Our 89th Capitol Hill Conference has concluded. The video is available below, and an unedited transcript and press recap will be posted soon. To receive invitations to future events, click here, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
Friday, July 14, 2017; 10:00a.m. - 12:30p.m.
Russell Senate Office Building
2 Constitution Ave. NE
Room 385 Washington, D.C. 20002
The following is a transcript of the eighty-eighth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on April 26, 2017, with Richard J. Schmierer, chairman of the Council’s board of directors, moderating, and Thomas R. Mattair, the Council’s executive director, serving as discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER, Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council; Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman
OK, good morning, everyone.Thank you for joining us in such large numbers this morning. I’m sorry we’ve run out of seats. Thank you for your patience, those of you who are standing in the back. We’re very pleased, very impressed with the turnout, with the number of people who’ve expressed an interest in being with us this morning. We certainly know that it’s an important topic. We’re very, very pleased with the tremendous quality of the panel that we’ve been able to put together for the program, and we look forward to what will be a very interesting discussion.
Now, let me introduce myself. I’m Richard Schmierer. I’m the chairman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. And I’m very pleased that all of you have been able to come to what is today our 89th Capitol Hill conference.
Given what we just seen in the last few days coming out of Syria and Iraq, I think we picked a particularly timely topic, post-ISIS Iraq and Syria — the important part: avoiding chaos. And we’ll count on our panelists to help us figure out how to do that.
Before I introduce the four panelists, I’d like to just briefly mention a little bit about our organization, the Middle East Policy Council. We were established in 1981. And basically, we’re an educational organization that does programs which seeks to promote understanding and education between the U.S. and the Middle East.
We have three flagship programs. One is the Capitol Hill conference series; as I mentioned, this is our 89th. We do these quarterly. We do them up on the Hill. And one of the reasons we do is we really want to attract staffers or members here who have an interest in our issues, and I’m very pleased to see that we have a very good representation from the congressional staffers here this morning, so thank you for coming.
Our second primary program is our journal, Middle East Policy. I think you probably saw copies of that out on the table coming in. It’s a quarterly journal that focuses, as mentioned in the title, on policy issues. And it’s very popular internationally: We have 11,000 libraries that have it in their collections, and so we’re very pleased with the impact of our journal.
And then our third primary activity is an educational program called Teach Mideast. And it’s basically aimed toward secondary school teachers and students. We feel it’s a group that needs — that should have more opportunities to learn about the region. And our coordinator, Megan Geissler, in the back, does outreach to teachers and students on the Middle East. So I’d encourage you to visit our website, which is www.mepc.org, to find out about our programs and specifically our Teach Mideast website, which is www.teachmideast.org, to find out about our educational materials.
Now let’s turn to today’s event. First, I’m pleased to mention that it’s being live-streamed over the Internet, so let me welcome all of you who are joining us online. We’ve had an unprecedented response in terms of numbers to this event, and so I know a lot of people are encouraged to join us online. So thank you for doing that.
The conference proceedings will be transcribed. Video of the conference will be posted on our website, and then the transcription will appear on our website. And then eventually an unabridged or an annotated — not an annotated; an edited transcript of the conference will be published in our — in the next issue of the journal.
Now to our panelists: As I mentioned, we are very pleased to have four very distinguished panelists. We’ll be getting starting today with Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, here to my right. Jim has served as ambassador in both turkey and Iraq. I had the pleasure of serving with Jim when I was serving in Baghdad and he was the deputy chief of mission. He’s currently with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Jim will be followed by a Dr. Denise Natali, who has served with USAID in Iraq, and she’s currently affiliated with the National Defense University in the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.
Following Dr. Natali, we’ll have Wa’el Alzayat, another former colleague from the State Department. He served as an adviser to the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and as State Department Syria outreach coordinator. He’s currently affiliated with the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and also served as the CEO of an NGO called Emgage USA.
And our fourth speaker, a friend and colleague from the Middle East Institute, Dr. Paul Salem, is the vice president for policy analysis, research and programs, at MEI.
Following the discussion we will have — or following the presentation by the panelists, we will have a Q&A, and that will be a moderated by my colleague, Dr. Tom Mattair, who is the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council.
Let me mention, please, as you noticed, we had — we put index cards on all of the seats. For the Q&A session, what we would ask that you do is while the speakers are speaking and a question comes to mind, write the question on one of the index — on the index card, and hold it up. One of our staffers will then collect it. We’d like to get those to Tom while the presentations are being made so that he can begin to sort through and organized and put the questions together. So please do use the index cards, write your question, hold it up even as the speakers are speaking, and we’ll collect them and bring them up to Tom.
With that, let me turn to my friend and former colleague, Jim Jeffrey.
JAMES JEFFREY, Philip Solondz Distinguished Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Former Ambassador, Turkey, Iraq; Former Deputy National Security Adviser, President George W. Bush
OK, good morning, everybody. I’m now a lot happier that my cellphones have been found.
First of all, I’d like to thank the Middle East Policy Council and Ambassador Schmierer for — thanks — for inviting me here today. And I’d like to thank all of you for coming.
I know that some of you are interning here this summer. And despite the oppressive heat, I congratulate you for doing so. Nobody ever wanted me as an intern in Congress. But they did want my daughter back in 2002 for Senator McCain, and she’s gone on to have I think a great career in foreign affairs since then. So for those of you who want that, I think that you’re off on a good start.
OK. Title is, Iraq and Syria, preventing chaos, right?
AMB. SCHMIERER: Avoiding chaos.
AMB. JEFFREY: Avoiding chaos. Good. I already got the title wrong. But I don’t like the title in the first place. If you want to talk about the details of chaos, the problem is you’ve got my colleague Wa’el and my colleague Denise who’ve actually spent a lot of time on the ground doing that. My experience, which, while extensive in time with Iraq and to some degree Syria, has mainly been spent on Washington meetings and in videoconferences out of Baghdad. So I’m not real good on the details. But that’s OK because I’m not going to go into the details. I’m going to challenge the very foundation of what we doing today.
And I’ll tell you why. Back in 2006, I was very much involved in the Lebanon war as the number two in the Middle East Bureau. And there our motto was, Lebanon after the fighting, preventing chaos. And, you know, we prevented chaos, and we helped contribute to the extraordinarily dangerous Middle East we have today because we looked at things in a certain way.
I feel we’re going to be looking at Syria and Iraq in that same way today, and we’re just going to make things worse.
Specifically, if I were titling this, I would say, Syria and Iraq, preventing Iranian domination and an inevitable reaction with another ISIS or something like it. That’s goal one for this administration, to the extent this administration understands that, which it doesn’t yet; it’s kind of feeling around. But I’ll get to that in a second.
Let me try to tell you what I’m trying to drive at. And I have to go back to 25 years.
In the old days — Vietnam is the best or worst example — we looked at everything from a geopolitical standpoint. Wherever the Russians or the Chinese for a 20-year period after 1950 popped up, we were going to be there to balance them, to counter them, to deter them, to contain them. Sometimes we did it in areas where we didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding. Vietnam was arguably one of them. But most of the time we did. But certainly that was a viewpoint.
That changed radically after 1989. Rather than pull back, become isolationist or look for some kind of amorphous global governance centered on the U.N., we basically continued with what we had been successful in running since the 1940s of a global governance, collective security, financial, economic, trade, human rights, humanitarian, you-name-it system, more informal than formal because a formal system is the U.N.
And carrying out that responsibility, we looked at each problem sui generis, as a specific problem that had to be dealt with on its own, exactly what we didn’t do during the Cold War, where everything was seen through the filter of what the Soviets were up to: If they were in places nobody could find on the map of Central America — and unless you really know Central America, it’s really hard to figure out where is Guatemala, where is Honduras, where is El Salvador — but we would be in there.
Under this construct, every problem was unique: Colombia, North Korean nukes, Philippine Insurgency, Bosnia, Kosovo, Saddam, Milosevic, South Sudan. And we deployed the usual elements of power with a huge component of internal engagement to resolve internal disputes and promote good governance, fight corruption, spur economic development, none of which, frankly, folks, we’re very good at; it was very few — very little success. Some success, and I’ll get to that in a second.
But we’re in a different era now. We’re facing two near-peer competitors, China and Russia, and we have two nation-states that, in their regions, are posing very significant military and diplomatic threats, North Korea and Iran, in part because to one or another degree, both are allied with China and Russia.
And we have another element, an amorphous one, radical extremist Islamic terror or whatever we call it, that manifests itself in al-Qaeda and in ISIS. Now, that movement we did take as a regional movement as something to be fought all around the world, but because it’s an amorphous thing, isn’t a state, it didn’t bleed into our thinking the way certainly our struggle against communism or our struggle against fascism did. It’s time for a change now.
Here’s the example from 2006, Lebanon. An Iranian surrogate, Hezbollah — I can’t blame Iran for this as far as I know, but I certainly can blame them for arming, equipping and encouraging Hezbollah generally — provoked a reaction from Israel by going across the Israeli border and killing or seizing a squad of Israeli soldiers. Israelis’ reaction turned into a major war in southern Lebanon.
At that time the Bush administration — yes, even the Bush administration — was getting tired of Middle East wars. We had so many popping up all around us. We had Afghanistan. We had Iraq. We had the Iranian nuclear file. And we had the final effort to try to push for a Middle East peace accord involving Syria to some degree — that was a separate negotiation — as well as, obviously, the Palestinians and Israel. So this was a diversion. This was a problem. This had — this was chaos. That’s the title, right? OK. This was a chaos threat, so we had to deal with it.
So we did. We pushed and bullied the Israelis to stop their military campaign, which wasn’t their best military campaign in any case, frankly, so they may have been halfway willing to go along. And then once we did that, we did the usual push the buttons, usual suspects, what we do in an international thing; the U.N. here, you know, go to Europe to gather money mainly from the Europeans, a little bit from us. Which capital did we pick? Come on, which capital would you pick for something like this?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Brussels.
AMB. JEFFREY: Actually, I was going to say “aside from Brussels.”The next place other than Brussels.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Paris.
AMB. JEFFREY: Stockholm. And that was great fun. I went up there and — was the number two at the U.S. delegation. I was at the U.N. Security Council, and we passed Resolution 1701 ending the war with a cease-fire. We got a largely European peacekeeping force — a quite large one; I mean, it’s in the tens of thousands — in southern Lebanon.
However, we were being pushed around at every level by the Lebanese government, which was being pushed around by who?Iran through Hezbollah. And it was clear that we could not get — we got in our resolution, you can’t send any new arms into Lebanon unless the Lebanese government approves that. Well, the Iranians have rammed through that U.N. resolution with hundreds of five-ton trucks because it didn’t have any teeth. We had a peacekeeping force, but its only purpose is to prevent the Israelis from coming in. But remember, the Israelis didn’t provoke this thing; Hezbollah did. Hezbollah has been able to arm itself and in 2008 effectively took over the government and the country of Lebanon, which is where Lebanon is today. Some Lebanon experts will challenge this on the margins, but I’ll stand by it. Meanwhile, billions of dollars of Western money is going in to fix Lebanon from the mess that Hezbollah with some help from the Israelis did.
Now, that’s what we are going to do by default, certainly with Iraq, and with Syria, if we don’t get smart and realize that we are in a struggle for the future the Middle East with Iran, empowered by Russia and with asymmetrical allies all across certainly the Shia areas of the Middle East.
This administration is more aware of this than the Obama administration was. Obama basically rejected this. But this administration in principle accepts it. That was the purpose of Riyadh. But it doesn’t know how to carry it out. Right now its entire focus is on the war we finally can win in the Middle East after 25 years, ISIS, and we’re about to win it.
The problem is, when we do win it, gee, we’re going to have U.S. enclaves; I call them no-fly zones because they’re basically what we were advocating and the Obama administration was rejecting.We have one in northeastern Syria with the Kurdish PYD and — oh, excuse me, the SDF with some Arabs. The Turks have one with the Free Syrian Army. Sometimes both of them are our ally, sometimes not quite, in northwest Syria. We have our enclave in the south of Syria. We now have a quasi-enclave with this cease-fire zone right along the Jordanian and Israeli borders. And of course, we have 10,000 troops and a lot of coalition troops in Iraq.
So we’ve got a very significant military force deployed in the ground in Iraq and Syria. What’s going to happen to that when we declare victory on ISIS, which is weeks away, probably, with Raqqa and if the Syrian army can get its act together and take Deir Ezzor?
The basic desire of the U.S. military is to stay on. The desire of the U.S. government is for Iraq a rebuilding program basically along the lines of Lebanon, and for Syria, big question mark; I’ll let Wa’el try to answer what we going to do in Syria. Yeah, I know. OK, anyway.
WA’EL ALZAYAT: No idea.
AMB. JEFFREY: Because we don’t yet have a policy because this is really hard.
Now, with Iraq, the focus will be on rebuilding because we have a government that we have a pretty good relationship, the Abadi government, that’s actually done pretty well and is pretty well-disposed towards us, kind of like the Hariri government in 2006 in Lebanon. But like the Hariri government, it’s under a lot of pressure from the Iranians and Iranian surrogates, many of the popular militias.
And our effort is going to be to continue to try to move Iraq as we’ve been doing since 2003 into international community. Think of Jordan with oil and gas Sounds good. But that’s not what the Iranians want.
So I’ll then go back to our experiences over the past 25 years. Where we’ve been successful with internal conflicts that we’ve been able to defuse and then go in and build up something like reconciliation, governance, some economic development and that sort of thing, where have been our successes? This is an audience question. Yeah.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Korea?
AMB. JEFFREY: Korea is an earlier success. I’m talking about in the last 25 years from internal conflicts. And Korea was internal conflict too; actually, that’s a good example, but it’s an early one. I’m talking about since 1989.
Bosnia. Kosovo. Colombia.
What do those three have in common? We didn’t have a(n) inimical or could control the outside environment. So we and the people of that country could focus on whatever it took to fix Colombia, Bosnia and Kosovo. The two Balkan countries took a little bit of work because of Milosevic in Serbia, who was essentially on the other side, and, particularly with Kosovo, the Russians. But we actually dealt with them so that we were left — and the people of Colombia, Bosnia and Kosovo were left — to conduct the same not very efficient, kind of sloppy, full of corruption, halfway stability operations. That is the best you ever get, but the best is good enough because the original dynamic was OK.
The alternative example is Lebanon. There we had a very serious regional problem in that Iran did not want us to do anything there that would stop the encroaching Iranian-slash-Hezbollah control of the country. And we solved that by giving into them. So under the watchful eye of Hezbollah, we went in. And we fixed a lot of the damage. We worked with the government. And two years later Hezbollah launched a military offensive against the private army — OK, it’s all a bit complicated — of the official prime minister of the country, Hariri. And that was the first time you had Hezbollah fighting in large numbers for a long time fellow Lebanese. And they went and took over much of downtown Beirut. And from then on Lebanon’s fate is pretty much sealed. So that’s the other alternative.
The third alternative — and we know this better than the other two — is Afghanistan and Iraq. We try and try like the little train that could, chug, chug, chug, with 150,000 troops and billions and then close to a trillion dollars, to fix something when the countries around the region — Iran and Syria in the case of Iraq; Pakistan in the case of Afghanistan and, on the margins, Iran — don’t want us to fix it, and it’s much easier to screw something up like this up — because this is very hard. Preventing chaos isn’t a UNDP mission. It isn’t some USAID teams. All of that’s important, but it takes much more than that.
So the first thing we have to do as a country is figure out, what do we do with Iran? And how is that going to play out in Iraq and in Syria? Do we want to put conditions on our effort to rebuild Iraq and continue to help Iraq integrate into the international economy?
Now, this is a country that with any luck will be producing two-thirds of the oil of Saudi Arabia within a few years. So I would strongly suggest we have a real interest in getting it right in Iraq. >But that won’t be easy. The Iranians are deeply entrenched there.
Several alternatives: We could try to cut a deal with the Iranians. That may be possible with Rouhani. I don’t think it’s possible with Qassem Soleimani and the Quds Force, Revolutionary guards. And they seem to be in the driver’s seat on this. We’ll see.
We can try to ram our vision for Iraq down the throats of not just the Iraqis, many of whom wouldn’t be adverse to it, but certainly to the Iranians, who, as I said, are. But as I said, I’ve seen that movie in particularly 2010 to 2012.
Or we can try to on the margins keep a few troops under one or another training mission and try to stay in the game while pushing back every way we can.
The final trump card that we have on this is Kurdistan, which is toying with the idea of becoming independent. That’s a very, very bad idea, although it has its advocates here in Washington and here on the Hill, but believe me, it’s a very bad idea. But in extremis, it’s something that we can use because the Kurds are adamant from the very top down — and I heard this many times — they will not tolerate Baghdad throwing the American army out of Kurdistan again. They almost lost their capital to ISIS in 2014. We saved them. They don’t want to see that again, and they’re very serious about that. So that’s that play.
On Syria, again, the question is, what are we going to do with those enclaves? Are we going to stay in them? And if we are, for what purpose? Are we going to try to leverage them to get some kind of acceptable compromise peace with the Geneva process or re-engaged Astana process? I think that’s even harder to figure out, and my sense is the administration is still working on it.
I wish I had more answers for you. I wish I had a Jeffrey plan. I don’t. What I’m trying to suggest is, if we just look at this as preventing chaos, the button we will push will be the button we pushed in Lebanon in 2006. That will turn — that will help turn this region further into the kind of chaos that we have seen since 2013 when we didn’t execute the red line.
This administration has turned the tide a little bit by showing that it can use military force in a way that every time we suggested it to the Obama administration, we heard, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. Well, we’ve shot down Syrian planes. We shot down Iranian drones. We’ve blown the hell out of numerous convoys of Hezbollah armor. And we launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. And what do we have? We have the Russians agreeing, finally, to a cease-fire with us that appears to be, at least for the moment, holding. I think that’s something that we can build on.
But that’s really going to be hard. The only thing I can suggest is keep your eye on the bottom line. It’s not just Iran taking over a huge part of the Levant, threatening Turkey to the north — and Turkey’s very worried about Iran — and obviously, Jordan, Israel, and the Gulf to the south. It’s also the reaction to this.
My final warning is in 2012 to 2014, the enabling and probably encouraging of the oppression of the Sunni Arabs, 20 to 25 million of them, between Baghdad and Damascus by Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad and President Assad in Damascus turned an organization that when Wa’el and I were there, al-Qaida in Iraq under the same al-Baghdadi, that was little more than a criminal gang mainly in west Mosul into an army of 35,000 troops controlling somewhere between 6 and 9 million people and a huge swath of land. That’s how the region will react to the Iranian press forward if the adults don’t take this seriously. Thank you. (Applause.)
DENISE NATALI, Distinguished Research Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University; Former Specialist, American Red Cross Gulf Relief Crisis Project; Former Associate Professor, American University of Iraq-Sulaimaniya
Thank you very much. I’d like to thank the Middle East Council, my colleagues for being here. Just a disclaimer that my views are my own and not those of the U.S. government or the Department of Defense, the National Defense University.
If we’re talking about avoiding chaos, I’d actually make — like to make a step back and rephrase the title too, which is I hesitate to look at a post-ISIS yet, and how do we prevent an ISIS 2.0 from returning, because we’re certainly not out of the neck of the woods in Iraq, certainly not in Syria.
So what I want to look at today is — or present to you some of what I see are some of the local dynamics on the ground — I spent a lot of time in and out of Iraq and speaking to a lot of the different groups in Syria — what we should think about, what this is going to look like — I mean, what is Iraq — we often say, what is Iraq and Syria going to look like after? And we’re projecting out 10 years. I can’t project out 10 years, but certainly in the next couple of years, what are we dealing with? And then what are some of these really important dynamics that are going to set the stage which some of us are predicting as the next conflict? And what’s the security and political architecture we should be thinking about knowing what the realities are on the ground? And I’ll tell you they’re very different than what we’re talking about here in Washington, D.C., at least from my perspective.
So one of the points I really want to make is even before ISIS, let’s say since 2003 in Iraq — and much of my attention will be on Iraq — there was this narrative here in D.C., inside the Beltway and probably out of, Iraq’s going to break up, that there’s going to be an ethno-sectarian region Sunni-Shia-Kurd. I mean, we just hear this now. It’s become so iterative we don’t even ask the question how. And now it’s even — I’m hearing even in Syria words like a Sunni region.
This is not going to happen. If it wasn’t going to happen in 2003, and it didn’t in and we’re now in 2017, it’s certainly not going to happen after ISIS because this is not what the Iraqi and Syrian states have turned into.
There’s not going to be a Kurdish state, Iraq Sunni-Shia. These regions have become hyper-fragmented that the states are not breaking up; they’ve broken down. And that’s very different. State breakdown means a very different security architecture and political architecture than state breakup, that is, strong Sunni region, strong homogeneous Kurdish region, strong homogeneous Shia region — doesn’t exist, that if there’s going to be conflict, it’s also going to be equally between these groups.
Why and how? What do I mean by this? That the states are now hyper-fragmented, that the conflicts are hyper-localized. Within these provincial structures that already exist, now you have various factions within wanting self-rule, wanting self-protection. Since the ISIS onslaught, you have every group with their own militia, almost. There was at one point in Nineveh, in northern Iraq, 15 militia running around Nineveh itself. Within each of these groups, they’re also divided.
So there’s one sense of great distress that has happened. And again, this goes back to what has changed over the years. But these entities, there’s no — again, not Sunni-Shia-Kurd, but these little factions within that are also with their own militia, and they have some form of de facto administration in some parts, some parts of Syria but certainly in Iraq as well.
So starting from that point — and these entities that we’re talking about, they’re not self-sufficient, so it’s very easy to say a Sunni region, a Kurdistan region. They’re landlocked. Who’s going to support them? They’re all dependent on some form of their central government still, and even in Syria and certainly any Iraq, or regional states.
Ambassador Jeffrey has talked about Iran and the influence of Iran in Iraq and these regions, but there’s also Turkey, that when these states, Iraq and Syria, will not break up, they will be very weak. And it’s in the interests of regional actors to keep them weak. That’s where they can exert their zones of influence. So in Iraq, you have a northern buffer area where Turkey exerts control. And Iran — in parts of Iraq in the south, you have Iranian control and important Iranian control in the Kurdish area. There’s several hundred kilometers of border that Iran shares with Iraq, and that is actually with the Kurds. And there’s a very important relationship that continues today between these regions and Iran for business, for commerce and political influence. And I wouldn’t disagree with Ambassador Jeffrey on that influence, but it also extends in the Kurdish region for other reasons.
So nonetheless, we should expect that these regional states are going to continue to take advantage of this opportunity of these weak states that are highly fragmented to utilize proxies and militias, and you’re seeing this playing out in parts of northern Iraq, and again, what type of group can we support because right now everybody needs money. So that’s one of the issues, that we look at Iraq and Syria as hyper-fragmented states, not regions; it’s not going to happen.
What are the dynamics that we should be worrying about? And some of this existed before ISIS onslaught, that this didn’t just come out of the air, that most of these areas, now people are fighting for territories; political relevance — and that’s where you see this Kurdish referendum coming from; resources; oil; and territorial borders.
Now, in Iraq, that existed, again, since 1991. I was with Operation Provide Comfort II. There was — when Saddam Hussein’s forces withdrew after the Gulf War, this was an opportunity when we created this safe haven for the Kurds that some of these green lines and borders of Saddam were drawn and then withdrawn. So this is been going on in a lighter form since 1992 but certainly since 2003; again, when we overthrew Saddam, some of these borders and internal boundaries have been moving so that the Kurds have now shifted into what is called disputed territories.
And although you’ve probably heard some discourse of that this is over, the disputed territories issue is not over in northern Iraq, even though the Kurdistan regional authorities have de facto control of these territories as a byproduct of the anti-ISIS campaign. And that gets to one of the important territorial changes, that since the onslaught of ISIS, since the campaign, the Kurds have assumed about 40 percent more territory in northern Iraq. In, Syria you’re talking about some say 180 percent. This is really significant if you’re somebody on the ground, particularly Arab, and looking at this and saying, my goodness, this used to be our territories. Now, some of them were ISIS. I get it. But that’s not the way that people are looking. And you have to understand how demographic changes and territorial changes really affect the way that people are looking after what’s going to happen after ISIS.
So part of this, again, is the territorial component: Who is going to get what? Who is going to define these borders? When you’re looking at the Raqqa campaign, most people are asking what’s going to happen after. You know, there’s no way they can say the YPG — or, you know, the SDF, but led by the Kurds — is going to control this area. This is really important, and it’s important for regional actors as well. So we I need to understand this.
Secondly is the demographic changes that have occurred in the region since ISIS and the onslaught of ISIS. You’re talking about in Iraq at one point 3.3 million internally displaced people. Now, according to the International Office of Migration, about 1.9 million have returned. But you still have got, you know, well about over a million-plus internally displaced people. Many are inside the Kurdistan region. I was just there again in March, and you’re talking about, you know, nearly a million Arabs for the first time since the state formation period are inside the Kurdistan region. And I’m not talking about the disputed areas; I’m talking about Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, the three provinces. That’s important.
There’s 11 million people in need a humanitarian aid in Syria — we’ll discuss that — my colleague will discuss that — but over 11 million people internally displaced or refugees. This is not insignificant when you’re talking about, again, what type of governance structure are we talking about. You know, are these people in Baghdad, you know, really representative of the Sunnis communities when people are really identified locally? Think locally. And when you’re talking about reconciliation as well, you know, it was always at this very high level, but it really has to start locally and in some of these local areas that people want to govern themselves.
And the third, the third is financial. We talk about how do we prevent ISIS again. Some of these issues are ideological. There is still the ideology. There is still, you know, this resentment, Sunni-Shia. I really — I’ll get into that issue, which, you know, I don’t necessarily agree with it. But the Iraqi state is broke, nearly. I mean, before ISIS came, the oil was about over $100 a power. We’re talking 45 (dollars) to $50 a barrel for a state that revenues are — 95 percent of its revenues or more dependent on oil. So, you know, you have to ask, those tens and billions of dollars needed to reconstruct these areas, most of which are Sunni Arab territories or mixed territories, who’s going to do this? How do you prevent some of the deep grievances or the frustration or whatever it may be from re-emerging in these wastelands? Because that’s what they are.
So when there’s no money in the coffers in the Iraqi government — and that will probably be the biggest concern of mine is the financial crisis.
The Kurdistan region is even worse. They’re tens of billions of dollars in debt, again, landlocked with oil that many people are still trying to control. And I’ll make a couple of comments about that: When you hear about all this oil going out of the region coming from the Kurdistan region, the vast majority of this oil is from Kirkuk. It’s not from the Kurdistan region proper. This is very important. Kirkuk is a disputed territory. Although the Kurdish Peshmerga have assumed de facto control, in the minds of local people, that didn’t switch. And I can’t see for the life of me how anybody, any Iraqi is just going to say, go ahead, take this without sharing it with the rest. So I’m not saying it can’t happen, but of the 600,000 barrels coming out of the Kurdistan region, 400,000 are coming from Kirkuk, not the Kurdistan region proper.
So you have to again ask, who is going to pay for all of this? Are there local power-sharing and revenue-sharing? If the Kurds want to take 40 percent more territory — they can’t pay salaries of their own provinces — who’s going to pay million more people? And right now the way most Iraqis I see are working on the ground is they just want services. They want electricity. They want to live with security. They want someone to pay their salaries. That’s what it’s going to be about. Can Baghdad do it? Can Erbil do it? And then you’ll see this fragmentation between these two groups.
So territorial, demographic and financial challenges between — in Iraq right now — and I imagine some of this is going on in Syria — mean that this struggle for power is happening between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Some of these problems existed before. Most of the authorities and officials I’ve spoken to have said the same thing: We had to make some deals for ISIS. We had to make these agreements. And, you know, we withdrew the Kurdish budget, but now let the Kurds sell their oil because we’ve got bigger problems to solve; that’s ISIS. Let them stay in these territories for now; we have bigger problems to serve.
But every one of them said, we have to revisit these issues. There’s no way that you can control this oil without having it belong to the Iraqi government and so forth. So the question is, how are these deals that were negotiated during ISIS going to exist and continue afterwards so that you can have some kind of stability in these areas while providing basic needs? So I’m a little bit baffled. I don’t know how that’s going to happen.
But now I don’t want to be too depressing about this because I don’t really have much good news. (Laughter.) So let me say something that’s a little margin of good news, I guess. I usually don’t have any good news.
This is a moment, though. So at with some of the Iraqis that I’ve spoken to — and I’m not talking about — of course everyone — of course everyone’s happy about the Mosul victory, and you’ve seen that. And that is something that the Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga and all of the other forces working together deserve an enormous amount of credit. The ISF have taken significant losses, a significant amount of losses, trying to save their country and these areas. So that’s important.
But more importantly is that you have this moment where Iraqis are talking about Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who’s a very revered cleric, ayatollah in Iraq, from which most of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the militias that are Shia, took their initial command. I would say of the — of the Popular Mobilization Forces, about 70 percent or 75 percent are from this group from Ayatollah Sistani who are Iraqi nationalists. The problem is the other 20 to 25 percent or 25 to 30 percent taking their orders from Iran, as what Ambassador Jeffrey had indicated. That’s the problem here. But we do have to be careful about not conflating this word of “Shia,” this we’ve got to stop, and that they’re all about that because they are Iraqis, they’re nationalist. And you’ve seen this significantly in what’s happened since — you know, since the last couple years. And Prime Minister Abadi is not Prime Minister Maliki, and he has the support from a large population of Iraqis.
However, this is a moment. People are talking about a civic state. Iraqis are talking about we want to get over this sectarianism. Does it exist? Of course it does. I’m not trying to be naïve and think that these deep issues aren’t going to go away overnight. However, acknowledge that Iraqi nationalism is very strong among the vast majority of populations, that even though — and I agree that Iran does have influence — the Iraqis don’t want the Iranians taking over their country, OK? It’s just that how weak or strong or how able are they to push them back? That’s the issue.
I would take advantage of this moment. People are tired. They want to rebuild. And there is this moment, again, or Iraqi nationalism, of the idea of a commitment to the state. Nobody wants to see — well, except for the Kurds — the Iraqi borders break up. There’s not one regional state wants to see the Iraqi or Syrian borders break up. So we have to deal with two very weak states in which lots of local factions are trying to get political leverage and advance their own agendas.
What can — I’ll just make this — what can we do then, OK, given little bits of opportunities here at this moment and lots and lots of challenges ahead?
Well, I don’t think that we should even think about we can fix it. Ambassador Jeffrey talked about what we — what’s happened already in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’re not going to fix Syria and Iraq. I do think we should move from the tactical issues once the campaign is over of just funding people who can get stuff done, you know, knock things around, to strategic-level issues. And that is we have to start with the states. Recognize the sovereignty of the Iraqi and Syrian states. I didn’t say we have a partner in the Syrian government to work with, but at the end of the day it will be the Syrian people who decide, and that their — that their territorial borders remain intact.
We have sub-state actors. Any support that we give should continue to be channeled through the Iraqi government so that we enhance the institutions of the Iraqi state, which does mean local administrations, the Kurdistan Regional Government as part of the Iraqi government. Anything else that we do is continuing to undermine the institutions of the state that people are actually trying to build.
I would say that are our greatest leverage right now — and to be aware that every local group is trying to leverage us. Everyone wants our support. And we have to be careful that we are not appearing to favor one group over the others. This is really important, particularly with some of the Arab communities, OK? Right now most of the people on the ground that I speak to — and it’s baffling to me because it’s just the opposite of what the U.S., in my view, wants to do — is why do the Americans want to break up Syria and Iraq? Everybody asked me this. There’s the Americans again acting as the air force for the Kurds, and they want to break up our countries. We need to move away from this idea that we’re going to come in and fix everything and choose a particular group and think that it’s going to work out fine. There’s a lot of sensitivities right now, so we should be careful about that.
What we can do is provide technical assistance. Security is most important, I would say. Given the fragmentation of the state, given our national security interests, right, which are to prevent terrorism from hitting the homeland, securing our allies and preventing refugee flows and assuring the free flow of energy to world markets — making sure that these borders are secure. The Iraqis need local security, local police training, federal police training, training Peshmerga and some of these other forces affiliated with the Iraqi government. That would be an extremely important and useful way of extending our resources.
Secondly, of course, humanitarian relief. There’s only — there’s tens of billions of dollars that are needed, and there has been very little still allocated for this effort. There’s been some World Bank loans to Iraq, but I still think that this type of technical support — not nation-building, technical support — is what we can provide.
And my final point is a message I would say to everyone here in the U.S. government, media, anybody: Knock it off with the Sunni-Shia-Kurd language and the narratives that the locals are so much trying to get away from. I read news that the Shia government — sixty-five percent of Iraq is Shia; does that mean it’s a Shia government? I mean, if you look at the population percentages, it doesn’t really work out that way. Iraqis want to be using the language of localities — Moslawis, Basrawis, the Iraqis. OK if you want to say Kurds, but enforcing these ethno-sectarian distinctions where they don’t exist, in many locations are actually misleading, is also not helping local populations move beyond this. So, I mean, I can’t — you can’t close everybody’s discourse, but we should just be aware that this is just fiction. There is ethno-sectarianism, but that’s not the way these countries are moving forward. So we should continue to look at there are provincial structures in place. Work with what we have and enhance the structures of the Iraqi state and, hopefully, at some point, the Syrian state within its existing territorial borders. Thank you.(Applause.)
WA’EL ALZAYAT, CEO, Emgage USA; Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service; Former Senior Policy Adviser to the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.; Former Syria Outreach Coordinator, U.S. Department of State
Hi everyone.Good to see everyone here on a Friday afternoon. I have no idea why you would choose this place rather than be at a pool or somewhere else.
I’m Wa’el Alzayat. I am the CEO of Emgage USA, which is a nonprofit civic engagement organization for American Muslims. Because my work on Iraq and Syria wasn’t difficult enough, I clearly need to work on domestic issues affecting the Muslim-American community now, with smashing success, I hope, just like we did in Iraq and Syria.
It’s really great to see my former boss, Ambassador Jeffrey, whom I served with and for in Baghdad in 2011 to 2012. Those were the — those were the years we were trying to negotiate a follow-on security agreement with the Iraqi government, which ultimately we were not successful.
Those were the years when the Arab Spring was beginning in Tunisia, in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Syria. Some would even say that the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 really is what began the trend of people mobilizing on the streets via social media and other means and demanding for basic rights of good governance, economic opportunity, freedom of thought, freedom to assemble, things that we take for granted here — well, perhaps we’re not taking it for granted much as we did before. But really, just as back then, it’s still relevant today, in my view, that the lack of these freedoms continues to be at the root of the instability that we’re trying to address right now.
I was born and raised in Damascus, Syria. I grew up in Syria in the ’80s under Hafez al-Assad, who was the father of the current president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Syria was basically a Stalinist state. You couldn’t purchase material or products that were not imported by the state, and of course they secure their handsome taxes and their fees and their charges to support their economy. You couldn’t realistically have any hope to influence the political trajectory of your society because there’s only one president and there’s only one party. You couldn’t really hope to work hard and perhaps become a successful businessman if you were not connected to the right people in the government and were not willing to pay bribes at every turn in every corner. Syria was and I’m sure it still remains the worst place on Earth to do business according to the World Bank — maybe Zimbabwe beats it by just a millimeter. But that says something.
And I suspect — and I’m not an expert on all the Arab world, but a lot of these dynamics and trends did and continue to persist, irrespective of the packaging of that country. And I’m not going to make a lot of friends in the region this way, but that’s the reality. From Morocco to Iran, the region lacks basic rights and opportunities for its citizens. And it’s who you know and which family were born in, where you happen to live, perhaps, that determined your fate in that country.
It’s the lack of that access and equal opportunity that has will and continue to generate many forms of radicalization, whether it was under, you know, the former leftists in the ’60s and ’70s and their vision for a socialist region or Arab nationalism, or now through political Islam. These forces are trying to contest the status quo. And often, the response of the powers that be is brute force.
Now, we look at Iraq and Syria, and we’re talking about areas that have been or will be liberated from ISIL. But we have to — you know, if we’re going to figure out how can we help — because I agree with the speakers, we can’t do everything ourselves; in fact, we’ll be happy to do a part of it successfully — how can we help the region — and i.e., that’s not just the government; it’s people — avoid a return of something like ISIL or anything else similar to it, irrespective of its ideology?
See, people on the ground could care less about an ideology when their building is being bombed. Whether it’s a Russian bomb, a regime bomb, an American bomb, an ISIL car bomb, it’s the same to them. And I suspect most people, irrespective where they’re living in the world, would feel the same way. They don’t care about the source of the problem. They just want the problem to go away. Then they can think about the source of the problem.
Now, to try to prevent chaos from returning to those regions, we have to ask ourselves: How did it get so bad, and how did ISIL even get empowered to wreak havoc on those societies?
We can go back into history, but really, what’s important is to focus in on what happened in Iraq and Syria since the U.S. invasion.
Now, that does not excuse or overlook what happened before in terms of Saddam’s policies, the Iraq-Iran War, Shia-Sunni, you know, conflict in the region, disenfranchisement of the Kurds and of a lot of the Shia in Iraq, et cetera.
But really, the ill-conceived policies and implementation, even when those policies were rectified, in my opinion, following the U.S. invasion in terms of — and you all know about it, right, the disbanding of the Iraqi army and of de-Baathification — but also throughout the — our tenure in Iraq as an occupying force until our last troops left Iraq, we really never managed to influence the Iraqi government in a way where they saw themselves as a partner of ours in a joint project to reform the country, even on their own. It was always contested. And I think being perceived as an occupying force must have had something to do with it.
But even after our troops left, the government of Maliki, whom we supported until ISIL fell, really, continued to operate as, in a sense, a government-in-exile. See, Maliki basically was exiled from his own country by Saddam. And that mentality, that siege mentality of not trusting the other, particularly those who were in the Sunni or even Kurdish community and even some of other Shia politicians, really prevented us and threw a lot of obstacles in our face in terms of getting him and getting his close advisers to embrace the other in the political spectrum.
And things really deteriorated. By 2013, 2014, I believe Maliki was dropping barrel bombs over Fallujah. See, these are things people don’t realize, or maybe they overlook. What Assad was doing in Syria, it’s not the same scale, but Maliki was perceived to be doing it in Anbar. That’s important. The Sunnis of Anbar looked at Maliki not too dissimilarly than what somebody in Homs — or how they were viewing Assad. That’s very important, even if the scale and the scope was different.
So, obviously, the central government’s mismanagement and abuse of the relationship with the Sunnis — and, to some degree, also the Kurds in terms of not working to finalize some of the outstanding issues; not just the divvs, but the fate of how hydrocarbons are shared — and obviously, the blame also goes to the other side in terms of the leadership. Neither the Kurdish leadership nor the Sunni leadership also did what they can and should have done to bridge those divides.
Now, Iranian interference is also very important. We saw firsthand being in Iraq what Iranian-supported groups and, in fact, operatives of the Quds Force do. I mean, I was the recipient of many, many, many rockets in the Green Zone, and I know that Ambassador Jeffrey was as well. You can’t try to rebuild a society under those conditions. It’s impossible. It’s very difficult. And at best, it just slow-rolls whatever development good governance and economic projects you’re trying to support.
And finally, we — and I mentioned I want to get too much into history — the region remains a very tribal region in the mentality, in the way these societies think about each other. I mean, identity politics, we talk about it in Washington; we have nothing on people in the Middle East — including the Israelis, by the way, and the Iranians and the Arabs and the Kurds. But I believe that figuring a formula to support the good governance, economic and freedom agenda for the long term can perhaps weaken those identity political instincts.
Now, when we look at Syria, what Syria did is that it basically threw fuel on the fire. Now, we can discuss whether the United States should have intervened and should have enforced a red line or not — and by the way, I do believe that we should have — but what happened in Iraq basically was allowed to metastasize. And just like cancer, the cancer was in one part of the body, and it found fertile grounds across the border, only to come back to the original body and almost decimate it.
I was working for Ambassador Robert Ford as a senior liaison with the Syrian opposition from 2012 till about 2014. And we saw how the — basically the policies of the Assad regime, the gross human rights violations, supported by the Iranian government and the Russians and a whole lot of other militias, including Iraqi Shia militias that was supported by Iran, how they basically decimated, quote/unquote, “opposition areas,” including the civilian populations. And not surprisingly, the extremists moved in to fill that void, via many means.
But to add insult to injury is that those same extremists were able to go back to Iraq, route the U.S.-supposed Iraqi security services in Mosul, pick up thousands of U.S. equipment and then roll across the border again to basically almost finish the job in Syria.
Those communities that have been decimated, whether in Iraq or in Syria, require our investment if we are serious about preventing chaos from returning.
Now, there are different theories on this: People want to retract from the region; they want to manage it; or they want to double down. What I’m offering is not doubling down necessarily. It’s being pragmatic and methodical in where we choose our investments just as if you were a stockbroker. The portfolio is a mess, but there are some opportunities within that portfolio.
The Sunni areas in Iraq right now require massive reconstruction. Mosul is an ancient city. It is an important city. Something will happen there whether we’re involved or not.
And I would rather that we be involved in one way or another, just like we got involved with the KRG beginning 1991: We protected a long-term project there that now results in a pretty good ally of us in the region in the form of the KRG and a platform from which we conduct not just business but key security operations.
And we, through that Investment, have done the impossible, actually. What we did, we transformed the KRG and its leadership into close — not allies, but pretty friends — pretty friendly government with the Turkish government, particularly with Erdogan. I mean, imagine, Erdogan is not an easy person. The Kurds and the Turks supposedly hate each other. But somehow, the KRG led by Barzani works closely with the Turkish government. People should think about that a little bit. Something happened there that overcame identity politics.
And in fact, right now the KRG views other Kurds across the border, the YPG, as a threat to them, and they would rather cooperate with the Turkish government to prevent those Kurds across the border from becoming a stronger. That’s just a known fact.
So what we did there, we really need to try to replicate. And it’ll be a lot harder, at least in the key Sunni centers of both Syria and Iraq. And it has to be done differently. One size will not fit all.
So in Mosul, we have to work with the KRG and the GOI and the key security services and probably even the Iranians and the Turks and other Kurds on reaching some kind of consensus of how the city will need to be administered and governed moving forward. Nobody will get everything that they want, but we got to be at the table. They will be able to figure it out on their own. They just simply will not. Somebody will win at the expense of someone else, and that someone else will come back in the form of X terrorist organization that we will have to take out five years from now.
Same thing in Anbar Province, particularly Ramadi and Fallujah. Ramadi was decimated. Ramadi is a city of half a million people. More than 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed during this conflict.
Mosul, you saw the images. It’s horrific. A million left Mosul. They’re going to come back or try to come back.
So we have to make sure that there is as close to a representative government structure for Mosul and for Anbar; real rapid Investments, whether by us, Gulf states, Turkey and even Iran, if it’s transparent. It needs to be accelerated, basic services, basic security, basic governance.
But don’t give up on it after six months or 12 months or 18 months when things become difficult. They will be difficult. They are difficult. But I would rather do the investment now, again, then have to come back five or 10 years from now and spend even a bigger amount of money. And God knows what emanates from that part of the world because first we had al-Qaida. Then we had ISIL. OK, ISIL makes al-Qaida look like child’s play. So what’s going to come after ISIL? I don’t want to find out.
So that’s the investment there in Iraq: Sunni areas; continue to work with the Kurds; continue to work with the GOI and through the GOI.
But here’s a note, this fixation on working it through the GOI — we don’t do it for the KRG. And it’s why the KRG has succeeded. Doesn’t mean we’ve recognized their independence. And we have enabled it in the long term, God knows, but for now we try to work with the GOI, but when they don’t, we work directly with the KRG.
We should do the thing for the Sunni areas of Iraq. Keep them tethered together; condition our support that they remain part of Iraq and that they try to play nice with the central government; but we go to them directly for support, particularly economic, security and also governance. And not just us: When we lead, I have seen in Iraq, other countries come with us, whether it was the original invasion or even the counter-ISIL campaign: We somehow, you know, brought together over 60 countries in a matter of months.
In Syria, it’s obviously more complicated, but I think the same principles hold: governance, security, econ. I don’t have anything new to give you. They’ve worked before, and I think they’ll continue in the future. But in Syria, it’s more complicated, obviously because we’re at odds and we don’t work with the Assad regime, and I do not think that we should.
Now, you see, we’re, like — now we have an opportunity. We have special forces and local allies holding territory in southern Syria, in the northern regions with Turkey, and around Raqqa right now. OK.
This is something we did not have a few years ago. We have territory. And as I mentioned, the region is tribal. It’s very 19th century. People like to gobble up territory. And we have our own piece now. I know it sounds very colonial, but that’s just the reality of the region. We’re there. We’ve invested in partners, whether they’re Kurd or Arab.
We need to expand that, literally do with our adversaries have been doing: Get on the ground, tolerate higher risk, build those relationships.
And we’ve tested the regime and the Russians; they blinked. I’m not saying they will blink again, but they did so far. When they encroached on those areas, we responded. And unlike what some of my former colleagues from the Obama administration said, World War III has not started.
Now, again, could escalation happen and lead us to a terrible spot? Yes, absolutely. But I think not acting in this manner and expanding these areas of de-escalation and establishing deterrence — so you can go to the Russians and ask them to be nice, and please don’t bomb on these guys, and no, they’re not really terrorist — and I think we should do that and we should continue to invest in any tracks, even with, politically, in terms of negotiations, with the Iranians, and quietly with the regime; that’s fine in terms of negotiations. But when they don’t respect our parameters, we should include preventing gross violation of human rights anywhere in Syria and in terms of violations against the population, particularly when — whether it’s barrel bombs or chemical weapons are used. When they don’t honor that, I think we have to respond to establish and maintain deterrence.
We have a proof-of-concept that has worked now. When the regime transgresses too much, it gets whacked. It quiets down for a bit, will test it out again. That’s what Assad does. You whack him again. But you signal properly why are you doing the whacking. We’re doing it because they did X. We have no intention to overthrow the regime. Communicate it to the Russians and the Iranians to make sure their personnel get out of there so you don’t have World War III.
All of this is temporary in Syria because the longer term is what? You want to codify these quiet areas and zones. It’s some kind of decentralization agreement with the central government supported by the Russians and the Iranians.
And the long-term projection of true reconciliation, you continue to invest in it in the form of the Geneva negotiations and other quiet diplomatic tracks. It might be a 10-, 20-year project, but in the meantime, if you establish deterrence in those areas, you’re able to do what? Decrease the killing, decrease the displacement, and maybe even entice some people to go back to their homes rather than have them risk crossing the Mediterranean. It’s not a perfect solution, but it sure is better in my mind than what we have seen the last six years. But that requires the ability to increase and follow on the pressure on the regime and even the Russians when you have to.
All of this is — means what? It means the United States with its partners, whether they’re Arab or European or elsewhere, is remaining committed by a more focused strategic manner, get away from the rhetoric. But words do matter in the sense that we should always articulate our support for good governance, equal opportunity in terms of economic development, and sound security policies and counterterrorist approaches.
On this last piece, just because we’re fighting ISIL or a terrorist organization does not mean that the choice in the region is between stability or democracy. It’s a false choice. It’s a false choice. There’s hundreds of millions of people our age in the region. It’s insulting. People deserve stability and freedom. Both. And they have an impact on one another. And we’ve seen our focus on just the stability and the security in the form of various dictators we have put up with come back to haunt us in the manner and in the way that we’ve been discussing.
From Morocco to Iran, the region requires investment in its capacity-building and its security but also in supporting the right groups and forces that are advocating for an open society and freedom — and leaning in even on our friends in those countries who have done good by us on the security front, even quietly, on those issues — and certainly not advocate and support what they’re doing to repress their own citizens publicly because they take that as basically a blank check to do as they wish.
So I’ll stop my preaching here. Thanks for having me and look forward to your questions. (Applause.)
PAUL SALEM, Vice President, Policy Analysis, Research & Programs, The Middle East Institute; Founding Director, Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon; Former Director, Fares Foundation
Hello. It is challenging to be the fourth speaker on this very rich panel and come up with more things to say about Syria and Iraq.
I’m currently with the Middle East Institute, but I’m originally from Beirut, Lebanon. I ran the Carnegie Middle East Center there. I run a Lebanese think tank. I lived through the Lebanese Civil War, 15 years of grueling war, which had a lot of domestic components but also a lot of regional and international components as well, a war that didn’t end until after eight years of negotiation and until the Cold War ended, a number of conditions. I lived through the 2006 war, been involved in civil society action and political reform efforts in a very complicated small country which is Lebanon, which as Ambassador Jeffrey has indicated has tremendous Iranian influence in it through Hezbollah but also a vibrant civil society, a political system which is extremely inclusive, and different power centers within the country itself.
We’re looking at the chaos in Iraq and Syria. And indeed, it is a condition of chaos. And I would point to two dynamics that informed this chaos.
One has been talked ably. I mean, Wa’el, my colleague, talked ably about it, the struggle for whether it’s human rights or so on, even more — you know, more mundanely, reasonable government, accountable, inclusive, not utterly brutal and not utterly exclusive.
Obviously, the story of Iraq from before 2003 is much of that story, and a lot of that is still going on.
Syria effectively started as such in 2011, turned into a shooting war, largely by design of the regime, which preferred a shooting war over discussion of political reform. But still, people in the 21st century in the Arab world becoming more informed, more empowered and demanding a reasonable government, not necessarily idea.
Obviously, we saw this throughout the region in 2011, but very ferocious backlashes by governments, by regional powers, sometimes helped by external powers, sometimes not. Only Tunisia has managed to sort of move forward on in that regard. And I think that domestic struggle for political inclusion and some basic respect for what people want politically is still extremely relevant, both in Iraq and Syria. We’ve heard how Prime Minister Maliki dealt with some areas or even dealt with the Kurds, and we certainly see how President Assad deals with his own people.
The second aspect of the chaos, obviously, is a fight for the region — for regional hegemony or regional influence. This is not the first time, you know, this has been happening in the Middle East. In World War I, the Turks were kicked out, and the region was dominated by France and Britain for a couple of decades. After World War II the French and the British left. And there was an emergence of an Arab-dominated or an Arab order with support from either the United States or the Soviet Union. That led to a period of war within the Arab state system, mainly between Egypt backed by Russia and Saudi Arabia and some other more conservative states backed by the United States, which if you recalled caused civil war in Yemen, regime change in Syria and Iraq and Libya and many other places for contestation of who dominates regionally, Egypt or Gulf countries at that time, U.S. and Russia.
We are seeing now a struggle for regional and international influence in the Middle East. The Arab order has broken down, and we are now, you know, living through the emergence of an Iranian-Arab — it’s not an order, it’s a disorder, currently, but certainly Iran has a very dominant position throughout all the cities of the Levant — Basra, Baghdad, Mosul, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Damascus, Latakia, Tartus and Beirut. The Sunni states, their attempts over the first last few years to prevent that have failed. I would say the U.S. was rather passive in this struggle under the Obama administration. Russia took advantage of that. And we are now in this situation where Iran indeed has a very dominant presence regionally in the Levant and a very significant foothold in Yemen.
What I want to talk about in Iraq and Syria, I want to do a SWOT analysis — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — as a way to get a handle on what is chaos, true, but even in chaos the are patterns, there are dynamics. They are both civil wars. Civil wars do take a long time, but they also usually end. Civil wars, like all wars, are the continuation of politics by other means, so it’s people wanting something, it’s not just chaos. And you could say that the Middle East itself is in a kind of civil war in the sense that, you know, countries struggling to see what role they get, how they ensure their security and their interests.
Strengths in there — so doing a SWOT analysis of Iraq, looking at strengths first and maybe sort of building on what my colleague Denise Natali was ending with, you know, what are some of the positives in Iraq when you look, particularly in comparison to Syria?
One, it does have political institutions, a constitution, elections. They’re not ideal, they’re not perfect, but much more than other countries in the Arab world do. It’s the beginning of this system, but it prevents — it presents a lot of opportunities and something can be — that can be built on. The central government does include, you know, ministers and deputies from all communities, all regions. There are elections coming up early next year. And that’s nothing to ignore.
Secondly, I think the national armed forces, whether the army itself, the counterterrorism unit, the federal police in cooperation which — with the Peshmerga, which you could say are kind of, you know, state forces in the sense that they’re part of a decentralized semiofficial military force — but the Iraqi armed forces which collapsed, or many units collapsed, in 2014 have resurged. And in the Arab world, the state, the army is often the pillar or the backbone of the state; without that, you don’t have much. So it’s quite important that Iraq has a resurging national armed forces, that unlike the armed forces in Syria, are not seen as exceedingly partisan or answering just to a family, and have some measure of potential of more broad acceptance.
You have a leader, a prime minister, who’s moderate, broadly accepted, unlike that in Syria. You have just, you know, from the victory over ISIS this week and throughout the previous fight, the experience of these various forces, national — armed — Baghdad-based forces, Kurdish forces, Peshmerga, and the various units of the popular mobilization units. As DR. NATALI: said, many of these are just patriotic Iraqis of various communities and groups that were fighting to beat ISIS and to preserve Iraq. The experience of fighting side by side, dying together and sharing this experience, whereas the Kurdish memories of Kurds fighting the Iraqi forces, dying on opposite sides, this is quite an experience also to attempt to build on in the weeks and months ahead. There is the victory over ISIS, which is no small affair. And it’s part now of Iraqi national history, Iraqi national pride. And that should be something to build on.
Another thing that we maybe often ignore is that Iraq has good relations, reasonable relations with pretty much all the major powers in the region and in — and globally, very much unlike Syria, which is very bitterly aligned on one side. Even Saudi Arabia and the GCC have made tentative steps, Adel Jubeir, Saudi foreign minister, going to Iraq; maybe it’s something they should have done much earlier. But that is an advantage to Iraq that yes, there is a lot of Iranian influence, but it’s not — you know, Iran doesn’t run Iraq by any stretch of the imagination. They do want to build on these relations with all their neighbors and with the global powers, from the U.S. to China.
Finally, on the positive side for Iraq, it does have oil. Oil prices are low, but it does have something to use. Unfortunately, there is high levels of corruption and mismanagement, but they do have something to try to move forward on. So there are some strengths there.
On the weaknesses side, yeah, ISIS has been beaten in Mosul, but the war with ISIS is long from over. ISIS still controls a number of towns and regions in Iraq. And even if beaten out of there, there are, you know, enormous desert stretches which are areas they could survive and try to become ISIS 2.0, ISIS 3.0. ISIS will be with Iraq, as it were, for a very long time.
A key question there — other than, you know, the war on ISIS, how will it continue in Iraq — what will the — you know, ISIS in 2014 was kind of allowed in or welcomed in, in a sense, by some Sunni regions or communities. But living under ISIS for the last three years I think might create different conditions, but we don’t yet know where will — where that will go.
Other weaknesses. As Iraqi officials themselves will say and Kurdish officials and has been mentioned here, there is really no effective plan to rebuild Mosul or to revive it or repatriate. There might be broad outlines of a plan, but certainly nothing like the resources to do it. So Mosul, yes, is “liberated,” quote/unquote. It’s also destroyed and dead. And it’s very difficult to see how life will return in any short time span.
Thirdly, on the weaknesses side, you do have the popular mobilization units. As DR. NATALI: said, many of them are, you know, Iraqis that — some of which responded to Sayyid Sistani’s call to defend and are, you know, doing the right thing, many of them might go home or some of them might go home if Sistani issues another fatwa to do so, but there is, whether it’s 20, 25, 30 percent, which are closely linked to Iran.
It’s quite clear that the Revolutionary Guards in Iran and Qassem Soleimani want to build and have and maintain a kind of Hezbollah-like independent military force in Iraq, particularly that the national army is not under their control. It might be a model that they want to replicate. They have that in Lebanon. They might want to be doing that in Iraq. They have something like that in Syria, and they have the potential of something like that in Yemen.
That creates an Iranian sort of managed expeditionary force of anything from 115(,000), 200,000. Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, a couple of weeks ago said that in the next war with Israel, this expeditionary force, as it were, will bring tens of thousands or, he said, hundreds of thousands of fighters from Iraq, from Syria, from Pakistan, from Afghanistan to Lebanon to fight. So there is this sort of clarification of this idea of kind of an expeditionary force which is really massive. So that challenge to Iraq, what to do with the popular mobilization units, particularly with that core, is a big one.
The government of Iraq is one of the most corrupt and ineffective in the world. That is an enormous problem. There is no real Sunni-Shia reconciliation process of any depth taking place. The Kurdish question, Kurdish desires, wishes — there is a referendum on Independence in September. That whole question remains hanging over Iraq as well. And within the leadership in Baghdad, Prime Minister Abadi and different groups, Shiite groups and whatnot, there is strong contestation with Maliki trying to come back and others like Hadi al-Amiri and others with backing from Iran contesting that leadership. So there is a lot going on within Iraq that is very, very troubling and very worrisome.
On the threats side — so strengths, weaknesses, I’ll go to threats and then opportunities — on the threats I’m going to focus just on the U.S., what concerns the U.S. here, and obviously, the continuing threat from ISIS. As I said, ISIS will survive. Yes, it’s a body blow. I think it hurts their brand. ISIS overtook al-Qaida as a global brand because they were successful, because they were able to take over so much territory and declare a caliphate and hold it for a number of years. The fact that the caliphate is being effectively defeated and that they will end up revert to being more like an al-Qaida network that launches attacks and so on will hurt their brand, hurt their recruitment, certainly, and hurt their capacity.
But they aren’t going away. And the threats they might pose to Europe and the U.S. will continue. They might even intensify. If they don’t have cities, maybe they will invest more in international attacks.
The second threat, as Ambassador Jeffrey said, is the Iranian armed forces, meaning the armed militia groups and their influence that they have in Iraq. That is part of a Middle Eastern strategy, Middle Eastern expeditionary force, which by definition is — runs counter to the principle of states and state sovereignty. And their attempt or the Revolutionary Guards’ attempt to have armed forces that answer directly to them in at least four Middle Eastern states — maybe they would hope for Bahrain at a later date or eastern Saudi Arabia — that is extremely dangerous.
Now, how that will impact the U.S. I think depends very much on the U.S.-Iranian relationship. And U.S. and Iran have become extremely intertwined or intertangled in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. has forces there. Iran has forces there. They can — they can possibly coexist tentatively.
But if there is any serious escalation between the U.S. and Iran, then, you know, those — that might come to blows in Iraq, might come to blows in Syria as well. So that is something that should be of great worry to be U.S.
On the opportunity side, I would say, what does that effectively mean, what does this analysis mean for U.S. policy, opportunities or effectively soft recommendations in Iraq?
One, obviously, stay the course in the fight against ISIS in remaining areas after Mosul is — has at least been — you know, ISIS pushed out of there. Maintain a strong political and diplomatic engagement in Iraq. In an article that my colleague Randa Slim and I wrote a couple months ago, we called for a diplomatic surge. This runs counter to sort of current budget proposals that sort of decimates the State Department. And I would say there’s a lot of political work, now that the major fight against ISIS is kind of seeing an end, for more political and diplomatic surge in Iraq, partly for, you know, helping domestically, as we mentioned, the challenges of Iraqi government as well — fairly bankrupt, high levels of corruption, very uncertain future relations between Baghdad and Erbil, very uncertain relations along the Sunni-Shia divided, although I agree with Denise that that is, you know, not a fully accurate way to describe things, but there is a Sunni-Shiite problem, reconciliation issues and so on, that needs to be addressed. And the U.S. can be helpful, can’t fix the problem but can be helpful.
Also diplomatically, the U.S., while maybe it doesn’t have the resources by itself to throw at many of these issues or the ability to dictate, it still is the most influential global player and to marshal its influence with regional players and internationally to help Iraq move forward.
And in my analysis, I hope I’ve indicated that Iraq does have a way forward. It does have a functioning constitution and political system. It’s not hopeless. It’s gone through very, very difficult conditions, but I think it has a way forward and might be able to make it.
I think it’s very important in Iraq for the U.S. to manage the relationship with Iran. That means both being very clear and firm with Iran as to what the U.S. will tolerate and what it will not. And I think the way the U.S. has acted in Syria is correct in the sense of sending a clear signal backed by force, not excessive, not escalatory, and very clear as to why it’s being done. I think the Iranians understand that very well. The Iranians are in some senses a paper tiger. They are not an extremely powerful state. But they have mastered sort of the expeditionary force approach to gaining influence in broken states. But really, they are no match, obviously, you know, for the U.S. but even some of the other conventional armies in the — in the region.
Let me turn to Syria and sort of a SWOT analysis there as well. And let me start with the W’s, the weaknesses, because indeed, there are very few positives in Syria, particularly after we look at Iraq.
There is no inclusive state, no vaguely inclusive or democratic institutions at all and unlikely to be in the foreseeable future. There is no real political process underway. Geneva exists, but it is not — it is not, you know, happening in any serious way. So there’s no political path that’s taking place.
The national armed forces are not national in the sense they’re not accepted in any national sense. There is no accepted national leader whatsoever. There is no viable alternative for disgruntled opposition or Sunni forces in Iraq — in Syria, unlike in Iraq, where there is at least elections, you can join, you might complain but there is a way forward. There is no such thing in Syria.
The war against ISIS in Mosul has been won. The war for Raqqa is just beginning. It might be very difficult and very long. Gains that were made in the first few weeks just, you know, in the recent past, a lot of that has been lost. The force assembled to take Raqqa is not as battle-hardened or formidable as the force in the Iraq, nor in Syria do you have the support and cooperation of the central government and all the other players that are playing. So the war for Raqqa, although Raqqa is smaller than Mosul, might be a very, very difficult and long slog. After Raqqa, there is the question, obviously, of Deir Ezzor.
Unlike in Iraq, when you get beyond ISIS, in Syria there is a massive al-Qaida presence. It’s organized. It has built enormous grassroots, alliances, and it will — it is and will be a very, very serious threat to Syria, to the region, to Europe and the U.S. And it is not currently part of the sort of really prioritized strategy.
As well in Syria, even more than Iraq, a massive Iranian expeditionary force and also pretty much direct Iranian control over the central government. It used to be an Assad government. I would have to say now it’s kind of an Iranian-controlled government with Assad sort of in the post of presidency with backing from Russia. Very different than Iraq, different than Lebanon.
Syria, unlike Iraq, doesn’t have good relations regionally and internationally. It has two allies, Iran and Russia, and one big militia, Hezbollah. Otherwise, it’s sort of at odds with everybody else.
And Syria has no significant oil resources, meager economic resources, and has been way more devastated in all of its major cities, pretty much, when you compare it to Iraq. So reconstruction, normalization, stabilization in Syria, very, very difficult to see.
On the strength side or the positive side — and I put strengths certainly in many quotation marks — ISIS is being gradually beaten back. There is general war fatigue in the regime and Hezbollah even, various — supporting the regime as well as the opposition and the people. War fatigue often is a, you know, entry point either to a de-escalation and sort of cease-fires, which we’re seeing some of now, or to some serious negotiations.
We have seen in the last year, year and a half, some serious progress towards limited cease-fires here and there, de-escalation zones and so on, something we didn’t even hear talk about in the first four years of the conflict. And I think that’s indicative of where the conflict is going, possibly towards a(n) unstable kind of de-escalation for a while.
There is in Syria some possibility of U.S.-Russian cooperation. We saw obviously meetings between the two presidents. The de-escalation zones, talk of stabilization and so on, is something conceivably that the U.S. and Russia could agree on.
In Syria, the U.S. has been firm with the Assad regime, and I point that as a positive, and with Iran-backed militias. And they’ve sent those messages and had sort of compliance rather than any furious feedback.
The regional players, including Iran and Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others, have all I think scaled back their ambitions from where they were in 2012, ’13 and ’14. All of those give sort of some positive hope for some progress.
In terms of threats to the U.S. and why this matters, I think this — you know, the situation in Syria is going to go on for many, many years, maybe a decade, maybe more. There is no resolution in sight. That is likely to produce more refugee flows, more radicalization, particularly if there is no political resolution. So there is that general threat that Syria has been sort of exporting since 2012.
Secondly, ISIS as I mentioned will still be present in some parts of Syria. It will survive this onslaught and will be a threat. Al-Qaida is surviving and is an enormous threat. The survival of the Assad regime — and it is surviving — will continue to generate radicalization and threat itself. And Iran and Hezbollah, who used to have an ally in the Assad regime but weren’t present in Syria on their own, now effectively run Syria and have the ability to deploy — are deployed in Syria as well.
I think that particularly destabilizes the Israeli northern border situation, which had been stable since the war of 2006 with a kind of mutual deterrence, understanding between the two sides. But with Hezbollah and Iran now deployed also in Syria, I think that creates a very troubling strategic destabilization and increases the risk of another Israel, Hezbollah-Israel, Hezbollah-Iran at least local war.
On U.S. policy recommendations — and I will end with this — stay the course on defeating ISIS in Raqqa and then other parts. Whether the regime takes Deir Ezzor or somebody else has to, that is not clear. Give importance, certainly, like in Mosul, after the liberation of Raqqa, the reconstruction, repatriation. It’s not as big as Mosul, but that certainly will have to be an urgent priority.
I would say try to work towards what might be an achievable goal in Syria, which is de-escalation and a kind of unstable, fragile freezing of the conflict. I think this is within reach, but I don’t think it is likely. I think the Assad regime-Iranian-Russian strategy so far has been fight a battle, take a town or two, sue for cease-fire, sue for, you know, a temporary freezing, rest, regroup and then take the next chunk. And I think if they look back at their track record since the Russian intervention, that strategy is working. They are taking region after region. And as they advance, the GCC countries and the Turks have walked back. The U.S. has effectively either sort of allowed and walked back. So I think for them, that’s a winning strategy. And I think they can figure, if they took back Aleppo and all of these regions in the last year, two years, if they think six years down the road, I think that’s where they will be going.
I think that’s very troubling because unlike in Iraq, there is no political context to make that return of the Syrian state acceptable to the people. It will not be. Yes, they are tired. Yes, they are — you know, might accept just peace for a while. But all of this started because of politics. And wars are a continuation of politics by other means. And an Assad victory backed by Iran and Russia, even if it succeeds, is then going to fail. And while it’s succeeding, it will generate refugees and radicalization and problems for the region, Europe and the U.S. And then again when it fails, it will cause the same again. So I’m not sure if a cease-fire is attainable. But maybe it can be attained for a number of years to give relief to people until there’s an opportunity to do what is really necessary to be done, which is a serious political settlement of very legitimate grievances, Dr. Alzayat says.
I might have gone too long. Thank you for your attention. And I’ll stop there. (Applause.)
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
OK, I’d like to thank the speakers, and thank you for the questions you’ve submitted. So let’s get started with this Q&A session starting with Iraq since we’ve focused on ISIS in the title.
Once ISIS — you know, there are other places in which ISIS needs to be engaged militarily — Tal Afar, for example. But assuming that that is all concluded, there are probably other reasons why ISIS could survive, at least as an idea and at least as an insurgency.
So people have argued that reconstruction of liberated areas is important and that humanitarian assistance is necessary and that governance as possible — is necessary. And I’d like to ask a little bit more about that. Has there been any real reconstruction in Fallujah or Ramadi? And can we expect any in Mosul? And if we don’t get that, can we expect the same grievances that gave rise to ISIS to continue to feed ISIS? How much would it cost to do that reconstruction in terms of money and time and personnel? And is there any commitment on our part to do that or that of our — that of our partners in the region?
Let’s start there. Can someone —
Oh, and by the way —
DR. NATALI: Sorry. I’ll address some of those questions about ISIS first of all. ISIS is active in remnants in places like Diyala, like western Iraq, in Anbar, in Hawija, in Tal Afar. So I do not want to take away from the important victory in Mosul, but we’re also kidding ourselves to think that this entity just disappeared. So there are very important security threats.
And as some of my Iraqi colleagues tell me, as we know in Anbar and places like Sinjar and those areas, they shaved their beards and they walked back into some of these towns. So it’s very difficult when you don’t have a justice system that’s also in place where you can find them and prosecute them and make sure they don’t come back. That’s happening within the Sunni community, retribution, honor killing — or not honor killings — you know, killings within the community to make sure. But there are still many of these folks, guys, walking around. So I am not convinced, again, and I — you know, that this is just going to disappear. And so it’s still there.
The second part and linking this to reconstruction, some of the estimates are it needs about a hundred billion dollars, if you’re talking about really going in and fixing all of these areas. There’s already some problems in Tikrit. Tikrit was initially used as the example because the university got started immediately; well, there’s also, again, lots of problems in these areas where ISIS is acting more of an insurgent group now.
I would not expect — this what I talked about before, demographic changes — I think it would be misleading to say these people going to go back to their areas. Some areas will not be livable for a very long time. So we have to rethink how do some of these localities that used to be ethnically homogeneous no longer are, or some of them will, or again, the many, many Arab communities that are now living as IDPs inside the Kurdistan region. I don’t — I’ve spoken to many of them. They have been there for two years, and they probably aren’t going to go back because they can’t go back. So that’s one issue.
And the other one is, again, how can you rehabilitate some of these areas. Some of the localities don’t have the capacity to do it. Some of them has nothing to do with ISIS; they’re fighting among themselves. Somebody talked about corruption. And this is at a local level. So we have to be realistic in terms of time frame. Some of it is occurring. Some of it is occurring at a local level. But it certainly needs some type of third-party intervention or assistance.
And that doesn’t necessarily mean the United States has to do this. I understand we have funding constraints and an unwillingness to go in. But there still are groups like United States Institute of Peace has done fantastic work in local mediation. Reconciliation should be again looked at at very local levels. And the reconstruction is going to have to come through some of these local councils through the Iraqi government. It’s going to take a very long time.
AMB. JEFFREY: Just a minor addition to that. I agree with Denise’s points. And we normally talk the dysfunctionalities in the Middle East, and none of us have been all that optimistic this morning, but there’s some good news that I’ve seen repeatedly.
When we actually look at it from a typical Western standpoint, yeah, very quickly, we’re talking about a hundred billion dollars to rebuild Fallujah. We didn’t put a whole lot of money into rebuilding Fallujah after we took it apart in 2004. Yet bit by bit, the place returned to something like normalcy. What flipped it into the hands of ISIS as the first major place in Iraq to become under the control of ISIS was not failed reconstruction or lousy sewage services. It was the oppression of the Maliki government, particularly for reasons that I — not necessarily go into, but they’re complicated — particularly in Fallujah. And it opened the door to ISIS in that way. So you’re going to be able to deal with a very messy situation.
The other thing is, as we’ve seen both in Jordan and Turkey, there are refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey, but what’s amazing is what a high percent of the people who’ve gone there have been absorbed into the local populations. And those aren’t even family groups. I mean, in a place like Arnbach (ph), everybody is a member of an extended family, a clan and a tribe. Much of the region is still rural. It isn’t as if you took a swath through Washington and destroyed 80 percent of the buildings in Washington. Gosh, where would all those people go? And people have been living in crises of this sort in both Syria and Iraq. So it has a way to kind of coalesce.
The important thing is that there is a process underway to start making things better in these cities. And that’s not beyond the ken of the local government, certainly in Iraq, the United States, the international community, the 69 or 70 nation coalition, and the Arab states, to be doing that and getting the politics — as you said — the politics that drives, in the end, all internal and international conflicts right, and knocking off the oppression of the local population by people from the other side who are bullying and threatening folks that think that they are — that they deserve to be there and the people with the guns don’t.
DR. NATALI: Can I just make one or two points?
DR. MATTAIR: Mmm hmm. Paul, you wanted to say something too, I think. But Denise, please. Denise.
DR. SALEM: Go ahead.
DR. NATALI: Just one thing also. We focus on reconstruction. My bigger concern is the salaries and the young people and jobs. And so, as Ambassador Jeffrey said, people can live if some of their areas aren’t fully reconstructed. But in my last trip I had the opportunity to speak to a lot of different youth, and this is mainly in the north. And the sense of hopelessness is so significant. And most told me: We’ve just either become apathetic or we’re radicalizing. We’ll join the Salafists or we’ll join the PKK, because we have no sense of — and why? They’re not — there’s just no income or revenues.
And I would be extremely concerned — I go back to the financial situation of the Iraqi state that includes the Kurdistan region — what types of opportunities are there for radicalized groups to come in and take advantage of the fact that people are loitering around and they don’t have money and they don’t have money and they’re hopeless? And the hopelessness is the issue that I would be focusing on, which includes the grievances.
DR. SALEM: Yeah, I would, you know, say it’s not a binary relationship that, you know, if you don’t reconstruct then ISIS comes back and it’s sort of, you know, one way or the other way. And Ambassador Jeffery says, I think it is — the key is the politics to it. And from the Baghdad side, obviously it’s very important for the Baghdad-based government — whether its current prime minister, or another prime minister — to really reach out to the region — those regions, many Sunnis, and to really make them feel permanent, invested partners in the central government and empowered locally in the provincial elections that are going to take place next year.
On the — on the receiving side, or on the Sunni side, I think there’s an enormous problem and challenge as well. One of the main problems now is that these Sunni areas do not have leadership, do not have clear leadership. Among the Shiite communities, there’s different parties, there’s leaders, people to talk to, people to make deals with. Among the Kurds, there’s leaders and people to make deals with. There’s a problem that these enormous Sunni communities are not organized politically currently and have no clear leadership to do politics. In order to move forward, yes, local elections, which are coming, are healthy and necessary and so on.
I think it’s also important — and here, the U.S. might be able to play a role and others — that the — some of the big Sunni states, particularly in the Gulf when the Syrian uprising erupted, also saw that there may be an opportunity in Iraq, and when there were problems between the Maliki government and the Sunnis of Iraq, the signal from there was, yes, revolt, you know, and take — push the advantage, hoping that Syria — the Assad regime would fall, and then that would have Sunnis make a resurgence in Iraq as part of this regional competition. And that, I think, led the Sunnis of Iraq in a very dangerous and destructive way.
So what I mean to say is that — talking about a political surge that the U.S. might be part of — it is important now for Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, whether Qatar can get on board as well, and the Turks, to the degree that they have influence and so on in Iraq, with the Iraqis, first of all to signal that the Iraqi state, the Iraqi government is a partner, is a friend, and to encourage all Iraqis, including the Sunni Iraqis, to engage with the state, to engage locally, and to engage nationally, and for those Gulf countries to be primary contributors in the reconstruction of these — of these areas. That is a hard sell. It’s difficult. But I think it’s one way to attempt.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, that leads in several directions, but first of all I think Jim rightly laid some blame on al-Maliki and al-Abadi is a different person. He’s using a term, “functional federalism.” What does he mean by “functional federalism” and what are the prospects for his conception to succeed?
AMB. JEFFREY: It’s a campaign promise. It’s not a deeply invested program. There are some elements in the — there’s some efforts in the Iraqi parliament right now to give — particularly in the Sunni areas — a bit more self-government. But there’s considerable — in the constitution — capabilities for that. In any case, the problem is that they were never enacted as laws. Thus, the only place where you had local self-government actually effective was in the Kurdistan area because all their arrangements had been grandfathered in the 2005 constitution.
I think that the speaker of the parliament was going to be here next week, but he just cancelled his visit, supposedly because they are working on these actions. That’s one way forward. The issue will be whether the governing party — governing parties in Baghdad will actually go through with that and allow those people — and, as I said, it’s both the Sunni areas primarily — that’s what the focus is because that’s where ISIS was present — but also in some of the Shia areas there’s a lot of interest in local self-government, in Basra and Misan. But we’ll just have to see. I mean, these are ideas that have been out there many times. Ammar al-Hakim had them back a decade ago, or his father. And they come and go. It’s not — it’s not — well, it’s kind of like campaign promises in America.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, again, on the question of things that could continue to feed ISIS or radicalism, can we talk for a minute about the Kurdish-Arab border regions, and those areas that are contested and how that’s going to be resolved and how it is understood by the Arabs who see those areas slipping away, including Kirkuk and the oil revenues slipping away? What are the prospects for resolving the way the Kurds have taken more and more territory beyond the KRG?
DR. NATALI: Can I take — yeah, thank you. Well — sorry — as I said — as I indicated, this issue of the disputed territories between Kurdish and Iraqi Arab communities, this has been going on for decades. So part of this — and it was never resolved. In the 2005 constitution of Iraq, there was an article called Article 140 that was supposed to legally resolve these issues of disputed areas. By that, we mean areas in which the Kurdistan regional government and the Iraqi government both claim as to be part of their — of their own, let’s say, authorities, OK? The constitution was intentionally left vague so that issues of control — including the oil revenues inside these areas — were never really resolved.
So what did the Kurds do, naturally? And I was in the region from 2005 working until 2010. As the Iraqi government remained weak, the Kurds took advantage and maybe — why should they not, many say — and they gradually and slowly took de facto control over some of these territories. It didn’t just happen with the ISIS campaign. By the time the ISIS campaign occurred, by working with local partners on the ground, one of the unintended consequences was that the Kurds were able to now take — whether you say they took or they received — expelling ISIS translated into controlling these territories by the Kurdistan Regional Government, de facto.
So to answer your question, many of the Kurdish leadership will say: This is resolved. You’ve heard them say this. Article 140’s over. We have the territories. They’re ours. And there have been also antagonistic statements like, and we’ll never have Arabs rule us again, which I don’t think that that was very helpful. So that’s one hand. The problem is, nobody else thinks that way. So you can have de facto control because everybody else is weak. And this is why in the short term I don’t think there’s anything many other people can do, because as Paul indicated, there is no real Arab leader right now to challenge —
DR. MATTAIR: Sunni.
DR. NATALI: Yeah, sure. However, that doesn’t mean that these issues are going to go away. And I would be very careful to say — so, with the Iraqi government, what I’m told is that, you know, this is not — they’re not going to invest all of these resources into fighting over Kirkuk, because they know the Sunni Arab communities there will do it — can do it too. And other communities, this is not just about Arabs. There are Turkmen in Kirkuk that when the Kurds raised the flag, there was a very big to-do about this. There are other also communities around that area that don’t necessarily want to be part of the Kurdistan regional government and they’re split.
So that’s not resolved. I don’t think even — how are the Kurds planning to do it? Have a referendum. Not only because they want to say that they want to be independent, but the real issue is will these disputed areas be included in this referendum? And even if they are, it’s still a unilateral decision. This is why I think even the referendum is very antagonistic. These borders should not be determined in this way right now. So what the Iraqi government has proposed again, and let’s go back to the drawing board. There are some areas that can be under the de facto control of the Kurdistan region and some that won’t. It’s not just between the Sunni Arabs. There’s still legal issues, like the oil.
My final point is, be careful of what you wish for. I mean, this is a lot of territory and a lot of land to secure. And as I indicated, who’s going to pay for this? So there’s a battle right now, and some people aren’t making the battle, because if you own it you’ve got to now secure a million people and secure the borders and there’s still the issue of local revenue sharing. So this is, I would say, one of the most important issues in terms of engendering chaos.
And you focus on Kirkuk, but Nineveh is going to be even more troublesome, I would say, or conflict-prone, because of the very many different minority communities as well — the Yazidis, there’s a lot of Hash’d al Shaabi and other different militia group. The PKK is right there. This is not just between the Kurds and the Arabs anymore in Baghdad. That’s the old day. Now we’ve got lots of militia trying to get in and exert influence and become politically relevant. So we need to be really careful that we’re not enabling certain groups while everybody else is trying to claim these territories. It’s not Kurd-Arab anymore. It’s largely, but it’s just a lot of militia trying to take advantage of this. And we need to be aware of that.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. And now after touching on reconstruction and touch on this disputed Kurdish-Arab border land, which I think both are — provide opportunities for ISIS to continue getting oxygen, there’s a third thing, which is the presence of the Iranian-backed popular mobilization forces. And even if it’s only 25 percent or 30 percent, what do we do with them? Coming back to your major point, Jim, that what we really need to worry about is Iranian domination. So what should we expect the government to do those forces after military operations in Mosul are finished, or soon thereafter? And how much would it diminish Iran’s ability to influence events inside Iraq? One reason why I ask that is because they’re — I assume the presence of Iranian-backed Shia militias is another reason for ISIS to continue breathing.
AMB. JEFFREY: Yeah, that’s been the experience that we’ve had in two countries over a number of years. So it’s a good, logical starting point to assume that it’s not going to change in the future. It’s not just Iranian dominance. I would agree, and we talked about that, the Iranians may not be able to dominate Iraq the way they have dominated — or are in the process of dominating Syria. They may be more like their role in Lebanon where they have a(n) ability to veto any action of the state that is seen as inimical to their larger interests. That’s probably more what they’re shooting for.
Now, their larger interests include, to the extent they can, eliminating or playing down U.S. regional Arabic and Turkish influence in Iraq, and slowing down — and to some degree, if possible, reversing — Iraq’s integration into the global economy and the global system. That’s complicated because, as you can see — and Lebanon’s a best example — you can have a country that in many respects, including in terms of finances, integrated into the global system, that is also — basically the Iranians are OK with this, because it tends to deal with some of the problems of governance and the economy in Lebanon, that they don’t have to worry about.
But it’s hard for Iraq, because of the different nature of Iraq than Lebanon, to integrate into the global economy, even the energy economy, without a whole lot of support from international institutions and the United States in particular, because unlike Lebanon it wasn’t in a prior period integrated in that way. So that will be an area of conflict.
Now, the best way out of this would be, of course, to cut a deal and say, hey, we both agree that we don’t want to see ISIS come back. And too much Iranian — or too much oppression by Baghdad leads to ISIS coming back. We both want Iraq to be unified. We do not want Kurdistan to break off and be in permanent war or fall totally into the hands of the Turks. And as we’ve seen in Yemen and Qatar, we’re not always happy with if not the goals, the tactics of the Saudis in this region. So there should be a way to Finlandize Iraq.
That operates on the assumption that you’re dealing with a rational Iranian government. With Rouhani and Zarif you are. With Qassem Soleimani, I absolutely do not believe you are. I believe he thinks he’s on a roll. They have a powerful new ally, if not totally 100 percent with them, in Russia. And I see no indication, reason why, that this guy is going to pull back. That means we either retreat or there’ll be some kind of confrontation in Iraq.
DR. NATALI: Can I — can I make a comment?
DR. MATTAIR: Yes.
DR. NATALI: We have to remember one thing too, there’s certain things — you asked the question, what can we do — what can we realistically do? I mean, there is only so much we can do. I mean, there’s a 350-plus kilometer border that the Iraqis share with Iran. Of course, Iran is always — is going to have influence in Iraq. There’s important commercial business, there’s political ties, particularly with the Kurdistan region as well.
However, we have to remember one thing. When ISIS came, and there’s not an Iraqi that will — many Iraqis will say this. When ISIS came into Iraq, we lost a lot of political capital because we waited months to do anything, OK? And I understand, Maliki was in power and we couldn’t have done it. But the Iranians were there the next day. And so — and in the north too. So many Iraqis will say: Had the Iranians not come, Baghdad would have fallen. That is still there. That’s one.
Second point is — I don’t want to belabor this point — but don’t underestimate Iraqi nationalism either. I think it’s really misleading to think that these Iraqis are just — you know, here’s the Iranians and they can go wherever they want. I would be trying to enhance or, let’s say, you know, the — there already is important influence by the maraji’ and Ayatollah Sistani. And when that succession arrives, we will — we will see, you know, will Iran attempt to influence Najaf? And I don’t think so. So pay attention to some of those signals, but know, again, that the Iraqis also are going to push back the Iranians to the extent that — to the extent that we can.
So I would be, again, how do you enhance the institutions of the Iraqi state, build upon this idea of Iraqi nationalism. And I would be very careful. I understand how ISIS can be reacting to overly active Iranian influence. But similarly, having Gulf states and Sunni Arab states channel money into Sunni Arab areas, when there’s also a perception that certain forms of Salafism were engendering this, that’s only fueling this sectarianism.
So again, the Iraqi government, in my view, is trying to play a — and Prime Minister Abadi’s done a really outstanding job trying to balance their absolute necessary relationship with Iran and with Saudi Arabia. And I would — I would look to Iraq as playing that neutral — what it’s trying to do — that neutral balancing point. Instead of saying let’s get Sunni states to rehabilitate Sunni areas and let’s see what — you know, move away from that, because that’s also really feeding into exactly what the Iraqis are trying not to do at this time.
You can’t — you’re not going to push back all of Iranian influence. You can try to limit it, to the extent that you can. And again, I go back to enhancing the Iraqi nationalist component. If anybody looked at several months ago and some of the universities in southern Iraq, and even the Sadrists perhaps for their own reason, what were they saying when they had their demonstrations? Iran, get out. Iran, get out. And even in the universities.
So pay attention to what’s going on the ground and what Iraqis are saying. And they’re not necessarily feeding into — and this is from Shia communities, by the way. So just be careful of underestimating Iraqi nationalism and, again, how can you at least weaken these militias that are — that are obstructing the reintegration process.
DR. MATTAIR: And the militias that are part of an Iranian land bridge to the Mediterranean.
DR. NATALI: Yeah.
DR. MATTAIR: You said — you said, we’re in a struggle for the Middle East with Iran backed by Russia. Is this the best — is this what we need to do? Is this all we need to do?
AMB. JEFFREY: Well, it’s a region-wide problem.
DR. MATTAIR: And we will come to Syria to carry it forward, yeah.
AMB. JEFFREY: And certainly in Iraq, you have more options, you have more factors in play — and Denise just outlined them. But the idea is keeping Iraq independent in reality, not just independent officially. Again, Lebanon is the bad example. And I would say the sine qua non is keeping a coalition, military presence in Iraq, which the U.S. government — I mean, there aren’t — they’re still sloshing about up the hill — or down the hill in the White House about what they’re going to do about Syria and Iraq and Iran. But one thing that they have sort of solidified is they want to keep their troops on wherever we have them. And that would include Iraq.
And that’s a sine qua non. If the Iraqi government is going to ask us, once again, to leave, given that — under pressure from Iranians — given that the last time we left it turned out to be a disaster in so many ways, that’s a sign that the Iranians are in effective control of the country. And so I think that that has to be something that we have to be very, very careful about. I think that we have to leverage our other help. Again, I would use Lebanon. Had we told the Lebanese government, as Jim Baker once said in another context, here’s Ahmadinejad’s telephone number, call him for the reconstruction funds unless you want this Stockholm process to succeed.
Here’s what this U.N. resolution has to have in it. There has to be real control of the Syrian-Lebanese border by this international force with Chapter 7 authority to block a 7.62 bullet, let alone a SCUD rocket coming across it. That’s what we didn’t do. And we may have been able to do it. I don’t know, you’re the Lebanon expert. But we may have been able to get a lot more. I mean, the Iranians and Hezbollah would have found ways to undercut it to some degree, but it wouldn’t be the carte blanche that we have now, where the Western world paid for considerable reconstruction in Lebanon, while Hezbollah and its allied factions in Iran were able to further increase their dominance over the country in terms of its foreign policy and power projection. That’s exactly where we shouldn’t be with Iraq.
Everything beyond that flows — is on the detail level. And that’s easy for me to say, because I’ve spent most of my career discovering how difficult details are. But you’ve got to start off with an overall position, and that should be it.
DR. MATTAIR: Paul and Denise, you both talked about what our Arab partners should and shouldn’t be doing there.
DR. SALEM: Well, a couple of comments. I mean, on the Lebanese side, over the ’90s, Syria and Iran built Hezbollah into a massive force in Lebanon. And Hezbollah from then until today can dictate terms that relate to things that it cares about. Now, it has left many other things — like, you know, normal governance issues, economics, business, finance and so on — to proceed separate from that. But the Lebanese state, unfortunately, doesn’t have the power — is not sovereign. And that’s a very tragic situation. And hence, even though many in the Lebanese government wanted to impose conditions on Hezbollah, Hezbollah is more powerful. And we saw that again in 2008. We saw it 2005, when they killed the former prime minister when they feared he was going in a different direction.
The difference with Iraq obviously — of, you know, many, many differences — but just to reflect a bit on the Iran-Iraq relationship, first of all, the Iraqi government, the state will be aligned with Iran. It is a natural alignment. I wouldn’t say that it’s a radical alliance. So Iran doesn’t have any more, after the removal of the Saddam regime and the, you know, Shiite majority which has dominance through various parties and so on on the central government, that is a natural alignment with Iran. The risk to Iran came from, like, ISIS when it was about to take Baghdad, or from other things that might come down the road.
When we look then at some of these popular mobilization units and what they might mean for the Iraqi government, yes, I warned there might be risks for the sort of Lebanese-style Hezbollah situation. But what makes me less concerned is a number of things. One is that, unlike in Lebanon, the Iranian — the revolutionary guards of the Iranian government, the leadership, trusts the Baghdad government. In Lebanon, the prime minister and the president almost regularly are anti — you know, effectively would be anti-Iranian if they could be. That is not the case in Iraq. So there’s not a major concern at that level.
Secondly, as Denise was mentioning, there is a very strong Iraqi nationalism, also Shiite pride. The Shiism is effectively, you know, an Iraqi — you know, it’s in Iraq, Najaf, and so on and so forth. Iranians are sort of Johnny-come-lately to that. And the attempt by Qom to claim to be the center is contested within Iraq itself. So Iraqi nationalism, Arab nationalism, Shiite pride and so on — yes, they’re friends, they’re allies of Iran. Whereas in Lebanon, the Shiite community has been effectively kind of bought, lock, stock and barrel. And there really is nothing in the Lebanese Shiite community that has been able to counterbalance or stand up to this direct Iranian dictate.
And I would end up where Ambassador Jeffrey had mentioned earlier, that in effect in Iraq we happened — U.S. and Iran happened to have a lot of shared — not shared interests between each other, but things that we would like to see in Iraq. I think the Iranians would prefer to have a stable Iraq, Sunni cities that are OK, that are not rebelling, that are not radicalizing. They would be OK with power sharing, as long as it didn’t threaten the, you know, existential and security threats that they had in mind. They would be very happy if Iraq could prosper somewhat more than it is today, so it would be more stable. So I think there are many things where we share the same interests.
And as I said in my — in my own remarks. The Iranian and American co-presences in Iraq would only be a problem if the U.S. and Iran are going at it at a higher level, or are perceived to be threatening each other. So they’re sort of holding each other hostage. But if that’s not the case, I think there is a way to coexist and help Iraq move forward. And I think certainly we should be encouraging out Gulf friends to engage with Baghdad, to — in all in ways, in terms of assistance, economic, straight. Some of it will be direct with Baghdad, Basra, and so on. Some of it’s already happening. Some of it will be in the western provinces, where they do have, you know, some kind of legitimacy, I would say, some role.
DR. MATTAIR: Did you have a — did you want to say something, Wa’el?
DR. ALZAYAT: Yeah, just — another aspect we should keep focus on is Iran, you know, has its strategic policies and goals, and it is problematic in terms of them supporting, you know, hardline militias in Iraq who have been — you know, who have committed abuses in the past. Same thing in Syria, not to mention the Syrian regime. But also, Iran is just exploiting intra-Sunni conflicts in the region. And you know, Syria really — and to some degree now, obviously, Libya and Egypt has demonstrated this — you know, the region is also suffering from this conflict between entrenched, let’s call them, royals/monarchists/republican government against political Islamists within the Sunni communities.
And obviously the greatest example of that right now is that struggle between the UAE and the Saudis and the Egyptian government against the Qataris and they’re — you know, and there over the issue primarily putting up with the Muslim Brotherhood or going after it. And obviously, Al Jazeera’s — the conflict over Al Jazeera’s role and future is a part of it. But really, it’s that these governments, the Emirates particularly, really view political Islam, not just the MB, as a — as a critical threat to them — perhaps equal if not bigger than the Iranian threat.
And so it's where those differences happen and the lack of coordination between these countries that Iranians will continue to exploit. Whether it’s in Lebanon or in Syria, I saw it firsthand in terms of which Syrian groups either side would support. And on the one hand, the Qataris and the Turks are clearly comfortable working with political Islamic groups, falling on the various spectrum of how radicalized they are, while the Emirates, the Egyptians certainly, and to some degree the Saudis are not. And now, obviously, it has boiled over.
So I think the U.S. strategy really needs to not a side in this conflict — as we’ve seen some statements lately about how good Qatar is or not by administration — not pick a side, but really work to keep the peace between these countries, and also support political accommodation, even if it includes political Islamist, but not at the expense of, obviously, other human rights or security prerogatives that we have. This is not a question of the Emirates. It’s what is the objective — the regional objective? And we will support the one that makes most sense.
Now, until we resolve that Iran and other countries will continue to exploit it. And I think they’ll find also fertile ground to promote their agenda and enable local partners who will — who they can pay or cajole or threaten.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, that’s a good — well, let’s get into Syria for just a minute, unless it’s — is it about Iran?
DR. NATALI: It’s about just one comment you made about this land bridge. And, you know, I just want to make one statement, since you’re talking about Iran and the Shia. And, you know, the land bridge that we keep talking about, we just have to be careful because most of the Shia communities across the states — obviously, except for those militia groups — don’t support the Iranian interpretation of Shia Islam by velayat-e faqih, certainly not most of the Iraqi Shia, certainly not many of the Lebanese Shia, certainly not most of the Alawites in Syria.
So be careful — you know, even these little — you know, we throw out the land bridge as if there’s some land that all of these Shia arcs are just going to come together. People still have their state nationalisms and economic interests. And I would be taking advantage of the fact that there’s not this shared ideologically unified notion of what Shia is for all of these groups, but rather that they’re tied to their state nationalisms, instead of clumping it into the Iranians and their land bridge because I just wouldn’t be so sure how sticky that land bridge really is when it comes down to the end of the day of these local groups being attached to their local — their localities.
DR. MATTAIR: I didn’t mean political consensus behind Iran. I meant Iran’s ability to move men and material over land straight to the Mediterranean.
DR. NATALI: And sometimes I question that too, because a lot of that is through the Kurdish regions. Some of it’s got to be — right? Some of it’s got to be stopped. Some of it you’ve got border areas. So I don’t know. I mean, some of it is occurring, obviously, but then that goes back to let’s enhance border security. Let’s, as Ambassador Jeffrey says, OK, fine, we put some of our — we keep some kind of military presence there, OK, to at least obstruct some of this from happening and, again, continue to enhance the institutions of the state.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. Now, in Syria, Wa’el, you were talking about the importance of investing in and stabilizing liberated areas. But looking at the — at the deconfliction and the de-escalation agreements that have been reached, if there’s a prospect of further fighting, you know, can we really get into reconstruction, et cetera, at this time? And actually, are the de-escalation agreements basically intended to freeze the situation until the Syrian forces and their Iranian-backed militia allies can move again, especially move east toward Raqqa or other areas that get liberated, and retake them — which, again, enhances the continued Iranian presence in the country?
DR. ALZAYAT: And certainly the past record of the Russians and the regime when it comes to any agreements they have promised or actually signed with whether opposition forces or things that have been agreed to with the Turks or the United States has been meant, in my opinion, to buy them time to achieve a military victory. That was and remains their strategy. Now, that’s fine, it’s just the question is, what do we want to do in response — we, as in not just the United States but the international community, minus the Russians and the Iranians in the regime, because really that’s what we’re talking about still.
I mean, this conflict is not one between any equal amount of countries in the world that are supporting each side. There’s no equivalency here. And you can look at the track record of not just how the Security Council votes but the General Assembly as well on this issue, and a lot of other intra-agency and government bodies, and nongovernment organizations. So they’re going to try to achieve a military strategy, and they’ll buy themselves time by any means necessary.
Our approach has been — and it’s an important question is, why are we seeking these de-escalation ceasefires? It was so we can focus on ISIL. So what I would suggest is that now that we’re moving away from the counter-ISIL phase, or at least we’re mopping up smaller areas, the objective has to change again into civilian protection of those communities because that in itself addresses part of the radicalization issue that we’re here to discuss, because if you leave them at the mercy of ISIL 2.0 — or the regime or the Russians, you’re going to get ISIL 2.0 regardless.
I mean, I was on a phone with a person from Raqqa who’s now in Turkey that I’ve spoken with in the past. And he said, you know, we want to be part of the counter-ISIL campaign in Raqqa. Why are you only working with just the YPG and a few Arab groups that are not from this area? I promise you, the tribes that I know will rise up against whoever takes this area if it’s not us. So and my opinion is, if you don’t want to be coming back there you have to plant your flag, work with the locals and, yes, change the objective. It’s now no longer just defeating ISIL. It is to protect those communities and those enclaves.
And quite frankly, I would find it very, very, very difficult to believe that either the Russians or the regime will intentionally bomb areas that have U.S. special operators in it. Now, accidents may happen. But by warning them and deterring any potential threat — like we did just in the south before — sends a clear signal. The Russians and the regime cannot afford to get entangled in a war with us, as much as we can get entangled in a war with them. I mean, it works both ways.
So what they’re trying to do is threaten us and push us around. But now we have forces on the ground, and I think we have the ability — because what’s important, if we lose those areas again, now we’re back to, again, the regime and the Russians squeezing the last opposition areas, fomenting unrest, fomenting hatred and the desire for vengeance, giving those hardline Iranian militias a free hand in those areas to do as they please of ethnically based killings and cleansing from those areas. And I just think that’s — that really, at the end of the day, will make whatever we did to get ISIL out of those areas not worth it. And we’ve spent a lot of blood and treasure already, again, on doing just that.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, OK, but how are we going to hold the areas? You know —
DR. ALZAYAT: Military deterrence.
DR. MATTAIR: Turkey’s President Erdogan was here about a month ago. And they were — they were appealing to the Trump administration not to increase its arms supplies to the YPG. But the Trump administration did it anyway. And then I read about 10 days ago that Mattis said when it’s over in Raqqa, we’re going to take the weapons back from the YPG. First of all, how would you — (laughter) — first of all, how would you do that? Second, you know, without them, how would you — how would you hold the area and how would you deal with Turkey when you don’t keep the promise, and they play such a big role in holding the area against the return of the regime and the pro-Iranian militias?
AMB. JEFFREY: Yeah, it — first of all, normally when you look at Middle Eastern issues, from Somalia to Beirut 1983 to Afghanistan and Iraq, the question of how do we hold these areas becomes complicated. But again, we several times cited Kurdistan from 1991 on. I was very involved in that, over much of that period since 1991. And the idea is you have some local people who hold it, you have your own people in there in limited numbers to help them, train them. But frankly, as Wa’el has danced around it a little bit, essentially you are showing the flag in your tripwire, because if anybody comes at those people then you have that most robust of American military operations, force protection.
And you whack whatever’s coming at you, which is easy to do in open desert — which is what most of the area is if it’s coming on the ground. And if it’s coming on the air, you kill it, because the reality is even throwing in Putin and his crappy 30-year planes — or maybe there’s 50-year planes now, the United States and its allies — the Turks alone have 200 F-16s, and we saw what they do against Russian aircraft — has extraordinary dominance over the region. This is why after a couple of weeks of testing and huffing and puffing on the part of the Russians — we’re going to cut all communications and we’re going to consider American aircraft west of the Euphrates as hostile — the Russians then sat down and did an agreement with us which they seem to be holding to, unlike the earlier ones with Secretary Kerry.
There’s a lesson there. So I’m not concerned about that. I’m just concerned that because these kind of low-intensity, limited cost, play with the locals approaches we took against the Soviets in Afghanistan, we took against the Iranians when they pushed into Iraq in the 1980s after the Iraqis were driven out, we did in the Gulf in a mini-special operations war against Iran in 1987-88 — these things work.
The problem with them is that they are under the shadow now of Afghanistan and Iraq which didn’t work, and the American people will say: Well, tell us the ending. Tell us where this all leads. My argument is, I don’t think we can. In general, we can just say we’re hoping it won’t lead to Iranian-Russian domination in the region. It’s going to lead to some kind of messy situation, rather like Afghanistan in the late 1980s, rather like the Gulf after we stopped the Iranian effort to block tanker flow and that kind of thing. And you live to fight another day. That’s the best I can promise.
But if the casualties are low, if the costs are low, if we’re not risking a major conflict, that’s the way that we have done operations in Central America, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, and other places for the last 70 years. And I’m perfectly comfortable with it.
DR. NATALI: Can I — I want to make a — can I just make a statement on the YPG in Raqqa and how we’re moving forward? I would look at — again, we’ve got to look at the strategic picture after Raqqa is liberated or ISIS is expelled. And I can’t see, for the life of me, how any of this can occur — just like we could not have done Operation Provide Comfort in 1991 when I was there — without the border open with Turkey. Whether you like certain personalities or not, there’s a 900-kilometer border between Turkey and Syria. So right now, there’s one land route they just opened from Damascus that’s going to Hasakah, and some aid is finally getting to some of the outlying areas of Raqqa. That’s a start, run by the U.N.
But the fact of the matter is, what happens in Raqqa is perceived — whether we agree with it or not — by Turkey as extremely important, as well as Arabs on the ground, which comprise over 65 percent of the Syrian population. So to say that the YPG is going to hold Raqqa afterward is just folly without significant local support or engagement with the people from Raqqa. It just can’t happen. However, our narrative is also important to assure Turkey and to assure Arab populations that, no, we’re not going to get the weapons back but, no, the YPG — we will not give political support to this entity controlling these areas.
Now, there are also — we shouldn’t conflate all of the — all of the areas that the YPG or the SDF, excuse me, is involved as saying it’s completely run and dominated by the YPG. It is, but some of them are running differently. In some areas, it’s OK that the Arabs are engaged, there’s co-partnership. And in some areas, there literally are flags of al-jalanul (ph) all over the place and I’m told it feels like occupation. So Raqqa can’t turn out that way. And we do have some influence now, because we do have leverage over the YPG. And to think otherwise would be to be folly.
So be clear to our Arab partners, be clear to Turkish strategic partnership. And also, as this has more of an American face, it’s also drawing in what I’m told more Arab people. Instead of saying this is a strictly Kurdish-run operation by the YPG, it’s taking on an American face, and more Arab communities are also joining. That’s not a bad thing. We have to be clear, though, that this is not going to be another place that’s run by the YPG. And frankly, I don’t think the YPG can hold this. I mean, they’re overextended as it is, controlling all of these other areas. I don’t see how also they’re going to hold a city that has no Kurdish populations.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. We have very little time, but one final question is: Seems that since the Russian intervention in the fall of 2015, the — you know, our Arab partners have reduced their involvement in Syria. And now, of course, they’re quarreling, as Wa’el was discussing. How much is this dispute going to — what role ideally would we like to see them play in supporting other opportunity movements in Syria so that there are viable — you know, viable alternatives to the regime in liberated areas that don’t include extremists like what used to be called Nusra Front? How is the dispute going to impact on their ability to do what we — what we desire them to do?
DR. ALZAYAT: I mean, ideally what we would like is countries like not just Saudi Arabia but also Jordan, the Emirates with their financial capacity, is to help the United States identify and build relationships with key tribes, particularly in the Jazira region. The Jazira region is where a lot of ISIL fighters have come from, actually, traditionally, and AQI before that. Build those relationships figure out what’s important to those local communities, jointly encourage other countries — particularly from the EU or Japan or Canada — to invest in those communities.
Now, again, yes, there is the risk that the regime and the Russians, you know, are going to undermine all of that. But like I mentioned, you have to maintain deterrence, as Ambassador Jeffrey mentioned and alluded it. There has to be a cost for violating those areas in the future from here on out. That’s it. So we’ll continue the political discussions. We will not support offensive operations out of those areas against the regime. That can be what’s in exchange. But there’s no more attacks on those communities.
So ideally, you would want to show leadership by bringing the Saudis, the Emiratis, and even the Turks, on figuring out which pockets they can contribute to in terms of either special operators, in terms of military support with — in protecting those areas, and in terms of capacity building and financial assistance. Every zone is going to be different. You know, the areas right now that are along the border with Turkey, those are quieter a whole lot than, for example, in the south, because of what we’ve seen in terms of what the regime and militia is trying to do.
And in the south, you need to continue coordinating not only with the countries I just mentioned, but really with the Jordanians and the Israelis because of their security requirements. So each area, you got to develop a little, you know, governance, political stabilization plan for it. Now, if the conflict between the Gulf countries continues, I think can still probably work with each side independently or separately on the economic assistance, on the humanitarian piece. I think you can probably manage it. You may run into trouble in terms of having them come to an agreement on who should lead a certain area because, again, they’re going to be seeing it through that lens. The Emiratis will be, oh, are these Muslim Brotherhood? And the Qataris will say, no, they’re not, and we don’t care. And so you’ll have to kind of referee that.
We managed to semi-referee it in terms of the assistance to the opposition, not always with great success. But I saw it firsthand that when we came in and created joint operation centers basically to support the opposition, when we tried to funnel the assistance through a single mechanism, we kind of funneled most of that stuff through a single system. I think we can do it for those areas, particularly because, quite frankly, in Raqqa, there is no Muslim Brotherhood. I mean, just literally, they don’t have a presence. So maybe there will not be as much of an issue. It’s going to be the tribal relationships.
DR. MATTAIR: It would be nice to have 2 ½ more hours, but we don’t. So I’ll just say thank you to the panel and the audience. (Applause.)
Philip Solondz Distinguished Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Former Ambassador, Turkey and Iraq
Former Deputy National Security Adviser, President George W. Bush
Distinguished Research Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University
Adjunct Associate Professor, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service
Former Disaster Assistance Relief Team Officer, USAID, Northern Iraq
CEO, Emgage Foundation
Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service
Former Senior Policy Adviser on Iraq and Syria to Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Department of State
Vice President, Policy Analysis, Research & Programs, The Middle East Institute
Founding Director, Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon
Former Director, Fares Foundation
Chairman, Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman
Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
The Middle East Policy Council convened its 89th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, July 14th. Days after Iraqi forces announced regaining control of Mosul, “Post-ISIS Iraq and Syria: Avoiding Chaos” examined what comes after the liberation of ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria. The panelists reflected on how to best understand the overlapping regional and international interests in the region, the continued fragmentation of populations beyond simplistic Shia-Sunni lines, and the tenuous hold of national governments on their territory. Amidst these complexities, the U.S. is faced with limited policy options, with some panelists questioning whether Washington can influence events to avoid chaos at all.
Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists included James Jeffrey (former Ambassador to Turkey, Iraq); Denise Natali (Distinguished Research Fellow, National Defense University); Wa’el Alzayat (CEO, Emgage Foundation); and Paul Salem (Vice President, the Middle East Institute).
Ambassador Jeffrey suggested that greater U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria could make the situation more chaotic. He recalled the Cold War era, when the U.S. often acted in arenas where they had no chance to win, simply to counter Soviet influence, and the more recent 2006 war in Lebanon, where the Lebanese government and Hezbollah often undermined U.S. interests. According to Ambassador Jeffrey, U.S. policy should be formulated with an eye towards thwarting increased Iranian domination. Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump one understands this and views the Middle East as a struggle for influence against Iran and its Russian backers. Given the existence of “enclaves” of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria that the U.S. military will likely want to maintain as ISIS’ territorial control continues to dissipate, he recommended beginning reconstruction efforts slowly and deliberately with a long-term view about how they can be sustainable and effective in countering Iranian influence.
Dr. Natali disputed the idea that the region is post-ISIS or that it will be in the event that both Mosul and Raqqa fall. She also suggested proceeding cautiously and formulating policy while cognizant of the fragmented and localized condition of each country. To do this, U.S. policy makers should avoid overly simplistic narratives, to have a clear view of the situation on the ground. For example, she does not see Iraq or Syria “breaking up” into smaller autonomous states. Rather, she sees states that have “broken down” but will still require a central authority to provide security, coordinate reconstruction, and manage regional and international relations. Some dynamics on the ground that policy makers should be aware of include: the reality that Kurds have gained significant territory amidst the fight against ISIS (and host numerous internally displaced Arabs on this land); the sharp demographic changes that conflict in the region has produced; and the more recent financial limitations on the Iraqi state imposed by the sharp drop in global oil prices.
Mr. Alzayat argued that the lack of freedom in the region continues to be the primary source of instability. The region lacks basic rights, and citizens with family and associated social networks continue to be the most important factors for success. Prime Minster al-Maliki—once exiled by Saddam Hussein—continued to operate with a sectarian mentality once he came to power, viewing opposition in Anbar province similarly to how Assad viewed rebels in Homs. Without recognizing this underlying problem in the region, groups like ISIS will continue to exist. Thus, Mr. Alzayat suggests the U.S. push a “freedom agenda” in Iraq, working with the central government to weaken identity-based local politics and tether Sunni areas to the national government. In Syria, Mr. Alzayat recommends that the U.S. expand the territory it controls and continue to deliver clear deterrence measures when human-rights violations occur. By viewing the region as a “long-term project,” the U.S. can gain international partners as well as local ones, and these can counter groups like ISIS that may emerge in the future.
Mr. Salem believes that the Arab order has broken down and that there is now the emergence of an Iranian-Arab disorder that will take a long time to resolve. U.S. passivity during the Obama administration allowed Iran to gain new footholds in the Levant and Yemen, and this influence may eventually be extended to Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, Mr. Salem sees some hope for stability, given the relative functioning of political institutions, its ability to export oil, and the stable ties Iraq enjoys both regionally and internationally. In Syria, these strengths don’t exist, and ISIS and Al Qaeda have a much stronger presence. So while Mr. Salem is hopeful that Iraq can begin to slowly rebuild, Syria presents a much greater challenge. The focus for the U.S. there must be continuing efforts to find common ground with Russia in order to de-escalate the conflict. Staying the course and supporting reconciliation is the only option for the U.S., even as it remains unlikely that the Syrian people would accept Assad’s remaining in power.
The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event
, will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.