Normative Narratives


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The First Casualty of “America First”: The Kurds

A member of Iraqi federal forces holds the Kurdish flag upside down in Kirkuk, Iraq on October 16, 2017.REUTERS/Stringer

Remember when the fate of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was uncertain, the country mired in a horrific Civil War with no end in sight while the IS was rapidly gaining ground? Remember when Iraqi forces fled IS advances, abandoning Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city? You should remember both, they were only a few years ago…

You should also remember how, in both cases, the Kurds proved themselves to be capable, brave fighters. They were and continue to be a stable faction in a volatile region–native boots on the ground that the U.S. can rely on. But facts on the ground can change quickly, especially when external powers intervene decisively in a conflict.

Seemingly a victory, a referendum for Kurdish independence quickly soured when the Iraqi military retook the Kirkuik oil field (backed by Iranian proxies). Yes, the same Iraqi military that melted away in the face of IS fighters and needed the Kurds to help clean up their mess, turned their guns on the Kurds for exercising self-determination.

In Syria, Russia and Iran helped Assad turn the tide of the Civil War decisively in his favor. Now that he appears to be firmly in power, Assad has set his sights on retaking Syria’s Kurdish regions.

In addition to being capable fighters, the Kurds have a penchant for democratic governance and women’s rights. In terms of a Middle Eastern partner, they are a dream match for the U.S. We always lament the fact that we do not enough true, democratic allies in the region, but I fear we are now abandoning one because supporting them doesn’t fits into Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.

In Iraq, we stood by as the Iraqi military and Iranian militias ripped away the would-be heart of any future Kurdish state. But the U.S. has invested a ton of resources into maintaining a unified Iraq; while I cannot agree with America’s inaction here, it is somewhat understandable.

What about in Syria, where this is not the case? Here too we are failing to protect our ally. In order to appease Turkish President Erdogan, President Trump has said he will stop arming the Kurds.

This is the problem with Trump’s “America First” foreign policy–it is inherently short-sighted. Is it in America’s short term interests to defend the Kurds now? Probably not–we used em’ and now we could lose em’. Turkey is stronger than the Kurds; it is easier to give in to our more powerful allies wishes here regardless what is “right”, even as President Erdogan continues to slide the country into authoritarianism.

Turkey does have legitimate concerns about its territorial integrity when it comes to Kurdish statehood. Despite the aforementioned erosion of Turkish democracy, Turkey is far from a “failed state” (as Iraq was and Syria still is), making the case for using Turkish land for a Kurdish state weaker. Mechanisms could be set up to protect Turkish sovereignty and borders alongside the introduction of a Kurdish state, which I have outlined in a previous blog post.

More pointedly, if Turkey didn’t want the Kurds to have a much stronger claim to their own state, it should have acted more decisively in the Syrian Civil War and in the fight against the IS. Instead Turkey, like the rest of the global and regional powers, let the Kurds do the heavy lifting. Now, understandably, the Kurds want their just deserts.

Would continuing to decisively back the Kurds upset some powerful players? Yes. What meaningful change does not? What happened to Trump’s supposed bravado? Risk aversion will only reaffirm to the status-quo in the Middle East–picking the least bad autocrats to be our allies, while the region remains mired in conflict and stalled development. Building true democratic allies in the Middle East will not be quick or easy, but it is important work nonetheless.

Furthermore, not supporting the Kurds also carries risks. Remember what happened after the “Sunni awakening”, when we disregarded Sunni militias after they helped in the effort to remove Saddam Hussein? Those people felt abandoned, and more or less welcomed the IS with open arms. While I am course not condoning such behavior, and hope it does not come to pass, it does not take much of an imagination to see how our “use em and lose em” policy could play into the hands of any anti-American Kurdish factions.

Now to be fair, in international affairs long-term goals need to be weighed against short-term security concerns, and shortsightedness is not exclusive to the Trump administration. Obama did not do enough to protect a budding democracy in Egypt, and was too risk averse in Syria, allowing Russia to eventually come in and dictate the result of the conflict.

There is, however, a sense that the Trump administration will not even weigh these options when making tough decisions. After all, Trump has shown at best a lukewarm appreciation for democratic institutions at home (attacks on the judiciary and independent media) and has praised authoritarian leaders abroad. It is, therefore, no stretch to think that he will, by default, opt for the easy solution without even considering the long-term benefits of promoting democratic governance.

In this case, even considering the potential negatives, abandoning the Kurds is one of America’s most short-sighted decisions the Middle East since we sleepwalked into the Iraq War in the first place. Based on what we know about Trump and his “America First” foreign policy, it is not likely to be the last short-sighted decision either.

Update: It appears the US is not abandoning the Syrian Kurds. I took President Trump at his word on that one, silly me. The Kurdish force will act as primarily as a counterweight to the growing Iranian influence in the region.

The US plan to maintain a primarily Kurdish force in northern Syria has drawn condemnation from Turkey’s President Erdogan, as expected. The international community should’ve implemented the Normative Narratives plan when the facts on the ground supported it.

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Conflict Watch: In Negotiations With Iran, Nuclear Rights and Nuclear Wrongs

I don’t even want to acknowledge hopefully-soon-to-be-former Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Thomas Friedman sums up my feelings on the situation nicely:

I think such a deal would be in America’s interest if — if — it includes Iran agreeing to constant, intrusive and unannounced inspections of, and limits on, all bomb-making capacities and if, even after the specified 10 years, there are more-than-the-usual inspections. I would also welcome Congress accompanying the deal by granting the president formal authorization — right now — to use “any means necessary” to respond should Iran try to break out of the deal.

I still don’t know if I will support this Iran deal, but I also have a problem with my own Congress howling in support of a flawed foreign leader trying to scuttle the negotiations by my own government before they’re done. Rubs me the wrong way.

Letting the Israeli Prime Minister use Capitol Hill as the backdrop for a speech meant to undermine active negotiations involving not only our government, but the governments of the worlds most powerful countries, is indefensible.

The P5+1 Iran negotiations are an example of the international community working together towards a common goal. Inviting Netanyahu to Capitol Hill did not promote American values, it undermined the very Post-WWII international order America helped build.

Update: As if inviting Netanyahu to speak was not enough, today 47 GOP senators wrote a note to Iran’s leaders in another attempt to undermine negotiations.

The end of March deadline for a framework agreement is approaching, the sides are familiar with their counterparts interests and red-lines, and potential bargaining space has become clearly defined–we will know soon whether or not an agreement can been reached.

A few key issues remain in the negotiations:

  • Nuclear rights of Iran (number of centrifuges)
  • Preventing a “sneakout” / lengthening “breakout” time (international monitoring rights / acceptable levels of uranium enrichment)
  • Easing sanctions as slowly as possible / longest possible duration of the deal
  • How to manage Iran’s nuclear activities after the “sunset” period

“Break-Out” Time and “Sneak-Out” Capacity:

The efforts focus on the fate of Iran’s three major “declared” nuclear facilities, and on lengthening the “breakout” time for Iran to produce enough fuel for a single bomb. But those declared facilities are crawling with inspectors and cameras.

Unstated is the fear of a more problematic issue, referred to as “sneakout.” That describes the risk of a bomb being produced at an undetected facility deep in the Iranian mountains, or built from fuel and components obtained from one of the few trading partners happy to do business with Tehran, like North Korea.

The goal is to “make as airtight as possible” the language that would allow highly intrusive inspections to track the precursors and parts that feed Iran’s uranium complex, according to one participant in the negotiations.

The American officials are highly attuned to the findings of a once-classified 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iran ended its headlong race for a bomb in late 2003. But it also concluded that smaller-scale activity continued, and warned that “Iran probably would use covert facilities — rather than its declared nuclear sites — for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon.”

Behind the efforts to close a nuclear deal with Iran this weekend lies a delicate question that has been little discussed in public: how to design an agreement to maximize the chances that Western intelligence agencies would catch any effort to develop an atomic bomb at a covert site.

During his interview with Charlie Rose, Morell warned that the focus on declared centrifuges is misplaced, because he expects that if Iran were to try to build a bomb, it would do so in secret. The only protection against that, Morell said, is unannounced inspections at any place in the country at any time.

“If you are going to have a nuclear weapons program, 5,000 is pretty much the number you need,” Morell, now a CBS analyst, said on Charlie Rose. “If you have a power program, you need a lot more. By limiting them to a small number of centrifuges, we are limiting them to the number you need for a weapon.”

This fact that bombs require fewer centrifuges than power is a source of frustration for Albright, a physicist with the Institute for Science and International Security.

“I wish it were reversed,” he told us. “Then we could easily tell if the program was for weapons.”

A bomb requires about 25 kilograms of U-235 enriched to the 90 percent level. If an agreement limits Iran to about 9,000 centrifuges, that would be sufficient to produce enough bomb-grade material but would leave Iran well short of the capacity to generate fuel to power nuclear power plants.

The “Sunset” Problem:

One major issue is the “sunset” problem — that is, what happens after the accord, which would limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions, expires. The length of the accord has not been decided, but it could be 15 years or less.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel expressed alarm in his Tuesday address before Congress that Iran would be free to vastly expand its network of centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, after the accord ends. That, Israeli officials have argued, would greatly compress the time that Iran would need to develop nuclear weapons and would encourage Arab nations in the region to follow suit.

Administration officials assert that that criticism is off base. But they have yet to detail what combination of verification measures and possible constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities would remain in place.

This has become the main sticking point. I have heard ideas floated of pre-authtorizing U.S. military / UNSC response as a deterrent. The international community needs an effective and possibly automatic mechanism in place should Iran decide to pursue nuclear weapons during / after any potential agreement.

Deal or No-Deal?:

As a Jewish-American, I am as apprehensive as anyone about the idea of a nuclear Iran. But in order to move forward we must recognize the nuclear rights of the Iranian people, while addressing the legitimate security concerns a nuclear Iran would cause.

I have heard people argue that Iran does not need nuclear power because it is an oil producer. But from the perspective of sustainable development, building a nuclear power industry would help Iran diversify it’s economy and produce zero emission energy.

While the P5+1 nations are clearly negotiating from stronger economic ground, it could be argued that Iran is negotiating from a stronger geopolitical position. The Iranian government, while lacking in may human rights aspects, does a decent job of meeting the economic and security needs of its people. Furthermore, Iran is contributing significant ground troops in the fight against ISIL, something that is in short-supply in the American led coalition.

Given the current security context in the Middle-East, a challenge to the Khamenei regime is unlikely. The Iranian leadership knows the international community needs as many stable parties in the region as possible. The narrative of a power asymmetry between the two sides–that Iran needs a deal more–has been overblown.

It has been acknowledged by all sides that negotiations are a long-shot. President Obama recently said any agreement would have to include at least a 10 year freeze of sensitive nuclear activities, an idea the Iranian camp quickly stated was “unacceptable But the two sides continue to talk, showing that despite harsh rhetoric bargaining space still exists. Progress continues to be made, and all evidence suggests Iran is not using negotiations to stall while developing a nuclear bomb:

“Over the last year and a half, since we began negotiations with them, that’s probably the first year and a half in which Iran has not advanced its nuclear program in the last decade,” Obama said in a December 2014 conversation with CNN’s Candy Crowley.

Obama’s comments were largely accurate, according to experts. The agreement signed in November 2013 has made it harder for Iran to produce weapons-grade nuclear material, we found. International observers report that Iran complied with the terms of the temporary agreement. The amount of enriched uranium is less, and the country’s facilities to produce weapons-grade material has been curtailed.

Getting a deal done is not determinant of success. A bad deal is not better than no deal, it is just a bad deal; coming away with an agreement just to claim a diplomatic success would be catastrophic. But, contrary to what Bibi would have you believe, a deal with Iran need not be inherently “bad”.

In my opinion, a failure of the negotiation process would not be failing to reach a deal. A failure would be letting prejudices and distrust undermine the possibility, however remote, of reaching a “good deal”.

Regardless of the outcome, these negotiations have brought to the forefront certain issues Ayatollah Khamenei can no longer hide from. Is Iran’s nuclear program for peaceful or military purposes? Whats more important, Iranian national sovereignty or the standard of living of Iranian people? These questions will be answered by actions, not words, for the whole world to see. 

In the event of no-deal, it will be important that the international community can credibly claim they did everything they could, and that Iran was an unreasonable negotiating partner. In order to meet this criteria, we must ask for meaningful concessions from Iran (long-term unfettered access by inspectors, slow easing of sanctions) and making meaningful concessions ourselves (recognizing Iran’s legitimate nuclear rights).

Despite efforts from all sides to derail the negotiations, it appears all diplomatic avenues are thankfully being exhausted.


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Conflict Watch: Geneva 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Conflict Watch: Snapshot of Middle-Eastern Turmoil

Obama Military Spending

The NYT released an article today, highlighting the rare opportunities for diplomacy between the U.S. (presumably representing the interests of the international community) and various Middle-Eastern nations. First I will recap some highlights of the article, then I will give my input on the situations in Syria, Iran, and Egypt:

Only two weeks after Washington and the nation were debating a unilateral military strike on Syria that was also intended as a forceful warning to Iran about its nuclear program, President Obama finds himself at the opening stages of two unexpected diplomatic initiatives with America’s biggest adversaries in the Middle East, each fraught with opportunity and danger.

For Mr. Obama, it is a shift of fortunes that one senior American diplomat described this week as “head spinning.”

In their more honest moments, White House officials concede they got here the messiest way possible — with a mix of luck in the case of Syria, years of sanctions on Iran and then some unpredicted chess moves executed by three players Mr. Obama deeply distrusts: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and Iran’s erratic mullahs. But, the officials say, these are the long-delayed fruits of the administration’s selective use of coercion in a part of the world where that is understood.

“The common thread is that you don’t achieve diplomatic progress in the Middle East without significant pressure,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said Thursday. “In Syria, it was the serious threat of a military strike; in Iran it was a sanctions regime built up over five years.”

Skeptics — and there are plenty in the National Security Council, the Pentagon, America’s intelligence agencies and Congress — are not so optimistic. They think Mr. Obama runs the risk of being dragged into long negotiations and constant games of hide-and-seek that, ultimately, will result in little change in the status quo. They argue that the president’s hesitance to pull the trigger on Tomahawk strikes on Syria nearly two weeks ago, and the public and Congressional rebellion at the idea of even limited military strikes, were unmistakable signals to the Syrian and Iranian elites that if diplomacy fails, the chances of military action ordered by the American president are slight.

All these possibilities could evaporate quickly; just ask the State Department diplomats who in the last years of the Bush administration thought they were on the way to keeping North Korea from adding to its nuclear arsenal, or the Clinton administration officials who thought they were on the verge of a Middle East peace deal.

Iranians are desperate for relief from sanctions that have cut their oil revenue by more than half, crashed their currency and made international banking all but impossible, but they may not understand the price of relief. “I suspect they are heading for sticker shock,” one official deeply involved in developing the American negotiating strategy said recently.

I am by no means a war-hawk; as a political / development economist, I understand that no MDG has ever been sustained in a conflict region. Peace and political stability are necessary preconditions for sustainable human development, which is the ultimate goal of development practitioners / human rights advocates around the world (it is also at the core of the UNDP’s strategic plan  for 2014-2017, which is where I was introduced to the term). Sustainable development requires development not be achieved at the expense of the environment / future generations. The human-rights-based-approach to development requires that development not be achieved by exploiting the worlds most impoverished / violating their human rights. Put together, these two concepts form the concept of sustainable human development; this is the only truly sustainable form of development as it reduces the probability that conflicts–which tend to have human rights violations at their core–will undo otherwise environmentally sustainable development gains.

But I am also a realist. I understand that sometimes revolutions are needed in order to overcome structural impediments to sustainable human development, such as an autocratic regime. Such regimes are not accountable to their people, and while there may be “benevolent dictators”, there is nothing sustainable about someones rights being granted by an individuals benevolence (he may change his mind, or be succeeded by a less progressive ruler). In this vein, effective democracy is the only means to sustainable human development. It is not some “western value” that drives my passion for democratic governance, it is my belief in the power of people, self-determination, and “development as freedom” which fuels this passion.

In the real world, concepts such as human rights and effective democracy are kept at bay by vested interest who would lose power if civil societies as a whole were empowered. These vested interests rely on collective action problems (I gain a lot as-is, by changing each person only gains a little) to maintain the status-quo. When collective action problems are overcome (a process which has been aided by innovations in social media / ICTs), vested interests often turn to military power to maintain their positions. I find this to be unconscionable, and therefore give some of my time to doing what little I can to try to shape the world as I believe it should be.

Diplomacy is a powerful preventative tool. However, I am less sold on diplomacy’s “soft-power” when the gloves come off and all-out war begins. Diplomacy is always more effective in democracies (where governments are accountable to the will of the people) than in autocracies (where the survival of the regime is the governments number one priority).

Syria: As you could probably tell, I am not sold on the “solution” to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. I think this is a stalling tactic, which will further entrench Assad’s grip on power and further marginalize the legitimate Syrian opposition. I hope I am proven wrong, but I am not optimistic.

The Syrians now face a series of deadlines. The first comes this weekend, when they must issue a declaration of their chemical stocks that “passes the laugh test,” as Gary Samore, Mr. Obama’s former top adviser on unconventional weapons, put it earlier in the week.

It is also concerning that, so soon after a deal was reached and before any part of the deal has been carried out, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is already calling for Western Nations to “force” the Syrian opposition into peace talks with Assad. Mr. Lavrov does not seem to understand that democratic governments cannot “force” people to do things; furthermore, Western powers do not have that sort of leverage as they have till this point been largely absent in aiding the Syrian opposition. It is not surprising Mr. Lavrov had this misunderstanding, in Russia the government can indeed force people to do things.

Even more concerning is President Putin’s recent assertion that the UN chemical weapons report, which did not explicitly accuse Assad but does does implicitly suggest his regime was responsible for the August 21st chemical weapons attacks, is “biased”. He later goes on to say the Assad regime has evidence suggesting the rebels are responsible. So Putin would have us believe the UN is biased, but Assad is not? Sorry, but I’m not buying that and neither should you.

The French seem to finally be willing to arm the legitimate syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army:

“On delivering weapons we have always said that we want to control these supplies so that they do indeed go to the Free Syrian Army … because they represent the Syrian National Coalition that we recognise as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and today they are caught between a hammer and an anvil,” Hollande said.

“The hammer is the air strikes and actions of the Syrian regime and the anvil is radical Islam,” he said.

If the U.S. also agrees to arm the FSA, and can garner international support to strike Assad in response to confirmed chemical weapons usage, the Syrian-stalemate can be overcome and the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people realized.

Egypt: With Chemical weapons use in Syria dominating news, unrest in Egypt has taken a back-seat on the international communities agenda. However, fighting between Islamic Militants and the Egyptian Army continues. It is the job of the Egyptian military to rid Egypt of these extremists and ensure stability. It is not the Egyptians army’s job to condemn all Muslim’s as terrorists (as it has in the aftermath of the Morsi ouster). The Egyptian military wishes to remain unaccountable to the Egyptian people–it is not committed to effective democratic rule–as expressed in a draft of the new Egyptian Constitutional Declaration.

(Original article):

The Islamist assembly pointedly excluded prominent feminist, activist and secularist voices. It’s unclear to whom the current committee — appointed by an interim president, backed by the army, packed with the heads of official institutions — is accountable beside the state itself. Organizations such as the Journalists’ Syndicate have already complained that their recommendations on press law and freedoms of speech have been overlooked.

And this assembly, just like the previous one, is rushing its work, and conducting it with little transparency. In fact, the Islamist assembly may have been better at sharing information about its progress: It maintained a Web site tracking the latest discussions and amendments. We learn of the workings of the current assembly only through sporadic interviews its members give to the press.

This issue could be addressed in the coming weeks. And there are many ways in which the current constitution could improve upon the last. Hoda Elsadda, a founding member of a prominent feminist research center who heads the freedoms and liberties subcommittee, says she want to include an article prohibiting discrimination and human rights violation by the security services. Several members of the assembly have voiced their opposition to military trials of civilians. The rights of religious minorities, women and children — given short shrift in the last document — will probably receive greater emphasis now.

But In a country  ruled by the military, and amid a declared war on terrorism, it seems very unlikely that the constitution’s biggest shortcomings will be addressed. The draft as it stands now subjects fundamental freedoms to vague qualifications that render them meaningless: These freedoms must be exercised “according to the law” or as long as they don’t hinder “national security.” The document places the army above oversight and accountability.

And it sets many Egyptians — not just supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood — on the sidelines of what should be a national conversation and a fresh start.

To be fair, Morsi’s constitutional drafting process was not exactly inclusive either. But Morsi’s regime was willing to work within the democratic process, while General Sisi is not. The democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people will likely come second to ensuring the military’s grip on power.

Iran: Iranian President Rouhani, a relative moderate, has been much more diplomatic towards the West than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian economy has been crippled by 5 years of economic sanctions, and in order to have those sanctions lifted, Iranian leaders appear willing to negotiate an agreement on ending Iran’s nuclear weapons program (which it denies having):

American officials say they understand that Iran will need some kind of enrichment ability to assure its own people that it has retained its “nuclear rights,” as its negotiators say. The question is how much. Unless a good deal of the current infrastructure is dismantled, Iran will be able to maintain a threshold nuclear capability — that is, it will be just a few weeks, and a few screwdriver turns, from building a weapon. It is unclear whether Mr. Obama can live with that; the Israelis say they cannot.

The NYT article talked about “sticker shock”, the price Iran will have to pay in order to keep its nuclear rights and have sanctions against it removed. In a previous post, I laid out conditions I thought Iran should have to agree to in order to have sanctions removed:

The issue comes down to transparency, accountability, and ultimately governance. Can countries without the traditional checks and balances present in Western democracies be credible partners? Can they actually uphold their promises, or are they merely trying to buy time / have sanctions eased until it is beneficial to renege on their commitments?

The burden of proof falls on Iran and North Korea on this one. If either country wishes to be allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes without dealing with crippling international sanctions, certain conditions must be met. Most notably, independent international inspectors must be given unrestricted access to known / suspected uranium enrichment facilities; if either country can fulfill this condition, then it will have earned the right to enhance uranium for peaceful purposes.

I still believe these conditions should be part of any talk to ending sanctions against Iran.

Iraq: Sectarian violence has gripped Iraq since the U.S. pulled out, and is in some ways worse than before the Sadam Hussien ouster. Iraq is a case-n-point of the limits of armed intervention in other countries.

Diplomacy is a powerful tool, but it has it’s limits. Both diplomacy and military action, as well as economic leverage and intelligence sharing, combine to form the D.I.M.E foreign policy paradigm I believe the U.S. should pursue.

5 years of sanctions were needed to bring Iran to the bargaining table, and the threat of force was needed to get Assad to admit he had chemical weapons / agree to dismantle his arsenal. Only time will tell how / if these complex issues can be resolved thought diplomacy. One thing is certain; we cannot trust dictators or take them at their word, their commitments must be verifiable. In order to hold a dictator accountable for his concessions, international investigators must be given unfettered access to any point of interest. This requires relinquishing some “national sovereignty”, something no country–democratic or otherwise–likes to do.

The U.S. failed to drive a hard enough bargain (in my mind) on chemical weapons with the Syrian regime. At least as a starting point, Western powers should make their demands clear and strong heading into negotiations with otherwise unaccountable regimes.


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Conflict Watch: Weighing in on Prospective U.S. Military Strikes in Syria

Up until this point, chemical attack allegations in Syria have been a “blame-game” dominated by circumstantial evidence, hypothetical questions / appeals to logic, murky details, and classified information. The Assad regime has blamed “terrorists”, as they have for the duration of the civil war, for launching chemical attacks. Why would we launch these attacks when UN investigators were in the country, they argue? Western powers do not believe the opposition has the capacity to launch such attacks, and blames the Assad regime of offering too little too late when it came to international investigations (this argument has been refuted by chemical weapons experts, which alongside congressional uncertainty, further complicates U.S. military intervention).

The UK dropping out of military strikes, as well as the lack of NATO, Arab League, or U.N.S.C. authorization, makes it difficult to frame a military strike as part of a global coalition. President Obama has assured war-weary Americans there will be “no boots on the ground”, and that a strike will not lead to another long-term entanglement in the region. However, direct military strikes–particularly without broad international support–will naturally lead to further engagement, particularly if  Western / American / Israeli interests are targeted in retaliation.

I actually agree with Speaker Boehner; we need more information on what intelligence the administration has and how strikes fit into Americas long term geopolitical strategy in the Middle-East. In the face of the sequester and looming budget / debt ceiling debates, how will these strikes be financed? The constraints that military spending impose on other fiscal policies affect all American’s; the citizens of this great country deserve more conclusive evidence the Assad regime used chemical weapons. Basing strikes on classified “knowledge” from unknown (to regular people) sources should not satisfy anyone’s need for a transparent and inclusive debate / decision making process leading up to possible military intervention.

Common sense tells us to wait a few days, in order to drum up more international support and get more intelligence from U.N. investigators. There is no sense rushing into action that–despite President Obama’s words and wishes–has inherent long term implications on U.S. military, foreign and fiscal policiesIt seems clear that either the Assad regime or more radical segments of the opposition as responsible for the chemical attacks in Syria. We must determine conclusively who committed this crime against humanity and hold them accountable. 

There has been a lot of talk about precedents being set; if we do not respond to the use of chemical weapons, then international laws banning their use carry very little weight. I agree with this argument, but military decisions should not be made hastily or emotionally. There is no question Bashar al-Assad is a thug who has mercilessly killed tens of thousands of his countrymen and driven well over 1 million Syrians into other countries as refugees, imposing the myriad costs of Syria’s Civil War on the region in an attempt to retain his families 4 decade rule in Syria. I also do not believe a political solution is possible, as Assad believes his rule in Syria is based on something resembling the mandate of heaven.

But the question still remains–did Assad carry out these chemical strikes? If we cannot rule out the possibility that opposition forces used chemical weapons, then a much more dangerous precedent may inadvertently be set–that extremist’s can solicit a military response by using chemical weapons on the very people they are supposed to be fighting for. While this is not what I think happened, we must be certain before making decisions with long term and unforeseeable ramifications. 

Financial considerations should ultimately be secondary once conclusive evidence is presented implicating who is responsible for these attacks. “We cannot afford to hold perpetrators of crimes humanity accountable” is not an acceptable excuse for inaction from the international community. Once conclusive evidence implicating Assad in chemical weapons attacks circulates (or at very least exonerating extremist factions within the Syrian opposition of involvement in said attacks), international intervention can be justified on any number of international law / treaty violations and/or R2P.

In an attempt to isolate these radical segments of the Syrian opposition, plans for creating a national Syrian rebel army have circulated, angering Islamist factions in the opposition:

Syria’s Western-backed political opposition plans to create the nucleus of a national army to bring order to the disparate rebel forces battling President Bashar al-Assad and counter the strength of al Qaeda-linked rebel brigades.

The latest attempt to unite the rebels coincides with fierce debates in Washington and other Western capitals over whether and how to boost support for Assad’s opponents after an alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces on Wednesday.

Chaos among opposition forces and al-Qaeda’s growing role are barriers to any intervention.

Plans for an army are still under wraps but details began emerging earlier this month before the gas attack. It has the blessing of the rebels’ patronSaudi Arabia, which took over as the main regional backer of Assad’s foes earlier this year.

Momentum behind the new force comes from Saudi Arabia and Western nations who, alarmed by the growth of radical Islamists in rebel-held areas, have thrown their weight behind the Syrian Coalition, hoping it could help stem their power.

“Once we get the (battle)field organized, then everything will be organized,” he said. “This will be the army of the new Syria. We want to integrate its ranks and unify the sources of funding and arms,” the Syrian National Coalition member said.

Western-backed rebels say the new structure might be modeled on U.S.-backed militias, known as “Awakening Councils”, which drove al Qaeda from Iraq’s Anbar region six years ago.

The leader of one moderate Islamist brigade, which operates in several parts of the country, said he supported the proposal, but would not say if his fighters would join.

Leaders of more radical groups see it as a Western-backed plot to fight them. “They are undermining the work of all of us. They want to throw it in the bin, as if it never happened,” said a senior commander in Homs province.

Opposition political sources were careful not to portray the new army as a challenge to Islamists, but a senior official said it would only welcome them if they left their brigades.

“This will be an army like any other army in the world. When you join it you leave your beliefs outside. Islamists can join as individuals, not as Islamists.”

The new body is not an alliance of brigades, as in previous attempts to unify insurgency groups; individual fighters will be expected to leave their units to sign up.

Many Syrians initially welcomed the Islamists for bringing order to the chaos of rebel-held territories, but growing resentment of their puritanical rule could win popular sympathy for any new force that challenges them.

Activists in the northern, rebel-held provinces, where Islamists are most powerful, say those criticizing the Islamists are threatened or imprisoned.

“We have challenged Assad when he was strong, and now we are being bullied by radicals who are not even Syrians in our Syria,” said an activist in Aleppo who declined to be named.

With weapons and money flooding into the country, a class of warlords has emerged, including Islamists, who have grown powerful on arms deals and oil smuggling. Activists in the north complain of high levels of theft, bullying and thuggery.

“With this army the Coalition will have a military force on the ground, one that is composed of the best Syrian fighters,” said a Syrian rebel commander in a powerful brigade that has fighters across Syria.

In the meantime, most agree that the disparate groups should work together, at least in temporary alliances against Assad’s troops. But they share a skepticism that the new group will ever see the light of day, or have much impact if it does.

“During this revolution we have seen many great ideas and many great attempts destroyed because of mismanagement. The Free Syrian Army is an example of this. As long as the roots of the problems are not solved, then nothing will change.”

“They are all failed projects; there is no awareness among those leading this revolution and also there is no clear strategy. In addition to this you have got the hesitation from the West. As long as this continues, this will be a failed project.”

A national Syrian rebel army is a good idea for overcoming extremist’s influence–who are often not of Syrian origins themselves–that have tried to hijack the legitimate grievances which originally spurred the Syrian revolution . This Army will require adequate financing and training from Western backers if it is to fulfill its goals.

However, one must be suspicious of Saudi Arabia’s intentions in funding this army. Despite being “pro-Western”, Saudi Arabia and many other Middle-Eastern monarchies are fundamentally opposed to the ideas of political Islam, as highlighted by support for the Egyptian Military Coup and it’s “interim government”. It must be made crystal clear in the rebel army’s enabling legislation that the army exists to uphold the will of all Syrian people, is accountable to the Syrian people and it’s future democratic government, and is committed to a pluralistic democratic Syria and international human rights norms. Any Islamist in favor of these goals is free to join the national Syrian rebel army, provided they renounce ties and allegiances to other groups–a precondition for joining any effective and unified army.  

The last thing we need is another military backed authoritarian regime posing as democracy. These “democracies” ultimately undermine the ability for effective democracy to take root, by reinforcing the misconception that democracy and political Islam are irreconcilable.  

It would be tactically advantageous to have this rebel army armed and ready to capitalize after any U.S. led military strikes should such strikes ever occur. It seems like the timing is not right for these two military strategies to synergize, unless this army has been in the works for some time now under-wraps and is almost ready to be rolled out (which is unlikely). It makes sense now for Obama to wait at least a week before taking any action, in order to rally international support for military strikes at the upcoming G-20 talks in Moscow.


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Transparency Report: Denuclearization

In a speech delivered at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin yesterday, President Obama outlined many of his global ambitions for his second term. Among those was a renewed global push for nuclear disarmament:

“President Obama plans to use a speech in Berlin on Wednesday to outline plans for further reductions in the American nuclear arsenal if Russia agrees to pare back its weapons at the same time, administration officials said Tuesday.”

“Mr. Obama will propose trimming the number of strategic warheads that each of the two big nuclear powers still maintains by up to a third, taking them below the 1,550 permitted in the treaty he signed with Russia in his first term, a senior administration official said. That would leave each country with just over 1,000 weapons.”

“Mr. Obama will also declare that he will work with NATO allies to develop proposals for major cuts in tactical nuclear weapons, which are not covered by the existing treaty. Russia, which has far more tactical nuclear weapons deployed than the United States and Europe do, has firmly resisted such cuts. There are fears that its tactical weapons are in parts of Russia where they risk being seized by terrorist groups.”
“The president, who once talked about eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons, faces enormous obstacles to any further reductions, both in Moscow and in Washington. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has demanded further concessions on missile defense before entertaining deeper nuclear cuts, and Republicans in the Senate have made clear they would resist any treaty that went beyond the New Start pact ratified in 2010.”

Despite obstacles, it is heartening to see President Obama placing nuclear disarmament on his second term agenda. It is important if the U.S. seeks legitimacy in talks with Iran and North Korea; both countries, in a recent change of tone, seem ready to begin talks with the U.S.

North Korea:

“North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission announced on Sunday that Pyongyang was ready to hold ‘broad and in-depth discussions’ with the US on a range of issues, including the building of ’a world without nuclear weapons.’”

“The country warned, however, that talks cannot take place if the US continues to set preconditions for direct dialogue. Washington has repeatedly said that North Korea must take concrete steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program before negotiations can take place.”

“The Obama administration said Sunday it was receptive to North Korea’s proposal for high-level talks, but wanted “credible negotiations” that would lead to a nuclear-free North.”

“National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement: ‘Our desire is to have credible negotiations with the North Koreans, but those talks must involve North Korea living up to its obligations to the world,’ including UN resolutions, and ‘ultimately result in denuclearization.’”

The U.S., preempting an obvious North Korean objection of America’s vast nuclear program, is taking the first step towards realizing a “world without nuclear weapons”. The issue remains whether Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea can be a credible negotiating partner.

China will have a key role to play in such negotiations, which it is hopefully ready to do after Presidents Obama and Xi summit meeting in early June. There are reasons to be optimistic, China has signed onto UN sanctions against North Korean in response to nuclear testing, frozen North Korean assets in major Chinese banks, and generally taking a much firmer tone than usual on the issue of North Korean denuclearization.

Iran:

“The election of Hassan Rowhani as Iran’s next president creates an opportunity to move forward on a negotiated agreement to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program and to begin to repair three decades of hostility with the United States.”

“During his first news conference on Monday, Mr. Rowhani promised to “follow the path of moderation” and allow greater openness over the nuclear program. But he also restated Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment as the United Nations Security Council has demanded.”

“Iran is ready to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, a key demand of world powers at talks over its disputed nuclear program, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

In return, the Persian Gulf nation must be offered “weighty reciprocal steps,” including a gradual lifting of unilateral and United Nations sanctions, Lavrov said in an interview with the Kuwaiti news service Kuna posted today on the Foreign Ministry’s website.”

“‘This could become a breakthrough agreement that could largely remove the tension surrounding the existing problems, including concern about enrichment rising to weapons level,’ he said. ‘It would be unforgivable not to use this opportunity.’”

“Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili said that while his country would consider the step of suspending enrichment at 20 percent levels, ‘we must know upon what foundations it rests.’ Recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful use under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would move the talks forward, he said.”

The interesting issue here is Iran’s continued insistence that its uranium enrichment is for peaceful means. As an American of Jewish decent, I have many reservations about legitimizing the nuclear capacity of a nation that has a history of promoting both anti-Western and anti-Israeli values.

However, the development economist and human rights advocate in me agrees with Mr. Jalili than Iran has a “right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes”. The fact that it is expressly stipulated in the NPT gives legal backing to the human rights implications of nuclear capability.

Enriched uranium can be used for peaceful purposes, such as nuclear energy and medical isotopes. Is it not the right for Iran’s citizens to have access to cheaper electricity and advances in medical care as the nation modernizes, unlocking resources for further modernization?

Further complicating matters is that nuclear energy has virtually zero GHG emissions; it is hypocritical to promote sustainable development (as Obama has done and continues to do) and at the same time disallow Iran from using nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is part of a “comprehensive energy portfolio” needed to combat climate change.

The issue comes down to transparency, accountability, and ultimately governance. Can countries without the traditional checks and balances present in Western democracies be credible partners? Can they actually uphold their promises, or are they merely trying to buy time / have sanctions eased until it is beneficial to renege on their commitments?

The burden of proof falls on Iran and North Korea on this one. If either country wishes to be allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes without dealing with crippling international sanctions, certain conditions must be met. Most notably, independent international inspectors must be given unrestricted access to known / suspected uranium enrichment facilities; if either country can fulfill this condition, then it will have earned the right to enhance uranium for peaceful purposes. 

What do my readers think? Are nuclear capabilities a “right”? Can either Iran or NK (or both) be credible negotiating partners? Does nuclear energy have a role to play n combating climate change? Global denuclearization is the definition of a long-term normative goal, but we must start somewhere. To paraphrase Voltaire, we should not let perfection impede progress.


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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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Transparency Thursday: Making Sanctions “Smarter”

Sanctions are defined as penalties or other means of enforcement used to provide incentives for obedience with the law, or with rules and regulations. In a foreign affairs context, sanctions are generally imposed by a group of countries (the greater the participation the more effective sanctions can be, and in many cases without strategic involvement sanctions can effectively be useless) in order to influence a political/military/economic  outcome abroad. Sanctions allow countries to show their dislike of a particular course of action without infringing on the sovereign rights of states and without military intervention. Sanctions are often used in the face of gross human rights violations. Prominent examples of sanctions in use today are North Korea, Iran, and Syria (covering both the government and the opposition).

Despite the ability to hold powerful interests accountable, sanctions are not a unanimously popular foreign policy instrument.  One reason, as stated before, is that without strategic agreements (neighboring countries, trade partners, ideologically aligned states) sanctions will be ineffective. They can lead to the formation of black markets, giving criminal organizations even more resources for nefarious activities. The main concern regarding sanctions however is in regards to their human rights implications.

Although sanctions are often meant to end human rights violations, their existence can actually exacerbate humanitarian crises, especially in the short run. While each sanction is uniquely tailored to the situation it is trying to influence, the indiscriminate shortages that sanctions generally cause affects everyone in society (and arguably vulnerable / marginalized groups the most). Because of this, the practice of imposing sanctions has evolved towards the imposition of “smart sanctions“. In essence, smart sanctions are more targeted sanctions (think freezing financial assets as opposed to a complete embargo), meant to put pressure on strategic parties while considering and sometimes providing aid to compensate for human rights issues that may arise.

Smart sanctions are the topic of today’s lesson. I am referring specifically to recent changes made in sanctions against Iran and Syria.

Iran: A little background, Iran is currently facing sanctions which are attempting to deter Iranian nuclear capacity development, which Iran has insisted is for peaceful purposes (medical), but the Western world has strongly opposed.

Iran is also in presidential campaign season, and preliminary reports do not look good for denuclearization and human rights interests:

“Mr. Jalili, known as Iran’s unyielding nuclear negotiator and a protégé of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is emerging as the presumed front-runner in Iran’s presidential election on June 14, an unsettling prospect for future relations with the West. Mr. Jalili, 47, who many analysts say has long been groomed for a top position in Iran, is by far the most outspoken hard-liner among the eight candidates approved to participate in the election.”

“He has been featured in flattering terms in recent weeks in the semiofficial Fars news agency, which is connected to the Revolutionary Guards, as well as in dozens of Web sites and other news outlets. By contrast, the other candidates now sometimes discover their campaign appearances canceled for unclear reasons and often find themselves under sharp attack in interviews on state TV, while Mr. Jalili gets softball questions.”

“If he gets elected I foresee even more isolation and conflict, as he doesn’t care about foreign relations, the economy or anything,” the analyst said.”

To make matters worse, lack of transparency has marked previous Iranian elections.

“Iran’s presidential elections, lacking independent opinion polls and subject to manipulation, are notoriously unpredictable. In 2005, Mr. Ahmadinejad came out of nowhere to win. In 2009, millions of people took to the streets to protest what they said was widespread fraud in the voting that returned Mr. Ahmadinejad to office over the more popular opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi.”

In order to prevent against corrupt election practices, and possibly to help organize opposition to Mr. Jalili, the U.S. today announced it will repeal sanctions on mobile devices and  communication software / equipment. 

“The change is intended to help Iranians communicate through social media, text messaging and mobile-phone videos in order to overcome some of the media and communications restrictions imposed by Iranian authorities.

The action “aims to empower the Iranian people as their government intensifies its efforts to stifle their access to information,” according to a Treasury Department statement.”

“Providing the democracy movement in Iran with access to the latest social media organizing tools will strengthen their efforts to bring about positive change to a government that fears information it can’t control,” Democratic Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, who has sought such action, said in an e-mailed statement today.”

“The U.S. has supported attempts to boost democratic movements and stepped up efforts to stop regimes such as those in Iran and Syria from blocking social media through what Obama has called the “malign use of technology.”

In November, the administration imposed sanctions on Iranian officials –including the nation’s communications minister — and government agencies for blocking Internet access, mobile-phone lines and satellite-television channels to stifle free speech.

The Treasury named today additional individuals and entities for “contributing to serious human rights abuses committed by the Iranian regime, including through the use of communications technology to silence and intimidate the Iranian people.” The State Department issued visa restrictions on about 60 Iranian officials linked to human rights abuses.”

This story highlights the importance of media independence and transparency for effective democracy. The use of social media has been instrumental in “The Arab Spring” revolutions, enabling  the dissemination of information, while overcoming collective action problems that tend to allow powerful interests to remain in control to the detriment of society as a whole. Communications technology also has positive uses for healthcare, education, and e-governance. But in this case, it is clear that the U.S. is trying to allow more liberal Iranians to communicate, in hopes of challenging Mr. Jalili’s candidacy. Additionally, mobile devices make it easier to report political rights abuses, such as coercive measures at polls and other means of election-rigging.

At a recent ECOSOC Partnerships forum I was lucky enough to attend in my capacity as a UNDP intern, Mr. Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of Datawind, called access to affordable mobile internet access a human right–I agreed with him, and it seems the Obama administration is of like mind. These smarter sanctions should help uphold electoral integrity in the upcoming elections, and should help improve the average Iranian’s opinion of America.

Syria has now been engaged in a civil war that has lasted over 2 years, claimed over 80,000 lives, and lead to over 1 million refugees and internally displaced people in the Middle-East. The civil war and refugee flows have threatened the already tenuous stability of the region, and a full blow humanitarian crisis has enveloped the entire country of Syria.

Gridlock in the U.N.S.C. has prevented direct international military intervention. Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed international intervention, championing Syria’s national sovereignty despite undeniable human rights violations committed by the Assad regime. As the fighting continues, and Western support has lagged compared to Russian military support of the Assad regime (with no signs of slowing down, as Assad has apparently just received a new shipment of Russian arms), the Syrian opposition has turned towards extremists groups for support, which has further complicated international involvement.

Recent actions show that the EU is reconsidering its position on it’s Syrian arms embargo.

“Divisions among European Union foreign ministers on Monday prevented the renewal of the arms embargo on Syria, raising the possibility of a new flow of weapons to rebels fighting to bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria, it gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate and worsen,” William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said after more than 12 hours of stormy talks.”

“The ministers did agree to renew all the economic sanctions already in place against the Syrian government.”

“There were also fears that Russia, which already sends arms to the Syrian government, would feel freer to send more.”

“The only effect you could have — let’s be realistic about this — is that it will stimulate the Russians to provide even more arms,” he said. “But they’ve been providing so many arms that I’m sure even more will not make much of a difference.”

While nothing will change immediately, it is significant the Europe has left the door open to providing military aid to the Syrian opposition in the future. The fact the Europe is taking the lead on this is encouraging. It also makes much more sense, as Europe is geographically much closer to Syria and it’s main ally Russia. While I am sure any coordinated European effort would have American support, it is nice to have the spotlight off American foreign affairs for a change.

There is also some concern that increased arms flow will undermine proposed peace talks in Geneva, which would include the Assad regime, the Syrian opposition, the U.S. and Russia among other participants. This is also a legitimate claim, although I see this as more of a measure to ensure the peace talks do bear fruit. European leaders are putting pressure on the Assad regime to negotiate a political transition by signaling their willingness to further aid the rebels should the peace talks break down. Syria has been in a hurting stalemate for sometime now, perhaps European powers are giving the Assad regime one more chance at a political transition to end this war before pursuing a military end.

These two stories are linked, as Mr. Jalili, a hardliner and supporter of Hezbollah, would likely step up support to the Assad regime if elected as Iranian president. Perhaps the Assad regime is just trying to buy time with “peace talks” until it has a stauncher ally in Iran.

There has also been the issue of whether Iran should be allowed to participate in Syrian peace talks (if you have been paying attention, the usual suspects are backing the sides you would expect them to in this dispute).

Sanctions are getting smarter, as human rights considerations gain more recognition as the cornerstone of the modernization process.  Will these “smart sanctions” help achieve the desired outcome without exacerbating human rights violations? Lets be cautiously optimistic; be sure to check back for regular updates on these evolving and inter-related issues.

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Conflict Watch: Arm the “Good Guys”, Disarm the “Bad Guys”

On April second, the U.N. passed a historic Arms Trade Treaty:

“The U.N. assembly voted 154 in favor of the treaty, three against and 23 abstentions (U.N. officials said the actual vote should have been 155-3-22; Angola was recorded as having abstained, though it had attempted to vote yes.) Iran, Syria and North Korea cast the sole votes against the treaty.

Major arms producers China and Russia joined Bolivia, Nicaragua and India — the world’s largest importer of arms — in abstaining. Significantly, the United States reversed its decades-long policy of opposition to such measures and voted in favor of the treaty.”

There are questions as to whether the vote will pass the senate, as the gun lobby in America is expected to fight it tooth and nail (even though a direct stipulation of Obama’s support was that the treaty would not undermine second amendment rights, but the gun lobby in this country has proven itself to be amazingly resilient to facts and policy wording).

The treaty centers on human rights abuses. It requires arms deals to be reviewed based on the recipient of the weapons. If the recipient has a questionable human rights background, or there is any evidence the weapons may be used to perpetuate human rights violations, the deal will be deemed in violation of the treaty.

Regardless of U.S. passage, the treaty is a good thing. The U.S. has proven to be quite reserved with its weapons sales to questionable recipients, evidenced by the fact that we still will not provide arms to the Syrian opposition. “’We [the U.S.] license all imports and all exports of weapons, and we monitor where they’re coming from and who they’re going to when we’re in the business of exporting them externally.’

In a sense, the treaty attempts to bring the rest of the world up to this “gold standard” of trade control.”

While it would certainly strengthen the treaty to have the world’s largest arms exporter on board, it is not a make or break vote. If the NRA and gun lobby in America really want to throw their support behind Iran, Syria, and North Korea, so be it—it would truly highlight how backwards and irrational such organizations are.    

Syria is in a civil war, and North Korea has regularly threatened nuclear strikes on America and its allies. Iran is a suspected hub for destabilizing arms trade throughout the African continent. The fact that these 3 countries are the only ones who voted no to the treaty should tell you something about the level of support the treaty has globally.

This effort to take weapons out of the hands of “bad guys” has been bolstered by America’s decision to sell weapons to the “good guys”:

“The Defense Department is expected to finalize a $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates next week that will provide missiles, warplanes and troop transports to help them counter any future threat from Iran.”

“The objective, one senior administration official said, was “not just to boost Israel’s capabilities, but also to boost the capabilities of our Persian Gulf partners so they, too, would be able to address the Iranian threat — and also provide a greater network of coordinated assets around the region to handle a range of contingencies.”

Those other security risks, officials said, include the roiling civil war in Syria — a country with chemical weapons that could be used by the Assad government or seized by rebels — and militant violence in the Sinai Peninsula.”

The U.S. has bolstered its military capacity in Asia and put pressure on China to counter the North Korean threat. It has signed the UN ATT in an attempt to help keep arms out of the hands of human rights violators and terrorists. It has doubled down on its strategic presence in the Middle-East by further arming its allies in the region.

The U.S. arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may also be an attempt to show how the treaty works, based on its timing. Weapons manufacturers need not fear that their sales will drop due to the treaty—as long as weapons are going to responsible recipients, the treaty has been in no way violated.  

I like this two sided approach to helping ensure global security. The shortcomings of overt military action have been highlighted by “the war on terror”. America must rely on its strategic allies, as well as Europe, in order to ensure global security in a financially sustainable way—the U.S. simply cannot afford to continue playing “Team America, World Police”.

Obama has continued to impress with his foreign affairs record. He is following Teddy Roosevelt’s famous words “speak softly, and carry a big stick”, with the added provision that he will also supply big sticks to America’s allies and do his best to take big sticks away from our enemies.

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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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