Syria: why not a no-fly zone?

Enthusiasm for foreign intereventions from the sky seems to ebb and flow as the years go by. Back during the Kosovo intervention, Clinton and Blair were widely criticised for thinking that an intervention based on aerial bombing would allow them to get away without deploying boots on the ground. (In the event, Milosevic did blink first by accepting the terms of an international peace plan before NATO had to deploy ground troops – although the arrival of KFOR followed shortly afterwards.)

A few years later,  widespread calls from advocacy groups for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Darfur were met with scepticism in government, given the size of the country and the fact that halting Sudanese government air missions (especially “barrel bombing” from Antonov transport aircraft) clearly wasn’t going to halt the more fundamental problem of janjaweed attacks on the ground.

By the time of the Libyan civil war in 2011, no-fly zones seemed to be back in vogue, with France, Britain, the US, Canada and other countries undertaking numerous sorties over the country, as well as imposing a naval blockade, under UN SCR 1973.

Now, the world has been wringing its hands over the continually worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Syria for more than two years. Demands for action by the west are understandably mounting – yet it’s surprising that almost all the debate about possible interventions has focused on arming the rebels, with much less discussion of a no-fly zone.

I’m instinctively wary of non-specific demands that “something must be done” (see Max Hastings in the FT today for a good presentation of this view). But given that so much of the Syrian government’s advantage – and capacity to inflict atrocities – stems from its air superiority, a no-fly zone looks like a such an obvious option that it seems odd (at least to my inexpert eye) that it hasn’t been more widely discussed.

Still, this may finally be changing: Senate Armed Forces Committee Chair Carl Levin came out in favour of the idea last month, and rumours suggest that the Administration is thinking about it too – all the more so if it takes a decision to go in to the country to secure chemical weapons stockpiles.

Annan on Syria: “we left it too late” to invade

Anna-Assad

It’s six months since Kofi Annan stepped down as UN-Arab League envoy for Syria.  Does he have second thoughts about his efforts to mediate an end to the civil war last year?  He said something odd this week:

“I don’t see a military intervention in Syria. We left it too late. I’m not sure it would not do more harm,” he told the Graduate Institute in Geneva on Tuesday night.  “Further militarisation of the conflict, I’m not sure that is the way to help the Syrian people. They are waiting for the killing to stop. You find some people far away from Syria are the ones very keen for putting in weapons.”

Annan went on to say that he still thinks a political solution is the only viable option, although he’s pessimistic about the chances of achieving this.  Still, his “we left it too late” line is striking.  Does he think that a military intervention might have been feasible a year ago, when he was trying to secure a ceasefire?

Earlier this month, I wrote a commentary for Stability – an up-and-coming online journal devoted to conflict issues – about Annan’s early days as Syria envoy in February and March 2012.  I argue that the chances of a military intervention were always low, but there was “prevailing uncertainty about how the intentions of major powers towards Syria might evolve as the crisis continued.”

Russia appeared genuinely convinced that the West might use force. And while the Assad government responded to the splits in the Security Council by escalating military operations, it could not be certain that its Arab and Western opponents might not take a more aggressive line. This doubt was a potential point of leverage for Annan. Should he take advantage of the uncertainties over external powers’ intentions or try to clarify them?

How did the former UN Secretary-General handle this dilemma?

After his appointment Annan pulled together a team of veteran UN officials and set up office in Geneva. While his team was highly loyal to him, divisions emerged over what strategy he should adopt. A relatively hawkish faction believed that Annan could use the swirling uncertainty to persuade Assad that his position was unsustainable. A more dovish group felt that it was necessary to reassure both Assad and the Russians that regime change was not imminent, creating a framework for talks. The doves were convinced that the chances of an outside intervention were still infinitesimally low and that it was essential to disabuse those opposition forces hoping for a repeat of the Libyan episode. Meanwhile UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has mixed relations with Annan, was pressing hard for an early ceasefire.

Annan visited Damascus on 10 March 2012 and held difficult talks with Assad, who declared he would not talk to “terrorists”. Although declaring himself disappointed by this encounter, Annan opted to follow the dovish route. His six-point plan was an effort to create a climate of confidence both outside and inside Syria. By tabling proposals that all the members of the Security Council could approve, he eased tensions between Russia and the West. By getting these powers to sign on to a deliberately non-threatening text, he reassured Assad that the chances of an intervention were low.

So if “we left it too late” to intervene, Annan was partially responsible for the delay.  You can read the rest of the Stability article – including some thoughts on what Annan could have done differently – here.

Things they don’t teach you at business school: Grow Facial Hair

The New Year brings news of a boom in facial hair implants in Istanbul. Follically-challenged men are coming from all corners of the Middle East to bolster their beards and multiply their moustaches. For a cool $2,300, those looking for wives or social advancement can buy themselves a head start at one of the city’s cosmetic surgeries – there are even special hair transplant tour packages, estimated to bring in 50 Arab tourists a day.

‘Thick hair is a status symbol,’ one cosmetic surgeon told the Guardian. Another, who is optimistically hoping to expand his operations to smooth-skinned Europe, reported: ‘Both in Turkey and in Arab countries facial hair is associated with masculinity, and its lack can cause social difficulties. Businessmen come to me to get beard and moustache implants, because they say that business partners do not take them seriously if they don’t sport facial hair.’

Global Dashboard readers planning business ventures in the Middle East – male ones anyway – take note.

Course on Fragile States in Washington, DC

I will be teaching a course this fall (780.718 Promoting Development in Fragile States) in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University:

Hindered by weak institutions, social divisions, and difficult historical legacies, fragile states face fundamentally different challenges than other countries. This course focuses on understanding the drivers of state fragility and what steps might counteract these. It encourages participants to think deeply about the nature of development, political incentives, the role of geography in governance, social identities, the nature of public authority, and a variety of other issues relevant to state building in difficult circumstances. It will be of interest to students working on African and Middle Eastern issues, conflict management, comparative politics, and economic/political development.

The syllabus for the course provides a good reading list for anyone wanting to understand the problems facing fragile states and what policies might deal with their unique problems.

If you want more information, contact me at seth@sethkaplan.org.

What’s left for the UN in Syria?

The Security Council decided today to close down the UN observer mission in Syria, which I once predicted would be a “heroic failure”.  But this isn’t quite the end of the UN political presence on the ground, as the BBC reports:

Although the 101 remaining military observers will leave Damascus over the next eight days, a civilian liaison office is due to remain and a new special envoy is expected to be appointed.

What can such a political mission achieve?  Here’s a few historical analogies from a paper I wrote for USIP last year:

What happens if preventive diplomacy fails and decision makers choose to cross the Rubicon and unleash full-scale war? Counterintuitively, political missions may still have a role to play in this scenario, urging the parties to at least limit the level of violence and maintain some channels of communication during the fighting. As noted earlier in this report, UN missions currently play a role in trying to mitigate a number of ongoing conflicts, including those in Somalia and Afghanistan. The United Nations also has a long-standing presence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which has continued to operate during crises such as Israel’s 2008–09 incursion into Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”). During that crisis, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) engaged in behind-the-scenes diplomacy with all sides—once Israel pulled back, UNSCO turned to facilitating the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza. It is a conduit for communications with Hamas that other actors cannot undertake directly.

Political missions can thus play a useful functional role during active conflicts, although they are typically constrained by both security issues and a lack of political leverage.  . . .  A mission deployed during the early phase of a war can identify ways to mitigate the damage, but this ultimately depends on the combatants’ cooperation.

Syria’s combatants are unlikely to prove very cooperative.

Have you heard who will replace Annan? It’s Mr. Inaudible!

There’s mounting confusion at the UN about who will replace Kofi Annan as the envoy to Syria.  Everyone knows that it’s meant to be veteran UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.  But it’s widely rumored that Brahimi is holding up the announcement because he wants a clear vote of support from the Security Council, which is not so easy these days.

That’s all a bit sensitive.  Ban Ki-moon gave a press conference in Timor-Leste today, and some impertinent journalist brought the issue up (as well as raising concerns about Timor’s future).  Check out the subtle way that the UN transcript deals with the complex Brahimi issue:

Q: Are you confident the country will remain peaceful once the peacekeeepers [sic] leave? And the second question: Mr. [inaudible] …. is a strong candidate to replace Kofi Annan, are you going to announce officially here in East Timor?

SG: I didn’t clearly understand your first question, but for the second question: I am not in a position to inform on anything about the successor issue of Kofi Annan as Joint Special Envoy for Syria. I am in the process of actively searching for a successor and when I am ready I will certainly announce this as soon as possible.

Now we don’t know if the questioner said “Brahimi”.  But it’s not a bad guess, and it wouldn’t be too hard to check.  But maybe there’s another mediator in the frame: Mr. Inaudible, a master of quiet diplomacy?

Promoting Human Rights in Less Developed Countries

Human Rights Developing CountriesA key challenge faced by those engaged in international human rights policy and practice is adopting an effective framework for protecting and promoting human rights around the world in a way that preserves and articulates their universal nature, while at the same time respecting local values and practices.

One way to approach this challenge is to examine values, norms, customs and practices in non-Western cultures which can act as ‘receptors’ for human rights principles and practice. A new Dutch collaborative research project adopts just such an approach (and is thus called the ‘Receptor Approach’). It brings together experts from around the world and from a variety of disciplines – law, anthropology, sociology, political science, international relations and philosophy among others. Continue reading