At Tuesday’s panel “The Syrian Conflict and Regional Security,” hosted by the Turkish Heritage Organization, the complex web of military alliances and political tensions entwining Turkey, Iraq, the United States, and Kurdish forces against ISIS took center stage.
Turkey considers the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)—a terrorist group. Yet the United States, Turkey’s NATO ally, is arming the YPG in order to further the fight against ISIS.
To smooth tensions, the United States has promised to give Turkey lists of the weapons it has provided to the YPG, and to ensure that they are not used in Turkey. Moreover, added panelist Michael Doran, although the Trump administration is willing to work with the YPG in order to defeat ISIS in Syria, the president will not tolerate a PKK state in Syria. The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is a left-wing organization based in Turkey and Iraq engaged in a long-term armed conflict with the Turkish state. It seeks to establish a state of Kurdistan.
Despite these assurances, tensions between the United States and Turkey persist over the Kurdish issue.
Central to the problem, explained General Mark Kimmitt, is the fact that in order to maintain cordial US-Turkey relations and prevent partisan US involvement in regional Kurdish politics, the YPG must eventually comply with a US policy of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR). Yet the United States has already armed and trained the Kurdish rebels. It is unclear how disarming the YPG would be accomplished. Turkey is wary of possible complications.
With ISIS’s expulsion from Raqqa finally on the horizon, the future of Syria hangs in the balance. No one, admitted Doran, appears to know the American plan. It is possible that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will be allowed to govern, but this arrangement will not sit well with the United States for long if the Assad regime attracts Iranian presence in Syria. On the Kurdish question, “most Kurds don’t want the PKK forever,” observed Denise Natali of the National Defense University. However, it’s not clear how they will leave Iraq and northeastern Syria. The PKK helps local populations by providing badly needed electricity, jobs, and salaries.
Natali believes it is possible for Turkey to maintain relations with non-PKK affiliated Syrian Kurds in the northeastern part of the country. Syrian Kurds are not ultimately moved to militancy by ideological considerations. Rather, their concerns are material. They need salaries. The PYD has actually maintained a relationship with the Assad regime throughout the Syrian civil war. They continue to receive government paychecks. Natali anticipates that the Assad government will prevail and negotiate with vulnerable Kurdish rebel leaders. Even with the Kurds’ territorial expansion, Kurdistan is landlocked. This increases the incentive to negotiate.
Ultimately, observed Doran and Natali, neither Turkey nor the United States—nor any of the countries in the Levant and Middle East region—want to see Syria or Iraq fracture into smaller sectarian or ethnic states post-ISIS. Natali further believes that such fracturing is highly unlikely. In the meantime, as Turkey and the United States adopt distinct approaches to opposing ISIS, the two NATO allies will remain at odds over the decision to arm YPG forces.
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:
I regret to inform my august readership that Piglet is correct. Trump isn’t gone. He is claiming to have been vindicated, 100%. That of course is false. He was wounded, not vindicated, by the revelation that he hoped former FBI Director Comey would let former National Security Adviser Flynn off the hook and wanted the “cloud” of the Russia investigation lifted. But wanting and hoping are arguably not obstruction, even if I–like Comey–would have taken a president’s hope as an order.
Obstruction for now is in the eye of the beholder. Democrats see obstruction, though they might not if the president were one of their own. Republicans don’t, though there is no doubt they would if the president were not one of their own. Both seem to agree that Special Counsel Robert Mueller should make the determination, which demonstrates his considerable value added: removing the issue from a venue in which it can’t be settled to one in which it can be, on technical legal grounds.
But that will take time. In the meanwhile the Administration is demonstrating once again that it is incoherent. Yesterday, the President blasted Qatar again for financing terrorists, almost in the same moment that the Secretary of State was asking the Saudis and Emirates to back off their embargo of the tiny monarchy that hosts the largest US base in the Middle East:
Weeks after his disappointing appearance at NATO, the President also reaffirmed the Alliance’s “Article 5” mutual defense obligation, though in doing so he continued to suggest that the money is “pouring into NATO” as a result of his effort to press the allies to meet the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense. That isn’t the way this works: the money goes to the allies’ own defense efforts, not to the Alliance, and it is trickling in as allies begin to meet a commitment set in 2014 under President Obama, as a goal to be reached by 2024.
Some are happy to point out that Trump has not yet had a complete foreign policy disaster. A chipmunk could make it over that bar. He has however
- weakened NATO,
- split the Gulf Cooperation Council,
- boosted China by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord,
- ended a trade agreement for the Asia Pacific without proposing anything else as a keystone for US policy in the region,
- failed to respond effectively to North Korean provocations
- even begun to repair relations with Turkey,
- and proposed a budget that would decimate US diplomacy and international aid.
America is in worse shape on the international stage than it was at the end of the Obama administration, when many thought we were already in pretty bad shape. Ironically, the best that can be said for Trump is that he has continued Obama’s military efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, though he shares with Obama failure to enunciate a clear plan for how areas like Raqqa and Mosul will be governed once liberated.
Yesterday the President promised “100%” to testify under oath in the Special Counsel investigation of his campaign’s and administration’s connections to Russia. File that with his promise to release his tax returns, to provide documentation of his wife’s legal employment in the US, to prove his claim that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the election, and a dozen other commitments. The President is unprepared, unreliable, and inconsistent. To my satisfaction, he has even botched repeal and replacement of Obamacare and is well on his way to botching tax reform. The alleged adults in the Administration haven’t yet fixed anything. Trump excels at disappointing.
The US troop surge in 2007 went a long way to stabilizing Iraq. Replicating that effort under Iraqi leadership could work again.
Throughout its operations in Iraq, the Global Coalition has faced issues of coordination among its member-states as the total cost of fighting ISIS mounts. The Coalition consists of 66 members but not all contribute equally, and the United States has increasingly felt pressure to cajole the international community to step up its military aid. The cost to fight ISIS is significant- as of March 2017, the Department of Defense had spent $12.5 billion over the last three years in its operations against ISIS. What’s more, the cost of resettling displaced Iraqis will be enormous- over 600,000 people have fled Mosul in the last few months alone, and many other former ISIS strongholds face considerable reconstruction efforts.
A more pressing problem, however, is the sectarian divide among the allied militias. Those fighting in Mosul include the Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni tribal forces supported by Turkey, Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), and the Iraqi army and police forces. Indeed, the population’s faith in the security forces also falls on sectarian lines. When asked whether they trusted the Iraqi army or PMUs to keep them safe, 45% of Shia respondents said PMUs and 30% said the Iraqi army; 48% of Sunni respondents answered the Iraqi army and only 4% PMUs.
Politically, reconciliation between different groups remains a challenge as the roots of sectarian conflict remain unaddressed. At the local level, corruption among police officers, judges, and local officials has allowed ISIS to creep back in. At the national level, the Sunni community struggles to enter political discourse, lacking strong leadership and divided among local communities and expatriate elites who claim to represent them. Economically, Iraq depends on oil revenue, which is down over the past several years due to declining oil prices. Corruption and the ongoing cost of fighting ISIS have cut a big slice out of revenue.
The government needs to address both the issue of security and citizen grievances simultaneously, cutting off both the physical and psychological avenues for ISIS’s return and ensuring the population feels safe. Combining military with civilian efforts was at the heart of General Petraeus’ 2007 surge in Iraq. The strategy was not only a surge of additional American troops but also a “surge of ideas,” reorienting operational strategy to emphasize the human terrain. Efforts included rebuilding infrastructure, reconciling groups at the local level, incorporating militia members and insurgents into the state security apparatus, and communicating with populations so they took ownership in rebuilding Iraq.
Applying this model to Iraq’s security today could address current mission weaknesses and neutralize the threat of sectarianism. First and foremost, it is important to put the monopoly over security back in the hands of the state—to do this, PMUs and militias must be folded into the Iraqi army and external influences from regional actors removed. This would create a military force whose size, strength, and military training serve a similar role as the 170,000 US surge troops of 2007 did. Creating a single security force drawn from local forces could improve trust in the national army as well. Iraqis are proud of the PMUs as the most effective force in the country as compared to perceived government failure. By capitalizing on the high morale these forces create, Iraq would have an expanded, ready, and willing force distributed across the country and ensuring threats such as ISIS have no space to reemerge.
The military should rely on civilian counterparts to do the work of reconciling groups at the local level and decentralizing politics. One such project, a reconciliation effort in the ethnically mixed Mahmoudiya neighborhood south of Baghdad, cost $1.5 million. The peace agreement established in 2007 has endured until today.
The Petraeus surge included passing several laws to address key issues that might facilitate political agreement at the national level, such as increasing provincial power and improving the elections law. Decentralization would also improve the local and, by extension, national economies. Rebuilding infrastructure and getting Iraqis back into their homes should be a priority and local leadership could help entice citizens to return. Additionally, supporting small businesses will allow startups to be successful and employ greater numbers of Iraqis. Foreign aid should be likewise reoriented away from humanitarian aid to economic development, partnering with local leaders to help distribute aid for maximum benefit. Investing in local economies will go a long way to creating a stable foundation on which both the local and national economy can grow and thrive.
The surge privileged coordination between military and civilians, focused on the human terrain matters, and supported local level reconciliation . Stabilization is a process rather than a product, and it will take many years—and perhaps many iterations improving upon the last, to hold.
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.
Some colleagues asked that I talk yesterday about outside influences on the Balkans, where things have gotten shaky lately, with a risk that the peace settlements of the 1990s might unravel. Here are the notes I prepared for myself:
- Renewed attention to the Balkans, which has all but dropped off Washington’s priorities in recent years, is most welcome. The region has made a lot of progress, especially in the first ten years after the Bosnian war, but right now it is in trouble.
- I’ve been asked to talk about “outside influences”: Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
- It is important at the outset to say that none of these countries would have much influence in the Balkans except for the decline in American engagement and the weakening of the EU.
- The US has tried for a decade now to get the EU to lead, as it has the main carrots for political and economic reform as well as more compelling interests in the region.
- The Europeans have done some good things: the Brussels dialogue has led to real improvements in Belgrade/Pristina relations, even if many specific agreements remain unimplemented.
- The 2014 British-German initiative for economic reform in Bosnia—undertaken to forestall a renewed U.S. initiative to change its constitution—has made little real progress, largely due to European reluctance to stick with its own conditionality.
- The best that can be said for EU efforts in Macedonia is that they have so far avoided the worst, with US support. The EU there seems unable to overcome a monumental level of stubbornness.
- But in the past two years the refugee crisis, Brexit, surging nationalism in many EU countries, and the congenital inability of the EU to speak with one voice has undermined the credibility of EU accession, which in any event won’t happen before 2020 and more likely not before 2025.
- That’s a long time to wait in the Balkans, where we’ve spoiled people with Stabilization and Association, Schengen visas, candidacy for EU accession, pre-accession funds, and other goodies. What we haven’t done is invest: the US and EU have risked little private money in the Balkans.
- Russia and Turkey—whose influence is far greater than others I’ve been asked to discuss—are moving into relative vacuums: the Russians find ethnic Serbs easy pickings and the Turks find Islamists, especially in Bosnia but also in Kosovo, friendly to their interests.
- The Russian influence is overwhelmingly pernicious from a Western perspective. Moscow is doing its best to make NATO and EU membership as slow and as difficult as possible, especially in Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Its influence in Albania and Kosovo is minimal.
- The attempted coup in Montenegro is just the tip of iceberg. Moscow contributes to ethnic tensions, political polarization, and regional instability in many ways: opaque financing for Republika Srpska, Russia’s so-called humanitarian center, overt military aid and investments in Serbia, support to Russophile politicians as well as media onslaughts throughout the region.
- Quite apart from these Slavic connections, Moscow has strong leverage over Belgrade because its UNSC veto is essential to blocking Kosovo’s General Assembly membership.
- Moscow’s goal is clear: to prevent Balkan countries from entering NATO and even the EU.
- Turkey is a different story.
- For more than twenty years after the Bosnian war the Turks were disciplined Western-oriented contributors to peacekeeping and development in the Balkans, trying to maintain good relations with Serbs and Croats as well as with Balkan Muslims.
- This has been described as a “gentle version” of the Ottoman Empire, one associated with the “no problems with neighbors” policy and aimed at the region’s Christians as well as its Muslims.
- Many Croats and Serbs may have been nervous about Turkish cultural inroads, as parts of the region lived for centuries under Ottoman domination, but most welcomed Turkish investment and contractors, which are evident throughout the region.
- As Erdogan turned in a more authoritarian direction and relations with the US strained, Turkey began a more Islamist push, especially with Bosnian Muslims and President Bakir Izetbegovic.
- The Muslim Brotherhood connection is a more visible and explicit one for Bakir than it was for his father, though it existed for Alija Izetbegovic as well.
- The recent Turkish-Russian rapprochement has had an undesirable impact with some Bosniak leaders in Montenegro. They are taking Erdogan’s hint, viewing Moscow in a more positive light and connecting with the Chechen leadership. That development may warrant monitoring, especially if it spills over to Bosnia.
- Turkey has also had notably good relations with President Thaci in Kosovo, but more based on commercial opportunities than religion.
- Iran and Saudi Arabia both have long histories in the Balkans.