Although Washington and the think tank community are focused on the American mid-term elections, there were several papers coming out on Turkey and Syria.
The Monitor Analysis looks at the US government’s heightened security around numerous government buildings this week. Although the threat is serious, as seen by the attack in Canada, we see that the late response to the threat indicates that it is more a political move. Politically, momentum is turning in the Republicans favor and Obama’s traditional political strategies aren’t working. Not only does the heightened security limit the political damage to Obama if such an attack takes place between now and Election Day, it helps make Obama look stronger in terms of fighting terrorism, – a major weakness as perceived by American voters.
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The CSIS says the strategy being used by Obama against ISIS is not working. They note, “To begin with, the basic goal of degrading and destroying the Islamic State always bordered on the ridiculous. It was always clear that some form of violent Islamic extremism would survive any combination of U.S. air attacks, Iraqi efforts to clear Iraq on the ground, and the limited capabilities of the Free Syrian Army. In fact, senior U.S. defense officials and military officers have repeatedly made this clear by limiting the objective to “degrade” and noting that the struggle against violent religious extremism would go on for years if not more than a decade.”
The Washington Institute maintains the moderate rebel force currently envisioned by Washington would take far too long to arrive on the battlefield and could be easy prey for ISIS and Assad. They conclude, “Given that events in Syria do not necessarily proceed according to the U.S. timetable, the most promising answer is to build effective moderate forces sooner rather than later using the vetting that has already occurred. This means incorporating existing moderate units into a structure that takes advantage of their numbers, their presence on key battlefields, and their experience in fighting the regime and ISIS. Washington would then enhance its train-and-equip program for these units, especially by providing antitank, antiaircraft, and light artillery/mortar systems. Finally, such forces should not be constrained to a defensive role against ISIS — they should be expected, even encouraged, to fight the regime as well. They will have successes and failures, but the United States would not “own” them in the same sense it would with a force built from scratch. And there would be risks, as there always are when working with irregulars: unauthorized weapons transfers, criminal activity, violations of the rules of warfare, and so forth. But this kind of force is more likely to be deployed in a shorter timeframe, and to be more effective on the battlefield against ISIS and the regime.
The Institute for the Study of War notes that the Syrian rebels are gaining ground in Southern Syria. They conclude, “The single greatest threat to the regime in Damascus continues to be the emergence of a stronger, more unified opposition force, potentially in receipt of Western aid, that is capable of taking and holding ground and cutting regime supply lines. As rebels increasingly cooperate and advance in Quneitra, Dera’a, and Damascus, the regime will therefore continue to use airpower, including chlorine gas and barrel bombs, to offset military setbacks, and to maintain and open supply routes, as it has done in Dera’a, Damascus, Hama, and Aleppo.49… If rebels in Quneitra and Dera’a successfully connect the southern front with Eastern Ghouta and encircle the capital along the southeast, the regime will be forced to redouble its efforts to ensure Damascus is not cut off from the rest of the country. To do so while maintaining momentum on its other fronts throughout Syria, the regime will likely attempt to generate more troops, as it done via conscription and reservist mobilization campaigns in October. But it is unclear the extent to which the regime can re-establish momentum in Damascus and the southern front without making sacrifices elsewhere.”
The Washington Institute looks at the political unrest in Bahrain. They conclude, “Although Washington’s top priority at the moment is ISIS, it should also take time to remind the Bahraini government that excluding al-Wefaq from the political process risks bolstering other, more militant Shiite groups. These groups have already concluded that political progress within the current system is impossible and have been supporting violent protests on the island for some time. Bahrain’s neighbor and ally, Saudi Arabia, needs to understand the same message in regard to its own Shiite community. Finally, U.S. officials may need to explain that any attempt by Bahrain to withdraw its public commitment to the anti-ISIS coalition would reflect poorly on its diplomatic stature.”
The Carnegie Endowment looks at ways the US can team up with Arab allies to defeat terrorist threats like ISIS. They suggest taking a broader approach and conclude, “Washington needs to work collaboratively and cooperatively with its Arab allies to face the imminent threat from the Islamic State. But it needs to do so with attentiveness to the broader domestic trends inside Arab states that are not fostering the sort of durable social and political peace required to defeat the radicals’ narrative once and for all. The United States should pursue holistic measures that emphasize political reform and civil society assistance as fundamental pillars. It must also be more sensitive to the limits and drawbacks of Arab assistance on the counterterrorism front, as well as the ways in which U.S. technical assistance can be used for political ends that not only run contrary to American values but could inflame the very terrorist problem Washington is trying to combat.”
The Foreign Policy Research Institute continues its look at Turkey’s strategic cultures – Republican and Neo-Ottoman. In looking at this dichotomy, they use the Kurds as one example and note, “The Kurdish problem is perhaps the most interesting illustration of the tension between Turkey’s two strategic cultures. A restive Kurdish population has been the biggest challenge to the homogenous Turkish identity the modern Republic has sought to establish. Both Özal, himself of partial Kurdish extraction, and Erdoğan extended more political and social rights to Turkey’s Kurds than they previously enjoyed. Under Erdoğan, the Kurds enjoy greater freedom to use their own language and organize as Kurds. And in the aftermath of America’s second war in Iraq, the Turkish government forged ties with Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and started peace talks with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), with which the Turkish state had been fighting since the 1980’s…And then two strands of Turkish policy collided. Just as the PKK talks had reportedly reached discussions about disarmament, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) exploded out of Syria into Iraq, seizing much of the country’s north and west, threatening the KRG, among others. ISIL also advanced on Kobane, one of three main Syrian Kurdish enclaves that had enjoyed relative autonomy for the last two years. While Turkey could accept military relief and support for the KRG, Kobane was a different matter. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the predominant Syrian Kurdish faction and is affiliated with the PKK. The PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has been effective in the field against ISIL previously, but talk of arming them came up against serious opposition from Ankara. A tension was thereby revealed between a neo-Ottoman strategic culture that sought to advance Turkish power abroad and accept sub-national identities and a republican strategic culture that was threatened by challenges to internal unity.
The Brookings Institution looks at the Turkey-Israel-US relationship. This paper suggests two closely intertwined conclusions: first, that good Turkish-Israeli relations are essential to the security and stability of the Middle East; and second, that U.S. leadership has come to play a central role in shaping—and often mediating—the Turkish-Israeli relationship. Indeed, while Israel and Turkey continue to face common strategic challenges and share mutual interests, the capacity to restart relations will partly depend on the readiness of U.S. leaders to help both Ankara and Jerusalem find a way back to sustained strategic cooperation. A United States willing to demonstrate leadership and apply leverage on both allies is vital for progress.
The Carnegie Endowment looks at Russian-Turkish cooperation in the region. Despite historical differences, they note, “Fundamentally, Russia and Turkey have some significant commonality of interests that provide a setting conducive to further strengthening their dialogue and cooperation. They have common interests in enhancing economic revival and political stability in their shared geography. Both have reservations about foreign intervention, especially a military one, on this geography. Furthermore, it would not be an overstatement to say that they also hold common fears and even historical traumas. Opposing the spread of terrorism and extremism as a potential threat to their own stability and integrity is an essential part of their foreign engagements. For their neighboring regions, ensuring a secular future based on international rule of law remains crucial.”
Heightened Security at US Government Buildings Reflects Political Concerns
This week, the Department of Homeland Security announced it has increased security at federal buildings across the county, citing terror threats and recent attacks in Canada and elsewhere. The announcement was made by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who said Federal Protective Service officers are providing the increased security. Additional security will be put in place in Washington, other major U.S. cities and unnamed locations across the country.
The rational for the additional security, however, was somewhat contradictory. Officials said the move was a “precautionary” step and not made in response to any specific threat. But they cited last week’s violence in Canada, and ISIS threats.
“The reasons for this action are self-evident: the continued public calls by terrorist organizations for attacks on the homeland and elsewhere, including against law enforcement and other government officials, and the acts of violence targeted at government personnel and installations in Canada and elsewhere recently,” Johnson said in a statement. “Given world events, prudence dictates a heightened vigilance in the protection of U.S. government installations and our personnel.”
The timing, however, is curious. The attacks in Canada are over a week old and there was no immediate response by DHS to tighten security at the time. Why wait a week before tightening security?
The answer may be the mid-term elections coming in a few days and the fear in the White House that it will sweep many Obama congressional allies away. Polls released this week show that a large majority of voters are upset with Obama policies and want a Republican Congress to offset the policies of the Democratic White House. And, in a more tangible proof of the problem Obama and the Democrats are facing, Obama and Biden are travelling to Democratic strongholds in order to shore up vulnerable Democratic incumbents rather than reaching out to defeat Republicans. Republicans, on the other hand, are moving the bulk of their remaining campaign money into Democratic districts where they see potential wins.
And, although the economy is still a major concern for voters, this year terrorism and foreign affairs are becoming a major issue – one that is hurting Democrats.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll gave the bad news to Democrats. “Six in 10 say they cannot trust the government in Washington to do what is right — the same as a year ago in the aftermath of the government shutdown and the botched rollout of the federal Web site for the Affordable Care Act.”
“With multiple crises confronting the country — including the spread of Ebola in West Africa and cases here at home, as well as threats from Islamic State militants — a majority now says the government’s ability to deal with big problems has declined in the past few years. Among those who say this, more — by 3 to 1 — blame Obama and the Democrats rather than Republicans in Congress.”
Although Obama’s numbers are all dismal, one of the worst are his approval numbers concerning his ability to handle the terrorism threat. The majority of the American public is not pleased with how President Barack Obama has handled the various terror threats facing the United States, according to New York Times/CBS news poll released a few weeks ago. Fifty percent said they disapprove of how the president is handling the “threat of terrorism,” compared with the 41 percent who said the opposite. The percentage of those who disapprove of Obama’s strategy to combat terrorism is the highest it has been since the start of his presidency.
An Associated Press poll taken more recently echoed the same results. According to the poll, most think there’s a high risk of a terrorist attack inside the United States, 53 percent. 12 percent say it faces a low risk of terror attacks.
In recent days, the political cost of Obama’s inaction has gone up. This week, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Annenberg poll asked voters what effect the recent news cycle – the terror attack on Canada’s parliament, an ax-wielding ( alleged to be an Islamic extremist ) attacking police in New York City, and the continued spread of Ebola to American shores has had on their vote. The results were not good for Obama and the Democrats.
For 53 percent, the events in the news have made them less likely to back Democrats at the polls. Only 40 percent said the same of the GOP. Another 35 percent said the issues in the news have made them more predisposed to vote Republican while only 25 percent said the same of the Democrats.
That same poll found a 52 percent believed Republicans were better suited to control both chambers of Congress while only 41 percent said the same of Democrats – an 11-point GOP advantage. At this point in 2010, by contrast, the GOP only had a 7-point advantage over Democrats in this poll on the question of which party deserves to control Congress.
The movement against Obama is being felt in parts of the nation where Obama has cruised to victories by large percentages in the past. In his hometown of Chicago Illinois, first-term Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider is in a rematch with Republican Bob Dold, who won in the tea party wave of 2010 and lost in 2012.
In Obama’s birth state of Hawaii, the Democrats are spending $200,000 on television ads and voter outreach for Mark Takai, who is locked in a tight race with former Republican Rep. Charles Djou in an open Honolulu-based district that Obama won with 70 percent of the vote.
The current against Obama is also being felt in the younger voters, once considered the future base of the Democratic Party. A new national poll of America’s 18- to 29- year-olds by Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP), located at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, finds slightly more than half (51%) of young Americans who say they will “definitely be voting” in November prefer a Republican-run Congress with 47 percent favoring Democrat control – a significant departure from IOP polling findings before the last midterm elections (Sept. 2010 – 55%: prefer Democrat control; 43%: prefer Republican control).
As the election has gotten closer and undecided voters have made their mind up – for Republicans, Democratic concerns and strategies have shifted. The original plan for Democratic strategists was to narrowly retain control of the Senate, possibly with the help of Senate President, Vice President Biden casting the deciding vote. In the last few weeks, as the tide started to turn for Republicans, the thought was that the GOP might gain a narrow majority in the Senate – one that would probably be lost in 2016, as more Republican senators were up for reelection.
A narrow GOP Senate majority would have allowed Democrats to focus on a few freshmen Republican senators in traditionally Democratic states. The thought was that a strong Democratic presidential candidate would have enough coattails to turn the Senate balance back in the Democrat’s favor.
However, as more undecided voters have come down on the Republican side, the hopes for retaking the Senate in 2016 have dimmed. Some political analysts are seeing the GOP having about up to 55 seats, including the potential for some defections from the current Democratic majority (Manchin of West Virginia and King of Maine begin mentioned). That would make it very hard in anything but a sweep election to regain the Senate, since only 7 Republican senators up for reelection in 2016 come from states that voted for Obama twice – something not expected if Obama continues to remain unpopular.
This leaves the Democratic strategy hinging on a couple of factors – turnout of the Democratic base, which is currently lethargic and questioning of the Obama policies, and preventing anything else from happening in the next few days to either energize GOP, convince more independents to vote Republican, or further discourage Democratic voters. Given the current political environment, the best strategy was to prevent any terrorist attack prior to the election that could quickly and decisively move voters away from the Democrats and towards the GOP.
This was a major driver in the last minute decision to increase protection of government buildings in the lead up to the election. Several current Democratic senate seats, once considered safe, have moved seen the Republican challenger closing the margin and although expected to win, the Republican momentum – along with a terrorist attack – could cause some unwelcome election night surprises for Obama.
For those watching the US election results on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, two early indicators will be New Hampshire and North Carolina. The Republican challengers in both states have been behind during most of the race, but have moved closer in the last week. If these candidates go ahead early Tuesday evening, that indicates the Republicans should comfortably pick up control of the Senate. If the Republican Senate candidates in Virginia and New Jersey show unexpected strength and either win or make the race close, the Republican wave that Democrats fear may be in the making.
Also, keep a couple of gubernatorial races in mind because they may shape the 2016 presidential election. Two Republican governors, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Susana Martinez will quickly become top tier candidates for the Republican presidential nomination if they win reelection, as expected. Both are governors in moderately Democratic states. Walker won Republican praises for successfully fighting Wisconsin’s powerful teaching unions and winning a recall election. Martinez is a Hispanic woman, who would make an attractive candidate for a party reaching out to Hispanics and women.
Next week the Monitor will look at the election results and what they mean.
The Imploding U.S Strategy in the Islamic State War?
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
October 23, 2014
It is too early to say that the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State is imploding, but it is scarcely too soon to question whether this is possible. In fact, it is far from clear that the original U.S. strategy ever planned to deal with the complications that have arisen since President Obama officially announced a portion of what that strategy really had to be. The Non-Strategy for Dealing with the Islamic State: To begin with, the basic goal of degrading and destroying the Islamic State always bordered on the ridiculous. It was always clear that some form of violent Islamic extremism would survive any combination of U.S. air attacks, Iraqi efforts to clear Iraq on the ground, and the limited capabilities of the Free Syrian Army. In fact, senior U.S. defense officials and military officers have repeatedly made this clear by limiting the objective to “degrade” and noting that the struggle against violent religious extremism would go on for years if not more than a decade.
U.S.-Arab Counterterrorism Cooperation in a Region Ripe for Extremism
By Michele Dunne and Frederic Wehrey
October 23, 2014
U.S. cooperation with Arab allies against terrorist groups is essential—and also problematic. Many Arab governments are fueling the very extremism they purport to fight and looking for cover from the United States for increasingly repressive policies. Washington needs a holistic counterterrorism strategy that ensures its Arab allies do not use U.S. assistance to perpetuate terrorism and that supports those in Arab societies best able to combat radicalization. Initiate broad discussions with partners at every level, across agencies, about extremism’s roots. Every organ of the U.S. government that interacts with Arab partners—particularly defense and intelligence agencies—should engage in sustained discussions about a holistic approach to national security that includes human development, economic opportunity, and individual freedoms as critical tools against radicalization.
Exploring the Prospects for Russian-Turkish Cooperation in a Turbulent Neighborhood
By Memduh Karakullukçu and Dmitri Trenin
September 28, 2014
Even though tensions over Ukraine will inevitably cast a shadow over the bilateral relationship, Russia and Turkey—a NATO member—continue to share a range of important interests. Indeed, there are a number of areas in which the two can work together in their common neighborhood, which stretches from the South Caucasus and the Levant to Central Asia and Afghanistan. A high-level working group on Russian-Turkish regional cooperation has sketched a forward-looking approach for Russia and Turkey in tackling regional challenges.
Turkey’s Competing Strategic Cultures: Part 4 – Now and Into the Future
By Ryan Evans
Foreign Policy Research Institute
Scholars of strategic culture have noted that multiple strategic cultures can exist in the same country or community. Indeed, this is true of the concept of culture writ large. As Alastair Iain Johnston argues, “the diversity of a particular society’s geographical, political, cultural, and strategic experience will produce multiple strategic cultures….” This is certainly the case in Turkey where two elites have produced two competing strategic cultures – one republican and the other neo-Ottoman. The rise of the neo-Ottoman strategic culture and the slow decline of the republican one have been the subject of this series so far. Both strategic cultures were elite driven (as strategic cultures almost always are). Republican strategic culture rose from the traumatic dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, which lost its populous, prosperous European territories from the early 19th century through to the First World War. This process culminated in the never-enacted Treaty of Sevres, which sought to end Turkish control of the Straits, put Smyrna under Greek suzerainty and then sovereignty, and carve out independent Armenian and Kurdish states from Eastern Anatolia. Turkish nationalists prevailed in the end under the inspiring leadership of Mustafa Kemal. These experiences and the hard realities of geography forged a strategic culture that was obsessed with homogeneity and internal unity, distrustful of outside powers (particularly Russia), saw security as limited to sovereignty and territorial integrity, slow to compromise, and fearful of getting dragged into outside conflicts.
Increased Rebel Unity Threatens Assad in Damascus and Southern Syria
By Theodore Bell
Institute for the Study of War
October 28, 2014
Rebel gains in southern Syria and efforts to sever regime supply routes north and south of Damascus indicate that the regime has lost momentum in the capital region. Rebel alliances show greater cohesion in this zone, as well a greater cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra, while the regime is showing signs of severe manpower shortage. The regime is attempting to fill its ranks with new conscripts and reservists. The regime will likely need to reinforce its southern front in order to reverse rebel gains, though it is likely that the regime will need to sacrifice efforts elsewhere in order to provide sufficient support.
Bahrain’s Ban on Main Opposition Prompts U.S. Policy Dilemma
By Simon Henderson
October 28, 2014
Earlier today, a Bahraini court suspended the activities of the island’s main Shiite opposition group, al-Wefaq, for three months. The decision comes just weeks before the November 22 parliamentary elections — although al-Wefaq is not, strictly speaking, a political party, it had already announced a boycott of the polls to protest the lack of progress in political reform talks with the Sunni-led government and the unilateral redistricting of constituencies. By apparent coincidence, Gen. John Allen, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (a.k.a. the Islamic State/ISIS), was on the island today for meetings with the Bahraini foreign minister and the commander of the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF), which has been contributing F-16s for strikes against the jihadist group in Syria. Allen was accompanied by Vice Admiral John Miller, commander of the Bahrain-headquartered U.S. Fifth Fleet — a force that includes the aircraft carrier from which strikes against ISIS have been launched, as well as ships that have been firing cruise missiles at ISIS targets.
Responding Effectively to the Military Challenges in Syria
By Jeffrey White
October 27, 2014
As the Obama administration’s plans for raising a moderate Syrian opposition force become clearer, its approach seems to center on a lengthy recruitment, training, and deployment program initially dedicated to defense against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). If carried out, this plan promises a long delay before significant forces are on the battlefield. It would also limit their potential effectiveness in the near to midterm and perhaps commit them to a protracted enterprise in which defeat is likely. The administration’s concept is consistent with its fixation on terrorism as the heart of the problem in Syria, and its ill-starred relations with the armed opposition. Faced with the complexity of diverse rebel forces on the ground, unwilling to accept more than minimal risk in supporting them, and focused on worst-case costs and consequences, it is advancing a program with limited prospects.
The U.S.-Turkey-Israel Triangle
By: Dan Arbell
The confrontation between Israel and Hamas during the summer of 2014 deepened tensions between Israel and Turkey. Now, in the fall of 2014, U.S.-Turkish relations are strained over Turkey’s role in the fight against ISIS, while gaps between the United States and Israel over policies on Iran and Palestine serve as points of friction in the relationship. Clearly the U.S.-Turkey-Israel triangle has suffered many setbacks in recent years on all sides, but the Turkish-Israeli relationship has suffered the most, as it has been in a state of semi-paralysis for the last four years.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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