Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, May 16, 2016

Principal-Agent Dilemmas and Terrorism

Recent research on terrorism has explored the phenomena via the lens of principal-agent relations. It’s a good avenue to pursue. Such scholars as Max Abrahms and Jacob Shapiro, among others, have pointed out the profound theoretical implications of looking at terrorism by distinguishing between terror leaders and subordinates.

Most importantly, as these scholars rightly point out, terror groups aren’t unitary actors that automatically and always move in a lock-step direction. Rather, terror groups consist of some sort of hierarchy of senior leaders and foot soldiers, and, depending on the group, all sorts of unsavory of players in between. As such, we can think of terror group as very much akin to organizations, bureaucracies, and institutions. Put simply, we can observe terror group members, much like individuals within conventional organizations, with varying degrees of power, differing interests, and divergent motivations.

Let’s look closer at the distinction between principals, or the leaders, and agents, or the subordinates. Research by Abrahms and others have uncovered the following things.  

Principals: relative to agents, principals have more power, better access to resources, are more knowledgeable, and tend to think more strategically.

Agents: relative to the principals, agents lack power and resources, aren’t as knowledgeable and sophisticated, tend not to think strategically, are more motivated by narrow, selfish concerns (promotion, making a name of oneself, etc.) than group interests, and might not even share the ideology/political platform of the group.

Because of their positions within the group, principals and agents have different incentives and motivations to commit terrorism, which impacts how groups carry out terrorism, who they target and whether they take credit for such violence. Moreover, through the prism of principal-agent relations, we can see terror groups as complex and messy, often plagued by in-fighting, turf battles, power struggles, and ideological fissures.

The next step in this research program is to address more fully the microfoundations of the principal-agent dilemmas at work in terrorism. In particular, what is needed is a specification of who the principals and agents are within terror groups. In streamlined, local groups, conceivably, it can somewhat easy to identify leaders and their subordinates. As an example, Hassan Nasrallah, the leading figure within Hezbollah, seems to green and red light much of what the group does, at least big picture plans and activities. It’s probably makes sense to point to him and his cabal as the main principals within Hezbollah.

But what about in groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, which are global organizations with affiliates and cells worldwide? Who are the leaders and subordinates in these groups? Maybe it’s the self-declared headquarters in Raqqa and Mosul and the mountainous Af-Pak area for ISIS and al-Qaeda, respectively. If you buy that argument, then, it would seem, all other affiliates and cells are subordinates. In this case, then, what’s most important is the location of the group and where that group sits within the overall hierarchy of the organization. That’s a plausible way of looking at al-Qaeda and ISIS.

But the problem is that there’s another way to identify the principals and agents within ISIS and al-Qaeda. Perhaps the top dogs in al-Qaeda and ISIS central and all of their affiliates and cells—i.e., the top layer of political and military actors across the entire organization—are the principals; and all other individuals, regardless of where their group is located, are subordinates. Here, the location of the group isn’t the crucial factor; instead, what matters most is whether one controls or has access to the instruments of decision-making, the ability to coordinate, plan and implement plans. In other words, we can think of an executive class as existing across the organizations of al-Qaeda and ISIS, and it is these individuals who are principals.

To illustrate this dilemma further, let’s go to the corporate world. Take McDonalds as an example. Perhaps the principals are the executives who work in the company’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. If so, then all of the franchises are subordinates. But maybe the principals really are the individuals who are empowered to make decisions within the company. In this case, that would include some, though not all, folks who work in Oak Brook, but also those workers within specific franchises who make decisions, such as store managers and assistant store managers.

But we can expand this muddiness even further. For example, what about the terror organizations that have separate political and military wings? Who counts as leaders in these groups? Perhaps the senior level personnel in both wings are the leaders. But what if one side—either the military or political wing--has power more influence and power than the other? Maybe it’s that subset of the overall organization—or more specifically, the senior level individuals of that subset—that are the leaders.

The main point I’m getting at is the necessity of operationalizing both principals and agents within scholarly research designs. One way to get around this is for scholars to define and operationalize these terms as is appropriate and relevant to their specific studies. Put simply, scholars can explicate operational definitions as they relate to their own specific statistical and case studies. This is a study-contingent approach.

But can we do more? Can we can go beyond this? And does it make sense to do so? In other words, can we derive more generalizable conceptual and operational definitions of principal and agent? In other words, can we create and apply a set of definitions that’s germane to a wide class of cases? And should we try to do so? In one sense, terrorist groups do vary widely, in terms of size, ideology, or structure, tactics and strategy, and so on, which could make this task difficult. But in another, maybe we can put forward a generalized set of definitions for groups that do look and act similarly. Further theoretical and research insights can—and I hope will—address this point.

This topic is something I—and terrorism scholars more generally—need to think more about, to be sure. But for now, I think it’s sufficient to begin a dialogue on the importance of scholars thinking more clearly and more explicitly about the principal and agent relations in the context of terrorist organizations. I hope this blog post does just that.

Monday, February 22, 2016

A Local and Global Perspective on the Kalamazoo Shootings

In yet another occurrence of what has become an all-too-common event in the United States, the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan has experienced a tragic mass shooting spree. We here at CWCP of course mostly cover macro-scale international issues, although we also delve into issues related to domestic security in the US. It is particularly fitting for CWCP to cover the events in Kalamazoo, however, as it is my own hometown.

At this point, authorities to not have a clear motivation for the killing, nor is there any apparent connection between the seemingly disparate victims who were killed over a five-hour period. Yet Kalamazoo County's senior prosecutor, Jeffrey Getting believes that the targets were very deliberately chosen and not the victims of random gunfire or stray bullets. The attacks also do not, as far as authorities can tell, seem to be an act of terrorism. Kalamazoo County Sheriff Rick Fuller has speculated that the gunman's motives came down to personal issues.

If there is any one thing we can be fortunate of, is that the arrest of the suspect, who was reportedly transporting a weapon, went down without a fight. The arrest occurred near the downtown business district, which is always busy on a Saturday night going into the wee hours of Sunday morning. Had the suspect, Jason Dalton, resorted to armed resistance, there could possibly have been more victims.  

As a Kalamazoo native, the shooting presents a special analytical quandary. Kalamazoo is, on the one hand, a very pleasant place as is an excellent area to raise a family. Yet there is also an undercurrent of crime rampant in the city that is usually limited to certain neighborhoods or sections of the city, but  which occasionally spills over (I myself was the victim of an assault and unarmed robbery in 2008 right in the central business district during daylight hours). Gun violence is not infrequent, but again is usually relatively limited to robberies, home invasion and even murder in rare instances. Drug trafficking is also a major issue, as Kalamazoo is a transit hub exactly halfway between Chicago and Detroit on highway I-94.

Again, however, while I may paint a relatively bleak or even condemnatory portrait of Kalamazoo, these realities are usually confined to the more under privileged parts of the city.

The shooting effectively shows the limits of different policing philosophies. Across the United States, police departments have become increasingly "militarized". As I learned through close direct contact with the Kalamazoo law enforcement community while working for a non-profit, Kalamazoo officers are all equipped with an automatic assault rifle, and there are of course armored vehicles at the Department of Public Safety and the Sheriff's Department's disposal. This could hardly be considered "militarization" as local law enforcement, to my knowledge, are not arming like the Navy SEALs. Nevertheless, Kalamazoo policing agencies are well equipped to handle all manner of dangerous situation that may require more than a glock.

Yet while Kalamazoo's law enforcement community stands ready to handle incredibly dangerous situations, and has a high level of interoperability with state and federal agencies, the Kalamazoo police also have a vigorous and highly successful community policing program, where community liaison officers are out in public making regular contact with the wider citizenry. Furthermore, on the judicial end of things, Kalamazoo has been a national innovator in its drug court program, which focused on the rehabilitation of drug users, and has seen a high rate of recovery with a low level of recidivism.

Nevertheless, as the recent shooting spree shows, neither of the two ends of the spectrum- a more hardened police preparedness level nor a philosophy of community outreach- can prevent even major tragedies such as this. It is not unlike terrorism in the sense that, even with high alert level, horrible things can still happen. Even if the crime does not technically fit under the auspices of the federal definition of "terrorism", if the shooting manages to increase a lingering sense of fear and unease in the community, the shooter's actions will of course have produced some of the same intended effects of terrorist acts.  

Needless to say, the shooting spree has made national news in the US, and has even gotten the attention of President Obama, who has often highlighted incidents such as this in his bid to increase gun control. It seems unlikely that this particular incident will have much of an effect on the nation-wide gun rights debate. Other incidents do not seem to have changed public opinion among those who oppose President Obama's plans, who have charged the president with attempting to overstep constitutional law. Nevertheless, I cannot help but see that perhaps the more imminent issue is not so much the notion of gun rights enshrined in the Second Amendment, but rather the extent to which the federal government versus the individual states have the right to govern gun laws. 

Furthermore, while of course this is primarily a local issue, it could also have some potential international implications. Western Michigan University, a large public research university, attracts students and academics from all over the world. Furthermore, Kalamazoo has a robust and active public diplomacy scene, welcoming professional delegations invited to the US by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. While our international guests have generally had a very positive experience in the city, citing it's small-city feel as being true of the "real America", there is of course a grave possibility that this horrific crime may snuff out international interest in the city.

As details emerge about the crime itself and the suspect, we will have a much better understanding as to the potential reverberations and the implications of this incident. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.

Authors note: The original version of this post stated that the suspect was found with "weapons" (plural). Different news reports, however, are reporting police locating either a single weapon or multiple arms. Due to this uncertainty, we have edited the post to say "a weapon" in case the reports of multiple firearms is inaccurate.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Rise of the Red Panda: Chinese Regional Expansion

A satellite image of Woody Island, part of the disputed Paracel chain in the South China Sea, is pictured left, on February 3, 2015, and right, on February 14.

Two satellite images of Woody Island: the left on February 3, 2015, and right, on February 14, 2016. Image from

Roughly four plus years ago, I wrote a piece debating whether China is a status quo or revisionist power. Then, I was unsure where to place China along the status quo-revisionist spectrum, arguing that it was probably too early in China's ascent to make any kind of definitive conclusion about Chinese goals and ambitions. Times have changed, however: the geopolitical landscape in Asia looks different now in 2016 than it did in late 2011. And as a result, it's an appropriate moment to offer an updated assessment of China.

In brief, in my view, it's fairly clear that China is an expansionist rising power. I think it's high time to accept this reality. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has transitioned from a sleeping giant to a regional revisionist power. At bottom, spurred by a wave of ambitious new leaders, including Xi, a spike in Chinese nationalism, and favorable regional geopolitical trends, Beijing is pursuing changes to the regional order that attempt to establish China's dominance and protect its national interests throughout Asia. My guess is it's unlikely that concessions from the US or its regional friends will dissuade China from continuing its aim of regional hegemony. 

Let's look at the facts. In the last few years, it has placed an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over most of the East China Sea, ruffling the feathers of Japan and South Korea. It has aggressively approached Vietnamese and Philippine vessels in the South China Sea (SCS), ramming them and spraying them with water canons. China has created what the US military has called "sand castles," or artificially constructed mini-islands, in the SCS and placed lighthouses and airstrips on these features. It has leveraged its influence over allies Cambodia and Laos to engender divisions within ASEAN, thereby neutering the bloc's ability to address the knotty territorial/waterway issues in the SCS. China has refused multilateral attempts to broker a solution to any and all disputes in the either seas--even going so far as to avoid cooperating with the ongoing international court proceedings investigating the validity of China's claims in the SCS, or what China calls its "nine-dash line." More troubling, arguably, China has begun to create a parallel order in Asia--one in which it is the primary leader--centered around trade, finance, and a raft of new regional institutions and agreements. 

All of this is evidence that China is carving out its own place in the world, whether the US likes it or not. For years liberal IR scholars have argued that China has risen within the extant US-led world order, that China knows and values this, and that, as a result, Beijing won't rock the boat. Not so fast, though. Yes, liberals are correct that China has accrued enormous benefits by engaging with and through a host of liberal international political and economic tools and mechanisms, but that doesn't mean that China is content to remain a second class citizen of the world--which is exactly what it would be if it continues to grant primacy to the post-WWII order created by the US and its allies. China wants a world in which it calls the shots, telling others the way the world should look and operate, rather than one in which the US and its buddies lecture China on the ways of the world. 

There's no sign that China is slowing its moves toward regional hegemony. Indeed, the latest news pertaining to the SCS, according to Taiwan's defense ministry, indicate that China has placed long-range surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island, a contested area in the Paracel island chain in the SCS. This act raises the stakes in the SCS. It further militarizes the area. It gives China an improved capacity to enforce its claims to the entire SCS.  It also raises the specter that, if not punished or condemned, China will likely replicate this maneuver on other contested islands.

It could be argued that China is simply responding to recent American freedom of navigation operations in the SCS--America's attempt to show Beijing that it's willing to keep the seas free and open and that it is still interested in maintaining its naval dominance in Asia. In narrow sense, perhaps. But when we view these events from a bigger picture, we realize there's more than that going on here.

First, there's a rising sense of confidence among Chinese leaders and citizens. They see their nation on the precipice of great power status and are ready to seize the mantle. They are reluctant to take a back seat to the US, or any other country, on the regional and world stages. This trend has been particularly apparent since the 2008 financial crisis, which the Chinese weathered much better than their counterparts in the West. From their perspective, Western institutions and systems aren't as successful or durable as as the US and Europeans have long claimed and aren't any better, and are probably worse, than those structures in place within China. And America's costly wars of the 2000s, which endure to today, demonstrates that US leaders are only foolishly driving America into the ground. If anything, then, according to Beijing, China's approach to politics, economics and foreign relations have been validated by world events.

A second major factor is the geopolitical dynamics at work. China is expanding its interests in line with its ever-growing material capabilities. This is a simple dictum introduced 70 years ago by Hans Morgenthau, in his seminal work Politics Among Nations. Put simply, as China becomes more powerful in economic and military might, it will define its national interests more broadly, moving from an inward-looking nation focused strictly on internal cohesion and stability to a power that seeks to dominate its backyard. Enhanced state power gives countries greater foreign freedom and flexibility and enables leaders and their citizens to think about their country in more ambitious terms. The evidence seems to support this proposition.

Additionally, China senses opportunities to expand regionally--both in terms of military expansion and political influence over its neighbors. In short, China recognizes a power vacuum in Asia and is very willing to exploit it. Beijing is well aware that the US is distracted and bogged down in the Middle East, fighting never-ending wars against despots and terrorists. And it doesn't look like the US will be able to turn its full attention to Asia anytime soon--either under Obama or his successor. Plus, the American media, with its constant over-hyping of Islamic terrorism as an existential threat to the US and its way of life, won't let the Obama administration, or any near-term future White House occupant, turn to Asia. China, in all likelihood, read this situation for what it is once the Asia hands, like Hillary Clinton, Tom Donilon and Tim Giethner, left the administration and were replaced by officials who were interested in and carried portfolios on Europe and the Middle East. I mean, just compare the travel itineraries of Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

Plus, Obama's rebalance, or pivot, to Asia, as I feared, has probably come too late. Face it, this is something that needed to get underway about a decade or so earlier--one of the many products of the lack of strategic thinking in US foreign policy over the last 25 years. For instance, the US Navy will complete its shift in assets to Asia by 2020; by then, the SCS could, in effect, as John Mearsheimer has suggested, be a Chinese lake. And if so, from there China could embark on heading toward the Indian Ocean and beyond, and also begin in earnest plans to squeeze the movement of the US into and throughout the region. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A CWCP Conversation: ISIS

Over the past week, Brad Nelson, CWCP President and Co-Founder (and adjunct professor of political science at Saint Xavier University) and Yohanes Sulaiman, CWCP Vice President and Co-Founder (and Lecturer at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani) discussed over e-mail the infamous Islamic State, or ISIS.

Brad Nelson: We haven't spent much time on the blog discussing ISIS. Given the plethora of ISIS-related events in the news, it's about time we do so. So, just to make sure that our readers are all caught up, let's start with the basics. What is ISIS? How would you define that group? And how is it different from al-Qaeda?

Yohanes Sulaiman: The more I read about ISIS, the more interesting I find the group. ISIS is popularly known as a group of radical Jihadists who rule its territory with terror.

At the same time, I think ISIS is less of a religious-based terrorist group than the remnants of a deep state that has gone underground. Unlike al-Qaeda, which to some degree is dominated by religious zealots; for ISIS, religion is important, but not that important, considering former Saddam's Iraqi intelligence/military officers basically became the core of this movement. In fact, I am not sure how important al-Baghdadi is, aside from just being a "big brother" figure.

As a result, I think we have a different fight going on here. In the case of al-Qaeda, cut the head and all is gone. I think al-Qaeda still has not recovered from the assassination of Osama bin Laden. If I am right, that ISIS is actually a deep state apparatus, then ISIS is far more dangerous than al-Qaeda, which to some degree is contrary to the common wisdom: many think ISIS will be destroyed simply because it is too radical for its own good, while al-Qaeda can survive far much longer.

BN: Here is how I think of ISIS: it's an insurgent group that's fighting against government and allied forces, as well as other forces of course, in Iraq and Syria. It's also a state. ISIS has its own governing body, laws and punishment mechanisms, military force, currency, PR-machine, and sources of revenue, among other things. Surely, this state has come into existence illegally and no one recognizes it, but it's there. Lastly, it's a terrorist organization, as the attacks in Paris, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, and San Bernadino attest.

Now, it can be argued that ISIS is suffering on all three dimensions--at least at the moment. It's losing territory and fighters, losing revenue, as oil facilities have been destroyed, and losing its grip over the people, as citizens and even some ISIS Jihadis caught in the actual Islamic State want to leave. Moreover, al-Baghdadi recently put out a video trying to rally Muslims to fight for ISIS and to launch attacks in their homelands. This has been viewed by terrorist experts as a sign of ISIS's current desperation.

As we know, ISIS was formally al-Qaeda in Iraq, thus an off-shoot or affiliate of al-Qaeda Central. The story of ISIS deciding to split and rebrand itself, as well as the ex-communication of ISIS from the al-Qaeda family, has typically emphasized ISIS's excessive barbarity--that there were disagreements over ISIS's austere vision of the world and its willingness to torture and kill all infidels, even fellow Muslims; ISIS leaders and followers thought it all necessary, though al-Qaeda saw it as bad for the brand. There's even the popular argument, put forward by Greame Wood, that ISIS, relative to al-Qaeda, is much more of an apocalyptic religious cult.

I see it differently. The main difference is that ISIS is far less religiously pure than al-Qaeda; and relatedly, as a whole, ISIS is not nearly as ideologically cohesive as many believe. Many of ISIS' followers know very little about Islam and the Koran. There are even reports of some of the Paris attackers having "Islam for Dummies" books in their possession. What ISIS seems to be attracting is a motley crew of the angry, alienated, and criminal, especially the latter. Terror experts have observed that quite a few ISIS recruits and foot soldiers are gangsters who dabble in things like the drug trade and robberies. I see quite a bit of John Mueller's argument about the centrality of "Thugs, Criminals and Hooligans" in violent incidents--from his 2000 International Security article and his book Remnants of War--in ISIS.

YS: Frankly, I don't think that members of al-Qaeda are more knowledgeable than ISIS in term of religious instruction. Based on what we know of their franchise all over the world (e.g. Boko Haram and Jamaah Islamiyah), most of their recruits don't know much about theology. Exhibit A: there were no theology students among the 19 suicide attackers on 9/11. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda dip from the same recruitment pool, and this is why al-Qaeda is losing: ISIS is flashier and cooler and, more importantly, winning.

The main difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS is that the former still has religious thinkers on its board because it’s an extremist fundamentalist group; ISIS, on the other hand, like I mentioned earlier, was created from the remnants of Saddam Hussein's deep state, and the core of the deep state (and ISIS) is the secular intelligence apparatus. Thus, you could have a very high ranking ISIS leader who used to be a high ranking officer in Saddam's intelligence apparatus, who wasn't religiously observant. In fact, when this former Saddam official was finally captured, the one book that wasn't found on him was a Qur'an.

BN: So what are your thoughts about the Paris and San Bernardino attacks? And have the media and analysts missed anything in their assessments of both incidents?

YS: I think the media has thoroughly dissected these two cases, from the dysfunctional law enforcement in Belgium to the missing warning signs in the terrorists’ Facebook posts. My question is that with all the pipe bombs the two terrorists were supposedly making, why carry out a mass shooting? I think it was a spur of a moment crime, and they probably had different target in mind.

And actually this shows that badly planned attacks can still cause a lot of deaths if the perpetrators have the proper weapon. Acquiring and shooting guns is relatively easy. But if they decide to bomb a mall or some other soft location, it would take much more preparation and effort and there might be a higher risk of arrest.

BN: Here’s what struck me. One of the narratives after both attacks was that ISIS was now going global. After all, it seemed like ISIS was consumed with establishing, expanding and consolidating its control over areas in Iraq and Syria. The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and the downed Russian airliner, so went the conventional wisdom, show that maybe ISIS has its eye on local matters--its caliphate--as well as global bullies and infidels--France, the US and Russia. Another suggestion has been that ISIS launches these attacks so as to distract its faithful from the losses it’s suffered in 2015 and to boost morale. Perhaps, but is ISIS now chewing off more than it can handle? Was it or is it currently ready for what lies ahead. Arguably, ISIS has provoked--whether intentionally or unintentionally, or a combination--more countries to take the ISIS threat more seriously, to the point that we might have already witnessed the apex of ISIS.

YS: On biting more than it can handle: yes and no. Yes, in that everyone on the planet is out to get ISIS. While the Taliban or al-Qaeda still, arguably, receive some tacit support from a state, or at least a powerful element within the state, ISIS, as far as I know, does not really have a state supporting them -- well, arguably Syria, where Bashar is currently using ISIS to tar entire opposition with the same broad brush, or, according to Russia's insinuations, Turkey, because of getting profit from the illegal oil trade. But I'd make an argument that it is not so much real support than war profiting/opportunism, not unlike the dealings between the Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats militias/criminal gangs during the height of Balkan conflict.

But at the same time, ISIS benefits from the fact that no country is willing to put boots on the ground, or to strictly target it. Russia and Syria, I argue, are far more interested in keeping them alive to become a bogeyman to prop up Bashar's regime. Despite the downing the airliner, Putin, I think, considers ISIS far more useful alive than dead, at least for now. Of course, there are repercussions, but Putin is a long-term player, and he will settle this once he is done with Syria and Turkey. The US? Well, Obama currently has zero credibility in the region and he'd prefer the Iraqis to do the heavy lifting, but in the end, despite the Iraqis' gains in the past couple of weeks, it will not last, simply because Iraq at this point is a quasi-state, unable to completely impose order. The EU? Not likely. Saudis? They fear Iran more than ISIS, for sure.

Of course, the question is what ISIS itself thinks. I think the leadership believes that ISIS is in quite desperate straits. The terror attacks are calculated to inspire, to get more recruits on board, and at the same time broaden their appeals (to e.g. Boko Haram or al Shabaab) as to supplant al-Qaeda. It’s probably the case that the rank and file are over-confident in their abilities to withstand any attacks from the infidels -- e.g. they believe that they are impervious to bullets, etc., thus willingly approve the leaders' decision as actually a way to broaden the scope of their attacks.

BN: Well, ISIS does receive a material boost from Turkey, as black market oil, much like Putin suggested, has found its way into Turkey; not to mention, there's the distinct possibility that Turkey, whether knowingly or not, gives ISIS sanctuary on its turf. Syria, and to extent Russia, has helped ISIS for more than a year by not targeting the group, focusing instead on the so-called "moderates" and their strongholds. But there's no cooperation between Assad and ISIS, as has been rumored by conspiratorial-types. Max Abrahms has addressed this repeatedly on his Twitter feed.

Anyway, one of the things that your comment assumes is that ISIS leadership has sanctioned and thought-through all of the recent attacks. I don't think so. In fact, the evidence to date indicates it's ISIS sympathizers and followers who are acting on their own. That matters. It matters because it means that ISIS isn't necessarily directing events, like some evil mastermind; rather, events are being thrust upon them, from all sorts of directions.

YS: I do agree that ISIS isn't necessarily directing events but at the same time, it does actively encourage its supporters to hit soft targets, meaning that ISIS does sanction any attacks committed by its supporters.

BN: Okay, last topic, which concerns the dreaded questions about prognostication. Put simply, where is ISIS a year from now? For instance, what does the group look like, in terms of its organization/structure, its power, its ability to launch attacks globally, its state in Iraq/Syria, and so on?

YS: It depends on several factors: whether the US-Iran deal holds or collapses, Russia's commitments in Syria, and the Saudis-Iran relationship.

The Iran deal most likely holds and I think, regardless who succeeds Obama, it would be a bad policy to reverse it, despite that the enforcement mechanism is purely minimal -- because like it or not, there's no other option except to bomb Iran to stone age. Plus, Iran does matter to ensure stability in the region, well except to Saudi Arabia.

Russia will keep attacking but they are not specifically targeting ISIS. Rather, Moscow would prefer to focus on anti-Assad groups, which to some degree might cause many groups to gravitate further to ISIS.

So it is a very mixed bag. ISIS’s ability to launch global attacks is based on whether it remains a credible actor, in the sense that they are viewed within Jihadi circles as winning, victorious—which, in turn, helps the group to attract more support and fighters. But once ISIS is seen as losing, not dissimilar to al Qaeda, it would lose its ability to launch global attacks. Since it is getting harder and harder to gain spectacular victories like the battle for Mosul, they will up their push to persuade their sympathizers to launch more attacks.

To answer your question: the group will probably be hemmed in, but it will end up like the Taliban: entrenched in areas that are difficult to control effectively. ISIS has suffered a lot of turnover in its leadership due to deaths, so it will end up having lots of battlefield commanders, who are more interested in short term victories.

BN: I tend to agree with your overall point: that the war in Syria and Iraq will remain frozen conflict and ISIS will have a continued, but gradually shrinking, strong on-the-ground presence, or strongholds, in both countries. Of course, a key is how much turf ISIS loses this year. Mostly thanks to the Kurds, ISIS lost about 25% of its occupied territory in 2015; how much more does it lose in 2016? I'm interested to see how ISIS reacts to, and is impacted by, a steady stream of battle losses--if that indeed comes to pass. Does it violently lash out even more in the West to compensate for the losses? Do radical Islamists, seeing that victory for ISIS isn't inevitable anymore, gravitate back to al-Qaeda?

The trajectory of ISIS’s success or failure, as you suggested, will be shaped by a number of factors. Especially in light of this past weekend's news, one of the things I'm looking at is the Sunni-Shia divide, with Saudi Arabia and Iran as the leaders of each sect, each of which is seeking to be the regional hegemon in the Middle East. This divide has shaped--really, prolonged--the conflict in Syria. As you know, the tit-for-tat confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran has escalated because of the execution of a Shia cleric by Saudi Arabia--which has triggered Shia protests throughout the Middle East, the complete diplomatic estrangement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a deterioration between Saudi Arabia’s allies, like Bahrain and Sudan and the UAE, and Iran. These events will probably only serve to intensify the violence in the Middle East and make it even more difficult to stop and solve the civil war in Syria. How all of this impacts ISIS will be something to watch going forward.

BN: What's your take on how the current Iran-Saudi Arabia spat will impact ISIS?

YS: My gut feeling is that al-Qaeda is on life-support, with very little initiatives, and out-staged by ISIS. Even al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria were defeated/absorbed by ISIS. There are still other branches, but they are all doing their own thing with little to no coordination from above. Many of its affiliates are still aligned with al-Qaeda simply because of old connections. I would even question whether the head organization could survive at this rate without its alliance with the Taliban. So I am not sure that even with the defeat of ISIS, the jihadist community would flock back to al-Qaeda.

ISIS, I think, will try to remain relevant by trying to do more attacks, especially on Western targets. But with the recent Paris attack, I think Western intelligence agents are starting to wise up. It will be very difficult, not impossible but harder, to pull off another Paris.

Still, I think people are underestimating ISIS’s ability to survive even if Iraq/Syria is pacified. After all, there are still plenty of failed states in the region: Libya, Sinai Peninsula, and Yemen. Granted, if ISIS headquarters does move, it will likely be a much different organization, one that’s most likely not staffed by former Iraqis intelligence personnel. Alas, that’s part of the adaptation that terror groups face.

The current Iran-Saudi Arabia spat, I think, will have a greater impact on the stability of Iraq, simply because I doubt the Saudis are content to see an Iranian dominated regime standing next door. Upping its game to undermine Iran’s position in Iraq, if this comes to reality, will give much needed breathing room for ISIS.

BN: You hit on an important point regarding the whack-a-mole element to today's terrorism, which is abetted by so many weak and failing states in close proximity to each other. If ISIS gets really squeezed in Iraq and Syria, it wouldn't surprise me to see its leadership and foot soldiers gravitate to another landing spot. ISIS has already made in-roads in Afghanistan and Libya. My guess is Libya, since the group would face a tough fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

That said, the Saudi Arabia-Iraq imbroglio makes me question how committed Riyadh is to containing and eliminating ISIS. As you mentioned above, Iran is the regime's biggest threat and that's what the royal family is most concerned about. By inflaming the rivalry with Iran, Saudi Arabia made just made it easier on itself to get distracted from the global terrorism issue. In fact, at this moment, it's become a distracting issue for all sorts of players in the Middle East: local states are taking sides in the dispute and outside states are seeking to ways to de-escalate the Riyadh-Tehran, as well as the more general Sunni-Shia, tensions. In my view, the pressure has been markedly reduced on ISIS right now.

YS: The Saudi philosophy is always "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," and thus it is willing to fund radical movements or even armed insurgencies that could bite it in the rear in the future. Granted, the the US also has this problem (e.g. funding the Mujahedeen back in the 1980s). But while the US has wised up in the past couple of years, the Saudis seems to have learned nothing—or maybe they just think that someone else will clean their mess, I don't know. But my gut feeling is that they will try to increase funding to the Syrian rebels, regardless of their ideological affiliations, and since the rebels' loyalties themselves are very fluid, it won't surprise me that some of the money simply ends up in ISIS coffers--and thus, like you said, helping putting off the pressure on ISIS. Obviously ISIS doesn't have much love for the Saudis ruling family, but they hate the Shiites more. And I think the Saudis think they can just kick that can down the road further.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Paris Terror Attacks: An American Perspective

Large-scale terrorism in Europe is, of course, nothing new. Recall the train bombing in Spain in 2004, and the 7/7 terror bombings in London. Now, however, if Daesh (the Arabic name for Islamic State that the group does not want outsiders to use, hence why I use it) is truly to blame for the attacks, as it so claims, it represents a shift in its global strategy.

France's President François Hollande has vowed to fight the terrorists continually and "without mercy." Indeed, France has time and again shown itself to be an active partner in the global fight against terror and has upped its involvement in the Middle East and North Africa. In recent years France has been a large contributor to international security missions, such as Operation Serval (it's military mission in Mali). In terms of the international operations against Daesh, it began its airstrikes in Iraq in 2014, and recently began its airstrike campaign in Syria, while later moving an aircraft carrier off the Syrian coast.

One must not underestimate the psychological effect the attacks already have had, and will continue to have, on the French people. The country already suffered one bloody attack in January, and this time the attackers did not strike major tourist venues like the Eiffel Tower or Versailles, but rather entertainment venues, places where people come precisely to relax.

As someone who utterly lacks experience or a respectable knowledge of terrorism, I couldn't, in all good consciousness, try to offer an analysis of the attacks themselves. Nevertheless, I feel I can offer a few thoughts on the US reaction to the attacks.

One telling aspect of the reaction to this tragedy is the outpouring of support for the French people from across the US. For some strange reason, which I've never been able to figure out, I've long had a fascination with the France-US relationship and the way our two populations view each other. A certain amount of Francophobia certainly pervades in American popular thinking, although it is, for the most part, completely harmless. Yet, from what I've noticed among my own friends, there has been a more pronounced outpouring of support for France and its people than I'd expected. People who otherwise never discuss international issues have been changing Facebook profile pictures and posting statuses of support for France.

According to one expert (Jean Benoît Nadeau in Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong, if I'm not mistaken), one of the biggest misunderstandings in the France-US relationship is that Americans tend to see the French as intransigent for not always following the US in lockstep, and for being more vocal in its public criticism of the US. The French, on the other hand, see no reason why two countries can be friends and still have their public "lovers spats" every now and again.

Indeed, France's operations against Daesh, while part of the US-led coalition, have also been highly independent in nature. France is, and often has been, willing to act on its own even during the era of trans-national alliances. Recall that Charles DeGaulle was willing to pull France from NATO's operational structure when he felt the Atlantic Alliance did not serve the interests of La Republique. Some may see France's tendency to go its own way as some sort of Gallic unwillingness to be a part of a team. Yet for me, France's willingness to work with its allies while maintaining a certain degree of independence means that France is self-confident, unique, and is in fact a team player in its own special way.

Now the question remains as to how much the recent attacks will affect France's operations against Daesh. Recall that after the train bombings in Spain in 2004, the Spanish public voted the conservative government of José Maria Aznar out of office in favor of the left-wing PSOE. Aznar had been an ardent supporter of Gorge W. Bush's mission to Iraq, and the bombings, claimed by al-Qaeda, were deliberately timed ahead of the Spanish elections so as to influence public opinion and ultimately induce them to vote for a government that would pull Spanish troops from Iraq. And that's exactly what happened. 

For now, it seems that France has determined not to allow the attacks to dissuade her or let her become a prisoner of fear. Nevertheless, as with the US after 9/11, France will likely change to a degree. To say that France "will never the same again" may be an exaggeration, for it isn't as if Europe hasn't known mass terror before. Yet from all this we can glean two things: when push comes to shove, France and the US are solid allies, our disagreements and rivalries notwithstanding; and now the time has come where France must show her resolve and determination not only to Daesh but to the rest of the world, lest those who perished did so in vain.

Monday, September 28, 2015

What Does Russia's Larger Role in Syria Mean For the US?

Russian SU-25 jets on runway at al-Assad airbase in Syria last week (Telegraph)
Russian jets at a Syrian air force base in mid-September. Photo: Telegraph.

Russia has upped its military assistance to Syria, sending troops, tanks, and aircraft in recent weeks, all in an attempt to shore up the government's defense against various anti-Assad groups. The US isn't happy, at least publicly. It disagrees with the idea and practice of propping up Assad, believing that “it is the Assad regime that has been a magnet for extremists inside Syria,” according to State Department Spokesman John Kirby. In other words, Assad is the root of the problem; he must go, either today or in the near-future.

Moreover, the US wants to be kept abreast and consulted on Russian moves in and plans for in Syria, and it hasn’t. In fact, at this point, the US isn’t totally sure what Russian President Putin has up his sleeve and was caught off-guard at the rapid deployment of force in Syria.

What should America make of all this? And how does Russia's deployments impact US policy? My analysis below shows that these events are at best a mixed bag for the US.

The Good

The good part is that Russia might own the Syria problem, getting Team Obama off the hook. After all, it’s readily apparent that Barack Obama doesn’t want anything to do with the conflict, fearing that any involvement with military force is a trap that would eventually, drip by drip, suck the US further into the conflict and violence.

Also, keep in mind that air strikes have done almost nothing to slow the tide of ISIS. Plus, the arming and training of the so-called Syrian moderates has translated to less than a handful of troops ready to enter the battle against ISIS—a multi-billion dollar disaster for The White House. Why not let someone else deal with that mess? Who cares if it’s Russia, America’s current foe?

Does Russia’s assertiveness circumscribe, or even limit, Iran’s nefarious role in Syria? It’s something to think about. It’s possible that Putin is communicating to Iran and its proxies that Syria is Russia’s battleground, that it rules the roost there, not them. And at this point, it does certainly seem like any military and political solution goes first and primarily through Russia, rather than Iran.

Syria, after all, is Russia’s last foreign military outpost beyond the post-Soviet space and is very protective and territorial about what happens there—not only concerned about America’s infringement on its self-declared turf but also about regional meddlers as well. In the end, a watered-down role for Iran in Syria, if it comes to pass, is probably a good thing for regional stability.

Plus, the added benefit is that if Russia gets dragged into a prolonged war in Syria, it will become weakened and distracted over time—thereby putting a noose around Putin’s global ambitions. Syria could potentially become its Afghanistan, which bled the Soviets dry in the 1980s. And consider this: even if its adventures in Syria aren’t sky-high costly, they could still greatly impact Russia. After all, though things are quiet there now, Russia is still engaged in a low-intensity, churning struggle in Ukraine. Can Moscow really fight two protracted limited wars (Ukraine and Syria) simultaneously? Putin should ask George W. Bush how such grandiose, ambitious military escapades turn out.

And finally, maybe, just maybe, however unlikely, Putin might even help to put a dent in the ISIS/AQ networks—which would serve to benefit US interests.

The Bad

Unfortunately, Russian intervention probably only prolongs the violence in Syria, and by extension Iraq. That’s what the literature on civil wars indicates. External assistance and intervention lengthens the shelf-life of these wars—keeping them in motion when they would otherwise fizzle out or end decisively.

Russian force reinforces Assad’s grip on power—something that the US doesn’t really want to see. It’s for years called for the ouster of Assad, and failing that, a managed transition to democracy with Assad overseeing its implementation. Russian moves clearly muck up US policy on Syria, shredding years of strategizing, training and equipping, and billions of dollars.

What happens to the moderates? These are the guys and gals who the US hopes will one day replace Assad atop the throne. There’s speculation that Russian power will be used to target ISIS as well as US-trained soldiers, because anyone and everyone who opposes Assad is the enemy in the eyes of Russia. Without moderates being an active part of the plan in Syria going forward, where does that leave the country? And how will US allies look at America if it allows its friends in Syria to get annihilated?

The US shouldn't be surprised that others are stepping up to the plate at this point, given how little it's done over the years. In fact, that's a risk the US took by adopting an extreme low-cost strategy. Power abhors a vacuum, as the saying goes, and that’s what we’re seeing right now. Team Obama has acted as if all the major players would wait for it to get its act together, but that’s simply not happening. Instead, Iran, Iraq, Assad, and Russia are starting to coordinate with each other on politics and security affairs in Syria, with Russia taking the leadership mantle. And that, in turn, raises the prospect of the US getting squeezed out of any influence on what happens from here on in the war and any post-war outcomes.

Russia’s escalation also exposes a fatal failure of Obama grand strategy. I know I've previously written on the blog that Obama's grand strategy is similar to selective engagement, but I've rethought that argument. His critics are right; he really doesn’t have a grand strategy at all. His foreign policy is risk-averse and low-cost, but I'm not sure that one can build a grand strategy with those things at the heart of it. The reason is because such an approach is utterly devoid of interests and values, and without those elements US foreign policy is and will remain rudderless.

Let’s apply this logic to Syria. What kinds of outcomes does Obama most prefer? Which ones would be merely acceptable? Which tools of American power can best produce those outcomes? What interests are on the line for the US? Which values should guide US policymaking on Syria? Who (within Syria, the Middle East and beyond) should the US work with to achieve its desired outcomes? Quite frankly, Team Obama would have a hard time answering those questions—as it has in answering similar ones for the past three plus years—because it is fixated on the price of the America’s commitment to Syria, not so much on the substance of US policy on Syria.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A CWCP Conversation: The Refugee/Migrant Crisis

Syrian Refugees in Greece
Refugees crossing from Greece into Macedonia. Image: Giannis Papanikos/Associated Press

Brad Nelson: Let's start with the basic question: In your view, what's causing the waves of migrants and refugees to swarm to Europe?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Europe is relatively close and willing to put up with them? The Gulf countries simply don't care enough, though not without reason: an influx of millions of refugees would create a huge demographic nightmare. Despite the rhetoric of "religious and Arab solidarity," the demographic politics remain critical. Think about Jordan, which never grants the Palestinians citizenship, with the Palestinians severely underrepresented in the parliament (see here). The delicate tribal politics (see here and here) would be upended by millions of refugees who don't have any loyalty to any tribe.

So religious and Arab solidarity could all go to hell, because by the end of the day, it is realpolitik that counts.

BN: Yeah, that's one aspect of it--the why Europe, as opposed to other countries, regions. The other part is what they're leaving behind. And that's violence and repression in places like Eritrea and Sudan and Syria and Afghanistan and Libya. That's the obvious group of people, but not the only ones. Interestingly--and this is something that's rarely noted--some of the migrants, although probably a small slice of them, are actually from Europe. These are people from struggling European economies like Greece looking to escape poverty and find a better life in a fellow EU nation.

I'm curious to hear your take on the domestic political fallout from refugee/migrant crisis. What do you think happens politically as a result of all this?

YS: Well, the photo of the dead Kurdish boy helped to galvanize public opinion, especially in Europe, in support of the refugees. But that image could only help for so far and for a very short time period. And Merkel did realize that - the backlash of seeing thousands of refugees at the train stations going to Germany was badly damaging to Merkel.

Merkel is probably one of the most ablest chancellors in Germany, in terms of her astute ability to gauge public opinion. She had to do something about the refugee problem, or at least give an illusion of control, otherwise her party would riot -- and that actually had already happened.

BN: I'm interested to see how this plays out domestically across Europe going forward. Already, the right is rising and expanding in various European countries, and this crisis could further tip the balance in that direction. For years the European right has complained about immigrants overburdening state resources, threatening Europe's traditional way of life, and contributing to Islamic extremism and terrorism. It's no surprise, really, to see spikes in populism, given that European economies have struggled with growth and debt and unemployment problems. Well, for the right, the refugee/migrant crisis probably exacerbates those three aforementioned points. And if we see right-leaning, perhaps even far-right, governments popping up into power as a result of this fiasco, what happens then? Predictions?

YS: Worst case scenario: collapse of the EU project.

But at the same time, while the share of people voting for the right has been increasing, most of the "right-leaning" governments have not done much to rock the boat. For example, look at Hungary: even though there are a lot of complaints that the government there has been curtailing freedoms, it is still interested in staying with EU. In Norway, the Progress Party, which is in the right part of the spectrum, is actually part of the ruling coalition and as far as I know, behaves quite responsibly.

I think, while far-right parties might benefit from the anti-immigrant backlash, should they actually become part of more European governments, they would actually behave rather responsibly. However, I might be wrong, because there were two cases that would serve as counterarguments: the Fascists and the Nazis.

BN: Let's move the discussion to the elephant in the room, at least it's an elephant in American policy debates. Does the US bear any responsibility in this mess? And if so, what should Team Obama do about it?

YS: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that this entire refugee crisis could have been contained to some degree had the entire region not been engulfed in war for the past several years. The "red line," declared by Obama, was a major policy blunder. It emboldened the Syrian regime, led to the rise of ISIS, and worse, destroyed any hope for quick a resolution. After all, people don't start leaving until they think that there's no future in the land!

But to dump everything on Obama's lap is also wrong, because at the end of the day, there's really few things that he could have done, aside from putting boots on the ground, which would also be unpopular. So his options have been limited.

These two might sound contradictory, because on one hand I essentially said that the US could have done much and on the other hand, there are political constraints. The political constraints happen due to inaction: that after a while of doing nothing, the problem snowballed, and at a certain point there was nothing Obama could have done, except if he was really willing to bear significant political costs. Had Obama grown some spine and acted earlier, at least during the "red line" fiasco, that could have limited the refugee problem.

BN: Here's my take. Of course, the main blame rests with ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Assad and his henchmen. That said, for a while now, I've thought--though I don't remember if I made the case on this blog--that the US should have created and enforced safe zones in Syria.

No, they wouldn't be a panacea, because, given the number of people fleeing the area, the safe zones would eventually fill up and the refugees would have look elsewhere for sanctuary. Plus, sure, safe zones would be difficult to execute in practice, and they would've run the risk of America getting sucked into the civil war there.

Nevertheless, the risk was and probably still is worth it, as it would've helped alleviate some of the political and security and humanitarian problems we see now--in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and throughout Europe. Moreover, if the US was simply creating humanitarian corridors, not militarily intervening in the fight in Syria, I think Obama could have gotten several countries plus a number of international institutions and organizations to assist with the effort, boosting its chances of "succeeding."

YS: The question, of course, is whether there was the political will to do something if the safe zones became endangered. By definition, the safe zone is another red line, and Obama has demonstrated little appetite to act strongly. He is a very safe player, a cautious president, and he never take risks. If you look at his accomplishments, none of them entails taking any risk. Putting a safe zone means taking some risks of escalation from Assad.

I think aside from Obama administration's own reluctance to get involved, the other reason why the safe-corridor doesn't exist is Turkey. Face it, the corridor would benefit the Kurds the most, strengthening the de-facto Kurdish state in Syria and Iraq, which Turkey is loath to see.

BN: You're right. There's the chance that a safe zone plan could force the US to become ever more involved militarily. That's the risk. But by not taking that gamble, the US has been complicit in thousands of people getting hurt and killed, and in millions more fleeing their homes to nearby countries. I also think there were things the US could have done to reduce chances of escalation, had such humanitarian corridors been created. For instance, the US could have communicated to Assad that it wasn't seeking regime change, that it was only interested in the welfare of the people caught in the crossfire of violence. It also could have pledged to ensure the territorial integrity of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, that safe zones were not a prelude to the break-up of those states. Would those pledges be credible? Maybe, if the US was willing to put in the effort to create a real, viable international coalition that included neutral parties like the UN.

YS: You do realize by proclaiming that the US doesn't want a regime change in Syria, the US would have handed Assad a huge diplomatic coup, which he then would broadcast all over the region, and that, in turn, would piss off the Saudis and the Turks, and whoever else out there?

BN: If giving people an opportunity to be safe is the goal, does that matter? Probably not--at least it wouldn't to me, if I was in Obama's position. I think we're getting at problem with leadership decision-making, especially as it works nowadays in the US.

At times leaders think that by making a decision--or avoiding one--they can have their cake and it too. It would be nice, I suppose, but real world politics rarely works that way. Most decisions, or the absence of making them, will make some people/groups/states happy and anger and alienate others. The trick is to win the balance. Obama thought he could win all sides--here in the US and abroad--by staying out of it and acting as a peripheral player, by being the anti-W. Bush. My main point: no matter which way Obama moved in Syria, there would've been challenges and difficulties. He choose the simplest path, to do almost nothing. That backfired massively. Inaction allowed the rise of ISIS and other extremists, the elimination of the so-called moderates, the probable permanent fracturing of Syria, and now, the strengthened position and centrality of Russia in this bloody mess.

YS: While the goal is noble, it would have riled up the Saudis even further (well, with the Iran deal in pipeline, they'd be pissed off anyway). But now that I think about it, in a de-facto way, Obama has given the assurance that Assad's position is no longer in danger -- just look at the"train the moderates militia" fiasco, where many simply refused to join because one of the requirements is that the militia can only be used to fight ISIS, not Assad. So maybe you are right, that Obama could have told Assad that he is no longer in danger as long as he goes along with an international effort to keep the refugees safe.