Friday, September 26, 2014

Toward a Syrian endgame? - The anti-ISIS campaign may lead to an Assad exit

If Iran and Hezbollah appear worried about the attacks being directed by the United States and its allies against the Islamic State, or ISIS, the reason is simple. They realize that the logical outcome of military operations in Syria is likely to be pressure for a political solution that leads to Bashar al-Assad’s departure.

The connection between the anti-ISIS campaign and the Syrian conflict was made on Thursday at a Friends of Syria foreign ministers’ meeting in New York. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal expressed it succinctly: “For as long as the strife in Syria continues, the growth of extremist groups will continue.”

Applying the same logic as in Iraq, the Americans are also likely to soon conclude that only a more inclusive government in Syria can consolidate the gains made against ISIS. In Iraq, the aim was to bring Sunnis into the political process, in the belief that they are necessary to defeating ISIS, and to do so the Obama administration helped remove Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Why should Syria be any different?

Perhaps what disturbs Iran and Hezbollah the most is that their strategy in both Iraq and Syria is crumbling. When Mosul fell to ISIS, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was asked what was to be done. “We must rely on Shiite solidarity,” Suleimani allegedly replied.

That was decidedly not the solution that the United States pursued, nor one that would have allowed the Iraqi government to prevail over ISIS. If anything, Shiite solidarity would only have solidified the Iraqi divide, allowing ISIS, with its core of Saddam-era officers, to reinforce its hold over Sunni areas.

In Syria, Iran’s policies have brought little more than fragmentation. That may be an Iranian objective, but the repercussions are turning to Tehran’s disadvantage. The minority backbone of the regime is breaking as Alawites and Christians take increasingly heavy losses. This is unsustainable, and already there are signs that the regime’s supporters are becoming angry over the way the war is being conducted.

In Qalamoun, Hezbollah and the Syrian army announced earlier this year that they had defeated the rebels. In fact, not wanting to engage in a bloody final push in such places as Qusayr and Yabroud, they allowed the rebels to evacuate the towns with their weapons and regroup in the hinterland.

Now Hezbollah is trapped in a battle it cannot win in Qalamoun, while the Syrian regime has lost ground in the south of Syria and around Damascus – not to mention its loss of large outposts in the north and east of the country. Assad once said that the fighting in Syria would be largely over by the end of this year. He may yet be right, but not quite in the way he envisaged.

Officially, Russian support for Assad has not diminished, but as Moscow wrestles with the consequences of the conflict in the Ukraine and an economy suffering from Western sanctions, its outlook toward Syria may change. Earlier this year Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, told one of his Lebanese interlocutors that in speaking to Russian officials, he felt that they had reached an impasse over Syria.

If true, the Russian impasse, along with the Iranian impasse, along with the air war against ISIS, may create the elements of a broader deal in Syria that sees Assad’s removal while also offering guarantees to the country’s frightened minorities. Yet Iran and Russia are wary that it may be Assad’s enemies who will get the best of any such deal, in part because it is their airplanes that are flying sorties above Syria and their weapons that will be sent to the “moderates” among the rebels.

The question is how the Obama administration will react to the inescapable reality that for its anti-ISIS campaign to succeed in Syria, it will require a parallel political solution to end the conflict there. President Barack Obama is not about to admit that openly, just weeks before midterm congressional elections, when isolationist impulses are still strong in America. However, once the voting is done, anticipate a change in attitude.

The challenge for Obama will be to prepare the ground for a political solution, even if we’re not there yet. The meeting in New York between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers this week was a useful start, though Tehran and Riyadh remain far apart on Syria. Obama’s decision to bar Iran from the recent anti-ISIS coalition meeting in Paris was probably a mistake, given Tehran’s influence in both Baghdad and Damascus. The Gulf states may have been pleased, but reaching a consensus over Syria will not happen without Iran being a part of it.

In the end, Bashar Assad is expendable. Not even the Iranians can seriously believe that normalization in Syria will take place with him remaining in office. That means that a mechanism must be found to reduce the differences between the various regional actors involved in Syria. And there is a major difference today when compared to the past: America is engaged and it has an interest in creating a new political context that can shore up the gains it makes against ISIS.

Not so long ago, Obama didn’t want to hear about Syria. Now his aircraft are bombing Syria on a daily basis. Before long, expect the president to talk more about a resolution of the Syrian conflict. It is becoming plain that he cannot avoid doing so, even if the president’s predisposition to avoid problems usually means they come back to hit him twice as hard.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Army is being sucked into Syria

The rising number of attacks against the Lebanese Army in Arsal and northern Lebanon is a worrying reminder of what is at stake for the military. In entering the fray in Arsal, the Army has immersed itself in the treacherous dynamics of Syria’s civil war.

By trying to close off the Lebanese-Syrian border, a legitimate aim in principle, the Army is effectively participating in strangling the Syrian rebels in the Qalamoun district. The rebels rely on access to Arsal to resupply themselves and to rest. With winter coming, the rebels realize that they will have to come down from the high ground in Qalamoun, and if they are denied access to Arsal, they will have to find alternatives, leaving them more vulnerable to attack by the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.

The Army can say that it is trying to guarantee that the conflict in Syria does not reach Lebanon. That would be convincing if Hezbollah had not deployed thousands of combatants in Syria, and if negotiations over the release of the abducted soldiers had not been hindered by the party, because it wants its own members captured or killed in Syria to be part the deal.

It would be even more convincing if we did not know that Hezbollah has played a significant role in pushing the Army to take a more aggressive stance in Arsal than it has previously taken. The reason is that the party is struggling in Qalamoun, caught in a war of attrition that it cannot win against a motivated foe with nothing to lose.

So, Hezbollah has maneuvered the Army into serving as its partner. To lend this legitimacy, it has been depicted as an anti-terrorism campaign against Salafist-jihadists such as the Nusra Front and ISIS. But how accurate is that portrayal?

In private conversation, a Lebanese ally of Syria admits that the bulk of the armed men in Qalamoun are inhabitants of the area who were forced to evacuate their towns and villages when the Syrian army and Hezbollah went on the offensive last year. That is not to say that there are no jihadists among them, let alone to play down the murder of soldiers; but rather to suggest that the picture is more varied than the Army’s public relations arm has let on and media have been led to believe.

What are the options for the Army? Today it has no real strategy in the Arsal hinterland, and is setting itself up for a grinding battle without resolution. Soldiers will continue to be the target of attack; the hostage situation will remain stalemated; and the country will continue to shake to the repercussions of the Arsal situation. Sectarian tensions in the Bekaa Valley may worsen given that the state and political parties have only a limited capacity to control their communities there.

Under these circumstances it may be preferable to consider a de facto agreement with the rebels governing passage to and from Arsal, in exchange for the release of the abducted soldiers and policemen and a clear definition of the conditions for entry and exit. This would include ensuring that weapons will not cross the border, only food and humanitarian supplies.

Hezbollah would doubtless oppose such an arrangement, and could be expected to block it on the ground. But there are circumstances that could make the party more open to an implicit accord.

For starters, given the stalemate in Qalamoun, Hezbollah has an interest in maintaining channels to the opposition in the event more of its fighters are made prisoner. Because of the unlikeliness of a total cutoff of communication lines between Arsal and Qalamoun, it may be preferable for both sides to get something out of a deal as opposed to what they might lose by refusing such an alternative.

Hezbollah also must think of the future. The Syrian regime is slowly losing ground everywhere. Its armed forces are depleted and the casualty toll among Syria’s minorities, especially Alawites, is high and unsustainable. Even in the best scenario, if ISIS is beaten, which is unlikely in the coming weeks, the regime cannot regain what it has lost.

Given all this, Hezbollah gains from being flexible. If Bashar Assad and the party cannot prevail militarily in Syria, Hezbollah may eventually have to consider a fallback strategy to contain the consequences of the Syrian conflict inside Syria. Having already reached a modus vivendi with rebel groups in the border area could become very useful if that occurs.

There are those who believe that, despite the dangers of a sectarian war in Lebanon, the armed men in Qalamoun have no intention of extending the Syrian conflict to Lebanon. That could well be true, but don’t take anybody’s word for it. Hezbollah is a prisoner of two contradictory logics: It wants to help the Assad regime win in Syria, and it wants to ensure that the Syrian violence is kept out of Lebanon. The first objective, almost by definition, has undermined the second.

However, the contrary is less evident. A desire to keep Lebanon separate from the Syrian conflict need not weaken Assad, and an implicit deal in the area of Arsal may show why. While it is improbable that Hezbollah will embrace such a reality, the Lebanese Army can tell the party that it refuses to be drawn into Syria, and intends to find a means to ensure this.

It can do so with Hezbollah’s approval or not, but the Army is in a better position to impose an arrangement, one that does not harm the party’s interests, because Hezbollah is vulnerable. The Army is not doing enough to stay clear of the Syrian war, and this can benefit only Hezbollah and Assad.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Decades later, Camp David’s legacy remains debatable

Thirty-six years ago this month, Israel and Egypt negotiated the Camp David accords under the watchful eyes of US president Jimmy Carter, leading to an Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement.

What lessons can we learn from Camp David? Lawrence Wright has tried to answer that question in a new book, Thirteen Days in September. As he shows, the messages are mixed.

Optimists will say that Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Al Sadat arrived in Camp David with maximalist positions, and that only their willingness to compromise produced a historical final agreement.

The pessimists will say that Camp David was a flash in the pan. It led only to an Egyptian-Israeli peace accord because a major item on the summit’s agenda, a resolution of the Palestinian problem, was undermined by Begin, without his interlocutors being able to do much about it. Mr Carter split the negotiating tracks into two and focused on an Egyptian-Israeli accord, realising the Palestinian issue could sabotage the talks.

Both interpretations are correct in some ways, but looking back at Begin’s behaviour, it is difficult not to conclude that his intransigence is still very much alive today among Israel’s political leadership, with his Likud party still playing a dominant role.

Begin arrived at Camp David with a very peculiar interpretation of the United Nations resolution governing the negotiations, Resolution 242, passed after the June 1967 war. The resolution affirms “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security”.

This formulation effectively outlined a “land for peace” process, one that continues to serve as a basis for Arab-Israeli negotiations today. However, Begin strongly resisted its implications. When Mr Carter presented an American paper to break the logjam, the Israeli prime minister focused on reference to Resolution 242, arguing it was unacceptable.

“The language applies only to wars of aggression,” Begin said. “The war of 1967 gives Israel the right to change frontiers.” In fact Resolution 242 says nothing about wars of aggression, and the prime minister appeared to use that argument less out of conviction than to hold on to land Israel coveted.

In the end Begin did allow for the return of Sinai to Egypt, although he himself was unconvinced, in exchange for the grand prize of a peace treaty with Egypt that would severely divide the Arab world and weaken it militarily. But this would little alter the view on the right expressed by Begin that victory in 1967 gave Israel “the right to change frontiers”.

Indeed, a central objective of Israeli policy since that time has been to do precisely that. In 1981 Israel annexed the Golan Heights from Syria, while its expansion of settlements there and in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza has made a “land for peace” deal far more difficult to achieve.

Even prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was designed mainly to facilitate Israeli consolidation over other occupied areas that would be integrated into Israel after final peace accords.

Camp David would also signal the end of boldness in Arab relations with Israel. When Jordan and Syria engaged in negotiations with Israel a decade and a half later, they would do so on a road first opened by Al Sadat, under the guidance of a United States that was by then the sole superpower.

However, neither King Hussein of Jordan nor Hafez Al Assad in Syria saw benefits in taking risks with Israel. King Hussein had many secret contacts with Israelis over the years, but Jordan’s peace treaty with the Israelis came only after Oslo. As for Al Assad, he refused to meet Israeli officials or engage in confidence-building measures until his conditions were met.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s attitude towards the Palestinians has reflected that of Begin at Camp David. It is remarkable how deep Begin’s contempt for the Palestinians and their aspirations was, to the extent that in a paper he presented to the parties, Mr Carter removed a reference to ending Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories, knowing that Begin would concentrate on that point to reject the document as a whole.

Rather, Begin offered an insulting autonomy plan to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They would be placed under an Arab administration with minimal powers. Israel, in turn, would continue to build settlements and would be the final authority on most decisions. “All who beheld [the plan] praised it,” an irony-free Begin said, according to Mr Wright’s account.

After the Oslo accords, Israel finally accepted the principle of a Palestinian state. However, with Mr Netanyahu back in office, the entity he is willing to allow Palestinians seems marginally more attractive than what Begin offered.

Last July, Mr Netanyahu explained what he envisaged in a speech in Hebrew. According to journalist David Horovitz, the prime minister made it clear that he could never countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. “[T]here cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” Mr Netanyahu was quoted as saying.

Nor is Mr Netanyahu likely to concede anything substantial on Jerusalem or refugees. Camp David was about peace, but it was also about resistance to steps facilitating peace. That’s why the lessons of the summit still remain ambiguous.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Eye on you - Americans have had enough with totalitarian policies

Apple’s decision to make it impossible for the company to hand over information on users of iPhones or iPads to police is welcome. The company has introduced encryption that allows only users of the devices to gain access to the data in them.

Apple has found a neat way around the dilemma of having to comply with court orders obliging it to deliver such data while simultaneously respecting their clients’ privacy.

Newspaper reports placed the decision in the context of a Supreme Court ruling several months ago that in most cases police need a search warrant to access information stored on mobile phones. As National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed last year, the government has had widespread access to the mobile telephone data of Americans, often with only cursory legal oversight.

A former FBI agent quoted by The Washington Post described the Apple move as “problematic,” because it will make it much more difficult for law enforcement to collect evidence from people’s telephones. Perhaps, but the government and police have only themselves to blame, as their Orwellian behavior in recent years has increasingly outraged the general public.

Pushback against the government and law enforcement is long overdue. Ever since Snowden spilled the beans, major technology companies have worried about their bottom line. Realizing the negative backlash from consumers to news that technology companies were sharing their personal information with the government, the companies began resisting government requests. Apparently only the free market reminded them there was a constitutional right to privacy.

However, the broader message is that America has changed dramatically in recent years, with the government having the means to gain near-totalitarian insight into its citizens. America remains a democracy, so one should explain: While the system allows for protests and condemnation of the state’s actions, the technical means the state has at its disposal allow it to survey virtually every aspect of people’s lives, all the time. 

Nor is this hyperbole. Certainly, Americans are protected by their domestic legislation. But as Snowden revealed, many of them were also swept up in the government’s surveillance net, though this was perfectly illegal. Meanwhile, non-Americans all over the world continue to be targets of American snooping, with very little likelihood that this situation will change.

The American government is doubtless not alone in eavesdropping on citizens. But looking at the United States today it’s hard to believe that it is the democratic powerhouse it once was. The gradual accumulation by the government and by law enforcement of powers hitherto inconceivable in a democratic system is truly alarming, and chilling.

Take the growth of militarized police departments in the country. The consequences were on display during the recent standoff between demonstrators and police in Ferguson, Missouri, after an unarmed teenager was shot by an officer. Initially, the police deployed atop armored personnel carriers, pointing military-grade weapons at the public. When police behave like an occupying army, something is very wrong. 

This was hardly an exception. All over America the trend has been toward more militarized and invasive police forces. Reports of policemen shooting citizens, or pets, is a regular occurrence. Until a court recently ruled otherwise, the police would routinely arrest people caught filming their activities. In a notorious episode in Hawthorne, California, the police did a two-step: they cuffed a man for filming them then proceeded to shoot his dog.

While this may not seem to have anything to do with government surveillance, it has very much to do with a society that has granted the authorities vast powers to which they are not entitled. That Americans are beginning to fight back is reassuring, but the government is still gathering massive amounts of information on citizens, eroding constitutional principles and sending a message that its eyes are everywhere.

Americans abroad have felt this with the so-called Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA, which enrolls foreign financial institutions into a program to spy on the accounts of American citizens. Banks and other financial institutions are obliged to report annually on these accounts, even when one of the account holders may be a non-American – or else 30% of their American transactions are withheld.

Such activities have prompted thousands of Americans to relinquish their nationality. That’s because most people don’t take kindly to banks reporting on how they manage their own money, while many foreign financial institutions are refusing to open accounts for Americans, as it has become too costly.

The list goes on – from civil forfeiture, where the police arbitrarily confiscate the money or property of people it has detained (but not necessarily charged with a crime), to the Transportation Security Administration’s unexplained searches of individuals after their flight has landed. This makes one wonder what has gotten into America. Why has a country with a strong tradition of civil liberties and a bill of rights allowed itself to become a repository of official abuse and stupidity?

If America acts in such a way, you can expect much of the world to follow suit. America and Americans may not be particularly preoccupied with democracy in the world during these isolationist days, but if democracy is to do better globally, then it probably has to do better in America first.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Obama’s ‘no troops’ vow is unrealistic

There is a proverb that if you sit by the river long enough, you will eventually see the body of your enemy floating by. Similarly, observe Washington long enough, you will see politicians reversing themselves on their most cherished beliefs.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, suggested that the United States might alter its position on the deployment of American troops in the fight against ISIS.

Dempsey stated, about President Barack Obama, “He has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis. If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [ISIS] targets, I’ll recommend that to the president.”

While the chairman was speaking only about troops accompanying their Iraqi counterparts, not large contingents of American forces engaged directly in battle with ISIS, the ambiguities in Dempsey’s remarks had many observers wondering how the U.S. role in Iraq and Syria might change. Indeed, Congress will pass legislation to fund the arming and training of “moderate” Syrian rebels, but the House will affirm it does not support placing troops on the ground.

The White House sought to play down Dempsey’s remarks, describing what the chairman had said as a “purely hypothetical scenario.” But very subtly he had managed to shift the goal posts. By suggesting that the president was willing to consider using troops on a case-by-case basis, he showed that the administration was preparing for circumstances that could change.

American reluctance to send soldiers into new wars is understandable. But as a reluctant Obama prepares for a campaign against ISIS, it is noticeable how American political desires are constantly blindsided by reality. Where there are those in Washington who feel their country can deal with the world almost contractually, the fact is that the likes of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are not lawyers.

Was it a good idea for the Obama administration to say that it would not send ground troops to fight ISIS? True, it did not want to undermine domestic support for the anti-ISIS campaign. However, like Obama’s policy in Afghanistan, where he set a deadline for an American pullout, when you tell the enemy what your constraints are, he adapts his strategy accordingly.

President Bill Clinton learned this in Kosovo in 1998-1999. Initially he was publicly very reluctant to deploy ground forces there. Slobodan Milosevic saw that all he had to do was hold out. Only when the administration began planning for a ground war did Milosevic capitulate. That, anyway, is the view of Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO commander who led the campaign.

War is about will, and someone like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not going to be impressed when the American priority is to limit casualties and stick to what is politically safe. That’s not to say he will triumph, but for all of George W. Bush’s errors in Iraq, his forces made headway when it became apparent that they were prepared to prevail against their opponents, whatever it took. And in that sense they succeeded, leaving Iraq far more secure than when they entered in 2003. However, such a narrative is not one the Obama administration embraces, even as the American military revives ties that were formed at the time with Sunni tribes, in order to strike against ISIS.

The big question mark is Syria. In Iraq there are forces that can take advantage of American air power, but not so, or not yet, in Syria. Obama’s plan to arm “moderates” has many people shaking their heads, but the president’s options are few. He should have done this long ago when the extremists were much weaker, but Obama was so busy trying to avoid Syria, that he helped create the very situation he is wrestling with today.

The war against ISIS will be a long one, and Obama would do best not to tie his own hands. Sending American ground forces to the Middle East may not be on the agenda now, or ever, but there is no point in ruling it out indefinitely, in all situations. What is politically expedient is one thing; but what is best for the military itself may be something quite different. The president undoubtedly wants to avoid mission creep, but his approach should not be defined solely by what he seeks to avoid, but by what he needs in order to achieve the aims he has set for himself.

For instance, Obama has made extensive use of the American Joint Special Operations Command all over the world to assassinate or capture alleged terrorists. JSOC units were dispatched to Syria in the failed effort to liberate journalist James Foley. Does it make any sense for Obama to affirm that such units would not be used against ISIS, when one of the roles of JSOC is to engage precisely in that sort of intervention?

Obama is not about to invade Arab countries, as Bush did. However, drifting to the other extreme of hesitating to do anything on the ground militarily is hardly the solution for the proliferating risk represented by ISIS. Dempsey implicitly showed the shortcomings of adopting too definite a position, and soon enough expect Obama to start doing the same.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Regional unity threatens Iran’s divisive agenda

Iran was not invited to the international conference held in Paris this week to discuss ISIL. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that it had rejected an offer to cooperate, while the Americans said that they too did not want to collaborate with Iran.

Yet in recent weeks American and Iranian officials have met in Iraq to discuss the ISIL danger, with the approval of their governments. American aircraft played a key role in the Iraqi army’s and Shia militias’ recent breakthrough to Amerli. A video from the town showed a celebrating Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a scene that must have embarrassed the Obama administration.

Whatever their shared interests in defeating ISIL, both Washington and Tehran are very keen not to appear to be coordinating. The Americans don’t want to be seen as waging a war against Sunnis on behalf of Iran, which it accuses of terrorism. The Iranians don’t want to be portrayed as subordinate to the US in a fight in its own back yard.

These manoeuvres aside, the bigger picture suggests that the campaign against ISIL hides another reality: Iranian expansionism in the Middle East appears to have hit serious obstacles with the reversals in Iraq, the mounting pressures against Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria, the fact that Hizbollah is now stuck in the Syrian quagmire, and the regional consensus recently against Hamas in Gaza.

That is why both the Arab states and Iran are of two minds when it comes to the coalition against ISIL. For the mainly Sunni Arab states, defeating ISIL is desirable, but far less so if it helps Iran once again to extend its political reach in the region. For the Iranians, ISIL is a mortal enemy, but if overcoming the group weakens Iran’s hand in Iraq and Syria, then Tehran will never agree to support the coalition’s actions.

Iranian anxieties may be well founded. After the fall of Mosul, the United States’s return to Iraq was both quick and effective. Where Iranian officials were telling their Iraqi Shia allies that it was necessary to rely on Shia solidarity to repel the ISIL offensive, the Americans quickly sent military forces and stopped the group in its tracks when Erbil seemed in peril.

Iran retains considerable power in Baghdad, but it could not have welcomed the American return. Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Khamenei, sought prime minister Nouri Al Maliki’s departure when Iraqi Shia figures, above all Ayatollah Ali Sistani, called on him to step down, but Tehran did not relish being pushed into a confrontation with Mr Al Maliki.

The combination of broad Iraqi displeasure with the prime minister and American support for a replacement proved decisive in forcing Iran to respond. When Iraqi militias close to Iran endorsed a new prime minister, Mr Al Maliki knew the game was up. Iran, usually the initiator of action in Iraq, was compelled to react to a situation it hadn’t directed.

In Syria, the Iranians also sense the risks. President Barack Obama’s policy there remains uncertain as he hopes to rely on so-called moderate rebel forces to overcome ISIL. Iran realises the difficulties, which may strengthen Mr Al Assad, but it also knows that once American warplanes are over Syria, this may create new dynamics that will undermine the Syrian regime.

For instance, Mr Obama has warned that if the Al Assad military fires at American aircraft, because the coalition has refused to coordinate with Syria’s government, its positions would be attacked. This could weaken Mr Al Assad.

Nor has Syria’s war been going Iran’s way. Mr Al Assad is holding out, but he is not winning. Rebel forces around Damascus and in the south of the country have gained ground lately, while thousands of rebels and jihadists are still present in Qalamoun, along the border with Lebanon, where they have tied down thousands of Hizbollah and regime combatants.

Iran’s regional assets are everywhere facing pushback. Hamas made significant symbolic gains in Gaza, but what the recent fighting showed was that some Arab countries quietly supported Israel’s bombing campaign. The Houthis have advanced in Sanaa, demanding a greater say in power, but amid fighting with the army and armed tribesmen, it’s not evident that they will be able to build something durable.

In Lebanon, Hizbollah remains strong. However, the combination of an indecisive, costly war in Syria and the party’s inability to prevent rising Sunni hostility means there are real limitations on Hizbollah’s power. A sectarian civil war in the country could neutralise the party’s fighting capability in Syria, and Hizbollah has been very careful to avoid one.

Iran’s problem is that it gains from fragmentation in the Arab world. Its policies in Syria and Iraq have always been about dividing those countries into digestible fragments, to facilitate Iranian hegemony, rather than pushing for unity.

Yet in Iraq that policy, which Mr Al Maliki implemented with Iranian backing, alienated the Sunni community and led to the calamities of today. In Syria, it has brought de facto partition, while Mr Al Assad’s ability to reassert his authority even in the areas he considers vital is rapidly diminishing.

Mr Obama does not view his war against ISIL as a war against Iran. But the Iranians and their Arab rivals may regard things differently. The deadly stalemate in the region is breaking, and who ultimately gains from this is anybody’s guess.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Back to front - How Jabhat al-Nusra might fare in the anti-Islamic State campaign

An interesting subtext of President Barack Obama’s campaign to “ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS) is what it will mean for the rival Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

While ISIS has alarmed most countries, the Nusra Front has played its cards carefully. It has not imitated the barbaric behavior of its jihadist counterpart; it has focused on Syria, even if it ultimately seeks to create a Muslim caliphate there; and it has maintained collaborative relations with Syrian rebel groups, unlike ISIS, which has sought mainly to overpower them.

The Nusra Front must look at Obama’s declaration of war against ISIS with mixed feelings. America is the enemy, but its bombing of ISIS may permit Al-Qaeda to regain the initiative among transnational jihadist groups thanks to the elimination of a group that rejected the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

By contrast, the Nusra Front has been cultivating, for lack of a better word, an “accommodating” public image. For instance, it has been more flexible in dealing with the Lebanese soldiers and policemen it recently abducted in Arsal. Four Sunni soldiers and one policeman were released by the group on August 30.

The Nusra Front also allowed the family of a Christian captive, George Khoury, to meet with him earlier this week. And more generally, the group has been responsive to mediation efforts, unlike ISIS, which beheaded two soldiers, one of them a Sunni. This provoked sectarian tensions in the Beqaa Valley, showing how the group seeks to gain from sectarian polarization.

The brutality of ISIS is reminiscent of that of the late Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, who headed Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi’s savagery brought a rebuke from Al-Qaeda’s leadership, which charged that such actions were only alienating Muslims. According to David Ignatius, near the end, Osama bin Laden “was haunted by the mistakes al-Qaeda had made,” above all its wanton killings. His state of mind was revealed in documents taken from the Al-Qaeda leader’s hideout in Abbottabad.   

Where ISIS has used the Syrian war to pursue an agenda of aggrandizement – which involved, for a time, collaborating directly or indirectly with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad – the Nusra Front has focused on a Syria-first agenda. Its priority is the end of Assad’s rule, which is why the group has retained some support among rebel militias.

Particularly interesting has been the Nusra Front’s efforts to shape the way it is perceived. Recently, it captured 45 Fijian United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan Heights. One of its principal demands for their release was that it be removed from a UN terrorism blacklist. On Thursday the peacekeepers were released, although its condition had not been met. 

This striving for reinvention raised interesting questions. Was this a tactical move by the Nusra Front, at a time when it seeks to present itself as a contrast to ISIS in Syria, and in that way rally support among Sunni Muslims? Or does it reflect a more profound change in direction by Al-Qaeda, perhaps reflecting the doubts bin Laden himself had about his organization?

How might Obama’s campaign against ISIS affect the Nusra Front? American officials noted that Obama might expand American airstrikes into Syria under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which targeted Al-Qaeda. They said that “the Islamic State’s ‘long-standing relationship’ with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden is sufficient to be covered by the statute.”

Does that mean that the Nusra Front may also soon find itself in the Americans’ crosshairs? It’s conceivable, although hitting the group could greatly benefit the Syrian regime, which is fighting the Nusra Front in the south of Syria, around Damascus, and in Qalamoun, along the Lebanese border.

More likely, the Obama administration does not want its campaign against ISIS to strengthen Assad, which may be to the advantage of the Nusra Front. The American plan to train moderate Syrian rebels, even if it takes time, would be intended to allow them to impose their will on the ground, and perhaps marginalize those such as the Nusra Front once this happens.

Obama cleverly linked the $500 million in aid to the Syrian rebels he had announced several weeks ago to the anti-ISIS crusade, tying Congress’s hands. Congressional approval of the money was never guaranteed, but now that this aid is a key component of the president’s broader plan to defeat ISIS in Syria, it is difficult for Congress to turn Obama down. On Thursday House Republican leaders said they would support Obama, even if there are doubts about his strategy. 

America’s decision to enter Syria, albeit in a limited way and perhaps not immediately, will alter calculations on the ground. Once the United States is in, “moderation” will become the new catchphrase. This, in turn, could mean a transformation and new alliances among groups fighting Assad rule, who will seek to take advantage of the campaign against ISIS.

There have been reports that some Salafist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, whose senior leadership was decapitated this week, could have been planning a reorientation. As Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center has written, “speaking both in public and in private, senior political officials began as early as April 2014 to present a more moderate and cooperative stance, especially in terms of the group’s religio-political objectives.”

This is hardly to suggest that the Nusra Front is contemplating taking a similar path. The problems between the group and the Americans are very real. But as the Obama administration fights ISIS, it will see that some jihadist groups are more equal than others in the eyes of some of its Arab allies. The Nusra Front is apparently playing on this ambiguity. That could pay off, and the Obama administration will have to address it before long.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Might ISIS bring a resolution in Syria?

At the time this was written, it was expected that President Barack Obama, in explaining to Americans his military strategy against ISIS, would announce that he intended to extend airstrikes into Syria.

That may be true, but it leads us to other questions. What is the future of Bashar Assad’s regime? Would such attacks help his forces, or on the contrary might foreign warplanes over Syrian territory somehow precipitate his departure? Most important, how will the implicit alliance in Iraq between the United States and Iran fare in Syria, where, clearly, the two countries have different interests despite their shared hostility toward ISIS?

Assad’s ability to survive a three-and-a-half-year uprising has been largely due to the assistance of Iran and Russia, which have supplied his forces with weapons, manpower and intelligence, as well as helping devise a military strategy on the ground. Yet none of this has been enough to turn the tide in Syria. The war has become a black hole for Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah ally, while Russia is preoccupied elsewhere, with the Ukraine crisis pitting it against NATO and the West.

As Assad watches developments around him, he cannot be reassured. His reliance on minorities, including his Alawite coreligionists, to stay in power will fail. Alawites, Christians and Shiites cannot indefinitely guarantee Assad’s political survival, with the communities already taking very heavy losses.

As for the regime’s outside backers, the future looks uncertain. Iran has already paid billions of dollars to prop up Assad rule, money it desperately needs elsewhere, and recently it lost a vital land connection with Syria when ISIS took over western Iraq. That explains the Iranians’ willingness to tolerate American military action in Iraq, and, one would assume, in Syria’s ISIS-controlled eastern and northeastern provinces as well.

Closer to Damascus the picture has been equally unsettling to them. The regime recently lost Qunaitra to rebels allied with the Nusra Front. These groups have allegedly opened a passage to the Ghouta west of Damascus. If confirmed, this could tighten the noose on the capital, affecting the Beirut- Damascus highway.

And in Qalamoun, northwest of Damascus along the Lebanese-Syrian border, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime are caught in a quagmire of sorts, unable to dislodge thousands of gunmen. The gunmen aren’t gaining, but neither is the regime, while the grinding conflict there is bleeding both sides. That is one reason why the Lebanese Army’s efforts to control the border in the Arsal area has provoked a violent reaction from armed Syrian groups, who see it as part of a plan to cut off their supply lines.

Neither Iran nor Russia has a magical solution for Assad. American airstrikes may buy the regime some breathing space by hitting ISIS in eastern Syria. However, they are unlikely to affect rebels in the west of the country, or target the Nusra Front. Moreover, there are few indications of who will control the ground in areas where the Americans hit ISIS. The Syrian regime may benefit in some places, but rebel groups will do so elsewhere, which may be to the regime’s disadvantage.

The Russians opposed American military action last year, after Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. This time, however, there is nothing they can really do. While the Obama administration is not out to undermine Assad, its military actions may ultimately lead to such an outcome as Washington exploits the situation to impose a political solution leading to Assad’s removal.

Applying the same logic as in Iraq, a political solution in Syria would help consolidate the gains made against ISIS. In the same way that Washington ousted Nouri al-Maliki as a first step to bringing the Sunnis into a more inclusive political arrangement in Iraq, Assad’s removal from power in Syria could emerge as the most efficient way to damage ISIS, which benefits from sectarian animosity and sense of Sunni victimization.

Iran would not be happy with this, nor Hezbollah, but both are hardly in an ideal position to prevent it, given their setbacks in Syria. Nor will it be easily for them to control the dynamics once an air campaign starts. If the opposition times an offensive against the regime with such action, it could greatly complicate their efforts to reinforce Assad’s position.

It is very difficult to see how Assad can last in the long run. Though regime figures, such as Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, have indicated that an anti- ISIS offensive would be a way for the Assad regime to regain international credibility and recognition, one shouldn’t bet on it. Rather, once the U.S. enters the Syrian conflict, it will want to bolster its military actions with a sustainable political project. And since Assad is an obstacle to any such project, the Obama administration may begin looking for an alternative without Assad.

Given the deadlock in Syria, and the fact that the regime’s chances of prevailing are diminishing by the day, Assad’s allies, displeased as they are, might reconsider their options if their interests are preserved. Syria has been a heavy burden on Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, one that can last indefinitely unless political solutions are tabled. Other Arab states, above all the Saudis appear increasingly willing to explore a package deal. That’s why it’s not beyond reason that an anti- ISIS campaign may help accelerate a resolution of the Syrian conflict.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

As sectarian tensions rise, Hizbollah must recalculate

It has become more apparent in recent months, as sectarian tensions in Lebanon have risen, that Hizbollah is losing control of the situation domestically.

The party’s vaunted strengths have always been exaggerated. Hizbollah has shown an ability to manipulate sectarian divisions to its advantage, but with the emergence of Sunni jihadist groups along the Lebanese border, such as ISIL and the Jabhat Al Nusra, the fear that these may encourage Sunnis in Lebanon to oppose Hizbollah has increased.

The party is currently caught up in a grinding battle in Syria’s Qalamoun region, which runs alongside the Lebanese border in the Beqaa Valley. Unconfirmed reports suggest Hizbollah may have up to 5,000 combatants in the battle. It’s impossible to verify such a figure, but Qalamoun is vital to the party because it controls access to Lebanon, in particular to Shiite villages.

Hizbollah’s involvement in Qalamoun began last year, when it played a central role in retaking the town of Qusair on behalf of the Syrian regime. But thousands of rebel combatants were allowed to leave the town, and redeployed elsewhere in the area to fight another day. Long an inaccessible border area facilitating smuggling, Qalamoun is both large and difficult to control. Hizbollah is caught in a quagmire there.

A complicating factor is that Arsal, a large Sunni town along the border in the northern Beqaa, had become a weapons transfer point and rest place for Syrian rebels and jihadists. Hizbollah has sought to push the Lebanese army into closing off access to the town, which reports on Wednesday suggested had been completed, to weaken its foes in Qalamoun. This has only thrust the army deeper into the Sunni-Shia conflict, a dangerous step for a national institution with a sectarian mix.

In recent weeks, two soldiers captured by ISIL in Arsal’s hinterland have been decapitated. They were part of a larger group of soldiers and policemen caught during fighting around the town weeks ago. ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra want to exchange them for Islamists imprisoned in Lebanon’s main Roumieh prison.

In response, the relatives and coreligionists of the soldiers took matters into their own hands, closing roads and demanding that the government do something. More ominously, after a soldier was killed last weekend, Shiites began kidnapping Sunnis in the Beqaa, provoking retaliatory abductions that threatened to spiral out of control.

As Sunni-Shia relations worsen, Hizbollah must reconsider its options. Within its own community it has portrayed itself as a barrier against jihadists, and some Christian villages in the Beqaa, fearing an onslaught by ISIL, have allegedly asked the party for weapons. Hizbollah has been able to defend its entry into Syria’s war as an effort to fight takfiris.

The claim is nonsensical, but what Hizbollah has not been able to explain is how it would act if fighting breaks out in Lebanon between the party and armed Sunni Islamists, and then spreads. The risks are high, especially as other Sunnis, from young men among the Syrian refugee population to armed Salafist groups in the Palestinian refugee camps, could enter the fray.

The outbreak of a sectarian conflict in Lebanon, besides leading the country to ruin, would also force Hizbollah to repatriate its combatants now in Syria. This, in turn, would weaken the regime of Bashar Al Assad, which the party has vowed to help sustain – both as an Iranian priority and its own.

Yet Hizbollah has done little to lessen tensions with the Sunnis. Partly, that’s because it does not have tight control over the Shia, especially in the Beqaa Valley, where tribal relations tend to erode Hizbollah’s influence, but it’s also because conciliation is not a part of Hizbollah’s DNA. The party has often preferred resorting to violence when compromise was more beneficial.

Today there is discernible fear among Lebanon’s Shia that they may be vulnerable to Sunni extremists. That’s not surprising, as the community has witnessed the high toll of casualties Hizbollah has suffered in the past year in Syria, with no end in sight. This has encouraged Hizbollah to pursue a game of divide and rule at home, to safeguard itself and its community, without making any concessions on the issues it regards as vital.

The party appears not to be considering ending its combat role in Syria, a principal source of Sunni-Shia hostility. Nor has it toned down its rhetoric against its March 14 rivals in Lebanon, led by the mainly Sunni Future Movement. And to maintain its domination over the Shia, the party has mobilised the community, exploiting its existential anxieties but also creating an environment unsuitable for appeasement.

Even Hizbollah’s reputation as an effective enemy of Israel took a hit during the recent war in Gaza. Everyone could see that the party was too overstretched in Syria to open a Lebanese front, as Hamas officials had requested. Instead, today Hizbollah appears as little more than a sectarian Shia party.

Nor does Hizbollah have any path out of this predicament. In an effort not to lose its main Christian ally, Michel Aoun, the party has backed Mr Aoun’s refusal to send his bloc to parliament and elect a president, unless he is guaranteed of winning himself. The ensuing vacuum, along with social unrest in recent weeks, has added to worries that the state is near implosion.

Hizbollah’s brinkmanship has been reckless. The party has succeeded in pursuing its agenda in Syria, but at what price? It surely wants to avoid a Lebanese sectarian conflict, but everything about its behaviour makes one more likely.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Be prepared - The White House is still not ready on Syria

President Barack Obama’s comments last week on how the United States intended to address the presence in Syria of the Islamic State provoked well-deserved incredulity. “We don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said, pushing back against calls for robust American intervention in Syria.

While astounding, Obama’s comment was hardly surprising. His administration has been defined by its foreign policy negligence, so it’s hardly shocking to hear that it had failed to think through and prepare contingency plans for a problem that had been brewing for months, and that early on, it was clear, posed a threat to the United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East – a threat the Americans had acknowledged.

Bolstering the president’s bad choices have been America’s premier foreign policy commentators. Prominent among these is Fareed Zakaria, who hosts a CNN show and writes a weekly syndicated column. When Iraq led in Washington, Zakaria supported American intervention, saying of the Middle East, “The place is so dysfunctional, any stirring of the pot is good. America’s involvement in the region is for the good.”

But under Obama, the mood in the United States has swung wildly the other way, toward isolationism. Zakaria has adapted. Rare are the dimensions of Obama’s disengagement from the Middle East that Zakaria has not defended. Far from stirring the pot for the good, American activism in Syria, he wrote after Obama decided to earmark $500 million to train and supply Syrian rebels, will “more likely to throw fuel onto a raging fire.”

Zakaria is hardly alone, but his voice has resonance in the White House, and he has lent intellectual weight to Obama’s calamitous foreign policy. Now the president himself is engaging in gymnastics, as he decides what to do after the beheading of a second American by the Islamic State.

In Estonia on Wednesday, Obama declared: “Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists. And those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.”

Obama’s call to arms was welcome, because it is perhaps beginning to dawn on Americans that they don’t have the luxury of engaging in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. The president’s great shortcoming is that while he rejected the interventionism of his predecessor, George W. Bush, he formulated no strategy to ensure that the American absence would not create a destabilizing global vacuum.

In fact Obama did not formulate much of a foreign policy strategy at all. American officials privately described the president’s approach as “don’t do stupid shit.” That is, until it the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton derisively observed: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid [shit]’ is not an organizing principle.”

Obama will most definitely need an organizing principle to deal with the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, because hitting the group in Iraq and not doing so in Syria could make matters worse. If the Islamic State is able to flee into the safety of Syria from Iraq, it will spread elsewhere, destabilizing other countries in the region such as Lebanon and Jordan.

That is precisely why Obama has to approach the problem in a comprehensive way. As much as he would like to believe so, there are no shortcuts with the Islamic State. Though the United States has lost much credibility in the Middle East in the past six years, only Obama has the power to take the lead in coordinating a regional response to this transnational menace.

Witness what has happened in Iraq. In 2011, Obama was unable to conclude a status of forces agreement with Baghdad, allegedly because Iran blocked it. A contentious point was that Iraq refused to grant American military personnel immunity from prosecution. Yet when the Islamic State took over Mosul recently, the Iraqi government quickly approved an immunity arrangement, while Iran did nothing to prevent the deployment of American forces to counter the Islamic State.

In other words American power can impose new realities, even if that does not mean America should seek to do so anywhere and everywhere. However, given the void in the Middle East, the states of the region are willing to accept, or at least tolerate, a measure of American leadership, particularly in the face of apparently implacable threats, such as the Islamic State.

That is why the views of, let’s say, Jeffrey Sachs seem almost absurdly na├»ve. Sachs recently wrote: “It is time for the United States and other powers to let the Middle East govern itself in line with national sovereignty and the United Nations Charter.” Whatever regional states think of America, today not one is holding up the UN Charter to keep it away. The Middle East cannot govern itself and is incapable of devising a collective effort to defeat the Islamic State. It wants America to do more.

But will Obama listen? It remains unclear what his ultimately strategy is in Iraq, where American forces are already committed. So what of Syria? But this is one conflict the president cannot sweet talk his way out of. With two Americans already dead, the Islamic State poses a clear and present danger for the United States. Since national self-centeredness governs this administration’s behavior, these killings impose a convincing American military response, and less time-wasting.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Obama’s foreign policy failures will haunt this region for years

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001, American officials scrambled to interpret what had happened and plan an appropriate response.

Their reaction can be broken down into two phases. In the first, the United States invaded Afghanistan and expelled the Taliban regime that had hosted Osama bin Laden.

However, beyond that there was a second reading, one that came to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Key officials in the administration of George W Bush believed that the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime and its replacement with a democratic government would produce regional shock waves that would favourably transform Iraq’s Arab neighbours – above all Saudi Arabia, from where 15 of the 19 hijackers came.

Implicit in this reasoning was that undemocratic regimes in the Arab world had allowed youths to engage only in religion and religious mobilisation, while prohibiting democratic activism, where some became increasingly radicalised. These youths were then recruited to engage in terrorist activities against the West.

Mr Bush was much maligned for his worldview, but in 2011, when Arab populations rose up against autocratic leaders, his verdict was generally proven correct. The real problem in the Middle East was shown to be the inability of Arab states to embody the aspirations of their citizens. Social contracts in these states tended to be imposed from the top, while citizens had little input in the political realities imposed on them.

One could not go too far with Mr Bush’s democratisation project. America’s autocratic Arab allies were never pushed too hard to change. And when Barack Obama became president, it became immediately clear in his much-praised, though empty, speech in Cairo that Arab democratisation would not be a priority for the new administration.

And so, when the Arab Spring gained momentum in early 2011, Mr Obama had no template to address it. The president blundered through, pursuing very different policies in Egypt, Libya and Syria, everywhere displaying a short attention span as he continued to focus on his domestic programme.

It would have helped for him to take a closer look at what his predecessor had concluded. Yet nothing would have been more unpleasant for Mr Obama than to take a page out of Mr Bush’s book – even if it meant doing so in reverse.

Indeed, the former president had believed that authoritarianism helped breed terrorism so that the antidote was democracy. But developments in the Arab world after 2011 showed that democracy, without a clear notion of what democratic practises entailed by way of compromises and coalition building, could lead to chaos benefiting extremists.

This was well understood by the Arab dictators themselves. In Libya and Syria, Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar Al Assad provoked civil war, grasping that the ensuing violence would allow Islamist extremists to rise to the top, in that way portraying the dictators as a last line against jihadists.

In other words, Mr Bush may have been too naive by half, while Mr Obama has been too passive by half. Where the former believed that there was a direct link between democracy and curbing Islamist terrorism, Mr Obama did not realise that the void he had allowed in Syria would lead to the outcome he had initially sought to avoid: the empowerment of militant Islamists.

Mr Obama approached Syria with astounding superficiality. He hesitated to arm the opposition, fearing that weapons might reach extremist groups. But he didn’t grasp that by doing nothing, his administration was only creating spaces for the extremists to accumulate power.

That is what former secretary of state Hillary Clinton meant when she told The Atlantic: “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad – there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle – the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

Though Mr Obama was defended by a cohort of realist publicists after those remarks, Mrs Clinton’s words obviously stung him. His actions in Iraq were a sign that something had changed, not least because Mr Obama had made success in fighting terrorism a plank in his 2012 re-election campaign. With two years left in office, the president is beginning to think of his legacy.

One thing the proliferating conflicts in the Arab world will do, however, is end any serious debate over democracy. Mr Bush may have reached the right diagnosis about the dysfunctional nature of Arab states, but there was never any agreement over a cure. The violence and anarchy that has engulfed the region in the past three and a half years has cured many people of their idealistic democratic illusions.

This attitude represents a great misfortune, and will haunt the Arab world for a long time to come. If there is an ambient feeling that Arabs are somehow incapable of adapting to democracy, then what does the future hold for them? More decades of repression, which will only bolster extremism and frustration, ensuring that Arab states remain stuck in a cycle of unrest?

Ultimately this is something Arabs themselves must think about, without blaming outsiders. Few have bothered to do so, leaving the region in a grey zone – neither democratic nor stable, in perpetual search of a tomorrow that remains obscure.