Month: September 2016

What to do in Syria

Last Friday the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a public hearing on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, in particular the options and dilemmas confronting policymakers concerned with civilian protection. Hosted by Co-Chairman James McGovern, the hearing featured two panels with testimonies from witnesses to the crisis.

According to Dr Ahmad Tarakji, President of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), his organization has established more than 120 hospitals and clinics in Syria and neighboring countries with more than 1700 physicians and nurses. In 2015 alone SAMS facilities treated more than 2.5 million patients. However their work is seriously challenged by the deliberate targeting of hospitals and physicians. At the height of violence in July, attacks on a hospital occurred every 18 hours and the loss of a SAMS physician every two weeks. There have also been disturbing accounts of physicians being targeted after leaving the hospitals and clinics. Tarakji highlighted the routine regime denial of medical evacuations, causing children to die despite full plans and funding in place for their transfer. One of his key policy recommendations is the development of transparent medical evacuation processes in Syria free from political influence, as well as independent investigation into the attacks on medical services.

Richard Leach, President and CEO of World Food Program USA, said WFP is providing food assistance to 4.2 million in Syria, 1 million in besieged areas and 1.6 refugees in the region. But there are still 3.7 million civilians in need of aid who are not being reached. The primary issue is not resources, as Syria is one of the few fully-funded WFP operations. The issue is access to civilian populations in need due to violence as well as harassment at checkpoints. Leach recommends measures to ensure immediate and unconditional access to all areas, protection of relief workers, and an end to harassment at checkpoints. He also pointed towards a growing global gap between need and resources and urged the US to lead in advocating that other countries to contribute to international aid organizations’ funding needs.

As Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA, Joel Charny described Syria as the most challenging environment NRC has faced, though through patient negotiations and working with local partners they have been able to reach 1 million people over the last two years and are building local response capacity. In regime areas, NRC faces tight political control and painstaking negotiations for permission to operate. In opposition areas, movement is freer but there are security issues and concerns whether aid channeled through local partners is reaching the most vulnerable people. He presented four feasible recommendations to enhance the protection of civilians:

  1. Increase access to civil documentation to enable freedom of movement and access to services;
  2. Enable front line access to de-mining groups (in the example given, 126 people were reportedly killed by remnant explosives on their return to liberated Manbij);
  3. Ensure continued access to asylum, with an urgent need to support neighboring states carrying the heaviest refugee burdens; and
  4. Guarantee protection to humanitarian workers, with a particular warning about negative precedents set in Syria.

Sarah Holewinski, Senior Fellow with the Center for a New American Security, discussed strategies Syrian civilians have developed in response to the crisis. First, early-warning systems for bombings have been developed with spotter networks watching the skies and broadcasting warnings. These have been successful in preventing casualties and reducing trauma. Second, schools and hospitals are being constructed in safer ways, with air raid huts nearby, operating theaters in basements, and a series of small clinics around conflict zones to enable easier casualty access. Third, local defense and rescue forces have been established and are highly successful in rescue operations. Most visible is Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, however Holewinski noted that there are countless others undertaking valuable work in the field. Her primary recommendation is that the US directs funds to some of these civil society activities, especially given the humanitarian aid access issues noted by some of the other panelists.

Naomi Kikoler, Deputy Director of the Simon-Skojdt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, highlighted the responsibility to protect and respond to crimes against humanity. Protection of civilians should be the priority and must not be undermined by politics. The US must also strive towards a durable solution to the conflict. She noted that ignoring the crisis creates challenges to US strategic interests as allies are weakened, enemies emboldened, and anti-US entities arise from the conflict.

As the Deputy Director for Investigations and Operations with the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, Chris Engels spoke of atrocity accountability efforts for Syria. International actors are interviewing victims and documenting crimes, and CIJA is aiming to link individuals with crimes and present complete case files for the prosecution of individuals up the hierarchy of the regime. He noted that transitional justice is essential to enduring peace. The US should be developing a long-term strategy for mechanisms to achieve accountability and justice.

Co-Chairman McGovern emphasized in closing that Congress should hear this testimony and not shy away from debating the issues at stake, such as the establishment of safe zones inside Syria.

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Saving Syrians

Syrian Civil Defense (commonly referred to as the White Helmets) is a volunteer, unaffiliated rescue team that operates in opposition-held Syria. They are in consideration for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize and were the subject of a recent Netflix documentary (see trailer below).

Raed Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, spoke yesterday with Farouq Habib, manager of the Syrian Program at the Mayday Fund, Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, and Ambassador Frederic C. Hof at the Atlantic Council.

Saleh described horrendous conditions in Aleppo, the target of a recent bombing campaign by the Syrian regime along with its Russian ally. Although the White Helmets are doing the best they can, he expects many more people to perish due to the destruction of their headquarters, the deaths of 12 volunteers, and the sheer number of people buried in the rubble whom they will be unable to rescue. He urged the international community to muster the political will to negotiate an end to hostilities against civilians in Syria.

Most devastating of the 1,700 airstikes on Aleppo in the past 8 days have been barrel bombs, incendiary munitions and cluster munitions. The Russians provided the incendiary and cluster munitions. The regime air force uses ‘double taps’: after bombing an area once, they will bomb it a second time once aid workers have moved in to assist the wounded, resulting in a greater number of casualties.

One audience member accused the White Helmets of taking an anti-regime stance by supporting a US-backed no-fly zone in Northern Syria. Saleh responded that White Helmet support of a no-fly zone has no political motivation. The White Helmets view it as the most effective way keep civilians safe from airstrikes.

Saleh also explained that the White Helmets work closely with UN aid convoys on a local level, since these convoys are more concerned with civilian welfare rather than politics. The White Helmets cooperate with opposition groups only to the extent that they are permitted to conduct rescue efforts.

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Balkan extremism: how big a threat?

The Conflict Management Program and the

Center for Transatlantic Relations

are pleased to invite you to a panel discussion on

Tuesday October 4, at 10:30 AM
1717 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20036
Room 500

Balkan Extremism: How Big a Threat?


Spencer Boyer

National Intelligence Council Officer for Europe

Adrian Shtuni

Principal Consultant/CEO Shtuni Consulting LLC

Dragan Stavljanin

Broadcaster, Balkan Service, Radio Free Europe

Edward P. Joseph

Executive Director, Institute of Current World Affairs

Daniel Serwer


SAIS Conflict Management Program Director and

Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations

The press in both the US and the Balkans has sometimes portrayed the region as a cauldron brewing a serious Islamist extremist threat. How big is the threat, what drives its cadres to war in Syria and Iraq, and what has already been done about? What more needs to be done?


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Dodik’s folly

American University Professor Ulas Doga Uralp asked last night whether I had written anything about the Bosnian Serb referendum, which passed Sunday with over 99% voting “yes.” Turnout was modest: somewhere around 55%. The issue on the ballot was whether Republika Srpska’s national day should be celebrated January 9. I won’t bother to explain why that is important to some people. Nor do I regret not having written something about it, though I believe I wasted a few breaths on it in an interview.

The substance of the referendum deserves to be ignored. The significant thing was that it was held at all, after the Bosnian constitutional court ruled it unconstitutional, rightly or wrongly. If the referendum is allowed to stand, Dodik intends to move ahead with an independence referendum in 2018. For some in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that would be a casus belli, just as it was in 1992.

I don’t really expect real war to ensue, though the risk of violence needs to be taken seriously. Many approved independence referendums don’t result in widely recognized sovereignty, most notably Russian-inspired referendums in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Crimea. Don’t know all those places? That’s because they are under normal circumstances obscure provinces, now converted into poor, backwater satellites of Moscow with no prospect of wide international recognition. Their main function is to destabilize and retard the countries that continue to claim them, in service to Moscow’s anti-Western, anti-NATO and anti-EU ambitions.

That’s the best Republika Srpska can hope for if it proceeds with its current course: to become a poor, unrecognized, backwater satellite of a country whose GDP is now less than that of Spain and still decreasing. Russia is a declining regional power with little to offer even a strategically important place like Crimea. Republika Srpska as a self-declared independent state will get little recognition and even less money, since it doesn’t happen to sit on significant real estate. Dodik will no doubt have increased opportunities to line his pockets if RS declares independence, but the population is guaranteed to lose access to World Bank funds as well as American and European assistance.

I don’t expect it to come to that. It would be far better if Bosnia’s courts would handle the issue, declaring the referendum null and void and doing what they can to hold Dodik accountable for conducting it in spite of a constitutional court decision. This is Bosnia’s Marbury v Madison moment, when the court’s authority to review legislation and executive decisions requires affirmation. If the Americans and Europeans have any interest left in Bosnia, they need to make sure that happens.

Of course they might have just used the “Bonn powers” of the High Representative, who has said the referendum violates the Dayton agreements. They can no longer readily do that because they have somehow allowed Moscow to acquire a de facto veto over their use, and they fear they have no way of implementing the HiRep’s decisions. Putin’s Russia is happy to use the veto and ostentatiously provided support to Dodik with a visit to Moscow just before the referendum.

But none of that changes reality: Republika Srpska won’t become a widely recognized independent state but may well join half a dozen other Moscow-sponsored backwaters in serving Moscow’s commitment to destabilization. The EU and NATO may not be perfect, but they offer a lot better future than Russia does. That’s Dodik’s folly.

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Clinton won on the merits

How can anyone who watched last night’s presidential debate conclude that Trump did well? Clinton beat him on knowledge, amiability, respect, and record. Trump nervously sniffed, grunted, interrupted, and grimaced through the 90 minutes, scattering lies throughout. By the end, he was reduced to incoherence in responding to a question about America’s doctrine on first use of nuclear weapons and platitudes about how important they are.

But on NPR this morning, a self-described “alpha male” said Trump showed the kind of command authority required to be president. For him, that was the key: Trump attracts those who believe in male supremacy. His discourteous and dismissive behavior towards Clinton, not to mention his long record of derogatory remarks about women, is an asset, not a liability, with some voters.

He also attracts those who believe in white supremacy and maintenance of white privilege. His description of black neighborhoods as ridden with crime and violence is not calculated to attract black votes. It is the “dog whistle,” inaudible to many, intended to attract white racist votes by signaling that he understands their distaste for black people. Ditto his not denying that he discriminated against black people in renting apartments. Why deny something that your supporters like?

Trump, in short, represents the revenge of misogyny and racism. Can that win?

Unlikely, but not impossible. FiveThirtyEight has him at 45%, more or less, this morning. My guess is that his odds will go down over the next few days as his poor performance in the debate sinks in with the electorate. Hillary Clinton looked and behaved like a president last night: self-controlled, clear, and articulate. But even at 40/60, Trump would still have a shot a month our from the November 8 election.

On foreign policy issues, the debate was minimalist. Clinton ably defended the nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump attacked without promising to renege on it. Trump went after Clinton on trade agreements–not only the Trans-Pacific Partnership but also the North American Free Trade Agreement. Most commentators seemed to think that was his best moment. Syria did not come up, nor I think did Ukraine, Israel, or Afghanistan (except for Clinton’s mention of the NATO allies joining us there after 9/11). Clinton criticized the Russians for cyber attacks. Trump tried to parry by suggesting someone like the Chinese might have been responsible. He also criticized China for competitively weakening its currency, which hasn’t happened in years.

ISIS came up, but neither offered anything really new on how to counter it. Clinton got a point or two for mocking Trump’s “secret” plan. She also scored in emphasizing that the agreement for withdrawal from Iraq, which Trump criticized, was done during George W. Bush’s presidency, including the date by which the withdrawal had to be completed. Trump again denied supporting the Iraq invasion, which by now everyone should know is untrue. He also denied denying global warming and deleted an old tweet in which denied it.

In short, this was a clear win for Hillary Clinton on the merits even if she did not score any knockout blows. Those are more likely to come in the next debates, scheduled for October 9 and 19 (the vice presidential debate will be October 4).

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Iran’s aggrieved entitlement

Sousan Abadian, a scholar with advanced degrees from Harvard, contributed this post. She has served as a Fellow at MIT’s Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values as well as the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Her academic research on healing collective trauma has been described as “pioneering” and “highly original” by Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen. She now guides people and organizations to step free of restrictive narratives and go beyond known thresholds in order to create transformation. She has been awarded a Franklin Fellowship at the US Department of State.

I’m a student of post-conflict restoration, of how communities not only survive trauma but also learn to thrive by adapting and gaining resilience. I was born in Iran but naturalized in the US. Forays into Vietnam and Laos have given me perspective on my Iranian origins.

How did the Laotians and Vietnamese react when they found out I was American? Gracious and unimpressed. The war has been over now for over thirty years. The Vietnamese have succeeded in unifying their country and winning their independence. Laos welcomed President Obama just this month.

Both Vietnam and Laos are not only at peace but profoundly peaceful. As a researcher concerned with collective trauma, I wondered how that had been achieved. For example, there is a surprising absence of road rage given the horrendous crowds and unbelievable traffic in Hanoi. I witnessed the aftermath of an accident involving two motorcycles. A large crowd had gathered around the two riders, who were calmly discussing the incident. I had never seen anything like it.

At the crack of dawn in Hanoi, a large group of elderly do Tai Chi by Hoàn Kiếm Lake and play badminton, laughing and puffing with exertion. Just outside Luang Prabang in Laos, the ancient city of a thousand temples, children stand by the side of the road with buckets of water, splashing passersby and laughing hysterically. Life is about equilibrium and joy.

I could not help but contrast my experience of Iran with Laos and Vietnam. Iranian children, and adults for that matter, are full of mirth and fun. But there is also an intangible heaviness, as though joy must be kept under wraps — like its women, hidden away under black — and squashed under the weight of self-denial, austerity, and even perpetual mourning. Many Vietnamese and Laotians I encountered were by contrast engaged in play, contemplation, or busy moving ahead in life. They appear to ruminate little and refrain from stirring up muck from the past.

Why is it that after all these years, the Iranian government, or at least the Islamist hardliners, continue to express resentment and foment rage at America, their ‘Great Satan,’ while the Laotians and Vietnamese had seemingly let go of their bitter grievances, moving graciously on towards the future? Iran has arguably experienced a fraction of what Laotians experienced (and continue to experience) at the hands of the American government. Laos experienced the most bombings per capita in history. From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. American unexploded ordnance continues to maim and kill innocent Laotian children and adults to this day in an estimated one-third of the country.

What allows Vietnam and Laos to move forward with the US despite legitimate grievances? What prevents Iran from doing so? Read more

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