Countering the extremist factory

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to gain more power and territory with each passing day, yet the Obama administration has failed so far to take significant steps to counter this impending threat. On Thursday morning, the Atlantic Council hosted “Losing Syria and Iraq to Jihadists” to discuss Atlantic Council Fellow Faysal Itani’s findings regarding US strategy to halt ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. Ambassador Frederic C. Hof, Atlantic Council Senior Fellow, and Barry Pavel, Vice President and Director of International Security at the Atlantic Council, joined the panel.

Itani‘s report details the successes of ISIS and the few effective responses available to the United States. Due to the current weak governmental systems in both Syria and Iraq, ISIS has risen to power and laid the groundwork to create its own state. It now has control over an area that spans the size of Jordan, and the options for the US are looking especially grim.

According to Itani, the  sole logical option lies within Syria: we must fight this war against ISIS through the moderate Syrian opposition. The Administration should develop a strategy to strengthen, equip and empower moderate Syrian opposition groups with resources and intelligence in order to combat ISIS gains. This is the only logical way to reverse the worst possible outcome, which is currently happening before our eyes.

Ambassador Hof contended that US involvement depends entirely on the Obama Administration’s stance, which is based on the conclusion that there is little the US can do to help Syria. Hof disagreed with this perspective. He believes that the current situation in Iraq is inspiring second thoughts in the White House. On Thursday afternoon, several hours after the panel, President Obama requested $500 million from Congress to train and equip members of the Syrian opposition. If approved, this would be the first significant move not only towards addressing ISIS’s advances, but also the ongoing Syrian civil war.

Barry Pavel then highlighted the many changes underway within the international community and how we are essentially embarking on a new era of international relations. The world is experiencing a massive shift of economic and military power to Asia, as well as a wave of trends that are empowering individuals, facilitated by new technology and the growth of the middle class. The global stage is changing significantly as non-state actors continue to have a greater impact in foreign relations.

The US nonetheless continues to focus solely on stability. The Obama administration should revamp how it addresses the world to a more “people-centric” strategy.   Pavel calls this a “dynamic security strategy.”  We need to reconsider our frameworks and institutions that were created in a WWII mindset. Time is not on our side if we keep our current approach with Syria. We should incorporate a more activist approach, as the situation with ISIS worsens each day.

Pavel agreed with Itani’s strategy to arm the Syrian moderate opposition in order to fight ISIS.   It is the path of least resistance.  He stressed that we must take action on this strategy quickly because as time goes on, ISIS will increasingly acquire what it needs to be a nation-state, which ultimately will make it far more dangerous than Al-Qaeda ever was.

“Iraq is currently a factory for extremism and it is time for the administration to take measures to address it,” Pavel said.

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Belgrade asks, Hashim Thaci answers

Petrit Selimi, Kosovo Deputy Foreign Minister, asked me to publish in English this Danas interview with Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, which is appearing today in Serbian.  I do this with the proviso that I would of course publish similar material either from the Prime Minister’s political competitors in Kosovo or from the authorities in Belgrade. 

Danas:  How are the talks unfolding of your party on the creation of the government and who are you talking to? Is there a chance of the wide coalition between PDK, LDK and AAK?

HT: Let me first say that these were fully democratic elections, organized for the first time in the entire territory of the republic, including north. All parties accepted the results and PDK won the elections with a very comfortable margin. We are now waiting for the final certification of MP seats and the constitution of Kosovo parliament. After these necessary lega steps are taken, we expect for the President to grant us the mandate for negotiating a coalition and creation of the new government. We are open to discuss with all parties that are keen on moving ahead with economic program, job-creation and european integration.

Danas: In case you are not leading the government, you think the dialogue with Serbia will stop?

HT: As clear winners of elections, we expect to lead the government in the next 4 years. The issue of mandate is now before the Constitutional Court, and we will respect any decision of the court. Whatever format of the government takes place, dialogue with neighbors is a essential condition of European integrations. Kosovo managed to establish clear border with Serbia and there is no doubt that Serbia had to accept the constitutional and legal framework of Kosovo as the only legal one in north of Kosovo. This is a one-way street that will continue to be the spine of establishing normal relations in Balkans. Me as a Prime Minister and any future Prime Minister in years to come will follow the european track that is conditional on continuing with the dialogue.
Danas: What message would Kosovo send if Ramush Haradinaj, a former head of a criminal clan and a commander of KLA, would become a PM?

HT: Leaders of political parties of Kosovo are democratically elected leaders and not criminals. KLA was one of the most successful guerrilla armies in modern european history and as the leader of KLA I am very proud that we have achieved the freedom through fighting the evil regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Danas: What positions in the government will Serbs take?

HT: Serbian minority has a constitutional role as a guaranteed place in the government of Republic of Kosovo. The exact nature of their involvement in next government will be negotiated after the results are certified.

Danas: What would be the main aims of a new government, if you do become a PM?

HT: The main focus of my government will be jobs, jobs and jobs. Everything else is a derivative of our plan to start a New Mission of economic development. Our first mission was to become free from the bad regime of Serbia, our second mission was to declare independence and establish internationally recognized position and the new mission will be to fast forward the economic development based on solid results of our work in previous years. We built 1500 km of roads and highways in last 7 years, we build 140 schools and we had average GDP growth of 4.5% in last 6 years. This is a very good basis to continue with our reforms and job-creation efforts.

Danas: In what way would your government work on improving the safety of Serb community and return of the Serbs?

Serbian community is safe in the new, independent Kosovo. Statistically, you are safer as a Serb in Prishtina than in Belgrade. We must ensure that we implement the dialogue so the situation is normalized. People need normality to feel safe and people need normality to move on with their lives. We will work together to ensure confidence in our country, though we should not forget that Kosovo was under genocidal threat only 15 years ago. We are still digging bodies hidden in Serbia and we need to close the painful chapters so we can move to fully normal relations which will be of benefit for Albanians, Serbs, Turks, Bosniaks, Romas, Jews and all the other Kosovars.

Danas: What are your expectations from the next phases of dialogue in Brussels?

HT: In the end of the entire process, we will have a full recognition of reality including independent Kosovo as essential part of Balkan architecture. I have no doubt whatsoever that we are moving towards that direction.

Danas: Do you think that your statement that “setting up of the Peace Park is a shameful act of a new barricade”, helped subsequent troubles in Kosovo Mitrovica?

HT: Let me repeat it again, establishment of a new barricade in the middle of the bridge is a shameful act. It will not be accepted by EU, it will not be accepted by all citizens of Mitrovica, both south and north – because people are tired of divisions, they want good economy and cooperation. I expect the barricades, even i they are called “peace parks” to be lifted so people can move freely. I urge the leaders of municipal communities to think of how to solve their local problems, and not to increase the problems. We will be firm. No parks, or sport courts, or gardens, can be built in the middle of highways or bridges, neither in Prishtina, nor in Belgrade, neither in New York or Mitrovica. This so-called park makes mockery of peace efforts. But we must not fall pray of provocations of those that are trying to delay implementation of Brussels Agreement. It’s even more important is that we focus on establishing Kosovo court in north and that we enable full integration of this part in our legal system.

Danas: You expect stabilization of situation in north?

HT: Sometimes it seems that scenes you see on TV are dramatic. But life of the ordinary people is less dramatic and is focused on how to earn salary, how to fight corruption, how to move freely. Situation in Mitrovica is moving towards resolution. Mitrovica Serbs now have legal representatives instead os parallel Serbian structures and within democratic context we will further cement the progress we achieved in last year.


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Flipping SecState the bird

It’s been a bad few days for Secretary of State Kerry, on top of many bad weeks.  On Sunday, he expressed the hope Egypt would take advantage of a critical moment in its transition to turn towards democracy. Then an Egyptian court popped that bubble with a trumped up verdict in a trumped up trial on trumped up charges against three Al Jazeera  journalists. By Tuesday, SecState was pressing Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and Kurdistan President Barzani to proceed quickly to formation of an inclusive government. By today, Maliki said he had no such intention and Barzani is talking secession, more seriously than ever before.

This comes on top of the failed Middle East (that is, Israeli/Palestinian) peace process and Russian rejection of Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s proposed ceasefire. Not to mention the mess in Syria, where the President’s reluctance to intervene is all to obviously not pleasing to John Kerry. He has said repeatedly that a political settlement depends on changing the military situation on the ground. I won’t even mention the Asia Pacific, where China is again daring its neighbors.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that things are going badly for the Obama Administration in foreign policy. That’s precisely what the American people have decided, even if they support some of the President’s decisions on what to do and not do.

Daniels Larison and Drezner have been engaged in the why of this puzzle. Larison thinks it is due to the failure of the President to provide the resources needed to achieve his goals. Drezner thinks it is double think on the part of Americans:  they want the country in general less engaged abroad (the outcome) but don’t like the specific consequences (the outputs).

I’ll leave the other Daniels to resolve that puzzle. I’m interested in what John Kerry is thinking. His behavior strikes me as out of keeping with past Secretaries of State, who have either been far more cautious in what they say or far more determined to get foreign leaders to salute when they say it. Most days, a lot of the State Department is engaged precisely in trying to line up “yes” from foreign leaders, in advance of a SecState “ask.” Secretaries don’t ask if they are not guaranteed a positive reply.

Kerry seems displeased but not angered when Maliki or Sisi says “no.” His attitude strikes me as more like that of a Senator than a Secretary of State. Senators are used to colleagues disagreeing. They are also used to being taken seriously for what they say, rather than for what they can do. There is always another day to try to win over opponents. Senators state their case but try not to burn bridges.

Hillary Clinton of course was also a senator before she was SecState, but she was notably more cautious in what she said. I don’t recall her ever hinting that she supported arming the Syrian revolutionaries, even though it is now known she did in secret. Kerry has been particularly bold in what he says publicly, but shy in deed, perhaps because there is so little Secretaries of State can actually do on their own authority other than speak. I guess that puts me more in the Larison than the Drezner camp about what is going on.

But whatever the reason, it is not good when other countries flip SecState the bird.

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Kosovo’s Rubik cube

I responded to some questions today from Shpend Limoni, who has published my replies at Gazeta Express.  Here is the exchange in English:

1. LDK, AAK and NISMA signed an agreement to form Kosovo’s future government. Do you think that LDK, AAK and NISMA in principle have the right to form a government despite the fact that Kosovo’s Constitutional Court will deal with this issue?

DPS: What I think doesn’t matter if the Court will decide.

2. Are you surprised with a refusal from LDK, AAK and NISMA to cooperate with Hashim Thaçi?

DPS: I was as surprised as anyone else not privy to their thinking prior to the decision.

3. Do you think that internationals will support a government with Ramush Haradinaj as a Prime Minister and Vetëvendosje as a part of it?

DPS: Internationals will be supportive of any Kosovo government formed in accordance with Kosovo’s constitution and laws.

4. How do you see the current role of Vetëvendosje in political scene?

DPS: Vetëvendosje I see as one political force among several. In the past it has advocated things that are inconsistent with Kosovo’s constitution. In that sense it is an anticonstitutional movement. I disagree with its position on a referendum to determine the status of Kosovo, which in my view would destabilize the region.

5. Do you think that Vetëvendosje will be constructive in the context of dialogue with Serbia?

DPS:  I really don’t know. It has not always been constructive in the past. But it has shifted its position a bit and might shift more, whether inside or outside government. The responsibilities of governing are different from the responsibilities of opposition.

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The verdict and the Obama administration

Secretary of State Kerry in Cairo Sunday suggested that Egypt was in a critical moment of transition. On Tuesday, an Egyptian court handed down draconian sentences for Al Jazeera journalists accused of crimes allegedly committed in the pursuit of their profession.  While standards vary around the world, I think it fair to say that in no democracy on earth is spreading of false rumors, even if they help “terrorists,” punishable by seven years in prison.  Most of what the journalists were accused of would not make it into a courtroom even in many autocracies.

Egypt is not of course a democratic society.  But the American administration has been pretending it is on course to becoming one.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Egypt is on course towards restoration of the autocracy, this time dressed in civilian garb (only recently acquired).  Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have bought and paid for this counter-revolution. They want the full metal jacket, not blanks.  General Sisi is giving it to them.

The problem for the Americans is that they want to continue aid to Egypt, which is not permitted by US law unless the administration can credibly claim that there is a transition to democracy in progress.  The verdict gives the lie to that assertion.  No doubt the Egyptian government will say it is a consequence of their independent judiciary. Both Foreign Minister Fahmy and presidential advisor Amr Moussa said as much about judicial decisions when they were in Washington a couple of months ago.  But that is nonsense.  The Egyptian judiciary was part and parcel of the military regime under Hosni Mubarak, and it remains the same today.

There are really only two serious options now for the US Government:

  1. Go to Congress and explain why at least some of the aid needs to continue, despite the law, and seek legislative relief of some sort;
  2. Cut off the aid, sending the Egyptians into the arms of the Saudis, Emiratis and Russians.

To me, the former course of action is more sensible than the latter.  It might, for example, lead to reshaping the assistance package more in the direction of aid to the Egyptian people, as Michelle Dunne has suggested.  But even that will offend the powers that be in Cairo, where there seems to be an insatiable appetite for American military hardware that gets put into storage and (thankfully) never used. One can only imagine what some of the motives behind that are.

The Administration may well prefer to try to continue to muddle through.  After all, it has Iraq and Syria to worry about at the moment, never mind Ukraine.  But failing to seek clarity on Egypt, with either option 1. or 2., will do nothing to improve an image of foreign policy hesitation and drift that is hurting a president once upon a time lauded as having deprived the Republicans of their traditional advantage on national security issues.

Egypt’s attempt to repress its way out of the chaotic revolution its now jailed activists launched more than three years ago is unlikely to succeed.  Extremist violence is on the upswing, especially in Sinai. The Muslim Brotherhood has gone underground, where it survived and even thrived for decades in the past and will again now.  The Obama Administration has said all the right things about the need for more inclusive governance.  Now it is time to do something, one way or the other.

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Regional ripples from a nuclear deal

As gradual progress is made towards a potential nuclear deal with Iran, many question the implications that this agreement would have for the surrounding region. On Monday, the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted “The Iranian Nuclear Deal and the Impact on its Neighbors” to analyze the regional repercussions of a possible bargain. Abdullah Baabood, Director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, and David and Marina Ottaway, Senior Scholars at the Woodrow Wilson Center, discussed relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and neighboring Iraq, while Bijan Khajehpour, Managing Partner of Atieh International, analyzed the regional economic aspects of a nuclear deal.

The prospect of a nuclear bargain with Iran poses a great challenge for the GCC. According to Abdullah Baabood, each of the six GCC countries has a great stake in the Iranian nuclear deal and has many concerns regarding regional security, the economy, and the environment.

However, negotiations have been taking place secretly between Iran and the US, much to the dismay of the GCC. This is particularly insulting as the US is an important ally to the region, and a deal with Iran would be a major foreign policy issue with implications far beyond simply arms control. There is fear that Iran and the US will strike a grand bargain, resulting in the US leaving the region and Iran coming to dominate it.

The GCC fears this deal because it does not know how to interpret Iran’s status and whether or not it will strictly abide by the rules of the nuclear agreement. There is a great deal of unease about Iran spreading its wings throughout the Gulf and expanding its influence without restriction.

David Ottaway further analyzed the tumultuous relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the past several decades. The two countries have a history of intense rivalry for regional dominance that is currently at its peak. However, there have been attempts recently to initiate dialogue between the foreign ministers. The main issue in these upcoming conversations will be determining the true meaning of détente for both the Iranians and the Saudis and exactly how to handle the challenge of energy and oil, as well as sectarian divides.

With the current situation in Iraq, Marina Ottaway highlighted the need to consider how the instability will affect a nuclear deal with Iran. The current sectarian division in Iraq could pose a threat to Iran, which has continued to back Prime Minister Maliki and ultimately has more influence than the US, due to its location. However, volatility is highly unfavorable for Iran and is not ideal for contracting a regional settlement in regards to its nuclear program.

Bijan Khajehpour then discussed the economic implications within the region, assuming there will be a comprehensive nuclear bargain with Iran.  There are four areas of either convergence or divergence between Iran and its neighbors. This includes:

  1. The energy sector
  2. Regional trade and cross-border investment activity
  3. Competition for economic and technological dominance
  4. International investment

The energy sector is a fundamental concern because of the growing demand for oil and gas reserves within the region. While the Persian Gulf holds nearly half of the world’s oil reserves, most states lack  natural gas resources, with the exception of Iran and Qatar. Other countries will need to import gas in the near future. “Keeping pressure on Iran’s natural gas sector is to the detriment of the whole region,” Khajehpour concluded, highlighting why energy efficiency will be a point of contention with the progress of an Iranian nuclear bargain.

There is still fierce ideological and strategic competition between Iran and the surrounding region over a possible nuclear deal. It has never been clearer to Iran’s neighbors that they must get involved in this bargain to have their vital interests addressed.

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