Washington is in a holiday mode until after New Year. As a result, there are few papers that are being published. Expect the pace to pick up dramatically next week.
This week’s Monitor analysis looks at 2 issues – the recapture of Ramadi by Iraqi forces and the revelation that the US is still monitoring the communications of some foreign leaders – including Israeli PM Netanyahu. We see the Ramadi battle as impacting the perceived invincibility of ISIS, which should limit recruiting.
We also see the revelation that the US is still monitoring the communications of some leaders like Netanyahu as having some serious political ramifications. It appears some of the intercepted communications were with American lawmakers, which is illegal and will precipitate congressional hearings during an election year. Of special interest will be any impact on Hillary Clinton’s due to her involvement when she was Secretary of State.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at the challenge of strategic foreign policy planning for the next administration. They note, “The end of the Cold War deprived US foreign policymakers of a single great focus; there are now multiple, shifting threats. Consequently, some say that the international system itself is now so complex, even wildly uncertain, as to make any overarching strategy beside the point. Others suggest that perennial patterns of bureaucratic politics, especially within the byzantine apparatus of US foreign and national security policy, render the implementation of any coherent strategy highly improbable. Observers have sometimes noted an “un-strategic” element in the culture of US foreign policy – for example a striking emphasis on technological fixes and idealistic pronouncements, rather than on the need to match ends and means within an internationally competitive environment. The American political and electoral system has tremendous virtues, but the cultivation of leaders with an international strategic sensibility is not always one of them. On another level, the appalling, widespread practice of government leaks has had an unfortunate chilling effect on comprehensive internal examinations of alternative US foreign policy strategies, since participants fear that such analysis might be printed in the next morning’s newspapers and thereby rendered moot before it has even had a chance to make a positive impact. Moreover, the sheer quantity of information now processed by government officials on a daily basis, together with expectations for rapid response, make it exceptionally challenging to carve out time for genuine strategic analysis as opposed to crisis management.”
The Brookings Institution looks at polls in order to see how to eliminate the partisan divide on Israel. They note that polling, “suggests something particularly revealing: if one sets aside the Evangelical Republicans—who constitute 10 percent of the population and 23 percent of the Republican Party—many of the differences between Republicans and the rest of the country disappear on matters related to Israel and diminish with regard to Islam and Muslims. In particular, it turns out that Israel is not so much a Republican Party issue as much as it is an issue of Evangelical Republicans specifically.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at the use of social media in the Shia-Sunni conflict. They explain, “While the spread of hate speech or counter sectarian messages alone may appear relatively inconsequential in the face of mounting battlefield casualties and terrorist attacks, mainstream acceptance or rejection of intolerant, divisive rhetoric can have substantive consequences on the ground. Sectarian narratives—in diverse flavors and forms—have long been exploited by ruling families, foreign occupiers, local politicians, religious leaders, and extremist groups to garner support while discrediting and dividing would-be opponents. Today is no exception. The degree to which sectarian language and ideologies resonate with Arabs across the region in 2015 may have key geopolitical ramifications. For example, as the Sunni Gulf ruling families and state-sanctioned clerics beat war drums, they rallied their populations behind the intervention in Yemen by casting it as a sectarian battle between their fellow Sunnis and the Iran-backed Zaydi Shia Houthi rebels.”
The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at the Syrian civil war and the consequences for Hezbollah. They note, “it is possible to see how participating in the Syrian conflict has rendered Hezbollah more vulnerable to domestic attacks, while overall contributing to further polarization of the Lebanese political arena. In turn this has affected Hezbollah’s domestic stance and national image, with its political opponents harshly questioning whether the historical label of “national resistance” has forever been shredded and replaced by that of “sectarian militia.” In response, Hezbollah has invested in a political campaign to stress its self-image as a national resistance movement. Indeed Nasrallah has reiterated on numerous times that Hezbollah perceives itself as fighting and resisting against two national enemies, the old Israeli foe as well as the “takfiri threat”—which Hezbollah is extremely keen to describe as a national challenge, not a sectarian one. Finally, the ongoing Syrian conflict has also had an impact on Hezbollah’s strategy with respect to its oldest and most intractable enemy, Israel. Here, however, it is perhaps surprising to note that such impact remains limited. Indeed nothing profound has changed in the group’s attitude and strategy with respect to the “next war with Israel”: since 2006 both Israel and Hezbollah have simultaneously continued to prepare for the next conflict, whilst preserving a strategic interest in delaying such confrontation.”
The German Marshall Fund says the EU-Turkey Summit in November has been described as a revitalization of EU-Turkish relations after years of inertia. They note, “Turkey’s role in the refugee crisis today may be compared to its role as a buffer zone within NATO during the Cold War. The summit conclusions indicate that Turkey is an important periphery country since the refugee inflow has caught the EU at a bad time. On one hand, the British are demanding EU reforms; on the other, further economic integration needs are putting the EU in a very difficult position regarding the future of the “ever closer union.” EU members also differ on how to deal with Russia regarding Ukraine and sharing the burden of refugees. In this political and economic setting, the debate on the future form of the EU is heating up. Turkey is being reinvented as the guardian of the Western borders in exchange for financial aid and certain privileges, which is a major concern for all those who wish to see Turkey as a full member of a meaningful union with consistent values.”
Iraqi Victory at Ramadi Shows Way to Defeating ISIS
An Iraqi army counteroffensive has retaken the city of Ramadi and dealt ISIS a major defeat. The victory is hard-earned. It also may show the way to defeat ISIS elsewhere.
In May of this year, when Islamic State rebels seized Ramadi, its Iraqi defenders fled in panic. Now the Iraqi army has returned as a potent force, and except for holdouts in a suburb, the ISIS forces have retreated.
Ramadi has genuine military and political significance. It is the capital of Anbar Province. From Ramadi, ISIS fighters militarily threatened Baghdad. ISIS also saw the city’s large Sunni Arab community as a source of recruits.
Seizing Ramadi was a victory that also showed the world that ISIS was a powerful military force to be respected. It also allowed ISIS to claim superior battle skills and their ability to hold and extend its territory despite international intervention in Syria and Iraq. In addition, by controlling actual territory, they distinguished themselves from other groups like al Qaida and gave them more of a claim to be a state. This, in turn gave them a propaganda tool to recruit new members from around the world.
Conversely, the capture of Ramadi implied that the Iraqi army was incompetent and lacking in the will to win.
Of course, that also means the victory at Ramadi has restored prestige to the Iraqi army, while striking a blow at the reputation of ISIS’s fighters.
It has also showed what is needed by international forces to defeat ISIS – airpower used in conjunction with committed ground forces. ISIS leaders believe that as long as their fighters have reasonably safe areas to reorganize, their rein will endure. Airstrikes that are not backed by effective ground forces will not be fatal.
In the fall of 2014, the ISIS suffered a bloody defeat in the Syrian Kurd town of Kobane. Coalition air power gave Kobane’s hard-pressed, but committed, defenders a firepower edge and lifted their morale. In tenacious house-to-house combat, ISIS suffered several hundred dead and ultimately retreated.
Earlier, in the battle to retake Tikrit from ISIS, the Iraqi force moved slowly and managed to retake territory. Semi-covert insertion of American Special Forces air control parties with advancing Iraqis improved airstrike accuracy.
The Iraqi army the Islamic State confronted at Ramadi this month is much more effective than the Iraqi army was in the spring. Iraqi combat engineers made good tactical use of U.S.-provided land mine-clearing equipment, which is critical in urban combat. There was also coordination between infantry and tanks that provided the engineers with covering fire.
Needless to say, coalition special operations troops are no longer so covert. Special-ops.org reported that 80 Australian special forces soldiers are embedded in front-line Iraqi units and directed over 1,000 airstrikes against ISIS.
According to critics, this is what Washington should have done in mid-2014, when the ISIS first invaded Iraq, and they believe it isn’t too late. By providing embedded air control teams and combat advisers, Washington is not just pushing ISIS back and retaking territory, it is destroying the propaganda value ISIS received by conquering so much territory in Syria and Iraq.
As ISIS losses more territory and experiences more defeats on the battlefield, recruitment will shrink and moral of ISIS soldiers on the ground will decline. That, in turn, will allow more victories on the ground.
That doesn’t mean that ISIS is near defeat. Although the conventional forces of ISIS is increasingly facing defeat, the asymmetrical warfare is still raging and will only grow. The combat aircraft of the coalition forces can help defeat the conventional ISIS army, but it can’t stop cyber-attacks or terrorism.
As ISIS is pushed back, expect more asymmetrical attacks. ISIS will evolve into a group that will focus more on terrorism – especially overseas.
This is what Swiss army chief André Blattmann warned, in a Swiss newspaper article on Sunday. The situation is growing increasingly risky, Blattman said. “The threat of terror is rising, hybrid wars are being fought around the globe; the economic outlook is gloomy and the resulting migration flows of displaced persons and refugees have assumed unforeseen dimensions.”
Don’t be surprised to see ISIS activating its terrorist groups in Western nations in the next few months.
NSA Spying on World Leaders Causes Controversy
According to a Wall Street Journal article this week, NSA electronic surveillance discovered communications between members of Congress and Israeli leaders, giving the White House insight into Israel’s lobbying of American Congressmen. Apparently, most of the communication between Israeli government officials and Jewish lobbying groups concerned the Iran nuclear deal, according to current and former U.S. officials who spoke to the Wall Street Journal. Apparently, Israel was trying to line up support for opposing the Obama-Iranian nuclear deal.
The White House was also concerned that Netanyahu might conduct an airstrike against Iranian nuclear facilities and wanted to be aware of any such threat.
The spying was accomplished by inserting a cyber implant into Israeli networks that allowed the NSA to monitor communications inside the prime minister’s office. According to the article, Obama justified the spying on Netanyahu because it would serve a “compelling national security purpose.”
This has raised considerable controversy because it means that the U.S. continued to spy on select leaders of allied nations despite Obama’s pledge to curb such surveillance two years ago, and that it was a top priority to maintain spying on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.
The other controversial part was the fact that this spying meant that US lawmakers’ communications were also collected – something prohibited by law. However, the NSA says that the names were removed before the information was passed on to the White House. It also claims to have removed “trash talk,” such as personal attacks on the executive branch [Obama].
Ironically, on January 14, 2014, Vermont Senator and current Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders had written an email to then NSA Chief Keith Alexander asking if the NSA has or is currently spying “on members of Congress or other American elected officials.” The letter went on to define spying as including “gathering metadata on calls made from official or personal phones, content from websites visited or emails sent, or collecting any other data from a third party not made available to the general public in the regular course of business.”
The response from Alexander was, “Nothing NSA does can fairly be characterized as ‘spying on members of Congress or other American elected officials.”
This may precipitate problems for the administration. Congress may have no choice but to retaliate legislatively against the executive branch’s illegal snooping. Ironically, none other than Former Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Pete Hoekstra – a member of Obama’s own political party and a person who had been most vocal in his support of the NSA’s spying on Americans, is upset as a recent tweet reveals. In it he said, “NSA and Obama officials need to be investigated and prosecuted if any truth to WSJ reports. NSA loses all credibility. Scary.”
Admittedly, spying on friendly nations is accepted practice. Nobody likes it very much, but it’s the reality of foreign policy. But this case, at least according to the Wall Street Journal report, was done for a very specific and highly political purpose and there were only a few subjects singled out for special attention.
According to the WSJ, “NSA snooping allegedly found Netanyahu and his aides leaked details of the negotiations gained through Israeli spying, coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal and asked those lawmakers who were undecided on the deal how it could get their vote, according to the report.”
“The Obama administration decided to shield leaders including French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) heads from NSA snooping, according to the report, while it omitted some including Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
Since the Iranian nuclear deal is unpopular with the American people, which is why Obama will not submit it to the US Senate for ratification, this brings up the issue that the Obama administration is using the national intelligence community for political purposes rather than purely national security. This will not please congressional leaders, who are Republicans.
One point that didn’t receive as much attention by the American media was the fact that Israel had managed to seriously penetrate the American team that was negotiating with Iran and passing information back to Netanyahu.
Although the Israeli government would not comment on the WSJ article, Intelligence and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told Israeli media Wednesday morning that Israel doesn’t spy on the U.S.
“Israel does not spy on the U.S., and we expect that our great friend, the U.S., will treat us in a similar fashion,” Katz told Israel’s Ynet.
This is not a story that will go away. A House panel on Wednesday announced it is opening an investigation into U.S. intelligence collection.
“The House Intelligence Committee is looking into allegations in the Wall Street Journal regarding possible Intelligence Community (IC) collection of communications between Israeli government officials and Members of Congress,” Chairman Devin Nunes (R CA) said in a statement. “The Committee has requested additional information from the IC to determine which, if any, of these allegations are true, and whether the IC followed all applicable laws, rules, and procedures.”
Political opponents of Obama are already attacking this type of surveillance. The National Review said on Wednesday, “The pattern of capturing allies’ internal communications, the communications of senators and congressmen and women, and the speech and emails of Americans engaged in politics is what we see in the new revelations about Obama-era spying. The administration faced a battle in Congress, and it spied on the other side. That’s the kind of conduct we see in third-world countries where control of the spy agency is one of the ways an incumbent regime holds on to power and defeats its political opponents. It ought to be a major scandal when such practices reach the United States.”
Since some of this spying occurred during Hillary Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, it will become a campaign issue next year because she was part of the Obama national security team and the WSJ reported that Obama’s national security team was specifically asked after Obama’s election if it wanted to monitor communications of foreign leaders,
this issue could have an impact on her winning the general election in November.
The spying on lawmakers could also have an impact on her chances of winning the Democratic nomination, especially since Sanders, her primary opponent, was concerned about this spying in 2014. This might be an issue that could energize his campaign.
No doubt, we can expect to hear more about this during the next 10 months.
Sectarian Twitter Wars: Sunni-Shia Conflict and Cooperation in the Digital Age
By Alexandra Siegel
December 20, 2015
Amid mounting death tolls in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, sectarian discourse is on the rise across the Arab world—particularly in the online sphere, where extremist voices are amplified and violent imagery and rhetoric spreads rapidly. Despite this, social media also provides a space for cross-sectarian discourse and activism. Analysis of over 7 million Arabic tweets from February to August 2015 suggests that violent events and social network structures play key roles in the transmission of this sectarian and countersectarian rhetoric on Twitter.
Strategic Planning for the Next President, Part One: The Downside of Defeatism
By Colin Dueck
Foreign Policy Research Institute
This is the first in a series of three essays on the challenge of strategic foreign policy planning for the next administration. Here in Part One, I briefly describe problems with the national security decision-making process under the current president, then consider and rebut the argument that any sort of strategy in US foreign policy is a practical impossibility. Subsequently in Parts Two and Three, I will outline specific policy recommendations for an improved strategic planning process, and offer some guidelines for the substance of an alternate strategic direction.
The Syrian Civil War and its Consequences for Hezbollah
By Benedetta Berti
Foreign Policy Research Institute
Beginning as a largely non-violent, non-sectarian political mobilization, the Syrian revolution gradually morphed into a protracted and bloody civil war as well as into a regional proxy conflict that has directly involved both regional states and non-state actors alike. Today, the Syrian conflict remains deeply internationalized, militarized and fractionalized. The domestic battlefield is characterized by a crucible of different political and armed movements. But while the fragmentation and proliferation of armed groups within the anti-Assad camp is well known, the Syrian regime has also been relying on a number of non-state allies. These include Syrian local ‘community-defense’ groups and other pro-regime paramilitary organizations; Shiite militia groups (mostly from Iraq) and, most notably, the Lebanese Hezbollah. Indeed since the very beginning of the Syrian revolution, Hezbollah clearly sided with the Bashar-al Assad regime, shifting from offering political support and solidarity to becoming one of the warring parties. The reasons behind Hezbollah’s ‘all-in’ approach with respect to the Syrian civil war are related to the historical strategic alliance between the Lebanese-Shiite organization and the Syrian regime; to the geo-strategic importance of preserving the so called ‘Axis of Refusal/resistance’ between Hezbollah, Syria and Iran as well as to the strength of the personal relationship between the group’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, and the Syrian President.
A New Episode in EU-Turkish Relations: Why so Much Bitterness?
By Özgehan Şenyuva and Çiğdem Üstün
German Marshall Fund
December 21, 2015
The EU-Turkey Summit on November 29, 2015 has been described as a revitalization of EU-Turkish relations after years of inertia. Some very promising, concrete actions with associated timelines are mentioned in the summit conclusions, such as regular high-level meetings, the opening of new chapters, further dialogue in energy cooperation, and the upgrading of the customs union. The most attention is paid to the possibility of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens as early as 2016. This could be hailed as a new era in EU-Turkish relations, an end to the divergence period that began in 2004 and a new period of convergence that would bring the two parties together. One would expect that such a major breakthrough would be greeted with enthusiasm in pro-EU circles in Turkey. But the initial reactions were tepid. There is an air of suspicion and disappointment among the most devoted Turkish advocates of Turkey’s membership to the EU.
How to (almost) eliminate the U.S. partisan divide on the Middle East
By Shibley Telhami
December 17, 2015
A year ago, I wrote an article with Katayoun Kishi on this website about the emerging partisan divide in American public attitudes on issues related to Israel and the Middle East. Some of the findings were striking, underpinned by demographic changes in America, especially within the Democratic Party. Since then, these observations have become conventional wisdom, thanks in large part to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plunge into our political divide over the Iran nuclear deal. But is there something more to what appears to be a deep party divide? My latest poll suggests something particularly revealing: if one sets aside the Evangelical Republicans—who constitute 10 percent of the population and 23 percent of the Republican Party—many of the differences between Republicans and the rest of the country disappear on matters related to Israel and diminish with regard to Islam and Muslims. In particular, it turns out that Israel is not so much a Republican Party issue as much as it is an issue of Evangelical Republicans specifically.