Tag: United Nations

Assad will fight to the last Iranian

I did this interview last week for Nozhan Etezadosaltaneh of the Islamic Republic’s Tehran daily Iran. I was informed today that it has been published. I’ll appreciate it if anyone can let me know whether it has been fully and accurately translated into Farsi: 

  1. As a experienced Counselor who knows about the functioning of international institutions, do you think the UN can help to end the Syria crisis ? Some people say institutions like UN don’t have executive power and can not take positive steps toward peace in conflict regions. What is your opinion about the view?

A: The UN is already playing important roles: it provides a great deal of humanitarian assistance in Syria and to refugees in neighboring countries, it has a commission that has reported extensively on human rights violations in Syria, it has established an international, impartial and independent mechanism to assist in investigating and prosecuting international crimes committed in Syria, and it also sponsors the Geneva talks on political transition. Behind the scenes it has played a role in some particular ceasefires and other agreements that have saved lives. Of course it lacks executive power to determine the outcome of the war, but is doing things that lessen the war’s impact, make it possible to hold parties accountable for their wartime behavior, and may lead to an end to the fighting. Those aren’t bad things, they just aren’t all I might hope for.

2. After the end of ISIS in Raqqa, which actor can take control of the city and restore order and public services? Iran and Russia along with the Syrian government, the Kurdish forces or the Syrian armed opposition and their Western allies?

A: My impression is that initial control of Raqqa lies with the Kurdish-led but partly Arab-manned Syrian Democratic Forces, with support from the Western coalition. In the east, Iran and Russia have focused on Deir Azour.

3. Do you think the American troops will enter Syria directly after ISIS defeat in the country?

A: American troops have been in Syria for months fighting ISIS. I don’t know if they will stay. The Trump Administration might prefer that they withdraw, but that will leave US allies open to attacks from both the regime coalition (including Russia and Iran) as well as Turkey, which regards the Kurds who fought against ISIS under US protection as terrorists because they are connected to the PKK inside Turkey. If the Americans stay, it will be to ensure ISIS does not return, to restrain the Kurds, protect Arabs who have fought ISIS, and to prevent attacks from either Turkey or the regime coalition.

4. What will be the consequences of ISIS defeat for the neighboring countries in the region in your opinion? Do you think we should expect more confrontations and problems or it could help to bring stability and peace in the region?

A: I am not seeing an end to instability yet. With Assad still in power, I expect an insurgency to  continue against his dictatorship, by both relatively moderate and extremist forces. Assad will not be happy with US troops in the east and Turkish troops in northern Syria and Idlib, or relatively moderate rebels in the south. Turkey, Iran and Russia, which have collaborated in recent months, may have a falling out, as their visions of a future Syria may well conflict.

4. Analysis shows that for example around six thousand Tunisian joined to ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Do you think the jihadists will return to their countries and cause trouble for their countries?

A: Trouble from jihadis returning to their home countries is certainly to be expected. Local grievances in those countries played an important role in recruitment. Now that they are trained and deadly, their return could generate big problems.

5. Do you think that ISIS defeat in Syria will be an opportunity for re-rise of Al-Qaeda in the country and the region?

A: Al Qaeda has played a savvier game in Syria and elsewhere by embedding itself with local forces, whereas ISIS sought a monopoly on power and was content to be led and partly manned by people who were not native to the country they were fighting in. But I also think a lot of people are fed up with the jihadis and will get rid of them if empowered to do. That is certainly true in parts of Idlib.

6. Some analysts believe that the Arab countries of the region especially Saudi Arabia have directly and indirectly contributed to ISIS. Do you agree with the opinion? What will the effect of ISIS failure in Syria on Saudi Arabia?

A: Wahhabi ideology has had a role in generating ISIS, but it has been clear for some time now that ISIS and Al Qaeda are enemies of the Saudi monarchy and Saudi Arabia does not support them through official channels. There may be Saudi private individuals who do however, including of course Osama bin Laden. This, too, the Saudis have tried to stop.

7. Saudi Arabia consistently criticized Obama’s policy toward the Syria crisis and and accused Obama of passivity and strengthening Hizbollah and Iran in the region. What do you think about current Saudi Arabia approach about US policy on Syria ? do you think Trump is able to satisfy the Saudis in this regard ? What will be the impact of the recent US and Saudi Arabia getting closer to each other on the future of Syria?

A: The Saudis haven’t shown a lot of interest in Syria lately. Trump has doubled down on what Obama started–the drone war plus cooperation with the Kurds and their Arab allies against ISIS–but I haven’t heard a lot of applause from Riyadh, which is far more focused for now on Yemen. That said, the Saudis clearly prefer Trump to Obama, because they think he will do more to counter Iranian influence in the region, even if not in Syria.

8. Which one will be winner in a possible conflict in Syria in your opinion? Iran or US?

Both will win the war they are fighting: the US will win its war against ISIS; Iran will win its war to keep Assad in power, at least for now. Tehran may also gain its desired land bridge through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, as well as a permanent presence for Hizbollah in Syria. Washington has, oddly, not yet begun to counter those efforts in a serious and concerted way.

9. What do you think about Israel policy after ISIS defeat in Syria? It seems that ISIS presence in Syria to have benefited Israel. What do you think about the view? Do you think Israel will get into the phase of military operation in Syria fearing that Hizbollah will be closer to Golan and the borders of that country? Will ISIS failure be a threat for Israel?

A: I don’t think the Israelis think they benefited from ISIS in Syria. They do not want ISIS on the border. Nor do they want Hizbollah on their border. Many have thought they would prefer Assad, who has done nothing against Israel despite a lot of talk. Hizbollah and ISIS are both threats to Israel, and I expect it to take what measures it needs to protect itself. Assad has shown little will or ability to respond effectively.

10. Recently, The King of Saudi Arabia traveled to Russia. Some believe that in exchange for economic privileges he urged Russia to persuade Iran to withdraw from Syria and limit its role in the country. Do you think he has succeeded in convincing Putin on the matter?

A: I think the Russians already want to withdraw some of their forces from Syria, no matter what the Saudis say. Syria has cost Moscow quite a bit in money and lives. I don’t expect Iran to reduce its influence (presence is a different matter), so long as Assad is in power. He is now essentially an Iranian puppet.

11. What will Russia program for Syria after the ISIS defeat in your opinion? How long will Russia be able to move between the Shiite and Sunni poles? Don’t you think Putin finally will have  to choose one side? Do you think Russia will leave Tehran and cooperate with Saudi Arabia and Sunni countries or will continue to cooperate with Iran on the Syria issue?

A: Russia has already chosen the Shiite side, though it maintains Sunni links even inside Syria. So long as Iran is not hostile to Russia’s military presence in Syria, I think Moscow will continue to cooperate with Tehran.

12. Do you think the situation of Syria without ISIS will be better for all of the region or this is only beginning a new phase of war among the main international and regional actors? Are you optimistic about the future of Syria after ISIS and the consequences? Read more

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It’s Friday the 13th

The week has already been tumultuous. President Trump has

  • dissed Puerto Rico by suggesting it is not worthy of the Federal assistance Texas and Florida are still getting,
  • thrown the talks about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement into chaos that threatens to cause their collapse,
  • decided to withdraw the US from UNESCO because we owe the organization millions while demonstrating that he does not believe in the First Amendment commitment to press freedom that is a pillar of the organization,
  • continued to threaten to decertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal while the rest of the world and his principal advisers have concluded that Tehran has met its obligations,
  • issued an executive order designed to further undermine the affordability of health insurance for those Americans who need it the most,
  • gotten into a spat with NATO ally Turkey that has eliminated visas for Turks to come to the US and Americans to go to Turkey, and
  • prompted the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to suggest, believably, that the White House is an adult day care center without proper supervision.

Even for Trump, this is an unusual amount of unmotivated and unjustified chaos. No American administration can manage this level of random acts of spite and provocation.

A few Democrats in the House have started to think about articles of impeachment, but that is the least of Trump’s worries right now. No Republicans have demonstrated any real interest in impeachment, or even in supporting a 25th Amendment challenge to Trump’s ability to perform the functions of his office. They are simply too frightened of sinking their own boats along with his.

The world is showing a good deal of maturity in dealing with the madness in Washington. Even Kim Jung-un for now appears ready to stop at childish name calling. The Iranians have indicated they will retaliate against the US if the President decertifies their compliance. But at the same time they appear ready to maintain the nuclear deal with the Europeans. That is smart: it will wean Europe from support for the US and weaken America in its efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program, making it harder once the Iran nuclear deal gets ready to expire to extend its terms.

I can’t really think of a lot more things Trump can do to weaken the US, but I’m sure he can. We are all waiting for his noon-time speech on Iran, which will enumerate a long list of its sins, but so far in the White House public affairs preparations there is no sign of anything more substantial. Trump is mostly bark and little bite. But a dog who barks enough will lose a lot of friends.

It’s Friday the 13th, but unlikely to be much worse than the days that immediately preceded it.


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Peace picks October 9 – 13

  1. The Kurdish Crisis: Baghdad, Erbil, and Institutional Reform in Iraq | Tuesday, October 10 | 11:00 am | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The ongoing tension between the Kurdistan regional government and the federal government in Baghdad are generating new concerns about the long-term stability of Iraq. Critical issues relating to energy, security, and institutions must be addressed in order to prevent further conflicts and promote economic development. Please join us for a discussion on these topics. The panelists will address the energy aspects of the crisis, the security dimensions, the prospects for institutional reform, and the role the United States should play to help resolve the conflict. Panelists include Dr. Harith Hasan Al Qarawee of the Atlantic Council, Amb. Stuart Jones of the US Department of State, Dr. Denise Natali of the National Defense University, and will be moderated by Amb. Frederic C. Hof of the Atlantic Council.
  2. The Path Forward for Dealing with North Korea | Tuesday, October 10 | 10:00 – 1:30 pm | Brookings Institution | Register Here | On October 10, the Center for East Asia Policy Studies and the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings will host leading U.S. experts and former officials to identify actionable policy steps the White House and Congress should take to address the growing threat from North Korea. Panel presentations will focus on Kim Jong Un’s outlook and objectives, the history of negotiations with North Korea, and comparative case studies, including the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and recent negotiations with Iran. Former Deputy National Security Advisor Avril Haines will deliver a keynote address, sharing insights from her experiences and offering thoughts on the path forward for dealing with North Korea. The first panel, “Who is Kim Jong Un?” will feature moderator Ryan Hass of the John L. Thornton China Center, as well as panelists Jung H. Pak of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, Evan Osnos of the John L. Thornton China Center, and Jean H. Lee of the Wilson International Center for Scholars. The second panel, titled, “Lessons From Historical Case Studies,” will be moderated by Jung H. Pak and will feature Jake Sullivan of Yale Law School, David S. Cohen of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Jonathan D. Pollack of the John L. Thornton China Center, and Author and Journalist Michael Dobbs.
  3. Drones Under Trump | Wednesday, October 11 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | Stimson Center | Register Here | The use of armed drones and the expansive authority to use lethal force claimed by the U.S. government remain some of the most controversial aspects of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Though the Obama administration introduced limited policy constraints on the use of force aimed at increased protection of civilians, and reforms designed to increase transparency near the end of its tenure, the Trump administration appears to be rolling back these policies. Thus far, the Trump administration has expanded operations outside “hot battlefields” and delegated more strike authority to the military. Reports suggest that the new administration is proposing to go even further by loosening the limited policy constraints on the use of force and may seek to broaden the CIA’s role in conducting lethal strikes. These actions and proposals raise renewed concerns about the prospect of endless war and increased secrecy, and underscore the need for meaningful accountability and oversight of U.S. lethal operations abroad.  Please join the Stimson Center and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic for a panel event on issues surrounding U.S. drone policy under the Trump administration. The panel will discuss and evaluate past U.S. practice, analyze recent developments, and assess the Trump administration’s approach to the use of force, transparency, and accountability.  Panelists include Waleed Alhariri of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, Alex Moorehead of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, Luke Hartig of the National Journal’s Network Science Initiative, and Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center.  
  4. From Mosul to Brain Science to Tech: Creating Peace in a Violent World | Wednesday, October 11 | 9:00 am – 5:00 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | As violent conflict erupts across the globe and the institutions that have kept peace for 70 years strain under the pressure, the demand for sustainable peace and security only grows. The Iraqi city of Mosul searches for a way to recover from the brutal rule of ISIS. Half a world away, Colombia is exploring ways to finance the terms of its historic peace accord. Technology, people power, and brain science are part of an array of possible solutions. Join the first day of the 2017 conference of the Alliance for Peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Oct. 11, as experts explore new ideas for preventing and resolving violent conflict. The event will consist of a keynote address and seven panels, which include “Next Steps for Peace in Mosul,” “Innovative Approaches for Financing Peace,” “Transforming Violent Conflict: Where People Power Meets Peacebuilding,” and Stabilizing Conflict-Affected Areas: Policy Challenges, New Opportunities, and Lessons from the Past.”
  5. Where Are U.S.-Pakistan Relations Headed? | Wednesday, October 11 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | For decades the United States and Pakistan have worked as strategic partners despite differences in priorities, but today this relationship is at a crossroads. The Trump administration seems poised for a confrontation with Pakistan over its alleged protection of Taliban and Haqqani Network insurgents. China’s support of Pakistan, increased Russian and Iranian engagement in the region, and India’s apparent deeper involvement in Afghanistan further complicate Washington’s bilateral relationship with Islamabad. The Middle East Institute (MEI) is pleased to host an expert panel to examine these developments and the stakes for the United States and Pakistan in preserving their relationship. MEI’s director for Afghanistan and Pakistan studies, Marvin Weinbaum, will moderate the event featuring Daniel Markey, Shuja Nawaz, Joshua White, and Moeed Yusuf.
  6. How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West | Wednesday, October 11 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Recent global events show that the post-Cold War flow of money and values was not a one-way affair. The West is witnessing an increasingly coordinated assault on its own democratic system. This destructive import of corrupt practices comes not only from post-Soviet kleptocratic regimes like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia, but also from China and other countries around the world whose ruling elites now possess far-reaching financial and political interests in the West. Join Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative for a discussion of Ilya Zaslavskiy’s report, “How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West.” After opening remarks by Mr. Zaslavskiy and responses by Jeffrey Gedmin and David Kramer, two expert panels will explore the development of corrupt norms and the true nature of contemporary kleptocratic regimes, as well as the methods they deploy to undermine Western democracy – and what can be done to fight back. Panelists will include Louise Shelley of George Mason University, Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ambassador Richard D. Kauzlarich of the Center for Energy Science and Policy and George Mason University, and Paul Massaro of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Charles Davidson of the Kleptocracy Initiative will moderate.
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Trump is about to make a big mess

I find it hard to believe, but it looks as if President Trump is preparing to take the advice of John Bolton to decertify Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA or “Iranian nuclear deal”). This despite the complete lack of factual support for the notion that Iran is substantially violating the deal as well as European refusal to join the US in the reimposition of sanctions required even to begin compelling Tehran to renegotiate.

The consequences will be far-reaching. If Iran opts to remain in compliance, the Europeans will maintain their sanctions relief, at least until the US imposes so-called secondary sanctions against their banks and companies for continuing to do business with Iran. That will cause enormous resentment in Europe, where doubts about President Trump are already rife. Hard to see how our traditional allies will continue to support us on many issues if the Administration makes the mistake of undermining the JCPOA.

In the less likely event that Tehran decides to renege on the deal, the Europeans may back reimposition of sanctions, but Iran would soon (a year?) have nuclear weapons. That might precipitate an Israeli or an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, with no prospect however of delaying Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by more than the eight years or more left on the JCPOA clock. It will be necessary to periodically attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, with devastating consequences for Middle East (and global) stability, as Tehran will strike back in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and possibly even the US.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will be confirmed in his view that only nuclear weapons and the capacity to strike the US will protect his regime from an American attack. Prospects for a negotiated freeze or other limitations on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities would go to zero fast, if they are not already there.

Trump likes to overplay his hand, then distract attention so that he can cave. That won’t work well with Iran and North Korea, both of which understand perfectly well how lousy America’s alternatives to a negotiated agreement on their nuclear programs are. Both regimes, once upon a time two-thirds of the “axis of evil,” have understood the other third’s mistake: Saddam Hussein didn’t pursue nuclear weapons aggressively enough to forestall an American invasion.

Not that America today has the stomach for an invasion of either North Korea or Iran, even if they lack nuclear weapons. We are well into two decades of constant but far from completely successful warfare in many countries aimed at wiping out Islamist extremists. Are we really ready to take on two more adversaries, one or both of which might be nuclear-equipped by the time we do?

The alternative is not appetizing either. Basically, we need to content ourselves with deterring both North Korea and Iran from using their nuclear weapons, without pressing for regime change. Their own people will have to find a way to deal with their leaders, which is how things should be. Trump even said so in his UN General Assembly speech, which lauded sovereignty. That in my view comes from the people.

We can and should, however, push back against Iran’s and North Korea’s regional misbehavior, especially insofar as they seek to intimidate or undermine US allies. It is odd indeed that Trump has done nothing to counter Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria, where Hizbollah and Shia militias are reshaping the political landscape. Japan and South Korea could also use less bombast and more real support.

But Trump is president, as he so often reminds us. He seems disinclined to maintain the traditionally effective multilateral approaches to Pyongyang and Tehran and more likely to make a big mess.

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Bluster/distract/cave won’t work

Donald Trump’s much-vaunted negotiating skills have produced virtually nothing in the past eight months of his singularly unproductive presidency. What do we know about his approach to negotiating? How is it working?

Trump’s first stage is bluster: locked and loaded, fire and fury. He threatens the worst possible outcome for his opponent, ignoring the implications for himself and his country. He has done this not only with North Korea, but also with the repeal of Obamacare (watch out! it’s collapsing!) and the budget ceiling (I’ll close down the government unless I get my wall!). Not to mention the nuclear deal with Iran (the worst deal ever!). This bluster attracts a lot of media attention, but it ignores what is crucial in negotiation: your own alternative to a negotiated agreement.

Then Trump quickly tacks in a different direction, before it is apparent that bluster isn’t working. Anything else will do, so long as it distracts from the main item he has put on the agenda. A hurricane will serve the purpose, as will a campaign trip to North Dakota or some other domestic political distraction like the competence of Speaker Ryan or Senate majority leader McConnell. The more bizarre the distraction, the better, since its purpose is to make the original issue evaporate, a bit like the magician’s use of distraction to make a rabbit disappear.

Then Trump caves on the original issue. He did this yesterday at the UN Security Council, accepting a resolution that falls far short of his announced goal of ending trade with North Korea, but only after taking advantage of the distraction caused by Hurricane Irma.

He is getting ready to do something similar with the Iran nuclear deal: he may claim that Iran is not complying (bluster) and throw the issue to the Congress (distraction), but he won’t withdraw from the deal (that’s the caving) because he knows by now it is better than no deal (that’s what the Israelis and Saudis are telling him). Instead, he’ll do something I think is quite sensible: focus on Iranian (mis)behavior in the Middle East, which is a real and growing problem.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) got this treatment. Trump feinted about withdrawal, then allowed months of distractions and ended up with a renegotiation the Canadians and Mexicans were happy to engage in, because they’ve got complaints about the current decades-old agreement as well. He did not do this with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), from which he simply withdrew. But that story may not be over yet. I suspect the US will eventually find its way back in, if the countries of the region want to continue the process.

There are of course things Trump just doesn’t like, so the bluster is real. The climate change treaty is one of those, though the recent storms seem to be making some Republicans think maybe we need to do something to reduce their likelihood, even if they don’t agree on human causation. I won’t be surprised if Trump, who once supported action on climate change as a businessman, changes his mind as well.

How is bluster/distract/cave working? Well enough domestically for Trump to retain his core support. But internationally it is a disaster. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you, is the general rule in international affairs. Watch the Russians, who are reacting vigorously against a president they once thought they owned. The Chinese aren’t likely to be friendly about it either. Trump is going to find himself where he did in the real estate business: a creditor only third tier institutions and individuals will do business with. It is no accident that he gets praise from people whose governance is notoriously corrupt.

Bluster/distract/cave won’t work on serious people, who learn quickly that all they really need to do is wait Trump out, so long as they have a decent alternative to a negotiated agreement.

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Kim is winning because Trump

Permanent Representative Haley is pushing hard this week for a new UN Security Council resolution on North Korea, one that brings maximum economic pressure to bear, even as President Trump continues to mumble about military options rather than negotiations. Kim Jong-un appears to be paying neither any mind. Why not?

The short answer is BATNA: best alternative to a negotiated agreement. His is better than ours:

  • He can ignore our military bluster because he now has both a conventional deterrent–a massive artillery attack on Seoul–and a nuclear one. There can be no more doubting Pyongyang’s capability of hitting at least US allies (and the US forces stationed in them) with a nuclear weapon.
  • He can ignore the sanctions threat at least until he sees what emerges from the UNSC and whether China is inclined to comply with it fully. Barring North Korea’s trade without China is meaningless.

Our options are limited: we can threaten military action and tightened sanctions, but we can’t really do either unilaterally. Military action should at least require concurrence from South Korea, which is most exposed to the North’s artillery and understandably loathe to go in the military direction. Trade and financial sanctions require China’s cooperation. Threatening not to do business with any country or company that does business with North Korea may sound great, but our reliance on trade with China and Chinese companies precludes actually doing it.

Haley’s most striking rhetoric was her claim that Kim Jong-un is “begging for war.” That is simply untrue. He is deterring the US from a military strike, so far successfully, by demonstrating the North’s own military capabilities. It is far truer that President Trump in his tweets is begging for war, but the adults in the National Security Council and the Defense Department are likely showing him military options and consequences that are unappetizing at best, catastrophic at worst.

President Trump is not entirely to blame for this situation. The history of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is strewn with poor choices, both by American presidents and Pyongyang. The Americans have wanted to kick the can down the road. The North Koreans have preferred isolation to integration with the rest of the world. Neither the Americans nor the North Koreans have been willing to make decisions based on the real, but in the 1990s and 2000s long-term, threat of nuclear holocaust.

We are now approaching that long-term future. Haley has ruled out a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, in exchange for a freeze on what the North quite reasonably views as hostile US and South Korean military preparations for a pre-emptive strike. The smart money is betting that is the best we are going to get, but Trump’s bluster precludes it. That said, he often backs down, after an effort at distraction. Bluster, distract, cave is his preferred style of (very poor) negotiation. He’d have done a lot better with an upfront assessment of his BATNA, which is what every first-year conflict management student learns at SAIS.

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