White Helmets merit the Nobel Prize

White Helmets

As one of what I trust were many people who wrote ‎a Nobel Prize nomination for the White Helmets, I’m interested in seeing as many people as possible sign the petition Marieke Bosman of the Asfari Foundation circulated in an email I received this morning. She wrote: 

Help us tell a different story about Syria – one of peace and hope: the story of the White Helmets, Syria’s humble heroes. Please support their nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize

I hope this finds you well.

As you may know, some years ago the Asfari Foundation played a crucial role in setting up the Syria Campaign. This social media campaign was set up to show the world that Syria isn’t a bipolar nightmare of radical extremists and violent government forces. It was to show what those who know Syria well are so aware of: that the majority of ordinary Syrian citizens want a different, peaceful and democratic future for their country. We wassnted to show the lives of these ordinary people, and, in particular, the brave efforts of civil society organisations, courageous Syrians who, at risk of their own lives, provide education, food, shelter, medical care, and search and rescue for fellow citizens as the conflict rages on.

One such organisation is the White Helmets. Also known as the Civil Defence, it consist of young men and women all over Syria who work day and night to rescue people from the terrible bombardments of the Asad regime and Russia. They are in their twenties and thirties, and have left jobs and educations to save the lives of others, pulling from the rubble many people who have died, so they can be buried; Syrians young and old with horrendous injuries, so they can be treated by the equally heroic medical workers; and occasionally those with only minor physical injuries, such as little Omar Daqleesh, whose picture was shown worldwide last weekend, sitting dazed and shocked in a White Helmets ambulance.

For a detailed overview of who they are and what they do, I suggest you read this Washington Post article or watch this very moving PBS news item.

The White Helmets have saved over 58,000 lives, and yet they are entirely level-headed and modest about their work. When we recently met a group of them in Turkey, they talked about their immense bravery in simple, calm, straightforward terms, as if it is the most normal thing to spend your days going out to pull body parts and people in agony from buildings that may fall on you any moment while planes carrying bombs return again and again.  When I asked one 19 year old – the puppy fat still on his cheeks – how he kept going, he admitted there had been a time when he could not take it anymore; ‘but then I went out that day for one last rescue, and we saved a little girl. I have been working ever since.’ I am constantly and deeply humbled by what the White Helmets do with such modesty. Make no mistake: they are constantly at risk. Only a few weeks ago, Khaled, who features in the PBS news item, was killed when rescuing people. 135 White Helmets have lost their lives in the line of duty to date.

The White Helmets have been supported by the Asfari Foundation and many other organisations. Both the UK and the US government have given them millions in support so they can continue to do their vital work. They have been to the US and many other capitals, and spoke at the UN and the London donor conference for Syria last November. They met John Kerry, and Obama has seen the video above. They have won an award for bravery. A documentary has been made about them by an Oscar winning film maker, which will be distributed on Netflix. And in a very touching moment, they have also met their counterparts in New York, the 9/11 firefighters.

We feel the White Helmets are a testament to the resilience, courage and compassion of the Syrian people, and an example of true peacemakers: saving the lives of fellow Syrians, not because of what they believe or what side they are with, but because they are human and need help. The Asfari Foundation therefore encouraged the White Helmet’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. The White Helmets have now been nominated; the decision will be made in November. The Syria Campaign is launching a public petition to support the nomination. I, and we all at the Asfari Foundation, are asking you to stand with us to honour these young men who unfailingly work for peace in Syria so that one day they can lay down their helmets and go back to their schools, jobs, families and homes in a peaceful Syria.

More information about the White Helmets is below. You can sign the petition here: Add your name if you think the White Helmets deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Please forward this email to others.

With warmest wishes and many thanks

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Middle East and Europe: impact and prospects

I had the privilege this morning of speaking today by Skype to the Ambassadors’ Council convened at the Macedonian Foreign Ministry in Skopje. These are the notes I used:

  1. First let me thank the organizers, in particular Ambassador Abdulkadar Memedi and Edvard Mitevski, for this opportunity. It is rare indeed that I get to talk about my two favorite parts of the world: Europe and the Middle East.
  1. My focus today will be on the latter, as I am confident that Europeans—a category that in my way of thinking includes all the citizens of Macedonia—know more than I do about the impact of the refugee crisis on your part of the world.
  1. But big as it looms for you, the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from the Greater Middle East is a fraction of a much larger problem.
  1. There are 4.8 million refugees from Syria in neighboring countries, the largest number in Turkey but millions also in Lebanon and Jordan. Upwards of 8.7 million will be displaced within Syrian by the end of the year. 13.5 million are said to be in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria.
  1. The number of refugees leaving Syria has leveled off, but asylum applications in Europe are well above 1 million and still rising, albeit at a declining rate.
  1. The U.S. is committed to taking only 10,000 Syrians. I don’t anticipate that our politics will allow a lot more anytime soon, though eventually we will have many more arrive through family reunification and other modalities.
  1. The 1.5 million people you saw flow through Macedonia over the past year or so were the relatively fortunate Syrians, not the most unfortunate. Moreover, most who have arrived in Europe are male. If their asylum applications are successful, that will lead to large numbers of family members eventually joining them.
  1. The vital question for me is this: what are the prospects for ending the wars that are tearing Syria to shreds? And what are the prospects for other potential sources of migrants and refugees from Iraq, from Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya?
  1. More than five years after Bashar al Assad’s attempted violent repression of the nonviolent demonstrations in his country, prospects for peace still look dim.
  1. The Russians and Iranians, whose support to Assad has been vital to his survival, show no signs of letting up and have in fact doubled down on their bad bet.
  1. The Iranians have committed Lebanese Hizbollah, Iraqi Shia militias and their own Revolutionary Guard to the fight, not to mention Afghan and other Shia fighters.
  1. The Russians have not only redoubled their air attacks but also added flights from Iran, now suspended, as well as cruise missiles fired from the Black Sea. Moscow has now killed more civilians, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, than the Islamic State.
  1. The Americans continue to refuse to fight Assad, Iran, or Russia. President Obama lacks both legal authorization and popular support to attack them. Americans want him to focus exclusively on the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which is what he is doing, apart from assistance to some Syrian opposition forces willing to join in the fight against extremists.
  1. Donald Trump would certainly follow the same policy, perhaps redoubling efforts against the Islamic State and looking for opportunities for cooperation with Russia. Hillary Clinton has pledged to look at other options like protected areas or no-fly zones, but it is not clear that she will pursue them.
  1. The space for moderates in Syria is shrinking. Violence always polarizes, as you know only too well. In addition, the Americans are restraining the forces that they have equipped and trained from attacking the Syrian army. They want moderates focused exclusively on fighting the Islamic State.
  1. This morning, Turkish forces entered Syria at Jarablus on the Euphrates, in support of Arab and Turkman forces aiming to deprive the Islamic State of its last border point and block the expansion of Kurdish forces from taking the last stretch of the Turkish/Syrian border they don’t control.
  1. When will it all end? I don’t know, but I think it likely to end at best not in a clear victory of one side or another but rather in a fragmented and semi-stable division of areas of control.
  1. The Syrian government will control most of what Assad refers to as “useful Syria”: the western coast and the central axis from Damascus through Homs and Hama, with Idlib and Aleppo still in doubt.
  1. The opposition will likely control part of the south along the Jordanian border as well as a wedge of the north, including a piece of the border with Turkey stretching from Azaz to Jarablus.
  1. The Kurds will control the rest of the border with Turkey. Raqqa and Deir Azzour are still up for grabs, with the likely outcome opposition in the former and government in the latter.
  1. That is the likely best. Will that end the refugee problem?
  1. I think not. Nothing about this fragmented outcome is likely to make it attractive for Syrians to return home. Security will remain a serious problem and little funding will be available for reconstruction. Syria will remain unstable for years to come.
  1. What about other parts of the Greater Middle East?

Read more

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Civic state in Bosnia and Herzegovina

My friend and colleague Reuf Bajrovic has announced the formation of the Civic Alliance of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a new political party whose program I purloined from its website using Googletranslate. My edited version appears below: 

Civic State


There is no democratic principle of equal value of the voice of every citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) on its entire territory. The concept of constitutionality of peoples, defined by the BiH Constitution, is incompatible with the democratic principle of equality of rights.

The current electoral system contains elements of apartheid and discrimination, which allow constituent peoples the privilege of defining the structure of the executive and legislative authorities at state and entity level.


We propose constitutional and legislative reform of the system of government: reform of the institutions of the House of Peoples at the State and Entity levels, reform of the voting system in the House of Representatives of the Parliamentary Assembly, subject to the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the Sejdic – Finci case, and reform of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

What are we doing?

We are preparing constitutional and legal solutions that would lead us to the organization of BiH as a civil state with its strongest partner, its citizens.

Removing parties from the budget


European Commission data show that in the past ten years from the budgets of all levels of government political entities were paid almost 300 million KM (convertible marks).

Appropriations for political parties are guaranteed by laws and budgets as opposed to, for example, funding public kitchens for socially vulnerable citizens.

This money can be used in a much smarter way for more important things that are of existential importance for the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.


We are looking for changes to the law on financing of political parties in BiH.

What are we doing?

We launched a campaign #NeIzMogDzepa in which we invite the citizens to join us in the request for a change to the funding, because we want the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina together to decide how we will invest these funds.

Transparent recruitment


Employment in all public institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina – from the municipal to the national level – is carried out according to the dictates of political parties. Despite repeated promises to reduce the number of employees in public administration, every post-war government in BiH attempted to solve the employment problem by increasing number of their party supporters in the public sector, which burdened the public budget and increased foreign borrowing. The cornerstone of this system is the lack of transparency in employment.


Reduce the number of employees and total consumption in public administration, especially in state-owned enterprises and institutions.

What are we doing?

We have launched advocacy to fully implement the existing moratorium on the increase in the number of jobs in public administration and reduction of public sector salaries reduced by 30% on average. Also, we propose a change of employment in the public sector which will reduce the possibility of influence of political parties.

De-politicization of public companies


Public companies are the biggest problem of our economy. Political parties use them as offices for employment of their members, with the number of employees generally higher than required. Moreover, state-owned enterprises are managed by incompetent managers appointed by political parties. As a result, profits of public enterprises are only for their own and the party’s favor, and the debts arising from unpaid taxes and contributions are unsustainable.


We demand that the management and supervisory boards of public companies be set up through public competition conducted by an independent body, with the help of international institutions. We suggest that in public companies, especially those in a monopoly position, introduce foreign partners through the sale of a minority stake. The financial police and prosecutors should investigate the behavior of public enterprises in the past 20 years.

What are we doing?

We propose legislative solutions to improve the management of public enterprises and conduct a public campaign to inform the public about the findings of the financial police on the work of public companies.

Incentives for private initiative


The state has so far proved to be a very bad owner of capital. The value of state-owned enterprises is rapidly declining and attempts to reduce unemployment in BiH through state intervention in the economy have collapsed. On the other hand, private sector development was placed in the background and all governments have so far looked at it solely as a source of revenue for the budget instead of the engine to start BiH economy. Unnecessarily high tax levies leave more space for the informal sector, motivated by corruption, and reduce the competitiveness of the economy.


Reducing the contribution rates in both entities will reduce the cost of hiring workers, and enable employers to invest more funds in investment and potential foreign and local investors to start business in BiH.

What are we doing?

We will work to reduce the costs of employment through tax reforms. We will propose abolition of fiscal charges and a reduction in the contribution rate.

Empowering municipalities


The municipalities are the lowest level of power and have the most frequent interaction with citizens. The problems that people come into municipalities to resolve often beyond their jurisdiction.


Part of the revenue that now goes to higher levels of government, entities and cantons, should be left to municipalities, especially in the field of education and social protection.

What are we doing?

We are preparing constitutional and legal solutions, that would lead us to the organization of BiH as a civil state with strong state and municipal level.

Shifting currents in Syria

As UN envoy Stefano de Mistura tries to reconvene Syria peace talks next week, there are important developments that could impact his prospects.

The Syrian government has continued to block aid to opposition-controlled areas, causing Stefano to abruptly curtail humanitarian task force deliberations last week. Moscow last week flew bombers from Iran, an innovation now reportedly suspended. The Russians also launched cruise missiles allegedly targeted against Jabhat al Nusra (which is generally embedded with more moderate insurgents) from the Black Sea. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Russia has now killed more civilians in Syria than ISIS, though it started years earlier. Moscow has shown no visible inclination to limit Syrian government strikes on civilian areas, which it targets on a daily basis.

At the same time, the situation in northern Syria has evolved in a direction favorable to the US. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are mostly Kurdish fighters, have retaken Manbij from the Islamic State and are heading for Jarablus on the border where the Euphrates crosses from Turkey into Syria. Arab SDF forces are said to be preparing the assault from inside Turkey, which wants to block the Kurds from taking over the entire northern border of Syria. At the same time, farther east in Hasakeh, US-supported Kurdish forces are fighting with the Syrian army, with which they cooperated in taking the town a year ago and had maintained a truce since. The Syrian air force last week came close to clashing with US aircraft sent to protect the Kurds, who are reportedly trying to oust President Assad’s forces entirely from their northeastern “canton.”

If successful, these operations in northern Syria will cut off the Islamic State from its supply lines in Turkey and possibly end the ambiguous relationship of the Kurdish PYD forces with the Syrian government, though the Syrian opposition is unlikely to accept the PYD into its fold, not least because of Turkey’s opposition. The possibility of an attack on the Islamic State capital at Raqqa is starting to loom on the horizon, perhaps even before an effort to liberate Mosul in Iraq.

Still John Kerry is saddled as the Obama Administration draws to a close with the unenviable task of conducting Middle East diplomacy without any serious threat of coercion. The President, supported by most Americans, simply doesn’t want to use American force against anything but the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. This means not targeting the Syrian government  and Hizbollah forces, even when they attack civilians. The Iranians and Russians in Syria are following his lead in a way: they are using force on the issues they care about and ignoring diplomacy. No matter what they say about not being wedded to Assad, the Russians and Iranians are mostly fighting the Syrian opposition in an effort to prevent regime change, with few relatively few attacks on on the Islamic State.

This free for all isn’t likely to work well for John Kerry in his efforts to bring about a ceasefire in Syria. The proposition he has been flogging is this: US cooperation with Russia in targeting the Islamic State and Al Qaeda (presumably including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the allegedly unaffiliated successor to Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra) provided Russia ends attacks on the non-extremist Syrian opposition and convinces President Assad to ground his air force. The relative success of US-allied forces in northern Syria may strengthen Kerry’s hand, but there is no sign yet of any willingness on Russia’s part to meet its side of the bargain.


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Trump needs Putin

Among the many depressing things in today’s world, two stood out for me today concerning Russia: Denis Sokolov blames Russian state repression for much of the radicalization in the North Caucasus; Andrew Kramer reports on the murder of Russian dissidents, whistle blowers, and potential witnesses in court cases.

Displacement, originally due to economic circumstances, and reduced restrictions on religion in the post-Soviet period are important ingredients in the North Caucasus, where the often violent and indiscriminate actions of the authorities are generating an extremist backlash. Real radicals of course do exist among Chechens, Dagestanis and Ingush. But the Russian government crackdown extends much further. Sokolov concludes:

Yet in truth, radical Islam in Russia, to the extent it exists, is the result of years of repressive Russian policies at the local and federal levels that at first pushed desperate people “into the woods” and are now pushing diverse people (veteran radicalized Russian Muslims, second-generation urban Muslims and newly converted ethnic Russians) through a pipeline of Russia’s own construction onto the battlefields of the Middle East.
Those tempted to ally with Russia in fighting Middle Eastern terrorism should pay heed. The potential ally may be doing more to generate the problem than fix it.
The state-sponsored murders are many and varied, both in their specific methods and the sort of people they target, but their overall intent is all too clear: to reduce challenges to President Putin and the hold he has on the Russian state. Poison seems to be the preferred modality, though shooting and other techniques are also used. Kramer makes the obligatory reference to US and Israeli targeting of individuals, but the Russian murders are obviously of a different kind: they target people for normal political activity and opinions, not for terrorist acts. As Kramer says,
No other major power employs murder as systematically and ruthlessly as Russia does against those seen as betraying its interests abroad. Killings outside Russia were even given legal sanction by the nation’s Parliament in 2006.

Applied most notoriously in the case of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a Putin opponent who died of polonium-210 poisoning in London in 2006, murders and deaths under mysterious circumstances are now seen as such a menace that Kremlin critics now often flee the country and keep their whereabouts secret.

This should shed an ominous light on Donald Trump’s proposal that we should just get along with Russia:

The trouble with joining Russia to knock the hell out of ISIS is that it will affiliate us both to Putin’s indiscriminate campaign against Muslims inside and outside Russia as well as to his blatant and worldwide use of murder as an instrument to reduce political challenges to his rule.

David Kramer argues correctly that Russia has returned to being a threat and should be treated like one. That does not rule out cooperation, in particular on reducing nuclear weapons and blocking nuclear proliferation as well as other issues. We cooperated on many things with Moscow even when it was the capital of  the Soviet Union. I have my doubts about cooperation in the Middle East though, and Putin has already made it clear he will not be America’s friend in Asia. Latin America and Africa have seen little of the Russians lately.

Julia Ioffe thinks Trump had lousy connections in Russia in the past, which explains why he was unable to do any serious business there. In my view he is feathering his nest for the future, when a loss November 8 will throw him back into a business world where he owes lots of money and will no longer be able to con American and Chinese banks into loaning him more. Who better to partner with then that those who tried to help him win the presidency by hacking Democratic Party emails? Trump needs Putin for more than political help.


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It’s whites who have a lot to lose

What in the world is that about? Donald Trump, polling at 1% of the African American vote, also said he would have 95% of the black vote after four years in office.

It’s not about black votes. It’s about white votes. He is a master of finding ways to enable racist attitudes that used to be verboten in American politics. This time he is saying to white people that it is not their fault blacks in America lag in education, jobs, incomes, and standard of living. He lays the blame on black people for voting for the wrong party, exonerating his white followers and confirming, without saying it, that they are smarter and better. He also grossly exaggerates the plight of African Americans using inaccurate numbers and a wildly distorted narrative.

This ploy will suck in no black voters, who know which party white racists support today and how little Trump has offered to improve the lives of black people. The only specific thing his surrogates are citing is support for charter schools, as if Democrats oppose them. I live in the District of Colombia, which is virtually a one-party Democratic town where more than half the public school students attend charter schools. Openness to charter schools is determined mainly at the local level, not by the Federal government. Blacks also know that Hillary Clinton will do much better for them, if only because she will shift the tax burden to richer people and open up educational and job opportunities to the lower middle class.

It is working class whites who are getting snookered. While claiming he will bring back their manufacturing jobs to the US, Trump knows well that many of them were lost to technology, not foreign workers. The protectionism he is pledging himself to will reduce American standards of living, not raise them, by raising prices and reducing purchasing power. There are good reasons why most of the products to which he has attached his moniker are made abroad. He is also claiming that restrictions on immigration will increase job opportunities, but the evidence points in the other direction: immigration reform would increase job opportunities. The notion that Trump will succeed in deporting millions of people and their jobs will then be available to American citizens is pie in the sky. Even if he were to succeed, which is unlikely, many of those jobs would disappear, also lost to technology.

The American working class has a race problem: the split between whites and blacks reduces its political clout and enables a billionaire like Trump to pretend to champion people with whom he has nothing in common except skin color. Trump has no intention of gaining black votes or doing anything special to meet black people’s needs. What he is doing is pretending to reach out to black voters, something the Republican establishment has demanded, while denigrating black behavior and life styles in ways that will bring him white votes.

If they fall for this, whites have a lot to lose.

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