U.S., Russia said to team up to draft new Syria constitution

Bloomberg reports: Russia and the U.S are working on drafting a new constitution for Syria, according to three Western and Russian diplomats, in the clearest sign yet of the two powers’ determination to broker a solution to a five-year civil war that has sent a wave of refugees toward Europe.

The joint efforts are at an early stage, and Russia’s current proposals are closer to the Syrian government’s position, said one Western diplomat. The two countries are continuing to exchange ideas, a Russian diplomat said. All three envoys spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are confidential.

The U.S agreed with Russia on a target of August to create a framework for a political transition and a draft constitution for Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry said after talks in the Kremlin on March 24. The United Nations is leading peace talks in Geneva where the government and opposition are negotiating a settlement. [Continue reading…]


U.S. and Russia reach ‘agreement’ that some day Assad will leave Syria

Middle East Eye reports: The US and Russia have reached an understanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad will leave to another country as part of the future peace process, according to the Lebanese Al-Hayat newspaper.

A diplomatic source on the Security Council told al-Hayat in reports published on Thursday that US Secretary of State John Kerry had “informed concerned Arab countries that the US and Russia have reached an agreement on the future of the political process in Syria, including the transfer of President Bashar al-Assad to another country.”

The source said the US-Russian agreement was “clear” in diplomatic back channels, though he said that “the timing and context of that in the political process remains unclear to everyone at the moment”. [Continue reading…]


Leahy asked State Dept. to investigate Israel and Egypt’s human rights ‘violations’

Politico reports: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and 10 House members have asked the Obama administration to investigate claims that the Israeli and Egyptian security forces have committed “gross violations of human rights” — allegations that if proven truei could affect U.S. military aid to the countries.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry dated Feb. 17, the lawmakers list several examples of suspected human rights abuses, including reports of extrajudicial killings by Israeli and Egyptian military forces, as well as forced disappearances in Egypt. The letter also points to the 2013 massacre in Egypt’s Rab’aa Square, which left nearly 1,000 people dead as the military cracked down on protesters, as worthy of examination.

Leahy’s signature is particularly noteworthy because his name is on a law that conditions U.S. military aid to countries on whether their security forces are committing abuses. [Continue reading…]


U.S. sold $33 billion of weapons to Gulf states in 11 months

Defense News reports: The US State Department has facilitated $33 billion worth of weapons sales to its Arab Gulf allies since May 2015, according to department figures.

The six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have received weapons including ballistic missile defense capabilities, attack helicopters, advanced frigates and anti-armor missiles, according to David McKeeby, a spokesman the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

“Consistent with the commitments we made to our Gulf partners at the Camp David summit last May, we have made every effort to expedite sales. Since then, the State and Defense departments have authorized more than $33 billion in defense sales to the 6 Gulf Coordination Council countries,” McKeeby told Defense News. [Continue reading…]


Citing atrocities, John Kerry calls ISIS actions genocide

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Thursday that the Islamic State is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims who have fallen under its control in Syria and Iraq.

The militants, who have also targeted Kurds and other Sunni Muslims, have tried to slaughter whole communities, enslaved captive women and girls for sex, and sought to erase thousands of years of cultural heritage by destroying churches, monasteries and ancient monuments, Mr. Kerry said.

The Islamic State’s “entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology,” he said.

The statement by Mr. Kerry, made in response to a deadline set last year by Congress for the Obama administration to determine whether the targeting of minority religious and ethnic groups by the Islamic State could be defined as genocide, is unlikely to change American policy. The United States is already leading a coalition that is fighting the militants, and American aircraft have been bombing Islamic State leaders and fighters, its oil-smuggling operations and even warehouses where the group has stockpiled millions of dollars in cash. [Continue reading…]


‘We know what the U.S. can do with bombs,’ a Libyan student said. ‘What else can you do?’

In a 12,000-word two-part report for the New York Times on the U.S. intervention in Libya and Hillary Clinton’s role in it, Jo Becker and Scott Shane write: President Obama has called failing to do more in Libya his biggest foreign policy lesson. And Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United Nations during the revolution, is deeply troubled by the aftermath of the 2011 intervention: the Islamic State only “300 miles from Europe,” a refugee crisis that “is a human tragedy as well as a political one” and the destabilization of much of West Africa.

“You have to make a moral choice: a blood bath in Benghazi and keeping Qaddafi in power, or what is happening now,” Mr. Araud said. “It is a tough question, because now Western national interests are very much impacted by what is happening in Libya.”

It was late afternoon on March 15, 2011, and Mr. Araud had just left the office when his phone rang. It was his American counterpart, Susan E. Rice, with a pointed message.

France and Britain were pushing hard for a Security Council vote on a resolution supporting a no-fly zone in Libya to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from slaughtering his opponents. Ms. Rice was calling to push back, in characteristically salty language. [Read more…]


Syria and Barack Obama’s surplus powerlessness

Fred Hof writes: In his excellent Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, Joby Warrick quotes White House wordsmith Benjamin Rhodes as saying, “I think, candidly, that a lot of people have used this debate to position themselves for posterity as being for doing something in Syria when in fact it wouldn’t have made much difference.” Leave aside that the use of the word “candidly” is an indicator that the thought articulated is anything but candid. Leave aside the broad brush nature of the accusation. What is important is not the view of a staffer, but that of his boss. If President Obama thinks that his critics are poseurs and their ideas are all useless, what does it imply about his willingness to correct a disastrous course during the time left to him in the presidency?

Mr. Kerry too is perfectly free to claim that nary a “realistic alternative” has been offered by critics. This critic takes special exception to the claim. What is important, however, is whether or not the President of the United States recognizes that a significant policy shift is required. What is critical is whether or not he is energizing his national security apparatus to produce alternatives for his consideration. If he is satisfied with the present course, if he is at peace with the political implications for allies of Syria emptying itself, and if he is satisfied that mass murder in Syria can go unanswered on the grounds that it is not genocide, then it will likely be up to his successor to stop digging and eventually climb out of the hole. [Continue reading…]

The phrase, surplus powerlessness, comes from Michael Lerner, who in his 1991 book of the same name, defined it this way:

the set of feelings and beliefs that make people think of themselves as even more powerless than the actual power situation requires, and then leads them to act in ways that actually confirm them in their powerlessness.

Lerner describes the shift from idealism to cynicism that has shaped the thinking of so many of our generation — including a president who once in office, traded hope for realism:

The cynical chic that dominates social and political discourse in the 1990s — and which finds its highest expression in the elitist put-downs of all forms of idealism that weekly emanate from The New Republic, national columnists, and television news commentators and analysts — is a defensive compensation for the pain that many people experienced when they found that their unrealistic hopes for total transformation could not immediately be gratified. The tendency of the mass media to foster a desire for immediate gratification of all our desires made many people expect that the minute they could formulate the notion of a very different kind of world, the moment they could see its importance and desirability, they should be able to achieve it without too much struggle. A year or two, perhaps. But if nothing happened that quickly, then perhaps nothing would ever happen, and the very possibility of things changing must be an illusion. How quickly the demand for instant gratification turns revolutionaries into cynics. Suddenly the Saddam Husseins and Mu’ammar Qaddafis, the virulent nationalists of Eastern Europe, the totalitarian oppressors in China, the multinational firms that seem to have little compassion for the communities they uproot or destroy or the ecology they pollute in pursuit of their profits — all seem to be inevitable, as though built into the structure of necessity. All we can do as individuals, we begin to believe, is to become “realistic,” which is to say, to act in the same selfish and self-centered way as everyone else, expecting that anyone who can will hurt us if we don’t get the advantage first.

The power of an American president can be overstated and yet the description — most powerful man on Earth — remains true, even at this time of dwindling American power.

The president might view Syria as though he is no different from the millions of other onlookers who feel powerless to influence events and yet his posture has always involved the exercise of choice.

Some might argue that Obama now serves as a much needed role model in a rare, unappreciated virtue: American humility.

I suspect, however, that the lesson more commonly drawn from his example will be that presidents can’t actually accomplish much. Having fueled hope, he ended up breeding apathy.

Whether that turns out to be the case will likely become evident as the Bernie Sanders campaign advances.

Some of the early signs are not too promising as strong youth support fails to be matched in voter turnout.


Russia agrees to ‘ceasefire’ during which it will continue bombing Syria

Syria Deeply reports: World powers agreed Friday to the “cessation of hostilities” in Syria in one week and to redouble efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians across the country, but failed to secure a nationwide ceasefire or an end to Russian bombing.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the deal in Munich shortly after a marathon meeting with top diplomats from more than a dozen countries, including Russia, to push forward a ceasefire deal and to resurrect peace talks that collapsed last week.

“First, we have agreed to accelerate and expand the delivery of humanitarian aid beginning immediately,” Kerry told reporters.

“Second, we have agreed to implement a nationwide cessation of hostilities to begin in a target of one week’s time. That’s ambitious, but everybody is determined to move as rapidly as possible to try to achieve this.”

Kerry was quick to acknowledge that the meeting produced commitments on paper only.

“What we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground, in the field,” he said, adding that “without a political transition, it is not possible to achieve peace.”

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow would not halt its air raids in Syria, saying the cessation of hostilities did not apply to the Islamic State group (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.

Diplomats from the U.S. and the E.U. have said very few of Russia’s air raids have targeted Islamic extremist groups; instead, they have primarily targeted western-backed rebel groups seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Russian warplanes resumed their bombardment of rebel positions across Syria within hours of the deal, striking areas in the countryside around the northern city of Aleppo in support of a 10-day-old government offensive to lay siege to the city.

In Brussels, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that Moscow would continue its attacks against groups including the Islamic State.

The Russians have repeatedly said that they consider a number of Islamist groups fighting within the opposition to be “terrorist,” and have used this formulation to justify air attacks that have largely targeted the anti-Assad opposition.

Under the agreement, the United States and Russia will chair a task force to adjudicate questions about where and when bombing is permitted. But it remains unclear how those decisions will be made. [Continue reading…]

U.S. State Department: Statement of the International Syria Support Group

Meeting in Munich on February 11 & 12, 2016, as the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States decided that humanitarian access will commence this week to besieged areas, and an ISSG task force will within one week elaborate modalities for a nationwide cessation of hostilities. [Continue reading…]


Syrian opposition see Obama’s support having been worthless

The New York Times reports: The United States and its allies have spent many millions of dollars backing Syrian opposition fighters they deem relatively moderate and secular, and civilian groups whose work on small businesses and local councils they billed as the cornerstone of Syria’s future.

But the very Syrians who benefited — and risked their lives in the process — now say that investment is in danger of going down the drain, and they see little urgency from Washington, diplomatic or military, to save it.

“What are you going to do, other than statements?” Zakaria Malahifji, the political chief of one of the largest rebel groups given weapons and salaries by the C.I.A. and its counterparts in several European and Arab states, demanded in a recent message to contacts at the French Embassy.

In nearly five years of war and insurrection, many Syrians have been repeatedly disillusioned by what they saw as a mismatch between tough American rhetoric against the Syrian government and comparatively modest efforts to aid some of its opponents. President Obama said President Bashar al-Assad must go, and drew a red line over the use of chemical weapons, but backed off on both, diminishing anti-government Syrians’ trust.

But the confusion and despair has reached a new level over the last week, as forces backing Mr. Assad have pushed farther north into Aleppo Province, sending tens of thousands of new refugees to the Turkish border. With insurgent groups losing troops and territory, their villages shattered by Russian warplanes, civilians and fighters have in recent days used phrases like “no hope,” “it’s finished” and “it’s over.”

“Bye-bye, revolution,” Abu al-Haytham, a spokesman for Thuwwar al-Sham, another rebel group supported through the C.I.A. program, said in a text message on Friday from Tal Rifaat, a town in northern Aleppo that is increasingly threatened by the government advance.

American-backed insurgents have long been used to the American stance in recent years, that the United States did not want them to actually win the war — lest a sudden toppling of Mr. Assad lead to Islamist rule — but wanted to prevent them from losing for long enough to pressure the government to negotiate for a political solution.

Now they fear that the United States and its allies may actually let them lose. [Continue reading…]


U.S. credibility is plummeting among Syrians and across the region

Josh Rogin writes: In the eyes of the Syrian opposition, Russia and Iran are making a mockery of the peace process, and Kerry’s reluctance to acknowledge this is putting them in deadly harm. It also creates more problems for America’s regional allies, aids the Islamic State and dims the prospects for future peace talks. “The failures of the negotiations end up lowering the credibility of the moderate opposition in front of the Syrian people,” said [Riyad] Hijab. [Hijab is leader of the High Negotiating Committee that represented the Syrian opposition at last week’s meetings in Geneva.] “United States credibility is plummeting within the population of Syria but also in the region as a whole.”

This week, it is Syrians near Aleppo who are paying the price. Regime forces, with Russian support, are advancing toward the Turkish border, threatening to cut off opposition groups and civilians from their source of aid. At least 35,000 people have joined the flood of refugees since the collapse of the talks, ahead of what many anticipate will be another in a long line of starvation sieges the regime is perpetrating on cities. Hijab said there are now 18 cities under siege, three more than when the talks began.

Moscow wants the peace talks to fail, Hijab said. He accused the Russian air force of using illegal cluster bombs indiscriminately against civilians. (Human rights groups support those claims.) “The situation has taken a horrible turn, specifically in terms of the scorched earth policy of the Russian aircraft and the way that they are bombing, literally destroying everything,” he said. “The other side has been moving to ensure the failure of any negotiation through horrendous bombardment.”

Hajib said the Obama administration is still pressuring the opposition to return to talks despite the ongoing offensive, but the opposition is insisting that Russia adhere by the UN resolutions first. In a press conference with reporters last week, Kerry said of the Syrian-Russian attacks on civilians, “It’s not going to stop just by whining about it.” He called on rebel leaders to return to the negotiating table. [Continue reading…]

While listening to U.S. State Department spokesmen John Kirby at yesterday’s press briefing, one might not have accused him of whining, but instead adopting President Obama’s standard position: a baseless confidence that whoever can make the most reasonable argument will win the day — as though politics conforms to the rules of a debating society.

Kerry and Obama must be very perplexed about how unreasonable it is that Russia regards bombing as more useful than diplomacy. But what is actually very unreasonable is the notion that anyone would be fooled by Washington’s toothless efforts at peacemaking.


John Kerry keeps calling ISIS ‘apostates.’ Maybe he should stop

Adam Taylor writes: There may be no more globally divisive question over the past few years than whether the Islamic State is representative of the world’s global Muslim population or not. Speaking in Rome on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry waded into this controversial debate yet again – and took a remarkably strong position for a Western leader.

“Daesh is in fact nothing more than a mixture of killers, of kidnappers, of criminals, of thugs, of adventurers, of smugglers and thieves,” Kerry said. “And they are also above all apostates, people who have hijacked a great religion and lie about its real meaning and lie about its purpose and deceive people in order to fight for their purposes.”

The use of the word “apostates” – a term to describe someone who renounces or abandons their religion – has raised eyebrows among observers. The description has been commonly used by extremist groups: The Islamic State has justified its attacks on Muslims with rhetoric that suggests these Muslims were apostates, which they view as a crime punishable by death.

On Twitter, Nasser Weddady, a popular online activist who grew up in Syria, mocked Kerry for his comment. Wedaddy and others also jokingly suggested that Kerry was a “takfiri,” a word used to describe a Sunni Muslim who accuses others of apostasy. [Continue reading…]


Was the Iran deal worth it?


Last July, after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement on Iran’s nuclear program had been reached in Vienna, Shadi Hamid wrote: It was clear from the start of the uprising [in Syria] that Obama did, in fact, have a clear objective – minimizing U.S. involvement as much as possible. But there are other places, such as Iraq, where the Obama administration was pulled back in despite (or, more likely, because of) its best efforts. The unwillingness to rethink Syria strategy in any serious way has been reinforced by the momentum of the Iran negotiations. Why rock the boat and potentially provoke a major international incident, when progress was being made on Iran’s nuclear program? Why even take the chance with so much at stake? “Linkage,” moreover, was been built in to the policy process. As the journalist Josh Rogin noted: “All Syria proposals at State must go through the office of the undersecretary for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, who is also the administration’s lead negotiator over a nuclear deal with Iran.”

On the specifics of a deal, I tend to think, like many, that the U.S. made too many concessions, without getting enough in return. According to the New York Times, in the final days of talks, a television anchor on a hardline Iranian channel said: “The fact is, Obama needs this deal much more than we do.” She went on: “The American president needs a victory, and only a deal with Iran can give him that. They have retreated on several issues and compromised on their own red lines.” Whether or not this perception is fair, it’s a perception nonetheless, and perceptions drive behavior.

Others have noted that Iran, due to its deteriorating economy, needed a deal more than the U.S. did. This is almost certainly true. But while Iran may have needed it more, the U.S. wanted it more – or, at the very least, seemed like it did. Some of this, to be fair, was outside the U.S.’s control. The perception had already solidified throughout the region, drawing on 6 years of observing the Obama administration’s handling of various crises, most notably the backing down from stated “red lines” in Syria. Allies, such as Egypt, and enemies, such as Syria, have grown confident that we’ll blink first in a staring contest, in part because we usually do. This was why I was skeptical that any final deal could ever be the best possible deal. The administration has had tendency to misuse and/or underestimate its leverage in some of our most important bilateral relationships. As the negotiations wrapped to a close, there was no obvious way to address this. It was too late. We couldn’t change how Iran viewed the Obama administration.

There was a related asymmetry during the negotiations. As Pollack writes, “I don’t think that Iran values a nuclear deal as much as it does its positions in these various countries.” With us, it was the reverse: we cared less about Iran’s positions in various countries and more about its nuclear program. This, too, was built in to the talks.

Some are troubled that most people had strong opinions about the deal before reading the actual text of the agreement. One certainly hopes that legislators will eventually read at least some of it. But the specifics of the deal aren’t, ultimately, as important as the broader issues and implications, and those aren’t anywhere to be found in the text. Here, I tend to agree with my colleague Jeremy Shapiro who argued in April that that the devil wasn’t in the details. The details “really don’t matter.” He goes on: “At heart, this is a fight over what to do about Iran’s challenge to U.S. leadership in the Middle East and the threat that Iranian geopolitical ambitions pose to U.S. allies.”

In other words, your position on the Iran deal is likely to depend on how you view the Middle East and America’s role in it more broadly. If you see the Syrian civil war as a, or even the, core regional conflict, then you’re probably worried about the $100 billion in potential sanctions relief. Iran, even we assume it chooses butter over guns as American officials hope and uses, say, only 3 percent of that total, will have $3 billion more to prop up the Syrian regime and other regional allies and proxies. It also depends on your starting assumptions about the nature of the Iranian regime. Are Iranian leaders “rational,” and do you think it matters whether “moderates,” such as President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, are empowered over their “hardline” counterparts?

For me, at least one other issue comes into play, and it’s a factor which has pushed me to be more supportive of the Iran deal than I expected to be. It’s striking how little discussion there has been about what Iranians think and want. As small-d democrats, Americans should always at least take into account public opinion in other countries. Presumably, Iranians know their country better than American politicians do. According to opinion polls, a majority of Iranians favor a deal. We all saw the pictures of ordinary Iranians celebrating the framework agreement in April. This time around, the regime has been more careful, closing off public spaces, with hardliners warning of the dangers of Iran Deal-induced “happiness.” Importantly, as Nader Hashemi notes, “some of the most vociferous defenders of a nuclear deal with the West are Iranian civil society and human rights activists.” It makes little sense for us to say that an Iran deal will make progress on human rights less likely, when Iran’s own human rights activists seem to think the opposite. In a survey of 22 leading human rights activists, support for ongoing negotiations was “unanimous,” while over half believed that a deal would lead to a significant improvement in human rights in Iran. Of course, they could be wrong, but we shouldn’t bet on that.

To be sure, the link between a deal and the empowerment of Iranian reformers, as intuitive as it might seem, is far from guaranteed. As many have noted, conservatives may be just as likely to gain from a deal for any number of reasons. What seems inescapable, however, is that the failure of negotiations would have been a major, perhaps even decisive loss for Iran’s reformist trend. President Hassan Rouhani, who buoyed expectations with his come-from-behind election victory two years ago, has been losing popularity and goodwill. On human rights, he pledged to expand personal freedoms and broaden space for civil society. As for the economy, it can sputter along, as it has, but without sanctions relief, Rouhani’s hands are tied. His raison d’etre, then, depends on a successful deal. Without one, we would have likely had more of the same: conservatives in control and dominating the country’s politics. Now at the least there is a glimmer of possibility, even if the road toward substantive reforms remains a difficult one.

Taking these various, and very different, factors into account, the deal is, on balance, a mixed bag. I don’t think an Iran nuclear deal deserved the near-obsessive focus it received from this administration. Too much was subsumed and compromised due to the desire for a deal, an administration priority which took precedence over nearly everything else. Now that a deal has been concluded, U.S. officials may have more room to maneuver. Of course, the implementation of a deal will still require constant attention, to say nothing of the domestic fight which is still to come. But perhaps, at some point, the U.S. will be able to act and think beyond Iran’s nuclear program and re-focus attention on the broader issues and conflicts in which Iran plays a major role. The U.S. will now come under pressure to “compensate” (or overcompensate depending on your perspective). It will need to reassure skeptical Gulf allies that it will do more to counter Iran’s regional designs. I agree with Ken Pollack that the best place to do this is probably in Syria. As he writes: “In the aftermath of an Iranian nuclear deal, finally executing the Administration’s proclaimed strategy for Syria, may be the best and only way to regain control over the dangerous confrontation escalating between Iran and America’s Arab allies.”

Now that President Obama’s legacy, however controversial, is secure (both on domestic and foreign policy), he can afford to do the very things he wasn’t willing to do when Iran negotiations were the overwhelming focus. That doesn’t mean he will do them, but that’s where, I hope, the debate over a post-Iran deal Middle East can now turn.

Even after the deal was signed, Obama may have felt his hands remained tied on at least two counts: it remained to be seen whether Iran would follow through in implementing the requirements for sanctions to be lifted, and as we have now just learned, secret negotiations were still under way to secure the release of five Americans imprisoned in Iran. They have now been released and sanctions have been lifted.

One thing that no one was anticipating last July was the impact of Russia’s unforeseen intervention in Syria.

Iran’s president today tweeted:

But stock markets across the Middle East just saw “£27bn wiped off their value” in anticipation of the new wave of Iranian oil flowing into an already flooded market.

Al Jazeera reports:

With the sanctions now removed, Iran is ready to increase its crude oil exports by 500,000 barrels a day, Deputy Oil Minister Amir Hossein Zamaninia was quoted as saying by the Shana news agency on Sunday.

Iran’s return to an already glutted oil market is one of the factors contributing to a global rout in oil prices, which fell below $30 a barrel last week for the first time in 12 years. Iran is the world’s fourth largest oil producer.

The administration sold the Iran deal by claiming that no deal would make another major war inevitable. The ongoing war in Syria was left out of the equation.

The question now is whether that war is any closer to ending or whether, on the contrary, its conclusion is even further away.

I’m inclined to believe that Shadi Hamid’s assessment last July — that Obama’s objective has always been to minimize U.S. involvement in Syria as much as possible — is just as accurate today as it was then.

If Obama is preoccupied with his legacy, he should be asking himself whether his presidency will be remembered more for what he accomplished through negotiations with Iran or more for what he failed to do as the rest of the region unraveled.