Tag: Turkey

U.S.-Iraq relations after the withdrawal

I’m speaking at noon with Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and former Iraqi UN Deputy Perm Rep Feisal Istrabadi at the Middle East Institute (the event is at SEIU, 1800 Massachusetts).  Here are the notes I’ve prepared for myself  (but I’ll vary it depending on what they say):

–Tony Blinken, speaking last month at Center for American Progress, said:  “Iraq today is less violent, more democratic and more prosperous…than at any time in recent history.”

–There are some indications that violence, especially from Al Qaeda in Iraq, is up since late last year.  But even if true, Tony’s statement sets a low bar and the gains are still reversible.

–If our goal is a “sovereign, stable, self-reliant country, with a representative government that could become a partner in the region, and no safe haven for terrorists,” we are not there yet.

–On security, Iraq still endures an unacceptably high number of attacks:  deaths per month in politically motivated attacks are way down from the peak, but they are still sufficient  to keep sectarian tensions high, which is what Saddam Hussein loyalist Izzat al Duri said was intended in his recent video.

–The economy is not really in good shape.  High Iraqi oil production helps Baghdad’s budget and moderates world prices, which Americans like, but it does not an economy make.

–Democracy in Iraq does not yet include an independent judiciary, protection of basic human rights, vigorous parliamentary oversight, effective provincial and local governments or fulfillment of many constitutionally mandated procedures.

–Looking to the future, there are three fundamental threats to Iraq that might vitiate U.S. efforts there:

  • First is the threat of breakdown:  an Iraq that becomes chaotic and dysfunctional, a more or less failed state like the one Prime Minister Maliki took over in 2006.
  • Second is the threat of breakup:  an Iraq that fragments along ethnic and sectarian lines, with broad regional consequences as each of the neighbors seeks advantage.
  • Third is autocracy:  fear of breakdown or breakup may motivate Maliki, or someone else, to centralize power and refuse to transfer it in accordance with the will of its people, expressed in verifiably free and fair elections.

–None of these Iraqs can be the kind of partner the United States seeks, but I won’t spend much time on the first two possibilities.  It is the third that worries people these days.

–We need an Iraq that respects the rights and will of its people.

–The question is what influence we have, apart from the usual diplomatic jawboning, which Jim Jeffrey and the embassy have mastered beyond a shadow of doubt.

–There are four specific potential sources of U.S. influence in today’s Iraq:  arms, aid, oil and what—for lack of a better term—I would call relationships.

Arms transfers, some people say, give us “leverage”:  we should make providing our support conditional on Iraqi adherence to democratic norms, or meaningful power-sharing, or depoliticization of the security forces.

–Those are all worthy objectives, but this seems to me easy to say and difficult to do.  Once you’ve embarked on a program of transferring F-16s, it is going to take a big issue to override the vested interests involved.  Conditionality would encourage the Iraqis to get their arms elsewhere.

–The best we can do it seems to me is to make it clear—preferably in writing in advance—that none of the weapons systems the U.S. provides can be used against Iraq’s own citizens exercising their legal rights.

–We should also make it clear that we will cooperate only with a professional army under civilian control.  But Iraq’s specific governing arrangements are no longer ours to determine, so long as they remain representative and democratic.

Aid is a more flexible tool.  It should be targeted towards democracy and rule of law.  I would focus on encouraging a more independent judiciary and promoting a civil society that will demand real democracy while carefully monitoring government expenditures and corruption.

–To be clear:  there is no reason why the U.S. should still be spending hundreds of millions in Iraq for economic and agricultural development.  The Iraqis have more than enough incentive, and their own resources, to do those things.

–Iraqi resources come from exported oil, more than 90% of which is shipped through the Gulf under Iranian guns, even when the existing pipeline to Turkey is operating.

–This is where we have so far failed clamorously:  shipment of Iraq’s oil by pipeline to the north and west—once Syria undergoes its transition—would help to reduce Iranian pressure on Iraq and align Iraqi interests with those of Europe and the United States.

–Of course this means Iraq’s oil, and eventually gas as well, would have to traverse Kurdish and Sunni-populated territory, which means domestic political reconciliation is a prerequisite.

–Some will see that as an insurmountable obstacle.  I see it as a challenge, one well worth overcoming.  Iraq should be tied umbilically to Turkey and the Mediterranean, not to Hormuz.

–Finally:  relationships.  American influence inside Iraq comes in part from good relationships with the main political players, with the obvious but I hope declining exception of the Sadrists.

–While they may still resent the occupation, Iraqis of most stripes look to the Americans for protection.  Iraqis of all stripes believe that the United States is vital to re-establishing their country’s regional role.

–We should be ready and willing to help, expecting however that Iraq will align with the United States where it really counts:  right now, that means supporting the P5+1 effort on Iran’s nuclear program and the Arab League plan for Syria.

–And it means pumping as much oil as possible into a world market concerned with the prospect of war with Iran.

–Just a word in conclusion about the long term.  Maliki, whatever his virtues and vices, is not for ever if democracy survives in Iraq.

–We need to use the Strategic Framework Agreement to ensure that our institutions and Iraq’s institutions, our people and Iraq’s people, our economy and Iraq’s economy, our culture and Iraq’s culture, are tied closely together.

–I’ll be glad if the Assistant Secretary tells me I am wrong, but I have the impression that we still have not learned how to fully exploit the potential of this agreement to sharply increase the interconnectedness between Iraq and the United States.

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Grasping at straws

That’s what the thinktanksphere is doing on Syria:  Bruce Jones at Foreignpolicy.com offers a hazy scenario in which the Syrian army allows a Turkish-led “stabilization force” in with a wink and a nod, even without a UN Security Council mandate.  Fat chance.  Only if Bashar al Assad thinks he has won a total victory and needs the internationals to pick up the pieces.

What no one wants to admit in Washington is the obvious.  The most likely scenario is Bashar al Assad continuing in power and fighting a low-level insurgency against Free Syria Army units.  This is a very bad scenario for the United States and anyone else in the world concerned about stability in the Middle East, which is just about anyone who uses oil.  We have already seen refugee flows to Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.  Deadly shots have been fired across the border into Lebanon  and Turkey.

Of these countries, only Iraq is an important source of oil, but that is no small matter with gasoline at or above $4 per gallon in the U.S. and Iraq pumping all it can (around 2.7 million barrels per day).  With Saudi Arabia and Qatar talking openly about arming the opposition in Syria, how long do we think it will take for Syria and Iran figure out ways to retaliate?  Even hard talk can cause increases in oil prices.  Damascus and Tehran, which are heavily dependent on oil revenue, are hoping that the threat of regional chaos will enrich their coffers, weaken the American economy and make us accept Bashar al Assad’s continuation in power.

This is not an easy situation, and it may endure.  We need to be clear about what does and does not further U.S. interests.  The goal should be the end of the Assad regime.  That would serve not only U.S. interests, but just about everyone else’s except Iran’s.  Even Russia is not going to find Assad’s Syria the reliable partner it was in the past.  But while Bashar persists we need to try to ensure that the means used to achieve his downfall do not cause more harm than necessary.  Arming the Syrian opposition plays into Bashar’s narrative:  terrorists are attacking a regime ready to reform.

Recommitment of the opposition to nonviolent seems impossible to many at this point, but in my view it could be game-changing.  A real opportunity exists tomorrow, when the UN-sponsored ceasefire is supposed to take effect.  The Syrian government says it will stop all “military fighting” as of 6 am tomorrow. Admittedly this leaves big loopholes:  how about police and the paramilitary forces known as Shabiha?  Who is there to verify compliance?  But the right response from the opposition is to make a parallel announcement that it will halt all military action at the same time.  That will provide an opportunity for a return to peaceful demonstrations.

The possibility is less imaginary than might appear.  Most Syrians are not taking up arms against Bashar al Assad, and those who do are not having a lot of success.   Here is a nonviolent “flash” demonstration said to be in front of the Syrian parliament yesterday, with demonstrators holding signs that say “stop the bloodshed”:

The revolutionary leadership would do well to ask the Free Syria Army to take a break tomorrow morning and see what happens.  If nothing else, doing so will gain the revolution significant credit internationally.

Admittedly I too am grasping at straws.  But it seems nothing else is left.

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Let your people go!

Tonight is the Jewish festival of Passover, when we celebrate liberation.  Last year, I called this season the Passover of Arab liberation, but noted the difficulties Syria was facing.

This year we seem to be somewhere in the middle of the ten plagues, with Bashar al Assad not even beginning to think about letting his people go (and in fact inflicting the plagues, which is not something pharaoh did).  The mutual ceasefire deadline is set for April 12, provided Damascus pulls back from populated areas and ceases artillery fire on April 10.  In the meanwhile, Bashar seems to have intensified the military attacks in an effort to do as much deadly damage as possible to his opposition.  While I hope Kofi Annan’s effort is successful, you’d have to be Moses-like in inspiration to bet on it.

We should nevertheless consider the possibilities.  If by some fluke the Syrian army really does withdraw from some places, I hope the revolution will tuck away its guns and somehow demonstrate its overwhelming superiority in numbers.  It is particularly important that April 12/13 see a massive demonstration of opposition in Damascus and Aleppo, even if that means everyone just staying home in a general strike.  It will also be vital that the UN deploy observers quickly, and in far greater numbers than the couple of hundred currently contemplated.

It seems far more likely that Bashar will not  withdraw or cease fire.  What then?  There is really no sign of international will to intervene.  Despite ample documentation of artillery attacks on civilian targets as well as helicopter operations, neither the Turks nor the Arab League are preparing serious military action to enforce a no-fly zone or create humanitarian corridors or safe zones.  The Syrian security forces are busy mining the borders so that civilians can’t escape.  While it seems unlikely that Bashar can prevail 100%, he is well on his way to reducing the opposition to a low-intensity insurgency, with the bulk of the population sullenly resenting but accepting restoration of the dictatorship.  At least for a while, it is likely to be significantly more draconian than before the rebellion started.

This is a bad outcome, but I am afraid not the worst.  If the fighting continues to escalate and Bashar still survives, the consequences could be catastrophic for the region.  The violence might then overflow Syria’s borders and pose serious problems for Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and maybe even Turkey. If Bashar manages to stay in place, it is vital that the Friends of Syria, that unwieldy conglomeration of more than 80 countries, maintain and tighten its efforts, in particular the sanctions and diplomatic isolation.  We see in Burma how strategic patience can win the day.

Many of my friends and colleagues are appalled that nothing more is being done.  I can’t describe myself as comfortable with this state of affairs.  But it is important to recognize that there are other priorities on earth.  The Administration’s first concern has to be Iran.  There is no way to get a negotiated solution to its nuclear challenge, or prevent the Israelis from using military means, unless the United States maintains a credible military threat.  Entering a war with an uncertain outcome in Syria would not be a smart prelude to dealing with Iran.  American resources, though large, are not infinite–we wouldn’t want to run out of cruise missiles or suffer serious aircraft losses in a second priority fight.

There is also a diplomatic factor.  The best way to mount a credible threat against Iran is with UN Security Council backing.  What are the odds of the Russians conceding that if we go to war with Syria without their cooperation?  The odds may not be good in any event, but we need at least a small chance for success.

So I am afraid our Syrian heroes will need to continue their efforts.  I still prefer they be nonviolent ones.  Nothing that has happened in the last few weeks of violent attacks convinces me that the Free Syria Army will shorten the reign of Bashar al Assad by as much as a single day.  It is far more likely that their attacks will frighten large numbers of people who might otherwise have joined nonviolent protests.

I’ll pray for the Syrians at Seder tonight, as I trust many Jews around the world will do.  Not because I think praying will do the Syrians any good, but because the parallel between today’s Syrians and our own liberation narrative should inform our sensibilities.  The people of Syria are seeking the freedom that Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and Yemenis have all started to enjoy, even if they are still at the beginning of their journeys through the wilderness.  I hope the Syrians catch up soon.

The most frequent injunction in the Old Testament is to treat a stranger like ourselves:

…you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt… {Leviticus 19:33-34}

Bashar:  let your people go!

PS:  I missed this Monday, but you shouldn’t:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Get More: Daily Show Full Episodes,Political Humor & Satire Blog,The Daily Show on Facebook

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Empty threat?

Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani in a soft-spoken but hard-hitting performance today at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy touted Iraqi Kurdistan’s political, economic, commercial and social success, underlining its safe and secure environment as well as its tolerance, relative prosperity, literacy and attractiveness to foreign investors, including American oil companies.

But he lambasted Iraq, describing its central government as headed towards dictatorship, unwilling to implement its constitution (by proceeding with the Article 140 referenda in disputed territories) or abide by the November 2010 Erbil agreement that was supposed to institute serious power-sharing among Kurdish, Shia and Sunni dominated political forces.  Prime Minister Maliki is accumulating all sorts of power:  over the security forces, the intelligence services, the judiciary and even over the central bank.  If a constitutional solution to the current political impasse cannot be found, Barzani threatened to “go back to the people,” by calling as a last resort a referendum on a question to be posed by Kurdistan’s parliament at a time unspecified.

The threat was clearly stated, but left a lot of open questions.  In addition to the timing and content, it was not clear how Kurdistan would handle the disputed territories in a referendum scenario or whether it was prepared to defend itself by military means from strengthening Iraqi security forces.  Barzani foreswore the use of force, but indicated that an eventual clash might be inevitable.  He did not comment on how he thought Ankara and Washington would react to an independence referendum.

On other issues, Barzani made it clear Kurdistan is trying to mend fences with Turkey, which has changed its tune on Kurdish issues.  The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would cooperate “without limit” he said with non-military, non-violent efforts against the PKK (Kurdish insurgents who use Kurdistan as a safe haven but attack inside Turkey).

Barzani promised moral, political and financial assistance to the Syria’s Kurds, but said the decision whether to join the revolution would be left to them.  The KRG would not provide weapons, he said.

Barzani noted the KRG’s common interest with the United States on Iran issues.   Presumably Kurdish assistance in this respect was discussed in some detail in official meetings.  Kurdistan supports UN Security Council resolutions on Iran, including those regarding sanctions in particular. U.S. influence in Iraq, Barzani said, depends not on the presence of American troops but on the degree of commitment in Washington.  He clearly hoped to see more commitment to diverting Maliki from his current course.

Barzani declined to criticize Iraqi Parliament Speaker Nujayfi, noting that he has not accumulated or abused power the way Prime Minister Maliki has.  On Iraqi Vice President Hashemi, who fled to Kurdistan to avoid arrest in Baghdad, Barzani said the Iraqi judicial system is inadequate to the task because the Prime Minister controls it.

Barzani sounded determined, but a referendum threat is only as credible as the likelihood that an independent Kurdistan will gain significant recognition.  He may be buttering up Turkey and the U.S. in hopes of neutralizing their opposition to such a move, but he has a long way to go before they will contenance it.



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Geography and oil are fate

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki seems for the moment to be winning his high stakes bet on hosting the Arab League summit this week in Baghdad.  The first bar is set pretty low:  if the meeting comes off without any major security incidents or diplomatic kerfuffles, Iraq will be able to herald it as a successful milestone marking the return of Baghdad to regional prominence and a renewed role in the Arab world.

It could amount to more.  It already says something about the Arab League that a Kurdish president and a Shia prime minister are leading an Arab League summit.  Maliki has successfully courted improvements in relations with Sunni-dominated Egypt, Algeria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the last couple of months.  Some are hoping he might use the occasion to tilt Iraq away from Iran, perhaps even capturing a significant role with Russia in the effort to manage a negotiated transition in Syria.

Of course the whole thing might still blow up, too.  Either literally, if Al Qaeda in Iraq slips through Baghdad’s well-manned but still porous security cordons, or figuratively, if heads of state decline to attend or the Syria issue leads to a serious diplomatic breach with the Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar that would like to boot Bashar al Assad.

A successful Arab League summit could significantly improve Maliki’s standing at home, where he has also been doing some fence mending.  His big achievement was passing the budget in parliament.  His Sunni and Kurdish putative allies in parliament might still like to bring him down, but they have been unable to mount a serious threat and have not managed even to suggest an alternative majority.  Besides, they like their cushy jobs.

Maliki may be mending his fences, but they are still fences.  His majority is increasingly dependent on support from the Sadrists, whose reliance on Iran will limit his room to maneuver.

What does this mean for the U.S.?  The most immediate issue is Syria:  Washington would like Baghdad to help get Bashar to walk the plank.  Tehran will resist that mightily, and if it happens will redouble its effort to create in Iraq any “strategic depth” it loses in Syria.   Maliki can only gain from an end to the Assad regime if it gets him serious support from the Kurds and Sunnis within Iraq, as well as the broader Arab world.  I’d like to believe that would happen, but he is unlikely to have enough confidence it would.

The longer-term issue is the political orientation of Iraq.  Will it stand on its own and develop strong ties with the West, as well as with the Arab world and Iran?  Or will it tilt inexorably in Iran’s direction, risking internal strife as well as its own independence?  The Arab League summit is unlikely to have much long-term impact in determining this question.  Iraq’s Sunnis are convinced Maliki is an Iranian stooge.  The Americans still hope he’ll come around in their direction.

One major factor determining the outcome is rarely discussed, even in expert circles:  how Iraq exports its oil and eventually also its gas.  If it continues to put the vast bulk of its oil on to ships that have to pass through the Gulf and the strait of Hormuz under Iranian guns, Tehran’s influence will grow.  But there is an alternative.  If Baghdad repairs and expands the “strategic” pipeline to enable export of large quantities of oil (and eventually gas) to the north (to Turkey) and west (to Syria or Jordan), any government in Baghdad will see its links to the West as truly vital.  Maliki’s government has been doing the needed feasibility studies, but it is not yet clear that it is ready to make the necessary decisions, since export to the north and west would mean crossing Kurdish and Sunni controlled territory.

Iraq once seemed hopelessly divided.  But those divisions can be bridged, if there is political will to do so.  Geography and oil are fate.

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Arms and the man

My friends and colleagues are all over the lot on Syria.  One suggests we consider going to war against Bashar al Assad, but then offers more, and more powerful, arguments against than in favor of the proposition.  Some are criticizing the Obama administration for not supporting humanitarian safe zones and arming of the Syrian opposition, to be undertaken apparently by the Turks and Saudis respectively.  Others view diplomatic and political support for the opposition combined with nonintervention as a strategically correct choice, one that undermines Iran and Russia and hurts their standing with the Sunni Arab world.  Who is right?

It is of course difficult to say.  I don’t doubt anyone’s sincerity in advocating one way or the other.  But the arguments in favor of U.S. military intervention are simply not convincing:  the Arab League hasn’t asked for it, the Security Council won’t approve it, and the consequences are wildly unpredictable.  Besides, the U.S. needs to be ready in coming months to make a credible threat of the use of force against Iran’s nuclear program.  Attacking Syria would undermine American readiness and reduce the credibility of the threat against Iran, which is arguably much more important for U.S. national security than Syria.

Humanitarian safe zones and arming the opposition don’t come out any better.  Humanitarian zones are target-rich environments that will need protection from the Syrian army.  They are not safe unless made safe.  Doing so would be a major military undertaking, with all the disadvantages already cited.  Arming the opposition would intensify the civil war, make a collapse of the Syrian state more likely, and spread sectarian and ethnic warfare to Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey.  That is precisely what the United States should be avoiding, not encouraging.

The diplomatic approach the Administration has chosen is not fast and not easy, but it is beginning to show results.  Tom Pickering, who knows as much about these things as anyone on earth, sees the UNSC presidential statement as a step forward:

What we need now is a concerted effort to convince the Russians that Bashar is a bad bet.  If they want to keep port access in Syria, and arms sales there, they will need to switch horses and back a transition.  Bashar will not last long once they make that decision:  the Russians can cut off financial and military resources without which he knows he cannot survive.

The question is whether a threat to arm the opposition might help with the diplomacy.  This is arguable, it seems to me, and in any case it is what is happening.  Saudi Arabia and Qatar have made a lot of noise about arming the opposition.  It would be surprising if they weren’t already doing it, and preparing to do more.  I don’t expect it to have much impact on the battlefield, where the Syrian army has a clear advantage, especially when it uses artillery against civilian population centers.  But it could help to tilt the Russians against Bashar and create a sense of urgency about passing a UNSC resolution that begins the transition process.


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