The Middle East Channel

Stop trying to renegotiate the SOFA

Over the past few weeks, top U.S. officials have started to publicly press the Iraqi government to decide whether it will allow thousands of American troops to stay in the country after the expiration of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) on December 31st. On recent trips to Iraq, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen appeared to signal that the U.S. government desires a continued American military presence past the end of the year. "Time is short for any negotiations to occur," Admiral Mullen warned last week.

In one sense there is less here than meets the eye. Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen are probably less concerned with whether Iraq wants the troops or not than with simply getting an answer for practical purposes. Complying with the SOFA's requirement that all American troops leave is a massive logistical undertaking, and it would be much better to know whether a residual force will be needed before the final stages of withdrawal begin in earnest this summer. Any extension of the U.S. military presence if troops were to remain past the 2011 withdrawal deadline requires a request by the Iraqi government. U.S. officials hoped that the Iraqi government would share their own assessment of the lack of readiness of the country's security forces and ask for a continued presence sufficiently far in advance of the deadline to enable an orderly transition. Instead, the Iraqi government has been bogged down in its own internal troubles and has made no official moves toward renegotiating.

But the problem is that, while cajoling Iraq into giving an answer, American leaders send a counterproductive, if unintended, signal that the United States wants a longer-term military presence. To be sure, there is some basis for such a position: a residual American force could continue to train Iraqi forces, provide intelligence and other important support capabilities, and, in northern Iraq, help maintain the peace between the forces of Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish government. Iraq is also incapable of defending its borders and airspace from external threats. Yet however well-intentioned or seemingly obvious these arguments seem in Washington, they are unlikely to sway the Iraqi government because they ignore the domestic imperatives faced by Iraq's political leaders.

The U.S. military presence is and always has been unpopular, and the politicians in power have strong incentives to appear independent and unyielding in dealings with the United States. The constituency that supports maintaining American troops in the country -- which includes Kurds, some Sunni Arab factions, and parts of the security establishment -- is small compared to the broad-based view that it is past time for American forces to leave. Even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has an ironic record of portraying himself as the country's liberator from American occupation. Secretary Gates' suggestion that U.S. troops could stay longer prompted protests across Baghdad and warnings from influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that a continued presence would reignite violent resistance. Al-Sadr's loyalists comprise a key component of al-Maliki's governing coalition, which helps explain why the Prime Minister has been adamant that the deal is "not subject to extension [or] alteration."

As seen from Baghdad today, the greatest threat to stability in Iraq is not terrorism, foreign invasion, or even the simmering dispute with the Kurds; it is the prospect of the same kind popular unrest that has already toppled or threatened governments across the Middle East. Major protests have already rocked the country over the past two months as the people demanded that the government provide services that it promised. These protests were serious enough to prompt the government to delay the purchase of F-16 fighter aircraft in favor of spending the money on food supplies, perhaps the strongest possible signal that Baghdad fears domestic uprisings far more than traditional security threats. Delaying the U.S. military's withdrawal is almost certain to generate more popular outrage, possibly culminating in a return of anti-government militia violence as threatened by al-Sadr. From Baghdad's perspective, agreeing to an extended American military presence seems more dangerous than taking a chance on the readiness of Iraqi security forces.

Recognizing this calculus, the United States needs to focus primarily on a long-term political and security partnership with Iraq rather than worrying about gaining approval for a residual force. A continued troop presence, if it were even possible to reach an agreement on that, would essentially be another stop-gap security measure; but The United States needs to find innovative ways to offset the loss of troop presence. These include long-term security assistance programs that the United States uses to cultivate strategic partnerships and strong military-to-military ties around the globe, such as major arms sales aimed at enhancing Iraq's conventional military capacity and International Military Education and Training, which would support Iraqi military officers receiving training from U.S. military institutions. In particular, the Embassy in Baghdad is to include a robust Office of Security Cooperation (OSC-I) to oversee U.S. assistance to Iraqi security forces though the State and Defense Departments do not appear to have agreed upon the office's structure, manning, and capabilities.

The State Department and the Pentagon should also explore advisory functions that could be continued under OSC-I auspices, even in a more limited way. For example, the Defense Department has initiated a Ministry of Defense Advisors program that sends civilian officials from the Pentagon to mentor high-level officials in the defense ministry; such a program could be equally beneficial for Iraq, and could be offered as an additional form of security assistance through the OSC-I. Additionally, the Embassy plans to have some distributed field presence in northern Iraq; these regional offices could provide bases for a small number of American personnel to observe and report on the continuation of cooperative security measures between Kurdish and Iraqi national forces.

Furthermore, some key services that the U.S. military provides the Iraqi security forces, specifically intelligence and air support, do not need to be based within the country's borders. There are facilities in Kuwait or elsewhere in the region that could be used to house intelligence analysis activities for Iraq. Combat and logistical air support could also be based outside Iraq, though it would obviously be less responsive to emergency situations.

This approach certainly assumes risk by placing full responsibility for internal security on the Iraqi forces before they reach maximum levels of capability and competence. A continued troop presence may provide some limited security benefits and a false peace of mind to U.S. policymakers but would just as likely provoke more popular unrest and violence -- the last thing the United States needs in the region at this time. It is time to look toward a new U.S.-Iraq partnership rather than holding onto the vestiges of the old one.

Brian Burton is the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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The Middle East Channel

Crunch-time for the Syrian regime

Seen from Damascus, the crisis that is gripping Syria is fast approaching crunch-time. The regime appears to have stopped pretending it can offer a way out. More than ever, it portrays the confrontation as a war waged against a multifaceted foreign enemy which it blames for all casualties. This narrative, which informs the security services' brutal response to protests, has cost the authorities the decisive battle for perceptions abroad, at home, and even in central Damascus -- a rare bubble of relative calm that has now entered into a state of utter confusion. 

The primary benefit of observing events from the Syrian capital is to measure just how unreliable all sources of information have become. Local media tell a tale of accusations and denials in which, incredibly, security services are the sole victims, persecuted by armed gangs. Where the regime initially acknowledged civilian martyrs and sought to differentiate between legitimate grievances and what it characterized as sedition, such efforts have come to an end.

For its part, the foreign media, denied access by the regime, relies virtually exclusively on material produced by on-the-ground protesters, the dependability of which has proven uneven. The novel phenomenon of "eye-witnesses" further blurs the picture. Outside observers have sought to counter the state-imposed blackout by recruiting correspondents, often haphazardly, flooding the country with satellite phones and modems. Several cases of false testimonies have cast doubts on such procedures but, for lack of an alternative, they largely continue to shape coverage of events.  

Under the circumstances, Damascenes have but one option: to work the phones, calling relatives, friends, and colleagues throughout the country in a desperate attempt to form their own opinion. They hear and tell stories that are self-contradictory. Some tend to confirm the existence of armed agents provocateurs; many others credibly blame the regime for the bulk of the violence. Instances of sectarian polarization surface in some areas, while examples of cross-community solidarity burgeon in others. Neighbors often provide inconsistent accounts while people who share socio-economic backgrounds react to similar events in contrasting ways. 

Such chaos is inherent in times of crisis, but it also is a reflection of the profound mistrust between citizens and their state, which has failed to offer any point of reference around which undecided Syrians could rally. To the contrary: the regime has systematically fostered a sense of bewilderment and anxiety. Most damaging of all has been the constant contradiction between its words and deeds.

Regime assertions notwithstanding, evidence regarding excessive use of force by security forces in circumstances that cannot plausibly be described as representing an immediate threat is piling up. Given the extraordinary deployment of forces and security lockdown in and around the capital last weekend, it is simply impossible to imagine that so-called agitators could be behind the bloodshed. Even where the regime's responsibility in both the onset and escalation of confrontation is beyond doubt, as in the southern city of Deraa, the regime feels the need to undertake an endless "investigation" before holding anyone accountable, even as arbitrary arrests remain the norm when dealing with protesters.

On the political front, the regime has lifted the emergency law but allows security services to conduct business as usual, illustrating how irrelevant the concept of legality was in the first place. It authorizes demonstrations while stating they are no longer needed and labeling them as seditious. It speaks of reforming the media and, in the same breath, fires an oh-so-loyal editor-in-chief for straying from the official line. It insists on ignoring the most outrageous symbols of corruption. It promises a multi-party law even as it proves how little power is vested in civilian institutions. Finally, and although it has engaged in numerous bilateral talks with local representatives, it resists convening a national dialogue, which might offer a slim chance of finding an inclusive and credible way forward. 

In more parts of the country than one can count, protesters now face only the most brutal, repressive side of the regime. For those who mourn the dead and know them not as saboteurs and traitors, but as relatives, neighbors, and friends, there is nothing left to discuss. Slowly but surely, these ink spots of radicalized opposition are spreading and joining in an increasingly determined and coordinated movement to topple the regime.

Many Syrians -- even among those without sympathy for the regime -- still resist this conclusion. Their arguments should not be ignored. They dread the breakup of a state whose institutions, including the military, are weak even by regional standards. They fear that sectarian dynamics or a hegemonic religious agenda could take hold. They suspect Syria would cave in to foreign interference. And they distrust an exiled opposition that is all too reminiscent of Iraq's.

The regime appears to be calculating that the prospect of a bloodbath will prove the strongest argument of all. The scenario is both risky and self-defeating, for if it will be a tragedy for the Syrian people, it will also spell disaster for the regime itself.  Instead, it should immediately rein in security services, take decisive action against those responsible for state violence, and initiate a genuine, all-inclusive national dialogue. This could provide an opportunity for representatives of the popular movement to emerge, for their demands to be fleshed out, and for authorities to demonstrate they have more to offer than empty words and certain doom.

Peter Harling is the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon project director with the International Crisis Group

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