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.
That’s what the Supreme Court has decided you need: a bona fide (genuine, real, sincere, non-deceptive) relationship with an individual or entity in the US to come here from six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen). President Trump is claiming this vindicates his effort to block all immigration and refugees from these allegedly dangerous countries, from which no terrorist has arrived since 9/11.
Far from it. The merits of the bans he ordered will be considered in the fall. For now, all the Court has decided is that people without a bona fide relationship with the US are not entitled to the ban on the travel ban issued by lower courts.
The question then becomes: what is a bona fide relationship? The Court made clear that category includes familial relations as well as contractual ones, like documented admission to a US university. The only clearly excluded category would be relationships that are deceptive, for example one entered into for the sole purpose of getting into the US.
So the consequence of this decision, as the dissenting minority that wanted to back Trump more fully said, will be a flood of litigation to determine what is a bona fide relationship with a US individual (notable: not necessarily a citizen) or entity. Is an invitation to speak at a conference evidence of such a relationship? Do hotel reservations or airline tickets qualify? What about acceptance into a refugee resettlement program sponsored by the State Department? I’m fairly confident this is a slippery slope to admitting many people.
The problem is that the public image will lean heavily in Trump’s direction, not least because of his exaggerated claim to vindication. This will encourage immigration officials to take a draconian attitude towards enforcement. It will also offend Muslims worldwide, who don’t like the restrictions:
In fact, the countries where majorities like the restrictions are mainly those where ethnic nationalism is rampant: Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Israel fit that category.
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State also relish Trump’s hostility to Muslims, which confirms their assertions about the US and the need to attack it. Trump’s crowing about this Supreme Court decision could easily boost extremist recruitment, both inside and outside the US. The restrictions will likely cause more terrorism than they prevent–it will take only one such act inside the US by someone from one of these countries to prove that point.
Trump however will try to use any terrorist attack in the opposite direction. He all too obviously sees such attacks as opportunities to make his political points. He has used each and every attack in Europe as an opportunity to generate antipathy toward Muslims in general. He’ll no doubt amplify that attitude if and when there is an attack in the US, thus generating more resentment and helping extremist recruitment.
It is true of course that he also has friends in the Muslim world: autocrats like Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Turkey’s President Erdogan and Egypt’s President Sissi have nothing to fear from this president, who has ignored their brutal and indiscriminate crackdowns on liberal democrats as well as terrorists. Citizens, residents and travelers through those three countries have been involved in terrorist acts in Europe and the US since 9/11, but Trump wouldn’t want to offend his friends by blocking their citizens from the US.
We face another round on the immigration ban at the Supreme Court in the fall, with lots of litigation in the meanwhile. This Administration is a big boon for lawyers.
PS: If you don’t like that chart, try this one:
On Tuesday, the Atlantic Council hosted a forum featuring experts Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran to mark the release of their collaborative report, “The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya.” Christopher Chivvis, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and Associate Director at the International Security and Defense Policy Center, joined the three authors. The report—which seeks to understand the trajectory of jihadist organizations in Libya through a study of the Islamic State—emphasized the crisis of a weak and divided central authority, the allure of Islamist opposition, and the adaptability of jihadist groups in Libya.
In the wake of longtime Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi’s deposition and demise in 2011, the state collapsed into a series of territorial struggles. Libyan jihadism emerged out of this turbulent climate. Pack, Smith, and Mezran report produces three key findings:
- A divided political climate and weak state control enabled the growth of ISIS in Libya.
- The majority of Libyans oppose ISIS, expressing distaste for the organization’s brutal policies and techniques.
- Libyan jihadism is driven by Libyan concerns, despite the dressing of Salafist religious rhetoric.
The crisis of governance in Libya “opened the door for local jihadist groups,” noted Chivvis. In particular, ISIS strategy targeted “under-governed” cities with historical links to global jihadist networks, such as Derna in the east. As jihadist militias proliferated and tensions between Islamists and anti-Islamist General Khalifa Haftar’s forces escalated, increasing numbers of jihadist commanders pledged allegiance to ISIS. Ultimately, ISIS seized Derna in October 2014.
Rival jihadist group Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC) expelled ISIS from Derna in May 2016 . However, notes the report, “jihadist organizations have been able to survive and thrive in Libya because they offer governance functions to a population that is starved for them.” Jihadist groups will continue to take advantage of weak governmental authority and local instability.
For this reason, a purely counterterror approach is insufficient. Smith and Pack noted that any successful foreign effort to combat ISIS in Libya must involve targeted capacity building to fill vacuums in Libyan industry and government. The upcoming 2018 national elections could help fill this void, provided that sufficient centralized authority exists at that time to carry them out.
“ISIS is the symptom,” reiterated Pack, “not the cause. The underlying disease is statelessness.”
The lack of a strong national government and consequent decentralization of authority in Libya also means that loyalties—whether to militia leaders or ISIS commanders—are predominantly local. For this reason, Pack explained, it is vitally important that concerned foreign actors focus their efforts on empowering local councils and institutions. Yet since 2011, both the Obama and Trump administrations have limited themselves to assassinations and air strikes in the region. While reluctance to deploy troops is understandable, deferring the problem could lead to perpetual instability, Chivvis cautioned.
Feelings of abandonment are another force driving jihadism in the country. Sirte is a prime example. One of the last Qaddafi holdouts, the city fell to National Transitional Council (NTC) rebel forces in 2011. After NTC control waned, ISIS seized control of the city only to be expelled by Misratan forces allied with the new national authority (the Government of National Accord). Disaffected citizens embraced Islamist opposition in the form of al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar ash-Sharia. Now that Ansar ash-Sharia has also been expelled, Tuesday’s panelists fear the power vacuum left in its wake. Pack cautioned that the cycle of government control followed by superseding jihadist or Islamist opposition may persist.
The great danger and advantage of jihadist groups is adaptability. Although ISIS has lost territory, warned Smith, it now possesses the freedom to mutate—especially if conflict breaks out once again in Sirte.
Networks between Libyan cities and the Levant remain active. In Pack’s estimation, the country functions as a kind of “postgrad for jihadists”: prospective agents are trained in Syria, but learn how to survive and innovate in outposts like Libya. According to Chivvis, ISIS actively sought to build a new front in the country.
Despite the dire situation in Libya, there remains staunch resistance to jihadism. Smith suggests that the Libyan people possess a deep-seated mistrust of foreign interference that ultimately places them in opposition to foreign-based groups like ISIS. This may extend to regional jihadist groups as well.
“The lesser evil of 2011 was, ‘Let’s work with Islamists.’ The lesser evil of 2016 is, ‘Let’s work with French and British and American forces to rid our country of jihadists,’” observed Pack.
- Losing An Enemy: Can the Iran Nuclear Deal Survive Trump? | Monday, June 19 | 12 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was an unlikely diplomatic collaboration initiated by three European countries and realized only after the United States took a leading role. Join founder and president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) Trita Parsi for a conversation about the history, success, and challenges facing the Iran nuclear deal. Parsi is the author of three books about U.S.-Iran relations. The discussion will be moderated by career journalist and Acting Director for the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council Barbara Slavin.
- The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya | Tuesday, June 20 | 12:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Rafik Hariri Center will convene a discussion on its new report, The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya, shedding light on the rise of jihadist actors in Libya and the dangers they pose for post-conflict state-building. As Libya continues to hold an important position in the global jihadist network, understanding the trajectories of groups like ISIS will be crucial to understanding the fate of the country and sources of its instability. The report, co-authored by panelists Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran, examines jihadist dynamics in Libya and offers recommendations to address this threat. RAND Corporation’s Christopher Chivvis will also join the discussion.
- Indian Prime Minister Modi visits the U.S. and Israel | Wednesday, June 21 | 9:30 am – 12 pm | Brookings Institute | Register Here | On June 25-26, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet with President Trump for the first time. Shortly after, he will travel to Israel for the first-ever visit by an Indian premier. Join The India Project and the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings for one panel each focused on India’s relationship with the United States and Israel – two countries with which it enjoys close partnerships. Panelists will discuss prospects for bilateral, trilateral, and international cooperation. After each session, panelists will take audience questions.
- Securing Stability in the Middle East and North Africa: How Should the U.S. and the European Union Work Together? | Wednesday, June 21 5:30-6:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | As war rages on in Syria and Yemen, instability persists in the Sinai and Libya, and the recent Qatar crisis underscores rivalries and animosities in the Middle East and North Africa, American and European actors search for ways to bring stability to the MENA region. Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Mike Doran welcomes Nick Westcott, European External Action Service Managing Director for the MENA, for a discussion about European policy and cooperation moving forward. Doors open at 5:00 pm.
- The Refugee Crisis: Dispelling Myths and Misconceptions | Wednesday, June 21 | 6:30-8 pm | United Nations Association – National Capital Area | Register Here | Since President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, negative perceptions of immigrants and refugees have been on the rise. Against this climate, the UNA-NCA presents personal accounts of refugees in the D.C. area and a panel discussion featuring Niemat Ahmadi, president of the Darfur Women Action Group; Faith Akovi Cooper, regional advisor at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre; Larry Yungk, Senior Resettlement Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and Daniel Sullivan, senior advocate at Refugees International, to dispel myths and misconceptions. The panel will be moderated by Patrick Realiza, chair of the UNA-NCA Sustainable Development Committee.
- Settlements at 50 Years – An Obstacle to Peace and Democracy | Friday, June 23 | 12:30-1:45 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | This month marks 50 years of Israeli control over the West Bank. Although most Israelis support peace negotiations with the Palestinians and oppose annexing large parts of the Palestinian Territories, the Israeli government continues to expand settlements and is considering annexing portions of the West Bank. What drives the Israeli government in this regard? What are the implications for future peace? Join president of the New Israel Fund (NIF) Talia Sasson for a conversation moderated by Haaretz‘s Washington correspondent Amir Tibon.
Donald Trump has done more damage to the NATO Alliance than the Soviet Union managed in more than 40 years. Even after its implosion, the Alliance endured for another 27 years, fighting its first wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. It has taken only a bit more than four months for Trump to cast a pall over Europe’s most important link to the United States and to render the Alliance irrelevant.
German Chancellor Merkel has concluded that Europe, “to some extent,” has to go it alone. This was her reaction to Trump’s miserable performance at the NATO Summit meeting last week, when he failed to mention the Article 5 commitment to come to the defense of our allies and harshly criticized their failure to meet NATO’s exhortation that they spend 2% of GDP on defense. That guideline was intended for 2024, but Trump treats it as a treaty commitment and pretends that the allies owe arrears for their many years of not meeting it.
This purposeful mendacity has consequences. It has convinced the allies that they cannot rely on the United States. An important corollary is that they need not follow the US on other issues. Trump will soon discover that our allies have no interest in ratcheting up sanctions on Iran, for example, but instead prefer to continue doing good business with Tehran. Nor are the allies likely to line up and salute on the wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya. “All for one and one for all” has for decades meant Washington could “to some extent” depend on European backing for American initiatives worldwide. That presumption is now null and void.
Who benefits from this Alliance decay? Russia of course. The vodka flowed in the Kremlin last week. Trump’s own ineptitude and the consequent investigations have stymied his efforts to reach out to Moscow. He is nonetheless proving a useful pawn. Russian President Putin’s fondest hope is to throw NATO into disarray. Trump has done it for him, without any apparent quid pro quo.
The notion that the US or NATO would contest Russian action in Ukraine or Syria has evaporated. The consequences will be felt not only in those two countries but also in increased Russian audacity in the Baltics, the Balkans, Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere. I was just informed of a Montenegrin detained and expelled from Moscow. Apparently he was on an unpublished non grata list. We’ll be seeing a lot more of that kind of harassment. Putin will push until there is a push back, which he will have concluded isn’t coming any time soon.
He is correct. Trump is pushing back against his democratic allies far more than against any autocracy. His only real enemies at this point are what he likes to call radical Islamic terrorism and Iran, the two of which he has somehow managed to conflate despite their mutual sectarian enmity. Trump simply ignores the fact that Russia is increasingly aligned if not allied with Iran, not only in Syria. Nor does he pay any attention to the fact that Russia and Iran have never focused their attacks there on the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, but instead collaborated in launching the latest chemical weapons attack on more moderate anti-Assad forces.
This is a brave new world in which the president of the United States is not what I would regard as loyal to democratic principles, at home or abroad, or to our democratic allies. Memorial Day commemorates those who have died in the nation’s service. I feel their loss even more deeply when we abandon the ideals they were seeking to defend. This is indeed a sad Memorial Day for America and its allies.
I’ve spent the last few days with people from many parts of the Middle East. They were cheerier than you might think, but glimmers of hope go a long way in a dark tunnel. Here are a few of the things I learned.
In Yemen, there are big risks of further radicalization and fragmentation–not just southern secession–if the fighting continues. But both the Houthis, who have bitten off more than they want to chew, and the Saudis, who feel they have prevented an Iranian takeover, are exhausted. Everyone might just be ready to give something like peace a chance.
The best prospect is for agreement that some neutral party will take over the vital port of Hudaydah, through which 70-80% of Yemen’s food supplies flow. That would prevent the impending humanitarian catastrophe and allow some check on the flow of weapons and ammunition into the country. If then Sanaa can be made safe for the return of politicians who have opposed the Houthis, it might be possible to finish the political transition Yemen started more than six years ago by thanking President Hadi for his service and establishing an inclusive interim government. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Iraq is seeing glimmers of hope as well. The Iraqi security forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga and the mostly Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs) as well as the Iraqi army and police, are doing all right in retaking Mosul, where they are moving slowly against strong ISIS resistance and trying hard to avoid civilian casualties. Cooperation has been good. The Pesh and the PMUs are staying on the outskirts of the city while local police backed by the Iraqi Army go inside. The operation should be concluded soon. Cooperation is expected to continue in retaking other towns like Tal Afar and Hawija.
But translating military cooperation against a common enemy into political results is proving difficult. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is planning an independence referendum for the September-November time frame. All the Kurdish political parties except for Gorran are participating in planning that effort. The result will be overwhelming in favor, but an independence declaration will not follow immediately. Erbil plans for a year or two of negotiations with Baghdad over the full range of outstanding issues (territory, oil, finances, displaced people, citizenship, etc.).
Baghdad doesn’t like this idea but isn’t going to try to stop it by force. Preoccupied with growing stabilization and reconstruction requirements, people in Baghdad don’t see how the KRG can pay for independence at current or likely future oil prices, don’t believe Iraq’s neighbors will go along with it, and are focused on instituting the kind of decentralization nationwide that should satisfy not only Iraq’s Kurds but also its Sunni and Shia.
Though any reasonable person would conclude that the Iraqi Kurds have lots of good reasons for wanting independence, they lack the internal and international conditions that would permit it. However, if they are able to negotiate borders with Baghdad and adequate financial arrangements, the picture would change significantly. They would still however face implacable Iranian opposition as well as Turkish discomfort. Ankara may not care so much any more about the KRG’s political status, but Turkish recognition while it is fighting its own and the Syrian Kurds seems a bridge too far.
Syria of course is the toughest nut. There may be some small hope for the Russian/Syrian/Turkish negotiations in Astana to produce workable “de-escalation” zones, though there is still no monitoring or enforcement mechanism. Translating any minor success in Astana to the political talks in Geneva is proving impossible, not least because Bashar al Assad is winning and sees no reason to compromise. The Americans may even hand him Raqaa on a silver platter, so that they can withdraw and declare the Islamic State finished.
Of course it won’t be. Eastern and other parts of Syria (maybe Homs and Hama) will suffer for a long time from a continuing and ever more extremist Sunni insurgency. Nor will the Americans want to ante up for stabilization or reconstruction. They want to kill the Islamic State and get out. Not one dime for governance in Syria is the White House mantra. The Russians, Iranians, and Turks will be stuck for a long time battling shadowy, ruthless, and deadly enemies.
The five million refugees are unlikely to go back under these circumstances. Nor would Assad want them, as he figures they are all his opponents. If the Europeans pay, he might take a token few thousand, but not many more. Another seven million Syrians are displaced inside the country. They aren’t likely going home either.
No Libyans where I was this weekend. But there is a glimmer of hope there that the UN-sponsored political leadership may find some way of compromising with Egyptian-backed would-be autocrat Haftar. That might be nice, or it might be the beginning of the end for one or the other of them, which could either be nice or a big problem.
So a little progress in the Middle East, here and there. But we are a long way from the end of its four civil wars.