Catching foreign fighters

US Customs and Border Police detained me last Friday en route home from Istanbul. I’ve been hesitating to write about the experience, until I read the story of three Colorado girls busted on their way to Syria to join up with ISIS.

My experience was mundane. I was clearing Customs in Toronto on my way home as a Global Access passenger, which means I usually slide through on my machine-read passport and fingerprints without any questions asked. But human intervention prevailed. When an official examining my passport asked why I had been in Istanbul, I uttered the key word:  “Syria.” I was there for a meeting of Friends of the Syrian People working group, an intergovernmental group beginning to plan for reconstruction in the war-torn country.

That was enough to get me shunted to secondary screening, where I found a young man who looked military age and stature as well as an Iraqi Kurd of 45 or so who was returning from visiting family in Dohuk. He had lived in Nashville he said for the past 20 years or so. We were eventually joined by two young men who looked to my inexpert eye to be South Asians, I know not from which country.

By then I was next up to be questioned. It is mildly absurd to question someone my age, ethnicity and occupation as a potential ISIS recruit, but I decided not to object. Any sign of resistance would clearly have meant even more time in detention. If I was only being questioned to demonstrate that they weren’t profiling it was all right with me. Whites and Jews should know what Arabs, Kurds, South Asians and others are subjected to.

It wasn’t painful though for me. The questioning was straightforward and respectful. I explained in a bit more detail what I had done in Istanbul, emphasizing that the US government was represented at the meeting. I answered truthfully whether I had ever been to Syria: yes, before the revolution, to study Arabic. Yes, I know quite a few Syrians, as I’ve done some training of Syrians for nonviolent democratic transition and have followed events there with interest. I pushed forward my Johns Hopkins/SAIS business card. I willingly opened my suitcase and displayed my dirty laundry (literally literally).

About an hour and a half after the initial questioning, I was on my way again, having missed a connection. But no one should assume that my fairly mild experience is typical. The officials were unabashedly giving the Iraqi Kurd a hard time. They said he had deleted something from his cell phone while waiting to be questioned.

I confess I felt for the officials who do this work. Of the thousands of passengers through Toronto on a given day, how many are signing up for, or returning from, fighting with ISIS? Who knew whether and what my Kurdish friend had deleted.

The three Somali girls headed for Syria were caught at the Frankfurt airport. That’s a good thing. But fighting the Islamic State is going to require far more savvy than US Customs and Border Patrol can muster. Even if we stopped every single American going to fight in Syria, there would still be lots of volunteers from other countries far less committed than Germany and the US to stopping them. The contest we are in requires that we win hearts and minds, not just find needles in a haystack.


The ADD nation fights ISIS

Last Wednesday American University’s School of International Service hosted its professor and former ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Politico correspondent Susan Glasser, and Washington Post columnist, David Ignatius to discuss Fighting ISIS: The Future of American Foreign Policy in the Middle East. David Gregory, the former moderator of Meet the Press, presided.

President Obama some weeks ago stated his goal of degrading and defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with air power and a dynamic, committed coalition but the campaign thus far has been unimpressive. Ignatius defended the President stating, “wars often start badly” but questioned whether the President has a concrete strategy to accomplish his goal. While President Obama sought to turn the page of America’s legacy in the Middle East, he has been “sucked back” into the region. The President’s insistence on changes to the Iraqi government as well as demands for regional actors to become involved are promising first steps. Although the coalition does not have a UN mandate, it avoids the “go it alone ethos” of the Bush administration or the lead from behind approach in Libya.

How will ISIS be defeated in Syria? In Iraq? While there are plans for the CIA and military to train guerilla fighters in Syria, Ignatius notes that history shows us this approach is rarely successful. With internal conflicts plaguing both Syria and Iraq, a coherent strategy is lacking. This will be a test for President Obama as he faces a group that has an “apocalyptic view.” Ignatius noted Osama Bin Laden and the writings of his final days, in which he outlines his feelings of failure and his intention to rename Al-Qaeda. The Muslim leaders whom he respected had come to hate Al Qaeda, which its leader feared would lead to its downfall. Ignatius believes the same goes for the “savagery” of ISIS, hated by both the Muslim world and the West.

While all three speakers underlined the President’s reluctance to become involved, Glasser focused on the public debate that transpired between the President and the Pentagon. This friction has largely gone uncovered. Glasser believes the United States is in a quagmire that will not end well.

Ahmed believes that the US has forgotten the lesson of Afghanistan, where it entered without any understanding of tribal wars. There is a parallel situation in Iraq, but along sectarian divisions. ISIS vaunts the golden age of early Islam but Ahmed disputes this. He instead believes “justice, knowledge, equality and tolerance” are embedded in Islam, none of which are included in the ISIS movement.

Gregory asked a question that went largely unanswered. What are we protecting the US and our allies from? Ignatius believes that ISIS is such an aggressive adversary that we should have seen it coming. While there is no current intelligence that ISIS is planning an attack on the United States, ISIS poses a serious threat to Jordan’s monarch, a key US ally.

Ignatius refers to the media as playing to an “ADD nation,” with a dwindling attention span to critical foreign affairs. The consequences of not being patient will hurt the United States. There is no overnight solution. Stability will not be achieved until there is reconciliation between Sunni and Shia and between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Proxy wars are “eating up” the Middle East, which will need restoration of strong security institutions.

Hong Kong and the Arab uprisings

The Hong Kong protesters may be disappointed in their televised talks with the authorities, but I’m not. They have achieved something remarkable:  a widely disseminated (at least within Hong Kong) public effort by the authorities to justify their rejection of democracy. The fact of their  meeting with the students, whose side of the argument was apparently not broadcast by the authorities, speaks louder than words. This is an enormous achievement, even if the talks have inevitably failed to reach a compromise.

The contrast with what is going on in the Middle East could not be sharper. There Islamists are rejecting democracy and secularism, which they associate with autocracy and godlessness. In Syria, Libya and Yemen, large portions of the society (not everyone) have chosen violent means–or tact support for violent means–to achieve their political ends, while in Hong Kong only the police have opted for brutality.

This is as it should be. Nonviolence has a better chance of winning than violence, mainly because some of the forces of law and order will eventually hesitate to use violence against nonviolent protesters. Once a corner of the police is bent to sympathize with the protesters, the Hong Kong authorities will be forced either to call in the army or compromise with the protesters’ demands.

Calling in the People’s Liberation Army would be a clear signal of defeat for the authorities, who have made it clear they fear real democracy would open representation to the votes of the lower classes:

If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month.

This remarkable statement comes from the chief executive in Hong Kong, a loyal Beijing supporter. What has Communism come to?

There is room for compromise here. The nominating committee that is to vet Hong Kong candidates for Chief Executive, slated to be controlled entirely by Beijing, could be opened to broader representation and the criteria for rejecting candidates limited to malfeasance. Only a wide open electoral contest will satisfy student protest leaders, but something short of that might represent real progress in the right direction.

Protesters in the Middle East could learn a lot from their Asian counterparts. The disciplined commitment to sustained nonviolent protest in Hong Kong makes good sense, precisely because the authorities have overwhelming force at their disposal. The protesters have clearly thought this through and are looking to maintain mass support that would be l0st quickly if they resorted to violence. A few may lose patience and head in that direction, but so far at least they have mostly resisted a temptation that would inevitably give the authorities the upper hand.

Would that such discipline were available in the Middle East.

Geopolitics of lower energy prices

Oil prices are down by about 20% from their recent peak (or 15% from their three-year plateau around $100 per barrel) and likely to stay low for months if not years. Downward pressure will continue unless the Saudis are prepared to rein in their production (no sign of that yet) or prices decline enough (to $70 or less) to turn off the flow of  tight oil and gas in the US, which has become a major factor on world markets.

There is a lot of benefit to be seen from lower oil prices. From the US perspective, cutting revenue flow to the governments of Russia, Iran and Venezuela is a big plus. Putin, who is already feeling substantial pressure from European Union and US sanctions, faces serious financial difficulties. Iran, likewise hurt by sanctions, will find it difficult to generate anything like the revenue it needs to fund economic recovery, even if sanctions are lifted. Venezuela was already headed towards a financial crisis. Its budget is almost entirely dependent on oil revenue.

Major oil and gas producers in the Gulf will be hit as well. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates , Kuwait and Qatar as well as Iraq will feel the pinch. They are far more likely to cut their spending on various international causes than risk austerity at home. That could mean scarcer resources for the restored military autocracy in Egypt, Yemen’s besieged government and Syria’s opposition. It could also mean less revenue for Islamist extremists of various stripes, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, for which oil sales are a significant portion of revenue.

Lower oil prices will also give a boost to global economic growth, particularly in the US and Europe but also in China and India. The Economist worries that the lower prices may be due to slack economic growth and that lower prices will do little for consumers, but then it gives ample evidence that the lower prices are in fact due to higher production. If past patterns hold, global economic growth could gain by a significant 1% over current 3.3% predictions for 2015.

What has happened in the past couple of weeks is part of a broader secular trend that will have profound impacts on geopolitics and economics for a long time to come. Production of oil and gas is rising sharply in the Western Hemisphere, especially in the US, Canada and Brazil. Demand is rising principally in the East, where economic growth is strong, the economies are still heavily dependent on energy, and energy resources are scarce. This trend has implications for future security risks and burden sharing:  it will not make much sense for the US to carry most of the burden of ensuring the security of the strait of Hormuz when 90% or more of the oil shipped through this classic “choke point” is going to India, China and other Asian consumers.

Asian consumers should be stocking 90 days of imports, as members of the International Energy Agency are required to do. They should also be providing some of the naval assets to protect the strait of Hormuz. That will require a major rethink on the part of the US, as well as creation of a multinational force that the Asians can feel comfortable joining.

There are calls in Congress to curtail the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is slated for use in an oil supply disruption. That would be an unwise move, as a major disruption of oil markets anywhere means a hike in prices everywhere. The US may be much less dependent on the Middle East in the future, but it will still be vulnerable to the economic damage of an oil supply interruption.

We have tended to view the rise of Asia as a challenge. But of course it is also an opportunity. The US will soon be the world’s largest oil and gas producer. If the Washington can continue to moderate American demand and in addition decides to allow oil and gas exports, the assumption of its declining influence could soon be proven, once again, a mirage.

Peace picks October 19-24

With apologies for the lateness:

  1. Operation Protective Edge: Legal and Political Implications of ICC Prosecution | Monday, October 20th | 4:00 – 6:30 | Arab Studies Institute | David J. Luban from Georgetown University, Georgetown Law Center, Margaret deGuzman from Temple University, Beasley School of Law George Bisharat from University of California, Hastings College of the Law, Noura Erakat  from George Mason University, New Century College and Kevin Jon Heller from  University of London, SOAS  will sit on a panel discussion on Israel’s offensive, Operation Protective Edge, against the Gaza Strip. This panel will explore the relevant legal questions under international criminal law as well as the political issues related to ICC accession by Palestine.
  2. U.S.–North Korea Nuclear Diplomacy: Lessons Learned and Next Steps  | Tuesday, October 21st | 10:00 – 11:30 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | October 21 marks the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, which froze Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program in return for the provision of nuclear power reactors and the eventual normalization of ties with the U.S. In the decades since the Agreed Framework was struck and then subsequently unraveled, successive American presidential administrations seem to have exhausted available policy tools in an effort to curtail North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities. The speakers are Robert Gallucci, a distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University, Victor Ch, a senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as the director of Asian studies and D.S. Song-KF chair at Georgetown University, Sydney Seiler, a special envoy for the Six-Party Talks and Duyeon Kim, a associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  3. Rebuilding the Gaza Strip: Obstacles and Opportunities | Tuesday, October 21st | 12:00 – 1:00 | Middle East Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | MEI will host Gaza-based Rania Elhilou (ANERA) and Paul Butler (ANERA) for a discussion of the humanitarian and infrastructural costs of the recent Gaza conflict and steps needed to address the ongoing crisis.Nearly two months after the ceasefire, more than 100,000 people remain displaced due to the massive infrastructural damage to housing units, businesses, schools and clinics. Many more lack access to basic resources, including food, electricity and clean drinking water. Based on her observations from the ground, Elhilou will describe the conditions faced by Gaza residents, and how they are coping, while Butler will discuss the challenges to Gaza’s reconstruction. Middle East Institute scholar Ambassador Philip Wilcox will moderate the discussion.
  4. Iranian Policy toward the Iraqi and Syrian Crises | Tuesday, October 21st | 12:00 – 1:00 | Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars | Jubin Goodarzi, Deputy Head of the International Relations Department at Webster University in Geneva, Switzerland will speak at the event. Tehran has had a longstanding alliance with Damascus over the past 35 years, and its relations with Baghdad have steadily improved since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This has resulted in close ties between Iran and these two key Arab states. However, this has all been called into question since the eruption of the Syrian revolt in 2011, and moreover, the recent rise of ISIS and its challenge to the Iraqi state. Iran has become heavily involved in both conflicts since it has much at stake. Jubin Goodarzi will provide an overview of the evolving situation and focus on Iran’s policies, perspectives, interests, and options in the ongoing Syrian and Iraqi crises.
  5. A Fresh Perspective on Tunisia | Wednesday, October 22nd | 10:00 – 11:30 | Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies | REGISTER TO ATTENDMondher Zenaidi, Independent Presidential candidate for the Republic of Tunisia, will discuss this topic. During the 2011 revolution, Zenaidi was the only member of the government to support the young demonstrators in Kasserine with his presence, including attending the funeral of civilians killed in the city of Ezzouhour, and had the police in the region replaced by the national army to restore the peace. While serving in the Tunisian government, he chaired a committee at the World Trade Organization. He supports broad trade reform to enable Tunisia to adhere to WTO principles and exploit its comparative advantages. He advocates for reduced state involvement in the economy to revitalize Tunisia and reduce disparities in regional development. Zenaidi is also a vocal advocate for a closer U.S.-Tunisian partnership, especially to counter violent extremism and terrorism.
  6. Ensuring a Strong U.S. Defense for the Future: Findings of the National Defense Panel | Wednesday, October 22nd | 10:00 – 11:30 | Bipartisan Policy Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | In recent months, the U.S. military has been dispatched to the Middle East to fight ISIS, to Africa to combat Ebola and to Eastern Europe to deter Russia. Yet, automatic reductions to the defense budget, known as “sequestration,” remain the law of the land. Highlighting this tension between national security and fiscal restraint, Michèle Flournoy and Eric Edelman, members of the bipartisan, congressionally-mandated National Defense Panel, warned in a recent op-ed, “without budgetary relief, the U.S. armed forces soon will be at high risk of not being able to accomplish the national defense strategy.”
  7. Kobani: A Challenge to the Peace Process? | Wednesday, October 22nd | 2:00 | Georgetown University |REGISTER TO ATTEND | There will be opening remarks by Dr. Sinan Ciddi, Executive Director, Institute of Turkish Studies and the event will be moderated by Dr. Gonul Tol, Executive Director, Center for Turkish Studies, Middle East Institute. The panelists include Aliza Marcus, Journalist and the author of Blood and Belief, Dr. Kadir Ustun, SETA Foundation, Washington, D.C.  and Mehmet Yuksel, Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), Washington, DC Representative.
  8. Ukraine Elections: An End to the Crisis? | Wednesday, October 22nd | 2:00 | Center on Global Interests | The past 12 months have seen unpredicted and unprecedented disruption in Ukrainian politics. As the deadly conflict in the country’s east continues and economic indicators plummet, the outcome of Ukraine’s upcoming parliamentary elections will be a crucial factor in determining the future course of the country. Will the Petro Poroshenko Bloc’s “party of peace,” expected to win control of the parliament, be able to overcome the crisis facing Ukraine? In anticipation of the Oct. 26 elections, CGI will host a panel discussion exploring the recent changes in Ukraine’s domestic politics, the effects of the election on Ukrainian unity, and the implications for U.S.-Ukraine and Russia-Ukraine relations. The speakers are William Green Miller, former United States Ambassador to Ukraine (1993- 1998), Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Peter Voitsekhovsky, Research Director at the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation; former journalist for BBC, Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America and Katie Fox, Deputy Director of the Eurasia department at NDI, overseeing NDI election monitoring, civic organizing and political party development programs in the former Soviet Union, with a focus on Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova. Ms. Fox was stationed in NDI’s Ukraine office in 1995-1998, and again in 1999 and 2004. The event will be moderated by Konstantin Avramov, Program Director at Center on Global Interests.
  9. Reflections on Islamism: From the Muslim Brotherhood to the Islamic State | Thursday, October 23rd | 12:30 – 2:00 | Washington Institute for Near East Policy | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Once again, Islamism has taken center stage in the Middle East. A generation ago, the pivotal events were the takeover of the Mecca mosque and the Islamic Revolution in Iran; a half-generation ago, the pivotal events were the horrific attacks of September 11. With the counterrevolution against the world’s oldest Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the sudden and bloody emergence of its newest, the “caliphate” called the Islamic State, the complex face of Islamism is again capturing the attention of governments, journalists, analysts, and popular imagination. To inform our understanding of the changing face of Islamism and provide a scholarly context for the decisions policymakers need to make. The speaker is Shimon Shamir, the dean of Middle East scholars in Israel, is professor emeritus of Middle East history at Tel Aviv University. In addition, he had the unique experience of serving as Israel’s ambassador to both Arab states with which it is at peace, Egypt and Jordan.

The peace process is dead, for now

The Israeli Conflict: Has the US Failed? The panel assembled Wednesday at the Middle East Council’s Capitol Hill Conference leaned towards answering in the affirmative. Omar Kader, MEPC chairman, moderated a panel comprising former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, Foundation for Middle East Peace President Matthew Duss, Brookings Fellow Natan Sachs, and Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund and The Palestine Center. Thomas Mattair, MEPC Executive Director was the discussant in a conversation addressing the US role – past and future – in the Middle East peace process.

Munayyer argued that the US has abjectly failed to resolve the conflict. If peace was the US objective in Gaza this summer, then it has failed. But Munayyer suggests that if US primary objectives were to preserve the free-flow of resources in the region while continuing to secure the survival of Israel, then US policy has in fact succeeded. He suggested that peace between Israel and Palestine is not a priority for the US government.

This position was too far for much of the rest of the panel. Daniel Kurtzer countered that regardless of whether US policy has been carried out intelligently or successfully, the peace process is of great importance to the national interest. Duss noted that there are great costs to US interests as the conflict runs on and on. Citizens of other nations – particularly those in the Middle East – have their opinions of the US and its policies shaped through this emotive issue. The conflict can make it much harder for leaders with sizable populations sympathizing with Palestine to work productively with US officials. Ongoing injustices – whether perceived or real – foment mistrust towards the US because of its support for the Israeli government and its inability to deliver on calls for peace. Groups like al-Qaeda draw recruits to fight against the US by playing on anger felt at its perceived role in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Beyond the obvious humanitarian and ethical reasons for peace, it is also of utmost importance to US policy.

So has the US failed? So far, it seems clear it has. Much of the onus for building peace is on the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, but there was also a feeling that success – and failure – is greatly influenced by US policy.

The US has failed the peace process, in Munayyer’s view, by allowing Israel to preserve its status quo, continuing to build settlements in the territories and reneging on its promises. The US has failed to use its leverage over Israel to comply with international law – instead using its leverage internationally to allow Israel to never have to acquiesce to the law. US attempts to discourage Palestine from using the preexisting international framework to address grievances has left the only option for resolution through the US – which he termed “Israel’s lawyer.” The US bias towards Israel makes it hard for Palestinians to gain anything from the peace process: for successful negotiations, both sides must gain more politically than they stand to lose.

Sachs and Duss agreed with this assessment. For the process to succeed, both actors must take difficult steps in order to move towards a lasting accord. Duss sees the US as having the power to help Israel take those difficult steps towards building a lasting peace. To do this US support must be absolute – but while providing support, the resolve to ensure those difficult steps are actually carried through must also be there. The presence of US support without the will to enforce policies that will lead to peace has led to a belief in some quarters in Israel that the current status quo is sustainable. But that will not lead to a lasting peace.

Kurtzer stressed that defining the goals and parameters of negotiations will be key. He feels recent US administrations have failed to decide on a strategy before initiating negotiations. There has also been a degree of naïvety. For example, he acknowledges ongoing settlements are a problem but points out that simply demanding that the Israeli Prime Minister freeze them will not work. If Netanyahu acquiesces, he will pay a political price in the Knesset. To achieve results on this demand – and others – the political payoff must offset the price to the leaders. Indeed – a sustainable process must include gains for both sides that outweigh the challenges they face.

The US tendency to settle for short-term fixes was also criticized. The last decade is littered with ceasefire agreements, but Kurtzer questions whether any further progress is made once the ceasefires are implemented. If only the proximate causes of violence are fixed, and not the root causes, then we will be fated to see further violence in the future. A commitment to more than just rebuilding must be made in the wake of the cessation of violence.

Equally important to Kurtzer is the importance of holding the parties accountable to their agreements and promises. If there are no consequences for bad behavior during negotiations, then violations will occur. Important as keeping both sides at the table is the legitimacy of the peace process, which is severely harmed by duplicity.

There have undoubtedly been failings in the US attempts to bring peace to Israel and Palestine, even if less egregious than the failures of the Palestinian and Israeli governments. But Sachs believes that now is not moment to consider who is at fault in the Gaza and beyond. As anger on both sides grows and the prevailing view in political circles in Israel moves further towards accepting the current status quo, now is the time to learn from previous failings, and to try again – before mistrust and hatred make any resolution impossible.

Here is the video of the event:

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