Tag: Democracy and Rule of Law

Idlib is the center of gravity, not Raqqa

I’ve been in Turkey the last few days, talking with Syrian opposition people (including civil society, the Syrian Interim Government and the Syrian Opposition Coalition) who live here, as well as Turks who worry about Syria. I was last in Istanbul and Gaziantep, the Turkish city closest to Aleppo that acts as a platform for the civilian Syrian opposition, two years ago, when the most of its exponents were upbeat about the prospects of evicting Bashar al Assad from the presidential palace, or at least wresting control of a good part of Syria from him.

Gone are those days. The sustained Russian air intervention that started in September 2105, coordinated with Iranian and Shia militia ground forces as well as the Syrian army, has wrested east Aleppo, some Damascus suburbs and other key areas from opposition military forces, while the Turks have taken a slice of Syria’s north and Kurdish and allied Arab forces have taken Manbij and moved southeast to take Raqqa from the Islamic State, the first provincial capital to fall to the opposition in 2013.

The only major population center in western “useful Syria” still in opposition hands is a good part of Idlib province, to which the Syrian government has shipped irreconcilable (both extremist and moderate) Syrians from all the territory it retakes. Idlib has also accumulated a large number of people displaced by fighting in Aleppo and other population centers, even while some of its native population has fled to Turkey. There are perhaps 1.2 million people in the province, including 300-400,000 displaced from other provinces.

Americans focus on Raqqa because that is where US forces are supporting the assault on the Islamic State, which is the main American priority. But for the Syrian opposition, Idlib has become by default the center of gravity of the conflict. The situation there is intricate: formed more or less in accordance with a Syrian decentralization law, something like 100 elected moderate opposition local administrative councils (and more at the village level) govern in places like Saraqib and Maarat al Numan, even as Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS, the current Al Qaeda front in Syria) has taken over Idlib city (and disbanded the local administrative council there), as well as much of the rest of the province.

The question is whether the remaining relatively democratic and free institutions can survive two possible future assaults: one might come from HTS to exert its control over the entire territory, though so far the jihadis have failed to be able to displace the civic opposition and they are not yet moving against major population centers other than Idlib city. Another possibility is an assault against HTS in Idlib by the internationals. Once the Islamic State has been ousted from Raqqa and the eastern city of Deir Azour, the American, Iranian, Russian, and Syrian government forces could pivot to Idlib, nominally seeking to obliterate HTS but likely doing in the moderate opposition at the same time, because Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus don’t distinguish much.

What could prevent an Idlib debacle and help the opposition institutions that have been painstakingly built, with a lot of US and European aid, survive? The proposition apparently on the table at the Iranian/Russian/Turkish meeting in Astana yesterday and today is some sort of joint action with Russian air support, either by the Turks or by the Turks in north Idlib and the Iranians in the south, to chase HTS from the province.* 

The Turks are hesitating. The Euphrates Shield area they already control in the north along their border is costing a bundle and generating complaints from the Syrian opposition, which has been shut out of the Turkish-controlled area in favor of hand-picked Turkish proxies responsible for security, education, and religious affairs as well as Turkish-trained police. Turkey’s priority in Syria is doing in the Kurds and blocking them from controlling the entire northern border of Syria with Turkey, not helping the Syrian opposition.

If the Turks don’t act, Idlib could still fall eventually to the regime, with the help of Iran and Russia. That could precipitate a major slaughter, especially if the Turks continue to block the border at Bab al Hawa.

Even if the non-HTS local councils survive in Idlib and even if the Americans re-establish some sort of democratic institutions in Raqqa, the Syrian opposition has largely lost the military fight. But the war isn’t really over until there is peace, which is not yet on the horizon. The next phase will be less military and more political. The question is who will win that. More on that in the next post.

*PS: The decision at Astana was apparently to deploy observers, not forces, to the boundaries of Idlib’s non-regime controlled areas. Not clear how long that will take.

*PPS: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has a different version of the agreement, which includes deployment of Turkish, Russian and Iranian forces inside Idlib. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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Alternatives

Micah Zenko last week in the New York Times obliterated not only Trump’s proposed “new” strategy in Afghanistan but also the entire military-heavy approach to counter-terrorism that has dominated American efforts since the inauguration of Barack Obama. It simply doesn’t work well to just kill people you think are terrorists: there are always replacements, the civilian collateral damage is enormous, and the ungoverned spaces that result are breeding grounds for more recruits. While ISIS may be going down to defeat in the territory it once controlled, it will reemerge as a guerrilla group using terrorist tactics rather than the more conventional military approach it has so successfully employed the past few years.

So what is the alternative?

Max Boot and P.J. Crowley have already named it loud and clear: nation-building. Regular readers of peacefare.net, and those few who have picked up Righting the Balance advertised on this page, will not be surprised that I think them correct. There are, however, two big problems with this answer:

  1. Presidents don’t want to do it.
  2. Americans are convinced it doesn’t work.

The only civilian nation-building assistance effort Americans think successful is the Marshall Plan, launched almost seventy years ago to aid US allies in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Civilian efforts during the Vietnam war are generally regarded by non-experts as a failure, because we lost the war, even though CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) is regarded by some experts as somewhat successful. Americans generally disregard the modestly successful UN and other efforts since the fall of the Berlin wall.

American presidents are as adverse as public opinion, but often change their minds. Bill Clinton told Americans he was sending US troops to Bosnia for a year. They stayed for 9 years, largely to ensure peace and stability during the nation-building enterprise. US troops deployed to Kosovo in 1999 and are still there, because its sovereignty is still incomplete. George W. Bush famously derided nation-building during his first campaign, and then launched two enormous efforts: in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Barack Obama, as in many things more disciplined than most, withdrew from Iraq but extended the US presence in Afghanistan, largely because the nation-building effort there was still incomplete. President Trump has said we won’t be nation-building in Afghanistan, but he may be the only one left in the US government who believes that is in fact the case.

“Nation-building” is of course a misnomer. I would call what is needed “state-building.” Nations are groups that self-identify. States are institutional structures that can be constructed in particular social contexts that include the existence, or not, of a nation. From this perspective, there are successful multi-national states, including the US, but also less successful ones, like Bosnia or Iraq. But both Bosnia and Iraq are illiberal electoral democracies arguably, even if many will not agree, improvements over the autocracies that preceded them.

Today the question of state-building in the greater Middle East arises not only in Afghanistan but also in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and still in Iraq because of the scheduling of a Kurdistan referendum for September 25. There are basically two ways to go: allow the autocracies to be restored in Syria, Libya and Yemen, or try (as in Afghanistan and Iraq) to preserve some modicum of popular sovereignty. Tunisia is perhaps the best example of success in the latter enterprise.

I think it will be hard to re-impose the autocracies, but President Sisi has mostly done it in Egypt. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t stable, but it kills a lot of people Sisi defines as terrorists. President Assad would obviously like to do the same thing. In Libya, General Haftar is of the same mind, and in Yemen former President Saleh would presumably like his son to restore the old regime, which was an illiberal democracy in form but an autocracy in practice.

I’d prefer the more democratic route, even if the results are illiberal. Admittedly the preference is more a subjective than an objective one. While you can read in many places, including on peacefare.net, that what is needed to fight terrorism is inclusive states that treat their populations in accordance with international human rights standards, we’ve got precious few recent examples of success.  But I am quite certain that the purely military approach simply will not work, and I’d prefer my tax dollars not support the restoration of autocracy.

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Harvey hits Houston hard

Storms are a test of political leadership. Snowstorms in the US often upend mayors and governors who appear unprepared. Hurricane Katrina undermined Bush 43. Hurricane Sandy showed President Obama off to good advantage.

The jury is still out on President Trump’s reaction to Harvey, which hit the Texas Gulf Coast yesterday morning and is now flooding Houston. He did a good job of appearing to be prepared on Friday: holding meetings, tweeting mightily, and touting the cooperation among the local, state and federal governments. Bluster is one of his favorite modes.

This morning there are less convincing signs. He has tweeted about subjects other than the storm (a disreputable friend’s book, Missouri politics, the border wall with Mexico), in an obvious effort to distract attention from the storm. Distraction is another one of his favorite modes.

He is also claiming the storm is unprecedented. That isn’t true. What is true is that he recently revoked Obama-imposed standards for flood protection, apparently because they were designed as a response to the climate change that Trump denies is happening (or denies is due to human activity, or denies is harmful, or…).

That was done so recently it won’t have any impact on the damage due to Harvey, but the sad fact is that the US is not well-prepared for storms. We allow building in areas that are likely to get flooded, even rebuilding in those areas after a devastating storm. Much of this is paid for by US government-sponsored flood insurance, or Federal Emergency Management Administration loans and grants. The criteria for building vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Houston seems likely to get the brunt of Harvey, which is now stalled there and dumping feet of rain per day on the fourth largest city in the country, with 2.3 million inhabitants. Damage is likely to be catastrophic, particularly if the storm remains there and doesn’t move to the north or east as previously predicted. Deaths so far have been few (only 2), but look for that number to rise. The aftermath can be more deadly than the storm itself, as water drains slowly and people run out of supplies. Remember New Orleans?

Trump can be happy for one thing: the storm has obliterated news of North Korea’s missile tests Saturday morning. No one is noticing that so far Washington has not responded, despite threatening fire and fury and claiming to be locked and loaded. The sad fact is there is nothing much military we can do, because of Pyongyang’s threat to South Korea and Japan. The diplomatic track is opaque, but we can hope something is moving there.

It is hard not to notice when the Secretary of State, speaking of American values, refuses to defend the President and instead says he speaks for himself. Tillerson, heretofore largely an advocate of a values-free foreign policy, disowns the President of the United States because of values? I thought I’d never see the day. I can’t wait for Trump’s wack back at Tillerson, or will he be too busy claiming the response to Harvey is really good?

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My Balkans Q and A

Albatrit Matoshi of Pristina daily Zeri asked questions last week. I replied:

  1. Not even two months after the parliamentary elections in Kosovo, the central institutions can not be formed as a result of political disunity. Is Kosovo losing ground to international institutions as a result of this political stalemate?

A: There are surely costs to the political stalemate, but “hung” parliaments happen. Even in much more experienced democracies, politicians often take months to form a new government. In the meanwhile, there is a caretaker in place. I trust it is doing the ordinary and necessary business of government.

  1. The Coalition PAN (PDK-AAK-NISMA) has emerged the largest in the June 11 elections, but it faces lack the necessary numbers to form the Assembly and the Government. In the absence of the necessary votes, this coalition is not participating in Assembly sessions, despite the invitation of the US, Germany, France, England, Italy to attend the Assembly. Should political representatives find compromise solutions, as the country risks again to go to extraordinary elections?

A: I hope people will make every effort to come to a compromise solution rather than new elections, but that decision is up to Kosovars, not foreigners.

  1. Should President Hashim Thaçi give the mandate to the second party, in this case to the “Vetëvendosje” candidate for Prime Minister Albin Kurti, if Ramush Haradinaj fails within the legal deadline to form the Government?

A: I am not a lawyer, but the Kosovo Constitution says the President “appoints the candidate for Prime Minister for the establishment of the Government after proposal by the political party or coalition holding the majority in the Assembly.” It seems to me Vetëvendosje would get a mandate if it can propose a government with support of the majority in the Assembly.

  1. In the absence of the Assembly and the Government, Kosovo has not yet ratified the demarcation agreement with Montenegro. If Ramush Haradinaj is elected prime minister, who has mostly objected to this agreement, do you expect that this issue will be resolved?

A: You will have to ask him. I know of no reasonable basis on which to continue opposition to demarcation.

  1. Is the EU likely to abolish visas for Kosovo if the demarcation agreement is sent to international arbitration?

A: You’ll have to ask the EU.

  1. If demarcation is voted in the Assembly, how many months will be needed until the start of the visa-free travel to the EU, given the fact that there are elections in some member states?

A: Again: this is a question for the Europeans.

  1. The new Kosovo government, if formed by a simple parliamentary majority, will face a strong opposition and at the same time will be dependent on the votes of Serbian MPs working under the directives of the Government of Serbia. How stable will be such a government, which will not really have the votes to pass the demarcation agreement, the Association of Municipalities with Serbian Majority, etc.?

A: That doesn’t sound like a formula for stability, but we’ll have to wait and see.

  1. It has been announced that dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia can take place at the level of presidents. How realistic is the move of the dialogue at such stage?

A: The Presidents have established a mutually respectful rapport, which should be sustained. But certainly political instability on the Pristina side could make the dialogue difficult. On the Belgrade side, things look pretty stable for now, even if some contest the validity of the last election.

  1. Serbia’s President Vucic has announced an internal debate on Kosovo. Do you expect the leadership in Belgrade in the framework of the Euro-integration process to remove Kosovo from its constitution?

A: I expect Serbia in the framework of the Euro-integration process to accept the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo, including (but not only) by removing it from the constitution. Kosovo UN membership and exchange of diplomatic representatives at the ambassadorial level should follow. The question is whether this will be done at the last moment before EU accession, when the negotiating leverage will be entirely on the EU side, or earlier, when Belgrade can hope to get a better deal. I think it is better to do it sooner rather than later, but of course that is up to Serbs, not foreigners, and will depend on the outcome of the internal debate the President has proposed.

Marija Jovicevic of Montenegro daily Pobjeda also asked some questions last week. I replied: 

  1. Serbia will be host of a NATO army exercise in October 2018. Do You think that Montenegro entering NATO is a signal for all other countries in region that Alliance has no alternative?

A: No, I think other countries have a choice to make. There is nothing inevitable about NATO, which only accepts those who are prepared to make the necessary reforms and to contribute positively to the Alliance. Serbia will want to consider all its options.

2. Do you see all of the Western Balkan region in NATO?

A: I might hope for that, but so far only Macedonia and Kosovo have committed to eventual NATO membership, once they meet the necessary requirements. Bosnia and Serbia are hesitating, for obvious reasons. NATO will be fine without them. The question is whether they would be better off with NATO and whether they are prepared to make the necessary commitments.

3. Do You think that Montenegro can be host of a NATO base in future?

A: Best to ask NATO about this possibility. I am not aware of any Alliance requirement for a base in Montenegro right now, though I suppose all of Montenegro’s bases are now in some sense “NATO.”

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Why Trump can’t dump the alt-right

President Trump in his belated statement yesterday about the events in Charlottesville said:

Racism is evil — and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” Trump said in response to the attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend….Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.
What he didn’t include is critical: he did not denounce the alt-right movement whose platform was Breitbart News, once headed by now White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Why did Trump not denounce the alt-right?

He is one of them. Trump is a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist whose entire career has been committed to preserving white privilege. As a young real estate magnate his company refused to rent to blacks, as a political gadfly he used the “birther” controversy to challenge the first black president’s legitimacy, as a candidate he questioned the ability of a judge to be objective on grounds of supposed national origins, and as president he is now trying to reduce the number of minorities who can immigrate, go to college, get health insurance, and vote. This is a consistent and unequivocal record.

The implications are important. Trump is not afraid of losing alt-right support or offending white supremacists. The number of alt-right voters is irrelevant to him. He is not even afraid of losing Bannon, whom he might well sacrifice in response to building political pressures, as he did Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Anthony Scaramucci, and others. What Trump won’t do is abandon the white supremacist program he believes in. It’s not just that the fish rots from the head. The head controls the rest of the body.

This administration is committed to preserving white privilege. The statues of Lee and other Confederates may come down, but the ethnic nationalist ideology will remain.

This has important implications for foreign policy. An administration that won’t defend equal rights at home certainly won’t do it abroad. Nor will it try to protect freedom of speech and the press in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or the Philippines. It will criticize autocrats only when they are enemies: Venezuela’s Maduro, Iran’s Khamenei, and North Korea’s Kim already know that. Trump’s Secretary of State has been refusing to prepare for a meeting of the Community of Democracies he is supposed to host next month. I wonder why.

Applications for the US Foreign Service have declined precipitously. Many prospective candidates are preferring to go to work for nongovernmental organizations. No doubt the Administration will find sufficient numbers of alt-right sympathizers to fill the reduced numbers required to staff a State Department that Trump has marginalized, correctly fearing that its current staff will find it difficult to implement a foreign policy of alliance with autocrats. Liberals and minorities need not apply. The incoming Foreign Service recruits will no doubt soon look like the White House interns: overwhelmingly white and male.

The first seven months of this administration have been damaging: America’s alliances have weakened, its President is the butt of disrespectful jokes worldwide, and adversaries have grown bolder. I dread what comes next.

 

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Peace picks August 7-11

  1. Teleconference: What is the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations? | Monday, August 7 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | Wilson Center | Register Here | Relations between the United States and Russia continue to sour. New sanctions legislation in Washington – which arrived on President Trump’s desk with a veto-proof majority – prompted not only the ejection of U.S. diplomats from Russia, but a declaration by Minister Medvedev on the “end of hope” for improved ties. At the same time, presidents Trump and Putin appear to anticipate better days. How entrenched is the current state of affairs? Are there avenues left for cooperation? Join the Wilson Center as Deputy Director William E. Pomeranz of the Kennan Institute, Senior Fellow Maxim Trudolyubov, and Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace assess prospects for the U.S.-Russia relationship and unpack the Trump-Putin dynamic. Aaron David Miller will be moderating.
  2. Expanding the Role of Youth in Building Peace, Security | Tuesday, August 8 | 9:30 – 11:00 am| United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | While popular culture and public narratives depict young men mainly as perpetrators of violence, and young women mainly as victims, governments and civil society groups alike are working to elevate the critical role of youth in reducing violent conflict and extremism. That effort has seen added attention in the 19 months since a U.N. Security Council resolution focused governments on the task. The talk will feature panelists Aubrey Cox, senior program specialist at USIP; Rachel Walsh Taza, program coordinator at Search for Common Ground; Jenn Heeg, co-champion at YouthPower Learning; and Imrana Buba, founder of a Nigerian youth-led peacebuilding organization working amid the country’s conflict with the Boko Haram extremist group. Youth Coordinator Michael McCabe of USAID will moderate.
  3. Oil Corruption: How the United States Can Counteract a Curse | Tuesday, August 8 | 12:00 – 2:00 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | The oil industry has been entangled in serious corruption controversies, from the legality of some companies’ stance on climate change to dealings with producer-country governments. In response, the U.S. government has shown leadership over the past decade in helping bring more transparency to the sector. What are the dimensions of this problem? What is the status of the U.S. commitment? Join Carnegie and Global Witness for an engaging discussion of new findings by Global Witness on Shell’s activities in Nigeria, why corruption in this key economic sector matters, and how the U.S. government—and companies—can be part of the solution. Panelists include Steve Coll of The New Yorker, Olarenwaju SurajuSimon Taylor of Global Witness, and Sarah Chayes of Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program.
  4. The Future of U.S.-Taiwan Relations in New Administrations | Friday, August 11 | 1:30 – 5:15 pm | Heritage Foundation | Register Here | Join the Heritage Foundation for a discussion of Taiwan’s critical cross-strait relations as well as future economic ties with the United States. Panels will include “Cross-Strait Relations and the U.S.” (2:15 pm) and “Future of Economic Relations between the U.S. and Taiwan” (4:00 pm). The keynote address will be given by Lyu-Shun Shen, former representative from the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington, D.C.

 

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