Success in an unlikely place

Three years ago, published Patricia Powers Thomson’s A call to action from South Sudan, which advocated founding of a School of Public Service in South Sudan. Despite all the difficulties since, the aspiration has been fulfilled. Here is her account of how: 

Q: It has been three years since you called for a School of Public Service in South Sudan. What has been accomplished?

A: The major accomplishment is that the School has been established and is now in its second year.  We recently prepared a Status Report comparing our progress to the path laid out in our Strategic Plan, and it goes into a lot more detail about our efforts.

In a nutshell, after releasing A Call to Action: Establishing the South Sudan School of Public Service in October 2013, I recruited a Board of Advisors through the good auspices of the Ebony Center and their Development Policy Forum.  This Board was instrumental in establishing the School.  After a competition, the Board  decided to house the School at the University of Juba –the country’s flagship university.  We spent about a year developing our programs and courses. By late 2014, the University’s Dean’s Board and Senate had approved the School. The University Council officially established it on June 13, 2015. So in less than 2 years we were up-and-running.

Q: What programs does the School offer?

A: Our first program is a 2-year MPA.  Our pioneer class of 41 finished their first year in May.  In September they were joined by a second class of about 50 students.  I really believe our students represent the best of South Sudan – smart, committed public servants. They come from all its regions, and work with government, nongovernmental organizations, and international organizations.

Q: These three years have been difficult ones, marred in particular by the power struggle between South Sudan’s President and Vice President, including widespread violence. How has that affected your project?

A: The last three years have been heartbreaking.  Everyone in the country has been touched by the recent conflicts.   Actually, let me correct myself. The conflicts are not “recent.” They have been simmering for a very long time, but ignited into violence in December 2013.   Amazingly, SPS continued to operate without disruption during and after the 2013 fighting, as well as the fighting this past July.  The credit for this really belongs to my outstanding team and to the University’s leadership, particularly Dr. John Akec who has been one of our strongest advocates since the beginning.

Q: You say the conflict has been simmering for a very long time.  What do you see as the drivers of this conflict?

A: I have lived in South Sudan for 5 years, and the situation here is one of the most complicated I’ve encountered.  I see at least four related drivers. Many people in the international community have come to believe kleptocracy is behind much of the country’s instability. I agree. Minimizing kleptocracy is fundamental to creating  a stable state, but even more fundamental is building capacity. You can’t fight kleptocracy without capacity. Quite frankly, there isn’t a critical mass of competent people working in the public sector. People with the mindsets, as well as skillsets they need to succeed, including management and leadership skills.

Let me be more specific, most  of  the provisions of the current peace agreement require skilled South Sudanese working within government and civil society.  And when peace comes, when we succeed in making  “war more costly than peace,” South Sudan will still be faced with the challenges of building effective institutions and engaging in long-term development. Again, both require a cadre of capable public servants.

So yes, greed and the quest for power are a big part of the problem, but so, too, is lack of capacity. There are many smart, motivated, and honest people in South Sudan who are unable to impact the mammoth problems their country faces because they do not have the necessary skillsets and mindsets.

Q: You mentioned four things driving the conflict, including lack of skills and kleptocracy. What are the other two?

A: There is definitely an element of tribal competition, age-old animosities between tribes. This is driven by fear, as well as pride; when people are insecure they tend to coalesce along familiar ethnic, tribal, and familial groups.  And lastly, there has been a lack of consistent political will to make peace.  This lack of will is fed by the first three drivers, as well as trauma and exhaustion.  Read more

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Faute de mieux

I’ve been hesitating to comment on the Russian/American agreement on Syria. So far as I know no text is available publicly. As the devil is in the details, it is important to read the whole thing. It is also important to see how implementation goes. But herein a few preliminary remarks.

The basic outline is clear enough from press reports and the leak of an earlier draft. Humanitarian corridors are to opened to besieged areas like Aleppo. Starting this evening, which happens to mark the beginning of Eid al Adha, the Russians and Americans will try to restore the cessation of hostilities, after a weekend of ferocious attacks on opposition forces. Provided humanitarian deliveries go well, seven days later Moscow and Washington will begin jointly to target Fateh al Sham, the successor organization to Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra, which has been largely embedded until now with non-extremist fighters. The idea is to give the non-extremists time and incentive to separate and to prevent the Russian/Syrian government/Iranian coalition from targeting the non-extremists. The war against the Islamic State, which keeps itself separate from the opposition, will also continue.

Secretary of State Kerry describes the agreement as a step in the direction of a political transition. I don’t hear Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov saying that. This agreement in no way threatens the regime, which gets a respite from the fighting during which it will no doubt try to resupply and consolidate its fragmented forces. It is unclear what, if any, restraints on its air and ground attacks are included in the agreement, though it is presumably expected to participate in the ceasefire by not attacking opposition forces that observe it. If there is to be a political transition in accordance with the June 2012 UN communique, it won’t start until the military balance changes significantly from its current tilt in favor of the Syrian government.

The Syrian opposition people I’ve talked to welcome the agreement, more out of resignation than enthusiasm. They doubt the regime will abide by it and know that Fateh al Sham makes important contributions to the resistance to Bashar al Assad. But they also know that the non-extremist opposition is exhausted and needs a break, even if only a temporary one, from a year of indiscriminate but successful Russian/Syrian government/Iranian assault. The US and its Gulf allies could turn off the opposition’s spigot of money and supplies. Better, the opposition figures, to go along with a pause in the fighting and make the best of it. Maybe something like a relatively stable patchwork of opposition-controlled safe areas will emerge.

But the cessation of hostilities isn’t likely to last. Without third party observers, the same frictions that wrecked the last cessation of hostilities are likely to wreck this one as well. The Americans of course know that but hope to do enough damage to Fateh al Sham in the meanwhile to prevent it from being able to launch attacks against Americans, which the Administration is convinced is the extremists’ intention. They do not believe the formal separation of Fateh al Sham from Al Qaeda has made the jihadis any less dangerous to Americans.

Whatever they say about not being wedded to him, the Russians and Iranians have demonstrated unequivocally that they care more to keep Bashar al Assad in power than the Americans care to see him removed. I hope Secretary Kerry at least told them that success in that endeavor means they are responsible for rebuilding Syria, the bill for which will be several hundred billion dollars.

From my point of view, the agreement is a second best and likely temporary solution. President Obama is simply not willing to do more to help the Syrian opposition prevail in forcing a political transition. Secretary Kerry was left with no Plan B. He had no alternative to a negotiated agreement, which means he was over a barrel. The non-extremist opposition is in the same unfortunate state. Faute de mieux, they will go along to get along, hoping that it leads to where they would like to go.

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Peace picks September 12-16

  1. US Leadership and the Challenge of State Fragility | Monday, September 12th | 9:00am – 12:00pm | US Institute of Peace | Click HERE to RSVP |
    For more than two decades, addressing fragility has been an evolving bipartisan priority for U.S. policymakers. Yet growing understanding and consensus about the problem has failed to generate the strategic, unified, and long-term policies required to achieve solutions. Despite some progress, the United States and its international partners still struggle to prevent and reduce fragility.
    With the next U.S. administration and Congress taking office in January, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center for a New American Security, and the U.S. Institute of Peace this year formed an independent, non-partisan Fragility Study Group to improve the U.S. government’s approach to reducing global fragility. The group was advised by more than 20 former U.S. government officials, members of Congress, academics, and private sector leaders. Its report concludes that the incoming administration will have to exhibit remarkable discipline and imagination in choosing where and how to exert U.S. leadership. The study group offers recommendations for the next administration and Congress on ensuring more coherent policy responses among U.S. agencies, strengthening international partnerships, and developing the capabilities required to help fragile societies build more resilient, and thus stable, states. Following the discussion of the report by the study group’s chairs on September 12, scholars from each institution will preview several of a series of policy briefs to be released in coming months on specific portions of the new approach.
    On panel one, William J. Burns, President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Michèle Flournoy, CEO, Center for a New American Security, Nancy Lindborg, President, United States Institute of Peace, moderated by David Ignatius, Columnist and Author, The Washington Post. On panel two, Rachel Kleinfeld, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Loren Schulman, Deputy Director of Studies and Leon E. Panetta Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security, Maria J. Stephan, Senior Policy Fellow, United States Institute of Peace
  2. African Politics, African Peace | Monday, September 12th | 2:00pm – 3:30pm | US Institute of Peace | Click HERE to RSVP |
    More than 100,000 peacekeepers deployed in Africa make up three-quarters of such United Nations troops worldwide, and they illustrate the frequent response of the African Union to defuse violent conflict with military forces. But the AU has another strength: political power. Join the U.S. Institute of Peace with researchers Alex de Waal and Mulugeta Gebrehiwot of the World Peace Foundation on September 12 for recommendations from their new report on how the AU can harness its unique advantage to advance peace and security. Their new report for the AU argues that the Union must move away from its reactive approach to violent conflict and draw on its inherent political strengths. Their extensive research includes case studies of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Somalia and South Sudan. The authors, joined by AU representatives, will share major findings and offer policy recommendations for how the African Union can best harness its political expertise to reduce violent conflict on the continent and advance its mission of lasting stability. Featuring Alex de Waal, Executive Director, World Peace Foundation; Research Professor, The Fletcher School, Tufts University, Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, Program Director of the African Security Sector and Peace Operations Program, The Fletcher School, Tufts University, moderated by Princeton Lyman, Senior Advisor to the President.
  1. 20 Years Later: The United States and the Future of the CTBT | Tuesday, September 13th | 9:00am – 7:00pm | The Stimson Center | Click HERE to RSVP
    Twenty years ago, the United States took a leading role in negotiations for a verifiable ban on the explosive testing of nuclear weapons. The result was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which opened for signature September 24, 1996. Although the treaty has widespread domestic and global support, the CTBT has not yet entered into force because the United States and seven other key states have failed to ratify the treaty. This month, the Obama administration, along with other U.N. Security Council member states, are considering a resolution that reaffirms support for the global norm against nuclear testing and the eventual ratification of the CTBT. Please join the Stimson Center and Arms Control Association for a briefing on the security value of the treaty in the 21st Century and the purpose and status of the U.N. Security Council initiative. Featuring Rose Gottemoeller, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, U.S. Department of State, Ambassador Adam M. Scheinman, Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation, U.S. Department of State, Ambassador Mitsuru Kitano, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Japan to the International Organizations in Vienna, Ambassador Kairat Umarov, Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the United States, Michael Krepon, Co-Founder of the Stimson Center, will convene the meeting. Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, will lead the question and answer session following the presentations of our panelists.
  2. Mitigating Electoral Violence: Lessons from Nigeria’s 2015 Election | Tuesday, September 13th | 12:00pm -2:00pm | School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University | Email Ernest Ogbozor at eogbozor@gmu.eduto RSVPUncertainties characterized the period before Nigeria’s 2015 election, with many people predicting a possible outbreak of the worst election violence in the country. This led to different initiatives to mitigate potential violence during and after the election. This included the signing of a peace pact, referred to as the “Abuja Peace Accord” by the leaders of the two largest political parties. The 2015 election is now history, but many African countries have not learned from the Nigeria’s experience. As some African nations prepare for elections in the coming months; like Somalia, Gambia, and Ghana, the events unfolding in Gabon where a presidential candidate declared victory in an unannounced result of an election and further asked his opponent to call and congratulate him is of concern. Professor Attahiru Jega, a former Chair of the Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission during the 2011 and 2015 elections, and a current visiting scholar at the George Mason University will share his experience from the Nigerian elections and its implications for other countries. Featuring Professor Attahiru Jega, Former Chairman, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and a Visiting Scholar at the George Mason University, Professor John Paden, Clarence Robinson Professor, George Mason University, Professor Terrence Lyons, School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
  3. From Tribe to Nation: Iraqi Kurdistan on the Cusp of Statehood | Wednesday, September 14th | 9:30am – 11:00am | The Wilson Center | Click HERE to RSVP |
    There is growing recognition that after decades of dogged, if at times unorthodox, efforts to build their own state, the Iraqi Kurds are on the cusp of formally declaring independence. It is no longer a matter of “if” but “when.” And the United States, as much as Iraq’s neighbors—Iran, Turkey, and Syria, which have restive Kurdish populations of their own—needs to be ready when Iraqi Kurdistan, the first real Kurdish state in the modern sense, is born. Most importantly, so do the Kurds. Join us for the launch of Amberin Zaman’s latest paper “From Tribe to Nation: Iraqi Kurdistan on the Cusp of Statehood.” Featuring Amberin Zaman, Public Policy Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center; Columnist, Dikenand Al-Monitor Pulse of the Middle East, Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, SAIS-Johns Hopkins University, and President, Institute of Shia Studies, Aliza Marcus, Author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence and moderated by Henri J. Barkey, Director, Middle East Program, Wilson Center
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More White Helmets

For today, just the trailer for a forthcoming documentary on the White Helmets, about whom I’ve already written:

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This protest is not enough

I co-signed an “open letter” that protests media treatment in Turkey of Henri Barkey as well as other intimidation of scholars by Middle Eastern governments and media. It ends with this paragraph:

We find the Turkish media’s campaign against Henri Barkey, the latest in a series of outrages against academic and political freedom, offensive and personally threatening. We hope that Turkey’s leaders and the press that serves them will reverse course otherwise we will find it difficult to engage in any way with the Turkish government, its media outlets, or nominally independent organizations in Washington that work on behalf of Turkey’s leadership.

On reflection, there are two things I should have raised with my colleagues who drafted this letter:

  1. The focus on foreign scholars and journalists. There are lots of Turks, not to mention Egyptians and others, who are suffering even worse abuse than the foreigners. Solidarity with them is just as important as protesting mistreatment of Americans.
  2. Whether the threat to disengage from the Turkish government and affiliated media and other organizations is wise. My hunch is that the Turkish government doesn’t give a hoot about our engagement and might welcome cutting it off, as it would make repression of Turkey’s own dissenters easier.

Both of these shortcomings in the letter are reparable. I hereby set out to repair them.

The post coup failure crackdown in Turkey has gone too far in arresting and intimidating Turkish scholars and journalists, who have far less recourse than the foreigners. Academic and media institutions outside Turkey should keep the focus on this unwarranted repression and also prepare to welcome the refugees escaping it who are sure to begin leaking out of a country that is all too clearly establishing an illiberal electoral autocracy.

As for cutting off engagement, I’ll be inclined at least initially not to do that, but rather to use every interaction with Turkish officials and government supporters to express concern about the course their country has chosen. I know from my 21 years as a diplomat that such complaints do in fact reverberate inside an offending government and give courage to those who are oppressed. That is important too.

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No risk it will happen soon

The High Negotiations Commission (HNC), which represents the non-extremist Syrian revolution and opposition forces in UN-hosted talks to bring an end to the war, issued its “Executive Framework for a Political Solution in Syria” today. It lays out how the opposition foresees a political transition away from Bashar al Assad’s rule to the transitional governing body (TGB) with full executive authority foreseen in a 2012 UN communique, and eventually to a full-fledged democracy.

There is no risk any of this will happen soon. But it is good to see the HNC, which has taken over political leadership of the non-extremist opposition, articulating a plan that is an excellent response to those who claim there are no moderates in Syria. They start with a six-month truce to allow for humanitarian relief, lifting of sieges, release of prisoners, negotiations, and preparation of a temporary constitution. There follows a 1.5 year transition that starts with the exit of Bashar al Assad and proceeds with the formation of the TGB, preparation of new election laws, and writing of a new, secular and pluralist constitution. The third phase sees adoption of the new constitution and elections. The document is studded with reference to inclusion, human rights, a 30% set aside for women, independence of the judiciary, separation of powers, and lots of other good things.

Like many documents of this sort, it is the missing pieces that are most interesting. On the Syrian Kurds, the Framework says:

The Kurdish cause shall be considered a national Syrian cause and action shall be taken to ensure their ethnic, linguistic, and cultural rights in the constitution.

There is no promise of territorial separation or autonomy, as in Iraq. In fact, the first of its “general principles” is this:

Syria is an integral part of the Arab World, and Arabic is the official language of the state. Arab Islamic culture represents a fertile source for intellectual production and social relations amongst all Syrians of different ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs as the majority of Syrians are Arabs and followers of Islam and its tolerant message which is distinctly moderate.

That isn’t likely to please the Kurds, who have been trying to carve out their own sub-state entity called Rojava along the border with Turkey. But it will please the Turks, who have been resisting emergence of a new Kurdish state (or sub-state) on their border.

Also missing is any clear idea of what happens to Assad. This is a virtue, since the people who wrote this document would like nothing better than to see him held accountable in a Syrian court, where the death penalty is still available. But that wouldn’t serve current purposes. Even in the wildest dreams of the Syrian opposition, Assad is not going to agree to his own execution. Implicitly, the HNC is prepared to see him escape Syria to go to wherever someone will have him, most likely Iran or Russia.

The HNC is proposing that fighting “sectarian militias, mercenaries, and terrorist groups designated as such by relevant Security Council Resolutions” should continue even after the political transition begins. That means the fight against the Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra (and its successor Jabhat Fateh al Sham?), both designated by the UNSC as terrorist, would continue. But it leaves ambiguity about other Islamist groups. The reference to sectarian militias and mercenaries is presumably to various Alawite National Defense Forces as well as Lebanese Hizbollah and other imported Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The TGB would incorporate

…all components of the High Negotiations Commission, as the body responsible for managing the negotiation process…and representatives of the regime whose hands have not been stained with Syrian blood, in addition to ensuring the representation of all strata of Syrian society.

Therein lies a good part of the diplomatic trick: choosing who will have power, even if exercised collectively, after Assad. No one associated with the regime who doesn’t have Syrian blood on his hands will be acceptable to the regime, which has tried to ensure that as many people as possible have participated in the repression, one way or another. Representation of all strata of Syrian society is a nice sentiment, but what it means in practice is in the eye of the beholder. Witness the difficulties Libya has faced in forming and giving authority to its Government of National Accord.

So the overall message of this elaborate document is positive: the HNC understands what a transition to democracy entails and the need for broad inclusion. But for the moment its finely crafted document is a dead letter. The opposition will have to do better on the battlefield, with help from its friends, to impose anything like this admirable solution.

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