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  • Author: Michael Knights
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Special Report
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Last year’s Washington Institute forum on post-Soleimani succession suggested that the IRGC would lose a unique coordinating capability and its most important totem once he left the scene. Last April, The Washington Institute held a closed-door roundtable to discuss the potential impact if Qassem Soleimani no longer commanded the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force. Governed by the Chatham House rule, participants discussed how succession might work in the Qods Force and what Iran would lose if Soleimani became permanently unavailable, reaching consensus on many key issues. Now that the commander is indeed gone, their conclusions can help policymakers navigate the stormy seas ahead, though some aspects of his importance remain a matter of heated debate.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Military Strategy, Conflict, Qassem Soleimani
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East
  • Author: David Makovksy
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Although Benny Gantz’s party lost the head-to-head battle, Avigdor Liberman’s favorable influence on the coalition math has left the general in a stronger position—and taken some diplomatic weight off the Trump administration’s shoulders. Israel’s third round of elections last week seemed inconclusive at first, but the deadlock may now be broken. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did better this time than in September’s round two, but his gains were insufficient to form a new government. Potential kingmaker Avigdor Liberman jettisoned his previous idea of getting the two top parties to join forces; instead, personal antipathy and policy differences have led him to definitely state that he will not join any government Netanyahu leads. Thus, while centrist Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz may have options to shape a new government, Netanyahu has no pathway on his own. In theory, the center-left bloc has the requisite number of seats for a bare majority in the 120-member Knesset, since anti-Netanyahu forces won 62 seats. In reality, the situation is more complex.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Government, Politics, Elections
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Israel, North America, United States of America
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Commentary and Analysis
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: A survey of how regional media outlets discussed the congressional impeachment process and its potential ramifications on the 2020 presidential election. Across the Middle East, the story of President Trump’s impeachment and subsequent acquittal received secondtier coverage compared to regional or local issues. Many Arabic-language websites and newspapers translated and republished Western articles as opposed to creating their own content on the issue, such as Al Jazeera publishing a translated version of a Guardian editorial. Moreover, the bulk of the articles just explained the facts or process of impeachment rather than expounding on its significance. Some celebrated the idea that there is a mechanism for peaceful removal of a leader. Most commented on the unlikelihood of Trump’s removal and how America is facing unprecedented polarization. Those articles that did offer their own editorial content were split on whether impeachment will help or hurt Trump’s election campaign. Publications in the Gulf states tended to portray impeachment as an act of “political vengeance” by Democrats against Trump, “who won despite their opposition” (Sky News Arabia). Most Gulf papers posited that Trump will ultimately benefit in the 2020 election “after proving his innocence before the Senate” (Al Seyassah). Yet Qatari coverage deviated from the general Gulf trend. For example, one Al Jazeera article asserted that the impeachment case against Trump “is simple, and established not only by officials speaking under oath, but by his own words and actions.” Egyptian newspapers were more split on how impeachment will affect the election. Anti-American outlets in Syria suggested it will hurt him, with Al Baath noting “all data indicate that Trump’s hope for a return to the White House have faded.” Lebanese publications tended to take a more neutral view. The Hezbollah-controlled newspaper Al Akhbar wrote that the prospect of impeachment weakening Trump’s electoral campaign “is similar to that of his potential main rival,” arguing that Joe Biden was also tainted by the process. Most Iranian media tended to copy Western sources, but two themes prevailed among outlets offering original content: portrayal of impeachment as a scandal that has tainted Trump’s presidential legacy, or neutral analysis of how impeachment may or may not harm his reelection chances. A few analytical pieces suggested that he might be able to transform the scandal into an asset for his campaign, since it may “lead to more popularity among the middle class.” While most Iranian articles leaned against Trump, few appeared to praise Democrats. Turkish articles generally depicted impeachment as a “gift” to Trump’s campaign. SETA, a think tank that supports President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claimed that what “hasn’t killed Trump will make him stronger.” Sabah News, another pro-Erdogan source, wrote that impeachment will “unite Republican senators and members of the House of Representatives around him.”
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Media, News Analysis, Domestic politics, Donald Trump
  • Political Geography: Iran, Turkey, Middle East, Arab Countries, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Ben Fishman
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: After the fall of Sirte, Erdogan and Putin’s desired ceasefire can only be achieved with Washington’s support. Over the past week, regional and European actors have increased their diplomatic activity around Libya in response to intensifying violence in the nine-month-old civil war. On January 8, less than a week after the Turkish parliament approved sending forces to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin met in Istanbul and called for a Libya ceasefire to begin on January 12. Whether or not Moscow and Ankara manage to pause the violence temporarily, their growing influence in Libya represents an epic failure of Western attempts to resolve the conflict diplomatically. The longer-term effort to jumpstart Libya’s political transition requires a wider international effort at peace and reconciliation—something Russia and Turkey can support but not lead. Putin and Erdogan seemed to acknowledge that fact at their summit, endorsing a long-planned multilateral conference in Berlin aimed at recommitting all relevant actors to support an end to hostilities and respect the UN Security Council’s mandatory but widely ignored arms embargo. Even assuming Putin is serious and withdraws Russian mercenaries from the frontlines, a full, lasting ceasefire cannot transpire until the other actors who support Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) agree to withdraw their equipment and personnel for a fixed period while negotiations are launched—especially the United Arab Emirates, which provides the LNA with critical air superiority. At the same time, Turkey would have to take commensurate de-escalatory steps of its own. The United States is the only actor that holds enough weight with all the foreign parties to bring about an authentic ceasefire. Despite being consumed with crises in Iran and Iraq, Washington should expend the diplomatic effort required to pursue durable stability in Libya before the country slips further toward endemic chaos.
  • Topic: Diplomacy, United Nations, Conflict, Negotiation
  • Political Geography: Russia, Turkey, Middle East, Libya, North Africa, United States of America
  • Author: Elena DeLozier
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Sultan Haitham will now be free to put his own stamp on the country's government and foreign policy, and a recent dust-up on the Yemeni border could provide the first indicator of his approach. On February 20, Oman will begin its next era in earnest. The new sultan, Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, was officially sworn in on January 11, but he has remained quiet and mostly out of sight during the forty-day mourning period that followed the death of his cousin, Sultan Qaboos. Now that this period is drawing to a close, he is free to put his stamp on Omani policy. Notably, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will lead the first international delegation to see Sultan Haitham in the post-mourning period. When the meeting was first scheduled, the secretary likely saw it as a chance to get to know the new leader, and also as a symbolic visit to make up for sending such a low-level delegation to offer condolences. Yet the two may have more to talk about now. Earlier this week, a flare-up occurred between Saudi forces and Omani-backed locals in the Yemeni border province of al-Mahra. The confrontation may be Sultan Haitham’s first regional test, and identifying the actors who help him get through it could help Washington discern future power centers within Oman’s often opaque government.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Diplomacy, Government
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Yemen, Oman, United States of America, Gulf Nations
  • Author: David Makovsky
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: If the latest U.S. effort winds up backing the Palestinians into a territorial corner from the outset, then Washington may not be able to move the process any closer to direct negotiations. The newly released U.S. peace plan marks a very significant shift in favor of the current Israeli government’s view, especially when compared to three past U.S. initiatives: (1) the Clinton Parameters of December 2000, (2) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s “Annapolis Process” of 2007-2008, and (3) Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2013-2014 initiative. The message is clear: the Trump administration will no longer keep sweetening the deal with every Palestinian refusal, a criticism some have aimed at previous U.S. efforts. Yet the new plan raises worrisome questions of its own. Will its provisions prove so disadvantageous to the proposed Palestinian state that they cannot serve as the basis for further negotiations? And would such overreach enable Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to sway Arab states who have signaled that they want to give the proposal a chance, convincing them to oppose it instead? If so, the plan may wind up perpetuating the current diplomatic impasse and setting the stage for a one-state reality that runs counter to Israel’s identity as a Jewish, democratic state. This two-part PolicyWatch will address these questions by examining how the Trump plan compares to past U.S. initiatives when it comes to the conflict’s five core final-status issues. Part 1 focuses on two of these issues: borders and Jerusalem. Part 2 examines security, refugees, and narrative issues.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Diplomacy, Territorial Disputes, Borders, Negotiation
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Israel, Palestine, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Ghaith al-Omari
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: By granting Israel much more say over the sovereignty of a future Palestinian state and its ability to absorb refugees, the document may undermine the administration’s ability to build an international coalition behind its policies. President Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan was presented as a departure from previous approaches—a notion that invited praise from its supporters (who saw it as a recognition of reality) and criticism from its opponents (who saw it as an abandonment of valued principles). The plan does in fact diverge from past efforts in fundamental respects, yet there are also some areas of continuity, and ultimately, the extent to which it gains traction will be subject to many different political and diplomatic variables. Even so, the initial substance of the plan document itself will play a large part in determining how it is viewed by various stakeholders, especially those passages that veer away from the traditional path on core issues. Part 1 of this PolicyWatch assessed what the plan says about two such issues: borders and Jerusalem. This second installment discusses security, refugee, and narrative issues.
  • Topic: Security, Foreign Policy, Refugees, Peace
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Israel, Palestine, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Michael Knights
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The surest way to counter Iran’s malign influence is to proactively focus on human rights issues that the new prime minister can actually affect, such as organizing free elections and preventing further violence against protestors. On February 1, a plurality of Iraqi parliamentary factions gave President Barham Salih the go-ahead to nominate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as the new prime minister-designate. The mild-mannered Shia Islamist nominee will now attempt to form and ratify his cabinet in the next thirty days. As he does so, political blocs will probably rally behind him while limiting his mandate to organizing early elections next year, having struggled through a long and fractious process to replace resigned prime minister Adil Abdulmahdi. For the first time since the dramatic events of the past two months, Iraqis and U.S. policymakers alike can catch their breath and consider their medium-term options.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Elections, Domestic politics, Protests
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East
  • Author: Soner Cagaptay
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Special Report
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Turkey, Russia, and Washington have compelling reasons to welcome a new ceasefire agreement, however imperfect, but they still need to address the longer-term dangers posed by the Assad regime’s murderously maximalist strategy. Recent fighting between Turkish and Syrian regime forces in Idlib province has seemingly wiped away the last vestiges of the September 2018 Sochi agreement, brokered by Russian president Vladimir Putin as a way of pausing hostilities and dividing control over the country’s last rebel-held province. Beginning last December, renewed Russian and Syrian attacks against civilians sent a million residents fleeing toward the Turkish border, creating another humanitarian disaster. Then, on February 27, thirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed when their unit was attacked in Idlib—Ankara’s largest single-day loss in Syria thus far. Turkey initially blamed Bashar al-Assad for the deaths, but eyes soon turned to his Russian patron as the more likely culprit, elevating tensions between Ankara and Moscow to a level not seen since Turkish forces shot down a Russian plane in November 2015. Meanwhile, the Turkish military and its local partner forces launched a string of attacks against the Syrian regime and its Iranian-backed militia allies. On March 5, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with Putin in Moscow to discuss these rising tensions. If the two leaders reach another ceasefire deal, will it last any longer than the short-lived Sochi agreement? More important, what effect might it have on the latest refugee crisis threatening to wash over Turkey and Europe?
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Diplomacy, Treaties and Agreements, Syrian War, Negotiation
  • Political Geography: Russia, Turkey, Middle East, Syria, United States of America, Idlib
  • Author: Charles Thépaut, Elena DeLozier
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: By triggering the nuclear deal’s dispute resolution mechanism, Britain, France, and Germany are opening diplomatic space that could help the United States and Iran return to the negotiating table. In a press conference following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, President Trump reaffirmed his administration’s “maximum pressure” policy against Iran and asked, once again, for European countries to leave the nuclear deal. Meanwhile, Tehran announced what it called a “fifth and final remedial step” away from its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In response, the British, French, and German foreign ministers stated on January 14 that they would trigger the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism (DRM). At the same time, however, the E3 clarified that they are not joining the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, which has steadily intensified ever since the United States withdrew from the JCPOA and reimposed unilateral sanctions in 2018. Contrary to U.S. claims, the European decision will not immediately provoke “snapback” UN sanctions on Iran (though that scenario could unfold later if the E3 plan fails and Iran’s violations go before the UN Security Council). Instead, Europe is maintaining its evenhanded position somewhere between Washington and Tehran in order to preserve the possibility of new negotiations, on both the nuclear program and other regional issues.
  • Topic: Nuclear Weapons, Treaties and Agreements, Nuclear Power, Negotiation
  • Political Geography: Europe, Iran, Middle East, United States of America
  • Author: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: During the war years in Syria, the northwest, specifically Idlib, has become a site of heavy internal displacement. Observers on the ground recognize the green buses traveling to Idlib carrying migrants who have refused reconciliation agreements with the Damascus regime. Since around 2014, a range of jihadist, Islamist, and Salafi actors have wielded control in the area, the most recent being the al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which has ruled—ineffectively and brutally—through its so-called Syrian Salvation Government. But the group's reign is unlikely to last long if current trends persist. The regime's recent move against the town of Maarat al-Numan suggests plans for a broader takeover in the northwest, aided by Russian firepower and other allies such as Iran. In this Policy Note filled with local insights, jihadism expert Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi presents the current scene in and around Idlib province, the last Syrian outpost still run by independent rebels. Absent an intervention by Turkey, the Assad regime will likely prevail in a campaign that quashes the insurgency at a high humanitarian cost.
  • Topic: Al Qaeda, Displacement, Military Intervention, Conflict, Syrian War
  • Political Geography: Russia, Iran, Turkey, Middle East, Syria, Idlib
  • Author: Mehdi Khalaji
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The general’s peerless domestic stature would have served a crucial mediatory role during the eventual transition to Khamenei’s successor, so his death brings significant uncertainty to that process. Following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, much attention has been focused on the foreign operations conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force. Yet his organization also played a major role at home, one whose future is now unclear. In particular, Soleimani himself was well positioned to be a unifying, steadying figure once Iran faced the challenge of determining a successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
  • Topic: Politics, Military Affairs, Authoritarianism, Qassem Soleimani
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, United States of America
  • Author: Ben Fishman, Charles Thépaut
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: If the latest conference is to succeed, the principal actors stoking the civil war must endorse a genuine ceasefire and a return to Libyan internal dialogue. On January 19, international leaders will convene in Berlin to discuss a way out of the nine-month civil war between the so-called “Libyan National Army” led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar and the internationally recognized Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The Germans led several months of preparatory efforts at the request of UN envoy Ghassan Salame, but had been reluctant to choose a specific date until they were assured that the event stood a reasonable chance of producing practical steps to improve the situation on the ground and jumpstart the UN’s stalled negotiation efforts between the LNA and GNA. Chancellor Angela Merkel finally took that step after several key developments unfolded earlier this month, including a January 8 ceasefire proposal by Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Putin’s subsequent failed attempt to have each side sign a more permanent ceasefire agreement in Moscow on January 13 (the GNA signed but Haftar balked, though most of the fighting has paused for the moment). Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been averse to engage on Libya during his tenure, but he is expected to attend the Berlin conference alongside National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. Accordingly, the event gives the United States a chance to play a much-needed role on several fronts: namely, pressuring the foreign actors who have perpetuated the war and violated the arms embargo; working with Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia to codify a ceasefire at the UN Security Council; and backing Salame’s efforts to reinvigorate the Libyan national dialogue, which Haftar preempted by attacking Tripoli last April despite European support to Salame. Since 2011, Libya has struggled to establish a legitimate transitional government despite three national elections and the creation of at least four legislative bodies. Challenges to the 2014 election results eventually led to rival governments in the east and west, and the division solidified when Haftar started the first civil war with support from his allies Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. That war halted in 2015, but several years’ worth of domestic and international efforts failed to bring Sarraj and Haftar to an enduring resolution.
  • Topic: Conflict Resolution, Civil War, United Nations, Conflict, Negotiation, Conference
  • Political Geography: Russia, Turkey, Middle East, Libya, Germany, North Africa, United Arab Emirates, Berlin, United States of America
  • Author: David Pollock
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: A host of crucial multilateral interests are baked into the U.S. presence, from keeping the Islamic State down, to protecting vulnerable regional allies, to preventing Iran from taking Iraq's oil revenues. The assassination of Qasem Soleimani has brought the tensions in U.S.-Iraqi relations to a boil, with militia factions strong-arming a parliamentary resolution on American troop withdrawal and various European allies contemplating departures of their own. Before they sign the divorce papers, however, officials in Baghdad and Washington should consider the many reasons why staying together is best for both them and the Middle East.
  • Topic: Oil, Bilateral Relations, Islamic State, Qassem Soleimani
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Israel, Jordan, United States of America, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Aaron Y. Zelin
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: By the time IS came to the fore in Iraq and Syria, many of its themes and activities were already second nature to Tunisian jihadis who had heard similar messaging at home. There are a number of reasons why Tunisians joined the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. One underappreciated aspect of this is the way Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia’s (AST) messaging primed members of the group and others in society that were exposed to, attended, or followed online AST activities and events. In my new book, Your Sons Are at Your Service: Tunisia’s Missionaries of Jihad, I describe this process, which I will examine in brief here. In particular, I will explore AST’s motivational framing, which “functions as prods to action.” The major themes AST crafted in its narrative were related to brotherhood, the defense of Islam, the creation of an Islamic state, and “remaining” as an entity.
  • Topic: Islam, Non State Actors, Violent Extremism, Islamic State, Jihad
  • Political Geography: Middle East, North Africa, Tunisia
  • Author: Mehdi Khalaji
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Khamenei and other regime officials have been quick to swear revenge, but for now they may focus more on stoking patriotic and militaristic sentiment at home. A few hours after Iran confirmed that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani had been killed in Iraq, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a statement describing those who shed his blood as “the most wretched of humankind.” Calling Soleimani the international symbol of “resistance,” he then announced three days of public mourning in Iran. He also declared that “severe revenge awaits the criminals” who killed Soleimani—an act that the United States had claimed credit for by the time he spoke. Other highranking officials echoed this sentiment, including President Hassan Rouhani, Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, and Defense Minister Amir Hatami, who explicitly promised “revenge” on “all those” involved in the assassination. Despite this rhetoric, however, and despite Soleimani’s unmatched role in carrying out Iran’s regional policy of adventurism and asymmetric warfare, the regime may avoid major, immediate retaliation if it sees such a move as too costly or as a potential trigger for serious military conflict with the United States. On January 1, amid escalating tensions in Iraq but before Soleimani’s assassination, Khamenei stated, “We would not take the country to war...but if others want to impose something on this country, we will stand before them forcefully.” In response to President Trump’s assertion that Iran played a role in the December 31 riot at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Khamenei told listeners he had two messages for Washington: “First, how dare you! This has nothing to do with Iran. Second, you should be reasonable and understand what is the main cause for these problems. But of course they are not [reasonable].”
  • Topic: Politics, Qassem Soleimani, Assassination
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, United States of America
  • Author: Hanin Ghaddar
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Unless Washington and its allies respond to the protestors’ legitimate demands for reform, the group will survive through measures such as expanding its smuggling activity, promoting its financial institutions, and selectively scapegoating corrupt politicians. When IMF officials visited Lebanon late last month amid its accelerating economic freefall, many wondered whether these developments might alter the behavior of Hezbollah, the designated terrorist group that has a deep financial stake in the country’s public and private sectors. During a previous funding crisis—the increase in U.S. sanctions against the group’s chief underwriter, Iran—the “Party of God” and its foreign sponsors formulated a new strategy to evade these measures and create alternative sources of funding. Such sources allowed Hezbollah to make further inroads into government agencies following the 2018 parliamentary elections. For example, the group’s leaders insisted on controlling the Health Ministry, which commands Lebanon’s fourth-largest budget at $338 million per year; they also gained more access to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the Agriculture Ministry, and the Ministry of Energy and Water, whose assistance was used to fund their affiliated projects and businesses. That worked until Lebanon’s own economy began its current nosedive. Unemployment has hit a record high of 40 percent, and the lira has slumped by about 60 percent on the parallel market, hiking inflation. Officially pegged to the dollar, the currency has plummeted 40 percent on the black market as local banks ration dollars necessary for imports of food, medicine, and other essential goods. Meanwhile, Lebanon has one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world (over 150 percent) and may not be able to pay $1.2 billion in Eurobonds this month. As with the Iran sanctions, however, Hezbollah has a strategy to survive this domestic pressure, at least in the near term.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Corruption, Debt, Politics, Protests, Hezbollah
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Lebanon, United States of America
  • Author: Michael Knights
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Enhancing deterrence and protecting Americans in Iraq and Syria requires a more formalized system for rationing out retaliatory strikes at the proper intensity, time, and place. When U.S. airstrikes targeted Kataib Hezbollah militia personnel and senior Iranian military figures on December 29 and January 3, they were releasing long-pent-up retaliation for a range of provocations by Iraqi militias. Yet while these powerful blows may have injected some caution into enemy calculations, such deterrence is likely to be a wasting asset. The most proximal trigger for the strikes—the killing of an American civilian contractor during Kataib Hezbollah’s December 27 rocket attack on the K-1 base in Kirkuk—was just one in a series of increasingly risky militia operations against U.S. facilities. Only good fortune has prevented more Americans from dying in attacks conducted since then, including January 8 (when Iranian ballistic missiles struck the U.S. portion of al-Asad Air Base, causing more than a hundred nonlethal traumatic brain injuries), January 26 (mortar strike on the dining hall at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad), January 31 (rockets fired at the U.S. site at Qayyarah West), February 10 (explosive device thrown at a U.S. logistical convoy south of Baghdad), and February 13 (rocket attack on U.S. site at Kirkuk). The United States has seemingly communicated to Tehran that it will strike Iraqi militias and Iranian targets if any Americans are killed, but this redline has opened up a dangerous gray zone in which Iran and its proxies are emboldened to continue their nonlethal attacks. Besides the fact that such high-risk attacks are destined to result in more American deaths at some point, they will also produce many more injuries if permitted to continue, as seen in the January 8 strike. More broadly, they will limit U.S. freedom of movement in Iraq and Syria, undermining the point of being there in the first place. This situation is unacceptable—the United States needs a way to deter such behavior even when attacks fall short of killing Americans. When faced with similar challenges in past decades, the U.S. military established reckoning systems that matched the punishment to the crime, with useful levels of predictability, proportionality, and accountability.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Military Affairs, Assassination, No-Fly Zones
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Mehdi Khalaji
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Instead of focusing on Iran's missile retaliation or future threats, the Supreme Leader used his latest speech to extoll the virtues of public unity behind the regime’s revolutionary goals. On January 8, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered his first public speech since the U.S. assassination of Qasem Soleimani and the subsequent Iranian missile strike on Iraqi bases housing American forces. As part of an address that touched on regional solidarity against the United States and other notable subjects, he spent considerable time claiming that Soleimani symbolized the Iranian people’s continued commitment to the revolution. In doing so, he indicated that popular support for the regime remains a crucial objective for Iran’s leaders, perhaps more so than issuing or acting on further military threats.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Politics, Domestic politics, Qassem Soleimani, Assassination
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East, United States of America
  • Author: Mehdi Khalaji
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Even as their lack of transparency worsens the public health crisis, the Supreme Leader and other officials have systematically gutted any civil society elements capable of organizing substantial opposition to such policies. Iran’s ongoing coronavirus epidemic has left the people with less reason than ever to trust the information and directives issued by their leaders. Part 1 of this PolicyWatch discussed the clergy’s role in aggravating this problem, but the state’s mistakes and deceptions have been legion as well. They include scandalous discrepancies between official reports after a period of denial that the virus had entered the country; a health system that was unprepared to deal with such a disease promptly and properly; and official resistance to implementing internationally recommended precautionary measures, such as canceling flights from China and quarantining the center of the outbreak. These decisions have sown widespread confusion about facts and fictions related to the virus, the most effective medically proven ways to control it, and the degree to which it is spreading throughout the country. As a result, an already restive population has become increasingly panicked about the future and angry at the state. Yet can the coronavirus actually bring down the regime? The harsh reality is that the state has left little space for opposition to organize around health issues, or any issues for that matter. Instead, it has sought to confuse the people and redirect their anger toward external enemies, even as its own policies contribute to the crisis.
  • Topic: Security, Foreign Policy, Civil Society, Health, Public Health, Coronavirus
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East, United States of America
  • Author: David Makovsky
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Whether they reveal a detailed plan or merely preview an aspirational document, U.S. officials still need to clarify their goals at a time when elections are looming and Palestinian participation seems highly unlikely. In a dramatic move, President Trump has announced that Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his leading rival, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, will visit the White House on January 28 to be briefed on the administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan. Trump told reporters that the plan would likely be released before the summit. Predictably, no invitation was extended to the Palestinian Authority, which severed relations with Washington after the U.S. embassy was moved to Jerusalem in 2017.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Diplomacy, Treaties and Agreements, Negotiation, Peace, Donald Trump
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Israel, Palestine, United States of America
  • Author: Mehdi Khalaji
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The clergy’s ambitions for global Shia revolution made the city of Qom uniquely vulnerable to the disease, and their resistance to modern medical science weakened the state’s ability to combat its spread. On February 19, two days before the Iranian government officially announced the arrival of coronavirus, an infected businessman who had recently returned from China to Qom passed away. The location and timing of his death illustrate how the Shia holy city and the religious leaders and institutions who call it home have played an outsize role in the disease’s disproportionately rapid spread inside Iran compared to other countries. How did this situation come to pass, and what does it say about the current state of the clerical establishment, its relationship with the regime, and its alienation from large swaths of Iranian society? (Part 2 of this PolicyWatch discusses the regime's role in the outbreak and its resiliency to such crises.)
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Health, Religion, Shia, Coronavirus
  • Political Geography: China, Iran, Middle East, Global Focus, United States of America
  • Author: Oula A. Alrifai
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Besides highlighting Assad’s financial mismanagement, the recent unrest gives the international community a genuine opportunity to push for transition while bolstering the more prosperous local administration in the northeast. Since mid-January, shop owners, government employees, students, and even children have been gathering in the streets of various Syrian communities to express their frustration with the Assad regime’s economic policies and untruths. Although the protests remain small for now, the fact that they have persistently carried on in the middle of regime-controlled territory highlights Bashar al-Assad’s potential vulnerability on these issues. In Suwayda, a Druze-majority province in the south, residents have protested the sharp drop in the value of the Syrian pound/lira and the deteriorating economic situation in general. In the central-western town of Salamiya, protestors were seen chanting “we want to live.” And in the Suwayda town of Shahba, demonstrators raised loaves of bread in the air while openly criticizing Bouthaina Shaaban, Assad’s political and media advisor. The latter protest was partly spurred by a recent interview on the pro-Assad television network al-Mayadeen, where Shaaban not only claimed that the country’s current economy is “fifty times better than what it was in 2011,” but also declared that “Syrians are self-sufficient in everything.” In response, protestors sarcastically noted that her comments referred to her own household’s economy, not Syria’s. Elsewhere, former agriculture minister Nour al-Din Manna described Shaaban’s remarks about the war-torn country as “hard to believe,” and a closer look at the country’s finances supports this disbelief.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Economics, Syrian War, Currency
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Lebanon, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Ali Alfoneh
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Given the IRGC’s recent restructuring, the Qods Force will likely see more continuity than change under Qaani, though his bureaucratic background is a far cry from Soleimani’s brand of charismatic, risky leadership. On January 3, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani as chief commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force, just hours after his predecessor, Qasem Soleimani, was killed by a U.S. drone strike. The new commander’s background and military activities are not nearly as well known as Soleimani’s, so taking a closer look at them can help determine whether and how the IRGC’s main extraterritorial branch might change under his leadership.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Military Affairs, Qassem Soleimani, Assassination
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East
  • Author: Mehdi Khalaji
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: A week after Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei played coy, remarking, “I have no judgment on the American election...[Both parties have been] naughty toward us.” Of course, his true reaction was far more complex. On one hand, he saw in the president-elect—who had spoken much of disentangling U.S. forces from the Middle East—a prospect of decreased military pressure on his country. On the other, he heard Trump’s raw vitriol directed at Iran’s leadership and the nuclear deal crafted by President Obama. The eventual U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA demonstrated that the new president could back up his talk with punishing action. In this close analysis of statements by Khamenei and other Iranian leaders, former seminarian Mehdi Khalaji lays out the regime’s current views on President Trump and the United States. He shows that even after the American assassination of Qods Force chief Qasem Soleimani, Iranian leaders could be open to negotiating with Washington if they believe the regime’s existence depends on it.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Politics, Elections, Donald Trump
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Anna Borshchevskaya
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: As in other conflict zones, Moscow cares little about reaching a peace deal so long as it can outmaneuver the West strategically while securing port and energy access—with private contractors playing an increasingly important role. The Kremlin is now openly treating Libya as another focal point of its Middle East activities. After years of U.S. neglect, the country has turned into a proxy war playground, and President Vladimir Putin is vying to become the chief power broker. Earlier this month, he tried (but failed) to get Khalifa Haftar to sign a ceasefire agreement in Moscow with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). Putin also participated in the January 19 Berlin conference aimed at getting the parties back on the path toward a political solution. And though the prospects for such a deal remain uncertain, Moscow’s involvement in Libya will continue either way.
  • Topic: Conflict Resolution, Foreign Policy, Civil War, Geopolitics, Negotiation, Peace
  • Political Geography: Russia, Middle East, Libya, North Africa
  • Author: Michael Knights
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: To ensure that new protests, new sanctions, and new political leadership wind up helping rather than hindering Iraqi sovereignty, Washington must handle upcoming developments with great care. In the coming weeks, Iraq’s parliament may appoint a replacement for Prime Minister Adil Abdulmahdi. This is a very positive development, since the country’s sundry Iranian-backed militias would like nothing better than to keep the discredited leader under their thumb as an open-ended caretaker premier following his November resignation. In contrast, a new leader with a new mandate could get the government moving again, pass a budget, bring the criminals responsible for killing protestors to justice, and assuage angry protestors by making visible preparations for early, free, and fair elections—thereby remedying the results of the widely disparaged 2018 vote. Such is the political space that has opened up since the deaths of Iranian Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis earlier this month. For the United States, the challenge is how to support these changes without disrupting positive local dynamics.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Politics, Sovereignty, Sanctions
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Middle East, North America, United States of America
  • Author: Aaron Y. Zelin
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Fewer attacks and more prosecutions suggest the country’s integrated approach could eventually become a model for the region. For the first time since its 2011 revolution, Tunisia is not on the defensive in its battle with the Islamic State and al- Qaeda. Data from 2019, paired with a more holistic approach to combating jihadists, bears out this claim. Specifically, Tunis is expanding its toolkit beyond a purely military or law enforcement approach. Because of these advances, which have developed over the past few years, Tunis and Washington will have widened opportunities to engage on more complex aspects of reform that could make Tunisia a regional and global model. Both internal and external challenges remain, such as from foreign fighters dwelling abroad, an overcrowded prison system, and the threat of resurgent jihadism next door in Libya, but these need not diminish the accomplishments. Moreover, Tunisia can now build on its achievements, continuing the process of reform after decades of authoritarian rule.
  • Topic: Law Enforcement, Violent Extremism, Islamic State, Jihad
  • Political Geography: Middle East, North Africa, Tunisia
  • Author: Simon Henderson
  • Publication Date: 03-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The latest crackdown appears to have targeted senior defense and interior officials, spurring speculation that they are linked to previously detained princes rumored to be plotting a coup. On March 15, Saudi Arabia announced that 298 individuals have been arrested for bribery, embezzlement, wasting public funds, and other corruption offenses. Although none of the detainees has been named, they reportedly include high-ranking officers in the Defense and Interior Ministries, adding to rumors that recent royal crackdowns may be related to a planned coup.
  • Topic: Corruption, Reform, Domestic politics, Monarchy
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Joseph Braude
  • Publication Date: 01-2019
  • Content Type: Special Report
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: A new opportunity has emerged to roll back generations of antisemitic and rejectionist messaging in Arab media, mosques, and schools. It stems from the convergence of interests between Israel and Arab powers, a youthful Arab grassroots trend in favor of a “peace between peoples,” and new Israeli and American Jewish capacities to engage Arab public discussions from the outside in. But prospects for change remain severely constrained: In addition to the effects of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, the legacy of antisemitic brainwashing endures in many Arab institutions and draws further energy from Iranian and jihadist information operations. Meanwhile, proponents of a positive shift lack coordination, planning, and adequate support. In Reclamation: A Cultural Policy for Arab-Israeli Partnership, Joseph Braude documents the opportunity as well as the obstacles, and then proposes a strategy to accelerate progress. He explains how to engage Arab allies in a coordinated communications reform effort, support independent Arab champions of civil relations with Israel and Jews, expand the “outside-in” capacities, and degrade Iranian and jihadist channels of indoctrination within the region.
  • Topic: International Security, International Affairs
  • Political Geography: Middle East
  • Author: Ghaith al-Omari, Ben Fishman
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the peace treaty, both parties and the United States have strategic interests in upholding and reinforcing the relationship. The optimism that characterized the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty a quarter-century ago has long since dissipated. Today, the peace rests on a strong security foundation but lacks popular support, particularly on the Jordanian side. Nevertheless, there remain important opportunities for strengthening Israel-Jordan relations and preserving that pillar of America’s steadily eroding security architecture in the Middle East. It is critical for Washington to prioritize Jordan on its agenda. This includes urging the still-to-be-formed Israeli government to take responsible action on two fronts: keeping Amman’s interests in mind when formulating policy toward the West Bank, and implementing long-delayed initiatives that would help Jordan’s struggling economy.
  • Topic: Security, Treaties and Agreements, Bilateral Relations, Territorial Disputes, Negotiation, Peace
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Israel, Palestine, Jerusalem, Jordan, United States of America
  • Author: Michael Knights
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Despite the damage wrought by the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, the main drivers of Islamic State resurgence in Iraq can still be restrained by local U.S. engagement, which is now even more vital than before. The gross uncertainty surrounding the future of counterterrorism operations in northeast Syria is raising understandable fears of an Islamic State comeback in Iraq. After all, the IS resurgence of 2011-2014 was partially driven by the chaotic war conditions in Syria, and suppressing the group there will be extremely challenging in the coming months amid U.S. withdrawal and Turkish invasion. Another resurgence in Iraq is hardly inevitable, however—the country is subject to different internal drivers, and the United States is still well-positioned to lead international support of Baghdad’s counterterrorism efforts. Yet Washington will need to stay engaged and urgently address new problems if it hopes to prevent another disastrous insurgency.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Military Affairs, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Middle East, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Simon Henderson
  • Publication Date: 11-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: economically transform the kingdom. On November 3, Saudi Arabia formally announced plans for the partial selloff of its state-owned oil company, to begin sometime next month. The successor of the Arabian American Oil Company, originally established by U.S. firms, Saudi Aramco is easily described in superlatives. It is the largest oil producer in the world, with the lowest production costs, and has a reputation for being extremely well run, all of which have helped it become the most profitable company on the planet. Yet being situated in the Middle East, having key installations vulnerable to Iranian attack, and selling oil to countries increasingly concerned about climate change are hardly factors conducive to favorable long-term prospects. The kingdom simultaneously claims to be diversifying away from its dependence on oil, adding to the uncertainty about its approach.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Oil, Business
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Saudi Arabia, United States of America
  • Author: Aaron Y. Zelin
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Recent U.S. decisions have seemingly ignored the degree to which the group is continuing its insurgent attacks and reorganizing its supporters inside increasingly vulnerable detention facilities. In contrast to President Trump’s statements over the past half-year, the Islamic State has yet to be defeated outright. True, the group is nowhere near as capable as it was in 2015, but it is steadily rebuilding its capacities and attempting to break thousands of its supporters out of detainment. The vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal and Turkish invasion will create more space for those efforts, while compounding the original problem of states being unwilling to deal with their citizens who joined IS and remain in Syria. To avoid becoming known as the administration that allowed IS to reemerge and, perhaps, conduct mass-casualty attacks in Europe or elsewhere, President Trump and his cabinet should take urgent action to salvage and mobilize their surviving ties with Washington’s longtime partner against IS, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Military Affairs, Violent Extremism, Islamic State
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Middle East, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Oula A. Alrifai
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Tehran and its proxies have been exerting hard and soft power in northeast Syria, combining military consolidation with economic, social, and religious outreach in order to cement their long-term influence. On September 30, Syria and Iraq reopened their main border crossing between al-Bukamal and al-Qaim, which had been formally closed for five years. The circumstances surrounding the event were telling—the ceremony was delayed by a couple weeks because of unclaimed foreign airstrikes on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps targets in east Syria following the Iranian attack against Saudi oil facilities earlier that month. What exactly have the IRGC and its local proxies been doing in Deir al-Zour province? And what does this activity tell us about Iran’s wider plans there?
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Education, Military Strategy, Geopolitics, Conflict, Soft Power
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Soner Cagaptay, Ben Fishman
  • Publication Date: 12-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Facing pressure from General Haftar and his foreign military backers, the Tripoli government has welcomed the helping hand extended by Ankara, whose own lack of regional options has drawn it into the middle of another conflict. On December 10, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he was willing to deploy troops in Libya if the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli requested it. He reiterated the offer during a December 15 meeting with GNA prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Ankara—a visit that arose after Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who heads the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and seeks to replace the GNA, renewed his push to take Tripoli by force. Meanwhile, Turkey signed two controversial agreements with Tripoli over the past month: a memorandum of understanding on providing the GNA with arms, training, and military personnel, formally ratified by Tripoli earlier today; and a November 28 maritime agreement delineating exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean waters separating the two countries. The latter move drew protests from Greece and Egypt and was condemned “unequivocally” by the European Council. These and other developments indicate Libya’s emerging status as a focal point of Ankara’s foreign policy, which seemingly regards the country as an arena for Turkish proxy competition with rivals old (Greece) and new (Egypt and the United Arab Emirates). At the same time, Libya’s GNA has become increasingly dependent on Ankara for military reasons—namely, a lack of other allies willing to provide arms capable of countering the LNA’s Emiratisupplied drones, and the arrival of Russian mercenaries who have added new technology and precision to Haftar’s war against Tripoli. Unless Washington invests more diplomatic energy and fully backs the German-led initiative to implement a ceasefire and return to peace negotiations, the proxy war in Libya will only escalate. In that scenario, Turkey and Russia—not the United States or its European partners—could be become the arbiters of Libya’s future.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Civil War, Military Affairs, Geopolitics
  • Political Geography: Turkey, Middle East, Libya, North Africa, United States of America
  • Author: Assaf Orion
  • Publication Date: 08-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Serious change is required to avoid decisions that accommodate Hezbollah’s ends, ways, and means, and a vital first step is to look at current policy mechanics with a clear eye. With this month marking the thirteenth anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and the end of the 2006 Lebanon war, the council will soon hold its yearly debates about renewing the mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. Contrasting the Secretary General’s latest report on 1701 with thirteen years of lessons learned reveals a clear pattern: the victory of consciously false hopes over hard experience, particularly when viewed from Israel’s perspective. Breaking this pattern will require substantial changes to the force’s size, mission, and conduct.
  • Topic: Conflict Prevention, Foreign Policy, United Nations, Governance, Hezbollah
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Lebanon, United States of America
  • Author: Bilal Wahab, Barbara A. Leaf
  • Publication Date: 09-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Even as Baghdad works to rein in militias that invite outside attacks, Washington needs to be patient with the country’s contradictions in the near term and give space for it to exert sovereignty in the long term. As President Trump met with Iraqi president Barham Salih today on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, they were no doubt buoyed by their governments’ mutual conclusion that the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq did not originate from Iraq. Initial concerns about that possibility were well founded—a previous attack on a major Saudi pipeline was carried out from Iraqi territory this May, and multiple Iraqi militia facilities have been struck since June, reportedly by Israel. Each of these developments was linked to Shia “special groups” with known ties to Iran. On July 1, Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdulmahdi ordered these and other militias to fold themselves under state authority, but so far he has been unable to impose order on them. The government has also failed to prevent them from threatening neighboring countries at Iran’s presumed behest—an especially dangerous lapse given that Iraqi authorities cannot protect the territory these militias hold from external retaliation. To keep other countries from turning Iraq into a proxy battleground, Baghdad needs to rein in the unruliest militias. This is a tall order because Tehran has spent fifteen years building them into a parallel force of its own. Given the willingness these “special groups” have shown when asked to attack U.S. troops, fight on the Assad regime’s behalf in Syria, or secure other Iranian interests, they risk implicating Iraq in Tehran’s regional confrontations with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and/or Israel.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Bilateral Relations, Non State Actors, Proxy War
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United States of America, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Dana Stroul, Charles Thépaut
  • Publication Date: 12-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Renewing the UN cross-border mechanism is crucial to helping millions of needy Syrian civilians, preventing Russia and Assad from weaponizing aid deliveries, and safeguarding future international assistance efforts. On December 19, the UN Security Council is expected to vote on the renewal of Resolution 2449, which authorizes the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid to Syrians without the Assad regime’s permission. The outcome will determine whether the regime is allowed to approve and entirely control who receives UN aid, and in what areas of the country it is available. If the resolution is not renewed, aid delivery will become yet another tool for shifting the war’s trajectory in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor, with dire implications for civilians living in areas not under regime control. The recent Security Council debate over the resolution reflects broader developments inside Syria. Russia has coordinated with China to argue that current battlefield trends are in the regime’s favor, attempting to use the aid debate as a means of coercing political recognition of Assad. Others have proposed adding a fifth crossing along the northern border at Tal Abyad to address the increased needs of Syrian civilians trapped in the latest Turkish military operation. UN Security-General Antonio Guterres has recalled how essential the mechanism is to reaching people in need.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Humanitarian Aid, International Law, United Nations, Syrian War
  • Political Geography: Middle East, United Nations, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Simon Henderson
  • Publication Date: 12-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The ailing Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, now seventy-nine years old, has no children and no announced successor, with only an ambiguous mechanism in place for the family council to choose one. This study considers the most likely candidates to succeed the sultan, Oman’s domestic economic challenges, and whether the country’s neutral foreign policy can survive Qaboos’s passing.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Economics, Domestic politics, Succession
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Oman, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Patrick Clawson
  • Publication Date: 12-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Rouhani has taken a remarkably austere fiscal approach ahead of the looming parliamentary election, but the country’s economic situation is still not sustainable over the long run. On December 8, following established procedures, President Hassan Rouhani visited parliament to present his budget for the Iranian year 2020/21, which begins in March. Notwithstanding the government’s rosy rhetoric, his spending proposals show the tough times the Islamic Republic is facing.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Oil, Sanctions, Budget, Elections, Economy
  • Political Geography: Iran, Middle East
  • Author: Assaf Orion
  • Publication Date: 11-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The Second Lebanon War, between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah, ended August 14, 2006. Since that summer, populations on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border have enjoyed the longest calm in their troubled history, thirteen years and counting. Mandated by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), an entity first established in the late 1970s, was expanded, and its 10,500 peacekeepers are busy and visible. UN reports over the past thirteen years emphasize the general calm. But calm does not mean safe and secure. During the war, Hezbollah launched approximately four thousand rockets out of its arsenal of twelve thousand toward Israel. Since the war, Iran has invested billions of dollars in building its Lebanese proxy military force throughout Lebanon, including in the south.
  • Topic: United Nations, Peacekeeping, Conflict, Hezbollah
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Israel, Lebanon
  • Author: Daniel Green
  • Publication Date: 09-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Recent U.S. attention in Yemen has focused largely on the war against the Iranian-backed Houthis, but another threat endures: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. efforts to confront AQAP have historically relied on counterterrorism approaches such as air and drone strikes, direct-action raids, and partnerships with indigenous and coalition security forces. But the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda has shown impressive resiliency by adopting a "hearts and minds" and local governing strategy to secure support, making it difficult to defeat. Its continuing strength requires a rethinking of the U.S. approach, one that confronts the terrorist group’s political strategy as much as its military strategy. In this Policy Focus, Daniel Green, a former defense fellow at The Washington Institute, draws on extensive research and interviews with Yemeni officials and civil society leaders to propose a new framework for defeating AQAP. His recommendations call for a U.S. strategy that extends beyond using strictly counterterrorism approaches and encompasses governance reform, capacity building, and enlisting locals in their own defense. Only through the active participation of communities in their security and governing can AQAP truly be defeated.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Governance, Reform, Al Qaeda, Conflict
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Yemen, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Haisam Hassanein
  • Publication Date: 04-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Port projects and other outreach may help President Sisi check off some of his policy goals, but giving China such a foothold could threaten a number of U.S. interests in the region. On August 5, Egypt signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese company Hutchison Ports to establish a Mediterranean container terminal in Abu Qir. President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi himself attended the signing ceremony, where he praised the company’s global reputation in the field and emphasized the importance of executing the project in accordance with the highest international standards. The project is in line with Sisi’s track record of seeking Chinese help to fulfill his ambitious domestic and foreign agenda. Hutchison is one of the world’s leading port networks, operating terminals in twenty-seven countries; in Egypt, it operates the country’s two main commercial ports, Alexandria and El Dekheila. The company’s representatives commended the opportunity for direct investment in Abu Qir and announced that they will be training more than 1,500 Egyptian engineers and other workers for jobs at the terminal. According to them, the facility will be able to handle up to 1 million containers annually once completed.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Bilateral Relations, Economic growth, Trade
  • Political Geography: China, Middle East, Asia, North Africa, Egypt, United States of America
  • Author: Bilal Wahab
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The U.S. withdrawal of troops from northeast Syria has placed Kurdish fighters in a near-impossible situation, while alarming Kurdish communities in other countries, but Washington can still take steps to mitigate the damage. On October 21, footage of Kurdish civilians heckling withdrawing U.S. troops in both Iraq and Syria offered a rare and disturbing sight. This scene was facilitated by President Trump’s October 6 decision to unilaterally withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, in effect paving the way for the Turkish military to cross the Syrian border three days later and attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Thereafter, a safe haven quickly became a war zone. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 180,000 people have now been forced from their homes. James Jeffrey, the U.S. administration’s envoy to Syria, told Congress on October 22 that the fighting has resulted in hundreds of SDF deaths, a likely war crime by a pro-Turkish militia, and the escape from prison of more than a hundred Islamic State (IS) fighters. The U.S. action has unsurprisingly left the Syrian Kurds feeling abandoned and exposed against the militarily superior Turkish army and its Arab militias. On a deeper level, America appears to have entirely lost Kurdish sympathy and trust, while at the same time failing to either deter or appease Turkey. Rather than ameliorate matters, President Trump has poured salt on the wound. He responded to backlash against his policy by claiming the Kurds were “no angels” and that they had failed to contribute to the Allied cause in World War II, while characterizing their Syrian military campaign as a fight over “long-bloodstained sand.”
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Public Opinion, Military Affairs, Conflict
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Turkey, Middle East, Syria, United States of America, Rojava
  • Author: Matthew Levitt
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: As demonstrators rail against economic problems, corruption, and sectarianism, the group’s role in undermining the public’s financial and physical security is coming under greater scrutiny. Lebanese citizens took to the streets this weekend to protest the country’s acute financial crisis, which has been marked by one of the highest debt ratios in the world, a new currency crisis, and fears that a strike will close gas stations indefinitely. Many believe that deep-rooted corruption and sectarianism got them into this mess, and may now complicate efforts to get them out. Against this backdrop, more criticism is being directed at Hezbollah, the widely designated terrorist organization that is simultaneously the most powerful party in Lebanon’s government and an aggressively sectarian movement that keeps its activities and weapons outside the government’s control. As the Treasury Department recently noted, developments over the past few weeks have underscored the extent to which the group’s actions “prioritize its interests, and those of its chief sponsor, Iran, over the welfare of Lebanese citizens and Lebanon’s economy.”
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Corruption, Financial Crisis, Protests, Hezbollah
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Lebanon
  • Author: Neri Zilber
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The items being moved from Egypt through Salah al-Din Gate underline the contradictions and long-term unsustainability of the current stalemate regarding Gaza assistance. The Gaza Strip has been blockaded for more than a decade now, owing primarily to the violent takeover and continued militant rejectionism of the territory’s Hamas rulers. Even after certain restrictions were eased after the 2014 Gaza war, Israel and Egypt maintained tight limits on the entry of goods into the coastal enclave. This policy began to fray in early 2018 as conditions inside Gaza further deteriorated, culminating in the “Great March of Return” border demonstrations and short-lived rounds of escalation between Israel and Hamas. Indirect negotiations over a long-term truce have since provided some relief, yet the impact of one of the most noteworthy concessions has been under-examined—namely, the opening in 2018 of Salah al-Din Gate, a commercial border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. This crossing puts the lie to the narrative of a “besieged” Gaza, yet also raises questions about Israel’s continuing blockade policy and Hamas’s pretensions to be a responsible ruling entity.
  • Topic: Border Control, Borders, Trade, Hamas
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Israel, Palestine, Gaza, Egypt
  • Author: Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Simon Henderson
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The Washington Institute has been sponsoring a series of discussions about sudden succession in the Middle East. Each session focuses on scenarios that might unfold if a specific ruler or leader departed the scene tomorrow. Questions include these: Would the sudden change lead to different policies? Would it affect the stability of the respective countries involved, or the region as a whole? What would be the impact on U.S. interests? Would the manner of a leader's departure make a difference? The discussions also probe how the U.S. government might adjust to the new situation or influence outcomes. This essay, seventh in the series, discusses Kuwait, a small, oil-rich country surrounded by big neighbors with which relations have often been uneasy. Its leader, Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, is ninety years old and apparently in fragile health. His immediate heir, half-brother Nawaf, is not much younger at eighty-two. More important, perhaps, Nawaf lacks the current emir's adeptness as a diplomat. In a Gulf region experiencing sharp tensions, Sabah's exit will remove a much-needed node of stability. Whoever ultimately takes the helm will have a substantial legacy to uphold.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Politics, Succession, Monarchy
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Kuwait, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Lori Plotkin Boghardt, Simon Henderson
  • Publication Date: 02-2017
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The Trump administration has an opportunity to reset, tighten, and maximize America's strategic relations with the Gulf states. For the United States, expanded security cooperation and coordination could be a force multiplier in campaigns to achieve key policy goals, such as countering Iran's destabilizing policies and defeating the Islamic State. Gulf leaders have expressed optimism over the new administration's gestures, despite its "America First" rhetoric. But the administration also faces challenges, including those brought about by its own emphasis on "radical Islamic terrorism." This two-part Transition 2017 paper, featuring contributions by Gulf experts Lori Plotkin Boghardt and Simon Henderson, navigates the complex U.S.-Gulf relationship. The first essay provides an overview of its basic tenets, stressing the importance of rapport to bilateral ties and discussing key policy priorities. The second essay narrows the focus to the Washington-Riyadh link, the most important U.S. tie with the conservative Gulf. It analyzes differences in viewpoint, policy options, and some anticipated Saudi responses on the core issues of oil, terrorism, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Gulf allies, and the Sunni bloc.
  • Topic: International Relations, International Cooperation, International Security, International Affairs
  • Political Geography: America, Middle East
  • Author: Robert Satloff, Sarah Feuer
  • Publication Date: 02-2017
  • Content Type: Commentary and Analysis
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The countries of northwest Africa -- Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia -- have proven either more resilient or more adaptive than other Middle East states to the political upheavals that have engulfed the region over the last half-dozen years. To varying degrees, however, stability remains a major challenge for all these countries as they face transnational terrorism, spillover from the conflict in Libya, abrupt shifts in domestic political dynamics, potential flare-ups of regional conflicts, and unforeseen events that could ignite deep-seated resentment at a local mix of stagnant economies, endemic corruption, and profound disparities between wealth and poverty. In this Transition 2017 essay, Robert Satloff and Sarah Feuer warn against overlooking a corner of the Middle East that doesn't attract the same attention as areas facing more-acute conflict. Outlining America's key strategic interests in this region, they discuss specific ways the Trump administration can advance these interests in terms of both bilateral and regional relations.
  • Topic: International Relations, International Affairs, International Development
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Northwest Africa