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.
- A Panel Discussion on Debating the Merits of the Trump Administration’s New Travel, Immigration, and Refugee Ban | Monday, April 10 | 11-12:30pm | SAIS | Register Here | “Debating the Merits of the Trump Administration’s New Travel, Immigration and Refugee Ban,” will be hosted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The panel discussion is a part of the Human Security Forum by the Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Panelists include T. Alex Aleinikoff, Director of The Zolberg Institute of Migration and Mobility at The New School, George Biddle, Chairman of World Connect and former Executive Vice President of the International Peace Committee, James Jay Carafano, Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, and Danielle Pletka, Senior Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Eterprise Institute
- Where Will Turkey’s Referendum Lead? | Tuesday, April 11 | 1-2:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Turkish voters on April 16, 2017 face a referendum to shift to a presidential system and further empower Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Whether Erdogan succeeds in his long-sought consolidation of authority or suffers a reversal, Turkish policies on the economy, domestic issues, the Kurdish question, regional security, and engagement with the U.S. and NATO are all apt to be affected by the referendum’s outcome. The Middle East Institute (MEI) Center for Turkish Studies is pleased to host Kemal Kirisci (Brookings), Omer Taspinar (Brookings), and Amberin Zaman (Wilson Center) for an analysis of the plebiscite, its political context, and potential consequences of the impending vote. Gonul Tol (MEI) will moderate the discussion.
- Militancy and Conflict in the Sahel and Maghreb | Tuesday, April 12 | 8:30-3pm | Carnegie Endowment | Register Here | Crises and upheaval in the Maghreb and the Sahel have altered the regional security terrain. Security challenges are increasingly becoming entwined, and many are becoming more pronounced amongst at-risk border communities in marginalized peripheries and rural communities. This day-long conference brings together leading scholars from around the world to address the key security and governance challenges in the Maghreb and Sahel. Panelists will examine the interaction of the expanding horizon of insecurity with conflicts, political vacuums, and Western response policy. They will also discuss the broader ramifications of the trends for peace and development in both regions. Panelists include Rasmus Boserup, Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, and Claire Spencer to discuss the security complexes in the Maghreb and Sahel; Bruce Whitehouse, Jimam Lar, Joel Nwokeoma, and Amy Niang to discuss violent extremism in West Africa and Sahel; and Frederic Wehrey, Faraj Najem, and Manal Taha to discuss the potential spillover from Libya into the Sahel.
- Russia’s Gambit: Moscow’s Plans and the Trump Administration | Tuesday, April 11 | 4-5:30pm | The Institute of World Politics | Register Here | You are cordially invited to a lecture on the topic of “Russia’s Gambit: Assessing Moscow’s Plans in the First Months of the Trump Administration” with Nikolas K. Gvosdev, Professor of National Security Affairs, Captain Jerome E. Levy Chair in Economic Geography and National Security at the U.S. Naval War College and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
- Book Launch: Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings | Wednesday, April 12 | 10-11:15pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings tells the story of “3/11”—the March 11, 2004 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid, which killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800. It runs from the development of an al-Qaeda conspiracy in Spain in the 1990s through the formation of the 3/11 bombing network beginning in March 2002, and on through the fallout of the attacks. Fernando Reinares’s account draws on judicial, police, and intelligence documents to which he had privileged access, as well as on personal interviews with officials in Spain and elsewhere. The book’s full analysis links the Madrid bombing to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and unveils connections between 3/11 and 9/11. Speakers will also include Bruce Hoffman, Professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Jytte Klausen, Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation at Brandeis University, and Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow and Director of the Brookings Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution.
- What’s Next for Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations? | Wednesday, April 12 | 10:30-12pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | The fragile Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship is in crisis. Each country has accused the other of harboring terrorists, and border closures have caused hardship for people on both sides. A recent British-led mediation has defused some of these tensions. However, the relationship remains troubled, and longstanding irritants—such as a disputed border and the treatment of Afghan refugees in Pakistan—continue to fester. What is next for Afghanistan-Pakistan relations? Will the new détente be sustained or short-lived? Additionally, what are the implications of all this for U.S. policy? Can or should Washington play a role in trying to help ease these bilateral tensions? This event, which is co-hosted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, will address these questions and others. Panelists include Daud Khattak, Senior Editor at Radio Mashaal, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Omar Samad, Former Afghan Ambassador to France, and Joshua White, Associate Professor of Practice and Fellow at SAIS.
- 2017 IMES Annual Conference: Restless Matters: the Socio-Political Lives of Historical Sites and Objects in the Middle East | Friday, April 14 | 9am-3pm | Elliott School | Register Here | Historical sites and objects are a focal point of socio-political contestation in the Middle East today. Whether it be the destruction and looting of the Egyptian Museum, Palmyra, or the Buddhas of Bamyan, or it be the renovation and rebuilding of Mecca, the Eyup Sultan complex, or heritage districts in Doha, Cairo or Beirut, the ways in which these historical sites and objects are intertwined with political projects and political-economic processes have drawn increasing scrutiny in recent years. While popular discourses and news media accounts often portray these matters in terms of the actions of religious zealots, crass developers, or enlightened preservationists, this glosses over a far more textured socio-political terrain this conference seeks to explore. A day-long event that brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars who focus on the Middle East and the region’s past and present connections to other parts of the world, this conference explores the myriad socio-political work historical sites and objects do. Speakers include Esra Akcan, Associate Profess in the Department of Archaeology at Cornell University, Azra Aksamija, Associate Professor in the Art, Culture, and Technology Program at MIT, Farah Al-Nakib, Director of the Center for Gulf Studies at American University of Kuwait, Amin Alsaden, PhD Candidate at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Luna Khirfan, Associate Professor at University of Waterloo School of Planning, Michele Lamprakos, Assistant Professor at University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and Amal Sachedina, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Middle East Studies, George Washington University.
1. Addressing the North Korean Threat: A Discussion with Congressman Joe Wilson | Monday, March 20th | 11:30-1:00PM | The Hudson Institute | Register Here |
Hudson Institute will host a timely conversation on the growing threat of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs to the Unites States and our East Asian allies. U.S. Representative Joe Wilson, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Readiness Subcommittee, will join Hudson missile defense and East Asia security experts Rebeccah Heinrichs and Arthur Herman for an in-depth discussion on the status of Pyongyang’s weapons development activities and how the U.S. and our regional allies should respond to bolster their security.
2. From Scarcity to Security: Water as a Resource for Middle East Peacebuilding | Monday, March 20th | 12:00-2:00 PM | The Elliot School | Register Here |
In the Middle East, water has often constituted a source of tension between Israel, the Palestinians and neighboring states. In recent years, however, regional leaders have increasingly identified water security as a shared interest that transcends borders – and even a potential avenue for peacebuilding. Join Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Director, EcoPeace Middle East and Marina Djernaes, Director, EcoPeace Center for Water Security for a discussion on this resource.
For two decades, the EcoPeace Middle East organization has engaged Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians in the joint promotion of practical solutions to transboundary problems of scarcity and pollution. In the process, they have fostered regional alliances, built environmental infrastructure, altered allocation policies, and shined spotlights on the environmental crises facing sacred sites such as the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. This panel will draw on decades of civil society and intergovernmental experience to highlight the potential of water security as a catalyst for peace building in the Middle East and beyond.
3. Rebuilding Syria: Reconstruction and Legitimacy | Tuesday, March 21st | 12:30 | The Atlantic Council | Register Here |
The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East is launching a new initiative, Rebuilding Syria: Reconstruction and Legitimacy. Over the next two years, the Hariri Center will pool expertise from multiple specialists to cover the many challenges of rebuilding Syria including in: economics, finance, development, infrastructure, political economy, civil society, food security, energy, law, and employment. More than just a cursory overview, the initiative will produce a strategic roadmap to reconstruction with the participation of Syrians and the support of the international community.
The Hariri Center invites you to a discussion on the technical and political challenges ahead for rebuilding Syria with country and development experts on March 21, 2017 from 12:30 to 2:00 p.m. at the Atlantic Council headquarters in Washington, D.C. Our panelists will include Dr. Osama Kadi, president of the Syrian Economic Task Force, Mr. Todd Diamond, Middle East director for Chemonics International, Mona Yacoubian, former deputy assistant administrator for the Middle East at the US Agency for International Development, and Bassam Barabandi, former Syrian diplomat and co-founder of People Demand Change. The conversation will be moderated by Hariri Center Senior Fellow Faysal Itani. Mr. Omar Shawaf, chairman and founder of BINAA, will give introductory remarks.
4. A Conversation with His Excellency Gebran Bassil, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, The Republic of Lebanon| Tuesday, March 21st | 3:00-4:00 PM | The Wilson Center | Register Here |
The Lebanon Ideas Forum is an assemblage of scholars, journalists, policymakers, and diplomats who will discuss issues concerning Lebanon, its wider region, and relations with the United States and Europe. This event is the inaugural event in the Lebanon Ideas Forum series. The Lebanon Ideas Forum is part of a greater strategic partnership between the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center and Safadi Foundation USA, which was established in 2017. Join the Wilson Center this Tuesday for a discussion with Lara Alameh, President of the Board and CEO, Safadi Foundation USA, and Gebran Bassil, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, The Republic of Lebanon.
5. Securing Southeastern Europe: A New Model for Progress in the Balkans? | Tuesday, March 21st | 4:00 PM | The Atlantic Council | Register Here
Please join the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative on Tuesday, March 21 at 4:00 p.m. for a conversation with the foreign ministers of Albania, Croatia, and Montenegro, as they discuss security cooperation in the Western Balkans.
At this public event, Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati, Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic, and Foreign Minister Davor Ivo Stier will jointly discuss their perspective on the security challenges facing Southeastern Europe, as well as their insights on addressing issues ranging from Islamic radicalization and terrorist threats to the completion of Montenegro’s NATO accession process.
6. The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein and US policy in Iraq | Wednesday, March 22nd | 10:00-11:30 | Brookings | Register Here |
On March 22, the Brookings Intelligence Project will host former CIA analyst John Nixon to outline his findings from his interrogation of Hussein, and what lessons he believes can be learned. Brookings Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project, will provide introductory remarks and moderate the discussion. Following their remarks, Riedel and Nixon will take questions from the audience.
7. U.S.- Iran Relations: Opportunities for the New Administration | Wednesday, March 22nd | 11:30-12:30 | The Wilson Center | Register Here |
Ever since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent hostage situation, Iran-US relations have been characterized by mutual misperceptions. The nuclear deal of June 2015 between Iran and the “P5+1” came to fruition against this backdrop, in large part due to the efforts of The Right Honourable Catherine Ashton, Baroness of Upholland, Former Vice President of the European Commission and former High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, Senior Counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group and former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
The July 2015 deal was an unprecedented step towards rebuilding that trust, though tensions are being fueled by military cooperation with Russia in Syria and new sanctions announced by the Trump administration. The new administration faces familiar challenges in relations with Iran, but also some key strategic and economic opportunities. Rob Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies, will moderate a discussion between Baroness Ashton and Ambassador Sherman who well know these challenges and opportunities, and can speak to how the U.S. can be appealing to their strategic interests using diplomacy and negotiations.
8. The Impact of Gender Norms on Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia | Wednesday, March 22nd | 12:00-1:00 | The Elliot School | Register Here |
Dr. Hala Aldosari will lead a discussion on the impact of gender norms on the construction of women’s roles and identity in Saudi Arabia. Analysis of key limitations of personal status laws, planning of women’s health services and the concepts of legislation on violence against women will be presented. The talk will also delve into the role of state and non-state agents in shaping the discourse on gender norms and roles, in light of the recent economic and political trends.
Hala Aldosari received her PhD and postdoctoral training in health services research and the social determinants of women’s health. Her research and publications are focused on the intersection of gender, laws, health and political identity in Saudi Arabia. She works on different projects to promote women’s rights and prevention from violence against women and girls. In 2016, she won the Freedom award for her leading role to promote human rights and democracy in Saudi Arabia.
9. Reaffirming the U.S.-Taiwan Security Relationship | Friday, March 24th | 12:00-2:00 PM | The Hudson Institute | Register Here |
As President Donald Trump meets with China’s President Xi Jinping next month, one subject that is likely to be discussed is Taiwan. President Trump has inherited a clear and long-established diplomatic and security structure pledged to defend Taiwan, its democratic political institutions, and the freedoms its people enjoy. The keystones of U.S. relations with Taiwan are the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances which established guidelines for U.S. policy toward Taiwan over the last four decades. The Six Assurances addressed U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, set a fixed stance on sovereignty issues, and guaranteed that previous agreements calling for U.S. assistance to defend Taiwan would remain firmly in effect.
On March 24, Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower will host a distinguished panel of experts to examine the Trump administration’s stance on Taiwan and the outlook for existing agreements to protect Taiwan. Hudson senior fellows Seth Cropsey and William Schneider will be joined by Dennis Wilder, a professor at Georgetown University, and Ian Easton of the Project 2049 Institute. The panel will assess what is needed to fulfill and fortify the existing agreements with Taiwan and assure not only this partnership, but the U.S.’s entire network of regional and global alliances.
The current furor over the Trump campaign’s links to Moscow is still generating more heat than light. This morning’s news that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court last fall authorized tapping of his phones suggests there is fire as well as smoke. The FISA court would issue a warrant only if the requester demonstrates
probable cause to believe that the “target of the surveillance is a foreign power or agent of a foreign power,” that “a significant purpose” of the surveillance is to obtain “foreign intelligence information,” and that appropriate “minimization procedures” are in place.
The original report of the wiretap refers explicitly to FISA authorization.
The vital question is whether there was coordination or cooperation with Russia’s concerted efforts to tilt the election in Trump’s direction. I haven’t seen an answer. Attorney General Sessions’ recusal from any investigation of the Moscow connection is no more than a procedural step in the right direction, one he should have taken even before it was revealed that he lied at his Senate confirmation hearing about contacts with the Russians.
The debate now is over a special prosecutor or an independent commission. I don’t really care which, so long as whoever investigates can collect and see all the intelligence available, without undue influence by the administration. That is no small order: it means independent people with courage, high-level clearances and a year, or more likely two, before we know the results.
That’s a long time to leave people in office who may have collaborated with a foreign power in getting elected. But at the same time it virtually ensures that President Trump will not be able to do anything really harmful with Russia. As Steve Walt tweeted this week, he would have to get a very good deal from President Putin in order to convince even the Republicans in Congress to go along. Presidents Bush and Obama tried hard and failed. Short of giving away Crimea, it is unlikely Putin would make a deal. Republican Senators have already made it clear they won’t put up with that.
Frustrated, Trump is likely to turn his venom on Iran. He won’t tear up the nuclear deal, because even the Israelis have come to believe it is better than no deal at this point, since the Europeans would not agree to reimpose sanctions unless the Iranians violate the agreement. But Trump might well push for more sanctions related to Iran’s missile program or more pushback against its forces and proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain. That however would give Iran good reason to solidify its alliance with Russia, making any attempt at rapprochement with Moscow even more unlikely to succeed.
So Trump’s bromance with Putin is not going to be consummated. Moscow knows and has already toned down its media enthusiasm for its favorite American presidential candidate. Trump is still enamored, but with H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser and James Mattis as Secretary of Defense it will be hard to move the machinery of government into support for a bad deal with Moscow. Rex Tillerson, who might feel differently, is proving a non-entity at the State Department, where he is fighting a rearguard action against giant budget cuts rather than contributing to foreign policy.
The Trump Administration has anyway done little to clarify its distinct foreign policy views other than intensifying drone strikes in Yemen, canning the Trans Pacific Partnership intended to counter increasing Chinese influence in the Asia Pacific, and claiming to have started on design of the wall with Mexico. Mostly Trump has abandoned his previous radical views. He is not moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, nor is he abandoning the NATO Alliance. Even renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement is looking dicey, because Mexico and Canada have made it clear they will come to the table with their own demands. Trump has now reaffirmed the One China policy.
The Administration has not however changed its radical view on the European Union, which Trump regards as disadvantageous to the US. He should consult his friends in Moscow on that subject: they are determined to block expansion of EU membership and influence, which Putin views as an instrument that benefits the US. Trump could learn a lot from Putin, if only he would stop liking the guy (and doing his bidding) and start understanding that an autocratic Moscow is not democratic America’s best friend. That would require Trump to identify as a democratic leader, which he doesn’t. That’s the real Moscow connection.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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?
RAND colleagues have again updated their proposal for de-escalation and decentralization in Syria. This time there is no pretense that Assad would cooperate, only an assertion that he is unlikely to do better given his weakening military forces. The proposition now is for a Russian/American/Turkish and maybe /Iranian agreement imposed on him and the opposition, once Raqqa is taken by the Kurdish and allied Arab forces now investing it.
Raqqa would be put under international (UN or US/Russian) administration, the opposition would remain in control of a slice of the south, Idlib would likely fall to the regime, the “Manbij pocket” would remain in Turkish or surrogate Turkoman hands, and Kurds would rule the rest of the north. Assad would control “useful Syria” in the populous western “spine” and might eventually get his hands on Deir Azzour and its oil resources in the east, where regime forces have held on through more than six years of revolution and war.
The premise behind this proposal is that we are near if not at a mutually hurting stalemate, in which the warring parties conclude that they have no prospect of gaining much from continued fighting. What Jim Dobbins, Phil Gordon, and Jeffrey Martini are proposing is what is known in the negotiating trade as a “way out.” They don’t claim that what they propose is fair or just, only that ending the fighting and refocusing the military effort against the extremists of Jabhat Fateh al Sham and the Islamic State is what serves US interests best. While they don’t say it, I suppose Donald Trump could claim that an internationally administered Raqqa province is the “safe zone” that he has repeatedly promised. This is a faute de mieux proposal based on the emerging situation, not an optimal one.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the proposal is the Kurdish-led attack on Raqqa, followed by a withdrawal in favor of an international administration. Some would like to see Turkish-backed Arab forces engaged there, perhaps in parallel if not jointly with the Kurdish-led Arabs. The rest amounts mainly to acceptance of the status quo, or the presumed status to be.
I understand why Americans focus on who takes Raqqa–it is the “capital” and last real stronghold of the Islamic State in Syria. Its conquest will affect the geopolitics of the region for a long time to come. But I also think it is what Alfred North Whitehead called a “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” For me, the main issue is how the two-thirds of Syrians under Assad control in the western spine of the country will live, what will happen with the 6.6 million displaced people, and whether the 4.8 million Syrian refugees will be welcomed back to the country. It is a mistake to focus on Raqqa without considering these issues.
While the Trump administration may have different ideas, it was hard to imagine until January 20 that the United States would help the Assad regime with anything but the massive humanitarian aid it has provided throughout the fighting, much of which has gone to regime-controlled areas.
Reconstruction assistance is another matter. The Russians and Iranians have already told Assad they have given during the war and cannot be relied upon once it is over. Iran has recently cut its subsidized oil shipments. If the fighting ends with a negotiated agreement along the lines RAND proposes, the Americans and Europeans will be expected to ante up, if not directly at least by allowing IMF and World Bank assistance.
What conditions should govern American and European support for reconstruction?
Here is where the West has a chance to win the peace, even if the opposition has lost the war. It will need to use prospective assistance as leverage to get Assad to drop his authoritarian brutality, illustrated recently by Amnesty International’s graphic report on the executions at Saydnaya prison. The US should lay out clearly and in advance the conditions under which it would consider more than humanitarian assistance to Syria’s civilians under regime control. Something like these might be considered:
- Release of all political prisoners and an accounting for all those executed or still held.
- Amnesty for non-violent demonstrators.
- Reform of the security and judicial services, with accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
- Withdrawal of all foreign forces, including Lebanese Hizbollah as well as Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias, as well as demobilization and dissolution of all sectarian forces.
- An inclusive process for revising the Syrian constitution and deciding when free and fair elections will be held.
- Creation of an independent electoral commission.
- Elimination of excessive constraints on media and political activity.
- Freedom to return without reprisals for all refugees and displaced people.
- An end to the crony capitalism that was a driving force of the revolution.
A vigorous and capable UN mission or something of the sort would be required to get fulfillment of such conditions and monitor implementation.
Assad is nowhere near accepting such conditions today. He continues with bold-faced denials, not only of the executions at Saydnaya but even the well-documented use of barrel bombs against civilians and attacks on hospitals and schools. If he persists in that vein, America and Europe should keep their wallets in their pockets and let come what may. Worrying about how Raqqa will be governed is far less important than making sure the abuses come to an end in the areas Assad controls.