February 15, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - Washington Dithers on the Road to Damascus


Next month will mark the end of the seventh year of civil war in Syria. What began as street-level protests in a few cities has grown into conflict that has devastated the country and its people, half of whom are displaced from their homes. In recent weeks, the war has turned yet again, and in at least three new directions.

First, with the Bashar al-Assad regime more secure in power than at any time in the last five years, and with Russia and Iran making sure it is so, Assad’s army has intensified its fighting and expanded its ambitions beyond just survival. It is trying to oust opposition forces in the last remaining redoubts in the northwest and around Damascus, causing 300,000 more people to flee for their safety. And it is beginning to challenge the strongholds of Kurdish and other opposition forces supported by US special forces.

Second, a new offensive in northern Syria threatens to put Turkey in direct conflict with US-backed Kurdish forces, and possibly even lead to direct confrontation between US and Turkish forces. Avoiding a dangerous row with Ankara has been the subject of very high-level diplomacy this week, with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster visiting Turkey over the weekend and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson going on Friday. In Brussels, meanwhile, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with his Turkish counterpart at NATO to try and contain the situation.

Third, Israel is now taking a stronger stance to ensure its security. Recent air strikes by Israel in Syria, the largest since the early 1980s, come after months of warnings from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government that the Iranian positions in Syria were too close to the border and Tehran’s influence in Syria was becoming too great. Both Russia and the United States ignored these warnings for too long, so Israeli forces entered the fray in a big way.

These developments are all rather clear. What’s not clear, however, is what Washington wants to achieve in Syria.

At times the United States has edged toward greater involvement. At Stanford University last month, Secretary Tillerson said US troops would stay in Syria for the long haul, calling a continued military presence “vital” for America. Toward this end the Pentagon has drawn up plans to train a 30,000-strong “border force” composed of Syrian resistance forces in the north (much to the chagrin of Turkey). Yet at other times the United States has disengaged. Washington did not participate in the recent Sochi diplomatic talks, for example. (Nor did the main Syrian opposition forces.) When the Europeans warned Iran not to push Israel last week, the United States stayed silent.

Washington can’t have it both ways -- engage and disengage at the same time. The original mission of defeating ISIS -- or at least its hold on territory -- has been mostly achieved. What remains of the terrorist enterprise today has scattered both within Syria and Iraq and to as far away as Libya and Afghanistan. ISIS now lacks a territorial stronghold in Syria akin to al-Qaeda’s in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the rest of Syria continues to roil in civil war. Staying in Syria (or Iraq for that matter) won’t do much either to end the civil war or to counter the threat from ISIS. That requires negotiating peace and rebuilding both countries and societies, neither of which the United States has shown much interest in.

So the Trump administration is stuck in the same place the Obama administration was -- rejecting greater involvement but not wanting to fully withdraw either. Strategy is about making choices; in Syria, Washington has for too long refused to make a clear choice. As always, I welcome your feedback on this or any other topic in This Week’s Reads.

Foreign Aid Cuts Expected, Except for ‘Friends’

Carol Morello/The Washington Post

In its first budget, last May, the Trump administration proposed slashing foreign aid. “Congress essentially ignored it last year and continued funding near previous levels,” Carol Morello reports in the Washington Post. This year, the White House has again called for billions in cuts to foreign aid, and now wants to make aid conditional on voting with the United States at the United Nations. But it bodes poorly for the world’s sole superpower to engage in such public grousing about “friends” and “enemies.” “Cutting aid could make it more difficult to rally countries around US goals and may push them toward rival donors such as China,” Morello writes.

As West Fears the Rise of Autocrats, Hungary Shows What’s Possible

Patrick Kingsley/The New York Times

Eight years under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Hungary has become, in the words of Patrick Kingsley in the New York Times, “an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture.” But the only thing more worrying for the European project than Orbán’s political consolidation in his country, Kingsley explains, is that the prime minister sees his model of autocratic illiberalism as a highly exportable commodity. “He is arguing that Europe’s postwar liberal consensus ‘is now at an end’ -- and his vision is being emulated in Poland, while his influence is felt elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe,” Kingsley writes.

More Russians Are Sure of the U.S. Meddling in Their Politics than the Other Way Around, Poll Finds

Adam Taylor/The Washington Post

Amid current allegations of Russian intervention in the 2016 US elections, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs collected polling data depicting the American perspective on Russia and Russian intervention in US politics. The Council’s Russian partner, the Levada Center, conducted its own polling of Russians concerning their perspective on the United States and US intervention in Russian politics. Both polls illustrated “mutual animosity” with just “some points of agreement” specifically when ranking key foreign policy issues.

Review: When ‘The Marshall Plan’ Helped Plot a New Course for the West

Paul Kennedy/Wall Street Journal

It is all too tempting to compare then with now. Then, at the end of World War II, the Truman administration deftly orchestrated the most ambitious program abroad in American history, the Marshall Plan. In the process, the administration flummoxing the increasingly antagonistic leadership in Moscow, became the hub of the postwar order, and saved a grateful Europe. Now, well . . . But one of the strengths of Benn Steil’s new book on the Marshall Plan, Paul Kennedy writes in the Wall Street Journal, is that it resists such comparisons, at least directly. The result is a book that is, as Kennedy explains, “by far the best study yet, because it is so wise and so balanced in its judgments.”

Will China Impose a New World Order?

Tunku Varadarajan/Wall Street Journal

Think of it as an addendum to Graham Allison’s argument about Thucydides's Trap, which says that a rising power and an established hegemon are all but fated to end up in war. Kori Schake’s new book “Safe Passage” is all about a case when there was a peaceful transition, when the United States supplanted Britain early last century. As she says in this interview with the Wall Street Journal, it’s the only such peaceful transition in history. So does the exception then prove the rule? Is war between China and the United States imminent? Not exactly. China’s recent missteps abroad may merely remind other nations of the benefits of a US-led order. “We have been a clumsy hegemon, certainly,” Schake says, “but we have also been a largely beneficent one.”

Meloni Takes Italian Far-Right Back to 1930s Roots

James Politi and Davide Ghiglione/Financial Times

The revival of the far right in Italy is an odd mixture of the old and the new, as James Politi and Davide Ghiglione detail in the Financial Times. When the far-right Brothers of Italy launched their campaign for this year’s general election, for example, they chose as their site a famous bastion of Mussolini’s fascists. Yet the far right’s newfound clout in Italian politics is not simply the result of a thoughtless nostalgia for the 1930s. Rather, it’s due to the thoroughly modern circumstances of Silvio Berlusconi’s need for a coalition and the public’s growing anger at the influx of refugees from North Africa in recent years.

US Abdication in Africa Hands Political Opportunities to China

David Pilling/Financial Times

In response to news last month that the Chinese-built African Union headquarters in Ethiopia might be bugged by Beijing, one African leader made what amounted to the droll suggestion that at least the Chinese were listening. As David Pilling reports in the Financial Times, “China’s influence is everywhere, in roads, rail, telecoms, infrastructure, and in Djibouti, in a naval base.” So where is the United States? Absent from Africa, Pilling explains. With sharp spending cuts and an understaffed diplomatic presence, President Trump’s administration has accelerated an abandonment of the continent that will see its population double by 2050, Pilling writes.

Trump Shouldn’t Take This US Ally for Granted

David Ignatius/The Washington Post

Yes, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Amman this week, and significant largess to the Middle Eastern partner from the State Department and Pentagon is already being expended. But, as David Ignatius writes in the Washington Post, it is all too easy -- and dangerous -- to take Jordan for granted. The nation of nearly 10 million is surrounded by problems that daily threaten its safety and security, as well as the security of Israel and other neighbors. Nor are all of Jordan’s problems as front and center as the ongoing Syrian civil war. Its relations with Saudi Arabia are quietly souring, for instance, and Amman remains wary of President Trump’s “disruptive diplomacy,” especially when it comes to the Palestinians.

Latin American Elections: A Year of Living Dangerously Lies Ahead

John Paul Rathbone/Financial Times

Each unhappy democracy is unhappy in its own way. In Latin America, which will see six presidential elections this year, 2018 is shaping up to be an unhappy time for democracies. As John Paul Rathbone explains in the Financial Times, while the nations’ problems are similar -- corruption, for instance -- the politicians gaining clout in each country are unique. In Brazil, Rathbone writes, “there is Jair Bolsonaro, a rightwing congressman and former army captain who thinks gun ownership should be widespread and homosexuality beaten out of gay children.” In Mexico, it’s the lefist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, an admirer of Fidel Castro, who is gaining support. And in Colombia, two former guerrilla leaders will be on the ballot come June -- unthinkable only a year ago.

As Britain Stumbles Over ‘Brexit,’ Support Grows for 2nd Vote

Stephen Castle/The New York Times

“Isn’t it time to rethink this whole nonsense and plan for a second referendum . . .” asks Paul Flynn, British Labour Party politician and Member of Parliament. The seemingly irrevocable results of Britain’s 2016 referendum initiating Brexit are being challenged by voters and Prime Minister Theresa May’s heavily divided cabinet. As new statistics come to light revealing the economic hardship Britain will face upon their withdrawal from the European Union, pro-EU lawmakers are calling for a complete reconsideration that amounts to nothing short of a do-over.


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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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