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Transcript: Foreign Affairs Media Call on Iraq and ISIS

Speakers: Steven Simon, Senior Fellow, The Middle East Institute, and Barak Mendelsohn, Associate Professor, Political Science Department, Haverford College
Presider: Gideon Rose, Editor, Peter G. Peterson Chair, Foreign Affairs Magazine
June 23, 2014



OPERATOR: Excuse me everyone. We now have all of our speakers in conference. Please be aware that each of your lines are in listen-only mode. At the conclusion of today's presentation, we will open the floor for questions. At that time, instructions will be given as to the procedure to follow if you would like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Mr. Gideon Rose. Mr. Rose, you may begin.

ROSE: Hi, everybody. And welcome to another Foreign Affairs conference call. We have the great pleasure today and privilege of hearing from Steve Simon and Barak Mendelsohn, who have done some excellent writing on this recently and who really know what they're talking about. I'm Gideon Rose, Editor of Foreign Affairs, and we're really delighted to have you guys with us.

So, let me start by introducing them very, very briefly. So I -- I first met Steve 20 years ago when we were both peons in the Clinton NSE (ph) staff, although he was a higher ranking peon.

And one of the things that was really notable was the fact that by the end of the 90's, he was running up and down the halls with his hair on fire, screaming about Al Qaeda. And so those of us who did regional topics were a little bit pooh-poohing this kind of transnational terrorist threat, thinking it was just the terrorist guys, or the counter terrorist guys pushing their brief.

And then, of course, 9/11 happened, and Steve's impressions turned out to be absolutely correct. And ever since then, I've taken what he's had to say on terrorism incredibly seriously.

And Barak has been doing some wonderful writing recently about ISIS and what's going on in the region and the Jihadist movement. So we're really pleased to have them.

So let me start by asking the two of them a very straightforward question. Earlier this week it seemed like we were approaching like -- we were replaying April 1975 with the Saigon falling and the U.S. about to be shipping out in helicopters out from the embassy roof. Now things seem to have stabilized a little bit. ISIS has advanced -- or Isil advance seems to be blocked or at least stalling. Are we in immediate crisis right now or has things stabilized a little bit from earlier in the week? And I'll throw it open to both of you.



SIMON: Look, I think the surge -- that is to say, the ISIS surge did surprise and it took, I think a relatively short while, you know, a measurable period of time of policy makers to really comprehend what was going on and so that ultimately conclude that, although there was an ongoing political crisis in Iraq, and a very dangerous, I think, advance by -- by Jihadists in Iraq, essentially capitalizing on the ongoing political crisis, that it was containable. And once they sort of reached that conclusion, they put together the package that the president -- President Obama announced yesterday, which, you know, under the circumstances, is a fairly reasonable and prudent response to what's happening.

MENDELSOHN: Well, I believe that we're still in crisis mode and if you live outside of Baghdad, crisis is definitely very significant. But there were always limitations to ISIS' power. And it stormed through the North and managed to surprise almost everybody. But it was the easy part of the plan.

I think that once you get close to Baghdad, theft (ph) becomes much more complicated. They took over such great amount of territory, it becomes harder to defend. Baghdad is a much more difficult target. They no longer have the same element of surprise as they did in -- in Mosul. And at this point, focusing on consolidating the victories. They're trying to take small towns in the area, trying to gain control over oil facility.

And of course, the other side is not sitting on it's hands now. And so it was bound to get to the point where things are starting to slow down. There was never going to be an immediate collapse of all the front in Baghdad.

ROSE: Is there any chance that the ISIS surge will fade away or there will be a sort of government surge back. Will -- is there any chance that they can be dislodged as quickly as they arrived?

SIMON: Well, dislodged from where is the question. I mean, they're deeply rooted in Western Iraq, first of all. Secondly, they do enjoy safe haven of sorts on the other side of the rather blurred border between Iraq and Syria. So, just on account of those two factors alone, I'd say, well, you know, kind of hard to root out entirely, which is why I -- I used the term a second ago, you know, to contain them really.

I think that's probably the immediate objective, that is, to push them back. Some of the locations (ph) that they have occupied and they try to contain them -- I, you know, it's been very difficult for the Iraqi army thus far to do this. And it's well to remember that counter insurgency operations have been going on there for several years at this point.

They haven't been prosecuted, I think, especially skillfully. But, the task was difficult precisely because, you know, this is not entirely some sort of, you know, foreign implant, you know, some alien presence from another planet. They are, you know, they are rooted in, you know, a deeply aggrieved and alienated population in that part of Iraq.

So anyway, difficult to -- to extirpate. But you know, the Iraqi army is quite large. They're about 900,000 men in the Iraqi armed forced. Not all of them, of course, not all of the formations equal in their -- in their capacities.

But there are (inaudible) units. They've got vastly superior firepower to what ISIS can generate, and you know, they've got some powerful friends who have a strong interest in what happens and those are the United States and Iran. So, you know, the government has some -- some assets with which to pull back that are not, you know, insignificant

ROSE: So, Barak. Are we looking to an ongoing defacto partition for the foreseeable future in which they won't go -- the ISIS types (ph) won't go forward to Baghdad, but they -- in the South, or to Kurdistan, but they also can't really be pushed out of the Sunistan areas that they currently control?

MENDELSOHN: It's going to be hard to push them back. To remember they've been in Fallujah and the Ramadi since the beginning of the year and Iraqi operations didn't succeed in -- in dislodging them. They have support from other Sunni groups and they have the support of Sunni population and now they have a lot more power than they had a few months ago.

At the same time, the Shiite side, or the Iraqi government, now has greater power as well. With the militias, some of them are trained, very capable fighters that are coming back from Syria and then you have the Iranian -- the Iranian revolutionary guard forces that support the Iraqi -- the Iraqi military.

So I think that both sides are now stronger than they were two weeks ago, but that seems like a recipe for some kind of stalemate I won't be surprised if there won't be a counter-attack and that the government will be able to take part of the -- to pull -- to capture some of the gains that -- that ISIS made. But it cannot take the whole area.

And even if it managed to take some area that is heavily dominated by Sunnis, it will find itself then having to deal with an insurgency again. And there is nothing to suggest that the Iraqi military, even with that support is so capable that they can handle that. So I do expect that we're going to have some kind of defacto partition for a while at least, and continue the hostility but not necessarily any major breakthrough for any side.

ROSE: Okay. So let's take a little bit of a step back and ask how we got here. You know, various things have been put forward as the causes and triggers, Maliki sectarianism, the crisis in Syria, the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the lack of a U.S. presence, the enduring sectarian hatreds of the region in Iraq in particular. Which of those thing, or any others, do you guys see as the real causes of what's happened this last week?

SIMON: Well, look. I think your list was fairly comprehensive and putting them in some kind of priority order would be a little tricky in part because, you know, they're inter-locking and they have reciprocal affects. So, I think they're, you know, those factors are difficult to disentangle.

The one, you know, perhaps one or two things I would add as, you know, exacerbating factors, or accelerants, are -- are -- are these. First, it is true to be sure that, you know, Maliki has taken a sectarian approach to governing and it's had an alienating effect on the Sunnis. The Sunnis have not had an equal share of the pie. And in fact, this sort of sectarian -- this sort of authoritarianism has played into his relationship with other Shiite parties within -- within Iraq itself. So, you know, he's -- he's pure as the driven slush, you know, as they say.

But you know, the thing is that the Sunnis are not entirely guilt free here. I think they bear, you know, some culpability as well for the way in which Iraqi politics have played out. I think, you know from the outset, looking back to the Sunni refusal to participate in those first parliamentary elections, you know, they've had their own agenda. And that agenda has been to show that these uppity Shiites are not capable of ruling Iraq. That they can't do it.

And, you know, that's led them to, you know, they're own tendency to make life complicated for Maliki. So, you know, I'm just I guess making the point here, you know, it takes two to tango and that's what's happened here.

The other factor really is that Iraq's gulf neighbors have taken the side of Sunnis, not surprisingly. In Iraq, they've supported them and they have, I think, for deliberate instrumental reasons, emphasized the sectarian dimension of this Iraqi political crisis. And in so doing had the perhaps the unintended effect of reinforcing Shia reluctance to incorporate Sunnis into the Iraqi politi and in fact reinforced Shia fears of Sunni irredentism.

So, you know, two factors to add to the very good list that you've already put forward.

ROSE: Let me just ask one direct question. Is there any substance to the charge that the Obama administration could have, if it tried harder, managed to leave some residual U.S. -- significant residual U.S. presence there? And if they had managed to do that, would that have helped contain this and so we wouldn't have gotten to this point?

SIMON: I think not.


ROSE: Wait, not for both?

SIMON: Well, I -- I -- think, look. You know, Obama could have taken a page out of Abraham Lincoln's book when he jailed the entire Maryland State Legislature when it was going to vote to -- to secede from the Union. In this case, the U.S. would have had to go in and arrest the entire Iraqi parliament, which as the key obstacle to the status of forces agreement that would have been indispensable to the continuing presence of a large number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

You know, my recollection is that that the administration tried very hard. They put a lot of pressure on Maliki and they worked parliamentarians pretty hard to make the case. But you know, the think is the United States' occupation of Iraq didn't necessarily make friends of the Iraqi people.

And, you know, if you wanted votes in those parliamentary elections, you couldn't seen to be acceding to American wishes and facilitating the continued presence of Americans in Iraq, particularly by giving them -- by giving the Americans a (inaudible) would have been seen to any excesses that they might commit.

ROSE: Okay. So, well let's get to the current situation and what if anything can or should be done about it. Barak, where do you see things going from here? And is there any constructive role that the United States should play, and if so, what?

MENDELSOHN: The main way to make progress from here is for there to be a change within the Sunni community. That's the prerequisite for any kind of success. And it's going to be hard to get that, unless you manage to convene the other actor -- the other Sunni actor, the non-ISIS actors, that they can win against ISIS and that they will be safe, and that they're going to be rewarded accordingly.

And I just don't see the conditions -- these conditions -- that these conditions are going to be met. They don't trust the Shiites, probably for good reasons And the U.S. can't offer them anything that is credible. The gulf countries are probably reluctant in their relationships with the Shiites is quite weak. And that's going to make it very -- with the shared government in Baghdad, and so that's going to make it harder for them to deliver.

The only way that something like that could work is if you had a good stronger relationship between -- or agreement between Iran and the gulf countries that will allow them to push each one -- push it's own -- the groups that are closer to them. Iran exerting their influence on the government and the Saudis exerting their influence on other Sunni actors.

There needs to be eventually, willingness from the sides on the ground -- the actors on the ground in Iraq to make a compromise. And I'm not sure that they reached that point that they see that the cost they're going to pay from continuing on this path of escalation is going to be much higher than if they would try to come up with some kind of solutions, when it's clear that that solution will require shedding blood. It's going to require going after ISIS, because ISIS is not just going to pull back.

ROSE: So, you know, when James Baker came to similar conclusions about the fate of the peace process back in, you know, two and a half decades ago between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and he sort of saw their -- what he saw as their unwillingness to make the compromises necessary to move forward, he famously got all fed up and said, "Look. Here's the White House switchboard phone number. Call me when you're ready to talk, because until then we're not going to be basically playing a very active role."

Is that essentially what I hear you saying the United States should do? Which is, if you guys -- we can't want it more than you, as we always say in the Middle East. So if you don't want it on the ground in Iraq, we can't really play a role here?

MENDELSOHN: I believe so. I'm just not sure that either of those sides actually believed the U.S. -- if they do call that switchboard, that the U.S. can actually be a very helpful actor, seeing as the U.S. lost lots of credibility and lots lots of good will in the region, that it may not be the best actor to mediate between the sides even when they are ready to move ahead.

ROSE: Who is the other -- what -- what other actor has more credibility than the U.S.?

MENDELSOHN: Probably almost any other actor at this point. I think the solution must be regional and there could be some incentive from the international community. But the U.S. involvement must come at a later stage and it's unlikely to -- it probably should be in a low profile.

ROSE: Wow. Steve, do you agree with that?

SIMON: Well, you know, I agree with some of the analysis. I think it's -- it's shrewd. I don't agree that the United States is completely without influence. I think the missing piece from Barak's assessment was the counter-terrorist imperative -- the counter-terrorist imperative that's at work for the U.S. in this situation, which will necessitate the continuing involvement of the United States on a broad front in Iraqi politics. Now -- sorry about that.

How effective it's going to be remains somewhat unclear. If the U.S. is going to be dealing with the counter terrorism issue by deploying advisers to Iraq and doing intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance missions, setting up drone operations, all that kind of stuff, it's not going to be inclined to do it in a political vacuum. It will be accompanied, I expect, by serious pressure on, you know, on the broad spectrum of Iraqi political parties to come up with some sort of strategy going forward that at least stands a chance of peeling off some of the Sunni support in the west from ISIS.

And this was, you know, a key theme, I think, in President Obama's remarks yesterday when he kind of laid out the U.S. strategy. Now there are going to be problems trying to implement this because some of the ways in which ISIS has acted and they way it's prosecuted its offensive has had the effect of uniting, I think, previously disputatious Shiite factions within the government So you're going to get, I think, something of a united front, determined to push back, you know, Sunni depredations as they're perceived to be, in a way that will make it harder for the U.S. really to situate it's counter terrorism agenda within a broader political program that aims to get to the root of the problem.

So I think, you know, it will be difficult. Now, the question, just to go back to what Barak was saying about U.S. influence, I think there is a great deal of skepticism in the region about America's commitment and it's staying power and all that. And indeed, you know, the United States is a global power. It's got a lot of other things it needs to worry about. So I think to that extent, well yeah. Skepticism might be warranted to some extent.

But right now, the Shiite -- the essentially Shiite government really needs the U.S. And we know this because Maliki has made requests for these reconnaissance flights that I've just referred to, and intelligence gathering, and all that. So, I think they'd be inclined to listen. I think the reliance on U.S. counter insurgency and counter terrorism capabilities give the U.S. a degree of leverage it might not have had even just a short while ago.

ROSE: Okay. Well that's a great sort of setting of the stage. Let's throw it open to our audience for conversation, for Q&A. So, Operator, why don't you give instructions on how to do that?

OPERATOR: Yes sir. At this time, we will open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the 1 key on your touch tone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received. If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, just press star 2. Please try to limit your questions to one at a time. Again, to ask a question, please press star 1.

And our first question comes from Margaret Caleb (ph) with Bloomberg News.

QUESTION: Hi gentlemen. Thank you for doing the call. I wanted to ask you, this is probably a horribly conventional question, about the state of Nouri al-Maliki and the timing of the sort of the decision point on that. Is anything likely to happen this weekend? Is he vulnerable that soon? If not, how soon are we talking about for a real decision on this? And does it matter? Let's say we get Maliki to step aside, and somebody comes in as Prime Minister. I mean, aren't they going to be Shia, and if they are, aren't we still in the same batch of problems?

MENDELSOHN: Well, I'll take that. Al-Maliki's not -- he has so many weaknesses. And I think that the timing, the fact that it came after the elections, indeed he has -- he got the greatest amounts of votes, but he has to rely on a coalition (ph). And he depends on other Shiite groups, and he depends on Shiite leaders, especially religious leaders of the Shiite community, and he's under the influence or pressure of Iran.

So I can definitely see a scenario where he's being viewed as a lightening rod, and therefore removed to make the way for somebody that might be more amenable to finding a compromise with the Sunni s, which is really required if we want to imagine any way to get out of this conflict. So we -- this is possible, but I'm not sure that we're already in a point where he can feel that kind of pressure or his supporters feel that they need to give him up. For them, that's going to be seen as a concession and to make a concession, they would like to see something significant in return, and at this point, it doesn't seem like they are getting anything that will meet that bow (ph) for them.


SIMON: Thanks. I pretty much agree with -- with Barak on this. I see Maliki holding out and I think that there's going to be a bandwagon process at work that makes it more than likely that he pulls together the coalition that he needs to continue governing -- governing Iraq And as to, you know, the implication of your question, namely, well, suppose it weren't him. And it were someone else, and things were substantially different, it sort of depends on the who else, and then, you know, that in turn depends on well, you know, who among the who elses (ph) is really a plausible contender. And I think when you parse all that you still come back to Maliki.

QUESTION: Any timing, guys? On -- on how -- how long it takes to play out?

SIMON: I think it could take a long time. But, who knows?

MENDELSOHN: I agree. Not -- we're not there yet. And we're not going to be there -- definitely not in the next week, probably even longer.

SIMON: Oh yeah, longer. Longer, I would say.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Okay, our next question comes from Warren Strobel with Reuters News Agency.

QUESTION: Thank you. Can y'all hear me okay?

ROSE: Yep.


QUESTION: This question's mostly for Steve. Steve, I've talked to a lot of former administration officials who know Iraq really well, who say the Obama administration should have spoken out more forcefully, or even taken action, as Maliki grew increasingly sectarian. And they cite specific examples, such as when he went after the Sunni politician Hashemi, when he after the Sunni finance minister Rafi al-Issawi, when he started to purge the military and put in his own cronies.

And I'm wondering if you can sort of respond to that critique. Would it have mattered? Are there things that should have been done?

SIMON: Yeah, I'm happy to take that on, although I'm not sure that I have any shattering, you know, insights, because I think at that point U.S. leverage was fairly limited. I think -- well not I think. I know that Washington was quite critical of these things. And -- but I think as a practical matter, I guess this really is my point.

What was Washington supposed to do? In other words, what sort of assistance could have been held ransom to a different course by Maliki? What sorts of, you know, things could have been withheld what kind of punitive measures was the United States in a position to take and how important would the effect of those punitive measures on a guy, you know, al-Maliki was quite determined to consolidate his position at the expense of political -- political rivals, especially on the Sunni side. But he was doing it on the Shia side as well.

You know, this -- this is why there are so many references out there to, you know, Iraq's new authoritarianism. It's not, you know, a term of art (ph) that's sort of emerged ex nihilo. This was a pattern of behavior on Maliki's part and I don't think, you know, his -- his commitment to that course of action left a lot of room for either persuasive action or, you know, measures of compellence.

MENDELSOHN: Let me just add that al-Maliki overreached. He made so many mistakes. He overestimated his ability to control -- he managed to concentrate lots of power in his hands, both with regard to the Shiite community and of course against the Sunni s. I doubt that he expected to see this kind of backlash.

And because he overreached and misperceived the situation, it would have been very difficult for the U.S., even if it had pushed stronger than it did to get the results that it wanted. Maliki was just not going to cooperate.

ROSE: So then is it fair to say -- this is Gideon chipping in. Is it fair to say that it took a kind of out of the blue crisis like this Isil surge to make him realize the consequences of his actions?

MENDELSOHN: I -- probably. I'm not sure to what extent. I don't have any access to him to tell you that he now is fully aware and he can make a full reverse. I'm not sure to what extent he actually understands how much he overreached. I'm sure that he now's got good signals that he indeed overreached.

SIMON: Yeah, if I could just add to that. I think, you know, his instinctive reason probably was, "Aha! You see, I was right all along."

ROSE: Got it. But you know, even if I had tried, these guys weren't interested in compromise because they were all a bunch of terrorists.


ROSE: Great.

OPERATOR: Okay. Our next question comes from Lee Column (ph) with Public Media of North Texas.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for a most helpful and enlightening presentation. My question follows on from the one that just went before. Is it realistic to suppose in the near, or not-so-near future, that there's going to be an inclusive government in Iraq? We've been calling for it, and working for it for a very long time, and it doesn't seem to be implicit (ph) in the culture or the circumstances. What do you think?

SIMON: I think you -- look, I think it's -- it's quite unlikely at least in the near to medium term. I mean, despite the best efforts that people will make, because I think the underlying conditions are not, you know, are not going to go away. So if you look at the sort of subterranean factors, you know, the tectonic factors at work in Iraqi politics, and intercommunal relations in Iraq, and, you know, against a background of, you know, in insurgency that's just burgeoning, you know, at least for the moment, that conditions really aren't right for the kind of inclusive government that would, you know, would really help.

Now, you know, my pessimism may proved to be unwarranted if U.S. efforts to, you know, to convince Maliki that, you know, that counter terrorism measures the United States is prepared to take will only really work in a bigger contest. It will also matter if Maliki, I think, is hearing the same message from the Iranians. And, you know, there, you know, there's sort of a curious thing going on, where, you know, Rouhani and I think -- and I think one of his spokes persons, you know, said a couple of days ago that, you know, there's grounds for cooperation with the United States, you know, on this.

Those -- those statements were later withdrawn They were again said by the Iranian government. But it's clear, that you know, that there's some thinking on that side that there is a shared interest and there might be ways, you know, to exploit that shared interest to stabilize Iraqi politics. But Rouhani is not the only voice in the Iranian government. I think that there are a lot of views and indeed in the U.S. government, I suspect there is a division of views on whether and how to -- to deal with Iran on this.

President Obama said the other day in his public remarks that, you know, he didn't really see space for that right now. But what he did say was, well, you know, if the Iranians were to do something constructive, it would be to pass a message along the lines of the one that the U.S. was pressing on Maliki.

MENDELSOHN: There are some things that cannot be undone. Steve mentioned the tectonic shift and if you think tectonic plates, once they are moved, it's unlikely that they will fall back the way that they were before. You have three actors now.

You look at the Kurds and the Kurdish region and you see that since 1991, it's gradually drifted apart from the rest of Iraq to the point that it's almost a fully independent state in almost every aspect. And this crisis served that purpose even better. Why would the Kords willing to go back to the condition that was two weeks ago? It's going to be very hard to convince them, or to compel them to do that.

So it seems that when we're speaking about bringing back the sides together or recreating Iraq, we're speaking mostly about the Shiites and the Sunni s. And the bad blood is just becoming worse every time that you have this kind of crisis. The conditions that you need to meet in order to get both sides to trust each other, they keep shifting.

We are now at a stage where maybe a few years ago you could think about a federal moral, but still one where the central government has significant control. Now for any kind of compromise, there will need to be a much greater autonomy for the different provinces, which means you're going to have even greater separation between the different groups. So this is not going to be the same Iraq even in the best circumstances.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

OPERATOR: Okay. Our next question comes from Deb Riechmann with the Associated Press.

QUESTION: Thank you. How likely is it that the U.S. and Iran are going to cooperate and have some discussions about Iraq?

SIMON: There was a statement from the Iranian side that initially there had been a conversation between the U.S. and Iran on this and then, you know, that too was denied. But I think really as a practical matter, there's not going to be the sort of operational or tactical discussion with Iran that, you know, that you might be thinking of in framing your question. And this was made pretty clear in the -- in the White House press conference yesterday, that, you know, the focus is on the nuclear talks, is on the five plus one talks.

They're not hugely well right now because, you know, the two sides are now beginning to put forward their conditions for a comprehensive agreement and I thin there's a little bit of sticker shock, certainly on the -- certainly on the Iranian side. So that for the United States is, you know, a strategic priority, you know, for a lot of reasons.

And there's going to be a disinclination, I think, to muddy the water and expand the agenda of bilateral or multilateralized comunications with the -- with the Iranians at this point. I think from the administrations perspective, we need to keep our eye on the ball with Iran and that ball, if I can put it that way, is the nuclear issue.

QUESTION: So did Secretary Kerry just kind of speak a little ahead of the game there or something?

SIMON: He (inaudible).

QUESTION: I'm sorry -- I'm sorry, what?

SIMON: Was he ahead of his skis?


SIMON: Yeah. Well, I think that there might have been, you know, an aspirational (inaudible) to his (inaudible)...

QUESTION: You broke up. An aspirational?

ROSE: Yeah, he was -- it -- it was wishful thinking.

QUESTION: Okay. This is Steve, right? Okay.

ROSE: That was Gideon translating Steve. Is that correct?

SIMON: Yeah, so, Gideon translating Steve saying it was aspirational.

QUESTION: Okay. Got it.

MENDELSOHN: The conversations between the U.S. and Iran, I have no doubt, but they converge in the interest and they definitely converge -- not converge, but diverge, in their interest and their attitudes toward solutions The Iranians naturally side with the Shiite community in Iraq and they will be less, or they will be more reluctant for solution that will require more compromise from the Shiite government.

Then there is the issue of what should be the balance between the use of force versus ISIS and the attempts to create an inclusive Iraq that brings Sunni s on board. And I think on that point as well they will be divergent views between the U.S. and Iran. So I don't see significant cooperation as coming anytime soon.

At the same time, it's interesting how this plays into the nuclear -- plays into the nuclear issue. Because you can say that to some extent because Iran is now facing both crisis, the nuclear crisis and the crisis in Iraq, and the crisis in Iraq is more of a problem for Iran than in it is for the U.S., it might be a point here that the U.S. could use Iraq as leverage in the nuclear -- in the nuclear negotiations.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

OPERATOR: Okay. Our next question comes from Matt Viser with the Boston Globe.

QUESTION: Hey guys, thanks for doing this. My question is Secretary State John Kerry is heading to the region in the coming days and I -- what should we expect out of his trip and his discussion, particularly if they end up somehow including Maliki and what can he reasonably accomplish over these next few days?

SIMON: Look, just briefly. I think what you can expect is for him to lay down markers. And explain what our -- what the U.S. approach to the crisis in Iraq is going to be. I don't think he's going to come away with any pledges of support, you know, from the Gulf states. I don't think he's going to produce any kind of conversion experience in Baghdad on Maliki's part.

But, you know, he's going out there to do what he should be doing right now, which is characterizing U.S. interests, the extent to which we'll pursue those interests and how we will do that, and some of the things we expect in return if our efforts are to be successful.

MENDELSOHN: When the Secretary of State will be in the region, he will probably collect the positions of the relevant actors, if within Iraq. I'm not sure if he's going to speak to any of the -- I doubt that he will speak with any of the Sunni actors within Iraq. But he will speak with the Iraqi government and he will probably tour the Gulf and speak with the governments there and have some kind of link also to the Iranian position, and will try to bring all of those positions together while at the same time articulating how the U.S.'s kind of approach.

And maybe that will serve him as a way then to come up with something more concrete to try to tailor some kind of more concrete plan with how to move forward. But the first step would try to get the positions of all sides, how they analyze the situation, what they think needs to happen, and what are they willing to do to contribute to that objective.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Okay. Our next question comes from Jacqueline Albert Simon from Politique Internationale.

QUESTION: Yes. Hello, and thank you to both of you, who you both and our moderator clarified a number of points. There's one seem I can't seem to focus on myself. We talk about both sides. We have an Iraqi government. But who do we (inaudible) with among the ISIS people? My concern is what's going on in Syria with them.

They are, as has been stated many times, a state by themselves. Who will represent them in any kind of possible talks? Whom do we address? What telephone number do we call when we want to speak to the ISIS people?

SIMON: I'm checking my address book. Hang on. I'm just kidding.


ROSE: Don't try and be funny, Steve. You're not here for your humor.

QUESTION: I agree. I agree. I'm asking a difficult question, but...


SIMON: You know, (inaudible) good question. It's, look. It's a good question and -- and let me just say, I will say one or two things about it very quickly and then -- and then turn over to (inaudible) got something to add.

You see, the points of contact on the Sunni side would be the heads of the major Sunni political parties. And there are such people, and they are influential. They will also speak, presumably, to important community leaders in the parts of Iraq where ISIS has gotten a foothold. You know, I think your skepticism about any direct contacts with ISIS is justified.

I mean, you know, they're the enemy. They're engaged in a violent, you know, assault on, you know, that's both sectarian and political, you know, in nature and those two things are very closely intertwined in this case. So, there won't be contact with them.

I mean, the thing -- the contact with them will be kinetic. It won't be verbal. So, I think the point here is that there are Sunni s to talk to that don't have blood on their hands who may have, you know, in an ambiguous or an ambivalent relationship or even an adversarial one to the, you know, resurgence of -- of the Jihadists in that part of Iraq are now, you know, claiming to represent the interests of all Sunni s and they clearly can't -- can't be doing that. Anyway, over to Barak.

MENDELSOHN: I agree with Steve that ISIS doesn't have a relevant phone number for any kind of negotiations. ISIS doesn't believe in negotiations. For ISIS, they represent such an extreme understanding of Islam that for them, Shiites are apostates. And Shiites need to be fought. They're so extreme that they're too extreme for Al Qaeda.

For them, the only way that you resolve the conflict is by winning. And there won't be any compromises as they are concerned. So the way to engage them as Steve said, that's going to be kinetic. What you try to achieve is to create conditions under which the kinetic effort is going to be easier to accomplish and where you will have Sunni actors on your side when you move to that fight against ISIS and Sunni actors that then could credibly take a place in the Iraqi government and help out informing that new inclusive state.

But that's a point that I try to make earlier. You will need to offer so much to the Sunni s and build their confidence and trust in the Shiite government. And they don't have it at this point and they've got enough evidence or at least they could easily see events of the last few years as evidence that they cannot trust whatever they're being promised.

When Maliki took control, there were still the (inaudible), the awakening group -- groups operating. And they were supposed to be incorporated into the security services of Iraq. But Maliki ditched them. The promises that were made were abandoned. And they have no reason to think that it will be different this time. And without their support, or any kind of any kind of internal actors within the Sunni community, the battle against ISIS is going to be much harder to win.

QUESTION: And probably it does seem to me at this point almost impossible win. So that leaves only a quandary and chaos.

MENDELSOHN: Welcome to Iraq.

QUESTION: That's sad. Well, thank you very much. I'm not going to press it further because we'll go no place.

ROSE: Let's just take a couple more.

OPERATOR: Okay, our next question comes from Kathleen Hennessey with the L.A. Times.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. I was wondering if you both could comment a little on the president's holding up Yemen as sort of model, for particularly the counter terrorism aspect, of how he plans to handle this. What do you -- what do you think of that as a model or a road map for how the U.S. might operate in Iraq?

SIMON: Well, I think it was revealing. Because the U.S. doesn't have a big footprint in Yemen It uses drones as a way of disrupting Jihadist operations and decapitating or weakening Jihadist cells. And it's, you know, intelligence driven, dynamic targeting. And it's, you know, within limits it's successful and it makes sense, I think, to transplant that approach to Iraq, again provided that it's situated in a larger political process that gets into the root of the problem by peeling away the bulk of the population in western Iraq from ISIS.

So, to me, it was, I guess, sensible, you know, or logical.

MENDELSOHN: The use of Yemen as a model, the application of it, is -- has very limited value. For one we can doubt what extent this model actually works beyond containing the spread of terrorism as it projected outside of Yemen The situation within Yemen is far from being showing significant progress as there was hope. There is a sense that the balance is somewhat contained and the gains that Al Qaeda and the (inaudible) Peninsula made a couple of years ago, the Yemen government managed to roll back those advantages.

But there are still a significant number of attacks throughout Yemen. The Houthis in Northern Yemen have established a basically autonomous state in Yemen. It's just not such a serious problem that the president has to constantly involve himself with it and maybe this is enough for him at this point, giving all the constraints and so many crisis that are ongoing. This is one he can contain and keep it as a low-level conflict.

But it's bound to come back and be a much more significant issue in the future So I'm not sure that even that moral is that useful

Iraq is a different story. The gains ISIS made are much more significant ISIS itself is much more violent and difficult actor than Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula And they use different, more radical, tactics that on one hand you can say maybe will allow to turn the population against them. But it's also the kind of tactics that are helping ISIS to make those gains and that's going to make it harder to isolate ISIS and it's going to make it hard to find credible partners among the Sunni community.

The U.S. needs to decide what it seeks is really to contain this bed of terrorism so that it won't affect the greater Middle East and definitely not Europe and the U.S. or whether it wants to go even bigger and try to get a change in Iraq and resolve that conflict. My reading of the president's speech was an understanding that the bigger plan, or the bigger objectives, are not viable at this point and it's probably going to be a while before they will be viable. And he might be going for a smaller solution and if he can contain the spread of terrorism, then he will probably be pleased enough. Whether this is good news for the Iraqi people, probably not so much.

ROSE: Okay, you know, we try to do these things on time and we can all stay and talk about this a lot, but we're going to wrap it up short here now. I just want to say, listening to you guys, it's really interesting. Because if you think about the conventional discussion of this stuff in the U.S. media, our focus is all on Washington. The focus is on what U.S. policy has done or hasn't done, the ideas that the world is always on the brink of catastrophe or triumph and there's some kind of easy answer that's ready to be put in place but just people differ over what that is.

And if you listen to you guys and F.A. coverage more generally, the focus is on Iraq and the region. The focus is on the local history and determinance of the problems. The things are always incremental, whether they're progress or slippage. And things are always intractable and difficult to affect.

So it really is a kind of distinctively different view from the conventional U.S. media swarm. And, well, I don't know. I find it really interesting. Well, I just thought I'd offer that.

Thanks to all of you listening and for taking part. And we look forward to having you guys back, and having all of you back for future conference calls. Thanks a lot.

MENDELSOHN: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you ladies and gentlemen. This concludes today's teleconference and you may now disconnect.


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