Syria peace talks worthy of the name

My Syrian friends at the Center for Civil Society and Democracy sent these Principles for Successful Intra-Syrian Talks, targeted at the UN-convened talks that started today in Geneva: 

February 17, 2017

Syrians anxiously await the Intra-Syrian talks that are due to take place in Geneva in the coming weeks (Geneva IV), and fervently hope these talks reach a political solution that will stop the cycle of violence and put an end to the tragedies they have lived through on a daily basis for six years.

The cycle of violence, which increases and extends at the expense of Syrians’ lives, property and their children’s future, obligates all Syrian parties to live up to their ethical and national responsibilities to find an inclusive political solution for the Syrian situation. It also charges the regional and international parties to live up to their responsibility to be an effective force for peace and political transition in accordance with the resolutions of the United Nations and Security Council, particularly UNSC Resolution 2254. The United Nations must be accountable for achieving the peace process and guaranteeing the political transition.

Accordingly, and as a result of the recent developments on the ground politically, militarily, locally, regionally and internationally, as well as due to the complexity of the situation and the various conflicting parties, we, the members of the Center for Civil Society and Democracy, express our fears that the Intra-Syrian talks may lead to a political settlement that would lay the foundations for power sharing without taking into account the demands and needs of Syrians. This would only lead to continuing the cycle of violence. Herein, we affirm the general guiding principles that should structure and underpin the political process in order to help it succeed in establishing a democratic and pluralistic society, given that there is an absence of neutral parties to ensure respect for these principles.

  • Inclusive and comprehensive process: It must be guaranteed that the political process is inclusive and 1) addresses the fundamental humanitarian issues (e.g., stopping the violence, breaking the siege, releasing detainees, revealing the fate of forcibly disappeared people and returning forcibly displaced people to their homes), 2) as well as political issues (e.g., a meaningful democratic political transition that guarantees the participation of all parties and establishes meaningful governing institutions based on the principles of good governance and human rights).
  • Human rights: The political process must guarantee human rights. Human rights conventions must be the basis on which the political transition is built. Human rights must be included in all the stages of the political process, and must be specifically stated by all parties participating in the negotiations, as well as in the documents they issue.
  • Minority rights: The rights of all of Syria’s diverse religious and ethnic communities must be guaranteed. Guarantee of the rights of Syrian minorities must include recognizing them in the constitution, preserving their history and traditions, and guaranteeing their right to practice their civic and political rights. All Syrian communities must be included in every stage of the political process as well as in all bodies formed during the political process in order to ensure their meaningful and effective participation in the political transition process and in the future of Syria.
  • Women’s rights: Women’s rights must be guaranteed. When addressing women’s rights, it is unacceptable to limit the percentage of their participation disproportionately. Rather, the political process must include women’s rights explicitly and clearly in all of its stages in order to eliminate the injustices imposed on them, to ensure that women have full opportunity to access any given roles and to participate fully in decision making to make sure that women’s perspectives help to shape Syria’s future. This is closely tied to democracy and human rights, taking into account that women comprise more than 65% of the Syrian people.
  • Basic freedoms: Rights to free speech and expression, access to information, and form political parties without restrictions should be inevitable outcomes of any political agreement. There must be firm guarantees for separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary.
  • Combating terrorism: We believe it is essential to reach a Syrian definition of terrorism agreed to by all Syrian parties, as well as setting clear and explicit criteria to be adopted as a basis for classifying the groups that participate in the Intra-Syria talks so that the door can be shut on all parties that wish to gain geopolitical benefits on the ground. All non-Syrian armed groups of all parties must be included in this definition. We also emphasize the necessity of differentiating between individuals and groups when terrorist groups are classified, and differentiating between individuals and leaders when discussing accountability, due to the complexity of the conflict map on the ground.
  • Transitional justice: Justice is fundamental to achieving deep and sustainable peace; this must be the overarching principle for any sustainable peace process. In consideration of the vast number of violations in the Syrian situation, a transitional justice process must be the basis upon which any peace process is built, to include mechanisms to bridge the gaps between Syrians as individuals and groups, and focus particularly on the principles of accountability, reparations and institution building.
  • Role of civil society: Civil society must be guaranteed an effective role in consultation, monitoring and participation in different issues in all stages of the political process. Civil society is the sector most privy to people’s concerns, needs and demands on the ground, most able to express their demands and the most capable of working flexibly on the ground to achieve what Syrians aspire to.
  • Refugees and displaced people: All peace talks must take the case of refugees and displaced people into account. Firm commitments must be given to work on clear plans to facilitate their return home, improve their life conditions and guarantee their participation in any political process.

Finally, when international parties relentlessly push military groups forward at the expense of political groups this divests the revolution of its political content. As a result, the political process is in danger of appearing as talks between insurgents and a legitimate government seeking to prioritize security at the expense of Syrian demands for human rights, freedom, justice and democracy. We, in the Center for Civil Society and Democracy, emphasize that any negotiations must be led by a meaningful and inclusive political leadership.

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Trying to hem him in

The appointment of H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser is one more step in trying to hem in President Trump on national security policy. He remains in charge of immigration, health care, trade and many other subjects, but the Washington establishment (aka “the blob”) is trying to reassert control of some important foreign policy issues:

  • Vice President Pence has been in Europe reassuring the NATO allies of the Administration’s wholehearted commitment to the Alliance and openness to partnership with the European Union, despite the President’s often expressed skepticism of both.
  • Defense Secretary Mattis has done likewise with NATO and also visited Baghdad, in part to reassure the Iraqis that we are not, as the President has suggested we would, going to “keep” their oil (whatever that means).
  • H.R. is well-known for his book criticizing the generals for not objecting to escalation of the Vietnam War–he isn’t likely to stand by idly if Trump pursues courses of action that can’t be justified or sustained. Nor is he likely to ignore or denigrate the intelligence community.
  • Secretary of State Tillerson has been reassuring Ukraine of America’s support, including on Crimea, and calling out the Russians for failure to implement the Minsk 2 agreement.
  • Republican Senator McCain has trashed Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin, with Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republicans cheering him on amidst growing pressure for serious investigations of the White House’s Russian connections.

With those holes plugged, the main thrust of White House thinking about foreign and national security policy still has two major outlets: Iran and North Korea.

The nuclear deal with Iran is safe because the Europeans have made it clear they will not reimpose sanctions if Trump undermines it and the Israelis have told Trump they prefer the current restraints to none at all. But Tehran’s support for Bashar al Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq gives people in Washington heartburn. Despite the nuclear deal, Tehran has few friends in DC because it has been far so aggressive in pursuing its regional interests.

The May 19 Iranian presidential election is already raising the political temperature in Tehran. The Revolutionary Guard is doing military exercises and shooting off missiles, though it is not clear whether any of them since General Flynn’s “notice” violate UN Security Council resolution 1929:

Iran is prohibited from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons and States…

President Rouhani is feeling the heat, both from the Iranian right wing and from the Americans. Reformists have no one else to vote for, so he will likely to tilt towards the hawks in an effort to improve his prospects, which are good but by no means unassailable. He is also trying to improve relations with the Gulf Arabs, which would solidify his claim to restoring Iran’s influence and prestige in the region.

North Korea is the far easier and more worthy target. Let’s not even consider North Korea’s assassinations, human rights abuses against its own population, and oppression. Kim Jong-un is well on his way to getting missiles that can reach US bases in the Pacific and eventually the US West coast. The Chinese appear to be at their wits’ end with him. The problem is this: no one knows what, if anything, will bring the North Koreans to heel. If we were to try and fail, Pyongyang can retaliate with massive artillery barrages against Seoul. He could even use a few of his nuclear weapons.

If the establishment professionals succeed in their effort to hem Trump in with respect to Russia, Ukraine, NATO, and Iraq’s oil, he still has the opportunity to make a giant hash of things. The President is in charge. Getting Iran and North Korea right will not be easy, especially if the President decides he is better off listening to Steve Bannon than H.R. McMaster. Bad judgment is Trump’s consistent vice. He can get the United States into a lot of trouble.

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Who killed these people?

I received this note this morning from the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade:

Approximately 1,400 civilians were killed in the area of responsibility of the 37th Brigade of the Yugoslav Army in Kosovo in 1999. The mortal remains of a number of victims were discovered in mass graves in Serbia. The present Chief of General Staff of the Serbian Army, Ljubiša Diković, was the Commander of the Brigade at this time. Neither he nor any members of his unit have been held accountable for these crimes.

The evidence showing the presence and the role of the Yugoslav Army in the mass killings of civilians in Izbica, Čirez, Savarine, Rezala and other villages in the Drenica region is presented in the film titled “Ljubiša Diković and the 37th Brigade in Kosovo”, made by the Humanitarian Law Center. This evidence has already been presented in the “Ljubiša Diković” and “Rudnica” Dossiers.

A number of TV services in Serbia, including the public broadcasters Radio and Television of Serbia and Radio and Television of Vojvodina, have refused or have not responded to the request that they screen the film.

So here is the film, which apart from the spooky music seems to me worthy of the attention of anyone concerned with justice in the Balkans:

I hasten to add that there are of course Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and others about whom the same question could be asked. It is to the credit of the Humanitarian Law Center that it has been concerned about all the individuals killed in the 1990s Balkan wars.

Injustice does not justify injustice. The failure to assign responsibility in one case does not excuse the failure to assign responsibility in others. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had limited capacities and is now closed to new cases. The governments of the region owe it to each other and to themselves to assign responsibility, even to their highest officials if that is where the evidence points.

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Peace picks February 20-27

“The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East,” a Conversation with Dr. Christopher Phillips | Tuesday, February 21 | 10-11:30 AM | GW’s Elliot School | Register Here |

Join GW’s Elliot School and Christopher Phillips, senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, for a conversation on international rivalry in the New Middle East. He was previously the deputy editor for Syria and Jordan at the Economist Intelligence Unit. While living in Syria for two years, he consulted government agencies and NGOs. He has appearances on BBC Newsnight, Radio 4’s Today Programme, BBC News, Al-Jazeera, Sky News and Channel 4 News.

Re-Centering the Bazaar: Notes towards a History of Islamic Capitalism in the Islamic World | Wednesday, February 22 | 3:30-5:00 PM | Register Here|

The Elliott School of International Affairs is hosting a talk explores the possibilities of a history of capitalism in the Islamic world through the prism of one of its most visible expressions: the bazaar. As the locus of a range of different commercial practices, the bazaar offers a useful platform for thinking about economic life in the Islamic world — production, consumption, exchange, and finance. It is also the site through which the inhabitants of the Islamic world came to experience the changing tides of global commerce and politics: the wares of India and Africa, the textiles of Northern Europe, and most recently, the manufactures of China. And yet, as an object of scholarly analysis, the bazaar has largely been reduced to a set of interpersonal or patron-client relations, flattening what was in fact a vibrant site of exchange and transformation.

Rather than speak of the bazaar in the abstract, Professor Bishara will focus on a specific network of bazaars around the Indian Ocean — in Bahrain, Muscat, and Zanzibar — during the nineteenth century, so as to more accurately map out the interlinked markets for commodities (land, produce, etc.), labor, and capital, the paper instruments that linked them all together, and the circulating discourses that animated them. The discussion of bazaar capitalism in the 19th-century Indian Ocean will serve as the platform for thinking about how we might write a history of capitalism in the Islamic world more broadly.

United States in the Middle East: Assessing the Emerging Trump Doctrine | Wednesday, February 22 | 4:30-6:00 PM | George Mason University | Register Here|

The Middle East Policy Group at Schar School of Policy & Government is hosting their first session of Reflections on Middle East Policy. Peter Mandaville is a Professor of International Affairs at GMU’s Schar School of Policy & Government and served as a Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of State under Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Justin Gest is Assistant Professor of Public Policy at GMU’s Schar School of Policy & Government.

Militias in the Fight Against ISIS: Spoilers or Stabilizers? | Thursday, February 23 | 9:00-10:00 AM | Wilson Center | Register Here |

The panel will examine militias that have played a major role in the campaign against ISIS, particularly Lebanese Hezbollah, the Kurdish Peshmerga and the PYD (Democratic Union Party), and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units. Are these groups spoilers that will disrupt regional politics and lead to anarchy? Are they stabilizing forces that can help assure peace in areas marred by war? Panelists will assess their impact and discuss how U.S. policy can better engage them to promote regional order.

Global threats and American national security priorities | Thursday, February 23 | 10:00-11:00 AM | Brookings | Register Here

On February 23, the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings is honored to host an event featuring General Dunford. He will be joined by Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon for a discussion on American national security priorities and Department of Defense requirements.

The United States has the best military in the world, but it must continue to innovate to stay ahead. Today, the United States faces a particularly complex and dangerous security environment. In his job as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 2015, General Joseph Dunford has articulated a framework for understanding the threats America and its allies must address, benchmarking the military’s planning, capability development, and assessment of risk against the challenges posed by Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and violent extremism.

The Gulf and the Struggle for Hegemony | Thursday, February 23 | 12:00-1:00 PM | The Middle East Institute | Register Here|

The Middle East Institute is pleased to host Roby Barrett, MEI scholar and senior fellow with the Joint Special Operations University-U.S. Special Operations Command, for the release of his new book The Gulf and the Struggle for Hegemony. Barrett will argue that the long-standing ties between the West and the Gulf Arab states have contributed to regional stability and progress.

Barrett draws on a sophisticated understanding of Gulf Arab culture and history to explain present-day policies and rivalries. The book delves into how the Gulf States, in particular the UAE and Saudi Arabia, interpret and respond to regional dynamics such as the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the West’s rapprochement with Iran. Barrett argues that a failure to understand the contemporary Gulf from the perspective of its complex historical, political, and socio-cultural context guarantees failed policies in the future.

The State of Iraq- and the Republic of Kurdistan?- After ISIS | Thursday, February 23 | 12:00-1:00 PM | The Hudson Institute | Register Here

On February 23, an expert panel will examine the challenges and opportunities ahead for Iraq, Kurdistan, and the new U.S. administration. Should the Trump administration continue to invest in the Iraqi State? Are federalism, institution-building, and good governance initiatives in Iraq a lost cause? How should the new administration deal with Iraq’s powerful, Iranian-backed Shiite militias? Would an independent Kurdish state bring solutions or additional problems for Kurds and the other peoples of Iraq? Similarly, what would the Republic of Kurdistan mean for the United States? The Kurdistan Regional Government’s Representative Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman will join Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack and Ranj Alaaldin, along with Hudson’s Michael Pregent and Eric Brown, to discuss the implications for Iraq and the region as well as their importance to America’s geopolitical interests. This event will be live streamed on Hudson’s homepage.

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The US-Iraqi relationship re-examined

At an event at the Wilson Center last Wednesday experts gathered to discuss the US-Iraqi relationship under the new administration. The panel included Luay Al-Khatteeb, Executive Director at the Iraq Energy Institute and Fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University- SIPA, Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at SAIS- Johns Hopkins University and President at the Institute of Shia Studies, and Denise Natali, Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. Henri J. Barkey, Director at the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the discussion.

Al-Khatteeb discussed the ways in which Iraq and the United States could start a new chapter and develop a more solid relationship. Iraq has experienced two different US foreign policies in the last 15 years, one heavy engagement under Bush and then lesser interest and engagement under Obama. Trump has an opportunity to turn in a better direction. But Al-Khatteeb believes that the administration is off to a troubling start with its executive order on immigration, which sends a bad signal to Iraq.

Iraq still faces challenges. Each is  an opportunity for US engagement and partnership. As a major producer of oil, Iraq has the potential to be a commercial economic hub if the right policies are implemented. Iraq must address mismanagement, corruption, and the legal vacuum still plaguing government institutions. Iraqi security forces have become far more effective in fighting transnational terrorist groups, but they still must contend with the post-Mosul security situation as well as maintaining stability as the basis for reconciliation between political actors.

Kadhim underlined the importance of the American-Iraqi relationship from both the Iraqi and US perspective. From the Iraqi point of view, the US provides vital support for the fight against terrorism. The US is also still considered a broker inside Iraq to navigate rivalries between groups within the country. It is America’s moral responsibility to stand by Iraq and help it become a vital state and prevent it from disintegrating into a failed state. Trump cannot ignore the policy of the previous administration or return to a Bush-style engagement, but he should take into account what has been happening and react to the realities on the ground. The United States will also need to decide whether a one Iraq or two-Iraq policy is appropriate for how to work with the country. For its part, Iraq must decide how vital the US relationship is to Iraq, and whether they truly want to engage with America.

Natali said that Iraq is hyper-fragmented and hyper-localized, with a great deal of distrust and revenge within communities that does not necessarily fall along ethno-sectarian lines. This has led to an increased need for protection among these groups, which has subsequently led to a proliferation of militia and transactional security agreements across localities. Cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian pacts have formed in a way unimaginable before, greatly changing societal relations within the country and presenting new challenges. Other challenges include disputed territory and how to delineate boundaries, the relationship between the Kurds and Baghdad, and control of Iraqi oil. While the Trump administration will not fundamentally change US policy towards Iraq, Natali believes it will be important to engage with local partners and state institutions as strategic anchor points. The most important issue is the post-ISIS endgame and its cultural, educational, and strategic impact, as well as border security, military support, and humanitarian relief.

Questions addressed America’s role in fostering reconciliation after ISIS as well as its role as a regional broker. Natali said that the US will not get engaged directly but rather through third parties at the local level and again sought to de-emphasize the ethno-sectarian aspect of conflict resolution. She also said it was important to differentiate between actors who are working to destabilize Iraq. Distinguishing between Iran and IRGC-backed militias, for example, is necessary to make policy more targeted and responsive. Kadhim also emphasized the local level as the site of reconciliation and recommended a committee of experts and people who have the tools to successfully create peace and stabilization to act as brokers. From a regional perspective, Al-Khateeb said that because Iraq is surrounded by six countries that will inevitably be in conflict with one another, state relations will be challenging and the country must adjust to regional realities.

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Digital bread crumbs in Aleppo

The Atlantic Council hosted a keynote presentation of their report “Breaking Aleppo” last Monday, starting with an introduction from Frederick Kempe, President & CEO of the Atlantic Council, as well as Frederic C. Hof, former US Special Adviser for Transition in Syria. The event featured speakers Maks Czuperski, Director of Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, Abdul Kafi Alhamdo, Syrian teacher and activist, Dr. Lina Murad, board member of the Syrian American Medical Society, Faysal Itani, Senior Fellow at Atlantic’s Rafik Hariri Center, Eliot Higgins, Senior Fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, and Emma Beals, investigative journalist.

IKempe said the report exposes the deliberate and systematic destruction of Aleppo by Bashar al Assad and will prevent the record of these atrocities from fading away in history. Hof added to this description by labeling the report an authoritative chronicle of the methods the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran utilized to achieve military victory through terror. He said it is clear that Moscow and the regime falsified information to obfuscate their crimes, and were emboldened by the passivity and lack of leadership of the west.

Czuperski described some of the methodology used by Atlantic Council’s digital forensic lab to compose the report. He said that although there were a lot of people talking about the conflict on social media, it was difficult to determine credibility. Higgins explained that the lab created “digital fingerprints” of the videoed events on the ground, taking into acount all possible sources, figuring out where they were taken using metadata or digital “breadcrumbs,” and then determining distance from the event to differentiate between true and false information.

The lab debunked false claims from the Russian defense ministry and proved that more than three bombs hit an Aleppo hospital in the same week, using before and after pictures, as well as camera footage from the hospital surveillance cameras. Forensic architecture showed repeated explosions in the same area and demonstrated targeted efforts of the regime to destroy one of the last hospitals in Aleppo.

Before the discussion panel, Abdul Kafi Alhamdo spoke to the crowd using Skype from the Syrian countryside to describe his life in Aleppo before and after the siege. Alhamdo says goodbye to his wife before heading to school everyday knowing that he might not see his family again. He teaches his students about freedom, attempting to provide a semblance of normalcy through what he describes as the Holocaust of Aleppo. Despite the horrors surrounding them, he and many other Syrians remained in the city until there was no other option. Alhamdo noted the UN role in assisting Assad with the forced evacuation of the city following the horrific last week of the siege. He described the terrible circumstances of the evacuation where civilians were shoved into buses, threatened by guards, and refused food or water while children cried.

Murad spoke to the difficulty of providing emergency medical care in Syria. She said that the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) started by training physicians, but soon had to expand their recruitment base as doctors were killed, displaced, or moved on. They had to train people of all levels using outdated technology, and in some cases engineering their own equipment. SAMS knew about the impending siege in Aleppo ahead of time and tried to allocate resources to prepare. Once the siege began it was impossible to bring in supplies, and they relied on a focal point to distribute the materials through the city until they ran out.

Beals recounted the ways reporting this conflict has shifted, from initial stages where reporters could be on the ground, to learning of the siege and other developments from the Syrian countryside, to the current situation where reporters are based in neighboring countries. Getting information out of Syria is incredibly difficult. Journalists rely on established relationships with Syrians who are still in the country and put their lives at risk by sharing information.

Itani stated that his job is to translate local developments in Syria into insights that make sense in the context of Western policy. He reiterated the struggle to obtain information, and said it is even more difficult because of obfuscation. Itani expressed his fear of the post-truth age, but he praised digital forensics as an outsourcing of information to determine what actually happened. He sees the development of these techniques as credible push back against the campaign of lies.

Watch the full event here:

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