Military escalation is happening in several places these days:
- Syria: in addition to the March cruise missile strike on a Syrian base in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks US attacks on Iranian-backed forces approaching US-backed forces, downing of at least two Iranian-built drones, and downing of a Syrian warplane. Tehran and Damascus are pressing hard in eastern Syria, in an effort to deny the US and its allies post-war dominance there.
- Yemen: the Saudis and Emirates are continuing their campaign against the Houthis while the Americans amp up their campaign against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Today’s promotion of Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, to Crown Prince of the Kingdom presages more rather than less war there.
- Somalia: the Administration has expanded AFRICOM’s latitude in attacking al Shabaab militants, who are proving more resilient than many anticipated.
- Afghanistan: the White House has delegated authority to increase US forces to the military, which intends to deploy several thousand more Americans to help the Afghans counter the Taliban.
- Russia: Moscow’s warplanes have been conducting provocative maneuvers against NATO for some time, and yesterday a NATO F-16 allegedly approached a Russian plane carrying the Defense Minister.
Meanwhile Iraq’s disparate security forces are closing in on Mosul, civil wars continue in Libya and Mali, and North Korea continues to test its increasingly long-range missiles.
This military escalation is occurring in a vacuum of diplomatic and civilian efforts. Syria talks sponsored by Turkey, Iran and Russia are slated to reconvene soon in Astana, but prospects for serious progress there on military de-escalation are poor. The UN-sponsored political talks in Geneva are stalled. Planning for governance of Raqqa after the defeat of the Islamic State there is unclear.
The UN has announced a new Yemen Special Representative of the Secretary General, but it will be some time before he can relaunch its efforts. The UN-backed government in Libya is still unable to exert authority, especially over the eastern part of the country. The UN’s Mali mission has been suffering casualties, inhibiting any civilian efforts there. President Trump has tweeted the failure of Chinese diplomacy (more accurately, his diplomacy with China) to produce results with North Korea.
None of this should surprise. Apart from North Korea, the Americans are committed to not relying on diplomacy (in particular through the UN) and to avoiding anything resembling state-building. While they may sometimes think about financing removal of rubble or mines in newly liberated areas of Syria, they are determined to avoid any responsibility for governance or law and order. The Trump Administration wants to follow the formula Bush 43 tried in Afghanistan: kill the Islamic State and Al Qaeda enemies and get out. The failure of that approach has apparently been forgotten.
The only substantial diplomatic effort the Trump Administration has been pursuing is with Israel and Palestine, where there is an almost 70-year record of failures, with only occasional, if important, moments of partial success (I am thinking of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, not the Oslo accords). No one is taking bets that Jason Greenblatt’s efforts will succeed, though they may restrain the Israelis a bit and produce some modest improvements in the conditions under which Palestinians live. The two-state solution is, however, as far off as it has ever been.
The worst may be yet to come. The Trump Administration has aligned itself firmly with Israel, the Saudis, and the UAE against Iran. The Iranians seem increasingly determined to carve out their Shia crescent from Iraq through Syria and Lebanon all the way to the Mediterranean. We are on a collision course with Tehran, even if the nuclear deal hold for now
I regret to inform my august readership that Piglet is correct. Trump isn’t gone. He is claiming to have been vindicated, 100%. That of course is false. He was wounded, not vindicated, by the revelation that he hoped former FBI Director Comey would let former National Security Adviser Flynn off the hook and wanted the “cloud” of the Russia investigation lifted. But wanting and hoping are arguably not obstruction, even if I–like Comey–would have taken a president’s hope as an order.
Obstruction for now is in the eye of the beholder. Democrats see obstruction, though they might not if the president were one of their own. Republicans don’t, though there is no doubt they would if the president were not one of their own. Both seem to agree that Special Counsel Robert Mueller should make the determination, which demonstrates his considerable value added: removing the issue from a venue in which it can’t be settled to one in which it can be, on technical legal grounds.
But that will take time. In the meanwhile the Administration is demonstrating once again that it is incoherent. Yesterday, the President blasted Qatar again for financing terrorists, almost in the same moment that the Secretary of State was asking the Saudis and Emirates to back off their embargo of the tiny monarchy that hosts the largest US base in the Middle East:
Weeks after his disappointing appearance at NATO, the President also reaffirmed the Alliance’s “Article 5” mutual defense obligation, though in doing so he continued to suggest that the money is “pouring into NATO” as a result of his effort to press the allies to meet the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense. That isn’t the way this works: the money goes to the allies’ own defense efforts, not to the Alliance, and it is trickling in as allies begin to meet a commitment set in 2014 under President Obama, as a goal to be reached by 2024.
Some are happy to point out that Trump has not yet had a complete foreign policy disaster. A chipmunk could make it over that bar. He has however
- weakened NATO,
- split the Gulf Cooperation Council,
- boosted China by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord,
- ended a trade agreement for the Asia Pacific without proposing anything else as a keystone for US policy in the region,
- failed to respond effectively to North Korean provocations
- even begun to repair relations with Turkey,
- and proposed a budget that would decimate US diplomacy and international aid.
America is in worse shape on the international stage than it was at the end of the Obama administration, when many thought we were already in pretty bad shape. Ironically, the best that can be said for Trump is that he has continued Obama’s military efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, though he shares with Obama failure to enunciate a clear plan for how areas like Raqqa and Mosul will be governed once liberated.
Yesterday the President promised “100%” to testify under oath in the Special Counsel investigation of his campaign’s and administration’s connections to Russia. File that with his promise to release his tax returns, to provide documentation of his wife’s legal employment in the US, to prove his claim that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the election, and a dozen other commitments. The President is unprepared, unreliable, and inconsistent. To my satisfaction, he has even botched repeal and replacement of Obamacare and is well on his way to botching tax reform. The alleged adults in the Administration haven’t yet fixed anything. Trump excels at disappointing.
Some colleagues interested in Iraq asked what lessons had been learned from states that have emerged from a collapse of central authority. I was assigned Bosnia. Here is what I had to say:
- Central authority never completely collapsed in Bosnia. The internationally recognized government continued to exist in Sarajevo.
- But its authority did not extend during more than three years of the war to the three-quarters of the country controlled by unrecognized Croat and Serb military and governing structures, analogous in a way to Kurdistan under Saddam Hussein.
- Nor has central authority in Bosnia been fully restored, 22 years after the wars ended.
- Let me offer a short version of the story.
- After Croat (Catholic) and Bosniak (Muslim) “Federation” forces swept through western Bosnia in August and September 1995, the US peace initiative imposed a ceasefire.
- At Dayton, we rolled back the Federation forces from about 67% of the territory to 51% and accepted the governing authority of Republika Srpska on the remaining 49%. The Federation and Republika Srpska are two sub-state units of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
- This was done with the concurrence of Croatia and Serbia, Bosnia’s nearest neighbors. They were responsible for the war; peace could not be made without them.
- NATO initially deployed 60,000 troops, one-third Americans, to guarantee no reversion to war.
- We also created a thin central government with limited competences: foreign affairs, customs, currency, immigration, and a few other things like international communications and law enforcement.
- The currency used was the Deutschmark, as there was no possibility of agreement on anything else. As a consequence, there could be no: no printing of money and no devaluation.
- Under the Dayton constitution, this thin central government and the corresponding parliament were power-sharing arrangements: no important decisions could be made without all ethnic groups agreeing. This was repeated in the Federation down to the municipality level.
- Most responsibilities were devolved to the two “entities” created by the warring parties: the Federation and Republika Srpska. The Croat entity was to disappear.
- But that Dayton formula proved insufficient to create a functioning state. A civilian international community “High Representative,” designed at Dayton as powerless, was entrusted in 1997 with virtually dictatorial powers to fire officials and promulgate laws.
- From 1997 to 2006, he undertook the strengthening of the central government by fiat, with authority derived from a Peace Implementation Council in which the major powers were represented.
- With support from the NATO forces, he and the other civilian organizations he reigned over dismantled the separate Croat governing structures, organized elections, unified the army and defense ministries, the customs, the banking system, the license plates, and to some degree the courts, arrested war crime indictees, vetted the police, blocked broadcast of hate speech, instituted direct election of mayors, and beefed up the central government’s authority.
- This was vigorous international state-building backed by the stick of military force.
- The carrot was entry into Euro-Atlantic institutions.
- In 1999, four years after the war, a summit meeting in Sarajevo opened for all the countries of former Yugoslavia the prospect of membership in NATO and the European Union, a commitment that has been reiterated several times since.
- While Bosnia lags most of the rest of the Balkans in qualifying because of its still dysfunctional governing structure, incentives like a Stabilization and Association Agreement and a Schengen visa waiver have proven critical in thickening the authority of the central government.
- Present circumstances—which include Brexit, the refugee crisis, and a long recession as well as a decision not to admit any new EU members before 2020—have postponed the most important carrot and reduced its attractiveness, which accounts for a lot of the difficulties the Balkans, and Bosnia specifically, are facing right now.
- One other detail from Bosnia that may have some relevance to Iraq: the international community, in the person of an American “supervisor,” took on direct governing authority over the Brcko District, perhaps the most contested area during the war.
Iran Friday re-elected President Rouhani, who pressed for and got a nuclear deal with the P5+1 (that’s the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany, aka the EU3+3), with approval from the Supreme Leader. During his electoral campaign, Rouhani prioritized market reforms, negotiation of further sanctions relief, attracting foreign investment, and an enhanced regional and international presence for Iran.
Rouhani’s chief opponent was hard-nosed conservative Ebrahim Raisi, who wanted to close off Iran from further cooperation with the international community and build its “resistance” economy. Adopting a populist tone, he promised an increase in welfare benefits and subsidies. Implicated in the 1988 mass execution of thousands of prisoners, Raisi is “the true face of the Islamic Republic,” according to Elliot Abrams.
Iranians rejected that true face: Raisi lost by 19 percentage points, in an election that reportedly drew 70% turnout. Though far from free and fair, since candidates were vetted and many eliminated by the Guardian Council, that’s a definitive result, especially as there were two additional candidates. The Supreme Leader may be delighted that Iranians returned to the polls and did not boycott or otherwise protest too much, as they did in 2009. He may even be satisfied with Rouhani, who is no liberal but rather a stalwart of the regime who attracted support from would-be reformers because of the nuclear deal and the opening to the international community. But Iranians are clearly dissatisfied with clerical domination and isolation from the rest of the world.
Should Americans be happy with the election result or not?
Elliot preferred Raisi, as the human rights situation in Iran has not improved during Rouhani’s presidency and Tehran has become bolder in intervening in the region. The interventions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have not been a big strain. Iranians would have been far more likely to rebel against Raisi than Rouhani, and the international community far more ready to act. President Trump aligned with that view during his visit to Riyadh, when he backed the Saudis and their effort to organize the Sunni world to counter not only terrorism but also Iran. Confrontation, not Obama’s rapprochement, is now American policy.
Others think Iran is drifting in a more liberal, less religiously conservative direction that should be encouraged, not discouraged. Confrontation will make moderation less likely. Iranians seem to want pretty much what people in the West want: equality of opportunity, transparency, fairness, and rule of law. They oppose the corruption and cronyism that have become endemic in finance and the bureaucracy. Sharia has evaporated. The ideology of the Islamic Republic is fading. Few women are wearing even the hijab.
Of course both views can be correct: the hard core of the regime remains very much in place. Rouhani likely does have a better chance of extending its life than a hardliner like Raisi. But if the people of Iran see only hostile words and new sanctions, how likely are they to warm to the West?
Russia is the alternative, one with which Tehran has been developing stronger ties, especially in Syria. The Iranians like what they have seen of Russian weapons, even if the Russians think the Iranians militarily inept. Their marriage is one of convenience, not a real alliance, but effective enough on the battlefield in Syria. No divorce is likely. New sanctions on Iran, which Congress is contemplating, would not only drive Iranians towards Moscow but also split the Europeans from the US, as they want to continue doing business in Iran.
Iran’s growing power projection capabilities complicate the issue for Washington. Tehran has developed longer-range missiles (up to 4000 km) but has not yet much improved their accuracy. Intended primarily for use against Israel, the missiles can frighten a civilian population but cannot reliably hit military targets. Iran’s Shia militia proxies have strengthened over the past five years, including not only Lebanese Hizbollah but also Popular Mobilization Forces from Iraq and other groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Having been attacked by Stuxnet, Iran has quickly acquired cyber warfare and drone capabilities. All these capabilities are relatively inexpensive, difficult to counter, and readily deployed.
Like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Trump has gone from a diehard opponent of the nuclear deal to its de facto strong supporter. The Trump Administration would like to renegotiate it so that the restraints on Iran’s nuclear program do not expire. It is not, however, clear what the Administration is prepared to offer in return, or even what would be attractive to Tehran. Trump would have to do more to open US financial markets to the Iranians, or somehow get the Europeans to join in new sanctions, in order to get the better nuclear deal he promised during his campaign. What are the odds of that?
The bottom line: Washington needs to learn to do more than one thing at a time: keep the nuclear deal in place (or even extend it), counter Iranian trouble-making in the region, and encourage the Iranian people to moderate their Republic’s commitment to exporting revolution using its unconventional but economical capabilities. It’s not going to be easy.
The US troop surge in 2007 went a long way to stabilizing Iraq. Replicating that effort under Iraqi leadership could work again.
Throughout its operations in Iraq, the Global Coalition has faced issues of coordination among its member-states as the total cost of fighting ISIS mounts. The Coalition consists of 66 members but not all contribute equally, and the United States has increasingly felt pressure to cajole the international community to step up its military aid. The cost to fight ISIS is significant- as of March 2017, the Department of Defense had spent $12.5 billion over the last three years in its operations against ISIS. What’s more, the cost of resettling displaced Iraqis will be enormous- over 600,000 people have fled Mosul in the last few months alone, and many other former ISIS strongholds face considerable reconstruction efforts.
A more pressing problem, however, is the sectarian divide among the allied militias. Those fighting in Mosul include the Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni tribal forces supported by Turkey, Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), and the Iraqi army and police forces. Indeed, the population’s faith in the security forces also falls on sectarian lines. When asked whether they trusted the Iraqi army or PMUs to keep them safe, 45% of Shia respondents said PMUs and 30% said the Iraqi army; 48% of Sunni respondents answered the Iraqi army and only 4% PMUs.
Politically, reconciliation between different groups remains a challenge as the roots of sectarian conflict remain unaddressed. At the local level, corruption among police officers, judges, and local officials has allowed ISIS to creep back in. At the national level, the Sunni community struggles to enter political discourse, lacking strong leadership and divided among local communities and expatriate elites who claim to represent them. Economically, Iraq depends on oil revenue, which is down over the past several years due to declining oil prices. Corruption and the ongoing cost of fighting ISIS have cut a big slice out of revenue.
The government needs to address both the issue of security and citizen grievances simultaneously, cutting off both the physical and psychological avenues for ISIS’s return and ensuring the population feels safe. Combining military with civilian efforts was at the heart of General Petraeus’ 2007 surge in Iraq. The strategy was not only a surge of additional American troops but also a “surge of ideas,” reorienting operational strategy to emphasize the human terrain. Efforts included rebuilding infrastructure, reconciling groups at the local level, incorporating militia members and insurgents into the state security apparatus, and communicating with populations so they took ownership in rebuilding Iraq.
Applying this model to Iraq’s security today could address current mission weaknesses and neutralize the threat of sectarianism. First and foremost, it is important to put the monopoly over security back in the hands of the state—to do this, PMUs and militias must be folded into the Iraqi army and external influences from regional actors removed. This would create a military force whose size, strength, and military training serve a similar role as the 170,000 US surge troops of 2007 did. Creating a single security force drawn from local forces could improve trust in the national army as well. Iraqis are proud of the PMUs as the most effective force in the country as compared to perceived government failure. By capitalizing on the high morale these forces create, Iraq would have an expanded, ready, and willing force distributed across the country and ensuring threats such as ISIS have no space to reemerge.
The military should rely on civilian counterparts to do the work of reconciling groups at the local level and decentralizing politics. One such project, a reconciliation effort in the ethnically mixed Mahmoudiya neighborhood south of Baghdad, cost $1.5 million. The peace agreement established in 2007 has endured until today.
The Petraeus surge included passing several laws to address key issues that might facilitate political agreement at the national level, such as increasing provincial power and improving the elections law. Decentralization would also improve the local and, by extension, national economies. Rebuilding infrastructure and getting Iraqis back into their homes should be a priority and local leadership could help entice citizens to return. Additionally, supporting small businesses will allow startups to be successful and employ greater numbers of Iraqis. Foreign aid should be likewise reoriented away from humanitarian aid to economic development, partnering with local leaders to help distribute aid for maximum benefit. Investing in local economies will go a long way to creating a stable foundation on which both the local and national economy can grow and thrive.
The surge privileged coordination between military and civilians, focused on the human terrain matters, and supported local level reconciliation . Stabilization is a process rather than a product, and it will take many years—and perhaps many iterations improving upon the last, to hold.
The President’s speech on terrorism in Riyadh yesterday to assembled Sunni Muslims broke no new ground in appealing to Muslims to fight terrorism. His two predecessors spent 16 years pushing that line. I know a lot of Muslims tired of hearing that appeal, but it passes for statesmanlike in the more respectable conservative corner of the American press.
In my view, the speech was important in two other ways:
- It abandoned US advocacy of democracy, rule of law and human rights;
- It rallied Sunnis to an anti-Iran alliance intended to include Israel.
These are not completely new ideas. Washington until 2011 did little to advocate for democracy, rule of law and human rights among its friends in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq was the exception that proved the rule: Saddam Hussein was (no longer) a friend of the United States. The Bush Administration, in particular Vice President Cheney, actively sought a Sunni alliance against Iran, though the Israel connection was then less obvious.
These ideas do break with Obama Administration philosophy, which wasn’t always so clear in practice. Even while selling Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates vast quantities of weapons, Obama wanted Iran and the Gulf states to “share” the region and expressed a preference for open societies, while reverting quickly, especially in Egypt, to support for autocracy. While Obama did not do much to challenge the Gulf state monarchies openly, the Saudis and others felt heat from him that they are glad to see dissipated.
Trump’s inconsistency, one might even say hypocrisy, is entirely welcome in the Gulf. While he denounced the Saudis during his campaign for failing to pay for US protection and for human rights abuses against gays and lesbians, those complaints were completely forgotten in his visit to Riyadh, as was his criticism of Obama for “bowing” to the Saudi king in accepting a decoration (something Trump did as well). Demands for payment for US military protection have been conveniently converted to Saudi purchases of US military equipment, something Obama also pushed, to even higher levels than Trump has managed so far.
The anti-Iran alliance is likely to be the most immediately relevant of Trump’s ambitions. The trouble is the Iranians are well-prepared for it. They have assembled an impressive array of unconventional military means to counter the Sunni Arabs and Israel economically and effectively. The American invasion of Iraq was particularly helpful to Tehran, since democracy there puts the Shia majority in charge, but Iran’s capabilities extend also to Syria and Lebanon, mainly through the use of well-trained militia surrogates, most importantly Hizbollah. Iran has also managed to float and fly a lot of unconventional capabilities in the Gulf, where harassment of US warships is common. The US Navy has a hard time dealing with small boats and drones.
Binding the Sunni Arabs and Israel together will depend on some sort of rapprochement on Palestinian issues. Prime Minister Netanyahu talked openly today about wanting to be able to fly to Riyadh, and rumors of civil aviation and communication cooperation with Sunni states have been circulating for more than a week. The problem is on the Israeli side: the Arabs will want concessions on Israeli settlements in the West Bank or other issues that Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners will not want to make. Trump is still touting his desire to make the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians, but there is no real sign of an impending breakthrough.
As with most presidential speeches, we should note what was left out. Most notable was the absence of any idea of how the territory retaken from the Islamic State in Syria will be governed. In Iraq, Trump is continuing the Obama policy of support for Baghdad’s reassertion of authority over Sunni areas from which ISIS has been evicted. In Syria, the policy is far less clear and the need for one imminent, as Raqqa will likely fall within months (if not weeks) and Deir Azzour not long after. Will the US allow these eastern Syrian cities to be taken over by Iran-allied Bashar al Assad? Or will there be a real effort to support the Syrian opposition in governing there?
The logic of the speech favors the latter, as does last week’s US attack on Iranian-backed forces allegedly threatening US troops and allies in southern Syria. But let’s not forget Trump’s affection for the Russians, who have cooperated actively with the Iranians and backed Bashar to the hilt. There is still a lot of uncertainty about what Trump will do in the Middle East and how effective his choices will be.