It took longer than anticipated, but it appears now that the cessation of hostilities in Syria is ending, mainly due to regime attacks on relatively moderate opposition forces in the center of the country. Fighting has also erupted in the far northeast, where Kurdish and regime forces had long divided the turf between them but are now going after each other.
The opposition’s High Negotiation Council has been leaving the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, disappointed that in the minimal progress on humanitarian access and release of detainees, as well as the regime’s refusal to discuss political transition. I suspect they stayed long enough to avoid any American backlash, but we’ll have to wait and see. Technical level talks on some issues are said to be proceeding.
On the regime side, President Assad is feeling strong in the aftermath of Russia’s fall offensive, which succeeded in preventing the opposition from reaching the Alawite heartland it was aiming for. Both Moscow and Tehran have now doubled down on their support for Assad. No matter how often they deny being wedded to him, neither Russia nor Iran can hope for a successor regime even half as friendly to their interests as he has been. They know they are cooked in the long term if Syria becomes even remotely democratic, as the substantial Sunni majority will no doubt remember what they’ve done and seek eventually to exclude them from any substantial influence in the country.
What this amounts to for the US is a short term loss even if it can hope for a long term gain. The cessation of hostilities worked mainly by reducing Russian and regime attacks, which this fall were responsible for most of the violence, and freed the relatively moderate opposition to do what the Americans have long wanted them to do: attack the Islamic State (ISIS). They were somewhat successful, especially in northern Syria but also in the south. That was good news for Washington. So too were the demonstrations that broke out in some cities against Jabhat al Nusra, Syria’s Qaeda affiliate.
Now the big question is whether the Americans have done what is normally done during a cessation of hostilities: prepared its Syrian allies for the renewal of violence. If the relatively moderate opposition has been strengthened, it will be difficult for the regime to make further progress or even hold the territory the Russian offensive helped it to gain. Particularly important is whether the opposition has acquired antiaircraft weapons, which could tilt the military balance against the regime even if the still active Russians remain relatively unscathed. The regime uses vulnerable helicopters to drop so-called “barrel bombs,” which devastate civilian areas.
The situation in the region remains tense and confused. Turkey continues to be more concerned with countering the Syrian Kurds (as well as their own) than with fighting the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia still seems more focused on its support for what it considers the legitimate government in Yemen rather than support for the Syrian opposition or the fight against ISIS. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu took the opportunity of a cabinet meeting held on the Golan Heights to declare that they would never be returned to Syria, thus undermining the rapprochement between Israel and the Sunni Arab states even more than Israel’s growing cooperation with Russia.
President Obama remains determined to minimize American exposure in Syria and the Middle East generally, even as he beefs up aid and advising to both Baghdad’s security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq, where the jabber about an impending assault on Mosul belies the shortcomings of the Iraqi army. If his meeting with Gulf states this week produced a new approach in Syria or Iraq, it has not yet become apparent. Washington seems resigned to muddling through until the January end of this administration, when more likely than not Hillary Clinton will begin to serve Obama’s third term. She will then have to decide whether to follow through on her pledges to take greater risks in Syria not only against ISIS but also against Assad by imposing a no-fly zone over part of the country.
I wouldn’t normally tout a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, but the US government shipped the head of Syria Civil Defense (aka “the White Helmets”), Raed Saleh, back to Turkey this week. I don’t know Raed, but when someone pointed out to me that as a university professor in the social sciences I have the privilege of nominating people and organizations for the Nobel Peace Prize, I happily took fingers to keyboard and made the electrons nominate his organization, which has courageously provided emergency services wherever it is permitted to operate in war-torn Syria.
How could it happen that someone who leads a courageous group dedicated to saving lives could be denied entry into the US? That’s easy. In saving those lives he necessarily must talk and drink tea with people the US government regards as possible terrorists. I can only guess, but one of our 17-odd intelligence agencies (or are there more now?) likely put him on a list.
I hope you feel safer as a result. It makes me feel angry. A government that can’t tell the difference between Syrian Civil Defense and terrorists is a government neither you nor I should be trusting to protect us against them. Just think: if they can’t make this distinction, how do they decide whom the drones attack?
This isn’t the only glaring stupidity that has come to my attention recently. An asylee (that’s a person given asylum in the US because of a well-founded fear of persecution in his home country) came by to say hello. We’d known each other more than a decade ago, so I needed to get updated. Is he now an American citizen I asked? No, he answered, only his wife and kids are.
He isn’t allowed naturalization.
He had been affiliated with a rebel group in his home country, one that the US pretty much supported. It won the civil war and now boasts a president the US supports who was the leader of that group. But because my friend had supported the rebellion that pleased Washington, American law precludes his becoming an American citizen. I’m not relying on my own knowledge of the law, I should note: I am repeating what my friend told me, and he has three or four law degrees and is preparing to take the bar exam here.
Again, the issue is whether we are able to distinguish our friends from our enemies.
We pride ourselves on being a nation of laws. But some of our laws are really dumb, and the behavior of some of our officials is even dumber.
My inbox continues to produce interesting material. Today it was this opposition perspective from Hristijan Gjorgievski, commenting on the situation in Macedonia (but read also President Ivanov’s government perspective, at the link below):
The Turkish Anadolou news agency asked me some questions about the war against the Islamic State in Iraq. Then the International Business Times asked questions about the political situation in Iraq. I answered:
Anadolou agency on the war against ISIS
Q: The Pentagon has recently announced that it has built up a fire base where American Special Operation Forces operates artillery against Daesh and a few weeks later the Department said that it may establish more fire bases ahead of Mosul offensive and just yesterday we heard that the Pentagon is also authorizing deployment of 200 additional troops alongside combat helicopters to the help the operation.
First of all what does this tell us about Obama administration’s policy in Iraq?
A: Obama wants to do what he can to destroy the Islamic State before leaving office. Recent progress in getting ISIS to give up territory is making the Americans want to accelerate the process. They are prepared to take some additional risk in order to do so.
That said, I think one of the important decisions recently has been increased funding for the Kurdish peshmerga, who have proven among the most effective troops fighting IS.
Q: Is the US involving more and more in the swamp in Iraq?
A: Yes, though I’m not sure it is really a swamp. IS lacks the popular support that made Vietnam a quagmire.
Q: Do you think that Obama’s no boots on ground policy is over?
A: It is clearly over. The American troops on the ground will certainly be defending themselves as the need arises.
Q: Without the US isn’t it possible for Iraqi forces to retake Mosul?
A: I don’t know that it is possible with the US. Mosul will be a big and difficult operation. I imagine the Americans and Iraqis are hoping that it will fall without a major battle.
Q: Why does the administration feel compelled to involve itself in the Mosul operation in a combat role?
A: The Americans want to accelerate the process and have important means–like the Apaches–that the Iraqis lack.
Q: How is this troop build-up in Iraq tied into the election process? And what does it tell us about post-election term or next president?
A: I doubt it is tied to the election process itself, because ISIS has really not been a big issue, yet. But it is certainly tied to the approaching end of the Administration.
The next president will be under the same pressures Obama is. Cruz, Trump, Kasich or Clinton might be inclined to respond by doing more. There is lots of pressure from the American public to finish with the Islamic State as soon as possible and to get American troops out of harm’s way. Sanders would want to do less.
International Business Times on the political situation in Iraq
Q: Abadi said his goal is to fill his cabinet with technocrats. What does that mean in reality and why have so many people refused their appointments?
A: What it should mean is the appointment of people based more on their technical competence than on party or sectarian affiliation. You have to ask the people who refused appointments why they did so, but clearly any new minister would like to be sure that he or she will have the kind of political support required to get the job done. That will be especially true for more “technical” types, who can’t by definition assume political support.
Q: Who pressured Abadi into reshuffling his cabinet? Shiite clerics or the US? How much do you think the Americans were involved in this decision?
A: I think the Americans are supportive of Abadi in general and his decision to reshuffle the cabinet with more competent people in particular. You’ll have to ask the Shiite clerics about their views, though one of them–Muqtada al Sadr–clearly played a key role in the demand for a “technical” government. It seems to me Shiites in Iraq in general are demanding more competent and accountable governance. That is not a bad thing.
Q: How does what is happening now in Baghdad compare to what happened under Maliki? Seems like the US keeps repeating its mistakes when it comes to advising Baghdad.
A: Maliki became increasingly autocratic and sectarian. Quite the opposite is true of Abadi: it seems to me he is trying hard to move in a less sectarian and less autocratic direction. It isn’t easy.
Q: Parliament has always been dysfunctional. What makes this current political crisis different?
A: Different from what? In parliamentary systems, getting approval for a ministerial reshuffle when the governing party does not have a clear majority is often difficult. Iraq is not a consolidated democracy like the UK or Germany. Baghdad is also under enormous pressure from the war against IS, the fall in oil prices, Kurdistan’s growing appetite for independence and Sunni discontent.
Certainly the Americans would be happy to see a new government in place focusing its attention on defeating IS and governing effectively on the territory regained from it.
Q: What is at stake here? Are we seeing this trickle down to the local population? Have any affects on the economy?
The Iraqi economy is already on the ropes due to low oil prices. I don’t think the political situation comes near to that as a depressing influence.
A: How much of what is happening in Baghdad is a result of U.S. policy failures?
Q: I see it more as a result of US success in installing a parliamentary semi-democracy in Iraq. I don’t really regret the fall of Saddam Hussein, even if some Iraqis and Americans do. But not everything in Iraq is a consequence of what the US does. There is an Iraqi political dynamic over which Washington has little real influence.
Boris Georgievski of Deutsche Welle asked some questions about Macedonia. I replied:
Q: President Ivanov’s decision to pardon over 50 corrupt politicians and their aides caused a stir in Macedonia. What is your take on the current situation in the country?
A: Messy. This grossly inappropriate amnesty comes on top of a major wire tapping scandal that revealed widespread government malfeasance. It’s clearly time to clean up.
Q: How did Macedonia became a problem child again, after being fan-fared for years as a model of multiethnic democracy in the Balkans?
A: I wouldn’t minimize what Macedonia has achieved: economic reform has brought growth in the past decade that is relatively strong. The country has enjoyed a good deal of stability with a governing condominium of Macedonians and Albanians. But at least some of those in power have forgotten that they can be held accountable, judicially as well as electorally. That happens in democracies.
Q: The pardons have been condemned internationally, with the US and EU warning that they raised questions about rule of law in Macedonia and could undermine the country’s aim of joining the EU. Can we expect to see more direct actions by both Washington and Brussels?
A: You’ll have to ask official Washington and Brussels. But I doubt either one will roll out a red carpet these days for the president or prime minister of Macedonia, or any of those amnestied.
Q: An unnamed EU diplomat told the Wall Street Journal last week that the possibility of sanctions against individual politicians and the country might be on the horizon. What could be the next steps from the US especially since the country is in an election year?
A: Sanctions against individuals–travel bans, asset freezes–are possible, though I don’t expect them to have much immediate effect. And the governing parties still seem to be holding their own with public opinion.
Q: Many analysts, both in Macedonia and outside, suggest that the crisis in Macedonia was tolerated for too long by the international community. Is it an issue of the international community having no interest in the country and its democratic development?
A: I don’t think you should expect the international community to have more knowledge of, or interest in, corrupt practices than the citizens of Macedonia. Democracy is a system of self-government, not an imposition from abroad.
Q: Are the authoritarian regimes on the rise in Europe, especially in the Balkans? What is the reason for this phenomenon?
A: The pendulum swings. Incumbent politicians often use all the means at their disposal to remain in power. In democracies that are not fully consolidated, those means include influence over the press, illicit wire tapping, and pardons for corrupt officials. Macedonia, like other countries in the Balkans, needs an independent judiciary and vigorous electoral competition.
Q: Finally, is the EU choosing stability over democracy by tolerating hybrid authoritarian regimes like Gruevski’s in Macedonia. What’s the US role in the Balkans?
A: The US sees itself mainly in a supporting role today in the Balkans, following the EU lead. I’m pretty sure both Brussels and Washington will support a credible effort to clean up corrupt behavior and block authoritarianism in the Balkans. Both want Macedonia in NATO and the EU. But it is up to the citizens of Macedonia to ensure that their government does what is needed to qualify for membership.
A friend dropped this piece in my in box:
Iraqi Kurdistan is in trouble. Last week its Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani visited Washington, along with a Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) delegation of officials, including Interior Minister Kareem Sinjari and head of foreign relations Falah Mustafa Bakir, to convince the US Administration to release more funds. The delegation pitched a stark message to policy makers: Kurdistan is the most effective force fighting ISIS, but it faces a greater existential threat–the economy. That economy has come unstuck as oil and gas prices have tanked, and the Iraqi government has refused to release Kurdistan’s share of the federal budget.
Meanwhile Kurdistan’s peshmerga fighters have been spearheading the war on ISIS, even as the Iraqi-Kurdistan region plays host to 1.8 million refugees. The KRG cannot keep up with these pressures.
But the KRG’s woes are, at least in part, of its own making. The budgetary dispute with Baghdad came after repeated failures to uphold the KRG’s side of an oil production agreement. In a provocative move, the KRG signed an oil supply deal with Turkey in an attempt to further bypass Iraq, and at the end of 2015 seized deposits at two branches of the Iraqi central bank. The money went mainly to pay a vast public sector. Once Baghdad pulled the plug, the KRG was forced to make up the deficit by selling off oil. When the price of oil dropped the government fell four months in arrears for civil service salaries and three months in arrears for peshmerga soldiers. Salaries have been cut to enable payments.
Now Qubad says the KRG is running a $100 million deficit per month, down from a high of $400 million thanks to pay cuts and austerity measures. Even so, Kurdish officials know this is a huge hole to plug. The recent delegation ominously warned policy makers that if the KRG continues at this rate it will fall behind on payments again, including to its peshmerga fighting ISIS.
This is why the Kurdish delegation was in Washington. It needs money, badly. The public sector employs over 1-in-5 in Kurdistan, so the failure to pay salaries is felt broadly. The KRG has justified pay cuts to its employees as a necessary measure to allow those reduced salaries to be paid on time. If the government falls behind again, workers may reach new levels of unrest.
Given the problems the region is beset with, one might expect the KRG to shelve its long-held ambitions for independence. The US is unlikely to support an independence bid at this time: US policy has long supported a united Iraq, and that position is unlikely to change while the Kurdish economy remains a mess and ISIS remains at large.
It is surprising then, that last month President Barzani reaffirmed his support for an independence referendum, setting the timeline for “before October.” Officials and experts have suggested that Barzani is creating a distraction, trying to draw attention away from his refusal to stand down after his term expired last year. But Qubad appeared to support President Barzani when speaking at the Wilson Center in DC last Thursday. While stopping short of naming a date, he unequivocally denied that the referendum issue was a distraction.
Talabani is a member of the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Former Kurdish officials and those who know him describe him as pragmatic on the independence issue. He understands that Kurdistan cannot expect to transition to independence while all of its prospective neighbors remain skeptical, if not outright hostile to the prospect of a Kurdish nation. It certainly cannot expect a smooth transition while its economy is already on its knees, and it is fighting a war with a frontline less than 50 miles from its capital at Erbil. His decision not to play down independence suggests Kurds may be hoping to use it as threat, if attempts to secure aid are met with uncertainty, if not outright rejection.
US aid, if it comes, will almost certainly require the KRG to drop its independence bid for now. If Kurdish officials are digging in on the issue, it bodes ill for the prospects of a swift resolution. It is possible Talabani’s decision to talk up the issue is evidence of failed negotiations with the administration and with Congress. That means there may be worse to come for Kurdistan, and US-Kurdish relations.