Archive for ‘MENA’

February 2, 2012

Minipost: Two words

I’ve already broken away from my personal pivot towards Asia so often you’d think that I was part of the Obama Administration. Again, I blame this on the working calendar of the UN Security Council. It’s not my fault that the hottest issue in Turtle Bay is all focused on the tragedy spiraling in the Syrian Arab Republic.

Most of my day has been consumed watching the various UN reporters I follow on Twitter put out as much as they could on the ongoing negotiations in 140 characters or less. At one point, Colum Lynch made it known that several UN diplomats believe that the latest Russian veto threat is just “grumpiness”, leading Dan Trombly of Slouching Towards Columbia to oblige me in making possibly the greatest picture ever.

A new version of the draft is being put in blue tonight, UN slang for the final draft printed out in blue ink, which is able to be voted upon within twenty-four hours, barring changes. I’m sure someone will get their hands on it sooner or later, but for now I have to be content to speculate.

The Europeans and America have dropped the preambulatory call for an arms embargo and the text encouraging other states to take on the Arab League’s economic sanctions, more or less as I predicted they would, to gain Russia’s support. The most tension on this text is focused around what was previously Operative Clause 7 in this now outdated version.

The debate is focusing around two words. Literally. The Europeans are pushing for the clause to read that the Security Council “fully supports” the Arab League’s political plan for Syria, having dropped all of the specifics from the text. Russia, and presumably China, want it to read that the Council is “taking note of” the plan. A compromise is being floated that the UNSC is “welcoming” towards the roadmap.

These may seem like minute details, but it means the world for how strongly the resolution will be read and how seriously it will be taken outside the Council’s chambers. The first option, “fully supports”, indicates that the United Nations backs, without saying as much, the provisions of the Arab League’s plan, and that Assad should hand over power to his deputy in advance of creating a unity government with the opposition.

“Welcoming” the Arab proposal says that the Security Council is pleased that the Arab League has issued a way forward and agrees in general with many of the ideas contained within. “Taking note of”, in UN parlance, means that the Council acknowledges that, yes, there is in fact a plan of some sort concocted by the Arab League. They may or may not have read it.

Two little words mean all the world in such a tense environment. It’s easy to see why the Russians, and to a lesser extent the Chinese, Indians, and Pakistanis, are hesitant to endorse the Arab League’s plan. But endorse it they must if this resolution is to even have the veneer of a chance of being effective on the ground in Damascus. Otherwise, they’ll be taking note of an undeniable uptick in violence, counter to everyone’s aims and interests.

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January 31, 2012

UNSC and Syria: Getting warmer…

In a three hour open session, the United Nations Security Council heard the strongest push yet for the passage of a resolution on Syria. Though lacking in the drama that many predicted in the “Super Bowl” of the Security Council, the meeting did make somewhat clearer the demands that would have to be met before a vote on the draft resolution tabled by Morocco.

Negotiations are ongoing surrounding a few key preambulatory clauses and one operative, as seen in red here. Some were to be expected, such as the clause expressing concern at the flow of weapons into Syria. But the harshest pushback from Russia has been on operative clause seven, the part of the text mirroring the League’s roadmap for political transition in Syria.

Ostensibly, this meeting’s purpose was the hear briefings from the Arab League’s Secretary-General Nabil al-Araby and Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim, in his role as the chair of the League of Arab States’ committee on Syria, on the recently postponed Observer Mission and to push for the Security Council to take up the text of its January 22 resolution in full. In actuality, the meeting was a free-for-all dogpile on Russia to yield its intransigence.

The diplomatic big guns were in the room, with the Foreign Ministers of Portugal, Germany, and Morocco present. And then in a class above that, the Really Big Guns: French Minister of Foreign Affairs Alaine Juppe, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs William Hague, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In a pattern that seems familiar to those who watched the Libyan debate, there’s a clear “good cop/bad cop” dynamic by the West at play.  Hague and Juppe played their roles perfectly, with Juppe throwing the word “scandalous” around liberally as they wailed on Syria. Despite the pressure employed by the two, Hague emphasized that the draft in question was under Chapter VI, not Chapter VII of the Charter.

Clinton’s good cop was also pitch perfect, as she managed to clearly delineate the difference between a “political handover” and “regime change”, no easy feat. The US has gotten quite good at portraying itself as the level-headed one in the room, particularly whenever Rice or Clinton are speaking.

I could go on at length about just how very, very bad Syrian Permanent Representative Bashar Ja’afari was in this debate. So I will. He was clearly outmatched, starting off by quoting Syrian poetry, leading me to wonder if the mild fever I have had just crested. Ja’afari leaned heavily on his government’s own particular spin on the situation affecting Syria. For example, in quoting the Arab League monitor’s report, he correctly pointed out that Paragraph 71 states that there is an armed opposition that wasn’t taken into account by the Arab League in its original resolution. But in the very next sentence, the report stresses that the armed opposition sprung up because of the regime’s violence.

The man everyone was watching, however, wasn’t the Representative from Damascus. Instead, all eyes were on Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN. Churkin was there in place of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was in Australia instead of New York as was rumored today.

Despite utilizing the full range of his usual rhetoric, Churkin made no explicit veto threats during the meeting itself. Instead Russia did a much, much better job of defending the actions of the Assad regime than Ja’afari did, pressing for a need for both parties to meet in Moscow to come to a political solution themselves. In the press stakeout after the meeting, Churkin stated that the Arab League is in the driver’s seat on Syria. He extended the metaphor, saying “sometimes when in the driver’s seat, as the Arab League is, you step too hard on the accelerator, and wind up in a ditch”.

Nothing new was truly learned during the speeches, but it does seem that Russia and China are running low on excuses for not supporting the draft tabled by Morocco. Neither cited any real opposition to the actual content of the resolution, nor did they really push back on the statements of the Secretary-General of the Arab League and the Qatari Prime Minister. Being customarily opaque, China, in its speech, said that it “supports” Russia’s draft as tabled several weeks ago, while it merely “noted” the Moroccan text.

In all, the most likely result of this diplomatic blitz is slowly moving away from a Russian veto. That is, provided Moscow can be persuaded that the major concerns with the draft that it’s citing? Don’t actually exist in the text. Nowhere in the text exists explicit economic sanctions nor military intervention authorizations, despite the ample protests by Russia, China, India and Pakistan.

Those four, along with South Africa, make up the five states likely to oppose or abstain on the vote on this resolution. The most substantive of their concerns center in on the idea that actions and recommendations that are permissible at the level of the Arab League may not be the role of the Security Council. This argument is specious at best, as there is, in fact, much more a chance of international spillover from an escalation in Syria than there ever was in Libya clearly marking it as a situation at risk of disturbing international peace and security. In any case, if the draft actually manages to pass through with operative clause 7 intact, I’ll be extremely impressed. But it will be setting for the stage for another, even more difficult, battle in just fifteen days.

January 30, 2012

UNSC approval is vital to the use of force – True or False?

On Talk of the Nation today, Anne-Marie Slaughter made the case that should Russia not allow the United Nations Security Council move forward on Syria, the world can act without them. More specifically, she laid out a further explanation of her Atlantic piece on Syrian intervention:

Fourth, the intervention would have to receive the authorization of a majority of the members of the UN Security Council — Russia, actively arming Assad, will probably never go along, no matter how necessary — as an exercise of the responsibility to protect doctrine, with clear limits to how and against whom force could be used built into the resolution.

During the NPR interview, according to Twitter, Slaughter clarified that a “supermajority” of states on the Council must vote in favor of intervention for the international community to act without a resolution in their favor due to the veto of a permanent member. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to listen to the interview yet, so I’m unsure about whether she was speaking in reference to the draft resolution currently on the table, as introduced by Morocco, or if she means a hypothetical resolution under Chapter VII.

No matter the context, I had trouble with this when she first published the article, and I’m having even more issues with it now. The backbone of Professor Slaughter’s argument, and that of other interventionists, is that action in Syria is required to support the developing norms of the international community, namely the Responsibility to Protect. The problem with this is that in promoting the advancement of this norm, it would seem that going around codified international law would be required to do so. I am most certainly not an international law expert, but it would seem to me that codified laws take precedence over norms, particularly when a great deal of weight has traditionally applied to the approval of the United Nations Security Council to take action.

Great Power politics are undeniably a mess, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. I’ve argued previously that I don’t believe that acting without the Security Council in practice is an ideal solution. Dodging the Council, though, would also prove to be a failure in principle as well. To actively say that a veto in the Security Council should be ignored seems to weaken the institution as a whole. Many of the same people advocating intervention in Syria screamed bloody murder over the Bush Administration launching strikes into Iraq without an authorizing resolution of the Security Council, due to the vetoes of France, Russia, and China. I should know, I was one of them. But the Bush White House at least had the slim thread of “upholding previous UNSC resolutions” as part of their justification. While nobody bought it, at least the effort was made, and it is true that several UNSC resolutions demanding that Saddam Hussein comply with international demands were passed in the past. Likewise, several chances were given to Milosevic’s Former Republic of Yugoslavia to adhere to the wishes of the Council and cease violence against its civilians; a true exhaustion of options building up to force existed. No such history exists against Syria in the Security Council.

It’s my opinion that if you’re going to say that the rules are bad and unfair, you should at least be consistent with it. The UN Security Council can’t be the end decision point in the use of force only in times where you agree with all 15 members’ views. Come out for a change of the rules governing the body wholesale, instead of claiming they can be circumvented in certain situations. There may well be a moral argument for intervening in Syria, but the idea that it’s any more legal to defy the Council in one situation or another doesn’t hold water. Either the UNSC is the final arbiter of international peace and security or it isn’t. And if it is, then the principles on which it was founded, as anachronistic as they may be in the 21st century are still worthy of consideration.

The fact remains that the veto is, as was devised by the Soviets as a condition for joining the UN in the first place, a tool to protect national interests. Well, at present, it is in Russia’s national interest to not have the West intervene in Syria. If, heaven forbid, the United States were to no longer be the sole superpower, we would certainly expect that in the case of a veto that action not be taken against our interests, a principle that was upheld at the height of the Cold War. I do approve of the idea of getting the Syrian National Council to guarantee Russia access to their current naval base in Syria even after Assad falls; it’s one of the few things keeping them from dropping Assad like a hot potato; Unfortunately, Vitaly Churkin’s threats to no longer protect Assad with the veto seems to have gone unheeded by Damascus, leaving Russia in a position where it may well do what it has hinted at in recent press statements.

I’m not entirely sure if there are even enough “aye” votes for the current draft at present in any case, let alone one authorizing force. The whip count may change after Tuesday’s briefing by the Arab League and the presence of several attendees at the ministerial level. But you can count on at least four abstentions, if not flat-out “no” votes. Is this ten the supermajority that Slaughter references? In any case, a “supermajority” of UNSC member states won’t be enough to override, particularly if the resolution tabled is the one that is up for discussion. The political factors on the table, including a peaceful transition to a unity government, can’t be enacted by force with any semblance of credibility in the face of a veto. Or can you only go around the Security Council when force is on the table? It may be a moot point, as with the lack of sanctions and military factors involved, there’s still a slim chance that Russia abstains, bringing China along with it. But in the event of a veto, the international community needs to decide whether the UNSC is the final arbiter on the use of force as it has long held or an obstacle to be overcome.

January 26, 2012

Syria is not, and will not be, the new Kosovo

David Bosco has a new piece up on the Multilateralist blog, looking at the European Union’s strategy for handling Syria. The EU has chosen to work entirely within the framework of the United Nations so far, including the Security Council, where Russia has vetoed and promised to do so again. Rather than being deterred by this set-back, the EU has rallied the other components of the UN, including the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, to pass condemnations by large margins. In noting this, Bosco finds it odd that talk of intervention without Council approval has not been seriously discussed by diplomats:

One interesting feature of the diplomacy surrounding both Libya and Syria is how little talk there has been of outsiders using force without Security Council approval (although this might have been a live topic if Russia and China had not acquiesced to intervention in Libya). The Kosovo precedent–humanitarian intervention without a Council mandate–has not resurfaced. The scant discussion of this option may signal a deepening of the understanding that states cannot initiate force–at least not for elective, “community” purposes such as humanitarian intervention–without the Council’s blessing.

I disagree with his view that the lack of discussion in citing the “Kosovo precedent” is a new understanding of the Council’s role in humanitarian uses of force. Rather, it’s worth noting that the Kosovo intervention was in many ways like Libya- unique. If a Kosovo precedent exists, it is one in which a set of four circumstances have to be met before force will be used without UNSC approval. The first, that of a humanitarian crisis with potential cross-border spillover, has been met. The second, the stalemate of the Security Council in handling the matter, has been as well. 

The third dynamic that was present in Kosovo, and is lacking in Syria to a certain degree, is a clear and systematic killing of one side by the other with genocidal repercussions. The Syrian government’s crackdown is fierce and brutal, but has yet to be one of imminent mass slaughter as we saw in Libya with Benghazi and in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. The fourth dynamic, and the most important for our comparison, is that there must be no Great Power interests at stake preventing intervention. Here is where Syria and Kosovo diverge the most. The Kosovo intervention was disapproved of by Russia due to cultural ties with Serbia and the use of the NATO alliance to carry it out. But no material links were truly in place between the two states. In Syria, however, there are economic and strategic ties with Russia at stake, in the form of arms sales to Damascus and the southernmost Russian naval base remaining. Russia will not abide by an intervention in Syria without Council approval and the other Great Powers don’t want to push Russia into retaliatory actions in other relations they have with Moscow.

I will note that the Free Syrian Army may have learned more from the Kosovo Liberation Army than we’re comfortable with. But they’ve learned the wrong lesson. In provoking the FRY into using overwhelming force against the Kosovars, the KLA prompted Western intervention. But in the fog of war surrounding Syria these days, it’s impossible to get a clear read on who is doing the killing in all instances, not when all of the dead have the same background. Should another situation arise in which all four dynamics are present, I do believe that we will see action taken without UNSC approval due to a Russian or Chinese veto. Syria, unfortunately, is not that case.

EDIT: Much to my surprise, Bosco actually responded to me as an edit on his original blog post. I think it’s only fair that I do the same. In particular, he was not convinced by my third and fourth dynamics marking the difference between Syria and Kosovo.

I don’t find these distinctions compelling. The estimates I’ve seen suggest that more have been killed in Syria than was the case in Kosovo at the time of international intervention. Pace Brown, pre-intervention Kosovo was not a situation of mass slaughter; instead, there had been a steady accretion of violence and displacement (in fact, the most intense campaign of forced displacement occurred after NATO intervention).

As to Russian opposition, is Brown suggesting that Russia would use force to oppose intervention in Syria? It appears to me that Russian objections are about the same order of intensity as they were in Kosovo. At one point in the run-up to the Kosovo intervention Boris Yeltsin reportedly called up Bill Clinton and screamed at him about the dangers of pushing Russia too far. And it’s worth remembing that during the Kosovo intervention, Russia actually did deploy its forces to seize Pristina’s airport before NATO forces could get there, leading to a tense standoff.

As to the first point, I will grant him that the numbers may be in Syria’s favor when it comes to the comparison. And while I thought I was up on my Kosovo history, I’ll admit that I wasn’t aware that the most systematic of the violence against ethnic Albanians was after NATO intervention, nor did I know about the siezing of Pristina’s airport. I’m still not sure, though, that the violence in Syria reaches the potential for razing of cities we saw in Libya or the focused killing of an ethnic group that we saw in Kosovo. It’s at an awkward point where nobody is entirely sure yet which way the ball will drop: towards a ratcheted up campaign against all civilians by the government, a more clearly defined and delineated civil war, or an unknown third option. Without knowing which way things are tilting, it’s hard to put together a response involving intervention that is as clear as Libya (“protect civilians” and give cover to rebels) or Kosovo (“protect civilians” and end violence against an ethnic group).

As for the second point, I’m not suggesting that Russia will actually use force. Even if they did, the naval forces they’ve previously sent to Syria as a warning would be overcome by the US Fifth Fleet. I am, however, saying that Russia will do everything it can to make the West’s lives miserable in other capacities. Vetoing previously agreed upon resolutions, revoking NATO’s ability to transport materials to Afghanistan and encouraging other CIS states to do the same, becoming a burr in the WTO now that they’re members,  just generally being even more obstructionist than usual. Libya pushed Russia’s relations with the West lower, that’s for certain, but I don’t believe they’ve hit rock bottom. I don’t know what that would look like, but I believe that intervening in Syria without Council approval would give us a good idea.

January 18, 2012

Uniting for Syria? Not in the General Assembly

The tenth anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine has prompted several reflections, including the The Stanley Foundation’s R2P: The Next Decade Conference in New York City this week, examining the future of the concept. In doing so, it’s impossible to not have all eyes turn towards Syria, wondering what, if anything, is to be done to protect the civilian population from the Bashar al-Assad government’s rampage.

An idea that I saw tossed around on Twitter as I followed the debate was one that I hadn’t considered in-depth: using the Uniting for Peace concept, based

Uniting for Peace for Syria in the UNGA?

on UN General Assembly resolution 337 (A), to circumvent the deadlocked Security Council. I can see why the idea would have appeal; Russia introduced the third version of its draft resolution on Syria to the Council this week, a version that has rejected all of the suggestions by the Western powers as having “emasculated” the text.

Dodging the veto of Russia and China on a strong resolution on Syria in the General Assembly would be a dream come true for activists impassioned about Syria. And the General Assembly has previously come out against the regime, passing a resolution condemning Syria’s human rights abuses and compelling it to adhere to the Arab League’s provisions by a substantial margin. So why not bring up a new resolution, under the auspices of R2P and Uniting for Peace, to push for tough measures on Damascus?

Well, there are several reasons. The first of which is that there’s precisely no chance that the P-3 of note in the above tweet, the United States, United Kingdom, and France, would support such a move. All three have come out against the Assad government’s violence and all three have said that he needs to step down from ruling Syria. However, all three value their power in the United Nations Security Council far more. The circumvention of the veto-power is a touchy subject for these three states.

This is the very reason why you don’t see the Uniting for Peace option used as much as it was when first introduced. During the early 1950s, the vast majority of  the General Assembly was composed of states from Latin America and Europe, states that were close allies of the United States. This was only fitting as the UN started out as a war-time alliance. As decolonization swept the globe, however, and more new states from Africa and Asia joined the Assembly, the US lost its strong majority, and with it its ability to easily pass any action it wanted through without a struggle.

Further, the concept is on shaky legal ground to begin with. The UN Charter does provide some small stake in the maintenance of international peace and security to the General Assembly, but the organ charged primarily with that function is the Security Council. The Assembly’s powers under Chapter IV are also phrased in such a way that compliance by member-states is not mandatory. Put another way, General Assembly resolutions are non-binding recommendations, unlike Council resolutions which carry the full weight of international law. To claim that any action taken under Uniting for Peace would be binding to states, including Syria, is counter to facts.

What’s more, any resolution tabled dealing with Syria as a breach of the Responsibility to Protect would necessarily be one dealing with international peace and security. Under Article 18 of the Charter, such matters are deemed an “Important Question” and require a two-thirds vote to pass. Depending on the severity of the provisions tabled, it is unlikely that two-thirds of the GA will be willing to vote for measures that would actually affect the situation on the ground in Syria. The two-thirds threshold would be particularly difficult to meet as the P-3 will surely be quietly working behind the scenes to keep a vote from coming to the floor to begin with.

Even if the Important Question provision is overcome, the fact remains that the resolution would still be entirely based on recommendations. As such, there would be no legally credible enforcement mechanism in place to compel those states that voted against the measures to enact them. In the event that even such moderate measures as an exact duplication of the embargoes placed on Damascus by the League of Arab States, there would be nothing stopping trade with Syria by states who want to. And as an arms embargo, of the type that would actually affect the Syrian governments ability to kill civilians, would be unenforceable, Russia can continue selling its wares unabated. No country’s navy is going to want to board a Russian ship in what may be an illegal embargo.

The idea was also breached that rather than shooting for strong measures, at the very least an Emergency Session of the General Assembly can be called under Uniting for Peace, to get the crisis in Syria under more urgent discussion. This would be a strong show of will by the international community, it could be argued, to show that Syria’s misdeeds are not going on unnoticed. The only problem is that without firm action to accompany such a session, it would be an empty victory. It would in fact be counter to the goals of the callers, as it would first show that the international community has no real plan of action towards Syria, which could prompt a surge in violence. An Emergency Session would, instead of showing resolve, cast the United Nations as weak and inept, surely the last thing the organization needs.

In situations like the one in Syria, it’s easy to ask “What can be done? Why is nothing being done?”, especially in the context of R2P. The United Nations in particular is being targeted as not moving swiftly enough to contain the crisis, but it’s easy to forget that the UN is, and always has been, a collection of member states. The General Assembly has acted strongly to condemn Syria, but it will not be the forum that will provide the end to violence there.

January 11, 2012

The biggest challenge facing sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program? Mission creep.

I posted a little less than a week ago on the effectiveness of Iran’s sanctions, and yet the debate continues apace on the Internets. The need for this is simply beyond me, but what are you going to do? I suppose that more useful discourse is being produced. I suppose. In any case, we’ve seen a few different pieces crop up in the last few days, the latest to come across my Blackberry being a piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter. In it, she pushes for a solution that allows both the United States and Iran to save face, advocating away from a regime of sanctions for sanctions sake, a conclusion that many others have come to. This is hard to do, though, in light of pieces like the Washington Post piece that was published last night, originally with the title “Goal of Iran sanctions is regime collapse, U.S. Official”.

Which leads me to think about the noticable mission-creep that seems to be occuring when it comes to Iranian sanctions. I noted on Friday the growing scope of the national and supranational embargoes being placed upon and considered against Iran. In that post, my focus was on the unconsidered humanitarian effects that these sanctions would impose, but I want to take a step back and consider the larger picture surrounding them. When the international community first agreed to place sanctions upon Iran through the UN Security Council in response to their lack of cooperation with the IAEA in 2007, they were extremely targeted, focusing only on the clear-cut pieces of their nuclear production. Since that time, their scope have grown both in the Security Council and from the United States and its allies.

At the same time, the United States has had sanctions and embargoes of its own against Iran in place since 1979. There is no question that these are in place to punish the regime as a whole, with the intended effect of breaking their ability to have any sort of sway or power on the world stage. The place where the current standoff with Iran gets tricky is when you try to delineate the two sets of sanctions. On the one hand, you have the goal of a pause or complete halt of Iran’s nuclear program and cooperation with the IAEA in verifying its claimed peaceful nature. On the other hand, you have the United States’ broader goal of weakening Iran and countering its many, many uses of proxies and asymmetric force to push back against US aims and policies in the region. Over the last month, we’ve seen a blending and merging of the two into one homogenous mass of punishment where it’s hard to tell where one begins and one ends.

The United States is not making this any easier, in overtly lobbying its allies to unilaterally up pressure against Iran, including long-sought embargoes on oil. This leads one to wonder whether it is in the national interest of the US to separate the two more forcefully. Increased pressure on Iran on all fronts does have the possibility of a greater willingness, in Washington calculus, that Tehran will change its behavior on any range of issues beyond its nuclear program. However, seeking to advance goals beyond those that can be resolved through the P5+1 negotiations hinders the United States’ case for continuing and increasing the sanctions regime. The national security and foreign policy components of the government need to find a way to make clear the distinction between the two movements. Mission creep away from merely slowing or halting Iran’s nuclear program is unacceptable to Tehran, and in fact serves as a greater impetus to want a nuclear weapon. If the regime feels that the only way to survive is to produce a nuclear weapon or face economic ruin, you can bet that if I were them? I’d be racing for full nuclear capacity.

January 6, 2012

Needed in Tehran – Some Common(s) Sense

In my post earlier today on Iranian sanctions, I mentioned that I wanted to talk a little more in-depth over just what that inflamed rhetoric coming out of Iran means as far as a US military response goes. Because both sides see it coming, and I know that the majority on each would prefer to stop all-out war from happening. There may be many individuals on the right drumming up cause for attack, pushing us to defend poor indefensible Israel. The Iranian people are bracing themselves for a coming war, already facing the effects of the sanctions that the regime has brought down upon the state.

The increasingly hostile rhetoric noted in my last post  takes several forms, but none come closer to setting off conflict than the Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait, as many people know, is the bottleneck through which 35% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments must pass. The first threat, several weeks ago, caused a 2% jump in oil prices, and came with a warning for the USS John C Stennis’ carry group to stay out of the area. This was met with a yawn by the US Navy. In a new effort to rattle the US, Iran has promised that it will be holding another set of exercises, this announcement only 10 days after its last set of war games and missile-tests in the area. It’s also likely these exercises will be around the same time as joint US-Israeli missile defense drills near the Strait.

All of this sabre-rattling is the quintessential sound and fury amounting to nothing. There’s a reason the open ocean is called “the global commons”. Because under international law and the law of nations, the high seas are for the use of all states. Period. There’s no ownership of the high seas, of which the Strait of Hormuz is definitely a part. And it’s a good thing. Iran should be glad that no one state has sole jurisdiction over the commons, though the US unquestionably dominates it for now. Why should they be glad? Because it allows for the very oil that they desperately need new customers for to be transport abroad. Because it means that they in turn have the right to patrol their territorial waters, though they tend to be a little fuzzy on just where that line is. And most importantly, they should be glad because it allows us to do things like save Iranian nationals when the Iranian navy can’t. The very carrier group that Iran warned has saved an Iranian fishing boat from a group of pirates; the CO of the Destroyer that actually did the rescuing is a woman. Danger Room has video. So that happened.

Under the same international law that would be broken if Iran actually closed the Strait, the United States was able to act against the pirates that held those Iranian fishermen. I was going to go on a long, chest-thumping rant about how our naval and air force capabilities would grind Iran’s forces into dust if they actually attempted to step to us, as it were, but you know what? It’s not worth it. The Islamic Republic needs to think twice and realize that the biggest chance of US conflict with Iran isn’t their navy shutting the Strait. It’s the fact that in the event of a mistake, an accidental firing upon of a US ship during an exercise or boarding say, then there’s no way to stop the tidal wave that would be coming, no dialogue, no release valve. In ‘learning’ from Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has forgotten about the many, many other times we have waged “kinetic action” against a state. Landing ground forces is in no way a necessity for the United States; from our ships in the Fifth Fleet, which easily sailed through their first exercises, Tehran surely must realize we could rain down punishment upon Iran in whatever proportionate or disproportionate response we saw fit at the time. And there would be no way to put on the brakes.

January 6, 2012

Rial Talk on Iranian Sanctions

Iran is hurting. Bad. That is one thing that is becoming exceptionally clear as we move into 2012. The real question that’s on most people’s lips is “will the pressure on Tehran actually work to change the state’s behavior”? That is, that’s the question on most people who actually are paying attention to the issue are asking. As far as everyone else, they’re asking “are we going to war with Iran?”, a question I plan to look at next post. Nobody can dispute that the sanctions placed upon Iran are extremely tough in nature; while short of a full economic embargo, many areas of the Iranian economy have now been targeted by national and supranational governments and entities.

The European Union has tentatively agreed to ban Iranian oil exports; Japan is seeking to step up their sanctions game to be near the same-level as those imposed by the United States. Even China is doing Iran no favors, as it attempts to extract further price concessions from Tehran on the oil it imports.The entirety of the efforts makes the histrionics of the Republican Presidential campaigns over Iran seem baffling once you look at the scope and their effect. There does exist a divide among academics and analysts on whether the sanctions will have their intended effect, bringing the Iranians to the negotiating table on their nuclear program and eventually forego its path towards nuclear weapons. On one end of the argument, Fareed Zakaria had an op-ed in The Washington Post the other day, espousing the current weakness of the Iranian regime. The sanctions, in Zakaria’s opinion, are having precisely the outcome we wanted, an Iran sapped of strength.

On the other end of the spectrum, some believe that the US has gone too far in our stance, such as Brookings’ Suzanne Maloney, who believe that the only possible outcome that the sanctions can hope to produce is regime change and nothing less. Vali Nasr similarly argues that international pressure will make conflict more, not less, likely. In doing so, he notes that the previous stoic endurance of Western sanctions has been broken, and has been replaced with an upswing of bellicose rhetoric and action:

It wasn’t preordained that Iran would opt for battle. For much of the past year, its leaders have debated how best to deal with Western pressure. The alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, which U.S. officials uncovered in October and blamed on Iran, suggests a faction has been making the case for direct confrontation with the West. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had hoped the September release of two Americans, hikers arrested by Iranian authorities and charged as spies, would shield Iran from further pressure and even create a diplomatic opening with the U.S. on the eve of his trip to the UN. Instead, Ahmadinejad went home empty-handed.

Iran’s rulers believe the new Middle East is a greater strategic challenge to the U.S. than to Iran. For the U.S., the region will be far less pliable under rising Islamists than it was under secular dictators. As those Islamists take control of governments from Morocco to Egypt, new opportunities arise for Tehran to forge diplomatic and economic ties. Consequently, the Iranian regime thinks it can counter international pressure on its nuclear activities long enough to get to a point of no return on a weapons program. Rather than discourage this aggressive Iranian position, U.S. policy is encouraging it, making a dangerous military confrontation more likely. There are no easy options for dealing with Iran, but not persisting in a failing strategy is a good place to start.

I will agree with the idea that Iran is being backed into a corner and that makes the chance of rhetoric spilling over into action all the more likely. Despite that, I have to question the idea that were the pressure of Iran less that this would make them more amenable to demands that it freeze its nuclear program. Likewise, the fact remains that Iranian rhetoric against us, be it vocal or muted, would not preclude Tehran from continuing its use of proxies to strike against United States assets abroad, which seems rather aggressive to me. Further, the main point that Nasr fails to note in his piece is that for many in the national security community the current course of action is the soft option for influencing Iranian decision making. Iran has time and again over the past decade made offers of reconciliation, only to either be spurned by the West as being unserious or to have the decisions collapse upon reaching Tehran.

What’s more, the latest effort by President Obama, the best chance that Iran has had in years to reset relations, was scoffed at, leading Iran down its current path. The US strategy also has included a direct outreach to the Iranian people or at least attempts to do so, leaving me to wonder what policies Nasr and Maloney have in mind to discourage Iran’s aggression. I am most likely one of the largest proponents of strong diplomatic efforts that you will ever meet, but at some point sticks are necessary if offers of carrots are rejected. If we really do want to prevent Iran from continuing its nuclear program, an argument that few would disagree with even if the overall effect of Iran succeeding is hotly debated, the further options available to the United States beyond its current strategy all fall much heavily upon overt and covert military abilities.

Ali Vaez has it right, that in dealing with Khamenei, we can’t simply assume that the current strategy will work without planning for all contingencies. The Ayatollah, while holding supreme command of the country, does not have the best strategic instincts known to man. We’ll assume that Iran as a state and Khamenei as a leader will act in a rational manner, which is to say that choices that prompt eradication of their existence in their respective forms will be avoided. However, the idea that Khamenei will act in a predictable fashion is to give him far too much credit. If we’re only focused on the transparency of Iran’s nuclear program as a goal, and not a total change of its behavior as a state, there must be a respectable “out” available to them. As luck would have it, such an out exists: the conditions laid out in the Security Council resolutions passed on the Iranian nuclear program all list the measures that must be taken by Iran to satisfy both the UN and the IAEA on its program. None stipulate that if they are able to prove its peaceful nature that the country must still dismantle its program. If Iran wants nuclear energy as badly as it claims, it must take the steps of a responsible state to prove its intentions.

Finally, one has to note that many articles and thought-pieces on the overall effect of Iranian sanctions gloss over the range and scope of the targeted facets of the Iranian economy. As Colum Lynch pointed out several weeks ago, it’s striking to see how far the common wisdom surrounding sanctions has changed over the past few years:

U.S. and European diplomats, meanwhile, have lauded the effect of tougher sanctions, saying they have begun to inflict real pain on outlaw regimes. In Syria, trade and investment is off 50 percent and the economy is expected to shrink by as much as 12 to 20 percent this year, according to a report by the New York Times that showed evidence that the sanctions, while hitting the regime’s financial backers, were also having an impact on ordinary people.

But the humanitarian cost of sanctions has not figured in the U.S. debate on sanctions. In a Senate hearing last week, not a single administration official or U.S. lawmaker even mentioned the potential humanitarian impact of oil sanctions on Iranian civilians. Instead, they explored ways to promote Iranian freedoms, including proposals to prevent Iran from jamming radio frequencies or blocking Internet, Twitter and Facebook access.

As a sum, national and international sanctions have now moved swiftly beyond the original pressure points of the first UN Security Council embargoes launched over half a decade ago. In the original round, Iran found itself under the effect of more far targeted efforts in the provisions of SC/1737, which only focused on Iran’s nuclear program and the assets of those involved. That limitation quickly was stripped away, as first an arms embargo was imposed in SC/1747, a travel ban and an expanded freeze on Iranian assets. Round three, SC/1803, upped the call for states to monitor Iranian banks, ships, aircraft and individuals, but it was Round Four that have done the most damage. Under Resolution 1929, the Islamic Republic was banned from participating in any activities related to ballistic missiles, tightened the arms embargo, among a host of other punitive financial measures. So far, all of these have been focused on Iran’s nuclear development and the pieces of their armed services which could easily be converted to a military nuclear program. The national sanctions that are set to go into effect go beyond those limits, striking at the core of the Iranian economy.

As of now, the humanitarian scope of the new measures that the United States is launching against the Iranian Central Bank and the coming partial and total oil embargoes have gone undiscussed. There will be no “Oil for Food” program for Iran, not after the telling lessons of the 1990s and Baghdad’s amazing ability to circumvent those measures. Nor is there any indication such a program on the minds of Western officials. With the rial currently fluctuating on the market, having dipped to a low of 17,000 against the dollar, the price of commodities has skyrocketed inside Iran in recent months. Food costs alone have increased 40% in recent days. It pains me to know that life won’t be easy for these people who have no say in who rules them, but I can’t see any better strategy in attempting to influence those protectors of the Revolution. It is my firmest hope that Iran chooses to legitimately return to negotiations rather than attempt to bluster its way through international sanction or launch actual kinetic action by the state against the US and its allies. Despite my hopes, no matter which choice of action Iran takes moves forward, there is one group sure to suffer in the near-term: the Iranian people.

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

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.