Tag: Al Qaeda

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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His own worst enemy

President Trump today announced the US officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and initiated the process of enabling the US embassy to move there from Tel Aviv.

What’s wrong with that?

As former Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer explained this morning on NPR, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It has been for almost 70 years and will continue to be. No one I know doubts the facts.

But the status of Jerusalem is in dispute: we don’t know its ultimate borders, whether some of it may some day be part of a Palestinian state, and there is no agreement on how it will in the future be governed. Trump’s move ignores these facts.

More importantly, it tilts the playing field, once again, in Israel’s direction. Trump offered nothing to the Palestinians besides platitudes. He might have said the US could envisage their capital also in Jerusalem, presumably in the eastern part of the city that is majority Palestinian. He might have limited what he said about Israel’s capital to the western portion of the city, where all the Israeli institutions he mentioned are located. He might have suggested in some other way that the US has an evenhanded view and will act as an honest broker in trying to resolve the ongoing disputes.

He didn’t. While advocating moderation, tolerance, and reasoned debate, Trump essentially aligned himself with extremist Americans and Israelis, who see no reason to accommodate Palestinian interests or interest in having a state of their own. Trump still wants, he says, to facilitate a lasting peace. He even says it with unusual passion and conviction. But what he has done makes compromise more difficult, not less.

How will the Muslim world react? Some fear violence. Certainly there will be demonstrations against what Trump has done. And demonstrations in the Middle East all too often result in violence. But a lot of Arabs have other things to worry about these days besides the Palestinians, who were already convinced Trump wasn’t going to do anything good from their point of view. A few rocket launches may satisfy some.

The people most aroused and likely to indulge in violence are the Iranians and Sunni extremists (especially Al Qaeda and the Islamic State). The elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards are not known as the Al Quds (Jerusalem) force for nothing. While Trump claims to be leading a campaign against both, his move on Jerusalem will inspire his adversaries. Look for them to invent symbolic, likely violent, acts against Israel and the US.

Hard to imagine any other significant government will follow Trump’s lead. The Europeans are dead set against it, as they rightly view it as making peace more difficult to negotiate, not easier. The gap that has opened between the US and our European allies on the Iran nuclear deal will widen. The Gulf Arabs, some of whom Trump and the Israelis have been courting as allies against Iran, will find themselves hamstrung and unable to move further in that direction.

Trump is in many ways his own worst enemy. Now he has made negotiations between Israel and Palestine more difficult, widened the rift with Europe, and hampered the alliance he hoped for against Iran. All in a single stroke.

PS: The slurring of his speech is noticeable. He is supposedly a teetotaler. Teeth don’t fit right?

PSS: Claudia Trevisan of the Brazilian daily O Estado de Sao Paolo was the first to get to me with questions. I answered;

Q: What is the potential impact of the president’s announcement on the peace process? Can the US still be a broker of negotiations?

A: It can be a broker as long as both sides agree it can be one. The Palestinians are saying no, but I’m not sure that will last.

Q: The president has said it is not prejudging the outcome of boundaries and the future status of Jerusalem. Can this nuance reduce the impact of the announcement?

A: It’s better than not saying it, but I don’t think it mitigates much.

Q: Can this decision help in any way help the peace process?

A: I don’t think so. It is more likely to kill it, at least for the time being.

Q: Do you expect an increase of violence in the region and of terrorist acts against the US as a consequence of the decision?

A: I don’t like to predict an increase in violence, since then people start feeling they have to fulfill the prophecy. But both violence in the region and against the US are possible.

 

 

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To the victor…

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…

 

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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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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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Peace picks September 25 – 29

  1. The Trump Administration and the Middle East: What Should America Do Next? | Monday, September 25 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | “Donald Trump promised to do a great deal more in the Middle East than his immediate predecessors, but with much less,” Hudson Institute fellows Michael Doran and Peter Rough wrote recently in Mosaic magazine. “That is, he would achieve significantly more than Barack Obama at a much smaller sacrifice of blood and treasure than was incurred under George W. Bush. This he would accomplish by defining American interests sharply and pursuing them aggressively, not to say ruthlessly. The result would be a global restoration of American credibility and, as Trump never ceased to remind voters, renewed global respect.” Nearly nine months into his term in his office, has President Trump followed through on his promises regarding Middle East policy? Doran and Rough argue that America’s big problem in the region is still Iran. In a written response to the article, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution contends that America is not in a zero-sum contest with the Iranians. On September 25, join us for a frank discussion on the future of U.S. Middle East policy with Doran, Rough, and O’Hanlon. Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Lee Smith will moderate the panel.
  2. Rethinking Political Islam | Monday, September 25 | 5:30 – 8:00 pm | Brookings Institution | Register Here | The rapid succession of events of the past four years have challenged conventional wisdom on political Islam. In “Rethinking Political Islam” (Oxford University Press, 2017), Shadi Hamid and William McCants have gathered together the leading specialists in the field to examine how Islamist movements around the world are rethinking some of their basic assumptions. The contributors, who include Islamist activists and leaders themselves, describe how groups are considering key strategic questions, including gradual versus revolutionary approaches to change; the use of tactical or situational violence; attitudes toward the state; and how ideology and politics interact. On September 25, Graeme Wood of The Atlantic and Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington will join Hamid and McCants for a panel discussion on the book’s findings and conclusions. After the discussion, the panel will take audience questions. A reception and book signing will follow. Attendees may purchase “Rethinking Political Islam” at an exclusive 10 percent discount, with the option of pre-ordering a signed copy online
  3. Confronting the Next Wave of Violent Extremism | Wednesday, September 27 | 9:00 am – 4:30 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Join the U.S. Institute of Peace and the RESOLVE Network of global experts on violent extremism for the consortium’s annual forum on Wednesday, September 27, to discuss issues such as the risks in hotspots across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.The forum will feature preeminent international scholars and experts from across the network’s 20-plus partner organizations around the world. In addition to offering opportunities to connect with leading thinkers, practitioners and policymakers involved in developing responses to violent extremism, the day of panels and roundtable discussions will highlight findings from a year-long study on the rise of violent extremism in Bangladesh and preview upcoming research on the politics of religion in the Lake Chad Basin region. Panelists will address questions including what do we know about how and when terrorists decide to enter and exit violence, and how do the politics of religion, migration, and identity factor into efforts to counter violent extremism.
  4. Tunisia’s Road to Reform | Thursday, September 28 | 12:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Please join the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East for a panel discussion on the new Tunisian government and prime minister shuffle. As part of a four-year IMF approved loan, the new government and cabinet must enact fiscal reforms to continue receiving a $2.9 billion loan aimed at strengthening job creation and economic growth. Will the so-called “war government” geared towards reform succeed in this effort? Is enough being done to address corruption and strengthen good governance? What are the major challenges and obstacles facing the Tunisian government in its effort to bring the country back to economic and political stability? The panel will address these and other concerns related to Tunisia’s ongoing transition. Panelists include Oussama Romdhani of the Arab Weekly, independent journalist Fadil Aliriza, and Sarah Yerkes of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. The event will be introduced by Ambassador Frederic C. Hof of the Atlantic Council and moderated by Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council.
  5. Iran’s Land Bridge: Countering a Growing Influence in the Middle East | Friday, September 29 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The threat of an Iranian land bridge through Iraq and Syria—measured both in established influence and a physical presence—has become a reality. Iran’s goal for regional hegemony, a strategic plan more than three decades in the making, has come to fruition. With such a route in place, Iran can increase logistical and operational support to Lebanese Hezbollah and other IRGC-directed proxies. Is it possible to disrupt this route, and can it be done without provoking further conflict? On September 29, Hudson Institute will host a discussion assessing these and other elements of Iran’s strategic posture in the region. Hudson fellows Michael Pregent, Hillel Fradkin, and Lee Smith will join Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council to discuss the changing situation in the Middle East and the appropriate U.S. policy response.
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