Tag: Jordan

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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It may not last

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.

 

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Something or nothing

Two of my favorite commentators on the Middle East differ diametrically about the impact on the Palestinians of the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel motivated by common enmity towards Iran. Hussein Ibish says the Saudi moves are unavoidable and will inevitably benefit the Palestinians, one way or another. Ibrahim Fraihat says the Saudi moves will end the Arab boycott of Israel and hurt the Palestinian national cause. Both agree the Saudis will have to get something for the Palestinians to make it possible to proceed in improving relations with Israel, but beyond that they differ. Who is right?

Ibrahim thinks the necessary something will be tactical–prisoner releases, financial assistance, and possibly a settlement freeze outside the larger settlement blocks–while Israel will gain the strategic objective of normalizing relations with Arab countries. Ibrahim also thinks the Saudi moves will make reconciliation of Palestine’s two major factions–Fatah and Hamas–more complicated and difficult.

Hussein thinks that something will be better than nothing, which is what the Palestinians have been getting for years. He also assumes the Israeli gains will be limited to things like civil aviation cooperation, not the broader gains Ibrahim assumes. Besides, the Palestinians have little choice but to play along with whatever President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, comes up with.

Who is right depends on what the Americans are cooking. Ibrahim is right that the “outside/in” approach they are apparently pursuing fragments the Arab peace initiative the Saudis have advocated for more than 15 years. Instead of one big bang solution, Palestinian statehood in exchange for normalization, the process would be broken into smaller, reciprocal steps leading inevitably to the same end. Hussein views this as an advantage, not a disadvantage. After all, the Arab peace plan has gone no place for a long time. Motion in the right direction, if sustained, leads inevitably to the right goal.

I’m not sure the Americans are cooking much, at least for the immediate future. The initial steps could in fact be very small and reversible, which is perhaps more important. The key to sustaining them is something we’ll see little of in public, though it was glimpsed last week in an interview with an Israeli general published in the Kingdom: security cooperation. If Saudi Arabia and Israel find mutual advantage in sharing intelligence about their common adversary, it could lead to broader security cooperation.

That however is where and when advantages to the Palestinians might evaporate. The Israelis will aim for the kind of security relationship they have with Egypt and Jordan: one in which the Arab countries gain so much to benefit their own security that they will hesitate to do anything their benefactor opposes, including support for a Palestine worthy of being called a state.

Palestine will need far more internal cohesion and fortitude than it has today to resist the pressures that could descend on it in the future. The Palestinians have been fortunate that the Israelis have been cool to the Arab peace initiative. That has meant Ramallah did not need to worry much about what kind of state the Israelis would accept. But a fragmented version of the initiative–Hussein says that version is called “concurrence” in the trade–presents greater need for foresight, good judgment, and coherence. Ibrahim could be right in the end, even if Hussein is right for now.

 

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Peace picks November 13 – 17

  1. Lebanon in Crisis? The Impact of the Hariri Resignation and the Saudi-Iranian Cold War | Monday, November 13 | 11:00 – 12:00 pm | Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (event held by phone) | Register Here | The resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri is threatening again to plunge Lebanon into political and economic crisis or worse. A number of developments, including longstanding but growing tensions between Iran and Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia may well presage a deteriorating regional situation that could draw Lebanon as well as Israel into the fray. Join us BY PHONE as three veteran observers of Lebanese and regional politics analyze these developments and others as we enter yet another period of potential turbulence in Middle Eastern politics. Jane Harman of the Wilson Center will deliver opening remarks, after which Aaron David Miller will moderate a conversation featuring Hanin Ghaddar of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute, and Bassel F. Salloukh of the Lebanese American University.
  2. Religion and Foreign Policy: Exploring the Legacy of “Mixed Blessings” | Monday, November 13 | 2:00 – 3:00 pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Register Here | Please join the Human Rights Initiative (HRI) and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs for a discussion marking the 10th anniversary of CSIS’s groundbreaking report, “Mixed Blessings: U.S. Government Engagement with Religion in Conflict-Prone Settings“. This report analyzed how religion affects international affairs, including through the faith and religious beliefs of politicians and elites; the belief structures that underlie national and international views; and the impact of religious organizations. At this event, Shaun Casey, former director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, will interview Liora Danan, lead author of Mixed Blessings and former chief of staff for the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, to discuss the report’s goals and relevance in diplomacy today. Following their interview, Shannon N. Green, director and senior fellow of HRI, will moderate an expert panel to assess the impact of religion on foreign policy over the decade since the report’s release. Panelists include Rebecca Linder Blachly of  Episcopal Church and Eric Patterson of Georgetown University.
  3. 2017 Transatlantic Economic Forum – Day 1 | Monday, November 13 | 8:30 am – 5:30 pm | Center for Transatlantic Relations (held at SAIS Kenney Auditorium) | Register Here | The 5th annual Transatlantic Economic Forum will bring together government and business community leaders from 20 countries of the larger Mediterranean, including the Gulf and the Middle East, and is organized in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The first day will consist of four panels and three keynote addresses. The first panel, titled “Doing Business in Maghreb,” will include Mahieddine Taleb of Sonatrach (Algeria), Adel Mohsen Chaabane of AmCham (Tunisia), Mustafa Sanalla of the National Oil Corporation (Libya), Omar Mohanna of the Suez Cement Group of Companies (Egypt), and Asmaa El Mkhentar of the Ministry of Industry, Trade, Investment and Digital Economy (Morocco). Greg Lebedev of CIPE and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will moderate. The second panel, “Doing Business in The Balkans,” will consist of a conversation between Mujo Selimovic of the CTR-SAIS Mediterranean Basin Initiative Corporate Advisory Board and moderator Michael Haltzel, a CTR – SAIS Senior Fellow. The panel “Security and Military Cooperation: Safeguarding the Mediterranean part 1” will feature Mitar Klikovac of the Embassy of Montenegro to the United States, Dragan Galić of the Embassy of Serbia to the United States, and Khaled Shawky and Ayman Aldesouky Youssef of the Embassy of Egypt to the United States. Hans Binnendijk of CTR – SAIS will moderate. The final panel of the day, “Security and Military Cooperation: Safeguarding the Mediterranean part 2” will include Michael Barbero of the United States Army, Fahrudin Radoncic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ambassador of Croatia in the United States Pjer Simunovic, Michael MacQueen of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and moderator Don Jensen of CTR – SAIS.
  4. Sectarianism and Conflict in the Middle East | Tuesday, November 14 | 9:00 am – 12:15 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | What’s driving the spread of Sunni-Shia identity politics in today’s Middle East? How is sectarianism contributing to the region’s instability and conflicts? The authors of a new edited volume, Beyond Sunni and Shia: The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East, will discuss how geopolitics, governance, media, and other factors are fueling sectarianism. This event will consist of two panels. The first, titled, “Regional Cases and Geopolitical Sources of Sectarianism: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Syria” will feature Cole Bunzel of Princeton University, Fanar Hadad of the National University of Singapore, Afshon Ostovar, of the Naval Postgraduate School, and Heiko Wimmen of the International Crisis Group. The second panel, moderated by Marc Lynch of Carnegie’s Middle East Program and titled “Domestic and Institutional Sources of Sectarianism: Governance, Political Economy, Clerics, and Social Media” will include Joseph Bahout of Carnegie’s Middle East Program, Justin Gengler of Qatar University, Alexander Henley of the University of Oxford, and Alexandra Siegel of New York University.
  5. Afghanistan 2017: A Survey of Public Perceptions | Tuesday, November 14 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | The recent escalation of attacks in Kabul underscores the crucial questions of security, economic stability and reconciliation that still confront President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, despite the significant progress Afghanistan has made. Those questions and other pressing issues facing the country are the subject of the Asia Foundation’s 2017 Survey of the Afghan People. Join the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday, November 14, for the foundation’s presentation of the findings and a discussion of the trends in citizens’ views over time. Speakers will include Dr. Tabasum Akseer of the Asia Foundation, Ambassador Daniel F. Feldman of Akin Gump, Dr. Zach Warren of The Asia Foundation, and Mr. Scott Worden of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
  6. 2017 Transatlantic Economic Forum – Day 2 | Tuesday, November 14 | 8:30 am – 6:45 pm | Center for Transatlantic Relations (held at SAIS Kenney Auditorium) | Register Here | The second day of the Transatlantic Economic Forum will consist of five panels. The first, “Working Through Reforms: What’s Next?” will feature Marinko Cavara, President of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bruce Berton, OSCE Ambassador in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Dejan Vanjek, Foreign Policy advisor to Dragan Covic, Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Daniel Serwer of CTR – SAIS will moderate. “Diversifying Economies: The Private Sector As The Key To Building Prosperity” will include panelists Dalibor Milos of Aluminij d.d. (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Ali Haddad of ETRHB Haddad Group (Algeria), Hisham Fahmy of AmCham Egypt, Inc., and moderator Andras Simonyi of CTR – SAIS. Participating in the panel “Macedonia: Turning New Page” will be Kocho Angjushev, Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Lilica Kitanovska of Voice of America, and Edward Joseph of CTR – SAIS. The fourth panel, titled “The Gulf Countries: Strengthening Transatlantic Cooperation,” will include participants Omar A. Bahlaiwa of the Committee for International Trade (Saudi Arabia), Bilal Sabouni of the American Business Council in Dubai (UAE), and moderator Khush Choksy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Mehdi Bendimerad of the Algerian Business Association, Jasmin Mahmuzic of the Banking Agency of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and moderator Steve Lutes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will participate in the final panel, “Regional and Transatlantic Cooperation: A Key To Growth and Prosperity.”
  7. 71st Annual Conference: Conflicts, Costs, and Policy Pathways | Wednesday, November 15 | 9:00 am – 5:00 pm | Middle East Institute (held at The Capital Hilton) | Register Here | The Middle East Institute’s (MEI) 71st Annual Conference will convene innovative leaders, foreign policy practitioners, and analysts from the Middle East and the United States to explain the challenges and opportunities facing the region and assess current policies. The conference will feature four expert discussions that will delve into U.S. Middle East priorities, paths for resolving the region’s civil wars, the humanitarian outlook in countries plagued by conflict, and the growing impact of women’s activism. Amb. (ret.) Wendy J. Chamberlin of MEI will deliver opening remarks. Participants will include Gen. (ret.) John Allen of The Brookings Institution, Fawziah Bakr al-Bakr of Al Jazeera, Wafa Ben Hassine of Access Now, Amb. (ret.) Gerald Feierstein of MEI, Amb. (ret.) Robert Ford of the Middle East Institute, Philip Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations, Simon Henshaw of the U.S. Department of State, Mary Louise Kelly of NPR, Hind Aboud Kabawat of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee, Michael Klosson of Save the Children, Nancy Lindborg of USIP, Clare Lockhart of the Institute for State Effectiveness, Rania A. Al‐Mashat of the International Monetary Fund, Hideki Matsunaga of the World Bank, Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute, Randa Slim of MEI and Johns Hopkins SAIS, Nafeesa Syeed of Bloomberg News, Jonathan Winer of the Middle East Institute, and Juan Zarate of the Financial Integrity Network.
  8. Water Security in the Middle East – Source of Tension or Avenue for Peace? | Wednesday, November 15 | 9:00 – 11:00 am | Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars | Register Here | In the Middle East, water scarcity is a source of tension. But some innovative leaders in the region have approached better water management as a shared priority that transcends borders and politics—and that could even serve as a potential platform for peace. For more than 20 years, EcoPeace Middle East has worked across the Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli borders to promote practical solutions to transboundary water scarcity and pollution. Join us for a unique conversation with EcoPeace’s three co-directors—representing Jordan, Palestine, and Israel—who will share their experiences using water diplomacy to improve livelihoods, create healthy interdependencies, and enhance regional stability. The discussion will also identify opportunities for progress on water issues within the peace process and the important role of the United States in fostering regional water security and stability. Speakers include Sherri Goodman, Former U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, Roger-Mark De Souza of the Wilson Center, Aaron Salzberg of the U.S. Department of State, and Gidon Bromberg, Nada Majdalani, and Yana Abu Taleb of EcoPeace Middle East.
  9. Deconflicting in Syria: Turkey’s Idlib Operation | Wednesday, November 15 | 2:30 – 4:00 pm | Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA) | Register Here | In early October, Turkey deployed its forces to establish a presence in Syria’s Idlib province. The deployment aims to establish a de-conflict zone in Idlib as part of a deal reached at negotiations in Astana between Turkey, Russia, and Iran. In addition to limiting conflict between the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army in Idlib and the Assad regime, Turkey has also characterized the operation as an effort to prevent further expansion by the PYD in northern Syria. The US has remained skeptical about the Astana process, particularly over Iran’s involvement as a guarantor. While the US said that it would not provide tangible support for Turkey’s operation in Idlib, the Department of Defense said that the US supports Turkey’s efforts to secure its borders against terror groups such as Al Qaeda. At the same time, the US continues to partner with the PYD in northern Syria, a long-standing point of contention in the US-Turkey relationship. Please join the SETA Foundation at Washington DC for a timely discussion on this crucial issue in the Syrian conflict and what Turkey’s operation in Idlib means for US-Turkey relations. Panelists include Luke Coffey of The Heritage Foundation, Kadir Ustun of The SETA Foundation, and Nidal Betare of People Demand Change. Kilic Kanat of the SETA Foundation will moderate.
  10. 2017 Transatlantic Economic Forum – Day 3 | Wednesday, November 15 |  10:00 am – 6:45 pm | Center for Transatlantic Relations (held at SAIS Kenney Auditorium) | Register Here | The final day of the Transatlantic Economic Forum will consist of three panels and will end with the CTR SAIS 2017 Mediterranean Basin Award Ceremony. The first panel, “Turkey and Transatlantic Relations Book launch,” will include panelists Donald Jensen of CTR – SAIS, Kilic Bugra Kanat of the SETA Foundation, Jennifer Miel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Serdar Altay of ISPAT. Aylin Unver Noi of CTR – SAIS will moderate. The second panel, titled “Bosnia and Herzegovina: Towards It’s European Future,” will feature Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, Head of the EU Delegation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Goran Mirascic of The World Bank Group, Valentin Inzko of the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mak Kamenica of USAID, and Michael Haltzel of CTR – SAIS. Panelists participating in the final event, “Algeria and Transatlantic Relations Book Launch,” include Ismael Chikhoune of the US – Algeria Business Council, Jeremy Berndt of the Department of State, Mehdi Bendimerad of System Panneaux Sandwichs, and moderator Samy Boukaila of CTR – SAIS.
  11. Education for Displaced Syrians: Innovative Solutions to a Complex Challenge | Thursday, November 16 | 12:00 – 2:00 pm | Marvin Center, George Washington University | Register Here | Join George Washington University’s No Lost Generation chapter for an engaging discussion on innovative approaches to education for displaced Syrian communities, from after school programs in Turkey to international networks that connect Syrian students with higher education opportunities.This event has been made possible with support from Turkish Heritage Organization. Speakers include Lina Sergie Attar of the Karam Foundation, Katherine Miller of the Institute for International Education, George Batah of Syrian Youth Empowerment, and Dr. Jessica Anderson of George Washington and Georgetown Universities.
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How low can he go?

Much lower I fear. While he has given a couple of half-sane, scripted speeches prepared with Chief of Staff Kelly’s approval, President Trump is still doing what he can to offend as soon as he is off the Teleprompter. Those who don’t approve of him are at this point about 60% of Americans and far higher percentages in most other countries. Russia and Israel are the exceptions. He is still launching ferocious attacks on the American media, retweeting anti-Semitic and racist tweeps, and slamming both Senate supporters and antagonists.

With August waning and an early Labor Day (September 4) looming in the US, prospects are for a difficult fall. The first item of business in the US Congress will be raising the debt ceiling and passing some sort of budget resolution. Trump has made that more difficult by insisting that the budget include money for the wall on the border he has promised the Mexicans would pay for. That’s a non-starter for the Democrats, who have some say in the Senate because 60 votes are needed on the budget issues. Tax reform, which so far means a big tax cut to businesses like Trump’s own, will have to wait. Never mind the promised trillion-dollar infrastructure program.

Trump wants the budget resolved by eliminating the filibuster and allowing bills to pass in the Senate with a simple majority. That is a proposition even more controversial than the wall, so he is publicly hounding Senate Majority leader McConnell into changing Senate rules to allow it. That’s not a way to make friends in the Senate, but so long as the Republicans control the House Trump can be sure it won’t impeach him (which has to precede sending him to the Senate for trial).

While America tries to sort out its internal political mess, the rest of the world is trying to make do without much clarity from Washington. In Asia, China is seizing the initiative on trade and finance, pushing its “belt and road” projects all the way to the Middle East and Africa. North Korea hasn’t tested a missile lately, and there seem to be talks about talks going on behind the scenes with the US, but the prospects of denuclearizing Pyongyang have dropped to zero.

In the Middle East, Syria’s President Assad is still advancing, as are the US-supported, Kurdish-led forces trying to take Raqqa from the Islamic State. The Syrian opposition is being pressed by the UN and everyone else to drop its demand that Assad step aside. Civilian casualties from American and other air attacks in the battle for Raqqa are mounting.

Defense Secretary Mattis is promising Turkey the US will help fight against Kurdish rebels inside Turkey and in Iraq, even as it supports their affiliates in Syria. That’s going to be a hard circle to square. Iraq is also making progress against the Islamic State, but Baghdad still hasn’t convinced its own Kurdistan to call off its independence referendum, scheduled for September 25 but increasingly in doubt.

Jared Kushner is plugging away at the Israel/Palestine issues, in visits to Ramallah, Cairo and Jerusalem. No one is expecting much to come of his efforts. The State Department has refused to reiterate US commitment to a two-state solution, which (as Matt Duss pointed out on Twitter) represents the single largest concession the Palestinians have made to date. Not that anyone had much doubt about which side the Trump Administration was on. We’ll presumably now be treated to the spectacle of Israel and the US proposing various confidence-building measures meant to make life and the economy more palatable for the occupied territories on the West Bank, while Jewish settlements expand and kill off any remaining hope for a two-state solution.

This is enabled in part by some Arab states coming to the conclusion that they care more about countering Iran than supporting the Palestinians. The Saudis and Emiratis seem prepared to collaborate with Israel against Iran, even if Qatar, Iraq, and Oman are headed in the opposite direction. Yemen no longer counts, since it is being obliterated in the Gulf-led war against the Houthi rebellion. Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco are likewise out of the game for now. Egypt and Jordan have made their peace with Israel and have no choice but to keep it.

Trump is increasingly marginalized from all these developments. Weakness at home leads to weakness abroad. His only major push on foreign policy lately has been the renewal and expansion of the American military push in Afghanistan. This allegedly new strategy closely resembles his predecessor’s effort to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Like Obama, Trump doesn’t want to be blamed for losing Afghanistan, even if it proves impossible to keep his promise to win there.

We can still sink lower: North Korea could test another missile, the Palestinians could tell Kushner where to go, Trump could renounce the Iran nuclear deal, and the country’s long recovery from the financial crisis of 2007/8 could end. But most of all: we could continue to fail to deal with a president who is unqualified, mean-spirited, incompetent, and divisive. Let’s hope Special Counsel Mueller comes up with something compelling, sooner rather than later.

 

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Rebuilding Syria

As the Syrian conflict continues both international institutions and Syrian civil society are building a vision for the future reconstruction of the country. At MEI’s 70th Anniversary Conference Wednesday a panel was convened to discuss these issues and highlight the economic and governance challenges facing reconstruction efforts.

As Deputy Executive Secretary of UNESCWA and former Syrian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Abdullah al Dardari has been tasked with developing a reconstruction plan for Syria. He first set out the daunting scale of reconstruction efforts required through the example of housing infrastructure. In order to meet Syria’s housing needs the country will need to build 300,000 new homes per year for ten years. Given that prior to 2011 they only managed 90,000 per year this will clearly stretch on resources. Housing reconstruction would also require 30 million tons of cement per year, but domestic production only reaches 5 million tons. Importing 25 million tons of cement is not possible given the current state of infrastructure and the current account. Mixing such a large amount of cement also requires huge volumes of water, which will be a challenge given Syria’s water crisis.

Dardari assured the audience that while the engineering and financing problems of reconstruction are troubling, of most concern are the governance challenges that must be addressed first. An inclusive, representative, accountable, and capable governance structure must be developed that enables the Syrian people to negotiate freely the difficult choices to be made early in the development process, such as to which regions limited resources are to be directed first.

Also of vital importance will be balance between decentralization and a unified Syria. Dardari emphatically rejected any proposals for the division of Syria as this would only lead to further fragmentation and dysfunction. Division proposals denythe complexity of Syria’s ethnic and sectarian makeup, as no area is dominated by a single group. Even the Alawite ‘heartlands’ of Lattakia and Tartous are 50 per cent Sunni. Furthermore, the Syrian model post-Ottoman is a centralized national project, which should not be reversed. Practically speaking, reconstruction requires a centralized process as networked systems such as electricity and transport must come from a single authority.

The other Syrian on the panel, Karam Foundation founder Lina Sergie Attar, firmly agreed that Syria must remain unified. However the conflict has led to a degree of decentralization that will be irreversible. Convincing places such as Raqqa and Idlib, which are currently far removed from the central government’s authority to return to the fold, will require representative and inclusive institutions able to rebuild trust. 

Shanta Devarajan, Chief Economist of the World Bank for the Middle East and North Africa region, gave insight into its preparations for rebuilding post-conflict Syria. The World Bank is laying the foundation of a private sector to be transplanted to Syria through the establishment of Special Enterprise Zones (SEZs) in Jordan. In these zones both Jordanians and Syrians are permitted to work, with Jordan agreeing to grant 300,000 work permits to Syrians. The goods produced will enter the EU at reduced concessionary rates. Many of the investors in the SEZs have been Syrians who would have otherwise directed their capital towards the Gulf. This suggests that capital mobilization from the Syrian community will be possible, and must be a central component of the estimated US$200 billion required to return Syrian GDP to 2010 levels.

The World Bank is also prioritizing education and health care in their redevelopment plans as these sectors have been disproportionately targeted in the conflict with troubling consequences for Syria’s human development indicators. Attar confirmed that education projects are also a focus for the Karam Foundation, which is calling for flexible and innovative solutions for a generation of children that has missed up to five years of essential schooling.

Attar was granted the last word on the rebuilding of Syria and argued that reconstruction without justice will never be lead to an enduring peace. In her view, many Syrians would not have rejected Assad and his regime remaining if it meant the violence would stop, however this is no longer possible as all trust has been eroded. While Dardari argued that economic reconstruction is part of the reconciliation process itself, including developing industries and sectors that cross lines to addressing the exploitative war economy, Attar believes the removal of Assad and his regime must be the first step to reconciliation and a priority in the peace process.

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