Month: April 2012

What Allawi can do

I had a visit today from Iraqis concerned about Prime Minister Maliki’s growing closeness to Iran and his push to concentrate power.  I thought it might be useful to record what I told them.

In my experience, the U.S. administration is well aware of Maliki’s push to concentrate power and concerned about it.  The Americans want the 2014 elections to be reasonably free and fair.  They know full well that the judiciary is not independent and that Maliki is pressuring the press.  But their primary focus has been on the election commission, which has to be truly independent in order to pull off a recognizably free and fair election.  The arrest of the head of the commission on a minor corruption charge and the threat of a parliamentary investigation led by Maliki’s own is creating anxiety.

The Americans don’t view Maliki as an Iranian stooge, as many Iraqi Sunnis see him.  He accepts their support when it suits him and helps him to stay in power.  Nor is he backing Bashar al Assad’s continuing rule in Syria.  Iraq has blocked overflights from Iran that were resupplying Damascus.  The Americans think Maliki is legitimately concerned with who replaces Bashar al Assad and determined that it should not be a sectarian figure, who would necessarily be Sunni.

What about Kurdistan President Barzani’s complaints that Maliki is in effect holding the Defense and Interior portfolios for himself?  The Americans know that is a legitimate complaint, even if I have been told that Maliki accepted an Iraqiyya nomineee for Defense who was then withdrawn.  But Barzani undermined his position by threatening to hold a referendum on independence for Kurdistan, even though he knows full well that the international community will not recognize the result.  It looks to some in Washington as if the Kurds, asked for an accounting of how oil money is being spent, responded belligerently, turned off the tap and took up a cry for independence that has no serious chance of success.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 Iraqi election, there was a good deal of support for Ayad Allawi.  Iraqis voted for change and people in Washington were inclined to think they should get it.  Only in the summer did the Americans seem to shift to support Maliki, largely because Allawi seemed unable to assemble a majority in parliament, which is what he needed to govern.

Allawi and Iraqiyya, I went on, have not proven to be effective either within Iraq or abroad.  Allawi’s many op/eds attacking Maliki in the English language press are fine–he is entitled to speak out.  But when was Allawi last in Washington to talk with people, both in public and in private?  And if he is going to speak out against Maliki, why are his people still in the government?  Iraqiyya is trying to have its cake and eat it.  It might do better to go into opposition.  If it won’t do that, it needs to focus on getting some things done within the government.

There are several areas on which they might focus.  First is ensuring that proper procedures are applied in nominating military commanders and procuring equipment for the Iraqi armed forces.  Iraqiyya complains about these issues, but it never seems to get anything done to change the situation.

Second is protecting human rights.  Iraqiyya is far from distinguishing itself in making human rights its signature cause.

Third is insisting that at least some significant portion of Iraqi’s oil leave the country to the north (to Turkey) rather than virtually all of its being exported in the south, where it has to pass through the strait of Hormuz under the watchful eye of the Iranians.  A big pipeline to the north would require agreement among all the political forces in Iraq, but that in my way of thinking is its greatest advantage.  In any event, those who want Iraq tied more tightly to the West should be pressing for it.


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This week’s peace picks

It’s a quieter week on the international front than in the recent past.  But some good events nevertheless:

1.  A Year Beyond Bin Laden:  the New Al Qaeda, Center for National Policy 12:30-1:45 pm May 1 at the Capitol Visitor Center, Room HVC-215

Click here for directions

It has been exactly a year since an elite team of Navy SEALs killed al Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The world has seen other changes as well: the “Arab Spring,” the reverberations of which continue to rock the Middle East and the larger Muslim world.

With the benefit of a year of reflection, how has Bin Laden’s death change al Qaeda? How are these changes likely to play out in the future? What are al Qaeda’s prospects in a post-Arab Spring world, given the ascendance of Islamic political parties? With CNP President Scott Bates moderating, our panel of experts will discuss and debate these questions and more


Mary Habeth
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

Will McCants
Center for Naval Analyses

Stephen Tankel
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Scott Bates

President, Center for National Policy

Mary Habeck is an associate professor in Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). From 2008 to 2009, she was the special advisor for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council staff. She is the author of Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror and two forthcoming sequels, Attacking America: How Salafi Jihadis Are Fighting Their 200-Year War with the U.S. and Fighting the Enemy: The U.S. and its War against the Salafi Jihadis.
William McCants is a Middle East specialist at CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies and adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University. He previously managed the Minerva Initiative for the Department of Defense and served as a State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism. He is the author of Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam.
Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment in the South Asia program, and an adjunct staff member at the RAND Corporation. Professor Tankel has conducted field research on insurgency, terrorism, and other security issues in Algeria, India, Lebanon, Pakistan, and the Balkans. He is the author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba.

2.  Threats to Defenders of Democracy in Balochistan, NED, 12:30-2 pm May 2


Malik Siraj Akbar, Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow

with comments by

Brian Joseph, National Endowment for Democracy

Wednesday, May 2, 2012
12 noon–2:00 p.m.
(Lunch served from 12:00 to 12:30 p.m.)

1025 F Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20004
Telephone: 202-378-9675

RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Monday, April 30

About the Event

The February 2012 hearing on Balochistan at the U.S House of Representatives brought rare public attention to a longstanding conflict in Pakistan’s mineral-rich southwestern province. While high-level discourse has focused on issues of national sovereignty, security, and secession, the gross violations of human rights in the region have received little international coverage, due in part to government censorship and the threats faced by journalists. Since its accession to Pakistan in 1948, Balochistan has been the scene of periodic uprisings that have resulted in the extrajudicial killing, torture, and enforced disappearance of countless civilians, professionals, and political leaders. Despite judicial and parliamentary initiatives on the part of Pakistan’s civilian government, the conflict remains unresolved.

In his presentation, award-winning journalist Malik Siraj Akbar will offer insights into the origins of the human rights crisis in Balochistan, and an account of the threats faced by defenders of democracy in the region, as well as preliminary recommendations for how best to move forward. Brian Joseph will provide comments.

About the Speakers

Malik Siraj Akbar is a Pakistani journalist who has risked his life covering enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, assaults on journalists, and other human rights violations, particularly in his native Balochistan. The founding editor of the Baloch Hal, Pakistan’s first online local newspaper, he previously served as the Balochistan bureau chief of the Daily Times, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper (2006–2010). A recognized regional expert, he is the author of The Redefined Dimensions of the Baloch Nationalist Movement (2011), as well as numerous articles on press freedom, human rights, religious radicalism, and the war on terror in Pakistan.

Brian Joseph is the senior director for Asia and multi-regional programs at the National Endowment for Democracy.

3.  Why the US is Not Destined to Decline: A Debate, WWC, 4-5:30 pm May 2

May 02, 2012 // 4:00pm — 5:30pm

To argue against the widely proclaimed idea of American decline, as this book does, might seem a lonely task. After all, the problems are real and serious. Yet if we take a longer view, much of the discourse about decline appears exaggerated, hyperbolic, and ahistorical. Why? First, because of the deep underlying strengths of the United States. These include not only size, population, demography, and resources, but also the scale and importance of its economy and financial markets, its scientific research and technology, its competitiveness, its military power, and its attractiveness to talented immigrants. Second, there is the weight of history and of American exceptionalism. Throughout its history, the United States has repeatedly faced and eventually overcome daunting challenges and crises. Contrary to a prevailing pessimism, there is nothing inevitable about American decline. Flexibility, adaptability, and the capacity for course correction provide the United States with a unique resilience that has proved invaluable in the past and will do so in the future. Ultimately, the ability to avoid serious decline is less a question of material factors than of policy, leadership, and political will.

Author Robert J. Lieber will discuss his new book, Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the US is Not Destined to Decline. He will be joined on the panel by Michael Mandelbaum.

If you wish to attend this event, please send RSVP to

6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

4. The Arab Awakening: Progress or Peril? A Conversation with Amr Hamzawy and Jane Harman

Date / Time Thursday, May 3 / 12:00pm – 2:00pm
Woodrow Wilson Center 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20004
Description As transitioning Arab countries struggle to consolidate revolutionary change with elections and constitutional reform, it is still unclear whether they will succeed in becoming democracies. Economies are in crisis, Islamists are dominating elections, former regime elements are resurgent, and civil society is under threat. Are revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya succeeding in delivering dignity and freedom, or are they being hijacked by illiberal forces?Amr Hamzawy, a leading voice of the Egyptian revolution who has become one of his country’s most active parliamentarians, and Wilson Center President Jane Harman will debate where Egypt and other transitioning Arab countries are headed.The Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center invite you to participate in this inaugural event in a series of debates on the future of the transitioning Arab countries.
5.  Tibet and the Future of AsiaStrategic Issues for the U.S., India and the World, Foreign Policy Initiative, 10-noon May 4, Dirksen 106

FPI Logo

Friday, May 4th

9:45 AM – 10:00 AM
Coffee and Registration

10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
Panel Discussion and Q&A

Senate Dirksen Office Building
Room 106

                                       Panelists:                 Brahma Chellaney
                                    Panelists    :                Centre for Policy Research

                                       Panelists:                 Michael J. Green
                                    Panelists    :                Center for Strategic and International Studies

                                    Panelists    :                Lodi G. Gyari
                                    Panelists    :                Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

                                    Panelists    :                Ambassador Lalit Mansingh
                                    Panelists    :                Former Indian Foreign Secretary

                                       Moderator:               Ellen Bork
                                       Moderator:               Foreign Policy Initiative

To RSVP, click here.

As the Obama administration pursues its “Asia pivot,” Tibet is taking on increased strategic significance due to its importance as a source of water and minerals, the militarization of the Tibetan plateau and the Sino-Indian border, Chinese influence in Nepal, and Beijing’s insistence on deference to its control of Tibet as a “core interest.”   The series of self-immolations by Tibetans over the past year demonstrates that 60 years of Communist Chinese occupation has not succeeded in destroying Tibetans’ identity and desire for freedom.  This still unfolding unrest and the democratization of the Tibetan government-in-exile make imperative a review of international policies.

Moving forward, what role will Tibet play in the region’s peace and security?  Do the U.S. and India have the right policies in place for Tibet?  What policies is China pursuing in response to recent events and in anticipation of the future?  What are the prospects for achieving the autonomy the Dalai Lama seeks?  Can Tibetan Buddhism and democracy provide a bridge between Tibetans and Chinese?

Discussing these vital questions will be Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research; Michael J. Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Lodi G. Gyari, special envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama; and Ambassador Lalit Mansingh, former Indian Foreign Secretary. FPI Director of Democracy and Human Rights Ellen Bork will moderate the discussion.

Speaker Biographies

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, a fellow of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, a trustee of the National Book Trust, and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He has served as a member of the Policy Advisory Group headed by the Foreign Minister of India. Before that, Dr. Chellaney was an adviser to India’s National Security Council until January 2000, serving as convener of the External Security Group of the National Security Advisory Board. A specialist on international security and arms control issues, Dr. Chellaney has held appointments at Harvard University, the Brookings Institution, the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and the Australian National University. He is the author of six books, including Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan and his latest book Water: Asia’s New Battleground. Dr. Chellaney has published research papers in publications such as International Security, Orbis, Survival, Washington Quarterly, Security Studies, and Terrorism. He regularly contributes opinion articles to the International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, the Japan Times, the Asian Age, the Hindustan Times, and the Times of India. In 1985, Dr. Chellaney won a Citation for Excellence from the Overseas Press Club in New York. He holds a B.A. from Hindu College and an M.A. from the Delhi School of Economics. Dr. Chellaney also has a Ph.D. in international arms control.

Michael J. Green is a senior adviser and holds the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is also an associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University. He previously served as special assistant to the President for national security affairs and senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council (NSC) from January 2004 to December 2005, after joining the NSC in April 2001 as director of Asian affairs. Dr. Green speaks fluent Japanese and spent over five years in Japan working as a staff member of the National Diet, as a journalist for Japanese and American newspapers, and as a consultant for U.S. business. He has also been on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses, and a senior adviser to the Office of Asia-Pacific Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He did graduate work at Tokyo University as a Fulbright fellow and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a research associate of the MIT-Japan Program. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Aspen Strategy Group. He is also vice chair of the congressionally mandated Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and serves on the advisory boards of the Center for a New American Security and Australian American Leadership Dialogue as well as the editorial board of The Washington Quarterly. Dr. Green earned his undergraduate degree in history from Kenyon College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from SAIS.

Lodi G. Gyari is the special envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the lead person designated to negotiate with the government of the People’s Republic of China. Mr. Gyari is also the executive chairman of the board of the International Campaign for Tibet, an independent Washington based human rights advocacy group. Born in Nyarong, Eastern Tibet, Mr. Gyari and his family fled to India in 1959.  Realizing that Tibetans need to publicize their struggle to the world, he became an editor for the Tibetan Freedom Press and founded the Tibetan Review, the first English language journal published by Tibetans in-exile. Mr. Gyari was one of the founding members of the Tibetan Youth Congress and served as president of the Congress in 1975.  He was elected to the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies, the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, and subsequently became its chairman.  He then served as deputy cabinet minister with responsibilities for the Council for Religious Affairs and the Department of Health.  In 1988, he became senior cabinet minister for the Department of Information and International Relations.

Ambassador Lalit Mansingh has served as India’s foreign secretary, ambassador to the United States, and high commissioner to the United Kingdom. He has also been ambassador in the United Arab Emirates and high commissioner in Nigeria with concurrent accreditation to Benin, Chad, and the Cameroons. Ambassador Mansingh joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1963.  After his initial posting in Geneva, he went on to serve as deputy chief of mission in the Indian Embassies in Kabul, Brussels, and Washington. At headquarters in Delhi, Ambassador Mansingh worked in a variety of assignments: as joint secretary in the Ministry of Finance, director general of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, dean of the Foreign Service Institute, and secretary (West) in the Ministry of External Affairs. Before joining the Foreign Service, he worked as a research fellow in American studies at the School of International Studies in Delhi and as a lecturer in the Post-Graduate Department of Political Science at Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Orissa.  His current engagements include prof emeritus at the Foreign Service Institute of India and member of the governing body or executive committee of institutions in New Delhi including the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Development Alternatives, and the Indian Council for Sustainable Development. He is chairman of the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – India U.S. Policy Group and president of the World Cultural Forum (India). Additionally, he is on the International Advisory Boards of APCO Worldwide in Washington and the Bonita International Trust in London. Ambassador Mansingh is currently active in a number of international initiatives for conflict resolution, regional security, and sustainable development including being a part of a Track II dialogue between India and Pakistan focusing on confidence-building measures between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Ambassador Mansingh holds a master’s degree in political science.  He was recently conferred the Doctorate of Laws, Honoris Causa, by the University of North Orissa.

Ellen Bork is the director of Democracy and Human Rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI). She came to FPI from Freedom House where she worked on projects assisting activists and dissidents around the world. She previously served as deputy director of the Project for the New American Century, a foreign policy think tank, an adviser to the Chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, as the professional staff member for Asia and the Pacific at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and at the Bureau of Latin American Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Ms. Bork has been published in publications, including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, and The Weekly Standard. She has participated in election observation missions to Afghanistan, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Ukraine and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the board of the International Campaign for Tibet. Ms. Bork graduated from Yale University and the Georgetown University Law Center and is a member of the District of Columbia bar.

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Think twice

With U.S. officials saying–malgre’ moi–that the Annan plan is already failing, the White House is pledging to ramp up pressure on Syria.  The House Foreign Affairs Committee has also held hearings looking for policy options.

They aren’t finding many, other than the now tired safe areas, humanitarian corridors, no fly zones and other euphemisms whose only real utility is to initiate what would no doubt be a lengthy and frustrating international military intervention with an uncertain outcome.  Arming the opposition is another standby, but the perils of doing that have become more obvious with the continued fragmenting of the Syrian National Council, which was supposed to serve as the opposition “umbrella” and conduit for money.  It just isn’t clear who might eventually benefit from the arms. Giving weapons to Sunni-dominated insurgents in Syria could have repurcussions in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and beyond that would not be in the U.S. interest.

The one point of consensus in the testimony is provision of greater support to the in-country opposition, including intelligence about the movement of the Syrian security forces.  This is eminently reasonable, but even those who say

The regime has had a far harder time dealing with civil resistance over the past year than armed resistance

still advocate support to the armed resistance, presumably to gain influence over it.  That’s too bad, since armed resistance tends to discourage the more effective nonviolent resistance.

We can always tighten sanctions, or get someone else to tighten them, but it is in their nature that the easy and more obvious restrictions get done first.  The extension of financial and travel sanctions to more and more marginal regime figures may net a few bad guys, but the marginal utility is likely to be low, unless we happen to hit a regime fixer more important than he appeared to be in the first round.  A look at who is still buying Syrian oil might turn up something interesting we could accomplish, and it would likely be useful to extend some of the sanctions on Iran’s banking system to Syria.  But let’s be clear:  doing that will unquestionably make life even harder than it has been for ordinary Syrians.

The sad fact is that there is  not much else we can do to raise the costs to Bashar al Assad, unless we are prepared to take military action.  Despite White House mumbling about ramping up pressure, my sense is that we are nowhere near that decision.  There are good reasons for this.  Apart from all the tactical difficulties of attacking Syrian forces that are inside major population centers, the Administration’s top priority has to be mounting a credible military threat against Iran’s nuclear program.

An attack on Syria without UN Security Council approval could end Russia’s support for the P5+1 negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program, and any prospect for UNSC approval of action against Iran.  We also run the risk that an attack on Syria would not go well, or that it would chew up U.S. assets like cruise missiles, or that it would provide Iran with intelligence on our capabilities that would make an attack there less effective.  You don’t want to get into a scrap in Syria if your top priority is Iran (that’s true even though I would oppose an attack on Iran).

This leaves the main U.S. focus in Syria on diplomacy, in two directions:  Moscow and the Syrian opposition.  The renewal of the UN observer mission in Syria comes up in July.  We need Moscow to bring Bashar al Assad into full compliance with the Annan plan by then.  At the same time, we need to get the Syrian opposition in compliance, by ending its counter-productive use of violence.  This is what none of those testifying at the House have been willing to say.

If we get to July without the Annan plan implemented, then we will need to consider withdrawal of the observers as well as the use of military force.  I understand perfectly well the arguments in favor–there is no doubt in my mind that Bashar al Assad is capable of continuing the crackdown and committing much greater atrocities than he has so far.  And I understand why some U.S. government officials (and President Sarkozy) are trying to create the impression that military action is likely, even though it isn’t.

But President Obama is unlikely in the middle of an election campaign focused on the economy to take us to war, yet again, in an Arab country Americans don’t care much about.  Withdrawal of the observers without the subsequent use of force would leave Bashar al Assad to crack down even harder, which is what he did after the departure of the Arab League observers.  That would not be a good outcome.

We need to be thinking twice about Syria at every stage.


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Justice delayed

The conviction of former Liberian president Charles Taylor more than a decade after the war crimes he aided and abetted during the period 1996-2002 answers one important question about his role in the war in Sierra Leone:  did he bear some responsibility for rebel atrocities, even if he did not command them directly or conspire to produce them?  The court said yes, though an alternate judge held a dissenting view.

Judging from Helene Cooper’s graphic piece in the New York Times about her own family’s experiences, the conviction also provides an important occasion for victims.  Even more than ten years after the fact, even though the indictment covered only crimes in Sierra Leone and not in Liberia, they take some satisfaction from knowing that justice has not been denied but only delayed.

But what does it do, and not do, to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity in the future? When Charles Taylor was indicted, it was widely believed that the court action would disrupt the then ongoing process of beginning the reconstruction of Liberia.  Helene Cooper notes that he was tried for crimes in Sierra Leone rather than Liberia to avoid political problems that might have arisen in the country of which he was once president.  So far as I can tell, these fears have proven unfounded.   Charles Taylor is not today an important political factor in a Liberia that has made substantial progress in becoming a normal, functioning country, even if a frighteningly poor one.

Many diplomats bemoan the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment of President Omar al Bashir of Sudan, because they say it makes him hold on to power more tightly and interferes with diplomatic efforts to resolve the various conflicts embroiling his country.  That view readily prevails in Syria, where President Bashar al Assad’s obvious responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity cannot lead to an ICC indictment because Russia will prevent the necessary referral from passing in the UN Security Council.  Ugandan religious leader Joseph Kony, an ICC indictee, is still at large, despite a U.S.-aided manhunt. ICC indictment of Muammar Qaddafi, his son Saif and their security chief in Libya does not appear to have had much impact on their behavior.

So what good is an indictment that won’t produce justice for decades?  It is unlikely that the indictees themselves will moderate their behavior in response to an indictment.  Their discount rate is high and the results too uncertain and too far in the future to make them behave.  But there are other possible benefits.  First, an indictment may give pause to some of those below the top leadership, who will want to avoid also being held responsible.  Second, an indictment is a concrete expression of international community will to remove a leader from power.   It may not help in cutting deals, but it makes the bottom line remarkably clear.

Charles Taylor is the first head of state to be convicted since the Nuremberg trials.  He is likely not the last.  International justice is agonizingly slow, frustratingly incomplete, and potentially damaging to prospects for negotiated settlements.  But even justice delayed can shed light on past events, moderate behavior and provide satisfaction to victims.


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The UN has not failed in Syria yet

Here is a piece I did for, which they posted yesterday, under the title “UN Just Getting Started in Syria— Give Observer Mission a Chance.” 

The New York Times, NPR and other major media outlets have already declared the 300-strong UN observer mission in Syria, approved last weekend in the Security Council, a failure. The UN hasn’t stopped the violence, or even induced the Syrian government to withdraw heavy weapons from population centers. The observers are unable to protect protesters or ensure that humanitarian relief reaches civilians, as required by Kofi Annan’s six-point plan.

All that is true, but premature: As of yesterday, there were only 11 UN observers deployed in Syria. The remaining dozen or so are headquarters and support personnel. Part of the initial contingent came from the UN mission in Lebanon, but the Secretary General will not want to denude that effort to staff Syria. It will take time to get UN member states to cough up more troops for what is obviously a dangerous effort.

The press reports that violence typically subsides when the observers are present but surges once they leave. To journalists, this is a sign of their ineffectiveness. To diplomats, it means that they may be able to tamp down the violence, provided they are deployed in sufficient numbers.

If the 12 already deployed work in groups of at least three, they can be present in only four places on any given day, provided they have adequate transport, which is not ensured. Of course they haven’t been effective yet. They haven’t really arrived. The remaining several hundred will take weeks, maybe even months, to deploy.

Even then, experience suggests that it will take time before violence subsides. The UN operates only with the consent of warring parties, in this case the Syrian government and a fractious array of protesters. Consent is nominal on both sides. The government, feeling threatened, wants to suppress its opponents before withdrawing its forces from population centers. Some of the protesters continue violent attacks on Syrian security forces, providing the government with a convenient excuse for its continued use of force.

It will likely take weeks at best, more likely months, to reverse this spiral of violence. Only diligent and impartial reporting by the observers, combined with pressure from Kofi Annan and key Security Council members, can turn it around. The Americans, British and French need to focus on ending protester violence, in particular by the Free Syria Army. Its command and control is not unified, and many of its adherents are not former soldiers but local neighborhood-watch volunteers. Picture George Zimmerman with an AK-47. It is going to be difficult to get them to implement a ceasefire. The Russians and Chinese need to focus on Bashar al-Assad, whom they have so far been protecting. They need to convince him that his only chance for survival is an end to the brutal crackdown.

Once the situation begins to calm, at least in some places, humanitarian relief has to begin flowing and journalists must be allowed in, in accordance with Kofi Annan’s plan. Even Assad may allow these moves. International relief efforts will lighten his financial burdens and foreign journalists may be more objective than the protester-sympathetic “stringers” who provide most of the on-the-ground coverage at present.

Only then will it be possible to begin the political dialogue Kofi Annan is to facilitate.

While the Security Council has not called explicitly for Assad’s removal, it has called for

a Syrian-led political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system…including through commencing a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition.

The implication is that Assad is to be eased out, more like Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen than Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. The Americans, British and French will press hard for a democratic transition. Russia will resist, even if it signed on to the Security Council call.

One key factor in the political equation will be Iran. Syria, which is running out of money, depends heavily on Iran for financial, military and political support. Tehran won’t want to lose Assad, but if it looks as if he is about to go they will want to shift gears and try to put someone else in place who will continue the many decades of Syria’s alliance with Iran. Continued chaos, which is already flowing over Syria’s borders to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, may be worse from Tehran’s perspective than a new man at the helm in Damascus.

Of course, we may never get to that point.

The UN observers and the other elements of the Annan plan may still fail.  But they haven’t failed yet, no matter what the press says.

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Remembrance without resolve

How much time is required to decide if the UN observers in Syria are failing?  If you are the New York Times, two weekend days after authorization by the UN Security Council will do.  You wouldn’t want to wait until a significant number of them have actually deployed.  Even today, only eleven are active.  And you would cite Syrian army attacks occurring while they are not present as evidence of their ineffectiveness, whereas the opposite would seem more likely the case:  reduced attacks while the observers are present suggest they are having an impact.

The observers admittedly have a thankless task.  There is as yet no peace to keep in Syria, where the regime continues to attack its opponents, refuses to withdraw the military from population centers or to allow peaceful demonstrations, blocks journalistic and humanitarian access and is not prepared to discuss a transition away from the Assad regime.  The opposition also occasionally resorts to violence against the security forces.  If they are going to have an impact, the observers will need to acquire it after full deployment over a period of weeks, working diligently with both protesters and the regime to ensure disengagement and to gain respect for Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan.

This they can do, but only by being forthright in their assessments of what is going on, determined in their efforts to go where they want when they want and honest in communicating their observations to both the Syrian and the international press.

The regime will do everything it can to intimidate the observers and shield their eyes from the worst of what is going on.  It will retaliate against protesters who communicate with the observers.  And it will play “cat and mouse,” encouraging the observers to go where nothing is happening and discouraging them from going where something interesting might be observed.

Kofi Annan will not be easily fooled.  His long experience with UN peacekeeping and with the Security Council will ensure that Bashar al Assad faces a savvy and determined international civil servant, provided Washington continues to back the UN effort.

The initial deployment is for 90 days.  It should have been shorter, so that the Security Council would be forced to review and decide whether to renew the mission earlier than July.  Still, reports every 15 days to the Council will keep the issue on its agenda.  The number of observers is limited to 300, still too few to monitor a country the size and population of Syria.  At the very best, they will be able to make a difference in a relatively few communities, unless their numbers are much increased.

Some of the observers are likely to resign in frustration, as some of the Arab League observers did over the past winter.  Others will take the regime’s side, criticizing the protesters for violence against the security forces.  There will be confusion, even consternation, as they try to get a grip on a very slippery situation, one that threatens every day to descend into sectarian bloodletting of the worst sort.

Ultimately, Kofi Annan will need to decide whether the observers are serving a useful purpose.  The history of such missions suggests that they are greeted initially with a surge of violence, which subsides if the observers gain respect as truly neutral.  The difficulty is that “neutrality” is in the eye of the beholder.  One of the beholders in Syria, Bashar al Assad, has labelled all the demonstrators terrorists and will try to settle for nothing less from the UN.

As chance would have it, President Obama on Monday announced the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board, saying

…remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture.

The first test of those words will be in Syria, Bahrain and the border between what is now Sudan and South Sudan.  In all three places, there is a need to stiffen international community and in particular U.S. resolve to prevent atrocities, protect civilians and make oppressors accountable.  This does not necessarily mean the military action others are calling for. In fact, none of these situations lends itself to military means.  But the full political, diplomatic and economic weight of the United States should be brought to bear.  The President needs make sure his words and gestures are not hollow as he weighs U.S. options in these on-going conflicts.


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