Tag: Syria

The risks of something nutty

I’ve been trying to follow my own good advice: Donald Trump is a distraction from the real things going on in this troubling and troubled world. Best to ignore his inanity and focus on what matters.

It isn’t easy. President Trump spent much of the week flogging the idea that we should arm school teachers to prevent mass shootings. This is a patently bad idea for many reasons:

  • The perpetrators are always armed with greater fire power than a teacher could conceal;
  • An armed teacher who survives confrontation with a perpetrator would face serious risks once the SWAT team arrives;
  • The risk of harm to innocent bystanders from a teacher with a handgun would be far greater than the risk from the SWAT team;
  • Few teachers would take up this privilege;
  • The environment in schools would however become far more antagonistic between teachers and students than it already is, since the idea is to keep secret which teachers are armed;
  • There would be a risk of students getting hold of a teacher’s gun;
  • Administration of such a program, including training and storage of weapons and ammunition, would be burdensome, not to mention the costs of insurance and legal settlements.

Even the stationing of trained and armed uniformed guards in schools has not demonstrably helped.

Trump’s advocacy of this bad idea, which pleases his National Rifle Association donors, distracts from other things going on, most notably the indictments of his senior campaign officials (Paul Manafort and Rick Gates) on top of the indictments of more than a dozen Russians who hacked the 2016 election.

There can no longer be any doubt that Russia conspired to discredit the electoral process and support Trump’s candidacy. Nor can there be any doubt that President Putin blessed, if he didn’t actually order, the effort. The Russians also appear to have relieved Manafort and Gates of debt obligations while they were serving the campaign, in return for something still unknown. Both are likely headed for lengthy prison terms for “conspiracy against the United States” and other crimes, even as Trump’s supporters at a conservative political conference this week chanted “lock her up!”

That is not the whole story of this week’s real news. Washington has let it be known it has intercepts of the the Kremlin approving if not ordering an attack by Russian mercenaries on US soldiers and their allies in eastern Syria a couple of weeks ago. Moscow is also participating with the Syrian government in a ferocious bombardment of civilian targets in East Ghouta, outside Damascus, killing hundreds. A UN Security Council resolution intended to initiate a ceasefire is still held up, by guess who? Moscow is trying to eke out at least of few more days of air raids on East Ghouta, in hopes that is will surrender to Damascus after almost seven years of siege.

Trump continues his refusal to criticize Moscow, even if much of his Administration is trying to find ways to bite back. That in the end may be this week’s real news: what the President says is increasingly disconnected from reality and aimed mainly to protect himself from the Special Counsel’s investigation. The more he hears Mueller’s footsteps, the crazier Trump gets. He is becoming a kind of pugnacious and erratic figurehead presiding over an Administration that is far more in touch with reality and trying to prevent him from doing what his predecessor called “stupid shit.” I hope the saner folks succeed, but the risks of Trump doing something nutty are increasing.

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Peace picks, February 19-25

  1. Iran’s Missile Program in Perspective| Tuesday, February 20 | 9:00am – 10:30am | Atlantic Council | Register here |

The Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative invites you to a panel discussion on Iran’s missile program, its role in Iranian defense strategy, and as a source of tension in the region and beyond. While the primary threat posed by the program stems from its potential connection to Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s neighbors and the United States are also concerned about the transfer of shorter-range rockets to Iranian-backed militant groups in Yemen and Lebanon. The Trump administration has raised the issue as a “flaw” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and is discussing a possible side agreement with key European nations that would include missiles. Iran has rejected changes to the JCPOA and views the missile program as an essential element of its military doctrine, a means of deterrence and a tool of statecraft. Please join Aaron Stein (Resident Senior Fellow,Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council), Michael Elleman (Senior Fellow for Missile Defense, IISS), and Melissa Dalton (Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, International Security Program, CSIS). Bharath Gopalaswamy (Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council) will moderate.

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  1. The United States and India: Forging an Indispensable Democratic Partnership | Tuesday, February 20 | 10:00am – 11:30am | Center for American Progress | Register here |

The relationship between the United States and India has become an important priority for both nations and is increasingly important to advancing their shared interests of promoting economic prosperity, security, and democratic institutions. Over the past year, the Center for American Progress organized a binational group of Indian and American experts in a wide variety of fields to work together to craft a vision for the future of U.S.-India relations. The resulting task force report — “The United States and India: Forging an Indispensable Democratic Partnership” — outlines a path forward for the bilateral relationship, along with a series of concrete recommendations that both sides can take to advance shared interests. Please join CAP for the release of the report and a discussion with the task force co-chairs—Nirupama Menon Rao (former Indian Ambassador to the United States; former Foreign Secretary of India) and Richard Rahul Verma (former U.S. Ambassador to India; Vice Chairman, The Asia Group)—on the future of the U.S.-India relationship. With an opening statement by Neera Tanden (President and CEO, CAP). Kelly Magsamen (Vice President, National Security and International Policy, CAP) will moderate.

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  1. Neither Free nor Fair: What to Do About Venezuela’s Presidential Elections? | Wednesday, February 21 | 9:00am – 10:30am | Atlantic Council | Register here |

Please join the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center for a conversation on Venezuela’s electoral conditions, the uncertain road ahead, and the need for a revamped role of the international community in spurring change. Speakers include H.E. Camilo Reyes (Ambassador of Colombia to the United States), Gerardo De Icaza (Acting Secretary for Strengthening Democracy, Organization of American States), and Luis Lander (President Venezuelan Electoral Observatory), among others. Tracy Wilkinson (Reporter, Washington DC Bureau, Los Angeles Times) will moderate.

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  1. Envisioning Palestine: Strategies for Palestinian Self-Determination | Wednesday, February 21 | 12:30pm – 2:00pm | Middle East Institute | Register here |

Relations between the U.S. and the Palestinians are in free-fall. The Trump administration’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and then cut funding to UNRWA to force the Palestinians back to the negotiating table have been met with mass protests and official recriminations. Meanwhile, peace has never seemed more distant, with a recent poll showing support for a two-state solution at a historic low among both Israelis and Palestinians. What are the prospects today for advancing Palestinian self-determination? At a time when Palestinian options seem limited, what new and creative roles are the Palestinian grassroots, civil society and leadership playing in supporting a resolution to the conflict and an end to the occupation? The Middle East Institute, Foundation for Middle East Peace and the OneVoice Movement are pleased to host a panel of distinguished experts to discuss those questions and more, featuring Maya Berry (Executive director, Arab American Institute), Khaled Elgindy (Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution), and Abdallah Hamarsheh (Deputy director and co-founder, ZimamPalestine). OneVoice’s regional director in the Mid-Atlantic, Obada Shtaya, will moderate the discussion.

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  1. ‘Last Men in Aleppo’: A Reel Progress screening and discussion | Wednesday, February 21 | 7:00pm – 8:30pm | Center for American Progress | Register here |

“Last Men in Aleppo” is a 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary highlighting the volunteer search and rescue organization Syria Civil Defence, commonly known as the White Helmets. Since 2013, the White Helmets have gained international attention for rescuing and assisting civilians targeted by the Assad regime and Russian forces in Syria. “Last Men in Aleppo” documents the lives and personal struggles of these brave volunteer rescue workers as they conduct rescue missions across Aleppo, Syria.Please join the Center for American Progress’ Reel Progress program and Grasshopper Film for a screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Last Men in Aleppo.” The screening will be followed by a short panel featuring the film’s director, Feras Fayyad—the first Syrian filmmaker to be nominated for an Oscar—along with Brian Katulis (Senior Fellow, CAP), and Steven Cook (Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations). Nadia Bilbassy-Charters (Senior Correspondent, Al Arabiya TV) will moderate the discussion.

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  1. The U.S.-Japan Alliance and the Problem of Deterrence| Thursday, February 22 | 9:00am – 11:00am | Brookings Institution | Register here |

A fundamental purpose of the U.S.-Japan alliance has always been to reduce the incentive that any adversary would have to wage war against Japan. To that end, Japan has built up the capabilities of the Self-Defense Forces over several decades. For its part, the United States has clearly stated its commitment to Japan’s defense and a willingness, if necessary, to use nuclear weapons should an adversary attack Japan. Recent shifts in the regional security environment, particularly North Korea’s relentless effort to build nuclear capabilities to hit the continental United States can undermine Japanese confidence in the U.S. defense commitment. In particular, Japanese security experts worry that Washington will no longer be willing to use nuclear weapons to defend Japan once North Korea can retaliate with its own nuclear program. The Center for East Asia Policy Studies will convene a public event examining U.S. extended deterrence in Japan and Asia. Featuring Narushige Michishita (Professor, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies), M. Elaine Bunn (Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, DoD), Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Noboru Yamaguchi (Professor, International University of Japan), and Eric Heginbotham (Principal Research Scientist, Center for International Studies, MIT). Robert Einhorn (Senior Fellow, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, Brookings Institutions) will moderate the discussion.

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  1. In the Taiwan Strait, China Sets its Own Rules | Thursday, February 22 | 9:00am – 11:00am | Hudson Institute | Register here |

On January 4, the People’s Republic of China unilaterally and without consultation activated the M503 flight route through the Taiwan Strait. The move violated several cross-strait agreements and threatened the status quo. The flight route change represents just one instance in a broader trend of Chinese actions that violate international laws, agreements, and norms in order to further China’s own interests. “With Chinese characteristics” has become a buzz phrase for Beijing’s effort to enjoy the benefits of a stable international order while insisting on its own conflicting foreign policy and military goals. The Hudson Institute will convene a panel of experts to discuss the challenges such actions pose to broader regional and international interests. Please join Seth Cropsey (Director, Center for American Seapower, Hudson Institute), Doug Feith (Director, Center for National Security Strategies, Hudson Institute), Vice Admiral Mark Fox (ret.) (corporate vice president of customer affairs, Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding division), and Peter Wood (scholar, Jamestown Foundation)

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  1. Restoring Venezuela’s Democracy and Halting the Humanitarian Disaster| Friday, February 23 | 10:00am – 11:30am | Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) | Register here |

As Venezuela further collapses under a narco-state regime, with hyperinflation, widespread scarcity of food and medicine, one of the world’s highest homicide rates, thousands fleeing to neighboring countries every day, and with no clear electoral way out, the importance of the role of the international community to increase pressure on Venezuela’s regime has become more crucial than ever. Secretary Tillerson’s recent visit to the Americas elevated the urgency of building a comprehensive approach from the international community to use the different mechanisms available to increase pressure on Nicolas Maduro’s regime. CSIS President and CEO Dr. John Hamre will provide opening remarks. Michael Matera (Director Americas, CSIS) will introduce our speakers, Luis Almagro (Secretary General, Organization of American States), Juan Zarate (former Deputy National Security Advisor), and Maria Corina Machado (leader in the Venezuelan opposition), who will join via video conference. Moises Rendon (CSIS Associate Director) will lead the conversation.

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Serious diplomacy needed

Turkish President Erdogan is wrong about many things: the post-coup-attempt crackdown, his flirtation with Russia, his inattention to widespread corruption, and his effort to rule Turkey without a serious opposition. Turkey has clearly moved away from the promising European path he started out on and turned instead to its Middle Eastern roots, which are much less salubrious for both its citizens and its leadership. Nationalism and despotism have bad records, even if they build nice palaces. Freedom and respect for minority rights has a far better record, even if they don’t always win elections.

That said, Erdogan is not wrong about everything. His concern about the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey, and the assistance it gets from Syria, is well-founded. The insurgency’s main protagonists, the PKK and its PYD Syrian allies, have long frustrated the Turkish security forces and would be glad to do it again if given an opportunity. This is no peaceful uprising. The PKK is well-armed and kills lots of people. The US, as well as Turkey and the European Union, regard it as a terrorist group.

The United States has equipped and trained the PYD fighters (known as the YPG) to fight the Islamic State inside Syria, where the Kurds have been remarkably successful with American air, intelligence, logistic and other support. That fight, however, is now largely completed. The task now is to stabilize the areas taken from the Islamic State, many of which are predominantly Arab, not Kurdish. One is a particular bone of contention with Turkey: Manbij, which lies west of the Euphrates river less than 25 miles south of the Turkish border.

Secretary of State Tillerson spent the better part of the past two days talking with the Turks. He now has likely heard more about Manbij than he would want to remember, as did National Security Adviser McMaster on a recent visit. Ankara wants the Kurds out of Manbij, a mostly Arab town of about 100,000 before the war. That is what Vice President Biden promised the Turks in the summer of 2016. He said the Kurds would move east of the Euphrates and stay there, thus preventing them from moving westward to link up Afrin, a majority Kurdish enclave, with the rest of what the Kurds call Rojava, the PYD-dominated parastate that extends along the Turkish order from the Euphrates eastward.

The Turkish view is that the US made a commitment on Manbij to a NATO ally that has to be fulfilled. The American generals, to whom the President has delegated so much authority, aren’t interested in pushing too hard on their Syrian Kurdish friends, who want to control as much of Turkey’s southern border as possible. To add insult to injury, some of those Kurdish friends have been moving westward through Syrian government controlled territory to confront the Turkish forces in Afrin.

It is difficult for Americans to see Erdogan in a positive light these days, but restoring good relations with Turkey should now be a priority. Quite apart from any promises made about Manbij, the Turks are allowing the Americans to use their bases from which to fly the combat support they need in eastern Syria, including the planes that last week blunted an Iranian/Russian/Syrian attack on US forces and their Kurdish friends. Loss of access, or even new limitations on US use of Turkish bases, could change the military situation in eastern Syria dramatically.

Can we solve the Kurdish puzzle in a way that meets Turkey’s needs? We should certainly try, by getting the Syrian Kurds to leave Manbij, ending the flow of their fighters to Afrin, and extracting from them a serious commitment not to support attacks inside Turkey. The Turks would have to pitch in by ending their offensive in Afrin, which isn’t going well, re-establishing the ceasefire with the PKK, and restarting peace talks.

That’s a tall order. Tillerson needs to stop gutting the State Department and get busy trying to deliver some serious diplomatic results.

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Iranian power projection

Throughout the past couple of years, Iran has obtained a significant strategic advantage in the Middle East. In Syria, the Islamic Republic was able to keep the Assad regime alive and has gained the upper hand in the country’s civil war. In Iraq, Tehran utilizes local political allies and Shi’a militias to wield substantial influence over domestic politics. In Lebanon, the Iranian proxy Hezbollah constitutes the country’s dominant political and military force. It appears that the Islamic Republic today controls a strategic corridor stretching from Tehran in the East to the Lebanese capital Beirut in the West.

On February 2, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy addressed the question of Tehran’s apparent rise in a policy forum titled “Rolling Back Iran’s Foreign Legions.” Hanin Ghaddar, a veteran Lebanese journalist who currently serves as the Friedman Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute, presented the findings of her latest reportIran’s Foreign Legion: The Impact of Shia Militias on U.S. Foreign Policy.Phillip Smyth, who is the author of the blog “Hizballah Cavalcade” and a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute, joined the discussion via Skype. (A full recording of the event is available online).

Ghaddar argues that Iran has taken over power in Lebanon. Political balance in the country has ceased to exist. Hezbollah is not only the strongest military force but has also infiltrated the political system. The Iranian proxy controls public institutions and uses the state as vehicle to dominate Lebanon. Hezbollah is no longer a state within the Lebanese state as commonly believed. Rather, as Ghaddar emphasizes, “the Lebanese state has become part of the Hezbollah state.”

PMU soldier in Iraq. Source: Ahmad Shamloo Fard, Wikimedia Commons

She stresses that Iran will emulate the Hezbollah model in both Syria and Iraq. In both countries, Tehran – through the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – commands a remarkable number of Shi’a militias which have so far mostly acted as the backbone of Iranian military endeavors. The Islamic Republic is eager to transform these irregular fighting forces into political actors which will take hold of state institutions. The participation of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in the upcoming elections in Iraq is a clear sign of this approach. According to Ghaddar, the Hezbollah model will provide Tehran with substantial influence over Lebanese, Iraqi, and Syrian politics and hence enshrine Iran’s preponderance in the Middle East.

Ghaddar highlights that this potency manifests itself in the establishment of a strategic corridor between Tehran and Beirut. This land bridge constitutes a critical supply route that enables the cheap and steady transportation of arms. Moreover, the land bridge is of pivotal ideological importance. Located at the heart of the Shi’a crescent, it enables a transnational Shi’a identity. The consequence is a decline of national identities among Shiites and the erosion of the current state system, which will be replaced by an Iranian-dominated order.

Phillip Smyth expects that this new system will increase polarization in the region. For many Iranian proxies, the religious principles of the Islamic Republic have become subordinated to the mere struggle against the other, i.e. Sunni Muslims. Iran’s non-inclusive ideological project is therefore likely to cause a backlash among Sunnis. They will react in increasingly radical ways if they become convinced that all Shia are agents of Iran.

Ghaddar draws a bleak picture of the future of the Middle East. Iran’s creation of a Shi’a foreign legion that seeks military and political hegemony will escalate sectarian clashes. In the absence of an outside power preventing these conflicts, perpetual war is on the horizon.

Whether this Hobbesian doomsday scenario proves true remains to be seen, however. Indeed, Tehran’s perceived strength often does not reflect the situation on the ground. Headed by Ayatollah Sistani, Iraqi Shiites remain independent. In the Syrian theater, Iran depends greatly on Russian support. The upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon will show whether Hezbollah really controls the country. The actual strategic importance of the land bridge between Tehran and Beirut is debatable. Likewise, it is questionable whether the Islamic Republic could sustain a strategic corridor, considering military and economic overstretch. Domestic change within Iran could quickly alter the country’s positioning in the wider Middle East.

The United States should nevertheless be vigilant. Iran is seeking to increase its regional influence on many fronts, and Washington must be prepared to support local forces that stand up to Tehran’s ambition of creating a hegemonic order.

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Syria worsens

Alarm bells are ringing loud in Syria:

  • Israel has shot down an Iranian drone launched from a Syrian base at which Russians were present;
  • Syria has shot down an Israeli F16 with a missile system supplied by Russia, opening what Hizbollah has termed a new phase in the conflict;
  • The Israelis responded by trying to destroy a good part of the Syrian air defense system;
  • Turkish troops have crossed into a Kurdish-controlled Afrin in western Syria, where they lost a helicopter yesterday, and President Erdogan is threatening to send them also to Manbij farther east, where US troops are still deployed and cooperating with the Kurds;
  • US forces and local allies last week defended themselves aggressively against a Syrian/Iranian attack in eastern Syria;*
  • Syrian, Iranian, and Russian forces are pushing north through Idlib province, the north of which Turkey controls.

There is now a real risk of Turkish/US clashes, conflict between Israel and Syria, Iran or Russia, as well as between Turkey and its erstwhile Russian and Iranian partners and between the US and Syria or Iran, not to mention Russia. The geopolitical takeover of what we have been thinking of as a civil war seems inevitable, as Mara Karlin suggested in Congress last week it was becoming. This is the kind of multi-sided mess in which miscalculation, miscommunication, escalation, and confusion are far more likely to prevail than reason or self-interest.

The US is in a particularly vulnerable position. It depends on Turkish bases for the air cover it gives its own, Kurdish and allied Arab troops in eastern Syria, but Washington has been unwilling to enforce Vice President Biden’s promise to Turkey that the Kurds would leave Manbij and remain east of the Euphrates. Turkey sees America’s Kurdish allies as a terrorist threat, because they are allied with Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey. While the Turks might like to see Washington stay in Syria and restrain the Kurds, Ankara is not yet satisfied that the Americans are doing that. Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow want the US out. The US has been saying it would stay, mainly to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State and counter Iranian expansionism in the region, but how its few thousand soldiers can do that isn’t clear, especially as they are losing some Kurds to the fight in Afrin.

What are Washington’s options?

It seems to me there are basically three:

  1. Sit tight, continuing to cooperate with the Kurds and to repel forcefully any Syria, Iranian, or Russian attacks, with the attendant risks.
  2. Get out, letting the Turks and Kurds go at it and yielding Syria to uncontested Iranian and/or Russian hegemony, perhaps hoping they will end up at each others’ throats.
  3. Negotiate deals that would allow the Kurds autonomy within Syria (as in Iraqi Kurdistan) in exchange for restraint in acting against Turkey and require the Russians to push the Iranians (and affiliated militias) away from the Israeli border in exchange for US withdrawal.

None of these options is attractive, but better ones are just not available. It is too late to revive the moderate opposition or push Assad out. The US does not have the kind of vital interests in Syria that would justify expanding its military footprint there, though that may of course happen if we sit tight. Force protection may require it, and mission creep would likely ensue.

I’m inclined towards Option 3, not least because it would restore relations with Turkey and get the Iranians and their proxies away from the Israeli border. But it admittedly involves a high wire act without much of a safety net. The Russians might like the Iranians out of their way, but they may not have the clout to make it happen. US withdrawal could vitiate any promises the Syrian Kurds make to Turkey.

Option 1 risks a disastrous attack on the few thousand US troops in Syria, not only by Iran or Syria but also by Turkey. Option 2 risks Iran taking over Syria and using it to launch attacks against Israel, with or without Russian connivance. Option 3 could of course devolve into 1 or 2, as circumstances dictate, but it keeps those options open in the meanwhile.

Let’s hope someone in a White House rocked wife abuse scandals and national security issues or someone in a State Department shedding its most experienced officers can spare a few moments for Syria as it worsens.

*PS (February 13): It now appears the Americans and allied Kurds killed about one hundred Russian “contractors” fighting with the Assad forces in their attack on the Americans in eastern Syria. While Washington worries about a budget and an infrastructure plan that are going nowhere as well as spousal abuse among White House employees, the war in Syria is definitely worsening.

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Operation Olive Branch

I did an episode of “Heat” for China’s CGTN America yesterday on the Turkish offensive (Operation Olive Branch) in Kurdish-controlled Afrin, in northwestern Syria, along with

  • Guney Yildiz, visiting fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations
  • Giran Ozcan,  representative of the Peoples’ Democratic Party to the United States, a Kurdish pro-minority party
  • Metin Gurcan, a security analyst and columnist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse.

That was excellent company, so here is their wisdom:

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