Sectarian war or regional power struggles?

Stimson Center’s discussion on The Escalating Shi’a-Sunni Conflict: Assessing the Role of State Actors featured a panel made up of Dwight Bashir of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Najib Ghadbian, Associate Professor at the University of Arkansas, and moderator Geneive Abdo, Fellow at the Stimson Center.

Dwight Bashir claimed that governments and countries in the Middle East with more religious tolerance have seen greater stability during and following the Arab Spring than those countries with less tolerance. Perhaps this is true superficially. If we consider the countries where positive reform has resulted from the popular movements which began in 2011, such as Jordan, Morocco, and most notably, Tunisia, the evidence for sectarianism both today and before the Arab Spring is limited. Meanwhile, if we look to Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic State is acting as an exemplar of sectarian and religious violence, it seems as if Bashir might have a point.

A more than cursory look at the numbers says otherwise. In Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, considerably more than 90% of the respective populations identify as Sunni Muslim, and in all of these countries the ruling class is dominated by the Sunni majority. Contrast this to Syria, with a 74% Sunni majority but with power held primarily by the Alawite minority, and Iraq where the Shi’ite majority (over 60%) is often at odds with the Sunni minority (over 30%, concentrated in the north). Further, Bashir’s suggestion that Syria and Iraq were notably intolerant as compared with certain other countries affected by the Arab Spring seems tenuous. Is it religious tolerance that has allowed greater stability in the Arab Spring success stories, or is it religious (and ethnic) homogeneity? There is a difference.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are interesting to consider in this context. While both have remained relatively stable, this has come at the cost of heavy-handed repression towards these countries’ non-dominant Shi’ite groups. Bashir explicitly outlined the problems presented by societal sectarianism endemic in Saudi Arabia on the country’s policies, and on its influence on external groups such as the Islamic State. Yet despite this apparent intolerance by its Sunni majority towards the Shi’ite 15%, Saudi Arabia, for now at least, is not at risk of instability on the scale seen in much of the Arab world.

It is clear that Sunni-Shi’ite tensions have escalated in some areas, generating inter-religious war that is a far cry from the original protests calling for political change and economic reform. Ghadbian believes the war in Syria was increasingly driven towards sectarianism by outside actors. He points to Saudi Arabian radical sheikhs who have used satellite TV stations and social media to incite Sunnis to jihad against the Assad regime on the one hand, while noting Iranian support for Assad – and the direct intervention of the Shi’ite Hizbollah from 2012 – as having further served to turn the narrative of the Syrian civil war into one of Sunni jihadists versus a Shi’ite regime.

It increasingly appears that Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others are fighting proxy wars. Each sees itself as the leading nation for their respective branch of Islam, and both seem keen to install governments and groups favorable to themselves across the region. This has manifested itself most prominently in the Syrian conflict, and also in conflicts such as the ongoing Houthi uprising in Yemen. The Saudi-Iranian power struggle is nothing new, but it is now exacerbating and intensifying conflicts across the Middle East.

American support for Saudi Arabia, and hostility towards Iran, means that there is an increasing perception in some quarters that the US has picked a side in the regional proxy wars. Both Bashir and Ghadbian closed by calling for consistency in US policy when dealing with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Solutions to localized conflict can not be addressed only locally. Solutions need to include, and address the concerns of, the regional powers.

The Arab Spring did not begin as a religious conflict. But it has become increasingly tied to an escalating Sunni-Shi’ite proxy war, at times been driven by elements in Saudi Arabia and Iran. De-escalating these tensions on the ground will not only be important to find a lasting end to the ongoing crises in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, but will be vital for any future state building efforts.

No pain, no gain

With less than a month to go before the deadline for completing nuclear talks with Iran, what does it look like? Touchdown, punt or overtime?

From the US perspective, the time is ripe to bring this negotiation to a successful conclusion:

  1. Further delay risks encouraging opponents, especially in Congress. Once the 2016 presidential campaign gets started in earnest (no later than spring 2015 I’m afraid), the odds of concluding the negotiation successfully go way down.
  2. Failure to reach an agreement would either open the door to an unrestrained Iranian push for nuclear weapons or, in case the current temporary Plan of Action is extended, risk deterioration of the sanctions that have been so effective in bringing Iran to the table.
  3. The need to respond ever more forcefully to the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria makes it imperative to get other issues off the priority table as quickly as possible.

What is a “successful conclusion”? To make a long story short, it is one that verifiably blocks any Iranian route to building a nuclear weapon, including enrichment and reprocessing conducted either covertly or overtly. Ideally it would provide at least a year’s warning before any “break out” could occur.

This may be a goal the Iranians share. They claim to have forsworn nuclear weapons and have good reason to do so. Were Iran thought to have them, Israel would be prepared to attack on warning (not on launch, but before that). A conventional attack might be deemed inadequate to the case. The Americans might then step in to do the job. When President Rouhani says Iran would be less secure with nuclear weapons than without them, he is not exaggerating. It’s true.

The moment is ripe also for the Iranians:

  1. Further delay would risk encouraging President Rouhani’s opponents in the majlis and in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Iranians know the American political timetable, and their own also argues for no long delay. Rouhani’s term ends in 2017. Sanctions relief won’t produce real results in less than 6-12 months.
  2. Failure to reach agreement could cause the US Congress to ratchet up sanctions, which combined with lower oil prices would deal another severe blow to the Iranian economy, which Rouhani promised to repair.
  3. It doesn’t make sense for Iran to be wrestling with the Americans, who also oppose the Islamic State, on nuclear issues. Better to clear the decks and get as much cooperation as Washington will permit. Tehran will also hope to earn enough credit with the Americans to continue to protect Bashar al Assad from direct attack.

None of this means the negotiations will in fact conclude successfully, or precisely on time. It will not be easy for Iran to swallow the necessary limits on its nuclear program. Nor will it be easy for the Obama administration to sell an agreement that allows Iran to continue enriching uranium, even if there is tight verification that it is not being used for weapons purposes.

But no one said this would be easy. The standard rule of exercise applies to international negotiations:  no pain, no gain.

Obama needs to answer his own question

General John Allen, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, said Monday in Kuwait:

It’s useful to imagine Da’esh [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] existing in three spaces. First, in the physical space, or, if you will, in the battle space. And make no mistake: Da’esh will be defeated militarily. It will not happen overnight, but it will happen. The combined efforts of the coalition partners supporting Iraq and the moderate Syrian opposition forces on the ground will continue to eliminate the targets of Da’esh, degrade their fighting capabilities, and ultimately push Da’esh out of the territories it controls today, defeating it….

The second space in which Da’esh operates is the financial space. We must choke off the oxygen that gives Da’esh life, – its money, and its resources – and do so through targeted sanctions, stopping the oil smuggling, and ending their access to the global financial marketplace.

But we are all here today to talk about the third area in which Da’esh operates – the information space. For it is here that Da’esh celebrates its horrendous brand of warfare, and here where Da’esh recruits and perverts the innocent. And it is only when we contest Da’esh’s presence online and deny the legitimacy of its message – the message that it sends to vulnerable young people – and as we expose Da’esh for the un-Islamic, criminal cult of violence that it really is – it is only then that Da’esh will be truly defeated.

There is a big piece missing here. The sad fact is that ISIS now operates also in the governance space, providing minimal public services, a kind of justice, and jobs to several million people in eastern Syria and western Iraq. It is a mistake to imagine that we are going to be able to defeat ISIS’s military capabilities and make no provision for governance. If we do, we’ll find the terrorists, or the Ba’athists, or some other pathology back in place sooner rather than later.

The Obama Administration continues to make a basic diagnostic error. ISIS is not only a terrorist group. It is also a successful insurgency that now controls and governs territory. Pretending otherwise renders the strategy the Administration is pursuing to defeat ISIS partial, ineffectual and even counterproductive.

This is surprising, given the President’s own admission that he made a mistake not to follow up in Libya after its revolution. In August, he said:

So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’

It is now almost November and the Administration has no answer for the day after in Syria. It continues to pooh-pooh the Syrian opposition, in my view unfairly. But if the plan does not include serious support to the Syrian Interim Government, who will govern? Mr. President, when will you answer your own question?

Ebola in perspective

On Monday, the Heritage foundation hosted for a discussion of Ebola policy options, domestic and international, Robert Kodiac, the Managing Director of RPK Consulting, Charlotte Florence, a Research Associate for Economic Freedom in Africa and the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation, Tevi Troy, President of the American Health Policy Institute and Tara O’Toole, former Under Secretary of the Science and and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security. The event was moderated by Steven Bucci, Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy. The video of the event is at the end of this post. Or you can watch Jon Stewart’s short version, which covers some of the same points:


Epidemics have had less prevalence in the last century in part due to the advancement of medical science, sanitary practices, and antibiotics. However, the West African nations of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia have seen upwards of 4,900 deaths from Ebola, spreading in what Florence believes to be a “perfect storm.” While very few cases have struck the United States, the Ebola scare has swept through the country. The hysteria has reached the far corners of the country, fueled by incessant media coverage of the virus. In Maine, an elementary school teacher was put on paid leave for up to 21 days after parents expressed concern over a recent trip she took to Dallas, where the first case of Ebola was diagnosed and subsequently two nurses were infected.

Kodiac notes this visceral reaction to Ebola but believes more important is domestic preparedness. The 2.8 trillion dollar health care industry only spends 1% or so on domestic health care preparedness. This is a minimal amount for medical responses to potential pandemics. While Kodiac believes that Ebola can be managed due to the relatively confined areas of exposure, there must be a bigger push to limit the spread of disease not only in the United States but globally. Combating the disease in the three most affected Western African states will prove challenging. Florence cites behavior and cultural practices that have spread of Ebola, especially procedures surrounding the disposal of the deceased.

She also notes that allocation of resources to combat Ebola has caused loss of focus on malaria, tuberculosis and other critical issues in Africa. In addition, farmers are not producing at the rates they previously were, markets are closed and as a result there is a fear of food shortages. While Sierre Leone has historically been one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, it is projected the country will experience no growth in the upcoming year.

Troy looked at four areas that need to be addressed: detection, development, deployment and directives. The United States and the rest of the world were slow to react to Ebola. Countermeasures such as vaccines have not become commercially available. We should have questions about deployment of the US military and the rules of engagement. The “woefully ignorant” perspective of the Department of Homeland Security has hindered progress.

O’Toole notes that all epidemics start slowly and are not explosions. The situation will get worse before it gets better due to the failure of preparedness and lack of rapid diagnostic methods. Epidemics always “engender fear,” because people have a “hard time understanding the unpredictability of disease.” Ebola will not disappear within the upcoming months or in the next year.

The numerous calls for a ban on travel to those who have visited high-risk Ebola countries are misguided, the panelists thought. The advantages do not outweigh the costs. Implementation of a travel ban would not only discourage travel for health care workers but potentially damage relationships with restricted countries. All panelist agreed the US needs improved capabilities and cooperation with the global community.

Here is the video of the event:

Nothing settled, but progress

There were several important elections yesterday in sharply divided countries. In Brazil, incumbent president Dilma Rousseff barely squeaked past her more business-oriented challenger. Secularists in Tunisia beat Ennahda, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, in a parliamentary contest (the presidential election is scheduled for November 23). Pro-Europe figures led in Ukraine, where voting was impossible in Crimea (now controlled by Russia) and those parts of the southeast Russophile separatists control. With that important exception, the electoral mechanisms appear to have functioned well, with relatively few allegations of fraud.

None of these elections produced a solid one-party majority. Coalitions will be required to govern. This is good. All three of these countries are polarized. Elections accentuate differences. Formation of a governing majority in parliament provides incentives for moderation and compromise. The incentives may not be strong enough. In Kosovo a winning party and its opposition coalition, which controls more seats in parliament, are quarreling over who will get first dibs on forming the government months after the election. But in the three countries that held elections yesterday there is an opportunity to overcome divisions and form governments committed to resolving difficult problems.

In Brazil, the main issue is the economy. After a long stretch of growth and investment with low inflation, Latin America’s largest country (yes, 78 million more than Mexico’s 122 million) is facing a slowdown and rising prices. Brazilian expectations have been rising with incomes. Rousseff now has to find a way to reconcile her popularity among the poor and her support for a strong social safety net with the reforms needed to reignite growth.

Tunisia is the one “Arab spring” country seemingly headed in a good and peaceful direction. It managed to write a constitution most of its Islamists and non-Islamists can live with. Now it has managed a second post-revolution parliamentary election, one that displaces the Islamists from their previously dominant position. Peaceful alternation in power based on electoral results is one of the key indicators of progress in a democratic direction. Tunisia is too small and marginal to the Arab world to be regarded as a model. But if government formation goes smoothly, it will become a lodestar in a part of the world that needs one.

The Ukrainian election cannot be expected to overcome the division between pro-Kiev and pro-Moscow forces, which are locked in a continuing political and military struggle even if currently there is a nominal ceasefire. Pro-Moscow forces in parliament will be much weaker than in the past, but some of the more extreme Ukrainian nationalists will be as well. President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatseniuk led parties that did well at the polls. They have no hope of winning back southeastern Ukraine by military force so long as Russian President Putin is prepared to commit Russian troops to the fight, as he did this summer and fall. They need to negotiate a new constitutional arrangement that will “make unity attractive” (in the Sudanese formulation, which failed) and win over the majority of the Russian speakers to Kiev’s legitimacy.

None of these elections settled anything. But they open up possibilities that did not exist two days ago. That’s progress.

Guess who came to dinner

Shpend Limoni of Kosovo’s Gazeta Express asked some questions last Thursday, so I answered:

1. Kosovo’s Foreign Minister attended a regional conference in Belgrade becoming a first high level official to visit Serbia since Kosovo declared independence. This comes after incidents that took place during the football match in Belgrade. How do you comment on these events?

DPS: It is a good thing that the Foreign Minister attended a regional conference in Belgrade. This is part of normalizing relations between neighbors. I hope such visits, both to Belgrade and Pristina, will become routine.

2. Is it a bit strange having in the same time the wave of nationalism and harsh statements caused by a football match and good neighborly relations at the conference in Belgrade? How do you explain this?

DPS: In any democratic society there are people with a wide range of views. The football stadium is not necessarily where you find the more moderate ones. It is important that more moderate political leaders lean towards understanding and cooperation, whatever happens on the pitch. The wars are over. It is time for peace and prosperity.

3. President Jahjaga also received an invitation to attend a conference in Belgrade. Do you think that President should go to Belgrade?

DPS: President Jahjaga should certainly go to Belgrade at some point, but presidents usually go to conferences only if other, or former, presidents are there. And they generally expect government officials to handle conferences that fall clearly within the competence of the government, which is certainly the case for “EU accession” [the subject of the conference in question]. Presidents Jahjaga and Nikolic have met—in Ashton’s office last year—but we should also expect that they will someday meet bilaterally in Belgrade and Pristina.

4. How do you see the political deadlock in Kosovo, do you think it could be settled soon with a new coalition as suggested by Senator Murphy during his visit in Kosovo or we will have new elections?

DPS: I have no idea. New elections are expensive and time consuming. But waiting for a solution with the current election results isn’t proving fast either. One of the really nice things about democracy is that representatives of Kosovo citizens will decide this issue, no matter what the views of professors or senators in Washington, DC. I do hope they decide it soon, as Kosovo needs a new parliament and the government it will approve to get on with the state’s business. Citizens are entitled to that.

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