This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on 5 January 2017.
The failure of Iraq, breakdown of Syria, and changes in Turkey have created opportunities for Kurds in all three countries. They are not quite the regional kingmakers that some Kurds have boasted they might become, but Kurdish political and military power is now a growing factor in Middle East geopolitics. This has produced not only unique challenges, but also new possibilities for U.S. policy in the region. As President-Elect Donald J. Trump shapes his administration and officials look at the Middle East beyond the battles against the so-called Islamic State in Mosul and Raqqa, they will have to come to terms with the Kurds, some of whom are intent on using their new clout and political developments around them to push for a sovereign Kurdistan.
It is unlikely that Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) or its fighting force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), or Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) will realize their objectives of statehood, but Iraq’s Kurds may be in a far more advantageous position to press for independence. Significant obstacles remain for Iraqi Kurds, but the combination of regional instability, the coming liberation of Mosul, and the state of Iraqi politics may help advance the historic goals of Kurdish leaders.
Courtesy Steve Rotman/Flickr
This article was originally published by War is Boring on 31 October 2016.
On Sept. 10, 2016, the U.S.-brokered a ceasefire with Russia and Syria in the besieged city of Aleppo. Although low-intensity fighting never really stopped, the ceasefire didn’t begin to fall apart until a week later, when U.S. aircraft mistakenly killed about 80 Syrian troops.
The killings heightened tensions between the United States and Russia, who had agreed to the ceasefire with the aim of negotiating a combined effort against Islamic State and Al Qaeda-linked fighters. By Sept. 21, the ceasefire collapsed — and the following day, the Syrian government announced a new military offensive to retake Aleppo.
The offensive featured some of the most intensive ground combat and bombing of the entire war, costing hundreds of lives within the span of just a few days. The humanitarian cost on the ground was described by U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien as “a level of savagery that no human should have to endure.”
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This article was originally published by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) on 21 October 2016.
The offensive by Bashar al-Assad’s military, supported by Russian troops, on Aleppo—Syria’s largest city—might be successful. This large-scale operation was facilitated by the improved relations between Russia and Turkey and because the United States has only limited military options at its disposal. If Aleppo falls, Assad will have control over territory inhabited by more than 60% of Syrians. The brutality of the Russian attacks in Aleppo may, however, carry a political price in the form of new EU sanctions. The clearly harsher rhetoric of Germany, France and the U.S. toward Russia also shows that these countries will not compromise on Ukraine in return for Russian concessions in Syria.
The Importance of Aleppo
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has retaken significant territory from the Syrian opposition and the Islamic State (IS/ISIL/ISIS) since October 2015, mainly because of Russian military involvement. His forces have taken the city of Tadmur (Palmyra), Latakia province and parts of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo (which had 2 million inhabitants), along with its outskirts. Now, Assad’s army is besieging the eastern part of Aleppo under rebel control. The rebels number 8,000 strong and are composed of a dozen, mainly Islamist, groups. On 22 September, the Syrian army launched an offensive to retake the whole of Aleppo. The Russian and Syrian bombardment has caused a severe humanitarian crisis: 275,000 civilians, including 100,000 children, have been deprived of nearly all essential needs.
This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 30 September 2016.
Five years of horrendous conflict in Syria has given birth to a menacing array of threatening and destabilizing repercussions. From the rapid proliferation of terrorist groups, to mass civilian displacement and an international refugee crisis, not to mention the disintegration of a major nation state at the heart of the Middle East, the consequences of the conflict’s apparent intractability are clear for all to see.
Until now, the United States has adopted an inconsistent and largely half-hearted approach to the crisis. Despite publicly proclaiming that President Bashar al-Assad had lost his legitimacy in July 2011, the Obama administration has not once determinedly sought to push that political statement towards being a reality. Despite near-daily war crimes for over 1,800 days in a row, the United States has done little to prevent their continuation. Diplomatic statements of concern and non-binding and open-ended initiatives for dialogue based on non-existent trust have all fallen far short of what is necessary to at least slow the rate of killing and destruction.
This article was originally published by the Combating Terrorism Center on 27 July 2016.
The Islamic State will struggle to hold onto the governments it builds and the territory it captures outside of Syria and Iraq because it antagonizes local jihadist competitors and powerful non-Muslim states. The Islamic State could soften its antagonism toward these entities for the sake of expediency, but then it would no longer be able to recruit followers as the uncompromising champion of the global jihadist ideal.
Since it announced its caliphate in the summer of 2014, the Islamic State has taken on 17 affiliates or “governorates” that operate in 12 countries outside of Syria and Iraq. Many of the governorates were preexisting jihadist groups or factions that joined the Islamic State because they identified with its antagonism toward local jihadist competitors and its unyielding animosity toward non-Muslim nations. Yet this hostility subsequently limits the group’s ability to build governments or take territory beyond the confines of Syria and Iraq. In most countries where the Islamic State has planted its flag, its aggression prompted powerful local jihadist rivals[a] or international foes to check its advances. The Islamic State could soften its antagonism to one or the other for the sake of convenience, but this would compromise its recruiting ability and tarnish its reputation as the uncompromising champion of the global jihadist ideal.