Condemnations of Syrian War Crimes Have Little Impact

While much of the world is focused on the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program, the United Nations Human Rights Council is devoting serious resources to another major issue in the Syrian Civil War: the lack of accountability for those who are engaged in atrocities.

In a speech to reporters in Geneva, Switzerland, the international body’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, disclosed that her colleagues had uncovered numerous incidents in the fighting that amounted to war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Observers of the Syrian Civil War, which is now in its third years, might not be surprised. Reports of what can well be considered crimes against humanity have regularly surfaced. Syrian military forces deliberately bomb densely populated areas, regardless of how many civilians are in the vicinity. Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed by the regime’s use of fighter aircraft, heavy artillery and helicopter gunships. Cluster munitions and barrel bombs that explode on impact, covering wider areas than regular munitions, have been used throughout the year. Bakeries, schools and power stations have all been targeted — if not to destroy rebel supplies and command centers, than to frighten civilians into thinking twice about supporting the opposition.

But in a twist that could potentially add renewed urgency to the humanitarian crisis in the country, Pillay singled out President Bashar Assad for either ordering or condoning these abuses. Read more “Condemnations of Syrian War Crimes Have Little Impact”

Karzai Jeopardizes Afghanistan Security Pact

After a year of negotiations and what was reportedly a tense telephone conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry last week, it looked as though Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai was about to finalize a security pact with the United States that allowed for a residual troop presence post 2014. Yet despite agreeing to the terms of the deal, Karzai vowed on Sunday not to sign it until after the presidential elections of April next year.

In a speech to some 2,500 tribal elders who had gathered in Kabul to discuss the security agreement — which would provide American troops with access to nine military bases and enable them to continue intelligence gathering and training activities — Karzai accused the United States of undermining his presidency through a campaign of disinformation. He intimated that the Americans could not be trusted, even after the tribal assembly had urged him to ratify the agreement next month.

Sources close to the Afghan president claim that he is perfectly willing to fight the United States on this issue. According to The Washington Post, Karzai believes the Obama Administration is bluffing when it threatens to pull out all remaining troops by the time NATO’s mandate expires in 2014 unless an agreement is ratified before the end of the year. That may turn out to be a fatal miscalculation on his part.

Why should Karzai put the brakes on a defense relationship that benefits both his government and the United States? And why does he insist on embarrassing an ally that put him in power, kept the Taliban insurgency at bay and poured billions of dollars of aid into his administration’s coffers? Read more “Karzai Jeopardizes Afghanistan Security Pact”

Senate Threatens More Sanctions as Iran Talks Resume

Dick Durbin Harry Reid
Democratic senators Dick Durbin of Illinois, Chuck Schumer of New York and Harry Reid of Nevada leave a news conference in Washington DC, April 26, 2012 (Senate Democrats)

For the second time in nearly three weeks, America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, changed his travel schedule on Friday to attend nuclear talks with Iran in Switzerland. At home, lawmakers were growing restless.

The last time Kerry attended the negotiations in Geneva between the world’s major powers and Iran, a deal seemed at hand but failed to materialize when the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany refused to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium. France also walked out, reportedly because the closure of a key plutonium plant was not part of the agreement. Read more “Senate Threatens More Sanctions as Iran Talks Resume”

After Years of Friction, Afghan Pact Rests with Tribal Leaders

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan walk at the White House in Washington DC, May 12, 2010
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan walk at the White House in Washington DC, May 12, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

After a lengthy negotiation that lasted nearly a year and contained a number of near breakdowns, Afghanistan and the United States agreed in principle to an agreement that would allow NATO forces to remain in the South Asian country after their mandate expires in 2014.

The deal, referred to as the Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement, is an ambitious document that attempts to lay down the rules and regulations that would govern any future foreign troop presence in the country. It is one that has long topped the agenda of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai.

Although the two countries have managed to strike a commonality on what the agreement says, the wording could change considerably over the next several weeks, depending on whether the Afghan tribal assembly and parliament chose to amend it.

For the remainder of the week, Karzai will devote significant time and energy to a loya jirga meeting to advocate ratification of the agreement. On its first day, he delivered a lengthy speech in support of a continued foreign military presence, albeit with some caveats on when exactly the document ought to be signed. The United States would like a final agreement in place before the end of the year; Karzai would rather wait until after next year’s presidential election.

The Afghan Foreign Ministry nevertheless posted the security agreement on its website Wednesday night. Whether or not this is the official version is unknown but it outlines a framework for future Afghan-American defense relations. It also strikes a balance in order to take into consideration some of the principles that both countries lobbied for over the previous twelve months.

American soldiers, for instance, would not be permitted to engage in combat without permission from Afghan authorities. Afghan troops “are responsible for securing the people and territory of Afghanistan,” the document reads, and the primary responsibility of foreign personnel is to provide advice and assistance on everything from force preparedness to logistical efficiency and intelligence collection.

At the same time, the Afghans appear to have given the Americans room to conduct unilateral counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups — a key condition for the United States.

Karzai was able to cobble together a key concession in return. President Barack Obama sent a personal letter to his Afghan counterpart’s office reaffirming that American forces would take every effort to respect the sanctity of Afghans in their homes.

“As this new agreement states,” Obama wrote (PDF), “American forces shall not enter Afghan homes for the purposes of military operations, except under extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk to life and limb of American nationals.”

Obama’s personal assurance is one Karzai can show off to the tribal council, perhaps increasing the likelihood that it accepts the security agreement.

A bone of contention throughout the negotiating process was whether American personnel would be vulnerable to Afghan law in the event of a crime. The Obama Administration threatened that unless soldiers were given immunity, all would be withdrawn in 2014. Despite a number of high-profile cases where civilian casualties were caused by foreign troops, and despite vocal opposition from conservative Afghan politicians that they should be accountable to the local criminal justice system, Karzai agreed to cede legal authority. While this was a difficult pill to swallow politically, Karzai recognized that sticking to his demand would guarantee that Western forces pulled out altogether — which would jeopardize not only the security of Afghanistan but that of his regime as well.

Diplomacy with Karzai has always been difficult. Before the bilateral security pact was agreed upon, negotiators spent two years determining the scale and scope of a deal that would determine the broader bilateral relationship between the two countries. That process, like the current one, ran into considerable roadblocks that imperiled the very signing of an agreement, such as Afghanistan’s demand that foreign troops stop all night raids and that detainees in American facilities be transferred to Afghan control.

Although a deal is now done, success depends on whether a council of some 2,500 Afghan elders approves it and whether the Afghan parliament will ratify it. Only then can Karzai sign it into law.

For now, though, a negotiation that produced major friction between the two countries is nearing its end.

Parties Critical of Obama’s Iran Strategy

Dick Durbin Harry Reid Nancy Pelosi Barack Obama
Democratic senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Harry Reid of Nevada, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama talk in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, July 11, 2012 (White House/Pete Souza)

When America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, made an unexpected trip to Geneva, Switzerland last weekend, there was hope in the international community that Iran and the world’s major powers were close to a nuclear deal. A successful agreement, however short-term, would have been seen as a big political victory for the Obama Administration at a time when its foreign policy credentials have been challenged by a host of shimmering conflicts abroad, from the civil war in Syria to a moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

It turned out the deal that many thought possible was beyond the grasp of negotiators last weekend. It is not exactly clear who scuttled the momentum. Some reports point to the French who appeared to insist on more restrictions. Others blame the Iranians for failing to budge on some of their core demands involving the right to enrich uranium.

In the long run, whoever was to blame matters little. What matters is what impact the failed talks will have on the diplomatic process that the Obama Administration is now so dearly invested in. Read more “Parties Critical of Obama’s Iran Strategy”

Kerry Tries to Rescue Stalled Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 20, 2012 (DoD/D. Myles Cullen)

America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, has a lot on his plate, from the upcoming round of nuclear negotiations with Iran to the global effort in Syria to verify and destroy Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons. Yet on Wednesday, he added another item to his “to do” list — spending a full day traveling between Israel and the West Bank to resurrect a peace process that both parties believe is on the brink of collapsing.

After six months of persistent contact with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry achieved a breakthrough in the conflict that had eluded American officials the previous three years. That is, Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed to relaunch direct negotiations within a strict nine month timeframe. Given the enormous mistrust between Israel and the Palestinians over the core issues of the conflict, getting both men back to the negotiating table was a major obstacle. But by with sheer force of his personality, Kerry at least broke through that roadblock. Read more “Kerry Tries to Rescue Stalled Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks”

Terrorist Leader’s Death Sours American-Pakistani Relations

By all indications, Hakimullah Mehsud was a terrorist. Despite his relative inexperience as a youthful, if determined, low level fighter, the Pakistani impressed his superiors so much that in just a few short years, he became the head of a major branch of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the country’s largest and most feared terrorist group. After a American drone strike killed its top commander, Baitullah Mehsud, in the summer of 2009, the Pakistani Taliban’s leader met and selected the younger Mehsud to guide the group through a very challenging time in its history.

Through the use of suicide bombers, large-scale car bombings and coordinated attacks against Pakistan’s army and security forces, Mehsud’s status soon rose to an elite level within the jihadist ranks. While Pakistanis were his primary victims, he quickly gained the attention of the United States as well when a young Jordanian who was thought to be a promising intelligence asset for the CIA blew himself up inside of an agency base in eastern Afghanistan. That strike killed seven intelligence agents and was the worst attack leveled against the intelligence agency since the 1983 bombing of the United States’ marine barracks in Beirut.

So after four years of searching, a feeling of relief swept over the American counterterrorism community when a drone finally caught up to the Taliban leader on Friday and hit the vehicle he was riding in. Read more “Terrorist Leader’s Death Sours American-Pakistani Relations”

Iraq’s Maliki Deserves Some Tough Love in Obama Meeting

Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks with American president Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, July 22, 2009
Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks with American president Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, July 22, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Twenty-three months ago, Americans and Iraqis alike celebrated a milestone they had both long waited for: an end to a bloody and hard fought occupation. Iraq, at least when compared to its more violent days, was slowly stabilizing, with an Al Qaeda terrorist network struggling to sustain itself and a thriving oil sector pouring tens of billions of dollars into the country’s economy. President Barack Obama, who had considered the invasion of Iraq a “dumb war,” announced on national television that all America’s troops were coming home and that its involvement in the war was finally over.

Fast forward to today and it is clear that whatever hopes Iraqis had for a future have come apart at the seams.

An Al Qaeda affiliate that was nearly beaten through a combination of American special operations, gradual political reconciliation between Shia and Sunni Muslims and a grassroots anti-terrorism campaign across the Sunni provinces is once again tearing Iraqi families apart.

Over 7,000 Iraqis have been killed this year in ambushes, shootings, car and suicide bombings. More than 1,000 were killed last month alone. Despite the tens of billions of dollars that the United States and its coalition partners poured into Iraq’s security forces in the last ten years, they have been unable to stop a wave of violence that has killed an average of dozens of Iraqis per day.

Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s state visit to Washington DC on Friday could hardly come at a more pressing time. Maliki, a man who was originally put into the premier’s office as a compromise candidate, has managed to retain his seat through a combination of political acumen and a monopolization of the country’s institutions. He remains the nominal head of the Ministries of Defense and Interior and has used his influence to push Iraq’s evolving Federal Supreme Court to his side. It’s an evolution that Maliki’s political opponents, Shia, Sunni and Kurdish alike, regard as a workaround of the country’s constitution.

Maliki, then, could have a hard time convincing officials in the United States that he is the man who can save Iraq from the current scourge of terrorism and bring it back onto a peaceful and democratic footing. He has had an especially difficult time with members of Congress. Meetings with top Democrats and Republicans in the Senate did not go as well as he might have hoped. On Monday, a bipartisan group of six influential senator even wrote a letter to the White House criticizing Maliki’s governing style as autocratic and an incubator of the violence currently sweeping across his country.

Maliki is used to criticism but his actions over the past week underscore the fact that he understands that his credibility with the Americans is fast deteriorating. In addition to submitting an op-ed to The New York Times and delivering a speech to a prominent Washington think tank, Maliki met with a host of senior American officials, from congressional leaders and the secretary of defense to Vice President Joe Biden. In each meeting, Maliki delivered the same message: Iraq needs help to take the fight to a resurgent Al Qaeda.

The premier will be sure to stress the terrorism argument when he meets President Obama today. Greater intelligence sharing between American and Iraqi forces is the top item on his wish list but a close second is the speedy delivery of American fighter aircraft that the Iraqi government needs to patrol its airspace.

Before any of those requests can be met, President Obama must make clear to the Iraqi leader that a reliance on military force is only a partial solution to the terrorism problem. Ultimately, Maliki will need to demonstrate the type of political courage that he has failed to exhibit in the past — reaching out to Sunni politicians, rebuilding a constructive alliance with Sunni tribes and formulating a more tolerant and less poisonous political environment.

Syrian Regime Withholding Food, Medicine from Rebel Areas

Damascus, Syria at dusk, September 27, 2005
Damascus, Syria at dusk, September 27, 2005 (Upyernoz)

When the United Nations Security Council united last month and passed a resolution authorizing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, the reaction among Syrians was a mix of highs and lows, of jubilation and dismay.

For the survivors of a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians on the outskirts of Damascus in August, the news that those very weapons would be dismantled was a breath of fresh air.

But for those who are still trapped in besieged neighborhoods as well as the millions who have had to flee their homes, getting rid of the country’s large chemical weapons arsenal was the least the international community could do.

Indeed, as the war stretches closer to its fourth year with every passing month, more and more Syrians have resigned to the fact that the bloodshed and wholesale slaughter of entire families will continue for a long time, whether or not poison gasses are destroyed.

President Bashar al-Assad does not need weapons of mass destruction to continue his gruesome counterinsurgency campaign. If anything, the Syrian dictator has all the more incentive to use the tools of traditional warfare to carry on the fight now that international inspectors are cataloguing and destroying his chemical weapons.

One of such tools is the threat of starvation. Surrounding rebellious sections of Damascus and cutting those areas off from humanitarian relief may seem a crude way to push Syria’s revolutionaries back but it is also a very effective one.

There have been reporters for months that insurgent held areas have been deprived of food, medicine and humanitarian access, all at the hands of a government that is trying to push rebels back from the capital. But the situation gained urgency this month, when a group of Syrian clerics released a fatwa that allowed Syrians in desperate need of food to eat dogs, cats and stray animals.

The response from the Assad regime — surrounding rebels neighborhoods with checkpoints, unleashing daily aerial bombardments and obstructing the work of relief agencies — can hardly be categorized as anything but a war crime.

Oraba Idriss, a rebel commander, succinctly aired his grievances to Time magazine about the regime’s tactics in the capital’s largest suburbs. “What the regime is doing is mass punishment for all the people who chanted once for the downfall of the regime,” he said.

Perhaps recognizing that the effort was getting too much grief from even staunch supporters of his regime, Assad allowed several thousands of besieged residents to flee the area. Yet that relief is a far cry from what the Security Council has called for: complete cooperation with relief agencies in order to reach the millions of civilians who are in desperate need of live saving treatment.

It is becoming clear that chemical weapons, however useful as a deterrent to outside invasion, are not necessary for Bashar Assad to prosecute the war. Keeping electricity, food, heating oil, medicine and water out of areas that are controlled by the rebels, even if civilians die as a result, will do. Regardless of how many humanitarian appeals the United Nations releases, this tact of war is likely to go on as long as Assad believes it will help him on the battlefield.

Iraq’s Maliki Can Learn Counterinsurgency Lessons from Americans

American president Barack Obama greets Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, July 22, 2009
American president Barack Obama greets Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, July 22, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

For the millions of Iraqis who are still trying to recover from a decade of war, terrorism is nothing new. Ten years of warfare and insurgency have not only brought about the partial destruction of Iraq as a strong state but also the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians while millions more were made refugees in their own country.

So when American troops finally withdrew in December 2011 after officially declaring that coalition military operations were over, Iraqis of all sects and religions were hopeful that their lives would get better — or at the very least, more peaceful.

Nearly two years after that withdrawal, however, the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated to a point that even the most pessimistic Iraqi had not predicted. The scope and scale of terrorism that is devastating the Middle Eastern country this year is on a level not seen since 2008 when the sectarian civil war that tore Iraq’s social fabric apart was finally burning itself out.

2013 is turning out to be one of the most violent years in recent Iraqi history. As of this month, more than 7,000 Iraqis have died in terrorist attacks. Last year, 4,574 were killed in such incidents. If the current rate of violence continues, 2013 would surpass the previous two years combined in the number of civilians killed by terrorism — a development that, if met, would be a striking warning to the world that Iraq is still very much in the middle of an asymmetric war.

The pace of violent attacks has also increased markedly in comparison to just a year ago. Hardly a day goes by without a car bombing, ambush, assassination or suicide bombing. Since last month, there have been 26 days when at least thirty Iraqis were killed in acts of insurgency or terrorism.

Indeed, the last mass casualty attack occurred just this Monday when a suicide bomber crashed his vehicle into a café and detonated his explosives, killing 38, mostly young men enjoying a night out. This incident came only four days after nine car bombs exploded throughout Baghdad, the capital, claiming 61 lives.

The situation has become so dire that it is often difficult to determine which group is responsible for specific attacks. There are a number of Sunni Islamist groups carrying out attacks against the central government but the vast majority of the mass casualty bombings are no doubt the work of a resurgent Al Qaeda branch that, just four years, ago, was the verge of collapse.

The United States will have the opportunity to drill home all of these points on November 1 when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is due to meet President Barack Obama in Washington DC.

With a civil war raging in Syria and negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program just beginning, the Obama Administration has put the Iraq file on the backburner — not ignoring it, but not prioritizing it either. Most bilateral discussions to date have centered on implementing the Strategic Framework Agreement which allows American forces to assist their Iraqi counterparts in intelligence gathering and counterterrorism operations.

With terrorism in Iraq at a five year high, and Shia premier Maliki refusing to give major concessions to his Sunni opponents, the message from the United States should be clear. Simply co-opting parts of the Sunni protest movement with short-term carrots will not mend the sectarian divides in Iraq. More Sunnis should be let into the security forces and an anti-terror law that is overly broad in its implications ought to be revised.

At the height of the civil war, America realized it could not pacify the country nor extinguish the insurgency through military force alone. Tackling the political obstacles underlining the unrest was just as important. Now that Iraq is in the middle of its most widespread violence in five years, it is time it taught those lessons to Iraq’s own officials.