The think tank community had a variety of topics to consider this week, ranging from the continued war against ISIS to domestic American concerns like the first Ebola infection in the US.
Although Obama has pointed to the large coalition that is arrayed against ISIS, little is mentioned about the various political goals of the participating nations. The Monitor Analysis looks at the differing goals, especially those of Turkey, and warns this difference in war goals and strategy will only weaken this American led alliance and make it easier to fall apart.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The American Enterprise Institute looks at the meeting between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They see major differences continuing on the major subjects. In the end, they say, they will come out of the meeting; say nice things, but having accomplished little.
The Brookings Institution argues that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer the central strategic question in the Middle East. They note, “The core threats to American national security in the Middle East today are the rise of the Islamic State (IS), the advance of the Iranian nuclear program, and the spread of Iranian influence throughout the region. They are almost entirely disconnected from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If a peace agreement were signed today, the political landscape of the Middle East would remain more or less the same, and so would the most consequential challenges it poses to the United States.”
The Hudson Institute looks at the growing divide between Obama and his military advisors on conducting the war against ISIS. However, they note, “Senior officers must accept their commander in chief’s judgment and carry out orders. But they and like-minded advisers have another option: resigning. Not to embarrass the administration or cause a constitutional crisis, but to indicate the gravity of the ISIS threat. Until stopped, ISIS or its collaborators are likely to mount an attack against the U.S. homeland with the aim of equaling or surpassing al Qaeda’s 9/11 success. A military commander’s resignation, accompanied by a clear and respectful explanation, would prompt a needed debate over U.S. strategy to achieve the president’s goal “to degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at the establishment of a new Iraqi national guard. They warn of many problems with a force like and make suggestions as to controlling it. They note, “Doing so requires several initiatives at both the domestic and international levels. First, the formation of the national guard must be accompanied by a broader political push. The Shia-dominated government in Baghdad must find ways to offer credible guarantees to the Sunni community that it will continue to have a place in political decisionmaking. In return, Sunnis must guarantee their commitment to the Iraqi state and its legitimately elected government, turning against the Islamic State and its allies through their service in the guard. Closely related, operational issues such as the chain of command between the regular army and the national guard must be established early on, to avoid mistrust and the chance for defections or rebellion. Effective U.S. oversight of the training of the national guard can help temper the centrifugal effects of the force.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at Qatar and its foreign policy. They note, “Qatar’s Arab Spring interventions also greatly undermined the country’s reputation for impartiality. The resulting skepticism of Qatari motivations further eroded the reserves of soft power that had propelled Qatar’s rise as a regional power with international reach before 2011… It may take years for Qatar to fully restore a degree of trust among regional partners, but the path is open for Qatari officials to begin rebuilding a reputation as an intermediary that is able to bridge divides. As events across much of the Arab world become more unpredictable and volatile, U.S. policymakers in particular can work with Qatar to maintain options for back-channel communications and even track-two diplomacy to reduce tension and uncertainty as and when opportunities permit.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at the continuing civil war in Libya and ways to end it. They note, “To move beyond the impasse, the first step is to accurately assess the nature of the security challenge in Libya. The country’s security malaise is typically attributed to the power and autonomy of its revolutionary armed groups and the corresponding weakness of the official army and regular police. But such a division is only part of the story, obscuring complex and fluid relationships between local armed groups, the central government, aggrieved political actors, and hybrid security entities. The assumption also ignores the fact that the “militia problem” is fundamentally a political one. The framework for understanding the “militias” challenge must move beyond normative questions of “legitimacy” and acknowledge that the armed groups represent certain constituencies and have, for better or for worse, become intimately entrenched in the state’s apparatus.”
The Foreign Policy Initiative looks at the continuing negotiations to restrict Iran’s nuclear abilities. They warn, “While Tehran refuses to acknowledge its international obligations, the United States and its international negotiating partners—known as the P5+1—are moving dangerously closer to Tehran’s position. Called “creative solutions” by their advocates, these proposals would in reality leave Iran with the ability to resume large-scale production of nuclear material in a short period of time, effectively leaving Tehran’s nuclear weapons program intact. As 31 Republican Senators wrote in a September 19 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, reports of “troubling nuclear concessions to Iran” raise concerns that the P5+1 will sign an agreement “that, in return for further relief of U.S.-led international sanctions, would allow Iran to produce explosive nuclear material.”
Conflicting Objectives in War on ISIS
Wars usually bring consensus to the countries involved in the fighting. In World War Two, even the radically different political systems of the Soviet Union and the US and Great Britain, were able to agree on defeating Hitler. That unity, however, is lacking in the current war on ISIS.
Although several countries are in the US led alliance to fight (or at least neutralize) ISIS, they all seem to allowing their differing national policies to trump the mutual goal of stopping ISIS. One such country is Turkey, a NATO member that has an eye on increasing its influence in the region by using the disruptions caused by ISIS.
Under pressure both politically and militarily, Turkey may finally climb off the fence in the fight against ISIS. Their parliament voted to authorize ground troops in both Iraq and Syria this week to push back the terrorist army, which has come within five kilometers of Turkey’s border in places. In the past, Turkey actually aided Syrian rebels like ISIS in order to weaken the Syrian government of President Assad.
The Washington Post reported, “Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters the proposal sent to parliament would include a wide range of options, including opening Turkish bases to foreign troops and deploying soldiers to establish safe zones for refugees inside Syria. The government wants the motion to be broad enough to avoid needing another parliamentary mandate for military action, he said.”
But, it seems that the decision to fight ISIS isn’t just a desire to join with other NATO countries and some Arab nations to stop the growth of the radical Islamic force. The move is also an attempt to forestall the current efforts of Kurdish separatists who have coalesced into a fighting force to assist Syrian Kurds in the besieged city of Kobane.
Kobane’s fall would give ISIS control of a large stretch of the Turkey-Syria border. The siege has prompted more than 160,000 refugees to flee into Turkey in the past week, and shells from the fighting have landed in Turkish territory. In response, Turkey dispatched hundreds of soldiers and tanks to the Syrian border to contain the potential spillover from the siege.
But, Kobane is more than a military objective. It also has political importance. Turkey has made it clear that they will not let Turkish Kurds become a separate nation and see this Turkish-Kurdish fighting force in Kobane as a long term threat to them. Consequently, the move to oppose ISIS is as much an attempt to keep Turkish/Kurdish separatists in check.
Another factor in Turkey’s potential move against ISIS is their demand for a no-fly zone over Syria. They don’t need a no-fly zone to protect them from ISIS, which doesn’t have an air force. Their support of the Syrian rebels fighting Assad have made them fearful of Assad and what he might do if they were to move into Syrian territory to stop ISIS. They want to make sure that Assad doesn’t take an opportunity to settle some scores while their army engages ISIS.
This isn’t the first time that the US has considered a possible no-fly zone over Syria. That was one of the options that the Obama administration looked at in 2013 in retaliation for the alleged Assad’s use of chemical weapons. That option was eventually discarded.
This time, the question will be whether the US can enforce it since the US and Navy forces in the area are smaller than they were a year ago. From the point of the Alliance against ISIS, the Syrians have been passive about the intrusions into their airspace — not cooperative, but also not actively contesting them. They haven’t complained about them very much, even though American operations have created a de facto no-fly zone as Syrian aircraft avoid open hostilities with the US-led coalition.
There is also the diplomatic issue of an official no-fly zone. If the US demanded an internationally-imposed, no-fly zone, the Syrians will surely lodge international protests, along with Russia, China, and Iran. These protests, in turn could force a lull in air attacks.
In the end, the best option is for the US to informally assure Turkey that Syria will not interfere with Turkey’s operations and for Turkey to accept that fighting ISIS in Syria is better than fighting in Turkey.
Not only are the Turks afraid that Syrian Air Force fighters may attack them they are also reluctant to get involved so far is based on their worry that their intervention will prop up president Assad after all their efforts to get rid of him. In addition, the area the Turkey would move into is Syrian/Kurd territory and defeating ISIS in Kurdish territory would only strengthen the Kurds.
While a Turkish military move would aid the US, some of Turkey’s objectives are in conflict with American goals. America actually launched its air strikes in Syria and Iraq in part to support the Kurdish forces, who have been the most loyal and have a biger stake in slowing the ISIS advance across Iraq. In fact more than half of the US and British air strikes have been launched in support of Kurdish forces, who have launched an offensive to retake several Iraqi towns captured by ISIS recently.
Turkey isn’t the only partner in the in the alliance with differing goals in the war on ISIS. Other nations have differing political objectives. However, unlike the Kurds, Turkey, and the US, their concern revolves around Baghdad, which is increasingly threatened by ISIS. From their point of view, air strikes against northern Iraq and Syria are only helpful to their political ends if they pull ISIS forces from central Iraq.
The Arab countries of the GCC are also on the horns of a dilemma. ISIS is a threat to their nations and ISIS forces are becoming a greater threat to the borders of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The air strikes in the north and the Kurdish offensive help slowing the ISIS advances across the Iraqi “Sunnis” territories in Western Iraq. And, obviously Iraqi “Shiite” opposition to ISIS also helps their objectives.
The problem for the GCC is that a weaker ISIS can mean a stronger “Shiite alliance” in Iraq and Iran that threatens the GCC. Their objective is to defeat ISIS, while keeping the” Sunni” communities militarily strong, and defeat President Assad in Syria.
Indecision in America
While the other ISIS alliance nations have conflicting goals, America is in the position of having disagreements with itself. Obama is facing a political problem of holding his anti-war Democratic coalition together, while placating the voters, who want a more aggressive response against ISIS – without putting soldiers in Iraq or Syria. The problem became even more important as a radical Muslim beheaded a coworker in Oklahoma last week, an event that brought the ISIS problem home to most American voters.
The events in the Middle East are clearly damaging the Democrat’s ability to hold the Senate. A Republican TV ad this week is attacking Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina for being absent from half of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearings this year and never uttering a word of complaint over Obama’s previous policies toward terrorism.
“While ISIS grew, Obama kept waiting, and Kay Hagan kept quiet,” the ad’s narrator states — “failing to recognize the growing specter of the Islamic State.”
Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who’s running against Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, is running an ad that says she and Obama are “confused” about the very real threat that the Islamic State poses to the U.S. Polls show the race is in a dead heat.
However, Obama’s response hasn’t helped as it is perceived as being too weak by American voters. And, when he did respond, the resulting air strikes were considered by nearly everyone to be ineffective.
Obama’s political response has been to blame the intelligence community for not warning him. Although US intelligence had warned Obama in 2012 about the threat of ISIS, Obama ignored the warnings until very recently. However, On Sunday, Obama went on the CBS program “60 Minutes” to talk about his abruptly changed policies toward the Islamic State’s war of terror on the civilized world. When asked about his dismissal of ISIS, he blamed the intelligence community for underestimating the threat – a claim that enraged many in the intelligence field who had warned him about the ISIS threat years ago.
Although late, Obama has begun to make some solid moves. One recent addition to the policy outlined by Obama last month is the movement of over 2,000 US Marines into Kuwait over the next few months. The force will have its own tactical air support, airlift ability, and theater logistical support of C-130 aircraft. This Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF) will be capable of carrying out a multitude of military operations.
While the Pentagon said that this move has been in the planning stage for awhile, it appears that current events are driving it. A force of this size would be able to evacuate US citizens from Baghdad if ISIS continues advancing on the southern front and enters the Iraqi capital. The possibility that this force is being put in place for such an evacuation is reinforced by the fact that this USMC unit (the 8th Marine Regiment) was used during the summer for the evacuation of the US Embassy in Libya.
This unit is combat tested and showed itself well adapted to evacuations under difficult conditions. On July 26, after taking mortar, small arms and rocket fire in the US Embassy compound for several days, a group of Marines from the 8th Marine Regiment led more than 150 embassy personnel on a six-hour drive across the Libyan desert to the Tunisian border after the US ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones, decided that evacuating staff via MV-22 helicopters was too risky.
The Marine security team, which wore civilian clothing, loaded all the American embassy personnel into 40 sport utility vehicles after negotiating safe passage to the border with the militias that held the ground along the route. The convoy was shadowed by two MV-22B Ospreys, a KC-130J and two F-16 jets.
The force is also seen as a guarantee that the US will support the GCC nations if ISIS starts to threaten their borders. Although the USMC force is smaller in numbers than the ISIS army, it is heavier armed, much better trained, and better supported. Its positioning in Kuwait will insure that the oil fields of the Saudi Peninsula will not fall to ISIS. The deployment also provides a bit more flexibility to the GCC nations who are afraid of both ISIS and Iranian influence.
The fact that the war against ISIS requires positioning US Marines in Kuwait – hundreds of miles from the front lines – demonstrates the problems and complexities of the conflict. While nearly everyone is agreed that ISIS is a major problem, the outcome of the war seems to attract more concern than the defeat of this radical army. The Syrian government of presiden Assad wants to defeat the rebels and win the internal war.
Turkey, wants to defeat ISIS, while defeating Assad and keeping the Turkish Kurds from seceding from Turkey. They also want to use the war to increase their influence in the Levant.
The Kurds are more interested in independence and see their war against ISIS as their best way of becoming an independent state. The GCC nations want to defeat ISIS and president Assad, while keeping Turkish influence in the region to a minimum. Meanwhile, Iran wants to defeat ISIS, but keep president Assad in power.
Other nations also have limited objectives. Denmark, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands are only carrying air operations in Iraq, while the United States, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are operating in Syria too.
In the US, Obama is at war with himself. For him, the war is merely an outgrowth of the political situation he finds himself in domestically. He won election as president on a platform of getting out of Iraq, but finds himself with a majority of Americans upset with the deteriorating situation in the region. However, his political base is strongly opposed to any more actions in both Syria and Iraq. A political misstep could find Congress in the hands of his political opponents, the Republicans in November.
What this means is that the coalition facing ISIS is only loosely bound together. Should events change, it could rapidly fall apart.
Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu: A preview
By Danielle Pletka
American Enterprise Institute
October 1, 2014
Today, Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two are not friends, not allies, and not partners. Previous meetings have been fraught. And privately, this one is likely to be little better. What’s on their agenda?
Iran: Obama desperately wants a nuclear deal with Iran. So desperately, in fact, that his negotiating team has been willing to offer the Iranians half their current stock of 19,000 centrifuges with the other half nominally “unplugged.” This is a far cry from an administration that claimed enrichment was off the table, that Iran had no “right” to enrichment, or that the program, as it now stands, is unacceptable. Indeed, the Iranians, being no fools, have again upped the ante, demanding that UN sanctions be dropped before any nuclear deal. Obama likely believes that Iran will be an ally against ISIS (Shia! Sunni! Get it?? Get it!!), and that he can game the Middle East to resolve intra-religious quarrels, extricate himself from the region and serve his greater quest for Global Zero.
The National Guard in Iraq: A Risky Strategy to Combat the Islamic State
By Frederic Wehrey and Ariel I. Ahram
September 23, 2014
Reconstructing Iraq’s security sector is a crucial component of the new U.S. strategy to defeat the Islamic State. The failure of the Iraqi army to defend Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, from the militant group’s attack in the summer of 2014 was a profound indictment of the country’s entire security apparatus. Despite a decade of U.S. efforts at reequipping, reorganizing, and retraining Iraqi security forces, most units in Iraq’s army and police remained plagued by sectarian and ethnic fissures and poor leadership. Reinvigorating Iraq’s security services is essential, as ultimately U.S. airpower must be coupled with an effective ground assault if the Islamic State is to be rolled back.
One of the most prominent elements of the security sector reform agenda, floated by both U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, is the establishment of a new Iraqi national guard. The national guard would incorporate mainly Sunni tribal militias—armed groups that organized outside the formal army and police—to serve as local reserves under the control of provincial governors. Yet the details of this plan remain sketchy and the prospects for success uncertain.
Ending Libya’s Civil War: Reconciling Politics, Rebuilding Security
By Frederic Wehrey
September 24, 2014
More than three years after the fall of strongman Muammar Qaddafi, Libya is in the midst of a bitter civil war rooted in a balance of weakness between the country’s political factions and armed groups. With a domestic landscape torn apart by competing claims to power and with interference from regional actors serving to entrench divides, restoring stability in Libya and building a unified security structure will be difficult if not impossible without broad-based political reconciliation. After Qaddafi, Libya’s security sector evolved into a hybrid arrangement marked by loose and imbalanced cooperation between locally organized, state-sponsored armed groups and national military and police. The system broke down as political and security institutions became increasingly polarized along regional, communal, and ideological fault lines. The country is now split between two warring camps: Operation Dignity, a coalition of eastern tribes, federalists, and disaffected military units; and Operation Dawn, an alliance of Islamist forces aligned with armed groups from Misrata. Each camp lays claim to governance and legitimacy, with its own parliament, army, and prime minister.
Qatar and the Arab Spring: Policy Drivers and Regional Implications
By Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
September 24, 2014
During the Arab Spring, Qatar moved away from its traditional foreign policy role as diplomatic mediator to embrace change in the Middle East and North Africa and support transitioning states. Regional actors viewed Qatar’s approach as overreaching, and skepticism of Doha’s policy motivations increased. Qatar’s new leadership, which came to power in June 2013, is adapting by reverting to a more pragmatic foreign policy and addressing the fallout from its support for Islamist movements in the region.
The Obama-Military Divide
By Seth Cropsey
September 30, 2014
In President Obama’s “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday, he reiterated his vow not to involve U.S. combat troops in the fight against Islamic State jihadists. He would avoid “the mistake of simply sending U.S. troops back” into Iraq, Mr. Obama said, noting that “there’s a difference between them advising and assisting Iraqis who are fighting versus a situation in which we got our Marines and our soldiers out there taking shots and shooting back.” Yet many Americans are skeptical, judging by the new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg poll showing that 72% of registered voters believe that U.S. troops will eventually be deployed. Perhaps Americans have been listening to some of the president’s senior military advisers and several retired senior officers and have decided that their expert opinions sound more realistic.
What Is the Central Strategic Question in the Middle East?
By Michael Doran
September 30, 2014
No one explains the durability of the status quo in Israeli-Palestinian relations as well as Elliott Abrams. :What Now for Israel?” demonstrates why, despite the strong will of the United States and Europe to broker a two-state solution, a formal peace remains out of reach. Forty-seven years after the Six-Day War, it’s time to conclude that, in the Middle East, there is nothing more permanent than a temporary arrangement. While Abrams focuses almost exclusively on Israeli perceptions, including Israeli perceptions of the American role, his analysis demands that we also ask and try to answer the question, “What Now for the United States?” Before anything else, American leaders need to repudiate, once and for all, what Abrams calls the “epicenter” theory: that is, the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central strategic question in the Middle East. While no American president has embraced this theory in any formal sense, almost every president since Jimmy Carter — and every secretary of state since Cyrus Vance — has taken it as axiomatic that to formulate a Middle East policy means initiating and presiding over a “peace process.”
Defiance and Desperation in Iran Nuclear Talks
By Tzvi Kahn, Evan Moore
Foreign Policy Initiative
September 30, 2014
The latest round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program was marked by Iranian defiance and Western desperation to reach a deal. Tehran’s goal in these talks has long been clear—to simultaneously break free from international sanctions while retaining the capability to break out as a nuclear weapons power on short notice. Western negotiators are working to determine just how short that notice must be—with the reported goal of lengthening Iran’s breakout time from less than three months to between six and twelve months.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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