Peace picks November 15-20

  1. Global Security Forum 2015| Monday, November 16th | 9:30 – 10:45 | CSIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Join the Center for Strategic and International Studies at their 2015 Global Security Forum. Panels include: The Geopolitical Implications of Europe’s Migration Crisis, Russia’s Strategic Vision, Counter-Coercion Strategies: Assessing U.S. Next Steps in Maritime Asia, and The Human Crisis in Syria and Iraq: What Can be Done? Speakers include: Philipp Ackerman, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Geoff Dyer, Financial Times Correspondent, Washington Bureau, Catherine Wiesner, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
  2. Countering Terrorism In Tunisia: Prospects For Security Sector Reform | Monday, November 16th | 12:00-1:30 | Project on Middle East Democracy | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Despite the immense progress Tunisia has made in its transition since the Jasmine Revolution, significant challenges—both internal and external—threaten the future of Tunisia’s democracy. As major terrorist attacks have negatively affected the country’s security and economic stability, Tunisia’s government has struggled to find an appropriate and effective response to counter the threat of terrorism.The Legatum Institute’s upcoming publication Tunisia at Risk: Will counter-terrorism undermine the revolution? analyzes successive Tunisian governments’ responses to terrorism and considers the relation between these responses and the future of the country’s democratic transition. Speakers include: Fadil Aliriza, visiting senior fellow, Legatum Institute, Daniel Brumberg, co-director, Democracy & Governance Studies, Georgetown University, and Querine Hanlon, president, Strategic Capacity Group.
  3. A Look at the Policy Options in War-torn Syria | Monday, November 16th | 2:00 – 3:30 | Brookings Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Syria continues to dominate headlines as the country approaches the fifth anniversary of the beginning of a civil war that has taken some 300,000 lives and displaced half the country’s population. To date, international strategy in addressing the conflict has largely failed. But the war shows few signs of burning out on its own. As such, a new strategy is needed. Ideas that have yet to be fully explored include standing up a better and newly formed Syrian opposition army, working harder to contain the violence there with regional states and partners, and pursuing an “ink spot” approach aiming to create a confederal Syria with multiple autonomous zones. Which of these may be most realistic and promising for protecting core American security interests, U.S. allies, and humanitarian interests? Panelists will include Daniel Byman, research director in the Center for Middle East Policy; William McCants, director of theProject on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World; Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy; and Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy.
  4. Twenty Years After the Dayton Peace Accords | Monday, November 16th – Tuesday, November 17th | Johns Hopkins SAIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) cordially invites you to our major conference “Prospects for Progress in Reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina” to be held at the SAIS campus. This conference is part of the Center’s 20th Anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords and intends to support socio-economic reforms effort launched recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina and supported by the International Community. Speakers include: Igor Crnadak, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina,
    Fadil Novalic, Prime Minister of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Hoyt Yee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs).
  5. The Central African Republic: The Situation On the Ground, Women, and Peacekeeping | Wednesday, November 18th | 12:00 – 2:00 | Women’s Foreign Policy Group | REGISTER TO ATTENDBarrie Freeman joined the United Nations as political affairs director for the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) in September 2014. From 2011-2014, she served as director for North Africa at the National Democratic Institute, managing a wide range of political development programs in response to the political upheavals of the Arab Spring. Prior to that she served as a senior advisor to the institute and as deputy regional director for Central and West Africa, managing a diverse portfolio of country programs across the region that included support to electoral processes, civil society development, legislative strengthening, and political party development. Brown bag lunch will be supplied.
  6. Televising The Waves Of Political Change in Yemen | Wednesday, November 18th | 6:30 – 8:30 | Atlantic Plumbing Cinema | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Award-winning producer and journalist, Nawal Al-Maghafi, takes us on a journey into Yemen during the two most pivotal periods in the country’s modern history. Yemeniaty’s founder and director, Sama’a Al-Hamdani, will join Al-Maghafi to provide insight and analysis into the political and social dynamics that contributed to Yemen’s Revolution in 2011 and the failures of the transitional period that helped contribute to the regional proxy war. In this special screening of two mini documentaries, Al-Maghafi sheds light on one of the most unknown and complex countries in the Middle East. The first documentary takes place during the Arab-Spring inspired revolution of 2011, while the second film investigates the current humanitarian crisis facing the citizens of Yemen during this war. The screenings will be The President’s Man and His Revolutionary Son and Yemen: The Forgotten War. 
  7. The Movement Of Women and Girls In Conflict: A Discussion On Protection, Reintegration and Migration | Thursday, November 19th | 9:00-10:30 | International Foundation for Electoral Systems| REGISTER TO ATTEND | “The Movement of Women and Girls in Conflict” will focus on the flight of women and girls in and from Central America, the Middle East and North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s headlines are filled with the harrowing journeys of refugees traveling to Europe and warnings about a global migration crisis. Less visible is the enduring plight of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) desperate for resources amid limited and dangerous movement. Women and girls in both groups, and particularly those in forgotten conflicts, are burdened by rampant gender-based violence, lack of health care and services, and little social and economic agency to lead their families, their communities and themselves to better and safer lives. Speakers include: Joan Timoney, Senior Director of Advocacy and External Relations, Women’s Refugee Commission, Reem Khamis, Protection/Gender Based Violence Technical Advisor, American Refugee Committee, and Shilpa Nadhan, Senior Program Specialist, International Organization for Migration.
  8. Afghanistan in 2015: A Survey Of The Afghan People | Thursday, November 19th | 9:30 – 11:30 | United States Institute of Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Asia Foundation’s series of annual surveys in Afghanistan provides an unmatched barometer of Afghan public opinion over time. Taken together, the surveys are a resource for policymakers in government, the international community and the broader Afghan public as they navigate a difficult landscape, seeking a more peaceful and prosperous future for Afghanistan and the region. Speakers include: David D. Arnold, president, The Asia Foundation, Timor Sharan, Program Management Director in Afghanistan, Andrew Wilder, Vice President, Asia Prorams, U.S. Institute of Peace.
  9. Ukraine: How to Build Social Peace Amid Displacement? | Thursday, November 19th | 10:00- 11:30 | U.S. Institute of Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Ukrainian civil society and women’s rights leader Natalia Karbowska and refugee specialist Dawn Calabia will examine the displacement of Ukrainians and ways that civil society and displaced people can foster social cohesion and resilience. Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor and the former ambassador for global women’s issues, Melanne Verveer, will discuss Ukraine’s situation in light of other current migration crises, and ways in which it might unfold. Natalia Karbowska Board Chair of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, Advisor at the Global Fund for Women, Dawn Calabia Senior Advisor at Refugees International, Ambassador William Taylor Executive Vic e President, U.S. Institute of Peace, and Melanne Verveer Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
  10. Justice Mechanisms in the Syrian Conflict: Impunity under Scrutiny | Thursday, November 19th | 12:00 – 1:30 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | After four and a half years of civil war and more than 200,000 civilians killed, the Syrian conflict is seeing yet another escalation with Russia’s open military engagement. The lack of an international response to the humanitarian catastrophe affects not only Syria but Europe and the United States as well, where hundreds of thousands of Syrians seek refuge and returning foreign fighters present an increasing security threat. Please join the Atlantic Council, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability for a discussion as our panel considers and evaluates practical methods for addressing both impunity and broader international security threats in the absence of a united international stance on the Syrian conflict. Speakers include:Ambassador Stephen Rapp has been a war crime diplomat and advocate of international criminal justice. Dr. William Wiley is a former infantry officer and a practitioner in the field of international criminal and humanitarian law who has investigated cases in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, DRC, and Syria. Dr. Rolf Mützenich has extensive foreign policy and arms control expertise with a special focus on the Middle East, Russia, Afghanistan, and transatlantic cooperation. Mr. Faysal Itani focuses on US policy in the Levant, with an emphasis on the conflict in Syria and its regional impact.
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Better, but Assad’s fate is still unclear

Friday’s Vienna meeting of what is now being called the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) took a step or two in the right direction by defining more clearly ceasefire and transitional governing arrangements in Syria. The transitional arrangements are based on the June 2012 UN communique, which was not clear last time this group met. But it is still unclear what is to happen with Bashar al Assad and his regime, or when. So the main point of divergence between the Americans and the Syrian opposition, on the one hand, and the Iranians, Russians and the regime on the other hand, remains unresolved, even if progress has in theory been made.

The first step is to be a nationwide ceasefire, endorsed by the UN Security Council, and deployment of monitors in those parts of the country where they would not be subject to terrorist attacks. Where that might be is unclear, so I wouldn’t hold my breath for arrival of the observers. You would have to be nuts to put them in most of Syria at this point. The ceasefire does not apply to offensive or defensive operations against the Islamic State, Jabhat al Nusra or other (undefined) groups the ISSG designates. Humanitarian access is supposed to happen regardless, and the use of indiscriminate weapons (read especially barrel bombs) is supposed to cease.

In parallel, there is to be a political process under UN auspices that convenes the Syrian government and opposition representatives by a target date of January 1. Syrians are to somehow choose their own representatives, in an undefined process under UN envoy De Mistura’s aegis.

The big step forward is this outline of the transition process:

The ISSG members reaffirmed their support for the transition process contained in the 2012 Geneva Communique. In this respect they affirmed their support for a ceasefire as described above and for a Syrian-led process that will, within a target of six months, establish credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance, and set a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution. Free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months. These elections must be administered under UN supervision to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including the diaspora, eligible to participate.

So negotiations should start January 1, a new government is formed within six months, a new constitution is written and elections held under UN supervision within 18 months. That is a far clearer timetable for the transition process than previously agreed. It corresponds more or less to what the Iranians have been pushing for some time.

But there is a missing link: what happens to Bashar al Assad and his security apparatus. Implicitly, they remain in place for the six months of negotiations and formation of a new government, which presumably is empowered with full executive authority (the key provision of the June 2012 communique that this one mentions repeatedly). I might imagine that would mean the Assad regime leaves power once the new government is formed, but nowhere is that specified. I suspect the Russians and especially the Iranians have not agreed on that point.

Much of this timetable will prove difficult if not impossible to implement. Are the Russians going to stop the more than 80% of their bombing that is directed against what the Americans regard as moderate opposition forces? Will the regime stop its incessant barrel bombing of civilian areas? Will the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, its Shia militia allies (the National Defense Forces) and Hizbollah stop their efforts to clear the opposition from the Damascus/Latakia axis so vital to the regime? Will the Americans and Saudis throttle back on the supply of anti-tank and other weapons that the moderate opposition are using to blunt the regime/Russian/Iranian offensive?

As for the political process, who among the serious opposition would be prepared to go to a Damascus still controlled by Assad to negotiate or take positions in a transitional government? Is Assad ready to delegate “full executive authority” to a government he does not control? If he remains nominally in office as chief of state, who protects him and how? Secretary of State Kerry in a speech at the US Institute of Peace Thursday was more insistent than in the past that Assad had to go, because even the moderate opposition would continue fighting if he didn’t. But precisely when and how he goes is still not agreed.

So there are still lots of unanswered questions, and little likelihood that the timetable outlined in this communique will be observed. But it is better than what we’ve had until this point.

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Remember Paris

The pundit world will spend the next week debating what went wrong to allow the Paris attacks to happen and how similar attacks there and elsewhere might be prevented. The culprits will include Edward Snowden (for inhibiting eavesdropping), Barack Obama (for not doing enough in Syria), George W. Bush (for invading Iraq), the Quran (for inspiring violence), Arab autocrats (for repressing their populations), France (for not integrating its Muslim population), multinational corporations (for globalization that has lowered wages and impoverished people worldwide), Russia (for intervening in Syria), the internet (for enabling recruitment of extremists) and at least a dozen other contributing forces and factors.

None of this will enlighten us much. The sad fact is that you and I can do precious little to protect ourselves from violence of this sort: weapons and explosives are readily available to those who want them in many countries, including the US. Nor can our governments do much more than they are already doing. Killing sprees that target random individuals can always get past the limited security defenses at a rock concert or the non-existent defenses at an outdoor cafe. The Paris attacks might have killed and wounded many more people. Once perpetrators open fire, only brave souls willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others–like the three Americans on a French train a couple of months ago–can stop the carnage before security forces arrive.

The American equivalent of the Paris attacks would be on the order of 600 people killed. That is fewer than 9/11, but getting up to the same order of magnitude. The effects in France and beyond will be dramatic: lowered tourism, tightened security measures, hindered travel, lower economic growth, strengthened nativist political movements, military retaliation, and likely more attempts to up the ante. We’ll return to the rhetoric of the “war on terror,” forgetting how misguided that idea was 14 years ago and the mistakes it led us to make.

Political violence is a technique, not an enemy.

Our enemy should be political extremism. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, as well as the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai. If those claims are confirmed (I fully expect they will be), the enemy should be called by the name he uses: Muslim political extremism. The Islamic State is a self-declared mass murderer that targets civilians and aims to terrorize those it regards as its enemies into submission to its will, in particular by withdrawing from Muslim countries and leaving them to be welded into a caliphate ruled in accordance with a distorted interpretation of the Quran.

The irony is that Islamic State activities are discouraging Western withdrawal from the Middle East, not encouraging it. Most Americans (among them the President) would gladly leave Libya, Syria and Yemen to pursue their own civil wars, if they thought no harm would cross the Atlantic or the Mediterranean as a result. There really isn’t much in any of those benighted countries to attract American interest other than al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which may be able to kill random Americans at home and abroad but present no existential risk to the United States.

We have to remember Paris, in particular the victims. The French authorities need to prosecute the perpetrators, who surely go beyond the narrow circle of the already dead shooters. The American-led coalition should press the fight against the Islamic State’s military forces in Iraq and Syria. But we need to be careful not to do things that will make things worse: prejudice against Muslims as a group, denial of their equal and inalienable rights, and indiscriminate military or police attacks. Doing too much of the wrong things can be just as harmful as doing too little of the right things.

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A good news Balkans story

The news from the Balkans these days is often bad: economic stagnation, interethnic friction, rampant corruption, Russian mischief-making, political stalemate. I’ve found good news in an unlikely place: unification of the three warring armies in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is despite the continuing quarrel over defense property that has blocked Bosnia and Herzegovina from embarking on its Membership Action Plan for the past five years.
The Republika Srpska Army (VRS), the Croat Defense Force (HVO) and the Bosnian Republic Army fought from 1992 to 1995. The Dayton peace talks ended the war 20 years ago. In 2003/4 Bosnia embarked on an effort to reform and unify its armed forces. The years since then have not seen a lot of success in reintegrating Bosnia’s divided polity at the national level, but I’ve been wondering about the military situation.
A friend responded to my inquiry about today’s Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina with this: 
Three brigades and operational command of the armed forces are multiethnic and united. All are equally represented and there is no division on the entity levels. The army has purely state-level character. They are integrated to serve only state-level interests. Also, the multiethnic Presidency is in charge of commanding them.
This is the most advanced state-level institution in the country. The system has its flaws and yes ethnic-fueled politics can penetrate into its functioning mechanism from time to time, but when compared to the other state-level institutions in Bosnia, the armed forces are the best. They are the closest we can get, in the framework of Dayton reality, to united Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The only purely ethnic based component are the regiments. There are three regiments that are each formed by soldiers from the three ethnic groups: Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims in the US press), Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs. The three regiments trace their roots to the armies that were created during the war. They have their distinct ethnic insignia and consist of three active battalions each.
Headquarters of regiments have no operational authority. The regimental headquarters have the following tasks: to manage the regimental museum; monitor the financial fund of the regiment; prepare, investigate and cherish the history of the regiment; publish regiment newsletters; maintain cultural and historical heritage; give guidance on holding special ceremonies; give guidance on customs, etc. The regiments are the strongest ethnic element of the military, but they are mostly ceremonial and emotional (for some).
Ceremonial regiments are miniscule, less than 50 people. They do not even comprise 1% of overall size of the armed forces  (10,000 manpower).
There are in addition ethnic battalions in three regiments (4th, 5th and 6th). For example:
4th Infantry Regiment – HQ in Capljina, town where Bosnian Croats are majority
  •  Infantry Battalion (Livno) -Bosnian Croat
  •  Infantry Battalion (Gorazde) – Bosniak
  •  Infantry Battalion (Bileca) -Bosnian Serb
  • Reconnaissance Company (multi-ethnic)
  • Signals Platoon (multi-ethnic)
Two other regiments are composed in the same setup (one is in Tuzla and other in Banja Luka).
However, the Tactical Support Brigade, Logistics, Personnel Command, Air force Brigade and Ministry of Defense are completely multi-ethnic. Thirty per cent (about 3,000 out of 10,000) of the armed forces are made out of individuals that are assigned to units in ethnic battalions.
Nevertheless, their functioning is deeply intertwined in a broader system which is completely multi-ethnic and operates on national level without any association to the entities. In order for the ethnic battalion to  operate they need support of multi-ethnic companies and platoons, which are commanded by a multi-ethnic army headquarters and multi-ethnic Ministry of Defense. Armed forces’ main tasks are to: protect territorial sovereignty and independence of BiH, be involved in peace support operations, conduct demining operations, be on the disposal to civilian authorities during natural disasters, etc.
The armed forces are a national level institution that serves national interests under three musketeers motto “all for one, one for all.”

Beware the monopoly of power

To many in the West, the Kurds have long seemed the sanest group left in Syria, as well as the safest and most effective option as an ally in the fight against ISIS. They appear organized, united, secular, and pluralist, standing out against the backdrop of the fragmented factions of the Syrian opposition, including Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.

However, the political situation within this community, and their ties to the rest of Syrian society, are more complex than this image suggests. Their dominance of the new ‘coalition’ of the Syrian Democratic Forces engaged in the offensive against Raqqa makes it important to elucidate this complexity.

The Syrian Kurdish party PYD (Democratic Union Party) is the entity that makes the news. It is running the show throughout the north and northeast of the country. Their affiliated militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG, and the women’s equivalent, the YPJ), made headlines last summer in their battle for Kobani against ISIS, and then again in another border town, Tel Abyad, this summer.

The YPG is also leading the fight against ISIS in Raqqa now, with grudging cooperation from Sunni Arab groups. After the US decided to suspend its train and equip program, it airdropped ammunition with the intention of supporting an offensive against Raqqa, but the Sunni Arab groups participating in the newly-formed coalition, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), say they have seen none of this material aid. The YPG dominates the SDF.

Taking advantage of their military successes, the PYD established the Democratic Autonomous Government of Western Kurdistan (i.e. within Syria, as opposed to the well-established Kurdistan Regional Government inside Iraq) in January 2014, consisting of three cantons under a federated ‘Rojava’ government. Afrin canton lies to the northwest of Aleppo, Kobani on the Turkish border east of the Euphrates, and the third canton, Qamishli, falls in the northeast corner of Syria, bordering Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey. The PYD in addition claims towns in the region between Afrin and Kobani, including A’zaz, Manbij, al-Bab, and Jarablus, as parts of historical Kurdistan.

The PYD administers health, education, security, and the judiciary within their cantons. They operate under an umbrella coalition TEV-DEM (Movement for a Democratic Society), which runs civil society organizations and ‘peace councils’ – civil courts – in Kurdish population centers, and aids local poor. The ‘peoples’ courts’ in the cantons are staffed by PYD members and take an eclectic approach to established and codified law, like other opposition groups, selecting from Syrian criminal law, Swiss or German legal codes and customary law.

Though the PYD has been consolidating its control of these cantons, they deny that they are seeking an independent Kurdish state, stating their aim of remaining within a whole and united Syria, though one with a higher degree of regional autonomy than before. They have publicly expressed tolerance and inclusion of other ethnicities and sects.

Bassam Barabadi and Faysal Itani reported in August that both ‘Kurdish and Arab senior sources in northern Syria’ confirmed ‘joint or divided Arab-Kurdish rule’ in liberated territories, evidencing some degree of cooperation, which is crucial for stability. The recent move to annex Tel Abyad reflects the PYD’s intentions to unite the three cantons and maintain control throughout the contiguous territories along the Turkish border.

Divisions in the Kurdish community and antagonisms with other Syrians remain. TEV-DEM is not the only coalition on the Syrian Kurdish political scene. Other less militant or nationalist parties have combined to form the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which has joined the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and is politically closer to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq than the radical Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. The PYD accepts the PKK’s founder, Abdullah Öcalan, as their ideological leader.

One of the more prominent of the KNC parties is Yekiti (Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in Syria), which has often criticized the PYD. In May, for instance, the PYD are alleged to have told two Yekiti members to leave their homes in Qamishli canton because they had criticized the PYD on TV.

In addition to earlier allegations of press intimidation and aggression against other Kurdish parties, last month the Rojava Student and Youth Union, also in Qamishli, raised concerns to local and international human rights organizations about the PYD using Kurdish-language instruction in primary schools for political and ideological indoctrination. Indeed, on Tuesday the KNC called for demonstrations in Hasaka governorate against PYD educational policies. The resulting turnout in Malikiyya (Derek) was forcefully dispersed by PYD’s internal security arm, the Asayış, which also made several arrests.

Meanwhile, Sunni Arabs and Syrian Turkmen have levelled accusations of ethnic cleansing and property confiscation directed at the YPG, after their battles with ISIS in the Kobani and Tel Abyad countryside and their consequent control of new territories. An investigation conducted by Amnesty International affirmed war crimes committed by the PYD in razing Sunni Arab villages.

Cooperation between the Kurdish cantons and rebel-held territories, or the YPG and rebel militant forces, is generally low. Rebel groups distrust the PYD and YPG because their primary goal is driving ISIS out of their territories – showing, in the rebels’ view, lack of dedication to the revolution. The YPG command has stated that they would work with Russia to combat ISIS if Russia were to present the opportunity, which garners further distrust from other opposition groups.

Kader Sheikhmous is the co-founder of an NGO, Shar for Development, which focuses on enhancing civil society, governance, and economic development in Kurdish areas of Syria. Much of its work promotes the unity and good relations of the Kurdish and Sunni Arab communities, including a bilingual magazine that is distributed in the towns of Hasaka.

Sheikhmous highlights the dangers of the international and regional actors offering support exclusively to armed groups, such as the YPG, without investing in civil society actors and economic development. USAID, for example, in 2014 sharply diminished support to Kurdish NGOs in Syria. That risks creating dependence on the YPG not just for security but for other services, in the absence of civil society, will increase the YPG’s tendency toward authoritarian behavior.

These concerns raise the question of the viability of PYD-run autonomous cantons, their suitability as a military or security ally for the US, and their role in a future Syrian state. Exclusive or excessive support for one party in the Syrian Kurdish regions will allow it to consolidate its monopoly on power and violence.

Syrians generally endorse the unity of their country and its people, regardless of ethnic or sectarian background. Kurds, Turkmen, Alawis, Sunnis, and others want to regain their normal lives and continue living together. Though the Kurdish autonomous regions have provided measures of stability and security for the civilians of the north, it will be counterproductive if it comes at the price of single-party rule and exacerbated social divisions.

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Syrian civil society in wartime

On Friday, the Atlantic Council hosted Syrian civil society activist Raed Fares to discuss ‘Fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda through Syrian Civil Society’. Fares is the founder and president of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB) in Kafranbel and neighboring towns in Idlib province. The URB employs over 400 people, providing services to civilians and operating local media outlets. It has also established women’s and children’s centers. Fares talked with the Atlantic Council’s Faysal Itani and was introduced by Frederic Hof.

Kafranbel is famous for its often witty protest banners, which can be viewed on the Kafranbel Syrian Revolution Facebook page.

Fares gave an overview of the start of the revolution through peaceful protests in 2011, describing civil society as caught between two different types of terrorism. On the one hand, Assad and his regime have been oppressing civil society for the past five years (as well as muting it before). On the other hand, civil society finds itself set upon by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), and others such as the newer jihadi group, Jund al-Aqsa.

Despite these challenges, Fares remains defiant and confident. He and his group have managed to accomplish much since the URB was founded in January 2013. Despite abduction and assassination attempts, as well as intimidation, Fares is confident that public support for civil society leaders and groups like his is more powerful than ISIS and al-Qaeda. While last year ISIS had more influence around Kafranbel, in Idlib, their influence has retracted, in part because of the strength of civil society there. The URB provides essential services, is secular and independent (they refused an offer of protection from Ahrar al-Sham), and knits the community together.

Over three years and with only $2 million, the URB has been able to accomplish more than the international coalition has in a year with far greater resources. URB is also more effective than the Syrian National Coalition and the Interim Government in Gaziantep, with whom they do not have a strong relationship. It would be ideal for them if donors came straight to them rather than operating through either of those bodies.

Fares also highlighted the innovative solutions Syrian civilians invent in order to get around the complications arising from shortages of communications infrastructure and other resources as well as the daily realities of aerial bombardment. Russian airstrikes, which are more devastating than regime airstrikes, have worsened conditions. Both the regime and the Russians target civilians and civil society in general.

The URB also cooperates with the Free Syrian Army and other moderate groups. Fares insists that average Syrians now hate the Assad regime and everything to do with it, but also Islamic extremists and jihadists, and they hate violence and bloodshed. Syrians want to return to a reality with ‘love stories and flowers’.

They therefore ask for American help to stop Russian airstrikes and Assad’s bombing: a no-fly zone, even a small one, is essential. Fares also remarked that, in the medium term, Syrians will not stand for a solution that includes Assad. He must go.

The URB and civil society organizations in other Syrian cities, such as Aleppo, have persevered in providing services and maintaining institutions. Increasing support to such organizations ensures civilians have options other than the regime and extremist groups, or fleeing continually. The endurance of Fares and the URB is testament to that.

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