Weaponizing humanitarian corridors

Yesterday, Moscow and Damascus proposed to open humanitarian corridors into Aleppo. But their corridors aren’t intended to let humanitarian aid in. What they want to do is let Aleppans leave the besieged city.

Why would they want to do that?

There are two good reasons:

  1. The Syrian army and its militia allies are stretched thin. A block-to-block fight in the opposition-controlled eastern part of the city will take a big toll. Reducing number of opposition fighters will reduce the hit Assad’s forces take.
  2. The 300,000 or so people left in the east after more than five years of fighting are diehard opposition supporters. President Assad doesn’t want them staying, as they will no doubt continue to oppose his rule.

So what we’ve got here from the Russians and Syrians is a proposal to cleanse Aleppo of its opposition population, who are mostly Sunni. No doubt Assad intends to replace them with loyalists, in due course. He has caused so much destruction, and has so little money with which to rebuild, the eastern part of the city is likely to remain deserted for some time to come, or be populated by only the most desperate of the down and out.

What we are seeing is a purposeful effort to re-engineer the demography of Syria, now divided among areas controlled by the regime, the opposition, the Kurds, the Islamic State and other extremists, to simplify things a bit. Assad has no intention of welcoming home the more than four million people who have fled the country. Nor does he want another seven million who are internally displaced to go automatically back to where they came from. What he wants is to determine who goes where, consolidating those who support his rule in what he terms “useful Syria” (the Damascus/Aleppo axis and the west) and dispersing to other less attractive areas those who don’t.

The US has characterized the Russian/Syrian proposal as a “demand for surrender.” The UN has said it doesn’t respond to humanitarian needs, which are for pauses in the fighting and free access for UN aid going in and for people who want to leave, via any route they choose.

I see the Russian/Syrian proposition as an effort to weaponize the concept of humanitarian corridors, using them to achieve objectives that would otherwise require the application of military force. I can’t however rule out that the US will fall for the idea, in one form or another. Washington has shown no interest in the dire situation in Aleppo. It is entirely focused on fighting the Islamic State.

That is a mistake. Allowing Assad to conquer Aleppo and cleanse it of his opponents will help extremist recruitment and extend the growing international insurgency they are indulging in. He has made it absolutely clear he has no intention of governing in a way that would be sufficiently inclusive to counter the extremists.

Some of my friends are wondering whether allowing Assad to stay in place might calm things enough to allow for a transition to take place in due course. I’d have to see the details of such a proposition before commenting, but what indication is there that Assad will ever give up power unless he is forced to do so? The cynicism of weaponizing the idea of humanitarian corridors should remind us all that we are dealing, in both Russia and Syria, with people determined to have their way by any means, foul or fair.

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Don’t blame the international organizations

Maria-Alexandra Martin, a SAIS Conflict Management graduate active in post-conflict reconstruction and recovery, contributed this post. A native of Romania, she previously served as an Operations Officer with the European Union in Georgia.

A year ago I was in Kiev’s railway station embarking on a train to Dnipropetrovsk. That was the closest to the frontline in Eastern Ukraine I could safely get. I had thought of other options, such as getting a press ID to enable me to go to the contact line to observe the war. But I quickly changed my mind when I realized I would put myself in danger, my family and friends under tremendous pressure and risk diplomatic turmoil for my country.

The train was packed with an array of colors and nuanced military uniforms, men and women of all ages, exchanging salutes, smiles and hopes. I sat quietly, trying to identify each badge and catch bits and pieces of their conversation with my poor Russian. I admired the Ukrainians’ patriotic drive.

I reached Dnipropetrovsk five hours later and found a noisy train station, hundreds of people coming and going. The faces were tired and somber, yet hiding a smile of hope, the smile of someone who will see loved ones again. The day I arrived, a massive rotation of one of Ukraine’s territorial battalions had taken place.

Since the beginning of conflict in Eastern Ukraine around 10,000 people have lost their lives. More than three million are in need of humanitarian assistance. The plethora of international organizations present in the country work continuously to improve the life of the people affected by war. But as in every conflict and post-conflict setting, planning is one thing, while the reality is different. Regardless of how well one plans, how much money and personnel one allocates, the resources will always be too scarce to cover all needs. The permanent threat of violence is a variable with tremendous implications for the way any organization carries out its business.

The largest international field presence in the country is the OSCE monitoring mission (OSCE SMM). These unarmed civilians were deployed at the Ukrainian’s government request after the Russian annexation of Crimea. The mandate of the mission is to

gather information on the situation in Ukraine in an impartial and transparent manner, to document incidents as well as violations of OSCE principles and commitments, and to report on its observations on a daily basis.

The SMM is further charged with monitoring the ceasefire agreements and the withdrawal of heavy weapons, as well as observing the withdrawal of all foreign armed forces, military equipment and mercenaries from Ukraine. Due to access restrictions and the often volatile security situation, the SMM can only monitor withdrawal on a limited basis.

Like any other international mission abroad, the OSCE SMM has a framework for operational purposes (its mandate), agreed in advance by all OSCE members, including Ukraine and Russia. The mandate of a mission represents its core, the source of international legitimization and basic guidelines for doing or not doing something in the field.

But the situation in Eastern Ukraine remains volatile, active fighting is gaining periodic momentum and jeopardizes the fragile ceasefire in place. The few hundred scattered OSCE monitors, unarmed and limited in their freedom of movement, try to perform their obligations according to the agreed mandate. But they perform under threats at gun point, shelling, and detentions, with no means of protection.

When things go south, international organizations get blamed for not being able to prevent it. Yesterday, this already familiar story came again to the surface. The New York Times published Andrew Kramer’s “Keeping Bankers’ Hours, European Observers Miss Most of Ukraine War”. He notes the monitors are patrolling only during daytime for security reasons, while the heavy fighting occurs at night. If unarmed civilians were to patrol during nighttime when shelling occurs, they would clearly be at risk.

Even during daytime, the OSCE SMM lacks freedom of movement and faces serious obstructions that hinder its patrols. These events are reported on a daily basis, but the political negotiations are not done by OSCE monitors. The people in the field are one component of a larger negotiation agenda, agreed at much higher levels, and based on a multitude of national interests. Blaming people on the ground for not doing more connotes a skewed understanding of how the work of international personnel is actually carried out. It also deepens resentments and prolongs conflict.

I am a fierce promoter of better rules of engagement, improved effectiveness and greater capabilities for international missions abroad. Many faults and misbehavior mar the conduct and credibility of global and regional organizations. But too little is said and published about the good things these missions do. They have given millions of people around the world a chance to live, resettle, access basic services like healthcare, education and justice, and regain their dignity. Things would be much worse without the international missions we are so quick to  criticize.

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Why get Hizbollah out of Syria

I’ve got a piece in the Washington Post this morning: The right target for the U.S. in Syria: Hezbollah. It starts like this:

The military situation in Syria has turned against the U.S.-supported opposition over the past year, due mainly to Russian intervention. Now, the failed coup in Turkey and subsequent crackdown there stand to reduce the capabilities of a key U.S. ally. Without some rebalancing now in favor of the opposition to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the prospects for a satisfactory negotiated political transition are dim.

In a dissenting internal memo last month, 51 State Department diplomats advocated attacks on Syrian government forces to end their aggression against the country’s civilian population, alter the military balance and bring about a negotiated political solution. President Obama has focused instead on fighting terrorism in Syria, but U.S. targets are limited to Sunni extremists such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates.

There is also a Shiite terrorist organization in Syria: Lebanon-based Hezbollah. It should not be immune.

That’s all I can reproduce without getting into trouble with the guardians of intellectual property. Go to the link above for the rest.

I don’t advocate an ultimatum backed with the threat of force lightly. But I also don’t see how allowing the Syrian wars to continue can be justified. Doing nothing is also doing something. It has consequences.

The US proposal to cooperate with Russia in attacking Jabhat al Nusra as well as the Islamic State makes the Hizbollah question even more urgent. If implemented, the US/Russia agreement will further weaken the opposition to Bashar al Assad, which relies–like it or not–heavily on Jabhat al Nusra capabilities. While the Americans are proposing as part of the agreement that the Syrian air force be grounded, no restraint on its ground forces (or those of Hizbollah) is proposed. Nor would it be possible to enforce.

So Faysal Itani is correct when he suggests that implementation of the agreement will make things even worse for the Syrian opposition than they’ve been to date, which is pretty bad for the past year. Aleppo is under siege and will likely fall, sooner or later. Idlib is at risk. Barack Obama, who doesn’t think US national security interests are at risk in the fight against Assad, could leave office presiding over mass atrocities the US has pledged to prevent and further undermining prospects for the negotiated settlement the US says it wants.

I am however sympathetic to the Administration’s aversion to taking up the cudgels against Russia, Iran and even the Syrian regime, as it lacks Congressional authorization for that kind of state-on-state fight. But I doubt any Congressional authorization is needed for the fight against a non-state actor like Hizbollah that has killed many Americans. The existing Authorization to Use Military Force, passed to bless the war against Al Qaeda, has already been stretched to cover the Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, both Sunni extremist organizations. Why won’t it stretch to cover Shia Hizbollah as well?

The main purpose of an ultimatum to Hizbollah would not be to widen the Syrian war. It would be intended to get Hizbollah to withdraw to Lebanon and end its participation in the Russian/Iranian coalition supporting Bashar al Assad, thereby encouraging him to get serious about the UN-sponsored peace talks. Washington would of course continue to have a problem with Hizbollah even in Lebanon, where for decades it has weakened the Lebanese state, distorted Lebanese politics and planned the murder of innocent civilians in half a dozen countries.

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We should still support democracy

I signed on to this letter to President Obama written and published today by the fine Project on Middle East Democracy.

As you consider the legacy of your presidency, we urge you to make an official visit to Tunisia, to demonstrate concretely the commitment you made during President Essebsi’s visit in May 2015 that “the United States believes in Tunisia, is invested in its success, and will work as a steady partner for years to come.” Your visit to Tunisia would energize and reassure Tunisia’s citizens and political leaders, sending a powerful signal of American support as the country struggles with the enormous challenges of building accountable institutions and a democratic society.

In 2009 in Cairo, you inspired citizens across the Middle East and North Africa by declaring a commitment to “common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” In the Arab world today, Tunisia stands alone as the one country where those principles of justice, progress, and tolerance have prevailed against all odds over the past five years.

Your Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said in January that you would seek to consolidate your foreign policy legacy this year by traveling widely and by working with allies to combat extremism and foster the rise of emerging democracies. There is no more important example of an emerging democracy in the world today than Tunisia, which has achieved historic progress through compromise and consensus-building. It is impossible to overstate the value that a successful transition to democracy in Tunisia could have for the entire region.

In addition, Tunisia is both the newest major non-NATO U.S. ally and an important partner in the counter-ISIL coalition that, with U.S. support, is demonstrating increasing effectiveness at fighting extremism at home and across its borders. A visit to Tunisia would allow you to highlight a rare example of progress in countering extremism in a region too often defined by rising extremism and violent conflict.

Finally, Tunisia presents a unique opportunity in a difficult election-year climate here at home, as a positive story that enjoys bipartisan support in Congress and as a North African country where both the government and the people want greater U.S. engagement. We strongly urge you to travel to Tunisia to demonstrate the depth of U.S. support for its historic democratic transition and to underscore your administration’s commitment to its success as a model in the Arab world.

The letter has a lot of more distinguished names than mine attached to it (121 in all), so I suppose someone in the White House will read it.

I am less than sanguine about a presidential visit materializing. First there is the practical point: the schedule for the rest of the year should already be in the can. Squeezing in a stop in Tunis might be doable: it is on the way to almost anyplace in the Middle East or Central Asia and an easy hop from more or less anywhere in Europe.

More important is the equivocal character of what has happened in Tunisia. It is the only one of the Arab uprising countries to maintain a clear path towards democracy, rather than falling back into autocracy or civil war. But it has also generated an unusually high number of recruits to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as several horrendous terrorist incidents. President Obama is unlikely to risk an appearance in Tunis to say nice things about its government before the American election.

The two months or less (considering the holidays) remaining on his mandate after November 8 might accommodate a stop in Tunis. But there will be a big clamor for his attention in many countries towards the end of the year, when he plans to attend an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Peru. I won’t be surprised if he decides on visits to American troops in Iraq, Turkey or elsewhere around the holidays.

Another possibility is a Biden visit to Tunisia. That would not have the same visibility worldwide, but I’m pretty sure the Tunisians would appreciate it. The Vice President met with Tunisian President Essebsi in Washington in May.

There are lots of other ways Washington could try to signal support for Tunisia and its continuation on the path towards democracy and reform: visits from John Kerry, Susan Rice or Samantha Power, a high-level “Codel” (Congressional delegation), close consultations on Libya. The point is to somehow make it clear that the US continues to support democratic ambitions in those Middle Eastern countries where they survive. Is that too much to ask?

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The problems of victory

I missed this July 15 Middle East Institute/Johns Hopkins SAIS event “After Fallujah: Security, Governance, and the Next Battle Against ISIS,” due to unanticipated travel. I was supposed to moderate. Paul Salem did a great job at that.

I enjoyed watching it just today. Jessica Lewis McFate worries about what happens in the aftermath of victory against ISIL, especially in Mosul, as it may open the way for a return of Al Qaeda. Doug Ollivant argues that real politics have begun in Iraq, with important dimensions of intra-sectarian and intra-ethnic competition/conflict. This is a good sign, one that might allow the emergence of cross-sectarian alliances and even lead to serious reform. Charles Lister is concerned about ISIS tactics as it retreats from control of territory and the Turkish/Syrian border, embeds in urban communities as well as in Lebanon, and confronts possible future US/Russian joint intervention. He also suggests we should not rush to defeat ISIS, because of the need for preparation for the “day after.” Robert Ford focuses on three R’s connected with undercutting extremist recruiting: screening of refugee returnees as well as jobs for them, the lack of resources for reconstruction of infrastructure and housing, and “ruling” (i.e. local governance, which is highly fragmented in the Sunni communities being recovered from ISIS).  

My compliments to all the panelists for a truly enlightening event!

Hold your breath

About half the readers of www.peacefare.net are non-American, so I feel some obligation to try to explain what is going on in the US presidential campaign to a foreign audience. Americans can tune out if they like, though some may want to verify whether what I have to say tracks with their own understanding.

We’ve long had only two dominant parties at the national level in the US: Republicans on the center right and Democrats on the center left. The Republicans have traditionally been for limited national government, strong emphasis on defense, law and order, and in favor of free trade and low taxes, especially on investors and wealthy individuals. They have generally opposed abortion and gay marriage, making them in American parlance “conservative” on social issues. The Democrats in recent years have advocated national government intervention to protect civil rights and reduce income inequality, somewhat less emphasis on defense and crime, free but fair trade, and somewhat higher taxes, especially on the well-heeled. They have been more open to abortion and gay marriage, making them “liberal” on social issues.

So far, this may all sound familiar, as it resembles the political spectra in many other countries. But there is a lot more to the story, especially this time around.

Race is the first factor upsetting the normal division between Democrats and Republicans. After more than seven years of a black president, relatively uneducated whites, once a Democratic constituency, are in rebellion. Anyplace but America, they would be called “working class,” but here we refer to them as (lower) middle class in order to avoid class struggle implications. They have good reason to be unhappy: their incomes have stagnated for more than 40 years while the gap with upper income people has widened dramatically. International trade and a more competitive domestic economy have forced many to change jobs, often garnering lower wages.

They blame this on the black president, black people in general, trade and immigrants, many of whom are Hispanic, even though immigration from Mexico is down and Obama has done little for free trade. Donald Trump has embraced this meme and promoted it, contrary to what the Republicans had intended in this election cycle. Their plan was to reach out to Hispanic and black voters, many of whom are conservative on social and economic issues. Trump has gone in the other direction, in particular by criticizing and opposing immigration. He has also reversed traditional Republican support of free trade, while continuing to be hawkish on defense and anti-tax, especially when it comes to the wealthy.

This is clearly not in the interest of Trump’s lower middle class white supporters, who stand to lose services and gain little from tax cuts for the rich, but they want what they call their country back, meaning back from black people and Hispanics. Trump has learned how to appeal to these white racist voters. His supporters think he will end the foreign trade as well as domestic labor market competition they find unwelcome. Blacks were fewer than 1% of the delegates at the Republican convention (they are more than 12% of the US population). Hispanics were around 5% (people with Hispanic roots of one sort or another make up more than 15% of the population). It is simply impossible to understand white lower middle class support for Trump without taking race and ethnicity into consideration.

Gender is another important factor, easier to fathom. Hillary Clinton will this week become the first woman in American history to be nominated for president by a major political party. She has an advantage among women, according to the polls. Trump appeals especially to men, including many who are not only racist and anti-immigrant but also misogynist. He has made no secret of his disdain for women in general and working women in particular. He deploys his (third) wife (two of them immigrants) and daughter as show girls who all but dance and sing his praises.

There are a lot of other things going on: criticism of Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State (especially with regard to Libya, despite a Congressional report clearing her of culpability) and abuse of her private email server, Russian support for Trump, his criticism of American allies and alliances, visceral reactions to terrorist attacks as well as anti-Muslim rhetoric and behavior. The Republican convention (and Trump’s acceptance speech) painted a grim picture of a deteriorating world and country under ferocious attack by Muslim militants and weakened by international trade. The Democratic convention will be far more upbeat, pointing to a growing economy, reduced unemployment, success in protecting the US from terror attacks mounted abroad and against the Islamic State in Syria and especially Iraq.

But the underlying issues are race and gender. Trump needs all the white male voters he can get, especially in the “rust belt” states of the Midwest. Clinton needs to slow their move in his direction while retaining her commanding leads with minorities and women. She certainly has my white male vote, but I’m a university professor and a resident of the District of Columbia, where Clinton will win upwards of 80 or perhaps 90% of the vote. The District is not the country, where Republican efforts to suppress minority turnout and Democratic efforts to promote it may be critical in deciding the outcome in several “swing” states.

America runs real elections, this time with a real choice. Hold your breath until it’s over.

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