Week of January 31st, 2015

Executive Summary

The focus in the Washington think tank community this week was death of King Abdullah.  The Monitor has included a wide variety of papers on the Saudi Succession.

The Monitor analysis looks at the domestic political impact of America’s relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Think Tanks Activity Summary 

The CSIS takes a long look at Saudi Arabia in light of the death of King Abdullah.  They conclude, “Like every nation in the world, the Kingdom faces major internal and outside challenges, has many areas where its future is unpredictable, and always has some form of disastrous worst case as a possible scenario. As succession crises go, however, the choice of the next Saudi king is likely to be a non-crisis. The Kingdom has come a long way since the struggle that brought Ibn Saud to power. It is now a modern state by most standards, and its royal politics – while both interesting and uncertain – seem unlikely to be a serious source of instability or lead to serious shifts in its strategic role and partnership with the United States.”

The Carnegie Endowment looks at the changes in the Saudi hierarchy.  They note, “The swift appointment of Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef as the new deputy crown prince has finally shown how power would move to the next generation in Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Nayef, a grandson of the founder of Saudi Arabia, has led Saudi counterterrorism efforts since the early 2000s. While some may hope for reforms, as the throne moves to younger generations, one should not expect much in future years.  The current crown prince, Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, is rumored to be a liberal, but he has reportedly argued for the suppression of Shias in the Eastern Province. Further, Minister of Interior Prince Mohammed bin Nayef may be effective at counterterrorism, but his appointment as deputy crown prince is no good news for liberal activists, as his position at the interior ministry has meant that he has responsible for the suppression of all sorts of dissent at home, including by liberals.”

The Carnegie Endowment looks at the regional impact of the Saudi succession.  They note the new Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, “has taken some bold steps in his capacity as the strategist on Syria. Having spearheaded Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization and terrorist rehabilitation programs, he has been working to present the kingdom as a leader on counterterrorism, especially in light of the thousands of Saudi nationals who are currently fighting in Syria, and whose return to the kingdom would pose a serious challenge to Gulf security. He has also increased support for the Southern Front coalition of the Free Syrian Army—a rebel group backed by the West and Gulf countries—at the expense of supporting the Syrian National Coalition abroad. This recent change of direction is likely to yield more results for Saudi Arabia than previous endeavors by Prince Bandar. A Saudi solution for Syria, therefore, means having in place a transitional government that is both credible on the ground and that is responsive to Saudi interests. Mohammed Bin Nayef has been courting the United States to get support for this approach, and has been working on improving U.S.-Saudi relations following a period of relative decline. This has translated into the kingdom becoming the most prominent Arab partner in the U.S.-led coalition set up to fight the Islamic State.”

The Cato Institute writes that the new Saudi king reflects little, if any, change.  They conclude, “Ultimately, the succession will not alter Saudi foreign policy or the Saudi stance on other major issues like the price of oil. If there is a succession crisis, it is many years away, and the royal family remains firmly ensconced in power. However, the transfer of power can perhaps serve to highlight our often reflexive support for the Saudi government. The system by which a new king is chosen may seem outdated, but it is just one facet of Saudi Arabia’s distasteful domestic politics. Rather than simply welcoming a new monarch, it might be good for U.S. leaders to look more closely at our relationship with Saudi Arabia and their recent foreign policy actions. It’s time to ask whether we should really continue to describe such a regime as one of our closest allies.”

The American Enterprise Institute looks at the impact of the Jordanian-ISIS prisoner trade.  They conclude, “herein lies the problem with the Obama administration’s emphasis on broad-based coalitions: allies bring legitimacy to military operations, but their own domestic politics present weaknesses the Islamic State can exploit. If the Islamic State senses a successful strategy and works overtime to kidnap Arab nationals from allied countries, then the damage done by Jordan’s deal-making with terrorists might only be the tip of the iceberg.”

The Carnegie Endowment looks at the recent fighting between fighters loyal to President Assad and the Kurdish militia.  They conclude, “Kurdish-Arab clashes in Syria’s civil war have a history of flaring up violently and then dying down with little fanfare, including in Hasakah. But if the fighting continues, it may have a serious impact on the military balance in the city and the surrounding countryside.  The regime’s new recruitment drive among Arab tribes may help bolster its standing and compensate for its manpower problems, but maybe that’s exactly what the YPG is trying to prevent, fearful of the military balance turning against it. If the tacit YPG-regime alliance in Hasakah breaks down permanently, this would undoubtedly weaken the front against the Islamic State, which is waiting in the wings for an opportunity to pounce. But to stop the conflict in Hasakah, a new Arab-Kurdish equilibrium will have to be found.”

The Washington Institute looks at the Obama Administration’s de facto alliance with Assad and Tehran regarding ISIS.  They note, “Flipping back to support the Assad regime against ISIS will not solve Washington’s problems, however. Beyond the terrible optics of assisting a president who has used chemical weapons and Scud missiles against his own people, the Assad regime is financially and militarily crippled and therefore unable to retake and hold areas currently controlled by ISIS. Its capture of territory over the past year has been the product of controversial “ceasefires” essentially imposed on besieged populations, as well as military operations carried out by Iranian-trained, Alawite-dominated irregulars from the National Defense Forces as much as army regulars. This means that whatever areas the regime attempts to retake in the coming months will see an influx of increasingly minority-dominated, Iranian-directed forces. In short, Bashar’s comeback is not a legitimate ruler returning order to his country, but substantially a product of Iran’s foreign legion of substate actors.”

The Center for a New American Security looks at the opportunity for cooperation with Iran after a nuclear agreement has been made.  They conclude, “a deal that truly resolves the nuclear issue can be a foundation for progress. In the immediate aftermath of an agreement, the United States should pursue a patient, limited and incremental approach. Over time this policy can expand and eventually move Iran and the United States towards a much more normal relationship in which the two states can work together on issues of common interest, even as they continue to compete where their interests diverge. Such an outcome could truly improve the regional security environment of the Middle East. Iran’s decision to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program must be the first step.”

The German Marshall Fund argues that the EU and US should engage with Turkey to solve its Kurdish problem.   They note, “As the military conflict in the Levant blurs borders and reactivates fault lines, Turkey’s focus should not be on the fall of Bashar al-Assad in Syria but the fate of its own state.  The Kurdish issue has to be urgently reappreciated in all its relevance as its solution is vital to Turkey’s domestic and regional future. Bold government-led efforts in recent years to establish a truce with Kurdish armed groups while a “solution process” was explored should be divorced from opportunistic calculus to become part of a strategic choice. The elements of a sustainable solution are clear to all and include the permanent end of violence, decentralization, and the full protection of Kurdish minority rights. These changes can only take place through a revision of the constitution and a redefinition of citizenship. The main topic of political debate in the run-up to the general elections in June should be how to accomplish this agenda.”


America’s Two Biggest Middle Eastern Allies Roil Domestic Politics

Relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia spilled out of the foreign policy arena and into domestic affairs this week.

The first was Congress’s invitation for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress – an invitation that wasn’t first approved by the White House.  Relations between Obama and Netanyahu haven’t been cordial and the invitation by Congress was clearly meant to be a slap in the face of the president.

The issue also raised constitutional questions about the conduct for foreign policy, which is a power reserved for the president.  The criticism originated with Law Professor Michael Ramsey who maintained Congress cannot host foreign leaders, because none of the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution expressly covers such events. Second, the Constitution does expressly empower the president to “receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers,” and Congress’s invitation to Netanyahu undermines the president’s constitutional authority in this sphere.

Far from being an argument just between Republicans and Democrats, many conservative Republicans have joined in the condemnation.  In fact, the flagship of the Conservative Republican media, National Review, noted that a foreign leader may only appear before Congress at the invitation of the president.

Defenders have replied that congressmen have traditionally met with foreign leaders.  In fact, they noted that Senator Obama even travelled to Israel and met with then Prime Minister Olmert.  Supporters of the joint session of Congress also correctly noted that the Administration has approved Netanyahu’s visit to the US and therefore he has the right to speak to anyone he wants to.

The invitation and acceptance didn’t sit well with the White House.  A State Department official told Haaretz, “We thought we’d seen everything…. But Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.”

Constitutional issues aside, the invitation clearly shows the radical divide in American/Israeli relations.  While White House relations with the current Israeli administration are cool, Netanyahu enjoys warm and widespread support in Congress on both sides of the aisle.

A sign of the difference in policy between Congress and the White House is clearly seen with the state of US negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.  While the Secretary of State seems frantic to achieve any agreement with Tehran, Congress is wary of the current state of negotiations and warning Obama that any agreement with Iran must be approved by the US Senate.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation proposed by Sen. Robert Menendez (D., NJ) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) that would impose stiff sanctions on Iran if an agreement is not reached by the deadline of June 30.  Netanyahu’s speech before Congress will surely give the legislation a boost, even though it will probably be vetoed by Obama.

The speech before Congress will also boost the chances for other pro-Israeli legislation like additional foreign aid and military support.  In fact, the speech will probably be a platform for asking for more ballistic missile defense money.

But, more than anything, the speech before the joint session of Congress signals that as far as Netanyahu is concerned, Obama is no longer a factor in American foreign policy.  Netanyahu sees little benefit in working with Obama in these next two years and has decided that he has more to gain by working directly with Congress and speaking directly to the American voter.  Kerry and Obama may threaten Netanyahu and Israel, but Netanyahu’s acceptance of the Congressional invitation to speak shows that the administration has little leverage to influence Israeli policy during the next two years.

This attitude will also likely be seen in Israel’s response to the operation in Shaba’a farm by Hezbollah.  Although an all-out war is unlikely with Israeli elections just a month away, a reelected Netanyahu may be more likely to aggressively respond to both Hezbollah and Syria, while trying to ignor any attempts by Obama and Kerry to reduce tensions.

Saudi Arabia – The Future of Relations with America will not be decided in Washington

The death of the Saudi king last week has many Americans looking at the future of Saudi/American relations.

The fact is that the relationship is older than the American/Israeli one.  The alliance dates to the end of the Second World War, when an ailing Franklin Roosevelt met Saudi Arabia’s founding king, Abdul Aziz, aboard the cruiser Quincy in the Suez Canal. Then, and for decades after, the relationship was simple: America would provide security, the Saudis oil.  They also have found themselves on the same side in terms of opposing Communism in the Cold War era, Iran’s growing influence, and al-Qaeda terrorists in the War on Terror.

However, the close relationship has been tense in the past six years as Obama has tried to extract American forces from the region, has supported the Arab Spring movement, has tried to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, and has failed to respond forcibly against extremist groups like ISIS.  And, it hasn’t helped that America is now the largest oil producer and is no longer as dependent on Saudi oil.

Despite this, the two countries need each other.  America retains a strong military presence in the Gulf, and cannot be replaced as the ultimate guarantor of Saudi security in the foreseeable future.  In the midst of turmoil across the region, and with the threat of terrorism ever-present, America still relies heavily on the Saudis for regional stability.

In many ways, both Saudi Arabia and America are suffering from a lack of clear leadership.  Saudi Arabia’s new king and crown prince are old and the inevitable fight for control of the kingdom is still to be settled.  Meanwhile, Obama has less than two years left and is increasingly being seen as ineffectual and unable to lead.  Relations are basically on autopilot and will depend to a great degree on the bureaucracies in Riyadh and Washington.

The future of US/Saudi relations does not lie either at the White House or Congress.  Rather, it probably lies in unlikely places like Madison, Wisconsin, home to likely presidential candidate Governor Scott Walker.  If not Wisconsin, look towards Florida, Texas, Kentucky, or Arkansas.

With the exception of Senator Rand Paul, who is considered an isolationist, most of the potential Republican candidates for president will likely pursue a Middle Eastern policy that more closely mirrors that of Saudi Arabia.  There will very likely be a more coherent policy of fighting ISIS and al Qaeda that will meet with agreement in Riyadh.  They will also advocate closer relations with the Sisi government in Egypt.

That’s not to say that the US and Saudi Arabia will not have disagreements under a Republican president.  Several of the potential candidates have commented on internal repression in the kingdom and that is expected to continue.  They will also side with Israel in any future talks with the Palestinians.  However, despite these differences, they will work more closely with Saudi Arabia seeking stability in the region.



Congress Should Refocus DHS on Crucial Cybersecurity Reforms

By David Inserra

Heritage Foundation

January 26, 2015

Issue Brief #4335

Several weeks ago, President Barack Obama announced that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would provide work authorization and protection from deportation to as many as 5 million unlawful immigrants. While Heritage has written on the harm done by the President’s executive actions to the U.S. immigration system and the rule of law, another serious side effect is the harmful redirection of attention and resources away from pressing homeland security issues ranging from terrorism to emergency preparedness to institutional reform at DHS. In order to implement the President’s sweeping order, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and other leaders at DHS will simply not have the time, money, manpower, or trust of Congress to make important reforms to these other areas of critical importance. It falls to Congress to correct these misplaced priorities. One important area where DHS needs to do more is cybersecurity. DHS is directly or indirectly responsible for large segments of federal cybersecurity as well for supporting private-sector cybersecurity measures. With cyber attacks and threats on the rise, Congress should call on DHS to focus more on making the U.S. more secure in cyberspace.

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Saudi Arabia: New Leader, Same Medieval State

By Emma Ashford

Cato Institute

January 23, 2015

The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, though not unexpected, caused a spike in oil prices, and a frenzied interest in the succession process and the future rulers of Saudi Arabia, owing much to the state’s outsized role in global markets and Middle Eastern affairs. The succession was in fact painless. But the process highlights the archaic nature of the Saudi regime, and should prompt us to think more closely about why the United States still regards Saudi Arabia as one of its closest allies, despite the nation’s objectionable domestic politics and its foreign meddling.  The succession itself was smooth, elevating Crown Prince Salman to King, and Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin to replace him. Though Salman’s health has been regularly questioned by western commentators – it has even been suggested that he has Alzheimer’s or dementia — he seemed relatively healthy in his first broadcast to the nation. Regardless, he is 79, and the appointment of his half-brother Muqrin, who is ten years younger, as Crown Prince, was key for longer term stability.

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Saudi Arabia’s Smooth Succession: The King is Dead, Long Live the King

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

January 23, 2015

Once again, Saudi Arabia has managed its succession without problems, delay, or any signs of serious divisions within the royal family. One of its most competent and impressive kings has died, but the Crown Prince – Prince Salman – officially became king virtually at the time King Abdullah’s death was announced. Moreover, Prince Muqrin immediately became the full Crown Prince, ensuring that one of the youngest sons of Ibn Saud would become king or de facto ruler if Prince Salman became incapacitated or died.  Within less than 24 hours, the new King also announced a whole list of new appointments that gave the next generation of princes more power and helped prepare for the succession after Prince Muqrin.

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What would a Jordan-ISIS prisoner swap mean for anti-ISIS campaign?

By Tara Beeny

American Enterprise Institute

January 29, 2015

On December 24, the Islamic State (ISIS) captured Jordanian pilot Muath al Kasasbeh when his F-16 fighter jet crashed near Raqqa, Syria. After failed efforts by the United States and Turkey to secure Kasasbeh’s release, Jordan proposed a prisoner swap: one convicted al Qaeda terrorist in exchange for a captive Jordanian pilot.  Jordanian support for the anti-ISIS campaign has been tentative. Many Jordanians feel the campaign risks Jordanian lives and suggest the anti-ISIS fight serves US and Israeli goals rather than Jordanian ones. When ISIS published an interview with the captured pilot in its English-language Dabiq magazine, Jordanian officials began to walk back their commitment to the coalition. Jordanian MP Rula Al Hroob announced Jordan’s participation in the campaign against the Islamic State was “temporarily frozen.”

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After King Abdullah, Continuity

By Frederic Wehrey

Carnegie Endowment

January 23, 2015

A king has passed in Saudi Arabia. And yet, despite the breathless speculation over the seismic effects of succession, the kingdom’s foreign policies are likely to remain unchanged. What is often overlooked is that Saudi foreign policy has been remarkably consistent since the reign of King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz. The Al Saud family is a tightly knit, conservative coterie that shares a similar vision of the world and Saudi Arabia’s place in it.  There are several indications to suggest that the Saudi succession is unlikely to lead to major changes in policies over the short term. King Abdullah had been largely incapacitated before his death, functioning for, at most, a couple hours a day. The new king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, and Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz had represented King Abdullah at various functions in the past few years.

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The Regional Impact of Saudi Succession

By Lina Khatib

Carnegie Endowment

January 23, 2015

The naming of Mohammed bin Nayef as deputy crown prince in Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud signals an important milestone in the kingdom’s domestic and foreign policies. With the ascension of Abdullah’s half brother Salman to the throne, while having Abdullah’s half brother Muqrin as crown prince, bin Nayef’s new position means that he is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.  Since assuming his role in 2005, King Abdullah led an activist foreign policy for the kingdom, resurrecting Saudi engagement in the affairs of other Arab states and standing up to an increasingly influential Iran. The new Saudi King Salman, who is much more conservative than his late sibling, is one of the “Sudairi seven”—half brothers of Abdullah whom he had sought to weaken politically in his bid to consolidate power within his own descendants.

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What’s Behind the Kurdish-Arab Clashes in East Syria?

By Aron Lund

Carnegie Endowment

January 23, 2015

Major clashes broke out on January 16 in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah between fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The fighting shatters a long-standing local truce between the Assad regime and the YPG, who had teamed up to confront the Sunni extremist group known as the Islamic State, which controls much of the countryside around Hasakah.  By Hasakah standards, the past week’s fighting has been severe. The YPG has accused the government of using cluster bombs and claims to have killed dozens of soldiers. The violence is also, unsurprisingly, taking on the contours of an ethnic dispute, with pro-YPG Kurds fighting against pro-regime Arabs. The Syriac Christian minority and its so-called Sutoro forces have tried to stay neutral, but their areas have been hit by grenades and attacks on Hasakah’s Assyrian Cathedral.

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Time for Realism: The Need to Refocus Turkish-Western Cooperation 

By Emiliano Alessandri

The German Marshall Fund

January 28, 2015

While failures in areas ranging from democratization to foreign policy have taken place in Turkey, over the same period the European Union nearly collapsed and the Middle East plunged into chaos. In this context, Turkey’s shortcomings are not greater, nor more worrisome, than those of its neighbors. For Turkey, the absolute priority is to decisively address the Kurdish issue. Because of the crisis of the Middle East state system, this long-standing question again threatens the Turkish state, despite the progress made internally. Though this is mainly a domestic undertaking, the EU and the United States could play an important supporting regional role.

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‘Uncoordinated Deconfliction’ in Syria: A Recipe to Contain, Not Defeat, ISIS 

By Andrew J. Tabler

Washington Institute

January 26, 2015

PolicyWatch 2361

Washington’s nascent policy of “uncoordinated deconfliction” with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the fight against the “Islamic State”/ISIS may not be a formal alliance, but it does have the potential to foster serious problems. The regime’s tacit agreement to avoid firing on coalition strike aircraft — juxtaposed with long delays in the Obama administration’s train-and-equip program for the Syrian opposition and the president’s October 2014 letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader on cooperation against ISIS — is creating widespread perceptions that the United States is heading into a de facto alliance with Assad and Tehran regarding the jihadists. If Washington continues this policy as is, it will merely contain ISIS, not “defeat” or “destroy” the group as called for by President Obama. Worse, it could lead to a deadly extremist stalemate in Syria between Iranian-backed/Hezbollah forces and jihadists, amplifying threats to U.S. national security interests.

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Slow Thaw: Testing Possibilities for Cooperation with Iran After a Nuclear Deal 

By Ilan Goldenberg, Jacob Stokes, Nicholas Heras

Center for a New American Security

January 15, 2015

The prospect of a nuclear deal between the West and Iran has generated a robust debate about whether such an agreement might generate opportunities for U.S.-Iranian cooperation on a broader set of issues. Any deal will address only the Iranian nuclear proliferation threat; even if successful, it will leave on the table many other unresolved sources of tension that have hobbled U.S.-Iranian relations since the Islamic Revolution. The Obama administration has stressed that any deal regarding the “nuclear file” remains separate and distinct from the overall question of U.S. policy toward Iran. The lead U.S. nuclear negotiator, Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, stated this clearly: “engagement on one issue does not require and will not lead to silence on others.”1 Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been equally insistent upon compartmentalizing and isolating the nuclear question from the broader U.S.-Iranian relationship.2 But these negative statements do not determine what may happen in the days and years after an agreement.

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Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor