The toughest nut in the Middle East

The Middle East Institute held their 7th annual conference on Turkey last week, gathering regional experts to discuss Turkey’s turbulent domestic politics and regional role. This post focuses on the regional issues discussed.

Haim Malka of the Center for Strategic and International Studies focused on Turkey-Israel relations. The reconciliation agreement following Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish flotilla headed to Gaza is being implemented. This is a mutually-beneficial, low-cost measure. Strategic cooperation is likely to remain limited.

Syria will test the renewed relationship as it is an arena where both Turkey and Israel’s interests intersect. Israel’s policy on Syria has to date been confused and vague, perhaps intentionally so, but ultimately the Israelis want to see a Syria with minimal Iranian influence. The fall of Iran’s ally Assad may be assumed beneficial to Israel, but the Israelis seem to have followed a ‘better the devil you know’ approach so far and do not appear to be supporting alternative political actors in Syria.

Bill Park of King’s College, London discussed Turkey’s relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, which saw marked improvement in 2009 and 2010 due to trade and energy connections, shared mistrust of Maliki’s Baghdad government, and President Barzani’s role as a potential partner in the peace process with Turkey’s own Kurds (the PKK). While these foundations for positive relations remain, Turkey’s refusal to support Syrian Kurds in the fight against IS, Turkey’s re-establishing a relationship with Baghdad following the replacement of Maliki by Abadi, and a change in perception of Barzani’s leadership record have undermined the rapprochement.

Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Karim Sadjadpour discussed Turkey-Iran relations. There are notable commonalities between the two states as they suffer both a superiority and inferiority complex – both do not see their current status in world affairs as reflecting their histories as great empires. There is also a strong shared cultural history. The Iran-Turkey border has proven stable in an otherwise turbulent region for centuries. Also important is their economic partnership, with shared gas projects and common concern with Kurdish independence.

Having suffered from terrorist attacks, Turkey is disappointed in Iran following Assad’s lead, especially in ignoring the radical Islamist threat in Syria. Upcoming events could exacerbate frictions between Turkey and Iran. These include the upcoming US presidential election, the May 2017 presidential elections in Iran, and whether the nuclear deal lasts ten years.

Presenting the complex relationship of Turkey, the US and Kurds was Amberin Zaman, Public Policy Fellow with the Wilson Center. She believes the US has an opportunity to use its leverage with the Syrian Kurds (the PYD) and Turkey to revive the Turkey-Kurdish peace process. This will require the US to abandon the fiction that the PYD and PKK are separate groups. The PYD is not seeking an independent state but rather a subnational federal unit within Syria, which the Kurds term “Rojava.”

While Turkey is unable to determine a military outcome, Ankara holds considerable soft power, especially in assisting the moderate opposition.

It was agreed among all the panelists that the US must articulate its policy for the region, and Syria in particular, as Turkey and its neighbors are looking for US leadership and unwilling to pursue their own policies without clarification from Washington. That is proving the toughest nut to crack in the Middle East.

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Peace picks, October 3-7

  1. Charting a Way Forward in Afghanistan | Monday, October 3 | 10:30am – 12:00pm | The Brookings Institution | Click HERE to register
    Fifteen years after the September 11 attacks drew the United States into Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaida and their hosts, the Taliban, cooperation with the Afghan people remains key to the generational conflict against violent extremists in the region. While multiple conflicts rage across the broader Middle East, continuing to build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan is pivotal. The situation in Afghanistan remains difficult, but the country is considerably better off today than it was at the start of this conflict, and the Afghan people are an important ally. In a new paper, former ambassadors, military commanders, special representatives, and Afghanistan scholars outline a way forward for the United States and its Afghan partners, centered on the concept of enduring partnership.On October 3, the Brookings Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligencewill host an event to examine the effort in Afghanistan and the region based on the recommendations from the paper. Former Special Representative for Afghanistan/Pakistan James Dobbins and former Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann, as well as former Ambassador James Cunningham will join retired General David Petraeus, who led the NATO military effort there from 2010 to 2011, as panelists. Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon will moderate the event.
  2. Crossroads of the Caucusus: Implications of Georgia’s Elections for the Region and Beyond | Monday, October 3 | 2:00pm – 3:15pm | The German Marshall Fund of the US | Click HERE to Register
    The instability stretching from Ukraine to Turkey to the Middle East places Georgia at the middle of regional and geopolitical developments. Though Georgia’s relationship with the Alliance is long standing, Georgia has made significant strides in greater governmental transparency and efficiency that have bolstered the country’s democracy and pulled Georgia closer to NATO and Europe. However, escalating tensions between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposing United National Movement, as well as controversial amendments to the country’s constitutional courts, have raised questions about the direction of internal politics. With this in mind, The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) invites you to a discussion with Ambassador Tedo Japaridze, member of the Georgian Parliament and chairman of the International Relations Committee, who will discuss the upcoming elections on October 8, Georgia’s strategic context in a rapidly changing region, and Georgia’s relationship with Europe and NATO. The discussion will be moderated by Transatlantic Academy Executive Director Stephen Szabo.
  3. What Does Success in the Middle East Look Like for the Next President? | Wednesday, October 5 | 8:15am – 9:15am | The Brookings Institution | Click HERE to Register
    Syria. Iraq. Iran. It’s no secret that many of the top challenges for the security and stability of the world lie in the Middle East. On day one of their administration, the next president will be forced to make major strategy decisions in the region. Will the U.S. choose to engage militarily in Syria? How will the U.S. move forward with the Iranian nuclear agreement? After four years of the next president’s first term, what would success in the Middle East really look like?
    On October 5, come have breakfast at Brookings and hear an exciting conversation about how the next president can navigate these hot spots in foreign policy, and make both the U.S. and the world a safer place. As part of the Brookings Election 2016 project, this event is the first in a series of live podcast recordings.
    Brookings Senior Fellow and former Iranian nuclear negotiator Robert Einhorn has released a new set of recommendationsto the next president on Iran on how the U.S. can reinforce support for the Iran nuclear deal at home and abroad and promote stability in the region. Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon recently delivered a policy recommendation on the Syrian conflict, and will speak to how the next president can balance the dual goals of U.S. security and the protection of Syrian lives.
    The event will be moderated by veteran journalist Indira Lakshmanan of the Boston Globe, who will prompt each expert to deliver a recommended course of action in a concise manner, press them with alternate perspectives on the issue, and ensure a lively conversation about realistic pathways to success and the obstacles that lie in the way.
  1. Stronger with Allies: The Future of Europe after Brexit | Thursday, October 6 | 8:30am – 1:00pm | Atlantic Council | Click HERE To Register
    As British and EU policymakers map out the UK’s exit from the European Union, Europe is already confronted with a triple threat: Russia’s aggressive posture to the East, Mideast wars and instability producing waves of migrants and extremism from the South, and centrifugal, nationalist forces tearing at the continent’s internal fabric. The UK referendum, horrific terrorist attacks, and a continually sluggish economy put the future of Europe in question. Against this backdrop of uncertainty, this conference is organized in partnership with the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic to flesh out a strategy for Europe and transatlantic cooperation following the Bratislava EU Summit in September.
    The event will feature: E. Miroslav Lajčák, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of Slovakia, Mr. Carlos Costa, Governor, Bank of Portugal, Ambassador Paula Dobriansky, Senior Fellow, Future of Diplomacy Project, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, Senior Counsel, Covington & Burling, LLP; Former US Ambassador to the European Union, Ms. Ashlee Godwin, Committee Specialist, Foreign Affairs Committee and Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, UK House of Commons, Mr. Benjamin Haddad, Research Fellow, Hudson Institute, H.E. Ratislav Kacer, Ambassador of Slovakia to Hungary, Ms. Laure Mandeville, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Future Europe Initiative, Atlantic Council, Dr. Andrea Montanino, Director, Global Business and Economics Program, Atlantic Council, H.E. Pierre Moscovici, Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs, EU Commission, H.E. David O’Sullivan. Ambassador of the European Union to the United States, Minister Ana Palacio, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Former Prime Minister of Denmark and Secretary General of NATO, Ms. Teri Schultz, Freelance Reporter, National Public Radio and CBS Radio, Mr. Damon Wilson, Executive Vice President, Programs and Strategy, Atlantic Council
  2. Pakistan’s Economic Turnaround: What Basis for Peace? | Thursday, October 6 | 9:30am – 11:00am | US Institute of Peace | Click HERE To Register
    Reforms under the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have boosted economic growth. Still, the world’s sixth most-populous country faces the economic and long-term security imperative of providing jobs, especially for young adults, who form 30 percent of the population—a demographic “youth bulge” that is one of the world’s largest. And security problems, including violent extremism, threaten economic development and risk derailing Pakistan’s efforts toward rapprochement with its neighbors, including India. Mohammad Ishaq Dar has served as finance ministry throughout the current government’s term, and is a longtime leader within the governing Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). He will speak at USIP in a visit to Washington that will include the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This event will feature Mohammad Ishaq Dar, Finance Minister of Pakistan and will be moderated by Moeed Yusuf, Associate Vice President, Asia Center, U.S. Institute of Peace
  3. Shifting Paradigms: The Role of Young People in Building Peace and Security | Thursday, October 6 | 2:00pm – 4:00pm | Woodrow Wilson Center | Click HERE to Register
    The Wilson Center’s Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, in coordination with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), invites you to an expert discussion on building peace and countering violent extremism with young people.
    In 2015, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2250, which marked the emergence of a youth, peace, and security agenda. What should policymakers prioritize to support young people’s active engagement in peacebuilding processes? How can Resolution 2250 support the United States’ domestic and international efforts on peace? Panelists will explore these questions and invite questions from the audience. The event will feature Joyce Banda,Distinguished Fellow, Roger-Mark De Souza, 
    Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience, Benoit Kalasa, 
    Director, Technical Division, United Nations Population Fund Natalia Kanem, Deputy Executive Director, Programme, United Nations Population Fund, Alaa Murabit, Medical Doctor; High-Level Commissioner, Health Employment and Economic Growth, United Nations and Andy Rabens, Special Advisor, Global Youth Issues, U.S. Department of State


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Trump melting down

The only problem with this Saturday Night Live version of the first presidential debate is that Trump was far worse than Alec Baldwin portrayed:

Kaine/Pence is October 4. Trump/Clinton 2 October 9 and Clinton/Trump 3 on October 19. I suppose we can look forward to SNL version of those as well.

Trump continues to be himself. If you prefer the video, here is last night’s meltdown in Pennsylvania:

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Syria divided but not partitioned

Syria Deeply Friday published What Syrians Can Expect in a Post-War Landscape. This is based in part on a longer piece that appears in the European Institute of the Mediterranean 2016 Yearbook. My summer MEI research assistants Rosemary Youhana and Katherine Preston took the lead in drafting both. The former starts this way: 

Whoever leads the postwar political transition in Syria will need to take into consideration the impact of more than five years of fighting. The Syrian government, opposition forces, the Kurdish PYD, the so-called Islamic State, and the former al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) are all governing territory they control. The postwar transition will need to take these diverse governance dynamics into account.

Finding an effective political solution to the conflict in Syria must take into account how these wartime structures maintain security, provide goods and services and earn legitimacy in the eyes of the local population.

For the rest, go to Syria Deeply or for the longer paper the Yearbook.

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Liz Sly is wrong

She is also one of the very best journalists covering Syria, so I’d better explain why I think her “No sign of Obama’s predicted ‘quagmire’ as Russia’s engagement in Syria escalates” in the Washington Post this morning is wrong.

The Russians are stuck in a quagmire because the Assad regime can no longer survive without them. If the war continues, Moscow will have to continue or even escalate its engagement further, in order to compensate for the deterioration of the Syrian armed forces. If the regime some day wins, or at least comes to dominate “useful Syria,” Moscow and Tehran will be responsible for reconstruction, the costs for which amount to hundreds of billions. Sure, the $10-11 billion or so per year that the war is costing Moscow is sustainable this year and next, but at some point it becomes a serious burden. And that is nothing compared to what will be required once the war is over.

Moscow (and Tehran) are heading for strategic defeat in Syria. What they have done to a large portion of the civilian population will not be forgotten. It is now difficult to picture any successor regime to Assad that would be friendly to Russian and Iranian interests. Sustaining Assad or one of his coterie in place will mean continuation of the war with extremists, whose recruitment is directly related to his abusive rule.

In the meanwhile, Syrians suffer from the excesses of the regime, the Russians, the Iranians, and the extremists. Pro-regime forces are using anti-personnel and incendiary weapons in civilian areas, where they target in particular rescue workers, an aid convoy, and hospitals. Moscow denies all this, but those denials are no more believable than its denial that one of its missiles shot down Malaysia Air flight 17 over a rebel area of Ukraine.

Quagmire is apparent only in the rear-view mirror. The Americans denied they were in a quagmire in Vietnam, until they withdrew. The Soviets did likewise in Afghanistan. Assad, or a successor who will continue the regime, cannot be kept in place without massive assistance. That’s a quagmire, even if the effort is successful. Until the withdrawal, when things come apart sooner or later.

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What to do in Syria

Last Friday the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a public hearing on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, in particular the options and dilemmas confronting policymakers concerned with civilian protection. Hosted by Co-Chairman James McGovern, the hearing featured two panels with testimonies from witnesses to the crisis.

According to Dr Ahmad Tarakji, President of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), his organization has established more than 120 hospitals and clinics in Syria and neighboring countries with more than 1700 physicians and nurses. In 2015 alone SAMS facilities treated more than 2.5 million patients. However their work is seriously challenged by the deliberate targeting of hospitals and physicians. At the height of violence in July, attacks on a hospital occurred every 18 hours and the loss of a SAMS physician every two weeks. There have also been disturbing accounts of physicians being targeted after leaving the hospitals and clinics. Tarakji highlighted the routine regime denial of medical evacuations, causing children to die despite full plans and funding in place for their transfer. One of his key policy recommendations is the development of transparent medical evacuation processes in Syria free from political influence, as well as independent investigation into the attacks on medical services.

Richard Leach, President and CEO of World Food Program USA, said WFP is providing food assistance to 4.2 million in Syria, 1 million in besieged areas and 1.6 refugees in the region. But there are still 3.7 million civilians in need of aid who are not being reached. The primary issue is not resources, as Syria is one of the few fully-funded WFP operations. The issue is access to civilian populations in need due to violence as well as harassment at checkpoints. Leach recommends measures to ensure immediate and unconditional access to all areas, protection of relief workers, and an end to harassment at checkpoints. He also pointed towards a growing global gap between need and resources and urged the US to lead in advocating that other countries to contribute to international aid organizations’ funding needs.

As Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA, Joel Charny described Syria as the most challenging environment NRC has faced, though through patient negotiations and working with local partners they have been able to reach 1 million people over the last two years and are building local response capacity. In regime areas, NRC faces tight political control and painstaking negotiations for permission to operate. In opposition areas, movement is freer but there are security issues and concerns whether aid channeled through local partners is reaching the most vulnerable people. He presented four feasible recommendations to enhance the protection of civilians:

  1. Increase access to civil documentation to enable freedom of movement and access to services;
  2. Enable front line access to de-mining groups (in the example given, 126 people were reportedly killed by remnant explosives on their return to liberated Manbij);
  3. Ensure continued access to asylum, with an urgent need to support neighboring states carrying the heaviest refugee burdens; and
  4. Guarantee protection to humanitarian workers, with a particular warning about negative precedents set in Syria.

Sarah Holewinski, Senior Fellow with the Center for a New American Security, discussed strategies Syrian civilians have developed in response to the crisis. First, early-warning systems for bombings have been developed with spotter networks watching the skies and broadcasting warnings. These have been successful in preventing casualties and reducing trauma. Second, schools and hospitals are being constructed in safer ways, with air raid huts nearby, operating theaters in basements, and a series of small clinics around conflict zones to enable easier casualty access. Third, local defense and rescue forces have been established and are highly successful in rescue operations. Most visible is Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, however Holewinski noted that there are countless others undertaking valuable work in the field. Her primary recommendation is that the US directs funds to some of these civil society activities, especially given the humanitarian aid access issues noted by some of the other panelists.

Naomi Kikoler, Deputy Director of the Simon-Skojdt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, highlighted the responsibility to protect and respond to crimes against humanity. Protection of civilians should be the priority and must not be undermined by politics. The US must also strive towards a durable solution to the conflict. She noted that ignoring the crisis creates challenges to US strategic interests as allies are weakened, enemies emboldened, and anti-US entities arise from the conflict.

As the Deputy Director for Investigations and Operations with the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, Chris Engels spoke of atrocity accountability efforts for Syria. International actors are interviewing victims and documenting crimes, and CIJA is aiming to link individuals with crimes and present complete case files for the prosecution of individuals up the hierarchy of the regime. He noted that transitional justice is essential to enduring peace. The US should be developing a long-term strategy for mechanisms to achieve accountability and justice.

Co-Chairman McGovern emphasized in closing that Congress should hear this testimony and not shy away from debating the issues at stake, such as the establishment of safe zones inside Syria.

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