Diamond adds, “perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic recession has been the decline of democratic efficacy, energy, and self-confidence” in America and the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock and corruption through campaign financing, the world’s leading democracy is increasingly dysfunctional, with government shutdowns and the inability to pass something as basic as a budget. “The world takes note of all this,” says Diamond. “Authoritarian state media gleefully publicize these travails of American democracy in order to discredit democracy in general and immunize authoritarian rule against U.S. pressure.”

If anything, the U.S. has been the poster-child for prosperity through democracy compared to the E.U.. Regardless, twin “democratic recessions” of varying degrees on both sides of the Atlantic have compromised the appeal of democratic governance abroad. Spreading Islamophobia, antisemitism, and xenophobia throughout Europe–side effects of Europe’s failed economic policies–compromise the appeal of Western values and galvanize authoritarian and extremist messages. 

ISIS finds itself at Italy’s back-door geographically in Libya. But ideologically, ISIS could not be further away from European ideals. Ultimately, reversing the democratic recession and countering authoritarian and extremist ideals requires. among other things, proving democracy remains a viable path to widespread freedom and prosperity.

“Western” countries cannot push Greece towards China / Russia for a bailout. We, like Greece, finds ourselves at an inflection point–we must  prove that democracy in a first world country can satisfy peoples basic needs. Failure to do so could lead to a long-term setback in promoting modernization, human rights, and democratic governance in the worlds least developed countries.


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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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Economic Outlook: An Ounce Of Crisis Prevention Is Worth A Pound Of Cure

So why do the international community and national governments under-fund crises prevention initiatives? (Especially given that there is no singular “cure” for various crises).

The rising scale of needs, a collective inability to resolve protracted crises, and the interplay of new factors such as climate change, are making it harder for Governments and aid workers to effectively respond to humanitarian challenges, the United Nations today reported, stressing that development aid must contribute to managing crisis risk.

The report, World Humanitarian Data and Trends 2013, authored by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), highlights major trends in the nature of humanitarian crises, the underlying causes and drivers, and the actors that participate in crises prevention, response and recovery.

“Climate change, population growth, rapid and unplanned urbanization, and food and water insecurity are leaving more and more people at risk of crisis,” write the report’s authors, listing some of the new factors facing the humanitarian community.

Among other trends, the report shows that today’s major humanitarian crises are protracted “with few signs of improvements over the long term.”

Of countries that had an inter-agency appeal in 2012, eight had an appeal in eight or more of the previous ten years, including in Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Somalia.

When not protracted, the crises are often recurrent, occurring as a result of shocks – climate, conflict, price – to chronically vulnerable people.

On these factors, the report concludes that humanitarian assistance is still overwhelmingly focused on response and development aid often fails to target the most vulnerable.

“Less than five per cent of humanitarian funding and less than one per cent of development funding is spent on crisis preparedness and prevention,” according to figures provided.

Just as one human rights violation enables others, one humanitarian crisis often leads to future manifestations of the same or related crises. The intractable / recurrent nature of humanitarian crises highlights the need to focus on a preventative approach to building resilience to humanitarian crises. Programs which build resilience to humanitarian crises are essentially poverty reduction / sustainable human development programs (think I am oversimplifying? The United Nations Development Programme’s motto is “empowered lives, resilient nations”).

Least developed countries (LDCs) do not have access to private sector credit (at affordable rates), particularly in times of great need (like after a major crisis). Therefore, an essential component of crisis preparedness are counter-cyclical fiscal policies. Many LDCs rely on natural resource rents for financing government programs. Counter-cyclical natural resource funds, such as the Nigeria’s Sovereign Investment Authority (which draws on excess oil rents), can be powerful tools for crisis preparedness.

Responsible use of ODA / natural resource rents relies on “good governance“. Corrupt leaders can easily embezzle ODA / public savings, and send that money offshore where it can never be recoveredFinding the right balance between prevention / preparedness and crisis response is a difficult task even for the most well intended governments / organizations.

However, it is obvious that spending only 1 % of official development assistance (ODA) on preventative / preparedness measures is a short-sighted strategy (although using a broader definition of “preventative action”, as I have, may encompass a larger portion of ODA). Further exacerbating the problem, there is a large gap in ODA commitments from the worlds wealthiest nations. Dedicating a bigger slice of a bigger pie to crisis prevention / preparedness is needed to strike a responsible balance

There are obvious reasons why the vast majority of ODA goes towards crisis response. Failure to respond to a humanitarian crisis can create breeding grounds for disease, human rights violations, violence/terrorism, and/or lost generations of economic growth. In addition, it is generally easier to mobilize resources in response to a specific incidence (which is seen as unavoidable), than it is for under-development / extreme poverty (which people often unmistakably attribute to laziness). However, it should be the job of development organizations to direct funding to the avenues which will have the greatest impact.

The democratic governance based approach to sustainable human development helps overcome common development issues. By emphasizing political rights and accountable governance, donors and citizens can be confident money is going (or in the case of preparedness, staying) where it is “supposed” to go. Farsighted “good” governments, whose capacities are fully developed with adequate resources (a combination of public savings / ODA), can achieve the simultaneous goals of economic development and resilience to crisis. By emphasizing human rights and environmental sustainability, humanitarian crises are addressed preventatively.

There is no one “road-map” for Sustainable Human Development. Every country is unique and has to build its own path–what Dr. Jeffrey Sachs refers to as “differential diagnosis“.

However, there are some common steps all LDCs should take if they wish to be on the path to sustainable human development: 

1) Draft Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans (PRSPs) that take into consideration the indispensable role of human rights and accountable governance; 

2) Legislate the human rights accountability from all relevant stakeholders (governments, civil society, NGOs, private sector, IGOs, etc.);

3) Mobilize a greater share of resources for sustainable human development programs to prevent / prepare for humanitarian crises.

Update: The UNDP-EU just released interactive maps detailing their joint projects over the last 10 years. One of these maps focuses on crisis prevention and recovery projects.


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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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Conflict Watch: In Africa, Preventative Peacebuilding Has It’s Day (Years? Decades?)

A While back, I wrote about the potential benefits of scaling up preventative peacebuilding programs globally. Rooted in protracted social conflict (PSC) theory, preventative peacebuilding aims at addressing the root causes of the majority of intrastate conflict, by addressing human rights violations that lead to violence before a conflict emerges. While this approach obviously has certain limitations, foremost of which is that it is completely ineffective in resolving an ongoing conflict (such as the Syrian Civil War), it has considerable benefits in situations where tensions are escalating but large-scale violent conflict has not yet enveloped the country (think present day Egypt).

A bit of background on PSC: Most new wars can be explained by Edward Azar’s theory of Protracted Social Conflict (PSC). According to Azar,”deprivation of human needs is the underlying source of PSC“. The sources, and therefore solutions to PSC often lay within a state, rather than across state borders, although this is not always the case, particularly in the context of regional insecurity. PSC also shifted some of the focus away from overtly violent conflicts, towards identifying potential future conflict zones based on underlying humanitarian grievances.

PSC theory applied in another context connects human rights violations, conflict, and terrorism. Human rights violations lead to conflict as PSC presumes. When the government is unable to provide basic services and security to it citizens (or in some situations itself perpetuates human rights violations and insecurity), well funded extremist groups can fill this void, providing security, goods and services in exchange for goodwill, legitimacy, and cover (this is essentially how the Syrian Civil War has evolved). By empowering people and building resilient nations (a little UNDP plug), conflicts can be avoided and the breeding grounds for terrorism salted.

It seems as if world leaders have been convinced by PSC theory, and are willing to try putting money into preventative peacebuilding operations in Africa–ground-zero for human rights violations and intrastate conflict (Original article):

“This fall, the United States and Niger will bring together in that West African nation police officers, customs inspectors and other authorities from a half-dozen countries in the region to hone their collective skills in securing lightly guarded borders against heavily armed traffickers and terrorists.”

“Denmark has already forged a partnership with Burkina Faso to combat violent extremism, and backed it up with a war chest of $22 million over five years aimed at stifling the root causes of terrorism before they can bloom.”

“The two-day meeting here in this seaside city was organized by the Global Counterterrorism Forum, an organization of 29 countries and the European Union created two years ago with the State Department’s support to act as a clearinghouse of ideas and actions for civilian counterterrorism specialists.

One of the forum’s five areas of focus is the Sahel, with wealthier Western, Middle Eastern and Asian nations partnering with some of the continent’s poorest countries to address a range of issues. In this week’s closed meetings, officials discussed border surveillance, enhanced intelligence and police cooperation, the rule of law, arms trafficking and undercutting terrorists’ financial networks, according to a conference agenda and interviews with more than a dozen participants.

‘What’s encouraging is that the regional countries here recognize what kind of assistance they need and are able to define that’ said Michele Coduri, chief of the Swiss Foreign Ministry’s international security section. ‘That’s not always been the case.’

“A senior Malian official told the delegates that the Malian authorities had seized many suspected jihadists in the recent fighting. But he said the Malian military and police were not practiced in collecting evidence for criminal court proceedings, according to participants. As a result, only a handful of extremists have been prosecuted, he said.

‘These states need to build counterterrorism policies within legal frameworks,’ said Justin H. Siberell, a State Department counterterrorism specialist who led the American delegation. ‘Still, people feel a sense of urgency that these kind of things have to start happening.'”

It is heartening to see the developing and developed world working together to tackle the problem of terrorism and its underlying causes, as global security is the definition of a global public good (everyone benefits from it, therefore rife with “free-rider problems“, which seem to have been partially averted due to the seriousness and immediate impacts of the issues at hand, as opposed to say climate change which is a serious concern but not as immediate a threat). Conflict undermines the Rule of law and democracy, and inhibits economic and human development. Peace is a necessary precondition for sustainable human development.

It seems that the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is starting to catch-on in fields other than climate change. Western powers, realizing that foreign intervention is extremely costly and only incites further anti-Western sentiments (essentially adding fuel to the jihad fire), and that the results are unsustainable. By having regional forces fighting extremist factions, backed by Western intelligence, weaponry, and technical assistance, a more sustainable and inclusive global security balance emerges. Since everyone will have an important role to play in global security initiatives, a less imperialistic and more democratic decision making process should also follow this approach. Coordinated military operations could also help build the relationships needed for greater economic and social policy coherence at the international level.

It will ultimately be difficult to assess the effects of this program for a number of reasons. For one, the stated goals are long term and preventative–on a certain level it is impossible to say whether conflict did / didn’t occur due to these programs, as there are so many variables at play. Therefore, in order to test the efficacy of this project, I think we will ultimately have to look past just the security outcomes in Africa (while also still considering these as well). How this project affects overall standard of living, freedoms, and happiness in the region will ultimately be the yardstick by which we should judge this program. While this project is designed as a military endeavor, it is in reality a human development initiative.

I can’t help but think that this is the type of news that, while somewhat off the mainstream radar now, will in the future be credited with drastically changing the world for the better. I sure hope I’m right…

 

 


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Conflict Watch: (In Syria) Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Better

Perhaps nowhere does this old saying ring as true as in present day Syria. Two weeks ago I wrote about “The Deteriorating Syrian Civil War and Humanitarian Crisis” and since then things have not gotten any better on the ground. However, it seems that Western powers are finally organizing the support that legitimate factions of the Syrian opposition need to present a real threat to the Assad regime without relying on the help of extremist / terrorist organizations:

“Ministers from 11 countries including the United States, European and regional Sunni Muslim powers, held talks that Washington said should commit participants to direct all aid through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, which it hopes can offset the growing power of jihadist rebel forces.”

“The meeting in Qatar brings together ministers of countries that support the anti-Assad rebels – France, Germany, Egypt, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Britain and the United States.”

“Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, whose country has been one of the most open backers of the anti-Assad rebels, said that supplying them with weapons was the only way to resolve the conflict.

“Force is necessary to achieve justice. And the provision of weapons is the only way to achieve peace in Syria’s case,” Sheikh Hamad told ministers at the start of the talks.

“We cannot wait due to disagreement among Security Council members over finding a solution to the problem,” he said. He also called on Lebanon’s government to halt intervention by Lebanese factions in the neighboring conflict.”

“‘We won’t get a political solution if Assad and his regime think they can eliminate all legitimate opposition by force, and so we do have to give assistance to that opposition,’ Secretary of State Kerry told reporters before the start of Saturday’s talks.”

“After a series of military offensives by Assad’s troops, including the recapture of a strategic border town two weeks ago, President Barack Obama said the United States would increase military support for the rebels

Two Gulf sources told Reuters on Saturday that Saudi Arabia, which has taken a lead role among Arab opponents of Assad, had also accelerated delivery of advanced weapons to the rebels.

‘In the past week there have been more arrivals of these advanced weapons. They are getting them more frequently,’ one source said, without giving details. Another Gulf source described them as ‘potentially balance-tipping’ supplies.”

One can only hope that this aid is not too little too late, and many questions emerge from the concerted arming of the Supreme Military Council by Western powers: Does the political will exist among the opposition to fill the power vacuum in a sustainable democratic fashion upon Assad’s removal? Would a new governing body protect the rights of minorities, including Alawites, in a post-conflict Syria? What will happen to the extremist factions the opposition once relied on (specifically al-Nursa)? Will these groups attempt to sabotage the Western backed opposition?

Despite all this uncertainty, one thing is clear; the Assad regime has lost all credibility and cannot remain in power / be allowed to run in future Syrian elections (having Assad involved in future elections would inherently distort the democratic process and risk reigniting the sectarian divide). It has also become clear that Russia will continue to honor its military contracts with Damascus, and that Assad has no problem turning the Syrian Civil War into a regional conflict if it helps his prospects:

“U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the meeting of 11 countries in Qatar was a chance to discuss “efforts to increase and coordinate support for the Syrian political and military opposition”. Kerry said Assad had allowed Iranian and Hezbollah fighters “to cross the lines from Lebanon and engage in the fight on the ground”.

“The Assad regime’s response to a legitimate global effort to try to have a peace conference was to in fact militarize the efforts and internationalize (the conflict) and make the region far more dangerous as a consequences,” he said.”

(In the spirit of fairness, the opposition is also guilty of turning the conflict into a regional one by enlisting other countries help–this is a reality of modern warfare especially in Africa and Middle-East where the sectarian / cultural divide–alongside human rights abuses–underpins the majority of conflicts in the region).

“President Michel Suleiman has called on the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah movement to pull its guerrillas out of Syria, saying any further involvement in its neighbor’s civil war would fuel instability in Lebanon.” While coming from the right place, such a plea will ultimately be in vain–you cannot end a  2+ year old Civil War by shaming the fighters, as both sides believe they are fighting for a just cause.

Can arming the rebels really help lead to a peaceful compromise? Honestly, I do not think so–I think the idea of a peaceful political transition in Syria is a pipe-dream. Even in the face of defeat, I do not believe Assad will step down–I think he will go down with the ship. His family has been in power in Syria for over four decades, Assad knows nothing else and probably believes his power in Syria borders on “divine right“. I believe that Western powers are building up the capacity of the Supreme Military Council to keep Assad’s forces busy, as a covert “Gadaffi-style assassination” is planned. This may be an extreme position to take, but it is the only realistic solution that does not involve more civil war, human suffering and regional instability.

Former U.S. general Wesley Clark is more optimistic that arming the opposition can lead to a political transition:

“Mr. Assad knows that Mr. Obama can be surprisingly resolute, as in his approval of drone strikes and the military operation to kill Osama bin Laden. While the United States begins to supply the rebels, there is a crucial opening for talks. Russia or China could recalculate and help lead Syria to a real peace process, as Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, a former Russian prime minister, did in Kosovo in 1999. Iran could emerge from a truce with Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon (and its strong links to Iran) intact.

The formula for diplomacy is clear: a cease-fire agreement; a United Nations presence; departure of foreign fighters; disarmament of Syrian fighters; international supervision of Syria’s military; a peaceful exit for Mr. Assad, his family and key supporters; a transitional government; and plans for a new Syria.

The conflict, and the diplomacy needed to end it, are likely to play out simultaneously. All parties will be recalculating their options and risks, so any assurance Mr. Obama gives Americans that he will limit our engagement would reduce the chances of success. This is a nerve-racking time, but the consequences of inaction are too high. Working together, America, Russia and China can halt Syria’s agony and the slide toward wider conflict. Mr. Obama’s decision might be the catalyst to get that done.”

I personally do not see Assad as this calculating figure, but time will tell which version of Assad is closer to the truth.

Of course arming the rebels is no slam-dunk. Even if Assad woke up tomorrow and decided he cannot win this war and would leave (which he will not), arming the rebels inevitably creates the risk that one day our own weapons will be used against us, regardless of how thoughtfully weapons are dispersed.

“As the United States and its Western allies move toward providing lethal aid to Syrian rebels, these secretive transfers give insight into an unregistered arms pipeline that is difficult to monitor or control. And while the system appears to succeed in moving arms across multiple borders and to select rebel groups, once inside Syria the flow branches out. Extremist fighters, some of them aligned with Al Qaeda, have the money to buy the newly arrived stock, and many rebels are willing to sell.”

Even if the arms go directly to the Supreme Military Council, there is no telling where they will end up after this conflict is over.

“For Russia — which has steadfastly supplied weapons and diplomatic cover to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — this black-market flow is a case of bitter blowback. Many of the weapons Moscow proudly sold to Libya beginning in the Soviet era are now being shipped into the hands of rebels seeking to unseat another Kremlin ally.”

The U.S. learned a similar lesson when arms and training given to Al-Qaeda in the 1970s to oppose Soviet interests backfired.

It is impossible to know where the weapons will ultimately end up–underpinning the ongoing debate of arming the Syrian opposition. Think of the Western world’s “best case scenario”–a legitimate Syrian opposition assumes power following Assad’s removal and attempts to setup a democratic Syria. There is no telling how long that democracy will last (often first attempts at democracy fail). These weapons could be stockpiled by a pro-Western power, only to be lost in a future military coup. The existence of these weapons poses the possibility that they will fall into enemy hands at some point in the future–especially as the conflict becomes a memory and international attention focuses elsewhere.

Still, steps are being taken to ensure the arms are channeled to legitimate branches of the Syrian opposition. If in the future these weapons fall into enemy hands, that will have to be dealt with in the future. Perhaps newer technology, such as GPS or even a remote “kill-switch”, are possible for bigger-ticket items sent to the opposition. If anybody knows anything about how donors keep tabs on military aid be sure to let us know in the comment section.


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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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