Thursday, May 31, 2012

Give talks in Syria a real chance

Annan has now been more than a month in Syria but peace seems still far away. Annan and his staff remain optimistic and like to point to out that violence has diminished. And they proclaim the hope that with more observers the violence will be further reduced.

Annan’s Six Point Plan is based on a series of assumptions about the Syrian situation. Whether it will work out and result in peace depends to a large extent on the correctness of those assumptions

Assessing the situation
The Plan assumes that there is a democratic opposition that is in its heart peaceful. Confronting that it sees a regime that can only survive with brute violence. It sees the present violence by the opposition as a natural reaction to this government violence. If just the government would stop its violence then the opposition would revert to its prior peaceful nature too. At that point negotiations could be started and Assad would soon realize that he is outdated dictator and would transfer power to democracy as embodied by the opposition or to some interim figure appointed in a collaboration between the government and the opposition. After a short period elections might be held. Result should be a more prosperous and stable Syria.

Nearly all these assumptions are wrong.

Syria’s opposition was never really peaceful. Its idea of peaceful protesting was to organize ever larger demonstrations that should end with an overrunning of the parliament and the presidential palace. The opposition has the ample financial means that enable it to keep the momentum in this process with a large amount of propaganda. This is the scenario of the color revolutions. No self respecting government that is aware of this scenario will let it happen.

Many security people had been trained under the more ruthless rule of the present president’s father. Confronted with sudden demonstrations in Daraa they reacted in the way they were used to. But that doesn’t mean that – given enough time – they couldn’t have learned to react more peacefully. Assad has introduced some reforms since the start of the uprising. He might well have reformed here too but he never had a chance as the opposition used the event as an excuse to start a violent uprising.

It looks highly unlikely that the opposition will lay down its arms when the government does. What we see instead is that as soon as the government withdraws the armed opposition moves in. Given that a considerable part of the armed opposition was also involved in the armed resistance against the father of the present president in the 1970s and 1980s this is not surprising.

The opposition is also far from democratic. The core of Sunni fundamentalists aims for a religious state rather than democracy. The problems of the opposition in working together are well known and bode ill for the tolerance of diversity after the opposition has won.

Assad is also far from a lonely dictator. Before the present uprising started he was widely supported – even by many who now support the opposition. And although his support has fallen due to the violent way he has tried to suppress the uprising he has still considerable support, specially among the Alawites, Christians and parts of the Sunnites.

The road towards peace
Taking this into account much of the Annan Six Point Plan as it is implemented seems wrong:

There is no sign that the opposition is serious about the armistice as an opportunity to start a political process. Some follow the truce at least with words to avoid international condemnation. Others see it mainly as an opportunity to rearm and according to some news reports they have succeeded to a considerable extent. Some smaller segments of the opposition have openly rejected the truce and continue their attacks.

Given this situation the demand for withdrawal of Syrian troops from population centers becomes unrealistic. A withdrawal should serve to create a neutral space where everyone can breath freely, not to allow the opposition to advance. This is even more acute as some of the areas that the opposition would overrun are pro-Assad and it is well known that the opposition is not very friendly towards Assad supporters – expelling or even killing them.

In this climate it is also highly unlikely that elections can be held. Very likely the opposition will contest the results from government held territories and the Assad supporters those from the opposition held territories. We have seen this scenario in Ivory Coast. Democracy is not the dictatorship of the majority. It can only exist on the basis of a good constitution in which the main parties have worked out how they want to live and work together.

What Syria needs are talks. Talks that build trust between Alawites, Sunnites, Kurds, Christians and other groups and lead to a consensus on how Syria should develop towards more freedom, openness, human rights and democracy..

But until now Annan has done very little to achieve such talks. There are no local talks to achieve at least locally held armistices that could serve as building blocks for a wider truce. The opposition hasn’t appointed representatives and Annan hasn’t pressured them to do so.

Annan seems to believe that first peace must be established before talks can be held. There is no sign that this will work. He needs to work the other way: establish trust with talks so that the truce can hold.

Unfortunately the Western countries have unlearned the art of negotiations with the end of the Cold War. What goes under the name of “negotiations” is nowadays heavily contaminated with Western wishes, “principles” and demands. It is an attitude that did much to worsen the situation in former Yugoslavia and Ivory Coast. The question is whether we are prepared now to allow and support negotiations where the accent is on improving human rights and freedom and building trust between Syria’s groups rather than on the removal of Assad. Such negotiations may take months or even years. But it is the only way towards real freedom.

It’s about the economy …
The economies of the Arab world were growing fast before the Arab Spring started. So the oft mentioned assumption that the uprisings were caused by economic mismanagement don’t hold. Supporters of this theory sometimes want to save their position by claiming that all the benefits of the growth went to a small elite but there is little proof for that assumption: Middle Eastern countries score rather low on Gini index for inequality. It seems rather that the revolutions were a combination of long held discontent over non-elected leaders, rising food prices and a series of rather accidental events.

Tunisia’s regime had been weakened by the Wikileaks cables about the extravagancies of its leadership and the revelation of the critical way the US looked at them. Then came the uprising and president Ben Ali – an old man of 74 – preferred to leave rather than to engage a long fight. This gave the uprising momentum and led to similar uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world. These probably wouldn’t have lasted long if it hadn’t been for support from the US, Turkey and the Gulf States.

For much of the population of Tunisia and Egypt the revolution has become a disappointment as it destroyed the economy. The violence drove away the tourists and the many strikes damaged existing businesses and drove away potential investors. In both cases it is doubtful whether this will be repaired soon. The violence of the government may have stopped but it is doubtful whether the Salafi violence against liquor shops and their pressure on women to wear scarves will do much to bring back the tourists.

… and stability
It is well known countries need a middle class and a certain level of wealth before they can become really democratic. A middle class with a source of income that is independent of the government puts the right kind of demands on a government while a certain level of wealth makes that people have the time and education to make an educated choice between the candidates. Only Tunisia comes close to that threshold while the prospects for democracy in Egypt, Syria and certainly dirt poor Yemen seem poor.

If poorer countries are democratic it is often in a rather dysfunctional way. Often they have a one or two party system and when politicians are voted out they tend to come back four years later. Corruption tends to be high. Political discussion in poorer countries tends to be about zero-sum issues like the division of wealth while in richer countries it is usually about common goals like economic growth, law and order and foreign policy. Zero-sum issues like division of wealth and the relative power of ethnic, religious or other interest groups tends to be solved in richer counties by consensus and is sometimes laid down in the constitution.

Recently it has become in fashion to sell democracy as a solution to all problems. This has been times and again a resounding failure but thanks to gracious funding from Western countries it keeps popping up. The “democratic” secessions from Yugoslavia ended mostly in bloody wars thanks the refusal from the Western countries to admit that such secessions should happen in mutual agreement – what can take years. With the sorry excuse that Yugoslavia was falling apart the Helsinki Accords and the Yugoslav constitution were blatantly ignored. Later on we saw the color revolutions: Thanks to the skills of Western PR agencies they initially generated great enthusiasm – of which nothing is left. Instead the color revolutions caused mainly chaos and stagnation. But the democracy promoters marched on and found their next big project in the Arab Spring. The disappointment in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya is already quite common but that doesn’t stop them from targeting Syria as their next big project.

But Syria doesn’t need democracy now. Even in the best circumstances that would hardly work as the country is too poor and too divided. What Syria needs is more national consensus and for that extensive negotiations are needed. It needs to find a consensus where Brotherhood people can live together in peace with Alawites and Christians. It needs a consensus where most of the Syria’s refugees – who often have been living outside the country for decades – can return safely but where they will also promise not pursue armed struggle that upsets the country.

From that perspective Annan’s mission in Syria until now has been a resounding failure. Under the pretext that first violence should end he has refused to take even a single step towards negotiations between Assad and the opposition. He refuses to see that for violence to stop there has to be trust and that can only be created with negotiations.

… but not about bad guys
Western diplomacy likes us now to believe that all problems are caused by just a few bad guys. Nowadays the removal of Assad seems to be the priority for Washington.

Both Tunisia and Egypt would have been better off if those countries hadn’t had revolutions but instead had gone through the same steps as Western countries do when there are heavy protests: a give-and-take between government and protesters that ends with some kind of compromise. In the process they might have fired some corrupt officials, abolished a few corrupt monopolies and become a bit more open for dissent. The only problem is that such compromises don’t deliver the scalps that Western foreign policy nowadays seems to need to appear successful to its home audience.

This trophy hunting has already led to excesses, like the murder of a head of state in the case of Libya and the largely symbolic replacement of the president of Yemen by his deputy. It gives the West a special – dysfunctional – interest in what is going on the Arab countries.

Assad is now sold to us as the bad guy. But before the uprising started he enjoyed considerable popularity among Syrians who saw him as a reformer and modernizer. It is easy to discard him because of all the blood that has been shed. But it is also dishonest. Assad simply inherited the security system. One can blame him for not reforming it fast enough but that raises the question whether one shouldn’t blame as well the opposition with its refusal to compromise. And that raises the question whether their supporters in the West may be not so innocent as they pretend to be.

Singling out Assad as the only one responsible absolves the opposition from its responsibility. So far from ending the violence easing out Assad would encourage the opposition and increase their violence. Real peace for Syria can only start with the recognition that the parties there have to find a way to live together. That means negotiations and compromise.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Houla hype

It has been silent for a while but now it looks like the interventionist are making a new attempt to get their way with Syria. This time they try to abuse the massacre in Houla as an excuse.

What happened was that there was first a battle between the army and the FSA in which the army used artillery. Then the FSA - that had been hiding among the civilians - temporarily left Houla to attack army posts. While they were away some militias used the opportunity to commit a massacre.

The Security Council took the opportunity to condemn Assad for using artillery. But using artillery is just the way the Syrian army fights. It causes occasional civilian deaths because the FSA likes to hide among civilians but it is not the main cause of civilian deaths. In Houla less than 20 of the death are from shelling and it is likely that at least part of them are opposition fighters.

When problems started in Syria the US at first attempted to have resolutions that condemned the Syrian army for using violence but left the opposition off the hook. They didn't get their way with that but in the end they got a clause on using artillery (that the FSA doesn't have) in the Annan plan. It is hypocrisy: all fighters should stay away from civilian centers, not just those from army.

What we really need to know is the answer to two questions:
- what was the fighting in Houla about? Who started it and what were the goals of both parties? With both Sunni and Alawite villages in the area and the FSA having a reputation for ethnic cleansing of such villages it is not hard to see potential for conflict.
- Who were the militia's who committed the massacre? Did they have a motive? Was this a revenge for something else?

As I have written often before: when will Annan finally get serious about negotiations? That is the only way out. And you can't wait until the violence has stopped: negotiations are needed to create the trust that is needed for violence to stop.

Postscript: there are at least some answers: according to Human Rights Watch, as cited in the WSJ, at least 62 of the casualties are from one family (the Abdul Razak family in Taldou). According to the WSJ article "One resident said the attacks on Friday might have been to avenge a rebel assault on a nearby Alawite village a day earlier. Rebel fighters also admitted putting up a stronger fight with government forces on Friday than had been claimed initially. That fighting appeared to be what the government blamed for its artillery barrage."

Postscript 2: Here you can find the complete text of the press conference in which the Syrian government denies responsibility for the Houla massacre.

Postscript 3: This article ("I saw massacre of children, says defecting Syrian air force officer") contains a summary of an interview with Major Jihad Raslan, an air force officer who was on leave in Houla when the killings happened and later defected. His account is not very informative. He reports that the massacre has led to an increase in defections.

Postscript 4: This article (The Houla massacre: reconstructing the events of 25 May) tries to reconstruct what happened. A fragment: Maysara, a local elder who doubles as a leader in the Syrian Revolutionary Council, said the shelling lasted for about three hours. "Just as we were getting ready to start the demonstration, the shelling started," he said. [..] The people of Houla had been attacked before, but [...] the [intensity of the] shelling was unusual," said a second local, Abu Aruba. [..] The barrage was followed by a movement of security forces, according to Maysara. "The regime army was gathering near the water plant [on the southern outskirts of town]," he said. "We knew they were planning something big."
Abu Aruba estimated that around 300 men gathered at a Syrian military depot near the water plant. According to several accounts, the Shabiha and regime troops rallied after members of the Free Syria Army attacked a checkpoint earlier in the day. The men at the water plant were a mix of security forces and the feared loyalist Shabiha militia that has been at the vanguard of the 16-month nationwide crackdown on dissent.

The homes of the Abdul Razziq family were the first that the militias reached when they approached Taldou. More than 60 of the massacre victims are thought to have belonged to this single extended family.
The Shabiha approached from the south-east – from the direction of Foulah and Qabou, according to numerous local accounts. "The Shabiha took advantage of the fact that there was no one there to protect them," Abu Aruba said. "There was no one there on the outskirts. They just slaughtered everybody." By early evening, much of the killing had stopped, the witnesses say. According to the residents of Houla, most of the militiamen had returned to Foulah and Qabou. A small group, however, remained behind. It is this group which is believed to have gone looking for the Sayed family at about 3am on Saturday morning.

There are some inconsistencies in this report. Outside the Abdul Razziq and the Sayed family and the victims of the shelling only about 10 people were killed. This suggests targeting, not random killing. So why does the opposition deny that? The other inconsistency is that the opposition first claimed that all the casualties were due to shelling and later changed that story.

Postscript 5: Here is a report from a pro-Assad site: [The witness] said that the victims belong to the family of al-Sayed, with Muawiya al-Sayed being a police officer who didn't defect and was always in danger, along with two other al-Sayed households who are related to Meshleb al-Sayed who recently became Secretary of the People's Assembly.

The witness added that another family that was targeted is Abdelrazzaq family which consists of four household and supports the government, noting that the houses belong to al-Sayed family are located next to the houses of gunmen and their relatives, wondering how the gunmen's children weren't killed if the attack had been perpetrated by "Shabiha" as some claim?

She added that another family that was untouched is that of Faour, and that all the members of this family are armed and one of whom acts as a cameraman for al-Jazeera, wondering how none of these people died when their houses were full at the time of the massacre.

About the perpetrators another witness said according to this report: He explained that the group led by one Haitham al-Housan hated al-Sayed family, and that they're killers, not revolutionaries, and their trade is abduction, murder and theft through which they amassed millions, adding that this group didn't even fire at the detachment but rather at the house where Okba al-Sayed, his brother, his sister-in-law and their children were, killing them.

Postscript 6: ANNA News Journalist Marat Musin about Houla Massacre from Syrianews add other details: In the weekend of May 25, 2012, at about 2 PM, big groups of fighters attacked and captured the town of Al – Hula of the Homs province. Al-Hula is made up of three regions: the village of Taldou, Kafr Laha and Taldahab, each of which had previously been home for 25-30 thousand people.

The town was attacked from the north-east by groups of bandits and mercenaries, numbering up to 700 people. The militants came from Ar-Rastan (the Brigade of al-Farouk from the Free Syrian Army led by the terrorist Abdul Razak Tlass and numbering 250), from the village of Akraba (led by the terrorist Yahya Al-Yousef), from the village Farlaha, joined by local gangsters, and from Al Hula.

The city of Ar-Rastan has long been abandoned by most civilians. Now Wahhabis from Lebanon dominate the scene, fueled with money and weapons by one of the main orchestrators of international terrorism, Saad Hariri, who heads the anti-Syrian political movement “Tayyar Al-Mustaqbal” (“Future Movement”). The road from Ar-Rastan to Al-Hula runs through Bedouin areas that remain mostly out of control of government troops, which made the militant attacks on Al Hula a complete surprise for the Syrian authorities.

When the rebels seized the lower checkpoint in the center of town and located next to the local police department, they began to sweep all the families loyal to the authorities in neighboring houses, including the elderly, women and children. Several families of the Al-Sayed were killed, including 20 young children and the family of the AbdulRazak. Many of those killed were “guilty” of the fact that they dared to change from Sunnis to Shiites.
Note that once, the exactly same provocation failed at Shumar (Homs) and 49 militants and women and children were killed, when it was organized just before a visit of Kofi Annan. The last provocation was immediately exposed as soon as it became known that the bodies of the previously kidnapped belonged to Alawites. This provocation also contained serious inconsistencies – the names of those killed were from people loyal to the authorities, there were no traces of bombings, etc.

Postscript 7: Here is the translated transcript of a Russian TV documentary with some video fragments.

Postscript 8: In the mean time the Guardian reports on 4 June that UN investigators have said their evidence supported the claims of witnesses and defecting Syrian office that the Houla killings were carried out by a regime-controlled militia, the shabiha. Unfortunately it looks like the UN is only relying on opposition sources.

Postscript 9: National Review has article in which it cites German and Dutch sources. Some quotes: [...]the massacre occurred after rebel forces attacked three army-controlled roadblocks outside of Houla. The roadblocks had been set up to protect nearby Alawi majority villages from attacks by Sunni militias. The rebel attacks provoked a call for reinforcements by the besieged army units. Syrian army and rebel forces are reported to have engaged in battle for some 90 minutes, during which time “dozens of soldiers and rebels” were killed.

According to eyewitness accounts [...] the massacre occurred during this time. Those killed were almost exclusively from families belonging to Houla’s Alawi and Shia minorities. Over 90% of Houla’s population are Sunnis. Several dozen members of a family were slaughtered, which had converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. Members of the Shomaliya, an Alawi family, were also killed, as was the family of a Sunni member of the Syrian parliament who is regarded as a collaborator. Immediately following the massacre, the perpetrators are supposed to have filmed their victims and then presented them as Sunni victims in videos posted on the internet.

Already at the beginning of April, Mother Agn├Ęs-Mariam de la Croix of the St. James Monastery warned of rebel atrocities’ being repackaged in both Arab and Western media accounts as regime atrocities. She cited the case of a massacre in the Khalidiya neighborhood in Homs. According to an account published in French on the monastery’s website, rebels gathered Christian and Alawi hostages in a building in Khalidiya and blew up the building with dynamite.

Postscript 10: The FAZ article was retorted by an article ("Assad’s Houla Propaganda"). Given that the article made outrageous claims like that the victims were Alawi and Shiites this doesn't surprise. Here is a reaction by FSA activists from Houla.

Postscript 11: Here is the deathlist of Houla - as published on the site of the SNC.

Postcript 12: The wiki website A Closer look on Syria has a special section in hwich it tries to sort out the diverse allegations that have been made regarding the Houla massacre.

Postscript 13: Here is the UN report that declares the Syrian government and the shabiha responsible. The report contains 102 pages but less than one and a half page in the main text and four pages in Appendix IV is devoted to providing arguments for its conclusion. They mostly depended on interviews by others - partly because the government refused access. All interviews they saw supported the rebel version, except for the two mentioned in the government report. They tried to interview those two but didn't get access. Their evidence is rather circumstantial: the government had some positions that gave it considerabel control over the area and survivors fled to opposition controlled areas. What misses is an effort to reconstruct the situation and give an account of who did what and why.

Postscript 14: Here are interviews with witnesses from Houla on the Spiegel website.

Postscript 15: A closer look on Syria found more witnesses supporting the version that the rebels did it.

Postscript 16: Syria : One Year After the Houla Massacre. New Report on Official vs. Real Truth analyzes the unreliability of the UN report. Its source is Official Truth, Real Truth, and Impunity for the Syrian Houla Massacre of May 2012. Seven Essays By: Marinella Correggia, Alfredo Embid, Ronda Hauben, Adam Larson., a 79 pages long article.

Friday, May 11, 2012

ICO Kosovo report misses the point

The ICO in Kosovo has published a report "Guest in our own House" that is based on interviewing around 100 people in the North tip of Kosovo. It is nice to see that ICO is interested in the public opinion in that area. However, I was less enthusiastic about how it explained its findings.

The report correctly concludes that "In general, the Ahtisaari Plan – even if rejected on the level of status – is seen as being fine in theory, but not in practice. Non-implementation, whether through omission or commission is a real problem.".

This is not surprising. I have mentioned it many times in blog and many others have mentioned it too. The main problem is in my opinion that Ahtisaari offers fake autonomy. It is autonomy where the approval of Pristina is still needed for many details and that way the purpose of autonomy - making a community less vulnerable for discrimination - is missed.

Unfortunately the ICO doesn't want to criticize the Ahtisaari Plan and instead it comes with a whole lot of rather nonsensical explanations and solutions:

- "The contents of the Ahtisaari Plan are not well known, but when people are informed they point to elements that they find are positive for them."
In every country only a small part of the population tends to read this kind of texts. Most people rely on leaders and newspapers for their opinion. And the leaders of Kosovo's Northern Serbs are clear: their community is seriously threatened when their region comes under Pristina rule - what for them is the main part of the Ahtisaari Plan. By pointing out positive points in the plan the researchers were basically misleading their research subjects because they didn't address the question how these will work out in reality.

- the report ignores policies by government of Kosovo that seriously harm the Serb population, like the denial of access to the Serbian mobile phone system and the export boycott of Trepca North on which many Serb depend for their income. In fact by supporting those policies ICO is supporting Pristina in its attitude that discrimination is allowed as long as you dress it up nicely in politically correct language.

- the report is full of nice recommendations about how the government of Kosovo could make the Ahtisaari Plan more attractive for the Serbs, including many points where until now it hasn't fully implemented the plan. But it fails to ask itself the obvious questions: why isn't that happening yet and what are the chances that that will happen in the future? What we see is that Kosovo has a public opinion that - encouraged by populist politicians - favors anti-Serb policies with some arguing for further cleansing of the Serb population. The fact that the international community in Kosovo keeps a low profile and relies on silent diplomacy to correct too extreme policies certainly hasn't helped to turn this climate around. On the contrary, it has led it to become a hostage rather than a shaper of the public opinion and has contributed to such harmful policies as mentioned in the previous paragraph.

- the report describes the Kosovo Serbs as "technically" a minority. But in fact in the North they are the local majority and part of a Serb-majority area that that continues in Serbia. Many people there are more likely to visit Raska and Kraljevo in Serbia than Southern Mitrovica or Pristina and that very likely will not change when ethnic relations become more relaxed. Unlike the Serbs south of the Ibar these people don't have any reason to learn Albanian and are very unlikely to do so. So there are good arguments to treat these people as a local majority. The fact that the Ahtisaari Plan doesn't do that is a major defect of the plan. Some Ahtisaari Plus plan might repair that but until now those plans are rather vague and both Western and Albanian support has been low.

- Kosovo is a cold house for Serbs. They feel as, at best, unwanted guests in the Republic’s house. The Government for its part fears that the room the Serbs want to build in the north will undermine the foundations of the original house, and bring the whole independence project crashing down.
This is how the report starts its summary. It is rather amazing to see how the existential fears of the Serbs are placed here on the same level as the fears of the Kosovo government. In fact the worst case scenario for the Albanians is a long wait for official recognition, some territorial concessions in areas where hardly an Albanian lives and some concessions on business property rights. None of these is in any way comparable to the delicate position of Kosovo's minorities.

- The provision on contribution from Serbia has potential to be positive, but Pristina
needs to be clear that it would not exercise power of veto over Serbia expenditure plans.

This concerns the infamous clause in the Ahtisaari Plan that all money transfers from Serbia to the Serb minority in Kosovo should go via Pristina - giving Pristina a de facto right of veto. The solution of the report consists of nice wishes but evades the issue: Pristina shouldn't have the power to block such transfers. There should be direct contact between local Serb governments and Belgrade.
The Ahtisaari Plan is in fact full of similar clauses where it provides the Serbs some right and then stipulates that the decision should be approved by Pristina. This way its "rights" are not really rights and can at any point be violated.

The West is repeating the errors it made in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. Again it is subscribing to the view of a state as something monolithic that shouldn't be weakened by minority rights. This is a nice prescription for states like France and the US that have strong traditions of individual rights. But it misses the point in new states where previously marginal national extremists now are in charge. Giving a state independence means implicit recognition that they (the Croats in Croatia, the Albanians in Kosovo) have a right to have their own state and that means all others become second rate citizens. In such a situation one should give the minorities real power so that they can get an adequate compromise. That is the only way to avoid discrimination and ethnic cleansing because it will take decades before public opinion and institutions will embrace a more inclusive view of their state.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Conflict going on in Syria

David Enders of McClatchy Newspapers has a nice series of articles from Syria.

One article (Syrian troops say cease-fire hasn’t stopped rebel attacks) discusses interviews with soldiers near Idlib:

“I know 17 soldiers who have died in the last two or three months,” said Ahmed, who asked that he be identified by a single name only because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. “We can’t leave the city unless we are in armored vehicles.”

“For six months we have not been able to enter Ariha,” said another soldier, who asked that he be identified only as Mazen because he, too, had not been given permission to talk to visiting journalists. “Today there was an attack on every checkpoint here. Last night they attacked a checkpoint and detonated a bomb.”

... the soldiers described their rebel enemies as capable, able to ambush Syrian army units, maneuver in relatively large groups and plot coordinated attacks, despite the lack of heavy weaponry. The rebels have been effective enough in inflicting casualties in close combat that government forces frequently resort to shelling urban areas from the edges as they seek to dislodge armed opponents. The result has been a tragic toll on populations that support the guerrillas or, in some cases, simply live in areas where the rebels operate. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been displaced as entire villages, towns and neighborhoods have been destroyed.

That seems to have spurred even more rebel recruitment as friends or family of those killed or jailed by the government decide to join the guerrillas. New groups of rebels post videos online regularly announcing their formation.

Ahmed and other soldiers in Idlib said there had been explosions in the city on Monday, when Syrians voted for a new Parliament.

“Many people didn’t vote because they were afraid,” Ahmed said.

Supporters of the anti-Assad uprising called for a boycott of the vote and said it was observed in many areas. In some places, polls didn’t open at all. Both sides have accused each other of threatening people who refused to go to the polls or supported the boycott.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Democratization in China

The Washington Post has a nice article ("With Chen Guangcheng news on Twitter, China’s censors lost control") about the role of Twitter and other Internet media on the case of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng.

In both the case of Chen Guangcheng and the previous upheaval about the arrest of Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai the Internet was the first place where the news spread and many new facts first came to light on the Internet:

When Chen was driven from the U.S. Embassy to a nearby hospital and made a telephone call from the van to The Washington Post, the news broke first on Twitter. It was Chen’s friend Zeng Jinyan, another activist, who first informed the world via Twitter that Chen had been left alone by U.S. officials at the hospital and was afraid. Zeng also tweeted that thugs in Shandong province, where Chen is from, had threatened to beat his wife to death, and that Chen wanted to leave China for the United States.

And the next day, Zeng broadcast on Twitter that she was being followed by plainclothes police and had been placed under house arrest. She even warned journalists not to try calling her.

A particularly dramatic moment came Thursday when Chen — isolated in his Beijing hospital room but with a cellphone at hand — called into a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on the handling of his case and expressed concern for his family left behind in Shandong.

All these new technological options are nice. Yet I believe that the most important factor in what is happening in China is that as the country grows richer people demand different things from their leaders.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

The lengthening list of Iran sanctions

CFR has an article about the lengthening list of Iran sanctions.

September 2013: Who Is Ali Khamenei?: Khamenei bases such arguments partly on what he sees as two failed attempts by Iran to compromise with the United States. The first was during Khatami’s term as president, when the government suspended its uranium enrichment for two years as a trust-building measure. Khamenei believes the Western governments were not interested in trust building, only in making the pause in enrichment permanent. The two-year suspension resulted in no achievements for Iran -- not the lifting of sanctions, nor the release of frozen Iranian assets in the United States, nor any other reward. In a speech in January 2008, Khamenei noted,

Today, to whomever comes to us and says, “Sir, suspend temporarily,” we say, “We have already had a temporary suspension, for two years!” We had a two-year temporary suspension. How did it benefit us? . . . We, for our part, imagined that it was temporary and imagined that it was voluntary. Then, when we talked of resuming work, they started this media frenzy and tumult in political circles, saying, “Woe! Iran wants to end the suspension!” The suspension became a sacred issue that Iran had absolutely no right to approach. . . . Finally, they said, “This temporary suspension isn’t enough; you must completely pack the whole atomic project in.” This was a setback for us. [The Khatami government] accepted the retreat. But this retreat had a positive effect for us. We learned a lesson from that experience. World public opinion learned from the experience, too. . . . I said if this process of adding new demands is to go on, I will intervene. And I did. I said . . . we should go on the offensive [and resume enrichment].

Khamenei then went on to remind his audience that despite Khatami’s willingness to compromise, his kind words for Americans, his cooperation in toppling the Taliban and in the subsequent Bonn negotiations to install a pro-American government in Afghanistan, U.S. President George W. Bush had still included Iran in his “axis of evil.”

The second experience he draws on is Libya’s 2003 decision to give up its nuclear ambitions, which nevertheless did not prevent Muammar al-Qaddafi’s violent removal through NATO military involvement. “In Libya,” Khamenei said in his annual Iranian New Year speech in March 2011, “although Qaddafi had shown an anti-Western tendency during his first years in power, in later years, he performed a great service to the West. . . . This gentleman gathered up his nuclear program, . . . gave it to the Westerners, and said, ‘Take it away!’ . . . [Yet he was overthrown.]” Khamenei suspects that even if all of Iran’s nuclear facilities were closed down, or opened up to inspections and monitoring, Western governments would simply pocket the concessions and raise other issues -- such as terrorism, human rights, or Israel -- as excuses for maintaining their pressure and pursuing regime change. To Khamenei, when it comes to nuclear weapons, the Iraqi and Libyan cases teach the same lesson. Saddam and Qaddafi opened their facilities up to inspections by the West, ended up having no nuclear weapons, and were eventually attacked, deposed, and killed. Major compromises by Iran on the nuclear front without significant concessions by the West, he believes, could end up leading to similar consequences for the Iranian regime.

23 August 2013: The Realist Prism: Russia Sends Trial Balloons on Iran Sanctions Regime: Russia may become less cooperating in maintaining US sanctions.

20 August 2013: Obama Administration Has Options For Iran Sanctions Relief

Blocking medicine to Iran discusses how due to the US sanctions and the draconian fines for banks that ignore them only one (Turkish) bank is still prepared to facilitate the dollar payment of medicine imports in Iran - meaning that many transactions are blocked. Iran still has barter trade with mainly China and India but that allows it only to import medicine from those countries - what severely restricts the choices.

25 February 2013: The tail instructs the dog by Franklin Lamb tells about how Israeli lobbying fuels the sanctions against Iran and Syria.

23 December 2012: Why the US didn’t prosecute HSBC discusses why HSBC bank was fined for doing business with Iran but no criminal persecution was initiated. Basically, the fine was already power abuse. Criminal persecution would certainly have resulted in serious protests from Brittain, the home country of the bank. It might also weaken the position of the dollar as the world currency.

20 October 2012: Don't go Baghdad on Tehran reminds us how Saddam wanted to comply in order to get rid of the sanctions but stopped bothering after Albright had declared that her ultimate goal was regime change and that sanctions would not be abolished before Saddam had gone.

3 June 2012: This article ("Iranian Souq goes from busy to bare") tells how the Irian souq in Abu Dhabi is nearly empty nowadays because the visa of the Iranian business men who worked there have not been prolongated.

3 June 2012: This article (The arrogance of power) discusses how the US sabotaged the negotiations in May by refusing to do any concessions.

12 June 2012: The IAEA and Parchin: do the claims add up? by Robert Kelly of SIPRI says that the Parchin installation that the US is so eager to visit because it would have been used for research on a nuclear bomb seems rather unfit for that purpose.

America's Iran policy is looking more and more like its Cuba policy. Unfortunately it get getting some cooperation from the rest of the world in its madness.

14 June 2012: This article (Give Obama Elbow Room on Iran) claims that Obama is so obstructive in the negotiations because he is obstructed by Congress that has copied the hardline position of Netanyahu ("no enrichment at all"). To this comes the mistaken belief that sanctions might help to overthrow the Iranian regime. The article is written by Trita Parsi - president of the National Iranian American Council and the author of “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.”

Now it is more or less official that the US and Israel constructed the Stuxnet viris.

8 October 2012: This article (The rial world) discusses how the sanctions are doomed to fail because they can only be lifted "after the U.S. president certifies to Congress "that the government of Iran has: (1) released all political prisoners and detainees; (2) ceased its practices of violence and abuse of Iranian citizens engaging in peaceful political activity; (3) conducted a transparent investigation into the killings and abuse of peaceful political activists in Iran and prosecuted those responsible; and (4) made progress toward establishing an independent judiciary."

Why economic sanctions do not work by Robert Pape from 1997 is a the scientific standard argument against sanctions.

The heartrending story of anti-Iran sanctions gives an overview of sanctions from 1979 on.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Some more tips for Annan on Syria

Here are some more ideas for Annan on Syria.

- Parts of the opposition are not really committed to a negotiated solution. Instead they want to go back to "peaceful" demonstrations and actions to a achieve a Tunisian-style revolution. The government is right to consider that unacceptable: this would be mob rule. This needs to be communicated clearly. The Annan Plan allows demonstrations, but there is a big difference between demonstrations to highlight popular demands and demonstrations to overthrow a government.

- There are still people who openly defy the armistice. These include several split-offs from the FSA that openly have stated that they do not recognize or follow the armistice. These people are still attacking inside Syria and withdrawing for resupply and recovery towards Turkey. Turkey should openly distance itself from those people, it should transfer any refugee with sympathies in this direction towards some refugee camp far from the Syrian border and it should prevent any fighter from those groups who comes to Turkey for rest or recovery from returning to Syria.

- A truce is about trust. No matter how peaceful someone is he will draw his gun when he thinks the other side is about to attack him. And if he has been shot at he will shoot back. A lot of this trust is local and for that reason the UN should organize local talks between FSA and Syrian Army commanders. These should only be about the truce and address all the little violations that threaten to destabilize it. Such negotiations are about establishing trust and collaboration - not about trapping one or the other party into making commitments that it later finds it cannot hold.

- Both parties - and specially the opposition - will try to avoid responsibility by claiming that some attacks by their side were done by splinter groups outside their control. This is a very destructive approach. Each side should be held responsible for any support that it provides to those splinter groups, including providing shelter and passage.

- Army withdrawal from the cities can only work if the opposition holds back too. You can not expect Assad and the Syrian army to surrender those city areas that under its control - where often the population does not support the opposition - to opposition control.

- Demonstrations - although allowed under the truce - are not helpful. In present-day Syria demonstrations are inevitably linked to one or the other party. And as by now both parties have lots of blood on their hands they will be seen by the other side as provocative.

- Put more urgency in the start of political negotiations. This is the main task of the mission and I find it very disappointing that until it is hardly mentioned. They should be talked about all the time and anyone why tries to obstruct them should be openly criticized.

- It is rather difficult to maintain a truce in a situation where there are no clear borders separating the parties. So don't hold the negotiations hostage to the inevitable incidents but rather use the political process to build the trust that will reduce the violations.

- Negotiations should be about content and not about formula like elections. Minimal opposition demands are the return of exiles and the release of political prisoners. Minimal government demands are a peaceful transition, guaranteed minority rights, equality and no revenge. These kinds of issues should be addressed. Having only lofty talks about broad terms like "elections" and "freedom" will allow both parties to hide their real intentions and is a recipe for disaster. Democracy is about every citizen having some rights and some influence on his fate. If it becomes a dictatorship of the majority it has been wrongly desiged for the country involved.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Anti-insurgency tactics in fighting crime

Here is an interesting article ("With Green Beret Tactics, Combating Gang Warfare") about two Green Beret soldiers who found that their experience in fighting the uprising in some small Iraqi town was applicable in a crime-infested area in the US.

Interestingly it was not the nightly house searches or other hard ball tactics that they copied but the talking and building relations with the local community.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Russia's irresponsible men

One of those traditional cultural stereotypes is that of the irresponsible Russian man who is drinking too much. In this article I found some explanation for that:

Or take 1940s Russia, which lost some 20 million men and 7 million women to World War II. In order to replenish the population, the state instituted an aggressive pro-natalist policy to support single mothers. Mie Nakachi, a historian at Hokkaido University, in Japan, has outlined its components: mothers were given generous subsidies and often put up in special sanatoria during pregnancy and childbirth; the state day-care system expanded to cover most children from infancy; and penalties were brandished for anyone who perpetuated the stigma against conceiving out of wedlock. In 1944, a new Family Law was passed, which essentially freed men from responsibility for illegitimate children; in effect, the state took on the role of “husband.” As a result of this policy — and of the general dearth of males — men moved at will from house to house, where they were expected to do nothing and were treated like kings; a generation of children were raised without reliable fathers, and women became the “responsible” gender. This family pattern was felt for decades after the war.

Indeed, Siberia today is suffering such an acute “man shortage” (due in part to massive rates of alcoholism) that both men and women have lobbied the Russian parliament to legalize polygamy. In 2009, The Guardian cited Russian politicians’ claims that polygamy would provide husbands for “10 million lonely women.” In endorsing polygamy, these women, particularly those in remote rural areas without running water, may be less concerned with loneliness than with something more pragmatic: help with the chores. Caroline Humphrey, a Cambridge University anthropologist who has studied the region, said women supporters believed the legalization of polygamy would be a “godsend,” giving them “rights to a man’s financial and physical support, legitimacy for their children, and rights to state benefits.”

Social policies can have far reaching consequences.

An alternative theory can be found here (Deep Roots of Russian Homophobia: Indeed, many writers have noted that Russia is a female-dominated culture. Russian women are often portrayed as strong, dominant and even domineering — both negatively, such as Kabanikha, the tyrannical mother-in-law in Alexander Ostrovsky's play "The Tempest," and positively, as in Nikolai Nekrasov's paean to the Russian woman, who supposedly can stop a galloping horse and enter a burning house. [] Russian men, on the other hand, have tended to fall short and display a variety of weaknesses, such as fear of authority and predilection for drinking. This is a common problem in oppressed societies, where strong, responsible, self-respecting males are seen by the authorities as a threat. The pattern of strong women and weak men — a reversal of ­"traditional" roles — has been observed in other oppressed cultures, such as among the Irish and African-Americans.

During the Soviet era, the situation became much worse. The system was specially designed to identify and eradicate strong and honorable men. Men were also often physically missing because of wars, purges and incarcerations. The ones that remained were often useless as husbands and fathers. Several generations of Russians were raised predominantly by mothers and grandmothers.