Striking a middle course

As tensions heighten between Qatar and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the future of American relationships in the Gulf hangs in the balance. On Tuesday, the Hudson Institute hosted a panel entitled, “Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Trump Administration: Stability or Upheaval?” Speakers Mohammed Khalid Alyahya of the Atlantic Council, Fatimah S. Baeshen of the Arabia Foundation, and Michael Pregent of the Hudson Institute warned against Qatar’s behavior but suggested America steer a middle course: court Qatari support in the fight against ISIS, but validate GCC concerns. The panel was moderated by Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Lee Smith.

Since the former Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani was succeeded by his son Tamim bin Hamad al Thani in 2013, the new Qatari leader has gone to great lengths to put the small Arab country of approximately 300,000 citizens on the map. Part of this effort has involved reckless political adventurism by which the Qatari government simultaneously aids Iran and Al Qaeda-affiliated militant groups in Syria, or hosts firebrand religious clerics on state-run news network Al Jazeera.

“I think Qatar will go down in history as the friend and enemy of everybody at the same time,” remarked Alyahya.

According to Pregent, Qatar appeases Americans with the Al Udeid air base in order to distract from its other activities. The Qatari government had expected a Clinton administration to continue the legacy of Obama-era leniency. Instead, the world was greeted by the election of zealously anti-terrorist, anti-Iran Donald Trump.

Until now, Qatar’s political game has been largely risk-free due to the country’s small citizen population and high GDP per capita, both of which prevent the formation of any significant opposition party. Instead, observed Alyahya, the effects of Qatar meddling and finance – including a recent ransom payment of up to $1 billion to an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria and Iranian security officials and regional Shia militias in Iraq – are borne by Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The GCC blockade is apparently an attempt to impose consequences for Qatar’s habit of playing all sides.

The United States has several means at its disposal to curb Qatar’s behavior. Together with the GCC blockade and its soft power, the United States could exert pressure on the small Arab nation to cease its support for Islamist terrorist organizations. Ideally, the US would offer incentives for Qatar to prosecute US-designated terrorists to the same degree that they currently prosecute UN-designated ones. Yet the Qatari Al Udeid air base is critical, and the United States has short-term objectives such as defeating ISIS that will require Qatari support. As Qatar opens to Iran, the United States and Qatar are headed for an impasse. This will affect American capabilities in the fight against ISIS.

Meanwhile United States-Saudi Arabia relations are warming considerably under President Trump, after frosty relations in the Obama years. Saudi Arabia is a close and valued ally against ISIS, along with Qatar, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Moreover, the Kingdom – which announced the King’s son Mohammed bin Salman as the new Crown Prince just last month – appears to be entering a period of relative liberality. In the last five years alone, explained Baeshen, there has been considerable improvement in freedom of speech. This phenomenon is manifest in political satire on social media sites such as Twitter, which is not, and has never been, blocked in the Kingdom.

As the rift between Qatar and the rest of the GCC countries widens, the United States will have to maintain a cautious balancing act between exerting pressure on Doha and courting its cooperation in the fight against ISIS. At the very least, thawing relations with Saudi Arabia present a note of hope.

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Sold out

The Syrian opposition never received more than half-hearted and highly fragmented support from the US and the Gulf. More or less covert American military assistance went through the CIA, which equipped and trained fighters who were supposed to be fighting extremists, though most preferred to fight the Syrian regime. The assistance was not intended to enable the rebels to win the war against the Assad regime but at most to bring Assad to the negotiating table. Instead he sought and received increased Russian and Iranian support, which has shrunk the areas the non-extremist opposition controls.

Now the Trump administration has ended the assistance going to rebels in the north. The President has tweeted that he ended “massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad…..” The Al Qaeda affiliate (Hayat Tahrir al Sham) has already responded to the American cut-off by expanding its control over Idlib province. Washington for the moment is said to have decided to  ignore that battlefield. We can expect further strengthening of non-ISIS extremists as former Free Syrian Army fighters, deprived of American assistance, look for someone who is prepared to do battle against Assad.

The aid cutoff was a gesture to Russia intended to elicit Moscow’s cooperation in implementing a ceasefire and restraining the Syrian regime and its Iranian-backed allies from attacking a “de-escalation” area in the south along the Jordanian and Israeli border. There the Southern Front, in which relative moderates have been prevalent, will I understand continue to get at least some arms and training.

The Southern Front was once regarded as “Syria‘s last best hope.” There non-extremist Free Syrian Army forces managed to hold sway and avoid the internecine fighting that has plagued other areas. Instead they focused on fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda in its various guises. The results were not perfect, but pretty good, including the establishment of a political wing that could participate in negotiations.

The de-escalation agreement with Moscow leaves opposition forces in the south at the mercy of the Assad coalition, which has been notoriously unwilling to abide by ceasefire agreements. The Syrian government in particular regards ceasefires as a prelude to surrender. Moscow often complains that Damascus refuses to do what the Russians ask, never mind the Iranians and their Shia militias. Washington’s hopes that Moscow will be able to dominate the pro-Assad coalition and restrain the Syrian regime and its Iranian-backed supporters have often been disappointed.

The Free Syrian Army forces, which learned about this “de-escalation” deal from the press, aren’t the only unhappy party. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has denounced the deal because it fails to remove the Iranians from Israel’s border and allows them bases and missile fabrication facilities in Syria, which Netanyahu had hoped to prohibit.

There is no avoiding an uncomfortable conclusion: the Americans have sold out the Syrian opposition, in exchange for promised Russian restraint against moderates remaining in the south. It’s a bad deal unlikely to last any longer than many other deals made in Syria with Moscow.

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A flicker of bipartisanship

The House has reached bipartisan agreement on a sanctions bill that will make it harder for President Trump undo sanctions on Russia (as well as North Korea and Iran), unless he can present evidence that Moscow’s behavior has changed. That’s extraordinary: it has been a long time since Congress has reached a bipartisan agreement on anything important, much less something on which Trump disagrees.

There are still pitfalls. The House version of the bill will be voted on this week and then needs to be reconciled with the Senate’s version, which did not include North Korea. The Administration will do everything possible to water it down, threatening to veto it if it passes in its current form. But if the bill makes it through to approval in both Houses with veto-proof majorities (more than two-thirds), the White House will hesitate to undermine its already weakened president by vetoing and risking an override.

If and when the legislation passes, the US will have something resembling a tough-minded policy on Russian misbehavior, including its election hacking, its annexation of Crimea, and its invasion of eastern Ukraine (but not Syria). The legislation would also toughen policies on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as well as Iran’s missile program and regional interventions.

None of this however should be expected to have an immediate impact. Unilateral sanctions, even “secondary” ones that punish other countries’ companies for doing business with Russia, Iran, and North Korea, are rarely effective in the short-term. Their impact is felt when you negotiate relief from them, not when you impose them. And the fact that the legislation makes it hard to provide relief will be a disincentive to Trump to use the authority the legislation provides, in particular on Russia.

We should of course expect retaliation from the countries sanctioned. Russia will of course maintain the prohibition on adoptions that the Trump campaign and Administration have repeatedly discussed with Moscow’s various representatives. Putin may expel some American spies and diplomats or prohibit American imports. North Korea will likely launch more missiles. Iran will too. Tehran can also target Americans in Iraq or Syria, though doing so risks an American military reaction.

Sanctions would be more effective if multilateral, in particular if the Europeans would join in imposing and implementing their own, comparable measures. That isn’t likely with respect to Iran, where the Europeans are doing good business since the nuclear deal. They may be more likely to act against Russia, though the Italians and others are already chafing at existing sanctions. North Korea is easy for the Europeans, though they are unlikely to join in secondary sanctions against Chinese banks and other companies.

The Trump Administration lacks the rapport with Europe (and most of the rest of the world) to get the kind of multilateral cooperation required to make sanctions bite against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The President may have enjoyed Bastille Day in France with newly elected President Macron, but he has stiff-armed German Chancellor Merkel, who has the real clout. His pal British Prime Minister May is preoccupied now with Brexit, hasn’t been able to form a new government after suffering serious election losses, and in any event carries little weight any longer with the rest of Europe.

So, yes, this flicker of bipartisanship is good news, as it is a counterweight to some of President Trump’s worst instincts, in particular towards Russia. But it does not change international equation. Defiance will continue, as Trump has weakened the United States by offending its allies.

PS: While I was working on this piece, my colleague at SAIS Mike Haltzel published similar but more far-reaching views: A Ray of Hope on our Russia Policy | HuffPost

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Peace picks July 24-28

  1. Bipartisan Task Force on Reforming and Reorganizing U.S. Foreign Assistance Report Launch | Monday, July 24 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Live Webcast | On May 30, 2017, CSIS announced the formation of a Bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Reforming and Reorganizing U.S. Foreign Assistance. After meeting three times and going through several rounds of discussions, this task force has identified actionable recommendations that the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress can take to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of U.S. foreign assistance programs. Senator Todd Young (R-IN) will provide opening remarks, a panel of select task force members will discuss the findings, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) will provide closing remarks.
  2. Media Diplomacy: Challenging the Indo-Pak Narrative | Monday, July 24 | 3:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The dominant national narratives in India and Pakistan fuel tensions between the two nations. Journalists and social media users play a critical role in crafting hostile public opinions and inciting further animosity. Join the Atlantic Council for a conversation to discuss the influence of media on public perception in India and Pakistan. In a discussion introduced and moderated by Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, Senator Mushahid Hussain and Minister Manish Tewari will address the role of media in shaping debates emanating from India and Pakistan.
  3. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Trump Administration: Stability or Upheaval? | Tuesday, July 25 | 11:45 am – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here |  While tensions mount between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia finds itself embroiled in controversy over the royal succession: when King Salman named his son Mohammed Bin Salman crown prince in June, he displaced his elder cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef, who is well respected at home and here in the United States. Meanwhile, conflict continues with Iran and its proxies in Syria and Yemen, and with Qatar closer to home. The Trump administration needs a stable Gulf region to sustain and advance American interests and those of its allies. What does the future hold for Saudi Arabia and the United States? What role should the Trump administration play with its regional partners in the GCC? Panelists include Mohammed Alyahya, Fatimah S. Baeshen, and Hudson Adjunct Fellow Michael Pregent. Hudson Senior Fellow Lee Smith will moderate the conversation.
  4. Venezuela on the Verge of Collapse: Economic, Social, and Political Challenges | Wednesday, July 26 | 11:45 am – 2:00 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Venezuela, a country with more oil than Saudi Arabia, is facing an economic crisis unseen outside of wartime. Chronic food and medicine shortages have plagued the country, and the crime rate has soared as people turn to black markets to secure common goods. Over the past four months, hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to contest President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian regime. In opposition to the vote scheduled at the end of this month to secure Maduro’s grasp on power, millions of Venezuelans around the world participated in a symbolic July 16 referendum calling for new elections and opposing further changes to the country’s constitution. On Wednesday, panelists Gustavo CoronelDr. Rubén PerinaGabriela Febres-Cordero, and Dr. Boris Saavedra will discuss the political, social, and economic turmoil in Venezuela. Ambassador Jaime Daremblum, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Latin American Studies, will moderate.
  5. Hostilities in the Himalayas? Assessing the India-China Border Standoff | Thursday, July 27 | 10 am – 12 pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | India and China are embroiled in a tense border standoff in a highly strategic area of the Himalayas known as Doklam in India and Donglong in China. India and its close ally Bhutan view this land as Bhutanese territory, while China claims it as its own. This event will assess the current dispute and place it in the broader context of India-China border tensions and bilateral relations, while also considering what the future may hold. Additionally, the event will discuss possible implications for Washington and its interests in Asia. The panel features Former Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama RaoRobert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States; and Jeff M. Smith, director of Asian security programs at the American Foreign Policy Concil.
  6. The Ramifications of Rouhani’s Reelection | Friday, July 28 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | On Friday, the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland will host a panel discussion on Iranian public opinion in the aftermath of Hassan Rouhani’s re-election. The event will present new data gathered since the May presidential elections on Iranian attitudes toward domestic and international economic and political issues. In particular, the event will explore current Iranian attitudes toward Rouhani, the nuclear agreement, the Trump administration, regional crises and Iranian domestic policies. Panelists include Nadereh ChamlouEbrahim Mohseni, and Paul Pillar. Discussion will be moderated by Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
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Mosul falls, Abadi needs Sunni trust

Here’s the Encounter radio program I did last Thursday for Carol Castiel of VOA, with Jennifer Caffarella of the Institute for the Study of War: 

@CarolCastielVOA summed it up well in a tweet:

is far from defeated despite victory. Abadi needs to win trust of

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The long game in Iraq

As the liberation of Mosul draws near, one question lurks on the horizon: what is the American day-after strategy in Iraq? In response, on Monday the Wilson Center convened a teleconference featuring Anthony J. Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State; Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, former US ambassador to Turkey and Iraq; Colin Kahl, former Deputy Assistant to the President; and Robert Malley, former Senior Adviser to the President for the Counter-ISIL Campaign. Panelists identified two major challenges going forward in Iraq: the specter of Sunni jihadism and Iranian expansionism.

Although ISIS’s territorial base is greatly diminished and will be dealt a severe blow with the liberation of Mosul, the fight is not over. The terrorist organization and self-proclaimed caliphate maintains a presence in outposts such as Al-Qaim in Iraq and Abu Kamal and Deir ez-Zor in Syria. Moreover, cautions Kahl, even if ISIS lost all its territory, the organization would remain.

“Not only are they going to be a virtual, global, transnational phenomenon, even once the physical caliphate is completely smashed, but they’re not going to completely disappear from Iraq and Syria either,” Kahl predicted. “They’re going to revert to what they were before, which is a cellular terrorist network and insurgency.”

Even if ISIS were defeated, the political and economic conditions that gave rise to it would persist, observed Blinken. This raises concerns that another Sunni jihadist group might take the place of ISIS following the liberation Mosul. The solution? Judicious foreign intervention, concluded Monday’s analysts.

Sunnis in Iraq need assurances that their government—currently led by Shia prime minister Haider al-Abadi—will not persecute them. Iraqi Kurds need greater autonomy and a resolution of Arab-Kurdish territorial disputes over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The United States should support functional federalism and the decentralization of federal power to provincial governments, suggested Blinken, and should offer itself up as an “honest broker” in ongoing political disputes between Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds.

Pacifying Sunni-Shia tensions will require curtailing Iranian influence in post-ISIS Iraq. “If Sunnis feel threatened by Iranian expansionism, we’ll get another ISIS,” warned Ambassador Jeffrey. Ultimately, argued Jeffrey, the United States must give the Iraqi government incentives to position itself as a neutral actor between the US and Iran, even as antagonism between the United States and Iraq simmers. The ambassador suggested that this neutrality should come as the price for American aid in rebuilding Iraq. Malley’s suggestion was less coercive: blunt the influence of Iran by pre-empting it with American aid.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration poses several complications for these plans. While Iraq desperately needs international dollars in order to rebuild its cities, President Trump proposes to slash the State Department and USAID budgets. While neutrality in US-Iranian relations is key to salvaging Iraq, the Trump administration may be tempted to force the country to take sides as antagonism grow more intense. In addition, noted Malley, Iraqi civilian casualties have increased under the Trump administration, which may inflame anti-American sentiment on the ground.

“When it comes to balancing Iran’s influence,” warned Kahl, “we have to play the long game. Hopefully the president takes heed.

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