The Middle East Institute discussion today of building support for moderate Syrian rebel forces stirred both mind and blood.With Kate Seelye moderating, the panel offered a multilayered critique of US and coalition policy.
McClatchy’s Roy Gutman launched with a denunciation of US aid cuts to the 8-10,000 vetted fighters, who are losing ground and personnel to the Syrian regime and extremists. While White House favorites like David Ignatius are declaring the moderates don’t exist, in fact they did well fighting extremists for much of this year (after an initial debacle in the north, where their warehouses were raided by ISIS).
The rebels have suffered more recently from having no unified command, lack of coordination among donors, and the need to fight Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra as well as ISIS and the regime. The US, which a Syrian opined “walks like a turtle while events race like a rabbit,” punishes the opposition for failures that are due in fact to lack of US support. The situation bears all the hallmarks of impending disaster for the moderates. Somehow the opposition is holding its ground in the center of Aleppo, but it is losing manpower to the extremists.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition’s Oubai Shahbandar agreed the situation is difficult, but he thought not impossible. Despite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters operating on the regime side, Aleppo has held. The rebels are resilient. They are fighting Assad, a fight that is inextricably linked to the fight against ISIS. Defeating ISIS in Iraq and containing it in Syria, as the Obama administration would like to do, is not a viable option. Rebel forces in southern Syria are making real progress in surrounding Damascus. The moderates are not finished. There are still viable options if they get sufficient support.
Retired US Army General Paul Eaton said the US has no strategy, just an incoherent response. This is partly because there are no vital US interests at stake in Syria, only “conditional” ones. The war against ISIS is the main US effort, which we entered because ISIS threatened our Kurdish friends in Erbil (not because journalists were beheaded). But the war is existential for President Assad, who is therefore unrestrained even as the US pursues the art of the possible. The Administration has a choice of two out of three: good, fast and cheap. It has chosen good and cheap (and therefore also slow). One year will not be enough. In the meanwhile, the opposition is unable to hold and build.
Retired Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford underlined that this is a two-front war, east and west. The Administration has given priority to the east (Iraq). The west (Syria) is not going well. But there is no solution only in Iraq. Nor is there a solution unless we fight both the regime and ISIS. It may be too late, as we have failed to bomb ISIS forces that are challenging the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades. Assad and the jihadis are winning in the west. It is unrealistic to expect the FSA to fight only Assad. We need to change the balance on the ground in order to get a political solution in Syria.
Asked about the UN “freeze” proposal for Aleppo, Gutman underlined that past ceasefires have essentially amounted to surrenders of the opposition to the regime. The UN is on its third top-notch special envoy. But he won’t succeed either unless something is done to alter the balance on the ground. Ford noted that of three dozen ceasefires, only one has held up. Eaton said that the US could enforce a freeze, but it has to consider the Iranian and Russian responses if it were to do so.
If we move towards a “no fly” zone, Ford emphasized the need for strict conditions on our friends: we would want the Sunnis to pledge protection for Alawites and other minorities, the Turks to pledge not to push Syrian refugees out of Turkey, the donors to tighten coordination and to push for a political solution. Gutman underlined that it is vital for the opposition to set up shop inside Syria, but doing so will require ground forces (which Turkey does not want to provide) as well as protection from the air. Shahbandar thinks a “no fly” zone would help to change the balance on the ground and win hearts and minds, which are being lost now because of US failure to attack regime forces.
Russia and Iran, the panel agreed, are key international players. Russia has been reluctant to force the regime to fight ISIS or to push Assad out. The Administration has told the Iranians it will not bomb Assad’s forces. But Iran is a key factor in supporting ISIS, which it helped revive after its defeat in Iraq. Tehran is the “turboengine” of terrorism in the Levant, Shahbandar said. The US risks losing all Sunni support if it is seen as allied with Iran.
Bottom line: the US still lacks a coherent strategy against ISIS in Syria, which would require stronger support to the moderate opposition and the fight against Assad, a unified opposition military command and logistics, and more effort to undo Iranian and Russian support for the regime. Otherwise disaster looms.
allowed a conflict of interest to exist wherein the contractors who helped design and employ the enhanced interrogation techniques also were involved in assessing the fitness of detainees to be subjected to such techniques and the effectiveness of those same techniques;
On Tuesday, the Wilson Center hosted a discussion with Vian Dakhil, the only Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament. Halah Esfandiari, Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East program, moderated.
Dakhil received international attention in August, when she delivered a speech highlighting the plight of the Yazidis at the hands of Da’ish in the Sinjar area of Nineveh Province. The high profile siege of thousands of refugees sheltering on Mount Sinjar was ultimately broken by Kurdish forces from Syria (YPG) and Turkey (PKK). However, less well reported has been the fate of the Yazidis in the months since.
Dakhil was quick to note that there are still Yazidi refugees on the mountain. She estimates that there are as many as 1,200 families (6,000-7,000 individuals) encamped there. Though Da’ish was driven back, its forces make the surrounding lands too dangerous for land-based evacuation. Throughout the fall, the Iraqi armed forces have worked to airlift families off the mountain. Though Dakhil was quick to praise these efforts as well intended, she notes they are still woefully inadequate: only four helicopters have been spared for the operation. On any given evacuation mission, only around 25 individuals can be flown out.
Though Dakhil made no mention of it during the discussion, she has had first-hand experience of the shortcomings of the airlift mission. In August, she was on board a rescue helicopter when it crashed after being overloaded with refugees.
Meanwhile, for those thousands of Yazidis still on the mountain, the situation is desperate. As winter closes in, temperatures will plummet and several inches of freezing rain will fall. While grateful to the international community for what aid and supplies it has provided, Dakhil does not believe enough has been done to relieve the refugees. She is particularly critical of the quality of tents provided by UNHCR. Last month, three children died when a tent caught fire. Tragedies such as this are not isolated incidents. More supplies, of better quality, are needed.
The plight of Yazidi women is also of the utmost importance. Dakhil estimates that upwards of 5,000 kidnapped women and girls are still held by Da’ish. Yazidi women are especially targeted for kidnap and sale, as the jihadists see Yazidis as kuffar (infidels) on account of their reverence for the angel Melek Taus (whose perceived similarities to the Islamic and Christian devil has contributed to centuries of persecution). Dakhil‘s trips around the world have in part been to raise awareness for these women.
Off the mountain and away from Da’ish, half a million Yazidis (a majority of the Yazidi population) are in refugee camps in and around Iraqi Kurdistan. More help is needed, desperately. In the camps, there is one bathroom for 18 families; one shower for 50 families. And Yazidi families are large. With winter closing in, and hundreds of thousands living in unsanitary conditions, the humanitarian crisis will worsen. Dakhil wishes to do all she can to avert such a crisis, and hopes that the international coalition will direct as much energy into helping the victims of Da’ish as they do when bombing it.
For the US, Dakhil‘s request for help is specific. Earlier this year she formally requested US assistance at the American Embassy in Baghdad, but she also wants the US to use its global influence – especially in the UN and the UN Security Council – to try to bring about more international commitment to providing humanitarian aid. She has seen first hand that the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, though sympathetic, are lacking resources and are at risk of being overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis.
Earlier this year, Da’ish attempted genocide of the Yazidis. Though they failed, the plight of this tiny people remains dire. Dakhil‘s work to protect and save her constituents, despite personal setbacks and injuries, shows her devotion as an MP at a time politicians around the world have been widely criticized.
The Middle East Institute published this piece last night under the heading Iran’s Nuclear Secrets Need to be Revealed. It puts me in agreement with hawkish views. But I think there is no escaping the need for Iran to come clean, at least to the IAEA.
Expert American opinion on the outcome of last month’s nuclear negotiations with Iran is sharply divided. Those who want Iran to give up all enrichment technology are relieved that a “bad” deal was averted. Pressure is building in Congress, especially but not exclusively among Republicans, for new sanctions. Some would like to see Congress authorize the use of military force. Others think an interim arrangement limiting Iranian enrichment (the November 2013 “Joint Plan of Action,” which took effect January 20, 2014) is good enough for now and certainly better than no limits. They resist the idea of new sanctions and hope for an agreement by the new July 2015 deadline that will provide as much as a year’s warning of any Iranian moves to produce the material needed for a nuclear weapon.
Both perspectives focus on the overt Iranian nuclear program, which is monitored and safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under provisions of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). But no country since the IAEA was founded in 1957 has used an overt program or safeguarded material to obtain nuclear weapons. Nuclear powers India, Pakistan, and Israel never signed the NPT. North Korea signed but withdrew before testing a nuclear weapon, using material produced clandestinely. South Africa developed and tested nuclear weapons clandestinely before it became an NPT signatory in 1991, when it gave them up. Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan had many Soviet nuclear weapons on their territory but transferred them out and joined the NPT in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that clandestine and non-safeguarded nuclear programs are a much greater risk for proliferation than the ones the IAEA monitors.
Iran is an NPT signatory. Its safeguarded facilities are in compliance with its NPT obligations. It is also in compliance with the Joint Plan of Action. But Iran has not implemented all resolutions of the IAEA Board of Governors or the UN Security Council, nor has it implemented the Additional Protocol that permits short-notice inspections of suspect locations. The IAEA’s bottom line is ominous:
The Agency is not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.
The question of covert facilities is said to preoccupy some American negotiators, but the negotiations have focused on Iran’s overt, safeguarded program.
The clandestine route to a nuclear weapon is far more likely. The IAEA has asked Tehran to explain research efforts that IAEA scientists associate with nuclear weapons research, including initiation of high explosives (to compress fissionable material) and neutron transport calculations (required to initiate a chain reaction). Tehran has not yet provided a satisfactory response to these inquiries or access to facilities where unsafeguarded activities may have taken place in the past. American intelligence agencies have said publicly that they believe this weapons-related research ended more than a decade ago. But earlier efforts that betrayed “possible military dimensions” remain a source of profound distrust of Iranian intentions, not only in the United States but also in Israel and elsewhere.
Iranians are quick to respond that the Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against production or use of nuclear weapons. This can be “secularized,” meaning it can be issued as legislation. They also emphasize that Iran would be far less secure if it obtained nuclear weapons but in the process triggered Saudi, Egyptian, or other efforts to match the prize. Far better, some say in private, to gain the underlying technology but stop short of weaponizing, which is an expensive process of not only producing the weapons but also making them compact enough to be mounted on missiles and launched. 
Americans concerned about an Iranian clandestine nuclear program want Tehran to “come clean” about its past activities. This is what Muammar Qaddafi did in 2003, when he opened up Libya’s clandestine (but still rudimentary) nuclear program to intense American scrutiny and removal. It is difficult to picture Iran doing as much as that. But it could, and should, go much further than it has so far in answering frankly the IAEA’s pointed questions about its past weapons-related research and development.
The United States can hope that the current negotiations on Iran’s overt nuclear program will put a year between any decision to get nuclear weapons and the result, in exchange for some measure of sanctions relief. It has to aim to do at least that well on the clandestine side as well. This will mean not only Iranian implementation of the Additional Protocol that allows surprise inspections, but also a clear and comprehensive account of past weapons-related nuclear research and development.
The Senate Committee report on the CIA’s use of extreme interrogation techniques has elicited some vigorous and interesting responses. My SAIS colleague John McLaughlin says that the program was effective, citing chapter and verse. John McCain says it wasn’t and that it doesn’t matter, since it was the wrong thing to do.
But the most interesting response was by John and his colleagues in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where they write:
The detention and interrogation program was formulated in the aftermath of the murders of close to 3,000 people on 9/11. This was a time when:
• We had evidence that al Qaeda was planning a second wave of attacks on the U.S.
• We had certain knowledge that bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists and wanted nuclear weapons.
• We had reports that nuclear weapons were being smuggled into New York City.
• We had hard evidence that al Qaeda was trying to manufacture anthrax.
It felt like the classic “ticking time bomb” scenario—every single day.
In this atmosphere, time was of the essence and the CIA felt a deep responsibility to ensure that an attack like 9/11 would never happen again. We designed the detention and interrogation programs at a time when “relationship building” was not working with brutal killers who did not hesitate to behead innocents. These detainees had received highly effective counter-interrogation training while in al Qaeda training camps. And yet it was clear they possessed information that could disrupt plots and save American lives.
Those who have read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow will recognize several characteristics of fast thinking in this account. Notably: the hasty reaction to threatening events, overestimate of their probability and intensity matching, in which potential harm to the United States is viewed as far worse than the abuse of a few individuals.
But I would add this: such thinking is not malicious. It is natural and even necessary to survival. I have no doubt but that John and others involved thought they were doing the right thing (and ensured that they had the necessary legal authority to back them up–fast thinking does not preclude the more deliberative approach). They found themselves in what they perceived as an intensely threatening situation and did what they felt necessary to avoid harm to all of us. They are patriots. No one should doubt that.
What we should doubt is whether we have put in place the institutional mechanisms required to prevent quick reactions of this sort that violate international agreements and American norms, to the overall detriment of national security. If you doubt that, you can have a look at the Washington Post’s “10 most harrowing excerpts from the CIA interrogation report.” But I don’t recommend it. The details are truly disturbing and may precipitate more fast thinking that misses the mark.
I’m not going to pretend to have read the thousands of pages of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, published today. I haven’t made my way through more than a few pages of the executive summary (it is 600 pages long, I am told).
But I was struck over the weekend in Berlin when a colleague mentioned to me the photographic exhibit of German World War II atrocities located just inside the Brandenburg Gate, near a large and well-lit Christmas tree. It is only by acknowledging mistakes that governments can ensure avoiding them in the future.
The 20 findings and conclusions concerning the CIA program, which effectively ended more than eight years ago (or so we are led to believe) therefore merit my attention and yours, so here are the first ten (with a few random comments):