Monthly archives for January, 2016

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


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.

News, Notes & Links | 14.01.16



Saudi Arabia considers selling shares in oil giant Aramco.

Hezbollah is receiving heavy weapons directly from Russia, field commanders say.

40.000 Sunni soldiers will join the Popular Mobilization Units, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announces.

Turkey: 200 ISIS fighters killed in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for Istanbul attack.

After delivering humanitarian assistance to besieged Syrian town of Madaya, U.N. officials describe “horrible, terrible” conditions.


Recommended Reads:

The Arab Winter | The Economist

Five years after a wave of uprisings, the Arab world is worse off than ever. But its people understand their predicament better

How Assad Is Using Sieges and Hunger to Grab More of the ‘Useful Syria’ | By Sam Heller, Vice News

The regime has systematically encircled, blockaded and bombed the remaining pockets of rebel control in the west, from the capital Damascus up through the city of Homs to the Mediterranean coast. Now the exhausted residents of these rebel enclaves – denied regular access to food and medical supplies for months or even years – are increasingly agreeing to one-sided settlements with the regime in exchange for relief and an end to the violence.

Blurred Future | By Nour Samaha, Newsweek

Earlier this month, under the cover of rain and thick fog, several Hezbollah fighters snuck across the Lebanese border into the mountainous terrain of the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms.

Their mission was clear: To plant an improvised explosive device, (IED), on a road frequented by Israeli military personnel and vehicles. As an Israeli patrol passed, the IED detonated, causing damage to a Humvee and an armored D9 bulldozer, injuring those inside it.

Hezbollah claimed responsibility and the operation was seen as a response to Israel’s assassination of Hezbollah military commander Samir Al Kantar on December 19, on the outskirts of Damascus. An Israeli air strike had targeted a high-rise building in the Jarmana district, where Kantar was staying.

For Hezbollah, but perhaps more so for the Syrian government, Kantar’s assassination and his role in Syria are part and parcel of a much larger picture that’s being played out; the ongoing war with Israel over the occupied Golan Heights and the race against time to halt the changing realities on the ground.


The Economist: Interview with Muhammad bin Salman

Interview with Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister and deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman on Saudi Arabia’s current diplomatic feud with Iran, the war in Yemen and the need for diversification of the Saudi Arabian economy. It suffices to say that Mr Salman has his work cut out for him, which is perhaps most evident from his vision on the future of Saudi Arabia:

You are one of the 70% of Saudi Arabians who are aged thirty and under. You are in charge of the country’s defence and its economy, you epitomise in many ways the new generation of Saudi Arabia. What kind of Saudi Arabia do you want to create?
The Saudi Arabia that I hope for, as well as the other 70%: a Saudi Arabia that is not dependent on oil; a Saudi Arabia with a growing economy; a Saudi Arabia with transparent laws; a Saudi Arabia with a very strong position in the world; a Saudi Arabia that can fulfil the dream of any Saudi, or his ambition, through creating enticing incentives, the right environment; a Saudi Arabia with sustainability; a Saudi Arabia that guarantees the participation of everyone in decision-making; a Saudi Arabia that is an important addition to the world and participates in the production of the world, and participates in facing the obstacles or the challenges that face the world. My dream as a young man in Saudi Arabia, and the dreams of men in Saudi Arabia are so many, and I try to compete with them and their dreams, and they compete with mine, to create a better Saudi Arabia.

POMEPS: The Gulf’s Escalating Sectarianism


The most recent publication from the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) provides excellent context to the rising tensions between the GCC and Iran. From the introduction to “The Gulf’s Escalating Sectarianism”:

On January 2, Saudi Arabia executed 47 men, including prominent cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr. This sparked immediate backlash, especially among domestic and global Shiite communities. Unfortunately, such rising sectarian tensions are nothing new in the region. Although the media is quick to highlight the Sunni-Shiite divide, it generally points to this split as the root cause of conflicts. How are we to get beyond this primordialist rhetoric and study the real impacts and causes of sectarianism in the region? POMEPS Briefing 28, “The Gulf’s Escalating Sectarianism,” collects 16 pieces previously published by the Project on Middle East Political Science and the Monkey Cage to provide a more nuanced look of this divisive trend.

There is a PDF version of the publication available here.

News, Notes & Links | 05.01.16


Prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr among 47 executed in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia severs diplomatic ties to Iran after Saudi missions in Tehran are attacked.

All chemical weapons declared by Syria have been destroyed, OPCW says.

Iraqi army recaptures Ramadi from ISIS, but 80 percent of the city is in ruins.

One million refugees and migrants reached Europe in 2015, UNHCR says.

ISIS attacks key oil facilities in Libya.


Recommended Reads:

The Ten Most Important Developments in Syria in 2015 | By Aron Lund, Syria Comment

I wrote a post for Syria Comment last year listing the top events of 2014 and what to look for in 2015. So here’s another one—a very long one, in fact. It has been compiled in bits and pieces over a few weeks but was finalized only now, a few days after the fact.

In keeping with the buzzfeedification of international political writing, I have decided to make it a top ten list and to provide very few useful sources, just a lot of speculative opinion. I’ll rank them from bottom to top, starting with number ten and moving on to the biggest deal of them all.

The Palestianian Leadership Crisis | By Khaled Elgindy, Markaz

After ten years in power, Abbas presides over a Palestinian polity that is more divided and dysfunctional than ever. In addition to the debilitating split between the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-dominated PA in the West Bank, the Palestinian polity continues to be plagued by endemic corruption, institutional decline, and growing authoritarianism. The Palestinian economy is crippled by recurring budget shortfalls, a massive internal debt, rising unemployment, and an over-dependency on international donor aid. Meanwhile, Abbas’s four-year term has long since expired and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) has not convened in more than eight years. At the same time, Abbas’s rule has become increasingly repressive and intolerant of dissent, while the absence of a functioning parliament—or even a viable political opposition—has eliminated any meaningful mechanisms of accountability.

Saudi Arabia’s Dangerous Sectarian Game | By Toby Craig Jones, The New York Times

WHEN Saudi Arabia executed the Shiite cleric and political dissident Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday, the country’s leaders were aware that doing so would upset their longtime rivals in Iran. In fact, the royal court in Riyadh was probably counting on it. It got what it wanted. The deterioration of relations has been precipitous: Protesters in Tehran sacked Saudi Arabia’s embassy; in retaliation, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties. More severe fallout could follow — possibly even war.

Why did Saudi Arabia want this now? Because the kingdom is under pressure: Oil prices, on which the economy depends almost entirely, are plummeting; a thaw in Iranian-American relations threatens to diminish Riyadh’s special place in regional politics; the Saudi military is failing in its war in Yemen.

In this context, a row with Iran is not a problem so much as an opportunity. The royals in Riyadh most likely believe that it will allow them to stop dissent at home, shore up support among the Sunni majority and bring regional allies to their side. In the short term, they may be right. But eventually, stoking sectarianism will only empower extremists and further destabilize an already explosive region.