Monday, January 6, 2014

Can 2014 belong to Russia?

2013 in global security matters truly belonged to Russia. While President Vladimir Putin almost lost face over the Syrian Civil War, he managed to thwart American plans for airstrikes by helping to broker a disarmament deal at the last second. This was such an unforeseen and overall better choice for global security that rumours were circulating that the controversial Russian strongman might be chosen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Instead the award went to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The indirect diplomatic signal this sends to Russia is one of encouragement, to incite the nation to go beyond UN vetoes and global grandstanding and propose concrete alternatives, as was the case with Syria.

Many perceived Putin to play a Machiavellian, or Metternich-like role for his own good, but he did indeed contribute to help global security while boosting his standing with the world community and refurbishing Russia’s image as a big power that can be counted on and which can shake up deadlocked situations.

Will lightning strike the same place twice in 2014? The answer is yes, if Vladimir Putin wills it. While the “gay propaganda” law, the tug-o-war with Europe over Ukraine and the recurring problems with terrorism certainly cast a shadow over Russia as it readies to host the Sochi Olympics, Russia will likely want to go beyond a two-week sports celebration to reassert itself with the world community after getting a taste of victory in 2013. And that is not a bad thing for most of us.

For the first time in years we are seeing positive developments on the Iranian front in the light of the Geneva interim agreement. While President Rouhani should ensure that belligerent rhetoric be kept to a minimum – or even better be eliminated altogether – chances are that there will be flare-ups and difficulties in communicating and agreeing on the various points of the road map. But here again, Russia can intervene and keep things together before another situation in the Middle East gets out of hand.

Everybody wins then, right?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The African Winter

These days, eyes are focused on the Middle East. Iran. Syria. Egypt. Old structures crumble, new orders painstakingly attempt to take hold, counter-revolutions erupt. To external witnesses and people living in those conflict zones, it often seems a lost cause, like the myth of Sisyphus.

To them I say: patience. In forty odd years, things will be much more stable, as the dust will have settled, a new generation of leaders will be able to assert itself, and many conflicts will have died down.

Why I am so confident about some upcoming perpetual peace in the Middle East? There are a few factors that come into play: the geographical proximity with Europe, being located alongside critical trade routes, the societal foundations provided by Islam, the back and forth movement of peoples – migrants, businessmen, workers – between the West and the Middle East, the prosperous Middle Eastern diasporas living abroad, the rise of green energy technologies for starters. Mix it all together and leave it to sit for a certain time, and I am convinced that in proper time, the Middle East will become fairly stable.

In 2050, at this rate, the source of global instability will not be Middle East. It will be Africa, which will by then be home to roughly a billion people and the youngest population on the planet.

Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, Boko Haram, the LRA, M-23 and Al-Shabaab do not result from the aftershocks of a post-colonial Africa. They are fillers to a vacuum left by weak, failing and failed states. As the governmental power subsides because of mismanagement, incessant warfare and corruption, militias and other illegal groupings reap the spoils, feed on them and grow without limits. Based in hard-to-reach locales, their local influence grows – they provide an alternative to the young and the disenfranchised. Weak African governments find them embarrassing and they dismiss them, while Western powers largely ignore them because they are not a strategic threat to their current wants or needs. Somehow, the near takeover of Mali in late 2012 by terrorist militias, only stopped by a French military intervention, was not a strong enough signal that the current system is not working.

By 2050 the world will fully turn to Africa, the largest reservoir of untapped resources – be it oil, gold, medicinal plants or precious minerals. In that field, China has a massive head start and has long been exchanging its expertise and engineering teams in exchange for unsustainable, bargain-priced resource concessions. All the while, Western powers are notoriously complicit to similar schemes in the mining sector in sub-Saharan Africa.

What does Africa need then? It needs a middle class.

What struck me the most in my trips to sub-Saharan Africa is the ridiculous disparity between the rich and the poor. It’s not just a gap, it’s a massive canyon. The business and political elites maintain themselves in power for decades on end, ensuring a backyard playground for big powers – most notably France. This is all tied up nicely by big foreign aid packages which land in the pockets of the same old people, sweet business deals benefitting politicians that have been in power for decades. All the while deals are sealed in villa-fortresses of African leaders, far away from the eyes of an uneducated populace being lead on, year after year.

Such a system cannot carry on forever. You cannot say you love your country and agree to such bad terms. You cannot say you uphold a constitution when most of your people are illiterate. You cannot expect people to become rich when resources are practically given away and sent off as soon as they are extracted. Someday, there will be consequence.

Some day, this will backfire badly. Then we will see some of the most vicious militias in History, some of the most violent acts performed on human beings, all the while migrations flows will explode, states will become utterly chaotic, and the resources we need will become the poker chips of groups who want to harm us.

This will happen, unless we help to build a viable, strong middle class. A group in the citizenry who are literate, who can innovate, who can be taxed and participate in a healthy democracy.

African diasporas living abroad must be involved in developing their home countries. African populations themselves must be involved in this effort so that a middle class can emerge which is tailored to their realities and needs. Businesses must agree to give workers better pay and better living conditions. International help should be focused on developing infrastructures like roads, train tracks, airports, seaports, hydroelectric dams, solar farms, power grids. Big businesses should be given tax incentives by big powers to encourage training, mentorship, research and development in Africa so that they can reap even greater benefits down the road, in a sustainable way.

While all wonder what the fate of the Arab Spring will be, let us not forget that we must do all we can to avoid an African Winter down the road.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A time of transitions

The climate in international relations often shifts faster than weather patterns in Iceland. What has transpired earlier this month at the G20 gathering in St. Petersburg was nothing short of exceptional. I have waited this long to blog about it because I wanted to be sure that the promises that had been made and the decisions that had been taken were not just spur of the moment, Machiavellian distractions destined to save face and preserve the status quo.

The Syrian crisis was inevitably going to be the elephant in the room at the G20 summit. While it was likely to be discussed, chances were that no matter of substance would be agreed to, and that we would see a classic clash between the “pro-Imperialists” versus the “pro-rogue states”, defeating the opportunity to find some kind of middle ground amongst a series of terrible options.

It was announced on September 3 that “key” G20 Foreign Ministers would attend the summit in Russia, from the usual Western bunch but also, most interestingly, Brazil, China and Turkey, in an ad-hoc manner.

Stewart Patrick, of the Council for Foreign Relations, then published a blog post reiterating the relevance of the G20 creating a Foreign Ministers’ track, especially in the light of the events unfolding in Syria, which he had elaborated on earlier this year in a memo to the Russian government.

Tensions were high going into St. Petersburg and divisions appeared to make positions between East and West rather irreconcilable at first.

But as time went by, interesting developments occurred, as wrote Professor John Kirton:

Syria dominated the St. Petersburg Summit, both in the discussions among the leaders and their delegations on the first day, and in the attention of the media and citizens around the world for a longer time. 

The leaders showed that the G20 summit, initially designed as an economic institution, was now a full-strength centre of global governance, able and willing to address not just newer security threats such as corruption and terrorism but also more classic ones such as the use of chemical weapons by a government against its own people. Following the August chemical weapons attack in Syria, and the denials and divisions among major powers in the following two weeks, Russia's Vladimir Putin as summit host suddenly invited G20 foreign ministers to St. Petersburg and then added to the leaders' opening dinner at the summit a three-hour discussion dedicated to Syria where every leader had a say. 

This allowed about half the leaders an opportunity to express strong support for the approach of "deter and deny" through limited missile strikes led by the presidents of the United States and France. Support came from the leaders of a domestically constrained United Kingdom, an instinctively reticent Japan, a long cautious Germany facing an election on September 22, a long reluctant Canada and an initially doubtful Italy, as well as Turkey as an ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a front-line state, and Saudi Arabia as a leading regional power. 

There seemed to be slight accommodating shifts in Putin's behaviour and position, as he suspended deliveries of Russia's sophisticated S-300 missile to Syria and did not deny that chemical weapons had been used there. There further emerged a common condemnation of the use of chemical weapons and consensus that they should not be used again by anyone, and not become a regular weapon of war. Should these advances politically deter and degrade Assad regime even before U.S. missiles fly or speed a transition to a less violent Syria, the St. Petersburg Summit will prove to be a striking substantive as well as institution-strengthening success.

However, the shocker during the G20 summit came when Russia’s Vladimir Putin made a suggestion to US President Barack Obama for Syria to cede control of its chemical weapons stockpile to international authorities in exchange for the informal coalition not to launch air strikes against Syria. Should Syria fail to do so, Russia might even join the military effort against Damascus. It was reported on a few days later, and the US government responded with very guarded optimism at the Russian initiative, but after positive signals coming from Damascus topped off by a meeting between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov in Geneva a few days later, a satisfactory agreement was concluded.

Al-Assad’s regime suddenly fell in line, expediently joined the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and complied over all the initial demands and promised to destroy its entire chemical weapon stockpile by mid-2014. The rules of the game were just agreed to unanimously by the UN Security Council Resolution 2118.

While the current standing does not solve the Syrian conflict in itself, it averted another war in the Middle East. It has bolstered US-Russia relations, the relevance of the G20, the relevance of the UN Security Council, diplomacy and international law.

Moreover, the peaceful settlement of differences has helped to bring Iran’s new moderate president Hassan Rouhani to have a direct contact with Barack Obama, the first such Iran-US exchange in 30 years, leading to the exchange of messages of good will in terms of promptly solving the nuclear issue in the Islamic Republic.

We must hope that this climate holds. We must hope that diplomacy prevails over the use of force. We must hope that Russia (and BRICSAM nations alike) realizes it can use its power and influence for good. But we must also hope that the G20 gains a permanent diplomatic track to help find solutions to global security matters which cannot be found anywhere else.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Uninvited Guest

As world leaders gather in St. Petersburg to discuss the fragile global economic recovery, one uninvited guest is poised to crash the party and make a whole lot of noise: the Syrian crisis. As proof of the use of chemical weapons is gathered, dead bodies continue to pile up and the threat of a regional conflagration involving Israel, Iran and Iraq rises, the Syrian civil war will be the elephant in the room at the Russian G20 Summit and might very well overtake the economy as the focal point of discussions, thereby changing the nature of the organization by osmosis.

Up to this point, global security matters have been the “jurisdiction” of the G8, not the G20. Aside from an informal meeting of the G20’s Foreign Ministers in Mexico in February 2012, the organization has refrained from expanding its mandate. But the ongoing war in Syria, the East versus West deadlock over rogue states and the threat they pose as well the economic disruptions coming from the Middle East make it now painfully obvious that the world’s great powers, some of which have been playing the Cold War game in the past three years, must now come together, agree to a solution and carry it out.

Russia’s reluctance to play the new multipolar game and its bad habit of falling back to Soviet-style foreign policy of Western fear-mongering, UN vetoes and arming rogue regimes has been ridiculously puzzling. In fact, if there was a country which could have made a strong and swift difference and increased its standing through a proactive role, it would have been Russia.

Obama’s scheduled one-on-one meeting with the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping will certainly aim at finding common ground with China for them to at least abstain vetoing a UN Security Council resolution, and its secondary aim is certainly to make Vladimir Putin isolated – the Snowden affair being a convenient excuse to avoid a larger discussion on foreign policy.

In the past 24 hours however, Putin has changed his tune to something more reasonable and pragmatic, echoing the United Nations’ Ban Ki Moon, shifting from drastically opposing any action on Syria to possibly endorsing a strike at the Security Council if the proof is made public and actually adds up – which is balanced position, all things considered. The pressures from the diplomatic back channels must have been intense.

Hosting the G20 is a moment for prestige for a country, a moment to shine. But for Vladimir Putin, it is his last window of opportunity for a certain time as a global statesman, to build bridges and play a constructive game and get Russia to step out of the shadow of the USSR, embrace multilateralism and play a meaningful role in the global community.

Stay tuned and watch how the US, Russian and Chinese discourses on Syria change in the coming days - it might just herald the changing nature of the G20.

*** 15:30 EDT UPDATE ***

I have just received this Google Alert out of Reuters:

G20 foreign ministers to attend Russia summit to discuss Syria
Source: Reuters - Tue, 3 Sep 2013 02:59 PM

PARIS, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Foreign ministers from key G20 member states will convene on the sidelines of this week's meeting in St Petersburg to discuss Syria, France said on Tuesday.

"(French) Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will travel on Sept. 5 and 6 to meet foreign ministers present at the G20 summit, notably those of the United States, Brazil, China, Russia and Turkey," Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot told reporters.

A French diplomatic source said the ministers, who do not usually attend G20 summits, would meet to specifically talk about the Syria crisis and discuss political perspectives. (Reporting By John Irish, editing by Mike Peacock).


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Battleground Syria

Yesterday, US State Secretary John Kerry dramatically rose the tone towards Syria. His declaration to the press was but an inch short of a declaration of war towards the Assad regime, in the light of last week’s alleged chemical attack on civilians outside Damascus.

As US Navy ships and British air forces take position in the Mediterranean, it is rather clear that as soon as chemical attacks are indeed confirmed, the responsibility for them assigned, the airstrikes from a limited, US-led coalition will strike at Syrian governmental and military targets, first with cruise missiles to take out the anti-air and Syrian Air Force targets (roughly 500 combat aircraft), then likely mop up the remaining targets with coalition aircraft.

A just war?

The conflict, which started in March 2011, has caused at least 100,000 deaths and through it all, Syria has become an abysmally failed state. Once responsibility for the chemical attacks is proven, it will strengthen an already strong case for an international military intervention under the norm of the responsibility to protect which three pillars state that:

1. A state has a responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. 

2. The international community has a responsibility to assist the state to fulfill its primary responsibility. 

3. If the state manifestly fails to protect its citizens from the four above mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions. Military intervention is considered the last resort.

If it is proven that it has used chemical weapons against civilians, the Syrian state will have crossed a point of no return in international law. While tens of thousands of innocent civilians have already died throughout the civil war, many of these deaths are perhaps considered “normal” in a state consumed by intense, violent internal strife and utter chaos. However – and perhaps unfortunately – the deliberate use of weapons of mass destruction on civilians constitutes that “red line” which call for a swift international intervention, because the Syrian regime might have confirmed its predatory intentions towards its own populace and that world powers cannot let the use of those weapons be without severe repercussions.

Opening up Pandora’s box

If you have time, check out this great BBC documentary on Syria

While on paper, the Syrian situation does seem to justify an intervention in accordance to international norms and international law, the devil, as always, is in the details.

First off, we must consider the unintended consequences of our actions. For nearly three years now, the Greater Middle East has been in a state of flux, instability or revolution. Bring down a dictator and you bring up the Islamists, destroy the devil you know and then deal with the devil you don’t know. In the West, we looked at Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen with great hope, only to find out it was more like 1848 and not 1989. Even if the Assad regime was to be obliterated, the thought of a continuing civil war, renewed sectarian violence and an altogether worse fate for Syria can’t be too far in the minds of the Western decision makers, which stretch far beyond the impact of the usage of chemical weapons.

Secondly, there is the danger of regional escalation, or spillover, because of Syria’s geopolitical situation. With the conflict between Shia and Sunni Islam militias and splinter groups kicking in ever high gear throughout the Middle East, the Israel-Palestine deadlock, the Egyptian counter-revolution, the instability in Turkey, the Kurdish independence movement, the renewed strife in Iraq, the tensions over the Iran nuclear program, the Western pullout from Afghanistan, the potential for one explosive situation to set another one ablaze is very high. The question then, is not so much “should we intervene?” but rather “do we dare to intervene?”

Knock, knock, who’s there?

“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

Who exactly would benefit from a Western military intervention in Syria?

If it is decided that Western powers must strike at Syria, they must accept that they are directly providing help to Al-Qaeda affiliates fighting Assad’s regime, and that in the medium to long run, military support combined with the weapons which have been delivered to rebels in the past months will benefit the dreaded groupings whose philosophy brought down the World Trade Center and caused the Western powers to occupy Afghanistan for more than a decade. In short, helping topple Assad now might help global terrorism grow in the years to come.

Perhaps this commenter on the Toronto Star’s webpage put it better than I could:

“There is little to choose between the Baathist butchers of the Assad regime and the Islamist fanatics of the "rebels". Syria has became a proxy for the war between the Shiites of Iran and Hezbollah and the Sunnis of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabis and the world has a choice of horrible or terrible, and the poor Syrians and Lebanese caught in the middle lose whatever happens.”

The Biggest Loser

In conclusion, aside from President Assad, who is not likely to escape this war with his life, the person who has failed the most badly throughout the Syrian crisis is Vladimir Putin. While the Russian president has always been fairly nationalist, skeptic of Western intentions and longing for the good old Soviet days, ever since his return to office for a third term, he has squandered every opportunity for Russia to play an influential and helpful role in shaping international events, the pinnacle being the Syrian crisis. By playing the ying to the US’s yang whatever the conflict, his attempts at asserting Russian independence have come across as a useless display of machismo aimed at his home audience. A Western strike without the approval of UN Security Council on Syria would likely be the most serious political rebuff to his foot-dragging, and could possibly send Russia in a period of reevaluation of its foreign policy.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

In praise of the BBC World Service

In the past year, I have acquired an iPad mini, and it is frankly one of the most fun and practical tools I have ever owned. Being a peace and conflict, political news junkie, I installed a bunch of news applications - France 24, CBC/Radio-Canada, Russia Today (RT), but the one which stands out the most is the BBC World Service.

I spend a lot of time exercising and stretching every day so I figured while I'm doing that, I might as well tune in to a channel or programming which teaches me something or updates me on global stories which fall within my field of interest. There is certainly no shortage of coverage for the Middle East, Iran and North Korea, Russia, China and Africa. 

The depth and quality of the BBC World Service productions is truly outstanding. Whether it's reporting from lesser known corners of the world, debating a global hot topic, interviewing established authorities on certain matters or up-and-comers in others, I find that the work the reporters carry out is fair, balanced and educating. It has certainly reconciled me with the world of radio in the digital age. If you read this blog, you will likely enjoying tuning in to the BBC World Service.

While to the untrained ear it might sound like this... :

... the BBC World Service is something that grows on you, proves that radio is ever-relevant and that we never know everything!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The second Egyptian revolution

In the past month, the world's attention has turned towards Egypt. The struggling country has experienced its second revolution in two years, bringing hope to many and worries to a lot more.

While the situation remains tense, unpredictable and dangerous, I nevertheless wanted to weigh in on it, in particular with regards to Egypt's new interim Vice-President, former IAEA Director and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mohamed ElBaradei.

There are moments in life where you encounter an exceptional individual which gives you that one piece of advice, that one revolutionary idea, that one pat on the back and that one mentor's blessing, giving you the confidence to go all the way and changes your life. That's how I would describe my encounter with Mr. Elbaradei.

When I met him in Port-Louis, Mauritius, in November 2010 at a conference organized by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, I felt very intimidated at first. How could I, a recent Master's degree recipient with an "extended" diplomatic experience as a 25 year-old, could hold my ground against the former director of a massive supranational organization who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, holding credentials I could only dream of having?

Well, perhaps the alcohol helped. After a beer or two, I noticed he was sitting by himself in the gazebo of the resort we were staying at, by the Indian Ocean. I thought to myself, what the hell, let's just go for it. I had met him briefly earlier in the day and we had been briefly introduced. But I decided to try and push it further and engage him on my recently published thesis on the need to expand the G20's mandate to Foreign Ministers and for them to handle global security matters, especially when it came to fighting nuclear proliferation in rogue states.

A good talk with Mohamed ElBaradei

Within the first ten seconds of our talk, I could feel he was genuinely interested in the idea, engaged in the discussion and wanting to share his thoughts. He listened carefully with an open mind, and we then went back and forth for a good thirty minutes, as equals, as people who believe in peaceful resolution of conflicts. It was nothing short of the most inspiring, most uplifting and most motivating discussion I have ever had over a political or academic concept, and it gave me the courage and the confidence to continue to push for the creation of a G20 Foreign Ministers' group.

My point is that there are understandable worries about the political situation in Egypt at the moment, with the interim government backed by the military. But I think that with a liberal, intellectual, open-minded man like Mohamed ElBaradei in the upper echelons of power, we should be comfortable to trust that it will do good and deliver on its promise to hold democratic elections in 2014. If anything, it is time to build new bridges between the West and the Middle East so that we can all enjoy a safer, more prosperous future, and deliver on the promises on the Arab Spring.