Defeating ISIL

To defeat ISIL we (all of us) must defeat ISIL’s appeal. Defeating ISIL’s appeal will build antibodies and anti-viruses against those who, inevitably, will seek to succeed the defeated ISIL.

Military strategies will not defeat ISIL or its would-be successors. In fact, military strategies in a vacuum might forestall ISIL’s defeat and foster new successors. Conversely, military operations and tactics that support the civilian-led drive toward good governance, justice, and dignity for all citizens could contribute to sustainable stabilization of Syria and Iraq.

If I were an ISIL leader, I would see a new element of hope on the horizon.  I would do whatever I could to help the new US administration to abandon America’s long-standing international position on Israel, settlements, and a two-state solution.  I would use every deception, prevarication, “false news” I could muster to push America faster into the arms of the Israeli settler movement and those Israeli politicians who yearn to abandon the establishment a future Palestinian state.  Indeed, perceived Israeli occupation, aggression, and arrogance toward Palestinians is the one factor that could effectively reunite and turn the Arab Muslim world against America and its Western allies. A win for ISIL and its ilk, and a clear loss for everyone else, especially Israel.

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Syrian Conferees: First Things First

Tomorrow’s relaunching of Syrian peace talks should not overreach. “Getting to Yes” on the future of Bashar al-Assad should not be the topic at hand, for it will go nowhere in the short run.

Instead, put first things first. The conferees should seek and achieve consensus—publicly—on three principles: that no party in Syria will succeed in achieving its goals through armed conflict, that continued conflict is devastating innocent Syrian civilians, and that a negotiated future transitional authority in Syria will have the legitimacy to use force against malefactors inside Syria.

This will successfully undermine any party’s position that continued warfare is a better alternative to a negotiated solution (paraphrasing the well-known Harvard Negotiation Project principle). It will provide the basis for all parties to agree on immediate humanitarian relief to all non-combatants, especially in facilities protected under international law. And it will provide the basis for the future Syrian legitimate authority, with outside help, to destroy any extremists who are still determined to use violence.

Neither the Assad regime nor the violent extremists of the self-styled Islamic state will be eliminated through armed conflict. The Assad regime in theory could implode with unpredictable and potential horrific consequences, but that is unlikely in the short run. In turn, the violent extremists won’t just disappear, either. Most Syrian oppositionists are not as focused on ISIL as the US, Europe, and the Syrian Kurds are. However, it is conceivable that with continued international coalition pounding, ISIL and Jabhat an-Nusra might be sufficiently degraded, overrun, kicked out of Dodge or killed. Still, remnants will survive to fight another day, on the lookout for ungoverned spaces to occupy. And they might succeed.

Without legitimate and effective governance in Damascus, achieved through a negotiated political transition, either of these scenarios are much worse than a negotiated transition. The conferees and their international backers should focus on first things first.

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Who Are Syria’s Future Leaders?

A dual international strategy for Syria is materializing: military operations against ISIL and diplomatic efforts for a transition in Damascus. However, the general public knows a lot more about the former than the latter. The media focus much more attention on military operations and who the ISIL enemy is than on the anti-Asad Syrian opposition. Courageous and skilled journalists and their production teams have devoted gallons of ink and kilometers of film footage to give us all the dramatic history of ISIL, who are the local Kurdish fighters battling them, what the Islamic State wants and why, what is al-Qa’ida’s relationship with ISIL. And yet, whatever the outcome of military operations against ISIL, the issue of what follows politically in Damascus is far more important to the future stability of Syria and by extension of the Middle East writ large. Where are the media when we need them to introduce the world to the key players in Syria’s political transition – the anti-Asad political forces?

We have seen this movie before: in Afghanistan 2001, we destroyed the Taliban state, and then figured out who would lead Afghanistan from Kabul. That process didn’t turn out so well. Iraq 2003, we destroyed the Saddam Hussein regime, and then figured out whom we wanted as the Iraqi leadership in Baghdad. That didn’t turn out so well. Libya 2011, we destroyed the Qaddhafi regime, and then figured out that the struggle for Libyan leadership was complicated. That didn’t turn out so well. In all of these cases, the US and its allies failed to heed the dynamics of internal political and social forces as they competed for power in the vacuum that we so elegantly left behind after the dust of combat settled. The international media might have played a better role in those processes at the time.

So, who are the leaders of these myriad Syrian opposition combattants? In theory, when ISIL is severely degraded or destroyed, they, along with Bashar al-Asad, will be the ones left standing. Are the military opposition leaders distinct from political opposition leaders? What do either of these leader groups believe in? What are they fighting to establish in Syria? Assuming they vehemently oppose Bashar al-Asad, how do they conceive of a future Syrian state? Are any of these leaders credible in the eyes of ordinary Syrians?

Now is the time for opposition groups to inform the world about what they stand for. Many of these individuals and groups will be meeting shortly in Saudi Arabia. The world knows precious little about them. Why is that? Why is it so complicated or less important to interview the leadership of the “Free Syrian Army” or the “National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces” or others competing for the future of Syria? The media has been doing this for ISIL, why not for the anti-Asad forces?

The media can and must play a more significant role in enhancing the transparency of the process soon to unfold in Syria. The media ignored the political and social dynamics of the previous catastrophes in the Middle East, until it was too late. We must not make that mistake again.

Media: get to work. Now.

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“Arab Unity IV” Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

Much of what passes as media commentary on developments on the Arabian Peninsula is as misguided as it is misinformed. Articles about Yemen or the “new” Arab unification in face of threats to the Sunni Arab community read as if these were newly-grown green shoots (no pun intended) of conflict and response. These developments are more appropriately characterized in the Hollywood sequel metaphor, like Rocky III or Fast and Furious 6.

Take the developments on the Arab side of the Arabian/Persian Gulf. These peoples have been seeking solace and security together against the Persians for quite a while now: centuries not weeks. Take f’r’instance the creation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971 in the wake of British withdrawal of its dominant presence from east of Suez. (Yes, we even forget that in the first half of the 20th century – until 1967 – it was Great Britain, not America, that provided military security, political stability and colonial domination across much of the Middle East.) The former Trucial States banded together to protect themselves from the aggressive policies of the Shah. And then there was the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, and other developments in the region at the time to include the Islamic revolution in Iran, that launched the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council, to provide for their common defense. Neither of these “improvements” of course could give Iran the least moment of pause, weak as they were.

At the same time, however, Gulf states have been accused of recklessly arming themselves to the teeth with the latest and fanciest gadgets and weapons of war over four decades. That, too, was in large part to protect themselves against aggressive neighbors—first and foremost of them, in the eyes of the Arabs, Iran. Whether they had the capacity to maintain and sustain this weaponry on their own – let alone use it effectively – had been open to question for years. Until now.

So a new Arab coalition, now including Egypt and other states, is hardly new. In fact, Egypt’s efforts to unify the Arab world have also had a long history, certainly beginning with Gamal Abd Al Nasr in the 1950s. What might be different is that these nations today are better armed, better educated, more experienced at combat, and perceive a real and growing threat to their stability.

Finally, the Yemen saga is noteworthy for its history rhyming very nicely. I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that the Egyptians and the Saudis have fought on opposite sides of the battlefield in the Yemeni revolutions beginning in the 1960s. Yemen as a nation never really recovered from that. Although it is worth pointing out that Houthi grievances date from that period of time.

All of this to say: we have seen this same movie before, many times. We just need to write the screenplay anew, with a much better ending. For some ideas, see previous blogs of mine on these pages.

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Saving Yemen by Saving Yemen

International intervention to save Yemen is necessary, appropriate and sound policy. I refer you to my posting on this site of March 22, 2011, in which I recommended such. In fact, this site contains several postings warning about Yemen since 2010, but never mind.

It is also reasonable for the intervening nations to base their policy on their own national and collective interests. That’s what nations do. The national self-interest of the interveners, however, is by no means sufficient. International strategies must also encompass what is best for Yemen’s stability and welfare, and interveners should seek collaboration among themselves with Yemeni factions toward that end. That means a return to Yemeni consensus- and institution-building, not using Yemen as the latest battlefield. Otherwise we all will find ourselves reliving this nightmare over and over, and in wickedly innovative and threatening ways.

You might think such a prescription for Yemen is self-evident. It is, but I would argue we have missed that opportunity time and again. Past interventions and assistance have been few, brief, and woefully weak . I would not have been making these arguments for the past five years otherwise.

Current events seem to be pushing Yemen toward a paradigm of Sunni Islam vs. Shi’a Islam, Saudi interests vs. Iranian interests. That will not resolve Yemen’s perennial problems: desperate poverty and natural resource collapse; a Southern secessionist movement; a historically restive Houthi tribal population; and, yes, the infiltration of global jihadist extremists – the most recent of these phenomena.

Attend to Yemen’s disarray, disabilities, and dysfunctions starting now. This will require a decade or more of patient, sustained and well-placed economic and security assistance, not just drones, airstrikes and clandestine operations.

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Combatting the ISIL Dragon the Right Way

Some policy makers in the US are grandstanding about the Islamic State organization, and how it is the latest in a series of dragons that the US military must slay to save the world (metaphor and hyperbole are mine). Ignored in these arguments is how effectively the dragon creates new offspring wherever injustice, insecurity, hopelessness, and corruption thrive. It has been a never-ending game: slay dragons, watch their offspring multiply.

Here are some truths about Islamic State (central) and its various franchises:
• They pose an indisputable threat to modern standards of society and civilization, and to the international norms established through global consensus in the aftermath of the two World Wars of the last century.
• They pose a threat to concepts of governance and legitimacy in the Muslim world, and especially the Arab world in which they currently find purchase.
• The marketing blandishments of their PR bloggers and recruiters deftly ignore or hide their affronts to human decency and sanctity of life, burying them among otherwise legitimate demands for justice, morality, and piety, used to persuade innocents to join the cause.
• It is not acceptable under 21st century global standards to brandish as legitimate the barbarities and atrocities committed by societies centuries past, just because “those practices were part of the way things were done back then.” The United States, most of Europe, China, and even Russia, among other nations of the modern world, have all abandoned juridical, political, social and economic practices of their otherwise glorious pasts, when such practices have conflicted with contemporary ideals, technologies, and universally recognized standards of human behavior.

Consequently, the United States’ strategy must remain comprehensive and collaborative: drain the swamp, don’t just kill dragons. Enlist many nations to build sustainable institutions, even embryonic ones, where dragons live or seek to live. Thus when you do kill a dragon, there are fewer swamps in which its offspring can regenerate. But don’t just slay dragons and think you’ve solved the problem.

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What is the State Department Doing for Syria?

Many months before the March 2003 military invasion of Iraq, the State Department’s Future of Iraq team was hard at work developing contacts, analyses, and recommendations about a multitude of key civilian functions that would be critical for the effective functioning of a transition after Saddam Hussein. Other parts of the State bureaucracy were actively developing other aspects of a future strategy toward Iraq. One of the strongest critiques of the Bush Administration’s strategy at that time was that it ended up marginalizing the State Department. DoD took charge. State’s multi-volume report on Iraq was shelved and its recommendations all but ignored.

Fast forward to 2014. This is the moment in which America’s policy toward the Future of Syria should have a robust and pro-active civilian component, led by the Department of State and USAID. Of course, today’s Syria strategy is completely different from that for Iraq in 2002-3. For one, no invasion of Syria or overthrow of the regime is contemplated. However the US should still be planning for a  future transition to a different kind of governance in Syria. The Obama Administration has the opportunity to correct its predecessor’s gross imbalance between military on the one hand, and civilian diplomacy and development operations on the other. We read a lot about training and equipping moderate Syrian fighters, but precious little about what State and USAID are doing now to support future governance, civil society, and economic growth in Syria. That in part reflects the priorities of the media.

But the Administration has the opportunity to take the strategic communications initiative. Rather than talking about how many trained fighters it will take to handle the Islamic State group “on the ground” or to confront militarily the Asad regime in order to bring it to another peace conference, the Administration – and State in particular – should be bombarding the information space with its civilian strategy. I know, for example, that the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations funds civilian governance and development operations in Syria through implementing partners. I’m sure USAID is doing the same, beyond immediate humanitarian projects for refugees and internally displaced persons. Of course, anyone could go to these agencies’ respective websites and ferret around to find out what is happening.  But I am talking about pro-active information operations. If I am mistaken about the status of our diplomatic and development strategies toward Syria, then we are in real trouble.

The American public, and indeed the world, should have no doubt about the pace and direction of US policy toward Syria, and it is not all about training and arming moderate Syrian combatants, or assaulting the Islamic State group and its assets inside Syrian borders. The public ought to know what America’s diplomatic and development agencies –and others – are doing on behalf of a future that might come faster than we anticipate.

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Stop Hand-Wringing Over the Syrian “Dilemma”

I read much hand-wringing over the supposed dilemma in our Syria policy: we want to remove the Asad government, yet necessary attacks on the Islamic State group tend to keep Asad in power. Which do we want more? This conundrum uses false assumptions. We actually can “eat our cake and have it too,” in a certain sense.

US policy is (or should be) to cooperate in transforming the current Syrian government into one that is acceptable to the Syrian people, one that respects Syria’s diversity, the basic human rights of its citizens, and the sovereignty of its neighbors. The Asad government and the infrastructure that keeps it in place have lost legitimacy at home and abroad (with one or two exceptions).

Military action alone, by anyone, will not change Syrian governance in a positive direction. We cannot and must not try to “overthrow” the Asad regime. We should not envision the wholesale removal of the Baath Party all the way down the line to every ministry employee and college professor, as we initially did in Iraq. Asad and his cronies must go – meaning, there is no future formulation of Syrian governance in which Bashar al-Asad and his entourage remain in positions of leadership and authority. Everything else is and should be negotiable; the Syrians themselves do the negotiating. How Syrians come together peacefully to set up such negotiations, transitional structures and governance is something with which the international community can assist. But Syrians must do the work. I do not underestimate the enormous difficulties that lie ahead.  I caught a glimpse of those working on and in Iraq for many years. In the end it can be done.

Many elements in Syria opposed to Asad are equally illegitimate and must be marginalized or eliminated. A good many of them are not Syrian at all. How that will occur is also a decision for the Syrian people, with one exception: organized elements like the Islamic State group, and al-Qa’ida affiliates like the Khorasan group, who cruelly and deliberately murder innocent people, are legitimate targets of states whose citizens are attacked or threatened.

Here’s the real chicken-and-egg “dilemma” for Syria. You cannot permanently degrade and destroy potent violent extremists without a sovereign, legitimate Syrian governing authority; and you cannot establish a sovereign, legitimate Syrian governing authority without degrading and destroying potent violent extremists. Military action alone does not work. Violent extremism will regenerate and mutate until legitimate and effective governance is established. The same was true for Iraq, but it was somewhat easier to begin to change the governance part of the equation. The jury is still very much sequestered on that one. But hope for Iraq is permissible, and we must act on both sides of the equation simultaneously and with vigor.

With Syria, the strategy must unfold much more gingerly. On the governance side: firmly maintain a policy of transforming the Syrian government to one without Asad and his cronies through political negotiation (if necessary, negotiate even with Asad, albeit not physically at the table, and definitely not with a future role for him in Damascus). Strengthening Syrian opposition forces who share that vision and are prepared to enter into such negotiations is a critical first step. Asad and his international supporters must come to accept that peaceful political transition and transformation is the only correct future for Syria, and violent resistance to that transformation is useless and even self-defeating.

On the military action side: crush the Islamic State group and others like Khorasan bent on murder and other crimes against humanity. Do so in a fashion that will not undermine the political negotiations among the rest of Syria that must come next. That will include paying attention to the interests of nations that have a stake in a stable and sustainable future outcome for Syria, to include Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the Gulf nations, Jordan, and Lebanon.

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The Rewards of Real Partnership

Recent coalition air assaults in Syria – a rarity for the Arab world – show us a glimpse of the rewards of our strategic partnerships in the Middle East. The US benefits tangibly from the willingness of Middle East partners to take bold, concerted and public action. The USG should conclude that sustaining and deepening these strategic partnerships must be our strategy in the months and years ahead. Uncertainty and instability throughout the region demand focus and collaborative effort on a range of issues, not just destroying the Islamic State group. This will require Washington’s engaging governments regularly via senior-level, personal, face-to-face visits, and not just for the purpose of an immediate “ask.”

For years Washington developed a series of transactional relationships with friendly Arab countries. We had interests in the region, and they were expected to help us out. Most of the time they did. When we needed something special from these leaders, a senior US official would visit for an afternoon, dump the request in their laps, and then move on to the next country. Regional leaders understandably chose not to invest too much of their own political capital in a relationship with the US, and kept us at arms distance on many key issues, or at least kept any controversial cooperation very confidential.

At the end of the day the nations of the Middle East must assume responsibility for stability, security, interdependence, and good governance throughout the region. It is in their collective and long-term interest to do so. The US should remain a valued partner in this endeavor, and help shape the pace and direction of these efforts. This will require substantial amounts of trust to be deposited in our respective emotional bank accounts. The result will become especially valuable when partners ask of each other the kinds of future cooperation that might be difficult to swallow, and hard to sell to our home constituencies. Like pro-active support for transformation of the Syrian government, mending some fences with Iran at the right moment, and outreach – even if modest – to Israel for the purpose of regional peace and stability. The US will receive some “asks” too, ones that might be difficult for us, but will earn our partners credibility with their own populations, such as pressing Israel on certain policies, resisting too much eventual compromise and rapprochement with Iran, or softening public criticism of domestic social and human rights policies. These will be difficult trade-offs, and require deft diplomacy. In the end we know we will not always agree to yield to each other’s requests. But as trust and progress build, the likelihood of successful outcomes will grow.

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US intervention in Iraq and Syria is the right policy, but we should get Iraq right first. If the Iraq policy is succeeding, we are more likely to achieve our goals in Syria. If we bite off more than we can chew too early, we may lose both endeavors.

Consider this precedent: the USG tried for years without success in the 1980s to organize a broad-based international conference on Middle East peace. The effort finally succeeded after the triumph of Operation Desert Storm, via a multi-national coalition. The US government forged that coalition of the willing to include many states with which the US had difficult relations, and even some states that had major problems with each other. But the common cause of expelling Iraq from Kuwait in early 1991 was compelling. The Madrid Peace Conference took place in October of 1991, following months of demanding, but successful US diplomacy. It is worth remembering the unprecedented optimism and energy that followed in the Middle East in the few ensuing years (until the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995). The Oslo Accords of 1993 also helped give further momentum to the process. For a short while, it seemed that anything was possible in that perennially quarrelsome region.

The unifying effect of ISIL cruelty and barbarism, and the threat of increasing its grip in Iraq and Syria, have created the possibility of a new coalition of the willing. The President has told us that such a coalition is in the works for Iraq. Our apparent strategy helped solidify the participation of this heterogeneous collection of nations: (1) demand new governance in Iraq that is inclusive, tolerant, multi-confessional, and legitimate in the eyes of the Iraqi people; (2) insist that sovereign Iraqi institutions take the lead for their own defense; (3) organize broad-based international support for the effort in terms of advice, training, equipment, and humanitarian relief. That also includes specific and limited supporting military activities, such as tactical air strikes, logistics, communications, and intelligence; (4) achieve longer-term international cooperation with a renewed Iraq to integrate it fully into the region and the world.

If the participating nations conclude that this Iraq strategy is indeed working for their own national interests, then perhaps they might acknowledge that the strategy can apply to Syria as well. These nations would have to agree first and foremost on the need for a political process to achieve legitimate, inclusive, tolerant, multi-confessional governance in Syria. We tried this in Geneva, but it failed for a variety of reasons. Now there is greater likelihood of success if:
• the US and its allies strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition sufficiently to change Assad’s calculus about “winning” via military operations;
• regional players with influence inside of Syria, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, Iran (yes, Iran), Qatar, Russia (yes, Russia) and others, discover that the Iraq model of new governance is the only way forward for the Syrian catastrophe; and
• all actors understand that cooperation over Syria despite other ongoing disputes with each other takes priority right now, and in fact might even become the basis for improved outcomes on those issues, too. This will be painful and difficult for some, including the US, but patient diplomacy can help forge this consensus.

President Obama’s plan to ramp up training and equipment for the Syrian opposition now is a good start, but it must be an aggressive effort. However, we should only consider immediate airstrikes into Syria as tactically necessary for the Iraq campaign – attacks near the border, for example. We should avoid the premature appeal of winning a battle in Syria, but eliminating prospects for resolving Syria’s civil war.  ISIL will have its hands full in Iraq very soon, and there will be time for a coalition to strategize over eliminating them in Syria, too – given the right conditions.

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