My interview with Bosnia’s Dnevni Avaz

Just after my return from Ireland two weeks ago, the largest daily newspaper in Bosnia-Herezegovina, Sarajevo-based Dnevni Avaz, got in contact for a feature interview in their weekend supplement. The resultant feature, entitled “Bosnia is Not a Failed State” was published on Saturday the 19th, with the online web version available here.


Below is an approximate English language version of the interview that begins four paragraphs in:

– I come from the border region of Ireland and grew up as the conflict in Northern Ireland was raging. When I went to university I ended up specializing in the study of geopolitics and conflict regions. In 1981 a friend and I took a bus (‘Magic Bus’) from London to Athens.

On that long ride you passed through Yugoslavia?

That was the first time I ever saw Yugoslavia, Bosnia and the famous city of Sarajevo, which everyone in History classes learns about. When the war broke out, I was teaching at Virginia Tech in the United States and like many people was horrified by the war and its consequences. The international community failed Bosnia for three long years: Mitterrand, Major, Bush and then Clinton. I followed US policy closely and disagreed with Clinton’s deferral to the French and British profoundly. I found UNPROFOR’s mandate, being neutral in a country where war crimes and genocide was unfolding, patently absurd. An entire chapter in my first book, Critical Geopolitics considers the United States debate over intervention in Bosnia. Eventually, as you know, Anthony Lake, Clinton’s National Security Adviser, tried to force the war into an ‘endgame’ but the policy of creating a ‘more coherent map’ had horrific consequences at Srebrenica. Personally I think the US should publicly apologize for its policy in the run up to this. (NOTE: I publicly raised this issue at the 15th anniversary Srebrenica event at the US Holocaust Museum, 10 July 2010 in a question to Antony Blinken). After all, the Dutch and UN have investigated their failures.

I visited Bosnia after the war in September 1999 and again in 2000. I spent the last month of the old millennium writing a research grant to study the return process in BiH. With an American colleague, Dr Carl Dahlman, I started researching. Initial funding was provided by the US National Science Foundation, a scholarly research support institution. This research led to a series of articles and eventually a book Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and its Reversal that was published by Oxford University Press in 2011.

What do you write about in the book?

The book has 463 pages. Its pretty thick! Basically, it looks at two major efforts to ‘re-make’ Bosnia. The first was by those who wanted to destroy and partition it through ethnic cleansing and violence. This was the aggressive ethnic and spatial engineering policies of the RS/VRS and later the HB/HVO in western Herzegovina and Central Bosnia. The second was the promise expressed in Annex VII of the General Framework Agreement at Dayton that: “All refugees and displaced persons have the right freely to return to their homes of origin. They shall have the right to have restored to them property of which they were deprived in the course of hostilities since 1991 and to be compensated for any property that cannot be restored to them.” The research sought to investigate whether it would be possible for people to return to their home regions after ethnic cleansing.

Was is it you found? Can ethnic cleansing really be reversed?

The book is a comprehensive account of both attempts to remake Bosnia, to destroy and to reconstruct, to cleanse and repair. It tells the story of what happened between 1990 and 2003 in three Bosnian towns: Doboj, Jajce and Zvornik.

And what was your conclusion?

It is easier to destroy than to rebuild, to poison than to heal. The international community put in place a return process to implement Annex VII that had many admirable features. It also had considerable successes, with a nominal one million returns in September 2004 (the book is skeptical of this figure; actual returns, especially minority returns have been a lot less). It made the lives of thousands of people better, and got them out of horrible living conditions. A modicum of justice was done in allowing people to reclaim the property that was stolen from them because of the war. Few would have predicted this. Yet, it cannot be denied that ethnic cleansing has largely succeeded in creating mostly ethnically homogeneous communities in many parts of Bosnia. Post-war returns never changed the demographic consequences of war except in a few rural opstina.

You spent a long time researching. Were there any things that surprised you?

 The viciousness of the war, and the horrors it produced, took my breadth away on many occasions. Once we drove up a back mountain road off the main road from Tuzla to Zvornik at Crni Vrh and came across the remains of a mass grave. I have no words to describe the horror I felt.

The extent of the policy of land allocations in Zvornik, north of the town at Economija and beyond, and western Herzegovina, the so-called ‘Bobanvilles’ also surprised me. The attempt to remake Bosnia through ethnic cleansing was incredibly radical, an attack on the whole country as it really existed in order to make it conform to fantasies of clean homogeneous territories.

How do you see situation in Bosnia today? Is it a failed state, a state caught in the past without a future? 

Well, lets put the whole ‘Bosnia-as-a-failed-state’ discussion in some perspective!

Here in Washington DC we’ve had three weeks of a government shutdown. A small faction of one party in one branch of the parliament (Congress) is holding the whole country to ransom, trying to force upon it policies that the have been rejected by the majority of Americans at the ballot box. This country has run a budget deficit for all but five years of the period since World War II.

All states have unsettled historical legacies, structural governance challenges, and serious questions about their economic sustainability. In some instances, such as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, these problems are profound and exacerbated by the perpetuation of divisions within the political class. Bosnia-Herzegovina is not a failed state. But its Dayton governance structure, incorporating imperfect Washington Agreement structures, has hobbled it with a system that only benefits politicians!

Some positive reforms have occurred but obviously much more needs to be done to create a state that serves citizens not major political parties and factional interests. Dayton burdened Bosnia with a cumbersome constitutional structure and an antagonistic ethnoterritorialism that makes ‘normal politics’ very difficult. Bosnia needs comprehensive constitutional reform to make it “EU ready.” This is not a matter of fixing Sejdic-Finci. Indeed, it can be argued, as ESI have recently, that this issue is a distraction. Rather, it is a matter of creating democratic accountability and consociational procedures that enable efficient modern governance and ‘normal politics.’ This is the only way forward for Bosnia. There is no other alternative.

You have written a long study of Milorad Dodik and his use of the rhetoric of a ‘referendum’. What was the conclusion of this study?

 Yes, this study is a long one, and was published in an academic journal and also in Bosnian (Toal_DodikRSRef_DemocracySecurity). From an academic point of view, Dodik is a fascinating politician, perhaps one of the most skillful Bosnia has ever produced. Being a skillful politician, of course, one who learns what it takes to remain in power, does not mean being a virtuous one! Underline that! Dodik comes of age as Bosnia holds its first democratic elections in 1990. He is a member of the Alliance of Reform Forces, then sides with Karadzic and holds a somewhat outside position in the RS during the war. He nevertheless makes a lot of money during this time, presents himself as a moderate alternative to the SDS in the post-war period, and acquires power only to lose it and be on the outside again. This is when I first met him, early in Ashdown’s tenure, in Laktasi. His deputy Donald Hayes, who led the initial push for the April Package, described Dodik as a constructive partner in this process.

When this fails, well, he changes tack and your readers know the rest of the story. He uses the ‘referendum scenario,’ and associated bravado, quite astutely to portray himself as the RS’s number one protector and defeat the SDS. Making oneself the number one defender of the RS has considerable rhetorical benefits: any attack on Dodik’s personal financial dealings can be portrayed as an attack on the very entity itself.

But I conclude the article by arguing that Dodik is ‘more than a demagogue’ or self-dealing rogue. The central rhetorical conceit of the RS referendum is that this is merely “a democratic reply to non-democratic pressures.” This is actually a phrase that Karadzic uses back in 1991 to justify the SDS organized referendum in November of that year. There is, in other words, continuity in the rhetorical formulas underpinning RS separatism. Dodik is singing a tune first written by Karadzic.

In some of your presentations you have compared the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. Why? What are the lessons to be learned there? 

Well I am from Ulster, the northern part of Ireland, and I get asked this all the time. Bosnia arguably displaced Northern Ireland as the European signifier for intractable sectarian conflict and hate. But the first point I make is that the Troubles and the Bosnian War are incomparable events. The Northern Irish conflict claimed over three and a half thousand lives in a low intensity struggle that went on for decades. A few thousand were displaced at the very most. Certainly there were horrible events that occurred during this conflict, especially on Bloody Sunday.

But Bosnia is in a completely different league: more than 2 million displaced persons and almost 100,000 dead in a vicious sponsored attack and subsequent civil war over three years. I was at a conference recently in Derry (or as Ulster Unionists call it Londonderry) that was organized around a comparison of that town and Mostar. Both are about the same size and have pronounced sectarian divides. They also have famous pedestrian ‘peace bridges,’ though I suspect most of your readers will not have heard of Derry’s peace bridge which was opened for the first time in 2011. Its actually quite attractive but, again, the Stari Most is in a completely different league. You can argue that both bridges are more for outsiders than insiders, mere global signs, and that deep divisions underpinned by high unemployment rates remain. Haris Pasovic’s The Conquest of Happiness was performed in both places recently. We saw a few clips of Obrana i Zastita by Bobo Jelcic at the conference. I’m keen to see this film because I think the everyday psychological costs of division within formerly connected Bosnian places needs to be rendered visible and debated.

Does the Northern Ireland peace process have lessons for Bosnia?

Well Hillary Clinton, Paddy Ashdown and lots of other internationals believe so. Ashdown grew up in Northern Ireland and served as a British soldier on the streets of Belfast in 1969 when the army was first deployed there to protect Catholic families from being attacked by ‘loyalist’ mobs. When he was in Bosnia he suggested that Bosnia’s peace process was actually superior to Northern Ireland because people could get their property back and go back to their homes, something that wasn’t possible in Northern Ireland. Well, that was a bit of creative spin on his part!

The peace process in Northern Ireland was long and involved. It required heavy involvement by outside powers – the White House, the British and Irish governments working together – and some courageous steps beyond old attitudes on the part of key political leaders. It took a long time, and there were many delicate and fragile moments. Northern Ireland to this day is still not fully at peace, and the conflict is in a long pause rather than truly over. But the place has been transformed by the optimism this has brought, and the serious financial resources provided by the British government and international funds. It is nothing like it used be. After a while a ‘long pause’ begins to become positive peace for ‘we are all dead in the long run.’

Bosnia’s day for a ‘historic settlement’ will come. The international community should be laying the groundwork for this day through, for example, a Bosnian version of the Washington Ireland Program. This is a six-month program of personal and professional development that brings outstanding university students from both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to Washington, DC for summer work plNacements and leadership training. The program begins and ends with practical service in Northern Ireland and Ireland. Taking young people out of their immediate context and placing them together in a new country is one way in which they can learn the smallness of their divides in the grand scheme of things. All have more in common with each other than they do with their hosts in Washington DC. Getting them to see that is part of the value of progams like this.

You have also written on Karadzic?

Yes, I have an essay on him coming out next year, {in Ethnopolitics} one co-authored with a talented Bosnian researcher who was in Sarajevo through the war Adis Maksic. It’s actually a study of Karadzic’s rhetorical strategy in the 1990 elections as first SDS emerged and sought to “teach Serbs to be Serbs” as he put it to Aleksandar Tijanić in an interview with Oslobodjenje, 2 October 1990. It was a very interesting paper to research. Karadzic was quite disciplined in avoiding any ‘Islamic Bosnia threat’ storyline during the elections, even though some people around him, and organs like Politika was spreading this garbage. The threat discourse was all about the ‘Ustaša knife’ and ‘pits.’ Tudjman’s chauvinism helped the SDS message in BiH a great deal and, as you know, the SDS, SDA, and HDZ cooperated to further their common aim of defeating the ex-Communist and anyone not wearing ethnic glasses.


Is the EU falling apart? Does the EU have a future as it is now? Or has it to be smaller or bigger? 

No, the EU is not falling apart. One wit once said that the EU is like a bicycle; it has to keep moving forward or it will fall apart. Well, it has a flat at the moment but it will be fixed eventually and start moving again. And its coming Bosnia’s way!

How do you see process of inclusion of Muslims in the EU? 

Look, the EU is not the Holy Roman Empire. It’s a multiconfessional space, and also a post-confessional space. Far right politicians are always invested in grand civilizational and culture war scenarios. They want to gin up more conflict, to divide people and play on their fears. Some right wing Muslims, of course, take this seriously and want to play the same game. Fundamentalists on opposing sides become allies in trying to polarize people around their obsessions and preoccupations. Bosnia has lots of experience with this, and the new Bosnia-Herzegovina that will emerge in twenty to thirty years time will have significant contributions to make to the European Union project from within by drawing upon its own rich history. That project is about one thing: how we accommodate our differences to live a common life together.

One hundred years from the start of World War I – have we learned anything?

Wars are complex and we should not assume we can find a magical formula to end them. I and not an expert on World War I but I have visited many of the regions scarred by war in the wake of the collapse of Communism: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorny Karabakh, Transnistria. Each has unique features.

Contemporary neuroscience is provoking us to think anew about how the human brain’s capacity for generating self-serving ‘convenient truths’ (‘wishful thinking’) predisposes us to in-group/out-group thinking, failures of empathy, and hubris. We also know that unresolved traumas have a way of coming back to haunt the lives of peoples. The Second World War was utterly brutal in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Tito’s Yugoslavia failed to deal with this adequately. Contemporary Bosnia faces the challenge of dealing honestly with its recent horrors. It will take a long, long time to do this. Foreigners like myself cannot do this well: it is up to Bosnians. Every town in Bosnia should strive to have as objective an account of its wartime experience as possible, not only for themselves but for those to come. Future generations need not only facts but positive conversational capacities, healthy intellectual and emotional habits, to deal with the horrors of the past honestly.

However it may sound, these are the foundations necessary to leave ghosts of the past behind so future generations can positively remake Bosnia using an empathetic not fearful imagination.


Thanks to Dnevni Avaz for allowing me to share my views with its readers.

Posted in Current affairs, films, genocide, nationalism, Northern Ireland, Political Borders, Political Geography, Radovan Karadzic, restitution, war crimes, Washington D.C., World political map | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The PKK, Kurdish Nationalism and the Future of Turkey, 7 November 2013: Conference Program

International Conference
The PKK, Kurdish Nationalism and the Future of Turkey
Thursday November 7, 2013
Tel: 202-378-8606
Organized and Sponsored by
PANEL – 1:
Kurdish Nationalism and Imperial Legacy
8:30 – 10:00 AM
Moderator: Gerard Toal, Virginia Tech
Perception of Identity among the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran – Derya Berk (Rutgers University)
De Facto States and the Independence Question: Is Iraqi Kurdistan an Exception? – Zheger Hassan (University of Western Ontario)
Europe’s Kurdish Diaspora as Bellwether – Vera Eccarius-Kelly (Siena College)
The Evolution of Kurdish Nationalism within the Turkish State Discourse – İnci Aksu Kargın (Indiana University, Bloomington)
PANEL – 2: Room – I
Young Academicians and Kurdish Nationalism
10:30 – 12:00 AM
Moderator: Tuğrul Keskin, Portland State University
Modernization, Religiosity, and Ethno-nationalism of the Kurds in Turkey – Keri Hughes (California State University – Long Beach)
From Juba to Erbil: The Growth of Cross-­Continental Consciousness – Evan Fowler (John Hopkins University)
Foundational Mythology and The Discursive Construction of Terrorism in the PKK – Selim Can Sazak (Columbia University)
Political Mobilization Theory, Syrian Kurds and PKK – Wladimir van Wilgenburg  (The JamestownFoundation)
PANEL – 3: Room – II
Kurdish Nationalism in Contemporary Turkey
10:30 AM – 12 :00 PM
Moderator: Birol Yeşilada, Portland State University
Emergence of Kurdish Nationalist Movement: From Social Movement Theories Perspective –  Rahman Dağ (Exeter University)
The “Arab Spring” and the Kurdish Community: An Analysis of the Kurdish Movement in Turkey in the Aftermath of the Arab Revolutions – Tülin Şen  (King’s CollegeLondon)
Language and Nation Building: The History of Kurdish in Turkey – Engin Gülbey (Ankara Strategic Institute)
Evolution of Turkish Nationalism and the Changing Nature of Kurdish Problem – Salim Çevik (Ipek University)
PANEL – 4: Room -I
PKK and Kurdish Nationalism
1:30 – 3:30 PM
Moderator: Birol Yeşilada, Portland State University 
US Policies and PKK’s New Situation  – Deniz Tansi (Yeditepe University)
The PKK and Kurdish Movement in the 1970s – Ahmet Hamdi Akkaya (Ghent University)
Turkey’s War on Terror: A Comparison of Applied Strategies in Dealing with the PKK –  Doğan Koç  (GülenInstitute-University of Houston)
The PKK Problem: Turkey’s Incapacity to Solve It – Birol Başkan (Georgetown University- School of Foreign Service in Qatar)
PANEL -5: Room -II
The Kurds and the Future of Turkey
1:30 – 3:30 PM
Moderator: Joshua Hendrick (Loyola University ofMaryland)
Understanding the “Kurdish Question”: an ethnographic case study in Yüksekova Tahir Abbas (Fatih University) and İsmail Hakkı Yiğit (Mississippi State University)
‘Prepared for Peace, Ready for War’? Context and Challenges of the Current Peace Process – Edel Hughes (University of EastLondon)
An Ethnographic Account of the Compulsory Public Service of Doctors in Hakkari: The Limits of the JDP’s Assimilation Strategy and the Production of Space – İlker Cörüt (Central European University)
Imperialism and Kurdish Nationalism in Turkish Press – Begümşen Ergenekon (Middle East Technical University)
The Kurds and the Future of Turkey
4:00 – 6:00 PM
Moderator: Kemal Silay, Indiana University,Bloomington
Managing Violent Conflicts of Mesopotamia through Regionalism: Emergence of Kurdish Sphere as a Game Changing Actor for Contestation and Peace Process – Haluk Baran Bingöl (Kennesaw State University)
Negotiations Between Pro-Islamic Government and Öcalan, the PKK Question for Turkey – Ali Kemal Özcan (Tunceli University)
The AKP’s Kurdish“Closing” – Elif Genç (York University)
From the Right for Independence to the Claims for Territorial Autonomy: The Kurdish Questions in Turkey – Maya Arakon (SüleymanŞah University)
The Correlates of Kurdish ethno-nationalism in Turkey: A more definitive test – Faruk Ekmekçi (Ipek University)
DINNER: 7:30 – 10:00 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA   |  22314
Kemal Silay, Professor of Turkish Language and Literature; Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies Endowed Chair Professor; Director, Turkish Language Flagship Center; Director, Turkish Studies Program Indiana University
Gerard Toal, Professor of Government and International Affairs. Director of the Government and International Affairs program; Virginia Tech
Tuğrul Keskin, Assistant Professor of International and Middle East Studies; Affiliated Faculty of Black Studies Sociology, and Turkish Studies; Portland State University
Posted in conference, Current affairs, Kurds, nationalism, PKK, Political Geography, Turkey | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Bridging Division Conference: Derry/Mostar

Gabriela Vojvoda-Engstler (Univ of Saarland) and Eamonn O Ciardha (Univ of Ulster, Magee campus) were the two inspirational forces behind the conference, and they weaved German, Irish and ex-Yugoslav networks together to create an enjoyable high quality academic conference on the themes of conflict regions, urban space and literature. After a brief welcome by the mayor of Derry and other funders, Brendan O’Leary and I started things off. In a talk entitled “War and a Herzegovinian Town” (a nod to Eamonn Mc Cann’s classic on Derry and the civil rights movement) I outlined 5 structural processes that account for why Mostar is today a deeply divided town politically. Brendan spoke more broadly about the points of comparison and divergence between Bosnia and Derry/Londonderry.

The following two days featured many excellent papers. Three of particular interest to scholars of Mostar were Fedja Buric’s autobiographically grounded study of being mixed in Mostar, which began with discussion of why his father covered a tatoo (pictured) on the Adriatic coast in the summer of 1991. Ana Aceska, who is from Skopjia and recently finished her Ph D at Humboldt Univ in Berlin, talked about East Mostarians and their perception of the aggrandized Franciscan tower just next to the Bulevar. Her methods were ethnographic and embedded in a sociological literature on place making and identity. Also at Humboldt University is Miranda Jakisa who discussed the new film “Obrana i zastita” by Bobo Jelcic which is set in Mostar and is a portrait of an ordinary man plaintively trying to adjust to the new ideological order in the city, one a lot like the old (and Kafkaesque). In different ways, all three papers were exploring identity complexes beyond the prevailing antagonistic ethno-national and ethnopolitical order of things that has congealed around most Bosnian places. Excesses and (con)fusions of identity expressed by diasporic ex-Yugoslavs and their educated sons and daughters…..

There were many other excellent papers. The organizers hope to create an edited volume from the conference, and to organize a follow up conference in Sarajevo next year.


Posted in Current affairs | Leave a comment

Derry – Londonderry reaches for Culture

“When(ever) I hear the word culture, I release the safety catch of my Browning.”

Thus speaks a character in the play Schlageter by the Nazi poet laureate Hans Johst. Written to celebrate Hitler’s 44th birthday and rise to power in early 1933, the line became a (in)famous Nazi slogan, one used by Goebbels and others.

The riposte “Whenever I hear the word revolver, I reach for my culture” has multiple attributions.

With considerable financial aid from London, Brussels and Washington DC, the city of Derry/Londonderry has been reaching for culture, and the banishment of the gun, throughout this year as the UK’s City of Culture 2013.

The city is certainly looking well, the people friendly and “transformation” is in the air, visible in the form of the 2011 Peace Bridge, and the Ebrington festival space, a reworking of a former army barracks, and naval facility and base. Throughout the year, the city has hosted some very successful high profile events like the Radio 1 roadshow, and Fleagh Ceol na Eireann. The latter event incorporated, for the second year, a number of Protestant marching bands, a wholly welcome and positive development. The author of a book on these bands, Blood and Thunder, was telling me that members were “buzzing” afterwards given their positive reception. Northern Irish Protestant identity is pluralizing again, with some traditions reconnecting themselves to older Northern Irish forms of belonging not so steeped in sectarianism (United Irishmen-ness).

Other cultural events seem to have a more limited class appeal, with the Turner Prize currently unfolding in the Ebrington complex. Predictably, there is some friction between the ambitions of those culturing up the city and those long suspended in the popular culture of sectarian division. “People mostly get along” was what one taxi driver told me, and maybe we should simply think not of “peace” in the city but of the ordinary antagonisms and division that characterize most cities as also characterizing Derry.

Derry, Derry, Up? Lets hope so.


Posted in Current affairs, Ireland, Northern Ireland | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Bridging Division: (London) Derry & Mostar


Derry and Mostar are divided by histories of sectarian strife and ethnoterritorialism,  and physically united by bridges as symbols of aspirational unity (like the peace bridge above, photo credit Peter MacDiarmid). At the end of this month I am participating in a conference at the University of Ulster on the theme of ‘Bridging Division.” The conference explores literatures on partition, unification and reconciliation. I have just finished Adam Moore’s book Peacekeeping in Practice (Cornell UP, 2013) which compares Brcko and Mostar as partial background prep for my talk, which I’m busy writing. Derry is the UK 2013 City of Culture, and has recently lost one of its greats (Seamus Heaney). The program(me) of the conference is attached: Bridging Division Programme

Posted in Bosnia, Bosnian war, Current affairs, Northern Ireland | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inconvenient Truths about the Syria Crisis

FTleadPhoto22AugThe time for more detached scholarly research on the interstate conflict over responding to the Syrian civil war, and war crimes therein, will come later. Clearly the 21 August chemical weapon attacks intensified this conflict greatly. The affective geopolitical complex discussed by Sean Carter and Derek McCormack (Ch 5 of Observant States) organized around intensity, amplification and resonance of images is analytically useful as a point of departure for making sense of what is unfolding. The current drama, after all, is one where horrific videos, and photos (front page FT 22 August 2013 above) are central. While critical geopolitics is a scholarly enterprise, its practitioners live in a world as citizens, intellectuals and activists. We cannot avoid politics and we should not avoid the troubling questions of our time, even at the risk of getting things wrong.

There are, I would argue, a number of inconvenient truths that we need to face when thinking about Syria. I describe them as such because human cognition processes tend to lead us to convenient truths that, more often than not, support preconceptions, social biases and outcomes colored by wishful thinking. I also describe them thus because they paint a grim picture of where we are. Here’s my list which is really an attempt to reason out my position.

1. Syria is the location of the largest instance of preventable mass human suffering from direct violence in the world today.

Over 100,00o dead, one third of the population of 22 million displaced, over 2 million formally refugees…

SyrianRefugeesSyria is analogous to Afghanistan in the 1980s as David Miliband argued recently in the FT (graphic is theirs).

The country is the most egregious instance of mass human suffering facing the international community today. That there are other significant sites of human suffering — eastern Congo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, sectarian riots in Burma, ongoing repressions elsewhere — and other things to be deeply concerned as citizens about — unaccountable spying agencies, drone assassinations, occupations, guns, racism, homophobia — but these should not diminish or detract from this. They’re all important and serious international work should be done on each. But Syria’s agony is in the spotlight now for a very good reason.

2. The structures of interstate response to the Syrian crisis are broken.

UN Ambassador’s Power’s remark that the Syrian people do not have the UN Security Council they need is unfortunately true. Due to the endurance of World War II rules, the international legality and legitimacy of military intervention by a coalition of concerned states against immediate mass human suffering is determined by two states who have, lets say, ‘challenged’ human rights records. The US needs to have strong working diplomatic relations with both states to advance common security objectives. But it should be obvious that the current condition where the imprimatur of ‘international law’ and ‘legitimacy’ can be decided by one or two states is a dysfunctional one. Those who evoke ‘legality’ and ‘legitimacy’ as necessary criteria for intervention in Syria are not seriously engaging the issues.

Thus, human rights advocates have to address this violent conflict with the international mechanisms of response they have…

3. The use of US-led military force against the Assad regime is probably the most effective way to break the stalemate of the Syrian civil war.

This is a huge inconvenient truth to all concerned in multiple ways. The war is a hurting stalemate, with the capacity to get much worse, though with no sign that the ‘hurting’ is inducing the possibility of dialogue. Inconvenience number one is that Obama and his advisers have proven themselves to be cautious realists about this conflict. Dempsey and Hagel probably remain serious skeptics of war as a means to that end, Obama possibly too. Who wins the Syrian civil war, Obama probably calculated, is not necessarily a vital US national security interest, though there clearly were significant internal administration tensions over this.

Yet Obama’s ‘red line’ and the scale of the chemical weapons attack forced the issue into one of international norms and US credibility. Obama was forced out of his cautious realist comfort zone.

Will punitive strikes that destroy the regime’s capacity to make war, and/or render it leaderless, be the most effective means to end the Syrian war? This is a hugely debatable issue — Juan Cole argues it will prolong the war — but the ostensible US goal is not regime change but behavior modification.

There is deliberate ambivalence about this though as the administration seeks to build a coalition of support that includes ‘limited strike’ supporters with ‘regime change’ hawks. There are good arguments for why any military strikes requires a broad military authorization. 

It can be argued that Obama’s deterrence objectives are already working: the regime has not used chemical weapons since August 21st (I am assuming that it was the regime that used them but will await full empirical data on that).

What is the US objective? If deterrence, it is already being achieved. But it can be argued that the chemical weapons argument is a vehicle for a broader more ambitious strategy of regime change. Further, it can be argued that only regime change will achieve the chemical weapons dismantling that the US, Israel and other states urgently want.

Another inconvenient ‘Pottery Barn’ truth: if the US breaks the regime, it owns the resultant fallout which may be particularly nasty indeed. The prospect of revenge ethnic cleansing against Syria’s Christians and Alawite population settlements is very real.

One can argue that from a human security point of view the best scenario is probably where US-led airpower creates an opportunity for the opposition to strengthen their position on the ground and forces either the Assad regime to fracture or to come to the negotiating table. But this may not happen if the attacks are not sustained and effective.

This inconvenient truth is more killing in the short term (for a consideration of the just war issues see this), including young soldiers socialized to know little beyond the structures they found themselves within. But without US-led force, there will be killing anyway, and maybe for a long period.

Deep pessimism about military force as a ‘solution’ to the Syrian crisis is fully justified. But outside punitive strikes as a means to catalyzing a political solution is something that might work. Yes, its “bombing for peace,” and its grim and ugly. Is it better to let this drag out for years, with millions displaced all this time?

4. The United States is hobbled by serious legitimacy crises on multiple fronts. 

As should be evident from Obama’s difficulties in rallying allied leaders, and public opinion within the United States (and evidently in the House), the prospect of the US using military force in the Middle East again has little legitimacy. Call it Bush’s revenge, the poisoned legacy of Iraq, and the drone/NSA blowback, Obama is feeling it. The inconvenient truth here is that this hurts the prospects for ending the Syrian conflict any time soon.

The debate over Syria in the US Congress has been a positive deliberative challenge for that institution and the US political system. Its a deeply consequential moment with the US’s position in the world, in symbolic terms at least, at stake.

An inconvenient truth to those who call themselves ‘realists’ is that US use of force in Syria against Assad is in the US national interest because US national interests are inextricably bound up with international security norms, especially those concerning the proliferation of BNC weapons. Global risk society demands common security norms, practices and conventions. Risk society realists cannot be insular (Mr Walt).

The conflict also involves an important NATO ally in Turkey as well as important regional allies like Jordan and Israel. The US, hobbled as it is, is still considered the ‘indispensable nation’ for these states in leading a response to the crisis they deal with daily at their borders.

5. This doesn’t end soon.

Afghanistan has been, to borrow a euphemism of the moment, a ‘degraded’ state for the last 30 years, ever since the Soviet invasion. Syria could on track to becoming the same, and spreading out to engulf the already fragile Lebanon and Iraq. Israel-Iran tensions are entering a new phase with more pragmatic leadership in Teheran but could be swamped by this. Managing Syria, hopefully through post-conflict reconstruction not containment, is likely to be a decade long project at least.

So, a concluding inconvenient truth: moral courage is required by Obama to do both a politically unpopular and deeply uncertain thing: use US military force against Assad in Syria.

The most inconvenient truth of all: he may fail.

Posted in Congress, Current affairs, George Bush, Israel, Middle East, Obama, Political Borders, Political Geography, Presidency, Russia, Syria, US Senate, war crimes, Washington D.C., World political map | 1 Comment

The Saddest Place: Beslan Plus 9

IMG_3599Nine years ago the siege of School Number 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia ended in disastrous circumstances with 336 people killed, almost two hundred of them children. The mundane ramshackle ruins of the gutted school buildings are deeply affecting reminders of the cruelty and tragedy of this event. I’ve been in fewer sadder places on this earth.

There has been little coverage of the anniversary. An exception was the article by Daniel McLaughin in the Irish Times which is a helpful reminder of the unanswered questions and echoes the criticism that some victims relatives make of the Putin administration’s response. Earlier this summer Andrey Illiaranov confirmed to me that Mashkadov had agreed to travel to the site, without even a security guarantee, to help bring it to an end. But then the firefight that sparked the denouement began.

Attached is my article, “Placing Blame: Making Sense of Beslan” from 2009 on the siege and its largely ignored localized geopolitics. ToalBeslan1

IMG_3544The siege and its response remain relevant today to understanding Putin’s attitude towards the Syrian civil war. First, this and other terrorist events in Russia help explain the disposition of Putin towards armed rebel groups that are radical Islamicists, secessionists and also part of an Al Qaeda inspired Salafist international. Centralized order and power, a strong state, a clear power vertical: these are requirements for the “modern world order.” Second, cruel means are justified to defeat enemies of the state (and ‘civilized world order’), including the state security services’s use of chemical weapons (as Putin’s government did in response to the Dubrovka siege in October 2002).

There is, of course, a major difference between using toxic gas in response to a terrorist siege and using sarin as an indiscriminate weapon of mass murder in a civil war against neighborhoods resisting government control. Putin’s preconceptions on Syria are not necessarily where he will end up, especially if the UN inspectors are able to provide credible information not only that chemical weapons were used but that they likely came from Syrian government lines. The opportunity for a ‘common security’ approach by Russia and the United States to Syria still exists. It represents the best prospect for meaningfully moving towards an endgame to the Syrian civil war. Lets see what the G 20 talks yield.

Posted in Beslan, chemical weapons, Obama, Putin, Syria | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment