Archive for December, 2011

December 30, 2011

Goodluck Needed to Combat Religious Tensions Rising in Nigeria

Once confined to the realm of lesser known terrorist organizations, Boko Haram has vastly stepped up its campaign in recent weeks and months. The group originally garnered some sympathy for the less than ideal conditions faced by Nigeria’s Muslims in the north of the country. An empathy towards the group has long since faded, as since 2009 its rhetoric and actions have taken a hard tack towards greater shows of violence, following the killing of its founder. The group bombed UN headquarters in Abuja in August, killing 23 people and setting off a new round of condemnation and crackdown by the government with Boko Haram continuing to push back.

The struggle reached a crescendo on Christmas Day. Five churches across Nigeria were bombed by Boko Haram. Nearly forty died in the violence, with many more wounded. Boko Haram quickly took credit for the carnage, prompting a harsh condemnation from the Nigerian government and the international community. Nigerian authorities moved quickly to arrest two suspects, though when asked about details, the government only said that the two were “caught in action”.

The Christmas Day bombings were a nightmare, but the worst is potentially yet to come. Two days later, a homemade bomb was thrown into an Islamic school where students were learning the Qu’ran. Seven were wounded in the attack, six of whom were children under the age of nine. The bombing sparked a fierce debate on Twitter over the targeting of civilians in times of conflict and strife, especially children. No matter what your enemy deems is a justifiable target, there are standards that must be followed and fiercely protected if you’re to have any semblance of the upper hand, both morally and in terms of protecting your own people. Retaliatory strikes against civilian populations only engender further attacks against your own population, as they are clearly marked as fair game to both sides. The escalation is inevitable once both sides take that initial step, leaving both sides depleted and wrecked if and when the conflict finally comes to a close, made all the less likely due to the feelings of resentment that are sure to linger.

It’s still unknown who threw that bomb into the madrassa, though police suspect it was a local vigilante. What is known is that the Christian community in Nigeria is asking for a response from the state, and rightly so. President Goodluck Jonathan’s government is fast losing the confidence of its Christian constituents:

“It is considered as a declaration of war on Christians and Nigeria,” Ayo Oritsejafor, head of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) said. “CAN has found the responses of … Islamic bodies on this matter to be unacceptable and an abdication of their responsibilities.”

“The Christian Community is fast losing confidence in government’s ability to protect our rights.”

President Jonathan’s problems are multiple at this stage. The second that Christian groups truly lose faith in his government’s ability protect them, that’s it. Game over. Boko Haram will have won. A demographic that has determined that the government’s monopoly on the use of force no longer benefits them will seize it for themselves, leading to larger and bloodier clashes. It is my belief that the chaos that would come from a such an escalation would allow for an upswing of violence in the Niger Delta. MEND has threatened recently to break its cease-fire with the state and could take advantage of the discord in an attempt to bring about its own separation in the event of a North-South split. Such large-scale sectarian conflict between the North and South would quickly spill over into neighboring countries, and disrupt the entirety of West Africa. All of these things serve to weaken the central government, Boko Haram’s primary goal.

The solution cannot be one solely of force, however. A two-track approach should be adopted by President Jonathan to simultaneously discourage Boko Haram from further attacks, while working to adjudicate the legitimate grievances that launched the group on its current path, rather than the heavy-handed military-driven response seen previously. The majority of the oil wealth of Nigeria is produced in the South, the production of which has allowed Nigeria to become the powerful state it has today. The income raised from oil must be more equitably distributed into programs in the North for development. Political power must be spread further as well, bringing elites and those representative of various Muslim groups into the fold of government. Alleviating these problems, however, cannot come without the show of force and restoration of central control that is needed to suppress the movement’s practitioners of violence and provide assurances to the Christian community that the government takes its protection seriously. Through this dual-track, Goodluck Jonathan can both eliminate the current stable of fighters while ending the main draw for new recruits.

The Nigerian government doesn’t have to act alone in this matter. One of the more muscular of regional organizations, ECOWAS has long stepped outside of its original scope as an economic alliance, and has often provided military support to its members as they face violence and the threat of civil war. While Nigeria is its most powerful member, calling upon its fellow states to prevent Boko Haram from having safe havens or locales to coordinate with AQIM would be beneficial to government efforts. The United States pledged its support in the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombings as well, an offer the government is sure to take up gladly.

Further, it should be noted that Boko Haram’s violence isn’t confined to the government or Christian targets. Only today a mosque in Maiduguri was bombed, leading to several deaths and injuries in the ensuing stampede; the government has blamed Boko Haram for the blast. Boko Haram’s violence against all Nigerians is an exploitable advantage in ending their campaign. The President should quickly call upon representatives from the Muslim and Christian communities to join him in Abuja for a frank dialogue in an effort to ease tensions. Meanwhile, an assurance that the rule of law applies to both sects would be well-received by international watchers of the situation, with a government pledge to act in the interest of Christians and Muslims that come under attack. The quicker the government responds with something other than bullets to show that it’s taking the situation seriously, the less of a leg Boko Haram will have to stand on in pursuing its goals.

December 29, 2011

Known Unknowns – A Confession and Reflection

It’s been five months since I started this blog, so a check-in on my thoughts since my first post seems in order. Now, I don’t often do this, but something was brought up to me yesterday, and I felt the need to address it in longer form than just a tweet. What I’m about to say goes against most standards of the Internet, I feel, but it has to be said: I don’t know everything. Man. It feels good to get that off my chest.

The fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to write about foreign policy and national security matters when you are 100% sure of the fact that you don’t know everything that’s going on with the topic you’re discussing. To be 100% sure that what you’re writing is accurate, you need one of three things, I feel. You need to have the access where you’re in the room during the meetings where these matters are discussed; you need to have the level of clearance that you are working directly on some of these issues; or you have sources that have access to one of the first two. I am currently at the level where none of those things is applicable to me. And I’m okay with that. For now. Ideally, the last of those is the one that I would want to really develop if I’m going to keep writing in this style. Thanks to everyone in the Twitterverse, and the amazing people I’ve had the fortune of meeting in the real world, I’m slowly getting to the point where I’d feel comfortable actually interviewing experts and soliciting people’s thoughts on matters in intellectual cold-calls. For now though, it’s mostly me here.

So what I produce on this blog is the product of what I’ve learned over the years, what open source material and scholarly works I can get my hands on and wrap my head around, and me attempting to put these things together and connect links into coherent arguments. As it is the result of imperfect knowledge, sometimes I’m wrong. But as Bradbury put it in Fahrenheit 451, “If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn”. So I put it out there, and see if the thoughts that have managed to be extracted from my head and placed onto the screen make sense.

That’s where you, the reader, comes in.  I need you to hit me. As hard as you can. If you come across this blog and find things that are blatantly wrong? Let me know. I’d much rather be forced to confront that I was mistaken than go forward in life possessing a false idea. Who knows, maybe it’ll turn out I’m right, and you can find yourself corrected. Funny how the Internet works like that. Or should, at least. For the record, this post isn’t about any one thing I’ve written in particular. Just an overall need to take a second and reflect on the nature of writing at this level. I’ve always strived to, and will continue to, put forward only material that I feel confident in. And I think I’ve definitely come a long way since August when I first became bold enough to click “publish”. I just wanted to make sure that, while I like to think I know what I’m talking about, nobody got the opinion that I considered myself the definitive voice on things I write about. I’m definitely learning, though.

December 29, 2011

Whither the Atrocities Prevention Board?

Back in August, President Obama signed into existence PSD-10, a Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities. When it was first released, PSD-10 was well-received by liberal interventionists and those who believe that preventative diplomacy and coordinated action can head-off mass killings, Anne-Marie Slaughter and myself included. Paul States of the Council on Foreign Relations noted that PSD-10 had the potential to make it so “the inertia and neglect that has often characterized U.S. responses in the past can also hopefully be lessened, if not eliminated”. Granted, not everyone was convinced about the necessity for further study into mass atrocities, but you can’t please everyone.

The language used in PSD-10 strikes a tone of hope for the future, while acknowledging missteps of the past, and a desire for an early warning system against mass atrocities:

In the face of a potential mass atrocity, our options are never limited to either sending in the military or standing by and doing nothing. The actions that can be taken are many they range from economic to diplomatic interventions, and from non combat military actions to outright intervention. But ensuring that the full range of options is available requires a level of governmental organization that matches the methodical organization characteristic of mass killings.

Sixty six years since the Holocaust and 17 years after Rwanda, the United States still lacks a comprehensive policy framework and a corresponding interagency mechanism for preventing and responding to mass atrocities and genocide. This has left us ill prepared to engage early, proactively, and decisively to prevent threats from evolving into large-scale civilian atrocities.

And it’s true. The bureaucracy involved in identifying, let alone taking action, on potential acts of genocide is ridiculous in its scope and the length of time it takes to run its course. The Directive determined that an interagency study, led by the National Security Advisor, would be complete within 100 days, to determine the full mandate and make-up of the body, as well as its processes. The resulting Atrocities Prevention Board was to begin its work 120 days after the signature of PSD-10, on August 4, 2011. It has now been 147 days.

Since August 4th, precisely nothing has come out of the White House on the matter. There have been no stories written, in the mainstream media on the development of the Board since late August. None. Nothing on interagency squabbles that would prevent its creation, nothing on how close it is to launch, nothing on how David Pressman’s War Crimes, Atrocities and Civilian Protection directorate at the NSC is proceeding. Nothing. Certainly outside groups [PDF] haven’t forgotten about the promise of the Board. Even the Senate has been more interested in putting the Board in the spotlight; Sens. Coons and Collins are circulating a letter that welcomes PSD-10 and the coming Atrocities Prevention Board.

Silence is certainly not helping the Administration look like it is taking the lead on actually securing human rights abroad. The ad-hoc approach determining the level of aid to be given to the Syrian opposition, as being reported by Josh Rogin at The Cable, is how the government has always worked in the face of potential disaster, a process the Atrocities Prevention Board was meant to change. Ad-hoc processes have their time and place, but a formal mechanism to target and collaborate on responding to massive human rights violations is needed to codify those processes if anything is to get done the next time a crisis rolls around.

If the Board is, in fact, up and running, an announcement needs to be made to the world. If there are delays in its launch, they need to be overcome quickly. Actually granting potential mass killings the level of attention they deserve is more than just good posturing and a bolstering of arguments of moral standing in the eyes of the international community; it’s good policy that actually enhances the security of the United States.

December 28, 2011

Now Open for Bidding: Pakistan’s UNSC Vote

For the fourth time since 1945, Pakistan will take a seat at the Horseshoe Table on January 1, 2012. In terms of the politics of the Security Council, this means that one vote got much more difficult to predict on any of the number of issues that the Council faces as remnants of 2011, much less the unforeseen challenges of 2012. Pakistan’s role as a non-permanent member of the UNSC will be that of a wild card, casting its gaze about for the best prize before it raises its hand for or against any proposal.

Pakistan’s seat was by no means a guarantee. While Kyrgyzstan isn’t the platonic ideal of a state that the framers of the Charter had in mind when developing the requirements for service on the Council, it did have a certain appeal in its campaign for the Asia-bloc seat. Foremost among its strong points: it isn’t Pakistan. At the time of the vote in the General Assembly, relations between the United States and Pakistan were already on the rocks, remnants of the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. No real counter-campaign to Pakistan emerged in Kyrgyzstan’s favor, as neither the US nor India stepped up to the plate to whip votes for the Central Asian republic. In the end, Pakistan came out ahead with 129 votes in the 193 body, a bare two-thirds minimum for acceptance onto the Council.

It’s surprising that the US didn’t lobby more heavily in favor of Kyrgyzstan. Doing so would have had several advantages. It would have provided a more likely reliable vote for United States initiatives. Kyrgyzstan has often been torn between the United States and Russia, and now increasingly China; US aid in gaining its first term on the Security Council would have been a strong point in the US’ camp. Further, Kyrgyzstan’s proximity to Afghanistan makes it ideal as an alternative shipping route for NATO logistics. Finally, and most importantly, it would have been a strong message to Pakistan that its role as a promoter of international peace and security is not a given. Denial of a Security Council seat would have been seen as an affront to Pakistan, especially if orchestrated by the United States, but such a shake-up would have been welcome at the time.

Instead, we today have a much larger rift in relations. Rather than being diplomatic in nature, this time the ire of the Pakistani military has been drawn over the accidental death of several Pakistani soldiers at the hands of NATO forces. Despite US and NATO efforts to calm the storm, Pakistan is now in the midst of re-evaluating its entire relationship with the United States, which will surely affect Pakistan’s behavior on the Security Council. The United States and the other Western permanent members have several equities at stake over the coming year that will require every vote they can muster, including Syria and other repercussions of the Arab Spring, further confrontations with Iran, as well as flare-ups in the Sudan and DR Congo. While the primary focus of Security Council dynamics often is focused on the working relationship of the Great Powers, the non-permanent members’ influence is keenly known to the ten holders of the rotating seats.

Empirical evidence supports their certainty. Several papers have come to the conclusion that states that serve terms on the Security Council see an uptick in United States foreign aid. This upswing begins when the member-state is first elected, continues throughout its two-year term, and then immediately decreases once its term has ended. While not spoken of, this knowledge is a factor in the race for Security Council seats among developing nations; the regional rotation of seats works against the original requirement of those most able to contributed to peace and security, so states may as well enjoy the spoils. Pakistan may find itself an outlier to this rule, as our continued military aid to a state that continues to hedge its bets in supporting non-state actors has come under sharper scrutiny. A reduction in aid at this time, while appropriate, could also serve to harm our interests during this two-year period outside of the scope of counterterrorism policy as Pakistan takes its seat.

The slowdown in aid without a resumption in 2012 would lead to the possibility that Pakistan will find itself more strongly allied with members of the BRICS-bloc throughout its term. The bloc, having lost Brazil to an expired term, is down a member-state that will constantly ally with it to put the brakes on Western efforts to utilize the Security Council’s full scope of powers. Even through abstention, the combined weight of the bloc leaves the other members of the SC scrambling to ensure that two other states don’t cast no votes or abstention of their own. Pakistan could easily fall into the BRICS camp, even if it does mean cooperating with its regional rival, India. The two are among the top contributors to peacekeeping missions, and are likely to work together to attempt to boost support for their forces in blue helmets.

The strain between the two may show its head when it comes to issues of fighting terrorism, however. India will be serving the second of its two-year term as the head of the UNSC’s Counter-Terrorism Committee throughout 2012. Formed in the aftermath of September 11th, the CTC hosts all 15-members of the Security Council. Any clash between India and Pakistan over the next year is likely to take place in this forum. Pushback on this issue may then reverberate to the Council writ-large, with the potential for destabilizing BRICS and splitting India from Russia and China while drawing Pakistan more into their camp.

This leaves Pakistan between the two sides, East and West, a potential wrench in the agenda for each. Up for grabs is its one vote among ten. When nine affirmative votes are required to pass anything through the Council, each one can matter, as Palestine learned when attempting to lobby for a full seat at the UN this fall. Unable to reach the minimum nine votes to force a US veto, the issue quietly died in committee. Pakistan is surely well aware of this, and will attempt to sway both sides on any issue, seeking political and economic promises before its support or dissent is given.

In theory, the two likely bidders for Pakistani support over the next two years are the United States and China; Russia’s primary strategic objective of defeating Western proposals needs no support as its veto power more than suffices. As for China, its footprint on the international community has been on the rise for several years, but has yet to translate to positive action in the Security Council, rather than serving as a brake with Russia. Should China choose to begin advancing its agenda on the Council more forcefully in the coming year, Pakistan would be a more than eager recipient of the attention and tangible benefits that would come along with supporting Chinese endeavors. This isn’t a certainty; the US using the Council to advance its own goals is.

As tempting as it may be to leave Pakistan grasping at straws with no takers for its product, it’s simply too valuable to leave on the shelf. The United States can, and will, attempt to build coalitions around Pakistan as often as possible, but there will surely be a time where that last vote is needed. And when that time comes, Pakistan will surely have an invoice ready.

December 26, 2011

Time’s Up: Call Russia’s UNSC Bluff on Syria

More members of the League of Arab States’ observer mission are arriving in Syria today, ostensibly to pressure Damascus to halt its crackdown on protesters and the general civilian population which has been taking place since March. This mission already is in trouble, with reports of tanks firing on Homs coming across the wires, and France pressing the observers to make it their first stop.

Meanwhile, the UNSC sits dormant, frozen on how to proceed on Syria, with the clash growing more and more public. The chief instigator of this paralysis is the Russian Federation, still seeking to punish the West for its regime change in Libya. China, while also irked by the move, has been largely silent on the matter of Syria, leading me to believe that if presented with a viable option for promoting stability in the country, it would either abstain or vote in favor of the proposal, provided Russia do the same.

Russia has submit several versions of a draft on Syria now, but the Western powers have had their complains about it, namely that it doesn’t go far enough to inflict damage on Damascus. Russia counters that the West is simply pushing for regime change again. So if I were a member of a Western power’s mission, I’d say it is past time to have Russia put its money where it’s mouth is. They claim that their main interest is restoring peace within Syria’s borders. If they really want to pass their draft on Syria, then let’s do it. We’ll even accede to some of their demands, because that’s what P-5 equality means thanks to the veto.

I would recommend the US, France, UK, Germany and Portugal dropping the threat of sanctions as a demand for the resolution. Completely drop it as a non-issue. You know why? Because all of Syria’s major trading partners except for Russia and Iran are already sanctioning the state. Iran is dealing with its own economic problems relating to sanctions, so why waste our breath and political capital on not even implementing sanctions, only threatening them for non-compliance? Just drop it.

Also to be given up on, though much more painful: demands that Russia amend the language to place more of the onus on the Bashar al-Assad government. It’s tough to swallow, but swallow we must to get anything done. Russia isn’t going to allow a straight condemnation without also mentioning “extremists” attacking state institutions, so let them. It should Western policy to condemn these attacks anyway,  even if they are against a hated regime.

I would even recommend allowing Russia’s horrendously phrased and entirely unneeded clause stating that “nothing in this resolution shall be interpreted as authorization of the use of force” to be in the final draft. If Moscow wants it so badly, they can keep it. NATO isn’t moving towards using force in any event, nor are any states itching to unilaterally take down the Syrian regime. And it would be a nice save of face for Russia after their fury over SC/1973. So let the Russians celebrate those victories. But not without a cost.

First,  this resolution should be enacted under Chapter VII of the Charter, to give it the full weight and force of international law; no hedging from Assad and his government, no stipulations. Hard and fast, this is what is required of you. Article 40 should also be cited as the authorization for the Security Council putting its full support behind the Arab League’s observer mission. Full stop.

The regime should allow for full access to any and all areas that the observer mission requires in fulfilling LAS Resolution 7442, with or without prior notice to the Syrian government. To aid this mission, the UNSC should request member-states provide material support, including unarmed helicopters to transport observers across Syria, to prevent delays by the Syrian security forces which would be providing the ferrying and “security” of observers otherwise.

The West should request, in exchange for dropping its sanctions demand, that a preambulatory clause be added “noting that the LAS sanctions on Syria will not be lifted until the League has determined that the Syrian state is upholding its commitments”, or similar language. As a preambulatory clause, it merely describes the situation at present without authorizing or threatening new sanctions or even directly condoning the LAS sanctions as an operative clause would. This point is less important than the others and could be dropped if need be to garner final passage.

Finally, members of the IBSA coalition, India, Brazil and South Africa, have previously offered their services as monitors as well, a move that Russia has supported in previous statements and under the auspices of the BRICS alliance. The West should include a clause seeking the support of the Arab League for members of these relatively neutral, yet powerful in their own right, states to join the official LAS mission and report to the Security Council their findings.

Taken together, these steps would allow for several things to happen simultaneously. They would allow for the Russians to come away with a win in the Security Council that actually allows action to take place that the West wants to see happen. They would move to assure a successful Arab League mission to fully document what’s going on in the ground in Syria, something I’ve expressed my doubts about in the past. And they would allow for short-term action to be taken that actually puts Assad on notice as the West seeks, empower regional organizations as China and Russia want, and bolster the role of the rising Middle Powers as IBSA seeks.

So if I were a Western diplomat, this would be my first move after everyone returns to Turtle Bay from Boxing Day festivities. It’s time to call Russia’s bluff. Either they want to be constructive members of an international solution to the troubles in Syria, or they’re stalling for time for the Assad regime. Cards on the table, Russia. What are you holding?

December 23, 2011

From Horseshoe Table to Cage Match: Rice v. Churkin in a diplomatic battle royale

It’s been a tough year on the Security Council. I mean that without a trace of irony. There have been several major decisions that have made their way to the Horseshoe Table, and the Council has been in almost constant session year-round it would seem. The last several weeks in particular have been fascinating for UN watchers as the US and Russian ambassadors have been going at each other with the gloves off. No holiday truce can be found between Susan Rice and Vitaly Churkin in Turtle Bay, not this year.

Things first started to heat up earlier this month, in a dispute over whether the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, would be allowed to brief the Council on human rights abuses in Syria at France’s request. Russia and China at first demurred from the proposal, before determining that if Pillay was going to brief under the topic “The Situation in the Middle East”, as this was official issue on the Agenda under which Syria was being discussed, that human rights concerns in Palestine would also have to be addressed:

An hour after Inner City Press first reported the proposal, Russian Ambssador Vitaly Churkin emerged to read a short Council statement. He explained that Pillay’s briefing Monday at 3 pm on “the Middle East” is understood to include Palestine as well as Syria.

Inner City Press asked Churkin if the briefing would be closed, and if Pillay would be questioned about Palestine. Churkin said he expected Pillay would hear what he was saying and that, yes, the briefing would be closed.

He said with a smile that at one point Russia proposed the briefing be open, but that those who had initially wanted it open then decided that it should be closed.

Russia and China eventually discarded their demand, but not before Russia nearly forced a procedural vote on the matter, a highly unusual move for allowing a UN official to brief the UNSC.

Things have come to a head in recent days. This week,  The New York Times released an article indicating that NATO’s claims of no civilian casualties as a result of its bombing campaign in Libya were exaggerated; rather than zero, the death toll as a result of NATO’s assault on Col Qaddafi may have cost the lives of between forty and seventy Libyans. Russia has been pounding NATO for overstepping the bounds of SC/1973 since the bombing campaign was launched, so this was quickly seized as an early Christmas present. At a press stakeout yesterday, Ambassador Churkin let the reporters present know that Russia felt a Council-mandated investigation was in order to determine the extent of damage wrought by NATO.

Ambassador Rice was having none of this:

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who stepped to the microphone after Churkin, said: “Oh, the bombast and bogus claims.”

“Is everyone sufficiently distracted from Syria now and the killing that is happening before our very eyes?” she said.

“I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that this is something of a cheap stunt to divert attention from other issues and to obscure the success of NATO and its partners — and indeed the Security Council — in protecting the people of Libya,” Rice said.

Harsh words? Maybe not on the streets surrounding UN Headquarters, but far sharper than you normally hear outside the Council’s chambers. That tension has simmered over into today, during discussion on a potential Presidential Statement on the League of Arab States’ deployment of monitors to Syria. Normally, such a statement, while requiring unanimity, would not have been difficult to produce. Instead, this afternoon Ambassador Churkin told the press that no statement would be coming. When asked about the dust-up yesterday, Churkin responded:

“We hear that the Obama administration wants to establish a dialogue with the international community in the United Nations, and in the Security Council. If that is to be the case, if this is the intention, really this Stanford dictionary of expletives must be replaced by something more Victorian, because certainly this is not the language in which we intend to discuss matters with our partners in the Security Council.”

Shots. Fired.

Vitaly Churkin: Grinch
Diplomatic? Not really. But impressive Photoshop skills

In retaliation for the frustrating lack of progress on Syria, Mark Kornblau, the Communications Director and head spokesman for the US Mission to the UN, used his previously underutilized Photoshop skills, or those of an intern, to produce an image of Ambassador Churkin cast as The Grinch. Mr. Kornblau then post the image to his personal Twitter account. While I personally found it amusing, I somehow doubt that the Russian Mission will agree.

While less than diplomatic on its forefront, I actually believe that the Security Council is, even in this context, performing one of its most vital functions: a pressure release. The Great Powers that make up the P-5 have this one place where they can all sit together as equals and discuss all matters of international peace and security. Without the Council, as David Bosco argues in his excellent book “Five to Rule Them All”, that ability to come together and air grievances, as is fitting on today as it is Festivus, the likelihood of direct Great Power conflict would have been and would be much higher.

From January 1 until today, the UNSC has struggled to bring together its fifteen members into some semblance of accord on matters of peace and security on even more and greater issues than normal. Tensions get especially tough when you factor in the P-5 and their veto power. But at least they’re talking to each other rather than slugging it out somewhere. So you can’t blame them for getting a little…punchy as the year winds down.

December 23, 2011

A Game in the Shadows: Shining Light on Syria Harder Than Ever

Let us be crystal clear about one thing right off the bat: nobody outside of Syria’s borders has any earthly idea what’s going on inside with any sort of real detail. Nobody. It’s almost as bad, if not worse, for those that are actually inside Syria right now. Imagine if you will that you’re one of the few reporters who still have access inside Syria. The government watches your every move, restricts your travel to places of consequence, and only lets you see what it wants you to see. The same goes for NGOs on the inside; even the International Committee of the Red Cross has partially given up on working with the al-Assad regime.

These restrictions outside make it all the more difficult for those on the outside to grasp the true picture of Syria’s restive state. The report to the UN Human Rights Council issued several weeks ago on the torture and killing running rampant in Syria was intended to be produced with cooperation from the Syrian government. Instead, the government prevented any access whatsoever, forcing the commissioners assigned to the project to rely on interviews with refugees and Syrian armed forces defectors. The picture their words painted made up the background of the first official report on the hardships faced by civilians in the face of crackdown.

Several commentators have taken issue with the narrative being formed out of Syria, however. STRATFOR earlier this week issued a report questioning the veracity of the opposition’s death toll claims, noting that there was no way to verify the numbers. STRATFOR went on to say “most of the opposition’s more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue, thereby revealing more about the opposition’s weaknesses than the level of instability inside the Syrian regime.”

First of all, I disagree with STRATFOR in their assumption that due to the fact that the numbers are coming solely from the opposition that they are untrustworthy. That said, it would be foolish to ignore completely the point behind the piece, that the opposition has a motive to inflate numbers and schisms within the regime. The fact I stated at the outset of this post remains true and swings both ways.

There are at present only two sources for information from the ground in Syria. The first is the state-controlled media controlled by Assad’s regime, which has claimed that over 2,000 members of the state security forces have been killed since March. The other is the opposition forces determined to remove Bashar al-Assad and his kin from power. Neither is the most credible of sources, with their desires and goals worn so plainly on their sleeves.

That situation isn’t likely to change anytime soon. As part of the stipulations on lifting their economic sanctions on Syria, the League of Arab States demanded access for a team of monitors to independently verify that the state has ended its crackdown on civilians. That team finally began landing in Syria yesterday, but were off to a rocky start from the beginning. Concerns have been raised, including by me, regarding the choice for the leader of this observation team: General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi. I appreciate that he was the point-man for coordination between the AU, Sudan, and UN in Darfur. But his full military history can’t be overlooked. Further, it is my belief that there is no way that the LAS monitors presence will somehow magically stop the violence or be granted, or have the political will to demand, free access to wherever they like in Syria with no forewarning. So long as journalists and NGOs are barred from observing conditions themselves, the prospect of knowing for sure what’s going on in Syria seems dim.

Things were made even more confusing today as twin suicide bombs were detonated near government buildings in Damascus, previously one of the few relatively quiet cities remaining in Syria. The government sponsored media immediately went on the air to denounce the attacks as being sponsored by al-Qaeda, likely in allegiance with protestors. Others weren’t so sure of the official government narrative:

Salman Shaikh, of the Brookings Institute in Doha, said said he was “deeply skeptical” of claims that al-Qaeda or an opposition group would have staged such an attack in Damascus.

“Syria doesn’t really have a record of this,” Shaikh said. “The security forces have not lost control of the situation to such an extent that this would seem likely.”

Shaikh also said it seemed suspicious that the media reported the attack so quickly, with pictures showing the car bombs already cleared away.

Within Syria, activists also expressed doubts about the government accounts of the explosions, saying the blasts could have been staged by authorities to discredit anti-government forces.

Omar al-Khani, of the Syrian Revolution General Commission opposition group, said residents of Kfar Sousa described little reaction from intelligence agents stationed near the targeted buildings when the explosions detonated. They did not move from their positions, these residents told Khani, but instead continued to drink tea. Snipers and guards at the building also did nothing, Khani said, citing the accounts from residents.

The timing of the blasts has also been called into question, with the LAS observers having only arrived yesterday. “The government quickly escorted the Arab League team to view the carnage, the Associated Press reported, saying the attack backed their longtime claims that the turmoil is not a popular uprising but the work of terrorists,”the Washington Post noted. It’s true, a bombing by the opposition, which killed 40 and injured over 100, many of those civilians, would be a compelling reason for the Syrian security forces to continue apace with their actions. The Free Syrian Army has denied responsibility for the bombing, the opposite action you normally see in suicide attacks, where the perpetrators can barely contain their desire to make known who has laid the government low.

If, however, it turns out that portions of the opposition are behind the bombing, then it poses a new difficulty for the movement. The use of suicide bombing to achieve their goal helps them lose the moral high ground they possessed before, having previously left the killing of civilians to the government. Further, it would strengthen Russia’s hand in attempting to prevent a strong resolution from passing through the UN Security Council.

What was once a clear-cut narrative has become increasingly muddied as the months have passed. The odds of intervention, aside from the long-shot I previously posited, have not seemed to grow, and today’s events may see them shrink. I was challenged by Aaron Ellis to provide, if I really think international intervention in Syria is the way to save lives, a strong political-military strategy that would both be achievable and logical. That already difficult task has been made much harder by today’s events.

Major news outlets are already shifting from referring the opposition from ‘protestors’ to ‘rebels’, making claims of objectivity all the more distant. There is no forthcoming Diogenes to shine a lamp on Syria, no real truth to be revealed to the world any time soon. The most we can do is attempt to make sense of the fragments of information we receive and hope to piece together a way to pump the breaks on the situation before Syria becomes an all-out civil war. Today may show that we’re already too late.

December 14, 2011

“I dare you to cross this line. I double dare you”: Turkey, Syria, and NATO

Syria is in no way resembling a nation on the mend. As the days go by, Assad’s determination to stay in power remains clear, as does the growing desire of his people to ensure that doesn’t happen. By any means necessary. This morning’s retaliatory strike against a Syrian armed forces convoy for an earlier incident involving the death of several protesters proves that point quite effectively.

Turkey, once Syria’s ally in the region, has turned its back on the Assad regime, protesting its wanton killing of civilians and placing sanctions on the state, alongside those imposed by the United States, European Union, and Arab League. Turkey also has constructed several refugee camps for the thousands of Syrians who have fled across the border. More likely than not, the Turkish government is also providing refuge for members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a collection of defected Syrian security forces, who are the probable launchers of this morning’s attack.

The stream of refugees into Turkey has the potential to be a destabilizing factor in the region, a threat to international peace and security that the Security Council has often invoked since the 1990s as the basis for acting under Chapters VI and/or VII of the Charter, exercising its power to restore the peace. In the Syrian case, however, Syria has the backing of the Russian Federation, despite growing pressure on Moscow to give up on Damascus, with Russia sure to veto any real action.

Syria has yet to take action against Turkey for hosting these refugees. But suppose Turkey keeps hosting these refugees and the FSA. What happens when an FSA member crosses back across the border into Turkey, with Syria in hot pursuit? What happens when, not if, Syria decides to attack a refugee camp in retaliation? Syria has already come close, coming within a quarter-mile of the border in June.

This could be the endgame that we see for Syria. The second, the absolute second, that Syrian security forces violate Turkish sovereignty, whether they actually engage with Turkish soldiers or not, it’s game over for Assad. Any hesitancy of the international community would be overturned, lest a greater crisis come about.

Turkey could invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter. And in turn would be able to invoke Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty.

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

And from there all the pieces interventionists have wanted to be able to aid civilians in Syria before civil war spirals out of control would be in place. No need to invoke the Responsibility to Protect, though the principles would still be at play and understood. No circumvention of the UN Charter would be required, unlike NATO’s actions in Kosovo in 1999. Article VIII clearly provides for collective security and defense arrangements, such as NATO. And Article V of the North Atlantic Charter mirrors the language involved in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter as action must halt once the Security Council has moved forward on the issue.

So far, the only instance of Article V actually being called upon was in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Turkey has threatened in the past to use the Article to demand action, particularly against Iraq should Turkey have come under attack in the instances of the Gulf and Iraq Wars.

Refusal of a formal invoking on Article V, particularly after an incursion has taken place onto a members soil, would be the exact sort of crisis that opponents of Georgia’s ascension into NATO fear. But in this instance, Turkey has been a loyal member of NATO since 1949; despite official statements declaring that NATO has no intention on intervening in Syria, the body would have to act or risk facing a true existential crisis greater than the collapse of the Soviet Union. NATO’s collective power, without the mandate of SC/1970 to keep ground forces out of combat, would be effective in bringing about an end to Assad.

Turkish armed forces are no slouch themselves, either. Should Turkey actually enter conflict against Syria, the results wouldn’t be overly lopsided, but Turkey would most likely be able to overpower Syria. The campaign would take far longer without NATO support and capabilities, however, and the longer a military operation lasts the greater the likelihood of civilian deaths in the form of collateral damage. There’s also the potential of a “rally around the flag” effect coming into play, though the Libyan example makes me think this is less likely.

France has seemed the most eager out of the NATO heavyweights to take action against Syria, but has ruled out the possibility of unilateral action by any members. Give Sarkozy the opening of a multilateral framework and legal course of action, though, and he will surely move to take action; France has a certain soft spot for intervention in former territories and protectorates, and Syria is no exception. The US and UK would hesitate, but eventually move forward. The Obama Administration doesn’t want to be seen as leading from behind again in an election year, and the overturn of the Assad government fits within stated US goals. The UK would most likely lend support as possible, potentially spinning it as proof that it is less isolated from Europe than many have claimed following last week’s EU Summit.

Further, it is in my belief that an actual launch of military operations wouldn’t be necessary to have actual action take place on Syria finally. Should Turkey invoke Article V, Russia would surely raise the issue in the UN Security Council, with all its normal bluster and condemnation of NATO actions. It would be well within the means of the Western members of the P-5 to offer that Turkey stand down its actions, provided Russia go along with Security Council action on the matter, short of actual military force. This would allow Russia to save face on the region, rather than being faced with the humiliation of NATO carrying out action despite its less than subtle warnings over the past weeks and months, and ensure that the Security Council’s primacy on matters of peace and security be asserted over NATO, a goal Russia often quoted in protesting the Kosovo intervention.

I am aware that I come dangerously close to Friedman-ing in this post, here defined as imposing an overly neat and idealistic hypothetical solution to a complex real-world problem. However, this is a scenario that, while not likely, does fall within the realm of possibility. Further, I think it’s worth at least considering, as I’ve seen nobody else mention it, which is odd when you take into account the high likelihood of Syrian cross-border retaliation. The endgame described here probably isn’t the one we’re going to see play out in Syria. But it would certainly cut through a lot of the issues preventing intervention.

December 8, 2011

With a little nudge from WINEP, DC Court rules that Iran aided al-Qaeda

In an a ruling that was largely overlooked last week, a US Federal court came to the conclusion that Iran had aided al-Qaeda in its bombing of US Embassies in the late 1990s throughout East Africa. This ruling is pretty questionable to say the least for reasons we’re going to dig into in a second. Marc Thiessen “broke” the story in a Washington Post Op-Ed today:

Al-Qaeda carried out the attack, but the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that the bombings would not have been possible without “direct assistance” provided by Tehran, as well as Sudan. “The government of Iran,” Judge John D. Bates wrote in his 45-page decision, “aided, abetted and conspired with Hezbollah, Osama Bin Laden, and al Qaeda to launch large-scale bombing attacks against the United States by utilizing the sophisticated delivery mechanism of powerful suicide truck bombs.”

These are pretty big claims, particularly for a ruling coming out at the Federal level. So I did some digging to see what led the judge to come to this conclusion. First, the reason the case to came to trial in the first place. The entirety of the several cases under this one ruling are admitted under the Foreign Sovereign Immunties Act (FISA).

The FSIA provides that “foreign states” – including their “political subdivisions” and “agencies or instrumentalities”– shall be immune from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts unless one of the exceptions to immunity set forth in the statute applies. …

These exceptions include, inter alia, certain claims based on commercial activities, expropriation of  property, and tortious or terrorist acts by foreign sovereign entities

Under the FY 2008 NDAA, the FSIA amended to allow for non-US citizens who are employed by the US government to bring suit against foreign entities described above in US courts. In this instance,  five suits were brought against the Republic of Sudan, and one against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both governments were served and rejected the subpoena, resulting in defaults being logged by the courts.

This is all perfectly admissible under US law, and it is in fact an important clarification of the exemptions under FSIA. Where trouble begins is in the methodology used by the plaintiffs’ lawyers to convince the judge of Iran’s culpability.

The majority of the testimony on the side of the plaintiffs in regard to Iran is provided by one man, an “expert witness on the state sponsorship of terrorism, and specifically Iran, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda”, Dr. Matthew Levitt. Dr. Levitt serves as the Director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy‘s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. WINEP was founded in 1985 by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC. Dr. Levitt testified as follows as quoted in the opinion:

“Hassan al-Turabi, the head of the National Islamic Front, which ruled Sudan at the time, was keen not only on instituting Islamic sharia law in Sudan at home, but in making the Sudan a place from which worldwide Islamic revolution could flow.” To that end, “Hassan al-Turabi hosted numerous meetings, some large summits with radical extremist groups, including one, for example, in April 1991. Groups like HAMAS and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, al Qaeda, Sudanese radicals, Iranians, Lebanese Hezbollah were all invited and

Dr. Levitt went on to testify the following in regard to Iranian links to Hezbollah, which would require Iranian government approval of any collaboration with AQ:

The first is again the getting in bed with al Qaeda. After al Qaeda had issued not one but two fatwas, religious edicts, in ’92 and ’96, announcing its intent to target the West, it was a dangerous proposition. As I mentioned earlier, Iranian leaders have
their own version of rationality, but they are rational actors. And that is something that I believe had to be approved, again, so there would be reasonable or plausible deniability. Overcoming this deep mistrust between the most radical Salafi jihadi Sunnis, who, as we saw in the context of the aftermath of the war in Iraq, are sometimes all too eager to kill Shia in particular, and for the Shia on the other side to overcome their historical animosity towards these radical Sunnis, is no small feat. And I think it is only because of their shared interest at that point, in the 1990s and the immediate — to target U.S. interests, that they were able to decide to overcome this animosity and mistrust. And I think it’s quite clear, because it was for the express purpose of targeting the United States, it shouldn’t surprise then that the type of training they received was specifically of the type used in the East Africa embassy bombings. They expressed interest in, we know they received at least videos and manuals about, blowing up large buildings.

Counterterrorism expert Evan Kohlmann also took the stand on Iran, but spoke specifically of Hezbollah’s connection to the Iranian government, not then making the connection between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. This is the primary difference in the two’s presentations, with Mr. Kohlmann’s statement as quoted in the opinion being a completely accepted premise by analysts across the board.

Here’s the deal. I have no doubt of Dr. Levitt’s credentials, and I’m sure his work in the field is exemplary. But for the DC District Court to base the major finding of a ruling around the testimony of one expert, particularly one who works for a group with a known viewpoint that they are not hesitant to express, is highly questionable and troubling in my mind. The other evidence provided in the finding of fact deals with Hezbollah and Iran’s ties, such as that by Mr. Kohlmann, but only Dr. Levitt’s testimony draws the direct link between Hezbollah and AQ and thus Iran and AQ.

Had anyone else been on the stand and questioned directly on Hezbollah and AQ’s ties, I’m not sure that the same conclusions would have been drawn by the judge, especially in a case that finds another state, one that is under particular pressure lately and for whom the war drums have been beating, guilty of being responsible for the deaths of Americans and those under American protection. The direct link drawn by Judge John Bates is specious at best and all on the back of one mind. No matter though. This is one more arrow in the quiver of folks aiming for war against Iran.

[EDIT: After having it be pointed out by Andrew Exum, I realized that it was incorrect to state that the only testimony on the Iranian case was provided by Dr. Levitt, as Mr. Kohlmann also gave a statement. This is my fault, I missed that paragraph. The piece has been edited to reflect this, but the conclusion still remains.]

December 7, 2011

Sey-what? China’s first permanent base may wind up in the Seychelles

I am the first to admit that I’m a novice when it comes to naval matters. A n00b as it were. Since I first wrote my piece predicting where I think China’s first permanent overseas base would be, I’ve met an insane number of actual naval experts, including Thomas Webb at Petty Tyranny, and Surface Sailor. Listening to them has made me rethink my conclusions in that piece for sure, but a bit of news that has come to my attention has really made me rethink my conclusions.

The Flag of Seychelles

"I cast Prismatic Spray"

The other day, Seychelles made the announcement that they had invited China to set up a military baseon the archipelago, to help combat piracy. If you’re thinking, “who?” don’t feel overly embarassed. Seychelles are known for two things: their lovely tourist industry, based around things like snorkeling and having the flag voted “Most Likely to be Found in a Pride Parade” by me. It’s a solid member of the African Union, despite being 665 miles off the coast of Madagascar and maintains a relative anonymity on the world scene.

Despite it’s status as geographical trivia, a Chinese presence would make total sense, with its location halfway between Africa and Asia. The gist of the offer itself can be found in a few different articles:

The declaration came as Liang Guanglie made the first-ever visit by a Chinese defence minister to the Indian Ocean island state.

‘We have invited the Chinese government to set up a military presence on Mahe to fight the pirate attacks that the Seychelles face on a regular basis,’ Adam said.

‘For the time being China is studying this possibility because she has economic interests in the region and Beijing is also involved in the fight against piracy,’ he explained.

General Liang, who arrived in Victoria on Thursday with a 40-strong delegation, had been invited in October by Seychelles President James Michel, when he was on a visit to China.

‘Together, we need to increase our surveillance capacity in the Indian Ocean… as Seychelles has a strategic position between Asia and Africa,’ Michel said in statement, adding that China had given its army two light aircraft.

The two countries signed a military cooperation agreement in 2004 that has enabled some 50 Seychelles soldiers to be trained in China.

They renewed their agreement on Friday, with China to provide further training and equipment.

So there’s that. I have to admit that Seychelles completely slipped my mind as being a possibility, though it would seem that the Indian Military Review magazine called it last year, but the islands readily meet the criteria I laid out. They are in a strategic location, due to the sea trade routes that China so dearly wants to protect. There are no counter-interests that would prevent China from moving forward with a base like in Pakistan. Unlike the Horn of Africa, Seychelles itself is a relatively secure location to dock and refuel, while also having the advantage of being much closer to China. And the area is itself sovereign and not under dispute, unlike the Spratly Islands.

This completely negates my theory that we’d see China construct its first permanent base on the Horn, but technically, I suppose this still counts as East Africa? In any event, China has yet to actually accept the offer, which I’m sure would come with a much larger bit of press interest. I’m looking forward to seeing three things moving forward: what reaction this draws from India, if any; the US reaction to sharing such a small space, since we currently maintain a drone base on Seychelles for use in surveillance missions; and the speed at which China would move forward, if it accepts the offer.