Category: Daniel Serwer

Syria strategy

Secretary of State Tillerson today in a speech at the Hoover Institution outlined US goals in Syria. Tobias Schneider summarized them succinctly on Twitter:

  • Enduring defeat of ISIS & AQ in Syria
  • Political resolution to Syria conflict (w/o Assad)
  • Diminishing Iranian influence
  • Create conditions for safe refugee return
  • Syria free from WMD

Those sound in principle desirable to me, though they leave out an important one: preventing instability in Syria’s neighbors, including Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan (all more or less US friends if not allies).

The problem lies one step further on in defining a strategy: the ways and means. Tobias and others on Twitter see this set of goals as a license for an unending US commitment to remain in Syria and to “stabilize” it. Hidden under that rock, which Tillerson was careful to say was not a synonym for nationbuilding, lies a commitment to guess what? Nationbuilding.

But let’s deal first with the the ways and means issue. As I see it, this is all we’ve got going for us in Syria:

  1. US military presence and capability, including control through proxies of major oil-producing wells and maybe a proxy presence along the borders with Israel and Jordan.
  2. A UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution (2254) that outlines a political process to prepare a constitution, hold elections, and begin a transition to a democratic system.
  3. The US veto in the UNSC over any successor resolution that approves and advances the political process.
  4. US aid to parts of Syria outside Assad’s control, US clout in the IMF and World Bank , and influence over European and Gulf aid.

Is this enough to deliver the five goals? I doubt it. Take just refugee return: it requires that people not be forced back but that they return of their own volition. The trickle (50,000 Tillerson said) who have returned in the last year are truly a drop in the bucket. Most refugees (upwards of 5.5 million if I remember correctly) won’t return until Assad and his security forces are gone, or at least blocked from acting in parts of Syria. Likewise the political resolution, diminishing Iranian influence, and getting rid of WMD also depend on getting rid of Assad, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Even the enduring defeat of ISIS and Al Qaeda likely require Assad to be pushed aside, as he has consistently used his forces preferentially against the moderate opposition rather than the extremists, with whom his regime had an excellent cooperative relationship when US forces were in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. Assad will want to keep some of them around even now, as they help to justify his brutal repression of the Syrian population.

But getting rid of Assad means, let’s face it, rebuilding the Syrian state, which is unlikely to survive in a form able to deliver on the above goals once he is gone. He has made sure of that by waging war against his own population for six long years.

Remember too: he has Russian and Iranian backing to remain in power.

Without better means, it looks to me as if the US is in Syria for a long time and will ultimately fail. That’s not an attractive proposition. The question is whether it would be better to leave now, or soon. Do we have to stay to do nationbuilding? How can it be done best? How long will it take? How much will it cost? More on that in a future post.

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Trump’s threat to the nuclear deal

Pantelis Ikonomou, former IAEA nuclear inspector, offers this reflection on President Trump’s continuing threat to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal: 

Last Friday, the US president said he is extending the sanctions waver for Iran one last time, for another 120 days, so Europe and the US can fix the nuclear deal’s “terrible flaws”.

Should we be relieved? Rather disappointed for the continuation of an ambiguous policy with unclear scope and dangerous consequences.

What are the “terrible flaws” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA)?

Crown points of concern for the US president are the nuclear agreement’s “sunset clauses” and  “suspicious sites” in Iran, which are not monitored.

How can these be fixed in the upcoming 120 days?

The agreement’s deadlines regarding specified actions and defined sanctions have been thoroughly discussed and agreed upon by all signatories, including the United States.

As for “suspicious sites”, the IAEA has the agreed right and obligation to request access to any site it might consider necessary under the scope of the agreement. Such a request would be based on an IAEA assessment of credible open-source or other information provided by an IAEA member state, including the US.

Antilogos to Trump’s stance:

The IAEA confirmed in a succession of reports that Iran is fully complying with the commitments made under the JCPOA, the world’s “most robust nuclear verification regime”.

The European High Representative Federica Mogherini, one day before Trump’s decision Friday, following a meeting in Brussels with the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, the UK and Iran, stated that “the continued successful implementation of JCPOA ensures that Iran’s nuclear programme remains exclusively peaceful.” Europe considers that the agreement “is crucial for its security (and)…is determined to preserve it.”

Neither Russia nor China are backing president Trump’s stance on the Iran agreement. To the contrary, they both defend JCPOA, which they have both shaped and signed. It is in fact a multilateral agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council.

Trump’s position on the deal keeps Iran in closer ties to Russia, its foremost geopolitical ally; it could also push Tehran closer to Beijing.

Moreover, hardliners in Iran might assume full control of power in Tehran, triggering this time a non-safeguarded nuclear program, thus “pushing” other candidates in the region to follow Iran’s nuclear breakout.

At a time of acute nuclear threat, in particular the open-ended North Korean crisis, jeopardizing the integrity of the non-proliferation architecture, along with breaking solid bridges with historical friends and steadfast allies, could create a paramount threat to global security.

 

Pantelis Ikonomou

Former IAEA nuclear inspector

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Two new lows

President Trump has hit two new lows: his racist comment on the origins of some American immigrants and his renewed threat to abrogate the Iran nuclear deal.

Neither is a surprise. His racism has long been apparent. What else was all that “birther” stuff about where Barack Obama was born? He believes, with good reason, that racial prejudice appeals to his almost entirely white base. He has reportedly been saying so to those he has talked to privately since his comments became public. I have no doubt he is correct.

There is just no getting around the hard fact: more than one-third of the American electorate either holds racist views or doesn’t regard racism as a political disqualification. Never mind that African immigrants to America are more educated than its native born, or that Norwegian immigrants to the US fared remarkably poorly. Prejudice ignores the facts.

On the Iran nuclear deal, the President is promising to withdraw unless he gets satisfaction within four months on two issues I regard as important: the deal’s “sunset” (i.e. expiration clauses) and inspection of Iranian nuclear sites. But neither problem, important as they are, can be solved with a unilateral withdrawal four months from now.

It has been apparent since the conclusion of the agreement that something would have to be done about its expiration. But trying to do that now, 7 years before the first of the expirations, is impossible: the Europeans will not go along with a US threat to withdraw and reimpose sanctions at this stage in the deal’s implementation. They might do so as expiration approaches, but they are correct in thinking there is no urgency about the matter.

The US attempt to impose urgency will fail. The Iranians will then have a choice: continue to implement the agreement with the Europeans, or withdraw and make a rush for nuclear weapons. Either move will weaken the US. We could go to war in a last-ditch effort to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but the odds of success in that endeavor are not good and the ramifications for the region are disastrous. I’d bet though on the Iranians continuing to implement the deal, making European support for extending it far less likely and any US rush to war unjustifiable.

As for Iranian military sites, the issues involved are serious and complicated. But neither the US nor the Europeans have exhausted the provisions in the deal to press for inspections to ensure that these sites are not in violation. They should do that first. Trump’s threat all but guarantees they won’t.

The threat to withdraw from the nuclear deal is cast as an ultimatum to the Europeans, not to Iran, to fix these two main issues: expiration and inspection of all sites the International Atomic Energy Agency requests. It ignores the option the Europeans have to continue the agreement without the US. This is Trump’s frequently repeated error in negotiation: he threatens to act on his own best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) but ignores the other guy’s. The result is that he rarely gets what he wants. The other guy has options too. In this case, both Iran and the Europeans can do better without us than we can by withdrawing.

Trump is still campaigning against Barack Obama: both his statement on the nuclear deal, which refers explicitly to his predecessor, and his racist remarks should be read in that light. The result is two new lows that weaken America’s standing in the world.

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What has God got to do with it?

I gave a much shortened version of this talk on the role of religion in the Israeli/Arab conflict this afternoon at DACOR Bacon House, a club for retired US Foreign Service and military officers: What Has God Got To Do With It? Comments/suggestions would be much appreciated.

 

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A mistake we may not survive

….to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!

When you need to claim stability and intelligence in reaction to criticism, you are neither stable nor intelligent. President Trump has obviously lent credibility to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. His petulant and egotistical reactions to the book’s criticism demonstrate that he is unable and unwilling to do the hard work of controlling his impulses and gaining the understanding a president requires. No one should be surprised: this has been obvious for some time.

White House aide Stephen Miller offered a determined defense of Trump against Steve Bannon’s allegations in the Wolff book this morning on CNN:

Notable is that Miller never denies explicitly that one or more of the Russians met with Trump, which is the question asked at the start. That is far more important than the controversy that has erupted about how Jake Tapper ended the interview. It seems the President’s number one surrogate was told to stick with the claim that the whole book is made up, rather than explicitly rebut one of the most inflammatory suggestions in it. If Trump did in fact meet with the Russians, that would end any credibility his claim of “no collusion” still has.

While the Washington commentariat has written off the Wolff book as not likely to affect Trump’s base or cause the Republican majority in both Houses of Congress to back off their loyalty to him, I think Trump is fatally compromised. A candidate for president who was unable to constrain his campaign officials and his son from meeting with Russian intelligence agents offering help during the campaign, and who may himself have met with them, should not be sitting in the Oval Office, quite apart from his unsuitable temperament. We should, of course, not forget that candidate Trump appealed publicly for Russian help with Hillary Clinton’s emails, so in that sense collusion is obvious.

Our very stable genius has gotten himself into a deep hole. I don’t really see how he will climb out. But the American political system is for the moment unable to do what is necessary: forcing him to step aside or be replaced, either via impeachment or the 25th Amendment. As long as he lasts, he will be doing damage to America’s standing in the world. His domestic weakness will be reflected one way or another in foreign policy, and his unpredictability, which UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has been lauding, will cause both adversaries and friends to hedge.

Only an unstable dummy would not change course. But that’s what we’ve got. America has survived many mistakes. It may not survive this one.

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The odds are bad

A colleague asked me yesterday what I thought about the Iran protests. I am naturally inclined to support Iranians who want to end what Bret Stephens calls the kleptotheocracy in Iran. But I do so with eyes open to the bad odds. Here is why I don’t anticipate success:

  • The demonstrations lack mass. While it is difficult to judge from abroad, all reports suggest that the numbers of protesters are relatively small. The literature suggests that something like 10% of the population needs to be mobilized in order to achieve success. That would be 8 million people in Iran. It is doubtful we are anywhere near that threshold.
  • Nonviolent discipline is lacking. Many of the daytime protests are nonviolent, but after dark some turn into riots, including attacks on property and security officials. You cannot expect restraint from the security forces if you are shooting at them, or even threatening them or attacking private and public assets. Nor can you expect to reach 10% mobilization. Successful civil rebellions require a determined commitment to nonviolence.
  • The allegation of foreign conspiracy is credible, even if not true. The loud statements of support for the demonstrations from the Trump Administration, which has ignored human rights issues elsewhere (Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines, Russia) and blocked Iranians from coming to the US, has made it easy for the Islamic Republic to tar the protests as not only non-Iranian in origin but also originated by Iran’s enemies.

I do not regard the following as important factors in determining success:

  • Lack of unified leadership. Mass nonviolent rebellions can be successful without unified leadership, which can even become a vulnerability. Pick off the leaders and the rebellion may deflate.
  • Few demonstrations in Tehran. Successful rebellions often start outside the capital, where the security forces are often stronger and more loyal than in the provinces. They bend easier there, refusing to use force, than in the capital.
  • The protesters are working class. Middle class mobilization can be much more difficult, because the regime will have co-opted many with jobs and perks. The economy has rebounded since the Iran nuclear deal lifted some sanctions, but the benefits haven’t trickled all the way down. It is disappointed economic hopes and joblessness outside the capital, not poverty levels, that are driving forces.
  • Pro-regime demonstrations. These may smooth the egos of the Supreme Leader and the President, but they won’t have much impact on popular opinion, especially as they are likely bought rather than spontaneous. If your boss orders you to get out in the street, doing so is not a reflection of popular will.
  • Failure so far of the IRGC to intervene. The regime is allowing President Rouhani to try to weather the protests and re-establish order without the kind of repression used in 2009, which is smart. If he fails, the hardliners will be happy to see him weakened. No one should doubt that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will do its job to protect the regime if necessary.

Despite the laudable commitment of the protesters to criticism of the regime’s corruption, impatience with its theological excess, and opposition to its foreign adventurism, I am not sanguine. The Islamic Republic still has the political will, popular support, and brute force to protect itself and survive. The best that is likely to come of these protests is a broader political debate in Iran about how the Republic spends its resources.

That would be a very good thing. But it will only happen if the protesters are wise enough to cut back on the violence and avoid an IRGC crackdown.

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