The National Interest Foundation Newsletter
Issue 165, October 20, 2022
Welcome to our NIF Newsletter. In this week’s headlines: officials express that the United Nations will push for a nationwide ceasefire in Syria as the need for humanitarian assistance increases, thousands of Tunisians protest in the country’s capital city to denounce President Kais Saied’s moves to consolidate power and demanding accountability for the worsening economic crisis, a U.S. senator blocks $75 million in military aid to Egypt over concerns regarding its poor human rights record, and an investigation by the Washington Post reveals that hundreds of retired U.S. military and security officials have taken lucrative jobs working for foreign governments including repressive Gulf autocrats Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Push for Nationwide Ceasefire in Syria
Officials Express that the United Nations Will Push for a Nationwide Ceasefire in Syria as the Need for Humanitarian Assistance Increases
Last week, infighting between rebel groups began anew in northwestern Syria, rupturing a two-year ceasefire agreement formulated in 2020. The fighting was between militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Syrian National Army, supported by Turkey. HTS appears to be on the offensive in an effort to expand their reach and unite the few remaining regions not under government control. There is fear that they plan to overtake Azaz, the primary base of operations for the Syrian National Army. Perhaps in response to the fresh outbreak of violence, UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen traveled to the country to speak to Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad and others about the potential for a nationwide ceasefire. Of the utmost importance, officials are seeking progress on a political solution for the end of the longstanding conflict that has had a devastating humanitarian impact on civilians, leaving half of the population displaced and hundreds of thousands killed since 2011.
The recently damaged truce was brokered by Turkey and Russia. At the time, the Iran and Russia-backed Syrian government headed by despot Bashar al-Assad had effectively taken control of the vast majority of the country and was besieging the last rebel stronghold in the northwest. The truce has prevented the advancement of one side or the other, but hundreds have died in skirmishes since it went into effect, and the truce was only applied in the rebel-controlled region. It has done little, if anything, to fetter the worsening of the humanitarian crisis that has made 80% of the population impoverished.
Over the past two years, Syria has endured record levels of food insecurity and rapidly rising prices of basic goods and services. Additionally exacerbating the ongoing humanitarian crisis is the fact that water shortages, particularly in northern Syria, have created drought-like conditions and jeopardized already compromised health and water systems. Furthermore, the number of those in need of humanitarian aid and health services has increased both in 2021 and now in 2022. With much of the world’s focus being placed on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there has also been a notable lack of global funding for addressing other important major humanitarian crises like the one in Syria.
When asked about the intentions of the United Nations for the situation in Syria in a press statement, UN Envoy Pedersen emphasized that we need “progress on the political front” in addition to a pause in the fighting. Despite admitting that Security Council Resolution 2254 has been a failure thus far, he reiterated the commitment of both the United Nations and the warring factions to the plan, although no concrete progress has been made. The 2015 Security Council resolution attempted to lay out a plan for restoring peace to Syria in which a Syrian-led assembly first created a provisional government and then held elections monitored by the United Nations. Part of that plan is the Syrian Constitutional Committee, a group consisting of 150 members total, 50 from each important area of the Syrian conflict. These areas include 50 government officials, 50 opposition members, and 50 civilians. The group has met several times since 2019 but has failed to come to any agreements.
Pedersen stated that in addition to meeting with the foreign minister, he was also in Syria to speak with a new nominee for the convention. Of course, Pedersen stressed the severity of the humanitarian disaster. UN Secretary-General António Guterres chimed in as well via Twitter, saying that “the international community has helped avoid a total collapse in Syria” but that “the only way to end this humanitarian tragedy is through a truly nationwide ceasefire and a political solution that enables the Syrian people to determine their own future.”
Pro-Democracy Protests in Tunisia
Thousands of Tunisians Protest in the Country’s Capital City to Denounce President Kais Saied’s Moves to Consolidate Power and Demanding Accountability for the Worsening Economic Crisis
Thousands of citizens took to the streets in Tunisia this past weekend to voice their discontent with President Kais Saied’s moves to consolidate power and the major economic crisis plaguing the country. Observers and analysts have outlined how Saied’s array of actions during the preceding 15 months have served as a debilitating setback to the democratic gains achieved as a result of the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. The latest round of protests not only decries the injustice of the power grab measures enacted by the president, but also denounces the economic and social marginalization that many are facing due to rising levels of food insecurity and inflation. On the political front, Saied has dismantled independent institutions and any checks on his power, with the moves clearly being done in an effort to suppress opposition and use the governmental bodies to target dissidents.
One of the primary motivations for the recent round of demonstrations is the troubling state of the economy, as substantial price increases for basic goods and services have left many Tunisians in difficult financial circumstances. The younger generation of Tunisians are particularly disgruntled with their economic conditions, though citizens across the board hold negative views of the economy. The dissatisfaction with how authorities have handled the economy and increasing skepticism of the political process may push more and more Tunisians away from civil society activism, putting their democratic nature in jeopardy. Some experts have also surmised that continued economic challenges and increasing popular discontent could further undermine the citizenry’s faith in governmental institutions, potentially making them even more susceptible to corruption and manipulation. The current state of the economy suggests a situation moving forward for Tunisia whereby political and economic woes always possess the possibility of manifesting into outbreaks of protest amongst the population.
President Kais Saied has initiated multiple controversial measures since July of last year which have fueled growing levels of discontent. He has suspended the elected parliament, fired the prime minister, shut down the country’s independent anti-corruption body, and sidelined the national election authority. Saied also dissolved the supreme judicial council and granted himself the power over the selection and promotion of judges. The president has regrettably tried to argue that his actions are necessary to keep Tunisia safe, despite the fact that impartial analysts highlight the obvious politically-motivated and repressive nature of the measures. Meanwhile, as Saied tries to consolidate his powers and revert Tunisia back to autocratic rule, a serious economic crisis presents challenges as well, as the government struggles to finance its 2022 deficit and repay debts. Many citizens in Tunisia are struggling to make ends meet, with price hikes and food and fuel shortages only worsening the situation. Thus, the large-scale nature of the recent protests highlights how more and more citizens are becoming displeased with the country’s economic and political ills.
During the latest protests in Tunis, demonstrators marched and voiced their anger against the presidents’ power-grabbing measures. Some marchers chanted “the people want to bring down the coup” and “the people want to depose the president.” Tunisia has long been seen as the main democratic success story to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, and thus Saied’s actions pose a significant threat to this.
Blocking of Military Aid to Egypt
A U.S. Senator Blocks $75 Million in Military Aid to Egypt over Concerns Regarding Its Poor Human Rights Record
This week, United States Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) blocked an additional $75 million in American military aid to Egypt over concerns regarding egregious human rights violations under the El-Sisi government. In doing so, Senator Leahy expressed that it is important that U.S. administrations not allow other policy interests to take attention away from Egypt’s poor human rights record. He called authorities’ treatment of political prisoners in particular “deplorable,” and stated that releasing millions of dollars’ worth of aid is unconscionable in light of recent events that saw a wave of death sentences handed down by Egyptian courts after hasty mass trials. U.S. Congress has devoted more attention to grave concerns about the state of human rights in Egypt recently, passing a law last year which subjects some of the military aid to conditions. Back in September, the U.S. State Department had withheld a portion of military aid, but said that it would allow for another $75 million to be given because of supposed progress by the Egyptian government in improving human rights. However, Senator Leahy, who serves as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has stated that he rejects the State Department’s assessment justifying the aid.
Unease over the state of human rights in Egypt has grown in the preceding years since El-Sisi’s overthrow of the country’s prior democratically-elected president. The current government has instituted a brutal crackdown on any groups or individuals that they deem to be political opponents and dissidents. Since the takeover, rights groups have documented how Egyptian security forces have acted with impunity, routinely conducting arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, and torture against real or suspected political activists, as well as ordinary citizens. In September, El-Sisi tried to appease concerns by introducing a supposed national strategy for human rights, but many domestic and international rights groups have criticized it as failing to adequately address the government’s manifold of human rights abuses. In fact, in that same month, a Human Rights Watch report documented more than a dozen extrajudicial killings of alleged “terrorists” despite evidence that those killed posed no danger to security forces or anyone else, and in many cases were already in long-term custody. Furthermore, authorities have imposed severe restrictions on freedom of movement in North Sinai and demolished hundreds of homes. At the 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, 32 countries stated that they were “deeply concerned with the trajectory of human rights in Egypt.”
Last year’s Congressional law regarding military aid to Egypt placed conditions on $300 million worth of this. The Biden administration recently pledged to block $130 million of that, but to release some of the remaining due to Egypt’s release of 500 political prisoners. Senator Leahy, however, objected this decision and urged Congress to specify its standards on the matter, and even suggested sending the money as scholarships to Egyptian students or for other means. Leahy argued that the circumstances facing political prisoners and dissidents in Egypt is still of serious concern and should not be brushed aside. Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA) also criticized the administration’s decision to provide multiple attack helicopters to Egypt, highlighting as Leahy did that the Egyptian government is infringing on the rights of its citizenry.
Rights activists have praised Senator Leahy’s actions this week, with the hope being that blocks like this and restrictions will force the Egyptian government to increasingly address their human rights issues. They have also pointed out that it appears to represent a notable uptick in skepticism among elected officials towards the abusive actions of Egyptian authorities.
Retired U.S. Officials Working for Repressive Gulf Autocrats
An Investigation by the Washington Post Reveals that Hundreds of Retired U.S. Military and Security Officials Have Taken Lucrative Jobs Working for Foreign Governments Including Repressive Gulf Autocrats Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates
According to recent reports by The Washington Post and the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog, about 450 U.S. military veterans have taken jobs working closely with foreign entities since 2015, mostly in North Africa and the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates alone has poached 280 former U.S. service members to improve their military via training, mechanical work, or other means. What is troubling about these contracts is the blatant lack of basic human rights in many of the countries in which U.S. veterans are being employed. In the UAE, the government maintains a tight grip on media coverage and there are no free elections. Saudi Arabia, another nation that has employed many Americans after service, has many of the same policies and has also garnered considerable and growing concerns regarding its relations with the U.S. in recent years due to actions such as the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a recent OPEC+ decision to cut oil production to increase profits, among other troubling behavior.
It is the promise of incredibly high salaries and the glitzy lifestyle of the oil rich Middle East that attracts American defense contractors. Although information regarding how much the most senior of officers have been offered was removed from the documents given to the Washington Post, the papers revealed that at least four lower-level officials made between $200,000 and $300,000 annually by working with the Saudi Defense Ministry headed by often-criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In the UAE, a former Navy SEAL took a job for $348,000 plus benefits, and a former Army colonel signed on for $324,000. Even those who come on to work as pilots or mechanics make $200,000 and $120,000, respectively.
Although the salaries being offered to the highest ranking of officials – such as generals and admirals – were redacted, their names remained. One name that sticks out is General Jim Mattis. Having retired a few years earlier, Mattis became Secretary of Defense under former President Trump. However, the report indicated that after retirement and before becoming defense secretary, Mattis worked as a military advisor for the UAE, raising serious questions about where his loyalties rested as Secretary. Another recognizable figure is Army General Keith Alexander, who ran the National Security Agency under Bush and Obama and was hired by the Saudis. Other noteworthy names include Marine General James L. Jones, whose two firms have made millions from contracting with the Saudis, and Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who made close to half a million dollars from Russia without U.S. consent.
Regarding the legality of such actions, the answer is a complicated one. The Constitution states that ex-military are forbidden from joining the armed forces of another country in uniform. However, in 1977, Congress not only handed responsibility of the issue to the State Department, but also authorized the waiving of the rule as long as contractors were working as civilians and not in direct opposition of U.S. security interests. The Post discovered that in 95% of cases, requests are simply approved with little to no oversight after the fact. Moreover, the definition of what is contracting versus what is employment with a foreign government is often unclear. Some officers even choose to work for contractors that are based in the U.S., but majority-owned by foreign actors. In most cases, it is plain to see that contractors need to at least be granted permission to do their contracting work. However, the Post discovered that many do not ask permission at all. Frequently, there is very little punishment even for those who are caught. Lieutenant General Flynn, for example, was required to forfeit the money the Russian government gave him for travel, but none of the salary that he earned.
Legality aside, this behavior from these former officers is highly concerning. Yes, the fact that former men and women in U.S. uniform are aiding and abetting countries that terrorize their own people is horrible, but the problem runs far deeper as well. These contractors present a serious national security threat. It is difficult to imagine that knowledge of such lucrative jobs abroad available to them after retirement does not impact the way that our most esteemed military officials conduct their work. Evidence has shown that some officers even begin to negotiate their positions while they are still on active duty. Such relationships should also call into question how much we trust the word of such officers in their TV and other public appearances. It is also important to remember that retired four-star generals, for example, are still making $200,000 plus benefits yearly from U.S. taxes on top of the salaries they’re being offered by these various foreign countries.
The final and perhaps most disturbing aspect of the Washington Post’s discovery is the U.S. government’s attempts to conceal the information from the public. To get the documents in the first place, the Washington Post had to sue the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the State Department under the Freedom of Information Act. The lawsuit took two years, and the version that was delivered to the Post was still missing key details such as the salaries of generals and other top officials, which the government has said were redacted due to privacy concerns. The Post is still pursuing legal action to acquire the missing elements of the documents.