Saturday, March 24, 2012

USA-Israel-Iran: Rules Of The Game

What message were U.S. officials trying to send by releasing the results of a CentCom Iran war game?
On March 19, the New York Times described a classified U.S. Central Command war game conducted this month that simulated the outcome of an Israeli attack on Iran. According to U.S. officials who discussed the results with the newspaper, the game "forecasts that the [Israeli] strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead." Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of Central Command, found the outcome "particularly troubling" because an Israeli first strike would have "dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there."
The article, with its discussion of "dire consequences," is one more indication of the gap between the Israeli government's calculations concerning Iran and those of the U.S. government. Why that analytical gap exists should be of interest to policymakers.   The military's conclusion that U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region could suffer hundreds of deaths following an Israeli strike could be an indication that U.S. commanders and policymakers have not adequately prepared for such a scenario. But perhaps most important, we should examine what goals U.S. officials had in mind when they leaked the results of the supposedly secret war game to the New York Times.
According to the article, the two-week Central Command war game, called Internal Look, was specifically designed to test internal military communications and coordination among battle staffs in the Pentagon, Central Command headquarters in Tampa, and field units in the Persian Gulf. According to the scenario, Iran would conclude that the United States was an Israeli partner and therefore U.S. military forces in the Gulf were complicit in the Israeli first strike. The simulation had Iranian anti-ship missiles strike a U.S. warship killing hundreds of sailors. The United States then retaliated with its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
This simulation appears to differ sharply from Israeli expectations. According to Jeffrey Goldberg's reporting at Bloomberg, Israeli officials believe Iran will not target U.S. ships or facilities in the region because it would hardly be in Iran's interest to bring Central Command's military power into the conflict (a point I made in a recent column). Indeed, according to Goldberg, Israeli policymakers believe that if Israel's strikes are limited to a handful of nuclear targets away from urban areas, Iran might actually downplay the severity or cover up the damage, as Syria did after the 2007 Israeli strike on its nuclear reactor.
Since Internal Look was designed to give U.S. military global command and control systems a workout, it would not help commanders achieve that objective if the scenario didn't escalate up to high-intensity combat action. Requiring the scenario to do that is completely different than having the war game objectively conclude that such escalation is the most likely outcome -- a conclusion Israeli planners presumably don't share. If Internal Look really did make an unbiased and informed prediction of Iranian behavior, it is easy to understand why Mattis is troubled. But if the exercise had to manufacture that Iranian response in order to achieve other exercise goals, it is less easy to understand his anxiety. In any case, he and his staff should consider why their assumptions -- which seem to require irrational Iranian behavior -- differ from Israeli assumptions.
Mattis's long experience as a combat commander may have taught him to err on the side of pessimism when formulating military plans. In this case, that pessimism would imply having U.S. forces in the Gulf assume Iranian missiles will soon be on their way following an Israeli first strike. If that is the case, have U.S. commanders done all they can to prepare their forces for Iranian action? And have U.S. policymakers done all they could to deter Iran's decision-makers from striking in the first place?
On March 16, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, briefed defense reporters on what the Navy is doing to increase its readiness in the Persian Gulf. Greenert is sending additional minesweeping and patrol craft to the Gulf and will add more short-range defensive weapons to Navy vessels operating there, in response to Iranian small boat "swarming" tactics. Greenert expects most of these capabilities to be in place "within a year." This seems a bit tardy, given Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's forecast of an Israeli strike in "April, May or June," and a major Pentagon war game from 2002 that showed the effectiveness of the Iranian small boat swarming threat.
U.S. leaders could likewise do more to deter Iran's decision-makers in an effort to avert the dire Internal Look scenario. In a recent discussion of possible Iranian behavior, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that a U.S. conflict with Iran could occur not because of Iranian irrationality but more from "gross misjudgment." Dempsey pointed to the disastrous assessments made by an otherwise rational Saddam Hussein, who serially misjudged U.S. will and intentions. U.S. officials could help Iran's decision-makers avoid similar mistakes by rapidly reinforcing U.S. air and naval forces in the region, conducting useful and visible training exercises once the reinforcements have arrived, and by clearly stating to Iran's leaders the consequences of Iranian action against U.S. forces and interests. In January, Panetta expressed confidence in the level of U.S. military forces already present in the region. But if, as Dempsey believes, Iran's leaders are rational, yet Mattis's planners still believe Iran will attack U.S. forces, either Panetta is wrong, U.S. leaders haven't been clear with Iran, or both. And that says nothing good about U.S. preparations regarding Iran.
Finally, why did U.S. officials leak the results of Internal Look to the New York Times? If it's a memo aimed at Israeli policymakers to complain about their saber-rattling, the message is unlikely to get through. U.S. and Israeli officials at all levels have thoroughly discussed the Iran issue and have clearly formulated different assumptions. Repeating the message will hardly help at this point. U.S. military officials may have leaked the story in order to make the case for a military build-up in the region. But they would only need to make such a case in the New York Times if the White House had for some reason refused such a request.
Finally, Mattis and others may have revealed the war game's pessimistic conclusions in order to prepare the U.S. public for the increasing likelihood of another war and for the casualties that could result. If that is the case, political leaders should have an honest and open discussion with the public, instead of sending a murky message through anonymous leaks to the New York Times.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 23/03/2012
-Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal

Friday, March 23, 2012

Why Washington Didn't Intervene In Syria Last Time

In 1982, the United States said very little about Hafez al-Assad's shelling of Hama and no one suggested that the United States intervene. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Washington is willing to speak out against Bashar al-Assad's crackdown in Homs, but is not yet willing to send in troops.
By Richard W. Murphy
Syria's regime has changed little since the days of Hafiz al-Assad, the father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad. But the U.S. handling of Syria today contrasts sharply with Washington's behavior in the past. In the period with which I am most familiar, from 1974, when the embassy reopened after being closed for seven years following the Six-Day War and I became U.S. ambassador to Syria, until Hafiz al-Assad's death in 2000, the United States was little concerned with Assad's repressive domestic policies.
Assad came to power in 1970 after spending years rising through the ranks of the Syrian Air Force and the Baath Party, which had seized control of Syria in 1963. Once in office, he proceeded to build up the security services, which eventually came to consist of some 15 to 17 (often competing) forces. He controlled the senior appointments of each service and ensured that they all funneled their reports -- including reports on his citizens' movements and moods -- to his office. He ruled with a firm hand, and when, in the 1980s, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood intensified its campaign of violence against him, he authorized an unprecedented harsh response: the shelling of the city of Hama, the group's headquarters, in 1982. The campaign left at least 10,000 Syrians dead.
At the time, the United States said very little about the Hama shelling, and there was no suggestion that the United States intervene. Had we attempted to do so, Assad would have vigorously resisted and the Arab world would have joined him in rejecting an American-organized effort against the regime. From 1974 until the regional upheavals last spring, the United States was pursuing other interests in Syria.
Throughout Hafiz Assad's presidency, it was Syria's foreign policy that most concerned the United States. Primarily, Washington worked to bring about Assad's support for the Arab-Israeli peace process. After the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat promoted closer relations with Israel, Assad methodically molded Syria's role as leader of the Arab Steadfastness and Confrontation Front. He maintained that a united Arab world was the only way to confront Israel and to create a durable peace.
In 1974, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger mediated a Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement on the Golan Heights, which restored to Syria control over a slice of territory that it had lost to Israel in 1973. Assad expected this to be the first among many such arrangements to restore Syria's 1967 borders. No such thing would happen. The Israelis concentrated on making peace with Egypt and, over the years, only periodically turned to Syria when they needed a foil to peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
For several years, Assad rejected U.S. attempts to move toward a peace agreement without an advance guarantee of total return of Syria's land. He maintained that getting the basic support of both peoples for a peace agreement would take a generation. Only in the late 1980s was he prepared to state publicly that he would support "a peace of the brave," and even then, to the general dissatisfaction of the United States and Israel, gave virtually no detail on his vision of what that peace would involve.
The second major American concern in Syria was the country's involvement in the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. In 1976, after Beirut asked for Syrian military support against the Palestinian Liberation Army, Assad sent in troops, carefully observing Israeli strictures on the areas of their deployment. Once installed, the Syrians overstayed their welcome, and their presence came to be widely condemned as an occupation. In the course of the 1990s the United States imposed financial sanctions on the country, expanding a sanctions regime that eventually also targeted Damascus for its weapons of mass destruction programs, association with al Qaeda and the Taliban, and corruption.
The Syrians finally left Lebanon in 2005, after a public outcry over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which, many Lebanese believe, was instigated by the Syrian leadership. American criticism showed Washington's mounting unhappiness with Syrian policymakers and their system of governance. This discontent, however, still did not extend to intervening in Syria's domestic policies.
Bashar Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000, brought a more outgoing personality and apparent interest in reforms. Syrians and the West initially hoped that he would fulfill that promise, but hope for reform soon faded. In contrast to his father, who made few promises but kept his word, Bashar was quick to promise reforms but failed to implement them. He took some steps to liberalize the economy, but the Baath Party, which had long since become mostly just a regime mouthpiece and a corrupt patronage network, retained its monopoly of power. He jailed political moderates who pushed for government reforms, and the reign of the security services continued unchallenged.
Bashar continued to engage in talks about peace with Israel for a few years in talks led by Turkey, but in the meantime Washington had become more concerned with Syria's long-standing friendship with Iran. Cultivated originally by Hafiz Assad as a function of his rivalry with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the Syrian-Iranian relationship had, over the years, brought Damascus significant investment, trade, and political support. In Washington, the talk was of the need to wean Syria from its ties with Iran. Doing so was seen as a way to deliver a strategic setback to Iran.
Then came the Arab Spring. After the relatively bloodless departures of Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and the successful fight to unseat Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, many assumed that Assad's fall was inevitable and imminent. From the very early days, Damascus maintained that all demonstrations were the work of imperialist thugs and Zionist terrorists and deserved the harshest possible destruction. In the southern town of Dera'a, where the regime arrested and reportedly tortured teenage graffiti writers, to the intensive shelling of Homs, Idlib, and other centers of resistance, Bashar reacted with the brutality that his father had displayed in 1982 but this time, thanks to amateur video makers within Syria and the new communications media of Facebook and Twitter, the world was watching.
Last August, President Barack Obama called on Assad to step aside. The regime repeated its accusations that the wave of demonstrations and violence was caused by outside agents of imperialism and Zionism. That played well with many Syrians, who have a highly developed sense of conspiracy politics and victimization at the hands of foreign powers. Washington then welcomed the Arab League's initiative to send a monitoring mission to the country and its referral of the Syrian situation to the Security Council. As the violence spiraled, Washington recalled its ambassador, as it had in 1986 and 2005. The Obama administration left behind no staff but at the same time made clear its opposition to arming the Syrian rebels, who had initially pursued peaceful demonstrations but some of whom, when faced with heavy artillery and tanks, decided that only armed rebellion would have any chance of success. 
Washington hopes that whenever the Assad regime is replaced, it will be by leadership guaranteeing a multiparty political structure and a foreign policy free of Iranian influence. What Washington can do to advance those goals is, however, very much in question. Russia and China vetoed a draft United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Syria that would have given a measure of hope to the opposition and pause to the regime.
President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have spoken out repeatedly against Syria's repression of its own citizens, but as yet there is no sign that their words, or those from any other quarter, are having an impact. Assad's reaction to the unrest has primarily been to apply more force. He benefits from the fact that the Syrian opposition remains highly fragmented, and that to train an effective military force to confront that of his regime would be time-consuming and difficult.
Washington is helping shape a more coherent political opposition. But U.S. policymakers must keep clearly in mind that the regime has its supporters in all walks of life and across Syria's religious communities. Over the last 40 years, the Assad family built a reputation for safeguarding the country's minorities and for providing a predictable (if repressed) life for Syrians. Its policies have created both resistance to change and inertia.
Washington was long irritated by Syrian criticisms of Egypt over its peace treaty with Israel, by Damascus' support for Iranian nurturing of Hezbollah and Hamas, and by Syria's own prolonged military presence in Lebanon. It took the Arab Spring and the United States' worry about Iran's nuclear program to bring all of these resentments into focus. There have been defections from the Syrian military. However, unless these increase massively or there is a coup from within the Syrian military ranks, the prospect of prolonged confrontation and bloodshed in Syria is likely.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Affairs on 20/03/2012
-Richard Murphy was the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs from 1983 to 1989

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Federalism And Fragmentation In Libya? Not So Fast…

By Sean Kane
Benghazi is back in the headlines. On March 6, the capital of Libya's 2011 uprising hosted a reported 3,000 tribal figures and leaders from the eastern half of the country. Seeking to marry eastern Libya's status as the historical seat of the country's pre-Qaddafi federal monarchy with local post-revolutionary anxiety, the conference provocatively announced the creation of the federal region of Barqa.
The reaction both within and outside of Libya has been swift. The ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) sharply criticized the declaration. Protests extolling national unity were held across the country and Libya's leading mufti issued a fatwa against federalism. Meanwhile, Egypt, Tunisia, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference issued statements expressing support for a unified Libya and rejecting federalism. An editorial in the London-based pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi even opined that Qaddafi and his family must feel "vindicated" in their predictions that the country would fragment without them.
The reality is more nuanced than the excited commentary would suggest. The gulf between the "federalism" called for by some easterners and the administrative decentralization broadly favored across Libya is most likely relatively narrow. And even in eastern Libya, support for the federal model advocated for by the self-appointed Interim Council of Barqa appears mixed.
This is not to say there is not valid ground for concern about the direction of events. As recently as late last year the eastern federalism movement could accurately be described as fringe. Several months later, with the east feeling increasingly marginalized and shortchanged in the allocation of seats in elections for Libya's forthcoming constitutional assembly, it represents a significant minority view.
Moreover, in Libya there is a general lack of familiarity with concepts such as federalism and decentralization. The former term is especially charged given the country's historical struggles with state-building and that in the Arab world federalism is often seen as a gateway to partition and division.
As a result there is real potential for the debate over Libya's state structure to escalate emotionally. This was seen in some of the harsher reactions to the Barqa declaration, including rhetoric on the use of force. (On the one hand, statements by central authorities regarding a willingness to use force to stop the self-styled federal region's creation and, on the other, by the Barqa Supreme Military Council that it was willing to fight for autonomy.)
The first major counter point to the narrative of an east-west fragmentation in Libya is that it is not clear that federalism actually enjoys majority support in the east. It is somewhat out of date now and Libya's post-revolutionary political attitudes certainly remain in major flux, but a survey last October of public opinion in the east found that only seven percent of respondents favored a federal system.
Indeed, pre-emptive protests criticizing the Barqa conference were held in Benghazi on March 5. The days after the conference saw anti-Barqa declaration protests in all of the major cities in the east. The local governing councils in Benghazi, Derna, and Tobruk, the first of which is known to have stormy relationship with the NTC, issued formal statements that they did not recognize the Interim Barqa Council and that the NTC remained the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people. The Benghazi-based Arabian Gulf Oil Company, which produces much of the country's oil, reacted by saying that it remains under the National Oil Company. Corporate insiders were reported as indicating that the company will not follow the Barqa Council.
The second overlooked point of nuance is that even among those in the east who favor federalism, some were not pleased with the Barqa declaration. Beyond discomfort with the self-appointed Barqa Council speaking on behalf of the east on such an important issue, there is a feeling that the rushed announcement threatens to internally divide a part of the country that prides itself on its cohesiveness.
Eastern autonomy proponents also worry that the manner of the controversial declaration has made federalism toxic and untouchable in the rest of the country. And in the near term they are probably correct. Just about every major political movement in Libya has now publicly come out against the Barqa declaration and federalism, including both Islamist and more secular parties.
Finally, the substantive differences between the east and the rest of the country on how much local autonomy should be granted to areas outside of Tripoli do not appear irreconcilable. The core day-to-day complaint that is giving rise to both federalism and decentralization appears to be one and the same. Namely, ordinary Libyans around the country are fed up with having to travel to the distant capital to conduct routine administrative business and access government services.
Major cities in western Libya, such as Misrata, favor strong municipal or provincial authorities with their own independent budgets. In this view of administrative decentralization, there would only be a single (national) parliament and judicial system, but a wide range of authorities would be delegated to local government. Libya's Interim Government has even proposed a draft bill on administrative decentralization, albeit in a hurried fashion in the lead-up to the Barqa conference.
Ironically, in the burgeoning federalism debate, the national authorities and the Interim Barqa Council might be their own worst enemies. Some easterners describe the NTC's opaque governing and decision-making styles as the federalism movement's greatest asset in making its case for regional autonomy. Likewise, the Barqa declaration's equation of federalism with the 1951 model of the then newly independent Libyan state has backfired. Post-World War II Libya was mostly rural, had not yet discovered oil, and consisted of three autonomous regions representing formerly separate self-ruling entities. What may have made sense then appears anachronistic when compared with the changed socio-economic, demographic, and political conditions of modern Libya.
How then might this stoppable object and resistible force be reconciled? Libyan leaders might first seek to let the temperature cool by recognizing that federalism and decentralization are legitimate issues for discussion.
But the authorities could also point out that these issues are best negotiated in the writing of the new Libyan constitution scheduled to take place after elections in June. The reported recent decision by the NTC to amend Libya's constitutional roadmap should help in making this case. (If confirmed the decision would ameliorate eastern Libya's worry of being marginalized in the constitutional drafting process by providing for equal representation of each of Libya's regions in the constitutional commission.)
The interregnum, until the start of the constitution drafting process in the second half of this year, might now be used by Libyans to flesh out real options on decentralization and federalism.
For its part, the Interim Government could publicly detail its mooted law for administrative decentralization. Meanwhile, federalism proponents might develop a federal proposal that does not stir fears of partition by reproducing the 1951 three-region system, for example, a Libyan federation with a greater number of states (to reflect the country's current population map) which gives an unambiguous leading role to the national government on oil revenue sharing, water, and military issues. It could also be advantageous for them to call it something other than federalism.
In the end, differences among Libyans on the structure of their new state are not as far apart as they might have appeared over the last few weeks. A rupture between eastern Libya and the rest of the country on this issue remains eminently avoidable. But making progress on this delicate subject does require a more concrete and constructive exchange than has occurred so far.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 20/03/2012
-Sean Kane is a Truman Security Fellow and the Deputy Team Leader for Libya at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, an independent mediation organization based in Geneva. This article represents his personal views

Monday, March 19, 2012

Iraq And The Limits Of U.S. Power

By Paul Mutter
   Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with President Barack Obama
“Washington has lost a valuable opportunity to nurture and support a key counterweight to Iranian influence among Shiites in the Arab world,” lament Danielle Pletka and Gary Schmitt of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute in an op-ed for the Washington Post. They subsequently call on the Obama administration to bulk up its already grossly overloaded staff at the gigantic U.S. embassy in Baghdad. But in these few words, the two writers fleshed out a more fundamental concern for hawkish pundits in the Middle East: the fear of a “Shia Crescent” of Iranian-backed regimes in Bagdad, Beirut, and Damascus linking the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Indeed, with Iran now able to meddle in Iraq in ways it never could have with Saddam Hussein in power, the country will be more able to contest U.S.-Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. The grim irony, notes Ted Galen Carpenter, is that by invading Iraq in 2003, “the United States has paid a terrible cost—some $850 billion and more than 4,400 dead American soldiers – to make Iran the most influential power in Iraq.” Few, if any, of the war’s architects and boosters will now concede this, even as they raise alarm over Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Looking East
But where today’s neoconservatives see an encroaching Iranian Islamist threat in the Middle East, an older guard has reached back to the not-so-distant Cold War past for parallels. Notably, many leading neoconservative lights hold out hope that Iraq can be turned into an Arabian version of postwar South Korea and Japan.
Prominent neoconservatives draw heavily on the memory of America’s seizure of Japanese hegemony in Asia after 1945. The United States worked steadfastly with postwar Japanese and South Korean governments to build the two countries up as buffers to Soviet and Chinese influence during the Cold War — efforts that were, by Washington’s standards at least, quite successful. Despite challenges from a resurgent China, the Pacific Ocean was (and still is) an American lake.
In a 2010 op-ed for the New York Times, leading Iraq war agitator Paul Wolfowitz invoked this history explicitly, treading breezily past U.S. support for authoritarian South Korean regimes. “The United States stuck with South Korea even though the country was then ruled by a dictator and the prospects for its war-devastated economy looked dim,” he wrote. Wolfowitz noted that Iraq’s struggling democracy and central location were not unlike South Korea’s during the Cold War.
 However unseemly, there is some truth to Wolfowitz’s recollection. It may be impossible to imagine a fifth column of South Korean agitators helping Pyongyang take over Seoul today, but during the Cold War this was a real concern for the United States. So Washington chose to prop up feudalistic landlords and former Japanese collaborators as Seoul’s ruling class, stiffening South Korea’s sinews against the appeal of the North Korean model with a glut of military and economic support. Today, Japan and South Korea remain firmly within the U.S. fold.
Moreover, these alliances continue despite the brutal wars that spawned them. U.S.-led forces laid waste to the Korean peninsula with saturation bombing in the 1950s, but Washington could always count thereafter on “our men in Seoul.” Japan is an even more extreme case. After several years of firebombing and blockading the country, the United States annihilated two of the Japan’s cities with nuclear weapons. And yet Japan plays host to U.S. troops even today.
Those who fear that the United States “lost Iraq” because Barack Obama went through with the U.S. withdrawal schedule negotiated by President Bush are clearly thinking about longer-term issues of American hegemony (see Mitt Romney’s foreign policy white paper and list of advisors for good examples of this kind of thinking). It's simple logic, really: everything with Iraq keeps coming back to the dual-track policy of containment and rollback the United States has pursued against Iran. Iraq is a vital piece of this strategy; Juan Cole’s map of American bases around Iran is unimpeachable evidence of this.
American neoconservatives may hope that a U.S.-buttressed military-political establishment in Iraq could form a bulwark against a potential “Shia Crescent” led by Iran, just as South Korea and Japan helped stem the red tide spreading through East Asia during the Cold War. They may even have some reason to hope that Iraqis will overlook their resentment over the immensely destructive U.S. war on the country.
Wishful Thinking
Just as in South Korea and Japan, there are Iraqis who see the United States as a partner — or at least as a cash cow that can be milked by exploiting U.S. jitters about Iran. In contrast to most Iraqi politicians, who have been almost uniformly opposed to an ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq, there are Iraqi military officers who wanted to maintain ties with the U.S. military because they doubted their own forces could keep the peace.
There are always people within a country's security establishment who can be made into agents of American influence. But in Iraq, the United States is confronting a much less homogeneous society than in South Korea or Japan, and it faces a much better equipped rival for hegemonic influence in Iran. As Washington’s influence in Baghdad recedes, Tehran’s hidden hands in Iraq are coming to the fore.
It’s not that Iran doesn’t have its own baggage to contend with in Iraq as it vies with the United States for influence—Iran wasn’t winning Iraqi hearts and minds, after all, when the two countries were busy destroying each other in the 1980s. But a key distinction for Iraqis between that war and the U.S. invasion was that the Iran-Iraq War was launched by their own Saddam Hussein, driving thousands of Iraqi Shia refugees into Iran by the end of the 1980s. By all appearances, America’s war on Iraq was purely voluntary and imposed on Iraqis from the outside. Moreover, Iran has from at least 1982 on been working to build up its own agents of influence in Iraq's security and religious establishments.
Most importantly, an Iraqi alignment with Iran is the result not only of two decades of Iranian intrigue, but also of two decades of U.S. sanctions, war, and occupation. Especially since the U.S. occupation, Iraqis have viewed Iranian machinations in Iraq—and even Iran’s quiet participation in Iraq’s horrific sectarian violence—as just another symptom of a plague brought by the U.S. invasion.
A Lack of Options
Suppose Obama came into office determined to overturn the withdrawal agreement and keep U.S. troops in Iraq. What tools would he have to force Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reverse himself in the face of an angry Iraqi public and threats by some Shia groups to take up their arms again if the U.S. military presence continued? What could Obama do to "reclaim the partnership with Maliki," as Danielle Pletka and Gary Schmitt ask?
The answer is surprisingly little, mainly because the U.S.-Iraqi relationship was never a partnership to begin with. It was, from the start, an occupation. The U.S. presence in Iraq – where it tried not just to police the country but at times even had Provincial Reconstruction Teams stand in for civil society – meant that Maliki had little agency of his own. Additionally, holdouts like the Sadrists, Sunni tribal militias, and the Badr Brigades had little reason to lay down their arms; it was fight or collaborate, and they chose to fight.
But ever since the United States enabled Maliki to build his own security forces, electoral bloc, and bureaucracy – and thus achieve an understanding with members of the “insurgency” – he has found other people he can depend on to bolster his rule. He doesn't need U.S. forces to intimidate, capture, or kill people for him; his own people are quite capable of doing that.
Far from being run out of the country after detaining hundreds of former Ba’athist officials this winter, Maliki has apparently managed to use such heavy-handed actions to his advantage. As paper by the neoconservative Institute for the Study of War recently noted, “It is clear that Maliki has come out as the winner . . . He has made it more difficult for his Shia rivals to dissent while simultaneously confining his Sunni opponents in a position suitable for exerting pressure and exploiting divisions within their ranks.” For all of the rampant disunity and criminality of the Iraqi government, its leadership has been able to achieve ever-greater independence from its U.S. backers. 
Most importantly, Iraq has little reason to sully an important relationship with its Iranian neighbor just to please Washington. Moreover, it’s uneasy about having such a long border with a regime change target and has no wish to get involved with the nuclear question that so preoccupies Israel and the United States. “Iraqis," Adil Shamoo notes, "can tell the difference between mutually beneficial programs and those that create the impression that the U.S. is powerful and can do what it wants in Iraq."
Out of Cards
Even "our man in Iraq" Ahmed Chalabi – who swept back into the country by way of Langley, Virginia after a decade of agitating for U.S.-led regime change in exile – wanted the United States out of Iraq because he thought it would be political suicide to keep associating with the country that paid his organization $335,000 a month during the first year of the occupation.
If the United States could not secure gratitude from a man who spent over a decade working with the CIA to overthrow Saddam Hussein, then from whom in Iraq can it call in any favors? Short of sectarian violence reaching the level it did in 2005, gratitude is the only thing that would compel Iraqi officials to reverse course, let U.S. troops back in, and focus their foreign policy efforts on a dual-track policy of rollback and containment against Iran.
Unfortunately for neoconservatives, Iraq is no South Korea or Japan, and “gratitude” seems to be in short supply.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 19/03/2012
-Paul Mutter is a fellow at, as well as a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus, Mondoweiss, and The Arabist. He is currently on leave from NYU’s graduate program in journalism and international affairs

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Demonisation Of Political Foes In Iraq

Most of its leaders have strong ties with governments of neighbouring countries. The role played by them in its internal affairs is no secret
By Mohammad Akef Jamal

   The scene of a bomb attack in Baghdad’s Alawi district on Thursday. The attacks on Iraq’s capital came just days after US forces completed their withdrawal.
There are many issues that cannot be overlooked in Iraq today, as they are key to the future vision of the country.
These issues are also important when assessing development opportunities for Iraq after decades of wars, economic embargoes, and occupation.
It may also be appropriate in this context to ask a few fundamental questions that will lay the ground towards approaching these issues, which have become a source of anxiety for Iraqis.
Does the US army withdrawal mean that Washington has given up the gains it achieved by occupying Iraq? Has Iraq gained complete sovereignty? Is Iraq on the road to recovery given the problems it inherited from the former regime, and the additional problems brought about by the occupation? And does Iraq stand a real chance of rising once again domestically and regionally?
The US military pullout from Iraq in December placed the country's political blocs in a new era of local and regional challenges.
Internally, Iraqi political blocs have to prove their capacity to make sovereign decisions; moreover, they have to develop the country's institutions and place them in responsible and capable hands. They also have to erase the negative legacy of the fallen, totalitarian Baath regime and a decade of occupation which distorted many aspects of public life in Iraq.
On the regional front, Iraq's leaders have to rebuild the country and restore it to its deserved position in the Middle East political balance, as a result of its important geographic location, its population density, its history and economy. This mission will be achieved only after the success of the first mission.
Positive outlook
The ability of Iraqi political blocs to approach these two challenges depends to a large extent on how they tackle 1) US-Iraqi relations; 2) regional relations; and 3) the political balance in Iraq.
It is the duty of all blocs to work with dedication. These blocs have to forget the past and overcome all the pain that was endured, to re-build the country despite all the serious handicaps that make the mission almost impossible.
Provided there is stability, Iraq's huge oil wealth and the country's human resources are guarantors of success, while the continuation of instability and corruption will lead to failure.
Once US forces withdrew from Iraq in December, a number of negative issues surfaced, such as the huge deterioration in the country's security, and the escalation of internal conflict leading to the accusation that Iraq's Vice-President Tarek Al Hashemi was a terrorist.
There is still no agreement between them to attend a national conference which was called by President Jalal Talabani four months ago to clear the air.
Iraq is passing through one of the most dangerous phases in its history. Politically demonising the other has become a regular feature. Everyone is cautious, as demonisation of political foes prevails throughout the Iraqi political spectrum. The absurdity of the whole issue is that these methods are not only used between members of clashing political blocs, but also by competing members of the same coalition.
Paying high price
The general features of the Iraqi political map have not changed since the transitional government of former prime minister Ebrahim Al Ja'afari in 2005; the same situation recurred during the first, second, and third elections conducted in Iraq after the fall of the Baath regime.
A number of these blocs also succeeded in leading ethnic and sectarian groups because of the absence of a national programme.
It is not far-fetched to assume that the Arab Spring's first building block was laid in Iraq. America's invasion of Iraq was the first marketing of its freedom, democracy and human rights slogans, intended to rebuild the Middle East on new foundations, in line with US policy.
The US has paid a high price for this. Hence, it is unlikely to give up its pre-eminent status in Iraq. US-Iraqi relations will not be an obstacle in the path of Iraq's development.
Leaders of most of Iraq's political blocs have strong ties with governments of neighbouring countries. And it is in these countries that Iraqi leaders find financial or political backing. And when necessary, these countries also provide shelter for these politicians.
This gives these countries an opportunity to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs. Their role is not a positive one.
It is sad to see these setbacks limiting Iraq's ability to develop. And it is even sadder to see that Iraqis are unable to produce a new leader who can rise up to the expectations of the country, despite the total failure of the present leaders of the political blocs.
-This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 18/03/2012
-Dr Mohammad Akef Jamal is an Iraqi writer based in Dubai

One Year Of Protests Has Left Every Syrian In Uncertainty

By Jasmine Roman
Shadi Ghanim for The National
With joy and enthusiasm, and a bit of envy, we watched our Egyptian friends in Tahrir Square and admired their determination to topple a dictator last year. Syrians were stunned by their massive, peaceful protests and we remembered: Masr, umm al dounya, (Egypt, mother of the world).
We were united in our mocking comments about Hosni Mubarak, and how he was clinging to power even as his people were asking him to leave. The 18 days spent watching while the dictator manoeuvred seemed like ages, each day marked by the regime's desperation and the attacks by his thugs against protesters.
Syrians supported the righteous demands of the Egyptian people with intensity; we shed tears of happiness when Mubarak finally fell and we openly discussed the Egyptian revolution, forgetting that we lived in a different country with a different reality. The irony was that we could be revolutionaries for Egypt, yet when it came to our own country we were still weighed down.
One year ago, most Syrians could not have predicted that our own uprising would take such a lengthy and bloody path. Just yesterday, bombings again hit Damascus, blamed on Al Qaeda by the regime, which itself has so much blood on its hands.
The complexity of the situation has driven people to hesitate as they try to figure out what stance to take, or whether it is safer to just stay on the fence. The same complexity has forced both the regime and protesters to a standstill. There is no turning back, but there is no breaking point either.
It is easy to find the causes of this struggle and its escalation into so much violence; the harder issue is to find a way to stop the mounting death toll and save the country.
This is precisely the dilemma that was framed by Rafif Jouejati, a spokesperson for the local coordination committees that represent the opposition within Syria: "Whether you are pro-Assad or anti-Assad, you have got to be anti-death."
One year after Syrians began the uprising, thousands have been killed, and thousands of others have been detained and tortured. Many families have been internally displaced, lost their property or been forced to take refuge in neighbouring countries. Many families have members who have been traumatised or harshly treated by the regime. Some people actually believe that they have no hope and are simply waiting for their turn to be murdered.
Almost every Syrian citizen has lost a loved one, experienced a detention or an assault, or been a witness to the violence of the past year. Those who have not been directly affected are being crushed by sanctions and the economic collapse, and the daily struggle in these harsh living conditions.
When I heard of the first siege on Deraa almost one year ago, which was carried out on the pretext of targeting the "armed terrorist groups", I cried for hours. It was not just because Deraa is the home of many of my relatives; I simply couldn't imagine the children there under siege, deprived of even the basic necessities of life.
At that time, it was a struggle just to find out if relatives were alive or not, as communications had been cut off. But since then, many cities have been ruthlessly besieged, and neighbourhoods shelled. People, even children, have been slaughtered. The Syrian martyrs used to be counted on every Friday; now, they are countless.
As people talk of the anniversary of Syria's uprising, no single day can define when people broke through their deep-rooted fear: the first Day of Rage, the day the first protesters were killed, or the first time when people tore down the posters of President Bashar Al Assad and his father. Every single day has become a mark of people's courage in this grim Syrian timeline.
The Syrian people have been polarised, as has the international community. The world has been "morally" debating military intervention, and the steps to exert diplomatic pressure on Mr Al Assad. This back and forth has seen the Arab League initiative, Russian and Chinese veto at the UN Security Council, and the constant mounting sanctions, with little pointing towards a resolution.
There have been many players in this race to debate the Syrian impasse, each bringing followers and allies to support its arguments as if it only wanted to win a personal battle. Each has claimed a "moral" duty toward Syrian civilians, and the result is more Syrians have been harmed. No magic single solution for Syria is looming on the horizon, but the determination and bravery of Syrian people continues to write their own history.
Could this year have gone any differently? Hala Gorani, an international news anchor with CNN, asked that question on Twitter: "A year ago, Syrian regime doesn't crack down on Deraa, holds child tortures [sic] accountable. Where would we be today?"
My initial reaction is that we would be exactly where we are today. A country cannot be built based on revenge and sectarianism, or a selectivity about whether or not to mourn the dead.
How long will Mr Al Assad remain in power? Last August, people hoped to celebrate Eid Al Fitr with a double celebration of the new year and a new Syria. In the back and forth that has happened since, however, there has been plenty of space and time for Mr Al Assad to tighten his grip and lead Syria into a frightening vacuum.
-This commentary was published in The National on 18/03/2012
-The author writes from Damascus under the pseudonym of Jasmine Roman