Shifting alliances in the Middle East

By Lillian Marx

U.S.-Turkey relations are on extremely shaky ground after a failed military coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in July. Turkey claims that Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S., was behind the plot, and President Erdoğan has called for his extradition. The U.S. has refused to acquiesce without solid evidence of Gulen’s participation, fueling Turkish public opinion that the U.S. played a role in fomenting the coup. In an attempt to defuse the situation, high-level officials in the Obama administration, including the president and secretary of state, have been forced to make statements denying the claims.

Turkey is a NATO member, critically positioned between Europe and the Middle East. In the wake of the coup, President Erdoğan launched a sweeping crackdown against his opposition, a move criticized by the U.S. and Europe as a presidential consolidation of power. The purge of hundreds of high-level military officials, including key pro-American and pro-NATO personnel, sparked worries that U.S. influence in the fight against ISIS in northern Syria and Iraq might suffer. These concerns were quelled on August 24th, when a visit by Vice President Joe Biden coincided with a successful joint offensive to retake the city of Jarabulus, Syria from ISIS.

Russia was quicker to broadcast support for Erdoğan post-coup. In early August, President Putin met with his Turkish counterpart to reset relations that had soured after Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border last November. Still, the two countries share little common ground in the Middle East, and are notably opposed on the Syrian civil war.

Russia also sought to project expanded regional influence when it announced in mid-August that it had begun to launch airstrikes from bases in Iran. The rapprochement was short-lived: after just one week, Iran revoked permission, apparently incensed at Russia’s public bombast on the issue. Ongoing use of Iranian bases would have been a major foreign policy achievement for Russia in the Middle East, and an exhibition of strengthened alliances with Shi‘a powers.

Tensions continued to build between Iran and Saudi Arabia after diplomatic relations broke down in January. In more recent months, both countries have accused the other with increasing vitriol of backing destabilizing groups—Kurdish separatists and Shi‘a militias, respectively.  The U.S. continues to balance the success of the Iran nuclear deal with its relationship interests with ally Saudi Arabia.

In August, the U.S. State Department acknowledged that the delivery of $400 million to Iran was a leveraging strategy for the release of three U.S. prisoners held in the country. The money was the first installment of $1.7 billion owed to Iran for military equipment that the U.S. failed to deliver after the Iranian Revolution and 1979 hostage crisis. Republicans, who oppose the Iran Deal, were quick to label the payment a ransom. 

Recommended Readings

Gulur Aybet, “Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey and solving pressing issues,” Al Jazeera. (Aug. 24, 2016).

Ellie Geranmayeh, “Is the Iran-Saudi Cold War Heating Up?” The New York Times (Jul. 27, 2016).

Itamar Rabinovich, “The Russian-U.S. Relationship in the Middle East: A Five-Year Projection,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Apr. 5, 2016). 


The rise of ISIS

By Lillian Marx

A series of high profile international attacks, directed or inspired by ISIS, testifies to substantial losses for the group in Iraq and Syria. “As ISIL loses territory and the fraud of the caliphate becomes more obvious, they are going to start resorting to more traditional terrorist tactics,” President Obama said in a news conference at the NATO Summit in Poland.

A swift and effective U.S. bombing campaign allowed pro-government forces to retake the city of Sirte in Libya, ISIS’ most important stronghold outside Syria and Iraq. The battle was the first in which U.S. Special Operations forces provided direct support to fight ISIS in Libya.

In Syria, the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of Kurdish and Arab fighters, retook the city of Manbij. This constitutes ISIS’ greatest metropolitan loss in the country thus far. The victory cuts off one of just two remaining paths to Turkey and onward to Europe. ISIS had previously used the route between Manbij and the border city of Jarabulus—recaptured after a U.S.-Turkey joint offensive two weeks later—to funnel recruits in and out of the country. Russia and the U.S. also announced a tentative deal to coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and the Nusra Front for the first time, part of an effort to create better conditions for a potential ceasefire.

After weeks of heavy fighting, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) retook the key city of Fallujah with support from Kurdish and Shi‘a militia groups on the ground, and coalition forces in the air. The fight now turns to ISIS’ last major stronghold in Iraq: the country’s second largest city, Mosul. In July, the ISF recaptured Qayyarah Air Base, just 35 miles south of Mosul. Many of the 560 troops set to be deployed by President Obama in preparation for the battle will be stationed at Qayyarah, where they will provide logistical support to fighters. An estimated 240,000 Kurdish militia and 120,000 Shi‘a will support the ISF. There are approximately 10,000 ISIS fighters remaining in the city. Success here seems inevitable, though it will still be hard won. Nevertheless, talk of retaking the city by year’s end now seems overoptimistic.

Retaking Mosul will only yield new challenges. Various actors may rally against a common enemy, but Kurdish forces ultimately answer to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, which harbors secessionist aspirations; Shi‘a militias retain ties to Iran. The question of unified government for Iraq remains as problematic as it was a decade ago. Prime Minister Abadi’s administration is undermined by intra-Shi‘a tensions, and by the economic consequences of war and oil price collapse. The sectarian hostilities that provided a platform for ISIS in the first place will not disappear with the defeat of ISIS. A minority Sunni population and a predominately Shi‘a democratic government will have to come to terms with each other. The caliphate is in its death throes, but reducing ISIS to a more traditional terrorist organization is hardly a decisive victory.

Recommended Readings

Sarah Almukhtar, Tim Wallace and Derek Watkins, “ISIS Has Lost Many of the Key Places It Once Controlled,” The New York Times (Jul. 3, 2016). 

Zack Beauchamp, “ISIS controlled Fallujah longer than any other Iraqi city. Iraq just took it back.” Vox (Jun. 27, 2016). 

Tim Lister, “Terror export fears as ISIS ‘caliphate’ shrinks,” CNN (Jul. 11, 2016). 


International migration

By Matthew Barbari

Thousands of refugees and migrants continue to pour into Europe, fueling a crisis for which the European Union has yet to find adequate solutions. Much hope was placed in a deal between the EU and Turkey, finalized in the spring. Turkey agreed to take back all irregular migrants who had travelled through its territory and arrived in Greece. In exchange, Europe would fast-track visa-free travel for Turkish nationals throughout the Schengen Zone, resettle thousands of Syrian refugees from Turkey and increase financial support for the country’s refugee population.

But the deal, whose implementation was already dragging, hit a snag after an attempted military coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July. A massive government crackdown ensued, with tens of thousands of civilians and government employees suspended or fired from jobs, thousands arrested, and some major media outlets shut down. Uncertainty, in conjunction with a consolidation of power by the president, has caused many EU members to rethink the migration deal. The EU presented certain human rights obligations as a precondition for visa-free travel—namely, the reform of Turkish anti-terrorism laws. Turkey now seems unlikely to fulfill them. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu threatened to renege on the deal if visas are not granted to Turkish citizens by October. “It can’t be that we implement everything that is good for the EU but that Turkey gets nothing in return,” he said. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel summed up the European response: “Germany and Europe should under no circumstances be blackmailed.”

While arguments over the deal rage on, migrants flood to Europe via the alternate, more dangerous route across the Mediterranean Sea. Some 2,500 migrants died making the Mediterranean voyage in the first five months of 2016, compared to 1,855 deaths in the same period in 2015.

While European leaders continue to search for a resolution, frustration grows among domestic populations, and rightwing political movements gain ground. Public mood in Europe is increasingly pessimistic as definitive solutions remain elusive and high profile incidents like terrorist attacks and the sexual assault of hundreds of women during a New Year’s Eve celebration in Cologne, Germany, fuel the narrative that refugees threaten “European values.”

Opposition parties are gaining support and beginning to push back against current EU policies. Immigration—both internal and external to the European Union—was the central issue in the recent Brexit vote, and growing support for far right populist forces like the Danish People’s Party and France’s National Front indicate anti-EU and anti-immigrant trends. The migration crisis has pushed Europe and the project of integration to a precipice.  

Recommended Readings

Gregor Aisch, Adam Pearce and Bryant Rousseau, “How Far Is Europe Swinging to the Right?” New York Times (Jul. 5, 2016).

Jessica Brandt, “Turkey’s failed coup could have disastrous consequences for Europe’s migrant crisis,” Brookings (Jul. 29, 2016). 

Elizabeth Collett, “The Paradox of the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal,” Migration Policy Institute (Mar. 2016).


Korean choices

By Matthew Barbari

In the early morning hours of August 3rd, North Korea launched a Rodong missile that Japan says landed fewer than 200 nautical miles from its shores, within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The launch immediately followed South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s reaffirmation that the U.S. would deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad, to South Korea. Months of discussion between the Park and Obama administrations over Thaad correlated with increasingly hostile rhetoric exchanged between Pyongyang and Seoul. In typical fashion, Pyongyang has used the Thaad deployment to justify its missile programs.

The decision to deploy Thaad came as North Korea continued to violate United Nations Security Council resolutions forbidding the country to test ballistic missiles. Thaad is designed to serve as a defense against short, medium and intermediate range missile strikes. The system is set to be ready by the end of the year, and will be located in Seongju County, a farming community 135 miles southeast of Seoul.

China reacted predictably to the news. Beijing sees the deployment as a further militarization of the Korean Peninsula, and thus a dangerous escalation of tensions. China is also wary of a U.S. military presence in the region that it perceives as a restraint on its sphere of influence. Thaad does nothing to calm anxiety over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where the U.S. has sent naval patrol vessels in response to Chinese militarization. Beijing also complains that Thaad’s antimissile radar technology—which is capable of reaching into Chinese territory—threatens strategic operability and security. China-South Korea relations are rapidly cooling, and South Koreans anticipate economic retaliation from their largest trading partner. Many expect that the full extent of China’s response won’t be revealed until after the G20 Summit in Hangzhou in early September.

Domestic opposition to Thaad compounds a bleak political atmosphere for President Park. She was dealt a serious blow in April when her party lost its majority in Parliament—the result of poor economic results and escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program. Now she faces further criticism over Thaad from an opposition that accuses her of authoritarian leanings, of heightening tensions with the North and of injuring relations with China. Public protests have also ramped up. The decision to place the missile defense system in Seongju County was made without consulting residents or local government. Locals maintain concerns about the health effects of Thaad’s radar systems, and about becoming a target for North Korean attack. They are also critical of the lack of democratic process involved in the decision.

President Park, who is up for reelection in 2017, faces a media that doesn’t trust her, people who feel betrayed by her and a struggling economy jeopardized by weakened relations with China. For a time, the president was able to improve relations between South Korea, North Korea and China. Now she finds the parties drifting further apart than ever.

Recommended Readings

Daniele Ermito, “THAAD Fuels Tensions in South Korea-China Relations,” Foreign Policy Blogs (Jul. 31, 2016).

James Griffiths and Joshua Berlinger, “What is THAAD?” CNN (Jul. 13, 2016).

Katherine H.S. Moon and Andrew I. Yeo, “Democratic Deficit and Missile Defense in South Korea,” The Diplomat (Aug. 4, 2016).


Climate geopolitics

By Matthew Barbari 

The 2016 U.S. presidential election has become a theatre for debate over U.S. clean energy and environmental policy. Republican nominee Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton remain diametrically opposed on the issue. Mrs. Clinton has made combatting climate change a central pillar of her campaign. Her administration would seek to establish the U.S. as a “clean energy superpower,” acting from a position that favors her predecessor’s policies and the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement. Mr. Trump denies that human activity contributes to climate change, and promises to rescind Obama administration initiatives to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He joins newly elected Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte as a leading political figure that claims he will not respect the Paris Climate Agreement.

This fundamental difference of opinion comes even as the U.S. continues to negotiate new international agreements that limit greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution.  Over the weekend of July 22nd, many of the signatories to the Paris Climate Agreement gathered in Vienna to lay the groundwork for a deal to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs are manmade chemicals, produced by products like air conditioners, refrigerators and some solvent cleaners. They were intended to replace chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) after the latter were banned by the 1989 Ozone Protection Treaty, also known as the Montreal Protocol. While HFCs don’t directly damage the ozone, they do capture and retain more heat in the atmosphere than either CFCs or CO2. An amendment phasing out HFCs is set to be attached to the Montreal Protocol in an October meeting in Kigali, Rwanda.

The G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China in early September will mark the first gathering of the group since the Paris Agreement was reached. One of the summit’s ten objectives is to promote the early entry into force of the climate deal—a focus that affirms the resolve of the parties, especially as directed by China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The American people, meanwhile, will choose a side on November 8th.

Recommended Readings 

Tim Boersma, Charles K. Ebinger and Heather Greenley, “The presidential candidates’ views on energy and climate,” Brookings (Jun. 9, 2016). 

Coral Davenport, “A Sequel to the Paris Climate Accord Takes Shape in Vienna,” The New York Times (Jul. 23, 2016). 

Andrew Light and Helen Mountford, “Will the G20 Spur Post-Paris Climate Action? 3 Signs to Look For,” World Resources Institute (Aug. 15, 2016).