Focal Points Blog

India’s Gambit in the Central Asian Abyss

Central AsiaThe importance of Central Asia tends to be under-estimated by most Western observers, particularly in the major print media and on TV. It was only the Western business world that understood the region’s significance promptly after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Central Asian Republics (CARs) claimed their independence from Moscow. Since then, the region has increasingly dazzled players from near and far, once they’ve grasped its worth as a crucial source of energy — both oil and gas as well as hydroelectric power, and as a strategic asset — political and economic.

Among these we may count India. While establishing diplomatic contacts with the CARs in the 1990s, India was rather slow to pursue expanded relations more energetically — whether in the economic, political or military spheres. Several factors may account for this:

  1. In the early 1990s, India had just embarked on a policy of economic reforms, and it was in no position to exploit trade and investment opportunities with these new republics, especially inasmuch as they themselves lacked the wherewithal to cast their economic nets abroad;
  2. Until the last few years, India had concentrated its economic and diplomatic resources on its “Look East” policy which focused on the development of wide-ranging relations with Southeast and East Asia;
  3. Transportation facilities which could allow trade and other exchanges were sharply restricted by formidable political and geographical barriers — the latter being largely the Himalayan Mountain Range. But it was the partition of India in 1947 and ensuing hostilities with Pakistan that immeasurably complicated access to Central Asia. The loss of Northern Kashmir to Pakistan, following initial hostilities between the two new states, and principally the creation of Pakistan itself, added considerable distance — physical and political — between India and Central Asia.

Over the last two to three years, India has been unrelenting in its efforts to correct this oversight — especially as economic growth has facilitated these endeavors. Starting in 2009, high-level visits by top Indian and CAR leaders to each other’s respective capitals culminated in India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy. Inaugurated in June 2012 at the first India-Central Asia Dialogue in Kyrgyzstan, the policy was fleshed out by India’s Foreign Minister, S.M. Krishna, during his visit to Tajikistan on July 2-3, 2012. This served to add weight to India’s commitment to “engagement with Central Asian Countries, both individually and collectively” for the purpose of securing “core national interests” — political, cultural, strategic and economic.

Tajikstan Minister of Foreign Affairs Hamrokhon Zarifi meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Somanahalli Malayah Krishna.

Tajikstan Minister of Foreign Affairs Hamrokhon Zarifi meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Somanahalli Malayah Krishna.

Attaining those objectives would clearly be difficult, if not impossible, given the very tangible physical and political barrier to Central Asia epitomized by Pakistan. There was one way out of this dilemma: reliance on a peaceful and stable Afghanistan as a bridge to Central Asia. But that, in turn, could be assured only if Afghanistan could function as it had in antiquity, when it was the central location of a highway system linking East and West. The famed Silk Road had enabled the transport of goods and people over nearly 7,000 miles, from the Han Chinese, through ancient Bactria — now part of Afghanistan, to the vast Roman Empire. This ancient system of transport was also viewed as a symbol of “collective security and global peace” throughout these huge expanses. No less today than it was in olden times, commerce remains an anchor of peace and stability. Hence, the New Silk Route initiative, introduced at the United Nations in September 2011 by U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, envisaged the creation of modern highway and railroad networks as well as energy pipelines. Washington saw this as part of the transition program following the reduction of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan through 2014, when the nation’s security would be turned over to the Afghan government.

In the post-2014 milieu, India is on the same page as the U.S., as evidenced by India’s investment of $2 billion to build up Afghanistan’s infrastructure, and the hosting of an investment summit on Afghanistan aimed at improving its economy and military security. This is also attested to by Foreign Minister Krishna’s visit to Tajikistan (a neighbor of Afghanistan) when both agreed that the region’s stability depended on a stable Afghanistan. Words were reinforced by strategic ties between the two countries, such as a Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism, and cooperation in strategic and security programs, including the free military training of Tajik cadets and officers in Indian training institutes, as well as joint research and consultation on Afghanistan — all within the framework of India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy.

The key word here is “connect”: connectivity between India and Central Asia — both physical and electronic — is extremely poor. This has restricted trade and other economic exchanges, as well as diplomatic and political ties. Hence, India has been negotiating on initiating direct flights to each Central Asian country. One of the more creative initiatives on India’s part has been a plan to link the 5 CARs to each other and to India electronically, along the lines of the Pan-African e-network developed by India for the African Union nations. It is a plan that has been gifted to Central Asia.

For India, the most valuable resource available in the region is energy — whether oil, gas or hydroelectric power. Tajikistan is only one Central Asian state with which economic cooperation can benefit energy-hungry India: it is the second largest producer of hydroelectricity in the Commonwealth of Independent States, after Russia. Yet it has exploited only 3-5% of its potential. India is a latecomer (after Russia, Iran and China) in providing investment in this sector.

However, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are much richer sources of energy. One of the more promising (though still incomplete) projects is the natural gas pipeline (TAPI) which would bring gas from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally to India. A hugely rich oil and gas resource is the Caspian Sea, and the fortunate littoral states which can claim ownership of their offshore energy fields include Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, as well as the Caucasus state of Azerbaijan on the west, and finally Russia on the northwest and Iran on the south. While not a littoral state, Uzbekistan deserves mention as Central Asia’s largest natural gas producer.

Without doubt, Indian companies (whether state-owned or private) are deeply interested in oil and gas exploration in Kazakhstan’s Caspian Sea region and in Uzbekistan, as well as a hydropower project in Tajikistan. But they are also interested in Afghanistan’s iron ore resources and in the development of copper and gold deposits in the country.

It should come as no surprise, of course, that Indian players have encountered and will continue to face sharp competition from the Russians and Chinese who have a head-start in the region, as do Western energy players who saw the wealth of opportunities open up there right after 1991.

This brief introduction to Central Asia and India’s interest in the strategic, political and economic opportunities offered by the region’s resources and its strategic location provides only a minimal glance at this important but inadequately understood arena of geopolitics. In such a brief narrative, one can only hint at the complexity and rich diversity of the region’s resources and the manifold opportunities provided not only to the regional players but even more, to external players — both in the neighborhood and beyond.

Mary C. Carras, professor emerita, Rutgers University, is an analyst of Indo-American relations. Her writings include a political biography of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and a study of Indian political factions.

The Impotence of International Law

Cross-posted from Progressive Avenues.

Whenever a lawyer or historian describes how a particular action “violates international law” many people stop listening or reading further. It is a bit alienating to hear the words “this action constitutes a violation of international law” time and time again – and especially at the end of a debate when a speaker has no other arguments available. The statement is inevitably followed by: “…and it is a war crime and it denies people their human rights.” A plethora of international law violations are perpetrated by every major power in the world each day, and thus, the empty invocation of international law does nothing but reinforce our own sense of impotence and helplessness in the face of international lawlessness.

The United States, alone, and on a daily basis violates every principle of international law ever envisioned: unprovoked wars of aggression; unmanned drone attacks; tortures and renditions; assassinations of our alleged “enemies”; sales of nuclear weapons; destabilization of unfriendly governments; creating the largest prison population in the world – the list is virtually endless.

Obviously one would wish that there existed a body of international law that could put an end to these abuses, but such laws exist in theory, not in practice. Each time a legal scholar points out the particular treaties being ignored by the superpowers (and everyone else) the only appropriate response is “so what!” or “they always say that.” If there is no enforcement mechanism to prevent the violations, and no military force with the power to intervene on behalf of those victimized by the violations, what possible good does it do to invoke principles of “truth and justice” that border on fantasy?

The assumption is that by invoking human rights principles, legal scholars hope to reinforce the importance of and need for such a body of law. Yet, in reality, the invocation means nothing at the present time, and goes nowhere. In the real world, it would be nice to focus on suggestions that are enforceable, and have some potential to prevent the atrocities taking place around the globe. Scholars who invoke international law principles would do well to add to their analysis, some form of action or conduct at the present time that might prevent such violations from happening. Alternatively, praying for rain sounds as effective and rational as citing international legal principles to a lawless president, and his ruthless military.

Marti Hiken, former Associate Director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and former chair of the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force, is the director of Progressive Avenues. Luke Hiken is an attorney who has engaged in the practice of criminal, military, immigration, and appellate law.

What’s Worse Than PTSD?

Blake Lively as O in

Blake Lively as O in

Last week we wrote about “moral injury,” as defined by Nan Levinson at Tom Dispatch in her June 28 piece Mad, Bad, Sad: What’s Really Happened to America’s Soldiers.

[It's] the result of taking part in or witnessing something of consequence that you find wrong, something which violates your deeply held beliefs about yourself and your role in the world. … While the symptoms and causes may overlap with PTSD, moral injury arises from what you did or failed to do, rather than from what was done to you.

I’m currently reading the crime novel Savages (Simon & Schuster, 2101) by Don Winslow, on which the recent film of the same name is based. Drug dealer Chon is a former Navy SEAL who served in Iraq, where he also later worked for contractors. O (short for Olivia) is his girlfriend. Winslow writes:

O has diagnosed Chon with PTLOSD.

Post-Traumatic Lack Of Stress Disorder. He says he has no nightmares, nerves, flashbacks, hallucinations, or guilt.

“I wasn’t stressed,” Chon insisted, “and there was no trauma.”

In other words, like many soldiers, especially special operations, he wasn’t troubled by what he saw or, as Levinson writes “did or failed to do.”

What’s worse than PTSD or moral injury? Sometimes, unfortunately, lack of PTSD or moral injury.

The New York Times Drones on About the Morality of Drones

American citizen Abdulraham al-Awlaki, son of Anwar.

American citizen Abdulraham al-Awlaki, son of Anwar.

“…it may be a surprise to find some moral philosophers, political scientists, and weapons specialists believe unmanned aircraft offer marked moral advantages over almost any other tool of warfare.”
—Scott Shane, national security reporter for the New York Times, The Moral Defense For Drones, 7/15/12

First, one should never be surprised to find that the NY Times can ferret out experts to say virtually anything. Didn’t they dig up those who told us all that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons? Second, whenever the newspaper uses the words “some,” that’s generally a tipoff the dice are loaded, in this case with a former Air Force officer (who teaches philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School), a former CIA deputy chief of counterintelligence, and political scientist Avery Plaw, author of Targeting Terrorists: A License To Kill?

Shane has a problem, which he solves by a nimble bit of legerdemain: he starts off by raising the issue of law, sovereignty, radicalizing impact, and proliferation dangers (in three brief sentences), then quickly shifts to the contention that “most critics” have “focused on evidence that they [drones] are unintentionally killing innocent civilians.”

He doesn’t present any evidence that most criticism has focused on the collateral damage issue, but this allows him to move to the article’s centerpiece: “the drones kill fewer civilians than other modes of warfare.”

Actually, critics have focused on a wide number of issues concerning drones. Is using drones in a country with which we are not at war, and one that opposes their use, a violation of international law? Is targeting an individual a form of extrajudicial capital punishment? Is killing American citizens a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of a trial by a jury of one’s peers? Is the use of armed drones by the White House bypassing the constitutional role of Congress to declare war? Does the role of the CIA in directing killer drones violate the prescriptions of the Geneva Convention against civilians engaging in armed conflicts?

But for argument’s sake, let’s focus on the point about civilian casualties. According to Shane, the professor of philosophy has found that “drones do a better job at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.” Shane adds that the drone operators “can even divert a missile after firing if, say, a child wanders into range.”

Nice touch about the kid, but according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalists, in Pakistan alone, as of February of this year, some 175 children, among between 482 to 835 civilians, have been reported killed by drones. Other estimates of civilian deaths are much higher.

But, points out the Times, the kill ratio suffered by civilians when Pakistan took back the Swat Valley from its local Taliban, and when Israel goes after Hamas, are much higher. And then, quoting the CIA guy: “Look at the firebombing of Dresden, and compare it with what we are doing today.” In short, civilians should be thankful they are not subjected to the brutality of the Pakistani and Israeli armies, or firebombed into oblivion?

Shane manages to avoid mentioning Part IV of the additions to the Geneva Conventions (1977) on the protection of civilian populations, “Against the Effects of Hostilities.” Articles 49 and 50 are particularly relevant. Essentially they boil down to the stipulation that only “military objectives” can be targeted.

The Time’s security expert also fails to mention the policy of “signature strikes,” which means anyone carrying weapons, or hanging out in a house used by “militants,” is fair game. “Signature strikes” are an explicit violation of Article 50: “The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character.”

Of course, none of us know what criteria are used to identify someone as a “militant” or a “terrorist,” because the Obama administration refuses to release the legal findings that define those categories. In Yemen, many of the targeted “terrorists” are not Al Qaeda members, but southern separatists who have been fighting to re-establish the Republic of South Yemen. In any case, people are being killed and we have no idea how they ended up sentenced to death.

For instance, it is apparently a capital offense to try to rescue people following a drone strike, or to go to the funeral for those killed. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, some 50 rescuers have been killed, and more than 20 mourners. Many of these small villages have strong kinship ties, and helping out or mourning the dead is a powerful cultural tradition. Acting as a kinsman to someone the White House defines as an “enemy” may end up being fatal.

In some ways the civilian deaths are a straw man, not because they are not important, but because “critics” have focused on a wide number of issues brought up by the drones. Among them is the apparent dismantling of Congress’s constitutional role in declaring war. When some members of Congress raised this issue with respect to the Libyan War, and whether it fell under the rubric of the Wars Power Act, the Obama administration argued that it did not, because the Libya operation did not “involve the use of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties, or a serious threat thereof.”

But as Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute points out, the Libyan operation certainly involved “something we used to think of as war: blowing up stuff, lots of it.” The U.S. air war was the key to overthrowing Qaddafi. U.S. planes and drones carried out attacks and directed strikes by allied aircraft. The Americans also resupplied allied aircraft with bombs and missiles, and provided in-air refueling.

Given the enormous expansion of drones, the definition of war as limited to acts likely to lead to “casualties” opens up a Pandora’s box. The U.S. currently has more than 7,000 drones, many of them, like the Predator and the Reaper, armed. The U.S. Defense Department plans to spend about $31 billion on “remotely piloted aircraft” by 2015, and the U.S. Air Force is training more remote operators than pilots for its fighters and bombers.

Fleets of armed drones could be released to fight wars all over the world, with casualties limited to mechanical failures or the occasional drone that wandered too close to an anti-aircraft system. Under the White House’s definition, what those drones did, and whom they did it to, is none of Congress’s business.

What in the Constitution gives the power of life and death over U.S. citizens to the President of the United States? The militant American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was no admirer of the U.S., but there is no public finding that he ever did anything illegal. Nevertheless, a drone-fired Hellfire missile killed him last October. And a few weeks later, another drone killed his Denver-born 16-year old son, Abdulraham al-Awlaki, who was out looking for his father. Ibrahim-al-Banna was the target of that strike, but as one U.S. official told Time, the son was in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” That particular statement is an explicit violation of Article 50 of the Conventions.

“The question is, is killing always justified?” asks University of Texas at El Paso political scientist Armin Krisnan. “There is not public accountability for that.”

The Yemen strike has sparked outrage in that country, as have other drone strikes. “This is why AQAP [Al Qadea in the Arabian Peninsula] is much stronger in Yemen today that it was a few years ago,” says Ibrahim Mothana, co-founder of Yemen’s Watan Party.

There are lots of critics raising lots of difficult to answer questions, and they focus on much more than civilian casualties (although that is a worthy topic of consideration). The “moral” case for drones is not limited to the parameters set by the New York Times. In any case, the issue is not the morality of drones; they have none. Nor do they have politics or philosophy. They are simply soulless killing machines. The morality at play is with those who define the targets and push the buttons that incinerate people we do not know half a world away.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

The Real Metric for Syria Is Russia’s Realpolitik

 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Cross-posted from There Will Be War.

We in the West really really want the tide to be turning against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Especially, it seems, The Economist, who headlined this piece in November 2011 “The tide turns against Bashar Assad” and this one about nine months later “The tide begins to turn.” But they’re not the only media outlet or organization that never misses a chance to suggest the imminent downfall of the villainous Assad.

Most recently, the defection of a former top member of the military and one-time buddy of Bashar, Manaf Tlass, has caused a stir. The “Good Sign” subhead, referring to the high-level defection in this BBC piece was at least put in quotes, but still calls out the optimism expressed by the Friends of Syria in Paris.

Mr Laurent Fabius [French foreign minister] described it as a “hard blow for the regime” that showed Mr Assad’s entourage was beginning to realise the regime was unsustainable.

Further analysis in the piece from Mohamed Yehia of BBC Arabia

This would also be damaging and embarrassing for the Damascus government, as it would be explained as an indication that cracks are appearing at the top of the ruling establishment and could encourage other Sunni defections.

Finally, near the end, this little tidbit is acknowledged

Brigadier General Tlass has been under a form of home arrest since May 2011 because he opposed the security solution that the regime has been implementing, sources say.

So if ex-General Tlass hasn’t been an active part of the military for over a year, how is this a huge damaging blow? Basically, as the Syrian government spokesman claimed, Tlass had escaped. It’s only a “hard blow” in minds around the world that want to see it as such, not a practical “hard blow” for the regime. It’s bad PR but changes no calculations for Damascus and only shows the brutal efficiency with which even trusted dissenters were corralled and rendered impotent.

Granted this could encourage other Sunni defections, but one could imagine that those who haven’t defected after a year won’t be inspired by one high-ranker who is cushioned by a wealthy family in Europe. Usually toward the end of these stories it’s revealed that there have been no mid-to-upper level Alawite defections. Alawites comprise the vast majority of military command and government officials.

No doubt the latest rash of defections is not good for Assad and doesn’t bolster the regime’s image. Yet I don’t think Assad has cared about the Western world’s perception of his government for a while now.

A much more accurate bellwether about the turning of tides in Syria—the glowing neon sign of imminent regime change—will be when Russia decides to change its view of the Syrian situation. This will reflect the moment when Assad starts thinking about making a plea, and is willing to negotiate. But according to reports on a meeting between top Syrian National Council members and Russia, this is not yet the case

Russia refuses to shift its controversial position on the crisis in Syria, the exiled opposition Syria National Council (SNC) said after talks in Moscow with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov…. Underlining the gulf between the SNC and Moscow, Lavrov said Russia wanted to understand in the talks if there were “prospects” of the opposition groups uniting and joining a platform for dialogue with the Syrian government.

In my opinion, Russia is the only outside participant looking for a real solution to the massive blood-letting in Syria. This is because no one else seems to consider the Syrian opposition as part of the solution. True the opposition is dispersed and the SNC cannot speak for factions of the Free Syrian Army or others on the ground, which is the insurgency’s greatest weakness.

But do the West, the Arabs in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Turks, the U.N. and the Friends of Syria expect Bashar al-Assad to knock off all the killing because Kofi Annan says so, while the rebels keep ambushing security checkpoints and taking over Syrian towns? If the opposition is not ready to negotiate under terms that include Assad still in power—and they may never be—then outside negotiations are pointless. The international community and the SNC can try to pressure Russia to pressure the Syrian regime, but it’s clear that Russia is backing negotiations between the regime and the opposition for as long as Assad feels he can stay in (now relative) power.

The missing player in the various peace-plan scenarios in Turkey—the country with the most leverage over the opposition and the one that can most readily protect them. I’ve written more here about how Turkey must be at the forefront of any peace talks and is the only nation or organization (aside from the opposition itself) in the position to achieve a working ceasefire.

Michael Quiñones’ latest project, a fizzy look at foreign policy predictions, was launched in July 2012 at There Will Be War.

The Magnitsky Act: Fueling Tension with Russia

Mourning the Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.

Mourning the Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.

On June 29th, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. The bill had already passed the House. The Act, which was introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. James McGovern, will impose visa bans and asset freezes on Russian human rights offenders. Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, threatened to ban U.S. officials from visiting Russia if the act became law.

The bill is named for Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison in 2009. Magnitsky was a middle-aged attorney and accountant who worked for the largest Western private equity fund in Russia, representing the foreign investor Bill Browder. Browder had invested in Russian stocks since the late 1990s, “the era of the great thefts of state assets masquerading as privatizations.” But by 2005, Browder had learned of widespread corruption, denounced it, and become an activist against it. Browder was soon exiled from Russia, so he sold his holdings to get himself to the West and made a $230-million tax payment to the Russian treasury. Magnitsky discovered that Russian tax officials had subsequently conspired to embezzle the payment. When he made these allegations publicly, Magnitsky was imprisoned and beaten. His death was widely condemned.

The Magnitsky Act will deny entry to the 60 or so officials that Bowder says were responsible for Magnitsky’s persecution. The bill aims to reduce such corruption and its spread across international borders.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meanwhile working to improve U.S. trade relations with Russia, promoting the repeal of the outdated 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a Cold War-era provision restricting trade relations with Soviet states deemed to have violated human rights. But on June 29th, Clinton met in St. Petersburg with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who warned Clinton that passing the Magnitsky Act would result in damage to U.S.-Russian relations. President Obama had a similarly chilly meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Mexico.

For its part, the Obama administration has lobbied against the bill because it already tracks and denies visas to the Russians involved in Magnitsky’s death. The administration also pressured the Senate to include a provision for a secret annex in its version of the bill, which would render the bill useless because the names of human rights violators would not be made public. The New Yorker adds that the United States needs Russia’s support for progress on Syria’s civil war, Iran’s nuclear program, and U.S. supply lines to Afghanistan.

But widespread approval in Washington may make the administration’s attempts to bury the bill futile. Major proponents include Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Roger Wicker, John Thune, and John Kerry, alongside Freedom House President David Kramer. If the bill does not become law soon, proponents say the United States will be unable to employ it for Russia’s upcoming WTO accession.

Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that the Magnitsky bill should not be linked to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment because the Russians “will not see the Magnitsky bill as an expression of outrage over how the Russian legal system was shabbily and corruptly manipulated to kill one of its fellow citizens. They will instead see the bill as reflecting what they believe to be a deep-seated anti-Russia sentiment on the Hill.” On the other hand, Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, writes that “Putin’s Kremlin has used the West – eager for engagement and a policy ‘reset’ with Russia – to legitimize its authoritarian rule and to provide opportunities for its venal cronies’ integration into Western society.” She says this has discredited liberal democracy in Russia.

Pifer and Shevtsova are both correct. One the one hand, the bill would enable the United States to uphold its commitments to international human rights and the spread of democracy. On the other hand, as Pifer says, the United States cannot afford to lose Russia as a trading partner. Additionally, the two countries are currently dealing with several issues that could exacerbate one another, including missile defense, the future of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, and U.S. supply lines to Afghanistan.

The Magnitsky Act will, unfortunately, fuel these already tense situations and throw Obama’s “reset” policies off course. As Putin said in July, “The replacement of the Jackson-Vanik amendment by an anti-Russian law and a course towards creating a missile defense system cannot but upset the existing strategic parity and be a source of concern for us.”

Attacking Syria Is a No-Win Situation for Turkey

With military intervention against Assad unlikely and a protracted civil war ensuing, Turkey is in a quandary due to its rapidly deteriorating relationship with Damascus. A war of words was to be expected, with Turkey lumped into the group of nations “legally, ethically, and politically responsible for the crimes committed by the terrorist groups” according to Syria’s information minister.1 Turkish officials claim Syria is now supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) separatists, whom the Turks have been battling in the Southeast and Iraq.2 But there are more pressing matters: Not only are refugees multiplying, but as of April, cross-border skirmishes have started to flare up—and these are poised to escalate. The Turkish army has mobilized at the border and scrambled warplanes, after Syrian anti-aircraft guns downed a Turkish F4 that briefly strayed into it neighbor’s airspace.

This posturing, without any diplomatic front, may lead to Prime Minister Erdogan’s most extreme option, full-on war. Though his citizenry is less than thrilled about this prospect.3 In fact, Turkey’s foreign ministry has already had to deny reports that it is gearing up for an attack on Syria aimed at regime change.4 As noted above, there are several reasons military escalation is a bad idea. First and foremost, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has rejected it, implying that Turkey would be on its own.5 Without U.S./NATO support, there is no guarantee of victory against Syrian forces bolstered by Iranian and Russian weapons and advisors as well as terrorist proxies. Should Turkey conspire with anti-Assad nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to remove the dictator covertly, the result would invite a similarly destabilizing mess, if not a Syrian declaration of war.

On the purely hypothetical other hand, if Erdogan were to make a friendly deal with Damascus and expel the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, he risks alienation and anger from the U.N., NATO and all of his Sunni neighbors. The rather unthinkable move would be a reputation-damaging betrayal striking at the heart of Turkish pride and integrity. And Syrian refugees would be led into a slaughterhouse.

The Turkish government has no choice but to protect its border and therefore enable Syria’s foes—and its growing list of defectors. However, if Ankara decided to change tactics and open up a diplomatic line to Damascus, this could be used as a bargaining chip. And indeed, it is in Turkey’s best interest to act as negotiator between the hostile parties and move to the forefront of the peace-plan effort—as it has done between Syria and Israel and the U.S. and Iran.xi With far more leverage than the United Nations, in the form of both threats and assistance, the Turks needs to be open to talks with Tehran, Moscow and most of all Bashar al-Assad himself. Prime Minister Erdogan should be sitting where Kofi Annan has sat and must work to bury the hatchet. The brutal dictator, despite his crimes against humanity, is not going anywhere. (While high-level defections continue, as with Brigadier General Manaf Tlass in July, they are all Sunni officers and mostly those who were already under house arrest.) Without foreign intervention, this civil war has the potential to play out for years.

Though the opposition will be virulently against this course, Turkey, as their host and defender, has considerable leverage over them as well—and no other nation or group has it. Turkish soldiers must be at the border, ready to protect the Syrian opposition and refugees, but they must take care never to provoke Syria’s armed forces. Foreign Minister Davutoglu should be at every meeting between Clinton and Lavrov and Annan and Assad. That the ever-convening international community has not worked to press this initiative shows a lack of will to end the bloodshed as well as a delusional dream that Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite accomplices will step down. The goal is a ceasefire, effectively saving thousands of civilian lives, and only one country has the ghost of a chance at working toward a real one.

Turkey has been acknowledged as a Muslim beacon of prosperity and liberalism in the Middle East and has indeed made admirable choices, often at once pragmatic and idealistic, during the Arab Awakening. But it has watched, waited and reacted long enough. The fledgling democracy must take the opportunity to assert itself as the major regional player and pursue an aggressive role as peacemaker—which will gain it the respect of the West without alienating it from the greater Middle East or Russia. Turkish expertise and tradition in balancing secular and Muslim government should be exported to Libya, where thousands of Turks reside and where business cooperation may help to stabilize the fractured nation. It should be offered to an Egypt grappling with an identity swinging between a military junta and religious populists. In Syria, the Turks are the best suited to build the bridge connecting the regime in Damascus and the scattered opposition. That bridge, as flimsy as it may be, is desperately needed to stop the daily massacres and the growing sectarian tragedy that is already set to poison future generations. It goes without saying that Turkey itself should lead by example, clean up its own backyard with respect to the Kurdish question, Armenia and Greece, and shed its antiquated and artificial attempts to gird it nationalist pride by suppressing non-Turks. To be seen as fervent in trying to solve these issues at home and taking the reins of the region’s conflicts would bestow Turkey with true national pride and international prestige.

1“Turkey Allows Limited Access to Syrian Refugee Camp.” Hurriyet Daily News. Turkey. June 19, 2011.
http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=turkey-allows-limited-access-to-syrian-refugee-camp-2011-06-19

2“Turkey and the Arab Spring: Embracing ‘People’s Power’.” Gallia Lindenstrauss. European Institute of the Mediterranean. March 2012. www.euromesco.net/images/papers/papersiemed14.pdf

3“The Tide Begins to Turn.” The Economist. July 7, 2012. www.economist.com/node/21558276

4“Report: Turkey Tells West It Might Launch Offensive Against Syria.” Today’s Zaman. Turkey. June 27, 2011. http://www.todayszaman.com/news-248653-report-turkey-tells-west-it-might-launch-offensive-against-syria.html

5“U.S. Tells Turkey to Back Off Syria.” NOW Lebanon. Tony Badran. March 22, 2012. http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=378866

Michael Quiñones’ latest project, a fizzy look at foreign policy predictions, launched in July 2012 at There Will Be War.

Why Did Russian Officials Withhold News of Flooding From Krymsk?

Yesterday, the New York Times published another one of those stories that raises a huge question, which it then fails to address. Most of the 170 deaths by flooding in the Black Sea coastal area occurred in the town of Krymsk when water ran down hills and into town in torrents. Ellen Barry reports (sort of) that:

… it came as a shock, and then as the focus of anger, when officials acknowledged that they had been aware of a threat to Krymsk at 10 the previous night, but had not taken measures to rouse its sleeping residents.

A resident asked:

“If they knew at 11, why didn’t they warn us? What are we, hunks of meat? Are we not people?”

Was it the usual — fear of starting a panic, being held responsible for incurring the expense of an evacuation when it might turn out one wasn’t needed? One explanation:

The Emergencies Ministry said it sent warnings out by text message, but some local residents said they never received the alerts. Ministry head Vladimir Puchkov [said] “A system to warn the residents was set up. … But, unfortunately, not everyone was warned early enough.”

What makes the New York Times story even more lacking was that two days earlier, July 9, Masha Gessen reported in a blog post in the Times itself (don’t you people talk to each other?) that:

… a young woman named Yulia Andropova on her page on vkontakte.ru, a Russian social network [apparently] writing from Krymsk … described how the town may have been deliberately flooded to spare the bigger city of Novorossiysk.

“Everyone is keeping quiet about this now, but last night my father was working and he says that they called an emergency meeting in the middle of the night to decide whether to open the floodgates of the Neberdzhaevskoye Reservoir,” Andropova wrote .…“And what do you think? Of course they decided to open the floodgates! They sacrificed Krymsk and still didn’t manage to prevent the flooding of Novorossiysk. Good job. But at least they should have warned people the water was coming!

Gessen added that:

But late Saturday night, two expert bloggers posted detailed analyses of the region’s topography, both concluding that Krymsk was probably flooded after heavy rain over nearby mountains turned normally tame rivers into monstrous roaring streams.

One blogger, by the name of Eugeny Shultz, concluded that the reservoir had probably overflowed on its own. No one had opened any floodgates; in fact, there are no floodgates at this particular reservoir.

In any event, returning to Barry’s story:

The flood in this city of 57,000 in southern Russia is the first disaster to hit the country since Vladimir V. Putin returned to the presidency, amid uncertain public support for his government. Its aftermath has riveted national attention as a measure of the state’s effectiveness, including visits from celebrities and volunteer efforts backed by pro-government and opposition political parties.

Mr. Putin has been damaged in the past by appearing indifferent to disasters — most acutely in 2000, when he failed to immediately return from a vacation to handle the sinking of a nuclear-powered submarine, the Kursk. Russia declined initial rescue offers from other countries, and all 118 sailors trapped onboard died.

Gesen again:

The post was reposted hundreds, possibly thousands of times on different social networks. Prominent bloggers and journalists quoted it to show the Putin regime’s utter disregard for human life — as if further proof were needed.

The question begs to be asked: will this be Vladimir Putin’s Katrina?

Palestinian Demonstrators Underscore the Palestinian Authority’s Legitimacy Problem

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

A protest against police brutality in Ramallah at the start of this month was met with truncheons by the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security forces. Unsurprisingly, there was an Israeli precipitant to this reaction: the Washington Post’s Benjamin Gottlieb explained that this was actually the second confrontation between demonstrators and police in Ramallah that weekend. The first clash occurred when the PA invited Israeli VP Shaul Mofaz to come to Ramallah, the PA’s capital in the West Bank, to meet with President Mahmoud Abbas.

Because of the protests, the visit was put off as the police moved in to contain the demonstrators. The now-postponed visit, and the reactions to it by Palestinian activists, stand as apt reminders of the tension inherent in the Palestinian Authority’s very existence.

The Israeli veep was invited by the PA because after joining his political party, Kadima, with Netanyahu’s governing coalition to form a unity government, he was appointed to serve as “minister without portfolio” on the stalled peace process. Huwaida Arraf, one of the founders of the International Solidarity Movement, was one of those who criticized the PA for even inviting Mofaz in the first place because he served as IDF Chief of Staff, and then Defense Minister, at the onset of the Second Intifada.

Gazan blogger Mohammed Suliman summed up the unequal relationship between Ramallah and Jersualem in his coverage of the protests: “An intricately designed hierarchy where Abbas’s [sic] placed underneath Israel yet extends his hand upwards to them forming the PA-Israel alliance.” Indeed, despite its close cooperation with the IDF since 1994 in arresting suspected militants, the PA does not even have total control of its own funds or its security forces, whose training and equipping have for the past eighteen years been finalized by the American, Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian governments. The training and arming of these security forces, who have been accused of torturing detainees and vigilantism, has been asore point for years among Palestinians.

Several demonstrators and reporters were injured during the weekend protests, and critics charged the PA with trying to impose a media blackout on the day’s events. The PA is often suspect of members of the press, even those at state outlets, and this past year — after failing to secure settlement building freezes, difficulties in making progress in much-trumpeted unity talks with Hamas, or win international recognition as a state through the UN — has apparently stepped up its efforts to censor the press. Concerns have been growing over the years that the PA is using charges of incitement or collaboration with Hamas to quash criticism of its actions (Hamas, for its part, will also harass critical individuals and outlets on spurious charges of collaboration or undermining their authority).

One of the most notorious cases this year has been that of Yousef Shayeb, a reporter working for the Jordanian daily Al-Ghab. He had reported early this year that officials at the General Delegation of Palestine in France were engaged in corrupt financial practices, nepotism and were passing information about Muslim organizations in France on to Mossad. He named several high-ranking members of the PA/PLO serving in the EU in this report, which prompted Ramallah and several of those named in it to charge Shayeb with libel. As the authorities in Ramallah detained Shayeb and built their case up against him, all the while pressing him to reveal his anonymous sources, Al-Ghab disavowed itself of Shayeb’s reporting and fired Shayed, saying he had improperly vetted his sources. Shayeb has not yet been tried for libel, but may face further jail time and a significant fine if convicted by a Palestinian court.

Reports on other actions against reporters suggest that Shayeb’s detention and interrogation came at a time this past spring when the PA was increasingly cracking down on online criticism of Abbas. West Bank journalist Tariq Khamis told Electronic Intifada that when he was brought in for his alleged ties to a man who had called for Abbas’s overthrow, the Palestinian police interrogated him about a story he’d written a West Bank paper about Palestinian youth groups critical of Ramallah’s negotiating track with the Israelis. George Hale has reported that Palestinian ISPs have been ordered to block websites critical of Abbas, even though Palestinian media officials have said there is no law authorizing Ramallah to make these move, and at least one top media official subsequently resigned in protest.

Israel continues to exert even greater pressure on Palestinian and international journalists in the West Bank, but sometimes, these Israelis actions actually benefit the PA too, since as the Committee to Protect Journalists has noted, West Bank media outlets like Wattan TV targeted by the IDF have also “been a thorn in the flesh of the PA for most of its existence”. In fact, this marks the sixth time Wattan TV has been shut down — the first five times it was forced to suspend its broadcasts, it was due to the Palestinian Authority’s actions.

Social media is helping Palestinian activists dissatisfied with both the Fatah and Hamas’s governance reach wider audiences. So in Ramallah, there can be few Palestinian protest chants more unnerving these days than those that end with SCAF comparisons.

No Wonder So Many Drone Strikes Gang Aft Aglay

In a July 6 piece for the New York Times on the training of drone operators titled The Drone Zone, Mark Mazzetti wrote:

The increased use of drones in warfare has led the Air Force to re-engineer its training program for drone pilots.

Aside from the inevitable landing accents that result when you rush a pilot — virtual or not — into action, other problems have arisen.

Then there is the fact that the movement shown on a drone pilot’s video screen has over the years been seconds behind what the drone sees — a delay caused by the time it takes to bounce a signal off a satellite in space. This problem, called “latency,” has long bedeviled drone pilots, making it difficult to hit a moving target. Last year senior operatives with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula told a Yemeni reporter that if they hear an American drone overhead, they move around as much as possible. (Military officials said that they have made progress in recent years in addressing the latency problem but declined to provide details.)

Jeez, as if drone strikes weren’t already enough of a guessing game what with signature strikes* and all.

*”Signature strikes target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren’t always known. The bulk of CIA’s drone strikes are signature strikes.” http://tinyurl.com/8a78vdp

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