The Middle East Channel

Gen. Dempsey outlines U.S. military options on Syria as Congress supports arming rebels

The Pentagon has given Congress its first detailed list of military options for the United States on Syria. In a three-page letter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey expressed his concerns over U.S. military involvement in the Syrian conflict, saying it would cost billions of dollars and carry significant risk. Dempsey warned of "unintended consequences" and said that once the United States got involved, "deeper involvement" would be hard to avoid. He continued, "We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state." Dempsey outlined costs and risks involved in five military options including arming and training opposition fighters, conducting airstrikes, imposing a no-fly zone, creating buffer zones inside Syria, and controlling chemical weapons. He asserted that going with any of the options would be a political decision, which should not be entered into lightly, and would be "no less than an act of war." In June, the Obama administration committed to supplying arms to rebel fighters, however the measure has been stalled in Congress. On Monday, House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said despite "very strong concerns" the Senate and House intelligence committees had reached a consensus to support the White House's plan to provide weapons to opposition fighters. The timeline for delivery, however, remains unclear.

Headlines

  • Clashes broke out between opponents and supporters of ousted President Morsi across Egypt on Monday continuing into Tuesday with an estimated six people killed near Cairo University.
  • The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a branch of al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for Sunday's attacks in Iraq on the Taji and Abu Ghraib prisons in which dozens of people were killed and over 500 inmates set free.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Kerry is finalizing a team of representatives for Israeli and Palestinian peace talks, but officials would not confirm if former ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, would lead the U.S. negotiating team.
  • Morocco's King Mohammed VI has accepted the resignation of five cabinet ministers from the Istiqlal party, paving the way for Prime Minister Benkirane to form a new government.

Arguments and Analysis

'What America Wants in Egypt' (Anne-Marie Slaughter, Project Syndicate)

"Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's liberal opposition are roundly criticizing the United States. That is hard on Ambassador Anne Patterson, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who just visited Cairo. But it is also evidence that the US is trying to pursue the right policy.

The US is doing its best to support not a particular party, but rather a conception of liberal democracy that entails free and fair elections and a mode of governance that respects and includes minority views and upholds individual rights. To pursue this course, however, will require standing up to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The young people who led Egypt's revolution two and a half years ago have been suspicious of the US for the simple reason that it supported former President Hosni Mubarak's regime for 30 years. From the US perspective, President Barack Obama pivoted quickly from Mubarak to the people; but it did not look that way on Cairo's streets. When the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi was elected President in 2012, many Egyptians assumed that America must have supported him, because they could not imagine that the US would accept a result that it did not want.

When Patterson tried to work with Morsi's government in ways that allowed her to pursue US interests, including pushing for more inclusive and rights-respecting policies, the liberal opposition saw her as supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. But when the US refused to call the Egyptian military's removal of Morsi a coup (a designation that would have required it to cut off the $1.5 billion in aid provided annually to the Egyptian army), Muslim Brotherhood supporters concluded that America supported the army's decision.

So what should the US and other governments that support liberal democracy do now? The answer could affect Egypt's political future and that of countries throughout the region."

'An Opening in Iran' (Cliff Kupchan, The International Herald Tribune)

"When Iran's president-elect Hassan Rouhani takes office on Aug. 3, he will probably bring moderation to at least some aspects of Iranian nuclear policy. It would be tragic if Rouhani's ascent becomes yet another missed opportunity in the U.S.-Iran saga.

Rouhani was elected with a popular mandate to pursue centrist policies and ease the nuclear standoff. He has consistently called for more transparency in Iranian policy in order to show that Iran seeks nuclear energy and not an atomic bomb. He has called for a more prudent negotiating strategy. He has committed himself to improving Iran's economy, and he recognizes that lifting the yoke of sanctions is important to achieving that goal.

But Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will continue to call the shots on nuclear policy, and the common wisdom is that Khamenei is implacably opposed to an agreement. Indeed, Khamenei views the United States with great enmity, and his core constituency -- the Revolutionary Guard -- will be wary of a deal.

But there are reasons for hope. Khamenei must be aware of Iran's dire economic plight, which is in significant part the result of sanctions; the inflation rate is over 40 percent; nearly a quarter of men under the age of 25 are unemployed; and swaths of the economy are failing.

Khamenei is aware of Rouhani's mandate for change, and the election campaign made clear that other powerful groups share Rouhani's views. Khamenei also very likely knows how the new Middle East handles autocrats who completely ignore popular will."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Kerry can restart negotiations, but can he finish them?

After six trips to the Middle East in four months, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's intensive shuttle diplomacy has finally borne fruit. In a major announcement last Friday, the secretary declared that Israeli and Palestinian leaders had "reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations," which have been stalled since September 2010. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could meet in Washington as early as this week.

The fact that bringing the parties back to where they were three years ago is considered a breakthrough is a sign of just how low the bar has dropped. Moreover, while Kerry may have succeeded in getting the parties into negotiations it is far less clear that he can keep them there, much less get them out with an agreement. 

Although details have not yet been made public, the deal reportedly includes a U.S. commitment that negotiations would be based on the 1967 lines and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, but would not require either party to accept any particular provision. In addition to negotiations, Kerry has put together an impressive package of economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and other confidence building measures, including a major prisoner release.

Notwithstanding Kerry's deep personal commitment to a resolution and intimate knowledge of the issues, the current approach does not fundamentally deviate from those of his predecessors. Since the parties are free to accept or reject the "agreed" bases for negotiations, getting back to the negotiating table is still in many ways viewed as an end unto itself. In addition, major structural obstacles remain that could easily derail or at least paralyze the current process.

The two biggest "elephants" in the room relate to the nature of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships themselves. On the one hand, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presides over what may be the most pro-settlement government in Israel's history, several of whose members openly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.

While Obama administration officials may believe they are doing much to restrain Israeli settlement construction, the settlement project today is in fact thriving. Since the start of the year, the Israeli government has approved or otherwise advanced plans for a staggering 15,800 new housing units in settlements throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, part of what Israeli settlement expert Danny Seidemann has called "a settlement surge unprecedented in scope and intensity since 1967." So triumphant has the settlement project become that each of Kerry's most recent visits to the region were met with announcements for new settlement expansion plans (here and here).

Meanwhile, nothing does more to undermine Palestinian confidence in the "peace process" than ongoing Israeli settlement expansion. And nothing does more to undermine the Palestinian leadership's domestic credibility than continuing to engage in a negotiation process while Israel persists in colonizing Palestinian land -- which brings us to Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.

Far from the "state in waiting" many Palestinians had once hoped it would be, today's PA is financially bankrupt, has no functioning parliament, and continues to suffer from a debilitating split between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The notion that such a divided and dysfunctional leadership, which lacks either electoral or consensual legitimacy, would have a mandate to negotiate the sort of wide-ranging compromises that a peace deal with Israel would require is fanciful at best.

Any negotiation process that ignores these two corrosive issues is virtually assured of failure. And failure always comes with a cost. On that score, the playing field is anything but equal. Whereas U.S. and Israeli leaders would likely live to fight another day, the same cannot be said of the current Palestinian leadership. While expectations on all sides remain palpably low, the Palestinians by and large have come to see the peace process as little more than a fig leaf for Israeli settlement expansion and other forms of unilateralism.

Not surprisingly, Palestinian leaders have been reluctant to openly embrace the announcement of imminent negotiations. The prospect of Abbas returning to the negotiations in the face of continued settlement expansion and at a time of unprecedented national disunity is likely to further erode his credibility in the eyes of Palestinians while handing his Hamas opponents some easy ammunition to use against him.

If there is one lesson to be gleaned from the past two decades of failed negotiations it is that trying and failing can do more damage than not trying at all. Whereas the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000 led directly to several years of violence during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, another failed peace process could spell the end of the current Palestinian leadership as well as the prospect of a two state solution. This does not mean negotiations should be put off indefinitely, as many hardliners now seek, only that they be conducted under conditions that are more conducive to success.

If new negotiations are to have any chance of success, the United States must break with the failed policies of the past, including the continued neglect of Israel's ever-expanding settlement enterprise and the ongoing Palestinian division. Short of this, Kerry can only look forward to the same outcome as his predecessors. 

Khaled Elgindy is a Fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He previously served with the Negotiations Support Unit in Ramallah as an advisor to the Palestinian leadership on permanent status negotiations with Israel (2004 -2009) and was a key participant in the Annapolis negotiations launched in November 2007.

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