The following is a transcript of the eighty-ninth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on July 14, 2017, with Richard J. Schmierer, chairman of the Council's board of directors, moderating, and Thomas R. Mattair, the Council's executive director, serving as discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
JAMES JEFFREY, Philip Solondz Distinguished Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Former Ambassador, Turkey, Iraq; Former Deputy National Security Adviser, President George W. Bush
If you want to talk about the details of chaos, my colleagues Wa'el and Denise have actually spent a lot of time on the ground doing that. My experience, while extensive in Iraq and to some degree Syria, has mainly been spent in Washington meetings and videoconferences out of Baghdad. But I'm not going to go into the detail. I'm going to challenge the very foundation of what we are doing today. I'll tell you why. Back in 2006, I was very much involved in the Lebanon war as the number two in the Middle East Bureau. There our motto was, Lebanon after the fighting, preventing chaos. We prevented chaos, and we helped contribute to the extraordinarily dangerous Middle East we have today because we looked at things in a certain way.
I feel we're going to be looking at Syria and Iraq in that same way today, and we're just going to make things worse. Specifically, if I were titling this, I would say, "Syria and Iraq, preventing Iranian domination and an inevitable reaction with another ISIS" or something like it. That's goal number one for this administration, to the extent this administration understands that, which it doesn't yet; it's kind of feeling around.
Let me try to tell you what I'm driving at. I have to go back to 25 years. In the old days — Vietnam is the best or worst example — we looked at everything from a geopolitical standpoint. Wherever the Russians or the Chinese popped up, for a 20-year period after 1950, we were going to be there to balance them, to counter them, to deter them, to contain them. Sometimes we did it in areas where we didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding. Vietnam was arguably one of them. Most of the time we did succeed, but certainly that was a viewpoint.
That changed radically after 1989. Rather than pull back, become isolationist or look for some kind of amorphous global governance centered on the United Nations, we basically continued with what we had been successful in running since the 1940s: a global-governance, collective-security, financial, economic, trade, human-rights, humanitarian, you-name-it system — more informal than formal; a formal system is the United Nations. Carrying out that responsibility, we looked at each problem as sui generis, a specific problem that had to be dealt with on its own, exactly what we didn't do during the Cold War, when everything was seen through the filter of what the Soviets were up to. If they were in places nobody could find on the map of Central America — unless you really know, it's hard to figure out where Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are — we would be there.
Under this construct, every problem was unique: Colombia, North Korean nukes, Philippine insurgency, Bosnia, Kosovo, Saddam, Milosevic, South Sudan. We deployed the usual elements of power with a huge component of internal engagement to resolve internal disputes and promote good governance, fight corruption, spur economic development — none of which, frankly, we're very good at, and we had very little success, though some are had.
We're in a different era now. We're facing two near-peer competitors, China and Russia, and we have two nation-states that, in their regions, are posing very significant military and diplomatic threats: North Korea and Iran. This is in part because, to one or another degree, both are allied with China and Russia. And we have another element, an amorphous one: radical extremist Islamic terror, or whatever we call it, that manifests itself in al-Qaeda and in ISIS. Now, we did take it as a regional movement, something to be fought all around the world, but because it's an amorphous thing and not a state, it didn't bleed into our thinking the way our struggle against communism or our struggle against fascism did. It's time for a change now.
Here's an example from 2006 Lebanon. An Iranian surrogate, Hezbollah — I can't blame Iran for it as far as I know, but I certainly can blame them for arming, equipping and encouraging Hezbollah generally — provoked a reaction from Israel by going across the Israeli border and killing or seizing a squad of Israeli soldiers. Israel's reaction turned into a major war in southern Lebanon. At that time, the Bush administration was getting tired of Middle East wars. We had so many popping up all around us — Afghanistan, Iraq. We had the Iranian nuclear file. And we had the final effort to try to push for a Middle East peace accord involving Syria to some degree — that was a separate negotiation — as well as, obviously, the Palestinians and Israel. So this was a diversion. This was a problem. This was a chaos threat, so we had to deal with it.
And we did. We pushed and bullied the Israelis to stop their military campaign, which wasn't their best military campaign in any case, frankly, so they may have been halfway willing to go along. Once we did that, we pushed the usual buttons, tapped the usual suspects — what we do in an international crisis: involve the United Nations, go to Europe to gather money, mainly from the Europeans, a little bit from us. Which capital did we pick? Which capital would you pick for something like this?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Brussels.
AMB. JEFFREY: Actually, I was going to say "aside from Brussels."
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Paris.
AMB. JEFFREY: Stockholm. That was great fun. I was the number two in the U.S. delegation. I was at the UN Security Council, and we passed Resolution 1701, ending the war with a ceasefire. We got a largely European peacekeeping force — a quite large one, in the tens of thousands — into southern Lebanon. However, we were being pushed around at every level by the Lebanese government, which was being pushed around by Iran through Hezbollah. We got in our resolution: you can't send any new arms into Lebanon unless the Lebanese government approves it. The Iranians rammed through that UN resolution with hundreds of five-ton trucks; it didn't have any teeth. We had a peacekeeping force, but its only purpose was to prevent the Israelis from coming in. But remember, the Israelis didn't provoke this thing; Hezbollah did. Hezbollah has been able to arm itself and in 2008 effectively took over the government and the country of Lebanon, and that is where Lebanon is today. Some experts will challenge this on the margins, but I'll stand by it. Meanwhile, billions of dollars of Western money is going in to get Lebanon out of the mess that Hezbollah with some help from the Israelis created. That's what we are going to do by default, certainly with Iraq, and with Syria, if we don't get smart and realize that we are in a struggle for the future of the Middle East against Iran, empowered by Russia, and against asymmetrical allies all across certainly the Shia areas of the Middle East.
This administration is more aware of this than the Obama administration was. Obama basically rejected this, but this administration in principle accepts it. That was the purpose of the meeting in Riyadh. But it doesn't know how to carry it out. Right now its entire focus is on the war we finally can win in the Middle East after 25 years, against ISIS, and we're about to win it.
The problem is, when we do win it, we're going to have U.S. enclaves. I call them no-fly zones; they're basically what we were advocating and the Obama administration was rejecting. We have one in northeastern Syria with the Kurdish PYD and the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] with some Arabs. The Turks have one with the Free Syrian Army. Sometimes both of them are our ally, sometimes not quite, in northwest Syria. We have our enclave in the south of Syria, a quasi-enclave with this ceasefire zone right along the Jordanian and Israeli borders. And of course, we have 10,000 U.S. troops and a lot of coalition troops in Iraq.
So we've got a very significant military force deployed on the ground in Iraq and Syria. What's going to happen to that when we declare victory over ISIS in Raqqa, which is weeks away probably, and if the Syrian army can get its act together and take Deir Ezzor? The basic desire of the U.S. military is to stay on. The desire of the U.S. government for Iraq is a rebuilding program basically along the lines of Lebanon. For Syria, it's a big question mark; I'll let Wa'el try to answer what we are going to do in Syria. We don't yet have a policy, because this is really hard. With Iraq, the focus will be on rebuilding because we have a pretty good relationship with the Abadi government. It's actually done pretty well and is well-disposed towards us, kind of like the Hariri government in 2006 in Lebanon. But, like the Hariri government, it's under a lot of pressure from the Iranians and Iranian surrogates, many of the popular militias. Our effort is going to be to continue to try to move Iraq, as we've been doing since 2003, into the international community. Think of Jordan with oil and gas. Sounds good, but that's not what the Iranians want.
I'll go back to our experiences over the past 25 years, where we've been successful with internal conflicts that we've been able to defuse and then go in and build up something like reconciliation, governance, some economic development and that sort of thing. Where have been our successes? I'm talking about in the last 25 years, from internal conflicts, since 1989. Bosnia. Kosovo. Colombia. What do those three have in common? We didn't have an inimical outside environment or we could control it. So we and the people of that country could focus on whatever it took to fix Colombia, Bosnia and Kosovo. The two Balkan countries took a little bit of work because of Milosevic in Serbia, who was essentially on the other side, and with Kosovo, the Russians. But we dealt with them so that we and the people of Colombia, Bosnia and Kosovo were left to conduct the same not very efficient, kind of sloppy, full of corruption, makeshift stability operations. That is the best you ever get, but it is good enough, because the original dynamic was OK.
The alternative example is Lebanon. There we had a very serious regional problem, in that Iran did not want us to do anything there that would stop the encroaching Iranian/Hezbollah control of the country. We solved that by giving in to them. So under the watchful eye of Hezbollah, we went in, and we fixed a lot of the damage. We worked with the government, and two years later Hezbollah launched a military offensive against the private army — it's all a bit complicated — of the official prime minister of the country, Rafiq Hariri. That was the first time you had Hezbollah fighting in large numbers for a long-time fellow Lebanese. They took over much of downtown Beirut. From then on, Lebanon's fate was pretty much sealed. That's another alternative.
The third alternative — and we know this better than the other two — is Afghanistan and Iraq. We tried and tried — like the little engine that could, chug, chug, chug, with 150,000 troops and billions and then close to a trillion dollars — to fix something when the countries around the region — Iran and Syria in the case of Iraq, Pakistan in the case of Afghanistan and, on the margins, Iran — don't want us to fix it. It's much easier to screw something like this up; this is very hard. Preventing chaos isn't a UNDP mission; it isn't USAID teams. All of that's important, but it takes much more than that.
The first thing we have to do as a country is figure out what to do with Iran. And how is that going to play out in Iraq and Syria? Do we want to put conditions on our effort to rebuild Iraq and continue to help Iraq integrate into the international economy?
This is a country that, with any luck, will be producing two-thirds the amount of oil in Saudi Arabia within a few years. So I would strongly suggest that we have a real interest in getting it right in Iraq. But that won't be easy; the Iranians are deeply entrenched there.
We have several alternatives: We could try to cut a deal with the Iranians. That may be possible with President Rouhani. I don't think it's possible with Qassem Soleimani and the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guards. They seem to be in the driver's seat on this. We'll see. We can try to ram our vision for Iraq down the throats of not just the Iraqis — many of whom wouldn't be adverse to it — but the Iranians, who, as I said, are. I've seen that movie, particularly from 2010 to 2012.
Or we can try on the margins to keep a few troops under one or another training mission and try to stay in the game while pushing back every way we can.
The final trump card we have on this is Kurdistan, which is toying with the idea of becoming independent. That's a very, very bad idea, although it has its advocates here in Washington and here on the Hill. In extremis, it's something that we can use, because the Kurds are adamant from the very top down — and I've heard this many times — that they will not tolerate Baghdad throwing the American army out of Kurdistan again. They almost lost their capital to ISIS in 2014. We saved them. They don't want to see that again, and they're very serious about it.
On Syria, again, the question is, what are we going to do with those enclaves? Are we going to stay in them? If we are, for what purpose? Are we going to try to leverage them to get some kind of acceptable compromise peace with the Geneva process or a re-engaged Astana process? I think that's even harder to figure out. My sense is, the administration is still working on it.
I wish I had more answers for you. I don't. What I'm trying to suggest is, if we just look at this as preventing chaos, the button we will push will be the button we pushed in Lebanon in 2006. That will help turn this region further into the kind of chaos that we have seen since 2013, when we didn't execute the red line.
This administration has turned the tide a little bit by showing that it can use military force. Every time we suggested it to the Obama administration, we heard, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. Well, we've shot down Syrian planes. We've shot down Iranian drones. We've blown the hell out of numerous convoys of Hezbollah armor. And we launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. What do we have? We have the Russians agreeing, finally, to a ceasefire with us that appears to be, at least for the moment, holding. I think that's something we can build on.
But it's really going to be hard. The only thing I can suggest is to keep your eye on the bottom line. It's not just Iran's taking over a huge part of the Levant, threatening Turkey to the north — Turkey's very worried about Iran — and obviously, Jordan, Israel and the Gulf to the south. It's also the reaction to this.
My final warning is this: From 2012 to 2014, the enabling and probably encouraging of the oppression of the Sunni Arabs, 20-25 million of them, by Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad and President Assad in Damascus turned an organization — al-Qaeda in Iraq under the same al-Baghdadi — that, when Wa'el and I were there, was little more than a criminal gang mainly in west Mosul into an army of 35,000 troops controlling somewhere between six and nine million people and a huge swath of land. That's how the region will react to the Iranian forward press if the adults don't take this seriously.
DENISE NATALI, Distinguished Research Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University; Former Specialist, American Red Cross Gulf Relief Crisis Project; Former Associate Professor, American University of Iraq-Sulaimaniya
First, just a disclaimer that my views are my own and not those of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense or the National Defense University.
If we're talking about avoiding chaos, I'd like to take a step back and rephrase the title. I hesitate to look post-ISIS yet, and would focus on how we can prevent an ISIS 2.0 from returning. We're not out of the woods in Iraq, and certainly not in Syria. I would like to present to you what I see as some of the local dynamics on the ground that affect the potential for future conflict, much of which is based on frequent trips in and out of Iraq and speaking to different groups in Syria. A key question is, what will Iraq and Syria look like after ISIS and the civil war ends? I can't project out 10 years, but will try to do so for the next couple of years. What are some of the key dynamics that are going to set the stage for what some predict as the next conflict after ISIS? What type of security and political architecture should we be thinking about, recognizing the changing and persistent realities on the ground? These realities are very different from most views discussed and debated here in Washington, and outside the region itself.
One key point I want to make is that the dominant discourse about Iraq (and Syria) is flawed. That is, even before ISIS, let's say since 2003 in Iraq and more recently in Syria, there has been a popular narrative that Iraq is going to break up, and that this break-up will result in ethnosectarian regions: Sunni-Shia-Kurd. The understanding was (is) that this form of regionalization is a more "authentic" and more viable means for governance and security. This view has become so iterative that many do not even ask how and based on what realities? I have recently heard this narrative applied to Syria in terms of a "Sunni region." If breakup and ethnosectarian partitions didn't happen in 2003 — when many were calling for the "end of Iraq" — and we're now in 2017, it is certainly not going to happen after ISIS.
A post-ISIS Iraq and Syria is more complicated than this scenario. There is not going to be a Kurdish state, or a Sunni and Shia Iraq, or an Alawite Syria, a Kurdish Syria, or a Sunni Syria. The external and official borders of the Iraqi and Syrian states will remain intact while their territories and populations become hyper-fragmented within. That is, instead of state break-up, there has been state breakdown. This means a very different security and political challenge for the United States and its regional partners. Instead of three or five homogenous and relatively stable regions, what have emerged are various weakened and fragmented localities in which communities and political groups are seeking some form of self-protection and self-rule. None of these factions or territories are self-sustaining; they are all landlocked and depend on external patronage, mainly from regional states but also from their central governments in Iraq and Syria. Many or most have their own militias. At one point in Ninewah province, there were about 15 militias from various communities. Under these conditions, the potential for conflict is as likely to occur within these groups as between them. These changes exist alongside a great deal of societal distress and trauma.
I would also like to comment on the role of regional actors in these weak and hyper-fragmented states. Although no regional state wants to see Iraq and Syria break up, they will continue to take advantage of state weakness by maintaining spheres of interest. Ambassador Jeffrey has talked about the influence of Iran in Iraq and the regions, but there is also Turkey. In Iraq, there is a northern buffer area, including the Kurdistan region, where Turkey exerts control. In other parts of Iraq and in the Kurdistan region, Iran also exerts influence or control. Much of this influence is due to geography; Turkey controls the important and lucrative northern border with the Kurdistan Regional Government, while Iran shares several hundred kilometers of border with Iraq, actually with the Kurdish region. So I would not disagree with Ambassador Jeffrey on Iranian influence, but would emphasize that it extends into the Kurdish region in a significant way, and for other reasons that are also economic and political. I think in the next few years, we should expect that these regional states will continue to take advantage of the weak and highly fragmented Iraqi and Syrian states through proxies and militias.
What are some of the local dynamics and potential conflicts we should be worrying about after ISIS? Settling old scores and disputes over territorial borders, revenues and resources. All of these groups are attempting to secure their interests and authority as part of the spoils of war. This is where the Kurdish referendum is coming from: a contestation for political relevance and an effort to secure resources, oil and territorial borders.
Some of these tensions existed before the ISIS onslaught; they did not just come out of the air in the last three years. In Iraq, the issue of "disputed territories" has existed and developed since 1991. I was with Operation Provide Comfort II — when the United States and its coalition partners created a safe haven for the Kurds in northern Iraq after the Gulf War. At the time, Saddam Hussein's forces withdrew from the northern region but created new contested borders — the "notional Green line" — that have been reconfigured since then. The reconfiguration and contestation of these borders has continued since 2003, when Saddam was overthrown and the Iraqi state fell into civil unrest. Since that period, the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) has taken advantage of state weakness and chaos by pushing into the disputed territories and gradually taking de-facto control.
Although since the ISIS campaign there have been comments from some KRG officials that "this is over" — that is, the issue of the disputed territories — it clearly is not. Although the Kurds have assumed about 40 percent more territory in northern Iraq since 2014, their de-facto control over Kirkuk and its oil fields continues to be contested among various groups, including different Kurdish factions. Although the Kurdish Peshmerga provide important security in these areas, in the minds of many non-Kurdish Kirkukis (Arabs and Turcoman) and other Iraqis, Kirkuk is an integral part of Iraq, and its oil belongs to the Iraqi people. I cannot see how any Iraqi is will simply say, "Go ahead, take this without sharing it with the rest of us."
In Syria, Kurds have expanded their territories by what some say is over 180 percent. This is significant, particularly if you are an Arab or a non-Kurdish person who regarded that territory as your own. Indeed, some of these territorial loses are due to expulsion of ISIS fighters, but much is political and involves settling historical scores or taking advantage of ungoverned spaces or providing security. I think it is important to understand how people on the ground see these changes, apart from expelling ISIS. The dramatic ethnographic and territorial shifts affect the way people are thinking about what's going to happen after ISIS.
Part of this dynamic is about the territorial component: Who is going to get what? How will borders be redefined, and who will have access to what resources and revenues? As in Mosul, most people and regional actors looking at the Raqqa campaign are asking, what will happen afterward? Who will be in charge of Raqqa and hold the territories? There is no way that the YPG — or the SDF, led by the Kurds — can control Raqqa city, which is an Arab territory, without local backlash. This outcome is important for regional actors as well.
Second, there are significant demographic changes that have occurred in the region since the onslaught of ISIS. In Iraq, there has been at one point since 2014, 3.3 million internally displaced people (IDPs). According to the International Office of Migration, about 1.9 million have returned, although over a million-plus IDPs still remain; most are in the Kurdistan region. This is not the disputed territories, but Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, the three provinces of the Kurdistan Region proper. That is an important demographic change, particularly since many of these communities cannot return to their homes. It does not necessarily mean conflict, but it will continue to place additional demands on the KRG to accommodate non-Kurdish communities into their legal, political and societal institutions on a more equal footing — although Arabs have been a positive influence on keeping local markets afloat.
Syria also has experienced significant demographic changes. There are over 11 million IDPs or refugees who need humanitarian assistance. About five million of these refugees are in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and are unlikely to return unless the security situation improves and they have viable services. Those internally displaced have lost nearly everything, and they, too, are likely to remain in other parts of Syria and among different communities and in some cases, new local governance structures. These changes further underline the importance of localities, not only as where new or modified governance and security structures have developed, but as potential sources of conflict and reconciliation.
The third element that can fuel post-ISIS chaos is financial. In thinking about how to mitigate another iteration of ISIS, I would assess the conditions that enabled this terrorist group to emerge. Indeed, ideology will remain an important challenge in the years ahead. But there are also the pressing demands for central governments to meet societal needs after ISIS and civil war: jobs, security and social-welfare services. In Iraq, the government's serious financial pressures will limit its ability to stabilize and reconstruct territories. Before the ISIS onslaught, oil was selling at over $100 a barrel. Today it is hovering at around $50 a barrel. This is not insignificant for a country where oil represents over 95 percent of state revenues and having a job means being employed by the government. Under these conditions, billions of dollars will be needed to reconstruct former ISIS safe havens, most of which are Sunni Arab or in disputed territories. The looming question remains. Who is willing and able to pay for the reconstruction, which is estimated in the tens of billions of U.S. dollars? How can these conditions fuel grievances or encourage frustrations from re-emerging in these territorial wastelands? The financial crisis remains one of my biggest concerns in the year ahead.
The Kurdistan region's financial challenges are even worse. The KRG has accrued tens of billions of dollars of debt since launching its "independent oil exports" in 2014 and the ISIS onslaught. The image of a self-sustaining region is an inaccurate one, not only because of the depressed oil prices, but because the region remains landlocked, and is largely reliant on oil sales from Kirkuk. Of the approximate 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil exported by the KRG, about 400,000 are from Kirkuk and not from fields inside the Kurdistan Region. The oil is discounted and prone to legal and political constraints that will pose important pressure on the region in the years ahead, particularly under depressed oil prices.
So we have to ask, again, who is going to pay to reconstruct and stabilize all of this? If the KRG wants to keep 40 percent more territory — even though it cannot pay the salaries of civil servants in the three provinces of the Kurdistan Region proper — how can it provide salaries, services and security to an additional one million people and an extended 1,000 kilometer border? Similarly, can Baghdad pay for these communities given its own financial crisis? Relying on external support may be a short-term solution, but I think it will be vital — although perhaps unrealistic in the next three years — for Iraq to develop alternative forms of income generation apart from oil sales. There is also a need to develop local resource and revenue sharing within the provinces and the Kurdistan Region, as well as between the provinces and the Iraqi government.
Some of the agreements made between the Iraqi government and Erbil during the fight against ISIS are likely to be revisited after the defeat of ISIS — at least this is what authorities in Baghdad and Erbil have recently stated to me. One of the key issues will be the KRG's oil sales, just as it was before the ISIS onslaught. Although the Iraqi government withdrew the KRG's budget but turned its eye from the oil sales during the campaign against ISIS, it is unlikely to sustain this arrangement. These are deep issues that simply are not going to go away anytime soon.
I don't want to be too depressing about this; I have not offered much good news. (Laughter.) To this end, I want to make a final point of the importance of Iraqi nationalism and its effect on societal resilience — issues that have been lost or under-estimated in the mainstream media and by many pundits. Of course, most people are celebrating the stated defeat of ISIS in Mosul. It is something that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the Kurdish Peshmerga and all of the other forces working together have courageously achieved, and they deserve an enormous amount of credit. The Iraqi Counterterrorism Forces have taken significant losses fighting ISIS to save their country and populations. There is also recognition among the majority of Iraqis that the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) formed in 2014 from a fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the most revered Shia religious leader in Iraq, have been a critical force in this campaign. About 70-75 percent of the PMFs are loyal to Ayatollah Sistani and are Iraqi nationalists. This group, which joined the PMFs as volunteers, may be integrated into the ISF or receive a settlement from the Iraqi government. The problem is with the other 25-30 percent of the PMFs who take their orders from Iran, as Ambassador Jeffrey has indicated. Further, Prime Minister Abadi is not Prime Minister Maliki; he has the support of a large population of Iraqis.
This is a moment in Iraq when people are talking about a civic state. Iraqis want to move beyond sectarianism and are attempting to do so at different levels. Does sectarianism still exist? Of course it does, and it won't go away overnight. However, I would emphasize that Iraqi nationalism is salient among the vast majority of people. Even though Iran does have influence in Iraq and is likely to do so after ISIS, Iraqis do not want Iran controlling their country. The issue is, how can the Iraqi government push back Iran's nefarious influence via its militias?
What can we do then, given these challenges and the pockets of opportunity here at this moment? I do not think we should attempt to fix Iraq and Syria — an approach we took in 2003. Ambassador Jeffrey talked about what's happened already in Afghanistan and Iraq. I do think, however, we should engage where we do have influence and assist in post-ISIS stabilization. First, I think we should move from the tactical issues once the anti-ISIS campaign is over — funding and supporting substate groups who can get stuff done and destroy the enemy — to strategic-level issues that can better ascertain regional stability. In this regard, I think we need to enhance state institutions. The United States and its partners should continue to recognize the sovereignty of the Iraqi and Syrian states. I did not say we have a partner in the Syrian government to work with at this time, but at the end of the day it will be the Syrian people who decide that their territorial borders will remain intact.
This also means reinforcing or modifying the way we deal with substate actors. In Iraq, any support we provide to substate actors to counter ISIS should continue to be channeled through the Iraqi government so that we enhance the institutions of the Iraqi state. This means provincial administrations and the Kurdistan Regional Government as part of the Iraqi government. Anything short of this will undermine the institutions of the state. There are no other pragmatic or viable solutions. Most Iraqis — except for most Kurds — support the territorial integrity of Iraq and Iraqi sovereignty. No regional state wants to see Iraqi borders break up. So instead of continuing to assume and plan around state breakup or the emergence of three homogenous ethnosectarian regions that will emerge from the embers of ISIS, we should be thinking and planning realistically for a more complicated scenario — at least in the near future. This will be two very weak and hyper-fragmented states in which local factions and their militias are trying to secure political leverage. Instead of continuing to refer to the PMFs or conflating all Iraqi Shia with Iran, we should emphasize the distinction, particularly with the surge of Iraqi nationalism at this time.
The United States should also more carefully navigate its engagement with substate groups. We should be aware of their limitations, aims and efforts to gain leverage in post-ISIS Iraq and Syria. Most groups want our support. I think the United States and its partners should be careful, particularly as various groups vie for territories and authority, and not appear to favor one over the others. This is really important, particularly for many Arab communities. Most of the people on the ground that I have spoken to during the anti-ISIS campaign — and it's baffling to me because it's just the opposite of what the United States, in my view, wants to do — ask, "Why do the Americans want to break up Syria and Iraq?" Many have complained that the Americans were acting as the air force for the Kurds, which has fed into the idea that the United States seeks to further weaken or break up the state. So, just as we should move away from the idea that the United States should or can fix the Iraqi or Syrian states, I think it is equally important to avoid overly enabling local groups so that they sense they are no longer accountable to the state but directly to the United States. There are a lot of sensitivities right now, so we should be careful.
I think the United States can also provide technical assistance. Security should be a priority. Given the fragmentation of the state and key U.S. national-security interests — preventing terrorism from hitting the homeland, containing refugee flows and assuring the stability of our regional allies — I think we can assist Iraqis and regional strategic partners with border security. We can also continue to provide Iraqis with training their security forces — local police, federal police, the Peshmerga and other forces affiliated with the Iraqi government. I think this is an important and useful way of extending our resources.
Second is humanitarian relief. Iraq and Syria will need tens of billions of dollars to reconstruct and stabilize territories devastated by war, ISIS and al-Qaeda groups. To date, despite donor conferences, there has been little allocated for this effort. Iraq has secured some World Bank loans, but the country will need additional support to be able to stabilize and reconstruct localities, encourage some IDPs to return to their homes, and provide services expected from local populations. This type of technical support — not nation building — is an essential part of post-ISIS stabilization. My final point is a message to everyone here in the U.S. government, media and think tanks regarding the way we discuss and address Iraq. Take advantage of this moment of revived Iraqi nationalism. Understand that people are tired of war, traumatized and want to rebuild and live normally. I would stop using the simplistic and inaccurate Sunni-Shia-Kurd narratives that most local populations are trying hard to get away from. To continue to talk about Iraq as the "Shia government" when 65 percent of Iraq is Shia, and Iraqis are trying to build a civil state, is incendiary and counterproductive. A more accurate approach would be to refer to Iraq by its territories and localities — Moslawis, Basrawis, Kirkukis, etc., as well as Iraqis. Certainly there is a distinct Kurdistan Region as codified in the Iraqi constitution and a distinct Kurdish national sentiment. But to enforce distinctions where they do not really exist, or are weak, is not helping Iraq move forward after ISIS. Maintaining ethnosectarian narratives will also continue to displace the real security and political challenges and opportunities in Iraq and Syria. These challenges will stem from state breakdown and hyper-fragmentation of communities. Under these conditions, the United States should focus on maintaining provincial structures in place and enhancing the structures of the Iraqi state — and, at some point, the Syrian state within its existing territorial borders.
WA'EL ALZAYAT, CEO, Emgage Foundation; Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service; Former Senior Policy Adviser to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; Former Syria Outreach Coordinator, U.S. Department of State
It's really great to see my former boss, Ambassador Jeffrey, whom I served with and for in Baghdad from 2011 to 2012. Those were the years we were trying to negotiate a follow-on security agreement with the Iraqi government, in which we were ultimately not successful. Those were the years when the Arab Spring was beginning in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Syria. Some would even say that the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 is really what began the trend of people mobilizing on the streets via social media and other means and demanding basic rights of good governance, economic opportunity, freedom of thought, freedom to assemble, things that we take for granted here. Well, perhaps we're not taking it for granted as much as we did before. But it's still relevant today, in my view. The lack of these freedoms continues to be at the root of the instability that we're trying to address right now.
I was born and raised in Damascus, Syria. I grew up in the '80s under Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad. Syria was basically a Stalinist state. You couldn't purchase material or products that were not imported by the state, which, of course, secured handsome taxes and fees and charges to support the economy. You couldn't realistically hope to influence the political trajectory of your society because there was only one president and one party. You couldn't really hope to work hard and perhaps become a successful businessman if you were not connected to the right people in the government and willing to pay bribes at every turn. Syria was, and I'm sure remains, the worst place on earth to do business, according to the World Bank. Maybe Zimbabwe beats it by just a millimeter, but that says something.
I'm not an expert on all the Arab world, but a lot of these dynamics and trends continue to persist, irrespective of the packaging of that country. I'm not going to make a lot of friends in the region this way, but that's the reality. From Morocco to Iran, the region lacks basic rights and opportunities for its citizens. It's who you know and which family you were born into, and where you happen to live, perhaps, that determine your fate.
The lack of access and equal opportunity will continue to generate many forms of radicalization, whether through former leftists of the '60s and '70s and their vision of a socialist region, or Arab nationalism, or now through political Islam. These forces are trying to contest the status quo, and often the response of the powers that be is brute force.
When we look at Iraq and Syria, areas that have been or will be liberated from ISIL, how can we help? I agree with the other speakers that we can't do everything ourselves. In fact, we'll be happy to do a part of it successfully. It's not just the government; it's the people. How can we avoid a return of ISIL or anything else similar to it, irrespective of its ideology? People on the ground could not care less about an ideology when their building is being bombed. Whether it's a Russian bomb, a Syrian regime bomb, an American bomb or an ISIL car bomb, it's the same to them. And I suspect most people, wherever they're living, would feel the same way. They don't care about the source of the problem; they just want it to go away. Then they can think about the source of the problem.
To try to prevent chaos from returning to these regions, we have to ask ourselves: How did it get so bad, and how did ISIL become empowered to wreak havoc on those societies? We can go back into history, but what's important is to focus on what has happened in Iraq and Syria since the U.S. invasion. This does not excuse or overlook what happened before: Saddam's policies, the Iraq-Iran War, Shia-Sunni conflict in the region, disenfranchisement of the Kurds, the lot of the Shia in Iraq, etc. But the ill-conceived U.S. policies and implementation — the disbanding of the Iraqi army and de-Baathification — even though those policies were later rectified, in my opinion, following the U.S. invasion have left serious scars. From the beginning of our tenure in Iraq as an occupying force until our last troops left Iraq, we really never managed to influence the Iraqi government so that they saw themselves as our partner in a joint project to reform the country. It was always contested. And I think our being perceived as an occupying force must have had something to do with it.
Even after our troops left, the government of Maliki, whom we supported until Mosul fell, continued to operate as, in a sense, a government-in-exile. Maliki basically was exiled from his own country by Saddam. And that siege mentality of not trusting the other, particularly those in the Sunni or even Kurdish community — as well as some other Shia politicians — threw a lot of obstacles in our path in terms of getting him and his close advisers to embrace the others in the political spectrum.
Things really deteriorated later. By 2013, 2014, Maliki was dropping barrel bombs over Fallujah. These are things people don't realize or perhaps overlook. It was not on the same scale as what Assad was doing in Syria, but Maliki was perceived to be doing it in Anbar. That's important. The Sunnis of Anbar looked at Maliki the way people in Homs viewed Assad. That's very important, even if the scale and the scope was different.
The central government mismanaged and abused the relationship with the Sunnis — and, to some degree, the Kurds, in terms of not working to finalize some of the outstanding issues; not just the Disputed Internal Boundaries, but how hydrocarbons are shared. Obviously, the blame also goes to the other side. Neither the Kurdish leadership nor the Sunni leadership did what they could and should have done to bridge those divides.
Iranian interference is also very important. We saw firsthand in Iraq what Iranian-supported groups and, in fact, operatives of the Quds Force do. I was the recipient of many, many rockets in the Green Zone, and I know that Ambassador Jeffrey was as well. You can't try to rebuild a society under those conditions. It's very difficult. At best, it just slow-rolls whatever development, good governance and economic projects you're trying to support.
Finally, the region remains very tribal in its mentality, in the way these societies think about each other. We talk about identity politics in Washington, but we have nothing on people in the Middle East — including the Israelis, by the way, and the Iranians and the Kurds, in addition to the Arabs. But I believe that figuring out a formula to support good governance and the economic and freedom agenda for the long term can perhaps weaken those instincts.
When we look at Syria, what Damascus did was basically to throw fuel on the fire. We can discuss whether the United States should have intervened and enforced a red line or not — and, by the way, I believe that we should have — but what happened in Iraq was allowed to metastasize. The cancer was in one part of the body, and it found fertile ground across the border, only to come back to the original site and almost decimate it. I was working for Ambassador Robert Ford as a senior liaison with the Syrian opposition from 2012 till about 2014. We saw how the Assad regime, with its gross human-rights violations, supported by the Iranian government and the Russians and a lot of militias, including Iraqi Shias, basically decimated "opposition areas," including the civilian populations. Not surprisingly, the extremists moved in to fill that void, through many means. To add insult to injury, those same extremists were able to go back to Iraq, rout the U.S.-supported Iraqi security services in Mosul, pick up thousands of items of U.S. equipment and then roll back across the border to almost finish the job in Syria. Those communities that have been decimated, whether in Iraq or in Syria, require our investment if we are serious about preventing chaos from returning.
There are different theories on this: People want to retreat from the region; some want to manage it; some want to double down. What I'm suggesting is not doubling down necessarily. It's being pragmatic and methodical in where we choose to invest, as if we were a stockbroker. The portfolio is a mess, but there are some opportunities even so. The Sunni areas in Iraq right now require massive reconstruction. Mosul is an ancient and important city. Something will happen there whether we're involved or not. I would rather that we be involved in one way or another, just as we got involved with the KRG beginning in 1991. We protected a long-term project there that has resulted in a pretty good ally in the form of the KRG, and a platform from which we conduct not just business but key security operations.
Through that investment, we have done the impossible: transformed the KRG and its leadership into a pretty friendly ally of the Turkish government, particularly since Erdogan has been in power. Erdogan is not easy to deal with, and the Kurds and the Turks supposedly hate each other. But somehow, the Barzani-led KRG works closely with the Turkish government. Something happened there that overcame identity politics. In fact, right now the KRG views other Kurds across the border — the YPG — as a threat to them, and they would rather cooperate with the Turkish government to prevent those Kurds from becoming stronger.
What we did there, we really need to try to replicate. But it'll be a lot harder, at least in the key Sunni centers of both Syria and Iraq. And it has to be done differently; one size will not fit all. In Mosul, we have to work with the KRG and the government of Iraq and the key security services and probably even the Iranians and the Turks and other Kurds on reaching some kind of consensus of how the city will need to be administered and governed moving forward. Nobody will get everything they want, but we've got to be at the table. They will not be able to figure it out on their own. Somebody will win at the expense of someone else, and that someone else will come back in the form of a terrorist organization that we will have to take out five years from now.
The same is true in Anbar Province, particularly in Ramadi and Fallujah. Ramadi was decimated, a city of half a million people. More than 80 percent of its buildings were destroyed during this conflict. You also saw the images of Mosul. It's horrific. A million people left, and they're going to come back or try to.
We have to make sure that there is as close to a representative government structure as possible for Mosul and for Anbar; rapid investment is needed, whether by us, the Gulf states, Turkey or even Iran, if it's transparent. This needs to be accelerated, particularly basic services, basic security and basic governance.
Don't give up on it after six months or 12 months or 18 months, when things become difficult. They are difficult. But I would rather do the investment now, than have to come back in five or 10 years and spend an even greater amount of money. God knows what will emanate from that part of the world — first we had al-Qaeda, then ISIL, which made al-Qaeda look like child's play. What's going to come after ISIL? I don't want to find out.
But here's something to note. We should work through the government of Iraq (GOI) but without it if we must, just as we have done for the KRG. This is why the KRG has succeeded. This doesn't mean we've recognized their independence. We have enabled it in the long term, but for now we try to work with the GOI. When they aren't cooperative, we work directly with the KRG. We should do the same for the Sunni areas of Iraq. Keep the three parts tethered together; condition our support on their remaining part of Iraq and trying to play nice with the central government. We go to them directly for support, particularly economic, security and also governance. And it's not just us. When we lead, as I have seen in Iraq, other countries come with us, whether it was the original invasion or the counter-ISIL campaign: We somehow, brought together over 60 countries in a matter of months.
For Syria, I think the same principles hold: governance, security, economy. They've worked before, and I think they'll continue to. But in Syria, it's more complicated, obviously, because we don't work with the Assad regime, and I do not think that we should. But now we have an opportunity. We have special forces and local allies holding territory in southern Syria, in the northern regions with Turkey, and around Raqqa. This is something we did not have a few years ago: territory. And, as I mentioned, the region is tribal, very nineteenth century. People like to gobble up territory, and we have our own piece now. I know it sounds colonial, but that's just the reality of the region. We're there, and we've invested in partners, whether they're Kurd or Arab. We need to expand that, and do what our adversaries have been doing: Get on the ground, tolerate higher risk, build relationships.
We've tested the regime and the Russians; they blinked. I'm not saying they will blink again, but they have so far. When they encroached on those areas, we responded. And, unlike what some of my former colleagues from the Obama administration said, World War III has not started.
Could escalation happen and lead us to a terrible spot? Yes, absolutely. But I think we should act to expand these areas of de-escalation and establish deterrence — so we can go to the Russians and ask them not to bomb our guys, because they're not really terrorists. I also think we should continue to invest in any political track, even negotiating with the Iranians, and quietly with the regime. But when they don't respect our parameters, we should prevent gross violation of human rights against the population anywhere in Syria, whether it's barrel bombs or chemical weapons that are used. When they don't honor that, I think we have to respond to establish and maintain deterrence.
We have a proof of concept that has worked now. When the regime transgresses too much, it gets whacked. It quiets down for a bit, then will test it out again. That's what Assad does. You whack him again. But you signal properly why are you doing the whacking. We're doing it because they did X. We have no intention of overthrowing the regime. Communicate it to the Russians and the Iranians to make sure their personnel get out of there so you don't have World War III. All of this is temporary in Syria because the longer term is unknown. You want to codify these quiet areas and zones through some kind of decentralization agreement with the government, supported by the Russians and the Iranians.
In supporting the long-term project of true reconciliation, you continue to invest in the Geneva negotiations and other quiet diplomatic tracks. It might be a 10-20-year project, but if you establish deterrence in those areas, you're able to decrease the killing, decrease the displacement, and maybe even entice some people to go back to their homes rather than risk crossing the Mediterranean. It's not a perfect solution, but it is better than what we have seen the last six years. But it requires the ability to increase and keep the pressure on the regime, and even on the Russians when you have to.
This means the United States with its partners, whether they're Arab or European or others, remains committed to a more focused strategy and getting away from the rhetoric. But words do matter; we should always articulate our support for good governance, equal opportunity in economic development, and sound security policies and counterterrorist approaches. Just because we're fighting ISIL or a terrorist organization, does not mean that the region has to choose between stability and democracy. That's a false choice. It's insulting. There are hundreds of millions of people our age in the region. People deserve both stability and freedom. They have an impact on one another. And we've seen our focus on stability and security in the form of dictators we have put up with come back to haunt us.
From Morocco to Iran, the region requires investment in capacity-building and security, but also support for the groups and forces that are advocating for an open society and freedom. Leaning quietly, even on our friends in those countries that have done well by us on the security front, is necessary on these issues. We can't support what they're doing to repress their own citizens; they take that as a blank check to do as they wish.
PAUL SALEM, Vice President, Policy Analysis, Research & Programs, Middle East Institute; Founding Director, Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon; Former Director, Fares Foundation
I'm originally from Beirut, Lebanon. I ran the Carnegie Middle East Center there and I run a Lebanese think tank. I lived through 15 grueling years of the Lebanese civil war, which had a lot of domestic components but also a lot of regional and international ones as well, a war that only ceased after eight years of negotiation and the end of the Cold War. I lived through the 2006 war, have been involved in civil-society and political-reform efforts in the very complicated small country that is Lebanon, where, as Ambassador Jeffrey has indicated, there is tremendous Iranian influence through Hezbollah. But it also has a vibrant civil society, an extremely inclusive political system and different power centers inside the country.
We're looking today at the chaos in Iraq and Syria, and indeed, it is a condition of chaos. I would point to two dynamics that have informed it. One has been talked about ably by Wa'el, my colleague — the struggle for human rights or, even more mundanely, government that is reasonable, accountable, inclusive, not utterly brutal and not utterly exclusive. Obviously, the story of Iraq from before 2003 is much of that story, and a lot of that is still going on.
The Syria situation effectively started as such in 2011, turned into a shooting war, largely by the design of the regime, which preferred that over discussion of political reform. But still, people in the twenty-first century in the Arab world are becoming more informed and empowered and are demanding a reasonable government, not necessarily an ideal one. We saw this throughout the region in 2011, but also ferocious backlashes by governments, by regional powers, sometimes helped by external ones, sometimes not. Only Tunisia has managed to sort of move forward in that regard. I think that domestic struggle for political inclusion and some basic respect for what people want politically is still extremely relevant, in both Iraq and Syria. We've heard how Prime Minister Maliki dealt with some areas and even the Kurds, and we certainly see how President Assad deals with his own people.
The second aspect of the chaos, obviously, is a fight for the region, for hegemony or influence. This is not the first time this has happened in the Middle East. In World War I, the Turks were kicked out, and the region was dominated by France and Britain for a couple of decades. After World War II, the French and the British left. There was the emergence of an Arab or Arab-dominated order with support from either the United States or the Soviet Union. That led to a period of war within the Arab state system, mainly between Egypt, backed by Russia and Saudi Arabia, and some other more conservative states backed by the United States. If you recall, this caused civil war in Yemen, regime change in Syria, Iraq, Libya and many other places contesting regional domination — Egypt and the Gulf countries at that time, and the United States and Russia.
We are now seeing another struggle for regional and international influence in the Middle East. The Arab order has broken down, and we are living through the emergence of an Iranian-Arab disorder. Iran has a very dominant position throughout all the cities of the Levant: Basra, Baghdad, Mosul, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Damascus, Latakia, Tartus and Beirut. The Sunni states' attempts over the first last few years to prevent that have failed. I would say the United States was rather passive in this struggle under the Obama administration and Russia took advantage of it. We are now in a situation where Iran indeed has a dominant presence regionally in the Levant and a significant foothold in Yemen.
I want to talk today about a SWOT analysis— strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — for Iraq and Syria as a way to get a handle on what chaos is. Even in chaos there are patterns, there are dynamics. They are both involved in civil wars, and these do take a long time — but they also usually end. Civil wars, like all wars, are the continuation of politics by other means; so it's people wanting something, it's not just chaos. You could say that the Middle East itself is in a kind of civil war in the sense of countries struggling to see what role they can get and how they ensure their security and their interests.
Doing a SWOT analysis of Iraq, looking at its strengths first and building on what my colleague Denise Natali ended with, what are some of the positives, particularly in comparison to Syria? First, it does have political institutions, a constitution and elections. They're not perfect, but they have much more to recommend them than other countries in the Arab world do. It's the beginning of this system, but it presents a lot of opportunities and something that can be built on. The central government does include ministers and deputies from all communities and all regions. There are elections coming up early next year, and that's nothing to ignore.
Second, I think the national armed forces — whether the army itself, the counterterrorism unit, the federal police in cooperation with the Peshmerga, which you could say are state forces in the sense that they're part of a decentralized semiofficial military force — have been rebuilt, after having collapsed in 2014. And in the Arab world, the army is often the backbone of the state; without that, you don't have much. So it's quite important that Iraq has a resurgent national armed force that, unlike that of Syria, is not seen as exceedingly partisan or answering just to a family. It has some potential for more broad acceptance.
You have a leader, a prime minister, who's moderate and broadly accepted, unlike the one in Syria. From the victory over ISIS this week and throughout the previous fight, the experience of these various armed forces — the national Baghdad-based forces, the Kurdish forces or Peshmerga, and the various units of the popular mobilization units. As Dr. Natali said, many of these are just patriotic Iraqis of various communities and groups who were fighting to beat ISIS and to preserve Iraq. The shared experience of fighting side by side and dying together — unlike the Kurdish memories of fighting the Iraqi forces and dying on opposite sides — can be built on in the weeks and months ahead. The victory over ISIS is no small affair, and it's now part of Iraqi national history, Iraqi national pride. That should be something to build on.
Another thing that we often ignore is that Iraq has reasonably good relations with pretty much all the major powers in the region and globally, unlike Syria, which is very bitterly aligned on one side. Even Saudi Arabia and the GCC have made tentative steps. Adel Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, is going to Iraq; maybe it's something they should have done much earlier. But that is an advantage for Iraq. Yes, there is a lot of Iranian influence, but Iran doesn't run Iraq by any stretch of the imagination. They want to build on these relations with all their neighbors and with the global powers, from the United States to China.
Finally, on the positive side, Iraq does have oil. Prices are low, but it does have something to use. Unfortunately, there are also high levels of corruption and mismanagement, but they do have something to try to move forward on.
As to weaknesses, ISIS has been beaten in Mosul, but the war with ISIS is far from over. ISIS still controls a number of towns and regions in Iraq, and there are enormous desert stretches where they could survive and try to become ISIS 2.0 or 3.0. ISIS will be with Iraq for a very long time. A key question, other than how the war on ISIS will continue in Iraq, is this: ISIS in 2014 was allowed in or even welcomed, in a sense, by some Sunni regions or communities. But living under ISIS for the last three years might have created different conditions. We don't yet know where that will go.
There are other weaknesses. As Iraqi officials themselves and Kurdish officials will say — and has been mentioned here — there is really no effective plan to rebuild Mosul or to revive it or repatriate people. There might be broad outlines of a plan, but there are certainly nothing like the resources to do it. So, yes, Mosul is "liberated." It's also destroyed and dead. And it's very difficult to see how life will return in any short time span.
Third, on the weaknesses side, you do have the popular mobilization units. As Dr. Natali said, many of them are Iraqis who responded to Sayyid Sistani's call to defend the country and are doing the right thing. Many of them might go home if Sistani issues another fatwa to do so, but 20, 25, 30 percent are closely linked to Iran. It's quite clear that the Revolutionary Guards in Iran and Qassem Soleimani, their commander, want to build and maintain a kind of Hezbollah-like independent military force in Iraq, particularly if the national army is not under their control. It might be a model they want to replicate. They have that in Lebanon, and they might want that in Iraq. They have something like it in Syria, and they have the potential of something like it in Yemen.
That creates a sort of Iranian-managed expeditionary force of anything from 115,000 to 200,000. Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, a couple of weeks ago said that in the next war with Israel, this expeditionary force, as it were, will bring tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of fighters from Iraq, from Syria, from Pakistan, from Afghanistan to Lebanon to fight. That is his clarification of this idea of a kind of expeditionary force that is really massive. So the challenge to Iraq of what to do with the popular mobilization units, particularly with that core, is a big one.
The government of Iraq is one of the most corrupt and ineffective in the world. That is an enormous problem. There is no real Sunni-Shia reconciliation process of any depth taking place. The Kurdish question — Kurdish desires and wishes — will be taken up in a referendum on independence in September. This whole question remains hanging over Iraq as well; and within the leadership in Baghdad, Prime Minister Abadi and different groups, Shiites and others, there is strong contestation. Maliki is trying to come back, as is Hadi al-Amiri and others with backing from Iran. So there is a lot going on within Iraq that is very troubling.
Moving on to threats, I'm going to focus just on what concerns the United States. Obviously, the continuing threat from ISIS, which, as I said, will survive. Yes, it's taken a body blow, and I think it hurts their brand. ISIS overtook al-Qaeda as a global brand because they were successful, because they were able to take over so much territory and declare a caliphate and hold it for a number of years. The fact that the caliphate is being effectively defeated and that they will revert to being more like an al-Qaeda network that launches attacks will hurt their recruitment, certainly, and their capacity. But they aren't going away. The threats they might pose to Europe and the United States will continue and might even intensify. If they don't have cities, maybe they will invest more in international attacks.
The second threat, as Ambassador Jeffrey said, is the Iranian armed forces, the armed militia groups and the influence that they have in Iraq. That is part of a Middle Eastern strategy, an expeditionary force, which by definition runs counter to the principle of states and state sovereignty. The Revolutionary Guards' attempt to have armed forces that answer directly to them in at least four Middle Eastern states — maybe five if they hope for Bahrain at a later date or eastern Saudi Arabia — is extremely dangerous.
How that will impact the United States I think depends very much on the U.S.-Iranian relationship. And the United States and Iran have become extremely intertwined in Iraq and Syria. The United States has forces there; Iran has forces there. They can possibly coexist, tentatively. But if there is any serious escalation between the United States and Iran that might come to blows in Iraq, might come to blows in Syria as well, that is something that should be of great concern to be United States.
On the opportunity side, I would ask, what does this analysis mean for U.S. policy, opportunities or effectively soft recommendations in Iraq? First, obviously, stay the course in the fight against ISIS in remaining areas after ISIS has at least been pushed out of Mosul. Maintain a strong political and diplomatic engagement in Iraq. In an article that my colleague Randa Slim and I wrote a couple of months ago, we called for a diplomatic surge. This runs counter to current budget proposals that are decimating the State Department. I would say there's a lot of political work, now that the major fight against ISIS is winding down, for a more political and diplomatic surge in Iraq, partly for helping domestically with the challenges of the Iraqi government as well — fairly bankrupt, high levels of corruption, very uncertain future relations between Baghdad and Erbil and along the Sunni-Shia divided. I agree with Denise, however, that that is not a fully accurate way to describe things, but there is a Sunni-Shiite problem, reconciliation issues and so on, that need to be addressed. The United States can be helpful, but it can't fix the problem.
Also diplomatically, the United States, while it doesn't have the resources by itself to throw at many of these issues or the ability to dictate a solution, is still the most influential global player and can marshal its influence with regional players and internationally to help Iraq move forward. In my analysis, I hope I've indicated that Iraq does have a way forward, with its functioning constitution and political system. It's not hopeless. It's gone through very difficult conditions, but I think it has a way forward and might be able to make it.
I think it's very important in Iraq for the United States to manage the relationship with Iran. That means being both very clear and very firm with Iran as to what the United States will tolerate and what it will not. I think the way the United States has acted in Syria is correct in the sense of sending a clear signal backed by force — not excessive, not escalatory, and very clear as to why it's being done. I think the Iranians understand that. The Iranians are in some senses a paper tiger. They are not an extremely powerful state, but they have mastered the expeditionary-force approach to gaining influence in broken states. However, they are no match, obviously, for the United States or even some of the other conventional armies in the region.
Let me turn to Syria and a SWOT analysis there as well, starting with the weaknesses. Indeed, there are very few positives in Syria, particularly after we look at Iraq. There is no inclusive state or vaguely inclusive or democratic institutions at all, and there are unlikely to be any in the foreseeable future. There is no real political process underway. Geneva exists, but not in any serious way. So there's no political path that's taking place. The armed forces are not national; they're not accepted in any national sense, and there is no accepted national leader whatsoever. There is no viable alternative for disgruntled opposition or Sunni forces in Syria — unlike in Iraq, where there are at least elections. You might complain, but there is a way forward. There is no such thing in Syria.
The war against ISIS in Mosul, Iraq, has been won. The war for Raqqa, Syria, is just beginning. It might be very difficult and very long. A lot of the gains that were made in the first few weeks, just in the recent past, have been lost. The force assembled to take Raqqa is not as battle-hardened or formidable as the force in Iraq, nor in Syria do you have the support and cooperation of the central government and all the other players. So, although Raqqa is smaller than Mosul, it might be a very difficult and long slog. And after Raqqa, there is the question, obviously, of Deir Ezzor at the border with Iraq.
Unlike in Iraq, when you get beyond ISIS in Syria, there is a massive al-Qaeda presence. It's organized; it has built enormous grassroots alliances, and it is and will continue to be a very serious threat to Syria, to the region, to Europe and to the United States. And it is not currently part of a really prioritized strategy.
In Syria as well, even more than in Iraq, there is a massive Iranian expeditionary force and also some direct Iranian control over the central government. It used to be an Assad government. I would have to say, now it's kind of an Iranian-controlled government with Assad in the post of president, with backing from Russia — very different than Iraq or Lebanon. Unlike Iraq, Syria doesn't have good relations regionally or internationally. It has two allies, Iran and Russia, and one big militia, Hezbollah. It's sort of at odds with everybody else. And Syria has no significant oil resources and truly meager economic resources. It has been way more devastated in all of its major cities, when you compare it to Iraq. So reconstruction, normalization and stabilization in Syria are very difficult to see.
On the positive side, ISIS is gradually being beaten back. There is general war fatigue in the regime and even Hezbollah and other supporters of the regime as well as the opposition and the people. War fatigue often is an entry point either to a de-escalation or ceasefires, which we're seeing some of now, or to some serious negotiations. We have seen in the last year or year and a half some serious progress towards limited ceasefires here and there, de-escalation zones and so on, something we didn't even hear about in the first four years of the conflict. I think that's indicative of where the conflict is going, possibly towards an unstable kind of de-escalation for a while.
There is in Syria some possibility of U.S.-Russian cooperation. We saw meetings between the two presidents at the G-20 summit. The de-escalation zones, stabilization and so on are things conceivably that the United States and Russia could agree on. The United States has been firm with the Assad regime — I point that out as a positive — and with Iran-backed militias. They've sent those messages and achieved some compliance rather than any furious feedback. The regional players, including Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others, have all scaled back their ambitions from where they were in 2012, '13 and '14. All of them offer some positive hope for some progress.
In terms of threats to the United States and why this matters, the situation in Syria is going to go on for many years, maybe a decade, maybe more. There is no resolution in sight. This is likely to produce more refugee flows and more radicalization, particularly if there is no political resolution. So there is that general threat Syria has been exporting since 2012.
Second, ISIS, as I mentioned, will still be present in some parts of Syria. It will survive this onslaught and be a threat. Al-Qaeda is surviving and is an enormous threat. The survival of the Assad regime — and it is surviving — will continue to generate radicalization itself. Iran and Hezbollah, which used to have an ally in the Assad regime but weren't present in Syria on their own, now effectively run Syria and are deployed in Syria as well. I think that particularly destabilizes the Israeli northern border, which had been stable since the war of 2006 with a kind of mutual-deterrence understanding between the two sides. But with Hezbollah and Iran now deployed also in Syria, I think that creates a very troubling strategic destabilization and increases the risk at least of another Hezbollah-Israel-Iran local war.
On U.S. policy recommendations: stay the course on defeating ISIS in Raqqa and then other parts of Syria. Whether the regime takes Deir Ezzor or somebody else has to, is not clear. Give importance, certainly, as in Mosul, after the liberation of Raqqa to reconstruction and repatriation. It's not as big as Mosul, but that certainly will have to be an urgent priority.
I would say, try to work toward what might be an achievable goal in Syria: de-escalation and a kind of unstable, fragile freezing of the conflict. I think this is within reach, but I don't think it is likely. I think the Assad regime-Iranian-Russian strategy so far has been to fight a battle, take a town or two, sue for a ceasefire or a temporary freeze, rest, regroup and then take the next chunk. I think if they look back at their track record since the Russian intervention, that strategy is working. They are taking region after region. And as they advance, the GCC countries and the Turks have walked back. The United States has effectively either allowed it or walked back. I think the regime can figure that if they took back Aleppo and all of these regions in the last year or two, six years down the road they will still be soldiering on.
That's very troubling, because unlike in Iraq, there is no political context to make a return of the Syrian state acceptable to the people. It will not be. Yes, they are tired. Yes, they might simply accept peace for a while. But all of this started because of politics, and wars are a continuation of politics by other means. An Assad victory backed by Iran and Russia, even if it succeeds, is eventually going to fail. And while it's succeeding, it will generate refugees, radicalization, and problems for the region, Europe and the United States. Then, when it fails, it will cause the same thing again. I'm not sure if a ceasefire is attainable, but maybe it can give a number of years of relief to people until there's an opportunity to achieve what is really necessary: a serious political settlement of very legitimate grievances, as Dr. Alzayat says.
Q & A
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
There are other places in which ISIS needs to be engaged militarily — Tal Afar, for example. But once that is all concluded, there are probably other reasons ISIS could survive, at least as an idea and an insurgency. People have argued that reconstruction of liberated areas is important, humanitarian assistance is necessary and governance is necessary. Has there been any real reconstruction in Fallujah or Ramadi? Can we expect any in Mosul? And if we don't get that, can we expect the same grievances that gave rise to ISIS to continue to feed it? How much would it cost in money, time and personnel to do that reconstruction? Is there any commitment from Washington or from our partners in the region to do that?
DR. NATALI: ISIS remnants are active in places like Diyala, in western Iraq, in Anbar, in Hawija, in Tal Afar. I do not want to take away from the important victory in Mosul, but we're kidding ourselves to think that this entity just disappeared. There are very important security threats that remain. As some of my Iraqi colleagues tell me, in Anbar and places like Sinjar and those areas, some ISIS fighters have shaved their beards and walked back into these towns. It's very difficult when you don't have the kind of justice and political system in place and necessary resources to prosecute the different types of ISIS affiliates and fighters and make sure they don't come back. Some part of this is happening within the Sunni Arab community — retribution, revenge and killings of ISIS affiliates within the community. But there are still many of these guys walking around. I remain concerned about sleeper cells and those who have been brainwashed by ISIS. There are some problems in Tikrit, which was initially used as an example because the university got started up immediately. And where ISIS no longer controls territories it is still acting like an insurgent group.
Linking this to reconstruction, some estimates are as much as $100 billion for Iraq alone if you are talking about really going in and fixing all these areas. I think it would be misleading to think that all the IDPs are going to go back to their areas. Some areas will not be livable for a very long time. We have to rethink instead about the nature of governance and security structures in localities that used to be ethnically or religiously homogeneous, but which no longer are. As I indicated previously, there are about one million Arab communities living as IDPs inside the Kurdistan region — many for nearly three years. They probably aren't going to go back to their localities in the near future, because they can't.
The other concern is how to rehabilitate some of these areas. Many localities, alongside the Iraqi government, do not have the capacity to do so. In some cases, the problems of reconstruction have little to do with ISIS and are more about competition for resources. Groups are fighting among themselves. There is also corruption. So we have to be realistic about the time frame. Some of the reconstruction is occurring slowly. But I think there needs to be third-party assistance. That doesn't necessarily mean the United States has to do it. We have funding constraints and political unwillingness for a long-term commitment or what appears to be nation-building. But groups like the United States Institute of Peace have done fantastic work in local mediation and institution building. I also think that reconciliation should be addressed at local levels. Reconstruction assistance should be channeled through the Iraqi government and these local councils; it's going to take a very long time.
AMB. JEFFREY: I agree with Denise's points. We normally talk of the dysfunction in the Middle East, and none of us have been all that optimistic this morning, but there's some good news that I've seen repeatedly.
When we look at this from a typical Western standpoint, we're talking about $100 billion to rebuild Fallujah. We didn't put a whole lot of money into rebuilding it after we took it apart in 2004. Yet bit by bit, the place returned to something like normalcy. What flipped it into the hands of ISIS — the first major place in Iraq to fall under its control — was not failed reconstruction or lousy sewage services. It was the oppression of the Maliki government, for reasons that are complicated. That opened the door to ISIS. So you're going to have to deal with a very messy situation.
The other thing is, as we've seen in both Jordan and Turkey, although there are refugee camps, what's amazing is what a high percentage of the people who've fled Iraq have been absorbed into the local populations. And they aren't even family groups. Of course, in a place like Anbar, everybody is a member of an extended family, a clan and a tribe. Much of the region is still rural. It isn't as if you destroyed 80 percent of the buildings in Washington. Where would all those people go? But people have been living in crises of this sort in both Syria and Iraq for a long time.
The important thing is that there is a process underway to start making things better in these cities. It's not beyond the ken of the local government in Iraq, the United States, the international community, the 69- or 70-nation coalition and the Arab states, to be doing that. As Denise said, politics drives, in the end, all internal and international conflicts, knocking off the oppression of the local population by people from the other side who are bullying and threatening those who think they deserve to be there and the people with the guns don't.
DR. NATALI: We focus on reconstruction, but my bigger concern is salaries and young people and jobs. As Ambassador Jeffrey said, people can live if some of their areas aren't fully reconstructed. But in my last trip, I had the opportunity to speak to a lot of different youth, mainly in the north. The sense of hopelessness is very significant. Most told me that they have become apathetic. Some are radicalizing and will join the Salafists or the PKK. Why? They say they have no hope — there is no income or revenue or political freedom. Thus we should consider the financial situation of the Iraqi state, which includes the Kurdistan region, and ask: what types of opportunities are there for radicalized groups to come in and take advantage of these economic and political grievances, and the hoards of young people without jobs and loitering around? The sense of hopelessness is the issue I would be focusing on, which includes their grievances.
DR. SALEM: It's not a binary relationship — if you don't reconstruct, then ISIS comes back, one way or the other. And as Ambassador Jeffrey says, I think the key is the politics of it. From the Baghdad side, it's very important for the government — whether under its current prime minister or another — to reach out to those Sunni regions and make them feel like permanent, invested partners in the central government and empowered locally in the provincial elections that are going to take place next year.
On the Sunni side, I think there's an enormous challenge as well. One of the main problems now is that these Sunni areas do not have clear leadership. Among the Shiite communities, there are different parties, leaders and people to talk to, people to make deals with. Among the Kurds, there are leaders and people to make deals with. But these enormous Sunni communities are not organized politically and have no clear political leadership. In order to move forward, the local elections that are coming are healthy and necessary.
The United States might be able to play a role along with some of the big Sunni states, particularly in the Gulf. When the Syrian uprising erupted, they also saw that there might be an opportunity in Iraq, and when there were problems between the Maliki government and the Sunnis of Iraq, the signal from there was, yes, revolt, push the advantage, hoping that the Assad regime would fall, and that would cause a Sunni resurgence in Iraq as part of this regional competition. That, I think, led the Sunnis of Iraq down a very dangerous and destructive path.
Talking about a political surge that the United States might be part of, it is important now for Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, maybe Qatar as well, and the Turks, to the degree that they have influence with the Iraqis, to signal that the Iraqi government is a partner, and to encourage all Iraqis, including the Sunnis, to engage with the state, locally and nationally, and for those Gulf countries to be primary contributors in the reconstruction of these areas. That is a hard sell. It's difficult. But I think it's something to attempt.
DR. MATTAIR: I think Jim rightly laid some blame on al-Maliki, but al-Abadi is a different person. He's using the term "functional federalism." What does he mean by that, and what are the prospects for his conception to succeed?
AMB. JEFFREY: It's a campaign promise, not a deeply invested program. There are some efforts in the Iraqi parliament right now, particularly in the Sunni areas, to have a bit more self-government. But there's considerable provision in the constitution for that. The problem is that it was never enacted into law. Thus, the only place where you had effective local self-government was in the Kurdistan area, because all their arrangements had been grandfathered in the 2005 constitution.
The speaker of the parliament was going to be here next week, but he just canceled his visit, supposedly because they are working on these actions. That's one way forward. The issue will be whether the governing parties in Baghdad will actually go through with that and allow those people some autonomy — the Sunni areas primarily, because that's where ISIS was present. In some of the Shia areas as well, there's a lot of interest in local self-government, in Basra and Misan. But we'll just have to see. These are ideas that have been out there many times. Ammar al-Hakim had them back a decade ago, or his father. They come and go. It's kind of like campaign promises in America.
DR. MATTAIR: On things that could continue to feed ISIS or radicalism, let's talk for a minute about the Kurdish-Arab border regions and those areas that are contested, and how it is understood by the Arabs who see those areas slipping away, including Kirkuk and the oil revenues. What are the prospects for resolving the way the Kurds have taken more and more territory beyond the KRG?
DR. NATALI: As I indicated, this issue of the territories disputed by Kurdish and Iraqi Arab communities has been going on for decades and is not resolved. In the 2005 constitution of Iraq, there was an article called Article 140 that was supposed to legally resolve the issues of disputed areas. By that I mean a way for the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi government to negotiate claims of territories, resources, and authority. Yet the constitution was intentionally left vague, which has made the issues of determining control more difficult to resolve officially.
So what did the Kurds do instead? Out of frustration and opportunities available, they have attempted to resolve the issue outside of the constitution. During my time working in the region from 2005 until 2010, and as the Iraqi government remained weak, the Kurds gradually took de facto control over some of the disputed territories. So the KRG's territorial expansion did not just happen with the ISIS campaign. It has been able to reinforce or further expand this control as part of the anti-ISIS campaign, which was based on the approach of working with local partners on the ground. Yet one of the unintended consequences was that, while the Kurds expelled ISIS from territories, they assumed further de facto control over these areas.
As I indicated, some Kurdish leaders have stated that this is resolved. You've heard them say that Article 140 is over. We have the territories. They're ours. Some have also made antagonistic statements like, we'll never have Arabs rule us again. I do not think that such statements are accurate or helpful particularly since non-Kurdish communities do not see it this way. So the KRG can have de facto control because everybody else is weak. This is why, in the short term, I don't think there is much that others can do to militarily "re-take" the territories. As Paul indicated, there is no real Arab leader right now to challenge the facts on the ground. That doesn't mean these issues are going to go away. The Iraqi government may not be willing or able to invest its resources or energies into fighting the KRG over Kirkuk at this time. For some, the attitude is that these territories are largely Sunni Arab, and Sunni Arab communities will address this issue. Also, the issue of territorial control is not just about Arabs. There are Turkmen in Kirkuk who, when the Kurds raised the flag, made a very big to-do about it. Other communities such as the Yezidis or Assyrians in other disputed areas of Ninewah also don't necessarily want to be part of the Kurdistan Region. They're split between supporting Baghdad and Erbil, or neither.
So no, the disputed territories issue is not resolved. How are the Kurds planning to resolve it? Have a referendum, and not only for the reason of independence. The key issue is if the disputed areas be included in this referendum. Even if they are, the outcome will still be based on a unilateral decision that is considered illegitimate by many. This is why I think while the Kurds have every right to dream and desire independence, the staging of the referendum is antagonistic to internal stability. I do not think that these borders should be officially delineated in such a way right now. Rather, the Iraqi government has proposed to go back to the drawing board. There are some areas that can be under the de facto control of the Kurdistan Region and some that cannot. There are also legal issues, like exporting oil outside of official state pipeline infrastructure.
My final point is to be careful what you wish for. An additional 40 percent of territory is a lot of land and populations to secure. I reiterate: at a time of financial distress, who's going to pay for this? If the KRG wants to claim these territories as part of Kurdistan then it will have to take charge of a million people and secure the borders and share revenues and authority within. This is, I would say, one of the most important issues that might engender chaos. Nineveh can be more troublesome than Kirkuk. It is conflict-prone because of its many different minority communities as well, like the Yazidis, Hashd al Shaabi, PKK, and other militia groups.
Thus, the disputed territories issue is not just between the Kurds and the Iraqi government in Baghdad anymore. It is now part of a hyper-fragmented, post-ISIS Iraq. There are now various communities and their militias trying to exert influence and seeking to become politically relevant. This also goes beyond a Kurd-Arab issue. We need to be aware of these shifting dynamics and sensitivities and avoid enabling substate actors to create even more facts on the ground while everybody else is trying to claim these territories.
DR. MATTAIR: There's a third challenge: the presence of the Iranian-backed popular mobilization forces. Even if it's only 25-30 percent, what do we do with them? This comes back to your major point, Jim, that what we really need to worry about is Iranian domination. What should we expect the government to do with those forces after military operations in Mosul are finished? How much would it diminish Iran's ability to influence events inside Iraq? I ask because I assume the presence of Iranian-backed Shia militias is another reason for ISIS to continue breathing.
AMB. JEFFREY: That's been the experience we've had in two countries over a number of years. So it's a logical starting point to assume that it's not going to change in the future. It's not just Iranian dominance, I would agree. The Iranians may not be able to dominate Iraq the way they are in the process of dominating Syria. It may be more like their role in Lebanon, where they have the ability to veto any action of the state that is seen as inimical to their larger interests. That's probably more what they're shooting for.
Their larger interests include, to the extent they can, eliminating or playing down U.S., Arab and Turkish influence in Iraq, and slowing down — and to some degree, if possible, reversing — Iraq's integration into the global economy and the global system. That's complicated, because — and Lebanon's the best example — you can have a country that in many respects, including financially, is integrated into the global system. Basically, the Iranians are OK with this; it tends to help with some of the problems of governance and the economy, so they don't have to worry about them.
But it's hard for Iraq, because of how different it is from Lebanon, to integrate into the global economy, even the energy economy, without a whole lot of support from international institutions, and the United States in particular. Unlike Lebanon, it wasn't in a prior period integrated in that way. So that will be an area of conflict.
The best way out of this would be, of course, to cut a deal and agree that we don't want to see ISIS come back. And too much Iranian interference or too much oppression by Baghdad leads to ISIS's coming back. We both want Iraq to be unified. We do not want Kurdistan to break off and be at permanent war or fall totally into the hands of the Turks. As we've seen in Yemen and Qatar, we're not always happy with, if not the goals, the tactics of the Saudis in this region. So there should be a way to Finlandize Iraq. This operates on the assumption that you're dealing with a rational Iranian government. With Rouhani and Zarif you are. With Qassem Soleimani, I absolutely do not believe you are. I believe he thinks he's on a roll. They have a powerful new ally, if not totally 100 percent with them, in Russia. And I see no reason why this guy is going to pull back. That means we either retreat or there'll be some kind of confrontation in Iraq.
DR. NATALI: We have to remember one thing: There are certain things we can realistically do and things we cannot. Geography matters, particularly when you share a border and are landlocked. There's a 350-plus kilometer border that Iraq shares with Iran which will allow continued Iranian influence in the country. In addition to Tehran's influence in Baghdad and parts of the southern regions, Iran has important commercial, business and political ties with the Kurdistan Region. We also have to remember that when ISIS overtook Mosul in June 2014 the U.S. lost a lot of political capital because we waited months to do anything. I understand that Maliki was in power and we did not want to lend him support politically, but the Iranians were there the next day. And in the Kurdish north, too. Many Iraqis say that had the Iranians not come, Baghdad would have fallen. Kurds also expressed gratitude and recognized Iran for its security assistance. That is still true. Thus, it is unrealistic to think that we can push back all Iranian influence. Rather, we can attempt to limit it. That's one point.
Second, I reiterate that we should not underestimate Iraqi nationalism. It's misleading to think that Iraqis will let the Iranians just do whatever they want. There already is important influence from the marja-iyya in Najaf and Ayatollah Sistani. At last year's demonstrations in Baghdad and more recently at some of the universities in southern Iraq, the Sadrists, perhaps for their own reasons, were chanting "Iran, get out. Iran, get out."
We should pay attention to Sistani's succession to see how Iran attempts to influence Najaf. I would pay attention to some of those potential dynamics and signals, while also focusing on where and how the Iraqis have and continue to push back the Iranians to the extent that they can. So pay attention to what Iraqis are saying about Iran — and this is from Shia communities, by the way.
To this end, we should enhance the institutions of the Iraqi state. I would build upon or support Iraqi nationalist leaders and institutions, including Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga, to push back or weaken Iranian-backed militias. At the same time I would be very careful about overplaying ways to check Iran that can fuel sectarianism or backfire. Pushing for Gulf-state investment for Sunni Arab regions or "getting Sunni states to reconstruct Sunni areas" at a time when Iraqis are attempting to build a civic state and work through provincial authorities will fuel sectarianism There are important ways that Gulf States and other regional countries can support reconstruction. But it should be channeled and coordinated through the Iraqi government.
Again, the Iraqi government and Prime Minister Abadi have done a really outstanding job trying to balance their necessary relationships with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. I would look to Iraq as playing the neutral balancing role.
DR. MATTAIR: Amb, Jeffrey, you said, we're in a struggle for the Middle East with Iran backed by Russia. Is this all we need to do?
AMB. JEFFREY: Well, it's a region-wide problem. But certainly in Iraq, you have more options, more factors in play, which Denise just outlined. But the idea is to keep Iraq independent in reality, not just independent officially. Again, Lebanon is the bad example. I would say the sine qua non is to keep a coalition military presence in Iraq, which the U.S. government leads. They're still sloshing about down the hill in the White House regarding what they're going to do about Syria and Iraq and Iran. But one thing they have sort of solidified is to keep our troops wherever we have them. And that would include Iraq.
That's a sine qua non. If the Iraqi government is going to ask us, once again, to leave, under pressure from the Iranians — given that the last time we left it turned out to be a disaster in so many ways — that's a sign that the Iranians are in effective control of the country. I think that is something we have to be very careful about. We have to leverage our other help. Again, I would use the example of Lebanon. Had we told the Lebanese government, as Jim Baker once said in another context, here's Ahmadinejad's telephone number; call him for the reconstruction funds unless you want this Stockholm process to succeed.
Here's what this UN resolution has to have in it. There has to be real control of the Syrian-Lebanese border by this international force with Chapter 7 authority to block a 7.62 bullet, let alone a SCUD rocket coming across it. That's what we didn't do. We may have been able to do it. I don't know. But we may have been able to get a lot more. The Iranians and Hezbollah would have found ways to undercut it to some degree, but it wouldn't be the carte blanche we have now, where the Western world paid for considerable reconstruction in Lebanon, and Hezbollah and its allied factions in Iran were able to increase their dominance over the country in terms of its foreign policy and power projection. That's exactly what we shouldn't do with Iraq.
Everything beyond that is on the detail level. That's easy for me to say, because I've spent most of my career discovering how difficult details are. But you've got to start off with an overall position, and that should be it.
DR. MATTAIR: Paul and Denise, you both talked about what our Arab partners should and shouldn't be doing there.
DR. SALEM: On the Lebanese issue, over the '90s, Syria and Iran built Hezbollah into a massive force in Lebanon. And Hezbollah until today can dictate terms that relate to things that it cares about. It has left many other things — normal governance issues, economics, business, finance and so on — to proceed separately. But the Lebanese state, unfortunately, is not sovereign, and that's a tragic situation. Hence, even though many in the Lebanese government wanted to impose conditions on Hezbollah, it is more powerful. We saw this again in 2008. We saw it in 2005, when they killed former Prime Minister Hariri, when they feared he was going in a different direction.
There are many differences from Iraq, obviously. Just to reflect a bit on the Iran-Iraq relationship, first of all, the Iraqi state will be aligned with Iran. It is a natural alignment. I wouldn't say that it's a radical alliance. After the removal of the Saddam regime, the Shiite majority has dominance through various parties and so on in the central government. It has a natural alignment with Iran. The risk to Iran came from ISIS, when it was about to take Baghdad, or from other things that might come down the road.
When we look then at some of the popular mobilization units and what they might mean for the Iraqi government, I warned there might be risks for the sort of Lebanese-style Hezbollah situation. But what makes me less concerned are a number of things. Unlike in Lebanon, the leadership of the revolutionary guards of the Iranian government trusts the Baghdad government. In Lebanon, the prime minister and the president would be anti-Iranian if they could be. That is not the case in Iraq. So there's no major concern at that level.
Second, as Denise was mentioning, there is a very strong Iraqi nationalism, as well as Shiite pride. Shiism is an integral part of Iraq. Najaf is its holiest site. Iranians are sort of Johnny-come-latelies. And the attempt by Qom to claim to be the center of Shiism is contested within Iraq itself. So, considering Iraqi nationalism, Arab nationalism, Shiite pride and so on, Iraqis are friends and allies of Iran. Whereas in Lebanon, the Shiite community has been effectively kind of bought, lock, stock and barrel. There really is nothing in the Lebanese Shiite community that has been able to counterbalance or stand up to this direct Iranian diktat.
I would end up where Ambassador Jeffrey had mentioned earlier: in effect, in Iraq the U.S. and Iran happened to share a lot of things that we would like to see in Iraq. I think the Iranians would prefer to have a stable Iraq, Sunni cities that are OK, that are not rebelling, that are not radicalizing. They would be OK with power sharing, as long as it didn't pose existential security threats. They would be very happy if Iraq could be somewhat more prosperous than it is today, so it would be more stable. I think there are many interests that we share.
As I said in my own remarks, the Iranian and American co-presences in Iraq would only be a problem if the United States and Iran are going at it at a higher level, or are perceived to be threatening each other. So they're sort of holding each other hostage. If that's not the case, I think there is a way to coexist and help Iraq move forward. And I think we should be encouraging our Gulf friends to engage with Baghdad, in terms of economic assistance. Some of it will be directly with Baghdad, Basra, and so on. Some of it's already happening. Some of it will be in the western provinces, where they do have some kind of legitimacy, some role.
DR. ALZAYAT: Iran has its strategic policies and goals, and it is problematic in terms of supporting hardline militias in Iraq who have committed abuses in the past. Same thing in Syria, not to mention the Syrian regime. But also, Iran is exploiting intra-Sunni conflicts in the region. And Syria and to some degree now, obviously, Libya and Egypt have demonstrated that the region is also suffering from this conflict between entrenched royals/monarchists/republican governments against political Islamists within the Sunni communities.
Obviously, the greatest example of that right now is that struggle between the UAE, the Saudis and the Egyptian government against the Qataris primarily over the issue of putting up with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The conflict over Al Jazeera's role and future is a part of it. But these governments, the Emirates particularly, view political Islam, not just the MB, as a critical threat to them, perhaps equal to if not greater than the Iranian threat.
So it's where those differences occur and the lack of coordination among these countries that Iranians will continue to exploit. Whether it's in Lebanon or Syria, I saw it firsthand in terms of which Syrian groups either side would support. On the one hand, the Qataris and the Turks are clearly comfortable working with political Islamic groups, falling along the spectrum of how radicalized they are, while the Emirates, the Egyptians certainly, and to some degree the Saudis are not. Now, obviously, this has boiled over.
I think the U.S. strategy really should not take a side in this conflict — we've seen some statements lately about how good Qatar is or is not by the administration. We should really work to keep the peace among these countries and support political accommodation, even if it includes political Islamists — but not at the expense of, obviously, other human-rights or security requirements that we have. This is not a question only of what is good for the Emirates or the Qataris. It's, what is the regional objective? We will support the one that makes most sense.
Until we resolve that, Iran and other countries will continue to exploit it. And I think they'll find fertile ground to promote their agenda and enable local partners who they can pay or cajole or threaten.
DR. NATALI: I just want to say, since you're talking about Iran and the Shia, and the land bridge we keep discussing, that we should be careful about conflating all the Shia with Iran because most of the Shia communities across the states — obviously, except for militia groups — don't support the Iranian interpretation of Shia Islam by velayat-e faqih [rule by an Islamic jurist]. Not most of the Iraqi Shia, not many of the Lebanese Shia, certainly not most of the Alawites in Syria.
So let's be careful when we throw out the "land bridge" as if there's some arc of land that is going to bring all of these Shia together under the unified command and control of Iran. Local populations are committed to their state nationalisms and political interests. I would take advantage of the fact that there's not a shared, ideologically unified notion of what Shia means for all of these groups and would not lump all into the Iranians' land bridge because I am not sure how secure or controlled that land bridge really is — when it could be a function of political and economic conditions of the post-ISIS moment but not necessarily sustainable..
DR. MATTAIR: I didn't mean political consensus behind Iran. I meant Iran's ability to move men and material overland straight to the Mediterranean.
DR. NATALI: Sometimes I question that too, because a lot of that is through the Kurdish regions. Some of it has to be stopped because of the instability and security threats it allows, but that goes back to, "Let's enhance border security." As Amb. Jeffrey says, OK, we should keep some kind of military presence there, at least to obstruct some of this from happening as we continue to enhance the institutions of the state.
DR. MATTAIR: In Syria, Wa'el, you were talking about the importance of investing in and stabilizing liberated areas. But looking at the deconfliction and de-escalation agreements that have been reached, if there's the prospect of further fighting, can we really get into reconstruction, etc., at this time? Are the de-escalation agreements basically intended to freeze the situation until the Syrian forces and their Iranian-backed militia allies can move again — especially move east toward Raqqa or other areas that get liberated — and retake them? Again, this enhances the continued Iranian presence in the country.
DR. ALZAYAT: Certainly the past record of the Russians and the regime, when it comes to agreements they have promised or actually signed with either opposition forces or the Turks or the United States, has been meant, in my opinion, to buy them time to achieve a military victory. That was and remains their strategy. But the question is, what do we want to do in response — not just the United States but the international community, minus the Russians and the Iranians and the regime, because really that's what we're talking about still. This conflict is not one between equal numbers of countries in the world that are supporting each side. There's no equivalency here. You can look at the track record, not just of how the Security Council votes but the General Assembly as well on this issue, and a lot of other interagency, government bodies and nongovernment organizations. So they're going to try to achieve a military strategy, and they'll buy themselves time by any means necessary.
Our approach has been — and it's an important question — why are we seeking these de-escalation ceasefires? It was so we could focus on ISIL. So what I would suggest is that now that we're moving away from the counter-ISIL phase, or at least mopping up smaller areas, the objective has to change again into civilian protection of those communities. That in itself addresses part of the radicalization issue that we're here to discuss. If you leave them at the mercy of ISIL 2.0 — or the regime or the Russians — you're going to get ISIL 2.0 regardless. I was on the phone with a person from Raqqa who's now in Turkey that I've spoken with in the past, and he said, we want to be part of the counter-ISIL campaign in Raqqa. Why are you only working with the YPG and a few Arab groups that are not from this area? I promise you, the tribes that I know will rise up against whoever takes this area if it's not us. So in my opinion, if you don't want to be coming back there, you have to plant your flag, work with the locals and change the objective. It's now no longer just defeating ISIL; it is to protect those communities and those enclaves.
I would find it very difficult to believe that the Russians or the regime would intentionally bomb areas where U.S. special operators are located. Accidents may happen, but warning them and deterring any potential threat — as we did in the south — sends a clear signal. The Russians and the regime cannot afford to get entangled in a war with us, just as we cannot afford to much as we can get entangled in a war with them. It works both ways.
What they're trying to do is threaten us and push us around. But now we have forces on the ground. What's important is, if we lose those areas again, we're back to the regime and the Russians squeezing the opposition, fomenting unrest, hatred and a desire for vengeance, giving those hardline Iranian militias a free hand in those areas to do as they please regarding ethnically based killings and cleansing from those areas. At the end of the day, it will make whatever we did to get ISIL out of those areas not worth it. And we've spent a lot of blood and treasure already on doing just that.
DR. MATTAIR: But how are we going to hold the areas?
DR. ALZAYAT: Military deterrence.
DR. MATTAIR: Turkey's President Erdogan was here about a month ago appealing to the Trump administration not to increase its arms supplies to the YPG. But the Trump administration did it anyway. Then I read about 10 days ago that Defense Secretary Mattis said, when it's over in Raqqa, we're going to take the weapons back from the YPG. First of all, how would you do that? Second, without them, how would you hold the area and deal with Turkey if you don't keep the promise, since they play such a big role in holding the area against the return of the regime and the pro-Iranian militias?
AMB. JEFFREY: First of all, normally when you look at Middle Eastern issues, from Somalia to Beirut 1983 to Afghanistan and Iraq, the question of how to hold these areas becomes complicated. We have several times cited Kurdistan from 1991 on. I was very involved, over much of that period since 1991. The idea is, you have some local people who hold it, and you have your own people in there in limited numbers to help and train them. Wa'el has danced around it a little bit, but essentially, you are showing the flag in your tripwire. If anybody comes at those people, you have that most robust of American military operations, force protection. You whack whatever's coming at you, which is easy to do in open desert, where most of the area is if it's coming on the ground. If it's coming from the air, you kill it. The reality is even throwing in Putin and his crappy 30-year-old planes — maybe there are 50-year-old planes now — the United States and its allies have extraordinary dominance over the region. The Turks alone have 200 F-16s, and we saw what they can do against Russian aircraft. This is why, after a couple of weeks of testing and huffing and puffing on the part of the Russians, we're going to cut all communications and consider any aircraft west of the Euphrates as hostile. The Russians then sat down and signed an agreement with us, which they seem to be holding to, unlike the earlier ones with Secretary Kerry. There's a lesson there, but I'm not concerned about that. But these things work — these kinds of low-intensity, limited-cost, play-with-the-locals approaches we took against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and against the Iranians when they pushed into Iraq in the 1980s after the Iraqis were driven out, and in the Gulf in a mini-special-operations war against Iran in 1987-88. The problem with them is that they are now under the shadow of Afghanistan and Iraq, which didn't work, and the American people will say: Tell us where this all leads. My argument is, I don't think we can. In general, we can just say we're hoping it won't lead to Iranian-Russian domination in the region. It's going to lead to some kind of messy situation, rather like Afghanistan in the late 1980s, rather like the Gulf after we stopped the Iranian effort to block the tanker flow in '86-'88 and that kind of thing. You live to fight another day. That's the best I can promise. But if the casualties are low, if the costs are low, if we're not risking a major conflict, that's the way that we have done operations in Central America, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia and other places for the last 70 years. I'm perfectly comfortable with it.
DR. NATALI: I just want to make a statement on the YPG in Raqqa and how we're moving forward. I think we have to look at the strategic picture after Raqqa is liberated or ISIS is expelled. I can't see how any of this can occur — just as we could not have done with Operation Provide Comfort II — without an open border with Turkey and Turkish buy-in. Whether we like certain personalities or not, there is an approximately 900-kilometer border between Turkey and Syria. Right now, there is one land route recently opened from Damascus to Hasakah, and some aid is finally getting to some of the outlying areas around Raqqa. That's a good start, run by the United Nations.
Still, what happens in Raqqa — how it is liberated and who controls it afterward — is of crucial importance to Turkey and Arabs on the ground, who comprise over 65 percent of the Syrian population. So to think that the YPG is going to hold Raqqa, or a council under a different name with YPG in charge, afterward is folly and ill-advised. Our narrative is also important. Trying to assure Turkey and Arab populations of an overly empowered YPG by stating that we will take back their weapons after the anti-ISIS campaign is unrealistic.
We should not conflate all of the areas under YPG control as unified or under similar administration. Some areas have a modicum of power-sharing with Arabs — although still dominated by YPG cadres — while in other localities there literally are flags of Abdullah Ocalan all over the place, and I'm told it feels like an occupation. Raqqa cannot turn out that way, and we should use our leverage over the YPG to ensure that it does not.
We should also be clear to our Arab partners and affirm our Turkish strategic partnership. As the Raqqa campaign assumes a more American face, it is also drawing in more local Arabs from Raqqa. That is a good thing. But still I think the United States can be clearer that Raqqa is not going to be run by a YPG-dominated administration under a different name. Frankly, the YPG is overextended in the territories it currently controls and reliant on the United States, coalition, Syrian government, and Russia. I don't see how they're also going to hold a city that has no Kurdish population without external support.
DR. MATTAIR: It seems that since the Russian intervention in the fall of 2015, our Arab partners have reduced their involvement in Syria. And now, of course, they're quarreling, as Wa'el was discussing. What role ideally would we like to see them play in supporting other opportunity movements in Syria so that there are viable alternatives to the regime in liberated areas that don't include extremists like what used to be called the Nusra Front? What impact is the dispute going to have on their ability to do what we desire them to do?
DR. ALZAYAT: Ideally, what we would like is for countries like not just Saudi Arabia but also Jordan and the Emirates, with their financial capacity, to help the United States identify and build relationships with key tribes, particularly in the Jazira region. A lot of ISIL fighters have come from that region traditionally, and AQI before them. Build those relationships, figure out what's important to those local communities, jointly encourage other countries — particularly the EU, Japan or Canada — to invest in those communities. There is a risk that the regime and the Russians are going to undermine all of that, but you have to maintain deterrence, as Ambassador Jeffrey mentioned. There has to be a cost for violating those areas in the future. We'll continue the political discussions. We will not support offensive operations out of those areas against the regime. That can be part of the exchange. But there should be no more attacks on those communities.
Ideally, you would want to show leadership by bringing in the Saudis, the Emiratis and even the Turks, figuring out which pockets they can contribute to in terms of special operators, military support in protecting those areas, capacity building and financial assistance. Every zone is going to be different. The areas right now along the border with Turkey are quieter than, for example, in the south, because of what the regime is trying to do.
In the south, you need to continue coordinating not only with the countries I just mentioned, but with the Jordanians and the Israelis because of their security requirements. In each area, you've got to develop a little governance and a political-stabilization plan. If the conflict among the Gulf countries continues, I think it can still probably work, with each side working independently on economic assistance, and on humanitarian relief. I think you can probably manage it. You may run into trouble trying to get them to come to an agreement on who should lead in a certain area. They're going to be seeing it through their own lens. The Emiratis will be asking, are these Muslim Brotherhood? The Qataris will say, no, they're not, and we don't care. You'll have to referee that. We managed to semi-referee it in terms of assistance to the opposition, not always with great success. I saw it firsthand when we came in and created joint-operation centers to support the opposition. We tried to funnel the assistance through a single mechanism. I think we can do it for the areas we're talking about, particularly because in Raqqa there is no Muslim Brotherhood. They don't have a presence, so maybe this will not be as much of an issue. It's going to be the tribal relationships.