NATO on the spot

NATO presidents and prime ministers meet next Thursday and Friday in Cardiff, Wales for their biannual summit. It was supposed to focus on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is already well-advanced. But that will be overshadowed now by the Russian invasion of southeastern Ukraine.

Some are still calling it a “stealth” invasion. Hardly. Russian personnel, tanks, artillery and other equipment are crossing the border and have taken the southeastern town of Novoazovsk. The fact that the troops don’t wear insignia makes them no less Russian.  They could drive north from there to reinforce the rebel-held towns of Donestk and Luhansk or west to the important Ukrainian port of Mariulpol, which appears to be what they are doing.

NATO is under no obligation to defend Ukraine. It did little military to react during the Cold War to Soviet interventions in its then satellites Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But that is nothing to be proud of, even if it all worked out in the end. Both countries took advantage of the fall of the Berlin Wall to move as rapidly as they could into NATO and the European Union (EU).  Those who take the long view may want to suggest that Putin’s incursion into Ukraine is nothing but folly. It will surely drive Ukraine into the arms of NATO and the EU.

It may also do harm to Putin’s standing at home. The Crimea annexation is proving difficult and expensive. Russians are beginning to notice the funerals of Russians killed in the Ukraine fighting. There are likely to be more. Moscow will discourage the media from reporting on these and encourage a drumbeat of alleged abuses against the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, but sooner or later the truth is likely to come out.

How NATO reacts will be important. Both its European and North American members have strengthened sanctions in reaction to Russian behavior in Ukraine. The rebel downing of Malaysia Air 17 with a Russian-supplied missile over Ukraine caused the latest turning of the screws. Moscow appears to be responding with cyber attacks on US and maybe other banks.

NATO has to decide whether to up the ante. Ideas on what to do are few and far between:  start supplying lethal equipment to Kiev and deploy more NATO forces to allies who have borders with Russia. That’s thin gruel. The equipment won’t have any immediate effect on Ukrainian military capabilities and Putin will laugh off NATO deployments in the Baltics and Poland. He doesn’t plan to attack them.

Another turn of the sanctions screw, this time against Russian banks and other financial institutions, is another serious possibility. President Obama has to worry about whether that or othe moves will cause the Russians to fall off the P5+1 wagon (permanent five UN Security Council members plus Germany) that is trying to negotiate an end to Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions. But the Russians have good reasons of their own not to want Iran to get nuclear weapons. It would be a big strategic mistake for them to undermine the current negotiating effort.

The NATO summit would do well in any event to denounce the invasion of Ukraine in explicit and stentorian tones, making it clear that Russian annexation of territory taken by force, including Crimea, will never be recognized by the Alliance.  It would be a serious mistake to let Crimea go unmentioned, as that would only suggest to Putin that he can get away with more territorial conquest. The United States took a principled position of this sort on the Baltic states during the Cold War, when there seemed little to no likelihood they would ever be anything but Soviet prisoners. That worked out well when the Soviet Union fell apart.

There are other things to consider that aren’t discussed in polite company in public. The US will want to help Ukraine with intelligence. It may also want to consider stirring trouble inside Russia, though that particular type of covert action has a very mixed record, at best. If Moscow has in fact conducted cyber attacks against Western banks, response in kind will need to be considered. Another possibility is to reply to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with vigorous military action not only against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) inside Syria but also against Bashar al Asad’s regime, which Russia supports.

NATO is on the spot. It hasn’t got a lot of good options. But it needs to react if it wants to stop Putin from going further.

PS: Vox.com provides video evidence:

Advice for the peacelorn

I get some interesting questions from readers. Here are a few with my attempt at answers:

1. What does Dr. Peacefare make of Zaid al-Ali, a former legal adviser to the United Nations in Iraq and the author of a book on Iraq’s future. He said the American insistence on inclusive politics is misguided. Iraq’s recent governments have included representatives from all the major sects, he noted, “But this is not a solution — it has never translated into the trickle-down politics that everyone assumed it would.”

What does Ali mean here? What alternative is there to an inclusive government (besides some kind of military victory)?

A:  I’m not sure what Ali intends, but he is certainly correct that recent governments have included Kurdish and Sunni representation, as does the Iraqi parliament. But representation has not meant real sharing of power, which accumulated in the hands of Prime Minister Maliki. He bypassed the parliament in appointing military officers, including those whose troops fled when the Islamic State attacked. He gained what appeared to be undue influence over constitutional court decisions. He acquired direct command over counterterrorism forces. He undermined the influence of independent institutions like the central bank.

And above all he failed to keep commitments he made to Kurdistan to settle outstanding issues and encouraged the arrest of major Sunni politicians. His declared intent after winning the April election was to form a “majoritarian” government that would have relied even less on Sunni and Kurdish votes than his previous government.

Inclusion should not just mean tokenism. Nor should it be personality-based. What Kurdistan and many Sunnis are asking for is institutionalization of their control over resources and governance in a fashion that Baghdad can’t interfere with. That goes far beyond anything Maliki was willing to offer. We’ll see if Haider al Abadi is willing to deal.

2. Given the abject, massive fraud in the Afghanistan election, how does Dr. Peacefare see the way forward? Yes, the West wants it over with and that means acquiescing in Ghani’s victory. But how nasty is the stench from the fraud? How deep is the divisiveness? Abdullah and company will get over it in time … with an “inclusive government,” the terms of which Kerry already brokered.  But Ghani is apparently now hedging, no? Or is scar tissue developing here among Tajiks and other non-Pashtuns? Any impact at all on White House or Obama’s thinking?  Or is the President adamant to seal his legacy as the man who (pick one):

“ended the war in Afghanistan”

“withdrew American forces in Afghanistan while war continued, and possibly intensified.”

A: You are indicating more than I know about fraud in the Afghanistan election. I’m still waiting to see the results, after the Election Complaints Commission finishes its work. Some people I’ve talked to think Ghani won, if not fair and square at least by a margin larger than the fraud. The deal the Secretary of State brokered makes sense to me. Ghani and Abdullah are both capable candidates and to my knowledge relatively uncorrupted individuals. I know a lot of countries that would be privileged to have  the likes of either one of them as president. If they can figure out how to govern together–which won’t be easy–that will likely be the best for Afghanistan, which is going to face enormous challenges as the Americans withdraw.

The President seems adamant to me, and what has happened in Iraq has likely strengthened his resolve. He may well need to redeploy American forces to Iraq and Syria, should he decide to not only contain but defeat the IS. That said, there are still more than two years before withdrawal is supposed to be complete. A new president in Kabul who appeals for help while making it clear that Afghans will carry the bulk of the burden might get a better hearing than President Karzai, who chose to blow his relationship with the Americans in an apparent (and fruitless) effort to reach a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.

3.  Another reader asked in a comment:  As an interested layman I can’t understand why the Syrian government, which counts on the support of allies such as Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, among others, and is not loath to use the full might of its military, and has local knowledge, is unable to defeat the Islamic State in Syria? I replied:

A.  It’s not trying. The Syrian government has seen the IS as a counterweight to the more moderate armed forces and has not generally attacked it. The government prefers to use IS as the boogeyman that strikes fear into regime supporters and helps to justify attacks on the moderates.

Bombing is not sufficient

To bomb or not to bomb was yesterday’s question. Now most of Washington is agreeing that to stop the Islamic State bombing is necessary. The questions currently asked concern how much, whether to do it in Syria as well as Iraq, the intelligence requirements and how many American boots needed on the ground, even if not in combat.

Bombing may well be necessary to stop extremist advances, but it is certainly not sufficient to roll back or defeat the Islamic State. If you think the United States is at risk from the IS, you will want to do more than bomb. Quite a few people are proposing just that, though the numbers of troops they are suggesting necessary (10-15,000) seems extraordinarily low given our past experience in Iraq.  Presumably they are counting on the Kurdish peshmerga and the 300,000 or so Iraqi troops the Americans think are still reasonably well organized and motivated. How could that go wrong?

But the military manpower question is not the only one. The first question that will arise in any areas liberated from the IS is who will govern? Who will have power? What will their relationship be to Damascus or Baghdad? How will they obtain resources, how will they provide services, how will they administer justice? The Sunni populations of Iraq (where they are a majority in the areas now held by IS) and of Syria (where they are the majority in the country as a whole) will not want to accept prime minister-designate Haider al Abadi (much less Nouri al Maliki, who is still a caretaker PM) or President Asad, respectively.

Bombing may solve one problem, but it opens a host of others. This is, of course, why President Obama has tried to avoid it. He heeds Colin Powell’s warning: you break it, you own it. The governance question should not be regarded as mission creep, or leap. It is an essential part of any mission that rolls back or defeats the IS. Without a clear plan for how it is to be accomplished, bombing risks making things worse–perhaps much worse–rather than better.

Sadly, the United States is not much better equipped or trained to handle the governance question–and the associated economic and social questions–than it was on the even of the Afghanistan war, 12 years ago. Yes, there is today an office of civilian stability operations in the State Department, but it can quickly deploy only dozens of people. Its budget has been cut and its bureaucratic rank demoted since its establishment during George W. Bush’s first term. Its financial and staff resources are nowhere near what will be required in Syria and Iraq if bombing of the IS leads to its withdrawal or defeat.

The international community–UN, European Union, NATO, Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference, World Bank, International Monetary Fund–are likewise a bit better at post-war transition than they were, but their successes lie in the Balkans in the 1990s, not in the Middle East in the 2010s. They have gained little traction in Libya, which needs them, and only marginally more in Yemen, where failure could still be imminent. Syria and Iraq are several times larger and more complex than any international statebuilding effort in recent times, except for Afghanistan, which is not looking good.

Even just the immediate humanitarian issues associated with the wars in Syria and Iraq are proving too complex and too big for the highly capable and practiced international mechanisms that deal with them. They are stretched to their limits. We don’t have the capacity to deal with millions of refugees and displaced Iraqis and Syrians for years on end, on top of major crises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and ebola in West Africa.

President Obama has tried hard to avoid the statebuilding challenges that inevitably follow successful military operations. He wanted to do his nationbuilding at home. We need it, and not just in Ferguson, Missouri, where citizens clearly don’t think the local police exercise their authority legitimately. But international challenges are also real. Failing to meet them could give the Islamic State openings that we will come to regret.

Proxy war

Ben Rhodes said interesting things to Kelly McEvers on NPR this morning:

This clarifies a bit the President’s objectives and strategy for dealing with what the Administration wants to call ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

The objective he states is to squeeze ISIL and reduce the space in which it can operate. The White House is not aiming to defeat or destroy it, though it would be delighted if that is the outcome. But the Administration clearly agrees with its critics, who have been saying that defeat of ISIL requires deployment of 10-15,000 US troops. It doesn’t want to do that, so it has lowered its sights.

The principal means will be an international coalition, including moderates in Syria as well as Iraqi security forces (the Kurdish peshmerga as well as Baghdad’s massive but still underperforming army). The US role will include air strikes, supplying weapons, organizing logistics and providing intelligence. Washington and others will need to provide massive humanitarian assistance, mainly to displaced people and refugees. Bashar al Asad is explicitly not part of the political/military coalition. Iran implicitly is, at least inside Iraq and perhaps even inside Syria, where it is thought to have urged Asad to take more vigorous action against ISIL.

What this amounts to is a formula for proxy war against ISIL, with extensive US backing. No one should expect a short struggle, or an easy one. ISIL has demonstrated several capacities that will make it difficult to counter:

  • it recruits easily.
  • it fights well.
  • it adapts to local circumstances.
  • it has had at least some success in providing services to the civilian population.
  • it kills and expels non-Muslims, creating massive population movements and enormous humanitarian aid requirements that burden its enemies.
  • it appears to have ample funding from captured resources (banks and oil wells principally), extortion, kidnapping and Gulf donations.

The weakest link on the international coalition side of this war will be Baghdad, where sectarian politics undermined the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces in the first place. There is no significant sign yet that Haider al Abadi, the newly designated (but not yet in office) prime minister, has found a way to fix what his predecessor Nouri al Maliki broke.

Abadi needs somehow bring a significant portion of the Sunni population to his side by meeting some of their demands for increased resources and power. ISIL may help him, if it tries to enforce its draconian lifestyle preferences (no smoking, no women in the street, murder of dissenters). But he will need to show in the formation of his new government (due in early September) significant Sunni participation in key roles in order to convince Sunnis of his sincerity in overcoming Maliki’s legacy.

Abadi also needs to resolve the problems Maliki created with Iraqi Kurdistan by refusing to transfer the money it is owed and trying to block its exports of oil. The Kurds will fight to protect themselves and may even go a bit farther than that in order to please the Americans and increase their own leverage, as they did in helping to retake the Mosul Dam. But if Abadi wants their help in retaking places like Tikrit, where few Kurds live, he’ll need to give them good reasons.

Proxy war is never easy. It may reduce the number of Americans at risk, but it will require deep American involvement in the politics of Syria and Iraq as well as a lengthy commitment of American resources. We are in for a long war with ISIL, an enemy who will reach past the proxies and attack Americans wherever it can find them. Jim Foley was a beginning, not the end.

Answers to Friedman

In reply to my friend @giacomonyt, here are answers to Friedman’s poorly composed questions:

1. Can they name the current leader of the Syrian National Coalition, the secular, moderate opposition, and the first three principles of its political platform? Extra credit if they can name the last year that the leader of the S.N.C. resided in Syria. Hint: It’s several decades ago.

A: The SNC (Syrian National Council) is no longer what Friedman says it is. He means the Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (usually abbreviated SOC), which includes the SNC. The SOC leader is Hadi Bahra.  I have no idea when he last resided in Syria, but it isn’t likely to be recently given the oppression there. Hadi was born in Damascus but went to university in the US. So what?

The SOC principles are these:

  • Absolute national sovereignty and independence for Syria.
  • Preservation of the unity of the Syrian people.
  • Preservation of the unity of the country and its cities.
  • Overthrowing the Syrian regime and dismantling the security forces and holding responsible parties accountable for crimes against the Syrian people.
  • Not to engage in any dialogue or negotiations with the regime.
  • Uphold our commitment for a civil democratic Syria.

Of course they’ve violated number 5 by going to the Geneva 2 negotiations, which was the right thing to do but has produced no good outcome.

2. Can they explain why Israel — a country next door to Syria that has better intelligence on Syria than anyone and could be as affected by the outcome there as anyone — has chosen not to bet on the secular, moderate Syrian rebels or arm them enough to topple Assad?

A: I have reason to believe that the Israelis are helpful to the Syrian opposition when possible, even though they understand perfectly well that it will be more insistent on return of Golan than Bashar al Asad, who has essentially let the matter drop. Israeli intelligence officers can tell you all about the configuration of forces on their border with Syria and the risks that extremists pose there. They have wanted Asad gone, because they knew that letting him stay would increase the likelihood of an extremist succession.

3. The United States invaded Iraq with more than 100,000 troops, replaced its government with a new one, suppressed its Islamist extremists and trained a “moderate” Iraqi army, but, the minute we left, Iraq’s “moderate” prime minister turned sectarian. Yet, in Syria, Iraq’s twin, we’re supposed to believe that the moderate insurgents could have toppled Assad and governed Syria without any American boots on the ground, only arming the good rebels. Really?

A:  Does Friedman really believe that invasion and foreign occupation is the only way to bring down a dictator? Maliki was sectarian before we left. He didn’t turn that way afterwards. The moderates we should have supported in Syria from the first were the nonviolent protesters. Had they been successful–and it is likely they would have been much faster than the armed rebellion–this question would not have arisen.

4. How could the good Syrian rebels have triumphed in Syria when the main funders of so many rebel groups there — Qatar and Saudi Arabia — are Sunni fundamentalist monarchies that oppose the very sort of democratic, pluralistic politics in their own countries that the decent Syrian rebels aspire to build in Syria?

A: This implies that if the Qataris and Saudis get their way Syria will be a Sunni fundamentalist monarchy. Really? There is good reason for both the Saudis and the Qataris to oppose the Islamic State and to support a relatively moderate regime in Syria.

5. Even if we had armed Syrian moderates, how could they have defeated a coalition of the Syrian Alawite army and gangs, backed by Russia, backed by Iran, backed by Hezbollah — all of whom play by “Hama Rules,” which are no rules at all — without the U.S. having to get involved?

A: Whatever US involvement is needed now to defeat the Islamic State will be much greater than would have been required two years ago to defeat Asad.

6. How is it that some 15,000 Muslim men from across the Muslim world have traveled to Syria to fight for jihadism and none have walked there to fight for pluralism, yet the Syrian moderates would not only have been able to defeat the Assad regime — had we only armed them properly — but also this entire jihadist foreign legion?

A: Friedman needs to meet the many Syrians and expats who have returned, not only to fight but more importantly to provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian population, establish some semblance of governance in liberated areas and counter the push toward extemism and sectarianism. The jihadist foreign legion was attracted by Asad’s success. They would not have emerged in Syria had he failed early in the game.

PS: In my haste this morning, I skipped an important point.  The arming of the moderate opposition was never proposed to defeat Asad’s forces. It was intended to bring him to a serious negotiation for a democratic transition. That it might have achieved, had it been aggressive enough.

What to do about the Islamic State

President Obama yesterday pledged, in addition to military and humanitarian assistance to Iraq:

…we will continue to pursue a long-term strategy to turn the tide against ISIL [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] by supporting the new Iraqi government and working with key partners in the region and beyond.

What does turning the tide mean? Does it mean defeating ISIL? Does it mean helping the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga to retake territory from ISIL? Or does it mean only disrupting ISIL’s efforts to govern the territory it controls? What lies behind these few, vague but suggestive words?

A lot turns on the answer. It wouldn’t be the first time this president, and his predecessors, promised a long-term strategy and never delivered a clear set of goals with the ways and means to achieve them. Even more than some of his predecessors, President Obama seems inclined to manage problems rather than solve them, especially when doing so would conflict with the overall goal of removing U.S. troops from war zones. That is something he and the American people want.

But the statement yesterday could also represent a change in President Obama’s attitude towards towards the ISIL threat, which he has wanted to ignore when it was limited to Syria and even when it first entered Iraq. That would be a mistake. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both hoped to ignore or at most disrupt and deter the Al Qaeda threat and lived to regret it. ISIL has picked up the Al Qaeda standard from its defeats in Afghanistan and Yemen and carried it from Syria into Iraq, daring along the way to declare a caliphate that the remnants of Al Qaeda say is premature.

For the moment, ISIL does not appear to threaten the United States directly. It prioritizes establishing the caliphate and has its hands full with that. In Syria, it is advancing on Aleppo from the north even as the regime is making progress in encircling the city center. In Iraq, it yesterday lost control of the Mosul Dam to Iraqi and Kurdistan government forces taking advantage of American air strikes, though it still controls more or less one-third of the country. If it remains in that posture, it won’t be long before ISIL takes a crack at the US, either by attacking forces deployed in Iraq or by striking–perhaps using proxies–American civilians.* The US is far from impregnable, as 9/11 and subsequent attempts have demonstrated, and American citizens are vulnerable throughout the Middle East.

We have no reason not to take the ISIL threat seriously. Brian Fishman prefers to contain it for now, while building up governance capabilities in Iraq and Syria that could eventually take on the job of defeating it. That requires a lot of wishful thinking, since the many years of American efforts to build up governance in Iraq have come to nought. Others want the President to commit to defeating ISIL militarily. Bing West suggests what that would take. The quality and quantity of the commitment he thinks necessary are nowhere to be seen right now.

Sunni attitudes towards ISIL and its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi are one critical factor determining how long ISIL thrives. Hussein Ibish reports unwillingness among Sunnis to acknowledge that ISIL is real and has strong roots in Sunni communities. Many prefer to imagine that ISIL is a Western or Israeli construct (even that Baghdadi is a Jewish actor), which means they don’t like it but also don’t own it. He writes:

So as long as many Sunni Arabs hide behind conspiracy theories or point the finger elsewhere, the real meaning of the horrifying IS phenomenon will remain unexamined, and a serious response aimed at correcting the social and cultural distortions that have produced it will be unattainable.

And, in turn, that will ensure that the pushback against the IS and similar fanatics is, at best, delayed or ineffective. The Islamic State itself should be delighted. Nothing could be better calculated to facilitate a continuation of their string of successes than Baghdadi Denial Syndrome.

Nor should American allow themselves to be deluded. Baghdadi is real and ISIL is a threat. We need to decide what to do about it.

*That didn’t take long:  ISIL apparently executed today (8/19) an American journalist it took captive in Syria two years ago.




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