Media Podcasts

On the Issues Episode 15: David Schenker

My guest this week is David Schenker, Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.

Previously, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Levant country director, the Pentagon’s top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant. In that capacity, he was responsible for advising the secretary and other senior Pentagon leadership on the military and political affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. He was awarded the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service in 2005.

Prior to joining the government, Mr. Schenker was a research fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Arab governance issues and a project coordinator a Bethesda-based contractor of large, centrally-funded USAID projects in Egypt and Jordan. In addition, he authored two Institute books: Dancing with Saddam: The Strategic Tango of Jordanian-Iraqi Relations (copublished with Lexington Books, 2003) and Palestinian Democracy and Governance: An Appraisal of the Legislative Council (2001). More recently, he published a chapter on U.S.-Lebanese relations in Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave, 2009), and Egypt’s Enduring Challenges (2011), a monograph focusing on post-Mubarak Egypt. His writings on Arab affairs have also appeared in a number of prominent scholarly journals and newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Jerusalem Post.


I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of ‘On the Issues’. My guest today is David Schenker, Director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute. Previously, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Levant country director, the Pentagon’s top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant—where he was responsible for advising the secretary and other senior Pentagon leadership on the military and political affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.

Alon Ben-Meir: I met with Fred [Hof] of course, just now we talked a lot about Syria, and perhaps we can talk about more regionally—Israeli-Palestinian—

David Schenker: Sure.

ABM: I want to start with the question of Jerusalem. Of course as I see it, to make such a move could be disastrous. On the one hand, in terms of what would be the reaction of the Palestinians, but even more so the Arab World. Saudi Arabia and Jordan in particular, they’ll be outraged to say the least. I had the idea, and I sort of bounced it, that if he still wants to make the move, how can we use that as a means by which to achieve even almost a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian conflict? If he were to say, we have land there—the United States purchased land in West Jerusalem on which the plan was to build an American embassy there, but of course from one administration to another, everything has been delayed and delayed—we are going to start building the embassy. And if there is progress in the peace process between the two sides, we will reserve space to allow the Palestinians to have their capital in East Jerusalem.
Suppose this would have been the approach. My feeling was that if he were to take this approach—and I passed it on to very top people, and they were really excited about the prospect in terms of, he’s basically conditioning the move on the fact, that is, we are building the embassy so the Palestinians can see movement in that direction. It is no longer just talk, but is also providing the opening. If there is progress and you move toward a peace agreement, well we will look into it, that the Palestinian capital will be still there while maintaining the unity of Jerusalem. Nothing will change. Basically what is Israeli is Israeli, including East Jerusalem. What is the Palestinians’ is the Palestinians’. The city will remain united, a single city, but it’ll have one municipality here, one municipality there, and they will find a way of course to work it out administratively and in terms of security and all of that.
From my perspective, when I used to go in the 80s and the 90s before this mess of increased terrorism, I wrote many pieces that Jerusalem represents in my view the microcosm of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. You couldn’t tell then who was an Israeli and who was a Palestinian. The people were moving from Israel to the West Bank, and back and forth. And Jerusalem was the center of peace. People actually coexisted very peacefully and to me, this is how the Israeli-Palestinian coexistence should be, is going to look like. There’s a political border, but there’s no physical border per-se. A Palestinian citizen is going to vote and be elected in Palestine, and Israelis are— But there will be intermingling work here. That’s how I saw it, that is the piece I wrote. But I didn’t publish it yet because I wanted to channel it to the right people. What’s your take on it?

DS: Well, there’s a couple of issues. I think Trump is convinced that this is something that should be done. People in Washington ask well, what can they get from Israel for this. Because traditionally if you get a big gift from the United States, something like this, there would be a request on the backside from Israel, but there hasn’t been anything. Now I don’t necessarily think that you have to. I mean, what you’re proposing in a way is changing the status quo, right. There’s no change in the status quo by moving the U.S. embassy to West Jerusalem. Right? Even Arafat recognized that West Jerusalem was going to be part of Israel, right. This was never—

ABM: This is true, but more symbolically, moving the embassy anywhere in Jerusalem for them represents recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

DS: Well, there’s an issue of perception. Of course the U.S. consul general, which is the highest representation, is in East Jerusalem, right? So let’s put that aside for a second. I think that if you wanted to ask the Israelis for something, you could potentially. I don’t think you’re going to get from this government in Israel a commitment that East Jerusalem will be the capital, that we’re going to deal with issues of sovereignty or division of Jerusalem. Now, most Israelis as you know would be willing to divide Israel. More Israelis anyway would be willing to divide Jerusalem and have two capitals there, than be willing to cede the Golan back to the Syrians.

ABM: I mean in every negotiation in the past, when the discussion on Jerusalem was on the table, there was an agreement in principle that Jerusalem was going to be basically a capital of two states.

DS: I think what you’d need for the Israelis to make some sort of enormous move in that regard would be some sign of good faith from the Palestinian side. Remember, we’ve been frozen now essentially since day one of the Obama administration, when the administration basically forced Netanyahu to have what was the deepest settlement freeze in the history of Israel, of a modern Likud politics. He did it, and Mahmoud Abbas said ‘hey, why the hell am I going to give Israel anything right now, I got this great settlement freeze,’ and they wasted a year. And you couldn’t twist the Israelis’ arms anymore after that point. This was a failure obviously of the Obama administration.
Now, maybe the Palestinians will be so discouraged from the Trump administration that they’ll be more willing to make their own concessions, which, maybe you can get from the Israelis another settlement freeze, maybe within the current boundaries of the settlements. No new—you can get something if the White House engages, but they’re not going to ask for anything unless you get something very serious from the Palestinians. And I think this embassy move is something that the Israelis are I think happy about – the government is happy about. But for most people, it’s probably not that big a deal.

ABM: Yeah, but it also seems at this point, I think, that the Trump administration is sort of moving back from moving the embassy.

DS: There’s going to be a process.

ABM: There’s going to be a long process, so they’re talking about the process. My feeling was that if they were to incorporate this into that kind of thinking, into that kind of process, they’re going to send a clear message to the Palestinians, hey we’re thinking about you, we believe still in a two-state solution. We can move in that direction, but you need to make yourself stop incitement, stop this, stop that. Do the kind of thing, begin infrastructure, build your real infrastructure, in order for us to make that kind of— I mean that’s where I’m coming from.

DS: The big deal for me is that you really have to work with the Jordanians on this, right. You have this Jordanian special relationship with Jerusalem that goes back to Mecca and Medina. Then you had the annexation in 1950 of the West Bank and the declared sovereignty over Jerusalem by the Jordanians. They stepped back from that in 1994, the peace agreement includes that. They still derive some of their legitimacy from their guardianship role in Jerusalem. I think you have to have the U.S. government, regardless of what happens, continue to reiterate that the Jordanian role in Jerusalem is a priority, that there’s no change in status quo of the holy spots.

ABM: There’s no doubt.

DS: But the Palestinians can be a real spoiler here, and I’m not talking about the 60 percent or more of Jordan that is of Palestinian origin. I’m talking about the Palestinian Authority deliberately trying to shake the neighbors through incitement because of this embassy move. That’s very dangerous and something that I think should be punished, frankly. The Palestinians could play a real spoiler role here, and the United States can talk to the Palestinians and make their own commitments to what they’re willing to do and what they’re willing to advocate for on behalf of the Palestinians. But if the P.A. chooses to go along with Iran, to say that this is the destruction of al-Aqsa Mosque, I mean you can imagine what they’re going to say when this happens. Then I think there has to be a pretty big penalty that’s imposed from the United States for shaking the stability of the neighbors.

ABM: Yes, this is true, but let’s leave Jerusalem for a moment. You know the whole discussion we’re trying to establish, I’ve been trying and thinking about it, talking and writing so much about it. My feeling was—and I’ve actually been very much involved with the French organizing this conference and suggested a proposal in terms—my feeling is that, I want to just hear your take on this. That is, we first need to establish whether the Palestinians in fact want a two-state solution. So there’s that in the Israeli mind, whether this is in fact what Mahmoud Abbas would like to see as the endgame. It will be a Palestinian state more or less in the West Bank with some major, certainly land swaps, etc. My position is that even if both sides agree to the principle, I don’t believe Netanyahu would like to see a Palestinian state under his watch either. But even if there is that kind of decision, that kind of commitment to a two-state solution on the part of both sides, they cannot possibly sit today and negotiate that because of the very deep distrust between the two sides, because of a very deep sense of insecurity both sides have. Both sides, not just the Israelis. The Israelis will have that because of historic experiences. But the Palestinians feel just as insecure, if not more so, than the Israelis. And then of course you have these two constituencies, both the extremists in Israel, settlers and their supporters. And then you have Hamas on the part of the Palestinians, who still envision that they are going to have all of Palestine, Israel and Palestine together.
So you have these three elements at play, and no one can actually deny that this is justified. So to be able to begin any kind of serious process, to negotiate seriously and reach some kind of an agreement, you’re going to need first a process of reconciliation. That’s up and coming. What I’ve been saying all along is that if you don’t have that kind of process of reconciliation, whereby you can mitigate questions of distrust, or at least a process of mitigating distrust, and begin to mitigate concerns over national security, stopping incitement on the part of the Palestinians, and taking measures to convince Israelis that there’s not going to be another Hamasistan in the West Bank, so to speak. And then disabuse—

DS: I mean, can you convince the Israelis there’s not going to be a Hamasistan in the West Bank?

ABM: No, what I’m saying is not the argument.

DS: That there is no Israeli occupation of the West Bank; you probably already have a Hamasistan there.

ABM: This, but I’m saying it’s only through a process. That is, you cannot discuss trust and say ‘from now on I’m going to trust you,’ that’s not going to happen. You cannot distrust security and say, ‘from now on, our security is guaranteed, your security is—‘ That’s not going to happen. That’s what I’m saying, you need a process of reconciliation for a period of time before they actually can sit down and negotiate. Now if they’re not prepared to go through that kind of process, to me it’s a clear indication that neither side is in fact willing to see the end game, which is a two-state solution. That is, if you’re not prepared to prepare the ground for what eventually needs to happen, should happen, which is two states—that’s the goal, that’s the objective. That’s what Netanyahu says. That’s what Mahmoud Abbas says. But they are taking zero action. In fact, they’re doing everything the opposite, to widen the gap rather than narrow the gap. What I’ve been saying to the French in preparation for that, I said if you do if you want to be helpful, introduce the concept of reconciliation first for two years, three years, and make sure that two sides will actually be prepared to go through that kind of process.

DS: Yeah, it’s pretty hard to get a process of reconciliation going when you have stuff like what happened in the U.N. Security Council. People come and declare the settlements, whatever they’re going to declare them, and laid the ground for more lawfare I think that while it may not be people knifing one another, I think the Israelis view this as a full-on attack by Palestinians.

ABM: Yes, but Israel invited that kind of resolution; Israel is inviting the European resistance to this whole thing. You cannot say that Israel is an innocent party here. Netanyahu is working very, very hard. I mean, his ambitions are probably just realizing what Shamir at the time was advocating. Let’s put one million Israelis – they’re coming very close to this number in the West Bank – create irreversible facts on the ground. And that’s the end, there will be de facto no Palestinian state anymore. My feeling is that if the Trump administration begins to think in those terms, rather than thinking ‘let’s get the parties to sit down and negotiate,’ whether Kushner’s involved or [unclear] involved, I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere.

DS: You know, I think actually Bush had this right, which was essentially saying OK, you have settlement blocks. The Palestinians have centrally agreed to territorial swaps and you can build as many buildings and high as you want to build them, and just why does he want to build them with it as long as they remain within these current existing boundaries, right? If you want to build another room on your house, this is not building a settlement. If you want to build another floor on your apartment building going up, this is not building settlements. I think President Bush worked out this deal with Elliott Abrams, with Ariel Sharon, and they all accepted it. And that actually makes a great deal of sense. I don’t know why parties persist in saying that this is somehow a bad solution to the problem. If you’ve already agreed on territorial swaps, then what would be the problem with that and declaring these more settlements? And now these are cities in any event. We’re talking about these big blocks, tens of thousands of people.

ABM: Of course, these are cities.

DS: We can talk if you want about the hilltops and about the Israeli government in the Knesset now changing the laws in Israel about settlements and things like that. Then I think they present more problems in the international community—

ABM: Well of course.

DS: But of course the international community was never interested, no matter what Israel does it’s not going to really be quite enough, right? I mean, the fact that the UN Human Rights Commission has triple the condemnations [of Israel] last year than it had of Syria or Russia or the Assad regime, I mean it’s ludicrous.

ABM: Yeah, but what would you do? You are watching from the outside. OK. There was an agreement on land swaps in every negotiation that took place since 2000 at Camp David, there’s no doubt about it. And Israel today is claiming we are building in existing settlements, we’re not building new ones. We have merely, to accommodate natural growth in the settlement. And so the Palestinians should not be complaining, they’re not changing the geography.

DS: Right.

ABM: The problem with the Palestinians, as Israelis all along also insisted, it’s got to be one agreement. That is, you cannot unilaterally continue to expand or build in these settlements unless it is part and parcel of a general agreement. What is it going to be the precise land swap? What’s going to take place? How contiguous is it going to be? The quality of the land—there was no real agreement on these issues. And when I talked to the Palestinians, they said we agreed to the land swaps. We understand that Israelis need to expand this for natural growth. But that’s got to be part and parcel of any agreement that we are going to have.
The problem is, and I think they raise it, and tell me what you think please. They are saying during the negotiation under the U.S. auspices with Kerry twice, Israel insisted on starting the negotiations on national security. And the Palestinians are saying, ‘well, we’re going to negotiate, let’s start with the contours of what the Palestinian state is going to look like.’ So once we establish the land swap, then even if the agreement is not totally completed, once there are the contours of the state, you can continue to build in these, once they have that kind of understanding. But Netanyahu refused to start with establishing what a Palestinian state is going to look like. There were many other issues, how the negotiation went bad. The rules of engagement were a mess as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think anything has changed. But I’d like you to tell me what you think, we cannot think in terms of the Netanyahu government or the right-of-center, and Israel is going to remain forever. I mean it’s going to change, something is going to change.

DS: What, to right-of-center? Lapid or someone like that?

ABM: Possibly center, if not right. Well, right now they are right-of-center, but let’s say center, perhaps slightly left-of-center.

DS: How?

ABM: Well this is the problem. I mean—

DS: I mean, that’s like saying that Congress is going to change to Democrat in two years. Right? I mean—

ABM: Well it’s possible.

DS: Well it’s possible. But if you look at the seats that are up, it looks like it’s going the other way in the Senate, et cetera. You know—

ABM: I mean, we can’t rule the possibility that the Israeli opposition comes to their senses, that one morning, Herzog and Lapid and others say look, enough is enough. We better organize ourselves. In five years, it’s going to be way too late. And let us have a united one single agenda. This is going to be our agenda, let’s campaign on this agenda, tell the Israelis the truth about the eventuality. If no peace is established with the Palestinians, where will Israel will be five, ten, fifteen years down the line?
So I’m not saying that Israel is wrong or right. What I’m saying is in terms of looking at it. If you believe in a two-state solution, you’ve got to think in those terms today, what are the steps you need to take in order to get you in that direction. When you ask Israeli officials, Bennett and others, where do you think Israel will be in five or ten years, they don’t have an answer. They really don’t know. They have an illusion, we’re going to take over the entire West Bank, but what are you going to do with the Palestinians? Are they going to disappear? What would you tell Netanyahu today about his plan? What his plan does—I’m serious, if he were to ask you.

DS: Everybody comes up, everyone’s got their, what they call here their alternative facts, but the numbers are in dispute. But if you listen to what President Obama says, or Secretary of State Kerry, that it’s not going to be able to be a democratic and Jewish state, I think there are many in Israel who would disagree with that. Based on the numbers that I’ve seen, I don’t think I’d want to be absorbing the West Bank into Israel. I think it poses a grave demographic threat. But if you want to maintain the Jewish character of the state, right? You’re already got 20 percent non-Jewish in Israel proper, within the Green Line. But maybe they’re planning on getting another million Russians. I don’t know.

ABM: No, but I’m serious, what’s your real— If you were to sit in with Netanyahu, sure you were to advise him. I’m not being facetious about it, seriously.

DS: Israelis vote based on whether they believe that they have a peace partner, right. This is why they voted for Rabin. They voted for people on the left, they voted for people on the right, but that generally has changed over time based on whether they think that Arafat was a peace partner, whether he was not a peace partner. And I don’t think any Israelis really think that Mahmoud Abbas is going to be the guy that makes that concession on the right of return. For example the quote-unquote—

ABM: No, I agree with you. I don’t think either Abbas or Netanyahu will be the leaders who will achieve an agreement.

DS: So if you’re going to take the old line, the old saw from the Clinton administration, you have to take risks for peace. And I think that many Israelis probably say, and I don’t do a great deal of work on Israel. I mean, I follow it, but I spent a lot more time in Lebanon than I do in Israel. But my sense is that many Israelis say, well they took a great risk for peace and it didn’t work out, and most of them say it was not our fault that we wanted— We signed Oslo, we gave them territory A, we wanted to give them territory B, and we just didn’t have a partner. Right? We gave them territory. They tried to [unclear], they tried to bring in weapons. They launched an intifada. And that’s sad.

ABM: Well that is an argument that is—

DS: Well, but I think a lot of, perhaps the majority of Israelis buy that.

ABM: They buy that, albeit it is not the truth in terms of how Israelis left Gaza, under what condition, with no agreement, overnight, without any security arrangement, without any economic arrangement. I mean, what do you expect? Hamas won the election. They feel they are entitled. It’s been stolen away from them. I mean, that’s how it is, that’s how the Israelis— But the Israelis swallow the narrative of a government, successive. Look what’s happening in Gaza, should we create another one in the West Bank? And we’re saying, well if you want to make a deal with the West Bank, you’re not going to withdraw overnight. It’ll take 10 years. You have to establish such a solid, strong relationship between the two sides to develop such a very strong, vested interest by both parties that peace is the only practical alternative.

DS: Kind of a three-state solution, right? Israel and the West Bank. And then you know Gaza, the land of Gaza. Yeah, poor Gazans really. I mean—

ABM: The Israelis resigned themselves to the fact that Gaza will be a state, and they will not object to that. They have no interest in Gaza, other than to keep it peaceful. And if Hamas want to have a state, let him have a state as long as they stop building tunnels and stop provoking Israel. That’s what I hear.

DS: Well, yeah, as long as a leopard changes its stripes. It’s not a leopard anymore. This is not Hamas at that point. Right?

ABM: I want to take advantage of your time a little bit because your field in Lebanon. And, what is your take, I mean Lebanon is basically two states to a great extent.

DS: They used to call it a house of many mansions.

ABM: Yeah, house of many mansions is more so. I don’t anticipate Hezbollah any time soon to regroup. We don’t know what’s going to be in Syria. And they have not gotten so deep into Syria. But at one point, where do you see this going in Lebanon? From the future of Lebanon as an entity and the future of Hezbollah, let us say they are—I want to start with the proposition, let us say they are going to come back at one point. Where that’s going to go?

DS: Listen, Hezbollah has experienced great losses in Syria. Fifteen hundred or more soldiers, militiamen being killed, but they’ve also developed new capabilities, right. The ability to move and fire, logistics, mobility, things that they didn’t have before. I mean, they were basically an ambush force in Lebanon. Now they are an expeditionary force, and they have absorbed the casualties. Many people at home in Lebanon are not happy about that. They’re going to be deployed in Syria for some time.

ABM: Exactly, yeah.

DS: But when these guys come home, the question is, what are they going to do. Well, some of them will be dispatched, deployed elsewhere by Iran. Right. These guys have been through Yemen, they’ve been through Iraq. We’ll see where they put them next right. They are now part of Iran’s Expeditionary Force that includes the Iranian-backed Shiite militias of Iraq, what they call the Afghani Fatimids, these Afghanistan Shiites who are fighting all over the region. But if they go back to Lebanon, I think these guys are unemployed, right? And not employable necessarily. They create a bit of a problem potentially for Hezbollah at home. These guys are warriors, battle hardened Hezbollahhis that were getting battle pay and status on the battlefield, and can’t read or write back at home, don’t necessarily have any prospects, employment opportunities, integration into society, and Hezbollah may not be in a position to pay for these folks, depending on what type of largesse Iran continues to provide after the operations start to wind down in Syria. Nonetheless, they are somewhat constrained.
If you remember back in 2006 when Hezbollah and Israel went to war for 34 days, Hezbollah essentially was free to operate from Lebanon, from the south. And their constituents who live in the south fled by and large to the north. They went to Beirut, they went to Dahieh, they went elsewhere in Lebanon and were taken in by the Sunnis and the Christians. And they went to Syria, where they were taken in by the Syrians. But the problem is, after helping to kill the better part of 500,000 mostly Sunni Muslims in Syria, Hezbollah is not going to be welcome in many places in Lebanon, and they can’t go to Syria. And I’m talking about the Shia. So Hezbollah can’t necessarily turn their attentions immediately to Israel. They can try and have this sort of base of operations from the Syrian Golan, but I don’t think Israel is going to buy that. I think Israel will retaliate against Hezbollah, not only in the Golan but also—

ABM: Anywhere.

DS: —in Lebanon, for their operations, yeah, both. Syria certainly. But I think it’s something that is more serious. Israel will have no compunction to go after Hezbollah in Lebanon. So Nasrallah is not an idiot, and he has constituents, and he cares about what the Shia in Lebanon think about Hezbollah. So this is a problem. On the other hand, you have the politics of Lebanon. You now have a new president who is nominally aligned with Hezbollah, but is not as we know entirely reliable, right? [Michel] Aoun is a proven megalomaniac. We don’t know what he’ll do. I mean even Michel Suleiman, the former Lebanese president who was the head of the General Staff, head of the Lebanese Armed Forces, Hezbollah approved him and he was great for five years, or Hezbollah thought he was doing just a fine job for four or five years, and then he started to say bad things about the resistance and all of a sudden Suleiman was no good. And I think with Aoun, this guy’s a wild card, uncontrollable. We’ll see where he goes. Hezbollah’s position in the government is assured, but this is basically a hamstrung government. They can’t even decide on the new electoral law to go back to elections.

ABM: That’s right, yes.

DS: They want to do all this offshore drilling, like Israel has all of this natural gas. There’s supposedly a couple billions of dollars worth of gas and oil offshore and Lebanon, 5000 feet under the Mediterranean. But who’s going to bid on that, right? The oil prices are low. The gas prices are low right now, and it’s volatile. Hezbollah keeps on threatening, it has a history of threatening Israeli gas facilities. They can’t put up the bid on these sites on the border because Lebanon refuses to delineate its border. This may be more trouble than anybody wants. Then you add on top of that the Americans and everybody else is telling the Lebanese, ‘hey, if you want to export this, Israel’s building a pipeline to Turkey, share the pipeline with them.’ The Lebanese say ‘no, we’re at war with Israel.’ And so therefore they’re going to send the stuff back to shore. They’re going to have to build an LNG facility. They’re going to put this stuff on a boat and they’re going to price themselves out of the market and nobody’s going to bid on these gas fields. So as they say, it’s a shame for Lebanon, and poor Lebanon, right? They are so remarkable in so many ways, so entrepreneurial, such a vibrant society, and yet they have these sort of intractable problems are their own worst enemies.

ABM: Yeah. I mean also demographically, the Muslims are much larger, at least 60 percent now of Lebanon, 55 percent?

DS: More. I mean, listen, Lebanon’s last census was in 1943. So we don’t really know. But some people know, they have voter rolls, some people have to go back to their villages and vote in Lebanon and they vote based on their sect. And it’s widely believed that the Shia are something like 38 percent, the Sunni are like 35 percent now. Christians and tiny population of Druze, and different kinds of Christians. But the Christians are still a sizable percentage of the population, but they’re not believed to be any longer the majority. And Taif gives them 50 percent of the parliament and the Office of the President. The Premier is a Sunni, the speaker of the parliament. The same arrangement, except now the president’s office is weak.

ABM: Yeah, much weaker.

DS: Very weak. And he’s a symbol of the nation but he has no power, just for appointments and things like that, and appointments for ambassadors. So the Christians, they can vote from abroad, but they still play an enormous role in the state. And they’re trying to have a new electoral law which some of the Shiites want, Hezbollah wants to change it so that it’s proportionality, right? They’re going to sort of reopen the can of worms on this Taif accord. But—

ABM: But it will be dominantly Muslim.

DS: Well, it’s dominantly Muslim in a way right now, because even though 60 of those seats in parliament out of the 120 are Christian, the vast majority of them are elected by Sunnis. 30 of them, 30 of those seats are elected by Sunnis, or Shiites.

ABM: But the question is, will they accept it? I mean, whether Hezbollah and the Sunnis would accept that kind of political arrangement, for how much longer will they go along with it? How do you see it?

DS: Well, listen I think that some people are pushing to reopen Taif, change the electoral law. I mean, the electoral law I think is genuinely bad, it’s the remnants of the Syrians, that intentionally sought to weaken the Christians in Lebanon. They can make some minor changes. I’m not sure they’re going to get consensus on this. Not the least reason why is because people like Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader of Lebanon, if they went to strict proportionality he would lose seats in parliament, etc., and lose his own sort of political key, swing vote in the parliament. So I’m not sure he’d be willing to accept that either. But I think there’s a general trepidation about reopening this, right? You’ve not had surprisingly, right, even though Hezbollah has helped kill all these Sunni Muslims next door, Lebanon’s been pretty quiet too.

ABM: Very surprising.

DS: Two years ago, you had nineteen attacks, suicide bombs, car bombs, things like that. But you haven’t really had anything over the past year and a half.

ABM: To what do you attribute that?

DS: Well, a couple of things. One is that you’ve had the Sunni Minister of Interior, Nouhad Machnouk, has been in close cooperation with Hezbollah. You have the United States that is providing not only intelligence but $100 to $150 million a year to the Lebanese armed forces and intelligence sharing with the Lebanese armed forces, and they’re sharing it with Hezbollah in turn. Right. They have an effective security apparatus at home, and everybody’s cooperating to fight Sunni extremism. Now in the long run, I think the Sunnis in Lebanon are going to get bent out of shape about this arrangement. You have the poorest people in Lebanon is also one of these sort of old things that oh, that the Shia are the downtrodden. This is back in the days of Musa Sadr. Not anymore. The Shia are doing quite fine thank you. Go up north in Lebanon, to Sunni areas north of Tripoli. Fifty percent of the homes don’t have indoor plumbing.
I was up there on the border in Wadi Khaled on the Syrian border, saw all these Syrian refugees, and these refugees are destitute, right. They get $125 a month if they’re lucky for a family of 10, from the United Nations, almost nothing. And then you go visit a Lebanese family up there and they’re saying, ‘hey, how come these refugees are getting so much and I’m getting nothing.’ These guys don’t have running water. Nobody in the family is employed. It’s awful. So it’s really the Sunnis that are in the worse shape. Sooner or later I think they’re going to get annoyed about getting pushed around by the Shia, by Hezbollah. But we’ve only seen small pockets of that. And everybody has agreed that the big enemy are the Takfiris, right? They bought the Hezbollah line. Personally, Sunni extremists are a problem, but so are Shiite extremists. And I think Lebanon’s a state that can’t do anything about that. Part of the problem there is that for the past eight years, the Obama administration didn’t have a Lebanon policy. Right, they had no goals, no focus, no attention, the sole element of U.S. policy in Lebanon was, well let’s say two. One is we’re going to give the LAF, the Lebanese Armed Forces, $100, $150 million a year, buy them some weapons, give them some money for the Internal Security Forces’ domestic counterterrorism mission. And the other thing is that we’re going to do some financial sanctions against Hezbollah. Other than that there was no Lebanon policy, and I think it was a real wasted period of time, because in 2009 the Lebanese went to the ballot boxes and they voted in the pro-West parliament. The good guys beat Hezbollah, and we didn’t do anything.

ABM: I don’t think the Trump administration’s going to do any different. Do you think they’re going to change any policy towards Lebanon? Do they have the time at this juncture to even think about Lebanon for that matter?

DS: Well, let’s see. You know, if you listen to what people like [Secretary of Defense] Mattis has been saying, that we’re going to have to push back against Iran in the region about its regional destabilization, about its sort of predatory foreign policy, part of that will be to not only militarily take some actions in places like the Gulf, when the Iranian fast boats harass U.S. destroyers and things like that, but there’s other steps political steps, other types of ways we can push back against Iran. One of those places that traditionally the Bush administration certainly competed with the Iranians was in Lebanon. And I think it was productive to do so. We didn’t win, but we participated in the battle of ideas, and I think that there will be some in the Trump administration that want to do this. I mean, you just got Joel Rayburn appointed director of the NSC. He’s interested in Lebanon—I don’t know what he’s going to do, but he’s a smart guy, a former Colonel who’s done a lot of work on Lebanon, among other issues. So maybe they’ll engage on this. I hope so.

ABM: Yeah well we’ll see. We’ll see what is going to happen. Thank you so much.

DS: Oh my pleasure.

ABM: Thank you so much.

On the Issues Episode 14 (Part 2): Daniel Bar-Tal

My latest guest is Dr. Daniel Bar-Tal, Professor Emeritus at the School of Education, Tel Aviv University.

Dr. Bar-Tal received his graduate training in social psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, and completed his doctoral thesis in 1974. He previously served as a Director of the Walter Lebach Research Institute for Jewish-Arab Coexistence through Education, Tel Aviv University and as President of the International Society of Political Psychology, and was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Palestine Israel Journal. He has won numerous awards, including the Alexander George Award of the International Society of Political Psychology, Nevitt Sanford Award of the International Society of Political Psychology, and Morton Deutsch Conflict Resolution Award of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He was awarded the Golestan Fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2000-2001, and in 2013 received honorary membership in the Polish Society of Social Psychology.

Since the early eighties his interest has shifted to political psychology and the study of the socio-psychological foundations of intractable conflicts and peace building, including reconciliation. In the latter area, he studied the evolvement of the socio-psychological infrastructure in times of intractable conflict that consists of shared societal beliefs of ethos of conflict, collective memory, and emotional collective orientations. He also studied socio-psychological barriers to peacemaking and ways to overcome them, and acquisition of the conflict repertoire by children and adolescents.

Within this scope of studies he developed with his collaborators theoretical frameworks for concepts like siege mentality, intractable conflict, delegitimization, collective victimhood, socio-psychological infrastructure, culture of conflict, effects of lasting occupation, barriers to peace making, construction and struggle over conflict supporting narratives, acquisition of intergroup psychological repertoire, early development of the ethos of conflict, transitional context, collective identity, and peace education, among many others.

The work in these areas has resulted in books, Group Beliefs (1990), Shared Beliefs in a Society (2000), Stereotypes and Prejudice in Conflict: Representations of Arabs in Israeli Jewish Society (2005), Living with the conflict (2007), and Intractable conflicts: Socio-psychological foundations and dynamics (2013). He co-edited a wide variety of volumes, and in addition has published over two hundred articles and chapters in major journals, books and encyclopedias.

Of special importance in his professional life is founding and leading a “learning community” of 10-15 graduate (mostly doctoral) students, who come from different disciplines and universities, to carry their studies about conflict and their resolution. The learning community serves as a framework for learning, reflecting, debating, and developing; carrying conceptual and empirical studies; socialization for academic career and societal involvement; and for social support.

Through the years he has lectured widely on his work, and worked as Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt University, Brandeis University, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, University of Muenster, University of Maryland College Park, Polish Academy of Science, University of Palermo, and Australian National University.

He retired in 2015 and decided to devote his second career to political activism. He founded a peace movement Save Israel-Stop the Occupation with the goal to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and establish the Palestinian state. SISO’s website can be found here:

On the Issues Episode 14 (Part 1): Daniel Bar-Tal

My latest guest is Dr. Daniel Bar-Tal, Professor Emeritus at the School of Education, Tel Aviv University.

Dr. Bar-Tal received his graduate training in social psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, and completed his doctoral thesis in 1974. He previously served as a Director of the Walter Lebach Research Institute for Jewish-Arab Coexistence through Education, Tel Aviv University and as President of the International Society of Political Psychology, and was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Palestine Israel Journal. He has won numerous awards, including the Alexander George Award of the International Society of Political Psychology, Nevitt Sanford Award of the International Society of Political Psychology, and Morton Deutsch Conflict Resolution Award of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He was awarded the Golestan Fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2000-2001, and in 2013 received honorary membership in the Polish Society of Social Psychology.

Since the early eighties his interest has shifted to political psychology and the study of the socio-psychological foundations of intractable conflicts and peace building, including reconciliation. In the latter area, he studied the evolvement of the socio-psychological infrastructure in times of intractable conflict that consists of shared societal beliefs of ethos of conflict, collective memory, and emotional collective orientations. He also studied socio-psychological barriers to peacemaking and ways to overcome them, and acquisition of the conflict repertoire by children and adolescents.

Within this scope of studies he developed with his collaborators theoretical frameworks for concepts like siege mentality, intractable conflict, delegitimization, collective victimhood, socio-psychological infrastructure, culture of conflict, effects of lasting occupation, barriers to peace making, construction and struggle over conflict supporting narratives, acquisition of intergroup psychological repertoire, early development of the ethos of conflict, transitional context, collective identity, and peace education, among many others.

The work in these areas has resulted in books, Group Beliefs (1990), Shared Beliefs in a Society (2000), Stereotypes and Prejudice in Conflict: Representations of Arabs in Israeli Jewish Society (2005), Living with the conflict (2007), and Intractable conflicts: Socio-psychological foundations and dynamics (2013). He co-edited a wide variety of volumes, and in addition has published over two hundred articles and chapters in major journals, books and encyclopedias.

Of special importance in his professional life is founding and leading a “learning community” of 10-15 graduate (mostly doctoral) students, who come from different disciplines and universities, to carry their studies about conflict and their resolution. The learning community serves as a framework for learning, reflecting, debating, and developing; carrying conceptual and empirical studies; socialization for academic career and societal involvement; and for social support.

Through the years he has lectured widely on his work, and worked as Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt University, Brandeis University, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, University of Muenster, University of Maryland College Park, Polish Academy of Science, University of Palermo, and Australian National University.

He retired in 2015 and decided to devote his second career to political activism. He founded a peace movement Save Israel-Stop the Occupation with the goal to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and establish the Palestinian state. SISO’s website can be found here:

On the Issues Episode 13: Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai

My guest today is Ajmal Khan Zazai, tribal leader and Paramount Chief of Paktia Province in Afghanistan. As a tribal leader, he works to bring an end to insurgency and corruption in Afghanistan, and support a process to bring peace, stability, and prosperity to all Afghans.

Born Aug 25th, 1968 in Kabul, Afghanistan, Khan attended primary school in Kabul until emigrating to Pakistan in 1980 due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While studying at Sidiq-i-Akbar High School in Peshawar, Khan continually crossed the border between 1984 and 1986 into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet army. From 1986 till 1989, he worked for the NGO Afghan Health and Social Assistants (based in Peshawar) as Assistant Director for Public Relations.

In an ambush in 1989, he survived an attempt on his life by extremist elements and was forced to immigrate to Canada. From 1990 till 1993, he studied microcomputer management at the Herzing Institute Toronto, and returned to Paktia province in 1995. From 1996 till 1998, he worked with his father Raiss Afzal Khan Zazai, who was the head of the United Tribes front, in organizing Afghan tribes to revolt against the Taliban regime in Paktia. The attempt was unsuccessful, and some prominent tribal leaders were killed by the Taliban, including his father in 2000.

In 2004, the Zazi tribes appointed Khan as the chief of the Zazi tribes.

He continued with the vision of his late father by uniting the Afghan tribes into the United Afghan Tribes Jirga and continued to unite the tribes within Paktia and across Afghanistan. In 2008, he was elected as the paramount chief of all the tribes in Paktia province. From 2008 till 2012, he channeled over $20 million US into community development projects through the Central Asia Development Group by building retaining walls, water canals, dams, girls’ schools, and bridges and roads in Paktia. These efforts provided employment for over 46,000 people.

In 2009, Khan received a fellowship degree in the Silk Road studies program at SAIS (sponsored by the Rumsfeld Foundation) in Washington, DC. In 2010, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree for services provided in the implementation of democracy and the rule of law in London, and was given a honorary degree as well for numerous lectures given in the United Kingdom.

His vision is to unite the Afghan Tribes in order to bring an end to insurgency, corruption, and warlordism in Afghanistan, and support a process which could bring peace, stability, and prosperity to all Afghans.

On the Issues Episode 12: Carne Ross

My guest for this episode is Carne Ross, Executive Director of Independent Diplomat, which he founded in 2004.

During a fifteen year diplomatic career for the United Kingdom, he served as political officer in the British embassies in Bonn, Oslo, and Kabul, and was Head of the Middle East Section and Deputy Head of Political Section at the UK Mission to the United Nations.

In this episode, we discuss a number of topics, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian civil war, and Independent Diplomat’s work with Somaliland, the Marshall Islands, and the Syrian opposition. For more information about Mr. Ross and Independent Diplomat’s work, please visit their website:

On the Issues Episode 11: Andrew Tabler

My guest for this episode is Andrew J. Tabler, the Martin J. Gross Fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute, where he focuses on Syria and US policy in the Levant.

Mr. Tabler achieved unparalleled long-term access to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. During fourteen years of residence in the Middle East, Mr. Tabler served as co-founder and editor-in-chief of Syria Today, Syria’s first private-sector English-language magazine; as a consultant on U.S.-Syria relations for the International Crisis Group (2008); and as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs (2005-2007), writing on Syrian, Lebanese, and Middle Eastern affairs. Following his graduate work in Cairo, Egypt, Mr. Tabler held editorships with the Middle East Times and Cairo Times, where he focused on Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, before becoming senior editor and director of editorial for the Oxford Business Group (OBG). In 2001, Mr. Tabler personally oversaw with OBG the first comprehensive English-language report on Syria in more than thirty years. Mr. Tabler has lived, worked and studied extensively in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey.

Mr. Tabler has interviewed Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad, the late Israeli president Shimon Peres, the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, slain Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and former Lebanese prime ministers Fouad Siniora and Saad Hariri. His articles and opinion pieces on Middle East affairs and U.S. foreign policy have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs. He has also appeared in interviews with CNN, NBC, CBS, PBS, NPR, and the BBC.

Mr. Tabler is author of “Syria’s Collapse and How Washington Can Stop It” (Foreign Affairs, July-August 2013) and the 2011 book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria (Lawrence Hill Books).

On the Issues Episode 10: Ambassador Patrick Theros

My guest for this episode is Ambassador Patrick Theros. In March 2000, Ambassador Theros assumed the office of President of the US-Qatar Business Council after a 36-year career in the United States Foreign Service. Ambassador Theros joined the Foreign Service in 1963 and, prior to his appointment as Ambassador to the State of Qatar, served in a variety of positions including Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political Officer in Amman; and Charge d’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic and Commercial Counselor in Damascus.

During these periods he earned four Superior Honor Awards. In 1990 he was accorded the personal rank of Minister Counselor. In 1992 he received both the President’s Meritorious Service Award for career officials and the Secretary of Defense Medal for Meritorious Civilian Service. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem honored Ambassador Theros with the honor of Knight Commander Order of the Holy Sepulcher. In 1999 His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah Al-Thani awarded Ambassador Theros Qatar’s Order of Merit.

Immediately before his appointment to Qatar in 1995, Ambassador Theros served as Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, responsible for the coordination of all U.S. Government counterterrorism activities outside the United States. He speaks Spanish, Arabic and Greek fluently.

In addition to his duties as President of the US-Qatar Business Council, Ambassador Theros has the following affiliations:
Member of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council (elected 2010)
Council of Foreign Relations, Member
Representative to USA of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem,
Arab American Bankers Association of America, Member
Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs, Member
American Academy of Diplomacy, Member

Ambassador Theros was born in 1941 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and attended public schools in Michigan, Ohio and the District of Columbia. He graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 1963 and has done advanced studies at the American University in Washington, D.C., the Universidad Centroamericana in Managua, Nicaragua, the Armed Forces Staff College at Norfolk, Virginia, and the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

On the Issues Episode 9: Frederic C. Hof

My latest guest for ‘On the Issues’ is Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a specialist on Syria. Prior to becoming director, he was a resident senior fellow with the Center.

On March 28, 2012 President Obama conferred on Hof the rank of ambassador in connection with his new duties as special adviser for transition in Syria. Hof was previously the special coordinator for regional affairs in the US Department of State’s Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, where he advised Special Envoy George Mitchell on the full range of Arab-Israeli peace issues falling under his purview and focusing on Syria-Israel and Israel-Lebanon matters. He joined the State Department in 2009 after serving as the president and CEO of AALC, limited company, an international business consulting and project finance firm formerly known as Armitage Associates LC.

Hof’s professional life has focused largely on the Middle East. In 2001 he directed the Jerusalem field operations of the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee headed by former US Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and was the lead drafter of the Committee’s 2001 report. In 1983, as a US Army officer, he helped draft the “Long Commission” report, which investigated the October 1983 bombing of the US Marine headquarters at Beirut International Airport. Both reports drew considerable international praise for fairness and integrity.

A 1969 graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Hof began his professional career as an Army officer. He is a Vietnam veteran and served as a US Army Middle East Foreign Area Officer, studying Arabic at the Foreign Service Institute in Tunisia and receiving a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School. He served as US Army attaché in Beirut, Lebanon and later in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as director for Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestinian Affairs.

Hof has written extensively on Arab-Israeli issues. He is the author of Galilee Divided: The Israel-Lebanon Frontier, 1916-1984 (Westview Press, 1985); Line of Battle, Border of Peace? The Line of June 4, 1967 (Middle East Insight, 1999); and Beyond the Boundary: Lebanon, Israel and the Challenge of Change (Middle East Insight, 2000). He has also written many articles on Jordan Valley water issues. His writing on the Israel-Syria, Israel-Lebanon, and (by virtue of his work on the “Mitchell Committee”) Israel-Palestinian tracks of the Middle East peace process has contributed positively to the body of literature promoting Arab-Israeli peace.

His awards include the Purple Heart, the Department of State Superior Honor Award, the Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Medal, and the Defense Superior Service Medal. He resides in Silver Spring, Maryland with his wife, Brenda.




Alon Ben-Meir: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is Fred Hof, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafiq Hariri Center for the Middle East, who specializes in Syria. In March 2012, President Obama conferred on him the rank of Ambassador in connection with his new duties as Special Advisor for transition in Syria. He was previously special coordinator for Regional Affairs in the United States Department of State’s Office of the Special Envoy for the Middle East. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.

You’ve been so much involved, directly with the Syrian situation, the civil war in Syria, and most recently, as of course you know, there’s negotiations going on sponsored by Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Where do you think this is going to go, even if they consolidate the ceasefire they’ve been talking about?

Fred Hof: I think Alon, the best thing that can come out of this conference would be the consolidation of some kind of reduction of violence, cessation of hostilities, even a formal ceasefire. This would mitigate the ongoing humanitarian outrage that is happening in northwestern Syria. This is obviously of great importance to Turkey, which is already hosting 2.7 million refugees or something like that. I think it’s important to the Russians because what the Russians I think want to do at this stage is consolidate the diplomatic results of their very successful military intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad.

You know, when they first came in, President Barack Obama gave them some Dutch uncle advice about, don’t get yourself trapped in a quagmire.

ABM: Exactly.

FH: OK? And I think Putin knows his client Assad well enough to know that if he tries to help Assad reconquer all of Syria meter by meter, this is going to take years, it’s going to take billions and billions and billions of rubles, and I think what Putin would probably prefer at this point is a diplomatic settlement that more or less recognizes that Assad will be around for awhile.

ABM: But yeah, perhaps for a transitional period of at least two to three years. I mean, it’s possible. My concern is not – the issue really that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Let’s say there is a ceasefire between the rebels and the government. But then you have scores of other extremist groups who are operating throughout Syria. And when we talk about some kind of political solution, what sort of a solution is Bashar Assad going to accept when in fact the Sunnis are still a majority in Syria? The Alawites are still a minority in Syria, the Christians already decided they don’t want to have anything to do with the central government, and they’re trying to consolidate their enclave along the line of what the Iraqi Kurds have done. So where is this going to? Even if you consolidate the ceasefire, they cannot control the other groups that are fighting one another, and against the government, not to speak of ISIS. I’m assuming that ISIS sooner or later will be defeated.

FH: Yes. I think that’s a good assumption.

ABM: Yeah, I think that’s what’s going to happen. But then what are you going to do with these other groups that have a vested interest to continue to aggravate the situation in Syria, because they have their own stakes as well.

FH: Yeah, yeah.

ABM: And no one controls them.

FH: Yeah. This is going to be a very long and complicated process, Alon, even if everything goes well.

ABM: Yeah, of course.

FH: Even if there’s a modicum of good faith on the part of various parties, it’s still going to take a long time. And I think the only way to go about this sanely is to take it step-by-step. The main challenge the Russians face right now in trying to consolidate a ceasefire is that their client, Bashar al-Assad, is not particularly interested in that course of action. So far he has been riding the Russians and Iranians to one victory after another. He would like to stretch this out indefinitely until he, Bashar al-Assad, is in charge of all of Syria, along the lines of the way he was in charge in March 2011, before things fell apart.

ABM: But don’t you think this is an illusion on his part? I mean, does he really believe that he can actually achieve that?

FH: It’s possible that he does believe it, Alon. To understand Bashar al-Assad, I think the beginning of wisdom is to understand that he resides at the center of the universe. That everything revolves around him. That Russia and Iran need him even more than he needs them.

ABM: Well this is true, he believes that, and for good reason. Iran wants to maintain its influence, and to some extent presence in Syria almost under any circumstances; they will not relinquish that. Nor will the Russians. So Russia has had a naval base going back 40 years, Iran wants to maintain that crescent between the Gulf and the Mediterranean, for them Syria is a lynchpin.

FH: That’s right, and I think where they potentially differ – they don’t differ right now because each side for its own reasons wants to keep Bashar al-Assad in power.

ABM: To serve their interest.

FH: To serve their interest. From the Iranian point of view, keeping Bashar in power indefinitely is obviously very, very, very, very important. Because what does Bashar do for them? He provides Hezbollah in Lebanon with a secure hinterland, with a real backup. Bashar al-Assad does anything Iran wants him to do with respect to Hezbollah. The Iranians are smart enough, they know Syria well enough to know that there is no constituency for this kind of subordinate relationship beyond Bashar and the family. So their interest in Bashar al-Assad is permanent. The question I ask myself is, is the Russian interest permanent? And I’m not so sure. On the one hand, Bashar al-Assad does provide a service to Vladimir Putin, he enables Putin to turn to his domestic audience and say, ‘look, I have defeated American regime change in Syria, we are back as a great power, so please my friends, pay no attention to that failing economy. Pay no attention to the corruption of your government, we’re back as a great power.’ And with Assad being the face, the personification of the state that has been saved, it’s obvious that Vladimir Putin does not want Bashar al-Assad to go anywhere in the next 20 minutes. But beyond that, if you’re going to have an expanded naval base, if you’re going to have an air base in Syria, what do you do about a platform that is so weak, that will never recover, that will never attract significant funding for reconstruction as long as Bashar al-Assad and his entourage exercise executive power? The Russians know this guy, and they know the family. They know how corrupt it is. They know how incompetent it is. So if the Russians are going to keep Bashar al-Assad in power indefinitely, they have to weigh the fact that Syria will continue down the path of a totally failed state. And is a failed state really the place where you want to have military bases?

ABM: Yeah, but this is the point. They cannot possibly, in my view, count on Bashar Assad to stay there so-called indefinitely. How can he possibly be there indefinitely? That is, if the ceasefire is to be followed by serious political negotiations to reach some kind of an agreement, there’s no question at least – please correct me if you think I’m wrong on this – the rebels are not going to agree that Bashar al-Assad remains in power indefinitely. They’ll have to agree on some kind of a political solution. He may be there for a transitional period, for four years, or go to elections maybe once or twice, but he’s going to have to go at one point or another. Do you think the rebels will ever accept a solution that’s going to keep him permanently?

FH: No, they will not accept such a solution, but look at it from the point of view of Bashar al-Assad, ok? Why should I, Bashar al-Assad, care one way or the other, what the rebels will accept or not accept? I have won a military victory that has sustained me in power, that has rolled back a very serious challenge to my tenure as president of the Syrian Arab Republic. If I can keep the Russians and the Iranians engaged against the rebels, I have a chance of having it all. Right now, I’m in the driver’s seat, why should I give up anything to these people?

ABM: Well, this is exactly the point. That is, are the Russians and the Iranians prepared to continue to invest this much time, energy, money, resources, military, everything, indefinitely? They want to have some kind of a solution that can consolidate their position in Syria, and somewhere along the line get out of this mess.

FH: I think it’s clear Alon that the Russians want to move in that direction, and the Russians recognize at least in an academic sense that there has to be some kind of power-sharing so that there can be a respectable-enough government in Syria to attract the international financial institutions, the major countries of the west, Japan and others, to put money into the country for reconstruction. I think the Russians get that. You know, they may embark on a strategy of trying to move Assad into more of a ceremonial position, so that actually skilled people, technicians, can run a central Syrian government. I have no doubt that Assad will push back against that. He will oppose it. If you have a mafia-style organization, mafias are really not into power-sharing, much less giving up power. This would be an unnatural act for Bashar al-Assad and his entourage to do this, so who becomes a key character here? This would be Iran, ok. And Iran, from my perspective, really does want Assad. For them, Assad is the genuine article, he is the only Syrian who can really be relied upon to deliver with respect to Hezbollah. And for Iran, Hezbollah is everything. Hezbollah is its long arm of penetration into the Arab world. Lebanon is kept under domination and you’ve got a permanent threat to Israel.

ABM: This is true, they want him to stay for as long as possible, that means they’ll have to continue to support him for as long as they want him to be in power.

ABM: Now when we talk about some kind of sharing, creating some kind of government where there’s representative of — who this government’s going to represent. So let’s say you have an agreement between the rebels and the government. What happened to the other major minority groups, like the Christians, like the Kurds, and others, and so who is going to represent whom? In what kind of representation, power-sharing, you can actually envision, where these people – I mean if you talk about power-sharing, the Christians say, well we want to be part of that. The Kurds, even though they are trying to consolidate their own enclave, they may still not want to be left out completely; after all they need some kind of resources to maintain their strength and presence. So who is going to share that kind of power, under what kind of an arrangement, specifically if we’re talking about some kind of proportionate representation of the population. What other group, other than the rebels? And do the rebels in fact represent the Sunni community, all of it? That’s the problem I see.

FH: Yeah, the armed Syrian rebels are predominantly and indeed overwhelmingly Sunni Arab. The broader Syrian opposition, the unarmed Syrian opposition, has representatives of all of the sectarian groups, plus Kurds, in it. I mean, there are Alawites, there are Christians, Sunnis, and Kurds involved.

ABM: And Druze.

FH: One way to go about this would be consistent with what the permanent 5 members of the Security Council agreed in Geneva in June 2012. And that is that at Geneva, under the auspices of the United Nations, the Syrian government, and a delegation representing the opposition, would create on the basis of mutual consent, a transitional governing body, ok? In effect a national unity government, that would run Syria for an agreed period of time. That would work on restoring stability, getting the United Nations humanitarian aid in everywhere, begin reconstruction, write a constitution, et cetera, et cetera. Again, mutual veto as to who’s on it. One way to accommodate the Russians, perhaps, would be to exclude the Syrian presidency from this arrangement.

ABM: Only if it is ceremonial.

FH: Yes, and it would be basically ceremonial in nature. Full executive power in accordance with the 2012 Geneva final communique would be exercised by this transitional governing body, which would probably consist of current members of the Syrian government to include some people in the security services who are not necessarily suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity, some of the more prominent opposition leaders. This could be done, and the merit of doing it this way is it’s fully in accordance with what the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China agreed in 2012. It’s not going to be pretty, it’s not going to be a pristine process.

ABM: It’s impossible, I mean, in my view, it’s extremely difficult to get to this point, because let us say you have a representative government. Again, I want to go to the point, is it going to be proportionate. Will the Sunnis have a single vote, or two, equal to everybody else? How do you get a representative government, transitional government that is going to satisfy the groups, one of which is a complete majority in all of Syria, and the others are small minorities? What sort of representative government can you put together?

FH: I think Alon, as a general matter – and look, there’s a wide variety of opinion within Syria. But as a general matter, Syrians remain very nationalistic, notwithstanding the efforts of Bashar al-Assad to turn this into a sectarian battle. Most Syrians still resist having sectarian identification at the top of the way they identify themselves politically. They are Syrians first. I think that the manner in which a transitional governing body performs will mean a lot more to Syrians than the sectarian identity or the relative shares. To sum it up, I do not think there is much sentiment in Syria in favor of a Lebanese-type solution.

ABM: No, I agree with you, but just [unclear] of course, you know, after all, the Syrians have been living under the Assad regime now going for 45, 46, 47 years.

Since Hafez al-Assad. And then there were demonstrations took place 6 years ago and were met with force, so notwithstanding  – and I agree with you, there is that nationalistic tendency. And so do the Iraqis to great extent, have the same kind of tendency, some kind of – they’re nationalist. But here again, you have outside powers who are going to do whatever it takes to secure their position in Syria, for the very reason you mentioned – Iran because of Hezbollah and [unclear] and Assad because he wants to have a presence in the Middle East, and Syria is a wonderful place to be, and he’s been there for some time. So these powers are going to have to be also satisfied in what sort of transitional government you’re going to have so that it will continue to serve their interest as well. So here where there is going to be a conflict in my view between the national tendency, that is get together, work together, restore Syria as a single unit, where in fact these other powers are going to be pulling and pushing to make sure they all count, and they continue their–

FH: I suspect Alon that the central problem with respect to outside powers really does boil down to Iran. Because of all the outside powers we’re referring to, and leave aside Russian military bases, just put that to the side—Iran is the only party that really wants to have a large, permanent presence in Syria. Iran is already in the business of trying to build a Hezbollah-like structure in Syria. Just in case some time in the future the Assad family can’t hang on. They’d like to see a Syrian version of Hezbollah that is essentially a state within a state, or perhaps the only real state inside Syria. I mean, Turkey, for example, really wants to see peace and quiet in Syria. It would like to see the restoration of economic ties which had grown very, very rapidly in the years preceding the civil war. The problem the Turks have, quite aside from Syrian Kurds, is the Turks look at the Assad regime, and they just don’t see the kind of leadership that can breathe any life into Syria. From the point of view of the Turks, if the Assads are still in the picture, with actual executive power, Syria will continue to die, Syria will continue to hemorrhage human beings, and Turkey’s problems will just multiply in the years ahead. The Turks are facing the fact right now that the Russians and the Iranians have purchased Assad a military victory. The Turks are facing the fact that the United States is AWOL. They’re trying to make the best of a bad situation. But reports that Turkey is going to leave NATO and become Russia’s ally, or that Turkey is going to reconcile itself to Bashar al-Assad, I think these reports are highly exaggerated and false.

ABM: I think so, I agree with you in that regard. But you know, for Turkey, obviously they need stability. I don’t think they care who is going to rule Syria as long as there’s some kind of political stability.

FH: But political stability will require a strong measure of national reconciliation, and political stability will require reconstruction – basic infrastructure, housing stock, lines of communication, and Turkey’s conclusion is you can’t get there with Bashar al-Assad in power. Nobody in his right mind is going to invest in Syrian reconstruction as long as you’ve got this clique sitting there with its hands open, prepared to take a percentage of whatever comes into the country.

ABM: Yeah, Fred, my understanding, talking to some Turks in this area, they are supporting the cease-fire, they want to consolidate it. They want to see if they can alleviate the problem with the refugees. But they also know exactly what you said, that Turkey does not have any confidence that this is going to lead to any kind of serious reconciliation anytime in the foreseeable future. So that’s how they see it. But they want to alleviate some of the pressure.

FH: In effect, the Turks want to put a tourniquet on a gushing wound right now.

The full recovery of the patient, that’s something for the future.

ABM: Exactly, that’s what they’re saying. So that’s what Erdogan is aiming for, and he absolutely doesn’t want to see if he could help it, that Assad staying – even a transitional period of time, they don’t want to see that happening. But I’m not sure they can control that.

FH: No they can’t.

ABM: That is, they cannot control that. Because if they want a cessation of hostilities, at least between the major combatants, that is the rebels and the government, then they’re going to have to agree that Assad is going to have to be, at a minimum, a figurehead at this point.

FH: I think so, and look, I think the Russians understand this as well. The Russians understand intellectually what the problem is here. And they’ve had a lot of experience with Assad over the years. They know what they’re dealing with. The real question is whether a) they want to slide Assad into a more ceremonial role so that Syria can get on the road to recovery, and b) if that’s what they want, do they really have the leverage to make it happen? Because Assad will resist this. As I mentioned earlier, Assad is not into power-sharing, it’s not exactly second nature for him, and he’ll fall back on the Iranians, who are not interested at all in Bashar al-Assad playing the role of Syria’s Queen Elizabeth.

ABM: That’s exactly – I mean, his survival depends, really, to a great extent, on continuing support of Russia at this point, and Iran.

FH: I would say mainly Iran. Mainly Iran.

ABM: Ok, mainly Iran. So, what is going to serve Iran’s long-term interest here? You know? Keeping Assad for as long as they can. And perhaps in the interim, they can create some kind of a basis along the line of what you’re talking about, create some kind of Hezbollah group to be in Syria: should Assad eventually depart in one form or another, they have already consolidated their presence by other means.

FH: This I think is their strategy.

ABM: This to me seems to be their strategy, trying to do that. They need two, three, four, five years, maybe six years, to be able to establish that kind of presence, and then the hell with Assad.

FH: Well the Iranians have said that at a minimum, Bashar al-Assad should serve out his current term, which takes us out into I think it’s June 2021.

That hypothetically would give them enough time to build a structure in Syria that if necessary, I mean, who knows, by 2021, who knows what the relationship between Iran and Israel might be, ok? We can’t completely eliminate the possibility of a détente of some kind, in which case, Hezbollah as a military force becomes not relevant to Iran, and the whole equation changes then.

Keeping Bashar al-Assad in actual power until 2021 may not be so important to the Russians. In fact, the Russians may see several downsides to that, but it is of paramount importance to the Iranians. The Iranians need time a) to build a parallel structure in Syria that can keep them in the driver’s seat, and b) to see what is the world going to look like in 2021? Are we still going to be more or less on the edge of armed conflict with Israel? Are we still going to need Hezbollah to be pointing whatever it is, 100,000 rockets and missiles at the Jewish state, will this still be necessary? We know it’s going to be necessary for the foreseeable future, in 2021 instead, who knows?

ABM: I just want to touch on Turkey versus the Kurds in Syria. Notwithstanding everything we’ve been just talking about, Turkey has unique, different interests as to what’s going to be with the Syrian Kurds. And right now, basically they’re fighting them, for all intents and purposes. Under what circumstances could that attitude of Turkey change toward the Kurds, under any kind of scenario in terms of finding power-sharing, some kind of a permanent ceasefire, long-term ceasefire, or even forming some transitional government? Where do you see Turkey going with the Kurds, which they consider a staunch enemy as far as I know.

FH: I think there are a couple of aspects to the Turkish attitude here. First, the official Turkish belief, and I think it’s the belief of the Turkish population in general, is, yes, there are plenty of Kurds in Syria, but there’s no such thing as Syrian Kurdistan. And in a technical demographic sense, this is true. You know, unlike northern Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Kurdish, the strip of land along the Turkish-Syrian border on the Syrian side is far from 100% Kurdish. There are a lot of Kurds, but there is no Kurdistan. Second, from the Turkish point of view, the dominant Kurdish political force in Syria, the YPG, is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK.

ABM: PKK, that’s how they see it.

FH: Which has been listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, and this is one of the great ironies. The United States is using the Syrian affiliate of the PKK to fight the ground war against ISIS in eastern Syria. So naturally, the Turks are not amused by this.

They find it quite offensive, and they’d like to see the United States get out of that business, which is understandable. But you know, in my discussions with Turks, what I say is, this is fine, what you’re saying is perfectly logical. But understand one thing – in order to defeat ISIS in Syria, an organization that is carrying out atrocities in Turkey, we need a ground force. You can’t win a military victory from 30,000 feet against a bunch of guys in jeeps and on foot. It can’t happen. So if it’s not going to be the YPG, who’s it going to be? Let’s have a discussion on who it’s going to be. This is how I perceive it.

ABM: And you’re right, and I suppose their intense hatred for the Kurds is really blinding them from seeing the reality, don’t you think?

FH: Well, to use a current expression, there could be an alternate reality here. I mean, the United States does have the option, and in fact, Alon, I think this is taking place. The United States has the option of doing a top-to-bottom strategic review of how we are pursuing the war against ISIS in eastern Syria, ok? The way we’re pursuing it, right now, has made it kind of a slow-motion war which has enabled ISIS in Raqqa to plan and execute major atrocities in Turkey and Western Europe, alright? You’ve got a predominantly Kurdish force that certainly is not interested in going block-by-block in booby trapped Raqqa to save the place. T

Their interest is in an autonomous zone along the border, so the thought is, alright, we’ve recruited a bunch of Arabs to serve with the Kurds, what we call this Syrian Democratic Force, we’ll feed them into Raqqa to save the city, as if there’s no requirement for professional soldiers or marines who are trained in urban combat. I mean, you can’t take a collection of militiamen and feed them in like that. Not only will it be bad results for them, it’ll be bad results for civilians who are caught in the place.

ABM: Exactly.  I fully agree with you. Now that President Trump is talking about, joining forces with Russia, basically to focus on ISIS, to defeat ISIS sooner than later. I mean, that’s what I understand the thinking is.

FH: Well, what he said as a candidate is number 1, ISIS is his first priority. I mean, he’s even telling NATO that ISIS is our first priority. But in Syria, ISIS is the first priority, and he’s held out the possibility, he said perhaps we should support Russia and Assad in their battle against ISIS. I suspect that President Trump understands two things by now: number 1, Russia and Assad have not been fighting ISIS.

ABM: Absolutely, yeah.

FH: Except for the occasional episode of Palmyra falling and being recaptured.

ABM: When ISIS is in the way, they fight them.

FH: Yeah. I think the president of the United States understands that now, and even more importantly, I think he understands that if you get into bed with Assad and the Russians, there’s another party in that bed with you, which is Iran. And at the end of the day, an American-Russian-Assad alliance puts Iran in charge of Syria, and I don’t think this is something the Trump administration wants.

ABM: So when he’s saying we need to eliminate ISIS, so far, from the air, yes, we have made significant progress but not been–

FH: Yeah, there has been progress.

ABM: But we’re not going to defeat ISIS, exactly what you said, from the air alone. Doesn’t that mean that we need to send ground troops?

FH: Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if that is one of the options.

ABM: But would you advise him?

FH: I would. And if I were asked, I would advise him to go in that direction, and try not to make it a 100% unilateral American initiative. Try to make this a coalition of the willing on the ground. Look, if we’re going to separate ourselves from the YPG in this battle, this is a major political victory for Turkey. This is being very forthcoming with the Turks, giving them something they really want. Ok, how about something in return? How about a couple of divisions to help secure eastern Syria once ISIS is defeated? You know, we discovered in 2003 when we went into Iraq, that post-combat stabilization really is important, it was a lesson relearned in Libya in 2011. Are we going to relearn the lesson the hard way again in 2017 in eastern Syria? We need to be prepared for the day after. Because defeating ISIS militarily is one thing, it’s absolutely essential, I have no reservations about that at all.

ABM: No, there’s no question. And we cannot do that peacefully.

FH: But filling in the vacuum that these people filled in the first place with some effective local governance, with security, with the United Nations bringing in humanitarian assistance as rapidly as possible, this all has to be part of the overall plan. And if we’re going to use American troops in there, I want to see Turks, I want to see Jordanians, it’s possible that the French, who I think were really ready to go after the Paris attack.

AMB: The French will be ready to go.

FH: Get the French in there, the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Bahrainis.

ABM: But what about Russian ground troops?

FH: I don’t think so. I don’t think the Russians are inclined to do that. And my preference would be to keep them out. Keep them out and by all means, keep the Assad regime out of eastern Syria. It’s the performance of the Assad regime that made Syria safe for ISIS and al-Qaeda in the first place. You can use Syrian civil servants who still live in eastern Syria, people who know how to turn on the electricity and pick up the garbage and teach in school, great. Great. One of the basic principles of civil affairs is use the infrastructure that’s available to you. But letting the Assad family and the entourage back into areas liberated from ISIS, this would be catastrophic and self-defeating.

ABM: Just one last thing in terms of the coalition you’re talking about. Yes, I think the United States should not be doing this single-handedly, and it can’t. At this point, even we cannot do that. That’s because there are already other forces involved. The Russians are involved, the Iranians are involved.

FH: But not in eastern Syria. In eastern Syria right now, it is simply the predominantly Kurdish force on the ground. There are Syrian army units in Deir es-Zor and in Hasakah, I think. And they are basically just sitting there. These are predominantly Sunni units that Assad put out in the middle of eastern Syria because he couldn’t trust them to fight effectively in the West.

ABM: I’m just trying to think in terms, what sort of coordination, partnership quote unquote between Russia and the United States, given that what President Trump have already said, together we can defeat ISIS, so, we’re going to have to find a formula, I’m not sure what kind of formula—

FH: Well I think probably there’s a division of labor. The United States takes the lead in killing ISIS in eastern Syria, the Russians take the lead in stabilizing the cease-fire, protecting civilians in the west, and the United States and Russia together will regenerate the Geneva peace talks.

ABM: Well, we’ll end up on the most positive note.

FH: Not easy to do with Syria.

ABM: But thank you so much.

FH: Thank you so much, Alon, it’s always a pleasure.

On the Issues Episode 8: Steve Schlesinger

My guest for this episode is Steve Schlesinger, a Fellow at The Century Foundation and former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997–2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal.

In the early 1970s, he edited and published the New Democrat magazine, and after that spent four years as a staff writer at Time magazine. For twelve years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid-1990s, he worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities. He has also taught at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

He is the author of three books: Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations (Basics Books, 2003), for which he won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award; Bitter Fruit: The Story of the U.S. Coup in Guatemala, with Stephen Kinzer (Doubleday, 1982), cited as one of the New York Times’ “notable books” for 1982; and The New Reformers: Forces for Change in American Politics (Houghton Mifflin, 1975). He is the coeditor of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s Journals: 1952–2000 (Penguin Press, 2007) and The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (Random House, 2013).

A specialist on the foreign policies of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, he is a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and the New York Observer. He has appeared on CNN, Fox TV, NPR, NBC, Book TV, MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”, Christopher Matthews “Hardball” and Chuck Todd’s “Daily Rundown”, and other media outlets as well as in seven different documentaries on the UN and two on the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.

On the Issues Episode 7: Tim Williams

On this episode of On the Issues, I speak with Dr. Tim Williams, a consultant who has an extensive career history that extends from community and clinical psychology to working on military coordination in humanitarian response during conflict, development of governance and economic development in a fragile economy in a post-conflict context.

His PhD research and subsequent academic work is on the topic of how professionals make ethically loaded decisions at the nexus of personal, business and professional demands and values. In addition he has researched ethical decision-making in Antarctic scientific field parties, analysed the cultural interpretation of landscape in a military occupation, and written on psychological intervention in a chronic armed conflict and natural disaster. He is experienced in both quantitative and qualitative analytic techniques and has applied these across a range of fields including humanitarian access, supply chain and trade development, ethics and development of good governance.

For six years (2010-2016) Tim worked in the Office of the Quartet Representative in Jerusalem where his work focused on bridging between the political and diplomatic sphere and practical projects and interventions with government officials from several governments and many agencies, diplomats, private sector business, civil society groups and the international development community. This role involved advising and working with the Quartet Representative (Mr Tony Blair) to use his political weight and diplomacy to further Palestinian economic development. In particular Tim worked on specific areas where financial corruption was evident in trade facilitation, utilities (water and energy) development and management, and in improving access for Palestinian rule of law officials.

Tim built on his training and experience in psychology and his extensive participation in working with many cultures and in many government structures to bring his advanced skills of interpersonal and group relations, group process and facilitation, critical rigor in data gathering, analysis and presentation of conclusions, and skills in consultation and negotiation.

Tim has worked most recently in the Middle East (Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Egypt) but also has experience in the Asia-Pacific region (Thailand, New Zealand).

On the Issues Episode 6: General Anthony Zinni

My guest for this episode is General Anthony Zinni, retired four-star Marine Corps General and former commander-in-chief of the US Central Command. He also served as the US Special Envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and in missions to Pakistan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.

General Zinni retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2000, after a distinguished 39-year career that took him to over 70 countries in many command assignments. In his final tour of duty, from 1997 to 2000, he was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command. In his military career General Zinni earned 23 personal awards and 37 unit, service, and campaign awards.

General Zinni joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1961 and was commissioned an infantry second lieutenant in 1965, after completing his undergraduate degree in economics at Villanova University. He earned graduate degrees in international relations from Salve Regina University and in management and supervision from Central Michigan University. General Zinni has been awarded honorary doctorates from Villanova University; the College of William and Mary and the Maine Maritime Academy.

He has held academic positions that include the Stanley Chair in Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute, the Nimitz Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hofheimer Chair at the Joint Forces Staff College, and the Harriman Professorship of Government at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. He has worked with the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva.

He was Chairman of the Board of BAE Systems Inc., and a member of the board of Dyncorp International before being appointed an executive vice president. He also served as president of International Operations for M.I.C. Industries, Inc. General Zinni is the author of two best-selling books on his military career and foreign affairs: Battle Ready and The Battle for Peace. His most recent book, Leading the Charge, was published in 2009.

On the Issues Episode 5: David Phillips

I recently spoke with David Phillips, Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He has worked as a senior adviser to the United Nations Secretariat and as a foreign affairs expert and senior adviser to the U.S. Department of State. Mr. Phillips has published three books, and authored many policy reports as well as over 100 articles in leading publications such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, and Foreign Affairs.

For a full bio, please click here.

On the Issues Episode 4: Venera Kusari

I recently spoke with Venera Kusari, Program Coordinator at the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity at Columbia University. She facilitates collaboration with the Consortium and other institutions within Columbia University and outside to design and support projects that aim to prevent and eliminate youth and gang violence. She has extensive experience with international NGOs in the Balkans, mainly in Kosovo. She has worked on issues as diverse as disaster relief, refugees, gender equality, and minority rights in conflict and post-conflict contexts. Her research focus is in inter-ethnic and community conflict through the lens of Dynamical Systems Theory and Coordinated Management of Meaning.

On the Issues Episode 3: Karen Greenberg

I recently spoke with Karen Greenberg, Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, and a noted expert on national security, terrorism, and civil liberties. Her latest book is Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, which explores the War on Terror’s impact on justice and law in America.

Global Leaders with Ambassador Ashraf El Nour

Alon Ben-Meir sat down with Ambassador Ashraf El Nour, Permanent Observer of the International Organization for Migration to the United Nations. There is an audience Q&A before the event.

On the Issues Episode 2: Ehud Eilam

I recently sat down for a discussion with Ehud Eilam, former private contractor for the Israeli Ministry of Defense and an expert on Israel’s national strategy and military doctrine, to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s national security.

On the Issues Episode 1: Florian Qehaja

I recently sat down for a discussion with Florian Qehaja, Executive Director of the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies, to discuss countering radicalism and violent extremism across the world.

Global Leaders with Ambassador Lukman Faily

On Wednesday, April 6, I sat in conversation with the Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily, for Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir.

The discussion with Ambassador Lukman Faily centered on the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, with a principal focus on the future of Iraq. Other topics included the ongoing fight against ISIS, sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias, the prospect of full Kurdish autonomy or outright independence, the future of the Iraqi Sunnis, and how the influence of Iran shapes domestic politics in Iraq.

The Changing Dynamics of the Middle East

Lecture at QUEST Learning Community, February 10, 2016

Rotary Club: The Future of the Iran Deal

Lecture at the Rotary Club of New York, January 28, 2016

Rotary Club: The Psychological Dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Lecture at the Rotary Club of New York, January 13, 2016

The Middle East Explained Episode 13: The Middle East in 2016

In this latest episode of The Middle East Explained, we delve into what 2016 may bring in terms of the growing rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran, prospects for the defeat of ISIS, and how a durable political solution could come about in Syria.

The Middle East Explained Episode 12: Netanyahu, Abbas, and the UNGA

Dr. Ben-Meir discusses Netanyahu and Abbas’ speeches at the United Nations General Assembly in late September, as well as Russia’s increasing involvement in the Syrian conflict.

The Middle East Explained Episode 11: The Arab Peace Initiative

Alon Ben-Meir discusses the potential French resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Security Council, prior negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and why the Arab Peace Initiative remains critical to resolving the conflict.

The Middle East Explained Episode 10: Susiya, Turkey, and ISIS

Dr. Ben-Meir surveys the controversy regarding the potential demolition of the Palestinian village Susiya, and also discusses the latest developments in the Syrian crisis including Turkey’s decision to permit the US to use Turkish air bases against ISIS, the effectiveness of the US-run Syrian rebel training program, and Turkey’s simultaneous campaign against both ISIS and the Kurds.

The Middle East Explained Episode 9: The Iranian Nuclear Deal

Dr. Ben-Meir discusses the Iranian nuclear deal – whether the deal is good or bad, its impact on Iran and throughout the region, and the potential for a warming of relations between the US and Iran.

The Middle East Explained Episode 8: Erdogan’s Fall From Grace and Iran’s Nuclear Talks

Dr. Ben-Meir discusses Turkey’s regional role, Erdogan’s fall from grace, and the Iran nuclear talks.

Atlas: The Psychological Dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Lecture at Atlas (Antwerp, Belgium). Please note the introduction is in Dutch; the English lecture begins at 3:06.

The most puzzling aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that after 65 years of mutual violence, enmity and suffering, it remains unresolved even when coexistence is inevitable and a two-state solution remains the only viable option. Although there are many contentious issues that must be specifically addressed, it is the psychological dimension of the conflict which directly impacts every conflicting issue and makes it increasingly intractable. To mitigate the conflict, we must first look into the elements that inform the psychological dimension and how to alleviate them as prerequisites to finding a solution.

The Middle East Explained Episode 7: Israel, the Kurds, and Iran

Alon Ben-Meir discusses a host of issues including the new Israeli government, the Kurds, the future of Iraq, anti-Semitism, and Iran’s nuclear program.

Global Leaders with Ambassador Mohamed Tawfik

Alon Ben-Meir spoke with Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Mohamed Tawfik, focusing on Egypt’s critical role in mediating between Hamas and Israel, and whether or not an opportunity was missed by not linking the donor conference for Gaza to the wider peace process. In addition, they discussed Egypt’s contribution to the US-led coalition against the Islamic State and the nature of Egypt’s political transition following the election of President Sisi.

Crisis in the Middle East: Iraq, Syria, Iran, ISIS, and the Implications for Israel

Lecture at QUEST September 17, 2014

The Middle East Explained Episode 6: Netanyahu and Hamas: Changing Direction

The Middle East Explained Episode 5: Between Delusion and Denial

The Middle East Explained Episode 4: Israel and Hamas

The Middle East Explained Episode 3: Syria and Iraq Intertwined

The Middle East Explained Episode 2: The Crisis in Iraq

The Middle East Explained Episode 1: Israel and the Palestinian Unity Government

Global Leaders with Mona Yacoubian and Ambassador Frederic Hof

Alon Ben-Meir sat down with Ambassador Frederic Hof of the Atlantic Council and Mona Yacoubian of the Stimson Center for a discussion on the conflict in Syria and the currently ongoing talks in Geneva.

Global Leaders with Ambassador Alia Hatoug-Bouran

As part of the Global Leaders conversation series, Ambassador of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to the United States of America, Dr. Alia Hatoug-Bouran delivered remarks at NYU Washington, DC on December 3, 2013. The series features Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations, journalist, and author, who hosts leaders from around the world in conversations that probe critical global issues and explore the policies designed to address them. The Global Leaders series is coordinated by NYU-SCPS Center for Global Affairs.

While at NYU Washington, DC, Dr. Hatoug-Bouran addressed Jordanian efforts to assist Syrian refugees, Jordanian economic development, and the on-going Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

The Middle East in Transition

Lecture at the Institute for Adult Jewish Studies (Long Island, NY) on November 18, 2013

Global Leaders with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

As part of the Global Leaders conversation series, former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert delivered remarks at NYU Washington, DC on November 11, 2013. The series features Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations, journalist, and author, who hosts leaders from around the world in conversations that probe critical global issues and explore the policies designed to address them. The Global Leaders series is coordinated by NYU SCPS Center for Global Affairs.

Mr. Olmert’s remarks and the discussion focused on Middle East regional issues, with a primary focus on the on-going Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Mr. Olmert also addressed the continuing conflict in Syria, changing dynamics in Israeli politics, and the re-emergence of a military establishment in Egypt.

The Middle East Conundrum: To Where?

Lecture at QUEST Learning Community in New York, NY on October 16, 2013