Dylan Clement, a Syria Program Assistant at the International Republican Institute, asked some good questions in responses to my pieces advocated Free Syria on protected areas inside the country. Here are his questions and my answers:
Q: Through its usage of chemical weapons, the regime has proven its willingness to break international norms and in particular defy the United States. With that in mind, how would the regime react when faced with the possibility an alternative Syrian government taking hold in these de facto no fly zones?
A: The regime would certainly test the will of those who say they will protect them. We would need to be prepared to respond with proportional force against whatever applied the test. The problem will be that the artillery, mortars or aircraft concerned may disappear, or be parked next to mosques or schools. Then we need to be prepare to widen the circle of targets. This might well lead to escalation that we would have to be prepared to match.
The elimination of the bulk of the regime’s chemical weapons is perhaps a better indicator of its response to threat than its continued use of chlorine.
Q: I’m not sure the opposition structures that exist, ie the SOC/SIG, are competent and cohesive enough to provide actual governance alternatives in these free areas inside the country…
A: I don’t think the SOC/SIG would in the first instance be responsible. It would have to be local councils. Their connections to the SOC/SIG are tenuous at best. It is their connections to local liberated communities that are important.
Q: What if [Jabhat al] Nusra takes refuge in these areas as well? Given the level of cooperation between Nusra and ‘moderate’ rebel groups up to this point (and the lack of precedent for civilian opposition leaders in denouncing al Qaeda), a situation may arise whereby the US is providing air cover for Nusra’s attacks against the regime. That would be awkward.
A: This is a serious question, as a successful protected area would necessarily attract Nusra or other extremists. The Syrian forces responsible for protection on the ground would have to take care of that issue. My understanding is that the US-trained forces are prepared to oppose Nusra and the Islamic State, and their logistic and financial train presumably provides the US with leverage to insist.
But we have to be careful. Treating all Islamists as enemies would only make things worse, and there is necessarily an area of ambiguity: is the guy with the beard who disapproves of women appearing in public Nusra, Islamic State or just a devout Muslim with conservative social views? There will be no way to avoid issues of that sort as things unfold in Syria.
An update of peacefare’s software this afternoon has created problems I have not yet solved. Some graphics, buttons and items on the right sidebar are still missing. Apologies for our somewhat less than ship shape. I’m working on everything and hope to recover most things in the next day or so. Never update should be my motto, I’m afraid.
In the meanwhile, enjoy the post below!
Some of us think the best of the new year will come January 4, when Downton Abbey starts up again in DC. But if you can’t wait that long, here’s a teaser:
It’s a charity thing. I trust season 5 will be a good deal better.
Proceedings kicked off at Thursday’s Middle East Institute conference with a panel on A Middle East in Flux: Risks and Opportunities. Moderating was peacefare’s Daniel Serwer, presiding over a star-studded panel consisting of Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan, Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Algeria and Syria, Paul Salem, vice-president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute, and Randa Slim, director for Track II initiatives at MEI.
The panel focused on long-term forces and factors in the Middle East and North Africa. Cole drew attention to the youth bulge, low investment, lack of jobs, and the effects of climate change on the region. The population is growing as resources are shrinking. Dwindling water supplies will create immense social pressures, and may lead to mass migrations and regional tensions, including over water supplies. Sea level rises will inundate the low-lying plains in southern Iraq, areas of the Nile Delta, and other inhabited areas.
This will happen as hydrocarbon production levels off and even declines, squeezing countries made rich by petrodollars. The region needs sustainable development, Cole underlined, which means a shift towards solar and wind power and a big increase in technological capacity.
Agreeing on the importance of resource and economic constraints, Salem underlined the collapse of already weak and corrupt institutions in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. With the failure of the Arab uprisings in these countries, the region has lost its sense of direction, as well as any semblance of regional governance. There is no real alternative to accountable, inclusive and ultimately democratic governance, but it is difficult to see how the region will get there from the disorder into which it has fallen. It needs high-value exports that it is unable to produce today.
The currently oil-rich region must adapt now, before it is left without options. Ford predicts that the Middle East will become a major food-importing region. To generate the revenue needed to pay for this food, the region will need to attract investment. Businesses will want to see fair and honest rule of law before sinking money into the region. Failing to develop economies producing more than commodities risks condemning the region to an impoverished and unstable future.
The panel considered the role of religion in the future of the Middle East, but it said notably little about sectarian or ethnic strife, which is more symptom than cause. Ford hopes that Islamists will be pulled towards the center of the political spectrum, as political Islam cannot provide the answers to all the socio-economic problems faced today. But this only applies to those Islamists actively engaging within the political system. There will be no single solution. With the region in such a dramatic state of flux, Salem cautions that there is a developing contest for defining the region’s cultural identity. Sheikhs, militias, and jihadists are competing to define the future of society and culture in the Middle East. The cacophony risks drowning out more moderate reformers and democrats.
Slim underlined the importance of Iran’s trajectory for the region as a whole. Whether a nuclear deal is reached and the choices Tehran makes about support for its allies in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and Palestine will affect Iran’s relations with its neighbors in the Gulf and with the West. There is great potential for improvement, but also serious risk of deterioration if those in Tehran who want a nuclear deal have to pay for it by giving others a free rein to do what they want regionally.
The West must engage better in the battle for hearts and minds. For Slim, the key battle ground is online and across smart phones. ISIS releases thousands of propagandistic tweets, videos and online messages every day. Jabhat al-Nusra has a similarly slick media operation. Media literacy in the Arab world is high. The West should not let extremists be the only voice in cyberspace. Twitter and Facebook are theatres in the war against violent doctrines just as much as Kobani.
But the ideological battle cannot be won only through convincing words and media campaigns. Robert Ford recalled the warm reception he had received at a university in Algeria, which had a link with a university in the US. The few graduating from the program had all found employment. The result was goodwill from an much wider section of the local population. Providing quality education, developing human connections , and working to build the skills that bring employment and prosperity are vital in combating ideologies that preach hatred.
The path to long-term success and stability in a region facing increasing chaos can be summed up by two 1990s political catch phases. Bill Clinton’s “it’s the economy, stupid”, and Tony Blair’s “education, education, education.” Military campaigns against threats such as ISIS may sometimes be necessary, but in the long term the region’s future will be determined by other factors: demographic and climate pressures, the search for dignity, institutional strength and economic success or failure. The US and its allies cannot determine the outcome. They can only encourage and support local actors as they seek to achieve stability and prosperity.
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.
- The Hidden History of Dialogue with Cuba: What Obama Needs to Know About Talking to Havana Monday, October 6 | 9:00 | Brookings Institution | Register to Attend | The Latin America Initiative (LAI) in Foreign Policy at Brookings will host William M. LeoGrande, professor of government at American University, and Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, to present their new book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana. They will discuss the findings of their research, and offer recommendations to guide present and future U.S. negotiators. They will be joined by Julia E. Sweig, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies. Ted Piccone, senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings, will provide introductory remarks and moderate the discussion
- The History of the Future of Syria Monday, October 6 | 12:00 | Woodrow Wilson Center | Register to Attend | Over the past four years, Syria and the entire Middle East have witnessed unprecedented changes. This lecture will look back on these events in the expectation of determining what may come next. Special attention will be paid to U.S. foreign policy, the growth and proliferation of terrorist organizations such as ISIS, the fate of minorities in the region, and the state of cultural patrimony. Christian Sahner, author of Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present, and doctoral candidate at Princeton University will be speaking.
- Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing: The Role of Business in Overcoming Poverty Tuesday, October 7 | 12:00 – 1:30 | American Enterprise Institute | Register to Attend | When it comes to helping the poor, conventional wisdom tells us that charity is the answer. But that isn’t necessarily true. In “Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing” (AEI Press, 2014), Peter Greer and Chris Horst of HOPE International argue that this commonly held view overlooks the real engine of true human flourishing: entrepreneurial businesses, which sustain productive development long after charitable giving dries up.
- War without Debate: The Constitution, Intervention, and the Strikes against ISIS Tuesday, October 7 |12:00 | Cato Institute | Featuring Gene Healy, Vice President, Cato Institute; and Christopher Preble, Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute; moderated by John Maniscalco, Director of Congressional Affairs, Cato Institute. When Congress authorized the arming and training of Syrian moderates to combat ISIS, it explicitly stated that this action should not be construed as an authorization for the introduction of U.S.armed forces into hostilities. Yet, on the orders of President Obama, the United States has begun bombing ISIS targets within Syria. Did the president violate the Constitution, which grants Congress the exclusive power to “declare War”? If intervention is in America’s national security interest, how should the mission be defined and how should it be achieved?
- ISIS and the End of the Middle East as We Know It Thursday, October 9 | 12:30 – 2:00 | Woodrow Wilson Center | While Western attention is caught by the rise of the so-called “Islamic State”, the real story may be the dissolution of order in the Middle East. How do we understand ongoing political and geopolitical shifts in the region and the rise of new types of actors such as the “Islamic State”? And what, if anything, can and should Western powers do? Volker Perthes is the executive chairman and director of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin. He received his doctorate from the University of Duisburg in 1990 and his habilitation in 1999. From 1991 to 1993, Perthes was an assistant professor at the American University of Beirut; he joined SWP in 1992 and headed the Research Group “Middle East and Africa” for several years. His previous teaching positions include the universities of Duisburg, Münster, and Munich; currently, Perthes is a professor at Humboldt University Berlin and Free University of Berlin. In addition, Perthes serves on various national and international bodies such as the Advisory Research Council of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) (as chairman), the International Advisory Council of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies (SIIS), the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), the TCCI Advisory Board of the Turkish Industry & Business Association (TÜSIAD), and the TTIP Advisory Council of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. Perthes is a frequent commentator in German and international media.