Russia loses

I spoke this morning at a session on the Middle East of the SAIS conference on Russian Foreign Policy: New Spheres of Influence? Here are my speaking notes.

1. As a conflict management person, I look to distinguish between stated positions and underlying interests. That distinction is fundamental to understanding and resolving conflict.
2. Russia’s stated position on Syria, if you listened to NPR this morning, is clear: Moscow says it is not wedded to Bashar al Assad and is fighting terrorism in Syria.
3. While I am ready to be convinced that Moscow was at one time not wedded to Bashar al Assad, it is hard to argue that since September, when Putin doubled down on Russia’s support for him by initiating its air campaign.
4. Russia’s underlying interests are discernible from what it is doing, not what it is saying: Russia’s main bombing targets are Bashar al Assad’s strongest opponents, which include relative moderates as well as extremists. It is doing little to attack the Islamic State.
5. A well-informed Russian told me in December that the targets are in fact selected mainly by the Syrian army, so the targeting is not a surprise.
6. It is now hard to picture any successor to Assad, except a member of his family or inner circle, who would be as friendly to Russia’s interests in Syria as Assad.
7. Rather than gaining a sphere of influence in Syria, Moscow has lost any hope preserving its influence there in the longer run.
8. A transition to a democratically elected leadership, as foreseen in both the Geneva 1 and Vienna 2 statements, will likely end Moscow’s port access and other privileges in Syria, or raise significantly the price Russia pays for them.
9. It is foolish of the Americans to convince themselves that Russia in the current situation, which is militarily advantageous to Assad, will sign on seriously to any plan that ends the Assad regime.
10. In the meanwhile, Russia is causing massive destruction in Syria
11. Moscow’s strategy is essentially a Chechnya strategy—destroy and conquer—without the possibility of post-war reconstruction under a hand-picked autocrat that has worked reasonably well in Grozny.
12. While the US has contributed upwards of $4 billion to international relief efforts distributed both regime-controlled, and when possible, opposition-controlled areas, Russia has done virtually nothing to feed, shelter or care for upwards of 4 million refugees and 7 million displaced people.
13. Those who know the relief business know how useless the recent airdrops of food are.
14. So long as the Assad regime stays in power, I see no way the United States or even the Europeans would pay for reconstruction, the price tag for which is in the hundreds of billions.
15. Syria may become for a while a Russian satellite, but the longer-term future is one in which Russia loses influence not only in Syria but throughout the Sunni world.
16. What can Washington do to hasten that day?
17. The most immediate priority is to save the relatively moderate opposition in northern Syria from obliteration.
18. John Kerry is trying to do that by negotiating a cessation of hostilities.
19. I admire the determination, but he is unlikely to succeed without a clearer American commitment to protecting a specific area in northern Syria from Russian, Iranian and Syrian attacks.
20. That would require a military commitment that President Obama, fearful of the slippery slope, is unwilling to make in a country where he perceives no vital American national security interest.
21. Bottom line: the horror is likely to continue, with the very real possibility that the winners will be extremists and the losers will be Russians.
22. It will be up to a future American president to determine how Washington feels about that.

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DRC election

SAIS student Qifan Huang reports:

Last Wednesday, the SAIS African Studies Program hosted an event discussing the upcoming election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, former President of the African Studies Association (ASA).

The DRC faces extreme difficulty in conducting an orderly and peaceful transition between regimes. Nzongola-Ntalaja attributed this difficulty to the weakness of political institutions, including the parliament and civil society. The fragile governance structure in Africa, coupled with its history of invasion, occupation, colonialism, are the root causes of the prevalence of money politics and political crimes, including crimes of war in Sudan, crimes against humanity in Chad, and a number of genocides. The DRC’s present failures must also be observed through these lenses, in both the national and international contexts since 1960.

On the national level, Nzongola-Ntalaja argued that an illegitimate, corrupt and weak regime is the primary reason for DRC’s current situation. The nation is not fundamentally different from Mobutu’s Zaire, with the same failed governance structure. Figures from the Mobutu regime can be found in all branches of the government. Their primary interest is not to serve the people, but themselves.

The progress Congo has made since the fall of Mobutu has not been reflected in the livelihood of ordinary Congolese citizens. Criminals were not punished. Assassinations of journalists and human rights activists with the collusion of the police are prevalent. Political office is seen as an avenue to personal enrichment.

As a result, the Kabila regime has no legitimacy, which is particularly reflected in the 2011 elections when the government manipulated the parliament to change the constitution and directed the security forces to unleash terror and violence against the President’s major opponent. Kabila has also taken desperate measures to win the 2016 election, including attempts to change the electoral law so that national census, which may take up to four years, must be conducted before any election. That attempt was only curbed after the Senate rejected the proposal due to widespread demonstrations by young students. Kabila claims that logistical barriers are the main reasons for him postponing the election, but Nzongola-Ntalaja pointed out that the obstacles are largely political, not technical: they can be solved if the government is committed. Kabila is just using them as excuses.

From the international perspective, Nzongola-Ntalaja pointed to the interference in internal DRC politics by Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, as well as the acquiesce of the international actors, as reasons for Congo’s bad governance. He argued that Kabila is a “puppet,” a warlord without the vision, capability and organization to rule Congo. The country’s eastern provinces are in the hands of Rwanda: James Kabarebe, Kabila’s first Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, is now the Minister of Defense of Rwanda.

Because the 1996 “civil war” was, in essence, a war of aggression against the DRC by Rwanda, Uganda and other regional states supported by Western powers, Kabila was never recognized as someone representing the interest of the general Congolese public. In the years following the conclusion of the civil war, international attempts to ameliorate the situation in DRC, including the 11 plus 4 mechanism and the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework, failed, adding to the instability of the Kabila regime. Support for Kabila by the EU, the UN, among other international actors, including their recognition, at least partially, of the 2011 election, contributed to Kabila’s desire to stay in power.

Only the Congolese people can save themselves from Kabila, Nzongola-Ntalaja argued, praising the recent protests in Kinshasa and other regions of the country and wishing for a fair election in the second half of 2016.

In the Q&A session, Nzongola-Ntalaja discussed further the indulgence of the international community towards Rwandan President Kagame, due to the fear of Rwanda no longer engaging in peacekeeping and fighting terrorism. The strength of civil society in Eastern Congo, peacekeeping offensives against M23 and other rebel groups, and the role of Angola were also discussed.

To conclude, Nzongola-Ntalaja pointed to the dire need for the protesters to find good leadership who can mobilize the population and fight the regime, as well as mobilize regional and international backers, to curb Kabila’s ambitions. He has full confidence in the power of the people to elect a truly democratic president in the near future.

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Peace Picks February 22-26

  1. Stalin’s “Revolution from Above”: Property Seizure in the Perm Region | Tuesday, February 23rd | 10:00-11:00 | Wilson Center | Stalin’s “liquidation of kulaks as a class” began in the early 1930s with the seizure of peasants’ property. Dr. Suslov argues, using the Perm region as a case study, that the arbitrary nature of this campaign’s enforcement was by design, rather than an accident of application. Using the directives of the regional party bodies, he elucidates the relationship between the seemingly random application of “dekulakization” on the local level, and Stalin’s overarching goal to change the structure of Soviet society. Andrei Borisovich Suslov, Professor and Head of Modern and Contemporary Russian History Department at Perm State Humanitarian Pedagogical University.
  2. Egypt’s Enduring Security Challenges | Tuesday, February 23rd | 12:00-1:30 | Hudson Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Five years since the uprisings in Tahrir Square, Egypt has seemingly come full circle. With the Muslim Brotherhood crushed, the non-Islamist opposition shattered, civic groups demoralized, and a new military regime that enjoys significant popular support, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rule appears secure. But how secure is Egypt? Beneath the facade of stability lies a far more challenging reality. With a population of over 90 million, the country is facing systemic political and economic problems. Frustrations are growing with the government’s lack of vision, while the Islamic State and other radical groups are actively seeking to exploit social and political tensions. Meanwhile, the U.S. assessment of Egypt’s strategic importance is starting to change. Once a key pillar of America’s regional security alliances, today the country’s power and influence is greatly diminished. Given the new threats posed by sub-state groups to the security of the Egyptian public and homeland, the annual U.S. transfers of $1.5 billion to Egypt’s military seem woefully anachronistic. With a potential new crisis looming, what are America’s best options to help Egypt secure itself in this new era? On February 23, Hudson Institute will convene a lunchtime panel with top Egypt analysts Samuel Tadros, Michael Wahid Hanna, Amy Hawthorne, and Mokhtar Awad. Hudson Senior Fellow Eric Brown will moderate the discussion. The panel includes Samuel Tadros, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Michael Wahid Hanna, Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation, Amy Hawthorne, Deputy Director at the Project on Middle East Democracy, and Mokhtar Awad, Research Fellow of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. The event will be moderated by Eric Brown, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.
  3. Militancy, Border Security, and Democracy in the Sahel | Wednesday, February 24th | 8:30-4:00 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | This all-day conference brings together leading scholars from around the world to examine security and governance challenges in the Maghreb-Sahel, many of them concentrated along national boundaries. The permeability of borders, along with political vacuums and economic marginalization in the hinterlands, has transformed border communities into epicenters of identity-driven politics, militancy, violent conflict, and organized transnational crime. This event is co-hosted with the African Peacebuilding Network of the Social Science Research Council and the National Endowment for Democracy. This invitation is not transferrable without prior Carnegie approval. The first panel from 9:15 to 10:45 is called “Insecurity in Border Areas in Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria.” Panelists include Amy Hawthorne, Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, and Rebecca Murray, and will be moderated by Samba Tall. The second panel takes place from 11:00 to 12:30. This panel is called “Evolution of Security Threats in Mali, Mauritania, and Nigeria.” It features Anouar Boukhars, Boubacar N’Diaye, and Gbemisola Animasawun as panelists. Ismail Rashid will moderate. From 1:00 to 1:45 John Desrocher, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Egypt and Maghreb Affairs, will deliver the keynote address. From 2:00 to 3:00 the panel “Politics, Democracy, and Peacebuilding in the Sahel” will take place. Panelists include Kamissa Camara, Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, Cheri Baker, and Charles Ukeje. Cyril Obi will moderate.
  4. Chinese and Russian Border Disputes | Wednesday, February 24th | 10:00-11:30 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | China and Russia are both continental powers which border fourteen nations—a tie for highest neighbor count on Earth. Throughout their respective histories, each has expanded and contracted, spawning countless border disputes. Dr. Alexseev and Dr. Zhao will examine historical Sino-Soviet and Sino-Russian border disputes and their resolution, drawing lessons about how Russia and China view territorial issues and what that history means for current disagreements, such as those over the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories and Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. This discussion is part of the China and Russia: On Their Own Termsseries, a joint project of the Wilson Center’s Kennan and Kissinger Institutes. Speakers include Mikhail Alexseev, Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University, and Quansheng Zhao, Professor of International Relations and Chair of the Asian Studies Program Research Council at American University.
  5. Kingdom at a crossroads: Thailand’s uncertain political trajectory | Wednesday, February 24th | 2:00-3:30 | Brookings Institution | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Thailand has been under military rule since May 2014, when General Prayuth Chan-Ocha and the Royal Thai Army seized power after deposing democratically elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Current Prime Minister Prayuth has systematically postponed elections on the grounds of prioritizing order and drafting a new constitution to restore democracy. Since the coup, Thai authorities have used the murky lèse-majesté law to curtail opposition to the monarchy, while the country’s economy has languished. On February 24, the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings will host an event to explore the root causes of Thailand’s political crisis, the implications of an upcoming royal succession, and the possibilities for the road ahead. The event will be moderated by Senior Fellow Richard Bush. Panelists include Duncan McCargo, professor of political science at the University of Leeds, Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Don Pathan, an independent security analyst based in Thailand. After the discussion, the panelists will take audience questions.
  6. From Civil Resistance to Peaceful Resolution | Thursday, February 25th | 11:00-12:30 | U.S. Institute of Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Since the Arab revolutions of 2011, unarmed resistance has become a major force in global politics, from Tunis to Tahrir Square and on to Ferguson, Missouri. Nonviolent movements have historically outperformed their violent counter-parts, but they don’t always succeed. Join the U.S. Institute of Peace on February 25, as a panel of experts in this field of study and an Emmy-award winning news producer examine the challenges of building and sustaining nonviolent movements, and discuss lessons for scholars, activists, policymakers and practitioners.The panel will be composed of alumni and students from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. A leading conflict resolution expert who has worked with activists in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere will discuss how negotiations and nonviolent action can be used together for maximum impact. A scholar of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa will consider the violent/nonviolent interplay and the role of strategic communications in dismantling that oppressive regime. Finally, an Emmy award-winning network news producer will show how nonviolent activists can better use the media to amplify their efforts. The panel will be moderated by Fletcher alumnus and USIP Senior Fellow Maria J. Stephan, author of the award-winning book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, and co-editor of Is Authoritarianism Staging A comeback? Initial remarks will be followed by questions and answers with the audience. Panelists include Anthony Wanis-St. John, Associate Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University, Dr. Liz McClintock, Founder and Managing Partner at CMPartners, LLC, and Executive Director and Chair of the Board of Directors of The Bridgeway Group, Josh Yager, Emmy Award-Winning network news producer, and Benjamin Naimark-Rowse, PhD candidate at The Fletcher School.
  7. Delivering on Democracy: A Discussion with Members of the Tunisian Assembly of the Representatives of the People | Thursday, February 25th | 2:00-3:30 | Project on Middle East Democracy and National Democratic Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) invite you to a discussion with members of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) of the Republic of Tunisia. This event will provide an opportunity for the representatives to share their perspectives on the evolving nature of Tunisian politics, as well as the challenges and opportunities they face in trying to meet citizen expectations and address issues of youth employment and engagement. Les Campbell, Senior Associate and Regional Director of MENA Programs, NDI, will join as a discussant, and the panel will be moderated by Stephen McInerney, Executive Director, POMED. This event is made possible through a grant from the Institute for Representative Government to NDI and with the support of the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State. The discussion will be led by representatives of the Assembly of the People of Tunisia including Lotfi Ali, Nozha Beyaoui, Haikel Ben Belkassem, Faouzia Ben Fodha, Zouhayer Rajbi, and Sana Salhi. Les Campbell, Senior Associate and Regional Director of MENA Programs at the National Democratic Institute will also take part in this discussion. Stephen McInerney, Executive Director of POMED will moderate.
  8. Advancing Reconciliation and Development in Sri Lanka | Thursday, February 25th | 3:30-5:00 | U.S. Institute of Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Six years after the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka, the country’s new president set out to address longstanding challenges of reconciliation, accountability and political grievance built up during decades of the country’s violent internal conflicts. Please join Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Feb. 25 for a discussion, co-sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, of how the initiatives to advance reconciliation, post-conflict development and stronger democratic institutions are progressing. The conflict in Sri Lanka, which raged for over two decades, came to an end in May 2009 with the defeat of the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In January 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena, in a democratic election, unseated the administration that oversaw the war’s end in a surprise victory, promising to move the country toward reconciliation and sustainable development. Samaraweera told the U.N. Human Rights Council in September 2015 that the government fully recognizes that “the process of reconciliation involves addressing the broad areas of truth-seeking, justice, reparations and non-recurrence.” The Foreign Minister will offer an update on the progress toward sustainable peace in Sri Lanka, including plans for economic development. The remarks will be followed by a moderated discussion and a question-and-answer period with the audience. Ambassador Bill Taylor will offer welcoming remarks Nisha Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Affairs, will offer introductory remarks. Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation will moderate. Walter Lohman, Director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, will give closing remarks.
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The proverbial fly on the wall

Here is what a fly on the wall heard yesterday in a well-informed, but not attributable, discussion of Iraq.

The defeat of Daesh at Ramadi has strengthened the Iraqi government politically and refocussed Baghdad attention to what will happen after Daesh is defeated, in particular to the (mostly Shia) Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs). Once seen as not only national heroes but also a permanent fixture in Iraqi politics, some Shia as well as Sunni politicians are now hoping they can be neutralized as a political force.

How to do that is still under discussion. It is not clear that incorporation of the PMUs into National Guard forces organized at the provincial level, which is what the international community until now has advocated, is the best approach. That could result in making them permanent. It might be better to transfer them, either as units or individuals, to the regular security forces, both army and police.

Even as the Baghdad government has strengthened politically, it has weakened economically. It faces a massive economic and budgetary crisis, due to declining low oil prices. The situation is even worse in Kurdistan, which also faces a humanitarian crisis due to the influx of people displaced by the war against the Islamic State (ISIS).

There is however good news, especially in Tikrit. Sunnis are returning there and joining in the continuing fight against Daesh. The liberation of Mosul it is agreed will require cooperation between Sunni forces and the Kurdish peshmerga. Shia PMUs will be involved only peripherally. The preparations for the Mosul operation, which may not occur before the end of this year despite what the government is claiming, are having a positive political impact overall, though they are causing some competition among Sunni politicians.

The overall Sunni mood is not good. Returns to Sunni areas require local reconciliation as well as law and order. Both are too often lacking. Ramadi is still laced with improvised explosive devices, so returns are minimal. International community capability to support stabilization and reconstruction is limited. The government has few resources to devote to reconstruction in the liberated territories. National Sunni politicians are disconnected from the Sunni population and unrealistic in their expectations.

Serious long-term problems remain. The territories disputed between Erbil and Iraq are likely future battlefields. Tehran still controls some of the PMUs. Iraq’s unity is imperiled, but the Germans and others are making it clear to the Kurds that they oppose an independence  referendum. The two traditional Kurdish parties–the PDK and the PUK–are in intensive political consultations on KRG reform and on the issue of President Barzani’s remaining in power. There is some hope for Kurdistan to postpone its ambitions for self-determination.

Everything in Iraq would be easier if Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia could come to an agreement on Syria.

Prime Minister Abadi is not in a strong position. But he maneuvers well and is muddling through. He is looking now to install a more technocratic cabinet that will pursue reform more aggressively. This will not be easy, but the effort merits international community support.

PS: Those interested in the Prime Minister’s own view of the situation can get it here.

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Iran needs more than sanctions lifted

On Wednesday, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Middle East and Central Asia Department of the International Monetary (IMF) fund hosted ‘After Sanctions: Challenges Facing the Iranian Economy.’ Masood Ahmed, Director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the IMF, gave a presentation on the condition of the Iranian economy during the past four years. He then participated in a discussion with Martin Cerisola, Assistant Director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the IMF, Nadereh Chamlou, an international development advisor, and Suzanne Maloney, Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. Vali Nasr, Dean of the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, moderated.

Ahmed explained how the past four years have been difficult for Iran. The introduction of harsh sanctions in 2011 hit the Iranian economy hard. Oil exports declined by nearly 50 percent, the economy shrank, the exchange rate declined, and inflation increased.

Removal of sanctions will boost the economy immediately: production and the export of oil will increase, the cost doing business will decrease, and transactions will become easier. Maintaining this boost in the long-run should be the goal. Some chronic problems existed prior to the sanctions, so the economy can only make a full recovery if these are addressed properly. Concentrating on all facets of the economy is not just important for Iran, but for the countries it trades with. Primary trading partners India, China, Turkey, and Iraq stand to gain immediately from the removal of Iranian sanctions.

Iran has to adjust in order to sustain a strong economy. Iran will have to:

  1. Live with the oil price fluctuations
  2. Create a better macroeconomic policy framework
  3. Construct a more conducive business environment
  4. Revamp its productive structure

With lower oil prices comes a big loss of revenue and growth. Iran will have to become less dependent on oil price volatility. Other challenges include improving the business climate, restructuring banks, and creating more employment in sectors with the highest productivity. Currently, the most employment is in sectors with the lowest productivity. Iran has one of the least flexible labor markets, so finding a creative solution to unemployment is a pivotal reform Iran should take on. Overall, though, the fundamentals of the Iranian economy are strong. The country is resource-rich, its market size is beneficial, it has a highly skilled labor force, and the infrastructure is there and only needs to be modernized.

Nasr asked what sort of investment Iran’s economy requires. Ahmed replied that investment is most needed for modernizing, improving, and sustaining oil production. Cerisola said they need enough investment to sustain eight percent growth projections. Two hundred million dollars is needed for oil alone.

The panel then addressed reforms. Chamlou said the parliament asked the government to submit another version of a six-year plan because not enough substance was in the original plan. Iran is in need of deep-rooted reforms, and she hopes that outside pressure and investors will bring about these reforms. With the amount of investment that will come in, the government and business sectors will both have to alter their practices.

Maloney then discussed how President Rouhani would help Iran open up to foreign investment. He was elected because of his focus on both prosperity and national security. He has put together a fantastic team to lead Iran into a better economic position. The ideological divide in Iran will challenge Rouhani. His political rivals will look to make certain opportunities more difficult for him. But Rouhani does have an excellent ability to build alliances and seems to be savvy about the issues he takes on.

Ahmed believes the removal of sanctions will help the Iranian economy, but it will not solve all the problems. Managing expectation and fostering consensus is critical to success. Structural challenges are formidable and require extensive reforms. Maloney added that if Iran does not see the economy boom quickly enough, that it could see some political backlash.

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Russian “immunity”

Milana Pejic of the Belgrade daily Blic asked me yesterday about immunity for Russian troops stationed in Serbia, which President Putin has reportedly requested. I responded:

I’m not sure what “immunity” means. As the state sending soldiers, sailors or airmen to deploy in a foreign country, the US always requires that it retain jurisdiction over them.  If they commit a crime, they get tried in the US, not in the state in which they are deployed, unless the US waives its right to exercise jurisdiction (which it occasionally does). There is no “immunity” in the sense of protection from prosecution. This is all regulated in what is called a “status of forces agreement.” I really don’t know what the Russians do, though I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if they insist on something closer to immunity.

Quite apart from the question of criminal jurisdiction, I can’t think of any EU countries that host Russian bases on their territory. Are there any?* If Serbia is serious about EU membership, I wonder if it wants to continue to host the Russians at all. If not, there would be no point in providing immunity (or even sending state jurisdiction). An easy way out might be to refuse the Russian request.

I see Prime Minister Vucic is talking in the press about the importance of NATO to the protection of Serbs in northern Kosovo. Belgrade needs to weigh carefully whether its present policy of hedging between NATO/EU and Russia is really in the Serbian interest.

Some day fairly soon all Serbia’s neighbors will be NATO members. What sense would it make then for Serbia to host a Russian base? What impact will that have on relations with the neighbors? Moscow may call it a humanitarian center, but we know from the recent intentional Russian bombing of hospitals in Syria how serious Moscow is about humanitarian issues.

*PS: the answer to this question is no.

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