Tag Archives: saudi arabia

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

Oman may (or may not) have a looming succession crisis

Despite health problems in recent years, Oman's sultan, Qaboos bin Said al Said, has not publicized his succession plan, if any even exists. (ONA)
Despite health problems in recent years, Oman’s sultan, Qaboos bin Said al Said, has not publicized his succession plan, if any even exists. (ONA)

I write for The National Interest today about another potential political headache for the Middle East on the horizion — the apparent lack of successor to the widely beloved sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al Said.oman

It’s safe to say that in his 46-year reign, which began when he ousted his own father from power in 1970, Qaboos has political and economically forged the modern state of Oman. In so doing, he has become a crucial figure in defusing regional crises:

Omani diplomats, equally at ease in Washington and Tehran, were crucial to bringing together U.S. and Iranian negotiators as early as 2009, paving the way for the early first steps of the landmark nuclear energy deal between Iran’s Islamic Republic and the ‘P5+1’ governments inked earlier last year. Presumably with Iran’s encouragement, Oman also last year hosted peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels who now control much of Yemen.

Omanis chiefly practice Ibadism, mostly distinct to Oman, Zanzibar and eastern Africa, that predates and is distinct from both Sunni and Shia Islam. In practice, Ibadis are relatively moderate Muslims, and Ibadism’s distance from both Sunni and Shiite has helped make Oman an important peacekeeper in the Muslim world. Oman is a close ally of Iran, but it was also a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981, even while it has aided American anti-terrorism efforts in the region. In January, for instance, the United States transferred 10 Guantanamo detainees to Oman. It has no real military might, nor does it project economic strength (its $58.5 billion economy is dwarfed today even by Syria’s), but its ability to project soft power in the region is off the charts. Moreover, with Iran, it guarantees safe passage of Middle Eastern oil through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passage linking the Persian Gulf to the wider Arabian Sea.

The problem is that the 75-year-old Qaboos, has no brothers, no wife, no sons and, by all accounts, hasn’t particularly groomed anyone as his successor, even as he spent much of 2014 and 2015 fending off a health scare that most observers believed to be colon cancer. Continue reading Oman may (or may not) have a looming succession crisis

Why global oil prices seem likely to remain low throughout 2016

iran-oil
Iran is looking forward to ‘implementation day,’ when its nuclear energy deal takes effect and global sanctions are relaxed, allowing it to export oil more easily. (Reuters)

In 2015, we saw how falling oil prices affected world politics from Alberta to Nigeria. Net exporters like Venezuela, Russia and the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries are feeling the drop in revenues, and that could accelerate political agitation as oil prices force budget cuts. USflagIran Flag Icon

As Brad Plumer wrote yesterday for Vox, explaining the fall in oil prices is simple. Supply has outstripped demand, and while global demand is still growing, it’s growing at about half the rate that it was even in mid-2015.

* * * * *

RELATED: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016

RELATED: Could Norway benefit from the oil price decline?

* * * * *

The difference between $30 oil (about the current price level), $20 oil or $50 oil could make or break incumbents seeking reelection — lower oil prices mean fewer goodies at election time.

In 2016, that means oil prices could affect Scotland’s May regional elections by dampening the economic case for Scottish independence and, therefore, the electoral support for the Scottish National Party. It means that Russia’s September legislative elections could engender the same kind of political protests (or worse) that met the last elections in 2011. Lower oil prices are already endangering Ghanian president John Dramani Mahama’s hopes for reelection in December, given how much Mahama has staked on Ghana’s oil potential. It could even push Venezuela’s opposition, newly empowered as the majority in the National Assembly, to seek chavista president Nicolás Maduro’s recall even more quickly.

More generally, it could make life difficult for Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari. Not only will lower oil revenues hurt his capacity to deploy resources across Africa’s most populous country, but Buhari must find a way to deliver to Nigeria’s impoverished Muslim north, where Boko Haram continues to pose a security challenge, and Nigeria’s southeastern Igbo population, including Rivers state and Delta state, where much of Nigeria’s oil reserves are located. The southeastern challenge is particularly precarious, in light of the fact that Buhari defeated Goodluck Jonathan, the first president to come from Nigeria’s oil-rich southeast. A wrong step by Buhari could catalyze long-simmering demands for greater political autonomy or even secession.

On the demand side, the European Union (as a whole) imports more oil than any other country in the world — by a longshot. Lower prices could bring about the kind of truly robust economic growth that has eluded the eurozone for decades. That, in turn, could ameliorate the pressures of democratic backslide among the central European Visegrad Group, and it could goose economic activity in Mediterranean countries like Portugal, Spain and Greece, where no single political party has enough support for a majority government. That, in turn, could reduce support for radical leftist parties and bolster more moderate coalitions. It could, marginally, benefit incumbent governments in Ireland, Romania and elsewhere in 2016 and France in 2017. (The same effect, by the way, relieves a lot of pressure on faltering ‘Abenomics’ policy in Japan, too).

In his final state of the union address last night, even US president Barack Obama bragged about lower oil prices. If prices stay consistently low throughout 2016, it could marginally help Obama’s Democratic Party win the November general election.

Autocratic countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Angola, Algeria and Kazakhstan, could face popular protests.

So where are oil prices going? No one knows, but here’s what you have to believe if you think oil prices are going to rise substantially anytime in 2016: Continue reading Why global oil prices seem likely to remain low throughout 2016

Why Saudi Arabia’s ‘landmark’ council elections are a joke

An Arabian woman takes part in municipal elections in Jeddah. (Getty)
An Arabian woman takes part in municipal elections in Jeddah. (Getty)

For the increasingly beleaguered Saudi royal family, it’s been a tough year.saudi_flag_icon

Headlines have highlighted misbehaving princes, struggles over Saudi succession, the wisdom of Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, a 20-year record in the number of the country’s executions (including the beheading of political critics and poets), the death of over 700 religious pilgrims during the Hajj in a stampede just outside Mecca and shifting US alliances in the region.

In perhaps the cruelest indignity of them all, businessman and Republican presidential contender Donald Trump slammed as ‘dopey’ Al-Waleed Bin Talal, an influential Saudi prince who runs many of the kingdom’s business and investment interests, last week on Twitter.

But for one weekend, at least, Saudi Arabia was in the news with fluffy headlines about historic municipal elections that allowed women, for the first time in Saudi history, to vote and to run for office, complete with photos (like the one above) that show a purportedly modernizing country where women are now enjoying the right to vote amid a loosening of other gender-based restrictions.

Don’t buy the hype.

Women only sparingly cast ballots in an election for only two-thirds of the members of essentially powerless municipal councils in a country that remains one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world, where an absolute monarchy, in tandem with Wahhabi clerics, have restricted the rights of women to a degree virtually unknown across the globe in the 21st century.  Continue reading Why Saudi Arabia’s ‘landmark’ council elections are a joke

One chart that explains Obama era Middle East policy

BoA ChartChart credit to Bank of America.

Within a half-century, the most important fact of the Obama administration might well be that it presided over an energy boom that de-linked, for the first time in many decades, US dependence on Middle Eastern oil and foreign policy.USflagIran Flag Icon

No other fact more explains the deal, inked with the Islamic Republic of Iran, that brings Iran ever closer into the international community — and no other fact brings together so neatly the often contradictory aspects of US president Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East today.

* * * * *

RELATED: Winners and losers in the Iran nuclear deal

* * * * *

With the exception of a small peak in the mid-1980s, when prices tanked after the oil shocks of the 1970s, US imports of foreign oil are lower than ever — and that’s a critical component to understanding Tuesday’s deal between the P5+1 and Iran. Thanks, in part, to the shale oil and fracking revolutions, US oil reserves are at their highest levels than at any point since 1975. Bank of America’s chart (pictured above) shows that US dependence on foreign oil — net imports as a percentage of consumption — dropped to 26.5% by the end of 2014.

Making sense of the Obama administration’s Mideast contradictions

One of the sharpest criticisms of the Obama administration is that it has no overweening strategy for the region. On the surface, the contradictions are legion. To take just three examples: Continue reading One chart that explains Obama era Middle East policy

Winners and losers in the Iran nuclear deal

lausanne15Photo credit to AFP / Getty Images.

Today’s announcement of a deal between Iran and the ‘P5+1’ countries, with a final June 30 deadline looming, is being met with cautious optimism today as the European Union’s chief foreign policy official Federica Mogherini, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif and US secretary of state John Kerry all make statements about the deal from Lausanne, Switzerland. USflagIran Flag Icon

The key to the deal? Iran will be permitted to enrich fuel for its civil nuclear energy program, including the use of centrifuges, though not to the level necessary to build a nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, Iran has agreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor and diligence all current and past nuclear operations to uncover the extent of any Iranian determination to build a nuclear weapons program.

It will certainly rank, if it’s finalized, as one of the top foreign policy accomplishments of US president Barack Obama.

From The New York Times:

According to European officials, roughly 5,000 centrifuges will remain spinning enriched uranium at the main nuclear site at Natanz, about half the number currently running. The giant underground enrichment site at Fordo – which Israeli and some American officials fear is impervious to bombing – will be partly converted to advanced nuclear research and the production of medical isotopes. Foreign scientist will be present. There will be no fissile material present that could be used to make a bomb.

The deal is sure to bring howls from its opponents, including many skeptics in the United States, including Congressional Republicans and many Democrats as well, and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said that any deal must preclude Iran from any enrichment. But as negotiators from the P5 + 1 — the five members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany — and Iran work through the details of the deal in the next three months, it seems more likely than not that the deal will be finalized, opening the way to lifting international sanctions against Iran imposed by the United Nations (if not exactly all the sanctions currently in place by the United States).

So who ‘wins’ and ‘loses’ in this deal? Here’s a look, starting with the winners:  Continue reading Winners and losers in the Iran nuclear deal

2022 World Cup scrutiny poses major test for Sheikh Tamim

SheikhTamim

Even as a global audience cheers on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, things are looking increasingly dicey for Qatar, which is struggling to hold onto its successful bid four years ago to host the 2022 World Cup.qatar

Amid complaints about everything from soaring Gulf temperatures to its LGBT laws to the abuses of Qatar’s kafala system, the resource-wealthy emirate now faces losing the 2022 World Cup altogether following allegations that Qatari businessmen bribed members of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

Needless to say, it’s not been an incredibly smooth first year for Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who assumed power as the eighth emir of Qatar when his father, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, abdicated in June 2013 at the age of 61. Though the British-educated Tamim had been the Qatari heir apparent for a decade, at age 34, he is the world’s youngest monarch. Though Shiekh Hamad and other members of the Al Thani family (most notably Tamim’s mother, Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned) continue to wield significant influence, Sheikh Tamim’s rise to power reflects a more seamless transition for Qatar. Sheikh Hamad kicked his own father, Khalifa, out of power in a bloodless coup in 1995.

Though he wasn’t Qatar’s emir at the time, the controversy surrounding the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar has become a major leadership test for Sheikh Tamim (pictured above), who led the Qatari committee that made the bid for the 2022 World Cup. Arguably, Tamim’s most important role before assuming the emirship last year was his influence in building Qatar’s growing sponsorship of regional and global sports events. 

Facing a humiliating retreat with respect to Qatar’s regional political agenda, and facing enhanced global scrutiny on all fronts due to the World Cup bid, losing the 2022 tournament would be a massive setback for Qatar’s two-decade push to become an influential regional and global actor.    Continue reading 2022 World Cup scrutiny poses major test for Sheikh Tamim

Suleiman is gone, and Lebanon still has no president

suleiman

Lebanon’s president Michel Suleiman left office on May 25, but even as the country struggles to contain the chaos — political, humanitarian and otherwise — that’s spilled over from Syria’s four-year civil war. Lebanon

Earlier today, Nabih Berri, the speaker of Lebanon’s national assembly (مجلس النواب), scheduled the seventh vote since April 23, to elect Suleiman’s successor.

Like the last six ballots, there wasn’t even be a quorum for the vote. Berri has scheduled the eighth attempt for July 2.

* * * * *

RELATED: Lebanon’s parliament considers
presidential choice tomorrow


RELATED
: In first ballot, Lebanon’s parliament fails
to elect new president

* * * * *

Given that it took ten months for prime minister Tammam Salam to form a new government in February, and that Salam’s unity government came together almost solely for the rationale of getting Lebanon through the presidential election and through a new electoral law and fresh parliamentary elections, there’s no telling how long the standoff could last — perhaps months or even well into 2015.

After former president Émile Lahoud left office in November 2007, it took another six month — until May 25, 2008 — to elect his successor, Suleiman (pictured above).

Though the Lebanese presidency is largely ceremonial, it’s a vital component of the fragile balancing of confessional interests in a country with 18 officially recognized ‘confessions’ — or religious groups. Lebanon’s president must be a Maronite Christian, while its prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly) must be a Shiite Muslim. Of the 128 members of the National Assembly, 64 must be Muslim and 64 must be Christian.

In the meanwhile, Christian parties have said that they will boycott the national assembly’s sessions until a new president is chosen, arguing that the priority for Lebanon should be electing a new president, not routine legislation. That, in turn, makes it less likely that the Salam government can accomplish much of anything until Lebanon has a new president — and there’s no assurance that a new president will be in place in time for parliamentary elections scheduled (for now) to take place in November.

The problem is that Lebanon isn’t Belgium — on balance, it’s not great news for Lebanese governance that it has a caretaker government, with no hope of electing a president and no hope of holding parliamentary elections, which last took place in April 2009. That’s true in ‘normal’ times, but it’s especially true as Lebanon’s government works to hold off further violent spillover from the Syrian civil war, which has ignited sectarian tension in Beirut, Tripoli and elsewhere in Lebanon. The government is also struggling to accommodate over one million Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon — that’s a staggering amount for a country that only had around 4.5 million people to begin with.

So why can’t Lebanon elect a new president?

Continue reading Suleiman is gone, and Lebanon still has no president

Don’t blame Obama for Iraq turmoil — blame Maliki

whenISISattacks

A week ago, the biggest story in Iraq was the prospect of seemingly endless post-election coalition talks among Iraq’s secular political elite, negotiations that seemed destined to restore Nouri al-Maliki to the premiership for a third consecutive term.iraq flag icon

But the sweeping offensive last week by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi al-’Irāq wa-sh-Shām‎), which burst out of Iraq’s western al-Anbar province, has now overshadowed Iraq’s April elections, bringing into serious existential question the concept of Iraqi nationhood altogether. ISIS previously took control of Fallujah and Ramadi in January, where it joined forced with Sunni tribal leaders and others angry with Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian rule. But with a force of just 700 insurgents, ISIS easily took Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, last week. It followed up by taking Tikrit, another Sunni-majority northern city and the hometown of former president Saddam Hussein. ISIS also briefly took control of oil refining center of Baiji, though government forces have now wrested control back. That leaves much of western and, now, northwestern Iraq, in the hands of ISIS and allied Sunni militias.

Sensing an opportunity, the Kurdish peshmerga quickly moved into Kirkuk, another oil-rich town historically claimed by Iraqi Kurdistan as its capital but controversially left outside of the formal borders of the Kurdish autonomous region in post-Saddam Iraq. Though it’s an embarrassment for the Maliki government to have ‘lost’ Kirkuk to the Kurds, it’s the least of his worries. Kirkuk is probably much better off under Kurdish control than under what ISIS hopes will become a jihadist caliphate that extends from northern and western Iraq through eastern Syria. It’s difficult to believe that the central Iraqi government will have enough power anytime soon to force the Kurds to relinquish Kirkuk (or its rich oil reserves).

The end result is something of an asymmetrical tripartite Iraq.  Continue reading Don’t blame Obama for Iraq turmoil — blame Maliki

Was the Syrian election more successful than Egypt’s?

assad

A month ago, I scoffed at the idea of holding a presidential election in Syria at a time of civil war, with a pre-determined outcome, while millions of Syrians are living outside the country as refugees, and when fighting is still raging throughout much of Syria.Syria Flag Icon

But a quick look at the turnout indicates that it may have been hasty to discount the election as an exercise in futility — especially coming so soon after a flawed Egyptian presidential election where apathy reigned.

* * * * *

RELATED: Why is Syria holding a presidential election in the middle of a civil war?

* * * * *

There’s no doubt that the Syrian vote fails by any standard of a free and fair election — by American terms, by European terms, by Indian terms, by Indonesian terms. There was no question that Bashar al-Assad (pictured above), who has been Syria’s president since 2000, would win the vote, just like his father, Hafez al-Assad, remained in power since 1971, typically with somewhat predictable support:

syriaelections

Still, it’s incredible that Syria, where parts of the country still remain under rebel control, the race officially commanded turnout of 73.42%. If those numbers are to be trusted, and that’s a huge question, it means that Syrian turnout, at a time of war, was around 25% higher than turnout in Egypt’s presidential election last week. Stunningly, there are reports of thousands of Syrian refugees living across the border in Lebanon streaming back into Syria earlier this week to take part in the elections. Now, there are also reports that Syrian workers have been essentially forced en masse onto buses to vote:

“Of course I’m voting for Assad. First of all, I can’t not go vote because at work we’re all taken by bus to the polling booth. Second, I don’t know these other candidates. And also, I live here and have no options to leave – I don’t know what would happen if I don’t vote for Assad,” said a teacher in Damascus, contacted on Skype.

But if the point of the election was a show of strength and mobilization among Syrians living within territory that Assad currently controls, the Syrian regime can credibly claim some kind of victory, if not necessarily a democratic mandate.

Whatever the truth, it’s more than the ‘great big zero’ that US secretary of state John Kerry declared it yesterday in a hasty  trip to Lebanon, which is still stuck in the middle of a presidential crisis that began last month and that has continued since former president Michel Suleiman left office on May 25.   Continue reading Was the Syrian election more successful than Egypt’s?

Ten reasons why the Iran sanctions Senate bill is policy malpractice

Iran nuclear talks: Kerry and Zarif meet at the UN

Iran is quickly moving to the front of the ever-shifting foreign policy agenda in Washington at the end of this week, with 59 members of the US Senate, including 15 Democratic senators and the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, supporting the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013.Iran Flag IconUSflag

The bill would impose additional sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran in the event that the current round of talks fail between Iran and the ‘P5+1,’ the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia), plus Germany.  US president Barack Obama met with the entire Democratic caucus in the US Senate Wednesday night to implore his party’s senators not to support the bill.  Senate majority leader Harry Reid opposes the bill, and he hasn’t scheduled a vote for the new Iran sanctions — and even some of its supporters may be backing off as the temporary six-month deal proceeds.

But with 59 co-sponsors, the bill is just one vote shy of passing the Senate, and it would almost certainly pass in the US House of Representatives, where the Republican Party holds a majority.  In the event that the Congress passes a bill, Obama could veto it, but the Senate is already precariously close to the two-thirds majority it would need to override Obama’s veto.

The Obama administration argues that the bill is nothing short of warmongering, while the bill’s supporters argue that the sanctions will reinforce the Obama administration’s hand in negotiations.  Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister (pictured above with US secretary of state John Kerry), has warned that the bill would destroy any chances of reaching a permanent deal, and it’s hard to blame him.  Under the current deal, reached in November, the P5+1 agreed to lift up to $8 billion in economic sanctions in exchange for Iran’s decision to freeze its nuclear program for six months while the parties work through a longer-term deal.  The deal further provides that Iran will dilute its 20% enriched uranium down to just 5% enriched uranium, and the P5+1 have agreed to release a portion of Iran’s frozen assets abroad and partially unblock Iran’s oil exports.

So what should you make of the decision of 59 US senators to hold up a negotiation process that not only the Obama administration supports, but counts the support of its British, German and French allies?

Not much.

And here are ten reasons why the bill represents nothing short of policy malpractice.   Continue reading Ten reasons why the Iran sanctions Senate bill is policy malpractice

What is happening in Iraq, Fallujah and al-Anbar province?

ISIS

So is it 2004 or 2014?  Iraq is once again making headlines, and second-guessing over both George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s performance with respect to the US occupation of Iraq is in the news with the publication of former defense secretary Robert Gates. iraq flag icon

What do you need to know about Iraq these days?  Here’s a list of the top 10 question you probably have about the current turn of events there — and probably more than you wanted to know about the state of governance in Iraq today.

So did terrorists take control of Iraq last weekend?

Not quite.  A group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi al-‘Irāq wa-sh-Shām‎), which formerly styled itself as Iraq’s local branch of al-Qaeda, took control last Friday of parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, the two largest cities in al-Anbar province.  There are signs, however, that ISIS may already be retreating from Fallujah, with Sunni tribesmen (particularly loyal to neither the government nor ISIS) now wresting back control of both cities.  Iraq’s Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki signaled earlier this week that he planned on launching a military offensive to retake the city using Iraqi national forces, a move that seems surely to cause even more sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis.  For those of you who’ve forgotten, al-Anbar, at over 53,000 square miles, is the largest of 19 governorates in Iraq, by far the largest province.  Its population is just 1.56 million of Iraq’s 31 million people, but it forms part of the heart of Iraq’s Sunni population — about 97% of Iraq’s population is Muslim and about one-third of them are Sunni.  Al-Anbar’s geography is even more strategically vital, because it borders much of eastern Syria, northern Saudi Arabia and the northeastern tip of Jordan.

What is ISIS? I thought that was the spy agency in the animated Archer series.

ISIS formed in 2003 as a conglomerate of diverse Sunni groups, largely as a response against the US invasion.  It fairly quickly pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and soon even became as al-Qaeda in Iraq, and it had its heyday between 2004 and 2006, when US forces killed its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  But ISIS’s modern iteration only really emerged in spring 2013, when it started making mischief in northern Syria, and the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo.  ISIS, like most hardcore Salafist groups, wants to institute sharia law throughout the Middle East, and ISIS’s leaders dream of creating a new caliphate that stretches from Arabia to central Africa.  More realistically, it’s now fighting for dominance in northern Syria and Sunni-dominated western Iraq.  Western media outlets are quick to proclaim this weekend’s turn of events as ‘al-Qaeda regains ground,’ but ISIS is really more interested in holding power in Iraq and Syria than in exploding planes into buildings in New York City.  Its current leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s wider anti-American goals, though, and that’s earned him a $10 million bounty, courtesy of the US state department.

Why is Fallujah such a big deal, anyway? 

anbarmap

Fallujah holds an important symbolic value because it was the hub of the Sunni counterinsurgency early in the US occupation of Iraq and, in 2004, it became the site of some of the heaviest fighting during the US occupation.  One story about Fallujah in National Journal this week managed to quote seven Americans (and not a single Iraqi citizen) about the costs of Fallujah’s recent tumult, and an NPR piece noted that many US veterans are crestfallen that their sacrifices a decade ago may have been for naught.  That tells you just how important Fallujah is in the narrative of the US involvement in Iraq.

After the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, US forces were actually forced by insurgents to withdraw, though in the second battle in November 2004, US troops finally took the city, but not without a year or two of further guerrilla attacks.  The two battles of Fallujah were responsible for some of the highest casualties of the Iraq War, though many more Iraqis died (some by the controversial use of white phosphorus) than US or allied troops.

The city, which lies on the banks of the Euphrates River, is just 69 kilometers away from Baghdad and, taken together with Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar governorate, comprises one of the chief Sunni-majority cities in Iraq.  Deposed president Saddam Hussein took extra special care to keep Fallujah in his good graces between 1979 and 2003.

So that means Iraq is moving back toward civil war?  Continue reading What is happening in Iraq, Fallujah and al-Anbar province?

14 potential game-changers for world politics in 2014

2014crystalball

Though I rang in the new year with a list of 14 world elections to watch in the coming year (and 14 more honorable mentions to keep an eye on), I wanted to showcase a few more thoughts about what to watch for in world politics and foreign affairs in 2014.

Accordingly, here are 14 possible game-changers — they’re not predictions per se, but neither are they as far-fetched as they might seem.  No one can say with certainty that they will come to pass in 2014.  Instead, consider these something between rote predictions (e.g., that violence in Iraq is getting worse) and outrageous fat-tail risks (e.g., the impending breakup of the United States).

There’s an old album of small pieces conducted by the late English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, a delightfully playful album entitled Lollipops that contains some of the old master’s favorite, most lively short pieces.

Think of these as Suffragio‘s 14 world politics lollipops to watch in 2014.

We start in France… Continue reading 14 potential game-changers for world politics in 2014

Will the US respect Yemeni parliament’s vote on drone attacks?

yemen graffiti drones

In a speech just four years ago, US admiral Mike Mullen, then chair of the joint chiefs of staff, outlined the US government’s approach to Yemen in an address to the US Naval War College.  By 2010, Yemen, which lies on the southwestern edge of the Arabian peninsula, had become an increasingly worrying front in US global efforts to confront Islamic terrorism:USflagyemen flag

Mullen said people ask him often if the United States is going to send troops to the nation. “The answer is we have no plans to do that, and we shouldn’t forget this is a sovereign country,” he said. “Sovereign countries get to vote on who comes in their country and who doesn’t.”

In what is the first vote of its kind, Yemen’s parliament voted on Sunday for a halt to US-initiated drone strikes that locals say killed more than a dozen civilians in a wedding party on December 11 — the attack, which took place in the central Yemeni province of al-Baydaa, is just one of many strikes in 2013, and it’s not the first one to have resulted in civilians deaths.  But the attack attracted widespread condemnation from both inside Yemen and internationally, leading to Sunday’s unanimous parliamentary vote.

In light of the ‘Mullen doctrine,’ you might expect the United States to pause its drone strikes on the country, right?

Wrong. The parliamentary vote wasn’t binding on the Yemeni government, and Yemen’s parliamentary powers pale in comparison to those of the president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, vice president between 1994 and 2012 and the hand-picked successor to Yemen’s longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Yemeni ruling party, the General People’s Congress (المؤتمر الشعبي العام‎, Al-Mo’tamar Ash-Sha’abiy Al-‘Aam), which itself controls 238 of the 301 seats in Yemen’s Majlis al-Nuwaab (House of Representatives).

Yemen, alongside Tunisia and Egypt, was among the vanguard of countries where the so-called Arab Spring peaked — though Saleh held on through mass protests in January and February 2011 against corruption and economic mismanagement, an assassination attempt in July 2011 left him severely injured and burned.  But the stage-managed transition from Saleh to Hadi has barely addressed the long-standing complaints of the Arab Spring protestors, let alone the more fundamental regional divides that have long plagued Yemen, which emerged as two quasi-independent states in 1918 out of the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

Meanwhile, the US government denies that the December 11 drone strike killed anyone but ‘militants,’ despite evidence to the contrary and a deluge of protest across the Arab world.  Even the United Nations is now calling on the United States to provide answers about the error. 

As Adam Baron, a reporter based in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a wrote last week in Foreign Policy,

The exact nature of the error is still a matter of speculation. It was hard not to wonder if the wedding convoy was mistaken for something more sinister — that someone in the bowels of the U.S. intelligence community concluded that vehicles carrying heavily armed wedding guests were actually an al Qaeda convoy. Some tribal contacts said that there were high-ranking militants near the site of the strike, and a Yemeni official briefed on security matters told me a vehicle hit in the attack had been linked to a prominent local al Qaeda leader. Either way, any “suspected militants” present were surrounded by civilian bystanders.

Nonetheless, the United States seems unlikely to swerve from its low-grade war against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  The drones will continue — and they will, in all likelihood, continue to kill innocent civilians, each of which has the potential to drive everyday Yemenis closer to AQAP and away from the United States.  Just last week, when AQAP attacked Yemen’s defense ministry, it also accidentally struck people in a hospital inside the ministry — and its leaders were fast to apologize for the error in targeting the hospital and agreed to pay ‘blood money’ to the relatives of those killed in the attack.

How did we get to the point where al-Qaeda seems more accountable than the Obama administration for civilian deaths in Yemen?

yemen

Jeremy Scahill’s tour de force about the covert and clandestine operations of both the Obama administration and the administration of George W. Bush, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, calls into question the legality of much of the basis for the notion that the executive branch can claim the entire world is essentially the ‘battlefield’ for the global war on terror.  In particular, the Obama administration’s record in Yemen alone remains troubling.

Abdulrazaq Al-Jamal, an expert specializing in Al-Qaeda affairs, summarized the Yemeni argument against the US strikes in an interview earlier this week with the Yemen Times, arguing that the US drone strikes are illegal, that they encourage  AQAP and they expose Yemen’s own government as a failure:

I think there is no difference between the raid that targeted the wedding convoy in Ra’ada and the previous raids that targeted Al-Qaeda and any Yemeni [citizens]. American [spying] and shelling, in principle, is wrong because it kills illegally and without trial. I cannot differentiate between strikes that target Al-Qaeda members and strikes that [might] target citizens because these strikes are [made outside of the legal system]. I disagree with those who differentiate between them because it is a violation of Yemeni sovereignty to kill [any Yemeni citizens, be they Al-Qaeda members or not]….

I don’t think that American drones are [stopping tribes from] protecting Al-Qaeda members as [drones] may cause several tribes to [actually] join Al-Qaeda. I think that if American drones continue to violate Yemen’s sovereignty and kill civilians, the tribes will not only protect Al-Qaeda affiliates but will join Al-Qaeda themselves.  Seeking help from American drones [instead of handling Al-Qaeda itself] proves that the Yemeni government is a failed one.

Saleh, and now Hadi, have played a wily game of rope-a-dope with the United States in the post-9/11 era, seeking ever more funding and training for forces to fight ‘terrorism,’ while routinely deploying those forces in furtherance of pushing back against internal regionalists.  Most recently, that means the Shiite Houthi rebellion that began in the mid-2000s in northeastern Yemen, but it also includes forces to maintain tentative control over south Yemen, a wide swatch of country that includes not only the southern shore and the key port of Aden, but also the eastern half of Yemen that borders Oman.  Saleh, who came to power in north Yemen in 1978, only managed to unify the two parts of Yemen in 1990, and even then, fought a civil war in 1994 and continual unrest thereafter.  As AQAP grew in Yemen, south Yemen has become a territorial stronghold in a country where local power still runs on largely tribal lines, and the line between tribal leader and militant leader is often dazzlingly blurred.  While Yemen is also split on religious lines (around 45% to 50% of the country belongs to the Zaydi Shi’a sect and around 50% to 55% of the country is Sunni) Yemen’s Shiites are clustered in the northwestern corner of the country.

US meddling comes at a delicate time for Yemen, whose leaders are working on a new agreement to grant self-rule powers to the autonomous south in a move toward a more federal Yemen.  The powerful Yemeni Socialist Party (الحزب الاشتراكي اليمني, Al-Hizb Al-Ishtiraki Al-Yamani), which controlled south Yemen during its period of independence through 1990, opposes the latest effort, and it continues to support a two-region state, not the six-region state that Hadi and the current Yemen government supports.  If an agreement can be reached, Yemenis will vote in a constitutional referendum in February 2014.   Continue reading Will the US respect Yemeni parliament’s vote on drone attacks?

Did Assad win the Syrian civil war this week?

basharassad

It’s beginning to look a lot like the war in Syria is coming to an end — or, at a minimum, the nature of the two-year conflict is transforming into something quite different from what it was just a few days ago.freesyriaSyria Flag Icon

As a freak snowstorm covered much of the Middle East, threatening thousands of refugees from exposure to the cold, the Syrian opposition crumbled into opposing camps after the Islamic Front ( ‏الجبهة الإسلامية‎, al-Jabhat al-Islāmiyyah), a merger of seven jihadist rebel groups created in November, pushed opposition general Salim Idris out of power earlier this week from his perch as chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army (الجيش السوري الحر‎, al-Jaysh as-Sūrī al-Ḥurr) and executed several other moderate leaders in the Free Syrian Army.  Idris, who was in Qatar at the time of the jihadist push, reportedly returned to Turkey, not to Syria.

The merger last month transformed the Islamic Front, whose most important member is the Salafist-backed and Saudi-funded Ahrar ash-Sham (حركة أحرار الشام الإسلامية ), into the largest rebel fighting unit within the Syrian opposition, with up to 45,000 fighters (compare that to between 20,000 and 40,000 fighters in the Free Syria Army).  While the Islamic Front represents a much more pro-jihadist coalition than the moderate leadership of the Free Syrian Army, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s still separate from the most radical al Qaeda affiliates that are also fighting the Assad regime.  But though the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front, جبهة النصرة لأهل الشام‎), which itself has up to another 15,000 fighters, is not a member of the Islamic Front, the two work closely together.  Another al Qaeda-affiliated group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام‎) boasts up to 15,000 more fighters.  It’s still unclear whether the Islamic Front will supplant, oppose or cooperate with ISIS and the al-Nusra Front.

Another 40,000 Kurdish fighters operate in the relatively autonomist Kurdish territory in the far northeast of Syria.

No matter how much control Idris and the moderates still retain over the Free Syrian Army (and, well, it doesn’t seem like much), it’s clear to everyone that the opposition is now nearly as much at war with itself as with the Ba’athist regime of president Bashar al-Assad.  The joint US and UK decision to suspend non-lethal aid to the northern Syria opposition reflects how seriously power has shifted away from the moderate FSA leadership and toward the more radical Islamic Front– US policymakers were probably distraught to hear that US supplies have now fallen under the control of the Islamic Front. (For the record, this is exactly why many policymakers opposed the call from John McCain, US senator from Arizona, to arm Syria’s opposition with fully lethal aid).

The week’s amazing putsch within the Syria opposition follows confirmation from a UN report that chemical weapons have been used at least four times in Syria’s civil war, including the massive attack in Ghouta last August, where over 1,000 Syrians died from exposure to sarin gas.  Nonetheless, Assad continues to cooperate with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the OPCW is optimistic it can still meet the first December 31 deadline for the removal of the first trance of chemical weapons.

So how does the geopolitical stage look vis-à-vis the Syrian opposition these days? Continue reading Did Assad win the Syrian civil war this week?