Lame-Duck Maneuvers in the Middle East

Posted November 15th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


[Report for The Century Foundation.]

The Middle East’s roiling risk level will rise another notch during the window of instability created by the American presidential transition. A crowd of regional governments, non-state actors, and foreign intervening powers are jockeying for position in a region undergoing a historical period of crisis. Many of them will be tempted to make bold or maximalist moves during the lame-duck period, hoping to position themselves better vis-à-vis Obama’s successor, Donald J. Trump, who will reassess U.S. policy in the region and could subsequently shift or reorder priorities. History has yielded a steady stream of lame-duck maneuvers in the Middle East, from the resolution of the Iran hostage crisis in 1981 to the Israeli blitz in Gaza in December 2008.

This policy brief assesses the climate for unilateral gambits in the Middle East during the ten-week lame-duck period, with an eye toward managing risk and maximizing the pursuit of interests for the United States. Some Middle Eastern leaders already have expressed high hopes for a Trump presidency, hoping he will abandon even rhetorical pressure over human rights and embrace strongman rulers in Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Underlying these hopes, however, is anxiety; none of the Middle East’s leaders know what policies to expect from Trump, and because he doesn’t have a foreign policy records or a well-known coterie of advisers, his rise to the presidency injects even more than the usual amount of uncertainty into the lame-duck period. What are the new or increased risks during the transition period? How can the United States best avert them? Are there foreign policy surprises that President Obama himself might want to unveil in the Middle East during his lame-duck period?

Read the rest at the TCF website.

ISIS’ rotten roots

Posted November 20th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


ISIS fighters march in Raqqa, Syria. AP File photo.

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

I broke the fast this summer one night during Ramadan in Gaziantep, Turkey, with a pair of activists who worked for “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.” At great danger, their organization documented the atrocities of the Islamic State in its de facto capital, the provincial Syrian city of Raqqa.

That day in June, the father of one of the group’s members had been murdered in Raqqa in retribution for the activists’ work. The clean-shaven younger one, named Ibrahim, spent most of the meal on his laptop, messaging contacts inside the part of Syria controlled by the Islamic State and uploading videos. Neither man ate. ISIS had announced a bounty on all their heads, but the citizen-journalists had no plans to give up.

“We are all worried,” Ibrahim said when he packed up his computer. “I will continue this work under any condition. We already have lost too much.”

Earlier this month, I learned that Ibrahim had been beheaded by ISIS — not like his friend’s unfortunate father in Raqqa, in the lawless badlands of the caliphate, but in his neighborhood in the city of Urfa in the supposed safe haven of southern Turkey.

Ibrahim’s murder jolted me — it was yet another instance in which ISIS had snuffed out another life and encroached on the area marked “safe” in my mind. Such encroachments have become all too commonplace, and this November ISIS has made a quantum leap beyond what some imagined were the group’s constraints.

In quick succession, the group claimed responsibility for downing a Russian airliner over the Sinai, a pair of suicide bombings in residential Beirut at rush hour, and then the paralyzing Paris attacks.

As with Ibrahim’s assassination at an Urfa apartment, ISIS wants to sow a sense of insecurity. It is part of the group’s message and ideology: There are no borders. You’re not safe anywhere.

While it’s natural to feel fear — more about that reaction in a minute — we can also remember our outrage and our own power. The temptation to strike back or lash out usually colors the first sorties after a cataclysmic terrorist attack. The response often feels dumb, brute, misguided: bombing in order to do something, joining a war on a fanatical adversary’s terms rather than reasoning out the most effective response.

We’re wiser today than we were in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks — or at least we ought to be — and we have a great deal more data at our disposal. If we can sit still long enough to process our emotions and cut through the layers of obfuscation put up by the myriad combatants in today’s Middle East wars, we can see at least one clarifying truth: Bad government by bad rulers has created the most enduring problems.

An entire rotten cast of Middle East governments has spawned a lost era through misrule and repression. Rotten rulers are the root cause not just of the Islamic State but of hundreds of thousands of other deaths. A partial list of villains includes theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and secular nationalist states like Egypt and Syria.

Some of the killers are backed by the West, others by the East. Interventions and miscalculations have driven the rise of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The hapless invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States and of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union are both on this list.

Not all the malefactors are equally responsible, but all have contributed to the regional order of miserable governance. Until it is replaced with new systems of rule — systems that are more transparent and representative, less dependent on torture, exclusion, and corruption — the Middle East will continue to host murderous conflicts whose strategic impact will ripple into the West despite the West’s best efforts to pretend those conflicts can remain local.

On one level, the bloody propagandists of the Islamic State can feel like master puppeteers. Until ISIS apparently blew up a planeload of vacationers returning to St. Petersburg, Russia was lackadaisically going after ISIS targets while concentrating its firepower on other, less gruesome, opponents of the Syrian government. The United States and the rest of the anti-ISIS coalition were making little more than a show of bombing ISIS targets while passively waiting for better partners to appear with boots on the ground. Everybody with a stake in the Middle East who could feasibly do something about ISIS has consistently preferred to make other struggles a priority. A partial list of actors whose rhetoric against ISIS has far outstripped any action includes the governments of Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United States.

Now, however, with our sense of relative safety punctured, ISIS is on everyone’s lips.

But it’s a mistake to fall into a war to annihilate one enemy (as a former US admiral, among many others, has now called for the West to do) while sparing the far greater culprit.

Bashar Assad, using barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and old-fashioned artillery, has killed far more civilians than the Islamic State — hundreds of thousands more. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have invested billions of dollars over decades in promoting intolerant education and preaching around the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia serves as a model of intolerant, repressive, sectarian governance, one of the richest and most influential of many such models in the region.

There’s not enough space to detail to the errant examples set by the most powerful countries in the Middle East, from the anchors of the Arab world (including Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia) to the critical non-Arab states that flank it (Iran and Turkey). And of course, foreign powers deserve their share of blame for toppling some states and propping up others.

But it should be heartening to realize that something as simple, and fixable, as bad government is responsible for most of the deaths in the region and for the power vacuums and state failures in which pathological movements like ISIS thrive.

Ultimately, bad governance is a problem that can be solved. It’s daunting but also empowering, because we can do something about it.

Caliph Abu Bakr’s pornographically nihilistic shock troops have already destroyed life in much of Syria and Iraq. Now they have penetrated daily life far from their home base, and their bombastic threats against other cities suddenly carry weight. How much should we fear for Rome, for Washington, for other cities their sinister, buffoonish henchmen might mention in future videos?

A spiral of global attacks like those we’ve witnessed this November provoke the same rage of the powerless that many of us felt on 9/11: They’re everywhere, we can’t stop them, we must destroy them.

A short drive from where Ibrahim was beheaded in what he thought was his safe home beyond the war zone, on the frontlines of the conflict with the Islamic State, the casualties number in the thousands every month. Unlike in the West, jihadi fundamentalists have wiped entire communities out of existence and have managed to change the entire way of life in cities like Raqqa, Manbej, and Mosul.

This is a time of seeming mayhem, when events eclipse our ability to keep pace. Columns of men, women, and children stream across Europe, trudging through the mud from their destroyed homelands in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the rest of the periphery of the West’s foreign policy misadventures.

The horrifying images of displaced families and drowned babies look like some catastrophe from World War II. Such disasters are not supposed to occur in our modern world. Nor are failures like Syria, where no government has followed a constructive policy that could contain the chaotic spillover of the conflict, much less resolve it.

Fear is a natural first response when confronted with the stream of painful events such as we’ve witnessed this month and this year. So are despair and fatalism. They are understandable, but there is much we can do. We can overcome the temptation to surrender to impulsiveness or passivity. A starting point is to return to fundamentals. Unjust states that rule through routine murder, torture, and arbitrary detention, will only breed bad outcomes.

Washington is one among many international power centers that stakes its Middle East policy on utilitarian partnerships with unsavory regimes, placing a bet that stability requires deals with devils. These bets have gone bad for all the players, however, ensconcing an entire region of tyrants. The short-term stability has grown shorter and shorter, while the long-term misery and disorder have swallowed up most of the supposed benefits.

Rule of law and just government need to become the end-game for Middle East policy. It’s not only the right thing, it will better serve the interests of peace, stability, and saving lives than the current dirty partnerships and deals. Repression, corruption, and coercion rot the fabric of society and make for rotten alliances, policies, and governments.

Until we recognize that repressive governments are doing most of the killing and maintaining the perfect conditions for murderous strife and nihilistic extremism, our machinations against the Islamic State are likely to lead to nothing more than another dead end.

A Plan for Syria

Posted July 28th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


Issue brief for The Century FoundationDownload as pdf.

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.

Willing Partners

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,
3 Sean D. Naylor, “Will Curbing Iran’s Nuclear Threat Boost Its Proxies?” Foreign Policy, July 20, 2015,
4 Jessica Schulberg, “Obama: No End to War in Syria Without ‘Buy-In’ From Iran,” Huffington Post, July 20, 2015,
5 Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky, “It’s Time to Stop Holding Saudi Arabia’s Hand,” Foreign Policy, May 12, 2015,
6 David Gardner, “The Toxic Rivalry of Saudi Arabia and ISIS,” Financial Times, July 16, 2015,
7 Semih Idiz, “Turkey Needs to Drop Its Dead-End Foreign Policy,” Al-Monitor, July 21, 2015,
8 Adam Entous, “Assad Chemical Threat Mounts,” Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2015,
9 Lucy Westcott, “United Nations: Assad’s Barrel Bombs Continue to Kill Syrian Civilians,” Newsweek, June 27, 2015,
10 Jennifer Rizzo, “Carter: U.S. Trains Only 60 Syrian Rebels,” CNN, July 7, 2015,
11 See Roy Gutman, “First contingent of U.S.-trained fighters enters Syria,” McClatchy, July 16, 2015,, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Syrian rebels get their first U.S.-trained fighters,” Washington Post, July 15, 2015,
12 See Denise Natali, “The Coalition’s quagmire with Syrian Kurds,” Al Monitor, July 14, 2015, See also Roy Gutman, “U.S Moves Its Syrian Air Campaign to the West,” McClatchy, June 30, 2015,
13 Thomas Seibert, “ISIS is Losing in Northern Syria, but Ankara is Unhappy,” Daily Beast, June 16, 2015,
14Tim Arango, “ISIS Transforming Into Functioning State That Uses Terror as a Tool” New York Times, July 21, 2015,
15 See Liz Sly, “U.S.-backed Syria rebels routed by fighters linked to al-Qaeda,” Washington Post, November 2, 2014, Zack Beauchamp, “American strategy in Syria is collapsing,” Vox, November 4, 2014,  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,
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,
17 Author interview with Noureddin Zinki Brigades official, Antakya, Turkey, June 2015.

When diplomacy is most needed, America flees

Posted April 3rd, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing



[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas section]

BEIRUT — On the day that Houthi rebels took over the capital of Yemen in February, US diplomats moved into high gear to do what they are increasingly tasked with doing when the countries they cover explode into crisis: Pack up and leave.

In the month that has followed, Yemen has erupted into one of the scariest hot spots in the world, hosting a high-stakes regional war entangling most of America’s allies and enemies on top of one of the busiest shipping lanes for the global oil supply. Additionally, there is the threat of terrorism: Yemen has produced some of the most significant Al Qaeda plots against American targets since 9/11, but counter-terrorism and intelligence-gathering efforts have collapsed along with the US diplomatic exit.

With no diplomats, counter-terrorism operatives, or top-secret spies on the ground, the United States is left with less visibility than ever into a rapidly shifting conflict.

It’s not that foreign service officers suddenly lack the courage or desire to stay put when the countries where they’re stationed go haywire. Rather, a succession of United States administrations has increasingly decided that, in a post-9/11, post-Benghazi era, the stakes for putting civilian diplomats in harm’s way are too high. President Obama’s political wrangle with Congress in the aftermath of the 2012 murder of J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, made an already deteriorating situation even worse. Few, if any, US diplomats today are given the freedom to exercise their professional judgment of what risks are worth taking.

Throughout the combustible region stretching from Pakistan to Morocco, where America has expended most of its foreign policy energy in the last four decades, its diplomatic presence operates at a paralyzing remove, behind concrete as well as perceptual barriers. And intentionally or not, the result leaves the United States flying blind in places where information is the hardest to obtain and where diplomacy may be the most vital.


“WE ARE NOW too restrictive. We need a course correction,” said Ronald E. Neumann, who served as an American ambassador in volatile spots including Afghanistan and Algeria, before retiring in 2007.

Crafting foreign policy requires information and judgments that even the most skilled diplomats and observers can’t cull from afar, Neumann explained. In Yemen, for instance, with the well-connected ambassador now having to work remotely by phone and in meetings abroad, the United States is forced to rely much more on the biased analysis of allies like Saudi Arabia.

“If you’re going to avoid a civil war, it requires understanding what the parties want and being able to broker solutions,” Neumann said. “You can’t do this from a distance.”

But a great distance is exactly what separates American diplomats from flashpoints like Yemen, Syria, and Libya today. In other war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States retains an information network from its long periods of military occupation, but that too is shrinking. American understanding and insight into global conflicts are as limited as ever.

What is lost when diplomats must withdraw — or are forced to operate out of fortress embassies with elaborate security protocols restricting their ability to meet with the people who provide crucial analysis and avenues of influence? Can America even properly understand the places that top its list of threats?

THE DANGERS TO Americans serving the country’s interests abroad are very real and long-running.

“If you’re an American, you’ve got a bull’s-eye on you that others don’t,” said Ryan C. Crocker, who has served as ambassador in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, and Kuwait.

In 1979, Iranian radicals took over the US Embassy and held 52 hostages for more than a year; that crisis fatally hobbled Jimmy Carter’s presidency. In April 1983, a suicide bomber blew up the US Embassy in Beirut, killing 63. In 1998, massive bombs ravaged the American missions in Kenya and Tanzania. These attacks are only the most scarring of dozens of bombings, assassinations, and other assaults that have targeted US diplomats over the years — so many that the State Department collected them into a glossy brochure.

The consensus among career diplomats is that there’s a way to do an effective job despite threats — so long as they’re allowed to take some risks and keep missions open even in turbulent countries.

But at least two factors have conspired to dramatically reduce America’s diplomatic footprint. The first is the complexity of the threats and violence in trouble areas like Yemen, Libya, and Syria.

The United States shut down its embassy in Damascus in 2012 because of the risk of suicide car bomb attacks. As Libya melted down in the summer of 2014, diplomats were ordered to leave. The same thing happened when the war in Yemen spiraled this February. In three of the four war zones presently raging in the Arab world — all conflicts in which the United States is either directly involved or has close allies fighting for critical interests — the State Department has no eyes on the ground.

“You lose an enormous amount when you’re no longer in the country. You have a reduced ability to persuade and influence, and a reduced ability to understand,” said Robert Ford, who served as the last US ambassador to Syria.

When the uprising began in 2011, Ford was omnipresent, cutting an unusually visible profile for an American diplomat, even paying a surprise visit to antiregime protesters in the city of Hama in July that year. He reluctantly closed the Damascus embassy in early 2012 but continued the job for several years at a distance before retiring and becoming a critic of US policy on Syria from his perch at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

The second factor hampering diplomats is the political skittishness that followed the murder of Stevens and three other Americans at the hands of extremists in Benghazi in 2012.

The Benghazi killings have made it even harder for diplomats to take what they consider reasonable risks. Stevens dedicated his career to tireless outreach and interpersonal contact. Former colleagues, including Crocker, Neumann, and Ford, said it was ironic that the political fallout from Stevens’s murder had curtailed the very brand of diplomacy that Stevens championed.

As Crocker put it, “Chris Stevens would roll over in his grave if he knew how his death has been misused.”

VISITING US EMBASSIES these days can entail running a humiliating gauntlet of body searches, blast barriers, and walled holding areas. And if a US diplomat comes to you, it often means invasive searches beforehand with bomb-sniffing dogs and obtrusive security details. In places like Iraq, where meeting with Americans can put someone’s life in danger, potential interlocutors often prefer not to run the risk if it is overly complicated to talk.

In other words, American diplomacy is becoming increasingly fearful and hidebound. But what is the cost to our foreign policy? How much have we lost in actual influence and actual knowledge because of this bunker diplomacy?

We’re in the process of finding out. In Yemen, the United States is supporting a foreign war against a tough nation that has frustrated every previous foreign military intervention. America might be making decisions based on simplified assertions that its own diplomats contradict: for instance, the characterization of the Houthis as a simple Iranian proxy rather than as a formidable local alliance supported by Yemen’s former president (who is not a Houthi). Elsewhere, the United States seems fuzzy on the dynamics of tribes, of disenfranchised Sunnis, even on the breadth and depth of support for jihadist movements. It’ll be hard to contain ISIS, or prop up the Iraqi government, or limit the repercussion of the regional wars in Yemen, Syria, and Libya if the United States is no longer sure of basic descriptive facts — who supports warring parties and powerful ideologies, what’s at stake in the tangled alliances, what complexities underlie the region’s sometimes simplistic sectarian rhetoric.

Mokhtar Lamani, an international diplomat from Morocco who ran an Arab League mission in Iraq at the height of the civil war and later worked for the United Nations in Syria, said he felt sorry for his American colleagues and their oppressive security protocols, which he believes lost them a wide array of contacts and insights.

In Baghdad in 2006, Lamani lived outside the Green Zone, where he regularly met with Iraqis who opposed the US occupation. Eventually he gave up hosting Americans at his mission because of the exhaustive advance searches that he feared would tip off extremists to his whereabouts. “It was easier for me to go see them in the Green Zone,” he said. “But life in the Green Zone had nothing in common with the rest of Iraq.”

One seasoned observer of Middle East diplomacy, the scholar Randa Slim, argues that the Americans relied too heavily on second-hand information from exiles like Ahmad Chalabi during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, resulting in major missteps, including the decisions to disband the military and to dismantle the Baath Party.

“The United States went into a country in which we have not had a diplomatic presence since 1991 and, as a result, had no active on-the-ground intelligence since that date,” Slim said.

Lamani noted that Americans often suffer analytical lapses because they don’t talk to politically unpalatable or contentious players. In Syria, American diplomats avoided meeting with extremists from the opposition even when they were the ones in control of the military uprising. In Iraq, many of the hostile factions and religious leaders refused to meet with Americans on principle, and the Americans didn’t always find ways to bring them to the table.

“In diplomacy, you have to be in contact with everybody,” Lamani said. “There are two kinds of rules that harm American diplomats: the physical rules that keep them from being on the ground, and the political isolation they have imposed on them.”

Even the Americans know from experience that there’s no substitute for being there. Neumann recalls that at the peak of the Algerian war in the 1990s against an Islamic fundamentalist insurgency, experts agreed that the fight was a stalemate and that eventually the secular government would have to reach a political settlement with the Islamists. Despite a very restrictive security environment, Neumann and his political staff spent a year interviewing Algerians, collecting all the information they could, and reached a surprising conclusion: The government was actually winning. Armed with this new analysis, the United States could update its own strategy.

“There’s a lot of things you can do if you’re not stupid,” says Neumann, clarifying that he means so long as diplomats take calculated risks rather than behaving recklessly.

Yet in Lebanon, seven years after the bombing, the United States reopened its embassy on a hilltop far north of Beirut, surrounded by an army of private mercenary guards. Even today, more than three decades after the 1983 attack, diplomats visit Beirut in convoys, with armed guards, sometimes clearing cafes of their patrons to hold meetings. In contrast, European diplomats work in the Beirut city center, traveling independently by taxis or driving their own cars, and they’re free to meet activists, dissidents, Hezbollah members — whoever will talk to them.

THE UNITED STATES now relies extensively on second-hand reports: from British diplomats, who are allowed to move around more; problematic allies like the Saudis; or local politicians, who also can’t be fully trusted. Other limitations are self-inflicted — the United States legally prohibits itself from talking to groups that it labels terrorists, making it harder to deal with critical players, especially foes such as the Taliban or Hezbollah. The United States has not had an embassy in Iran since 1979, making it harder to manage relations with perhaps the most important adversarial actor in the Middle East.

Diplomats, for their part, have tried to make up for the security mentality with creative workarounds. They call old contacts on the phone or on Skype and invite people they know from the past to meet them at the embassy or on neutral ground, like in a Baghdad hotel lobby or at the Kandahar Airport. Others elude threats — and tight budgets — by traveling incognito to meetings in beat-up old cars rather than in attention-grabbing convoys of SUVs with tinted windows.

Ford recalls as a political officer in Algeria, when it became too dangerous to move comfortably around the countryside, he lured reluctant guests to the embassy by inviting them for Lebanese takeout. Eventually he hosted hundreds of meetings that way.

Neumann suggests that the United States could mitigate some of its lost access by extending the length of diplomatic tours, keeping political officers and ambassadors in their posts for two or three years instead of one. Some regional actors like Iran keep their envoys on the same portfolios for a decade or more.

Crocker believes the damage is getting worse. Until now, the United States has been saved from falling totally out of touch by a generation of diplomats who had a chance 20 or 30 years ago to build contacts with whom they could communicate closely in the new era of fortress diplomacy. Despite their zeal, younger diplomats never got the chance to drive themselves around the countryside meeting the dissidents, intellectuals, business people, journalists, and regular people who become any diplomat’s most important informants.

“It’s our future that’s at peril more than our present,” Crocker says. “You cannot practice diplomacy with a zero-loss mentality.”

In Yemen, the United States has withdrawn all civilian, military, and intelligence personnel. That move likely relinquished its only opportunity to affect or even end the war. Instead, Saudi Arabia, which has a stake in pushing back the Iran-backed Houthis, is, more or less, dictating US policy.

“There’s no question that we don’t have as much information as we would like,” Ford said. “And we have less ability to persuade people to move in directions that might resolve the conflict.”