How to beat the Islamic State

On Thursday, the Wilson Center hosted Volker Perthes, Executive Chairman and Director of German Institute for International and Security Affairs, to discuss the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and the larger implications of its presence in the Iraq and Syria. Robert Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Director of International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Perthes sees a “dissolution of order” in the Middle East, especially in the Levant. IS has proclaimed its disregard for the colonial Sykes-Picot divisions. It wants reversion to pre-state, pre-modern ideologies. Without a clear long-term plan, the international community must simply observe the sociopolitical, socioeconomic and geopolitical dynamics of the region. Politics from North Africa to the Persian Gulf will remain local so it is critical to separate IS in Iraq and IS in Syria. IS’s ideology and identity have strong local backing. In addition, local issues in both Syria and Iraq stem deeper than the over simplified Sunni/Shi’a divide; there is a struggle for hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The international community has wanted to constrain threats rather than get directly involved. But regional actors should be more involved and more in control. One of the unique aspects of IS is its presence in two states. Unlike previous civil wars fought in Lebanon, Iraq and others, this conflict is spilling across borders and strengthening “quasi-sovereign entities” like the Kurdish regional government.

Perthes begs to differ with President Obama, who has said IS was neither “Islamic or a state.”  This underestimates the ability of a “terror militia” to govern and administer effectively. The international community cannot ignore IS’s “state building project,” which has become a threat even to Saudi Arabia due to the support IS has received from the Kingdom. Regional states need to make a more concerted effort to contain and roll back the IS. Local actors must lead. But military power can only “degrade.” It will have no long-term effect on the rebuilding of Syria and Iraq. Perthes applauded President Obama’s effort to stop the expansion of IS in Iraq, build an inclusive government and include regional actors. But without a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia to de-escalate their struggle of regional hegemony there will continue to be sectarian polarization.

There should also be more focus on Iranian cooperation in combating IS as well as ending the civil war in Syria. The IS problem in Syria cannot be solved without addressing the civil war raging within the country. What needs to be done, Perthes suggested, is to end the war between the regime and the moderate/non-jihadist parties and from this ceasefire create an inclusive government. The attempts to orchestrate local cease-fires need to be done with the help of Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia in conjunction with the United Nations.

Bosnia needs to get boring

Sead Numanovic of Dnevni Avaz asked me to comment on today’s election in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Here is how I responded this morning, before results were available:

The election is important in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as it has been four years since the last one. It is widely believed that the performance of the national and entity governments has not fulfilled the voters’ expectations. But we have to wait and see how this disappointment manifests itself in the election results. It is vital that not only voting but also counting and tabulation be done in a way that inspires voter confidence. I understand there are a large number of Bosnian observers. That is a good thing.

What B/H politicians do after the election will of course depend on the results. My hope is that Bosnia can undergo the same transition that Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Serbia have already entered: a transition from what [Croatian Foreign Minister] Vesna Pusic calls “heroic” politics of national identity to a “boring” politics of delivering services to citizens, building up the rule of law, and preparing for European Union accession.

The problem in Bosnia is that the Dayton constitution presents barriers to this transition by rewarding politicians who represent only the interests of their own ethnic group and not the interests of Bosnia as a whole or its citizens as individuals. Changing that will require constitutional amendments as well as electoral and other reforms. I can only hope that the election results will be such as to permit those changes to be undertaken. Otherwise I fear Bosnia and Herzegovina will continue to lag other countries in the Balkans and remain at the tail end of the queue for EU accession.

Does size matter?

This week unexpectedly brought the inevitable news that China’s GNP exceeds US GNP.  The sky did not fall. In fact, the crossover likely happened some time ago. No one noticed. Nor does this development make China’s the largest economy on earth. The European Union still holds that trophy, if you count its 28 member states as a single entity. You should, at least for economic purposes.

That gives us a hint of whether size matters. No one even mentions when the EU surpassed the US, because it doesn’t really matter. Europe is still a pygmy in world power rankings. Its economy is large, but for the moment not growing fast (maybe not even growing), and its military capabilities are limited and shrinking. Power is in the eye of the beholder. What the world beholds in Europe is wealth but not power. It projects an image of success but stagnation or even decline. The world admires Europe, but it does not respect it.

The US, some would say, is in danger of falling into that same category. It is important for perspective to remember the last time the US suffered a panic about the growing economic power of a potential rival. That was the 1990s, when Japan loomed large. Clyde Prestowitz’s 1993 bestseller subtitled We Are Giving Our Future to Japan and How to Reclaim It now sells for a penny. The Japanese economy as stagnated for two decades as its population ages and declines.

China matters more than Europe and Japan, because it combines rapid economic growth with expanding military and technological capability. America has little to fear in the coming decade or so, so long as our allies in Asia do not trigger a crisis over some East or South China Sea island or reef. But if China continues to grow and invest as it has in the last ten years it will be a serious rival ten, or certainly twenty, years from now. There is no lack of American commentators warning us of this, the most recent Wes Clark in this morning’s New York Times.

Even then though the US will likely still be its military superior. The US is currently spending more than three times what China spends on its military (not corrected for purchasing power), which is close to twice China’s ratio of military expenditure to GDP. China has a long way to go still if it to catch up.

Military challenge is not however the big problem China poses. China will be far more problematic if it fails to grow and prosper. The Hong Kong “occupy” movement is promising because it opens a crack in China’s one-party autocracy. But it is also a warning that chaos in China is possible. Either slowing economic growth or growth so rapid that it ignites serious inflation could lead to eventual recession and growing unrest. China’s financial institutions are in no better shape than Japan’s were when it took a dive into no growth. No capitalist economy has proven itself immune to the business cycle. Even if growth remains strong, modernization theory predicts that China will face irresistible pressures to democratize. No autocracy has proven itself permanently immune to instability and middle class aspirations.

In any event, China will not grow at 7-8% forever. It is also aging rapidly, a result of its decades of one-child policy. This means real difficulty in meeting future social security needs of its elderly, and real limitations on its future labor force. This on top of structural problems in its financial sector, inefficient state-owned enterprises and other hangovers from the past make it unlikely the world can count on a China as reliable in its growth spurt as it has been for the last decade. And economic failure at home could give an autocratic China incentives to embark on adventurism abroad.

So size does matter, because Chinese economic failure of any sort in coming decades will make a big difference. A much more negative difference from the American perspective than its success.


Best to err doing too much, not too little

UN envoy Stefano de Mistura appeals for help for Kobane:

The Turks are saying the right thing: there should be a comprehensive, coalition-backed effort. But they are doing the wrong thing by withholding military assistance. They are not even allowing reinforcements, supplies and ammunition to reach the Kurdish fighters. Turkish tanks sit idle just across the border, outside the town.

The differences go beyond Kobane. It is, as Ankara asserts, a mistake for the coalition not to target regime forces in Syria, which continue to bombard civilian populations. But allowing ISIS forces to decimate the Kurdish town is an odd way to object to inadequate action against Bashar al Assad.

Coalition warfare is not pretty. The members often differ in objectives, strategy and tactics. They may even compete for turf. But what is happening right now in Syria is uglier than usual. A NATO ally is refusing to up the ante against ISIS when it can readily do so with few or no losses. Ankara is also failing to come to the aid of people closely related to an important minority community inside Turkey. That isn’t going to help settle issues with Turkey’s own Kurdish insurgents.

America too often loses its wars away from the battlefield. General Allen, the new American envoy for the fight against ISIS, has been in Turkey for two days trying to sort out the situation. Apparently to no avail. That seems extraordinary to me. Either President Erdogan or President Obama needs to bend. Both would be my preference: the Turks at least to allow resupply, the Americans to at least begin to target regime forces that attack civilians.

At least in public, the Obama administration is framing the Kobane situation as a public relations problem. So it is, but it is also more. Failure to save Kobane will leave a long stretch of the Syrian side of the border with Turkey in ISIS hands. It would be surprising if the jihadists didn’t take advantage of that not only to resupply themselves but also to infiltrate Turkey.

Even if Kobane is not militarily strategic, defeating the ISIS effort there could deprive it of manpower and blunt its momentum, which is strong not only in northern Turkey but also in Iraq’s Anbar province, where ISIS forces are expanding their areas of control.

The fight against ISIS, which is proving a capable enemy, can’t be won quickly. But it can be lost in these early stages, when Syrian and Iraqi resistance to ISIS is still weak, poorly trained and inadequately armed. The air attacks can also inadvertently help Bashar al Assad. President Obama should err on the side of doing too much, not too little.

Syrians are key

If there is anything remotely positive to draw from the ongoing fighting in Kobane it is that the Islamic State can be held and pushed back by local forces in Syria. In Mosul and across northern Iraq, the extremist group defeated the supposedly superior, US trained and equipped Iraqi army at lightning speed. The Iraqi forces are only starting to regroup now that political compromise has been reached in Baghdad and the West has begun to provide extensive support.

In Kobane, Kurdish fighters are poorly equipped, outnumbered, unsupported by foreign powers save for limited airstrikes, and largely cut off by ISIS on one side and by an uncooperative Turkey on the other. But after almost a month of siege Kobane has not yet fallen – despite predictions both by IS and by claims made by the former defense secretary.

Kobane may yet fall. This would be a huge failing by foreign powers who have pledged to degrade and destroy ISIS, and to prevent the town from being taken. What Kobane shows us, however, is that there are local Syrian partners with the will and strength to hold back the Islamic State.

Such partners are necessary but not sufficient to stem the ISIS tide, just as coalition airstrikes play a necessary but not sufficient role. Airstrikes can only be one part of a strategy to defeat ISIS. As it is, militants have quickly adapted their tactics to negate the effect of the strikes. ISIS has claimed it prepared a strategy to combat US air attacks in advance. Boots on the ground are needed to defend against and counter ISIS, and those boots must – where possible – belong to local actors. Supporting and coordinating with those actors is as vital as launching warplanes.

There is a third strand to an anti-ISIS strategy. While airstrikes and foot-soldiers make up the military solution, a civilian and political solution must also be reached. ISIS is a symptom of the power vacuum and social upheaval brought about by three years of vicious civil war. Address only ISIS, and its causes will remain, breeding future security threats and humanitarian disasters. A strategy to halt ISIS – and equally importantly its violent ideology – must include support for an internal dialogue among Syrians. The ultimate goal should be Syrian driven political and social reconstruction.

Just as Kobane shows that there are capable military partners out there, there are also capable civilian partners. Countless civil organizations built, led, and run by Syrian civilians have sprung up across the country in the last three years. Some have failed or been suppressed by the Assad regime, but many are thriving despite the parlous conditions and delivering services, aid, and order to Syrians of all stripes. These groups are well placed to provide a local backbone for any future rebuilding efforts.

The strategy thus far to defeat ISIS has often involved keeping Syrians themselves at arms length. But Kurdish fighters in Kobani, peaceful groups like the Syrian Civil Defense Units, and the myriad local groups already trying to build a better state from the ground up, show us that Syrians can take responsibility for their own future. We must help them achieve it.

War without politics won’t work

Yesterday’s Brookings Institution event addressed the ongoing challenges faced by the US in Syria and Iraq. Will it Work? Examining the Coalition’s Iraq and Syria Strategy brought together Kenneth Pollack, Senior Fellow at Brookings, and Salman Shaikh, Director of the Brookings Doha Center, with Michael O’Hanlon, Co-Director at the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence.

Pollack drew attention to positive developments in Iraq in recent months. The increasingly sectarian Nouri al-Maliki has left office, replaced by a less toxic Prime Minister. A new political process is developing in Baghdad as rival groups compromise in the face of the threat of ISIS and pressure from the Obama administration. It’s not perfect, but it is certainly progress.

The situation in Sunni parts of Iraq remains fraught. Though the ISIS offensives have been slowed across the north, expelling the group from its newly captured territory will require Iraqi military offensives. Herein lies a problem. Military action cannot be disentangled from politics. Many Sunnis believe that Maliki has left the Iraqi Army as little more than a Shi’a militia. They are unlikely to view an Iraqi Army liberating force as legitimate. But raising regional Sunni forces (now called National Guard) could have far-reaching implications for the future of Iraq – not only in terms of its future military, but also in terms of its political structure.

This raises the question of what the future Iraqi government will look like. Many Shi’ites want to return to a Maliki era without Maliki:  a Shi’ite dominated government absent the former PM’s autocratic tendencies. Many Sunnis, whose tribal leaders will be especially important in expelling ISIS, will not accept this: their preference is a decentralized autonomous zone, similar to Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds themselves want still more autonomy – if not outright independence.

Complex political manoeuvres to further these objectives will accompany any military steps against ISIS. Discussion about the makeup of Iraq’s future government cannot be put off until after a military resolution has been achieved. Military resolution against ISIS must come from political resolution in Baghdad. Western policy towards driving out ISIS must therefore pay careful attention to the importance of Iraqi political and sectarian issues.

In Syria, the situation is more complex. While Salman Shaikh sees the achievement of the US in building a coalition of Arab states to take on ISIS as important, he notes that local communities on the ground in Syria have the best chance of effectively marginalizing ISIS and the ideology it espouses. There have already been local successes against the group. Six or seven thousand Syrians have been killed fighting against ISIS. Local opposition formations have managed to expel the jihadists from cities and towns across Syria.

The US coalition has overlooked the importance of such local groups. Opposition fighters complain of lock of coordination between combatants on the ground and the coalition air campaign. As a result, ground forces have been unable to take advantage of opportunities opened by the air strikes.

More concerning is the anger felt by anti-regime groups at the failure to target Assad’s forces. Many see the airstrikes as directly aiding the regime. Drawing attention to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimations, which put the war’s death-toll at over 200,000 (the majority killed by regime actions), Shaikh suggests that the moral argument used by the US and its allies as part of the justification for attacking ISIS will fail if the focus falls only on this one group, while ignoring Assad’s crimes. This approach will not only lose the battle for hearts and minds on the ground in Syria, but will also threaten the coherence of the coalition itself. Many of the countries now dropping bombs on behalf of the US joined the alliance not just to take on ISIS, but to remove Assad and his regime.

There is, however, a greater threat to long-term success in Syria. Both Shaikh and Pollack drew attention to the importance of working to build a political process in Syria in order to eventually rebuild the country. As in Iraq, this process cannot be an afterthought, to be made up once a military solution has been achieved. Pollack believes that Obama’s plan to degrade and destroy ISIS has missed the point. ISIS is symptomatic of the underlying problems that have been engendered by three years of civil war: deal only with ISIS and a new group will take its place. Any solution must address Assad and include a conversation about the reconstruction of the country after his departure.

Done right, Pollack envisions Syrian reconstruction, led by the UN, undertaken by preexisting Syrian civil society groups, with the US providing security and the Gulf states providing money. Lessons may be learned from successes in Bosnia, and failings in Afghanistan and in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom. State building through engaging with Syrian groups in a bottom-up approach will lay the framework for a political transition. Shaikh by contrast holds that national dialogue among the many actors in Syria is the necessary precursor to reconstruction. Through such a dialogue, Syrians should decide – and agree on – their goals for the country’s future. Encouraging and enabling this conversation will also be vital to find a way towards a lasting resolution.

Without a plan to address Assad and reconstruction, Shaikh envisions a conflict that will intensify, becoming an unpalatable contest between the regime and ISIS. The US is now involved in the Syria and Iraq conflicts. Doing nothing is no longer an option. The only question will be whether US policies will lead lasting solution.

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