A better plan than premature recognition

I confess to being a fan of both Matt Duss and Michael Cohen, respectively President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a Fellow at the Century Foundation. Like them, I am also a supporter of the two-state solution and a territorial settlement based on the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land swaps. But they are wrong in thinking that the United States should recognize the state of Palestine. The time will come, but the situation is not yet ripe for this major diplomatic move.

Even they seem to have their doubts about giving Palestinian President Abbas the recognition “seal of approval.” But the best arguments against diplomatic recognition have little to do with Abbas, who they admit refused an American-proposed framework for a settlement, resists Palestinian Authority responsibility for Gaza’s borders and has postponed elections indefinitely. The bigger problem is that there is no Palestine to recognize: governance is split between the West Bank and Gaza and the purported state territory (and capital) is uncertain. The fact that 130 countries have recognized Palestine demonstrates that the “organized hypocrisy” we know as sovereignty is poorly organized at best.

The better move for the United States is to dust off the settlement framework it presented to Abbas in March 2014, complete the details, add a deadline for declaration of a Palestinian state and try to get it approved in the UN Security Council, which is something the current French Presidency would welcome. This would correct one of the original shortcomings of the Middle East peace process:  the UN General Assembly, not the Security Council, decided the 1948 partition. It would also be an unequivocal step towards a two-state solution, without however giving Abbas the shiny trophy of American recognition he covets but does not merit.

Israel would of course oppose Security Council approval of a peace plan and ultimatum, even if it left open key issues for Palestine and Israel to resolve in subsequent negotiations. Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to hold on to the West Bank indefinitely, his post-election “correction” notwithstanding. Washington needs to break definitively with this ambition, signaling to the Palestinians and the Arab world generally that America will not be held hostage by its Israeli ally’s hunger for all the land west of the Jordan River. With Republicans in Congress lining up behind Netanyahu, it is vital and urgent that the Administration irreversibly sign on to a Security Council plan that makes Palestinian sovereignty inevitable, without however recognizing it prematurely.

The odds of successful implementation of such a Security Council resolution with Netanyahu in power are minimal. But the move would push both Netanyahu and Abbas in the right direction: towards direct, bilateral negotiations of outstanding issues, perhaps with the aid of a UN special envoy. The Americans have exhausted their willingness to mediate the Israel/Palestine dispute. It is time to return it to the United Nations, where it really belongs.

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Euro-Atlantic integrations and good neighborly relations

I did not make it to Skopje for the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) conference on this subject today due to a flight cancellation, but I did speak to the assembled by Skype early this morning DC time. Here are the notes I used:

1. Macedonia is a country of which I am very fond, not least because it has demonstrated its capacity to react effectively to crisis.

2. You are in the midst of a crisis today, one that has cast doubt on the integrity of the institutions your democracy has built over the past quarter century.

3. There is nothing unusual about political crises in democracies. The United States has enjoyed democracy for over two centuries. We still have political crises that revolve around abuse of power, some would say far too often.

4. Nor are we immune from publication of confidential communications.

5. The first resort in any crisis should be to your own institutions: your president, your parliament, your courts, your ombudsman, your press and civil society.

6. It is my hope you will use these institutions to the maximum degree feasible in clarifying, investigating, and eventually prosecuting those whose behavior is contrary to the law.

7. Parliamentary oversight is particularly important. Boycotts in a democracy really serve no purpose but to cut off those who boycott from making a contribution.

8. But there are situations that require more than a country’s own institutions. None of us live in a vacuum, but small countries need to worry more about how neighbors, friends and allies react.

9. You are not the United States, with centuries of a consolidated constitution, friendly neighbors north and south, a giant economy and two great oceans to protect your shores.

10. You are a small, land-locked European country with aspirations to join NATO and the EU.

11. I support those aspirations, which are not so far from realization.

12. Your soldiers have proven themselves, integrated with the Vermont National Guard, in combat in Afghanistan. The defense reforms you undertook after the Ohrid Agreement have put you on track for NATO membership.

13. The European Commission has repeatedly determined you are ready to open negotiations for accession to the EU. Economic reform starting about a decade ago boosted your prospects.

14. But your southern neighbor, Greece, had already blocked both the EU and NATO tracks before the current crisis struck. Countries, like bicycles, need forward motion, or else they fall over.

15. Now you have to pick yourselves up.

16. I am a friend of Macedonia, but I need to tell you frankly that the leaked telephone conversations, and the taping of those conversations, have damaged your international standing. They reflect shocking abuses of political and state power.

17. I doubt you can bank on either NATO or the EU even treating you as well as you have been treated in recent years, which was already unsatisfactory from your (and my) point of view.

18. You are going to need international help to recover. My understanding is that the European Parliament has offered, and your authorities have accepted, mediation.

19. That is good and even necessary, but not sufficient.

20. I wouldn’t of course want to prejudge the outcome of the mediation, but you need to think hard about how to restore both domestic and international confidence in your governing institutions.

21. Macedonia needs a parliament in which all the country’s political forces sit comfortably.

22. It needs a government that welcomes criticism and dissent.

23. It needs a presidency that represents all the citizens.

24. It needs independent courts that pursue malfeasance effectively and impartially, even when committed by the highest authorities, or by the political opposition.

25. No foreigner can tell you how to achieve these things. You know better than I do.

26. But let me offer two suggestions to restore international confidence:

a) End the winner-take-all political mentality that has prevailed in recent years;
b) Make your institutions more transparent and your politicians more accountable.

27. One possible approach would be a technocratic government to prepare new elections. But I don’t see how you can displace the existing one, which commands a wide majority. Even withdrawal of DUI would not guarantee fall of the government, which is not inclined to resign.

28. Another suggestion I’ve heard is to solve the “name” issue that has slowed your reform push, but I see little possibility of that in Greece’s current circumstances, much as I would like to see it.

29. Even entry into NATO as The FYROM seems a bridge too far, much as I would like to see it.

30. Any solution to your current crisis will need to ensure both that people cannot be taped illegally and that legal wire tapping will not be used for political gain. More generally, it will also need to ensure that political parties cannot abuse power or the state apparatus for partisan purposes.

31. That implies a far more independent judiciary and a far more active press and civil society than you enjoy today.

32. DUI is an important part of the picture and needs to think about how it can contribute to restoring confidence in government institutions. That means first and foremost making certain that its own behavior is impeccably clean.

33. DUI also needs to think about how it can collaborate with its coalition partners and the opposition parties to ensure transparency and accountability across the political spectrum.

34. A commission of inquiry into the wiretapping and its political exploitation is one possibility, perhaps with international participation. A white paper recommending political reforms could help Macedonia find its way through the current morass.

35. Your country is facing great challenges, but also great opportunities. You’ve gone a long way with economic reforms. Now you have to go the distance with political and judicial reforms. The things you are learning about your current system aren’t pretty, but they are real.

36. Fix them, and you can expect strong support from the Americans. I’ll let the Europeans speak for themselves.

PS: This is apparently what it looked like as I spoke:

The Wizard of Oz?
The Wizard of Oz?
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The Islamic Republic and the Kingdom

This morning’s news confirms that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has jinned up a Sunni alliance (including Egypt, Turkey, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan as well as several other countries) to battle the (sort of Shia) Houthi rebellion in Yemen, which the Shia-majority Islamic Republic of Iran backs. No one likes to label wars sectarian, but avoiding it doesn’t make them less so.

Sectarian wars are identity conflicts, which makes them particularly difficult to resolve. No one likes to compromise their identity. During conflict, the multiple (and sometimes common) identities we all sport in more normal times are often shorn in favor of a single one. Middle East experts will all tell you that seeing what is going on exclusively through a sectarian lense is a mistake. But it is a mistake that in a first approximation comes all too close to reality during conflict.

It is increasingly clear that it won’t be possible to manage the conflicts in the Middle East country by country, which is the way diplomacy normally works. War does not. Syria and Iraq are one theater of operations for the Islamic State and for the Iranian-backed militias fighting it. Lebanon could be engulfed soon. Iran supports the Houthi rebellion in Yemen in part because of the Sunni rebellion in Syria.

The Sunni/Shia dimension of these conflicts puts the Americans in an awkward spot. They don’t want to take sides in sectarian war. Their major concerns are not sectarian but rather nuclear weapons, terrorism and oil. So they find themselves supporting Iranian militias in Iraq and as well as their (allegedly moderate) Sunni opponents in Syria and Yemen. The result is that Sunnis feel abandoned by their erstwhile ally even as Iranians accuse the Americans of originating Sunni sectarianism in the Middle East. We are in a lose-lose bind.

Getting out of it is going to require more skilled regional diplomacy than we have demonstrated so far. We need to be able to do two things at once:

  1. bring home a serious product from the nuclear talks with Iran early next week, and
  2. counter Iranian aggression and proxies in Yemen and Syria

If the nuclear talks fail, expect to see escalation on all sides: in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. But if the nuclear talks succeed, that will not mean peace in our time, as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will seek a free hand in pursuing its activities abroad to compensate for limits on the nuclear program. Only preparedness to counter the IRGC will convince it otherwise.

The Administration has wisely kept the nuclear talks focused mainly on the Iranian nuclear program. But the time is coming for a wider discussion with Iran of its interests in neighboring countries and the counter-productive way in which it is projecting power through Shia proxies. We’ll also need to be talking with America’s Sunni friends, especially Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, about the opening they provide to Iran by discriminatory and exclusionary treatment of Shia in their own populations.

A classic security dilemma has emerged between Sunni and Shia in many parts of the Middle East. What one group does to make itself more secure the other group sees as threatening. Escalation is the consequence, but that won’t work. Neither Sunni nor Shia will win this war. Eventually the Islamic Republic and the Kingdom will need to reach an accommodation. How many will die before they do?


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Colombia: understanding conflict

Colombia: Understanding Conflict
SAIS Conflict Management Program
Student Research Trip

Student Panel Presentation and Discussion
Moderated by Professors P. Terrence Hopmann and
I. William Zartman

Wednesday April 1, 2015
4:30 pm
Rome Auditorium
1619 Massachusetts Ave., NW

In January 2015 sixteen SAIS students spent ten days in Colombia interviewing leaders, and members of international organizations and members of the community in Quibdó and Bogotá. The objective of the trip was to gain a deeper understanding of the roots of the Colombian conflict; to evaluate the conflict management efforts that have taken place; and finally to present recommendations about how best to advance the process of long-term conflict resolution and peace-building. Students will discuss their findings and present their report.

Sponsored by the SAIS Conflict Management Program

This event is open to the public. Please RSVP to


A reception will follow

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The SuShi proxy war is likely to continue

This morning’s news that Saudi Arabia is bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen confirms what you already knew: the Middle East is engulfed in a proxy war between Iran–which supports the Houthis in Yemen, Bashar al Asad in Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, and Lebanon’s Hizbollah–and Sunni states, including in the front lines the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as well as Saudi Arabia. Occasional Sunni-majority contributors include Turkey, Pakistan and Egypt. At the same time, Iran and its allies as well as Saudi Arabia and its allies are fighting against Sunni extremists associated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

No wonder it is hard to keep score. This game is played in many dimensions. In the Sunni/Shia dimension, the United States has no dog in the fight, to use Secretary of State Baker’s unforgettable phrase. Our focus is on the fight against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, wherever they rear their brutal methods, because we fear they will inevitably target the “far enemy” (us) in due course. You might think it would be possible for Iran and Saudi Arabia to cooperate in that dimension, but instead they compete. Neither wants a victory over extremism to be credited to the other or to allow the other (or its proxies) to inherit the territory extremists once controlled.

The Sunni/Shia dimension and the anti-extremist dimension are not really orthogonal. Victory in one will affect the outcome in the other. The protagonists know it, which is one reason they are engaging in both. Iran would gain a great deal in the fight against Sunni states if Shia-allied forces win in Iraq and Syria. Likewise, Saudi Arabia would gain a great deal in the fight against Iran if it is able to put a majority Sunni regime in place in Syria and chase the Islamic State from the Sunni provinces of Iraq.

Yemen is a bit of a side show to the main theater of operations in the Levant. But geography makes it important to Saudi Arabia, in whose back yard it lies. If the Iran-allied Houthis are able to take over there, the Kingdom will feel the loss. By the same token, the Kingdom wants to see Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula defeated. Ironically, the Houthis have been at least as willing to engage on that front as the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, but Riyadh won’t see that as a plus. It wants to defeat both the Houthis and Al Qaeda.

Washington is in a difficult spot. It doesn’t want to be a protagonist in the Sunni/Shia war, but is viewed as one with every move it makes. Yesterday’s American air attacks against the remaining Islamic State forces in Tikrit were apparently undertaken only when Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi agreed to limit the role of Shia militias in retaking the capital of Salahuddin province. David Petraeus and others are being quoted as claiming that Iran is a far greater threat to the US than the Islamic State.

Likewise the nuclear negotiations are being seen through the lens of the Sunni/Shia conflict. An agreement that blocks Iran’s paths to nuclear weapons and provides at least a year’s warning of breakout has come to be viewed as strengthening rather than weakening the Islamic Republic. Sunni states apparently prefer military action against Iran’s nuclear program, which would guarantee that the Iranians do their damndest to get the bomb. But their goading of the US to war might be quickly forgotten in the devastating aftermath, as Iran would no doubt target its Gulf neighbors in any response.

This layered set of interrelated issues (Sunni/Shia, Islamic extremists, nuclear capabilities) is a good deal to complex for even very skilled diplomats to imagine easy solutions. The Obama Administration has essentially decided to prioritize two issue: blocking Iran from nuclear weapons and fighting Islamic extremists. We’ll know by Monday, the deadline for some sort of product from the nuclear talks, if the first issue is likely to be resolved. The second is likely to be with us much longer, if only because the Sunni/Shia conflict we don’t want to be involved in will keep feeding the extremists of both varieties with recruits.

The SuShi proxy war (between Sunni and Shia) is likely to continue.


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Finding a way forward in Syria

March 16, on the fourth anniversary of the Syrian conflict, the Middle East Institute convened a panel discussion focusing on the way forward for Syria. Led by MEI’s vice president Paul Salem, the panel featured resident scholar and former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, senior political advisor to the Syrian American Council Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, deputy director and fellow at CNAS Dafna Rand and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Michael Eisenstadt.

Paul Salem reminded the audience about the somber development of the Syrian crisis.  The conflict has cost the lives of an estimated 300,000 Syrians, has injured many more and has displaced another 9 million. The economy has been devastated, and will likely take 30-40 years to return to pre-crisis levels. Moreover, fallout from the conflict threatens both the region and the world at large. Salem argued that the US and its allies have so far been unable to cope with these challenges, as they have yet to produce a strategy that deals with the root cause of the conflict: a regime that refuses to budge or compromise.

Ambassador Ford argued that current US policy falls short of the intended goal of containing and eventually rolling back the Islamic State (ISIS). In particular, Ford noted that recruitment of Syrians to ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra continues unabated – driven by the brutality of the Syrian civil war. The bombing campaign against ISIS might be helpful as a stop-gap measure, but it will not succeed in rolling it back.

To achieve this, the US must instead push for a political transition process, Ford argued. This requires that the opposition accept negotiations with the Assad regime and that they provide war-weary regime supporters with a vision of Syria that is neither Assad’s nor the Islamists’. It also requires increased material support to the moderate opposition so that the regime feels compelled to negotiate. Ford concluded by pointing out that support for the opposition in Syria is about bringing both parties to the table, not about toppling the regime.

In a similar vein, Mohamed Alaa Ghanem argued for a more robust American response to the Syrian crisis. Ghanem pointed out that in October 2011 Syrian protesters had come out in large numbers to demand the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria. He argued that if a no-fly zone had been established in July 2012, when the Free Syrian Army controlled a majority of populated areas in Syria, it could have meant the effective end of the regime. Similarly, Ghanem argued that the current US train-and-equip program would flounder if these forces did not have protection against the regime’s aerial bombardments. He therefore urged the US to support Turkish proposals of an air exclusion zone – a limited form of no-fly zone that would shield Aleppo and allow some space to the moderate rebels.

He also urged more significant support to the rebels, noting that the FSA-affiliated ‘Southern Front’ that is currently making progress pays their fighters about $85 per month, as opposed to Jabat al-Nusra’s $300 and IS’ $500-1000. Ghanem warned that de Mistura’s plan of local freezes would likely free up regime forces for the offensive in the south, and argued that the only framework for a political settlement acceptable to Syrians was the Geneva communique.

On a slightly more optimistic note, Daphna Rand said that the US policy of fighting the ISIS could be helpful in pushing for a transition process, provided it was leveraged the right way.  Rand suggested four reasons why the two goals were related. First, the current battle map of Syria requires the removal of IS from the the North-West – particularly from the Turkish border, in order to create governing space for the opposition. Second, recent opinion polls show a significant increase in public support for intervention in Syria after the anti-ISIS campaign was announced in October 2014. Third, experience from previous interventions suggests that the US-led anti-ISIS campaign will not remain in its current limited form. Intervention will require the US to pick a side, as indicated  by the current training of a non-jihadist, non-regime force. Finally, the architecture of the anti-ISIS coalition suggests that the current intervention might overcome the strategic disparity that characterized early efforts by the US and its allies, when the support for widely different groups helped fragment the Syrian opposition.

Michael Eisenstadt argued that the US policy in Syria amounts to supporting an insurgency. Since insurgencies are inherently political, this requires coordination between political and military efforts. Such coordination so far has not been forthcoming, in part due to muddled thinking about the use of military power. Obama’s mantra on Syria has been that there are no military solutions to the conflict – an approach that the Assad regime clearly disagrees with.

According to Eisenstadt, it is clear that some form of military action is required to bring about a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict. Moreover, US Syria policy appears to be held hostage by the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. Eisenstadt stressed that these negotiations should not constrain US options in Syria and pointed to the fact that the Iranians themselves do not appear to be notably constrained in their Syria policy.

The US needs to recognize its role in perpetuating the conflict. US inaction has been a recruitment bonanza for ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra and encouraged the perceived passive alliance with Iran in Iraq. The fact that early airstrikes protected minority groups but not Sunnis has helped cement a view of the US as opposed to the Syrian revolution. Einsentadt concluded by warning against separating US policy in Syria from Iraq. Without according equal weight to efforts in both countries, the US cannot succeed in defeating ISIS.

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