Don’t throw me in that briar patch

The New York Times is exercised about the “reckless” legislation approved in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday that would give Congress an opportunity to vote on an Iran nuclear agreement, which is supposed to be concluded by the end of June. The American Iranian Council is also uncomfortable. The Administration is “not thrilled” but the President won’t use his veto, which likely would be overridden.

I think Congressional review of the nuclear deal is a good thing, for several reasons.

The process is unlikely to derail an agreement, since the President could exercise his veto if the Congress disapproves. Mustering a two-thirds majority to override such a veto on a deal that verifiably stalls Iran’s progress towards nuclear weapons for 10 years or more is going to be difficult. I can hope that at least a third of the Congress will look objectively at the situation and consider carefully the alternatives, though I won’t be surprised if someone writes to remind me of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s influence and Woodrow Wilson’s failure to get approval for the League of Nations.

Without a Congressional vote, the deal would be entirely dependent on executive action. As my SAIS colleague Eric Edelman points out, it would be odd indeed if the Iranian Majles and the UN Security Council got to vote on the deal and not the US Congress. Can a democracy not match those two less than fully democratic institutions in allowing a vote? Of course it is precisely because they are not democratic that they can be relied upon to approve the deal. But that is the trouble with democracy: it needs to live up to its own standards.

There is certainly no constitutional requirement for Congress to act. Presidential authority over foreign relations is strong. Executive agreements are the rule, not the exception. But if a deal runs the Congressional gauntlet without too much damage, it would then become nigh on impossible for a future president to undo it, as Republican presidential nominees are promising to do. This is important. Why would Iran’s Supreme Leader take the risk of signing on if there is a 50/50 chance, more or less, that the next president will renege? This legislation makes the odds more like 80/20, which strengthens the hand of our negotiators and enables them to insist credibly on an agreement that can pass muster in Congress.

Dan Drezner hopes for parallels between the nuclear agreement and NAFTA, which in 2008 Democratic candidates were promising to renegotiate. That was a campaign promise quickly forgotten. I don’t find that particularly comforting. Marco Rubio seems a lot more determined and consistent in opposing the nuclear deal than Democrats were in opposing NAFTA. Being older than Dan, I might recall the 1977 Panama Canal treaty, which was the subject of even greater hyperbole. None of the dire consequences predicted have come to pass. We have continued to use the canal, which is now being widened to accommodate its customers.

I hope I can be forgiven for the title of this piece. But it does strike me that the Republicans have inadvertently put the Administration in precisely the place it should want to be.

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Stabilizing Syria

Fred Hof, Bassma Kodmani and Jeff White want to set the stage for peace in Syria by creating a 50,000-strong Syrian National Stabilization Force (SNSF). Ideas of this sort have been bandied about for years, but this is a more in-depth look than I have seen elsewhere.

Objective

Its objective would be a political one: to establish legitimate state authority, which has collapsed in the current multi-party civil war, on Syria’s entire territory. Ten times the size of the force supposedly being trained yearly by the US and other countries, Hof, Kodmani and White expect the SNSF to be able to confront both the Islamic State and the rump regime of Bashar al Asad as well as protect Syrian civilians, starting in protected areas but eventually expanding to the whole country.

So far, so good, in theory. Military experts will have to judge whether a force of the size, training and equipment they propose will be sufficient to the task. My own guess is that even at these expanded dimensions, the SNSF would find the fight the expanded mission a difficult one, but the authors think it might be sufficient to induce the regime to come to the negotiating table and cut a deal. The SNSF would then be able to expand further as the army of a new Syria and focus its full attention against the Islamic State and other extremist forces.

Will it fight extremists?

Therein lies one problem. It is not clear that Syria’s more moderate rebel forces are prepared to fight the Islamic State (ISIS), which many Syrians dislike but still regard as vital to the fight against the Asad regime. Civil war favors radicalization. Syrians are not immune. Moderates tend to leave. Extremists stay to fight. The Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra (JN), appears to have a good deal of support among Sunnis inside Syria. Its personnel is largely Syrian, it has a reputation for honesty, and it fights regime forces with vigor.

Command and control

Another problem with the SNSF is command and control. The US and other countries have recognized the Syrian National Coalition (aka Etilaf or SNC) as the legitimate political representative of the Syrian people, but the authors of this report accept the US Government assessment that it is too fragmented and disconnected from realities inside Syria to function effectively as a command and control authority.

So in its stead they propose formation of an ad hoc advisory group. This is awkward. How do you accept the SNC as the sole political representative of the Syrian people, then deny it authority over the military forces expected to win back the country in their name? How do you get away with picking your own favorites to form the advisory group? SNC itself is the product of US-led diplomacy, which may be a source of its problems. What makes us think another iteration will improve Syrian cohesion or representativeness?

Washington issues

Perhaps the biggest problem with this SNSF proposal lies in Washington DC, not in Syria. It would require expansion of the US mission in Syria beyond countering terrorist groups like the ISIS and JN as well as commitment to combat support, as the authors discuss extensively. The Obama Administration has been reluctant to go down that road. Congress is not pressing in that direction. Reluctance to get involved in trying to fix yet one more Middle Eastern country is palpable.

I suppose there is someone in the bowels of the Pentagon and perhaps the State Department who is hoping that the precedent of US/Iran parallel efforts against the Islamic State set in Iraq can be repeated in Syria, where Hizbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards are now a mainstay of the Asad regime, even if claims of Iranian “occupation” of Syria seem to me hyperbolic. Restoration of autocracy is working in Egypt, some may think, why shouldn’t it also work in Syria? If we can fight on the same side against the Islamic State in Iraq, why not also in Syria?

The short answer is that the government in Iraq is a legitimate one that represents the will of its people. Syria’s government is not, despite Asad’s pretend “election” last year. SNSF has virtues, if only because it would end such daydreaming by positioning the US unequivocally in opposition to the Asad regime. Protection of civilians in a few liberated areas, in the north along the Turkish border and in the south along the Jordanian border, would itself be a great virtue and give Iran, Russia and the regime pause. Neither Russia nor Iran is likely to stick with Bashar al Asad until the bitter end, if only to protect their equities in what comes next.

Bottom line

To make a long story short: SNSF is not likely to march triumphantly into Damascus any time soon. But committing to something like it would allow the US to engage in Syria more effectively than it has done so far.

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The case against the nuclear deal

I spent lunch listening to a panel of bright people at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs discuss the Iran nuclear deal, about which they have posed some good questions. Questions are the right approach to any agreement with ramifications as wide and as important as those of the proposed “framework” agreement.

SAIS colleague Eric Edelman underlined that there is no agreement yet. That is clear from the divergent “fact sheets” emerging (and not) from the P5+1 deliberations with Tehran. Nothing is agreed until it is written down (and I would say signed). Particularly important points that are still unsettled include what will be done to “neutralize” the low enriched uranium (LEU) above 300 kilos that will remain in Iran (rather than being shipped abroad as Eric said Iran had previously agreed), the precise arrangements for IAEA verification, and clarification of Iran’s past military nuclear activities. Extending the Joint Plan of Action  (JPOA)–the temporary agreement under which Iran’s nuclear program is stalled at the moment–would be better than the “framework” agreement.

Congressional approval is vital. Otherwise, Iran will not find the agreement credible, because any subsequent American administration may want to change it. It would be anomalous if the Iranian Majles and the UN Security Council got to vote on the agreement but not the Senate.

Ray Takeyh focused on the Supreme Leader’s speech last week, which was harder line on immediate sanctions relief and other issues than Iran’s hardliners have been, even if it appeared to leave the door open a crack for a more general rapprochement with the US. This raises a difficult question: on whose behalf are the Iranian negotiators negotiating? If Foreign Minister Zarif represents only President Rouhani and not the Supreme Leader, then what validity will an agreement have? There is reason to doubt the cohesion of the Iranian regime. The Supreme Leader’s primary political objective is preservation of the regime’s ideology, which is an ideology of resistance. His successor can be expected to have the same view.

It was left to John Hannah to state the hardline US case against the agreement. At best, it would postpone by 10-15 years an Iran just a screwdriver’s turn away from nuclear weapons, leaving it free at the end of that period to accelerate its enrichment rapidly and turn the screwdriver whenever it wanted. There is no reason to believe Iran will have moderated its stances on the US and regional issues during that time. Sanctions relief will necessarily come much sooner than most Americans will want. The agreement will precipitate a nuclear arms race in a region where confidence in US support has been damaged beyond repair in this Administration.

The alternative to the “framework” agreement is a better agreement, Hannah averred. John Kerry just doesn’t know how to negotiate, using US military power and economic leverage to the maximum. What is needed is a concerted US effort to counter Iran throughout the region, starting in Syria.

But it is also arguable, he said, that a military attack that sets the Iranian nuclear program back by two or three years would be better than anything we can get from the “framework.”

Panel concluded, the retired lawyer sitting next to me asked whether China wouldn’t just leave the sanctions regime and start unrestrained imports from Iran if an agreement is not reached. Well, yes, I agreed, it could and it would (though it would have to buy the oil in a currency other than dollars). That is precisely the point: there is no way the sanctions regime can be kept functioning unless the US demonstrates maximum effort to get an agreement. You may think John Kerry a dufus, but he has taken America’s best shot. And if you want America to bomb Iran’s nuclear program, doing so in response to Iranian violations of an agreement is a far better way than just doing it.

That does not, however, mean that any agreement will do. The questions Eric asks about LEU, verification and military nuclear activities are good ones that need answers. I don’t know how John Hannah knows that the Iranian regime will be just as hardline in 10 or 15 years as it is today, but I am pretty sure it will be hardline and accelerate its nuclear program after bombing. Nor do I know how he knows about the timing of sanctions relief, though I think he has a point on Syria: a stronger stand there against the Assad regime would give the Iranians something to think about. Ray Takeyh’s suggestion that the Iranian regime lacks cohesion is to me a positive sign, not a negative one, though in a quick chat afterwards he suggested it will be temporary, with the Supreme Leader’s hardline winning the day.

 

 

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Peace picks April 12-17

  1. Iraq Under Abadi: Bridging Sectarian Divides in the Face of ISIS | Monday, April 13th | 9:00- 10:15 AM | American Enterprise Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | At the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, US warplanes began airstrikes against ISIS positions in Tikrit on March 25. But ISIS isn’t the only challenge standing in the way of a stable, unified, democratic Iraq. How should the United States approach Iranian influence in Iraq? Can Iraq ever achieve a true power-sharing democracy in spite of the sectarian divides between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi’ites? A day before Abadi meets with President Obama in Washington, join a panel discussion on the future of America’s strategic partnership in Iraq. Speakers include: Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress, Denise Natali, National Defense University and Douglas Ollivant, New America Foundation and Mantid International.
  2. The Iran Nuclear Deal | Monday, April 13th 2015 | 11:00-1:30 PM | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND| What are the short and long-term obstacles to finalizing and sustaining a nuclear deal with Iran, and how would a U.S.-Iran nuclear detente impact ongoing conflicts and long-standing alliances in the Middle East? The two panels will focus on the future of the deal, and the regional implications of the deal. Speakers include: Jessica Tuchman Mathews, George Perkovich, Karim Sadjadpour, Yezid Sayigh, Frederic Wehrey, Ali Vaez, and David Sanger
  3. ISIS: The State of Terror| Tuesday, April 14th| 12:00-1:15 PM| New America | REGISTER TO ATTEND | In 2014, ISIS shocked the world with their brutality and the speed with which they took a large swath of Iraqi and Syrian territory. One year later, most countries, including the United States, are still trying to figure out what is driving this group and how best they can be defeated. J.M. Berger, an investigative journalist and non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, brings a uniquely qualified perspective to the analysis of the challenges posed by ISIS’s rise. In ISIS: State of Terror, Berger and Jessica Stern, a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard University, draw upon intelligence sources, law enforcement officials, and their own groundbreaking research to explain the genesis, evolution, and implications of the Islamic State—and how we can fight it. The authors analyze the tools ISIS fighters use both to frighten innocent citizens and lure new soldiers—including the “ghoulish pornography” of their pro-jihadi videos, the seductive appeal of “jihadic chic,” and its startlingly effective social media expertise.
  4. Setting the Stage for Peace in Syria | Tuesday, April 14th | 12:00-1:30 PM | The Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | After four years of conflict, the prospect of a stable Syria continues to be bleak, with a diplomatic solution nowhere in sight and military steps lacking in international support. In their report titled, Setting the Stage for Peace in Syria: The Case for a Syrian National Stabilization Force, authors Hof, Kodmani, and White present a new way forward – one that takes President Obama’s train and equip program to the next level forging a Syrian ground force which could constitute the core of the future Syrian Army.. How can this force change the dynamics of the conflict on the ground and how can the international community help build it? What other elements need to be in place to make this force an effective part of a broader resolution of the conflict? Speakers include: Ambassador Frederic C. Hof Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council, Bassma Kodmani Executive Director The Arab Reform Initiative, and Jeffrey White Defense Fellow The Washington Institute
  5. The Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Critical Issues | Thursday, April 16 | 12:00-1:00 PM |The Heritage Foundation | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5 plus 1 have entered a crucial phase ahead of the March 30 deadline for a framework agreement. examine some of the key issues involved in the negotiations and assess some of the pitfalls that must be avoided if an acceptable agreement is to be reached by the June 30th deadline for a final agreement. Speakers include, Fred Fleitz Senior Vice President for Policy and Programs, Center for Security Policy, Greg Jones Senior Researcher, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and Henry Sokolski. Executive Director, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
  6. Geopolitics of Energy Security in the Eastern Mediterranean | Wednesday, April 15 | 12:00-5:oo PM| American Security Project | REGISTER TO ATTEND| A half day conference examining the energy security challenges faced in the Eastern Mediterranean. Over the course of three panel discussions, the event will first examine the geopolitical importance of the region, focusing on the recent discovery of major natural gas fields in Israel.The next panel will look at the challenges of promoting energy cooperation throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, and will attempt to offer prescriptions for increasing energy security. The final panel will discuss the potential role that the US can play in the region in terms of investment opportunities and regional cooperation.
  7. Assessing U.S. Sanctions: Impact, Effectiveness, Consequences | Thursday, April 16 | 8:45- 3:30 PM |Woodrow Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The unfolding crisis in Ukraine has the United States and its European allies struggling to find a way to respond to Russia’s actions and continuing violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. To date, that response is centered on calibrated but escalating sanctions against Russia. Once again, American reliance on sanctions as an essential foreign policy tool is on display. Past and current examples of sanctions, including Iran, South Africa, Cuba and others will provide important context for understanding the role that sanctions play in American statecraft.
  8. Honeypots and Sticky Fingers: The Electronic Trap to Reveal Iran’s Illicit Cyber Network | Friday, April 17 | 2:00-5:00 PM | American Enterprise Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The West has severely underestimated Iran’s cyberwarfare capabilities. Despite sanctions, the Islamic Republic has managed to build a sophisticated information technology (IT) infrastructure, and new intelligence indicates that the Iranian regime may be maintaining front companies in the West to obtain cyber technology. How can the United States and its allies enhance their security and combat Iran in cyberspace?. General Keith Alexander, former commander of US Cyber Command and former director of the National Security Agency, will deliver a keynote address.
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Salafists, Sectarianism, Social Media

The Stimson Center held an event last week, entitled, Salafists And Sectarianism: Twitter And Communal Conflict In The Middle East. Speakers included Geneive Abdo, a Fellow at the Stimson Middle East Program, and
 Khalil al Anani, Adjunct Professor  Johns Hopkins/SAIS, moderated  by Mokhtar Awad, a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress.

The Shi’a-Sunni divide has become one of the most destabilizing factors in the Middle East—with no end in sight. The rise of the Salafist anti-Shi’a discourse is of great interest, as the movement has cleverly exploited the current sectarian conflict in Syria, with spillover effects into parts of Iraq and Lebanon that have succeeded in furthering their rhetorical and theological positions.

Abdo presented an overview of the findings of her recent paper, including suggestions on the future of extremism and social media. She opened with the question of why now? The disruption of the longstanding political order in the Middle East, as well a shift in power dynamics from a Sunni ruled Arab world to increased Shi’a control, has led many Sunnis to believe that the survival of their sect is at stake. Beyond the search for land and power, Salafis truly believe that the Shi’a are not real Muslims, and are out to destroy Sunni believers.

This evolution of sectarian tension post-Arab Spring was not anticipated. She points to the example of Bahrain, where the revolts started as a peaceful reform movement with both Sunnis and Shi’as were protesting together. This has sadly not remained the case. The Salafis are interesting not only for the window they offer into the world of anti-Shia discourse, but also for their recent entrance into the political sphere. They are less violent than their jihadi counterparts and have a broad constituency. “Celebrity sheiks” have amassed giant followings on twitter, examples of whom include Adnan Al-Arour and Mohammad Al Arefe, who has 11.5 million followers on Twitter.

Khalil Al Anani underlined that violent Salafists are dominating the discourse. Non-violent ones are often overlooked, yet they are operating more and more in the public sphere, and have obvious mass appeal. The traditional Salafist traditional discourse is widely disseminated using modern technology. The anti-Shi’a discourse is not limited to the Salafists, and has been picked up by some others. The rise of Salafists goes hand in hand with the rise of sectarian tensions. It has also helped to empower non-state actors, by increasing their following. An example is Yemen, where the fight against the Houthis has been framed as the fight against Iran’s goals to recreate the Safavid empire and to butcher all the Ah’l-Sunnah.

Mokhtar Awad discussed social media use in the Arab world.  Saudi Arabia has the highest Twitter penetration rates in the Middle East, accounting for over 40% of active twitter users in the region. However, there is an inherent problem with Twitter, as 140 characters does not lend itself to the expression of nuanced views. Islamist embrace of Twitter has fueled the sectarian divide, as their ideas are retweeted thousands of times, reaching hundreds of thousands of people. The online discourse is dominated by Salafists, as proved by the Islamic State’s embrace of Twitter and other social media tools as a means of gaining followers and disseminating their message. How does the Western world counter this messaging? Alternative narratives are needed to balance the discourse of extremism, yet who will provide this?

 

 

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Reclaiming, reconstructing and reconciling

The Middle East Institute and Johns Hopkins’ SAIS co-hosted a panel on the future Iraq on Tuesday, moderated by peacefare’s own Daniel Serwer. He was joined by Lukman Faily, Iraqi ambassador to the US, and Abbas Kadhim, a fellow at SAIS. At the heart of the discussion was the ongoing campaign to counter ISIS, but also the long road needed to restore order in Iraq in the longer term. The panel was particularly timely in light of the upcoming visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi to Washington, set to take place next week.

Ambassador Faily said Iraq post 2003 has been moving away from dictatorship and towards democratic governance. This vision remains alive today, although Iraqis have paid a heavy price in its implementation, which changes over time. While there have been many shortcomings in practice, Iraqis increasingly have understood that they are mutually interdependent: the threat of ISIS in particular has tempered Kurdish independence ambitions (if only temporarily) and has convinced Shia politicians to share power.

Returned recently from a trip to Baghdad, the ambassador was relatively optimistic. In spite of the threat from ISIS, Baghdad and some other cities now feel safer than in a long time. There are fewer car bombs and assassinations. Removal of concrete barriers has freed up traffic. People are discussing post-ISIS scenarios. Elites are increasingly frustrated with the polarized political environment. There is a generally positive view of the US role in the fight against ISIS, though Iraqis find it hard to understand the geopolitical and domestic constraints on US policy making. The Tikrit operation has been a rollercoaster, featuring mainly Iraqi forces helped by Iranians.

Faily pointed to five key parameters for the current government. First is the need for inclusive governance. Abadi is serious about achieving decentralization. He is also serious about seeking and accepting cabinet-level decisions, sometimes to the frustration of partners who want a faster decision making process.

Second is the restructuring of Iraqi the military and the Ministry of Interior. This includes a more hands-on approach in reaching out to the tribes, and a serious effort to create a truly multi-sectarian National Guard. While reform is starting, patience is needed, as logistical and financial problems will make reform slower than desirable.

The third parameter is fixing the economy, where the government is still playing catch-up. Corruption remains a pervasive problem. It goes deep, requiring changes in political culture, structure and process. Decentralization reforms should help to address this problem.

Fourth, the government is engaged in reconciliation. Faily pointed to Abadi’s recent visit to Erbil and argued that the government is taking steps to build confidence between Iraqi communities. Part of this effort is to recognize that human rights abuses have taken place. In this respect, Abadi has reached out to international organizations to help the government in mapping abuses so that it will be able to deal with them more effectively. At the same time, the conflict in Iraq has been messy. Some casualties, however regrettable, would have to be expected.

Finally, the Iraqi government is determined to improve its relationship with foreign countries. The key message is that Baghdad is a reliable partner in the fight against ISIS both at home and ultimately throughout the region. Relations with Iran are neighborly, but the government does not act on orders from Tehran. Iraq is ready and willing to cooperate with other powers in the region.

Following the ambassador’s remarks, Kadhim suggested a way forward for Iraq based on three Rs: reclaiming, reconstruction and reconciliation. Physically reclaiming Iraqi sovereign territory is the sine qua non of rebuilding Iraq. ISIS is at least partly a problem of ungoverned spaces in Iraq. There is therefore a need for a comprehensive approach to the ISIS campaign, without which they will simply reappear once the campaign has ended. Such an approach involves significant military reform, some of which is already taking place.

Second, Iraqi society needs to engage in a reconstruction effort. Comparable in scope to the American Reconstruction Era, this effort should include rebuilding political, economic and social infrastructure, with the aim of rebuilding the Iraqi nation in a way that will ensure it does not again fall prey to destructive internal forces. In order to achieve this, Iraq will need international support and expertise.

Hand in hand with the reconstruction effort, Iraq will also need to engage in reconciliation. Kadhim noted that this traditionally has been achieved through providing political posts to members of marginalized groups. However, in post-2003 Iraq, this approach often produced politicians that unable to serve their constituents, thereby contributing to undermining rather than supporting the political transition. Instead, Kadhim suggested that there must be an effort to achieve popular reconciliation. This would involve reaching out to marginalized communities regardless of sect or ethnicity. Key to this effort is a genuine decentralization, which would deny divisive and demagogic leaders the destructive role they have hitherto played.

Serwer pointed out that an absolute requisite for reconciliation is acknowledgment of harm done. Only by such acknowledgement can the parties of a conflict escape the spiral of violence. Such acknowledgements are hard work however, and are unfortunately not yet forthcoming in the Iraqi conflict.

Faily emphasized the need to strike a balance between justice and peace in Iraq. While justice is critical in the tribal society of Iraq, there is also a need for the nation to move forward in order to achieve stability and peace. Finding an acceptable formula that balances these two considerations is inherently difficult.

On a more positive note, Faily argued that Iraqi society has moved beyond the deep structural problems that are facing many of the other countries in the region. Policymakers should not to view Iraq only through the prism of Iran. Iraq is a young nation that wants, and needs, good relations with the rest of the world, both in its neighborhood and beyond.

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