Update on Syria

New polls released last week show that the large majority of Americans don’t think the US should get involved with Syria- an overwhelming 68% of those polled say the US should stay out. Only 24% said the US should intervene.  Seems that John McCain’s surprise visit and his making the rounds at think tanks and political talk shows isn’t convincing anyone that ‘he knows who the good guys are’.

With the US and Russia attempting to organize talks between the opposition and Assad, the opposition is refusing to participate. George Sabra, head of the National Coalition, said that what is happening in Syria has ‘shut the door’ to any negotiations. Just last week, the rebels lost the city of Qusayr to Assad forces (which has been refreshed with fighters from Hezbollah). The rebels are refusing to come to the table until the West agrees to arm them, stating that negotiating from a weakened position is not a real negotiation, and the playing field must be level again before they will talk.

Violence from the conflict is spilling over in to Lebanon, with one person dying after  a protest in front of the Iranian embassy in Beirut. Hezbollah has sent fighters and support for the Assad government, increasing the gains made on the ground by the national forces.

Things inside the country are getting worse- the UN is currently asking for $5 billion in aid to help Syrian refugees, and predicts that almost 1 out of every two Syrians need help. 10 million people need aid, and the refugee population is expected to double to 3.45 million in the coming months. Meanwhile, foreign fighters inside Syria are taking hardline positions, recently executing a teenage boy in front of his family for ‘insulting the prophet’.

As Syria Burns

Big news this Memorial Day. As the US stops to BBQ and remember its fallen Vets, the situation in Syria is still one of civil war. However, the Foreign minister of Syria, Walid Muallem, said that Syria would agree ‘in principle’ to attend Geneva talks! The round of talks (called Geneva 2) will take place next month, and were a joint proposal by the US and Russia. What do these talks mean? Well, the Syrian National Coalition (the organized part of the opposition) said they were willing to participate, on the condition that Assad step down. Assad so far has refused to step aside or leave the country.  The talks haven’t even been scheduled yet, due to what Russia is calling a ‘lack of unity within the opposition’.

 

The Syrian National Coalition is meeting in Istanbul, Turkey currently, and has yet to ‘officially’ reach a decision on whether or not to join in the talks. If they refuse, there will be little chance in holding them. John Kerry and his Russian counter part, Sergey Lavrov, are to meet in Paris today to continue to discuss the Syrian situation.

There seems to be little chance to end Syria’s 26 month war with Assad staying in power. Either he will step down (not likely), be overthrown (a chance), the opposition will fail (perhaps possible), or the war will continue to drag on in its current form. With over 80,000 dead and over 1.5 million displaced, the situation in Syria is tragic, and not likely to get any better any time soon.

Myanmar on my mind

When I leave my little island paradise and venture into the Big City, I drive through the small not-even town of Rosewood, Florida. Rosewood was the site of an American version of ethnic cleansing. Rosewood sits in Levy County, Florida, and in its original form existed as a black community along the Seaboard Coastline Railway. One night, back in 1923, accusations started floating around that a black drifter had raped a local white woman. So the local white men folk went and lynched an innocent black man from Rosewood. The black people in Rosewood stood to defend themselves. The white folk burned Rosewood to the ground, forcing the black population into hiding in the local swamps, and killing six. Rosewood was abandoned, and not spoken of again until the 1980s. Twice  a day I drive through this spot of ethnic violence, and twice a day I think of Myanmar.

Myanmar?

How many of you know what is currently happening in Myanmar? Or, call it Burma if you would like.

The average American might not know much about this Southeast Asian state, and in truth that is understandable. Myanmar spent most of the last half century isolated from outside contact. It never makes US news, except that one time monks protested and that other time the cyclone hit and the dictatorship wouldn’t accept US aid. A site of rich ancient cultural heritage, it was a British colony back in the day. In March of 1962, General Ne Win led the army in a coup d’etat. For around the next fifty years, Burma existed as a closed military dictatorship. However, that is the past! Myanmar has such a bright future!

In 2008, a  referendum on the Burmese constitution set up a path to democracy. In 2010, elections were held. Now, these were not exactly fair elections and there was fraud, but baby steps. The election set the government on a path of reforms, the most famous being the release of Nobel Prize winner  Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest (after 20 years). The government has opened the economy, relaxed restrictions on the press, and allowed  unions to exist. A National Human Rights Commission was even established, though no one seems quite sure what to do about the Karen or the KNU.

But back to why Rosewood makes me think of Myanmar. In 2012, in Rakhine state, allegedly a Buddhist woman was raped and killed by a Rohingya Muslim man. To begin with, the Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Myanmar, and have been refused all rights of citizenship. So, as you can imagine, this incident (accusations of a hated minority attacking the women folk of the majority) set off riots that eventually killed 78 people. The government attempted to crack down and get things under some semblance of control, but the violence spread across the country and is still continuing today. Buddhist against Muslim violence  has displaced over 90,000 people. Recently, the violence reached the outskirts of Okkan (one of Burma’s largest cities) with Buddhist torching Muslim homes. Rangoon just saw an outburst of violence in which mosques and homes were destroyed.

Buddhist violence? Against Muslims?

Yes. It is a classic example of majority vs minority. The Rohingya make up around 7% of the population, and are a small, peaceful minority. However, they have long been denied any rights, and some outside observers have accused the Myanmar government of waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. As a long persecuted minority, the Rohingya serve as a convenient scapegoat for all ills. Add in the preachings of Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who is known as the Burmese Bin Laden. His organization, the 969, have been known to perpetrate and incite acts of anti-Muslim violence. The 969 propagates the idea the Buddhism is essential to the identity of the nation, and that the Muslims are unwanted outsiders that threaten the social fabric.

It is really not much different from every argument a majority makes against a minority. The philosophy that drives monks to torch the homes of Muslims is very similar to the philosophy that drove the Levy County whites to torch Rosewood. Drive out the outsider. The fact that the perpetrators of the violence are Buddhist may seem at first surprising, but like all religions, Buddhism can give followers a sense of the moral rightness of their views, which must be protected and furthered at all costs.

This is a conflict that deserves more attention. It is something that I plan to learn more about.

For the latest on Myanmar, read http://www.irrawaddy.org/

Elizabeth Karle is currently majoring in Political Science and Statistics, with a minor in African studies, at the University of Florida. For tweets on Africa, security, foreign policy, and snark follow @eakarle. You can also read her blog at http://subsaharanroundup.blogspot.com/

In the Congo, the UN takes the offense

File this under ‘things the UN should have done ten years ago’.

Two weeks ago the UN approved a ‘search and destroy’ unit for driving the rebels out of the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The UN Security Council plans on sending 2,000 or so troops to the Kivus to carry out targeted offensive operations and neutralize the various armed groups that operate with impunity in the region.

Some of you might be scratching your heads, thinking ‘A peacekeeping force making war?’ Maybe you feel that the UN has no business ‘hunting rebels’. You might also wonder why the army of the DRC doesn’t step up and ‘do the hunting’.

First, the FARDC, the army of the DRC, is almost as bad in some areas as the rebels themselves. It is still suffering from mismanagement and poor training, and in places in the Congo, the army has committed as many atrocities as the rebels have. The government in Kinshasa was more than happy to hear the news of the UN force, if only because it relieved the government from having to take care of the problem.

However, the only groups really upset with the news of the force were, you guessed it, the very rebels the unit is to hunt. Bisimwa, the current leader of the M23, said that peacekeepers would now be waging war on a population of citizens, and then scrambled to make sure that the M23 wouldn’t be on the ‘hit list’.

The FDLR was also upset. The FDLR decried the move by the UN as an act of war. The FDLR, some of you might know, is the same group that once perpetrated the genocide in Rwanda. The group has been terrorizing the eastern Congo now for 19 years.

I have little sympathy for the various rebel groups that have torn apart the Congo for the last 19 years. The international community has tried various things to work with the many rebels. Want a list? Tactics for the last 20 years go as follows: negotiated peace settlements, army integration, bargaining, telling them to stop killing/raping/torturing civilians, setting up the world’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping force, asking them to stop killing civilians, passing legislation at the US/EU state level to block funding for armed rebel movements, conflict mineral legislation, peace talks. That is just a short list of tactics the UN and the Congolese government have tried. The US and EU even recently cut funding to Rwanda, a notorious backer of rebel movements, to stop the violence. Nothing has worked.

Which is why Africanists were very excited to hear the news about the special unit. These rebels are mostly cowards, who have terrorized civilians, ruined lives, raped women, destroyed homes, used forced slave labor, turned children in to soldiers, and in the case of the FDLR, committed genocide. This force offers the best chance the global community has in putting a stop to the violence. Yes, the Congolese state needs legitimate government and state capacity.  Yes, this force might open up a gray area of ‘peacekeeping’. But it has become the only feasible option in a place where nothing else has worked. If it brings peace and security to the people of the Kivus, I am all for it. The number of ‘rebel movement’s is likely to drop, once there is a force that is standing against them.

Why I miss Kim Jong-Il

Oh, North Korea.

Things have become rather tense there in the last few weeks. First they ended the 1953 armistice. Then they threatened total destruction of the US (refrain from laughing). NoKo blocked South Korean access to the joint industrial complex, and in the last few days have moved two missiles to the east coast. Add to that the ‘intercepted communications’ that show the North is planning on launching a missile in the next few days, and things seem on the brink of spiraling out of control.

Many experts have come out to say that KJU is simply attempting to consolidate his power domestically by prompting an international incident. Others say he is testing the new president of South Korea. There is always the chance that Kim Jong-Un is simply insane, and really believes that his military is capable of bringing destruction to the US.

Whatever the case may be, it really makes me miss Kim Jong-Il, as much as one can miss a dictator. Old Kim was a pop culture icon, in a way. He had his fame from Team America: World Police. He had a meme — Kim Jong Il looking at things. He was terrible, terrible — but loveable in a way. He was also a known. The international community knew what to expect from KJI. No one knows what to expect from his son.

North Korea is not a threat to the US mainland. It is not even a real threat to Guam. NoKo is, however, a threat to South Korea and Japan. There are also many Americans stationed in South Korea and Japan that could potentially be in harms way, should KJU decided to take action on his rhetoric. South Korea has made it clear that they will no longer tolerate any attacks from the North.

Things could potentially become very ugly on the Korean peninsula. For now, though, just enjoy the past crazy of the DPRK. You know, before it became not funny.

So a War Criminal Walks Into A US Embassy….

To those who follow developments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the fact that Bosco Ntaganda, the Terminator, walked into the US embassy in Kigali, Rwanda and turned himself in was kind of a big deal. Ntaganda was the leader of the former CNDP (a Rwanda backed rebel movement in the DRC) and the current leader of one half of the new M23. Yes, it is all very confusing- defunct rebel organizations integrated into the Congolese army, to be born again a few years later with the same leaders and the same backers, only to split in to two rival parts. Welcome to the world of African Studies.

Ntaganda has been wanted by the International Criminal Court for years. He faces seven counts of war crimes and three counts of crimes against humanity (charges ranging from murder, mass rape, and use of child soldiers) for a 2002-2003 rampage the CNDP perpetrated in Ituri. Everyone has know where Bosco has been all this time. He’s been in the Congo, as a general in the army as part of a 2009 peace accord. Then as the leader of the M23. Which just split into two rival factions. And his faction just got it handed to them in battle. So, facing dwindling support from both his rebel base unit, and probably from Rwanda, Bosco turned himself in to the United States Embassy.

Fun fact- the US is not a participant in the ICC. This means that while the US has signed the Rome Statute in 2000, it has never ratified it, making the US not a party to the court. This means that the US can’t ask for people to be tried by the court, can’t turn people in to the court, and can’t be tried by the court. There are several reasons for this, some being the US has a justice system (if Rick Scott of Fl suddenly organized a militia and started murdering people in Georgia to claim territory, the US is able to stop him and try him in our justice system) and every administration has argued that as America remains the dominate military policeman on the planet, our troops are put in ‘war crime-ish’ situations protecting other countries, so it wouldn’t be fair to charge any US military or civilian leaders at the ICC.

So, Bosco’s surrender provided a small headache for the US- they had to work through intermediaries to transfer Ntaganda to the ICC.  The interesting part here will be this week as Ntaganda goes to court the first time, to hear the charges against him, and in the coming years as the trial develops. Whatever Ntaganda testifies, it can’t be good news for Rwanda or the RPF (the Rwandan armed forces).  The reason that Ntaganda handed himself in (the first wanted criminal to ever voluntarily surrender) isn’t clear. Perhaps it was pressure from Rwanda- this to me seems unlikely, as testimony could be potentially damaging and Rwanda has spoken out against the ICC as illegitimate. More likely, Bosco saw the writing on the wall. His rebel movement was falling apart with internal discord, he was rapidly losing support, and any conditions/judgement he faced from either the DRC or Rwanda was bound to be far, far worse than a vacay at the Hague.

Good news is hard to come by in the eastern region of the DRC, so it is good news that Ntaganda will be tried for his crimes. It will be one small bit of justice for the Congolese. Which is very much needed. However, things in the Congo are unlikely to change with Bosco gone. The Kabila government is still weak, the east is still home to many militias, and the domestic problems of land rights, citizenship, and agency still remain. State capacity is everything, and the DRC still lacks that. However, there is one less war criminal roaming about, which is always a good thing.

What Kenya’s Election Means for America

Kenya just recently held a presidential election. You might have heard about it, because Western journalists were parachuting in, hoping for bloodshed and general anarchy. See, back in 2007 after Kenya’s elections, there was a bit of post-election violence, where around 1,000 people died. Kenya is a fairly stable country, located in east Africa. The military just recently did the world a favor by kicking the heck out of al Shabaab in Somalia, and the economy in Kenya is dominant in East Africa. Kenya is important to the world and the America. So, when the post election violence happened in 2007, there was surprise from the international community, and of course the ICC stepped in an leveled charges at those considered at fault.

Basically, the elections in 2007 were stolen. So Uhuru Kenyatta and a group of others ‘organized’ ethnic violence. Kenyatta was charged by the ICC, and stands to face trail. But now he is the President of Kenya. There is only one other Head of State that is wanted by the ICC, and that is Sudan’s Bashir. However, Kenyatta won the election with just over 50% of the vote and Kenyans voted peacefully. Odinga (the main challenger) said for no one to be violent, they would charge the outcome in the courts.

The US State Department issued a vague ‘congrats to those who won’ statement after the election of Kenyatta, and the west in general didn’t throw any parties for him. Yet, the West can’t stand to shut Kenya out of the community as it has done Bashir. Kenya is a stable, thriving nation that has long been dominate in East African affairs. Kenya took in all the refugees fleeing the Somali drought, Kenya kicked around al Shabaab, Kenya is the dominant economy in the region. In order for America to have good relations in East Africa, the US needs Kenya.

Kenyatta will have his days in court, and he might even be acquitted. He might be found guilty. Regardless of how the US feels about those facing trail with the ICC, the White House and State Dept need a working relationship with the Kenyan government. It would be unwise for the US to sanction Kenya- after all, Kenyans stood in line for hours to vote in an open, free, and fair election. For the west to outright reject the choice of millions would be a slap in the face to both Kenya and democracy.

Oh, and I think someone tell CNN they need to apologize to Kenya for hyping up the threat of violence. Democracy does exist in Africa, and not every election has a bad outcome. Even if the US doesn’t like Kenyatta, he is the president now. He won an election, after all.