The problem with Maliki

Former Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey argues in this morning’s Washington Post for more wholehearted support to Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and other allies willing to fight Al Qaeda:

…as also often happens in this region, the administration is sounding an uncertain tone, seemingly signaling to everyone that its top priority is to not get the United States into any sort of military engagement…

Let’s leave aside whether the tone is really all that uncertain and whether President Obama has accurately read the sentiment of the American people.  They certainly don’t want American troops going back to Iraq, and there is no clear sign that Maliki wants them either.

There is another problem with Jim’s argument.  Maliki has contributed to the problem in Iraq, by alienating the Sunni population.

Jim acknowledges this in passing, but fails to recognize that a more whole-hearted endorsement would send the wrong message and make the problem worse.  The challenge for American diplomacy is to restrain Maliki’s autocratic instincts while helping him militarily.  This is a difficult trick.  It requires not wholehearted endorsement but rather nuance:  we’ll help you with what you need on the battlefield, but we expect you to play a more democratic game politically.

Maliki has more than enough reasons of his own to fight Al Qaeda. He doesn’t need our moral support.  He does need some military equipment and intelligence shraing.  He also needs our wisdom on how to manage dissent and sectarian conflict in a relatively open society. 

The notion that changing the American tone in the Middle East would buck up our allies and magically defeat our enemies is silly.  Israel and Saudi Arabia, which Jim mentions explicitly, are unhappy with American policy because it is not sufficiently supportive of their absolutist views of Palestine and Iran.  Backing those views would not help the Administration succeed in its current efforts to mediate a final settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict or in its negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program.  To the contrary:  increased rhetorical support in public to Netanyahu and Riyadh could wreck the prospects for diplomatic solutions to both.  Better to do what we appear to be doing:  provide Israel with whatever security assistance it needs to ensure that a settlement with the Palestinians poses no danger and consult frequently and in depth with Saudi Arabia on how to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capabilities.  

I agree with Jim that Iraq is important, both because it is a central player in the Arab and Kurdish worlds and because its oil production helps now and can help in the future to stabilize the world oil market.  But the problem with American policy is not insufficient support to Maliki.  It is insufficient frankness with him about what we expect of our friends and allies.

History is irreversible

Yesterday’s New York Times suggests “Power Vacuum in Middle East Lifts Militants.”  US withdrawal is of course the cause of the power vacuum.  For years however we’ve been hearing that US presence in the Middle East is what generates militant reactions.  American bases in Saudi Arabia and the American occupation of Iraq are often cited as prime movers of Islamic militancy.

Similar contradictory statements appear often about Bashar al Asad.  The Western press is now full of claims that getting rid of him will leave Syria open to the possibility of a Sunni extremist takeover.  But his continued hold on power all too obviously also encourages radicalization of the opposition to his rule.

The simple fact is that we don’t know much about what feeds violent militancy.  While William Pape and James Feldman claim that suicide terrorism–certainly a salient characteristic of some contemporary Islamic extremists–is rooted in foreign occupation, there are ample reasons to believe that it doesn’t stop with American withdrawal.  It certainly did not in Iraq and likely won’t in Afghanistan either.

With respect to Asad’s impact on militancy, we know even less.  He has benefitted from, and even encouraged, violent resistance to his regime, which empowers him to respond violently.  But would violent resistance end if Bashar stepped aside in favor of a transitional government with full executive powers (as foreseen in the June 2012 UN communique)?  I doubt it.

The world does not run backwards.  Removing a cause, post facto, does not get you back to where you started.  Washington pulled the rug out from under Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and helped to force his resignation, but that did not reverse the effect in Egyptian minds of decades of US support for military rule in Egypt.  An Israel/Palestine agreement now may be highly desirable, but it is unlikely to have the same impact it might have had in the 1990s.  There is just too much that has happened since and won’t be forgotten, on both sides.

Violence is particularly important in preventing history from running in reverse.  People won’t forget Bashar’s use of mass violence to compensate for his lack of legitimacy, protect Alawites and bolster territorial control.  Syria when I studied Arabic there in 2008 was peaceful and tolerant, even though repressed and authoritarian.  Ending Bashar’s rule will not take us back there.  Any future dictatorship in Syria will have to be much more brutal than Bashar’s was.  Any future democracy will face problems that a democracy emerging from a less violent transition would not have to face.

Where does this leave us with respect to US behavior?  We are clearly going to need to find indirect and less expensive ways to influence world events than the military interventions we used so boldly from 1995 to 2003.  Bosnia and Kosovo were relatively cheap and killed no Americans.  The legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan is a gigantic tab–on the order of $6 trillion I read somewhere this morning–plus thousands of dead, military and civilian.  I don’t agree with Mearsheimer’s notion that America is unhinged (and responsible for militancy in Syria) but clearly we are not going back to large-scale military interventions, even if economic and financial conditions improve.

What we need is to be much more proactive, preventing unhappy events before they happen.  We clearly failed at that in the Arab world, where we were caught unawares despite a large and well-established diplomatic presence.  But American diplomacy has a pretty good record in recent decades of nurturing, or at least permitting, nonviolent change in Latin America and Asia.  Let’s remember how to do it, because history is irreversible.

Peace picks, January 6-10

Washington is still trying to warm up from the holidays and the chill:

1. US National Security Strategy

Tuesday, January 7, 2014 – 12:00pm1:30pm
Washington, DC

+ Add to my Calendar

On January 7, Thomas E. Donilon, distinguished fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, and former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, will be in conversation with Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of The Aspen Institute. This event is presented in partnership with the Aspen Institute Middle East Programs.

The Washington Ideas Roundtable Series is made possible with the generous support of Michelle Smith and the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation.

Event Information
Date Location Contact
Tuesday, January 7, 2014 – 12:00pm1:30pm
Aspen Institute
One Dupont Circle, NW, Suite 700
Large Conference Room
Washington, DC
Phone: 202.736.3848


2.  Mona Yacoubian & Ambassador Frederic C. Hof

Syrian Opposition

As part of the Global Leaders conversation series, Ambassador Frederic C. Hof, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Mona Yacoubian of the Stimson Center, will participate in a conversation at NYU Washington, DC on January 8, 2014. The series features Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations, journalist, and author, who hosts leaders from around the world in conversations that probe critical global issues and explore the policies designed to address them. The Global Leaders series is coordinated by NYU-SCPS Center for Global Affairs.

While at NYU Washington, DC, Ambassador Hof and Ms. Yacoubian will participate in a discussion with Professor Ben-Meir and take audience questions.

January 8, 2014
Program begins at 6:30PM
Reception to Follow

NYU Washington, DC

Abramson Family Auditorium
1307 L Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005

3. Securing peace, promoting prosperity: The US, Japan, and India

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s more forward-leaning foreign and national security policies have led to renewed interest in the potential for a US-India-Japan trilateral relationship. At this public event, experts will explore the rationales behind and roadblocks to greater cooperation.Are there opportunities for enhanced trade and investment relationships? Will shared security concerns lead to greater defense collaboration? And how will stronger US-India-Japan ties influence China’s posture in the region?If you are unable to attend, we welcome you to watch the event live. Full video will be posted within 24 hours.

8:45 AM
Registration and Breakfast

9:00 AM
Opening Remarks
Dan Blumenthal, AEI

9:15 AM
Panel I: Economics

Anil K. Gupta, Robert H. Smith School of Business
Richard Katz, The Oriental Economist
Derek Scissors, AEI
Ron Somers, US-India Business Council

Sadanand Dhume, AEI

10:45 AM
Panel II: Security
Patrick Cronin, Center for New American Security
Paul Giarra, Global Strategies & Transformation
Dhruva Jaishankar, German Marshall Fund of the United States

Michael Auslin, AEI

12:30 PM


Event Contact Information

For more information, please contact Shannon Mann at, 202.862.5911.

Media Contact Information

For media inquiries, please contact, 202.862.5829.

4.  Inside Iran, US Institute of Peace, 9:30-11 am January 9

With Robin Wright and David Ignatius

Two long-time Middle East experts have recently returned from Iran. Their discussions with cabinet members, ayatollahs, hardliners, Members of Parliament, economists, opposition figures and ordinary Iranians offer rare insights into Iran’s increasingly vibrant political scene since President Rouhani took office and the implications of the new nuclear agreement. Robin Wright and David Ignatius offer fresh perspectives on what’s next.

Please join us for a moderated discussion on these and other issues important to Iran, its internal politics, and its relations with the world.

This event will feature the following speakers:

  • Robin Wright
    Journalist and Author, U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center
  • David Ignatius
    Columnist and Author, The Washington Post
  • Ambassador William Taylor, Moderator
    Vice President, Center for Middle East & Africa, U.S. Institute of Peace

The Sunni civil wars

As Liz Sly highlights in this morning’s Washington Post, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has managed to ignite war in both countries.  But for the moment the war is not the one Al Qaeda would like to be fighting against the Alawite dictatorship in Syria and the Shiite-dominated proto-democracy in Iraq.  Instead it is a war between Sunni militants who want to re-establish the caliphate and nationalists–some Islamist, some secularist–who aim to change the governments but preserve the state structure in the region.

The United States has a dog in this fight.  It cannot afford to see Al Qaeda gain a base of operations in eastern Syria or western Iraq.  Washington will therefore back the revolt of the anti-Al Qaeda forces in Syria as well as the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq, which is getting at least some help from the Sunni tribesmen who were vital to the American victory over Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006/7.  Ryan Crocker and Bing West were on PBS Newshour Friday saying that Al Qaeda has overreached and will no doubt be defeated in the Iraq front of this Sunni civil war.  They may well be right ultimately, but on Saturday Al Qaeda seems to have consolidated control over Fallujah, while losing control of Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital.  It will be a while before we know the outcome of this latest iteration of Sunni on Sunni fighting.

Do the Sunni civil wars threaten state structures in the Levant?  Reidar Visser, who knows as much about this part of the world as any Westerner I know, writes:

Today, there is once more a thug [sic] of war between pan-Islamism and Iraqi nationalism, but by no means has the local population universally sided with the Islamist rebels. Despite continuing squabbles among Iraqi leaders, a considerable segment of local Anbar politicians have rushed to support the Iraqi army in its efforts against pan-Islamist elements, showing that the people of western Iraq are once more sceptical about getting too intimately connected with political movements aiming at union with Syria.

His bottom line:  “Dammit, It Is NOT Unravelling: An Historian’s Rebuke to Misrepresentations of Sykes-Picot.”

I’m not so sure.  As Reidar himself points out, Sykes-Picot was mainly concerned with control over coastal areas.  The barren interiors of Anbar and the Syrian provinces of Homs and Deir al Azour were not really an issue a century ago.  The Sykes-Picot borders had little impact there.

More importantly:  a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  Lebanon is the weakest link.  It is increasingly suffering tit-for-tat attacks that its parlous internal security apparatus cannot respond to effectively.  The second weakest link is the separation between Kurds in Syria and in Iraq.  While Syria’s Kurds are nowhere near as concentrated as Iraq’s were, most want at least a federal unit like the Iraqi one.  But if the Syrian state collapses, the Kurds will be free to pursue union with their Iraqi brethren, who might themselves be liberated if Iraq continues to descend into chaos.

There is no real possibility of an orderly redrawing of borders in the Levant.  If it happens, it will be violent, messy, and even chaotic.  Good guys are not likely to come out on top.  Like it or not, the Americans and their Gulf friends need to do what is necessary to make sure that Al Qaeda loses the Sunni civil wars in Iraq and Syria.

Hang together, or hang separately

Hadi Bahra, of the Syrian Coalition political office, is anxious to call attention to UN Security Council resolution 2118, which not only provided for removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons capability, but also endorsed

fully the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012 (Annex II), which sets out a number of key steps beginning with the establishment of a transitional governing body exercising full executive powers, which could include members of the present Government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.

The problem is that the Russians are far from agreeing that this should be the over-riding purpose of a “Geneva 2″ conference.  Nor is Bashar al Asad preparing to send a delegation to the January 23/24 Montreux/Geneva conference empowered to hand over all executive authority.

The Syrian Coalition is right to insist, but the question is what it should do if it doesn’t get its way, as it won’t.  Does it still go to Montreux/Geneva, or does it refuse?

Refusing would mean stiffing John Kerry, endangering American and other Western support and handing a propaganda victory to Bashar al Asad.  That’s not a good outcome.

Attending means daring the Syrian regime to show up, gaining a bully pulpit for the opposition’s own interpretation of UNSC resolution 2118, and giving the Americans some satisfaction.  Many in the opposition hope the regime will not take the dare and embarrass itself by not showing up.  That would be a satisfying outcome, but just for that reason unlikely.  The Russians will deliver the Syrians, just as the Americans will deliver the opposition.

What will happen at Montreux/Geneva, assuming both sides do turn up?  The Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG) recently ran a simulation intended to find out.  The simulation focused on establishing a ceasefire, forming a transitional government and accountability for wartime abuses.  To make a long story short, the Syrian opposition was fragmented going in and the pressure of negotiation made things worse.  A unified Syrian government delegation with strong Russian support had a field day reinforcing the notion that President Asad is indispensable.  The Americans and Russians conspired to keep Asad symbolically in place while a technocratic government took over.  Only a walkout–not something that will gain any points with the international community–saved the opposition from getting its clock cleaned.

Simulations are just that.  They are not reality.  PILPG spins the outcome in positive directions:  the opposition needs to come to Geneva 2 unified around its own plans for security, transitional governance and accountability.

That does not appear likely.  Pressed hard on the battlefield, the opposition continues to shatter. While the Syrian National Coalition is reported to be meeting Monday in Turkey to elect its president (or re-elect the current one), other groups are meeting in Spain.  The Islamic Front fighters have not supported either group as yet, and it is unclear whether they will turn up in any form Montreux/Geneva.  The extremists associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al Nusra are uninterested in the talks.  Syrian Kurdish attitudes are divided.

There is a lot of preparatory work still to be done.  Hang together, or hang separately.

Two birds, two stones

The situation in the predominantly Sunni Anbar province of Iraq deteriorated sharply yesterday, with Al Qaeda-affiliated militants taking over at least parts of Ramadi and Fallujah:

According to @Hayder_alKhoei of Chatham House, that is one of their convoys in Anbar.

This is a serious challenge to Baghdad’s authority.  No doubt Prime Minister Maliki will see it that way and use the military force he had withdrawn from Anbar population centers as a peace gesture to reassert the state’s monopoly on the legitimate means of violence.

But that is not the only problem Baghdad has in Sunni-majority areas of the country.  Demonstrations ongoing for months have been protesting discrimination, neglect and mismanagement.  Forty-four Sunni members of parliament have offered their resignations.  Moqtada al Sadr, the Shia firebrand, has openly expressed sympathy with the demonstrators and called for early elections.

Maliki has two problems, not one:

  1. the resurgence of Al Qaeda, due in part to the civil war in Syria, whose border with Iraq is porous;
  2. an alienated and disappointed population.

Military force may be appropriate in dealing with the first, but it will do nothing to resolve the second.

Maliki is a clever and resourceful politician.  He has governed Iraq with an increasingly strong hand since 2006, accumulating power by appointing loyal commanders in the security forces, infringing on the independence of the judiciary, and exploiting oil revenue to distribute patronage.  His authoritarian inclinations are clear, but he has also managed to maintain a working majority in parliament with agile shifts:  when he is in a tussle with Sunnis, he manages to gain Kurdish support; when he faces Kurdish challenges, he finds Sunni support.  He has fragmented his mostly Sunni Iraqiyya opposition and managed to maintain or even enlarge his own “state of law” coalition, even as his Shia competitors appear to have gained ground in last year’s provincial elections.

The current crisis will be an important test of Maliki’s ability to wield the Iraqi state’s military instrument to meet the Al Qaeda challenge even as he uses political means to meet the grievances of the population.  If he conflates the two problems and puts too much emphasis on military means, he is likely to face a spiraling security threat.  There is little risk that he will put too much emphasis on political means.  That is just not his natural inclination.  But he needs to meet the political challenge with serious responses to the demonstrators’ complaints, or at least something that looks as if it points in that direction.  Prisoner releases and economic investment seem the best bets to generate quick, begrudgingly positive responses.

The key to the military contest lies, as it did for the Americans in 2006-8, with Sunni tribesmen in Anbar.  If Maliki is able to keep them on the government’s side in cracking down on Al Qaeda affiliates, he has a good chance of winning the fight.  But many of them are demoralized and alienated, having been neglected and ill-treated for years.  If their younger militants see Al Qaeda as the better bet, Maliki and the Iraqi state are in trouble.

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