Jordan in the middle

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is often ignored when discussing the conflicts throughout the Middle East. However, given its central position (and its shared borders with Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian West Bank) it inevitably plays a pivotal geo-strategic role. Its close relationship with the United States only heightens its regional significance.

To address Jordan’s role in the region and beyond, a knowledgeable Jordanian spoke last week at a roundtable discussion in Washington DC, specifically about his country’s stake in the regional conflicts—namely, the civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS.

Chaos and displacement of populations throughout the Middle East affects Jordan directly, since many refugees often seek resettlement in Jordan. The Jordanian government faces tremendous pressure to take in more and more refugees from neighboring countries. However, the Jordanian government and public are concerned with the security risk that these refugees pose, especially those migrating from areas formerly held by ISIS. Refugees admitted into Jordan go through a rigorous vetting process and are closely monitored. Amman is wary of the spread of radicalism domestically, and is concerned that refugees will encourage native Jordanians to join Islamist groups.

The refugee population has become a serious economic burden. Prior to the Arab Spring, Jordan had its economy in order—it had surfaced from the crippling debt of the 1990s and had a steadily growing GDP. The influx of refugees has forced the government to scramble to create institutions to care for these people (such as schools, hospitals, etc.). In addition to this pressure from refugees, Jordan’s tourism, transportation, and private sector haven’t been able to weather these economic blows and have been suffering recently. While they were guaranteed financial assistance from the UK and the US at the London Conference earlier this year, this assistance has not yet arrived. The official did, however, note that the US has been providing Jordan with $1.3 billion annually, which has been incredibly helpful in keeping the Jordanian economy in balance.

On Jordan’s ability to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the response was that Jordan would probably not be able to fill this role. Jordan does have a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia—the Saudis and the Emiratis give Jordan $5 billion a year for project support, and there is talk of letting Jordan into the GCC. However, Jordan’s relationship with Iran is not strong and therefore Amman cannot serve as mediator.

Jordan has been pivotal in establishing a Free Syrian Army (FSA) “safe haven” in Southern Syria. Amman sees the southern faction of the FSA as relatively benign and capable of securing the south as a buffer zone against regime or extremist aggression.

On the US presidential election, the perception in Jordan is that Hillary Clinton has a clear and practical plan for the Middle East whereas Donald Trump is just bluffing.

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Syria’s future

It would be foolish to have much hope well into the sixth year of the Syria’s wars that Saturday’s meeting of the US, Russian, Iranian, Saudi, Turkish and Qatari foreign ministers will lead to a way out of the current impasse. But it is reasonable to ask what would make the meeting more than just one more boon to Lausanne’s luxury hotels.

The current situation is not propitious. Syria’s government is feeling confident as it rides a ferocious wave of mostly Russian and Iranian attacks on the opposition-held neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo, which it is “cleaning.” It figures the fall of Aleppo will be a tipping point leading to government victory in much of more populated Syria. The government has already negotiated an end to sieges of several areas near Damascus, transporting their populations in an effort to adjust their demography. President Assad has no intention of welcoming back the more than 7 million Syrians who have fled the country. He wants, and thinks he can get, a Syria over which he can restore his autocratic rule by violent means.

At this point, the only thing that would increase the likelihood of a negotiated diplomatic solution is a change in the military balance that threatens Assad. There are ways that might be accomplished without directly engaging Russian forces, which the Americans don’t want to do: stand-off attacks on the Syrian air force or on Hizbollah ground forces or giving more and better weapons to non-extremist opposition forces, to cite two examples. The Americans are hesitant to move in that direction for fear of hitting commingled Russians or enabling an extremist takeover. They have spent the last week or two pondering options.

Washington isn’t likely to do anything before Saturday, but if Secretary of State Kerry can go to the Lausanne meeting with an option to re-balance the military equation in his pocket he might be able to make some diplomatic progress. He needs a credible threat, one Moscow and Tehran feel they need to forestall, to get a serious cessation of hostilities. The beginning of serious talks on transition is likely a bridge too far. Iran and Russia have doubled and quadrupled down on their bets favoring Assad. They are unlikely to risk losing him, since any successor regime that is even remotely democratic would throw them out.

What happens if/when Aleppo falls? Assad will force the opposition adherents out, either leaving eastern Aleppo destroyed and deserted or repopulating it with loyalists. Will the government and its allies then turn its attention to Idlib, where there really are extremists (and infighting among them)? Or will they try to drive farther north to the Turkish border, risking clashes with Turkish and Turkish-backed groups advancing there?

Or will they be content to rest on their laurels? That seems unlikely. Many of us, including me, have underestimated Assad’s sticking power and his determination to retake territory. Now that he is on a roll, he won’t want to stop. Nor will the extremist and non-extremist forces leave him alone. I’m afraid more war rather than less is still in Syria’s future.

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This is not the October surprise

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump apologized yesterday for NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia:

The bombing of Serbs, who were our allies in both world wars, was a big mistake…Serbians are very good people. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration caused them a lot of harm, but also throughout the Balkans, which they made a mess out of.

For someone who has found it difficult to apologize for anything, even his avowed practice of sexually assaulting women, this is pretty rich. Why would he do it?

First and foremost is that the bombing was carried out pursuant to orders from Bill Clinton. Trump is trying hard to run against the former president, one more clear sign of his disdain for women. There are days Trump concentrates his fire far more on Bill than on Hillary, or on Hillary only to claim that she was an enabler of Bill’s affairs. Women who feel themselves victims of their husbands’ misbehavior aren’t likely to appreciate that, but Trump could care less.

Just as important is the Serb presence in mid-western states, especially Ohio. Trump has been slipping in the polls there and no doubt figures Serb voters, who have already lined up in his favor, will appreciate his latest foray into the Balkans. Trump seems to have an insatiable appetite for appealing to people already slated to vote for him, rather than reaching out to independent or undecided voters, never mind women and minorities. All the above are abandoning him in droves. The Albanians and Bosniaks likely to be offended by the apology are concentrated in states already regarded as “safe”: Albanians in solidly Democratic New York and Bosniaks in mostly Republican Missouri.

Some have suggested that the apology is one more bit of evidence of Russian influence. It might be so. But I think the first two explanations are more than sufficient.

No doubt this apology will be heavily covered in the Balkans and please some people no end, while infuriating others. But both factions should understand that it will attract precious little attention in the United States, where the Balkan interventions of the 1990s are largely forgotten, and no serious effect on the outcome of the election, which if held tomorrow has a 90% chance of deciding in favor of Hillary Clinton. If there is to be an October surprise that affects the outcome, other than the several we have already survived, it isn’t going to be this.

PS: The Trump campaign has denied the interview (in which the apology was supposed issued) was ever made.

 

 

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Russian views on Syria

On Tuesday the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies hosted a discussion with Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak, Russian Federation Ambassador to the US.

Ambassador Kislyak acknowledged that things are not developing in the best fashion for Russian or US interests. The US has been taking unfriendly steps towards Russia, including the imposition of sanctions and calls to isolate and pressure Russia. He warned that these approaches do not work with Moscow. Russia, he said, has tried hard to work with the US and sees many opportunities for cooperation. These are being missed, but it is not Russia that started or is fuelling the current situation.

Regarding Syria, Kislyak believes that the US and Russia have a common enemy in terrorism. Russia is even more vulnerable to the risks of revived terrorist groups due to its regional proximity and an estimated 4000 Russian speakers fighting in Syria. Syria must continue to preserve the state as the alternative is total failure, which would be a greater problem for everyone. Russia came to Syria on the invitation of its government to assist in the fight against terrorism, no more and no less. Russia’s presence is consistent with international law, as opposed to the presence of other states that have not received the permission or invitation of the sovereign Syrian state.

Commenting on the current situation in Aleppo, Kislyak said that East Aleppo is controlled by Al Qaeda and other “so called” opposition forces who are holding the population hostage. He offered examples of Al Qaeda executions of civilians attempting to leave. He denied that hospitals have been bombed in Aleppo and stated that the Russians never attack civilians. If hospitals had been bombed it was because they had not been identified as such. The Russians are only targeting Al Qaeda. When they request that the US provide information of who is Al Qaeda and who is opposition they never receive a helpful response to deal with the issue in a precise manner. According to Kislyak, the US has been promising since February that the opposition would be separated from Al Qaeda but this has not happened.

Russia is still open to cooperation with the US on Syria. Priorities going forward are to stop the fighting, delineate between opposition forces and Al Qaeda, and start building the environment to start negotiations.

There are clearly areas of common interest for cooperation between the US and Russia on Syria. Both agree that Jabhat al-Nusra is an Al Qaeda force which must be dealt with. A totally failed state will be fertile ground for such groups. There is a disagreement however on the nature of the groups fighting Assad, with Kislyak denouncing ‘opposition forces’ as an American term. If Russia was invited by Assad to combat terrorists, and follows Assad’s definition of all opposition groups as terrorists, there is a fundamental gap in understanding that must be filled before progress in negotiations can be successful. There remains however the issue of separating moderate opposition forces from the complex network of militant groups operating in Syria, which the Russians see as one Washington must take on.

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No seal of approval

I’ve taken some flak for meeting with former Macedonian Prime Minister Gruevski on his visit to Washington last week. Here is a sample:

I would like to ask you something, please don’t give a chance together anymore to politicians like Gruevski to seat with you. They will again and again misuse you for their purpose. And if you go and read some newspapers this night you will find he already did it. Milosevic had done it so many times using meetings with west politicians on TV to show the people that ‘he is in line with the western politicians’ and that he was the one they like to speak with….You who have been our hope that it can be better future for our people back home. At least please do not do that ahead of so significant elections that may happen in Macedonia. Just figure out how many people will read what you wrote and how many people will see the picture of you and Gruevski on how many TV all under the cup of the corrupted government.Yet it is up to us aways not to you to bring him down, out of power. I admit I may ask to much from you.

You do ask too much, but let me explain why.

I am a university professor, no longer a government official. When a foreign politician comes to the US and asks to talk with me, I rarely say “no.” Mine is a society based on the free exchange of ideas. I treasure that exchange, even with people with whom I disagree or criticize. Meeting with me is no endorsement. It is only an acknowledgement that you exist and have something to say that I might want to hear. I even happily provide opportunities for people I disagree with to speak at SAIS, where they will be intelligently and politely challenged on all fronts.

Of course I know that in their home countries some of these politicians will try to exploit a meeting with me or other American academics to burnish their reputations at home, even claiming at times that I have given a good democracy seal of approval. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am blunt and forthright in telling politicians what I think. I also try to publish material that informs the inquiring public what my attitude on the main issues is, while maintaining the confidentiality of the actual conversations, which is only polite.

I may of course make mistakes. If I am smart enough to realize what they are, I try to publish something that corrects them. I am confident that these corrections are read by the politicians in question, even if no one else pays them mind.

Let there be no doubt about my attitude towards other politicians, from Macedonia or elsewhere. They are welcome at SAIS, so long as the US government will give them visas to visit. Opposition leader Zaev, whom I don’t know, or parliamentary leader Sekerinska, whom I do know, would be just as welcome as Gruevski and his colleagues. I don’t play favorites, even if I might have them.

My personal preference will always be for politicians seriously committed to democracy and rule of law. That includes free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, transparent, accountable, and inclusionary governance. But I am only too well aware that few will meet that standard in every respect. Talking to them about how they can move in the right direction is for me an obligation, not a seal of approval.

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Cheerless

I spent the long Columbus Day weekend in West Philadelphia hunting US citizens not yet registered to vote and campaigning for Clinton/Kaine and the downballot Democrats. I bagged none of the former and had only a little trouble selling the latter. One woman said the campaign was such a mess so she wouldn’t think of voting. She repeated that refrain with every attempt I made to get past it. A man of 45 or so said it was a big decision given the state of the country and the world. My suggestion that Clinton was far better than Trump for both made no headway with him. My best guess: he was a military retiree, judging from his upright bearing. Why military people support Trump, who has been brutal in his criticism of both leadership and troops, is beyond me.

Other than that, I found a lot of mostly black people unhesitating in their support for Clinton. Many were elderly. It is surprising how many require oxygen or are otherwise severely disabled. Some were Muslim. There is often a sign on the door announcing that fact and asking that people remove their shoes to come indoors. I also found a lot of empty homes, especially Sunday afternoon, when many people were presumably at church. Or just didn’t want to answer an unknown door knocker. Functioning doorbells are few and far between. We left a bit of campaign literature most places, and stickers announcing that the deadline for voter registration in Pennsylvania is Tuesday.

The mundanity of the door knocking was a sharp contrast to last night’s debate, which we tuned into only towards the end after enjoying a really good dinner with a former college professor at Talula’s Garden, one of Philadelphia’s finer. Too many words have already been spent for me to add anything new about Trump, but let me just confirm that the man knows nothing about what is going on in Syria and has more in common with the world’s petty dictators than he has claim to lead the free world. Besides, an avowed sexual assault perpetrator blaming her husband’s infidelity on Hillary Clinton is a strange strategy for winning women’s votes.

Trump still has a 20% chance of winning the election, according to 538’s “polls plus” forecast. But as the Trump sex tape and last night’s debate debacle sink in I imagine he’ll go lower, before the race tightens again as election day approaches. A big issue for Republicans now is whether to cut themselves loose from Trump’s sinking anchor, in a desperate effort to save their House and Senate majorities as well as the dignity of their party, or stick with him until he hits rock bottom. Speaker Ryan has chosen the former. I’ve heard people argue that the Rs shouldn’t abandon the angry white working class men who are his core constituents. But if they don’t, demographic change will make it virtually impossible for them to win the White House for a long time to come.

My candidate may be doing well, but this is a cheerless election. Trump is fighting with low blows, including Russian intelligence leaks of Clinton-related emails, fulfilling one of his foolishly expressed day dreams. Now Trump is even imitating Putin by promising to jail his opponent. He is desperate and will stop at nothing. But he also has a significant portion of the electorate backing him. It was never going to be easy to elect the first female president. Doing it right after the first black president is doubly difficult.

The best antidote for Trump’s poison is a decisive victory for Clinton, which I would define as more than 300 electoral votes. That would not erase the memory of Donald Trump’s ugly campaign, but it would send a clear message to future candidates that they can’t win with misogyny and racism.

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