Saudi Arabia Has No Idea How to Deal With Iran -New York Times

Standard

I think the main point of the article is quite correct: the Saudis are playing a bad hand poorly.

There are a few points that I am not too sure about though. First, the author claims “The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar has been more successful. The effort to tame that country’s assertive regional policies has worked and the crisis has now been put on the back burner of international diplomacy.” However, Qatar is now closer to Iran than ever, and at a time when the Saudis needed to be building a durable anti-Iranian front, they have fractured the GCC. I don’t see this as successful, even if only relative to Riyadh’s other attempts to deal with Iran. In fact, I’m pretty sure Iran sees this as a win.

Second, the author warns that the war in Yemen may turn “the Houthi movement into something akin to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.” Even if this is just be a turn of phrase, the Houthis-Iranian relationship is not comparable to Iran’s alliance with Hezbollah. The social/historical/religious connections are not there, and Iran’s military support for the Houthis has been limited.

Third, and finally, the author describes Saudi Arabia as “keen to reach out to Tehran despite provocative Iranian actions” and that “King Abdullah courted Presidents Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami”. This has not been the case. Riyadh has never been keen to court Iran. In fact, it’s been the other way around. Tehran has been the suitor, and Riyadh has played hard to get. Rafsanjani spent most of the 1990s trying to start a dialogue with Riyadh, only to be rebuffed. Before Rafsanjani’s death earlier this year, both he and Rouhani  reached-out to Riyadh, but again with no success. Rightly or wrongly, the Saudis’ strategy for dealing with Tehran has been to try to keep Iran as isolated in the Persian Gulf as possible. Given the regional situation post Arab-Spring, I doubt diplomacy would have worked, but I think the article mischaracterizes this part of their relationship.

A similar article was also published in Foreign Policy entitled, Tehran Is Winning the War for Control of the Middle East (https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/11/21/tehran-is-winning-the-war-for-control-of-the-middle-east-saudi-arabia/) and I expect there will be more in the near future claiming that the the Iranian-Saudi Cold war is swinging Tehran’s way. Some, like the one above, will cast Iran as the aggressor and the Saudis as the victim, albeit a clumsy self-destructive victim. Others will portray the Saudis as the belligerents and Iran as misunderstood. Both narratives have a grain of truth. But both miss the main point: the rivalry in its present form is being driven by the regional instability caused by the Arab Spring. Ideology and incompetence have only made things worse.

Boys Are Not Defective –The Atlantic

Standard

This article looks at an interesting development in the Middle East. Across the region, girls and young women do markedly better in school than boys and young men, even in the sciences.

  • “In fact, across the Arab world, women now earn more science degrees on a percentage basis than women in the United States. In Saudi Arabia alone, women earn half of all science degrees. And yet, most of those women are unlikely to put their degrees to paid use for very long.”

The conclusion the article reaches is surprising. It questions the common assumption that Middle Eastern women succeed in education because their lives are controlled and distractions are minimized.  Rather than argue women study harder because they have nothing else to do, this article argues the problem may be in the quality of education boys and young men receive and the dynamics created by gender-segregated class-rooms

  • “…boys’ schools are more violent places, concluded the study, which was funded by USAID. Over half of the boys interviewed said they’d experienced some kind of bullying in school over the previous year. Only 11 percent of girls said the same thing. Two-thirds of male teachers said they’d witnessed physical violence among students in the past year—compared with less than a quarter of female teachers.”
  • Boys also reported worse relationships with their male teachers. Only 40 percent of male students interviewed said they believed their teachers cared about how well they did in school—compared with 74 percent of girls.” “…male teachers in all-boys schools were more likely to belittle or punish students for getting the wrong answer. And boys were much more likely than girls to complain about their male teachers’ tendencies to beat students and shout at them.”

Their explanation for this pattern was a mix of political economy and cultural norms:

  • “Teachers do not earn a lot of money in Jordan, but men are still expected to be the primary breadwinners in families. So male teachers are more likely to work second or third jobs as tutors or even taxi drivers in order to augment their small salaries. One Jordanian student told me about a male biology teacher he’d had who was so exhausted by his two other jobs that he used to close the blinds in first period and go to sleep.”
  • “On average Jordan’s male teachers—who have mostly gone through the same educational system themselves—do worse on the national entry test for teaching, according to Ministry of Education data. This suggests in turn that boys might be encountering less-prepared teachers on average. “Male teachers are hard to come by, and good male teachers are even harder,””
  • “The problem, Osman and his colleagues concluded, was not simply boys’ freedom or male teachers’ preparation. It was all that and more. Through surveys and other analysis, they identified a long list of factors that were interacting like a chemical equation, which is the unsexy secret about how education systems usually work. Not just teacher quality but students’ sense of safety, their study habits, and the subtleties of the boy and girl peer cultures all converge to create a healthy—or toxic—brew.”

Along the way, the article discusses the need to empower men: “We used to say, empowering women, and now we talk about empowering men,” Hamood Khalfan Al Harthi, the undersecretary for education and curriculum in Oman, says. In patriarchal societies this may seem a bit whiny, but it’s not:

  • “Natasha Ridge, the executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in the United Arab Emirates, has studied gender and education around the world. In the United Kingdom and the United States, Ridge believes she can draw a dotted line between the failure of boys to thrive in school and votes for Brexit and for Donald Trump. Disengaged boys grow up to become disillusioned men, Ridge says, left out of the progress they see around them.”

In the context of the Middle East, that disengagement one must wonder if it also leads to political radicalization…

 

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/09/boys-are-not-defective/540204/

 

 

More hope for Kurdish unity in Syria after release of KNC prisoners -ARANEWS.NET

Standard

The schisms within the Syrian Kurdish community have never been as deep as the PUK-KPD split in Iraq, however it has been a significant division. This article provides some reason to believe they are making progress:

“The Syrian Kurdish security forces of the Asayish, that are affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), released several politicians from the rival Kurdish National Council (KNC) on Wednesday and Thursday after mediation by former French Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner and former US diplomat Peter Galbraith that visited Rojava [or Syria’s Kurdistan] this week”.

“Zara Salih, a member of the KNC-linked Yekiti Party, told ARA News: “We look at this step [release of KNC members] as a positive sign and good start. After releasing all political prisoners from the Asayish detention centres we are ready to begin negtoations with PYD and TEV-DEM to reach a new deal.”

“The KNC is the main rival of the PYD, and backed by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The PYD, on the other hand, is closer to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Both the KDP and PKK have significant influence over the Kurdish parties in Syria, but failed to reach an agreement to share power. As a result, the PYD became the most dominant actor in Syrian Kurdistan, after the People’s Protection Units (YPG) took control of most of the Kurdish regions in Syria in July 2012.”

More hope for Kurdish unity in Syria after release of KNC prisoners

Syria ceasefire deal explained -al Jazeera

Standard

Here is a basic rundown of the September 2016 ceasefire deal in the Syrian conflict, courtesy of Al Jazeera:

  • “A nationwide ceasefire by Assad’s forces and the US-backed opposition is set to begin across Syria at sundown on Monday.
  • That sets off a seven-day period that will allow for humanitarian aid and civilian traffic into Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which has faced a recent onslaught.
  • Fighting forces are to also pull back from the Castello Road, a key thoroughfare and access route into Aleppo, and create a “demilitarised zone” around it.
  • Also on Monday, the US and Russia will begin preparations for the creation of a Joint Implementation Centre that will involve information sharing needed to define areas controlled by the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group (formerly known as al-Nusra Front) and opposition groups in areas “of active hostilities”.
  • The centre is expected to be established a week later, and is to launch a broader effort towards delineating other territories in control of various groups.
  • As part of the arrangement, Russia is expected to keep Syrian air force planes from bombing areas controlled by the opposition. The US has committed to help weaken Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that has intermingled with the US-backed opposition in several places.
  • A resumption of political dialogue between the government and opposition under UN mediation, which was halted amid an upsurge in fighting in April, will be sought over the longer term.”

For more details on the deal see: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/syria-ceasefire-deal-explained-160910111132967.html

The Surprising Science of Cease-Fires: Even Failures Can Help Peace -1New York Times

Standard

No one expects the current ceasefire in Syria to last very long or provide a long-term solution to the conflict. However this article suggests that ceasefires agreements like the present one are still important:

  • “One of the best predictors of a peace agreement’s success is simply whether the parties had prior agreements, even if those earlier cease-fires failed. Not even a war’s duration or its intensity can so reliably predict a peace deal’s outcome. Neither does the poverty or ethnic diversity of the combatants.”

Ceasefires, even if they don’t last can create what the article refers to as “virtuous cycles”, wherein the parties build a degree of trust by making reciprocal concessions. If transgressions are also punished, they also learn that cheating on agreements is counter-productive. Together, these two dynamics shape the preferences of the parties making a lasting settlement more likely.

Of course, if handled poorly, the opposite lessons may be learned. If defection is widespread and inconsistently punished, then the parties learn that cooperation does not pay and cheating may actually pay-off. This result can be thought of as a “vicious cycle”.

Two points come to my while reading this article. First, the logic is very consistent with rational choice/game theory. The parties are rational actors responding to the contingencies in their environment and playing iterated games is extremely important. Second, There may be some issues with causality here. Perhaps settlements are not more likely because there are more ceasefire agreements, but instead ceasefire agreements are more likely because the conflict is winding down. If this argument is true, then it is the wider conditions in the conflict that are driving events, including the number of ceasefires and whether or not they create virtuous cycles or viscous cycles.

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/09/16/world/middleeast/another-cease-fire-in-syria-it-could-matter-even-if-it-fails.html?referer=https%3A%2F%2Ft.co%2FxZiLWXMT6P

 

Frenemies: Why Rival Insurgents Work Together -The National Interest

Standard

This article tries to explain the phenomena of “coopetition”, situations where groups simultaneously collaborate and compete. The article focuses on non-state actors in general, but with extra attention paid to the Syrian civil war, where groups like the Al Nusra front sboth compete and cooperate with other rebels groups such as the Free Syrian Army and Al Qaeda. The article suggests that the contradictions can be understood by looking at fragmentation that exists in these groups at a local level. Each off-shoot of the larger group has its own local needs and faces its own pressures. At times they will create conditions where cooperation, even with one’s enemies makes perfectly good sense.

It is worth noting there are other possible explanations for this type of behavior. On a more macro level, coopetition may simply be the result of balancing behavior in a complex threat environment. The logic of alliances based on traditional IR theory is that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, and alliances form to counter the biggest threat. However, in situations like Syria, instead of having one enemy state or alliance to balance against, each actor (both state and non-state) probably faces several. Therefore they have to re-balance and realign depending who is the biggest threat at any given moment. Today’ friend may be tomorrow’s enemy, and visa-versa. Or, as is often said in the context of the Middle East, “the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy”.

p.s. my apologies for the tacky adds surrounding the article. The argument is interesting, unfortunately the publishers are lame.

http://nationalinterest.org/feature/frenemies-why-rival-insurgents-work-together-15827

10 new wars that could be unleashed as a result of the one against ISIS -Washington Post

Standard

“The borders of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” are shrinking fast. The group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria are collapsing one by one. The U.S.-led war has reached a point where questions are being raised about what comes next.

So far, the answer seems likely to be: more war.”

 

This article probably oversimplifies things in the sense that it suggests that these wars are discrete events. Rather, the conflicts being played out in Syria are the product of long submerged tensions that were unleashed first by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then the Arab Spring. Once the state system began to collapse in 2010, they were bound to come to the fore. The article is effective though, in the way it identifies the various schisms and how they have been effected by recent events.

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/09/07/10-new-wars-that-could-be-unleashed-as-a-result-of-the-one-against-isis/?postshare=9411473249551782&tid=ss_tw

The Twenty Years’ War -The Atlantic

Standard

This article is interesting for two reasons. First, rather than looking at the US’ role in the Middle East policy as a discrete series of policies, it frames them together as part of a 20 year war. The second is the conclusion it reaches about how that war is going:

“…a sober assessment of the last 20 years suggests that the United States lost the broader war. The country wasn’t occupied and there was no surrender. But Americans have paid an exorbitant price for the two-decade campaign in strategic, economic, and moral terms. When terrorists strike a great power, the destructive potential lies not in the act itself but in the great power’s response to the act. In 1914, Serbian terrorists killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Austria-Hungary used the attack as a pretext for war against Serbia, triggering a cataclysmic conflict, World War I, in which four empires collapsed—the Russian, German, Ottoman, and Austria-Hungarian. Similarly, in the Twenty Years’ War, America’s response has had far greater consequences than al-Qaeda’s attacks.”

 

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/08/twenty-years-war/496736/

What do ordinary citizens in the Arab world really think about the Islamic State? -Washington Post

Standard

This issue has already been discussed on this blog

See: https://jtdevinemta.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/isis-has-almost-no-popular-support-in-egypt-saudi-arabia-or-lebanon-washington-institute/

However it is worth reiterating the point:

“The findings were stark: Not many Arabs sympathize with the Islamic State. The percent agreeing with the Islamic State’s goals range from 0.4 percent in Jordan to 6.4 percent in the Palestinian territories. The percent agreeing with the Islamic State’s use of violence range from 0.4 percent in Morocco to 5.4 percent in the Palestinian territories. The percent agreeing that the Islamic State’s tactics are compatible with Islam range from 1.0 percent in Jordan to 8.9 percent n the Palestinian territories.”

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/files/2016/07/Figure11.png?tid=a_inl

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/07/27/what-do-ordinary-citizens-in-the-arab-world-really-think-about-the-islamic-state/

Why Turkey’s coup failed -VOX, Rudaw & Various

Standard

After a night of uncertainty, Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains in power. Initial reports seemed to indicate that the coup was well organized and on the verge of succeeding. However the plot came unraveled relatively quickly. In the aftermath, there have been mass arrests of military personnel and political opponents, and reports of vigilante justice handed out by pro-Erdogan mobs. See http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/turkish-soldier-beheaded-pro-government-8433319 but be warned, the images are graphic and disturbing.

There are many questions to be answered. The first is why stage a coup? There are a number of reasons why part of the military would want to overthrow Erdogan. Once a major success story, Erdogan’s foreign policy had floundered since the Arab Spring. Not only has Turkey been growing increasingly isolated, his missteps had helped pave the way for Rojava, an independent Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria. They also left Turkey open to terrorist attacks from ISIS. His foreign policy had in fact broken down to the point where the Foreign Minister was sacked and several key policies were reversed. Ties were restored with Israel and overtures made to Moscow and reportedly Damascus as well.

On the domestic front, Erdogan’s reopened the civil war with the PKK, leading to bombings in major cities, and making parts of south eastern Turkey look like Syria. (See: http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/turkey/140720162 and  http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/turkey-thousands-kurds-flee-historic-sur-district-diyarbakir-curfew-expanded-1540429  Note: several of the images that cycle through the frame at the top right of this blog were taken in Diyarbakir in 2011 before the most recent fighting). Step by step, Erdogan was also concentrating all of the power of the state within his own hands. In doing so he was undermining the country’s nascent democracy and threatening the remaining secular traditions of the Turkish state that the military had historically preserved. To make matters worse, he had embarked on an anti-Gülen crusade that threatened anyone not loyal to Erdogan and the AK Party.  Muhammed Fethullah Gülen was once Erdogan’s ally, but after a falling out in 2013,  Gülen and his followers were branded as subversives. This may have forced the coup leaders’ hand: Either act, or risk being purged.

Given Tukey’s history of coups (see http://www.vox.com/2016/7/16/12204508/turkey-military-coups-history) perhaps the more pressing questions were why did it not happen sooner, and how could it have failed? The answers to the two questions are partially intertwined. Since taking office Erdogan has replaced key members of the military elite, and changed its culture through recruitment and indoctrination. What was once an institution with a strong, coherent secular identity, and a reliable chain of command has become divided -to say the least. There are still some remnants of the old guard, but most of the senior command and a large part of the rank and file are pro-Erdogan, pro-AK. That makes launching a coup so much more complicated. In the past, secular generals could be sure they were all of the same mind and that their underlings would follow their orders. Not any more. As was clearly evident last night, the military was divided with key mobile units remaining loyal to the government. See VOX  (http://www.vox.com/2016/7/16/12205352/turkey-coup-failed-why)

As the VOX article discusses, the plotters also made some fundamental errors. Most obviously, they did not capture Erdogan in the initial stages of the coup. As long as he remained free, he could rally the loyal parts of the military and his civilian supporters to his side. In a sense, there was a logic to the plotter’s strategy. Erdogan was out of the capital on vacation, that left him out of touch and somewhat vulnerable. But the plotters did not count on the availability of social media and Erdogan’s charisma. They also failed to take advantage of the brief period when the controlled the regular media. They were not able to convince enough of the military that they were going to win and that they had a plan. (see the blog War is Boring for a discussion of the battle for perceptions https://warisboring.com/turkish-coup-plotters-lost-the-battle-of-perception-fbb695cbe442#.k976qx5br). These were fatal mistakes.

Finally, one of the most surprising elements of the story is the support Erdogan received  from world leaders and even his opponents, including Kurdish groups. (See:  http://aranews.net/2016/07/kurds-turkish-opposition-parties-reject-military-coup/) There is no one answer to this. From a western perspective, Erdogan is the leader of a NATO state and an elected one at that. Turning on him during a coup was never likely. In the Middle East, few leaders like to see a coup take place. Its a bad precedent for them even if they don’t like the leader. For the domestic opposition, certainly there was a realization that a coup meant the end of elections for the foreseeable future and the loss of what ever gains they had made under the system. Finally, the Iraqi Kurds in Erbil have carved out a working relationship with the Erdogan government which also gives them leverage vis-a-vis Baghdad. A new military government would be an unknown quantity. (See David Romano’s piece in RUDAW http://rudaw.net/english/opinion/16072016).

Successful coups rarely give rise to democracy, no matter how awful the established leader was. When they fail, they make a bad situation worse.

More links:

Turkey coup: Who was behind Turkey coup attempt? http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36815476

Turkey was already undergoing a slow-motion coup – by Erdoğan, not the army
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/16/turkey-coup-army-erdogan