Still no end in sight

Syrian President Assad’s surprise visit to Moscow confirms several things:

  • The Russians are backing him fully;
  • They intend to use the influence they gain to dictate a political outcome;
  • That political outcome will be a Potemkin transition with little or no participation by the Syrian opposition the US and its friends are supporting.

Those of us who once hoped Moscow would eventually abandon Assad were wrong. What the Russians clearly intend is to keep Assad in place, as no one else would be able or willing to guarantee their continued naval presence at Tartus and new air and land base at Latakia. President Putin is also sending a clear message to Washington: Russia is back in the Middle East and intends to stay there, no matter what the Syrian people or the Americans think.

Some see President Obama as “hesitant” in response. I don’t. He decided a long time ago that Syria was not worth a candle. If he thought US interests were directly threatened there, he would have done more long ago, as he did in Yemen (with drones and special forces), Iraq (with air attacks) and now most recently in Afghanistan, where he intends to keep thousands of American troops. The American air attacks are strictly focused on the Islamic State; extreme care is being taken to avoid “collateral damage.” This president is extremely disciplined. What others see as indecision is in fact a determination not to get involved on the ground in a country that does not directly threaten US national security.

I think he has made a big mistake, because it has been clear from the first that continuation of the war in Syria would lead to sectarian polarization and easy recruitment for extremists, even if no one predicted the emergence of the Islamic State. Assad is its godfather. His brutal repression of a peaceful civilian rebellion has caused dissatisfaction to flow towards the jihadis, not away from them.

The Russians will suffer the same backlash. The Islamic State has already threatened to take the fight inside Russia, where Putin’s repression of Chechnya and mistreatment of Crimean Tatars and other Russian Muslims will not doubt provide the jihadi cause with ample recruits. Russia has poked the hornets’ nest in Syria. Now the Sunni hornets will attack their antagonist. No doubt Putin will respond with repression that will help jihadi recruitment.

Obama has kept his distance from the Russian intervention. The Pentagon has negotiated an agreement intended to deconflict US and Russian air operations. That is necessary, even if it implies to some US acceptance of the Russian intervention. Any further moves to validate what the Russians are doing would embroil the US in a way guaranteed to offend America’s Gulf and other Sunni friends, especially Turkey (whose airspace Russia has repeatedly violated). Russia has made itself the spearhead of Shia influence in the Middle East. Washington will want to try to stay above the sectarian divide. It has no dog in the fight between Sunni and Shia extremists like the Islamic State and Hizbollah, which are both America’s enemies.

Intervention comes with obligations. Russia should now be expected to ante up for a substantial share of the international humanitarian assistance Syria requires. I think $1 billion per year would be appropriate. It should also be expected to pay for the lion’s share of the post-war reconstruction, as the US did in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you want to be treated as a major power, those are burdens that cannot be shirked.

The US is amping up its military supplies to the Syrian opposition forces, whose performance on the battlefield will now determine the outcome of this war. Both Moscow and Washington say there is no military solution in Syria, but both know that a political solution will be dramatically different if the regime can retake Aleppo and Idlib, which seem to be the main objectives of the current Russian-backed offensive by the Syrian army, its paramilitary partners, Hizbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The proxy war between the US and this alternate coalition has begun.

Poor Syria. Its people wanted freedom and got war. The Russian intervention is unlikely to end the fighting, because the Potemkin transition it intends won’t entice many to lay down their arms. There is still no end in sight.


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Kurdistan is simmering too

Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of discussing developments in Iraqi Kurdistan with Mustafa Gurbuz of George Mason University and the Rethink Institute and Namo Abdulla of Rudaw. Here is how it came out:

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The Balkans are simmering

Slow progress towards the EU and NATO is causing unrest in the Balkans. That means I get interview requests. Here are two and the promise of a third.

Pristina daily Gazeta Express today published a brief interview I did for Shpend Limoni yesterday. Here it is in English:

Q: Kosovo is passing through an unprecedented situation where opposition parties (VV-AAK-NISMA) are disrupting parliamentary sessions expressing their anger over EU brokered agreements with Serbia and demarcation of border with Montenegro. Opposition parties also threw tear gas canisters in Parliament Chamber a step which was condemned by EU and US diplomats. Is there any recipe how to resolve this deadlock?

A: I don’t have any recipes for how others govern their own countries, but I do hope that law and order will prevail and violence will lose the day. The Kosovo opposition needs to make its points peacefully, or risk both a crackdown by the state and a loss of support at the polls.

The opposition needs to win an election and form a government in order to decide what Kosovo should do. When they do, I doubt they will want to spoil the Brussels agreements, because Kosovo has a real stake in good relations with the EU, the US and Belgrade.

Q: Do you think that Kosovo institutions are able to find a solution or do we still need international involvement?

A: I tend to favor solutions arrived at by the Kosovo institutions, supported when needed by the international community. I find it hard to understand why people are excited about demarcation of the border with Montenegro, which is a vital step in establishing Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. I understand unhappiness with the most recent Brussels agreements, but the problems with them come mainly from the Ahtisaari Plan. There is no alternative to implementing that.

If I may quote Giulio Andreotti: il potere logora qui non c’e l’ha. Power wears out whoever hasn’t got it. I might hope the opposition parties in Kosovo would focus on how it intends to attract votes and govern more effectively than their competitors, rather than behavior that many citizens will find unappealing.

I did an interview Friday with Esmir Milavic of Sarajevo’s Face TV. I can’t vouch for the Bosnian voice over, but here it is:

And I talked yesterday with Voice of America about the demonstrations in Montenegro and Russian efforts to prevent its accession to NATO. I’ll post that too if and when I get a link or an embed code.

Syrian refugees: beyond the numbers

Last week, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explored the response of the international community to the Syrian refugee crisis in an event titled Beyond the Numbers: Inside the Syrian Refugee Crisis at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Cameron Hudson,  director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum led the discussion.

Asked about what might happen now, Bassam Barabandi, former Syrian diplomat and co-founder of People Demand Change, said Syrians will continue to leave if Assad and ISIS remain because they feel as though nothing in Syria will provide a future. Those that have left are in search of a long-term solution with opportunities, which explains why they are choosing Germany over Egypt even though Egypt is less dangerous to reach and shares a similar culture.

Philipp Ackermann, Deputy Chief of Mission at the German Embassy, was asked about Europe’s response to the crisis and if pressuring the regime is possible. Ackermann replied that Russia’s aggression has complicated the situation. We should pursue a diplomatic path, even though that will be difficult because a new future for Syria is not possible with Assad. German society has been very welcoming, and 40% of Germans have volunteered in some way. However, the mood is going to change once the pressures kick in. What is needed is a European system to manage the influx with a distribution key for how many each country will take in so that everyone shares the burden.

Asked about the refugees’ overall sentiment, Margaret Brennan, a diplomatic correspondent for CBS News, replied that those in camps do not feel as though they have escaped. Life in the camps is not filled with hope. Nor is it sustainable. Many are leaving the camps in search of a future. Sadly, it took a little boy face down on a beach for the world to notice and to bring the human aspect into this humanitarian crisis. Media attention skyrocketed

David Pollock, Kaufman Fellow at the Washington Institute, was asked “how can we shrink the gap between rhetoric and reality?” He responded that the reputation of the US has and continues to suffer from insufficient action. Washington has not been generous in resettling refugees or in pursuing an end to the conflict. Pollock thought a military solution is the only option even though it is risky, messy, and may have unintended consequences. Certainly two years ago military action would have been appropriate. Now it is more difficult.

Barabandi added that sending money is not a solution, but instead fuels the problem. The US lost a key opportunity to befriend the Syrian people as well as the greater Middle East. Now an important direction we should be taking is to improve education for Syrians.

The Gulf attracted two comments. Pollock said the US will never put pressure on the Gulf countries to take refugees. That would be unproductive. Where they can be of assistance is financial aid for Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and maybe Europe. Brennan suggested deciding through whom to funnel financial aid is a problem. A solution for the refugees will require an even spread of responsibilities.

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Peace picks, October 19-23

  1. Breaking Through: Dismantling Roadblocks to Humanitarian Response for Syria | Monday, October 19th | 9:00 – 11:00am | American Red Cross | REGISTER TO ATTEND | With over half the Syrian population displaced and civilian casualties increasing, international concern continues to grow. As this crisis intensifies, however, barriers to access, relocation, and justice hinder the humanitarian response. Join the American Red Cross on October 19th to discuss these roadblocks and how the humanitarian community can overcome these challenges. Speakers include: Jana Mason, Sr. Advisor for Government Relations & External Affairs, UNHCR, Hind Kabawat, Director of Interfaith Peacebuilding, Center for World Religions &  Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (CRDC), George Mason University.

  2. The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Balancing Humanitarian and Security Challenges | Monday, October 19th | 11:00 – 12:30 | Bipartisan Policy Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND |The civil war in Syria has caused one of the largest displacements of persons in recent history, creating humanitarian, political, and security challenges that the United States and its allies now confront. More than half of Syrians—some 12 million—are displaced. Of that number, more than 4 million have fled Syria’s borders, with millions living in neighboring countries in the region. As EU and U.S. leaders work to address this flow of refugees, the Islamic State extremist group has boasted of disguising thousands of terrorists as refugees in order to infiltrate them into Western countries, and a recently released report by the House Homeland Security Committee’s bipartisan task force found that international efforts to secure borders and stem the flow of foreign fighters have been woefully ineffective.Join the Bipartisan Policy Center for a discussion on the humanitarian and security dimensions of the refugee crisis and how the two can be balanced and should be reconciled to create a coherent U.S. and global policy response. Speakers include: Kelly Gauger, Deputy Director, Refugee Admissions, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, DOS, Larry Yungk, Senior Resettlement Officer, UNHCR, Adnan Kifayat, Senior Fellow, German Marshall Fund, Dr. Lorenzo Vidino, Director, Program of Extremism, GWU’s Center on Cyber & Homeland Security, Brittney Nystrom, Director for Advocacy, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
  3. The Morality of Nuclear Deterrence | Monday, October 19th | 12:30 – 2:00 | Stimson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The humanitarian consequences of using nuclear weapons are now central to the debate about the future of nuclear deterrence, owing to the efforts of a new global movement. Just within the last few weeks, Pope Francis has called for complete nuclear disarmament on ethical grounds and the new leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has said that, as prime minister, he would never authorize nuclear use. Join us for a discussion about the morality of the possession and use of nuclear weapons. Is there indeed a contradiction between the strategic goals of nuclear deterrence and its moral dimension? Could the use of nuclear weapons ever be justified? And do humanitarian considerations have any implications for states’ nuclear posture or employment policies? Speakers include:  James M. Acton, Co-Director of the Carnegie Endownment’s Nuclear Policy Program, Drew Christiansen,  Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development, Georgetown University, Elbridge Colby, Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security, and Thomas Moore, Independent Consultant.
  4. Beyond the Headlines Obama and Putin: Battlefield Syria | Monday, October 19th | 6:00 | Women’s Foreign Policy Group | REGISTER TO ATTEND |Karen DeYoung is the senior national security correspondent and an associate editor of The Washington Post. In more than three decades at the paper, she has served as bureau chief in Latin America and London, a correspondent covering the White House, US foreign policy and the intelligence community, as well as assistant managing editor for national news, national editor and foreign editor. She was a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the recipient of numerous journalism awards, including the 2009 Overseas Press Club award for best coverage of international affairs, the 2003 Edward Weintal Prize for diplomatic reporting, and the 2002 Pulitzer Prize awarded to The Washington Post for national reporting.Steven Lee Myers has worked at The New York Times for twenty-six years, seven of them in Russia during the period when Putin consolidated his power. He has witnessed and written about many of the most significant events that have marked the rise of Vladimir Putin: from the war in Chechnya and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine to the Winter Olympics in Sochi and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. He spent two years as bureau chief in Baghdad, covering the winding down of the American war in Iraq, and now covers national security issues. He has also covered the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House during three presidential administrations.
  5. Will the Afghan State Survive? | Tuesday, October 20th | 1:30 – 2:30 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The recent events in Kunduz have lead experts to speculate about whether Afghanistan can defend itself against the Taliban. While the political and security aftermath of these events continues to unfold, questions are  being raised about the Taliban’s next moves and the resilience of the Afghan state institutions. Is there a new threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which may shift the focus in a region known to reject foreign presence? Will further troop reductions in prospect under President Obama’s withdrawal schedule lead the United States to rely more heavily on its European partners? What can we expect from the NATO Warsaw Summit and the Brussels Conference? Can the United States, China, and Iran work together towards peace for Afghanistan? Speakers include: Ambassador Franz-Michael Mellbin, special representative of the European Union to Afghanistan, and The Honorable James B. Cunningham, senior fellow and Khalilzad chair, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council.
  6. Dangerous Intersection: Climate Change and National Security (2015 Eli-Miriam Hamilton Keare Policy Forum) | Tuesday, October 20th | 3:30 – 5:30 | Environmental Law Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND |While addressing the graduates of the Coast Guard academy last spring, President Obama told the assembled ensigns that climate change would be a defining national security issue for their time in uniform. Earlier this fall, in a village facing immediate threats of sea level rise, he told Alaskan Natives that “if another country threatened to wipe out an American town, we’d do everything in our power to protect it… climate change poses that same threat now.” The president has raised a red flag over an issue that has concerned defense officials and the national security establishment for several years now, as well as the environmental community.On October 20, 2015, over 700 environmental lawyers, scientists, engineers, economists, and other professionals will gather in Washington, D.C., to honor an exemplary figure in environmental policy. Just prior to the annual Award Dinner, ELI holds its principal policy event of the year, the ELI-Miriam Hamilton Keare Policy Forum. This year, the topic will be “Dangerous Intersection: Climate Change and National Security.” Speakers include: Capt. Leo Goff, Ph.D., Military Advisory Board, Center for Naval Analyses (moderator), John Conger, Performing the Duties of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment, U.S. Department of Defense, Francesco Femia, Founding Director, The Center for Climate and Security, Alice Hill, Senior Advisor for Preparedness and Resilience, National Security Council, The White House, Thilmeeza Hussain, Voice of Women – Maldives, Co-Founder, Marcus King, John O. Rankin Associate Professor of International Affairs, GWU.
  7.  Summer Practicum Report on Water and Peacebuilding in the Middle East | Tuesday, October 20th | 6:00 – 8:00 pm | American University School of International Service | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Join the School of International Service and Center for Israel Studies for a research presentation hosted by the Global Environmental Politics Program in the Abramson Family Founders Room.
  8. The South Caucasus Transportation and Energy Corridor: Update in Light of Nuclear Deal with Iran | Wednesday, October 21st | 5:00 – 7:00 | SAIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND |Several US administrations contributed to the revival of the East-West transport corridor connecting the Caspian region with Europe via South Caucasus. Functioning elements of this infrastructure are already moving significant volumes of oil and gas, but the potential of this route is only partially realized. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia are developing new elements of infrastructure that should facilitate the flow of raw materials and finished goods between Asia and Europe. But without political and security support, this project cannot succeed.This forum, with speakers from academia and business, will analyze and offer views on the commercial and geopolitical context for development of the South Caucasus transportation corridor.  It will also look at the Shah-Deniz II/Southern Corridor energy project, as well as explore the impact of  the nuclear deal with Iran on regional energy and transportation landscape. 
  9. Libya: Failed or Recovering State | Wednesday, October 21st | 6:00 – 7:15 |Elliot School of International Affairs | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Ambassador Jones will discuss the current situation in Libya. Does the preliminary framework agreement to resolve the conflict that has divided Libya into two competing parliaments, governments, and military coalitions offer a legitimate path toward a stable Libya? Is there a role for the international community? If the agreement isn’t viable, what solutions are there? Ambassador Deborah K. Jones, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Minister Counselor, was nominated by President Obama to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Libya in March 2013.
  10. Leading at the Nexus of Development and Defense | Friday, October 23rd | 10:00 – 11:30 | CSIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND |Save the date for an armchair conversation with General John F. Kelly. General Kelly will discuss his career serving in the United States Marine Corps and the defining challenges he faced in maintaining U.S. and regional security. He will share his experience working in areas of conflict and supporting U.S. defense policy through effective development efforts. General Kelly is currently commander of U.S. Southern Command. A four star general, Kelly presided over much of the U.S. involvement in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, later returning to command Multi-National Force–West.


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New Turkish elections

On Wednesday, the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research in DC (SETA) hosted a conversation, ‘Turkey Ahead of the November Elections’, featuring Kılıç Kanat, research director at SETA; Ömer Taşpınar, non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; and Andrew Bowen, senior fellow and director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest. The executive director of SETA, Kadir Üstün, moderated the discussion. Kanat has just published an analysis paper on the new elections, which have been called for November 1 because of the failure to form a ruling coalition after the June polling.

The June elections were the first in 13 years when no single party won enough votes to create a ruling majority government. Kanat laid out the reasons this occurred and the issues for the upcoming elections. In his view, the causes behind the decline of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) include:

  • The ‘Kobani effect’: the battle for the northern Syrian town had a galvanizing effect on Kurds and non-Kurds who voted against Erdoğan, who was seen as wanting ISIS to win;
  • Mobilization by smaller parties to pass the 10% threshold for inclusion in parliament;
  • For the first time, diaspora Turkish nationalists were allowed to vote in general elections;
  • Tactical voting: voters were certain the AKP would win the most votes, but attempted to decrease the margin in order to force a coalition.

Kanat evaluates the shift as a turn to the nationalist parties, whether Turkish or Kurdish: the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the conservative Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The HDP saw the biggest gains in support, from those dissatisfied with Erdoğan’s position vis-à-vis Kobani, and the Kurdish resolution process in general, as well as from diaspora voters.

The middle class has also been increasingly worried in a time of slowing economic growth, losing some confidence in the AKP. The AKP since the Gezi Park demonstrations has had to work hard to keep its support base, but the constant effort at mobiliztion may have resulted in election fatigue among some voters.

Going forward, Kanat stated, the upcoming elections will be determined by voters’ perception of who holds the responsibility for three things: resolving the Kurdish question, as well as dealing with PKK terrorism; maintaining public stability on a nation-wide level; and economic growth or decline.

Taşpınar zoomed out, examining two long-term trends that have contributed to the current political situation. First is the personalization of political power: political analysis and action stems from an understanding of Erdoğan’s plans. There are fewer enduring institutions in this post-Kemalist era, and no unified ideology undergirding the state.

Second, there is increasing polarization in Turkish politics. This has been driven by personalization, as well as the Kurdish question and the identity of Turkey as a country – will it be democratic or autocratic? The Gezi protest was a very real demonstration of this polarization, as was the failure after last weekend’s terrorist attack in Ankara for political leaders to produce a unified vocabulary to bring the nation together.

The theme of personalization ran through Bowen’s comments as well, in particular because of the personalistic nature of foreign policy decisions, for Obama as well as for Erdoğan. Theirs is a bad marriage. One of the key sticking points is the difference in the way they prioritize threats: for Erdoğan, the PKK takes pride of place, with ISIS far behind. Obama, on the other hand, urgently prioritizes defeating ISIS.

The Syrian crisis has drawn out many of the tensions in this relationship, which will be difficult to repair, even after the July agreement on air bases in Turkey. The US is perceived in Turkey as not standing by its allies, but new political leadership in both countries could change the situation, especially if the US focuses again on the Middle East.

According to polls, 15% of Turkish voters are still undecided about the November 1 elections. Only a few percentage points are required to re-cement the AKP’s position of power. The Ankara terror attack, depending on who is understood to be the perpetrator and how the government deals with the aftermath, could be decisive.

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