News, Notes & Links | 17.09.2016

 

Headlines:

Third of Saudi airstrikes in Yemen have hit civilian sites.

Israeli settlements grew as much during Obama’s tenure as under the Bush administration.

Syrian Air Force responsible for chlorine bomb attacks, U.N. and OPCW inquiry says.

U.S.-led coalition airstrikes kill at least 60 Syrian soldiers near Deir ez-Zor.

Military campaign against Mosul may cost $2 billions in humanitarian aid, U.N. says.

U.S. pledges $38 billions in aid to Israel over the next 10 years, the largest military aid package in U.S. history.

 

Recommended Reads:

Survival of the Fittest: An Interview with Walid Joumblatt | By Michael Young, Diwan

Walid Joumblatt is not in the finest form. The Lebanese political system is blocked, Bashar al-Assad remains in power, and the region is going through major transformations. With a new U.S. administration coming to office next year, the Druze leader sat down with Diwan to share his thoughts about Lebanon, the region, and the Syrian conflict.

What Will Year Two of Russia’s Syria Intervention Bring? | By Fabian Balanche, The Washington Institute

Moscow and Iran are already several steps ahead of Washington in shaping the war’s potential endgame, so the next administration will need to be mindful of Putin’s likeliest strategies and strongest levers if it wants a different outcome.

A Walk Down One of Baghdad’s Most Bombed Streets | By Loveday Morris, The Washington Post

Karrada is a majority Shiite area but was known for its religious diversity. Many of Baghdad’s Jews once lived here alongside a large Christian community. But over the years minorities have shrunk. The Jews have long disappeared, and Christians, too, have slowly emigrated. A 2010 attack on Karrada’s Our Lady of Salvation Church, when gunmen affiliated with Islamic State’s predecessor massacred 58 worshipers at Mass, added momentum.

News, Notes & Links | 07.03.2016


Headlines:

More than 130,000 crossed the Mediterranean in January and February, UNHCR says.

Turkey has killed 1250 PKK militants in southeastern province since July 2015.

Mosul dam engineers warns that it could collapse at any time.

Drought in the Middle East from 1998-2012 worst in 900 years, NASA says.

Turkish government takes control with top-selling newspaper Zaman.

Syria opposition will attend Geneva peace talks.

Powerful Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr calls for government to be overthrown.

 

Recommended Reads:

How Iran’s Moderate Triumphed | By Mohsen Milani, Foreign Affairs

A year after signing a landmark nuclear deal with the P5+1, Iran held two elections, one for its parliament, the Majlis, and one for the Assembly of Experts, a clerical council that selects the supreme leader. The vote, which coincided with the 110th anniversary of Iran’s first parliamentary election, saw some 62 percent of the Iranian electorate—or 34 million people—peacefully demonstrate their commitment to the ballots. Unlike the disputed election of 2009, in which incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was accused of electoral fraud and which sparked weeks of protests, the vote seems to have been relatively clean. All in all, it should leave Iran even more politically stable than it already is.

End Times for the Caliphate? | By Patrick Cockburn, London Review of Books

The rise of the Kurdish states isn’t welcomed by any country in the region, though some – including the governments in Baghdad and Damascus – have found the development to be temporarily in their interest and are in any case too weak to resist it. But Turkey has been appalled to find that the Syrian uprising of 2011, which it hoped would usher in an era of Turkish influence spreading across the Middle East, has instead produced a Kurdish state that controls half of the Syrian side of Turkey’s 550-mile southern border.

When elephants battle | The Economist

AS SAUDI ARABIA and Iran jostle for power in the Middle East, Lebanon has managed to maintain an uncomfortable balance between the two. Saudi Arabia has long been chummy with Lebanon’s Sunni politicians and some of its Christians. Iran supports the Lebanese Shia, not least through Hizbullah, a militia-cum-political party. It has also snuggled up to some Lebanese Christian groups. Nonetheless, an uneasy calm prevailed between Lebanon and the two regional powers. Apparently no longer.

 

 

NY Times: The Libya Gamble

Excellent piece by Scott Shane and Jo Becker in the New York Times on Libya five years after the uprising and the NATO-led intervention.

First part of The Libya Gamble, “Hillary Clinton,‘Smart Power’ anda Dictator’s Fall”, is available here.

The president was wary. The secretary of state was persuasive. But the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi left Libya a failed state and a terrorist haven.

The second part, “A New Libya,With ‘VeryLittle Time Left’”, can be found here.

The fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi seemed to vindicate Hillary Clinton. Then militias refused to disarm, neighbors fanned a civil war, and the Islamic State found refuge.

ICG: Yemen – Is Peace Possible?

Excellent new report from the International Crisis Group on the warring factions in Yemen, their grievances and the prospects for peace:

The media often describes the war as between Iranian-backed Huthis and President Hadi’s Saudi-supported government. This obscures more than it reveals. Within Yemen, there are two main warring factions that enjoy varying degrees of external support: the bloc of Huthi fighters and forces allied with ex-President Saleh, which receives Iranian support but, as discussed below, much less than often asserted; and an anti-Huthi alliance of smaller groups loosely allied with the Hadi government and backed by the Saudi-led coalition. These factions are internally diverse, reflecting competing interests and priorities. There is little to no loyalty to Hadi on the anti- Huthi side; the opposing bloc is less pro-Huthi than virulently opposed to the Sunni Islamist party Islah, which supports Hadi’s government, and to the Saudi-led intervention that aims to restore that government.

The fighting combines elements of three overlapping historical fault lines: the Zaydi northern highlands, where the Huthi/Saleh bloc is strongest, versus the Shafei (Sunni) rest of the county; the north versus previously independent South Yemen; and what remains of Saleh’s GPC versus Islah, both struggling to maintain nationwide appeal against political fragmentation and growing regionalist sentiment. The balance of external support to these loose coalitions is starkly uneven: the Saudi-led coalition lends direct military, financial and political help to anti-Huthi fighters, while Iran operates on a shoestring budget, giving the Huthis political and moral aid but little military and financial assistance. Instead of a neat, two-sided battle, the war is multipolar, with domestic and external components, unlikely alliances and threat of more fragmentation.

News, Notes and Links | 06.02.16

Headlines:

Saudi Arabia is ready to participate in ground operations in Syria, military spokesman says.

U.N. suspends peace talks in Syria for three weeks.

34 groups have pledged alligience to ISIS, U.N. Secretary-General says.

World leaders pledges more than 10 billion dollars for Syria.

Tunisia completes the construction of barrier along its border to Libya.

Russia: “reasonable grounds” to suspect Turkey is preparing a military intervention in Syria.

 

Recommended Reads:

Syrian rebels are losing Aleppo and perhaps also the war | By Liz Sly, Washington Post

Syrian rebels battled for their survival in and around Syria’s northern city of Aleppo on Thursday after a blitz of Russian airstrikes helped government loyalists sever a vital supply route and sent a new surge of refugees fleeing toward the border with Turkey.

The Russian-backed onslaught against rebel positions in Aleppo coincided with the failure of peace talks in Geneva, and helped reinforce opposition suspicions that Russia and its Syrian government allies are more interested in securing a military victory over the rebels than negotiating a settlement.

Chemical Wonders | By Joost Hiltermann, London Review of Books

Predicting what will start a war, and when, is an unrewarding business. Long-term trends (‘causes’) are often clear enough, but not the proximate causes, or triggers. We can assess the comparative significance of competition for resources, hunger for power, the nature of political systems, the psychology of leaders. What precipitates a conflict, though, may be a sudden, unforeseen event: an accident, misreading or miscalculation, or a temperamental leader’s flash of hubris. Often, of course, it is a combination of such things. Yet there is nothing inevitable about the outbreak of conflict.

China’s Stance on East Jerusalem | By Mohammed al-Sudairi, MERIP

For those accustomed to the themes of Sino-Arab diplomacy, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on January 21 was predictable enough. It might not have attracted much attention at all if not for Xi’s statement that “China firmly supports the Middle East peace process and supports the establishment of a State of Palestine enjoying full sovereignty on the basis of the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

 

Lund: The Road to Geneva

Excellent background piece by Aron Lund on the upcomming Syria peace talks in Geneva. Via Syria in Crisis:

A new round of Syrian peace talks, known as Geneva III, was supposed to begin on January 25 but ended up being postponed to January 29. Now that the day has arrived, they’re still not quite ready to begin—but UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is putting on a brave face. He has already met with the Syrian government delegation headed by President Bashar al-Assad’s UN representative Bashar al-Jaafari, but other invitees remain absent.

The reasons for these delays are complex, but the primary issue is a dispute over who should be allowed to represent the Syrian opposition and perhaps whether it is useful to think in terms of a single Syrian opposition at all. Opposition groups and individuals who participated in the December Riyadh meeting as well as Russian-backed individuals have been invited in various capacities, while so far Kurdish groups are excluded. And while no one expects any significant progress toward a resolution of the Syria conflict to emerge from the meetings, de Mistura is hard at work trying to establish Geneva III as a framework for conflict management and the mitigation of Syrians’ horrific suffering.

 

 

News, Notes & Links | 28.01.16

Headlines:

Syria peace talks to start January 29th, U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura says.

Five years after the Egyptian uprising state repression is “worst in decades”, activists say.

Russian airstrikes in Syria have killed more than 1000 civilians, monitoring group says.

Iran and China vow to develop economic ties worth 600 billions over the next decade.

U.S. “looking at military options” to counter ISIS in Libya.

More than 18.000 civilans killed in Iraq between January 2014 and October 2015, U.N. report says.

 

Recommended Reads:

‘I was terribly wrong’ – five authors look back at the Arab spring five years on | The Guardian

In January 2011, days after the first uprising in Tunisia and the protests in Tahrir Square, the Guardian invited leading writers from across the Arab world to reflect on the revolutionary fervour sweeping the region. Then, they expressed great optimism for the future. Here, they revisit their responses and ask, is there still room for hope?

How the U.N. Let Assad Edit the Truth of Syria’s War | By Roy Gutman, Foreign Policy

As Syrian civilians starved to death, U.N. officials let the government in Damascus alter its master plan for saving lives.

Could Iraq mediate Iran, Saudi strife? | By Mohammad Ali Shabani, Al-Monitor

Utilizing Iraq as a mediator to address its dispute with Iran would allow Saudi Arabia to both improve relations with Tehran and build important relations with Iraqi Shiites. Why, then, is Riyadh not seizing this opportunity?

Brookings: Rethinking Political Islam

The Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, a Brookings Insitution initiative led by Shadi Hamid and Will McCants, has released 11 new essays from leadings scholars in its “Rethinking Political Islam”-series. From the introduction:

The rapid succession of events in the past four years—the Arab Spring, the Egyptian military coup, and the rise of ISIS—have challenged conventional wisdom on political Islam. After the democratic openings in 2011, mainstream Islamist groups—affiliates and descendants of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—rose to newfound prominence after decades in opposition, but grappled with the challenges of governance and deeply polarized societies. The subsequent “twin shocks” of the coup in Egypt and the emergence of ISIS are forcing a rethinking of some of the basic assumptions of, and about, Islamist movements, including on: gradual versus revolutionary approaches to change; the use of tactical or situational violence; attitudes toward the state; and how ideology and political variables interact.

Rethinking Political Islam is the first project of its kind to systematically assess the evolution of mainstream Islamist groups across 12 country cases—Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and Pakistan, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia. The project engages scholars of political Islam through in-depth research and dialogue to consider how the Arab uprisings and their aftermath have shaped—and in some cases altered—the strategies, agendas, and self-conception of Islamist movements.

Ciezadlo: The most unconventional weapon in Syria

Before images of malnourished men, women and children emerged from besieged Madaya, Syria, had an excellent piece in the Washington Post on the cynical tactics of starvation and the importance of agricultural power in the Syrian conflict:

Bread is the staple food in the Middle East. Daily bread is “liqmet aeesh” — a Levantine idiom that translates as “morsel of life.” In addition to its crucial carbohydrates, it is the main source of protein for many people in poor and rural areas. “You can’t imagine life without bread,” says a Syrian aid worker from Aleppo, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The calories, the energy it gives you, is equivalent to anything else you eat. Except it’s a lot cheaper. So there’s a chance for survival.”

The Syrian government understands the importance of bread. So does the Islamic State, as well as the constellation of other armed groups vying to control the country’s land and its people. Strategically, bread is as important as oil or water. Civilians are dependent on the authority that distributes it, and profiteers are eager to resell it to hungry people at grotesque prices. “When you control bread and fuel,” says a Syrian analyst from Damascus who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “you control the whole society.”

That’s why the Islamic State, other armed groups and the government aren’t just fighting over land; they’re warring over grain, too. The battles take place at every point in the wheat-production chain: from seeds growing in fields to flour mills, yeast factories and even bakeries.

Already, a third of the country’s wheat production lies outside the government’s control, according to officials from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. (Syrians who work in the agriculture sector believe that the number is probably higher.) The Islamic State holds the biggest chunk, including much of the country’s breadbasket, the prime wheat-producing lands that Syrians call the Jazira. It practices the same strategy in Iraq, where the FAO estimated last year that it controlled some 40 percent of all wheat production.

Wheat, like oil, is a fungible commodity. Disbursing it wins the loyalty — or at least the obedience — of civilians. But the Islamic State also sells Syria’s stocks to Iraq, to traders in Turkey and even back to the government, all at inflated prices, according to people closely involved with wheat and bread production. Other armed groups have been pursuing similar strategies. The result, as the World Food Program and the FAO estimated in July, is that almost 10 million Syrians — almost half of the country’s prewar population — are “food insecure,” meaning that they may go hungry on a day-to-day basis. Of those, almost 7 million need aid just to stay alive. And the black-market war economy that feeds them is controlled by combatants, who inflate prices — this year, they rose almost 90 percent — to profit from hunger and even starvation.

Milani: Saudi Arabia’s Desperate Measures

Thoughtful piece from Professor Mohsen Milani in Foreign Affairs on Saudi Arabia’s motivations and concerns in its strategic competition with Iran:

Two years ago, I explained in these pages the nature of the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This conflict is not caused by—nor is it even about—sectarianism. It is about power and hegemony in the Middle East. But both countries have conveniently used sectarianism to enhance their agendas.

The Saudi decision to sever ties with Iran is directly related to its assessment that Iran has the upper hand in the region. They fear that Iran’s position will significantly improve after the lifting of the sanctions. And they know Saudi Arabia’s strategic value to the United States diminishes as tension between the United States and Iran decreases.

The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was the most critical phase in this cold war, and it decidedly tilted the balance of power in Iran’s favor. The Saudis regarded the Sunni-ruled Iraq as the most effective counterweight against Iran and a brake on Iranian expansion into the Persian Gulf and the Levant. This is why the Saudis lavishly donated to Saddam Hussein’s war machine against Iran in the 1980s. The establishment of a Tehran-friendly, Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad was a momentous strategic setback.

Preventing the consolidation of a Tehran-friendly government in Baghdad by all means necessary was and remains Riyadh’s top strategic goal. That strategy failed, though, as Baghdad became Tehran’s close political ally and Iran substantially expanded its sphere influence in southern Iraq, right on the border with Saudi Arabia. In this context, the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has been both a real blessing and a potential danger for the kingdom. It is a blessing because ISIS is anti-Shiite, anti-Iran, and a destabilizing force in Iraq. It is a potential danger for the Saudis because ISIS seeks to create a caliphate whose heart would be Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This Janus-faced quality of ISIS explains the Saudis’ reluctance to seriously engage in the U.S. coalition to defeat ISIS.