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.
Peace picks is back, courtesy of newly arrived Middle East Institute intern Adam Friend:
- Pakistan, America, and Extremism: The Path Ahead | Tuesday, January 16 | 10:00 am – 12:00 pm | Brookings Institution | Register here | As the United States intensifies its pressure on Pakistan to take action against terrorist groups, the country is facing challenges from many sides. With elections set for the country in 2018, turbulence is likely to persist. The Global Economy and Development program and the Foreign Policy program at Brookings will convene a panel of experts to discuss extremism in Pakistan and its broader implications across the region and world. Panelists include: Madiha Afzal, nonresident fellow at Brookings and adjunct assistant professor of global policy at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, and author of the newly released “Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State” (Brookings, 2018); Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at Brookings, and author of “Deadly Embrace” (Brookings, 2012); and Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon, who will moderate and add his perspective as well.
- Iran Protests: Consequences for the Region and Opportunities for the Trump Administration | Tuesday, January 16 | 12:30 pm – 2:00 pm | Hudson Institute | Register here | Recent unrest in Iran has led to fierce confrontations between security personnel and protesters. Demonstrations have spread quickly across the country, further undermining the legitimacy of the Rouhani regime. Key upcoming policy decisions regarding U.S. sanctions and the certification of the Iran nuclear deal will set the tone for the Trump Administration’s policy towards Iran. Hudson Institute will host a discussion assessing the policy options available to contain and curtail Iran’s influence in the region and the potential consequences of inaction. The panel will consist of Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress; Charles Lister, Senior Fellow and Director of Counter-Extremism & Counter-Terrorism at the Middle East Institute; Omri Ceren, Managing Director of Press and Strategy at The Israel Project; and Hudson Senior Fellow Michael Pregent. The discussion will be moderated by Joyce Karam, the Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Hayat newspaper. This event will also be live streamed onHudson’s homepage.
- Religion and Countering Violent Extremism | Wednesday, January 17 | 9:00 am – 10:30 am |United States Institute of Peace | Register here | Both research and experience make clear that the spread of violent extremism is driven not by religion but by poor governance, injustices, and the radicalization of people who see no future for themselves. But extremists use religious ideas—whether from the traditions of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or other faiths—as tools to encourage radicalization and violence. How can policymakers and practitioners working to counter violent extremism best ally with religions, their institutions and their people? This forum will offer recommendations from a recent USIP Special Reporton this question. With speakers Peter Mandaville (Professor of International Affairs at George Mason University), Robin Simcox (Margaret Thatcher Fellow at the Heritage Foundation), and Ann Wainscott (American Academy of Religion Senior Fellow at U.S. Institute of Peace), moderated by Melissa Nozell (Senior Program Specialist at U.S. Institute of Peace).
- Promoting Peace During Conflict in Ukraine and Myanmar: Women’s Roles and Strategies | Wednesday, January 17 | 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm | The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace & Security and the Embassy of Sweden (hosted at Georgetown University) | Register here | Launching new research from the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace & Security: “Women’s Peacebuilding Strategies Amidst Conflict: Lessons from Myanmar and Ukraine.” Featuring remarks by Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter, Ambassador of Sweden, Ambassador Melanne Verveer, Director GIWPS, Ambassador William Taylor, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine (2006-2009), and Ambassador Derek Mitchell, U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar (2012-2016). Refreshments provided.
- Yemen: National Chaos, Local Order | Thursday, January 18 | 12:30 pm – 2:00 pm | The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington | Register here | In his latest paper, “Yemen: National Chaos, Local Order,” Peter Salisbury challenges much of the conventional wisdom regarding the Yemen civil war, including the focus of the U.N.-led mediation on two principal adversaries, namely the government of exiled President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the (now collapsed) alliance between the Houthis and deceased former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Instead, Salisbury offers a remapping of key local and regional stakeholders and examines the prospects for peace, offering a new long-term approach to ending the crisis and engaging in state building and economic reconstruction. AGSIW is pleased to host Peter Salisbury for a discussion of his paper and other issues impacting the continuing conflict in Yemen, with discussant Gerald M. Feierstein (Director of Gulf Affairs and Government Relations, Middle East Institute), moderated by Stephen A. Seche (Executive Vice President, AGSIW). A light lunch will be served.
- Iranian Protests and US Policy on Iran | Thursday, January 18 | 12:30 pm – 2:00 pm | SETA Foundation at Washington DC | Register here | What kind of an impact can the US have on the unfolding events in Iran? How will the US-Iran relationship be defined in the Trump era given the president’s advocacy for more economic sanctions against Iran? How might regional dynamics be affected and how will regional actors adjust to the new Iran policy under President Trump? Please join the SETA Foundation at Washington DC for a discussion with a panel of distinguished experts on the regional implications of the Iranian protests, and the future of the Trump administration’s Iran policy. Featuring speakers Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, Barbara Slavin, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, Alex Vatanka, Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, and Kadir Ustun, Executive Director at the SETA Foundation at Washington DC, along with moderator Kilic B. Kanat, Research Director at the SETA Foundation at Washington DC.
- Iran Looks East | Friday, January 19 | 9:00 am – 1:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register here | The Future of Iran Initiativeand The Iran Project invite you to “Iran Looks East,” a major conference on Iran’s evolving economic and strategic relationships. As implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) marks its second anniversary, Iran is increasingly, if reluctantly, looking to Asia for trade and investment. At the same time, Iran also appears to be cementing a strategic partnership with Russia to stabilize Syria and to improve its leverage against threatened actions by Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. Participants in the conference include William Luers of the Iran Project, Barbara Slavin of the Future of Iran Initiative, Sumitha Narayanan Kutty of Nanyang Technological University, Wu Bingbing of Peking University, Sachi Sakanashi of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, Theodore Karasik of the Gulf State Analytics and the Lexington Institute, Eugene Rumer of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, and Maxim Suchkov of Al-Monitor, with panels moderated by Bharath Gopalaswamy of the Atlantic Council and Thomas Pickering, former Ambassador to Russia and former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. The Hon. Stuart Eizenstat will deliver opening remarks.
- The Syrian Opposition in 2018 | Friday, January 19 | 12:15 pm – 1:45 pm | New America | Register here | Ever since the Arab Spring protests broke out in Syria in 2011, the ensuing conflict between the government of Bashar al-Assad and Syrian opposition groups has gone through numerous shifts. With the fall of ISIS’ territorial holdings in the east of the country, advances by Syrian forces, and a new administration in the United States transforming the Syrian conflict, where does the Syrian opposition stand in 2018? New America is pleased to welcome Osama Abu Zayd, a spokesman and representative of the Free Syrian Army to discuss these issues, with the conversation moderated by Peter Bergen, Vice President of New America and Director of its International Security Program. Zayd has been a member of the Track 1 delegations at negotiations in Geneva and Astana, representing the Syrian opposition bilaterally and with transnational bodies such as the EU and UN.
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.
- Trump’s Jerusalem Decision: Implications and Consequences | Monday, December 11 | 11:00 am – 12:00 pm | Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars (event will be held by phone) | Register Here | President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel carries profound consequences for U.S. policy, relations with the Arab world, the international community, and the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Join us as three veteran observers and analysts of the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli arena analyze and interpret the change in U.S. policy and its consequences for the region. (Toll Free #: 888-942-8140; Conference #: 1-517-308-9203; Conference Passcode: 13304). Speakers will include H.E. Dr. Husam Zomlot, Chief Representative of the PLO General Delegation to the United States, Ambassador Daniel Shapiro, Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Horovitz of the Times of Israel, and moderator Aaron David Miller. The Wilson Center’s Jane Harman will introduce the event.
- Beyond Stock-Taking: The Path Ahead to a Global Compact for Migration | Monday, December 11 | 11:00 am – 12:00 pm | Migration Policy Institute (event will be a webinar) | Register Here | Representatives of national governments, UN agencies, and key civil-society organizations convened in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico this week to take stock of the progress that has been made towards conceptualizing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM). Formal negotiations will begin in January to fulfill the commitment made at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016 by Member States to negotiate a Global Compact for Migration by the end of 2018—a task that was complicated with the decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the further consultations. To reflect on the latest developments and the outcomes of the stocktaking meeting, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) will host a discussion with Eva Åkerman Börje, Senior Policy Advisor in the office of the UN Special Representative for International Migration, and Ilse Hahn, Head of Division on Policy Issues of Displacement and Migration, from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The discussion, moderated by MPI Senior Fellow Kathleen Newland, will also draw on the conclusions of a recently published MPI policy brief, The Global Compact for Migration: How Does Development Fit In?
- Jerusalem: The Fatal Blow to Trump’s “Ultimate Deal”? | Tuesday, December 12 | 9:30 – 11:00 am | Arab Center Washington DC (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | Arab Center Washington DC will convene a panel of Middle East scholars to discuss the recent announcement by President Trump declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Speakers will include Perry Cammack of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Zaha Hassan of New America, Yousef Munayyer of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and moderator Khalil Jahshan of the Arab Center Washington DC.
- The Geneva Process: Toward a Political Solution in Syria | Tuesday, December 12 | 12:30 – 2:00 pm | Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA Foundation) | Register Here | The establishment of four deconfliction zones through the Astana process, backed by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, has led to the restarting of the UN-backed Geneva process. In the latest round of peace talks in Geneva, there are few signs that a constructive engagement is taking place. The Assad regime’s delegation walked out of the meetings on Friday as the opposition has maintained its position that Assad play no role in any future post-conflict government. Both the US and Turkey support the Geneva process to end the conflict, but competing interests between the regime and the opposition as well as external actors with varied goals promise further uncertainty about the fate of the talks. While the fall of ISIS’ last stronghold in Raqqa signifies a turning point, many experts have pointed out the continued threat posed by the terror group not only to a peace settlement in Syria but to regional stability as well. As the anti-ISIS campaign winds down, it is not clear what will happen to the US-supported “local partners,” such as the PYD, given Turkey’s strong opposition to their inclusion in the Geneva talks. While all main actors agree that the only resolution to the civil war is a political one, it remains unclear whether the Geneva process will provide the necessary platform to reconcile differences between the regime and the opposition as well as among the external actors. Please join us for a discussion with a panel of distinguished experts on the future of the Geneva peace process and how a political resolution in Syria might be reached. Speakers will include Mona Yacoubian of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and Kadir Ustun of the SETA Foundation. Kilic Kanat of the SETA Foundation will moderate.
- Yemen: A Country in Crisis | Tuesday, December 12 | 12:30 pm | Council on Foreign Relations | Register Here | The “What to Do About…” series highlights a specific issue and features experts who will put forward competing analyses and policy prescriptions in a mock high-level U.S. government meeting. This event will feature Gerald M. Feierstein of the Middle East Institute, Mary Beth Long of Global Alliance Advisors, LLC, and Stephen Seche of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
- The Implications of Trump’s Jerusalem Decision | Thursday, December 14 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA Foundation) | Register Here | On December 6, President Trump announced that “it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” He added that the State Department would now prepare to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The announcement provoked near universal opposition and condemnation around the world and triggered protests and clashes in the region. East Jerusalem has been under Israeli occupation since 1967 and the Trump administration’s move is a departure from the decades-old US position to leave the status of Jerusalem to the final negotiations in the now defunct peace process. While President Trump made a reference to the two-state solution in his speech and the administration is expected to put forward its own peace plan, the Jerusalem announcement appears to complicate the prospects of peace. Where does this decision leave the prospects of a two-state solution? Can the US still play a constructive role in achieving lasting peace? What are the implications for US interests in the region? Please join us for a discussion with a panel of distinguished experts on the future of the peace process as well as the regional and global implications of President Trump’s Jerusalem decision. Speakers will include Yousef Munayyer of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security, Joyce Karam of Al-Hayat and The National, independent author and news analyst Mark Perry, and moderator Kilic Kanat of the SETA Foundation.
At the US Institute of Peace’s November 29 event titled “Raqqa After the Islamic State: Governance Challenges in Post-ISIS Syria,” moderator Sarhang Hamasaeed of USIP said of the current situation in Raqqa, Syria: “military advances and triumphs are important, but stabilization and governance, as many argue, are probably more difficult.” The importance Hamasaeed placed on development and stabilization post-ISIS was echoed in the points made by the speakers who joined him, including Mona Yacoubian of USIP, Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and Nicholas A. Heras of the Center for a New American Security. The discussion centered around a special report, titled “Governance Challenges in Raqqa after the Islamic State” authored by Yacoubian.
Yacoubian reminded the audience that Raqqa was ISIS’s stronghold and the capital of its caliphate, as well as the where much of the planning for the group’s external operations, such as attacks in Paris and Brussels, took place. It is important that the city not get “lost in this news cycle.” The defeat of ISIS has not truly occurred, Yacoubian argued. “Ultimate defeat” can come only with the establishment of stability and governance in the city in order to prevent the re-emergence of extremist groups and improve the living standards of the population.
Yacoubian identified four “baskets” of challenges in the face of the establishment of governance. The first are strategic challenges that come with the ongoing war in Syria and the numerous actors involved, making it difficult to decide who will have control over Raqqa. The second is ethnic, considering the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is made up primarily of Kurdish members, which is not reflective of the Arab-majority nature of the city. The third basket includes tribal challenges, which result from the ISIS-induced deterioration of tribal reconciliation processes in the province and the risk of revenge violence. The final basket encompasses technical challenges due to the destruction of the city, the limited capabilities of the Raqqa civil council, the lack of basic services such as water and electricity, and the unprecedented level of trauma experienced by residents.
Hassan and Heras discussed the crucial role that the SDF has played and continues to play in the city post-ISIS. Hassan said that the SDF has been running a positive governance process and has gained residents’ trust, since it has not shown signs of corruption or mistreatment of the population. Heras added that the SDF had overcome several obstacles to create the model of governance that it currently operates, citing its experience in Tal Abyad. There the group was met with hostility and distrust, which taught it to communicate intentions clearly to residents. In Raqqa and other areas the SDF has seized from ISIS, Heras praised the group’s mobilization of local councils, the work it has done to ensure that councils have a demographic makeup representative of the population, the building of a civilian security force, and the flexibility shown.
On US policy, Yacoubian stressed
- The importance of continued engagement in Raqqa. The job is not done with the military defeat of ISIS. The US should shift from military engagement to stabilization efforts, while maintaining a “light footprint.”
- The US should ensure that the SDF transfers political authority to the local Arab population, using its influence over the group to do so. This will require a focus on developing the capacity of local councils and encouraging “skilled technocrats” who left Raqqa for Turkey and elsewhere to return and participate in the process.
It is also vital to integrate humanitarian and psychosocial services.
Hassan discussed the US role in improving the performance of the SDF. Like Yacoubian, he argued that the US should ensure that the SDF make clear its national identity as opposed to a Kurdish or PKK-affiliated identity, by emphasizing that it is a Syrian group meant for all of the country’s populations. The US should also work to prevent the regime from returning to the area, Hassan added. While many residents have voiced their desire for the return of the government, they want stability and security, not the return of the regime’s intelligence services and brutality.
Heras argued that the SDF would need the US to serve as a “backbone” in its efforts to stabilize the city, highlighting the overarching theme of the recommendations and discussion: the importance of continued US presence in Raqqa.