Governing Syria 2

Last week, I suggested the Syrian opposition is in a better position to govern, at least in a part of Syria, than President Obama believes. But I also promised more on the local administrative councils, Syrian nongovernmental organizations, the assistance coordination unit and the nascent Free Syria University, all civilian activities that represent the best the Syrian opposition has to offer. Today I’ll try to fulfill that promise.

Local councils

Local councils are not unique in Syria. The Libyan revolution also spontaneously generated ad hoc municipal governing councils in 2011 and 2012. But the phenomenon seems to be unusually pervasive in Syria, with the count now about 425 according to the Ministry of Local Administration (MOLA). Most function at the local level, but some function at the city or provincial level. MOLA is trying to raise the number of provincial-level councils from 7-8 at present to 9-10 (out of 14 provinces) by the end of the year.

What do they do? The most recent and most comprehensive report is from last spring, by the Local Administrative Councils Unit (LACU), a creature of the Syrian opposition but not part of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG). A second survey by a Syrian NGO on their legitimacy is in progress. The LACU report suggests that, in addition to emergency response, the most common projects are in the areas of water, power, education, health, and hygiene (I suppose that includes waste management). But most projects are stalled, often because of lack of funding, especially for salaries. A few councils have set up a local police force. Some have set up courts. Many more local ones record marriages and property transactions, though they don’t always have access to regime records.

Where do they operate? Half of the local councils operate in liberated areas subject to bombardment. A handful operate in regime-controlled areas. About one-third operate in stable liberated areas.

How are the local councils formed? One-third were elected, sometimes in indirect elections (that is, a larger electoral assembly chooses them). Half are formed “by consensus.” They are overwhelmingly male–I was told fewer than 2% of the members are women. In rural areas the local councils may have less authority than armed groups, but in cities they hold more sway. Stories of local councils facing down armed groups there are common. The armed groups need the local councils to take care of civilian needs.

How are they funded? The international donors are dealing a great deal with the local councils, most often without coordination or reference to the Syrian Interim Government, which has no funds to provide to the local councils for projects. A few manage to collect some fees or taxes, but most rely on volunteer labor and international donor support. The local councils depend heavily for  legitimacy on their ability to deliver services, and secondarily on accountability and transparency. They are a genuinely bottom-up phenomenon.

Fully funding the local councils would require about $3.5 million per month for the salaries of about 10,000 workers. Supporting them fully to provide services and build projects would cost about $300 million per year, I was told.

Nongovernmental organizations

Syrian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) tend to be elite organizations run by well-educated people with good connections to international donors (that, anyway, is what I was told by an NGOer). The NGOs emphasize the right things: service delivery, accountability and transparency. But they also sometimes compete for service delivery with the local administrative councils, which often can’t meet donor requirements for documentation, monitoring and evaluation.

NGO activities inside Syria are however vital and impressive. They negotiate ceasefires and prisoner releases, deal with kidnappers, mobilize first responders, help open schools, promote intergroup dialogue, provide medical aid in besieged areas and counter violence against women. They are trying to organize an effort to allow NGOs to participate in UN peace talks. If the idea of a northern protected zone goes ahead, NGOs will have prepared Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds to return and decide on priorities for their future.


Syrians have a particular concern with education. The SIG has managed to administer high school exams in liberated areas and in the neighboring countries (among refugees) for several years. One million students attend “field” schools in liberated areas and refugee camps, taught inside Syria by 25,000 volunteer teachers in apartments and basements (most school buildings in liberated areas have been bombed). There is a computer school for disabled students in Aleppo.

But many Syrian children are not in school. High school courses are on online, but the literacy rate is down to 50-60% among young people. More educated Syrians are leaving and going to Europe. In an effort to keep more young people in Syria, the SIG is planning to open in November a “Free Syria University” in liberated areas for 4-5000 students. Ten faculties will operate with 160 professors.

The Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU)

One of the big issues for international donors in dealing with Syria is whether they can rely on the money to get where it is supposed to go and have the impact it is expected to have. The ACU was set up as a quasi nongovernmental organization (quango) to meet these requirements. It gets money from international donors and invests it in projects, mainly for health, food, nutrition, housing and services.

Established in December 2012, ACU grew from $53 million in 2013 to close to $200 million in 2014. Meeting international auditing standards, it is paying teachers, civil defense workers, street cleaners. It is also buying wheat and vaccinating children. The goal is to help Syrians where they are, so that they won’t move elsewhere, which should ring a bell with Europeans.

My conclusions

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. It is easy to find criticism of the local councils, NGOs and quangos. None of these organizations is a sturdy and reliable pillar on which to lean. But I don’t want President Obama to continue painting too bleak an outlook either.

Syria has good people trying to meet colossal challenges with limited means. Yes, I would spend $500 million per year on these civilian activities aimed at making life more livable and the future more productive for a country that right now is costing us far more just to provide humanitarian relief. Certainly that amount would be far less wastefully spent than the Pentagon performance in trying to “equip and train”  Syrians to fight ISIS. Syria’s local administrative councils, nongovernmental organizations and quangos merit not just funding but our confidence and commitment.

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Reform, not revolution

On Friday, the Middle East Institute and Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) hosted Tarek Masoud, the Sultan of Oman Associate Professor of International Relations at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, to discuss a new book he co-authored, The Arab Spring: Pathways of Repression and Reform. I. William Zartman, SAIS Professor Emeritus, moderated the discussion. Masoud concentrated on deriving policy implications for the US from his structural analysis of why some Arabic-speaking Muslim-majority countries experienced revolts in 2011, why some regimes were able to rebuff protests, and why the results of revolts have been dismal, with the tentative exception of Tunisia.

The talk comes at a fortuitous moment, as the Nobel Peace Prize winner was just announced on Friday as the Tunisian Quartet, which contributed vitally to achieving democratic progress and stability since the mass mobilization that sparked the so-called Arab Spring and led to the departure of Tunisia’s autocrat, President Ben Ali. But personality is the least of it. Masoud and his co-authors take the position in their book that the Arab Spring was “a drama whose script was written long before its dramatis personae took the stage.” That is, there are deeply entrenched structural causes that determined the success or failure of Arab Spring movements.

Masoud suggested five policy implications.

First is that the absence of democracy in the Arab world is overdetermined; there are several decisive reasons why there hasn’t been a wave of democratic transitions. Many people have made a (questionable) cultural argument The most persuasive in Masoud‘s view is economic underdevelopment. Development generates competing political and social forces that are vital to preventing a single hegemonic power. This is one reason for Tunisia’s relative success, evidenced by the civil society-generated Quartet.

Second, Masoud views policies directed at establishing democracy as wrongheaded. What the Arab world needs are states that are durable, no matter what the regime. The effectiveness of many Arab states, which govern by fear and patronage, is rated low by the World Bank. Masoud highlighted the recent provenance of many of them, especially Yemen, as well as Muammar Qaddafi’s strikingly libertarian attitude towards governance, which led him to dismantle many Libyan state structures and atomize society. Tunisia in 2010 had a relatively effective government in 2010.

The third implilcation was simply stated: US military intervention often collapses the state, which is not useful.

Fourth: there is no pragmatic way forward without incorporating elements from the former regimes into future governments. Otherwise, there is the risk of alienating a significant cohort, which will seek to cause the new order from which it is excluded to collapse. Tunisia was advantaged in this respect as well. Its current president was associated with the previous regime.

In Syria, Masoud thought it will be necessary to reach some sort of compromise with Bashar al-Assad if a political solution is going to be achieved. Like other hereditary regimes, his is one in which the coercive and executive apparatus is  tightly intermeshed. This has caused many of the monarchies to be more stable than Egypt or Libya, where there was a separation. But once armed conflict begins, this intermeshing may ensure that Assad will not stop fighting until there is no one left to fight.

The fifth and final implication is that the US should seriously consider working with Russia and Iran in Syria. Arguably, the three have more in common in this conflict than the US does with Saudi Arabia or Qatar. Saudi Arabia has made it its project to undermine many different states, through the funding and arming of radical Islamists – and it is exactly this type of radical Islamism that the US is seeking to combat on a global scale. Syria needs a strong state and a stable society, not increased weaponization and battlefields drawn on ideological lines.

Though Masoud expressed hope for the region, and a desire for justice for Syria, the study he has conducted in this book with his co-authors has been one focused on the structural constraints set in place decades ago that governed political action during the Arab Spring and continue to do so now. Exploring these constraints has led him to call for a conservative policy towards the Arab world, where the state is more likely to collapse towards a state of nature than transition to democracy. We need to build states and promote economic development in the hope of producing more lasting stability.

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Peace picks, October 12-16

  1. JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War | Tuesday, October 13th | 2-3:30 | Brookings Institution | REGISTER TO ATTEND | In the fall of 1962, President John F. Kennedy faced two great crises: the Cuban missile crisis and the Sino-Indian War. While Kennedy’s role in the missile crisis has been thoroughly examined, his critical role in the Sino-Indian War – and the crisis itself – have been largely ignored. In his new book, JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War (Brookings Institution Press, 2015), CIA veteran and Director of the Brookings Intelligence Project Bruce Riedel details several facets of the October 1962 crisis: the invasion of Indian-held territory by well-armed and equipped Chinese troops; Prime Minister Nehru’s urgent request for direct American Air Force intervention in the war; Kennedy’s deft diplomatic success in convincing neighboring Pakistan to remain neutral during the affair; and the ultimate unilateral Chinese cease-fire that brought an end to the conflict. Riedel also analyzes the CIA’s clandestine support of the Tibetan people in their resistance to Chinese occupation, a matter that had partially precipitated the Sino-Indian War. Finally, Riedel highlights the intriguing role First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy played in her husband’s South Asian diplomacy. On October 13, the Brookings Intelligence Project will launch Riedel’s new book with a conversation about this crisis, how it played an important role in forming Asia’s current balance of power, and the resultant regional arms race that still prevails to this day. Brookings Institution Nonresident Senior Fellow Marvin Kalb will provide introductory remarks and moderate the discussion. Following their remarks, Kalb and Riedel will take questions from the audience.
  2. Addressing Crisis, Supporting Recovery: The Central African Republic at a Crossroads | Tuesday, October 13th | 3-4:30 | Brookings Institution | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The citizens of the Central African Republic (CAR) have endured political instability and episodes of extreme violence since the country’s independence in 1960. Recent clashes between sectarian militia in the country’s capital of Bangui have displaced at least 30,000 residents from their homes and prompted renewed concern about the CAR’s peace process and transition back to democratic rule. The CAR’s recovery efforts hinge on the success of immediate stabilization and peacebuilding priorities, including national elections—which were recently postponed due to the ongoing violence and overwhelming logistical challenges—as well as the need to promote long-term civic inclusion and inclusive economic growth. The Brookings Africa Growth Initiative will host a discussion on immediate efforts to stabilize the CAR and long-term strategies for the country’s economic recovery. His Excellency Ambassador Stanislas Moussa-Kembe, the CAR Ambassador to the US, will give remarks, followed by a moderated panel discussion with the experts Ambassador W. Stuart Symington, US special representative to the CAR; Sandra Melone, executive vice president at the Search for Common Ground; and Madeline Rose, senior policy advisor at Mercy Corps. After the discussion, panelists will take audience questions. Amadou Sy, Director of the Africa Growth Initiative, will moderate.
  3. Is U.S. Missile Defense Aimed at China? | Thursday, October 15th | 2-3:30 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The United States has been pressing South Korea to accept a very powerful radar that is allegedly intended for South Korea’s defense against North Korean ballistic missiles. However, North Korea is likely years away from building an intercontinental ballistic missile, and the radar is much more powerful than necessary for such a purpose. Is U.S. missile defense policy actually intended to defend against threats from China, rather than North Korea? Join us as Theodore A. Postol explains his research findings in answer to this question, joined by Tong Zhao as a discussant. Carnegie’s Toby Dalton will moderate.
  4. Turkey Ahead of the November Elections | Wednesday, October 14th | 10:30-11:30 | SETA Foundation | REGISTER TO ATTEND | After negotiations to form a governing coalition produced no results following the June 7 elections, Turkey will return to the polls on November 1. Heading to this snap election, Turkey confronts renewed violence in its southeast and challenges as a member of the U.S. led anti-ISIL coalition. Uncertainty remains as to whether this new round of balloting will result in an AK Party single government, or lead to a fresh round of coalition negotiations. Please join us for a panel discussion on Turkey’s current domestic and foreign policy challenges ahead of the November 1 elections. Speakers include: Andrew Bowen, Senior Fellow and Director of Middle East Studies, Center for the National Interest; Omer Taspinar, Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; and Kilic B. Kanat, Research Director, the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.. The discussion will be moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director, the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
  5. Is the Bear Back? Russian Foreign Policy and the Conflicts in Ukraine and Syria | Wednesday, October 14th | 12:30-1:45 | Johns Hopkins SAIS, Rome Building | REGISTER TO ATTEND  | The Russia-Eurasia Forum invites you to a lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Mankoff of the Center for Strategic International Studies on “Is the Bear Back? Russian Foreign Policy and the Conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.” The Russia-Eurasia Forum is moderated by Professor Bruce Parrott. Guests may bring their lunch to this brown bag series.
  6. Attribution and Accountability for Chemical Weapons Use in Syria | Wednesday, October 14th | 1-3 | CSIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Two years after the dismantlement of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile, there is mounting evidence that chemicals continue to be used as weapons of war with over 30 allegations of use in Syria. In September the United Nations Security Council established a Joint Investigative Mechanism to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Please join us for a discussion on the Joint Investigative Mechanism, the international response to continued use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the effort to hold perpetrators accountable and uphold the norm against chemical weapons use. Speakers include: Wa’el Alzayat, Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations; and Mallory Stewart, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Emerging Security Challenges and Defense Policy, Bureau for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, U.S. Department of State. The discussion will be moderated by Rebecca Hersman, Director, Project on Nuclear Issues, and Senior Adviser, International Security Program, CSIS.
  7. Human Rights in Iran after the Nuclear Deal Wednesday, October 14th 2-3:30 Project on Middle East Democracy REGISTER TO ATTEND With the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed upon, the international community has begun to focus on the implementation of the nuclear deal. During the course of negotiations, the human rights situation inside Iran failed to improve, and it remains unclear how such issues may be affected by the signing of the nuclear agreement. It also remains to be seen whether the nuclear agreement will now create any additional space for the international community to address its human rights concerns. What changes can we expect to see in Iran’s domestic politics as sanctions are relieved and attention moves beyond nuclear negotiations? What role can the international community play in addressing human rights concerns in Iran? What changes might we expect in U.S. policy toward Iran post-nuclear deal, and how—if at all—can the United States play a constructive role in helping open space for domestic activists? Join us for a conversation with: Nazila Fathi, Author, The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran; Dokhi Fassihian, Senior Program Manager, Freedom House; and Suzanne Maloney, Deputy Director, Foreign Policy Program, Brookings Institution and Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution. The conversation will be moderated by Stephen McInerney, Executive Director, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). This event is held at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  8. Understanding Iran Beyond the Deal | Thursday, October 15th | 4-5 | Brookings Institution | REGISTER TO ATTEND | After surviving a review by a bitterly divided Congress, the Iran nuclear agreement is now a done deal. And yet, with regional conflict intensifying, the question of Iran continues to loom large in the American foreign policy debate. As Iran gears up for elections in early 2016, and as world leaders – in business and in politics – flock to Tehran, understanding Iran after the deal becomes an increasingly complex and urgent task. On October 15, the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings will host a conversation with Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the Brookings Foreign Policy program, and author of the recently released book, Iran’s Political Economy since the Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Maloney will be joined by Javier Solana, a Brookings distinguished fellow and former EU high representative for the common foreign and security policy; and Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings. The three experts will discuss Iran today, the implications of the nuclear agreement, and more. Bruce Jones, vice president and director of Foreign Policy at Brookings, will give introductory remarks. After the program, we will welcome questions from the audience.
  9. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Region | Friday, October 16th | 9:30-11 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The complex relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is an ongoing source of instability in the South Asia region. Only this past spring, the first round of discussions between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership gave even skeptics some reason to hope that President Ghani’s efforts to open talks with the Taliban on peace might come to fruition. After a period of improved contacts and rhetoric, relations between the Afghan and Pakistani governments have again become strained under the burden of high profile Taliban attacks under the new leader, Mullah Mansour. A lasting substantial dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan remains difficult to achieve, but necessary for stability and for both countries. With the arrival of Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif in Washington later this month, the panelists will explore the challenges faced by the Pakistani leadership, the prospects for its relationship with the Afghan National Unity Government, and the implications for the US- Pakistan relationship. Join us for a conversation with Mr. Shuja Nawaz, Distinguished Fellow, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council; and Dr. Vali Nasr, Dean, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The conversation will be moderated by the Honorable James B. Cunningham, Senior Fellow and Khalilzad Chair, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council.
  10. Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948 | Friday, October 16th | 1-2 | Palestine Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | A dramatic transformation took place in the landscape and demography of Israel after the 1948 war, as hundreds of Palestinian villages throughout the country were depopulated, and for the most part physically erased. How has this transformation been perceived by Israelis? Author Noga Kadman suggests some answers, based on a research that systematically explores Israeli attitudes concerning the depopulated Palestinian villages. She focuses on the most ordinary, everyday encounters of Israelis with the memory of the villages, their representations and their physical remains, exploring the naming and mapping of village sites, and the ways depopulated villages are dealt with in tourist sites and Jewish communities established on their remains. Aided by statistics, original quotes, photos and maps, she will discuss her findings, which reveal a consistent pattern of marginalization of the depopulated Palestinian villages in the Israeli discourse, in the context of the formation of collective memory and of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A light lunch will be served from 12:30.
  11. Understanding ISIS | Friday, October 16th | 3-4 | Center for American Progress | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, has shaken the foundations of an already fragile Middle East. The potency of the ISIS threat has galvanized one of the largest global coalitions in warfare history. More than one year into the anti-ISIS campaign, the results have been mixed, and ISIS has demonstrated surprising resilience. How do we understand ISIS as an organization, and what are its main strengths and weaknesses? Please join the Center for American Progress and the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy for a discussion with Will McCants, Director at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World and Fellow at Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy, and Hassan Hassan, Nonresident Fellow at Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, on the emergence and proliferation of ISIS. Will McCants’ recently published book The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State draws extensively on primary Arabic language sources and letters from Al Qaeda and ISIS. It is a comprehensive investigation of the group’s religious grounding, motives, strategy, and leadership. Hassan Hassan’s book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, written with The Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss, traces the evolution of ISIS from its origins on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan through interviews with intelligence and military officials, as well as religious figures and fighters, explaining why the group will remain with us for a long time. Opening Remarks will be given by William Wechsler, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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The West turns a blind eye

On Thursday, the Center for Strategic & International Studies hosted a discussion on “Domestic and External Threats to the Euromaidan Revolutionaries in Ukraine.” Taras Kuzio, Senior Research Associate at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at University of Alberta as well as a non-resident Fellow at SAIS’s Center for Transatlantic Relations, gave a presentation centered on his new book, Ukraine: Democratization, Corruption, and the New Russian Imperialism. The discussion was moderated by Jeffrey Mankoff, acting director and senior fellow at CSIS’s Russia and Eurasia Program.

As Russia has expanded its intervention in Syria, Western attention to the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region has waned. Kuzio’s book presents an in-depth analysis of economic, governance, and rule of law issues in Ukraine grounded in historical perspective concerning the country’s relationship with Russia. Kuzio starts with Stalin’s death in 1953, traces socialization of new Ukrainian elites in the 60s-80s, and describes the disappointments of the late 80s, which would lead to independence in 1991. There are many marked continuities over the past 20 years between the 2013/14 Euromaidan demonstrations, the Orange Revolution of 2004, and independence.

The Euromaidan revolutionaries’ face serious challenges:

  • Rotating elites have dominated the government for the past 20 years (current president Poroshenko included);
  • Disgruntled masses use anti-elite populist rhetoric;
  • There are no real political parties;
  • The judicial system rewards criminal activity;
  • Oligarchs rule the slow-growing economy;
  • The middle class is small;
  • The shadow economy is large – up to 50% of Ukraine’s GDP.

These factors hamper reform. US and EU efforts to promote it have not been focused on the right things. The disgruntled public supports only some of the necessary economic, fiscal, and energy reforms because they would also lead, for example, to higher utilities bills for citizens.

The issue of oligarchs, corruption, and static elites is central. President Poroshenko himself has been a significant business figure, and oligarchs in general have many ties to power, including owning large television channels that often guide political support and mobilization. What is needed are strong messages in favor of judicial and anti-corruption reform. Oligarchs and corrupt officials should go to prison for their crimes, but the route to this cannot be internal. The current Prosecutor’s Office is one of the most significant sources of corruption in Ukraine today. It protects elites. The fact that Poroshenko – and other leaders before him – not only has not disbanded it, but appointed two incompetent heads, is worrying. Western European countries have often been a safe haven for oligarchs, financially and sometimes politically.

The recent conflict has helped shape Ukrainians’ attitudes toward the EU and NATO, with a majority now viewing them positively and wish to join. However, there is little support for this in Western Europe, and Ukraine – having received less funding from the EU than Eastern Europe did – is slow to implement real reforms. This makes it near impossible for integration to occur.

Since 2007 a tide of extreme nationalism and xenophobia has been rising in Russia, exemplified in Putin, which the West long ignored. It claims Ukraine as its own and Ukrainians as “little Russians.” Russian policy denies Ukrainians self-determination and would institute a semi-colonial state in Ukraine. Condescending or xenophobic Russian attitudes toward Ukrainians have a deep history: while Russia has long sought to claim it, Ukrainian dissenters as far back as 1918 have been accused of collaborating with or being funded by the West, Zionists, the CIA, etc.

Ukraine’s biggest plus is its strong civil society and healthy tradition of dissent. As a pluralist society, Ukraine will not be prone to either ethnic nationalism or authoritarianism. Local elections approach at the end of the month. Democratization will progress. But Kuzio nevertheless finds Ukraine in a difficult position – reforms would have been easier in 2005 before the crash, just after the Orange Revolution, but the elites continually put them off, leading to Euromaidan.

The West has too long turned a blind eye toward both corruption in Ukraine and the worrying development of ethnic nationalism and xenophobia in Russia.

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Obama’s Syria options

Russia has in the last ten days deployed a forward operating base and ground troops in Syria, bombarded opposition forces the US supports, intentionally attacked hospitals, repeatedly violated a NATO ally’s (Turkey’s) air space and has launched long-range cruise missile attacks from the Caspian Sea. Russia is at war in Syria and signaling determination to win at any cost.

How should the US react?

Let’s assume direct military action (destroying the Russian base near Latakia, for example) is out. The United States does not want to go to war with Russia over Syria. Great power wars have a way of spinning out of control, with unintended consequences not likely to be worth our while. What else can Barack Obama do?

  1. Nothing. Or more precisely he can continue to denounce the Russian behavior as self-defeating and counter-productive, as well as likely to put Moscow into a quagmire from which it will find it difficult to emerge without costly consequences. The main difficult with continuing this policy is that it risks projecting an image of weakness and inviting more Russian aggression. It isn’t likely to do much for Barack Obama’s legacy either.
  2. Push the Syrian opposition into a negotiated solution that leaves Assad in place. This is what some close to the current administration have argued for. It is the most likely result of current UN mediation efforts. It would amount to surrendering Syria back to Bashar al Assad and solidifying Moscow’s and Tehran’s hold on the country. The problem with this idea is that it is unlikely to end the war, because a large part of the opposition will continue fighting, led by its most extreme elements. The Sunni world would regard this outcome as confirming America’s bad faith, dramatically reducing Washington’s influence in the Middle East.
  3. Mirror Russian behavior in Ukraine. Moscow has installed a forward operating base in a third country and is acting against forces we support at the request of a friendly government in Damascus. The US could install a forward operating base in Ukraine and even act against the rebel forces Russia supports, at the request of the friendly government in Kiev. This would risk a direct clash with Russian forces, but it is noteworthy that Moscow calmed the war in Ukraine before striking in Syria, suggesting that it doubts its own capability to act in both places at the same time. The US military should not have the same problem.
  4. Mirror Russian behavior in Syria. Like Moscow, Washington could strike against people it considers terrorists inside Syria: Hizbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are both designated by Washington as terrorist organizations and both operate inside Syria. There is no logical reason to limit US action to Sunni extremists. The Shia variety is no more appetizing. Moscow’s action will make it an enemy in the Sunni world. The US is already an enemy in Iran and has little to lose there. Some Iranians would be happy to see the more extreme parts of their Islamic Republic forced to withdraw from Syria.
  5. Ratchet up sanctions. Putin is upping the ante in the hope of proving himself indispensable to a solution in Syria and using a political solution there to wriggle out of sanctions. We don’t need to allow him to do that, but could instead work with European allies, whose interests in stemming the flow of refugees will be hurt by the Russian military action, to “see” him and double down. Moscow is feeling the pinch of both sanctions and lower oil prices. If the Europeans and Americans can stick together, either Putin will break or the Russians will break him. Popularity doesn’t last forever even in an autocracy if the autocrat can’t deliver.
  6. Prevent Syrian helicopters from flying. The Syrian Air Force drops its “barrel bombs” on civilian areas from a relatively few remaining helicopters. Such attacks violate international humanitarian law. The UN Security Council has asked that they stop. Making clear that if they fly they will be destroyed, either in the air or on the ground, would be a relatively easy move and would signal a willingness to rebalance the military equation in the opposition’s direction.
  7. Increase support for the Syrian Interim Government. The war in Syria is unlikely to be won or lost on the battlefield. Who governs best will win in the end, both at the negotiating table and in the hearts and minds of the Syrians. Our allies in the Syrian opposition need a much more concerted effort to help win the civilian contest. Their capabilities have improved. But support arrives fragmented and irregularly. It should be constant and unified. The amounts may sound big–I would guess they need hundreds of million per year to make a real impact–but that is a lot cheaper than war.

Note the absence from my list of increasing humanitarian aid. We are already spending billions on it. The time has come to expect Russia, which is now causing humanitarian problems in Syria, to step up. Washington should tell Moscow that a contribution of $1 billion per year to UN relief in Syria is the minimum expected.

The trouble with writing an “options” post like this one is that someone will inevitably claim that I supported one or the other of these ideas. So I need to be explicit: I am inclined toward 5, 6 and 7, though I confess to thinking 4 is also appealing.

We should be thinking about all of them and not crossing them off the list too soon. If Putin keeps pushing, sooner or later we’ll need to push back. Force may need to be a last resort, but it should not come too late to make a difference.

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Governing Syria

I am writing from Gaziantep in southern Turkey, where I’ve enjoyed a week’s worth of meetings over the last three days. I came to have an upclose look at the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and some of the rest of the Syrian exile presence in this bustling city of 1.5 million located 60 kilometers or so north of the border, including both nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and a couple of quangos (quasi-nongovernmental organizations). That is what I would call the Local Administration Council Unit (LACU) and the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), which are creations of the Syrian Opposition Council that predate the SIG.

Sorry for the acronyms. War generates them. It’s not only the Pentagon.

It is easy enough sitting in Washington to hear the worst about the SIG, SOC, LACU and ACU. President Obama himself has several times stated baldly that the Syrian opposition is incapable of taking over the country. The Syrian NGOs and quangos also come in for a great deal of disdain, as they are heavily dependent on US and European funding.

I can’t say the skeptics are entirely wrong. But they are definitely focusing on the empty part of the glass. What I’ve happily found here are serious people doing serious things with minimal resources and a great deal of commitment and optimism, despite the vagaries of international support.

Let me start with the SIG. It was created by the Syrian Opposition Coalition, a quasi-legislative body recognized by the US and other governments as the political (as distinct from the legal) representative of the Syrian people. The SIG looks like a government in exile: it has a prime minister, a deputy prime minister and ten ministries.

Some of these ministries have impact on the ground inside Syria. The education ministry approves curriculum and administers school examinations in “liberated” areas. The health ministry is said to have mobilized thousands of volunteers inside Syria. If you are an ordinary Syrian unable or unwilling to leave, it is no small thing that your kids are still going to school (even if not likely in a school building, as the regime has bombed most of those). And getting them vaccinated against polio is a big deal since the outbreak in eastern Syria a couple of years ago.

But the SIG has little traction with the armed groups fighting both the Assad regime and extremist groups like Jabhat al Nusra (an Al Qaeda affiliate) and the Islamic State. No one I met pretends that the Defense Ministry plays much of a role in the ongoing warfare. Located outside Syria without a defined and stable relationship with the fighting groups, the SIG looks to some like a Potemkin government sketched on flimsy paper with little governing authority.

I found at the top of the SIG a strong desire–even commitment–to move inside Syria, an ambition that has existed however for years without being realized. I was told an order to relocate the Education Ministry into an opposition-controlled area of northern Syria is already in effect. The best prospect for moving the rest of the SIG into Syria–until the Russians entered the war in recent days–was an area Turkey calls “the rectangle,” a 98-kilometer stretch of its border about 60-70 kilometers deep into Syria that the SIG was expecting to see cleared of its current IS rulers and protected from air and ground bombardment by the regime.

Civilians in Gaziantep, both Syrians and internationals, have been actively planning to move quickly into this area, once IS is cleared from it, with the essentials of post-war reconstruction: security, rule of law, governance, economic activities and humanitarian relief. Local councils for the main population centers already operate outside the “rectangle” but inside Syria. Plans for local police forces and border control are being drawn up. The SIG is surveying public facilities and potential economic activities in the area as well as planning to build accommodations for returning refugees on state-owned land. The Americans have hosted a “table top” simulation for civilian agencies to identify needs and capabilities, Syrian and international. Europeans are hoping that liberating the “rectangle” will help to stem the flow of Syrians out of Turkey into the Union.

No one yet knows whether the Russian air attacks will cancel these plans, but at the very least they are complicating the situation. How can the “rectangle” be protected from Russian attacks, which have focussed not on IS but on the Free Syrian Army? The Russian bombardment is driving younger Syrian fighters towards the Islamic State rather than away from it.

Moderate opposition Syrians are dismayed. In their eyes, what Putin has done merits a strong reaction. He is attacking the people America has said it supports. While they nod knowingly at President Obama’s assertion that Syria will be a quagmire for the Russians, Syrians think American failure to respond looks weak and vacillating. It will lengthen the war. I find it hard to disagree.

The Syrians I spoke with are also concerned about UN envoy De Mistura’s effort to set up four working groups to discuss issues that would have to be resolved in any peace settlement. They question the composition of the working groups and view the effort as a step backwards from the UN’s own Geneva 1 communique, which called for a mutually agreeable transitional governing body with full executive authority.

Few in the opposition would agree to any transition in which Bashar al Assad is not deprived of presidential powers early in the game.  Most believe opposition fighters, especially but not only the more extremist ones, will continue the war if Bashar remains in place. The SOC is considering withdrawing from the UN effort, though it will come under a lot of international community pressure to participate. Many Syrians here want a negotiated solution, but not one that perpetuates the dictatorship and denies the country’s citizens the right to govern themselves.

Next up: the local administrative councils, the assistance coordination unit and the nascent Free Syria University,  which represent perhaps the best the Syrian opposition has to offer.


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