Getting serious on Syria – time for plan C?

Russia’s refusal to support U.N. action against Syria is contributing to the sectarian civil war they claim to be eager to avoid, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today. .

“The Russians keep telling us they want to do everything to avoid a civil war, because they believe that the violence would be catastrophic,” she said. “They often in their conversations with me liken it to the equivalent of a very large Lebanese war and they are vociferous in their claim that they are providing a stabilizing influence.

“I reject that. I think that they are in fact propping up the regime at a time when we should be working on a political transition.”

The Kremlin’s stance puts geo-political strategic concerns well ahead of humanitarian considerations, says Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “Russia has taken a firm stand that it would not be allowed to use the U.N. Security Council for regime change, for toppling a national leader. This is Russia’s firm stance that this is not what the U.N. Security Council is for,” Lipman said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s virulent anti-Americanism – he reportedly said today that he will never again set foot on U.S. soil – is also driving policy on Syria.

“Russia has made it very clear that it will not come on board with Western countries, especially given the physical stage in U.S.-Russia relations,” said Lipman. “This stand will remain firm.”

Moscow’s support is providing a vital lifeline for Bashar al-Assad, especially since two tactics adopted by his Alawite-dominated Baathist regime “appear to be failing,” The Economist observes:

One has been to stoke sectarian tension by provoking fears among Syria’s many minorities of a backlash by extremists within the Sunni majority. Yet, despite occasional revenge attacks on Alawites and the spread of radical jihadism among some Sunnis, Syrian society has so far remained fairly cohesive. Alawite settlements that could be vulnerable have not been attacked, and the opposition has tried to maintain the rhetoric of inclusion.

The other tactic, ramping up violence to provoke an armed response that would undermine the opposition’s claim to be peaceful, has similarly reached the limit of its effectiveness. The rebels’ resort to arms did at first alienate many Syrians who wanted the uprising to stay wholly peaceful, but the violence has reached a scale where the state can impose its will only by being even more brutal.

“Events like Houla are not signs of strength but of weakness,” says an analyst. “It just makes clear that the regime has run out of other options.”

The Obama administration has reportedly sought to engage Moscow on preparing a Yemeni scenario, under which Assad and his clique will gradually cede power in an internationally-supervised transition process along the lines of the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal in the impoverished Gulf state.

“The big question today is to implement the Libyan or Yemeni scenario in Syria,” the head of a Damascus-based think tank told GlobalPost, requesting anonymity to speak without fear of reprisal.

“The United Sates will discuss the Yemeni scenario with Russia to implement it in Syria, but if Russia refused then the Libyan scenario is coming for sure.”

International military intervention remains unlikely and the opposition lacks the military capacity to challenge the regime’s troops and irregular militia.

“The Syrian opposition is not going to be in a position to take and hold ground against the Syrian armed forces. What they can do is stage raids, provocations,” said James Dobbins, head of international and security policy for the Rand Corp.

Syria is presenting President Barack Obama with arguably the greatest foreign policy dilemma of his administration, Philip Gourevitch writes in The New Yorker.

“As a rule, Obama has avoided any rigid foreign-policy doctrine, preferring to indicate broad principles and then respond to crises case by case,” he says.

The recently announced Atrocities Prevention Board “is essentially a technocratic instrument of statecraft,” says Gourevitch:

Obama seemed to recognize the awkwardness of such an initiative at a time when Assad remains in power, and the Taliban stands poised to reclaim swaths of Afghanistan. “There will be senseless deaths that aren’t prevented,” he said. “There will be stories of pain and hardship that test our hopes and try our conscience.”

That, perhaps, is what we have learned.

“It is getting dangerously late for the Obama administration to get on the right side of history in Syria,” writes Marc Ginsberg, a former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco. But there is still time for the administration to adopt a Plan C:

First, Moscow simply cannot have it both ways. It has to be called out internationally for continuing to resupply Assad’s armed forces under the cover of a peace plan it claims to be supporting. Even if the Russians veto it, the U.S. should be pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that all countries cease providing arms to the combatants and dare Moscow (or China) to veto it. ….

Two, the Houla massacre was not the first straw, nor it will be the last straw. The European Union should file appropriate papers before the International Criminal Court accusing Assad and his immediate siblings of crimes against humanity. Delegitimizing this regime is a crucial step and it is lame for the administration to assert that by doing so it undercuts a “Yemen”-type solution which is not in the cards.

Three, it’s time for a “Kofi Break” … The vainglorious Annan will never concede Assad outsmarted him. Annan, like many another meek, milquetoast, diplomat before him, is out gunned and out of his league. Most importantly, he is out of credibility. There are plenty of other diplomats around with real backbone to deal with Assad. How about James Baker, Madeleine Albright, or Henry Kissinger? Each have more cojones than Annan ever will hope to have.

Four, the longer the U.S. dawdles about providing lethal arms to the Free Syrian Forces, the more likely that a radicalized anti-American regime will emerge from the ruins of the Assad dynasty. ………

Five, the air space in and out of Syria should be scrutinized for any international carrier hauling military equipment into Syria. If the U.N. refuses to act in unison against the Russian and Iranian arms resupplies, then the U.S. and its European Union allies should sanction any air cargo or shipping company that is reasonably suspected of funneling arms to Assad.

Six, if we leave the feckless Syrian opposition to figure out how to coalesce, there will never be a legitimate opposition to Assad. The time has come for the U.S., the EU, Turkey and the Arab League to adopt a joint approach toward bringing some much needed order out of the chaotic Syrian opposition. ………..

Seven, time for armchair generals to get out the way. The Syrian people from the major cities of Aleppo and Homs to the small towns such as Houla are desperately short of food and medicine. Assad has prevented every form of humanitarian relief from reaching his victims, who are perishing by the minute. To temporarily alleviate this human suffering, and notwithstanding Assad’s threats to prevent the aid, the Arab Red Crescent Society should be leading a humanitarian airlift under the protection of U.N. cargo planes protected by U.S., Turkish, Arab, and EU air forces to facilitate the delivery of crucial humanitarian supplies. ……

Eight, the U.S. and its European allies have not adequately pulled the economic sanctions lever on Syria’s banking institutions. Syria’s national bank and collateral financial institutions have not been subjected to the same sanctions the U.S. has cleverly orchestrated against Iran’s financial institutions. Why not? What are the U.S. and its European allies waiting for?

Read the rest.

After the dictatorship falls?

Where’s the transition plan?

Democracy advocates should give more heed to vision and strategic planning instead of an all-too-common “Chicken Little” approach to transitions, writes Robert L. Helvey, the author of On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals. Democratic transitions from authoritarian rule should begin before dictatorships fall:

In waging a strategic nonviolent conflict, the vision of tomorrow is translated into a strategic goal in which the general public can see themselves better off at the end of a successful struggle, and they are confident enough in their movement leadership to risk their lives and fortunes in bringing down the dictatorship by removing its very sources of power found in “pillars of support.” These pillars are those institutions and organizations that make themselves available to be used by the dictator. Most often these are the military, police, political parties, religious institutions, government workers, and large businesses.

To prepare the battlefields for waging a strategic nonviolent struggle, many of the same considerations given to waging an armed conflict are applicable. For example, no military commander worthy of command would ever develop a strategic plan without preparing a strategic estimate in order to identify the environment in which the struggle would be waged, the capabilities of his own and opponent forces, and conducting a detailed analysis of opposing courses of action.

I cannot find any evidence of a strategic estimate being prepared by either the Egyptian or Syrian nonviolent movements. Otherwise, there would have been plans to pre-empt the Muslim Brotherhood victories in the recent elections and the Syrian movement would have considered that the current Assad would most likely act as did his father in quelling opposition through slaughter. They would have prepared for this contingency from the very beginning of the movement.

Another strategic planning failure is the misconception that a nonviolent movement can co-exist with a violent (armed) component……….If a movement leadership requests the participation of foreign military forces in its democracy struggle, it is, in effect, forfeiting its claim to self-liberation and has placed its future to be subordinate to the interests of the foreign government intervening on its behalf.

Read the rest on Foreign Policy.

Col. Robert L. Helvey, U.S. Army, (ret), is a consultant and instructor to pro-democracy groups.

Dialogue and security concerns ‘likely to make or break Yemen’s transition’

Yemen’s political transition is on track, the U.N. envoy to Yemen said Tuesday, but deteriorating security and sectarian machinations may yet sabotage prospects for democratic reform.   

The protracted transfer of power is proceeding “against a backdrop of serious security concerns, an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and many unresolved conflicts,” Jamal Benomar (left) told the U.N. Security Council.

“The success or failure of the National Dialogue is likely to make or break Yemen’s transition,” Benomar said. But he warned that President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s “strong leadership” is being challenged by certain factions.

“Those who encourage sabotage and obstruction from behind the scenes must know that they are being observed, that they will be held accountable and that international patience is wearing thin,” he said.

Three months into Yemen’s two-year transition, slow but steady progress has been made in instituting the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement implementation mechanisms, the principal guiding reference for the country’s political transition, a democracy assistance official reports from Sana’a:

In advance of a national dialogue, President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi has begun restructuring the government and military, announcing new political appointments at the local level and issuing a string of decrees to shift military commanders to new positions. The military and security committee formed in January to demilitarize urban centers has made considerable gains amidst a host of challenges.  Nearly all checkpoints and battle positions have been removed in Sana’a and general security has been strengthened in Taiz with the removal of armed factions from neighborhoods throughout the city.  

At present, conflict and violence in other parts of the country do not appear to be hindering significantly political progress or participation.  However, political stability will be critical to addressing core issues that have contributed historically to conflict – water scarcity, land looting, lack of jobs – and can impact the long-term sustainability of political and economic reform.  In the near term, Yemenis are beginning to see economic benefit to the transition as fuel prices have plateaued and supply is more consistent, the provision of publicly supplied electricity is improved in Sana’a and prices on basic commodities (rice, grains, meat, milk, sugar) have stabilized.  

While demonstrations and marches protesting various components of the transition persist, political and civic groups have largely shifted focus from anti-government sentiment to pro-active preparatory efforts for participation in the national dialogue. Former denizens of protest squares are filling a variety of roles in the transition.  Civil society organizations are convening forums on issues related to national dialogue.  Emerging political parties are forming and organizing themselves.  Women’s groups are developing platforms on participation, and young party activists are either taking part in civil society initiatives or have fallen back in line with their parties.  Most of the former demonstrators are looking ahead toward the implementation of the GCC agreement and are cautiously optimistic that there will be changes.  

Politicians representing a wide range of government institutions at all levels are beginning to emerge and lead efforts to reform Yemen’s governance practices. Reform-minded ministers and a youth liaison committee established by President Hadi are making legitimate efforts to reach out to youth, while other government and elected officials also are trying to implement initiatives aimed at improving citizen engagement.   

The minister of legal affairs has spearheaded an effort to educate the public on a draft transitional justice law and incorporate citizen input into a revised draft for cabinet consideration. Parliamentary committees on heath, agriculture and water are hosting the first ever public hearings in governorates outside Sana’a to solicit public comment on key development issues.  The number of initiatives led by a wide variety of leaders to engage stakeholders is unprecedented in Yemen, and represents a significant shift in the government’s perception of appropriate inclusion and participation of citizens in decision making. 

Historically marginalized groups, however, will require additional efforts to bring them into the transition and dialogue process.  Many groups, including youth, Houthis and hardline factions within the southern movement, have released pre-conditions for participation in the national dialogue in apparent attempts to establish outcomes prior to engaging in discussions.  As the deadline for the national dialogue approaches, pressure will continue to mount on the coalition government to ensure broad based participation. 

Other pitfalls may also be looming, including an escalating feud between the current president and his ousted predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who remains in Yemen as the head of the former ruling General People’s Congress (GPC).  Contrary to rumors that Saleh plans to step down from his post as party leader and depart Yemen, he does not appear to have any intention of leaving the country or political life.   

While the former president may have expected his successor to be a placeholder who would maintain the status quo until his son Ahmed Ali could take the helm, current president Hadi has demonstrated a skillful ability to balance the holdovers from the previous regime and advance the implementation of the GCC brokered transition process.  Hadi has garnered significant, visible backing from the international community, as well as from key former opposition parties, including the Islamist Islah and the Yemeni Socialist Party – as well as GPC moderates.  The president has leveraged his position to take a series of actions that increasingly marginalize Saleh, while strategically delaying more provocative changes, such as dismissing Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali and nephew Yahya from their military positions, to avoid the appearance that he is completely sidelining Saleh.  

Meanwhile, Saleh is seen as waging a sporadic campaign to slow political progress and, in the view of critics, destabilize the country.   He is attributed with catalyzing most of the remaining pockets of political instability, meddling in efforts to reshuffle the current military leadership,  prompting regime loyalists within the cabinet to refuse reform initiatives, mobilizing demonstrations calling for him to reclaim the presidency and urging an escalation in tribal conflicts.  As Hadi continues to advance the GCC agreement implementation and shifts the balance of power away from the former president, the question remains as to how far Saleh – always unpredictable – is willing to go to hold onto or reclaim his sphere of influence.

Demdigest adds:

The country’s most high-profile democracy advocate is cautiously optimistic about the political transition and President Hadi’s performance.

“We are happy and we see progress. That is our victory,” said Tawakul Karman (right), the Nobel laureate and civil society activist.  “He is the president the revolution chose, and we are satisfied. But we are not satisfied with the situation of the army and security forces. Until now, there has been no unification,” Karman said.

But the international community must apply “more pressure” to reform Yemen’s politicized state institutions and prevent Saleh’s allies exploiting security concerns to engineer a comeback.

“They haven’t done enough. We need support in sacking all of Saleh’s family from the security forces. They support al Qaeda,” she said.

Reform activists are focused on combatting corruption and restructuring the security forces.

“But we (protesters) are still in the squares. The tents are still there and we will not leave until we achieve all of our goals,” said Karman, a leader of Women Journalists Without Chains, a Sana’a-based NGO supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Kremlin onslaught doesn’t faze Washington’s ‘undiplomat’ in Moscow

National Security Council official Samantha Power and Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia advisor are among the “very long shots” to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, the Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Kaminski reports.

But the U.S. envoy to Moscow will be too preoccupied with more pressing matters to spend much time pondering future career options.

The Kremlin’s threat to retaliate if the U.S. Congress passes the Magnitsky bill, a proposal to freeze the assets of Russian officials complicit in human rights abuses, coincides with a renewed campaign of harassment against McFaul.

“There was a time when Soviet officials would plant stories in their pliant press or concoct honey-traps to bring down an out-of-favor diplomat. These days, the Russian state heads straight to Twitter,” the Guardian’s Miriam Elder reports from Moscow, citing the Russian foreign ministry’s “unprecedented attack” on the US ambassador.

But McFaul gave as good as he got, Elder suggests, taking to Twitter to reply that the talk to which the Kremlin objected had “highlighted over 20 positive results of ‘reset,’ that our governments worked together to achieve” and later releasing slides from the talk, which highlighted improvements in US-Russia relations.

The attacks on McFaul are “part of the general pattern of anti-Americanism that came to life during the last parliamentary and presidential election campaigns” in Russia, says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.

“McFaul would have been the perfect ambassador during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, who positioned himself as more liberal and democratic. But it took time after McFaul was nominated for him to be approved and arrive in Moscow. By that time the wind had changed and was blowing in the opposite direction. So he’s become a hostage of this new situation.”

The Kremlin unleashed its media acolytes and Nashi youth movement to harass McFaul upon his arrival in Moscow, but many observers believe he is well-suited to the post.

“He’s not your typical ambassador. It’s his straightforward way of expressing himself, his openness, how public he is, that makes him different,” says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center’s Pro et Contra journal.

“McFaul’s background as a democracy specialist arguably made the Kremlin suspicious of him from the outset,” she says. “His background, which should have served him well, had the effect of strengthening those irrational fears that the US was somehow behind the [opposition] demos.

“He’s made a few mistakes, but he’s a straight talker and an open person. It’s clear this is how he intends to be, and how his government wants him to be,” she adds.

In some respects, McFaul is the archetypal “undiplomat,” according to Julia Ioffe’s must-read profile in Foreign Policy:

“A good diplomat is going to say enough and start enough conversations that will help make his case, not get into arguments that permanently cast him as an enemy,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran of the diplomatic world. He is also McFaul’s close friend. “A diplomat has to figure out the terrain he’s operating on and to make sure he makes good use of it. He knows there are a lot of minefields out there and he has to be careful.” ….

“Actually, I think that Mike has become a pretty disciplined diplomat,” says Sestanovich. “He does this ‘aw, shucks I’m not a professional diplomat,’ but he’s gotten pretty good at managing public statements, at managing public-policy process. He’s found his balance pretty quickly.” Nor does Sestanovich [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy] buy into the talk of McFaul’s naïveté. “My children grew up hearing Mike talk about knife fights in Montana mining towns,” he says. “The idea that the world is dominated by misunderstanding that can just be dispelled by dialogue is not Mike’s worldview.”

McFaul’s background as a scholar and practitioner of democracy assistance raised Kremlin suspicions, Ioffe notes:

“There’s this notion out here that all I taught was regime change,” McFaul told me that February afternoon at Spaso House, referring to the infamous commentary on state-owned Channel 1, which alleged that McFaul, an expert in revolutions, was coming to finish the job he started in 1991. McFaul did, in fact, teach a class in revolutions at Stanford, but, he points out, he also taught a course on U.S.-Russia relations and on the political economy of the post-communist world. As for the Channel 1 allegations, McFaul says they are “absolute nonsense.”

“I’m not here to foment a revolution,” he says. “If we were here to foment revolution, we’d be doing very different things. I know exactly what we did in other countries. I’ve written a lot about how external actors impact on domestic change and the punchline of most of my work is that it’s always incredibly marginal and, in big countries, almost negligible.”

McFaul’s facility with digital social media also gets the Kremlin’s back up, notes Ioffe:

Alec Ross, a senior advisor to Clinton and one of the architects of this policy of social media diplomacy, disagrees that direct engagement with the people via Facebook and the like sets American diplomats up for disaster. “I don’t agree that it’s going over Putin’s head,” he told me. “Russian officials are very aggressive users of social media themselves. Look at [Russian Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev, look at [Russian diplomat and politician Dmitry] Rogozin. They started tweeting years before Ambassador McFaul. And the content of his Twitter feed is about his playing basketball. This is not exactly the Radio Free Europe tower.” Ross made sure to add, “Ambassador McFaul enjoys the full support of the State Department.”

And yet this initiative, coupled with McFaul’s unshy public image, played right into the hands of the Kremlin, suddenly rickety and feeling pressed by this winter’s pro-democracy protests, and just when it needed a big and convincing win in the March presidential elections. “They’re using McFaul as a resource,” says Sergei Markov, a United Russia deputy and trustee of Vladimir Putin. “It would be a sin not to use it.”

A prominent political technologist and former Kremlin insider, Markov worked with McFaul at the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute, and they have remained friends despite their political differences.

When I met Sergei Markov, [Ioffe continues] the United Russia Party foreign-policy hawk and Putin enthusiast, he was on crutches and had a cast on his left foot — a motorcycle accident in January had left him with a broken ankle. We talked as he waited in the freezing green room of a Russian television studio. He had set up an invisible conveyer belt from the refreshments table to his mouth. “The reset has fulfilled its mission, which was to remove the foolishness of the Bush era,” he said, inhaling a mushroom pastry in one bite. “Now it’s time for the Americans to meet us halfway.” That means: Get rid of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, develop their military strategy with Russia’s interests in mind, and change the anti-Russian “regimes” in Latvia and Estonia. (How? Well, that is up to the Americans, he told me.)

Even with these beliefs, Markov thinks McFaul is the right man for the job. “He’s the perfect representative of America,” he told me, devouring a cucumber spear. “He is open, friendly, generous. He’s very democratic. He has a strong moral compass, and he really wants to help.” Markov knows all this firsthand.

It is one of those strange twists of fate that this man was once McFaul’s close friend and colleague. The two were observers of the ferment of Moscow in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Markov was a philosophy graduate student at Moscow State and active in Democratic Russia, an early shoot of the Russian democracy movement, and McFaul was studying international relations at Oxford. Together, they chronicled the collapse of the Soviet Union, interviewing scores of participants in the events of the time for a book called Russia’s Unfinished Revolution. (Markov’s then wife earned some extra money transcribing the interviews.) They had tea at Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s tiny apartment in Moscow’s northern suburbs. They went to see the hard-core “Pamyat” (or “Memory”) movement, where one activist greeted the two students in full SS regalia, and another nearly killed Markov for accidentally sitting on the group’s flag. Markov recalls McFaul noting afterwards that it was his first time seeing a real racist, in the flesh.

Markov began to work with the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute– a decade-long gig. He went to McFaul’s wedding in California, where he — unsuccessfully– hit on another Russia scholar and friend of McFaul’s, Condoleezza Rice. In 1994, McFaul and Markov helped found the Moscow Carnegie Center, which hosted regular discussions and seminars featuring a novel feature to draw an audience: free dinner. A few years later, Markov was pushed out of Carnegie because he was viewed as the propagandist of the second Chechen War. McFaul defended him and the two have remained friends to this day, “which can be kind of difficult at times,” says a mutual friend who had been part of their crew in the 1990s. “The last time I was in Washington, I stayed with McFaul,” Markov told me. “We debated vigorously.”

Read the rest.

The National Democratic Institute is a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Iran Media Use 2012

Iran’s “halal internet” will no doubt feature in the forthcoming Broadcasting Board of Governors and Gallup briefing on Iran Media Use 2012.

The BBG and Gallup will unveil findings about how Iranians use television, radio, and digital media. For example, 39% of adults in Iran report using the Internet in the previous week. The speakers will address the implications of this and other data. These results, based on telephone surveys that Gallup conducted in 2012, provide insights into Iranians’ media wants and needs.

The event will present the key findings from the surveys, as well as a methodological overview and review of historical media trends in Iran. Speakers will include: Chris Stewart, Senior Managing Consultant, Gallup; Bruce Sherman, Director of Strategy and Development, BBG; Rajesh Srinivasan, Ph.D., Principal, Gallup. William Bell, Research Director, International Broadcasting Bureau.

Date: Tuesday, June 12, 2012. Time: 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. Location: Gallup World Headquarters, The Gallup Building, 901 F Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20004. *Please note the entrance to The Gallup Building is on 9th Street. There will be a Q&A discussion following the event. To register for the event, please click here. While there is no cost to attend, registration is required. For more information, please call the BBG’s Office of Public Affairs at (202) 203-4400 or email