Another view of July 4

New Yorker editor David Remnick draws attention to abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ 1852 July 4 address to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society. That’s the same Frederick Douglass, dead since 1895, that Trump said is doing a good job. Remnick thinks Douglass’ peroration against slavery might relieve current despair. It begins to end with these words:

…Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from “the Declaration of Independence,” the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. — Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia, shall, stretch out her hand unto God.”

If Douglass, born a slave, could be optimistic, we have little grounds to be less so.

Tags :

More questions than answers

The National Interest published my piece on the White House warning on chemical weapons  only yesterday under a headline I didn’t like. Here are the first few paragraphs:

Monday night [June 26] the White House issued a warning to President Assad that if “Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley added that the White House message was also intended for Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies. The warning raises more questions than it answers.

There was initially some question about the intelligence suggesting a new chemical attack was under preparation, and it has not been made public. The Pentagon and White House have, however, confirmed its existence and claimed proper interagency assessments were done, albeit in haste due the apparent imminence of an attack. Those who remember the Tonkin Gulf incident (an alleged attack on a U.S. warships that precipitated enhanced intervention in Vietnam in 1964) may still have doubts.

Why issue a public warning? Diplomatic statements of this sort are more often issued privately, in part to avoid the kind of problem Obama faced after his “red line” chemical weapons statement against Syria in 2012, when a year later it became clear that Congress might not approve military action. In 1992 for example, President George H. W. Bush issued a secret and personal Christmas Day warning to Slobodan Milosevic not to attack Kosovo, one reissued later by President Clinton. Those statements are often credited with holding the Serbian autocrat off for several years.

A public warning may have more weight, if only because it brings into the equation the Obama example and the issue of U.S. credibility. But the Trump administration warning to Assad was not issued by the president himself but rather by the press secretary, which detracts from what otherwise might have been its diplomatic weight. It was also issued only a few days after a Central Command spokesperson suggested that cooperation with Assad and his allied forces in attacking the Islamic State in eastern Syria would be welcome. Was that a purposeful “carrot” followed by a “stick,” or was it just lack of coordination and consequent confusion?

Precisely what the statement means is open to question. [Please go to How to Play Diplomatic Dodgeball with Bashar al-Assad | The National Interest for the rest.]

The mist of peace

I enjoyed, in a manner of speaking, a discussion with colleagues this week about post-liberation security and justice challenges in Raqqa. Then David Ignatius wrote an interesting and hopeful piece about the situation in Tabqa, a town liberated on the way to Raqqa:

To look at people’s wary faces, uncertain but with a trace of hope in their eyes, it’s like they’re waking up from a nightmare.

The question is whether this hope will be realized, or dashed. David’s final line casts a shadow of doubt:

But the Syrian Kurds and their Arab allies are doing the fighting and the dying on the ground, and for better or worse, it’s their vision of governance that will take hold as the Islamic State falls.

Quite right, and quite concerning. Here is my short list of challenges likely to arise:

  1. Revenge killing: All town under Islamic State rule have suffered years of Islamic State brutality. Many people will want justice, and a few will seek revenge. Once revenge killing starts, it is difficult to stop. And in tribal societies the obligation may be a collective as well as an individual one.
  2. Property crimes: A lot of people have been displaced from their homes and a lot of homes have been destroyed. People will want to return, quickly if conditions allow, in order to reclaim their property. Others may be squatting in it, or tilling a field that is not their own. Property records may be lost or destroyed, and in any case settling property disputes in court may not be possible for a long time. When all else fails, violence prevails.
  3. Power contests: Whenever power changes hands, there is a risk of violence as various contestants try to fill a vacuum, assert their authority, and defeat others. Raqqa may see a particularly complicated array of contestants: local tribes, Arab forces from beyond the immediate area, Kurds, Syrian Army, Iranian-backed militias, and Americans among them.
  4. Institutional legitimacy: The Americans are vowing to obliterate the Islamic State in Raqqa, which is now surrounded. They intend to let no ISIS fighters escape, which means physical destruction will be extensive. Whose institutions will replace ISIS? Will Syrian government institutions, including courts and administrative offices return, or will a local council take charge? How will new institutions be legitimized and funded? What will their relationship be with Damascus?
  5. Mass graves and other evidence of crimes: The residents of Raqqa will want  justice for their loved ones who were murdered and abused. But they will also want to recover their bodies. Doing so breaks the chain of evidence and makes it difficult to achieve accountability in court later on. Tussles over mass graves and recovery of bodies can also be a cause of violence.
  6. Stay-behind operations: While the Americans may hope to obliterate ISIS, likely some fighters will survive and go underground to conduct terrorist operations against the population or against whoever establishes authority. Booby traps and improvised explosive devices are hard to defend against. This was a major factor in Iraq after the American invasion, when Saddam’s paramilitary stay-behind forces conducted successful operations to destroy government institutions.

This is just a half dozen possibilities off the top of my head, based on experience elsewhere. There may well be others. These security and justice challenges will be on top of the others: removing mines and rubble, reconstructing homes and shops, re-establishing markets, providing electricity and water, reopening schools and hospitals…

I’m told the Americans have committed $30 million, mainly for clearing mines along the main routes as well as getting water and electricity flowing again. They want to avoid any semblance of involvement in “state-building,” though they have trained a few hundred Arab police and are prepared to pay them for a short time.

There is talk of Central Asian peacekeepers for Raqqa, which would at least avoid the optics of the US turning Raqqa over directly to the Syria government, the Iranians, or the Russians. I suppose Kazakhstan and others might consider the proposition, but it is not clear to me how Stan troops would be received by the Syrians. Nor could they be expected to do much in responding to the above exigencies.

What this means is that someone else will have to do the rest. If it doesn’t get done, ISIS comes back–in one form or another. The Assad government may step up to some of the civilian service delivery, but only to re-establish its authority and on condition that its security forces should return. Whether the people of Raqqa will put up with that or insist on their own institutions isn’t clear. When the fog of war lifts, there may be a “golden hour.” But then the mist of peace descends.

Tags : , ,

Far from normalization

Here is an interview I did a few days ago with Hamid Bayati of the Mehr News agency in Tehran: 

Q: As you know US Senate move to impose new sanctions on Tehran over its missile program, so how do you evaluate this act?

A: My sense is that the Congress is concerned about Iran’s development of nuclear capable missiles and may well impose new sanctions to try to block their further development.

Q: Tehran says Iran’s defensive missile program is legitimate, in full conformity with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, and no move can deprive Iran from its legitimate rights, what do you think about this?

A: Tehran has a pretty good argument about UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which appeals to Iran not to undertake “any activity related” to nuclear capable missiles but does not prohibit it:

Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.

But so far as I can tell nor does the resolution prohibit the US from imposing its own new sanctions related to ballistic missiles.

Q: Iran says approval of a new bill imposing sanctions on Iran’s non-nuclear activities means violation of JCPOA, so what do you think about nuclear agreement in respect of US anti Iran acts?

A: The JCPOA provisions on sanctions, in particular US sanctions, are complicated:

Article 26:  The United States will make best efforts in good faith to sustain this JCPOA and to prevent interference with the realisation of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting specified in Annex II. The U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from re-introducing or reimposing the sanctions specified in Annex II that it has ceased applying under this JCPOA, without prejudice to the dispute resolution process provided for under this JCPOA. The U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions. Iran has stated that it will treat such a re-introduction or re-imposition of the sanctions specified in Annex II, or such an imposition of new nuclear-related sanctions, as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.

Article 29: The EU and its Member States and the United States, consistent with their respective laws, will refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of this JCPOA.

Article 26 refers to “best efforts in good faith…consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress.” My understanding is that the Senate has removed some provisions in the new sanctions bill that were thought to possibly violate these articles, but I imagine that is not satisfactory from Iran’s perspective. Detailed discussion between Washington and Iran will likely be needed to resolve these issues.

That said, there is the broader point in Article 29 that the US should not undermine the benefits Iran derives from the JCPOA. My impression is that the Trump Administration is coming around to that point of view, because economic normalization is needed to ensure that Iran maintains its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA. But as a practical matter normalization of trade and economic relations will occur mainly with Europe, Russia, China, and the rest of the world. I think we are still far away from normalization with the U.S., because of views in both Washington and Tehran.

Q: What do you think about regime change in Iran that Mr. Tillerson talk about it?

A: Mr. Tillerson can wish for a unicorn too, but that will not make one appear. That said, Iranians, like Americans, should be asking themselves what they want. Many things in the world have changed since 1979. Certainly the American system has evolved since then.

Tags : , ,


At Tuesday’s panel “The Syrian Conflict and Regional Security,” hosted by the Turkish Heritage Organization, the complex web of military alliances and political tensions entwining Turkey, Iraq, the United States, and Kurdish forces against ISIS took center stage.

Turkey considers the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)—a terrorist group. Yet the United States, Turkey’s NATO ally, is arming the YPG in order to further the fight against ISIS.

To smooth tensions, the United States has promised to give Turkey lists of the weapons it has provided to the YPG, and to ensure that they are not used in Turkey. Moreover, added panelist Michael Doran, although the Trump administration is willing to work with the YPG in order to defeat ISIS in Syria, the president will not tolerate a PKK state in Syria. The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is a left-wing organization based in Turkey and Iraq engaged in a long-term armed conflict with the Turkish state. It seeks to establish a state of Kurdistan.

Despite these assurances, tensions between the United States and Turkey persist over the Kurdish issue.

Central to the problem, explained General Mark Kimmitt, is the fact that in order to maintain cordial US-Turkey relations and prevent partisan US involvement in regional Kurdish politics, the YPG must eventually comply with a US policy of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR). Yet the United States has already armed and trained the Kurdish rebels. It is unclear how disarming the YPG would be accomplished. Turkey is wary of possible complications.

With ISIS’s expulsion from Raqqa finally on the horizon, the future of Syria hangs in the balance. No one, admitted Doran, appears to know the American plan. It is possible that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will be allowed to govern, but this arrangement will not sit well with the United States for long if the Assad regime attracts Iranian presence in Syria. On the Kurdish question, “most Kurds don’t want the PKK forever,” observed Denise Natali of the National Defense University. However, it’s not clear how they will leave Iraq and northeastern Syria. The PKK helps local populations by providing badly needed electricity, jobs, and salaries.

Natali believes it is possible for Turkey to maintain relations with non-PKK affiliated Syrian Kurds in the northeastern part of the country. Syrian Kurds are not ultimately moved to militancy by ideological considerations. Rather, their concerns are material. They need salaries. The PYD has actually maintained a relationship with the Assad regime throughout the Syrian civil war. They continue to receive government paychecks. Natali anticipates that the Assad government will prevail and negotiate with vulnerable Kurdish rebel leaders. Even with the Kurds’ territorial expansion, Kurdistan is landlocked. This increases the incentive to negotiate.

Ultimately, observed Doran and Natali, neither Turkey nor the United States—nor any of the countries in the Levant and Middle East region—want to see Syria or Iraq fracture into smaller sectarian or ethnic states post-ISIS. Natali further believes that such fracturing is highly unlikely. In the meantime, as Turkey and the United States adopt distinct approaches to opposing ISIS, the two NATO allies will remain at odds over the decision to arm YPG forces.

Tags : , , , , ,

Mahmoudiya at peace

This event yesterday commemorated a successful tribal reconciliation effort in Mahmoudiya, a qadaa south of Baghdad known in 2007 as the “Triangle of Death.” I supported and participated in this effort as a vice president at the United States Institute of Peace, conducted in cooperation with the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division. The video is unfortunately more than 70 minutes, but it documents that rare bird: a demonstrably successful peacebuilding effort (in an area in which Al Qaeda was an active belligerent), based on civilian and military cooperation. 

Here is the written agreement that initiated a process that has continued to limit violence in the area. I’ll add some notes here about how it was done and why it has lasted when I have a bit more time.  

With gratitude to Rusty Barber, who was USIP’s chief of party in Baghdad and did most of the heavy lifting, 


Tags : ,