Archive | June, 2013

93,000 Dead: How We Got Here

20 Jun

*This post originally appeared on the STAND blog, and was authored by Sean Langberg and I as an overview of the conflict in Syria.

On March 11, 2012, at least 45 women and children were stabbed and burned to death in Homs, a city in western Syria.  Hours prior, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, met with Bashar al-Assad in an effort to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict.  At least fifteen other massacres have taken place since then in the Syrian crisis, including one on June 13th during which Syrian opposition fighters killed 60 Shi’ites in Hatla, including a mix of women and children.  Civilian deaths only intensified as the conflict shifted from a series of peaceful protests to a brutal crackdown.

The conflict began in March 2011 as protests in Southwest Asia and North Africa came and went as part of the Arab Spring.  It started as a series of demonstrations against the Bashar al-Assad regime that has been in power since 2000, but his father, Hafez al-Assad, also led an authoritarian regime that resorted to violence as a means of social and political control.  Protests quickly spread across the country drawing a harsh and escalated police response.  The conflict gradually diverged from other uprisings such as the ones in Tunisia and Egypt and took on qualities of a violent multi-sided conflict as it became clear Assad was not going to negotiate with protesters.

Now, the conflict involves a complex mix of international and multinational actors that are seeking to influence the outcome of the conflict.  Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia have all, in one way or another, supported the Assad regime.  Iran, which shares a Shi’ite religious tradition with Assad’s Alawites, has provided substantial financial assistance and Revolutionary Guard troops to Syria’s government.  Hezbollah, a militant group based in Lebanon, has similarly contributed troops to Assad.  Finally, Russia represents Syria’s most powerful ally on the international stage.  Russia’s final Mediterranean port lies on the Syrian coast, and a long line of Russian foreign policy thinking sees protests and repression as internal matters that do not merit international involvement.  Russia has provided the Assad regime with some weaponry, but more importantly, it, often along with China, has served as a spoiler to prevent UN action on Syria.  Its position as a permanent member of the Security Council means it has the power to block any potent, UN-sanctioned resolutions on Syria.

The Syrian opposition also has a diverse mix of international allies.  The United States and the European Union have been supportive of the opposition since early in the conflict, consistently engaging with both political and military resistance groups.  The United States, beginning last year, has supplied humanitarian assistance to refugees and “non-lethal” aid to Syrian rebels.  Then this past Thursday, the White House announced that it will begin to arm US-friendly opposition groups.  Additionally, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon have all, to varying degrees, assisted rebel forces.  Qatar and Saudi Arabia have aggressively and openly supported the opposition, and thus far, are the biggest sources of lethal aid.

Check here for a visual representation of important actors

Check here for a map of important actors (zoom out for full map)

Throughout the course of the conflict, governments and international organizations have largely been unable to respond effectively to the multilayered crisis.  Humanitarian aid has been slow to arrive, and when it has, it has often been too little.  This chronic shortage caused the UN to put out its largest call for donations ever to aid Syrian displaced persons and refugees.  Diplomatically, Syria has been a failure for the international community.  UN observer missions attempted to use their presence as a buffer to prevent violence against civilians, but eventually the severity of the conflict made their position untenable.  Lakhdar Brahimi, and Kofi Annan before him, has tried as the UN’s Special Envoy without success to bring the two opposing parties together on a negotiated solution to the conflict.  While Russia has made action in the UN Security Council (UNSC) impossible, peace talks are planned, if not scheduled, in Geneva in the near future.  Finally, some sort of military intervention has been on the table for over a year now, but the various proposals, from a no fly zone to airstrikes have not happened because of a combination of tactical concerns and a serious lack of international political will.  Full scale military intervention has been proposed by a few, but without a UNSC-sanctioned mission, there is not a single power or an international coalition willing to intervene.  The most recent move by the US, arming the Syrian Military Council, is in response to growing calls for US action, but most analysts do not believe these arms will do enough to significantly alter the trajectory of the conflict.

The death toll and refugee count are climbing and shows no sign of slowing down.  The first casualties occurred on March 18, 2011, during the first days of civilian-led protests.  Protests grew, spread, and eventually were subsumed in a violent conflict no longer led by civilians.  As a result, the death toll spiraled upward reaching 60,000 in January 2013 and eventually ~93,000 in April 2013 according to the United Nations.

(Based on data from the Syrian National Council)

Additionally, a second crisis is taking place outside of the country as millions of Syrians flee the violence.  Over 1.1 million refugees have spilled over into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, and Armenia.  Also, as of September 2012, the number of internally displaced persons was approximately 2 million.

(Based on data as of March 2013)

In the coming weeks, our bloggers will offer several different perspectives about the atrocities in Syria, ranging from U.S. foreign policy to Syrian American students.


When Reasonable Lungs are too Tired to Shout Anymore: On Arming the Syrian Rebels

15 Jun

After months of stumbling toward some sort of military intervention, the Obama administration has finally fallen across the finish line and decided to arm the Syrian rebels.  This decision, for the most part, initiated a massive collective groan in the American foreign policy community, and once we’d all come to terms with the stupidity of the decision, we, as nature dictates, started to argue about why it happened.

The reasons for the collective groan are obvious, and there have been no shortage of voices that have sketched out in vivid detail why arming the rebels (or other proposed military options) is a boneheaded idea.  Firstly, there isn’t a long-term game plan.  Arming the opposition will moderately augment the rebels’ military strength, but not enough to topple Assad.  According to past experiences with arming rebels (Afghanistan), these arms will eventually get into the wrong hands.  Other proposed options, such as a no-fly zone (NFZ), or cratering government runways, similarly won’t do enough to topple Assad or stop the slaughter of civilians.  No one’s seriously talking about military intervention, which is the only option with long-term logic, even if that logic is also fatally flawed.  Secondly, all of these “strategies” point back to the larger issue of what the goal of American policy in Syria is.  There are three possible options: civilian protection, toppling Assad, or intensifying a proxy war that taxes Iran and Hezbollah at minimal cost.  It’s obviously not the first.  And it’s not the second for the reasons explained above.  Daniel Drezner has argued it’s the third, but that explanation falls short too.  If Obama really saw Syria as the perfect place to engage in a proxy war with Iran and Hezbollah, why didn’t he do it earlier?  Why wait until chemical weapons use is impossible to deny (it was clear as day in April)?

Ultimately, arming the rebels is not the result any coherent, grand strategy.  Rather, it is the consequence of moral and militaristic pressures on the Obama administration.   Diverse sources, from John McCain to Anne-Marie Slaughter to the State Department, have nudged the White House to “do something”.  These calls to action, lacking any strategic legs to stand on, rely on two strategies: moral, emotional appeals and misleading statements regarding America’s credibility.  The first is the most common.  Moral appeals on Syria minimize crucial strategic concerns in favor emotional parallels with past atrocities and empty declarations on the moral necessity of action.  While less common, some conservative politicians and pundits have thrown down the credibility gauntlet: if America does not intervene in the face of such atrocities, it will lose respect among fellow nations.  This ignores the high probability that military intervention in Syria, in whatever form, will fail, and that there is a strong global consensus against American intervention in the Middle East post-Iraq.  The lack of any serious strategy means fractures within the decision-making apparatus (which exhibits some of the characteristics Pearlman describes) have produced exceedingly bad policy at an even worse time.  The future is bleak for Syria.

Slightly Misdirected in the Complexity

13 Jun

A week ago, Jay Ulfelder came out with a ridiculously insightful column about, of all things, microbiology.  He writes that new interpretive frameworks in microbiology mirror similar advances in the social sciences and quotes a book by Michael Polland:

“But it turns out that the overwhelming majority of bacteria residing in the gut simply refuse to grow on a petri dish—a phenomenon known among researchers as “the great plate anomaly.” Without realizing it, they were practicing what is sometimes called parking-lot science—named for the human tendency to search for lost keys under the streetlights not because that’s where we lost them but because that is where we can best see. The petri dish was a streetlight. But when, in the early 2000s, researchers developed genetic “batch” sequencing techniques allowing them to catalog all the DNA in a sample of soil, say, or seawater or feces, science suddenly acquired a broad and powerful beam light that could illuminate the entire parking lot. When it did, we discovered hundreds of new species in the human gut doing all sorts of unexpected things…To their surprise, microbiologists discovered that nine of every ten cells in our bodies do not belong to us, but to these microbial species (most of them residents of our gut), and that 99 percent of the DNA we’re carrying around belongs to those microbes. Some scientists, trained in evolutionary biology, began looking at the human individual in a humbling new light: as a kind of superorganism, a community of several hundred coevolved and interdependent species. War metaphors no longer made sense.”

He then contextualizes it with what Adam Elkus calls “an extended competitive politics freestyle”:

“I’d say a comparable gestalt shift is occurring in some corners of social science, with similarly dramatic implications. For decades, we’ve cranked out snapshots and diagrams and typologies of objects—states, parties, militaries, ethnic groups—that we’ve assumed to be more or less static and distinct and told just-so stories about how one thing changes into another. Now, we’re shedding those functionalist assumptions and getting better at seeing those objects as permeable superorganisms embedded in ecosystems, all of them continually coevolving in ways that may elude our capacity to narrate, or even to understand at all. The implications are simultaneously thrilling and overwhelming.”

Yesterday, I read Wendy Pearlman’s chapter “Composite-Actor Approach to Conflict Behavior” in the book Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict, which provides a good qualitative example of what Ulfelder’s talking about.  Pearlman basically argues that the way we think about political decision making is entirely wrong.  She uses the example of Palestinian resistance to the formation of Israel as a way to sketch-out the composite-actor approach as an alternative.  This interpretive strategy sees political and social groups as non-cohesive, diverse entities.  She argues that placing political movements within the framework of “rational or strategic choice” steamrolls complex internal differences and that the logic of individual rational choice cannot be expanded to groups.  Finally, she writes that because of this fundamental structure of organizations, social scientists shouldn’t be asking what factors cause groups to make certain decisions, but who has the power within organizations to make those decisions, providing a better casual explanation.

This sort of thinking (political systems, patterns of interaction etc.), and perhaps Pearlman’s chapter, will likely form the theoretical basis for my thesis.  I will need to find writing that complicates the mainstream understanding that violence only works in situations with respect for human life, which may not exist in a mass atrocity situation.  While I’m only in the beginning stages of research, it seems to me that the way to accomplish this is to understand how power works on a person-to-person level during conflict.  How can civilians leverage power against armed groups?  Who has power over armed groups that can be leveraged by civilians?  What splits, a la Pearlman, within armed groups, can be identified and exploited by civilians?

In a response to Ulfelder’s post, Adam Elkus slightly complicates the ever-increasing analytic intricacy, supplemented by bigger data, that Ulfelder says is the future, “Ulfelder talks (and I agree) about the problems of binning into binary categories  and reductionist analysis. But binning is an inevitable effect of limited cognitive resources. We face a problem of infinite regress without binning, since—without buying into hippy-dippy Gaia hypothesis nonsense—the entire planet can be considered a system. And so and so on. So we have to bin more wisely.”

Even Pearlman runs into this problem.  While she does a fantastic job of describing the complexities of the Palestinian movement, her discussion of Jewish and British responses to Palestinian actions is decidedly non-complex.  She doesn’t identify the different actors within either, and Palestinians simply react to general actions of the two parties, rather than forming a political system with the other inhabitants of Palestine.  This critique is not meant to discredit Pearlman, however.  Her chapter was more on the composite-actor theory rather than Palestine in 1947, and therefore her analytic approach makes sense.  It does however, point to the issue Elkus highlights.  Had Pearlman attempted to treat Palestine as the complex political system it was, and identify all the actors within each general group, the chapter would have lost much of its theoretical clarity.  However, the “binning” that Pearlman did led to a less rigorous analysis of pre-Israel Palestine.  This is inevitably something I will face as I begin the writing process.  I need to understand local-level violence manifestations and power relations, but when will that analysis distract from the geopolitics I also need to understand.  In other words, how complex is too complex?  How can I successfully “jump levels”, as George Lakey termed in, from the local to the national to the global, and propose solutions that work on all three?

Hopefully I can answer my own rhetoricals at the end of the summer.

*As with any posts that relate to my thesis, readers should feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments.  Any help is sincerely appreciated.

The Roots of Indigenous Governance and Conflict in Bolivia

12 Jun

*This is the English blog post version of my research in Bolivia.  It originally appeared on Taylor Marvin’s blog, Smoke & Stir.

The MAS party (Movimiento al Socialismo, or Movement toward Socialism), which dominates Bolivia’s current government, originated in a mid-1990s confluence of indigenous organizations. In 2005 MAS won its first presidential election, with candidate Evo Morales elected to the presidency, and has been in power ever since. I started this project with the desire to understand how MAS managed to gain power and form one of the most stable governments in Bolivia’s history in the span of less than twenty years. Despite its position of relative strength MAS’ governing coalition remains fraught with conflicts and contradictions, so I also sought to contextualize these issues within the framework of movement governments produced when social movements win elections. My research found that historically divergent forms of indigenous political organization, combined with perceptions of electoral politics and the collapse of the Bolivian right, set the stage for conflicts within MAS. Finally, the comparative section of my paper highlights the importance of the transition period between a social movement and the government it produces.

Led by workers’ unions, the revolution of 1952 signaled the end of the old order in Bolivian politics and the beginning of the liberal nationalist era. Bolivia’s unions grew stronger in the post-revolutionary era, and the popularity of this model led to the formation of many indigenous peasant (campesino) unions that stressed the importance of individual land ownership. While some of these organizations were quite democratic, verticalism, personalism, and patronage were also common. This new type of indigenous organization conflicted with the older version, the ayllu, which was based around communal land led by community councils rather than a separate hierarchy. Significant diversity has always existed within these two forms of social mobilization, and many of the conflicts within MAS stem from these differing traditions.

Another major pre-election factor responsible for post-electoral conflict was the formation of MAS as a “political instrument”, rather than a political party. During the mid-1990s Bolivian society experienced a crisis of confidence in political parties and the political system, which provided an opportunity for an ambitious indigenous force, spurred on by repression from both the government and the DEA, to gain a political foothold. Bolivians’ distrust of political parties made it unwise — and from MAS founders’ perspective, counterproductive — to style their new coalition as a traditional political party. The political instrument MAS was an attempt to do away with the bureaucracy and verticalism associated with political parties. But its lack of a defined organizational structure meant that as the pressures of victory necessitated the formation of a bureaucracy and a division of labor, MAS’ most powerful coalition partners (who mostly came from the union tradition) took the lead. This ad hoc structure meant that institutional channels for weaker coalition partners to challenge the growing power of Evo Morales and his circle of advisors, the coca growers union, and to a lesser extent other union organizers, were unavailable. Despite concrete attempts by more powerful partners to consolidate power, much of the concentration of power around Evo Morales was the unintended consequences of political success. Today, the flows of political power within MAS are informal, and official titles matter less than the relationship between individual leaders and Evo. While various organizations still have the ability to strongly influence government policy, MAS and the Bolivian government are dominated by Evo and his small circle of middle-class non-indigenous advisors.

A portion of my project was a comparative section in which I used political theory and two movement government case studies — specifically, post-communist Poland and South Africa after Apartheid — to contextualize the Masista experience in Bolivia. My central conclusion was that the transition period is crucial in determining the type of government social movements ultimately produced. Firstly, elite-driven transitions that do little to incorporate the public are likely to produce centralized governments unable or unwilling to respond to the demands of the people. Secondly, the longer the period of transition, the more likely the chances are that a representative government will form. Longer transition periods provide the opposition with more time to organize and include the public, and government repression harms the possibility of this positive organization. Finally, if movements can clearly articulate their post-transition goals before the transition is actually made, there is a lower chance of subsequent intra-coalition conflict.

In these respects, Bolivia was quite lucky. Unlike in Poland and South Africa, the transition took the form of an election (in South Africa, I’m referring to the end of Apartheid rather than the 1994 elections) which allowed for popular participation. The transition period, defined as MAS’ rise between 1995-2005, was also quite long. While coca growers suffered severe repression, previous Bolivian governments made little attempt to repress MAS as an organization. Lastly, though many groups didn’t foresee getting screwed by MAS, there was a publicly-well understood to-do list when MAS was elected. While Bolivia under MAS is not the utopian movement government Vice President Garcia Linera claims it to be (the logic of social movements and governments is contradictory), it arguably has done better than South Africa and Poland in forming a representative democracy partially due to favorable transitional conditions.

The 2009 near-total collapse of Bolivia’s political opposition was the final factor that allowed for MAS’ consolidation of power. While this collapse mostly affected the right, other sectors also suffered. In-fighting, the failure of the Santa Cruz autonomy movement, the lack of a viable opposition leader, MAS’ popularity, and the new government’s political cunning all divided and severely weakened opposing parties. This collapse allowed MAS to further tighten its circle of support, and to dispense with coalition partners that it didn’t have much in common with anyway. The lack of any potential political challenger has put MAS in a position of relative strength for a Bolivian government.

A second cause for MAS’s near-hegemonic political position is the historical exclusion of indigenous people in the Bolivian political scene. While many indigenous people are frustrated with MAS’ policies, they realize that they are in the best position they’ve ever been in, the alternatives are worse, and working for change within the system is the best policy (MAS has opened up more institutional channels for indigenous social organization participation than any previous administration). An anecdote that best conveys this reality was relayed to me by a Bolivian sociologist, who in an interview quoted an older indigenous woman in El Alto: “Evo can screw up for 500 years and we will continue to support him.” Despite the frequent civil conflicts between MAS and indigenous organizations (a massive series of strikes and roadblocks ground the western half of Bolivia to a near halt a month ago), indigenous civil society mostly works in a way that does not directly challenge MAS’s claims to power, and MAS has become quite adept at knowing its own limits. It is difficult to forecast where a challenge strong enough to topple MAS will come from.

Many leftists academics, including some I interviewed, argue that despite MAS’ indigenous roots, its policies (for example, the marginalization of lowland indigenous groups) are anti-indigenous. However, this critique essentializes indigenous identity by assuming that (monolithic) indigenous people have a destiny fundamentally different from the rest of society. They are anti-modern, and in the case of Bolivia, inhabit rural spaces and practice more “traditional” forms of living. The reality is more complicated. Lowlanders’ loss of power under the MAS government stems from nationwide political dynamics and differing political history between lowlanders and highlanders; the latter form the base of MAS. Another issue many harp on as an example of Evo’s faulty indigenous credentials is his neoliberal and extractive economic policies. The first is the result of the needs of his base: the coca growers (Evo is a former coca grower himself) need a market to sell their product, and therefore neoliberalism, combined with limited government welfare, suits them nicely. The second is a result of pressure from indigenous groups who see environmental damage from mining and hydrocarbon extraction as less harmful than failing to exploit these resources. In and of itself, neoliberal economics policies are not incompatible with an indigenous identity. While some of MAS’ discourse does essentialize what it means to be indigenous for its own political gain, accusing it of being anti-indigenous is hardly valid.

Ultimately, MAS’ social movement origins, Bolivia’s indigenous political tradition, the 1990s political collapse, pressures of electoral victory, and the disintegration of the opposition are the five main factors that have brought MAS to where it is today. While its position at the top is remarkably stable, it will need to find a way to better incorporate indigenous social organizations in the future to retain its grip on power.

Challenges of Studying Nonviolence and Conflict

12 Jun

I started my internship with the Sentinel Project Monday.  This means two things: 1) I’ve started doing research for my thesis which will also produce a set of policy recommendations for SP and 2) I have more time to blog regularly.  I knew my thesis topic, which will attempt to address the question “Is it possible to respond nonviolently to mass atrocities, and if so, how?”, would be challenging, simply because there is so little written on the topic.  And when I say “so little”, I mean basically nothing.  Therefore, I’ve quickly realized that much of my thesis will be aggregation and synthesis, rather than critiquing existing works on the subject and proposing slightly different theories (read some great, tangentially related, articles though).  Of course there’s plenty of work on nonviolence, civil wars, mass atrocities, and political conflict, but, perhaps because peace studies is a new field of study, few academic works link nonviolence, civilian protection, and political violence.  Most nonviolence literature deals with civilian attempts to overthrow governments, but fails to see civilians as active actors unless they participate in a social movement with a specific, macropolitical goal.  In his article on civilian nonviolent self-protection in Colombia, political scientist Oliver Kaplan underlines this problem nicely:

“Despite anecdotes of effectiveness and the buoyancy of activists, this literature on civilian movements remains under-theorized, without specifying causal mechanisms, or processes by which organized civilian resistance might affect substantively interesting outcomes. The causal ‘force’ of civilians has not been made falsifiable or comparatively evaluated against the positivist, macropolitical explanations of violence. As a result we have been unable to discern whether the effects of civilian social cohesion and organization in wartime are epiphenomenal to – derivative of – armed groups’ interests (as Kalyvas suggests they are). It is for good reason then that in Kalyvas’s (2006: 110) passing discussion of local committees in conflict zones he observes, ‘We know little about how they actually operate.’” ”

This theoretical gap means that the next step in nonviolence literature should be to understand how civilians interact with armed actors during conflict to protect themselves, but unfortunately, a theoretical study isn’t out there yet (or at least I haven’t found it).  Oliver Kaplan’s article (linked to above) is a good start, but even then, his work focuses on civil wars, where civilians are not the primary target.  In the community he studied in Colombia, civilians experienced violence when they participate, or are believed to have participated, on one side or the other of the civil war.  While even that distinction did little to protect civilians before a community association was formed, that thin buffer does not exist in situations where civilians are the target of large-scale violence.  Understanding how individuals can nonviolently protect themselves in these situations is the gap I need to fill with my thesis.

*If any readers have any suggestions on reading or approaches I could take, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

My final project from studying in Bolivia

9 Jun

I finally got around to putting my final project from Bolivia in a publicly accessible google doc (available here). It’s on the roots of the current MAS government in Bolivia in the context of indigenous political history and the effect of social movements on the governments they create. If you’re interested in Bolivian politics, or social movement politics in general, and speak Spanish, then you may well be interested. Otherwise, I’ll be coming out with a blog post soon in English that condenses my research on Taylor Marvin’s blog, Smoke & Stir.