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Calm in the East China Sea?: What to Make of Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping's Recent Meeting

The Buzz

Despite the hype, widespread media reports calling Beijing’s and Tokyo’s simultaneous November 7 declarations on “improving Japan-China relations” a “joint statement” are inaccurate. Calling them a “breakthrough” is, at best, premature. Together with the brief and chilly summit meeting between Chinese president Xi Jinping and Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo in Beijing this past Monday, the developments of the past week constitute only a tentative first step toward a possible, and explicitly “gradual,” return to normalcy in relations between the world’s second- and third-largest economies. Indeed, Xi’s reportedly cold reception of Abe during the APEC 2014 meeting in Beijing makes clear that political relations, even if no longer frozen, remain on ice.

Much work must be done to achieve a desperately needed, but politically difficult, sustainable thaw. With Sino-Japanese relations arguably having reached a postwar nadir the past two years, in large part because of disputes over history and what each side sees as the other’s provocative behavior vis-à-vis contested islands in the East China Sea, the continued peace and growing prosperity of East Asia depends on proactive leadership and statesmen determined to guarantee it.

As far as the prospects for this, despite much with which to be pleased, the past week’s developments, coupled with the lessons of recent history, are sobering. For starters, a point-by-point comparative analysis of the statements released by China (Chinese /English) and Japan (Japanese/English) in Chinese, Japanese and English leaves significant grounds for skepticism about the prospects for a fundamental, long-term, sustainable break through the unfortunate impasse that has plagued Sino-Japanese relations. Despite clever diplomatic wordplay and politically expedient spin—especially in Beijing—no four-point agreement, much less an alleged “principled consensus,” has been reached. Rather, each government effectively released its own separate statement. Analyses based exclusively on one side’s statement are incomplete, if not misleading.

Read the Lines, and Between Them

While the spirit of Beijing’s and Tokyo’s simultaneous declarations may convey consensus, their letter does not. Despite some important (and positive) overlap in substance, last Friday’s statements remain more significant for what went unsaid. Subtle, but major, differences in wording make clear that the most contentious issues in Sino-Japanese relations persist.

For starters, and contrary to earlier, ambiguously sourced reports suggesting that Tokyo would acknowledge the existence of a sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands in the East China Sea in exchange for a bilateral summit, Abe did not “cave” in to pressure from Xi. Contrary to reports on last Friday’s agreement from major global news publications, including theNew York Times and the Associated Press, the two sides did not simply “agree to disagree,” nor did Tokyo “acknowledge differing views over the status of the islands” in a “concession likely to please Beijing.” Since Abe also made no explicit vow to refrain from again visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine as prime minister, Tokyo appears to have not met either of Beijing’s repeatedly stated preconditions for a resumption of normalized, high-level political dialogue. Accordingly, claims of a major concession from Tokyo or, conversely, a major diplomatic coup for Beijing, are significantly off the mark. For its part, Beijing made no commitment to reduce, much less cease, what Tokyo sees as provocative and dangerous maneuvers of Chinese vessels and planes into waters and airspace around the contested islands. While the shared commitment expressed in the statements to improve crisis management is laudable, despite some reports to the contrary, this pledge remains rhetorical. The two sides have been talking about related measures for over a decade, with only limited fruit borne. One can only hope this time is different, as the ability of the two sides to effectively manage a crisis remains a major concern.

That no announcement of more substantive achievements was saved for Monday’s summit meeting is a sobering reminder that despite positive developments over the past week, the fundamental problems making the East China Sea one of the world’s most worrisome flashpoints remain unresolved.

A Ray of Hope?

To be sure, that a summit—however brief—occurred for the first time since both leaders took office roughly two years ago, and despite Abe’s unwillingness to meet Xi’s two major conditions, is certainly a positive sign. Dormant lines of high-level political communication are gradually reopening. Indeed, Tokyo and Beijing should be applauded for achieving a creative, diplomatic and (arguably) mutually face-saving first step out of a two-year-old impasse that has seen political relations reach a postwar nadir and international concerns about the risks of a Sino-Japanese military conflict climb to an unprecedented high. But last Friday’s “agreement” is no panacea—more a temporary expedient. Without sustained political will to keep the ball of progress rolling, its medium- and long-term benefits are in doubt.

Going forward, far more important than the specific text of any statement is how bilateral frictions will be managed in practice. Most pressing: Will high-level, regular bilateral political dialogue and summitry resume immediately or will such crucial exchanges continue to be held hostage by interpretations of history and domestic political conditions? Will Chinese ships and planes cease frequent encroachments into waters and airspace surrounding islands that—regardless of one’s view on the sovereignty question—have been under Tokyo’s effective control for decades? Have we seen the last news story from either side about a dangerous mid-air intercept or China’s “lighting up” of Japanese naval platforms with fire-control radar?

Perhaps most importantly, can the two sides find the political will necessary to immediately establish sustainable and effective mechanisms to ensure that any future incidents in the air or at sea do not escalate into a military conflict? Beijing’s agreement to reactivate talks—repeatedly requested by Tokyo—is an encouraging sign. But when it comes to crisis management in the East China Sea, talk is cheap. The proof will be in whether leaders introduce the political and institutional reforms necessary to actually implement effective crisis management. Particularly in Beijing’s case, as the Chinese saying goes, “saying is easy, doing is not so simple.”

Plus ça change…?

The ice between Beijing and Tokyo has “melted” before, only to refreeze colder and harder. Indeed, recent developments recall the period of Abe’s previous stint as Japan’s prime minister—a one-year period during which he did not visit Yasukuni Shrine, but did make controversial comments about other historical issues, and during which China’s assertion of its claim to islands in the East China Sea, while troubling to Tokyo, was not seen as nearly as provocative as its behavior today.

In 2007, then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao visited Japan—and Abe—and addressed the Japanese Diet in a speech broadcast live in both countries. In a development widely seen as marking the dawn of a new era, Wen acknowledged Japan’s past apologies for its wartime behavior and expressed gratitude for Japan’s “support and assistance” in China’s reform and modernization. Then, as now, the Abe-Wen meeting was referred to as “ice-melting.” Then, as now, Abe referred to his meeting with a top Chinese leader as "a big step forward" toward fostering a "strategic relationship of mutual benefit.” Indeed, there was a great deal of optimism, to the extent that Japan’s chief cabinet secretary boldly declared “We’re not aware of any remaining ice.”

Yet the effect of these positive developments on the major irritants and dangers in bilateral relations proved abortive. A landmark agreement the following year to jointly explore oil and gas resources in the East China Sea is moribund. Repeated efforts to enhance maritime confidence and crisis management have borne limited fruit.

Tying Their Hands More Tightly?

Although seemingly a net positive for bilateral relations today, by enabling an at least symbolically significant summit this week, over a longer time horizon, the disparate content of the different statements released by Tokyo and Beijing last Friday is worrisome. Indeed, less than twenty-four hours after the ink had dried on the November 7 statements, Chinese scholars at state-affiliated think tanks and official media claimed that Japan had formally acknowledged the existence of a sovereignty dispute over the islands. Yet even the text of Beijing’s own official statement makes no such a claim. Tokyo’s version does not even refer directly to the islands themselves, much less acknowledge a “dispute” of any kind—least of all over sovereignty—a stance since reiterated by Japanese Cabinet officials. This all leaves ground for serious concern that what appears to be very clever diplomacy today may ultimately prove a mere expedient and temporary pause to underlying tensions. Worse, Beijing may be inflating domestic expectations about concessions from Tokyo that, when revealed to be phantoms, could backfire, effectively sharpening this thorn in the side of the frustratingly volatile relationship between Tokyo and Beijing.

End This Unsustainable Status Quo

If nothing else, the dangerously and increasingly crowded waters and airspace in the East China Sea demand a true bilateral modus vivendi that no longer allows political relations and dialogue to be held hostage to the (de facto) dispute itself and the vicissitudes of domestic political conditions. Severe circumstances demand true statesmenship and political leaders willing to exercise proactive leadership and to burn the domestic political capital necessary to create the enabling conditions to melt the ice. Most urgently, Beijing and Tokyo must fulfill their shared November 7 pledge and immediately adopt concrete measures to significantly reduce the risk of a low-level incident between vessels or planes escalating into a military clash. Neither country, much less the region or world, can afford the alternative. Too many important bilateral, regional and global issues demand the attention of Beijing and Tokyo, who should be working in constructive partnership to help solve them.

One can only hope that winter in Northeast Asia this year will prove unexpectedly warm.

Adam P. Liff is Assistant Professor of East Asian International Relations at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program, and Associate-in-Research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies.

TopicsForeign PolicyDiplomacy RegionsChinaJapan

Explained: Why a U.S.-China "Cold War" in Cyberspace Is Not Happening

The Buzz

Describing cyber activities by the US and China as a new Cold War in cyberspace is hyperbolic and inaccurate. The relationship between the US and China and the international environment for this relationship are very different from the Cold War, when relations and contacts with the Soviet Union were extremely limited and there was no economic interdependence or interconnection. There have been none of the threats, ideological challenges or proxy conflicts that characterized the Cold War.

The US has sought to avoid a military focus in its cybersecurity efforts. It has cast China’s cyber espionage as a commercial matter (Treasury Secretary Lew has told China’s President that cyberattacks are ‘a very serious threat to our economic interests’). For example, the US indictments of People’s Liberation Army officers for cyber espionage focused intentionally on trade and economic crimes to avoid any implication that this was a military contest.

China has never used “force” (defined as acts of violence) against the US in cyberspace; it will use cyberattack against US military forces in any clash, but espionage isn’t war—if it were grounds for war, the US would find itself at war with many countries. Both China and the US have implicitly avoided truly damaging attacks or military confrontation in cyberspace, each restricting its activities to espionage. Espionage isn’t a crime under international law, and it’s not in the US interest to make it so. Dealing with China’s cyber espionage requires a sustained effort to construct norms and persuade China to observe them, to create consequences for Chinese actions, and to improve cyber defences in the interim.

This is a much more complex relationship than the Cold War. Managing the trajectory of US–China relations to avoid conflict will be difficult, and Chinese misconceptions about international affairs and American intentions only complicate the task. Similar misconceptions about economic warfare on the US side don’t help to manage the relationship. China’s best seen as the most assertive and the most potent of a number of new powers that challenge the existing international order and the American role in it. The long-term goal for the US and other Western nations is to bring China into the international “system” of rules that govern state behavior, and that means persuading it to get its “cheating” in trade and in cyberspace under control. Some economic tools, such as sanctions, would be useful in applying pressure to China, but military force has very little utility.

Gigantic, secret conspiracies are a staple of pulp fiction. In practice, they’re impossible to sustain on any grand scale. Belief in a Chinese grand strategy of economic warfare against the US assumes that beneath China’s almost chaotic and hypercompetitive growth there’s some hidden agenda, and that China could develop a secret plan to achieve it and keep the plan secret across four different leaders for more than 25 years.

The frequent references to a Chinese grand strategy reflect an ingenious effort to explain Chinese actions. They also reflect the deep unease China’s growth has created, given the discrepancy between its promises of a peaceful rise and its acts of assertive self-interest. When the Chinese accuse the US of having a grand strategy, it amuses most Americans. The US doesn’t have one, but it does have consistent interests and a common approach to problems shaped by its ideology and politics. The same is true for China.

We can impose an artificial order on a complex international problem by ascribing Chinese actions to economic warfare, but the reality, unfortunately, is much more difficult. In struggling to define conflict in an era in which the use of force is more expensive, more dangerous, and therefore less often resorted to by states, the war metaphor can be appealing, but it’s not a helpful guide for policy. We could argue that China is simultaneously attempting to build its economy and weaken opponents, but that would involve damaging its major markets and sources of finance.

If our choice in explaining Chinese behavior is between commercial motives and deliberate geopolitical strategy, the former better explains actions and events.

James A. Lewis is an ASPI-ICPC International Fellow. He is senior fellow and director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at CSIS, where he writes on technology, security, and the international economy.

This is an excerpt from ASPI’s latest Special Report, China’s cyberpower: international and domestic priorities, released today and originally published in ASPI’s Strategist here.

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Did China and America Just Save the Planet? Breaking Down the Big Climate Announcement

The Buzz

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping surprised even the closest climate watchers last night when they jointly announced new emissions-cutting goals for the United States and China. This is a serious diplomatic breakthrough after years of unsuccessful efforts to do something big and joint that goes beyond clean energy cooperation and gets to one of the most sensitive parts of climate policy. What it ultimately means for emissions, of course, will be determined over many years.

What exactly is the significance of the news? It will take time (and fleshing out of details) to fully assess the two countries’ proposals. But there are already three big takeaways that can be discerned.

China is now approaching international climate diplomacy differently from – and more constructively than – before:

The Chinese announcement promises to peak emissions “around” 2030 and to try to beat that deadline. It also articulates a goal of boosting non-fossil energy to twenty percent of Chinese fuel. People will pore over these numbers (and I’ll say something about them below). But perhaps the most striking thing about them is simply that they’re genuinely new. In 2009, when China announced a goal of cutting emissions intensity by 40-45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, many analysts (myself included) noted that they contained no ambition to move beyond “business as usual” estimates for future Chinese emissions. Not this time around: for China to peak its emissions by 2030, it would need to depart significantly from the path that most analysts currently expect. That alone is a big deal.

The way that the Chinese goals were developed and announced, though, is as important as their substance.

China has typically gone out of its way to assert its independence in anything climate-related. That approach would usually have led it to announce major goals like these in a clearly unilateral context – even if they were developed in tandem with the United States. Rolling them out together with the United States says that China is increasingly comfortable being seen to act as part of an international effort.

Indeed that may be part of the point here. Xi appears at least somewhat sensitive to historical patterns of conflict between established and rising powers. Amidst broad tensions between the United States and China, climate change is increasingly an area of relatively constructive dialogue, which makes it worth highlighting. A joint announcement does exactly that.

One also has to wonder what domestic dynamics are at work here. One plausible theory for why Xi made the announcement in an international context is that the transformations he seeks in order to achieve Chinese climate goals are also ones he wants to pursue for other economic, environmental, or strategic reasons anyhow (for example, reducing local air pollution). Making a firm and international commitment to this can strengthen his hand against those at home who oppose such moves.

The U.S. target looks like it’s going to be really tough to meet without new laws:

The United States promised to cut emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and to try to get to a 28 percent cut. (Notice a pattern – baseline and stretch goals – between the United States and China?) If the United States hits its current target – 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 – on the head, it will need to cut emissions by 2.3-2.8 percent annually between 2020 and 2025, a much faster pace than what’s being targeted through 2020. That is a mighty demanding goal. It will be particularly challenging to meet using existing legal authority – which the administration says can be done.

My understanding is that the numbers were arrived at through careful bottom-up analysis of the U.S. economy and of legal authorities over an extended period of time. But technically possible and politically likely are two different standards. One useful point of comparison is the Waxman-Markey legislation. That bill would have required a 30 percent emissions cut by 2025, but a large slice (perhaps more than half) of the reduction was expected to be met through international offsets. The new targets thus far exceed Waxman-Markey in domestic ambition.

That doesn’t prove, of course, that the new targets will be tough to meet; the world has changed a lot in the last five years. So let’s drill down on some details.

One thing that’s straightforward to infer from the announcement is that any effort to meet the new goals will need to lean disproportionately on measures to reduce emissions of non-CO2 gases and increase the U.S. carbon sink (the latter of which is mostly beyond the influence of policy). This is clear once one observes that a 26 percent cut in CO2 emissions in energy alone would require slashing power plant coal use by somewhere around 75 percent by 2025 (barring some sort of radical and unexpected change in the transportation sector). I would normally sound a major warning note on reliance on cutting non-CO2 gases, since it’s wrong to trade cuts in carbon dioxide for cuts in shorter-lived forcers. In this case, though, it’s probably wrong to look at this as a set of tradeoffs; instead the administration appears to be putting forward the most it thinks it can do on all fronts.

It’s also worth observing is that achieving these goals will almost certainly require changes to the implementation of the EPA power plant regulations. This would be particularly true if the automobile fuel economy rules are relaxed when they’re reviewed in a few years. The EPA power plant rules as they’re currently proposed are already spurring plenty of pushback; pressing them further will be a tall political and technical task. In particular, it’s near-impossible to imagine achieving these goals simply with actions taken during the Obama administration. President Obama’s administration may have developed and negotiated these numbers, but his successor will determine whether they’re achieved.

One last note on the U.S. numbers: The fact that they’re a stretch doesn’t mean that they’re bad. Stretch goals can motivate policymaking. And few people thought, back in 2009, that the United States could cut emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 using existing authorities, something that’s now seen to be perfectly feasible. Big numbers can, however, create big backlash, which is something to watch out for.

The potential scale of the Chinese plan, though, dwarfs all of this – as do the associated uncertainties:

The difference between a 26 and a 28 percent cut in U.S. emissions is on the order of 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. That’s smaller than the EIA’s projected annual growth in Chinese energy emissions for each year between 2025 and 2030. Very loosely speaking, a mere one-year shift in the Chinese peaking year could matter at least as much to global emissions as the difference between the various U.S. targets that have now been announced.

And then there’s the matter not of when Chinese emissions peak but where they peak. Do they peak 25 percent above current levels? 15 percent? 10 percent? That makes an enormous difference for global emissions. I suspect that one can make some inferences from the target for zero-emissions energy that the Chinese announced; perhaps more on that in another post. At least one big hint at where Chinese leaders hope to land should come next year if they announce a carbon intensity target (something they seemed to indicate was in the works at the UN in September). One way of getting some insight might be from a recent MIT-Tsinghua study that models a scenario with Chinese peaking in 2030. It uses a $38/ton carbon tax to get there and peaks at 17 percent above current levels. It would not be a surprise if that analysis was one of many that informed Chinese decision-making.

I wouldn’t expect much more negotiation over either U.S. or Chinese targets, even though European leaders may want to have a discussion. Over the next year, rather than focus on any haggling over emissions numbers, it will be worth watching three things. What will the remaining details of the Chinese plan look like? How will the U.S. goals be received politically – and could they spook a Congress currently considering how much to try to interfere with pending EPA regulations? And, perhaps most important, could this display of pragmatic U.S.-China diplomatic cooperation be a sign of more to come in international climate change diplomacy – which will need to go well beyond target-setting – over the coming year?

This piece first appeared courtesy of CFR’s blog Energy, Security and Climate.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsClimate Change RegionsUnited States

If Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Is Dead: Could This Be the End of ISIS?

The Buzz

Numerous news outlets have reported that the U.S.-led coalition operating in Iraq and Syria may have injured or killed the overall leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an air strike near Mosul. If this is true, it is welcome news, but it will not signal the end of the movement. Instead, this is a significant part of the overall military strategy to apply broad pressure to ISIS and halt its momentum. Over the long run, stopping ISIS will require alleviating the underlying conditions that drive violence and gave rise to the movement in the first place. While the outside world can help create the necessary conditions, only repudiation by the local population will kill ISIS.

The best research on the subject shows that attacking individual enemy leaders is very difficult to do and often requires an intense intelligence-gathering effort combined with good luck. Moreover, while successful attacks can weaken a terrorist organization—sometimes dramatically—this approach is not a panacea; a broader strategy is still necessary.

With history as our guide, we should expect the following regarding ISIS and al-Baghdadi:

1.  The loss of leaders will weaken ISIS:

Leadership is essential for successful military organizations and solid leadership has been a major factor in the impressive rise of ISIS. There have been reports that several leaders were injured or killed in the attack, including subordinate leaders that take broad guidance and put it into action. The loss of mid-level leaders can be even more devastating to an organization than the loss of the top leader, as the ability to translate between strategic guidance and tactical action is both difficult and necessary for success. If it has lost these leaders, ISIS will be hurting for a while.

2.  But don’t expect ISIS to crumble:

Attacking an enemy leader rarely brings down the organization. It is more likely that a group like ISIS will find replacement leaders and reinvent itself. Indeed, this is what happened with Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after the United States killed its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006. While this hurt AQI in the short run, the organization eventually reinvented itself under al-Baghdadi and became ISIS.

3. Now is the time to apply maximum pressure:

Leadership attacks work best as part of a strategy that applies broad pressure to an organization. For anti-ISIS operations, this includes attacking ISIS forces, supply lines, recruitment, sources of income, bases, training camps, headquarters, infrastructure, and command and control networks. Organizations will often begin to crack under the strain of  intense and constant pressure, exposing weaknesses that agile militaries can exploit. Sustained pressure may weaken ISIS sufficiently to buy time for local and regional leaders to address the underlying conditions that initially gave rise to the group.

4. The defeat of ISIS requires the population to reject it as a movement:

The only way that ISIS dies is for its constituency to reject it as a legitimate organization. This will require mitigating the factors that ISIS exploited to gain power in the first place. While there are things that the United States can do to help create the conditions for this to happen, including encouragement of a more conciliatory approach to governing in Baghdad, the ultimate solution has to come from the people themselves as they reject the bankrupt approach of ISIS in favor of a more promising future.

This appears courtesy of CFR’s blog Defense in Depth.

Image: US Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsISIS

Are Some Members of the Obama Admin. Starting to Question the White House Strategy on Syria?

The Buzz

Are some members of the Obama administration starting to question the White House strategy on Syria?  If the leakage coming out of the press over the last several weeks is accurate, the answer is a resounding yes.

In an article about President Obama’s Syria dilemma in The Los Angeles Times, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is reported to believe that the plan to combat both the Islamic State and the Assad regime is suffering from a severe lack of clarity and focus.  “Pentagon concerns have grown so sharp,” the Times reported on October 30, “that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent a two-page memo to the White House last week warning that the overall plan could collapse because U.S. intentions toward Syrian President Bashar Assad are unclear.”

CNN posted a similar story on the same day, with a little more detail as to what Hagel’s memo to National Security Adviser Susan Rice consisted of.  “The focus of the memo,” according to an administration official, “was "we need to have a sharper view of what to do about the Assad regime."  The official refused to provide additional details, but did not disagree with the notion that Hagel feels the U.S. is risking its gains in the war against ISIS if adjustments are not made.”

For an administration that suffered a huge electoral setback during the midterms, the existence of a critical memo by the Pentagon’s top civilian official—and the reporting of that memo in the news media—is the last thing that the White House wanted.  Fortunately for the president and his national security team, the contents of that memo have not been disclosed, and are unlikely to be absent a massive breach of administration protocol.  Yet just because Hagel’s memo hasn’t been released doesn’t mean that we can’t speculate about what the Defense Secretary was trying to drill home to the White House.

Here’s my guess at what it says:

Susan, to put the matter is the clearest terms possible, our policy on Syria needs a serious rethink and an in-depth inter-agency review if we have any chance at accomplishing the twin goals that we have set out: degrading and destroying the Islamic State and transitioning Syria into a democratic state that respects the rights of its people.  This review should include, but not be limited to, what our efforts have accomplished thus far; what more can be done to persuade U.S. allies in the region that an increase in their contributions to the anti-ISIL campaign is in their interest; how we can broaden and sustain the alliance that has been assembled over the past three months; and whether the United States needs to do more to ensure that the Assad regime is weakened to a point where political negotiations inside Syria become possible.

Although the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is clearly our main line of effort, both militarily and diplomatically, I remain deeply concerned that the administration—the National Security Council, the Pentagon and State Department included—has relegated the ouster of Bashar al-Assad and his regime to a distant second in the list of overall priorities for Syria.  However brutal and inhumane ISIL is, it is the Assad regime that has killed far more civilians over the past three and a half years.  Current government figures estimate that approximately 200,000 Syrians have been killed since the war erupted in 2011, and that number is most likely a conservative estimate.  Our Arab partners are ahead of the curve on the Assad problem and have vocally expressed their reservations to me in private that the United States does not appear committed to transitioning Syria to a post-Assad future.  The administration’s actions since the anti-ISIL campaign started on August 7 have done nothing to alleviate those assumptions.

Despite our best intentions, we are effectively helping Bashar al-Assad, his army, and his militia forces in the broader civil war.  By bombing ISIL targets from the air, we are weakening the biggest military threat that the Assad regime faces on the battlefield.  This does not mean that we should slow down the pace of U.S. and coalition operations against ISIL targets in Syria, but rather that we should redouble our efforts in order to accomplish an objective that the president himself articulated over three years ago: the removal of Assad from power.

Bashar al-Assad is clearly taking advantage of our efforts to eradicate ISIL from Syria.  Since late September, the Syrian Air Force has moved assets from the eastern section of the country towards the populous western corridor between Damascus and the Latakia coastline, encircling Aleppo and deploying regime aircraft to bomb and strafe positions held by the Free Syrian Army.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented over 400 barrel bomb airstrikes in a two-week period, many of which were aimed in areas with a significant moderate rebel and civilian presence.  Over the short-term, Assad is in fact improving his military position on the ground.

As long as this situation persists, our Arab allies (particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Qatar) will continue to doubt our resolve in getting rid of the Assad regime, and this will no doubt complicate our efforts to maintain the regional coalition that we have built to tackle ISIL.  Turkey and Saudi Arabia will be more likely to contribute and cooperate if they see Washington taking a firm stance on Syria’s long-term future.

I request an urgent meeting of the National Security Council principles to discuss all of these concerns at the earliest possible date, with the following questions in mind:

1- Are we still committed to forcing Bashar al-Assad to step down?

2-  Is the train-and-equip program scheduled to begin in Saudi Arabia and Turkey large enough to make a difference in the battle against ISIL.

3- Should those being trained by our forces have an expanded mandate to fight Assad regime forces as well as ISIL militants, and if so, how much additional funding will be required and how many Syrian moderate forces will need to be trained and deployed to meet this change in mission?

4-  How can we better coordinate and communicate with remnants of the Free Syrian Army who are already engaged in combat on the ground?  If we aren’t sufficiently sharing intelligence with them, why continue to provide small arms and non-lethal equipment to these ad-hoc forces?

TopicsSecurity RegionsSyria

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