Kurdistan keeps reinventing itself

On Wednesday, SAIS hosted an event entitled “Kurdistan: Re-Inventing Itself, Yet Again.” Sasha Toperich, Senior Fellow and Director, Mediterranean Basin Initiative, Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS made opening remarks. Hemin Hawrami, Director, Foreign Relations Office, Kurdistan Democratic Party gave a keynote address, which was followed by a panel discussion. Rebeen Pasha, WYLN Senior Fellow, Mediterranean Basin Initiative, introduced and moderated the panel. Panelists included Hawrami and Salam Mohammad Islam, Chief Executive Director, Rwanga Foundation.

Sasha Toperich.
Sasha Toperich

Toperich explained that Iraqi Kurdistan has a 600 mile front with ISIS and 1.8 million refugees/IDPs. Baghdad has not provided the KRG with the funding it promised. Iraqi Kurdistan is a flag without a country and a safe harbor for minorities affected by ISIS atrocities. The different groups in Iraq should be able to chart their own destinies while being reconciled with each other. If Iraq must remain united, the Kurds must be able to take out their own loans and revive their economy. He strongly supports the KRG’s independence referendum.

Hemin Hawrami
Hemin Hawrami

Hawrami stated that Iraqi Kurdistan is an important actor in a chaotic Middle East. Many of Iraqi Kurdistan’s challenges are external. ISIS is a symptom of sectarianism in Iraq and developments in Syria. A military response to ISIS is a short-term solution. ISIS was a terrorist organization but became a terrorist state when it captured Mosul. The KRG warned Baghdad about ISIS, but Maliki didn’t listen. When ISIS attacked the KRG, they aimed to:

  1. Gain control of disputed areas claimed by the KRG.
  2. Stop the independence referendum.

ISIS is a combination of Takfirism and Ba’athism. The KRG has a three-phase counter-ISIS strategy:

  1. Stopping ISIS.
  2. Rolling back ISIS.
  3. Defeating ISIS.

Over 1,600 Peshmerga sacrificed their lives to accomplish the first two goals. The KRG remains threatened; there are still daily skirmishes. But defeating ISIS requires liberating Mosul; the Iraqi government isn’t yet finished with Ramadi. Liberating Mosul requires boots on the ground (Sunnis and Peshmerga). But they will need more equipment. The Peshmerga have been unpaid for four months but are still fighting.

Iraqi Kurdistan has experienced three shocks since 2014:

  1. Maliki cut the budget for the KRG in February 2014.
  2. The influx of 1.8 million refugees and IDPs.
  3. Low oil prices.

Until 2013, Iraqi Kurdistan was the only region in the Middle East and North Africa with double-digit economic growth. Had it been independent, its rank in the areas of openness and governance would have been comparable with Malaysia and Indonesia. Unemployment was at 6% but is now ~25%. The poverty rate has jumped from 3% to 13%. The KRG is still learning how to govern; more still needs to be done. Kurdistan wants dialogue with Baghdad (not military conflict) but doesn’t want to be part of another decade of sectarianism and bad governance. Dialogue with Baghdad has improved; they now have a joint committee with Baghdad that meets monthly.

That is why they are holding the referendum (hopefully this year), which is not for immediate independence but asks what people want for their future. It will be for all citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan, including those in the diaspora.

The Kurds have been victims since Sykes-Picot but the borders are now only on maps. The KRG hopes these borders can be redrawn through peaceful coexistence and wants to add to the number of functioning political entities in the region. The KRG has become a safe haven for Iraqi Christians, most of whom now live in Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan is a villa in the jungle that must be protected.

Rebeen Pasha
Rebeen Pasha

Pasha stated that he sees both challenges and opportunities for Iraqi Kurdistan. He grew up under Saddam and couldn’t imagine a future without Saddam. If we detach ourselves from the current situation, we can focus on Kurdistan’s future potential. Investing in young people is key for Iraqi Kurdistan’s future since 2/3 of the population is under 30.

Hawrami, in response to a question, said the Kurds believe the disputed territories are Kurdish and have waited ten years for censuses and referenda in these areas. Since the Iraqi Army’s retreat, the KRG has provided security but won’t impose a military status-quo. The KRG will hold special referenda in these areas for them to decide if they want to be part of Kurdistan. The KRG will also not accept interference by the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). If these areas choose to join Iraqi Kurdistan, the KRG will provide them with special status based on power-sharing and equal opportunities.

Another audience member asked about KRG-Turkey relations. Hawrami explained that Turkey and the KRG have common interests; they have strong economic ties and the KRG supports the peace process in Turkey. Out of 3,300 foreign companies working in Iraqi Kurdistan, over 1,300 are Turkish. Turkey has not publicly rejected the independence referendum and recognizes that Iraqi Kurdistan adds to the stability of the region. Iraqi Kurdistan is not a threat to its neighbors.

A third audience member asked if it has become increasingly difficult for non-Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan. Hawrami responded that 1.4 million of the KRG’s IDPs are Arabs (Sunni and Shia) and the Kurds have provided them education. Their children are learning Kurdish. Thousands of Sunnis fled Ramadi during the military operation there and weren’t accepted in Baghdad because the PMUs feared they would change the demographics. They went to Kurdistan instead; the Kurds believe in freedom of religion. Islam has begun referring to citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan as Kurdistanis rather than Kurds, since 25% of the population is now non-Kurd.

Salam Mohammad Islam
Salam Mohammad Islam

Islam spoke about how effectiveness depends on efficiency. Since 1991, when Kurdistan achieved some self-governance, it has been at best effective but could have been more efficient and could have dealt with its challenges better. Instrospection is healthy for societies and Iraqi Kurdistan is still learning. In the early 1990s, CSOs in Iraqi Kurdistan were focused on humanitarian relief. They moved in the direction of democratization and development in the late 1990s, and especially post-2003.

The Rwanga Foundation’s vision is for education for all. They provide services, build capacity and design policies. They work on entrepreneurship and encourage youth to believe in themselves; youth are not only the leaders of tomorrow but also of today. Partnerships between CSOs, the government and the private sector will be important. Rwanga also provides humanitarian assistance in Sinjar. So far, Rwanga has completed 80 projects and has helped  about 1 million people.

The panel
The panel

In the panel discussion, Pasha asked what is needed to rebuild liberated areas. Hawrami argued that ensuring security is paramount. The Peshmerga can do this, but more international assistance is needed for economic reconstruction. Islam noted that Sinjar needs more services for people to return.

Asked what Iraqi Kurdistan is doing to invest in good governance, Hawrami responded that the democratic process in Kurdistan began in 1992, but democracy also requires a culture of accountability and transparency. Iraqi Kurdistan was rural until the 1960s but the Ba’athists destroyed villages and moved people to urban camps. This transformed the people from producers to consumers. To increase productivity, the KRG has encouraged investment and boosted the private sector. The Kurds have institutions for accountability but democracy is an ongoing process. Many flaws remain. Fighting ISIS has made the Peshmerga stronger and the economic crisis will make the economy stronger because Kurdistan will enact reforms.

Hawrami noted that Iraqi Kurdistan looks to increase its trade relations with Iran, but won’t take sides in the regional sectarian conflict and won’t accept Iranian intervention in the disputed areas. Islam asserted that Kurdistan is on the right track, but there have been ups and downs. Developing the mentality of democracy takes a generation. 

To conclude, Hawrami stated that the US must accept that the “one Iraq” policy is a failure and that Iraq is already divided. Washington must protect Kurdistan as a stable force in the region. Islam reiterated the importance of focusing on youth.

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Peace picks February 8-12

  1. The Syrian refugee crisis and the United States | Monday, February 8th | 10:00-11:30 | Brookings | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have stoked fears among some Americans regarding the possible entry of Syrian refugees into the United States. Concerns exist that, along with refugees, members of the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations might enter the country and carry out attacks against the U.S. homeland. These fears, coupled with often vitriolic political rhetoric, have alarmed American Muslims. What is the true level of danger refugees pose? How can the United States best contribute to managing the Syrian refugee problem? Given the 2016 presidential elections, what options are politically viable? On February 8, the Center for Middle East Policy and the Governance Studies program at Brookings will host a discussion on the U.S. role in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis. The panel will include Elizabeth Ferris and William Galston of Brookings, experts on refugee resettlement and U.S. politics respectively, as well as Robert McKenzie, a new Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World visiting fellow whose research focuses on Muslim communities in the West. Daniel Byman, Senior Fellow and Research Director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, will provide introductory remarks and moderate the panel. Following the discussion, the panelists will take audience questions. This discussion is part of a series of Foreign Policy at Brookings events focusing on the refugee crisis and the U.S. and international community’s response.
  2. Cross-Straits Series: Conflict in the Taiwan Strait? | Tuesday, February 9th | 12:30-2:00 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Taiwan’s elections on January 16 resulted in both its new president and, for the first time, a majority of legislators being from pro-independence parties. This has raised concerns about how Beijing will react. The official China Daily stated after the election that if president-elect Tsai Ing-wen does not accept that Taiwan is part of China, she will be leading Taiwan in the direction of “conflicts and tension.” Underscoring the point, the mainland military recently conducted amphibious landing exercises along its coast opposite Taiwan. Would China actually use force against Taiwan? And under what circumstances? What are the current capabilities of China’s military? Does it have the ability to force Taiwan to unify with the mainland? This Atlantic Council event is part of the Cross-Straits Series of the Brent Scowcroft Center’s Asia Security Initiative, which examines strategic and current affairs surrounding cross-straits relations. Speakers include Roger Cliff, Atlantic Council Nonresident Senior Fellow, Tiffany Ma, Director of Political and Security Affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research, and Thomas L. McNaugher, professor at Georgetown University. The moderator is Shannon Tiezzi, Managing Editor of The Diplomat.
  3. Inside the Iran Negotiations: A Conversation with Chief Negotiator Wendy Sherman | Tuesday, February 9th | 4:00-5:00 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | What was it like to be inside the room during the roller coaster saga of the historic nuclear deal with Iran? What role did personal relationships and domestic politics play in this landmark accord? What were the key moments that made success possible or could have threatened the deal? And what lessons can be learned from U.S.-Iranian negotiations? Join us for an extraordinary event as Chief U.S. Negotiator Ambassador Wendy Sherman takes us inside the room for an intimate look at the personalities, politics and negotiating dynamics that defined the nuclear agreement. Wendy Sherman, Director, President, and CEO of the Wilson Center, and Robert S. Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations at the Wilson Center, will also speak.
  4. Inside the Sieges: The Scope and Implications of Besieged Syria | Wednesday, February 10th | 11:30-1:00 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The images of emaciated children in the besieged Syrian town of Madaya drew international attention in January 2016. Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian High Negotiations Committee’s unanswered demand for lifting of sieges, as stipulated in UN Security Council resolution 2254, threatens to derail Syria peace talks in Geneva. Key international leaders’ calls for implementation of the resolution, aimed at ending the violence, have not resulted in access to besieged areas. On February 10, 2016, please join the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East for a discussion on the scope, scale, and policy implications of the ongoing siege crisis. Mohamed Katoub will share his experiences as a dentist and medical worker from the besieged Damascus suburb of Douma. Valerie Szybala will present the findings of the newly released Siege Watch report that indicates there are well over 1 million Syrians under siege in Syria, and that the Syrian government and its allies are the main parties besieging civilian populations. Jan Jaap van Oosterzee will examine the implications of the sieges, and Faysal Itani will moderate the discussion. Dr. Mohamed Katoub is the Public Relations Director for the United Medical Office of Eastern Ghouta. Valerie Szybala is the author of several influential reports including Slow Death: Life and Death in Syrian Communities under Siege and Assad Strikes Damascus. Jan Jaap van Oosterzee has been working on Middle East programs in various capacities with PAX, an international peace organization based in the Netherlands. Faysal Itani focuses on the war in Syria and its regional impact. Ambassador Frederic Hof specializes in the conflict in Syria.
  5. The future of securing global cities | Wednesday, February 10th | 2:00-3:30 | Brookings | REGISTER TO ATTEND | On February 10, the Foreign Policy program at Brookings will convene a panel discussion to introduce Securing Global Cities, a new project based in Foreign Policy’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. Securing Global Cities will be co-chaired by Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and General Ray Odierno, former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and JP Morgan Chase Senior Advisor. It is part of the Global Cities Initiative, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and JP Morgan Chase. The goal of the project is to help cities around the world improve the physical safety of their citizens from various forms of violence. The overarching motivation of the project is the belief that cities have much to learn from each other by analyzing systematically and sharing best practices that strengthen their roles in a globalized world, bolster their economies, and protect their communities and citizens. The project will identify different types of threats–from terrorists to narcotraffickers and other international criminal networks, gangs, insurgents, and abusive security forces–and examine the various tools that governments can deploy to address these diverse and complex problems. The tools will include reformed and strengthened police forces, justice systems, paramilitary and military institutions, intelligence capabilities, and a range of other instruments. The discussion will be moderated by Martin Indyk, executive vice president of Brookings. Following the discussion, the panelists will take audience questions. JP Morgan Chase is a donor to the Brookings Institution. Brookings recognizes the value it provides is in its absolute commitment to quality, independence and impact. Activities supported by its donors reflect this commitment. This event will be live webcast. Join the conversation on Twitter at #GlobalCities.
  6. Five Years In: The Legacy of the Arab Spring | Wednesday, February 10th | 2:15-5:30 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | During the past five years the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has seen dictators toppled, new terrorist movements seize large swaths of territory, civil wars waged, and the regional order recast. Amidst a region awash in this protracted turbulence that shows no signs of soon abating, this event will explore the lasting legacy of the Arab Spring as we approach its five-year anniversary. Please join us as we discuss the ways in which the fateful events of 2011 irreversibly changed the MENA region. This event is composed of two panels. The first panel is called The Makeup of Post-Arab Spring Politics. It will take place from 2:15 to 3:45. This panel will explore the most notable effects of the Arab Spring on political and governance issues in the MENA region. Panelists will seek to differentiate between developments that are passing phenomena and those that will have a lasting impact on the region’s political fabric. Speakers include Shadi Hamid, Senior Fellow for the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Amy Hawthorne, Deputy Director for Research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy and Research at the Middle East Institute, and Robin Wright, Wilson Center-USIP Distinguished Fellow. The moderator will be Marina Ottaway, Middle East Fellow at the Wilson Center. The second panel is called Physical Destruction and Prospects for Reconstruction. It will take place from 4:00 to 5:30. This panel will analyze the physical toll incurred by five plus years of violent turmoil and will discuss the scale of damage sustained across the region and will evaluate the range of effects such damages will have on regional affairs during the years to come. Speakers include Richard Cincotta, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center and Director of the Global Political Demography Program at the Stimson Center, Marwa Daoudy, Assistant Professor in International Relations at Georgetown University, Nadim Khouri, Independent Researcher at the World Bank, and Erika Weinthal, Lee Hill Snowdon Professor of Environmental Policy and Associate Dean for International Programs at Duke University. The moderator will be Henri Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.
  7. DHS: Progress in 2015, Goals for 2016—A Conversation with Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh J. Johnson | Thursday, February 11th | 10:00-11:00 | Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Please join the Wilson Center as Secretary Jeh C. Johnson, the fourth Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, delivers his final State of Homeland Security address, entitled “DHS: Progress in 2015, Goals for 2016.” Secretary Johnson oversees the United States’ third largest Cabinet department and leads the nation’s efforts to counter a broad range of threats, from terrorism to natural disasters. Secretary Johnson’s remarks will be followed by a question & answer session with the Center’s Director, President & CEO Jane Harman.
  8. HFAC Subcommittee Hearing—Jordan: A Key U.S. Partner | Thursday, February 11th | 2:00-5:00 | Rayburn House Office Building | This hearing will be held by the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. Witnesses include the Honorable Gerald M. Feierstein, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, Paige Alexander, Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for the Middle East at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Fatema Z. Sumar, Regional Deputy Vice President of the Department of Compact Operations at the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
  9. Arab Voices on the Challenges of the New Middle East | Friday, February 12th | 9:00-10:15 | Carnegie Endowment | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is pleased to host a review of its first Arab Experts Survey. The results of the survey, conducted in English and Arabic, represent the views of more than one hundred accomplished political thinkers representing almost every Arab country and answer broad questions around terrorism and extremism, civil war and foreign intervention, sectarianism, corruption, and governance. The survey is part of Carnegie’s Arab World Horizons project, an effort to examine the social, political, and economic forces shaping the Arab world. Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Perry Cammack, Associate in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, and Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, will discuss the findings of the survey, and Joyce Karam, Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat, will moderate. Join the conversation on Twitter with #ArabWorldHorizons. Registration will begin at 8:30 a.m. A light breakfast will be served. The discussion will begin promptly at 9:00 a.m.
  10. The Yemen Quagmire | Friday, February 12th | 12:00-1:30 | Johns Hopkins SAIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Please join us for a discussion with Amat Alsoswa, former Yemeni Cabinet Member, Leslie Campbell, NDI, Andrew Plitt, USAID, and Charles Schmitz, MEI, who will discuss the deepening complexity of the conflict, the growing humanitarian crisis, the challenges of delivering aid to a suffering population, and prospects for peace talks and an end to the fighting. Daniel Serwer, Senior Research Professor of Conflict Management at Johns Hopkins SAIS will moderate.
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Russians are resigned

On Thursday, the Wilson Center hosted Natalia Zubarevich, professor at Moscow State University and Director of the Regional Program at the Moscow-based Independent Institute for Social Policy. Zubarevich discussed how the Russian financial crisis involves all of the regions of Russia and all aspects of economic development. The Russian economy has stopped growing, due in part to sanctions and largely due to the fall of oil prices.

Zubarevich concludes that trends differ from previous crises. Regional budgets have destabilized, investment has declined, incomes and wages have declined, and industrial output has dropped. Decline stretches across all sectors, but the unemployment rate still remains low. The devaluation shock reduced incomes and wages, hurt investment, and affected the consumption and processing industries. A deepening of the Russian economic crisis is impending.

Investment has plummeted by 8 percent, declining in 51 regions. Real money incomes declined in 78 regions, with the worst effects felt in the Urals, Volga, and the Northwest. In only three regions is the construction sector growing; otherwise, a 10 percent construction decline is seen throughout Russia. The only noteworthy industrial growth is in those regions that specialize in defense, as the federal budget funds defense spending. Moscow has pushed regions to cut expenditures. Forty-one have cut education spending, which could lead to a less-skilled workforce in the future. The Urals and the Northwest regions have been affected intensely.

Cities and smaller towns have differential factors that set them apart from one another. The smaller towns’ financial crisis is a result of industrial output decline, while large cities’ economic woes come from the weakening of incomes and purchasing power. The biggest risk of the crisis in small towns is growth of unemployment. Labor migration is accelerating. Those qualified in IT sectors seek jobs abroad, so some of the most skilled workers are leaving Russia.

The unemployment rate is 5.8%. No significant changes are foreseen. Russia created a specific model of labor that could adapt to market fluctuations. The Russian government and businesses will drop people down to part-time work. This is acceptable to citizens. The workers’ mindset is that there is still paid work available, so there is no need to protest and demand immediate improvement of their situation. The shrinkage of the working age population contributes to this low unemployment rate, too. A very small generation born in the 1990s is coming to the labor market, while a very large generation born in the 1950s is leaving the market simultaneously. The labor market will be reduced by 10 to 14 percent by 2025.

The Russian middle class, which has enjoyed access to global consumer goods, will now have to adjust their lifestyles due to the financial crisis. But the working classes will not protest. There is no real trust between neighbors, so Zubarevich does not see large clusters of people rising up to protest economic conditions. People are dissatisfied, but are ultimately surviving in the current economic conditions. Russia will continue to face its economic stagnation. Full recovery is not in sight. But Russians are resigned to their circumstances.

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Iranian aspirations

On Wednesday, the Wilson Center hosted ‘Iranian Public Opinion on Foreign Affairs on the Eve of Parliamentary Elections.’ Ebrahim Mohseni, Senior Analyst at the University of Tehran Center for Public Opinion Research, presented poll findings conducted in August 2015 and January 2016. William Miller, Senior Scholar at the Wilson Center, Paul Pillar, Researcher in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, and Robin Wright, Wilson Center-USIP Distinguished Fellow, added remarks following Mohseni’s presentation. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated.

Parliamentary elections in Iran take place in about a month. The survey is representative of a broad population, taking opinions from all across Iran. A high voter turnout is expected, with nearly 67 percent of the population anticipated to vote. Mohseni described the government’s strengths and weaknesses. Security and improving Iran’s relations with European countries are where citizens believe the government is doing a fine job. People are divided on whether the economy is improving. Citizens believe the government has not made sufficient progress at all when it comes to reducing unemployment. Mohseni believes the next parliament should try to focus on unemployment and economic problems, as there is big dissatisfaction throughout Iran on these issues. Providing solutions to these problems will promote stability.

Around 76 percent of the surveyed population supported it the Iran-US nuclear deal in August, but that number has since declined due to possible new US sanctions. Iranians are disappointed that all santions are not being lifted. Only 34 percent think that the US will live up to its end of the deal, and only 38 percent believe US-Iran relations will improve.

Almost two-thirds of the population thinks Iran should send military personnel to Syria. Fighting ISIS, protecting Shiite religious sites, preventing terrorists from nearing Iran’s borders, and protecting Syrian civilians were listed as reasons. Many also believe that helping out with the Syria situation will spread Iran’s regional influence while decreasing Saudi Arabia’s influence. Iran is split down the middle when it comes to potentially collaborating with the US against ISIS because people believe the US is not sincere in its efforts. They believe the US wants to increase its own influence in the Middle East, protect Israel, topple Assad, and decrease Iran’s standing in the region.

Wright explained that though Iran is still a revolutionary state, the passions of the revolutionary period are no longer relevant. Iran is now more practical. Iranian attitudes are very normal as the economy is the most important issue to citizens. She is interested in seeing a poll after the first round of elections.

Pillar agreed with Wright’s point, saying the Iranians really are similar to Americans when it comes to concerns about the economy. How Iran sees the US is how the US sees Iran: suspicions exist on both sides on whether promises will be upheld, though Iranians have more well-founded suspicions on the nuclear deal. Iranians’ expectations of the economic benefits are too high and the time frame in which they hope to see them realized infeasible.

Miller believes Iran’s civil society is both fairly open and revolutionary in attitude, which demonstrates the stability of the regime. These surveys provide assistance to US policymakers and add crucial data necessary to evaluate how Iranians perceive the US and its actions.

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What to do when peace talks stall

The Syria peace talks stalled even faster than I might have predicted, though I wasn’t sanguine about their success. The reason for the suspension is all too clear: the Syrian army is making headway in north Latakia, around Aleppo and elsewhere, with vigorous support from Russian air strikes as well as Hizbollah ground forces and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps “advisors” (more like commanders). President Assad and his allies see no reason to halt the offensive. The Syrian opposition, which had asked at the talks for an end to air strikes and opening up of humanitarian access, sees no reason to talk while its people are getting slaughtered. Those of us who said this conflict was not “ripe” for peace talks, which includes almost everyone knowledgeable about the situation, were right.

That is little comfort. Nor does it mean the UN was wrong to try.

It is the UN’s role in today’s world order to take on cases no one else wants touch. That’s how it ended up with Libya, Yemen and Syria. The Americans and Europeans left Libya to its own devices, which sufficed for a while but then proved unequal to the state-building challenge. Now there is an agreement of sorts, but no implementation. The Houthis and Saudis wrecked a four-year peace process in Yemen, based on a Gulf Cooperation Council agreement and UN mediation, with military action. A recent effort to reinitiate talks has been postponed until at least late this month. Syria has already seen two failed UN efforts to end the war–Geneva I and II they are called–to no avail. Geneva III looks likely to fail too. Let’s hope they don’t catch up with the Superbowl numbering.

These stalled peace processes are bad for Libyans, Yemenis and Syrians, but they don’t have much say in the matter. Civilians are today the most frequent victims of war, as the contestants are so often vying for power within a state rather than trying to defeat the regular military forces of another state. Moving civilians, or persuading them to accept your rule, is therefore the objective, not an unintended consequence. It is far less perilous to guys with guns (yes most of them are guys, though not always all) to go after unarmed civilians, or even armed insurgents, than to contest another state’s armed forces.

The only real beneficiaries of continued fighting in Libya, Yemen and Syria are likely to be the extremist forces affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. They thrive on disorder–areas that have witnessed chaos are more likely to accept their draconian rule–and the extremists often fill the vacuum as states concentrate their efforts against less extreme insurgents. The one thing we can be pretty sure of from the experience of fighting extremists since 9/11 is that attacking them from the air without establishing order on the ground thereafter ensures that we will have to roll Sisyphus’ rock up the hill once again. And with each iteration the extremists get bolder, smarter and more lethal.

We are all too clearly losing the war against violent extremism. We should be thinking hard about whether the means we are using are appropriate to the task. Washington’s purpose should be to eliminate safe havens for extremists who might strike Americans. Drones have dinstinct advantages. They keep their operators safe while killing bad guys, but they can’t reestablish governance on territory from which extremists have been driven. Only legitimate state authorities can do that. It is time to refocus our attention on where they are going to come from.

Stalled talks are an opportunity. The warring parties in Libya, Yemen and Syria as well as their international supporters should be thinking hard about how these countries will be governed once the killing has stopped. Both the fighting and the peacemaking are worthless without an answer to that question.

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The US, Europe and Iran

Umid Niayesh from Azerbaijan’s Trend news agency asked some good questions today regarding Iran-West ties in post-sanctions period. I answered.

Q: What do you think about the doctrine of “the West minus the United States,” which is followed by conservatives in Iran, in particular by Khamenei? Can it be a successful approach?

A: As the US is maintaining more sanctions (not imposed because of the nuclear issue), it is natural that the EU will move ahead faster. The EU also has a much stronger interest in Iranian energy resources.

Q: May the EU gradually replace China and Russia in Iran’s market in short term following removal of sanctions?

A: China is a major customer for Iran’s energy resources and a major supplier as well. Russia is far less important. There are many areas in which Iranians will prefer EU technology and investment over Russian competitors.

Q: May developing Iran-EU ties also lead to improving political ties? Can it also help to Iran-US ties?

A: The US will handle its own political ties with Iran. It is hesitant because of Iranian subversion in the Gulf states, human rights abuses and threats against Israel. The EU appears less reluctant.

Q: Iranian officials repeatedly say that Iran is open for economic ties with US, including presence of US businessmen and investors. What are the actual obstacles to this issue?

A: There are three big obstacles: continuing US sanctions levied for other than nuclear reasons, lack of diplomatic ties between the US and Iran, and American distrust of the Iranian courts and political system. You would have to be a brave investor to run that gauntlet.

Q: May West sacrifice its principles such as human rights for economic interests in ties with Iran?

A: I doubt the US will. The EU will be less exigent.

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