- Countering Violent Extremism: Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood | Monday, October 23 | 11:30 am – 5:15 pm | Hudson Institute (held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center) | Register Here | This full-day event includes two keynote addresses, the first by Secretary Leon E. Panetta, and the second by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, as well as two panels titled “Sinews of Terrorism – Communications, Funding, and Ideological Support” and “New Dynamism in Congress.” General David H. Petraeus, formerly of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Ambassador Hussain Haqqani will also speak at the event.
- The Future of Orthodox Christianity in Syria and America | Tuesday, October 24 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Over the last two thousand years, the Church of Antioch has played a major role in the formation and development of Christian theology and philosophy. Today the Church is facing tremendous challenges in its native homeland, Syria. Six years after the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the country is in ruins and millions of its citizens have become refugees or are internally displaced within Syria. The ongoing war has flamed sectarian tensions that threaten the existence of Christianity in one of its earliest locations. Though suffering at home, the Church of Antioch is flourishing abroad with a growing congregation in the United States. What place do Christians and the Antiochian Church have in the future of Syria? What role has the Church played in humanitarian assistance to the millions in need? Why is Orthodoxy finding renewed appeal in Western countries? For answers to these and many other questions regarding the future of Orthodox Christianity in Syria and America, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom will host a conversation with His Beatitude, John X, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, and His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph, Metropolitan of All North America and Archbishop of New York. Hudson Senior Fellow Samuel Tadros will moderate the conversation.
- Tunisia’s Corruption Contagion | Wednesday, October 25 | 12:00 – 2:30 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | Corruption in Tunisia is perceived to be even more pervasive today than under former president Zine el Abidine ben Ali, despite numerous legal measures and civil society initiatives working to fight it. In their upcoming Carnegie paper, “Tunisia’s Corruption Contagion: A Transition at Risk,” Sarah Yerkes and Marwan Muasher argue that corruption has become endemic, as more and more people engage in and benefit from corrupt practices. For the democratic transition to survive, Tunisia must simultaneously address the kleptocracy of the previous regime and the emergence of widespread petty corruption. Can Tunisia’s government and civil society win this fight? Yassine Brahim will provide keynote remarks, and Chaima Bouhlel and Safwan Masri will join Carnegie’s Sarah Yerkes in a discussion of the paper’s findings moderated by Marwan Muasher. Tunisian Ambassador to the United States Fayçal Gouia will provide closing remarks. A light lunch will be served at 12:00 p.m. The discussion will begin at 12:30 p.m.
- Trump and the Arab World: First Year Assessment and Policy Recommendations | Thursday, October 26 | 9:00 am – 5:00 pm | Arab Center DC (held at JW Marriott Washington DC) | Register Here | The Arab Center’s second annual conference will begin with an opening keynote titled “US Policy in the Arab World: An Arab Perspective given by Tarek Mitri of the American University of Beirut and will consist of four panels. The first panel, “What Arabs Want: Arab Public Opinion and US Policy,” will feature panelists Tamara Kharroub of the Arab Center DC, Dalia Mogahed of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland- College Park. The second, “US Policy and Political and Economic Challenges in the Arab World” will include Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, Perry Cammack of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Hani Findakly of Potomac Capital, and Najib Ghadbian of the University of Arkansas and Special Representative of the Syrian National Coalition to the US. The panel will be moderated by Dina Khoury of George Washington University. The third panel is titled “US-Gulf Relations and US Policy in the Arabian Gulf,” and moderator Khalid Al-Jaber of Qatar University will be joined by Abdullah Baabood of Qatar University, Sheila Carapico of the University of Richmond, David Des Roches of the National Defense University, and Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council. The final panel, “US Policy Recommendations in the Arab World” will feature Marwan Kabalan of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut, Ibrahim Fraihat of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Ellen Laipson of George Mason University, and will be moderated by Laurie King of Georgetown University.
- Public Perspectives Toward Democracy | Thursday, October 26 | 12:30 pm | Council on Foreign Relations | Register Here | Panelists discuss global public opinion towards democracy amid the rise of populists and autocrats, and the implications for the future of democracy and U.S. foreign policy. Speakers include Stewart M. Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ken Wollack of the National Democratic Institute, and Katie Simmons of the Pew Research Center.
- The Path Forward on Iran: Contain, Enforce, Engage | Thursday, October 26 | 11:00 am – 12:00 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | What comes next after President Donald Trump’s decision not to recertify the Iran nuclear deal? Experts from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Center for a New American Security offer a suggested way ahead in a new joint report: Contain, Enforce, and Engage: An Integrated U.S. Strategy to Address Iran’s Nuclear and Regional Challenges. Carnegie President William J. Burns will introduce the report, and Carnegie’s Jen Psaki will moderate a discussion with some of the report’s authors. Speakers include Ariel E. Levite and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as Ilan Goldenberg and Elizabeth Rosenberg of the Center for a New American Security.
I talked yesterday with some young, DC-based Kurds after yesterday’s Middle East Institute conference on Iraq here at SAIS. They are fried. The retaking of Kirkuk and other “disputed territories” by Baghdad has made them feel humiliated and furious. The split between President Barzani’s PDK and the PUK, whose peshmerga did not resist the Iraqi security forces, surprised and horrified them. The battle for Kirkuk may be lost, but they are expecting the war to continue.
I hope not. President Barzani miscalculated in holding the referendum. He thought it would consolidate his political hold on Kurdistan and lead to a negotiation with Baghdad, not a military push. He also miscalculated the international reaction, which has been almost universally negative. Only Israel has supported the referendum and an independent Kurdistan, which condemns the effort in most Middle Eastern eyes. Tehran and Ankara have vigorously opposed the referendum. Washington and Moscow have done likewise.
Going to war with Baghdad would be another colossal miscalculation on Barzani’s part. He wisely is indicating that he won’t do that. The reconstituted Iraqi security forces appear more than adequate to overpower the peshmerga, at least until they retreat into the mountains. But it would also be unwise for Baghdad to push its forces past the constitutional borders of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is foolishly what former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is urging. That would trigger an insurgency, throwing Iraq into even more chaos than it is suffering already in the aftermath of the successful campaign against ISIS. Iraq needs reconstruction and reconciliation, not a new rebellion.
Kurds are not going to give up the autonomy they won in Iraq’s 2005 constitution. Even in the disputed territories retaken by the Iraqi security forces governance may be extraordinarily difficult unless the KRG’s civilian authorities are allowed to return. Wisdom now lies with calming the situation, maintaining law and order as best can be done with local forces, and enabling both Baghdad and Erbil to go back to the negotiating table without losing face. Humiliation, especially on the basis of identity, is a powerful motive for violence and irredentism. A Kurdish rebellion in Iraq would be supported by Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran. That’s the last thing Iraq needs now.
At yesterday’s conference, both Iraqi Ambassador Yasseen and Iranian Princeton professor Mousavian supported resolution of the disputed territories based on the Iraqi constitution. That is obviously easier said than done, since it has not in fact gotten done in 12 years. But it is still the best solution on offer: local referenda allowing the populations in different communities to decide whether they want to join the KRG or not. What has made that difficult is deciding who should be able to vote, because Arabization during the Saddam Hussein dictatorship and population movements since the American invasion could determine the outcome.
That is a soluble problem. Elections in territories that have been demographically engineered have become common in recent decades in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Some combination of voter registration (outside the US usually done via the census) and absentee voting can be worked out. The main thing is to negotiate a compromise and proceed with it. That is true as well for other issues dividing Erbil and Baghdad, especially oil revenues and who can export oil with or without someone else’s permission. These are soluble problems that should no longer be allowed to fester. And Haider al Abadi is the most sympathetic prime minister the Kurds can hope to deal with in Baghdad. Making some deals with him before next year’s elections would be smart politics.
Iraq needs to settle its internal issues so that it can begin to play its proper role in helping the region to overcome more than a decade of war. American diplomacy should stand ready to help. It is time to cut deals.
Think of Kirkuk as the keystone that holds Iraq together. When the Kurds had it, they could claim possession of the oil resources as well as their cultural capital. Independence was a credible goal. Without it, independence is a pipe dream and maybe even a nightmare.
What caused the loss of Kirkuk, and now other disputed territories? There has so far been relatively little fighting. The peshmerga associated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who held Kirkuk, apparently surrendered most of their positions. The PUK is aligned in part with Iran, which commanded at least some of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that led the re-occupation of Kirkuk.
Iran is in fact a big winner from this latest military development, since it opposes Kurdistan independence vehemently. But so too do Turkey and the US. Sovereign states are loathe to see other sovereign states partitioned, not least because of fears for their own territorial integrity (Turkey and Iran) as well as their relations with the country in question (the US, Russia and others). Preserving the state structure in the Middle East is in fact one of the few things on which all the states there, and their foreign allies, agree.
The Kurdish independence referendum last month was a colossal miscalculation. KRG President Barzani tried to take advantage of his own momentary dominance in Kurdistan’s politics as well as the victory over ISIS to take what he saw as a giant step towards a goal he knows all Kurds share. But the PUK, Gorran and other political forces in Kurdistan were not happy to see Barzani get the credit and dissented from the process for preparing the referendum, which was shambolic to say the least. The foreign powers that count also objected. In this contest between national aspirations and geopolitics, the latter has won this round.
What now? Baghdad’s forces are apparently trying to restore their control to the situation in 2003, which means taking back most if not all of the so-called “disputed territories.” That might be a bridge too far, but in any event the main thing is to avoid bloodletting as much as possible, since that is what would make a bad situation more intractable. Baghdad already has in Kirkuk what it needs to block independence. What is needed now is to calm the situation and get Baghdad and Erbil back to the negotiating table, where they can discuss Kurdistan’s relationship with the rest of Iraq.
The retaking of Kirkuk and other disputed territories will strengthen Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and weaken KRG President Barzani, though the latter may gain inside Iraqi Kurdistan if the PUK is blamed for the military debacle. Abadi has suffered from his predecessor Nour al Maliki’s political maneuvers and was thought to be at risk in elections that are supposed to be held next year. He will now be able to face down criticism from those who thought he was soft on the Kurds.
The KRG is appealing to the Americans to engage. Washington had apparently tried hard to prevent the referendum by doing so. The Kurds made a big mistake in not making sure that effort succeeded. The US may now engage, but with entirely different facts on the ground. While sympathetic to the Kurds and anxious to keep them fighting against the remnants of ISIS, no one in Washington can force Abadi to give up Kirkuk. To the contrary: the Americans will want to maintain as strong a relationship with Abadi as possible, to counter Iranian expanded influence in Baghdad.
Kirkuk makes a big difference.
PS: Lukman Faily, former Iraqi Ambassador in the US, seems to me to do a good job in this interview with Wolf Blitzer:
Some of us have worried about the Kirkuk “powder keg” for a long time. The fuse has now been lit. Preventing the larger explosion should now be top priority.
Kirkuk is a complicated place. Both Arabs and Kurds claim the city, not to mention the Turkomen and the much smaller number of Syriac Christians. It has rich, long-producing oil wells mainly north of the city. The Kurds took advantage of the Iraqi army’s collapse in 2014 to take the town, which had previously been more or less under Baghdad’s control. It’s governor since 2011 has been a PUK (i.e. Talabani-family aligned) Kurdish American, Najmaldin Karim. The Kurdish peshmerga have kept the Islamic State out under difficult circumstances.
Now Iraqi Security Forces and Baghdad-controlled Popular Mobilization Forces (or PMF, which are mainly Shia Arab) are trying to re-occupy key parts of Kirkuk: the airport, an army base, and oil infrastructure. Baghdad’s view is that there is no reason to doubt its legal authority to do so, as it has not accepted Kirkuk as a part of the Kurdistan Region. That region’s government (the KRG) sees things differently, as it claims Baghdad has refused to fulfill the constitutional requirement of a referendum in Kirkuk to determine whether it wants to join the autonomous region. Baghdad has in principle the stronger fighting forces, partly well-equipped by the Americans. But the peshmerga are experienced and capable, also having benefited from American support.
Baghdad is under enormous pressure to reassert its authority in Kirkuk because of last month’s KRG independence referendum, which passed overwhelmingly with many non-Kurds in the KRG not voting. Prime Minister al-Abadi, who in principle is more sympathetic with Kurdish aspirations than most Arabs, needs to prove that he is prepared to stand up for their interests. The PMF, which are at least partly controlled by his rival and predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, are spoiling for a fight with the peshmerga. The Iranians, who vehemently oppose independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, are no doubt backing an aggressive stance, though they have been visibly trying to mediate between Baghdad and Erbil.
KRG President Barzani insisted on the referendum, despite vigorous US, Iranian, and Turkish opposition. He claimed it was merely advisory and intended as an overture to two years of negotiations on the KRG’s borders and status with Baghdad. While he has talked of “confederation” with Arab Iraq, Kurds, especially the younger ones, expect better than that, despite the opposition of all their neighbors. Barzani comes from a family committed for generations to an independent Kurdistan.
The contest is between national aspirations and geopolitical reality. It will now be decided in part by force of arms. But violence begets other realities that neither the Erbil nor Baghdad can afford to risk. The time to stop the clashes between the Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga is now. Let’s hope the Americans can spare enough time from their own internecine squabbles over whether to allow football players to kneel during the national anthem to get two important allies to stop fighting.
Ibrahim al Assil, a founder of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, and a nonresident fellow at the Orient Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, wrote a notable op/ed for the Washington Post this week. Here is his email teaser, which he has kindly given me permission to publish:
Syria entered a new reality in the last few months. However, there are significant misconceptions that can alter the future of Syria if not taken into consideration. I’m writing to share my piece for the Washington Post today, titled Syria’s civil war is a long way from over — and here’s why that’s important. I discuss the ideas below:
– Assad has not yet won. What he has done is to prevent anyone else from winning.
– Syria can’t be stabilized under Assad’s leadership. The conflict will erupt again unless a political settlement is achieved.
– Aid to Syria should be sent directly to local communities and those who are in need. This will prevent Assad from weaponizing the aid, and it will ensure that the aid actually reaches the people who need it most.
– The military campaign is not enough to defeat ISIS. Without addressing the root causes that brought about the rise of the terrorist movement, any “defeat” is only short-term. The US should help stabilize those areas and support the civil society and local governance initiatives.
– The US and the EU should help Syrians start to rebuild their communities after ISIS while preventing Assad from cashing in on his Pyrrhic victory.
This to me makes a lot of good sense. It also runs contrary to US inclinations. President Trump has made it clear he wants to defeat ISIS militarily and get out, without taking any responsibility for the state-building required to prevent it from returning.
Self-defeating would be my term for that approach: it would allow Assad to attempt to retake, with help from his Russian and Iranian allies, those areas in the north, east, and south that are still out of his control, it would allow the Turks to attack the Kurds who have been vital to America’s success against ISIS, it would virtually ensure the reignition of a rebellion against Assad’s heavy-handedness.
Protecting the remaining opposition-controlled areas and enabling them to govern inclusively and effectively would, by contrast, illustrate to Syrians a realistic political alternative, counter the Iranian expansionism, and help to prevent a return of jihadi extremism. Too sensible by half for Trump, but a real option the US could be contemplating.
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.