Monday, August 3, 2015

The Nuclear Agreement Between Iran and the P5+1

I am strongly supportive of the agreement between Iran and the P5+1.

[China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States with the European Union sitting in as an observer.  The public announcement of the agreement was made by the Iranian Foreign Minister and the European Union  Foreign policy chief. Nonetheless everyone in the U.S. credits or blames President Obama for the deal.]

I believe that it will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and an effective delivery system for a very long time, if ever.  I am also optimistic that the resumption of trade ties will, over time, lead to a more open Iranian society and a less disruptive role in regional politics.  That positive perspective will inescapably color my analysis, although I’d like to think I can minimize its effects.

There are two broad areas I’d like to explore in this piece.  The first is an analysis of some of the most salient features of the agreement and the second is a discussion of the political dynamics we’ll see played out over the next two months.


Arms Control
.  Iran has always asserted that its investment in nuclear research and development was meant for civilian programs such as medicine and electricity generation, whidch it is fully entitled to do under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Even Iran’s harshest critics do not claim that the Islamic Republic has in fact developed nuclear weapons.

The negotiations focused on controlling Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons.  By limiting the number of centrifuges Iran could operate and restricting the amount of enriched uranium it could possess, the P5+1 negotiators extended the “breakout” period from as little as a month to a year. 

Enriched uranium: uranium ore is almost exclusively U238 but that isotope is not sufficiently radioactive to power reactors for electricity generation, let alone to make weapons.  The most effective way to get U235, the useful isotope, is to put uranium in a centrifuge that spins the lighter U235 out of the ore.  It is necessary to repeat the centrifuge process (cascading the ore from one centrifuge to the next) many times to get enough U235 to be useful.  So limiting the number of centrifuges Iran can operate at any one time and limiting the amount of enriched uranium Iran can store makes it far more difficult for Iran -- if it wanted to -- to get enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear warhead.  Iran’s current stockpile of enriched uranium must be reduced by 98%.

“Breakout”: the amount of time it would take a country to physically produce a nuclear weapon.  The more nuclear technology a country has, the more enriched uranium it has produced, the shorter the time from the decision to build a weapon until it is completed.  The most common estimate is that Iran’s breakout time  before the agreement was one or two months.  The negotiators firmly believe that after the agreement is implemented Iran’s breakout time will be at least a year.

.  Critics of the agreement point out that it does not allow for “any time, any where” inspections.  What it does do is give the International Atomic Energy Agency sweeping access to all of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities for inspections and monitoring that are a good deal more thorough and intrusive than anywhere else in the world.  The agreement sets up a mechanism for dealing with sites that Iran has not declared but are suspected of harboring nuclear research.  There’s a fairly complicated 24 day period of negotiation, but if there is no agreement between Iran and the parties to the agreement, inspections can be ordered.

The secret documents.  Critics of the agreement have seized on a set of agreements between the IAEA and Iran covering inspections of Iranian military facilities potentially involved in weapons development.  These so-called side agreements are not part of the 100 plus pages of the P5+1 and Iran agreement and have not been shared with the P5+1 countries.  The IAEA, as well as defenders of the agreement, point out that they are highly technical arrangements and this is a typical way of getting access to highly sensitive areas in a country.  It seems to me that this is no different than the steps the EPA, FDA or SEC or other regulatory agencies in the U.S. takes to protect trade secrets and intellectual property when they regulate a company or product.

Sanctions.  The United States has imposed a wide range of economic and military sanctions on Iran since 1979.  Some of the legislation authorizing those sanctions give the President discretion in their implementation; some require an act of Congress to alter or eliminate.  Individual European countries, as well as the European Union have imposed sanctions on Iran for both nuclear activities and human rights and terrorism abuses. and the United Nations Security Council has imposed its own set of sanctions. Iran demanded the immediate lifting of all sanctions.  That obviously did not happen, but the UN Security Council did vote to suspend its sanctions related to nuclear activities just a few days after the agreement was signed.  And several European countries have begun to relax their economic sanctions. Most of the European Union sanctions on nuclear or weapons technology will remain in place for the next eight years.  Nothing in the agreement obliges the United States to lift any of its sanctions. The nuclear agreement does not involve the potential lifting of sanctions related to human rights or terrorism.

An important aspect of the sanctions component of the agreement is “snap back.”  If Iran does not live up to its side of the bargain, the UN sanctions are supposed to snap back into place.  The most interesting aspect of the snap back provisions is the fact that the Security Council veto does not apply.  Despite the fact that China and Russia are extremely protective of their right to stop Security Council action by voting “no” -- even if everyone else votes “yes” -- they agreed to give it up in this instance.  If Iran is accused of cheating before the Security Council the question to be voted on will be “should we continue to suspend the sanctions?”  If one of the permanent members, e.g. The United States, votes “no” then the sanctions will snap back into place.  No single country can prevent Iran being punished for violating the agreement.

There is a second set of UN sanctions aimed at Iran’s ability to develop ballistic missiles, the most effective way to deliver a nuclear weapon.  Those sanctions have not been lifted and will not be lifted for at least ten years and some of them remain in place for at least fifteen years. 

Lifting sanctions is one of the most controversial parts of the agreement.  The argument by opponents of the deal is that Iran will suddenly have access to tens of billions of dollars in assets currently frozen in Europe or the U.S. and will use that money to support Hezbollah, Assad of Syria, Hamas and other disruptive and malevolent forces in the Middle East. 

The argument by supporters of the deal is twofold.  First of all, Iran was motivated to strike a deal because the economic sanctions, plus the decline in oil prices, have hurt the economy. Unemployment, especially among educated young urban dwellers, is high.  Corruption and inefficiency are endemic.  The announcement of the agreement on nuclear activities has unleashed a wave of high expectations in Iran that foreign trade and investment will reinvigorate the economy and improve the situation for everyday people.  Half of all Iranians are under 30 years old which means that the revolution and the early days of ideological fervor are ancient history.  The long term survival of the regime may well depend on its ability to deliver a brighter future to younger Iranians.  Teheran is studded with (illegal) satellite dishes, social media is pervasive, and younger Iranians are aware of  the outside world.  

The second part of the argument is that even if some elements of the Iranian political system are eager to increase support for radicals abroad and undermine regimes like Saudi Arabia, Iran’s most important clients, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, have a limited capacity to absorb increased spending. 

All in all, the most likely short term effect of lifting economic sanctions will be an increase in domestic spending.  The longer run effect may well be a growing, educated young  middle class, the sort of people who spearheaded the wide spread protests after the 2009 elections.  The pressure for a more open, liberal and democratic Iran will become stronger and, as the old revolutionary generation dies off, it is highly likely that the Iran of 2025, when many of the limitations on the nuclear program expire, will be far less eager to support revolution elsewhere in the Middle East and far more interested in stable and co-operative relations with its neighbors.


Early in the classic movie Casablanca, the local chief of police comes into Rick’s bar to pocket his bribe money but is very publicly shocked, yes shocked that there is gambling going on!  Well, I am shocked, yes shocked, to find partisan politics underlying reactions to the recent agreement between Iran and the P5+1!

The Role of Congress
.  Congress has given itself until September 17 to weigh in on the agreement with Iran.  The House and Senate could vote to approve the deal (and 100 unicorns wearing sparkly tutus and carrying leprechauns on their backs could come prancing down Pennsylvania Avenue); they could avoid voting on it (and here come the unicorns again), or they could vote to reject it.  Since the Republicans have a majority in both the House and the Senate and are unanimous in their opposition, voting to reject is the most likely outcome. 

When President Obama immediately vetoes the bill rejecting the deal the real drama will begin.  It takes a 2/3 vote of both the House and the Senate to override a Presidential veto. There is little doubt the House will vote overwhelmingly to override the veto.  Between the Republicans who sincerely want to torpedo it and those Democrats who calculate that voting to override is a safe vote -- it mollifies the passionate opponents of the deal in their district but they expect the Senate to fail to override so the agreement will remain intact -- the House will easily muster the 2/3 super majority.  The Senate will be where the action is.  More precisely, the Senate is where the action is right now, with intense lobbying of a fairly small number of Senate Democrats.  The Republicans will need to convince 13 Democratic senators to vote to override the President’s veto. 

The Game is Afoot.  Google “Iran nuclear deal” and the first thing you will see is a sponsored ad damning the deal.  The ostensible sponsor of the ad is; the real sponsor is the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) which is believed to have as much as $40 million to invest in opposing the agreement.   Most of the money from AIPAC and other well endowed conservative organizations will be spent on media buys in states with a Democratic senator who is seen as vulnerable to pressure.  Supporters of the agreement have a lot less money.  For example, J Street, the most important liberal Jewish lobbying group, has perhaps $5 million for media. 

Of course President Obama and his administration don’t rely on mass media campaigns to rally support. He has been busy talking to key senators on the phone, key figures in the administration have been making the rounds of talk shows and meeting with supportive interest groups and lobbyists.  The usual suspects among liberal groups, such as MoveOn are mounting grass roots campaigns to support the president and the agreement.

And The Hypothetical “Person in the Street”?

A recent CNN/ORC poll showed that over half of the people who had an opinion about the Iran nuclear deal thought Congress should reject it.  But a poll of Jewish Americans conducted by the LA Jewish Journal found that 48% of their respondents supported the deal (and 54% thought Congress should approve it) while 28% opposed it (and 35% thought Congress should block it) and 25% said they hadn’t heard enough about it to have formed an opinion.  Other polls have been just as widely divergent: only 38% of the respondents in a PEW poll supported the deal but 56% of the people in a Washington Post/ABC poll were in favor. has an excellent analysis of the remarkable impact of question wording on these poll results.  The more details of the agreement that were included in the question, the higher the level of support. 

Beyond the impact of question wording and other methodological niceties, all the polling reflects the fact that for the large majority of Americans, the Iran nuclear deal is a domestic political issue.  Regardless of the poll, the single most important variable predicting support or opposition was self-proclaimed ideology: people who think of themselves as liberals or Democrats are disproportionately supportive; people who think of themselves as conservative or Republicans are disproportionately opposed.  This reduces the effectiveness of AIPAC and other opposition groups to sway Democratic senators to vote to override a Presidential veto.  The strongest opponents of the agreement, conservative Republicans, aren’t going to vote for a Democratic senator regardless of what they do on this issue while the strongest proponents are the very people the senator counts as a core constituency.


I am one of the large group of observers who think it a Presidential veto will be sustained in the Senate and there is even a small chance in the House, as well. 

I think that the agreement will forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon and will have a moderating effect on the Iranian political system over the next ten years.  I think that the Iran of 2025 will be less dominated by socially conservative religious figures, have a much improved economy and will be less active in promoting regional instability. [Yes, that’s a bold prediction that no one will remember in one, let alone ten years.  Unless I’m right; then I will certainly remind one and all.]

In the very unlikely event the Obama administration fails to block attempts to derail the agreement, I think that:

1) Congress would have blocked the removal of American economic sanctions; the UN sanctions are already being removed and much of the European Union is lining up to resume economic ties with Iran.  U.S. sanctions alone have not been enough in the past to bring Iran to the negotiating table; they won’t be in the future.  Iran will feel justified in resuming and accelerating its weapons program (all the while claiming it doesn’t have one) and seeing real economic progress.  By 2025 Iran will have a nuclear arsenal, a robust economy, and some important infernal reforms. 

2) It will be an embarrassing blow to President Obama and significantly deepen the partisan bitterness in Washington. 

3) It will be a significant blow to the United States as a super power.  The partisan gridlock of the past seven years has made American style democracy much less attractive to the rest of the world.  American diplomats will find it far more difficult to take a leading role in making global policy or coping with difficult situations since both our friends and our foes will have to wonder whether Congress will undo whatever American diplomats agree to.

4) Rightly or wrongly, Israel will be blamed by the administration and its supporters for interfering in American domestic politics.  It is hard to see how the Obama-Netanyahu relationship could get much worse, but even if AIPAC and its allies fail to block the deal, Israel will become even more firmly associated with the right wing in American politics.

Since I don’t think those bad things will happen, I intend to sit back and watch the political games play themselves out.  Congress is in recess until after Labor Day and I think there will be less public activity and less hyperbolic rhetoric until then.  I think the first two weeks in September will be interesting with breathless tallies of the latest vote counts and shrill partisan debate competing for attention with the start of the NFL season and continuing efforts by Republican Presidential candidates to do or say something that will get them more than 9 or 10 percent support in polls of Republican primary voters.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Iranian Nuclear Agreement?

March 23 is the rapidly approaching deadline for concluding talks between Iran and the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program.  More or less.

While “P5+1" sounds like a jazz combo or an algebraic expression, it is diplomatic short hand for “The Five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council [China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States] plus Germany” ...

Often in negotiations the term  “deadline”  is more like the anarchist’s take on rules: there are no laws, merely suggestions.  The first deadline in the current round of talks that began in March 2014 was the end of July but that was extended to November 2014 and then to March of this year.  Sometimes negotiating deadlines are fudged and extended because no one wants to admit that the talks have failed. But more often, as in this case, there is real progress but a final deal can’t be reached quite yet. 

During the initial stages of talks in March 2014, Iran said it would voluntarily suspend those parts of its nuclear program that the P5+1 found most problematic and in return the U.S. and the Europeans lifted some of the economic sanctions that had been imposed over the years.  Although there are skeptics who doubt that Iran has lived up to its word, most observers and the Governments involved are satisfied that Teheran has complied.

As much as you might like an extended discussion of centrifuge numbers and technology, the intricacies of Iran’s nuclear research sites at Fordow and Arak, the details of IAEA inspections or the technology for creating of highly enriched uranium, this essay will concentrate on domestic politics in the U.S.

The old adage “Politics stops at the water’s edge” has been true in the United States only on extremely rare occasions and then only for a short time.  Two perspectives  have defined American attitudes toward Iran since the revolution of 1979: implacable enemy or challenging opponent.

The implacable enemy image is rooted in memories of the revolution of 1979, that saw the pro-American Shah replaced by fiercely anti-American mullahs and the 441 day ordeal for Americans held hostage after the U.S. embassy was invaded.  This image of Iran starkly simple: by its nature as a revolutionary Shi’a theocracy, a dictatorship of mullahs, Iran is fundamentally committed to relentless opposition to Western civilization.  In practice that means undermining and destabilizing moderate Arab governments by exporting radical Shi’a Islam and seeking the destruction of Israel by funding and directing terrorist organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.  In the longer run it means acquiring nuclear weapons, medium and long range missiles to deliver them on Israel and Western Europe.  The Iranian political system is monolithic and radical, there are no “moderate” mullahs or “reformist” politicians.  Negotiations are a fool’s errand; Iran will not keep any promises it pretends to make.  In the long run only regime change will defang the monster.  In the short run, Iranian plots and subversion have to be vigorously resisted and whatever actions can harm the regime: crippling economic sanctions, support for dissidents, “black ops” like the Stuxnet virus [a computer virus that disrupted Iran’s nuclear program in 2010 is widely reputed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli product] and other blows to the nuclear program; should be pursued.

The challenging opponent view of Iran sees the country’s politics as complex and sometimes contradictory.  There are multiple institutions, from the Supreme Leader ostensibly at the top of the hierarchy down through a “Council of Guardians,” an elected President and executive branch and a popularly elected parliament.  The Revolutionary Guards are a military organization with extensive business interests that is independent of the traditional uniformed military establishment.  Particularly in parliamentary and presidential politics, there are factions and degrees of resistance to change, within the rather narrow boundaries permitted by the Supreme Leader and other senior clerics.  Elections, even when every candidate is pre-approved by the guardians of the status quo, do have consequences.  The major Iranian decision makers are rational and act in what it sees as their self interest.  Negotiations are difficult and often frustrating but the right mix of sticks and carrots can lead to an agreement that will be honored.

The Iranian revolution and its contemporary rhetoric is stridently anti-American.  Some Iranian leaders, for example Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have called for the destruction of Israel.  Iran is labeled by the U.S. State Department as a “state sponsor of terror” because of its attempts to destabilize and overthrow governments friendly to the U.S. by using proxies like Hezbollah.  As a result, the implacable enemy image is more deeply entrenched in American politics than in Western Europe, China or Russia.  It is politically easier and more emotionally satisfying to punish your enemies than to reward them.  Thus during the past 25 years the United States has typically played “bad cop,” pushing for economic sanctions and punitive measures to compel Iranian good behavior.  European governments, along with China and Russia have been the “good cops,” offering incentives and rewards to persuade Iran.

This long standing bias toward the implacable enemy image, especially among more conservative politicians and analysts, has been reinforced by an “if Obama is for it; I’m agin it!” attitude among many Republican members of Congress. As rumors of real movement in the current talks have spread and there are indications that a major agreement will be reached before the end of March, the criticism of Obama’s policy and American negotiators has become louder.  The President has wide latitude in reaching agreements with foreign countries and many of the sanctions imposed on Iran over the years can be lifted without prior approval from Congress, so there is relatively little that can be done to scuttle the talks.

The invitation from Speaker of the House John Boehner to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to address a joint session of Congress is the last, best hope of avoiding a deal with Iran. 
There will, I think, be no surprises in Netanyahu’s speech. 

He will say that Iran is hell bent on getting nuclear weapons to destroy Israel, the emerging deal does nothing to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  Iran cannot be trusted to live up to any agreement; they have consistently lied to international inspectors and tried very hard to hide their most important facilities.  Netanyahu has been a major figure in Israeli politics or the past thirty years; his view of the world is clear and consistent.  Netanyahu’s approach to Iran is shaped, I think, in a larger perspective on the world rooted in post-World War II Zionism.  Anti-Semitism is a permanent feature of almost every culture in the world and can erupt into violence at any time.  Only in an Israel that is the Jewish national homeland can Jews feel secure and the existence of Israel is the only guarantee that the Jewish people will survive.  (This explains Netanyahu’s response to the Charlie Hebdu murders in Paris and the killings in Copenhagen: urging French and Danish Jews to emigrate to Israel.)  A nuclear armed Iran would have the ability to fulfill the most rabid anti-Semite’s dream, the destruction of the Jewish people.

Boehner’s move plays well with those who think snubbing or insulting the White House is a good thing and with those who hope that Netanyahu’s evocation of an implacable Iran bent on getting nuclear weapons so that it can destroy Israel will sway public opinion to oppose any deal.

Netanyahu’s speech is unlikely to have any impact on public opinion about an Iranian nuclear deal.  It will reinforce those who already knew that any deal with Iran would be a bad deal.  It will not weaken the commitment of those who support the emerging agreement either because they agree with it on the merits or because they are loyal Democrats who want to support their president. 

The invitation to Netanyahu has already had some impact on American politics by highlighting the tensions in U.S.-Israeli relations.  Last year’s failed attempt by Secretary of State John Kerry to broke peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians led to some acrimonious exchanges between U.S. and Israeli officials, with some of the most hawkish and staunchest anti-Palestinian leaders in the Israeli cabinet openly deriding any chance of peace with the Palestinians.  The mid-level State Department official who opined in a conversation with a reporter that Netanyahu was “...too chicken shit ...” to reach a deal with Palestinians and the senior official who earlier seemed to blame the Israelis for the failure of the talks were reflecting the views of many in the white House and State Department.  The personal tension, bordering on overt dislike, between Obama and Netanyahu seems to be rooted in sharp differences in policy, contrasting personal styles, and Netanyahu’s open preference for Mitt Romney in 2012. 

For the past five decades it has been an article of faith in both the U.S. and Israel that the two countries share a special relationship.  Israel has a unique position in American foreign policy because it is the only democracy in the Middle East, it is a trusted and reliable ally in  a dangerous neighborhood, it is widely admired for its David-like ability to defend itself against much larger hostile attackers, and there are a significant number of pro-Israel voters and campaign contributors who are key to success in key Congressional districts and a key part of the traditional Democratic Presidential voter base.  In turn Israel looks to the U.S. for support in the UN, for defense technology, and economic support from the American Jewish community. 

The underpinnings of that traditional relationship have ben slowly changing over the past 30 years. 
The heroic saga of the founding of Israel against overwhelming odds by idealistic young men and women, captured for a wide American audience in the 1960 movie Exodus remains the dominant image, but there has been growing sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians among younger Americans. 

The association between support for Israel and political liberals has been attenuated by the political emergence of fundamentalist Christians (often to the chagrin of both religious and secular Jews) who see the establishment of Israel as fulfillment of prophecies about the beginning of “The End Times” and the imminence of the Battle of Armageddon in which the forces of evil will be decisively defeated, Christ will return, and the world will end. 

The first generation of Israeli leaders shared a generally liberal ideology that stressed secular democracy, social welfare, and the integration of waves of immigrant into society.  The divisions in Israeli society between secular Jews and religious, especially conservative religious,  Jews have deepened and become more obvious and have increasingly complicated American Jews’ views of Israel.

The fact that Netanyahu gave a major address to AIPAC, the most important pro-Israel and increasingly conservative and Republican leaning lobby, the day before he addressed Congress and AIPAC ‘s role in the attempt by predominantly conservative Republican senators to legislate Congressional review for any agreement the White House makes with Iran was coordinated with AIPAC threatens to make U.S.-Israeli relations part of the bitter partisanship that makes Washington D.C. seem so dysfunctional.

The Bottom Line  What I think will happen

1.   The most likely outcome at the end of the month is a “framework agreement” as opposed to final deal with all the “t’s” crossed and “i’s” dotted.  Iran will agree to suspend attempts to enrich uranium beyond the level needed for a power plant reactor and to more robust inspections; the P5+1 will agree to phased reductions in sanctions.  Talks will continue until the details are hammered out.  The agreement will last for ten years.

2.   The U.S.-Israel relationship and the deal with Iran will be issues in the run up to the 2016 Presidential election, as Republican candidates stress foreign policy issues in their critique of the Obama administration.  “Soft on Iran”, “weak on Israel” will join Benghazi and failure to check Putin’s designs in Ukraine as rallying points for the Republican base. 

3.   The U.S.-Israel relationship has been strained at times in the past and will undoubtedly be strained in the future but it will not change dramatically in the next few years. But the increasingly strident partisanship and generational change will make the relationship less “special” and automatic.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Some Thoughts on the War Against ISIS

ISIS… seems as if it is yet another eruption of violence and terrorism in the Middle East and now the U.S. is launching air strikes and sending “advisers” to Iraq.  It's enough to make Yogi Berra sigh, “It's de ja vu all over again.”

It seems to me that there are three critical questions that ought to be front and center in any discussion of whether we as Americans have any reason to get involved:

Who are we opposing and are they any different from any of a large number of other bad actors around the world ?

Are there any national interests … do we have anything at stake?

Can we succeed?


ISIL, ISIS, IS, the so-called Islamic State ... how many groups do we have to keep track of?  We’re only concerned with one group, that started out as al-Qaeda in Iraq shortly after the US invaded in 2003 as part of a larger resistance movement among Sunni Iraqis.  But when al-Qaeda in Iraq shifted the focus of its violent assaults on Shia Iraqis to include Sunnis and began to challenge Sunni tribal leaders and local power brokers for control and began to pick fights with other Sunni-based anti-government groups, they were quickly isolated and relegated to hideouts in the desert. 

Then Syria collapsed into civil war.  The anti-Assad protesters were never a unified, organized movement.  When the Assad regime turned to large scale violence against its opponents, they splintered into a farily large number of locally based groups, ranging from middle class secular democrats to rural and urban poor religiously inspired factions.  Some of these groups included people with military training and experience; others were more dedicated than capable. 

What started as a protest movement against an entrenched dictatorship quickly became redefined by actors outside of Syria as part of a larger struggle between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.  Iran and Hezbollah, the powerful Shia militia in Lebanon, came to aid of the Assad regime because they defined the struggle as Syrian Sunni forces (aided and abetted by Sunni fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and Gulf). 

Not to be outdone, conservative social and religious forces in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States began to actively support some of the Syrian groups who shared their values and were quite willing to define the struggle as Sunni versus Shia.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq saw an opportunity to reinvent itself and joined the fray.  Relatively quickly the struggle for support and dominance among the increasingly well armed Islamist groups became as important as the struggle against Assad. 

Al-Qaeda in Iraq emerged as one of the major beneficiary of outside aid and one of the most effective fighting forces and expanded its self definition to be the Islamic State in eh Levant, or ISIL in English.  In Arabic the Levant (the part of the Arab world bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea) is known as ash-Shām; hence ISIS as the acronym.  When ISIS had succeed in establishing control over a significant area of Syria adjoining its strongholds in Iraq, (and been kicked out of al-Qaeda itself for failure to consult and “notorious intransigence”) it chose to reinvent itself again as the Islamic State and declared the establishment of a Caliphate.  (In Sunni Muslim political theory an institution that combines religious and civil leadership for all Muslims throughout the world.  The last Caliphate was abolished at the end of the Ottoman Empire.)

If you think “Islamic State” is a grandiose term for a group of fundamentalist hard liners who control some territory by fear and violence and/or you want to disrespect them, you add “so-called” to the Islamic State.    Somewhat arbitrarily I’ll use ISIS in this essay.

Unlike al-Qaeda itself, or other violent movements around the world (e.g. Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda), ISIS exercises effective control over a significant portion of Syria and Iraq, including major cities such as Mosul and Fallujah.  It is far more violent than other groups, both in terms of the number of people it kills and its willingness to engage in mass executions of people it considers heretical, apostate, or non-Muslim.  ISIS is better financed than other armed groups and militias in the area and no longer relies solely on donations from wealthy fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf but has the assets of looted banks in cities it has conquered and oil fields in Syria and Iraq that it controls.  And ISIS troops are better equipped (including American supplied weapons and military equipment seized from defeated Iraqi army units), trained and led.

When ISIS started to move beyond the territory it had captured in Syria from either the Assad forces or other rebel groups into Iraq, the Iraqi army disintegrated.  ISIS fighters moved with lightning speed to capture such major Iraqi cities as Mosul and Fallujah and threaten Baghdad itself.  They looked unstoppable until a combination of Kurdish military units (the pesh merga) and American air strikes blunted the advance on Haditha Dam and the city of Kobani. 

The ISIS program is simple: establish a society in which adherence to the strictest and most conservative version of Islam leads to purity and righteousness and which offers to restore the glories of the Golden Age of the 11th and 12th Centuries when the world of Islam stretched from China to southern Europe and was the center of civilization.  It is that simplicity and vision of grandeur that lies at the heart of ISIS’ propaganda appeal to disaffected Muslim youth throughout the Middle East and in Europe and North America. 

Actually, the dreams of ISIS and similar Islamist movements have less to do with the highlights of Islamic civilization in the Middle East during the Middle Ages than with a glorified vision of a bedouin camp.  They do not long for the days when Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo or Toledo were cosmopolitan crossroads where scholars explored ancient and modern philosophy, laid the foundations of modern science, medicine and mathematics, and poetry, music and graphic arts flourished.  ISIS and other fundamentalist conservatives dream of a simple community where there is no moral ambiguity or confusion about gender or age appropriate roles and life is regulated and constrained by traditional social norms.   

Typically when we say “terrorist” we mean someone who uses violence randomly against innocent people in order to spread fear and undermine peoples’ trust in each other and their government.  ISIS is no longer a terrorist group in that sense.  They certainly use violence as an expression of ideology when they seek to eradicate entire groups like the Yazidis or Iraqi Christians and by all accounts they use violence as a tool of suppression and control in the areas they occupy.  But ISIS has gone beyond trying to undermine an existing order to conquering territory and creating new systems of control.

This matters because the fact that ISIS exercises direct control over territory, acting like a government with administrative structures and responsibility to provide basic services like water and electricity and law and order, poses different strategic challenges than would a more fluid and amorphous band of terrorists with distinct hideouts and safe havens.


I assume that nations, like individual humans, act only in their self interest.  (That doesn't mean selfishness – there are many times and ways in which you or I can see that what is good for us is also good for someone else; often we realize that we can only get what we want if others get what they want.)

Let’s start with what I think is NOT an issue: the threat that they’re going to come get us.  I do not think ISIS is a direct threat to you and me.  They are focused on establishing and expanding their state and expelling the West and all its evil works from the Muslim world.  Diverting resources to some kind of spectacular assault on a symbolic target in the US or Europe does not directly contribute to the primary goal. 

There is concern in some quarters that some of the British, French or American citizens who have already joined ISIS forces will return home (or perhaps be sent home) to cause trouble.  To the extent that this is a real possibility, I think the precautions already in place and the additional measures being taken by European and American security services should be quite adequate.

Paradoxically, the more people worry about ISIS or returning jihadists coming to get them, the more it serves ISIS’ interests by reinforcing the image of them as a ferocious and frightening force and making people less supportive of attempts to deal with them.

Many knowledgeable observers disagree strongly with this analysis.  Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Iraq who also served in Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan has said  "If we don't think we're on their target list, we are delusional." 

I think there are two major U.S. interests potentially threatened by the emergence of ISIS:  human development and stability.

Human Development:  whether you agree with John Donne that “no man is an island” or want to argue pragmatically that a society or world with extremes of wealth and poverty cannot last, ISIS is a clear and present danger to any hope of a decent future for the citizens of Iraq and Syria and beyond.

I'm using “human development” to include the political, economic and social dimensions.

Politically, Iraq under Saddam or Syria under the Assads were stagnant regimes in which opportunities for political involvement and action were carefully limited.  Elections were a cynical sham and regime critics were often jailed.  The original ideological ferver of the regimes, based on the promise of democratic socialism and guided development,  had long since played itself out There was some room to do or think what you wished as long as you did not openly challenge the status quo.  One factor underlying the authoritarianism and anti-democratic features of many regimes in the developing world has been the concerted effort to replace parochial communal identities with a national one.  To a significant extent that did work:  especially in urban settings, an Iraqi or Syrian identity did exist as a felt reality that was more important than religious or ethnic ties.

 Economically, the physical quality of life and standard of living did improve over time in both Iraq and Syria, although the rate of growth has slowed dramatically in the past two decades and the distribution of wealth has become more unequal. 

Socially, both Saddam’s Iraq and the Assads’ Syria invested in secular, Westernised education and promoted equality and opportunity for women.  Development was uneven, poverty and traditional attitudes toward gender roles persisted, but until political and economic stagnation drastically slowed progress, peoples’ every day lives did improve.

But ISIS government in the areas it controls verges on repressive totalitarianism.   Some people are by nature so impure, so far removed from the ISIS version of “orthodox” Sunni Islam  that they cannot be allowed to survive.  For the others,  the ISIS progrm of creating a new, pure state with new, pure and righteous men and women demands coercive enforcement of unconditional public adherence to a rigid code of behavior.  

The idea of International Stability offers a second rationale for outside intervention against ISIS. 

The new secular national identity that has emerged in many less developed countries around the world including Iraq and Syria, does not mean that older religious, ethnic or tribal identities disappear.  When day to day life is interrupted by a major upheaval that undermines national identity and the institutions that support it, those older identities surge into the foreground, complete with the negative stereotypes of other groups that make it possible to displace the anxiety and distress of social upheaval into anger and hostility directed at them. 

ISIS and similar movements turn that anger and hostility into violence and destruction, threatening the continued existence of the national government.  For all the myriad faults of national governments around the globe, a world in which the traditional nation-state is the dominant form of political community offers a better hope for the future than any other system, especially one based on religion, ethnicity or tribal ties. 

The global economy that supports the high standard of living in Western Europe and North America and is largely responsible for the significant improvement in the standard of living for billions of people in less developed countries, ultimately rests on orderly relations between nations and internal peace within them.


The question of whether we should get involved in the struggle against ISIS is moot.  It does not matter whether you believe that there are vital national interests at stake and we can be successful in defending them or whether you believe that the President has committed the United States to the effort, we are conducting air strikes in both Iraq and Syria, soon there will be 3,000 American military “advisors” trying to put the Iraqi army back together


As usual, much depends on what “win” means. 

If “win” means forcing ISIS out of Iraqi territory and the areas they hold in Syria in the next few months, I think the answer is no.

I think that would require a very large, very effective military force that combined infantry, heavy weapons and air strikes.  Even if the various forces fighting (or fleeing) ISIS: the Iraqi army, Iranian Revolutionary Guards,  the Kurdish pesh merga, and the many disparate Syrian opposition groups could somehow communicate and co-ordinate (two chances: none and less than zero) they lack both the personnel and firepower.  And a series of pitched battles in the areas currently controlled by ISIS would produce a staggering number of dead and wounded innocent civilians. 

If “win” means contain ISIS militarily in the short run, cut off their sources of funding, supplies, an recruits and expect (hope?) that ISIS will collapse as a governing body in the face of discontent and unrest in Mosul, Fallujah and other cities aided and abetted by fighters from Shia Iraqi militias and Iran?  

This would require:

Increased air strikes.  We have already had some success helping Iraqi and Kurdish  units with air strikes.  After a string of rapid victories, ISIS was unable to hold the Hamidi dam and has so far failed to conquer the border city of Kobani.  The US has been able to persuade other countries, including France and Britain and Qatar to play a role in an air campaign but the bulk of heavy lifting will be done by US aircraft. 

Cutting off outside support to ISIS and expecting an insurgent campaign from within.  It is estimated that ISIS gets several million dollars a month from contributions from wealthy conservatives in Saudi Arabia and Gulf States, oil sales on the black market, and the flow of new fighters from elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa and from Europe and North America.  Western governments have substantial experience in following the money and disrupting the flow to groups like al-Qaeda and international criminals. 

Figuring out what to do with the estimated 30,000 ISIS members.  It is one thing to target ISIS leaders for drone strikes, dealing with thousands of young men from across the Arab world and beyond is a fundamentally different challenge.  But if ISIS does collapse in the face of external pressure and internal resistance and the foot soldiers disperse to their home countries or other troubled regions, we may end up with a whole series of ISIS-like groups.

I think (perhaps “hope” is a better word) that this can be done.  The problems to be solved and obstacles to be overcome in securing the cooperation of governments like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey and non-governmental forces like Syrian and Iraqi tribes and militias are significant.

                            The Kurds will continue to be a major factor in this struggle but
                            where do I list them?  While the powers that be in the Kurdish
                            region of Iraq look like a government, walk like a government,
                            squawk like a government and tax like a government, it suits
                            everyone’s interests to pretend they’re not a government.  But the
                            Kurdish miliary is far better organized, and has far more combat
                            experience than anti-regime militias in Syria or the Iraqi army or
                            the various tribal militias in Iraq.

I also think a that US politics may be as big an obstacle to a strategy against ISIS that require sustained effort over many months.  Right now those on the left who have deep reservations about US involvement are effectively silenced by popular revulsion at ISIS brutality and beheadings and by the desire to support a beleaguered President.  And Obama’s critics on the right have largely restricted their criticism to the notion that he isn’t doing enough.  Polls suggest that there is broad support for “doing something” about ISIS.

But as this operation drags on with little visible success and perhaps some American casualties, I think it is likely that both those who think we are doing too much and those who think we are doing too little will become increasingly disenchanted with Obama and the issue will become more and more contentious.  A more bitterly partisan, grid-locked Congress and the bevy of 2016 Presidential contenders will probably lead to every small success being trumpeted as “THE TURNING POINT!” and every small setback framed as “WE KNEW IT WOULD NEVER WORK!”

For better or worse we are profoundly involved in the future of Iraq and Syria. I think one of the most important lessons we should have leaned from Iraq and Afghanistan is that in long run the political, economic and social dimensions of complex situations are more important than the military.  If we persist in treating ISIS as essentially a military problem, we are very unlikely to be happy with the results.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The End of Another Chapter in the Middle East

And another attempt to bring peace to the Middle East limps off the stage.  April 29 was the official deadline for Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month effort to reach a deal.  But it really ended on the last week end in March. [Caution: we are entering the spin cycle, where everyone is working over time to make the case that it was the other side who wrecked everything.]

The Fateful Events

Prisoner Release.  The first public sign of crisis in the talks was Israel’s announcement that it was delaying the release of the fourth set of Palestinian prisoners.  The government of Israel, as a confidence-building measure at the start of the talks, had agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners who were convicted of crimes against Israeli citizens (“terrorist acts”) before the 1992 Oslo Accords.  The prisoners, some of who were near the end of their sentences, were to be released in four stages.  The problem with the fourth group, as I understand it, is that 14 of the 24 prisoners were Israeli Arabs rather than Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza Strip.  The prisoner release was controversial enough in Israel as it was; the fact that some of them were Israeli citizens was especially troubling because they were seen as both terrorists and traitors who would be returning their homes in Israel.  There were demands from members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet that they be exiled to the West Bank and stripped of their Israeli citizenship.

 A Scramble for a Deal.  When the Palestinian negotiators threatened to react to the delay in the prisoner release by walking out of negotiations, Secretary of State Kerry launched a frantic effort to patch things up.  If various press reports are accurate, Kerry was going to offer the release of Jonathon Pollard and an extension of the talks beyond the April 29 deadline.  (The White House has officially denied this story.)

Jonathon Pollard: An American intelligence analyst who was convicted in 1987 of spying for Israel and given a life sentence.  Many people in both Israel and the United States feel that his sentence was unduly harsh given that the information he passed to the Israeli government was U.S. intelligence on Arab countries, not information on U.S. military or political strategy.  They also point out that no other person convicted of spying for a U.S. ally has drawn a life sentence.  

Both Sides Act.  Kerry’s effort were eclipsed by three actions.  The first was the announcement by the Palestinian Authority that it had signed some 15 United Nations conventions and treaties.  The second was the announcement of plans by Israel to build several thousand additional housing units in the West Bank.  The Israeli side regarded the Palestinians’ actions as violating their pledge not to pursue claims to statehood through the UN system.  (For more discussion, see The Palestinians regarded the expansion of settlements as a violation of Israel’s pledge to “show restraint.”  A few days later, the Palestinians announced that Fatah, the dominant faction in the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, the governing party in the Gaza Strip, had reached a unity agreement. 

Why Bother?

Time after time the President of the United States has announced a new effort to bring peace to the Middle East and time after time those talks have failed.  Even the Oslo Accords of 1992, which initially led to a fundamental change in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and promised so much more, fell far short of delivering on  what each side promised to the other.  One might ask, why should the U.S. bother?  The quick answer is that it is in the long-term national interest of  Israel, the Palestinians and the United States. 

He Really Said That?  In a speech the National Press Club, Secretary of State Kerry used the term “apartheid state.”  Contrary to some of the more hysterical reactions in both the U.S. and Israel, Kerry did not say that Israel was guilty of practicing apartheid, with all the connotations of racial oppression and gross injustice that word carries.  What he did say was that that was one of two terrible options looming in the future if there is no agreement on a two-state solution.  By the way, Tzipi Livni, Minister of Justice in the Israeli government and chief negotiator in the talks, said the same thing in a speech last week. 

One alternative to two states -- Israel and Palestine -- is the current situation.  Some parts of the West Bank have local control over internal policies but with the Israeli military controlling security, the Israeli government controlling and collecting taxes on imports and exports,  and increasing numbers of Israeli setters establishing gated and armed enclaves with their own roads and infrastructure.   Other parts of the West Bank are under direct Israeli administration.  This mix of indirect and direct rule of people who are not part of the Israeli polity is a direct threat to Israel’s democratic essence.  The roughly 540,000 Israeli citizens who live in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have far more rights and privileges than the 2.7 million Palestinians.

The other alternative to two states, is to make them one.  That is, Israel would simply annex the West Bank.   But the resulting new Israel would have around 9 million Jewish citizens and 5 million Arab citizens and the so-called “demographic time bomb” would be loudly ticking.  The Arab inhabitants of the West Bank and the quarter of the current population of Israel that is classified as Arab have markedly higher birth rates than Jewish Israelis.  The day would inevitably come when Jews would become a minority and the Jewish identity of Israel was we know it would be gone.

The Politics of Despair.  West Bank Palestinians are young -- half are less than 22 years old.  By contrast the median age in Israel is 29 and in the U.S. it’s 37.  The official unemployment rate is around 25% but everyone understands that it is substantially higher than that.  Compared to their counterparts in most of the rest of the Arab world, these young Palestinians are better educated and more urbanized ... both factors that lead to greater political involvement, especially in protest movements.  There is a major disconnect between many young Palestinians and the current leadership, men in their 70s and 80s whose glory days as freedom fighters in the 1970s and 1980s are ancient history and who are widely perceived as self serving and corrupt.  As the creation of a Palestinian state seems to recede further and further into the realm of the impossible dream, a third Intifada (uprising) looms as a larger and larger threat.  And this time it may be that stones and burning tires will be replaced by AK-47s and Improvised Explosive Devices.  But an armed insurgency is far more likely to destroy the economic, social and political progress the Palestinians have made in the past 20 years than it is to dislodge the Israeli Defense Forces and the armed settlers.

Pragmatism, Politics and Principle.  The United States has pragmatic interests in seeing a stable and peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Israel is an important military asset for the U.S.  The Israeli army, air force and navy are far superior to any other country in the region and cooperate closely with the U.S. on strategy and tactics, and the Israelis contribute vital intelligence on the Arab world.  Israel is a significant trading partner, despite the relatively small size of its economy.  Israeli tech firms are important partners for many U.S. software giants and the Israeli military is an important consumer of American-made weapons and equipment.   Creation of a Palestinian state would enhance the Israeli economy.

Many Americans take a candidate’s stance on Israel into consideration when they vote.  In addition to Jews who feel an understandable emotional and ideological kinship with Israel, evangelical Christians have become increasingly vocal and uncritical champions of Israel.  And public opinion polls consistently show Israel with a profoundly positive image in the eyes of the vast majority of Americans.

Even if the coldly practical economic and military reasons and the politics of the issues did not impel American leaders to seek a solution, political morality does.  Israel is a stable, mature democracy.  The core values of Israeli civic life are the same as the core values of American civic life.  If, as many people think, the future of Israel and the future of the Palestinians are inextricably linked, then the United States has a principled reason for working to find a way for them to live together.

So How Come It Didn’t Happen?

The Core Issues.  For the past twenty years the four central issues in the conflict have been borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees. 

Borders: No one seriously believes that the borders of Israel at the start of the Six-Day War in 1967 can be restored.  But how much alteration will be done to account for military defense and the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and around Jerusalem?

Security: What restrictions will a Palestinian state accept on its military and defense forces to reassure Israel that it is not the spearhead of aggression from the Arab world?  What assurances can the Palestinian state get that the Israeli Defense Forces will not operate at will in Palestinian territory?

Jerusalem: Israel has declared Jerusalem its “eternal and indivisible capital”; the Palestinians have built a large “lecture/community” hall that looks a whole lot like a potential parliament building in the eastern, traditionally Arab section of Jerusalem.  Can the semantic and historical distinction between “:Jerusalem” and “East Jerusalem” satisfy each side?

Refugees: Regardless of the morality of telling people whose families have been expelled from their homes that they can’t go back, the fact is that it is impossible for Palestinians (or their descendants) who left their homes during the 1948 or 1967 wars to go home.  But is it possible to find some way to compensate them for their loss?

While the negotiators did a good job of keeping their discussions private and not negotiating in the media, enough leaked out to suggest that the talks bogged down on the complications of drawing borders. 

Complication 1: Settlements.  The first time the Obama administration ventured into Middle East peacemaking, it tried to make a six-month moratorium on settlement activity in the West Bank a precondition for talks.  That led to a direct confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the talks were declared dead before they began.  This time around the U.S. and the Palestinians merely asked for “restraint.”  But Israel authorized 4800 new houses in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and announced plans for 6800 more in the months ahead.
To paint with a broad brush, there are two types of settlements.  One comprises the suburban communities built in the eastern suburbs of Tel Aviv and in a ring around the eastern side of Jerusalem.  Around 400,000 people live in those two areas, attracted primarily by the lack of housing elsewhere in Israel and government subsidized rents.  They look and feel like gated suburban communities in the
U.S. except for the fact that security is much tighter and people commute to their jobs in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem along special roads from which Palestinian cars are excluded.  The other type of settlement consists of much smaller units scattered throughout the West Bank.  Some are legal under Israeli law; others are illegal.  Most of the residents of these settlements are motivated by ideology and religious conviction.  They describe themselves as living in Judea and Samaria, integral parts of the land of Israel in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament.  This second type of settlement is often built close to Palestinian villages and farms, and contentious interactions between settlers and Palestinians are common.  Some of these settlements are the sources of “price tag” incidents, in which olive orchards are decimated or mosques, churches and graveyards are desecrated to convince local Palestinians that staying in their homes and resisting settlements is too expensive.
The settlement program, begun in the early 1970s to “create facts on the ground” that would make a return to Israel’s pre-197 borders, has succeeded.  No one, including the Palestinian leadership, seriously expects Israel to abandon the settlement communities around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  The other settlements in the West Bank are far more problematic for both sides.

Complication 2: Politics in Israel.  Israeli voters run the gamut from very secular to very religious.   Middle and upper middle class Israelis, especially those whose families originally came from Europe or North America, differ from working class or poor Israelis, especially those whose families originally came from elsewhere in the Middle East.  Second or third-generation sabras (native-born Israelis) differ from more recent immigrants, particularly the large number of Russian Jews who have arrived since the end of the Soviet Union.

Without making this sound too much like a Political Science lecture (although that’s not a bad thing ....) The structure of Israeli political institutions tends to exacerbate political differences rather than promoting compromise.  Seats in the Knesset are allocated by proportion of the vote a party receives, and a party only needs to get slightly more than 1% of the vote to get a seat.  This encourages a proliferation of small parties reflecting rather narrow ideological or religious interests.  The large majority of Israeli voters are fairly evenly divided between moderately left of center and moderately right of center ideological positions, but the proliferation of smaller, more extreme parties means that no centrist party can get a majority of the seats necessary to form a government.  Instead coalitions are built among sometimes widely divergent political factions.  The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an example of very strange political bedfellows:   Netanyahu gets to be Prime Minster because he controls the single biggest bloc of votes -- 31 out of a total of 120.  But he had to combine his Likud party with Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), a party whose base support is Russian immigrants, most of whom live in West Bank settlements.  Thus the Foreign Minister of Israel is Avigdor Lieberman, who is only weakly committed to a two-state solution and is openly dismissive of any chance that talks with the Palestinians will ever succeed.  The coalition includes the Jewish Home party, led by Nafatli Bennet.  Mr. Bennett, an outspoken and colorful advocate of ever-expanding settlements and opponent of a Palestinian state, serves as Minister of Economics in the government.  But the government also includes Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a veteran centrist politician who has long been an advocate for negotiations and a Palestinian state and was Israel’s lead negotiator in the last round of talks.  While the left hand of the government negotiated with the Palestinians and the Americans, the right hand called for the annexation of large parts of the West Bank and stripping Israeli Arabs of citizenship and letting them join the Palestinians in tightly controlled enclaves.
The outcome of the negotiations rested heavily on the assumption (or wishful thinking) that Mr. Netanyahu could find the political will and wiles to overcome the obstructionism of his erstwhile allies.

I do not mean to suggest that the failure is solely Israel’s fault.  The Palestinians missed opportunities to move ahead, perhaps most notably by moving to join 15 United Nations conventions instead of waiting another day or two for Secretary of State Kerry to finalize a deal that would allow Netanyahu, over the vehement objections of some of  his own government ministers, to release the last 24 Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of Jonathon Pollard (there is substantial circumstantial evidence to suggest that that was about to happen ... despite official White House denials.)

And Now? 

Two things that will NOT happen:  

1.  A MAD action.  Some Palestinian leaders have threatened to dissolve their government, thus forcing Israel to assume direct control and full responsibility for all of the West Bank.  This would be a variant of the old Mutual Assured Destruction threat of the Cold War, inflicting disastrous consequences on both sides.

2.  Annexation.  Israel will not follow the urging of the Economic Minister and annex some 61% of the West Bank, ending all hope of a viable Palestinian state.  This also would be a MAD act with even greater catastrophic damage for Israel.

Two Nightmares that Might Happen.

1.   The failure of the talks, on top of widespread disillusionment with the aging and often corrupt leadership of the Palestinian Authority and the indignities and irritations of the Israeli military presence lead to a third Intifada.  This youth-led uprising could feature widespread, chaotic violence against Israeli soldiers, Palestinian police forces, and Israeli settlers. 

2.  The ideologically and religiously motivated settler movement expands even more rapidly in the West Bank, accompanied with increased violacea against Palestinians and more incidents of violent resistance to Israeli civil and military authorities.  Much of the West Bank would become effectively ungovernable.  The hope of a land for peace deal, in which Israel would dismantle enough settlements to permit a viable Palestinian state in exchange for guaranteed peace and security, would be dead.

The Next Chapter?

There is an official pause in the talks.  Unlike Coca Cola, this is not a pause that refreshes.  The Obama administration has tried to broker talks twice and failed both times.  There will not be a third effort.  The next elections in Israel will be some time in 2017.  Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, has said often that he feels old (at 79) and tired and it is time for a new generation of leadership.  It will take months, if not years, to work out a new leadership structure and close the schism between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza. 

If everyone is fortunate, there will be time to resolve the political dynamics before either nightmare comes to pass.  But it will not be soon and in the meantime everyone’s situation -- Israeli, Palestinian and American -- will get worse.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Syria Has Become Regional Battleground

The year 2014 may see some profound changes in the Middle East.  There are three major dynamics in play that have the potential to reshape the political landscape for decades to come:
the transformed war in Syria, a changed relationship between Iran and the West, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. 

This entry will focus on the war in Syria, subsequent entries will look at the thaw in Iranian relations with the U.S. and Europe, and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

As the new year dawns, the most significant development in the ongoing battles in Syria is that the conflict is no longer a simple struggle by anti-regime forces to oust Bashir Assad and his government but has become a regional war in which most of the key players are from outside Syria.

The Arab Spring, the popular movement for the end of corrupt, authoritarian regimes that began in Tunisia and spread quickly to Egypt and other countries, arrived in Syria in March, 2011.  In keeping with Tolstoy’s observation that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, the movement against the regime of Bashir Assad took on a unique dynamic.

All Politics is Local

The Syrian regime is rooted in the Alawite community.  The most familiar division within Islam is between Sunni and Shi’a communities.  But there are distinctions within those two overarching groups, typically far more deeply rooted in history and communal identities than the finer points of theology or proper religious observances.  The Alawites emerged as a distinctive group within the larger Shi’a community in the 9th Century in the coastal region around Latakia.  Many Sunni imams and scholars tend to regard all Shi’a as at best heterodox believers and at worst heretics and infidels. Other Shi’a communities in the region tended to regard the Alawites with suspicion because the community has a set of unique doctrines and mystical beliefs that is known only to the leaders of the community.  The Alawites often had strained relations with their neighbors and suffered repression and persecution from time to time over the centuries.  They came to dominate the military and civil administration under French colonial rule and when several years of instability ended with Hafez al-Assad’s military coup in Damascus, they came to dominate the government of Syria. 

In both Tunisia and Egypt the protest movements were aimed at a particular family or ruling clique and very few people outside the regime’s inner circle felt that they were potential targets. But in Syria, because the regime was so strongly rooted in and identified with the Alawite community, many people outside the government and outside Damascus defined the protests as largely Sunni Muslims attacking not only Alawites but Shi’a Syrians in general.  When Assad’s government reacted with brutal force against peaceful demonstrators in Damascus and other cities, an armed insurrection broke out, centered in parts of Syria with largely Sunni population.  Instead of an isolated and unpopular regime whose own security forces were willing to sacrifice the politicians to protect their own status and position, the Assad regime became the lesser of two evils for a large portion of Syria’s citizens. 

But Some Politics are More Local Than Others

The more Syrians defined their struggle in communal and sectarian terms, the more powerful forces outside the country began to dominate.  The most important external players include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.  Less important players include the U.S., Russia, and Europeans.

Saudi Arabia and Iran been involved in an historic battle over the future of Islam since the 1979 Iranian revolution.  Iran sees itself as the embodiment of a Shi’a revolution that will counter the historic oppression of Shi’a by Sunni dominated regimes.  Saudi Arabia sees itself, the Guardian of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, as the protector of true Islam against heretics, apostates and infidels.  Thus Iran has provided moral, monetary and material support to Shi’a based movements in Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf States, the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, and Palestine.  Saudi Arabia has countered by training thousands of imams in a particularly conservative and fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam who serve not unlike missionaries throughout the world.  The Saudis were the primary financiers and advocates for the guerrillas who waged war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.  Many of the fighters in Afghanistan were young men from Arab or other Muslim countries who returned home battle hardened and ready to continue the fight to protect the Saudi version of Islam. 

          Irony: Al-Qaeda was founded by veterans of the Afghan war from Saudi Arabia
          whose initial target was the Saudi royal family whom they saw as having strayed
          from the Saudi version of Islam.

So when the conflict erupted in Syria, Iran was more than willing to expand its continuing cooperation with the regime.  And Saudi Arabia, along with other some of the Gulf States, especially Qatar, was ready to support the anti-Assad movement with money, weapons and armed fighters. 

The conflict in Syria was never a simple clash between government forces and an organized resistance.  The Syrian opposition was never unified around a particular set of leaders or organizations.  Opposition groups within the country and emigre opposition groups in Paris or London had little contact with each other and no cooperative relationships.  The opposition within the country, particularly the armed elements were, and are, very localized, crystalizing around local community leaders or the officers of a miliary unit that defected from the Syrian Armed Forces.  While The Free Syrian Army emerged as a potential unifying force among rebellious troops and local militias and a bridge between internal and external regime opponents, it did not develop into anything more than a loose coalition among the various armed groups.  As money, munitions and manpower flowed into Syria from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, the number of small fighting groups multiplied.  Many of the new groups had a transnational outlook, motived less by opposition to the Assad regime than by a sense that Syria was becoming the new front in the struggle of righteous (Sunni) Muslims against the heretics, apostates and unbelievers. 

What began as a Syrian narrative of a repressive and corrupt regime brutally resisting public demands for change quickly became a chapter in a decades long regional saga.

The Iran-Syria-Lebanon Connection

Late in the 19th Century France and other European powers pressured the Ottoman Empire to create a protective zone for Maronite Christians and other religious minorities around Mount Lebanon, which had until then been politically and administratively part of Syria.  The separation was formalized after World War I when France created Lebanon as a mandated area under the League of Nations distinct from its colonial rule of Syria.  But from the perspective of Damascus Lebanon was, and always would be, part of Greater Syria.  When Syria gained independence from France in 1946 Lebanon was already an independent state and part of the United Nations.  As much as Syrians might wish it, the combination of domestic political turmoil in Syria and explicit security guarantees to Lebanon from France made a simple reabsorption of Lebanon impossible.  But Syria remained a major player in the convoluted Lebanese mosaic of communal and sectarian politics.  Syria tended to promote the interests of the Shi’a Lebanese community against the dominant Christian and Sunni communities and to see Lebanon as a potential second front against Israel. 

In the aftermath of the 1980 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, a resistance movement calling itself Hezbollah emerged in the Shi’a heartland of southern Lebanon.  Inspired and supported by the newly established Islamic Republic in Iran, Hezbollah was also supported by Syria since it was both dedicated to fighting the Israeli occupation and Shi’a.  Over time Syria, Iran and Hezbollah developed a close relationship, with Iran supplying much of the funding and Syria delivering weapons and technical support. 

Syria and Iran continued to develop close ties, beyond the shared support of Hezbollah.  The contradiction between Iran’s vision of an Islamic state and Syria’s vision of a secular, nationalist  country brought into modernity by socialism mattered far less than their mutual antipathy to Iraq, Israel, and to the West.  The end of the Cold War and the apparent dominant role of the United States in the Middle East helped cement the bond.

It was not surprising, then, that when insurgents threatened the regime in Damascus, Iran lent monetary and material support.  And when the ranks of opposition were swelled by foreign fighters espousing the conservative Sunni view that Shi’a Muslims were not real Muslims, Hezbollah sent thousands of its well trained and armed members to support the Assad regime. 

The Latest Layer of Strife

The American invasion of Iraq created a regime dominated by Shi’a factions and politicians.  Many of the key players, from the prime minister on down, seem to have adopted the attitude that Iraqi Sunnis oppressed the Shi’a community for decades; now it is their turn to get even.  Despite the urging of the U.S., the people in power in Iraq since 2004 have systematically excluded Sunni from good jobs with the state (by far and away the largest source of jobs in Iraq), marginalized them in the military and police forces, and shifted government spending away from Sunni provinces.  The Sunni local leaders who spearheaded the “Awakening Movement” in 2005-6 that shifted the focus of some 100,000 armed militiamen from fighting the American occupation to fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq and bolstering the new regime in Baghdad were promised larger share of the national budget and jobs for their young men, including posts in the Iraqi Army.  Not all of those promises were kept and the situation got worse after the last American soldiers withdrew in 2011. Insurgents began fighting again in the Sunni provinces and Al Qaeda in Iraq renewed its campaign of suicide bombings against Shi’a civilians and the Iraqi security forces.   The border between western Iraq, where Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni groups are active and eastern Syria where al Qaeda linked and other jihadist groups are fighting Damascus runs through hundreds of miles of barren and lonely desert.  As the fighting has expanded in both Iraq and Syria, forces from Iraq have linked up with kindred sprits in Syria and declared the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and have succeeded in taking control of some towns, as well as defeating militias associated with the Free Syrian Army and seizing supplies and equipment provided by the United States.

Young men recruited from across the Arab world and areas like Chechnya or Bosnia where Muslims have been fighting outside forces, hardened by combat in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, and inspired by a vision of pure and simple world where strict traditional social norms are scrupulously followed make wonderful soldiers but terrible rulers.  When the Al-Qaeda influenced fighters have captured a town or small city, they have instituted a draconian regime that outlaws all Western influences and anything that strikes their puritanical views as immoral, including television, dancing and singing. 

But Syrians, particularly the half of the population that is 24 years old or younger, are not traditional peasants but largely literate, with at least an 8th grade education and wide exposure to the broader world via television, movies, and social media.  The only way a group composed of people seen as unsophisticated outsiders and foreigners can impose a harsh new social order is through violence and intimidation.  Areas captured by the jihadists have been marked by rebellions and the emergence of groups dedicated to ousting them.  Some of the major assaults in ISIS forces are being led by al Nusra, a larger, better equipped group that claims to be the official Al Qaeda group in Syria.  One issue in the struggle has been the ISIS insistence that the immediate goal is to establish an Islamic state, not to fight Assad’s forces.  The other groups want to eliminate the Assad regime first, then create a new political and social order.

The Assad regime has benefitted from these internecine battles in two major ways.  The regime has claimed all along the opposition is nothing but terrorists and thugs, not honest Syrians seeking political change.  And the disarray among the opposition military forces has permitted the Syrian military to regain significant amounts of territory.  The regime’s grip on power is firmer today than it was a year ago.

January 22 .... no big deal

The United States and Russia, under UN auspices, are sponsoring talks to resolve the crisis in Syria starting on January 22.  The Assad government has said it will attend; some opposition groups have refused to participate.  The Free Syrian Army probably will show up. 

I don’t think the talks will bear any fruit.  As much as the US, Russia, and Europe want an end to the terrible suffering of ordinary Syrians, as much as everyone prefers stability to chaos, the states we think of as world powers are helpless to change the facts on the ground.  Negotiations are most likely to work when there are two sides to a dispute and both sides think they can improve their position by reaching an agreement.  Having powerful external actors who can nudge both sides toward compromise helps.

But there aren’t two sides in Syria, there are multiple armed groups with only partially overlapping agendas.  Some groups think they would be better off with a cease fire; others feel events are moving in their favor.  Russia and Iran both have some influence in Damascus with cooperation going back to the 1970s and continuing weapons sales but (even if they wanted to) Russia could hardly persuade the Syrian government to dismantle itself.  The US and European states like France and Britain have some influence with some opposition groups, notably the Free Syrian Army, but no contact, let alone leverage with the better equipped and more effective fighting forces supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others. 

In the short run it is hard to see any positive development in Syria, though I certainly hope that when somebody reads that in a month or two they will be able to laugh at how far off that prediction was.  The future of the Assad regime as a core issue has been overshadowed by what outside forces have defined as a Sunni-Shi’a conflict and struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence in the Middle East. 

And all that means that the humanitarian catastrophe that is Syria today will only get worse.  Tens of thousands more will die; hundreds of thousands will become refugees. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Things I Think I Think About Syria

I do not know what should be done in Syria.  I can make the argument for supporting the administration’s plan for a targeted response that degrades some aspects of Assad’s military.  And I can make the argument for avoiding a unilateral miliary response in favor of a multilateral negotiated settlement.

Some things I think are part of the mix.

The quality of intelligence

This is NOT Iraq.  There is no ideologically driven clique in the White House and Defense Department committed to the conquest of Iraq as part of a broader scheme to remake the Middle East.  There is no cherry picking of ambiguous information.  I think the evidence of the use of sarin gas is compelling.  I think when the UN inspection team completes its report, they will echo that conclusion.  I also think the UN inspectors will not go beyond their mandate to determine if chemical weapons were used to offer an opinion on who used them.

The Long Shadow of Rwanda and Darfur

Arguments that seek a parallel between Syria and Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia are misleading.  In each instance the differences are striking, the similarities minimal.  I don’t think Obama’s foreign policy and national security advisors are affected by them.  But I do think there are two tragedies of the past 20 years that do affect decision making on Syria: Rwanda and Darfur.  

In 1994 one side in a civil conflict in Rwanda orchestrated a genocidal assault on the Tutsi ethnic minority that killed as many as a million people in about three months.  The Clinton administration, and the rest of the international community, did nothing to stop the killing which ended only when rebel forces took control of the country.  The conventional wisdom among scholars and foreign policy practitioners is that the failure to respond to the worst genocide since the Holocaust is a shameful chapter in U.S. history.  Many people currently in senior positions in the State Department or National Security Council served in the Clinton administration and were involved in the policy of willfully ignoring the slaughter.

From 2003 to 2010 the government of Sudan waged war on the civilian population of its rebellious Darfur province killing tens of thousands of people and forcing over a million into refugee camps.  With the UN Security Council hamstrung by Russia and China’s unwavering opposition to any intervention, and the higher priority given to negotiating an end to the larger civil conflict between the North and South Sudan, the U.S. and the rest of the international community did not take effective action to stop the killing.

The most prominent veteran of the Rwanda decisions is Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Advisor.  She was a member of the National Security Council during the Rwanda episode and has been strongly critical of the failure to act.   "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required." [Carney, Timothy (2011-03-28) Obama aides find moral clarity in Libya's foggy war, Washington Examiner]   The otehr top advisor strongly affected by Rwanda and Darfur is Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations.  She is the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” which traces the sad history of genocides in the 20th century.  Not surprisingly she has been very outspoken on the need to respond to humanitarian crises.

The Parallel that Dares Not Speak Its Name

While the failure of the international community (in significant part a failure of the United States to provide leadership) in Rwanda and Darfur plays a role, I believe, in key members of the Obama administration’s decisions, I do not think either case is an accurate or useful example in thinking about Syria. 

Libya in 2011 does provide a good parallel: civil war, potential assault on innocent civilians, successful use of air power to prevent mass slaughter.  But 1) the Libyan intervention was authorized under a UN Security Council resolution with participation from a broad array of countries; 2) the Libyan intervention was not the short, narrowly targeted attack projected for Syria; 3) the pious fiction that the intervention was strictly humanitarian and not meant to affect the balance of power in the civil war was so obviously untenable that no one took it seriously; 4) Benghazi happened.  I do not think the Libyan case helps the Obama administration argue for use of force against Syria but neither do I think it is a useful argument against the use of force.  After all, it can be plausibly argued that the intervention did prevent a terrible assault on civilians and did play a role in ending the fighting. 

What do you do when deterrence fails?

It appears now that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale several times in the past.  It seems likely that Obama’s “red line” statement was not a casual comment or unconsidered remark, as some critics have claimed.  It seems more likely that it was a calculated deterrent threat.  The threat failed ... now what? 

When you try to get someone to do something you want by threatening them – my way or else, or by promising them – try it, you’ll like it; there is always a question of what happens next.  If you promise good things and someone goes along with you, there is a temptation to stiff them on the reward ... you’ve gotten what you want, why pay off?  If you make a threat and it doesn’t work, then what’s the point of punishing them ... it’s too little, too late. 

In both cases, the answer is credibility.  Unless you come through on most of your promises and carry out most of your threats, you will not be believed when you  interact in the future.  The word “most” is an important modifier.  Credibility does not demand that you keep each and every promise or carry out each and every threat.  You don’t have to be a fanatic about it if it really does hurt you more than your target. 

The question proponents of military action raise and opponents ignore, is “What do interested observers like Iran and North Korea make of U.S. hesitancy about carrying out a threat?”  I don’t know and I don’t believe anyone can confidently assert it is either “The U.S. is a paper tiger” or “The U.S. prudently picks its battles.”

Don’t Get Involved in the Syrian Civil War

That train left the station three years ago.  We are involved and striking or refusing to strike will into change that.  It is not just that Congress has already authorized expanding our aid to the anti-regime forces to include lethal weapons.  And it is not just that our NATO ally Turkey is deeply involved with housing refugees and providing some measure of security along its border with Syria, or that countries friendly to us like Saudi Arabia have been major sources of weapons and supplies for the anti-regime forces. 

For the past two years Syria has been morphing from a civil war into a regional war.  Conservative Arab regimes and al Qaeda fighters (a classic odd couple) have become major participants on the anti-regime side.  Iran has become the major supplier of military goods to the regime and thousands of Hezbollah members have crossed from Lebanon to bolster the Syrian armed forces.  Internal Syrian politics and factions are increasingly outweighed by external forces.

Even if a military strike is rejected, it does not mean the United States will not be deeply involved in the future of Syria.  I think the future of Syria will be decisively influenced by the success or failure of the United States and Russia to broker a negotiated settlement of the conflict.  I am not sure that a military strike or decision to avoid a strike will make much difference in the dynamics of the U.S.-Russia relationship or the constellation of interests that logically should drive both countries to collaborate on an outcome with no clear winners or losers.

Going it Alone

If credibility is the strongest argument proponents of a military strike have, then the lack of international support is the strongest argument opponents have. 

In the past couple of decades one of the hottest topics in international relations theory has been norm formation.  The idea that there are rules governing relations among political entities even when there is no overarching authority is as old as interactions between separate communities.  Enforcement has always relied on a combination of reciprocity and the threat of retaliation.  In the last 100 years the evolution of international norms has dramatically accelerated, including rules surrounding the use of force. 

Response to the use of sarin gas in Syria invokes two central norms, both codified in international law.

I need to vent a little.  Whenever I’ve taught a course on International Law I have had to deal with the cynical “realists” who snorted “All’s fair in love and war” or sneered “No courts, no cops, no law!” on their way to equating international law with Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny ... they give you warm fuzzies but they don’t exist. 

For most of us most of the time, compliance with formal laws is NOT based on fear of being caught.  The only reason you didn’t knock over a couple of banks today or hot wire a car is that you were afraid of the cops?  Really?

Compliance with formal laws is the same a compliance with informal norms: we do it out of reciprocity -- we observe and expect everyone else to do it; or social sanctions -- others will think badly of us or shun us. 

In desperation our cranky “realist” friend might point out that states do not always comply with international law, that there are enormous violations.  Yes ... and folks rob and murder and cheat on their taxes and rip the tags off their mattress.  Does that prove that the relevant laws are but mere suggestions?

The first norm, codified in a 1925 Geneva Convention, prohibits the use of poison gas in warfare.  Clearly the Assad regime is in violation of that and related norms that prohibit manufacturing and possessing poison gas, as well as using it. 

But norms restricting the use of force in international affairs were explicitly written into the United Nations Charter.  In simple terms, the Charter says military force can be used only in immediate self defense, with the approval of the UN Security Council or approval by a regional body such as the OAS, African Union or Arab League. 

The United States is, I think, in the awkward position of justifying supporting one norm by violating another.  One would have to argue that acting to maintain the norm against poison gas is a higher legal or moral responsibility than complying with the norms on the use of force.

A Way Out?

As I am writing this the apparent Russian proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to international control has just been announced.  It seems to me this could be a momentous development.

In the worst case scenario this is a stalling tactic, replacing the high drama of a potential U.S. strike with weeks or even months of tedious, mind numbing preparations for  inspections and then arguments and ambiguity about whether everything has been declared and turned over.  


it means Russia implicitly admits Assad used gas;
it makes the Russians partially responsible for preventing future uses of gas;
it makes it far less likely the regime will use gas again;
it offers an opening for the U.S. and Russia to resume collaborative diplomatic efforts;
it gives the Obama administration a way of avoiding a crushing defeat when a bare majority (at best) in the Senate OK’s a strike and a large majority in the House rejects it;
it lets the administration claim victory for their strategy by arguing that it was only the threat of a military strike that provoked the proposal.