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Category: Syria

Arms Control: The Missing Component in the Conversation about Terrorism

We can’t have it both ways. We can’t be both the world’s leading champion of peace and the world’s leading supplier of arms.

--Former President Jimmy Carter, 1976

As ISIS's threat to international peace and security grows, Syria continues to funnel billions of dollars to the United States for bombs and other forms of weapons. As a result of United Nations Resolution 2249, Syria has all of the autonomy in the world to partake in whatever vague, "necessary measures" it sees fit to combat ISIL. Despite the deaths of thousands of civilians attributed to indiscriminate airstrikes lead by the Syrian government, and most recently by Russia, the war against terrorism has led to an all-out arms extravaganza in the Middle East. In fact, on November 13, 2015, the same evening of the terrorist attacks in Paris, the United States began its first steps in selling $1.29 billion of bombs to the Saudi Arabian government.

Will We Learn this Time?

No Lost Generation: Syrian children development center

Hunger and starvation are in the news again, this time in Syria. They shouldn’t be. For decades, the world has produced more than enough food to feed every man, woman, and child. Yet today, 16 years past the due date for ending hunger, we still have to read about it on the front page.

Even on a day when hunger is not on the front page, or any page, 17,000 children will die from easily preventable malnutrition and related infectious diseases. And for each child that dies, 10 more will live on with permanent mental and/or physical disabilities.

While some in the world suffer from threats posed by groups like ISIS, experts argue about the definition of “terrorism” and politicians debate how to defeat it. But there should be no debate about the ultimate terror--a parent’s loss of a child or fear of losing a child from a lack of food, one of the most basic of human needs. Nutritious food is one of the most basic of all inalienable human rights.

Sadder still is our failure to learn--after decades of presidential commissions, scientific studies, intelligence reports, and righteous scriptures--that when people are hungry and their children die, all humanity pays a monstrous price in the form of war, disease, revolution, terrorism, and economic instability fueled by hunger. This cost in lives and dollars is always preventable. Given the unbelievably low cost in preventing it, this policy failure should be criminal.

President Jimmy Carter has been chastised for his perceived ineptness at foreign policy, but in hindsight, his administration was the wisest and most insightful. Congress just didn’t listen.

Saudi Arabia: New Year Beheadings Pour Oil on the Flames

Saudi anti-government protesters carry a poster of Shiite cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr

As a major oil producer, the government of Saudi Arabia might know the dangers of pouring oil on a fire. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran related to the respective armed conflicts in Yemen and in Syria-Iraq and Kurdistan were already high.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby stressed the obvious when he said that Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr's execution “risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.” The Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for “divine vengeance” upon the Saudis.

A mob, rarely formed spontaneously in Tehran, did not wait for the divine to punish, but rather attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and set fire to an annex. Saudi Arabia has broken off diplomatic relations as a result. Crowds also demonstrated in Bahrain.

The Saudi government began the year by beheading 46 other people accused of undermining the State.  Most were Sunnis and said to be related to a branch of Al-Qaeda and to have used or advocated using violence to further their aims. Nimr had been highly critical of the Saudi government but had not called for violence.

Local Engagement with Armed Groups in the Midst of Violence

A Syrian Kurdish sniper looks at the rubble in Kobani, Syria

The armed conflict in Iraq and Syria becomes more complex each day, and good faith negotiations seem ever further away. Those of us on the outside who would like to see compromises so that the killing may stop find it difficult, if not impossible, to find those who represent the armed groups. There are, no doubt, people from different intelligence services who have contacts, but good faith negotiations may not be their central aim.

Wisam Elhamoui and Sinan al-Hawat point out in their study “Civilian interaction with armed groups in the Syrian conflict”:

As the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year, it is important not to lose sight of the significant roles played by unarmed, non-state actors to develop structures for promoting local security and peace and to adapt to the constantly changing demands of the conflict. Huge efforts have been invested in maintaining a civilian voice by activists and locals. They have shown courage and resilience and an incredible capacity to sustain their efforts and aspirations despite huge challenges and lack of support.

At the local level, conflict reduction efforts depend on channels of kinship and earlier social relations.

International Migrants Day: Time for a UN-Led World Conference on Migration and Refugee Flows

Kurdish women and children from Syria at a Turkish military checkpoint near Kobani

December 18 was set by the UN General Assembly to call attention to the role of migrants in the world society. The date was chosen to mark the creation of the International Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. The aim of the Convention was to ensure that migrants and their families would continue to be covered by the human rights standards set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenants, and other human rights treaties.

In practice, migrants are often “between two chairs”--no longer of concern to the State they have left and not yet covered by the human rights laws of the State to which they have gone.

Ratifications of the convention have been slow, with several governments making reservations that generally weaken its impact. In 2004, a commission of independent experts was set up to study the reports of governments to the UN on the application of the convention--a commission that is part of the human rights treaty bodies. Reports from each government party to the convention are to be filed once every four years. However, the discussions within the migration treaty body and its subsequent report attract the attention of only a small number of people. The discussion deals with the report of only one government at a time, while migration is always a multinational issue and can have worldwide implications.

Moreover, many States consider that earlier International Labour Organization conventions deal adequately with migrant rights and see no need to sign a new convention.

Syria: Global Solutions Urgently Needed

Citizens for Global Solutions addresses a diverse set of global needs. Each deserves attention. But two difficult problems signal possibly severe ruptures to international trade, security, and economic well-being. Both are in the Middle East.

One is the possibility that nation-state jockeying for position in the resolution of the Syria crisis will get out of control and lead to broad physical and economic confrontations.

The other is that the combination of despotic, repressive family rule and archaic, backward-looking Wahhabi Islam in Saudi Arabia may lead to continuous civil unrest in Europe and beyond, as well as a severe disruption of oil supplies from the Persian Gulf region with massive economic consequences worldwide.

Solutions to these challenges are hard to find. This post is not intended to spur rash or emotional action among concerned citizens. But awareness and some attempt at constructive orientation are needed. 

This post will deal with the Syrian situation. A follow-up post will address Saudi Arabia.

By recent count, over 230 warplanes from five nations are assigned to Syria. The United States accounts for about 150 of them. Russia has aircraft in the area and has launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea. A melange of armed forces backed by various sources divide and devastate Syria.

Fighting Ideas: Military Power vs. Ideology

The Alliance launches an attack against the Death Star over Yavin (Courtesy of starwarsfans.wikia.com)

We have been sold a story that goes like this: spend more on weapons, get more peace. But a strong government with an overpowering military didn't stop Luke Skywalker from joining the Rebel Alliance and launching an attack against the Death Star. It didn't stop Katniss from defying the Capitol. And it didn't stop Harry Potter and Dumbledore's Army from opposing the corrupt Ministry of Magic. La Résistance is an incredibly common trope.

Deterrence theory suggests that military strategy should entail more than just winning the war: it should deter conflict in the first place. By having a bigger military--a "bigger stick," if you will--you can avoid attacks because your opponent knows the damage they will incur in a fight is likely too big a price to pay. Typically applied to nuclear war, it certainly seems logical when dealing with certain actors--rational governments may avoid war with those who have nuclear bombs. Even in this context though, it is losing favor.

The Refugee Crisis: How the United Nations is Dealing with the Problem

Syrian refugees walk past UNHCR tents at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan

The events of November 13th have truly rocked civilized peoples of the world to the core. For many Parisians, it was just another Friday night: some decided to attend a soccer game; others made plans to have a quiet dinner at a favorite restaurant; and other people went to hear a concert.

However, as the world knows, this was no ordinary night. An evening of tranquility quickly turned to chaos. “The City of Light” was suddenly darkened, and what would happen next was uncertain.

The same group wreaking havoc across the Middle East brought its terror to the streets of the French capital. Yes, the Islamic State of Syria (ISIS) struck at the heart of Europe by hitting key soft targets in an attempt to inflict as much pain and suffering as they could. They place no value on human life, as they are willing to sacrifice their own lives in the name of a very twisted and perverse ideology.

What began as peaceful protests against the Syrian government in 2011 rapidly shifted to a violent insurgency. In its wake, the world is left with the decision of what to do next. One of the unintended consequences of this conflict is the mass exodus of refugees flowing across the Syrian border into neighboring states, like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. These countries are now burdened with caring for the many innocent victims of this violence.

A Radical Win-Win Solution for Syria

The perspectives of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S President Barack Obama on Syria are so different that you have to wonder if they are living on the same planet.

Putin’s public rationale for intervening in Syria and backing President Bashar al-Assad boils down to a case against failed states. “After the invasion [of] Iraq, the authorities were destroyed, Saddam was hanged, and then the ISIL came there,” Putin told interviewer Charlie Rose. “And what happened in Libya? Full disintegration, no state at all….We don’t like the same thing to be repeated in Syria.” In other words, when Western democracies take down despotic, human-rights-abusing strongmen, the result is chaos and terrorism.

From Obama’s perspective,

When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not just a matter of one nation’s internal affairs—it breeds human suffering on an order of magnitude that affects us all….Let’s remember how this started. Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing that, in turn, created the environment for the current strife.

Both leaders call for a diplomatic solution, with Putin supporting Assad and Obama calling for a managed transition away from Assad. Both leaders are using air assets to bomb “terrorists,” although Obama is going after the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Putin is targeting anti-Assad rebels. Both are supplying their proxies with training, arms, and supplies—as are Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Water, Sunlight, Oil, and Sectarianism

forbes.house.gov

In a prior post in the International Affairs Forum, I tried to outline what Western and Eastern polities might want out of the ever-fractious Middle East, using the P5+1 deal with Iran as a focus point.

Basically, this would be peace, prosperity, citizen-centered governance, and openness to global economic and social systems. In other words, we have had enough of this area’s interminable squabbling. We need to aim for more constructive regional and global engagement.

But there is a deeper set of issues and needs. First, let us take water.    

Several analyses suggest that the recent major drought in the area of Syria was a factor in Syria’s unraveling. Water shortages are of even broader scope in the area.

If the people of Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, and even Saudi Arabia are impoverished by water depletion, governance systems are likely to destabilize, refugees will multiply, and oil supplies will be prejudiced as a result of civic unrest and violence. 

This would be a disappointing future for those in the area. But why should Americans, Europeans, and everyone else care? The temptation is to think or say that the Middle East was dry before we appeared on its scene, and that is not our responsibility.