Month: August 2011

So how is that revolution going?

Libya is more or less completing its first week since the Qaddafi boys and their father skedaddled to we not where, yet.  How is the Transitional National Council (TNC) doing in stabilizing Tripoli and restoring basic services?

Only people “on the ground,” as we say in the conflict world, can answer this kind of question.  NPR this morning reports that uniformed but unarmed police are back on the street in response to an appeal from the TNC, but water is still not flowing.  The New York Times has a description of jockeying for position among rebel leaders, both in Tripoli and at the national level.  Looting and other disorder has been reported, but it does not appear to have been widespread.  It is hard to get too excited about the guys who stole Qaddafi’s golf cart, but attacks on government offices to destroy files would betray an organized resistance that poses more serious problems.

The main contestations among the rebels seems to be emerging along the Islamist/secularist and east/west fault lines, with Islamist forces from the west who played a major role in liberating Tripoli claiming they are entitled to a good share of the political spoils.  War is about power, which abhors a vacuum even more than nature.

It is nice to have the traffic cops back on the street, so long as the local communities welcome them.  But the NTC has a big challenge in consolidating the various militia that fought to liberate Libya into a single army answerable to civilian authority, while finding jobs in the police or elsewhere for enough of the excess personnel to prevent them from creating problems.  Right now is when some of these militias will find themselves short of cash or food.  They can become protection rackets and organized crime syndicates almost overnight.

The terms of art for dealing with this problem are DDR (demobilization, disarmament and reintegration) and SSR (security sector reform).  More often than not, they have been treated as two separate processes, with DDR preceding SSR.  That is a mistake.  They are really two sides of the same coin, one that is supposed to buy the authorities a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, which is one textbook definition of sovereignty.

If the NTC manages to get control of the militias and restore order in Tripoli, its future prospects will improve dramatically.  The unseen hand that can help them are those shadowy foreigners–said to be British and French special forces as well as Qataris, and likely also some Americans–who assisted in the Libyan war.  They will have enormous influence with the militias they assisted, and deep knowledge of who really did fight effectively.  We all would like to see this revolution proceed with Libyan leadership, but that leadership is going to need foreign assistance in many different ways.  Helping to unify the freedom fighters and getting them to respect civilian authority is, I am afraid, one of them.

Getting the water flowing again is more a Libyan responsibility.  Qaddafi’s Great Manmade River, which supplies much of the country, is said to have been shut off at Sabha, a town south of Tripoli that is still in the hands of Qaddafi loyalists.  The perils of a full-fledged military assault on Sebha and Sirte, Qaddafi’s home town, are serious, which is why the rebels have given the loyalists there until Saturday to surrender.  Let’s hope they do, and that no serious damage has been done to the water equipment or supplies.

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The long diplomatic game in Syria

It is past time to take a look at the possibility that the protests in Syria will not bring down Bashar al Assad any time soon.  While some of the opposition appears in frustration to be calling for violence on the part of the demonstrators, my inner voice tells me that would be a big mistake.  Bashar has the advantage in use of force, and he has demonstrated willingness to use it.

There is no real possibility of external military action in support of a violent Syrian rebellion, which is what made the difference in Libya.  The Arab League is far from advocating a UN Security Council resolution authorizing force.  The Russians, who enjoy the use of the Syrian port at Latakia, would block it anyway–they haven’t even allowed a resolution condemning regime violence.

If the protesters take up arms, they will elicit a response in kind and drive the violence in Syria in the ethno-sectarian direction, which is precisely what Europe and the United States fear the most.  Even Iran will agree:  a Sunni-defined uprising against the Allawi regime would be particularly unwelcome in Tehran.

So the question becomes this:  how can the protesters sustain their nonviolent efforts over the longer term, defined as months or even a year or two?  Only if they are clearly able and willing to do so will Bashar yield.  If he thinks he can outlast the demonstrators, why would he give in?

First, the international community needs to warn the protesters that there is no real alternative.  There will be no external military action.  Not even a “no fly zone,” which has become code for the kind of aggressive air campaign NATO conducted in Libya.  Syria is not Libya.  Damascus has strong backing from Tehran and Moscow.  Ankara has talked tough but has not backed it up with action.  Ditto the Arab countries, several of which have withdrawn their ambassadors but done little else.

Second, the international community needs to reward and encourage those among the protesters prepared to keep to nonviolence and maintain unity of purpose.  Monday’s formation of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an analogue to the  Transitional National Council that has become the post-Qaddafi governing structure in Libya, is a good development.  It will need wholehearted moral and financial support from Europe and the United States, though at this stage formal recognition would be premature.

The SNC, led by a diaspora professor, will necessarily be an outside Syria affair for the most part, unless the protesters can somehow carve out some liberated space inside the country.  They have tried to liberate particular cities several times, only to see the regime security forces eventually surround and retake them.

An alternative approach is to use cyberspace, as the Libyans also did, to publish their intentions and plans for post-Bashar Syria.  This could include a constitutional charter or framework that projects the kind of Syria they would institute, including a roadmap for preparation of a new constitution as well as local and national elections.  This would give the international community something to respond to and provide a blue print for future preparations and eventual implementation.

Third, the SNC will need to encourage defections from the military and business communities.  This can be done by making it clear, as the Libyans have done, that contracts will be maintained, revenge avoided and continuity valued once Bashar is gone.  There is time enough in the aftermath of a revolution to vet and re-vet government officials, military officers and crony businessmen.  It need not be done immediately, or used as a threat against the regime.  The trick is to get regime elements, especially the security forces, to turn on Bashar, which they will do if they believe it will help protect them after the regime falls.

Fourth, while the SNC figures out how to convey the impression of knowing what to do if Bashar steps down, the international community needs to give him a stronger shove in the right direction.  Europe has still not blocked imports of oil and oil products from Syria.  Over time, that would deprive the regime of at least some revenue (assuming Damascus sells the oil at a discount elsewhere) and signal to businesspeople that the European Union is serious about getting him to step aside.  Secretary of State Clinton needs to spend some quality time beating up the Europeans on this subject when she sees them Thursday at the Libya contact group meeting in Paris.

Getting the Russians on board for a Security Council resolution, even a relatively weak one, would also be useful.  At some point, Russia needs to begin worrying about making sure that any new regime is not going to throw its fleet out of Latakia.  The SNC might start raising questions about the Russian presence there and suggesting that it could be sustained, but only if Moscow goes along with a resolution taking the regime to task for its treatment of the protesters.

What else can be done?  It is better in my view to maintain the U.S. ambassador in Damascus rather than withdraw him.  But he needs to continue his visits to demonstrators and do what he can in other ways to provide encouragement and succor.  Also on the diplomatic front:  we should of course be consulting constantly with Turkey and Lebanon, encouraging these frontline states to confront the regime as best they can.  Turkey in particular could wield a bit more clout than has so far been apparent with Syria’s business elite.

Jordan has already spoken up against the Syrian regime, but Iraq Prime Minister Maliki has preferred to toe the Iranian line and suggest that the Arab spring can benefit no one except Israel.  Apart from the patent inaccuracy of that allegation, Maliki’s attachment to Bashar, who spent years shipping terrorists into Iraq, is passing strange.  Our man in Baghdad has presumably objected appropriately, but we need to do a bit more to ensure that Maliki is not actually helping Bashar, presumably on the theory that the enemy of my enemy (Saudi Arabia detests Maliki) is my friend.

Fifth, more unanimity against Bashar in the Arab League might help a good deal.  The Secretary General of that august but ineffectual organization was supposed to visit Damascus earlier this week to plead for an end to violence and more reform, but the Syrians rejected his not too vigorous plan before he even arrived.  Not clear to me whether he was able to make the trip. Iraq is not the only problem–Algeria is also Qaddafi-sympathetic and welcomed members of his family yesterday.

The Syrian regime will find it difficult to resist unanimity in the international community, if it can be achieved.  When even Iran and Hizbollah are distancing themselves, you know you are in trouble.  One of Qaddafi’s serious mistakes was to alienate Arab governments, two of which even joined in the NATO military action against him.  But it will not be easy to get everyone aligned in the right direction.  The diplomats have a big job to do.

PS:  For a pessimistic view of the Syrian opposition, see Kinda Kanbar’s piece at Middle East Progress.

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Kosovo reprised

Margarita Kadriu of Kosova Sot, a Pristina daily, asked me a few questions last week, and I answered in an interview scheduled for publication today:

Q:  Is the Kosovo’s government intervention in the south, in the custom checkpoints belated, having in mind that smuggling was a reality, not interfered from anybody?

DPS:  I assume you mean the north. I don’t think the intervention was belated, but if the situation had gone on much longer it would have become a fait accompli. The Kosovo government acted to prevent that and to get the issue of north Kosovo back on the agenda.  It has succeeded in that.

Q.  KFOR has declared a military zone until the 15th September and the 2nd September negotiations will be held for the customs stamps. Does Pristina need to make a compromise again regarding this matter, recognition of the stamps?

DPS:  I don’t know. I confess I find it hard to get excited about customs stamps and documentation. To me, the essential thing is that customs be collected for trade crossing the border.

Q:  KFOR is in the checkpoints 1 and 31, but it is dealing in accordance with the Resolution 1244, which recognizes only an administrative and not a national border. Does this continue to represent a political problem?

DPS:  Yes, it does, but that problem will continue until Belgrade accepts Kosovo as a sovereign and independent state. I don’t expect it to do that bilaterally—it will happen with Kosovo’s admission to the United Nations, which Serbia is still blocking.

Q:  Working of Albanian policemen and custom officials in the north is not sustainable, because of lack of security. What do you think, how will official Pristina continue with the institutional control in the northern part of Kosovo?

DPS:  This is part of what has to be worked out in the Belgrade/Pristina dialogue: how to ensure that Kosovo police and customs—they don’t necessarily have to be Albanians—can enforce the law effectively and safely.

Q:  The international community once again made it clear that it will not allow border changes, but the north needs a solution, in order to calm the situation. There are voices that speak about a special status. Can Kosovars accept such a deal?

DPS:  The Ahtisaari plan provides a special status. I still have not heard authoritatively from Belgrade or the Serbs in north Kosovo what they would want in addition. They are still focused on partitioning Kosovo, which isn’t going to happen.

Q:  In the north there are still blockages of the roads, the parallel organs are effective, Serbia is present in every segment of life, in the judiciary system, in education, health, etc. How do you see the “Kosovarisation” of this part of Kosovo’s territory?

DPS:  It has to be agreed with Belgrade that reintegration with the rest of Kosovo will occur, and a joint plan developed to make it happen.

Q:  The actual situation has been exploited by organized crime and the smugglers. Tens of millions of euros are lost every year from the lack of law in the north, and the criminal activity showed also in the case of the killing of an Albanian policeman and in the burning of checkpoint 1. Can Kosovo’s authorities fight crime in the north without the help from EULEX and KFOR?

DPS:  Not yet. EULEX in particular is still required. But that is a temporary solution. Eventually Kosovo institutions have to be established in the north, with the wide margin self-governance provided by the Ahtisaari plan.

Q:  EULEX is being criticized for its passive role. Does this mean that this EU mission is failing?

DPS:  EULEX has been slower and less definitive than many of us would like. But it is not failing. It is being careful and deliberate. I expect it to act against organized crime throughout Kosovo, sooner rather than later.

Q:  The popularity of Prime Minister Thaci grew after the action in the north. But, his party is going through some internal conflicts. Some of the deputies are facing justice, accused of war crimes or corruption. Does Kosovo face another unstable phase?

DPS:  No one is above the law. I see no reason for instability just because the law is being enforced. You should check how many members of the U.S. Congress have been investigated and have resigned in the past year.

Q:  Next year we are supposed to hold presidential elections and Thaci can run for president. Do you think that he makes most suitable candidate, or do you see some other unifying figure?

DPS:  Choosing the next president is entirely up to the citizens of Kosovo.

Q:  Kosovo actually has a consensual president, but she is more a political puppet, than an active participant in the political scene of the country. Does this represent some barrier in the important processes toward EU?

DPS:  I don’t agree with that at all. I think your current president is playing precisely the right role: she is a symbol and spokesperson for the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country and the aspirations of all its citizens. She is an advantage for Kosovo’s EU aspirations, not a hindrance.

Q:  The only main strong oppositional party is “Vetevendosje”, which has more precise concepts regarding some political and economical issues. How do you see the future of Mr Albin Kurti’s party?

DPS:  It will be whatever the voters of Kosovo decide. I disagree with Albin on issues like union with Albania, and I imagine it will be difficult for him to convince most of the population of Kosovo to give up the independence they have so recently achieved in order to be unified with a country that already has its own enormous challenges. But he is entitled to try.

Q:  Kosovo waits to see the progress report in October, but expectations are not overly optimistic. Corruption is still there, the wealth that originates from criminal activities has not been confiscated,  justice remains far away from the Western standards. Does this means that the road of Kosovo toward EU is going to be longer than supposed?

DPS:  I don’t know how long it is supposed to be, but the road is unquestionably a long and difficult one that will require far higher standards for the justice system and many other governing structures than exist today. There are no shortcuts on the main issues. Kosovo citizens are entitled to institutions that meet European standards.

Q:  All the countries in the region profit from visa liberalization. Is the European policy of leaving only Kosovo isolated, out of this process, wrong?

DPS:  Yes, it is wrong and I hope to see it change. Kosovo should get a visa roadmap that leads sooner rather than later to visa liberalization, provided its institutions meet the requirements. Anything else will discourage pro-European sentiment in Kosovo and encourage pan-Albanianism, which I would prefer not to see.

Q:  After all these events, in the fourth year of Kosovo’s statehood, can we say finally that Kosovo is a stable and sustainable country, or must we think twice before saying so?

DPS:  I think twice most days before saying the United States is stable and sustainable. We’ve got big problems. Kosovo does too, though on a much smaller scale. Pristina needs to be clear-headed and persistent to reintegrate the north, but it is doable if there is strong political will.

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What was it like 48 years ago?

Credit for this post, if credit is due, goes to Zaheer Ali, a New York City historian who asked in response to a tweet saying that I was at the March on Washington if I had ever written anything about it.  No, I haven’t, until just now, when I should be working on a book proposal.

I remember as much about the circumstances as I do about the event.  My aunt tried to convince my mother she shouldn’t let me go.  I was 18, age of the immortals.  Just graduated from high school, working in a factory for the summer before starting at Haverford.  I was determined to march despite rumors of violence.  I certainly did not want to take advice from my rascist aunt, who went livid.  Fortunately a more liberal uncle weighed in on my side.  Defiance proved unnecessary–my mother was a liberal and thought it natural that I wanted to go.

It’s all about witness, wanting to testify to your beliefs by moving your body to the right place at the right time.  I’d been to Washington before, as a child and tourist.  It was still a segregated city then, though as best I understand it more by tradition than by law.  My parents would only eat in chain restaurants that had integrated. Returning by bus that August day of 1963 was a right of passage for me:  a first opportunity to witness on my own.

What has become known as Martin Luther King’s greatest moment I thought of at the time as Bayard Rustin’s.  No, I did not know he was gay, or even what gay was, but I knew he was the great organizer.  He proved it that day, assembling an enormous mass of people, whites as well as people who then mostly still called themselves Negro.  There was a long list of speakers.  Martin Luther King was the climax, but I can assure you that many of the others stirred the crowd as well.  I particularly remember being moved by A. Philip Randolph, but don’t ask me any longer what he said.  And the music!  Dylan, Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary:  mostly white, but “radical” as it was known then.

I had to leave New Rochelle, where my family lived, early in the morning, around 4 am.  I grabbed the brown bag from the fridge with what I thought was my lunch in it, only to discover as we arrived in DC that the smell of raw fish was coming from my brown bag in the overhead rack.  I had to borrow a couple of dollars from a cousin to get a hot dog or two for lunch.

We marched from somewhere not too far–maybe Thomas Circle.  Memory confuses this occasion with the several later occasions I joined antiwar marches in DC.  The spirit was good, really good.  Everyone singing, chatting, laughing.  I don’t remember a moment of tension all day.  I guess the segregationists decided the crowd was too big and stayed home.  Certainly it was nothing like the venomous atmosphere I endured two years later demonstrating in Cambridge, Maryland, where the national guard fixed bayonets and gas masks to confront us in the main street.

The message of the day was integration.  Those who cite MLK’s “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers” have got it right.  It is hard to appreciate today how much imagination was needed then to picture integration of blacks and whites in the United States.  None of us were sure though at the time that MLK had quite risen to the occasion.  Was his speech really eloquent enough?  Did it rise to the occasion?  Would anything make a real difference in a country that seemed hopelessly attached to segregation and racism?

We all think we know the answers to those question now, but at the time nothing was clear, except the day and the overwhelming power of that crowd of witnesses.  These were people who really could sing “we shall overcome.”  And they were determined to do it, though they had no idea how long it would take.

What does this have to do with peace and war?  Everything:  Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria have all trod the path of nonviolent witness, some more successfully than others.  Even Libya did it briefly.   Hesitatingly, sometimes inadequately but increasingly the United States has come out on the right side, witnessing for the world to see that it supports human dignity.  There really is no other choice.  Bashar al Assad and King Khalifa of Bahrain should take notice.  Washington may hesitate, it may equivocate, but it will not fail in the end to support the radical proposition that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights.

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The truly perfect storm

That’s Nigeria, not Irene, which was a bit of a fizzle in DC.

The bombing Friday of a UN building in Abuja threatens to renew Muslim/Christian conflict in Africa’s most populous country, one that provides substantial amounts of oil to the world market and to the United States.  Nigeria matters, even if Washington seems at times ignore it studiously.  Go figure:  we really do take oil from Nigeria, over one million barrels per day this year, more than  twice what we get from Iraq.

The perpetrator of the suicide bombing came from Boko Haram, a radical Muslim organization that not only advocates sharia for the Muslim-dominated states of northern Nigeria but also opposes Western education, dress and culture in general.  Clashes between Muslims and Christians are not uncommon in Nigeria, especially Kaduna, Kano and Plateau States, where fatalities often number in the hundreds.

This week’s attack was quantitatively less deadly than previous incidents among Nigerians, but qualitatively a departure, as it targeted internationals and called attention to what are thought to be growing ties between Boko Haram and Al Qaeda.  The Boko Haram claim of responsibility is interesting:

“We take full responsibility for the attack on the United Nations building in Abuja, because the Nigerian government is corrupt, insensitive and deceitful.”

The spokesperson accused the government of holding the sect’s members and “treating them very badly.”

“The government does not honour its promises and have (sic) closed all avenues of dialogue. We declared ceasefire because of Ramadan but we have to break it because our members and sympathizers are killed and tortured.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg. Immediately after fasting, we will start full scale offensive against the Nigerian state, including President Jonathan, for ordering extra-judicial killings of our members in Kano and Abuja.”

Not a word about the UN, whose efforts in Nigeria seem focused on conventional (i.e. Western-style) development.  So what we’ve got here is an attack on Western culture intended to teach the Nigerian government a lesson.

If you are wondering, there is some reason to think that the charge of extrajudicial killings is not entirely unfounded–excessive police violence is certainly not unthinkable in Nigeria, and Boko Haram suffered a military-style attack on its headquarters two years ago.

Nigeria has now enjoyed a decade of semi-democratic but too often corrupt governance.  Current President Goodluck Jonathan seems by far not the worst of Africa’s chiefs of state.  A Christian from the Niger Delta, he is going to need a lot of good luck to protect Nigeria from the maelstrom into which it seems headed.  Washington would do well to pay more attention, preferably by providing civilian (rather than military) assistance, especially in law enforcement.   An umbrella is better protection in a storm than artillery.

PS:  For a similar but more literary perspective, see G. Pascal Zachary’s piece on “Nigeria:  Too Big to Fail.”


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Costly delusion

Serbia’s state secretary for Kosovo Oliver Ivanović is quoted on B92:

“It should be clear to everyone, including Kosovo Albanians, that the issue of the Kosovo status has not been solved yet,” Ivanović told Tanjug and added that with all due respect to the U.S. and other influential and powerful countries that have recognized Kosovo’s independence, it was clear that until Serbia did so there would be a serious obstacle to Kosovo promoting itself as independent.

The state secretary noted that the negotiations on the status of Kosovo should not be rushed and that Albanians were slowly coming round to the fact that Serbia had all the keys, which was why they would need to negotiate with it about this matter sooner or later….

He expressed belief that the Cypriot model was the only right solution for the Kosovo issue.

Speaking about the status of northern Kosovo, the state secretary pointed out that this issue would certainly be opened, together with the status of entire Kosovo.

I agree that Serbia is an obstacle to full realization of Kosovo’s independence, both because it continues to control the north and because it stands in the way of General Assembly membership.  But to suggest that Serbia has “all the keys” is clearly mistaken, unless Belgrade is willing to give up on European Union candidacy, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear enough this week in Belgrade.  And the notion that the EU would accept a Cyprus solution suggests outright delusion.  That is precisely what virtually all EU members–especially Serbia’s putative ally Cyprus–will want to avoid.

This is instructive, because it illustrates so clearly how Belgrade paints itself into a corner.  The analysis is basically correct, but Belgrade’s influence is exaggerated.  Serbia does not have the power to reopen the question of Kosovo’s status, only the status of northern Kosovo, and it can get its way on that issue only if it is prepared to defy Brussels and Washington and sacrifice its own EU hopes.

I’ll be happy to let Serbs decide whether that is in their interest.  They will want to take into account that Kosovo seems to cost Belgrade 500 million euros per year, according to Serb sources.  It is hard to believe that is worthwhile, and it is certainly not sustainable.


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