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.

Kabalan, Bonsey and Lister on the Impact of Outside Actors on the War in Syria

As efforts to negotiate a political settlement to the war in Syria under the auspices of the U.N.  are set to commence in Vienna,  Marwan Kabalan, Noah Bonsey and Charles Lister discuss the regional and international dimensions to the conflict.


News, Notes & Links | 21.12.15


The U.N. Security Council agrees on first resolution to resolve conflict in Syria.

Libya’s rival factions agrees to U.N.-brokered peace deal.

Hezbollah threatens Israel with retaliation after military leader Samir Kuntar was asassinated in Syria.

ISIS lost 14 percent of its territory in 2015, report from IHS Jane’s says.

115 Kurdish rebels have been killed in Turkish military operations since December 15th, state-run news agency reports.

Recommended Reads:

What’s the one thing that Arabs, Turks and Iranians can all agree on? | By Barbara Slavin, Al-Monitor

A new survey of eight Middle East countries finds consensus on two issues — that the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) is a major threat and that the United States’ role in countering extremist violence in the region is “extremely negative.”

Conducted in September before recent terrorist attacks in France and the United States, the face-to-face surveys with 7,400 adults in six Arab states plus Turkey and Iran also found wide support among Arabs for the creation of a joint Arab force to try to resolve conflicts in Syria, Iraq and potentially to serve as peacekeepers in a Palestinian state.

The survey, by Zogby Research Services, also found considerable agreement about the causes for Islamic extremism, with majorities blaming “corrupt, repressive and unrepresentative governments” and “religious figures and groups promoting extremist ideas and/or incorrect religious interpretations.”

Russia and the U.S. in Syria: Waiting for the Other Side to Lose | By Joseph Bahout, Syria in Crisis

For Syria, the last six months have been a period of rapid and convulsive changes for soldiers, diplomats, and politicians alike. And while the Russian intervention on September 30 may alter the trajectory of the conflict it may merely contribute to the slow and painful death of Syria.

Nevertheless, Putin’s intervention has already altered the power dynamics and battlefield realities of Syria’s unending ordeal.

Any attempt to gauge the possible directions that the Syrian crisis could follow in the wake of the Russian intervention must take into account the situation on the ground, the regional and international context, and the interlinkage between these two levels. What are Russia’s goals, what are the likely reactions of its opponents, and where will these strategies take Syria?

Optimism on Syria is misplaced. Here’s why | By Hassan Hassan, The National

One of the common sentences repeatedly said by Syrians from the two main warring sides is that the solution to the conflict is attainable when the “big guys” decide to end it. Those big guys – at the UN Security Council – passed a unanimous decision on Friday calling for peace negotiations and a ceasefire to steer the country towards a political settlement.

“This council is sending a clear message to all concerned that the time is now to stop the killing in Syria and lay the groundwork for a government that the long-suffering people of that battered land can support,” the US secretary of state, John Kerry, proclaimed after the successful vote.

Both inside and outside Syria, the resolution has raised hopes that this may indeed mark the start of a serious process to find a solution. And much can be achieved, at least in preventing the conflict from spiralling further out of control.

But the optimism seems to be misplaced, mostly because it is not based on any progress or attainable objectives in the foreseeable future. Instead of the usual focus on the difficulty of rallying the opposition around one vision to end the conflict, one aspect related to the regime can help illuminate the intractability of the process: the fate of Bashar Al Assad.

Human Rights Watch: If the Dead Could Speak

Devastating Human Rights Watch report on widespread starvation, torture and murder in military detention facilities in Syria. The report is based on pictures taken by a defected forensic photographer of the Syrian security forces operating under the codename Caesar – read his story here. According to the report, the Caeser photographs “represent a unique source of evidence pointing towards crimes against humanity.”

Since the beginning of Syria’s uprising in 2011, many have died in detention facilities run by the Syrian government’s notorious mukhabarat (security agencies). In 2012, Human Rights Watch identified and mapped 27 of these detention centers around the country, many in the capital, Damascus. While accounts by released detainees and defectors consistently indicated that incommunicado detention and torture were rampant and detainees were dying in large numbers in Syria, the scale of abuse and deaths in detention remained unknown.

Then in January 2014, news emerged that a defector had left Syria with tens of thousands of images, many showing the bodies of detainees who died in Syria’s detention centers. A team of international lawyers, as well as Syrian activists, interviewed the defector, codenamed “Caesar,” who stated that, as an official forensic photographer for the Military Police, he had personally photographed bodies of dead detainees and helped to archive thousands more similar photographs.


ICG: Iran After the Nuclear Deal

New report from the International Crisis Group on the internal implications of the nuclear deal in Iran and why external attempts to play in Iranian domestic politics is likely to backfire. From the conclusion:

Reversing the legacy of more than three decades of hostility between Tehran and the West will be neither simple nor quick. The next step should be concrete measures to address the dual negative narratives that continue to poison mutual perceptions, the JCPOA notwithstanding. The West remains suspicious of an ambitious regional power that it perceives as both arsonist and fire brigade in the region. Iranians see the West, loathe to live with an independent, prosperous Islamic Republic, as seeking to undermine it. Proper fulfilment of both sides’ commitments under the nuclear accord, especially those related to nuclear restrictions, transparency measures and sanctions, would go a long way to negate this narrative and build trust114 – though this could prove difficult given efforts to sabotage the agreement in the U.S. Congress and the hard-to-dispel chilling effect of the sanctions regime. Similarly, proper fulfilment by Tehran of its commitments is crucial to begin reversing the perception among many in the West that Iran will carry out its obligations only until it finds an opportunity to cheat. (…)

Iran’s political system favours continuity over change. The nuclear agreement showed that the state’s policies change only when there is pressure from below and consensus at the top. Outside actors cannot hasten the process by investing in one part of the political spectrum – particularly in pragmatic republicans. No policy shift is possible without the backing of the supreme leader and the pragmatic theocrats more generally. An attempt do so, especially at such a sensitive time in Iran’s electoral cycle, would produce the opposite of the intended result.

Palestinian Public Opinion Poll

Palestianian Center for Policy and Survey Research has released the latest edition of its Palestinian Public Opinion Poll. Its main findings are not particularly encouraging:

Findings of the last quarter of 2015 indicate a continuation of three recent developments documented in our last poll in September: two thirds continue to demand the resignation of president Abbas; a growing majority supports return to an armed intifada; and a growing majority continues to reject the two-state solution. Moreover, while a majority supports ending PA commitment to the Oslo agreement, a similar majority doubts Abbas’ seriousness about abandoning that agreement. As we found in our last poll in September, the “Oslo generation” of youth between the ages of 18 and 22 are the most supportive of an armed intifada and stabbings and the least supportive of the two-state solution.

If presidential elections are held today, Hamas candidate would win a clear victory against Abbas. If parliamentary elections are held today, Hamas and Fatah would receive two-thirds of the popular vote, one third each. But Marwan Barghouti remains Fatah’s only hope of defeating Hamas.

In the context of the current escalation in Palestinian-Israeli confrontations, two thirds support stabbing attacks against Israelis even though an almost three quarters express opposition to the involvement of young school girls in such stabbings.  Half of the public believes that the current confrontations will escalate into an armed intifada. If so, two thirds believe that the armed intifada will serve Palestinian national interests in ways that negotiations could not.

Findings also indicate a growing rejection of the two-state solution. Similarly, two thirds believe that the two-state solution is no longer viable due to settlement expansion, and three quarters believe that the chances for the establishment of a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel in the next five years are slim or none existing.

Responding to the declaration by the Palestinian president that the PA will not continue to honor its Oslo commitments if Israel continues to ignore its own Oslo obligations, two thirds say they support abandoning the Oslo agreement. A similar majority however does not believe that Abbas is serious about his declared intention to abandon the Oslo Accords. Regardless of the price that Palestinians might have to pay, the public is particularly in favor of ending security coordination even though a smaller majority supports also the suspension of Palestinian-Israeli civil coordination.

PBS Frontline: Inside Assad’s Syria

Fascinating documentary on the life inside regime-controlled territories in Syria by PBS Frontline correspondent Martin Smith: