Less than an hour ago the Saudi Arabian government announced that Operation Decisive Storm, the boldly named bombing campaign against the Yemeni Houthi forces, has ended. According to the Saudis, the operation has achieved its military goals, and will be followed up by an effort to facilitate political dialogue in Yemen. This is true, but only if by “achieving military goals” they mean “failing to achieve anything”. Continue reading
A week ago on this blog I wrote: “There is simply not a strong enough interest for the US, Arab League or Iran to want to protect in Yemen or Libya.” Turns out I was completely wrong. Over the last few days Saudi Arabia has led an Arab coalition in airstrikes on the Iranian backed Houthis in Yemen. Planes from nine Arab countries have been involved, Egypt, Jordan and even Sudan are prepared to commit troops to a ground offensive, and the US is providing intelligence. So what are the short-term and long-term aims of this attack? Will it be successful? And why did I get things so wrong?
I’ve got my midterm exam for Middle Eastern Politics tomorrow, so I figured I might as well combine study and writing!
Recently 47 US Senators sent a letter to Iran ‘informing’ them that any deal with the US on their nuclear program would be worthless, because the Senate would refuse to cooperate, and a Republican President could scrap the deal in 2016. The letter caused outrage in the US, and it was seen as deliberately undermining Obama’s foreign policy. Iran itself responded by simply poking holes in the Senators’ logic and knowledge of law.
While the letter itself is ridiculous, it does show the way US Republicans are thinking. One of these Republicans is Marco Rubio – one of the expected front-runners for the presidential elections in 2016. Rubio took to Foreign Policy yesterday to defend his ideas on Iran. Let’s take a look at what a possible future president thinks. Continue reading
In a shock result, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu has won last night’s general election. His Likud party gained 6 more seats than his leftist rivals, who had been predicted to win. In the end though, Netanyahu’s appeal to the nationalist right seems to have swung the vote in his favour. He should now be able to form a ruling coalition with other rightist and centrist parties. It’s a result that will frustrate many – including the unlikely combination of the Palestinians and US government. So why is Netanyahu so disliked by his strongest ally? And more importantly, what will this victory mean for the conflict with Palestine? Continue reading
The Nov. 24th deadline for a final deal on Iran’s nuclear programme is fast approaching, with talks between Iran and six world powers remaining difficult. While failure to reach a deal doesn’t mean there won’t be another temporary deal, it will damage relations and give both sides reasons to provoke the other. The talks come at a time when the US and Iran need each other more than ever, with both sides fiercely opposing the Islamic State. So what are the issues being discussed? What are the potential stumbling blocks? And just how complex of a political game is this? Continue reading
Yesterday the US broke nearly 70 years of protocol and announced that the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations would not receive a visa for the US – in effect stopping him from taking up his post in New York. This is the first time the US has ever done this, and Iran has reacted angrily. The reason? Hamid Abutalebi was involved in the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran back in 1979. So what was that seizure? Why are these two countries locked in such dislike? And can the US actually do this?
Whenever Iraq slips from international headlines, something terrible seems to happen to drag them back in. This week it was the news that militants linked to al-Qaeda had taken over the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar Province in western Iraq, 7 years after the last time al-Qaeda held Fallujah. Civilians and soldiers are now being killed as the Iraqi army tries to take back the cities. But how has al-Qaeda managed to take over whole cities? Why now? And what’s behind all this?
Firstly, this isn’t only al-Qaeda who’s taken over. While the fight has been led by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), an organisation which is linked to al-Qaeda, local tribal militants are also involved. These militants are fellow Sunni Muslims, and while they are not necessarily strong supporters of al-Qaeda, they are fed up with the government of Iraq.
This is a government that is controlled by Shia’s, the other of the two main Islamic sects. The Sunni minority in Iraq feels shut out from any participation in government, and marginalised by the Shia majority. When the government broke up a Sunni protest camp in Ramadi, that sparked off this conflict. In Ramadi it was mainly tribal militants who took control; in Fallujah the city is under the control of ISIS.
While the breaking up of the camp set the conflict off, the civil war in Syria provided the conditions to make this possible. ISIS has become the strongest rebel group there, and has access to weaponry and recruits from Syria as well as the wider Middle-East and even Europe. Syria borders on to the Anbar province of Iraq, which is mainly Sunni and has always been a base for al-Qaeda. This border is so weak that ISIS could easily spread into Iraq, and take advantage of the anger among the Sunnis.
All of this is part of the wider Middle-Eastern conflict between Sunni and Shia; a conflict which has many levels. This is a complex issue, and I won’t go deeply into it now. However one interesting aspect of this particular conflict in Fallujah is that it puts the US and Iran on the same side. The US is interested in stopping al-Qaeda, and making sure that Iraq remains relatively stable. As a Shia theocracy, Iran wants to support the Shia government of Iraq, as well as damage ISIS, who are hurting Iran’s interests in Syria. This is just a taste of how deep this conflict runs.
So what now? In his excellent analysis Frank Gardner of the BBC suggests that the Iraqi government will be hoping that the tribal militants force out ISIS themselves. The government and tribes would then be able to negotiate a return to government control. If this doesn’t happen, the government will have to retake Fallujah by force. Back in 2004 the US had to retake Fallujah after insurgents took control. After failing once, a second assault succeeded at the cost of 122 US soldiers, approximately 1400 civilians, and the destruction of most of Fallujah. If the Iraqi army tries the same the result could be even bloodier.
I doubt that the Iraqi government will be able to regain control of Fallujah and the situation in Western Iraq. The Sunni tribes have little reason to listen to an ineffective government that discriminates against them. If the city falls to the government by force, the resulting blood and destruction without any attempt to reach out to Sunnis will only drive the Sunni minority further away. Unfortunately I see this as the beginning of increased sectarian problems in Iraq, and the expansion of the Syrian civil war.
For those of you who want to know more, I am planning to post a more in-depth explanation of the Sunni-Shia divide and the wider Middle-East conflict in the coming weeks.