Tag: Al Qaeda

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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Peace picks September 11 – 15

  1. Sixteen Years After 9/11: Assessing the Terrorist Threat | Monday, September 11 | 12:15 pm – 1:45 pm | New America | Register Here | Sixteen years have passed since the attacks of 9/11, and three presidents have now wrestled with calibrating an effective American response to the threat of jihadist terrorism. Where does the terrorist threat stand today? How effective has the Trump administration been in confronting the threat? What will the threat look like tomorrow? To address these questions, New America welcomes Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and CEO of Valens Global, a private firm focused on the challenge posed by violent non-state actors; Joshua Geltzer, a fellow in New America’s International Security program, who served from 2015 to 2017 as senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council staff, having served previously as deputy legal advisor to the National Security Council and as counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice; and Nadia Oweidat, a Middle East fellow at New America, who holds a D.Phil. in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford, and who is currently working on a book on social media and positive change among Arabic speakers.
  2. Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons | Wednesday, September 13 | 3:30 – 5:00 pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | Many authoritarian leaders want nuclear weapons, but few manage to acquire them. Autocrats seeking nuclear weapons fail in different ways and to varying degrees—Iraq almost managed it; Libya did not come close. In this seminar, Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer compares the two failed nuclear weapons programs, arguing that state capacity played a crucial role in the trajectory and outcomes of both projects. This analysis is based on a rich set of new primary sources, collected during years of research in archives, fieldwork across the Middle East, and interviews with scientists and decision makers from both states. The analysis reveals contemporary perspectives from scientists and regime officials on the opportunities and challenges facing each project. Many of the findings challenge the conventional wisdom about clandestine weapons programs in closed authoritarian states, particularly the level of oversight and control by regime officials, and offers novel arguments about their prospects of success or failure.
  3. America’s Role in the World – Global Threats, Global Perspectives | Thursday, September 14 | 5:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The day’s discussion will explore the results of Pew Research Center’s survey, which focused on global perspectives on the greatest risks facing the world today, from national security concerns to broader global issues such as climate change, and the economy, and included thirty-eight countries. Does the existential threat of ISIS affect people outside of the Middle East and Europe? Where are worries of the influence of the United States, Russia, or China most acute? Following a short presentation of the report, the panelists will evaluate the circumstances and tenuous relationships that may account for the findings. The conversation will feature Jacob Poushter of the Pew Research Center, Ellen Laipson of the Stimson Center, David Anderson of Zurich North America, and Mathew Burrows of the Atlantic Council. The panel will be moderated by Kate Brannen, the Deputy Managing Editor at Just Security.
  4. Pushback: Exposing and Countering Iran | Thursday, September 14 | 12:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Much is said about Iran’s “destabilizing activities” throughout the Middle East, but often without fully describing the activities, tools, and methods Iran uses to wield influence in neighboring states. What do we really know about Iran’s activities in the region? What are the primary factors driving Iran’s foreign policy? These are the questions the Atlantic Council seeks to answer through a new project entitled Pushback: Exposing and Countering Iran. This series examines the drivers, prospects, and constraints underpinning Iran’s efforts to undermine US policy in the Middle East and restructure the regional order to its liking. Drawing on new digital forensic evidence and expert analysis, this effort offers strategic and policy recommendations to address the growing challenge Iran poses to stability in the Middle East. Center for Strategic and International Studies senior fellow and deputy director Melissa Dalton, Atlantic Council nonresident fellow Elisabeth Kendall, Conflict Armament Research’s Tim Michetti, and Shia militia group researcher Phillip Smyth will discuss Iran’s regional tactics, while Middle East Institute director and senior fellow Bilal Y. Saab, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Ken Pollack, Johns Hopkins SAIS’s Mara Karlin, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Susan Ziadeh, and New York Times Washington correspondent David Sanger, will discuss the United States’ strategic options for countering Iran’s influence.
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Good speech, wrong president

It was a good speech, but one given by the wrong president.

Wrong first because President Trump has done far more to divide Americans in the last seven months than to unite them. His emphasis on the importance of unity at home to the successful pursuit of the war in Afghanistan was well founded. Without a common understanding of why we are fighting and what success looks like, sustaining support for America’s longest war will be impossible. But Donald Trump and his sympathy for neo-Nazi white supremacists are not going to foster that kind of solidarity. His talk now of how bigotry has no place is insufficient. He needs to do far more to fight bigotry, by dropping for example the Administration’s vigorous efforts to prevent minorities from voting.

Wrong because the President claimed that the strategy–fight to create the political conditions for a successful negotiation with the Taliban–is new and that he will be able to pursue it. It’s not new. That is precisely what convinced President Obama to send more troops, but the conditions never proved ripe. Dick Holbrooke and his successors as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (the ones I remember are Marc Grossman, Jim Dobbins, and Laurel Miller) were among the very best available, not only in this country but also abroad. Trump has now all but dismantled the civilian apparatus they built to pursue America’s political and diplomatic goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has no means left to pursue the strategy he falsely claims he is inventing.

Wrong because Trump betrays America’s weakness when he so blatantly begs for allies to share more burdens and India to play a key role in spurring Afghanistan’s economy. Only a clear and unequivocal US commitment , not “tin cupping” as it is known in the halls of Foggy Bottom, will encourage others to come on board. Burden sharing is a consequence of leadership, not a pre-condition for it. Leaders lead.

Wrong because Trump excludes “nation-building,” without which success in Afghanistan is simply not possible. Only a capable and legitimate Afghan state will be able to establish the law and order required to eliminate safe havens for international terrorists. Trump, like all of his predecessors, tries to exclude the kind of civilian commitment to help the Afghans over a generation that will be required to establish anything resembling the rule of law. But what else would prevent a Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Islamic State resurgence? Only American special operators, in the forever war Trump denies he is pursuing.

Wrong because there is another answer to that question: neighbors matter. Trump bluntly threatened to cut off aid to Pakistan. That hasn’t worked well in the past; we’ll have to wait and see how it works this time around. He failed to mention China, Russia, and Iran, all of which play important roles inside Afghanistan and in the region. They have all also been at odds with the US in Afghanistan. Where is the strategy for rallying the neighbors to the cause?

My compliments to the generals: Mattis, McMaster and Kelly have made Trump sound decent and even patriotic. But he is far from the right guy to unify America behind a renewal of this 17-year-old war, especially if he ignores the civilian role in fixing what ails Afghanistan and bringing other major powers to support the effort. Good speech, wrong president.

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All in or all out

President Trump, my regular readers will be surprised to hear me say, has been asking the right questions about Afghanistan: why have we been there so long? Why aren’t we winning? These are perfectly reasonable questions. We’ve been at war there for almost 17 years. More than 2400 US service people have been killed and more than 20,000 wounded. When does it end? How?

Unfortunately, Trump seems to be asking these reasonable questions for the wrong reasons: he wants to win and he wants to deliver on a campaign promise to bring American troops home. What matters to Trump is always Trump. But his predecessor wasn’t any better when it came to Afghanistan: he tried to minimize the American commitment but also avoid losing and wanted to bring the boys and girls home as soon as possible, in order to fulfill a campaign promise.

The problem is that those goals are incompatible.  There is no reason to believe that the Taliban won’t win–taking over large parts of the country if not all of it–if the US and its coalition allies depart. If the Taliban wins, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State will return.

In order to avoid this outcome, we and some of the coalition will need to stay, perhaps indefinitely. Promising anything else is delusional. The Taliban already control large parts of Afghanistan, according to the New York Times (the darker ochre areas are Taliban control and the lighter areas Taliban support; the red are Islamic State support and control):

 

It would be silly to think they won’t be able to take more, possibly even Kabul, if the US departs.

Trump is nevertheless likely to land where Obama did: a commitment for several years, followed by promised withdrawal. This kind of compromise outcome does nothing but waste American lives and resources. It is frequently the product of a stalemated White House process: the President is offered Option A to stay indefinitely and Option C to withdraw quickly. He chooses Option B of course: stay for now but draw down later.

There is little justification for Option B. It is better because it is not A or C. But A and C are the real choices. It should be all in or all out, with clarity about the consequences. If we stay, we stay indefinitely, with adequate resources to provide serious support to the Afghan Security Forces, until such time as they don’t need them. If we go, we go completely, recognizing that the extremists will be back and we will likely have to hit them repeatedly, with or without Afghan approval.

This is not a pretty picture. It echoes Vietnam, where President Nixon chose Option B and hung on in support of the South only to have Congress eventually get weary and pull the plug. The short-term results were disastrous: the North took over, killed and “re-educated” a lot of people, invaded Cambodia, and went to war with China. About 2 million people fled, hundreds of thousands are believed to have died. But the long-term results were less catastrophic, from an American geopolitical perspective: a reunified Vietnam remains a Communist autocracy but has become friendly with the US and no longer a threat to its neighbors.

There is an Option D: privatize the war and let mercenaries run it. I give that one a gold star for originality, but all you need to know is that Steve Bannon is pushing it. It’s a bad idea whose time has come only in the minds of those with no memory of, or concern about, what some of those mercenaries did in Iraq, when they were only doing guard duty.

So which option would I choose? I might stay indefinitely (Option A), even putting in some more forces right now to prevent further Taliban inroads, but I would understand those who want to leave completely. My own preference is affected, I admit, by knowing worthy Afghans, who will be either dead or refugees if the US decides to leave. Trump doesn’t likely know so many, or care much about the impact on non-Americans. American First means Afghans last, but I am still betting he chooses Option B: a temporary increase in US forces with a promise to draw down soon. Someone should outlaw Option B.

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