Category: Eddie Grove
On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa hosted a hearing on “Jordan: A Key US Partner.” Opening statements were delivered by the following members of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa: Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairwoman, Representative Ted Deutch, Ranking Member, Representative David Cicilline and Representative Lois Frankel. Witnesses included Gerald Feierstein, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Department of State, Paige Alexander, Assistant Administrator, Bureau for the Middle East, USAID, and Fatema Sumar, Regional Deputy Vice President, Europe, Asia, the Pacific and Latin America, Department of Compact Operations, Millennium Challenge Corporation.
Ros-Lehtinen affirmed Jordan’s importance as an ally and King Abdullah’s status as reliable partner. Last year, the US signed an MoU with Jordan that recognized its key role in fighting ISIS and in welcoming refugees. Refugees are straining Jordan’s already limited resources. It is vital that we help Jordan shore up these resources, especially water and energy. Through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact, we have already invested $275 million in Public-Private Partnership (PPP) wastewater projects that are nearing completion. She and Deutch visited the Al-Samra wastewater treatment plant last year. There are other projects such as the Red-Dead Sea Conduit that could shore-up Jordan’s water resources and strengthen Jordanian-Israeli cooperation.
Another area for possible Israeli-Jordanian cooperation would be an agreement for Jordan to import Israeli gas. Jordan and Israel have shared interests and should work together. We must also support USAID and IRI in their efforts to strengthen civil society and governance. Jordan’s stability is essential for the region. She and Deutch recently introduced the United States-Jordan Defense Cooperation Act, which passed Congress and is on its way to Obama. It will expedite weapons sales to Jordan to help it fight ISIS and strengthen its borders.
Deutch thanked his colleagues for supporting the bipartisan legislation and explained that last year’s MoU increased annual US aid to Jordan from $600 million to $1 billion. This reflects our commitment and Jordan’s willingness to partner with us against ISIS. Jordan has taken in 635,000 registered refugees, but Jordanian officials believe the actual figure is much higher. Jordanian communities have welcomed them but they have strained water and energy resources. USAID programs have brought fresh water and sanitation services to 1/3 of Jordan. The expansion of the Al-Samra wastewater treatment plant will increase access to water for over 3 million Jordanians.
Schooling is key to prevent a lost generation of Syrian refugee children. Secretary of State Kerry recently announced $267 million in education spending for Jordan. More refugees will seek safety in Jordan as the conflict in Southern Syria worsens; they will be difficult to vet at the border but Deutch hopes Jordan will let those who don’t pose a threat in.
King Abdullah understands the need to both defeat ISIS and find a political solution to the conflict. As long as Assad remains in power, we won’t be able to stem the flow of refugees or defeat ISIS. Helpful actions that Jordan can take include improving refugees’ ability to work and cooperating with Israel on the Red-Dead project. Deutch thanked Jordan for its efforts to calm tensions on the Temple Mount last fall, but was alarmed by news that some Jordanian MPs had threatened to topple the government if the deal to import Israeli gas goes through.
Cicilline also expressed appreciation for Jordan’s counter-ISIS efforts and noted that he had visited the Za’atari Refugee Camp last month. Frankel noted that she had visited Jordan last month on a personal trip and had admired the beauty of the country and its people. She thanked Jordan for welcoming refugees but noted that refugees whom she met with expressed how difficult it was for them that they were unable to work and supplement their meager allowances. She wanted to know if anything was being done about this and what the US was doing to boost Jordan’s economy, including by supporting tourism. She also questioned whether our aid programs in Syria were still
On Wednesday, SAIS hosted an event entitled “Kurdistan: Re-Inventing Itself, Yet Again.” Sasha Toperich, Senior Fellow and Director, Mediterranean Basin Initiative, Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS made opening remarks. Hemin Hawrami, Director, Foreign Relations Office, Kurdistan Democratic Party gave a keynote address, which was followed by a panel discussion. Rebeen Pasha, WYLN Senior Fellow, Mediterranean Basin Initiative, introduced and moderated the panel. Panelists included Hawrami and Salam Mohammad Islam, Chief Executive Director, Rwanga Foundation.
Toperich explained that Iraqi Kurdistan has a 600 mile front with ISIS and 1.8 million refugees/IDPs. Baghdad has not provided the KRG with the funding it promised. Iraqi Kurdistan is a flag without a country and a safe harbor for minorities affected by ISIS atrocities. The different groups in Iraq should be able to chart their own destinies while being reconciled with each other. If Iraq must remain united, the Kurds must be able to take out their own loans and revive their economy. He strongly supports the KRG’s independence referendum.
Hawrami stated that Iraqi Kurdistan is an important actor in a chaotic Middle East. Many of Iraqi Kurdistan’s challenges are external. ISIS is a symptom of sectarianism in Iraq and developments in Syria. A military response to ISIS is a short-term solution. ISIS was a terrorist organization but became a terrorist state when it captured Mosul. The KRG warned Baghdad about ISIS, but Maliki didn’t listen. When ISIS attacked the KRG, they aimed to:
- Gain control of disputed areas claimed by the KRG.
- Stop the independence referendum.
ISIS is a combination of Takfirism and Ba’athism. The KRG has a three-phase counter-ISIS strategy:
- Stopping ISIS.
- Rolling back ISIS.
- Defeating ISIS.
Over 1,600 Peshmerga sacrificed their lives to accomplish the first two goals. The KRG remains threatened; there are still daily skirmishes. But defeating ISIS requires liberating Mosul; the Iraqi government isn’t yet finished with Ramadi. Liberating Mosul requires boots on the ground (Sunnis and Peshmerga). But they will need more equipment. The Peshmerga have been unpaid for four months but are still fighting.
Iraqi Kurdistan has experienced three shocks since 2014:
- Maliki cut the budget for the KRG in February 2014.
- The influx of 1.8 million refugees and IDPs.
- Low oil prices.
Until 2013, Iraqi Kurdistan was the only region in the Middle East and North Africa with double-digit economic growth. Had it been independent, its rank in the areas of openness and governance would have been comparable with Malaysia and Indonesia. Unemployment was at 6% but is now ~25%. The poverty rate has jumped from 3% to 13%. The KRG is still learning how to govern; more still needs to be done. Kurdistan wants dialogue with Baghdad (not military conflict) but doesn’t want to be part of another decade of sectarianism and bad governance. Dialogue with Baghdad has improved; they now have a joint committee with Baghdad that meets monthly.
That is why they are holding the referendum (hopefully this year), which is not for immediate independence but asks what people want for their future. It will be for all citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan, including those in the diaspora.
The Kurds have been victims since Sykes-Picot but the borders are now only on maps. The KRG hopes these borders can be redrawn through peaceful coexistence and wants to add to the number of functioning political entities in the region. The KRG has become a safe haven for Iraqi Christians, most of whom now live in Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan is a villa in the jungle that must be protected.
Pasha stated that he sees both challenges and opportunities for Iraqi Kurdistan. He grew up under Saddam and couldn’t imagine a future without Saddam. If we detach ourselves from the current situation, we can focus on Kurdistan’s future potential. Investing in young people is key for Iraqi Kurdistan’s future since 2/3 of the population is under 30.
Hawrami, in response to a question, said the Kurds believe the disputed territories are Kurdish and have waited ten years for censuses and referenda in these areas. Since the Iraqi Army’s retreat, the KRG has provided security but won’t impose a military status-quo. The KRG will hold special referenda in these areas for them to decide if they want to be part of Kurdistan. The KRG will also not accept interference by the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). If these areas choose to join Iraqi Kurdistan, the KRG will provide them with special status based on power-sharing and equal opportunities.
Another audience member asked about KRG-Turkey relations. Hawrami explained that Turkey and the KRG have common interests; they have strong economic ties and the KRG supports the peace process in Turkey. Out of 3,300 foreign companies working in Iraqi Kurdistan, over 1,300 are Turkish. Turkey has not publicly rejected the independence referendum and recognizes that Iraqi Kurdistan adds to the stability of the region. Iraqi Kurdistan is not a threat to its neighbors.
A third audience member asked if it has become increasingly difficult for non-Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan. Hawrami responded that 1.4 million of the KRG’s IDPs are Arabs (Sunni and Shia) and the Kurds have provided them education. Their children are learning Kurdish. Thousands of Sunnis fled Ramadi during the military operation there and weren’t accepted in Baghdad because the PMUs feared they would change the demographics. They went to Kurdistan instead; the Kurds believe in freedom of religion. Islam has begun referring to citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan as Kurdistanis rather than Kurds, since 25% of the population is now non-Kurd.
Islam spoke about how effectiveness depends on efficiency. Since 1991, when Kurdistan achieved some self-governance, it has been at best effective but could have been more efficient and could have dealt with its challenges better. Instrospection is healthy for societies and Iraqi Kurdistan is still learning. In the early 1990s, CSOs in Iraqi Kurdistan were focused on humanitarian relief. They moved in the direction of democratization and development in the late 1990s, and especially post-2003.
The Rwanga Foundation’s vision is for education for all. They provide services, build capacity and design policies. They work on entrepreneurship and encourage youth to believe in themselves; youth are not only the leaders of tomorrow but also of today. Partnerships between CSOs, the government and the private sector will be important. Rwanga also provides humanitarian assistance in Sinjar. So far, Rwanga has completed 80 projects and has helped about 1 million people.
In the panel discussion, Pasha asked what is needed to rebuild liberated areas. Hawrami argued that ensuring security is paramount. The Peshmerga can do this, but more international assistance is needed for economic reconstruction. Islam noted that Sinjar needs more services for people to return.
Asked what Iraqi Kurdistan is doing to invest in good governance, Hawrami responded that the democratic process in Kurdistan began in 1992, but democracy also requires a culture of accountability and transparency. Iraqi Kurdistan was rural until the 1960s but the Ba’athists destroyed villages and moved people to urban camps. This transformed the people from producers to consumers. To increase productivity, the KRG has encouraged investment and boosted the private sector. The Kurds have institutions for accountability but democracy is an ongoing process. Many flaws remain. Fighting ISIS has made the Peshmerga stronger and the economic crisis will make the economy stronger because Kurdistan will enact reforms.
Hawrami noted that Iraqi Kurdistan looks to increase its trade relations with Iran, but won’t take sides in the regional sectarian conflict and won’t accept Iranian intervention in the disputed areas. Islam asserted that Kurdistan is on the right track, but there have been ups and downs. Developing the mentality of democracy takes a generation.
To conclude, Hawrami stated that the US must accept that the “one Iraq” policy is a failure and that Iraq is already divided. Washington must protect Kurdistan as a stable force in the region. Islam reiterated the importance of focusing on youth.
On Monday, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) hosted its annual Fullerton Forum in Singapore. The keynote address was delivered by Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs and a retired general in the anti-terror squad of the Indonesian special forces. Pandjaitan was introduced by both Tim Huxley, Executive Director, IISS-Asia and by Ng Eng Hen, the Defense Minister of Singapore.
Pandjaitan stated that the goal of terror groups is always to destabilize countries and demoralize their populations. ISIS has not succeeded in doing this so far in Indonesia because the Indonesian government is clear that it does not negotiate with terrorists and will respond immediately to any attacks. ISIS recruitment is a global problem; the number of foreign fighters joining ISIS doubled between 2014 and 2015. Brookings estimates there are 46,000 Twitter accounts that support ISIS. In Indonesia, even some middle-class people have joined ISIS, including a policeman who died in Syria.
Indonesia is a huge country with many poorly-educated people; ISIS’s propaganda concerning the caliphate is powerful among lower-class people. Syria and Iraq are included in Islamic “end times” prophecies, and ISIS convinces people to fight the West and all countries that lack Sharia. ISIS wants to see the caliphate expand to Southeast Asia. Its fighters are hard to deal with because they have what Pandjaitan refers to as a “one-way ticket”: they are prepared to die.
In the January 14 attacks in Jakarta, Indonesian security forces responded rapidly, eliminating the terrorists in less than 12 minutes. They killed four terrorists, and using one of their cell phones, were able to track down and arrest others. This sets an example for terrorists. The attackers were previously linked with Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian affiliate of Al Qaeda. Even though ISIS and AQ are fighting each other in Syria, their affiliates are capable of cooperation; Indonesia believes the local ISIS and AQ leaders have merged their work.
Terrorists in Indonesia operate in cells to maintain secrecy; cells do not have contact with other cells, making it difficult for the police to crack down on networks. So far, the authorities have had success in mapping terror networks, but Pandjaitan cannot promise that Indonesia is immune from attacks. Terror groups also communicate their final decisions to stage attacks via couriers, which are hard to intercept.
Fighting terror effectively involves three components:
- A soft approach.
- International intelligence cooperation.
- A hard approach.
The soft approach to fighting terror is Indonesia’s strategy of first resort. This includes counter-radicalization and deradicalization campaigns that are holistic in nature and will partially be conducted using the media. They are working with Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah to spread the message, including on television, that ISIS is not Islam and Islam is not ISIS. Indonesia has freedom of religion, so people have the freedom to follow sharia law.
The government is also campaigning against religious intolerance. Indonesia is the largest archipelago country in the world, which makes it difficult to manage. The government is working on categorizing terrorists as ideologues, militants and sympathizers. Ideologues will be imprisoned separately to help stop radicalization in prisons. The government is also cracking down on social media content supporting terror, including videos that provide instructions on how to build bombs.
The ASEAN countries already have a platform for intelligence sharing regarding threats, attacks, and terror financing. Intelligence cooperation in the region is already very good.
The hard approach is a secondary approach, but is one that Indonesia is prepared to use. Indonesia has prepared its special forces to conduct operations anytime and anywhere within the country. If terrorists take hostages, the special forces will free them immediately. The Indonesian government is also altering counterterrorism legislation so that the authorities will be able to detain those suspected of plotting terror attacks for 7-30 days. Those found to have no terror links will be released. New legislation also allows the government to revoke the citizenship of Indonesians who join groups of foreign fighters.
Another key to stopping terror in Indonesia is economic improvement. Economic growth has stopped slowing. The economy grew by about 5.5% this year. Consumer confidence and confidence in the government have increased. The government has been trying to distribute economic growth more evenly between Indonesia’s regions and improve the country’s infrastructure. There has historically been a large gap between the haves and the have-nots. Many terrorists come from poor backgrounds. This year, Indonesia will spend $70 billion or 36% of the national budget on outlying regions. Funding for villages has increased from $2 billion to $4.5 billion in 2016. This will give each village around $100,000 to spend, which will help reduce rural poverty and boost economic growth. Poverty reduction is crucial. Indonesia has 230 million Muslims. If 2% live in extreme poverty and are brainwashed by ISIS, one can imagine how many will become terrorists and stage domestic and regional attacks.
An audience member asked Pandjaitan about links that had been discovered between the terrorists in the recent Jakarta attacks and terrorists from Mindanao in the Philippines. Pandjaitan stated that radicals in Mindanao are supporting radicals in Indonesia, including through the smuggling of weapons and explosives. Indonesian authorities are working to crack down on weapons smuggling.
Another audience member asked about Indonesia’s position regarding China’s actions in the South China Sea. Because of Indonesia’s territory in the Natuna Islands, Indonesia has declared that its Special Economic Zone extends into the South China Sea. There were reports that Indonesia was considering pursuing international arbitration against China. Pandjaitan replied that China acknowledges the Natuna Islands are part of Indonesia, so China and Indonesia are not in conflict regarding this matter. However, Indonesia views the South China Sea as an important area for global shipping. Indonesia does not wish to see power projection in this area and views freedom of navigation as very important.
On Wednesday, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York hosted a talk by Jean-Pierre Filiu, Professor of Middle East Studies, Sciences Po.
Filiu related that he chose this topic months before the Paris Attacks; he knew the ISIS threat was unprecedented.
Thirty years ago, Filiu met the first jihadis while doing humanitarian work in Afghanistan. He was introduced to the disturbing Arab “volunteers” who had already begun to sneak in. He heard about Bin Laden and Zawahiri but never met them. He concluded that they lived on a different planet and wished to annihilate our way of life. Nobody took his warnings seriously.
The jihadists founded Al Qaeda (AQ) in the last month of the Soviet occupation. Al Qaeda means “the base,” which refers to a territorial base and a transnational network.
In 2001, the US and its allies responded appropriately by hitting AQ in its base in Kandahar. It is important to strike such threats at the source, the territorial base, before going after the global network. The decision to rely on local forces in the Northern Alliance was prudent. This action prevented a second wave of planned attacks.
Then the US launched the Global War on Terror and invaded Iraq. France warned against this and was correct, as it opened the Middle East to AQ. It also provided the instability that led to the London and Madrid attacks. French jihadis who had fought in Iraq were the masterminds of last year’s attacks.
ISIS was formed as a continuation of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), established by former Jordanian criminal Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. Unlike Bin Laden (a son of a tycoon) and Zawahiri (a doctor), he was not bourgeois. He used his expertise in crime. He was the first to behead a hostage, Nicholas Berg, in 2004.
Bin Laden thought this tactic too gory. But it made Al-Zarqawi a star. The US focused on targeting him, so other jihadis followed him. He was killed in 2006. His successors were killed in 2010 and were succeeded by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who had been detained in Camp Bucca in 2004, but was released for good conduct. Al-Baghdadi was able to maintain order in the camp by making other inmates listen to him; this would have made Filiu suspicious.
When Al-Baghdadi took over, AQI was losing ground because of the surge of US troops. AQI was later able to regain ground with the help of former Baathists alienated by the sectarianism of the Maliki government. AQI also gained ground in Syria thanks to Assad, who preferred to be up against jihadis rather than peaceful protesters for propaganda reasons. The more dictators you have in the Arab world, the more jihadis you will have. Ethics in international relations is not a luxury, but could be a real solution to many problems.
The US lost moral leverage after it did not act on its red line regarding chemical weapons in Syria. ISIS recruitment exploded. ISIS argued that the US and its allies were letting Syrians be gassed and presented its mission as humanitarian. ISIS learned from AQ not to depend on an external force, like the Taliban. ISIS runs its own totalitarian regime in a region more symbolic for Muslims than Khorasan.
The Levant is key to Muslim “end times” narratives. ISIS now incorporates much of this apocalyptic material into its propaganda; they talk about places mentioned in prophecies. In their narrative, the final battle will be in Jerusalem. The Israeli strategy of hoping ISIS and Hezbollah will just fight each other is shortsighted. ISIS is now recruiting inside Israel. Read more
On Wednesday, the Atlantic Council hosted a conversation with former Secretary of Defense Hagel. He detailed the policy issues and challenges that arose during his tenure as Secretary of Defense, discussed his relationship with the Obama Administration, and provided advice to US policymakers going forward. Fred Kempe, President and CEO, Atlantic Council, interviewed the Secretary and moderated the discussion.
Kempe began with some background about Hagel’s tenure as Secretary of Defense. He was the first Secretary of Defense in decades to face shrinking budgets at a time of increased demand for US military force. Sequester began on his third day in office. He also faced the Russian invasion of Crimea, the fight against ISIS, a difficult US-Egypt relationship, and the Iran negotiations.
Kempe asked Secretary Hagel to provide his thoughts on Iran’s capture and subsequent release of US sailors this week. Secretary Hagel said he doesn’t have the intelligence information he once had, but that the US is pleased with the sailors’ release. There will be an investigation of what happened and why. He strongly supported the nuclear negotiations with Iran. This incident put the deal in jeopardy, especially since the removal of sanctions commences this weekend. If the Iranians hadn’t released the sailors, they would have put sanctions relief in jeopardy.
Hagel described what he saw as a new world order developing now. We are witnessing the greatest diffusion of economic power in history combined with rapid demographic changes. The world order that the US and its allies built post-Word War II has done well; there has been no World War III or nuclear exchange. These alliances will become even more important in this century. As the world has progressed, more people have greater expectations regarding what their rights are.
The world is unpredictable. Leaders need to build margins into their planning. While the US is the most powerful nation on earth, we shouldn’t dictate or impose. Most Americans were born after World War II and expect an America that dominates in every way. But we’ve made big mistakes stemming from not paying attention to other cultures. American leadership is indispensable, but Americans must be humble about this. We can’t fix every problem, but countries do rely on American leadership to bring them together.
American leadership is essential for global stability. We should remain engaged, but not be afraid of other countries becoming successful. We need to adapt to the world’s shifting demographics without abandoning our values. We shouldn’t impose our specific brand of Western democracy on all countries. As Kissinger has said, we need to help countries develop their own democracies for their own contexts. The common threads of all democracies are dignity for all, freedom of initiative, and incentives for hard work and responsibility.
Kempe wanted Hagel to review his recent article in Foreign Policy in which he criticized the way he was treated by the Obama Administration. Hagel did not want to rehash everything he said in the article, but stated that all administrations try to dominate their cabinets. In this sense, the Obama Administration is no different from previous administrations, but each successive administration in recent years has tried to dominate more.
This is unhealthy because it undercuts governing. Governing is not the same as domination. Every institution requires the support of good people and those in charge need to trust these people and rely on them to govern with them. The two most important jobs in every administration are the National Security Advisor and the Chief of Staff because all decision making flows through them. The Secretary of Defense doesn’t make policy but is the implementer and operator of the policies that the President wants. When the President dominates those whom he/she is supposed to rely on it impedes his/her ability to govern. In addition, there were too many meetings with too many people in the room; this creates chaos because everyone wants to talk and show how smart they are. Every President faces challenges, uncontrollables, and unknowables.
Every President also has his/her own style. But it’s hard to bring in the best people if they think they will be overloaded with meetings, micromanaged and second-guessed.
Given the fact that sequester began on day three of Hagel’s tenure, Kempe wanted to know how much time he spent on budgets and if the military has enough funding to ensure American security. Hagel reminded the audience that sequester remains in effect, though cuts to military spending have been adjusted. The Pentagon requires the certainty of long-term budgets on the order of 20 years to plan the purchase of weapons systems. Sequester meant an immediate $50 billion of budget cuts, so Secretary Hagel commissioned a review to understand what was most important in the budget, both from Pentagon officials as well as from field commanders. Secretary Hagel originally though he would have to furlough his employees for 21 days, but managed to cut this down to 3-5 days. He had to halt maintenance and training for a few months.
That was followed by a 16-day government shutdown, which was irresponsible on the part of politicians. Hagel refused to comply with the shutdown, though some employees were absent for 16 days. It is terrible to damage the security of the US to make a political point. It hurt the Department of Defense. The employees ultimately got paid anyway by virtue of the unions.
Budgets took up a lot of his time. We are perilously close to not having enough funds to defend our national security interests. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have to testify in front of Congress to give their opinion on whether the current budget is sufficient to guarantee American national security interests; they are getting close to having to say no. We can do with fewer submarines, for instance, but that will come with a long-term price. Once we have two presidential candidates, they must be clear about what they think the US role in the world is and what our national security interests are. Read more
On January 5, CFR hosted a panel discussion entitled “What to do About Syria” which also aired on HBO. The discussion was designed to resemble a National Security Council meeting. Panelists included Philip Gordon, Senior Fellow, CFR, Paul Pillar, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University, and Michael Doran, Senior Fellow, the Hudson Institute. Richard Haass, President, CFR, moderated the discussion.
Paul Pillar stated that none of the multiple sides in the Syrian conflict appears poised to win in the near future. The Russian military intervention that began in September has shored up the regime. The regime still controls roughly 1/4 of the country in a North-South strip. There are non-ISIS opposition areas, largely in the northwest but also near the Golan, as well as large areas of ISIS control in the east and Kurdish control in the north. There are hundreds of opposition groups and many coalitions. Over the past year, ISIS has had neither a net loss or a net gain of territory in Syria, but has lost territory on balance when Iraq is included.
Pillar explained that on the diplomatic front, the Vienna process led to the International Syria Support Group, whose members agree on the need for a ceasefire and political settlement. The Saudis held a meeting in Riyadh in December and agreed that Assad did not have to leave until after negotiations are held. The US adopted UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a ceasefire. The recent suspension of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran shouldn’t have a huge impact beyond the enmity we already knew existed.
Philip Gordon described the current situation as a dynamic stalemate. The attrition of regime forces is unlikely to cause the regime’s collapse because of outside support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The main battle in Syria doesn’t involve ISIS; it’s between the regime and the non-ISIS opposition. The Vienna Process is a positive step. However, the diplomatic gaps between the Saudis and the Iranians remain large.
Michael Doran believes that the US has essentially dropped its demand that Assad leave by pushing his departure so far into the future that it will not happen on Obama’s clock. This frees up the Obama administration to discuss deconfliction with Russia and Iran, a shift the Saudis dislike.
Gordon summarized US policy in Syria as such: since 2011, when Obama declared that Assad must go, US policy has been to strengthen the moderate opposition, in order to pressure the regime to negotiate. So far that hasn’t worked, but it remains US policy. Doran is right that the
definition of what a political transition would look like has evolved. As it became clearer that Russia and Iran would prop up Assad, diplomats examined other types of transitions that might be more feasible. There has been an effort to unify the opposition but it remains fragmented because our partners support different groups. We have tried to build the capacity of the opposition groups, but it has not been enough; they are fighting a professional military backed by Russia and Iran. The president has authorized force against ISIS, using the legal basis that ISIS threatens the Iraqi government; Obama lacks a legal basis to target the regime.
Doran spoke of the limits of our support for the non-ISIS opposition. Iran and Russia have backed the regime and there has not been comparable activity from our side. The train and equip program failed because we found few recruits willing to fight ISIS exclusively. We also work with the Kurds who are aligned with the PKK. We have alienated our Sunni allies. Our position on Assad is critical to mobilizing Sunni support against ISIS. The US would also need ground forces, perhaps in a 1:5 ratio with our allies.
Gordon clarified that the US does support the opposition militarily and politically. We just don’t provide specifics.
Pillar stated that even though the US is a superpower, it may not be able to satisfactorily solve Syria. It’s not in the US’s interest to take sides in the Sunni-Shia conflict. We should place more emphasis on the diplomatic track because tamping down the war is most important.
Gordon outlined two policy options going forward. First, the US could take out Assad militarily, but this could generate more refugees and cause a power vacuum. The better option is to prioritize a ceasefire to stop the war; this is more important than a political transition. Gordon clarified that he is not proposing an alliance with Russia and Iran, but ending the conflict roughly along the lines of the current reality on the ground. Local areas would gain autonomy, but this would stop short of a partition, so as not to set a precedent of carving out new states in the region.
Doran questioned Gordon’s attachment to the integrity of Syria, but largely agreed with his vision for an end state. However, he reiterated that such an arrangement wouldn’t be possible without ground forces. Haass proposed that the US think seriously about supporting an independent Kurdistan as part of a deal, since the Kurds are the most effective fighting force against ISIS.
Pillar highlighted potential positive effects of the Russian military intervention. Russia will draw the ire of radical Sunnis, and Russia will gain more leverage over Assad. Russia also has an interest in tamping down the conflict; it doesn’t want to prop up a beleaguered Assad forever.
An audience member asked how we might prevent revenge attacks once the conflict ends. Pillar pointed out that under Gordon’s autonomous regions proposal, groups would have a diminished ability on the ground to carry out revenge attacks. Haass contended that, contrary to Western notions of pluralism, a future map of Syria must reflect more homogeneity than heterogeneity.
Gordon addressed an audience question about why the US sees fighting ISIS as in its national interest versus fighting the regime. The US has identified ISIS as a threat because it kidnaps Americans and seeks to destabilize regional partners. We have identified discrete steps we can take to degrade and destroy ISIS. Taking out Assad would require an effort like the invasion of Iraq; we should not minimize the cost and consequences of such an effort. The notion that taking out Assad would yield a positive outcome requires a larger suspension of disbelief than the notion that the Iranians and Russians might agree to a ceasefire if the US drops its demand that they abandon Assad.
Another audience member asked whether we need the Saudis to agree that ISIS is a fundamental threat to their existence. Pillar contended that it would be ideal if the Saudis would follow their own interests more intelligently. In the past, the Saudis have faced the threat posed by Al Qaeda; persistent diplomacy and tough love talks will be required to get them to do the same with ISIS. Gordon noted that it is difficult to explain to countries what we think their interests should be. Saudi Arabia is more concerned about Iran than ISIS and Turkey is more concerned about the Kurds. Doran contended that the Saudis and the Turks have defined their interests correctly; we are wrong about what their interests are.