Day: September 6, 2012

Lessons from Syria…thus far…

The violence in Syria is spiking. 1,600 killed in the past week and 100,000 new refugees in the past month. After a year-and-a-half of violence, the UN reports that there are now more than 230,000 refugees, 1.2 million internally displaced persons, more than 2.5 million in need of humanitarian aid. Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN/Arab League envoy called the violence “staggering.” Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo yesterday condemned Assad’s “crimes against humanity.”

So what have we learned over the past year-and-a-half?

First, despite all the complaints about the era of hyper-interventionism and the fears of R2P run amok, the default response by the international community — especially in complex environments — tends to be restraint. Libya appears to be the exception, not the rule. Neither the Obama administration nor the U.S. military wants any part of an intervention in Syria, the Security Council is deadlocked leaving the UN Secretary General, his special envoy, and the UN observer missions little leverage to alter conditions on the ground. Lots of talk, lots of posturing, but not much effect. In all of these regards, Syria is no different than Bosnia in 1992, or 1993, or 1994.

Second, major external military intervention likely would have significant costs — the conflict would likely escalate and lead to spill-over effects.

Third, limited (or no) intervention also likely will have significant costs — the conflict has escalated and does havespill-over effects.

In other words, the best argument for the current international response to date is that its the least worst option. That may well change…

…because, fourth, it looks like Assad’s regime is likely to become even more ruthless in the weeks and months to come. All of our indicators of the likelihood of mass atrocity events are present in Syria — a minority regime that is under acute military, political, and economic distress and one that has engaged in prior mass atrocities/genocide. It really can get worse.

Jon Lee Anderson’s reporting on the gruesome events ten days ago:

What happened in Daraya follows a pattern that is becoming chillingly routine. Last Saturday, after a withering five-day bombardment, Syrian Army forces entered Daraya and conducted a “mopping-up” operation. What occurred there can only be imagined, but the results are visible in YouTube videos that have been uploaded by activists in the days since then: hundreds of bodies piled up inside houses, in basements, and in a mosque. Many of the bodies were those of young men of fighting age, but there were also children there, and at least one toddler. Many of the victims, as in so many other body-dumps showing up in the environs of Damascus in recent weeks, bore the telltale signs of bullets to the head, fired close-up, execution-style.

Finally, while tipping points are difficult to predict, Assad’s escalation of violence against civilians, if unchecked will generate a new wave of political demands on the United States and others to do more — probably a lot more. A lesson from Bosnia two decades ago is that conflict duration coupled with spikes in intensity of violence against civilians eventually alter the political, moral, and strategic calculations about intervention. This is where the new era of intervention does come in. It may make generals nervous and realists uncomfortable, but global attitudes and norms on civilian violence have changed. We may not live in a world where “Never Again” is sufficiently strong enough to mobilize preventive or early response, but we do live in a world where “Enough is enough” eventually is triggered — my sense is that it’s just a matter of time…and lives.

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“Kim Jong Il was Born on Mt. Paekdu,” or what I learned in NK (3)

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There is KJI in the middle – he was even born in uniform
 
 
Actually, he was probably born in the USSR during the war.
 
Here are parts one and two of this series.
 
5. Pyongyang the Potemkin Village?
The usual line is that Pyongyang is a potemkin village compared to the rest of the country. I can’t say, but I think so. Unfortunately, we only saw the capital, Nampo, and the Mt. Paektu area. And what we saw was quite controlled of course. We were told at certain points that we were not allowed to photograph out the bus windows. But honestly, I didn’t see any extreme poverty. I certainly didn’t see anything like what I saw in southern Africa or India. There was nothing like the gigantic slum-and-shack ‘city’ around Mumbai that is a terribly depressing shock the first time you see it.
 
My impression instead was that almost everything, beyond the most important government buildings in the elite district around Kim Il Sung Square, was run-down – the sort of crappy, broken down socialist world of faceless, concrete block ‘living units’ portrayed in A Clockwork Orange. Just as Alex lived in “’Municipal Flat Block 18A, Linear North,” so do most North Koreans. In our hotel, there was even restaurant no. 1, no. 2., no. 3, and no. 4. Apparently the Presidium of the Fourth Committee for Ideology in Quadrant B12 decided in the Eighth Five Year plan that restaurants in NK must be as bland as possible…
 
Like so many of the ex-communist countries I’ve visited, the architecture was hideous – concrete was everywhere, and it was cheaply made, so everything seemed to cracking and crumbling. It reminded me of Mozambique or Vietnam – desperately in need of a good cleaning, more humane architecture, and a lot of foreign investment to tighten things up. And the architecture that was in good repair was that typical soul-crushing communist gigantism. What better way to remind you of your insignificant role as a cog in the KIS machine than epic concrete monumentalism towering above you. Awful.
 
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6. Moral Discomfort.
 
The guides are smart enough to realize that foreigners, especially westerners and/or the deeply religious, would have a fair amount of trouble if we were expected to bow to images of KIS and KJI as often as North Koreans must. Do the North Koreans really believe it? Who knows. The problem of ‘hidden preferences’ is pretty obvious in NK. But foreigners have a little bit more room to dissent. I made sure to roll my eyes occasionally or drift away from the group when the presentations got more over-the-top than usual. We only had to bow twice – once at Mansudae, which is obligatory for any foreigner visiting, and once near Mt. Paekdu. There was a opportunity to buy flowers with the bowing at Mansudae, which I forewent. A bit of resistance.
 
The other obvious problems are one, going to NK itself, and two, how to respond to guides and other North Koreans as you meet them and they are polite and pleasant with you. On the first one, I wrestled with this a bit. Travelling to North Korea is expensive – $3-400 a day, the bulk of which goes to the regime. So in going you are supporting it I guess, which still makes me very queasy. But I have to say that my morbid curiosity won out. I didn’t make it the east bloc before the Wall fell, and China and Vietnam hardly count anymore. So I was terribly curious to see a stalinist system before it disappears, which I do think one day will happen in NK. But it was a morbid curiosity – you go not to take a vacation or tour some exciting, exotic place. You go to see what a mess it is. It’s ‘disaster tourism’ – like those people who took bus tours of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. You couldn’t care less about KIS, instead you are going to see how the regime obsesses over KIS. You go to observe the personality cult and wonder about its freakishness, not to actually participate in it. This is why I went to see Mao and Ho in China and Vietnam too; as a political scientist, I found it absolutely fascinating, in a very, very disturbing way, to watch it all.
 
The other issue is how to respond to the North Koreans you meet. Inevitably the people you meet are pleasant and polite. We drank beer with our guides, small talked with the drivers, chatted with students we meet, etc. Inevitably this humanizes them, which is presumably one reason NK permits such tourism and why SK dislikes foreigners going. Do I feel like NK is any less awful and barbarous after talking with people in NK? Were we Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’ to be deployed in propaganda later to show the foreigners do in fact find NK a nice place?
 
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More in the 3 days.
 
Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.
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