Berlin and Brussels should be spearheading efforts to pull together a diplomatic approach – to accompany US/Russian military actions – to gaining some level of stability in the Mideast. They should drag Washington into doing more both on the diplomatic side and with receiving refugees. After all, it was the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the misguided encouragement of the “Arab Spring,” that helped lead to the current chaos.
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By Gerard M. Gallucci
I recently described what could be termed the default setting of American foreign policy. When the Washington political elite is divided or unsure of what to do about a perceived foreign threat but the Administration nevertheless determines it must be seen doing something, the US defaults to its military and intelligence capabilities: special ops, covert action, air warfare (including drones) and, in extremis but sometimes inadvertently, ground military intervention. This is often supplemented by reflexive support – usually mostly rhetorical – for “democracy” and “human rights.” This autonomically derived approach rarely substitutes for considered policy reflecting a comprehensive, sustained strategic framework and usually makes things worse. The record from Kosovo through Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Ukraine and Syria demonstrates the real world effects of knee-jerk reactions.
We may now be seeing a further step along the path to American ground troops intervening yet again in a foreign conflict. Recently – perhaps in large part due to the spectacle of Russian intervention in Syria seeming to require something more from the US – President Obama has authorized a special forces joint operation with Kurdish fighters to free prisoners from ISIL in Iraq and the introduction of 50 special operations soldiers (as “advisors’) in Syria. The White House denies this represents mission creep and maintains the President still does not foresee a military solution (in Syria anyway). But the next president (to be chosen in 2016) may take the steps Obama is leaving to the future. Meanwhile, the results so far include further blows against the erstwhile US Kurdish allies by ISIL – beheading four captured Kurdish fighters – and by the newly re-empowered Turkish president (who campaigned and still does campaign against Kurds domestic and foreign).
In truth, there seems to be little likelihood of anything but a military outcome in Syria and Iraq with the most likely alternatives being continued stalemate – generating millions more deaths and refugees – or a widened regional war. ISIL may have just brought down a Russian passenger plane in the Sinai, highlighting the reach of its brand, the weakness of Egyptian President Sisi and the likely rising costs of Russian intervention. None of these bode well. The US and Russia may have begun a slow dance toward some common approach to Syria, agreeing to deconflict their respective military involvements and seeming to agree that the fate of President Assad need not be the first issue to be dealt with in seeking a political solution. (The Russians still say that Assad must nevertheless be part of the initial approach, a position they took vis-a-vis the late Afghan leader Najibullah as well).
Stitching together the very many players – internal and external – would take an extraordinarily coordinated and sustained diplomatic approach along with some clear and shared idea of the desired political outcome. A basic decision might have to be whether or not to abandon the pre-exisiting state boundaries and how to apportion political power among the various competing forces and communities. Both Assad and ISIL might have to be factored into the equation simply to the degree that they do hold some ground. But civil wars usually don’t end without some outside intervention unless one side simply defeats the other. Given the apparently zero sum nature of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, leaving the parties to fight to their bitter end will require a strong stomach as we are forced to observe many more people die and flee and heads roll.
The Germans now expect another three million refugees to demand entrance to Europe in 2016. So far the Europeans – meaning here the EU – have not acquitted themselves well. Members are building walls against each other and arguing over the handful of persons that Chancellor Merkel has asked them to accept in order to give her political cover for taking the vast majority. Germany has reportedly sought Turkey’s help with stopping the flow, including by looking away from Erdogan’s strong-armed treatment of the Kurds. But none of this is a policy either. The Western European default approach seems to borrow its primary motif from the ostrich.
Berlin and Brussels should be spearheading efforts to pull together a diplomatic approach – to accompany US/Russian military actions – to gaining some level of stability in the Mideast. They should drag Washington into doing more both on the diplomatic side and with receiving refugees. After all, it was the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the misguided encouragement of the “Arab Spring,” that helped lead to the current chaos. Mistakes were made and he who breaks it, owns it. Even if it was done without much thought.
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He now works as an independent consultant and as adjunct professor for national security policy at the Daniel Morgan Academy in Washington, DC.