Don’t forget political transition

One hundred and sixty-nine Syrian civil society organizations have written a letter to UN Special Envoy Stefano de Mistura, urging that the focus of negotiations in Geneva remain on an inclusive political transition to a free and democratic Syria. Courtesy of @snhr, here is what they had to say: 

Your Excellency,

Following the seventh round of peace negotiations, we write to you on behalf of the undersigned Syrian civil society organisations who work every day under unbearable circumstances to improve the living conditions of millions of Syrians. We represent the voices from the ground and our work across the country in the fields of medical and humanitarian assistance, education, freedom of expression, youth and women empowerment, and accountability and justice proves again the fundamental role Syrian civil society plays as a champion for a democratic and inclusive Syria.

As a vital resource for the Syrian population trapped between a tyrannical regime and the brutality of extremism, Syrian civil society organisations strongly support any efforts to bring an end to the Syria conflict. This is why many of our representatives have participated in the intra-Syrian peace talks within the framework of the Civil Society Support Room and have been active in supporting the Geneva peace talks between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime.

Sadly, the Geneva process has delivered neither peace nor protection to the Syrian people who are increasingly disillusioned with a process that continues to fail them. We are keen to reverse this trend as without the support of Syrian civil society no political deal will be either sustainable or legitimate, and right now the current process is losing our support. Syrian civil society’s priority is to achieve an inclusive transition to a free and democratic Syria. We are all united around this outcome which defines the basis of the Geneva peace process as set out by UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and as reiterated in your mandate as UN Special Envoy for Syria.

We expect all parties in Geneva – including you – to work for this purpose and engage in serious negotiations. The time consumed on discussions around process and representation, at the expense of a credible and realistic political deal for transition towards democracy, is not only wasting precious time but it is also undermining the international community’s efforts to fight terrorism in Syria. Syrian civil society activities are essential in the fight against extremism. Moderate voices – as we represent – have the power to push back against the extremist forces and fill the vacuum on the ground. But to be able to do so, we need the international community to protect our ability to assist and serve our people. This is why we need the Geneva process to prioritise the protection of civilians and deliver meaningful negotiations that lead to peace for Syria.

It seems to me they make some excellent points, including the importance of moderate voices in countering extremism and of civilian protection. These points are too often being lost in a world consumed focused on military success and worried more about who will win than about how Syria will be governed after the war.  

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All in or all out

President Trump, my regular readers will be surprised to hear me say, has been asking the right questions about Afghanistan: why have we been there so long? Why aren’t we winning? These are perfectly reasonable questions. We’ve been at war there for almost 17 years. More than 2400 US service people have been killed and more than 20,000 wounded. When does it end? How?

Unfortunately, Trump seems to be asking these reasonable questions for the wrong reasons: he wants to win and he wants to deliver on a campaign promise to bring American troops home. What matters to Trump is always Trump. But his predecessor wasn’t any better when it came to Afghanistan: he tried to minimize the American commitment but also avoid losing and wanted to bring the boys and girls home as soon as possible, in order to fulfill a campaign promise.

The problem is that those goals are incompatible.  There is no reason to believe that the Taliban won’t win–taking over large parts of the country if not all of it–if the US and its coalition allies depart. If the Taliban wins, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State will return.

In order to avoid this outcome, we and some of the coalition will need to stay, perhaps indefinitely. Promising anything else is delusional. The Taliban already control large parts of Afghanistan, according to the New York Times (the darker ochre areas are Taliban control and the lighter areas Taliban support; the red are Islamic State support and control):

 

It would be silly to think they won’t be able to take more, possibly even Kabul, if the US departs.

Trump is nevertheless likely to land where Obama did: a commitment for several years, followed by promised withdrawal. This kind of compromise outcome does nothing but waste American lives and resources. It is frequently the product of a stalemated White House process: the President is offered Option A to stay indefinitely and Option C to withdraw quickly. He chooses Option B of course: stay for now but draw down later.

There is little justification for Option B. It is better because it is not A or C. But A and C are the real choices. It should be all in or all out, with clarity about the consequences. If we stay, we stay indefinitely, with adequate resources to provide serious support to the Afghan Security Forces, until such time as they don’t need them. If we go, we go completely, recognizing that the extremists will be back and we will likely have to hit them repeatedly, with or without Afghan approval.

This is not a pretty picture. It echoes Vietnam, where President Nixon chose Option B and hung on in support of the South only to have Congress eventually get weary and pull the plug. The short-term results were disastrous: the North took over, killed and “re-educated” a lot of people, invaded Cambodia, and went to war with China. About 2 million people fled, hundreds of thousands are believed to have died. But the long-term results were less catastrophic, from an American geopolitical perspective: a reunified Vietnam remains a Communist autocracy but has become friendly with the US and no longer a threat to its neighbors.

There is an Option D: privatize the war and let mercenaries run it. I give that one a gold star for originality, but all you need to know is that Steve Bannon is pushing it. It’s a bad idea whose time has come only in the minds of those with no memory of, or concern about, what some of those mercenaries did in Iraq, when they were only doing guard duty.

So which option would I choose? I might stay indefinitely (Option A), even putting in some more forces right now to prevent further Taliban inroads, but I would understand those who want to leave completely. My own preference is affected, I admit, by knowing worthy Afghans, who will be either dead or refugees if the US decides to leave. Trump doesn’t likely know so many, or care much about the impact on non-Americans. American First means Afghans last, but I am still betting he chooses Option B: a temporary increase in US forces with a promise to draw down soon. Someone should outlaw Option B.

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Peace picks August 7-11

  1. Teleconference: What is the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations? | Monday, August 7 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | Wilson Center | Register Here | Relations between the United States and Russia continue to sour. New sanctions legislation in Washington – which arrived on President Trump’s desk with a veto-proof majority – prompted not only the ejection of U.S. diplomats from Russia, but a declaration by Minister Medvedev on the “end of hope” for improved ties. At the same time, presidents Trump and Putin appear to anticipate better days. How entrenched is the current state of affairs? Are there avenues left for cooperation? Join the Wilson Center as Deputy Director William E. Pomeranz of the Kennan Institute, Senior Fellow Maxim Trudolyubov, and Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace assess prospects for the U.S.-Russia relationship and unpack the Trump-Putin dynamic. Aaron David Miller will be moderating.
  2. Expanding the Role of Youth in Building Peace, Security | Tuesday, August 8 | 9:30 – 11:00 am| United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | While popular culture and public narratives depict young men mainly as perpetrators of violence, and young women mainly as victims, governments and civil society groups alike are working to elevate the critical role of youth in reducing violent conflict and extremism. That effort has seen added attention in the 19 months since a U.N. Security Council resolution focused governments on the task. The talk will feature panelists Aubrey Cox, senior program specialist at USIP; Rachel Walsh Taza, program coordinator at Search for Common Ground; Jenn Heeg, co-champion at YouthPower Learning; and Imrana Buba, founder of a Nigerian youth-led peacebuilding organization working amid the country’s conflict with the Boko Haram extremist group. Youth Coordinator Michael McCabe of USAID will moderate.
  3. Oil Corruption: How the United States Can Counteract a Curse | Tuesday, August 8 | 12:00 – 2:00 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | The oil industry has been entangled in serious corruption controversies, from the legality of some companies’ stance on climate change to dealings with producer-country governments. In response, the U.S. government has shown leadership over the past decade in helping bring more transparency to the sector. What are the dimensions of this problem? What is the status of the U.S. commitment? Join Carnegie and Global Witness for an engaging discussion of new findings by Global Witness on Shell’s activities in Nigeria, why corruption in this key economic sector matters, and how the U.S. government—and companies—can be part of the solution. Panelists include Steve Coll of The New Yorker, Olarenwaju SurajuSimon Taylor of Global Witness, and Sarah Chayes of Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program.
  4. The Future of U.S.-Taiwan Relations in New Administrations | Friday, August 11 | 1:30 – 5:15 pm | Heritage Foundation | Register Here | Join the Heritage Foundation for a discussion of Taiwan’s critical cross-strait relations as well as future economic ties with the United States. Panels will include “Cross-Strait Relations and the U.S.” (2:15 pm) and “Future of Economic Relations between the U.S. and Taiwan” (4:00 pm). The keynote address will be given by Lyu-Shun Shen, former representative from the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington, D.C.

 

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Dire Gaza is still needed for peace

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire: more than 90% of tap water is undrinkable, youth unemployment is at an estimated 65%, and electricity blackouts consume 20-22 hours per day. UNRWA, the largest humanitarian agency operating in Gaza, faces a deficit of $126.5 million on a budget of $715 million.

On Thursday, the Middle East Institute hosted a panel entitled “Is Gaza Reaching a Boiling Point?” to investigate the political and social pressures ravaging the strip. The panel featured Tareq Baconi of Al Shabaka, Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Acting Director Christopher McGrath of the UNRWA Washington Office; and Natan Sachs of Brookings. MEI’s Paul Salem moderated.

In June of this year, Gaza suffered an electricity crisis as the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, reached an agreement with Israel to reduce Gaza’s supply by 40 percent. This move, explained Baconi, was part of an attempt to exert pressure on Gaza’s Hamas government and consolidate control in the hands of the Palestinian Authority.

Several factors determined the timing of this play. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, the possibility of another Israel-Palestine deal looms on the horizon. As the Qatar crisis continues, it has become clear that President Trump intends to take a hardline stance against US-designated terrorist organizations. Abbas’s strategy of consolidating authority over Gaza and the West Bank by crippling Hamas—even if it entails exacerbating Gaza’s humanitarian crisis—serves both these objectives. The Palestinian Authority president is trying to position himself as a secular, antiterrorist strongman and key interlocutor in any negotiations.

This is a key moment for Abbas in part because Hamas is increasingly isolated, and in part because it marks the return to Palestinian politics of Abbas’s former Fatah rival Mohammed Dahlan. Hamas’s relationships with Iran and Saudi Arabia are on the rocks, while Egyptian President Sisi’s attack on the Muslim Brotherhood has also marginalized the Gaza-based organization. In addition, the Egyptian military’s 2013-14 destruction of most of the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza has decreased Hamas’s income from taxes on smuggled goods. With Egypt and the UAE backing the Palestinian Authority, and Qatar scrambling to prove that it does not finance terrorism, now appears a strategic time for the Abbas government to squeeze its rival and potentially court new friends.

Dahlan’s re-emergence on the Palestinian national scene is also partially responsible for the Palestinian Authority’s decision to deny power to Gaza. Gaza remains a critical element of the Palestinian political establishment. Dahlan’s opportunistic alliance with Hamas—from which he gains a political entry point, and Hamas gains Dahlan’s funding and UAE—poses a real threat to Abbas’s authority.

However, it appears that Abbas’s attempt to exert pressure on Hamas in Gaza is going to backfire. Starving Gaza of electricity has not prevented several “hot wars” between Gaza and Israel. Younger Palestinians already see Abbas’s government as ineffective and authoritarian. Now, the Palestinian Authority has bought into the logic of the Gaza blockade—collective punishment to curtail Hamas.

From the Israeli side, elaborated Sachs, a basic dilemma exists: the long-term solution to the problem of Hamas is to bring Gaza under the fold of the Palestinian Authority, but in the short term, Gaza’s suffering must be alleviated. Why, then, has Israel failed to come to a short-term truce with Hamas? Israeli mistrust of Hamas is profound. Those who support the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority are likely to be the most hawkish on the blockade and matters involving Gaza. Moreover, it is not clear that Hamas speaks with one voice—its political wing may understand the value of avoiding war, but its military wing may not.

Ultimately, opined Friedman, the international community may need to insert itself into the complex dynamic among Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli approach is tactical, not strategic. Humanitarian arguments are denounced as risks and sacrifices in a zero-sum game. Yet conflict in Gaza can’t be allowed to fester to the brink of war.

“You do not get a peace agreement with the Palestinians without Gaza,” noted Friedman.

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What’s so grand about a jury?

The big news yesterday is that Special Counsel Mueller is using a grand jury in his investigation of Russian meddling in the US election. Most Americans know about grand juries primarily from notices they receive summoning them to serve on one. But that rarely happens. I’ve been summoned for jury duty many times and served on a petit jury at the municipal level. I don’t know anyone who has actually served on a Federal grand jury, which can sit for months if not years (usually not continuously but a few days a month).

But here is the short version of what is so grand about a Federal grand jury: it enables the prosecutor (in this case Special Counsel Mueller)

  1. To issue subpoenas (orders to produce evidence or to testify);
  2. Compel testimony in secret, without a lawyer representing the witness present;
  3. Indict (accuse) someone of a crime, provided 12 of the 23 members of the grand jury agree.

The proceedings of a grand jury are secret, but word of them leaks out as they send subpoenas to people. Their proceedings can take a long time, so news of one does not mean that an indictment is imminent. Nor does it tell us anything about who might be indicted for what crime.

That will be little comfort to the President of the United States. It is unclear whether he can be indicted by any body other than the House of Representatives (that’s what we call impeachment). There is no precedent for that. But his associates, family, and campaign officials are certainly indictable.

All indications are that Mueller is focused on financial matters, which may mean he is looking at whether Russian cash played a role in the campaign. Moscow is too smart to have put money directly into Trump’s election effort, which would violate US law. But it may well have made money available to the campaign through “cut outs,” Americans who contributed money provided by Russia.

More likely in my view is that the Trump and Kushner real estate empires are flush with hot Russian money that has purchased condos and golf club memberships and provided loans not available from other sources. In everyday parlance, this would amount to money laundering. And yes, American companies are supposed to conduct due diligence to ensure that financing comes from legitimate sources. Russian money could go a long way to explaining why Trump never criticizes Moscow and often takes its side on specific issues.

Trump’s reaction to the grand jury news was classic distraction: he announced he would have big news at his campaign-style rally in West Virginia last night. That turned out to be the Governor announcing he was switching from the Democratic to the Republican party, which he had left only two years ago. In a scripted speech read from a teleprompter, Trump also denounced the story of Russia’s meddling in the US election as a fabrication to excuse the biggest election loss in history. The loyalist audience loved it.

Trump’s remarks continue his efforts to undermine the Special Counsel, efforts that themselves may constitute obstruction of justice, and to deny what American intelligence agencies have long since concluded: Moscow intervened in the US election to undermine democracy and help elect Trump. If the jury gets to the bottom of why the President behaves this way, it will truly be grand.

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Iraq’s post-war challenges

Celeste Ward Gventer and I did this piece for Luke Vargas’ radio program Wake. We were actually recorded separately and spliced together by Luke. I’m not sure I approve of the process, but the result is okay, apart from the more or less obvious glitches in the transcript.

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