Can Trump avoid the “peace process” trap?

How serious is President Trump about restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks? I talked about that a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

(I’ve changed my recording techniques so that you can hear me better now...)

Trump is winding up his quick trip to Israel and the Palestinian areas after talks with leaders of both sides. The local media are buzzing with speculation about renewed peace talks, saying Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is prepared to start where the last talks left off in 2008.

Well, that’s ridiculous. The talks didn’t “leave off.” Abbas walked out and slammed the door, rejecting a perfectly acceptable Israeli peace offer that gave the Palestinians exactly what they’d been demanding for decades. As a result of that fiasco, Israelis elected a prime minister who doesn’t really believe in the prospects for peace and spends most of his time explaining why Israeli needs assurances that the Palestinians won’t give even before talks resume. Like Abbas, who is in the 12th year of his four-year term, that prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is still in office. The difference is that Bibi keeps winning elections.

It’s always tempting for a US president to wade into the Israel-Palestinian conflict, expecting to resolve it and score a diplomatic victory, sometimes to distract from domestic crises. It looks fairly easy–the outline of the deal has been known for years–but the Palestinians have turned down a viable state twice. So there’s no point in restarting the “peace process.”

Whether Trump understands that or not, it’s clear that his focus is elsewhere. Before flying to Israel, he signed a huge arms deal with Saudi Arabia, and notwithstanding all the kind words about Israel, his real interests are in the Arab world. He sees Islamist extremism as a tangible threat to the US, and he sees the relatively moderate Sunni nations, headed by Saudi Arabia, as they keys to controlling it, as he made clear in his speech in Riyadh on Sunday.

So chances are that the Trump administration won’t make a major push to get the Israelis and Palestinians off dead center, and deep down, that’s exactly what his close friend and buddy, Bibi Netanyahu, wants..

ISIS surrenders Syrian city, preparing for guerrilla war

US-backed Kurdish and Arab forces are in control of Tabqa, a key Syrian city, after the surrender of ISIS forces that held the city. I discussed this development a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV Radio in Pittsburgh.

This is important for three reasons:

  • Tabqa controls the main road into Raqqa, the ISIS “capital” in Syria, about 50 Tabqa air basekilometers (30 miles) to the east. That’s the next target of the rebel forces. When ISIS captured Tabqa in 2013, it took control of a main Syrian government army base, giving ISIS large quantities of weapons and ammunition.
  • As part of the surrender, ISIS dismantled its explosives that threatened to destroy the Tabqa dam, flooding a large area and depriving many of drinking water, electricity and irrigation for agriculture.
  • Probably most importantly–this shows that fanatic as ISIS might be, its forces will not fight to the death. They have other ideas. As in Iraq, where they’ve been losing territory–they’re likely to regroup outside the cities and pursue a guerrilla war.

The takeaway from this is the same as it’s always been: There will be no decisive military victory over ISIS. The days of generals riding up on horseback, handing over their personal weapons, signing a surrender agreement, and sending their solders home doesn’t work in the 21st century.

We need to get with the program and realize that “winning” against ISIS requires a humanitarian effort more than a military one–starting with helping the millions of refugees who are suffering terribly in camps outside Syria and in makeshift accommodations inside the country.

The US is the number one world contributor of aid to the refugees. That’s worth noting and praising–but the corner will be turned only when the emphasis is on humanitarian aid, not military action. That will be the day that the US can start rebuilding its reputation in the Mideast after decades of misguided military operations that have killed tens of thousands, destroyed countless buildings and hundreds of villages, and alienated an entire generation of people over here.

Syria “safe zones”–Russia wants out

Four “safe zones” in Syria–that’s the plan for starting to wind down the civil war. I talked about the idea with host P.J. Maloney a few minutes ago on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

This emerges from peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan that bring together many of the parties to the Syria conflict. The sponsors of the safe zone plan are Russia and Iran, backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, which backs the rebels.

The safe zones would mean an end to much of the fighting in Syria–if this works. The main issue is who enforces these safe zones, who stops the fighting. That’s because whoever enforces the plan controls the zones.

The three sponsors want to take their plan to the UN Security Council for endorsement, and that means it would need the agreement of the other permanent members, including the US, Britain, and France. They’re looking for clarifications, mainly about that question of who would wield the power in the four zones.

What’s behind this is that Russia appears to be looking to wind down the fighting–a clear signal, probably unintentional, that it wants to find a way out of the Syria mess. Russian involvement has been costly and complicated. The Russians want to preserve their military bases near the Syrian coast, but otherwise they have little actual interest in Syria–yet they’re up to their ears in backing Assad militarily. That has costs beyond the monetary–that’s the same Assad who used sarin gas against his own people and brought world condemnation down on himself just last month. There are those who charge that Russia was involved in the attack, a charge Moscow denies.

It would be silly to say that Russia cares about issues like human rights and battlefield niceties, but it’s struggling for its international standing, and being associated with a gas attack doesn’t help.

Another lesson that can be learned from all this, and perhaps the most important lesson, is that even Russia, with a material stake in the game (its bases), is looking for a way out of the military conflict. So it would be stupid for some other power, say the US, to come wading in now under the guise of controlling the safe zones. The US government says it’s actively engaged in working out the details of the plan–but that’s coming from the Pentagon, not the State Department (if there still is a State Department).

There is, of course, a precedent. In 1954, France was kicked out of Vietnam by local rebel forces. The US marched right in to replace the French. We all know how that turned out.

What to do about Trump–no, really

Here’s my article about fighting Donald Trump constructively. It’s in Forward.

This is the first time I’ve ever disclosed my political views in public. That’s a luxury I can afford better now, since I’m no longer working in daily news. And if it burns my credibility with some people out there, well, that’s the way of the new world, and for something this important, I have to get with the program.

Let me know what you think.

Partition Libya? No so far-fetched

Just because it comes from the Trump administration doesn’t make it ridiculous. I talked about the idea of partitioning Libya with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh a few minutes ago.

I found this article in the Guardian, telling a strange story of White House adviser Sebastian Gorka drawing a partition plan for Libya on a napkin and handing it to a European diplomat. The diplomat was horrified, as were most others who heard about the idea.

That attitude is the price we pay for being trapped in our old patterns. We look at a map and see Libya. with its nice, straight (meaning artificial)  borders, and we think it’s always been there. It hasn’t. A century ago, under Ottoman rule, it was partitioned into three sections, roughly following the ethnic breakdown of the area. The old map is above.

Later, after the colonial powers withdrew, Libya was held together as a country by the ruthlessness of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, until he was deposed and killed in 2011 by rebels with NATO support. Since then, Libya has been the picture of chaos. There are two competing governments today, while much of the real power is held by tribal militias.

So Libya’s future is not going to be like Libya’s past. Forget the current map. When the people get tired of killing each other, as in Syria and Iraq, a new order will emerge–and don’t be too surprised if it looks something like the map above or the one on that napkin.