Military escalation is happening in several places these days:
- Syria: in addition to the March cruise missile strike on a Syrian base in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks US attacks on Iranian-backed forces approaching US-backed forces, downing of at least two Iranian-built drones, and downing of a Syrian warplane. Tehran and Damascus are pressing hard in eastern Syria, in an effort to deny the US and its allies post-war dominance there.
- Yemen: the Saudis and Emirates are continuing their campaign against the Houthis while the Americans amp up their campaign against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Today’s promotion of Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, to Crown Prince of the Kingdom presages more rather than less war there.
- Somalia: the Administration has expanded AFRICOM’s latitude in attacking al Shabaab militants, who are proving more resilient than many anticipated.
- Afghanistan: the White House has delegated authority to increase US forces to the military, which intends to deploy several thousand more Americans to help the Afghans counter the Taliban.
- Russia: Moscow’s warplanes have been conducting provocative maneuvers against NATO for some time, and yesterday a NATO F-16 allegedly approached a Russian plane carrying the Defense Minister.
Meanwhile Iraq’s disparate security forces are closing in on Mosul, civil wars continue in Libya and Mali, and North Korea continues to test its increasingly long-range missiles.
This military escalation is occurring in a vacuum of diplomatic and civilian efforts. Syria talks sponsored by Turkey, Iran and Russia are slated to reconvene soon in Astana, but prospects for serious progress there on military de-escalation are poor. The UN-sponsored political talks in Geneva are stalled. Planning for governance of Raqqa after the defeat of the Islamic State there is unclear.
The UN has announced a new Yemen Special Representative of the Secretary General, but it will be some time before he can relaunch its efforts. The UN-backed government in Libya is still unable to exert authority, especially over the eastern part of the country. The UN’s Mali mission has been suffering casualties, inhibiting any civilian efforts there. President Trump has tweeted the failure of Chinese diplomacy (more accurately, his diplomacy with China) to produce results with North Korea.
None of this should surprise. Apart from North Korea, the Americans are committed to not relying on diplomacy (in particular through the UN) and to avoiding anything resembling state-building. While they may sometimes think about financing removal of rubble or mines in newly liberated areas of Syria, they are determined to avoid any responsibility for governance or law and order. The Trump Administration wants to follow the formula Bush 43 tried in Afghanistan: kill the Islamic State and Al Qaeda enemies and get out. The failure of that approach has apparently been forgotten.
The only substantial diplomatic effort the Trump Administration has been pursuing is with Israel and Palestine, where there is an almost 70-year record of failures, with only occasional, if important, moments of partial success (I am thinking of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, not the Oslo accords). No one is taking bets that Jason Greenblatt’s efforts will succeed, though they may restrain the Israelis a bit and produce some modest improvements in the conditions under which Palestinians live. The two-state solution is, however, as far off as it has ever been.
The worst may be yet to come. The Trump Administration has aligned itself firmly with Israel, the Saudis, and the UAE against Iran. The Iranians seem increasingly determined to carve out their Shia crescent from Iraq through Syria and Lebanon all the way to the Mediterranean. We are on a collision course with Tehran, even if the nuclear deal hold for now
- 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.
Iran Friday re-elected President Rouhani, who pressed for and got a nuclear deal with the P5+1 (that’s the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany, aka the EU3+3), with approval from the Supreme Leader. During his electoral campaign, Rouhani prioritized market reforms, negotiation of further sanctions relief, attracting foreign investment, and an enhanced regional and international presence for Iran.
Rouhani’s chief opponent was hard-nosed conservative Ebrahim Raisi, who wanted to close off Iran from further cooperation with the international community and build its “resistance” economy. Adopting a populist tone, he promised an increase in welfare benefits and subsidies. Implicated in the 1988 mass execution of thousands of prisoners, Raisi is “the true face of the Islamic Republic,” according to Elliot Abrams.
Iranians rejected that true face: Raisi lost by 19 percentage points, in an election that reportedly drew 70% turnout. Though far from free and fair, since candidates were vetted and many eliminated by the Guardian Council, that’s a definitive result, especially as there were two additional candidates. The Supreme Leader may be delighted that Iranians returned to the polls and did not boycott or otherwise protest too much, as they did in 2009. He may even be satisfied with Rouhani, who is no liberal but rather a stalwart of the regime who attracted support from would-be reformers because of the nuclear deal and the opening to the international community. But Iranians are clearly dissatisfied with clerical domination and isolation from the rest of the world.
Should Americans be happy with the election result or not?
Elliot preferred Raisi, as the human rights situation in Iran has not improved during Rouhani’s presidency and Tehran has become bolder in intervening in the region. The interventions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have not been a big strain. Iranians would have been far more likely to rebel against Raisi than Rouhani, and the international community far more ready to act. President Trump aligned with that view during his visit to Riyadh, when he backed the Saudis and their effort to organize the Sunni world to counter not only terrorism but also Iran. Confrontation, not Obama’s rapprochement, is now American policy.
Others think Iran is drifting in a more liberal, less religiously conservative direction that should be encouraged, not discouraged. Confrontation will make moderation less likely. Iranians seem to want pretty much what people in the West want: equality of opportunity, transparency, fairness, and rule of law. They oppose the corruption and cronyism that have become endemic in finance and the bureaucracy. Sharia has evaporated. The ideology of the Islamic Republic is fading. Few women are wearing even the hijab.
Of course both views can be correct: the hard core of the regime remains very much in place. Rouhani likely does have a better chance of extending its life than a hardliner like Raisi. But if the people of Iran see only hostile words and new sanctions, how likely are they to warm to the West?
Russia is the alternative, one with which Tehran has been developing stronger ties, especially in Syria. The Iranians like what they have seen of Russian weapons, even if the Russians think the Iranians militarily inept. Their marriage is one of convenience, not a real alliance, but effective enough on the battlefield in Syria. No divorce is likely. New sanctions on Iran, which Congress is contemplating, would not only drive Iranians towards Moscow but also split the Europeans from the US, as they want to continue doing business in Iran.
Iran’s growing power projection capabilities complicate the issue for Washington. Tehran has developed longer-range missiles (up to 4000 km) but has not yet much improved their accuracy. Intended primarily for use against Israel, the missiles can frighten a civilian population but cannot reliably hit military targets. Iran’s Shia militia proxies have strengthened over the past five years, including not only Lebanese Hizbollah but also Popular Mobilization Forces from Iraq and other groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Having been attacked by Stuxnet, Iran has quickly acquired cyber warfare and drone capabilities. All these capabilities are relatively inexpensive, difficult to counter, and readily deployed.
Like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Trump has gone from a diehard opponent of the nuclear deal to its de facto strong supporter. The Trump Administration would like to renegotiate it so that the restraints on Iran’s nuclear program do not expire. It is not, however, clear what the Administration is prepared to offer in return, or even what would be attractive to Tehran. Trump would have to do more to open US financial markets to the Iranians, or somehow get the Europeans to join in new sanctions, in order to get the better nuclear deal he promised during his campaign. What are the odds of that?
The bottom line: Washington needs to learn to do more than one thing at a time: keep the nuclear deal in place (or even extend it), counter Iranian trouble-making in the region, and encourage the Iranian people to moderate their Republic’s commitment to exporting revolution using its unconventional but economical capabilities. It’s not going to be easy.
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.
Donald Trump is a bully. We need only recall his treatment of his Republican competitors, especially Marco Rubio, and his stalking of Hillary Clinton during the last presidential debate, to realize that the President has an irresistible impulse to try to intimidate and dominate others. He tried it again this weekend with his threat to make recordings of their conversations public if former FBI Director Comey leaks to the press. He has also tried it with Kim Jong-un, alternately with offering to talk with him if the conditions are right. He has even tried it with Tea Party Republicans, when they refused to go along with a lousy revision of Obamacare that failed to meet their definition of “repeal.”
It isn’t working, because most adults know how to respond. Kim Jong-un is simply proceeding with his missile tests, knowing full well that ratcheting up UN Security Council sanctions is going to be difficult. By contrast, Comey, though reportedly fine with the existence of tapes of his phone conversations with the President, is not going to testify this week. I imagine he and his lawyers need to weigh a lot of pros and cons, since the Senate Democrats will want to ask him about ongoing investigations. That’s understandable, but sooner or later Comey will also defy the bully.
The bully ends up giving in more often than not, because he hasn’t got all the powers he pretends to wield. Trump has clearly overestimated his powers as president: the courts have stymied his immigration ban, his executive orders are often empty, and the Republicans in Congress are starting to bite back, even if not enough to satisfy me. Trump’s effort at rapprochement with Russia are going nowhere, he has backed off his promise to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and he is now figuratively licking the boots of the Chinese he once accused of raping America.
He really has only confirmation of a Supreme Court justice the Senate Republicans wanted, roll back of environmental and other regulations, and the cruise missile attack on Syria to show for his more than 100 days in the presidency. The former two items are important and something I regret. Gorsuch has already concurred in executing someone who might have been exonerated by DNA evidence. The US will be unable to meet its climate change commitments, even if it doesn’t withdraw from the Paris agreement.
The cruise missile raid has no significance, as it was done as a temperamental one-off without proper diplomatic and military followup that might have tipped the Syrian war in a new direction. Assad has used chemical weapons several times thereafter, without any American response, and now the State Department says he is building a crematorium to hid the execution of thousands of prisoners. In fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda, Trump has racked up a record of doing pretty much what his predecessor was doing but with bigger bombs, more drones, and more civilian casualties. The big difference is the lack of any diplomatic strategy other than bullying.
This week will be an important one: Turkish President Erdogan is in town trying to get the Americans to back off support for Syrian Kurds he regards as terrorists but the American generals think are the only available force able to remove ISIS from the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa. The generals want to do this quickly, they say, because ISIS is planning attacks on the US in Raqqa. Trump is likely to bully Erdogan, though he may also try to sweeten the pot by offering to be helpful on the extradition of Erdogan’s arch-nemesis, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. That’s an empty promise, as the courts will make the decision.
A different president might cut a deal with Erdogan on Syria, thus preserving strong ties to America’s Turkish allies: if they want to prevent the Kurds from taking Raqqa, let them try. If they fail, the Americans do Plan B with the Kurds. The rationale for haste doesn’t add up: ISIS can plan attacks from anywhere. Removing them from Raqqa without a serious idea for how to govern the place thereafter reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus. You know: he was condemned to rolling a boulder up a hill, only to see it slide back down when he got near the top. That’s what is going to happen if the post-victory scenario in Raqqa has not been well-prepared. ISIS, or worse, will be back.
But options other than bullying, alternating with obsequious flattery, seem well beyond this president’s tool box. A great negotiator he is not. He is making America grate.
Neophyte politician Emanuele Macron today is projected to have won the French presidency, defeating nationalist Marine Le Pen. The outcome will not end the anti-European Union, anti-euro, anti-NATO, anti-immigrant surge in French politics, but it settles the presidency in reliably liberal democratic hands for the next five years.
The potential problem lies in the National Assembly, which is scheduled for elections in June. Macron lacks a well-established political party, so he may have trouble gaining the same kind of dominant legislative power French presidents have usually wielded. Le Pen may do much better in legislative elections, as her party is well-established and her support is spread through much of the country.
That said, this is the second European election that has repudiated Trump-like nationalists, aka white supremacists. The first was in the Netherlands, where racist Geert Wilders did less well than expected. The next will be in September in Germany, where Chancellor Merkel also did well in a regional election yesterday. In any event, both she and her principal opponent, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, are reliable anti-nationalists.
What does this mean for the US? We seem far less able to reject the nationalist upsurge than Europe, where only Britain has fallen victim by approving exit from the EU. But there is no doubt President Trump and his minions have been hoping for nationalist fellow travelers in Europe, where he might even hope they would break up the Union, which he loathes. Their disappointment will be felt all the more deeply because Barack Obama endorsed Macron while Trump all but endorsed Le Pen.
Trump’s last European hope now is likely Italy, where elections are due before May 2018 and may be held early. There populist comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement has been gaining ground. The Italians, remember, invented the businessman/populist/nationalist more than 20 years ago, when Silvio Berlusconi first came on the political scene. He is blessedly discredited, but Grillo is no better.
Trump, who endorsed Le Pen, now has more important things to worry about. He won the vote in the House last week to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, the health insurance law that has greatly expanded coverage for Americans, especially (the irony!) Trump voters in key states. Trump is trying hard to crash Obamacare by trashing the state-level marketplaces in which people can sign up for health insurance. He figures then the Democrats in the Senate will have to cooperate with some modified version of “repeal and replace” that would then have to be sent back to the House for final approval.
Trump is also planning his first foreign travel as president this month: Saudi Arabia, Israel/Palestine, Rome for the Pope as well as the Italian government, then Brussels for meetings with the EU, NATO and the Belgian government, and Taormina (Sicily) for the G7 summit.
The Saudis are no doubt looking forward to a meeting with a president who won’t harass them about human rights and is hostile to Iran, the Israelis and Palestinians are still waiting to see if the administration has any serious ideas about their peace process, the EU and NATO will hope the visit marks the end of the president’s skepticism about their institutions, and the G7 will be thankful their club has survived the rise of China and the death of the G8 (which included Russia).
Trump’s past foreign trips have been notable for serious gaffes as well as aggressive pursuit of his business interests. I’d bet we’ll see more of the same on this one. But they serve another purpose: they’ll help us all forget that he has been unsuccessful so far in dunning North Korea into submission and hasn’t made any progress on renegotiating NAFTA or blocking people from his selected Muslim countries from entering the US.
A Le Pen win would have made Trump’s upcoming travel a triumphal march through a Europe on the ropes. At least, phew!, that is not going to happen.