The Kurdistan Quagmire Proves Newton’s Third Law

In this week’s crisis over Kirkuk, Iraqi Kurds are experiencing a painful version of Newton’s Third Law: In Middle East politics, as in physics, every action creates an equal and opposite reaction.

The initial action was Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani’s decision to push ahead last month with a controversial independence referendum, despite strong warnings from the United States, Turkey, Iran and the central government in Baghdad that the Sept. 25 vote would backfire.

The counter-reaction came Monday, as Iraqi troops, backed by Shiite militias, took control of a key military base and oil fields in the region around Kirkuk, an area controlled by the Kurdish peshmerga militias but claimed by Baghdad. For the United States, it was a dilemma of watching one friend make a damaging mistake, and another friend retaliate.

Some members of Barzani’s regional government in Irbil described the Iraqi move as a military assault, but a statement by US Central Command, which oversees operations in Iraq, reported “coordinated movements, not attacks.” A Centcom official said the Iraqi advance had been arranged in discussions with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. (The PUK, based in Sulaymaniyah, is a historic rival of Barzani’s dominant Irbil-based group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.)

Barzani’s allies have argued that Iran is secretly orchestrating the Kirkuk confrontation. But a US official closely involved in policy described that allegation as “misinformation.” While Tehran and its Iraqi allies may have encouraged Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to move on Kirkuk, US officials said that it was Abadi’s decision — and that he would have faced heavy Iraqi opposition if he hadn’t responded strongly to the referendum and its breakaway bid.

A measure of the breadth of Iraqi criticism of the Kurdish independence move was a statement issued two weeks ago by Ali Sistani, a moderate cleric who tries to resist Iran’s meddling. He rejected the referendum as “an attempt to divide Iraq and take its northern part by setting up an independent state.” Ever the balancer, he also urged Baghdad “to consider the Kurds’ constitutional rights.”

Having cautioned Barzani against the referendum, US officials were peeved when he went ahead anyway. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sept. 29 criticized the “unilateral” vote and said its results “lack legitimacy.” Prior to the balloting, Tillerson had proposed an alternative “road map” for discussions to resolve tensions between Baghdad and Irbil, but this last-minute appeal was rejected, US officials say.

The Kurdish miscalculation has had unfortunate consequences. But sometimes in the Middle East, mistakes open the way for new discussions, and US officials hope this will be the case with the Kirkuk crisis. US officials were working Monday to establish joint security measures to reduce tensions near the Kirkuk oil fields, so that production can continue, and to share information on the ground and counter inflammatory reports that could escalate the conflict. Officials hope these initial military and intelligence contacts will be a prelude to a broader political discussion involving Barzani and Abadi.

“The US wants to be an honest broker between the two,” said one senior US military official. He warned that if tensions aren’t resolved soon, the confrontation could undermine the joint Iraqi-Kurdish stand against ISIS, which has seemed to be entering its final stage. “This could consume a lot of energy and cause us to lose momentum when we’ve got ISIS on the run,” the senior official said.

Iran may not be pulling all the strings in Iraq, but it has a decisive presence there and will benefit from the confrontation between Abadi and the Kurds. That’s the unfortunate irony of the Kirkuk clash: In a week when the Trump administration was trying to launch a new campaign to counter Iran’s regional behavior, US officials must struggle to extinguish a sudden flare-up between the United States’ two key partners in Iraq — one that’s all the more frustrating because policymakers in Washington saw it coming.

The Washington Post

The New Strategy and Attempts to Contain Iran

Donald Trump is notorious in the business world for stiffing other companies when it’s time to pay the bill — offering partial settlement of what he owes and proposing to negotiate the rest. Trump did a version of that Friday when he announced he will stay in the Iran nuclear deal for now, but quit if he can’t get better terms.

Trump’s speech tossed a verbal grenade into a turbulent Middle East. This may have been the goal of a president who styles himself as “the great disrupter.” But it fuels regional feuds that Trump can’t control and provokes disputes with both allies and adversaries that may frustrate America’s interest in curbing Iran’s bad behavior.

The volatility of the region was demonstrated anew Friday, as Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Iraqi government troops massed near Kirkuk, Iraq, threatening Kurdish forces there that have been crucial to US allies against ISIS.

That’s the maddening challenge for US policy in the Middle East, now as always: The United States may seek to squeeze Iranian proxies, but Tehran is positioned to strike back — in ways that could endanger US partners, such as the Kurds, and even American troops.

On the nuclear deal, Trump’s speech was heading in two directions at once. For the near term, he waffled, saying Iran was “not living up to the spirit of the deal,” but tossing the issue of imposing tougher terms in Iran to Congress. But the speech included this harsh warning: “In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated.”

European reaction was swift, and unhappy. About an hour after Trump had finished speaking, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement urging Congress not to enact new sanctions that would “undermine” the deal and stressing that their three nations, which helped negotiate the deal, “stand committed” to its implementation.

The European statement is important for two reasons. It shows that Trump’s hope of gaining allied support for reopening negotiations (he wants to extend the term of the agreement and provide tougher enforcement) are almost certainly misplaced. Perhaps more important, Iranian contacts have told me that if Europe reaffirms its compliance with the deal (as the three leaders just did), and Congress (as expected) doesn’t legislate new sanctions, then Iran is likely to remain in compliance, too. So the European statement may help keep the deal in limbo, for now.

Trump’s top foreign-policy advisers had been pitching the Iran speech as part of a broad effort to control Tehran’s aggressive behavior in the region. A White House fact sheet issued before the speech spent four pages on Iran’s mischievous behavior and added only a brief section saying the nuclear deal “must be strictly enforced” and the International Atomic Energy Agency “must fully utilize its inspection authorities.”

This same theme of a broad campaign against Iranian behavior was voiced in a telephone interview Friday morning by a senior administration official who’s helping to implement the strategy. He talked about moves to counter Iran in Yemen, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. And he asserted that European allies “are already working with us” to curb the Iranians. Several hours later, the three European leaders issued their critical statement.

The new confrontation between Iraqi forces and Kurds is an example of how complicated the regional terrain is, and how vulnerable US interests are to local feuds.

The Iraqi government, still fuming about the Kurdish independence referendum last month, has reportedly massed troops and artillery near the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk. According to a Kurdish source, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has given the Kurds a list of six demands, including turning over control of Kirkuk’s airport, oil fields and military checkpoints to the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi military.

A top Kurdish official asserted in an email: “It’s important that the world knows Qassem Suleimani [the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] is running this campaign.” That claim couldn’t be verified, but it illustrates regional anxieties.

Facing so many flashpoints in trying to contain Iran, Trump has chosen to put the nuclear issue center stage, once again. Rather than focusing on Iranian behavior, Congress and foreign allies will instead be preoccupied anew with Trump’s threatening statements about the future of the nuclear agreement. It will be about Trump, more than Iran. But maybe that’s the way he wants it.

The Washington Post

The Nuclear Issue Isn’t the Real Iranian Challenge

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks live on television after casting his ballot in the 2009 Iranian presidential election in Tehran

Various cultures have different phrases for expressing the idea of having it both ways at once. “To take a swim and not get wet” is an Albanian proverb. Poles talk about “having the cookie and eating it.” Iranians want “both God and the sugar dates.”

The Trump administration has been weighing a contemporary geopolitical version of this straddle. Hard-liners have been urging the president to decertify the Iran nuclear agreement but insist that he wants to strengthen the deal, not break it. The idea is enticing politically, certainly, but it has as much chance of working as (forgive me) “washing your fur but not getting wet,” as a German aphorism puts it.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a leading critic of the Iran deal, described this ambiguous diplomatic approach this week at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I don’t propose leaving the deal yet. I propose taking the steps necessary to obtain leverage to get a better deal.” Cotton wants decertification, but no sanctions, so that the United States can . . . what? Apparently, the idea is that US pressure will convince Iran to make unilateral concessions that it refused during the 13 years the deal was being negotiated.

Magical thinking is always appealing in foreign policy, but it usually produces nothing more than fairy dust. In this case, there is no evidence that putting the agreement in limbo will bring any security benefits for the United States or Israel. It will introduce uncertainty where the United States and its allies should most demand clarity — in insisting on compliance by all sides with an agreement that caps Iran’s centrifuges and stockpiles of enriched material for at least another decade.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, hardly a dove on Iran, bluntly told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the nuclear deal was “something that the president should consider staying with.” When pressed by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) on whether he thought the pact was in the United States’ national-security interest, Mattis paused and answered: “Yes, Senator, I do.”

Officials speak truth to power at their own risk in President Trump’s Washington. So Mattis’s argument for sustaining what the president has called “one of the dumbest [and] most dangerous” deals was important, though the outcome of the debate still isn’t clear. It’s probably because of Mattis’s military advice, however, that Trump has dropped his campaign talk of simply tearing up the agreement.

How would Iran react? Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian official who stays in close touch with his ex-colleagues, told me recently that if Trump doesn’t certify, but Congress doesn’t re-impose sanctions, and the other P5+1 negotiators assure full implementation, then Iran may continue to adhere to the agreement. But he cautioned that this line is opposed by some political factions in Iran that argue for suspending the pact if Trump challenges Iranian compliance.

As for the administration’s hope of forcing Iran to renegotiate the “sunset” provisions and other details of the agreement, Mousavian says that’s a nonstarter in Tehran.

The real challenge with Iran isn’t the nuclear issue, which was put in a box for at least a decade by the agreement, but Tehran’s aggressive behavior in the region. Iran and its proxies continue to destabilize the Middle East. They seek to manipulate and control nearly every major capital: Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Saana. According to the White House, Iranian proxies are mining the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, pointing missiles from Yemen toward Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and seeking to carve a zone of influence on the ruins of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The administration claims to be focused on this big Iran problem. Would that it were so. Officials say that Trump has signed off on a broad strategy that makes Iran’s behavior the central issue going forward. But the decertification debate will probably dominate the headlines over the next weeks and months — needlessly focusing attention on the one part of the Iran problem that is capped and manageable, and defusing efforts on the real challenge.

There’s a final, crucial reason Trump should certify that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal: because it’s true. Even Cotton conceded as much this week, arguing against certification “not primarily on the grounds related to Iran’s technical compliance, but rather based on the long catalogue of the regime’s crimes and perfidy against the United States.”

A question for the Iran hawks: If the United States refuses to certify an agreement when a country is “technically” in compliance, why would any other country ever make a deal with us again? A great country keeps its word.

(The Washington Post)

Trump Stands at the Edge of a Cliff with Kim Jong Un. Time to Start Dealing.

President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Top US officials have said repeatedly that America is seeking a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis with North Korea. But President Trump’s insulting comments toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appear to have made such a negotiated settlement more difficult.

In the chaotic government-by-Twitter atmosphere of the Trump administration, no senior leader has publicly questioned whether the president’s trash talk about “Rocket Man” and his threat to “totally destroy” North Korea have undermined his own strategy. But there’s growing concern that, as former US diplomat and North Korea expert Joseph DeThomas wrote Monday on the 38 North blog, Trump’s comments “may have closed any remaining doors” to a quick diplomatic resolution of the standoff.

Experienced Korea watchers believe that Trump’s threats have deepened Kim’s resistance to concessions and that the North Korean leader is unlikely to back down in the face-off with Washington. By responding personally to Trump’s bluster and issuing his own counterthreats, Kim has attached his personal prestige and his family’s demigod status to the confrontation.

Trump’s disruptive comments have doubtless caused some head-scratching in Pyongyang, as leaders there try to discern the signal from the noise. But any benefits of Trump’s unpredictability were probably erased by threats to obliterate North Korea and its leaders if they remain defiant.

Officials who appeared hopeful about diplomatic prospects just a few weeks ago now seem concerned that Kim may seek another round of escalation. One possibility is an intercontinental ballistic missile test, arcing far out over the Pacific, to demonstrate North Korea’s range. North Korea could perhaps even mount a hydrogen warhead atop one of these missiles so that it exploded in the ocean, though that would risk prompt US retaliation. The North Koreans could also test submarine-launched ballistic missiles to demonstrate a second-strike capability following any US preemptive attack.

Conflict certainly isn’t inevitable, even after Monday’s claim by Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho that Trump’s UN comments meant “the United States declared war on our country.” But analysts believe Ri’s threats to attack planes that fly near North Korean airspace were serious. As both sides increasingly accompany their rhetoric with displays of military hardware, the risk of accident and miscalculation grows.

Korea watchers stress that for 70 years, North Korea’s identity has been that of a defiant small country, armed to the teeth, that survives by not giving in to any outside threat. The regime’s attitude is: “We don’t mind dying, but we’ll make you pay a price that you won’t want to pay.”

The Trump administration has hoped to use China as leverage against this meddlesome foe. But Pyongyang seems impervious to Beijing’s threats, too. Even as China has joined in UN Security Council sanctions, North Korea has denounced what it sees as the perfidy of its neighbor.

An example of Pyongyang’s indignation is an article titled “Chinese Media’s Shameless and Impudent Acts Blasted,” distributed Sept. 22 by North Korea’s official news agency. Calling sanctions “the dirty excrement of the reactionaries of history,” the article said North Koreans “really feel shame” when they see China “kowtow to the US.” The article describes an uncorrupted North Korea proudly resisting alone: “Though small in territory and population, the people of the DPRK have such fortune . . . standing against the ‘world’s only superpower.’ ”

Hopes that Kim’s inner circle may fragment as the confrontation escalates are probably misplaced. Senior North Korean military, intelligence and political officials appear convinced that if Kim’s regime implodes, they go down with it. The fate of Saddam Hussein’s family and associates offers a grim lesson that insiders can’t easily separate from the regime.

What road map might allow the United States and North Korea to move away from the brink? Probably it would begin with a concession from Washington that eased North Korea’s anxiety. One possibility would be a US proposal to limit the scope of the next joint US-South Korean military exercise, in 2018.

A wild card would be a dramatic gesture by Trump to “go to Korea,” as Dwight D. Eisenhower pledged to do in 1952, during the height of the Korean War. For a president who loves drama, it would be hard to beat a meeting at the demilitarized zone.

The first steps away from confrontation will have to be small. Trump’s rhetoric has probably torched the big bargain, for now. An initial statement to reduce tensions could be followed by other confidence-building measures, and then, eventually, by talks about de-nuclearization and reduction of US forces in the region.

The humbling lesson that Trump must learn: He has blustered his way to the edge of a cliff. Now he must stop fulminating and start dealing.

(The Washington Post)

Bring Back the Ombudsman

Members of the media raise their hands for questions.

How can news organizations avoid the trap that President Trump has laid for them in his attacks on the media as a one-sided “opposition party” that caters to anti-Trump elites and purveys “fake news” to readers and viewers?

Part of the answer is simply for journalists to keep doing their jobs, aggressively and fairly. We’re not in the business of making friends, but of holding powerful people and institutions accountable. And ultimately, it’s only this feisty, independent voice that will preserve public support for our role under the First Amendment.

But something is misfiring. For fans of the mainstream media, this may look like a golden age, with scoops every day about Trump and his alleged misdeeds. But liberal adulation masks a broader mistrust: A disturbingly large 72 percent of Americans think news organizations tend to favor one side in covering political or social issues, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. And Democrats are 47 points more likely than Republicans to back the media’s accountability role.

Robert Kaiser, for years The Post’s managing editor, liked to say that “readers deserve one clear shot at the facts” so they can make up their own minds about who the good guys and bad guys are. Sorry, colleagues, but even on our best days, we aren’t always meeting that test.

How do we broaden public trust? One approach that news organizations embraced a few decades ago, when they had more money to spend and fewer freelance critics, was to create an in-house ombudsman or public editor to represent readers and viewers. Most big news organizations, including The Post and the New York Times, have dropped their ombudsmen over the past decade. That was a mistake, I think.

Ombudsmen can be a pain in the neck. They second-guess reporters and editors. They advocate ideas of fairness that some people think are outmoded. They undermine coverage. (“Even the Washington Post’s ombudsman admitted that . . . ”) But they’re needed as never before. Critics see media bigshots as arrogant, unaccountable elitists pursuing their own agendas. A good ombudsman changes that balance, in favor of readers and viewers — and fairness.

Margaret Sullivan, a New York Times public editor for four years and now a media columnist for The Post, favors the restoration of the ombudsman role at the Times. Though she has argued against a tepid “balance” (termed “false equivalency” by liberal critics), she says that shouldn’t excuse tendentious or one-sided coverage. “There is nothing more important to what we do than fairness. Fairness doesn’t mean down the middle, fifty-fifty. . . . Fairness doesn’t equal false equivalency.”

A model ombudsman was The Post’s Michael Getler, who held the role from 2000 to 2005. He wrote about two dozen columns criticizing The Post for not covering the run-up to the Iraq War adequately. Getler was one of the paper’s most experienced reporters and editors, and his criticism stung. He represented angry readers who felt The Post had allowed the country to sleepwalk into a disastrous conflict.

Yet Getler was attacked. Slate argued in 2001 that he “subscribes to the old-school view that journalistic credibility rises whenever a writer suppresses what he thinks about the subject at hand and falls whenever he abandons that pure stenography of who, what, why, where, and when.” This derisive critique of traditional, fact-based reporting has become surprisingly widespread on the left.

Another tough in-house critic who got roughed up for her trouble was Liz Spayd, a former Post managing editor who became public editor for the Times last year. She cautioned in a column last September that journalists shouldn’t be so worried about avoiding on-the-one-hand, on-the-other versions of balance that they become partisan.

Spayd was publicly flayed over the next year for this and other apostasies before the Times abolished her position in May. New York magazine called her false-balance column “a logical train wreck.” Politico Magazine headlined: “Good riddance.”

The pursuit of evenhanded reporting may have led the Times to overdo its coverage of the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s email controversies, both hyped out of proportion in my view. But it was Spayd, the advocate of fairness, who skewered the Times for not being aggressive enough in covering the FBI investigation of Trump and Russia before the election. Executive Editor Dean Baquet termed that a “bad column,” but it looks pretty good in retrospect.

The debates that swirled around Sullivan, Getler, Spayd and others are part of a healthy (if painful) process of holding the watchdogs accountable. Bring back the ombudsman!

(The Washington Post)

Tillerson Is Working with China and Russia – Very, Very Quietly

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson departs after a closed classified briefing for members of the Senate on North Korea and Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in Washington

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has often been the silent man in the Trump foreign policy team. But out of the spotlight, he appears to be crafting a broad strategy aimed at working with China to resolve the North Korea crisis and with Russia to stabilize Syria and Ukraine.

The Tillerson approach focuses on personal diplomacy, in direct contacts with Chinese and Russian leaders, and through private channels to North Korea. His core strategic assumption is that if the United States can subtly manage its relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin — and allow those leaders to take credit for successes — complex regional problems can be solved effectively.

Tillerson appears unfazed by criticism that he has been a poor communicator and by recent talk of discord with President Trump. His attitude isn’t exactly “take this job and shove it,” but as a former ExxonMobil chief executive, he doesn’t need to make money or Washington friends — and he clearly thinks he has more urgent obligations than dealing with the press.

Tillerson appears to have preserved a working relationship with Trump despite pointedly separating himself from the president’s controversial comments after the Charlottesville unrest. Although Trump didn’t initially like Tillerson’s statement, it’s said he was ultimately comfortable with it.

The North Korea crisis is the best example of Tillerson’s diplomacy. For all the bombast of Trump’s tweets, the core of US policy has been an effort to work jointly with China to reverse the North Korean nuclear buildup through negotiations. Tillerson has signaled that the United States is ready for direct talks with Kim Jong Un’s regime — perhaps soon, if Kim shows restraint. Tillerson wants China standing behind Kim at the negotiating table, with its hands figuratively at Kim’s throat.

Despite Pyongyang’s hyper-belligerent rhetoric, its representatives have conveyed interest in negotiations, querying details of US positions. But Kim’s actions have been erratic and confusing: When it appeared that the North Koreans wanted credit for not launching missiles toward Guam, Tillerson offered such a public statement. Bizarrely, North Korea followed with three more weapons tests, in a reckless rebuff.

Some analysts see North Korea’s race to test missiles and bombs as an effort to prepare the strongest possible bargaining position before negotiations. Tillerson seems to be betting that China can force such talks by imposing an oil embargo against Pyongyang. US officials hope Xi will make this move unilaterally, demonstrating strong leadership publicly, rather than waiting for the United States to insert the embargo proposal in a new UN Security Council resolution.

Tillerson signaled his seriousness about Korea talks during a March visit to the Demilitarized Zone. He pointed to a table at a U.N. office there and remarked, “Maybe we’ll use this again,” if negotiations begin.

The Sino-American strategic dialogue about North Korea has been far more extensive than either country acknowledges. They’ve discussed joint efforts to stabilize the Korean Peninsula, including Chinese actions to secure nuclear weapons if the regime collapses.

The big idea driving Tillerson’s China policy is that the fundamentals of the relationship have changed as China has grown more powerful and assertive. The message to Beijing is that Xi’s actions in defusing the North Korea crisis will shape US-China relations for the next half-century.

Tillerson continues to work the Russia file, even amid new Russia sanctions. He has known Putin since 1999 and views him as a predictable, if sometimes bullying, leader. Even with the relationship in the dumps, Tillerson believes he’s making some quiet progress on Ukraine and Syria.

On Ukraine, Tillerson supports Russia’s proposal to send U.N. peacekeepers to police what Putin claims are Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s assaults on Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine. The addition of UN monitors would help implement the Minsk agreement, even if Putin gets the credit and Poroshenko the blame.

On Syria, Tillerson has warned Putin that the real danger to Russian interests is increasing Iranian power there, especially as Bashar al-Assad’s regime regains control of Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria. To counter the Iranians, Tillerson supports a quick move by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to capture the lower Euphrates Valley.

Trump’s boisterous, sometimes belligerent manner and Tillerson’s reticence are an unlikely combination, and many observers have doubted the relationship can last. But Tillerson seems to roll with the punches — and tweets. When Trump makes a disruptive comment, Tillerson seems to treat it as part of the policy landscape — and ponder how to use it to advantage.

Tillerson may be the least public chief diplomat in modern US history, but that’s apparently by choice. By Washington standards, he’s strangely uninterested in taking the credit.

(The Washington Post)

Trump’s Big Decision in Syria

Smoke is seen following an airstrike on the western frontline of Raqqa on July 17, during an offensive by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a majority Kurdish and Arab alliance, to retake the city from ISIS fighters.

As the US-led coalition accelerates its campaign to destroy ISIS’ remaining strongholds in Syria, the Trump administration faces a big decision about the future: Does it want to keep some US troops inside the country to help stabilize Syria after the jihadists are defeated, or does it want to pack up and come home?

The dilemma is eerily like what President Barack Obama faced in Iraq in 2011, and the risks and benefits are similar. President Trump, like his predecessor, has expressed skepticism about permanent US wars in the Middle East. But he also knows that pulling out US troops from bases east of the Euphrates could create a vacuum that might trigger ethnic slaughter, regional proxy wars and a new wave of jihadist violence.

The military and civilian officials who have been closest to US-Syria policy appear convinced that America should maintain a residual presence, probably something under 1,000 Special Operations forces that could continue to train and advise — and also, restrain — the Syrian Kurdish militia that has been America’s key partner against ISIS. But this alliance with the Kurds is controversial, inside Syria and out.

The political map of Syria, for now, looks like a patchwork quilt, with different bands controlled by rival groups and their patrons. The United States and its Kurdish partners dominate east of the Euphrates River. The Syrian regime, with its Russian and Iranian allies, controls the vast center of the country; Turkish-backed forces control a strip along the northern border; and a Jordanian-Russian “deconfliction” agreement has pacified the southwest.

Few analysts expect that Syria can be reunified by President Bashar al-Assad. So, for the foreseeable future, the country will be divided into these zones of influence — awaiting a political transition process that can reestablish the legitimacy and authority of a new central government in Damascus.

The US piece of this puzzle is the area east of the Euphrates. The Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, advised by elite American forces and backed by US air power, has swept across this area over the past three years, and in about six weeks is expected to seize the ISIS capital of Raqqa. As they advanced, the Kurds recruited Sunni Arab allies into a broader coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The ad hoc military alliance that produced the SDF has many critics. The Syrian opposition fears that the Kurdish fighters want to create an independent state, and neighboring Turkey sees them as terrorists. But battlefield success generates its own political momentum, and as the United States and the SDF have advanced, something of a bandwagon effect has developed. Sunni opposition groups now seem eager to fight alongside the Kurdish-led forces, under overall US command.

This new willingness to work in tandem with the Kurds was voiced by Riyad Hijab, the head of the Syrian opposition coalition known as the High Negotiations Committee. He said in a recent interview that his supporters want “to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups, alongside with the SDF, as long as we fight independently in separate fronts.”

Hijab claimed that up to 5,000 Sunni opposition forces would be ready to join the United States and the SDF in liberating Deir al-Zour, the next big town in the Euphrates Valley southeast of Raqqa. The Sunni opposition groups apparently prefer allying with Kurds to Assad’s regime.

US officials are pleased that Hijab and other opposition leaders want to join the fight in the Euphrates Valley. But they say the new recruits aren’t ready for heavy fighting, and that Deir al-Zour will almost certainly be taken by 10,000 Syrian regime troops that are already in the town, joined by regime forces now moving east, with Russian and Iranian backing. The Iranian presence worries some US officials, but they say regime control of Deir al-Zour is probably inevitable.

US commanders say the real strategic prize is further south. They say as soon as Raqqa is secure, SDF troops (joined by whatever other Arab forces are ready), hope to advance toward the lower Euphrates Valley, south of Deir al-Zour. The United States hopes that Iraqi forces across the border will help check Iranian power in the area.

What happens next? That depends in part on whether U.S. military advisers stay in eastern Syria. If they remain, say US officials, they can curb the Kurds’ ambitions for independence, deter the Turks from intervening and encourage the Sunni opposition to work with all sides. A future US presence “will be essential,” says Hijab.

And if they leave quickly? We’ve seen this movie before.

(The Washington Post)

A Diminutive Woman — and a Spy who Defined Courage

Jeannie Rousseau de Clarens, one of the remarkable spies of World War II, died last week in France at the age of 98. Like so many intelligence officers, she had a gift for getting people to talk. But she had something else: dauntless, unblinking courage in facing the enemy.

De Clarens stole one of the vital secrets of the war — Germany’s plans to build and test the V-1 and V-2 rocket bombs at Peenemünde. Her intelligence encouraged the British to bomb Peenemünde, delaying and disrupting the program, and “saving thousands of lives in the West,” said R. James Woolsey Jr., then CIA director, at a private ceremony at the agency in October 1993 honoring de Clarens.

How did this charming, diminutive woman accomplish her mission impossible? She listened. De Clarens was a fluent German-speaker, and in 1943, she teased the first threads of information about the rocket program out of some German officers she had befriended in Paris as a translator. And then she kept pulling on the string.

“I was such a little one, sitting with them, and I could not but hear what was said. And what they did not say, I prompted,” she told me in 1998. “I teased them, taunted then, looked at them wide-eyed, insisted that they must be mad when they spoke of the astounding new weapon that flew over vast distances, much faster than any airplane. I kept saying: ‘What you are telling me cannot be true!’ I must have said that 100 times.”

“I’ll show you!” one of the Germans finally said, eager to convince the pretty, young Frenchwoman. He displayed a document from Peenemünde; de Clarens, with her photographic memory, registered every word and transmitted the information through her case officer to London.

Her code name was “Amniarix,” and she was part of a British spy ring in Paris known as the “Druids.” She was recruited by a former mathematics professor in 1941 to what he called his “little outfit.” She had been spying on the Germans informally since they conquered France in 1940, passing on bits of information to French contacts.

De Clarens made it all sound easy, no more than anyone would do, when I first interviewed her in 1998. “I just did it, that’s all.” She had never spoken to a journalist before, but when I showed up (after an introduction from Woolsey), the story began to flow and continued into the early morning. I published her amazing tale, but she was happier living in the shadows, and I don’t think she told the full story ever again.

She was a graceful woman, elegant as a French movie star, but she spoke in an incongruous deep voice. On one of many visits in later years, she frightened one of my daughters by demanding in that gravelly bass: “If you don’t get me a drink right away, I will be very angry with you!”

What she didn’t want to tell me, in that first conversation or ever, was how much she had suffered. After the British received her reports about the rocket bombs, they wanted to bring her to London to debrief her. A boat evacuation was arranged from Brittany in the spring of 1944, but she was betrayed to the Germans on her way to the beach. She spent the last year of the war in three Nazi concentration camps, each harsher than the last. When she was finally rescued by the Swedish Red Cross, she was nearly dead of starvation and tuberculosis. She never revealed to the Germans a hint of the secrets she had stolen.

When I pushed her to talk about her time in the camps, her voice became distant and irregular, as if it was physically painful to remember, and to know that she had survived when so many others didn’t. “After the war, the curtain came down on my memories,” she said. And then, with a modesty born of deep suffering, she insisted: “What I did was so little. Others did so much more. I was one small stone.”

The mystery of de Clarens’s story for me was where her bravery came from. Why did she do what was right when so many others were afraid to take action? She shook her head as if I was missing the point. “It wasn’t a choice. It was what you did. At the time, we all thought we would die. I don’t understand the question. How could I not do it?”

She was an extraordinary woman. I’m glad she let me pull the story from her, so that others can read and remember what courage is.

The Washington Post

Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy isn’t to Win. It’s to Avoid Losing.

Trump

Will President Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy alter the dynamics of America’s longest and most frustrating war? Do commanders really have any better chance of succeeding now than when this conflict began 16 years ago?

I put those questions by phone Tuesday to Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson Jr., who for more than 18 months has commanded US forces in Kabul. This is his fourth tour in Afghanistan and his sixth year of service there. He probably knows as much about this difficult and costly war as any American in uniform.

Nicholson answered by describing what he has learned about Afghanistan since we first met 10 years ago in Jalalabad, when he was a colonel commanding a brigade of the 10th Mountain Division. Those were heady, optimistic days when Nicholson would take visitors to a provincial “loya jirga” tribal council, where the turbaned leaders professed support for the US mission; when US development teams were building roads and schools, confident that stability would follow economic development.

It didn’t happen that way, and Nicholson now cites two illusions of that period that he says undermined the war effort. The first was that US commanders didn’t realize just how crucial external support from Pakistan was in allowing an unpopular Taliban insurgency to survive. The second was that commanders didn’t understand how corruption was rotting the Afghan security structure the United States was trying to build.

Both problems are addressed, at least modestly, by Trump’s strategy. First, Trump warned: “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations.” This will likely mean more sticks and fewer carrots for Islamabad — perhaps including new sanctions that punish Pakistan for aiding terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network that kill Americans and their allies. (Unfortunately, Trump may have undermined his Pakistan pitch by urging a closer “strategic partnership” with its archenemy, India.)

Second, Trump promised support for an Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani that is seeking to combat corruption and is planning provincial elections next summer. Stronger, better leadership will, in theory, bolster the campaign against the insurgents. “The American people expect to see real reforms, real progress and real results,” Trump said. (In addition to being a long shot, this sounds suspiciously like the nation-building Trump insists he’s abandoning.)

But will it work? Many observers doubt the strategy will “push onward to victory,” as Trump said, but they think it may avoid an outright defeat. The consensus among these experts is that by adding troops and other measures, the United States can sustain the current stalemate, in which the Taliban controls about half of the countryside and the central government holds Kabul and other major cities.

The Trump strategy reduces the probability that the Kabul government will collapse over the next two to three years. This is a very limited version of success.

So why did Trump reverse his early, skeptical view and back Nicholson and the other generals who dominate his national security team? Why did this Wharton School graduate ignore the advice often offered by business professors that “sunk cost” — the money and effort already spent — does not by itself justify further investment?

The answer isn’t really very complicated. Trump doesn’t want to be the president to pack up and go home. He doesn’t want the stain of defeat.

The best argument for Trump’s Afghanistan policy is that it avoids losing, and at relatively low cost. It maintains a platform that can operate against what Trump said are 20 terrorist groups in the region; it sustains a base that will allow the United States to keep watch on nearby Pakistani nuclear weapons. It avoids a quick win by the Taliban and allows eventual reconciliation. Those are all worthy goals.

“I don’t know that we have a choice to walk away,” argues Nicholson. “It would inspire other jihadis around the globe.” He likens Afghanistan and Pakistan to a “petri dish” in which dangerous terrorist groups have thrived. Across the US government, even skeptics of the policy share his concern about the risks of a hasty US withdrawal.

Trump was once said to be so frustrated with the slow pace of the US campaign in Afghanistan that he wanted to fire Nicholson as commander. “The American people are weary of war without victory,” he said Monday night. But as he has weighed the terrible dilemma of the war in Afghanistan, Trump seems to have opted for a stay-the-course policy to “seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made.”

No victory parades, but no defeat, either.

Washington Post

Russia’s Election Meddling Backfired

Putin

Intelligence officers sometimes talk about “blowback,” when covert actions go bad and end up damaging the country that initiated them. A year later, that is surely the case with Russia’s secret attempt to meddle in the US presidential election, which has brought a string of adverse unintended consequences for Moscow.

The Kremlin is still issuing cocky statements accusing the United States of “political schizophrenia” in its response to Russian hacking. And there are vestiges of the triumphal tone I encountered in Moscow this summer — a sense that the United States is in decline and that a mistreated but resurgent Russia is in the driver’s seat. But Russia’s confidence must be flagging.

Interference in the US election has created antibodies to Russian power: America is angry, Europe is newly vigilant, and Syria and Ukraine are becoming quagmires. Moscow remains a dangerously ambitious revanchist power, but its geopolitical goals look harder to achieve now than they did a year ago.

The basics of Russia’s covert operations were best summarized in a Jan. 6 report by the US intelligence community: “President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” Russia’s goals were to “denigrate” Hillary Clinton and “help . . . when possible” Donald Trump. A broader aim was “to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order.”

So, how’s it going for the folks at Lubyanka Square? Well, Trump was certainly elected, though the factors driving the US vote were much deeper than Russian trolls and bots. And there’s definitely disarray in the global order. But since Trump’s inauguration, the world has begun moving in reverse from what Moscow’s active-measures specialists must have hoped.

Let’s take a brief inventory of this global resilience:

●Russian meddling has produced a strong bipartisan counter-reaction from Congress. Last month’s overwhelming passage of new sanctions against Russia showed how Putin’s assault on US politics has united otherwise polarized legislators. “Russia” is once again a toxic word in US politics, as Russian commentators are lamenting. It may take years to recover. And Putin has nobody to blame but himself.

●European politics similarly has been galvanized by Russia’s attempt to manipulate debate. The populist firestorm the Russians were secretly fanning — which engulfed Britain in the Brexit vote — has been dampened. The moderate center has held in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Russia’s covert support for right-wing nationalists has partially deflated those movements. To be credible, European politicians left and right are voicing their independence from Moscow.

●Russia’s Internet manipulations have spawned a new push by companies and civil society groups to combat such “fake news.” One example is the online “dashboard” created by the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. It monitors 600 Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations to collect a regular summary of trending hashtags, topics and URLs. (Note: I’m a GMF trustee.) The world is forewarned now, and partially forearmed.

●Internet and social-media companies are seeking technology solutions to bots, trolls and fake news. Facebook plans to identify dubious articles and steer them to independent fact-checking organizations, which will warn users if supporting evidence can’t be found. Google is creating algorithms to identify reliable sources from the billions of pages it indexes. Such private-sector efforts are the best hope for sustaining a fact-based electronic environment.

●Investigations have exposed groups and companies with alleged links to Russia’s hacking campaign, such as WikiLeaks. The Russia-WikiLeaks connection is explored in a new edition this month of “The Red Web,” the superb book by Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan. Among their claims is that WikiLeaks moved at least part of its Web hosting to Russia in August 2016.

More heat: A New Yorker piece this week by Raffi Khatchadourian challenges WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s denials of Russian involvement in the release of hacked documents. And the New York Times reports that a Ukrainian hacker known as “Profexer,” who may have helped write code used by the Russian covert operators, may now be talking to the FBI. The active-measures structure is weakening.

One of the few positives for Putin is his new support from Republicans. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Republicans who say they trust the Russian leader has nearly doubled since 2015, although to just 34 percent.

Putin’s problem is that he overreached. His dislike of Clinton and enthusiasm for Trump led him to violate the cardinal rule of covert action — namely, make sure it stays covert. As Putin discovers anew every day, secret influence operations backfire if they’re exposed. Revelations compromise sources and methods, including the cutouts who masked Russia’s hand.

Putin, the ex-KGB officer, should appreciate the paradoxical lesson of this spy story: In the Internet era, deception may be amplified. But eventually the truth will out.

The Washington Post