The art of surviving a Venezuela on the brink

Written by Marcos Gomez, Director of Amnesty International Venezuela.
Read the original article on Al Jazeera.

Image Credit: Al Jazeera

The seemingly endless crisis in Venezuela appears to have entered a new, dark and alarming chapter.

As if coming off the pages of a terrifying thriller, a crisis that seemed to have reached its worst point in recent months, has actually escalated further after weeks of protests sparked by growing anger and frustration around what looks like a never-ending catalogue of problems.

On Monday, President Nicolas Maduro ordered the military onto the streets, two days before planned peaceful protests across the country on 19 April. He said the military would be “marching in defence of morality” and “against those who betray the homeland”.

Amid one of the largest demonstrations in recent months, this “call to arms” by the government was disastrous: at least two people died in suspicious circumstances, hundreds more were injured and detained – adding to the more than sixteen deaths reported during protests over recent weeks. Evidence grew that groups of armed vigilantes are taking the law into their own hands. Further demonstrations have been called for the coming days.

I thought that living (or surviving) in Venezuela had prepared the population here for anything. The endless strategies to find two kilos of rice, get hold of anticonvulsants or high blood pressure medicine has made us all experts in the art of making do.

Now, people also face the utter terror of going out into the streets. Old and young fear stepping out of their homes, participating in peaceful demonstrations, complaining about what it is like to try and survive here.

READ MORE: Venezuela’s crisis explained from the beginning

If you do go out and exercise your human right to speak your mind, you might be tear gassed (including from helicopters), beaten, locked up in jail for years without due process or even shot by one of the paramilitary groups that, although unacknowledged by the authorities, are now running amok across Venezuela.

Violence by some protesters has been cleverly used by the authorities to justify widespread repression and perpetuate the “us vs them” discourse that has done so much harm to our country. You only need to step outside to breathe this climate of fear.

Repression and violence during protests are not new to Venezuela – in 2014, more than 40 people, including at least six members of the security forces, were killed. More than 650 people were injured and more than 2,000 detained. Impunity has been rife.

Many, perhaps naively, thought these events were a one-off. We thought the country would learn from its recent history. But over the past few weeks, a cloud of uncertainty and violence has cast a new dark shadow over Venezuela. Day after day, we wake up with news of fresh protests followed by the frightening images of violent confrontations between protesters and security forces.

How the crisis began

Since this new wave of demonstrations began on April 4, tensions have escalated daily. People looked like they had nothing to lose. Many of them don’t.

What began as ordinary protests against the political and humanitarian situation in the country and against the – since-overturned – supreme court’s ruling to “ban” the National Assembly, quickly turned into something else, something much more worrying.

By the third day, we found ourselves giving shelter to injured demonstrators in the hall of the building where I live, my family and I giving first aid to bruised and battered men and women, frustrated and exhausted by the realities of daily life in Venezuela.

I watched as tear gas canisters were thrown from helicopters while President Maduro, speaking from Cuba, tried to reassure the population, saying that “Venezuela is at peace, except for a few pockets of violence that are being dealt with.”

This contrasted starkly with the reality on the ground – in just over a fortnight, at least seven people died during the protests and hundreds were injured.

A few days after the initial wave of protests, the Venezuelan Public Ministry announced an investigation to find those responsible for the killings. But this effort towards justice and accountability must not be just for show. Instead, it must be a genuine commitment to the full respect and protection of human rights, one where those who think differently from the government are not portrayed as enemies and where those who violate human rights are brought to justice.

The tragic contrast between the Venezuela portrayed by the authorities and the one we live in is so deep it’s hard to explain. The country President Maduro speaks about is at peace. People are handed food donations from government-sponsored trucks. Children happily study in school, none of them fainting in class because they have nothing to eat at home. Hospitals are fully stocked, providing their patients with the best care available.

But this is mere fiction – following in the celebrated Latin American tradition of magical realism.

In contrast, the Venezuela I – and millions of others – wake up to every day is a real-life labyrinth where buying the most essential items has become a nearly impossible struggle.

“How do people in Venezuela survive?” many ask me. I still have not been able to find an answer.

But one thing is certain. The Venezuelan authorities’ “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude to the crisis does not cut it anymore. Hiding behind a veil of propaganda and playing victim to some shadowy international plan to destabilise the country is not helping anyone in Venezuela to eat and stay healthy.

The time has come for all state institutions to fulfil their duties and work on behalf of all the people in the country.

How much longer we can go on like this is anybody’s guess, but the fact remains that something can, and must, be done to prevent our country from falling into an abyss with no return.

Marcos Gomez is the director of Amnesty International Venezuela.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

The Turkish constitutional referendum, explained

Written by Sinan Ekim and Kemal Kirişci.
Read the original article on Brookings.edu.

Image Credit: Brookings.edu

 

This Sunday, the Turkish electorate will vote in a nationwide referendum on several proposed amendments to the constitution. This is Turkey’s seventh constitutional referendum since its transition from single-party rule to a multi-party system in 1946. The current constitution, which went into force in 1982, has already been amended three times by popular vote and 15 times through legislative action in the past 34 years.

After decades of amendments, 117 out of the 177 articles no longer stand in their original forms. The current package that will be put to a vote contains 18 measures that will further revise or repeal 76 articles. It is difficult to neatly categorize the proposed amendments, but below we group them into clusters, indicating how they will impact the functioning of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, as well as democratic governance.

WHAT MIGHT CHANGE?

What seems consistent across the board is that the amendments package has been prepared with current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in mind. Considering that both the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdoğan are likely to continue to win the popular vote, the changes would institutionalize a populist, one-man system that jeopardizes legislative and judicial independence and consolidates them in the office of the president. Indeed, the dramatic changes proposed would set in motion the most drastic shake-up of the country’s politics and system of governance in its 94-year-long history. Indeed, as written in The Washington Post, Turkey would never be the same again if this is passed.

Executive branch: The president becoming stronger  

The duties of the prime minister would be subsumed under the office of the president, and the prime ministry would be abolished, transforming the parliamentary system into a presidential one. Unlike under the current system, the president would not have to be neutral—above politics and representing the whole nation (article 7, amending article 101). The president would also be able to issue decrees on political, social, and economic issues that would carry the force of law (article 8, amending article 104). These three measures would accord substantial powers to the president, as the president would assume the powers of both the head of government and head of state, and the legislature could therefore become a rubber stamp on the executive.

However, there are a couple of loopholes that could derail this process. First of all, there would be limits on the scope of presidential decrees: they could not contradict the fundamental and civil rights and responsibilities enshrined in the constitution (articles 12, 13 and section IV). Furthermore, the president could not overturn existing laws or decree a law in an issue-area where law by the parliament is required. If a decree contradicts the law, the law takes precedence, and the parliament could pass laws that override presidential decrees.

It may seem as if the legislature could then function as a restraining mechanism on the president; yet, it all depends on its composition. A parliamentary session requires 1/3 of its members to be present to make decisions, and needs an absolute majority (50 percent + 1) of the members present to vote in favor of a decision (article 96). This means that, if the president’s party controls a critical number of seats, the legislature could indeed become a rubber stamp. If the president’s party does not have an absolute majority, however, the parliament could technically be in a position to overturn the president’s decree. The general assumption is that, for the foreseeable future, the AKP would be able to secure an absolute majority—meaning that the legislature would likely not move to contradict the executive anyway.

Moreover, under the proposed system, the president could dissolve the parliament, but with an interesting twist: Since presidential and general elections would be held every five years and simultaneously (article 4, amending Article 77), the dissolution of the parliament would then technically mean the dissolution of the presidency. The parliament could either be dissolved by itself (with a 3/5 majority) or by the president (article 11, amending article 116). If the parliament moved forward on such a decision in the president’s second term, the incumbent could win a third mandate. If the package passes, the new system will enter into force in 2019, when the parliament’s current term has ended. Erdoğan would then be able to stay at the helm until 2029, assuming he continues to win the popular vote, and if the parliament called for snap elections towards the end of his second term, his presidency could be extended until 2034. In that event, the current president would have been in power for more than three decades, a first in Turkish republican history.

If the president himself called for new elections in his second term, by contrast, he would not be able to serve a third term in office.

Another proposed amendment would allow the president to appoint one or multiple vice presidents—an office that does not exist under the 1982 constitution (article 10, amending article 106). The president would also have the power to establish and/or abolish ministries, appoint ministers and other senior officials—all of whom would operate without being subject to any legislative or judicial review, and would be accountable only to the president.

Legislative branch: The parliament losing power

The parliament’s traditional function as a check-and-balance mechanism on the executive would be reduced. It would no longer be tasked with overseeing the council of ministers (article 5, amending article 87). Members’ of parliament right to submit oral and written questions as a part of their auditing process would also be amended—with the MPs only allowed to put forward “written submission” (article 6, amending article 98) to the vice-presidents and the ministers, and not to the president. These would elevate the president above legislative scrutiny—a major and dramatic break from past practice.

Another change is that the parliament would need an absolute majority of its entire membership (50 percent + 1) to re-pass a bill that the president sent back to the parliament for reconsideration, whereas the current constitution allows the parliament to bypass the president’s objections by a simple majority of a quorum (article 16/C, amending article 89). This would diminish the body’s decisionmaking capacity, making it more difficult to move in a direction that is not sanctioned by the president.

The process of impeachment would also be conducted differently. The parliament could petition for an investigation into an alleged crime with an absolute majority; it would then need 3/5 backing to move forward with such a petition, instead of a simple majority. A 15-member commission would then be appointed to produce a report, which would need a 2/3 majority to be sent to the supreme court for a final review (article 9, amending article 105). As such, it would become much more cumbersome to take actions against the president.

Judicial branch: More political appointees

Under the current system, the president appoints four of the 22 members of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, a body responsible for appointing new judges and prosecutors as well as overseeing promotions. The revised system (article 14, amending article 159) would reduce the overall number to 13, and still require the president to appoint four members, while the parliament would appoint the remaining seven. These 11 members would be joined by the minister of justice and the minister’s deputy; since the amendment package also allows the president to handpick his ministers, six members of the Council would be basically presidential appointees.

The 17 members of the Constitutional Court would be reduced to 15 (article 16/D, amending Article 146/1). Otherwise, the composition of the court would remain the same, with 12 of its members being appointed by the president and three of them by parliament. The parliament would select its appointees to these two bodies in two rounds, with the higher bar for the former requiring 3/5 majority and the latter an absolute majority of the total number of MPs.

If the new system were to pass, therefore, the president would select 18 of the 28 top-ranking members of the judiciary. If the president’s party at least has a 3/5 majority in parliament, the judiciary may then be entirely aligned with the executive—or, effectively, the president himself. Undoubtedly, this would put a huge question mark on the independence of the judiciary, as it would not be subject to a parliamentary review process and report only to the president.

WILL IT PASS?

The latest opinion polls suggest a neck-and-neck race. In an overview of 28 surveys, 12 of them predict a victory for “yes,” while eight suggest the “no” camp will win. There is also the question of undecided voters. Some suggest that they actually oppose the package, but are unwilling to openly say so because of the oppressive environment in Turkey today. Indeed, as reported in Turkish and Western media, there are mounting concerns over how fair the vote will really be: intimidation against the “no” campaign runs rampant, and with scores of journalists in jail, media has now come effectively under the government’s control, not to mention concerns regarding fraud at the ballot box.

Surveys do not always provide an accurate indication of what will unfurl on voting day. Yet, what is certain is that Turks will be voting in a referendum that will have more impact on their country’s future trajectory than any of the preceding referendums. If this series of amendments passes on April 16, it will institutionalize a version of an executive presidency—now billed as executive presidency alla turca—that will accord the president more powers and more independence from the check-and-balance mechanisms than any other Turkish leader since 1946.

Boris Johnson says ‘game has changed’ as G7 leaders discuss new sanctions against Russia

Written by Laura Hughes, Political Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.
Read the original article on The Daily Telegraph


 

meeting of G-7 foreign ministers are discussing new sanctions on Syrian and Russian military figures, Boris Johnson has confirmed.

The Foreign Secretary said the “game has changed” ahead of a meeting with his counterparts in Italy, where ministers  will demand that Vladimir Putin remove his troops from Syria and drop his backing for the Syrian president.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a bilateral meeting during a G7 for foreign ministers in Lucca
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a bilateral meeting during a G7 for foreign ministers CREDIT: MAX ROSSI /REUTERS 

The attack was authorised after  87 people, including children, were killed in a suspected sarin nerve agent strike on Khan Sheikhoun.

Speaking outside the summit, Mr Johnson said: The United States have already imposed some extra sanctions themselves, and we will be discussing the possibility of further sanctions certainly on some of the Syrian military figures and indeed on some of the Russian military figures who have been involved in coordinating the Syrian military efforts and of course who are thereby contaminated by the appalling behaviour of the Assad regime.

He added: “It is the Americans who have changed the game by using those cruise missiles which never happened in the last five years, so the game has now been changed and I think it’s important that that message should be heard from the Americans to the Russians.”

In this image released by the US Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea
In this image released by the US Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea CREDIT: FORD WILLIAMS/AFP

Asked why he believed sanctions would now work , he told reporters: “I think the Russians need a way out and a way forward and if I think about the position of Vladimir Putin now he is toxifying the reputation of Russia by his continual association with a guy who has flagrantly poisoned his own people, and I think the world can see this.

“The evidence by the way is overwhelming, he should look at the evidence for what happened the other day.

“It is absolutely conclusive, so what we’re trying to do is to give Rex Tillerson the clearest possible mandate from us as the West, the UK, all our allies here to say to the Russians this is your choice: stick with that guy, stick with that tyrant or work with us to find a better solution.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin CREDIT: REUTERS/PAVEL GOLOVKIN

Discussing America’s response to the attack, something described by Assad’s allies as having crossed a “red line”, Mr Johnson suggested that the US could launch fresh strikes in the fight to weaken President Bashar Assad’s regime.

He told The Sun: “Crucially – they could do so again.

“We cannot miss this moment. It is time for (Russian president Vladimir) Putin to face the truth about the tyrant he is still propping up.”

Theresa May spoke to Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, on Sunday night and said that Russia must help secure a “political settlement” in Syria.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “They spoke to discuss events in Syria following the chemical weapons attacks. They agreed on their support for the US action, that it was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syria regime.

“They discussed the importance of Russia using its influence to bring about a political settlement in Syria and to work with the international community to ensure that the shocking events of last week are never repeated.

Syrian children receive treatment following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun
Syrian children receive treatment following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun CREDIT: AFP/MOHAMED AL-BAKOUR

“They noted the Foreign Secretary is working closely with his Canadian counterpart.”

 On the prospect of further sanctions for Russia, the spokesman said: “We are in discussions with our partners on how we can bring further pressure on the regime and those who are backing it, which includes the Russians.”

 The possibility of an attack came after the Russian embassy in the UK suggested that British and American attempts to deliver an ultimatum to the Kremlin this week could result in a “real war”

Both Russia and Iran have threatened military retaliation against the US, 
accusing Mr Trump of crossing “red lines” by ordering a cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base.

The two military allies of Syria said the US bombardment had violated international law and, in a statement, added: “From now on we will respond with force.”

Mr Johnson is understood to be working on a proposal from the G7 group of nations which will demand that Mr Putin withdraws his support of Assad.

Mr Johnson cancelled plans to visit Moscow this week to work on the proposal – which The Daily Telegraph 
understands will include a tacit offer to Russia to rejoin the G7 if it complies.

On Sunday Russia mocked Mr Johnson, saying his refusal to visit was “deplorable” and, in a series of jibes on Twitter, questioned whether he would make a fit wartime lieutenant to the American president.

Sir Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, warned Russia it is responsible for the deaths caused by the Syrian chemical weapons attack “by proxy”.

Trump Briefed About Syrian Military Strike In Situation Room Washington, D.C
Trump Briefed About Syrian Military Strike In Situation Room Washington, D.C CREDIT: USA / BARCROFT IMAGES

Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, echoed the comments, telling Face The Nation on CBS, the Russians “have played now for some time the role of providing cover for Bashar Assad’s behaviour”.

He also said on Monday that America was ready to take action to defend innocent people.

“We want to be with those who know how to respond to those hurting innocent people in any part of the world,” he  said at a memorial for the 560 victims of a Nazi World War II massacre in the Tuscan town of Sant’Anna di Stazzema.

“This place will be an inspiration for our action.”

Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image 
Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image  CREDIT:DIGITALGLOBE

Former head of MI6 Sir John Sawers supported the intervention in Syria but expressed serious concerns about Mr Trump’s ability to manage the complex diplomatic challenges in the Middle East and North Korea.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:”Whilst the tensions this morning and this week around the world are higher, the enforcement of international norms actually is in the long-term interests of the West and the world generally, to rule out the use of chemical weapons in any circumstances.”

Asked if he was scared of Mr Trump, the former diplomat and spymaster said: “He is not someone who fills me with confidence.

He doesn’t have the background and the experience and the instincts of being an effective US president.

“But it is in our interests that we have a US administration which upholds the international system, that supports its allies and supports international norms.” He said the last week had shown “sensible grown-ups within the administration taking charge and the rather ideological figures around Trump himself being marginalised”.

IRIN’s Ten humanitarian stories to look out for in 2017

Displaced families gather for another distribution of cash handouts

While 2016 taught us to expect the unexpected, IRIN’s eyes and ears on the ground have given us an idea of what to look out for in the new year. We can’t promise everyone else will be covering these stories, but here are ten we’ll be watching:

The impact of Trump

Since Donald Trump’s election, speculation has been rife about what his presidency will mean for the wider world. His many statements and tweets on the campaign trail suggest that he intends to prioritise domestic and security interests over foreign aid spending and will roll back efforts made during the Obama administration to combat climate change.

But many in the humanitarian sector have been adopting a glass half full attitude, publicly at least, by pointing out that foreign aid has bipartisan support and Republicans in Congress will oppose any major cuts to foreign assistance. Others are predicting that even if the Trump administration doesn’t significantly cut overall aid spending, it will favour channelling aid through partnerships with the private sector and results-oriented initiatives like the Millennium Challenge Corporation, rather than through traditional recipients like the UN and international NGOs.

A Trump administration seems likely to allocate less aid to reproductive health and family planning programmes, and funding for initiatives relating to climate change will almost certainly be on the chopping block too. Trump has appointed a number of climate change sceptics to his cabinet, including Rick Perry, who will head the Department of Energy and Scott Pruitt, who will lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

Venezuela undone

The oil-rich nation has been unravelling in almost every conceivable way in 2016 – from runaway inflation and empty supermarket shelves to the virtual collapse of the public health sector with the resurgence of previously eradicated diseases like malaria and diphtheria. The government closely guards data on what appear to be steep rises in maternal and infant mortality rates, poverty and malnutrition, but doctors and civil society groups have been monitoring the worrying trajectory.

With the government of President Nicolas Maduro still in complete denial about the growing humanitarian crisis (let alone accepting some responsibility for it), the downward spiral will only continue in 2017. Vatican-mediated talks between the government and the opposition that started in October have so far failed to yield an agreement to lift the country’s ban on international aid, a change that could alleviate critical medicine shortages.

Maduro successfully stalled a recall vote that would likely have unseated him in October 2016. Under Venezuela’s constitutional rules, should Maduro lose a referendum in 2017, he will still be able to hand over power to his vice president and keep the United Socialist Party in power. With a political solution virtually off the table, more social unrest seems inevitable in 2017. Increasingly, Venezuelans will be forced to cross borders in search of livelihoods, healthcare and affordable food. Look to Brazil and Colombia, who will likely bear the brunt of this growing forced migration.

Yemen’s downward spiral

A small sliver of the world is finally paying attention to Yemen. That’s in part due to activist campaigns pushing the United States and Britain to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, not to mention the Saudis’ grudging admission they had used British cluster bombs in the war (followed by Britain’s statement of the same).

But the war and humanitarian catastrophe marches on. Despite assurances by the Saudi-led coalition that they take great care to avoid collateral damage – to IRIN no less – there have been attacks on markets and funerals, and now more than 4,300 civilian deaths since the war began last March. And that’s only what the decimated health system can count.

family and tent
Mohammed Yaseen Ahmed Ibrahim/IRIN
3.3 million people are displaced in Yemen

Peace talks don’t offer much hope. The UN-backed peace process – already a set of negotiations between elites that didn’t take into account the reality on the ground – is going nowhere, and Houthi rebels have set up their own government.

And now, Yemen is at serious risk of sliding into famine. Before the war, the country relied on imports for 90 percent of its food. With the economy in tatters, importers are finding it hard to bring in what the country needs, and families simply don’t have the cash to buy food.

The post-Aleppo future of Syria

The final fall of the last pocket of resistance in east Aleppo, with fighters and civilians evacuated outside the city, was major victory for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But it does not signal the end of the war or the suffering. Rebels still control the province of Idlib and much of Deraa, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have Afrin in the north, while Turkey appears to have territorial ambitions. Plus there’s so-called Islamic State, resurgent in Palmyra and still in control of Raqqa.

Aleppo also marks yet another failure for diplomacy. The last round of Geneva talks seems a distant memory, and while a new ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey appears to be holding in some parts of the country, the truce doesn’t include all rebel groups. If this deal doesn’t pave the way for planned peace talks in Kazakhstan and full-scale violence begins again, it’s not clear where al-Assad will take the fight next. But it seems likely that the siege tactics that have typified the war will lead to more local truces and evacuations.

Once again, this year looks bleak for Syria’s civilians – those bussed from Aleppo are headed into warzones in the middle of winter, joining the 6.3 million civilians already displaced into their own country.

Myanmar’s Rohingya – a long-running crisis and a new insurgency

There are few groups as persecuted as the Rohingya. During decades of military rule, Myanmar’s generals gradually stripped away most of their rights, including citizenship, and imposed the apartheid system they live under today.

About half a million Rohingya have fled across the border during attacks on their communities over the past decades, but Bangladesh doesn’t want them either and refuses to even register them as refugees. The last few months of 2016 saw a new wave of migration over the border as Myanmar’s military allegedly carried out widespread abuses of civilians in the wake of attacks by a new insurgent group.

Myanmar’s heavy-handed approach is unlikely to crush the group, known as Harakah al-Yakin [“Faith Movement” in Arabic]. In fact, there is a good chance that by targeting the civilian population, the military will drive more youth to join the insurgency. So far, the insurgents have targeted only Myanmar security forces and their motivation seems purely local – to push the government to grant the Rohingya citizenship. But there is a danger that international Islamist groups, including IS, could capitalise on the movement, which could threaten regional stability.

Genocide and famine warnings in South Sudan

South Sudan’s descent continues, and it’s likely to only get worse in 2017. The civil war drove 400,000 people across the border into Uganda since a peace deal broke down in July, and there are now more than 1.8 million people internally displaced.

Ongoing fighting has disrupted farming and made it impossible to provide humanitarian relief in many areas. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warns: “All available indicators point to an unprecedented deterioration of the food security situation across South Sudan in 2017. The risk of famine is real for thousands of people.”

The war and competition for scarce resources have also led to the “extreme polarization of some ethnic groups,” warned Adama Dieng, the UN’s special advisor on the prevention of genocide, in November. If that process continues, he said, “there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide.”

Unfortunately, efforts to pressure the government and rebels to return to peace talks have failed. South Sudan enters 2017 under the shadow of looming famine and possible genocide, and the international community seems unable or unwilling to force leaders to stop fighting before they drive their country into an even deeper crisis.

Iraq’s displacement crisis

All eyes are on Mosul – the battle that could finally finish off IS in Iraq. Aid groups warn that as many as one million civilians are trapped inside, and more than 110,000 people have already fled the surrounding areas. But there’s another, related problem, brewing in Iraq. Overall 3 million people are displaced across the country, many from areas controlled or already liberated from IS.

For Sunnis from Anbar province – from cities like Fallujah and Ramadi – going home is far from a sure thing. Those thought to have ties to IS can’t go home, and are stuck in camps, makeshift shelters, or elsewhere. Ignoring this problem risks radicalisation of a population that has already feels scapegoated and has in the past been controlled by both al-Qaeda and IS.

It’s not just Sunnis at risk here. Some Christians say they are too afraid to go home to liberated villages near Mosul. The Iraqi government can hardly keep the lights on and has focused its limited resources on the fighting. But this shortsightedness comes at the country’s future peril.

In Afghanistan, more than a million people “on the move”

It’s been a while since Afghanistan had a good year, but the last one has been especially tough – and it’s set the scene for a disastrous 2017.

After a decade and a half of “boots on the ground” style warfare, the United States withdrew almost all of its troops. This triggered a surprisingly unexpected economic collapse that the country is still struggling to bounce back from. The past year also saw the emergence a migration crisis that will further complicate any economic recovery.

Two of Afghanistan’s neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, have been Afghan refugees back over the border in massive numbers, while the European Union signed a deal that made aid contingent upon the Afghan government’s agreement to accept rejected asylum seekers. The first plane carrying Afghans deported from Germany arrived in mid-December. In addition, record numbers of people were internally displaced by conflict in 2016.

Going into the new year, Afghanistan is struggling to support 583,174 people displaced by conflict over the past year, as well as 616,620 people who returned from other countries.

Andrew Quilty/IRIN
Outside the UN’s intake centre between the Pakistan border and the city of Jalalabad, in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province

There’s no sign that the Taliban insurgency will ease up, and efforts at convincing them to talk peace with the government have so far been spectacularly unsuccessful. Afghanistan’s military is also battling other insurgent groups, notably IS, which has emerged as a brutal force to be reckoned with in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Meanwhile, Iran continues to push Afghans back home, Europe is likely to return more, and Pakistan says it will begin forced deportations of all Afghans who have not left the country by March.

Kabila stays on in Congo

The political false dawn of 2016, Hillary Clinton apart, was the electoral concession that wasn’t by the autocrat running Gambia. The announcement turned out to be just a ploy by President Yahya Jammeh to buy himself more time to work out how he might extend his 22-and-a-half years in power. But we’re also shifting our attention from Africa’s smallest mainland country to its second largest – the Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Joseph Kabila appears to be engaged in similar manoeuvring that has already cost dozens of lives and led to hundreds of arrests.

Although violent unrest in the Gambia shouldn’t be discounted, the consequences of Kabila clinging to power could be even more disastrous. At the moment, an uneasy truce of sorts seems to be holding. Opposition parties have agreed, in principle at least, to allow Kabila to remain as president until the end of next year, but discussions ahead on a transitional government and delayed elections could quickly unravel. Kabila might also try to amend the constitution again to delay elections into 2018 and beyond. With neighbouring Burundi already in extended turmoil over term limits and memories still fresh of the 1998-2003 Second Congo War that dragged in nine African nations and led to an estimated six million deaths, events in Kinshasa are worth keeping a close eye on in 2017.

The opposition is weak and, in Kinshasa at least, unarmed, so with little international pressure being brought to bear and the media spotlight elsewhere, the received wisdom is that Kabila will quietly cement his hold on power. But if 2016 taught us anything, it’s to be ready for the unexpected.

Famine in the Lake Chad Basin region

In terms of sheer numbers and need, one humanitarian crisis that could overshadow all of the above next year lies in the vast Lake Chad Basin. It has had little coverage by journalists; perhaps more under-reported than any other humanitarian emergency of a similar scale. Despite military progress against Boko Haram extremists, 2016 saw conditions deteriorate fast in this troubled region, where Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria meet.

Mausi Segun, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, told IRIN that such appalling scenes, including the faces of thousands of starving children, haven’t been seen here since the 1967-70 war with secessionist Biafra. Early warning network FEWS NET says 4.7 million people need emergency food assistance in northeastern Nigeria alone and warned on 13 December that a famine is already likely to have occurred and to be ongoing in remote pockets of the region. Across the border in Chad, conditions are little better – more than 130,000 people displaced by the Boko Haram conflict are scattered around camps, competing for slender resources with vulnerable host communities.

And it’s not just Boko Haram that is the problem: a combination of human water use and climate change has shrunk the lake itself to a 20th of its original size since the 1960s. The crisis is already enormous and only likely to deepen in 2017.

People at a food distribution site on Lake Chad
Ashley Hamer/IRIN
The majority of people at this food distribution site on Lake Chad hail from the Buduma ethnic group

(TOP PHOTO: Approaching the militarised “red zone” towards the border with Niger, displaced families in the Lake Chad Basin gather for another distribution of cash handouts. Ashley Hamer/IRIN)

CSIS 2017 Global Forecast

Global Forecast is an annual collection of essays by CSIS experts focused on the critical issues facing the U.S. and the world in the year ahead.

 

Click on the following link to access the Global Forecast:

https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/161219_GlobalForecast_2017.pdf

1. WHAT ARE THE MAIN NATIONAL SECURITY CHALLENGES FACING THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION?
John J. Hamre

2. IS THE FOUNDATION OF THE U.S.-LED ORDER CRUMBLING?
Michael J. Green

3. WHAT GLOBAL ECONOMIC RISKS DO WE FACE?
A conversation with Heather A. Conley, Matthew P. Goodman, and Scott Miller

4. WILL RUSSIA CONTINUE TO PLAY THE ROLE OF SPOILER?
Olga Oliker

5. HOW SHOULD WE VIEW CHINA’S RISE?
A conversation with Christopher K. Johnson, Victor Cha, and Amy Searight

6. CAN AMERICA STILL RELY ON ITS ALLIES?
Andrew Shearer

7. HOW MUCH SHOULD WE SPEND ON DEFENSE?
A conversation with Todd Harrison, Andrew Hunter, and Mark Cancian

8. DO WE NEED A NEW STRATEGY TO PREVENT TERRORIST ATTACKS ON THE UNITED STATES?
Shannon N. Green

9. WHAT ARE THE MAIN RISKS WE FACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST?
Anthony H. Cordesman

10. WHAT OPTIONS DO WE HAVE IN SYRIA?
Melissa G. Dalton

11. WHAT ARE THE KEY ENERGY CHOICES FOR THE NEW ADMINISTRATION?
Sarah O. Ladislaw

12. WHAT COULD A U.S.-MEXICO PARTNERSHIP LOOK LIKE?
Kimberly Breier

13. HOW CAN MULTILATERAL INSTITUTIONS WORK IN AMERICA’S INTEREST?
Daniel F. Runde and Conor M. Savoy

14. WILL THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION SUSTAIN U.S. LEADERSHIP ON GLOBAL HEALTH?
J. Stephen Morrison

15. WHAT ROLE SHOULD VALUES PLAY IN AMERICAN STRATEGY?
James A. Lewis

North Korea’s fifth nuclear test

Written by:

Tariq Rauf, Programme Director, Disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
Tariq Rauf
9 September 2016

Original article can be found here:

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The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has reported that at 00:30 UTC, a seismic event of magnitude 5.3 was detected in North Korea that possibly could be the second nuclear test carried out this year by North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK). North Korea carried out its fourth nuclear test in January this year, following earlier tests in 2013, 2009 and 2006. Early speculative estimates put the yield close to that of the Hiroshima bomb (10-15 kilotons) which makes it the most powerful North Korean test to date. This comes hard on the heels of the launch of three medium-range ballistic missiles by North Korea on 5 September 2016. North Korea’s nuclear weapon capability is advancing with each successive nuclear test. Nuclear and ballistic missile tests by North Korea are prohibited under several UN Security Council resolutions and very likely another such resolution will be adopted by consensus in response to today’s nuclear test.

More precise and authoritative details about the technical characteristics of the nuclear test are awaited from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO)in Vienna, which operates a global nuclear test monitoring system utilizing four advanced technologies: seismic, infrasound, hydroacoustic and radionuclide monitoring—this likely will take a few days.

The Nuclear Weapons Institute of North Korea announced that the successful nuclear test confirmed the ‘specific features of the nuclear warhead that has been standardized to be able to be mounted on strategic ballistic rockets of the Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Forces’. It added that ‘there was no radioactive materials leakage’ from the detonation, and that the ‘standardization of the nuclear warhead will enable the DPRK to produce at will and as many [warheads] as it wants [of] a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power with a firm hold on the technology for producing and using various fissile materials’.

Today marks the 68th anniversary of the founding of North Korea by Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of North Korea’s current leader Kim Jong Un, and the nuclear test would imply that North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme has been continuously expanding for a decade and that it may possess a nuclear arsenal estimated of 10-12 nuclear weapons. Additionally, it may by now have achieved a manufacturing capacity of possibly up to four to six nuclear weapons per year.

Much of the commentary and discussion in the West portrays the North Korean leadership as paranoid and crazy. But the evidence suggests that North Korea’s leadership is singularly focused on its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, and it regards nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor of its security—much like the other nuclear-armed States: China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA, and India, Israel and Pakistan. By carrying out nuclear detonations, it is quite possible that North Korea is signalling, in particular to the USA, that it should recognize the new nuclear reality in the Korean Peninsula and negotiate a peace treaty, stop military exercises and threats, and rescind economic and trade sanctions. Likely, North Korea believes that just as the USA came around to accepting the nuclear weapon capabilities of India, Israel and Pakistan, it may do the same for North Korea. Most informed observers, however, believe that the USA cannot accept a nuclear-armed North Korea for a number of geo-political and international security reasons.

North Korea’s nuclear programme has been problematic since the early 1990s, when there were difficulties with nuclear inspections leading to a freeze on its nuclear programme agreed with the USA in the fall of 1994. The agreement on a freeze collapsed in late 2002 when North Korea was suspected of developing a uranium enrichment facility. Later agreements on the disabling and dismantlement of elements of North Korea’s nuclear programme also failed with mutual recriminations between North Korea and the USA. By 2010, North Korea had a functioning uranium enrichment capability to add to its plutonium separation expertise which it had already acquired in the mid-1990s—highly enriched uranium and plutonium are the two critical nuclear materials needed for atomic bombs. In addition, North Korea’s land- and sea-based ballistic missile programmes also attracted criticism and UN sanctions. Over the past decade, North Korea has been steadily developing its nuclear and missile programmes resulting in it being the most sanctioned country in this regard.

 

North Korea’s threat perceptions

Given the closed nature of North Korea and its seemingly acute sensitivity about external threats, the leadership there considers that nuclear weapons were first introduced into the Korean Peninsula in January 1958 by South Korea through its defence alliance with the USA; though earlier in November 1950 during the inter-Korean War, US President Truman had stated that he would take whatever steps necessary to win in Korea including the use of nuclear weapons and in April 1951 deployed nine Mark 4 nuclear weapons on B-29 bombers in Okinawa. Reportedly US General Douglas MacArthur had sought permission to use nuclear weapons against China but this was denied and he was relieved of his command.

Annual US-South Korean military exercises have been expanding both in their scope and numbers of troops. Exercises designed to execute decapitation strikes against North Korea have been carried out and publicly announced as such—these strikes are designed to destroy leadership targets. Other military exercises practice invasion and occupation of major military and other strategic locations in North Korea. Some 2,000 US nuclear weapons were removed from South Korea only in 1991 following the Presidential Nuclear Initiative (PNI) announced by President George H. Bush. And, UN and US economic sanctions have targeted North Korea, as have operations under the USA’s Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). The Bush administration listed North Korea among the ‘axis of evil’ in 2002 and more recently North Korea’s Great Successor Kim Jong Un was personally placed under sanctions.

South Korea’s nuclear weapons research programme was wound up in 1975 with its ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Though South Korea has the capacity that could be used to produce nuclear weapons with additional effort over a few years, it has not done so and has placed all of its nuclear activities under full-scope verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in accordance with the NPT. In August 2004, the IAEA cited South Korea for previously undeclared nuclear activities involving the reprocessing of nuclear material and the Agency reported that regardless of the quantity of nuclear material involved the undeclared nuclear activities were a matter of serious concern. South Korea escaped a finding of non-compliance by the IAEA Board of Governors and subsequent reporting to the Security Council due to suppression of a UK-proposed resolution. These developments would not have gone unnoticed by North Korea.

North Korea therefore believes that its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes are defensive in nature and in response to the threats that it perceives from the USA, South Korea and Japan who have defence arrangements based on US nuclear weapons. Thus, as noted above, North Korea considers nuclear weapons as providing for ‘safeguarding its dignity and right to existence’.

 

The Way Forward

The decade long cycle of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests matched by heavy sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, the USA, European Union and others, clearly is heading in the wrong direction. The policy of sanctions, name-calling and exhortations has not been successful and will not be successful in the future—the proof lies in the unchecked development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.

In July this year, following the May party congress, North Korea proposed the denuclearization of the ‘whole’ Korean Peninsula beginning with elimination of what it termed the ‘source’ of nuclear threats (i.e., the USA) and the withdrawal of US troops deployed in South Korea, and not first with North Korea’s denuclearization (as proposed by the USA). North Korea stated that if it were provided such security guarantees, it also would take corresponding measures resulting in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The view of the USA, supported by South Korea and Japan is that North Korea must first agree to complete dismantling of its nuclear weapon programme as this is contrary to the NPT and to several Security Council resolutions adopted under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter and thus implementation of these is mandatory for North Korea.

It is obvious that the North Korea nuclear issue cannot be solved in isolation. What is required is to address the underlying fundamental security, economic and human rights issues. The inescapable reality is that North Korea will keep its nuclear weapons as a guarantor of its security. It is time to understand that further economic pressure and coercion, economic rewards or military threats will not be successful in convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programme, and may well have the opposite effect.

International sanctions have not been successful against North Korea, just as they have failed in the cases of India, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The practical way forward must be direct negotiations between North Korea and the USA on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and removal of sanctions in parallel with a composite strategic dialogue involving China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, the USA and Russia, with the European Union as an observer, that addresses the underlying security concerns of all sides and facilitates normalization of relations and denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula.

Will Syria’s Ceasefire Hold? The 3 Signs to Watch.

Written by on September 13, 2016, 10:10 a.m. ET | 


Original article can be found here:

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Some of the guns have gone quiet in Syria.

It’s nearly 24 hours into the Syria ceasefire arrangement, and despite several reported instances of fighting and explosions, independent observers say there have been no civilian casualties since the ceasefire came into effect around noon on Monday.

This is, without question, a good thing. But the US-Russia deal over Syria that created this ceasefire is about much more than just a short-term halt in fighting. It’s part of a broader push aimed at fighting terrorism and ultimately brokering a deal to end the conflict. The deal calls for, among other things, Bashar al-Assad to stop bombing rebel-held territory, the rebels to halt their military cooperation with al-Qaedalinked extremists, and the United States and Russia to coordinate their military campaigns against jihadist groups in Syria.

Success, then, won’t be measured by whether this ceasefire holds for 24 or even 48 hours. It will be measured by whether the deal actually functions as a first step toward getting the rest of the agreement to work.

To understand whether the ceasefire is actually furthering this agreement — or whether it’s doomed to collapse, like so many of its predecessors — there are basically three things to watch for in coming days: what counts as a violation of the ceasefire, whether Turkey decides to keep fighting, and whether US-backed Syrian rebels really do decisively part ways with their jihadist partners.

1) What counts as a violation?

Bashar al-Assad

(Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Under the terms of the deal, the ceasefire has to hold for a week before the next step (direct US-Russia military cooperation against the jihadists) begins. The problem is that we have no idea what counts as a violation of the ceasefire.

The actual text of the agreement is still secret, and public comments about the ceasefire pact have been contradictory. In his statement announcing the deal, Secretary of State John Kerry has called it both a “cessation of hostilities” and a “sustained reduction in violence” — which imply very different things about the level of violence that will be acceptable during the ceasefire.

The upshot of ambiguity is that we don’t actually know what qualifies as a ceasefire violation — what level of rebel attacks on the regime will Russia tolerate, and how badly Washington will allow Moscow to batter American allies on the ground before throwing in the towel. We just don’t know.

There are other points of ambiguity in the agreement.

For example, the ceasefire explicitly doesn’t apply to military operations against jihadist groups like ISIS or the al-Qaedalinked Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS). But we also know that under the terms of the deal, rebel and government forces are required to allow humanitarian aid into the besieged city of Aleppo — and specifically through a large thoroughfare called Castillo Road, which is supposed to become a demilitarized zone.

But it may not be possible to implement both of those provisions. AlMasdar News, an agency favorable to Assad’s regime, is reporting that Syrian special forces will not withdraw from Castillo Road, and will continue offensive operations against JFS in the city.

Let’s assume this is right. Would this constitute a violation of the ceasefire — or, more precisely, a violation severe enough that the United States would consider the agreement null and void? It’s impossible to say for sure, because we don’t know what the deal defines as a ceasefire violation.

The key here will be watching the reactions of the actual signatories, the United States and Russia. The ceasefire is entirely a creation of a deal they negotiated; if they decide it’s over, then there’s little chance that regime or opposition forces will abide by it.

If American and/or Russian officials seem angry about a particular area in which fighting is continuing to rage, or about a failure to allow in humanitarian aid, that’s a very bad sign for the ceasefire holding.

2) What will Turkey do?

Turkish Military Continue Major Offensive Against IS In Syria

Turkish soldiers preparing to move into Syria in late August. (Defne Karadeniz/Getty Images)

There’s a second major issue as the ceasefire takes hold: the question of what Turkey, America’s most frustrating NATO ally, will do in response.

Nominally, this agreement is about creating conditions under which the US and Russia can go after extremists together, including ISIS. The most effective Syrian faction in fighting ISIS is the country’s Kurds, specifically the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia. The YPG, which controls a lot of territory in northern Syria, has agreed to abide by the terms of the ceasefire.

But it’s not clear if Turkey, which invaded Syria on August 24, sees things exactly the same way. The Turks see the YPG as extension of a Kurdish separatist group in Turkey, called the PKK, which has carried out a string of terror attacks inside Turkey. Ankara worries that any territory conquered by the YPG could become a de facto safe haven for the PKK, potentially fueling separatist sentiment among Turkey’s sizable Kurdish minority.

So the Turkish invasion of Syria, sold as a counter-ISIS operation, was widely understood to be a counter-YPG intervention. Indeed, shortly after invading, Turkish forces began battering YPG emplacements. The United States was very unhappy; theDepartment of Defense publicly labeled the Turkey-YPG fighting “unacceptable.”

What does this all mean for the ceasefire? Well, for one thing, it shows that the ceasefire is partial even if it’s implemented to the letter. The agreement is mostly about the regime-rebel war and the counter-extremism campaign — which are two major conflicts in Syria but not the only ones.

Moreover, it’s not clear how the US will react if Turkey keeps shelling the YPG. One of the goals of this agreement is to put together a broader coalition against ISIS. But if the Kurds, an important part of any such operation, are too busy fighting Turkey to take part, it might be hard for the ceasefire to meaningfully impact the situation on the ground. So what does the US do if its ally is messing with its agreement?

3) Will moderate rebels actually part ways with the extremists?

nusra fighters syria

A JFS fighter. (Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the big problems for the US’s counter-extremism campaign is the interconnection between the rebels and JFS. Unlike ISIS, which seized territory by attacking other rebels, JFS (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra) has always focused on fighting Assad.

Because the group emerged as one of the most effective anti-Assad fighting forces early in the conflict — thanks, in part, to assistance from America’s “allies” in Qatar — other rebels welcomed their support. The result is that ISIS became isolated and far easier forinternational forces to target, while JFS remains relatively sheltered because of its deep integration with more moderate rebels.

“There is no hiding the fact that mainstream opposition forces are extensively ‘marbled’ or ‘coupled’ with JFS forces on frontlines,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, writes. “This is not a reflection of ideological affinity as much as it is merely a military necessity.”

Under the terms of the agreement, rebels are expected to undo this tight coordination. But according to Lister, the rebels — who have otherwise accepted the terms of the ceasefire — are refusing to decouple from JFS.

Will they eventually make the split? That’s hard to say. First, it’s not clear if the rebels think the risk is worth it: US support for the fight against Assad has been extremely limited in the past (it has been much more willing to help rebels fight ISIS), especially when compared with Russian support for Assad. By contrast, JFS has been an invaluable on-the-ground partner that has shown itself to be militarily proficient and willing to undertake risky — and bloody — missions.

It’s also not obvious rebels actually can kick out JFS, even if they want to. JFS is quite strong in pure military terms, and it might be impossible for rebels to oust it from jointly held territory at an acceptable cost.

If they don’t, then the agreement is in a lot of trouble. The next stage of the agreement — US-Russia intelligence sharing and cooperation in a campaign against ISIS and JFS — is premised on the idea that JFS targets can be separated from rebel ones. If they can’t, then the US faces a grim choice: Collapse its agreement with Russia, or attack rebels fighting a dictator that it (nominally) opposes.

Erdogan-Putin: Ready to settle scores with the US and the West

Huffington Post
Raghida Dergham


When the tsar Vladimir Putin meets with the sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan next week in Moscow in the latter’s first foreign visit following the failed coup attempt, the Russian president will feel like a vindicated peacock before a cowering turkey. But they are both apprehensive men, concerned for their repressive authorities and powers. They are both afraid of the quagmires lurking for them: Erdogan in his vendettas in Turkey and Putin in his Syrian adventures. Aleppo will be present at the summit. The battle for the city is a fateful one and its outcome will be contingent in part upon the putative deal between the two enemies, now turned friends of necessity. The battle for Aleppo also has implications for Iran and her militias, the regime in Damascus, and Gulf capitals and their options after Erdogan’s about face on Russia amid continued American reluctance to offer serious support for Syrian rebels to survive the battle. Aleppo, a major Sunni city, is of invaluable importance for all players in Syria. But capturing it is no easy feat and may well become a predicament that exhausts the might of both Russia and Iran. Perhaps the goal is to turn gains on the ground into bargaining chips for the negotiating table and it is possible that these gains have been made easier by Erdogan’s coming concessions to Putin in Syria. However, there are tensions between the US and Russia at present, resulting from Moscow’s alleged meddling in US presidential elections and Moscow’s circumvention of john Kerry’s ambiguous understandings with his Russian counterpart Lavrov on the Syrian issue. Washington is also apprehensive about Moscow’s cooptation of the new Erdogan and sees it as a loss of a major card in the equation with Russia: Namely, Turkey’s membership of NATO which Washington wanted to use in negotiations on Syria. Today some equations may have changed yet some strategies remain the same and Aleppo is in the heart of all of them.

In February, I quoted in this column high level Russian sources as stressing Moscow’s insistence on the importance of winning in Aleppo, no matter the cost in favor of the regime axis. That is, Russia will not ease its airstrikes and support for the pro-regime ground offensive until victory is secured in Aleppo and the rebel supply lines to Turkey are cut off. Moscow believes that a full regime victory in Aleppo will boost its morale and allow it to resume the Russian-led fight against Islamic groups there Moscow designates as terrorists.

It was clear from the start of the year that Aleppo will be a vital milestone for Russian strategy, and that Russia will not stop its bombardment there for anything, be it the Russian-midwifed Vienna process, European reaction over more waves of refugees, or US reaction to the Russian ploy Washington is now sensing.

Some have strongly claimed that Iran is the key power behind the Aleppo offensive rather than Russia and that it was Tehran that persuaded Moscow of fighting the battle to advance its strategic objectives.

What is new here is the Turkish U-turn and its impact on Syria in general and the battle for Aleppo in general. There is even talk of a new tripartite axis as a result of Erdogan’s new course which started with him apologizing to Putin before the failed coup, and which is culminating with the visit to Moscow.

Indeed, in addition to this landmark visit, the Turkish FM has met with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif this week in what appears to be the precursors of the emergence of a Turkish Russian Iranian axis. Erdogan has changed the equation in Syria: in that he could concede Syria in return for consolidating his power in Turkey. He is also prepared to settle scores with the US and Europe through the Russian gateway.

In other words, Erdogan is prepared to offer Putin his ‘revengeful services’, mostly through Syria: by cutting off supply routes to the Syrian rebels; by joining the Russian-Iranian axis in Aleppo; and by reaching a deal on keeping in power Bashar al-Assad, who Turkey had long insisted — but no more — must step down.

Furthermore, Turkey can use the refugee card to destabilize Europe, especially if Turkey’s doors are opened without restrictions or checks on who is a refugee and who could be a terrorist claiming to be one. Turkey could escalate against the US and end cooperating with the coalition it leads against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. And there are many more ways Erdogan will not hesitate to deploy to secure his hold over power

Yet Erdogan, despite his heavy handed response to the coup and his assault on the constitution, the army, journalists, and judges, is a worried man. He is now facing a real coup of his own making. In truth, it may be too late now for him to save himself from inevitable revenge.

Yet until the summit takes place, all stakeholders impacted by Erdogan’s about turn must revisit their strategies especially in Iraq and Syria. This concerns the Gulf countries first and foremost; for if a Russian Turkish Iranian axis emerges in Syria, the matter will have grave consequences for them.

Some believe the fate of Assad is merely a bargaining chip for Russia. That the fate of Erdogan is fragile and his regional ambitions over. Or that Iran and her militias can never recover from the battle of Aleppo no matter the outcome. Regardless, however, what is happening in Aleppo and Syria is a fateful fork in the road for the country and all parties involved.

To be sure the cost of the war is too high even for the Russian army, now for the first time fighting against a major Sunni Arab force an open war on the latter’s own turf. This investment will be costly especially if the battle becomes protracted urban showdown.
Iran will also pay a heavy price in Aleppo if perceived as a Shia Persian force invading a major Sunni Arab city amid massacres with cover from its sectarian militias. The cost is too high whether an inconclusive victory or a protracted quagmire are the outcome.

Naturally Russia’s weight far surpasses Iran’s in the battle for Aleppo. But they have different goals there. Iran wants total victory, a goal linked to its expansionist strategy in Iraq Syria and Lebanon. But Russia may want different things: It may seek to shore up the regime with a limited victory as a negotiating tactic to impose its vision for a solution in Syria. With Erdogan’s U-turn, Russia may be in a position to impose a strategic blockade in Syria with implications for relations with the US.

These are all questions that are the key to understanding what is about to happen in Syria especially Aleppo. Erdogan’s visit to Moscow will shed some light but it is the duty of Gulf leaders to radically take stock of the Turkish developments and consider their options to avoid becoming de facto partners in the plots being woven at their expense, that is unless they want to be deliberately absent from their historic responsibility vis a vis Aleppo and Syria.

Why Russia doesn’t want Aleppo to fall

Al-Monitor
Yury Barmin


War-torn Aleppo has come into the spotlight again this week with rebels’ breaking through a weekslong siege by Syrian forces in a matter of days.

The initial success of President Bashar al-Assad’s siege, which clearly emboldened him, could have led to the fall of the second-largest city in Syria and has become a significant victory for the pro-Damascus forces.

This would have had major repercussions not only on the ground but also would have driven the monthslong diplomatic process to a complete standstill. The retaking of Aleppo by the Syrian government would essentially mean that Assad no longer needs to sit at the negotiating table with the opposition unless the opposition acknowledges its defeat.

US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia that if its recent safe-passage humanitarian operation in Aleppo is a “ruse” and that the city is in fact going to be depopulated only to be seized, it will damage US-Russia cooperation in Syria. The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee echoed Kerry’s view, saying humanitarian corridors are a way to sugarcoat Moscow’s real intentions.

Despite the Assad government’s claiming that thousands of civilians fled the eastern part of the city using the safe passage, according to other accounts, the number is barely above 100. With 250,000 civilians trapped inside the city, it is virtually impossible to accommodate all residents in government-controlled areas on such short notice. Having lived alongside the rebels for four years, locals fear being persecuted by the Syrian authorities if they flee and fear being labeled traitors by the opposition at the same time.

Moscow, however, is perfectly aware that the fall of Aleppo would bode ill for the US- and Russia-led diplomatic process and that the vast majority of civilians would not voluntarily leave the city for the unknown with no guarantees of safety. According to some sources, Russian aircraft did not participate in the siege of Aleppo, which could mean that the Kremlin has a different plan for Aleppo and that its retaking is not in the cards at the moment.

In Russia’s calculation, a besieged Aleppo could be far more valuable than an Assad-controlled one, both strategically and diplomatically. As long as a zero-sum fight for the city continues, Moscow plays a key role in the negotiations. All other issues, including Assad’s future in Syria, are pushed to the back burner because Aleppo is perceived as a stronghold of the opposition and its fall would symbolize the victory of Damascus, or, according to some experts, the end of the opposition movement against Assad altogether.

The official rhetoric from Washington, Brussels and Moscow seems to center around the need to alleviate the hardships of civilians in Aleppo and reduce the fighting; this draws international attention away from other contentious issues. The spotlight on Aleppo and a sense of urgency in dealing with the crisis clearly work in Moscow’s favor because the Kremlin is again calling the shots in Syria.

Time may be running out to deal with the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Aleppo. According to the Syrian-American Medical Society, in the event of a successful siege, fuel for bakeries would run out within weeks, and energy for hospitals within three to four months. The fate of local residents, who are no less than prisoners in the besieged city, will become the strongest argument if a new round of negotiations on Aleppo is going to take place.

The situation around the city is one of the major reasons why the so-called cessation of hostilities failed in the first place. Decision-makers in Moscow understand that the Syrian forces cannot go on forever repelling rebel attempts to break the siege, which is why negotiating another cessation of hostilities in Aleppo on its own terms would be a better option for Moscow than taking control over the entire city, because the fall of Aleppo would rid Russia of the strongest lever it has had in Syria against the United States and the opposition.

Freezing the conflict in Aleppo in its current form is a tactic out of Russia’s traditional operational playbook. Frozen conflicts have been successfully instrumentalized by Moscow in the post-Soviet Union space and have proved their effectiveness when it comes to manipulating the political process. Long-term examples of this can be found in Moldova and the South Caucasus, and more recently in Ukraine.

The United State figures prominently in Russia’s Aleppo equation for two reasons. First, the Kremlin feels that it negotiates with the United States from a position of strength in Syria; senior US officials have said several times that the White House has armed Kerry with very few instruments to match Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s flexibility at the negotiating table. It is hugely important for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be speaking on par with the United States as well as be setting his own agenda, something that has rarely happened since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Second, the publicity advanced by the Russian media surrounding the Syria campaign makes it appear that Washington’s campaign to diplomatically isolate Moscow has failed. A meeting on Aleppo that may soon take place in Geneva, in Russia’s view, serves to do just that, presenting Moscow as a peacemaker helping settle another crisis.

Fictionalizing Syria

The Cipher Brief

Ammar Almamoun


It is now almost six years since the Syrian Revolution began, and to this day, the concept of an “ideal” end state remains vague and out of reach. Will Syria become a democracy or will it remain a dictatorship? Will the country remain technically united but suffer from conflict between warring militias, or will it divide into smaller, autonomous regions along ethno-sectarian lines?

These questions are being asked for two reasons. First, the modern state – the regime of Bashar al Assad – has failed. The Syrian people felt forsaken by this dictatorship and its claims of secular prosperity so they revolted against it. However, because Syrians do not have a historical precedent or memory of a state before French colonial occupation, there is no clear idea or system to shape what will happen after the war ends.

Second, the Syrian opposition, with it’s incapability to provide a coherent program for replacing the regime and its institutions, has no clear cultural or practical revolutionary agenda to deconstruct the religious ideas that lead to fundamentalism or regain the trust of the people in the concept of a modern state. Even though they have Western support, moderate opposition actors are not really capable of  effecting actual change or shaping the future state. Instead of trying to recreate a Syrian identity that could form the basis of this state, they are lost in the short-term political process of promoting their own version of “the Syrian cause.”

These points help us to understand Syria today and, more importantly, what it means to be Syrian: what is missing and what is being added by Syrians in exile, and the factors that have created what could be called the “ideal victim” narrative, which stigmatizes Syrians in a way that induces sympathy.

They also help us to understand the ways that a new life in refugee host countries has reshaped Syrians’ awareness of themselves and helped create a new Syrian identity, one defined by troubled  relationships with host countries, life in camps, and the fact they no longer have a real life experience in Syria.

The “Ideal Victim”

For the past  six years, the media has shown Syrians as a product of the failure of humanity, where Syrians  gain their value as humans by how much their stories are being circulated in media, rather than the real life effect of the war. They are part of a victimization process that is being put forth by the media. This “victim narrative” manifests in two key ways.

First, we see images of Syrians crossing borders, seas, and drowning, which present refugees as a unified group of similarly distressed people who are waiting to reach the West, the land of freedom and well-being.

The second manifestation of this victim narrative is the “Syrian Survivor,” which we see in less prominent media reports about refugees who passed the International Baccalaureate tests, or did something else special, as if being a refugee and these modern Western achievements are mutually exclusive.

The victimizing aspect of this is that the appeal of these accomplishments doesn’t come from their inherent value as people. Instead, they derive their legitimacy from the word “refugee.” Rather than being just an administrative status, this word is becoming a sort of tool to gain sympathy and added  political value, which makes it even more difficult to define what is truly Syrian.

Indetermination

The idea of indetermination comes from literary criticism, and it describes the points of emptiness in a narrative, which readers have the chance to fill with their own experiences. In the Syrian narrative we see that Syrians, especially those who are growing up in camps or live outside Syria, have a huge problem relating to the country itself.

Their experience with Syria is limited so, for them, it’s just a set of fictional stories from their parents and the media. I say fictional because, after a while, memory naturally adds fiction in order to make experiences and events more “logical.” For this reason, accounts describing how Syria was, and how it will be, cannot always be trusted.

Eventually, this will lead us to a new generation of Syrians, who didn’t witness Syria but adapt a narrative that speaks to their “group” of Syrians –  one that can never speak to all Syrians.

The example of Palmyra prison and the brutality that the regime exercised there perfectly underlines this point. Media stories, folk tales, and literature  have given us – the generation that didn’t actually witness this brutality – stories of what occurred there, such as the novel “The Shell” by Mustafa Khalifa. But, once the prison was bombed by both the Syrian regime and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the generations to come are left only with past knowledge of what went on there.

We have no reference now about the prison, no solid images or facts. All we have are stories. Literature, novels, and folk tales that build small fragments of fact – documents and prisoner testimonies – into fictional works that try to explain the horrors of this prison. This is in direct contrast to places like Auschwitz in Germany, where the terrors of the concentration camp are vividly recorded in images, prison records, testimonials, and the evidence of the physical structure itself.

Thus, Palmyra prison and its destruction is a metaphorical example of how fiction has begun to play a role in constructing the future Syria, while simultaneously de-constructing its past in the absence of valid documentation.

Integration: the Grand Colonialist Narrative

Finally, one of the main issues related to refugees and their status in host countries is the concept of integration, which is flawed in two key ways.

First is inequality. The colonialist narrative of enlightened Europe tries to integrate refugees into society as if this narrative is supreme. It’s not only a way of helping new arrivals to adapt into the bureaucracy and institutions of the host state, which is logical, but it also sets two distinct value systems, one that is “right” and another which is “wrong.”

In part, this comes from a racist and colonialist point of view, which regards refugees as exotic creatures who need to be civilized, instead of considering them as people who come from different historical experiences, with their own values and worldview.

The second, and more dangerous, flaw comes from “refugees” themselves and their refusal to acknowledge the host country’s value system. Based on my personal experience, some Syrian refugees refuse the values of the “infidel” state and deny being part of it, because those values try to make them forget where they come from.

What is dangerous about this, is that it raises questions about the meaning of revolution in Syria and how it has actually changed the mentality of the Syrian people. Syrians should now be able to question old beliefs and create some kind of distance from the past in order to build a modern and free Syria that goes beyond the duality of regime/revolution as standards to judge and categorize people and thoughts. This will allow people to accept some of what the host country offers them.

An Alternative Narrative

What Syria needs now is an alternative body of culture – by culture I refer to the wider meaning of text, values, and images – in order to build a future Syria.

We need to create a body of thought that future generations can relate to; a coherent narrative that recognizes Syria as it is, instead of building a fictional “meta-Syria,”,which is romantic, victimized, and based on the denial of reality.

Most of all, we need to construct an honest narrative that represents all Syrians and their differences, one that Syrians now and in the future can relate to in order to regain their shattered identity. This will present a positive alternative to the images and texts of today, which only represent violence, loss, and values that are determined either by a relationship with the regime, the revolution, or violent fundamentalism.