Uneasy Kosovo, and Macedonia

Kosova Sot, a Pristina daily, asked me some questions last week and published the answers today. My responses are below (1-18), but then Sunday they sent me an additional question, about Macedonia, which appears first here:

Q: In the meantime armed conflicts occurred in Kumanovo in Macedonia where there were policemen killed, civilians and gunmen. Do you think the situation in Macedonia will escalate? Did Macedonia failed to be a state for all citizens, because Albanians are the nation’s largest after the Macedonians in this country?

A: I think it is too early to speculate on the precise political origins and objectives of the group involved in this incident. But one thing is clear to me: those who challenge state structures in the Balkans today have no justification. The states potentially involved–not only Macedonia but also Kosovo, Serbia, Albania and Bosnia–will need to be prepared to protect themselves from those who intend to use violence to achieve political ends. I’ve got nothing but sympathy for the state security officials called upon to suppress rebellion, so long as they do so in strict observance of the rule of law.

Macedonia is having a hard time. All its citizens need to reflect on how it can begin to move forward on its Euro-Atlantic ambitions. Visible motion in the direction of joining NATO and the EU would do wonders for the country’s internal stability.

1. Kosovo is on the verge of a new challenge, the establishment of the Special Court, which will handle allegations of Dick Marty’s report. Was it an necessary court?

A: No. It was made necessary by the failure of Kosovo and Albania to pursue criminal investigations of people associated with the Kosovo Liberation Army.

2. Among the persons accused in the report of Dick Marty, is the name of the former KLA leader, former Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi. Would you be surprised if his name appears also in the list of defendants?

A: Who could be surprised after years of discussion of this possibility? But I saw no convincing evidence of his involvement in the allegations of the Marty report, and I’ve seen none since then either.

3. This Court will not address, however, war crimes, acts of corruption or political killings. Would it be good that such a Court, to deal with these cases, which remain unresolved?

A: I would like to see the Kosovo courts begin to deal with these issues, as the Serbian courts have begun to do. A sovereign state is obligated to investigate all crimes on its own territory.

4. What consequences can have Kosovo, if parliament fails to vote on constitutional changes that facilitate the establishment of this Court?

A: I suppose it would slow the process of EU integration, which is already far too slow, and displease the Americans.

5. Let us talk about other developments in Kosovo. The coalition of the two major parties, PDK and LDK, is facing increased social pressure of opposition, strikes and protests. Do you think such a government is going to last, knowing that even serious surveys show a record decline in satisfaction with the performance of institutions?

A: If the coalition holds together, the government will last, no matter how many protests and strikes there are.

6. Unofficially there may be about 100 thousand people who left Kosovo during last months, especially after the formation of the new government, that for PDK it was the third consecutive mandate. Are people losing their people?

A: Do you mean is Kosovo losing its people? Yes, I think people are voting with their feet, as we say. Kosovars are looking for jobs and finding at least some of them in Europe.

7. The opposition is protesting against, as they call them, state capture, which in fact is a reality known to all. What do you think, how the state can be de-captured, when those same politicians are being recycled in power?

A: The proper way to remove politicians from power is to win elections. The opposition hasn’t been able to do that. It has every right to protest peacefully, but I’m not sure that will help at the polls.

8. Politicians are the richest caste in Kosovo, while businesses can hardly survive if unrelated to power. Is Kosovo being turned into an oasis of corruption, clientelism, nepotism, as in fact foreign media portrayed us recently?

A: Kosovo seems to me more or less on a par with other countries in the region when it comes to corruption, clientelism and nepotism. It is a small country where everyone knows everyone else, which makes meritocracy difficult. The wealth of politicians troubles me. Someone needs to investigate where the money comes from.

9. The rule of law is in crisis, and nor EULEX is not performing its work. This mission is covered by corruption scandals, while “big fishes”, mentioned once, remain untouchable. Do you see a dose of courage in the Kosovo justice to enable the rule of law?

A: I really don’t think foreigners can penetrate the web of economic and political interests in Kosovo or any other country. I think it takes courageous judges and prosecutors who are native to the environment. I served many years as a diplomat in Italy. Without the courageous Italian anti-Mafia magistrates, there would have been no progress against organized crime there. The Americans helped with intelligence and witness protection, but Italian courage was vital. Read more

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Full circle, for some

Ten years ago, Iraq’s Sunni provinces came within a few thousand votes of defeating the referendum that approved the new constitution, negotiated in the summer of 2005 with little Sunni participation. Today, according to former deputy prime minister Rafe Eissawi and governor of Ninewa Atheel Nujaifi (who spoke this morning at Brookings), Iraq’s Sunnis want nothing more (or less) than full implementation of that constitution, in particular its provisions for forming regions.

There is deep irony in this turnaround. The 2005 constitution was written to suit Iraq’s Shia, who are the majority in the country as a whole and can reasonably expect to command the biggest block in parliament and name the prime minister, as well as its Kurds, who wanted an autonomous region with their own parliament, laws, budget, and control over newly discovered hydrocarbon resources. A decade ago and until fairly recently, many of Iraq’s Sunnis were still plugging a centralized state, one they hoped to control, though the demographic reality made that impossible unless Iraq returned to dictatorship.

Now things have changed. With the Islamic State (ISIS) in control of most of Ninewa, Anbar and Salaheddin–three unequivocally Sunni-majority provinces–Eissawi and Nujaifi are in Washington looking for its support to arm Sunnis to take back their own provinces. Eissawi underlined that the Shia militias are as bad as ISIS in their treatment of civilians. Allowing the reinvigorated Shia militias to try to retake Mosul would be a disaster, both believe. Instead they want Sunni police and voluteers armed to do the job, preferably as a legally constituted National Guard (though the legislation creating that institution is stalled in the Iraqi parliament).

Once Ninewa is taken back from ISIS, Nujaifi envisages elections and a referendum on making the province a region, with powers modelled on those of Iraqi Kurdistan, the only existing region in today’s Iraq. The other Sunni-majority provinces would likely follow suit. Whether they would combine into a single region, or remain as separate regions, is not yet clear.

Both Nujaifi and Eissawi envisage a need to rebuild and professionalize the Iraq security forces, an effort Eissawi wants overseen by joint committees in which the Americans would be important players. This too is a turnaround: Sunnis were once upon a time main opponents of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, which many Kurds and Shia welcomed because it rid the country of a Sunni-dominated dictatorship.

Eissawi and Nujaifi had kind things to say about Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi, but they are looking for him to do more than he has done so far. His government program says all the right things, they thought. But he is having trouble overcoming Shia resistance to fulfilling its promises. The Sunnis suffered much abuse under Nouri al Maliki, who arrested many of those who participated in the political process, assassinated many who rose up to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, crushed those who demonstrated against him and filled Iraq’s prisons with illegal detainees. Now the Sunnis need more than a government program and the constitution. They need concrete action to open the way for return of displaced Sunnis to their homes, compensation and reconciliation.

The Sunnis may have come full circle, but the Americans and Baghdad have not. The Obama Administration is trying hard to limit its commitments in Iraq to the minimum necessary to roll back ISIS. It wants in particular to avoid putting Americans into combat roles. It may be willing to try to help both Kurds and Sunnis get from the Baghdad government what they say they need to defeat ISIS. But that will require more of a Shia turnaround than we have seen so far.

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A grand bargain, with the Gulf not Iran

Expectations for next week’s Wednesday/Thursday summit at the White House and Camp David with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) heads of state (or their proxies) vary greatly. Simon Henderson, who follows the Gulf from the Washington Institute, says

the definition of success for this summit will more likely be a limited agreement than an historic pact.

Joyce Karam suggests something more substantial: the summit may allow a bargain in which the Gulf states  drop their opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran in exchange for the US allowing the Gulf a freer hand in countering Iranian surrogates in Syria and possibly Yemen.

The Americans have not seemed inclined in this more grandiose direction. They remain worried about who might take over in Syria should Asad fall. They have also leaned in favor of a ceasefire or humanitarian pause in Yemen, where the Saudi-led intervention has not done much to roll back the Iranian-supported Houthis while rousing nationalist sentiment among Yemeni civilians, who are suffering mightily because of the fighting.

Those concerns are serious ones, but events on the ground in Syria may not permit the Americans to remain aloof much longer. Rebel forces there have gained ground both in the north, near Idlib, and in the south, between Damascus and the Jordanian border. Regime forces seem unable to respond effectively, though Lebanese Hizbollah and Iranian fighters continue to prevent outright disaster for Asad. The divisions among Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (the three main financiers of the Syrian revolution) that in the past have hampered rebel effectiveness are diminishing. The Americans might prefer to await training of their vetted rebels to bring down Asad, but he is unlikely to last the years it will take to put a significant number of them back on the battlefield.

In Yemen, the Gulf protagonists have less reason for optimism. Intervention there against the Houthis has not done more than slow their advance south. In the meanwhile, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is gaining ground. The Houthis don’t like Al Qaeda any better than the Saudis do, but it is hard to picture a political solution at this point that allows them to combine to fight their common enemy. They are inclined to forget Ben Franklin’s admonition:  either we all hang together, or we all hang separately.

A Gulf/American pact in favor of more concerted efforts to counter Iran’s regional trouble-making could be helpful to the Obama Administration at home, where it faces continued bipartisan opposition to the nuclear deal. Yesterday’s 98-1 Senate approval of legislation giving the Congress a 30-day opportunity to debate and vote on the nuclear deal sets up an important debate for early August, provided the nuclear deal is reached by the end of June. The strongest argument against the nuclear deal is likely to be the prospect of an emboldened Iran free of sanctions using its considerable wealth to subvert the Arab states of the Gulf and Levant. Freeing the Gulf to counter Iranian efforts in Syria and Yemen would be one way of responding to the Administration’s critics at home.

The problem is that it may not work. The Gulf states, which have armed themselves far beyond the Iranians’ wildest dreams, continue to bumble when it comes to military action and diplomatic weight. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has succeeded in building up effective surrogates in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In Yemen and Bahrain, the Iranians have taken advantage of local grievances to make a lot of trouble. The Gulf states fear the lifting of sanctions for good reasons. Even under sanctions, Iran has done well diplomatically and militarily. What might Tehran be able to do once sanctions are lifted and hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue return to its coffers?

The summit next week is an unusual one. Whether your expectations are great or not so great, there are real issues to discuss between Washington and its Gulf interlocutors. An agreement that combines a nuclear deal with more effective action to stem Iranian regional trouble-making would be a serious outcome. Rather than the grand bargain with Iran the Republicans and Israelis fear, we may be seeing the emergence of a grand bargain with the Gulf.


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An arresting development

Obviously prepared in advance of Nudem Durak’s arrest, this video tells a powerful story entirely from the Kurdish perspective. Presumably there are other perspectives on her conduct and arrest. I will welcome hearing them.

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Vietnam in perspective

For Americans of my generation, it is hard not to note the end of the Vietnam war 40 years ago. But the most notable thing is how little difference that war makes in today’s world. A war that killed millions over two decades, including upwards of 58,000 Americans, left a big mark on the American psyche, but did little to change the course of world history. It didn’t even do permanent harm to the relationship between Vietnam and the US, which is today a friendly one only inches short of an alliance.

On a trip to Vietnam a few years ago, I discovered that the “American” war is remembered in the North for the bombing and in the South for the abandonment of our allies. One Northerner asked me why the United States opposed the independence and unity of Vietnam. When I responded that the Americans thought they were fighting against Communism, not the independence and unity of Vietnam, he looked puzzled. If that was the case, he admitted, maybe it was not such a bad idea. After all, antiquated Communist ideas and cadres are now regarded with disdain by many Vietnamese, even this Northerner whose parents were party members.

The Vietnam war may be but a blip in world history, but it changed (as well as ended) a lot of lives. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled. Over a million went through horrendous re-education camps, where torture and abuse were common. A generation of Americans found it difficult to find their footing, including many of those who served in the armed forces and many of those who didn’t. The American military professionalized, so it no longer relies on the draft. Many young Americans can’t remember that it ever did.

Once the Americans were gone, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to depose the Chinese-allied Khmer Rouge. China invaded Vietnam in response. The dominoes weren’t so much falling as scattering.

Even that proved ephemeral. Since the 1970s, Asia has seen a dramatic and sustained decline in both intra- and inter-state conflict. The reasons for this are much debated. Is it a successful process of state consolidation and even modest democratization? Is it Asia’s focus on economic development or its peculiar cultural characteristics? What role has the American security umbrella played? Will peace continue? Or does China’s rise inevitably mean maritime and other frictions with its neighbors (including the US) that will end the long Asian peace?

I don’t know the answers, but a great deal depends on them. While I have focused on the Balkans and the Middle East for many years now, I have to wonder whether war and peace issues won’t be shifting eastward along with world population, economic growth, international trade, military power and energy dependency. For the moment, state competition in the Asia Pacific is mainly non-military, with the important exception of Beijing’s claims in the East and South China Seas. But the Chinese seem no less anxious to avoid war than most of the rest of Asia, even if they don’t shy from occasional provocations.

Forty years is a long time. Vietnam looks very different at this generational distance. We should try to maintain that perspective when evaluating today’s events. They are likely to look very different 40 years from now.


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Yesterday, today, tomorrow

SAIS Syria

Johns Hopkins SAIS last Wednesday hosted a panel on Syrian civil society as part of a conference on “Escaping the Cycle of Stagnation in the Middle East.” The panel, moderated by Peacefare’s own Yael Mizrahi, featured a broad cross-section of Syrian activists. While accepting past failures and current challenges facing Syrian civil society, the panel also highlighted the important contributions that civil activists have made throughout the conflict. The takeaways of this work will be decisive to any future reconstruction effort of Syria’s damaged society.

Kicking off the panel, Mohammad Ghanem (Syrian American Council) pointed out that prior to the 2011 revolution there was no real civil society in Syria. All civil institutions in the country were monopolized by the Baathist regime, which saw any opening space for civil society as a potential danger. This was best seen in 2005, when a group of youth from Daraya organized to clean up their neighborhood. Although they had no political message, a number of the participants were promptly arrested.

This changed after the revolution however. In the summer of 2012, when the regime had lost significant territory to the opposition (including 40% of Aleppo), civil society grew rapidly. First organizing around the organization of basic services, civil society also began holding the newly developed local councils to account.

Similarly, Ibrahim al-Assil (Syrian Nonviolence Movement) argued that civil society will play a critical role in any legitimate bottom-up solution to the Syrian conflict. In particular, al-Assil saw civil society as important in reconciling an increasingly divided Syrian society. By keeping channels of dialogue open between different sectors of the Syrian population, civil society can help Syrians make sense of an incredibly complex and multilayered conflict. Civil society also plays a role in de-radicalization, through providing counter-messaging. At the same time, the increasing violence of the Syrian civil war has made it increasingly difficult for civil society to operate. The fact that Syrian civil society needed to be built from scratch in the midst of heavy fighting has limited its capacity.

Al-Assil presented the Syrian Nonviolence Movement as an illustration of both the importance and limits of Syrian civil society. The organization was started in 2011 and has worked on educating Syrians about the methods of nonviolent resistance. Their work has been greatly curtailed by the war however, and is now limited to humanitarian assistance, including psycho-social support, as well as education for children, many of who have not known a Syria without conflict.

The establishment of Syrian civil society following the 2011 revolution has also been an important enabler for Syrian women. According to Hind Kabawat (Syrian lawyer and activist, now at USIP), women were marginalized in Syrian society prior to the revolution. However, they have since taken on important roles in the resistance. Their role in the revolution is sadly testified by the regime’s response: Syrian prisons are full of women. Women have been particularly important in refugee and IDP camps. During a recent visit to an IDP camp in Idlib province, Kabawat interviewed women who had assumed leadership roles in the running of the camp. Women are also filling important roles in the Local Councils, even if not adequately represented in their leadership.

Mohammed al-Abdallah (Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre) provided a critical appraisal of Syrian civil society in the decade prior to the revolution. Al-Abdallah had himself been part of early efforts to build a civil society in Syria. In retrospect, the civil society movement was too self-centered. Between 2000 and 2011, Syrian CSOs had been narrowly focused on political rights, and had not been unable to reach out to the wider population.

Looking ahead, al-Abdallah pointed to radicalism as a fundamental challenge to civil society in Syria. How can women play a role in society when they are unable to cross checkpoints without the accompaniment of a male relative? Al-Abdallah also made reference to the “Douma Four”: human rights activists Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Wael Hamadeh and Nazem Hammadi, who remain in the hands of Islamist rebels. Echoing the point made by al-Assil, he also pointed to the violence and the current humanitarian disaster as clear limits on the capacity of civil society. As long as Syrians do not even have access to essential services, messages of democratization as well as civil and political rights are unlikely to penetrate society.

On the other hand, Nidal Bitari (Syrian-Palestinian activist and writer) argued that Syrian civil society was not as weak as commonly described. Lack of international support to Syria has meant that civil society activists have been at the forefront of governance and humanitarian efforts within Syria. Bitari also pointed out that there had been a wave of civil society activism beginning in 2008 which became the core of the 2011 revolution. The Assad regime realized the danger of these groups and has sought to repress them. Meanwhile, the political leadership of the Syrian opposition has largely neglected these activists.

Bitari particularly pointed out the importance of the Palestinian civil society in Syria. It had initially been given some space to organize, as the government perceived the Palestinians to be aligned with the regime in their opposition to Israel. However Palestinian opposition activists have subsequently been severely punished for their perceived disobedience to the regime. Nonetheless, Palestinian activists have been important in reaching out to the international community, not least in their effort to convey the situation in Yarmouk refugee camp to the outside world. Despite the disintegration of Palestinian society in Syria, including the complete destruction of 14 refugee camps, Palestinian activists have remained active and adaptive, continuing to remind the world of their cause.

Finally, Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff (People Demand Change) lauded Syrian civil activists for their resilience in spite of incredible challenges. Ghosh-Siminoff pointed to the continued provision of services by such activists in areas under control of radical Islamists. One example is the Civic Education Center in Idlib, which continues to function despite the city mostly being controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra. This stems in part from these civil society organizations also providing some concrete services, winning them public favor and consequently protecting them from reprisals by Nusra or other opposition fighters.

Ghosh-Siminoff also pointed to significant shortcomings in the way in which donors perceive of Syrian civil society. Calling for donors to take a long view, he argued that support to activists is a generational project. Progress should therefore be measured not in terms of short term project execution but rather in terms of capacity building. Donors should also act in a coordinated way that does not create an atmosphere of competition among activists, but rather one of information sharing and cooperation.

The issue of donor support was also picked up on by a number of the panelists. Mohammed al-Abdallah warned that a number of Syrian CSOs had already picked up on donor language, producing ‘sexy’ grant applications that appeal to donor sensibilities but that might not reflect the genuine needs of Syrians. Going forward, Ibrahim al-Assil argued that donors will need to empower Syrians rather than simply funding their projects. To do this, donors will need to target core activities, helping to build capacity in the longer term.

Mohammed al-Ghanem called for greater input from Syrians, allowing them a greater say in how the funds are allocated. Meanwhile, donors should not be lenient on issues of corruption and graft among their CSO partners. Al-Ghanem warned that high salaries and benefits undermined these organizations’ standing among the Syrian public. Concluding the panel, Ghosh-Siminoff argued that donors will need to consider their funding of Syrian civil society as a long term investment. As the panel made clear, these groups will be essential to any final settlement of the Syrian conflict.

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