Peace picks November 17 – 21

  1. Liberalism and Authoritarianism: Islam and Politics in Southeast Asia | Monday, November 17th | 12:00 – 1:45 | Georgetown University | Southeast Asia is one of the most religiously diverse regions on the planet. While history abounds with examples of pluralism and diversity, competing nationalisms have led to tensions between majority and minority groups, frequently couched in the language of religion. As democratic transitions transform the social and political landscape of countries in the region, religion can play both constructive and destructive roles in building strong civil society and cohesion. Anwar Ibrahim, author of The Asian Renaissance, will discuss some of these trends as they relate to Islam and his expertise as a decades long active participant in the political developments of the region.
  2. Violence in Jerusalem and the Future of the Two-state Solution | Tuesday, November 18th | 10:00 – 11:30 | Brookings Institution | REGISTER TO ATTEND | After the collapse of peace negotiations and the devastating armed conflict that followed, tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are again on the rise. The growing frequency of attacks by Palestinians and the subsequent heavy response by Israeli security forces portend a slide toward deeper violence. The violence is also occurring against the backdrop of high-profile settlement activity, especially in sensitive areas in and around Jerusalem, and a renewed push by Palestinians for international recognition at the United Nations. These moves, and growing calls for unilateralism, suggest that the two-state solution is facing unprecedented and perhaps insurmountable challenges. Fellows from the Brookings Institution, Natan Sachs and Khaled Elgindy, will share their observations and insights. Tamara Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy, will chair the discussion.
  3. South Sudan: Political Crisis, Humanitarian Disaster | Tuesday, November 18th | 10:00 – 11:30 | Center for Strategic and and International Studies | REGISTER TO ATTEND | a panel discussion on the political crisis in South Sudan and the devastating impact the conflict is having on the country’s people. Now in its eleventh month, the conflict has killed thousands of civilians and left nearly 2 million displaced from their homes, with projections of worsening food insecurity that could put 2.5 million in crisis or emergency status. Panelists will provide an update of the political, security, and humanitarian situation and discuss U.S. and international engagement to end the conflict and mitigate its human impact. Melanie Teff of the International Rescue Committee will present the findings and recommendations of a new IRC report.
  4. The Global Response to Managing the Humanitarian Crisis: Lessons from Syria | Tuesday, November 18th | 10:00 – 2:30 | Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies | REGISTER TO ATTENDAntónio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, will be the keynote speaker and various speakers will discuss this topic on two panels during the conference.
  5. Turkish Foreign Policy under Erdogan’s Presidency | Tuesday, November 18th | 5:00 – 7:00 | Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies | This topic will be discussed by Behlul Ozkan, assistant professor in the department of political science and international relations at Marmara University, and Svante Cornell, research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center and a co-director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy.
  6. Implications of a Nuclear Agreement with Iran | Wednesday, November 19th | 4:00 – 6:00 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | A discussion with Thomas Pickering, former US Ambassador to Israel and the United Nations; and Former US Undersecretary of State, and Brig. Gen. Uzi Eilam, former Director of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission and Former Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Defense Mission to Europe, about the wide-ranging implications of a nuclear agreement with Iran. With the Nov. 24 deadline for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program looming, the stakes for a deal between Iran and the international community are high. Many in Israel and in the United States are concerned about the implications for Israel’s security of an agreement and whether it will verifiably prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Some members of Congress may also seek to vote on legislation imposing new sanctions on Iran if an agreement is not reached soon or if they are dissatisfied with the provisions of an agreement. The event will be moderated by Stuart Eizenstat,  former US Ambassador to the European Union and Former US Deputy Secretary of the Treasury.

Lame duck flies

I’m no Asia expert, but President Obama’s performance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing last week, in Myanmar and at the G20 in Australia looks damn good to me. Besides sporting his Chinese getup better than most of the other leaders, he has managed some serious bilateral moves:

  • Prospective lowered tariffs on high tech between China and the US;
  • New commitments by the two countries to reduce carbon emissions;
  • Agreement with Beijing on avoiding military confrontations;
  • Agreement with India on its food subsidy system that will unblock trade negotiations;
  • Strong support for democratic transition in Burma/Myanmar;
  • Embarrassment of Vladimir Putin for continuing to assert Russian troops are not in Ukraine.

Foreign travel and foreign policy are not unusual moves for a president in trouble. This one has used them well to do things that were planned and executed carefully. He is not looking or acting like a lame duck, especially if you throw in his preparations for a major executive move on immigration, his apparent willingness (in my view unwise) to block the XL pipeline from Canada, and the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran.

What he hasn’t done yet is to deal effectively with two current wars: against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and in Ukraine.

Despite Canadian Prime Minister’s blunt “you need to get out of Ukraine,” the Russians are still pouring men and materiel into separatist areas of southeast Ukraine. Putin was chivalrous in Beijing, offering of his coat to Xi Jinping’s wife. It behooves him to behave well towards the Chinese customers for Russia’s gas and oil.  But his best behavior did nothing to hide his decidedly aggressive stance in Europe, where Moscow is not only invading Ukraine but also challenging NATO’s borders with close approaches of aircraft. President Obama needs to think hard about whether there isn’t more we can do to respond to Russian aggression, whether by military or diplomatic means.

ISIS’ rapid advances have been stopped, but it is still consolidating its control over eastern Syria and western Iraq. It is making mistakes in doing so, including mass atrocities against Sunni tribes that will no doubt be motive for revenge by their surviving relatives. Some Sunni tribes are even welcoming Shia militias to help them fight ISIS. Iraqi government forces have reportedly broken the ISIS siege of the country’s only oil refinery, and Kurdish forces have retaken some towns in the north.

But there seems to be no hope for a serious Iraqi army offensive against ISIS before spring. While coalition air attacks make life tactically difficult for the caliphate’s fighters, they are not faltering strategically. ISIS is far more than the small terrorist group President Obama likes to talk about. It is a serious insurgency that will require someone–be it Iraqi government or Syrian opposition–to conduct a serious counter-insurgency campaign. Killing a few of its leaders and cadres is not going to turn the tide. There are reports this weekend of a plan to accelerate arming of the Syrian opposition. That is long overdue. A commitment to protect it when it moves into Syria should be forthcoming as well.

So yes, Mr. President, you had a good week in Asia. The lame duck showed he could fly. But things are still bad in Europe and the Middle East. Welcome home!

Parties before people

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted Adnan Kocher at a roundtable discussion on Thursday. Kocher is a senior advisor on international political affairs to Lahur Talabani, Head of the Kurdistan Intelligence Service. Kocher is also chairman of the Kurdish Cultural Center in London.

What Kocher had to say about the ongoing conflict between the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and Da’ish (aka ISIS) was not especially enlightening. He called, as many others have in recent months, for a stronger anti-Da’ish policy, going beyond airstrikes and supply of small arms to approved groups. Noting that the jihadis still enjoy grassroots support from local Sunnis, Kocher stressed that it is necessary to work carefully with Sunni groups to defeat Da’ish and erode its support network. He also called for empowering of local fighters – including the Kurds – to combat the so-called Islamic State on the ground.

These jejune (though not inaccurate) observations came amidst thinly veiled sniping at Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which currently holds the most seats in the Kurdish Parliament and is led by the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani. Kocher’s affiliation is with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talabani (former president of Iraq), and brother of Lahur Talabani. The apparent political divisions, and implicit nepotistic factionalism within Kurdistan highlighted by Kocher over the course of the discussion was revealing of the challenges the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) faces in both its fight against Da’ish and its quest for independence.

Factionalism and nepotism among the Iraqi Kurds is nothing new. In 2009 a US report described the KDP as a family run, mafia-like organization. A quick glance at the names of those holding high office in the KRG shows the KDP dominated by the Barzani family and the PUK by the Talabani family. The two have competed with one another for years (even going to war in the Saddam Hussein era). This ongoing feuding is weakening the Kurdish position at this difficult time.

The lack of cooperation extends to the peshmerga forces. Both PUK and KDP run their own, rather like private armies. Divided chains of command as well as differing objectives and goals challenge the unity of Kurdistan’s response to Da’ish. Kocher underlined failures by the KDP peshmerga and successes by the PUK peshmerga.

Could a lack of a united framework, and even competition between the two factions, be a contributing factor in failures to push back Da’ish? In Sinjar and around Mosul the peshmerga have lost ground and continue to struggle, while Syrian Kurdish forces (YPG) have held swathes of territory in Rojava, helped defend the Yazidis in Iraq, and withstood the brunt of the jihadist war machine in the town of Kobane. This despite the fact the YPG’s parent organisation, the PYD (Democratic Union Party), is banned in Syria and has no official government authority.

Kocher also frequently referenced the lack of supplies going to the Kurdish forces. Commenting on video footage of PUK peshmerga waiting on the frontline, he drew attention to lack of combat boots, poorly made uniforms, and lack of ammunition. This is surprising. The US has been explicitly funding and supplying the peshmerga since August. Even before that, well equipped and trained peshmerga could be seen in and around Erbil (KDP territory) wearing new and well-kept uniforms.

With the division between the two major Kurdish parties and their affiliated troops, it is possible that resources, funds, and equipment are unevenly distributed. There are also vast differences in operational capabilities of different peshmerga forces, exacerbated by lack of a clear and unified command structure and leading to reductions in the combat effectiveness of the KRG. For Western governments, this makes knowing to whom weapons and funds should be sent complicated.

There are also international actors with stakes in the Kurdish political factions. In recent years, the KDP has had strong ties with Turkey. Relations between Presidents Barzani and Erdogan are cordial. The PUK is backed by Iran. Kocher tried to dispel concerns over Iran’s influence on his party, claiming that the PUK instead considers Israel a friend (without acknowledging that one can be friends with Israel and still have ties to Iran). As Iran and Turkey continue to compete through local factions, their influence in Kurdish politics further serves to divide and polarize, as the two jostle for influence.

Kurdish leaders can ill afford to be playing politics. Though Da’ish is starting to be pushed back, jihadists continue to threaten KRG interests and operate in and around its borders. The KRG is facing skyrocketing costs even as it struggles to raise revenues after months of budgetary disputes with Baghdad over Kurdistan’s oil (the latest deal was announced on Thursday).

Kurdistan has been one of the few success stories of the Middle East in the past decade. Its people have grown wealthier, its infrastructure improved, and it has enjoyed stability in a volatile region. However, much of its leadership is composed of families and their followers who are mistrustful of one another. They put their parties ahead of their people. No one would deny the bravery of the peshmerga soldiers as they fight against a better armed enemy – but the political class is letting them down.

Partition won’t work

Yesterday Tom Ricks published at a brief piece I wrote for him a couple of weeks ago on why partition of Iraq and Syria is a really bad idea. The basic reason is this:  separation of ethnic or sectarian groups sounds good, but unless they agree on the lines of separation they will sooner or later fight over where to draw them. Agreements about lines of separation are rare. Czechs and Slovaks are the classic case. Far more often, the parties disagree.

Partition proposals don’t prevent war. They cause it.

This is especially true for Iraq and Syria.

In Iraq, there are substantial areas of relative homogeneity:  most people who live in Kurdistan are Kurds, most who live in Anbar and large parts of Ninewa are Sunni, and most who live south of Baghdad are Shia. But that doesn’t mean they would agree on the lines of separation.

For Sunnis, especially for those who support restoration of the caliphate, Baghdad is vital, even though it now has a population that is majority Shia (and partly Kurd). Nor will Sunnis be pleased to see Shia walk off with the lion’s share of Iraq’s massive oil reserves, which lie in the south, or Kurds walk off with much of the rest, which lies in Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk and other so-called disputed territories. Anbar’s natural gas will be little comfort, as it will take years to develop it and build pipelines to ship it out. Partition of Iraq will lead to a war likely to last a decade or more, as Sunnis seek to recover territory they regard as their own. Any guess about which Sunnis, moderates or extremists, will lead that fight?

The situation is even more complicated in Syria, where the same degree of ethnic and sectarian separation does not exist. There are islands of minorities (Kurds, Druze, Christian, Shia and other) spread out in an arc of mostly Sunnis extending from the southern border with Jordan and Israel, through Damascus, Homs and Aleppo to the north and along the Turkish to the Iraqi border. Kurds are not concentrated in one area, and only one of the three areas where they live is contiguous with Iraqi Kurdistan. Alawites are concentrated in the west along the Mediterranean coast, where they are not the majority in many communities, and inland in Damascus, where they are also not the majority.

Division of Syria along ethnic and sectarian lines would therefore mean moving millions of people, in addition to the half of the population that has already been displaced. There is really no way to do that except by force.

Let’s say however that ISIS succeeds in continuing to dominate the Sunni-majority parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Should the international community accede to that and hope the jihadists can be contained? Fat chance. They would continue to fight at least for Damascus and Baghdad, which are the historic capitals of the caliphate. And in the meanwhile they would provide safe haven for international terrorists like Khorasan, the Al Qaeda affiliate embedded for now with Jabhat al Nusra, which has just reached an accommodation with the Islamic State.

But, you might ask, aren’t the existing borders artificial? Yes, they are, but it is instructive that they were not established by Sykes and Picot, who are usually cited as the culprits. The map they signed in 1916 had Mosul in the French zone (which is the ancestor of Syria), not the British (which is the ancestor of Iraq):

Sykes and Picot did not draw today's lines

Sykes and Picot did not draw today’s lines

When ISIS captured Mosul, it was not destroying the Sykes/Picot division but restoring it, in part. The lines we attribute to Sykes and Picot today were drawn in 1923, by the Treaty of Lausanne, though Mosul’s fate was still uncertain (and was supposed to be determined by the League of Nations). But the British were already there and kept it.

The virtue of the existing lines is just that:  they exist. Moving them necessarily creates winners and losers. If the losers are not happy with the result, they will fight. Partition won’t work.


The Administration is finally having another look at its Syria strategy. A reexamination is overdue. While coalition forces have been attacking the Islamic State (ISIS), the Syrian regime has focused its remaining firepower against relatively moderate forces, especially in Aleppo and surrounding areas. The net result is not good:  Kurdish forces that in the past have supported the Assad regime have gained ground in the Kobane, on the Turkish border, while the relative moderates have been losing ground farther west. Now UN envoy Stefano De Mistura is proposing a ceasefire in Aleppo, hoping to prevent catastrophe there.

It has become all too apparent that

  1. The moderate forces need more help if they are going to be able to hold on to significant territory in Syria;
  2. Assad benefits from the current coalition attacks on IS since they weaken his strongest opponent, allow him to concentrate against moderate forces, and strengthen Kurds who have been unwilling to attack the regime.

President Obama has offered to cooperate with Iran in Syria against ISIS once a nuclear deal is done, but there is no sign Iran is prepared to abandon Assad. Such cooperation would offend the majority Sunni population in Syria and guarantee more recruits for ISIS.

Bottom line:  we are getting nowhere fast in Syria.

Things aren’t much better in Iraq, where ISIS is consolidating control over territory. Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has been busy firing military commanders and installing new ones, but it is far from clear whether his choices will be any more effective on the battlefield than former Prime Minister Maliki’s were. Abadi has managed to appoint Defense and Interior ministers, but creation of the provincially-based National Guard is still stalled in parliament. Next spring is the current best hope for an Iraqi offensive against ISIS.

The Americans need to find a better approach. Refocusing coalition attacks at least in part on the Assad regime is one possibility, but there are limits. Doing too much in that direction risks collapsing the Syrian state and opening the way for an IS takeover, even in Damascus. That is something we should want to prevent, not cause.

Another possibility would be taking the Turks up on their favorite proposition:  creation of one or more liberated areas inside Syria, protected from air and artillery attacks as best can be done by coalition aircraft.  The Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and its Interim Government (SIG) could then move into those areas and begin governing, creating an alternative to fleeing the country for thousands of desperate Syrians. Prime candidates for liberated areas would be in the north, along the Turkish border, and in the south, along the ceasefire line with Israel and the border with Jordan. These areas would then constitute buffer zones protecting key coalition partners from ISIS incursions.

This is essentially what the US did for the Kurds in northern Iraq under Saddam Hussein. That experiment was eventually successful in creating an area of relative stability and half-decent governance. It also of course created the pre-conditions for what may eventually be secession of Iraqi Kurdistan from Iraq. That would also be a risk of creating a liberated area in Syria. It would therefore best be done with boundaries not determined by ethnic or sectarian lines, which is easy enough in Syria because the population in most areas is even today quite mixed, at least at the provincial level. Maintaining a diverse Syrian polity is vital to ensuring that the country remains whole.

Some will ask why we should worry about partition. The short answer is this:  even Syrians who might want to separate won’t agree with their adversaries on the lines along which separation should occur. There has been much blather about a possible Alawite state in western Syria, along the Mediterranean coast. But much of the population that lives there is Sunni, and there is a large population of Alawites in Damascus. Those who advocate partition are advocating massive population movements that could only be accomplished by violent means.

There are no good options in Syria, but recalibration to undermine the Assad regime and provide stronger support to the moderate opposition, including in moving it into Syria, would be better than what we are doing now.

Small beer, drink up

The British and German foreign ministers in a letter last week proposed a revision in European Union policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina. Instead of continuing to insist on constitutional reform to meet the requirements of a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision known as Sejdic-Finci, they propose that Bosnian leaders commit in writing to future reform (including the required constitutional revision). In return, the European Commission would put into force the already negotiated Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). Only after the reform proposals are implemented Bosnia would get candidacy for EU membership, which brings substantial resources.

This is a small beer version of a much bolder proposal that has been kicking around Europe and the Balkans:  give Bosnia quick candidacy status to get it into the accession process, which would then be expected to pry the needed reforms from the iron grip of the country’s nationalist politicians. Instead of that big bang approach, this proposal asks for a promise of reform before the SAA is implemented but postpones the difficult Sejdic-Finci issue, resolution of which had heretofore been a prerequisite to the SAA.

This defies the normal rules of parenting:  giving the kid a pass, and a reward, but asking for a promise of compliance and saying next time you’ll really have to do what I ask is not generally regarded as a path to success in shaping a responsible teen. The logic, if there is any, lies in giving Bosnian leaders a stake in moving along the path towards the EU. Something like that was done for Belgrade, rewarding it with candidacy status when it signed last year’s agreement with Pristina on reintegration of the Serb majority north with the rest of Kosovo.

The main argument in favor of this approach is that nothing else has worked. The Bosnians have stiffed the EU repeatedly. Maybe this will steer around their recalcitrance. British and German backing gives the idea some oomph. And it may be that throwing in the Sejdic-Finci reform with other issues will provide an opportunity for tradeoffs that hasn’t existed in the past.

The Americans have come out in support of the German-British initiative. They no doubt have doubts, but figure it is better to close ranks with the Europeans than leave any daylight between Washington and Berlin or Washington and London. And the writing of a reform package opens up the possibility of more profound constitutional reform. The Americans, who wrote the damnably complicated Dayton constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, know all too well that the problems that have rendered Bosnia a basket case lie in the interstices of its elaborate power-sharing and ethnic protection arrangements, which go far beyond the ethnic restrictions on members of the presidency.

A genuine effort to render the many layers of government in Bosnia more functional and effective would of course be welcome. The Germans and British no doubt are sincerely aiming for that objective. The question is whether the EU, with American support, can muster the incentives necessary to dislodge Bosnian leaders from their comfortable ethnic polarization. Sarajevo is still in the process of forming its new government, based on October elections that returned mostly ethnic nationalists back to power, with a scattering of more Europe-focused (relative) liberals. Last time around, it took 16 months to get the new government in place. Let’s hope the British/German letter will push that process as well as serious reform in the right direction.

It may be small beer, but it’s all that’s on offer. Best to drink  up.

PS: for a more critical and detailed look at the small beer and how it might be strengthened, see the Democratization Policy Council brief.

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