Are You Staying, Or Just Passing Through? The Geopolitics Of Asylum

European politics have been roiled over the past few years by the question of how the EU as a whole and its individual member states should deal with refugees seeking asylum from the ongoing wars throughout the Greater Middle East. Most attention has been focused on the stream of unfortunates coming across Turkey and the Aegean from Afghanistan, Iraq, and especially Syria. Their stories have tugged at European heartstrings, even as some have worried that the crowds of apparent refuges could also include potential terrorists.

Germany in particular has chosen to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s confident proclamation “Wir schaffen das” (We can handle it) has earned her praise from humanitarian groups but also brickbats from analysts and political critics who claim she has undermined national security in quixotic pursuit of moral redemption for the German people’s historical sins.

At the root of the debate has been the question of German and European responsibility for helping the victims of wars on Europe’s periphery—wars in which Europe has been unwilling or unable to take an active role—and the potential danger such migrants pose to European society. Critics of Merkel’s policy point to recent terror attacks as proof of the dangers of unchecked immigration, and argue for robust interdiction and higher fences.  Supporters of a more open policy, such as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor John Shattuck, have argued the opposite, that accepting refugees will allow Europe (and the United States as well) to display their commitment to human rights, counter Islamist assertions that the West is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile to the well-being of Muslims, and thus actually enhance both the reputation and the security of the West. 

So far, neither side in the debate has scored an undisputed victory, and it is unlikely that they will any time soon. But the discussion of migration and asylum, so focused on the actions of European governments, often leaves out the actions of the migrants themselves.  Although one will occasionally see discussions of the need for the refugees and asylum seekers themselves to integrate into European culture, the primary policy question for Europeans has been framed as “do we let them in or not?”

The closer one looks, however, the more one sees that it is not just a matter of who comes in, but how they come and go once they have found asylum, and the political activities they choose to engage in while enjoying the protection of that status.

All of which leads us to the saga of Yahya Badr al-Din al-Houthi. Al-Houthi is a Yemeni activist, the brother of the leader of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, currently involved in a bitter civil conflict with the government of Yemen. That conflict has developed into a proxy war between Shiite Iran (which backs the Houthis) and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, which backs the Yemeni government.

[For those interested in more detail, the conflict in Yemen was the subject of the February 2015 episode of FPRI’s “Geopolitics with Granieri,” which addressed its local, regional, and global complexities.]

Al-Houthi’s exploits have recently been the subject of a two-part summer series in the print edition of the Saudi news magazine Majalla (available in English as well as Arabic). The series highlights the significant questions about German capacity and willingness to hold political refugees to the legal conditions of their stay, and the implications for this case for future asylum policy.

Although even less well known to American audiences than the Syrian Civil War, the war in Yemen has entered its second year with no clear end in sight, and is producing its own flow of displaced refugees. Its wider implications have also increased the significance of Houthi activists abroad. Al-Houthi himself fled Yemen more than a decade ago, and found political asylum in Germany.  Far from staying out of the politics of his homeland, however, al-Houthi has been an active supporter of the rebel cause, appearing on a variety of media outlets (including the Arabic service of Deutsche Welle, Germany’s version of the Voice of America), meeting with Iranian representatives and other supporters of the Houthi cause, including Hezbollah, and even traveling back and forth to Yemen to participate in the rebellion.

Such activity stretches the legal meaning of asylum, and poses a difficult political problem for the Germans. There is of course historical precedent for rebel groups and self-styled “governments in exile” to set up shop abroad. Usually, however, such actions depend upon the formal approval of the foreign host. The Germans have extended no such formal support to al-Houthi and his compatriots, but at the same time they have not acted to shut down his behavior either. Either decision would bring political challenges that Berlin appears to prefer to avoid. The resulting ambiguity, however, is not only embarrassing for the German authorities, but also raises uncomfortable questions about the broader responsibility of even the most welcoming governments for the political activities of those whom they chose to shelter.

In this atmosphere of increasing tension about how to deal with the challenge of integrating political migrants and asylum seekers, European policy discussions should include an understanding of this particular case. So far, it offers no satisfying solutions, but many questions well worth pondering.

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The Local Proxy Problem

On Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined a bold plan to expand the war against ISIS during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We should be honest about the fact that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS,” Clinton said. “If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them.”

There’s one serious problem with this approach: it is utterly baseless.

Contrary Mrs. Clinton’s assertion, our experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan should lead to the opposite conclusion: relying on local proxies, whether formal as an army we train or informal as a militia that we arm, has a deeply troubled history and so far has resulted in catastrophic battle losses against the enemy. 

In Afghanistan, the army and militias America has spent years building up barely function. From the scourge of “green-on-blue” attacks (whereby Afghan police and soldiers decide to murder their American trainers), to catastrophic combat losses against the Taliban, our local partners have proven wholly inadequate to the task of defeating the Taliban (and al Qaeda, and now ISIS). Furthermore, the Afghan national army has staggeringly low retention, so low that if the U.S. Army were experiencing the same rate it would be a full-blown crisis and the institution would be facing collapse. Lastly, there is the appalling corruption of both the national army but especially the local militias trained in an attempt to implement a locally-led counterinsurgency policy: not only in terms of money and weapons stolen, but in terms of directly implicating the United States in the systematic sexual abuse of children.

Is it any surprise that such a force is unable to hold its ground against a massive Taliban assault? As more details emerge about the horrific air strike against a hospital in Kunduz province, it seems that the Afghans were the ones falsely claiming that it was a Taliban outpost. In our effort to support our local partners, we may have abetted a war crime.

There is a similar story to tell in Iraq. Training the Iraqi national army, and later the Iraqi militias, was the signature counterinsurgency policy of General David Petraeus. From his command in Mosul in 2004 to his command of the entire war effort, training locals to do the heavy lifting was the key to winning the war. Nevermind that the Iraqi Army cost America more than $25 billion and collapsed at the first sign of ISIS in 2014. Nevermind that some of the Iraqi militias we trained were little more than death squads. And nevermind that we flooded Iraq with so many unaccounted-for weapons and so much equipment that ISIS is currently outfitted about as well as the Iraqi army.

How Mrs. Clinton can look at our record and conclude this is an effective way to combat terror is puzzling. In Libya, American attempts to arm a local proxy would up helping al Qaeda, instead. We lost half a billion dollars-worth of weaponry in Yemen, a humiliating disaster which is no longer the successful example officials use to cite as their model for defeating ISIS. Even in Syria, the train-and-equip mission cost $500 million and resulted in “four or five” men able to fight. 

Beyond the practical disasters of relying on local proxies to do our fighting for us is the moral hazard inherent to their use. Relying on local proxies to do our fighting allows us to avoid the risk and responsibility of what happens during the fighting. It is a way for a politician to appear to be doing “something” about a challenge without assuming any political risks in the act of doing so: no “boots on the ground,” no massive deployment, and no dead bodies coming home in flag draped coffins. Proxies allow America to fight wars invisibly, with all of the risk off-loaded onto contractors and anonymous locals.

Proxies also present a serious challenge when their interests are not in exact alignment with ours. In Syria, our proxies care much more about defeating Bashar al-Assad than they do defeating ISIS (this is also why Russia’s assistance mission to Syria has consisted mainly of bombing those proxy groups). It is a logical decision for the Syrians: Assad is responsible for the vast majority of the death and devastation there; the reason ISIS exists in the first place is because of Assad’s brutality. He is the root of all evil in Syria. But toppling Assad is not our immediate goal (even though the President has said it was, at times); defeating ISIS is, and no one is prepared to start a war with Russia and Iran to do so.

Lastly, as Adam Elkus put it, “there is something very unjust and disturbing in the way in which the United States can encourage men to risk their lives under the false hope that Uncle Sam will be with them the whole way.” Because America is never fully committed to our local partners — that is their appeal, after all — the moment it becomes inconvient to do so these proxies are discarded. When America discarded our proxies in Afghanistan, the result was appalling disaster on a scale only now matched by Syria; it created the space for al Qaeda to organize and grow and spread; and it created the horrors that led Afghans to cheer the Taliban’s emergence in 1994. There were seemingly good reasons for using proxies then that mirror the same reasons people find them appealing now: fear of a quagmire, a desire not to directly war against Russia. But that fear does not always result in sound policy, and we’re still left holding the bag in Afghanistan more than 35 years later.

This week, the House of Representatives approved a measure, targeted at Iraq and Syria, that will both restrict the resettlement of war refugees here but will also possibly interfere with the visa program meant to help Iraqis who risked their lives and now face death threats for helping us during the war. These terps, who literally save U.S. lives with their work, are being discarded because, like all other proxies, they have become politically inconvenient.

The unpleasant truth is that there is no substitute for American troops on the ground implementing American policy. Our reliance on proxies is not just immoral and unjust; it has been actively counterproductive and harmed our national interests. Sending in American boots on the ground is a political minefield, as it should be — we should never be flippant or casual about risking our people in war. The decision to send in troops should only match a threat so grave we are willing to put our own people at risk to address it. Does ISIS rise to that level of threat? That is the subject of considerable debate at the moment. But as this debate matures, policymakers should not be given a pass when they send unaccountable militias to do our dirty work for us.

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Why Assad Must Go

The recent attacks in Paris have underscored the need to defeat the Islamic State and reignited debates over how to do so. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and once again we are hearing that “we may have to hold our noses”[1] and work with people like the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. This is not a new suggestion. Since shortly after American forces began bombing the Islamic State in August 2014, there have been voices suggesting that “the U.S. should help Assad to fight ISIS, the greater evil.”[2] This argument was not strategically sound then, and the events in Paris have not made it so. Western leaders need to avoid appeasing populist demands with strategic blunders.

Proponents of supporting Assad see him as a viable partner in defeating the Islamic State. A hardnosed realist may acknowledge that Assad is unpleasant, but may still be inclined to put aside such messy moral qualms to defeat the Islamic State, which represents a critical security interest. The advantage of this approach seems obvious at first. It combines a credible fighting force on the ground with American air power. This combination has been a winning approach in the past and is generally what Western strategists prefer. The problem with this plan is not its value-free analysis, but rather that it ignores what FPRI’s James Kurth describes as the “realities of the mentalities of the localities.”

The Islamic State originally formed in Iraq. Its subsequent foothold in Syria did not emerge in a vacuum. It resulted from a political context in which Assad’s forces were killing Syrians en masse. Despite Western narratives about the brutality of the Islamic State, the Assad regime is responsible for many more deaths than all Syrian opposition groups (including the Islamic State) combined. Even over the past year, when the Islamic State has been at the apex of its power, the Assad regime has been much more efficient in carrying out atrocities. In the first half of 2015, for example, the regime killed seven times more Syrians than the Islamic State.[3] Assad targets civilians, tortures, and has used chemical weapons against his own people. These circumstances have driven many Syrians to support groups such as the Islamic State, which they view as the only force that is able to stand up to Assad. In other words, Assad is the problem. His continued presence in Syria is the sustenance on which the Islamic State thrives. Any viable solution in the near-term needs to alter this political context by offering a vision of the future for the Syrian people that does not include living under Assad’s yoke. Without such a vision, the political context on the ground will remain the same and groups like the Islamic State will be very difficult to defeat. This has been one of the main obstacles to Western efforts in Syria so far.

Currently, the American-led coalition is targeting the Islamic State with airpower as well as supporting Syrian opposition forces that are fighting the Islamic State on the ground. Some limited special operations forces have also been used in aid and assist missions as well as direct action. These efforts have not been insignificant. According to the latest Department of Defense numbers, the American-led coalition has conducted over eight thousand airstrikes, damaging or destroying over sixteen thousand targets[4] and killing twenty to thirty thousand fighters.[5] This has degraded the Islamic State’s capabilities, but not enough to prevent it from holding large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, or from reaching outside Syria to attack Russian airliners and Parisian concert halls. It has also not stemmed the flow of refugees out of Syria. The biggest obstacle that the American-led coalition has faced is its inability to convince enough Syrians (and Iraqis and foreign fighters) to stop supporting the Islamic State and to instead to join the fight against it. Thus far, the Islamic State has been able to replenish its ranks as fast as the Western-led coalition has been able to deplete them.

The problem is political. Because Syrians are being killed by Assad at much higher rates than they are being killed by the Islamic State, Assad is a much bigger threat to them. Therefore, the current American strategy asks these Syrians to ignore their primary threat (the Assad regime), and instead focus on their secondary threat (the Islamic State). That is a difficult sell and it has not worked thus far. Furthermore, even if the strategy worked and the fighters of the Islamic State were crushed, it would not change the political context in which the Islamic State emerged. As post-surge Iraq showed, if the political context that produces groups such as the Islamic State is not dealt with, similar groups will rise in their place. In other words, the Islamic State should be seen as a symptom of a political context. Fighting the symptom will not kill the disease. Western leaders seeking a way forward after the Paris attacks need to figure out a way to remove Assad without creating further chaos on the ground. That is a tall order, but it is the only way to create a political context in which a lasting peace is possible.

 

NOTES

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Is Turkey’s Military Reentering Politics?

Hulusi Akar, the recently selected chief of Turkey’s military, confronts a very tense, if not perilous environment. His August appointment occurred amid political uncertainty and increased security concerns. The Turkish government has been at a virtual standstill since last June’s general election, unable to forge a viable coalition based on the results. Shortly thereafter, after a 2 ½ year ceasefire, fighting renewed between Ankara and the Kurdish separatist PKK movement, reigniting a bloody struggle which has cost an estimated 40,000 lives over the past thirty years. Economic uncertainty adds to the nation’s anxiety, along with neighboring Syria’s strategic and humanitarian dilemmas. Another national vote is scheduled for November 1, but recent polling shows little if any change per voter sentiments.

In the past, such circumstances would have prompted the Turkish military to express serious concerns as to how the country was being managed. If civilian authority didn’t heed these warnings, a coup d’etat would usually ensue.  The last thirteen years of Islamist rule has effectively ended the military’s political interventions, albeit by questionable means.  Then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) launched a series of investigations that accused the armed forces and alleged civilian cohorts of plotting to overthrow their duly elected government.  These probes are riddled with controversy, begetting trials which have purged large swaths of senior officers from the various branches. The overall result has subjugated the Turkish military to non-political status, ostensibly creating a new generation of leadership that respects civilian governance by not meddling in it.

General Akar represents this changing of the guard. His philosophical bearings noticeably differ from his predecessors, especially concerning Islamist politics. Prior to the AKP’s ascendance, religious activism was a red flag for the officer corps.  There are several episodes in Turkey’s political history where the military deemed Islamist-based organizations to be threatening the nation’s secularist precepts and subsequently were disbanded. A decade plus of the AKP’s governance has effectively chastened the armed forces disposition on this matter.

A more pressing topic for the military these days is national unity.   The renewed hostilities with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) while there’s political impasse raises various questions and concerns throughout Turkish society. Heightening the uncertainty is the increased presence of homegrown radical jihadist networks within Turkey. Much of their material and financial support comes via next-door Syria as well as Iraq, denoting lax, if not compromised border security. (A similar observation can be made about the massive outflow of Syrian refugees from Turkey’s Aegean provinces towards Europe.) Together, the Kurdish and border issues convey an overall impression of teetering state authority.

Another indication of growing restiveness recently appeared at several funerals for soldiers and policemen killed in the latest round of battling the PKK. Their burials have become an outlet for voicing discontent with the current state of affairs. Much of the disgruntling has been directed at Mr. Erdogan, whom mourners accuse of deliberately instigating combat for his own political purposes. The most prominent case occurred at an August funeral ceremony when a uniformed Lieutenant Colonel accused Erdogan of being responsible for his younger brother’s death. It was a widely televised incident, yet pro-government media outlets avoided reporting the officer’s protest and overall clamor. In order to avoid further embarrassment, Ankara subsequently restricted access to these interments, thereby curbing journalistic coverage. Additional methods have been employed to offset the protests via government-friendly social media networks (who accused the Lieutenant General of being a “terrorist” and “PKK sympathizer”) and indictments.

What’s particularly noteworthy about the funeral demonstrations is that they are happening in areas soundly supportive of Mr. Erdogan’s policies. While the AKP effectively represent these citizen’s interests, many questions have arisen about the ceasefire’s collapse and the underlying motives which caused it.

There’s a broad consensus that Mr. Erdogan created the present atmosphere in order to avenge last June’s election results. The  Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) foiled plans that would have allowed Erdogan greater executive authority.  The HDP’s higher than expected vote tally came at the expense of Erdogan’s AKP, ending the latter’s one party dominance since 2003. Adding insult to injury, the HDP is a Kurdish-oriented party that serves as the PKK’s political representative. When Mr. Erdogan was Prime Minister, he took an enlightened stance towards the HDP/PKK arrangement. As President Erdogan, it’s been a complete reversal. The HDP is no longer viewed as an emissary seeking a peaceful solution to Turkey’s Kurdish situation, but a political opponent whose eighty parliamentary seats block the path to an autocratic presidency.

A campaign to discredit HDP is underway which aims at exploiting its PKK connection. There are indications that the PKK wasn’t surprised by recent events and were readily prepared for a new round of warfare.  Nevertheless, analysts believe Mr. Erdogan is taking a huge gamble that will result in a  Pyrrhic victory. The military recognizes what’s at stake and has so far refrained from overstepping boundaries that have been established during the AKP’s reign.  This could change however, depending upon the November 1st election results.

Postscript:

The horrific bombing which recently occurred in Ankara has further heightened pre-election tensions. Indications point to Islamic extremists being responsible for the attack, namely as a warning about Turkey’s Syria policy. The incident has also widened AKP/HDP hostilities. There is a general consensus that the government didn’t adequately safeguard the largely Kurdish gathering. The claim has become politicized with both the HDP and AKP accusing each other of complicity with the operation. Instead of a nation uniting over this tragedy, societal polarization prevails.

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Four Key Drivers For Eroding ISIS

June 15, 2015

Scary ISIS headlines have saturated media outlets in recent months.  They usually come in three varieties: a) ISIS does incredibly awful thing(s) in Syria/Iraq, b) ISIS is unstoppable because of (fill in the blank), or c) the U.S. and the West must do (fill in the blank with every conceivable government option) to defeat ISIS. The international coalition seems unlikely to deploy overwhelming military force to rid the world of the latest awful jihadi group. All coalition partners are up for airstrikes, but no one seeks the dirty work of ridding Syria and Iraq of ISIS in direct military engagement.  Likewise, at least in the West, there remains a complete lack of strategic consensus on what should be done to defeat ISIS. 

A few months back, I offered up an alternative option to boots-on-the-ground; the “Let Them Rot” strategy–i.e., using containment to establish conditions by which ISIS destroys itself from within.  (NB: A forthcoming paper will discuss this in greater depth.)  To this point, it appears that the U.S.-led coalition, either by choice or more by default, is pursuing a modified “Let Them Rot” strategy.  But officials and the public grow impatient while the media reinforces the belief ISIS is the next al Qaeda–a misguided one in my view.  The headlines will lead you to believe that ISIS can only be defeated by a major military campaign. And counterinsurgency proponents are likely drooling for another opportunity to employ their beloved Field Manual 3-24.  But defeating ISIS via external force will be a long battle, and one that perpetuates the jihadi belief that the West denies their vision.  The U.S. should seek to destroy the idea of an Islamic State altogether, and to do that ISIS must fail by its own doings, not from outside forces. The recipe of the the “Let Them Rot” strategy should be followed: contain ISIS advances, starve them of resources, fracture their ranks, and exploit through alternative security arrangements

Analysis of the key drivers pushing forth the advance of ISIS reveals several key points at which the U.S.-led coalition can focus to degrade ISIS over time.  Figure 1 below provides a causal flow diagram showing the relationship of key drivers powering ISIS operations.  Note in the diagram that there are two relationships between entities.  Blue arrows represent direct relationships where an increase in one factor leads to an increase in the subsequent factor.  Red arrows represent where an increase in one factor leads to a decrease in a subsequent factor.  (Bottom Line Up Front: Blue and Red show relationships, not good or bad, plusses or minuses.)  In the diagram, clearly the most important factor is ISIS’s territorial expansion (see circle #1); their ability to sustain the offensive, and the initiative.  The diagram also illustrates multiple feedback loops arising from their territorial expansion to include increases in their global popular support, financing through taxation and global donations, recruitment through social media, and their levels of military resources through the seizure of equipment. Containment of ISIS’s advance should remain the main effort, and I doubt that they can continue to expand much further. 

Second, starving ISIS comes from disrupting one factor more than any other: elimination of oil revenues (see circle #2).  ISIS, as compared to other jihadi groups that have tried to form emirates, developed the capacity to resource themselves years ago.  Their self-resourcing is not only strong, but also diversified.  Oil and taxation provide a dual-pronged financial power base complimented by global donations and illicit revenue schemes which have combined to buoy ISIS over time.  Three of these financial resource streams, however, result in large part from ISIS’s ability to expand and sustain territory. If expansion was halted, these three streams would be constrained.

Starving ISIS of resources thus requires the elimination or degradation of ISIS capitalizing on oil fields in Eastern Syria.  This will put pressure on ISIS to extract more revenues from the local population through taxation and illicit schemes preying on local populations at a time when expansion is no longer viable due to containment.  The U.S. raid on Abu Sayyaf last month has apparently yielded some gains against ISIS and will hopefully be a first step in the elimination of this vital oil resource for ISIS.  How does the U.S. disable the oil fields without destroying the infrastructure and creating an environmental disaster?  Maybe a raid to facilitate a cyber attack, placing malware into the closed network to disable the oil pumping systems. Or maybe a series of raids to disable the equipment of several oil platforms, although this would be tough. Lastly, the coalition could send a militia deep into Eastern Syria to capture the oil fields, but in so doing will be anointing one group as king over all of the others. 

Airstrikes, partner pressure, containment and starvation will ideally bring stress on ISIS disrupting the feedback loops previously created form territorial gains.  Fearful of spies and infiltrators directing airstrikes and providing intelligence for Special Forces raids, ISIS will tighten its security, slowing their operations while further alienating the population.  At the same time, ISIS will ideally become more predatory on the local population and increasingly self-doubting.  At this point, two key fractures may become available for fracturing ISIS.  First, in Iraq, internal starvation of resources paired with a slow and steady advance by Kurdish and Iraqi forces will hopefully incentivize former Baathists and Iraqi Sunnis to break ranks with ISIS to secure their local stake in Sunni territories of Western Iraq (see circle #3).  A representative example of this dynamic was seen with the collapse of Shabaab from clan-oriented defections over the past three years. 

The second important fracture for exploitation is the potential rift between ISIS Iraqi leadership and the global foreign fighter legions that power their ranks (see point #4). To date, young ISIS foreign fighters have had much to celebrate; winning on the battlefield, taking ground and rapidly becoming administrators of governance.  But when battlefield advances end and resources become tight, local ISIS members will compromise their ideological principles to maintain their grip on power.  Resource starvation, much as was seen in Somalia, will cause tensions between the heavily Iraqi-dominated leadership and the global ranks of foreign fighters. 

Examining what is currently underway in the fight against ISIS, it appears that the U.S. is essentially pursuing this strategy.  Despite the media ramping up the American public with a relentless barrage of scary ISIS stories, on the surface it appears the U.S., at least, is pursuing this strategy–they are doing most of what I just outlined.  The trick will be whether they can exploit the fractures described above.  Exploitation will be the hardest step, offering alternatives that fill the void and spread the rifts across Syria and Iraq. 

 

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