Colleagues at RAND have updated their peace proposal for Syria. This should be taken seriously, both because Jim Dobbins, Phil Gordon and Jeffrey Martini are sharp guys and because their previous version turned out to be prescient, or maybe just reflective of Administration thinking before the recent, now mostly lamented, cessation of hostilities. They want to put aside the difficult political question of transition, including the fate of Bashar al Assad, to focus on reducing the violence and extending the cessation of hostilities.
What they’ve done this time is to suggest four different ways in which decentralization could be implemented with Bashar al Assad still in place: one based on existing legislation, a second based on that plus additional taxing and security authority, a third acknowledges existing Kurdish autonomy, and a fourth that extends that autonomy to opposition and government controlled areas, more or less along the lines of their previous proposal. Wisely dropped from their original proposal is the ethnic/sectarian definition of “safe” zones, with the exception of the de facto majority Kurdish area along Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
All of this is perfectly reasonable as an outline of what might happen if the war continues. It just isn’t going to be possible for Assad to re-establish control over all of Syria. Decentralization is unquestionably part of the solution, as it is in Yemen, Libya and Iraq. The opposition already has local governing structures in northern and southern Syria, the Kurds are governing their “cantons” and ISIS unfortunately administers the territory it controls.
But as a proposal that keeps Bashar al Assad in place it looks distinctly like surrender. Assad himself yesterday made clear that he intends to reconquer all of Syria:
There is no sign that he would accept a peace that includes decentralization along any of the lines RAND recommends, even the one based on existing legislation. Nor is there any sign that the Russians and Iranians would compel him to do so. To the contrary: they are doubling and tripling down on their support for Assad’s offensives, most notably right now against Aleppo and Raqqa.
Nor is there any sign that the peacekeeping forces RAND mumbles quietly are necessary in both the original and updated version of its peace plan are going to be available. Even the Iranians and Russians are unlikely to deploy the tens of thousands required on the ground in Syria. Much less so the Qataris, Saudis, Jordanians or even the Turks. Years ago, the UN had polled more traditional troop providing countries and had identified 18,000 that might be made available. Today that number has certainly shrunk. A country the size of Syria would require well over 100,000 by the usual peacekeeping formulas.
The value of this second version of the RAND proposal lies in its careful attention to the pros and cons of different forms of decentralization. Assad is staying, but he won’t be able to achieve his territorial goal. The Americans, whose one real asset in Syria is the local governing structures they have supported, should be thinking about decentralization not with Assad, because he just won’t buy it, but despite Assad. Providing the security resources required to protect local governing structures, and weaving them together into a viable alternative to the regime, is a better plan than the surrender RAND is advocating.
On Wednesday, the Conflict Management Program at SAIS and MEI hosted a talk entitled After the Deal: A Veteran Journalist’s View from Tehran. Speakers included Roy Gutman, McClatchy Middle East bureau chief, and Joyce Karam, Washington bureau chief for Al-Hayat. Daniel Serwer of both SAIS and MEI moderated. Both speakers emphasized the dynamics that caused regional players to be wary of Iran.
Early last Spring, Gutman traveled to Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.
In Israel, he observed that the major national security concern wasn’t the Iranian nuclear program, but rather Iran’s conventional threat through the buildup of Hezbollah forces. Israelis were disappointed that the US was leaving a security vacuum in Syria for Iran to fill. The Israeli position on the Iran deal is difficult to understand; Israeli politicians oppose it, but Israel’s foreign policy elite considers Iranian conventional forces a larger threat.
Jordanian officials also worried about regional chaos and Iranian influence. They were baffled by the half-hearted US response to Assad, as well as its airstrike-only response to ISIS.
Egypt is preoccupied by terrorism and the upheaval in Libya, but Egyptian officials are also concerned about Iran’s growing influence and US inaction.
Officials in every government (aside from Turkey’s) spoke of collusion between Turkey and extremists. The Turks think the Iranians know that the US is not a determined counterpart. They believe the US is appeasing Iran.
Gutman then traveled to Tehran to gauge the mood there. Iran has come in from the cold after 36 years, but Tehran resents the last 36 years of US policy. Change in Iran won’t happen fast. Khamenei has said that Iran’s policy towards the “arrogant” US government won’t change and that Iran will keep supporting its regional allies.
Israel views Hezbollah’s buildup as a direct threat, but Iranian officials told Gutman that the Tehran holds the trigger on Hezbollah’s weapons and won’t pull it unless Israel threatens Lebanon or Iran. However, a former Iranian diplomat admitted that Iran has no vital interest in Lebanon or the Palestinians. Iran also appears to have no vital interest in Yemen, but likes seeing Saudi Arabia embroiled in an unwinnable war. Iran is unalterably opposed to the breakup of Iraq into three states.
Iranian officials don’t think the deal is perfect, but still see it as a win-win for both sides. They view themselves as MENA’s most powerful and stable state. They are glad that US has accepted them as a regional player and negotiating partner.
After the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Iran filled the vacuum. The Iraqi Army collapsed on Iran’s watch. Iran does not acknowledge its responsibility for this and ascribes the rise of ISIS to others. They also believe that foreign forces fought in Deraa and refused to acknowledge Assad’s role in fomenting terrorism by releasing terrorists from prison. Iranian officials also stated that all sectors of Lebanese society back Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria. Iran needs a reality check.
Iran opposes the creation of a safe zone/no-fly zone in Iraq and has threatened to send basijis into Syria if this happens. Iranians don’t understand the scope of Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe or Iran’s role in it. There are too many disagreements between the US and Iran to form a regional security agreement now. The US needs a policy for Syria; if we don’t have a policy, others will fill the vacuum. The US also needs an official version of what happened in Syria to counter the Iranian invented view of history.
Karam noted that the Arab response to the deal is less monolithic than Israel’s, but the GCC and Israel view Iran’s regional behavior similarly. The UAE, Oman, and Turkey quickly welcomed the deal because they have good trade relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar were more cautious. The Saudis don’t view the deal as US abandonment, but they fear increased Iranian regional meddling. Arab public opinion has shifted drastically since 2008, when 80% of Arabs viewed Iran positively. Now only 12% do. The Arab street is suspicious of the deal. The US explained the deal to Arab governments, but not to their people. The Arab street wonders whether the money Iran will gain from sanctions relief will go to funding Iranian students, or to Qassem Suleimani and more chlorine gas, barrel bombs, and Hezbollah fighters for Assad. Assad is a costly budget item for Iran. When will Iran realize that Assad can’t win? Nevertheless, Hezbollah keeps getting more involved in Syria.
Karam stated that the Gulf countries obtain commitments from the US at talks like Camp David, but then nothing gets done. The US is four years behind on Syria and needs an official policy.
Serwer noted in conclusion that the regional issues would be far worse if Iran had, or were about to get, nuclear weapons.
Expectations for next week’s Wednesday/Thursday summit at the White House and Camp David with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) heads of state (or their proxies) vary greatly. Simon Henderson, who follows the Gulf from the Washington Institute, says
the definition of success for this summit will more likely be a limited agreement than an historic pact.
Joyce Karam suggests something more substantial: the summit may allow a bargain in which the Gulf states drop their opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran in exchange for the US allowing the Gulf a freer hand in countering Iranian surrogates in Syria and possibly Yemen.
The Americans have not seemed inclined in this more grandiose direction. They remain worried about who might take over in Syria should Asad fall. They have also leaned in favor of a ceasefire or humanitarian pause in Yemen, where the Saudi-led intervention has not done much to roll back the Iranian-supported Houthis while rousing nationalist sentiment among Yemeni civilians, who are suffering mightily because of the fighting.
Those concerns are serious ones, but events on the ground in Syria may not permit the Americans to remain aloof much longer. Rebel forces there have gained ground both in the north, near Idlib, and in the south, between Damascus and the Jordanian border. Regime forces seem unable to respond effectively, though Lebanese Hizbollah and Iranian fighters continue to prevent outright disaster for Asad. The divisions among Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (the three main financiers of the Syrian revolution) that in the past have hampered rebel effectiveness are diminishing. The Americans might prefer to await training of their vetted rebels to bring down Asad, but he is unlikely to last the years it will take to put a significant number of them back on the battlefield.
In Yemen, the Gulf protagonists have less reason for optimism. Intervention there against the Houthis has not done more than slow their advance south. In the meanwhile, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is gaining ground. The Houthis don’t like Al Qaeda any better than the Saudis do, but it is hard to picture a political solution at this point that allows them to combine to fight their common enemy. They are inclined to forget Ben Franklin’s admonition: either we all hang together, or we all hang separately.
A Gulf/American pact in favor of more concerted efforts to counter Iran’s regional trouble-making could be helpful to the Obama Administration at home, where it faces continued bipartisan opposition to the nuclear deal. Yesterday’s 98-1 Senate approval of legislation giving the Congress a 30-day opportunity to debate and vote on the nuclear deal sets up an important debate for early August, provided the nuclear deal is reached by the end of June. The strongest argument against the nuclear deal is likely to be the prospect of an emboldened Iran free of sanctions using its considerable wealth to subvert the Arab states of the Gulf and Levant. Freeing the Gulf to counter Iranian efforts in Syria and Yemen would be one way of responding to the Administration’s critics at home.
The problem is that it may not work. The Gulf states, which have armed themselves far beyond the Iranians’ wildest dreams, continue to bumble when it comes to military action and diplomatic weight. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has succeeded in building up effective surrogates in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In Yemen and Bahrain, the Iranians have taken advantage of local grievances to make a lot of trouble. The Gulf states fear the lifting of sanctions for good reasons. Even under sanctions, Iran has done well diplomatically and militarily. What might Tehran be able to do once sanctions are lifted and hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue return to its coffers?
The summit next week is an unusual one. Whether your expectations are great or not so great, there are real issues to discuss between Washington and its Gulf interlocutors. An agreement that combines a nuclear deal with more effective action to stem Iranian regional trouble-making would be a serious outcome. Rather than the grand bargain with Iran the Republicans and Israelis fear, we may be seeing the emergence of a grand bargain with the Gulf.
Max Fisher offers Mike Doran a platform for his case against the nuclear deal with Iran. Here are ten ways in which Mike is mistaken:
1. MD: Detente is the strategic goal, and arms control is the means to achieve it.
President Obama has made it clear he would welcome a broader detente with Iran, but he has also made it clear the nuclear deal has to be judged on its own merits. I don’t see any evidence that he is prevaricating, but if that is Mike’s claim he should produce the support.
2. MD: I don’t think it [preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon] is achievable without a significant coercive component. I think this is one of the most faulty assumptions of the administration.
Trouble is, the Obama Administration does not make that faulty assumption. It has done much more than any prior administration to increase the sanctions pressure on Iran, far more than the Administration for which Mike worked.
3. MD: [The Iranians] want sanctions relief and they’re going to get it, and they see that they’re going to get it, and they will stick with this process as long as they get direct, immediate, and very desirable benefits from it.
That is precisely the point of the negotiations: to provide sanctions relief provided Tehran gives up its nuclear weapons ambitions for at least ten years and moves itself back from a “breakout” of two or three months to a “breakout” time of a year. This is not an argument against the deal. It’s an argument for it.
4. MD: In fact, the starting point is that the Iranians want hegemony in the region, and they’re reading American policy with respect to their regional aspirations. The goal of Iran’s nuclear weapons program is not to defend against the United States or Israel — it’s to advance its regional agenda.
That’s right, and it is also a very good reason for halting Iran before it gets nuclear weapons. Again: a very good argument for the deal.
5. MD: I’m in favor of a vigorous containment program across the board, and I’m also in favor of a policy that says we have all options on the table and we mean it. The president says all options are on the table, but he doesn’t actually mean it, and I think we should mean it.
This confidence that his opponents know better than what the president says is laughable. The debate over destroying the Iranian nuclear program has clarified the limited gains it would provide: only two or three years of setback and an enormous incentive for Iran to redouble its efforts. But the notion that showing resolution by sabre-rattling would improve the prospects for a good deal is simply wrong.
6. MD: For a time the Iranians certainly believed all options were on the table. They abandoned their weaponization program, or they put it on hold, in 2003. Well, what happened in 2003? The United States went into Iraq, and I think they were probably very concerned at that point about all options being on the table.
The Iranians were concerned then about an American invasion, which is no longer a viable threat no matter who is president. But they spent the rest of the Bush Administration building and spinning thousands of more centrifuges, a fact Mike conveniently forgets.
7. MD: The very process of the negotiation is destroying the sanctions regime we established, which is the greatest nonmilitary instrument we have for coercing them.
This is laughable. The process of negotiation is absolutely vital to building and maintaining the multilateral sanctions regime. Without negotiations, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese would not be on board for sanctions.
8. MD: Iran’s status in the international community is going to be greatly improved, and then there’s going to be an international commercial lobby and a diplomatic-military lobby, which includes the Chinese and the Russians, in favor of the new order in which Iran is a citizen in good standing in the international community that they can do business with.
This is true, but misleading. That “international commercial lobby” already exists. If no agreement is reached, the sanctions are mincemeat. The notion that we can continue to hold on to them indefinitely is nonsense.
9. MD: The key question in that regard is, “When did he start to see Iran as a partner in Iraq?”
When the whole question of the status of forces agreement in Iraq was alive in 2010, [former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta and [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus and everybody are saying, “Keep forces on the ground in Iraq,” and the president had a different inclination. Well, if the United States is not going to be directly involved in Iraq, then who is going to protect our interests and protect stability in Iraq? And I think that, although he’s never admitted this, he assumed the Iranians would play that role for him.
I would say it was the Bush invasion of Iraq that gave Iran its big opening in Iraq. But leaving that aside: George W. Bush, not Barack Hussein Obama, negotiated the agreement for the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. It was signed before he left office. What Mike is talking about here is an attempt to renegotiate that agreement, which the Obama Administration did pursue. But the Iraqis weren’t willing to give the US juridiction over its troops in Iraq and we weren’t willing to stay without it.
10. MD: If the Iranian regime — and I do believe they are rational — were truly put before the choice, if Ali Khamenei was put before a choice of “Your nuclear program or absolutely crippling, debilitating economic sanctions,” he would think twice. I think if he were put before a choice of “Your nuclear program or severe military strikes,” he would think twice.
So how do you get those crippling economic sanctions, whichc have to be multilateral, if you are not also negotiating with Iran? Absolutely no realistic proposal.
Here at last, the true agenda: get us into war with Iran, but note no mention of the only temporary setback to the Iranian nuclear program (and consequently the need to intervene repeatedly every couple of years), no mention of the likelihood the Iranians would redouble the efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, no consideration of the impact on the world economy, or secondary consequences (relations with China, Russia, the Europeans, Iranian responses in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, maybe also Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE).
Here is the kicker: if you really want to go to war with Iran, you’ll be much better off doing it because they violated an agreement than just doing it. So a nuclear deal is a good idea if that is your objective as well.
Oil prices are down by about 20% from their recent peak (or 15% from their three-year plateau around $100 per barrel) and likely to stay low for months if not years. Downward pressure will continue unless the Saudis are prepared to rein in their production (no sign of that yet) or prices decline enough (to $70 or less) to turn off the flow of tight oil and gas in the US, which has become a major factor on world markets.
There is a lot of benefit to be seen from lower oil prices. From the US perspective, cutting revenue flow to the governments of Russia, Iran and Venezuela is a big plus. Putin, who is already feeling substantial pressure from European Union and US sanctions, faces serious financial difficulties. Iran, likewise hurt by sanctions, will find it difficult to generate anything like the revenue it needs to fund economic recovery, even if sanctions are lifted. Venezuela was already headed towards a financial crisis. Its budget is almost entirely dependent on oil revenue.
Major oil and gas producers in the Gulf will be hit as well. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates , Kuwait and Qatar as well as Iraq will feel the pinch. They are far more likely to cut their spending on various international causes than risk austerity at home. That could mean scarcer resources for the restored military autocracy in Egypt, Yemen’s besieged government and Syria’s opposition. It could also mean less revenue for Islamist extremists of various stripes, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, for which oil sales are a significant portion of revenue.
Lower oil prices will also give a boost to global economic growth, particularly in the US and Europe but also in China and India. The Economist worries that the lower prices may be due to slack economic growth and that lower prices will do little for consumers, but then it gives ample evidence that the lower prices are in fact due to higher production. If past patterns hold, global economic growth could gain by a significant 1% over current 3.3% predictions for 2015.
What has happened in the past couple of weeks is part of a broader secular trend that will have profound impacts on geopolitics and economics for a long time to come. Production of oil and gas is rising sharply in the Western Hemisphere, especially in the US, Canada and Brazil. Demand is rising principally in the East, where economic growth is strong, the economies are still heavily dependent on energy, and energy resources are scarce. This trend has implications for future security risks and burden sharing: it will not make much sense for the US to carry most of the burden of ensuring the security of the strait of Hormuz when 90% or more of the oil shipped through this classic “choke point” is going to India, China and other Asian consumers.
Asian consumers should be stocking 90 days of imports, as members of the International Energy Agency are required to do. They should also be providing some of the naval assets to protect the strait of Hormuz. That will require a major rethink on the part of the US, as well as creation of a multinational force that the Asians can feel comfortable joining.
There are calls in Congress to curtail the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is slated for use in an oil supply disruption. That would be an unwise move, as a major disruption of oil markets anywhere means a hike in prices everywhere. The US may be much less dependent on the Middle East in the future, but it will still be vulnerable to the economic damage of an oil supply interruption.
We have tended to view the rise of Asia as a challenge. But of course it is also an opportunity. The US will soon be the world’s largest oil and gas producer. If the Washington can continue to moderate American demand and in addition decides to allow oil and gas exports, the assumption of its declining influence could soon be proven, once again, a mirage.
President Obama has now clarified his goal in the war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL): it is to degrade and destroy. His model is what was accomplished against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That should be little comfort to those who live in areas where ISIL operates. A dozen years of war have rendered parts of the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan even more lawless and ungovernable than it was before the US intervened there starting in 2001. But it is fair enough to say that the remnants of Al Qaeda that remain there are little threat to the United States.
What will it take to defeat ISIL?
The military campaign will require a 360 degree effort against ISIL. This means an international coalition that includes not only those NATO members willing to engage but also the security forces of Iraq and Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan as well as Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), all of which are seriously threatened if ISIL is able to consolidate its position inside Iraq and Syria. The precise division of labor will have to be negotiated, but the United States should expect that its bombing of ISIL in both Syria and Iraq is only the tip of the spear. Iraq and the Syrian rebels will need to provide the biggest share of the ground forces. The others should be prepared to attack from the air or provide funding, advice and equipment.
The military campaign against ISIL will go much faster and much better if the mainly Sunni populations in the areas it controls rise against it. This is what enabled the American “surge” in 2006 and 2007 to succeed against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Then it was the Sunni tribes that rebelled and helped the Americans to destroy Al Qaeda. Any serious effort to destroy ISIL will need to make something similar happen now. But it won’t be easy: without boots on the ground, the Americans will be unable to organize or pay for a Sunni “awakening.” The Saudis and UAE have shown little aptitude in this direction, but it is high time they learned how to get what they pay for.
While confronting ISIL militarily, the coalition acting against it will need to weaken its sources of financing and recruitment. This is shadowy work that requires the best efforts of many intelligence agencies working together. The focus on foreign fighters coming from the US and Western Europe may be necessary to prevent their flow back to those places. But most of them appear to be coming from other places and need to be slowed or stopped, whatever their origins. This is an area where the Russians can contribute: Chechnyans play a significant role, as do others from the Caucusus. Rumors of Qatari financing have been rife. It is time to stop any supposedly private contributions going from Doha to ISIL or its supporters.
The toughest issue in dealing with ISIL will be preventing its return to the places where it is militarily defeated. President Obama may think leaving the border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan devoid of effective governance is all right, because eventually Kabul and Islamabad will fill in. But it is going to be a long time before Damascus or Baghdad can govern effectively in the eastern provinces of Syria or the western provinces of Iraq, respectively. If you want to degrade and destroy ISIL there you are going to have to make some provision for governance, justice and public services.
This cannot be done by remote control. Someone is going to need to establish a presence in the areas ISIS currently controls, unless we want to see it go the way of Libya, whose various militias are tearing the country to shreds. In Syria, it might be the moderate revolutionaries, but then they will need protection from Bashar al Asad so long as he rules Damascus. In Iraq, it will likely need to be Sunni Iraqis who take control and govern–initially at least–without much reference to Baghdad. International humanitarian and other assistance in both countries will be vital, unless we want to see them go the way of Libya, where militias are now battling each other for control of the state. The UN or maybe the Arab League had better get ready for big challenges.
Presidents have to deal with the world they are dealt, not the one they prefer. “Degrade and destroy” will take years, not months. Obama would prefer to do retrenchment. Maybe his successor will get the opportunity.