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:
- 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.
- 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.
- The US veto in the UNSC over any successor resolution that approves and advances the political process.
- 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.
Is America stronger after 11 months of Donald Trump or not?
It is demonstrably weaker, mainly because of his diplomatic moves and non-moves, but also because Trump has done nothing to reduce American military commitments and a good deal to expand them. Let me enumerate:
The diplomatic front:
- Trump withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) early in the game. The remaining negotiating partners have X-ed out the provisions the US wanted on labor and environmental protection and are preparing to proceed, without American participation. TPP was America’s ace in the Asia Pacific.
- He is withdrawing as well from the Paris Climate Change accord. That is also proceeding without the US, which will be unable to affect international deliberations on climate change unless and until it rejoins.
- He has withdrawn from UNESCO, which excludes the US from participation in a lot of cultural, scientific and educational endeavors.
- He hasn’t announced withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but the negotiations on revising it are thought to be going very badly, mainly because of excessive US demands.
- He has refused to certify that the Iran nuclear deal is in the US interest, which is so patently obvious that the Republican-controlled Congress is making no moves to withdraw from it.
- His ill-framed appeal to the Saudis to halt financing of terrorists has precipitated a dramatic split among US allies within the Gulf Cooperation Council.
- Through his son-in-law he encouraged the Saudis to try to try to depose Lebanon’s prime minister and embargo Qatar, making the prime minister more popular than ever and shifting Doha’s allegiance to Iran.
- He has continued American support for the Saudi/Emirati war effort in Yemen, while at the same time the State Department has called for an end to the Saudi/Emirati blockade due to the humanitarian crisis there.
- His decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, undermined his own peace initiative, and obstructed the rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia he hoped for.
- He has done nothing to counter Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and Syria, or Russia’s position in Syria and Ukraine.
- He initially embraced Turkey’s now President Erdogan but has watched helplessly while Turkey tarnishes its democratic credentials and drifts into the Russian orbit.
- He has also embraced other autocrats: Philippine President Duterte, China’s President Xi, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to name only three.
- He has failed to carry the banner of American values and preferred instead transactional relationships that have so far produced nothing substantial for the US.
The military front:
- Use of drones is way up.
- So is deployment of US troops in Europe, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, not to mention ships and planes in the Asia Pacific.
- The Islamic State, while retreating in Syria and Iraq, is advancing in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are also holding their own.
- Allies are hesitating to pitch in, because the president is erratic. Japan, South Korea, and the Europeans are hedging because the US can no longer be relied on.
- The US continues to back the Saudi and Emirati campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, precipitating a massive humanitarian crisis.
- Cyberthreats to the US, including its elections, have increased, without any counter from the administration.
- Promises that North Korea would not be allowed to develop a missile that could strike the US have gone unfulfilled, and Trump did nothing effective once it accomplished that goal.
- Military options against North Korea, which are all that Trump seems to be interested in, will bring catastrophic results not only for Koreans but also for US forces stationed there and in the region.
- Russia continues to occupy part of Ukraine, with no effective military or diplomatic response by the US, and Moscow continues its aggressive stance near the Baltics, in the North Sea, in the Arctic, and in the Pacific.
The diplomatic record is one of almost unmitigated failure and ineffectiveness, apart from new UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea. The military record is more mixed: ISIS is defeated on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, but that is a victory well foreshadowed in the previous administration. It is also far from reassuring, since ISIS will now go underground and re-initiate its terrorist efforts. None of the other military pushes has done more than hold the line. Anyone who expected Trump to withdraw from excessive military commitments should be very disappointed. Anyone who expects him to be successful diplomatically without a fully staffed and empowered State Department is deluded.
The US is more absent diplomatically than present, and more present militarily than effective. We are punching well below our weight. This should be no surprise: the State Department is eviscerated and the Pentagon is exhausted. Allies are puzzled. Adversaries are taking advantage.
Where will we be after another three years of this?
I spent three days last week in Baghdad: two talking with people from all over the Middle East (with the important exception of Turkey) about the current situation and one talking with Iraqis.
First Baghdad: It is looking and sounding far more peaceful than it did six years ago, when I last visited. No detonations, lots of trees and other plants, heavy traffic, and bustling sidewalks. I didn’t get out of the Green Zone a lot, but we did stop in Kadhimia and Adhamiyah to see the main mosques. Apart from the all too evident sectarian character of both (the former Shia and the latter Sunni), there was nothing remarkable: just people going about normal life shopping, chatting, praying, strolling, and honking. What a change from 2004-2011, when I visited a couple of times per year. Adhamiyah during part of that time had to be surrounded with T-walls and checkpoints to protect its population from slaughter.
The Iraqi leadership: We of course only met a few people in high places, including the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of parliament, and one minister, in addition to a member of parliament and some of the prime minister’s staff. All are happy to see the Islamic State defeated on the battlefield and all are concerned not to allow it to revive. All are also looking to make cross-sectarian or cross-ethnic alliances in advance of next year’s May 12 election. None were waving sectarian or ethnic identity as their main calling card. This data suggests why (sorry for the size–Wordpress won’t scale it up):
In the general population, sectarian and ethnic identities are still terribly important. While Ayatollah Sistani’s call for volunteers roused some Sunnis to the cause of fighting ISIS, the Popular Mobilization Units he spawned are mostly aggressively Shia and believed to harbor political ambitions. Nor has the Kurdish retreat from pursuing independence reduced popular Kurdish enthusiasm for their own, independent state.
But the leadership has come to understand that gaining a majority in parliament and thereby control of the state requires, under the somewhat ramshackle 2005 constitution, coalitions. Besides, most Iraqis are looking for civil or secular technocrats to run the country. That reduces the relevance of ethnic and sectarian identity, of which Iraqis seem to have had their fill, at least as qualifications for governing.
None of this means the competition among the elite is finished, or even attenuated. To the contrary: all the main sectarian and ethnic blocks are fragmenting. The Kurds are no longer as united as once they were, among the Shia both the Dawa party and what used to be the Supreme Council are split, and there is no clearly dominant figure among the Sunnis. This should make cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian alliances a far more important factor than they have been in the past.
The other Middle Easterners: The mood among the other Middle Easterners attending this session of the Middle East Institute’s Dialogue was likewise more sanguine and friendly than I would have anticipated. All, like the Iraqis, are glad to see the Islamic State dealt defeat in Iraq and Syria, even if they anticipate that it will go underground and re-emerge as an insurgency. All disapproved but seemed more puzzled than angry about President Trump’s announcement on moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. All were happy to see Iraq in a better place.
There the commonalities seemed to end. The Iranians, who in the past have sometimes appeared irascible, were calm and analytical as well as concerned that their victory in Syria brought responsibilities they would rather avoid and anxious for a political solution in Yemen. They also seemed concerned that Iran’s effort to defend itself by supporting Shia proxy forces in the region was at its limit.
The Saudis and Emiratis were enthused about the new direction Riyadh is taking not only in Iraq but also in Yemen and in domestic Saudi policy. Others from Arab countries (Egypt and Jordan) were more reflective and a bit unsure what to make of the “new” Saudi Arabia. Several were concerned that the war is not really over: an Israeli or American attack on the Iranians or Hizbollah there could renew hostilities, not to mention the risk of an American clash with the Russians.
Unfortunately there were neither Turks nor Kurds in these group discussions. Had there been, the atmosphere and substance would have been more contentious. The uncertainty about American policy towards the Syrian Kurds is still big: will the Americans restrain them from attacking inside Turkey, or helping the Kurdish insurgents there? Will the Americans try to take back the heavier weapons they provided? Will the Americans withdraw precipitously? There are a lot of known unknowns that could affect the situation in Syria dramatically.
The extra-regional great powers: While a Moscow-based participant was quick to suggest that Russia had defeated ISIS, the Russians and Chinese were concerned, not happy, that post-ISIS Syria is their responsibility. They want the US involved, for both political and financial reasons. The Americans are showing no such inclination. Their assumption is that the Astana/Sochi process run by the Russians with cooperation from Iran and Turkey has superseded the Geneva process run by the UN to resolve the political conflict in Syria. They see no reason beyond defeating ISIS and possibly countering Iran for the American presence in Syria.
Bottom line: Despite the war in Yemen and the uncertainties surrounding how the war is ending in Syria, there is more reason to be sanguine about the region than people in Washington perceive. The bad news is it may not last.
I spent yesterday getting home from Baghdad, so missed the opportunity to say anything quick and trenchant about the Administration’s National Security Strategy. The main takeaways are these:
- It is closer to establishment thinking than anticipated given the predilections of the President for upsetting the apple cart;
- Still, it is more hostile to China and less realistic about Russia than many of us might like;
- It bears little resemblance to what the President has been saying and doing.
He wasn’t even able to read from the Teleprompter “principled realism” and converted it to “our new strategy is based on a principle, realism.” Credit to @PeterBeinart for that observation.
As in most documents of this sort, what was left out is as interesting as what is included.
Everyone is noticing the absence of climate change, which the Administration continues to deny despite the obvious and devastating hurricanes that hit Texas and Puerto Rico this year as well as the current fires burning in California. Sure it could all be random variation, but we know that isn’t likely because of the long secular record scientists have been able to construct. The planet is detectably warming–witness the melting of sea ice in the Arctic–with serious implications for US national security, whether or not human activity is the cause. The Administration is ignoring the problem because it would cost more money than the Republicans want to spend and block the dismantling of Obama’s energy-related regulatory actions.
Other things missing, as Max Boot notes, are free trade, democracy promotion, and international cooperation, in particular in the form of expanding the rules-based international order.
More immediately concerning in my view is any serious consideration to what happens after the defeat of the Islamic State. There is reference to helping fragile states to avoid threats to the US homeland, but that could mean simply strengthening their security forces and ignoring governance, economic and social issues that lie at the root of extremism. Dictatorship is no cure for what ails the weak states of the Middle East. It is what brought about the Islamic State and we won’t be able to eradicate it using only force.
But in the end, the main problem with this document is that it doesn’t jibe with what the President himself says and believes, as Max documents in some detail. Last week in Baghdad, I found this divergence between the Administration and the President the single biggest concern among Middle Easterners (including Iraqis, Saudis, Iranians, and Emiratis). Their consternation about the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem was no greater. The world is used to clear US positions. Their absence creates an enormous vulnerability, one that even the Russians and Chinese find unsettling. When other countries cannot count on what the President says, they hedge in ways that weaken the US.
A well-crafted national security strategy won’t fix that problem. Nor will any amount of adult guidance from Generals McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly. The President can’t get it right even from a Teleprompter. He lacks the mental discipline and depth of experience to understand the implications outside the US of what he says and does not say. Even if the national security strategy were 100% on target, the longer this presidency lasts, the weaker the US will get.
Apologies to Khulood Fahim, who prepared this piece in a timely way. It got stuck in my queue:
On November 20, Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, Mohammed Alyahya of the Atlantic Council, and Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies attempted with moderator Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute to answer the question, “Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia’s New Zone of Confrontation with Iran?” The event took place at the Hudson Institute and was live-streamed online, which is how I accessed the discussion. The question, timely in light of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s recent resignation announcement from Saudi Arabia, was answered from a Saudi perspective (Alyahya), a Lebanese perspective (Badran), and an American perspective (Doran), all three of whom agreed with each other on several issues.
That the media has falsely portrayed recent events and Saudi Arabia’s intentions was a common theme presented by the speakers. Alyahya stated that there were two important issues at hand. First, Prime Minister Hariri cited several reasons for his resignation, including the dysfunctional nature of the Lebanese government and Hezbollah’s political control. The media’s narrative, however, has assumed that Hariri had been detained and placed under house arrest by Saudi Arabia, and has disregarded the reasons that Hariri himself put forth for his resignation. The second issue is the fear mongering efforts about strikes against Hezbollah by Saudi Arabia, the US, and Israel, when no such intentions are present in any of those countries. These tactics, Alyahya maintained, are efforts to distract from “real problems” in Lebanon. The image of Saudi Arabia as an aggressor is one that the US media has been perpetuating as well, Doran added. The popularity of this image is due to two factors: persisting Obama foreign policy views that support Iran’s influence in Lebanon, and efforts to contradict President Trump, who is close to Saudi Arabia.
Badran also offered American policies from the Obama administration as reasons for the negative light in which Saudi Arabia is portrayed. In 2013, when Hezbollah began its military involvement in Syria, causing retaliation in the form of attacks in Beirut, Obama’s policy was to share intelligence with the Lebanese Armed Forces and to work with Hezbollah to limit such threats. The American goal of preserving Lebanon’s stability actually served to maintain Hezbollah’s power, Badran commented. In 2015, the basis upon which the US was supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces changed from UN Resolution 1701 to the portrayal of the Armed Forces as partners in counterterrorism efforts directed primarily at “Sunni jihadism,” a category in which the Obama administration also included Saudi Arabia. Such a narrative, then, made of Saudi Arabia an enemy, and further allowed for a “pro-Iran policy” in Lebanon.
Continuing to present an alternate picture, the speakers discussed the true extent of the power possessed by Prime Minister Hariri and Hezbollah. The initial idea that Hariri’s return to power in 2016 could limit Hezbollah’s power was erroneous, Alyahya began, and Saudi Arabia had opposed it from the beginning. Badran agreed, saying that the lesson learned in the last few weeks is that there are no strong Lebanese actors opposing Hezbollah, and that the government can be considered an “accomplice” to the organization. Echoing the Saudi stance, Badran opined that their original mistake was to allow Hariri to return to power in the first place, and that their recent push for his resignation was needed, albeit a “year too late.” Hezbollah’s power can be best imagined when seen in a regional context, as the organization is not merely a Lebanese problem. Hezbollah’s influence can be seen in multiple countries and on many levels, including in logistical planning on the behalf of Houthi rebels in Yemen, and in military involvement in Syria and elsewhere as Iranian proxies.
Saudi policy, Doran contended, is a message to Washington that there is no Lebanese alternative to Hezbollah’s power, and that, like Iran and Russia in Syria, Hezbollah has been building its power in Lebanon through the establishment of “red lines”- boundaries that it forces everyone to respect. Despite this, Doran explained that American policy so far has adopted an indirect approach, avoiding confrontation with Iranian proxies and instead supporting its own proxies, such as the Abadi regime in Iraq and the Lebanese Armed Forces. This approach has not been effective, as American proxies “never win” in clashes.
Badran stated that there is a desire in Lebanon to maintain the status quo, encouraging Saudi Arabia to deal with the Hezbollah by confronting Iran elsewhere and not Lebanon. Badran criticized this by saying that Lebanon is critical to Hezbollah’s activities, as it is a training ground and a base for its actors. “Lebanon,” he maintained, “is an exporter of destabilization to the region.”
Most pertinent in the discussion was what the panelists considered widespread misrepresentation of the situation, which has resulted in harmful misinterpretations, but Badran thought conflict or a “proxy war” in Lebanon unlikely.