Combating al-Qaeda in Syria

The authors of Combating al-Qaeda in Syria: A Strategy for the Next Administration assembled last week at the Atlantic Council to discuss their findings in the report out from The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. The panel included Faysal Itani, Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, Jennifer Cafarella, Lead Intelligence Planner at the Institute for the Study of War, Hassan Hassan, Resident Fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, President and Co-Founder at People Demand Change LLP, and Charles Lister, Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute. Nancy Okail, Executive Director at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, gave the introductory remarks and Margaret Brennan, Foreign Affairs and White House Correspondent for CBS News, acted as moderator.

In her opening statement, Okail said that America’s failure to act early in Syria created a vacuum and security situation in which al-Qaeda could establish a strong presence. The conflict in Syria was not an inevitable outcome of early protests had the international community provided support for civil society and opposition groups in the beginning. The report outlines main efforts needed to combat al-Qaeda in Syria today, including robust population protection, democratic reform, lethal and non-lethal assistance to non-terrorist actors, and continued support to local actors.

When defining the al-Qaeda threat in Syria, Itani said that the real problem is the normalization of its ideology and incorporation into mainstream Sunni discourse. The shift to extremism and dominance of these eccentric ideas will pull in moderate groups and the broader population, further complicating problems on the ground. Cafarella expanded on this idea, highlighting that it is impossible to prevent al-Qaeda from regenerating if the US ignores how it has rooted into society and become more widely accepted.

When discussing potential US responses to the current situation on the ground, Ghosh-Siminoff said that the key issue with current American policy is its reactive rather than proactive nature. The conflict is outpacing US ability to act. Thus, al-Qaeda retains the advantage to act quickly to influence populations. Hassan noted that al-Qaeda is also a difficult enemy to deal with, not just because of its pervasive ideological influence but also due to its diverse nature as a terrorist organization, social movement, and insurgent organization, making US policy options equally as varied. Given US abstention from the conflict, Lister said power balances on the ground have changed, diminishing America’s ability to take a leadership role. According to Lister, the biggest US diplomatic potential in Syria is in protecting the moderate opposition and civilians to ensure neither al-Qaeda nor the Assad regime win the conflict.

The panel disagreed on the extent of Iranian influence in Syria. Cafarella said that the Iranian presence is inherently destabilizing because it gives credence to al-Qaeda’s claim that Tehran wants a sectarian war. This claim retroactively imposes a sectarian narrative on the conflict and justifies all-Qaeda’s combative posture. Cafarella also stressed the need for the US to develop its own intelligence picture in order to better understand not only what stability requires but also which regional actors can help achieve stable outcomes. Lister said Iranian support of Assad empowers al-Qaeda to continue fighting and allows the extremist narrative to dominate. Itani emphasized strong actors over anything else, saying that what is happening is Syria is the loss of political legitimacy among the Sunni population and ability for the strongest group to exploit the vacuum, whether Iran or al-Qaeda.

The panelists were asked how their findings on countering al-Qaeda in Syria might impact policy options under the new administration. Hassan said that the problem lies in how the US can effectively counter al-Qaeda. He said air strikes do not work because the group’s power is based on its ideological effect, so it would be better to act urgently to win over the population. Similarly, Ghosh-Siminoff framed the conflict as a multi-generational ideological struggle in which the US should support civil society and governance structures over the long term as a way to show that the international community is engaged with the people.

Another question posed to the panel asked whether the report was realistic and applicable to Syria now as the conflict continues to unfold. Ghosh-Siminoff focused on people displaced by the violence and said the US needs to provide institutional stability to the country in order for the al-Qaeda narrative to diminish in importance. Cafarella said there are still opportunities for the US to act but that it requires breaking away from previous paradigms to look at what is possible in 2017. She said it is not futile for the US to act in Syria and would send a message that the US is present. All panelists agreed that the US needs to provide a credible threat of military action in order to influence groups on the ground and have an impact on the conflict.

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Peace Picks January 17-20

  1. People to People Diplomacy and Culture an Alternative to an All-Security Tunisia?

    | Tuesday, January 17 | 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm | Tunisian American Young Professionals | Click HERE to Register  Join the Tunisian American Young Professionals this Tuesday for a panel discussing the importance of Education and Culture six years after the Jasmine Spring. Tunisians continue to fight on multiple fronts, can current cultural revival efforts be sustained with dwindling resources? How can the US, the EU and others help? The Panel is moderated by Dr. Leila Chennoufi, head of the education initiative at TAYP and features Stephen McInerney, Executive Director, Project on Middle East Democracy, Hisham Ben Khamsa, veteran Tunisian activist and organizer in culture, cinema and media, Dr. Ridha Moumni, art and archeology historian and curator of the highly successful Tunisian exhibit “The Rise of a Nation”, and Dr. Sarah Yerkes, visiting fellow, Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

  2. Social Media Jihad 2.0: Inside ISIS’ Global Recruitment and Incitement Campaign | Wednesday, January 18 | 12:15 pm – 1:45 pm | New America | Click HERE to Register
    Since June 2014, the Islamic State has waged the most aggressive online recruitment and incitement campaign of any terrorist group in history. The unprecedented efficacy of this group’s conversions of popular social media technologies into tools used to build and reinforce support is highlighted by the recent wave of terrorist attacks in the West executed by individuals who have not set foot inside the group’s so-called “caliphate.” To offer an insider’s view of this campaign New America welcomes Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst and adviser to members of the United States Congress who specializes in the influence operations of Salafi-Jihadist groups like al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State. Smith is involved with a variety of collection programs targeting online communications which help improve both strategic and tactical intelligence pictures of threats posed by elements comprising the Global Jihad movement. For his work collaborating with hactivists who have infiltrated Islamic State social media networks and online infrastructure to expose threats to the US and its allies, in 2016 Smith was listed among Foreign Policy magazine’s “100 Leading Global Thinkers.”
  3. Turkey and the Middle East under the Trump Administration | Thursday, January 19 | 10:00 am – 3:30 pm | SETA Foundation | Click HERE to Register This day long conference features three separate panels. The first panel, Syria and Iraq’s Impact on US-Turkey Relations, include Burhanettin Duran, General Coordinator at the SETA Foundation, Luke Coffey, Director of the Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, Sasha Gosh-Siminoff, President and Co-Founder at People Demand Change, and Hasan Basri Yalcin, Director of the Strategy Program at the SETA Foundation. The second panel, The Trump Administration and Middle East Policy, features Hannah Thoburn, Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Nicholas Heras, Fellow at the Center for New American Security, Hassan Hassan, Fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and Kilic B. Kanat, Research Director at the SETA Foundation. The final panel of the day, Turkey’s Fight Against ISIS, includes Ufuk Ulutas, Director of the Foreign Policy Program at the SETA Foundation and Murat Yesiltas, Director of the Security Policy Program at the SETA Foundation.
  4. Ardeshir Mohasses: The Rebellious Artist Documentary Screening| Thursday, January 19 | 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm | The Aftab Committee | Click HERE to Register Ardeshir Mohasses (1938-2008) was Iran’s foremost political cartoonist, satirist, painter and illustrator. Drawing upon his intimate knowledge of Iran’s culture, history, and sociopolitical situation, Ardeshir attracted the attention not only of the intellectuals, poets and writers of Iran of the time but also the international community. Filmmaker Bahman Maghsoudlou seeks to portray the beauty of Ardeshir’s purpose and power in crafting his art to convey the plight of the oppressed, and his universal sense of justice and tyranny, expressed through a satirical visual history of Iran since the Qajar era. Interviews with prominent critics and friends are arranged to depict the nuances of Ardeshir’s life: his time and career in Iran, his art and passion later in the United States, sources of his brilliant inspiration, his private reclusive moments, and his progressive political and social outlook. Ardeshir’s various artistic endeavors are comprehensively covered, and viewers will see samples of his political cartoons, visual commentaries, and works for the New York Times along with his avant-garde style. This feature documentary admiringly displays the depth of Ardeshir’s observations and his extraordinary free spirit.
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Challenges Trump can expect in the Middle East

As the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States nears, the Middle East Policy Council explored the challenges facing President-elect Trump in the region. The panel featured Derek Chollet, Counselor and Senior Advisor at The German Marshal Fund, Jake Sullivan, Visiting Lecturer at Yale Law School and Senior Policy Advisor for the Hillary Clinton campaign, Dimitri Simes, President of the Center for the National Interest and Publisher of The National Interest, and Mary Beth Long, founder and CEO of Metis Solutions and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Chollet said that the Obama administration faced several challenges: doubt over the future US role in the region, diverging interests in dealing with the Iran nuclear program and the conflict in Syria, and the perception that the US cares less about the region than before 2008. Chollet called the US approach to the Middle East under Obama a recalibration rather than a dramatic shift, stressing America’s sustainable commitment to the region. Most notably, this includes decreasing the US role as a problem solver in the region and encouraging collective security. The new administration will have to decide how to proceed on the Iran deal, the ISIS threat, Syria’s President Assad, and Gulf partnerships.

Sullivan identified five hard questions the incoming administration must answer. First, Trump will need to navigate the US relationship with Iran, both in approaching the nuclear deal as well as holding Iran accountable for its actions outside of the nuclear context, such as human rights abuses. Second, the administration must limit Iranian influence in the region while defeating ISIS in Iraq, a move that could very well strength Iran’s position. The third question concerns creating a long-term stability in Syria beyond supporting the strong man, whether Putin or Assad. Similarly, Sullivan’s fourth question asked whether supporting authoritarian regimes in the region is still sustainable post-Arab Spring, and whether regimes could hold up under pressure for reform. Finally, Sullivan questioned the new administration’s understanding of Russia’s role in the Middle East and where US interests converge with Putin’s objectives.

Simes focused on the US-Russia relationship and expanded on Trump’s challenges in working with Putin. The primary challenge in working with Putin, who Simes noted is not Trump’s friend, will be strategic confrontation with Russia. Because Russia and the US diverge greatly on issues such as Syria, it would be prudent to pursue a more effective relationship with Russia and prevent a rivalry from forming. Simes believes that a poor relationship with Russia will be detrimental to the US and could lead to a stronger Russia-China relationship or even Russian use of terrorism as a weapon against America. Trump has an opportunity to develop a strong relationship with Russia, but must first determine US interests and take Russia seriously as a player on the world stage.

Long said the incoming administration will take a more transactional and pragmatic approach to foreign policy based on US interests. This will result in more straightforward relationships. However, she warned this also has the potential to create inconsistency in the Middle East, because policy will be situational and reactionary in nature. Although the challenges in the region are great, including the battle for Mosul, the refugee crisis, and the US relationship with Iran, Long said the US cannot afford to do everything at once and must rely on regional partners to step up.

In response to a question about US strategy in combating terrorism, specifically ISIS, and the strengths and weakness of US engagement, Chollet said a key US strength lies in its ability to militarily target states. The Islamic state is no different. To this point, Sullivan argued that US military action against terrorism targets the symptoms rather than the causes of radicalization, and more needs to be done to win over moderates, create strong state structures, and increase the confidence of US regional Sunni partners. Long stressed the danger in creating vacuums in which terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda can resurge and become powerful.

The panel also addressed the implications of moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Chollet said a move to Jerusalem would be disruptive and could undermine the strategic convergence between Israel and Sunni states working together to confront their shared adversaries in the region. Sullivan agreed that the embassy move would jeopardize efforts to balance the terrorist threat in the region and said the US needs to recognize the challenge, be honest, and identify what it can do to support its partners. Long hoped the embassy issue would lose its primacy in the early days of the administration. The panel agreed the embassy move would not serve US strategic interests.

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Things look different from here

I’m in China, which should go along way to explaining my failure to post on things like President Obama’s farewell address and President elect Trump’s press conference. I was going to just embed them under the title “Compare and contrast,” but I haven’t figured out how to embed on my iPhone or Kindle. Anyway it was just too easy to show what we all know: America has traded a high-minded thinker of impeccable propriety for a low-life four flusher.

So I’ll focus instead on my brief experience here: three days in Nanjing and only two in Beijing. Both astound.

I was expecting Third World. The centers of both are far from it. These places look more like Europe or America at their most orderly and cleanly, albeit too often shrouded in a thick layer of smog that has mostly disappeared there. Traffic is intense but fairly calm. Trains and train stations run like clockwork, some at a remarkably smooth 200 miles per hour. Except for the ubiquitous harassment by young women trying to entrap foreigners into buying them a ridiculously expensive coffee, people on the street are friendly and helpful, despite an almost universal dearth of English. GPS is the answer, if you’ve got free data. The Forbidden City, the palace complex of more or less six hundred years of Ming and Qing emperors, and the Nanjing Memorial to the city’s victims of a Japanese massacre in 1937/38, rent electronic guides in English.

Knowledgeable Chinese are frank and plainspoken in discussions of South China Sea (SCS) issues. They generally defend something like what they understand the government’s position to be, as most of their counterparts in Washington would, but not without citing mistakes and suggesting course corrections. Everyone here thinks the land features of SCS (low and high tide elevations, rocks, reefs or islands) belong to China, but at least some appear to think Beijing will eventually be prepared to negotiate practical compromises with the other claimants, as it has done with some of its land borders.

The Chinese understand American positions well, so they will be surprised and appalled that Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State suggested in Senate testimony today that Beijing be blocked from access to the nine facilities they have built on what they claim as sovereign Chinese territory in the SCS and that the US should back the sovereignty claims of others who had built many more facilities before the Chinese started doing so two years ago. Nominee Rex Tillerson apparently doesn’t know that Trump’s good friends on Taiwan make the same SCS claims as Beijing.

Washington until now has avoided taking sides on the sovereignty claims for decades, as the main US interest in the SCS is freedom of navigation. The Chinese are quick to point out that there is no risk from their side to commercial shipping, as 70-80% of that flows through the SCS to and from China itself. The core issue is freedom of navigation for military ships and planes, which the US pretty much wants to be able to go anywhere anytime. They don’t keep to well established sea lanes or air corridors. The Chinese don’t like that because they think US military craft are spying on them, which is surely true at times even if not always.

Of course there are bigger issues involved. China is a rising power. Some see a clash with the existing US regional hegemon as inevitable. People in both Beijing and Washington would like to avoid that, as it has the potential for catastrophe. That’s why our 15 SAIS masters students are here on a study trip: to think about ways of managing the issues peacefully. I hope Trump doesn’t make that impossible before we publish the findings April 15!

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Montenegro, Russia, NATO

Marija Jovićević of Montenegro’s Pobjeda  asked these questions. I responded:

1. Can we expect ratification of Montenegrin Protocol in US Congress in January? Do you see any obstacle in this process?

A: I really don’t know. There appears to be no real opposition, but the Senate has a lot of things on its plate. I hope it will be quickly
reported out of committee and approved in the full Senate in the next couple of weeks. If it doesn’t happen before January 20, I have my
doubts the new administration will make it a priority. Then it will be up to key senators to make it move, which they might want to do to send an unequivocal signal of commitment to the Alliance to both Trump and Putin.

2. Relations between USA and Russia are very complicated at this moment, can this situation affect ratification of Protocol and Montenegro entering NATO?

A: I don’t think anyone in Congress is wanting to slow ratification because of Russian opposition, but it remains to be seen what the new administration will do. I would hope it would want to send the Russians a very clear signal that the NATO door remains open to those who qualify and want to enter. Europe whole and free (which means, among other
things, free to join NATO) is a good idea.

3. Do You expect that relations between Russia and USA could be closer and better after inauguration of Donald Trump?

A: Trump will make an effort to improve relations with Russia, in part by accommodating Russian demands on NATO, Ukraine and Syria. But I don’t think it will work out well for long. Putin doesn’t want good relations with the US. He wants to lead a defiant anti-US, illiberal coalition and establish a Russian sphere of influence in its “near abroad.”

4. What will be policy of the new American administration when we talk about the Balkans?

A: It is hard to tell, as it will be way down the list of priorities. But the new administration is in part an ethnic nationalist one, which doesn’t bode well from my liberal democratic perspective.

5. How do you see relations between Montenegro and USA. Do you expect
any changes after the inauguration of Donald Trump?

A: Certainly if Trump fails to press for Montenegro’s NATO accession, that won’t help Montenegro or its relations with the US. It could even drive Montenegro into Russian arms.

6. We are witnessing Russian interference in elections in USA, in elections in Montenegro also. Russia is using every possible way to
stop Montenegro’s way to NATO. Do you think that this is already lost battle for Moscow?

A: It isn’t over until it’s over. Moscow will continue fighting and will have an easier time of it in the initial phase of a Trump administration. But in the end I think Montenegro will enter NATO this year and help to keep the door open to other aspirants. I for one am grateful to Montenegro for its fortitude and persistence. Let it be rewarded soon!

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Quite a show

At the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday, America’s intelligence chiefs testified that Moscow had indeed intervened to affect the US election in order to secure the victory of Donald Trump. The Senators on both sides of the aisle made it clear they believe this and that the President-elect is wrong to reject the findings and to denigrate the intelligence community, which he has done repeatedly.

I’d be the first to admit our spies make mistakes. One of the many responsibilities Foreign Service officers (I was one for 21 years) face is trying to iron out differences among embassies, the State Department, and the 17 intelligence institutions. I had big problems during the Bosnian war with the Defense Intelligence Agency, some of whose analysts viewed the Muslims as mainly responsible for atrocities in Bosnia and the Serbs as professional soldiers. History has not been kind to those who held this view.

The intelligence community mistake in concluding that Saddam Hussein might soon have nuclear weapons is the one Trump refers to most often. It was a big one. Without it, America might not have invaded Iraq, it might have pursued the war in Afghanistan more successfully, and the Middle East would certainly be a very different place. Then, too, there was bipartisan agreement in Congress. That is no guarantee of accuracy.

But there is a big difference today: we know what Russia is up to in the Baltics, in Ukraine, in Moldova, in Georgia, and in the Balkans. Moscow is threatening its neighbors and destabilizing any country that even begins to think about joining NATO, or even in some cases the EU. President Putin makes no secret of his propaganda, his military provocations, and his efforts to rally ethnonationalist political forces within Russia’s neighbors. It would be surprising if he weren’t interested in doing likewise in the United States. How could he have resisted the opportunity presented by a white nationalist, russophilic candidate for President?

Trump will get his classified intelligence briefing today in New York. He will then have an opportunity to eat crow or continue his stated belief that the case hasn’t been proven. I doubt he’ll change his tune. But he will be under enormous pressure from Republicans in Congress to do so. Doing so would improve his prospects for reforming the intelligence community, as otherwise neither it nor Congress will be amenable. In any event, Trump will want to make it clear that whatever happened it does not explain his great win and should not affect his commitment to improving relations with Russia.

To that he appears still thoroughly committed, without however making it clear what he expects of the Russians other than attacks on the Islamic State. Those they claim they are already undertaking. They should in any event undertake them for their own good reasons. So it is completely unclear at this stage what Trump hopes to get from giving away the store to Moscow. He seems ready to recognize the annexation of Crimea, withdraw support for the Syrian opposition, and limit NATO expansion, without any sign of a quid pro quo other than a pat on the head from Putin.

While Congressional Republicans are clearly uncomfortable with Trump’s russophilia, they are not objecting too loudly, presumably for fear of retribution. The Democrats are doing what they can to pick up the national security football and run with it. This is an upside-down world: Republicans risk becoming the party of concessions to Russia, trade protectionism, and xenophobia. Stay tuned. This still promises to be quite a show.

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