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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GET IRAQ RIGHT FIRST

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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THE IRAQI MODEL FOR SYRIA

Iraq’s tribulations are far from over. But the prospects for brighter, more stable future for all Iraqis have improved greatly with PM Maliki’s stepping aside and the naming of a potential new PM. Mr. Abadi still has to form a government, and that government has much work to do. Many obstacles remain in the search for social justice, political stability, and economic growth. Iraq has a long way to go towards effective citizen participation, transparency and accountability under the rule of law. For this month we’ll settle for reversing the downward spiral and rekindling hope. The US and all of Iraq’s other friends in the region need to stay the course and continue to support Iraqi solutions that Iraqi citizens create through legitimate governance.

As it turns out, though, the events of the past few weeks in Iraq might provide a template for reversing the horrific trends in Syria, and maybe even rekindling hope there, too. What happened in Iraq? The US and Iran (and many others) actively – but separately – pursued our common interest in stanching the blood flow and returning Iraqi governance to its rightful place. Or at least to give Iraqis a chance to work on this on their own. We found common cause in opposing and undermining the Islamic State organization’s quest for political dominance through intimidation and brutality. A new political process is underway to let Iraqis find their own legitimate leaders to resolve their own deep and long-standing problems. Regional and world opprobrium has come down upon the incredibly cruel, barbaric forces that seek power illegitimately under a fraudulent religious banner. While the Iraqi government has its own sins of cruelty and violence to atone for, that day is put aside so that Iraqis and their regional and global allies can defeat these dark forces seeking to infect Iraq and “Greater Syria” (Al-Sham). We all realize that should these forces prevail, they will infect all of our societies in one dimension or another.

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Stats and Civics

Much has appeared in the media of late about teaching of science and math in US schools. Basically, poorly, with consequent mediocre results from our kids relative to those of other nations. The harm to our nation in the years ahead is inevitable if we don’t turn this trend around quickly.

I’d like to add to this argument. Public policy in America is similarly in trouble, and the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars…that we are underlings. An informed electorate is a necessary condition for a sound republic and I believe the seeds of a politically and economically informed electorate begin at the middle school and high school levels.

First, students at that level do not receive a strong enough foundation in statistics and probability. In fact, those subjects are relegated to a few weeks in math class at best. Why is that important? Pick up any newspaper article or read any blog. 83% of them will be filled with statistics arguing a point. Where does this data come from? How reliable is it? What does the data really say? Readers should know how to analyze and, if necessary, refute superficial, illogical or fallacious data. Experts, pundits, analysts are all around us, spouting statistics in order to persuade us of something or other. Too many people buy, sell, vote, adopt attitudes or change behaviors on the basis of some set of numbers being thrown at us. Without another thought. Until the next data come along.

Then there is America’s political system. As you know, it is going through the wringer. Our citizenry is getting unprecedented exposure to the drama of our democracy at all levels – federal, state and local. Some view the whole system in crisis; others see silver linings at the state and local levels. Whatever the case, it is vital to ramp up sharply exposure of young Americans to the basics of social studies, civics, and government in the 7th-12th grades. The future of our nation’s political system will be in their hands in a few short years. It would be criminal to give that responsibility to that generation without the understandings of the underpinnings, infrastructure and goals of our democracy.

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Stay Congressional Sanctions for Now

Congress should forgo enacting any legislation right now regarding enhanced US unilateral sanctions against Iran. Despite Congress’ intent, additional US sanction legislation now might not add pressure to compromise. More likely, I believe, it could persuade Tehran to stop compromising at all. They would calculate no deal is better than negotiating with the American team. Why would they do that?

Iranian negotiators face strong arguments from their own team – led by, but not exclusively, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei – that Iran’s nuclear program is not America’s objective. Many conservatives in Iran believe firmly that the US government will stop at nothing short of crushing the Iranian regime through economic pressure and/or political subversion. Threats of physical attack on Iran also add to this narrative.

Sanctions have thus far brought Iran to the bargaining table. But the strongest impacts of sanctions do not come from the United States. They come from the strength of comprehensive international sanctions, especially those in which Iran’s erstwhile friends concur. The unified P5 + 1 (UN Security Council plus Germany) is the diplomatic emblem of that strength. If Congress passes new sanctions legislation now, Iran’s better course of action would to try to break that international unity. If Iran were successful in that tactic, it would almost guarantee what US and Israeli opponents of the interim agreement argue will take place: undermining, perhaps permanently, the international sanctions regime.

How likely is it that Iran would be successful? I don’t know, since I have not seen anything in the US media about the positions of the other P5+1 negotiators, especially on the issue of the Congressional threat. However, I do know that in the 1980s and 1990s, our closest allies – not to mention the USSR and China – were irritated about US unilateral sanctions against Iran, especially those sanctions that ended up targeting our allies. Some doubted our motivations. The US was perceived as a selfish, lone actor, ignoring the counsel and interests of its friends.

We must not return to the days when the US acted alone in trying to impose economic sanctions. Unilateral sanctions are generally feckless; comprehensive, international sanctions are powerful. The proof of that is Iran’s decision finally to compromise. Should arduous, genuine diplomacy at the hands of a unified US-led team fail after several months, that will be the time for new, unified and comprehensive sanctions. Iran desperately needs to avoid that scenario, and frankly its team understands that. Let’s not hand them a win on a silver platter.

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Foreign Affairs Back on the Track

The foreign policy train is back on its diplomatic rails. Look at Syria and Iran today. The conundrum of Egypt and the rest of the Arab Awakening. The transition to post-2014 Afghanistan. Even a faint glimmer of renewed hope in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. All of this is a good thing. But we might find ourselves running out of track soon.

You can’t surge diplomacy without a deep bench at the State Department. You don’t create diplomats and career development professionals overnight. You should no longer shoehorn China hands, Latin America specialists and Africanists into the Middle East. You will need experienced Arabists, Farsi and Urdu speakers. But we will still also need Latin America specialists, China hands and Africanists. And more of them. Many should be expert in public diplomacy and social networking in addition to the politics, economics and culture of their regions. Beyond them, our diplomacy will require Foreign Service personnel conversant in counter-proliferation issues, climate science, and hydrocarbon and renewable energy technologies.

And what about those issues not yet readily visible yesterday or today? Those that lie just over the horizon. What in 1999 might have been called having the foresight to develop experts in Islamic radicalism, global warming or Pashto, for the following decade.

Our challenge is not to educate and train for yesterday’s and today’s requirements – we are already trying to play catch-up ball there. Our challenge is to educate and train for the requirements of American foreign policy over the next decade, so that the foreign policy train will breeze past the next whistle-stop on its diplomatic rails.

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Ambassador Robert Ford Right Nominee for Embassy Cairo

If President Obama nominates Amb. Robert Ford to be the next US ambassador to Egypt, American interests in that troubled nation will be extremely well served. To Egyptian citizens who are vocally fretting about American policy toward Egypt: you will have no greater, more articulate, more credible advocate for pluralistic, participatory democracy than Amb. Ford.

I know Robert very well. We served together as senior leaders at US Embassy Baghdad in the most difficult days of strife and mistrust. He was the Political Section chief, I the Political-Military Section chief. Robert’s profound knowledge of Arab character, culture and language accurately guided Iraqi understanding of US policy, and, perhaps more importantly, Washington’s understanding of Iraqi political dynamics. He also helped inform US military understanding of the impacts of US military operations and tactics upon US strategy in Iraq from the perspective of those political dynamics. The effective interaction between Embassy and Multi-National Forces Iraq was essential to successful implementation of US policy.

I cannot speak from direct experience about Robert’s efforts in Syria. But as a two-time alumnus of US Embassy Damascus myself (1979-82, 1988-90), I read with pride Robert’s courageous efforts at danger’s edge to advance vociferously American policy in Syria in 2011. That included his highly publicized visits to sites outside Damascus, scenes of renewed courageous Syrian civil disobedience against the latest horrific reprisals of the Assad regime. Those visits were unquestionably in support of freedom and justice in Syria.

I have just read that some elements in Egypt are already denouncing Robert. That is both sad and ironic if it comes from the mouths of those who cry for true democracy in their country. Only Egyptians who reject participatory democracy, individual liberty and social justice, should fear the nomination and confirmation of Robert Ford to be the next US ambassador to Cairo.

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Syria and Iraq: US Leadership for International Intervention

Syria and Iraq demand immediate international intervention. Yet, there is far too much complaining about US reluctance – how little America is doing, how urgent deeper American involvement is, even how the Obama administration is/will be to blame for whatever catastrophes transpire next in both countries. There is a legitimate call for renewed American leadership into each hornets’ nest. But it must come in the context of generating pro-active, collective international political intervention. The stability of the Middle East region is at stake, and there are many stakeholders, not just the United States.

Syria degenerates day by day, and the calls for US military involvement increase. Perhaps military operations are or will soon become necessary, but they alone will not protect US interests. Only a political solution between opposition factions on one side, and the current supporters of the Asad government on the other, will end the carnage and promote the possibility of inclusive, tolerant, participatory government in Syria.

The US can and should lead that charge. Today, Washington and Moscow announced their intention to convene just such a meeting. Good start, but it will need a lot of work, and many international hands to make that happen, especially from within the Middle East region. As I have written before, Iran should join the effort, but not as a way to validate any strategic Iranian role in the Arab Levant.

Political negotiation is understandably repugnant to many militants currently giving their lives against the horrors of the Asad regime. Same for the innocent victims of the regime’s brutality. Same for the innocent victims of opposition violence. But only a political solution derived together with elements of the regime (not Bashar al-Asad) and its supporters will bring peace and stability to Syria. And Syria requires both peace and stability.

The international community can provide, among other things, two diplomatic tools: patient, credible help in mediating this crisis (as has been done for Northern Ireland, for instance), and a subsequent process of demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) for most armed elements in the conflict. The “national reconciliation” and DDR processes will especially have to deal with extremist militias on both sides.

Iraq similarly is degenerating day by day. Former US Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey argued at USIP recently that fortunately Iraq’s new constitutional institutions still exist and are more or less functioning. That is true, and gives us something to build upon. Nevertheless, such institutions require citizens’ trust in them in order to function effectively. Trust inside Iraq is eroding rapidly, especially on the part of Sunni Arabs. Kurdish/Arab trust is also fragile.

For Iraq, too, some argue that the US must intervene. True. But let’s use our leadership and persuasion to build an international network to weaken centrifugal forces and bolster the rickety Iraq state. The US cannot and should not bear that burden alone.

I’ve seen this movie before in Iraq. I was a senior officer at the US Embassy in Baghdad 2005-2006. The US and UK diplomatic missions worked collaboratively to build Sunni Arab trust in Iraqi institutions. The Sunnis had opted out of elections in early 2005 and veered toward violent resistance to the Shi’a and Kurdish leaderships. The US and UK were nearly alone in cajoling all Iraqi parties to participate in their new system. While we were making some progress toward the end of 2005, most nations were sitting on their hands on the sidelines. I give great credit to the government of Turkey for avoiding actions that might have exacerbated tensions in the north and working to achieve some harmony between the two countries. That has paid off handsomely for both countries. However, many actors were working aggressively against internal Iraqi political cooperation – mainly Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a violent extremists and militias. And egging them on were Iran, al-Qa’ida, and especially Abu Musab al Zarqawi (the late leader of al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia). Their goal: make sure that Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a remain divided antagonists. They succeeded in 2006.

Today the same dynamic appears before us: cooperation between Sunni and Shi’a is rapidly eroding and al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia is on the rise. The US and the UK should work with other global partners and regional players to shore up the Iraqi experiment. Some key Arab players are understandably preoccupied—Egypt and Jordan for instance. But they have a huge stake in the outcome. They should do what they can. But other regional nations must gear up to play a constructive role in one of two ways. They can either work to build hope, confidence and trust among Iraqis, or at least they can work to undermine the destructive elements that are determined to fracture Iraq.

The US can and should take the diplomatic lead to make this happen in Syria and Iraq. If the Obama administration is doing so already, it must announce that loud and clear to the world.

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