Century Foundation fellow Sam Heller returned to Beirut from Syria over the weekend, where he attended a government-backed conference—the first of its kind in years, with Western journalists, analysts and political researchers invited to hear the government’s point of view. He spent a week in Damascus. Century Foundation fellow Thanassis Cambanis talks with Sam about his first impressions.
Thanassis: Welcome back from Syria, Sam. We’re glad to have you back in Beirut. When was the last time you were in Syria prior to this trip?
Sam: I lived in Syria between 2009 and 2010, but I haven’t been back since. I actually left Syria to do a two-year master’s degree in Arabic that would have taken me back to Damascus for its second year—but that was 2011, so that obviously didn’t happen.
Since I turned back full-time to researching Syria in 2013, I’ve devoted most of my time and energy to looking at the Syrian opposition and Syria’s opposition-held areas. What I’ve understood about conditions inside regime-held western Syria, including Damascus, has been filtered through the media or second-hand fragments, from people who travel in and out.
But for all I’ve written about Idlib, I’ve never actually been there. It’s Damascus—and, to a lesser extent, al-Hasakeh in Syria’s east—that reflects my actual, lived experience in Syria. And so it’s good to be back and see the situation in the part of the country I knew best, if only to further ground myself in something real.
Thanassis: What was your first impression on this trip?
Sam: I don’t think this trip necessarily upturned my understanding of conditions inside. But it was useful to see things firsthand and to be able to put some meat on my existing impressions of the functioning of the regime and life in government-held areas.
And this might be shallow, but for me—as an outsider, and as someone who missed the worst years of the war in Damascus in 2013 and 2014—I was struck by how much was the same. The city and the society have obviously been militarized; Damascus is filled with checkpoints and uniformed men. And it seems like everyone, if you ask, has a story of economic hardship, displacement, or the death of friends and family. And yet, even while everything is sort of worse, much of what I knew about Damascus is still there.
Aoun sits at Baabda on election day. Source: OTV screen grab
[Commentary for The Century Foundation.]
Michel Aoun’s ascendance to the presidency of Lebanon on Monday three decades after he first sought the office represents not a sea-change in regional power dynamics but an incremental step in the hard slog of making politics. Nearly two and a half years after the previous president left Baabda Palace and after forty-five failed parliamentary sessions to select a new leader, a thorny dispute with many players was peacefully negotiated. Remarkably, the maneuvers unfolded peacefully despite the pressure caused by a state collapse next door in Syria and with considerable threat of violence hanging over Lebanon itself.
The outcome of the Lebanese presidential selection has been oversold in some quarters as a big victory for Iran in its regional struggle against Saudi Arabia. The truth is more prosaic, complicated, and local.
None of the major political factions can justly be considered to have won outright, and the mind-numbing turns of the deal make clear that there aren’t any simplistic sides in Lebanon (or for that matter, in political life throughout the Arab region).
Political alliances in Lebanon—like in the rest of the region and the world—are in fact fluid and partial, by turn ideological and transactional.The anticlimactic election and the ongoing limping politics that are sure to follow make clear that no simple equation can reduce Arab politics to glib but ultimately misleading formulations, like those who lump together Shia, the Iraqi government, Hezbollah, Iran, and one Lebanese Christian faction into a single monolithic construct. Nor were Aoun’s opponents a unified bloc connecting Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Syria’s opposition.
In short, the messy deal for Lebanon’s presidency, while hardly a triumph for any single idea or movement, provides a sharp reminder that politics and negotiation continue to play a key role in forging paths forward in a region where violent contestation of power usually grabs most of the attention.
All Politics Is Local—and International
The decision of Lebanon’s parliament to bless the Aoun deal says as much about the evolution of Lebanon’s model of power-sharing-cum-paralysis as it does about the region’s increasingly interwoven struggle for influence. On Monday, the Lebanese parliament—itself an arguably illegal body because it extended its own mandate—ratified a backroom deal to make Aoun president and down the road, to give the prime minister’s job to his rival, Saad Hariri.
This same deal was floated in 2014 after the previous president’s term expired. Back then, supporters of Hariri believed that Sunni rebels might win the Syrian civil war and that political tide in the region would shift, empowering them to sweep to power rather than accept the middling share of it they already possessed. Hezbollah and its allies, meanwhile, were content to muddle forward without a president at all, since they held the position of primus inter pares among Lebanon’s factions and stood to gain nothing important from a functioning executive branch.
After twenty-five months, only the expectations of the major players have changed. Hezbollah is willing to accept a president who, after all, was its candidate, if only to escape domestic blame for leaving the state in limbo. And the weakened party of Saad Hariri, facing fragmentation among its Sunni base and fading confidence from its Saudi sponsors and financial backers, has grown desperate. Hence it was willing to accept any terms to put its man back in the premiership, without any accompanying concessions that would boost its electoral chances later on or award it a bigger share of public sector spoils to loot.
Much went into the Aoun deal, most of it concerning Lebanese internal dynamics. Longtime rival Christian warlords Aoun and Samir Geagea made peace with each other earlier this year, realizing that the country’s Christian minority was losing even more relevance if it remained split between pro-Sunni and pro-Shia factions. Hariri struggled to maintain his position as his family company went bankrupt and Saudi Arabia, briefly but flamboyantly, hung him out to dry—canceling a grant to Lebanon’s military and standing by as its man in Lebanon, Hariri, was humiliated in municipal elections this spring.
In the view of his Saudi sponsors, Hariri had not done enough to stop Hezbollah and Iran from dominating Lebanon, so he deserved a comeuppance; that, according to Saudi watchers in Lebanon, was the message the Saudi royal family wanted to send this past year. But they realized that theatrical shows of pique do not wise policy make, and that by cutting off Hariri they made it easier for Hezbollah and Iran to conduct their political business in Lebanon. In the end, Lebanon mattered to the Saudis more than they initially thought.
It also ultimately turned out that Lebanon had some say over its own choice of leader. Aoun is not a president built and chosen by foreign powers, or at least not 100 percent so (his followers like to say that “the General” is 100 percent “made in Lebanon,” which exaggerates the point in the other direction).
Aoun formed a tight political partnership with Hezbollah in 2006, a surprising move at the time for a leading Christian warlord who had made his reputation by going to war against Hezbollah’s patron Syria in 1989.
But Aoun is not purely Hezbollah’s man, which is one reason why Hezbollah was willing to wait so long to help him get elected by parliament.
The General is considered unpredictable, headstrong, vain, ambitious, and a bit mad. Those are the characteristics which lead his most ardent admirers to see him as a charismatic leader and his enemies to fear him as unpredictable and prone to authoritarianism.In office, he will polarize and hector. Already in his inaugural speech on Monday he made chauvinistic, unfulfillable promises to try to send some of the 1.5 million-plus Syrian refugees in the country back home. He vowed to defend his nation against terrorists and Israel, to strengthen the military, and a cleaner government. But he will be hemmed in by Lebanon’s dysfunctional political power-sharing system, which his election does nothing to change.
Given the tradition of painstaking and painful political negotiation in Lebanon, it might take a year, even two, for Saad Hariri to form a government and take office as prime minister. By then, new parliamentary elections will be underway. No one in Lebanon expects the state to function like a state any more than it has during the last five years of permanent crisis during which electricity, education, and health care have been in scarce supply, but graft and uncollected garbage have risen to historically high levels.
Events in Lebanon are not solely a byproduct of regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nor can they be read simply as a fight between Shia Hezbollah and the Sunni Future Movement.
It is instructive to remember that initially, two sectarian Muslim factions, the Sunni Future Movement and Shia Hezbollah, were negotiating over the outcome of the most senior post in Lebanon still reserved for Christians; in Lebanon’s sectarian political game, the Christians had largely sidelined themselves from their own remaining political fiefs. Eventually, intra-Christian competition made a greater number of Lebanese warlords relevant: not exactly a step toward democracy, but new alliances between Christians kept an oligarchy from sliding into a duopoly. Those who describe Aoun’s victory as a win for Iran should reckon honestly with the fact that the alternative candidate backed by Saudi Arabia was Suleiman Frangieh, a Christian warlord whose fealty to Damascus, Hezbollah and Iran is far more ironclad than Aoun’s.
In a region where the local, regional, and international all interact, Lebanon’s presidential crisis embodied all three levels, and its resolution offers one image of how plodding, incremental, and frustrating it is to seek progress on any level at all.
On Monday, Lebanon moved one step away from the abyss of total paralysis. It is, however, hardly any closer to restoring a state that can manage anything remotely resembling governance.
It might not seem like much, but the Lebanese system has managed one feat that can allow its citizens, however modestly, to maintain their claim to provide a model for regional politics: against considerable odds and obstacles, many of their own making, Lebanon’s politicians have pursued political compromise by nonviolent means. That’s no small feat.
The United States can do more to achieve a political settlement—invasion and containment aren’t the only options.
• In its sixth year of war, Syria has reached a breaking point. Soon its remaining institutions will collapse and Syria will be a failed state. The United States has pushed hard for a diplomatic solution and intervened militarily on the side of rebel groups, but stopped short of action that could shift the conflict’s momentum. Meanwhile, Russia has intervened decisively on the Syrian government’s side.
• The human toll of the war has been catastrophic. Nearly half a million people have been killed and half the country’s population displaced, including 5 million refugees. War crimes are endemic. Civilians routinely suffer starvation, sieges, torture, extrajudicial detention and indiscriminate bombardment.
• Preserving Syria is a vital national security interest for the United States. If it doesn’t do more now, America and its allies will suffer even more of the consequences of an imploded state in the heart of the Middle East: jihadi attacks from the Islamic State and its ilk, a global refugee crisis, and violent militancy seeping deeper into every country on Syria’s borders.
• A robust U.S. intervention would expand Washington’s existing approach, which integrates humanitarian aid, diplomacy and military force, but needs much more of each to succeed. Washington should use military force to protect vetted opposition groups and curtail war crimes committed by the government in Damascus.
• Now might present a final opportunity. Russia and the United States have a rare overlap of interests. Syria’s war won’t have any neat outcomes; this conflict can only be managed, not won. A robust intervention will not bring an immediate end to the war, but could set the stage for an eventual political settlement.
• A forceful U.S. escalation now can preserve American interests and credibility and curb the worst excesses of the current violence, giving Syria a fighting chance of emerging from its civil war with intact institutions and a government that can represent every major group.
After Eid I spent ten days in Syria, doing my best to collect as many individual impressions as I could. Everything about the trip was limited, but I was lucky enough to have many people share some part of their stories on what was ultimately a very fragmentary, kaleidoscopic, picaresque jag through government-controlled Syria on an itinerary and schedule largely not of my own design. And yet, the human stories seep through — even in these amateur snapshots I made with my phone. These images offer but a sliver of perspective. Yet still I believe they’re worth scanning through, to catch a glimpse of quotidian life.
I visited government-held Syria in October at a pivotal moment, gaining a rare glimpse into the part of the country still controlled by President Bashar al-Assad. The Century Foundation, where I am a fellow, asked about my impressions.
Q: What timing—the week you arrived, Russia unleashed its new military campaign. How did that change the outlook of the people you spoke with?
A: Russia came up in almost every conversation I had, whether with officials, fighters, or regular citizens. The war has dragged on for nearly five years, and whatever they claim, most people in Syria understand that it’s a stalemate that neither side is likely to win outright. For people living in government-controlled Syria, the Russian intervention has—for now—lifted the sense of fatalism. With Russia boldly on Bashar al-Assad’s side, the thinking goes, maybe the Syrian government can win outright. That’s created a palpable wave of optimism. Many people in the coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia told me they thought the war would now end within a year.
Q: Do you think it can end so quickly?
A: I doubt it. Russia’s move has completely shifted the geopolitics of foreign intervention and imposed new constraints on the United States and its allies. But most of the Syrians fighting against the government consider themselves patriots and are fighting on their own home ground. Contrary to Syrian government propaganda, which paints the rebels as foreign fighters and mercenaries, most of them are actually locals who prefer to die rather than surrender. Even if the government can defeat them with the massive push it has received from Russia and Iran, it will take a long time—probably two to five years—before they can reconquer the main rebel strongholds. And the buoyancy among government supporters (or even those who just want the conflict to come to any sort of end) will fade when they see that the rebels fight back, and that foreign interventionists on the rebel side can keep the fight going for a long time just by maintaining supplies of money, ammunition, and weapons.
Q: You had not visited Syria since 2007. What were the biggest differences that you noticed?
Government-controlled Syria feels beleaguered and utterly militarized. Assad’s Syria was always a heavy-handed police state, with intelligence agents everywhere and a huge web of agencies that detained people, tortured them, and kept them in fear. Today, the government has lost a great deal of its resources, holding maybe one-third of the country’s territory and controlling half or less of its remaining population. Yet, it retains its old heavy-handed style, and the displaced people living in the government areas are terrified of saying anything that might be construed as subversive.
Damascus is a beautiful city, and it was clean and well-run in 2007. For all the shortages today, it’s still functioning, but there are constant power cuts and real shortages of personnel and certain imported goods. There are checkpoints everywhere, and most of the men under 40 are either in uniform or are off-duty fighters.
Q: What was most on people’s minds?
A: In addition to the Russians, almost everyone I met openly talked about emigrating. They were either saving up to take a smuggler’s boat to Europe, didn’t have enough money but were desperate to raise it, or had considered it and postponed their decision point because of family reasons. Some said outright that they saw no future in Syria even if and when the war resolves. “It will take ten years to end the war, and god knows how long afterward to restore the country,” one pro-government militiaman told me. Most the people who have either left Syria this summer or plan on leaving are young, with careers ahead of them, or have children for whom they see no prospects inside Syria. Many of the people who have remained in Syria by choice retain the option to flee anytime because they have money or a second a passport, or they already have sent their children abroad and have remained in Syria because of their jobs or businesses. Antique dealers in Old Damascus would ask me if I thought it was a good idea for them to sell their shops at fire-sale prices to smuggle their kids to Europe. Off-duty soldiers driving taxis at night asked me how much it costs to get from the island of Lesbos to Germany. Getting out is the ubiquitous fixation, more even than what will happen in the war.
Q: Why were you able to visit Syria now? How closely were you monitored?
A: The government slightly opened the door over the summer to Western reporters. Perhaps they think they have a good story to tell now, about a government that is secular and protects minority rights defending itself against rebels whose strongest contingent is dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. Maybe they’re newly confident that they’re winning, with the support of their allies and the absence of meaningful American action.
When I traveled outside Damascus, a government official from the ministry of information accompanied us on our interviews. Sometimes there were also minders from the military or intelligence services, although some were vague about their affiliations. After working hours, I was free to move around Damascus unfettered.
Q: What’s the most important thing Americans should know about government-held Syria?
A: That’s a tough question because there is a lot that is important to know but impossible to assess, such as how deep the support for the government runs among the remaining population. But two key points surfaced again and again on this trip. First, Assad’s government has not changed any of its fundamental ways, in terms of how it runs the country, stifles dissent, and is completely uninterested in changing the nature of its system. And second, many Syrians who don’t particularly care for Assad’s way of running the country, who in fact fear the president, also fear the rebels on the other side, whose vision they find sectarian, intolerant or even nihilist. That middle ground of public opinion is still not free to speak on the regime side, but they could hold the key to a future Syria that reflects something freer and less corrupt than Assad’s government, and at the same time less sectarian and extreme than the jihadists on the opposition side. The war in Syria, sadly, looks like it might go on for another decade.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly on September 28, on the heels of a shrewdly publicized deployment of new Russian troops and military equipment to Syria. Simultaneously—and not for the first time—the Kremlin has rolled out the prospect of a “Moscow Track” to peace in Syria, marketed as a pragmatic alternative to the failed U.S.-run Geneva Process.
Moscow’s latest moves have begun to shift the ground, and ultimately the United States will have to choose between two different, equally messy courses: standing aside and letting Russia and Iran shape the conflict unimpeded; or making a real diplomatic and military commitment in the hopes of influencing the Syrian civil war’s final disposition.
Already, a chorus of analysts and political actors is advocating a “hold-your-nose-and-make-a-deal with Russia” approach,1 claiming the United States must either sign on to Moscow’s plans against ISIS, or else plead guilty to promoting terrorism through American inaction.
But framing the choice as a binary one plays into the rhetoric of Bashar al-Assad and his sponsors, and ignores the fact that substantial American action can still reshape the dynamics and alter the outcome, just as surely as decisive Russian, Iranian, and Syrian moves could. The more time passes, however, the fewer options remain for the American camp.
Until President Obama decides to invest in a new Syria policy or else completely relinquish any stake in the conflict in the Levant, there’s little to discuss with Putin. Russia comes to the table with clear aims and a plan to achieve them; the United States needs its own goals and strategy before engaging in a conversation.
The most effective approach for the United States right now would be to quickly commit to a program that supports alternatives to Assad and opposes ISIS—while making clear that America would back peace talks that include all foreign sponsors and all domestic players in the conflict, with the exception of ISIS and other jihadis.2
This brief argues that such an approach is an essential precursor to any “Moscow Track” for Syria, and could well render it obsolete. It lays out where American and Russian interests in Syria overlap and where they diverge, and examines the limits of Russia’s going it alone. Finally, it outlines a course of U.S. action that would expand the options for the Syria crisis beyond the limited and troublesome alternative solutions currently under consideration.
Russia’s Interests—and America’s
Syria is Russia’s most solid foothold in the Arab world, and offers a strategic alliance, military contracts, and a critical naval base in Tartus. So, in the short term, Russia’s ramp-up is only an increase in the degree of Moscow’s long-running commitment to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.3 Many foreign and domestic constituencies are also influencing the course of Syria’s war. Arab monarchies in the Gulf, along with Turkey, have kept alive a Sunni-dominated insurgency that has fought the regime and its backers to a stalemate. The fighting has catastrophically crippled the nation’s institutions and infrastructure.
If the United States does not respond to Russia’s latest move with a concrete shift in policy soon, it will effectively cede the theater to Damascus, and its patrons in Iran and Russia. Eventually, momentum could shift in the regime’s favor. If Russia solidifies its presence in Syria further and installs better air defenses, the United States will no longer be able to easily consider pivotal interventions, such as establishing a no-fly zone.
Not all of Russia’s interests and intentions in Syria conflict with those of the United States, however, and in fact several overlap:
- Moscow and Washington abhor jihadi extremists and are obsessed with protecting their homeland from terrorist attacks.
- Both fear “blowback” from movements they have fought abroad.
- Neither power likes a power vacuum in a strategically sensitive Middle East; despite Washington’s looser rhetoric, both powers are fundamentally conservative about regime change.
- Both want to preserve the institutions of the Syrian state and keep its borders intact at the end of the current civil war. In fact, both powers are invested in the existing Arab state system and do not wish to see the emergence of new states or the redrawing of borders.
But a number of crucial differences separate the two powers:
- While Russia sees Bashar al-Assad as a solid partner, the United States sees him as a long-term strategic threat who cynically allowed jihadis to flourish in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and backed militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
- Russia supports the Iran-Syria alliance and an arc of anti-American regimes and non-state actors from Tehran to the Mediterranean. For obvious reasons the United States sees that alliance as a threat to its hegemony in the region and to the rough alliance of U.S.-allied Arab states.
- Russia and the United States are at loggerheads elsewhere: over the Ukraine, energy supplies to Europe, and the Iranian nuclear program.
- The two powers exhibit vastly different levels of willingness and capacity to fight ISIS.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Russia has much more narrow and easier to fulfill strategic aims: shore up a local client dictator, preserve a military foothold, and dent jihadist capabilities. The United States on the other hand has a wide range of hard-to-reconcile regional aims; and for all its equivocation, Washington’s aim is to stabilize the region. It does not have the luxury and clarity of a spoiler’s agenda.
What Can Russia Actually Achieve?
Much of Washington’s reaction to Russia’s surge has been devoid of context and long-term perspective. Of course, an injection of Russian fighters and equipment will change the dynamics of the fight; but there is no evidence that Russian intervention will have a conclusive impact. By way of comparison, a considerably larger U.S. occupation force in Iraq was unable to eliminate Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s precursor. And the Soviet Union’s attempt to decisively shore up a local partner against jihadi rebels—in Afghanistan in the 1980s—failed mightily.
Russia and Iran both benefit from an inflated reputation in Syria. Both powers have spent considerable funds and manpower to prop up a regime that has steadily lost ground during four years of war. Betting on the regime has been costly, and Russia’s decision to double down exposes it to still greater risks and costs. It will take time to see whether Russia is engaging in a limited and achievable intervention—striking ISIS while shoring up the regime’s heartland—or a more far-fetched all-out venture to win the war outright for Assad.
Syria’s dynamics are unique, of course, but there is no sound reason to predict Russia can wipe out the anti-Assad rebellion as it now stands. Foreign influence has shaped the Syrian war for years—through the limited impact of previous gambits in Syria by the United States, Iran, and the Arab Gulf monarchies—but has not been able to decide its outcome, underscoring the need for modest Russian expectations.
Russia and Iran together can probably assure that their local partner in Damascus remains in power over some portion of Syria, but it is less clear whether they can re-extend Assad’s ambit beyond the rump state he controls today. It is even less clear what will survive of Syria’s national institutions. And there will surely be blowback. Fighters from Chechnya and other former Soviet republics already are fighting with the Syrian rebels. Their ranks are almost guaranteed to swell now that Russia has publicly upped its ante in Syria.
How Should the United States Respond?
Until now the United States followed a wishy-washy course, typified by the “non-strike event” in the summer of 2013,4 when Washington backed down from its threat to intervene against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.5 Once America abandoned its fixed red lines,6Washington downgraded its already limited leverage over the conflict, while remaining vulnerable to its consequences. Ever since, the major players in Syria have vastly lowered their expectation of any U.S. involvement whatsoever, whether political, economic, or military.
The United States wants Assad gone, but has done little to hasten his fall because the available options to replace him are poor. Washington wants “moderate” rebels, but also does not want to get dragged into a civil war. As a result, it has not given any meaningful support to any militia that has a serious combat presence, and it has not exercised any political or military muscle that would change the balance of power on the ground.
At times, Washington has even appeared to believe that a quagmire in Syria would somehow serve U.S. interests by draining the resources of a gang of bad actors: Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, Russia, the money men in the Arabian peninsula, ISIS, and Al Qaeda.7Counterterrorism officials seemed to believe that the threat from ISIS was local, and could be bottled up in the Levant without any blowback beyond Syria’s borders.
All the assumptions underlying American inaction, however, were blown apart by a series of cataclysmic events: the concurrent implosion of Syria and Iraq in 2014 at the hands of ISIS, followed by the entrenchment of a sustainable jihadist empire headquartered in Mosul, and finally a human wave of displaced people remaking the demographics of Syria’s neighbors and flowing through Europe. No matter how hard the U.S. government has tried to contain, cauterize, or ignore the Syria war, its strategic ramifications continue to demand notice.
Putin’s showmanship has once again created a sense of urgency, just as the refugee crisis, the emergence of ISIS, and the use of chemical weapons did in early periods of the war. In response, some analysts and politicians in the United States have focused on the public relations fallout from Russia outmaneuvering Washington.8 In the case of Syria, that image reflects reality. Russia is achieving its admittedly simpler, Machiavellian goals far more successfully than the United States because Russia is far more committed, has dedicated far greater resources, and has a solid ally in power in Damascus.
If, after all the political calculations are made, the United States is unwilling to shoulder the risks of a heavier involvement in Syria, then it must make a clear case that inaction is a safer, smarter, and more responsible course than intervention. It must argue that any greater military involvement would make the human toll worse. And if it decides to pursue inaction and still wants to maintain some semblance of its role as a humanitarian world leader, the United States must also make a serious production of spending money and resources to contain the wider fallout of the conflict in terms of contagion and refugees. Washington has led international donations to the Syrian refugee response and insists it is a priority, but American contributions have been inadequate to address the crisis. United Nations appeals remain massively underfunded, and millions of refugees live without any secure status in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. If the United States decides to limit itself to addressing the humanitarian needs, it must immediately commit to resettling a number of refugees in the six figures, and ought to commit enough money to fully fund the UN’s Syrian refugee appeals.
A better course of action would be to get off the fence and aggressively pursue a plan that promotes an inclusive national solution to the Syrian conflict, one that would address core concerns about governance, corruption, and the disenfranchisement of many Sunnis.
Such a course would be fragile and full of risks, but the alternative is worse: a de facto alliance with Putin, Assad, and Tehran in shaping the future of Syria. In that scenario, the very same parties that drove Syria to collapse and green-lit the unfurling of a massive international jihadi wave would dictate the terms of a counter-jihad, with the United States playing a supporting role. An American junior partnership with Assad and Putin would be bad geopolitics for the United States—and it also would be unlikely to bring peace to Syria.
What would a more effective solution look like? The United States cannot wisely sign onto an anti-ISIS alliance composed solely of Assad, Russia, and Tehran. A genuine anti-ISIS campaign must have support from Syrian Sunnis if it is to have any chance of success. A national coalition backed by all the major non-jihadi players would be the only viable vehicle for fighting ISIS and stabilizing Syria as a whole. It would be a long shot—and it would become a possibility only if the United States decided to provide a significant counterweight to the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran alliance.
That position would entail a serious and major U.S. commitment, including a no-fly zone and safe havens, and partnerships with any non-jihadi militias willing to rhetorically embrace basic values of pluralism and shared governance.
Crucially, this American involvement must be accompanied by a new diplomatic initiative from Washington, inviting all the conflict’s foreign sponsors and all its domestic stakeholders—except for the jihadis—to take part in designing and supporting a transitional government. Assad and his circle would have to be part of that negotiation.
Talking to Putin about Syria will not make America look more ineffectual and disconnected than it already does. On the other hand, there is no reason to start a dialogue unless the White House has something to say. Articulating and putting resources behind a regional strategy to resolve the Syrian problem would be a good opening statement in any conversation with Russia.
1. Dmitri Trenin, “Like It or Not, America and Russia Need to Cooperate in Syria,” Carnegie Moscow Center, September 17, 2015,http://carnegie.ru/2015/09/17/like-it-or-not-america-and-russia-need-to-cooperate-in-syria/ihuf.
2. Thanassis Cambanis, “A Plan for Syria,” The Century Foundation. July 28, 2015, http://tcf.org/work/foreign_policy/detail/a-plan-for-syria.
3. Borzou Daragahi and Max Seddon, “This Is What’s Behind Russia’s Push Into Syria,” BuzzFeed News. September 16, 2015,http://buzzfeed.com/borzoudaragahi/this-is-whats-behind-russias-push-into-syria?utm_term=.hxEzEKAKj5#.am50r2PlPE.
4. Patrice Taddonio, “‘The President Blinked’: Why Obama Changed Course on the ‘Red Line’ in Syria,” Frontline, May 25, 2015,http://pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/foreign-affairs-defense/obama-at-war/the-president-blinked-why-obama-changed-course-on-the-red-line-in-syria/.
5. Mark Landler and Jonathan Weisman, “Obama Delays Syria Strike to Focus on a Russian Plan,” New York Times, September 10, 2013, http://nytimes.com/2013/09/11/world/middleeast/syrian-chemical-arsenal.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
6. Josh Rogin, “Syria Crosses Obama’s New Red Line,” Bloomberg View, March 19, 2015,http://bloombergview.com/articles/2015-03-19/syria-s-chemical-attacks-cross-obama-s-new-red-line.
7. Thanassis Cambanis, “How Do You Say ‘Quagmire’ in Farsi?” Foreign Policy, May 13, 2015,http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/05/13/how-do-you-say-quagmire-in-farsi; and Thanassis Cambanis, “Should America let Syria fight on?” Boston Globe, April 7, 2013, https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/04/06/should-america-let-syria-fight/UUtDpctZYyeymgSjgRSBWK/story.html.
8. Jonathan Broder, “Can Putin Save Assad in Syria?” Newsweek, September 16, 2015, http://newsweek.com/russia-syria-isis-putin-obama-assad-372864.
With the Iran nuclear negotiations concluded, attention ought to shift to a political solution for the troubling war in Syria, which has killed about a quarter-million people (estimates range from 230,000 to 320,0001), while displacing 4 million refugees into the Levant and Turkey.2
The United States remains an indispensable source of influence in the Middle East—when it chooses to get involved. It can shift the dynamics of the Syrian civil war by taking two steps. First, Washington should pour a new, higher level of support into the northern front of the civil war, in coordination with key allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Second, it should continue to promote an end to the war through political negotiations that include all the key domestic and international actors in the conflict and exclude only the most extreme jihadist rebels.
A sustained intervention through proxies on Syria’s northern front would be a messy and inconclusive affair, but if carefully tailored, with pragmatic expectations, it could completely shift the political horizon for the Syrian civil war. No foreign intervention can create an idealistic group of democratic, secular rebels ready to take over the entire country of Syria and replace the regime. With international support, however, it is possible to create a coalition of nationalist rebels capable of making gains against both the regime in Damascus and jihadist extremists, including ISIS, the Nusra Front, and Ahrar al-Sham. An invigorated nationalist opposition could provide the final incentive needed to bring Syria’s combatants into a productive negotiating process.
The conflict is newly ripe for a diplomatic resolution, requiring only a catalyst. Russia, focused on the Ukraine crisis, would entertain an end to the war that preserved its status quo security interests in the Levant. The political and economic windfall from the nuclear deal in Vienna could prompt Iran to increase its aggressive involvement in Syria,3 but it might simultaneously make Iran more open to discussions of a settlement.4 An insecure and aggrieved Saudi Arabia will need to be wooed, as its leaders are irritated by the prospect of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement.5 Yet, the rise of entrenched jihadis and the civilian bloodletting in Syria is equally troubling for the Saudis.6 Turkey is increasingly facing the risk of a spillover effect from the conflict in Syria, and would benefit from a calming of the crisis along its borders.7
All these factors suggest that a well-designed U.S. initiative, coupled with a concerted push to shift the military balance of power on the northern front, could trigger a genuine effort to negotiate an end to the war in Syria.
Existing Intervention: A Sorry Mess
Currently, the Damascus regime and its Iranian backers have encountered little resistance to their maximalist, often criminal tactics. The regime appears to continue to use chemical weapons with little consequence.8 Its armed forces and semiofficial militias have massacred tens of thousands of civilians by dropping barrel bombs, naval mines, and other indiscriminate explosives on neighborhoods under rebel control.9 Yet, the international community has raised no meaningful objections.
American involvement in Syria has been desultory. More than a year ago, when the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām (ISIS) expanded its dominion in Syria and Iraq and captured the city of Mosul, Washington vowed to do something; it would no longer consider the war in Syria a strategically inconsequential problem that could be ignored. But a year later, the United States has lagged on its promise to train and equip Syrian rebels. The latest venture, approved a year ago with a $500 million budget, just sent its first class of recruits into the field in July—a paltry contingent of sixty.10 The Pentagon is hamstrung by its obsession with vetting fighters, and its standards are so impractical and unrealistic that they disqualify most credible commanders. The train-and-equip program is further hampered by the insistence that its graduates only fight Islamist jihadists rather than the regime in Damascus.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has not even decided what kind of support to give to the soldiers it has dispatched into northern Syria under the latest iteration of train-and-equip. “I think we have some obligations to them once they are inserted in the field,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told a congressional committee. “They know that we will provide support to them.” But he could not specify what that support would entail: “We have not told them yet,” Carter said the week the newly trained fighters were deployed.11
The U.S. air campaign against ISIS has struck limited targets. With few trusted local proxies on the ground, the U.S. Air Force can have only minimal impact. For now, the only local proxy with fighters on the ground that can regularly ask for U.S. air strikes is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).12 The YPG has successfully taken some territory from ISIS, but is anathema to Turkey. Whenever the YPG is too successful, as in June when it captured the border crossing of Tal Abyad between Turkey and Syria,13 the Turks become alarmed and resentful. Ankara considers the YPG as indistinguishable from the PKK, militant Kurdish separatists who have waged an on-again off-again violent campaign in Turkey. The Turkish government will never support an anti-ISIS or anti-Assad campaign dominated by the YPG Kurds.
Meanwhile, as U.S. efforts have floundered, ISIS continues to deepen its state structures, military capacity, and territorial control, and it looks more like an established entity with each passing day.14
With all this bad news and so many unreliable partners on the ground, it’s no wonder that President Obama has kept his distance. Rebels willing to do business with the CIA, DOD and other government agencies have proven a mixed bag. In 2014, for instance, the United States invested considerable resources in Jamal Maarouf’s secular nationalist Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF), which then took control of much of Idlib province. U.S. involvement initially was viewed as a success; a modest amount of money, along with anti-tank missiles, had shifted the battle in favor of “moderate” rebels. In practice, the rebels proved not so moderate, and the success was short lived. The SRF’s governance of Idlib was capricious and riddled with corruption. Civilians in Idlib came to resent the inconsistency and predatory abuses of their liberators. The province suffered punishing regime air strikes, as do all areas liberated by rebels. Eventually, Islamists took over the province and roundly defeated the SRF, which then collapsed.15
Today, the liberated areas of Idlib province are controlled mostly by the Nusra Front (Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate), and Ahrar el-Sham, a jihadi group that has won plaudits for being more homegrown and nationalist than ISIS and Nusra, but which in practice shares their extreme views, which are incompatible with a pluralistic or secular state. The areas of Idlib province controlled by secular nationalists under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) survive as timid oases of relative moderation. FSA commanders interviewed in Reyhanli said they do not even try to control local governance, the economy, or social services (as Islamist militias do in their domains), and they admit that they must surrender some share of their resources and weapons to the Islamists who control the FSA’s access to Idlib. They rely on the black market for fuel, sometimes indirectly buying the diesel for their tanks and vehicles from ISIS.
The good news is that there are still plenty of commanders willing to fight under the banner of the FSA, do business with the United States, and espouse political principles and talking points that make them palatable to mainstream Syrians. A recent visit to the Turkish-Syrian border showed a growing group of commanders who control boots on the ground, have a nationalist, rather than Islamist style, and have demonstrated an ability to learn politically.
“At the end we will support any government that gives all Syrians their rights,” Colonel Fares Bayyoush, an army defector who commands an FSA brigade in Idlib province, said in an interview at his headquarters in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. “From our side, we are going to behave like Syrians. . .If we in the FSA get power, we will protect coexistence.” Half a dozen FSA commanders interviewed in Reyhanli and Gaziantep voiced the same refrain: they want a resolution to the Syrian war that protects all sects and ethnicities, and they want to eliminate the jihadist groups while reintegrating their supporters into society. They have demonstrated a history of coordinating military operations with Kurds and with Islamist fighters. They express a willingness to negotiate with elements of the regime, and they claim to include Christians, Druze and Alawites among the ranks of their fighters.
Much of this sentiment is probably tailored for Western consumption, but it also marks a considerable shift compared to a year ago. Interviews in the same border towns with the same groups in the summer of 2014 had revealed a propensity for grandstanding, Sunni triumphalism, and petulant demands that the U.S. military intervene directly and win the war for the opposition. Today, the same commanders have learned a new political language. The rhetoric of rights and national unity in the hands of pragmatic fighters signals the beginnings of a national accord that could lead Syria out of its fratricidal war.
So long as the United States is looking for a functional alliance and not for idealized founding fathers, it can find what it needs to shift the Syrian dynamic among the grab-bag of Syrian nationalists clamoring for American money and weapons on the northern front.
The framework for forming this alliance already exists. The United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other aligned players dispense military aid and cash to their preferred rebels through coordinating bodies—known colloquially among fighters as “military operations rooms”—in Reyhanli, Turkey and Aleppo, Syria. Some powers are believed also to fund favored proxies independently on the sly, but the operations rooms were founded with the stated goal of streamlining and unifying the funding of anti-Assad rebels.
And there is evidence to support this approach. Whenever the major outside powers work together to direct their weapons, funding, and intelligence in tandem, there are considerable gains on the ground as witnessed in the regime losses in Idlib and Aleppo provinces over the last year.16 When foreign powers work at loggerheads, fractiousness increases, along with infighting within and between the nationalist FSA, the Islamists, the Kurds, and the regime.
Changing the Dynamic on the Ground
The groups seeking aid through the operations rooms have proven their elasticity. Some, like the Noureddin Zinki Brigades, temporarily lost American backing when some of their weapons ended up in the hands of jihadists.17 Much of this leakage is unavoidable. For example, in Idlib province, the secular nationalist FSA brigades desperate to keep American support still operate at the pleasure of the militarily dominant Islamists.
This is a dynamic that the United States can change. First, it must make some tough choices in tandem with key allies: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and perhaps other regional players such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. There are at least a dozen rebel groups well known to foreign governments. The foreign backers of the anti-Assad forces must agree on a small number of commanders and groups acceptable to all
Perfection will be the enemy of progress. None of the FSA militias are ideal, but most of them have nationalist roots and agree on the key points that inform long-term U.S. goals: preservation of Syria’s borders, a pluralistic state that safeguards the rights of all ethnic and sectarian communities, and an end to foreign domination of the state. Saudi Arabia will dislike Muslim Brotherhood militias. Turkey will prefer groups with a Sunni Islamic flavor and will seek to minimize the role of the Kurdish YPG militias. The United States will want a commander who pays lip service to America’s political vision for Syria. These lowest-common denominator characteristics can be found in a single militia.
The nationalist groups whose long term goal is to hold power in Syria also have come to understand that it’s not feasible to massacre members of minority groups, dictate terms to foreign powers, or transform Syria into an Islamic republic. A year ago, many FSA commanders interviewed in the border region were not willing to openly espouse nationalist political goal, or did not understand the type of political language that would enable them to win international support. Today, many of them have learned an entirely new vocabulary. FSA battalions have united in a coherent communications structure, which is ripe for sustained international backing.
An effective strategy would have to follow a long-term plan that includes, at a minimum, the following elements:
1. Coordinated backing of a single commander, or small number of commanders. The United States, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia would have to direct their resources in harmony to selected groups and exclude funding and weapons for all others. As has occurred throughout the Syrian conflict whenever funding shifted, fighters would abandon atrophying brigades and join the well-funded and well-armed groups.
2. Effective governance of rebel areas. The foreign backers, led by the United States, would have to keep their proxies on a short leash, forcing rather than trusting them to behave well. That means long-term funding and arming that is dispensed in weekly bursts and carefully monitored. If a proxy group mistreats minorities, or engages in black market fuel trade, or extorts money from civilians, it will forfeit its weekly cash payment. The United States and others will also have to send huge amounts of nonmilitary aid to enable effective governance in liberated areas, which would require a full buy-in from Turkey.
3. Security in liberated areas. Unless liberated areas are safe for civilians, the regime will win even when it loses. There are many options, but all of them require an end to the Damascus regime’s unfettered control of Syria’s airspace. Curtailing the Syrian regime’s sovereignty would entail a significant change in U.S. commitment, which will require a change of position by the White House and political legwork domestically to win approval. The most maximal option is a no-fly zone supported by the United States and Turkey. In a less dramatic move, the United States could back a no-fly zone enforced by Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. It could politically support a middle option whereby Turkey would shoot down regime bombers and helicopters using land-based systems in Turkey. Or, at the most minimal, international teams of special forces (from Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey or the United States) could sporadically shoot down regime bombers using portable surface-to-air missiles. This last option would introduce enough risk and uncertainty for the regime that it would be forced to reduce its indiscriminate bombing. One reasonable objection is that most liberated areas are currently controlled by Islamist extremists: Ahrar al-Sham, Nusra, and ISIS. The United States understandably does not want to be seen acting as Al Qaeda’s air force, which is why it’s crucial that air cover evolves in tandem with backing for nationalist, non-jihadi rebels. Air cover and an internationally backed safe zone should be extended as a start over any area held by non-jihadi rebels.
4. Shifting the political and military balance of power. Gains by nationalist rebels would weaken the Islamists (ISIS, Nusra, and Ahrar) and would also weaken the regime. It is crucial that nationalist rebels, backed by the United States and others, win support and trust from fence-sitters, tribes, and rural religious Sunni Arabs who currently tilt toward Islamist groups or the regime. The U.S.-backed rebels would have to avoid sectarian massacres or Sunni triumphalism. They would have to continue showing an ability to work with all Syrian sects and ethnicities and continue espousing a commitment to a secular nationalist governing ideology that preserves Syria’s territorial integrity and opposes Islamist extremists. Such a position would make the rebels palatable to mainstream Syrians as well as to political actors with whom the opposition will ultimately have to reconcile in a negotiated settlement: quiescent members of the business class from every ethnic and sectarian background, the ruling elite, and its international backers.
5. A peace process. U.S.-orchestrated intervention on Syria’s northern front can feed a process of negotiating a political settlement. Rebels cannot win outright; neither can the regime or the Islamists. But a consolidated front of nationalist rebels can make peace with a subset of the regime and begin the arduous process of reconstituting the Syrian state. For a new strategy to succeed, the United States would have to regularly renew its invitation and commitment to support an inclusive political negotiating process to end the war.
A Long Haul
The United States has been mysteriously AWOL in Syria, even since “declaring war on ISIS” a year ago and undertaking a desultory bombing campaign. Now, with the peril of Iran’s nuclear program apparently contained, the United States ought to ramp up its diplomatic and indirect military engagement in Syria, with the intention of forcing a fair political settlement.
A concerted and sustained U.S.-orchestrated campaign to empower one faction of nationalist rebels could do wonders to change the dynamics of the fitful negotiations to resolve the Syrian civil war. There’s nothing the United States could do to make the anti-Assad rebels win, even if it wanted to. But by placing its thumb on the scale with a vigor that it has so far avoided, the United States could propel its preferred faction to dominance within the fractured milieu of anti-Assad forces.
The United States could alter the dynamic of the war and the position of key outside sponsors of the conflict—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—with a sustained political and military commitment to nationalist rebels who express a commitment to a multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian Syria within its current borders and based on an inclusive definition of citizenship.
Such a partnership is feasible, so long as it has realistic aims: not to win the war for one faction or hope to eliminate jihadist extremists overnight, but to make all parties to the civil war realize that a political compromise will leave them better off than a continued war.
The mechanics are clear. First, the United States must acknowledge that a resolution in Syria will require the involvement of all the parties to the conflict, including Washington’s unsavory allies and its persistent rivals. Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey will have to be at the negotiating table. So will some unseemly Islamist rebel factions. Any party excluded from negotiations, like ISIS or the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, must be instead roundly defeated with military force. It is not possible to ignore the extremist groups and yet concede them the territory under their control.
Any new approach could still take years to change the overall direction of Syria’s war. A shift in the U.S. approach to the northern front would require considerable diplomatic work with Turkey and Arab allies. But a pragmatic plan could get the key players onside and frame the goals for the conflict in a more realistic way. Nothing will change as long as each group of combatants thinks it can achieve total victory. But the political dynamics will change as the balance of power on the ground shifts, and the only proven force that has affected the course of the conflict to date has been the sustained flow of money, weapons, and foreign political attention.
At worst, the United States will fail to persuade all its allies to fully cooperate with the strategy and will end up with a few tighter partnerships among the rebels, but no major strategic yield. At best, the United States will convince the other sponsors of the Syrian conflict that they no longer have free access to run killing fields and that they will have to pay a much higher price to stick with the status quo—or else will have to look for political compromises.
1 Estimates from the United Nations and Western news agencies place the minimum death toll at 230,000. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates a minimum death toll of 320,000.
2 In addition to the 4 million refugees who have fled Syria, nearly 8 million internally displaced people have been forced from their homes but still live in the country. See Nick Cummings-Bruce, “Number of Syrian Refugees Climbs to More Than 4 Million,” New York Times, July 9, 2015,http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/09/world/middleeast/number-of-syrian-refugees-climbs-to-more-than-4-million.html?_r=0.
3 Sean D. Naylor, “Will Curbing Iran’s Nuclear Threat Boost Its Proxies?” Foreign Policy, July 20, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/20/will-curbing-irans-nuclear-threat-boost-its-proxies/.
4 Jessica Schulberg, “Obama: No End to War in Syria Without ‘Buy-In’ From Iran,” Huffington Post, July 20, 2015,http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/15/obama-iran-deal_n_7802768.html.
5 Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky, “It’s Time to Stop Holding Saudi Arabia’s Hand,” Foreign Policy, May 12, 2015,http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/05/12/its-time-to-stop-holding-saudi-arabias-hand-gcc-summit-camp-david/.
6 David Gardner, “The Toxic Rivalry of Saudi Arabia and ISIS,” Financial Times, July 16, 2015, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/8bba2ab4-2b00-11e5-8613-e7aedbb7bdb7.html#axzz3gdqpeelg.
7 Semih Idiz, “Turkey Needs to Drop Its Dead-End Foreign Policy,” Al-Monitor, July 21, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/07/turkey-west-european-union-us-time-to-readjust-compass.html.
8 Adam Entous, “Assad Chemical Threat Mounts,” Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/assad-chemical-threat-mounts-1435535977.
9 Lucy Westcott, “United Nations: Assad’s Barrel Bombs Continue to Kill Syrian Civilians,” Newsweek, June 27, 2015,http://www.newsweek.com/united-nations-assads-barrel-bombs-continue-kill-syrian-civilians-347782.
10 Jennifer Rizzo, “Carter: U.S. Trains Only 60 Syrian Rebels,” CNN, July 7, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/07/politics/united-states-training-syrian-rebels-ashton-carter/.
11 See Roy Gutman, “First contingent of U.S.-trained fighters enters Syria,” McClatchy, July 16, 2015, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article27446395.html, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Syrian rebels get their first U.S.-trained fighters,” Washington Post, July 15, 2015,https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/first-us-trained-syrian-fighters-reenter-their-country/2015/07/15/6e6c0551-353d-4e17-961b-98995321576c_story.html.
12 See Denise Natali, “The Coalition’s quagmire with Syrian Kurds,” Al Monitor, July 14, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/07/coalition-quagmire-syrian-kurds.html#. See also Roy Gutman, “U.S Moves Its Syrian Air Campaign to the West,” McClatchy, June 30, 2015, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/middle-east/article25909303.html.
13 Thomas Seibert, “ISIS is Losing in Northern Syria, but Ankara is Unhappy,” Daily Beast, June 16, 2015,http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/16/isis-is-losing-in-northern-syria-but-ankara-is-unhappy.html.
14Tim Arango, “ISIS Transforming Into Functioning State That Uses Terror as a Tool” New York Times, July 21, 2015,http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/world/middleeast/isis-transforming-into-functioning-state-that-uses-terror-as-tool.html.
15 See Liz Sly, “U.S.-backed Syria rebels routed by fighters linked to al-Qaeda,” Washington Post, November 2, 2014,https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/us-backed-syria-rebels-routed-by-fighters-linked-to-al-qaeda/2014/11/02/7a8b1351-8fb7-4f7e-a477-66ec0a0aaf34_story.html. Zack Beauchamp, “American strategy in Syria is collapsing,” Vox, November 4, 2014,http://www.vox.com/2014/11/4/7150473/american-strategy-in-syria-is-collapsing. A similar collapse struck another U.S. favorite, the Hazm movement; see Ian Black, “US Syria policy in tatters after favoured ‘moderate’ rebels disband,” Guardian, March 2, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/02/us-syria-policy-tatters-moderate-rebels-disband.
16 Firas abi Ali, “Syrian Opposition Success in Idlib Province Likely to Threaten Aleppo, Latakia, and Assad’s Hold on Power,” IHS Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, April 27, 2015, http://www.janes.com/article/51012/syrian-opposition-success-in-idlib-province-likely-to-threaten-aleppo-latakia-and-assad-s-hold-on-power.
17 Author interview with Noureddin Zinki Brigades official, Antakya, Turkey, June 2015.
The war unfolding in Yemen has created a humanitarian and political catastrophe.1 Since Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen’s civil war at the end of March, the conflict has spiraled into an open, multiplayer regional war that has killed more than 2,000 people. For long stretches, Yemen’s seaports have been blockaded, threatening the food supply of an estimated half of the population of 24 million. Meanwhile, the number of displaced has lurched upward to 1 million.2
The conflict in Yemen marks yet another unfortunate escalation in the region that will exacerbate security problems and political divisions. This time around, Arab governments and the United States should do everything they can to calm the conflict before it becomes another intractable killing field. Washington already recognized Yemen’s strategic importance and for years has targeted terrorist operatives there with drone strikes. Now, the United States and its allies have the opportunity to learn from recent missteps in the region and take advantage of the halting negotiations that opened recently in Genevabetween the warring parties.3
The next few months offer a narrow window to prioritize diplomacy over military action in a bid to shift worsening dynamics across the Middle East. Regional governments and multilateral organizations ought to take every conceivable diplomatic step available today, even in the face of likely failure or obstruction, to address the Yemen crisis. Otherwise, it could quickly turn into another Syria, an intractable, grinding conflict that destroys one nation, while implicating a raft of others in a conflict that has no good possible outcomes.
This brief will assess the interests of outside powers that are playing a significant role in the Yemeni civil war and try to identify points of entry for diplomacy and de-escalation, with the long-term goal of creating new forums for dialogue between Saudi Arabia, Iran and other governments. The riskier internationalized phase of the war in Yemen is only three months old, and it has dragged in many key players in the region, including the United States. Military action is unlikely to resolve the conflict there, but an effective political process—which depends on international support—might reverse a dangerous escalation.
A Complex Conflict—and Its Consequences
In Yemen today, two amorphous and loosely allied coalitions are battling each other, with one roughly grouped behind Saudi Arabia and the other behind Iran. The dynamics and identities of these groupings are fluid and malleable. And as with the three other hot wars currently being fought in the Arab world—in Syria, Iraq, and Libya—the Yemen conflict is marked by a considerable degree of external interference. The stakes are high for the foreign interventionists: Saudi Arabia and its allies believe their stance in Yemen denotes a line of departure in a belated, but essential, campaign to check Iran’s influence, while Iran sees Yemen as yet another battleground on which it can pressure its regional rivals while maintaining a plausibly deniable degree of involvement. 4,5
Foreign support has emboldened militias on both sides of the conflict, and almost all sides are already pursuing military options.6 While Yemen’s competing factions fight, Al Qaeda inthe Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been entirely spared foreign military strikes and is enjoying renewed latitude to operate.7
The Yemen crisis poses many dangers. The most obvious lie in Yemen itself, where starvation could become endemic and an avoidable escalation of civil war could lead to a mass humanitarian tragedy. Security blowback is an equally intense strategic concern. AQAP has been one of the most active groups plotting international terrorist attacks, including against the United States. The disruption of U.S.-allied counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, and now the collapse of any central state authority, directly empower AQAP and increase the threat to the United States.8 The coalition led by the Houthis, a group with a distinct tribal and sectarian identity inside Yemen, which is currently supported by Iran and by deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh, has grievances mostly rooted in the local sharing of power and resources.9 It is impossible to assess whether Iran views the interests of the Houthi alliance as close to Iran’s core interests, or whether it tactically views the Houthis as another chit to deploy in a region-wide strategy that seeks to maximize Iranian footholds that can be used to project power or can be traded away in negotiations.
The Yemen war also has clear ramifications for its direct neighbors. Rightly or wrongly,Saudi Arabia always has considered Yemen a core national security interest,10 often trying to manage Yemen’s affairs as if it were another Saudi province. The tightly intertwined business elites of the two countries11 and a hard-to-police shared border12 make it hard for Riyadh to ignore developments to the south. Since March of this year, Saudi Arabia, acting out of genuine fear of Iran’s expanding influence, has embarked on a coalition air war that has no discernible end game.13 While Saudi perceptions might be exaggerated, developments in Yemen are indeed linked to Iranian efforts to deepen their partnership with the Houthis. Critics paint the Saudi intervention as impulsive and slipshod and point out that King Salman could not persuade long-time Saudi beneficiaries such as Pakistan and Egypt to contribute troops for a potential ground operation.14 But Saudi Arabia’s concerns are real, and they cannot be wished away by governments that do not share them. Any broader strategic rapprochement in the region will require a clear understanding of the concerns of the Arabian Peninsula monarchies and measures to restore their sense of security and confidence.
Doubtless, the humanitarian emergency in Yemen will strain an already bad security climate. But it also provides an opportunity to engage the full array of problematic and recalcitrant regional governments with an eye toward assuaging their insecurities and creating diplomatic avenues through which they can explore more enduring fixes to regional problems. The current historical moment, while high risk, offers an opportunity for outside powers to deploy diplomatic influence in a concerted and sustained manner. It is worthwhile in its own right to try to limit the war in Yemen and to calm tensions between the complex web of combatants. But equally importantly, any well-designed initiative—even one that fails—could amount to a major accomplishment if it began to fill the void of regional mechanisms through which rival states can directly negotiate.
What would such an initiative look like, and why should there be any hope that it will work any better than the plethora of failed diplomatic initiatives around the Syrian civil war?
Formulating a Response
The cascade of events that escalated the civil war in Yemen signals a repositioning by key regional powers. Indeed the conflict brings into sharp relief some of the perceived and actual interests at stake for key players, including the Sunni Arab monarchies in the Arabian Gulf, the rulers of Iran, and outside guarantors like Russia and the United States. But this volatile and vulnerable period has an upside: by laying bare some of the fears and ambitions of key regional actors, the turmoil invites governments with the potential for good offices to organize several different diplomatic initiatives. At worst, they will amount to a little more talk in a region that does not experience enough, at least between adversaries. At best, multilateral and bilateral diplomatic initiatives can serve as life-saving palliatives for the immediate catastrophe in Yemen and also potentially as vehicles to curtail the conflict and begin a long process (with admittedly long odds) of creating a nonmilitary forum to resolve regional tensions.
Absent a sharp change of direction soon, the war in Yemen risks following the same course as Syria’s: devolving into an unwinnable and destabilizing stalemate, shredding national well-being for Yemen and prestige for outsiders who thought they could determine the conflict’s course.15 Because the regional external stakeholders in the Yemen war are concurrently implicated in Syria’s, it is worth trying to persuade them to change course in Yemen before it is too late. Paradoxically, some of the same players that have been ineffective or malignant in Syria could play a positive role in calming tensions in Yemen, perhaps because their own prestige is not yet on the line. The United States, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the United Nations are obvious candidates to serve as early diplomatic brokers.
Existing diplomatic outreach has reaped some benefits. The UN appointed a new envoy on April 25 and helped negotiate a humanitarian ceasefire in May.16 The United States government has met with both sides of the conflict inside Yemen, and it has been adept at simultaneously managing multiple aspects of the diplomatic crisis. The talks in Geneva that begin on June 14 hold some basic promise but fail to include all the necessary actors.17 A concerted diplomatic push could be catalyzed by comparatively level-headed players, such as the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and the United Nations, and could make use of problematic but potentially useful forums such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Arab League. The aim would be to begin a diplomatic process that would include, even at a remove, both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and which would have at least a prospect of serving as an avenue to address the bedrock security concerns undermining regional security and driving the Yemen war. Any diplomatic effort to reduce tension between those two nations must take into account their stakes throughout the region.
Iran is enjoying a moment of expanding regional influence, but one that it perceives as under constant threat. It has made headway in negotiating a nuclear framework agreement with the United States and Europe, but it has suffered extensive economic isolation under sanctions.18 Iran has outsized influence over Iraq’s government, but that government has porous control over its own territory and can barely maintain a fiction of national sovereignty over Kurdish and Sunni areas.
The Syrian regime has been a tight client of Iran, but at great cost to Tehran—perhaps as much as $60 billion in financial support and a hard-to-measure, but deep, commitment of military and political resources.19 Iran and its partner, Hezbollah, have kept the Syrian regime afloat, but they have found the Syrian sponsees brittle and unresponsive to the political requests of their paymasters, who have unsuccessfully counseled the regime to experiment with political conciliation to end the civil war. Meanwhile, the ISIS proto-state in Iraq and Syria entails a direct and violent challenge to Iranian designs, interests, and legitimacy in the Arab and Islamic world.
Engaging Iran on the issue of Yemen while all these factors are in play could yield multiple benefits. Internal competition inside Iran between the military-revolutionary guard complex and the clerical-merchant elite raises the possibility of exploitable differences of opinion within the Iranian government. Yemen talks might also be an avenue to gauge whether Iran has changed its position on other issues in the wake of the nuclear framework accord negotiations. It is also possible that Iran does not see Yemen as a core interest and might even desire a de-escalation there, even as it appears to ramp up its military commitment in Syria. All these factors suggest that, while Iran seems ascendant, its concerns and internal dynamics open the possibility for a wider spectrum of diplomatic engagement.20
Yemen talks allow for a narrow focus, but all the players are aware of the wider context. Iran and the United States are on the verge of a major shift as a result of the nuclear negotiations. Arab governments are nervous that Washington will tilt away from them and toward Iran. It is important to manage the exaggerated fears and expectations; any U.S. shift on Iran is likely to be incremental, and a diplomatic process can help calm insecurities that can produce destabilizing violence like the war in Yemen. There is alo an economic component to discussions with Iran that could provide significant leverage to increase security. If and when sanctions on Iran are loosened, the Western sponsors of the nuclear talks could wisely direct a sizable share of their proceeds from the resulting economic boom to the very same Sunni Arab countries most worried about Iran. If Arabian Peninsula economies profit from Iran’s opening—through trade, the funneling of Western investment via Arab entrepôts in the Gulf, or even through direct investments of their own—the long-term prospects for peace and stability increase. 21
The mechanics of such an economic windfall might be complicated. New private investment in Iran will not be driven by the diplomatic priorities of Western governments. But it is very possible that some of the biggest new, or renewed, foreign economic partnerships with Iran will come from companies that are traditional partners of government policy, like U.S. defense contractors and engineering conglomerates or European chemical and automobile manufacturers.22 The goal for diplomats would be to encourage investors to allow some of the post-sanctions Iran bonanza to pass through the Arab world, perhaps through creative partnerships between Western corporations and financial and technical partners in the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. An imperfect but useful analogy can be found in Iraq’s Kurdish north, where the Kurdistan Regional Government and its predecessors opened the borders to massive, profitable Turkish investments. The Turkish stake (and profits) in Kurdish Iraq have created enduring shared interests and reduced long-running tensions, despite real political disagreements. 23
Saudi Arabia in March used the Arab League to launch its entrance into the Yemen war, and it has tried to rally pan-Arab support against what it describes as foreign Iranian aggression.24 The rhetoric of the March summit had overtones of Sunni Arab Nationalist grievance against a Shia and Persian-inflected conspiracy.25 There were also overt notes of triumphalist return of the established conservative political order after a period of experimentation ushered in by the period of popular uprisings.
Any sense of a restoration, or a new Pax Arabicus, is premature, however, and will quickly fade. Saudi Arabia already is seeing the difficulty of imposing a clean solution on Yemen and is reportedly considering a partition of the country.26 Riyadh is also well aware of the intractability of the Syria conflict, and it has begun to see the drawbacks of the ally it enlisted by helping install Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Egypt’s ruler.
King Salman is experienced, but he is new in his role as king and is heavily reliant on his approximately thirty-year-old son to shape policy.27 Transition periods allow for flux and also for adaptation. If Salman can be persuaded that it will protect Saudi’s core security interests, he could probably accept some shifts in policy on Yemen, or perhaps even on the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.
The new administration in Saudi Arabia is experimenting with a new approach to foreign policy. It is a ripe moment to establish new mechanisms with Saudi Arabia because the kingdom’s top officials, and its policy orientations, are changing. King Salman has openly reconsidered the kingdom’s outright hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood;28 he has taken a step back from his predecessor’s tight embrace of the dictator Saudi helped install in Egypt;29 he has taken new initiative to invigorate Sunni rebels in Syria;30 and he hassuggested in a range of leaks and public statements that Riyadh is willing to strike out on a policy course independent from Washington.31 However, that last position might be bluster, since Saudi and the United States have close, intertwined policy interests, including limiting the reach of Al Qaeda, maintaining a free flow of oil to global energy markets, and trying to check Iranian regional hegemony. Saudi Arabia depends on the U.S. security umbrella, and the United States depends on Saudi’s willingness to adjust the amount of oil it pumps to maintain world supplies in the face of geopolitical disruptions caused by events like the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the embargo on Iranian oil, and the sporadic disruption of Libyan oil supplies since 2011. There is not likely to be a divorce, but Saudi Arabia is looking for supplementary partners and has made clear that it feels the U.S. is inadequately committed to Arab regional security.32 Regional discussions might offer an opportunity for Washington to emphasize its long-term investments in the region and its commitment to stability.
A (Limited) U.S. Role
Somewhat by accident, the United States has found itself in a position where it can negotiate along a complimentary line of diplomatic inducements. And Washington has taken this opportunity with more alacrity than it has at other junctures since the Arab uprisings began.
While finalizing the nuclear framework agreement with Iran, the United States simultaneously signed on to an explicitly anti-Iran war in Yemen33 and withheld military support in Iraq until Iran-backed militias took a backseat in the battle for Tikrit.34 The United States showed that it could keep its eyes on many parts of the map at the same time and that it would play hardball with Iran on other issues, even while making compromises in the interest of limiting its nuclear program.
The United States can do the same with its allies as well. It can assist the Saudi campaign in Yemen in the short-term, while counseling the development of an exit strategy. It can also volunteer to coordinate complementary, if not identical, positions for Egypt, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Riyadh is unlikely to embrace a U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, but it might effectively shelf its opposition in exchange for a symbolic increase in U.S. security guarantees for the Arabian Peninsula.
Creative diplomacy can explore other pathways to reassure allies and convince them to accept otherwise unpalatable tradeoffs. An example of the kind of innovative, small-scale problem solving that could evolve in the framework of regional talks involves nuclear power. Arab states are dissatisfied that they lack nuclear programs while Israel maintains an undeclared nuclear arsenal and Iran appears to be on the verge of winning international approval for a robust research program that will leave it only a few steps away from a weapons program. The United States could look for ways to alleviate this dissatisfaction, for example by taking the lead in sponsoring nuclear power plants in the Gulf and its Arab allies, such as Egypt and Jordan. U.S. companies have already been making inroads—Westinghouse is part of the coalition that is currently building nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates. Official backing behind such a strategy, however, would also signal commitment and perhaps act as a salve for local energy problems and symbolic compensation for a perceived technology and support gap. Nuclear power is just one example of a secondary area that could be channeled in the Yemen talks to prompt progress on a wider scale.
Enabling Regional Dialogue
At the moment, there is no forum in which Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia regularly sit together to air regional concerns. Nor is there a meaningful forum where the full range of regional actors who actually affect developments on the ground regularly meet. If regional dialogue is to have a place in cooling down Yemen—as well as the other wars in the Arab world at the moment—such a forum would have to include the Arab States, Iran, Turkey, and probably Russia, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations. The path to such a structure is long and would probably have to begin piecemeal, but a genuine Yemen contact group would be a fine place to start.
The crisis in Yemen is in early enough stages to enjoy the potential for amelioration. Furthermore, all the key players have in front of them Libya and Syria, vivid examples of what happens in an entrenched war zone in which the combatants and sponsors refuse to engage in diplomacy. The first step would require the United States and Russia to set an example and show that, even while confronting one another over the crisis in Ukraine, they can agree to support a dialogue, even a tense one, over a second issue, in this case Yemen. The United Nations talks in Geneva could be expanded upon, or even moved to a neutral location closer to the region like Nairobi, Athens, or Istanbul. The first agenda could focus simply on humanitarian relief and access, but all players would have to be invited, including Iran.
Hopes for a diplomatic initiative on Yemen should be muted. The habits of bluster, confrontation, and proxy warfare are deeply engrained, and normalized relations have eluded key Middle East actors for nearly half a century. The United States has contributed to this culture by its support for an often moribund Israel-Palestine negotiating framework and by regularly backing diplomatic initiatives, like the Geneva process on Syria, that are meaningless from the start because they exclude key actors in the conflict.
In the event of a strong push from international and regional diplomats, key actors, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, might respond with recalcitrance or even outright rejectionism. But if the initial agenda focuses on humanitarian matters and battlefield access for neutral parties, and possibly on communications channels for battlefield deconfliction that could prove useful to all parties, it will be easier over time to persuade Tehran and Riyadh to take part.
The key is to attract the full range of players. The initial agenda can revolve around comparatively easy matters, such as opening ports to more regular food deliveries, increasing battlefield access for internationally recognized humanitarian aid workers, and the creation of some kind of emergency communications channel to reduce the risk of an unintentional international escalation of the war. Little is lost if the entire process amounts to a failed diplomatic initiative. Any resulting political embarrassment for supporting governments can be managed. The conflict in Yemen, however, is too important to simply be allowed to unfold at the mercies of regional powers acting in the grip of uncertainty and perceived threat. And a new diplomatic approach carries the possibility, however slim, of creating a useful new forum where adversaries can talk to each other in a conflict-ridden region that sorely lacks one.
1. Stephanie Nebehay, “Yemen faces humanitarian catastrophe without vital supplies: Red Cross,” Reuters, May 27, 2015,http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/05/27/us-yemen-security-redcross-idUSKBN0OC1W720150527.
2. See UNOCHA Yemen page for overview of latest statistics on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen: “Yemen,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, June 2015, http://www.unocha.org/yemen, accessed June 9, 2015.
3. “In Geneva, Ban says international community has ‘obligation to act’ for Yemen peace,” UN News Centre, June 15, 2015,http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=51153#.VX7_IflVhBd.
4. Peter Salisbury, “Yemen and the ‘Saudi-Iranian Cold War,’” Chatham House, February 18, 2015.http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150218YemenIranSaudi.pdf.
5. Mohsen Milani, “Iran’s Game in Yemen: Why Iran Is Not to Blame for the Civil War,” Foreign Affairs, April 19, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2015-04-19/irans-game-yemen.
6. Some photographs of the conflict have been collected on The Atlantic website: Alan Taylor, “The Saudi Arabia-Yemen War of 2015,” The Atlantic, May 7, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2015/05/the-saudi-arabia-yemen-war-of-2015/392687/.
7. Hugh Naylor, “Quietly, al-Qaeda offshoots grow in Yemen and Syria,” Washington Post, June 4, 2015,http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/quietly-al-qaeda-offshoots-expand-in-yemen-and-syria/2015/06/04/9575a240-0873-11e5-951e-8e15090d64ae_story.html.
8. Azmet Khan, “Understanding Yemen’s Al-Qaeda Threat,” PBS NewsHour, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/foreign-affairs-defense/al-qaeda-in-yemen/understanding-yemens-al-qaeda-threat/.
9. Khaled Fattah, “Yemen: Sectarianism and he Politics of Regime Survival,” in Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf, ed. Lawrence G. Potter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 223.
10. Ginny Hill and Gerd Nonneman, “Yemen, Saudi Arabic and the Gulf States: Elite Politics, Street Protests and Regional Diplomacy” Chatham House Briefing Paper,https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/public/Research/Middle%20East/0511yemen_gulfbp.pdf.
11. Peter Salisbury, “Yemen’s Economy: Oil, Imports and Elites,” Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Paper 2011/02, 9–12.
12. Anthony H, Cordesman, “Saudi Arabia’s Changing Strategic Dynamics” in Saudi Arabic: Security in A Troubled Region (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2009), 31–32.
13. Bruce Riedel, “Why Saudi Arabia’s Yemen War is Not Producing Victory” Al-Monitor, March 26, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/05/yemen-war-escalates-stakes-raise-saudi-princes.html.
14. Mark Perry, “US Generals: Saudi Intervention in Yemen a ‘Bad Idea,’” Al Jazeera, April 17, 2015,http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/4/17/us-generals-think-saudi-strikes-in-yemen-a-bad-idea.html;Kenneth Pollack, “The Dangers of the Arab Intervention in Yemen,” Markaz: Middle East Politics & Policy, March 26, 2015,http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/markaz/posts/2015/03/26-pollack-saudi-air-strikes-yemen; and Frederic Wehrey, “Into the Maelstrom: The Saudi-Led Misadventure in Yemen,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 26, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=59500.
15. Peter Salisbury, “Is Yemen Becoming the Next Syria?” Foreign Policy, March 6, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/03/06/is-yemen-becoming-the-next-syria/.
16. “Secretary-General Appoints Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed of Mauritania as His Special Envoy for Yemen,” UN announcement,http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sga1563.doc.htm.
17. Economist editorial offers minimal expectations for the June 14 “consultations”: “No end in sight,” The Economist, June 13, 2015, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21654077-start-peace-talks-raises-little-hope-fighting-yemen-will?fsrc=rss%7Cmea.Humanitarians call for a permanent ceasefire: “Aid agencies: Permanent Yemen ceasefire needed now to save millions,” International Rescue Committee, June 11, 2015, http://www.rescue.org/press-releases/aid-agencies-permanent-yemen-ceasefire-needed-now-save-millions-24975.
18. US State Department page on Iran sanctions: “Iran Sanctions,” U.S. Department of State,http://www.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/iran/index.htm, accessed June 15, 2015.
19. Eli Lake, “Iran Spends Billions to Prop Up Assad,” Bloomberg View, June 09, 2015.http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-06-09/iran-spends-billions-to-prop-up-assad/.
20. Thomas Juneau, “Iran’s Failed Foreign Policy: Dealing from a Position of Weakness,” Middle East Institute, May 01, 2015.http://www.mei.edu/content/article/iran%E2%80%99s-failed-foreign-policy-dealing-position-weakness.
21. Andrew Torchia, “Billions for Grabs if Nuclear Deal Opens Iran’s Economy,” Reuters, April 05, 2015.http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/03/iran-nuclear-economy-idUSL6N0X003P20150403.
22. Martin Hesse, Susanne Koelbl and Michael Sauga, “An Eye to Iran: European Businesses Prepare for Life after Sanctions,”Der Spiegel, May 18, 2015. http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/european-business-prepare-for-lifting-of-iran-sanctions-a-1034240.html and Jeremy Kahn, “Iran Lures Investors Seeing Nuclear Deal Ending Sanctions”, Bloomberg, August 17, 2014.http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-08-17/iran-lures-investors-seeing-nuclear-deal-ending-sanctions.
23. PKK guerilla fighters have never given up their base of operations in Iraqi Kurdistan and have apparently organized attacks inside Turkey from their base in the KRG. But Turkey has exhibited patience and understanding with the KRG, not holding them responsible for the militants on their soil, perhaps because of the thriving economic relationship that the KRG has invited. See Denise Natali, “Turkey’s Kurdish Client-State,” Al-Monitor, November 14, 2014. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/11/turkey-krg-client-state.html# and Soner Cagaptay, Christina Bache Fidan and Ege Cansu Sacikara, “Turkey and the KRG: An Undeclared Economic Commonwealth,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy Policywatch No. 2387, March 16, 2015 http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/turkey-and-the-krg-an-undeclared-economic-commonwealth.
24. James Stavridis, “The Arab NATO,” Foreign Policy, April 09, 2015. http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/09/the-arab-nato-saudi-arabia-iraq-yemen-iran/.
25. Thanassis Cambanis, “Iran Is Winning the War for Dominance of the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, April 14, 2015.http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/14/yemen-iran-saudi-arabia-middle-east/.
26. David B. Ottaway, “Saudi Arabia’s Yemen War Unravels,” The National Interest, May 11, 2015.http://nationalinterest.org/feature/saudi-arabias-yemen-war-unravels-12853.
27. David D. Kirkpatrick, “Surprising Saudi Rises as a Prince Among Princes,” New York Times, June 06, 2015.http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/world/middleeast/surprising-saudi-rises-as-a-prince-among-princes.html?_r=0.
28. Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudis Warn to Muslim Brotherhood, Seeking Unity in Yemen”, The Wall Street Journal, April 02, 2015.http://www.wsj.com/articles/saudis-warm-to-muslim-brotherhood-seeking-sunni-unity-on-yemen-1427967884.
29. H.A. Hellyer, “The New Saudi King, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood”, Al-Monitor, March 24, 2015. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/03/saudi-arabia-new-egypt-muslim-brotherhood.html.
30. Erika Solomon and Simeon Kerr, “Syria’s Rebels Heartened by the Healing of Sunni Arab Rift” Financial Times, April 13, 2015. http://www.ft.com/intl/.cms/s/0/16a10034-df6c-11e4-b6da-00144feab7de.html#axzz3chSsxTTY.
31. Ray Takeyh, “The New Saudi Foreign Policy” Council on Foreign Relations Expert Brief, April 17, 2015.http://www.cfr.org/saudi-arabia/new-saudi-foreign-policy/p36456.
32. Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky, “It’s Time to Stop Holding Saudi Arabia’s Hand” Foreign Policy, February 12, 2015http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/05/12/its-time-to-stop-holding-saudi-arabias-hand-gcc-summit-camp-david/.
33. Micah Zenko, “Make No Mistake—the United States is at War in Yemen,” Foreign Policy, March 30, 2015.http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/03/30/make-no-mistake-the-united-states-is-at-war-in-yemen-saudi-arabia-iran/.
34. Rod Nordland and Helene Cooper, “US Airstrikes on ISIS in Tikrit Prompt Boycott by Shiite Fighters,” New York Times, March 27, 2015,. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/27/world/middleeast/iraq-us-air-raids-islamic-state-isis.html.