27 October 2014, Istanbul
William B. Quandt is Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. He gives lectures on American Foreign Policy and the Middle East which are his areas of expertise. Has been a member of the National Security Council in the Richard Nixon and Kimmy Carter administrations and later of the Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution.
He was actively involved in the negotiations of the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian- Israeli Peace Treaty. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and serves on the Board of Trustees of the American University in Cairo and the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
Bülent Aras: What is the policy of the United States against the Islamic State (IS, ISIL, ISIS)? What are the parameters of the United States' strategy?
William Quandt: I think there are two reasons why the Obama administration has reacted more forcibly and strongly towards the ISIS phenomena than towards other radical groups in the Middle East.
One is truly domestic politics. It does not really tell us much about grand strategy, it tells us something about a certain vulnerability that was felt on the part of the Obama administration.
Beginning early this year, after the United States had withdrawn its forces from Iraq and announced its plan for withdrawing from Afghanistan, in all honesty most Americans were pleased with decisions, that is almost the sense of fatigue with inconclusive and unsuccessful wars in the Middle East. So in the first faze of Obama's disengagement from the Middle East, he had public opinion pretty solidly on his side. Some of them began to change earlier this year. Hardly with the return to a lot of violence within Iraq and it was not just the last month or two; we can see that almost month-by-month that what we have left behind in Iraq was not working really well. So you had the beginnings of a fairly sustained criticism of Obama's policies both in Iraq and Syria mainly from Republican senators like John McCain, Lindsey Graham and others who go to Iraq and come to Turkey and go to places like Egypt and criticize Obama for being too quick to leave Iraq and to hesitant to interfere in Syria.
In the moment as it looked like the United States might interfere in Syria, they hesitated. They did not do so. That became one event that people focused on and than the idea that wee should have left some troops behind. This began to be a Republican motive and than as we began to see former Obama officials like Hillary Clinton, Defense Chief Leon Panetta also began to join the criticism by saying, "in Syria we should have done more to help the Syrian opposition." You began to get criticism from two directions not identical criticisms but the image for the president was too that he thinks about things too much and is afraid to act. Typical academic, he thinks but does not act. For Obama, the public opinion showed that there was a lost of confedence in him, in his foreign policy. So, he is a politician, he heard the criticisms. This has more to do with the politics of the United States than the Middle East. But I think there was also a sense that ISIS is different from other, like Nusra Front in Syria. No-doubt it is a nasty group of radicals. I think he sensed that the Islamic State is a little different. Not everybody agrees with this and in Egypt I heard people saying Islamic State, Muslim Brotherhood, Boko Haram were part of the same phenomena of Islamic radicalism. Why do you just focus on this one? There are problems in Libya; there are problems here, problems there. There is some tendency to minimize the distinctiveness of the Islamic State. I think that it is different and we can have some discussion, as I do not pretend I know too much about it.
My understanding is that the Islamic State is an outgrowth of the developments specifically in Iraq and Syria that you have to look there for its specific origins. It has some ideological affiliation with Al-Qaeda but then it grew up in this Sunni-disenfranchised areas of Iraq and Syria after the first American invasion of Iraq and secondly the uprising against Assad in Syria. So you have a geographical zone that transcends borders and threatens the state structures in the two important states of the Middle East that are potentially fragile states because of their composition. In this sense, it is a threat to the United States immediately but to a certain kind of political order in this region. I think that this is one thing. It is not just Hezbollah threatening the government of Lebanon with no agenda very much beyond Lebanon or Hamas which is obviously a Palestinian organization challenging Israel or perhaps the guerillas in Sinai attacking Egyptian soldiers probably have an Egyptian agenda. Maybe providing support to governments to deal with that; it is not going to become a big issue for the United States. This is a threat to the post World War one-state system. In the Arab Fertile Crescent area it is a bigger deal.
Secondly, it emerged because of the vacuum of power in Eastern Syria after the uprisings and what became ISIS was particularly well-funded insurgency and became pretty well armed and internationalized. In Syria; it got money from the Gulf, it got arms and all kinds of sources and it got participants from all over the world. Bringing together the Iraqi and Syrian component it created a kind of transnational movement that had a double-face. This is what I find interesting, it has all the rhetorical, Islamist Revolution, Caliphate, Al-Qaeda sounding, transforming the world into a new Islamist configuration but also is beginning to run a state in geographical area in Iraq and in parts of Syria. So, they are collecting taxes, running schools things that the Al-Qaeda never imagined doing. That sounds more like Hamas and Hezbollah, beginning to function like a government. It is a pretty unpleasant government but they are beginning to act that way. So you have both a kind of revolutionary rhetoric and practical state building project on the way. That is a little bit different and it also makes them also a little bit vulnerable in a way that Al-Qaeda is just an ideological, transnational terrorist movement, which made itself hard to track, hard to threaten. We can see buildings where people go to work everyday; they are under the control of ISIS. In some way it may prove to be a pre-mature decision on their part to try to build a state without having the resources to protect it.
Then the other thing that is interesting about them is their military project is a combination of guerilla warfare, which they seem good at, and some expertise in using conventional weapons. I think this probably is because they manage to cooperate some of the old Saddamist military who know how to use artillery, tanks. So again, you have something that is new; conventional military in some aspects and guerilla movement in the other. This makes it more dangerous. By combining the tactics of car bombs and assassinations with tanks coming down the highway, Iraqis did not know what to do they just panicked. So I think the response of the United States is again a little bit too edged. On the one hand we are more involved than we ever expected to be six months ago with more air power more commitment to arms transfers, training Exactly the track that Obama did not want to follow. I think there are also limits. I do not think that we are going to see significant numbers of Americans ground troops, there will be special advisors, special operations so forth.
Obama's military strategy is; (1) to keep American casualties down. Actually what he is doing right now is amazingly getting support from most Americans. We had one fatality so far. Americans do not mind war in principal; they mind casualties, they mind having inconclusive long campaigns that seem like they are destined to failure and especially when there are high costs of human and economic resources. I think Obama will keep this largely limited to air and training and special operations. But we are back in the business of fighting a two-front war in the Middle East. I am not sure they have yet thought through how to go with tactics of dealing with immediate threat to Baghdad and Kobani and begin to use whatever this coalition really consists of to begin to change the environment in which the ISIS operates. At some point, Iraqi forces and forces inside Syria can begin to restrict its size and eventually defeat it. They are beginning to realize that to do this effectively they do need not a coalition of 50 or 60, but they need to work out a better relationship with Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia. Each of these countries has their different interests.
Bülent Aras: Actually this brings us to the second question. The future and prospect of what the United State and the coalition are doing are very important to build something sustainable and not to create a new IS. So, in this sense what does the United States administration expect from the regional allies in the fight against IS and is this expectation likely to be met?
William Quandt: I would make a clear distinction between Iraqi theatre where we have somewhat clearer idea and Syria where it is much more complicated. In Iraq, there are three components of building a successful strategy against ISIS. One is to do whatever you can to begin to re-build core of an Iraqi state that is more inclusive that it was under Maliki. I do not know whether a new prime minister can do that or not but the fact that there is a new person in that position is the first indicator that the Unites States and Iran have begun to coordinate their policies a bit. It took their simultaneous agreement to get rid of Maliki. One part is, "can you get an Iraqi government in place that can begin to control most of their territories?" I think it is still an open question but at least it is something that is familiar and we know what needs to be done. Second is, temptation to try to do what Americans did in 2006- 2007 with the Iraqi tribes in Anbar. You basically try to separate them from ISIS by saying, "look your political concerns can be addressed by the new Iraqi government. Here is money, here are arms and some of these people are foreigner you do not want them there and we will help you to get rid of them". Actually it worked out pretty well in 2006- 2007. Money and arms helped win tribal support. Tribes still matter in the Western part of Iraq.
And then there is the Kurdish part. I am not the expert on the Kurdish areas but it seems to me that the Kurds have demonstrated that they have at least limited capabilities in their immediate vicinity to stand up to ISIS if they are given support. They also look to Iran, to us, to Turkey for political signals and coordination. I think Kurds in Iraq are going to come out of this looking as if they are a strong component of an anti- ISIS policy. The dilemma here is if they do most of the fighting to defeat ISIS and Iraqi government looks very weak, it is going to be very hard to go to them and say, "we want you to stay part of this weak Iraqi government that is not paying your salaries and all the rest". There is a geostrategic issue that we all have to reflect on is, as the Kurds collaborate with us in defeating ISIS, are they gaining political leverage for their bid of statehood? I do not know the answer to that but I think in their own mind they prove to be a critical component of anti-ISIS strategy, they are going to have demands. If it is not independence, it will be that close to it.
Bülent Aras: What we see now is a "United States come back" to this geography, but there is "United States withdrawal" at the same time. What does this mean ultimately to the regional allies; Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and the rest?
William Quandt: I think in order to know what we may see as a kind of American longer-term political and military presence, I have to answer two or three questions. One, "is this possible rapprochement between Iran and the United States going to succeed?" And if it does, "is there a spillover beyond the nuclear file?" Assuming that it is the core of the current discussions, "will it also spill over to some coordination of policy in Iraq and possibly even in Syria?" If it does of course, it stirs many things up here. It stirs up Saudi and Gulf anxieties about Unites States shifting its strategic focus. I was in Saudi Arabia few years ago and I gave lectures saying that, "if you look at long term trends, Saudi Arabia should probably expect that at some point the United States and Iran are going to be on better terms. This split between us has been somewhat pro-longed and artificial. Historically we had strong geostrategic relations and it could happen again. Look they have common interests in Afghanistan and relatively an interest in Iraq." And the Saudis hated what I said. They did not even want to discuss it. Another level they kind of do understand the game of geopolitics. Iran is there and it is not going to be always isolated as it has been.
I think we need to answer this question, "is the United States going to have at least a less confrontational relationship with Iran and cooperation in some areas?" If the answer is "yes", I think it could produce good results for the region. But it requires changing one's mentality. For instance, Turkish government has to get used to a different way of thinking about Iran and the United States. The basic question behind that, "is Iran beginning to come more status- quo power or is still has a revolution- eagered sectarian agenda?" I do not know the answer but, if the United States and Iran succeed in having a better relationship, it will probably require Iran to also contain itself. It cannot be stirring up Shia in Saudi Arabia and expect us to remain cooperative.
If the relationship with Iran does not succeed, and if it deteriorates and if we do not get the nuclear agreement, we could see, perhaps under a different administration, a sharp escalation in the United States- Iran hostility. And I would not preclude the next war in the Middle East being a United States- Iran one encouraged by the Israelis and perhaps the Saudis. I do not think it is imminent but if we see the moderates in Iran losing influence and Iran beginning to re-build its nuclear potential, I can tell you there will be people in the United States say, "okay we tried negotiation, we tried diplomacy, that is it!" There is a constituency in the United States still says, "Iran is the most dangerous country in the world". I do not believe in this, but I think there are some people ready to move toward that direction. A lot depends on that.
Secondly, "are we likely to succeed in at least in crushing ISIS in Iraq?" I think the answer is "yes". I think they are vulnerable. Mosul will be re-taken within a year, maybe within six months. Whatever is left of ISIS will retreat into Syria, maybe some parts of Iraq. But it no longer will dominate the second largest city in Iraq. That again would be a signal that this kind of strategy is partly working. The biggest problem here is going to be Syria. The moment we approach semi- success in Iraq, the question will be, "what happens next?" Does ISIS just get contain within Eastern Syria as a localized problem and then who on the ground takes the place of ISIS? Is it going to be some new coalition of part of the Assad regime, part of the opposition, or a neutral front, which maybe is no much better? I think that is where the new puzzle begins. Is there any political or military thinking about how do you replicate in Syria what we hope to do in Iraq that is rebuild something like a reformed state that can defeat ISIS or at least contain it and began to end the conflict there?
The difficult diplomacy that needs to be done with a kind of coalition of external forces who have quite different assessments of the situation in Syria that needed Turkey, Iran, Saudi from the region and, the United States and Russia or maybe the UN representative. I do think, without that kind of external "contact group", beginning to engage in quite serious non-public diplomacy now, what could we ask the Assad regime to do? I do not think that you can ask everybody who supports Assad regime to leave the country. It is not realistic. I noticed today that the "number two man" in his aparatus was recently interviewed after meeting the UN representative. Interestingly, he said that to solve the problem in Syria there have to be difficult decisions made by the all the parties. Does he really mean Assad regime will have to make difficult decisions? I hope so. Because they also have some leverage now as they are part of the backbone of the regime. They have got the President who should know how to put together a political coalition after the civil war. Maybe it requires intelligence people in each of these places to go out to different places spending a week, sharing what you know, talking about the realities, if there is some way of getting localized, focusing attention on ISIS, what the next step is going to be, who talks to Assad regime, who talks to opposition. If we are all really smart about it, I think there is now a common interest, partly the perception that ISIS potentially dangerous to a lot of our interests. Whatever in the past allowed us to pursue different strategies; it is no longer good idea to have crossed interests. We really need to get our collective act together.
Bülent Aras: Where does the Palestinian question and Arab-Israeli peace process stand in the new political geography of Middle East? Is it still relevant or marginalized issue?
William Quandt: I think it is a secondary issue for the issues we have been talking so far. When I was in Egypt, people said that we had to do something on Palestinian issue and it still has impact on radical tendencies here so forth. Palestinians were supportive of Hamas, at least supportive of Muslim Brotherhood, they are all equally. One of my Egyptian academic friend said it is amazing that how much anti-Palestinian sentiment is in Egypt today. I am not sure about the grass root level of this is true, but certainly there is no push from any of the states to immediately do anything. If someone succeeds, people would be happy. Nobody is against the idea of peace now. Today Palestinians, Palestine Liberation Organization, even Hamas are ready for deal as they have never been. I think it is Netanyahu and his coalition that simply does not want a deal on the terms of that would be available. They have perhaps a notion: if we can get this and this, then maybe we could agree. During the quite intense diplomacy carried out by the Secretary Kerry, he got nothing from the Israelis. I think it left a real sense on the American side there is less something changes, leadership on one side or the other, or maybe a new intifada or something; right now, this is not going to be a priority. So, without American leadership on this, I think it is a dead issue.
Bülent Aras: Well, it is very much related to what you have argued on Arab-Israeli peace process. I have difficulty to understand Israeli policy towards the Arab Spring. Does it have any influence on the United States and Israeli relations?
William Quandt: It is an interesting question. I think Israelis have watched this happen not being quite sure what to make with it because it has produced contradictory results. On one hand, Islamist groups were taking advantage, from their standpoint, there was a bad sign. Although Morsi was not, in practice, that difficult for Israelis to deal with, they kept the same channels open with intelligence so forth. I think the whole the Arab Spring is unwelcomed by Israelis. They learnt to navigate in the old order pretty well.
Bülent Aras: So they are afraid of there is going to be new sort of Islamist leading in these countries. Is this the major concern?
William Quandt: I think return of Sisi to power, there was a good step for them. They looked at Syria. I mean they obviously had no particular love for the Assad regime but they had no problem with Assad regime. It was very stable relationship. They had under the previous Prime Minister, they actually became very close to regime and an agreement. So they looked at Syria and asked, "do we prefer relatively secular stable order, or this kind of chaos?" The only thing they like about the chaos is as long as it does not split over their border, it keeps anybody from ever thinking that they should be Israeli and Syrian negotiation or anything like that. So there is no pressure on them. There is a little anxiety about what if we really face these guys the right across the border. I think the Israelis would be reasonable happy to see Assad inclusive regime that defeats ISIS. They are not going to get involved militarily, but I think they sympathize with restore Syria to relatively, orderly place. They do not like the way in Lebanon, the factions of Hezbollah still having arms, but it has been quite for eight years now. From their stand point, they can live with it quite in order for them is fine. I think Israelis has strange frame of mind. They look around the region and worry about Iran and they do not see any neutral allies there. The relationship with Turkey deteriorated but they do not seem too worried about it. They had this offer from Arab League to normalize the relationship but basically no response to it. I think for a lot of Israelis, as long as the relations with Europe and the United States remain pretty strong does not make much difference what neighbors think. We have this internal problem; what to do with Palestinians, but we have been dealing with forty-fifty years and we can deal with it for another if we have to. It is on the intellectual edge of Israeli politics, there are people who anguish over what is going on with Israel and Zionism? Most Israelis do not talk about it, their daily life is okay. If you go to Tel-Aviv and just walk around the street, you would not know there is Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For many Israelis, it is like it is over there. I think right now anybody is pushing for going back to serious negotiations.