The Political Challenges Facing Economic Opportunity

 November 5, 2014

Host: The Brookings Institution

Speakers:

Mr. Charles Freeman III, Nonresident Senior Fellow, John L. Thornton China Center

Mr. Malcolm R. Lee, Nonresident Senior Fellow, John L. Thornton China Center

In many ways, political policies – particularly in foreign policy – are the product of an academic idea coming together and mixing with public perceptions and opinions. In order for a policy or initiative to succeed it must not only be pragmatic and insightful, it must also garner public support, or at least avoid public backlash. Naturally and unfortunately, sound policies are not always backed by strong and popular rhetoric. For this reason, good and advantageous policies do not always gain political support and their potential is not always realized.

When it comes to U.S.-China relations, popular perceptions have been successful in steering political will and dictating new policies for better or for worse. Despite possessing an economic relationship worth over a half a trillion dollars, the U.S.-China relationship is largely painted as one of competition. In the U.S., initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) with China have been routinely painted as attempts to “ship jobs overseas.” Similarly, in China, the TPP has been perceived as an attempt to contain and limit Chinese growth.

These summations though, according to Mr. Freeman, misrepresent both countries’ aims and fail to recognize how both the TPP and BIT can spur on mutually beneficial economic growth and development. He instead argues that the TPP allows the U.S. to play a role in “the rule making organizations that are going to set the stage for global trade rules for decades to come.” Unlike past trade deals, the TPP is forward thinking and addresses intellectual property rights, the role of intermediate goods in supply chains, and other new and important aspects of economic growth.

From China’s perspective, Mr. Freeman believes that the TPP and BIT are external measures that will be able to spur on necessary domestic economic reforms. Having announced the need to reform its economic policies at the Third Plenum, China’s ruling party has, so far, not taken many steps towards attracting foreign businesses and investment. Although it recently opened an economic free-trade zone in Shanghai, the country’s long-standing, state-owned enterprises still dominate the market and enjoy the position afforded to them after years of preferential treatment – carried out at the expense of foreign businesses.

However, as previously stated, well-intentioned policies do not always get approved and the political climate in both Beijing and Washington are holding the TPP and BIT back.

Throughout his time in office, President Obama has struggled to win concessions or cooperation from leaders in Congress. This task will likely remain challenging even after the largely pro-trade, Republican Party won a majority in the U.S. Senate. No matter who is in charge, “trade deals are tough to pass.” Further, given the country’s focus on the expanding wealth gap, Mr. Freeman and other experts believe it will be tough to prioritize and pass any legislation that is aimed at aiding big businesses and their international ambitions. For the foreseeable future, at least through 2016, the U.S. is expected to remain largely on popular, domestic policies.

In China, President Xi Jinping has been very successful in centralizing power. However, both Mr. Freeman and Mr. Lee are skeptical that President Xi has the will to push through large-scale economic reforms while he is simultaneously shouldering a large domestic agenda. Both speakers agreed that, right now, Chinese politics are focused on stamping out corruption and breaking up state owned monopolies.

Although Mr. Lee acknowledged that China’s need to cut down on imports and build up domestic consumption would soon require that it embraces measures similar to those described in the TPP – such as protecting intellectual property rights in order to drive domestic innovation – he does not believe that the country will pursue such measure for several more years.

These initiatives are important on both the economic and strategic level. With U.S. businesses in need of a level playing field and Chinese innovators in need of a legal system that protects their ideas, Mr. Lee believes that the TPP and BIT can serve as a “rules based anchor” that will keep markets stable and on a level playing field through which business and investments can flow seamlessly. With a common goal and desire in mind, all that is holding back progress it political action.

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05. November 2014 by Will Houstoun
Categories: East Asia, Economics | Comments Off

The Pillars of Success: Degrading the Islamic State & Promoting Inclusivity

Host:The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Speaker:

Antony Blinken, Deputy National Security Advisor

In the wake of the Arab Spring, policymakers in the U.S. have had to maintain a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, as calls for democracy have intensified across the Middle East U.S. officials have been under pressure to build new partnerships with emerging governments and capitalize on new opportunities afforded in the wake of change.  On the other hand, policymakers have also had to deal with the realities that come with the toppling of long-standing governments: the breakdown of order, the opening up of lawless lands, the proliferation of weapons, and the emergence of non-aligned militant groups.

Unfortunately, it is this latter set of problems that is currently dictating U.S. policies and strategies in the Middle East. For the past several years, since the start of the Syrian civil war, the U.S. has been adamant in its demands that Bashar al-Assad step down from power however, the U.S. has yet to live up to its rhetoric and pre-drawn “red lines.”  The U.S. has only deployed its military in order to protect its own interests as well as those of its allies. Even as jihadist groups rose to prominence in Syria and rolled back gains made by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the U.S. continued to offer its support in rhetoric only. It was only after the Islamic State (IS) executed two American citizens and threatened key U.S. interests in Iraq that the U.S. authorized airstrikes in Syria. However, this engagement in Syria is not aimed at the U.S.’ original goals of dethroning Assad and promoting inclusivity. As Mr Blinken stated, in Syria, the U.S.’ objective is to “degrade and ultimately defeat [IS].” The goal is no longer to promote democracy and remove Assad from power.

Despite the seemingly straightforward objective, Mr. Blinken made clear that dislodging and defeating IS would require a prolonged and sustained commitment to the inhabitants of the Middle East. Further, success “will not happen through exclusively military means.” A political solution is also needed.

This effort begins in Iraq, where the U.S. is already working on the ground to defuse local tentions and reestablish stability. Having already played a role in encouraging Noor al-Maliki to step down from power, the U.S. is again wielding its influence to build a new, inclusive, and representative government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Having waited until PM Maliki had stepped down from power before aiding Iraqi and Kurdish forces – thus avoiding accusations of sectarian favoritism – Mr. Blinken assured the audience that the U.S. was doing all it could to win over local support in Iraq. In addition, Mr. Blinken was blunt in stating that policymakers willfully “leveraged the promise of greater U.S. assistance,” in order to dissuade any future sectarian policies. In a request to restore faith in the government, PM Abadi has already taken steps to balance out and spread the consolidation of power in Iraq, having appointed a Sunni Defense Minister while also abolishing the Office of the Commander and Chief – designed to have military personnel report directly to the Prime Minister. By reestablishing an inclusive government in Baghdad, Mr. Blinken is confident that, the U.S. and Iraqi government can counter IS’ narrative, win back local support, and reestablish stability in and around the country.

However, the threat of IS is much larger than Iraq. For that reason the U.S. is also pursuing a regional strategy in Iraq, Syria, and throughout the Middle East with the focus being, again, on building local support. Working side by side with Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and a host of Arab partners, Mr. Blinken explained that the U.S. is robbing IS of its popular narrative: that the U.S. is invading the Middle East in pursuit of its own unilateral interests. Although the coalition is currently focused on degrading IS’ fighting capacity, destroying supply lines, disrupting logistics, etc., Mr. Blinken assured the audience that more is going behind the scenes. With broad regional support, the U.S. and its partners are having greater success in dismantling the group’s cash flow, pooling resources to identify donors, monitor banks, and disrupting the group’s oil smuggling operations.

Although Mr. Blinken acknowledged that the U.S. led coalition lacks a shared objective – as many Arab states are pursuing their own agendas – he argued that their participation alone acknowledged the recognized threat that IS poses. Although this strategy may not ultimately lead to a peaceful and democratic outcome in Syria, he and other U.S. policymakers are confident that, by establishing local stability in Iraq and regional cohesion through the coalition, the U.S. can erect “two pillars” on which the Middle East Stability and peace can be achieved.

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03. November 2014 by Will Houstoun
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Understanding & Overcoming the Roots of Sectarianism

October 28, 2014

(This is the second entrance in a 4 part series hosted by the Stimson Center)

(The first entrance in the series : “Explaining Violence in the Middle East” may be read here)

 Speakers:

Dr.Dwight Bashir, Deputy Director for Policy and Research, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Dr.Najib Ghadbian, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Arkansas

When Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammad Bouazizi let himself ablaze on January 4, 2011, he did not intend to instigate waves of political upheaval throughout the Middle East. Although his actions are now considered to be the starting point of what the West now refers to as “the Arab Spring,” Bouazizi was not focused on instigating sweeping regional change. What Bouazizi did was to protest what had become an entrenched and corrupt government system, on that insulated itself against unrest by systematically dividing and deflecting public frustration on to various individuals and minorities throughout Tunisian society. Through his actions, and by asserting himself as an individual who demands recognition and respect, Bouazizi succeeded in inspiring his fellow countrymen – in addition to inspiring citizens throughout the MENA region – to challenge the status quo and demand a free, open, and representational government and economy. By adhering to these principles, Tunisia has not only maintained relative stability during a time of great upheaval, it has ushered in a progressive and inclusive constitution that in turn is pacing the way towards a representational government in Tunis. The manner in which Tunisians has navigated and negotiated challenges has redefined the country as the “sole success” of the Arab Spring, while also serving as a model for other countries undergoing political transitions.

Although it is now obvious that Arab Spring movement has had a significantly different impact on each country throughout the region, Dr. Bashir claims that the movement nonetheless highlighted the prominent role that sectarianism and divisionary policies played in propping up several long-standing, familial and ethnic based governments in the Middle East. Further, over the past few years the war in Syria has shown over the past few years, a large influx of foreign fighter and also the birth of terrorist groups such as the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (IS). It has become increasingly apparent just how strongly sectarian divides are enforced and institutionalized in many states throughout the Gulf

With ideological and strategically opposed regional powers in Saudi Arabia and Iran, Dr. Bashir argues that both countries as well as their allies have employed and directly sponsored sectarian figures and groups in order to shape public opinions and secure a firm base on which government policies can be supported and Shi’a lastimes are prortedlt being mention

In Saudi Arabia Dr. Bashir attributes the country’s history of producing and sympathizing with extremists groups to its tolerance for strict, state-sponsored interpretations of Sunni Islam. With the state in charge of appointing the country’s imams and religious leaders, the government is able to define the larger context in which Saudi Arabia is aacting and  public perceptions and sentiments about government policies. In addition, the government maintains tight control over the country’s education system and, until recently, promoted a Sunni oriented curriculum and textbooks which underscored sectarian divides throughout the region’s history.

With the country’s main political rival being Iran, it is easy to understand why Saudi policymakers would want deter its citizens from sympathizing with Iranian interests. However, the government’s harsh actions may in the end only breed more instability. As Dr. Bashir pointed out, IS has, at the least, tacitly endorse Saudi Arabia’s global outlook, as the group is currently administering old Saudi textbooks and propaganda throughout Syria and Iraq. Although Saudi policies may originally been enacted in order to counter Iran’s regional influence, they are now being used to legitimize an organization that, ironically, has called for the overthrow of Saudi Arabian monarchy.

In Iran, sectarianism may not be embedded in the country’s education system, but the government has used religious rhetoric and policies as a means of advancing regional partnerships and interests. For example, although approximately , of the country’s population is Sunni there are no Sunni mosques in all of Tehran. Signals such as this serve as a clear indicator to Dr. Bashir, and others, that Iran’s governing is deliberately working to undermine any and all cultures that threaten its own, touted Shi’a identity

Over the years, Iran has emphasized its Shi’ite roots in order to build and strengthen the ties it shares with leaders and policymakers in Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah Party. . Although typically phrased as an attempt to build a “Shia crescent,” Iran’s religiously aligned partnerships have, according to Dr. Ghadibian, failed to build any civil unity, and instead only further fanned sectarian hatred.

By acting in line with Hezbollah, and deciding to actively support and defend the Assad regime in Syria, Iran has played into the combative Sunni-Shi’a rhetoric propagated by IS and conservative religious leaders throughout the Gulf. However, Dr. Ghadibian also believes that Saudi Arabia helped build up the the conflict by tolerating and broadcasting the messages of conservative religious leaders, such as Sheikh al-Aroor, who actively advocated for Sunni’s in Saudi Arabia and in Syria to violently resist the Assad regime based on religious grounds. Even in light of the fact that Saudi policymakers are now making a more concerted effort to monitor and censor conservative donors and religious leaders, policies were only altered once the Kingdom had received significant international blame and also had its own instability threatened.

Regardless of what factors led Saudi Arabia to reassess its policies regarding sectarian preaching and rhetoric, the fact that the country – one of the leaders of the region – not only acknowledged it had an existing domestic problem, but then acted on it right away, is undoubtedly a step in the right direction towards easing sectarian tensions throughout the region. However, as the war in Syria has proven, no one power can solve this crisis unilaterally. The tensions and violence currently being seen are a producte product of competing regional policies and interests; a pluralistic solution is needed. On all levels – internationally, regionally, and domestically – Dr. Ghadibian and Mr. Bishar urge competing leaders to come together, acknowledge one another’s position, and work to achieve a political solution.

So far, peace talks hosted in both Geneva and Paris have failed because, according to both speakers, talks have yet to include all regional powers. Iran is always excluded.  Of course, one of the main factors barring Iran from the talks are the country’s long standing feuds with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia – although members of the Syrian National Council have also refused to negotiate with Iran due to its unflinching support for the Assad regime.

If there is to be any hope of peace, progress, and prosperity in Syria and the wider Middle East, regional governments must be willing to change their policies and their approach to politics. Divisive rhetoric and suppressive policies can no longer ensure a government’s survival. Providing equal representation and equal access to opportunity are the new currencies with which governments must buy their citizen’s loyalty. The war and chaos seen today in Syria is a reminder of just how damaging shortsighted and self-serving policies can be. As has been demonstrated in Tunisia, if a government hopes to be successful in the new Middle East, it must have the support of all of its people.

 

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29. October 2014 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Foreign Policy, Middle East, Uncategorized | Comments Off

Turkey’s Competing Interests: Kobani, Syria, and Peace with the PKK

October 22, 2014

Host: The Middle East Institute

Speakers:

Ms. Aliza Marcus, Former International Correspondent, Boston Globe

Dr. Kadir Ustun, Director of Research, SETA Foundation

Mr. Mehmet Yuksel, Representative to the U.S., Peoples’ Democracy Party

In little more than a month’s time, the city of Kobani has gone from an obscure Syrian border town to one of the perennial symbols of the Syrian civil war and the U.S. led fight against the Islamic State (IS). Although IS had been advancing on the city since mid September, it has only garnered international attention in recent weeks as the siege has increasingly illustrated the competing U.S., Turkish, and Kurdish interests at play in the region.

In Turkey, Kobani has highlighted a complex balancing act as the country tries to appease the U.S. and its NATO allies while also pursuing its own domestic interests: ending its decades long conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Having successfully brokered a ceasefire with the PKK a year and a half ago, widely considered one of the key successes of President Erdogan’s political career, the Turkish Government’s hope for peace and stability is now being threatened by its inaction over Kobani. Despite promises to not let Kobani fall to IS, and even in light of Turkey’s recent policy reversal that has allowed Peshmerga fighters from Iraq to cross through Turkey into Syria, Turkey’s demonstrated reluctance to aid Kurdish fighters in Kobani has re-exacerbated tensions with the PKK and its Syrian counterpart – the People’s Protection Units (YPG). In the past few weeks, 48 Kurds have died while protesting Turkey’s closed border policy.

Such stiff resistance from Turkey has, in Mr. Yuksel’s opinion, only succeeded in highlighting the fear and distrust that Turkey still harbors against the PKK and a united Kurdish front. Although Turkey has been willing to carry on relations with Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, partaking in diplomatic exchanges and also buying the KRG’s oil, it clearly feels threatened by degree of unity currently being demonstrated between Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi Kurds – groups that have usually resented one another.

As Dr. Ustun explained, although the U.S. has been willing to assist the YPG and Peshmerga, due to the fighting capabilities demonstrated in Kobani, in Sinjar and throughout Iraq, Turkey has a very different set of priorities in Syria. Chief among these is removing Bashar al-Assad from power. Although the U.S. may, at the moment, be willing to “work with anyone and everyone” who is actively opposing IS, Dr. Ustun and Turkey worry that the U.S. may in be inadvertently helping the Assad regime by wiping out one of its staunchest opponents, IS. He further noted that, since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the YPG has not engaged with the Assad regime and has also failed to join or support the Free Syrian Army and other organized opposition groups. For these reasons, Dr. Ustun sees no reason why Turkey should support the YPG and other Kurdish forces. The country’s reluctance to assist Kobani is not about the PKK; it is more about competing strategic interests and objectives in Syria.

These strategic differences are another reason why Turkey has been so reluctant to play a more overt role in the U.S. led coalition. While Secretary of State Kerry and other international leaders have called for a buffer zone and a no fly zone to be implemented in Northern Syria, Turkey, despite possessing the second largest army in NATO, has so far refused to spearhead the initiative. This, according to Dr. Ustun, is because Turkey has no strategic partners in its pursuit of ousting Assad. Despite increasing pressure, he believes it is “out of the question” for Turkey to act as the sole ground power in Syria; there is no reason for it to commit even more resources in Syria when its own interests are not the highest priority.

With the YPG and Peshmerga receiving increasing amounts of support from the U.S., Ms. Marcus believes Turkey will ultimately need to choose one of, what from their perspective are, “very bad options.” Either Turkey accepts a stronger and likely more autonomous Kurdish region in Southeast Turkey and Northern Syria or it allows IS to establish itself along the Syrian-Turkish border. Based on its recent actions to allow the Peshmerga to bring heavy weaponry through Turkey in order to support Kobani, it is choosing the former.

Although the PKK may not be happy with the pace at which Turkey has chosen to allow assistance to flow into Kobani, Mr. Yuksei claims that it is now “critical” for the PKK, KRG, and YPD to reinstate order and resume peace talks in Turkey. With momentum and international support finally on their side, Ms. Marcus believes “there will be Kurdish autonomy in Southeast Turkey…the question is whether it will happen with Turkey’s help.”

As the world steadily monitors events in Kobani and Turkey, new questions loom over how far Turkey and the U.S. will go in aiding Kurdish fighting forces, particularly after Kobani is successfully or unsuccessfully defended. All the speakers noted that, as of now, the U.S. lacks a grand strategy in Syria and is focused only on the short-term goal of dislodging IS. With that in mind, it hard to say whether the Kurds will continue to enjoy this strong support. With a legal framework now established through which Turkey and the PKK may negotiate, there is strong hope that a lasting peace can be attained. Having already endured decades of localized conflict, and with violence raging across the border in Syria, achieving peace in Turkey would be a positive step for the region at large. This opportunity cannot go to waste.

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23. October 2014 by Will Houstoun
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Balancing Threats & Interests in the Middle East

October 21, 2014

Host: The Woodrow Wilson Center

Speaker:

Dr. Jubin Goodarzi, Head of the International Relations Department, Webster University

Although typically described in binary terms, the ongoing civil war in Syria reflects a much larger, multidimensional conflict in the Middle East. For decades now, Iran and Saudi Arabia, backed by Russia and the U.S. respectively, have utilized proxy groups to undermine one another’s interests across the region. However, as the war in Syria has escalated and become increasingly sectarian in nature, the U.S., Russia, Iran, and even the Gulf States, all now share a common threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) and other radical militant groups operating in and around Syria. Although IS clearly poses a regional threat, Dr. Goodarzi is worried that competing regional interests – particularly those between Iran and Saudi Arabia – will dissuade any attempts of cooperation.

In the past, the partnership among Russia, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon has threatened U.S. interests in the region. During the U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria and Iran both played a role in hosting and arming fighters and extremists who opposed Western intervention. While the U.S. was present in Iraq, Dr. Goodarzi estimated that approximately 60-80% of the suicide bombers that struck within the country crossed the border from Syria.

In a similar vein, the U.S. and its allies have a history of working against Iran and its interests. Not even taking into account the role the U.S. played in propping up an oppressive government in Iran during the 1960’s and 70’s, Dr. Goodarzi pointed out that even recently the U.S. has engaged in a “Faustian bargain” with several of the Gulf States. In Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Naval Fleet, the U.S. has supplied arms and resources to a government widely seen as oppressing it majority Shi’ite citizens. In addition, the U.S. signed a $60 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia in 2010 – the largest arms deal ever – and then an $11 billion dollar agreement with Qatar in 2014.

So far these preexisting tensions have prevented any direct cooperation between Iran and the U.S. led coalition. However, while fighting IS in Iraq, where the group poses a more immediate threat to Iran, the two parties have been able to work side-by-side in pursuit of a common goal. Although Dr. Goodarzi believes that Iran’s actions within Iraq are at least in part driven by fears that U.S. will establish a base of influence in the autonomous Kurdistan Region or that IS will in turn encourage Iran’s own Sunni minority to take up arms against the government, he also believes that these moves demonstrates a willingness by Iran to act pragmatically when its key interests are at stake. With Syria in its beleaguered state, Iraq’s strategic and economic value is increasing in Iran, as bilateral trade between the two countries grew to $12 billion dollars in 2013.

These demonstrations of pragmatism reinforce Dr. Goodarzi’s opinion that it was a “mistake” for the U.S. and Syrian opposition to exclude Iran from recent negotiations held in Paris and Geneva. Even in light of the fact that Iranian leaders have been trying to link cooperation in Syria with ongoing nuclear negotiations, Dr. Goodarzi believes that the U.S. can decouple the issues and “nudge” Iran into action in Syria. All the U.S. needs to do is pose as a credible threat to the Assad regime. It is his belief that, should the U.S. flex it military might and issue a strike against Assad, then Russia and Iran would recognize the futility of continuing to prop up the Regime and would allow it to fall.

However, Dr. Goodarzi also warned that this cannot be a one-way street, and that the U.S. and its allies must also be willing to curtail their own positions and rhetoric if there is to be any hope of peace. Most importantly, Saudi Arabia and its allies need to curtail the growing trends of sectarianism and extremism throughout the Gulf. Over the course of the Syrian war, it has become apparent that Gulf governments, organizations, and individuals have been instrumental in funding and supplying extremist fighters who are in turn fueling the conflict within Syria.

Although they are longtime partners of the U.S., Saudi Arabia and other governments throughout the Gulf have a noted history of supporting and utilizing various ideological groups in order to procure their own regional interests. IS and the al-Nusra Front are the direct result of these policies. If there is to be any hope of peace in Syria and the wider Middle East, actors across the region must be willing to critically examine and change their own policies.

As we have seen in Syria over the past three years, military force cannot provide a long-term solution to the crisis. Cooperation, dialogue, and understanding are the only means to achieving lasting stability in Syria, and throughout the Middle East.

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21. October 2014 by Will Houstoun
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The U.S. & Turkey: Overcoming Unaligned Interests in Syria

 October 14, 2014

Host: The Bipartisan Policy Center

Speakers:

Ambassador Eric Edelman, Co-chair, BPC’s Turkey Initiative

Dr. Henri Barkey, Professor of International Relations, Lehigh University

As a member of NATO as well as the largest democracy in the Middle East, Turkey has the potential to be both a symbolic and strategic partner in the U.S.’ fight against the Islamic State (IS).

Three years ago, when the Syrian revolution was still largely peaceful, Turkish and U.S. policies were complementary. Both countries publicly demanded that President Bashar al-Assad respect the will of his people, grant them greater political freedoms, and, when violence escalated, that he step down from power. In pursuit of this shared goal, Turkey was instrumental in assembling a host of Syrian political and military personnel who had defected from the Assad regime, helping build up and organize a credible opposition force in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Despite these initial shows of unity, Turkish and American policies have since drastically diverged as the civil war in Syria has intensified. With the U.S. failing to act on previously declared “red-lines,” and the FSA proving to be less than effective in combat, both Dr. Barkey and Ambassador Edelman explained that Turkey has been forced to pursue other partners who could topple Assad. Unable to work with the Syrian Kurds out of fear that bolstering them might in turn strengthen Turkey’s own Kurdistan Worker Part (PKK) – the U.S. and Turkey both view the PKK as a terrorist organization– both speakers assert that Turkey has become a “conduit for all types of Jihadists,” since their subtle backing of the al-Nusra Front.

Although Turkey denies supporting the al-Nusra Front, IS, or any Jihadist fighters, Ambassador Edelman was adamant that U.S. intelligence has evidence to the contrary. Although it may not have given direct assistance to a particular group, Turkey has, at the very least turned, a blind-eye to the fighters and weapons crossing over its borders. However, this is hardly surprising to Ambassador Edelman. Not only is Turkey dealing with a full blown war on its borders, it is caring for over one million Syrian refugees – second only to Jordan – and is also negotiating with the PKK to end its decade long conflict. Ambassador Edelman recognizes that, although combatting IS has become the top priority for the U.S. following the beheading of two American journalists, for Turkish leaders, IS is only “one of several problems…and is not the highest on their agenda.”

As a member of the Middle East region, Turkey has to live with the consequences of what happens in Syria and Iraq. For this reason it is trying to assemble a calculated and pragmatic strategy that doesn’t entirely favor a single group. Although Turkey has joined the U.S. led coalition, it has refused to open its airbases to Western aircrafts, so as not to draw reprisal attacks from jihadist militants. Similarly, in the predominantly Kurdish border town of Kobane – located within sight of the Turkish boarder – Turkey has deployed soldiers and armored vehicles and stated that it would not let the city fall. As of yet, it has been content with watching Kurdish and IS forces further engage one another.

Although perhaps pragmatic, Turkey’s strategy is dangerous. As Ambassador Edelman noted, the country’s strategy surrounding Kobane has so far only succeeded in stirring up Kurdish resentment against the government. Further, the country’s half-hearted participation in the U.S. coalition is not winning it any international friends and only hurting what was a previously valued relationship between Turkey and other Western democracies.

No matter how one looks at it, the war in Syria will have a negative effect on Turkey. With the conflict seemingly destined to continue into the foreseeable future, Turkey will be forced to continue caring for an increasing number of refugees. Rather than pursue a course of inaction, the country could perhaps alleviate the burden by working with coalition forces to carve out a buffer zone in northern Syria. Over the past few years, Turkey has seen that it cannot simply pick the winners and losers in Syria. In order to reach a sustainable conclusion, it must commit to a position, expend the necessary resources and effort, and actively work with partners to achieve mutually beneficial goals. In this situation Turkey cannot succeed alone; partnership is needed.

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16. October 2014 by Will Houstoun
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Demanding Democracy: What to Expect in Hong Kong and the Mainland

October 9, 2014

Host: The Foreign Policy Initiative

Speakers:

David Feith, The Wall Street Journal Asia

Ellen Bork, Foreign Policy Initiative, Hong Kong

Now in their second week of protest, demonstrators in Honk Kong are doing more than standing up for open elections; they are testing Beijing’s resolve while also ushering in a new wave of political activists and leaders. Although the protesters cannot be said to speak for Hong Kong as a whole, the diverse crowds that demonstrations are attracting, both in terms of age and occupation, suggest that there is a broad, shared sentiment throughout the city’s inhabitants. Led by the Hong Kong Federation of Students, Occupy Central, Scholarism, and other young and emerging political groups, the protests have been, in the words of Ms. Bork, “transformative (for) the democracy movement” in Hong Kong. Demonstrations have so far succeeded in uniting multiple generations of activists and politicians under a single cause and even succeeded in pushing Beijing into talks (although the offer was later revoked).

However, now that demonstrations have been carried out, and demands have been voiced, people in Hong Kong and around the world are waiting to see what will come next. How will the central government react to these protests? Will Beijing recognize and negotiate this new generation of civil activists? How will these protests impacts politics on the Mainland?

In Hong Kong, a new scandal has emerged. The city’s chief executive, CY Leung, supposedly received $7 million dollars from an Australian engineering company shortly after he left the firm. Although there is no evidence that Mr. Leung gave any unfair advantages to the company, the fact that these funds were previously undeclared has led many to believe they are linked to corruption. However, calling in from Hong Kong, Mr. Feith suggested that the “well timed scandal” could also signal that Beijing is attempting to appease protesters by building a case to remove Mr. Leung from office.
Although the focus of the protests is on preserving Hong Kong’s democratic system, Ms. Bork explained that many of the protesters are also focused on issues, “related to democracy,” such as economic equality and social justice, which they see as being threatened by the removal of free elections. If it is building a corruption case against Mr. Leung in order to remove him from office, Beijing may be simply trying to placate protestors and quash any chances of  dissent from spreading.

The spread of dissent is after all what Beijing is most threatened by. Despite an uptick in Internet censorship, which Mr. Feith claimed is being carried out at twice the rate it was during the anniversary of Tiananmen Square in June, news is spreading out to the mainland. Another signal that people in the Mainland are staying informed is an increase in the number of civil arrests.

Although Mr. Feith said that the Hong Kong protests were not having a direct impact in China’s most restive regions, Xinjiang and Tibet, he had “no doubt” that the protests will shape perceptions in Taiwan– which Chinese President Xi Jinping also describes in terms of “One China, two systems.” Already, a majority of people in Taiwan identify as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese,” and they are accustomed to democratic values and rights that are present in their own society. Having seen events unfold in Hong Kong, Mr. Feith is now more convinced that reunification between the two countries wouldn’t happen voluntarily.

Up until now, protesters have not had much success in pushing their demands. From the beginning, the government has refused to overturn the August 31st declaration and continues to insist that Beijing have a say in nominating Hong Kong’s future leaders. However, the protests have succeeded in sending a message to Beijing. By spending days and nights on the streets and enduring violence, the students of Hong Kong garnered greater support and, in the words of Ms. Bork, awoken the city’s “civil spirit.” Whether that spirit can force Beijing to give-in remains to be seen.

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10. October 2014 by Will Houstoun
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The Power of the Mekong & the Fight for Resources in Southeast Asia

October 8, 2014

Host: The Stimson Center

Speakers:

Dr. Richard Cronin, Director of Southeast Asia Program, Stimson Center

Dr. Yongmin Bian, Visiting Researcher, Georgetown University Law Center

Ms. Courtney Weatherby, Research Associate, Stimson Center

For much of the past decade, China has seen the largest and most consistent economic growth in East Asia. Now, on the tail end of its rapid rise, China’s growth is slowing and its neighbors – most notably the bloc of countries to its south: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia – are beginning to experience their own economic growth. However, as regional economies grow, so too does regional competition over access to energy and natural resources.

As one of the largest and most biologically diverse rivers in the world, the Mekong River is a valuable natural asset to all the countries that it flows through – particularly China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In short, it generates energy, food, and jobs. Since 1995, these countries, excluding China, have taken part in an intergovernmental body, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), in order to promote cooperation on sustaining and equitably developing the Mekong. However, in 2012, the authority of this commission was battered when Laos unilaterally decided to increase its energy exports by building a 107 foot dam in Xayaburi Province, with plans to export 95% of the energy generated largely to Thailand. This unilateral move by Laos created concern among its downstream neighbors, Vietnam and Cambodia, and has highlighted the need for a new equitable and legal form of governing the mutually valued river.

As illustrated by Dr. Cronin, 72.8% of Vietnam’s agricultural production is dependent on the Mekong River, while the Vietnamese people are also highly dependent on the fish that migrate up and down the river. According to a recent Stimson study, the unilateral decision by Laos to dam its part of the river will not only hurt Vietnam’s fishing market, costing it approximately $20 billion over ten years, it will also permanently change the region’s ecosystem.

Laos, which subsequently received backing from Thailand to utilize the Mekong in order to export energy, is not the only regional power that has plans to utilize the Mekong for the pursuit of unilateral interests. At the top of the river, China has already constructed several large-scale dams and has plans to operate six more mega sized dams in Yunnan Province. China has also refused to join the MRC at least in part because it does not support intergovernmental oversight of the river. In addition, China has refused to give any guarantees that it will preserve water and fishing quality for its downstream neighbors – assurance, Dr. Bian pointed out, China has previously given to Russia, Kazakhstan, and other, stronger, regional countries.

With the MRC seemingly lacking the authority to keep its members in line, and China refusing to offer any guarantees to its neighbors, citizens have begun taking it upon themselves to challenge ongoing projects on the Mekong and establish some sort of precedence for its use. So far, several legal challenges have had some success in curbing unilateral pursuits. In Europe, the energy company Pöyry was charged by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) with failing to honor its Corporate Social Responsibilities when it backed the understudied Xayaburi dam project. After that ruling, Andritz, another European energy firm, similarly had its reputation damaged when it too was charged with similar offenses. Similarly, in Thailand, citizens have charged the Electric Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) of violating its constitutional duty by endangering the people’s food security and livelihood in the pursuit of cheaper energy from the Mekong.

Although no landmark punishments have been doled out, it is clear that the people of the region are beginning to realize the dangers that rapid modernization can bring with it. Although these countries obviously have a right to modernize their economies and infrastructure, it is important that they do so equitably and sustainably. In the pursuit of near-term success, it is crucial that these countries don’t jeopardize their and the region’s long-term future.

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09. October 2014 by Will Houstoun
Categories: East Asia, Economics, Energy, Environment | Comments Off

A Map to Success? Can Tunisia Bring Democracy to the Middle East

September 29, 2014

Host: The U.S. Institute of Peace
Speaker:

Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, President & Founder, Ennahdha Party, Tunisia

For three years now, the Arab word has struggled to adjust to the massive change that was brought in with the Arab Spring. Of the numerous groups of citizens that took to the streets and demanded greater political freedoms and representation, very few can say that the movement was a success: In Libya and Syria, the political reforms have come to be overshadowed by protracted armed conflicts; in Egypt, political differences and divides resulted in a coup against the country’s first democratically elected leader. Of all these attempts to reform and transform the political landscape in the Middle East, only one country has shown signs of success, Tunisia – the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Like other countries in the region, Tunisia has faced a threat by ideological extremists – the al Qaeda affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia – and also endured several political assassinations. However, unlike other participants in the Arab Spring, it now stands poised to hold its first presidential elections in November. This fact, and the peaceful means through which it was achieved, has led many analysts and leaders around the globe to ask: Why and how has Tunisia succeeded?

To answer this question, Sheikh Ghannouchi highlighted several factors that he believes were instrumental in cultivating and preserving a peaceful, inclusive, and democratic society in Tunisia. Chief amongst these factors was Tunisia’s dedication to inclusivity and minority representation when establishing a new political order. Following the ousting of President Ben Ali, the political party Ennahdha, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, dominated the Tunisian political landscape. However, unlike the Brotherhood, Ennahdha refused to rule based on its simple majority; rather than focus on simply garnering 51% of the vote, the group worked to compromise and respect minority positions. By honoring what he called, “consensus politics” Mr. Ghannouchi and his Ennahdha party worked with smaller parties throughout parliament to draft a constitution and electoral timeline, both of which were approved by 94% by the constituent assembly and a vast majority of the people.

In addition, to promoting inclusive and tolerant politics, Mr. Ghannouchi believes that Tunisia also benefited from its neutral armed forces. Not only did the army provide protection to the people during the initial unrest but it also refused to act on its own unilateral interests – the opposite of what has happened in Egypt. Acting as a true third party, the army has not become involved in the country’s politics. By remaining uninvolved, the army has given each political party the freedom to promote their own platform – whether they are secular or ideologically driven – and remove any doubt that there is favoritism in Tunisian politics. In the environment, it is clear that the only strength political parties can rely on is the strength of their own platforms.

With these successes in mind, it is important to remember that there are still several key challenges facing Tunisia. Although the country has, for the most part, succeeded in fostering a democratic spolitical system, it must now work on making sure other aspects of its society reflect this new Tunisia. This means stamping out corruption, reforming the judiciary, and, perhaps most importantly, creating jobs and economic opportunities. However, while Tunisians must depend on themselves to stamp out corruption and tackle domestic challenges, it is up to the rest of the world to trust and invest in Tunisia’s future. Although many in the West may be reluctant to engage in the Arab world, having witnessed the ongoing barbaric violence in Syria, it is important that these foreign countries recognize that there are still pockets of opportunity and potential. As the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has already succeeded in changing the Middle East once. Now, given the proper resources and support, it can do so again, to show that democracy can exist, prosper, and thrive in the Arab world.

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29. September 2014 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Middle East | Comments Off

Uncertain Futures: Iraq & Kurdistan

September 18, 2014

Host: U.S. Institute of Peace

Speakers:

Dr. Fuad M. Hussein, Chief of Staff to the President of Iraqi Kurdistan Region

Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir, Head of the Kurdistan Regional Government Department of Foreign Relations

If one needs any proof that elections do not make a democracy, look no further than today’s Iraq. It has been made clear by the speed and ease with which the Islamic State (IS) captured swathes of Iraqi territory that former Prime Minister Noor al-Maliki, despite being elected and confirmed by the Parliament, it did not represent the interests of all Iraqis. However, even though Maliki has stepped down and been replaced by Haider al-Abadi, along with the appointment of a new ruling government, it is clear the Iraq still faces several short and long-term challenges.  In the Northwest in and around Mosul, disaffected soldiers and military commanders have abandoned their posts and allowed the IS to advance unopposed. In total, according to Dr. Hussein, 10 divisions of the Iraqi army have so far collapsed, leaving it up to the Kudish fighting force, the Peshmerga, to confront IS on the ground. In the short-term, Iraq needs to reestablish security throughout the country. In the long-term a new political system needs to be adopted, one that gives equal power to all the country’s political groups.

Before Iraq can move forward, it must first address the same lingering issues from Maliki’s time in office – particularly having to do with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Prior to IS’ campaign into Iraq, the country was already taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria. Now, following IS’ advance, the majority of those Syrian refugees, in addition to Iraqis who have also fled IS, are now seeking shelter in Kurdistan. In just a few months, Minister Bakir estimates that, has absorbed a total of 1.7 million refugees – adding what equates to roughly 20% of the region’s population. Adding additional pressure to the situation, Baghdad has been withholding funds from the Kurdish government. For several months now, both civil servants and Peshmerga soldiers have been working without being fully paid. In times of peace, this withholding of funds was unacceptable; now in times of war, Minister Bakir sees it as a dangerous liability. As the economic situation worsens, discontent grows. The government needs to resume sharing gas and oil revenues with local leaders throughout the country, so the funds can be easily directed to the areas most in need.

In addition to spreading the country’s wealth, both Dr. Hussein and Minister Bakir urged PM Abadi and the new government to reinstate the “federal structures” and decentralize power from Baghdad. Claiming that the divisions created by Maliki, which were exacerbated by IS, run too deep, both speakers favored a system in which Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds would manage their own security organizations. In order to help fight the IS threat, the Peshmerga have received light and medium weapons from European partners and asked the U.S. for heavy weaponry – tanks, helicopters, armored vehicles, etc. Under the Kurdish plan, these resources would be divided once the IS threat is cleared, and each political group would then divide the supplies into three equal forces. Through this strategy, Iraq will remain unified and the mistakes of the past will not repeat themselves.

Dr. Hussein, Minister Bakir, and the KRG have so far given the new Abadi government 90 days to make positive steps towards reestablishing Iraq’s political and strategic security. Although the PM has promised to resume funding and assisting and the Kurdish region, it is unclear whether he will grant the KRG the autonomy it wants. However, as the country is still trying grapple with the political and military challenges it now faces, it is not clear what type of Iraq will emerge once all is settled. Recent events have certainly altered how Iraq’s Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds view themselves and one another. Whether they can emerge from this conflict as a united country remains to be seen.

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19. September 2014 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Middle East | Comments Off

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