Month: July 2017

Peace picks July 31 – August 4

  1. NATO at a Crossroads: Next steps for the trans-Atlantic alliance | Monday, July 31 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Brookings Institution | Register Here | Throughout his campaign, President Donald Trump called into question the usefulness of today’s NATO and spoke of building a better relationship with Moscow. Would the president be prepared to go further and suggest ending NATO expansion while seeking a new security architecture that might accommodate and reduce the risk of conflict with Russia? What would be the benefits and costs of such an approach? On July 31, Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon, author of “Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe,” will be joined by Brookings Senior Fellow Steven Pifer, author of “The Eagle and the Trident: U.S.-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times.” Torrey Taussig, pre-doctoral research fellow at Brookings, will moderate the discussion.
  2. Stabilizing Iraq: What is the Future for Minorities? | Tuesday, August 1 | 1:30 – 3:00 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Following ISIS’ rule, the inclusion of minority groups will be crucial to stabilizing Iraq. Nowhere in Iraq is this initiative more essential or complex than around Mosul, with its diverse community of Christians, Yazidis, Turkoman, Shabak, and others.  On August 1, the United States Institute of Peace and the Kurdistan Regional Government present a discussion of how to help Iraq’s minority groups rebuild their communities and contribute to a more secure Iraq featuring remarks by Ambassador William Taylor (ret.) of USIP, Ambassador Fareed Yasseen of the Republic of Iraq, and Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the United States.
  3. Justice for the Yezidis: ISIS and Crimes of Genocide | Thursday, August 3 | 11:45 am – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | On August 3, 2014, the Islamic State attacked the Yezidis of Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh province. Thousands of Yezidis were massacred and many others abducted, while more than half a million fled for their lives. Three years later, the conditions that led to ISIS’ rise and genocide against the Yezidis, Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities have not been addressed. The successful political reconstruction of Iraq and Kurdistan depends on the ability to ensure justice and fair treatment for the region’s most vulnerable populations. On August 3, Pari Ibrahim of the Free Yezidi Foundation, Naomi Kikoler of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Nathaniel Hurd of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe will join Hudson Institute’s Eric B. Brown to assess how adherents of the Islamic State movement can be brought to justice for their crimes of genocide, how the safety of vulnerable minority communities can be ensured as Iraq rebuilds, and what role the United States should play in preventing genocide in the future.
  4. Gaza Approaching a Boiling Point? | Thursday, August 3 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Political and humanitarian conditions in Gaza are in a critical state. The Fatah-Hamas rivalry and the Gulf countries’ rift with Qatar have stymied funding to the territory and exacerbated an already desperate energy crisis. In the midst of pressing humanitarian concerns, what options do Palestinians and Israelis have to help prevent renewed violence? How can the United States and the international community bring the question of Gaza back into regional deliberations and the peace process? The Middle East Institute is pleased to host a discussion with Tareq Baconi of al Shabaka, Laura Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Christopher McGrath of the UNRWA, and Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution on ways to mitigate political and humanitarian problems in Gaza.


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Trump is a loser

Let us count the ways:

  1. The effort to “repeal and replace” the health care that his predecessor provided to tens of millions of Americans has failed in the Senate, ending the legislative fight.
  2. The Congress has passed, with veto-proof majorities, legislation that ties his hands on sanctions against Russia, which has responded by levying the retaliation it had postponed in anticipation of getting a better deal from Trump. The idea of a new reset with Russia is mostly dead.
  3. The North Koreans have launched another Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, thus proving empty the President’s promise it wouldn’t happen.
  4. The newly named White House Communications Director has demonstrated both incompetence and offensiveness in a taped on-the-record interview with a leading American journalist and in a claim that his publicly available financial records had been leaked.
  5. The Attorney General Trump has been trying to chase from office has refused to resign, and the Republican chair of the committee that would have to approve a successor has made it clear he will not do so. It is sounding as if the Senate may not formally adjourn for recess, which would eliminate his only option for getting a new Attorney General without Senate approval.

This is a presidency in free-fall. It gets no respect abroad except from autocrats and would-be dictators. Its support at home has declined below 40% in the population at large and likely stands no higher than that in Congress, despite Republican majorities in both houses.

How will Trump react?

The way bullies do. He will try to bluster and distract, with an obnoxious tweet here and an appearance with police officers there. He will try to shore up his base with declarations of religious devotion and homophobia. He will shove back, trying to push out his establishment chief of staff. He will try to crash Obamacare by badmouthing and denying it the funding it requires to be sustainable.

What he will not do is reflect on what has gone wrong, what the country needs, and how he can recover by providing it. There isn’t any sign at all that Trump is capable of concern about anything but himself and his family. While he has been losing battle after battle, he has been ignoring or abandoning others: he has cut aid for the Syrian opposition, failed to get involved in resolving a violent standoff between Israel and Palestinians in Jerusalem, and has ignored the damaging spat between Qatar and other Arab states that he encourage the Saudis to initiate.

The United States is over-extended and poorly led. The world is going to need to take care of itself. That’s not the worst idea. But it is a perilous one. Trump has been extraordinarily lucky not to have faced a serious international crisis in his first six months in office. The next six months aren’t likely to be so benign.

PS: I forgot to mention one more loss: Trump attempted by Tweet to instruct the US military to get rid of transsexuals. The Joint Chiefs refused to take anything but a formal, written instruction. It is clear they don’t want to follow that either, so the loss may not be only temporary.

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What Vučić wants

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on Monday published an op/ed in the Belgrade daily Blic on “Why we need an internal dialogue on Kosovo.” While there have been both skeptical and welcoming reactions to this overture, I think the President’s views on merit reading by all those who seek peace in the Balkans. Blic has given me permission to publish the full text in English. I am grateful to SAIS graduate Marko Grujicic for the translation: 

Why I asked the Serbs and other citizens of Serbia to talk about Kosovo and Metohija? Why do I consider this dialogue decisive for the future of our country and the people? Why open this topic at all if we all learned to be silent and against everything, as any solution would assume that every politician who dares to search for it would pay the price. On the other hand, all others would pretend to be those who know about Kosovo much more than they really do, that they had much better solutions but nobody asked for their opinion.

Therefore it is important, now more than ever, to look into the mirror and to boldly and clearly see all the scars, wounds and shortcomings on our own face. At the same time, we have to try to cure what is possible while not giving up in desperation, due to the problem which we have been grappling with.

It is time that, as a nation, we stop burying our heads in the sand like ostriches and to try to be realistic; not to allow ourselves to lose or give to someone what we have, but also not to wait for what we have long lost to arrive in our hands. When Shimon Peres, the man I had the privilege talking with several times, was once asked why he insisted so much on negotiations with the Palestinians, he said: “Because it will open the seaports of peace throughout the Mediterranean. It is the duty of a leader to pursue the kind of freedom that gives peace and to endure such freedom constantly, even when faced with hostility, suspicion and disappointment. Just imagine what could happen if it does not work.” Even today, when I need to answer about the need for the dialogue with Pristina and the internal, Serbian dialogue, on Kosovo, the end of this quote contains the essence of the whole story – “Just imagine what could happen.” If suddenly everyone remains silent; if we stop talking. After many years dealing with politics in this region, I know this answer very well. Since 1878, since the creation of the so-called Prizren league we, the Serbs, did not want to be responsible enough to understand the strength and aspirations of the Albanians. On the other hand, it is a great mistake of the Albanians, for which I am grateful, that they lack the understanding of Serbian state and national interests and underestimate them; even worse, an attempt to sweep them under the rug because someone thinks this is possible with the support of the great powers.

It is time for us, as a nation, to stop burying our head in the sand as an ostrich and to be realistic

Serbia is not to be underestimated, despite the fact that the Albanians in the implementation of their national ideas have the significant support from most Western countries. Today’s Serbia is not as infectious as it was, Serbia is not as weak as it was in 1999, 2004 and 2008, but Serbia is not, nor should it be, conceited and arrogant as, not rarely, it used to be.

Silence means we no longer care about the answers to anything. Silence means we have nothing to ask for; that we have ceased to hope; that we are ready for the last option, for the conflict – both our inner one but also with everyone around us.

Silence is the quality of those who think only they are right. Those who do not want to listen to anyone else. Those who are convinced that they are the smartest, have nothing more to learn, are superior to all the others, and that they have nothing more to talk about with anyone else. This is the modus operandi of tyrannies – always ready to spill someone else’s blood. At the culmination, silence is the end. After the silence no one speaks and the only sound is a long, uneven scream. I cannot see myself in this business of silence nor in such a numb Serbia. If that happens, not only will my policy be a failure, but also my whole life and the lives of all of us. That is something I will never agree on, no matter who thinks I am too vociferous, I ask too many questions, I talk more than I should. Just imagine what could be, if it is different? If I were one of those silent who bring people into conflict and war, just to teach them the geography of their own country? Or if I were one of those who would, in response to tapping on the shoulder and candies given by some of the Western embassies, agree to deliver all Serbian hearths, thus becoming, as they say, a great reformer. Read more

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How is the war against ISIS going?

Here is the video (live webcasting did not work) of Middle East Institute’s noon event on “Assessing the Trump Administration’s Counterterrorism Policy” featuring Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk, Jennifer Cafarella (Institute for the Study of War), Matthew Levitt (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), Joshua Geltzer (New America), and the director of the Middle East Institute’s (MEI) Countering Terrorism Project, Charles Lister:

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Striking a middle course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sold out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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