Syrian opposition getting their act together

The Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces informs me that members of various factions of the Syrian opposition met in Cairo over the past few days and agreed yesterday on the attached Cairo Declaration. They also agreed to hold a national conference for all Syrian opposition factions in the coming months.

Attendees and signers included members of a broad spectrum of opposition groups, as well as national figures from various segments of Syrian society, including: Aref Dalilah, Hussein Awdat, Haitham Manaa, Ahmad Jarba, Nibras Fadel, Jamal Suleiman, Riad Naasan Agha, Saleh Muslem, Jihad Makdesi, and Samir Seifan.

I am told the signatories include a significant slice of opposition from inside Syria as well as a higher proportion of Alawites and Christians than in the Syrian Coalition itself. The Muslim Brotherhood was not present (after all, the meeting was in Cairo) but the door remains open to its participation in the spring conference.

This looks to me like the latest in a long series of efforts to unify the opposition. This time the platform is nationalist, non-sectarian, civil, and democratic, including explicit reference to gender equality. It pays due deference to decentralization but also foresees a unified Syria and withdrawal of all foreign forces. I think it doesn’t explicitly address the upcoming intra-Syrian dialogue Moscow is sponsoring, but it is possible some of the signatories may be planning to attend that meeting starting Sunday.

Peace picks January 26-30

  1. Expanding Counterterrorism Partnerships: US Efforts to Tackle the Evolving Terrorist Threat | Monday January 26 | 12:00-14:00 | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Washington Institute for Near East Policy | The attacks in Paris were a stark illustration of the serious terrorist threat confronting the United States and its allies, not only in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, but far closer to home as well. In his May 2014 West Point address, President Obama emphasized that a successful long-term counterterrorism approach will revolve around strong partnerships with key actors overseas. What steps is the United States taking to bolster its counterterrorism partnerships with other governments and with nongovernmental actors? How should the U.S. strategy evolve in light of the Paris attacks and the continuing challenge posed by foreign terrorist fighters and the conflict in Syria and Iraq? What is the role of the State Department in this effort? To address these timely issues, The Washington Institute is pleased to host a Policy Forum with Ambassador Tina Kaidanow. Tina Kaidanow is the ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department. She has also served in high-ranking positions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Note that this event will be off the record.
  2. Where is Turkey Headed? Culture Battles in Turkey | Monday January 26 | 12:00-13:30 | Rumi Forum | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Turkey is a pivotal country: It is one of the few countries with a functioning democracy, it links the West with the turbulent Middle East, and it has been a reliable partner in NATO in difficult times. But Turkey is also a pivotal country in crisis: Under President Tayyip Erdogan it is drifting towards authoritarian rule, being neither a good partner for the West nor having leverage in the Middle East. Inside it becomes less democratic, internationally it becomes more isolated. Rainer Hermann, an international expert on the Middle East and long time correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, will present his analysis of the current affairs in Turkey with prospects for change and the challenges before the West. He has recently published a new book, Where is Turkey Headed, Blue Dome Press: New York, 2014, which is a comprehensive examination of the changes the last decades of Turkish politics have witnessed. He will be available to sign books at the end of the event.
  3. The Awakening of Muslim Democracy | Tuesday January 27 | 12:00-14:00 | George Washington University | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Jocelyne Cesari is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and visiting associate professor in the department of government at Georgetown University. She will discuss her recent release, The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity, and the State (Cambridge University Press, 2014). The discussion also features Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University and Marc Lynch, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University.
  4. US Foreign Policy Towards the Middle East: Priorities and Problems | Tuesday January 27 | 13:00 | School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) | REGISTER TO ATTEND | SAIS’ Foreign Policy Institute invites to a discussion with Ambassador Anne Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs on the priorities and problems of U.S. Middle East policy. The discussion is moderated by Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute. This event is off the record. No audio, video, transcription or digital recording is allowed.
  5. Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide | Wednesday January 28 | 12:15-14:00 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The destruction of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire in 1915–1916 was the greatest atrocity of World War I. Around one million Armenians were killed and survivors were scattered across the world. Although the issue of what most of the world calls the Armenian Genocide of 1915 is now a century old, it is still a live and divisive issue that mobilizes Armenians across the world, shapes the identity and politics of modern Turkey, and has consumed the attention of U.S. politicians for years. In Great Catastrophe, the eminent scholar and reporter Thomas de Waal, senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, looks at the aftermath and politics of the Armenian Genocide and tells the story of recent efforts by courageous Armenians, Kurds, and Turks to come to terms with disaster as Turkey enters a new post-Kemalist era. Please join us for a conversation with the book’s author, moderated by Charles King. Great Catastrophe will be available to purchase, and the event will conclude with a book signing. De Waal will be joined by Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Charles King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University. Lunch will be served.
  6. Ethnic “Homelands”: Imagining a New Middle East, 1919 – 1948 | Wednesday January 28 | 15:30 | George Washington University | REGISTER TO ATTEND | After 1919, as much of the Middle East was absorbed into the beleaguered but still powerful European empires, a new ideology took hold in the region: the concept of physical separation as a “solution” to a newly identified “problem” of ethnic and religious pluralism. Across Europe and the United States, Armenian, Assyrian, and Jewish diaspora groups proved anxious to demonstrate their belonging in the ingathering of civilized nation-states by supporting the project of a homogenous national “homeland,” however remote it might be from their actual lived experiences. Diaspora lobbying, fundraising, and vocal support for creating ethnically based political entities through strategies of transfer and partition also found a reflection in some Arab discourse, as Palestinian, Syrian, and Iraqi Arab nationalists sought to make claims to independent statehood within a global framework that demanded national homogeneity as a corollary to sovereignty. This talk will explore how diaspora communities shaped the emerging political landscape of the modern Middle East as they declared that the only path to legitimate, recognized political status in the new global order was through identification, however distant, with an ethnic “homeland.” Laura Robson is a historian of the modern Middle East. Her current research and teaching focus on the history of religious and ethnic minorities in the twentieth century Arab world. She received her PhD from Yale University in 2009 and is now Associate Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.
  7. Global Security and Gender – A Forum with Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström | Wednesday January 28 | 16:00-17:15 | United States Institute of Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The new Swedish government has pledged to increase its focus on global women’s issues with what it describes as a feminist foreign policy. The U.S. Institute of Peace, in collaboration with the Embassy of Sweden, will host a forum with new Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström on diplomacy and gender equality in a challenging global security environment. Following her remarks, Minister Wallström will be joined by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a USIP senior advisor, who will moderate a discussion with the Minister, as well as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Catherine Russell, and U.S. Ambassador Donald Steinberg (retired), a former deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development who now serves as President and CEO of World Learning.
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Fox bites Bibi and Boehner

You won’t find a lot of Fox News clips on, but I am posting this one purely on the merits. Until the last couple of minutes of filler (did someone intervene to stop the badmouthing?), Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith plow into both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and House Speaker Boehner for the invitation to address Congress shortly before Israel’s March 17 parliamentary election:

In my corner of the Jewish liberal establishment, sentiment is running high against Netanyahu, but it is a bit surprising to find the same is true on Fox News.

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Anbar first

The Middle East Institute published this piece of mine last night, under the heading “The Case for Aiding Anbar”:

I ran into some Anbaris in Washington this week. All of them have lost friends or relatives in the fight against Islamist extremism in one form or another. They had interesting things to say.

Anbar is the virtually 100 percent Sunni Arab province of Iraq that resisted the American invasion in 2003-2004, gave birth to the Awakening movement that fought with the Americans against al-Qa‘ida in Iraq in 2006-2007, wanted American bases to remain in Iraq, hosted peaceful mass protests against Nuri al-Maliki’s government in 2013, and largely fell to the Islamic State (ISIS) and its Ba‘thist allies starting in 2014. The provincial leadership is now trying to convince the United States to provide weapons, training, and coordinated air attacks to those willing to fight to take back the province. Déjà vu all over again.

The Anbaris think that ISIS is weak in their province, which they say nevertheless hosts ISIS headquarters. But the ISIS leadership consists of foreigners, who have a tense relationship even with local supporters. ISIS initially appealed to some Anbaris not only because it promised an Islamic caliphate, but also because of the existing corruption and Shi‘i hegemony in Baghdad. But now ISIS is abusing the local population with a severe application of Shariah law, which only a fraction of Anbaris support, and mass executions. It is killing Sunnis and destroying homes and hospitals. It is insisting on “repentance” from tribal leaders who opposed it. Many of those who supposedly repent also leave.

Those Anbari leaders who have left are getting signals from people still in Anbar that they are prepared to fight ISIS if provided with adequate resources and support from outside the province. The liberation should start from those parts of Anbar like Hit that ISIS has not been able to control. Anbar police would form the core of the force opposing ISIS.

The Anbaris avow a good relationship with the government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad. He says the right things and has managed to marginalize Maliki. More broadly, relations with the Shi‘a and Kurds have improved. But the new prime minister has not been able to deliver much in concrete terms so far. American arms for Baghdad will only start arriving in March. Abadi is under enormous Iranian pressure, with Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Qassim Suleimani everywhere. The National Guard law, which the Anbaris support because it would set up provincially-based units to fight ISIS, is stalled in parliament. Only strong international influence will get it passed. Even then, it will take four years before the National Guard units are ready to fight. It will take three years to retrain and re-equip the Iraqi Army.

The Anbaris want to move faster with direct support from the Americans. What they need are weapons, ammunition, training, and coordination with coalition air attacks. National reconciliation, which the Anbaris say they welcome, is important, but military support is urgent. The American-led coalition against ISIS should not focus exclusively on Nineveh and Mosul. It should give priority to Anbar.

Air attacks will not suffice. The coalition needs boots on the ground to assist Anbaris who want to liberate their province. And it needs to move quickly, before ISIS is able to consolidate control and recruit more young Iraqis to its ranks. ISIS pays well, arms its cadres well, and provides “slave brides.”

Anbar wants more than military means. It also wants American investment. The Koreans and Turks are economically active in Anbar, but there is no U.S. commercial presence. Nor is much left of the previous American efforts at reconstruction. The American embassy staff is confined to its fortress while Iranians travel freely. Anbar needs an internationally sponsored reconstruction fund.

The Anbari pitch is strong, well-coordinated, and thoughtful. They know what the Americans want, and what they want to hear. But Washington today seems loath to do anything that might undermine Abadi. And the Americans believe that the Kurdish peshmerga, who are available for a counteroffensive in Nineveh Province, are vital to military success against ISIS. Anbar may have to wait longer than it wants for vital international assistance.

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Uncharted territory

I did a quick interview today for Tomasz Zalewski of the Polish national press agency on the dramatic developments in Yemen. Maybe others will find it of interest:

Q:  How serious – and why – is this Houthis rebellion?

A:  It is very serious, because it has now collapsed the Yemeni state, whose president and prime minister have resigned. The Houthis cannot hope to govern all of Yemen, so if they take power it is more than likely that southern, and perhaps other, secessions will follow. If they don’t take power, chaos may reign.

They can however be relied upon to fight Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), since they are Shia-affiliated and will have no use for extremist Sunni group. It is also important to say that the state in Yemen may have collapsed, but the society has many other mechanisms for maintaining stability. I expect some of the inclination of Yemenis towards dialogue and away from the worst brutal violence to be in evidence, though it may not prevail.

Q:  What international implications can this crisis have, especially in terms of balance of power in the region, considering that the rebels are Shiite Muslims fighting with a Sunni government?

A:  The success of the Houthi insurgency is certainly a blow to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners, who had sponsored the peace process in Yemen and view the Houthis as sponsored by their adversary, Iran. But the Houthi success does not immediately alter the balance of power in the region, to which Yemen has never contributed much. The Saudis will be very concerned, but Yemen is a small part of the overall Gulf picture.

Q:  How can this upheaval impact a broader war with Islamist terrorism, given the fact that Yemen is one of the strongest Al-Qaida center?

A:  The Houthis will oppose AQAP, with which they have already been fighting. What is not clear is whether the US will be able to continue its engagement in the fight against AQAP if the Houthis take power in Sanaa, or if chaos prevails. We’ll have to wait and see.

Q:  How can the situation develop there?

A:  It can develop in many ways, but I imagine we will see things getting worse before they get better. We could see a move by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to return to power. He is thought to be backing the Houthis. Rebellion and chaos could spread, with some in the southern Hiraak movement wanting to secede and AQAP taking advantage of the situation to recruit young Sunnis and attack critical infrastructure. As UN envoy Jamal Benomar puts it, “we are in uncharted territory.”

PS: If you want more and deeper on Yemen’s crisis, read Danya Greenfield’s Yemen’s Coup in All But Name and Charles Schmitz’s The Huthi Ascent to Power.

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Good cop, bad cop

I could sign up to 90% of what the foreign ministers of France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union say today in the Washington Post. They want the US Congress not to pass new sanctions on Iran, for fear that would split the P5+1 (that includes the US, Russia and China as well as the Europeans) and wreck the prospects for a nuclear deal with Iran. The Israeli intelligence establishment apparently agrees, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu does not.

Knowledgeable people who follow the talks closely also oppose additional sanctions now, but for different reasons. Some think a nuclear deal that goes beyond the current Joint Plan of Action (JPA) is unlikely. The question would then become who–the Iranians or the Americans are the prime candidates–scuppers the deal, either before it expires at the end of June or during another six-month extension. From an American perspective, it is preferable that the Iranians take on the responsibility, thus increasing the likelihood that the P5+1 would remain united and then respond with tightened sanctions.

I’ve argued that in a sense none of this matters. The overt Iranian nuclear program is not the problem. There is simply no history of anyone developing nuclear weapons using materials produced in a program monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. So why should we care about the JPA at all? It provides access and accountability for activities that are not the problem.

Access is the point. If we are going to have early warning that Iran’s covert nuclear activities are moving towards developing a nuclear weapon, we are going to need access. The JPA provides it. While there are no doubt means of knowing what is going on clandestinely in Iran that do not depend on the IAEA, its inspectors are an important source of knowledge about the Iranian program and its purposes. Had we listened to Hans Blix, the IAEA director general before the invasion of Iraq, we might have saved ourselves a lot of trouble.

This argues for continuation of the JPA, even though the target of its monitoring is likely to involve material that will never be diverted to a nuclear weapons program. The technology is a different matter. Iran is not so well-endowed with physicists and engineers that it would want, or be able, to develop enrichment or reprocessing technology from scratch, independent of its IAEA-monitored efforts. If there is a separate, clandestine activity the IAEA is likely to garner hints of it. That is precisely what we should want.

So scuppering the JPA is not a good idea for the US. But many who know Iran well believe it is necessary in order to get a nuclear deal to make it clear what will happen if there is no more permanent nuclear deal.  This is where Congress comes in. The Administration is already playing good cop, threatening to veto new sanctions. Congress can play bad cop, even without passing new legislation.

Congress could prepare a bipartisan bill (with broad support in both Houses) that imposes tough new sanctions but is put on a slow track to approval. That would constitute a clear and compelling message. Of course this would have to be carefully coordinated with other P5+1 members, and we should expect the Iranians to retaliate with a bill in the Majles that sends an equally clear and compelling message about what Tehran will do if the JPA breaks down without a new agreement in place.

The Iranians will of course understand what we are up to. But there is no need to hide it. There is only a need to anticipate, prepare to impose new sanctions if the need arises, and play the diplomatic game well. That Tehran will appreciate.