The New Republic: The Syrian Civil War May Be About to Go Fully Regional


The Syrian Civil War May Be About to Go Fully Regional

March 31, 2014

On Thursday, a video was posted on YouTube containing an alleged recording of high-ranking Turkish officials discussing a potential military intervention into Syria in defense of a tiny Turkish exclave 25 miles south of the Turkey-Syria border. In its most damning moment, Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan offers to orchestrate of Gulf of Tonkin-esque false flag attack on the exclave in order to justify a response. The full English transcript can be found here.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, one of four alleged participants in the discussion, confirmed that a meeting had taken place but claimed that the tape had been doctored.

The implications for domestic politics in Turkey, where intervention in Syria is deeply unpopular and key municipal elections took place on Sunday, are so massive that the government blocked all of YouTube and forbid journalists from reporting on the video. The ban follows a similar prohibition on Twitter enacted early last week but overturned on Wednesday.

However, the geopolitical implications are potentially even greater. If Turkey chooses or is drawn into engagement with the Syrian Army, it could fundamentally alter the course of the war. And even if it elects merely to establish an armed stronghold in Syria’s north, other nations may be emboldened to respond in kind.

Home to almost 650,000 Syrian refugees, Turkey has been providing light arms and training to Syrian rebel groups since at least May 2012. Its northern border with Syria has become the primary conduit through which weapons flow from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to opposition forces on the ground.

Turkey has gradually become more and more overt in its support for the Syrian opposition. Just last week, when Syrian rebels launched an operation to seize the last government-controlled border crossing between Turkey and Syria, Turkey provided them with a de facto no-fly zone, shooting down a Syrian fighter jet sent to defend the border towns. Turkey claims the plane had violated its airspace, but it crashed in Syrian territory.

Neither has Turkey been shy about its willingness to defend its tiny exclave in Syria, which inscribes the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather to Ottoman Empire founder Osman I. (For a full rundown of the exclave’s bizarre history, I defer to the inimitable Frank Jacobs.) According to Hurriyet Daily News, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an Islamist rebel group, threatened to attack the exclave this past week. On Tuesday, Turkey’s Ottomaniacial Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promised publically to do “whatever is necessary” to defend the integrity of the tomb.

In fact, the most interesting part of the leaked Turkish talks isn’t the revelation of military plans—which could have been guessed from Turkey’s prior moves—but the duplicity and dysfunction with which those plans appear to be moving forward. The Turkish officials discuss how to avoid running afoul of international law. They bemoan the resistance of opposition parties in Turkey to military action, which they say has turned national security into a “common, cheap domestic policy outfit.” At one point, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu states, “We’re going to portray this is [sic] Al-Qaeda, there’s no distress there if it’s a matter regarding Al-Qaeda.” At no point do they discuss an exit strategy or seriously consider the potentially serious ramifications of an invasion.

The Turkish officials even harken back to their recent intervention in Iraq, which never received legislative authorization. In 2008, Turkey sent hundreds of troops into Northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish separatist fighters. “How do you think we’ve managed to rally our tanks into Iraq?” asks Sinirlioğlu. “Let me be clear, there was no government decision on that, we have managed that just with a single order.”

What happens now is anyone’s guess. Is the publication of a secret military meeting embarrassing enough to alter plans that have been brewing for years? And if not, will the United States stand by its ally and longtime NATO member as the Syrian conflict festers and regionalizes? In the leak itself, Sinirlioğlu claims that the U.S. distributed plans for a no-fly zone at a recent coordination meeting. The Syrian Civil War is already a quagmire, but if the leak is to be believed, it might soon get a lot worse.


The New Republic: Russia Threatened to Nix the Iran Talks. Does It Really Have That Power?


Russia Threatened to Nix the Iran Talks. Does It Really Have That Power?

March 21, 2014

A day after slapping travel bans on John McCain, Mary Landrieu, and John Boehner, Russia’s Vladimir Putin called today for a temporary halt in his tit-for-tat sanctions battle with the United States and the E.U. over his annexation of Crimea. But despite the truce—if it can indeed be called that—more serious battlegrounds between Russia and the West are already coming into view. On Wednesday, Russia gave the first real confirmation that the struggles over Crimea could leak over into the crucial ongoing multi-party talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

Regarding the talks between Iran and the P5+1 coalition, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax News Agency, “We wouldn’t like to use these talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes, taking into account the sentiments in some European capitals, Brussels and Washington … but if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well.” The subtext was clear to anyone familiar with gangster movies and their cliches: Nice nuclear weapons talks you got here … it’d be a shame if something happened to them. But as much as Russia clearly relishes the leverage it holds over the last best hope for President Obama’s foreign policy legacy, it’s unclear how much control they have over the success of the talks—or if scuttling them would even be in Russia’s best interest.

After all, Russia has been a constructive member of the Iran negotiations since 2006. Russian cooperation with the talks has been “pretty good so far, considering that … Russia tends to underestimate Iran’s nuclear weapons potential,” says Gary Samore, President Obama’s advisor on weapons of mass destruction until 2012. Suzanne Maloney, an expert on Iran at the Brookings Institution, agreed that the Russians have been “more than cooperative.”

That’s because Russia and the West share the same vested interest in seeing the Iranian nuclear program slowed or halted. (Russia’s interest is arguably larger—its southern border is only 100 miles from Iran and the two countries have long sparred for influence in central Asia.) For the same reason it worked assiduously with the United States and the U.K. in the early 1990s to remove the nuclear threat of Ukraine, Russia is now willing to work with other members of the nuclear club to exclude Iran.

And the alternative to a successful nuclear deal—a preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities by Israel, the United States, or their allies—is repugnant to Russia. “Ultimately, if the talks fail, the only alternative for the administration would be some use of force and that obviously isn’t in the Russians’ interest or to their advantage,” said Maloney. For this reason, she called a dramatic shift in Russian approach toward negotiations “highly unlikely.”

But Russia also recognizes that the Obama administration has staked a significant amount of political capital on the success of the Iran nuclear talks. “The door is open for the Russians to employ this linkage to their advantage,” Robert Litwak, director of international security studies at the Wilson Center, told me.

So how might the Russians go about this? None of the experts I spoke to expect Russia to pull out of the Iran talks outright. As Maloney noted, Russia’s presence in the talks is “a key part of their own influence,” and a boycott would remove that immediately while yielding little in the way of desirable results. Unlike a natural gas pipeline, delicate nuclear negotiations cannot be turned off and on at will.

In the New York Times yesterday, Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, warned that Russia may try to undercut sanctions by opening up trade with Iran. “If you’re Putin and you think you’re going to be a target of sanctions, the most obvious leverage is in the Iranian file, where Russian cooperation is so important,” Dubowitz said. He referred specifically to a tentative barter deal in which Russia would supply Iran with unspecified equipment and goods in exchange for 500,000 barrels of oil a day. (The swap was first reported by Reuters in January and subsequently denied by the Russian government.)

The veracity of this specific deal aside, experts I spoke to expressed doubts about Russia’s ability to seriously harm the sanctions through unilateral trade deals. “If the Russians decided to conclude some major new trade pacts with the Iranians,” said Maloney, “obviously it would hurt the optics of our attempts to continue to apply pressure to Iran, but it probably wouldn’t mean a lot in terms of either the Iranian or Russian economy.”

That’s because Russia’s trade with Iran is minuscule—Russia accounts for only 1.8 percent of Iran’s foreign trade volume (Iran, for its part, trades with Turkmenistan more than it trades with Russia). The potential Iranian oil-for-goods deal would increase Iranian oil exports by 50 percent, but only because those exports have been so markedly reduced by the EU-U.S. sanctions regime.

Of course, securing a final deal in the P5+1 talks was already a massive uphill battle even without any potential Russian sabotage. As Samore told Jeffrey Goldberg in February, the current talks have almost zero chance of achieving the level of nuclear dismantlement that Western powers are demanding; the powerful influence of hardliners in Iran means that President Hassan Rouhani “cannot make the kinds of concessions necessary” to achieve a successful final deal. If Putin’s goal is to see Obama’s Iranian dreams come to naught, he might do best to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The New Republic: NATO Is In No Position to Protect Eastern Europe From Russia


NATO Is In No Position to Protect Eastern Europe From Russia

March 11, 2014

Last week, Russia launched a surprise military exercise involving “deepwater bombing and mine planting” on the Baltic Sea coast of its Kaliningrad exclave, which is nestled in between Lithuania and Poland. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said the exercise shows that “Russia is trying to threaten all Europe and becoming unpredictable.” She’s not alone in worrying. All across the former Soviet borderlands, leaders are looking at Russia’s naked play for Crimea and finding uncomfortable similarities. Ethnic Russians amount to roughly a quarter of the population in both Latvia and Estonia, and a majority in major cities like Narva and Daugavpils. If Simferopol can come back into the Russian fold, the Baltic leaders wonder, why not Narva?

The answer always given, of course, is that Poland and the Baltic States are members of both the European Union and, more importantly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Any incursion into their territory would obligate a response from NATO’s 28 members, including the United States. “Thanks be to God, we are NATO members,” Grybauskaite told reporters.

It’s hard to know if NATO’s eastern flank should be thanking God or praying to Him. Russia’s return to military adventurism in Europe comes at perhaps the weakest point in NATO’s 65-year history. The coalition’s disturbing lack of cohesion and preparedness for even small engagements, along with shifting American priorities, cast serious doubt on the guarantee of protection that made Eastern Europe so eager for NATO’s embrace.

Of course, NATO’s leadership has duly made gestures of support for its Eastern European caucus in the aftermath of Crimea. After Poland and Lithuania invoked an emergency meeting under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty for only the fourth time since 1949, NATO cancelled a joint military mission with Russia and announced plans to increase military cooperation with Ukraine. The U.S. also sent six additional fighter jets to a routine air policing mission in the Baltic states. But these are symbolic moves, nothing more.

NATO relies heavily on the United States to project power and deter external threats. The U.S. provides 22 percent of NATO’s common-funded budget and is the organization’s largest member—its military spending represents nearly three quarters of all NATO members’ military spending combined. As a result, notes Stratfor Chairman George Friedman in his prescient book The Next 100 Years, NATO’s collective defense guarantee is “effective only if the United States is prepared to use force.”

Concerned Poles and Balts seeking hard evidence behind America’s rhetorical support for NATO are bound to be disappointed. Obama’s “pivot to Asia” is only the latest stage in a multi-decade drawdown of U.S. forces in Europe. Only 64,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed there, compared to 450,000 at the height of the Cold War. And U.S. military forces have never been deployed east of the Oder River, which forms the boundary between Germany and Poland. Even planned U.S. missile defense shields for Poland and the Czech Republic were cancelled as part of Obama’s attempted reset with Russia in 2009.

Russia’s intervention in Crimea also came just days after the Department of Defense proposed a 2015 budget that would reduce the U.S. army to its smallest size since before World War II. The budget is a recognition that the U.S. has been spending too much on its military for decades and will no longer be at war for the first time since 2001. It is also a much larger recognition that a debt-ridden, sequestered America cannot be expected to militarily enforce the interests of every ally in every corner of the globe.

Despite this, the rest of NATO continues to operate as if the full force of the U.S. military is behind it. In the interest of rectifying the massive imbalance within NATO, its members agreed in 2006 to each spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense (the U.S. typically spends around 4 percent). As of last year, only seven members met that mark. In fact, since 2010, most European countries’ defense expenditures have actually fallen between 8 percent and 30 percent.

That imbalance was apparent during the 2011 intervention in Libya. After the U.S. moved into a “supporting role,” the NATO countries maintaining the no-fly zone quickly began to run out of precision bombs, and the U.S. was forced to provide 80 percent of aerial refueling. In a preview of his post-retirement candor, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned at the time of “a dim, if not dismal future” of “collective military irrelevance” for NATO if trends continued.

Ultimately, of course, military spending trends will not tell us what happens if a NATO member is attacked. But Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which requires the response of every member if one member is attacked, is virtually untested. The only time it has ever been invoked, after the September 11th attacks, was at the behest of the United States. And as Syria has shown, the ghost of Iraq still stalks America’s foreign policy, poisoning the debate over any intervention no matter how righteous.

When it comes to Ukraine, “The United States is not about to risk a conventional war over Russia’s neighbors because our interests there are limited and the dispute might escalate to the nuclear level,” Joseph Parent, a University of Miami professor specializing in U.S. foreign policy, told me in an email. “Crimea isn’t worth Charleston.” Indeed, President Barack Obama, who came out in favor of Ukraine joining NATO while running for president, is probably thanking his lucky stars today that America’s only commitment to Ukraine is an unenforceable 20-year-old memorandum. And he has made clear that a military response is not on the table in Ukraine. How much does that calculation change if Estonia or Latvia is in the crosshairs?

The New Republic: The U.S. Was Ready to Impose Sanctions on Ukraine. Why Not Venezuela, Too?


The U.S. Was Ready to Impose Sanctions on Ukraine. Why Not Venezuela, Too?

February 28, 2014

In the past month, two governments have embarked on remarkably similar crackdowns against entrenched protest movements. Last week, the world watched as Kiev’s Independence Square burned, while in Venezuela, motorcycle-mounted national guardsmen fired on student protesters. All told, at least 17 people in Venezuela and at least 77 in Ukraine died in the violence. But whereas President Barack Obama threatened, before the ouster of Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych, “There will be consequences if people step over the line,” the U.S. government’s response to the Venezuelan crackdown has been notably anodyne. In a press briefing the day after some of the worst violence in Venezuela took place, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said little more than “we believe the most appropriate way to resolve differences is through consultations and dialogue…not the arrest of people who may be political foes.” (In the same briefing, Harf called the crackdown in Ukraine “completely outrageous.”)

It’s not that the U.S. government has any love for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s regime; Secretary of State John Kerry later clarified that the violence in the country was “unacceptable.” But the rhetoric has yet to be matched with any concrete action to influence the Maduro regime besides a tit-for-tat dismissal of three Venezuean diplomats after Maduro sent three U.S. diplomats home for alleged involvement in the protests. Compare that to Ukraine, where the U.S. and European Union were already preparing sanctions in January and, after violence erupted on February 18, 20 government officials were swiftly hit with travel bans.

Even more important were diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and EU to seek an end to the crisis. The State Department was in close contact with the opposition in Ukraine, and Kerry even met with protest leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko in January. The now notorious “Fuck the EU” call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt revealed, if nothing else, how deeply the United States was involved in trying to forge a deal on creating a new government in Ukraine.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has taken the State Department to task for this disparity. In a torrent of tweets and public appearances over the past two weeks, Rubio has railed against the violence perpetrated by the Venezuelan government, which he sees as a puppet of Cuban dictator Raul Castro. After Kerry expressed “increasing concern” over the situation in Venezuela, Rubio told CNN, “They shouldn’t be concerned about what is happening in Venezuela, they should be outraged about it. And it should be getting the same level of attention as what’s happening in Egypt, or what’s happening in Ukraine, or other parts of the world because this is actually closer to us.”

But the U.S. has severely limited options when it comes to leaning on the Venezuelan government. In a Senate resolution introduced yesterday, Rubio and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey called on President Barack Obama to immediately impose measures similar to those levied against Ukraine, freezing the assets and visas of government officials involved in the crackdown. This would help show that the U.S. takes violence against protesters seriously wherever it occurs, but it is unlikely to have a significant impact on the Maduro regime.

That’s because, whereas Ukrainian sanctions accompanied ongoing multilateral talks, the U.S. and Venezuela have had little to no diplomatic contact throughout the 2014 protests. The already strained U.S.-Venezuela relationship deteriorated even further after the U.S. questioned the legitimacy of Maduro’s election in 2013. There hasn’t even been a U.S. ambassador to Venezuela since 2010. And despite the Obama administration’s relative lack of action, Maduro has already accused it of “financing, promoting and defending members of the opposition.”

In his interview with CNN last week, Rubio suggested that a sanctions package could include a “moratorium on private investment.” But Harold Trinkunas, an expert on Latin America at the Brookings Institution, says economic sanctions would have limited practical effect. “Most U.S. businesses are already holding off on new investments in Venezuela because of the poor business climate and inability repatriate profits or purchase inputs needed to operate a business in Venezuela,” he explained. The core chavista policy of nationalization rose to perverse extremes last November when Maduro took over a chain of electronics stores because he believed it was overcharging customers.

Even an embargo on Venezuela’s all-important oil exports would likely have much less impact than hoped. While still the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the United States, Venezuela’s share of the American market has fallen steadily since Hugo Chavez came to power, to a mere 8.3 percent in 2011. That amounts to 40 percent of the oil Venezuela exports worldwide, but in the event of an embargo, “China would be very happy to take more” at a discounted price, says Jacqueline Weaver, a professor specialising in energy policy at the University of Houston Law Center. It’s also unclear how an embargo would affect CITGO, the Houston-based supplier to 14,000 U.S. gas stations that is wholly owned by Venezuela’s national oil company.

More importantly, an embargo would probably have the opposite of the desired political effect in the eyes of the world, turning Venezuela into a cause célèbre and the United States into a imperialist bully. The U.S. embargo of Cuba is already loathed by nearly the entire world and all of Latin America. Installing a new embargo, this time against a government that, though throughly undemocratic in many ways, was installed by popular vote, could be devastating for our foreign policy image while doing little to influence the Maduro government.

The Venezuelan government sees America the way many western Ukrainians see Russia—as an erstwhile hegemon and untrustworthy actor with an ugly past of self-serving intervention. Most Latin American leaders have stood behind Maduro since the crackdown began, either out of agreement with Venezuela’s leftist anti-gringo stance or in hopes that the cheap Venezuelan crude won’t stop flowing their way. (The State Department’s statements on Venezuela look positively censorious next to Mexico’s curt two-line press release on the crackdown.) Serious sanctions will only play into this narrative, while achieving little in the way of concessions.

Ukraine is the exception. In the case of Venezuela, realpolitik trumps human rights once again.

The New Republic: Stop Counting Olympic Medals!


Stop Counting Olympic Medals!

February 19, 2014

With the Sochi games nearing the homestretch, the focus has turned to that most irresistible of Olympic events: watching the medal count. Many publications keep a running tally, and some even investigate why big countries like the United States and Russia haven’t won more, or argue that, adjusted for population and GDP, smaller nations like Norway and Belarus are really the medal leaders. The order of the medal table may be up for debate—Drudge has made it clear he judges by gold alone—but the concept of the medal table itself has gone conspicuously unquestioned. That’s unfortunate, because our obsession with the medal count has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the Olympics today.

As economists Kevin Grier and Tyler Cowen noted during the London Games, medals typically go to countries that are rich, populous, and invest significant sums in their Olympic training program (though focusing on specific sports—like the Netherlands do in speed skating—can give smaller nations a comparative advantage). For the U.S., the all-time leader in both Olympic golds and total medals, the games are a biennial ego boost at a time when America consistently lags behind the rest of the developed world in several more important metrics. We may not be first in income equality, health care, or math, reading and science scores, but we can still bring home the gold.

Such naked nationalism is all the more glaring given why the Olympics were conceived in the first place. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French founder of the modern games, didn’t just want to promote physical education worldwide. Based on a romanticized reading of the truces and camaraderie surrounding the ancient Greek Olympic games, he was convinced that different nations competing alongside each other would lead inexorably to world peace and mutual understanding. “The important thing at the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part,” said de Coubertin, “for the essential thing in life is not to conquer, but to struggle well.”

The history of the Olympics has been one long story of our inability to live up to that ideal. The most famous games are remembered not for athletic feats but for political symbolism: the 1936 Nazi Games in Berlin, the 1972 Munich Massacre, the “black power” salute in Mexico in 1968, and the consecutive boycotts of Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984. Founded in the shadow of the Franco-Prussian war (the Germans almost boycotted the inaugural games in 1896), the Olympics have endured two world wars and served as one of the most prominent battlefields of the Cold War. It didn’t trigger any conflicts, but it certainly hasn’t stopped them.

Perhaps that’s because the games inevitably breed suspicion, envy, and even anger. In a Gallup poll taken just as the Sochi games began, Americans’s favorability rating of Russia fell to its lowest level in 15 years. Surely, Russia’s hospitality toward Edward Snowden and support for the Syrian regime played into that—but just as surely, so did our Olympic competitiveness with the host nation. Then came the U.S.-Russia hockey game on Saturday, in which a Russian go-ahead goal with five minutes remaining was disallowed by the American referee. The U.S. went on to win in a shootout, and prominent Russians reacted with vitriol, even accusing NBC of buying a favorable ruling. It’s safe to say U.S.-Russia relations won’t be thawing anytime soon.

What’s more, the medal count explicitly violates the IOC’s own rules. The Olympic charter explicitly states that “The IOC and the [Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games] shall not draw up any global ranking per country, instead honoring individual medal winners.” After all, as the Charter makes clear, “the Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries.” Despite this, the official Sochi 2014 website prominently features a medal count, as did the websites for London, Vancouver, Beijing, and Turin. (By the way, is there anything sadder than an eight-year-old Olympic homepage?)

It would be easier to dismiss medal-counting as mere competitive fun if countries didn’t treat it like a real measurement of national worth—and spend accordingly. After it failed to win gold at its home Olympics in Montreal ’76 and Calgary ’88, Canada invested $110 million in its “Own the Podium” program in the lead-up to the 2010 Vancouver games. Ahead of London 2012, Great Britain spent 264 million pounds preparing its athletes. Russia hasn’t revealed how much it spent on training athletes before Sochi, but given the games’ $51 billion pricetag, it’s safe to assume they spared no expense. In each case, Olympic investment has resulted in noticeably increased medal totals, but it’s tempting to think about what else could have been done with that money.

Performing well on a global stage like the Olympics can be a potent symbol, especially for the host country, but it is still only a symbol—and a fleeting one at that. (Do you even remember who “won” the games in Turin?) Ultimately, our outsize investment in the games—both emotionally and financially—says more about America’s priorities than it does about our athletic abilities or national strength. There’s a different kind of gold medal, for instance, that an American hasn’t won since 1993: The Nobel Prize for Literature. But I haven’t heard anyone suggest we fund a multi-million-dollar “Own the Pen” initiative.

The New Republic: Why the U.S. Should Hand Over Amanda Knox If Italy Asks


Why the U.S. Should Hand Over Amanda Knox If Italy Asks

February 3, 2014

On Thursday, an Italian court once again found Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito guilty of murdering Knox’s roommate Meredith Kercher in Perugia in 2007. Knox and Sollecito were originally convicted in 2009, only to have that ruling overturned by an appeals court in 2011, allowing Knox’s release from Italian prison and return to the United States.

Knox’s fate now hangs on her final appeal to the Italian Supreme Court, which could take years, but as far as the American media is concerned, her defense has already begun. At Business Insider, Jim Edwards condemned the Italian courts as “utterly insane” and the Knox case as a “miscarriage of justice”; Olga Khazan of The Atlantic bemoaned “Italy’s ‘carnivalesque’ justice system.”

Both noted that the judicial merry-go-round could never have happened in America, where the Fifth Amendment protects court defendants from being tried twice for the same crime. This last observation appears to be meant both as an example of Italy’s judicial failings and a potential rationale for denying Italy’s request for Knox’s extradition if her sentence is upheld. On both legal and diplomatic grounds, fighting such a request would be a mistake.

Italy’s justice system has rightly earned a reputation for being more circuitous than the Stelvio Pass Road. The country’s highest court receives 80,000 new cases a year, according to Reuters, leading to a backlog of 9 million cases as of 2012. Reforms are certainly in order, but inefficiencies and delays alone are not a justification for ignoring the decisions of a legitimate national judiciary, especially when an extradition treaty binds the United States to respect them.

What actually happened in Knox’s apartment on the night of November 1, 2007 will always be a tragic and fascinating question, but if and when she comes before a U.S. magistrate judge to challenge her extradition, the facts of the case will not matter. According to Jacques Semmelman, a New York-based attorney and leading extradition expert, her conviction in Italian court provides “abundant probable cause” to conclude she is guilty of murder.

The idea that double jeopardy could prevent Knox’s extradition, first popularized in the U.S. media after her retrial was announced in 2013, is also suspect. The current extradition treaty between Italy and the U.S. does not list double jeopardy within the country requesting extradition—i.e., Italy in this case—as a grounds for denying extradition.

Knox’s American lawyers could still claim that her extradition is unconstitutional, but according to Washington-based extradition lawyer Bruce Zagaris, “When a requesting country reverses the acquittal and enters a judgment of conviction, U.S. courts have held that there is no constitutional or statutory bar to the U.S. granting extradition.” Semmelman agrees that a double jeopardy defense would likely fail in Knox’s case, citing a 1997 case in which the U.S. extradited a man to Turkey despite the fact that he was convicted of rape in Turkey only after an appeal.

Assuming Knox’s legal recourses fail, her only hope to avoid extradition would be an intercession by the U.S. Secretary of State, who has final approval over all extradition requests. However, it’s hard to see why John Kerry or future Secretaries of State would take such a large risk merely to protect an American citizen from a prison sentence abroad. Knox may have become a cause célèbre in the United States, but she is unpopular in Italy, where polls show a majority of Italians believe she is guilty.

As with all extradition debates, the issue of reciprocity looms large. As legal scholar Alan Dershowitz put it in an interview with AFP, “We’re trying to get Snowden back—how does it look if we want Snowden back and we won’t return someone for murder?”

This is especially true in light of Italy’s recent history of carrying America’s water for issues considerably more controversial than common crimes. In July 2013, Italy was one of four NATO countries that closed their airspace to the Bolivian president’s plane on the suspicion that Edward Snowden was using it to abscond from Russia. In 2003, the Italian Intelligence Service even allowed the CIA to abduct an Islamist cleric off the street in Milan and whisk him off to Egypt, the country he had sought asylum from in Italy. Once there, he was allegedly tortured and abused by the Mubarak regime. After this “extraordinary rendition” became public, an Italian court convicted 23 CIA operatives of kidnapping in absentia, but Italy has never formally sought their extradition due to U.S. government pressure. By comparison, returning a convicted murderer seems downright routine.

No matter what the Italian Supreme Court’s ultimate decision, it will be viewed with scorn. No new evidence is likely to surface and the various factions for and against Knox have come to their own conclusions long ago. Still, extradition treaties require that we respect the rulings of foreign courts within clearly deliniated parameters. Moreover, the special relationship cultivated between longstanding allies has to take precedence over individual doubts. When news outlets lose sight of that and instead speculate on what country Knox could escape to, it is unclear what kind of world they are rooting for.

Huffington Post: Is Edward Snowden Protected By International Law?


Is Edward Snowden Protected By International Law?

July 17, 2013

In a lot of ways, Edward Snowden is no different from any other millennial. He likes pizza, sometimes says stupid things on the internet, and can’t stand to be separated from his computer. Unlike most people his age, Snowden’s computer is full of classified documents stolen from the United States government, which is pursuing theft of property and espionage charges against him and seeking his immediate return to face a federal trial. Whether Snowden can avoid prosecution and return to some semblance of a normal millennial life now depends on how well he can navigate the intricate world of refugee law.

Snowden filed asylum requests with several countries and received asylum offers from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia. The former analyst announced on Friday that he had accepted Venezuela’s invitation. However, he needs to reach the Latin American country or one of its embassies to be shielded from prosecution. The United States, for its part, has revoked Snowden’s passport and placed him on a no-fly list, effectively cornering the American in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

Snowden has repeatedly condemned U.S. efforts to restrict his movements, arguing Washington and its allies make it impossible to enjoy Venezuela’s asylum offer. Snowden has argued that attempts to prevent him from traveling to Caracas violate international law, and in particular the right to asylum under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Despite this rhetoric, it is unclear to what extent international law actually protects Snowden at this point.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights inshrines a set of commonly-held fundamental rights, but is not, in itself, a legally binding document. International customary law surrounding refugees and asylum seekers is instead primarily based on the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Above all else, the Convention establishes the principle of non-refoulement, which expressly forbids states from expelling or returning “a refugee…to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Snowden argued during a press conference in Moscow that he is protected by the principle of non-refoulement, which would bar Russia, one of 145 signatories of the 1951 Convention, from sending him anywhere that would lead him back to the U.S.

To invoke that right, however, he will have to prove that he meets the standards of the UN convention, which defines a refugee as someone who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or…unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

In order to prove such a claim, Snowden would have to show that he is being persecuted for his political opinions or membership of the social group of whistleblowers, not merely prosecuted for a crime. He would additionally have to show that the crime he is accused of committing was political in nature, because refugee status is not available to those who have “committed a serious non-political crime.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Handbook on Procedures and Criteria

for Determining Refugee Status under the UN Convention states that a crime should be considered political if “it has been committed out of genuine political motives and not merely for personal reasons or gain” and there is “a close and direct causal link between the crime committed and its alleged political purpose and object.”

Based on his statements, Snowden’s alleged crimes appear to be political in nature. His decision to leak classified documents appears to have been motivated by his political opinions about the overreaches of U.S. surveillance programs, and his goal of bringing an end to these overreaches could not have been achieved without said leaks. As Ben Saul, a professor of international law at the University of Sydney, said: “crimes like ‘espionage’ are widely regarded as classic ‘political offenses.'”

Still, the question remains whether the United States’ prosecution of Snowden for espionage rises to the level of persecution. Snowden is being prosecuted for willful communication of classified intelligence information to an unauthorized person, not for expressing his political opinions. The UNHCR Handbook states that “punishment for a common law offense” is normally not considered persecution. However, excessive punishment for such an offense can amount to persecution.

According to Jaya Ramji-Nogales, a law professor specializing in international human rights and immigration at Temple University, the ten year prison sentences for espionage charges the U.S. filed against Snowden do not appear to rise to the level of persecution under international law.

However, several prominent members of the U.S. Government, including Senators Dianne Feinstein and Bill Nelson and Secretary of State Kerry, have suggested that Snowden may be guilty of treason, which carries the possibility of a death sentence.

In 1989, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Jens Soering, a German national, could not be extradited to the United States because he faced a possible death sentence for murder there. “If [Snowden] were charged with treason,” says Ramji-Nogales, “he might have a legitimate claim under the [United Nations] Convention against Torture and maybe even under the Refugee Convention.”

However, as Dylan Matthews notes in the Washington Post, the chances that Snowden will actually be charged with treason are low, because the definition of treason set in the U.S. Constitution is an exceedingly high standard. Less than 3 dozen people have been charged with treason in U.S. history, and even Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were caught passing state secrets to the Soviet Union in the 1960s, were not. Instead, the pair was charged under the 1917 Espionage Act, the law Snowden is officially accused of violating.



As of yet, we have no clear indication that Snowden has actually sought refugee status with any nation or formally invoked the principle of non-refoulement. Our best indication of the tenor of Snowden’s asylum requests, a leaked copy of the asylum letter he sent to Poland, makes no mention of the UN Refugee Convention or any other legal standards. According to Ramji-Nogales, the letter “is not really a legal document” at all.

Consequently, Snowden’s many asylum requests fall under the domestic asylum laws of each country separately, not international law. The specific criteria to receive political asylum vary from country to country, as demonstrated by Snowden’s tally of acceptances and rejections. Ultimately, “domestic law governs the availability and procedures for any ‘asylum’ category arising purely under domestic law and separate from refugee status,” explains Professor Saul.

On July 5, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro stated that he had granted Snowden “humanitarian political asylum.” Under Venezuelan law, asylum falls under a different category than refugee status, and can be granted to anyone who is “persecuted for his or her beliefs, opinions or political affiliation, for acts that could be considered as political crimes, or for common crimes committed for political purposes.”

The Venezuelan asylum offer resembles the diplomatic asylum Ecuador granted to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since June 2012. Ecuador cited the possibility of “political persecution” or capital punishment that awaited Assange in the U.S. to justify the approval.

While Ecuador recognizes Assange as an asylum seeker, it did not give the WikiLeaks founder refugee status. Snowden’s Venezuelan offer makes the same distinction. This is important, because if Snowden’s Venezuelan asylum fell under UN refugee status, other signatories of the 1951 Convention would be bound, at the very least, not to return Snowden to the United States. That is not the case for asylum seekers.

So while Snowden argued in his press conference on Friday that “no state has a basis by which to limit or interfere with my right to enjoy that asylum,” the situation is more complicated from a legal perspective.


In addition, if Edward Snowden wants the same protection Assange enjoys, limited though it is, he will have to get himself to Venezuela or one of its embassies or consulates.

The primary barrier to Snowden’s travel right now is his lack of travel documents. Snowden accused the United States of “using citizenship as a weapon” and making him a “stateless person” by revoking his passport in a statement released in the WikiLeaks website. However, under U.S. law, the State Department has the right to revoke the passport of a federal felony warrant subject.

According to The Guardian, Snowden was able to travel to Russia using a temporary travel pass issued by Ecuador. In recent days, however, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has stated in interviews that the document was issued in error by the Ecuadorian Consul in London. Under Venezuelan domestic law, asylees have the right to be granted identity documents, but the availability of temporary travel documents is not specified.

Snowden’s lawyer announced on Tuesday that Snowden applied for temporary asylum in Russia. According to Professor Saul, the approval of temporary asylum could garner Snowden the travel documents necessary to fly to other countries, including Venezuela.

Even if Snowden can get a valid travel document, however, he may still have difficulty reaching Caracas. International law does not require countries to grant safe passage to domestic asylum candidates, and Spain, France and Portugal have already indicated they may refuse Snowden access to their airspace.

Max Fisher at the Washington Post came up with a series of possible routes that avoid the airspace of the U.S. and its allies, but whether such routes are actually feasible remains to be determined.

If Snowden can fly to the Russian Far East airport of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and charter a plane across the Pacific Ocean, as Fisher suggests, he may be able to reach a Latin American country without crossing any unfriendly airspace. From there, he is guaranteed safe passage as a Venezuelan asylee under the 1928 Havana Convention on Asylum, which is signed by most Latin American countries. However, such a flight is both literally and figuratively a long shot.