The Syrian Enemy of My Syrian Enemy

How the threat of the Islamic State could bring together the country's warring factions -- if only Barack Obama is willing to seize the opportunity.

For the first time in four years, a regional consensus seems to be forming around Syria. Everyone from Iran and Saudi Arabia to Syria's warring sides all seem to agree, at least in principle, that the Islamic State is a threat and has to go.

How to accomplish that goal, however, remains fiercely contested. As President Barack Obama spelled out in a press conference last week, the United States "[doesn't] have a strategy yet" to combat the jihadist group. As multiple regional players rush to present themselves as Washington's best counterterrorism partner, Obama must choose his friends carefully.

Obama's decision is further complicated by the fact that each side is wary that American military action would undermine their position. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime welcomed the idea of airstrikes -- but warned against any unilateral action to attack the Islamic State without coordinating with the Syrian military. The opposition, meanwhile, fears that cooperation between the United States and the regime on combating the Islamic State will lead to a broader rapprochement with Assad that lets him stay in power.

The fact is, however, that the Syrian regime is the United States' worst possible partner against the Islamic State. Practically speaking, Assad is unable to offer the help that Washington is looking for: He does not have the manpower, the military capabilities, or the popular support to erase jihadists from the areas they now control. Nor does he have any remaining assets in the jihadists' strongholds -- the areas under Islamic State control have been outside the regime's hands for anywhere from one to three years.

Assad has consistently lost ground to the Islamic State since July. The group's recent takeover of Tabqa air base, the regime's last stronghold in the northern province of Raqqa, stands as an obvious indictment of Assad's capabilities. Unlike in other bases, where the Syrian military quickly gave up, the regime fought hard for this location, killing an estimated 150 Islamic State fighters. But according to Syrian journalist Abdullah Raja, the battle went according to the jihadist group's plan, down to the roughly 100 suicide attacks that were required to seize the base. 

The capture of Tabqa air base means that Raqqa is the first province to be completely under the Islamic State's control. The group now has a clear pathway to the rest of northern Syria, including Idlib, one of the last strongholds of the moderate rebels. The base's fall also dealt a heavy blow to the morale of the regime and its supporters: Tabqa was one of the largest and most important of Syria's 28 air bases, and the Islamic State's subsequent massacre of around 200 soldiers led many regime supporters to condemn the army's top leadership for its weakness. There was a clear change in the tone of formerly stalwart regime supporters; Assad's cousin, Douraid al-Assad, even demanded the sacking of the defense minister and the chiefs of the army and the air force.

The rebels, on the other hand, are better positioned to take on the Islamic State. While the Assad regime allowed the jihadist threat to fester for months, opposition forces have been fighting the group since last summer. Even though the Islamic State defeated the rebel forces in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor and drove them out of the region, a local tribe recently rebelled against the Islamic State, attacking the jihadists' bases after the group sent a convoy to arrest men from their village. The Islamic State retaliated by killing hundreds of villagers, and distributing graphic pictures of slaughter. The tribe remains under the threat of extermination, as the jihadist group collectively deemed its members as apostates.

Local communities and armed groups, even if many of them might be currently displaced, have a direct stake in fighting the Islamic State. However, there are already voices within the anti-jihadist opposition condemning the potential airstrikes against the Islamic State because the perception is that they will be coordinated with Assad. An activist who led a campaign against the jihadist group for months, for example, said he would join the Islamic State if intervention comes at the expense of the rebels.

There have been signs that even Assad's allies understand that the Syrian regime cannot defeat the jihadist group on its own. According to two opposition sources and an Arab diplomat, former Syrian Coalition chief Moaz al-Khatib traveled to Tehran recently as part of Iran's outreach to Syria's Sunni opposition. Iranian officials presented a plan that calls for a two-year transition period led by Assad, followed by parliamentary and provincial elections, with the president delegating "some" of his powers to the prime minister. During this period, according to the plan, the opposition and the regime would remain in control of the areas that they now hold.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdullahian, who visited Saudi Arabia on Aug. 26 to discuss the rising threat of the Islamic State, has spearheaded these meetings. Khatib has denied reports that he visited Iran, saying that Iranian officials had not approached him with any offers regarding Syria. 

The Iranian proposal appears designed to further divide the Syrian opposition, and to portray Tehran as having a positive vision for Syria. But the proposal is also a tacit admission from Iran that Assad is unable to restore peace to areas under his control, much less to liberated areas.

Arab countries also seem to be leaning toward a coordinated response to the Islamic State -- and are hoping that Washington is willing to play a role. Five Arab foreign ministers met in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Aug. 24 to discuss their response to the group's rise. In the meeting, described by a Saudi official as "practical," the foreign ministers discussed how they could cooperate with Washington. "The ministers discussed how far their countries can go to combat ISIS," the official said. "The plan to work closely with the Americans was actually discussed in June, during [Secretary of State John] Kerry's visit to the region, when he asked Arab allies to participate in a military action against ISIS."

The same official also said that Egypt might present its own initiative to resolve the Syrian crisis, which would call for a one-year transition led by Assad and a regional security arrangement against extremists. The Arab ministers, however, feared that Washington was only committed to weakening the Islamic State -- not eliminating it -- which they believe is not enough.

If Washington plays its cards right, it can use the fight against the Islamic State to spur broader political change in Syria. There is already regional will to defeat the jihadists -- American action has the power to unite disparate groups around a solution that could end the bloodshed. As Obama develops his strategy to combat the Islamic State, he would do well to keep that in mind.


Democracy Lab

Moscow's Next Victim

Moldova could be the Kremlin's next target. But Europe isn't ready to come to the rescue.

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer case study produced by the Legatum Institute and the Institute of Modern Russia, "Moldova: The Failing Champion of European Integration."

Recently, I ran into Moldova's prime minister, Iurie Leanca, while walking with my two-year-old daughter in the center of Chisinau. The prime minister was walking down the street with just a few bodyguards, as he often does, and I introduced him to my daughter. "This is the man who runs our government," I said. The prime minister responded with a sad smile, "This is the man who wants to do something and fails."

This sad smile says it all. On the face of it, Moldova is the fastest-reforming, most pro-Western country on Europe's eastern border, the "champion of the Eastern Partnership" in the words of one official. Yet the reality inside the country is far from clear-cut.

When the Alliance for European Integration replaced the Moldovan Communist Party at the head of the government in 2009, many believed that the benefits of EU membership were in reach. Western leaders began working diligently with their Moldovan counterparts, and Moldova received more than $670 million in aid from the European Union. With this support, the country conducted full and on-time reforms of its judiciary, law enforcement, borders security system, and infrastructure, prompting some impressed EU officials to speak of a Moldovan success story.

The reality on the ground, however, is that Moldova has yet to escape from Russia's geopolitical influence. Endemic corruption is impeding the development of public institutions. Euro-skepticism is increasing, as a result of shallow leadership and feuding among the ruling coalition. The economy is distorted by monopolies. The judiciary and the media are compromised. Support for Russia's Customs Union is growing and territorial conflict in Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova, threatens to tear the country apart.

So despite its ostensible commitment to European integration, how did Moldova lose its way in transition? What stopped Europe and its perfect eastern partner from living happily ever after?

In 2001, Vladimir Voronin and the Communist Party of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) came to power on a resolute EU-integration platform. Under the PCRM, Moldova signed the EU-Moldova Action Plan and became a member of the Eastern Partnership, an initiative to promote cooperation between the EU and post-Soviet states. In practice, however, the PCRM maintained a close relationship with Russia and, in 2009, an impatient electorate voted in favor of the Alliance for European Integration, a coalition of equally impatient pro-European opposition parties. (The photo above shows Moldovan activists waving an EU flag from the roof of Chisinau's parliament building in 2009.)

Since the official launch of the Eastern Partnership in May 2009, Moldova has indeed made great progress in adopting EU legislation. It is currently the only member of the Eastern Partnership to forbid discrimination by sexual orientation in line with the new "Law on Enforcement of Equality," despite resistance from the Church and leftist forces. This law was required by Brussels as part of the visa-free travel negotiations. Accordingly, Moldovans no longer need visas to enter the EU. The Ukrainian and Georgian governments, who started EU association negotiations long before Moldova, are still lagging far behind and struggling with the most basic reforms.

Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia signed an EU association agreement on June 27 this year. The Moldovan authorities believed that the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which this included, would make European integration and economic modernization inevitable. Statistics show, however, that European integration is not the beacon of hope that it used to be. Under the rule of the PCRM, 6 percent of the population supported EU integration. By 2009, 55 percent of Moldovans favored EU integration while 30 percent chose closer relations with Moscow. This year, only 35 percent of Moldovans approve of EU integration while 38 percent favor Russia's Customs Union.

On-the-ground experts attribute the decreasing popularity of the EU to the public's dissatisfaction with the ruling "pro-European" coalition. Pursuing their own interests, Moldovan politicians have failed to honor their promise of full and beneficial EU integration.  "The lack of the expected economic, social, and humanitarian results" have left Moldovans disillusioned with the European model, says Elena Gorelova, deputy director of Moldova's Center for Strategic Studies and Reforms. As support for EU integration shrinks, the popularity of the Russia-led Customs Union is growing.

Moldova's successful European integration hinges on its ability to tackle the most acute issues: corruption, weak public institutions, a compromised judiciary, and a restricted media.

As in most post-Soviet states, corruption in Moldova exploded after the collapse of the Soviet Union and penetrated every aspect of life. Today corruption exists in every possible form, from bribery and fraud to embezzlement and nepotism.  According to Prime Minister Leanca, corruption in Moldova has "reached such a level that it threatens the country's national security." Despite government lip service, most anti-corruption efforts in Moldova have been superficial. The political system facilitates graft.

When the ruling "pro-European" coalition came into power, the heads of all ministries, including national security, defense, and law enforcement agencies, were appointed based on their affiliation with certain political parties. This created allegiances to party leaders rather than to the governing coalition. Decisions are therefore made in the interests of the party or the businessmen supporting them, rather than under the authority of the prime minister, or in the interests of the public.

The vast levels of political corruption are common knowledge. Deputies of rival parties have fought on live television, with brilliant arguments such as: "We steal less than you do," as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party said to his Democratic colleague during a live talk-show.

According to Moldovan public opinion polls, the judiciary is the country's most corrupt institution. It has been undergoing reform for three years. The government has increased judicial salaries to discourage bribe taking, and the parliament has adopted legislation to curb judicial immunity from corruption charges. Yet there is no evident improvement. The courts, including the Constitutional Court, operate on the basis of "telephone justice." Judges are political appointees, so well-connected individuals can affect court decisions in their favor merely by making a few calls to the right people.

The Moldovan media is controlled by local politicians, who use it to fight against business competitors, damage political reputations, and advance personal agendas. This year, the World Press Freedom Index ranked Moldova 56 out of 180 countries, the best result among all the post-Soviet states outside the EU. Yet the free media still have little to no influence on the political process. If an investigative article exposing legal violations or financial machinations is published, law enforcement agencies rarely take measures to address the findings. Moreover, Russia has become highly active in the Moldovan media. Pro-Kremlin television networks show how poorly Moldovans live as they struggle to meet the demands of EU integration, and how courageously Transnistria is fighting its hardships.

Since Russia's annexation of Crimea earlier this year, many political analysts have speculated that Moscow might seek to implement a similar scenario in Moldova by interfering in the conflict in Transnistria, the breakaway region in the east of the country that is dominated by Russian-speaking politicians with close ties to the Kremlin. Transnistrian politicians routinely demand "divorce" from Chisinau and closer relations with Moscow. Chisinau officially opposes the forced partition of the country. Yet in private conversations Moldovan diplomats admit they would consider giving up Transnistria if the conflict hinders EU integration. Moreover, Moldova suffers a strained relationship with the autonomous region of Gagauzia. As in Transnistria, strong pro-Russian sentiment prevails there. According to a recent referendum held by Gagauzian authorities, 98.4 percent of Gagauzians favor Russia's Customs Union over the EU. With not-so-subtle reference to Transnistria and Gagauzia, Russia's deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, once warned that the Moldovan train rushing toward Europe "might lose a few cars on the way."

The most obvious and instructive conclusion we can draw is that Moldova's leaders do not genuinely embrace "European" values despite their professed allegiance to Europe. The political sphere, judiciary, and media in Moldova are monopolized by a small group of individuals who use political power to advance their own interests. This ambiguity is just one of the reasons why the idea of EU integration has become less and less popular. Moldovans expect immediate and visible commitment to Europe, but instead they see that the same people are still in control and still acting in their own interests.

Restoration of confidence in the state requires full transparency. The records of what happens to EU financial aid should be open and visible. Public reports on funds received and spent should be the norm. The privatization of remaining state assets should be carried out in the public eye. The fight against corruption in government institutions, ministries, and agencies has to become uncompromising. Zero tolerance of corruption needs to be cultivated in the public as well. The country needs strong, independent journalists who have one goal: to provide objective and rigorous reporting on current events. Only independent media can educate the population and fulfill their duty as the "fourth power."

It is vital that European leaders, who have done so much to promote links with Moldova, should maintain their engagement even now that Chisinau has ticked the right boxes. The EU as well as the United States should put more pressure on the leaders of the Moldovan pro-Western coalition and use their leverage to persuade them to follow the spirit of EU agreements, and not just the letter. Members of the governing coalition must stop using their political position to promote their personal interests and instead focus on reforming the country and returning to the path of democratic development. Ultimately, the coalition's ability to honor its promise of full and beneficial European integration will depend on its long-term commitment to European standards of governance.