Is there a best option for Syria?

On Monday, the Brookings Institution hosted ‘A look at the policy options in war-torn Syria’, a panel discussion featuring Daniel Byman, Senior Fellow and Research Director at Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy; Kenneth Pollack, Senior Fellow at Brookings; Will McCants, Senior Fellow and Director of Brookings’ U.S. Relations with the Islamic World project; and Tamara Cofman Wittes, Senior Fellow and Director at Brookings’ CMEP. Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow and Research Director for Foreign Policy at Brookings, moderated as well as contributing his own views.

Each of the panellists proposed a policy for Syria. As the discussion wound up, Pollack acknowledged that though each argued that their policy was the best for future action, and could present numerous pieces of evidence to support their argument, ‘best’ in the case of the Syrian crisis is a relative term. The only real locus of disagreement between the panellists is how they evaluate risk, possibility of implementation, and potential for success, rather than over the meat of what must politically and militarily be accomplished for the country. No one wants to see the conflict endure, nor does anyone wish to see ISIS given the space to breathe or the humanitarian crisis to wear on.

Some of the policies proposed differ pretty significantly.

O’Hanlon has opted for a confederal model, or an ink-spot approach. Taking some inspiration from the Bosnian case, he envisions autonomous zones of governance with their own security forces, in order to combat Assad and ISIS both. He believes these zones will allow for bridges to be built with both Turkey and Russia, as they can prioritize relations with the zones closest to them politically, e.g. the Russians with an Alawite sector in the northwest, where Assad potentially could stay in power as well. This model would require moderate numbers of NATO boots on the ground.

Pollack, meanwhile, operates within the assumption of a unified Syria. Having analysed third-party resolutions to other civil wars, he proposed building an alternative army: large, conventional, trained outside Syria, and only good enough to face off the so-so forces of ISIS and Assad. This falls within a three-step program. First, with this army we need to create a military stalemate; then a power-sharing agreement needs to be forged, reflecting the relative power of all parties. Finally, long-term guarantees need to be established, including protection of minorities’ rights. The key is not to withdraw once military success is achieved, and to ensure the maintenance of those guarantees.

Byman, concerned with implementing policies only half-way in such an unstable environment, opts for a less intensive one: containment of local instability. This includes the more conventional border security, counterterrorism assistance, and weakening ISIS through limited air support for local ground troops. It also means better management of refugee camps, policing them with an eye to extremist threats, and providing for refugees, aiming for their integration into society in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. He acknowledges this only ‘staunches the bleeding’ rather than ends the conflict, but this at least is lower in cost than other policies.

McCants provides the ISIS view, noting that since the Syrian crisis began, the fledgling state has deployed the same tactic several times to gain control of cities and regions. It infiltrates, assassinates or imprisons those who oppose it, and proceeds to impose its rule through brutally violent tactics. These are laid out in a terror theorist’s manual, The Management of Savagery. ISIS has been able to take advantage of regional governments collapsing, as in Iraq after the US withdrawal. Previously it had been driven underground by the US army and nearly destroyed. It is able to exploit power vacuums. McCants added that a weakness of the confederal model is that it increases the enclaves’ vulnerability to ISIS tactics, especially if regional allies (e.g. Jordan, Turkey) are not sufficiently committed.

Wittes reviewed Obama’s foreign policy, noting that all his strategies have ‘foundered on the realities of a disordered region’. There has long been a gap in understanding between Washington and local actors: for instance, the Obama administration has always discounted Syria, while in local view, it is of utmost strategic and political importance. Wittes traces the current regional crisis to two underlying problems, of order and of authority. ISIS also springs from these underlying problems, which are reflected in the conflict over the role of Islam in politics. She proposes convening a regional security dialogue. The Vienna talks focus on external actors’ interests, sacrificing an accounting problems within the region.

There was indeed broad agreement across the panel on the need to incorporate local actors and local political realities into the solution, whether that meant Sunni Arab tribes, the opposition forces (including moderate Islamists), or regional governments. It is important as well that these policies include long-term political reconciliation and guarantees, whether through federated autonomy or power-sharing. Though generally unified on the need to combat ISIS militarily, the panelists also recognized that the underlying problem in Syria is Assad, his brutal war, and the power vacuum to which he has contributed.


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On Friday, the Middle East Institute hosted its 69th annual conference: ‘The Search for Stability & Opportunity: The Middle East in 2016’. The opening panel ‘Obama’s Mideast Legacy and the Next Administration’ discussed the President’s policies in the region and key issues for the next administration.

The panel featured Prem Kumar, vice president of the MENA Practice at Albright Stonebridge Group; Robin Wright, joint fellow at the US Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Michael Singh, Lane-Swig Senior Fellow and Managing Director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Tamara Cofman Wittes, senior fellow and managing director at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. The discussion was moderated by Elise Labott, global affairs correspondent at CNN.

Labott noted that Obama began his presidency saying he would not engage in military interventions globally, but wound up presenting a different face to the UN General Assembly in September 2013. US policies abroad, he stated, are protecting allies, including with military force, maintaining safe access to oil and gas, pursuing counterterrorism goals, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Kumar pointed out that Obama’s policy changed in response to the Arab Spring. The conflicts stemming from that event fundamentally are not about the US, but they made Obama identify the most vital national security interests, and where intervention was necessary. Considering risks and available allies, there was opportunity to intervene in Libya, but not in Syria. Obama’s most important legacy, in Kumar’s view, is the Iran deal, and its implementation will influence rebuilding the security architecture of the region.

Singh took a broad view: presidents have, from administration to administration, neglected to build a long-term strategy for the Middle East. Instead, it has been a series of tactics, as presidents simply react to their predecessor’s foreign policy. But these foreign policy issues are not partisan issues. We need to address the dual collapse of states and of the regional security architecture going forward.

Dwelling on military intervention and collapsed states, Wittes does not believe the current problems in Libya were created by NATO’s campaign, but by 42 years of Qaddafi rule – there was no true political system in Libya for decades. The US was wary of putting more investment into Libya post-intervention because of the example of Iraq. Wright disagreed: after its military success the international community fell through in ensuring political transition and sustained reconstruction. Libya should have been a success story, because of its small population and oil resources.

Tunisia, also with a small population, is comparable, but even its success has been limited. Lingering issues stem from long-term social, economic, and political problems, which certainly were not solved by the Arab Spring. Wright stated that the US has failed to address these in its foreign policy. The US needs to determine what the priority is: stability, or a new political order in the Middle East, stemming from more liberal values?

Syria is a central issue. Wittes pointed to the need to learn from past civil wars: we need to reach a negotiated settlement, enforced by outside parties, but with Syrians at the table. The Vienna talks can’t accomplish this. Wright stated the need for a three-pronged process: ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra need to be pushed back, so that Aleppo can be unified. Then a legitimate political process can take place, with local councils managing the liberated territories. Finally, the state needs to be rebuilt.

Wright also stated that the US needs to seriously consider the question of whether it wants to use its military and economic muscle to hold states like Syria (or Yemen, or Libya) together. If so, how would the US do that, in a regionally comprehensive manner?

None of the panelists believe the US no longer has interests to protect in the Middle East. There is fatigue, but the region has to be ‘rebuilt’. Local conflicts, as we continue to witness, have been globalized, and bring repercussions on a global level. Whether because of oil, economic and social development, conflict resolution, or the humanitarian refugee crisis, the US will need to continue to be involved.

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Bosnia’s way forward

Here are the remarks I prepared for the conference at SAIS today and tomorrow on Twenty Years after Dayton: Prospects for Progress in Reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina:

1. I want first to thank my colleagues at the Center for Transatlantic Relations here at SAIS—Sasha Toperich and Dan Hamilton—for entrusting me with a privileged place on the program and the most difficult question to answer.
2. This I suspect is my “reward” for twenty years of thinking I really did know the way forward but then proving beyond any doubt that I was unable to find it.
3. Before and at Dayton, I thought the way forward involved ensuring that the Federation, which Dick Holbrooke had entrusted to my care in October 1994, could govern effectively.
4. At the fifth anniversary in 2000, I thought it lay in applying the European Convention on Human Rights, which had been incorporated into the Dayton constitution.
5. By the time of the 10th anniversary in 2005, I was sure it lay in revising that constitution, an effort pursued by Don Hays, Paul Williams and Bruce Hitchner under my aegis at the US Institute of Peace.
6. They helped the Bosnians produce what became known as the “April package” of constitutional amendments that failed in parliament by two votes in 2006.
7. I don’t remember what I was thinking in 2010 at the 15th anniversary, when I was busy moving from USIP to SAIS.
8. None of my previous impulses have succeeded, so this time around I’m going to offer you three different directions for a way forward in Bosnia. I do hope one of them pans out, but hope is not a policy. I’ll try also, at the end, to enunciate a policy, after considering three additional propositions that are not ways forward.
9. The first way forward is that old standby: constitutional change. A constitution distributes power. In Bosnia it distributes power in ways that enable ethnic nationalists to control the country and exploit their position for personal rather than societal gain.
10. We imposed the Dayton accords, but we imposed what the ethnic nationalist warring parties told us they could live with.
11. It is therefore unsurprising that one way or another, ethnic nationalists have dominated Bosnia almost continuously, making it ungovernable, since 1995.
12. Kresimir Zubak, then President of the Federation, gave me my first lesson in ethnic nationalism during the war. Serwer, he said, one man one vote will never work in Bosnia.
13. Though by far not the most extreme of ethnic nationalists, Zubak was still determined to prevent Croats from being “outvoted,” something he regarded as anti-democratic.
14. There is nothing I might wish for more than recognition and protection of equal individual rights in Bosnia today so that people could be outvoted without feeling bereft of their identity, but even the application of equal individual rights to the Sejdic Finci case has been a bridge too far for Zubak’s successors.
15. I have to conclude that constitutional change is not looking promising, even though it is the most direct and compelling route forward. The failure in 2006 and the more dismal failure at Butmir in 2010 have poisoned the well.
16. The second way forward is what the Europeans are calling reform. There is a nice thick document written by non-Bosnians that you can read to see what that means: reducing the public sector, improving the investment climate and making the labor market more flexible would be my summary.
17. The Bosnian political leadership has pledged the political will to get on with it. Combined with conditionality from the EU, the World Bank and IMF, I hope it works, though I hasten to add that it is likely to make things worse for many Bosnians before it makes them better.
18. Moreover, politicians have been relentlessly clever in blunting European pressure for reform and converting it into new opportunities for expropriation of state assets and opportunities for individual and party enrichment, as carefully documented in a paper written by Srdjan Blagovcanin and Boris Divjak published earlier this year by CTR.
19. I therefore regrettably doubt the European reform program as much as I doubt the prospects for constitutional change.
20. The third possible way forward is for the Bosnian people to demand change, along the lines of what has happened recently in Romania.
21. That is what appeared to be happening in the aftermath of the 2014 floods, but the plenums produced little in the way of serious political pressure for change and generated significant nostalgia for a more state-administered economy. I wouldn’t count that as the way forward.
22. If my three ways forward won’t work, that doesn’t mean someone else’s ideas won’t.
23. Some Croats want a third entity, claiming that would re-establish equality and enable them to participate more fully in the Bosnian state.
24. I don’t buy that. At Dayton the Croats got a very good deal: one-third of the state and one-half of the Federation.
25. That was when they were in the driver’s seat, providing the military force that enabled the Federation offensive to succeed in the summer of 1995 and controlling the flow of weapons and everything else from the Adriatic into central Bosnia.
26. Croats are now a smaller percentage of the population than they were before the war, they have lost their wartime stranglehold and military prowess counts for little within the region.
27. The third entity idea is hard to kill, but it is going nowhere.
28. Milorad Dodik also has a proposition: detaching his Republika Srpska from the judicial system of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the clear intention of preventing any prosecution of himself or his sidekicks and laying the basis for eventual secession, or if that is not possible a kind of complete autonomy like that of Taiwan. Read more

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Peace picks November 15-20

  1. Global Security Forum 2015| Monday, November 16th | 9:30 – 10:45 | CSIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Join the Center for Strategic and International Studies at their 2015 Global Security Forum. Panels include: The Geopolitical Implications of Europe’s Migration Crisis, Russia’s Strategic Vision, Counter-Coercion Strategies: Assessing U.S. Next Steps in Maritime Asia, and The Human Crisis in Syria and Iraq: What Can be Done? Speakers include: Philipp Ackerman, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Geoff Dyer, Financial Times Correspondent, Washington Bureau, Catherine Wiesner, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
  2. Countering Terrorism In Tunisia: Prospects For Security Sector Reform | Monday, November 16th | 12:00-1:30 | Project on Middle East Democracy | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Despite the immense progress Tunisia has made in its transition since the Jasmine Revolution, significant challenges—both internal and external—threaten the future of Tunisia’s democracy. As major terrorist attacks have negatively affected the country’s security and economic stability, Tunisia’s government has struggled to find an appropriate and effective response to counter the threat of terrorism.The Legatum Institute’s upcoming publication Tunisia at Risk: Will counter-terrorism undermine the revolution? analyzes successive Tunisian governments’ responses to terrorism and considers the relation between these responses and the future of the country’s democratic transition. Speakers include: Fadil Aliriza, visiting senior fellow, Legatum Institute, Daniel Brumberg, co-director, Democracy & Governance Studies, Georgetown University, and Querine Hanlon, president, Strategic Capacity Group.
  3. A Look at the Policy Options in War-torn Syria | Monday, November 16th | 2:00 – 3:30 | Brookings Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Syria continues to dominate headlines as the country approaches the fifth anniversary of the beginning of a civil war that has taken some 300,000 lives and displaced half the country’s population. To date, international strategy in addressing the conflict has largely failed. But the war shows few signs of burning out on its own. As such, a new strategy is needed. Ideas that have yet to be fully explored include standing up a better and newly formed Syrian opposition army, working harder to contain the violence there with regional states and partners, and pursuing an “ink spot” approach aiming to create a confederal Syria with multiple autonomous zones. Which of these may be most realistic and promising for protecting core American security interests, U.S. allies, and humanitarian interests? Panelists will include Daniel Byman, research director in the Center for Middle East Policy; William McCants, director of theProject on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World; Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy; and Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy.
  4. Twenty Years After the Dayton Peace Accords | Monday, November 16th – Tuesday, November 17th | Johns Hopkins SAIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) cordially invites you to our major conference “Prospects for Progress in Reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina” to be held at the SAIS campus. This conference is part of the Center’s 20th Anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords and intends to support socio-economic reforms effort launched recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina and supported by the International Community. Speakers include: Igor Crnadak, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina,
    Fadil Novalic, Prime Minister of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Hoyt Yee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs).
  5. The Central African Republic: The Situation On the Ground, Women, and Peacekeeping | Wednesday, November 18th | 12:00 – 2:00 | Women’s Foreign Policy Group | REGISTER TO ATTENDBarrie Freeman joined the United Nations as political affairs director for the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) in September 2014. From 2011-2014, she served as director for North Africa at the National Democratic Institute, managing a wide range of political development programs in response to the political upheavals of the Arab Spring. Prior to that she served as a senior advisor to the institute and as deputy regional director for Central and West Africa, managing a diverse portfolio of country programs across the region that included support to electoral processes, civil society development, legislative strengthening, and political party development. Brown bag lunch will be supplied.
  6. Televising The Waves Of Political Change in Yemen | Wednesday, November 18th | 6:30 – 8:30 | Atlantic Plumbing Cinema | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Award-winning producer and journalist, Nawal Al-Maghafi, takes us on a journey into Yemen during the two most pivotal periods in the country’s modern history. Yemeniaty’s founder and director, Sama’a Al-Hamdani, will join Al-Maghafi to provide insight and analysis into the political and social dynamics that contributed to Yemen’s Revolution in 2011 and the failures of the transitional period that helped contribute to the regional proxy war. In this special screening of two mini documentaries, Al-Maghafi sheds light on one of the most unknown and complex countries in the Middle East. The first documentary takes place during the Arab-Spring inspired revolution of 2011, while the second film investigates the current humanitarian crisis facing the citizens of Yemen during this war. The screenings will be The President’s Man and His Revolutionary Son and Yemen: The Forgotten War. 
  7. The Movement Of Women and Girls In Conflict: A Discussion On Protection, Reintegration and Migration | Thursday, November 19th | 9:00-10:30 | International Foundation for Electoral Systems| REGISTER TO ATTEND | “The Movement of Women and Girls in Conflict” will focus on the flight of women and girls in and from Central America, the Middle East and North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s headlines are filled with the harrowing journeys of refugees traveling to Europe and warnings about a global migration crisis. Less visible is the enduring plight of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) desperate for resources amid limited and dangerous movement. Women and girls in both groups, and particularly those in forgotten conflicts, are burdened by rampant gender-based violence, lack of health care and services, and little social and economic agency to lead their families, their communities and themselves to better and safer lives. Speakers include: Joan Timoney, Senior Director of Advocacy and External Relations, Women’s Refugee Commission, Reem Khamis, Protection/Gender Based Violence Technical Advisor, American Refugee Committee, and Shilpa Nadhan, Senior Program Specialist, International Organization for Migration.
  8. Afghanistan in 2015: A Survey Of The Afghan People | Thursday, November 19th | 9:30 – 11:30 | United States Institute of Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Asia Foundation’s series of annual surveys in Afghanistan provides an unmatched barometer of Afghan public opinion over time. Taken together, the surveys are a resource for policymakers in government, the international community and the broader Afghan public as they navigate a difficult landscape, seeking a more peaceful and prosperous future for Afghanistan and the region. Speakers include: David D. Arnold, president, The Asia Foundation, Timor Sharan, Program Management Director in Afghanistan, Andrew Wilder, Vice President, Asia Prorams, U.S. Institute of Peace.
  9. Ukraine: How to Build Social Peace Amid Displacement? | Thursday, November 19th | 10:00- 11:30 | U.S. Institute of Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Ukrainian civil society and women’s rights leader Natalia Karbowska and refugee specialist Dawn Calabia will examine the displacement of Ukrainians and ways that civil society and displaced people can foster social cohesion and resilience. Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor and the former ambassador for global women’s issues, Melanne Verveer, will discuss Ukraine’s situation in light of other current migration crises, and ways in which it might unfold. Natalia Karbowska Board Chair of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, Advisor at the Global Fund for Women, Dawn Calabia Senior Advisor at Refugees International, Ambassador William Taylor Executive Vic e President, U.S. Institute of Peace, and Melanne Verveer Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
  10. Justice Mechanisms in the Syrian Conflict: Impunity under Scrutiny | Thursday, November 19th | 12:00 – 1:30 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | After four and a half years of civil war and more than 200,000 civilians killed, the Syrian conflict is seeing yet another escalation with Russia’s open military engagement. The lack of an international response to the humanitarian catastrophe affects not only Syria but Europe and the United States as well, where hundreds of thousands of Syrians seek refuge and returning foreign fighters present an increasing security threat. Please join the Atlantic Council, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability for a discussion as our panel considers and evaluates practical methods for addressing both impunity and broader international security threats in the absence of a united international stance on the Syrian conflict. Speakers include:Ambassador Stephen Rapp has been a war crime diplomat and advocate of international criminal justice. Dr. William Wiley is a former infantry officer and a practitioner in the field of international criminal and humanitarian law who has investigated cases in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, DRC, and Syria. Dr. Rolf Mützenich has extensive foreign policy and arms control expertise with a special focus on the Middle East, Russia, Afghanistan, and transatlantic cooperation. Mr. Faysal Itani focuses on US policy in the Levant, with an emphasis on the conflict in Syria and its regional impact.
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Better, but Assad’s fate is still unclear

Friday’s Vienna meeting of what is now being called the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) took a step or two in the right direction by defining more clearly ceasefire and transitional governing arrangements in Syria. The transitional arrangements are based on the June 2012 UN communique, which was not clear last time this group met. But it is still unclear what is to happen with Bashar al Assad and his regime, or when. So the main point of divergence between the Americans and the Syrian opposition, on the one hand, and the Iranians, Russians and the regime on the other hand, remains unresolved, even if progress has in theory been made.

The first step is to be a nationwide ceasefire, endorsed by the UN Security Council, and deployment of monitors in those parts of the country where they would not be subject to terrorist attacks. Where that might be is unclear, so I wouldn’t hold my breath for arrival of the observers. You would have to be nuts to put them in most of Syria at this point. The ceasefire does not apply to offensive or defensive operations against the Islamic State, Jabhat al Nusra or other (undefined) groups the ISSG designates. Humanitarian access is supposed to happen regardless, and the use of indiscriminate weapons (read especially barrel bombs) is supposed to cease.

In parallel, there is to be a political process under UN auspices that convenes the Syrian government and opposition representatives by a target date of January 1. Syrians are to somehow choose their own representatives, in an undefined process under UN envoy De Mistura’s aegis.

The big step forward is this outline of the transition process:

The ISSG members reaffirmed their support for the transition process contained in the 2012 Geneva Communique. In this respect they affirmed their support for a ceasefire as described above and for a Syrian-led process that will, within a target of six months, establish credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance, and set a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution. Free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months. These elections must be administered under UN supervision to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including the diaspora, eligible to participate.

So negotiations should start January 1, a new government is formed within six months, a new constitution is written and elections held under UN supervision within 18 months. That is a far clearer timetable for the transition process than previously agreed. It corresponds more or less to what the Iranians have been pushing for some time.

But there is a missing link: what happens to Bashar al Assad and his security apparatus. Implicitly, they remain in place for the six months of negotiations and formation of a new government, which presumably is empowered with full executive authority (the key provision of the June 2012 communique that this one mentions repeatedly). I might imagine that would mean the Assad regime leaves power once the new government is formed, but nowhere is that specified. I suspect the Russians and especially the Iranians have not agreed on that point.

Much of this timetable will prove difficult if not impossible to implement. Are the Russians going to stop the more than 80% of their bombing that is directed against what the Americans regard as moderate opposition forces? Will the regime stop its incessant barrel bombing of civilian areas? Will the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, its Shia militia allies (the National Defense Forces) and Hizbollah stop their efforts to clear the opposition from the Damascus/Latakia axis so vital to the regime? Will the Americans and Saudis throttle back on the supply of anti-tank and other weapons that the moderate opposition are using to blunt the regime/Russian/Iranian offensive?

As for the political process, who among the serious opposition would be prepared to go to a Damascus still controlled by Assad to negotiate or take positions in a transitional government? Is Assad ready to delegate “full executive authority” to a government he does not control? If he remains nominally in office as chief of state, who protects him and how? Secretary of State Kerry in a speech at the US Institute of Peace Thursday was more insistent than in the past that Assad had to go, because even the moderate opposition would continue fighting if he didn’t. But precisely when and how he goes is still not agreed.

So there are still lots of unanswered questions, and little likelihood that the timetable outlined in this communique will be observed. But it is better than what we’ve had until this point.

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Remember Paris

The pundit world will spend the next week debating what went wrong to allow the Paris attacks to happen and how similar attacks there and elsewhere might be prevented. The culprits will include Edward Snowden (for inhibiting eavesdropping), Barack Obama (for not doing enough in Syria), George W. Bush (for invading Iraq), the Quran (for inspiring violence), Arab autocrats (for repressing their populations), France (for not integrating its Muslim population), multinational corporations (for globalization that has lowered wages and impoverished people worldwide), Russia (for intervening in Syria), the internet (for enabling recruitment of extremists) and at least a dozen other contributing forces and factors.

None of this will enlighten us much. The sad fact is that you and I can do precious little to protect ourselves from violence of this sort: weapons and explosives are readily available to those who want them in many countries, including the US. Nor can our governments do much more than they are already doing. Killing sprees that target random individuals can always get past the limited security defenses at a rock concert or the non-existent defenses at an outdoor cafe. The Paris attacks might have killed and wounded many more people. Once perpetrators open fire, only brave souls willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others–like the three Americans on a French train a couple of months ago–can stop the carnage before security forces arrive.

The American equivalent of the Paris attacks would be on the order of 600 people killed. That is fewer than 9/11, but getting up to the same order of magnitude. The effects in France and beyond will be dramatic: lowered tourism, tightened security measures, hindered travel, lower economic growth, strengthened nativist political movements, military retaliation, and likely more attempts to up the ante. We’ll return to the rhetoric of the “war on terror,” forgetting how misguided that idea was 14 years ago and the mistakes it led us to make.

Political violence is a technique, not an enemy.

Our enemy should be political extremism. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, as well as the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai. If those claims are confirmed (I fully expect they will be), the enemy should be called by the name he uses: Muslim political extremism. The Islamic State is a self-declared mass murderer that targets civilians and aims to terrorize those it regards as its enemies into submission to its will, in particular by withdrawing from Muslim countries and leaving them to be welded into a caliphate ruled in accordance with a distorted interpretation of the Quran.

The irony is that Islamic State activities are discouraging Western withdrawal from the Middle East, not encouraging it. Most Americans (among them the President) would gladly leave Libya, Syria and Yemen to pursue their own civil wars, if they thought no harm would cross the Atlantic or the Mediterranean as a result. There really isn’t much in any of those benighted countries to attract American interest other than al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which may be able to kill random Americans at home and abroad but present no existential risk to the United States.

We have to remember Paris, in particular the victims. The French authorities need to prosecute the perpetrators, who surely go beyond the narrow circle of the already dead shooters. The American-led coalition should press the fight against the Islamic State’s military forces in Iraq and Syria. But we need to be careful not to do things that will make things worse: prejudice against Muslims as a group, denial of their equal and inalienable rights, and indiscriminate military or police attacks. Doing too much of the wrong things can be just as harmful as doing too little of the right things.

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