28 pages, the Turkey coup and Nice

Those are the issues dominating the headlines this morning. The common thread: they all reflect in one way or another the secularist reaction to Islamist politics.

Islamism has become the main political event of our time, because we have made it so. The Nice attacker, like the Orlando one, seems to have been only loosely, if at all, affiliated with the Islamic State or any other extremist movement. Both were more loser than Islamist. Until fairly recently, we might have attributed their acts to mental illness rather than politics. Today, it would be hard for a Muslim in the West to commit mass murder without its being attributed to Islam.

Turkey’s coup attempt likely originated within the anti-Muslim Brotherhood currents of Turkish politics, including the Gulen movement. Its failure will enormously strengthen the hand of President Erdogan, whose Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political party will continue to broaden the powers of the presidency as it reduces the opportunities for political dissent. There is nothing like an attempted coup to give an aspiring autocrat more opportunity to gain control over the levers of power.

The 28 newly published pages of preliminary investigative material on 9/11 shed little new light on possible connections between Saudi Arabia and the plotters of the attack. Despite the efforts of the Kingdom’s American public relations consultants, they will nevertheless stimulate the appetite of anti-Muslim forces in the US, who have already entertained us for several days with their approval of Newt Gingrich’s proposal for a Shariah litmus test for American Muslims. Like the attempted coup in Turkey, this Christian chauvinism is bound to strengthen those they attack.

We need to stop helping our adversaries. Islamic extremists are a real threat. But mistaking Erdogan, the Nice and Orlando attackers, and even the Saudis for the real thing is foolish and counter-productive. That lumps together apples and oranges and labels them extremists. It magnifies the problem and reduces our own capabilities to deal with it, by spreading them far too thin. We need to keep the focus where it belongs: on the weak states of the Middle East that are breeding social pathology, calling it Islam and killing mostly Muslims.

Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen are cases in point. These are the weak states whose collapse has made room for extremism to flourish. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda that exist there are not a bunch of crazed individuals, but rather well-organized insurgencies against the existing state system. They are doing far more damage in the Middle East than the occasional sympathizer or wannabe causes in France or Florida.

Erdogan should not be counted among the Islamist extremists. He an Islamist, but democratically elected. He proposes autocracy as the response to all threats, as does Egypt’s President Sisi. They are peas from different ideological pods, but peas nevertheless. As we have seen already in Egypt and will now see in Turkey, their answers to the Islamist threats will not be adequate. Autocracy may squelch secularism, but it is unlikely to stamp out Islamic extremism, as Sisi should by now have discovered. Islamic extremism has far deeper roots in the Middle East. It is there that it most needs to be fought, not only with military means.

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The difference Brexit makes in the Balkans

I enjoyed a meeting today with Kosovo’s foreign minister, Enver Hoxhaj, some of Kosovo’s ambassadors stationed in European capitals and foreign ministry staff. They were concerned mainly about the implications of Brexit for their country. Here are the notes I used in my presentation:

Brexit makes no difference to some important things

  1. The EU isn’t going away. The single market that allows the free flow of goods, services and capital will continue, even if constraints on movement of people increase.
  2. Brussels will continue to try to coordinate foreign and security policy and will remain an important interlocutor for the US. Brexit may even make it easier for France and Germany to unify EU policy prescriptions.
  3. The EU is moving to close the gap with NATO, which was a luxury no one can afford any longer.
  4. Brussels will try to have a common policy on immigration, albeit one without the UK and much less welcoming than in the past.
  5. The euro will survive Brexit, though it may still face serious challenges from bank weakness in Italy and elsewhere.
  6. Even enlargement will continue, as promised recently at the Paris summit, since the Balkans are not a heavy burden and their cheap labor will be welcome, especially if it stays at home.

But Brexit will change some other important things

  1. The UK, or more likely England, will continue its relative economic and political decline, in particular if Scotland and possibly Northern Ireland leave.
  2. EU investment and growth will slow.
  3. All EU countries, seeing the political risks, will treat illegal immigration much more harshly.
  4. Standards for EU accession will be enforced more strictly, especially those pertaining to rule of law.
  5. Europe’s global political weight will continue to decline and its engagement abroad will decrease.
  6. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership the EU and the US hoped to conclude is likely in suspense, if not moribund.
  7. Putin’s Russia will gain and feel encouraged to expand its anti-EU and anti-NATO efforts, in particular in the Balkans.
  8. The world will continue to look to the US for leadership, especially as financial flows looking for a safe haven boost the US dollar (and maybe its economy).
  9. The Balkans countries will be expected to handle more of their own issues: clamping down on foreign fighters and illegal immigration, resolving the remaining interstate conflicts, and building up regional physical, financial economic and cultural infrastructure.

What does this mean for Kosovo? If I were a Kosovar, I would want to use the next 5-10 years, when the EU will be preoccupied with itself, to complete my country’s sovereignty and enable viable candidacies for both NATO and EU membership. This entails domestic as well as diplomatic efforts. I would want:

  1. The Kosovo courts to become fully independent and capable of providing a fair trial with due process to all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, without the participation of international prosecutors or judges.
  2. The work of the Special Court to try crimes that occurred after the war to be created and complete its work as quickly and competently as possible.
  3. To ensure that radicalization in Kosovo is reduced to a minimum through effective preventive (not only law enforcement) measures.
  4. To grow the economy, and in particular jobs, more rapidly through improvement in the business environment and reducing corruption to levels at least comparable to the average within the EU.
  5. To create an army with representation from all of Kosovo’s citizens, compatible with NATO standards and capable of contributing to NATO missions, whose chief of staff should meet regularly with those of all of Kosovo’s neighbors, including Serbia.
  6. To settle all issues with Kosovo’s neighbors, including in particular the demarcation of the Montenegrin border (which should enable the EU to liberalize its visa requirements) and the Serbian border/boundary as well as full implementation of all agreements already reached with Belgrade.


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Iraqi Kurdistan’s future

Some colleagues asked me to offer my view of the future of Iraqi Kurdistan. Here is what I told them:

  1. A Martian could be forgiven if he arrived today on earth and concluded that Iraqi Kurdistan will be independent by November.
  1. President Barzani has promised a referendum by then and even the Martians know that Iraqi Kurds would vote overwhelmingly for independence if given free choice and opportunity.
  1. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) case for independence is strong: Iraqi Kurds have been brutally treated by their own government, chased from their country and even attacked with chemical weapons; they have governed themselves sort of democratically for decades and treated minorities well by regional standards; they have fought the Islamic State courageously and welcomed people of all ethnicities displaced by the fighting.
  1. One of my pro-independence friends argues that Iraq is like former Yugoslavia: a failed state that has disappointed all its inhabitants and needs to dissolve into its constituent parts.
  1. Another friend asks why Washington would not welcome another stalwart and more or less democratic friend in the turbulent Middle East.
  1. So why do I think independence won’t happen?
  1. To make a long story short: the KRG lacks well-established borders, the means to defend itself, the needed internal political cohesion, the required economic resources, the good relations with its neighbors and the required support of the world’s great powers to become a sovereign state.
  1. Before explaining in depth, let me make an important distinction: political independence is something you declare. It is an expression of political will, sometimes unilateral.
  1. Sovereignty is something you acquire, largely through recognition by other states, which sometimes requires the defense or conquest of territory. The KRG already has a large measure of independence. What it lacks is sovereignty.
  1. President Barzani’s proposal is a classic process for achieving independence: a referendum followed by a unilateral declaration.
  1. It would do little or nothing to establish sovereignty.
  1. For that, the KRG would need to have in the first place well-established borders that none of its neighbors would contest.
  1. That is simply not the case. Baghdad has not and will not accept the KRG’s right to all the disputed territories the peshmerga seized in the confusion of 2014, when the Iraqi Army collapsed in Mosul and other parts of the north under Islamic State attack.
  1. The Iraqi Army today is in no condition to contest KRG control of Kirkuk, parts of Diyala and parts of Ninewa province, but Baghdad won’t accept the fait accompli either. A declaration of independence now would leave a giant unresolved border problem that sooner or later would likely be resolved by force.
  1. I don’t really see how the KRG will ever be able to defend itself from the rest of Iraq if Baghdad gets its act together, which to some degree it seems to be doing. In fact, there might be nothing so likely to unite Shia and Sunni Arabs in the rest of Iraq than a KRG declaration of independence.
  1. How does a KRG with a population of 5.2 million defend itself from an Arab Iraq of perhaps 28 million? Only by reaching an agreement that would likely involve the surrender or compromise of Kirkuk and other disputed territories.
  1. The KRG lacks the internal political cohesion for a deal of that sort and many other requirements of sovereignty and independence. Just last month a Sulamaniya delegation was in Baghdad forswearing any intentions to go for independence.
  1. The PUK and Gorran have no intention of letting President Barzani be the George Washington of the KRG, or even allow him an unconstitutional third term. He has locked the opposition Speaker out of parliament, which is unable to meet even to decide how the referendum will be organized.
  1. Kirkuk’s governor wants his province to become a region, separate at least initially from the KRG. Some in Sinjar are resisting incorporation into the KRG. One observer even sees signs of Balkanization of Kurdistan.
  1. Resources are also a problem. At oil prices of $100/barrel or above, KRG officials thought production of 500,000 bpd might enable them to replace all the money Baghdad was supposed to be sending. At $50/barrel, the production required is presumably close to 1 million bpd. Current exports are a bit more than 500,000 bpd.
  1. The KRG is an oil rentier state. Even with recent tax increases and reductions in subsidies, it has precious little revenue other than from oil.
  1. The consequences for the KRG economy are dramatic. Civil servants are going unpaid, the economy is in crisis and the enormous influx of people displaced by the Islamic State has increased the stress. The 1.4 million people on the government payroll, including those fighting the Islamic State, are being paid erratically.
  1. Kurdistan’s difficult neighborhood is an additional problem. All the KRG’s oil is exported to Turkey, which has greatly improved its relations with the Iraqi Kurds. But Ankara under current conditions is still unlikely in my opinion to welcome a KRG declaration of independence, for fear of incentivizing the Syrian Kurds or its own to head in the same direction.
  1. Iran is even harder over against KRG independence, for fear of what it would mean for its own province of Eastern Kurdistan, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is chasing Kurdish guerrillas and occasionally shelling across the border into the KRG.
  1. Syria no longer counts for much in regional politics, but KRG independence would not be a welcome move there either. The KRG could expect none of its neighbors to offer it diplomatic recognition and exchange of ambassadors.
  1. Most of the great powers will be even more resistant than the KRG’s immediate neighbors. The United States will fear that a referendum and independent Kurdistan would strengthen Russia’s case for the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as the annexation of Crimea and eventual annexation of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, not to mention Bosnia’s Republika Srpska.
  1. Europe, in particular Germany, is hard over against independence.
  1. China would agree: it wants no precedents that Tibet might want to follow. Russia might be more amenable, though Moscow would be wise to contemplate the issue, since an independent Kurdistan is likely to be strongly pro-Western (and its own constituent republics might be getting ideas).
  1. To summarize: if you can’t expect recognition by any of your neighbors or your best friends, if you don’t have the money to pay the bills, if your internal politics are divisive and you will not be able to defend the borders you claim, my best advice is don’t try it.
  1. The Kurds would be wise to wait for a more auspicious moment. It may well come, possibly within the next five years. They will know the time is right when they have Washington and Baghdad’s concurrence, recognition by Iran and Turkey, revenue to cover their expenses, a functioning parliament and a leader who attracts support from Sulamaniyah as well as Erbil. Stranger things have happened.

What, my colleagues asked, if the KRG went ahead despite the circumstances. What would happen?

I answered maybe nothing, since without recognition of sovereignty declarations of independence evaporate pretty quickly. Kosovo’s in 1991 didn’t work, nor did the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad declared in 1946, another colleague noted. But it is also possible a Kurdish declaration of independence would spark a wider war in the Middle East, involving Iran and Turkey even more directly than the current conflict. That would not be good news.

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The road to Tripoli goes through Cairo

There is multi-dimensional irony in Libya’s recent progress. The militias that have plagued security for years are delivering success against the Islamic State forces in Sirte, at high cost. A country that notoriously resists international intervention has begun to accept a UN-imposed Presidential Council as its highest governing authority. A state notorious for lacking substantial institutions has somehow preserved through years of chaos a precious few vital to delivering future services to its population: the national bank, oil company and investment authority. Some of their divided bureaucracies still need reunification, but they have not been obliterated.

The biggest roadblock in Libya today is General Khalifa Haftar, who has refused to pledge loyalty to the Presidential Council, blocked such a move by the expiring Tobruk-based House of Representatives, and still gets support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and perhaps Western governments. Even that has its ironic side: Haftar has been less effective against the Islamic State than his archenemies the Misrata militia. His resistance won’t last long if his sponsors can be convinced to turn him in the right direction. Western support for Haftar, if it exists, is aimed at defeating the Islamic State and likely won’t outlast that objective.

Egypt’s support for Haftar aims to defeat Islamists in its western neighbor, much as President Sisi has sought to do inside Egypt as well. The Egyptians do not make much distinction among Islamists. It views all of them as threats to the President’s hold on power and therefore terrorists. Russia, which has been flirting with Haftar, has a similar attitude. Haftar reflects this absolutism: he wants to obliterate the Islamists physically, not just marginalize or defeat them politically.

This objective is unachievable. A large portion of the opposition to Qaddafi was Islamist. Islamists won a significant minority of seats in Libya’s first free and relatively well-run elections in July 2012. They continue to have the support of many Libyans as well as armed groups. Even the kind of restored autocracy that Sisi has achieved in Egypt would not eliminate the Islamists in Libya. It would only drive them underground and create the conditions for the kind of terrorist insurgency that Egypt already faces.

The UAE’s position is less absolute than Egypt’s. The Emirates face little or no Islamist threat at home. They want Libya to separate mosque and state in the fashion of secular societies. Western influence is likely strong on the UAE, which would not continue to support Haftar if Egypt stops.

So the Libyan quandary increasingly depends on ending Egyptian support for Haftar and preventing Russia from stepping in to replace it. The Western powers will also need to convince the Misrata and other militias to accept some role for Haftar in a more unified Libyan security force. These are diplomatic and political issues, not military ones. The Americans, who have lost clout in Egypt with the autocratic restoration, have been shy of asking for more than the essentials: military access through and over Egyptian territory as well as maintenance of the peace with Israel. Washington has largely abandoned pressure on human rights issues.

But if Libya is to continue progress in the right direction, the Americans need to do more to block or coopt Haftar and solidify the authority and legitimacy of the Presidential Council and the Government of National Accord it appoints. The road to Tripoli goes through Cairo.

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Softly softly

The Middle East Institute is publishing this short piece of mine today, on why the Chilcot Inquiry has landed so softly in the US:

The report of the British government’s Chilcot “Inquiry” on the Iraq war is reverberating less in the United States than one might expect, given its indictment of former Prime Minister Tony Blair for blindly following former President George W. Bush’s path to war. But the main thrusts of the report are already well-accepted in the United States. It has been clear for years that the war was not a last resort and the intelligence it was based on was wrong. Blair wasn’t the only one fooled. But unlike him, few in the United States still think the invasion of Iraq was a good idea or had good results.

The United States is also preoccupied with other matters: its presidential electoral campaign; the fight against the Islamic State; and now the controversy over police killings. If the Chilcot report has any impact in Washington, it will be in directions readers already prefer. The Obama administration may see it as added justification for not intervening in Syria. Some hawkish Republicans, possibly including Donald Trump, will see it as justification for bombing the Islamic State and other extremists with fewer restrictions. It could also incite him to another outburst of praise for Saddam Hussein. Hillary Clinton will stay mum, as she voted for the Iraq war and doesn’t need any more attention drawn to what she now regards as a mistake.

The main ingredients of decision-making on Syria lie in directions other than the Chilcot report. President Barack Obama is focused on degrading and destroying the Islamic State without attacking the Syrian government or worrying much about how Syria will be governed in the aftermath. Clinton would like to clear safe areas for opposition governance and refugee returns, but it is unclear how she would get the Russians to buy in. Trump, who has repeatedly expressed admiration for President Vladimir Putin, would likely seek more cooperation from Russia, even if it meant keeping dictator Bashar al-Assad in power indefinitely.

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Countering Daesh in cyberspace

In his speech following the deadliest shooting in American history and the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11, President Obama asserted that the gunman had been radicalized over the internet. Many Daesh (aka ISIS) fighters, sympathizers, or “lone-wolf” attackers are like Omar Mateen. They have been radicalized online or have been exposed to violent extremism via social media, such as Twitter, YouTube, or other platforms. Radicalization is not new, but the internet has made it easier and faster. Social media platforms have become central for disseminating terrorist propaganda, allowing recruiters to reach a far larger and more global audience.

What the US government in partnership with NGOs and the private sector can do to successfully counter violent extremist narratives online, and what they are already doing, were the main topics at the “Fighting ISIS in the Information Space: Government and Civil Society Perspectives” panel, hosted by New America on last Thursday. The panel consisted of Meagen LaGraffe, Chief of Staff at the Global Engagement Center (GEC), and Tara Maller, Spokesperson and Senior Policy Advisor for the Counter Extremism Project. It was moderated by Peter Bergen, Director of New America’s International Security program and CNN’s national security analyst.

Recognizing that Daesh, and violent extremism in general, cannot be defeated solely by military force, in March 2016 President Obama signed Executive Order 13721, establishing the GEC as an interagency entity based at the Department of State.  LaGraffe explained that the GEC plays a critical role in the Obama Administration’s revamped strategy to undermine Daesh’s media messaging and erode its appeal.

The Executive Order states that the Center “shall lead the coordination, integration, and synchronization” of US counterterrorism messaging to foreign audiences. According to LaGraffe, observers had rightly criticized prior government efforts focused on producing video or other materials in English. Even though the government has a good message to tell, it is not the best messenger to to its target audiences. The Center therefore refrains from messages with a government stamp on them.

The new strategy is defined by identifying local partners and more credible messengers on the ground, and working with them to produce more localized anti-terrorism messages. For LaGraffe, “it takes a network to defeat a network.” Among other parties, this network includes ISIS defectors and foreign fighters’ family members, whose messages seem to be particularly effective for counter-radicalization and counter-recruitment.

In addition to fostering and empowering a global network of local messengers, the fight against Daesh also requires cooperation with nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, and especially social media companies. Maller applauded Twitter shutting down 125,000 Daesh-linked accounts, but asserted that a lot more can be done. She explained that every picture and video has a unique DNA. Companies don’t have to review manually extremist content, but instead can use technology like Microsoft’s PhotoDNA to detect ISIS photos or videos as they’re being uploaded. This allows for immediate removal of the content and of the user’s account. The same image matching technology is already used to stop the online spread of child sexual abuse content.

Daesh does not rely on its own media platforms, but primarily uses platforms owned by private companies in America, which have the power to shut its messages down. Maller observed that like the US government, NGOs and the private sector still haven’t caught up with the significant change in terrorist radicalization techniques and recruitment strategy. Countering violent extremist narratives and defeating Daesh requires that they all step up their game.

As acknowledged by LaGraffe, the GEC is solely concerned with changing behavior, and not necessarily with changing beliefs and perceptions. While an entity that does this work is undeniably necessary, a successful long-term approach to countering terrorism requires deeper contemplation about the root causes of terrorism and commitment to address them. The internet accelerates, but it rarely if ever creates.

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