Peace picks February 20-27

“The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East,” a Conversation with Dr. Christopher Phillips | Tuesday, February 21 | 10-11:30 AM | GW’s Elliot School | Register Here |

Join GW’s Elliot School and Christopher Phillips, senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, for a conversation on international rivalry in the New Middle East. He was previously the deputy editor for Syria and Jordan at the Economist Intelligence Unit. While living in Syria for two years, he consulted government agencies and NGOs. He has appearances on BBC Newsnight, Radio 4’s Today Programme, BBC News, Al-Jazeera, Sky News and Channel 4 News.

Re-Centering the Bazaar: Notes towards a History of Islamic Capitalism in the Islamic World | Wednesday, February 22 | 3:30-5:00 PM | Register Here|

The Elliott School of International Affairs is hosting a talk explores the possibilities of a history of capitalism in the Islamic world through the prism of one of its most visible expressions: the bazaar. As the locus of a range of different commercial practices, the bazaar offers a useful platform for thinking about economic life in the Islamic world — production, consumption, exchange, and finance. It is also the site through which the inhabitants of the Islamic world came to experience the changing tides of global commerce and politics: the wares of India and Africa, the textiles of Northern Europe, and most recently, the manufactures of China. And yet, as an object of scholarly analysis, the bazaar has largely been reduced to a set of interpersonal or patron-client relations, flattening what was in fact a vibrant site of exchange and transformation.

Rather than speak of the bazaar in the abstract, Professor Bishara will focus on a specific network of bazaars around the Indian Ocean — in Bahrain, Muscat, and Zanzibar — during the nineteenth century, so as to more accurately map out the interlinked markets for commodities (land, produce, etc.), labor, and capital, the paper instruments that linked them all together, and the circulating discourses that animated them. The discussion of bazaar capitalism in the 19th-century Indian Ocean will serve as the platform for thinking about how we might write a history of capitalism in the Islamic world more broadly.

United States in the Middle East: Assessing the Emerging Trump Doctrine | Wednesday, February 22 | 4:30-6:00 PM | George Mason University | Register Here|

The Middle East Policy Group at Schar School of Policy & Government is hosting their first session of Reflections on Middle East Policy. Peter Mandaville is a Professor of International Affairs at GMU’s Schar School of Policy & Government and served as a Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of State under Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Justin Gest is Assistant Professor of Public Policy at GMU’s Schar School of Policy & Government.

Militias in the Fight Against ISIS: Spoilers or Stabilizers? | Thursday, February 23 | 9:00-10:00 AM | Wilson Center | Register Here |

The panel will examine militias that have played a major role in the campaign against ISIS, particularly Lebanese Hezbollah, the Kurdish Peshmerga and the PYD (Democratic Union Party), and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units. Are these groups spoilers that will disrupt regional politics and lead to anarchy? Are they stabilizing forces that can help assure peace in areas marred by war? Panelists will assess their impact and discuss how U.S. policy can better engage them to promote regional order.

Global threats and American national security priorities | Thursday, February 23 | 10:00-11:00 AM | Brookings | Register Here

On February 23, the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings is honored to host an event featuring General Dunford. He will be joined by Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon for a discussion on American national security priorities and Department of Defense requirements.

The United States has the best military in the world, but it must continue to innovate to stay ahead. Today, the United States faces a particularly complex and dangerous security environment. In his job as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 2015, General Joseph Dunford has articulated a framework for understanding the threats America and its allies must address, benchmarking the military’s planning, capability development, and assessment of risk against the challenges posed by Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and violent extremism.

The Gulf and the Struggle for Hegemony | Thursday, February 23 | 12:00-1:00 PM | The Middle East Institute | Register Here|

The Middle East Institute is pleased to host Roby Barrett, MEI scholar and senior fellow with the Joint Special Operations University-U.S. Special Operations Command, for the release of his new book The Gulf and the Struggle for Hegemony. Barrett will argue that the long-standing ties between the West and the Gulf Arab states have contributed to regional stability and progress.

Barrett draws on a sophisticated understanding of Gulf Arab culture and history to explain present-day policies and rivalries. The book delves into how the Gulf States, in particular the UAE and Saudi Arabia, interpret and respond to regional dynamics such as the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the West’s rapprochement with Iran. Barrett argues that a failure to understand the contemporary Gulf from the perspective of its complex historical, political, and socio-cultural context guarantees failed policies in the future.

The State of Iraq- and the Republic of Kurdistan?- After ISIS | Thursday, February 23 | 12:00-1:00 PM | The Hudson Institute | Register Here

On February 23, an expert panel will examine the challenges and opportunities ahead for Iraq, Kurdistan, and the new U.S. administration. Should the Trump administration continue to invest in the Iraqi State? Are federalism, institution-building, and good governance initiatives in Iraq a lost cause? How should the new administration deal with Iraq’s powerful, Iranian-backed Shiite militias? Would an independent Kurdish state bring solutions or additional problems for Kurds and the other peoples of Iraq? Similarly, what would the Republic of Kurdistan mean for the United States? The Kurdistan Regional Government’s Representative Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman will join Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack and Ranj Alaaldin, along with Hudson’s Michael Pregent and Eric Brown, to discuss the implications for Iraq and the region as well as their importance to America’s geopolitical interests. This event will be live streamed on Hudson’s homepage.

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The US-Iraqi relationship re-examined

At an event at the Wilson Center last Wednesday experts gathered to discuss the US-Iraqi relationship under the new administration. The panel included Luay Al-Khatteeb, Executive Director at the Iraq Energy Institute and Fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University- SIPA, Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at SAIS- Johns Hopkins University and President at the Institute of Shia Studies, and Denise Natali, Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. Henri J. Barkey, Director at the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the discussion.

Al-Khatteeb discussed the ways in which Iraq and the United States could start a new chapter and develop a more solid relationship. Iraq has experienced two different US foreign policies in the last 15 years, one heavy engagement under Bush and then lesser interest and engagement under Obama. Trump has an opportunity to turn in a better direction. But Al-Khatteeb believes that the administration is off to a troubling start with its executive order on immigration, which sends a bad signal to Iraq.

Iraq still faces challenges. Each is  an opportunity for US engagement and partnership. As a major producer of oil, Iraq has the potential to be a commercial economic hub if the right policies are implemented. Iraq must address mismanagement, corruption, and the legal vacuum still plaguing government institutions. Iraqi security forces have become far more effective in fighting transnational terrorist groups, but they still must contend with the post-Mosul security situation as well as maintaining stability as the basis for reconciliation between political actors.

Kadhim underlined the importance of the American-Iraqi relationship from both the Iraqi and US perspective. From the Iraqi point of view, the US provides vital support for the fight against terrorism. The US is also still considered a broker inside Iraq to navigate rivalries between groups within the country. It is America’s moral responsibility to stand by Iraq and help it become a vital state and prevent it from disintegrating into a failed state. Trump cannot ignore the policy of the previous administration or return to a Bush-style engagement, but he should take into account what has been happening and react to the realities on the ground. The United States will also need to decide whether a one Iraq or two-Iraq policy is appropriate for how to work with the country. For its part, Iraq must decide how vital the US relationship is to Iraq, and whether they truly want to engage with America.

Natali said that Iraq is hyper-fragmented and hyper-localized, with a great deal of distrust and revenge within communities that does not necessarily fall along ethno-sectarian lines. This has led to an increased need for protection among these groups, which has subsequently led to a proliferation of militia and transactional security agreements across localities. Cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian pacts have formed in a way unimaginable before, greatly changing societal relations within the country and presenting new challenges. Other challenges include disputed territory and how to delineate boundaries, the relationship between the Kurds and Baghdad, and control of Iraqi oil. While the Trump administration will not fundamentally change US policy towards Iraq, Natali believes it will be important to engage with local partners and state institutions as strategic anchor points. The most important issue is the post-ISIS endgame and its cultural, educational, and strategic impact, as well as border security, military support, and humanitarian relief.

Questions addressed America’s role in fostering reconciliation after ISIS as well as its role as a regional broker. Natali said that the US will not get engaged directly but rather through third parties at the local level and again sought to de-emphasize the ethno-sectarian aspect of conflict resolution. She also said it was important to differentiate between actors who are working to destabilize Iraq. Distinguishing between Iran and IRGC-backed militias, for example, is necessary to make policy more targeted and responsive. Kadhim also emphasized the local level as the site of reconciliation and recommended a committee of experts and people who have the tools to successfully create peace and stabilization to act as brokers. From a regional perspective, Al-Khateeb said that because Iraq is surrounded by six countries that will inevitably be in conflict with one another, state relations will be challenging and the country must adjust to regional realities.

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Digital bread crumbs in Aleppo

The Atlantic Council hosted a keynote presentation of their report “Breaking Aleppo” last Monday, starting with an introduction from Frederick Kempe, President & CEO of the Atlantic Council, as well as Frederic C. Hof, former US Special Adviser for Transition in Syria. The event featured speakers Maks Czuperski, Director of Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, Abdul Kafi Alhamdo, Syrian teacher and activist, Dr. Lina Murad, board member of the Syrian American Medical Society, Faysal Itani, Senior Fellow at Atlantic’s Rafik Hariri Center, Eliot Higgins, Senior Fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, and Emma Beals, investigative journalist.

IKempe said the report exposes the deliberate and systematic destruction of Aleppo by Bashar al Assad and will prevent the record of these atrocities from fading away in history. Hof added to this description by labeling the report an authoritative chronicle of the methods the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran utilized to achieve military victory through terror. He said it is clear that Moscow and the regime falsified information to obfuscate their crimes, and were emboldened by the passivity and lack of leadership of the west.

Czuperski described some of the methodology used by Atlantic Council’s digital forensic lab to compose the report. He said that although there were a lot of people talking about the conflict on social media, it was difficult to determine credibility. Higgins explained that the lab created “digital fingerprints” of the videoed events on the ground, taking into acount all possible sources, figuring out where they were taken using metadata or digital “breadcrumbs,” and then determining distance from the event to differentiate between true and false information.

The lab debunked false claims from the Russian defense ministry and proved that more than three bombs hit an Aleppo hospital in the same week, using before and after pictures, as well as camera footage from the hospital surveillance cameras. Forensic architecture showed repeated explosions in the same area and demonstrated targeted efforts of the regime to destroy one of the last hospitals in Aleppo.

Before the discussion panel, Abdul Kafi Alhamdo spoke to the crowd using Skype from the Syrian countryside to describe his life in Aleppo before and after the siege. Alhamdo says goodbye to his wife before heading to school everyday knowing that he might not see his family again. He teaches his students about freedom, attempting to provide a semblance of normalcy through what he describes as the Holocaust of Aleppo. Despite the horrors surrounding them, he and many other Syrians remained in the city until there was no other option. Alhamdo noted the UN role in assisting Assad with the forced evacuation of the city following the horrific last week of the siege. He described the terrible circumstances of the evacuation where civilians were shoved into buses, threatened by guards, and refused food or water while children cried.

Murad spoke to the difficulty of providing emergency medical care in Syria. She said that the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) started by training physicians, but soon had to expand their recruitment base as doctors were killed, displaced, or moved on. They had to train people of all levels using outdated technology, and in some cases engineering their own equipment. SAMS knew about the impending siege in Aleppo ahead of time and tried to allocate resources to prepare. Once the siege began it was impossible to bring in supplies, and they relied on a focal point to distribute the materials through the city until they ran out.

Beals recounted the ways reporting this conflict has shifted, from initial stages where reporters could be on the ground, to learning of the siege and other developments from the Syrian countryside, to the current situation where reporters are based in neighboring countries. Getting information out of Syria is incredibly difficult. Journalists rely on established relationships with Syrians who are still in the country and put their lives at risk by sharing information.

Itani stated that his job is to translate local developments in Syria into insights that make sense in the context of Western policy. He reiterated the struggle to obtain information, and said it is even more difficult because of obfuscation. Itani expressed his fear of the post-truth age, but he praised digital forensics as an outsourcing of information to determine what actually happened. He sees the development of these techniques as credible push back against the campaign of lies.

Watch the full event here:

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Challenges to Yemen’s peace process

In an event held by the Atlantic Council on Monday February 13, experts gathered together to discuss challenges to the Yemeni peace process and its outlook for success. Moderated by Mirette F. Mabrouk, Deputy Director and Director for Research & Programs at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, the panel included H.E. Khaled Ayemany, Permanent Representative of Yemen to the United States, Nawda Al-Dawsari, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, and Nabeel Khoury, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

Ayemany said UN Resolution 2216, passed in 2015, is the most important legal instrument the international community has to end the conflict by recovering legitimate governance and law and order. But the Obama administration has kidnapped the entire peace process and negatively impacted the outcome. According to Ayemany, the United States has always had a special relationship with Yemen, especially in the war against terrorism. But the “deceiving alliance” with America under Obama led to obstacles in the peace process largely due to other regional American concerns in Syria and with Iran. Ayemany feared that Yemen would become worse than Somalia if the government was dissolved completely, and hoped that the Trump administration would reverse the Obama administration’s damaging effec. Iran is also a significant actor in the conflict, though Ayemany felt Iran had lost its ability to gain control or influence in Yemen.

Al-Dawsari discussed her research into civilians’ perspectives on the peace talks, noting there is deep resentment and distrust of both the negotiations as well as the actors involved in the peace talks. The UN-sponsored peace process is deeply flawed because it is elite-centric and neither inclusive of Yemenis nor understanding of the conflict. There are two major reasons for the conflict—power struggles between former president Saleh and his traditional allies, and local grievances and resentment towards elite. Because the UN and the international community have only addressed the former cause, peace talks have and will continue to fall short. Allowing elite actors and issues to monopolize peace talks, Al-Dawsari argues, will not end the conflict. It is important to engage local actors who have the potential to develop a more comprehensive solution.

Alyahya discussed the role of Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict. Because Yemen is in its back yard, Saudi Arabia is interested in having a stable and prosperous neighbor. The Kingdom has attempted to keep Yemen afloat with aid. Alyahya highlighted the achievements of the coalition, which he said now controls 80% of land in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s help is far preferable than what Yemen might look like had the Kingdom not intervened at all.

He also discussed Iran’s role in the conflict. With a wide network of militias across the Arab world, Iran maintains influence over the Houthis and provides material support in the form of weapons and training. Saudi Arabia is frustrated with the roll back of US operational support and wants the Trump administration to increase assistance through intelligence sharing as well as political and logistical support.

Khoury provided insight into the bigger picture of the conflict as well as obstacles to peace on the national, regional, and international level. On the national level, Saleh’s departure left a void that Yemen struggled to fill; if Yemenis had gotten together to form a power-sharing arrangement for governance, the country would not today be entrenched in conflict. Regionally, Khoury echoed Alyahya in saying that it is important for Saudi Arabia to have a stable Yemen, but intervention further complicated the picture by throwing Yemen into the greater regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. On the international level, Khoury identified three goals the United States has in Yemen: pursuing its counterterrorism efforts, supporting Saudi Arabia’s operations, and countering Iran’s influence. There is no “Yemen first” approach; if the country were to fall apart, it would be worse than Afghanistan.

The panelists also discussed the various rounds of peace talks, the role the international community has played, and what the outcome of the current process might be. Al-Dawsari said that tribal leaders, whose local capacity can better resolve internal conflicts, could more effectively mitigate the broader conflict in Yemen. Khoury agreed that the crux is at the local level and that the peace process has not empowered traditional tribal mediation skills. To truly be successful, the talks must bring major tribal powers together. Alyahya believes that the coalition should stand behind a legitimate Yemeni government and in support of stability on the ground.

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Revenge of the nerds

The foreign policy establishment is beginning to bite back. While President Trump was outperforming even by his own low standards in a press conference Thursday, Senator McCain, Secretary of Defense Mattis, Vice President Pence, and Secretary of State Tillerson were busy in Europe declaring their unqualified commitment to the NATO Alliance, urging the allies to meet their 2014 commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense by 2024, opposing any softening with Russia on Ukraine, denouncing those who doubt Western values, and lauding the post-World War II liberal international framework. Trump likely wasn’t listening–he doesn’t even listen to the questions asked at his own news conference–but no doubt his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, heard what amounts to a cabinet and Congressional rebellion against his boss.

The courage to talk this way comes in part from Trump’s truly miserable ratings with the American public. At 40%, his job approval rating one month into the presidency is the lowest on record:

 

Mid-February Job Approval Ratings During Elected Presidents’ First Year in Office, Eisenhower Through Trump

 

Date Job approval
%
Trump 2017 Feb 13-15 40
Obama 2009 Feb 12-15 64
G.W. Bush 2001 Feb 19-21 62
Clinton 1993 Feb 12-14 51
G.H.W. Bush 1989 Feb 28-Mar 2 63
Reagan 1981 Feb 13-16 55
Carter 1977 Feb 18-21 71
Nixon 1969 Feb 20-25 60
Kennedy 1961 Feb 10-15 72
Eisenhower 1953 Feb 22-27 67
Average 61

He started lower than everyone else and has dropped more than all but Clinton:

 

Change in Presidential Mid-February Job Approval Ratings From Initial Job Approval Ratings, Eisenhower Through Trump
Sorted by change in approval rating

 

Initial approval Mid-February approval Change
% % pct. pts.
G.H.W. Bush 51 63 +12
G.W. Bush 57 62 +5
Carter 66 71 +5
Reagan 51 55 +4
Nixon 59 60 +1
Eisenhower 68 67 -1
Obama 68 64 -4
Trump 45 40 -5
Clinton 58 51 -7
Average 60 61 +1

The American public views Trump as less trustworthy and well informed than his predecessors, as well as less able to get things done and to communicate:

Americans generally respect NATO:

They also think Trump has damaged America’s image abroad:

This is unprecedented: a president with radical foreign policy intentions whose appointees are speaking out in ways that amount to rejection of those intentions. They are trying to hem in the President and prevent him from pursuing the worst of his ideas.

Trump still is the president however. He may be hemmed in by his own minions on NATO and Ukraine, but he is still free to act elsewhere. Iran and Syria are the likely arenas. He won’t renounce the Iran nuclear deal, because the Israelis don’t want him to. But he may seek heightened confrontation with them in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, or Syria. He may also try for a partnership with Russia in Syria by abandoning support for the Syrian opposition and trying to ween Moscow from what I suspect is an unbreakable tie to Assad. No successor regime will be as friendly to Russian (and Iranian) interests as Assad has been.

Trump is also rumored to be considering deployment of more US troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). He wouldn’t be the first American president to seek to bolster his popularity at home by waging war abroad. But Americans seem to me tired of foreign interventions. ISIS, while dreadful, is a threat to individual American citizens–even to substantial numbers of them–but it is not an existential threat that can destroy the United States. Apart from North Korea’s eventual capability to deliver nuclear weapons to California, the only threat of that sort I see on the horizon is President Trump’s attack on America’s courts, its free and independent media, its Muslim citizens, and its domestic tranquility.

 

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DC’s fine-tuned machine

Donald Trump yesterday called his team a “fine-tuned machine” in a press conference that prompted one Republican senator to say “He should do this with a therapist, not on live television.” The President was unable to keep his cool even in response to a question about well-documented recent anti-Semitic incidents, instead berating the journalist for his hostility. My first question to would-be foreign government speakers in Washington is whether they can respond to a provocative question without attacking the questioner. After almost a month in office, Trump is still not ready for prime time.

Instead he is spewing falsehoods, making exaggerated claims for his own prowess and experience, denying well-established facts, and conducting a vituperative campaign against the establishment press. He is also promising to catch leakers who are filling the headlines with news about his campaign’s links to Russia and the related ongoing investigations, which could lead to criminal charges against his now resigned National Security Adviser. The chosen replacement is reported to have turned down the job, unable to get a commitment that he would be able to choose his own staff. Trump’s immigration ban, blocked in court, will be withdrawn and replaced with something the President says will be even better.

There is a fine-tuned machine in Washington, but it is not Trump’s White House staff or even his cabinet appointees, most of whom are making it through Senate’s confirmation. The US government’s permanent civil and foreign services are beginning to gain traction. That is apparent in Defense Secretary Mattis’ meeting with NATO allies, where he sought both to get them to spend more on defense (a well-worn talking point that pre-dates Trump) and to reassure them that the Administration is committed to the Alliance. It is also apparent in UN Ambassador Haley’s tough remarks about Russian aggression in Ukraine and Secretary of State Tillerson’s “listening” participation in a G20 meeting, even if he had trouble explaining the President’s remarks on Israel and Palestine to the French foreign minister.

Trump, who is more radical than conservative, will no doubt want to upend more of America’s traditional positions on international issues, as he did when he ditched the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (delighting China) and suggested that the US was no longer committed to a two-state solution in the Middle East. He is said to be thinking about putting substantial numbers of US troops on the ground in Syria, to accelerate the liberation of Raqqa. But the bureaucracy is trying to hem him in and prevent thoughtless departures from established policy by Twitplomacy. Call it the “blob” or the “deep state,” but the professionals know there are good reasons for why we do what we do (and not what we don’t do). They want to ensure that policy changes are well crafted to avoid the kinds of chaos that the immigration ban generated.

The professionals are of course also protecting their own vested bureaucratic interests, from whence the leaks. Trump has all but declared war on the intelligence community and frozen out the State Department, preferring to rely on a National Security Council staff studded with military and former military officers. The nerds want their revenge. They got some with Flynn’s departure. They may target chief strategist Bannon and his side kicks as well, as they are all too clearly the guardians of Trump’s white nationalist radicalism.

Trump is driving a jalopy of his own making, not the Tesla he is entitled to as President. I dread the day he gets into the right driver’s seat and begins to make effective use of the deep state he is now fighting.

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