What the Free Syria Army wants now

Earlier today I posted a message from Syrian civil society organizations. The situation they described appears to be deteriorating, as the Free Syria Army has now posted the message below. “Potemkin” is the word that comes to mind to describe this ceasefire, but the question is whether the opposition still has a viable military option: 

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What Syrian civil society wants now

Baytna Syria sent this message early today, representing the views of an important segment of opposition-oriented Syrian civil society:

The Syrian civil society organizations followed closely the recent developments and discussions regarding the ceasefire agreement signed by opposition armed groups and the Syrian regime mediated by Russia and Turkey as endorsed by UN Security Council resolution 2336.

The signatories welcome any serious and credible ceasefire agreement as it will spare our people further blood, killing, and destruction. Such an agreement should be a prelude to a credible political process that will lead to the realization of the Syrian people’s aspirations in freedom, justice, and dignity.

For such an agreement to acquire the necessary seriousness and credibility, it shall:

  •  include a publicly published monitoring, verification and accountability process. The signatories declare their readiness to participate in any monitoring role required, each according to its mandate and principles.
  •  specify a single wording for the agreement signed by parties to the conflict and the guarantors, and carbon translated to Arabic, Russian, English, and Turkish. The details of the agreement should be made public.
  •  include a published and clear description of the role of the guarantors (Russian Federation and Turkey) and means to verify and sanction any violation.
  •  declare the UN Security Council resolutions as the unique political reference to the negotiation process, especially UNSCR 2118 and UNSCR 2254.

The signatories see in the Higher Negotiations Committee the sole representative of the Syrian revolution and opposition in the negotiations. The Syrian regime should appoint its delegation and negotiations should be between two parties only.

The continued shelling of the Barada valley in Damascus suburbs, Atareb in Aleppo suburbs and other areas in Syria proves yet again the lack of seriousness of the regime to positively engage in any ceasefire process, its insistence on its security/military solution to crush any opposition, and its non-credibility when declaring adopting a political solution to the conflict.

Russian maneuvering with different versions of the agreement and its attempt to impose a new UN Security Council resolution that would give it a role in defining the Syrian opposition team worries us a lot, especially regarding its role as a guarantor to the agreement. This pushes us to ask Turkey, the other guarantor, and countries of the Friends of Syria group, to follow matters closely and to block any understandings or agreements that do not meet the criteria above.

At the end, we would like to stress that the continuous and unhindered delivery of humanitarian and medical aid to all Syrian territories and primarily to the besieged areas remain the real test on the willingness of the regime and its allies to abide by UNSC resolutions, including the latest one 2336 and to engage in a serious and credible political process that leads to the desired political transition in Syria.

Baytna Syria
The Day After
RM Team
Syrian Network for Human Rights
Maram Foundation
Space of Hope
Afaq Academy
Violations Documentation Center in Syria
Bihar Relief Organization

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Serbia’s choice

Milana Pejic at Belgrade daily Blic asked about 2016 the “world between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel? Their publication of some of my response is here. This is my full response: 

2016 was a difficult year on many fronts. Resurgent nationalism in several EU countries, Brexit, and the Italian constitutional referendum have cast doubt on the European project. The long American electoral campaign and Donald Trump’s victory in the electoral college (but not in the popular vote) have raised questions about America’s long-standing commitments to NATO, to Ukraine, to the Syrian opposition, to the two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, to nuclear nonproliferation, and to free trade. No one really knows what the next US administration will do, as Trump prides himself on unpredictability, but the cabinet he has appointed and his provocative tweets during the transition suggest that there will be radical departures in American domestic and foreign policy.

Vladimir Putin appears to be riding high, having intervened in Ukraine, Syria, the US electoral process, and in the politics of many European countries by supporting nationalists. But Russia is overstretched internationally even as its domestic economy is a shambles. Moscow is the capital of a declining regional power with little to offer but oil and gas, arms deals, vetoes in the UN Security Council, and surreptitious destabilization. Those in Serbia who look to Russia as a savior are likely to be disappointed in the long run. Europe has much more to offer once it gets past its present rough patch.

Angela Merkel is today Europe’s de facto leader and defender of liberal democratic ideals. But right-wing nationalists in Germany have gained traction, largely due to the big influx of refugees that Merkel welcomed to a country that needs young workers. Will the wave of nationalism inundating Europe end the Chancellor’s political career? Or will she survive to lead a revival of the European project?

These are important questions for 2017. So too is the question of whether Serbia will continue on the difficult path of preparing itself for European Union membership, with all the sacrifices that entails, or instead choose the much easier but less rewarding road of becoming a Russian satellite, with all the limits to independence and prosperity that entails. The choice is yours, not mine, but you know which I would choose.

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The Russians were here

I’ve been asked a lot of good questions lately about the Russians. Here are my less than fully adequate answers: 

Q: Is this too little too late for President Obama to be retaliating against Russia for the hacking – why didn’t he do this before the election?

A: Obama I suspect was worried about making things worse in the middle of an election campaign. Like everyone else he assumed Hillary Clinton would win. Front runners don’t take chances. Nor did he necessarily have all the evidence he has now.

Too little? What has been announced isn’t much more than the usual diplomatic expulsion, limits on facilities, and sanctions against both institutions and individuals. That is unquestionably too little. But we don’t know what else is happening. I suspect some Russian institutions are going to find their electronics rather buggy for at least a few weeks.

Q: Will Trump just go straight in to lift the sanctions and buddy up to Putin in January?

A: I think Trump would like to buddy up with Putin right away, but he risks alienating key Republican senators if he does. That could put his nominee for Secretary of State, who as Exxon CEO long collaborated with Putin, at risk. There are important Republican Senators who are criticizing Obama for being too soft. How will they feel if Trump reverses even “soft” measures?

Trump also risks digging himself into a deeper hole with the US intelligence and law enforcement communities, which are furious at his refusal to acknowledge that Putin was seeking to disrupt the election and advantage the Republicans. Those communities can make a lot of trouble for a president they don’t respect. Though I hasten to add that Trump is likely to purge them pre-emptively.

Q: Do you think a full investigation will prove beyond doubt that Russia did hack the election, and in an era of fake news will it matter?

A: I do think the Russians hacked the Democrats in an effort to help Trump win. The FBI and Homeland Security published some of the evidence yesterday. More will be forthcoming. It won’t matter at all to those who attribute the whole affair to a fake effort to undermine Trump’s legitimacy.

But if the allegations are true, it really will undermine his legitimacy with a lot of people. He already has a problem because he lost the popular vote by a wide margin. He is guaranteed conflict of interest scandals as soon as he takes office. He has promised a series of international crises that will raise serious questions about his sagacity. 2016 wasn’t pretty. 2017 promises to be worse.

Q: Does Russia feel emboldened to attempt to attack other nations’ elections, like in France or Germany next year for example?

A: Yes, I expect Russia to be emboldened, especially if Trump reverses what Obama has done in expelling Russian spies, closing their facilities, and blocking their assets. Moscow is already backing nationalists who want to weaken the European Union in France, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere. They are trying to slow the progress of Serbia and Bosnia towards the EU. They planned a coup in Montenegro after the October election there. They will continue doing these things until they are stopped.

Q: Why is Putin doing this – is it an inferiority complex that drives him to pretend Russia is equally powerful as the US, or as the EU even, when it has an economy smaller than California?

A: California’s economy is pretty big. But it is also diversified. Russia’s is wholly dependent on oil and gas, which is worth less than half what it was worth a couple of years ago. In addition to his inferiority complex, Putin needs to distract attention from a disastrous Russian economy as well as its overstretched military. Having an American president elect who kowtows to a Russian president is good not only for Putin’s ego but also for his political longevity.

Q: Hasn’t the negotiation of a Syria ceasefire redounded to Putin’s benefit?

A: Yes, for now. But it is unlikely to last more than a few weeks. If it does last, at least in parts of the country, the next step will be negotiation of a political settlement, which will be much harder because the Russians and Iranians will insist that Assad remain in place, while the opposition wants him out.

If somehow a compromise is found, there will be the reconstruction effort. Where will Russia and Iran find the $200-300 billion required for that? America certainly isn’t going to ante up until there is a serious political transition in progress, which is precisely what Russia wants to avoid. The ultimate Russian prize here is a destroyed and fragmented Syria with minimal resources, half its population displaced, and a Sunni majority that resents what the Russians have done. That’s not what I would call a strategic victory.

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Russia’s Trump dossier

I take it as true that Russia interfered in the US election in favor of Donald Trump, even if I don’t go so far as to say that is the reason Hillary Clinton lost the election. Those who don’t agree needn’t read further. I wish you well in your parallel universe.

The overt response President Obama announced yesterday was classic diplomacy: expel diplomats, close official facilities, add key institutions and decision-makers to the list of specially designated individuals subject to sanctions. We don’t know what else might be going on. I won’t be surprised to see publication of news about high-ranking Russians stashing ill-gotten gains abroad. Or, as one of my ambassadors used to put it, pictures of Putin with a goat.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov announced the classic response: a symmetrical expulsion of diplomats and closure of facilities. But President Putin one-upped him quickly, saying Moscow would not respond in kind. He is leaving the door open to a decision by President Trump on January 20 to rescind Obama’s moves. The choreography is impressive. It conveys clearly that Putin is in charge and suggests that he is magnanimous, not vindictive.

This maneuver puts President-elect Trump in a bind. If he backs off Obama’s moves, he will displease prominent Republican senators whose votes are needed to confirm his Russophilic nominee for Secretary of State, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson. He will also dig an even deeper hole than he is already in with the intelligence community, whose briefings he is skipping and whose assessments he has rejected. If he maintains the expulsions and other measures, he risks ending before it even began his promised reset and partnership with Russia.

I’m thinking he’ll choose the former: he’ll back off at least the expulsions, if not the rest. Why? Because his commitment to befriending Putin’s Russia is the one constant in Trump’s many random statements on foreign policy. America has elected a new president profoundly and consistently committed to partnering with Russia, against the collective wisdom of what he insists on continuing to call “the swamp,” the Washington establishment. Rather than draining it, Trump is installing his own alligators, who will be far friendlier to Russia and far more hostile to China and Iran.

I won’t be surprised if Trump also gives Putin other things he really wants: official acceptance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a deal on Luhansk and Donestk (in Ukraine’s Donbas) that allows them to be virtually independent of Kiev. This in turn will trigger further Russian irredentist moves in Moldova, Georgia, and the Baltics as well as heightened efforts at partition in the Balkans (Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia). If Ukraine can be de facto partitioned, why not all these other places? If you are an ethnic nationalist and not a liberal democrat, keeping people together from different ethnicities makes no sense.

Barack Obama needs to do his best to block this drift of American foreign policy away from its traditional support for liberal democracy and towards an alliance with ethnic nationalists. I’m hoping he’ll use the covert retaliation against Russia for its interference in the American election to make public whatever we know not only about the Russian elite’s finances but also about its relationship to Trump. As better Russia experts than me have said, Putin unquestionably has a dossier on the President-elect, possibly one that explains his consistent Russophilia. Getting that out in the open would go a long way to clarifying why Trump leans over backwards to accommodate Moscow and to blocking him from continuing to do it.

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Happier new year, Kosovo!

2016 has not been kind to Kosovo. Plagued with too often violent internal dissent over its obligations to two of its neighbors, the government has been unable to assemble the votes it needs to demarcate the border with Montenegro or create an Association of Serb Municipalities in accordance with the Constitutional Court’s thoughtful criteria.

Nor has the external environment been conducive. The Brexit referendum and the American election results have diminished the attraction of two important touchstones: EU membership seems farther off and the incoming Donald Trump administration can be expected to be far less friendly to Kosovo than a Hillary Clinton administration would have been. Neither the EU nor the US seems likely to have much time or energy for Kosovo in the next couple of years.

Limbo is not a good place for a country in the Balkans. Forward motion is always needed to keep the bicycle of state from falling over. The training wheels are off. The Europeans and Americans are no longer holding tight to the seat. If it is to come at all, momentum will now have to be generated from within Kosovo, not outside it.

The current impasse is an opportunity for Kosovo’s citizens to send a clear message to its political leadership: we want real progress in providing jobs and prosperity while preserving security and guaranteeing European-style freedom of expression. No one should want less just because Trump is president or the Europeans are preoccupied with negotiating Britain’s exit.

I might wish that all the political forces in Kosovo would agree that their goals should be sought within the existing constitutional framework. But that will not be the case. Both among Serbs and among Albanians, there are people who reject Kosovo’s statehood, sovereignty and independence. They are clearly in the minority but have managed to hamstring the current government.

Kosovars will have to decide whether a new government or new elections are needed. Neither Europeans nor Americans want to be making decisions for a state they worked hard to make independent and sovereign. I trust the good judgment of Kosovars and wish all of them well in the new year!