Monthly archives for October, 2015

Landis and Stearns on Ethnicity and ISIS in Syria

Justin Stearns and Joshua Landis discuss the implications of Russia’s engagement in Syria and the role of identity politics in the Syrian civil war.

News, Notes & Links | 21.10.15


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visits Moscow.

Iran is sending hundreds of men from its elite forces to Syria.

Libya’s rival governments reject U.N.-brokered unity deal.

U.S. annual military aid to Israel could increase by $1 Billion

Four-fifths of Russia’s airstrikes in Syria don’t target ISIS, study says.

Saudi Arabia increased its military spending by 17 percent in 2014.


Recommended Reads:

I Got Syria So Wrong | By Frederic Hof, Politico

I spent early 2011 trying to ease tensions between Syria and its neighbors. I never predicted the brutality that would come from inside.

Iraq: The Clerics and the Militias | By Joost Hiltermann, The New York Review of Books

What both the ISIS and governance crises have laid bare is the bankruptcy of the post-2003 political class, which has mismanaged and ruined the country they inherited from a US military power that itself was utterly incapable of managing it. While rightly decrying the Saddam Hussein regime for its appalling oppression, these parties—including Abadi’s and Maliki’s Da’wa, the Badr Organization, and the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, to name only the largest—have increasingly mimicked the Baath party’s structure and methods. They’re secretive, suspicious, and undemocratic, and if their rule has not been as systematically repressive as their predecessor’s, it is only because they have failed to consolidate power in the same way.

Putin’s Syria Gambit Aims at Something Bigger than Syria | Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center

A quarter-century after its withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia is again at war in a Muslim country outside of the perimeter of its historical empire. Moscow’s intervention in Syria, however, is very different from its past uses of military power, marked by overland invasions and occupations. It is also happening in a regional environment which is new: a Middle East where outside powers, including the United States, are playing a much less dominant role than ever in the last 100 years; and non-state actors like IS are threatening to upend the system of states created after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Thrall: Mismanaging the Conflict in Jerusalem

Thoughtful Op-Ed in the New York Times by Nathan Thrall, Senior Analyst with the Middle East and North Africa Program of the International Crisis Group, on the rising tensions in Jerusalem:

It is a deeply regrettable fact that, during the past quarter-century, violence has been the most consistent factor in Israeli territorial withdrawal. That may partly explain why growing numbers of Palestinians support an uprising and demand the resignation of President Mahmoud Abbas, who abhors attacks on Israelis and has presided over nearly a decade of almost total quiet in the West Bank without any gains to show for it.

Last month, a survey of Palestinians found support for an armed intifada at 57 percent (and at 71 percent among 18- to 22-year-old men). Support was highest in Hebron and Jerusalem. Two-thirds of those surveyed wanted Mr. Abbas to resign.

Mr. Kerry is scheduled to have meetings with Mr. Abbas and with Mr. Netanyahu in an effort to achieve their shared goal of restoring calm and returning to the status quo. Violence is politically threatening to both leaders, especially to Mr. Abbas, and both will continue to work to suppress any escalation.

Yet if they succeed only in ending the unrest, they will have merely restored the stasis that gave rise to it. This is what Israelis call “managing the conflict.” There is certainly no guarantee that if the two leaders fail to stop the flow of Palestinian and Israeli blood, things will eventually get better.

But what does seem guaranteed is that most Palestinians will continue to believe that if the occupation is cost-free, there will be little incentive to end it. Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu have taught them that.

Riedel: “The Prince of Counter-Terrorism”

The Prince of Counterterrorism cover image

Excellent Brookings Essay by Bruce Riedel on Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, his rise to power in Saudi Arabia and the politics of succession in the House of Saud:

Muhammed bin Nayef may be the most pro-American prince ever to be in line to the throne. He is probably the most successful intelligence officer in the Arab world of today. Panetta, like Tenet, praises him, calling MBN the “smartest and most accomplished of his generation.” Only King Fahd, another former minister of the interior, may have been so instinctively inclined to support American interests. Unlike his father, MBN seems altogether comfortable working closely with Americans. He seemed to get on fine with President Obama at Camp David. His agents just captured the mastermind of the 1996 Saudi Hezbollah attack on U.S. military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 American service members. MBN has already had more responsibility than any Saudi of his generation, and his burden is likely to become all the heavier given the chaos in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. He knows he needs allies.

But Washington should have no illusions that MBN will take Western advice to reform the kingdom. Saudi Arabia makes no bones about being the leading opponent of everything the Arab Spring stood for when it began in 2011 and everything that so many in the West were cheering for. The Saudis helped engineer the 2013 coup in Egypt that restored military rule to the largest Arab country and dealt the Arab Spring a fatal blow. They are skilled counterterrorists, but they are also accomplished and unabashed counterrevolutionaries.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s last significant absolute monarchy. It will not have a Gorbachev moment, because the royal family will not give up their control of the nation, nor will they loosen their ties with the Wahhabis and their faith. King Salman, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, and virtually all of the rest of the Saudi establishment believe they have survived more than two and a half centuries in the rough politics of the Middle East not just because of their ruthless determination to stay absolute monarchs, but because of their alliance with the Wahhabi clerics.

The House of Saud has outlasted the Ottomans, Nasserism, Communism, Baathism, and most other royal families. In 1979 many thought they would go the way of the Shah of Iran. As a young analyst at the CIA charged with the Saudi portfolio I predicted then that they would survive for many decades to come. It is too soon to write their epitaph, but I suspect it is too late to expect them to change.