A colleague yesterday told me not to worry about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) overreaching in his effort to push back against Iran. The Saudis, he said, will talk a good line but not really do anything. They are too lazy.
That is little comfort and not accurate. MbS has launched a now more than two-year war in Yemen against the Iranian-supported Houthis, a diplomatic offensive against Qatar that aims (among other things) to break its good rapport with Iran, and the purported resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri, whom the Saudis think too tolerant of Iran’s Hizbollah proxies. The United States appears to have greenlighted all these moves, the first under President Obama and the second and third under President Trump.
The net effect so far is not good. Iran, through Hizbollah, will own Lebanon, whether Hariri returns there or not. Qatar is weathering the Saudi blockade with the aid of the Turks and Iranians. Doha is arguably closer to Tehran now than it was before the Saudi initiative, though it continues to host a major US air base. The stalemated Yemen war has precipitated a massive humanitarian crisis throughout the country. MbS’s Washington-encouraged pushback against Iran is not working well.
Oddly, the one place neither the Washington nor Riyadh has pushed backed against Tehran is Syria. The US has assiduously tried to avoid conflict there with Syrian government forces, the Russians, and Iranian proxies, firing on them only when they appear to be getting ready to attack US or US-supported forces. Riyadh has organized, and is getting ready to re-organize, the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee, but the Kingdom’s military support to the opposition is fading, along with that of the Americans. Even Russian promises to keep Hizbollah far from the border with Israel appear to be evaporating.
The sad fact is that Saudi Arabia is a weak reed for the US to lean on. The Kingdom has purchased an astounding quantity of US and other weapons but has little capability to use them effectively. Financially strapped due to lowered oil prices, MbS is rushing to conduct long-overdue domestic reforms under the rubric Vision 2030, as well as an anti-corruption campaign that has the added virtue of eliminating some of his rivals. Even if thoroughly and assiduously implemented, the main positive effects of these domestic initiatives are a decade or more in the future.
Besides, reform plans in Saudi Arabia have a long history of getting stuck in the desert sand. Trying to do too many things at once will guarantee that some of them suffer that fate. And attacking Iran in peripheral places like Qatar, Lebanon, and Yemen may cause suffering to their populations but is unlikely to cause the Islamic Republic much heartburn. Tehran could suffer setbacks in all three without minding all that much. It is Syria that really matters to Iran, which is why it has sent its best there: the Quds Force and Hizbollah. Confronting them in Syria would be a lot more meaningful than the sum of all the Saudi initiatives elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Iranians are also escalating. Despite Tehran’s denial, Bahrain claims Iran was behind a gas pipeline bombing last week, the Iranians backed Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi’s successful offensive against Kurdistan, and they are pushing their proxies to establish the much-coveted “land bridge” from the Iranian border through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. If the Trump Administration has a regional strategy to push back against Iran, it is not working. MbS has overreached, to no good effect.
Thirty-two year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has taken on a lot:
- Domestic political and economic reforms, including partial privatization of Aramco, allowing women to drive, and shifting the economy away from oil and gas;
- The war in Yemen against the Houthi takeover of part of the country, in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates and with sometimes reluctant support from the US;
- A major diplomatic spat with Qatar over its alleged support of terrorists;
- Removal of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri to protest Iran’s influence there;
- Arrest of rival princes for corruption.
What could go wrong?
Each of these moves may have virtues. Certainly Saudi Arabia needs reforms to get it into the 20th century, never mind the 21st. The Houthis overreached and merit comeuppance. Qatar’s financial empathy with the Muslim Brotherhood has caused problems for Bahrain, Egypt and Syria. Iran-sponsored Hizbollah is an armed non-state actor within a state that merits opposition. Corruption is endemic in the Kingdom and needs countering.
But each also poses problems. The “Saudi Vision 2030” reforms that MbS has proposed are far-reaching, but implementation is likely to be problematic and lag. The war in Yemen is causing massive civilian suffering and political division. It will be difficult if not impossible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The blockade against Qatar has drive Doha in the direction of Ankara and Tehran, rather than bringing it back into the Gulf orbit. Hariri was a weak reed, but now there is none. Lebanese are united in wanting his return, which the State Department also supports. Countering corruption only among your political opponents is not a good way to clean up a system.
One other, less visible but important, initiative is the Saudi rapprochement with Israel, which shares the Kingdom’s hostility towards Iran. How far can this go? What are its implications for the geopolitics of the region?
But most of all: doing all these things at once, without ample consultation even within the royal family, is far from the Kingdom’s cautious tradition. A 32-year-old Crown Prince undertaking it amounts to an auto-coup: a takeover by someone already in power.
Some will argue that is the only way to get things done. The parallel to President Trump’s efforts to upset the apple cart in the US is obvious. It is no surprise that the White House (in the person of Jared Kushner) apparently encouraged the arrest of the royal opponents, and maybe even the resignation of Hariri, making the State Department statement against it moot. But how is Trump’s radical program working out in the US? The repudiation Trump suffered Tuesday in America’s equivalent of by elections was massive, even if concentrated in blue states (one-purple Virginia, New Jersey, and New York).
Of course there will be no voting in Saudi Arabia to test MbS’s initiatives. The consequences are likely to be less visible, at least initially, and possibly less peaceful, eventually. MbS has taken big risks for big gains. Pay day, if it happens, is still a long way off.
Last Thursday, the SETA Foundation in Washington hosted Richard Outzen of the US Department of State, Mark Kimmitt of MTK Defense Consultants, Kilic B. Kanat of the SETA Foundation, as well as moderator Kadir Ustun of the Foundation to discuss the future of US-Turkey relations. The discussion gave an overview of the history of relations between the two countries, examined contemporary challenges, and proposed solutions. The discussion was timely, because of the recent “mini diplomatic crisis” that began in October, when the US halted the issuance of nonimmigrant visas to Turkish citizens, and Turkey reciprocated. Despite the gravity of this development, which was caused by the detention of US consular officers in Turkey as part of coup investigations, Ustun maintained that there are other, more serious points of contention.
The history of US-Turkey relations is replete with both long-standing tension and cooperation. Outzen outlined three main events as points of conflict: the presence of US troops in Turkey in the 1990s, the distrust that emerged because of Turkey’s Cyprus operation in the 70s, and the ensuing US embargo on Turkey. Kanat described the history of US-Turkey relations as a “roller coaster” distinguished by a vague dynamic. Kimmit shed light on positive developments in relations between Turkey and the US, citing their cooperation in Bosnia and Iraq, the existence of a US base in Turkey, and agreement on the Kurdish referendum.
Outzen and Kanat also described current causes of conflict. First is the “complex of issues” linked to the Turkish coup and Turkish political and religious figure Fethullah Gulen. Gulen, accused by the Turkish government of having organized the coup attempt of 2013, has been living in the United States and has been the subject of an extradition request by the Turkish government. The US government’s “failure to extradite Gulen,” Outzen explained, has been seen as unworthy of an ally. Outzen acknowledged that the US believes the coup to have been violent and unjustified, but that Washington also had concerns about blatant rights violations in the process of punishing those deemed responsible.
The PKK issue was also another point of tension. Outzen described the two sides, saying that Turkey interpreted the US integration of PKK fighters into the Syrian Democratic Forces as a show of support for the PKK and, by extension, undermining of Turkish power. The United States, on the other hand, sees the SDF as admirable, particularly in light of its contributions to the fight against ISIS. Kanat emphasized the significant distrust that the apparent US support for the PKK has caused, saying the PKK issue “unites Turks.”
There are nevertheless possibilities to strengthen the US-Turkey relationship. Outzen stated that an increased understanding of the other country’s national interests and values should be fostered on both sides, and that “economy to economy cooperation” should be developed and given more importance than military cooperation, for which a framework which already exists. Kimmit emphasized that the current challenges to the relations between the US and Turkey are not “structural and long-term” but rather temporary and solvable. He highlighted the importance of Turkish trust of the United States, which he found to be lacking, as well as improved public relations on both sides. Kanat called on the United States to be more transparent with Turkey on its positions and plans, mentioning specifically the lack of a clearly communicated policy on Syria, which, if shared, could foster understanding and create possible areas of cooperation.
- Democratic Deterioration at Home and Abroad | Monday, November 6 | 12:15 – 2:00 pm | New America | Register Here | For the past several decades, our working assumption has been that once firmly established, liberal democracy represents the best and final answer to authoritarianism and the surest guarantor of liberty and equality. Today, however, that assumption is being seriously challenged. Where liberal democracy has taken root, we now see it in retreat in attacks on the press, the judiciary, and on voting rights – the essence of democratic organization. As the United States contends with these challenges, arguably for the first time, what can we learn from other countries that have experienced similar democratic downturns? What were the warning signs and could this deterioration have been stemmed? Are the combination of legal constraints and non-legal norms that undergird our constitutional system enough to keep our democracy on solid footing? What safeguards are currently in place to prevent further deterioration of our democratic values and institutions, and what additional precautions should we consider? In other words, how worried should we be? Join New America, The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School for a discussion about the future of democracy at home and abroad. Speakers include Sheri Berman of Columbia University, Aziz Huq of The University of Chicago Law School, Norman J. Ornstein of The Atlantic and The American Enterprise Institute, and Arturo Valenzuela of Georgetown University. Amanda Taub of The New York Times will moderate.
- How Do You Solve a Problem Like North Korea? | Monday, November 6 | 9:00 am – 12:00 pm | Cato Institute | Register Here | What are the implications of North Korea’s recent gains in nuclear and missile capabilities for the future of U.S. strategy toward North Korea? What is the state of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technologies? What are the prospects of diplomatic negotiations with Pyongyang? Should the United States pursue a different strategy toward North Korea in light of Pyongyang’s improving nuclear capabilities, perhaps including revising its alliance with South Korea? The Cato Institute will host two panels and a keynote address by former governor Bill Richardson to examine these critical questions. The first panel, titled “ Pyongyang’s Capabilities and US Policy,” will include Joshua Pollack of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, Suzanne DiMaggio of New America, and Joe Cirincione of Ploughshares Fund, and will be moderated by Eric Gomez of the Cato Institute. The second panel, “New Approaches to Solving the North Korea Problem,” will feature Michael Auslin of the Hoover Institution, Rajan Menon of the City College of New York, and Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute. John Glaser of the Cato Institute will moderate.
- Re-energizing Nuclear Security | Tuesday, November 7 | 5:00 – 6:30 pm | Stimson Center | Register Here | The nuclear industry is experiencing many dynamic changes. Economic challenges are forcing premature reactor shutdowns in some countries such as the US, while Russia and China are making lucrative deals in energy-starved developing countries. A general expansion in all aspects of nuclear development, such as next-gen reactor technologies, is clouded by an evolving security landscape including emerging cyber vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, nuclear security is out of the spotlight since the end of the Nuclear Security Summit series. What is the future of nuclear development and how can industry, civil society, and international organizations facilitate the outstanding Security Summit commitments? The event will feature Leslie Ireland of the Stimson Center, Maria G. Korsnick of the Nuclear Energy Institute, John Barrett of the Canadian Nuclear Association, and Frank Saunders of Bruce Power. The Stimson Center’s Debra Decker will moderate.
- Iraqi Vice President Al-Nujaifi on His Nation’s Post-ISIS Future | Tuesday, November 7 | 11:00 am – 12:00 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Osama al-Nujaifi is one of Iraq’s three vice presidents. Hailing from Mosul, a city recaptured this year from the ISIS extremist group, he is secretary general of the United for Iraq Party, and the leader of the Sunni political coalition Muttahidoon. Vice President al-Nujaifi’s address at USIP will be his only public appearance during his visit to Washington.As one of Iraq’s most prominent leaders and a former speaker of Parliament, Vice President al-Nujaifi has been a key player in Iraqi politics for more than a decade. With Iraq’s leaders confronting the fallout from the Kurdistan region’s independence referendum and the Iraqi army’s retaking of key oil fields from the Kurds, questions about governance after ISIS and the quickly approaching provincial and national elections in 2018 take on even more urgency. Vice President al-Nujaifi will discuss the future of Iraq’s democracy and the federalist system adopted after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Ambassador Bill Taylor of the USIP will moderate the discussion.
- After the Referendum: What Path Forward for Iraq’s Kurds? | Tuesday, November 7 | 3:00 – 4:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The September 25 referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan brought a chilling reaction from Iraq’s central government. Baghdad disputed the legitimacy of the process, but especially rejected Erbil’s claim on Kirkuk and other disputed territories implied by staging the vote there. Following days of military action that resulted in deaths and the retaking of Kirkuk by Iraqi national forces, the KRG has proposed to freeze the referendum results and seeks negotiations about the contentious issues. The United States, which opposed the referendum despite its reliance on Kurdish fighters combating ISIS, must now address the deepened rift between Erbil and Baghdad. To consider the path out of this crisis, the Middle East Institute (MEI) is pleased to host Shaswar Abdulwahid (New Generation Movement), Peter Shea (U.S. Department of State), and Amberin Zaman (Al-Monitor). MEI’s director for Turkish Studies, Gonul Tol, will moderate the discussion on how Baghdad and Erbil can move forward with each other and with the United States, Turkey, and Iran, and on how U.S. policy can effectively manage the dynamics between the players.
- The Civilian Elements of the New U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan | Wednesday, November 8 | 3:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Despite an overwhelming response to the United States’ new military strategy for Afghanistan announced by President Trump in August 2017, the non-military components of the strategy have received scant attention. As part of its ambitious reform and self-reliance agenda, the Afghan government has made considerable progress towards improving the capacity of civilian management, leadership, human resources, as well as in addressing formal corruption. But challenges remain. Please join the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center for a panel discussion of the civilian elements of the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, including the reform process, internal politics, economics, and how the Afghan government plans to deliver on its pledges. Panelists include Ahmad Nader Nadery, the Chairman of Civil Service Commission of Afghanistan, Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, and Ambassador James B. Cunningham of the Atlantic Council. Javid Ahmad of the Atlantic Council will moderate.
- A Strategy for a Brighter Future in Libya: Redefining America’s Role | Wednesday, November 8 | 2:30 – 3:50 pm | American Enterprise Institute | Register Here | Recent terrorist attacks in Berlin and Manchester trace back to Libya, where ISIS relocated operatives from Syria and Iraq. Libya’s ongoing civil war, coupled with weak governance and law enforcement, creates the perfect crucible for ISIS and al Qaeda to extend their operations. How can these groups in Libya be defeated? What can be done to stabilize the country and address humanitarian concerns? Is American leadership essential to combating this threat? Please join AEI for the release of “A Strategy for Success in Libya” by Emily Estelle and a panel discussion on a US strategy to rebuild Libya. Panelists include Emily Estelle of AEI and Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council. Katherine Zimmerman of AEI will moderate.
- Turkey, Europe, and the U.S.: New Challenges and Changing Dynamics | Thursday, November 9 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Brookings Institution | Register Here | As a Muslim-majority country pursuing EU membership, closer cooperation with trans-Atlantic partners, and a domestic agenda based on securing individual freedoms and strengthening the rule of law, Turkey was deemed a model partner and economic success story. Today, Turkey projects a different image—rolling back democracy, rule of law, individual freedoms, and the separation of powers. The EU accession process, trans-Atlantic commitments, and shared values are in jeopardy. Yet, this is not an isolated incident—it follows an international trend that has seen the emergence of “strongmen leaders,” whose illiberal actions and rhetoric are punctuated by populism and anti-globalism. The EU and the United States are not exempt from elements of this trend. The global economic crisis, terrorism, and migration are closely interrelated with these tendencies. This state of affairs is starkly different from what was envisioned at the end of the Cold War. So, what happened? Can this common challenge be addressed? On November 9, the Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) will host a panel discussion on this recent drift toward authoritarianism, populism, and religious nationalism, and what the West can do to reverse this trend. Kemal Kirişci, Brookings TÜSİAD senior fellow, will moderate the discussion featuring Brookings scholars Amanda Sloat and Alina Polyakova, and Hakan Yılmaz, professor of political science at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Brookings Vice President for Foreign Policy Bruce Jones and TÜSİAD CEO Bahadır Kaleağası will offer introductory remarks.
Moscow has decided to convene a November 18 all-Syria (presumably opposition and government) dialogue in Sochi. Having shaped the military situation on the ground with its air intervention starting more than two years ago, the Russians are figuring they have the clout to shape the political landscape as well. While nominally still committed to the Geneva process and UN Security Council resolution 2254, Moscow wants to short-circuit that laborious effort and try for a quick solution. The Security Council can endorse it after they fact, they figure.
The Syrian government says it will dialogue. It no longer fears the t-word: transition. The Americans will likely not oppose the effort, as they have little interest in Syria once the Islamic State and Al Qaeda are routed. The Iranians and Turks may not be pleased to see the Russians take the lead, but they won’t object either. Turkey is getting what it wants most: a license to keep the Syrian Kurds from lining their entire southern border. Ditto Iran, which wants to keep Bashar al Assad in place as president, as he will allow Hizbollah free rein in much of Syria, including transferring arms from the Iraqi border by land to Lebanon.
The opposition doesn’t like the idea. But it is fragmented and parts will go along to get along, hoping that something decent will emerge from the process, or just hoping to snag some benefits for themselves. The harder-line Islamists and some devoted liberals will likely continue the insurgency against Assad, but they are unlikely to get far any time soon. Both Tehran and Moscow will try to ensure that no significant threat to the regime emerges.
If the more moderate opposition can get itself organized at least in some communities and convince the Russians that local elections should be held even before a new constitution is approved, then some genuine, organic voices of political dissent might emerge. Otherwise, the most organized political force in the country–the Ba’ath party–is likely to win the day, even if national elections are not fixed. Assad won’t get his usual >90%, but he will win and claim democratic legitimacy, no matter how few people vote.
The Russians are figuring they are entitled to determine the political outcome, but they are also trying to avoid responsibility for the reconstruction of Syria. That’s where American indifference needs to give way to determination. Beyond its modest contributions in Raqqa–demining and rubble clearance are all the Americans want to do there–Washington should refuse to foot the bill, or allow the IMF and World Bank to do so, for what is mostly Russian, regime, and Iranian damage to the country’s housing, commerce and infrastructure.
Beyond the political realm, there are no real spoils to speak of in Syria, only a big bill for destruction. As Colin Powell said, you broke it, you bought it. To the victor…
- Global Trends in Humanitarian Assistance | Monday, October 30 | 3:30 – 5:00 pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Register Here | Improving humanitarian assistance is a foreign policy priority. The complex, multilateral humanitarian response system is stretched and in need of reform. Funding challenges remain a primary concern, as increased humanitarian demand is far outpacing global contributions. Please join us for a discussion on global trends in the humanitarian space as part of the official launch of The Humanitarian Agenda, a new, center-wide CSIS program created in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). The launch is an opportunity to reflect on evolving trends in humanitarian assistance and to discuss how the global community can more effectively deliver humanitarian aid. Speakers, including Robert Jenkins of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Jérôme Oberreit of Médecins Sans Frontières, Ambassador Dina Kawar of Jordan, Sam Worthington of InterAction, and Kimberly Flowers and Jon B. Alterman of CSIS will explore emerging challenges and share innovative solutions. How will fragile states and protracted conflicts impact domestic priorities, foreign policy, and the international landscape? Will the United States remain the global leader in humanitarian response? What are the best practices to prepare and respond to sequential natural disasters? What are the major gaps on-the-ground and what critical new capacities do we have to create to address them?
- THO Teleconference Series: Crisis in US-Turkey Relations | Tuesday, October 31 | 10:15 – 11:15 am | Turkish Heritage Organization (participation in the teleconference is online) | Register Here | The events of the past month have brought new frictions to the fore of an already tense U.S.-Turkey relationship. After the Turkish government arrested a Turkish national employed by the U.S. consulate in Istanbul – one of three such detentions or attempted detentions this year – the U.S. Department of State suspended all non-immigrant visa services in Turkey. The Turkish government quickly responded in kind. This drastic step in diplomatic relations between the two countries has impacted Turkish and American citizens, from diplomats and business people to students and tourists. H.E. Matthew Bryza (former U.S. Ambassador and Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe & Eurasia and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council) and Prof. Ilter Turan (Professor of Political Science at Bilgi University and President of the International Political Science Association) will discuss the wide-ranging ramifications of the current crisis, from its impact on regional diplomatic action to people-to-people relations between the U.S. and Turkey. The experts will also tackle possible solutions to the situation. The discussion will be followed by Q&A.
- Pakistan’s Emerging Middle Class: Lessons from a Country in Transition | Tuesday, October 31 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | Urban Institute | Register Here | Pakistan’s middle class has experienced substantial growth over the past 30 years. This surge has resulted in significant challenges for the country’s economy and politics. Understanding lessons learned from Pakistan’s middle class expansion can illuminate and inform policymakers about issues facing the developing world’s rising middle class. Join the Urban Institute, in collaboration with the Consortium for Development Policy Research, for a discussion about Pakistan’s emerging middle class. Our panel of leading researchers on Pakistan and global development will explore the rise of the middle class and discuss implications for economic mobility, inequality, education, and political participation. This event will include a panelist from Pakistan, who will participate virtually. The panel will feature Ali Cheema of the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution, Ghazala Mansuri of the World Bank, Ijaz Nabi of the Consortium for Development Policy Research, and Reehana Raza of the Urban Institute. The Urban Institute’s Charles Cadwell will moderate.
- Building MENA Stability in a Climate-Changed World: Defining a Transatlantic Agenda | Wednesday, November 1 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars | Register Here | The European Union and United States are investing heavily in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region to fulfill political, economic, and security objectives. Infrastructure investment decisions being made today will largely determine the region’s future vulnerability and should be informed by a comprehensive understanding of the region’s risk profile. MENA faces growing risks of instability and is highly vulnerable to climate impacts, food, and oil price shocks. Development strategies need to focus more strongly on building economic, climate, and social resilience alongside broader-based economic growth. This will require deeper and sustained transatlantic dialogue and engagement with financial institutions. If successful, transatlantic cooperation in MENA could be a model for other regions. This event will feature Carlota Cenalmor of the European Investment Bank, James Close of the World Bank, and Nick Mabey of E3G. Roger-Mark De Souza of the Wilson Center will moderate.
- Looking forward at US-Turkey Relations | Thursday, November 2 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA) | Register Here | On October 8, 2017, the US announced that it was suspending non-immigrant visa services at its diplomatic facilities in Turkey. Turkey responded in kind by suspending new visas to US citizens. As progress has been made toward resolving this crisis, it has created an opportunity for greater examination of the US-Turkey relations. Despite tensions between Washington and Ankara on a number of issues, both sides recognize the importance of remaining committed to the partnership. The SETA Foundation at Washington DC is pleased to invite you to an event to examine these issues, and the ways that Turkey and the US might renew and restrengthen bilateral relations through a resolution of the current visa crisis. Speakers include Richard Outzen of the US Department of State, Mark Kimmit of MTK Defense Consultants, and Kilic B. Kanat of SETA. SETA’s Kadir Ustun will moderate.