Tag Archives: ISIS

A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

Yazidi women in both Syria and Iraq have suffered greatly at the hands of ISIS — but they will be caught up in Trump-era restrictions on refugees all the same. (Reuters)

There’s a neighborhood in Los Angeles, commonly known as Tehrangeles, that is home to up to a half-million Persian Americans, most of whom fled Iran after the 1979 Islamic republic or who are their second-generation children and third-generation grandchildren, all of them American citizens. 

The neighborhood runs along Westwood Boulevard, and it is home to some of the wealthiest Angelinos. But under the executive action that US president Donald Trump signed Friday afternoon, their relatives in Iran will have a much more difficult time visiting them in Los Angeles (or elsewhere in the United States). The impact of the order, over the weekend, proved far deeper than originally imagined last week when drafts of the order circulated widely in the media.

The ban attempts to accomplish at least five different actions, all of which began to take effect immediately on Friday:

  • First, the order institutes a ban for 90 days on immigrants from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya.
  • Secondly, the ban initially seemed to include even US permanent residents with valid green cards with citizenship from those seven countries (though the Department of Homeland Security was walking that back on Sunday, after reports that presidential adviser and former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon initially overruled DHS objections Friday). But it also includes citizens of third countries with dual citizenship (which presents its own problems and which the White House does not seem to be walking back).
  • Third, it institutes a 120-day freeze on all refugees into the United States from anywhere across the globe and an indefinite ban for all refugees from Syria.
  • Fourth, it places a cap of 50,000 on all refugees for 2017 — that’s far less than nearly 85,000 refugees who were admitted to the United States in 2016, though it’s not markedly less than the nearly 55,000 refugees admitted in 2011 (the lowest point of the Obama administration) and it’s more than the roughly 25,000 to 30,000 refugees admitted in 2002 and 2003 during the Bush administration.
  • Fifth, and finally, when the United States once again permits refugees, it purports to prioritize admitting those refugees ‘when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution.’ It’s widely assumed that this is a back-door approach to prioritizing Christian refugees. More on that below.

In practice, it’s already incredibly difficult to get a visa of any variety if you are coming from one of those countries, with a few exceptions. But formalizing the list is both overbroad (it captures mostly innocent travelers and refugees) and underbroad (it doesn’t include potential terrorists from other countries), and experts believe it will hurt US citizens, US businesses and bona fide refugees who otherwise might have expected asylum in the United States. On Sunday, many Republican leaders, including Arizona senator John McCain admitted as such:

Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism. At this very moment, American troops are fighting side-by-side with our Iraqi partners to defeat ISIL. But this executive order bans Iraqi pilots from coming to military bases in Arizona to fight our common enemies. Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred. This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.

On the campaign trail, Trump initially called for a ban on all Muslims from entering the country; when experts responded that such a broad-based religious test would be unconstitutional, Trump said he would instead extend the ban on the basis of nationality.

Friday’s executive action looks like the first step of institutionalizing the de facto Muslim ban that Trump originally promised (thought it would on its face be blatantly unconstitutional).

Of course, as many commentators have noted, the list doesn’t contain the countries that match the nationalities of the September 2001 hijackers — mostly Saudi Arabia. But it doesn’t contain Lebanon, though Hezbollah fighters have aligned with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war. It doesn’t include Egypt, which is the most populous Muslim country in north Africa and home to one of the Sept. 2001 terrorists. Nor does it include Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Nor Pakistan nor Afghanistan, where US troops fought to eradicate forms of hardline Taliban government and where US troops ultimately tracked and killed Osama bin Laden.

This isn’t a call to add more countries to the list, of course, which would be even more self-defeating as US policy. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Bannon and Trump, anticipating this criticism, will use it to justify a second round of countries.

In the meanwhile, the diplomatic fallout is only just beginning (and certainly will intensify — Monday is the first full business day after we’ve read the actual text of Friday’s executive order). Already, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, citing the obligations of international law under the Geneva Conventions, disavowed the ban. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau used it as an opportunity to showcase his country’s openness to immigration and welcomed the refugees to Canada. Even Theresa May, the British prime minister who shared a stage with Trump in Washington on Friday afternoon, distanced herself from the ban, and British foreign minister Boris Johnson called it ‘divisive.’

But the most direct impact will be felt in relations with the seven countries directly affected by the ban, and there are already indications that the United States will suffer a strategic, diplomatic and possible economic price for Trump’s hasty unilateral executive order.  Continue reading A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)
Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)

Aleppo, the most populous city in Syria, has become in August the center stage for one of the most tragic urban battles of the country’s five-and-a-half year civil war.freesyria Syria Flag Icon

The first battle of Aleppo that began in July 2012 and lasted for months, brought some of the worst of the earliest fighting to an industrial and cultural capital home to some 2.5 million Syrians before the war.

By early 2013, after thousands of deaths and widespread urban destruction (including parts of Aleppo’s old city and the Great Mosque of Aleppo), a stalemate developed between the eastern half, controlled by various Sunni rebel groups and the western half, controlled by the Syrian army that supports president Bashar al-Assad.

Last week, rebel forces — including the hardline militia formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra — broke through to Ramouseh, a key sector in the southwest of the city. Among other things, Ramouseh is home to some of the most important bases in the area for the Syrian army. More importantly, the rebel offensive hoped to open and secure a corridor between the besieged eastern half of Aleppo to other rebel-controlled areas to the south of Aleppo that could provide a pathway to food, water, power and other supplies to the rebel-controlled portions of Aleppo.

As of last week, the rebels had the upper hand after pushing into Ramouseh. Over the weekend, however, the Syrian army reclaimed some of its territory and effectively halted the rebel advance with punishing support from the Russian military.

(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)
(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)

Meanwhile, civilians across Aleppo (in both the government- and rebel-controlled areas) face a growing risk of a humanitarian crisis, lacking access to basic necessities like electric power, food and water in fierce summertime conditions. Intriguingly, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu also claimed over the weekend that Russian and U.S. forces were close to taking ‘joint action’ on Aleppo. It’s odd because Russian president Vladimir Putin firmly backs Assad, while US officials have expressed the view that Assad’s departure alone can bring about a lasting end to the civil war. One possibility is a pause in hostilities to allow aid workers to provide food, water and medical care to civilians caught in what has become one of the deadliest battles in the Syrian civil war to date.

As the battle for Aleppo dominates headlines about Syria’s war, it is quickly becoming a symbolic fight for Syria’s future. Continue reading Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Why Erdoğan is not — and will never be — Putin

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Reccep Tayip Erdoğan met at the G-20 summit, which took place in Turkey, last November. (Facebook)
Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Reccep Tayip Erdoğan met at the G-20 summit, which took place in Turkey, last November. (Facebook)

It’s clear that things are looking up for the bilateral relationship between Russia and Turkey.Russia Flag IconTurkey

At the beginning of last December, the two countries locked into a troubling standoff after Turkey shot down a Russian airplane that had repeatedly crossed into Turkish airspace. The diplomatic standoff came at a time when Russian president Vladimir Putin was using Russian military force to boost the efforts of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to push back Sunni rebel forces. In response, Putin slammed trade restrictions against Turkey.

A lot can happen, however, in nine months, and yesterday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan traveled to Moscow to mend somewhat broken relations with Putin, who announced that the country would slowly lift economic sanctions against Turkey on the path to restoring normalized relations.

Erdoğan, last month survived a coup attempt from within elements of the Turkish military that, for a few hours at least, seemed like it had some chances of success. The first world leader to call Erdoğan to pledge his support?

Putin.

With Erdoğan placing blame for the coup on the shoulders of Fethullah Gülen (who lives in exile in Pennsylvania) and his Gulenist followers in Turkey, the crackdown has been swift and deep. In the past four weeks, Erdoğan has purged many Turkish institutions of tens of thousands of officials suspected of having any ties to Gulenism. That includes the military and the police forces, but also over 20,000 private school teachers, 10,000 education officials and agents within other government ministries. Erdoğan has also ordered the shutdown of around 100 media outlets, which echoes a decision earlier in March to seize Zaman, one of Turkey’s most popular independent newspapers.

Last May, prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu resigned after a series of files (the so-called ‘Pelican Files’) were released to the public and that showed the former foreign minister, who led the governing Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) to a minority victory in June 2015 and a majority victory in November 2015, was increasingly uncomfortable with Erdoğan. His misgivings included both the push to concentrate power within the Turkish presidency (following Erdoğan’s shift from prime minister to president in 2014) and with the increasingly militant approach to Turkey’s Kurdish population — after over a decade of progress for Kurdish minority rights and a detente with the PKK, a militant, communist Kurdish militia.

Binali Yıldırım, the new prime minister, formerly a transport, maritime and communications minister and a loyal Erdoğan supporter, has been far more willing to countenance the shift from a powerful parliamentary government to a presidential one.

It has been clear since the late 2000s that Erdoğan was not the pure democrat that his supporters (and many sympathizers in the United States and Europe) once believed, and it’s been clear since the Gezi Park protests in 2013 that Erdoğan has no respect for the kind of liberal freedoms — expression, assembly, press, speech and otherwise — that are so important to a functioning democracy. In the wake of the July coup attempt, Erdoğan’s instinct towards the authoritarian has only sharpened. (Though, to be fair, imagine the kind of response that would follow from an American president if a military coup managed to shut down New York’s major airports, take control of public television and bomb the US Capitol).

That his first post-coup visit abroad was to Russia to visit Putin will, of course, be a source of increasing anxiety among US and European officials, who need Erdoğan’s assistance on at least two fronts: first, stemming the flow of migrants from Syria that cross through Turkey en route to Europe and, second, facilitating US, European and NATO efforts to weaken and ultimately displace ISIS from their territorial berth in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Continue reading Why Erdoğan is not — and will never be — Putin

What we learned about Turkey from Saturday’s coup attempt

Turkish soldiers stand guard in Taksim Square Saturday night. (Sedat Suna / EPA)
Turkish soldiers stand guard in Taksim Square Saturday night. (Sedat Suna / EPA)

Something like tense calm seems to be settling on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara after an attempted military coup in Turkey early Saturday morning. Turkey

But the reverberations of the failed ouster will be felt for months and possibly years to come. Though the coup didn’t enjoy the full support of the Turkish military, it was something of a shock — and a throwback — to see tanks rolling through major Turkish cities. Amid the chaos, there’s still much that we don’t and, perhaps, cannot know about the fallout of the July 16 coup.

In other ways, the failed coup gave us quite a glimpse — in at least four ways — into the state of Turkish politics, culture and democracy.  Continue reading What we learned about Turkey from Saturday’s coup attempt

Four foreign policy arguments Sanders could still deploy against Clinton

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, fresh off a win in Michigan's Democratic presidential primary, debated last night in Miami. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, fresh off a win in Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary, debated last night in Miami. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

If there’s one thing we know about Bernie Sanders, he sure doesn’t like Henry Kissinger.USflag

And if there’s one fact that he likes to deploy in his foreign policy case against Hillary Clinton, it’s her vote authorizing the Iraq War 14 years ago, when Clinton was just in her second year as a senator from New York.

But aside from the Kissinger snark and some minor back-and-forth over US policy in Cuba, foreign policy played only a little role in Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, and it’s played an equally minor role throughout the entire contest. On one hand, that’s because the Sanders insurgency has zeroed in on income inequality, the growing wealth gap and the role of wealthy donors in campaign finance. But it’s also because Clinton, whether or not you trust her judgment, is the most qualified non-incumbent candidate in decades when it comes to international affairs. In addition to her service in the US senate, she also served for four years as secretary of state and eight years as first lady. It’s truly formidable.

Yet, given Clinton-Sanders dynamic, there’s still a lot of space for Sanders to make a strong foreign policy case against Clinton, and time after time, Sanders just hasn’t made that case. Maybe that’s politically wise; shifting his emphasis from Wall Street and income inequality would dilute his message with an attack based on issues that seem far less salient to Democratic primary voters.

But it’s true that Clinton’s foreign-policy instincts have always been more hawkish than those in her own party and, often, those of president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden (who, according to Jeffrey Goldberg’s amazing piece in The Atlantic about Obama’s world view, said Clinton ‘just wants to be Golda Meir’).

To some degree, the problem with challenging Clinton on foreign policy is that Sanders would largely be challenging the Obama administration, and that’s tricky when you’re trying to win the votes of an electorate that still adores Obama. But Sanders certainly hasn’t shied away from stating clear differences with the Obama administration’s approach to domestic policy.

Moreover, to the extent that Sanders made a clear and cogent case on international affairs, he could claim that his more dovish approach represents true continuity with the Obama administration (and that Clinton’s more hawkish approach shares more in common with a  potential Republican administration). There’s no doubt that Sanders is a talented politician; in one fell swoop, he could use foreign policy to drive a wedge between Clinton and the Obama legacy. That’s a very powerful tool, and it’s one that Sanders, so far, hasn’t been interested in wielding.

Fairly or unfairly, Sanders is tagged as a one-issue protest candidate, and he suffers from the perception that his candidacy’s purpose is to nudge Clinton further to the left, not to win the Oval Office. By adding a foreign policy element to his critique of the Democratic frontrunner, Sanders could bend a more skeptical media into taking him more seriously and show voters that he really can fill out what Americans expect from a president. In the 21st century, like it or not, the president is the chief policymaking official when it comes to foreign policy.

Given the stakes involved, it’s not too late for Sanders to make this case as the Democratic contest turns to larger states like Ohio, Illinois and Florida next week and, after that, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and California. If he wanted to do so, there’s a long list of areas from which Sanders could choose.

Here are four of the most salient. Continue reading Four foreign policy arguments Sanders could still deploy against Clinton

Saïd Bouteflika winning internal battle to succeed ailing brother in Algeria

bouteflika
Saïd Bouteflika, the brother of Algeria’s ailing president, might emerge as the most powerful successor to lead the country if his brother resigns or dies.

When he was reelected to a dodgy fourth term in April 2014, Algerian voters knew that Abdelaziz Bouteflika, now aged 79, was ailing.Algeria_Flag_Icon

Though he easily dispatched a former prime minister, Ali Benflis, who officially won just over 12% of the vote, most of the opposition simply boycotted the last vote. During the 2011 Arab spring protests and beyond, Algerians have generally been more willing to tolerate Bouteflika’s hold on power because of the stability that his regime brought after a decade of civil war.

Aides claim the president’s faculties are intact, despite a stroke three years ago that left him unable to speak. Nevertheless, it’s clear — and has been clear for some time — that there’s an internal struggle between Bouteflika’s camp and the Algerian military about his ultimate successor.

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RELATED: Bouteflika headed for controversial fourth term

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Last year, Bouteflika sidelined Algeria’s top internal security official, Mohamed Mediene, a move widely seen as a setback to the military’s involvement in Algerian domestic politics and, accordingly, any succession after Bouteflika’s resignation or death. It was a shock at the time, considering that Mediene, also known as ‘Toufik’ and commonly referred to as the Dieu de l’Algérie, or the ‘God of Algeria,’ had been a fixture within the country’s power elite for more than two decades as the head of the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), the Algerian intelligence agency since 1990.

'General Touflik' had been at the heart of Algeria's military and intelligence services for a quarter-century until his abrupt removal last year. (Al Jazeera)
‘General Touflik’ had been at the heart of Algeria’s military and intelligence services for a quarter-century until his abrupt removal last year. (Al Jazeera)

Bouteflika’s next step came earlier this week, with his administration apparently set to reorganize the DRS altogether. If successful, Bouteflika will have dismantled one of the institutional pillars of the military’s power, thereby transferring the country’s intelligence apparatus, which plays a role in domestic as well as international affairs, from the military to the presidential camp.

With so much at stake, the Algerian military may not simply accept such a sweeping adjustment of power, and its leaders may be biding their time to strike in a post-Bouteflika struggle. But it means that Bouteflika’s camp is very serious about controlling the post-Bouteflika transition in as orderly way as possible — and in a way that leaves the presidential regime, and not military or DRS leaders, in charge.

His brother’s keeper

The most likely successor? For now, it might be Saïd Bouteflika, who will argue that he represents the most seamless transition, thereby guaranteeing Algeria’s continued stability.

So what do we know about Saïd? Continue reading Saïd Bouteflika winning internal battle to succeed ailing brother in Algeria

‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons

The aftermath of an American strike in Syria's Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)
The aftermath of an American strike in Syria’s Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)

Call it the ‘coalition of the frenemies.’Syria Flag Icon

With British prime minister David Cameron’s victory in the House of Commons last week, fully four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus NATO member Turkey and several regional allies, will now be engaged in the fight against ISIS (ISIL/Islamic State/Daesh) in eastern Syria. Following last week’s fatal shooting in San Bernardino, California, by two jihadist sympathizers, US president Barack Obama reassured the United States in a rare Sunday night prime-time address that his administration will continue its intensified airstrikes against ISIS in eastern Syria, increasingly targeting the oil tankers controlled by ISIS that fund its jihadist mission.

Cameron’s team, including foreign minister Philip Hammond, argued that a force of 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian forces would be willing and ready to take on the ISIS threat in the event of a coordinated allied campaign to deploy sustained airstrikes against ISIS, both reducing the terrorist threat to Europeans at home and establishing the conditions for peace abroad (and the Obama administration has more or less echoed this sentiment). That seems optimistic, however, given that ‘radical’ rebels, like ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra quickly overpowered ‘moderate’ rebels like the Free Syrian Army throughout 2012 and 2013.

In reality, there’s no bright line among anti-Assad Sunnis in Syria. Although Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, 75% of Syria’s pre-war population was Sunni, which means there’s a lot of room for variation. Nevertheless, after more than a year of U.S. airstrikes, moderate Syrians (whether 70,000 or 7,000) and Kurdish peshmerga forces have not effectively dislodged ISIS, particularly outside traditionally Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria.

Though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is still boosting peace talks in Vienna in early 2016, neither the Assad government nor the anti-Assad rebels have indicated they will join those talks. What’s more, it’s not even clear who would ‘represent’ the anti-Assad rebels, who are fighting as much against each other as they are against Assad.

Even as countries from four continents are running air campaigns in Syria, they are acting in far from a coordinated manner. Tensions are already rising after Turkey downed a Russian military jet late last month, despite repeated warnings that the jet was infringing Russian airspace. Imagine how tense the situation could become if a Russian jet attacks an American one in the increasingly crowded Syrian skies. None of the actors, including Russia or the United States, has any clear strategic plan for an endgame in Syria. Russia still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Assad rules a united postwar Syria, and the United States still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Sunni and Shiite factions can work together to govern Syria — or even Iraq, for that matter.

The descent of the world’s major powers upon Syria was accelerating even before jihadist terrorists left 130 innocent civilians dead in Paris, and the manner in which Syria has now become a proxy war for so many other regional and global actors is starting to resemble the domino trail of alliances and diplomatic errors that began World War I.  It’s irresponsible to argue that the world is plunging into World War III, but the escalations in Syria reflects the same kind of destructive slippery slope that began with the assassination of the heir of a fading empire by a nationalist in what was then a provincial backwater. Continue reading ‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons

Who is Hilary Benn?

Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn passionately supported UK airstrikes against Syria, putting him at odds with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn passionately supported UK airstrikes against Syria, putting him at odds with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Hilary Benn is not his father’s MP.United Kingdom Flag Icon

Standing before the House of Commons Wednesday night, eliciting applause from both the governing Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party, Benn made the clearest case for the United Kingdom to join US and French airstrikes in Syria.

Slack-jawed commentators lined up to call Benn’s speech one of the best in the Commons in recent memory and, given the rarity of applause (let alone bipartisan applause) in the House, there’s a great case that they are right. The Telegraph‘s Dan Hodges argued that Benn looked not just like a future opposition leader, but a future prime minister (and you don’t hear those words thrown around these days about anyone in Labour):

Tonight [Benn] articulately, and passionately and elegantly re-crafted his ploughshares into swords. The diplomatic case. The military case. The strategic case. Calmly and forensically he made the argument the Prime Minister could not make and the Leader of the Opposition could not destroy.

Ironically, Benn is the son of the late Tony Benn, the former secretary of state for energy under prime minister James Callaghan, and a one-time deputy leadership candidate in 1981. Long a member of Labour’s hard left, the adjective ‘Bennite’ for decades described the party’s supposedly unelectable left-wing fringe, mentoring socialists like Jeremy Corbyn, who recently upset Labour’s moderates to win the Labour leadership in September, and John McDonnell, who now serves as shadow chancellor. Even after standing down from Parliament in 2001, Tony Benn was an outspoken critic of the British participation in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, serving in the mid-2000s as the leader of the ‘Stop the War’ coalition that Corbyn would later head. Continue reading Who is Hilary Benn?

Why Beirut matters too

The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and the Saint George Maronite Cathedral stand side by side in Martyr's Square in downtown Beirut. (Kevin Lees)
The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and the Saint George Maronite Cathedral stand side by side in Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut. (Kevin Lees)

I’ve seen plenty of commentary online since Friday night criticizing the American and European media (and their audiences) for ignoring Thursday’s terrorist attacks in Beirut while focusing their attention solely on Friday’s deadlier Paris attacks.Lebanon

But, as I write tomorrow for The National Interest, as the world mourns the victims of both attacks, there’s a risk that the lessons of the Beirut blasts (by far the worst since the beginning of the civil war in neighboring Syria) will go unheeded.

Just as the Paris attacks are changing the nature of the Western response to ISIS/Daesh, so should the Beirut attacks change the nature of Western engagement with Lebanon.

Recognizing the humanity of the victims in Lebanon is really just the first step, because the real courage among policymakers is to adjust to the post-attack Beirut with more support politically, economically and morally.

Do read the whole thing here.

I argue first that U.S. and European policymakers should care about Lebanon and its stability:  Continue reading Why Beirut matters too

A primer on Raqqa, Islamic State’s so-called ‘capital’

raqqa

Now that the Islamic State/Daesh has taken credit for three major attacks — the downing of a Russian flight over the Sinai peninsula, a double suicide bombing in southern Beirut and the concerted Friday night onslaught in Paris — there’s a growing consensus that the international community is doubling down on concerted efforts to confront the radical Sunni jihadists at their core in Syria.Syria Flag Icon

That began on Sunday afternoon, when French forces hit Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria that IS/Daesh has claimed as its de facto capital, with more than 20 airstrikes. In the aftermath of Friday night’s coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, French president François Hollande declared that the attacks amounted to an ‘act of war,’ pledging to lead a response that ‘will be pitiless,’ and the French military reaction came even while police still search for one of the alleged perpetrators of Friday’s attacks.

Well before Paris, US officials have been increasingly focused on Raqqa

As the world’s attention now turns from Paris and Beirut to Raqqa, those terrorist attacks seem likely to accelerate what’s been a gradual effort to place pressure on ISIS in Raqqa. US airstrikes last Thursday killed militant Mohammed Emwazi, popularly known as ‘Jihadi John’ in the US media. A Kuwait native who grew up in London before traveling to Syria to fight for IS/Daesh, he appeared in several videotaped beheadings of westerners, proclaiming jihadist slogans in perfect English as he and his allies murdered their victims.

In early July, a series of 16 US airstrikes also targeted Raqqa, with the goal of destroying ISIS strongholds and disrupting transit routes — an attack that killed at least six civilians. News reports suggest that the United States and its allies are gradually preparing a campaign to liberate Raqqa in tandem with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a new coalition of Kurdish, Arab and other Syrian minorities in the country’s northeast, though its strength may be more aspirational than anything else.Formed just last month, it Forces are still a somewhat nebulous group, anchored by the YPG (the Kurdish acronym for the People’s Protection Units, the Kurdish armed peshmerga fighting IS/Daesh), but which also includes Sunni Arabs and, most incredulously, some longtime pro-Assad forces.

US special forces that entered Syria in the last month, in particular, are thought to be spearheading the Raqqa effort. As Vox‘s Zach Beauchamp wrote earlier in October, a successful US-led siege on Raqqa would be difficult but would also call into doubt the Islamic State’s ability to hold, control and govern territory in Syria (or Iraq, for that matter).

Raqqa, in Syria's northeast, is the de facto capital of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate. (BBC)
Raqqa, in Syria’s northeast, is the de facto capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate. (BBC)

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, there have already been calls in the US media to ‘erase’ Raqqa:

Alain Bauer, a leading French criminologist and adviser to officials in Paris, New York, and elsewhere about counter-terror strategies, is among those who believes that ISIS is lashing out precisely because it is under pressure on the ground….

“If we really want to do something, we need to erase Raqqa,” [criminologist Alain] Bauer told The Daily Beast. What keeps this from happening? In Bauer’s opinion, the United States. “Every bombing is a nightmare to negotiate,” he said. “Here’s a target. ‘Oops, there’s a garden there. Oops, there’s a family there. Oops, you cannot destroy this, you cannot destroy that.’”

But ISIS is embedded among the civilian population. Bauer thinks there’s an important distinction. “They are representing the civilian population,” he says, at least those who have remained and sometimes profited from the group’s presence. “They are not enslaving them. And a war is a war.”

But the facts suggest otherwise, and the limited reporting from Raqqa over the past year indicates an urban population terrorized by the Islamic State’s fundamentalist grip. Gruesome public executions are now a routine occurrence, foreign-born militants from Africa and Europe alike (often unable to speak Arabic) mix awkwardly with the local population and jihadists routinely police their moral vision, for example, forcing women to wear niqabs. Though Islamic State certainly has its supporters among the Sunni population, many of Raqqa’s civilians are, like the victims of the Beirut and Paris bombings, victims of Daesh-led terrorism.

How once-secure Raqqa became so notorious

A Vanity Fair report from last October describes a shellshocked city where bakeries no longer produce enough bread, religious police forbid smoking tobacco,photos of models and even swearing, while young children are forced to trawl through garbage in search of valuables that they can sell for money.  Continue reading A primer on Raqqa, Islamic State’s so-called ‘capital’

Chalabi’s legacy, for good and for bad, is a post-Saddam Iraq

Former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld relied in significant part of Ahmed Chalabi and the INC in the prelude to the 2003 Iraq invasion. (Rabih Moghrabi / AFP)
Former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld relied in significant part of Ahmed Chalabi and the INC in the prelude to the 2003 Iraq invasion. (Rabih Moghrabi / AFP)

Ahmed Chalabi, known to most Americans as the Iraqi exile who shepherded faulty intelligence to the Bush administration that became the basis for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, died today at age 71 of a heart attack.iraq flag icon

Chalabi died in his home in Baghdad.

Though Iraq today is as clear a candidate for failed state as anywhere in the world, that obituaries will dutifully report that fact — Chalabi died at home in Baghdad — is perhaps the most salient element of Chalabi’s checkered legacy. No single Iraqi national was more responsible for bringing together the elements that would topple Saddam Hussein’s brutal Baathist regime in Iraq.

It’s true, of course, that Chalabi was a corrupt and shadowy figure, and you could have suspected that from the 1980s onward when he fled Jordan amid charges of bank fraud and embezzlement from the Petra Bank that Chalabi founded and ran throughout the decade.

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RELATED: Don’t blame Obama for Iraq’s turmoil. Blame Maliki.

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It’s also true that Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC, المؤتمر الوطني العراقي) never had any true grassroots following in Iraq during the Saddam era. When Chalabi finally returned to Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion, he quickly found that Iraq’s Shiites turned to figures who hadn’t fled into exile for decades — religious authorities like Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr in the 2000s and Ammar al-Hakim in the 2010s, all of whom had far more credibility with everyday Iraqis.

It’s equally true that Chalabi was one of the most vocal advocates for the ‘de-Baathification’ process that disbanded Iraq’s national military and excluded many Sunni figures (not all of whom were necessarily sympathetic to Saddam) from Iraq’s new government. That decision is now viewed as perhaps the most destabilizing thing that Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority would do in Iraq. Chalabi, who hoped to narrow the political competition in post-Saddam Iraq, helped create the sense of alienation among Iraqi’s Sunnis that would, in turn, lead to the sectarian conflict and civil war of 2006 and 2007. In an interview last year with Al Monitor, even Chalabi agreed that his vision for a democratic Iraq hadn’t materialized, though he mostly blamed the United States for that:

Iraq is now in a very difficult situation. This is not what we had hoped for when we worked to liberate the country from the regime of [former President] Saddam Hussein. However, what happened was not a surprise.

What happened could have been avoided. The fundamental problem lies in the fact that the United States was working in contrast to what we were working on, and what we had planned. The United States went in the direction of announcing an occupation, while our goal (in the Iraqi opposition), according to an agreement before the start of military operations in 2003, was to form a sovereign national Iraqi government that was recognized by a decision from countries in the [UN] Security Council. [This government would] be committed to holding free elections, so that it could subsequently ratify a constitution.

And yes, it’s true that as Washington became increasingly disenchanted with Chalabi, he turned to Iran as his patron. US policymakers pinned their hopes on other Shiite leaders, like Ayad Allawi, a London-based exile who founded the Iraqi National Accord in 1990, and eventually Nouri al-Maliki, the leader of the Islamic Dawa Party (حزب الدعوة الإسلامية‎). Allawi proved to have as little grassroots support as Chalabi, and he lasted less than a year as prime minister. Maliki proved to be a far more skilled politician than Allawi, but his initial success as a unifying nationalist in the 2009 elections gave way to an increasingly sectarian administration that excluded prominent Sunnis from the vice-presidency and key ministries and that became increasingly alienated from US officials. Disappointment with Iraq’s squabbling politicians was so bad that, after the 2013 elections, Chalabi incredulously became a candidate for prime minister in 2014 before Islamic Dawa and its allies eventually coalesced around Haider al-Abadi. To the end, Chalabi scrambled to win over allies from any community, religious or secular, Kurdish or Arab, Sunni or Shiite, in his plan to ride to Iraq’s rescue as the man with a plan to crush the jihadist ISIS/Daesh/Islamic State.  Continue reading Chalabi’s legacy, for good and for bad, is a post-Saddam Iraq

Turkey’s election result the best possible outcome

Prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is now set to lead a majority government in Turkey. (Facebook).
Prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is now set to lead a majority government in Turkey. (Facebook).

Though there’s plenty to be pessimistic about in the five months since Turkey’s last parliamentary election in June, the result in today’s repeat snap elections is perhaps the best possible outcome for the various domestic and international actors with a state in Turkey’s continued stability.Turkey

The Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party), the conservative Islamist party that has dominated Turkish politics since 2002, scored the most crushing victory in its history — more than when it initially came to power and more than its prior peak in the 2011 elections. That’s despite a turbulent election campaign marred by an early October suicide blast in the capital city of Ankara, the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the modern Turkish republic.

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With 99.00% of all votes counted.

Though the AKP will not win the two-thirds majority that it hoped for to enact the constitutional changes that president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to rebalance powers away from the national assembly and to the presidency, the result gives the AKP a clear mandate to govern without seeking a coalition partner. The AKP’s path to a majority victory wasn’t pretty, and there’s a compelling case that Erdoğan has seriously damaged his legacy and, he further undermined the rule of law, fair elections, internal security and press freedom over the past five months. But the victory means that Turkey will not face a third election in the spring and all the destabilization that another months-long campaign period would mean.

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RELATED: Ankara bombing curdles already-fraught
Turkish election campaign

RELATED: How the AKP hopes to regain
its absolute majority in November

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Most surprisingly, the AKP managed its overwhelming victory while the leftist, Kurdish-interest Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP, People’s Democratic Party) still won enough support to win seats in the national assembly. That feels like something of a miracle, given the increasingly tense atmosphere across southeastern Turkey, where polling took place under conditions of near civil war between Turkish military forces and the radical guerrilla group, the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party).

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While HDP leader attorney Selahattin Demirtaş has called for a peaceful approach to the fight for greater Kurdish autonomy, AKP officials, including Erdoğan and prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have tried to tie the party to the more militant PKK as a years-long ceasefire, the product of advanced peace talks between the Turkish government and PKK leaders, unravelled in July in the wake of a suicide bombing in Suruç (and attributed to the jihadist ISIS/Islamic State/Daesh). Turkey’s hurdle rate for winning seats in the national parliament is 10%. That means, with around 10.6% of the vote, the HDP is entitled to 59 seats, but with just 9.99%, the HDP would have won exactly zero seats. The latter outcome, just five months after the HDP celebrated the first time an expressly Kurdish party won seats in the Turkish assembly, would have greatly undermined Demirtaş’s argument that Turkish Kurds can work through the democratic system for greater autonomy, self-government and other minority rights.

It’s certainly not the outcome Erdoğan would have been hoping for because, had the AKP taken those 59 seats, it would have the elusive two-thirds majority Erdoğan has sought since winning the Turkish presidency last August. In the long run, however, even if Erdoğan dislikes it, it’s much better that the Kurdish minority feels like it can benefit through democratic participation.  Continue reading Turkey’s election result the best possible outcome

A deadlocked assembly could mean a third election in Turkey

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Since the initial June parliamentary elections in Turkey, the country has weathered more instability than at any other period since the Islamist Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) came to power.Turkey

On the eve of fresh elections this weekend, consider all that’s happened since the June elections when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority:

  • Coalition talks failed between prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the two secular opposition parties that were most likely to support an AKP-led government.
  • Since 2011, the value of the lira has fallen by 50% against the U.S. dollar and Turkey’s once galloping economic development is slowing — to just a projected 3.2% in 2015.
  • A suicide bombing on July 20 in the southern city of Suruç killed 33 people. In response, Kurdish forces attacked Turkish police after Turkish officials downplayed the need to secure areas of southeastern Turkey that are most heavily populated by the Kurdish minority.
  • Turkish forces responded to the Suruç attack by joining the military effort against ISIS/Islamic State/Daesh, the Sunni radical group that has extended its ‘caliphate’ across eastern Syria and western Iraq.
  • Turkish forces also used the Suruç attack to wage a much more aggressive attack against the militant  Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party), escalating a conflict that had previously been working its way toward a peaceful settlement between Turkey’s government and the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan.
  • Another suicide bombing on October 10 in the Turkish capital of Ankara at a peace rally became the deadliest terrorist attack in modern Turkish history, further polarizing Turkish voters who alternative pointed fingers at ISIS, the government and the PKK.
  • Critical media voices have been harassed or prosecuted by a government whose record on press freedom was already deteriorating.

In the June elections, the AKP won just 256 seats in the Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi (Grand National Assembly), 20 short of a majority. It was the first time since the AKP first came to power in the 2002 elections that it failed to win a majority, scuttling Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s to consolidate power in the Turkish presidency after won Turkey’s first-ever direct election to the mostly ceremonial office last summer.

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The AKP fell so low because, for the first time in Turkish history, a pro-Kurdish party, the leftist Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP, People’s Democratic Party), ran for election on a unified list and won enough support to meet the 10% electoral hurdle for winning seats in the National Assembly. With the HDP taking 80 seats, it made it that much more difficult for the AKP to reach an absolute majority.  Continue reading A deadlocked assembly could mean a third election in Turkey

Nine things to watch as Canada’s next Trudeau era begins

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Defying expectations in August that pitted the Liberal Party in third place at the beginning of the election campaign in August, Justin Trudeau has now won a clear majority government and a mandate for change in Canada’s 42nd federal election.Canada Flag Icon

So what does that mean for Canada, for US-Canadian relations and for Canada’s role in the world in the weeks and months ahead?

Here are nine policy areas to keep an eye on as Trudeau begins the rapid transition to 24 Sussex Drive, appoints a cabinet and tackles a full agenda of issues that could dominate what will likely be a full four-year term with the kind of parliamentary mandate that should make it much more easier than Trudeau ever expected to enact his policy preferences.

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Climate change. As the Paris summit on climate change approaches in November, Canada’s government will go from being one of the most skeptical participants at the conference to one of the most enthusiastic supporters of action to reduce carbon emissions. Keep an eye on Stéphane Dion, the former Liberal leader from 2006 and 2008 and a former environmental minister, to play a vocal and supportive role. Nevertheless, global climate change policy is mostly set by the G-2 — i.e., the United States and China. So Trudeau’s role at the summit, while productive, will be more about style than any actual substance. Joyce Murray, a popular left-wing MP and British Columbia’s former environmental minister, who was the runner-up to Trudeau in the 2013 Liberal contest, is also a rising star to watch on environmental matters.

Economic policy. At the start of the campaign, the traditionally more centrist Liberals advanced a tax policy to the left of the New Democratic Party (NDP) by promising a middle-class tax cut to be paid for by slightly higher taxes on those who earn roughly more $200,000 annually. During the campaign, as Canada officially slipped into a shallow recession, Trudeau doubled-down by pledging to engage in deficit spending over the next three years to stabilize Canada’s economy, protect jobs and boost infrastructure. It was this move, again outflanking the NDP (whose leader Thomas Mulcair promised to maintain the Conservative Party’s devotion to balanced budgets), that may have convinced voters that Trudeau, and not Mulcair, represented the most striking contrast with Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

Ralph Goodale, a former finance minister under Paul Martin; Bill Morneau, a 52-year-old newcomer first elected last night from the Toronto’s business world and Scott Brison, a former Progressive Conservative MP who defected to the Liberals over a decade ago, could all be leading contenders for finance minister. Continue reading Nine things to watch as Canada’s next Trudeau era begins

Ankara bombing curdles already-fraught Turkish election campaign

Two explosions blasted Ankara on Saturday, resulting in over 100 deaths in the worst terrorist incident in modern Turkish history. (AFP/Getty)
Two explosions blasted Ankara on Saturday, resulting in over 100 deaths in the worst terrorist incident in modern Turkish history. (AFP/Getty)

Arguably no one can claim that he or she speaks more for the Turkish conscience than Orhan Pamuk, the only Turk to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
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In unusually strong terms, Pamuk told the Italian daily La Repubblica yesterday that the divisive policies of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are partially to blame for creating an environment of instability and chaos that served as the backdrop to Saturday’s deadly bombing in Ankara:

“The electoral defeat enraged Erdogan,” Pamuk told the daily, arguing that the setback, which resulted in new elections being scheduled for November 1, was also behind the recent resumption of hostilities between the army and Kurdish militants.

“He didn’t succeed in convincing the Kurds to give him their votes for his plan to create a presidential republic,” Pamuk said. “That is why he decided to go to the polls again on November 1. But neither the government nor the army were satisfied with how things were going and they agreed to resume the war against the Kurdish movement.”

The country now finds itself even more divided in the wake of a terrorist bombing that has now killed more than 100 people, the deadliest such attack in the history of the modern Turkish republic.

The Ankara attack and its political fallout are now set to dominate the last 19 days of the election campaign, and it augurs the possibility of ominous threat to Turkish democracy.

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RELATED: How the AKP hopes to regain
its absolute majority in November

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Erdoğan, elected president two years ago and whose Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) rose to power initially in 2002, has not yet delivered more than a short statement in response to the bombing. Prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s remarks Saturday initially blamed ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State, Kurdish  nationalists or left-wing activists for the attack, though the government says it now believes, on the basis of hard evidence, that the Islamic State is behind the bombings. The attack is similar to a suicide bombing in the southern border town of Suruç that killed 33 people in July — and that set Turkish armed forces in action against Islamic State. Nevertheless, ISIS militants, who are never incredibly bashful about such attacks, have not taken credit for the bombings.

Selahattin Demirtaş, a Kurdish human rights attorney who leads the Kurdish-interest HDP, blamed the government for stoking tensions that led to the Ankara bombings. (Facebook)
Selahattin Demirtaş, a Kurdish human rights attorney who leads the Kurdish-interest HDP, blamed the government for stoking tensions that led to the Ankara bombings. (Facebook)

The Suruç attack also brought angry reprisals from Kurdish militants against Turkish police and military personnel. Erdoğan responded by escalating tensions, thereby bringing to an end a years-long ceasefire with the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party), an armed Marxist group that has intermittently fought the Turkish military since the 1980s. Until this summer, greater cultural autonomy and political freedom for Turkey’s Kurdish population, and a growing sense of security and peace under the mutual ceasefire, had been one of Erdoğan’s most crucial legacies.

No longer. Continue reading Ankara bombing curdles already-fraught Turkish election campaign