Tag: United Nations

Syria strategy

Secretary of State Tillerson today in a speech at the Hoover Institution outlined US goals in Syria. Tobias Schneider summarized them succinctly on Twitter:

  • Enduring defeat of ISIS & AQ in Syria
  • Political resolution to Syria conflict (w/o Assad)
  • Diminishing Iranian influence
  • Create conditions for safe refugee return
  • Syria free from WMD

Those sound in principle desirable to me, though they leave out an important one: preventing instability in Syria’s neighbors, including Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan (all more or less US friends if not allies).

The problem lies one step further on in defining a strategy: the ways and means. Tobias and others on Twitter see this set of goals as a license for an unending US commitment to remain in Syria and to “stabilize” it. Hidden under that rock, which Tillerson was careful to say was not a synonym for nationbuilding, lies a commitment to guess what? Nationbuilding.

But let’s deal first with the the ways and means issue. As I see it, this is all we’ve got going for us in Syria:

  1. US military presence and capability, including control through proxies of major oil-producing wells and maybe a proxy presence along the borders with Israel and Jordan.
  2. A UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution (2254) that outlines a political process to prepare a constitution, hold elections, and begin a transition to a democratic system.
  3. The US veto in the UNSC over any successor resolution that approves and advances the political process.
  4. US aid to parts of Syria outside Assad’s control, US clout in the IMF and World Bank , and influence over European and Gulf aid.

Is this enough to deliver the five goals? I doubt it. Take just refugee return: it requires that people not be forced back but that they return of their own volition. The trickle (50,000 Tillerson said) who have returned in the last year are truly a drop in the bucket. Most refugees (upwards of 5.5 million if I remember correctly) won’t return until Assad and his security forces are gone, or at least blocked from acting in parts of Syria. Likewise the political resolution, diminishing Iranian influence, and getting rid of WMD also depend on getting rid of Assad, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Even the enduring defeat of ISIS and Al Qaeda likely require Assad to be pushed aside, as he has consistently used his forces preferentially against the moderate opposition rather than the extremists, with whom his regime had an excellent cooperative relationship when US forces were in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. Assad will want to keep some of them around even now, as they help to justify his brutal repression of the Syrian population.

But getting rid of Assad means, let’s face it, rebuilding the Syrian state, which is unlikely to survive in a form able to deliver on the above goals once he is gone. He has made sure of that by waging war against his own population for six long years.

Remember too: he has Russian and Iranian backing to remain in power.

Without better means, it looks to me as if the US is in Syria for a long time and will ultimately fail. That’s not an attractive proposition. The question is whether it would be better to leave now, or soon. Do we have to stay to do nationbuilding? How can it be done best? How long will it take? How much will it cost? More on that in a future post.

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Trump’s threat to the nuclear deal

Pantelis Ikonomou, former IAEA nuclear inspector, offers this reflection on President Trump’s continuing threat to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal: 

Last Friday, the US president said he is extending the sanctions waver for Iran one last time, for another 120 days, so Europe and the US can fix the nuclear deal’s “terrible flaws”.

Should we be relieved? Rather disappointed for the continuation of an ambiguous policy with unclear scope and dangerous consequences.

What are the “terrible flaws” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA)?

Crown points of concern for the US president are the nuclear agreement’s “sunset clauses” and  “suspicious sites” in Iran, which are not monitored.

How can these be fixed in the upcoming 120 days?

The agreement’s deadlines regarding specified actions and defined sanctions have been thoroughly discussed and agreed upon by all signatories, including the United States.

As for “suspicious sites”, the IAEA has the agreed right and obligation to request access to any site it might consider necessary under the scope of the agreement. Such a request would be based on an IAEA assessment of credible open-source or other information provided by an IAEA member state, including the US.

Antilogos to Trump’s stance:

The IAEA confirmed in a succession of reports that Iran is fully complying with the commitments made under the JCPOA, the world’s “most robust nuclear verification regime”.

The European High Representative Federica Mogherini, one day before Trump’s decision Friday, following a meeting in Brussels with the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, the UK and Iran, stated that “the continued successful implementation of JCPOA ensures that Iran’s nuclear programme remains exclusively peaceful.” Europe considers that the agreement “is crucial for its security (and)…is determined to preserve it.”

Neither Russia nor China are backing president Trump’s stance on the Iran agreement. To the contrary, they both defend JCPOA, which they have both shaped and signed. It is in fact a multilateral agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council.

Trump’s position on the deal keeps Iran in closer ties to Russia, its foremost geopolitical ally; it could also push Tehran closer to Beijing.

Moreover, hardliners in Iran might assume full control of power in Tehran, triggering this time a non-safeguarded nuclear program, thus “pushing” other candidates in the region to follow Iran’s nuclear breakout.

At a time of acute nuclear threat, in particular the open-ended North Korean crisis, jeopardizing the integrity of the non-proliferation architecture, along with breaking solid bridges with historical friends and steadfast allies, could create a paramount threat to global security.


Pantelis Ikonomou

Former IAEA nuclear inspector

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Size doesn’t matter

President Trump outdid The Onion yesterday, tweeting:

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!

Apart from the obvious stupidity of engaging in a fourth-grade ego contest with a nuclear-armed dictator, this tweet alone demonstrates how unfit Trump is to be president. Let’s consider the reasons why:

  1. Kim’s warning that he now had nuclear capability (and implicitly could hit the US mainland with it, not only US troops in South Korea and Japan) had been issued two days earlier, not just before this tweet. Trump is often criticized for acting too quickly, but one has to wonder whether his TV schedule is allowing enough time for intel briefings, never mind reading a newspaper.
  2. North Korea is a lot less “depleted and food starved” than once it was. Kim has improved its economic performance notably, even if the benefits are largely swept up by a small elite. Does that sound familiar?
  3. American nuclear weapons are unquestionably more powerful than whatever Kim has got, but the real issue is whether Trump is willing to risk loss of Los Angeles or New York (never mine Washington DC). Any US threat or attack, conventional or nuclear, could escalate in that direction.
  4. The world sees tweets like this one as demonstrating that the President is not rational. Who wants to be allied, or even friendly, with a nut?

Size really doesn’t matter. Kim has what he needs: enough credibility for his nuclear and missile capabilities to deter the US from either attacking or pursuing regime change. Nor does he need to turn to those capabilities in the first instance. He has also got a more than credible conventional threat to rain artillery shells on Seoul and much of South Korea, killing hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, wrecking the world’s 11th largest economy, and ending the long peace in East Asia.

Kim’s problem is that he can’t be sure Trump is rational. The Administration likes to advertise this uncertainty as an advantage. No one really knows what the President will do, which he presumes will make them think twice before crossing him.

That however is not how things really work. Uncertainty in international relations makes people hedge. South Korea is doing that already by trying to open an “Olympic” dialogue with the North, which Kim has accepted. If he can open some space between US war threats and South Korean jaw-jaw, Kim will have achieved a great deal. The US will be marginalized from issues on the peninsula and reduced to a second-rate player in the Asia Pacific, where Trump has already ceded trade (by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the South China Sea to Beijing dominance. Kim will hedge too, turning to Russia to replace the support he has traditionally received from China, and trying to work something out on the economic front with the detente-seeking administration in Seoul.

Trump’s blustering and bullying is self-defeating. The Administration has been successful in tightening UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang. The President’s tweet will undo a good deal of the benefit from that significant achievement. He is isolating and weakening the United States, not to mention risking nuclear war. When will the Republicans in Congress wake up to their responsibilities?

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Pretense doesn’t govern well

I’ve been hesitating to post this, fearing someone would demonstrate that it’s not really Nikki Haley and that the scam is on me. That could still happen, but I am doubting it. It certainly sounds like her. Nor has she denied it so far as I can tell. The American press hasn’t given this scam many electrons. They are being extra-cautious these days to prevent Fake News accusations.

That’s Nikki Haley, the Republicans’ great female hope, scammed by two Russian prankster comedians pretending to be the Polish Foreign Minister. Binomo, the country she claims to be watching carefully, doesn’t exist.

I don’t know how this call was placed and why she accepted it. Usually senior government officials take their foreign calls either through the State Department executive secretariat or the White House switch. It’s foolish to do otherwise. The bureaucrats have good ways of checking on the identity of the caller.

What is striking about Haley’s behavior is how ready she is to pretend that she knows what she is talking about. A diplomat can’t know everything going on worldwide every day. I’ve often had to ask foreign government officials to explain in more detail what they are talking about–not the least because their perspective on the news could be different from ours. Saying “I’ll have to get back to you about that” is perfectly acceptable. Haley gets there eventually, but not before she has been well scammed.

Pretense, which is akin to lying but intended to make something appear true, is a distinguishing characteristic of this Administration. Trump pretends his first year in office was a successful one, hoping that saying will make it so. He pretends that he understands the details of legislation. He pretends to have good relations with Republicans in Congress. He pretends to have an agreement with China’s President about North Korea. He pretends that the Special Counsel investigation has demonstrated no collusion with Russia, repeating it 16 times. hoping the idea will stick.

It is not surprising to see others in the Administration take up this habit. Hierarchies model themselves on the top. It may even work–Nikki Haley likely pulled this “I know what you are talking about” act many times before getting caught. Not everyone will have been fooled, but that hasn’t deterred her. She’ll continue to play her pretense game. She, like the President, is more concerned to appear knowledgeable than to understand what is really going on.

This is a serious vulnerability in the diplomatic world, where there are a lot of people scamming every day of the week. Knowing the difference between true and false is a key diplomatic skill. Nikki Haley has had a lot of good press for her coherence and verbal skills, two qualities President Trump lacks. But she’ll need to get a lot better at detecting bullshit if she is going to succeed in diplomacy, never mind fulfill Republican expectations that she will break the glass ceiling in 2020 or 2024 to become president. Pretense doesn’t govern well, as Trump demonstrates every day.


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The wrong chair

Serbia, State Department official Hoyt Yee warned in October, could not “sit on two chairs.” He meant it has to choose between the European Union and Russia, between the West and the East. This is admittedly asking a lot of a country that enjoyed a leading role in the heyday of the Non-Aligned Movement and continues to regard itself as at least militarily “unaligned,” whatever that means in the post-Cold War world.

Serbian President Vucic was in Moscow earlier this week to meet with President Putin. He said things there that at least sound to Washington ears as if he is choosing the East. He

repeated a vow that Serbia will not join EU nations in imposing sanctions against Russia, though he ‘can’t guarantee what will happen after I leave this post.’

He says he asked Russia to join the Belgrade/Pristina talks if Kosovo manages to convince the US to join them:

Vucic has also claimed claimed that Serbia is the only country in Europe that has never voted against Russia in any international forum.
Let’s be clear: Serbia is free to choose its alignment or non-alignment, just like any other sovereign state. But it really cannot sit on two stools. Aligning its foreign policy with the EU is part of the process of qualifying for accession. While Brussels may choose to be wishy-washy about it in the near term, the votes for accession simply won’t be there when the time comes unless Serbia meets the membership criteria.
That will include not only alignment with EU sanctions and other decisions vis-a-vis Russia but also acceptance of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Kosovo and normalization of relations between the two states. Twenty-three out of 28 EU members have recognized Kosovo. I doubt any of the 23 will be willing to accept Serbia as an EU member unless is normalizes relations with its erstwhile province. But I am certain the Dutch and Germans will hold out no matter what.
What does normalization entail? There are two crucial steps:
  1. Entry of Kosovo into the UN General Assembly;
  2. Exchange of diplomats at the ambassadorial level.

Note that neither of these steps involves “recognition of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence,” which Serb politicians have pledged not to do. Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence was an expression of political will that breached no international law, as the International Court of Justice has advised, in response to a Serbian request. Nor is bilateral recognition necessary, as entry into the UN makes that superfluous. Exchange of diplomatic representatives at the ambassadorial level is in any case the moral equivalent. East and West Germany called them “permanent representatives.”

When should Serbia normalize relations with Kosovo? Belgrade’s approach has been to postpone until just before EU accession. That is a serious error. At the final stages of negotiation, all the leverage is on the EU side. Just ask Slovenia and Croatia, which had to yield on important issues in the final stages of their accession negotiations. The same will happen with Serbia: if it gets to that final stage without normalizing relations with Kosovo, it won’t get anything in return for it.

This means Serbia would be wiser to sit on the EU chair sooner rather than later, negotiating what it can in return for Kosovo’s UN membership and exchange of something like permanent representatives. What can it get? I don’t know, but no one will ever know unless it tries. And having Moscow at the Pristina/Belgrade talks won’t help. After all, Russia has recognized the independence of breakaway provinces of Georgia and Moldova, while annexing Crimea and supporting secessionists in Ukraine’s southeast. Is it wise for Serbia to be relying on Russia to assert Belgrade’s sovereignty over Kosovo?


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Syrian motherhood and apple pie

Stefano De Mistura, the UN’s negotiator for Syria, has been assiduously building “12 points” of commonality at his Geneva-based proximity negotiations with the Syrian government and opposition. A version of these got tweeted around late last week (apologies, I’ve forgotten by whom). I’ve been contemplating them over the weekend.

The 12 points are good. Titled “living intra-Syrian essential principles,” they project an end-state that includes a sovereign, democratic Syria including all its national territory, a non-sectarian state of citizens with equal rights and the usual array of freedoms, good governance and a unified army, rejection of terrorism, preservation of national heritage…. In other words, motherhood and apple pie.

Like many other diplomatic documents, the most significant part is what is missing: any transition in governing authority away from Bashar al Assad and any accountability for acts committed during the almost seven years of war. The Syrian opposition is no doubt insisting on that. The Syrian government representatives walked out over the weekend, presumably because they are unwilling to move in that direction.

The military situation inside Syria gives Assad the license to refuse. He does not control the entire country: Turkish troops control part of the northern border as well as part of Idlib province, Syrian opposition forces control part of the south along the Israeli and Jordanian borders while US-supported, and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces control much of the northeast. Islamic State still has some presence in the south and east. But Assad is increasingly secure in Damascus, protected by Iran and Russia and raining bombs on remaining pockets of resistance east of the capital and in other parts of the country.

With the US headed for the exit, the denouement in Syria depends heavily on what Iran and Russia are prepared to do. Iran will back Assad to the hilt: they own him much more now than they did seven years ago and stand close to gaining the much ballyhooed Shia “land bridge” through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Some see strains between Iran and Russia, which has less interest in Assad and more interest in ensuring that any possible successor is friendly to Moscow’s continued presence. Hence the Russian interest in at least parts of the less resistant parts of the Syrian opposition.

The Syrian opposition correctly understands that the UN’s motherhood and apple pie principles cannot be implemented with Assad still in place. Neither Iran nor Russia will be interested in a seriously democratic Syria, whose Sunni majority has manned most of the opposition. That is why Moscow and Tehran continue, with Ankara’s cooperation, to convene meetings in Astana and Sochi that are now clearly intended to displace the UN’s “Geneva process” in the search for a political solution.

The US has only a few cards left to play:

  • it owns, with its SDF allies, a good part of Syria’s northeast, including the main Syrian oil producing facilities;
  • it controls, with European allies, IMF and World Bank funding for reconstruction;
  • it wields a veto over any new resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council.

Somehow the US needs to use these cards to encourage a political evolution that would enable the 12 principles to be realized, eventually, in practice. That’s not going to be easy. You might even need a fully functional State Department to make it happen.

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