Friday, September 27, 2013

A Week in Review: What Happened at the Opening of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly

The week of 23 September 2013, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) convened  its 68th session in New York.  

According to UNGA's website, its mandate is "to tackle humanity's most intractable problems."  Well, it certainly is not short on work as the Assembly convened in the midst of the Syrian crisis, potential diplomatic baby steps with Iran, outbursts of terror in Peshawar and Nairobi, continued worsening violence in Iraq, and an on-going war in Afghanistan - not to mention a host of other weighty issues.

The world's eyes were on New York this week, with a mixture of anticipation and speculation.  NBC News captured the atmosphere in the lead up to the Assembly with an article entitled "Five burning questions about high-stakes UN General Assembly."  

NBC provided the questions.  I've provided the answers.  

In this post, we'll examine how UNGA has addressed those "five burning questions" this week.


1) "Will Obama and Rouhani meet face-to-face?"

No face-to-face and no handshake.  According to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, there simply wasn't enough time for a handshake or a meeting with President Obama.

Maybe next time.

2) "What will Rouhani say in his first U.N. speech?"

Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, could be the catalyst for a new chapter in Iran-US relations.  Since being elected in June 2013 and taking office in August, he has made various overtures to the United States.  One of those overtures came in the form of an Op-Ed Rouhani wrote for The Washington Post, entitled "Why Iran Seeks Constructive Engagement."  In it, Rouhani wrote "We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart."  In other words, can't we all just get along?  Okay, yes, it's much more complex than that.  But his words were a type of olive branch - but one with very deep roots.  In that same Op-Ed, Rouhani made strong statements about the importance of identity and linked that sense of self to Iran's economic right to develop its nuclear energy program.  Iran wants to diversify through global interaction while retaining its own autonomy, much like most developing countries.  But it's Iran!!  

Our strained history (recall the Iranian Hostage Crisis?) makes the US incredibly weary of scary Iran.  But this new leader seems like he could be something different.  The New York Times described our ambivalence to categorize the new leader as friend or foe yet in this way: "it was at times difficult to tell whether Mr. Rouhani was a genuinely transformative Iranian leader, as his cabinet insisted, or a more polished avatar of the past, as his critics claimed."

At UNGA this week, Rouhani's opening address confronted directly the so-called propaganda of the "Iranian threat," insisting "that based on irrefutable evidence, those who harp on the so-called threat of Iran are either a threat against international peace and security themselves or promote such a threat" and claimed that "Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region. In fact, in ideals as well as in actual practice, my country has been a harbinger of just peace and comprehensive security."  With regard to international collaboration, Rouhani declared "the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a regional power, will act responsibly with regard to regional and international security, and is willing and prepared to cooperate in these fields, bilaterally as well as multilaterally, with other responsible actors."  In summation: a rosy picture of a peaceful and peace loving Iran desirous of joining with the international community to improve what's become the global violent status quo.  

As they say, words are cheap and actions mean everything.  So - we'll see what comes of this new Iran.

3) "Will Obama and Putin come to blows over Syria?"

Not exactly.  Those "blows" seemed to have been limited to a mild war of words regarding the "exceptionalism" with which the United States operates on the world stage.  President Obama's address to UNGA was, in part, a response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's Op-Ed in The New York Times entitled "A Plea for Caution from Russia."  In the Op-Ed, Putin chastised America's 'exceptionalism,' writing "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.  There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."  Obama responded in his UNGA speech: "Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional -- in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all."

On the Syria issue specifically, diplomatic collaborative efforts between Russia and the United States seem to be moving forward.  As of late Thursday, 27 September, the UN Security Council's five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) had agreed on a draft resolution that condemns the Syrian chemical weapons program and endorses the destruction of the CW, and allows for a Chapter VII mandate in the event of non-compliance.  The Security Council is set to vote today, Friday 28 September.  As of this writing, they have not yet voted. 

4) "Will Israel and Palestine show any sign of progress on peace talks?"  

Judging from President Obama's UNGA remarks, there are signs of optimism for progress: "So the time is now ripe for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit of peace.  Already, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have demonstrated a willingness to take significant political risks.  President Abbas has put aside efforts to short-cut the pursuit of peace and come to the negotiating table.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has released Palestinian prisoners and reaffirmed his commitment to a Palestinian state.  Current talks are focused on final status issues of borders and security, refugees and Jerusalem."

In a private meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday, Obama admitted that with regard to negotiated peace talks: "None of us are under any illusion that this would be easy."

5) "Sudan's president has been indicted for war crimes. Will he show up?"

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was a no-show for the UN General Assembly.  Despite the International Criminal Court (ICC)'s warrants for his arrest for 5 counts of crimes against humanity, 2 counts of war crimes, and 3 counts of genocide, President Bashir had RSVP'd 'yes' to the opening Assembly, and was listed as a speaker for a meeting on Thursday.  However, he backed out at the last minute.  Unsurprisingly.  

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Post-Jasmine Revolution: Tunisian Troubles & a Proposed New Road Map for National Dialogue

A Road Map for National Dialogue

When the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly (ANC) disbanded this summer in protest against the interim government led by the moderate Islamist Ennadha party, the ANC President Mustapha Ben Jaafar asserted that the work of the ANC would be suspended until a national dialogue took place.

Today, Ben Jaafar announced that the dialogue would begin early next week, and called for the return of members to Parliament.

The dialogue comes in the way of a proposal, sponsored by four Tunisian organizations.  Based on the public details of the proposal, it seems that it calls less for dialogue and more for an immediate government transition.

On 18 September 2013, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Industry, Trade and Handicrafts Union (UTICA), the National Bar Association, and the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LTDH), presented a proposal that calls for the dissolution of the government and lays out specific steps toward formation of a new government.

Some of the details of the plan have been made public.  Below is the proposed agenda and timetable:

A First Plenary Session will be assembled.  Upon commencement of the dialogue, the following deadlines will apply:
*within 1 week: Creation and membership selection of an Independent High Authority for Elections
*within 2 weeks: Discussion and adoption of the Election Law
*within 2 weeks: Government must be formed by an "independent person" serving as Prime Minister
*within 3 weeks: Current Government (Ennahda) should submit its resignation
*within 4 weeks: Adoption of the Constitution, with assistance from an unspecified think tank

More details are needed to fully evaluate this new political development.  

My first reaction is that this road map is overly ambitious, both in its time table and agenda items.  I'm also confused by the "national dialogue" title - how national and inclusive will it be?  Will Ennahda be a participant?  How will it handle the Islamists and Salafists?

I haven't seen much about this proposal in the Western press yet but hopefully more details will be released.  Here's hoping the Jasmine Revolution leads to something better for this troubled country.

Some Background on Post-Jasmine Revolution Tunisia

Tunisia, home of the Jasmine Revolution that sparked the regional Arab Spring, is struggling.  It is troubled by political instability, insecurity, and a weakened economy.  

And it seems to have worsened in just over a year.

On 05 April 2012, The New York Times published a spread in its Travel section encouraging tourism to Tunisia.  The picturesque photos captured the palm trees and white curved architecture set against the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean, the historic fortresses and mosques, Roman ruins, and intricate tile work.  During author Seth Sherwood's visit to Tunisia, it was obvious that the revolution had hurt tourism.  However, he saw a silver lining and hope in the country, encouraging would-be-visitors that "Tunisia, while far from untroubled, offers a reassuring example of what might emerge from the wreckage."

Unfortunately for Tunisia, what has emerged from the wreckage is not altogether optimistic for its citizens or tourists.

This summer has been marked by a high profile political assassination, calls for the dissolution of the government, the arrests of two musicians and a journalist, a shuttered Parliament, and economic hardship as foreign investors steer away from troubled Tunisia.  

Increased Political Tension at a Breaking Point

Opposition elements have been critical of the Ennahda government for failing to keep its political promises; such broken promises have included holding elections in Spring 2013; reigning in their extremist followers; and addressing the increasingly dire economic situation.

Political tensions spiked this summer when a second high profile opposition leader was assassinated.  Tunisian Parliamentary member Mohamed Brahmi was assassinated on 25 July 2013 outside his home, in front of his family.  His party, The People's Movement, attributed his death to the governing party Ennahda, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Protests erupted over his killing, and mourners at Brahmi's funeral chanted "Down with the party of the Brotherhood....The people demand the fall of the regime.""  Ennada denied its involvement and "condemned the assassination as a plot to derail Tunisia’s democratic transition."  

Prime Minister Ali Larayedh responded to the anti-government protests in a "defiant speech" that declared the interim government was committed to its temporary duties, saying "We don't want to stay in power. We are not addicted to it."  He asserted that the government was committed to a democratic transition with 1) a new constitution by August and 2) elections in December. 

That same day, on 29 July 2013, the National Constituent Assembly convened to demand the resignation of the government and the dissolution of the legislature.  One week later, ANC President Mustapha Ben Jaafar announced "I assume my responsibility as president of the ANC (assembly) and suspend its work until the start of a dialogue, in the service of Tunisia." 

The ANC remained shuttered throughout August and the first half of September.  

Anti-government protestors have set up camp outside Parliament, now protected by concertina wire.  One protestor, interviewed by The Washington Post, articulated the protestors' objective: "Ennahda needs to see what happened to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt ... We don’t want to put them in jail. We just want the main goals of the revolution: social justice, dignity and freedom.”

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Challenges Ahead: Ending the Killing, Reclaiming, and Resurrecting Syria

Now that the immediate issue of Syria's chemical weapons is being dealt with absent a US-led military strike using diplomatic avenues, what about the OTHER issue?  It's not exactly an elephant in the room.  I'm referring to the statistic that more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the past 30 months by non-chemical weapons.  It's a horrifying number, and the civil war has been raging for far too long.  

This begs the question: What to do to stop the killing?  More explicitly, what can be done to end the violence, relcaim sovereignty from a dictatorial masochistic leader and an influx of terrorists, and ultimately resurrect Syria from its failing state status?

There is no easy solution.  Syria is one hot mess.  So what suggestions are out there?  

Let's take a look at a few of the proposals: 

Syrian Opposition Proposal: Further Curtail the Regime

According to a statement by the formally recognized Syrian opposition group, "The Syrian National Coalition insists that the ban of use of chemical weapons, which led to the loss of lives of more than 1,400 Syrian civilians, must be extended to ban the use of the regime air power and ballistic weapons against population centers, in addition to the redeployment of heavy weapons away from population centers, and the prohibition of use of these weapons to bomb Syrian cities and villages." 

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Response: Power to the Rebels

In November 2012, the GCC formally recognized the Syrian National Coalition as a coalition representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Syrian regime.  Such formal recognition allowed for supply of weapons to rebel fighters.  The GCC continues to support and arm the Syrian National Coalition, were supportive of the threatened US-led military strike, and oppose the limited reach of the US-Russia agreement.  

Turkey: Force Negotiation and Plan for Regime Change

In the aftermath of the August 21st chemical weapons attack and in the midst of President Obama's campaign for military intervention, Turkey urged the United States to make it a robust intervention - forceful enough "to bring Assad's regime to the negotiating table."  Now that the US strike is off the table, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has voiced his concerns to Secretary of State John Kerry, reportedly saying that "the human tragedy could worsen if dissuasive measures were not to be taken against [the Syrian] army."  Kerry and Davutoğluare are set to meet in Paris on September 16th for further discussion about Syria.

An Uncertain Future with a Window of Opportunity


Many challenges lie head for Syria and its neighbors.  However, there is a window of opportunity.  As the Syrian National Coalition pointed out, we can take the US-Russia agreement further by banning the regime's armed tactics against its people.  And then, as Turkey suggested (albeit short of military might), let's see if we can force/coerce President Assad to the negotiating table.  And, hopefully, someone can devise a face-saving exit plan for Assad and his advisors so that, ultimately, a more representative and more humane government can assume leadership, and resurrect Syria.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

An Unlikely Partnership's Proposal: The Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons

In a stunning development, it seems that the march to war (okay, "limited strike") and repercussion scenarios of regional instability and reprisals against US interests has been halted by an agreement reached today in Geneva during diplomatic meetings between the United States and Russia.

It's called the "Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons."  So what does this mean?  Let's break it down.

To start, Syria has agreed to abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention.  That's a necessity - otherwise, whatever Russia and the US have worked out as a response to the Syrian CW stash would be for naught.  Let's hope Syria remains good to its word.

In the coming days, the US and Russia will submit a proposal to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)'s Executive Council that lays out the specific procedures for disposing and verifying the disposal of Syrian CW. The goal is the removal and destruction of these weapons (and their facilities) in the first half of 2014.

The US and Russia will also be working on a UN Security Council Resolution that 1) reinforces the decision of the OPCW's Executive Council regarding the above proposed procedures; 2) calls for regular evaluations of Syrian compliance with the procedures/elimination decided by the OPCW; and 3) allows for a Chapter VII mandate (see this UN Charter link) should Syria a) not comply; b) transfer CW without authorization; or c) "anyone in Syria" uses chemical weapons.

So if Syria falls short of the proposed US-Russian OPCW draft decision, cases of non-compliance will be referred to the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council.  

Although the UN was somewhat castrated by the unilateral actions of the United States in Iraq in 2003, there is still hope for UN relevancy.  This is especially true today.  We have two UN heavy weights - the US and Russia - seemingly united and newly determined to utilize the UN system to respond to the Syrian crisis.

There is no doubt that this US and Russian partnership is not easy or expected.  But it is moving forward.  Under this Framework, the US and Russia have shared their assessments regarding the amount and type of chemical weapons possessed by Syria.  And seem to be on the same page with regard to next steps.

So what's next?  Within a week, Syria is expected to turn over a pretty comprehensive list that details the names, types, and quantities of its CW agents, its munitions, and the location, form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.  Syria is also being asked to provide the OPCW and UN personnel "the immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites in Syria."

This is a pretty comprehensive document.  Once the paperwork is finalized, the ball is in Syria's court.

Will Syria comply?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Death, Détente, & Diplomatic Drama: How the Syrian Dilemma is Unfolding


Forget about West Wing re-runs or anticipation for the upcoming new season of Homeland - the diplomatic drama that's unfolding on the world stage right now is down right fascinating.

To briefly recap:

We have the main characters: Syria (our antagonist), Russia (our untrustworthy co-lead), and the United States of America (a protagonist torn between being policeman to the world or non-interventionist for a war-weary public)

And, of course, the supporting characters: Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Israel, the Gulf countries, Europe (namely France and Britain), and the United Nations

The catalyst: On August 21, 2013, the Syrian government allegedly launched a chemical weapons attack in Zamalka in Eastern Ghouta, Syria.  Social media sites streamed the graphic images of the sickened, the dying, and the dead. 

Our Backdrop: In the midst of an on-going Syrian Civil War that sparked in March 2011 and resulted in an estimated 110,000 people dead, President Obama declared prior to the alleged sarin attack his red-line: "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized."

The Tension: Syria crossed POTUS' stated red-line, and violated an international norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons.  How should and how will the United States respond?  

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President Obama found himself in the minority in his desire to launch a limited strike against targets in Syria with his stated objective of deterring future CW use by the Syrian regime.  

According to a Zogby poll, the majority of the American public opposes intervention.
The United Kingdom's Parliament voted against military action.

The President, citing the War Powers Act, consulted Congress regarding a military strike against Syria.  The US Congress drafted a resolution for military action and prepared to vote.  With heavy constituent opposition, vote projections did not bode well for support of the President's initiative.

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The Twist: During a Q&A in Britain, US Secretary of State John Kerry was asked whether there was anything Syria could do to avoid the threatened strike on Syria.  Kerry, perhaps joking, responded that Syria need only turn over all its chemical weapons.

The Reaction: Russia seized on the statement and proposed that Syria do exactly that: turn over the chemical weapons and avoid a US-led military strike. Damascus supports the proposal.

The Gulf Cooperation Council is skeptical of the Russian proposal.  Bahrain's Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Mubarek al-Khalifa looked beyond the focus on chemical weapons: "The Russian plan is all about chemical weapons but does not stop the bloodshed."

Dramatic Pause: President Obama, also weary of the Russian proposal, addressed the American public and pressed ahead with a presentation of his case for a limited strike while also announcing that he had asked the US Congress to postpone their vote to allow for further diplomatic discussion.

Secretary Kerry is now in Geneva for discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Levrov.  

How will this play out?  Stay tuned.

To be continued...