A colleague yesterday told me not to worry about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) overreaching in his effort to push back against Iran. The Saudis, he said, will talk a good line but not really do anything. They are too lazy.
That is little comfort and not accurate. MbS has launched a now more than two-year war in Yemen against the Iranian-supported Houthis, a diplomatic offensive against Qatar that aims (among other things) to break its good rapport with Iran, and the purported resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri, whom the Saudis think too tolerant of Iran’s Hizbollah proxies. The United States appears to have greenlighted all these moves, the first under President Obama and the second and third under President Trump.
The net effect so far is not good. Iran, through Hizbollah, will own Lebanon, whether Hariri returns there or not. Qatar is weathering the Saudi blockade with the aid of the Turks and Iranians. Doha is arguably closer to Tehran now than it was before the Saudi initiative, though it continues to host a major US air base. The stalemated Yemen war has precipitated a massive humanitarian crisis throughout the country. MbS’s Washington-encouraged pushback against Iran is not working well.
Oddly, the one place neither the Washington nor Riyadh has pushed backed against Tehran is Syria. The US has assiduously tried to avoid conflict there with Syrian government forces, the Russians, and Iranian proxies, firing on them only when they appear to be getting ready to attack US or US-supported forces. Riyadh has organized, and is getting ready to re-organize, the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee, but the Kingdom’s military support to the opposition is fading, along with that of the Americans. Even Russian promises to keep Hizbollah far from the border with Israel appear to be evaporating.
The sad fact is that Saudi Arabia is a weak reed for the US to lean on. The Kingdom has purchased an astounding quantity of US and other weapons but has little capability to use them effectively. Financially strapped due to lowered oil prices, MbS is rushing to conduct long-overdue domestic reforms under the rubric Vision 2030, as well as an anti-corruption campaign that has the added virtue of eliminating some of his rivals. Even if thoroughly and assiduously implemented, the main positive effects of these domestic initiatives are a decade or more in the future.
Besides, reform plans in Saudi Arabia have a long history of getting stuck in the desert sand. Trying to do too many things at once will guarantee that some of them suffer that fate. And attacking Iran in peripheral places like Qatar, Lebanon, and Yemen may cause suffering to their populations but is unlikely to cause the Islamic Republic much heartburn. Tehran could suffer setbacks in all three without minding all that much. It is Syria that really matters to Iran, which is why it has sent its best there: the Quds Force and Hizbollah. Confronting them in Syria would be a lot more meaningful than the sum of all the Saudi initiatives elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Iranians are also escalating. Despite Tehran’s denial, Bahrain claims Iran was behind a gas pipeline bombing last week, the Iranians backed Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi’s successful offensive against Kurdistan, and they are pushing their proxies to establish the much-coveted “land bridge” from the Iranian border through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. If the Trump Administration has a regional strategy to push back against Iran, it is not working. MbS has overreached, to no good effect.
Last Thursday, the SETA Foundation in Washington hosted Richard Outzen of the US Department of State, Mark Kimmitt of MTK Defense Consultants, Kilic B. Kanat of the SETA Foundation, as well as moderator Kadir Ustun of the Foundation to discuss the future of US-Turkey relations. The discussion gave an overview of the history of relations between the two countries, examined contemporary challenges, and proposed solutions. The discussion was timely, because of the recent “mini diplomatic crisis” that began in October, when the US halted the issuance of nonimmigrant visas to Turkish citizens, and Turkey reciprocated. Despite the gravity of this development, which was caused by the detention of US consular officers in Turkey as part of coup investigations, Ustun maintained that there are other, more serious points of contention.
The history of US-Turkey relations is replete with both long-standing tension and cooperation. Outzen outlined three main events as points of conflict: the presence of US troops in Turkey in the 1990s, the distrust that emerged because of Turkey’s Cyprus operation in the 70s, and the ensuing US embargo on Turkey. Kanat described the history of US-Turkey relations as a “roller coaster” distinguished by a vague dynamic. Kimmit shed light on positive developments in relations between Turkey and the US, citing their cooperation in Bosnia and Iraq, the existence of a US base in Turkey, and agreement on the Kurdish referendum.
Outzen and Kanat also described current causes of conflict. First is the “complex of issues” linked to the Turkish coup and Turkish political and religious figure Fethullah Gulen. Gulen, accused by the Turkish government of having organized the coup attempt of 2013, has been living in the United States and has been the subject of an extradition request by the Turkish government. The US government’s “failure to extradite Gulen,” Outzen explained, has been seen as unworthy of an ally. Outzen acknowledged that the US believes the coup to have been violent and unjustified, but that Washington also had concerns about blatant rights violations in the process of punishing those deemed responsible.
The PKK issue was also another point of tension. Outzen described the two sides, saying that Turkey interpreted the US integration of PKK fighters into the Syrian Democratic Forces as a show of support for the PKK and, by extension, undermining of Turkish power. The United States, on the other hand, sees the SDF as admirable, particularly in light of its contributions to the fight against ISIS. Kanat emphasized the significant distrust that the apparent US support for the PKK has caused, saying the PKK issue “unites Turks.”
There are nevertheless possibilities to strengthen the US-Turkey relationship. Outzen stated that an increased understanding of the other country’s national interests and values should be fostered on both sides, and that “economy to economy cooperation” should be developed and given more importance than military cooperation, for which a framework which already exists. Kimmit emphasized that the current challenges to the relations between the US and Turkey are not “structural and long-term” but rather temporary and solvable. He highlighted the importance of Turkish trust of the United States, which he found to be lacking, as well as improved public relations on both sides. Kanat called on the United States to be more transparent with Turkey on its positions and plans, mentioning specifically the lack of a clearly communicated policy on Syria, which, if shared, could foster understanding and create possible areas of cooperation.
- Democratic Deterioration at Home and Abroad | Monday, November 6 | 12:15 – 2:00 pm | New America | Register Here | For the past several decades, our working assumption has been that once firmly established, liberal democracy represents the best and final answer to authoritarianism and the surest guarantor of liberty and equality. Today, however, that assumption is being seriously challenged. Where liberal democracy has taken root, we now see it in retreat in attacks on the press, the judiciary, and on voting rights – the essence of democratic organization. As the United States contends with these challenges, arguably for the first time, what can we learn from other countries that have experienced similar democratic downturns? What were the warning signs and could this deterioration have been stemmed? Are the combination of legal constraints and non-legal norms that undergird our constitutional system enough to keep our democracy on solid footing? What safeguards are currently in place to prevent further deterioration of our democratic values and institutions, and what additional precautions should we consider? In other words, how worried should we be? Join New America, The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School for a discussion about the future of democracy at home and abroad. Speakers include Sheri Berman of Columbia University, Aziz Huq of The University of Chicago Law School, Norman J. Ornstein of The Atlantic and The American Enterprise Institute, and Arturo Valenzuela of Georgetown University. Amanda Taub of The New York Times will moderate.
- How Do You Solve a Problem Like North Korea? | Monday, November 6 | 9:00 am – 12:00 pm | Cato Institute | Register Here | What are the implications of North Korea’s recent gains in nuclear and missile capabilities for the future of U.S. strategy toward North Korea? What is the state of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technologies? What are the prospects of diplomatic negotiations with Pyongyang? Should the United States pursue a different strategy toward North Korea in light of Pyongyang’s improving nuclear capabilities, perhaps including revising its alliance with South Korea? The Cato Institute will host two panels and a keynote address by former governor Bill Richardson to examine these critical questions. The first panel, titled “ Pyongyang’s Capabilities and US Policy,” will include Joshua Pollack of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, Suzanne DiMaggio of New America, and Joe Cirincione of Ploughshares Fund, and will be moderated by Eric Gomez of the Cato Institute. The second panel, “New Approaches to Solving the North Korea Problem,” will feature Michael Auslin of the Hoover Institution, Rajan Menon of the City College of New York, and Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute. John Glaser of the Cato Institute will moderate.
- Re-energizing Nuclear Security | Tuesday, November 7 | 5:00 – 6:30 pm | Stimson Center | Register Here | The nuclear industry is experiencing many dynamic changes. Economic challenges are forcing premature reactor shutdowns in some countries such as the US, while Russia and China are making lucrative deals in energy-starved developing countries. A general expansion in all aspects of nuclear development, such as next-gen reactor technologies, is clouded by an evolving security landscape including emerging cyber vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, nuclear security is out of the spotlight since the end of the Nuclear Security Summit series. What is the future of nuclear development and how can industry, civil society, and international organizations facilitate the outstanding Security Summit commitments? The event will feature Leslie Ireland of the Stimson Center, Maria G. Korsnick of the Nuclear Energy Institute, John Barrett of the Canadian Nuclear Association, and Frank Saunders of Bruce Power. The Stimson Center’s Debra Decker will moderate.
- Iraqi Vice President Al-Nujaifi on His Nation’s Post-ISIS Future | Tuesday, November 7 | 11:00 am – 12:00 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Osama al-Nujaifi is one of Iraq’s three vice presidents. Hailing from Mosul, a city recaptured this year from the ISIS extremist group, he is secretary general of the United for Iraq Party, and the leader of the Sunni political coalition Muttahidoon. Vice President al-Nujaifi’s address at USIP will be his only public appearance during his visit to Washington.As one of Iraq’s most prominent leaders and a former speaker of Parliament, Vice President al-Nujaifi has been a key player in Iraqi politics for more than a decade. With Iraq’s leaders confronting the fallout from the Kurdistan region’s independence referendum and the Iraqi army’s retaking of key oil fields from the Kurds, questions about governance after ISIS and the quickly approaching provincial and national elections in 2018 take on even more urgency. Vice President al-Nujaifi will discuss the future of Iraq’s democracy and the federalist system adopted after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Ambassador Bill Taylor of the USIP will moderate the discussion.
- After the Referendum: What Path Forward for Iraq’s Kurds? | Tuesday, November 7 | 3:00 – 4:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The September 25 referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan brought a chilling reaction from Iraq’s central government. Baghdad disputed the legitimacy of the process, but especially rejected Erbil’s claim on Kirkuk and other disputed territories implied by staging the vote there. Following days of military action that resulted in deaths and the retaking of Kirkuk by Iraqi national forces, the KRG has proposed to freeze the referendum results and seeks negotiations about the contentious issues. The United States, which opposed the referendum despite its reliance on Kurdish fighters combating ISIS, must now address the deepened rift between Erbil and Baghdad. To consider the path out of this crisis, the Middle East Institute (MEI) is pleased to host Shaswar Abdulwahid (New Generation Movement), Peter Shea (U.S. Department of State), and Amberin Zaman (Al-Monitor). MEI’s director for Turkish Studies, Gonul Tol, will moderate the discussion on how Baghdad and Erbil can move forward with each other and with the United States, Turkey, and Iran, and on how U.S. policy can effectively manage the dynamics between the players.
- The Civilian Elements of the New U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan | Wednesday, November 8 | 3:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Despite an overwhelming response to the United States’ new military strategy for Afghanistan announced by President Trump in August 2017, the non-military components of the strategy have received scant attention. As part of its ambitious reform and self-reliance agenda, the Afghan government has made considerable progress towards improving the capacity of civilian management, leadership, human resources, as well as in addressing formal corruption. But challenges remain. Please join the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center for a panel discussion of the civilian elements of the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, including the reform process, internal politics, economics, and how the Afghan government plans to deliver on its pledges. Panelists include Ahmad Nader Nadery, the Chairman of Civil Service Commission of Afghanistan, Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, and Ambassador James B. Cunningham of the Atlantic Council. Javid Ahmad of the Atlantic Council will moderate.
- A Strategy for a Brighter Future in Libya: Redefining America’s Role | Wednesday, November 8 | 2:30 – 3:50 pm | American Enterprise Institute | Register Here | Recent terrorist attacks in Berlin and Manchester trace back to Libya, where ISIS relocated operatives from Syria and Iraq. Libya’s ongoing civil war, coupled with weak governance and law enforcement, creates the perfect crucible for ISIS and al Qaeda to extend their operations. How can these groups in Libya be defeated? What can be done to stabilize the country and address humanitarian concerns? Is American leadership essential to combating this threat? Please join AEI for the release of “A Strategy for Success in Libya” by Emily Estelle and a panel discussion on a US strategy to rebuild Libya. Panelists include Emily Estelle of AEI and Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council. Katherine Zimmerman of AEI will moderate.
- Turkey, Europe, and the U.S.: New Challenges and Changing Dynamics | Thursday, November 9 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Brookings Institution | Register Here | As a Muslim-majority country pursuing EU membership, closer cooperation with trans-Atlantic partners, and a domestic agenda based on securing individual freedoms and strengthening the rule of law, Turkey was deemed a model partner and economic success story. Today, Turkey projects a different image—rolling back democracy, rule of law, individual freedoms, and the separation of powers. The EU accession process, trans-Atlantic commitments, and shared values are in jeopardy. Yet, this is not an isolated incident—it follows an international trend that has seen the emergence of “strongmen leaders,” whose illiberal actions and rhetoric are punctuated by populism and anti-globalism. The EU and the United States are not exempt from elements of this trend. The global economic crisis, terrorism, and migration are closely interrelated with these tendencies. This state of affairs is starkly different from what was envisioned at the end of the Cold War. So, what happened? Can this common challenge be addressed? On November 9, the Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) will host a panel discussion on this recent drift toward authoritarianism, populism, and religious nationalism, and what the West can do to reverse this trend. Kemal Kirişci, Brookings TÜSİAD senior fellow, will moderate the discussion featuring Brookings scholars Amanda Sloat and Alina Polyakova, and Hakan Yılmaz, professor of political science at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Brookings Vice President for Foreign Policy Bruce Jones and TÜSİAD CEO Bahadır Kaleağası will offer introductory remarks.
Kurdistan’s President Barzani is refusing to continue in the presidency after November 1. He is stepping aside in the wake of last month’s independence referendum that triggered the loss to Baghdad of a large part of the so-called “disputed territories,” including Kirkuk, as well as opposition from Turkey, Iran, the US, the European Union, and Russia. Barzani’s letter to the Speaker of Kurdistan’s parliament is ambiguous on next steps:
You should therefore meet at your earliest convenience to ensure there is no legal vacuum in the execution of the duties and powers of the president of the Region and resolve this subject.
Barzani, who has clung to power years after his mandate expired, is throwing in the towel, at least for now.
His ambiguity about what happens next stands in stark contrast to the relevant provisions of the Kurdistan Regional constitution:
i) In the case of the resignation, demise, or permanent disability of the President of the Kurdistan Region, a successor shall be elected in the same manner.
ii) When the position of the President of the Kurdistan Region becomes vacant, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Assembly shall assume responsibilities of the President until such time as a new President is elected.
iii) When the President of the Kurdistan Region is absent or on leave, the Regional Prime Minister shall assume the responsibilities of the President in an acting capacity.
My guess is he wants the Regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, his nephew, to assume the responsibilities, rather than the Speaker, who comes from an opposition party. I suppose the ambiguity might help Nechirvan to argue that the President is absent or on leave, rather than resigned.
In any event, Barzani is doing the right thing to take responsibility for the loss of territory and step aside. The question is what happens next?
Hopefully the ceasefire negotiated two days ago between the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces can be extended further. While Baghdad has not yet retaken all of the “disputed areas,” it has the critical ones, except for the border posts inside Iraqi Kurdistan. It is negotiating with Erbil under US auspices for control of a key border post at Fish Khabur.
Once the situation has stabilized, with Iraqi security forces and peshmerga clear about their respective areas of control, it will be time for a serious dialogue on key issues: how the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan will be fixed and control over oil and oil revenues. Independence is off the table for now, but Kurdistan has a very large measure of autonomy within Iraq and will want to ensure that continues. Unambiguous borders and certainty about oil and money would be a big boost to Erbil’s ability to govern itself effectively.
Within Kurdistan, Barzani and his PDK party are still strong. Their main rivals in the Talabani-affiliated PUK have weakened significantly in recent years, with defections to smaller political groups that have failed to gain sufficient weight to challenge the PDK. The loss of Kirkuk and other territory will no doubt have repercussions in the PDK, but it is not yet clear what they might be. Though called political parties, these groups are in part based on family and tribe. Those affiliations don’t change easily, especially if the tribal chieftain is still active.
Barzani underlined in his letter to the Speaker that he would indeed remain an active peshmerga, which is presumably a way of saying he will continue to command his family’s significant forces in Kurdistan. The PDK is blaming the loss of Kirkuk on surrender by PUK peshmerga. Civil wars have been fought over less, including in Kurdistan. It happened before and could happen again.
Hard to tell what comes next, but the president who held on in office without a mandate is unlikely to buckle completely now. Barzani is out, but not down.
Therefore, in order to fulfill our responsibilities and obligations towards the people of Kurdistan and Iraq, we propose the following to the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi and world public opinion:
1. An immediate ceasefire and halt to all military operations in the Kurdistan Region.2. Freeze the results of the referendum conducted in Iraqi Kurdistan.3. Start an open dialogue between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi Federal Government on the basis of the Constitution.
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: