Relief yes, complacency no

Ten days ago I noted the negative impact a “yes” vote in the Scottish referendum would have on Ukraine. It would have encouraged separatists there, as well as in Catalonia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and other places. Whatever the merits of independence for Scots, the geopolitical implications would have been dreadful.

So what does the strong “no” vote mean? The message is nuanced. The outcome deprives separatists elsewhere of momentum, which is important in politics. But the “no” came about in part because London was willing to offer more devolution, especially of authority to tax and provide welfare. If fulfilled, this will allow Scotland to pursue its preference for a stronger welfare state than London is inclined to do under its Conservative-led governments. Edinburgh’s tea party wants to spend more, not less.

It is also important that Scotland has essentially no human rights complaints against Westminster. Scots have enjoyed the full benefits of liberal democracy in one of its bastions. That of course is not the case everywhere. The lesson Madrid, Kiev, Baghdad, Sarajevo, Pristina, Tbilisi and other central governments should draw from the Scottish experience is that they should provide maximum freedom to their citizens and devolution to provincial and local governments, consistent with the integrity of the state.

What that last phrase means is the heart of the matter. It will mean different things in different places. Iraqi Kurdistan lies at one extreme. Its Kurdish population has every human rights reason to want independence, including mass atrocities inflicted with chemical weapons, expulsion of its population from the country, and unequal treatment. The main remaining authority Baghdad has over Erbil is to deny Kurdistan oil revenue and prevent it from exporting its own oil, which it has been doing since January. Kurdistan still remains part of Iraq because the Americans, Iranians and (to a declining extent) the Turks insist on it. That geopolitical resistance may not last forever.

In other situations, it may be sufficient to allow minority populations a large measure of local authority (especially over language, culture and education) along with economic and political benefits. This is what Kosovo has successfully done with most of its Serbs, who live south of the Ibar river. It now needs to do the same with those who live north of the Ibar, which includes four municipalities that have always had Serb majorities easy access to contiguous Serbia.

Ukraine is the most difficult case right now. Its constitution requires that any referendum be undertaken in the whole country, not in unhappy provinces. Even Russia–which annexed Crimea supposedly on the basis of a referendum–has not recognized the pseudo-referenda and independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two main eastern communities harboring rebels against Kiev’s authority. The paramilitary forces there will have to be demilitarized, demobilized and reintegrated in due course if Ukraine’s territorial integrity is to be preserved. But devolution of authority to local governments is included in the Moscow/Kiev ceasefire agreement and will be important if the hostilities are to be brought to a definitive end.

Maintaining state integrity–in Iraq, Kosovo, Ukraine and elsewhere–will be much easier than if Scotland had approved independence. But nowhere is it easy once abusive or corrupt central authority loses its legitimacy with segments of the population. Relief should not lead to complacency. If state structures are to be preserved, central governments will need to respect the rights and culture of all their citizens while providing tangible political and economic benefits as well as local control over important aspects of their lives.

Politics, not religion

The Middle East is fraught with governments, non-state actors and ideologues fighting for dominance, with religious identity a major divide between Sunni and Shia. But is it politics or religion? On September 16th,  Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Hisham Melhem, the Washington Bureau Chief Al Arabiya, Joyce Karam, the Washington Bureau Chief of Al Hayat and Geneive Abdo, Moderator and Fellow in Middle East and Southwest Asia at The Stimson Center, addressed this question.

Abdo acknowledged that sectarianism is one of the animating principles and dominant themes in Middle East disputes. But she also noted there is a deeper conclusion to be reached about the role of religion.

Though tension and violence within the Muslim ummah is as old as Islam itself, Melhem noted that the development of political Islam is rooted in the 20th century. Some might attribute the Sunni-Shia divide to rivalry as to whose jurisprudence is more true to the faith, but this only comprises a small element. The actual fight is for political power. When analyzing sectarian violence it is essential to look at the manifestations of political tension and influence in a historical context.

Until 1967, the Arab political sphere was “animated” by secular ideology and driven by nationalism, socialism, and Nasserism. Israel’s devastating defeat of the Arabs during the 1967 war caused a resurgence of Sunni political Islam that capitalized on the increasing feeling of insecurity. The Islamists used the waning support of secular ideologies to consolidate support and power. They saw the defeat at the hands of the Israelis as a way to return to Islamic roots.

The 1979 revolution in Iran saw a resurgence of Shia power, reasserting the sect as a “powerhouse in the world.” Using Iraq as a case study, where sectarian violence is rampant, the Sunni-Shia divide can be seen as a means to acquire power. While some argue that the 2003 American invasion created sectarianism in the country, Melhem concludes that the invasion only made it worse and that Iraq was already “broken.”

Kadhim echoed the sentiment that the conflict between the two sects is deeper than an “old story of rivalry” but rather one of “identity politics.” He further claimed that “Iraq is the cradle of the Sunni-Shia rivalry” that dates back to the early 20th century during the British mandate.

Karam shifted the conversation to Lebanon, a microcosm of regional politics. While noting that Lebanon has never had an extended period of peace due to sectarian tensions and regional violence, she highlighted the moment in which sectarian tension “flared up” during the 1975 civil war in Lebanon. The precursor to the war involved not only the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shias but included the different Christian factions as well. Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon only made the situation worse as the country continued to struggle with internal issues.

In Lebanon’s second largest city of Tripoli, poverty is pervasive. Karam cites a UNDP report that 57% of residents live in poverty, a city that also happens to have the largest concentration of Sunni population in the country. In addition, Bab Tabaneh, another heavily Sunni populated city with a 87% poverty rate, is where most of the sectarian clashes happen in Lebanon. The socio-economic situation contributes greatly to sectarian tensions.

Following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, a void was left in the Sunni leadership in Lebanon, which some say led to the rise of the Salafist movement (mainly in Tripoli). Radicalization was exacerbated by the spillover of the Syrian war in 2011.

Karam disagreed with Melhem’s assessment that the Iranian revolution was the catalyst for political Islam in the region. Instead she concluded it arose from a generation of disenfranchised, undereducated youth who feel their future has been compromised.

As violence rages on in the Middle East, the real issue is the struggle for political power as states transition away from secular autocracies. The sectarian diagnosis is an overstated simplification.

The fate of the displaced

After more than three years of fighting, the Syrian civil war shows little sign of abating. Meanwhile there has been an intensification of the humanitarian crisis. The rise of the phenomenally violent Islamic State, which has spread from its de facto capital in Raqqa, displacing Syrians previously inclined to remain in spite of the war, has in part contributed to the problems. An increase in the willingness of the government to use tactics which indiscriminately target the Syrian population such as barrel bombing, and the continued use of certain types of chemical weapons, has further added to the number of Syrians seeking refuge. This ongoing displacement has enormous implications not only for the future of Syria, but also for neighboring countries currently playing host to refugees.

Seeking to address some of the issues the region is facing, Carol Batchelor, the Turkey representative in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Brian Hansford, the UNHCR spokesperson in Washington DC, and Andrew Tabler, senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute, Tuesday joined Elizabeth Ferris, the co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement in a discussion on Syrian Displacement: Views from the Region.

Opening the dialogue, Brian Hansford noted the sheer number of Syrian refugees now registered by the UNHCR. As of August 29, that figure stood in excess of three million, though Hansford stressed that this does not account for those internally displaced within Syria, or for those who have crossed borders but failed to register. Indeed, those Syrians who are now registered often report having been displaced within the country multiple times before attempting to cross the border. He also drew attention to the number of children – making up more than half of the refugees – now in camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

Carol Batchelor picked up on the significance of the number children in refugee camps, noting that this is exerting a toll on the education of a generation of Syrian children. The situation is complicated further in Turkey where the lack of a common language between host and hosted has led to educational difficulties. In some cases children have now missed up to four years of schooling. This is important when considering the long term strategies for rebuilding Syria. If its people are to succeed in reconstruction then they must be furnished with skills and opportunities so as to be empowered to rise to the challenges of rebuilding a state.

Batchelor also warned of the dangers that have arisen as the humanitarian crisis has become more protracted. While she praised the generosity of the Turkish state in its efforts to accommodate refugees, she expressed concern that little has been done to transition from short term, reactive strategies focussing on the emergency encampments set up at the onset of the crisis, to a longer term strategy. As the situation stands, the psychological well-being of the refugees is suffering after three years of living in tents. If this is not addressed there may well be implications both for short-term stability and for longer term rebuilding efforts.

For Andrew Tabler the primary concern lies not with the refugees inside of the camps, who are relatively well cared for despite their growing numbers. Instead he drew attention to those refugees who are unregistered and unaccounted for, whom he believes represent a two-fold security concern. On the one hand there is concern for these displaced persons’ personal security and well-being, which without support from the UN and NGOs may become vulnerable. On the other hand there is the more general security concern that these unaccounted refugees could become radicalized or facilitate attacks and unrest in host nations.

The panelists were all in agreement that there is no end in sight, either for the war or for the displaced Syrians. Tabler estimated the crisis could easily continue for five years, with full settlement taking a decade or more.

But there was disagreement as to how Syria might one day be reconstructed. Though Tabler claimed that it was beyond Syrians themselves to put the pieces back together, both Batchelor and Hansford stressed that the refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan do not see themselves staying in their host countries indefinitely:  generally they want to return, and to play a role in shaping the country’s future once it is safe enough to do so. It is now important for the UN and the international community to ensure that these refugees are empowered so when the time comes they are able to realize this future.

Listen to the event here.

Peace after Gaza?

In the aftermath of the most recent conflict between Hamas and Israel, the question on everyone’s mind is what comes next. Salam Fayyad, former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, and Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs of the United Nations, joined Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, in a discussion on Peace After Gaza: A New Framwork for a Changing Landscape.

The seven week conflict devastated the Gaza Strip, while consolidating Hamas popularity and causing support for the Palestinian Authority to wane. The question now is whether the change in the Palestinian political sphere will pave a way for peace or hinder the peace process.

Fayyad emphasized there is a growing number of voices calling for immediate peace talks. He is hesistant because there have not been adequate preperations on either side for a constructive dialogue. There must be a way to address the factions and political pluralism within the Palestinian political environment. In order for there to be peace, there must be reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Fayyad does not believe in rushing back into negotiations. Critical adjustments must be made on the Palestinian side first. On the one hand, there is the issue of the representativeness of organisations claiming to speak for Palestinians. The de jure power of representatation lies with the Palestine Libertion Organization – but this has lost much of its legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinians, especially in the wake of the recent land-grab by the Israeli government in Bethlehem. This occurred in spite of the PLO’s cooperation and collaboration in intelligence gathering.

On the other hand, factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad hold de facto legitimacy with large swathes of the population (opinion polls suggest a surge of support for Hamas in Gaza in the wake of last month’s conflict). These groups do not recognize the commitments of the Oslo accords, whereas the PLO does. If any sense is to be made of these disparate positions in the name of negotiating both with the Israelis and the world at large, an intra-Palestinian dialogue must first occur.

According to Fayyad, such a dialogue must include a serious discussion on building a unified leadership framework in which a forum of factions might convene in order to come to a common view of how to proceed as a whole. Without such a forum the Palestinian Authority will struggle to regain legitimacy in the eyes of the people of Palestine – removing peace negotiations further and further from the will of the people it claims to represent.

While Fayyad focused on disunity within the the Palestinian parties he also noted the lack of balance between the occupied (Palestine) and occupier (Israel) in terms of leverage in the peace process.

Feltman acknowleged that the United Nations is still stuck on the “old paradigm” as it still supports Palestinian unity in accordance with PLO commitments to the Oslo Accords of 1993. The two main stipulations included recognition by the PLO of Israel’s right to exist as well as the renunciation of violence. While the UN’s immediate focus is on the reconstrution of Gaza and addressing humanitarian needs, Feltman noted it will take serious and real commitment from both sides this time around to return a sense of normalcy. Fayyad added that Oslo was not meant to be an open ended process and future negotiations should come with clear time-frames for completion that must be adhered to.

There is a growing push from Israelis and Palestinians to deviate from recurring patterns. Fayyad reiterated the need to set an end date for the occupation and work backwards from there, but PLO weakness militates against this course of action. While the question was raised of going to the Security Council, Fayyad noted the inevitability of a veto.

Upcoming months will determine whether either side is serious about a long-term solution. Fayyad and Feltman both called for a strong and unified Palestine that can build lasting solutions in partnership with Israel and the United Nations.








Moscow then

I’m heading for Moscow tonight. It is 40 years since I first visited there to sell the idea of an International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals to the Soviets on behalf of the then new-born United Nations Environment Programme. My companion was a well-known radiation biologist of the time, Alexander Hollaender, who had retired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. My job was to arrange the logistics, take notes, and explain the details of the project. Alex got the doors opened and got the Soviets to say yes.

Moscow was a gray and forbidding place. Leonid Brezhnev was in charge. There were few cars on its wide avenues. The Rossiya hotel had the amenities of a Motel 6 with 10,000 rooms. It later burned down. Except at a then well-known Georgian restaurant near the center, menus were short, service was surly and the food abysmal. A matronly prostitute attacked Alex one night in a hotel lobby–we thought it might be an attempt to compromise us and shooed her away angrily.

The visit nevertheless had its high points. Our hosts arranged tickets to the Bolshoi opera. I managed to get tickets for two more nights during the same week as a visit to the Moscow sewage works. The music was extraordinary by any standards. My card-flashing handler was surprised when his comrade citizens tried to buy blue jeans from me. I bought a lot of phonograph records, which had superb performances by pianist Emil Gilels and other Soviet classical music stars. But you could only play them once before the crackling started, due to poor manufacturing techniques. I stopped playing them and still have them stored away, now for eventual digitalization.

Alex and I called on the head of the genetics institute at the Academy of Sciences. I don’t remember his name, but high on the wall above him was a full-length portrait of Nikolai Vavilov, antagonist of the Stalinist para-geneticist Trofim Lysenko. Vavilov was arrested and died in prison in 1943. His presence on the wall was a stark reminder of what Stalin had wrought.

The Soviets came around to supporting the UN project we were selling.

I was less successful more than 20 years later in 1995, when as a State Department official I returned to Moscow to sell the Russians on supporting the Bosnian Federation. As luck would have it, Washington had done something (I don’t remember what) that annoyed the Russians, so the deputy foreign minister I called on took the occasion to ream me out for half hour before listening inattentively to my pitch on the Federation. I suppose by now I could get the declassified reporting cable I wrote, but I’m not sure I want to relive that experience, which caused Undersecretary Tarnoff at State to chortle when I returned to the fold. The best I can say about that visit is that the prostitutes in the Radisson piano bar were visually a cut above their Soviet forebears. I suppose that was progress.

Everyone I’ve mentioned this impending trip to assures me I won’t recognize Moscow, where the grand boulevards are now packed with cars, the hotels are luxurious, the restaurants are first rate and the skyline is far more modern. I suppose the prostitutes are downright classy.

I look forward to a visit to Red Square and the GUM department store, where 40 years ago I could get good ice cream, so long as I wanted vanilla. Lenin is gone, and I’m sure the store is much improved, but will the ice cream be better? I suppose I’ll feel a bit of nostalgia for Soviet Moscow. Things were simpler, and clearer, then.

All deliberate speed

I did this interview yesterday for Artan Haraqija of

1) Three months after the general elections, there are no signs that Kosovo political representatives will agree on the formation of the new institutions. How damaging is this for the international status of the country in the time when the international community expects the continuation of the dialogue with Belgrade?

DPS: I don’t think the current delay has caused big problems, especially as most of it occurred over the summer holidays. Everyone understands that it may take months to form a government in a parliamentary system. Belgrade will still be there when the new government is formed.

2)What if there will be a new leadership and Vetevendosje (SelfDetermination) is part of them, including the possibility to lead the Kosovo delegation at the Prishtina – Belgrade dialogue-your comment?

DPS: It is hard for me to picture a constructive role for Vetevendosje in the Pristina/Belgrade dialogue. Vetevendosje has opposed the Belgrade/Pristina agreement, and if I remember correctly even the talks. If I understand its position correctly, VV would prefer to have the option of partition and union with Albania. Belgrade would like that, as it would allow northern Kosovo to join Serbia. But a partition outcome is prohibited in the Kosovo constitution. Anyone who wants it needs to change the constitution first, and explain to Kosovars why they should give up a state they fought hard to acquire.

3) This is also the time when the International Community expects the creation of the Special Court that will deal with the outcome of Clint Williamson findings, based on Dick Marty report. How damaging are these delays for the country?

DPS: I think it is important for the parliament to proceed with the creation of the special court, but there are things that need to be done first, including the formation of the new government. The American Supreme Court has talked about doing things with “all deliberate speed.” It’s an ambiguous formula, but an appropriate one. The important thing is to get the outcome right, without undue delay.

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