Tag: Al Qaeda

To the victor…

Moscow has decided to convene a November 18 all-Syria (presumably opposition and government) dialogue in Sochi. Having shaped the military situation on the ground with its air intervention starting more than two years ago, the Russians are figuring they have the clout to shape the political landscape as well. While nominally still committed to the Geneva process and UN Security Council resolution 2254, Moscow wants to short-circuit that laborious effort and try for a quick solution. The Security Council can endorse it after they fact, they figure.

The Syrian government says it will dialogue. It no longer fears the t-word: transition. The Americans will likely not oppose the effort, as they have little interest in Syria once the Islamic State and Al Qaeda are routed. The Iranians and Turks may not be pleased to see the Russians take the lead, but they won’t object either. Turkey is getting what it wants most: a license to keep the Syrian Kurds from lining their entire southern border. Ditto Iran, which wants to keep Bashar al Assad in place as president, as he will allow Hizbollah free rein in much of Syria, including transferring arms from the Iraqi border by land to Lebanon.

The opposition doesn’t like the idea. But it is fragmented and parts will go along to get along, hoping that something decent will emerge from the process, or just hoping to snag some benefits for themselves. The harder-line Islamists and some devoted liberals will likely continue the insurgency against Assad, but they are unlikely to get far any time soon. Both Tehran and Moscow will try to ensure that no significant threat to the regime emerges.

If the more moderate opposition can get itself organized at least in some communities and convince the Russians that local elections should be held even before a new constitution is approved, then some genuine, organic voices of political dissent might emerge. Otherwise, the most organized political force in the country–the Ba’ath party–is likely to win the day, even if national elections are not fixed. Assad won’t get his usual >90%, but he will win and claim democratic legitimacy, no matter how few people vote.

The Russians are figuring they are entitled to determine the political outcome, but they are also trying to avoid responsibility for the reconstruction of Syria. That’s where American indifference needs to give way to determination. Beyond its modest contributions in Raqqa–demining and rubble clearance are all the Americans want to do there–Washington should refuse to foot the bill, or allow the IMF and World Bank to do so, for what is mostly Russian, regime, and Iranian damage to the country’s housing, commerce and infrastructure.

Beyond the political realm, there are no real spoils to speak of in Syria, only a big bill for destruction. As Colin Powell said, you broke it, you bought it. To the victor…

 

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The Middle East crises and conflicts

It can be problematic to take the “Middle East” as a single entity–to speak of it generally risks ignoring nuances and dangerously simplifies conversations and engagements with the region. At the Brookings Institution’s “Middle East Crises and Conflicts – The Way Ahead” event, however, John R. Allen of the Brookings Institution argued that one of the United States government’s flaws was its divided outlook toward the region, seeing the countries in it as “separated blocks” rather than parts of a larger, interrelated region. Finding a balance between examining the region’s countries separately and seeing them as part of a whole is what Allen, Mara Karlin, Daniel Byman, and Federica Saini Fasanotti, all experts at the Brookings Institution, made an effort to do on Thursday, October 5. The panel was moderated by Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon.

Karlin gave an overview of the situation in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, a victory over ISIS would result in political reconciliation and stabilization. Iraq would go through reconstruction, a main component of which would be the return of the country’s refugees. Not included in this vision of Iraq’s future are the Kurds, who, envision a separate future for themselves, as expressed in the Kurdish referendum of September. The formation of an independent Kurdistan, however, would bring its own set of challenges, as it would be landlocked and surrounded by hostile neighboring countries.

While Karlin’s assessment of Iraq contained some hope, her assessment of Syria was grim, as she labeled it a “humanitarian catastrophe” even if the conflict seems to be nearing an end in which the Assad regime regains control over the majority of the country. Although he seems to have an advantage, Allen contended that Assad will not win, attributing Assad’s advantage to several factors. One was the disconnect between US strategy to defeat ISIS and its anti-Assad stance, which would have attracted more Syrian support but remains no more than a “policy aspiration.” Another shortcoming on the part of the US was its delayed support to the Free Syrian Army and Syrian Defense Force, as well as its failure to act upon its “red line” threats in 2013.

Shifting the focus away from the US, Allen said that the Gulf states have also been creating obstacles in Syria, as they are supporting opposing militias. Karlin agreed that certain events had made it more difficult for the opposition to succeed, citing the US response to the war in Libya and its failure to design a response that would be appropriate for the Syrian context. Karlin disagreed with Allen, however, in that she maintained that a victory for Assad seems realistic and upcoming.

Saini Fasanotti spoke about the numerous dimensions that characterize Libya’s present situation. The international community’s recent actions, including the appointment of Lebanese Ghassan Salame as the new UN special envoy to Libya, represent positive steps towards stabilization. However, she criticized the divisions that exist among both external and internal actors, considering they are Libya’s biggest obstacles. More generally, she suggested that efforts to achieve further stabilization in Libya could not be expected to follow other models in the region, as Libya “has never been a state since the Ottoman Empire,” referring to the colonization of Libya by Italy and even to the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. He worked to increase the country’s divisions rather than to unify it, making Libya’s current goal the establishment of a unified, independent country, and not the restoration of one that existed previously.

Byman discussed the state of counterterrorism efforts in the region, beginning with some promising signs: Al Qaeda has been largely inactive and seems to have submitted to pressures exerted on it by international actors, and ISIS is losing battles in Iraq and Syria. However, Byman pointed out that while the US has the capabilities of defeating these groups, it has not historically been successful at supporting a transition for governments after such successes. The rapid rise of ISIS suggests that the idea necessary to form such a group are present, making the job of supporting states to gain stability more important. Shifting the focus to the West, Byman noted how terrorist groups in the Middle East have influenced policies and attitudes in Western countries, exemplified most clearly by the hostilities that Muslim communities are facing. The demonization of Muslims has also led the US travel ban on citizens from Muslim-majority countries and its efforts to slow its refugee resettlement program.

Addressing the situation both in the Middle East and the West more broadly, Allen recalled the Arab Spring – which he suggested be renamed the “Arab Tsunami” – and reminded the audience of its negative consequences: the vulnerable positions that states have fallen into, the increasing social and economic difficulties, radicalization, and the refugee crisis. Refugees have particularly affected Europe, testing its social fabric and resilience and causing social and political divisions. Such repercussions have resulted mainly from the numerous attacks that Europe has witnessed since the beginning of the crisis, causing an increasing preoccupation with security precautions and a fear of refugees and immigrants.  

Discussing policy options for the US, there was consensus on the need to prioritize economic assistance to the region as a whole. Karlin added that the US needs to be aware of the distractions that Iran and the nuclear deal have posed. Instead of the nuclear deal, Karlin argued, Iran’s role in destabilizing countries in the Middle East should be the US focus. In Libya, Saini Fasanotti urged the West to adopt a “bottom-up” approach, reiterating her views on Libya’s nationhood (“in a nation that does not exist, you cannot look at the top”). She emphasized the importance of giving citizens a role and a choice, responsibilities that they were not granted under the Ottomans, Italy, or Gaddafi.

Byman pointed to the dangers of the approach that the West has taken in dealing with refugees, especially the poor treatment of refugees in Europe despite the welcoming front exhibited by accepting large numbers, which h argue, has caused radicalization to occur in most cases inside Europe and not outside of it. He also referred to the West’s failure to treat all types of violence equally. Not taking right-wing violence seriously further isolates and demonizes refugee and immigrant groups. Saini Fasanotti suggested that Europe in particular needs a “real strategy” to effectively welcome and integrate refugees, referring to her personal experience in Italy and the increasing hostility towards refugees that she has witnessed.

 

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Trump is about to make a big mess

I find it hard to believe, but it looks as if President Trump is preparing to take the advice of John Bolton to decertify Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA or “Iranian nuclear deal”). This despite the complete lack of factual support for the notion that Iran is substantially violating the deal as well as European refusal to join the US in the reimposition of sanctions required even to begin compelling Tehran to renegotiate.

The consequences will be far-reaching. If Iran opts to remain in compliance, the Europeans will maintain their sanctions relief, at least until the US imposes so-called secondary sanctions against their banks and companies for continuing to do business with Iran. That will cause enormous resentment in Europe, where doubts about President Trump are already rife. Hard to see how our traditional allies will continue to support us on many issues if the Administration makes the mistake of undermining the JCPOA.

In the less likely event that Tehran decides to renege on the deal, the Europeans may back reimposition of sanctions, but Iran would soon (a year?) have nuclear weapons. That might precipitate an Israeli or an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, with no prospect however of delaying Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by more than the eight years or more left on the JCPOA clock. It will be necessary to periodically attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, with devastating consequences for Middle East (and global) stability, as Tehran will strike back in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and possibly even the US.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will be confirmed in his view that only nuclear weapons and the capacity to strike the US will protect his regime from an American attack. Prospects for a negotiated freeze or other limitations on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities would go to zero fast, if they are not already there.

Trump likes to overplay his hand, then distract attention so that he can cave. That won’t work well with Iran and North Korea, both of which understand perfectly well how lousy America’s alternatives to a negotiated agreement on their nuclear programs are. Both regimes, once upon a time two-thirds of the “axis of evil,” have understood the other third’s mistake: Saddam Hussein didn’t pursue nuclear weapons aggressively enough to forestall an American invasion.

Not that America today has the stomach for an invasion of either North Korea or Iran, even if they lack nuclear weapons. We are well into two decades of constant but far from completely successful warfare in many countries aimed at wiping out Islamist extremists. Are we really ready to take on two more adversaries, one or both of which might be nuclear-equipped by the time we do?

The alternative is not appetizing either. Basically, we need to content ourselves with deterring both North Korea and Iran from using their nuclear weapons, without pressing for regime change. Their own people will have to find a way to deal with their leaders, which is how things should be. Trump even said so in his UN General Assembly speech, which lauded sovereignty. That in my view comes from the people.

We can and should, however, push back against Iran’s and North Korea’s regional misbehavior, especially insofar as they seek to intimidate or undermine US allies. It is odd indeed that Trump has done nothing to counter Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria, where Hizbollah and Shia militias are reshaping the political landscape. Japan and South Korea could also use less bombast and more real support.

But Trump is president, as he so often reminds us. He seems disinclined to maintain the traditionally effective multilateral approaches to Pyongyang and Tehran and more likely to make a big mess.

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Peace picks September 25 – 29

  1. The Trump Administration and the Middle East: What Should America Do Next? | Monday, September 25 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | “Donald Trump promised to do a great deal more in the Middle East than his immediate predecessors, but with much less,” Hudson Institute fellows Michael Doran and Peter Rough wrote recently in Mosaic magazine. “That is, he would achieve significantly more than Barack Obama at a much smaller sacrifice of blood and treasure than was incurred under George W. Bush. This he would accomplish by defining American interests sharply and pursuing them aggressively, not to say ruthlessly. The result would be a global restoration of American credibility and, as Trump never ceased to remind voters, renewed global respect.” Nearly nine months into his term in his office, has President Trump followed through on his promises regarding Middle East policy? Doran and Rough argue that America’s big problem in the region is still Iran. In a written response to the article, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution contends that America is not in a zero-sum contest with the Iranians. On September 25, join us for a frank discussion on the future of U.S. Middle East policy with Doran, Rough, and O’Hanlon. Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Lee Smith will moderate the panel.
  2. Rethinking Political Islam | Monday, September 25 | 5:30 – 8:00 pm | Brookings Institution | Register Here | The rapid succession of events of the past four years have challenged conventional wisdom on political Islam. In “Rethinking Political Islam” (Oxford University Press, 2017), Shadi Hamid and William McCants have gathered together the leading specialists in the field to examine how Islamist movements around the world are rethinking some of their basic assumptions. The contributors, who include Islamist activists and leaders themselves, describe how groups are considering key strategic questions, including gradual versus revolutionary approaches to change; the use of tactical or situational violence; attitudes toward the state; and how ideology and politics interact. On September 25, Graeme Wood of The Atlantic and Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington will join Hamid and McCants for a panel discussion on the book’s findings and conclusions. After the discussion, the panel will take audience questions. A reception and book signing will follow. Attendees may purchase “Rethinking Political Islam” at an exclusive 10 percent discount, with the option of pre-ordering a signed copy online
  3. Confronting the Next Wave of Violent Extremism | Wednesday, September 27 | 9:00 am – 4:30 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Join the U.S. Institute of Peace and the RESOLVE Network of global experts on violent extremism for the consortium’s annual forum on Wednesday, September 27, to discuss issues such as the risks in hotspots across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.The forum will feature preeminent international scholars and experts from across the network’s 20-plus partner organizations around the world. In addition to offering opportunities to connect with leading thinkers, practitioners and policymakers involved in developing responses to violent extremism, the day of panels and roundtable discussions will highlight findings from a year-long study on the rise of violent extremism in Bangladesh and preview upcoming research on the politics of religion in the Lake Chad Basin region. Panelists will address questions including what do we know about how and when terrorists decide to enter and exit violence, and how do the politics of religion, migration, and identity factor into efforts to counter violent extremism.
  4. Tunisia’s Road to Reform | Thursday, September 28 | 12:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Please join the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East for a panel discussion on the new Tunisian government and prime minister shuffle. As part of a four-year IMF approved loan, the new government and cabinet must enact fiscal reforms to continue receiving a $2.9 billion loan aimed at strengthening job creation and economic growth. Will the so-called “war government” geared towards reform succeed in this effort? Is enough being done to address corruption and strengthen good governance? What are the major challenges and obstacles facing the Tunisian government in its effort to bring the country back to economic and political stability? The panel will address these and other concerns related to Tunisia’s ongoing transition. Panelists include Oussama Romdhani of the Arab Weekly, independent journalist Fadil Aliriza, and Sarah Yerkes of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. The event will be introduced by Ambassador Frederic C. Hof of the Atlantic Council and moderated by Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council.
  5. Iran’s Land Bridge: Countering a Growing Influence in the Middle East | Friday, September 29 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The threat of an Iranian land bridge through Iraq and Syria—measured both in established influence and a physical presence—has become a reality. Iran’s goal for regional hegemony, a strategic plan more than three decades in the making, has come to fruition. With such a route in place, Iran can increase logistical and operational support to Lebanese Hezbollah and other IRGC-directed proxies. Is it possible to disrupt this route, and can it be done without provoking further conflict? On September 29, Hudson Institute will host a discussion assessing these and other elements of Iran’s strategic posture in the region. Hudson fellows Michael Pregent, Hillel Fradkin, and Lee Smith will join Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council to discuss the changing situation in the Middle East and the appropriate U.S. policy response.
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Syria fragmented

In a previous post, I focused on what I learned last week about the prospects for Idlib, a Syrian province still largely controlled by both moderate and extremist, non-regime forces. For the moderate opposition, which  counts about 100 local councils there, Idlib is the center of gravity of its fight against the regime, even though Hayat al Sham (the Al Qaeda affiliate) has taken over much of the province (and controls an additional 40 or so local councils).

But there are many other issues in the rest of Syria that will contribute to determining the outcome of this long, costly, and deadly war.

First is the condition of the regime itself. Its regular Syrian Arab Army is down to below 40,000 soldiers, from a nominal strength of 125,000 before the war. Defections, deaths and injuries presumably account for the difference. As the regular army has declined, special forces and militias, some sponsored by Iran, have grown. These are less unified and less disciplined than the army, with commanders who are notoriously indifferent to human rights and other niceities. The dictatorship may well grow harsher as it tries to reassert control with diminished resources.

Even in its weakened state, the regime is seeking to shape Syria’s demography to its advantage, by moving politically loyal people into sensitive areas and leaving some districts once controlled by the opposition in ruins. It is also trying to ensure that reconstruction resources, insofar as they become available, will be under the control of regime-affiliated public/private partnerships, often at the municipal level. The local councils associated with the opposition are immediately disbanded when the regime takes over an area. Their members and associated activists are listed by name as among the first to be expelled/evacuated, so far usually to Idlib.

Areas other than Idlib out of regime control include the Euphrates Shield area under Turkish occupation, the Kurdish-controlled (PYD) “self-administration” zones, and the southern front, in addition to Raqqa and Deir Azour.

The Turks have trained and deployed more than 1000 mostly Arab police to operate in the Euphrates Shield area, have initiated local councils in Azaz and Al Bab, and are trying to restart schools and health services there, with less than complete success. They are also shutting out Syrian opposition people who would like to operate there. While Ankara might like most of the almost 2.5 million refugees it has received to return to Syria eventually, no more than one-quarter appear likely to do so. Some more highly qualified Syrians are now being offered Turkish citizenship.

The Turks regard the PYD and its associated YPG (Kurdish) and SDF (that’s YPG plus Arabs) forces that the US is relying on to take Raqqa as unreliable at best, hostile at worst. No Turks I talked with doubt that the PYD is just the PKK (the Kurdish rebel forces in Turkey) by another name. The Turks are hoping the US will abandon the PYD after taking Raqqa, force the return of the weapons it provided to the Kurds, and reengage productively with its Turkish ally. Ankara is looking for a gesture from the US, which is now regarded by ordinary Turks as their number one security threat responsible for not only the PKK but also the Gulenist coup, and ISIS (sic).

In Raqqa, there will be a tug-of-war between the US-sponsored city council and an opposition-controlled provincial council that has Turkish blessing. While this could be settled amicably with a division of labor, it could also prove problematic, as the provincial council is under Turkish influence and the city council includes people named by the PYD. It will not be easy to reopen the schools, re-establish health care and provide pyscho-social support for Raqqa’s seriously damaged infrastructure and people. For Deir Azour, the regime appears to have the upper hand, though some think the SDF will be prepared to fight the regime for it.

The southern front is opaque when viewed from Turkey. Everyone there just assumes that it will be maintained along the border with Israel and Jordan, in order to protect those two US allies. That sounds about right to me, though it may be tougher than it sounds.

The bottom line: If this war ends any time soon, the post-war process will be markedly different in different parts of the country. That’s ironic, because both the regime and the main opposition forces want it to remain united. More about that in a future post.

 

 

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Idlib is the center of gravity, not Raqqa

I’ve been in Turkey the last few days, talking with Syrian opposition people (including civil society, the Syrian Interim Government and the Syrian Opposition Coalition) who live here, as well as Turks who worry about Syria. I was last in Istanbul and Gaziantep, the Turkish city closest to Aleppo that acts as a platform for the civilian Syrian opposition, two years ago, when the most of its exponents were upbeat about the prospects of evicting Bashar al Assad from the presidential palace, or at least wresting control of a good part of Syria from him.

Gone are those days. The sustained Russian air intervention that started in September 2105, coordinated with Iranian and Shia militia ground forces as well as the Syrian army, has wrested east Aleppo, some Damascus suburbs and other key areas from opposition military forces, while the Turks have taken a slice of Syria’s north and Kurdish and allied Arab forces have taken Manbij and moved southeast to take Raqqa from the Islamic State, the first provincial capital to fall to the opposition in 2013.

The only major population center in western “useful Syria” still in opposition hands is a good part of Idlib province, to which the Syrian government has shipped irreconcilable (both extremist and moderate) Syrians from all the territory it retakes. Idlib has also accumulated a large number of people displaced by fighting in Aleppo and other population centers, even while some of its native population has fled to Turkey. There are perhaps 1.2 million people in the province, including 300-400,000 displaced from other provinces.

Americans focus on Raqqa because that is where US forces are supporting the assault on the Islamic State, which is the main American priority. But for the Syrian opposition, Idlib has become by default the center of gravity of the conflict. The situation there is intricate: formed more or less in accordance with a Syrian decentralization law, something like 100 elected moderate opposition local administrative councils (and more at the village level) govern in places like Saraqib and Maarat al Numan, even as Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS, the current Al Qaeda front in Syria) has taken over Idlib city (and disbanded the local administrative council there), as well as much of the rest of the province.

The question is whether the remaining relatively democratic and free institutions can survive two possible future assaults: one might come from HTS to exert its control over the entire territory, though so far the jihadis have failed to be able to displace the civic opposition and they are not yet moving against major population centers other than Idlib city. Another possibility is an assault against HTS in Idlib by the internationals. Once the Islamic State has been ousted from Raqqa and the eastern city of Deir Azour, the American, Iranian, Russian, and Syrian government forces could pivot to Idlib, nominally seeking to obliterate HTS but likely doing in the moderate opposition at the same time, because Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus don’t distinguish much.

What could prevent an Idlib debacle and help the opposition institutions that have been painstakingly built, with a lot of US and European aid, survive? The proposition apparently on the table at the Iranian/Russian/Turkish meeting in Astana yesterday and today is some sort of joint action with Russian air support, either by the Turks or by the Turks in north Idlib and the Iranians in the south, to chase HTS from the province.* 

The Turks are hesitating. The Euphrates Shield area they already control in the north along their border is costing a bundle and generating complaints from the Syrian opposition, which has been shut out of the Turkish-controlled area in favor of hand-picked Turkish proxies responsible for security, education, and religious affairs as well as Turkish-trained police. Turkey’s priority in Syria is doing in the Kurds and blocking them from controlling the entire northern border of Syria with Turkey, not helping the Syrian opposition.

If the Turks don’t act, Idlib could still fall eventually to the regime, with the help of Iran and Russia. That could precipitate a major slaughter, especially if the Turks continue to block the border at Bab al Hawa.

Even if the non-HTS local councils survive in Idlib and even if the Americans re-establish some sort of democratic institutions in Raqqa, the Syrian opposition has largely lost the military fight. But the war isn’t really over until there is peace, which is not yet on the horizon. The next phase will be less military and more political. The question is who will win that. More on that in the next post.

*PS: The decision at Astana was apparently to deploy observers, not forces, to the boundaries of Idlib’s non-regime controlled areas. Not clear how long that will take.

*PPS: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has a different version of the agreement, which includes deployment of Turkish, Russian and Iranian forces inside Idlib. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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