Brahimi’s Syrian Ceasefire Doomed from the Start

Lakhdar Brahimi, the man who took over from Kofi Annan in August envoy to the Syrian crisis on behalf of the Arab League and the United Nations, never had much of a plan to jumpstart the type of diplomacy that is essential to ending the conflict. That is not entirely his fault. No matter how hard he might work, he cannot initiate peace talks when both sides are actively seeking the other’s destruction. Even for someone like Brahimi, who has been a veteran diplomatic troubleshooter for over fifty years, the civil war in Syria is a problem that many of his colleagues worldwide akin to mission impossible.

Just because resolving the war is hard does not mean that Brahimi has given up. Indeed, after spending weeks circulating around the Middle East for meetings and consultations, he managed to broker a short-term, tentative ceasefire for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha which ends this Monday.

After receiving the formal plan from the envoy, the Syrian government stated that it would be willing to adhere to its demands, as long as the armed opposition, which the regime has consistently referred to as “terrorists,” does not use the calm to ambush its soldiers or resupply its men.

Brahimi’s initiative, however, is not really a ceasefire in the traditional sense of the word. With an opposition that lacks a strict and centralized chain of command and a regime that has a poor record of keeping its promises, the proposal is more like a general, ad hoc respite from the fighting than a hard-pressed, ironclad peace agreement.

It took only a few hours for violations to occur. By the end of the first day of the truce, activists reported a death toll of forty to as high as seventy, half of what the daily toll has been for the past few months but far from indicative of a ceasefire.

Violations are unfortunate but they are almost to be expected. The conflict in Syria has reached such a heightened level of violence that most of the parties engaged in the fighting are more intent on winning outright than negotiating. The Assad regime has shown no inclination that it is willing to talk with it opponents, despite the urgent calls of United Nations officials and Arab governments that dialogue is the only way that the war can end without violence spilling over Syria’s borders. The Syrian National Council has softened its negotiating position as of late but the conditions that it continues to put forth are still too stringent from Bashar al-Assad’s perspective.

The rebels, in the meantime, are far more interested in getting rid of the regime by force than sitting down with a president they think of as bloodthirsty and ruthless. With tens of thousands of lives already lost, Free Syrian Army rebel commanders are not about to cast away the sacrifices that have been made by opening up discussions with a government discredited in much of the world.

This is why Brahimi’s ceasefire, while noble, is not likely to lead to any substantial political settlement. You cannot lay the groundwork for negotiations if the people who matter consider talking a sign of weakness and surrender.

Abbas to Push Membership Case at General Assembly

For most countries, the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly is both a chance to represent their citizens on a global stage and an opportunity to hold discussions about some of the world’s most urgent international security issues. Speeches are made, applause is heard, delegates meet behind the scenes and documents are drawn up. But for the Palestinians, the General Assembly is the best chance they have in a year to press their case for enhanced membership in the organization.

Since an attempt to attain full state status in the Security Council failed last year, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is reportedly lowering his sights on the General Assembly, where the Palestinians have overwhelming support for their position in their dispute with the Israelis.

For Abbas, whose government has been strapped for cash and is just now recuperating from a series of protests in the West Bank over high prices, a push to improve the Palestinians’ status in the United Nations to “nonmember observer state” is his way of staying relevant.

Will a successful Palestinian bid in the General Assembly do anything to alleviate the problems that have plagued the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for so long? For the most part, probably not. Read more “Abbas to Push Membership Case at General Assembly”

Clear and Present Danger: Transnational Crime

In the 1994 film Clear and Present Danger, based on the Tom Clancy novel by the same name, the president of the United States announces that drug cartels present a national security threat. In the 1990s it was not hard to imagine that the next threat would come from a nonstate actor since the Soviet Union, the United States’ and their allies’ only state threat, did not exist anymore. However, the attacks of September 11, 2001 shifted the world’s focus to terrorism. But threats from transnational criminal organizations, including drug cartels, are still a major threat to global security and is a threat that has not got a lot of attention.

As of 2011, transnational crime is estimated to cost 3.6 percent of total global GDP. 2 percent of that is from money laundering. The scope of transnational crime covers a wide range of activities from drug and human trafficking, to environmental crimes (illegal logging, dumping and poaching), money laundering, counterfeit medicines and cyber crimes. All of these represent a variety of dangers to populations and states. Read more “Clear and Present Danger: Transnational Crime”

In Syria, United Nations No Longer an Option

If there was anyone in the world who still believed that the civil war in Syria could be resolved through a concerted, staged diplomatic process, whatever support that was left in that camp was quickly extinguished on Thursday.

For the third time since the uprising in Syria began seventeen months ago, Chinese and Russian diplomats came together to veto a British backed United Nations Security Council resolution that would have punished the regime of Bashar al-Assad if it failed to comply with Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan.

Afraid that the British proposal would have authorized the use of military force under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, China and Russia rejected the draft resolution as “biased” and unproductive. Read more “In Syria, United Nations No Longer an Option”

States Dodge “Responsibility to Protect” in Syria

William Hague Hillary Clinton
British foreign secretary William Hague and American secretary of state Hillary Clinton attend a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York, January 31 (State Department)

With the high-profile defection of Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, an elite member of the Syrian regime and close personal friend of President Bashar al-Assad’s, comes the renewed sense that the conflict in Syria is beginning to mirror developments in previous “Arab Spring” uprisings.

As Muammar Gaddafi’s inner circle fractured and defected around him and opposition forces consolidated their gains in the rebel stronghold city of Benghazi, the international community invoked the principle of the “responsibility to protect” and mobilized for a military intervention that was spearheaded by NATO forces. This event represents the most recent case of intervention justified by the moral and ethical concepts encapsulated within the “responsibility to protect” doctrine.

Though the principle itself is only a decade old, it has come under considerable scrutiny and criticism within the international community and has undergone several reinterpretations since its normative inception in 2001. Read more “States Dodge “Responsibility to Protect” in Syria”

Why the Arms Trade Treaty Won’t Be Bulletproof

This week sees the start of negotiations on a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that will aim to regulate and monitor the unruly global arms industry.

Last year’s “Arab Spring” uprisings have given particular salience to these negotiations as in many countries where demonstrations took place, imported weapons and armaments (often from Western exporters) were used against civilians in acts that contravened international human rights.

The ATT aims to create global standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms, covering a full spectrum of weaponry, from small arms to tanks, advanced missile systems and fighter jets.

The talks are the fruit of a long and protracted international diplomatic battle that stretches back years, with the tireless work of civil society advocacy groups, such as the NGO Control Arms, playing an instrumental role in raising the issue up to the forefront of the United Nations’ agenda. Read more “Why the Arms Trade Treaty Won’t Be Bulletproof”

Annan Calls for Syrian Contact Group, Including Iran

Former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan at the University of Ottawa, Canada, November 4, 2010
Former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan at the University of Ottawa, Canada, November 4, 2010 (gazetteUO)

Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general who was appointed in February by the Arab League and the United Nations to lead a diplomatic effort to end the conflict in Syria, probably knew all too well when he accepted the job that it wouldn’t be easy. Indeed, sensing that the uprising in Syria was quickly changing from a peaceful protest movement to a civil war between supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, Annan wasted no time getting to work after he was nominated.

The signing of a ceasefire agreement by the Syrian government and the rebel Free Syrian Army on April 12 was the most significant achievement that Annan could produce with the consent of all of the parties, including the regime. The international community subsequently endorsed the move while the United Nations Security Council followed suit by affirming Annan’s initiative through a resolution.

Yet more than two months after the plan was put into effect, the Assad regime’s security forces have done nothing to abide by the charter’s six points which include the release of political detainees arrested in government sweeps, the end of shooting from all sides, the withdrawal of loyalist tanks and soldiers from populated areas and free access for emergency workers and journalists.

Absent the release of a few hundred people from prison, Assad has all but sidestepped the agreement, claiming that his government needs to respond to what is fast becoming a more lethal and capable insurgency movement seeking his ouster. Syrian troops are nowhere near leaving the cities, understanding that doing so would allow their armed opponents to expand their operational reach.

Instead, what we have seen is an acceleration of violence and the deployment of heavier weapons, not only from the Syrian army but from the rebels as well.

Government security forces have stepped up their military offensive this month in an attempt to flush out neighborhoods that have been converted into rebel headquarters. Far more often than not, the Syrian army has conducted those operations in the most indiscriminate way possible, lobbing mortars and shells onto residential areas before allowing the regime’s supporting militias to sweep them.

Assad has begun to use his arsenal of helicopter gunships as an offensive tool in the fight, a response to the insurgents’ greater capability in targeting Syrian tanks with rocket propelled grenades and anti-tank weaponry.

Annan has long recognized that his original peace agreement has failed in its main effort, even if the longtime diplomat refuses to acknowledge that fact in the public eye. Other United Nations officials, including the organization’s head of peacekeeping operations, have started calling Annan’s effort all but dead.

With the skepticism growing, Annan is back to the drawing board, pitching another idea that would bring any state with a major stake in the outcome together for an international conference. The purpose, as Annan has made clear, is to take advantage of every piece of leverage that the outside world has to stop the bloodshed before the conflict reaches the point of a full civil war.

The proposal, first reported by The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius, calls for an international contact group, without the Syrians, to lay out a framework for a post Assad political transition. The permanent members of the UN Security Council would attend as would Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — four countries that hold their own interests in Syria. If all goes as planned, the consultations would result in a unified document signed by all of the parties outlining a transitional phase for Syria’s politics.

Much like the process in Egypt and Yemen, timelines would be given on electing a new president, creating a new constitution and forming an interim national assembly that is made responsible for administering the state before the seating of an elected parliament.

The catch is that President Assad and the Syrian opposition would have to agree before the document could be given any chance to succeed, permission that Assad is unlikely to give unless he is absolved from any war crimes that have been committed in his name during the course of the sixteen month rebellion.

The idea is an interesting one, for it draws Iran, seen as Assad’s only ally in the region, in from the cold. The United States have already reached the conclusion that inviting Iran would be unwise and contradictory to the conference’s stated mission. It is easy to see why Washington has taken that view: Tehran is widely believed to be supporting Assad’s crackdown by sending weapons, technology and advisors into Syria. Iran’s rhetoric remains solidly on Assad’s side, despite his multiple crimes and isolation from most of the world.

Regardless of Iran’s public statements, excluding it from discussions about the future of Syria could hardly make the transition any easier. Despite its bombast, Iran is a rational power that may be willing to support President Assad’s removal if its core interests are taken into account. American officials may not like it but allowing Tehran to have a stake in the outcome could push them to be more constructive.

Much like the Syria conflict in general, nothing in Kofi Annan’s new diplomatic tact guarantees success. Iranian participation could simply elongate the process, resulting in more casualties. Nor is it certain that Assad would be willing to leave if he is assured exile. But an international conference could be worth a try. Every other option on the table seems ineffective, dangerous or politically unattractive.

Arming of Syrian Opposition Likelier After Massacre

If there was ever an instance that could graphically illustrate the ineffectiveness of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire agreement in Syria, it was a deadly attack on the villages of Houla this weekend that ended with casualties of virtually every age.

United Nations officials on the ground in the Arab country are still trying to figure out what exactly happened but preliminary reports backed up by international monitors suggest that the Syrian regime attacked the grouping of small towns with artillery fire and door to door raids by its Shabiha militia allies, killing over one hundred people.

The most shocking and saddening aspect of this attack was how many children died before the offensive was over — 49, most under the age of ten, are among the dead.

Artillery attacks by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime have been deadly for months. Since the Syrian uprising began more than a year ago, some 11,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed in government initiated violence. But when small children are killed by their very own government, some with their jaws blown off from high explosive munitions, the violence takes on a whole new dimension.

The attack on Houla epitomizes just how barbaric Syria’s conflict has become after fifteen months. Indeed, the killing that occurred over the weekend is just the type of case that can convince governments the world over that a change in their approach is needed to contain and, if possible, end the strife.

The question is whether the United Nations Security Council can actually arrive at this point.

To date, the council has been nothing but a hamstrung body, unable to make difficult decisions and too fragmented to pass important resolutions.

Courtesy of Chinese and Russian objections, the council has yet to push through any economic sanctions against the Assad regime for its military crackdown. The stalemate has convinced what once were peaceful demonstrators to take up arms and fight back themselves. The best the United Nations have been able to do is issue press statements about the extraordinary brutality, like the massacre in Houla last Friday and Saturday.

It is not just the Security Council that has been unwilling or unable to act however. Critics have charged the United States, which would like to see the Assad family dynasty collapse for good, with dragging its heels. Officials of the previous administration and some outspoken and powerful members of the Senate have blasted President Barack Obama’s national-security team with indecisiveness and a stubborn resistance to get the United States involved militarily against the Ba’athist regime.

This criticism is coming at a time when Obama Administration officials are weighting their military options — or at least trying to determine how they can assist countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which may be transporting heavy weapons to the Free Syrian Army.

Tired of stalled diplomatic measures and a ceasefire that has been broken by both sides since the pact was first signed, american intelligence officials are reportedly expanding their contacts with the armed opposition in an attempt to figure out which factions are worthy of receiving arms. Washington will still stay away from supplying Assad’s enemies but the administration could come around to the idea of supporting a Saudi, Qatari and Libyan campaign to send weapons to the Syrian president’s opponents.

No one knows whether the scheme will work. At the moment, the question may be beside the point. What is important to note is that the United States are increasingly agitated that Assad is able to snub the world over its calls for dialogue and to end the violence, despite his near total isolation. Horrific and unspeakable acts of violence like the Houla massacre will only embolden that perception.

Violence Subdues in Syria, But Peace Plan Not in Place

Four days into the United Nations-mandated ceasefire, the conflict in Syria continues, albeit at a smaller scale.

The Security Council, with Russian support, hopes to ensure that envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan is being implemented seriously by all of the parties on the ground. On Saturday, it passed a resolution to send a preliminary team of thirty monitors to observe compliance.

Yet despite the council’s newfound unity, nothing in Syria is guaranteed. The civilian casualty toll over the past few days was low when compared to last week’s violence but the fact remains that no one knows for sure what President Bashar al-Assad and his military advisors are thinking behind closed doors.

Both the Syrian government and the Free Syrian Army, the main armed group resisting the regime’s efforts to consolidate control, have all said the right things when asked about Annan’s plan. Syrian ambassador Bashar Jaafari has told the council and news media that the Assad regime is fully committed to the plan’s success. Rebel commanders have uttered similar rhetoric, reiterating their policy of not shooting unless the Syrian government renews its offensive.

Their words need to be taken with a grain of salt. Bashar al-Assad has a terrible track record of misleading Arab League and United Nations diplomats and sidestepping his promises. The restraint of the militant fighters is anything but assured. Without a command and control system, any defector can break the truce agreement in its entirety by disregarding the Free Syrian Army leadership and taking matters into their own hands.

The observer team deployed inside Syria to monitor the Annan proposal is a departure from the United Nations’ previous reluctance to send its own people into conflict zones. The monitoring mission is not a strong one however. The observers will be unarmed, have a difficult time traveling the entire country, and that is assuming that the regime allows them to.

The cessation of major hostilities between the government and the opposition is understandably receiving the most attention. But the Security Council must not forget that the Annan plan is a multidimensional one with the ultimate goal of getting both sides to negotiate. There is no evidence to date that Assad has complied with any other point in the Annan agreement. Syrian troops continue to man checkpoints in major cities while heavy artillery remains positioned either inside neighborhoods or on the fringes of towns in preparation for another offensive.

The tens of thousands of prisoners taken by the authorities have not been released either, nor has there been a noticeable influx of foreign and Syrian journalists into the most damaged areas.

As was demonstrated by last Friday’s demonstrations across the country, the Syrian army will still not allow civilians to protest against in large groups. Five demonstrators were killed on Saturday, others were beaten on Friday.

This is an obvious calculation. The larger the group, the more likely the regime will have to confront a change in momentum toward the demonstrators.

The violence is undeniably lower and the shelling of neighborhoods that was previously the norm has either lessened or stopped entirely. But the ceasefire, which could break with a single incident, is only part of the package. For the Security Council, there is still work to be done.

Preconditions Not a Hopeful Sign for Nuclear Talks

It has been fourteen long months since the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany set around the table with Iranian negotiators to discuss the suspension of Tehran’s uranium enrichment program.

Those talks, which happened in January 2011, ended almost as quickly as they began, with both sides sticking to their original positions without any room for maneuver. The P5+1 demanded that Iran suspended its nuclear program as a gesture of goodwill. Iran refused to talk altogether unless economic sanctions were halted.

The one and done discussion early last year was the clearest microcosm to date of how prolonged and at times hopeless the nuclear negotiations between the two sides have been. Yet even with the disappointment and shortfalls, the diplomatic track is the only option that foreign powers have to dissuade the Iranians from suspending their efforts, short of war.

European countries and the United States know this all too well, which is why the P5+1 powers are dragging the Iranians back to the negotiating table for another round of direct, and one hopes civil, discussion.

At first, the Iranians stonewalled the request, delaying their official response to the invitation. When they finally agreed, Tehran haggled for a few days over where the talks were to take place. Both sides have agreed on Turkey as the venue. Even the Iranians, it appears, are acknowledging that dialogue is the best way that they can garner concession from the world.

With the logistical details now finalized, the P5+1 are set to begin the difficult work of negotiating with the Iranians over the core dispute that has befuddled past attempts at diplomacy — uranium enrichment. The Iranians are likely to remain vigilant in their desire to continue enriching their own nuclear material. How the United States and their allies react to that permanent demand will determine how long the negotiations last.

Flexibility is a prerequisite. In the past, this is what was lacking. The Bush Administration was adamant about rejecting Tehran’s offer of dialogue unless they suspended their nuclear program altogether. President Barack Obama and his national-security team have been a little more willing to engage the Iranians in a give and take, although last year’s failed diplomatic efforts have hardened the administration’s approach to the entire affair.

The New York Times reports that the P5+1 will ask Tehran for a number of major concessions during the opening day, including the dismantling of the nuclear facilities north of the city of Qom. The foreign powers also expect Iran to ship its quantity of 20 percent enriched uranium out of the country.

While these demands make sense from the perspective of the Security Council members, they are a nonstarter for the Iranians. They spent millions building the complex at Fordow over the past few years. It would be nothing short of a miracle if Tehran agreed to simply forgo its most well protected facility when it has just completing it after years of construction.

Standing ground on an illogical position, as far as the Iranians are concerned, is a perfect excuse to blame the Security Council as an intolerant body not serious about the diplomatic effort.

Can the Iranians risk surrendering one of their most prized investments? And if they are indeed willing to take this gamble, what will the Iranians receive in return?

Unfortunately, both of these questions are irrelevant. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not agree to these positions, particularly when they have the potential of souring his popular standing at home. Unless and until the P5+1 proceed in such a way that will give Iranian negotiators a reason to stay in the talks, the diplomatic track will simply be a short step toward further confrontation.