Tag: Kurds

The long game in Iraq

As the liberation of Mosul draws near, one question lurks on the horizon: what is the American day-after strategy in Iraq? In response, on Monday the Wilson Center convened a teleconference featuring Anthony J. Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State; Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, former US ambassador to Turkey and Iraq; Colin Kahl, former Deputy Assistant to the President; and Robert Malley, former Senior Adviser to the President for the Counter-ISIL Campaign. Panelists identified two major challenges going forward in Iraq: the specter of Sunni jihadism and Iranian expansionism.

Although ISIS’s territorial base is greatly diminished and will be dealt a severe blow with the liberation of Mosul, the fight is not over. The terrorist organization and self-proclaimed caliphate maintains a presence in outposts such as Al-Qaim in Iraq and Abu Kamal and Deir ez-Zor in Syria. Moreover, cautions Kahl, even if ISIS lost all its territory, the organization would remain.

“Not only are they going to be a virtual, global, transnational phenomenon, even once the physical caliphate is completely smashed, but they’re not going to completely disappear from Iraq and Syria either,” Kahl predicted. “They’re going to revert to what they were before, which is a cellular terrorist network and insurgency.”

Even if ISIS were defeated, the political and economic conditions that gave rise to it would persist, observed Blinken. This raises concerns that another Sunni jihadist group might take the place of ISIS following the liberation Mosul. The solution? Judicious foreign intervention, concluded Monday’s analysts.

Sunnis in Iraq need assurances that their government—currently led by Shia prime minister Haider al-Abadi—will not persecute them. Iraqi Kurds need greater autonomy and a resolution of Arab-Kurdish territorial disputes over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The United States should support functional federalism and the decentralization of federal power to provincial governments, suggested Blinken, and should offer itself up as an “honest broker” in ongoing political disputes between Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds.

Pacifying Sunni-Shia tensions will require curtailing Iranian influence in post-ISIS Iraq. “If Sunnis feel threatened by Iranian expansionism, we’ll get another ISIS,” warned Ambassador Jeffrey. Ultimately, argued Jeffrey, the United States must give the Iraqi government incentives to position itself as a neutral actor between the US and Iran, even as antagonism between the United States and Iraq simmers. The ambassador suggested that this neutrality should come as the price for American aid in rebuilding Iraq. Malley’s suggestion was less coercive: blunt the influence of Iran by pre-empting it with American aid.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration poses several complications for these plans. While Iraq desperately needs international dollars in order to rebuild its cities, President Trump proposes to slash the State Department and USAID budgets. While neutrality in US-Iranian relations is key to salvaging Iraq, the Trump administration may be tempted to force the country to take sides as antagonism grow more intense. In addition, noted Malley, Iraqi civilian casualties have increased under the Trump administration, which may inflame anti-American sentiment on the ground.

“When it comes to balancing Iran’s influence,” warned Kahl, “we have to play the long game. Hopefully the president takes heed.

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Divorce terms first, referendum second

My  piece in the Washington Post this morning concludes: 

Washington can hope the Iraqi Kurds and Arabs will restrain themselves and negotiate a peaceful and mutually agreed outcome. But hope is not a policy. It is also still possible the referendum will be postponed, but if held, it is likely to undermine the fight against the Islamic State, heighten tension between Baghdad and Irbil, and cause fighting over the territories they dispute. It could also encourage independence movements in South Yemen, eastern Libya (Cyrenaica) and Syria as well as validate Russian-supported independence claims in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. None of that would be good for the United States, which should be doing what it can to block the referendum and insist on a successful negotiation before it is held, not afterwards.

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Counterbalancing Iran

On Wednesday, Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE) paid a visit to the Middle East Institute to deliver a keynote address entitled “Challenges in U.S.-Iran Foreign Policy.” The senator’s speech highlighted the importance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and maintaining a balance of power in the Middle East to counter Iranian influence.

Despite its flaws, the JCPOA has succeeded in its primary objectives: freezing Iran’s nuclear program, supporting global counter-proliferation efforts, and opening channels of communication to prevent the escalation of hostilities between the United States and Iran. While decrying Iran’s abysmal human rights record and acknowledging that several members of Congress seek to undo the landmark agreement, Coons insisted that commitment to the JCPOA is the United States’ best bet to contain the Iranian nuclear threat and prevent direct conflict.

“We should only walk away,” countered the senator, “when there is clear cause to do so.”

Coons was adamant that “calls for regime change or war with Iran are reckless.” One needs look no further than Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya to see examples of failed U.S. initiatives in the region. Moreover, regime change raises the threat of a power vacuum and jihadi forces ready to fill it.

Conditioning US-Iran relations is a delicate project. Ultimately, concerns about the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East must inform the US stance on governments and organizations as diverse as Iraqi Kurdistan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

In particular, the impending September 25 referendum on Iraqi Kurdish independence presents a minefield for American rhetoric and policy: the referendum, if approved, would weaken the integrity of the Iraqi state and shift the country’s Sunni-Shia sectarian balance to a Shia majority, increasing Iran’s clout. Yet the argument for Iraqi Kurdish self-determination is compelling, and Kurds have been strong regional allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

Additionally, announced Coons, the GCC feud must be put to rest. It weakens the Middle East’s strongest anti-Iran bloc and American ability to counter Iranian sway.

The Senator pins hopes for the future of US-Iran relations on Senate Bill 722: the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017. The bill, which has stalled in the House of Representatives following a constitutional challenge, would impose non-nuclear sanctions on Russia and Iran to punish Iran for “unacceptable non-nuclear behavior,” including support for the Assad regime in Syria, threats to Israel, and antagonism towards U.S. allies in the Gulf. The senator also advises American diplomats to negotiate a successor agreement to the JCPOA, which will be critical as sunset clauses in the existing agreement go into effect.

Crucially, American officials must restrict their antagonism to the Iranian government—not the Iranian people. The May 19 Iranian presidential elections, which re-elected moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani, indicate that Iranians want a less repressive regime and a more open society. President Trump’s Muslim ban and inflammatory rhetoric do nothing to serve American interests—they only stoke anti-American sentiment among the Iranian people.

Given the results of the presidential election and the tentative success of the JCPOA, the Trump administration would be foolish to sabotage relations with Iran.

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At Tuesday’s panel “The Syrian Conflict and Regional Security,” hosted by the Turkish Heritage Organization, the complex web of military alliances and political tensions entwining Turkey, Iraq, the United States, and Kurdish forces against ISIS took center stage.

Turkey considers the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)—a terrorist group. Yet the United States, Turkey’s NATO ally, is arming the YPG in order to further the fight against ISIS.

To smooth tensions, the United States has promised to give Turkey lists of the weapons it has provided to the YPG, and to ensure that they are not used in Turkey. Moreover, added panelist Michael Doran, although the Trump administration is willing to work with the YPG in order to defeat ISIS in Syria, the president will not tolerate a PKK state in Syria. The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is a left-wing organization based in Turkey and Iraq engaged in a long-term armed conflict with the Turkish state. It seeks to establish a state of Kurdistan.

Despite these assurances, tensions between the United States and Turkey persist over the Kurdish issue.

Central to the problem, explained General Mark Kimmitt, is the fact that in order to maintain cordial US-Turkey relations and prevent partisan US involvement in regional Kurdish politics, the YPG must eventually comply with a US policy of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR). Yet the United States has already armed and trained the Kurdish rebels. It is unclear how disarming the YPG would be accomplished. Turkey is wary of possible complications.

With ISIS’s expulsion from Raqqa finally on the horizon, the future of Syria hangs in the balance. No one, admitted Doran, appears to know the American plan. It is possible that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will be allowed to govern, but this arrangement will not sit well with the United States for long if the Assad regime attracts Iranian presence in Syria. On the Kurdish question, “most Kurds don’t want the PKK forever,” observed Denise Natali of the National Defense University. However, it’s not clear how they will leave Iraq and northeastern Syria. The PKK helps local populations by providing badly needed electricity, jobs, and salaries.

Natali believes it is possible for Turkey to maintain relations with non-PKK affiliated Syrian Kurds in the northeastern part of the country. Syrian Kurds are not ultimately moved to militancy by ideological considerations. Rather, their concerns are material. They need salaries. The PYD has actually maintained a relationship with the Assad regime throughout the Syrian civil war. They continue to receive government paychecks. Natali anticipates that the Assad government will prevail and negotiate with vulnerable Kurdish rebel leaders. Even with the Kurds’ territorial expansion, Kurdistan is landlocked. This increases the incentive to negotiate.

Ultimately, observed Doran and Natali, neither Turkey nor the United States—nor any of the countries in the Levant and Middle East region—want to see Syria or Iraq fracture into smaller sectarian or ethnic states post-ISIS. Natali further believes that such fracturing is highly unlikely. In the meantime, as Turkey and the United States adopt distinct approaches to opposing ISIS, the two NATO allies will remain at odds over the decision to arm YPG forces.

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Will Trump disappoint as much as Obama?

In his Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture February 28, Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm discussed the sociopolitical landscape of the Middle East and America’s foreign policy options within the context of the Obama administration’s legacy in the region and the Trump administration’s inheritance.

Gnehm focused on the Arab Spring and its aftermath as well as intervention by outside powers in regional power struggles. With hopes dashed and chaos raging across the region, old power centers such as the military and entrenched bureaucracies have reasserted themselves and undone much of the work the revolutions hoped to do. The conflicts erupting in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, have led to increased external intervention and proxy conflict. Notably, Iran and Russia have spread their influence and military clout around the region in pursuit of their own national interests.

The US has remained notable for its absence. Obama’s reluctance to intervene confused and angered many traditional American allies. This led to a widespread view in the Middle East that a gap exists between expectations and US performance. Obama’s hopeful rhetoric in 2009 in Cairo did little to create actionable change in the region. The administration’s failure to follow through on its Syria red line was devastating to American credibility and lost the United States respect in the region. Although the Obama administration’s efforts in combating ISIS and supporting the Syrian opposition were significant, the widespread feeling of disappointment is Trump’s inheritance as he took the reins earlier this year.

Gnehm weighed Trump’s policy options in confronting the regional landscape as it stands and in charting a course for the future. In Syria, Trump could continue the present policy of arming Kurds and rebels, ramp up American military presence, or accept the existing Russian and Iranian influence. Although each option has its consequences, Gnehm felt that directly engaging militarily with ISIS would underscore Trump’s current rhetoric. In Iraq, Trump could continue supporting the Iraqi government to regain control of territory and  continue to provide assistance and training to Iraqi Kurds, or he could increase American involvement.

Iran poses a greater challenge to Trump due to its opportunistic bids for power in the region, which undercut Saudi Arabia and position Tehran as the champion of Islam. With regards to the nuclear deal, Gnehm saw four options Trump could pursue:

  • directly confront Iran and respond with force to force,
  • impose new sanctions,
  • alter the nuclear deal,
  • or continue the Obama administration’s policy of engaging with Iran to curtail its aggressive behavior.

How Trump chooses to deal with Iran has implications for America’s regional allies, who remain uncertain about US commitment. The Trump administration may be able to restore good faith among allies in the Gulf, especially in light of his tough line on Iran. However, Gnehm also stressed the humanitarian crisis in the region as people remain displaced, areas destroyed, and societies shattered. Although the administration has not said much about this aspect of the regional landscape, it will remain a significant challenge for policy in the months and years to come.

A little over a month into his presidency, Trump will soon discover that the world he has inherited is a difficult and complicated place with opportunities, risks, and unintended consequences. No course of action Trump chooses to take will be smooth or neatly solve the complex problems and challenges the region faces. Just as Obama raised expectations and collapsed on performance, Trump’s bombastic approach could result in the same outcome.


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Peace picks February 27 – March 3

  1. Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum: Negotiation Day – Negotiators’ Behavior in the End Game | Monday, February 27 | 9 – 10:30am | SAIS Johns Hopkins | Register Here | No analytical work has ever addressed the subject of How Negotiations End. We know that negotiators act differently in the endgame–when they see the end is in sight, good or bad, and they work to that end. This project addresses that situation, examining way in which the endgame ends positively or negatively, and the way in which typical behavioral patterns are encountered on the way. A path breaking study of a neglected topic. The book is now in press with Cambridge University Press, the latest study of the Process of International Negotiation (PIN) Program at Clingendael, Netherlands.
  2. Potential Negotiations in the Upcoming Year | Monday, February 27 | 11 am – 12:30 pm | SAIS Johns Hopkins | Register Here | We are faced today with an international situation filled with challenges for negotiation. These represent opportunities open for pursuit; others represent situations looking for an opportunity. In this situation, what are the prospects for pursuing and developing negotiations as a means of managing conflict and of furthering US policy goals.Speakers:Thomas Pickering, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, the Russian Federation, India, Israel, and JordanPrinceton Lyman, former US Ambassador to Nigerial and South Africa

    Galia Golan, Professor at the School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya

    Vali Nasr, Dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS

    I WIlliam Zartman, Jacob Blaustein Professor Emeritus of International Organizations and Conflict Resolution, SAIS – Moderator

    Location Kenney Herter Auditorium, 1740 Massachusetts Avenue NW

  3. Crude Strategy: Rethinking the U.S. Military Commitment to Defend Persian Gulf Oil | Monday, February 27 | 11 – 12:30pm | Cato Institute | Register Here | Should the United States continue to use its military to guarantee the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf? For more than 30 years, U.S. foreign policy has been shaped by a commitment to safeguard the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Yet profound changes in international oil markets, growth in domestic U.S. energy production, and dramatic shifts in the Middle Eastern balance of power suggest that it may be time to reconsider whether this commitment is still warranted. In Crude Strategy, a multidisciplinary team of political scientists, economists, and historians set out to explore the links between Persian Gulf oil and U.S. national security. Their essays explore key questions such as the potential economic cost of disruption in oil supply, whether disruptions can be blunted with nonmilitary tools, the potential for instability in Saudi Arabia, and the most effective U.S. military posture for the region. By clarifying the assumptions underlying the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, the authors conclude that the case for revising America’s grand strategy towards the region is far stronger than is commonly assumed.
  4. The Trump Administration and the Future of the Kurds | Monday February 27 | 2 – 3:30pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | The Kurdish issue in the Middle East is at an important juncture. The Iraqi Kurds, faced with an unsettled Iraq, are itching to declare their independence. The Syrian Kurds have managed to affiliate themselves with the United States against ISIS but face a hostile reaction from Turkey, their northern neighbor, intent on rolling back their successes. The Turkish Kurds have to contend with the effects of government attempts at suppressing their legal political representatives and the war between the Turkish state and the PKK, which are challenging the country’s stability. Our panel will discuss these and other issues pertaining to the future Kurdish political landscape.
  5. U.S. – Turkey Cooperation in Syria and the Role of the U.S. in the Middle East | Monday February 27 | 3 – 4:30pm | Turkish Heritage Organization | Register Here | The Trump administration has inherited numerous, complex challenges in the Middle East. Regional instability caused by the Syrian civil war continues to have a profound impact on one of the U.S.’s most strategic NATO allies – Turkey – and on the bilateral relationship between Washington and Ankara. As the Trump administration prepares to tackle these issues and re-shape America’s role in the region, experts will discuss the choices and challenges facing the U.S. and Turkey.
  6. The Impact of Shifting Geopolitics on MENA Energy | Tuesday February 28 | 12 – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Changes in the energy market, new entrants, and conflicting economic and national security interests at the regional and global level have altered the market power of Middle Eastern oil and gas producers. Industry developments and new policies under the Trump administration are likely to lead to the expansion of U.S. shale oil and gas production and increased exports. Russia vies daily with Saudi Arabia to be the world’s largest producer, while prices remain far below levels of a few years ago. How are Middle Eastern states coping politically and economically with the challenges of a global energy market in an historic transition?
  7. Obama’s Legacy, Trump’s Inheritance in the Middle East (Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture) | Tuesday February 28 | 6:30 – 7:45pm | Elliott School of International Affairs | Register Here | Join us as Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm examines the environment in the Middle East that President Trump inherits from his predecessor and explores the parameters for action by the new administration.
  8. Food for Humanity | Wednesday March 1 | 12:15 – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The Middle East Institute’s Arts & Culture Program is pleased to host a conversation about the political, emotional and symbolic significance of food for displaced and diaspora communities. The panel will explore the unifying role of food, its ability to generate empathy, and its power to build community among diverse peoples through the ritual sharing of a meal. The panel will also discuss how food can serve as a source of income, a form of cultural resistance, and as a means of preserving identity and heritage for refugee communities in the face of loss.
  9. How People Become Terrorists | Wednesday March 1 | 12:15 – 1:45pm | New America | Register Here | In the years since 9/11 the scope and nature of the global neo-jihadi threat to the West has changed radically, prompting reassessments from those following the threat. In his latest book Misunderstanding Terrorism, Marc Sageman examines the current threat and articulates a new model of how people become terrorists, which has strong implications for the fight against terrorists that go against the conventional wisdom. New America welcomes Dr. Sageman for a discussion of what is driving the current generation of jihadists to become terrorists and how the U.S. should adapt to the threat. Marc Sageman is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the author of Misunderstanding Terrorism and two other critically acclaimed books: Understanding Terror Networks (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) and Leaderless Jihad (UPP, 2007).
  10. Women of the Caliphate: Gender Dynamics in State-Building Jihadi Organizations | Thursday March 2 | 5:30 – 7pm | American University | Register Here | A Talk with Hamoon Khelghat-Doost, from the National University of Singapore. Hamoon Khelghat-Doost looks at gender dynamics within jihadi organizations by examining their standpoint on the state-building process. His talk will explore the reasons for jihadi organizations, such as ISIS, to incorporate a relatively high number of women. Khelghat-Doost has conducted fieldwork in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and along Syrian borders in southern Turkey.
  11. Prospects for the Next Generation of Palestinian Leadership | Friday March 3 | 12 – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | President Trump’s backpedaling on the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution shines a spotlight on the Palestinians’ looming leadership crisis. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, now 81, has yet to cultivate a successor, and his administration faces growing concerns about its credibility twelve years after the last national elections. How should the next generation of Palestinian leaders approach such complex issues as Israeli settlement expansion, a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, economic troubles, and engagement on the international stage?
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