Questions about Syria’s Future

An interview with Prof. Joshua Landis addressed some important questions about Syria’s future. Read the interview if you want to see how Landis views where things are headed. I just wanted to flag some questions it left me pondering:

Does the Kurdish region of Syria remain autonomous or even become independent? Does the US use that region as a military ally and base, in part to be less dependent on Turkey (Erdogan) and Iraq (too close with Iran)? Does Turkey eventually accept – rather than oppose – an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, as it eventually did with the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq?

How long will Jordan, the US, and Saudi Arabia seek to maintain a pocket of supportive militias in the southern Daraa province as a source of leverage versus the Assad government? Will the US require some concessions (what?) vis a vis Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria before relenting for fear that Hezbollah could use control of southern Syria to get closer to border with Israel, its adversary?

Can Alawite-led Syrian (secular) nationalism maintain supremacy over “a very powerful Sunni national spirit” whose organizational manifestations – ISIS, AQ, other Islamists – mostly have been defeated in the civil war? Will that Sunni spirit rise again to challenge the Syrian state? Is it just a question of when, not if, that happens?

Can the Assad state re-establish itself as a strong state in the territory it controls? Or is it more likely to remain weak and rely on greater de-centralization than pre-2011 in terms of things like the provision of social welfare and state services, tax collection, and the control of security personnel?


Using the term “refugee”

For people in the United States, admitting refugees could, in theory, easily be perceived as a safer bet than other categories like asylum-seekers and tourists. After all, tourists seeking to visit the United States are not generally subjected to anything near the same level of scrutiny as refugees who face 1 ½ to 2 years of document gathering, interviews, and background checks. Asylum seekers also face extensive scrutiny by the US government, but many are already in the United States while that process is underway.

My point is that if you chose one of these categories about which to be afraid, I am not clear why “refugee” would be number one. But that assumes something that we should not take for granted: that we all mean the same thing when we say refugee. Yet what is apparent is that we do not. Instead the word refugee has becomes a catch-all for any foreigner coming to the United States, thus erasing a distinction, say, between refugees and asylum seekers. The crucial nuance is lost.

Moreover, for proponents of greater restrictions on US immigration, refugees may be thought of as less in terms of foreigner writ large and more in terms of Muslim. The general danger, especially after the attacks in Paris, is seen as letting in more Muslims. Take the House bill that passed. It does not ask for extra certification for all refugees, just those from Syria and Iraq. Or: Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz are fine with Christian refugees but keep out the Muslims, thank you very much. You get the idea.

I mention this as a warning to those explaining the intricacies of migration. By all means, carry on, but recognize that the subtleties and distinctions that are so central to understanding human movement are not necessarily heard, especially by those who either don’t follow migration issues regularly, oppose immigration, or both.

Three Thoughts on the release of FRUS: Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1969-1972

A new Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volume is out on US policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, 1969-1972.[1] While I was not able to read the whole volume yet, I set aside some time to read through the documents from the year 1970. I wanted to share three impressions. Without going back and looking at the existing secondary histories, I cannot tell you that these are new revelations. But either way, I found the documents of interest.

1. First, on October 23, 1970, CIA Director Richard Helms reported that a Fatah official had contacted the United States and wanted to talk with the United States, including about the idea of a two-state resolution.[2] As I read the texts, the clear implication was that Fatah was open to discussing a two-state solution in 1970. The US government kept the backchannel conversation going but declined to set an agenda and send a representative to hold official secret talks with Fatah.[3]

A month later, on November 24, Helms told Kissinger, then the National Security Advisor, that the Fatah contact told the CIA that Fatah had completed plans for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and the idea had the support of all the Arab states except Jordan. In terms of territory, the state would include the “West Bank of Jordan, the Gaza Strip – with unimpeded access between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – certain (unstated) portions of the East Bank of Jordan, and internationalization of the Old City of Jerusalem.” So not only was the United States aware that Fatah was interested in two states but also aware that the idea had wider Arab support.[4] The CIA continued contact at least into early 1971; the Fatah official was pressing the United States to set an agenda for an official (secret) dialogue but the USG did not. Though it is now 45 years later, the name of the Fatah contact was kept classified in the FRUS volume.

2. Second, as this was happening, a much larger discussion was taking place at the highest levels of the US government to consider changes in US policy toward the Palestinians.[5] The first shift was straightforward. Was the Palestinian question now more than just a refugee question? (For example, remember that the only reference to Palestinians in UNSC Resolution 242 of 1967 was as refugees and without even using the word Palestinian.) The US answer was yes; the Palestinians had become an independent, if fragmented, political force. “The Palestine question can only be settled with the Palestinians.”[6]

But that left two other challenging and inter-related questions. What endpoint did the United States favor, an independent Palestine or an autonomous Palestine in association with Jordan? Also, what role would King Hussein play? Should the United States bypass the King, consult the King, or should the King be able to veto changes in US policy toward the Palestinians?

At a December 17, 1970 meeting of the Senior Review Group, US policymakers agreed they favored a Palestinian entity, maybe a state, in the West Bank and Gaza in association with Hashemite Jordan.[7] They did not want to specify what would be the borders of the state in the West Bank and instead used the phrase with “whatever frontiers might be agreed.” Kissinger was against the idea of committing to the 1967 lines. They did not favor an independent Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza and feared Palestinian irredentism toward Jordan in such a scenario. Consequently, they also did not favor an independent Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza, and parts or all of the East Bank of Jordan.

In theory, US officials knew they could dump Hussein and work directly with the fedayeen – Arafat, PLO – but they were unwilling to do so. In the internal US minutes and memos, one senses US loyalty to King Hussein. Kissinger had mixed feelings about consulting Jordan: “Would we ask [King] Hussein if he minds if we deal with the [Palestinian] fedayeen? This is like a wife asking her husband if he minds if she commits adultery.”[8] But in the end, the United States wanted to get a feel for the King’s view of how to handle the Palestine issue and the possibility of US contacts directly with Palestinians. Washington instructed the US Ambassador to Jordan to discuss the “Palestinian factor” with King Hussein. The King had a measured response.[9]

Hal Saunders, a key US official on Arab-Israeli matters, correctly noted a central “con” to Palestinians getting a separate voice and, ultimately, a separate entity: “The Israelis would choke.”[10]

As an aside, two other comments struck me as spot on. After a discussion of possible Palestinian-Jordan endpoints, David Packard, Deputy Secretary of Defense, noted something true to this day: “The problems arise in trying to move from here to there.”[11]

Helms, the CIA director, also predicted what would happen if Palestinian nationalism was not addressed in political fashion: “In effect, resistance has finally restored the essential degree of national pride to the younger Palestinian generation, and if this pride is not permitted to channel itself into constructive effort (for example, within the context of a Palestine entity), it will vent itself violently and destructively against all foes, real or imagined.”[12]

3. Third, and just briefly, reading documents around the Egyptian-Israeli fighting in 1970, the War of Attrition, it kind of suggests another part of the story of the growth of tighter US-Israel ties: the United States felt pushed toward Israel in reacting against Soviet support for Egypt. Much of this discussion turned on Israeli arms requests. I am familiar with the argument that Israeli support for Jordan during Black September demonstrated to Washington that Israel could be a useful strategic asset for the United States. But I had not thought about the way in which Israel served as the US proxy in competition with the Soviet Union and its Egyptian proxy and that that might have cemented US-Israeli ties as well.


[1] Steven G. Galpern, ed, Foreign Relations of the United States: Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1969-1972, vol. 23 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2015).

[2] Document 174. Alexis Johnson, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, made a similar point in Document 172. For an op-ed on CIA-PLO contacts that fingers Ali Hassan Salameh, see Kai Bird, “Robert Ames and the CIA’s history of back-channel talks with ‘the bad guys’,” Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2014.

[3] Helms to Kissinger, Document 180, November 5, 1970. See also document 185, November 20, 1970, p. 647.

[4] Document 186, p. 649. Another report suggested the Palestinians meant the portion of the East Bank of Jordan west of the Ramtha-Amman-Ma’an line.

[5] This larger discussion preceded the Fatah contact. See Document 112 (May 7, 1970), Section D on p. 371 (also Sisco in document 114). Also Kissinger comment, briefly, p. 599. Also documents 181, and especially document 182 (November 13, 1970). Document 176 (October 24, 1970) – NSC summary of a longer State paper on US Policy Toward Palestinians.

[6] Document 170, p. 576.

[7] Document 192, December 17, 1970, pp. 673-680. Among others, the meeting included Kissinger, Deputy Secretary of Defense Packard, CIA Director Helms, Harold Saunders, Joseph Sisco, and the Chairman of the JCS.

[8] Document 183, p. 635  (Senior review group meeting, November 13, 1970. Good discussion here of the possible roles of the King and of the fedayeen in future US policy.)

[9] Document 185, p. 647.

[10] Document 182, p. 632.

[11] Document 192, p. 674.

[12] Document 180, p. 617.

Reflecting on Ukraine-Russia

A twitter essay:






How to stop the Israeli occupation: An answer to Corey Robin

Corey Robin asked the following about the ASA’s recent pro-BDS resolution:

For the last month I’ve been responding to critiques and challenges of BDS. Now I have a question for its opponents and critics. What do you propose as an alternative strategy?

I am not sure I am entitled to answer since I have not written any critique of the ASA resolution, but I think you have to ask a prior question. If you are an American academic association and you want the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank to end, what tactics are most likely to work? (No guarantees; history obviously shows coercion can work for a very long time.)

In others words, what is more effective, the ASA endorsing “a boycott of Israeli academic institutions” or the ASA doing something else? I pick something else.

If I were counseling the ASA, I would suggest the following:

1. You are, I imagine, mostly* residents of the United States. If that is the case, the best thing you can do is lobby the US government to change its policy toward Israel-Palestine. However limited, you have access to US halls of power that a Palestinian in Nablus does not. Change your own government. So pass a resolution condemning current US policy. Write. Call. Visit. Donate. Form a PAC. Organize. Vote.

2. Focus on the denial of academic freedom to Palestinian academics and universities. Work to break it down. Hold conferences and workshops with Palestinian professors. Engage in joint projects. Given the difficult travel policies they face, allocate funds to bring them for scholarly exchanges. I do not know what the MLA will ultimately do, but a draft text I saw went more in this direction. A related variant: formally support Israeli academics who oppose the occupation.

3. Publicize and support on-the-ground Palestinian efforts based on non-violent change. People should know about movements in Bil’in and Budrus and Nabi Salih and Sheik Jarrakh and the like.

Make that list the operative part of the resolution, and the ASA will still get a lot of pushback. But the ASA will also have a better chance of effecting meaningful change.

(For the sake of discussion, I set aside the Middlebury objection. That’s a prior issue the ASA has to address.)

* Please correct me if “mostly” is inaccurate.

Some Implications of the Geneva Deal

An interim deal between the P5+1 powers and Iran has just been signed. There is certainly a lot to talk about, but here are some implications for Israel and the American Jewish community.

1. From Israel’s perspective, there are some pretty big holes in the agreement. But that was to be expected: it’s an interim deal only, and could not have addressed all the big issues. The question that Jerusalem will be thinking about for the next six to 12 months is whether it’s a genuinely strong foundation for a final deal, or whether it’s just a façade for Iran to build a nuclear bomb.

2. Given these holes, what does this say about Washington’s commitment to Israeli security? I don’t expect the American-Israeli relationship to stumble or collapse. It’s simply too strong, rooted in too many areas (public opinion, shared interests, strategic cooperation, and more) to fall apart over this single issue.

Nor is there anywhere else Israel can turn for military aid or diplomatic cover. The notion that France could ever have replaced the United States was simply silly; not only are those ties not as intense, but you cannot replace the genuinely special relationship between the U.S. and Israel overnight with a country that is as interested in building ties with Iran as it might be in building them with Israel. And Israeli politics and society is oriented toward the United States, and has been for a long time; shifting such attitudes isn’t easy.

3. It’s unclear how Israel will react in concrete terms to the deal. The choice is between sitting back and letting the deal take its course, with some independent monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program; or continuing to take action against it, through covert means. It’s not an easy choice—doing the latter could prompt Iran to end up pulling out of the agreement, leaving Israel to blame and further isolating it in the international community on this issue.

4. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handled the process leading up the Iran deal badly. In Raphael Ahren’s terms, he gambled and lost. He was belligerent and condescending; he threatened; and he directly called on both Congress and the U.S. Jewish community to fight against their president’s policy because he, Bibi, told them it was wrong.

It’s not clear he would have gotten much better terms, but he would have been more intimately involved in the process, demonstrated Israel is a responsible actor on an issue of critical importance, and been in a stronger position to make demands in the aftermath of the deal. He also would likely have garnered more sympathy for Israel’s position. It’s not that he cried wolf too often, but rather that he did it so belligerently and derisively, even hysterically. He doesn’t care that others started to roll their eyes by the end, but it is a problem if they start to think Israel isn’t being constructive but just obstructive; then it gets shut out of the process. This is important as Iran is now seen as a full partner in this process, rather than just the enemy against which sanctions and threats had to be applied.

Still, Bibi should be content that at least one part of his strategy paid off. It seems clear that without the severe economic sanctions and believable threat of military action, Iran wouldn’t have come to the table. Bibi can build on these in the time leading up to negotiations over a final deal.

5. Don’t expect this to change Israel’s domestic political conditions. Israelis might not be happy with a deal, but plenty of analysts and security officials have said it’s a good deal to begin with; it’s not at all clear that Israelis would vote Bibi out on this issue alone; and there’s still no serious challenger to him and to Likud. And there’s still some time to go before the consequences of the deal will be known and before the outcome of bargaining over a final deal; lots can happen in Israel between now and then to change Israelis’ minds one way or the other. That said, Bibi would be coming up on his fourth term—which would be unprecedented. It’s just as likely that he decision to step down before then or to lose an election would be the result of too much time at the top, rather than Iran.

6. Expect Israel to take a harder line in talks with the Palestinians. Bibi is angry and frustrated with Obama, and already thinks he’s been ignoring Israel’s concerns. It’s not that Bibi will stop the talks, but that he’s likely to become more intransigent.

7. Israel’s and AIPAC’s failure to change President Barack Obama’s mind on the negotiations underlines what serious observers of Jewish lobbying have long know: that the ability to “win” is conditioned by several factors, including external conditions and the determination of the president. Congress has always been more open to AIPAC’s (and other groups’) advocacy; but because Congress’s role in foreign policy is limited, so, too, is the ability to change the president’s mind when he is set on something. The Iran deal and the failure to get Congress to vote yes on Syria strikes are some good recent case studies to use in discussions of how American policy toward the Middle East gets made.

8. On the dynamics in Jewish advocacy more generally: The political polarization of the last several years hasn’t diminished, and that has made it easier for groups on the left and on the right to fight against each other, putting the big centrist groups in the difficult position of trying to maintain a balance between them. But I think the far-right groups (like the Zionist Organization of America and the Emergency Committee for Israel) will be weaker for it. Their loud and ultimately futile opposition to much of the Obama Administration’s agenda has demonstrated that while they get notice (see how often their claims are cited in news accounts), they don’t get results. The big question is whether groups like AIPAC and the ADL will recognize this and adjust their tactics accordingly. The evidence isn’t clear at this point. But like Bibi, they will have much to reflect on in the coming months.