New nadir

The extraordinary exchange of charges and countercharges between US UN Ambassador Samantha Power and Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin Saturday night put in doubt both the wisdom and practicality of implementing the still unpublished agreement their two foreign ministers have reached on cooperating against extremist forces in Syria.

Visibly angry Power denounced the Russians for calling an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to protest an apparent US mistake while having continually ignored Syrian military and Russian air force attacks on schools, hospitals, and civilians:

A calmer Churkin suggested that the US action was intentional and intended to protect the Islamic State:

Churkin ignored the US CentCom statementwhich said that the strike in question was informed to the Russians in advance. Power and Churkin each walked out of the Security Council while the other was speaking.

In the meanwhile, humanitarian aid deliveries from Turkey to Aleppo appear not to have begun, because of Syrian government refusal to issue the necessary permits.

All this bodes ill for the latest effort to restore the ceasefire in Syria and start coordinated US/Russian attacks on extremists. No doubt Secretary Kerry–who has said he has no alternatives–will try at the UN this week to revive the ceasefire he negotiated so tenaciously, but I see little indication it will work for more than a short period. The Russians and Syrian government are already back to indiscriminate (or maybe it is discriminate?) bombing of civilians, including with anti-personnel weapons.

There have been many low points in Syria during the past 5.5 years, but we may have reached a new nadir.

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Peace picks September 19-23

  1. Central Asian Fighters in Syria: Classification, Factors, Scale Assessment | Monday, September 19th | 9am – 10.30am | Elliot School of International Affairs | click HERE to register

The war in Syria, like a magnet, pulled radicals from around the world, including Central Asian fighters. There are different figures on the number of Central Asian militants in Syria. Separate research was conducted in Kazakhstan under the leadership of Dr. Yerlan Karin to estimate and organize all the data, as well as determine the main factors of radicalization attracting young people from Central Asia to Syria. The research is comprised of several surveys of former combatants and is the first such study in the region. Yerlan Karin is Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan. Yerlan Karin is a leading expert in Kazakhstan on security and terrorism and is the author of more than 100 publications in Kazakhstan and abroad on issues of terrorism, national and regional security, and history of Kazakhstan.

  1. Winning the War Against Islamist Terror: A Conversation with Chairman Michael McCaul | Tuesday, September 20th | 4pm – 5pm| American Enterprise Institute | click HERE to register |

Fifteen years ago on September 11, Americans experienced firsthand the grave consequences of Islamist terrorism flourishing abroad. Following recent terror attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels, Orlando, Nice, Istanbul, and beyond, it has never been more apparent that the US and its allies are in a generational, ideological struggle against a determined enemy and that we are not winning. How can we thwart lone wolf attacks and stop radicalization at home? How can America and its partners prevent power vacuums from turning into terrorist safe havens? Join AEI for a conversation with House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul as he releases a new national counterterrorism strategy outlining how the US can protect the American homeland, take the fight to Islamist extremists abroad, and prevail in this long war. Discussion between Michael McCaul, Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security (R-TX) and Danielle Pletka, AEI.

  1. Arrested Development: Rethinking Politics in Putin’s Russia | Wednesday, September 21st | 10am – 12pm | The National Press Club | click HERE to register |

The Center on Global Interests is pleased to invite you to a discussion on Russia’s political development with members of the Russia Political Insight Project, an international research collaboration that seeks to deepen the understanding of Russia’s current domestic political landscape. Panelists will present the results of their forthcoming book, Arrested Development: Rethinking Politics in Putin’s Russia, scheduled for release in 2017. The book explores the role of the Russian security forces, media, regional elites, public opinion, and other politically relevant actors in the making of domestic policy. Confirmed speakers include Andrei Soldatov, Maria Lipman, Nikolay Petrov, Kirill Rogov, and Daniel Treisman. Maria Lipman is an Editor-in-Chief of Counterpoint journal, published by the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University. Nikolay Petrov is a professor and head of the Laboratory of Methodology of Regional Development Evaluation at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. He also heads the Center for Political-Geographic Research, and is a columnist for the information agency RBC (RosBusinessConsulting). Kirill Rogov is a well-known Russian journalist, a regular columnist for the publications Vedomosti, Forbes-Russia, and Novaya Gazeta. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and a member of the supervisory board of the Liberal Mission Foundation (Moscow). Andrei Soldatov is an investigative journalist and editor of, an information hub on intelligence agencies.  Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

  1. Islam and Politics in the Age of ISIS: A Smarter Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism | Wednesday, September 21st | 12pm – 1.30pm | Atlantic Council |click HERE to register |

In recent decades, Muslims have been debating political and social aspects of their religious teachings in new ways. The religious debates are connected to and sometimes stem in considerable part from underlying political and social trends – demographic shifts, rising education, unaccountable and authoritarian governance, stuttering economic and governmental performance, and corruption. They cannot, however, be wholly reduced to those trends. Religion is not an isolated field, but neither is it simply a mask for other struggles; the terms and outcomes of religious debates matter in their own right.  Please join us for a conversation with the authors of the newly published Middle East Strategy Task Force (MEST) Working Group on Religion, Identity, and Countering Violent Extremism report to discuss these issues and more. Geneive Abdo is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs and the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University as well as a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Frederic C. Hof is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

  1. Russia and the Middle East | Wednesday, September 21st | 6pm – 7.15pm |Elliot School of International Affairs | click HERE to register

Ambassador Thomas Pickering joins MEPF to discuss Russia and the Middle East. Drawing on his past experiences as the Ambassador to the Russian Federation and his diplomatic career in the Middle East, Ambassador Pickering discusses Russia’s political interests in the turbulent conflicts of the region. What is the historical context for Russia’s current role in the Middle East? How has Russia’s increased involvement affected its relationships with Middle East power players? Will Russia be a hindrance or a help in achieving lasting solutions to current conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and beyond?

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Happy birthday Blic!

Vladimir Filipović of Belgrade daily Blic asked some questions for a special edition celebrating the newspaper’s 20th anniversary. I replied: 
1. As the talk about Chinese growth intensifies, its military is getting stronger, and while Beijing is defying even USA in the South Chinese sea dispute…what is your prediction for the decades that are coming: Could China become a world’s number one superpower?

A: No. China is a rising power, but it also still very poor and undeveloped. It faces enormous internal challenges: environmental conditions are deplorable, economic growth is slowing, social tensions have few political outlets, global warming will have a big impact on its infrastructure. China will be an important regional power, and it is already economically active in Africa and Latin America. But it will be a long time before it can play the kind of varied and multi-valent security, political and economic leadership role that the US plays globally.

2. It seems that Russia is getting support from some political factors in the EU countries. Is it possible that some of them will abolish the sanctions and open a wider cooperation with Moscow, especially now when the EU has a lot of its problems?

A: Russia is also getting support from “some political factors” in the US, but our sanctions will remain in place.

The EU will need to review again its sanctions against Russia, but there aren’t any positive developments in Ukraine to justify loosening them.

None of the EU’s problems would be ameliorated by dropping sanctions. The Russian economy is in a deep recession from which it is unlikely to recover without a big increase in oil prices. That isn’t happening.

3. Right-wing movement is getting stronger in Europe, and it seems it could reshape the EU as we know it today. Is that comeback of national states good or bad for Europe?

A: I’ll let Europeans decide. I can see positive developments emerging from the current euroskepticism, but I also see big risks to the single market.

4. Angela Merkel’s popularity has never been lower. If she decides not to run for fourth term, or if she loses, who do you see as her successor? Do you think that Germany will stop with the open door policy, with or without Merkel, because it is obvious that there is no solidarity between the member states?

A: I wouldn’t count Merkel out yet. She is at a low point in her personal popularity, but her political party is still polling very well. Europe is already controlling the inflow of migrants better than it had done. I expect that tighter control to continue.

5. Migrant crisis is shaking the EU for a while, but despite that, it seems that Brussels is avoiding to fulfill the promises given to Turkey, the main dam which is stopping the refugees to come in even bigger number to Europe. For how long could that take, especially now when Erdogan has grown warmer relations with Russia and Putin?

A: Brussels is in a bind. Turkey is taking an autocratic turn. It will be very hard to continue on the path to closer relations with Brussels if Ankara moves in a non-democratic direction. Erdogan has got some solace from Putin, who of course has no problems with autocrats, but Russia really has little to offer Turkey compared to the EU.

6. ISIS has become the world’s number one boogie-man. It seems that the strong actions in Syria has hurt this terrorist organization, but they didn’t destroy it, like something is missing. In your opinion, what is necessary to finally end “ISIS era”?

A: ISIS won’t “end.” It will be defeated in Raqqa and Mosul, then peter out. There never was an ISIS era. There was only an ISIS moment. ISIS has now lost lots of important territory in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. It will survive at least for a while as a terrorist group causing real harm to real people, but it is not, and never was, an existential threat to the West.

7. Hillary or Trump? What would the USA look like if Trump wins?

A: I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton for President. A Trump win would be bad for the US, bad for Europe, bad for the Balkans and good for Russia.

8. What is the best path for Serbia? Our ruling political elite is eager to bring Serbia in the EU, majority of people thinks the same, but that same majority wants good relations with Russia. Is it possible to sit on two chairs like that, or not? Also, do you think that some members of the EU will demand from Serbia to recognize Kosovo independence as a condition of joining the EU?

A: Lots of countries in Europe want good relations with Russia. Washington would also like good relations with Russia. It has become difficult to “sit on two chairs” only because of Russia’s renewed aggressiveness, especially in neighboring areas it regards as part of its “near abroad.” Russia’s behavior in Ukraine in particular is unacceptable and has aroused a strong–but peaceful–NATO response. It has also pushed several non-member countries to tighten relations with NATO. This is precisely the opposite of what Putin should want.

There is not now, nor has there ever been, any possibility of Serbian membership in the EU without Belgrade’s acceptance of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo, which is already de facto acknowledged in the Brussels political agreement. Belgrade has a choice of methods by which it can act to accept Kosovo’s de jure sovereignty and territorial integrity. It can recognize Kosovo and establish diplomatic relations. Or it can allow Kosovo to enter the UN General Assembly. There may be other clever solutions that I haven’t thought of. But the EU states that have already recognized Kosovo will not allow Serbia’s accession if this issue is still outstanding. Remember: this is not only a question for European presidents and prime ministers but also for their parliaments, which have to ratify accession.

Everyone in Belgrade knows that. But the current authorities don’t want to pay the price, and some like to think they can get a better deal on this issue at the end of the EU accession process than now. I think they are wrong about that. At the end of the process, Belgrade will be under enormous pressure from internal public opinion to remove any obstacles to EU accession, including Kosovo recognition. Serbia today could hope that Kosovo would accommodate some of its needs in return for recognition. I’ll leave it to Serbs and Albanians to cut that deal.

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In the box can be good too

I enjoyed 90 minutes today with SAIS’s Mike Lampton and CSIS’s Michael Green commenting on Amitai Etzioni’s Foreign Policy: Thinking Outside the Box, a recent Chatham House publication. Here are my speaking notes, though I should note much of the event focused on China, which was not within my remit: 

  1. First let me say it has been a privilege to be required to read this book. It is a model of precision and intelligibility. Professor Ezioni says what he means clearly and concisely, marshaling the evidence with skill and erudition.
  2. My doubts have to do mainly with the title: it advertises thinking outside the box, but much of the book is devoted to ideas I would regard as well inside the box, even if some of them might be labeled “new normal.”
  3. Take, for example, the chapter on “defining down sovereignty.” A good deal of it is spent pooh-poohing the Westphalian notion of sovereignty and arguing in favor of a more contemporary alternative: sovereignty as entailing rights as well as responsibilities.
  4. This leads naturally to Responsibility to Protect, which is well within the box these days, and another, new to me notion, “responsibility to counter terrorism.” If states fail or refuse to do this, intervention might be justified, Professor Etzioni says.
  5. It’s an interesting idea that even explains some current behavior, in particular the anti-ISIL intervention in Syria, which the host government has not unauthorized.
  6. The downsides are all too clear: the slippery slope that leads to an unjustified excuse for invasion or other intervention, as in George W.
  7. The chapter on spheres of influence is not so much outside the box as it is outside the realm of academic discussion, as Professor Etzioni himself documents. Spheres of influence are a well-established practice in international affairs, even if the concept has not attracted much scholarly attention.
  8. Professor Etzioni sees spheres of influence, Russia’s “near-abroad” for example or Iran’s influence in Iraq, as providing space for rising regional powers and buffer zones that bolster a feeling of security.
  9. The trouble with that notion is that it discounts the will of those who live in these buffer states. The limits of his approach are all to evident in Ukraine, where Etzioni admits Russia used force to try to prevent the Ukrainians from choosing their alignment with Europe.
  10. People just aren’t always content to serve the purposes of other powers.
  11. When it comes to self-determination, I would quibble with Amitai’s characterization of Kurdistan as more democratic than the rest of Iraq, but more importantly he ignores the negative regional and internal political contexts for any independence move by the Iraqi Kurds. I doubt it will happen, or that it will be democratizing if it does.
  12. I would agree however with Amitai’s main conclusion: decentralization rather than secession is far more likely to produce positive outcomes in democratic societies like Spain, where unfortunately the central government has been unwilling to concede even that. That however is a conclusion well inside the box, not outside it.
  13. One concluding thought: Professor Etzioni repeatedly doubts the applicability of liberal democratic notions outside the family of liberal democratic states.
  14. As an American, I feel condemned to believe in universal rights, as our founding documents are all too clear on this subject.
  15. But I would also say that I’ve virtually never met someone outside the liberal democratic world who didn’t aspire to those rights.
  16. We don’t need to export the notion that all people are created equal. We only need to help people find ways of institutionalizing equal rights in ways that are appropriate to their particular contexts.
  17. All in all, a good and interesting read, even if the novelty is overblown.

I made two points in the discussion period worth recalling:

  • Liberal democracy is not congruent with secularism, since we have liberal democratic states (where rights are in principle equal) like Italy and the UK with established churches (not to mention the penetration of religion into government in the US).
  • Russia’s behavior in Ukraine cannot properly be attributed to NATO expansion. Putin has made it clear that he is trying to re-establish Moscow’s hegemony in what he considers Russia’s near-abroad. That is not a reaction to NATO expansion but rather an aggressive program vital to his view of Russia’s historic and cultural role, as well as to his domestic political standing.
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Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence prospects

Yesterday, the Woodrow Wilson Center convened three experts to discuss the viability of a Kurdish state in Northern Iraq and to critique and elaborate on a report on Iraqi Kurdistan by Amberin Zaman. The panel on “From Tribe To Nation: Iraqi Kurdistan On The Cusp Of Statehood” featured Amberin Zaman, a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center, Abbas Kadhim, a Foreign Policy Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, and Aliza Marcus, author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.

Zaman views the Kurds in Iraq as closer to independence than ever before. Their warming relationship with Ankara means that Turkey can assist the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in achieving independence. In exchange for access to Kurdistan’s oil reserves, Turkey would likely be willing to protect the Kurds from Iran’s ire and give them access to trade routes and ports. Though she believes that Iraqi Kurdistan is ready for independence, she noted that the KRG must resolve its internal disputes before any kind of sustainable independence can be achieved.

Kadhim listed four elements that Iraqi Kurdistan needs before independence can be realized. The KRG needs:

  1. a united front, which means its two main political parties, the KDP and PUK, must resolve their disputes;
  2. full cooperation from Baghdad, with which it must negotiate borders, financial matters, and future diplomatic relations;
  3. regional cooperation, since the new state will be short lived if one of their powerful and temperamental neighbors (namely Turkey or Iran) strongly opposes independence.
  4. reliable international alliances in order to have their statehood approved and recognized by international organizations such as the UN.

Without these four elements, Iraqi Kurdistan cannot achieve true and sustainable independence from Iraq.

More skeptical, Marcus explained that Iraqi Kurdistan’s trouble isn’t rooted in the chaos created by ISIS and the drop in oil prices. Rather, its problems are rooted in the lack of viable civil institutions within the KRG. Kurdistan is experiencing a brain drain, wherein many of the best and brightest are leaving because they see no room for advancement within the confines of the KRG.

She also disagreed with Zaman’s prediction that Turkey will assist the KRG in achieving independence. Ankara is actually quite suspicious of Iraqi Kurdistan due to the PKK’s positions there as well as the PKK’s alliance with the PUK. Given Erdogan’s militant opposition to Kurdish autonomy in Eastern Turkey and Northern Syria, it is unlikely that he would support Kurdish independence in Iraq.

During the Q&A session, Zaman explained that Iraqi Kurdistan has a small window of opportunity for independence, due to the KRG’s warm relationship with Turkish President Erdogan and the respectability of Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Barzani. Once Barzani is no longer in power, the KRG’s ability to achieve independence will be diminished.

Kadhim said that Iran is opposed to the formation of a Kurdish state in Northern Iraq, since Iran does not want to deal with ‘two Iraqs’. They would likely be more amenable to a division of Iraqi Kurdistan into a Shiite region and a Sunni region, wherein Iran would be allied with the Shiite region and focus on keeping the Sunni region and Iraq-proper weakened.

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Syria and the next president

Secretary of State Kerry asked the key question about the Syria ceasefire on NPR this morning: “What’s The Alternative?” He had none, because President Obama is sticking with his determination that vital US interests are not at risk there, apart from the terrorist threat. So the President is doing whatever is necessary–even military cooperation with the Russians that Defense Secretary Carter thinks unwise–to attack the Islamic State and Al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al Nusra (JAN), now Jaish al Fateh al Sham (JFS). Everything else–in particular support for the Syrian opposition–is at best half-hearted.

The US media often picture Obama as hesitant in Syria, citing this half-hearted attitude and his decision not to bomb in response to chemical attacks and instead seek removal of Assad’s chemical weapons by diplomatic means. That is incorrect. He has been remarkably decisive and resolute in sticking with his initial decision on what matters and what doesn’t in Syria. All American presidents since 1989 have resisted big interventions abroad. He is the only one who has stuck to his guns (or pin stripes, if you prefer). There is every indication that in doing so he is in tune with majority American sentiment: the electorate wants to go after the extremists but not worry about how Syria is governed.

The result is that Secretary Kerry had no leverage in dealing with Moscow. Leverage comes from having a better alternative to a negotiated agreement. You know this from bargaining with car salesmen. If you are willing to walk out, you are going to get a better deal. Kerry couldn’t walk out because doing so would have left the situation entirely in the hands of the Russians and Iranians, who were doing serious harm to civilians and helping the extremists to recruit. He also was unable to threaten action against the Syrian government or the many Shia armed groups Iran has put onto the battlefield in defense of Assad. Obama won’t go there.

For the moment, the ceasefire seems to be holding, with some exceptions. Humanitarian aid so far as I can tell has not started flowing into besieged opposition areas. That is supposed to happen consistently before the military cooperation with the Russians to target the ISIS and JAN/JFS starts on Monday. I’d bet on limited humanitarian aid deliveries, if only because Assad does not want to risk displeasing the Russians too much. But it will be surprising if this unsupervised, unobserved, unmonitored ceasefire lasts more than a few weeks.

All sides in the Syrian conflict will want to use the ceasefire–however long it lasts–to rest, regroup, and rearm. It would be a mistake, in the absence of a firmer and longer-term political solution, for them not to do so. No political solution appears on the horizon. The High Negotiation Commission of the Syrian opposition has published its concept for a transition to a democratic society, but Bashar al Assad is showing no interest. The Iranians and Russians, having doubled down on their support for him, can see no alternative that would be even half as friendly to their interests as Bashar. They can no longer back up without losing their privileges in Syria sooner rather than later.

Later it may be, but strategically Moscow and Tehran have lost. They have linked the fate of their interests in Syria to a dictator who has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed the country. The day will come when Syrians will throw out Bashar and his allies. But there is no guarantee the successor government that does that will be a democratic one. It could just as well be a new, Sunni Islamist one, led by the likes of JAN/JFS or some version of ISIS. President Obama has studiously avoided worrying about how Syria is governed, but his successor will have to.

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