One-Two Punch

Why Obama needs both Tehran and Moscow to make a deal in Syria.

The world is watching to see if Hasan Rouhani is serious about ending Iran's nuclear standoff with the West. So far, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Not only has the new Iranian president repeatedly said he intends to resolve the stalemate, but his upbeat phone conversation with President Barack Obama last month marked the first direct contact between a U.S. and Iranian president since 1979. Now, there are hints that Iran is preparing a proposal for next week's meeting of the P5+1, the group of world powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.

All of this is good news -- and ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons is the right priority for the emerging dialogue between Tehran and Washington. But Obama should also capitalize on a potential opening with Iran to pursue another urgent objective: a diplomatic end to Syria's civil war.

Obama has already embarked on the path of diplomacy in Syria, teaming up with Russia to rid Bashar al-Assad's regime of its chemical weapons. Inspectors have arrived in Syria and have begun the laborious process of destroying Assad's chemical arsenal. Obama should now try to pull Iran into the mix, seeking to turn a narrow deal focused on destroying Assad's chemical weapons into a broader effort to stop the bloodletting in Syria.

The only way to end Syria's civil war is a political settlement. Absent a diplomatic breakthrough, the conflict is poised to burn for years -- and continue to spread to Syria's neighbors. Moreover, Syria's opposition is fragmented, and its most effective armed forces are also the most militant, meaning that a rebel victory would likely produce a failed state or one under the control of Islamist militants. To avoid that outcome, Obama needs the help of Syria's two lifelines: Moscow and Tehran. Convincing them to bring Assad to heel offers the best -- if not the only -- hope for a political end to the bloodshed.

The broad outlines of a diplomatic settlement are clear. At the end of the process, Assad and his inner circle would go, but Syria's governing ministries would remain largely intact; a functioning state will be essential to the viability of a post-Assad Syria. The political dominance of Damascus and its ruling Alawite clan would give way to a more decentralized brand of governance. An inclusive political arrangement similar to the one in Lebanon, where power is allocated along sectarian lines, is the most realistic option.

With Moscow and Washington working together on the chemical weapons front, it is time to revive previous attempts by both governments to bring the Assad regime and the opposition to the negotiating table in Geneva. Moscow appears ready to lean on the Syrian strongman, as evidenced by Assad's readiness to abandon his chemical arsenal. Indeed, the Kremlin has of late signaled a measure of indifference about who governs Syria, suggesting it may be getting ready for life after Assad. And with the Syrian opposition deflated by Washington's decision against military strikes, at least some rebels may be ready to make a deal.

The missing piece is Iran. Washington has so far resisted Tehran's inclusion in negotiations to end Syria's civil war. Earlier this week, the State Department did signal that it may be more inclined to draw Iran into the diplomatic effort as long as Tehran is prepared to publicly back calls for a transitional Syrian government. This announcement represents a step in the right direction -- but Washington now needs to close the deal.

As long as Tehran continues to provide military and financial assistance to the Syrian regime and its regional allies, including the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Assad will likely have the wherewithal to hold on to power. Reaching out to Tehran and convincing Rouhani to invest in a future relationship with a new Syria is thus essential to negotiating an endgame.

Washington should be under no illusions about how difficult it will be to secure Iran's cooperation on the Syrian front. The Iranian regime is itself deeply divided, and hard-line elements -- in particular, the Revolutionary Guards -- are operating inside Syria in support of the Assad regime. This powerful faction of the Iranian regime will not easily abandon its Syrian client.

Moreover, Assad and Hezbollah are two of Tehran's main proxies in the region, enabling Iran to wield widespread influence in the Shiite arc running from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. Iran's growing influence has deeply concerned U.S. partners in the region, including Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia -- one of the main reasons that Washington will have a tough time convincing them that reaching out to Tehran is a necessary step toward ending the conflict.

Nonetheless, Rouhani appears determined to pursue a more moderate course on foreign policy. Tehran has signaled a new readiness to engage Washington on regional issues as well as on its nuclear program. Iran is no doubt determined to maintain its influence in Syria. But if Tehran can be persuaded that dumping Assad will best protect its decades of investment in Syria while advancing the prospects for rapprochement with Washington, it may well throw its weight behind a negotiated end to the war.

Tehran has good reasons to head in this direction. Whatever the outcome of Syria's civil war, it is hard to imagine that Assad will be able to stay in power over the long run. As a result, Tehran has a vested interest in laying the groundwork for a constructive relationship with whatever government comes next. So, too, would Rouhani earn a significant measure of goodwill in Washington if he helped broker a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict.

The current trajectory of Syria's conflict is leading to state collapse and growing anarchy -- a situation that ultimately compromises the interests of all countries in the region, including Iran. Syria will never return to its prewar status quo, and the choice ahead is clear: either an escalating conflict that threatens the wider region or an attempt at a diplomatic process that seeks a cease-fire and a lasting political settlement.

An opportunity to bring Iran to the negotiating table may be close at hand. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently announced plans to convene a Syrian peace conference in Geneva in mid-November, and the United Nation's special envoy for the Syrian conflict, Lakhdar Brahimi, has backed Iran's participation.

Adding Syria to the agenda for negotiations between Tehran and Washington does risk bogging down their dialogue over nuclear issues, but it could also tip the balance in favor of a deal. Cooperation between Iran and the United States on Syria would help build the mutual confidence needed for a breakthrough on the nuclear front.

Syria's humanitarian crisis is only mounting -- as is the risk that the civil war will engulf neighboring states. Now that the diplomatic door is ajar with both Moscow and Tehran, Obama has every reason to try to walk through it.



How to Put International Justice Out of Business

The ICC’s docket points to a serious problem -- but not the one that African leaders are complaining about.

This weekend, officials from 34 African nations are convening in Addis Ababa to discuss whether or not to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC). The problem with the Hague-based court, according to African Union (AU) Chairperson Hailemariam Desalegn, is that it is "race-hunting" Africans.

It is true that the 32 people charged by the court to date are all from the African continent. But the problem this reflects is not racism by the ICC chief prosecutor. (Currently, the prosecutor is Fatou Bensouda of The Gambia who has faced her fair share of criticism from fellow Africans for the composition of the court's caseload.) Rather, there is a more systemic driver behind the court's docket:  the debilitated state of the judiciary in so many African nations.

The ICC was created by states, including many in Africa, which wanted to ensure that, when the worst crimes in the world -- genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes -- were committed, there would be a backstop against impunity. The vision was for a court of last resort, ready to step in when states failed to prosecute those responsible for a future Holocaust, Rwanda, or Srebrenica. This idea was enshrined in the ICC's statute under the legal principle of complementarity, meaning that the court can only prosecute when states themselves are unable or unwilling to do so.

In other words, in an ideal world, the ICC wouldn't exist. States would handle their own cases fully and fairly. As former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said earlier this week, "If African victims can get justice at home, and we have credible courts and they do take action, there'll be no need for [the] ICC."

However, this remains only wishful thinking. And so, whether African leaders want to admit it or not, a court of last resort is exactly the part the ICC is playing.

Consider, as an example, the ongoing trial of Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto for his alleged role in the mass violence that followed Kenya's 2007 election. Kenya was given every opportunity to prosecute those responsible for the violence that left over 1,000 dead and an estimated 600,000 displaced. A 2008 commission, headed by Kenyan Appeals Court Judge Philip Waki, recommended that the government establish a special tribunal to handle the most important cases. The so-called Waki Report also advised that, if a special tribunal was not created, the situation should be referred to the ICC.

After initially accepting the report's recommendation, the Kenyan government stalled -- and then stalled some more -- before eventually rejecting the establishment of a tribunal. Thus, it was only in the face of the Kenyan government's unwillingness to seek domestic accountability for the violence against its own citizens that the ICC finally stepped in. (In addition to Ruto, the court is set to try President Uhuru Kenyatta in November; on Thursday, Kenyatta requested that the trial be held via video link.)

The remaining seven countries in which the ICC is involved -- through investigations, indictments, or ongoing trials -- present different manifestations of the same problem. The governments of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Central African Republic, Côte d'Ivoire, and Mali all asked for the ICC's involvement, responding to the court's overtures to prosecute crimes that the countries themselves were unwilling or unable to pursue. The U.N. Security Council, meanwhile, requested the court's involvement in Sudan and Libya, where genuine domestic accountability for the victims of mass atrocities was nowhere to be seen. (A Libyan court is currently trying Saif al-Qaddafi in the town of Zintan, amid concerns about its fitness and Qaddafi's civil rights.)

A more detailed snapshot of the justice deficit in these countries helps illustrate further why the ICC is necessary. The World Justice Project's 2012-2013 Rule of Law Index places Sub-Saharan Africa at the bottom of its global list. A recent report on the rule of law in the DRC explains that, with "near-humiliating working conditions... [c]orruption, bribery and denial of justice are common practices within the judiciary." In scores of interviews I have conducted with Darfuri survivors of atrocities either perpetrated or facilitated by the Sudanese government, after the basic necessities of safety, food, and shelter, their demands are for justice. But they don't believe it can come from the Sudanese judiciary while the current government of ICC indictee Omar al-Bashir remains in power.

ICC Chief Prosecutor Bensouda may have put it best: "What offends me the most when I hear criticisms about this so-called Africa bias," she said in an interview last year, "is how quick we are to focus on the words and propaganda of a few powerful, influential individuals, and to forget about the millions of anonymous people who suffer from their crimes." This week, over 160 international groups and civil society organizations across Africa have sought to give voice to those anonymous people with a letter to African foreign ministers, urging them not to withdraw from the ICC. "As organizations working within Africa, some on behalf of or alongside victims of international crimes, we see every day the importance of ensuring access to justice," the letter states.

Justice, however, is not something that survivors of atrocities should have to travel to a foreign land to access.

The court's all-African line-up is not an ICC problem; it is an African problem, for which there is an African solution. That solution -- doing the hard work of strengthening of domestic accountability mechanisms in nations across the continent -- is what African leaders should be discussing this weekend. Unfortunately, they will instead rail against, and possibly abandon, the only recourse for justice that African victims of major international crimes currently have.