Month: October 2017
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…
The charges unsealed today against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort fulfill many expectations. He was a key adviser to Russian President Putin’s favored president of Ukraine, he was known to have moved a lot of money around the world, and he had failed to register as an agent of a foreign government. His financial sidekick Rick Gates has also been charged. The charges relate in particular to undeclared, laundered income of more than $18 million from the Putin-friendly government of Ukraine
How all this relates to collusion with Russia during the campaign is however not yet clear. At the least, it suggests that Donald Trump was incautious to a fault in making Manafort his campaign chair, just as he was foolhardy in naming Michael Flynn as his national security adviser. But stupidity is not the same as perfidy. Special Counsel Mueller’s job is to nail the highest levels of illegal behavior, not to prove how dumb people are.
The charges against Manafort and Gates will help. Both will presumably be willing to exchange information for lesser charges or at least lesser sentences. But it is not clear how much information they have on perfidy by Kushner or the Trumps, both of whom are involved in what appear to be shady real estate deals in the US and abroad. Were they also laundering money or failing to declare it as income? Have the Russians blackmailed key administration officials by threatening to withdraw their investments or stop their real estate purchases? Trump is always keen to deny having any projects in Russia, but he has not denied having Russian financing in his projects in the US and elsewhere.
Mueller still has a long way to go to get to anyone important still in the Administration. He has however been savvy in these first indictments: Trump isn’t likely to risk pardoning Manafort and Gates, to whom he presumably owes nothing at this point. The only conceivable reason to do so would be to prevent them from talking, which would pretty much confirm Trump’s own malfeasance. Nor can Manafort be described as small fry, or his alleged crimes pooh-poohed by an administration that claims to be serious about law enforcement.
Trump can still try to fire Mueller, but that too would be a de facto admission of guilt. Trump will squirm, but I doubt he can escape. The noose is tightening.
PS: The guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, also made public today, relates much more directly to collusion with the Russians than the charges against Manafort and Gates. The noose is tightening more.
Kurdistan’s President Barzani is refusing to continue in the presidency after November 1. He is stepping aside in the wake of last month’s independence referendum that triggered the loss to Baghdad of a large part of the so-called “disputed territories,” including Kirkuk, as well as opposition from Turkey, Iran, the US, the European Union, and Russia. Barzani’s letter to the Speaker of Kurdistan’s parliament is ambiguous on next steps:
You should therefore meet at your earliest convenience to ensure there is no legal vacuum in the execution of the duties and powers of the president of the Region and resolve this subject.
Barzani, who has clung to power years after his mandate expired, is throwing in the towel, at least for now.
His ambiguity about what happens next stands in stark contrast to the relevant provisions of the Kurdistan Regional constitution:
i) In the case of the resignation, demise, or permanent disability of the President of the Kurdistan Region, a successor shall be elected in the same manner.
ii) When the position of the President of the Kurdistan Region becomes vacant, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Assembly shall assume responsibilities of the President until such time as a new President is elected.
iii) When the President of the Kurdistan Region is absent or on leave, the Regional Prime Minister shall assume the responsibilities of the President in an acting capacity.
My guess is he wants the Regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, his nephew, to assume the responsibilities, rather than the Speaker, who comes from an opposition party. I suppose the ambiguity might help Nechirvan to argue that the President is absent or on leave, rather than resigned.
In any event, Barzani is doing the right thing to take responsibility for the loss of territory and step aside. The question is what happens next?
Hopefully the ceasefire negotiated two days ago between the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces can be extended further. While Baghdad has not yet retaken all of the “disputed areas,” it has the critical ones, except for the border posts inside Iraqi Kurdistan. It is negotiating with Erbil under US auspices for control of a key border post at Fish Khabur.
Once the situation has stabilized, with Iraqi security forces and peshmerga clear about their respective areas of control, it will be time for a serious dialogue on key issues: how the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan will be fixed and control over oil and oil revenues. Independence is off the table for now, but Kurdistan has a very large measure of autonomy within Iraq and will want to ensure that continues. Unambiguous borders and certainty about oil and money would be a big boost to Erbil’s ability to govern itself effectively.
Within Kurdistan, Barzani and his PDK party are still strong. Their main rivals in the Talabani-affiliated PUK have weakened significantly in recent years, with defections to smaller political groups that have failed to gain sufficient weight to challenge the PDK. The loss of Kirkuk and other territory will no doubt have repercussions in the PDK, but it is not yet clear what they might be. Though called political parties, these groups are in part based on family and tribe. Those affiliations don’t change easily, especially if the tribal chieftain is still active.
Barzani underlined in his letter to the Speaker that he would indeed remain an active peshmerga, which is presumably a way of saying he will continue to command his family’s significant forces in Kurdistan. The PDK is blaming the loss of Kirkuk on surrender by PUK peshmerga. Civil wars have been fought over less, including in Kurdistan. It happened before and could happen again.
Hard to tell what comes next, but the president who held on in office without a mandate is unlikely to buckle completely now. Barzani is out, but not down.
- 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.
Last week at the Middle East Institute, Tim Eaton of Chatham House defined “war economies” simply as an economy during wartime, including but not exclusive to the parts of the economy that directly fuel conflict. Eaton was joined by fellow Chatham House experts Lina Khatib and Renad Mansour on October 19 in a panel on “Wartime Economies in the Middle East: A Look into Libya, Syria, and Iraq.” The Middle East Institute’s Paul Salem moderated.
Eaton provided an overview of the economic situation in Libya, identifying four modalities: individuals with goods to sell, those who generate rent money, those who prey on state revenue, and those who receive salaries from external backers. Concerning those who sell goods, one of the main avenues for such activity has long been the smuggling of subsidized products, an industry which persists post-revolution. Criminalized trade, especially in drugs, has also been a major source of revenue, generating $400-$500 million per year. Additionally, since 2013, the movement of people has been included in this category. The biggest industry, however, is still oil and fuel smuggling, which generates about $2.5 billion.
Rents are another avenue for certain individuals, the money coming from the establishment of checkpoints and the control of territory. This has led to extortion through blockades imposed on roads and oil fields, with such blockades costing the state over $160 billion in the East alone. The state has also been experiencing losses due to those who are able to “prey upon state revenue.” Since 97% of revenue comes from oil and gas trade, Eaton considered this a critical area from which revenue has been taken. These losses have also been augmented due to the discrepancy between the US dollar to Libyan dinar exchange rate both in the official sector, where it is 1.4 dinars, and in the black market, where it is 8 dinars. Those with the means to buy products at the official rate and sell them in the black market have seen major profits.
Eaton emphasized that all actors in Libya have been benefiting from the conflict, finding ways to take advantage of the country’s situation. Since armed groups have been able to obtain salaries as a result of the conflict, this has encouraged them to maintain the status quo. There is little incentive to find a solution to the conflict or undergo a political process. On a state level, economic difficulties, as well as “administrative chaos” and questions of legitimacy, have hindered the functioning of the three most important state institutions: the National Oil Company, the Central Bank, and the Libyan Investment Authority.
Mansour focused on the effect of economic factors on the survival and functioning of ISIS in Iraq. The international community has tried military and political solutions. The one solution most overlooked has been the economic solution. The key concept here, according to Mansour, is that organizations and individuals are opportunistic: they go where jobs and money are available, such as ISIS. In looking for ways to defeat ISIS, creating alternatives that would allow potential members to survive economically is important. ISIS has three key sources of revenue: trade (goods, oil, antiquities, etc.), fees (through taxation, rents, and licenses), and state resources. Looking to the future, ISIS is now investing in “legitimate industries” such as hotels, pharmaceuticals, and currency exchanges, to maintain their economic power and facilitate a future revival. In response, Iraqi state institutions and international actors have been working on limiting ISIS’s influence. Their flaw, according to Mansour, has been that none of these actors are working together.
Khatib gave an overview of the war economy in Syria, grouping the different areas of the country into three categories: areas under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, areas besieged by the regime, and areas under regime control. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has been following a similar model to that of ISIS in that they have been investing in formal industries while also setting up private companies to maintain the group’s economic independence. They have also been benefiting from their control of water and electricity in Idlib, collecting charges from residents. There has also been much trade activity between such rebel-held areas and regime areas, which has encouraged both sides to maintain the status quo, much like the situation in Libya.
Besieged areas have also witnessed trade activities, primarily through tunnels operated by middlemen. The government has been manipulating the formal exchange rate, making the rate inside besieged areas higher than elsewhere and consequently accumulating more revenue.
Regime-held areas have experienced much change. Since 2011, the state budget has decreased from $18 to $4 billion, with half now coming from external actors supporting the regime, and inflation has increased by 700%. To evade sanctions, the regime has set up front companies in loyalists’ names. For example, the Syrian Council for Metal and Steel set up in 2015 has contracts with its international partners Iran and Russia. Iran has militias and business-people working for it in the country. Khatib noted that the extent of outside interference has begun to worry the regime, and that true reconstruction, particularly including a return of refugees is not a goal of the state.
A key takeaway from the speakers’ overviews of the topic and the ensuing discussion is that economic alternatives to the present situation–which presents many economic incentives–must be found. The importance of political processes will not surpass the importance of economic security for citizens and state institutions alike. So long as the current situation is more profitable than any alternatives, it will persist.
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:
- 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