Washington remains focused on the ongoing presidential primaries, where Clinton and Trump remain in the lead, but still have Sanders and Cruz “nipping at their heels.”
This week’s Monitor analysis looks at the sudden decision by Israeli PM Netanyahu to cancel his trip to Washington. We see this as a recognition by Netanyahu that Obama’s time as president is now limited and it is very likely that the president-elect is going to be more pro-Israeli. We look at comments by the major candidates concerning their attitudes towards Israel.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Institute for the Study of War says the Russians have developed a way of getting the U.S. formally to permit offensive Russian military operations against American partners on the ground, all the while calling it a ceasefire. In opposing the Syrian truce, they note, “This matters, because Aleppo is one of the last few bastions for opposition groups that offers any hope of a future Syria that is neither brutally oppressed by Assad nor controlled by Al Qaeda and/or ISIS. The Russians, of course, claim that all of the groups in northern Syria are al Qaeda or ISIS or their al-lies. That claim is a lie. The opposition in Aleppo includes groups that the U.S. has been supporting. Several of those groups have received TOW missiles from the U.S., indicating that they have passed a rigorous vetting process designed to ensure that those weapons will not end up in the hands of ISIS and al Qaeda. The Russian false claim that it is fighting terrorists is a cynical device to conceal Putin’s real aim, which is to re-establish the vicious dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in order to guarantee Russia’s possession of air and naval bases on the Mediterranean littoral.”
The Institute for the Study of War says Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, is more dangerous than ISIS. It notes, “Jabhat al-Nusra is leveraging its battlefield contributions to create relationships with civil society, civilian populations and other Syrian opposition groups. It then manipulates those relationships in order to achieve dominance. And it directly targets U.S.-backed groups, and defeats them when it can, in order to ensure that moderate forces do not find footing in a new Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra will use the legitimacy gained by fighting alongside the opposition to transform Syrian society until it accepts al Qaeda. The group is creating structures of governance, like courts and social services, and using them to transform the religious views of Syrian opposition groups and populations…Meanwhile, through military and religious training camps for children, it is indoctrinating a new generation of fighters to wage a future war against the West.”
The Institute for the Study of War looks at how the Battle for Aleppo will impact American national security. They note, “The opposition forces now inside the city include U.S.-supported groups that are relatively independent from jihadist forces. They cannot prevent the encirclement of Aleppo, however, and may not survive the siege. Those who do survive are more likely over time to submit to the leadership of Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, and other hardline elements that can help them endure when no one else offers assistance. They may actually merge with these jihadi groups. If America continues its inaction as the Russians and the regime tighten the noose around Aleppo, we may lose our best hope of forming a non-jihadi opposition we can work with.”
The Washington Institute looks at how to prevent al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra from occupying any safe zone set up by the US, Turkey and its allies. They conclude, “Foreign governments and analysts should open their eyes to the true situation in northwestern Syria and stop speculating about “moderate” rebels confronting the jihadists on their own. Today, the West is not considered a powerful actor in this area — local fighters do not take it very seriously, and Western-backed militias are not strong enough to change the balance of power within the rebellion. If international actors decide to establish a safe zone in the northwest, only a substantial outside peacekeeping force would prevent JN from further strengthening its position there. Such a force is not on the West’s agenda at the moment, but that could change. And in that case, Turkey is much more likely to cooperate with fellow NATO countries in curbing al-Qaeda elements than with Russia. Another hope is that the rise of groups such as Jund al-Aqsa and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement could spark a new inter-jihadist war.”
The Cato Institute looks at America’s toxic relationship with Saudi Arabia. They note, “Riyadh has consistently engaged in actions that undermine America’s security. As far back as the 1980s, when the United States and Saudi Arabia were supposedly on the same side, helping the Afghan mujahedeen resist the Soviet army of occupation, Saudi officials worked closely with Pakistan’s intelligence agency to direct the bulk of the financial and military aid to the most extreme Islamist forces. Many of them became cadres in a variety of terrorist organizations around the world once the war in Afghanistan ended. Saudi Arabia’s support for extremists in Afghanistan was consistent with its overall policy.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at the plan to empower Iraq’s Sunnis to reengage with the central government. With the American invasion of Iraq, Iraqi Sunni Arabs lost political power. “Sunni Arabs in Iraq face a problem of political trust and representation. Their predicament is a product of both inter- and intra-community contestations. Externally, they do not trust the Shia-driven and Kurd-accommodated central government and do not believe that Baghdad represents their interests or welfare. In terms of military power, for instance, they often question why the Shia are allowed to have state-sanctioned paramilitaries, in the form of the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi or PMF), and the Kurds are allowed to have the state-sanctioned peshmerga forces, but the state denies Sunni tribal requests for funding and weapons. Internally, various leaders claiming to speak on behalf of the same Sunni Arab population are often at odds with each other and with other social actors, namely tribal leaders (sheikhs), clerics, and businesspeople. They lack a reliable political party that can mobilize their interests in the political process.” They conclude, “Nothing short of real change in the central government and the emergence of a united leadership to represent the Sunni voice can help bring about another Sunni Awakening.”
The Washington Institute looks at how Iran is building a Syrian Hezbollah. They conclude, “As the war in Syria drags on, the country’s Shiite armed groups are here to stay. Through them, Iran is continuing to strengthen its foothold in the Levant and among a Shiite population. The reorientation of Syria’s pro-Assad Shiite armed groups toward Iran also marks a significant change. Historically, Syria was home to many competing ideological forms of Shiism. In a March 2013 Los Angeles Times article, a Syrian Shiite refugee and militiaman in Lebanon remarked, “My loyalty is with Hezbollah, but I am not controlled by them.” Three years later, the situation is strikingly different. The Hezbollahzation of these groups, in name, structure, and allegiance, signifies a major accomplishment for Tehran, allowing Iran to preserve harder-core influence and more effectively project power within Syria.”
The CSIS looks at the transition in Afghanistan in a revised publication. The revised report reflects the fact that the Obama administration is revising its plans for Afghanistan, extending the military train and assist mission from a planned end in 2016 to well beyond 2017, and may be adapting the size and nature of U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan to reflect the fact that the various threats to the Afghan government and Afghan forces are gaining in military terms and in their political presence, control, and influence. New budget data indicate, however, that the Administration does not plan to provide train and assist personnel at the Kandak or combat unit level and does plan to cut the total number of U.S. personnel by roughly 50% by the end of 2017. The Administration’s aid budget does not seem adequate to sustain an Afghan force taking major combat losses, and it will not provide U.S. combat air support or create an effective Afghan air force.
What the Cancelled Netanyahu/Obama Meeting Means
A meeting between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been canceled after the Israeli Prime Minister decided to scrap an upcoming trip to the United States, according to statements from both governments.
Israeli news reports on Monday initially claimed that the meeting was canceled after Obama decided not to hold a face-to-face sit-down with the prime minister. The reports prompted anger from the Obama administration, which immediately claimed that this was not the case. The Israeli prime minister’s office also set the record straight on Tuesday, saying that Netanyahu is unable to travel to Washington, D.C.
“The Israeli Government requested a meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on March 17 or 18,” a White House official said in a statement provided to the press. “Two weeks ago, the White House offered the Prime Minister a meeting on March 18th. We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting, and we were surprised to first learn via media reports that the prime minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit.”
“Reports that we were not able to accommodate the prime minister’s schedule are false,” the White House said.
The Israeli prime minister’s office offered a similar recounting of events on Tuesday.
During a meeting at the White House on Friday, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer informed the White House that “there is a good chance that the prime minister would not be coming to Washington and that a final decision would be taken on Monday after he had met” with Netanyahu, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.
Netanyahu was tentatively scheduled to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference in Washington. Dermer also told AIPAC that Netanyahu was “unlikely” to make an appearance.
“On Monday news reports suggested that the PM would not be traveling to Washington and erroneously stated that the president was unwilling to meet with the PM,” the statement said.
Dermer “immediately” moved to correct these reports and “officially informed the administration that the prime minister would not be coming to Washington.”
Netanyahu, however, did meet with Vice President Joe Biden, who was in Israel this week on a visit.
The Evolving Israeli US relationship as Obama Enters His Last Months in Office
Despite the nice words from both Washington and Tel Aviv on the cancelled visit, it is apparent that Netanyahu is looking beyond Obama and towards the next president, who will be elected in just eight months.
One reason given for the cancelled visit was that Netanyahu didn’t want to interfere with the upcoming US elections. Netanyahu was to address the annual AIPAC meeting in person, but changed that to a televised speech this week. Some of the presidential hopefuls are slated to give speeches or otherwise attend the conference and while there, would undoubtedly seek an audience with Netanyahu. He therefore thought it best to avoid the appearance of interfering with the U.S. electoral process.
This may have very well been an intentional slap in Obama’s face as last year, while Obama was attempting to push the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu urgently sought a meeting with Obama, who promptly spurned the request claiming that the proximity of the meeting to Israel’s elections might influence the outcome of those elections.
That explanation doesn’t hold up when looking back at US/Israeli relations. Bill Clinton met with Shimon Peres just before Israel’s 1996 elections in an attempt to skew the result in favor of Peres.
Clearly, Obama had ulterior motives in spurning the meeting with Netanyahu last year.
The Obama/Netanyahu Feud
The current diplomatic row is but one in a series of confrontations the two leaders have had over Obama’s two terms of office. In one notable incident, a senior Obama administration official – possibly Ben Rhodes – referred to Netanyahu as “chicken sh*t.” No one was ever reprimanded by the administration for that diplomatic outrage. In another incident involving a meeting with French President Sarkozy and captured on a hot microphone, Obama implied that he viewed Netanyahu with disdain.
The current issue behind the diplomatic snub is a report by the Wall Street Journal that Obama may use the United Nations Security Council to impose a settlement with Palestine before he leaves office. His plan involves requiring Israel to recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and require a major Israeli withdrawal from West Bank territory.
France and Kerry have been pushing such a resolution. And, last year, Samantha Power told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Obama would not necessarily veto a statehood resolution.
The thinking in the White House is that any agreement ratified by the UN, will make it harder for a future pro-Israel president.
From Netanyahu’s point of view, any meeting with Obama would have been used to pressure the Israeli Prime Minister to capitulate. This left the Washington trip as a lose-lose proposition.
If Netanyahu had met with Obama without agreeing to a UN Security Council agreement, the White House would have called that a snub and an insult. If he had met with Republican candidates after refusing to work with Obama, he would have been accused of interfering in the election. Anything Netanyahu did would have been characterized as an attack on Obama. So Netanyahu chose to stay away and endure a few days of bad headlines in the US.
Netanyahu Looks to the Future
Netanyahu is well aware that on January 21st, 2017, he is most probably still the Israeli Prime Minister, while Obama will be gone. At this time, it is better to let US/Israeli relations coast until a new president is on board – one most likely to be more pro-Israel.
Of the potential US presidents, the one Netanyahu probably worries the most about is Hillary Clinton. She poses the biggest threat to continue the Obama policy and as someone partially responsible for the negotiations with Iran, is most likely to continue a push for closer relations with Iran.
An email sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Sidney Blumenthal was among a batch of emails from Clinton’s computer released Monday February 29, 2016 by the State Department. Carrying the subject line “RE: Netanyahu,” the Blumenthal email allegedly quoted Netanyahu as saying that “if we can’t sleep, Hillary is not going to sleep” while asking those at the meeting to pressure the US to be more aggressive toward Iran.
However, it isn’t totally clear that Clinton will completely continue the Obama policy towards Israel. Clinton, unlike Obama, considers cooperation with the Security Council to be the wrong move. Her campaign’s foreign policy advisor, Laura Rosenberger, told the Jerusalem Post that the former secretary of state “believes that a solution to this conflict cannot be imposed from without.”
In an op-ed Clinton wrote for the Jewish newspaper the Forward, she claimed that “while no solution can be imposed from outside, I believe the United States has a responsibility to help bring Israelis and Palestinians to the table and to encourage the difficult but necessary decisions that will lead to peace.”
Meanwhile, Israeli Jews are looking favorably towards Trump. A new poll (late February – early March) by the Independent Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University reveals that Jewish Israelis prefer a Republican to be the next U.S. president — and that 61% say that Donald Trump is friendly to Israel.
While Trump’s candidacy has worried many in the GOP establishment, not to mention some of its Jewish voters, Trump has arguably the closest ties to the American Jewish community of any candidate, from his Jewish daughter and grandchildren to his deep ties to the New York Jewish business community.
Trump has not minced words when it comes to Obama’s handling of the Iran nuclear negotiations, saying, “Never, ever, ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran and I mean never.” He feels Iran got too much money, made no commitment to release American prisoners, and received lenient inspection terms. However, Trump says he would not disavow the deal on Day 1, but would be “so tough” in enforcing it.
In December, Trump expounded on the Middle East conflict in an interview with the AP. Trump said he was interested in making a “lasting peace,” and that required the commitment of both sides, something he wasn’t sure existed, adding: “I have a real question as to one side in particular.” He declined to specify which side that was, but some understood Trump to be questioning Israel’s commitment more than the Palestinians.
Trump has also opposed moving the Israeli capital to Jerusalem and favors Russia’s plan to keep Assad in power in Syria.
This position may explain why Dearborn, Michigan, largest home to Arab-Americans gave Trump a plurality of its votes (39% to Kasich’s 29%).
Of the likely presidential candidates, Netanyahu probably prefers Senator Cruz. On March 1st, Ted Cruz repeated his pledges to stand by Israel and to tear up the Iranian nuclear deal in his speech to supporters. These pledges drew some of the loudest cheers of the speech, from the crowd of supporters gathered in Stafford, Texas. At the same time, a senior advisor to Cruz called on Jews to support Cruz as the only candidate who can defeat Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump pledges to be neutral between Israel and the Palestinians,” Cruz said. “As president, I will not be neutral. America will stand unapologetically with the nation of Israel. Donald Trump says he will keep in place the Iranian nuclear deal to try to renegotiate it. I will rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal on the very first day in office.”
Given Obama’s track record and the probably Middle Eastern policies of the top three presidential candidates (Clinton, Trump, and Cruz), it’s likely that Netanyahu saw little reason to meet with Obama in the sunset of his administration.
If the Republican nominee wins the election in November, the chances are good that there will be a meeting between the president-elect and Netanyahu in the early days of the new administration, if not between the election and inauguration. That meeting will mean a reassessment of the Iranian nuclear deal and a mending of relations.
Trump will likely not give as much up, but will be counted on to move dramatically from the Obama policies. Cruz may prove to be one of the most pro-Israel US presidents.
Clinton – Netanyahu relations will likely be prickly thanks to their past history under the Obama Administration. However, Clinton has a history of bending her policies towards generous donors and the Jewish-Democratic donor base will guarantee that her policies towards Israel will be decidedly friendlier than those with Obama.
Given these facts, there was no real need to go through with another meeting with Obama.
Washington’s Masochistic Saudi Alliance
By Ted Galen Carpenter
March 3, 2016
A major part of the current turmoil in the Middle East is the product of a regional power struggle between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam. Iran is the leader of the first faction and offers strong support to the Shiite-dominated government in neighboring Iraq. Tehran is also the principal patron of Bashar al-Assad’s“coalition of religious minorities” regime in Syria (which is led by Assad’s Alawites, a Shiite offshoot), and it is a backer of Shiite movements in Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen. Although Turkey has played a significant role on behalf of Sunni causes in Syria and Iraq, as a non-Arab power (and with a history as the pre-twentieth century colonial master), Ankara’s influence among Arab factions remains limited. Saudi Arabia, together with Qatar and other smaller Gulf allies, has been and remains the principal backer of Sunni causes against Shiite adversaries.
Afghanistan: The Uncertain Impact of a Year of Transition
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 7, 2016
The trends shaping the war in Afghanistan are complex, and involve the civil dimension as much as the military one. They go far beyond the tactical issues that are the focus of many studies and media reports. Even with the additional data in the new Burke Chair report, it is still impossible to put all of the key variables in their proper context. There are many areas where reliable data and summary metrics are not available, or where summary maps, graph, and charts do more to reveal key analytic and policy differences than some clear conclusion about the course of the conflict and the outcome of the deep political, governance, and economic problems that divide the Afghan civil sector.
The Sunni Predicament in Iraq
By Renad Mansour
March 3, 2016
In Iraq, the self-declared Islamic State’s occupation of territory has lasted longer than most analysts and officials initially predicted. The solution, according to many Western policymakers, is to empower Iraq’s Sunnis to reengage with the central government—akin to the Sunni Awakening that flushed the Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, out of the same areas. Understanding why, as of 2016, such a strategy is not working requires a nuanced look at the internal and external dynamics of the far-from-monolithic Iraqi Sunni community.
American security is at risk in Aleppo: Why Syria’s second largest city matters to the US
By Jennifer Cafarella
Institute for the Study of War
March 4, 2016
The Syrian regime, with Russia’s help, is about to encircle and besiege hundreds of thousands of civilians in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city. This will be a turning point for American national security, and not for the better. The siege of Aleppo, unless somehow averted, will transform the Syrian opposition into something far worse for American interests at home and abroad. The opposition forces now inside the city include U.S.-supported groups that are relatively independent from jihadist forces. They cannot prevent the encirclement of Aleppo, however, and may not survive the siege.
How Russia controls American policy
By Kimberly Kagan
Institute for the Study of War
March 4, 2016
We’ve seen this movie—now playing in Syria– before. The Russians have developed a way of getting the U.S. formally to permit offensive Russian military operations against American partners on the ground, all the while calling it a ceasefire. What the Russians are proposing in Syria—a “cessation of hostilities” on terms they get to define– is exactly what they have been doing in Eastern Ukraine for more than a year. The Minsk II accords, signed in February 2015 between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, with the U.S. in support, supposedly established a “cessation of hostilities” across all of Ukraine. But Russian proxies on the ground, with active Russian support, have continued to attack Ukrainian positions while loudly blaming the Ukrainians for violating the ceasefire.
Why the Most Dangerous Group in Syria Isn’t ISIS
By Jennifer Cafarella
Institute for the Study of War
March 4, 2016
Hardly a day goes by without news of the progress being made in the war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In recent months, American-backed forces have secured much of the Syrian-Turkish border, recaptured Ramadi, and stemmed the flow of fighters and supplies to the terror group’s capital cities of Raqqa and Mosul. But momentum is not the same as winning, and the U.S. has fallen into a number of traps in Iraq and Syria — the most deadly of which has been set by al Qaeda. Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, is more dangerous than ISIS — and while the two groups share the common goal of establishing a global caliphate, they are using different means to achieve it.
How Iran Is Building Its Syrian Hezbollah
By Phillip Smyth
March 8, 2016
In May 2014, Gen. Hossein Hamedani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed that Iran had formed “a second Hezbollah in Syria.” Although Hamedani, who was later killed in October 2015 as part of the ongoing Aleppo offensive, may have been referring to the many militias that compose Bashar al-Assad’s multiethnic and cross-sectarian National Defense Forces (NDF), he was likely hinting at a far more specific Shiite-focused effort. From mid-2012 to mid-2013, Iran helped the Assad regime create and shape numerous local and regional militias, including the Damascus-based factions within the Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA) network. Initially, these groups had limited bases for recruitment and operated in specific areas, often as ad hoc offshoots of the NDF. Beginning in late 2012, however, Iran’s Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite proxies helped transform various Syrian Twelver Shiite militias into copies of Lebanese Hezbollah, all espousing Iran’s ideology of absolute velayat-e faqih (the doctrine granting the Supreme Leader his authority). In many cases, preexisting NDF groups accepted assistance and guidance from the IRGC, Hezbollah, and Iranian-controlled Iraqi Shiite militias.
How to Prevent al-Qaeda from Seizing a Safe Zone in Northwestern Syria
By Fabrice Balanche
March 7, 2016
In theory, Syria’s Idlib province and the eastern part of Aleppo province could serve as safe zones with international protection, since both areas are open to Turkey and could easily receive humanitarian aid from UN agencies and various NGOs. Yet one of the most formidable obstacles to the Idlib option is the presence of radical jihadist groups there, particularly al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). Throughout rebel-held western Aleppo and Idlib, “moderate” rebel factions would face a serious challenge fending off JN forces.