Airstrikes are unlikely to deter the Houthis

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

TEL AVIV — In a preemptive bid to warn off Iran and its proxies in the wake of Hamas’ October attacks on southern Israel, United States President Joe Biden had succinctly said: “Don’t.” But his clipped admonition continues to fall on deaf ears.

As Shakespeare’s rueful King Claudius notes, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” And while exasperated Western powers now try to halt escalation in the Middle East, it is the Iran-directed battalions that are bringing them sorrows.

Raising the stakes at every turn, Tehran is carefully calibrating the aggression of its partners — Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthis in the Red Sea —ratcheting up to save Hamas from being destroyed by a vengeful Israel. And out of all this needling, it is the Houthis’ more then two dozen attacks in the Red Sea that crossed the line for Western powers — enough to goad the U.S. and the United Kingdom into switching from a defensive posture to launching strikes on dozens of Houthi targets.

As far as Washington and London are concerned, Western retaliation is meant to give teeth to Biden’s October warning, conveying a clear message to Iran: Stop. But why would it?

Privately, the U.S. has reinforced its warning through diplomatic channels. And U.K. Defense Minister Grant Shapps underscored the message publicly, saying the West is “running out of patience,” and the Iranian regime must tell the Houthis and its regional proxies to “cease and desist.”

Nonetheless, it’s highly questionable whether Tehran will heed this advice. There’s nothing in the regime’s DNA to suggest it would back off. Plus, there would be no pain for Iran at the end of it all — the Houthis would be on the receiving end. In fact, Iran has every reason to persist, as it can’t afford to leave Hamas in the lurch. To do so would undermine the confidence of other Iran-backed groups, weakening its disruptive clout in the region.

Also, from Iran’s perspective, its needling strategy of fatiguing and frightening Western powers with the prospect of escalation is working. The specter of a broadening war in the Middle East is terrifying for Washington and European governments, which are beset by other problems. Better for them to press Israel to halt its military campaign in Gaza and preserve the power of Hamas — that’s what Tehran is trying to engineer.

And Iranian mullahs have every reason to think this wager will pay off. Ukraine is becoming a cautionary tale; Western resolve seems to be waning; and the U.S. Congress is mired in partisan squabbling, delaying a crucial aid package for Ukraine — one the Europeans won’t be able to make good on.

So, whose patience will run out first — the West or Iran and its proxies?

Wearing down the Houthis would be no mean feat for the U.S. and the U.K. In 2015, after the resilient Houthis had seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, Saudi Arabia thought it could quickly dislodge them with a bombing campaign in northern Yemen. But nearly a decade on, Riyadh is trying to extricate itself, ready to walk away if the Houthis just leave them alone.

The United Arab Emirates was more successful in the country’s south, putting boots on the ground and training local militias in places where the Houthis were already unpopular. But the U.S. and the U.K. aren’t proposing to follow the UAE model — they’ll be following the Saudi one, albeit with the much more limited goal of getting the Houthis to stop harassing commercial traffic in the Red Sea.

Moreover, Western faith in the efficacy of bombing campaigns — especially fitful ones — has proven misplaced before. Bombing campaigns failed to bring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to heel on their own. And Iran-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria have shrugged off Western airstrikes, seeing them as badges of honor — much like the Houthis, who, ironically, were removed from the U.S. terror list by Biden in 2021. They seem to be relishing their moment in the big leagues.

War-tested, battle-hardened and agile, the Houthis are well-equipped thanks to Iran, and they can expect military replenishment from Tehran. They also have a firm grip on their territory. Like Hamas, the Houthis aren’t bothered by the death and destruction they may bring down on their people, making them particularly difficult to cajole into anything. And if the U.S. is to force the pace, it may well be dragged in deeper, as the only way to stop Iran replenishing the Houthis would be to mount a naval blockade of Yemen.

Few seasoned analysts think the Houthis will cave easily. Tom Sharpe, a former Royal Navy captain and specialist anti-air warfare officer, said he’d suggest “just walk[ing] away.”

“Make going round the Cape the new normal,” he wrote last week, albeit acknowledging he’d expect his advice to be overruled due to the global economic implications. But degrading the Houthis enough to make the Red Sea safe again, he noted, would be “difficult to do without risking a wider regional conflict in which the U.S., U.K. and friends would be seen as fighting on the Israeli side.”

And that is half the problem. Now ensnared in the raging conflict, in the eyes of many in the region, Western powers are seen as enabling the death and destruction being visited on Gaza. And as the civilian death toll in the Palestinian enclave mounts, Israel’s Western supporters are increasingly being criticized for not doing enough to restrain the country, which is determined to ensure Hamas can never repeat what it did on October 7.

Admittedly, Israel is combating a merciless foe that is heedless of the Gazan deaths caused by its actions. The more Palestinians killed, the greater the international outrage Hamas can foment, presenting itself as victim rather than aggressor. But Israel has arguably fallen into Hamas’ trap, with the mounting deaths and burgeoning humanitarian crisis now impacting opinion in the region and more widely.

A recent poll conducted for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that 96 percent of the broader Arab world believe Arab nations should now sever ties with Israel. And in Britain, Foreign Secretary David Cameron told a parliamentary panel he feared Israel has “taken action that might be in breach of international law.”

Meanwhile, in addition to issuing warnings to Iran, Hezbollah, and others in the Axis of Resistance to stay out of it, Biden has also cautioned Israeli leaders about wrath — urging the Israeli war Cabinet not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.

However, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 75 percent of Jewish Israelis think the country should ignore U.S. demands to shift to a phase of war with reduced heavy bombing in populous areas, and 57 percent support opening a second front in the north and taking the fight to Hezbollah. Additionally, Gallup has found Israelis have lost faith in a two-state solution, with 65 percent of Jewish Israelis opposing an independent Palestinian state.

So, it looks as though Israel is in no mood to relent — and doesn’t believe it can afford to.



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The longer Israel thinks, the more time Washington has to calm its wrath

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

BEIRUT — “Once you break it, you are going to own it,” General Colin Powell warned former United States President George W. Bush when he was considering invading Iraq in the wake of 9/11.

And as the invasion plan came together, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blocked any serious postwar planning for how Iraq would be run once the country’s ruler Saddam Hussein had gone. As far as he was concerned, once “shock and awe” had smashed Iraq, others could pick up the pieces.

British generals fumed at this. And General Mike Jackson, head of the British army during the invasion, later described Rumsfeld’s approach as “intellectually bankrupt.”

That history is now worth recalling — and was likely on U.S. President Joe Biden’s mind when he urged the Israeli war cabinet last week not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.

Despite Biden’s prompt, however, Israel still doesn’t appear to have a definitive plan for what to do with the Gaza Strip once it has pulverized the enclave and inflicted lasting damage on Hamas for the heinous October 7 attacks.

Setting aside just how difficult a military task Israel will face undertaking its avowed aim of ending Hamas as an organization — former U.S. General David Petraeus told POLITICO last week that a Gaza ground war could be “Mogadishu on steroids” — the lack of endgame here suggests a lack of intellectual rigor that disturbingly echoes Rumsfeld’s.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told lawmakers Friday that the country didn’t have plans to maintain control over Gaza after its war against Hamas had concluded, saying Israel would end its “responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip.” Among other minor matters, this raises the issue of where the coastal enclave of 2.3 million people will get life-sustaining energy and water, as Israel supplies most utility needs.

Israeli and Western officials say the most likely option would be to hand responsibility to the West Bank-based Palestinian National Authority, which oversaw the enclave until Hamas violently grabbed control in 2007. “I think in the end the best thing is that the Palestinian Authority goes back into Gaza,” Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said last week.

But it isn’t clear whether Mahmoud Abbas — the Palestinian Authority president and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is dominated by his Fatah party — would want Gaza on those terms, or whether he has the power to do much of anything with the enclave in the first place.

Abbas is already struggling to maintain his authority over the West Bank. He’s an unpopular leader, and his government is seen to be not only appallingly venal, but is perceived by many as ceding to the demands of the Israeli authorities too easily. 

Israel now controls 60 percent of the West Bank, and its encroaching settlements in the area — which are illegal under international law — haven’t helped Abbas. Nor have Israeli efforts to hold back the West Bank from developing — a process dubbed “de-developing” by critics and aimed, they say, at restricting growth and strangling Palestinian self-determination.

In West Bank refugee camps, Abbas’ security forces have now lost authority to armed groups — including disgruntled Fatah fighters. “It is unclear whether Abbas would be prepared to play such an obvious role subcontracting for Israel in Gaza. This would further erode whatever domestic standing the PA has left,” assessed Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But it isn’t only Gaza — or the West Bank — that risks breaking in the coming weeks.

Neighboring countries are watching events unfold with growing alarm, and they fear that if more thought isn’t given to Israel’s response to the savage Hamas attacks, and it isn’t developed in consultation with them, they’ll be crushed in the process. If Israel wants the support of these countries — or their help even — in calming the inevitable anger of their populations once a military campaign is launched, it needs their buy-in and agreement on the future of Gaza and Palestinians, and to stop using the language of collective punishment.

Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah — Hamas’ ally — has been intensifying its skirmishes along the border with Israel, is currently the most vulnerable. And Lebanese politicians are complaining they’re being disregarded by all key protagonists — Israel, the U.S. and Iran — in a tragedy they wish to have no part in.

Already on its knees from an economic crisis that plunged an estimated 85 percent of its population into poverty, and with a barely functioning caretaker government, the Lebanese are desperate not to become the second front in Iran’s war with Israel. Lebanon “could fall apart completely,” Minister of Economy and Trade Amin Salam said.

But the leaders of Egypt and Jordan share Lebanon’s frustrations, arguing that the potential repercussions for them are being overlooked. This is why Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called Saturday’s Cairo summit of regional and international leaders.

El-Sisi focused the conference on a longer-term political solution, hopefully a serious effort to make good on the 2007 Annapolis Conference’s resolution to set up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Egypt has much to lose if the war escalates — and the country’s officials are fuming at what they see as a careless attitude from Israel toward what happens to Gaza after Hamas is subjugated, potentially leaving a cash-strapped Egypt to pick up some of the pieces.

More than that, Egypt and Jordan harbor deep suspicions — as do many other Arab leaders and politicians — that as the conflict unfolds, Israel’s war aims will shift. They worry that under pressure from the country’s messianic hard-right parties, Israel will end up annexing north Gaza, or maybe all of Gaza, permanently uprooting a large proportion of its population, echoing past displacements of Palestinians — including the nakba (catastrophe), the flight and expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians in 1948.

This is why both el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II are resisting the “humanitarian” calls for displaced Gazans to find refuge in their countries. They suspect it won’t be temporary and will add to their own security risks, as Gazans would likely have to be accommodated in the Sinai — where Egyptian security forces are already engaged in a long-standing counterinsurgency against Islamist militant groups.

And both countries do have grounds for concern about Israel’s intentions.

Some columnists for Israel Hayom —a newspaper owned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close friend, American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson — are already calling for annexation. “My hope is that the enemy population residing there now will be expelled and that the Strip will be annexed and repopulated by Israel,” wrote Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who served 30 years in prison for spying for Israel before emigrating.

And last week, Gideon Sa’ar, the newly appointed minister in Netanyahu’s wartime government, said that Gaza “must be smaller at the end of the war . . . Whoever starts a war against Israel must lose territory.”

Given all this, there are now signs the Biden administration is starting to take the risks of the Gaza crisis breaking things far and wide fully on board — despite widespread Arab fears that it still isn’t. By not being fast enough to express sympathy for ordinary Gazans’ suffering as Israel pummels the enclave, Biden’s aides initially fumbled. And while that can easily be blamed on Hamas, it needs to be expressed by American officials loudly and often.

In the meantime, the unexplained delay of Israel’s ground attack is being seen by some analysts as a sign that Washington is playing for time, hoping to persuade the country to rethink how it will go about attacking Hamas, prodding Israel to define a realistic endgame that can secure buy-in from Arab leaders and help combat the propaganda of Jew-hatred.

Meanwhile, hostage negotiations now appear to be progressing via Qatar, after two American captives were freed Friday. There have also been reports of top Biden aides back-channeling Iran via Oman.

So, despite Arab condemnation, the Biden administration’s approach may be more subtle than many realize — at least according to Michael Young, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center. He said it was always inevitable that Washington would publicly back Israel but that a primary aim has been to “contain Israel’s reaction” to the Hamas attacks, while seemingly deferring to the country.

And time will help. The longer Israel thinks, the more opportunity Washington has to reason, to calm, and to explain the trail of cascading wreckage Israel risks leaving behind if it is unrestrained and fails to answer — as Biden put it — “very hard questions.”

But that might not be sufficient to prevent everything spinning out of control. Israel morally and legally has the right to defend itself from barbaric attacks that were more a pogrom, and it must ensure the safety of its citizens. There are also others — notably Iran — that want the destruction of the Jewish state, and even a scaled down response from Israel may trigger the escalation most in the region fear.



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The dogs of war are howling in the Middle East

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

BEIRUT — Against a dawning day, just hours after the fatal Gaza hospital explosion that killed hundreds, Israel’s border with Lebanon crackled with shelling and fighter jet strikes as Israeli warplanes responded to an uptick in shelling from Hezbollah.

Regardless of who struck the al-Ahli Arab Hospital, the needle is now rapidly shifting in a dangerous direction. And hopes are being pinned on United States President Joe Biden and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is set to host an emergency summit in Cairo on Saturday. But the chances of a wider war engulfing Lebanon and the entire region being hurled into violent chaos once more are growing by the hour.

As Hezbollah announced “a day of rage” against Israel, protests have targeted U.S. missions in the region, more embassies in Beirut have started sending off non-essentials staff, and security teams are being flown in to protect diplomatic missions and European NGOs, preparing contingency plans for staff evacuation. An ever-growing sense of dread and foreboding is now gripping the Levant.

Currently, Israel insists the hospital explosion was caused by an errant rocket fired by Islamic Jihad — and the White House agrees. But the Palestinian militant group, which is aligned with Hamas, says this is a “lie and fabrication,” insisting Israel was responsible. Regardless of where the responsibility lies, however, the blast at the hospital — where hundreds of Palestinian civilians were sheltering from days of Israeli airstrikes on the coastal enclave of Gaza — is sending shock waves far and wide.

It has already blown Biden’s trip to the region off course, as his planned Wednesday meeting with Arab leaders in Jordan had to be axed. The meeting was meant to take place after his visit to Israel, where Biden had the tricky task of showing solidarity, while also pressing the country’s reluctant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

A statement from the White House said the the decision to cancel the meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egypt’s El-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had been jointly made in light of the hospital strike.

But Arab leaders have made clear they had no hope the meeting would be productive. Abbas pulled out first, before Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi suggested a meeting would be pointless. “There is no use in talking now about anything except stopping the war,” he said, referencing Israel’s near-constant bombardment of Gaza.

Scrapping the Jordan stop lost the U.S. leader a major face-to-face opportunity to navigate the crisis, leaving American efforts to stave off a wider conflict in disarray.

The U.S. was already facing tough criticism in the region for being too far in Israel’s corner and failing to condemn the country for civilian deaths in Gaza. Meanwhile, Arab leaders have shrugged off U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s efforts to get them to denounce Hamas — they refuse to label the organization as a terror group, seeing the October 7 attacks as the inevitable consequence of the failure to deliver a two-state solution for Palestinians and lift Israel’s 17-year blockade on Gaza.

Whether anyone can now stop a bigger war is highly uncertain. But there was one word that stood out in Biden’s immediate remarks after the Hamas attacks, and that was “don’t.” “To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation, I have one word,” he said. “Don’t.”

However, this is now being drowned out by furious cries for revenge. Wrath has its grip on all parties in the region, as old hatreds and grievances play out and the tit-for-tat blows accelerate. Much like Mark Antony’s exhortation in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war” is now the sentiment being heard here, obscuring reason and leaving diplomacy struggling in its wake.

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s slaughter, righteous fury had understandably gripped Israelis. Netanyahu channeled that rage, vowing “mighty vengeance” against Hamas for the surprise attacks, pledging to destroy the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group. “Every Hamas terrorist is a dead man,” he said days later.

However, Israel hasn’t officially announced it will launch a ground mission — something it has refrained from doing in recent years due to the risk of losing a high number of soldiers. But it has massed troops and armor along the border, drafted 300,000 reservists — the biggest call-up in decades — and two days after the Hamas attacks, Netanyahu reportedly told Biden that Israel had no choice but to launch a ground operation. Publicly, he warned Israelis the country faced a “long and difficult war.”

The one hope that havoc won’t be unleashed in the region now rests partly — but largely — upon Israel reducing its military goals and deciding not to launch a ground offensive on Gaza, which would be the most likely trigger for Hezbollah and its allies to commence a full-scale attack, either across the southern border or on the Golan Heights.

That was certainly the message from Ahmed Abdul-Hadi, Hamas’ chief representative in Lebanon. He told POLITICO that an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza would be one of the key triggers that could bring Hezbollah fully into the conflict, and that Hamas and Hezbollah are now closely coordinating their responses.

“Hezbollah will pay no attention to threats from anyone against it entering the war; it will ignore warnings to stay out of it. The timing of when Hezbollah wants to enter the war or not will relate to Israeli escalation and incidents on the ground, and especially if Israel tries to enter Gaza on the ground,” he said.

Lebanese politicians are now pinning their hopes on Israel not opting to mount a ground offensive on the densely populated enclave — an operation that would almost certainly lead to a high number of civilian casualties and spark further Arab outrage, in addition to a likely Hezbollah intervention. They see some possibility in Biden’s warning that any move by Israel to reoccupy Gaza would be a “big mistake” — a belated sign that Washington is now trying to impose a limit on Israel’s actions in retaliation for the Hamas attacks.

And how that dovetails with Netanyahu’s stated aim to “demolish Hamas”and “defeat the bloodthirsty monsters who have risen against us to destroy us” is another one of the major uncertainties that will determine if the dogs of war will be fully unleashed.

At the moment, however, an apparent pause in Israeli ground operations is giving some a reason to hope. While assembled units are on standby and awaiting orders, on Tuesday an Israel military spokesman suggested a full-scale ground assault might not be what’s being prepared.

Michael Young, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, suspects a “rethink” is underway, likely prompted by Israeli military chiefs’ realization that a ground offensive wouldn’t just be bloody, it wouldn’t rid Gaza of Hamas either. “When the PLO was forced out of Lebanon by Israel in 1982, it still was able to maintain a presence in the country and Yasser Arafat was back within a year in Lebanon,” he said.

Likewise, lawmaker Ashraf Rifi — a former director of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces — told POLITICO he thinks Israeli generals are likely just as behind the apparent hold as their Western allies. “Military commanders are always less enthusiastic about going to war than politicians, and Israeli military commanders are always cautious,” he said.

“Let’s hope so, otherwise we will all be thrown into hell.”



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Kosovo attack: Who benefits?

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

The European Union and the United States have been trying to persuade Serbia and Kosovo to end their enmity and normalize relations for more than a decade.

There were finally signs of promise in April, when Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti finally gave tacit, if begrudging, approval to an EU-brokered plan that would see the two finally sprinkle some soil over the hatchet.

But despite all the cajoling and coaxing, it wasn’t to be.

U.S. and European officials have insinuated that Kurti was more to blame here, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell drawing attention to the failure to establish an association of municipalities in northern Kosovo, which would have allowed Kosovo’s Serbs some autonomy in an enclave where they’re a majority.

Behind the scenes, U.S. and European officials have also quietly praised Vučić for a slow and halting tilt toward the West, secretly supplying some arms to Ukraine and moving to reduce Serbia’s dependency on Russian energy supplies.

This is why last week’s astonishing clash between armed Serbs and police in the village of Banjska, in northern Kosovo’s Zvečan municipality, is especially perplexing — and it’s worth asking whose interests it serves.

Kosovo’s leaders quickly blamed Vučić for the attack, which also involved a siege of an Orthodox monastery. A Kosovan policeman and three Serb gunmen were killed in the clash. And Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani said Friday that “the (armed) group simply exercised the intentions and the motives of Serbia as a country and Vučić as the leader.”

Osmani maintains Belgrade was trying to copy Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which began with so-called little green men infiltrating the Ukrainian peninsula. “They are trying to carry out a Crimea model in the Republic of Kosovo, but we will absolutely not let that happen,” she added.

Kurti has called for sanctions to be imposed on Serbia for what he describes as a state-sponsored terrorist attack, warning that if the crime goes unpunished, Belgrade will repeat it. Vučić planned and ordered an attack in northern Kosovo “to destabilize” the country with the goal of starting a war, he said.

In response, Vučić has angrily denied these allegations but has noticeably hardened his rhetoric, possibly as a sop to Serbian ultra-nationalists. More alarmingly, however, Serbia has been building up its forces near the border with Kosovo since the deadly clashes, which the White House has described as “unprecedented.” And according to U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, on a phone call with Vučić, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged an “immediate de-escalation and a return to dialogue.”

If Belgrade did have a hand in the attack, however, it would appear to pull against the caution Vučić has displayed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hedging his bets between the West and Serbia’s traditional Slavic ally. Vučić didn’t join in on Western sanctions against Russia but has condemned the invasion, and says he’s keen to pursue Serbia’s bid for EU membership.

If Belgrade did have a hand in the attack, it would appear to pull against the caution Aleksandar Vučić has displayed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine | Andrej Cukic/EFE via EPA

Marko Đurić, the Serbian ambassador to the U.S., echoes Vučić’s argument that planning or approving an attack in Kosovo at this juncture would make no sense and potentially ruin Belgrade’s improving relations with the West. “We have a lot to lose by any kind of escalation in Kosovo,” he told POLITICO — including harming the country commercially.

Đurić also said the attack has complicated the country’s domestic politics, noting that “the far right in Serbia is going to try and exploit this to the greatest extent possible.”

But Kosovo’s leaders have a case against Belgrade that needs answering.

To support the allegation that Vučić endorsed the attack, they highlight the role of Milan Radoičić, the deputy leader of the Serb List — a party that dominates Serb politics in northern Kosovo and has close links with Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party.

Nicknamed the “boss of the north,” Radoičić admitted to organizing and leading the attack in a statement issued by his lawyer, saying he was solely responsible. “I didn’t inform anyone from the government structures of the Republic of Serbia about this, nor from the local political structures from the north of Kosovo and Metohija, nor did I get any help from them, because we already had had different views on the previous methods of resisting Kurti’s terror,” he said.

But Kurti dismisses the idea that Radoičić would have gone ahead without Vučić’s approval. “I have no doubt that Radiočić was only the executor. The one who planned and ordered this terrorist, criminal attack on our state, in order to violate our territorial integrity, national safety and state security, is none other than President Vučić,” he told reporters.

Other officials in Pristina also say it would be stretching credulity to think Aleksandar Vulin, the head of Serbia’s BIA intelligence agency, would have been unaware of a planned attack.

Bojan Pajtić, a Serbian law professor and former president of the autonomous province of Vojvodina within Serbia, agrees the Banjska provocation wouldn’t have gone ahead without the security agency’s knowledge, saying it is improbable that the BIA would have failed to notice an operation being prepared by a heavily armed formation consisting of dozens of people in such a small area. “The BIA normally knows who drank coffee with whom yesterday in Zvečan,” he said.

“When an incident occurs that is not accidental, but the result of someone’s efforts, you always wonder whose interests it is in,” Paltić said. “In this case, it is certainly not in the interest of Aleksandar Vučić, because after the last attempt at dialogue in Brussels, in the eyes of the West, in relation to Kurti, he still looked like a constructive partner.”

Pajtić isn’t alone in querying who’s interest the attack was in, and so far, both Washington and Brussels have been extremely cautious in their comments. European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said the EU will wait for the completion of the investigation before coming to any conclusions on what he described as a terrorist attack. Washington, careful to keep its language neutral, hasn’t been specific about who it blames either.

This, of course, stands in sharp contrast to Moscow, which predictably grandstanded as Serbia’s traditional protector, accusing Pristina of ethnic cleansing in northern Kosovo — the very same lie used to try to justify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“This incident, the most serious example of violence in Kosovo for years, turned the tables on Vučić,” said Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. And he, too, questioned whether the attack was a rogue operation by Serbian ultra-nationalists and Kosovo’s Serb leaders.

“Should the story of Radoičić freelancing be corroborated, it would appear that Vučić has lost control over his erstwhile proxies,” he said.



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Armenians find themselves pushed aside yet again

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is “inching ever closer to a great fracture in economic and financial systems and trade relations.”

That may be so, but not when it comes to Azerbaijan.

A country a third of the size of Britain and with a population of about 10 million, Azerbaijan has faced few problems in bridging geopolitical divisions. And recently, Baku has been offering a masterclass in how to exploit geography and geology to considerable advantage.

From Washington to Brussels, Moscow to Beijing, seemingly no one wants to fall out with Azerbaijan; everyone wants to be a friend. Even now, as Armenia has turned to the world for help, accusing Baku of attempted ethnic cleansing in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh — the land-locked and long-contested Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Warning signs had been mounting in recent weeks that Baku might be planning a major offensive, which it dubbed an “anti-terrorist operation,” and Armenia had been sending up distress flares. But not only were these largely overlooked, Baku has since faced muted criticism for its assault as well.

Western reaction could change, though, if Azerbaijan were to now engage in mass ethnic cleansing — but Baku is canny enough to know that.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Azerbaijan has been courted by all sides, becoming one of the war’s beneficiaries.

On a visit to Baku last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had only warm words for the country’s autocratic leader Ilham Aliyev, saying she saw him as a reliable and trustworthy energy partner for the European Union.

Then, just a few weeks later, Alexander Lukashenko — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s satrap in Belarus — had no hesitation in describing Aliyev as “absolutely our man.”

Is there any other national leader who can be a pal of von der Leyen and Lukashenko at the same time?

Aliyev is also a friend of Turkey; Baku and Beijing count each other as strategic partners, with Azerbaijan participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative; and the country has been working on expanding military cooperation with Israel as well. In 2020 — during the last big flare-up in this intractable conflict — Israel had supplied Azerbaijan with drones, alongside Turkey.

That’s an impressive list of mutually exclusive friends and suitors — and location and energy explain much.

Upon her arrival in Azerbaijan’s capital last year, von der Leyen wasn’t shy about highlighting Europe’s need to “diversify away from Russia” for its energy needs, announcing a deal with Baku to increase supplies from the southern gas corridor — the 3,500-kilometer pipeline bringing gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe.

She also noted that Azerbaijan “has a tremendous potential in renewable energy” in offshore wind and green hydrogen, enthusing that “gradually, Azerbaijan will evolve from being a fossil fuel supplier to becoming a very reliable and prominent renewable energy partner to the European Union.”

There was no mention of Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, rampant corruption or any call for the scores of political prisoners to be released.

Azerbaijan uses oil and gas “to silence the EU on fundamental rights issues,” Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch complained at the time. “The EU should not say a country is reliable when it is restricting the activities of civil society groups and crushing political dissent,” he added.

Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s Brussels office, warned: “Ukraine serves as a reminder that repressive and unaccountable regimes are rarely reliable partners and that privileging short-term objectives at the expense of human rights is a recipe for disaster.”

But von der Leyen isn’t the first top EU official to speak of Azerbaijan as such a partner. In 2019, then EU Council President Donald Tusk also praised Azerbaijan for its reliability.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, however, the EU’s courting has become even more determined — and, of course, the bloc isn’t alone. Rich in oil and gas and located between Russia, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is a strategic prize, sitting “on the crossroads of former major empires, civilizations and regional and global powerhouses,” according to Fariz Ismailzade of ADA University in Baku.

And Azerbaijan’s growing importance in the latest great game in Central Asia is reflected in the increase in foreign diplomatic missions located in its capital — in 2005 there were just two dozen, now there are 85.

For Ankara, and Beijing — eager to expand their influence across Central Asia — Azerbaijan is a key player in regional energy projects, as well as the development of new regional railways and planned infrastructure and connectivity projects.

Thanks to strong linguistic, religious and cultural ties, Turkey has been Azerbaijan’s main regional ally since it gained independence. But Baku has been adept at making sure it keeps in with all its suitors. It realizes they all offer opportunities but could also be dangerous, should relations take a dive.

And this holds for all the key players in the region, whether it be the EU, Turkey, China or Russia. The reason Baku can get on with a highly diverse set of nations — and why there likely won’t be many serious repercussions for Baku with this latest military foray — is that no one wants to give geopolitical rivals an edge and upset the fragile equilibrium in Central Asia. That includes its traditional foe Iran – Baku and Tehran have in recent months been trying to build a détente after years of hostility.

For the Armenians, so often finding themselves wronged by history, this is highly unfortunate. They might have been better advised to follow Azerbaijan’s example and try to be everyone’s friend, instead of initially depending on Russia, then pivoting West — a pirouette that’s lost them any sympathy in Moscow.

But then again, Armenia hasn’t been blessed with proven reserves of oil or natural gas like its neighbor.



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Macron’s Africa reset struggles to persuade

Paul Taylor is a contributing editor at POLITICO.

PARIS — The bigger the humiliation, the more grandiloquent the relaunch. 

After a year that saw French forces conducting counterinsurgency operations against jihadist rebels hounded out of Mali and Burkina Faso by military coups, anti-colonialist street protests, and Russian disinformation and mercenaries, President Emmanuel Macron announced a fundamental overhaul of France’s Africa strategy. 

“Humility,” “partnership” and “investment” are now the keywords in a reset that Macron outlined in a speech he delivered before embarking on his 18th trip to Africa in just eight years. 

Many Africans were understandably skeptical as the French president took his new doctrine on a tour of Gabon, Angola, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — an eclectic mix of former French, Belgian and Portuguese colonies that have big economic potential, and are being heavily courted by Russia and China as well as Europe. 

“The days of la Françafrique are well and truly over,” Macron insisted in Gabon’s capital Libreville.  He was not the first president to promise an end to the postcolonial manipulation of African politics, with crony ties between the French elite and long-serving African autocrats.  

The French leader’s enunciation of a sea change in Franco-African ties sounded oddly like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s proclamation of a Zeitenwende — an epochal turning point in Berlin’s policy toward Moscow since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“We have reached the end of a cycle of French history in which military questions held preeminence in Africa,” Macron said, the first French president to be born after the end of colonial rule. Henceforth, “there will be no military bases as such,” but “new military partnerships” with African allies, and French forces on the continent will be focusing on training local troops. 

In a conscious effort to shed the mantle of paternalism and hard security, Macron built his four-day trip around the themes of saving African forests, developing agriculture, investing in African business and supporting a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. He also went clubbing in Kinshasa, beer in hand, with Congolese singer Fally Ipupa. 

He steered clear of France’s traditional West African backyard, where Paris’s counterinsurgency policy suffered its deepest setbacks.

“Our destiny is tied to the African continent. If we are able to seize this chance, we have the opportunity to anchor ourselves to the continent, which will increasingly be one of the youngest and most dynamic economic markets in the world, and one of the great centers of global growth in the decades to come,” Macron said. 

He was making a virtue of necessity, to say the least.  

By shrinking its military footprint without abandoning key footholds in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gabon and Djibouti, France hopes to avoid further forced retreats from the continent’s strategic corners. Then, referring to Russia’s Wagner mercenaries who have supplanted French forces in Mali and the Central African Republic, Macron said he was sure Africans would soon regret the paramilitary group’s presence.  

But small crowds of anti-French demonstrators in Libreville and Kinshasa were a reminder of France’s tarnished image among many young Africans, as well as accusations of political interference that dog Macron’s attempt at a new start.  

In Gabon, protesters accused the French leader of helping veteran President Ali Bongo’s reelection campaign — a charge he felt obliged to deny. And in the DRC, he faced both public criticism from President Felix Tshisekedi, as well as protests by opposition activists.  

If you’re France, in Africa, you simply can’t win. No one is going to take your professions of good faith, political neutrality, partnership and brotherly love at face value. 

Macron has arguably been the most progressive French president when it comes to Africa, officially acknowledging colonial France’s mistreatment of Algerians, and seeking an ever-elusive reconciliation. He has apologized in Rwanda for his country’s role in failing to prevent the 1994 genocide by Hutu militias against ethnic Tutsis. He has created a commission to investigate colonial massacres in Cameroon too.  

Macron has reached out to youngsters, civil society and start-ups, sometimes over the heads of African governments. He has agreed to scrap the CFA franc — the eight-nation West African currency tied to France — to be replaced by the Eco in 2027. He is the first French leader to have returned cultural treasures to Africa as well, sending a collection of statues to Benin in what is likely to set a precedent. 

Yet, though they make French nationalists’ blood boil, such gestures are too little, too late for many Africans. 

France would probably be best advised to channel its efforts instead under the more politically acceptable banner of the European Union, which is building a comprehensive partnership with the African Union — the key principles of which were outlined at a summit in Brussels in February 2022.  

As bad luck would have it, however, that budding relationship has been overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has monopolized the EU’s political and financial attention. 

Africans clearly see how the bloc — France included — has plowed billions of euros in military and financial assistance into Ukraine, while support for African peace and security efforts has been far more constrained. They also see how Ukraine has gained EU candidate status and been center stage at every summit, while Africa had to struggle to secure even belated help in procuring COVID-19 vaccines.  

Moreover, the war in Ukraine has added to food insecurity and an energy-price squeeze on the continent. For many Africans, Europe seems more concerned with blaming Russia than helping. 

Macron’s African reset is in many ways a halfway house — he admitted as much in his big speech. “We are held accountable for the past without having been totally convincing about the shape of our common future,” he said. 

The decision to rebrand the African bases as joint training ventures was itself reportedly a compromise between advisers who argued against yielding another inch to France’s adversaries, and others who want to shutter most outposts and refocus the armed forces on preparing for possible high-intensity warfare in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. 

While 61 percent of voters think France should stay in Africa because of its economic and security interests — as well as to help prevent mass migration to Europe — an Odoxa poll for Le Figaro showed that a similar majority is pessimistic about Franco-African ties, and doubtful of Macron’s ability to build a new relationship. 

This may not be the last Franco-African reset.



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The West still doesn’t know what winning looks like in Ukraine

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

More than anything else, the Munich Security Conference was founded to foster dialogue between adversaries. Yet, this year’s three-day gabfest was focused on exchanges between allies and friends rather than foes, and in formal sessions, there were earnest colloquies about Russia’s war on Ukraine and what next steps should be taken to help Kyiv.

Ahead of the gathering, some had warned that Munich would thus likely turn into an echo chamber of the like-minded this year. But it didn’t — certainly not in the margins or informal meetings. And it still remains unclear whether Ukraine’s partners are, in fact, singing the same song of unity.

Munich gave us the “chance to sense the mood, especially on the most important questions like how the war is going, and how our support is going, and how long support is going to last,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told POLITICO in an exclusive interview.

But, at the same time, the conference reinforced rather than eased some of his anxieties — as well as those of his Baltic compatriots — about the staying power of all Ukraine’s Western partners. And this is because ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion — despite unprecedented Western sanctions and massive arms supplies — the allies haven’t really agreed on any clear war aims.

Ukraine, of course, has been consistent about theirs — namely, the restoration of all sovereign territory including Crimea, Russian war reparations and security guarantees. But in April and May, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and then Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi all floated ceasefire balloons.

Macron and Scholz have since hardened their talk. Last week in Munich, Macron said the time isn’t right for dialogue, and he hasn’t spoken with Putin since September. Meanwhile, Germany’s chancellor quipped in his speech on Friday about how laggardly the allies have been in supplying Leopard tanks. “Those who can send such battle tanks should really do so now,” Scholz said, relishing the cheeky role reversal.

Yet peace balloons still continue to be floated, even more surreptitiously than China’s spy blimps.

Did CIA Director William Burns waft one up at the Ankara meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Naryshkin in November? Two Ukrainian officials say he did. Asking not to be identified for this article, as they haven’t been authorized to discuss the issue with the media, the officials also confirmed a report that in January, Burns had urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to make as much battlefield headway as quickly as he could, because the scale of military support could start falling off.

Burns’ warning came after predictions that the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Congress would soon set out to reduce support. And a Zelenskyy adviser told POLITICO, Kyiv is worried that some in President Joe Biden’s administration would be happy to use Congress as an excuse to wind down military aid and encourage Ukraine to agree to pare down its war aims.

“I think both on Capitol Hill and in the administration, there are people who are looking to calibrate security assistance to incentivize the Ukrainians to cut some sort of deal, I’m afraid,” the adviser said.

Of course, that may go against Biden’s promise during his surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday that the U.S. will continue to back Ukraine for “as long as it takes” — but without defined war aims, even that presidential pledge could be blown off course, the adviser confided.

Meanwhile, for Landsbergis, the failure to not just clearly define Western partners’ war aims but even debate them in earnest has been a crucial omission. And this failure to discuss outcomes and objectives is leaving room for those who waver to waver even more.

“My main question is why haven’t we ever had a conversation about the end goal? The only discussions or ideas that get floated around are about negotiations and peace processes — and all that makes a lot of people in my part of Europe quite nervous. Okay, so we talk about victory, and we talk about standing with Ukraine to the very end — but let’s also talk about this.”

According to Landsbergis, military experts know exactly what’s needed to finish the job. “It’s mathematics,” he said.

But without having agreed on objectives, everything is ad hoc — without a real attempt to match equipment and munitions, missiles and armor — and it’s left to Ukraine to push for whatever it can secure. “So, we ambiguously commit to Ukrainian victory, but do not go into detail,” he added.

Interestingly, during a similarly fateful February in 1941, Britain’s Winston Churchill gave a take-stock speech to the House of Commons, noting that “In wartime, there is a lot to be said for the motto: ‘Deeds, not words.’ All the same, it is a good thing to look around from time to time and take stock, and certainly our affairs have prospered in several directions during these last four or five months, far better than most of us would have ventured to hope.”

Britain had been receiving some military aid from the U.S. at the time, and much like Ukraine today, it was on a just-in-time basis at best.

Landsbergis sees the current situation as similar.

“We’re approaching a very important period,” he said. Without defined war aims, he and other Baltic and Central European leaders are eager to at least secure defined arms and resupply commitments for the months ahead. “Let’s commit for the summer. Let’s commit for the next wave. Let’s commit for ammunition, let’s commit for additional tanks, let’s commit for additional howitzers,” he called.

The foreign minister also said that there are “people saying, look, ‘Russia has already lost, has lost strategically,’ and on this, I would completely disagree.” For him, a strategic loss means Russia undergoing a historic change and being “unable to continue the way that it has been for decades,” even if that means it creates the conditions for the breakup of the Russian Federation — although Landsbergis isn’t advocating for that as a war aim.

Rather, his point is that back when the Soviet Union broke up, there were leaders in the West urging the Baltic states and Ukraine not to declare independence, as they were fearful of all the instability and repercussions it might trigger. “People were so afraid, they couldn’t imagine a world without the Soviet Union,” he said.

And likewise, some now worry about the repercussions of the war leading to turbulence inside Russia and even its breakup. “So, should we stop? Should we ask the Ukrainians to put a moratorium on the regaining of their territory?” Landsbergis asked.

“That’s impossible.”



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West must move faster to prevent a catastrophe in northern Syria

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

On the “treacherous night” of the deadly earthquake that shook northern Syria, Idris Nassan, a Kurdish official living in Raqqa, was startled awake as his apartment swayed.

“My body was trembling, noise filled the place; the building turned into a swing, leaning left and right,” he said.

With his wife and mother in tow, Nassan scrambled down three flights of stairs, joining neighbors who, “like birds fleeing snakes of prey,” made their chaotic exit. The stairwell echoed with the cries and screams of terrified children.

The scenes outside were “beyond endurance,” Nassan said — telling, coming from a man who witnessed the siege of Kobani and the vicious battles between Kurds and the Islamic State militants there. But, he added, the “pain of the earthquake has been “deepened by the failure of others to help.”

Of all the places to be tested by the grinding of tectonic plates, this is one that just didn’t need to suffer more pain and grief.

The Syrians of Idlib and northern Aleppo, many displaced from elsewhere in the war-ravaged country, have endured barbaric conflict, a gruesome descent into hell, for over a decade. They’ve suffered barrel bombs; their hospitals and markets have been targeted; they’ve been starved; and they’ve been preyed upon by the jihadists of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Idlib was turned into a large “kill zone” by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers, as rebels and their families were funneled into the area, corralled like cattle awaiting slaughter.

Adding insult to injury, since 2018, Turkish authorities have been deterring Syrian asylum seekers from crossing the border and declining to register them. Turkey has also mounted unlawful deportations and coerced some to return to northern Syria, while the European Union — fearful of another migration surge — has raised few objections to this breach of the Geneva Convention.

Along the arc of northern Syria, the widespread complaint by Arabs and Kurds alike is that since the defeat of the Islamic State, they’ve been abandoned by the international community. That sense of desertion is now being compounded as they dig mass graves and grapple with the effects of a devastating earthquake.

Since the deadly 7.8-magnitude earthquake flattened towns, destroyed homes and crushed thousands of lives on February 6, the world’s focus has mainly been on Turkey — that’s where Western media and international rescue crews, aid and equipment have been heading.

But across the border, there’s been scant assistance.

Sent into rebel-held Idlib, a member of Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian organization, said, “What sticks in my mind is that some people were standing above the rubble and hearing the voices of their families and relatives a few meters away, but they could not do anything to rescue them due to the lack of equipment and the absence of an international response to help.”

Predictably, Moscow and Beijing haven’t been lagging in their efforts to try to spin the events in Syria. “The sanctions imposed by the US and its allies are hampering relief and rescue work . . . such a humanitarian disaster is not enough to melt the cold-blooded heart of the US,” goaded the Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the “collective West” of ignoring what’s taking place in northern Syria, blaming the economic sanctions against the Assad government for prolonging suffering.

Of course, these are crocodile tears coming from a Chinese Communist government that’s incarcerated over a million Uyghurs since 2015. It’s also strikingly indecent of Russia to claim sympathy for the north of Syria, where it shunned the laws of war and rehearsed the bombing campaigns and egregious tactics it’s now using in Ukraine.

Nonetheless, one doesn’t have to be a Russian or Chinese propagandist to question the West’s sluggishness in anticipating the scale of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in northern Syria, or in developing an action plan to ease the suffering in Idlib and northern Aleppo.

Last week, EU officials slammed the complaints of neglect coming from northern Syria. “I categorically reject the accusations that EU sanctions may have any impact on humanitarian aid. These sanctions were imposed since 2011 in response to the violent repression of the Syrian regime against its own civilian population, including the use of chemical weapons,” European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič told reporters. “There is nothing there that would hamper the delivery of humanitarian aid and emergency assistance, especially not in the situation in which Syrian people find themselves after this terrible earthquake,” he added.

The EU says it’ll provide additional emergency support to both Turkey and Syria, and emergency humanitarian assistance worth €6.5 million. But officials say the bloc will also require safeguards to ensure aid effectively reaches those in need and isn’t misused by the Assad government — something that’s plagued humanitarian assistance in the past.

Indeed, funneling aid into northern Syria is fraught with logistical and political nightmares. Idlib is controlled by a variety of feuding rebel groups, with a large part held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an Islamist militant group that’s been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and, much like the Assad government, has been accused of manipulating international aid.

Additionally, of the five border crossings from Turkey into northern Syria, only one has been authorized by Turkish authorities to handle humanitarian aid — although Ankara has now said it’s considering reopening more crossings to allow aid into both opposition-held and Assad-controlled areas.

But time is of the essence, and the scale of the crisis unfolding requires a momentous step change.

Mercy Corps reports that there aren’t enough structural engineers in northern Syria to inspect buildings, and even small aftershocks risk further collapse. There’s also very little coordination on the ground, with extremely limited information available on shelter options for survivors.

Fuel for heating and cooking is becoming a major challenge as well. “There is limited availability, and what is available is of poor quality and very expensive. People are burning trash to stay warm, and aid deliveries will be dependent on consistent access to fuel for trucks,” said Mercy Corps. Meanwhile, food is hard to procure, prices are skyrocketing, and access to clean drinking water is becoming a critical problem, with assessment teams worried about pollutants leaking into water sources.

On Friday, the United Nations warned that over 5 million Syrians may be left homeless after the earthquake. “That is a huge number and comes to a population already suffering mass displacement,” said Sivanka Dhanapala, the Syria representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Thankfully, in the past few days, 20 U.N. aid trucks have crossed into rebel-held areas, but most were carrying pre-planned provisions that had been delayed due to the earthquake. And on Friday, the U.N. announced it was releasing an additional $25 million in emergency funding for Syria, bringing the total to $50 million so far.

However, NGO assessment workers say this is far short of what’s needed — and they argue that Western powers will have to rethink the sanctions regime.

While humanitarian aid isn’t barred by Western sanctions, there are plenty of other things desperately needed in northern Syria that are, including fuel and construction equipment critical to rescue efforts, to prop up battered buildings and to rebuild, so the displaced aren’t left to shelter in tents.

The United States has moved faster than the EU in recognizing that sanctions risk impeding quake assistance, issuing a six-month waiver for all transactions related to providing disaster relief to Syria.

 Navigating the political dilemmas all this will bring — getting in front of Assad exploiting the earthquake to force a normalization of relations, getting Turkey to coordinate with the Kurds of northern Syria, and dealing with HTS and the other feuding rebel groups — is undoubtedly going to be a tall order.

Aside from the imperatives of compassion, a slow and inadequate Western response will also feed into African and Middle Eastern countries’ perception — kindled by Moscow and Beijing — that Western powers only pay attention to them when they want or need something.

And if these challenges aren’t confronted, the immediate humanitarian crisis risks turning into a catastrophe.



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