Peace Picks February 15-19

  1. Launch of the Task Force on the Future of Iraq | Tuesday, February 16th | 2:00-3:30 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The speakers will reflect on how lessons learned in a decade of US intervention in Iraq can be applied to stabilize the country beyond the defeat of ISIS. Ryan Crocker served as US Ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon. He is now Dean of Texas A&M University’s George Bush School of Government and Public Service. Michael Barbero worked alongside General David Petraeus as a Deputy Chief of Staff for Multi-National Task Force – Iraq during “the surge” in 2007 and 2008. James Jeffrey served as Deputy National Security Advisor to George W. Bush (2007-08) and US Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. He is now the Philip Solondz Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Nussaibah Younis is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, an expert on Iraqi politics, and author of the forthcoming book Invasion to ISIS: Iraq, State Weakness and Foreign Policy. The Task Force brings together twenty-five top Iraq experts from around the world to refocus attention on the underlying drivers of conflict in Iraq that must be addressed beyond the fight against ISIS. The Task Force will convene in Washington DC for the launch, and will then conduct fact-finding missions in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Baghdad, and Najaf. They will report on their findings after the US presidential elections in an effort to encourage the new administration to adopt a long-term approach to the stabilization of Iraq.
  2. Chechnya: Russian Politics in Reflection | Wednesday, February 18th | 10:00-11:30 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | In recent weeks, the Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, has become the focus of attention in Russia. From the barrage of threats against opposition members, to the spontaneous anti-Kadyrov social media campaign, to the staged pro-Kadyrov rally in Grozny, the events have generated headlines and left observers struggling for interpretation. The speakers will reflect on these developments in the broader context of Russia’s political reality. Speakers include Alexandra Garmazhapova, journalist at the Novaya Gazeta in St. Petersburg, Anton Ryzhov, Starovoitova Fellow, and Denis Sokolov, George F. Kennan expert.
  3. Labor Dynamics in the Gulf | Wednesday, February 17th | 12:00-1:30 | Arab Gulf States Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Lower oil prices are challenging the traditional labor system in the Gulf states, built largely from a migrant labor force.The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington is pleased to host a panel discussion examining labor dynamics in the Gulf states focusing on the rules that regulate labor inside the Gulf Cooperation Council states, and some of the economic benefits of imported labor, as well as the challenges for rights protection and knowledge transfer. The discussion will cover shifting labor demographics in the Gulf with the decline in oil prices and what the economic downturn will mean for the labor market and the overall economy of GCC states. It will delve into labor market reform and diversification efforts as well as the development of knowledge economies in the Gulf. Speakers include Attiya Ahmad of George Washington University, Omar Al-Ubaydli of George Mason University, and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of Rise University. Karen E. Young, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington will moderate.
  4. Mounting challenges in the Middle East for Japan and the United States | Wednesday, February 17th | 1:00-3:00 | Brookings | REGISTER TO ATTEND | As various related and converging factors continue to drive instability in the greater Middle East, the rules of the regional game are changing and the ability of the United States to shape the outcomes is declining. With more international stakeholders involved and competing strategies at stake, the issue of burden-sharing becomes more prominent. While often overlooked in Washington, Japan’s interests in the region provide both opportunities and challenges for U.S. policy in the Middle East region. On February 17, the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings will hold a public forum bringing together experts from Japan and the United States to examine the economic and security issues in the Middle East that impact American and Japanese interests, values and strategies. Panelists will analyze areas where these interests may diverge, and how both sides can identify and develop effective policies. After the panel discussion, the speakers will take audience questions. Richard C. Bush III, Director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, will moderate. Speakers include Kunihiko Miyake, President of the Foreign Policy Institute, Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director of the Center for Middle East Policy, Daniel L. Byman, Research Director of the Center for Middle East Policy, and Yukiko Miyagi, Research Fellow for the Institute of Middle East, Central Asia, and Caucasus Studies at the University of St. Andrews.
  5. Women Leaders Against Corruption: What Works | Thursday, February 18th | 2:00-4:00 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The fight against corruption is becoming increasingly prominent across much of the African continent. Corruption causes wasted development potential, poor governance, and lowered government legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. But while corruption remains a serious impediment to growth and good governance, some countries and leaders in Africa are making significant strides towards ending it. Given these challenges, what role can public servants have in ending corruption, and how can women leaders head the fight against graft? What lessons can we learn from their successes? This discussion will bring together high-level women leaders in the public sector from across the African continent to assess the best tactics for combatting corruption. Join the Women in Public Service Project in partnership with the Africa Program and Rule of Law Program at the Wilson Center 2–4pm on February 18th, 2016 in the 6th floor auditorium for a discussion on Women Leaders Against Corruption: What Works. This event will be livetweeted and webcasted. Follow the Africa Program Twitter account @AfricaUpClose and the Women in Public Service Project Twitter account @WPSProject and contribute to the conversation using the hashtag #anticorruption. Speakers include Betty Bigombe, Distinguished African Scholar, Margart Nnananyana Nasha, former Speaker of Parliament for the Republic of Botswana, Aminata Niana, former Special Advisor to the President of the Republic of Senegal, Lindiwe Mazibuko, former leader of the Official Opposition in the Parliament of South Africa, and Gwen Young, Director of the Women in Public Service Project.Low Oil Prices and Economic and Political Stability in Latin America | Friday, February 19th | 12:30-2:00 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The collapse in crude oil prices since mid-2014 has shaken the foundation of global energy markets, with far-reaching economic implications in Latin America. Today, governments across the region face fiscal constraints, market upheaval, challenges to longstanding fuel subsidy programs, and lagging economic growth. Some are adapting creatively, while others are not. With this volatile landscape as a backdrop, our distinguished panelists will address the following questions and more: What impact have low oil prices had on macroeconomic trends in Latin America? Which countries are best positioned to weather the current price environment? To what degree have oil prices impacted the fiscal position of key Latin American producers? How are fiscal constraints influencing government policies in the region? How is the current price environment impacting the oil production outlook in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Venezuela? How have upstream investment trends in the region changed in the face of falling prices? Speakers include Juan Gonzalez, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs in the US Department of State, Daniel Kerner, Practice Head of Latin America for the Eurasia Group, Luisa Palacios, Head of Latin America for Medley Global Advisors, Lisa Viscidi, Program Director at Inter-American Dialogue, and Jason Marczak, Director of the Latin American Economic Growth Initiative at Atlantic Council. David Goldwyn, Chairman of the Energy Advisory Group at the Atlantic Council will moderate. Richard Morningstar, Founding Director of the Global Energy Center at Atlantic Council, will make welcome remarks.
  6. Who we really are: A conversation with Syrian refugees in America | Friday, February 19th | 3:30-5:00 | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Syrian crisis has cost the lives of nearly 250,000 people, displaced nearly half of the population, and sent 4.6 million Syrian refugees into neighboring countries. The United States has taken in approximately 2,500 Syrian refugees since 2011, and the Obama administration announced that it plans to admit an additional 10,000 refugees this year. As debates over refugee resettlement facts and figures continue within a polarized election cycle, a real need exists to better understand the lives and experiences of refugees. On Friday February 19, the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings will host a conversation with recent Syrian refugees on their experiences of forced migration, resettlement, and integration in the United States. Robert McKenzie, visiting fellow for the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings, will provide introductory remarks, and Leon Wieseltier, the Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at Brookings, will moderate the conversation. Speakers include Kassem Eid, activist for Syria. Mariela Shaker, concert violinist from Aleppo, Qutaiba Idlbi, activist for Syria, and Taha Bali, assistant in neurology at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Following the conversation, the panelists will take questions from the audience. This event is the latest in a series of Foreign Policy at Brookings events focusing on the Syrian refugee crisis and the U.S. and international community’s response.
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A view from inside the nuclear negotiations

On February 9, Wilson Center hosted ‘Inside the Iran Negotiations: A Conversation with Chief Negotiator Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman.’ Jane Harman, Director, President, and CEO of the Wilson Center, introduced Sherman, and Robert S. Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Director of International Security Studies at the Wilson Center, prompted questions for Sherman to consider.

After nearly 20 months of negotiations, a nuclear deal with Iran was reached in 2015. The negotiations took place over a four-year period. The first two years of talks did not accomplish much, but Sherman was able to assess the Iranian mindset.

A major change occurred when President Hassan Rouhani assumed power. While Rouhani is a part of the revolutionary zeal and is a cleric, he is not a strict hardliner unwilling to compromise. He had to address the serious economic problems the regime faced, or else face dissent from dissatisfied constituents. After Rouhani came to power, Sherman took part in secret bilateral talks with Iran. Ultimately, the secret negotiations were brought to the formal table, as Iran proved it was serious about halting production of nuclear material.

The P5+1 formal negotiations proposed a comprehensive plan of action where Iran would no longer enrich uranium beyond a specified level and refrain from producing plutonium. Sherman claimed that this deal was written so Iran could never have a nuclear weapon. If Iran breaks its end of the bargain, the US will reimpose sanctions and military action will be considered.

She added that though sanctions never stopped Iran from producing nuclear material, they did bring Iran to the negotiating table. The nuclear deal is written as a long-term solution. It will remain durable because it is in everyone’s best interests to comply. The deal also guarantees access to Iranian facilities. Iranian production of nuclear material will be closely monitored. The only way for Iran to sidestep this deal would be to produce nuclear material covertly, which is nearly impossible.

Negotiations not only involved the US and Iran coming to an agreement, but also creating a solution the P5+1 could agree upon. Getting all actors to agree was a complex process. Sherman teased that she negotiated with the P5+1 countries the most, and only negotiated a fair amount with Iran. Outside actors affected the negotiation process, too. She dealt with Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu’s criticism of the deal, always remaining in contact with Israel throughout the negotiation period. The US also shared information about the process with Israeli experts and Gulf allies, and always looked for outside input.

Sherman said implementation will be a major challenge. The US received information that someone in Iran had injected gas into a more advanced centrifuge, which the Iranian negotiators seemed to know nothing about. Whether it was someone trying to sabotage the deal, or the restrictions were understood, is unclear.

If there is significant noncompliance in the future, a 30-day period is available to resolve the problem. Communication and transparency is key to this deal’s success. A channel of communication has been established, which has boosted US-Iranian relations, but it is unclear whether communication will generate trust. Grievances are deep on both sides.

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The Russians win this round

John Kerry went to Munich this week looking for a ceasefire and humanitarian access. He got a “cessation of hostilities,” which implies less legal status and less permanence, and a promise of immediate humanitarian access. This was entirely predictable and predicted: the cessation of hostilities freezes the recent Russian/Iranian/Syrian government gains in place on the ground around Aleppo. Humanitarian access will shift the burden of feeding and sheltering hundreds of thousands of besieged Syrians from their own government to the international community.

Just as predictable as this agreement is its breakdown. There is no neutral party to monitor implementation. Even if the moderate forces represented in the High Negotiation Commission, which gave a nod to the deal, restrain their cadres, there are lots of other fighters all over Syria, including extremists associated with the Islamic State and Al Qaeda who are uninterested in stopping the hostilities. The Russian-backed offensive never made any distinction between extremists and relative moderates, whom it slew with abandon. Some of the relative moderates will continue their efforts to flee northwards. Others who remain will swell the ranks of the extremists.

It would be surprising if an agreement built on such shifting sands were to last more than a couple of weeks. The Russians, Iranians, Hizbollah and Syrian forces will suffer many potshots and will at some point decide to take to opportunity to go at it again. The opposition will be trying to regain its footing, but that will be difficult as civilians flee and extremists recruit. The Americans have given no indication of any willingness to beef up arms to the opposition or to allow the Saudis and Gulf monarchies to deliver anti-aircraft and other higher quality weapons. The logistical advantage lies with the regime and its allies, who are not besieged and will more easily rearm and resupply.

So the next round, whenever it occurs, is likely to find the opposition at an even greater military disadvantage. Russia may want to help the Syrian Kurds take control of the entire northern border of Syria with Turkey, thereby boxing in the remaining opposition forces in the north. That could trigger a Turkish intervention, widening the war and weakening America’s best allies, the Kurds, in fighting the Islamic State. The Russians will also want to clear out the opposition forces near Damascus and in the south, where Russian air strikes had intensified in recent days. It is hard to say that the regime may “win” this war, because much of the country will be destroyed, but Assad could end up remaining in the presidential palace and presiding but not ruling over a fragmented and desperate country.

Without a political agreement that leads to his certain departure, it is hard for me to picture the Americans, Europeans and Gulf states supporting any significant reconstruction. Washington has already spent upwards of $5 billion on humanitarian aid and will presumably spend billions more. The Russians and Iranians, so far as I know, haven’t spent a dime on humanitarian aid yet. With oil prices around $30/barrel, both Moscow and Tehran will be hard strapped. Even at $80/barrel they wouldn’t have much to spare. They won’t be willing to spend any significant amount on reconstruction in Syria.

So an Assad “win” will make Syria a ward of poor step-parents with their own offspring to nurture. Some days I think the opposition should just stop fighting and allow the regime to confront the challenges of governing post-war Syria, with its ruined infrastructure, its decimated security forces, its limited oil production, its drought-ridden agriculture, and its dwindling water resources. How long would Assad last? Many Syrians have already been governing themselves through local councils for the better part of five years. It is going to be hard to take the legitimacy and authority they have built up back and stockpile it again in Damascus. Assad may win the military fight, but he has lost his country.

The Russians and Iranians are also likely losers in the long term. They have doubled down on supporting Assad. Their efforts will drive more Syrians to support extremists and guarantee that no successor regime will be friendly to their interests.

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The ceasefire/humanitarian trap

Secretary of State Kerry is in Munich at the annual security conference reportedly talking with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov about a ceasefire and humanitarian access in Syria, focused on Aleppo and the north. That’s where Russian air attacks have decimated both the Syrian opposition fighters and their civilian supporters in recent days.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether Kerry should ever speak with Lavrov again after his mendacity of the past several months, when he led the admittedly gullible Secretary of State to believe that Moscow might make common cause with Washington against the Islamic State (ISIL). Instead, Moscow’s main military targets in Syria have been relative moderates. But we all have to talk with people who have treated us shabbily. The question is whether there is any hope of a ceasefire and humanitarian access.

Surprise: the answer is yes.*

At some point the Russians, the Iranians and Bashar al Assad are going to conclude that they have reached their main objectives. Going further will result in diminishing returns. Having displaced well over 100,000 people and besieged several hundred thousand more, the triumvirate will not want to feed and shelter them, much less provide medical care and sanitary facilities.

Particularly if the Kurdish forces in northern Syria, who are friendly with the Russians and the Syrian government, are able to seize the stretch of the border with Turkey that they don’t already control, Moscow will want to halt its offensive and consolidate its gains. In addition to dumping the humanitarian burden on the UN (which gets its resources from the US, the Europeans and the Gulf), from Moscow’s perspective agreeing to a ceasefire would reduce the (already small) risk that Turkey will enter the fray to block Kurdish advances.

Should the Americans, Europeans and Gulf states fall into the ceasefire/humanitarian trap?

They don’t have much choice. There appears to be no real possibility of a military response to the Russian-backed offensive. Syrian suffering is monumental. The Europeans will want to use humanitarian assistance to stem the tide of refugees. The Gulf states will feel obligated, not least because they too don’t want the refugees. The Americans have never stinted on humanitarian relief.

There is something wrong with this picture. Moscow and Tehran have created the current humanitarian crisis in northern Syria. They, not the Americans/Europeans/Gulf, should be paying to alleviate the humanitarian consequences of their military advances. So far as I am aware, neither Moscow nor Tehran has anted up a ruble or a rial. All the assistance they provide to the government in Damascus goes to the regime and areas the regime controls.

It is high time for the Americans to tell Lavrov that we expect Russia to do its part. Putin wants Russia to be counted among the great powers. He should start spending like one. I’d start the bidding at $2 billion from the Russians for UN humanitarian relief efforts and settle for $1 billion.

I’d also make it clear that Moscow’s indiscriminate bombing entails responsibility for post-war reconstruction. The Russian approach in Syria resembles what Putin did in Chechnya: level and rule. Post-war Chechnya cost Moscow a bundle. The bill for Syria will be many times that. Assad’s international opponents may feel obligated to provide humanitarian assistance to his Syrian opponents as they are chased from their homes, but they should not provide any assistance to rebuild a Syria still ruled by Assad or his regime. That is a Russian and Iranian responsibility.

Washington has already provided over $5 billion in humanitarian assistance to Syrians inside and outside the country. American aid is distributed inside Syria both in regime and opposition controlled areas. But if Assad wins this war, we’ll have to take a much harder-nosed attitude when it comes to funding reconstruction.

*For the record: I wrote this before the Russians proposed a March 1 date, and well before the proposed cessation of hostilities.

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Syria options

There aren’t many options left, as Syrian security forces advance to besiege Aleppo and Idlib with Russian and Iranian support. But here are the ones that make some sort of sense to me, with a few pros and cons:

  1. Impose a no-fly zone over a humanitarian corridor from the Turkish border to Aleppo or even Idlib.

Pro: protects hundreds of thousands of civilians currently at risk from Russian bombardment.

Con: would require the Russians to cooperate, which is unlikely, or American willingness to shoot down Russian aircraft, which is even more unlikely.

2. Down Syrian helicopters that use barrel bombs to terrorize civilian populations, either with US or Turkish air assets or by providing opposition fighters on the ground with the needed anti-aircraft weapons.

Pro: protects civilians without challenging Russian fixed-wing aircraft.

Con: brings the US or Turkey into direct conflict with Syria, or risks proliferation to unreliable forces of anti-aircraft weapons that might be misused.

3. Open the arms supply spigot to the opposition, which has seen the flow sharply reduced in recent months.

Pro: enables Syrians to protect themselves and provides leverage over the regime and the Russians.

Con: re-escalates a war Washington had been trying to end, and in any event it is late in the game for this move to have much impact.

4. Support deployment of Arab ground troops, taking up a recent Saudi/Gulf offer.

Pro: could be deployed to protect some civilian areas, though the offer appeared to be premised on US participation, which is unlikely.

Con: Gulf troops would likely end up clashing with Islamic State or Jabhat al Nusra fighters, with uncertain consequences.

5. Expand US air attacks to include Hizbollah.

Pro: Washington says it is fighting terrorists in Syria; Hizbollah has attacked and killed many more American in terrorist acts than the Islamic State.

Con: Hizbollah and Iran can be expected to retaliate against Americans, most likely somewhere in the Middle East but possibly even at home.

6. Do nothing military and stick with the diplomacy.

Pro: the US stays our of a situation that is increasingly messy.

Con: Putin’s Russia gets to dictate terms, Assad stays in place and Syrians suffer.

None of these propositions is a slam dunk. All would entail American willingness to get more deeply involved in Syria. I haven’t heard a great clamor for that, despite some bold op/ed writing.

President Obama, who is often criticized for being irresolute, is demonstrating iron commitment to  not getting involved in the Syrian civil war and keeping his focus exclusively on the Islamic State. His predecessors have been far less disciplined, even if most of them also resisted at first. Bush 41 intervened in Panama and Somalia, Clinton in Bosnia and Kosovo, Bush 43 in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even Obama intervened in Libya, but regrets what happened thereafter.

The results of all these interventions were mixed, with the best results in Panama and the Balkans. Afghanistan and Iraq are arguably closer to the situation in Syria than some of the other countries named. That’s not a good omen. Obama has good reason to hesitate, even if I think he made a big mistake (years ago) that will dog his legacy.

I’d certainly like to see the President consider downing the barrel-bombing helicopters and expanding US attacks to Hizbollah, which is becoming a major force multiplier for an Assad regime that is running short on manpower. Those two moves could be justified on humanitarian grounds and would vastly improve the American diplomatic posture, without clashing directly with the Russians or committing ground forces.

Tell me: which option would you choose?

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The Superbowl and American foreign policy

That’s patriot Lady Gaga for those like me who wouldn’t recognize her on the subway.

While you were all enjoying the Superbowl, I was wondering what it tells us about US foreign policy. I’m late with this post, but it took me time to convince myself to publish it. Some of you will think I made a mistake.

First the obvious. American football is a sport in which bringing overwhelming force to bear is paramount. Many American politicians feel the same way about foreign policy: they want to bomb the smithereens out of anyone who threatens the United States. Finesse, so important to that other sport known as “football,” is the least of their concerns. Making the sand glow and wiping out enemies are the goals.

But of course that is a superficial view of events both on the battlefield and on the gridiron. There is a cerebral dimension to both, one that requires coordination between different players on the field, offense and defense as well as “special teams,” analogous in more than their name to the vital “special forces” that now dominate the American approach to killing terrorists. The ground and air games also require careful coordination, in both football and war, as well as a lot of intelligence on the opposition.

The parallels extend to the audience as well. Both American football and modern war are best viewed from a distance. Even the half-time show is far more interesting on TV than in the stadium, where many of the special effects appear piddling. Nor can you see all that much of the game, unless you’ve got terrific seats. TV has learned to make warfare look spectacular too. You can’t smell it or hear how loud and terrifying it is. But you can admire its precision without worrying about its accuracy.

The long-term effects of football and war bear comparison as well. Both cause real and visible harm to some of the participants, but they cause far more but less visible harm to many more. I’m amazed that people are still watching football knowing its effect on the players’ brains and life spans. Its popularity sheds new light for me on the Roman passion for gladiators. Post-traumatic stress and suicide are the analogous long-term effects of warfare. They should certainly be weighed in any future decision to go to war, though I doubt they will be. Our political leaders show little more concern for the brains of our troops than football coaches show for the brains of their players.

There is really nothing glorious about war or football. Nor are they proper entertainments. War it can be argued is sometimes necessary, or unavoidable. Football isn’t. There the already stretched analogy breaks down.

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