Monthly archives for September, 2015

News, Notes & Links | 29.09.15


More than 700 killed in Haj stampede in Mecca.

France launches first airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

ISIS has excecuted more than 10,000 men, women and children in Iraq and Syria since June 2014.

Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq announces agreement to share intelligence on ISIS.

U.S.-trained fighters in Syria gave ammo and eqiupment to Jabhat al-Nusra.


Recommended Reads:

It’s Time to Rethink Syria | By Philip Gordon, Politico

For years, I helped advise President Obama on Syria. It’s now clearer than ever that a new strategy is needed.

Obama’s War of Choice | By Micah Zenko, Council of Foreign Relations

Weapons sales are supposed to build a relationship between supplier and recipient, which is supposed to provide some leverage for the supplier over how the recipient uses those weapons. Either President Obama is fine with how U.S.-supplied weapons are being used in Yemen, he is refraining from using leverage to stop their use, or there is no leverage to speak of. In which case, all the United States has gained over the past six months is participating in and extending a civil war, which has been an enormous humanitarian disaster.

“If You Can’t Do This Deal… Go Back to Tehran” | By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Politico

Covering the path to that deal was the main focus of my beat at Bloomberg News for the past seven years. I traveled more than 140,000 miles and spent months at hotels in Europe, New York, the Middle East and Central Asia, reporting on talks by Kerry and U.S. nuclear negotiators. Now that the deal is done, 12 current and former Obama administration officials intimately involved in the negotiations spoke to me last week, revealing new details for the first time. This story of the behind-the-scenes calculations along a seven-year road to a deal is based upon those accounts, as well as on hundreds of hours of reporting on the talks I did as they unfolded in recent years in capitals across three continents.

NPR Special on the Origins of the Iranian Nuclear Program

Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iran, and Robin Wright of the Woodrow Wilson Center are among the featured in this fascinating NPR Special on the origins and evolution of the Iranian nuclear program. Read “The U.S., The Atom and Iran” here or listen below:

How Iran’s shadowy role in Syria fuels paranoia and wariness | The Guardian

Ian Black of The Guardian reports from Damascus on Iran’s influence in Syria:

Ordinary Syrians fret about wider Iranian influence: Damascenes gossip about land confiscated in Mezze to build a big Iranian housing project as well as a new embassy closer to the city centre; about Iranians buying up prime real estate, often anonymously. Last year 35% of all Syrian imports came from Iran. Now many government tenders are open only to Iranians.

“Syria has been sold to the Iranians,” complains a resident of one of the capital’s better neighbourhoods. “They control everything.” Prejudice and paranoia make for a toxic argument that is promoted energetically by the Syrian opposition. Some even describe Syria as “Iranian-occupied” – a wild exaggeration. (…)

The Iranians radiate growing confidence internationally but they will not persuade anti-Assad Syrians of their good intentions or the sincerity of their professed belief in non-intervention. “The more the Iranians speak about Syria’s sovereignty the more they violate it,” argues Ibrahim Hamidi, a highly-regarded Syrian journalist with the London-based al-Hayat newspaper. “The more they talk about national identity the more they promote sub-identities. The more they talk about fighting Isis, the more they provoke it. Whatever the Iranians say, they do the opposite. The Iranians are trying to play the same role in Syria as Syria used to play in Lebanon: they create their own clients and they hold the balance between different centres of power. Now the Iranians are trying to create their own parallel regime – with their militias, businessmen and properties, and social engineering.”


Sources Detail Skewed Reports On How The U.S. Is Doing Against ISIS | NPR

After The Daily Beast first reported that more than 50 U.S. intelligence analysts have complained that their conclusions were inappropriately altered by senior officials, this piece from NPR provides further insights:

The Pentagon is looking at whether senior military officials at U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, pressured intelligence analysts into painting a rosy picture of the fight against ISIS. The Defense Department’s inspector general is talking to a group of intelligence analysts who are providing evidence and details on how bias crept into their assessments.

One military source who witnessed the skewing of reports and told NPR he was “a victim of them” said that analysts at CENTCOM got the message as they began writing their assessments of events on the ground. If analysts wanted to include a piece of good news regarding the campaign against ISIS or the progress of Iraqi forces, they needed almost no sourcing. But if they wanted to include bad news — such as Iraqi forces retreating — analysts were required to cite three or four sources.

Two military sources familiar with the investigation say that, while they haven’t discovered a direct order to cherry-pick intelligence, it was something that evolved because of the way data were handled and produced.

“The bad news didn’t just need to be footnoted,” one military source, who did not want to be further identified because he is involved with the inquiry, told NPR. “The intelligence data itself had to be attached to the report. It became pretty clear if they wrote something bad, it was likely to be changed. Knowing that bad news on ISIS wasn’t welcome meant that, over time, the picture of the fight began being rosier.”

A military source described the evolution of one report that came out of CENTCOM’s intelligence shop. It was a dispatch on an ISIS attack in Iraq near the Syrian border. The initial CENTCOM report read, “Iraqi forces retreated.” It was sent back for reworking, the source said. Eventually that report came to read that the Iraqi forces had not retreated, but instead had reinforced another Iraqi position. The final draft suggested a strategic decision had been made. But that was not what happened, the source said — the Iraqi forces ran. A second source confirmed the account of the change in wording to put the Iraqi forces in a more positive light.

International Relations Theory and a Changing Middle East

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The latest edition of the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) Studies series, “International Relations Theory and a Changing Middle East” is a brilliant collection of essays from 15 leading scholars, including Gregory Gause, Curtis Ryan and Morten Valbjørn, on regional politics in the aftermath of the Arab Uprisins. It is available for download for free via the POMEPS website. In his introduction to the publication, Marc Lynch writes:

Some of the contributors seek to bridge levels of analysis, focusing on traditional forms of statecraft, alliances  and institutions. Sarah Bush and Etel Solingen examine the different forms of international pressure on the Middle East and the role that Western actors have played in blocking meaningful democratic change. Gregory Gause and Curtis Ryan highlight the ongoing centrality of regime survival concerns in shaping the foreign policies of Arab states, locating unusual new foreign policy gambits in the heightened or transformed sense of the threats to their rule. Erin Snider brings international political economy back into frame. Bassel Salloukh examines how the proliferation of weak and shattered states has changed the structural dynamics of the region’s politics. Matteo Legrenzi explores new forms of regionalism and the prospect for greater institutionalization of state cooperation.

Others focus on the importance of ideas. Ewan Stein explores the relationship between the regime legitimization formulas and their regional foreign policies, while Lawrence Rubin similarly looks closely at how the ideational security dilemma created for these regimes by the Islamic State. Helle Malmvig evocatively asks how sectarian identity politics can be taken seriously without giving in to the cynical manipulations of powerful elites. Zeynep Kaya considers the efforts of Kurds to achieve genuine sovereignty. Stephan Stetter incorporates social evolution theory and political communications to assess the extent to which 2011 represented genuine change in regional affairs.

A final set of authors, led by workshop co-host Morten Valbjørn, reverses the sights by using the Arab uprisings to challenge international relations as a discipline. Pinar Bilgin investigates the parochialism of IR theory, manifested in its difficulty to incorporate the ways in which non-dominant actors conceive of their own security concerns. Nora Fisher Onar pushes for the serious inclusion of feminist and critical scholarship and a broader engagement with the emergent literature of “global international relations.” This should not be seen simply as the metatheoretical prejudice of European and Turkey-based scholars: Their case for seriously incorporating human security and critical scholarship could hardly be more urgently relevant given the horrific and enduring human cost of the wars raging across Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

News, Notes & Links | 20.09.15


Just “four or five” U.S.-trained rebels are combatting ISIS, despite $500 million program.

U.S. says Assad must go, but when is negotiable.

Iran traded top members of Al Qaeda in prisoner swap in March.

Egyptian President Sisi swears in new government.

Russia’s military build up in Syria includes surface-to-air missiles and combat aircraft with air-to-air capability, Secretary of State Kerry says.


Recommended Reads:

Al-Qa`ida Plays a Long Game in Syria | By Charles Lister, Brookings Doha Center

Since its public emergence in Syria in January 2012, the al-Qa`ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra has consistently sought to balance its transnational jihadist ideology and objectives with pragmatic efforts to integrate and embed itself within revolutionary dynamics. Maintaining this delicate balance has not been easy, but having succeeded to date, Jabhat al-Nusra is currently one of the most powerful and influential armed actors in Syria. Ultimately, however, the group is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It aims to establish durable roots in an unstable environment from which al-Qa`ida’s transnational ambitions may one day be launched.

Tackling the Syrian Refugee Crisis | By Joost Hiltermann, International Crisis Group

With the Syrian war raging on, and neighbouring states unable to cope with large refugee populations, millions of displaced Syrians are desperate and some are trying to reach a safe haven in Europe. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Director Joost Hiltermann explains the root causes of the current situation.

Why ISIS Fights | By Martin Chulov, The Guardian

Jihadi fighters in Iraq and Syria reveal the apocalyptic motivations of the militant movement that has hijacked the Syrian uprising – and transformed the Middle East.

Abandoning Syria: Few Options Left for Stopping the War | By Cristoph Reuter, Der Spiegel

An exodus of tens of thousands is hemorrhaging out of Syria and into Europe. After four years of civil war horrors, people have given up completely on their country. Is there a shred of hope left for stopping the conflict and rebuilding?