Gause and Ghabra on American Foreign Policy in the Middle East

As Barack Obama enters his final year in office, Gregory Gause and Shafeeq Ghabra discuss the legacy of his Middle East policy and the future of American engagement in the region:

A Third Intifada?

Is This the Third Palestinian Intifada? Timely piece in The Nation by Norman Finkelstein, Mouin Rabbani and Jamie Stern-Weiner:

Have the Palestinians finally embarked upon their long-heralded third intifada? That depends upon how one defines the term, and can therefore easily lead to semantic rather than substantive debate. The more pertinent questions concern how sustainable and effective the current revolt is likely to be.

An instructive comparison can be drawn with the first intifada of 1987–93. It too erupted amid growing regional and international indifference. In the mid-1980s, the Arab states were preoccupied with the Iran-Iraq War, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), its leadership languishing in Tunisia, was bereft of influence and ideas. At the November 1987 summit of the Arab League, Palestine was for the first time in the organization’s history absent from the agenda. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, none other than current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, could barely conceal his glee, telling the UN General Assembly that “the Arab leaders” have “put the Palestinian” issue “on the back burner.” That was December 2. One week later, the occupied territories erupted in a mass nonviolent civil revolt that planted Palestine firmly atop the international agenda, transformed international perceptions of the conflict, and paralyzed Israeli society.

The first intifada awoke the world’s conscience to the justice of the Palestinian cause, and crystallized the international consensus for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict—a consensus that still endures. It marked a fundamental turning point in Western public opinion about the conflict. Since then, widespread revulsion at Israel’s massacres in Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008-9, 2012, and 2014) has made it one of the world’s least popular states, ranking it alongside Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea. If current regional conditions resemble those that prevailed at the outset of the first intifada, today’s international environment is much more promising: if Palestinians rally behind a coherent program that seeks to activate a dormant international consensus, they can expect to receive broad international support.

Domestically, the situation is more ambiguous. The first intifada began spontaneously, independent of the formal political leadership. The same is true of the present uprising, which has been characterized by self-organizing groups of demonstrators in the West Bank and Gaza and uncoordinated actions by individuals in East Jerusalem and elsewhere. Hamas is not preventing protests in Gaza, but neither is it delighted with them; in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is having to walk a fine line between its security commitments to Israel and the United States and its need for domestic legitimacy. Both fear that a popular uprising could challenge the modus vivendi they have established with Israel, or could—with or without encouragement by their rivals— develop into a challenge to their continued rule.

Landis and Stearns on Ethnicity and ISIS in Syria

Justin Stearns and Joshua Landis discuss the implications of Russia’s engagement in Syria and the role of identity politics in the Syrian civil war.

News, Notes & Links | 21.10.15


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visits Moscow.

Iran is sending hundreds of men from its elite forces to Syria.

Libya’s rival governments reject U.N.-brokered unity deal.

U.S. annual military aid to Israel could increase by $1 Billion

Four-fifths of Russia’s airstrikes in Syria don’t target ISIS, study says.

Saudi Arabia increased its military spending by 17 percent in 2014.


Recommended Reads:

I Got Syria So Wrong | By Frederic Hof, Politico

I spent early 2011 trying to ease tensions between Syria and its neighbors. I never predicted the brutality that would come from inside.

Iraq: The Clerics and the Militias | By Joost Hiltermann, The New York Review of Books

What both the ISIS and governance crises have laid bare is the bankruptcy of the post-2003 political class, which has mismanaged and ruined the country they inherited from a US military power that itself was utterly incapable of managing it. While rightly decrying the Saddam Hussein regime for its appalling oppression, these parties—including Abadi’s and Maliki’s Da’wa, the Badr Organization, and the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, to name only the largest—have increasingly mimicked the Baath party’s structure and methods. They’re secretive, suspicious, and undemocratic, and if their rule has not been as systematically repressive as their predecessor’s, it is only because they have failed to consolidate power in the same way.

Putin’s Syria Gambit Aims at Something Bigger than Syria | Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center

A quarter-century after its withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia is again at war in a Muslim country outside of the perimeter of its historical empire. Moscow’s intervention in Syria, however, is very different from its past uses of military power, marked by overland invasions and occupations. It is also happening in a regional environment which is new: a Middle East where outside powers, including the United States, are playing a much less dominant role than ever in the last 100 years; and non-state actors like IS are threatening to upend the system of states created after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Thrall: Mismanaging the Conflict in Jerusalem

Thoughtful Op-Ed in the New York Times by Nathan Thrall, Senior Analyst with the Middle East and North Africa Program of the International Crisis Group, on the rising tensions in Jerusalem:

It is a deeply regrettable fact that, during the past quarter-century, violence has been the most consistent factor in Israeli territorial withdrawal. That may partly explain why growing numbers of Palestinians support an uprising and demand the resignation of President Mahmoud Abbas, who abhors attacks on Israelis and has presided over nearly a decade of almost total quiet in the West Bank without any gains to show for it.

Last month, a survey of Palestinians found support for an armed intifada at 57 percent (and at 71 percent among 18- to 22-year-old men). Support was highest in Hebron and Jerusalem. Two-thirds of those surveyed wanted Mr. Abbas to resign.

Mr. Kerry is scheduled to have meetings with Mr. Abbas and with Mr. Netanyahu in an effort to achieve their shared goal of restoring calm and returning to the status quo. Violence is politically threatening to both leaders, especially to Mr. Abbas, and both will continue to work to suppress any escalation.

Yet if they succeed only in ending the unrest, they will have merely restored the stasis that gave rise to it. This is what Israelis call “managing the conflict.” There is certainly no guarantee that if the two leaders fail to stop the flow of Palestinian and Israeli blood, things will eventually get better.

But what does seem guaranteed is that most Palestinians will continue to believe that if the occupation is cost-free, there will be little incentive to end it. Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu have taught them that.

Riedel: “The Prince of Counter-Terrorism”

The Prince of Counterterrorism cover image

Excellent Brookings Essay by Bruce Riedel on Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, his rise to power in Saudi Arabia and the politics of succession in the House of Saud:

Muhammed bin Nayef may be the most pro-American prince ever to be in line to the throne. He is probably the most successful intelligence officer in the Arab world of today. Panetta, like Tenet, praises him, calling MBN the “smartest and most accomplished of his generation.” Only King Fahd, another former minister of the interior, may have been so instinctively inclined to support American interests. Unlike his father, MBN seems altogether comfortable working closely with Americans. He seemed to get on fine with President Obama at Camp David. His agents just captured the mastermind of the 1996 Saudi Hezbollah attack on U.S. military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 American service members. MBN has already had more responsibility than any Saudi of his generation, and his burden is likely to become all the heavier given the chaos in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. He knows he needs allies.

But Washington should have no illusions that MBN will take Western advice to reform the kingdom. Saudi Arabia makes no bones about being the leading opponent of everything the Arab Spring stood for when it began in 2011 and everything that so many in the West were cheering for. The Saudis helped engineer the 2013 coup in Egypt that restored military rule to the largest Arab country and dealt the Arab Spring a fatal blow. They are skilled counterterrorists, but they are also accomplished and unabashed counterrevolutionaries.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s last significant absolute monarchy. It will not have a Gorbachev moment, because the royal family will not give up their control of the nation, nor will they loosen their ties with the Wahhabis and their faith. King Salman, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, and virtually all of the rest of the Saudi establishment believe they have survived more than two and a half centuries in the rough politics of the Middle East not just because of their ruthless determination to stay absolute monarchs, but because of their alliance with the Wahhabi clerics.

The House of Saud has outlasted the Ottomans, Nasserism, Communism, Baathism, and most other royal families. In 1979 many thought they would go the way of the Shah of Iran. As a young analyst at the CIA charged with the Saudi portfolio I predicted then that they would survive for many decades to come. It is too soon to write their epitaph, but I suspect it is too late to expect them to change.

News, Notes & Links | 29.09.15


More than 700 killed in Haj stampede in Mecca.

France launches first airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

ISIS has excecuted more than 10,000 men, women and children in Iraq and Syria since June 2014.

Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq announces agreement to share intelligence on ISIS.

U.S.-trained fighters in Syria gave ammo and eqiupment to Jabhat al-Nusra.


Recommended Reads:

It’s Time to Rethink Syria | By Philip Gordon, Politico

For years, I helped advise President Obama on Syria. It’s now clearer than ever that a new strategy is needed.

Obama’s War of Choice | By Micah Zenko, Council of Foreign Relations

Weapons sales are supposed to build a relationship between supplier and recipient, which is supposed to provide some leverage for the supplier over how the recipient uses those weapons. Either President Obama is fine with how U.S.-supplied weapons are being used in Yemen, he is refraining from using leverage to stop their use, or there is no leverage to speak of. In which case, all the United States has gained over the past six months is participating in and extending a civil war, which has been an enormous humanitarian disaster.

“If You Can’t Do This Deal… Go Back to Tehran” | By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Politico

Covering the path to that deal was the main focus of my beat at Bloomberg News for the past seven years. I traveled more than 140,000 miles and spent months at hotels in Europe, New York, the Middle East and Central Asia, reporting on talks by Kerry and U.S. nuclear negotiators. Now that the deal is done, 12 current and former Obama administration officials intimately involved in the negotiations spoke to me last week, revealing new details for the first time. This story of the behind-the-scenes calculations along a seven-year road to a deal is based upon those accounts, as well as on hundreds of hours of reporting on the talks I did as they unfolded in recent years in capitals across three continents.

NPR Special on the Origins of the Iranian Nuclear Program

Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iran, and Robin Wright of the Woodrow Wilson Center are among the featured in this fascinating NPR Special on the origins and evolution of the Iranian nuclear program. Read “The U.S., The Atom and Iran” here or listen below:

How Iran’s shadowy role in Syria fuels paranoia and wariness | The Guardian

Ian Black of The Guardian reports from Damascus on Iran’s influence in Syria:

Ordinary Syrians fret about wider Iranian influence: Damascenes gossip about land confiscated in Mezze to build a big Iranian housing project as well as a new embassy closer to the city centre; about Iranians buying up prime real estate, often anonymously. Last year 35% of all Syrian imports came from Iran. Now many government tenders are open only to Iranians.

“Syria has been sold to the Iranians,” complains a resident of one of the capital’s better neighbourhoods. “They control everything.” Prejudice and paranoia make for a toxic argument that is promoted energetically by the Syrian opposition. Some even describe Syria as “Iranian-occupied” – a wild exaggeration. (…)

The Iranians radiate growing confidence internationally but they will not persuade anti-Assad Syrians of their good intentions or the sincerity of their professed belief in non-intervention. “The more the Iranians speak about Syria’s sovereignty the more they violate it,” argues Ibrahim Hamidi, a highly-regarded Syrian journalist with the London-based al-Hayat newspaper. “The more they talk about national identity the more they promote sub-identities. The more they talk about fighting Isis, the more they provoke it. Whatever the Iranians say, they do the opposite. The Iranians are trying to play the same role in Syria as Syria used to play in Lebanon: they create their own clients and they hold the balance between different centres of power. Now the Iranians are trying to create their own parallel regime – with their militias, businessmen and properties, and social engineering.”


Sources Detail Skewed Reports On How The U.S. Is Doing Against ISIS | NPR

After The Daily Beast first reported that more than 50 U.S. intelligence analysts have complained that their conclusions were inappropriately altered by senior officials, this piece from NPR provides further insights:

The Pentagon is looking at whether senior military officials at U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, pressured intelligence analysts into painting a rosy picture of the fight against ISIS. The Defense Department’s inspector general is talking to a group of intelligence analysts who are providing evidence and details on how bias crept into their assessments.

One military source who witnessed the skewing of reports and told NPR he was “a victim of them” said that analysts at CENTCOM got the message as they began writing their assessments of events on the ground. If analysts wanted to include a piece of good news regarding the campaign against ISIS or the progress of Iraqi forces, they needed almost no sourcing. But if they wanted to include bad news — such as Iraqi forces retreating — analysts were required to cite three or four sources.

Two military sources familiar with the investigation say that, while they haven’t discovered a direct order to cherry-pick intelligence, it was something that evolved because of the way data were handled and produced.

“The bad news didn’t just need to be footnoted,” one military source, who did not want to be further identified because he is involved with the inquiry, told NPR. “The intelligence data itself had to be attached to the report. It became pretty clear if they wrote something bad, it was likely to be changed. Knowing that bad news on ISIS wasn’t welcome meant that, over time, the picture of the fight began being rosier.”

A military source described the evolution of one report that came out of CENTCOM’s intelligence shop. It was a dispatch on an ISIS attack in Iraq near the Syrian border. The initial CENTCOM report read, “Iraqi forces retreated.” It was sent back for reworking, the source said. Eventually that report came to read that the Iraqi forces had not retreated, but instead had reinforced another Iraqi position. The final draft suggested a strategic decision had been made. But that was not what happened, the source said — the Iraqi forces ran. A second source confirmed the account of the change in wording to put the Iraqi forces in a more positive light.