Archive for the ‘International Law & Organizations’ Category


Why dictators like Assad just can’t quit while they’re ahead.

By John Norris


Not content to slowly exterminate his opposition and continue the massive depopulation of his country, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently felt compelled to launch a blatant chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds, if not thousands. If this sort of supervillain behavior sounds familiar, you’re paying attention. Assad is replicating the same strategic blunder committed by a long list of his fellow tyrants and strongmen.

What gives? Why would Assad do something so provocative, something so stupid, something so obviously designed to trigger an international military response?

The answer is simple. Assad — like former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, and former Libyan President Muammar al-Qaddafi — got so used to poking the great slumbering bear that is the United States and the international community without any response that he assumed he had absolute impunity to do whatever he pleased on the ground.

After all, the United States did not seem inclined to dramatic action even after the U.N. announced that there were a million children refugees from the conflict. President Obama’s initial, forceful declaration that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” later proved to be rather squishy. Russia and China have maintained a united front in the U.N. Security Council against concerted action, and it is obvious that the United States couldn’t be less eager to engage in another Middle Eastern war on the heels of costly interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Like Milosevic, Taylor, and Qaddafi, Assad can be forgiven for thinking that there simply was no outrage which would force the United States to get involved. Hadn’t Milosevic successfully engineered ethnic cleansing in Bosnia? Hadn’t Charles Taylor pushed neighboring Sierra Leone into a hellish landscape were rebels cut off the hands of children for sport? Hadn’t Qaddafi engineered the downing of Pan-Am Flight 103 killing all 259 passengers aboard?

Yes, they had. Read more…

John Norris is executive director of the Sustainable Security program at the Center for American Progress.

As published in on August 26, 2013.


By Peter Bergen


Pigeons lie dead on the ground on August 24 from after what activists say is the use of chemical weapons by government forces in the Damascus suburb of Arbeen

What is widely recognized as the most authoritative study of the United States’ responses to mass killings around the world — from the massacres of Armenians by the Turks a century ago, to the Holocaust, to the more recent Serbian atrocities against Bosnian Muslims and the ethnic cleansing of the Tutsis in Rwanda — concluded that they all shared unfortunate commonalities:

“Despite graphic media coverage, American policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil. Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence. They trust in good-faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy. Once the killings start, they assume that civilians who keep their head down will be left alone. They urge cease-fires and donate humanitarian aid.”

This is an almost perfect description of how the United States has acted over the past two years as it has tried to come up with some kind of policy to end the Assad regime’s brutal war on its own people in Syria.

The author who wrote the scathingly critical history of how the United States has generally dithered in the face of genocide and mass killings went on to win a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for her book “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.”

A decade after winning the Pulitzer, that author is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Her name, of course, is Samantha Power, and she is a longtime, close aide to President Barack Obama. She started working for Obama when he was a largely unknown junior senator from Illinois.

Power called her 610-page study of genocide “A Problem from Hell” because that’s how then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher referred to the Bosnian civil war and the unpalatable options available to the U.S. in the early 1990s to halt the atrocities by the Serbs.

One of the U.S. officials that Power took to task in her book is Susan Rice who, as the senior State Department official responsible for Africa, did nothing in the face of the genocide unfolding in Rwanda in 1994.

Rice is quoted in the book as suggesting during an interagency conference call that the public use of the word “genocide” to describe what was then going on in Rwanda while doing nothing to prevent it would be unwise and might negatively affect the Democratic Party in upcoming congressional elections.

Rice later told Power she could not recall making this statement but also conceded that if she had made it, the statement was “completely inappropriate, as well as irrelevant.”

Rice is now Obama’s national security adviser. Read more…

Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation

As published in on August 27, 2013.


Posted by Dexter Filkins

This time it’s different.


For months, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria, has been suspected of using chemical weapons against the rebels who are trying to remove him, in violation of international treaties and the Obama Administration’s threats. Syrian opposition groups say that Assad has used chemical weapons as many as thirty-five times, often with low concentrations of sarin gas. In each case, the attack appears to have been intended to cause as much panic as death, and without provoking a Western response. The result—carefully calculated by the Assad regime, no doubt—is that the death toll from chemical weapons has been kept low. In June, Benjamin Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, said that between a hundred and a hundred and fifty people had been killed in all of the gas attacks together. This, in a fratricidal war that has killed more than a hundred thousand people.

But Wednesday’s early-morning attack appears to be something very different in scale. According to reports from the scene, four large rockets landed in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta at just after 2 A.M. This time, the gas appeared to be more concentrated: on Thursday, the Syrian Support Group, a rebel advocacy organization in Washington, put the death toll at 1,302, with nearly ten thousand others contaminated. Two-thirds of the dead were women and children, the group said. You don’t have to believe the Syrian Support Group, but a look at videos posted on the Internet—here, here, and here—seems to support their account, and suggest that something new and terrible is happening in Syria.

The Assad government denied it had carried out the attack, as it has on previous occasions, suggesting that the allegations reflect desperation on the part of the rebels. The Russian government blamed the rebels, accusing them of trying to create a pretext for Western intervention; at the same time, the Russians urged Assad to coöperate with U.N. inspectors, who are inside the country. (The Obama Administration has continued to maintain that the rebels do not have any chemical-weapons capability.)

If the S.S.G.’s account is confirmed, which could take some time, the question is: What can be done? A year ago, President Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would constitute the crossing of a “red line” that would trigger a more vigorous American response. At the time, it appeared that the Assad regime was teetering, that the rebels were closing in. Since then, Assad, whose position grew stronger thanks, in large measure, to military support from Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, has called Obama’s bluff. In June, the Assad regime declared that it had recaptured Qusayr, a town near the Lebanese border, which serves as a principal conduit for Hezbollah guns and missiles coming from Iran. The same month, Rhodes declared that the White House had “high confidence” that Assad had used chemical weapons “several” times. The President’s advisers let it be known that the President had decided to change his policy—that the U.S. would begin sending small arms and ammunition to the rebels. That is, rifles and bullets. It was the least Obama could do while still changing his policy, and insufficient to help the rebels win. Indeed, there is no evidence that American weapons of any sort have even started to arrive. Read more…

As published in on August 23, 2013.


The country has battled water shortages, rising food prices, and declining oil production, and it’s fueling the current conflict.

By Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed


With more than 600 people killed and almost 4,000 injured from clashes between Egyptian security forces and Muslim Brotherhood protesters, the country’s democratic prospects look dismal. But while the violence is largely framed as a conflict between Islamism and secularism, the roots of the crisis run far deeper. Egypt is in fact on the brink of a protracted state-collapse process driven by intensifying resource scarcity.

Since the unilateral deposition of President Morsi, the army’s purported efforts to “restore order” are fast-tracking the country toward civil war. The declaration of a month-long state of emergency–ironically in the name of defending “democracy”–suggests we are witnessing the dawn of a new era of unprecedented violence with the potential to destabilize the entire region.

Underlying growing instability is the Egyptian state’s increasing inability to contain the devastating social impacts of interconnected energy, water and food crises over the last few decades. Those crises, already afflicting other regional states like Yemen and Syria, will unravel prevailing political orders with devastating consequences–unless urgent structural transformation to address those crises becomes a priority. The upshot is that Egypt’s meltdown represents the culmination of long-standing trends that, without a change of course, can only escalate with permanent repercussions across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and beyond.

A major turning point for Egypt arrived in 1996, when Egypt’s domestic oil production peaked at about 935,000 barrels per day (bpd), dropping since then to about 720,000 bpd in 2012. Yet Egypt’s domestic oil consumption has increased steadily over the past decade by about 3 percent a year. Since 2010, oil consumption–currently at 755,000 bpd–has outpaced production. It is no coincidence that the following year, Hosni Mubarak was toppled. Read more…

As published by The Atlantic on August 19, 2013.



A surprising number of world leaders and foreign policy experts have effectively acquiesced in the continued brutality of Egypt’s generals, arguing that support for the military is the only way to restore stability in the Arab world’s most populous state and limit wider regional turmoil. But this is just one of several false choices misinforming the debate and one that is certain to ensure more unrest, not less.

After overthrowing Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the military could have been a positive force if it had put in place a transition plan that included all groups, including Mr. Morsi’s allies in the Muslim Brotherhood. But instead of encouraging Egyptians to settle differences through democratic means — elections, for instance — the generals and their anti-Morsi allies, invoking the threat of “terrorism,” took the ruthless, likely fateful, decision to crack down on peaceful demonstrators. The death toll of more than 1,000 now includes 36 Morsi supporters who died on Sunday under suspicious circumstances in police custody.

The choice the generals are promoting is that the world must decide between them or instability. “At this point, it’s army or anarchy,” one Israeli official told The Times. Israel has been vigorously lobbying the United States and Europe to back the generals. Over the weekend, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia strongly endorsed the crackdown; he and other gulf monarchs, who hate the Brotherhood, have pumped billions into Egypt’s treasury.

There is a better path, and that is to choose not to help the military, which is making things worse, and could fuel a generation of Islamists to choose militancy over the ballot box. (The possible release of ousted President Hosni Mubarak from prison would be the ultimate repudiation of the 2011 revolution.) Is that really in the best long-term interests of the United States? Obviously not. Read more…

As published in on August 19, 2013 (a version of this editorial appears in print on August 20, 2013, on page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: False Choices on Egypt).


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