Normative Narratives


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

kurdmap

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

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

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

Take Land From Those Who Have Proven They Cannot Govern It

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conditionality is Key

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

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

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

The Benefits of Bold Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defeating ISIS means Western boots on the ground

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

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

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

  1. Social Media
  2. Financial
  3. Traditional Warfare

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

Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Financial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traditional Warfare

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

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

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

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

Degrading AND Defeating the Islamic State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Conflict Watch: Kurdish Awakening

Original article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Its Human Rights, Stupid!

Two weeks ago, the Obama Administration hosted a summit in Washington D.C. on countering violent extremism. With terrorist organizations such as ISIL and Boko Haram massacring people with relative impunity, high ranking government officials from around the world, representatives from the United Nations, and experts in the field came together to discuss how best to counter such groups.

Without trivializing the essential role of military operations, there is a growing consensus that a comprehensive, multi-dimensional approach is needed to effectively counter terrorism. A military response alone does not address the root causes which enable the formation and continued operation of extremist organizations, and can be counter-productive by fueling anti-Western propaganda (drone warfare has been particularly contentious in this regard).

An important component of this multi-dimensional approach is the promotion and protection of human rights. This sentiment was echoed by both President Obama and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Obama:

As he sought to rally the world behind a renewed attack on terrorism, President Obama argued on Thursday that force of arms was not enough and called on all nations to “put an end to the cycle of hate” by expanding human rights, religious tolerance and peaceful dialogue.

But the challenge of his approach was staring him right in the face. His audience of invited guests, putative allies in a fresh international counterterrorism campaign, included representatives from some of the world’s least democratic and most repressive countries.

Critics say the terrorism fight has simply enabled autocratic regimes to go after their political foes without worrying about American disapproval. Egypt’s leaders, for instance, have moved to stifle the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition group they deem too radical. “It is futile to distinguish between bad terrorists, which must be defeated, and good terrorists, which can be accommodated,” Mr. Shoukry said.

The White House acknowledged the disconnect between advocating human rights and teaming up with human rights violators. But aides said it was one Mr. Obama had learned to live with, given the importance of maintaining an international coalition to fight the Islamic State and other terror threats.

“It’s a perennial challenge of the U.S. government that some of our partners are much more aggressive than others in how they define their domestic terrorist challenge,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama. That dynamic is “most obvious in Egypt, where essentially there’s been a very broad brush in terms of who represents a terrorist threat.”

“When people spew hatred toward others because of their faith or because they’re immigrants, it feeds into terrorist narratives,” Mr. Obama said. “It feeds a cycle of fear and resentment and a sense of injustice upon which extremists prey. And we can’t allow cycles of suspicion to tear the fabrics of our countries.”

Ban Ki Moon:

“Let there be no doubt,” Mr. Ban proclaimed to a room full of high-level delegates including US Secretary of State John Kerry, “The emergence of a new generation of transnational terrorist groups including Da’esh [or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and Boko Haram is a grave threat to international peace and security.”

“These extremists are pursuing a deliberate strategy of shock and awe – beheadings, burnings, and snuff films designed to polarize and terrorize, and provoke and divide us,” the UN chief added, commending UN Member States for their political will to defeat terrorist groups and at the same time, urging them to stay “mindful of the pitfalls.”

“Many years of our experience have proven that short-sighted policies, failed leadership and an utter disregard for human dignity and human rights have causes tremendous frustration and anger on the part of people who we serve,” the UN chief said.

…preventing violent extremism requires a multi-pronged approach. While military operations are crucial, they are not the entire solution. “Bullets are not the silver bullet,” Mr. Ban said, emphasizing that while missiles may kill terrorists, good governance kills terrorism.

“Human rights, accountable institutions, the equitable delivery of services, and political participation – these are among our most powerful weapons,” the Secretary-General stressed.

Why Isn’t More Done?

If such a consensus exists around the significant role human rights violations play in a variety of negative outcomes (including violent extremism), why don’t policymakers do more to promote human rights? One explanation is that human rights encompass many issues: economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights. Furthermore, no consensus exists with regards to the hierarchy of human rights. Fulfilling some human rights obligations are inherently expensive (economic and social rights), while others have more to do with those in power loosening their grip (political, civil, and cultural). In other words, human rights include both positive and negative rights. Which rights should be prioritized in a world of finite resources and political capital?

I am of the camp that believes human rights are inter-dependent; one human right violation enables others, culminating in armed conflict and/or “extreme poverty”. Therefore, there really is no hierarchy. The exception to this rule is the right to life / security; a violation of this right (murder) is permanent and obviously must be upheld before other rights can be considered. This reality is often bastardized to justify restricting rights in the name of security, an issue I will address later in more detail.

Another issue is that the “ends” of promoting some human rights are not immediate, which historically has made verifying progress difficult. To this end, the UN’s Post-2015 Task Force has placed an emphasis on developing indicators for previously non-quantifiable aspects of human rights. These indicators can help verify when progress is being made on longer-term goals, and when ineffective programs need to be adjusted or scrapped.

Promoting and protecting human rights, while admittedly an ambitious goal, gives direction to sustainable development agendas (likes the SDGs / post-2015 development agenda) in both “first world” countries and the world’s least developed countries. Specifically which rights should be prioritized is context sensitive and should be identified through the democratic process.

Problems With Partners

Many of America’s partners, particularly in the Middle-East, are authoritarian regimes which do not share our beliefs in pluralism and human rights. These regimes tend to fight extremism by further restricting peoples rights in the name of security, exacerbating a vicious cycle of violence, under-development / poverty, and human rights abuses. They often characterize any dissenters as “terrorists”, even if their actions are entirely peaceful.

But relying solely on “Western” actors is not financial sustainable or effective, as it fuels the “Western Imperialism” terrorist narrative. Regional partners must play a leading role in combating extremist activities and ideologies. Although imperfect, we must work with these partners as they are, while simultaneously cultivating local support for human rights. 

Even our “democratic” allies may find it in their best interest to restrict certain rights. Take Egypt for example, where extremist violence has led to popular support for an unaccountable military regime. One could certainly argue that it is in the Egyptian governments best interest to manage, but not eliminate, violent extremism.

And of course, the American-led coalition has its limits–for example, it refuses to work with the Assad despite the military benefits such a partnership would entail.

The Case for an American National Human Rights Institution:

Human rights accountability outlines the responsibilities of different actors–corporations, the public sector, international development organizations, NGOs, and civil society–in promoting and protecting human rights.

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI), which have proliferated over the past two decades, can act as human rights watchdogs. These institutions are most effective when they have a strong mandate, a working relationship with the criminal justice system, and receive their funding independently of federal budgetary decisions.

The unfortunate irony is that in the very places that could benefit the most from effective NHRIs, these conditions are not met. Critics argue NHRIs are ineffective and put in place to create the illusion of promoting and protecting human rights. While this may be true in some cases, it is not in all; ultimately, NHRIs can be as effective or ineffective as their mandates and operating space allow.

The absence of an American NHRI is particularly conspicuous. While America does have strong protections of many rights, it lags in other areas (particularly privacy concerns). A NHRI could provide a forum for people to directly address grievances against the government. Perhaps the whole Snowden debacle could have been averted with a functioning ombudsman system.

An American NHRI could be an political mouthpiece for people, helping to restore faith in the American government (which, sadly, is the lowest amongst the financially insecure–the very people who could benefit from public policy the most). Who knows, an American NHRI institution could play a part in jump-starting stagnant wages and promoting social mobility! While far from a cure-all, an American NHRI could “punch above its weight” in terms of resources required to run it.

Perhaps most importantly, an American NHRI would act as a model for NHRIs in other countries, assisting with financial support, technical knowledge, and capacity building. An American NHRI would unaccountably be a strong voice within the the international coordinating committee (ICC) of NHRIs.

These are hypothetical results, and the presence of effective NHRIs does not mean the realization of human rights would progress in a perfectly linear fashion. The closer people get to acquiring new rights, the harder vested interests dig in against them. This is what is playing out now in the Middle-East and in the Ukrainian Civil War–extremists and authoritarians clinging to the remnants of an old order.

The power of effective democratic governance and a human rights based approach to development is truly awesome. Next time someone asks how America can promote progressive values both at home and abroad, just tell them “it’s human rights, stupid!”

Note: This blog focused exclusively on the relationship between human rights and violent extremism. Click the following links for more information on the linkages between human rights, armed conflict, and economic development (which are themselves related root causes of violent extremism).

In Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen argues promoting human rights is not only a means to an end (“positive peace“, sustainable development, poverty and inequality reduction), but also an important end in itself (empowering people, enabling self-determination)–I fully agree!

Taking a holistic view of the benefits of upholding international human rights norms, an even stronger argument can be made for their promotion and protection.


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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: The Imperfect But Neccesary Fight Against ISIS

 

In the week following the unveiling of the new American-led anti-ISIS plan, one thing has become clear. This plan, while theoretically sound, will be very difficult to implement.

Regional allies have been reluctant to commit to specific responsibilities in the fight against ISIS. This reluctance highlights some American hubris that I failed to account for in my previous post. Even if taking on specific responsibilities is ultimately in these countries best interests, America cannot simply delegate responsibilities to other countries and decide for them that they will accept them. Generally speaking, the dearth of political will, lukewarm attitudes towards American intervention, and protracted grievances between potential allies are to blame for these seemingly irrational responses.

But despite these issues, the American plan is still the best way forward in a less than ideal situation. For sustainable peace and development, what is known in the conflict resolution field as “positive peace”, a pluralistic, inclusive, human rights based approach to development is needed. This is, unfortunately, far from the current reality in the Middle East.

However, in order for development to take hold, there must be “negative peace”–an absence of fighting. And it is fostering negative peace that the American plan is primarily focused on. There are elements of positive peacebuilding–capacity building for allies that share American values of pluralism and human rights–but these are secondary to the goal of “degrading and ultimately defeating ISIS”. “Negative peace” is a necessary precondition for “positive peace” to truly take hold. The foundations of “positive” peace can be laid, but in order for it’s benefits to reach people–to begin the process of sustainable human development–an atmosphere of security / “negative peace” must exist.

Ideally, “positive peace” is built preventatively; should conflict erupt, the partnerships and trust needed to negotiate an end to the fighting already exist. There is nothing “ideal” about the fight against ISIS; the group moves with blinding speed, destroying everything that opposes its radical version of Islam. To do nothing would amount to a de-facto death sentence for anyone who dares to oppose ISIS, while enabling the group to cement it’s control in the region. This would make “negative peace” even more difficult to attain.

Unfortunately, it is too late for preventative peacebuilding in the fight against ISIS. The American-led plan must try to simultaneously build “positive” and “negative” peace–admittedly a difficult task. To this end, the plan must be inclusive of all Muslims, Sunni and Shiite (as well as minority groups). Furthermore, it must minimize actions that ISIS can use as anti-Western propaganda–something the group has proved itself adept at.

This fight against ISIS will not be quick or easy. It would be easier if regional allies would take stronger stands and commit to specific responsibilities in the fight against ISIS, but early indications suggest this is currently not the reality. Short of putting boots on the ground, America must make up for the current shortfalls of our regional partners. If we do not, no one else will, and the ISIS threat will become even more difficult to confront.


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Conflict Watch: ISIL, Terrorism, and Social Media

When one thinks of an extremist / terrorist organization such as ISIL, the first things that comes to mind are probably guerrilla warfare, intimidation and coercion; given recent mass killings in Syria and Iraq, it is obvious where this image comes from. While this image is accurate, it is an incomplete view of the enemy we are fighting. What we are dealing with is a foe who embraces the theory of “hearts and minds” by providing essential services to people, is skilled in propaganda (especially when we give them “ammo”, such as drone warfare), and has embraced social media in order to attract a larger, younger, international following:

The extremist group battling the Iraqi government, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, may practice a seventh-century version of fundamentalist Islam, but it has demonstrated modern sophistication when it comes to using social media, particularly Twitter and other sites like WordPress and Tumblr.

What ISIS realized, more quickly and effectively than its rivals, was that “smartphones and social media accounts are all that is needed to instantly share material in real time with tens of thousands of jihadists,” said Rita Katz, a terrorism analyst who on Friday published a study of ISIS and Twitter on the website of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online.

“ISIS, as well as its fighters and supporters, quickly adopted these tools and has been utilizing the latest Internet technologies and social media outlets to maintain massive, sophisticated online media campaigns used to promote jihad, communicate, recruit and intimidate,” Ms. Katz wrote.

Aside from sowing terror and winning extremist admirers, ISIS’s use of social media has also had both strategic and tactical impacts on the battlefield.

In Mosul, two weeks before ISIS attacked and overran the city, it began broadcasting individualized death threats on its Facebook accounts to every Iraqi journalist working in the city, said one of those singled out.

Many experts on extremists’ online activity have complained that the social networking sites should be policing their platforms better.

“Twitter must adapt to these new circumstances and become more proactive in deterring such activity,” Ms. Katz said. “It has the capability to carry out account monitoring and suspensions on much larger scales than it has thus far.”

An official of a social networking site, who said he would speak frankly only if his name was not used, said the huge size of the major sites made it impossible to enforce rules against terrorists’ use. “It’s kind of like whack-a-mole,” he said.

“We constantly look at these things and when we find them we take them down,” he said. “Our policy is any terrorist organization, we take down.”

For instance, Facebook has shut down a half-dozen accounts linked to ISIS, the social networking official said.

Guerrilla warfare is intrinsically hard to defeat; by decentralizing power, the cost of any individual loss is minimized. Terrorist groups have successfully used this leaner form of warfare to counter opponents who have greater resources than them. Social media is an extension of guerrilla tactics; accounts are free to setup, and once one is closed, another pops up.

On Sunday, ISIL announced the formation of an Islamic caliphate on Twitter. This announcement was billed as “the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11,” according to Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. The fact that ISIL would take to social media for such an important announcement shows how fully the organization has embraced modern technologies.

To paraphrase Sun Tzu, the ancient  Chinese military strategist whose famous work “The Art of War” remains relevant today, it is important to both “know thy enemy and thyself”. The United States, under the leadership of President Obama, has “found” its Post-War on Terror foreign policy identity: a mixture of drone warfare, local capacity building in conflict areas (including technical “good governance” assistance, intelligence sharing, military training, and economic assistance) and more evenly spreading the costs of global security with other developed world powers.

We found this identity both from our own failures, and by recognizing that our enemy has evolved. Al Qaeda and its offshoots have gone from a relatively “vertical” organization under Osama Bin Laden, to a “horizontal” and splintered group of extremist organizations. Due to shortcomings in domestic governance, they have positioned themselves to Middle-Eastern societies as an alternative to modern democracy; a preserver of tradition and religion and provider of basic needs (including security against American drone warfare). Furthermore, they have begun to utilize tools such as social media to galvanize public support (similarly to how democratic movements have been organized via social media).

Extremist groups like ISIL are deplorable; they represent backwards and socially regressive norms. However, they have also proven themselves to be incredibly adaptable and resilient. With this in mind, it would be prudent for America and it’s allies to shift resources away from programs which fuel extremist popularity (such as drone warfare, which while sometimes needed, has been overused too the point of counter-productivity), and towards programs that undermine their appeal (government capacity building both for public service delivery and security forces, and building relationships / institutions which promote inclusive and pluralistic democratic governance).