Shifting currents in Syria

As UN envoy Stefano de Mistura tries to reconvene Syria peace talks next week, there are important developments that could impact his prospects.

The Syrian government has continued to block aid to opposition-controlled areas, causing Stefano to abruptly curtail humanitarian task force deliberations last week. Moscow last week flew bombers from Iran, an innovation now reportedly suspended. The Russians also launched cruise missiles allegedly targeted against Jabhat al Nusra (which is generally embedded with more moderate insurgents) from the Black Sea. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Russia has now killed more civilians in Syria than ISIS, though it started years earlier. Moscow has shown no visible inclination to limit Syrian government strikes on civilian areas, which it targets on a daily basis.

At the same time, the situation in northern Syria has evolved in a direction favorable to the US. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are mostly Kurdish fighters, have retaken Manbij from the Islamic State and are heading for Jarablus on the border where the Euphrates crosses from Turkey into Syria. Arab SDF forces are said to be preparing the assault from inside Turkey, which wants to block the Kurds from taking over the entire northern border of Syria. At the same time, farther east in Hasakeh, US-supported Kurdish forces are fighting with the Syrian army, with which they cooperated in taking the town a year ago and had maintained a truce since. The Syrian air force last week came close to clashing with US aircraft sent to protect the Kurds, who are reportedly trying to oust President Assad’s forces entirely from their northeastern “canton.”

If successful, these operations in northern Syria will cut off the Islamic State from its supply lines in Turkey and possibly end the ambiguous relationship of the Kurdish PYD forces with the Syrian government, though the Syrian opposition is unlikely to accept the PYD into its fold, not least because of Turkey’s opposition. The possibility of an attack on the Islamic State capital at Raqqa is starting to loom on the horizon, perhaps even before an effort to liberate Mosul in Iraq.

Still John Kerry is saddled as the Obama Administration draws to a close with the unenviable task of conducting Middle East diplomacy without any serious threat of coercion. The President, supported by most Americans, simply doesn’t want to use American force against anything but the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. This means not targeting the Syrian government  and Hizbollah forces, even when they attack civilians. The Iranians and Russians in Syria are following his lead in a way: they are using force on the issues they care about and ignoring diplomacy. No matter what they say about not being wedded to Assad, the Russians and Iranians are mostly fighting the Syrian opposition in an effort to prevent regime change, with few relatively few attacks on on the Islamic State.

This free for all isn’t likely to work well for John Kerry in his efforts to bring about a ceasefire in Syria. The proposition he has been flogging is this: US cooperation with Russia in targeting the Islamic State and Al Qaeda (presumably including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the allegedly unaffiliated successor to Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra) provided Russia ends attacks on the non-extremist Syrian opposition and convinces President Assad to ground his air force. The relative success of US-allied forces in northern Syria may strengthen Kerry’s hand, but there is no sign yet of any willingness on Russia’s part to meet its side of the bargain.


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Trump needs Putin

Among the many depressing things in today’s world, two stood out for me today concerning Russia: Denis Sokolov blames Russian state repression for much of the radicalization in the North Caucasus; Andrew Kramer reports on the murder of Russian dissidents, whistle blowers, and potential witnesses in court cases.

Displacement, originally due to economic circumstances, and reduced restrictions on religion in the post-Soviet period are important ingredients in the North Caucasus, where the often violent and indiscriminate actions of the authorities are generating an extremist backlash. Real radicals of course do exist among Chechens, Dagestanis and Ingush. But the Russian government crackdown extends much further. Sokolov concludes:

Yet in truth, radical Islam in Russia, to the extent it exists, is the result of years of repressive Russian policies at the local and federal levels that at first pushed desperate people “into the woods” and are now pushing diverse people (veteran radicalized Russian Muslims, second-generation urban Muslims and newly converted ethnic Russians) through a pipeline of Russia’s own construction onto the battlefields of the Middle East.
Those tempted to ally with Russia in fighting Middle Eastern terrorism should pay heed. The potential ally may be doing more to generate the problem than fix it.
The state-sponsored murders are many and varied, both in their specific methods and the sort of people they target, but their overall intent is all too clear: to reduce challenges to President Putin and the hold he has on the Russian state. Poison seems to be the preferred modality, though shooting and other techniques are also used. Kramer makes the obligatory reference to US and Israeli targeting of individuals, but the Russian murders are obviously of a different kind: they target people for normal political activity and opinions, not for terrorist acts. As Kramer says,
No other major power employs murder as systematically and ruthlessly as Russia does against those seen as betraying its interests abroad. Killings outside Russia were even given legal sanction by the nation’s Parliament in 2006.

Applied most notoriously in the case of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a Putin opponent who died of polonium-210 poisoning in London in 2006, murders and deaths under mysterious circumstances are now seen as such a menace that Kremlin critics now often flee the country and keep their whereabouts secret.

This should shed an ominous light on Donald Trump’s proposal that we should just get along with Russia:

The trouble with joining Russia to knock the hell out of ISIS is that it will affiliate us both to Putin’s indiscriminate campaign against Muslims inside and outside Russia as well as to his blatant and worldwide use of murder as an instrument to reduce political challenges to his rule.

David Kramer argues correctly that Russia has returned to being a threat and should be treated like one. That does not rule out cooperation, in particular on reducing nuclear weapons and blocking nuclear proliferation as well as other issues. We cooperated on many things with Moscow even when it was the capital of  the Soviet Union. I have my doubts about cooperation in the Middle East though, and Putin has already made it clear he will not be America’s friend in Asia. Latin America and Africa have seen little of the Russians lately.

Julia Ioffe thinks Trump had lousy connections in Russia in the past, which explains why he was unable to do any serious business there. In my view he is feathering his nest for the future, when a loss November 8 will throw him back into a business world where he owes lots of money and will no longer be able to con American and Chinese banks into loaning him more. Who better to partner with then that those who tried to help him win the presidency by hacking Democratic Party emails? Trump needs Putin for more than political help.


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It’s whites who have a lot to lose

What in the world is that about? Donald Trump, polling at 1% of the African American vote, also said he would have 95% of the black vote after four years in office.

It’s not about black votes. It’s about white votes. He is a master of finding ways to enable racist attitudes that used to be verboten in American politics. This time he is saying to white people that it is not their fault blacks in America lag in education, jobs, incomes, and standard of living. He lays the blame on black people for voting for the wrong party, exonerating his white followers and confirming, without saying it, that they are smarter and better. He also grossly exaggerates the plight of African Americans using inaccurate numbers and a wildly distorted narrative.

This ploy will suck in no black voters, who know which party white racists support today and how little Trump has offered to improve the lives of black people. The only specific thing his surrogates are citing is support for charter schools, as if Democrats oppose them. I live in the District of Colombia, which is virtually a one-party Democratic town where more than half the public school students attend charter schools. Openness to charter schools is determined mainly at the local level, not by the Federal government. Blacks also know that Hillary Clinton will do much better for them, if only because she will shift the tax burden to richer people and open up educational and job opportunities to the lower middle class.

It is working class whites who are getting snookered. While claiming he will bring back their manufacturing jobs to the US, Trump knows well that many of them were lost to technology, not foreign workers. The protectionism he is pledging himself to will reduce American standards of living, not raise them, by raising prices and reducing purchasing power. There are good reasons why most of the products to which he has attached his moniker are made abroad. He is also claiming that restrictions on immigration will increase job opportunities, but the evidence points in the other direction: immigration reform would increase job opportunities. The notion that Trump will succeed in deporting millions of people and their jobs will then be available to American citizens is pie in the sky. Even if he were to succeed, which is unlikely, many of those jobs would disappear, also lost to technology.

The American working class has a race problem: the split between whites and blacks reduces its political clout and enables a billionaire like Trump to pretend to champion people with whom he has nothing in common except skin color. Trump has no intention of gaining black votes or doing anything special to meet black people’s needs. What he is doing is pretending to reach out to black voters, something the Republican establishment has demanded, while denigrating black behavior and life styles in ways that will bring him white votes.

If they fall for this, whites have a lot to lose.

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No exoneration

 Časlav Ninković of the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) in Belgrade sent this letter out, in response to statements by Serbian government ministers Ivica Dačić and Aleksandar Vulin claiming exoneration for Slobodan Milošević: 

Responding to the claims of certain analysts and bloggers, according to whom the former president of Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) Slobodan Milošević was „exonerated“ of the charges for crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina by the ICTY judgment rendered in the case of Radovan Karadžić, Serbian government ministers Ivica Dačić and Aleksandar Vulin have rushed to accept such a view and to conclude that „the ICTY has confirmed the legitimacy of Milošević’s policy“. The Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) strongly condemns statements the purpose of which is to deny the facts about the wars in the former Yugoslavia and to restore Milošević’s policy. The HLC demands that the state authorities of Serbia start a broad social debate on the past and initiate setting up the Regional Commission for the establishment of the facts about war crimes and other serious violations of human rights committed in the former Yugoslavia from January 1, 1991 until December 31, 2001 (RECOM).
The HLC takes this opportunity to remind the public that during the Radovan Karadžić trial, the evidence presented related to the criminal responsibility of the indicted wartime president of the Republic of Srpska, and no one but him could be convicted or acquitted by the judgment. Therefore, there can be no judgment of acquittal for Milošević or anyone other than the person who was charged in the actual case; and in this case, the indictee (Karadžić) was sentenced by the first instance judgment to 40 years in prison for genocide and other crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The role of Slobodan Milošević and the Serbian leadership in the wars of the 1990s can be seen in numerous ICTY judgments, including the Radovan Karadžić judgment, but it cannot be inferred by selective reading of individual sentences and paragraphs, only by an overall assessment of the evidence and judicial facts. Thus, any conclusions about Milošević’s innocence and the alleged validity of his policy are contradicted by citations from other ICTY judgments (such as in the cases Milan Martić and Vlastimir Đorđević) in which he is described as a participant in various joint criminal enterprises in the wars in the former Yugoslavia, as well as by judicially established facts in the Karadžić case about the role of the state of Serbia (led by Milošević at that time) in helping the wartime leadership of the Republic of Srpska throughout the entire war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. One can see in the judgment, for instance, that Karadžić maintained regular contact with Milošević during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that Serbia sent help to the Bosnian Serb army in the form of money and fuel, as well as special police units such as the Crvene beretke (Red Berets) and „Arkanovci” (units under the command of Željko Ražnatović Arkan). (See, for example, paragraph 3287 of the Karadžić judgment).

In addition, a lot of evidence was presented during the trial of Slobodan Milošević on charges of crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, which pointed to his role in the crimes for which he was allegedly exonerated by the Karadžić judgment. After the prosecution had presented its case, the Trial Chamber dismissed the motion of the amicus curiae for Milošević to be acquitted at that stage of the proceedings. In the Decision on the Motion for Judgment of Acquittal of June 16th, 2004, it is stated that „there is sufficient evidence that the accused (Milošević) was a participant in a joint criminal enterprise“ which included the perpetration of genocide and other crimes against Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Read more

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Fighting to win

No, this won’t be about the American elections. It’s about Syria.

The Russians and the Iranians are doubling down in Aleppo, where the insurgent part of town is virtually surrounded, civilians are under daily bombardment, and too brief humanitarian pauses are routinely flaunted. The breach opposition forces have made in the siege is mostly unusable, as it is constantly under fire. The Russians are now flying their bombers from Iranian territory, in order to shorten the transit time and increase the ops  tempo.

Why would they do this?

They have good reasons. If they ever did, Tehran and Moscow no longer have any hope that a successor regime in Syria would treat their interests respectfully. So many Syrians have now suffered from their intervention that they can count only on autocracy, of Assad or someone like him. They may not share Assad’s objective of retaking control of every inch of Syria, but they want him to win in Aleppo because they think that will ensure his survival in power.

Assad understands this and will drag his allies as deep into the hole he has dug for himself as possible. Yesterday and today he attacked Kurdish forces in northern Syria, if not for the first time still for the first time in a long time. There had been a de facto truce between the regime and the Kurds, who have gotten some support from the Russians (as well as the Americans). It looks as if Assad has decided to put the Russians on the spot, knowing that they don’t dare abandon him for the sake of the Kurds.

Assad is even looking strong enough for the Chinese to pitch some military assistance in his direction. They don’t really have a dog in this fight, but they presumably want to come out on the winning side. If that is an autocracy, all the better.

Meanwhile, the Americans are sticking to their game plan, which requires them to focus exclusively on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS): the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have taken the strategically important northern town of Manbij from ISIS and are heading towards Jarablus, on the border where the Euphrates crosses from Turkey into Syria. Washington has supposedly promised that the Kurds will withdraw from the Manbij “pocket” once the fighting is over, leaving Arabs in charge to prevent the Kurds from controlling the entire northern border of Syria and thus to please the Turks. We’ll see if that intention holds.

The big losers in all this are non-extremist Syrians, particularly those who live in opposition-controlled areas. Their cause at this point seems lost, which I suppose is why the White House persists in its indifference. Only resounding defeat of ISIS will play well in the American election campaign. Obama is also fighting to win, but in a different war from the one Putin and Assad are pursuing.

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The company he keeps

Donald Trump yesterday overhauled for the umpteenth time his campaign apparatus, bringing in Breitbart News executive Stephen Bannon, promoting pollster Kellyanne Conway, adding former Fox News chief Roger Ailes as an advisor, and sidelining campaign chair Paul Manafort. He already had on board Walid Phares, who appeared last night on the PBS Newshour paired with top Clinton surrogate Wendy Sherman.

There is no better way to understand a candidate than from the company he keeps.

Breitbart News Network is an unabashed Trump supporter with a record of misleading, inaccurate and mistaken coverage aimed at embarrassing its political enemies on the left. Fox News is the leading right-wing news outlet, with no concern for anything resembling balance in its own coverage. Ailes has resigned as its chief, accused of sexual harassment that he denies. Manafort is listed as a recipient of millions in cash in the black book of Ukraine’s erstwhile pro-Russian rulers. Walid Phares is a former spokesman and leader of a Christian militia in Lebanon thought to have committed war crimes. 

Conway is the only one in this lineup I would consider even remotely respectable. She is a Republican pollster who claims to have predicted correctly the outcomes of the major 2012 races. All have ridden the Trump wave and will likely be well paid for their services, but they are not folks I would want to sit down to dinner with.

Where are the Republicans who would make respectable dinner companions? Not supporting Trump is the short answer. Some say they will vote for Clinton. Others won’t go that far. But Trump has definitely made enemies of my Republican colleagues and friends.

Last night’s performance in West Bend, Wisconsin says something more about the company Trump keeps. Advertised as a “law and order” speech, Trump addressed the nearly all-white group in a 95% white community repeatedly as if he were in Milwaukee, which is two-thirds black. I have no idea why he thinks this subterfuge will get him any black votes. It is well known that he has avoided predominantly black audiences. He made an important point last night: black people are principal victims of street violence of all sorts. They know that well, but they also know that West Bend is not Milwaukee.

This kind of smoke and mirrors offends, but it was not the only offensive part of last night’s performance. Trump apparently has no more to say about law and order than he said about national security: he wants to use “extreme vetting” to make immigration more difficult and renegotiate trade deals. He had a few positive words for the police and promised more of them, but there was little more “law and order” substance than that, along with his usual promise to create lots of jobs. His recitation of statistics showing increases in crime was cherry-picked. While recently ticking up in some places, overall violent crime in the US is dramatically and pretty steadily down for more than 20 years:

US violent crime


Clearly Trump and his friends don’t keep company with the facts any more than they do with black people or objectivity in the media.

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