Talabani talking with Syria

January 14, 2007

Iraqi President Talabani is continuing to show a pro-active stance in Iraqi foreign policy. Following the official return of diplomatic ties with Syria in November, the President is now meeting with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus.

Syria is a vital player in the region and, over the years, has had important relations with Iran: the ties between the two nations developed when Syria sided with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. It’s also worth mentioning that the Iraq Study Group’s report released in early December favored dialogue with Iran and Syria, Iraq’s immediate neighbors. President Talabani seems to be following this policy, even if the US is reluctant to do the same. In fact, the Iraqi President has become a somewhat unnamed figure in Iraqi leadership.

In his address to Americans Wednesday, President Bush did not mention Talabani, only mentioning Prime Minister Maliki. This is consistent with US foreign policy of late, which has been centred on dealing exclusively with Maliki.

Part of the reason that the US is dealing with Maliki is that as Prime Minister he is the one dealing with domestic issues and the US’ main concern is the domestic insurgency in Iraq. However, if one is to accept US reports of Iranian and Syrian involvement in the insurgency, then Iraq’s foreign policy is key. In that sense, President Talabani is doing his job well: he met with the Iranian leadership in November and is now meeting with Assad in Syria.

In fact, Talabani is showing an independent approach to foreign policy, and the US has been very keen on having Iraqis take the lead in securing their own safety.

If its intentions are peaceful, then the US must consider talking to Iran and Syria as well. The two countries have shown that they are ready to talk and this is not a direct result of the announced troops surge. Reportedly, the meeting between Talabani and Assad has been a year in the making.

For quite some time, President Bush has been under pressure to provide a new approach to solving problems in Iraq. In fact, Bush himself acted on this pressure by assembling and commissioning the Iraq Study Group (ISG) to assess the situation in Iraq and to offer possible solutions. The ISG’s report was delivered on December 6, yet Bush’s announcement of his New Iraqi Strategy is set for today, over a month after the group’s report was made public.

Even without the ISG report, the Administration has had over three years to elaborate and devise plans of action and has obviously plotted out many different options and scenarios. The advantage of creating the ISG was its independence from the Administration, providing a fresh assessment of the reality in Iraq. Its bipartisan nature was beneficial in avoiding potential situations of deadlock. It looks like such a situation may, in fact, occur if Democrats face off against President Bush’s plan.

Unsurprisingly, the new Democratic Congress is challenging a reported call for a troop surge set to be announced today.

Did President Bush truly need to wait a month to announce his New Strategy? With the Democrats touting their new majority in Congress (and their ability to hinder the Strategy), the choice makes absolutely no sense. Why not present the New Strategy in December, with a Republican Congress, to ensure that the plan is not put into question?

As it stands now, the Strategy will be shot down by the Democrats and will polarize the President’s worldview against that of high-profile Democrats.

If the Democrats are actually able to effectively intervene in the troop surge, the President will be in a position to say, “We tried, but the Democrats did not let us do our job.”

After all, an additional 20 000 (or 30 000) troops will not change much. Insurgents in Iraq are notorious for disappearing when the US military shows up, and for reappearing at later times. This is not the year 2003 and it’s clear that the US will be leaving Iraq sooner rather than later, so any troop surge is only going to be a cosmetic band-aid solution.

Whichever way this goes, announcing the Strategy now, plays in the Administration’s political favor. By challenging the plan, Democrats can be painted as unpatriotic and as stalling progress in Iraq for their own political benefit. Furthermore, it gives the Administration the ability to eventually withdraw from Iraq and say, “We did everything we could.” With the Democratic challenge in place, the troops increase can be made to look as something extraordinary that the Administration had to fight for. Resilience wins political points.

If the surge is in any way successful then the Administration can proceed with a quick withdrawal from Iraq, without looking like they bowed to pressure from the Democrats.

It makes sense. And with support for the Bush Administration at a new low, with the approval rating of the handling of the Iraq war at 26%, it may be what the Administration needs.

As Wednesday approaches, there is more and more speculation on President Bush’s new Iraq strategy and what the Democrats can effectively do if they disagree with the Commander-in-Chief.

Senator Kennedy has been the most pro-active, saying he will introduce legislation today which will limit the President’s ability to get funding for more troops without Congressional approval. The Democrat from Massachusetts said that Iraq was in a state of civil war and that Senate would insist on accountability.

Not everyone in the Democratic party is favoring steps to stop the potentiality of a surge of troops. Notably, House majority leader Steny H. Hoyer has not backed the idea of financially blocking a troop surge.

Considering all this, the next few days will be a serious test of both President Bush’s leadership and the Democrats’ new majority in Congress.

Can Bush convince the opposition that an increase of troops can actually yield results? There already is a view that the whole Iraq campaign has been one gradual surge, with matters getting worse instead of better. When increased security is attempted, it oftentimes leads to an increase in violence. On November 23, during a week when the US sought to increase security in Baghdad, the city saw the biggest level of carnage in a day.

The Democrats have won Congressional dominance, but can they hold up as a party? The Bush Administration will be making compelling arguments for its strategy and some may feel they may be perceived as unpatriotic if they don’t go along.

The opportunities are there for both parties. The Bush Administration can show maturity and work together with the Democrats in finding a solution. The Democrats can offer a viable alternative that party members will stand by.

Led by Nancy Pelosi in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate, the Democrats have warned President Bush about increasing troop levels in Iraq.

“No issue is more important than finding an end to the war in Iraq,” states a letter to George Bush by Pelosi and Reid.

While the US President has of late veered away from the idea of an exit from Iraq, it now seems that the Democrats may push the President back to that strategy. They see a surge of troops as a strategy that has already been tried and has failed.

With other countries slowly pulling their troops from Iraq (Slovakia does so in February), and an imminent change of leadership in Britain, it’s clear that the US may end up alone to handle the difficult situation created in Iraq.

Unless the US has other plans in the region — like threatening Iran — then the Democrats may have a point. Since the war began, the strategy of Britain and the US has basically been one of increasing troops. But Iraq will not be solved with the massive presence of military; Iraq needs significant aid, as well as close cooperation with its neighbors. And whether the US likes it or not, Syria and Iran are part of the neighborhood and are important players in the region.

If President Talabani can get along with Iran, then the US should not be exclusively favoring PM Maliki as has been the case in recent weeks. It was Talabani who visited Tehran in late November to discuss how Iran could help. With Iraq’s restored diplomatic relations with Syria, the Iraqi President already has an invitation to visit Damascus.

When the US went to war with Iraq a few years ago, it cited the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) by Saddam Hussein’s regime as a reason for the war. Since the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, there has been no proof of WMD in the country. Luckily, the US (as well as Britain, Italy and Australia) had plans for democracy in Iraq, which culminated in the so-called Purple Revolution of the January 2005 elections. Surprisingly, those elections did not result in much violence and outlooks were positive.

But 2006 saw the violence in Iraq grow to huge proportions, some saying the country was in a state of civil war. US troops have had trouble subduing the violence and more troops may be on the way, with the Bush Administration circulating the idea of a surge option. An exit from Iraq was an option a few months ago, but it now seems farfetched.

Yet the US could use its troops elsewhere. In a major failure of US foreign policy, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in early October. While the US was busy figuring out what to do in Iraq, North Korea (DPRK) quietly brought its nuclear program to a new level. While rhetoric against the DPRK continued, it never seemed that the US was pro-active about negotiating with the alienated regime. After all, the US’ financial sanctions were working and were putting North Korea into a position of no exit. So the Korean leadership went ahead and made the US listen by detonating its nuclear weapon.

More conspicuous perhaps is the case of Iran. The Iranians have been progressing with their civilian nuclear program and are openly enriching uranium, which could very well mean that they too are developing a nuclear weapon. If the US wanted to use its military as a deterrent with Iran, it cannot, because now its troops are very much stuck in Iraq.

Furthermore, Iran is increasingly becoming an active regional player that may be needed for stability in Iraq. Iran has already met with Iraqi President Talabani and has plans on co-operating with Syria to stabilize Iraq. But it also wants US forces out of the region. So any negotiations — direct or indirect — that the US has with Iran will be connected with the future of Iraq, and the US’ role in it. Not the scenario that President Bush was hoping for.

And to end the year, Iraq has executed its former president Saddam Hussein. While the conviction of Hussein is the work of an Iraqi court (and the sentencing carried out by Iraqis), it is hard to divorce the trial from US interests or US meddling. After all, why did Hussein’s dialogue with justice have to start with the Dujail trial and his crimes against humanity not include the Iran-Iraq war (where chemical weapons, likely provided by the US via Germany, were employed)? Why was Hussein in US custody until his hanging? Doesn’t that make him a Prisoner of War, as his lawyers argued on Friday? And why was Saddam Hussein treated to a dubious trial, which a leading US human rights organization has called flawed? That, of course, was the verdict of Human Rights Watch. The US President, however, seems content with the hanging citing a fair trial and as well as Iraqi rule of law.

Would the Iraqi leadership really hang its dictator during Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the the Sacrifice, when the Arabs are supposed to pardon? That would be the biggest mistake for any new government, and its hard to conceive that the sentence was carried out without US encouragement if not enticement.

The hanging itself will not change how things go in Iraq. Hussein was no longer in control. If anything, the execution may make things more difficult, as Hussein still has supporters in Iraq and the insult of hanging him on the first day of Eid al-Adha may add fire to the discontent.

And US foreign policy seems stuck on Iraq, with the US incapable of facing up to North Korea and Iran. After all, it looks like the six-party talks with North Korea will require more than what US negotiator Christopher Hill is ready to offer, and will probably require the help of China. And there seems to be no clear policy for dealing with Iran, though the US was successful in passing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iran’s nuclear enrichment.

Independent Iraq

December 25, 2006

A British raid of a police station in Basra is bringing forth questions of the degree of Iraqi independence. The Guardian reports that British forces stormed Jamiat prison, to free 127 prisoners, many of whom British forces feared would be killed or were falsely imprisoned.

The BBC reports that the head of city council of Basra has called this operation illegal, saying that the council had not been informed of the raid.

It’s noteworthy that Basra is one of the areas the British hoped to leave for Iraqi forces to secure, as a first test of how prepared Iraqi forces are to handle security on their own. Foreign Secretary Beckett has said that British forces could be out of Basra province by spring.

This raid and the Iraqi response seems to be a vote of no confidence on the part of the British, on how well Iraqis can secure their own freedom. It’s yet another confirmation that Iraq is not an independent democracy. After all, Iraqi President Talabani invited to Iranian envoys, who have been detained by US forces.

It’s clear that Iran is not a favored player by occupying forces, however if Iraq can create stability through its contacts with Iran, this should be allowed. Also, the US clearly favors Iraqi PM Maliki over President Talabani, but again, if Talabani can bring peace, this should be allowed. But Iraq is not a free country.

New Secretary of State Robert Gates has met with US commanders in Iraq and found them cautious of a proposal to infuse Iraq with more troops. The commanders don’t want a boost in troop levels without a clear mandate for those troops. The commanders clearly understand that another 20 000 troops will not rectify the situation without a clear strategy.

President Bush has echoed the sentiment, saying he is open to a troops increase with a clear mission.

It’s yet another confirmation that the US is looking to exit from Iraq in the next 10-14 months. The idea of increasing US troops to train Iraqi forces is gaining more and more popularity, with US troops incapable of stabilizing the civil uprisings in the US-supported democracy.

A new strategy in Iraq will be announced by President Bush in January; it remains to be seen whether the US President will go along with suggestions from the Iraq Study Group, which he commissioned. A temporary troops increase can be expected, with the longer-term goal of exiting Iraq. The most salient question is whether the US will deal with Iran or Syria directly.

With the US asking that a resolution on Iran be passed at the UN Security Council before the weekend, Iran may not be approached directly. However, the US may opt to talk to Syria, leaving it to Syria to directly engage with Iran.

Iran may also chose to make its own move, before the US announces its strategy: President Ahmadinejad has already met with his Iraqi counterpart, discussing how Iran could help stabilize the new democracy. With recent municipal elections leaning toward moderates like Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad needs to adjust his policies, if he wishes to serve a second term. One way would be to cooperate with Iraq and remain open to talks with US.