Peace picks December 18 – 22

  1. The Middle East Through Gulf Eyes: Trip Report from Riyadh, Muscat, and Abu Dhabi | Monday, December 18 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Washington Institute for Near East Policy (event is available to the public through livestream) | Watch Here | During an eventful week for U.S. Middle East policy—highlighted by President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—a fifty-person delegation from The Washington Institute traveled to the capitals of Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates to meet with senior leaders, engage with a broad range of local society, and learn about important changes under way in each country. To share their findings and impressions from the trip, the Institute is pleased to host a special midmorning Policy Forum discussion with four of its experts: executive director Robert Satloff, managing director Michael Singh, and fellows Katherine Bauer and Lori Plotkin Boghardt.
  2. The Jerusalem Decision: The View from Washington, Tel Aviv, and Ankara (THO Teleconference) | Tuesday, December 19 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | Turkish Heritage Organization (event will take place over the phone) | Register Here | Please tune in to THO’s latest teleconference to hear from Prof. Dr. Cagri Erhan (Rector of Altinbas University), Dr. Raphael Danziger (Senior Research Advisor, Policy & Government Affairs and Editor-in-Chief Emeritus, Near East Report American Israel Public Affairs Committee), and Moran Stern of the Center for Jewish Civilization, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, as they discuss the ramifications of this decision. Prof. Dr. Mark Meirowitz (Assistant Professor of Humanities at SUNY Maritime College and Chair of THO’s Advisory Board Chair) will moderate the teleconference.
  3. Making Peace in Donbas? The Role of a Peacekeeping Mission | Tuesday, December 19 | 9:00 am | Atlantic Council | Register Here | For years, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has proposed a peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine as an important instrument to achieving a peace settlement. This fall, Russian President Vladimir Putin also suggested a limited peacekeeping mission as one element towards a settlement. Are international peacekeepers or peace enforcers instrumental or even necessary for ending the war in Donbas? The Atlantic Council and the Razumkov Centre are assembling a panel of experts to discuss Russia’s war in Donbas and the prospect of a peacekeeping operation. Speakers will include Ambassador Kurt Volker of the US Department of State, Dr. Sarah Mendelson of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Dr. Evelyn Farkas of the Atlantic Council, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow of the Atlantic Council, and Mr. Oleksiy Melnyk of the Razumkov Centre. The Council’s Ambassador John Herbst will moderate the event and deliver welcoming remarks.

 

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Reality bites

It happened in Alabama last night. A favored candidate of the Republican revolt against its traditional establishment lost to a Democrat in a dyed-red state. Black voters turned out in unprecedented numbers while some Republicans stayed home rather than vote for a racist child molester removed twice from the state bench for defying court orders. My compliments to both groups, though it is still disturbing that upwards of 48% of Alabama voters yesterday thought Roy Moore was a tolerable choice. My compliments also to Doug Jones, the successful Democratic candidate, who refused to abandon his pro-choice, pro-integration positions.

It is also happening with American policy towards North Korea. Secretary of State Tillerson has abandoned the pretense that Pyongyang will have to give up its nuclear weapons before Washington will talk. President Trump’s promise that Kim Jong-un would not get a missile that could deliver a nuclear missile to the US has in effect been abandoned. The North has gotten there, though it likely can’t yet marry the missile to the warhead and enable the warhead to survive re-entry into the atmosphere. Its rapid technological progress lately suggests there is no stopping the North from becoming a full-fledged nuclear weapons state.

This means the US no longer has many options. It can attack the North, but that would trigger a massive artillery barrage against Seoul and much of the rest of South Korea. Escalation to a nuclear exchange would be a real possibility. The only other option is containment and deterrence. There is no real issue of containment with North Korea: its hostility to the South is real, but it is mainly concerned with preservation of its own regime. US officials have been insisting that deterrence is not an option, but it is and they know it. There is no reason to believe that Kim Jong-un would be willing to risk a nuclear exchange except in extremis. He thinks of North Korea’s nuclear weapons as deterring the US from an invasion.

Letting Kim keep his nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles is not good. It will encourage other governments to consider getting the same capabilities, not least because of uncertainty about US commitments. This is especially true for South Korea and Japan, but the Iranians will also be watching what happens with North Korea with an eye to the eventual expiration of many of its commitments in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, aka the Iran nuclear deal). Many countries have given up the nuclear option because they felt more secure without than they would with, but that era seems to be coming to a close.

A world with a lot more nuclear weapons states is no more attractive than a world with Roy Moore in the Senate. We need to be doing everything we can to avoid both. But this President supported Roy Moore and mishandled North Korea. His weakness both at home and abroad is little comfort. Trump could issue a tweet tomorrow that would strip Tillerson of any semblance of credibility and put the US on course towards nuclear war. Transformation to a presidency that is more judicious both domestically and internationally is much to be wished, but little to be expected. Reality bites.

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Peace picks December 11 – 15

  1. Trump’s Jerusalem Decision: Implications and Consequences | Monday, December 11 | 11:00 am – 12:00 pm | Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars (event will be held by phone) | Register Here | President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel carries profound consequences for U.S. policy, relations with the Arab world, the international community, and the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Join us as three veteran observers and analysts of the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli arena analyze and interpret the change in U.S. policy and its consequences for the region. (Toll Free #: 888-942-8140; Conference #: 1-517-308-9203; Conference Passcode: 13304). Speakers will include H.E. Dr. Husam Zomlot, Chief Representative of the PLO General Delegation to the United States, Ambassador Daniel Shapiro, Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Horovitz of the Times of Israel, and moderator Aaron David Miller. The Wilson Center’s Jane Harman will introduce the event.
  2. Beyond Stock-Taking: The Path Ahead to a Global Compact for Migration | Monday, December 11 | 11:00 am – 12:00 pm | Migration Policy Institute (event will be a webinar) | Register Here | Representatives of national governments, UN agencies, and key civil-society organizations convened in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico this week to take stock of the progress that has been made towards conceptualizing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM). Formal negotiations will begin in January to fulfill the commitment made at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016 by Member States to negotiate a Global Compact for Migration by the end of 2018—a task that was complicated with the decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the further consultations. To reflect on the latest developments and the outcomes of the stocktaking meeting, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) will host a discussion with Eva Åkerman Börje, Senior Policy Advisor in the office of the UN Special Representative for International Migration, and Ilse Hahn, Head of Division on Policy Issues of Displacement and Migration, from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The discussion, moderated by MPI Senior Fellow Kathleen Newland, will also draw on the conclusions of a recently published MPI policy brief, The Global Compact for Migration: How Does Development Fit In?
  3. Jerusalem: The Fatal Blow to Trump’s “Ultimate Deal”? | Tuesday, December 12 | 9:30 – 11:00 am | Arab Center Washington DC (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | Arab Center Washington DC will convene a panel of Middle East scholars to discuss the recent announcement by President Trump declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Speakers will include Perry Cammack of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Zaha Hassan of New America, Yousef Munayyer of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and moderator Khalil Jahshan of the Arab Center Washington DC. 
  4. The Geneva Process: Toward a Political Solution in Syria | Tuesday, December 12 | 12:30 – 2:00 pm | Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA Foundation) | Register Here | The establishment of four deconfliction zones through the Astana process, backed by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, has led to the restarting of the UN-backed Geneva process. In the latest round of peace talks in Geneva, there are few signs that a constructive engagement is taking place. The Assad regime’s delegation walked out of the meetings on Friday as the opposition has maintained its position that Assad play no role in any future post-conflict government. Both the US and Turkey support the Geneva process to end the conflict, but competing interests between the regime and the opposition as well as external actors with varied goals promise further uncertainty about the fate of the talks. While the fall of ISIS’ last stronghold in Raqqa signifies a turning point, many experts have pointed out the continued threat posed by the terror group not only to a peace settlement in Syria but to regional stability as well. As the anti-ISIS campaign winds down, it is not clear what will happen to the US-supported “local partners,” such as the PYD, given Turkey’s strong opposition to their inclusion in the Geneva talks. While all main actors agree that the only resolution to the civil war is a political one, it remains unclear whether the Geneva process will provide the necessary platform to reconcile differences between the regime and the opposition as well as among the external actors. Please join us for a discussion with a panel of distinguished experts on the future of the Geneva peace process and how a political resolution in Syria might be reached. Speakers will include Mona Yacoubian of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and Kadir Ustun of the SETA Foundation. Kilic Kanat of the SETA Foundation will moderate.
  5. Yemen: A Country in Crisis | Tuesday, December 12 | 12:30 pm | Council on Foreign Relations | Register Here | The “What to Do About…” series highlights a specific issue and features experts who will put forward competing analyses and policy prescriptions in a mock high-level U.S. government meeting. This event will feature Gerald M. Feierstein of the Middle East Institute, Mary Beth Long of Global Alliance Advisors, LLC, and Stephen Seche of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
  6. The Implications of Trump’s Jerusalem Decision | Thursday, December 14 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA Foundation) | Register Here | On December 6, President Trump announced that “it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” He added that the State Department would now prepare to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The announcement provoked near universal opposition and condemnation around the world and triggered protests and clashes in the region. East Jerusalem has been under Israeli occupation since 1967 and the Trump administration’s move is a departure from the decades-old US position to leave the status of Jerusalem to the final negotiations in the now defunct peace process. While President Trump made a reference to the two-state solution in his speech and the administration is expected to put forward its own peace plan, the Jerusalem announcement appears to complicate the prospects of peace. Where does this decision leave the prospects of a two-state solution? Can the US still play a constructive role in achieving lasting peace? What are the implications for US interests in the region? Please join us for a discussion with a panel of distinguished experts on the future of the peace process as well as the regional and global implications of President Trump’s Jerusalem decision. Speakers will include Yousef Munayyer of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security, Joyce Karam of Al-Hayat and The National, independent author and news analyst Mark Perry, and moderator Kilic Kanat of the SETA Foundation.

 

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Will they build it?

Three questions arise about President Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem:

  • why did he do it?
  • what will the consequences be?
  • will it ever get built?

The why is domestic politics. He promised to do it during the campaign and his deepest-pocketed supporters wanted it done. The move gets a lot of support in the Christian evangelical community and far less among Jews, but the President needs concrete examples of fulfilling his campaign promises, many of which he has abandoned in office.

The opposition of allies and friends in Europe and the Middle East had little impact beyond inclusion in the announcement the assertion that it is not intended to prejudice a future decision on the boundaries of Jerusalem. That is specious, since he also implied that Jerusalem would remain undivided, which is the key issue. The announcement included nothing attractive from the perspective of Palestinians, Arabs, or Muslims more generally, which is why they see it as vitiating any potential role of the US as an honest broker in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

As for other consequences, we’ll have to wait and see. Protests are the least of it. There are many other longer-term possibilities. Trump has certainly cast doubt on the viability of the two-state solution most Israelis and Palestinians as well as the US and most of the rest of the world have been supporting for decades. Palestinians don’t want a state that doesn’t have its capital in Jerusalem any more than Israelis do.

If Palestinians can’t have their own state, they will seek equal rights within the single one, which will bring into doubt the state’s Jewish character. Arabs are likely the majority already, or soon will be, in the area Israel currently controls, if we count Gaza as well as the West Bank. The Israelis might want to give Gaza to Egypt, which controlled it in the past, but the Egyptians won’t take it: they don’t want to absorb a destitute Palestinian population that is in part Islamist. They’ve got enough trouble already in continuous Sinai.

The Trump administration is a radical one that enjoys upsetting the apple cart. The President likes to think this will open the way to progress. It is far more likely to end his own peace initiative, which son-in-law Kushner is heading. I even wonder whether, having realized that initiative was going no place, Trump decided to do something that would distract attention and engender enough violence so that its demise could be blamed on the Palestinians. But I suppose that just shows I’ve spent too much time lately in the Middle East, which loves conspiracy theories.

It is far more likely that ignorance and bullheadedness led to the decision to move the embassy. Now let’s see if Congress, which pushed for it, is ready to appropriate the several hundred million dollars it will cost to build the kind of fortress the United States will require in Jerusalem. Is it possible that we’ll suffer the consequences of this decision, but not see the facility built?

PS: For interesting Israeli responses to the Jerusalem move, see the short statements from Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

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Why the US should remain in Raqqa

At the US Institute of Peace’s November 29 event titled “Raqqa After the Islamic State: Governance Challenges in Post-ISIS Syria,” moderator Sarhang Hamasaeed of USIP said of the current situation in Raqqa, Syria: “military advances and triumphs are important, but stabilization and governance, as many argue, are probably more difficult.” The importance Hamasaeed placed on development and stabilization post-ISIS was echoed in the points made by the speakers who joined him, including Mona Yacoubian of USIP, Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and Nicholas A. Heras of the Center for a New American Security. The discussion centered around a special report, titled “Governance Challenges in Raqqa after the Islamic State” authored by Yacoubian.

Yacoubian reminded the audience that Raqqa was ISIS’s stronghold and the capital of its caliphate, as well as the where much of the planning for the group’s external operations, such as attacks in Paris and Brussels, took place. It is important that the city not get “lost in this news cycle.” The defeat of ISIS has not truly occurred, Yacoubian argued. “Ultimate defeat” can come only with the establishment of stability and governance in the city in order to prevent the re-emergence of extremist groups and improve the living standards of the population.

Yacoubian identified four “baskets” of challenges in the face of the establishment of governance. The first are strategic challenges that come with the ongoing war in Syria and the numerous actors involved, making it difficult to decide who will have control over Raqqa. The second is ethnic, considering the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is made up primarily of Kurdish members, which is not reflective of the Arab-majority nature of the city. The third basket includes tribal challenges, which result from the ISIS-induced deterioration of tribal reconciliation processes in the province and the risk of revenge violence. The final basket encompasses technical challenges due to the destruction of the city, the limited capabilities of the Raqqa civil council, the lack of basic services such as water and electricity, and the unprecedented level of trauma experienced by residents.

Hassan and Heras discussed the crucial role that the SDF has played and continues to play in the city post-ISIS. Hassan said that the SDF has been running a positive governance process and has gained residents’ trust, since it has not shown signs of corruption or mistreatment of the population. Heras added that the SDF had overcome several obstacles to create the model of governance that it currently operates, citing its experience in Tal Abyad. There the group was met with hostility and distrust, which taught it to communicate intentions clearly to residents. In Raqqa and other areas the SDF has seized from ISIS, Heras praised the group’s mobilization of local councils, the work it has done to ensure that councils have a demographic makeup representative of the population, the building of a civilian security force, and the flexibility shown.

On US policy, Yacoubian stressed

  1. The importance of continued engagement in Raqqa. The job is not done with the military defeat of ISIS. The US should shift from military engagement to stabilization efforts, while maintaining a “light footprint.”
  2. The US should ensure that the SDF transfers political authority to the local Arab population, using its influence over the group to do so. This will require a focus on developing the capacity of local councils and encouraging “skilled technocrats” who left Raqqa for Turkey and elsewhere to return and participate in the process.

It is also vital to integrate humanitarian and psychosocial services. 

Hassan discussed the US role in improving the performance of the SDF. Like Yacoubian, he argued that the US should ensure that the SDF make clear its national identity as opposed to a Kurdish or PKK-affiliated identity, by emphasizing that it is a Syrian group meant for all of the country’s populations. The US should also work to prevent the regime from returning to the area, Hassan added. While many residents have voiced their desire for the return of the government, they want stability and security, not the return of the regime’s intelligence services and brutality.

Heras argued that the SDF would need the US to serve as a “backbone” in its efforts to stabilize the city, highlighting the overarching theme of the recommendations and discussion: the importance of continued US presence in Raqqa.

 

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His own worst enemy

President Trump today announced the US officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and initiated the process of enabling the US embassy to move there from Tel Aviv.

What’s wrong with that?

As former Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer explained this morning on NPR, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It has been for almost 70 years and will continue to be. No one I know doubts the facts.

But the status of Jerusalem is in dispute: we don’t know its ultimate borders, whether some of it may some day be part of a Palestinian state, and there is no agreement on how it will in the future be governed. Trump’s move ignores these facts.

More importantly, it tilts the playing field, once again, in Israel’s direction. Trump offered nothing to the Palestinians besides platitudes. He might have said the US could envisage their capital also in Jerusalem, presumably in the eastern part of the city that is majority Palestinian. He might have limited what he said about Israel’s capital to the western portion of the city, where all the Israeli institutions he mentioned are located. He might have suggested in some other way that the US has an evenhanded view and will act as an honest broker in trying to resolve the ongoing disputes.

He didn’t. While advocating moderation, tolerance, and reasoned debate, Trump essentially aligned himself with extremist Americans and Israelis, who see no reason to accommodate Palestinian interests or interest in having a state of their own. Trump still wants, he says, to facilitate a lasting peace. He even says it with unusual passion and conviction. But what he has done makes compromise more difficult, not less.

How will the Muslim world react? Some fear violence. Certainly there will be demonstrations against what Trump has done. And demonstrations in the Middle East all too often result in violence. But a lot of Arabs have other things to worry about these days besides the Palestinians, who were already convinced Trump wasn’t going to do anything good from their point of view. A few rocket launches may satisfy some.

The people most aroused and likely to indulge in violence are the Iranians and Sunni extremists (especially Al Qaeda and the Islamic State). The elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards are not known as the Al Quds (Jerusalem) force for nothing. While Trump claims to be leading a campaign against both, his move on Jerusalem will inspire his adversaries. Look for them to invent symbolic, likely violent, acts against Israel and the US.

Hard to imagine any other significant government will follow Trump’s lead. The Europeans are dead set against it, as they rightly view it as making peace more difficult to negotiate, not easier. The gap that has opened between the US and our European allies on the Iran nuclear deal will widen. The Gulf Arabs, some of whom Trump and the Israelis have been courting as allies against Iran, will find themselves hamstrung and unable to move further in that direction.

Trump is in many ways his own worst enemy. Now he has made negotiations between Israel and Palestine more difficult, widened the rift with Europe, and hampered the alliance he hoped for against Iran. All in a single stroke.

PS: The slurring of his speech is noticeable. He is supposedly a teetotaler. Teeth don’t fit right?

PSS: Claudia Trevisan of the Brazilian daily O Estado de Sao Paolo was the first to get to me with questions. I answered;

Q: What is the potential impact of the president’s announcement on the peace process? Can the US still be a broker of negotiations?

A: It can be a broker as long as both sides agree it can be one. The Palestinians are saying no, but I’m not sure that will last.

Q: The president has said it is not prejudging the outcome of boundaries and the future status of Jerusalem. Can this nuance reduce the impact of the announcement?

A: It’s better than not saying it, but I don’t think it mitigates much.

Q: Can this decision help in any way help the peace process?

A: I don’t think so. It is more likely to kill it, at least for the time being.

Q: Do you expect an increase of violence in the region and of terrorist acts against the US as a consequence of the decision?

A: I don’t like to predict an increase in violence, since then people start feeling they have to fulfill the prophecy. But both violence in the region and against the US are possible.

 

 

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