Tag: Russia

Peace picks February 27 – March 3

  1. Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum: Negotiation Day – Negotiators’ Behavior in the End Game | Monday, February 27 | 9 – 10:30am | SAIS Johns Hopkins | Register Here | No analytical work has ever addressed the subject of How Negotiations End. We know that negotiators act differently in the endgame–when they see the end is in sight, good or bad, and they work to that end. This project addresses that situation, examining way in which the endgame ends positively or negatively, and the way in which typical behavioral patterns are encountered on the way. A path breaking study of a neglected topic. The book is now in press with Cambridge University Press, the latest study of the Process of International Negotiation (PIN) Program at Clingendael, Netherlands.
  2. Potential Negotiations in the Upcoming Year | Monday, February 27 | 11 am – 12:30 pm | SAIS Johns Hopkins | Register Here | We are faced today with an international situation filled with challenges for negotiation. These represent opportunities open for pursuit; others represent situations looking for an opportunity. In this situation, what are the prospects for pursuing and developing negotiations as a means of managing conflict and of furthering US policy goals.Speakers:Thomas Pickering, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, the Russian Federation, India, Israel, and JordanPrinceton Lyman, former US Ambassador to Nigerial and South Africa

    Galia Golan, Professor at the School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya

    Vali Nasr, Dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS

    I WIlliam Zartman, Jacob Blaustein Professor Emeritus of International Organizations and Conflict Resolution, SAIS – Moderator

    Location Kenney Herter Auditorium, 1740 Massachusetts Avenue NW

  3. Crude Strategy: Rethinking the U.S. Military Commitment to Defend Persian Gulf Oil | Monday, February 27 | 11 – 12:30pm | Cato Institute | Register Here | Should the United States continue to use its military to guarantee the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf? For more than 30 years, U.S. foreign policy has been shaped by a commitment to safeguard the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Yet profound changes in international oil markets, growth in domestic U.S. energy production, and dramatic shifts in the Middle Eastern balance of power suggest that it may be time to reconsider whether this commitment is still warranted. In Crude Strategy, a multidisciplinary team of political scientists, economists, and historians set out to explore the links between Persian Gulf oil and U.S. national security. Their essays explore key questions such as the potential economic cost of disruption in oil supply, whether disruptions can be blunted with nonmilitary tools, the potential for instability in Saudi Arabia, and the most effective U.S. military posture for the region. By clarifying the assumptions underlying the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, the authors conclude that the case for revising America’s grand strategy towards the region is far stronger than is commonly assumed.
  4. The Trump Administration and the Future of the Kurds | Monday February 27 | 2 – 3:30pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | The Kurdish issue in the Middle East is at an important juncture. The Iraqi Kurds, faced with an unsettled Iraq, are itching to declare their independence. The Syrian Kurds have managed to affiliate themselves with the United States against ISIS but face a hostile reaction from Turkey, their northern neighbor, intent on rolling back their successes. The Turkish Kurds have to contend with the effects of government attempts at suppressing their legal political representatives and the war between the Turkish state and the PKK, which are challenging the country’s stability. Our panel will discuss these and other issues pertaining to the future Kurdish political landscape.
  5. U.S. – Turkey Cooperation in Syria and the Role of the U.S. in the Middle East | Monday February 27 | 3 – 4:30pm | Turkish Heritage Organization | Register Here | The Trump administration has inherited numerous, complex challenges in the Middle East. Regional instability caused by the Syrian civil war continues to have a profound impact on one of the U.S.’s most strategic NATO allies – Turkey – and on the bilateral relationship between Washington and Ankara. As the Trump administration prepares to tackle these issues and re-shape America’s role in the region, experts will discuss the choices and challenges facing the U.S. and Turkey.
  6. The Impact of Shifting Geopolitics on MENA Energy | Tuesday February 28 | 12 – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Changes in the energy market, new entrants, and conflicting economic and national security interests at the regional and global level have altered the market power of Middle Eastern oil and gas producers. Industry developments and new policies under the Trump administration are likely to lead to the expansion of U.S. shale oil and gas production and increased exports. Russia vies daily with Saudi Arabia to be the world’s largest producer, while prices remain far below levels of a few years ago. How are Middle Eastern states coping politically and economically with the challenges of a global energy market in an historic transition?
  7. Obama’s Legacy, Trump’s Inheritance in the Middle East (Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture) | Tuesday February 28 | 6:30 – 7:45pm | Elliott School of International Affairs | Register Here | Join us as Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm examines the environment in the Middle East that President Trump inherits from his predecessor and explores the parameters for action by the new administration.
  8. Food for Humanity | Wednesday March 1 | 12:15 – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The Middle East Institute’s Arts & Culture Program is pleased to host a conversation about the political, emotional and symbolic significance of food for displaced and diaspora communities. The panel will explore the unifying role of food, its ability to generate empathy, and its power to build community among diverse peoples through the ritual sharing of a meal. The panel will also discuss how food can serve as a source of income, a form of cultural resistance, and as a means of preserving identity and heritage for refugee communities in the face of loss.
  9. How People Become Terrorists | Wednesday March 1 | 12:15 – 1:45pm | New America | Register Here | In the years since 9/11 the scope and nature of the global neo-jihadi threat to the West has changed radically, prompting reassessments from those following the threat. In his latest book Misunderstanding Terrorism, Marc Sageman examines the current threat and articulates a new model of how people become terrorists, which has strong implications for the fight against terrorists that go against the conventional wisdom. New America welcomes Dr. Sageman for a discussion of what is driving the current generation of jihadists to become terrorists and how the U.S. should adapt to the threat. Marc Sageman is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the author of Misunderstanding Terrorism and two other critically acclaimed books: Understanding Terror Networks (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) and Leaderless Jihad (UPP, 2007).
  10. Women of the Caliphate: Gender Dynamics in State-Building Jihadi Organizations | Thursday March 2 | 5:30 – 7pm | American University | Register Here | A Talk with Hamoon Khelghat-Doost, from the National University of Singapore. Hamoon Khelghat-Doost looks at gender dynamics within jihadi organizations by examining their standpoint on the state-building process. His talk will explore the reasons for jihadi organizations, such as ISIS, to incorporate a relatively high number of women. Khelghat-Doost has conducted fieldwork in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and along Syrian borders in southern Turkey.
  11. Prospects for the Next Generation of Palestinian Leadership | Friday March 3 | 12 – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | President Trump’s backpedaling on the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution shines a spotlight on the Palestinians’ looming leadership crisis. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, now 81, has yet to cultivate a successor, and his administration faces growing concerns about its credibility twelve years after the last national elections. How should the next generation of Palestinian leaders approach such complex issues as Israeli settlement expansion, a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, economic troubles, and engagement on the international stage?
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Trying to hem him in

The appointment of H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser is one more step in trying to hem in President Trump on national security policy. He remains in charge of immigration, health care, trade and many other subjects, but the Washington establishment (aka “the blob”) is trying to reassert control of some important foreign policy issues:

  • Vice President Pence has been in Europe reassuring the NATO allies of the Administration’s wholehearted commitment to the Alliance and openness to partnership with the European Union, despite the President’s often expressed skepticism of both.
  • Defense Secretary Mattis has done likewise with NATO and also visited Baghdad, in part to reassure the Iraqis that we are not, as the President has suggested we would, going to “keep” their oil (whatever that means).
  • H.R. is well-known for his book criticizing the generals for not objecting to escalation of the Vietnam War–he isn’t likely to stand by idly if Trump pursues courses of action that can’t be justified or sustained. Nor is he likely to ignore or denigrate the intelligence community.
  • Secretary of State Tillerson has been reassuring Ukraine of America’s support, including on Crimea, and calling out the Russians for failure to implement the Minsk 2 agreement.
  • Republican Senator McCain has trashed Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin, with Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republicans cheering him on amidst growing pressure for serious investigations of the White House’s Russian connections.

With those holes plugged, the main thrust of White House thinking about foreign and national security policy still has two major outlets: Iran and North Korea.

The nuclear deal with Iran is safe because the Europeans have made it clear they will not reimpose sanctions if Trump undermines it and the Israelis have told Trump they prefer the current restraints to none at all. But Tehran’s support for Bashar al Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq gives people in Washington heartburn. Despite the nuclear deal, Tehran has few friends in DC because it has been far so aggressive in pursuing its regional interests.

The May 19 Iranian presidential election is already raising the political temperature in Tehran. The Revolutionary Guard is doing military exercises and shooting off missiles, though it is not clear whether any of them since General Flynn’s “notice” violate UN Security Council resolution 1929:

Iran is prohibited from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons and States…

President Rouhani is feeling the heat, both from the Iranian right wing and from the Americans. Reformists have no one else to vote for, so he will likely to tilt towards the hawks in an effort to improve his prospects, which are good but by no means unassailable. He is also trying to improve relations with the Gulf Arabs, which would solidify his claim to restoring Iran’s influence and prestige in the region.

North Korea is the far easier and more worthy target. Let’s not even consider North Korea’s assassinations, human rights abuses against its own population, and oppression. Kim Jong-un is well on his way to getting missiles that can reach US bases in the Pacific and eventually the US West coast. The Chinese appear to be at their wits’ end with him. The problem is this: no one knows what, if anything, will bring the North Koreans to heel. If we were to try and fail, Pyongyang can retaliate with massive artillery barrages against Seoul. He could even use a few of his nuclear weapons.

If the establishment professionals succeed in their effort to hem Trump in with respect to Russia, Ukraine, NATO, and Iraq’s oil, he still has the opportunity to make a giant hash of things. The President is in charge. Getting Iran and North Korea right will not be easy, especially if the President decides he is better off listening to Steve Bannon than H.R. McMaster. Bad judgment is Trump’s consistent vice. He can get the United States into a lot of trouble.

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Digital bread crumbs in Aleppo

The Atlantic Council hosted a keynote presentation of their report “Breaking Aleppo” last Monday, starting with an introduction from Frederick Kempe, President & CEO of the Atlantic Council, as well as Frederic C. Hof, former US Special Adviser for Transition in Syria. The event featured speakers Maks Czuperski, Director of Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, Abdul Kafi Alhamdo, Syrian teacher and activist, Dr. Lina Murad, board member of the Syrian American Medical Society, Faysal Itani, Senior Fellow at Atlantic’s Rafik Hariri Center, Eliot Higgins, Senior Fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, and Emma Beals, investigative journalist.

IKempe said the report exposes the deliberate and systematic destruction of Aleppo by Bashar al Assad and will prevent the record of these atrocities from fading away in history. Hof added to this description by labeling the report an authoritative chronicle of the methods the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran utilized to achieve military victory through terror. He said it is clear that Moscow and the regime falsified information to obfuscate their crimes, and were emboldened by the passivity and lack of leadership of the west.

Czuperski described some of the methodology used by Atlantic Council’s digital forensic lab to compose the report. He said that although there were a lot of people talking about the conflict on social media, it was difficult to determine credibility. Higgins explained that the lab created “digital fingerprints” of the videoed events on the ground, taking into acount all possible sources, figuring out where they were taken using metadata or digital “breadcrumbs,” and then determining distance from the event to differentiate between true and false information.

The lab debunked false claims from the Russian defense ministry and proved that more than three bombs hit an Aleppo hospital in the same week, using before and after pictures, as well as camera footage from the hospital surveillance cameras. Forensic architecture showed repeated explosions in the same area and demonstrated targeted efforts of the regime to destroy one of the last hospitals in Aleppo.

Before the discussion panel, Abdul Kafi Alhamdo spoke to the crowd using Skype from the Syrian countryside to describe his life in Aleppo before and after the siege. Alhamdo says goodbye to his wife before heading to school everyday knowing that he might not see his family again. He teaches his students about freedom, attempting to provide a semblance of normalcy through what he describes as the Holocaust of Aleppo. Despite the horrors surrounding them, he and many other Syrians remained in the city until there was no other option. Alhamdo noted the UN role in assisting Assad with the forced evacuation of the city following the horrific last week of the siege. He described the terrible circumstances of the evacuation where civilians were shoved into buses, threatened by guards, and refused food or water while children cried.

Murad spoke to the difficulty of providing emergency medical care in Syria. She said that the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) started by training physicians, but soon had to expand their recruitment base as doctors were killed, displaced, or moved on. They had to train people of all levels using outdated technology, and in some cases engineering their own equipment. SAMS knew about the impending siege in Aleppo ahead of time and tried to allocate resources to prepare. Once the siege began it was impossible to bring in supplies, and they relied on a focal point to distribute the materials through the city until they ran out.

Beals recounted the ways reporting this conflict has shifted, from initial stages where reporters could be on the ground, to learning of the siege and other developments from the Syrian countryside, to the current situation where reporters are based in neighboring countries. Getting information out of Syria is incredibly difficult. Journalists rely on established relationships with Syrians who are still in the country and put their lives at risk by sharing information.

Itani stated that his job is to translate local developments in Syria into insights that make sense in the context of Western policy. He reiterated the struggle to obtain information, and said it is even more difficult because of obfuscation. Itani expressed his fear of the post-truth age, but he praised digital forensics as an outsourcing of information to determine what actually happened. He sees the development of these techniques as credible push back against the campaign of lies.

Watch the full event here:

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Revenge of the nerds

The foreign policy establishment is beginning to bite back. While President Trump was outperforming even by his own low standards in a press conference Thursday, Senator McCain, Secretary of Defense Mattis, Vice President Pence, and Secretary of State Tillerson were busy in Europe declaring their unqualified commitment to the NATO Alliance, urging the allies to meet their 2014 commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense by 2024, opposing any softening with Russia on Ukraine, denouncing those who doubt Western values, and lauding the post-World War II liberal international framework. Trump likely wasn’t listening–he doesn’t even listen to the questions asked at his own news conference–but no doubt his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, heard what amounts to a cabinet and Congressional rebellion against his boss.

The courage to talk this way comes in part from Trump’s truly miserable ratings with the American public. At 40%, his job approval rating one month into the presidency is the lowest on record:

 

Mid-February Job Approval Ratings During Elected Presidents’ First Year in Office, Eisenhower Through Trump

 

Date Job approval
%
Trump 2017 Feb 13-15 40
Obama 2009 Feb 12-15 64
G.W. Bush 2001 Feb 19-21 62
Clinton 1993 Feb 12-14 51
G.H.W. Bush 1989 Feb 28-Mar 2 63
Reagan 1981 Feb 13-16 55
Carter 1977 Feb 18-21 71
Nixon 1969 Feb 20-25 60
Kennedy 1961 Feb 10-15 72
Eisenhower 1953 Feb 22-27 67
Average 61

He started lower than everyone else and has dropped more than all but Clinton:

 

Change in Presidential Mid-February Job Approval Ratings From Initial Job Approval Ratings, Eisenhower Through Trump
Sorted by change in approval rating

 

Initial approval Mid-February approval Change
% % pct. pts.
G.H.W. Bush 51 63 +12
G.W. Bush 57 62 +5
Carter 66 71 +5
Reagan 51 55 +4
Nixon 59 60 +1
Eisenhower 68 67 -1
Obama 68 64 -4
Trump 45 40 -5
Clinton 58 51 -7
Average 60 61 +1

The American public views Trump as less trustworthy and well informed than his predecessors, as well as less able to get things done and to communicate:

Americans generally respect NATO:

They also think Trump has damaged America’s image abroad:

This is unprecedented: a president with radical foreign policy intentions whose appointees are speaking out in ways that amount to rejection of those intentions. They are trying to hem in the President and prevent him from pursuing the worst of his ideas.

Trump still is the president however. He may be hemmed in by his own minions on NATO and Ukraine, but he is still free to act elsewhere. Iran and Syria are the likely arenas. He won’t renounce the Iran nuclear deal, because the Israelis don’t want him to. But he may seek heightened confrontation with them in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, or Syria. He may also try for a partnership with Russia in Syria by abandoning support for the Syrian opposition and trying to ween Moscow from what I suspect is an unbreakable tie to Assad. No successor regime will be as friendly to Russian (and Iranian) interests as Assad has been.

Trump is also rumored to be considering deployment of more US troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). He wouldn’t be the first American president to seek to bolster his popularity at home by waging war abroad. But Americans seem to me tired of foreign interventions. ISIS, while dreadful, is a threat to individual American citizens–even to substantial numbers of them–but it is not an existential threat that can destroy the United States. Apart from North Korea’s eventual capability to deliver nuclear weapons to California, the only threat of that sort I see on the horizon is President Trump’s attack on America’s courts, its free and independent media, its Muslim citizens, and its domestic tranquility.

 

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Good riddance, but problems persist

It’s hard not to celebrate the departure of General Flynn from the position of National Security Adviser. He was both pro-Russian and anti-Muslim beyond reason. A sworn enemy of the American intelligence establishment, he got caught by them talking sanctions relief with the Russian ambassador even before Donald Trump was sworn in. Then he allegedly lied to the Vice President about what was said. His comeuppance is well-merited.

Congressional Republicans are now pledging not to investigate him. Why would they do that? They are trying to contain the damage. Their reluctance suggests it is more than likely that Trump knew what Flynn was discussing with the Russians. Flynn’s testimony, or that of others cognizant of the contents of the phone calls, would call into question the President’s own behavior: did he authorize Flynn to discuss sanctions? Was he pleased that Flynn did so? Was this part of a broader scheme of accommodating Moscow’s interests?

The Congressional cover raises other questions: was it part of a deal to obtain Flynn’s resignation? Why wasn’t Flynn just fired? What are his non-disclosure arrangements with the Administration?

Whatever the answers, it is clear that Flynn’s resignation does not solve the basic problem, which is Trump’s unrestrained and so far unconditional desire for an improved relationship with Vladimir Putin. The President has never made it clear what he expects from this improved relationship, only that it would somehow magically make things better in the world. He also hasn’t specified what he would be prepared to give up in return: recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea? Southeastern Ukraine? Independence of Transnistria? Annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are already nominally independent? NATO accession of Montenegro, now on the Senate’s agenda for ratification? Further NATO expansion in the Balkans? NATO expansion further into Scandinavia? An end to American support for rebels in Syria?

These questions persist even without Flynn. Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson may restrain the White House from some particularly bad impulses, especially Trump’s inclination to ditch NATO altogether, but their leverage will be limited. If the President is prepared to pursue a rapprochement with Russia despite the failures recorded by his two immediate predecessors, he will no doubt pick a new National Security Adviser prepared to pursue his policy direction. I doubt that can be David Petraeus, who in any event is already tarred with the brush of security violations. But I trust there are lots of other people who will do the work if given the opportunity.

In the meanwhile, the resignation of the National Security Adviser (and according to the press his deputy) will throw a National Security Council already roiled by leaks into further turmoil. President Trump has already failed to respond with anything but a few thin words of support to Japan when North Korea tested a missile in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. He is looking unprepared for a crisis, which of course means that someone somewhere on earth is likely to think this is a good time to precipitate one. An already messy transition has unsettled America’s relationships across the globe and now seems likely to open the door to a serious security challenge.

It is easy enough to say good riddance to Flynn. But there are real risks involved in a presidency committed to cooperation with Putin’s aggressive Russia and unprepared to meet even the challenge of a North Korean missile test.

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Assad may stay, but his abuses shouldn’t

RAND colleagues have again updated their proposal for de-escalation and decentralization in Syria. This time there is no pretense that Assad would cooperate, only an assertion that he is unlikely to do better given his weakening military forces. The proposition now is for a Russian/American/Turkish  and maybe /Iranian agreement imposed on him and the opposition, once Raqqa is taken by the Kurdish and allied Arab forces now investing it.

Raqqa would be put under international (UN or US/Russian) administration, the opposition would remain in control of a slice of the south, Idlib would likely fall to the regime, the “Manbij pocket” would remain in Turkish or surrogate Turkoman hands, and Kurds would rule the rest of the north. Assad would control “useful Syria” in the populous western “spine” and might eventually get his hands on Deir Azzour and its oil resources in the east, where regime forces have held on through more than six years of revolution and war.

The premise behind this proposal is that we are near if not at a mutually hurting stalemate, in which the warring parties conclude that they have no prospect of gaining much from continued fighting. What Jim Dobbins, Phil Gordon, and Jeffrey Martini are proposing is what is known in the negotiating trade as a “way out.” They don’t claim that what they propose is fair or just, only that ending the fighting and refocusing the military effort against the extremists of Jabhat Fateh al Sham and the Islamic State is what serves US interests best. While they don’t say it, I suppose Donald Trump could claim that an internationally administered Raqqa province is the “safe zone” that he has repeatedly promised. This is a faute de mieux proposal based on the emerging situation, not an optimal one.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the proposal is the Kurdish-led attack on Raqqa, followed by a withdrawal in favor of an international administration. Some would like to see Turkish-backed Arab forces engaged there, perhaps in parallel if not jointly with the Kurdish-led Arabs. The rest amounts mainly to acceptance of the status quo, or the presumed status to be.

I understand why Americans focus on who takes Raqqa–it is the “capital” and last real stronghold of the Islamic State in Syria. Its conquest will affect the geopolitics of the region for a long time to come. But I also think it is what Alfred North Whitehead called a “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” For me, the main issue is how the two-thirds of Syrians under Assad control in the western spine of the country will live, what will happen with the 6.6 million displaced people, and whether the 4.8 million Syrian refugees will be welcomed back to the country. It is a mistake to focus on Raqqa without considering these issues.

While the Trump administration may have different ideas, it was hard to imagine until January 20 that the United States would help the Assad regime with anything but the massive humanitarian aid it has provided throughout the fighting, much of which has gone to regime-controlled areas.

Reconstruction assistance is another matter. The Russians and Iranians have already told Assad they have given during the war and cannot be relied upon once it is over. Iran has recently cut its subsidized oil shipments. If the fighting ends with a negotiated agreement along the lines RAND proposes, the Americans and Europeans will be expected to ante up, if not directly at least by allowing IMF and World Bank assistance.

What conditions should govern American and European support for reconstruction?

Here is where the West has a chance to win the peace, even if the opposition has lost the war. It will need to use prospective assistance as leverage to get Assad to drop his authoritarian brutality, illustrated recently by Amnesty International’s graphic report on the executions at Saydnaya prison. The US should lay out clearly and in advance the conditions under which it would consider more than humanitarian assistance to Syria’s civilians under regime control. Something like these might be considered:

  • Release of all political prisoners and an accounting for all those executed or still held.
  • Amnesty for non-violent demonstrators.
  • Reform of the security and judicial services, with accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
  • Withdrawal of all foreign forces, including Lebanese Hizbollah as well as Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias, as well as demobilization and dissolution of all sectarian forces.
  • An inclusive process for revising the Syrian constitution and deciding when free and fair elections will be held.
  • Creation of an independent electoral commission.
  • Elimination of excessive constraints on media and political activity.
  • Freedom to return without reprisals for all refugees and displaced people.
  • An end to the crony capitalism that was a driving force of the revolution.

A vigorous and capable UN mission or something of the sort would be required to get fulfillment of such conditions and monitor implementation.

Assad is nowhere near accepting such conditions today. He continues with bold-faced denials, not only of the executions at Saydnaya but even the well-documented use of barrel bombs against civilians and attacks on hospitals and schools. If he persists in that vein, America and Europe should keep their wallets in their pockets and let come what may. Worrying about how Raqqa will be governed is far less important than making sure the abuses come to an end in the areas Assad controls.

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