Month: May 2012

The Syrian people still hold the key to Syria

Randa Slim writes:

During the recent discussions in Baghdad between the global powers and Iran, the United States rejected an Iranian proposal to add Syria and Bahrain to the discussion agenda. It might be worth pursuing this proposal at the next round of talks in Moscow. Time and again, Iranian senior officials have stressed the need for a political resolution to the Syrian crisis. They have been reaching out to different groups in the Syrian opposition. As the Western community keeps searching for a political solution in Syria, Iran might have some ideas about how to bring it about.

Iran will no doubt have ideas about Syria, but they won’t be ideas that Bashar al Assad’s opposition (or I) will like. The Iranians will want to get in Syria compensation for whatever they give the P5+1 (that’s the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) on nuclear issues.

Bahrain is a red herring. The Iranians don’t really expect the Americans to yield anything there, because it hosts the American Fifth Fleet. But the refusal of the Americans to yield to the Shia majority in Bahrain is a good analogy from Iran’s perspective to Tehran’s refusal to yield to the Sunni majority in Syria.  Tehran will want to know:  if majority rule is good for Syria, why isn’t it good for Bahrain?

From the perspective of Americans sympathetic with the rebellion, it would be best to keep the Syria issue separate.

If the impending American election is what restrains President Obama from taking action more vigorous action on Syria, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney loosened the constraint a bit last weekend by criticizing the President for not doing enough and calling for arming the opposition.    The trouble with that proposition is that it is already happening and won’t likely alter the balance much.  Qatar and Saudi Arabia are providing arms to what the Americans think are reliable recipients. It is unrealistic to expect that the violent side of the Syrian uprising will win the day, but it can likely sustain an insurgency indefinitely.

The more important constraint on President Obama is the need to keep the Russians on board for the p5+1 nuclear talks with Iran.  Any overt American military move would likely cause Moscow to scuttle those talks and leave the Americans with the unhappy choice of military action or nothing in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. Stopping Iran short of a nuclear weapon is one of America’s top foreign policy and national security priorities.  It is unrealistic to expect the president to put it at risk with a military strike on Syria.

The fact is that no one has come up with anything demonstrably better than pursuing the Annan plan for Syria, though Andrew Tabler’s suggestion of an arms quarantine against the regime certainly merits consideration as a supplement.  The key to making the Annan plan work is moving Bashar al Assad out of power so that work can begin on a political process.  The Iranians and Russians will do this once they see him teetering on the brink.  He is not far from that point.  I still think the best way to put him there is through nonviolent means, like the general strikes that have recently plagued Damascus and other cities.  It is very hard to crack down on large numbers of merchants for not opening their shops in the souk.

The Syrian people still hold the key to Syria.



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A fortiori

Marko Prelec of International Crisis Group asks a good question:

…if it is indeed a “miracle that the Kosovo government gets anything done with so many foreigners people looking over its shoulders” and thus “the time is coming this fall for this overly supervised country to struggle on its own”, is not the same true a fortiori of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where international supervision will this year mark its seventeenth anniversary?

The difference is in part constitutional. Kosovo has a workable constitution.  Bosnia and Herzegovina does not, because the Americans in their haste froze in place the warring parties and then the international community failed to make adequate provision for returns. Had we written a constitution for Bosnia that was even half as savvy as the one for Kosovo (which had the benefit of the Bosnia experience), and achieved as much implementation, we wouldn’t still be hanging around.

The High Representative and EUFOR are also a lot less present in Bosnia than UNMIK, EULEX, and KFOR and the rest of the alphabet soup in Kosovo. The ICO (the International Civilian Office) is the exception that proves the rule. It has “Bonn”-type powers in Kosovo but hasn’t had to use them. That was wise restraint in part, but it was also that no really compelling occasion arose. The Dayton agreement is just a whole lot harder to implement than the Kosovo agreement, except in northern Kosovo. And there it will not be easy for the Kosovars or the international community to end supervision.

It is therefore not the length of time that the international community hangs around that determines whether it needs to stay longer. We stayed in Germany–administering Berlin no less–for 45 years, because of the Soviet occupation of the East.  That’s the general rule:  it is the specific conditions of the peace you are trying to implement that determine how long you stay. Kosovo has implemented the Ahtisaari plan.  Bosnia has not fully implemented Dayton.  Stability could break down and cause a big mess. So we stay until conditions allow us to leave.  That isn’t unreasonable to me.

One could argue of course that shifting responsibility to the locals, as we are planning to do in Afghanistan, would force them to behave more responsibly.  But that hasn’t really worked in Iraq, isn’t likely to work in Afghanistan and certainly won’t work in Bosnia, where Republika Srpska has no intention at all of implementing the provisions of the Dayton agreements that it doesn’t like, much less help prepare Bosnia for European Union membership.  A fortiori, it is not wise to expect better if international supervision is withdrawn.  So it needs to stay.

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Goat rope

I arrived in Pristina yesterday and have enjoyed two days of intense conversations about Kosovo’s international relations, which are enormously complex for a country of less than 1.8 million inhabitants.

Let’s review the bidding.  Kosovo declared independence in 2008, after almost nine years of UN administration following the 1999 NATO/Yugoslavia war.  Serbia, of which Kosovo was at one time a province, did not concur in independence and has not recognized the Kosovo state’s sovereignty.  But 90 other countries have, including the United States and 22 of the 27 members of the European Union (EU) and 24 of 28 members of NATO.  Russia has blocked approval of UN membership in the Security Council, at the behest of Serbia.  An International Civilian Office (ICO) will supervise Kosovo’s independence until September, when it plans to certify that the Kosovo government has fulfilled its responsibilities under the international community “Ahtisaari plan”  (the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement).  That was intended to be the agreement under which Kosovo became independent but was implemented unilaterally (under international community pressure) by the Kosovo government when Serbia refused to play ball.  Belgrade and Pristina talk, but almost exclusively in an EU-facilitated and US-supported dialogue limited to resolution of technical, not political, issues.

Even after the ICO closes, Kosovo will be under intense international scrutiny (for a fuller account, see the Kosovar Center for Security studies report).  NATO provides a safe and secure environment and is training its security forces for their enhanced roles after the July 2013.  An EU rule of law mission monitors Kosovo’s courts and provides international investigators, prosecutors and judges for interethnic cases.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) provides training and advice on democratization, human and minority rights.  The Council of Europe (CoE) administers programs on cultural and archaelogical heritage, social security co-ordination and cybercrime.  The UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) continues despite its inconsistency with both the Ahtisaari plan and the declaration of independence, which at Serbia’s behest the International Court of Justice has advised was not in violation of international law or UN Security Council resolution 1244 (which established UNMIK).

Kosovo’s many complications get even worse north of the Ibar river, in the 11% of the country’s territory contiguous with Serbia that is still not under Pristina’s control.  It may not really be under Belgrade’s control either, but that makes the situation there even more difficult.  Partition of that northern bit, which Belgrade authorities have pursued, would likely precipitate ethnic partitions in other parts of the Balkans:  Macedonia, Bosnia and Cyprus would all be at risk if Kosovo were split, an outcome neither Europe nor the U.S. wants to face.  Serbia’s President-elect Nikolic suggested last week that Belgrade might recognize the Georgian break-away regions of South Ossetia and Abhazia, a move that would simultaneously deprive Serbia of its heretofore principled stance against Kosovo independence but at the same time reinforce Belgrade’s hope for partition of northern Kosovo.

What we’ve got here is a goat rope, as the U.S. military says.  The situation seems hopelessly tangled.  It is a miracle that the Kosovo government gets anything done with so many foreigners people looking over its shoulders.  It naturally also has to meet domestic expectations, which are increasingly in the direction of more independence and fewer non-tourist foreigners, though Americans seem always to get a particularly warm welcome because of their role in past efforts to protect Kosovo from the worst ravages of Slobodan Milošević.

Kosovo unquestionably continues to need help.  OSCE recently organized Serbian presidential elections in the Serb communities of Kosovo, a task that would have proven impossible for the Pristina or the Belgrade authorities.  NATO has a continuing role because it will be some years yet before Kosovo can defend itself for even a week from a Serbian military incursion, which is unlikely but cannot be ruled out completely until Belgrade recognizes the Kosovo authorities as sovereign.  The Kosovo courts would still find it difficult to have their decisions fully accepted in many cases of interethnic crime.

But the time is coming this fall for this overly supervised country to struggle on its own, making a few mistakes no doubt but also holding its authorities responsible for them.  Kosovo needs a foreign policy that will take it to the next level.  That means not only untangling the goat rope (or occasionally cutting through it) but also achieving normal relations with Belgrade and UN membership.  There is no reason that an intense effort over the next decade cannot take Kosovo into NATO and perhaps even into the EU, or close to that goal, provided it treats its Serb and other minority citizens correctly and resolves the many outstanding issues with Belgrade on a reciprocal basis, and peacefully.

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Annan needs to keep at it

With the toll from Friday’s attack on the Syrian village of Houla mounting well over 100 (including dozens of children), it is tempting to denounce the UN’s Annan peace plan as a dead letter.  The European edition of the Wall Street Journal this morning headlines, “Syria Massacre Upends Fragile Hopes for Peace.” Others are even more explicit that Annan has failed, and have been saying so for months.

That is a mistake.  The UN observers Annan directs did their job at Houla, verifying the incident and assigning blame to the regime.  That is precisely what they are there to do.  Unarmed, they have no capacity to intervene with force.  The Security Council yesterday issued a statement, approved by Russia and China,  condemning the Syrian government for the massacre.  Minimal as it is, that counts as progress on the diplomatic front.  Weaning the Russians from their client, Syrian President Bashar al Assad, is an important diplomatic objective.

The clarity of the UN observers may push the diplomacy further in the right direction.  Moscow and Washington are apparently discussing a plan similar to the Yemen transition process, which involved a resignation of the president and a transition guided by the vice president.  I have my doubts this particular scheme is viable in Syria, but there may be variants worth discussing that would provide reassurance to the Alawites while initiating a political process that will move the country definitively past the Assad regime.

That is the essential point.  It is hard to picture the violence ending and politics beginning without dealing somehow with Alawite fears that they will end up massacred if Bashar al Assad leaves power.  That would be a tragedy not only for the Alawites but for the Middle East in general.  Let there be no doubt:  past experience suggests that those who indulge in abusive violence often become the victims of it when their antagonists get up off the ropes and gain the upper hand.

It would be far better for most Alawites, the relatively small religious sect whose adherents are mainstays of the Assad regime, if a peaceful bridge can be built to post-Assad Syria.  They will not of course trust those who have been mistreated not to mistreat them in turn.  This is where the diplomats earn their stripes:  coming up with a scheme that protects Alawites as a group from instant retaliation while preserving the option of eventually holding individuals judicially accountable for the Assad regime abuses.  It is hard to picture a case more difficult than Syria, where the regime has managed to keep most Alawites loyal and used some of them as paramilitary murderers.

There really is no Plan B.  The Americans cannot act unilaterally on Syria without losing Russian support in dealing with Iran on its nuclear program.  President Obama’s top priority is stopping that program from advancing further toward nuclear weapons.  While some think the American elections are a factor restraining the president on Syria, I don’t think he is likely to change his mind even if he wins.  Only if he decides that the effort to stop a nuclear Iran has failed will he be tempted to cut the chord with the Russians and lead a military response to Bashar al Assad’s homicidal behavior, thus ending Syria’s alignment with a potentially nuclear Iran and shoring up the Sunni Arab counterweight.  But he would only do that in the narrow window before Tehran acquires nuclear weapons, not afterwards.

The observers are supposed to be laying the groundwork for a political solution.  Their mandate expires in July.  That is the next big decision point.  Annan needs to keep at it for now, hoping that the Russians and Americans come to terms and open a window for a political solution that ends the Assad regime.

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Memorial Day for all, again

I have little to add to what I said last year on Memorial Day, so I am republishing what I said then:

I spent my high school years marching in the Memorial Day parade in New Rochelle, New York and have never lost respect for those who serve and make sacrifices in uniform.  Even as an anti-war protester in the Vietnam era, I thought denigration of those in uniform heinous, not to mention counterproductive.

It is impossible to feel anything but pride and gratitude to those who have  served in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Kosovo, Bosnia, Panama and Somalia during the previous decade.  Nor will I forget my  Memorial Day visit to the American cemetery in Nettuno accompanying Defense Secretary Les Aspin in the early 1990s, or my visit to the Florence cemetery the next year.  These extraordinarily manicured places are the ultimate in peaceful.  It is unimaginable what their inhabitants endured.  No matter what we say during the speechifying on Memorial Day, there is little glory in what the troops do and a whole lot of hard work, dedication, professionalism and horror.

That said, it is a mistake to forget those who serve out of uniform, as we habitually do.  Numbers are hard to come by, but a quick internet search suggests that at at least 1000 U.S. civilians have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They come in many different varieties:  journalists, policemen, judges, private security guards, agriculturalists, local government experts, computer geeks, engineers, relief and development workers, trainers, spies, diplomats and who knows what else.  I think of these people as our “pinstripe soldiers,” even if most of them don’t in fact wear pinstripes.  But they are a key component of building the states that we hope will some day redeem the sacrifices they and their uniformed comrades have endured.

I spend my working hours worrying about how to improve the performance of the pinstripe soldiers, but that should not reduce by one iota appreciation for them.  These are people who sometimes go places before they are safe enough for the troops, and they stay long after the troops are withdrawn.  I hope my readers will add a minute to their Memorial Day reflections for those who serve in mufti.  And count the many non-Americans who support our people also in your appreciation.

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This week’s peace picks

I’m out of town next week, but here are the events that I would consider attending if I were there:

1. Iran Nuclear Negotiations: What’s Next?, Atlantic Council, 9:30-11 am May 29

May 29, 2012

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Saeed Jalili poses with Catherine Ashton on April 14 in Istanbul

Please join the Atlantic Council’s Iran Task Force on Tuesday, May 29, for an in-depth review of the Iran nuclear talks that took place in Baghdad on May 23. These talks follow on discussions in Istanbul April 13-14, between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) that were relatively positive. Nevertheless, there are concerns whether a “step-by-step approach” to de-escalating the nuclear crisis with Iran can be achieved. Iran is looking to the international community to ease draconian sanctions, but US flexibility is limited, especially in a presidential election year. Additionally, Israel has a more restrictive view of the Iranian nuclear program than some in the United States and Europe. Panelists will analyze the converging and conflicting interest of the P5+1, Iran, Israel, as well as explore repercussions should negotiations fail.

A discussion with

David Albright
Founder and President
Institute for Science and International Security

Barbara Slavin
Senior Fellow, South Asia Center
Atlantic Council

Moderated by

Shuja Nawaz
Director, South Asia Center
Atlantic Council

DATE: Tuesday, May 29, 2012
TIME: 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.
LOCATION: Atlantic Council
1101 15th Street, NW, 11th Floor
Washington, DC 20005

To attend, RSVP with your name and affiliation (acceptances only), to Photo credit: Getty Images.

David Albright is founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISSI) in Washington, DC. A physicist and former UN arms inspector, Albright has written numerous assessments of nuclear weapons programs throughout the world. He has co authored five books, including the 1992 and 1996 versions of World Inventory of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium, (SIPRI and Oxford University Press); Challenges of Fissile Material Control (ISSI Press, 1999); Solving the North Korean Nuclear Puzzle (ISIS Press, 2000); and Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America’s Enemies (Free Press, 2010).

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and Washington correspondent for, a new website devoted to news from and about the Middle East. The author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, she is a regular commentator on US foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, and C-SPAN. A career journalist, Slavin previously served as assistant managing editor for world and national security of The Washington Times, senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today, Cairo correspondent for The Economist, and as an editor at The New York Times Week in Review.

The Iran Task Force, co-chaired by Atlantic Council Chairman Senator Chuck Hagel and Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, seeks to perform a comprehensive analysis of Iran’s internal political landscape, its role in the region and globally, and any basis for an improved relationship with the West. Please click here for more information about the Iran Task Force.

2. Assessing the Impact of Egypt’s Presidential Elections, Center for National Policy, noon-1:15 pm May 29

Bookmark and<br /><br />
ShareAlthough there are now competing sectors of power in Egypt, the outcome of its presidential elections will likely have a major impact on that country’s domestic and foreign policies.  The Center for National Policy will be hosting a panel of experts, moderated by CNP Senior Fellow for the Middle East, Gregory Aftandilian,  to discuss how these elections will affect Egypt and the future of U.S.-Egyptian relations.


Mr. Karim Haggag
Visiting Faculty

National Defense University

Mr. Thomas Gorguissian
Washington Correspondent

Al Tahrir.  The Egyptian Daily

Dr. Mohamed Alaa Abdel-Moneim

Professorial Lecturer
American University
*A light lunch will be served*


Center for National Policy
One Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Suite 333

Washington, DC  20001

May 29   12:00 pm – 1:15 pm

3. Is America’s Age of Descent Ushering in a G-Zero World? Carnegie Endowment, 6-8 pm May 2

Register to attend

Edward Luce and Ian Bremmer will debate America’s changing role in the world given profound social, economic, and political challenges, as well as the geopolitical consequences. Luce’s new book, Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, outlines the nation’s decline and the loss of its pragmatism; Bremmer’s book, Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, details the risks and opportunities in a world without global leadership. Carnegie’s David Rothkopf will moderate.

4. Women’s Leadership in Post-Conflict Liberia: My Journey, WWC 10-noon May 30

Coming Soon
There will be a live webcast of this event.

Women’s Leadership in Post-Conflict Liberia:

My Journey

with Author Olubanke King-Akerele and

Special Keynote Address from

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

(via video-conference)Wednesday, May 30, 2012

from 10:00am-12:00pm

6th Floor Flom Auditorium

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

5. The Crisis in Northern Mali, Carnegie Endowment, 12:15-1:45 pm May 31

Anouar Boukhars, Rudolph Atallah, J. Peter Pham


Register to attend

While much attention has been focused on Mali’s capital Bamako following the March 22 coup overthrowing Mali’s elected government, developments in the northern part of the country may have greater regional implications. Bolstered by fighters and weapons flowing from Libya, separatist Tuareg rebels have succeeded in driving out government forces and allowed a number of Islamist groups to expand their presence.

A panel of experts will provide an update on the situation and discuss the broader regional implications for the Sahel, North Africa, and West Africa.

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