Canada, a preferred development partner? Think again

By Yiagadeesen (Teddy) Samy

A new study puts Canada in the bottom tier of what international partners consider the most helpful, influential donor countries.

AidData, a research lab located at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., has just released a report that examines aid effectiveness from the perspectives of those that are being advised and assisted by donors.

Between January and March 2017, AidData asked public, private, and civil society leaders from low- and middle-income countries to identify their preferred development partners among various bilateral and multilateral development agencies. Specifically, leaders were asked to share their views on how donors were influential in shaping policy priorities and how helpful donors were in implementing policy
initiatives or reforms.

These leaders held positions of responsibility between 2010 and 2015 and were thus knowledgeable about various development policy initiatives during that time. The results show how various bilateral (including Canada) and multilateral donors performed on “influence” and “helpfulness” metrics.

So how did Canada do? On “influence,” Canada is ranked 27th out of 35 bilateral and multilateral donors. Various stakeholders—government officials, local representatives of development partners, and civil society organizations—ranked Canada very poorly.
On “helpfulness,” Canada is ranked 25th out of 35. Canada again received a poor ranking by government officials and local representatives of development partners, and does somewhat better with civil society organizations.

Canada’s ranking within regions (sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Pacific, and Latin America and Caribbean) or by sector, on both influence and helpfulness, is also quite poor. It is hard to find a region or sector where Canada stands out.

Since it may be unfair to compare bilateral and multilateral agencies because of their different mandates and portfolios, a look at how Canada does relative to other OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) bilaterals would seem more appropriate.

Unfortunately, Canada’s ranking among bilaterals is
again quite low. Among OECD DAC donors (and excluding the European Union), Canada’s rank on influence is 11 out of 13, and on helpfulness, nine out of 13. So, overall, Canada’s performance leaves much to be desired.

But there are a few key takeaways. First of all, money and client base matters; large multilaterals such as the World Bank and the IMF, and bilaterals such as the United States and the United Kingdom, work with many people, and they are ranked among the most helpful and most influential partners. How much is spent in terms of volume of aid dollars is positively associated with performance.

Smaller and more specialized agencies such as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) are also highly rated. They tend to serve a specific target audience and are thus able to establish deeper ties with them.

Thirdly, bilateral donors that don’t do so well overall can be helpful and influential in specific regions (for example, Australia in the East Asia and Pacific region) and sectors (for example, Japan on the environment, and Sweden on governance).

Finally, unsurprisingly, non-DAC donors (that often adopt a policy of non-interference) are not viewed as being very influential. But they are not particularly helpful either because they tend to work mostly with government stakeholders. However, when we compare the rankings in this survey with an earlier one conducted in 2014, some non-DAC donors such as China and India are becoming more influential relative to OECD DAC donors.

And this has implications for Canada, because our aid disbursements in volume terms have not changed a lot recently, varying roughly between $5-billion to $5.8-billion between 2010 and now. The aid-to-grossnational-income ratio has also been quite low and below the average of all OECD DAC donors in recent
years.

Such numbers make it more challenging to be influential and helpful.
Low aid disbursements become even more problematic when they are spread across many countries/regions and sectors. Does this mean that specialization is the way to go? Not necessarily. As the report indicates, being specialized may also mean less influence because many development issues such as poverty or lack of governance require a cross-sectoral approach.

Finally, will Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), released in 2017 be influential and helpful? Money matters but the success of the FIAP will ultimately depend on how much it engages with domestic stakeholders and aligns with the national priorities and strategies of recipient countries.

 

Yiagadeesen (Teddy) Samy is a full professor and Director at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

This article was originally published in The Hill Times

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NATO and the International Order: It was Kind of Nice, Wasn’t It?

by Stephen M. Saideman

People have been asking me lately–what is the big deal with this international liberal order?  What has it ever done right? What has it ever given me? There are lots of pieces to it, but I am focused on NATO for obvious reasons, including my assignment at next week’s Kingston International Conference on Security.

So, here’s Mattis’s quote from the NAC (North Atlantic Council) Defense Ministerial:

and my reaction.

I used to scoff at the usual NATO existential crisis stuff–that NATO needed a reason to exist in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, that there was some conflict within that might lead to the alliance breaking up, etc.  But now I am in the club of those who fear for NATO’s future.  Why?  Trump.  It is that simple.  Putin actually did more for NATO unity in 2014 than anything else by making folks remember NATO’s day job–keeping Europe peaceful and, as a result, prosperous.  But his gambles on Trump, on Brexit, on supporting right wing aspiring autocrats (Orban of Hungary, Erdogan of Turkey, etc) have worked out.

The alliance has worked and changed our conception of alliance not just because it is far more institutionalized than any other alliance past or present, but because all of it relied on largely shared values.  Not just democracy but democracy with embedded liberalism–that governments played a role in adjusting to international shocks, made easier by international cooperation.

And now is a splintered G-7 meeting due to Trump using “national security threat” to play a particularly problematic card–to impose tariffs on allies without the consent of Congress.  To be clear, this is the opt out card built into the agreements.  He does not really believe that these countries or their exports to the US are any kind of threat, but he does not believe in norms, rules or the future. So, Trump has used this exception, antagonizing everyone except maybe the Italians (their own populist election results are handy for self-destruction).

So endeth the shared values.  Orban has already promoted illiberal democracy, and Trump would too if he could articulate anything (note that Gorka is back, and Gorka is a living embodiment of Orban’s illiberal democracy).  True, Trump is not the US, but he is, alas, 40% of it, and the GOP seems ok with selling out American values for tax cuts and court seats.  So, even if/when the Democrats come into power, they will not be able to reassure the Europeans and the Canadians.  After all, this big split is the most significant … since the last Republican president and the misconceived Iraq war of 2003.

So, how can NATO provide security by reassuring nervous members and deterring adversaries?  The lack of common values undermines NATO credibility–will the US show up if Russia does something?  Perhaps not since Trump is now trying to get Russia back into the G8 despite everything Russia has done since seizing Crimea.

NATO isn’t dead, and I hope to see signs of life when I go to the expert side party at the summit next month. But NATO is far from healthy, and I worry that we soon look back at those 70 years Mattis speaks of and wistfully remember the good old days.  Maybe the good old days weren’t as good as they seem, as Billy Joel reminds us, but they were better than the days before that–WWI, WWII and all that.

 

Much Learning in Two Weeks in Korea

by Stephen M. Saideman

Fun times in Korea, eh?  I was really struck during my two weeks there of a split in opinions–most of the folks I met were “cautiously optimistic” about the situation, that the Trump-Kim summit might lead to a significant improvement in regional tensions, while other folks were in the “ruthlessly pessimistic” camp.  And I was a member of the latter.  Why?  Because TeamRP just could not see anyway for North Korea to “denuke” in any meaningful way when the US had, ooops, done some regime change on Libya.

So, I get back to North America and notice that Bolton has been talking about the “Libya Option” seriously, which did ultimately send the desired signal (if Bolton does not want peace) to the North Koreans.  So, the North Koreans have said that they had no intention of trading their nukes for economic assistance.  That, along with the earlier announcement that that they were skipping a meeting since the US and ROK were not cancelling a key military exercise, reminded us that North Koreans have always been the most obnoxious trolls in International Relations (sorry, John and Stephen).

So, folks are having an epiphany–negotiating with North Korea is hard, and they aren’t giving up their nukes.  I had a bit of a different Korean epiphany thanks to some sharp outsiders (Canadians and Americans who took me out for drinks and bbq:

American troops have long been based in South Korea to do two things: deter the North Koreans and reassure the South Koreans.  Standard tripwire type stuff.  Now, things have flipped as smart South Koreans want the Americans to stay to deter an American attack on North Korea.  Yeah, that seems backwards, but the idea is that Trump would not attack North Korea with so many Americans in harm’s way (is that wishful thinking rearing its ugly head again?).  That Trump would have a freer hand if the Americans were no longer down range of North Korean artillery….

Before I left for South Korea, I thought that the likely outcomes from a KJU-Trump summit would be in decreasing likelihood:

  1. A modest agreement, such as NK agrees not to test any more nukes (its test area is broken and other new nuclear powers tested six nukes, so a convenient time to give away this chip) and US promises to de-escalate a smidge.  Trump would come home, declaring he solved the Korean problem, and the pundits/press would buy it, but not much would have really changed.  Woot!
  2. NK agrees to give up its ICBM capability, Trump agrees to reduce or even eliminate US forces in South Korea, so NK gets not only recognition of being a nuclear power but decoupling of South Korea and Japan from US.
  3. Trump and KJU yell at each other as each is upset that they don’t have a common understanding of “denuclearization.”  So, the road to war is a bit clearer, and John Bolton does a happy dance.

Now?

  1. No meeting as NK does not want to signal that it gave in to “massive pressure” from US.
  2. No meeting as Trump realizes he can’t get the Nobel Prize.
  3. A meeting with much reduced expectations–perhaps freezes of NK’s weapons in exchange for US promising not to regime change (which is believed by none).
  4. War.
  5.  A meeting, then war.

So, yeah, not great.  Are things clearer now than two weeks ago?  Not sure.  I do think Team Relentless Pessimism is feeling pretty good about feeling pretty bad. Woot?

 

It invoked terror – but we can’t call the Toronto van attack terrorism

By Stephanie Carvin

Hearts across Canada sank when news broke that a driver of a rental van had deliberately struck pedestrians along Yonge Street in Toronto on Monday. Images of similar events in London, Barcelona and Nice – all linked to terrorism – immediately come to mind during such incidents. But this is not the first time we have seen vehicle-based attacks in Canada – the October, 2014, attack in St.-Jean-sur-Richelieu as well as the 2017 attack in Edmonton, allegedly in the name of violent extremism, are two recent cases.

In the hours between the attack and the news conference on Monday night, speculation as to whether the attack was a terrorist incident grew on social media. Sadly, it was not so long ago that we had a similar conversation in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting. How could it be that someone who accumulated machine guns in order to kill innocent concertgoers was not a terrorist?

In Canada, the answer to this question is somewhat unsatisfying, but worth discussing. Section 83.01 of the Criminal Code states that any act carried out for political, ideological or religious reasons is terrorism. But not all political, ideological or religious reasons are alike. When an act is carried out in the name of a listed terrorist entity – such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS) – prosecutors can easily point to a coherent set of ideas upon which a terrorism charge can be laid. However, when it comes to fringe movements and broad anti-government ideologies, prosecution becomes trickier.

For example, Justin Bourque, the perpetrator of the 2014 Moncton shootings that killed three RCMP officers, subscribed to an anti-government ideology. And over the past two weeks we have learned that Alexandre Bissonnette had consumed vast amounts of conspiracy theories and alt-right media that demonized Muslims and refugees. Mr. Bissonnette apparently became convinced that society was under attack and he had to do something.

The problem for prosecutors is that in these two cases, the person may have been politically motivated, but pointing to a coherent set of ideas on which their acts were carried out is not possible. So, although their attacks may have been similar, terrorism charges have not been laid.

Part of the issue is the circumstances in which our terrorism legislation was written. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the government envisioned terrorist groups with coherent ideas, leadership and goals. It is doubtful that they could have foreseen that someone might be politically motivated because of their consumption of material produced by an internet subculture or online videos of conspiracy theorists.

Does this make our terrorism legislation inherently biased? There can be no question that the legislation does a better job of capturing certain violent extremist views and not others. The question then is, would we be better off broadening the crime of terrorism or eliminating it all together?

It is imperfect, but there are practical reasons for keeping the current definition, even when it may lead to what seems to be inconsistent results. First, it helps to set out and limit the mandate of what we want our security services to investigate as violent extremism.

Second, terrorism offences are largely geared toward augmenting the prison sentence of someone accused of plotting a terrorism offence before it is actually committed. Once the act is actually committed, the police have the evidence necessary to put someone away for a considerable period of time. Proving that someone was motivated to act from a particular point of view is difficult and consumes resources at a time when investigative resources may already be burdened in the aftermath of an attack.

This helps to explain why Abdulahi Sharif, the accused in the Edmonton attack, has not faced terrorism charges, despite an IS flag in the vehicle that was used to assault police and civilians. And given that Mr. Bourque received one of the most severe sentences in Canadian history for murder (75 years without chance of parole), it is not clear that terrorism charges would have added anything to his punishment.

There is nothing to stop politicians from describing the attack in Toronto as a terror incident. Indeed, politicians from all parties did so in the wake of the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting. While we may never get terrorism legislation right, there is no reason why our response to any such violent incident should not be the same – to stand up for our communities, to empathize and to work toward a better Canada.

 

This post was originally published by the Globe and Mail 

Progress? Not Fast Enough, ISA 2018 edition

By Steve Saideman

I have been in this business for more than 25 years, and have gone to about 25 or so annual meetings of the International Studies Association (and about the same number of APSA’s).  Over the years, I have been struck by how much has changed since I started.

Besides the disappearance of polyester and leisure suits (yes, they still existed in the early 1990s), one of the big changes has been the gender balance.  It used to be the case that it seemed as if the only young women at these meetings were those representing the book publishers.  There are far more women (although not that many seniors) than there once was.

This time, I was struck by the increased ethnic diversity.  Sure, I know from the TRIPstudies (including my own) that 21st century IR is mighty white.  But it is less so than it was.  So, I could be pleased by the improvements. Yet….

Oh, my.   The only person I heard of getting badged–checked to see if they belong in the sea of ISA goers–was an African-American woman.  The same woman was also asked by multiple participants to get their drinks or clean up the lobby.  I will not go into the details, as it is her story to tell, but FFS!!!

So, I am reminded of many conversations with Teen and now College Senior Spew:
Me: sure, things aren’t perfect, but we have made progress (on gender, race, LGBTQ, etc).
Her:  NOT FAST ENOUGH!!!

And, yeah, she persuaded me that she was right.  This ISA was mostly a super-positive experience for me, but it is easier since I am a white, straight, male with an endowed chair and heaps of tenure.  It is easy for me to look around and notice that there is more diversity.  What is less easy for me is to see how the women and the African-Americans and the Latinx and the Asian-Americans and all the rest of the folks are treated and how they experience the event.

Which reminds me of something that happened at the airport.  On my way out, I sat next to a white woman who left her bag behind and walked off.  See something, say something, right?  After waiting a few minutes, I did so.  And then moved far away from that bag.  Twenty minutes later, she returned–that bag had acted as a seat-saver, I guess.  Oh, and security didn’t show up in that 20-minute interval.  Hmmm.

So, see something, say something and then some, right?

Coordinated diplomatic activity against Russia in response to chemical weapons incident in UK

by Jez Littlewood

Russia can expect to be welcoming over 100 of its diplomats back to Moscow in the coming weeks. Sixteen states have today ordered 106 Russians to leave their territory in a coordinated series of national announcements. The US ordered 12 Russian representatives to the United Nations in New York to leave, and a further 48 were also expelled alongside the order to close the Russian consulate in Seattle. Canada, France, Germany, and Poland each ordered four diplomats to leave, Ukraine ordered 13 to depart, and ten other European states took similar actions.

The coordination of national actions itself indicates a few things.

  1. This is serious. States do not readily expel diplomats from their territory. They can signal displeasure with another country through a variety of means in both public and private channels, for example recalling their own Ambassador to Russia. Ordering Russian diplomats to leave is very public and purposeful. The coordination of national activity, in this case, indicates clearly that certain Western states share the UK’s concerns about Russian activity and have been convinced that Russia must answer questions about the chemical weapons attack in the UK earlier this month.
  2. The response increases the pressure on Russia. The UK has been working with its allies and partners over the last few weeks on how to respond to the use of a chemical warfare agent in Salisbury (UK) in an attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence officer. The UK has stated it believes Russia is responsible and its Western partners have now acted in a manner that supports that claim. Democratic states do not expel diplomatic staff on a whim. This coordinated response indicates that whatever information the UK has shared with its allies and partners has been convincing enough for them act and to act together. Coupled with other UK activity, including last week’s arrival of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to take samples from the victims of the attack, the signals here are that the UK, and others, have a very high degree of confidence in the evidence about the chemical weapon used. Even if Russia did not order or sanction the attack – something that will probably not be known for many years – the type of chemical used (the alleged ‘novichok’ type of chemical warfare agent) leads back to Russia and some very serious questions. The UK is not alone in holding this view.
  3. It is not just about chemical weapons. The chemical weapons incident is being linked to other Russian actions over the last few years. As the Canadian statement notes: “This is part of a wider pattern of unacceptable behaviour by Russia, including complicity with the Assad‎ regime, the annexation of Crimea, Russian-led fighting in eastern Ukraine, support for civil strife in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and other neighbouring countries, interference in elections, and disinformation campaigns.”
  4. Russia will retaliate. Further diplomatic expulsions are likely for the states who have acted today. Indeed, TASS is reporting that Russia will reciprocate in each case. One potential key early indicator will be if Russia reciprocates (in numbers) or escalates the number of expulsions across some or all states. Another aspect to watch carefully is whether or not Russia responds to some states more harshly than others.
  5. This issue is not going away. The deaths of various Russians over the last few years have been ignored or subject to private diplomatic signals or statements. Aside from the inevitable response from Russia in the coming hours and days, this chemical weapons issue is not going to fade any time soon. Last week inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrived in the UK to take samples and send them for independent analysis. At some point in the next two to four weeks the results of that analysis will have to be revealed. If the results confirm the UK analysis, pressure will mount in the OPCW and internationally for Russia to explain a few things. If the results contest the UK analysis, the UK will itself have some explaining to do to its allies and the wider world. Even if things calm down over the next few days, the issue will be pushed to the fore once again in a few weeks.
  6. The continued fallout will have negative implications in the near term. A continuation of the deterioration in Russian-Western relations generally should be expected. At stake here is not simply chemical weapons but the actions of the Russian state in a variety of areas as the Canadian statement notes. The collective signalling from Western states might, however, act as a catalyst for change. A slow, walk back from both covert and overt adversarial activity might be initiated if Russia takes the view that its interests are now being hurt and other foreign policies thwarted because of its actions. In short, the perceived advantages of such activities are outweighed by the disadvantages incurred by a coordinated Western response. It is not likely to be identifiable in words any time soon, but actions over the coming months may indicate a reduction in tensions.
  7. How, or if, other states respond, will be informative. Statements of support or statements objecting to the Western response may indicate if this issue remains contained as a Western-Russian flare-up or is spreading to the wider international order. We should expect Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and potentially others to express support for Russia and decry the perceived hostility of the UK, US, Canada, and others. What China, India, Brazil, South Africa, or others do or not do in the coming days will be an important indicator of whether or not Russia stands alone, or the risk of a West versus the Rest international dispute is taking shape as many fear.
  8. There will be knock-on effects. Outside the immediate issue of chemical weapons where the dispute itself is likely to have serious detrimental impacts on the CWC and the OPCW in 2018, there are likely to be direct and rippling indirect effects on other arms control issues in the coming months. US-Russia relations in the nuclear weapons area have been deteriorating for several years and this is one further obstacle to any new talks on nuclear arms control. The fate of the Iran agreement – the JCPOA – and the expected summit between the US and the DPRK will also experience some of the negative implications of this dispute. As, indeed, will the routine arms control meetings under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, and in the United Nations Security Council as it attempts to deal with continued use of chemical weapons in the Syrian war.

 

Key sources:

Spy poisoning: Russian diplomats expelled across US and Europe http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43545565 [March 26, 2018]

Canada expels Russian diplomats in solidarity with United Kingdom https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2018/03/canada-expels-russian-diplomats-in-solidarity-with-united-kingdom.html [March 26, 2018]

The US’ Dilemma: Alliance Politics Vs. Ethnic Ties in Syria

By Uri Marantz

US-Turkish relations are at an all-time low. The northern theatre of the Syrian civil war, going strong for eight years now, is the focal point of the latest tension. Recently, the US has announced that it is doubling down on one of the most effective fighting forces in the region, the Kurds, hoping to capitalize on hard-fought gains that US-backed Kurdish forces have made against the Islamic State (IS). At the same time, Turkish offensives have crippled Kurdish militias resulted in the loss of life for Syrian civilians. The US position has been deliberately ambiguous to avoid antagonizing another close US ally, Turkey, but recent commitments to the Kurds have drawn harsh reactions from the Turks. In response to US promises to the Kurds that it would train a 30,000-strong army to stabilize the region and back a permanent border protection force east of the Euphrates, Turkey has fired back, accusing the US of “building an army of terror” on its doorstep, threatening to “drown” the US-backed forces with its own onslaught, and even firing on US troops if they get in harm’s way. These statements are unprecedented.

Turkish Military Intervention in Northern Syria

Why is the Turkish government launching a military operation into northern Syria in 2018? Is the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, really willing to risk an all-out war with the US over its policy of support for the Kurds in the Syrian civil war? Has the US’ ambiguous policy in northern Syria of low-key but forceful support for the Kurds so they can fight IS without antagonizing the Turks reached the limits of its effectiveness? Amid the many questions one could ask about this perplexing situation, perhaps the most timely one is whether the US has a deliberate strategy that may even remotely succeed. I argue that as long as US forces are strategically embedded among the Kurds in the northern town of Manbij, Turkish forces are unlikely to force the issue and provoke a direct confrontation. There is a certain bargaining logic, a method to this madness, that US commanders are counting on to deter Turkish adventurism in this conflict. The strategic logic is reminiscent of what Thomas C. Schelling, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and scholar of strategy, calls the “art of commitment” in deterring one’s enemies.

Coercion and deterrence are central themes in Schelling’s 1966 classic, Arms and Influence. At its heart, the art of commitment is about relinquishing the initiative. It is important to first maneuver oneself into an advantageous position, a defensible posture, before handing the initiative over to the enemy to force the confrontation. The deterrent is in the “power to hurt” the enemy if they decide to follow through on a reckless course of action, even if it hurts oneself to do so. Of course, words are not enough to make this point. The art of commitment requires action to be credible. This is why standing armies burn bridges behind them: it eliminates any option to retreat in the face of an enemy’s assault, demonstrating a commitment to stand and fight because the only other option is death or defeat. The same counter-intuitive logic applies to the “trip wire” of US forces stationed in Japan and South Korea since the 1950s. By maneuvering themselves into an uncompromising position (of strength, in this case) and then “relinquishing” the initiative, the US has managed to effectively outsource the decision of whether to start a war or not to its enemies. The same logic applies among US allies in Syria today.

US Alliance Politics with Local and Regional Actors

Years of close military coordination with US forces on the ground have helped Kurdish forces clear Islamic State (IS) and other Salafist-jihadist strongholds in the area and establish command and control over what is likely to form the core of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in a post-war Syria. As the Kurds grow more capable, confident, and battle-hardened, however, Turkey is likely to perceive a rising threat and respond with threatening postures and the use of force. Hence the US dilemma: two of its closest allies in the Syrian civil war are actually enemies with starkly divergent preferences. If Turkish forces follow through on their threat to extend the intervention east of Afrin to Manbij, where 2,000 US special forces are stationed as part of the international coalition against IS, the ensuing conflict would not just destabilize northern Syria, it would spark an unprecedented military conflict between the US and Turkey, two central NATO allies.

On January 20, 2018, Turkish forces launched their most recent military intervention in northern Syria against resurgent Kurdish forces. Despite code-naming the latest offensive Operation Olive Branch, its mandate is far from peaceful. The goal is to stymie advances made by the mostly Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Afrin district, all under the umbrella of the Kurdish Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Turkey claims to be fighting the Islamic State (IS) as well, but no known IS forces are known to exist in this region. This is ironic since Kurdish forces were only able to advance in these territories after they succeeded in fighting to evict IS from wide swathes of northern Syria. In recent weeks, the Kurds have withdrawn strategic garrisons from Deir al-Zour in the east to reinforce besieged positions in Afrin, citing the failure of the US to deter Turkish advances as forcing their hands. This is controversial because the remnants of IS, including its senior leadership, are believed to be holed up there, and the priority of the US and its allies in Syria is supposed to be defeating IS once and for all. So how do Schelling’s bargaining theories help us understand why Turkey is unlikely to force a full-on conflict as long as US forces are stationed in Manbij and integrated with local Kurdish forces?

Arms, Influence, and Deterrence at Play

The US has committed itself to the Kurds in northern Syria more than words ever could by deploying Special Forces in and around Manbij and refusing to evacuate them despite Turkey’s increasingly belligerent demands. US foreign policy has been muddled, confused, and ambiguous in Syria for years, and the election of President Donald J. Trump has done little to change this state of affairs. Nevertheless, US military commanders decided that the risk of supporting Kurdish fighters by deploying ground personnel in this war was worth the benefit long before Turkeys’ latest intervention in northern Syria. For the US to withdraw now would incapacitate the Kurds, risking its progress against IS, inviting Russian and Iranian influence into this part of Syria, and crippling US credibility among its allies going forward. For all these reasons, US commitment to the Kurdish SDF remains intact and the refusal of US forces to vacate the premises in the face of Turkish aggression virtually guarantees that the Turks cannot advance on Manbij as long as US forces are present. While 2,000 US special forces may not be able to stop tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers and Turkish-backed rebels, they may still act as a credible “trip wire” that would provoke a harsh retaliation if crossed.

Following Operation Shah Euphrates in 2015 and Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016-2017, Operation Olive Branch may be part of a strategy to bolster President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s image ahead of a possible election in 2018. The PYD, YPG, SDF, and other Kurdish forces are seen as extensions and enablers of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group which the Turkish government has long been at odds with after fighting a decades-long civil war to a virtual stalemate and seeks to punish by targeting Kurds in the Syrian civil war. The anti-Kurdish offensive is part of a tried-and-true strategy of ethnic politics to promote Turkish nationalism and fire up the conservative base. There may be some logic to the diversionary war theory after all, which suggests leaders facing domestic problems divert attention by launching militarized conflicts abroad. If done well, Erdogan may even benefit from rally-round-the-flag effects. Nothing unites the people like the threat, real or imaginary, of a shared enemy. So far, military operations into Syria have proven popular in Turkey. As long as the Turks refrain from targeting US forces, which for now remain embedded in the Kurdish forces in Manbij, Erdogan will likely benefit from Operation Olive Branch and capitalize on the ethnic nationalist dividends gained from Syria.

 

Uri Marantz is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Conflict Management and Resolution program at NPSIA.