Rebuilding Syria

Launching the American Security Project’s new white paper Syrian stabilization and Reconstruction, ASP hosted a panel to discuss the prospects for rebuilding Syria after the end of its tragic civil war. Mathew Wallin, Fellow for Public Diplomacy at the American Security Project, presented a summary of the white paper, highlighting the need to go into Syria with defined goals and a clear understanding of how to achieve them. In order to learn from our mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wallin emphasized an approach to reconstruction that focuses on the local level to establish security and create a new unified vision for Syria’s future.

Hani Masri, a member of the ASP Board of Directors and Founder of Tomorrow’s Youth Foundation, stressed the role that women and children play in post-war reconstruction. Masri noted that if we do not invest in Syria’s youth today, in twenty or thirty years the new generation of Syrians will not be ready to take on the challenges of governance in the new Middle East. Betty Bernstein-Zabza, Senior Advisor and Director of Operations for Global Women’s Issues in the Office of the Secretary of State, then addressed the reconstruction efforts undertaken in Iraq. Tragically, many women have become heads of households in Iraq and Syria, and because of that, any effort to provide security and economic prosperity in liberated areas must take women and children into account.

Kaufman Fellow and Director of Project Fikra at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy David Pollock proposed a bold plan for future engagement in Syria. He argued that given that Assad and his partners—Iran and Russia—are not seeking a political solution any time soon, the international community must start rebuilding Syria today. He claimed that reconstruction could commence in Opposition-controlled areas in Idlib, Deraa, and al-Hasakah, and stressed how the immediate needs of places such as Kobane and Manbij underline the urgency of acting now. An audience member questioned this proposal on grounds that Idlib, in particular, is under constant aerial bombardment. Any infrastructure rebuilt would be instantly destroyed. Among his other proposals,

Pollack responded emphasizing the need for a no-fly zone. He added that while this and other proposed measures will not solve the whole of the Syrian crisis, we have to start somewhere. The United States and international community have an opportunity to do the right thing, backed by moral and strategic reasoning.

Wallin commented that in the policy community many people advocate that we need to “do something” without sufficient thought to what comes after. We can provide humanitarian aid now, but that policy has no foreseeable end. A no-fly zone in Syria might have to be maintained for twenty years.

Wallin’s strategic concerns noted, it’s hard to argue against doing something to help the 6.6 million internally displaced Syrians that have fled their homes and the remaining millions that are living in constant peril.

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Counting on the census

Emile Ducic of Sarajevo daily Avaz asked questions about the still unpublished 2013 census in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). I answered:
Q: There is serious blockade on BiH path to EU. Mladen Ivanic refused to hold the session of Presidency of BiH which is planned to confirm the adaptation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Union (EU). So BiH will miss the chance that it’s application will be considered at F[oreign] A[ffairs] C[ouncil] session on 13 July. Reason: the decision to publish the census results in accordance with international recommendations.
It seems like Ivanic is following the footsteps of Dodik?

A: I doubt that is the path President Ivanic wants to go down. But the way Bosnia and Herzegovina works he has to always appear to be protecting Serb interests. The problem is constitutional. The Dayton constitution provides no incentives for politicians to gain support across ethnic lines. This is just the latest exemplar.

The political controversy around the census results is a serious embarrassment for anyone who is concerned about the country as a whole, which is what a president would normally be concerned about. A census should be a technical exercise with political implications, not a political exercise that affects the techniques used.

Q: At the same time Dodik is calling the Assembly of Republika Srpska (RS) to reject the census results as irrelevant. 

No doubt the crisis has peaked. Your comment?

A: I assume the RS Assembly will do as Dodik commands.

I doubt the crisis has peaked. Dodik will take any opportunity he is offered to reject whatever the state government decides. He seems to me quite determined to take RS down a road that keeps himself in power right now but leads to disaster for his constituents in the longer term.

Q: Can the international community tolerate manufacturing crisis from RS officials in such an important moment for BiH?

A: Can Bosnians tolerate it?

So long as Dodik continues to be reelected you will face crises of this sort. The international community has a lot bigger problems right now than publication of the census results in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The EU has delineated a  clear path for Bosnia and Herzegovina towards reform. It also pays a lot of the country’s bills. The war ended over 20 years ago. Isn’t it time Bosnians accepted responsibility for their own census?

Q: At the same time we have a meeting of [Serbian Prime Minister] Vucic and [Croatian President] Grabar-Kitarovic who signed a declaration on relations between Serbia and Croatian, but problem child is against – RS! Their leaders obviously do not want reconciliation. Your comment?

A: RS under Dodik defines itself as opposed to Croat and Bosniak interests. Why would it welcome reconciliation?

It seems to me the divide between Belgrade and Banja Luka is getting bigger. What Dodik is doing is clearly not in Serbia’s interest. He is damaging Serbia’s EU prospects and championing a diehard Serb nationalist cause that has been defeated repeatedly both in war and in peacetime elections, except in RS.

I imagine Vucic will try to rein Dodik in, but I am not certain he’ll succeed. Dodik likes EU hard currency, but he is bent on making RS a Russian satellite. He has no serious interest in EU membership, unless he can achieve it as an independent and sovereign state. That isn’t going to happen.

I think the census results should be published, along with all the technical issues and how they have been resolved. Let the chips fall where they may.

Erol Avdo, also of Avaz, followed up with some additional questions later today:

Q: In today’s interview you are quoted to say that Aleksandar Vučić “will try to curb Dodik.” In what way and with which instruments Mr. Vučić can really curb Dodik, and does the Serbian leader want to do that? Or could it be that there is a change of mood in Belgrade (could they become more openly pro-Russian, with pro-Russian position (Šešelj radicals and others) in Serbian parliament?

A: You’ll have to ask Prime Minister Vucic whether he is comfortable with the Russophiles in Belgrade and whether he feels the pressure coming from them. It seems to me that giving in to them is a sure way of blocking his goal of EU membership.

As for curbing Dodik, the reasons to do so are clear: Dodik’s advocacy of RS independence puts Serbia in a lose-lose position. I’ll leave it to the Prime Minister to figure out what instruments to use, but I suspect that money is the prime leverage that would work with RS right now. Dodik is pretty desperate.

Q: Also, could Mladen Ivanic, who is an experienced and old politician, actually have a new assessment of that “change of heart” in Belgrade — and — in the worst case scenario — decide to show more resistance to all this EU accession process?

A: Ask him, not me, whether he has had a change of heart. In my way of thinking, he is not going to be able to outflank Dodik on the nationalism side, so he may as well stick with the EU.

Q: Or this is only all about census? Could Ivanic become more pro-Russian as well?

A: Russia is a declining regional power. Anyone who wants to tie the future of his country to a petro-state that lacks enough revenue to fund its budget is welcome to do so. Just don’t expect the U.S. or the EU to pay your bills or welcome you into their clubs if that is the choice you make.

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Of course I prefer that the UK stay in the European Union. The economic arguments are compelling, both for Brits and for Americans. Britain is clearly much better off today than it was when it joined the EU in 1973. Its economic future outside the EU is highly uncertain, causing stock markets worldwide to tremble until yesterday. Then they strengthened in response to indications the “remain” camp might win. A lot of US companies are established in Great Britain. Leaving would reduce trans-Atlantic trade and investment, hinder London’s role as a financial hub, reduce British and American access to European markets and hurt the fragile European recovery now just barely beginning.

But none of that has mattered much. Instead the “leave” campaign has gained momentum as a largely a populist rebellion against immigration, European bureaucrats and British (principally English) identity. Many Brits want out despite the economic arguments. The parallels to Donald Trump’s successful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination are all to obvious.

I hope the parallel does not end there. Trump’s effort so far is clearly a minority one. Assuming the polls are correct, the US election if held today would end in a landslide victory for Hillary Clinton, despite all the heavy baggage she carries. Great Britain will do the world, and the American election campaign, a great deal of good if it rejects “leave,” which has run a campaign only slightly less objectionable than Trump’s. The murder of “remain” parliamentarian Jo Cox cannot be pinned on the campaign itself, but it betrays the level of division and violence associated with this referendum. By the same token, if “leave” wins, it will put wind in Trump’s sails.

Both “leave” and Trump are drawing on a reservoir of resentment from globalization’s losers. They are protesting, loudly, and all too often with good reason: many have not seen an increase in wages for 20 years. Some blame that on trade agreements, immigration or people whose skin is not “white.” The real reasons are often tax policies that favor wealthy real estate investors like Donald Trump, lack of appropriate education to take on the new jobs globalization has created, the union-breaking Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher initiated, and a dearth of retraining opportunities or desire to exploit those that exist.

Ironically, a “leave” win will likely lead to at least one other “leave” vote. Most Scots are far more comfortable with Brussels Eurocrats than the English are. The First Minister has already indicated that Scotland will conduct another referendum on leaving Great Britain if Great Britain votes to leave the EU. Northern Ireland can’t be expected to follow suit, but what about Wales?

And what about other EU countries? We can expect several of them to want to follow Britain’s lead, which will mean a very hard line against concessions in the two years of departure negotiations that would follow the referendum. Germany and France in particular will be hard over not to make departure easy for Britain, in hopes of discouraging other members from following suit. Not to mention Spain, which faces a possible secession of Catalonia.

Nothing could please Vladimir Putin more than to watch the Europe that has united with the US in imposing sanctions in response to Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, in particular on the basis of a referendum, since that is the meretricious device he used in Crimea. Never mind the possibility that parts of the Russian Federation might want to follow the precedent. Putin knows well how to deal with that, as he demonstrated in putting down the Chechnya rebellion.

So “out” is bad for the US and bad for the rest of Europe. It is good for Trump and Putin. That is enough reason for me to want the United Kingdom to remain “in.”

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Peace picks June 20-24

  1. Decision Point For The Citizens Of Europe: Brexit Referendum And Spanish Parliamentary Elections | Monday, June 20th | 12:00-1pm | Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) | 1717 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036, USA | Register HERE |On June 23, citizens of the United Kingdom will participate in the European Union membership referendum. Only three days later, on June 26, a general election will be held in Spain after six months of political deadlock and the failure to form a government. Both events will have significant implications for the future of the European Union, a union already under duress due to the Greek debt crisis and mass migration. In addition, populist and nationalist parties have been surging in a number of EU member countries – from Germany to Austria, Hungary to Poland, and France to the United Kingdom. Will Europeans seek unity or chose division? The US-Italy Global Affairs Forum would like to invite you to a panel discussion discussing such issues. Speakers will include Renzo Cianfanelli of the US-Italy Global Affairs Forum; Donald Jensen, Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations; John Gizzi, White House Correspondent for Newsmax,; and Juncal Fernández-Garayzábal of the Institute for the Study of International Migrations (ISIM) at Georgetown University.
  2. Ukraine’s Humanitarian Crisis | Tuesday, June 21st | 10:30-3:00 | Atlantic Council | 1030 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20005, USA| Register HERE | Since 2014, the war in Ukraine’s East has claimed over ten thousand lives and displaced over 1.6 million people—the largest internally displaced persons crisis in Europe. Nationwide, more than 3.1 million Ukrainians are in need of humanitarian assistance. As daily ceasefire violations continue in the Donbas, the ability of the Minsk Agreements to deliver a sustainable peace comes under question. The situation in the occupied territories of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic is dire: An absence of the rule of law, violations of human rights by the self-imposed authorities, and shortages of basic necessities have left the most vulnerable populations at risk. In addition, aid groups face difficulties delivering supplies and services to where they are most needed. The conference will focus on the current state of Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis and how to strategize on a way forward. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, co-chair of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus at the US House of Representatives, will deliver keynote remarks. We hope you can join us for this important and timely discussion. A light lunch will be served.
  3. The National Security Implications Of Climate Change And Food Security | Tuesday, June 21st | 10:30-12:00 | Center for American Progress | 1333 H Street NW, 10th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20005| Register HERE | U.S. policy communities are increasingly identifying climate change, environmental deterioration, water management, and food security as key concerns for national security and global governance. The interplay between these trends was visible during the upheavals across the Middle East, as food riots and water disputes illuminated the region’s extreme food insecurity. In the five years before the uprising in Syria, for example, the country experienced one of the worst droughts on record—decimating wheat production and wiping out livestock. There is little question that the effects of climate change will cause more extreme weather events and crop insecurities in the decades to come, and it is reasonable to expect that the secondary and tertiary effects will be magnified with time. Join the Center for American Progress on June 21, 2016, to discuss potential U.S. policy responses that address these pressing issues. Introductory remarks will be from Former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Jon White,  retired Rear Admiral, Navy, Coast Guard; President and CEO, Consortium for Ocean Leadership. Panelist will be Nancy Stetson, U.S. Special Representative for Global Food Security, U.S. Department of State; Richard Leach, President and CEO, World Food Program USA; Sharon Burke, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy, U.S. Department of Defense; Senior Advisor, New America.
  4. What Comes After? Strategy For Stabilization And Reconstruction In Syria | Tuesday, June 21st | 12:00-1:30 | American Security Project | 1100 New York Ave NW #710W, Washington, DC 20005| Register HERE | As the conflict in Syria enters its 5th year, questions of stabilization, peace, and reconstruction seem far away. However, building a sustainable peace will require clear planning now. Join American Security Project on June 21st for the launch of its latest White Paper on Syrian stabilization and reconstruction to discuss building a coherent strategy for building a durable peace. Hani Masri,  Member of the ASP Board of Directors and Founder of Tomorrow’s Youth Foundation, will speak.  Lunch refreshments will be served from 12:00pm – 12:30pm.
  5. Responding To The Migrant Crisis In The Middle East | Tuesday, June 21st | 1:00 | Council on Foreign Relations | 1777 F St NW #100, Washington, DC 20006, USA| Experts discuss efforts to assist refugees displaced from the migrant crisis in the Middle East. Speakers will include: Lisa Anderson, Former President of the American University in Cairo; US Ambassador to Germany, Peter Wittig; and David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.
  6. The Gulf, Iran, And Future Oil Geopolitics | Wednesday, June 22nd   | 3:00-4:30 | Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars | 1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20004 | Register HERE | The oil markets remain in constant turmoil. Oil prices have yet to recover as OPEC countries have repeatedly failed to agree on production cuts. Following the nuclear deal, Iran has been aggressively looking to increase its oil exports despite secondary non-nuclear sanctions. Iraq is also focusing on increasing its oil exports while mired in a dispute with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over revenue sharing. By contrast, the world’s largest producer, Saudi Arabia, is in the midst of a major restructuring of its decision-making apparatus as it also attempts to diversify from its dependence on oil. This panel will explore the geopolitics of oil and discuss the current state of play in the Gulf region.  Panelists include: Douglas Hengel, Senior Resident Fellow, German Marshall Fund; David Goldwyn, President, Goldwyn Global Strategies; Elizabeth Rosenberg, Senior Fellow and Director of the Energy, Economics, and Security Program, Center for a New American Security; Jean Francois Seznec, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center; Jan Kalicki, Global Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center, and Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, will moderate.
  7. Russia’s Military: Assessment, Strategy, And Threat | Thursday, June 23rd   | 1:00-2:30 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | 1779  Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036 | Register HERE | Russia’s actions in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria have demonstrated the reemergence of the Russian military as one of the Kremlin’s most effective foreign policy tools. The success of these campaigns comes as a result of major military reform and modernization efforts that began in 2008. What changes led to today’s revamped Russian military? How will the Kremlin use its modernized force as a geopolitical tool? And does Russia’s new military pose a threat to the West? Ahead of the NATO Warsaw summit in July, the Center on Global Interests is pleased to invite you to a discussion with Michael Kofman, a leading expert on Russia’s military, and Michael Purcell, Director of Operations at CGI and former Marine officer, on the details of Russian military capabilities and how the West should respond. The event will mark the release of a new CGI report – a net assessment of Russia’s military – co-authored by Michael Kofman and Russian military analyst Alexander Golts. A Q&A will follow. Light refreshments will be served.

Don’t forget Hezbollah

Here is the draft of the State Department dissent message on Syria, on which the New York Times based its coverage yesterday. So far as I can tell the final version is not publicly available, but this draft is polished. The argument is basically that the US has sufficient moral and strategic reason to attack Syrian government forces with stand-off weapons with the goal of getting President Asad to abide by the internationally mandated cessation of hostilities and initiate serious negotiations on a political transition, as required by the Geneva I communique and numerous subsequent international decisions. The dissent memo admits some downsides: a deterioration of relations with Russia and possible “second order” effects.

Those downsides require more consideration. There is no international mandate to attack Syrian government forces. Intervention in this case would in that sense have even less multilateral sanction than the NATO attack on Qaddafi’s forces in Libya, where there was a UN Security Council mandate, albeit one that authorized “all necessary means” to save civilians rather than to change the regime. Asad has not directly attacked the US, even if his reaction to Syria’s internal rebellion has created conditions that are inimical to US interests by attracting extremists and undermining stability in neighboring countries.

The Russia angle is also daunting. Moscow may well react by intensifying its attacks on the opposition forces the US supports, who are already targeted by Russian warplanes. Unilateral US intervention against Syrian government forces would also help Moscow to argue it is doing no worse in Ukraine, where it supports opposition forces behind a thin veil of denials that its forces are directly involved. The US is not ready to respond in kind to Russian escalation in Ukraine, if only because the European allies would not want it. Kiev might be the unintended victim of US escalation in Syria.

Second order effects could also include loss of European, Turkish and Jordanian support, because of an increased refugee flow out of Syria, as well as increased Iranian support for the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, destabilization of Bahrain and Shia militias in Iraq. Greater chaos in Syria could also help ISIS to revive its flagging fortunes and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra to pursue its fight against the Syrian government.

These downsides are all too real, but so is the current situation: Russia, the Syrian government, Iran and Hezbollah are making mincemeat of the US-supported Syrian opposition while more extremist forces are gaining momentum. President Obama is reluctant to attack sovereign states that have not attacked the US directly without an international mandate of some sort. That is understandable. But doing nothing military to respond to a deteriorating situation is a decision too, one with real and unfortunately burgeoning negative consequences for US interests.

Hezbollah is the way out of this quandary. It is not a state. It is a designated terrorist group that has killed hundreds of Americans, and many others as well. The Americans say they are fighting terrorist groups in Syria. Why not Hezbollah? Its ground forces there have become increasingly important to the Syrian government’s cause. Getting Hezbollah out of the fight would arguably have as much impact on the military balance as strikes on the Syrian army, which is already a declining and demoralized force.

Washington need not start with military action. It could lead with diplomacy, telling Moscow and Tehran that we want Hezbollah to leave Syria tout de suite. If it fails to leave by a date certain, we could then strip it of its immunity and treat it like the other terrorist groups in Syria. Moscow might even welcome such a move, since Hezbollah efforts in Syria strengthen Iran’s hold, not Russia’s.

Tehran would be furious, claiming Hezbollah is in Syria at the request of its legitimate government. Hezbollah would likely try to strike US, Israeli or even Jewish targets in the region or beyond. It has managed in the past to murder Jews as far away as Argentina. Doing so would confirm the thesis that Hezbollah is a terrorist group and redouble the need to act decisively against it.

No suggestions for what to do or not do in Syria are simple. The situation has gotten so fraught that any proposition will have complicated and unpredictable consequences. But the State Department dissenters missed an opportunity to duck some of the President’s objections and strengthen their own argument by focusing on a terrorist group, rather than the regime’s own forces. Don’t forget Hezbollah.

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Turkey’s Kurdish anxieties

The Bipartisan Policy Center hosted Cascading Conflicts: U.S. Policy on Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds Tuesday morning. This was nominally a launch of its report on Authoritarianism and Escalation: Preparing for the Worst in Turkey’s Resurgent Kurdish Conflict but ranged rather far from that excellent account of how Turkey has repeatedly turned to war when its government has become more authoritarian.

Eric Edelman, Co-Chair of BPC’s Turkey Initiative and former ambassador to Turkey, discussed the mutual misreading of priorities and interests between Turkey and the US. Amberin Zaman, Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Institute, recalled how the peace talks between the PKK and Turkish government in February 2015 raised hopes for reconciliation that were then dashed by President Erdoğan. Ceng Sagnic, Junior Researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, considered how the Kurdish situation in Syria has thwarted Turkey’s foreign policy and prompted its interventionism. Aliza Marcus, Communications Consultant for the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund at the World Bank, assessed the relationship between the YPG/PYD (the dominant Syrian Kurdish organizations) and the PKK (the dominant Turkish Kurdish organization) as well as Turkey’s position on the question.  Ishaan Tharoor, a reporter for the Washington Post, moderated a lively discussion spanning Turkish domestic politics, the fight against the Islamic State (IS), and more.

Amberin Zaman elucidated how domestic and international factors have influenced Turkey’s position on Syria and the Kurdish question. She maintained that peace talks with the PKK faltered in part because of rising tensions with the YPG/PYD in Syria and also in response to Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. Growing Kurdish autonomy in Northern Syria has emboldened Kurds everywhere. In the words of Aliza Marcus, no matter how hard the Turkish government hits the PKK domestically, now there will always be a powerful Kurdish presence across the border in Syria.

The conversation then turned to Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism. Ambassador Eric Edelman argued that the US has a vested interest in shaping Turkey’s domestic politics.  Long-term US interests and Turkey’s status as a NATO ally—an alliance intended to be a union of liberal democracies— demand that US use its position to speak out publicly and privately on Turkey’s civil rights violations.

Aliza Marcus explained how the YPG grew out of networks of support for the PKK in Syria. However, despite clear evidence of ties between the two, she said that it is unclear to what extent the PKK and the YPG/PYD are independent decision-makers. She added that, from Turkey’s perspective, the question is irrelevant. The two are one and the same, and nothing will diminish Turkish fears of Kurdish nationalism.

After hearing from audience member and representative of Rojava Cantons, Sinam Mohamed, on Kurdish governance and long-term strategy, Ceng Sagnic contended that Kurdish-controlled areas show more signs of functioning governance than the rest of Syria currently does. He also commented on current Syrian Democratic Force movements into Sunni-Arab areas in northern Syria. Marcus countered that Kurdish forces are not expanding for expansion’s sake, they are simply going where the Islamic State already is–namely Sunni areas.

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