Peace picks December 11 – 15

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

 

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Will they build it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why the US should remain in Raqqa

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

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

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

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

On US policy, Yacoubian stressed

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

It is also vital to integrate humanitarian and psychosocial services. 

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

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

 

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His own worst enemy

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

What’s wrong with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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What’s in store for Lebanon?

Apologies to Khulood Fahim, who prepared this piece in a timely way. It got stuck in my queue: 

On November 20, Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, Mohammed Alyahya of the Atlantic Council, and Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies attempted with moderator Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute to answer the question, “Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia’s New Zone of Confrontation with Iran?” The event took place at the Hudson Institute and was live-streamed online, which is how I accessed the discussion. The question, timely in light of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s recent resignation announcement from Saudi Arabia, was answered from a Saudi perspective (Alyahya), a Lebanese perspective (Badran), and an American perspective (Doran), all three of whom agreed with each other on several issues.

That the media has falsely portrayed recent events and Saudi Arabia’s intentions was a common theme presented by the speakers. Alyahya stated that there were two important issues at hand. First, Prime Minister Hariri cited several reasons for his resignation, including the dysfunctional nature of the Lebanese government and Hezbollah’s political control. The media’s narrative, however, has assumed that Hariri had been detained and placed under house arrest by Saudi Arabia, and has disregarded the reasons that Hariri himself put forth for his resignation. The second issue is the fear mongering efforts about strikes against Hezbollah by Saudi Arabia, the US, and Israel, when no such intentions are present in any of those countries. These tactics, Alyahya maintained, are efforts to distract from “real problems” in Lebanon. The image of Saudi Arabia as an aggressor is one that the US media has been perpetuating as well, Doran added. The popularity of this image is due to two factors: persisting Obama foreign policy views that support Iran’s influence in Lebanon, and efforts to contradict President Trump, who is close to Saudi Arabia.

Badran also offered American policies from the Obama administration as reasons for the negative light in which Saudi Arabia is portrayed. In 2013, when Hezbollah began its military involvement in Syria, causing retaliation in the form of attacks in Beirut, Obama’s policy was to share intelligence with the Lebanese Armed Forces and to work with Hezbollah to limit such threats. The American goal of preserving Lebanon’s stability actually served to maintain Hezbollah’s power, Badran commented. In 2015, the basis upon which the US was supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces changed from UN Resolution 1701 to the portrayal of the Armed Forces as partners in counterterrorism efforts directed primarily at “Sunni jihadism,” a category in which the Obama administration also included Saudi Arabia. Such a narrative, then, made of Saudi Arabia an enemy, and further allowed for a “pro-Iran policy” in Lebanon.

Continuing to present an alternate picture, the speakers discussed the true extent of the power possessed by Prime Minister Hariri and Hezbollah. The initial idea that Hariri’s return to power in 2016 could limit Hezbollah’s power was erroneous, Alyahya began, and Saudi Arabia had opposed it from the beginning. Badran agreed, saying that the lesson learned in the last few weeks is that there are no strong Lebanese actors opposing Hezbollah, and that the government can be considered an “accomplice” to the organization. Echoing the Saudi stance, Badran opined that their original mistake was to allow Hariri to return to power in the first place, and that their recent push for his resignation was needed, albeit a “year too late.” Hezbollah’s power can be best imagined when seen in a regional context, as the organization is not merely a Lebanese problem. Hezbollah’s influence can be seen in multiple countries and on many levels, including in logistical planning on the behalf of Houthi rebels in Yemen, and in military involvement in Syria and elsewhere as Iranian proxies.

Saudi policy, Doran contended, is a message to Washington that there is no Lebanese alternative to Hezbollah’s power, and that, like Iran and Russia in Syria, Hezbollah has been building its power in Lebanon through the establishment of “red lines”- boundaries that it forces everyone to respect. Despite this, Doran explained that American policy so far has adopted an indirect approach, avoiding confrontation with Iranian proxies and instead supporting its own proxies, such as the Abadi regime in Iraq and the Lebanese Armed Forces. This approach has not been effective, as American proxies “never win” in clashes.

Badran stated that there is a desire in Lebanon to maintain the status quo, encouraging Saudi Arabia to deal with the Hezbollah by confronting Iran elsewhere and not Lebanon. Badran criticized this by saying that Lebanon is critical to Hezbollah’s activities, as it is a training ground and a base for its actors. “Lebanon,” he maintained, “is an exporter of destabilization to the region.”

Most pertinent in the discussion was what the panelists considered widespread misrepresentation of the situation, which has resulted in harmful misinterpretations, but Badran thought conflict or a “proxy war” in Lebanon unlikely. 

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Wilting or protected?

No time to write this morning, but here is the video of yesterday’s meeting I moderated on the treatment of religious minorities in Iraqi Kurdistan: 

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