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Putin’s Foray into Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad

Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria on September 30th signalled arguably one of the most significant change of events in the Syrian Civil War since its inception. Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is answering the necessary charge in order to act “preventatively, to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house.” While Putin more recently reaffirmed that Russia has no intention of deploying ground forces in Syria, the air campaign by conservative estimates is expected to last a minimum of one year. Above all, the aggressive move has firmly embedded Russia’s commitment to Assad’s Syria and opened the door for further Russian diplomatic leverage in the conflict and wider region.

Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft

Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s control over the country has been reduced to only 20-30% of the country’s area, accounting for around 60% of the population. At least 220,000 have been killed in the conflict since 2011, though the most active watchdog group, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), has put the figure at between 250,000 and 340,000 as of October 15th. Assad has welcomed the Russians with open arms, and made his first visit outside the country since the war began to coordinate the effort with Putin in Moscow. Iran’s invitation to the negotiating table over Syria has also strengthened Assad’s bid to stay in power while also strengthening Russia’s role.

The lion’s share of the Russian air raids have been focused in the northwest of Syria, rather than the northeast where ISIS strongholds are concentrated. SOHR said Russian airstrikes have killed 370 individuals: 52 from ISIS, 191 rebel fighters from other groups, and 127 civilians. There has been significant controversy over Russia’s thus-far preference in targeting opposition rebels groups closer to the West rather than extremist groups like ISIS. The US has both warned and criticized Russia’s actions in Syria, but has relatively done little that would sway Putin from changing course.

In addition, Iran is now sending thousands of troops to Syria to bolster the new regime offensive, dropping pretenses for a more overt participation. Backed by the Russian air raids, Syrian government units, Lebanese Hezbollah armed fighters and Iranian forces targeted rebel positions around Aleppo and Homs. Iran has also been active in fighting alongside Iraqi army forces and irregular Shiite militias in Syria’s neighbor to the east. Reports indicate recent key gains have been made in Iraq, as ISIS may soon be fully ousted from the north-central city of Baiji, site of the country’s largest oil refinery. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has welcomed Russia in the fight against ISIS, and several strikes have already struck inside Iraqi territory.

Map of Syrian control prior to Russian air strikes

Map of Syrian control prior to Russian air strikes

Coordination between Russia and the US in the Syrian airspace remains tense especially as any incident would further escalate the situation to neither’s benefit. Obama and the US’ credibility has taken a hit while hesitating over how to more fully respond to the dramatic geopolitical shift. Russian statesman Iliyas Umakhanov remarked, “[The US] is going to have to recognize that Islamic State is the real threat that has been countered only by the Syrian regular army commanded by President Bashar al-Assad.” Secretary of State Kerry expressed concern that the Russian involvement will only further the regional crisis, and US officials on several occasions have requested restraint from Russia to no avail.

Whatever the military outcome will be, the increased Russian involvement has added a huge obstacle to any effort at a political Syria without Assad. Western countries that previously claimed “Assad must go,” including the US, will find this position less and less feasible over time as the alternatives flounder. Over the last four years the effort to find, support, or build a moderate opposition have fallen far short, and these new changes will only make those options tougher to pursue.

Furthermore, Russia is flexing it’s muscle in Syria not just for Assad or the country itself, but to also project influence and power in a tumultuous time. Rather than pulling back from chaos or biding time, Russia is trying to paint itself as a savior by entering into a new conflict. While the US and West have rightfully questioned Putin’s true goals in the Middle East, their commitment and grasp on the region are also coming under greater scrutiny. Russia will be fighting in Syria for the foreseeable future and has launched a strong bid to be the primary shot caller in the crisis. Further hesitation from the West in responding will solidify that bid, for better or for worse.

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How Tikrit has Changed the War

Iraqi troops and allied militia in preparation for recapturing Tikrit

Iraqi troops and allied militia in preparation for recapturing Tikrit

Tikrit will be remembered as the birthplace of Saddam Hussein and forever associated with the legacy of the Iraq War for many, thanks to nearly a decade of conflict. Nonetheless, the recent US-led airstrikes against ISIS in the city reveal a pivotal shift in the current offensive against the jihadi radical group. This is because for the first time, American forces are bombing a target with the implicit knowledge that it will directly benefit the success of the Iranian-led militias and Iraqi government troops on the ground. In other words, the United States and Iran are indirectly coordinating together against ISIS in Tikrit.

Map of current situation in Iraq, Tikrit is within the blue circle northwest of Baghdad

Map of current situation in Iraq, Tikrit is within the blue circle northwest of Baghdad

The city of Tikrit is located not only at a crossroads between the capital of Iraq, Baghdad, and Mosul, the center of ISIS in Iraq, but it’s also at the crux of the anti-ISIS offensive. An initial American unwillingness to work with forces under Iranian command or their supported Shiite militias, coupled with a rhetoric from those forces on the ground declaring no US air support was needed, has led to an incredibly interesting scenario. Despite those actions, the US and Iran have just found themselves as odd bedfellows in an increasingly complex fight against a common foe. With the Kurds and Shia militias facing a similarly tenuous alliance in fighting the extremists around Kirkuk in the north, it looks as if the “enemy of my enemy” objective has overcome the mistrust between the vying factions to lead the charge against ISIS.

Commanding officer of the US operation Lieutenant General James Terry stated the strikes, “will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit.” The mention of Iraqi command obscures the well-established fact that especially in Tikrit the ground effort has been directed by senior Iranian military leaders. The US has avoided coordination any military actions, directly or indirectly, with Iran up until this point, but as Iranian support becomes increasingly pivotal the relationship has been impossible to ignore.

Qassem Soleimani, the highest ranking Iranian commander in Iraq

Qassem Soleimani, the highest ranking Iranian commander in Iraq

Iraq, whose military forces have been plagued by ineffectiveness and a lack of direction, have been largely enveloped by the other powers in play. Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force has played a divisive role in leading strategy within Iraq against ISIS. Likewise, the Kurds have been able to consolidate power in the north and have been slowly pushing towards Mosul, the critical city that is firmly entrenched within radical control. What is guaranteed is that Mosul will not fall from the hands of ISIS without a consolidated and comprehensive assault that is not feasible to take place for some time, though when it does, hopefully the lines between the various factions will be more clear.

Retaking Tikrit is one step, albeit a significant one, in the fight against ISIS. What remains to be seen is how Iran, Iraq, the US, the Kurds, and the other elements at play will cooperate or conflict in moving forward against them.


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Demystifying Yemen’s Conflict

Yemeni brandishing a jambiya traditional dagger at  a Houthi demonstration in 2014

Yemeni brandishing a jambiya traditional dagger at a Houthi demonstration in 2014

The conflict in Yemen today is incredibly complex and multifaceted, even by the regional standards of the Middle East. The poorest country in the Middle East with a population of 26 million, Yemen has unfortunately found itself at the crossroads of key local and international threats. Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the oldest and most dangerous franchise of Al Qaida is alive and well while in many other countries the organization has relatively declined. Furthermore, the Houthi capture and consolidation of power in the capital Sanaa pushing out Hadi loyalists and the growing southern secessionist movement are both pulling the country in separate directions. Add to that external actors including, but not limited to, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States, and you get the basics of current situation in Yemen.

Map of control, late January 2014

Map of control, late January 2015

Yemen as we know it today was formed by the unification of two separate states in 1990, though internal friction has persisted intermittently since the merger. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the President of North Yemen from 1978 until 1990, continued as President of Yemen after being accepted via agreement with the South. Nonetheless, South Yemen attempted to secede in 1994, causing a brief civil war that was quashed by the north. Saleh retained power until he was overthrown in 2012 and replaced by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Grievances continued until renewed demonstrations for independence began in 2007 led by the Southern Movement. The southern secessionists have intermittently clashed with security forces and recently have gained more traction due in part to instability in the rest of the country and the success of the Houthis.

The Houthi movement, a Zaidi Shia opposition group stemming from the northern areas of Yemen took control of the capital city from government forces in late 2014. On January 22nd, 2015, President Hadi yielded to Houthi demands and resigned. Composing 35%-40% of the country, the Houthis are if nothing else pragmatic, vowing to work with rival groups and international actors including the United States. Important to note, the Houthis have a unique connection with their Shia counterparts in Iran, receiving significant media backing and alleged arms support. It is also worth pointing out that the Zaidi Shiites, also known as Fivers, differ in belief from the majority of Shiites (Twelvers) in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. Both Shia branches are distinct from Sunni Islam, from which AQAP ascribes to a bastardized version of known as Salafi Jihadism.

Current de facto leader of Yemen, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi

Current de facto leader of Yemen, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi

AQAP, also known as Ansar al Sharia within Yemen, has been linked to a number of high profile international terrorist incidents including the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in which 17 Americans were killed, the failed “Underwear Bomber” attack in 2009, and the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper shooting of 2015 in which 12 were killed. The group has been the target of one of the longest and most intensive US drone campaigns, behind the drone strike campaign in the AfPak tribal regions. Though both the Houthi and Hadi factions oppose the terrorist group, they’ve been able to launch frequent attacks on Yemeni security forces, notably seizing military bases. It is evident that AQAP has thrived in the unstable environment of Yemen and will continue to persist.

The manner in which the Houthis assumed power has prompted the Gulf Cooperation Council to declare their action as a coup, further underscoring regional obstacles in the road ahead. Soon after, the UN Security Council unanimously condemned the takeover in a resolution and called for the Houthis to immediately relinquish control, but the Houthis thus far have remained defiant. If military action is undertaken by GCC or outside forces, the situation will almost certainly devolve into even further chaos. Right now, the future of Yemen rests primarily on the new Houthi leadership in Sanaa and de facto President Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. The Hadi political leadership and their supporters still maintain a significant amount of influence, though any and all negotiations with the new Houthi group in charge are guaranteed to come with tensions and the threat of further violence. AQAP will continue to be a threat regardless of who is in power, and secessionist sentiments will multiply if southerners are excluded or marginalized from the political process.  Ideally, any ruling authority would represent the interests of Hadi and Houthi elements, though the balance within any shared agreement will undoubtedly be questioned. Attempting to facilitate a peaceful political transition to a new government is in the best interests of the region, international community, and Yemeni people, yet to say it is a difficult objective would be an understatement.


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The New War in Iraq has Begun

ISIS militants marching in seized city of Mosul

ISIS militants marching in captured city of Mosul

The Iraqi government, the United States, and the international community must recognize the situation on the ground in Iraq and label it appropriately for what has become: a new civil war. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (synonymous with ISIS) now control cities and significant territory within the country, has further deepened the fracture between Sunnis and Shias, and it has created a vacuum that the Kurdish Regional Government has capitalized upon.

ISIS captured the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, on June 10th. While the scale of the attack and the success they achieved was unprecedented, their rapid growth and brutality is nothing new. The Sunni Islamic terror group’s first major attack freed hundreds of militants from the Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons occurred in July 2013, nearly a year ago. Since then they have continued to gain sympathizers, fighters, and land, and they now are fighting towards Baghdad while threatening what little stability is left in the country. In February, ISIS was disavowed from its affiliate status with al-Qaeda, and the radical group has continued to prove its effectiveness on its own in pursuit of creating a new Islamic caliphate under strict Sharia law.

Extent of ISIS influence and control

Extent of ISIS influence and control

In the attack on Mosul, the Iraqi army deserted en masse, leaving behind weapons, military equipment, and even uniforms. ISIS has even added former Saddam loyalists to their cause, stirring old animosities against the current Shia government. Thus far, the Iraqi government has proven to be wholly incapable of mounting a counter campaign to reverse the progress gained by the extremist group. At present, ISIS informally administers a volatile region spanning from eastern Syria to western Iraq. ISIS has enough resources and firepower to attack conventional security forces head on though they additionally utilize suicide bombers with devastating results.

The alliances that have been sought with tribal militias and locals to fight ISIS have fallen far short in creating a united opposition to the intruding extremist group. As a result, the US has signalled that it wishes for a new Iraqi government to be formed without the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, accusing him of failing to curb the festering sectarian divisions plaguing the country. Maliki has had significant troubles appealing to the Sunni community and has marginalized many Sunni leaders in how he has approached the crisis in the western Anbar region. It is clear that without international support the Iraqi government, with or without Maliki, cannot hope to administer their own country.

Iran’s stake in Maliki and a stable neighbor in Iraq, the only other large Shia majority country, has also been brought to the forefront. Iran is already deeply involved in Syria and propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but ISIS is a common enemy for both Iran and the United States. Furthermore, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has jumped in and taken control of Kirkuk and other smaller towns previously contested between the KRG and Iraqi government. The Kurdish Peshmerga security forces have not directly fought with ISIS on a comparable scale to the Iraqi army, but they are a critical element to be reckoned with in terms of both the future of the Iraqi state and ISIS controlled territory on their border.

PM Maliki requested a state of emergency after the capture of Mosul

PM Maliki requested a state of emergency after the capture of Mosul

The nascent war currently raging in Iraq between Islamic extremists and the Iraqi government is not the responsibility of the United States. If an American says, “this is not our fight” then they are correct, the current crisis is not a fight of the United States. However, this war has developed under the current Iraqi government that recent events have suggested may be impossible to truly win. The Iraqi government needs to make further concessions to moderate Sunnis willing to stand up against the terrors of ISIS. The Kurdish factor also cannot be ignored, and as they have their own highly trained security forces (the peshmerga), parlaying with the KRG against ISIS should be an obvious option to pursue.

The wider involvement regarding the US, Iran, and beyond needs to be weighed with the larger security threat as a whole. If ISIS is able to build an autonomous, unrecognized state within the borders of Syria and Iraq that can export terrorism to neighboring countries then the priority should be to disable that threat as quickly as possible. The safety and security of innocent Iraqis, whether they be Shia, Sunni, or one of the myriad of smaller minorities, needs to be addressed as well. The US cannot and will not send a conventional military force back to Iraq in the near future. However, utilizing the resources and relationships in the region to stem the success of ISIS for the benefit of all must be pursued.

Iraq cannot continued to be ignored, and the problems it faces will continue to worsen until there is significant change in how the people of Iraq are empowered to stand up and oppose ISIS.


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Understanding Iran and the Nuclear “Joint Plan of Action”

Foreign Minister of Iran Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry

Foreign Minister of Iran Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry

On November 23rd, a “Joint Plan of Action” was reached in Geneva between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, Russia, China, France and the UK) and Germany, known collectively as the P5+1. This temporary agreement is the first of its kind between the international community and Iran concerning Iran’s nuclear program. There is a lot of debate over the deal itself and how Iran is expected to act, but the base reality is that this is an important and symbolic first step to possible progress. The “Joint Plan of Action” is not a comprehensive deal; Iran is not going to immediately shut down all its nuclear infrastructure, but it has not in any way been given a free pass to building nuclear weapons either.

The biggest takeaway is that this is purposely a tentative first step that will last six months with the possibility of renewal. This plan should be met with provisional optimism rather than immediate condemnation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the interim plan a ‘historic mistake‘ and said the world today is more dangerous because of it. Private opposition groups highlight the Iran of the past in Youtube ads calling for more sanctions. However, much of this criticism is based on a deep mistrust of Iranian intentions rather than a disagreement than the content of the plan itself. Iran’s attitude towards Israel and its history warrants a level of skepticism, but refusing to acknowledge the possibility of taking mutually beneficial steps forward is shortsighted.

The text of “Joint Plan of Action” includes provisions stating:

1. Iran does not increase uranium enrichment over 5%, reduces its level of uranium enriched to 20%, and agrees to not advance activity at key nuclear sites such as adding new centrifuges

2. Iran allows for increased monitoring from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

3.  The US and European Union will provide sanctions relief and not impose any new nuclear-related sanctions

President Obama stated that the plan cuts off Iran’s primary route to a nuclear bomb. Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has indicated before he is against nuclear weapons in Iran, also supported the deal.  Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani, generally regarded as significantly less aggressive than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, praised the outcome as well. Rouhani went on to say that the world has recognized Iranian nuclear rights and affirmed that Iran had no intentions of seeking nuclear weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear the plan does not condone Iranian enrichment, but hailed the joint plan for its step in the right direction.

Skeptics argue that this plan is just a false front for the Iranians in order to have sanctions lifted. Regardless of Iran’s intentions, the opening of nuclear sites to international inspectors is critical to a more comprehensive understanding of Iran’s nuclear program and its future ambitions.Over the next six months, time will tell just how sincere Iran is about clearly pursuing a peaceful nuclear program. The provisions in the plan suggest that at least at face value the Iranians do wish to negotiate, which opens up options for both sides to move forward constructively.

The plan is non-binding, so if Iran were to shirk from any of the provisions it has agreed to, the international community can and should respond by returning sanctions and increasing pressure against Iran. However, if IAEA inspectors confirm that Iran is abiding by the provisions of the plan and reversing its nuclear enrichment, such skepticism should be tabled. Bashing a plan before it has a chance to work is counterproductive, because there is a definite opportunity for the international community to learn more about Iran’s true goals and capabilities. Iran is signaling that it is willing to come to the table on the nuclear issue, but the extent to which they are serious about scaling down their nuclear ambitions can only be proven over time. The US and international community should treat the plan and Iran’s willingness to move forward with cautious optimism in the months ahead.

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Turkey’s Difficult Balancing Act

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Within the modern Middle East, there are two non-Arab regional leaders. Iran continues to play a major role in the Syrian Civil War, has a population of roughly 75 million, and is 99% Muslim. Turkey also plays a major role in the Syrian Civil War, has a population of roughly 75 million and is 99% Muslim. Unfortunately, the more you read about the Middle East, the more you learn that such generalized simplifications can be just as misleading as they are meant to be informative; Turkey and Iran couldn’t be further from the same.

Iran has garnered significant attention over its nuclear controversy and the succession of President Ahmadinejad with Hassan Rouhani. Turkey, on the other hand, has largely been on the backburner of mainstream media coverage in comparison. At present Turkey is finding itself stuck in the middle of many issues, globally, regionally and domestically. An insight into these issues will give a better understanding of where Turkey stands and the complexities they will face as the situations develop.

Turkey’s decision to opt for a $3.4 billion missile defense system from a Chinese weapons firm over American and European alternatives alarmed the US and the rest of NATO (Turkey has been a member of NATO for over 60 years). The deal has not been signed yet and Turkey insists it is not a political move, but it’s hard to ignore the crossroads Turkey has placed itself  squarely in between its traditional Western allies and a rising power in the east. The possible deal itself isn’t as significant as the symbolic and independent move to act outside of NATO’s interests.

On the Iranian nuclear issue, Turkey adamantly opposes an Iran with nuclear weapons, but it doesn’t want to contradict itself and limit future options in building its own nuclear power infrastructure by condemning all Iranian nuclear pursuits. Turkey wants to be able to work with Russia, Iran and China while simultaneously maintaining its strong relationships with the US and NATO.

Regionally, specifically regarding the Syrian issue, Turkey has tried to walk a tightrope between aiding the opposition and avoiding becoming directly involved in the fighting. Turkish citizens have been killed by border skirmishes, and Turkey has shot down a Syrian helicopter that strayed too far into into Turkish territory. Recently, Turkey extended a motion allowing it to send troops to Syria if needed, although this caused significant controversy between the ruling and opposition political parties in Ankara. Turkey has been crucial in humanitarian initiatives but has faced difficulties in controlling the border. Turkey has the right to defend its borders, but it doesn’t want to incite further violence by lending too much support to the opposition or becoming directly involved. All in all, there’s no easy route for Turkey to take in the Syrian conflict, and thus it should keep its options open while addressing the humanitarian crisis as much as possible.

Internally, protests have persisted since the Gezi Park demonstrations in  late May over discontent with the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has been in power since 2003. Turkey is officially secular and has no state religion, and Erdogan has found himself in the precarious position of trying to initiate reforms that have fallen far short of expectations. Erdogan and the AKP have been rightfully criticized for their repression of the freedom of assembly and controlling the media, and the concessions they have given in response have been minimal.  Protests have continued and are likely to continue so long as police repression persists. Erdogan may not be immune to negotiations, but the accusations of growing authoritarianism are hard to ignore.

The results of the Balyoz “Sledgehammer” and Ergenekon coup trials, in which top ranking military leaders were convicted of plotting to overthrow the government further highlights the internal conflict within Turkey. Modern Turkish history is rife with military coups, and the recent trials, as controversial as they have been, serves to show that such an era may be over. If Erdogan and the AKP wish to remain as the legitimate leaders of Turkey, they need to find the balance between prosecuting those who threaten to undermine the state and attacking perceived political opponents.That balance is incredibly difficult, but listening to the masses and conceding faults would be a solid starting point.

Turkey independently has own prerogatives and its own problems. The rest of the world also needs to find a balance when dealing with Turkey. A middle ground should be pursued to constructively criticize Turkey for its shortcomings and offering to work with them against regional threats. If this can be successfully achieved, Turkey may be influenced to move towards more democratic reforms and be a powerful partner in resolving conflict in the region.

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