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.
- The Middle East Through Gulf Eyes: Trip Report from Riyadh, Muscat, and Abu Dhabi | Monday, December 18 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Washington Institute for Near East Policy (event is available to the public through livestream) | Watch Here | During an eventful week for U.S. Middle East policy—highlighted by President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—a fifty-person delegation from The Washington Institute traveled to the capitals of Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates to meet with senior leaders, engage with a broad range of local society, and learn about important changes under way in each country. To share their findings and impressions from the trip, the Institute is pleased to host a special midmorning Policy Forum discussion with four of its experts: executive director Robert Satloff, managing director Michael Singh, and fellows Katherine Bauer and Lori Plotkin Boghardt.
- The Jerusalem Decision: The View from Washington, Tel Aviv, and Ankara (THO Teleconference) | Tuesday, December 19 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | Turkish Heritage Organization (event will take place over the phone) | Register Here | Please tune in to THO’s latest teleconference to hear from Prof. Dr. Cagri Erhan (Rector of Altinbas University), Dr. Raphael Danziger (Senior Research Advisor, Policy & Government Affairs and Editor-in-Chief Emeritus, Near East Report American Israel Public Affairs Committee), and Moran Stern of the Center for Jewish Civilization, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, as they discuss the ramifications of this decision. Prof. Dr. Mark Meirowitz (Assistant Professor of Humanities at SUNY Maritime College and Chair of THO’s Advisory Board Chair) will moderate the teleconference.
- Making Peace in Donbas? The Role of a Peacekeeping Mission | Tuesday, December 19 | 9:00 am | Atlantic Council | Register Here | For years, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has proposed a peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine as an important instrument to achieving a peace settlement. This fall, Russian President Vladimir Putin also suggested a limited peacekeeping mission as one element towards a settlement. Are international peacekeepers or peace enforcers instrumental or even necessary for ending the war in Donbas? The Atlantic Council and the Razumkov Centre are assembling a panel of experts to discuss Russia’s war in Donbas and the prospect of a peacekeeping operation. Speakers will include Ambassador Kurt Volker of the US Department of State, Dr. Sarah Mendelson of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Dr. Evelyn Farkas of the Atlantic Council, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow of the Atlantic Council, and Mr. Oleksiy Melnyk of the Razumkov Centre. The Council’s Ambassador John Herbst will moderate the event and deliver welcoming remarks.
- 8th Annual Conference on Turkey | Monday, December 4 | 9:00 am – 3:30 pm | Middle East Institute (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here |The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation are pleased to host MEI’s 8th Annual Conference on Turkey. At a time of critical internal developments and international tensions, this program of three panels on Turkey’s domestic politics, economy, and foreign relations will feature Turkish, European, and U.S. office-holders, policymakers, and expert analysts from both sides of the Atlantic. The conference’s first panel, “Turkey’s Domestic Politics,” will feature Aykan Erdemir of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Ahmet Kuru of San Diego State University, Giran Ozcan of the People’s Democratic Party, Güneş Murat Tezcür of the University of Central Florida, and moderator Lisel Hintz of Johns Hopkins SAIS. The second panel, titled, “Turkey’s Economy,” will include Arne Lietz of the European Parliament, Sebnem Kalemli-Ozcan of the University of Maryland, and Omer Taspinar of the National Defense University. The Brookings Institution’s Kemal Kirisci will moderate. For the final panel, “Turkey’s Foreign Policy,” moderator Amberin Zaman of Al-Monitor will be joined by Dimitar Bechev of the Atlantic Council, Jonathan Cohen of the U.S. Department of State, Kati Piri of the European Parliament, and Ozturk Yilmaz, a member of the Turkish parliament representing the Republican People’s Party. Michael Meier of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and Gönül Tol of MEI will deliver opening remarks, and Michelle Müntefering of the German Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee will be the keynote speaker.
- Rebuilding Syria: A Localized Revitalization Strategy | Monday, December 4 | 12:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East is launching the first report of its two-year project, Rebuilding Syria: Reconstruction and Legitimacy. Over the course of the project’s first year, the Hariri Center has pooled expertise from specialists on the many issues surrounding rebuilding Syria, including economics, finance, development, infrastructure, political economy, civil society, food security, energy, law, and employment. From these insights, gleaned from multiple roundtable workshops, interviews, and commissioned research and writing from inside Syria, the project has created a strategic roadmap to rebuilding based on a localized, ground-up approach. The report, authored by Hariri Center Senior Fellow Faysal Itani and independent international security analyst Tobias Schneider, lays out this vision and offers concrete actions that can be taken now towards the long-term goal of revitalizing Syria with the participation of Syrians and the support of the international community. Itani and Schneider will be joined by moderator Mona Yacoubian of the United States Institute of Peace for this discussion. The Atlantic Council’s Ambassador Frederic C. Hof will introduce the panel.
- Conditions Facing Religious Minorities in Iraqi Kurdistan | Tuesday, December 5 | 3:00 – 4:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Surrounded by conflict and grappling with a rapidly changing political landscape, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) stands out as a locus of relative stability in its region. A recently-released report by the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), entitled “Wilting in the Kurdish Sun: The Hopes and Fears of Religious Minorities in Northern Iraq,” highlights the difficulties faced in the KRI to address religious freedom. The report underscores the KRG’s struggle to protect the region’s many vulnerable religious communities and discusses the grievances of the communities, and offers recommendations on how to address them in the sensitive, post-ISIS environment. The Middle East Institute (MEI) is pleased to host a panel discussion drawing on the report, featuring Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman (KRG), Jomana Qaddour (USCIRF), and Randa Slim (MEI). MEI senior vice president for policy research and programs Paul Salem will moderate the event.
- Turmoil Across the Middle East: What Does It Mean? | Tuesday, December 5 | 9:30 – 11:00 am | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | What should we make of the Middle East’s upheavals? In recent weeks, the Islamic State (ISIS) “caliphate” collapsed. Syria’s Assad regime all but won the six-year war, thus consolidating Iranian and Russian influence. Saudi Arabia purged parts of its royal family. Lebanon’s prime minister abruptly resigned. Iraq’s Kurds voted for independence, triggering confrontation with Baghdad. Years of U.S. and international engagement has failed to rebuild fractured countries, and the very viability of states like Iraq and Syria has been challenged. At USIP, distinguished Middle East analysts will explore where the region is headed, and the U.S. roles amid this tumult. In the face of the region’s challenges, the Trump administration has voiced strong support for Israel and Saudi Arabia, while confronting Iran. Mike Yaffe, vice president of the Middle East and Africa center at USIP, will moderate this discussion with Robin Wright, who has reported from the region for four decades, Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA, Mona Yacoubian, who recently coordinated U.S. assistance to much of the region, and Aaron David Miller, who advised Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Middle East policy over two decades.
- The Global War on Terrorism: Myths, Realities & Solutions | Wednesday, December 6 | 6:00 – 8:00 pm | Rise to Peace (held at George Washington University) | Register Here | Rise to Peace (risetopeace.org) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating others on the dangers of extremism and terrorism, particularly how these groups prey on and recruit the youth. In this discussion, hosted by Rise to Peace, the panelists will examine the Post-9/11 “Global War on Terrorism” and address such questions as: Have military operations in the Middle East and Africa suppressed terrorist safe havens? Have domestic surveillance efforts helped or hindered internal security in the United States? Have diplomatic efforts fostered cooperation among the United States and its allies to thwart the rise of extremism? Panelists will include Ambassador John W. Limbert of the United States Naval Academy, Christopher A. Kojm of George Washington University, Gawdat Bahgat of the National Defense University, Ahmad Shah Mohibi of Rise to Peace, Michael R. Sherwin of the U. S. Department of Justice, and Alicia Fawcett of Rise to Peace.
- The Nuke Ban Treaty: Now What? | Wednesday, December 6 | 12:00 pm | Stimson Center | Register Here | In July, 122 states voiced support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty will enter into force 90 days after 50 states ratify it. But what effect, if any, could this treaty have given that none of the nuclear weapon states have signed it? And if a goal of the treaty – as stated in its preamble – is to bring about complete nuclear disarmament, how could this be achieved through further treaty developments or other efforts? This event will be an on-the-record discussion co-hosted by The Washington Foreign Law Society and The Stimson Center on the prospects of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and how complete nuclear disarmament can be achieved. The discussion will feature Barry M. Blechman of the Stimson Center, Ambassador James E. Goodby of the Hoover Institution, Mallory Stewart of the Stimson Center, and Cymie Payne of Rutgers University. Stimson’s Debra Decker will moderate the panel
- Lessons from the Syria Crisis: Old Rivalries, New Dynamics | Thursday, December 7 | 3:00 – 5:00 pm | Turkish Heritage Organization (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | Recent developments in the Syria crisis have shaken up established rivalries and alliances in the region. NATO member Turkey is experiencing historic lows in its bilateral relationship with the U.S., while it is working closely with traditional rivals like Russia and Iran to manage the conflict on its southern border. However, President Trump’s recent promise to President Erdogan that the U.S. is looking to adjust its current military support to the YPG in Syria is a reminder of the commitment of both countries to continue efforts to resolve differences that have created strain in their relationship. Join THO at the National Press Club on December 7 to hear from a panel of distinguished experts on the new international dynamics that have arisen from the ongoing crisis in Syria. Speakers will include Barry Pavel of the Atlantic Council, Seyed Hossein Mousavian of Princeton University, Lincoln Bloomfield of the Stimson Center, and moderator Sinem Vatanartiran of BAU International University.
A colleague yesterday told me not to worry about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) overreaching in his effort to push back against Iran. The Saudis, he said, will talk a good line but not really do anything. They are too lazy.
That is little comfort and not accurate. MbS has launched a now more than two-year war in Yemen against the Iranian-supported Houthis, a diplomatic offensive against Qatar that aims (among other things) to break its good rapport with Iran, and the purported resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri, whom the Saudis think too tolerant of Iran’s Hizbollah proxies. The United States appears to have greenlighted all these moves, the first under President Obama and the second and third under President Trump.
The net effect so far is not good. Iran, through Hizbollah, will own Lebanon, whether Hariri returns there or not. Qatar is weathering the Saudi blockade with the aid of the Turks and Iranians. Doha is arguably closer to Tehran now than it was before the Saudi initiative, though it continues to host a major US air base. The stalemated Yemen war has precipitated a massive humanitarian crisis throughout the country. MbS’s Washington-encouraged pushback against Iran is not working well.
Oddly, the one place neither the Washington nor Riyadh has pushed backed against Tehran is Syria. The US has assiduously tried to avoid conflict there with Syrian government forces, the Russians, and Iranian proxies, firing on them only when they appear to be getting ready to attack US or US-supported forces. Riyadh has organized, and is getting ready to re-organize, the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee, but the Kingdom’s military support to the opposition is fading, along with that of the Americans. Even Russian promises to keep Hizbollah far from the border with Israel appear to be evaporating.
The sad fact is that Saudi Arabia is a weak reed for the US to lean on. The Kingdom has purchased an astounding quantity of US and other weapons but has little capability to use them effectively. Financially strapped due to lowered oil prices, MbS is rushing to conduct long-overdue domestic reforms under the rubric Vision 2030, as well as an anti-corruption campaign that has the added virtue of eliminating some of his rivals. Even if thoroughly and assiduously implemented, the main positive effects of these domestic initiatives are a decade or more in the future.
Besides, reform plans in Saudi Arabia have a long history of getting stuck in the desert sand. Trying to do too many things at once will guarantee that some of them suffer that fate. And attacking Iran in peripheral places like Qatar, Lebanon, and Yemen may cause suffering to their populations but is unlikely to cause the Islamic Republic much heartburn. Tehran could suffer setbacks in all three without minding all that much. It is Syria that really matters to Iran, which is why it has sent its best there: the Quds Force and Hizbollah. Confronting them in Syria would be a lot more meaningful than the sum of all the Saudi initiatives elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Iranians are also escalating. Despite Tehran’s denial, Bahrain claims Iran was behind a gas pipeline bombing last week, the Iranians backed Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi’s successful offensive against Kurdistan, and they are pushing their proxies to establish the much-coveted “land bridge” from the Iranian border through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. If the Trump Administration has a regional strategy to push back against Iran, it is not working. MbS has overreached, to no good effect.