Tag: United Nations

Outside influences in the Balkans

Some colleagues asked that I talk yesterday about outside influences on the Balkans, where things have gotten shaky lately, with a risk that the peace settlements of the 1990s might unravel. Here are the notes I prepared for myself: 

  1. Renewed attention to the Balkans, which has all but dropped off Washington’s priorities in recent years, is most welcome. The region has made a lot of progress, especially in the first ten years after the Bosnian war, but right now it is in trouble.
  1. I’ve been asked to talk about “outside influences”: Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
  1. It is important at the outset to say that none of these countries would have much influence in the Balkans except for the decline in American engagement and the weakening of the EU.
  1. The US has tried for a decade now to get the EU to lead, as it has the main carrots for political and economic reform as well as more compelling interests in the region.
  1. The Europeans have done some good things: the Brussels dialogue has led to real improvements in Belgrade/Pristina relations, even if many specific agreements remain unimplemented.
  1. The 2014 British-German initiative for economic reform in Bosnia—undertaken to forestall a renewed U.S. initiative to change its constitution—has made little real progress, largely due to European reluctance to stick with its own conditionality.
  1. The best that can be said for EU efforts in Macedonia is that they have so far avoided the worst, with US support. The EU there seems unable to overcome a monumental level of stubbornness.
  1. But in the past two years the refugee crisis, Brexit, surging nationalism in many EU countries, and the congenital inability of the EU to speak with one voice has undermined the credibility of EU accession, which in any event won’t happen before 2020 and more likely not before 2025.
  1. That’s a long time to wait in the Balkans, where we’ve spoiled people with Stabilization and Association, Schengen visas, candidacy for EU accession, pre-accession funds, and other goodies. What we haven’t done is invest: the US and EU have risked little private money in the Balkans.
  1. Russia and Turkey—whose influence is far greater than others I’ve been asked to discuss—are moving into relative vacuums: the Russians find ethnic Serbs easy pickings and the Turks find Islamists, especially in Bosnia but also in Kosovo, friendly to their interests.
  1. The Russian influence is overwhelmingly pernicious from a Western perspective. Moscow is doing its best to make NATO and EU membership as slow and as difficult as possible, especially in Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Its influence in Albania and Kosovo is minimal.
  1. The attempted coup in Montenegro is just the tip of iceberg. Moscow contributes to ethnic tensions, political polarization, and regional instability in many ways: opaque financing for Republika Srpska, Russia’s so-called humanitarian center, overt military aid and investments in Serbia, support to Russophile politicians as well as media onslaughts throughout the region.
  1. Quite apart from these Slavic connections, Moscow has strong leverage over Belgrade because its UNSC veto is essential to blocking Kosovo’s General Assembly membership.
  1. Moscow’s goal is clear: to prevent Balkan countries from entering NATO and even the EU.
  1. Turkey is a different story.
  1. For more than twenty years after the Bosnian war the Turks were disciplined Western-oriented contributors to peacekeeping and development in the Balkans, trying to maintain good relations with Serbs and Croats as well as with Balkan Muslims.
  1. This has been described as a “gentle version” of the Ottoman Empire, one associated with the “no problems with neighbors” policy and aimed at the region’s Christians as well as its Muslims.
  1. Many Croats and Serbs may have been nervous about Turkish cultural inroads, as parts of the region lived for centuries under Ottoman domination, but most welcomed Turkish investment and contractors, which are evident throughout the region.
  1. As Erdogan turned in a more authoritarian direction and relations with the US strained, Turkey began a more Islamist push, especially with Bosnian Muslims and President Bakir Izetbegovic.
  1. The Muslim Brotherhood connection is a more visible and explicit one for Bakir than it was for his father, though it existed for Alija Izetbegovic as well.
  1. The recent Turkish-Russian rapprochement has had an undesirable impact with some Bosniak leaders in Montenegro. They are taking Erdogan’s hint, viewing Moscow in a more positive light and connecting with the Chechen leadership. That development may warrant monitoring, especially if it spills over to Bosnia.
  1. Turkey has also had notably good relations with President Thaci in Kosovo, but more based on commercial opportunities than religion.
  1. Iran and Saudi Arabia both have long histories in the Balkans.

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Tillerson’s tilt

In Moscow today, Secretary of State Tillerson will try to convince the Russians to abandon President Assad and opt instead for a political process that would replace him and begin the transition away from the Ba’athist dictatorship that has governed Syria since 1963. Tillerson will argue that Assad’s April 4 use of chemical weapons against his opponents de-legitimates his rule and embarrasses Russia, which helped negotiate the 2013 UN Security Council agreement under which Syria was to surrender or destroy its chemical weapons and its capacity to make them.

It isn’t going to work. Russia is still denying that Assad was responsible for last week’s attack, which the Americans claim was launched from an air base at which Russian forces were present. President Putin has declined to see Tillerson, a clear indication that Russia is not planning to change its tune. Moscow wants an international investigation of the chemical incident, which it claims may have been caused by a conventional bomb falling on an opposition chemical weapons depot. The publicly available information contradicts that hypothesis.

While sounding reasonable, an international investigation would tie up the issue of what to do about the incident for months if not years, sowing doubt and allowing other issues to claim priority. The Russians know well who used the chemical weapons. There are even suspicions that they knew in advance. It would be difficult to keep the loading of chemical weapons secret on a base they share with the Syrian Air Force.

There is little likelihood Moscow will abandon its support for Assad. The Russians have had many opportunities to do so during the past six years but have consistently chosen to double, triple and quadruple down to try to ensure he wins, even while claiming not to be wedded to him. With each decision, they have gone deeper into the cul-de-sac. It beggars the imagination to think they might back out now that Assad is beating his more moderate opposition and driving Syrians who oppose him into the arms of extremists. The Russians will argue that there is no viable alternative to Assad, and that he is vital to countering terrorists.

Tillerson, who has only recently found his tongue and begun to speak about international affairs, is holding a bad hand. His denunciation of Assad’s inhumane treatment of Syrians sounds hollow, as until now he has shown indifference to humanitarian concerns. Not much more than a week ago, the Trump Administration was talking about how Assad would unfortunately have to be left in power while Washington focuses on the war against the Islamic State. President Trump has still not said anything different. If he has in mind a strategy for Syria that ends Assad’s rule, he is keeping it a secret.

What looked like a big cruise missile attack last week will be derided as a pin prick next month unless something more is done, either through diplomacy or the use of force. The diplomacy looks as if it is headed for failure in Moscow. America’s G7 partners apparently failed to agree to new sanctions against Russia in their meeting yesterday in Italy. Further military force risks Syrian, Iranian and Russian escalation that Washington won’t want to respond to. Tillerson’s tilt in favor of humanitarian intervention and against Assad is unlikely to produce near-term results that make America look great again.

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Assad’s chemicals

The Trump administration has let it be know it has abandoned hope of removing Bashar al Assad from power in Syria. Assad has responded by testing the limits of Washington’s affections: by using chemical weapons, once again. This occurred as the UN and Europe were considering aid to Syria at a Brussels meeting.

So far, Donald Trump has said this cannot be ignored by the civilized world but has done nothing. He has also tried to blame President Obama for the chemical attack for not having bombed Syria the first time Assad used chemical weapons (even if he at the time he urged Obama not to act).

Trump’s failure to act is a green light for Assad to do as he likes. If Washington continues to talk but not do, no doubt Assad will continue and likely ratchet up his chemical attacks, along with his assault on hospitals and other facilities that enable civilian populations to survive in Syria’s war zones.

What could the US administration do if it wanted? Here are a few options:

  1. Create declared safe areas protected from air and ground attacks, as Trump promised to do during the campaign.
  2. Identify and destroy aircraft or artillery involved in launching chemical weapons.
  3. Attack from the air Syrian and allied ground forces that are advancing on opposition-controlled areas.
  4. Make it clear the US will not provide reconstruction aid to any areas of Syria Assad still controls.
  5. Get Moscow to stop Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

None of these are easy at this point. Number 1 requires a significant deployment of US air as well as allied forces on the ground. Beyond the area of northern Syria controlled either by the Turks or the Kurds, it isn’t likely to happen. Number 2 is technically difficult, though it likely could be done, if Assad is dumb enough to park the planes or helicopters involved within reach of US cruise missiles.

Number 3 would put the US at war with Syria and Hizbollah, if not the Russians and Iranians. Number 4 I presume true already, and I suppose Assad does too, so it won’t affect his behavior. Number 5 is the eternal hope, but not one that has proved in any way justified.

None of the options except 2 seems at all likely at this point. The Administration is far more likely to act on North Korea, which has made clear it intends to gain the capability to attack the US, than on Assad, who avoids direct clashes with the US even if his brutal crackdown feeds the Islamic State and al Qaeda beasts that will eventually threaten the US.

It is hard to imagine how Iran, which suffered horrendous chemical attacks from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (which it blames in part on US supplies), justifies its support to a serial chemical weapons abuser. My guess is denial smooths that wrinkle.

Trump may be busy blaming Obama for Assad’s chemical attacks, but the buck has been passed and now stops with Trump. Will he fail to act, like Obama? Or will he plunge the US deeper into the Middle East maelstrom, with unforeseeable consequences?

PS: Here is Trump today on the subject:

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We Exist!

This admirably brief and cogent policy statement by a consortium of 25 Syrian nongovernmental humanitarian and human rights organizations merits consideration, especially in light of the Trump Administration’s acceptance of the continuation of Bashar al Assad in power:

Policy statement for the Brussels Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region

Brussels 03/04/2017

On 4th and 5th April, the European Union, United Nations, Germany, Kuwait, Norway, Qatar, and UK host the Brussels Conference on Supporting the future of Syria and the region. The Brussels Conference will tackle a range of issues impacting on both immediate life-saving humanitarian priorities as well as longer-term efforts to resolve the conflict. As the violence worsens inside Syria, and political efforts to resolve the conflict prove highly contentious, preparations towards the Conference have been fraught with controversy over if and how ‘reconstruction’ might feature on the agenda, and the political implications of this. The question of how civil society can participate at the Conference, or influence the decisions made, has also been controversial.

In this context, the We Exist! coalition of Syrian civil society organisations makes the following recommendations:

1. Facilitate meaningful participation by independent Syrian civil society groups at the Brussels Conference and follow-up processes – Unfortunately, the experience to date has been that local civil society has generally been the last to get invited into international policy processes on Syria that will impact on their work and the lives of the communities they directly serve. The co-hosts of the Brussels Conference, as well as the preparatory meetings hosted by the UN Office of the Special Envoy Stefan De Mistura and the High Representative Federica Mogherini, ECHO and DG NEAR, should take steps to ensure that diverse Syrian civil society organisations can participate and contribute to the process. In addition, they should ensure effective and inclusive participation in the follow-up process to implement, monitor and evaluate outcomes from the Conference, the Civil Society Chamber meetings and the other side events.

2. Affirm the protection and inclusion of civil society in the substantive commitments and outcomes agreed at the Conference – The Conference should issue a strong call its final declaration as well as in statements by individual governments for the protection and inclusion of independent local civil society organisations in all aspects of the international, national and local response to the Syrian crisis. Attacks on civil society activists and the criminalization of independent civil society groups that has spiraled over the past six years should cease. Respect of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights norms should be strongly reaffirmed and accountability for violations by all parties to the conflict promoted. Parties to the conflict have fostered and manipulated social and other community differences to serve their political and military objectives. As such, support to civil society should embody principles of inclusion, with steps taken to ensure that marginalized groups can engage and diversity in terms of gender, age, political, social and other relevant factors.

3. Rethink Reconstruction – Reconstruction cannot just be about bricks and
concrete, it must address the political, social and economic root causes of the
uprising and subsequent violent conflict. The political transition from violence
towards sustainable peace should be inclusive and representing the aspirations of
the Syrian people for freedom and dignity. Reconstruction should be for all of Syria
and all Syrians, and not determined by the imperatives of conflict or political
violence. As such, it should only start and be funded after credible steps toward a
genuine transition. Accountability and justice are necessary for this to happen –
without these, reconstruction efforts risk becoming new fronts in forced
displacement, the dispossession of property, human rights violations and further
rounds of violence. Donors and the UN should not conflate ‘early recovery’ with
premature involvement without the political conditions for reconstruction being in
place. Furthermore, the important role of independent Syrian civil society
organizations should be affirmed in the political track of negotiations on conflict
resolution inside Syria as well as in any eventual ‘reconstruction’ efforts following a
political settlement. They have a central role to play in promoting human rights,
justice, accountability, peace and reconciliation.

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Who killed these people?

I received this note this morning from the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade:

Approximately 1,400 civilians were killed in the area of responsibility of the 37th Brigade of the Yugoslav Army in Kosovo in 1999. The mortal remains of a number of victims were discovered in mass graves in Serbia. The present Chief of General Staff of the Serbian Army, Ljubiša Diković, was the Commander of the Brigade at this time. Neither he nor any members of his unit have been held accountable for these crimes.

The evidence showing the presence and the role of the Yugoslav Army in the mass killings of civilians in Izbica, Čirez, Savarine, Rezala and other villages in the Drenica region is presented in the film titled “Ljubiša Diković and the 37th Brigade in Kosovo”, made by the Humanitarian Law Center. This evidence has already been presented in the “Ljubiša Diković” and “Rudnica” Dossiers.

A number of TV services in Serbia, including the public broadcasters Radio and Television of Serbia and Radio and Television of Vojvodina, have refused or have not responded to the request that they screen the film.

So here is the film, which apart from the spooky music seems to me worthy of the attention of anyone concerned with justice in the Balkans:

I hasten to add that there are of course Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and others about whom the same question could be asked. It is to the credit of the Humanitarian Law Center that it has been concerned about all the individuals killed in the 1990s Balkan wars.

Injustice does not justify injustice. The failure to assign responsibility in one case does not excuse the failure to assign responsibility in others. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had limited capacities and is now closed to new cases. The governments of the region owe it to each other and to themselves to assign responsibility, even to their highest officials if that is where the evidence points.

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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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