Month: July 2015

The Turkey/Syria conundrum

This discussion of Turkey and Syria on CCTV America yesterday went well. Mike Walter moderated with the following guests: 

  • Cale Salih, from Oxford, is a visiting fellow to the European Council on Foreign Relations focusing on the Kurdish people.
  • Daniel Serwer is a professor in conflict management at Johns Hopkins University.
  • Tulin Daloglu from Ankara is a Turkish journalist and opinion writer.
  • Joshua Walker is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a non-partisan U.S. think tank.

And part 2:

Tags : , , , ,

Do-over: the Special Court drama in Kosovo

Rrap Kryeziu, a Haverford rising senior who is spending the summer helping me out on Balkans research, writes:

Kosovo’s future direction depends on an impending vote in its parliament expected to take place Monday. The seven-year-old country faces a pre-teen crisis. Following a 2010 report by the Council of Europe that attributes inhumane crimes to high government officials and former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members, Kosovo’s Western allies as well as its Serb and Russian adversaries, are demanding accountability. Because the alleged crimes took place in the post-war period and some in Albania, they are not covered by the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which in any event is closed to new cases.

A constitutional amendment in the Kosovo Parliament would enable the creation of a Special Court in which internationals would try still unspecified indictees. On June 26, the amendment fell five votes short. The opposition, which vehemently opposes the amendment, did not vote at all. Seven members of the governing PDK did not support the constitutional amendment despite their party leader’s unequivocal public support for the Special Court. PDK leader, former Prime Minister and now Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci may himself be implicated in the accusations, according to the Council of Europe report.

Opponents of the Special Court are concerned with upholding the KLA’s freedom-fighting reputation. They fear the court will tranform the image of Kosovars from victims of ethnic cleansing to perpetrators of crimes against humanity. There are also concerns about national sovereignty. Members of Vetevendosje (VV)–the leading opposition party–now surprisingly praise the integrity and capacity of Kosovo’s justice system, which in the past they have criticized as the tool of the ruling elite. It is unclear how they expect the court system to prosecute people they previously accused of controlling the judiciary.

One part does not reveal much about the whole. There was no single mastermind behind the KLA, which was an organic resistance movement. Potentially finding a few KLA commanders guilty of war crimes should not tarnish the entire movement. Confronting uncomfortable allegations by bringing a handful of individuals to justice will instead clear a dark cloud that has been cast by the Council of Europe report. It will reflect political maturity on behalf of Kosovo.

The US ambassador to Kosovo has warned lawmakers of a cascade of political disasters if Kosovo does not allow creation of the Special Court. Kosovo will weaken its partnerships with Western allies, who will allow the Security Council to take up the matter. Russia, which does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, will have a big say in what happens there. It is also likely that new elections will ensue, as the current coalition had promised to establish the Special Court within six months of taking power.

It is time for a re-run. The result will signal whether Kosovo is heading West, or astray.


Tags : , , ,

Europe at sea

11798169_10153515011153011_1249660288_nOn Monday, the Hudson Institute hosted a conversation with Rear Admiral Chris Parry, Royal Navy (Ret.), entitled Europe at Sea: Mediterranean and Baltic Security Challenges.  Seth Cropsey, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute, moderated.  Admiral Parry spoke about the challenges that Europe faces, given that it is surrounded by water on three sides, and outlined several alternative political futures for Europe.

The threats to Europe from the sea are not new.  In 1983, the USSR had a plan to attack Europe through the Central Front plus the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas. Understanding the way the Russians view the Black and Baltic Seas is crucial to understanding Putin’s motives.  They have a very short coastline on the Baltic Sea. Until they took Crimea, they had a short Black Sea coast as well.  This has always made the Russians nervous.  Russia and the Scandinavian countries also have competing claims in the Arctic.  Russia’s claims extend far beyond the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and Russian icebreakers now escort vessels through the Arctic.

At ~9 mi. wide, the Straights of Gibraltar are the area in which Europe and North Africa are closest.  Pictured here is a ferry traveling from Tangier, Morocco, to Algeciras, Spain.
At ~9 mi. wide, the Straights of Gibraltar are the area in which Europe and North Africa are closest. Pictured here is a ferry traveling from Tangier, Morocco, to Algeciras, Spain. PC: Eddie Grove

Europe, however, is more worried about the Mediterranean because of unstable states in North Africa and the Levant, as well as migration both by sea and overland through Turkey.  There is a risk for the return of Barbary piracy, as well as for seaborne terrorist attacks on coastal tourist areas.  Northern Europe believes that it is the responsibility of Southern European countries to deal with this.  The EU is not set up to make political decisions because it is an economic union with political pretensions.  The effort needed to run the EU saps energy from efforts to address seaborne security threats.

The Roman ruins of Kourion, near Limassol, Cyprus.  In September, 2014, a cruise ship rescued ~300 migrants thought to be Syrian refugees off the coast of Cyprus.  The migrants were persuaded to disembark at Limassol.
The Roman ruins of Kourion, near Limassol, Cyprus. In September 2014, a cruise ship rescued ~300 migrants thought to be Syrian refugees off the coast of Cyprus. The migrants were persuaded to disembark at Limassol. PC: Eddie Grove

Parry spoke about how influence has shifted, such that the important global players are now the US and the East Asian countries.  The US is well-placed to benefit from globalization. If Europe isn’t careful, it will decline and become strategically irrelevant.  In the future, Parry sees:

  1. An increase in the use of state power by non-Western countries.
  2. Small amounts of high-quality force will be decisive.
  3. Increased proxy activity, because states don’t want to directly confront each other.
  4.  WMD proliferation.
  5. Increased terrorism.
  6. Diffusion of technology and weaponry.

There will be both irregular threats from terrorism, criminality, disasters and disease, as well as renewed threats from China, Russia, ISIS, Marxist revivalists (in Greece, for example), regional aspirants and weapons proliferation.   Europe will need to contain a Middle Eastern equivalent of Europe’s Thirty Years War, ensure access to natural resources, and adapt to climate change.

Though Putin constitutes an existential threat, Parry noted that defense expenditure in Europe is declining.  NATO countries still however spend more than non-NATO countries.  It spends far more to shoot down a cheap missile than the missile costs; this unsustainable cost ratio must decrease. NATO has failed to resist coercion in Ukraine.  Hitler knew he would win at Munich because he knew the British and French wouldn’t go to war.  Putin is using traditional hard power and is confused by our lack of response.  Russia’s Baltic Sea exercises are designed to resist NATO forces.

Stockholm Harbor.  In October, 2014, Sweden detected a suspected Russian submarine in the Stockholm Archipelago and conducted a search. PC: Eddie Grove
Stockholm Harbor. In October 2014, Sweden detected a suspected Russian submarine in the Stockholm Archipelago and conducted a search. PC: Eddie Grove

Scandinavia is nervous.  Europe has become strategically dependent on the US; some European countries have armies that aren’t prepared to go to war. The UK is investing in new aircraft carriers but is hollowing out the rest of the Royal Navy. To resist coercion at sea from Russia, a change in attitude is needed.

Parry also spoke about the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  The Iran deal represents what is possible, rather than what is desirable. China and Russia have been keen to maintain Iran as a client state and suppress its nuclear ambitions. In the rush to welcome Iran into the global economy, we need to be careful about the security dimensions.  As a result of the Sunni-Shiite conflict in MENA, the “Great Satan” tag will shift from the US to Saudi Arabia.  China has invested heavily in new trade routes.  It may get the bulk of its future oil and gas from Shiite Iran and Shiite-dominated Iraq.  But China could also move into the Southern Gulf States if the US and Europe reduce their commitments there.

Like Russia, China is increasing its naval presence, sometimes disregarding the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.   There are increasing numbers of Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean as well as Chinese ships in the Mediterranean and Chinese icebreakers in the Arctic.  China views its oil rigs as sovereign territory, which means that it believes it can base missiles and surveillance off of them. This is illegal under international law.

The European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.
The European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. PC: Eddie Grove

Parry outlined three different potential futures for Europe:

  1. A Eurasian future: the US drifts to the Pacific and Europe pursues economic cooperation with Russia and China.
  2. A maritime future: Parts of Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Korea together control trade on the seas.  The sea is the physical equivalent of the World Wide Web and controlling it is vital for international trade.
  3. A fragmented future: There are no eternal friends or enemies, just interests, and each country pursues its own interests.  Europe’s separatist movements could also lead to a fragmented future.
Separatist movements have gained ground throughout Europe.  Brussels (left) is located in Flanders, but is now majority French-speaking, causing linguistic/ethnic tension. Scotland's capital, Edinburgh (top right) voted against Scotland's 2014 independence referendum, but Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, voted in favor.  Cyprus (bottom right) has been divided on Greek-Turkish ethnic lines since 1983.
Separatist movements have gained ground throughout Europe. Brussels (left) is located in Flanders, but is now majority French-speaking, causing linguistic/ethnic tension. Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh (top right) voted against Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, but Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, voted in favor. Cyprus (bottom right) has been divided along Greek-Turkish ethnic lines since 1983. PC: Eddie Grove

According to Parry, the US now faces choices as well.  Unconventional oil and gas have been a game-changer for the US economy.  The US has to decide whether it will use this money to remain strategically dominant or turn inward.  The 2016 election will be crucial.  In the future, if it becomes clear that help isn’t coming from the US, European countries will seek accommodation with Russia and East Asian countries will seek accommodation with China. This will have major geostrategic consequences.

Tags : , , , , , , , ,

Trying to stay off the slippery slope

So now US government officials are denying any intention of creating protected areas in northern Syria. They just want to clear the Islamic State from a portion of the Turkish border.

This makes no sense. ISIS governs the territory in question at present. Something will replace it if ISIS is “cleared.” The Turks can be counted on to prevent Syrian Kurds from filling the vacuum. Washington and Ankara should both be worried about what else might.

One possibility is a return to the area of the Syrian government, whether in the guise of the now decimated Syrian Army, Alawite/Shia militias or Hizbollah. From the Turkish point of view, that would be a disaster, as it would significantly strengthen Ankara’s archenemy Bashar al Asad on its southern border and provide him with the ability to allow infiltration of Turkey by both jihadi and Kurdish terrorists.

Or, more likely, ISIS could return as soon as American and Turkish attention focus elsewhere. The notion that ISIS can be cleared permanently without somehow providing minimal state functions in any area is unconvincing. Turkey is talking about Syrian refugees returning to the cleared area. They won’t do that unless there is some semblance of law and order in the area.

The Americans may be leaving the tasks of “holding” and “building” to the Turks. That makes some sense, since Turkish national interests are directly engaged. But a Turkish occupation of any part of Syria would rouse nationalist sentiments to fever pitch and risk unifying Syrians against a Turkish incursion.

The Turks could try to work through the moderate Syrian opposition, which however is not strong in northern Syria. It would need substantial assistance from Turkey to take over security and governance there. It is not clear that Ankara is prepared to take on that role, but it may have to do so if it wants to keep the Kurds, the Syrian government and ISIS out of the area.

Why is the Obama administration leaving this vital issue of who would govern in a liberated area of northern Syria unresolved? It wants to avoid getting involved in another state-building effort in the Middle East, where such efforts have repeatedly failed.

I understand the impulse. But President Obama has already acknowledged that it was a mistake to leave Libya to its own devices after the NATO-led intervention collapsed the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. Libya is today in chaos. Breeding in that chaos are several jihadi groups, including some that identify with ISIS. It would be no less a mistake to clear the Islamic State from a portion of northern Syria and leave who will then govern the liberated territory to chance.

Tags : , , ,

The truth in criticisms of the Iran deal

Here are some criticisms of the Iran deal that contain at least a kernel of truth. I thought I might go over these, for the sake of clarifying some of the arguments pro and con:

1. It will give Iran a lot of money to do bad things with. That is true. It’s not as much money as some are claiming: perhaps $50 billion fairly quickly the US Treasury thinks, rather than the $100-150 billion deal opponents cite. Since the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its affiliates has lost a great deal (two-thirds of the country’s centrifuges and virtually all of its enriched uranium, not to mention a plutonium-producing reactor filled with concrete), the pressures to compensate it with both money and freedom to do bad things in the region will be enormous. That means more money for shipping arms to Bahrain, Yemen and above all Syria as well as compensating Hizbollah for its losses. Only by countering Iranian moves in those places can the US hope to avoid some of the consequences.

2. All the agreement does is buy time. Yes, that is the main thing it does, by pushing Iran back from a breakout time (the time it needs to get the fissile material needed to build a singular nuclear weapon) of 2 months or so to a year, and preventing any shortening of that breakout time for 10-15 years. But that is not all it does. The verification mechanisms put in place will be the strictest and most comprehensive installed anywhere and will last forever. The obligation Iran takes in the agreement not to pursue nuclear weapons is binding and permanent. The military option so many critics implicitly favor remains an open should Iran move in the direction of getting a nuclear weapon.

3. The verification measures are inadequate. It is difficult to prove a negative, as we all know. That is what the verification measures are asked to do. But no country has ever made nuclear weapons in facilities monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as Iran’s will be. Iranian facilities will be covered by the tightest monitoring scheme ever devised, with the real capability of detecting diversion of any nuclear material. Still, a clandestine nuclear program is possible, conducted outside monitored facilities. That is why Iranian delivery to the IAEA of answers to questions about its past activities with “possible military dimensions” (PMDs) is so important. That is due October 15, with an IAEA report due December 15. If you want an early indication of whether this agreement will be effective, watch that space.

4. Lifting of sanctions cannot be “snapped back.” Existing contracts will be grandfathered, so the legal impact of any reimposition of sanctions–which can be decided by the US and its allies over Russian, Chinese or Iran objections–will not be immediate. That’s true. But the fact of reimposition will be much more significant than the legal impact. Companies that do business with Iran will immediately dial it down, if not out, should sanctions be reimposed, if only to avoid getting into trouble with US and European financial regulations. In the longer-term, Iran will be less vulnerable to sanctions if it invests its money well and is able to develop its oil and especially gas resources. That is an inherent part of the deal.

5. The deal allows industrial-scale nuclear facilities that make Iran a threshold nuclear state. I wouldn’t rank 5000 or so centrifuges or a few hundred kilos of light enriched uranium as industrial scale or nuclear threshold. But fine if you do, because Tehran has much more than that now and would be under no obligation to give any of it up if there is no deal. Are we better off with numbers two and three times as large as will exist if the deal is not approved? Not to mention that without a deal we can expect Iran to accelerate its nuclear efforts.

6. The sanctions will hold even if the US withdraws from the agreement. It is true that the US can make life extremely unpleasant for any company or bank anywhere in the world that does business with Iran if Washington says no. But there is a high price to be paid for extraterritorial extension of our sanctions: other governments don’t like it and Iran will build an elaborate network to get around it, as they have with the existing sanctions. Especially on the Repubican side of the aisle, it should be appreciated that anti-market restrictions are unlikely to be watertight or last forever.

7. The arms and especially missile sanctions should not have been lifted. The UN Security Council imposed them in order to get Iran to negotiate on nuclear issues. Iran expected them to be lifted as soon as it had implemented its portion of the nuclear constraints. Instead they will remain in place far longer than we had a right to ask. I’d prefer they not be lifted too, but I never got a pony either.

I’m reasonably confident the Congress will not muster the 2/3 majority in both houses required to kill the deal. But if they do, we can expect most of the world (that’s everyone but Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu) to think us deranged and to refuse American leadership on Middle East and many other issues for a long time to come. All those Gulf countries complaining about the deal now will make much more noise if the deal falls through and Iran acquires the material for a nuclear weapon in the next couple of months. Remember President Wilson, the League of Nations and the period between the World Wars? This would be at least as bad.

Tags : , , , , , ,

On to the slippery slope

Washington has reportedly agreed with Ankara to sweep Islamic State fighters from an important portion of Turkey’s border with Syria, de facto creating a “safe” zone something like 40 miles deep into Syria and extending from Aleppo to the Euphrates river. This move comes on the heels of Turkish agreement to allow the US to use planes based at Incirlik to bomb the Islamic State, whose attacks in recent weeks have reached into Turkey.

Differences in Turkish and American objectives remain.  The Turks want the Syrian opposition to Bashar al Asad to control the zone, thus stemming the advances from the east of Kurdish forces that the Turks regard as hostile to Ankara and supportive of Asad. The Americans want to weaken the Islamic State, which has been bringing men and supplies across the Turkish border into Syria. But there may be enough overlap between these somewhat disparate goals for practical purposes.

The zone will not however be safe just because we call it that. The territory in question is strategically important to the Islamic State, the Syrian opposition, the Syrian Kurds and the Turks. It will have to be protected. Lack of a formal no-fly zone is not the problem. Syrian aircraft know to steer clear of zones where the Americans fly. The use of Incirlik will enable a much more visible and constant US presence. The Americans reportedly intend also to train spotters to direct their air attacks. But indirect fire from artillery as well as infiltration of suicide bombers and other individual operatives could still sabotage any effort to establish a “safe” zone. Security is job 1.

The area will also need to be governed. This is where the Islamic State has excelled. Its brutality has reestablished fear in the populations it controls and enabled it to govern with minimal resources. ISIS brooks little dissent. It is unified, purposeful and predictable. Its courts are merciless. Crime in the areas it controls is down. Many Syrians no doubt would prefer to avoid the mistreatment ISIS dishes out, but in a chaotic situation they may prefer to accept the devil they know.

The Syrian opposition, which both the Turks and Americans will want to put in charge of any area they clear, has been anything but unified, purposeful and predictable. It will need to learn, fast. Withdrawal of ISIS has not brought peace and tranquility to Tikrit, Kobane and other recovered areas. Like it or not, ISIS is more like an insurgency than anything else. Dealing with it requires the counter-insurgency not just to clear but also to hold and build. Neither in Iraq nor in Syria has this part of the job been done well.

The situation will be particularly fraught because of Turkish involvement, which is of course necessary. But the Syrian Arab opposition distrusts the Turks and the Syrian Kurdish opposition loathes them. It is difficult to picture those sentiments overcome easily, especially as Turkey will control the border across which all logistical support for a safe zone will need to come. Turkey, the US and the Syrians (Arabs and Kurds) will need to engage with each other much more intensely than in the past if the problems are to be overcome.

Meanwhile, there are also rumors of a “safe” zone in the south, where my former intern Ala’ Alrababa’h says it will imperil Jordan. He is correct: it will. The question is whether the risks are worth running in order to protect the relatively well-organized moderate opposition on the southern front, keep extremists off the Jordanian and Israeli borders, and eventually help the opposition to mount an offensive farther north.

From the American perspective, these “safe” area proposals, which I would prefer to call protected zones, put President Obama where he has consistently tried to avoid going: on the slippery slope toward greater US involvement in Syria. He knows, as I do, that the “safe” areas in Bosnia only worked by failing and bringing on stronger intervention. Odds are any “safe” areas in Syria will also fail, but this president has been very disciplined. It is unclear whether he would then intervene more strongly. The Syrian opposition had better get its act together and begin governing effectively wherever it can.

PS: Bassam Barabandi of People Demand Change sent this nice picture of the potential zone:

Potential-Turkey-Buffer-Zone-July 2015


Tags : , ,