The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Art of the Deal

With the exception of a tiny Democratic state, Israel, and a few quasi-stable Arab states (e.g., Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) that dot the region, the Middle East is a cesspool of violent Islamic terror groups, political chaos, dictatorships, human right abuses, and abject economic failure. Therefore, it's very dangerous to claim, as Donald Trump has done, that he'll implement a fast and effective fix for ISIS or for that matter, any other aspect of the region.

It is unfair to blame any American president, including Barack Obama, for all of the problems in the Middle East. But it is fair to note that the actions of the Obama administration have done absolutely nothing to stabilize the region, have opened the door to Russian and Iranian influence, have alienated our allies and allowed our enemies to prosper. Michael O'Hanlon accurately describes the situation in Syria, a failed country ruled by a brutal dictator and current home of a true humanitarian disaster:
President Obama’s approach—with its focus on defeating Islamic State and displacing Syrian President Bashar Assad simultaneously, while devoting few American resources to the tasks—has failed to stop or even contain this humanitarian disaster. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, half of the country’s prewar population has been displaced and nearly 500,000 have been killed. The conflict provided a sanctuary for ISIS that it used to take a quarter of Iraq and to catalyze attacks on Western targets. ISIS is losing ground, but it and the country’s al Qaeda affiliate are far from defeated, and the war remains far from over.
There is a famous quote attributed to Niccolò Machiavelli that goes like this:
“... as the physicians say it happens in hectic fever, that in the beginning of the malady it is easy to cure but difficult to detect, but in the course of time, not having been either detected or treated in the beginning, it becomes easy to detect but difficult to cure”
When Barack Obama failed to act early in the genesis of Syria's descent into chaos, the "disease" became virulent, and is now "easy to detect but difficult to cure.” Obama will leave his mess in Syria to Donald Trump.

Trump has stated that he'll quickly defeat ISIS. That is not going to happen, partly because any solution to ISIS requires a rational solution to Syria. Trump has suggested that he will work with Russia, now the dominant player in the region, to make progress where none has been made for eight long years. O'Hanlon proposes a new strategy that has a chance of actually working. He writes:
Collaborating with Russia to defeat terrorist groups can only work if the U.S. has a vision for what comes afterward. This plan must also be acceptable to Sunni Muslims, Kurds and countries like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and the Gulf states. The vision needs to be explained publicly at the same time that any new U.S.-Russian military collaboration is announced. Specifically, Sunni Arabs and Kurds must be promised an alternative to living under the murderous Assad regime. Never again should they have to salute a leader who has committed genocidal acts against their families and neighbors.

To achieve peace, Syria will need self-governance within a number of autonomous zones. One option is a confederal system by which the whole country is divided into such zones. A less desirable but minimally acceptable alternative could be several autonomous zones within an otherwise still-centralized state—similar to how Iraqi Kurdistan has functioned for a quarter-century.

Ideally, Mr. Assad would go. But the prospect of his ouster is not realistic now, given recent battlefield trends and Russia’s role. More plausibly, he could rule an autonomous zone in a new confederation. Less desirably, he could remain president of the country for a time, provided that Sunni and Kurd areas did not have to suffer his direct rule or the presence of his security forces again.
There is no reason to maintain borders that were somewhat arbitrarily created a century ago. In fact, the idea of breaking Syria into a number of self-governed autonomous zones might be the only workable solution. If enforced by the U.S. and Russia, it could reduce the chaos, give people like the Kurds and other Sunni groups control of their destiny, isolate Assad and ISIS. It is not a solution—because there are no ready solutions in the Middle East—but it is a worthwhile step to contain the chaos.

O'Hanlon continues:
Foreign assistance for this reconfigured Syrian state should be provided primarily to the autonomous regions themselves. That would enhance the international community’s leverage with the new, regional governments. For Mr. Assad to see any such aid from European, American, and Gulf states flow to the regions that he or his associates controlled, they would not only have to accept autonomy for Sunni Arab and Kurdish zones, but commit to a plan to quickly reduce Mr. Assad’s future role in country’s central governance.

Many Syrians will not like the idea of a confederal nation, or even of a central government controlling half the country with the other half divided into three or four autonomous zones. But such arrangements need not be permanent. The deal could include a provision that calls for a constitutional convention in 10 years to consider whether a stronger central government should be restored.
Some elites on both the left and right have criticized Trump for suggesting that we need a better relationship with Russia and Putin. They forget that Barack Obama has ceded the Middle East to Russia and Iran. Russia is a potential ally in the region. Iran is nothing but an adversary. Our goal should be to work with Russia and isolate and confound Iran at every opportunity.

It's all about the art of the deal. The big question is what we can offer Russia incentives (and/or disincentives) that lead to a result that is in our best interest along with the interests of our few remaining allies in the region.