Daily Archives: February 20, 2014

Kiev, February 2014

by Rhodri C. Williams

Here is a video, published today, of protesters with helmets, large metal shields and clubs creeping forward under sustained gunfire in Kiev, a European capital. It is not hard to imagine how that works out, but hit play if you need visual confirmation.

Here is a press statement from the EU Council from almost precisely one year ago welcoming the same country’s European choice and reaffirming the “joint engagement in the political association and economic integration of Ukraine with the European Union on the basis of respect for common values and their effective promotion.”

Something clearly went terribly wrong.

Here is a report on the meeting on the sidelines of the Sochi Olympics between embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and his friend in need Vladimir Putin, at which we now presume the former was instructed by the latter to “wipe [the protesters] out in the shit house.” Here is an outraged reaction by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who invokes a quasi-historical materialist argument in favor of the the inevitability of European integration:

Today, President Yanukovych has blood on his hands. And I am afraid that the path he has now taken will lead to even more suffering and violence. He was the only one who could have prevented the killing – by extending a hand of genuine cooperation to the democratic opposition.

Instead they were shown a fist. People have been shot dead with live ammunition. Peaceful demonstrators. But police officers and others have also been harmed in the violence that broke out. I am afraid that Ukraine is now heading for dark times. The crisis in the country will become deeper and longer. I am deeply concerned.

But the outcome of the violence will be precarious and short-lived. It will die away like a storm on the steppes. What has happened, and is happening, in Ukraine also demonstrates the power of the European dream. A Europe of peace and freedom and cooperation.

And sooner or later, it will triumph in Ukraine too.

Here is a reasonable counter-analysis, asserting that Putin will win this struggle because his interest in its outcome is vital and all-consuming, in comparison to the diffuse and ambiguous interest of the various EU decision-makers. This is the rump Soviet Union’s second Soviet missile crisis, once again staged during an Olympics Games, and vital political interests – if not real national interests – are at stake.

And here is an editorial, pointing out that the goal of EU integration has almost slipped off the radar in what has become a pure revolt against President Yanukovich and the corruption he represents. Which ends by pointing out how the resulting deadlock affects us all:

At stake for the United States is its already prickly relationship with Russia. That has implications for arms control and for American diplomacy on Syria and Iran. Co-operation between America and Russia has slipped badly, but what remains is still a requirement for an orderly world. Thus it is that Ukraine has gone from being a story of trouble in a distant place to being an issue which could profoundly affect all our futures.

Were the rumors of the Cold War’s demise dangerously exaggerated?

Talks collapse in Geneva, reconciliation blooms in Syria?

by Rhodri C. Williams

It is hard to read Syria these days. Hard to look as one horror rolls into another. And hard to understand the dynamic this creates in a population that knows something better, wanted something more and did nothing to deserve what they ultimately got. So, predictably, the day after I speculated that the Geneva talks risked become a pretext for a final ethnic cleansing of Homs in the guise of a humanitarian ceasefire evacuation, the talks collapsed and the ceasefire apparently continued.

Subsequent reporting, particularly by the BBC’s Lyse Doucet, has provided a much clearer picture of how the humanitarian operation in Homs went, with UN personnel and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) showing both courage and ingenuity in the face of direct targeting, most likely by pro-Assad regime militias:

Sources confirmed these attacks were the work of a local paramilitary group known as the National Defence Force determined to scupper a deal it saw as feeding and freeing their enemies. “All the devils in this crisis will always try to hinder our work,” Sarc’s head of operations, Khaled Erksoussi, told me on the telephone line from Damascus with a voice tinged with exhaustion and anger.

There are no angels in this war, only what one aid official called “good people in a very bad situation” on both sides of a bitter divide were determined to carry on.

By Wednesday, lessons had been learned. On the edge of the Old City, bundles of food and medicine were unloaded from lorries, and passed along a chain of Sarc volunteers on to two trailers. Supplies would be towed in by the UN’s armoured vehicles.

One of the most sensitive aspects of the operation involves the fate of about 300 “fighting age” men who left the besieged Old City of Homs along with the rest of the civilians evacuated. The willingness of the UN to go forward with the evacuation without guarantees of the humane treatment of fleeing men has been controversial from the outset. This issue, along with the failure of the regime to guarantee humanitarian access to other besieged areas and detention centers, led the ICRC to publicly withhold its support for the operation in Homs:

Evacuations are not the solution to every humanitarian problem, although the Syrian authorities and opposition groups must allow civilians to leave for safer areas. Those who, for whatever reason, choose to stay in their homes remain protected by international humanitarian law and must not be attacked. ….

Anyone detained after an evacuation must be treated humanely at all times and be allowed to contact their families. In addition, our delegates should be allowed to register detainees so that we can follow up on their fate and whereabouts and restore and maintain family contact whenever necessary. We continue to negotiate with the Syrian authorities and other parties to have access to places of detention across the country.

However, as reported by both Doucet and the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher, events took an unexpected turn early, beginning with a decision to release nearly one third of the detained men who signed “a pledge never to bear arms against the state”. As Dagher notes here, such leniency flows from the highest levels of the regime and involves a willful effort to recast the traumatized detainees as born again-Assad supporters, graciously spared the consequences of their own foolishness:  Continue reading