In Moscow today, Secretary of State Tillerson will try to convince the Russians to abandon President Assad and opt instead for a political process that would replace him and begin the transition away from the Ba’athist dictatorship that has governed Syria since 1963. Tillerson will argue that Assad’s April 4 use of chemical weapons against his opponents de-legitimates his rule and embarrasses Russia, which helped negotiate the 2013 UN Security Council agreement under which Syria was to surrender or destroy its chemical weapons and its capacity to make them.
It isn’t going to work. Russia is still denying that Assad was responsible for last week’s attack, which the Americans claim was launched from an air base at which Russian forces were present. President Putin has declined to see Tillerson, a clear indication that Russia is not planning to change its tune. Moscow wants an international investigation of the chemical incident, which it claims may have been caused by a conventional bomb falling on an opposition chemical weapons depot. The publicly available information contradicts that hypothesis.
While sounding reasonable, an international investigation would tie up the issue of what to do about the incident for months if not years, sowing doubt and allowing other issues to claim priority. The Russians know well who used the chemical weapons. There are even suspicions that they knew in advance. It would be difficult to keep the loading of chemical weapons secret on a base they share with the Syrian Air Force.
There is little likelihood Moscow will abandon its support for Assad. The Russians have had many opportunities to do so during the past six years but have consistently chosen to double, triple and quadruple down to try to ensure he wins, even while claiming not to be wedded to him. With each decision, they have gone deeper into the cul-de-sac. It beggars the imagination to think they might back out now that Assad is beating his more moderate opposition and driving Syrians who oppose him into the arms of extremists. The Russians will argue that there is no viable alternative to Assad, and that he is vital to countering terrorists.
Tillerson, who has only recently found his tongue and begun to speak about international affairs, is holding a bad hand. His denunciation of Assad’s inhumane treatment of Syrians sounds hollow, as until now he has shown indifference to humanitarian concerns. Not much more than a week ago, the Trump Administration was talking about how Assad would unfortunately have to be left in power while Washington focuses on the war against the Islamic State. President Trump has still not said anything different. If he has in mind a strategy for Syria that ends Assad’s rule, he is keeping it a secret.
What looked like a big cruise missile attack last week will be derided as a pin prick next month unless something more is done, either through diplomacy or the use of force. The diplomacy looks as if it is headed for failure in Moscow. America’s G7 partners apparently failed to agree to new sanctions against Russia in their meeting yesterday in Italy. Further military force risks Syrian, Iranian and Russian escalation that Washington won’t want to respond to. Tillerson’s tilt in favor of humanitarian intervention and against Assad is unlikely to produce near-term results that make America look great again.
- A Panel Discussion on Debating the Merits of the Trump Administration’s New Travel, Immigration, and Refugee Ban | Monday, April 10 | 11-12:30pm | SAIS | Register Here | “Debating the Merits of the Trump Administration’s New Travel, Immigration and Refugee Ban,” will be hosted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The panel discussion is a part of the Human Security Forum by the Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Panelists include T. Alex Aleinikoff, Director of The Zolberg Institute of Migration and Mobility at The New School, George Biddle, Chairman of World Connect and former Executive Vice President of the International Peace Committee, James Jay Carafano, Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, and Danielle Pletka, Senior Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Eterprise Institute
- Where Will Turkey’s Referendum Lead? | Tuesday, April 11 | 1-2:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Turkish voters on April 16, 2017 face a referendum to shift to a presidential system and further empower Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Whether Erdogan succeeds in his long-sought consolidation of authority or suffers a reversal, Turkish policies on the economy, domestic issues, the Kurdish question, regional security, and engagement with the U.S. and NATO are all apt to be affected by the referendum’s outcome. The Middle East Institute (MEI) Center for Turkish Studies is pleased to host Kemal Kirisci (Brookings), Omer Taspinar (Brookings), and Amberin Zaman (Wilson Center) for an analysis of the plebiscite, its political context, and potential consequences of the impending vote. Gonul Tol (MEI) will moderate the discussion.
- Militancy and Conflict in the Sahel and Maghreb | Tuesday, April 12 | 8:30-3pm | Carnegie Endowment | Register Here | Crises and upheaval in the Maghreb and the Sahel have altered the regional security terrain. Security challenges are increasingly becoming entwined, and many are becoming more pronounced amongst at-risk border communities in marginalized peripheries and rural communities. This day-long conference brings together leading scholars from around the world to address the key security and governance challenges in the Maghreb and Sahel. Panelists will examine the interaction of the expanding horizon of insecurity with conflicts, political vacuums, and Western response policy. They will also discuss the broader ramifications of the trends for peace and development in both regions. Panelists include Rasmus Boserup, Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, and Claire Spencer to discuss the security complexes in the Maghreb and Sahel; Bruce Whitehouse, Jimam Lar, Joel Nwokeoma, and Amy Niang to discuss violent extremism in West Africa and Sahel; and Frederic Wehrey, Faraj Najem, and Manal Taha to discuss the potential spillover from Libya into the Sahel.
- Russia’s Gambit: Moscow’s Plans and the Trump Administration | Tuesday, April 11 | 4-5:30pm | The Institute of World Politics | Register Here | You are cordially invited to a lecture on the topic of “Russia’s Gambit: Assessing Moscow’s Plans in the First Months of the Trump Administration” with Nikolas K. Gvosdev, Professor of National Security Affairs, Captain Jerome E. Levy Chair in Economic Geography and National Security at the U.S. Naval War College and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
- Book Launch: Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings | Wednesday, April 12 | 10-11:15pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings tells the story of “3/11”—the March 11, 2004 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid, which killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800. It runs from the development of an al-Qaeda conspiracy in Spain in the 1990s through the formation of the 3/11 bombing network beginning in March 2002, and on through the fallout of the attacks. Fernando Reinares’s account draws on judicial, police, and intelligence documents to which he had privileged access, as well as on personal interviews with officials in Spain and elsewhere. The book’s full analysis links the Madrid bombing to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and unveils connections between 3/11 and 9/11. Speakers will also include Bruce Hoffman, Professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Jytte Klausen, Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation at Brandeis University, and Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow and Director of the Brookings Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution.
- What’s Next for Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations? | Wednesday, April 12 | 10:30-12pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | The fragile Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship is in crisis. Each country has accused the other of harboring terrorists, and border closures have caused hardship for people on both sides. A recent British-led mediation has defused some of these tensions. However, the relationship remains troubled, and longstanding irritants—such as a disputed border and the treatment of Afghan refugees in Pakistan—continue to fester. What is next for Afghanistan-Pakistan relations? Will the new détente be sustained or short-lived? Additionally, what are the implications of all this for U.S. policy? Can or should Washington play a role in trying to help ease these bilateral tensions? This event, which is co-hosted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, will address these questions and others. Panelists include Daud Khattak, Senior Editor at Radio Mashaal, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Omar Samad, Former Afghan Ambassador to France, and Joshua White, Associate Professor of Practice and Fellow at SAIS.
- 2017 IMES Annual Conference: Restless Matters: the Socio-Political Lives of Historical Sites and Objects in the Middle East | Friday, April 14 | 9am-3pm | Elliott School | Register Here | Historical sites and objects are a focal point of socio-political contestation in the Middle East today. Whether it be the destruction and looting of the Egyptian Museum, Palmyra, or the Buddhas of Bamyan, or it be the renovation and rebuilding of Mecca, the Eyup Sultan complex, or heritage districts in Doha, Cairo or Beirut, the ways in which these historical sites and objects are intertwined with political projects and political-economic processes have drawn increasing scrutiny in recent years. While popular discourses and news media accounts often portray these matters in terms of the actions of religious zealots, crass developers, or enlightened preservationists, this glosses over a far more textured socio-political terrain this conference seeks to explore. A day-long event that brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars who focus on the Middle East and the region’s past and present connections to other parts of the world, this conference explores the myriad socio-political work historical sites and objects do. Speakers include Esra Akcan, Associate Profess in the Department of Archaeology at Cornell University, Azra Aksamija, Associate Professor in the Art, Culture, and Technology Program at MIT, Farah Al-Nakib, Director of the Center for Gulf Studies at American University of Kuwait, Amin Alsaden, PhD Candidate at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Luna Khirfan, Associate Professor at University of Waterloo School of Planning, Michele Lamprakos, Assistant Professor at University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and Amal Sachedina, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Middle East Studies, George Washington University.
The big question that looms over Syria policy now that the US has attacked the air base there from which the Syrian regime launched its chemical weapons attack last week is “what next?” as my SAIS colleague Eliot Cohen suggests. Sam Heller argued before the US bombing that American goals should remain focused on blocking the use of chemical weapons, nothing more. Tony Blinken, while warning against expanding the goal to regime change, still hopes the US intervention will lead to a successful ceasefire and negotiation of a political settlement and transition.
It is difficult to limit the goal as Heller suggests. It was Bashar al Assad who launched the chemical weapons attack. The American response is not likely to deter him for long. He may go back to using chlorine rather than far more deadly sarin for a while, but he will want to test American tolerance repeatedly, looking for what he can do without going over the threshold. Even if he doesn’t use chemicals, he will continue bombarding hospitals and schools, in an effort to make civilian life intolerable in opposition-controlled areas. The chemical attack he launched last week killed no more people than he might kill on a typical day using more conventional weapons.
It is also unlikely that Blinken’s hopes will be realized. Russia and Iran are backing Assad to the hilt, denying that he used chemical weapons and denouncing the US for aggression against a sovereign state. The Russians, who were present at the base from which the most recent chemical attack was launched, surely knew what the Syrian air force was up to. Tehran is normally a fierce opponent of chemical weapons because Saddam Hussein used them during the Iran/Iraq war, so denial is its only logical course. So long as Moscow and Tehran back Assad, there is little hope of negotiating a transition, since neither can hope any future leader will be friendly to their interests.
The US is ill-equipped at the moment for the broader diplomatic effort that Blinken recommends. The Trump Administration has not nominated a single sub-cabinet official in the State Department, where professional foreign service officers are acting without in most cases any clear direction. This is fine when it comes to continuing current policies, but any new diplomatic initiative on Syria, which Secretary of State Tillerson has suggested will be undertaken, requires more personnel in tune with the still relatively new administration. There is no way to get them into place quickly, as all will require extensive vetting and Senate confirmation.
Nor is there any serious indication that the Trump Administration would be interested in pursuing long-term commitment to reconstruction and democratic transition in Syria. The Trump budget proposal guts the State Department and US Agency for International Development, the essential tools for a civilian effort of that sort. Trump has wanted to kill the Islamic State there and get out. That’s what President Bush wanted to do in Afghanistan, which is now the longest war in American history. A quick exit from Syria is just as unlikely: it would virtually guarantee the return of extremists. Who is going to govern Raqqa after the Islamic State is defeated there? Are we going to turn it over to Assad?
There no clear or even tentative answers to the question of what next. That’s not good.
I spoke this morning (along with President Thaci, the American and French ambassadors as well as Deputy Prime Minister Branimir Stojanovic) at a conference in Pristina on the future of Kosovo’s security forces (KSF), which until now have been limited. Here are the speaking notes I prepared:
- It is a pleasure to be back in Pristina to discuss a subject I had the privilege of working on about five long years ago: future requirements for Kosovo security forces and ways of meeting them.
- I would like to underline that I speak only for myself and will not address the constitutional and legal issues.
- A paper I was involved in writing then cited five security risks to Kosovo:
- Continued de facto Serbian control of parallel structures in northern Kosovo and the persistence in that area of smuggling and other organized crime activities.
- A Serbian armored incursion that seeks to establish overt control over northern Kosovo and possibly some monasteries or enclaves south of the Ibar River.
- Political extremism that aims by violent means to change the constitutional order in a religious or nationalist direction.
- Organized crime activities that aim to capture the state and subvert it for criminal purposes.
- The possibility of deteriorating social and economic conditions in a young and rapidly growing population.
- Kosovo already has within its sovereign control the means to respond to four out of five of these security risks. Your police, courts, parliament, economic policies, and international relations are the appropriate means, though not yet always equal to the tasks.
- The only missing means concern number 2: a Serbian armed incursion that seeks to establish overt control over northern Kosovo and possibly some monasteries or enclaves south of the Ibar River.
- My friends in Belgrade—and I am pleased to say that I do have many there—will instantly say there is no need to fear that.
- I agree with them most days. Serbia has far more important things to concern itself with.
- But I can’t advise basing a security policy and the security forces entrusted with implementing it on assumptions. Sometimes things happen—as they did in March 2004—that make the unlikely possible.
- In the nine years since independence, Kosovo has enjoyed the privilege of not worrying too much about that, because KFOR defends the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
- That however won’t last forever. NATO too has other things to worry about and should not remain forever in Kosovo, which will want to become a security producer and a full member of NATO rather than a security consumer.
- Once NATO is gone, you will need the capacity to defend yourselves, at least for the couple of weeks it will take for your allies to respond to a contingency.
- This raises two issues: the process by which you get strengthened security forces and the character of those security forces.
- The process will require U.S. and European support.
- Washington and Brussels will want you to make a genuine effort to obtain Serb concurrence and participation.
- What Serbs need more than anything else is confidence that the Kosovo Security Force will not be used against them.
- The KSF role should be focused on external threats and contributions to international missions, not on law and order inside Kosovo.
- The question of what kind of security forces you will need depends on the threats you face. If the threat of a Serbian incursion is eliminated, Kosovo will not need forces designed to respond to it.
- Today however Serbian capabilities are already all too real, and Russian transfers to Belgrade of aircraft, tanks and other equipment will make them loom larger in the future.
- Those weapons, and the means to respond to them, are expensive. Kosovo and Serbia would be far better off without the costs of preparing for war against each other.
- So the question is: what could remove that threat, lessen the risk, and reduce the costs?
- Serbia could: by recognizing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo, or at least allowing it to enter the United Nations, and exchanging diplomatic representatives with it.
- Doing so would enable Kosovo to limit the capabilities of its security forces and focus them on international missions, which is appropriate given how much the country has benefited from them in the past.
- With Aleksandar Vucic soon to be inaugurated as President of Serbia, it seems to me the time for a grand bargain between Pristina and Belgrade, and with Serbs in Kosovo, is near.
- President, I am ambitious. I’m just a professor, so I can afford to be.
- I would like to see resolution of all the big outstanding issues in a package deal: composition of the Kosovo isSecurity Force, UN membership and exchange of diplomatic representatives, and creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities consistent with the Kosovo constitution.
- That’s asking a lot, but not I think too much.
- Serbia at this point needs to focus on its path to the European Union. Any conflict with Kosovo would make that difficult.
- I am confident Serbia will not become an EU member without exchanging diplomatic representatives with Kosovo, enabling it to focus on the needs of its citizens.
- Kosovo likewise needs to concentrate on fulfilling the aspirations of its citizens for better and more secure lives, including candidacy for EU membership.
- Neither Kosovo nor Serbia would benefit from a costly arms race or from frictions that might escalate to armed conflict.
- To the contrary: it is time even now for your chiefs of staff to meet and begin the normal communication and collaboration that is happily standard among European countries, even countries that fought far more terrible wars than Kosovo and Serbia.
- You can expect to go much farther than that in the future: Serbia and Kosovo will someday be allies and fight together on foreign shores. The time to begin preparing for that day is now.
Today’s American cruise missile strike on a Syrian base responsible for the chemical weapons attacks in Idlib province will no doubt do wonders for President Trump’s reputation as a man of action. He has done what President Obama hesitated to do in 2013, without consulting Congress or America’s allies (both of which presented obstacles four years ago).
The military significance of the American strike will be limited. The Russians, who had forces in harm’s way, were told in advance, so more than likely the Syrians knew as well. If so, they will have moved their military assets and hunkered down for what they knew would be a limited-duration attack. The Russians and Syrians have protested loudly that the attack is an act of aggression.
The political significance of the strike is still undetermined. Secretary of State Tillerson is talking about a coalition to remove Assad from power, but at the same time he refers to the Geneva talks that have so far led nowhere. Iranian and Russian support for Assad still seems solid. While both mumble about not being wedded to him, they have backed him repeatedly, because they can’t imagine doing better with any conceivable successor. Transition to them means the end of their enormous influence in Syria.
The Trump Administration has turned around completely on Assad. No more than a week ago it was signaling that Assad could stay. Now it is wanting him to leave. But it doesn’t appear to have a diplomatic and political plan to make that happen. National Security Adviser McMaster and Secretary of Defense Mattis have demonstrated, once again, how quickly America’s military instrument can be brought to bear. But the State Department—demoralized and without most of its senior leadership—is in nowhere near the same shape.
This attack could make the situation in Syria even more complicated and difficult to resolve than it has been for six long years. It could also mark the beginning of the end, if Washington can rally a real coalition against both Assad and the Islamic State. The outcome depends on diplomatic skills that have so far proven lacking. Let’s hope the Administration finds them quickly.
Tomasz Zalewski of the Polish magazine Polityka asked some questions about Secretary of State Tillerson. I replied:
Q: What is the role of Tillerson in making of US foreign policy? Is he its architect, or just an executor of Mr. Trump’s (or other peoples’) orders?
A: If he has any role at all, it appears to be minimal. He hasn’t even been an “executor.” More like a hanger-on.
Q: How valuable are his skills of the former Exxon’s CEO in the US diplomacy?
A: I have seen no value so far. [Maybe I should have added: other than his initial statement to the State Department personnel, which was well received.]
Q: How significant are the 28 percent cuts in the Department of State budget proposed by the White House – and the fact that Tillerson has agreed with them?
A: 28% is a devastating cut in a single year. It won’t happen, but the fact Tillerson agreed to this ridiculous number suggests he has no interest in defending the department he heads.
Q: What to make of the fact that Tillerson does not take the media on his trips and generally says very little in public?
A: He has no understanding of the Secretary of State’s role in public affairs and doesn’t care to learn.
I might add this, the State Department statement on the latest North Korean missile test:
North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.
That’s laconic to a fault, unless there is further action taken.