More gore than glory

Today marks five years since the start of the then peaceful Syrian uprising, which has covered no one in glory and many in gore: a quarter million dead, more than half the country chased from their homes, more than 4 million refugees and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and billions in lost economic production. Large parts of Syrian cities have been reduced to rubble. The Islamic State occupies a substantial slice of the country while somewhat less lethal extremists control other, smaller slices, all too often in league with people who might have preferred to be counted as moderates.

No one can be proud of what the past five years have wrought.

President Putin has however announced himself satisfied with what the Russians have achieved in the past six months. He has ordered the withdrawal of at least some forces from Syria, though he will keep the base they have operated from as well as the air defense system they installed. The Russians will be able to return in force quickly if need be.

Some Russian objectives have certainly been achieved. Moscow:

  • blocked opposition advances in Latakia that might soon have brought down Assad
  • stymied any American efforts to install a no-fly or “safe” zone
  • demonstrated that little can be decided in Syria without Russian cooperation
  • countered growing Iranian influence on the Assad regime
  • increased its own leverage on Assad.

The Russian withdrawal, even if only partial and reversible, is a strong signal to Assad that he needs to change tack and get serious at the negotiating table in Geneva, where proximity talks started yesterday.

But it would be a mistake to expect too much from the Russians.They cannot buy into creating what Vice President Biden calls “a credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian system, a new constitution and free and fair elections.” Doing so would guarantee installation of a Sunni-dominated regime that would quickly defenestrate the Russians at the first opportunity. The best that can be hoped from Moscow is that it will agree to some Alawaite general to replace Assad, thereby maintaining the autocracy as well as Russia’s interests and privileged position in Latakia and Tartous.

Washington, which clearly has hurt its own interests by failing to act earlier on Syria, has seemed for months to be backing off the demand that Assad must go, but the Syrian opposition remains committed to that goal and major parts of it will continue fighting until he does. The Geneva talks may somehow bridge the gap on the future of Assad, presumably by leaving him in place temporarily but insisting that he face a serious election in 18 months time, as the UN Security Council has mandated.

It is however hard for me to see him sitting still while a free and fair election is prepared, unless he can be certain that the opposition will go to the polls so divided that he can again win. More likely, he would just prepare the ballots and boxes carefully. Who is going to monitor an election in a Syria?

The only people courageous enough to do so are the intrepid folks who staff Syrian civil society organizations. They are reporting lots of ceasefire violations, but violence is down because the Russians and Iranians have stopped their massive offensive and are picking off the morsels they want piecemeal rather than wholesale. The Western press has focuseed on the relative calm, not the continuing advances. That is not surprising, since they haven’t got many journalists on the ground inside Syria.

What is the best we can hope for? It would certainly be good if De Mistura gets some sort of commitment to the UN plan, which calls for a transitional government, a new constitution and elections. That would be real progress, if only because it would set up benchmarks on a clear path forward. But I am not holding my breath. There may still be more gore than glory ahead.

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Peace picks March 14-18

  1. Director’s Forum: A Conversation with H.E. Moshe Ya’alon, Minister of Defense of the State of Israel | Monday, March 14th | 9:00-10:00 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Israel sits in a turbulent and chaotic region. Never has the Middle East been as unstable and challenging: a rising Iran; meltdown in Syria; an impasse in the Palestinian issue; Russian intervention and the rise of ISIS. How does Israel prioritize these challenges? And more importantly, what is Israel’s strategy for dealing with them? Join us for what promises to be a fascinating conversation and discussion of these and other issues with Israel’s Minister of Defense.
  1. Legal Restrictions on Thought and Expression in Pakistan, Egypt, Thailand, and Bahrain | Monday, March 14th | 12:00-2:00 | National Endowment for Democracy | REGISTER TO ATTEND | In a number of countries, counter-terrorism, blasphemy, sedition and similar laws are increasingly used to restrict free inquiry and expression, resulting in a shrinking academic and societal space for dialogue. Wrongful prosecutions under these laws not only threaten the well-being of targeted individuals, but undermine the quality of academic work and public discourse and deny everyone in society the benefits of expert knowledge, scientific and creative progress, and free expression. These laws are often defended as reasonable restrictions on violent or anti-social conduct or as appropriate expressions of national or cultural prerogatives. In practice they are used to restrict thought, punish expression, and intimidate individuals and society generally. Panelists from Pakistan, Egypt, Bahrain, and Thailand will discuss how these laws affect their work and research.
  1. Autocracies Failed and Unfailed: Limited Strategies for State Building | Tuesday, March 15th | 8:30-10:00 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The paper, written by the Graham H. Stuart Professor of International Relations Stephen D. Krasner, and featuring a foreword by Ambassador James B. Cunningham, argues that successful democratization attempts depend mostly on the interests of local elites. To address this “fundamental challenge” Krasner outlines the three elements of “good enough governance” that contribute to a relatively successful democratization effort: 1) security; 2) better service provision; and 3) economic growth.The Atlantic Council Strategy Papers series is designed to enrich the public debate and build consensus on the great strategic challenges of our time, as well as to help shape strategic thinking in US and allied governments, the private and nonprofit sectors, and the global media. The event will feature opening remarks from Dr. Peter Ackerman, Managing Director of Rockport Capital.
  2. From Homs to Hamburg: Refugee movements from Syria to Europe and beyond | Tuesday, March 15th | 10:15-11:15 | Brookings | REGISTER TO ATTEND | As the Syrian civil war enters its sixth year, the associated massive flow of refugees into neighboring countries and onward into Europe continues to overwhelm the international refugee system. As the UNHCR prepares to host a ministerial-level meeting on mechanisms for admitting refugees, the international community urgently needs to coordinate assistance to major host countries, as well as generate creative options for legal channels of migration. On Tuesday March 15, the Foreign Policy program at Brookings will host U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi to discuss recent developments in the refugee crisis and ways for the international community to equitably share responsibilities in addressing the crisis. Bruce Jones, vice president and director of the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, will provide introductory remarks, and Robert McKenzie, visiting fellow for the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, will moderate the conversation. Following the conversation, Grandi will take questions from the audience. This event is the latest in a series of Brookings events focusing on the Syrian refugee crisis and the U.S. and international community’s responses to it.
  3. The Inner Workings of ISIS | Tuesday, March 15th | 12:30-2:00 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Please join the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security for a public discussion with a panel of experts focusing on the inner workings of the Islamic State (ISIS) and how the US-led anti-ISIS coalition can translate this understanding into military success against the group. The Islamic State (ISIS) initially seized the international spotlight by capturing territory spanning western Iraq and eastern Syria, instilling fear in its opponents and administering brutal rule over civilian populations under its control. Over time, ISIS has inspired and carried out attacks from San Bernardino to Paris to the Maghreb and Sinai, becoming a challenge of global proportions. ISIS continues to hold territory, carry out attacks in Iraq and Syria, and brutalize the people living under its rule even as the group faces increasing pressure from the US-led international coalition formed to degrade and destroy it. As the Iraqi government gears up for a US-supported campaign to retake the city of Mosul, how can states translate their understanding of ISIS and its ideology into military successes? How can the US and its partners disrupt the image the group presents online through social media and lessen its appeal to potential recruits? The event will feature Michael Weiss, co-author of the book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, as well as Martin Chulov of The Guardian and ISIS cyber researcher Jade Parker of TAPSTRI.
  4. A Conversation with South American Chiefs of Mission | Wednesday, March 16th | 8:45-10:00 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Join us as we discuss President Obama’s upcoming trip to Latin America as well as key political and economic developments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay and what they mean for U.S. policy in the hemisphere. Our expert panel includes: Alex Lee Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, U.S. Department of State, the Honorable Liliana Ayalde, U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, the Honorable Mike Hammer, U.S. Ambassador to Chile, and Bradley Freden, Chargé d’Affaires, Montevideo, Uruguay. The event will be moderated by Cynthia J. Arnson, Director, Latin American Program at the Wilson Center and Paulo Sotero, Director, Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center.
  5. Divided They Fall: Social Atomization in Putin’s Russia | Wednesday, March 16th | 10:00-11:00 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The marginalization of NGOs and political groups is a feature of many authoritarian regimes. In Russia, this is compounded by atomized social bonds and civil society dysfunction even absent government interference. Drawing on her research within Russian communities, Anna Arutunyan will look at how these patterns of interaction impact agency and politics in modern civil society. Anna Arutunyan, a Moscow-based journalist and writer will speak.
  6. U.S.-Colombia Relations: A Conversation with U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker | Wednesday, March 16th | 11:15-12:15 | REGISTER TO ATTEND | On March 16, Foreign Policy at Brookings’ Latin America Initiative will host U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker who will offer an assessment of the state of U.S.-Colombia relations and the prospects for a successful peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC. Vice president and director of Foreign Policy Bruce Jones will provide introductory remarks. Senior Fellow Harold Trinkunas will moderate the discussion. Kevin Whitaker was confirmed as Ambassador to Colombia in April 2014. He has previously served as deputy assistant secretary of state for South America, as well as deputy chief of mission in Venezuela and diplomatic posts in Jamaica, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Following initial remarks and the opening discussion, Ambassador Whitaker will take audience questions.
  7.  The Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act of 2015? Implications for Egypt and the Region | Thursday, March 17th | 12:00-2:00 | Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Amb. Ibrahim Rasool (former Amb. of South Africa), Prof. Nader Hashemi (Univ. of Denver) and Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, President of CSID, will make three short presentations, followed by Q&A, on the dangers and implications of this bill on the democratization process in Egypt and in the region. As you know, this bill is moving forward very quietly, but quickly, in congress, and has already been approved by the House Judiciary Committee (in a 17-10 vote along partisan lines). The Congressional hearing was extraordinarily brief. As two members of the committee pointed out, it completely ignored the usual process of expert testimony from the State Department, intelligence agencies and Middle East and terrorism experts. We, as scholars and strong believers and activists for democracy in the region, think that this bill – if adopted – will have extremely bad repercussions on stability and democracy in the region, on relations between the US and the Muslim World, and will further radicalize millions of young Muslims, in Egypt and in the region, who are seeking to have a role and a voice in shaping the future of their country.
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Let Trump speak

I have no doubt where Donald Trump and his support come from: the residue of racist white America, which did not disappear just because Barack Obama was elected president:

A correlation of 1 means the variable is a perfect indicator of Trump support.*
Variable Correlation
White, no high school diploma
0.61
“Americans”
Percent reporting ancestry as “American” on the census
0.57
Mobile homes
Percent living in a mobile home
0.54
“Old economy” jobs
Includes agriculture, construction, manufacturing, trade
0.50
History of voting for segregationists
Support for George Wallace (1968)
0.47
Labor participation rate
–0.43
Born in United States
0.43
Evangelical Christians
0.42
History of voting for liberal Republicans
Support for John B. Anderson (1980)
–0.42
White Anglo-Saxon Protestants
Whites with European non-Catholic ancestry
–0.42

*Measuring Trump support as Mr. Trump’s percentage of the primary vote times the Republican share of the two-party vote in the 2012 presidential election.

Their relative numbers and influence are shrinking, but they have good reason to complain: average lower middle class incomes have not risen in inflation-adjusted terms for 47 years:

Real household incomes

But rather than make common cause with the black lower middle class that has suffered the same fate, Trump’s whites are doing what comes naturally: resenting the competition and supporting a white demagogue who promises little but expresses their agony well. For those of us who remember George Wallace, this is no surprise. The racism this time around is more coded and less deadly (at least so far), but no less virulent.

The right response, however, is not violence. Trump’s minions and the local police will always have the upper hand if demonstrations against him turn in that direction. A melee does nothing to counter Trump’s message. In fact, it helps to reinforce the feeling that whites need protection, which is why he has encouraged his supporters to react violently to demonstrators against him.

Nor does it help to try to prevent him from speaking. Trump’s message is odious. But he is entitled to express it. This young man, who stormed the stage in Chicago in an effort to prevent Trump from speaking, is wrong:

Those who oppose Trump’s message need to remember Martin Luther King’s: nonviolence will serve the cause far better than violence. People calling me names cannot be a motive for attacking them physically or preventing them from speaking. Apart from their constitutional rights, that will only consolidate Trump’s support and make people in the middle wonder which side they belong on. Undecided people are not going to sign up to what they see as thuggery. Silent, nonviolent witness against him will be far more successful in bringing people around.

I am confident that Trump if nominated can be made to go down to an ignominious defeat in November. That will do far more to end American racism than even the election of President Obama. But that defeat is far more likely if he is allowed to speak than if he is prevented from doing so by demonstrators seen as radical and unreasonable.

What does all this have to do with foreign policy, war and peace? It is only by defeating Trump, either in the primaries or in the election, that America can begin to repair the damage he has done to her image abroad.

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Where the violence comes from

Rachel Maddow last night gave an entirely one-sided, and I think correct, account of why we are seeing violence at Trump rallies:

It’s got to be a great nation. It will survive even this.

This list of judicial appointments by administration is worth a gander too, in case you want to know what makes Trump and his supporters think America is no longer great:

Judges

 

Just in case you have forgotten who Trump’s supporters are:

A correlation of 1 means the variable is a perfect indicator of Trump support.
Variable Correlation
White, no high school diploma
0.61
“Americans”
Percent reporting ancestry as “American” on the census
0.57
Mobile homes
Percent living in a mobile home
0.54
“Old economy” jobs
Includes agriculture, construction, manufacturing, trade
0.50
History of voting for segregationists
Support for George Wallace (1968)
0.47
Labor participation rate
–0.43
Born in United States
0.43
Evangelical Christians
0.42
History of voting for liberal Republicans
Support for John B. Anderson (1980)
–0.42
White Anglo-Saxon Protestants
Whites with European non-Catholic ancestry
–0.42
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Better than expected, but not good

Two weeks into the cessation of hostilities in Syria and just a weekend before proximity talks are scheduled to reconvene in Geneva, UN envoy Stefano De Mistura is saying that the chances for peace have never been better. There is, he says, “momentum” behind both humanitarian assistance and de-escalation. His hopes for a political settlement come from the newfound agreement of Moscow and Washington as well as the backing of others in the international community.

All of that is true, but it is a low bar. The prospects for a political agreement in Syria have long been dim to negligible. The current momentum comes from putting aside the central issue: whether Bashar al Assad will continue in power. Moscow and Tehran show no sign of dropping their support for him, even if both say repeatedly that they are not wedded to him. Washington might like to abandon the opposition entirely, but even if it does some of them will continue fighting as long as Assad is in power.

The cessation of hostilities has however held better than I and many others anticipated. The question is why. It seems to me that the Iranians and Russians had achieved most of their objectives and needed to consolidate their gains. In recent weeks, they and the Syrian armed forces were responsible for the vast majority of the attacks. If they had continued much longer they’d have ended up laying siege to the opposition-held part of Aleppo, where several hundred thousand people remain. That would have made them responsible for either starving them or feeding them. Better to stop when they did and let the international community do the heavy lifting required and pay the bills.

The United States has spent upwards of $5 billion on humanitarian relief in Syria, much of it through international organizations. Russia and Iran to my knowledge have spent nothing through the international community, though the Russians have dropped a few pallets of food in a feeble effort to get some credit. Many sieges continue in Syria. I’ve seen no comprehensive account of where humanitarian aid has been delivered and where not, but the relief provided so far will have been marginal and temporary at best. Nor have tens of thousands of political prisoners been released.

The Syrian government and their Russian allies continue to pummel some rebel-held areas from the air. They do not target only the Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra, extremists not covered by the ceasefire. They have also attacked civilians in areas close to Damascus and in other parts of Syria. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reports 435 ceasefire violations, as of yesterday. That’s an average of about 30 per day.

People in opposition-held areas are appreciating the respite from war, which has engulfed civilian areas of central and northern Syria since the Russians started bombing in September. It should be no surprise that they have taken advantage of the opportunity to go out in the streets to demonstrate against Bashar al Assad. Syrians are not lacking in courage and conviction.

Bashar al Assad isn’t either. He has announced parliamentary elections for April 13, in an effort to preempt talk of a political transition. I see no sign that he is headed out the door.

So yes, things are better than expected, but they are not good. Or as Fadl AbdulGhani, Director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, puts it:

I would say that on a scale between terrible and bad, the truce has been a marginal success—but this is only based on the limited options facing Syrians.

Odds are still against a political settlement that will lead to transition.

 

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The Islamic State is the easy problem

While the Obama Administration is leaking profusely plans for military intervention in Libya against the Islamic State, I spent a good part of yesterday with people worrying about what to do there beyond killing extremists. It is all too obvious that an air war without a political solution that mobilizes Libyans against the extremists could leave the country even more destabilized than it already is.

It is not so clear what to do about that. A political solution is on the table, but its implementation is stalled, perhaps permanently. Even if the diplomats succeed in their current efforts to get the Government of National Accord (GNA) sworn in, its move to Tripoli poses big security problems, as the capital is in the hands of 15 or more militias loyal to one of the country’s two separate legislative bodies.

Planning for a peacekeeping/stabilization mission is ongoing with the Europeans, including the British, French and Italians. The Americans won’t contribute ground troops but rather “enablers” like ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to the civilians among us) as well as whatever is needed (drones, aircraft, special forces) to attack ISIS.

There is a wide range of views on what kind of stabilization mission is desirable or possible. Some think a light footprint limited to Tripoli, or even limited to protecting the GNA and foreign embassies, will suffice and arouse little Libyan xenophobia, provided the strategic communications are adequate. Others note that experience elsewhere would require upwards of 70,000 international peacekeepers in a country the size of Libya requiring peace enforcement. A small force unable or unwilling to protect the Libyan population might arouse more resentment and resistance, not less. At the very least, major routes, cantonments of weapons, borders and oil facilities will need protection, either by internationals or Libyans.

Any stabilization force will require a GNA request, Arab League endorsement and a United Nations Security Council mandate. It will need to be able to supply and defend itself, including from Islamic State and other extremist and criminal attacks. Those are tall orders.

But Libya also has some characteristics that make peacekeeping relatively easy: it is close to Europe, has good ports and a long coastline, it is mostly flat and desert, with few places for spoilers to hide, other than urban areas. The population is mostly Arab (there are Berbers as well–remember the Barbary pirates) and overwhelmingly Sunni. The country’s immediate neighbors–Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria–are all anxious to end the instability and block the Islamic State from establishing a safe haven in Libya, though they don’t necessarily agree on how to do that.

Beyond getting the GNA up and running, what to do about the militias in Libya is the most difficult governance problem. The Finance Ministry, which still functions, has been paying many of them. Others, especially in the south and west, have already gone into private sector, running smuggling and other illicit businesses. Past efforts to build a united Libyan security force by training people outside the country failed miserably. Next time around it will have to be done in Libya. Many of the militiamen will need to be disarmed and demobilized, but there is little in the way of an economy to integrate them into. It is vital to remember that the militias are linked to local patronage networks, which need to be mobilized in favor of stabilization, not against it.

While the US and others have the tools needed to kill extremists, it is not at all clear that we have what is needed to help the Libyans sort out their differences and begin to govern in ways that will deny safe haven to the Islamic State, which already controls the central coastal town of Sirte. We suffer from PDD: paradigm deficit disorder. A hundred T.E. Lawrences prepared to deploy with the militias and help sort out their differences might suffice. But where would we get the 100 Arabic speakers with deep knowledge of the Libyan human terrain? We have all but forgotten whatever we learned about such things in Iraq and Afghanistan, erased because the administration was determined not to get involved again in statebuilding in the Middle East.

The Islamic State is the easy part of the problem. The hard part is figuring out how Libya will be stabilized and governed once it is gone.

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