THE FRENCH ELECTION AND ITS WIDER MEANING!

By
Harry C. Blaney III

Last June and earlier this year I reported from London and Brussels on the issues, problems and trends of the critical issue of the unity of Europe and the fragility of also the Atlantic Community in the face of far right and Fascist forces. These corrosive forces would undermine and indeed destroy unity, democracy, and the key elements that have kept the peace, prosperity and democracy in Europe. The next great test for Europe will be the French final election between the two leaders of the first round election who will vie for the Presidential role on Sunday.

This Sunday election round will comprise first the moderate centrist (center-right) candidate who is without a traditional party Emmanuel Macron, who some polls show winning by about 20 percent. Against him is Marine Le Pen who’s party The National Front, has neo-Nazi origins and expresses deep hatred of immigrants and the EU. These two have left behind all of the candidates for the presidency of the traditional French parties after the result of the first round of voting.

Now in France however, these values are again threatened by the Neo-Fascist and racist National Front Party and by its leader and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. She threatened to, in effect, blow up Europe by getting out of the Euro Zone and perhaps even the EU and has attacked Germany who in the past has been the key partner on European unity and accused Chancellor Merkel as “dominating” Europe.

Le Pen has a close association with Russia’s Putin who is trying to undermine the unity of Europe and separate it from American cooperation. A Russian associated bank has loaned her far-right anti-Europe party money to help her campaign of hatred for immigrants, for liberal democracy, and really decency. As a indicator of her intentions and affinity to far right “disruptive” forces she has been praised by Donald Trump who also seems to want a disunited Europe (he supported Brexit and admires the British Alt-Right racist politician Nigel Farage, and clearly has an anti-EU perspective and questioned in the past NATO.

This election is so important to the unity of the West that former President Obama has made his views known via a video in support of Macron. Here is some of the text:

“The French election is very important to the future of France and the values that we care so much about,” … “Because the success of France matters to the entire world. … (Macron) has stood up for liberal values. He put forward a vision for the important role that France plays in Europe and around the world, and he is committed to a better future for the French people. He appeals to people’s hopes and not their fears. … Because of how important this election is, I also want you to know that I am supporting Emmanuel Macron to lead you forward. En Marche! Vive la France!”

There are many possible outcomes from this election given the fractured nature of the French political landscape. There is no assurance, despite the polls, that Macron will win since many do not want to declare their public support for a far-right xenophobic party. And Le Pen has campaigned with venom against Macron.

Sadly the left candidate who came in third did not endorse Macron. If Macron wins he must at some early point reconcile with enough members of parliament and the key parties to govern with some effectiveness and authority. The outcome could either set a direction of cooperation within Europe despite Brexit or the start of the dismantlement of European stable peace, security, and unity and cooperation with the full Western democracies. And also effective dealing with the underground anti-democracy activities of Putin and his gang of hackers and “false media”of the Russian “active intelligence.”

In contrast, center right and left traditional parties and others seeking responsible and decent goals could ensured if an alliance can be worked out with Macron, that there would be a strong voice in Europe for decency and cooperation around the world. Given in the West (and elsewhere) the disruptions of the last year or so and dysfunctional response of some governments to the needs of our citizens, with the rise of racial and national division, as well as moves towards in some cases hate filled political leaders, some united response by forces dedicated to democracy, justice, and true democracy is now required on both sides of the Atlantic.

We welcome your comments! (See comments section below)

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PARIS ATTACKS AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS: HAS ANYTHING REALLY CHANGE AND IF SO WHAT?

Datelined London

Photo: The Guardian

By
Harry C. Blaney III

Last night Friday on a TV screen in London we watched in real time the horrific unfolding of the terrorism acts which at this report time cost the lives of some 129 persons and many more wounded as the total is likely to grow over time. The analysis is that it was an organized series of such attacks which were designed to cause major fear not only in Paris but in France and beyond. It has had already reverberations throughout Europe and even in America.

Friday night UK time, President Obama said while the events were still active, that this was an attack on all humanity and this view was echoed by statements by President Holland and Prime Minister Cameron and others.

This attack has had many implications for both France’s own security and the possible impacts on its politics, economy, and not least the relationship with Muslims in France that constitute, by some estimates, 4.7% of the population, the largest in Europe.

ISIS almost immediately took “credit” for these acts of brutality. ISIS said this was a retaliation for France’s acts of bombing against it. President Holland in the immediate aftermath said that this was “war” and promised swift action and France will be “merciless against the terrorists.” These were acts of war Holland stated on Saturday that the attacks were planned abroad. Two people were arrested in Belgium and two attackers were said to come from Syria and Egypt. An American student and a British London School of Economics student were killed at last reports.

This act has been called a massacre – the worst attack in France’s recent history. Paris is in shock but the reactions take a wide range of anger, horror, revulsion, fear, and a determination to both carry on and to respond against the terrorists. But people in Paris are clearly very uncertain and cautious. Holland has taken a hard stance, which is understandable given the brutality of the attack. Holland has called a state of emergency and the French Prime Minister has said on Saturday that France will enhance its attacks on ISIS and will not be deterred by threats.

If ISIS thought the attacks would frighten France and other countries to stop their attacks it looks that this has likely backfired. But the other danger is that the attacks increased polarization and racist and right wing groups may use these attacks to instigate hatred for migrants, the domestic Islamic community, and citizens and create even more fear for political reasons. This could backfire and increase the sense of alienation which has already led to disaffected and angry Muslim youth joining ISIS. Thus national authorities need to find a fine line between cracking down on likely terrorists but at the same time assuring regular Muslim citizens that they live in a welcoming and safe environment.

The reaction from other countries was with statements of sympathy and solidarity. Both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron promised to be of help in any way they can. Here in London tonight there was a large vigil and gathering of citizens showing solidarity with Paris and France, with the tricolor lights of the French flag projected against the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square which I and my wife went to. I could not be but aware of the irony that a few weeks earlier there were many statements related to Britain leaving the EU by the Tory leaders, including Cameron, about how UK was different from the Continental Europeans. That party’s majority MPs desires to separate from countries like France that they wish little ties with that are seeking for more European unity.

One interesting element which some have commented on is that at the moment when ISIS is under siege at their home base in Syria/Iraq, they have carried out their most successful major and effective massive attack in Paris and created a sense of fear throughout Europe and beyond. This brutality gives ISIS major international profile and forced focus on their presence abroad while at the same time facing increased military action against them. This pressure is due to American bombing and more effective moderate reinforcements on the ground of allied groups fighting in their home bases.

As for Paris, one concern is that if this can happen in Paris, it could happen again and anywhere. Thus the international dimension has now been established and it is clear that the G-20 meeting in Turkey this week attended in advance by Secretary Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister with President Obama soon arriving, will strongly focus on what can be done on an international level to deal with such horrific and massive attacks and what are the implication of these more professional and devastating attacks on citizens and how to prevent or mitigate them. But also how to solve the basic problem of how to put an end to ISIS and get rid of Assad and create a more safe and stable region.

What does all this mean? As noted, one danger is a backlash over Europe against Muslims and this anger being exploited by right-wing racists parties like UKIP and the Le Pen party in France.

The other question is where does the Western nations and their Islamic allies go next against ISIS both in their Syria/Iraq stronghold and to counter their international reach. This is not a new question but the Paris attacks gives it new urgency and profile to these questions. What has been said and I think still stands is that what is most needed is a viable diplomatic solution likely backed up by some sort of military action also.

Many are saying too little is being done while others think American engagement in the region is too much. Will the attacks in France change any of this? Will changes on the ground change anything also? The Question for the major powers and many members of the G-20 and also Muslim nations in the region is can there be a way of putting the necessary elements together to achieve sooner rather than later a dismemberment of ISIS and a political structure on the ground to replace the present chaos and brutality. This will take major decisions by all, that enough is enough and all are in peril if this ISIS and other Jihadis forces remain powerful and dominant and attract each day new and committed recruits.

The key must be in the long term to return the region to some sense of normality and hope for security and some decent economy and employment of youth. But also at the heart of any solution must be a mitigation of the religious and political conflict between the Sunni and Shia sects which really means Shia Iran, its allies, and Sunni Saudi Arabia and Gulf States and others. It may also mean bringing peace to the Israeli and Palestinian situation via a two state solution and now the sooner the better. On seeking security and security for the region here American power and European and regional allies and perhaps even Russia and Iran might just find some common ground. This is probably asking too much now, but if not now when? If one waits, will not all be caught by a maelstrom of disaster and destruction from which none will survive intact.

More in time on these issues and related events from Europe.

We welcome your comments!

AFTER THE TRAGEDY OF DEBALTSEVE UKRAINE IN DISTRESS: WHAT NOW?

Leaders of Belarus, Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine at the  summit in Minsk on February 11th and 12th.
Leaders of Belarus, Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine at the summit in Minsk on February 11th and 12th.

By: Harry C. Blaney III

The harsh realities of the defeat of the Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve and the implications of this debacle highlight two realities. One is that Putin never intended anything but deception and aggression, and the West knew it capitulated to overwhelming force of arms. The second reality is what now needs to be done? On this, there is some disagreement. The Europeans seem content with the results; they did not have to do anything to help the Ukrainians, the Ukrainian government is in a state of disarray, and now the question is whether Europe, and perhaps America, can marshal the will, resources, or the moral inclination to save what remains as a result of their inaction and indifference.

Within the NATO alliance, or what is left of it now, there are a range of differences. Some want to go to back to the “normal-normal,” reduce economic sanctions, increase trade with Russia and pretend nothing has happened as Putin incorporates Ukraine into his own cruel dictatorship and forever deny Ukraine the opportunity to be part of a democratic Europe. The hope of this view is that Putin will forever be content with 46 million more souls under his power and no more desire to test the West as he has done with his armies, planes flying to NATO countries boundaries, and his subs around the world.  There is some “real politics” to this position; an acknowledgment that the West is at a military disadvantage in this geographic space, most due to the massive cutting back on defense spending, and a loss of a sense of a united and strong Europe by those who do not remember or would like to forget, like Merkel, WW II and its lessons. 

The other school frankly is also in some disarray. That school of strategy recognizes the debacle for what it is and argues for a robust response, mostly by strengthened sanctions and added economic assistance for Ukraine, and for a few provisions of arms.  There is a real fear that the Baltic States are the next objective of Putin; mostly because they are easy targets with their Russian minorities, and there is an ease of destabilizing tactics by Russian special forces and pressure despite being members of NATO.

What is now clear is that Putin and his mercenary separatist forces violated the latest Minsk cease-fire agreement, and a strong Western reaction will be needed. However, there is likely to be a messy argument about what these reactions should be if anything. With the Europeans in some disarray, the allies are looking to the United States to see our reaction. So far we have gotten words but no action. Likely, there are urgent quiet talks about next steps among Merkel, Hollande and perhaps even the so far immobilized Prime Minister Cameron who seems to disappear under the covers on this other than his empty mindless words. 

For America and for Europe the easiest and least “aggressive” option would be a massive economic assistance to Ukraine with lots of strings attached to guard against corruption and incompetency. But most serious strategic analysts believe that providing arms and training should be key part of a new and bolder approach to save what remains of Ukraine and provide some hope for its people for a democratic future. Frankly, this looks and feels like closing the door after the horses have left, but better late than never.

The question then becomes for decision-makers whether to “save” a dismembered Ukraine or let it all fall into Putin’s grip without any further effort. This option has its own implications and risks, which may fall in Putin’s assessment that the West is but a “Potemkin village” empty of will, enfeebled by loss of vision, moral courage, and prime for the pickings.

In sum, there are a number of things we can do to help Ukraine even in its dire straits to survive. I do not agree with the implied assumption of some that we should abandon Ukraine, some 46 million people who longingly want to be part of an open democratic West, to the cruel hands of Putin. President Obama rightly tried to engage Putin with his “re-set button.” But Putin had other less benign objectives.

But the blame game does not get us to a more constructive relationship. It will require a frank acknowledgment that we seem to be dealing with a Putin that is not willing to either reach out cooperatively with the West, nor is willing to tell the truth in his dealing with the West.  That does require a deep rethink of our strategy, short term and long-term. 

In this sad situation the real losers are not the West, but rather the Russian people. Yet we must not give up on our strategic key long-term goal to help Russia be part of a responsible international community and an open society. For the present moment, Russian hopes are doomed to a dark cold future and real decline, not rise in Russian influence, prosperity, and engagement in global problem solving if Putin continues his aggressive and authoritarian ways. This is sad for all sides. We also need to look after our allies and their fears and concerns.

 

We welcome your comments!

THE UKRAINE CONUNDRUM CONTINUED: TO SAVE OR NOT TO SAVE?

US Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poreshenko on February 5, 2015. He is meeting a few other Ukrainian officials and the leaders of Germany and France to discuss a joint plan of action to deal with continued escalation of the conflict. Reuters/Jim Watson
US Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poreshenko on February 5, 2015. Kerry is meeting a few other Ukrainian officials and the leaders of Germany and France to discuss a joint plan of action to deal with continued escalation of the conflict. Reuters/Jim Watson

By Harry C. Blaney


Quotes on opposing views and supportive views on the critical decision for the United States to provide military to aid Ukraine. We will provide a few examples  over time to get a sense of both sides of the argument:

OPPOSITION TO ARMS AID TO UKRAINE:

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen:

“More weapons in this area will not bring us closer to a solution, and will not end the suffering of the population. We need to put a lot of pressure on the separatists and Russia in an economic and political way to find a solution at the table and not on the (battle)field because to give input to a potential escalation is not a good solution. We need a sustainable political solution for this area.”

(Article from Reuters written by By Adrian Croft and David Alexander, published February 5, 2015)

Eugene Rumer, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment and Thomas Graham senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff:

“Ukraine cannot win this conflict now. It will deepen the tragedy if soldiers are sent to fight in a hopeless battle. A free and independent Ukraine, a solid defense of the European order and a firm rebuff of Russian aggression are worthy goals. But they do not absolve us of our responsibility to consider the consequences of our actions. The current proposal to arm Ukraine does not meet that standard.” 

(Financial Times Article by Eugene Rumer and Thomas Graham, published February 3, 2015 as an Op-Ed.)


SUPPORT TO ARMS AID TO UKRAINE:

President of Brookings Institution Strobe Talbott and Director of Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at Brookings Institution Steven Pifer:

“Even with enormous support from the West, the Ukrainian army will not be able to defeat a determined attack by the Russian military. This point is well understood in Kyiv. The more appropriate goal of Western assistance should be to give the Ukrainian military additional defense capabilities that would allow it to inflict significant costs on the Russian military, should the Russians launch new offensive operations, sufficient enough that Moscow will be deterred from further aggression…A firm Western response can bolster Kyiv’s ability to deter further Russian attacks.”

(Brookings Institution Report: Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must do, by Steven Pifer and Strobe Talbott, published February 2015)

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter:

“My responsibilities would be to protect America and its friends and allies in a turbulent and dangerous world.” We need to support Ukraine in defending themselves.”

(Quoted from his testimony at his Senate Confirmation Hearing on February 4, 2015)


THE UKRAINE CONUNDRUM CONTINUED: TO SAVE OR NOT TO SAVE?

By: Harry C. Blaney III

Once again we are faced with a critical decision, which now seems imminent, as to whether to provide defensive combat weapons to Ukraine in the face of an onslaught of offensive weapons, supplies, and direction not least from direct Russian troops in Ukraine. The separatists are now on a major offensive with the aim of either destabilizing Ukraine or taking over a large proportion of the sad country. This includes the key section of South Ukraine which provides a land corridor to Crimea and would mostly block Ukrainian access to the Black Sea to the East.  The question is both simple and direct: either stand down and have Ukraine decimated to one degree or another by total defeat with essential Russian control or a major partition of the country; or supply major  arms and financial aid to either prevent further inroads by the Russian backed separatists or regain some ground and preserve Ukrainian independence and freedom to choose close relations with a democratic Europe.

There are strong voices in Europe and the West on this question. The New York Times reports a proposal to send $3 billion worth of weaponry and military equipment to Ukraine. The essential argument for action is that defeat and takeover of Ukraine by force of arms without any effective efforts to stop the attack would be a major act destabilizing the security of Europe, undermining NATO’s credibility, as well as undermining America’s own commitment to a “Europe whole and free.”  Also, 49 million Ukrainians would be living under Putin’s kindly hands forever as it did under Stalin and his successors in the Soviet Union days.

On the other side is the argument by two groups otherwise differing groups.  One is the liberals, who are opposed to added wars and their cost in lives and money and believe that U.S. action might only exacerbate the U.S. Russian conflict.  In the other group, there is an isolationist tendency of some right wing Republican libertarians to say to hell with the lives of other people abroad, and that we should stay out of the world’s problems no matter the cost to them, global security, or lives, unless others directly attack America.  On the strategic side some writers have argued that we can’t rescue Ukraine if the Russians make a full out effort and our action could escalate the conflict with unknown risks. Thus stay out.

The most recent news is a push back by the Obama administration on the provision of weapons to the Ukrainian government.  While the issue is supposedly under review the signals recently are that they are not clearly the “preferred” option.  The State Department Spokeswoman, Jen Psaki told reporters this week at the daily briefing that there is an “ongoing discussion” but that no decisions had been made in response to  The Times report on Sunday that the Obama administration is taking a “fresh look” at the question of military aid.

But Psaki on Monday said Washington is particularly concerned about “escalating separatist violence” and the rebels’ attempts to expand the territory they control beyond the cease-fire line agreed to last September in Minsk, Belarus.

“Naturally, we take into account events on the ground and events that are ongoing,” Psaki said.  She said the focus remains to find a political and diplomatic solution and that the U.S. and its Western allies have no interest in engaging in a proxy war with Russia. “Our objective here is to change the behavior of Russia,” Psaki said. “That’s the reason why we’ve put the sanctions in place.” 

As part of this push back, Ben Rhodes, deputy White House national security adviser, told CNN on Monday Feb. 2nd “We still think that the best way to influence Russia’s calculus is through those economic sanctions that are biting deep into the Russian economy.” Rhodes also said in the interview on CNN Monday February 2nd “We don’t think the answer to the crisis in Ukraine is simply to inject more weapons.” 

More recently this week on Thursday there is a key meeting in Kiev with the Ukrainian government leaders, Secretary John Kerry, and the leaders of Germany and France. The aim is to hammer out a joint plan of action to deal with the continued escalation of the conflict and Russian increased aggression. Kerry made it clear that a political solution is the preferred approach but that the U.S could not ignore Russian aggression.

The other recent development is the statement in Senate hearings of the nominated Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter that he was “very much inclined” to provide arms to Ukraine.

On Friday, the German and French leaders will go now to Moscow, where they are to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to discuss the situation in Ukraine. Mr. Hollande said that he and Ms. Merkel would present an initiative to end the fighting and guarantee the “full territorial integrity” of Ukraine.

Clearly, there is still some debate in Washington, and probably in NATO capitals, about the feasibility and the risks of direct lethal military aid as well as that economic sanctions still seem to remain a preferred tool for altering Russian behavior despite, so far, not inhibiting Putin to put even more military force and fighting on the table.

Frankly, there are elements of good and honest views on the part of some of the proponents of both positions. But the problem in my mind is that the costs of inaction clearly create a possible total breakdown of the security framework that was built at great cost after World War II, which gave Europe the prosperity and security it has had for decades under frankly the American security umbrella. It undermines American credibility globally. It is also argued that inaction may embolden Putin to push even further into NATO countries knowing that the West is incapable of action out of a fear of Russia.

Under these circumstances it is likely that some emergency assistance will be provided. The questions that need and should be asked and answered are: (1) How much and will they be sufficient to save Ukraine from defeat? (2) Can they be provided quickly enough to prevent major conquest by the Russian backed separatists? (3) What are other possible tools that can be invoked that might lead to a cession of conflict and withdrawal of Russian troops, assistance, and some kind of halt of conflict and an independent Ukraine?  A number of key Western leaders, not just the usual neo-cons, including George Soros, have argued strongly for an immediate commitment for a major assistance package before it is too late. How will other nations react?

In each of these cases the key and almost unknowable issue is the ultimate intent of President Putin towards his stated desire to recreate some kind of new Soviet Union (called EURASIAN Union perhaps) or in some people’s view, a new “Russian Empire”. Is he willing to destroy Russia in the effort much like Hitler? Is he simply pushing to get as much as possible at the least cost?  Will the Europeans act in ways that will add further real sanctions or give military aid to help deter further aggression?

My view is the President Obama, for a host of good reasons, cannot stand down and do nothing at this moment of severe added conflict. Putin is pushing the envelope to its extreme. The question then in terms of our action is how much, for how long and at what cost?  Also how can we mitigate the possibility of escalation and do we have a strategy still for a creditable “off ramp for Putin” that preserves Ukrainian independence and democracy? None of the issues or options are easy and there is no costless option, but that of the cost of living in a world of conflict and uncertainty and of high risk.

If there is a moment of historical and strategic importance it is now, and the question is both to ask for wisdom and even caution from President Obama, and perhaps hopelessly wisdom, or if not that, self-preservation by Putin and other leaders of Russia.

We welcome your comments!

MONEY TALKS LOUDEST IN US DIPLOMACY

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Presidents Obama and Hollande at the 70th anniversary D-Day celebrations. Obama’s recent appointment of a new ambassador to France may test the relationship between both countries.

By: Alan Berlind

Several days after delivering the strongest and most sensible foreign policy address that we’ve heard or read in a long time – and, as the gathering of allied leaders and some others in France drew to a close – President Barack Obama seemed to be at the peak of his presidency with respect to the formulation and management of U.S. foreign affairs and America’s proper role in the world. Continue reading

IRAN: DIPLOMACY AND RISKS AND NEW OPPORTUNITIES

IRAN: DIPLOMACY AND RISKS AND NEW OPPORTUNITIES
By
Harry C. Blaney III

London Dateline

There has been some debate in Europe about the direction of the Iranian nuclear negotiations and the recent session which ended without a final agreement but with much progress. One element in these negotiation has been the push back by Israel,and the neo-con right wing that got us into the Iraq war on lies and stupidity and the Republicans hawks.

In the aftermath of not finishing the “deal” the attacks have intensified but so has the support for a “diplomatic” option and major new effort over the dangerous alternatives which point to war and utter disaster for the entire Middle East region and beyond.

The International Edition of the New York Times, (better known to most of us, with sadness for the name change, as the International Herald-Tribune), here in London published a Roger Cohen’s column “A doable Iran deal” which argued for continued negotiations and outlining the many reasons for an agreement with the Iran’s new leaders. But the basic points, which I frankly share, is that Israel would be better protected by a strong and verifiable agreement than a unilateral attack which in Cohen’s words would “ absent an agreement, Israel faces the scenario least in its strategic interest: Iranian centrifuges still spinning, the united States still war adverse, with the possibility of having to go it alone in a military strike that might dent but would not stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions and would without doubt ignite regional turmoil.”

The French have put in a dissent to the current agreement text and now a lower level meeting is planned later this month. France seems to ask for stronger wording on assurances. It has an aversion to Iran’s nuclear program, has an defense agreement with the anti-Iran United Arab Emirates, and believes Iran is behind some terrorists acts in Paris in the past. Yet any agreement by the “ 6 plus 1″ group on nuclear issues could lead to a broader “settlement” with Iran on other strategic, economic and on issues like Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, and a wider regional understanding that would promote a more stable and peaceful region in what is now a very volatile landscape. All of this may not happen but it is worth a try.

This is the same conclusion that a group of eminent former diplomats, experts, and other former officials, have indicated in a letter sent to president Obama on November 7th.  The letter was short and direct: 

(START TEXT)
“We applaud your decision to use diplomacy vigorously in an effort to reach agreements with Iran, particularly given President Hassan Rouhani’s apparent openness to greater transparency and internationally-accepted and verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program. The hard work of diplomacy begins now. Decades of distrust and lack of contact between the two countries will complicate the task of reaching agreements that will provide us the assurance we require that Iran’s nuclear program will be used only for peaceful purposes.

You will undoubtedly face opposition to your decision to engage Iran. We support this new policy and pledge to help our fellow Americans appreciate the ambitious and transformative course you have chosen to build a more peaceful and more cooperative environment in the Middle East.”

The diplomatic option is the right one at this time in view of the initiatives taken by the Iranian government that were made possible in part by your past policies. We wish you well in this constructive and important new undertaking.”

(END TEXT)

It was singed by some of the smartest and most experienced diplomats and experts I have known of our times and I fully agree with its views. There is no assurance that this effort will work but there is assurance that the alternatives are more dangerous for all sides and an agreement could change the strategic environment in such a way as to make possible a major realignment of forces towards reconciliation along with the still underway Middle East peace negotiations and perhaps even Syria, which also are key to making the region less a killing field and unlimited intra-communal strife and economic decline. 

We welcome your comments!

Syria: Events Overpowering Decisions and Knowledge in Dangerous Moving Environment, Will Arming the Opposition Make a Difference?

Syrian FighterJPGHaving just come back from two weeks in the UK observing foreign policy debates, there seem to be two conflicting schools of strategy both in the United States and in Europe over policy and intervention in Syria.  For example, in the International Herald Tribune on June 12, Javier Solana and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, both former NATO Secretaries General, along with James Carroll in a different op-ed titled “Stay out of Syria” of the same date, present their “solutions” but show their own conundrums and limitations. They do not fully address the question of the consequences of no action or failure of Geneva II conference – which is the only option supported by the former NATO officials.  

On the other hand, the position of some of the “hawks” on both sides of the Atlantic think a “full court press” of arms for the rebels, a no fly zone, and other direct support (not yet “boots on the ground”) are our best options.  Many sadly predict that the Geneva Conference will not likely produce a viable solution. 

Neither of these two extreme positions, as I have argued previously, provide outcomes that are likely to either end the massive blood bath or provide long-term security for the people of Syria or peace for the region.  They are either empty of content and understanding, or they are filled with too much reliance on simple use of military force.     

We are faced with a continued civil war that has cost more than 80,000 lives and will likely cost many more unless some “solid” solution is found. I believe that “staying out” is not a solution, and will simply lead to ever more carnage and spread of conflict throughout the Middle East. Putting of all our options and hopes on Geneva II, as suggested by Solana/Scheffer, also risks more endless carnage should Geneva II fail, which in fact is quite possible. The simple “more war” option also is a “dead end.” 

There must be an alternative strategy, or the world will see human butchery continue and spread. What could happen if Assad gains victory with the arms of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah? In  this case, absent of international intervention, we will see the continuation of a kind of unopposed killing of the opposition and inter-communal revenge, which will light a flame of conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims throughout the region. Yes, diplomacy is our best option, but it needs to be combined with “smart power” also.  

Geneva II should be tried, but the West and the Arab “Friends of Syria” need to be ready with “Plan B” to act by supporting the moderate rebels, and making their intentions clear in order to give the Russians and Assad  the incentive to compromise and find a peaceful transition. 

Thus, President Obama’s announcement that the U.S. will provide small arms, ammunition, and other assistance to moderate rebel groups provides some leverage towards getting Assad to come to the table, which he will not have if he thanks he can win,  on the fields of battle, despite the bloodshed. 

One test of the Geneva option will be the talks that UK Prime Minister David Cameron held with President Putin this week-end, the meeting of Putin and Obama this week ,and the wider talks at the on going G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland.

The problem is that Europe is divided on the issue of providing just arms, let alone sending in troops. In the U.K., despite Cameron’s push for arming the rebels, his  own Tory party is divided with a likely majority against doing so, his coalition partners the Liberal Democrats are strongly against it, and most of the Labour Party MPs are also probably opposed.  

Cameron seems to have also promised to have a House of Commons vote on the matter at some stage.  One of Cameron’s officials, involved in drawing up Syrian strategy, was reported in The Mail on Sunday of June 16th, to have said: “The one certainty is that, if nothing is done, not only will lives be lost, not only will Assad not negotiate, but we will also not stop radicalisation.” This quote probably gives us a concise insight into the some of UK top level perspective on Syria.  

Even France, the other nation supporting the option to supply arms, is divided fiercely on this question and Germany is firmly against as are other nations.  The irony is that both the Brits and the French are working to reduce their already meager defense budgets but asking their military to do more! There is a fight going on at this moment on the proposed British defense budget cuts.

I doubt that just giving small arms alone will make that great a difference without a wider set of options and a long-term strategy.  But it does give a bit of leverage for talks and defending Syrian areas under the opposition, especially if the “Friends of Syria”make clear that they are willing to do more to remove Assad and create a new broad based and responsible new government. 

But the problem is that Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are providing not only outside fighters, but major arms and air defense and offense systems. The implication of Europeans, Arab states, and the U.S. giving small arms is that if our minimum policy is to not permit the opposition to be destroyed and Assad to be removed from power, then more either diplomatically or via military action or both will be required.  Geneva II will likely be the dividing line between a negotiated solution or use of stronger measures by all sides.  Let’s hope that the Russians see the wisdom of diplomacy and are willing, as will be necessary, to see Assad go. That remains only still a problematic hope especially since Russia has just said it will not allow a no-fly zone.  Putin’s real goals remain obscure, but still mostly confrontational. 
        
The “Friends of Syria” and others committed to security and peace in the Middle East will do well to adapt a long-term strategy and the necessary resources and complex set of tools and the determination to see it through. It will require seeing the Syrian conflict through a wide angle and dealing with the many difficult elements in the Middle East that are fueling this now growing clearly Sunni-Shia struggle.  

My suggestion again is to have a strong broad international robust peacekeeping/peacemaking force to stop the killing of civilians and permit large scale humanitarian help within Syria and to help create security for all groups within the country. This requires working diplomatically to heal the growing divisions and long standing upheavals in the region.  It is a large but necessary task, and one we may not be quite up to if narrow and partisan elements insist on narrow or conflict only solutions.