The Problem With Partners, Ctd

John Kerry - Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Thomas Seibert scrutinizes Turkey’s reluctance to commit to anything beyond a “passive role” in the war on ISIS:

Officially, Turkey argues it has to keep its operations low-key because a more active posture would endanger the life of 46 of its citizens held hostage by ISIS. The jihadists kidnapped the Turks and three of their Iraqi colleagues when they overran the Turkish consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June. Ankara says it is trying to secure the hostages’ release, but has ordered a news blackout that makes it difficult to assess where those efforts stand. …

Even without the hostage situation, Ankara would face difficult options. Turkey could take part in Western strikes against ISIS and risk a backlash from the jihadists themselves and other Islamist groups in the region. Or Turkey could refuse to have anything to do with the strikes, angering its Western allies and being a mere spectator despite its ambition to become a regional leader. Faced with that choice, Ankara appears to have decided to muddle through, officially joining the alliance against ISIS, but keeping out militarily.

Shane Harris expects the US to depend heavily on Jordan, particularly its intelligence service:

Jordanian intelligence “is known to have networks in Iraq which date from 2003 [the year of the U.S. invasion] forward,” said Robert Blecher, the acting program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. “The Jordanians have good connections and have tapped them before,” Blecher added. They’ll have to do so again. But it’s not just Jordan’s spying prowess that the United States needs. Jordanian intelligence also has ins with Iraqi Sunni tribes aligned with the Islamic State. …

The Jordanians are also likely to provide logistical support to the American air campaign, which has so far launched more than 150 strikes against Islamic State fighters, vehicles, and artillery using drones and manned aircraft. (The CIA now says that the militant group has recruited as many as 31,500 fighters, up from an earlier estimate of 10,000.) Blecher said that Jordan has allowed the U.S. military to use its air bases throughout the past decade, though Jordanian officials are reluctant to acknowledge that. [Former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan] Muasher said the country will likely lend logistical support but that he didn’t envision a role in direct military operations.

Adam Taylor and Rick Noack round up some international reax to Obama’s speech. They notice that Egypt is also toeing the noncommittal line:

Perhaps in response to Obama’s speech, Egypt’s Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shokri called Thursday for a global strategy for dealing with extremists. However, when a diplomat was asked whether Egypt would cooperate with Obama’s strategy against Islamic State, they offered a vague reassurance. “Cairo will discuss every effort which can be made by the alliance to eradicate the phenomenon of extremist groups in the region,” the unnamed diplomat told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Ed Krayewski is dismayed to see our allies abandon their own national security commitments and let America do most of the work:

Countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have given varying degrees of support to the virulent strains of Islam that feed extremists like those in ISIS. Yet ISIS is hardly a puppet. Whether they decide to move north to Turkey or south to Saudi Arabia will be a decision over which those two countries will likely have no influence. But why bother treating ISIS like a national security threat when the United States is doing it for you?

Saudi Arabia, Turkey, other nations in the region, Arab and otherwise, are all threatened by ISIS in a way the United States isn’t, and in a way I think their leaders intrinsically understand they’re not being threatened by other countries in the region despite the official propagandas. Though the U.S. is the worldwide leader in military spending, these countries have spent decades building their militaries. They ought to make the decision to use them or not, to work with other countries in the region or not, and not have those decisions deferred by U.S. action from afar.

Likewise, Rosa Brooks argues that we should step back and let our local “partners” fight this war themselves:

Obama says the United States will “lead” a coalition against IS, but the United States should instead step back and let other regional actors assume the lead. They have a strong incentive to combat IS (an incentive we undermine when we offer to do the job for them), and the common threat of IS may even help lead to slightly less chilly relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia (though I won’t hold my breath). Other Middle East powers also have greater ability than we do to understand local dynamics, not least of which because many share a common language with IS or with other actors in the mix. The Kurds and the Jordanians may need some U.S. help to protect their own territory, and other states may need intelligence or other forms of logistical assistance. But we can provide such support to any of our allies and partners without putting ourselves front and center in the effort to combat IS.

Keating notes that other than Russia, none of our rivals seems to have a problem with us bombing Syria—even the Damascus regime itself is signaling that they’re OK with it:

Another interesting wrinkle is the ramifications of this Amerian operation for Assad’s backers in Moscow. Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said today that if the United States bombed Syrian territory “without the Syrian government’s consent,” it would “complicate international operations and will pose problems for Russia as well as for many other countries respecting international law, including China.” But Russia may be the only country bothered by Obama’s campaign. It appears the Syrian government isn’t going to object too much to the operation. China, which has concerns about its own citizens cooperating with ISIS, seems likely to offer quiet support. Even Iran seems finally to have found an American war in the Middle East it can get behind.

Judis isn’t impressed with Obama’s stated strategy for a number of reasons, one of which is that it ignores Iran:

In trying to answer IS’s challenge in Iraq, the United States needs Iran’s cooperation. Obama didn’t mention Iran at all in his speech but instead referred to “Arab” countries and even to the NATO countries that he claims are going to join the anti-IS coalition. Arab countries are imporant, and one NATO country, Turkey, also is.  But Iran is crucial. It’s the main backer of the Shiite Iraq government and of Assad.  What, at this point, is the American strategy toward working with or against Iran in the region?  And what can be done to ease relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which would be important to resolving conflicts in Iraq and Syria? How much bearing do the nuclear talks, which seem to have stalled, have on the possibility of cooperation with Iran in the region?

And the way Tom Ricks sees it, our perforce partnership with Iran is really the only news here:

I think the Iraq war is best seen as one continuous conflict since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. I remember getting on the Metro that morning, seeing the headline, and thinking, “Hey, we’re gonna go to war.” And so we did, with an air campaign followed by a short ground campaign. When that was over, we went back to several years of air campaigning, complemented by some covert operations on the ground. Then, in 2003, we had another major ground campaign. It was supposed to last a few months, but instead lasted 8 years. And now we are back to an air war, probably again supported by occasional covert ops. The biggest difference I can see is that where once some Americans said we were doing this to prevent Iran from gaining influence, now we are working alongside the Iranians in Iraq.

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) during Kerry’s official visit at Cankaya Palace in the capital Ankara, Turkey on September 12, 2014. By Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

That Other Arab Country

by Jonah Shepp

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When I tell people I used to live in Jordan, I often get responses like “Jordan? That’s upstate, right?” It doesn’t get nearly as much coverage in the Western press as its neighbors, and Jordanians probably aren’t too upset about that, considering why its neighbors are in the news. Jordan hasn’t experienced a major conflict within its borders since the early 1970s, but squeezed in among three active war zones, it has suffered indirectly from all of the region’s major conflicts, mainly as a dumping ground for refugees. Jordan bore the brunt of the Palestinian exodus that year, and again in 1967. More recently, it took in a huge wave of refugees from Iraq after 2003, and since 2011 has struggled to accommodate a growing population of displaced Syrians, now numbering over 600,000.

It’s a relatively tiny country, but plays an outsized role in the region, so I thought I’d use my guest-blogging stint to give Dishheads a quick look at a place most American don’t hear much about. I reached out to a few friends and former colleagues in Jordan to see how the country is faring today in coping with the Syrian refugee crisis, the threat of ISIS, the complex diplomatic challenges of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and day-to-day challenges. Here’s what they had to say.

“Jordan, at the grassroots and official levels, does not fear a face to face confrontation with ISIL,” writes my former boss Mahmoud al-Abed, a managing editor at The Jordan Times, “but the fear is from sleeper cells that might attack soft or hard targets.” He informs me that the General Intelligence Directorate, a domestic intel agency analogous to the NSA and also known as the mukhabarat (literally “informers”), has been making many arrests in connection with these potential sleeper cells. Another JT editor, Rand Dalgamouni, tells me that there have been some demonstrations in support of the “caliphate” in the poorer cities of Maan and Zarqa. Dozens of Salafists have been picked up by the police for expressing support for ISIS or participating in pro-ISIS rallies. She observes that “there seems to be a difference of opinion over the group between the old Salafist leaders and the young ones”, pointing to statements from jihadist leaders “that the young, gullible Salafists have fallen for ISIS’s bullshit”.

My friend M, a politically engaged young woman who asked not to be named here, offers her take on how Jordanians outside political and media circles are talking about the Islamic State, and what the crisis means for non-radical Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, which runs Jordan’s largest organized political party but isn’t much beloved by the state:

Average people, who don’t identify with extremism nor do they belong to any one party, worry about their safety (and rightfully so) when they see ISIS taking over parts of the Levant willy-nilly, or murdering people left, right and center. I feel there is a strong counter-movement under cover, but nothing is being said openly about fighting Islamists in Jordan. I think a more accurate way of describing their status quo is that they’re being watched closely (in Maan or otherwise), and anything they do that has the slightest potential of compromising Jordan’s safety and stability is shot down at the very early stages, i.e. they’re being kept under control. I think it’s safe to assume that Jordan’s relationship with Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood], or non-radical Islamists, is quite strained right now, not because of a particular thing they did, but because they’re basically the gateway to something bigger than any of us, and that is ISIS.

Jordan, which has been a close American ally since the early years of the Cold War, is also likely among the regional partners the US is counting on to help effect a durable solution to the ISIS crisis. As Obama mentioned in his press conference in Wales today, Jordan is one of the NATO partner countries with which the alliance is looking to bolster its security cooperation. King Abdullah II participated in this week’s NATO summit, and it will be interesting to see what role Jordan plays in the anti-ISIS coalition. I suspect that role will be mostly sotto voce, though, as Amman is generally loath to take public positions that could hurt its relationships with neighboring governments, even those it doesn’t much care for. “I think it’s only a matter of strategy for Jordan to forge a better relationship with NATO,” my friend M. writes, “because if ‘shit hits the fan’ in the region, Jordan will need all the help it can get.”

For three years, Jordan’s government has charted a tricky course on the Syrian civil war, declining to intervene directly out of fear of antagonizing a major trade partner, but also allowing the CIA to train rebel fighters on its territory. The conflict, meanwhile, has wreaked economic havoc on Jordan, reducing its already modest GDP growth by as much as 2 percentage points last year, to say nothing of the human toll of the refugee crisis. Just last week, the country issued another massive aid appeal to help cope with the refugee burden and other spillover effects of the Syrian war.

“As far as I am concerned, I believe that Amman wants neither Assad nor the terrorists to hold the reins of power in Syria,” Mahmoud tells me. “There is no third option now except a dragged-on conflict that might take 10 years with de facto division of Syria. In the face of such a scenario, Jordan’s only option is to defend its security and interests day by day, and think of alternatives to Syria as a key trade partner.”

The Gaza conflict, Rand and Mahmoud tell me, has galvanized support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and most Jordanians seem to agree that the outcome was a win for Hamas and the Palestinian cause in general. Rand writes: “I would say the majority in Jordan celebrates Gaza’s truce as a victory (some blocked the streets at night in celebration), but I disagree–too much devastation, deaths and displacement. It may be a success of sorts for Hamas, since the goal of the war was to obliterate them. I think Jordan’s government wouldn’t have minded to see Hamas destroyed though.”

Meanwhile, as they are wont to do, the regional security crisis has enabled some worrying legal and constitutional changes that threaten to undermine Jordan’s long-drawn-out democratization and curtail civil liberties. Rana Sabbagh highlights two proposed constitutional amendments that would give the king formal power to appoint army and intelligence chiefs directly, rather than acting on the recommendations of his cabinet. Although these amendments won’t substantially change the way decisions are made, Rand explains to me that they are controversial because “if the King starts appointing these two positions without government interference, there is no one to answer to Parliament if the appointed leaders screw up.” A new anti-terrorism law is also raising some concerns about its potential for abuse, which seems to be more a feature than a bug of anti-terrorism laws in general.

This is hardly a complete picture of what’s going on in Jordan today, but I hope it sheds a little light on the view from inside one of the places that has a whole lot to lose from the chaos engulfing the region and much to gain from setting these conflicts on a track toward permanent resolutions. My guest-blogging week is coming to an end, but I’d still love to hear your comments on this, especially from readers in Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East, so don’t hesitate to write in if you have something to add.

(Photo of Amman by Maya-Anaïs Yataghène)

No Quiet On The ISIS Front

Hanna Kozlowska provides an update on Syria, where as many as 700 people were killed last Thursday and Friday in fighting between ISIS and regime forces – the highest death toll in 48 hours since the start of the war in 2011:

The Shaar gas field in central Syria saw some of the heaviest fighting. It is a crucial gas supply facility for the country’s central region and among the largest in Syria. Islamic State fighters attacked the field Wednesday night — just hours after Bashar al-Assad was sworn in for a third, seven-year term as president —  and seized it Thursday, killing 270 government soldiers, guards, and staff. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based NGO, at least 40 militants from the group formerly known as ISIS were killed. Over the weekend the body count grew by 100. More than 170,000 people have died since began in March 2011. And the war created an unprecedented refugee crisis displacing 2.8 million people, including many women and children.

On Monday, Islamic State fighters clashed in Damascus with other anti-Assad rebels who initially embraced the group but now are trying to expel it from the city. They’ve successfully ousted the organization from sections of the capital and its outskirts but the Islamic State’s influence has recently expanded, encompassing an oil-rich area in the eastern Deir Az Zor province. The organization controls much of Syria’s east.

The conflict also continues to have a severe impact on its neighbors. Alice Su takes stock of the ever-heavier burden the Syrian refugee crisis is imposing on Jordan, which is also host to thousands of refugees from Iraq and other war-torn countries:

A year passes, then two, then three. Rents rise—up to 300 percent in some areas—along with gas, electricity, and water bills. The Jordanian economy, already destabilized by disrupted trade and transit routes across the region, wobbles. GDP growth declines. Foreign direct investment shrivels. Budget deficits and public debt grow.

Jordan’s government has drafted a National Resilience Plan to mitigate this kind of damage for its citizens, 14 percent of whom live below the national poverty line. But the plan, along with all the humanitarian work in the country, depends on international funding, which is dwindling. To date, UNHCR has received 33 percent of its 2014 regional appeal for the Syrian crisis, leaving a gap of nearly $2.5 billion.

Jordan is not meant to be a host country indefinitely. Refugees are supposed to stop here for relief until they reach a “durable solution”—meaning returning home or resettling somewhere with permanent residence. So far, 22 countrieshave pledged to receive almost 35,000 Syrians, with UNHCR calling for a further 100,000 pledged spots by 2016. But there are more than 2.6 million Syrian refugees total, and only some of the pledges— just 121 resettled in America and 24 in the U.K., for example—have been fulfilled. The remaining refugees are stuck here, lives frozen, told to wait for a resolution that may not come.