Tag: United States

National aspirations v geopolitical reality

Some of us have worried about the Kirkuk “powder keg” for a long time. The fuse has now been lit. Preventing the larger explosion should now be top priority.

Kirkuk is a complicated place. Both Arabs and Kurds claim the city, not to mention the Turkomen and the much smaller number of Syriac Christians. It has rich, long-producing oil wells mainly north of the city. The Kurds took advantage of the Iraqi army’s collapse in 2014 to take the town, which had previously been more or less under Baghdad’s control. It’s governor since 2011 has been a PUK (i.e. Talabani-family aligned) Kurdish American, Najmaldin Karim. The Kurdish peshmerga have kept the Islamic State out under difficult circumstances.

Now Iraqi Security Forces and Baghdad-controlled Popular Mobilization Forces (or PMF, which are mainly Shia Arab) are trying to re-occupy key parts of Kirkuk: the airport, an army base, and oil infrastructure. Baghdad’s view is that there is no reason to doubt its legal authority to do so, as it has not accepted Kirkuk as a part of the Kurdistan Region. That region’s government (the KRG) sees things differently, as it claims Baghdad has refused to fulfill the constitutional requirement of a referendum in Kirkuk to determine whether it wants to join the autonomous region. Baghdad has in principle the stronger fighting forces, partly well-equipped by the Americans. But the peshmerga are experienced and capable, also having benefited from American support.

Baghdad is under enormous pressure to reassert its authority in Kirkuk because of last month’s KRG independence referendum, which passed overwhelmingly with many non-Kurds in the KRG not voting. Prime Minister al-Abadi, who in principle is more sympathetic with Kurdish aspirations than most Arabs, needs to prove that he is prepared to stand up for their interests. The PMF, which are at least partly controlled by his rival and predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, are spoiling for a fight with the peshmerga. The Iranians, who vehemently oppose independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, are no doubt backing an aggressive stance, though they have been visibly trying to mediate between Baghdad and Erbil.

KRG President Barzani insisted on the referendum, despite vigorous US, Iranian, and Turkish opposition. He claimed it was merely advisory and intended as an overture to two years of negotiations on the KRG’s borders and status with Baghdad. While he has talked of “confederation” with Arab Iraq, Kurds, especially the younger ones, expect better than that, despite the opposition of all their neighbors. Barzani comes from a family committed for generations to an independent Kurdistan.

The contest is between national aspirations and geopolitical reality. It will now be decided in part by force of arms. But violence begets other realities that neither the Erbil nor Baghdad can afford to risk. The time to stop the clashes between the Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga is now. Let’s hope the Americans can spare enough time from their own internecine squabbles over whether to allow football players to kneel during the national anthem to get two important allies to stop fighting.

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Beyond absurd

Others have already picked apart President Trump’s speech on Iran, showing it to be inaccurate, vacuous, mendacious, illogical and just plain dumb. Try Paul Pilar at Lobelog, for what will rank as one of the best critiques.

On the central issue–the Iran nuclear deal–Trump is illogical. The justification the President offered for “decertifying” the nuclear deal to Congress is the assertion that the benefits to the United States are not sufficient to justify the sanctions relief Iran obtained. That is ridiculous. Iran today would have a nuclear weapon (or two) without this deal. Blocking all routes to that end is precisely what Trump claims he wants and would be giving up if he decided to renounce it.

That he did not do. His bark is consistently worse than his bite, unless you are Puerto Rico, a minority, someone who needs health insurance, or otherwise disadvantaged. Instead, Trump threw the hot potato to Congress, without any clear direction on whether he wants it to impose new sanctions (hoping that will cause the deal to collapse) or just let things muddle through. Judging from his past performances (read TPP, DACA, Obamacare, and likely soon NAFTA), he’ll opt for trying to cause collapse.

For now, that is not the case. But this decertification ploy, empty as it is of any substantial diplomatic content, has serious long-term implications.

Trump has stabbed our European allies in the back. They regard the Iran nuclear deal as a big European achievement, for good reason. The EU3 (UK, France and Germany) played important roles in applying the sanctions that made it work, keeping the process moving, and getting it to a successful conclusion. They clearly intend to maintain the deal as long as Iran maintains its side of the bargain, which it is doing. Any move by the US to unilaterally impose new nuclear sanctions or otherwise renounce the deal will not make it collapse, but simply divide Washington further from Brussels and improve Tehran’s standing in Europe.

Trump’s failure to acknowledge the benefits of the nuclear deal undermines US credibility with both Iran and North Korea. In Iran, it hurts President Rouhani, who by all reports had a hard time selling the nuclear deal to the Supreme Leader. How would an Iranian who wanted a follow-on deal that maintained the restrictions on the nuclear program now sell that idea to the Supreme Leader (likely the next one, not this one)? The American President said this one wasn’t worth what he paid for it, so how could the follow-on be? Nor would any other country, let’s say North Korea, be prepared to strike a deal with the United States after it failed to maintain its part of the bargain, at least to the point of acknowledging well-documented compliance with a prior deal.

Trump is a bad negotiator who always considers his own alternative to a negotiated agreement and likes to bluster that he prefers that, hoping to get a better deal. But he never considers the adversary’s alternative, which in this case is to proceed to get nuclear weapons. Trump has already convinced Kim Jung-un that continuing in that direction is his best guarantee of regime security. I’d find it hard to argue otherwise. Yesterday he did a great deal to convince more people in Tehran, and maybe other capitals as well.

The global nonproliferation regime America helped to build has demonstrably slowed the spread of nuclear weapons for decades. If it survives the next three plus years, it will be in spite of the United States. That really is beyond absurd.

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What to do in Syria now

Ibrahim al Assil, a founder of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, and a nonresident fellow at the Orient Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, wrote a notable op/ed for the Washington Post this week. Here is his email teaser, which he has kindly given me permission to publish: 

Syria entered a new reality in the last few months. However, there are significant misconceptions that can alter the future of Syria if not taken into consideration. I’m writing to share my piece for the Washington Post today, titled Syria’s civil war is a long way from over — and here’s why that’s important. I discuss the ideas below:

– Assad has not yet won. What he has done is to prevent anyone else from winning.

– Syria can’t be stabilized under Assad’s leadership. The conflict will erupt again unless a political settlement is achieved.

– Aid to Syria should be sent directly to local communities and those who are in need. This will prevent Assad from weaponizing the aid, and it will ensure that the aid actually reaches the people who need it most.

– The military campaign is not enough to defeat ISIS. Without addressing the root causes that brought about the rise of the terrorist movement, any “defeat” is only short-term. The US should help stabilize those areas and support the civil society and local governance initiatives.

– The US and the EU should help Syrians start to rebuild their communities after ISIS while preventing Assad from cashing in on his Pyrrhic victory.

This to me makes a lot of good sense. It also runs contrary to US inclinations. President Trump has made it clear he wants to defeat ISIS militarily and get out, without taking any responsibility for the state-building required to prevent it from returning. 

Self-defeating would be my term for that approach: it would allow Assad to attempt to retake, with help from his Russian and Iranian allies, those areas in the north, east, and south that are still out of his control, it would allow the Turks to attack the Kurds who have been vital to America’s success against ISIS, it would virtually ensure the reignition of a rebellion against Assad’s heavy-handedness. 

Protecting the remaining opposition-controlled areas and enabling them to govern inclusively and effectively would, by contrast, illustrate to Syrians a realistic political alternative, counter the Iranian expansionism, and help to prevent a return of jihadi extremism. Too sensible by half for Trump, but a real option the US could be contemplating. 

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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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The Middle East crises and conflicts

It can be problematic to take the “Middle East” as a single entity–to speak of it generally risks ignoring nuances and dangerously simplifies conversations and engagements with the region. At the Brookings Institution’s “Middle East Crises and Conflicts – The Way Ahead” event, however, John R. Allen of the Brookings Institution argued that one of the United States government’s flaws was its divided outlook toward the region, seeing the countries in it as “separated blocks” rather than parts of a larger, interrelated region. Finding a balance between examining the region’s countries separately and seeing them as part of a whole is what Allen, Mara Karlin, Daniel Byman, and Federica Saini Fasanotti, all experts at the Brookings Institution, made an effort to do on Thursday, October 5. The panel was moderated by Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon.

Karlin gave an overview of the situation in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, a victory over ISIS would result in political reconciliation and stabilization. Iraq would go through reconstruction, a main component of which would be the return of the country’s refugees. Not included in this vision of Iraq’s future are the Kurds, who, envision a separate future for themselves, as expressed in the Kurdish referendum of September. The formation of an independent Kurdistan, however, would bring its own set of challenges, as it would be landlocked and surrounded by hostile neighboring countries.

While Karlin’s assessment of Iraq contained some hope, her assessment of Syria was grim, as she labeled it a “humanitarian catastrophe” even if the conflict seems to be nearing an end in which the Assad regime regains control over the majority of the country. Although he seems to have an advantage, Allen contended that Assad will not win, attributing Assad’s advantage to several factors. One was the disconnect between US strategy to defeat ISIS and its anti-Assad stance, which would have attracted more Syrian support but remains no more than a “policy aspiration.” Another shortcoming on the part of the US was its delayed support to the Free Syrian Army and Syrian Defense Force, as well as its failure to act upon its “red line” threats in 2013.

Shifting the focus away from the US, Allen said that the Gulf states have also been creating obstacles in Syria, as they are supporting opposing militias. Karlin agreed that certain events had made it more difficult for the opposition to succeed, citing the US response to the war in Libya and its failure to design a response that would be appropriate for the Syrian context. Karlin disagreed with Allen, however, in that she maintained that a victory for Assad seems realistic and upcoming.

Saini Fasanotti spoke about the numerous dimensions that characterize Libya’s present situation. The international community’s recent actions, including the appointment of Lebanese Ghassan Salame as the new UN special envoy to Libya, represent positive steps towards stabilization. However, she criticized the divisions that exist among both external and internal actors, considering they are Libya’s biggest obstacles. More generally, she suggested that efforts to achieve further stabilization in Libya could not be expected to follow other models in the region, as Libya “has never been a state since the Ottoman Empire,” referring to the colonization of Libya by Italy and even to the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. He worked to increase the country’s divisions rather than to unify it, making Libya’s current goal the establishment of a unified, independent country, and not the restoration of one that existed previously.

Byman discussed the state of counterterrorism efforts in the region, beginning with some promising signs: Al Qaeda has been largely inactive and seems to have submitted to pressures exerted on it by international actors, and ISIS is losing battles in Iraq and Syria. However, Byman pointed out that while the US has the capabilities of defeating these groups, it has not historically been successful at supporting a transition for governments after such successes. The rapid rise of ISIS suggests that the idea necessary to form such a group are present, making the job of supporting states to gain stability more important. Shifting the focus to the West, Byman noted how terrorist groups in the Middle East have influenced policies and attitudes in Western countries, exemplified most clearly by the hostilities that Muslim communities are facing. The demonization of Muslims has also led the US travel ban on citizens from Muslim-majority countries and its efforts to slow its refugee resettlement program.

Addressing the situation both in the Middle East and the West more broadly, Allen recalled the Arab Spring – which he suggested be renamed the “Arab Tsunami” – and reminded the audience of its negative consequences: the vulnerable positions that states have fallen into, the increasing social and economic difficulties, radicalization, and the refugee crisis. Refugees have particularly affected Europe, testing its social fabric and resilience and causing social and political divisions. Such repercussions have resulted mainly from the numerous attacks that Europe has witnessed since the beginning of the crisis, causing an increasing preoccupation with security precautions and a fear of refugees and immigrants.  

Discussing policy options for the US, there was consensus on the need to prioritize economic assistance to the region as a whole. Karlin added that the US needs to be aware of the distractions that Iran and the nuclear deal have posed. Instead of the nuclear deal, Karlin argued, Iran’s role in destabilizing countries in the Middle East should be the US focus. In Libya, Saini Fasanotti urged the West to adopt a “bottom-up” approach, reiterating her views on Libya’s nationhood (“in a nation that does not exist, you cannot look at the top”). She emphasized the importance of giving citizens a role and a choice, responsibilities that they were not granted under the Ottomans, Italy, or Gaddafi.

Byman pointed to the dangers of the approach that the West has taken in dealing with refugees, especially the poor treatment of refugees in Europe despite the welcoming front exhibited by accepting large numbers, which h argue, has caused radicalization to occur in most cases inside Europe and not outside of it. He also referred to the West’s failure to treat all types of violence equally. Not taking right-wing violence seriously further isolates and demonizes refugee and immigrant groups. Saini Fasanotti suggested that Europe in particular needs a “real strategy” to effectively welcome and integrate refugees, referring to her personal experience in Italy and the increasing hostility towards refugees that she has witnessed.


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How Tillerson can turn it around

Ed Joseph, my colleague at the Johns Hopkins School of Advance International Studies, writes: 

Can Rex Tillerson save his job?  Even after his striking, defiant statement last week, reaffirming his loyalty to Donald Trump, the odds are against him.  He committed the cardinal sin of publicly distancing himself from his boss (over Charlottesville).  The President has repeatedly needled and undermined his Secretary of State in tweets.  Aside from his travails with the White House, even Tillerson’s admirers have criticized his weak, rudderless performance at Foggy Bottom.

Though time is running short, it’s not too late for Tillerson to turn it around.  To do so, he needs a clear, unadulterated victory – a smaller, more modest version of what Dick Holbrooke got at Dayton or what Madeline Albright achieved in Kosovo.  As long as Tillerson cedes the credit to his boss, all will be forgiven (though not forgotten) provided he brings the Administration a triumph – particularly one that allows Trump to claim he prevailed where his predecessors failed.

And there is one international dispute tailor-made for Tillerson’s keen attention – an issue that has defied the efforts of prior Administrations, that confounds major European capitals, and that can be resolved swiftly, provided Tillerson is willing to expend political capital and take some risk: Greece’s longstanding objection to Macedonia’s name.

Since Macedonia’s independence in 1991, Greece has insisted that its northern neighbor’s name, ‘Macedonia’, is infringement upon Greek patrimony (stemming from Alexander the Great), and an affront to the Greek region which carries the same name.  Athens imposed a punishing embargo on its fledgling neighbor for three years after independence.  In 1995, the legendary Holbrooke negotiated an end to the blockade and extracted Athens’ formal commitment not to block Skopje’s membership in international organizations — provided Macedonia entered under its temporary name ‘former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’

But in 2008, Greece blocked Macedonia’s entry into NATO as ‘fYROM.’  In 2011, the International Court of Justice ruled (by a fifteen to one majority) that, by doing so, Athens had violated its obligations.  Greece has ignored the ruling.  Macedonia – which has been willing to join NATO under its temporary name — remains marooned in the southern Balkans.  Without a NATO or EU perspective, the country is left weakened and prone to crisis.  A violent conflict that would draw in its neighbors is a clear possibility, particularly now that Russia is engaged in the country and poised to exert malign influence.

In short, solving the name dispute is a significant US interest.  However, no envoy since Holbrooke has managed to make any progress on the question.  George W. Bush and his State Department tried, and failed, to get Macedonia into NATO at the Alliance Summit in Bucharest in 2008.  The Obama Administration ignored the issue, largely consigning the entire Balkans to indifferent Europeans who likewise failed to make any effort to resolve the name dispute.

Fortunately for Tillerson, circumstances are as favorable as they’ve ever been for a breakthrough.  Both Greece and Macedonia are emerging from exhausting, multi-year crises that have sapped their countries’ respective appetite for drama.  Neither country’s Prime Minister – Alexis Tsipras in Athens or Zoran Zaev in Skopje – is facing elections just yet.  And while both leaders must inevitably cast a wary eye on the opposition, their real focus is on achieving the demonstrable progress needed to stay in office.  What’s more, relations between the two capitals have improved.  The Greek and Macedonian foreign ministers recently and cordially discussed the name issue — a clear sign the matter is potentially ripe for resolution.

The key to a deal is Greece, by far the more powerful party.  Skopje has the law and international opinion on its side; otherwise, it is small, weak and the only side suffering from the dispute.

Thankfully, Washington has leverage over Athens.  After three searing international bailouts obtained at the price of draconian reforms, Tsipras is desperate to rid Greece of the harsh financial supervision that has been imposed at the behest of its nemesis, Germany.  However, the just-completed German elections have complicated that aspiration.  Disappointing results for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party mean that she is now likely to bring hardliners into her government who adamantly oppose relaxing conditions on Greece.

Effectively, Washington has become a key player in this Greek drama.  There is no chance for Greek debt relief unless Washington maintains its current level of funding to the IMF — something the Administration has yet to confirm. At the same time, Tsipras also wants a ‘Strategic Partnership’ with the US as another sign that the country has paid its dues, implemented difficult reforms and now deserves to be treated with respect.  All this makes Tsipras desperate for a full-fledged summit with Trump this year, a topic already raised with Washington last month.

Tillerson needs only to convince his boss, Trump, author of ‘The Art of the Deal’, to exploit his leverage and insist on full resolution of the Greece-Macedonia name dispute as the price for the meeting and terms that Tsipras seeks.  Tillerson should make it clear that the credit will rest with the President, while Tillerson does the heavy lifting.

And there is every reason to believe that Tillerson can succeed, as long he learns from the mistakes of his predecessors:

o   Bush and his State Department failed to exploit the deadline of the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit.  Tillerson can make it clear to Greece and Macedonia that ‘this is it’, i.e. that this issue will be resolved by the end of this year, full stop.

o   Bush’s envoys failed to threaten Athens and Skopje with any credible penalties.  Tillerson must make it clear to Athens that if it balks, Tsipras gets no meeting – and Washington will make Macedonian membership in NATO a core Administration priority, while giving Skopje privileged standing with Washington.  If tiny Skopje dares try to take advantage of the situation, then the Secretary must threaten vulnerable Zaev with publicly naming and shaming him for screwing up Macedonia’s best chance to end its isolation.

o   Tillerson should consult with the long-time UN negotiator on the issue, Matthew Nimetz, but make it clear that after more than two-decades, it’s time to bring the matter to a close.  As long as Tillerson is personally invested – and agrees to meet with the parties personally –coordination will be easy.  Nimetz will share the full range of solutions available to resolve the entire matter; Tillerson needs only to select one and sell it to the parties.

o  Most of all, Tillerson should ignore the US Ambassador to Athens, or any former US Ambassador to Athens, or Greek officials or others who plead that that “this is not the time to press for a solution.”  That attitude is precisely the reason this problem has festered for so long.

After a career in the oil business, few know better than Rex Tillerson that taking calculated risk can bring handsome rewards.  To save himself from a humiliating return to Houston, it’s time for the Secretary to take some risk in the pursuit of a worthy, and plausible, objective.

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