Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Israeli Foreign Policy following the P5+1-Iran Agreement on Nuclear Weapons

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei

How should Israel react to the P5+1-Iran agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?  There are two approaches to this question.  First, there is what we may call the “rational response.”  What should Israel do to minimize its national security risks in light of the agreement?  Second, there is the political response.  Here we refer to how Israel responds to the agreement in terms of domestic political considerations.

The response thus far by the Israeli government suggests that politics – not improving domestic security – is the main driver, if the words and deeds of the current Likud government are any indication.  The agreement is posed as representing an existential threat to the existence of Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu’s blustering tone is meant for American audiences, particularly members of the US Congress.
Governing with a razor thin margin in the Israeli parliament (Knesset), Netanyahu knows that any perceived flexibility on the Iran agreement could be interpreted as an opening for political forces to his right to mount an attack on his policies and even cause his government to collapse.  Thus domestic politics and a commitment to a regional foreign policy that continues to isolate Israel from the larger Middle East suggests that Israel is pursuing a self-defeating policy towards the Iran agreement.

The Netanyahu government and all Israeli political forces view ties to the United States as the central component of its foreign and security policy.  Unfortunately, the current Likud government views this relationship in static and historically outdated terms.  To assume that Israel can depend on the relationship that it established with the United States after its founding in 1948, and especially after it traded military ties to France for those with the US in the mid-1950s, is naïve and dangerous.

First, Israel is no longer viewed in most of the world as a small threatened outpost in a hostile Middle East ready to attack and destroy it.  For many states, including those in the European Union, Israel is increasingly viewed as a regional superpower which treats the Palestinian population in the West Bank, and its domestic Israeli Palestinian population, in a discriminatory, if not repressive manner. 

Second, many young Americans, including many Jewish-Americans, have moved from what once was a completely uncritical view of Israel to one that has joined the world-wide critique of its policies towards the Occupied Territories. The organization, J Street, is a good example of this new perspective among young Jewish-Americans (and many older ones as well). Israeli speakers on US college campuses have become accustomed to demonstrations against Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians that include large numbers of Jewish Americans students who are pro-Israel but against Likud government policies.

Third, the efforts of the US to end the nuclear arms race in the Middle East means that it is only a matter of time before the military relationship between the US and Israel will no longer continue to Israel’s advantage.  Indeed, if the nuclear agreement with Iran leads to a lessening of radicalism in its foreign policy, one could envision a change in the region such as happened following the visit of President Richard Nixon to China in 1973 which led to a significant decline in the importance of Taiwan to American foreign policy (although ultimately leading a significant growth in Taiwan's economic ties to mainland China and its status as one of the "Asian Tigers").

Fourth, with pressing domestic problems, a decline in the US defense budget and the concomitant rise in the cost of entitlement spending, as well as needed infrastructure investment, future Congresses cannot be counted on to provide carte blanche foreign aid to Israel at the levels that we have seen in the past.

Finally, Israel is suffering from many of the problem facing the political economies of advanced industrialized societies.  It has its own “99 vs 1%” political-economic cleavage as wages for much of the middle and lower classes stagnate, urban rents increase and home ownership becomes more difficult to realize.  The increasing gap between the well-to-do and the middle and lower classes means that a large segment of the Israeli population is more concerned with employment, housing, education and making ends meet than with the ideology of the ultra-nationalist Israeli right, especially the settler movement in the Occupied Territories on the West Bank.

What then would be a “rational” as opposed to a political response to the P5+1-Iran Agreement on nuclear weapons?  Despite the threat of Hamas rocket attacks (which Israel’s Golden Dome missile defense system has largely rendered ineffective) and possible rocket attacks by Hizballah to the north (highly unlikely with the huge threat that the organization faces from Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups to the East), the possibility of Israel entering a conventional war with its immediate neighbors – Egypt, Syria and Jordan - is now a distant memory.

The old Hebrew slogan – ain breira (there is no choice) – meaning that the only way for Israel to confront its Arab neighbors is through force, a concept so eloquently critiqued in the Israeli director Ilan Ziv’s film Abraham and Isaac, no longer resonates with most of the Israeli populace.  To be sure, security, especially in relationship to Iran and terrorist attacks within Israel, remains a major concern for Israelis.  However, the old Labor Party–Histadrut quasi-socialist society that ruled from 1948 until 1977 is long gone and Israeli concerns are currently focused as much, if not more so, on domestic rather than foreign problems.

An effective strategy that has long-term implications would entail Israel developing a coalition with Palestinians in the Palestine National Authority on the West Bank and with the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan.  This collaboration already has a precedent.  During the period following the Oslo Accords of 1993 and up until the second Intifada of 2000, there were tentative efforts to develop joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian companies, e.g., the Salam-Shalom real estate and tourism venture.  Even today, there are many Israeli companies operating in Jordan, e.g., in factories along the Amman-International Airport Road, run by Israelis and making products marked “made in Israel.”

A tripartite coalition linking Israel, the PNA and Jordan could isolate Hamas, which has only brought misery to the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.  This outcome would result both due to political stability, and through the economic prosperity that would result from a true economic integration of the three economics –which largely exists in any event today, but largely to the Palestinians’ detriment.  If Palestinians in the PNA could become true and equal partners with Israel and Jordanian firms, a mini-common market could be developed to the benefit of all three nation-states.

Of course, these developments would neccessitate a major realignment of Israeli politics.  But Benjamin Netanyahu has always been more concerned with his personal political power than with ideology.  If he could shed the small ultra-nationalist parties upon which he currently depends, and form a more centrist coalition, aligning with political parties which are amenable to new foreign policy initiatives, this would allow the Israeli government to halt construction of settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem – the first step towards rapprochement with the PNA and building trust and hence a stronger alliance with Jordan.

The Israeli government could begin by not only ending new housing construction on the West Bank but ending government subsidies for the settlements.  Many in the West are unaware that a large number of Israelis on the West Bank live there to benefit from cheap mortgages, and housing, electricity and other subsidies, rather than for ideological reasons.
Second, the Israeli government could develop a “buy back” plan whereby the government would purchase houses on the West Bank at market value and turn them over to the PNA in return for financial compensation from the US, EU and other international financial agencies.  (There is at least one private Israeli organization, made up of ex-settlers, that is already engaged in such activity).

Without a doubt, the problem of Jerusalem would be the most difficult to solve.  However, many Palestinians are willing to allow the Gush Etzion settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem to remain in return for Israel ceding territory elsewhere to a full-blown independent Palestinian state, e.g., in the Negev.  As far as Jerusalem is concerned, Israeli polls have shown that few Israelis (apart from the small ultra-nationalist community) want to live in Arab East Jerusalem and Palestinians have no desire to live in Jewish West Jerusalem.

The Old City of Jerusalem could become an interim “international city,” with the US as guarantor of its status, which could be renegotiated according to 5 year intervals.  In other words, every 5 years Israel and the new Palestinian state would sit down and see if they could negotiate a final status agreement for this critical but very small area (2%) that comprises the Old City of Jerusalem.  If they were unable to reach an agreement, the Old City of Jerusalem would continue as an “international city” for an additional 5 years.

Such a realignment of Israeli politics would draw immediate accolades from the European Union, elicit strong support from the Obama (or Clinton or even Jeb Bush administrations) because it would involve a major step forward in solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  Further, it would open the door to Israel to develop stronger economic ties with other Middle Eastern states, including the Arab Gulf states and Saudi Arabia.  It would no doubt improve Israeli-Turkish relations as well, relations that Israel sees as critical to its regional security and economic interests.

Can’t happen, you say?  Who would have predicted the Egypt-Israeli Camp David peace Accords 12 years after the devastating June 1967 Arab-Israeli War.  Who would have predicted Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn on September 11, 1993 when signing the Israel-PLO Peace Accord?  Who would have predicted the extensive talks in 2000 between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat that almost concluded a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement? And who, two years ago, would have predicted the historic P5+1-Iran Agreement that was signed this week in Vienna.

For all their failings – and there were many, Anwar al-Sadat and Menachem Begin, with the brilliant diplomacy of President Jimmy Carter, thought in terms of big ideas (even if their ideas excluded the Palestinians).  If Israel is to find its place in what may become in the next decade a post-nuclear Middle East, it must change its foreign policy.  It is time for all parties in the region breaking with the destructive policies of the past.  The peoples of the region deserve no less.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Terrorism, Sectarianism and US Foreign Policy in Iraq and Syria الإرهاب و الطائفية و السياسة الخارجية الأميركية في العراق و سوريا

Below is the Arabic translation of my post, “Terrorism, Sectarianism and United States Foreign Policy in Iraq and Syria,” in the Iraqi newspaper, al-MADA, June 14, 2015
ما الدور الذي تلعبه الولايات المتحدة في انتشار الطائفية في الشرق الأوسط؟

كشرط مسبق علينا ان نؤكد بأن الولايات المتحدة ليست هي من ولّدت الطائفية في الشرق الأوسط. لكن مع هذا فانها شاركت في خطيئة "سكب الزيت على النار". للأسف، فان الكثير من قرارات السياسة الخارجية الأميركية في الشرق الأوسط عملت على ترويج الهويات الطائفية. على هذا فان الطائفية هي ليست ظاهرة سياسية "مغلقة بإحكام"، و انما هي ظاهرة تغذّت و ازدهرت داخل بلدان المنطقة على يد قوات من خارجها.

قبل عدة سنوات كتب جورج سانتيانا يقول "اولئك الذين لا يستطيعون تذكّر الماضي محكوم عليهم بتكراره". رغم العرض الذي يقدمه الكثير من محللي السياسة الخارجية الأميركية، فان التاريخ ليس "ماء يجري تحت الجسر" و انما هو مصحّح للسياسة الحالية من خلال تجنّب تكرار الأخطاء السابقة. الذين لا يعتقدون بأهمية التاريخ عليهم ان يتذكروا المقولة: "الجنون هو ان تقوم بنفس الشيء مرارا و تكرارا و تتوقع نتائج مختلفة".
درس التاريخ مهم هنا. أحد المصادر الرئيسية للطائفية الحالية و الذي تروّج له مجموعة متنوعة من القوى السياسية في الشرق الأوسط اليوم هو الدعم الأميركي بعيد المدى لشاه إيران محمد رضا بهلوي. بعد ان تخلّى الشاه عن السلطة بسبب ضغوط قومية عام 1951 ، نظمت الولايات المتحدة إنقلاباً أعاده للسلطة في 1953 . من 1953 و حتى سقوطه أواخر 1978 ، بنى الشاه نظاما ساد فيه التعذيب كأسلوب لحكمه، كان الفلاحون مجبرين على التخلي عن أراضيهم بإسم "استصلاح الأراضي" و ازدهرت "نخبة البلاط" في حين بقيت بقية البلاد على حالها. عندما انتفض الإيرانيون ضده في 1978 ، لم تكن غايتهم إستبدال نظام إستبدادي آخر - يكمن اليوم في الزي شبه الديني - بحكم الشاه، و انما لتأسيس حكومة ديمقراطية تأخذ إحتياجات الشعب الإجتماعية على محمل الجد. بصرف النظر عن الجهود الموجزة لإدارة كنيدي في جعل الشاه يقوم بإصلاحات إجتماعية كجزء من حملتها " التحالف من أجل التقدم " ، 
فقد سمحت الولايات المتحدة للشاه بالإستمرار في إسلوبه القمعي. لنا ان نتصور ما كان سيحدث لو ان الولايات المتحدة ضغطت بقوة على الشاه، الذي كان يعتمد بالكامل على المساعدة العسكرية الأميركية و على الإستثمارات الغربية في التنمية الإقتصادية الإيرانية ، لتنفيذ إصلاحات ديمقراطية و إجتماعية. كيف كان سيبدو الشرق الأوسط اليوم لو ان آية الله الخميني و زمرته القمعية من رجال الدين و الحرس الثوري لم تتمكن من الوصول الى السلطة و إقامة ما يسمى بجمهورية إيران الإسلامية؟ أولا، ما كان نظام صدام البعثي قد إجتاح إيران في أيلول 1980 لأنه لم يكن يجرؤ على تحدي قوات الشاه المسلحة خاصةُ طائرات اف - 14 الأميركية المقاتلة (توم كات) . ثانيا، ما كان هناك دافع لنظام صدام العلماني للبدء بتحشيد الدعم من بين الإسلاميين في سنوات الثمانينات لموازنة الشعور بمعاداة الإمبريالية التي إتبعها نظام خميني، و هي سياسة جاءت بنتائج عكسية في نهاية المطاف . ثالثا، ما كانت هناك حرب الخليج في ك2 1991 أو آذار 1991 التي أثارت إنتفاضة الشيعة في جنوب و سط و جنوب العراق (و الكرد في الشمال الشرقي) ضد نظام صدام. في حين ان القوات التي باغتت الإنتفاضة في الجنوب كانت معظمها من الشيعة، فان الأحداث التي أعقبت حرب الخليج قوّضت الوطنية العراقية. 
مع قمع إنتفاضة 1991 و فرض عقوبات الأمم المتحدة و تنفيذ صدام لما يسمى بالحملة الإيمانية في 1993 ، فقد شجّع النظام على طائفية ضمنية كجزء من ستراتيجية "فرّق تسد" كرد فعل على ضعفه . عقوبات الأمم المتحدة المدمرة إقتصاديا و إجتماعيا و سياسات صدام، دفعت العراقيين للتفكير بشكل متزايد بالهويات المحلية المرتبطة بالطائفة أو العرق. 
لم يسع الإجتياح الأميركي للعراق في 2003 الى توظيف قيادة سياسية عراقية جديدة كانت باقية في العراق في ظل النظام البعثي، و بدلا من ذلك إعتمد على ما يسميه طارق اسماعيل و غيره "المستفيدين" الذين جعلوا ترويج الطائفية سياسة قائمة خدمة لمصالحهم الضيقة. عندما رأت النخبة السياسية العراقية ان السياسة الطائفية أصبحت هي السائدة ما بعد صدام، قاموا بإتباعها إنتقاما، و مرة أخرى وقفت الولايات المتحدة موقفا سلبيا و لم تحرّك ساكنا. حلّ الجيش العراقي في مايس 2003 – و هو أحد التشريعات الأولى لسلطة الإئتلاف المؤقتة – ألغى جيشاً كان يمتلك قوات قتالية مهنية صلبة من كل الأعراق. مع ان بعض الضباط كانوا يدعمون صدام، فان أغلب شرائح الجيش كانت تكره النظام بسبب موقفه المتعالي منها و بسبب تدني الرواتب و التجهيزات دون المستوى بالمقارنة مع وحدات النخبة مثل الحرس الجمهوري و الحرس الجمهوري الخاص. 
كان اختيار نوري المالكي، غير المعروف و غير المجرّب، ليصبح رئيسا للوزراء في 2006 يعكس يأس إدارة بوش من استبدال رئيس الوزراء حينها إبراهيم الجعفري الذي كانت تراه غير فعّال. مع ان المالكي تمكّن من قمع جيش المهدي في 2008 ، فسرعان ما تبيّن انه رجل طائفي حتى النخاع. رغم نصيحة مستشاريه بسحب الدعم الأميركي عنه، فقد أصرّ جورج بوش على الإستمرار بدعمه كرئيس للوزراء. عندما فاز السياسي العلماني الشيعي إياد علاوي في الإنتخابات الوطنية في آذار 2010 ، رفضت إدارة أوباما دعمه. و خوفا من ان تثير وطنية علاوي العلمانية القوية (التي كانت وراء فوزه بالكثير من الأصوات) غضب إيران و تقودها الى التسبب بالمزيد من الأذى في العراق، فقد طبخ أوباما إجراءً لحفظ ماء الوجه يصبح فيه علاوي رئيسا لمجلس مستحدث لشؤون الأمن الوطني و يسيطر على وزارات الداخلية و الدفاع. 
لم تكن الولايات المتحدة جادة أبداً بشأن تنفيذ هذه الخطة. وافق المالكي عليها لكنه سرعان ما تخلى عنها بعد حصوله على ولاية ثانية كرئيس للوزراء، و لم تأت إدارة أوباما على ذكرها مرة أخرى. ان كانت إدارة بوش قد سهّلت صعود سياسيين طائفيين بعد إجتياح 2003 ، فان إدارة أوباما قد فاقمت هذه السياسة التدميرية. عندما بدأ المالكي ببيع المناصب داخل صفوف الجيش، إضطر آلاف الجنود الى إعطاء جزء من رواتبهم لضباطهم، و أعطيت القوات العراقية (معظمها من الشيعة) الكارت الأخضر لابتزاز السكّان المحليين في الشوارع، و أخذت الطائفية تتصاعد.لو كانت إدارة اوباما قد قمعت هذه الأفعال – كما فعلت بعد ان سيطرت داعش على الموصل و غيرها في حزيران 2014 عندما رفضت توفير الدعم العسكري ما لم تتم تنحية المالكي – لما كانت مجموعة داعش تسيطر على ثلث مساحة العراق اليوم، و لما كان مقاتلوها (800 – 1000) بأسلحتهم الخفيفة يتحولون الى جيش من 30 ألف مقاتل يمتلكون أسلحة أميركية متطورة. 
في سوريا، وقفت إدارة أوباما موقفا سلبيا في 2011 و ما بعدها عندما حوّل النظام الوحشي للأسد الاحتجاجات الديمقراطية السلمية الى حرب أهلية طائفية . ركّز جيش الأسد هجماته على القوى الديمقراطية التي كانت تتلقى دعما قليلا من الولايات المتحدة و الغرب، بينما كانت توفّر الدعم الحقيقي للإسلاميين المتطرفين؛ أي مقايضة الأسلحة مقابل النفط مع جبهة النصرة و داعش. بهذا الشكل حوّل النظام البعثي الصراع الى صراع يمكنه فيه ان يعرض بدائل؛ اما نظام الأسد أو النظام الإرهابي المتطرف. لم تبذل إدارة اوباما جهدا لتحشيد تحالف دولي من أجل احتواء نظام الأسد قبل ان تتحول الحرب الأهلية الى ما هي عليه اليوم – حرب الكل ضد الكل مع بقاء القوة بيد القوى الطائفية المتشددة على طرفي خطوط المعركة. 
في نفس الوقت في العراق، تم استبدال المالكي بحيدر العبادي، السياسي الشيعي الذي قضى وقتا طويلا في المملكة المتحدة و نال شهادة الدكتوراه في الشؤون المالية و يدرك تماما الخطر الذي يواجه العراق. مع ذلك لم يسمع أحد من إدارة أوباما دعوةً لمؤتمر مصالحة وطنية في العراق يلتقي فيه سياسيو الشيعة و السنّة و الكرد في محاولة لتشكيل جبهة موحدة ضد داعش . كما لم يحصل ان اهتمت وسائل الإعلام بتحقيق الوحدة الوطنية و إلغاء الهويات الطائفية في العراق، و لم يحصل أيضاً إختيار مقرر خاص من الأمم المتحدة في العراق تكون مهمته مواصلة الضغط على السياسيين من أمثال المالكي و زمرته الذين يسعون الى تقويض رئيس الوزراء العبادي و الضغط على سياسيي النخبة من أجل اعتماد سياسات وطنية. 
مع وضع العراق الإقتصادي غير المستقر خاصةً بعد إنخفاض أسعار النفط و قلة إيراداته النفطية التي يعتمد عليها، يمكن لإدارة أوباما ان تكون أكثر نشاطا ان كانت تريد ذلك بدلا من الوقوف موقف المتفرج. 
من الواضح ان الحملة الجوية – التي تلقي القنابل مرة واحدة كل أربع طلعات – و بسبب غياب مراقبين على الأرض، كانت غير فاعلة كما يتبين من المكاسب التي حققها داعش في الرمادي و تدمر. 
الطائفية ليست متأصلة في سكان الشرق الأوسط، فالناس لا يخرجون طائفيين من بطون أمهاتهم. ما يحصل في الواقع هو إنتشار الهويات المصممة إجتماعيا و سياسيا على يد أصحاب المشاريع الطائفية المستفيدين من الخوف و التهميش الإقتصادي و التهجير من أجل تسييس الهويات الإجتماعية المبنية على العرق او الطائفة. بهذا الأسلوب، تقوم هذه النخب بتعزيز إنعدام الثقة بين الجماعات العرقية و الطائفية من أجل دعم أهدافها في زيادة سلطتها و ثروتها الإقتصادية. أوضحت إستطلاعات الرأي التي قامت بها روزنر و كويلان و غرينبيرغ في 2010 و 2014 ان الطائفية كانت في مرتبة منخفضة بين مخاوف العراقيين العاديين، بينما كانت مخاوفهم من الوضع الأمني و فرص العمل و البطالة أكثر بكثير. 
ليس هناك إنسان ساذج لدرجة ان يعتقد بأن الولايات المتحدة يمكن ان تعيد العراق و سوريا بلدين موحّدين مرة أخرى. مع ذلك فهناك حاجة الى سياسة أميركية جديدة تجمع تحالفا واسعا من الشركاء الإقليميين و غير الإقليميين الذين يسعون الى منع إنتشار الإرهاب. هذا التحالف يجب ان يضم الخصوم لمعرفة ما اذا كانت هناك أرضية مشتركة يمكن من خلالها سحق داعش قبل ان يتقدم أكثر في الشرق الأوسط (و أفريقيا). 
مع بقاء الولايات المتحدة في الظل، فهناك قوى أخرى تعمل في المنطقة؛ فالسعودية و تركيا، بدعم من قطر، تقوم بتسليح قوات إسلامية جديدة مثل الجيش الإسلامي. كما ان جمهورية إيران الإسلامية تدعم نظام الأسد و تتنافس مع السعودية، ما يخلق دولة فاشلة أخرى و يروج للهويات الطائفية في اليمن حيث ان كلا النظامين يسعيان للقضاء طائفيا على بعضهما. 
هل تريد الولايات المتحدة و حلفاؤها الإقليميون (عدا السعودية و تركيا) و الغرب ان يروا نظاما إسلاميا متطرفا يستلم السلطة في سوريا؟ على الولايات المتحدة ان تسرع، و ان تجعل دك الهويات الطائفية أولى أولوياتها مع تفكير جديد بجوهر المنطقة. لايزال أوباما يقف موقف المتفرج على الخطر الذي يحدق بالولايات المتحدة و المنطقة.
عن: ذي نيو ميدل إيست

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

After a Year in Mosul, Time to Defeat Da'sh Once and for All

Elite Iraqi Army "Golden Force" units
On the one year anniversary of the so-called Islamic State (Da’sh to use its Arabic acronym) seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, it is time for Iraq and the United States to mobilize a comprehensive strategy to not only degrade the Da’sh, but to defeat it.  What should such a policy look like?

First, we need recognize that the fight against Da’sh is both a political as well as a military struggle.  As I noted today on NPR’s KPCC’s Air Talk in Los Angeles, pursuing one strategy without the other will result in failure (

What can be done?  Serious crises require bold responses.  When the Great Depression hit, FDR created the New Deal and put unemployed Americans back to work.  When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the US took a small sleepy army and navy and built it into the best fighting force in the world leading to victory in WWII.   
When African-Americans were not only excluded from political participation and housing, but attacked by white segregationists, President Lyndon Johnson forced passage of major civil rights and voting rights acts in 1964 and 1965.  And when Saddam Husayn seized Kuwayt in August 1990, President George H. W. Bush organized an international coalition under the aegis of the United Nations to expel his forces from the country in January 1991.

A dramatic American military campaign in Iraq and Syria is not in the cards in June 2015, nor should it be.  However, there are important political acts that the Obama administration can employ to send an important message to the Iraqi political elite.  This message should be that there will be consequences for continued sectarian infighting and failure to address the threat posed by Da’sh.

President Obama could begin by requesting an invitation to address the Iraqi Council of Deputies (parliament). By delivering this message in the Iraqi parliament (or from the US Embassy in Baghdad), and insisting that it be televised so all Iraqis have the ability to watch his speech, Obama could pose some highly critical questions. He could ask whether the parliament wants to see continued bombings in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities or whether a path to national reconciliation would constitute a better alternative.  

He could ask Iraq's political elite whether it is better to tackle corruption and thus be able to provide Iraqi will needed services, such as job training, education and health care, or continue to see the government bureaucracy continue to degenerate and lose all confidence among Iraq’s citizenry.

During his televised address, President Obama could make clear that Iraq can only count on the US increasing its military support if it first gets its political house in order. The Obama administration remembers that, when it refused to support Iraq against Da’sh with increased military aid in June and July of 2014 unless Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was removed, it was victorious as the parliament elected Haydar al-Abadi instead.
The same tough stance needs to be adopted today.  The longer the Obama administration waits to take such a bold step, the more Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi’s authority is undermined, particularly by the supports of ex-PM Nuri al-Maliki who circles his erstwhile leader like a vulture waiting to regain power so he can reintroduce his sectarian, corrupt and highly destructive policies.

On the one hand, Maliki, and his hard line clique, try to torpedo any and all reforms that Abadi seeks to introduce.  Preventing him from arming anti-Da’sh Sunni tribes keeps the Iraqi army and its Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashad al-Sha’bi) from winning any significant victories, further eroding the Prime Minister’s legitimacy. 

On the military front, President Obama could argue that the Council of Deputies has already agreed to established provincial National Guard units to fight Da’sh in the Sunni majority provinces,  al-Anbar, Ninawa and Salah al-Din.  However, few weapons have reached anti-Da’sh forces in al-Anbar Province and elsewhere. Thus Obama could state in no uncertain terms that, unless these units are established and armed by a certain date, the US will unilaterally establish them, and arm and train them itself.

The United States should also begin arming some of the most successful combat units that have defeated the Da’sh, namely the YPG (People’s Defense Units) and YPJ (female) forces organized by the Kurds in north-east Syria.  Pressure should be brought to bear on the KDP and PUK Pesh Merga to develop much greater coordination between the KRG’s forces and those of the YPG/YPJ.
YPJ (People's Defense Units)
The US should not only arm and train YPG/YPJ units but organize patrols by these forces along the Syrian-Turkish border designed to interdict economic contraband, destroy Da’sh oil smuggling routes, and prevent as much as possible new Da’sh recruits from crossing the border into Syria.  The YPG/YPJ’s non-sectarian and progressive gender policies, and democratic elections in the three cantons that it has established (one run by a women prime minister), represent the values of a strong and natural US ally in the fight against Da’sh.

The US should pressure the (now much less cocky after its recent loss of its parliamentary majority) government of President Recep Tayyep Erdogan to oil and gasoline prices along the Syrian-Turkish border to reduce the demand for Da'sh-produced oil in southern Turkey.   

As a NATO member, Turkey should be pressured by all Alliance members to more actively work to destroy smuggling groups and interdict would-be Da’sh terrorists who enter Turkey and then travel to the south to cross the border into Syria.  A bounty should be offered for Turks who capture these youth coming from abroad to wreak murder and mayhem for Da’sh.

Supposed US allies in the Arab world such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwayt, the United Arab  Amirates, Jordan and Morocco should be forceably asked to contribute trainers and other resources to help rebuild the Iraqi army.  Training, and the increased morale that it produces, are crucial if the Iraqi army is going to do its job and defeat Da'sh.

The army once again cut and ran during the recent attack on Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, by Da’sh forces – which  were outnumbered as much as 40 to 1. The army lacks the necessary logistical training and confidence of its troops in their officers to deal with such attack, which purposely took place during a sandstorm to prevent attacks by US fighter-bombers. That US MRAPs loaded with huge amounts of explosives slammed into Ramadi as the attack began demonstrates the sophistication of Da’sh and the need for an aggressive military response.    

Both the Iraqi Federal Government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government need US military, diplomatic and economic support, especially with the decline in oil prices and the thereat Da’sh poses to oil exports and new oil exploration.  Iraq also needs US support for financial assistance from the IMF and infrastructure support from the World Bank.  The Obama administration has consider able leverage to force the Iraqi political elite to  finally confront its highly destructive sectarian policies.

Before someone raises the issue of the US interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs, let’s  not forget that the US spent $25 billion to build and train one of the most modern armies in the Arab world.  Under the über-sectarian regime of Nuri al-Maliki, officers’ posts were sold to totally unqualified individuals, troops were often forced to hand over part of their salaries to their officers, and soldiers were allowed to shake down the inhabitants of urban areas such as Mosul at numerous army-run checkpoints. Thus, it is no wonder that 800-1000 lightly armed Da’sh fighters were able to summarily defeat what technically were 2 divisions of Iraqi troops (30,000 men). 

Some analysts argue that the Obama administration is purposely withholding military support e.g., highly lethal Apache attack helicopters, to pressure the Iraqi government to introduce reforms and confront sectarianism within its ranks.  Waiting for Godot is not the same as developing a proactive strategic plan.  Time for new thinking and more vigorous, comprehensive and internationally-based policies in the Obama administration.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Terrorism, Sectarianism and US Foreign Policy in Iraq and Syria

What role does the United States play in the spread of sectarianism in the Middle East?  As a proviso, we need emphasize that the US is not the progenitor of sectarianism in the Middle East.  However, it has engaged in the sin of “pouring oil on the fire.”  Unfortunately, a large number of US foreign policy decisions in the Middle East have worked to promote sectarian identities.  Sectarianism is thus not a "hermetically sealed" political phenomenon, but one that is fueled and nourished both within the nation-states of the region and by forces beyond it.

A history lesson is in order.  George Santayana noted many years ago that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Despite the “presentism” of many US foreign policy analysts (see my "10 Conceptual Sins in Analyzing Middle East Politics, history is not “water under the bridge,” but rather a corrective to current policy by avoiding the repetition of prior mistakes.  Those who don’t think history matters should remember the saying: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Shah Mohammed Pahlavi

A history lesson is important here.  A key source of the current sectarianism being promoted by a variety of political forces in the Middle East today is the long-term US support for the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.  After the Shah abdicated due to nationalist pressure in 1951, the US staged a coup d’état that returned him to power in 1953. 

From 1953 until his overthrow in late 1978, the Shah built a regime in which torture was the modus operandi of his rule.  Peasants were forced off their land in the name of “land reform” and the “palace elite” prospered while most of the country did not.

When Iranians rose up against in 1978, it was not to substitute another authoritarian regime, now based in pseudo-religious garb, for the Shah’s rule but to establish a democratic government that took the populace’s social needs seriously.  Apart from the Kennedy administration’s brief effort to have the Shah introduce social reforms as part of its “Alliance for Progress” campaign, the US allowed the Shah to go his merry repressive way.

Imagine what would have happened had the US put major pressure on the Shah, who was totally dependent on US military aid and on Western investments for Iran’s economic growth, to implement democratic and social reforms.  What would the Middle East look like today had Ayatollah Khomeini and his repressive clique of  clerics and Revolutionary Guards not been able to gain power and establish the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran?
Saddam Husayn at the front during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War
First, Saddam Husayn’s Ba’thist regime would have never invaded Iran in September 1980 because it would never have dared challenge the Shah’s armed forces, particular its US F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft.  Second, there would have been no incentive for Saddam’s secular regime to begin mobilizing support among Islamists in the 1980s to offset the anti-imperialist aura of Khomeini's Islamic Republic regime, a policy that ultimately backfired.

Third, there would have been no Gulf War in January 1991 or March 1991 uprising (Intifada) by the Shi’a in south central and southern Iraq (and the Kurds in the northeast) against Saddam’s regime.   While the troops that surprised the uprising in the south were largely Shi’a, events following the Gulf War undermined Iraqi nationalism.
Izzat al-Duri-leader of the Faith Campaign
With the suppression of the 1991 Intifada, the imposition of UN sanctions and Saddam’s implementation of the so-called “Faith Campaign” (al-Hamlat al-Imaniya) in 1993, the regime promoted an implicit sectarianism as part of its “divide and conquer” strategy in response to its weakened state. 

A combination of the socially and economically destructive UN sanctions regime, and Saddam’s policies, pushed Iraqis to increasingly think in terms of identities that were local and tied to sect or ethnicity.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 made no effort to recruit a new Iraqi political leadership that had remained in Iraq under the Ba’thist regime.  Instead, it relied upon what accurately have been referred by Tareq Ismael and others as “carpetbaggers,” whose narrow interests made promoting sectarianism the politics du jour. 

When the Iraqi political elite saw that sectarian politics was the new post-Saddam normal, they pursued it with a vengeance, again with the US largely standing passively by.

The decommissioning of the conscript Iraqi army in May 2003, one of the first acts of the US occupation Coalition Provisional Authority, abolished an army that possessed an ethnically, confessionally and battle-hardened officer corps.  While some officers were supportive of Saddam, most segments of the conscript army hated the regime for its condescending attitude towards it, infrequent pay and sub-standard equipment, especially in comparison to elite units such as the Republican and Special Republican Guards.
Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
The selection of the unknown and untested Nuri al-Maliki to become prime minister in 2006 was more an act of Bush administration desperation to replace then Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja’fari who was seen as ineffectual.  While Maliki did suppress the Mahdi Army in 2008, it quickly became apparent that he was sectarian to the core.  Despite advice from his advisers to withdraw US support, George Bush insisted on continuing to back him as prime minister

When the secular Shi’i politician, Ayad Allawi, won the March 2010 national elections, the Obama administration refused to support him.  Fearing that Allawi's strong secular nationalism (precisely why he received so many votes!) would anger Iran, and lead it to cause more mischief in Iraq, Obama concocted a face-saving measure in which Allawi was to become head of a new Council of National Security Affairs and control the Interior and Defense ministries.   

The US was never serious about implementing this plan.  Maliki agreed to it but immediately ditched it once he had secured a second term as prime minister.  Meanwhile, the Obama administration never mentioned it again.

If the Bush administration facilitated the rise of sectarian politicians after the 2003 invasion, such as the Hakims – the leaders of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIIRI) which later became the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) – Maliki, Ahmad Chalabi and Masoud Barzani and clan - the Obama administration compounded this destructive policy.  When Maliki began selling positions within the officer corps, thousands of soldiers were forced to give portions of their salaries to their officers, and the (largely Shi’i) Iraqi troops in Mosul were given the green light to fleece the local population at street crossing throughout the city, sectarianism was on a roll.
Da'sh forces celebrating the capture of Mosul in June 2014
If the Obama administration had cracked done on these actions, as it did after the so-called Islamic State (Da’sh) seized Mosul and much of north central Iraq in June 2014 when it refused to provide military support unless Maliki was removed, the Da’sh would not control one third of Iraq today.  The 800-1000 lightly armed Da;sh fighters would have been no match for a standing army of 30,000 men who possessed technologically advanced  American weaponry.
Young victims of Syrian Army chemical weapons attack 2013
In neighboring Syria, the Obama administration passively stood by in 2011 and after as democratic and peaceful protests were turned into a sectarian civil war by the brutal Asad regime.  Asad's army  concentrated its attacks on democratic forces, who received little support from the US and the West, while actually providing support for radical Islamists, i.e., trading weapons for oil with the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Da’sh.  Thus, the Ba’thist regime transformed the conflict into one where it could pose the alternatives as either the Asad regime, on the one hand, or a radical terrorist regime, on the other.

No effort was made by the Obama administration to mobilize an international coalition to take on the Asad regime before the civil war turned into what it is today – a “war of all against all” with power in the hands of hardened sectarian forces on both sides of the battle lines.
Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi and Parliament Speaker Salim al-Juburi
Meanwhile in Iraq, Maliki was replaced by Haydar al-Abadi, a Shi’i politician who spent much time in the UK, has a Ph.D. in finance and fully realizes the peril facing Iraq.  Yet no one hears calls by the Obama administration for a national reconciliation conference in Iraq in which Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish politicians would meet to try and forge a unified front against the Da’sh.

A constant flow of media attention on the need to forge national unity and supersede sectarian identities, and the selection of a Special UN Rapporteur for Iraq, whose job it would be to keep up pressure on those politicians, like Maliki and his clique, who seek to undermine Prime Minister al-Abadi and pressure the political elite to adopt national policies, has not occurred.
US air strikes on Kobane on Syria-Turkey border January 2015
With Iraq in a particularly precarious economic situation with the drop in oil prices and hence the oil revenues upon which it is dependent, and the need for US military training and weaponry, the Obama administration could be much more proactive if it so desired rather than largely standing on the side lines and viewing the struggle against the Da’sh as a form of “spectator sport.”  Clearly, the air campaign, in which only 1 in 4 sorties actually result in bombs being dropped, due to lack of spotters on the ground, has been ineffective, as the recent Da’sh victories in Ramadi and Palymyra indicate.

Sectarianism is not a “primordial” quality of Middle Easterners.  People do not emerge from the womb as “sectarians.”  What is actually occurring is the spread of socially and politically constructed identities by sectarian entrepreneurs who capitalize on fear, economic marginalization, and displacement to politicize ethnically social identities based in ethnicity and/or confession.  

In this manner, these elites promote a lack of trust among ethnic and confessional groups that supports their goals of increased power and economic wealth.  As Rosner, Quilan and Greenberg national polls demonstrated in 2010 and 2014, sectarianism ranked low (11% in 2010; 22% in 2014) among the concerns of ordinary Iraqis. Physical security and jobs and unemployment ranking far beyond all other concerns(56%/36% in 2010; 52%/45% 2014).

No one should be so naïve as to think that the US can make Iraq, or Syria, whole again.  Nevertheless, there is a need for a new US policy that brings together a large coalition of regional and non-regional partners who seek to prevent the spread of terrorism.  This coalition should include antagonists to see if common ground can be found to crush the Da’sh before it makes more headway in the Middle East (and Africa).

As the US largely stays in the shadows, other powers in the region are acting.  Saudi Arabia and Turkey, with support from Qatar, are arming new Islamist forces, such as the Islamic Army (Jaysh al-Islami Iran's "Islamic Republic" supports the Asad regime and competes with Saudi Arabia, which is creating another failed state and promoting sectarian identities in Yemen, as both regimes seek to "out sectarian" the other.

Does the US, its regional allies (beyond Saudi Arabia and Turkey), and the West want to see a radical Islamist regime take power in Syria?  The Obama administration must step up to the plate.  Tamping down sectarian identities should be a top administration priority with new thinking about the region at its core. Obama remains a spectator at the US and the region’s peril.