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  • Publication Date: 02-2015
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: The Islamic State has been moving aggressively to exploit the chaos of Libya since last summer, with profound risks for the Mediterranean region and beyond Libya is a perfect breeding ground for an expanded Islamic State, with large amounts of heavy weaponry, systemic lawlessness, a divided population, and sustained armed conflict The group has formed three active and capable groups in Libya-in Tripoli, Fezzan, and Barqa-all of which have conducted deadly attacks in recent months The phenomenon of Islamic State affiliates-beginning in the summer of 2014, before which the group was entirely focused on Iraq and Syria-is actually in the tradition of its arch-rival al-Qaeda the presence and power of the Islamic State in Libya will likely increase as conditions in Syria and Iraq deteriorate for the group, and conditions in Libya continue to worsen.
  • Topic: Conflict Resolution, Islam, Terrorism, Armed Struggle, Counterinsurgency
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Libya, Syria
  • Publication Date: 04-2015
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: Iran and the P5+1 countries are expected to issue a joint statement today that outlines most aspects of a comprehensive nuclear deal, but defers some still thorny issues to further talks A key remaining sticking point is Iran's demand for immediate and comprehensive lifting of sanctions, which the P5+1 cannot accept The United States is attempting to reassure nervous regional partners, such as Israel and Arab Gulf states, that the U.S. is not making too many concessions for the sake of a deal U.S. allies in the region are concerned that lifting sanctions, even if done gradually, will enable Iran to provide even more military and financial aid to the Assad regime in Syria, Shi'a militias in Iraq, and the Houthi movement in Yemen.
  • Topic: Government
  • Political Geography: United States, Iraq, Yemen, Syria
  • Publication Date: 03-2015
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: The seizure of Idlib, Syria on March 27 by a newly formed coalition led by al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate makes it ever clearer that the conflict in Syria has devolved into two camps: extremist followers of the violent ideology of bin Ladinism and supporters of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad The rebel coalition, led by al-Nusra Front with its effective fighting force and recently seized advanced weaponry and Jaysh al-Fatah, a group divided amongst itself between various shades of Islamist factions that include groups like Ahrar al-Sham, accomplished in several days what rebel groups had been unable to do for four years: take effective control of the provincial capital of Idlib The loss of Idlib is a significant setback for the Assad regime, which conceded the provincial capital of Raqqa in 2013 to the Islamic State; with the regime in Damascus, there are now three extremist capitals in one broken country As success begets success, al-Nusra will attract more groups and supporters who believe it is the only realistic chance of toppling Assad, rallying more to its extremist ranks even if only out of necessity.
  • Topic: Islam
  • Political Geography: Syria
  • Publication Date: 03-2015
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: The crisis in Yemen is primarily a Yemeni one, with legitimate internal issues and dysfunction that will not be improved by turning the crisis into a regional sectarian fight Once the genie of sectarian war is out of the bottle in Yemen, it will be impossible to put back, as seen in Iraq and Syria; the result will be years of conflict that could have been avoided by addressing the conflict as a local one As acknowledged by the U.S. State Department, Saudi Arabia does have legitimate concerns about what happens with its southern neighbor; however, treating the crisis as a primarily sectarian issue will likely be counterproductive The rhetoric on all sides and in their respective social media echo chambers is increasingly sectarian, escalating the conflict to the point where only Sunni extremists and Shi'a hardliners benefit and the people of Yemen suffer.
  • Topic: War
  • Political Geography: Yemen, Syria
  • Publication Date: 03-2015
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: Outside of its own borders, Iran now has significant proxy presence and influence in four countries encompassing 1.1 million square kilometers and 82 million people, in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon It has done this by leveraging tactical decisions made by other countries into its own strategic expansion; from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and now Yemen, Iran is taking advantage of the short-term actions of others in its long-term plan The complete collapse of the U.S.-aided Yemeni president and the associated counterterrorism and military support is just the latest example of measures intended to address immediate pressures, which ultimately benefit Iran-all while U.S. airstrikes support Iraqi and Iranian militias in Tikrit against the immediate threat of the Islamic State It's not that Iranian leaders are all-knowing, masterful chess players but rather that the Middle East has for decades been a battlefield of ad hoc stability measures by numerous countries that have enabled Iran to steadily project power, to the extreme concern of countries such as Saudi Arabia, which has now launched airstrikes in Yemen.
  • Topic: Security
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Yemen, Syria
  • Publication Date: 03-2015
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: The horrific suicide bombings at Sana'a mosques, which killed at least 137 people, are the worst such attacks in 20 years and an omen of sectarian conflict that the beleaguered country has so far avoided With worsening sectarian violence, terrible governance, terrorist groups on the rise, meddling regional powers, and a tribal population awash with weapons but little else, Yemen resembles post-2009 Iraq, with significant differences but troubling similarities The Iraqification of Yemen will be a disaster for that country and an international community that is already unable to deal with Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other failing states The Houthi advance into the central town of Taiz, after calling for a general mobilization against the supporters of deposed/exiled president Hadi, and the fighting in Aden show the situation is escalating and could easily follow the path of Iraq, as more sectarian violence and regional demands tear the country apart.
  • Topic: Governance
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Yemen, Syria
  • Publication Date: 03-2015
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: The brazen terrorist attack in the heart of Tunis, at the Bardo National Museum, is the most serious attack to take place in Tunisia since 2002, and presents the tourism-dependent country with serious challenges in how to respond effectively and proportionately Such an attack was nearly inevitable, given the disproportionately large number of Tunisians who have traveled to fight with the Islamic State, as well as being squeezed in a vise of extremism with Libya to the east and Algeria to the west There have been no claims of responsibility but there is no shortage of plausible suspects, with both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb active in the country There will likely be more attacks in Tunisia, though perhaps of a smaller but equally destabilizing nature, as the government increases pressure on networks, leaving the field open for Charlie Hebdo-styled attacks which are harder to disrupt given the smaller numbers of actors.
  • Topic: Government
  • Political Geography: Libya, Syria, Tunisia
  • Publication Date: 03-2015
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: Turkey will play a significant role in Syria's future, more so than any other neighbor, though the history between the two nations has been a troubled one Although Turkey's President Erdogan was at first keen to have good relations with Syria's President Assad, and succeeded in doing so, since 2011, they have gone sour Turkey is determined to influence the outcome of Syria's civil war, even if it finds no support from its allies The reappointment of Hakan Fidan to head the Turkish Intelligence Service may usher in a more active phase of Turkish involvement in the conflict.
  • Topic: Development, War
  • Political Geography: Turkey, Syria
  • Publication Date: 03-2015
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: The fourth anniversary of the start of the Syrian uprising has passed and the conflict sees no end in sight The humanitarian consequences of the conflict overwhelm the capacity of the international community to deal with them The involvement of malign non-state actors has complicated political options, both in the region and beyond Syria has become part of the counterterrorism agenda, and will likely be resolved in that context-however, any solution will take time.
  • Topic: United Nations
  • Political Geography: Syria
  • Publication Date: 03-2015
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: The Islamic State accepted Boko Haram\'s allegiance, or bay\'at, pledged to the Iraq and Syria-based extremist group over the weekend Given the recent military setbacks for Boko Haram and the Islamic State, and their increasing convergence, this development is unsurprising and a propaganda victory for both groups The alliance may spark an escalation of attacks in northeast Nigeria, as Boko Haram seeks to prove itself to the Islamic State The announcement may also internationalize Boko Haram\'s fight and draw jihadists to Nigeria from across the Middle East and North Africa.
  • Topic: Government
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Syria
  • Publication Date: 03-2015
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: The alleged death of Abu Humam al-Shami, military leader of the Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, provides an important look at the long arc of some senior al-Qaeda members As a group, al-Qaeda was greatly diminished and dispersed after 9/11 but many al-Qaeda figures like al-Shami, who shook the hand of Usama bin Ladin and then slipped through the cracks, are still continuing the fight they started years ago Across the region, there are apostles of bin Ladin teaching their lessons to groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Jabhat al-Nusra, serving as both inspiration and instruction to newer fighters Because of the sustained presence of huge sanctuaries and conflict, there will unfortunately be another generation of Shami-type figures that will ensure the violence and hatred doesn't end with these current conflicts.
  • Political Geography: Pakistan, Iraq, Syria
  • Author: Richard Barrett
  • Publication Date: 06-2014
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: Over 12,000 fighters from at least 81 countries have joined the civil war in Syria, and the numbers continue to grow. Around 2,500 are from Western countries, including most members of the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. There are also several hundred from Russia. But the great majority are from the Arab World. Most are fighting with rebel groups, and increasingly with the most extreme among them; but many are also fighting with the Government, or with ethnic or faith communities that are trying to protect themselves from both sides. A lot are young, often teenagers, and a fair percentage of those arriving from non-Muslim majority countries are converts to Islam. These and others who share their faith commonly express their motivation as a religious obligation to protect fellow Muslims from attack. This sense of duty is captured by their loose use of the word 'jihad'.
  • Topic: Security, Defense Policy, International Security
  • Political Geography: Russia, United States, Europe, Middle East, Canada, Arabia, Australia, Syria, New Zealand
  • Publication Date: 06-2014
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: The number of foreign fighters is high, 12,000 and counting, and the spread of countries they come from covers much of the globe. Two recent events involving foreign fighters show the radicalizing influence of the war. With the support to bolster Syria's more secular rebel forces at times inconsistent and tepid, the lack of an alternative has accelerated a natural gravitation towards extremist elements. It will be hard to know which returnees pose a threat, and harder still to deal with them. Given that the number of foreign fighters already exceeds those that went to Afghanistan, government resources will be severely strained to monitor all returnees and will have to rely on the help of local communities.
  • Topic: Conflict Resolution, Foreign Policy, Islam, Terrorism, Counterinsurgency
  • Political Geography: Afghanistan, United Kingdom, Middle East, Syria
  • Publication Date: 10-2014
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: No region has seen more of its people travel to fight in Syria than North Africa; more than 3,000 Tunisians have traveled there as of last April, and more than 1,500 Moroccans This is a repeat of a decade ago when large numbers of North Africans traveled to Iraq to fight there as well, in proportions far above those of neighboring countries A significant number of recent North African fighters have conducted suicide bombings in both Iraq and Syria, highlighting that the deadly ideological message of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other extremist groups is finding purchase in North Africa The reasons for this export of extremists include incomplete political reforms that have failed to redress serious societal issues, persistent high youth unemployment, and a failure to cope with the apparent high levels of disaffection, despair, and anger that drive people to choose violent extremism.
  • Topic: Conflict Resolution, Islam, Terrorism, Counterinsurgency
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Middle East, Arabia, North Africa, Syria
  • Publication Date: 10-2014
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: The Turkish parliament's vote to authorize the deployment of military forces in Syria and Iraq provided a legal and official framework for such action It may appear to be a positive step in degrading and destroying the putative Islamic State (IS), however, the parliament in its vote used the broader term "terrorist organizations," thus the landscape for Turkey, Syria-Iraq, and regional states and interests remains exceptionally complex Though there is nearly universal and implacable opposition to IS among all actors in Syria and Iraq, Turkey's future role-depending on steps taken-could aggravate tensions not only with Arab Gulf states and Kurdish elements in Syria and Iraq, but Iran, Russia, and the Iraqi government Turkey's desire to create a buffer zone on the Syrian side of its common border remains one of the most sensitive issues Amid reports of increased IS pressure on Kobani, Kurdish PKK has insinuated Turkey will be to blame-not IS-for creating conditions for the refugee crisis, and threatens to resume opposition activity in Turkey. The Turkish parliament's vote Thursday to authorize use of its army and military facilities in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) may appear at first look to be a positive step for the broader coalition. The measures-to be determined-are in addition to any financial, diplomatic, humanitarian, and support activities for the anti-IS coalition. However, parliament's vote did not entail Turkey's officially joining the coalition. After the recent deal-details yet to be revealed-to bring home over 40 hostages IS had taken from Turkey's consulate in Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014, pressure increased for Turkey to take military steps in the anti-IS fight. A factor increasing the possibility of military action is Turkish special operations forces' guarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah, a Turkish enclave in Syria reported to be increasingly surrounded by IS. Though there is almost universal animus toward IS in the region, there is also nearly uniform resistance to Turkey's perceived unilateral military involvement in Syria and Iraq, outside the framework of the anti-IS coalition. Turkey's next moves may cause more conflict than benefit in the anti-IS fight. Indeed, the political landscape for Turkey's moves at home and abroad remains extraordinarily complex.
  • Topic: Conflict Resolution, Foreign Policy, Islam, Terrorism
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Turkey, Middle East, Syria
  • Publication Date: 11-2014
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: The collapse of two prominent coalition-supported Syrian rebel groups at the hands of al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) has not just compounded doubts against the capabilities and loyalties of these groups but also doubt as to whether any "moderate" rebel group can succeed. This long-simmering uncertainty about arming and training rebel groups that aren't as cohesive or even as moderate as once hoped throws into question the prospects of an acceptable military solution to the almost four-year long Syrian civil war. The coalition-equipped rebel groups Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front were overrun in northern Syria by JN-though most rebel groups have long cooperated with it and, unlike Washington, don't consider the group to be a terrorist organization. Reports of increased airstrikes against JN will further drive a wedge between most rebel groups and the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), that demands the primary target is the Bashar al-Assad regime and not extremist groups fighting it. The realities of settling the civil war exclusively, thus far, via rebel military might open up other avenues for non-military actors to assume a role in resolving the war; after all, there are an estimated 2.5 million refugees and another 6.5 internally displaced persons in Syria, with obvious needs that perhaps new Syrian civilian leadership might stand up to address.
  • Topic: Armed Struggle, Insurgency, Foreign Aid
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria
  • Publication Date: 10-2014
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: The deliberate targeting and killing of journalists by The Islamic State (IS) and the resulting lack of outside reporting has created a nearly information-free zone for the group to fill with its own messaging. The group's embrace of the decentralized nature of social media has allowed its many thousands of cyber-supporters to create and operate their own ministries of propaganda. Abu Mohammad al-Adnani is the official spokesman for the group, but the notion of an official spokesman does not really apply to IS in the way it has applied to al Qaeda; the crowdsourcing of messages negates the need for a single point of contact.
  • Topic: Islam, Terrorism, Communications, Mass Media, Insurgency
  • Political Geography: Iraq, North Africa, Syria
  • Publication Date: 10-2014
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: For a group that feeds on chaos, The Islamic State (IS) itself is rigidly structured and organized. The growing bureaucratic and administrative demands on IS as it attempts to govern the areas it controls-while under increasing military pressure-will stress the group and its structure like never before. The group benefits from ruling over populations that have little experience in effective government services, meaning that the very conditions that helped fuel IS's rise now give it wide latitude to deliver sub-par services for at least the near-term without risking revolt, at least for reasons of shoddy governance. From the caliph-level down to the district level, the group has a repetitive three-office ruling structure that provides easy-to-understand lanes of responsibility and authority, which is vital for a growing organization whose sole membership requirement is belief in its cause.
  • Topic: Islam, Terrorism, Armed Struggle, Insurgency, Governance
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Syria
  • Publication Date: 10-2014
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: Like a tumor, the Islamic State (IS) feeds off the vitality of its unwilling hosts, sustaining itself from the economies of the areas it controls Efforts to deprive IS of its million-dollar-a-day revenue will be as difficult as it will be vital, since the group takes a percentage of local economic activity; hurting those economies to deprive IS of money will be counter-productive The coalition efforts to defeat IS militarily must be sufficient enough to thwart its advances while remaining targeted enough to ensure the vulnerable population doesn't unite with IS in collective suffering Destroying mobile oil refineries is an effective use of air power to deny IS more finances but it will prove less effective against destroying the percentage IS takes from everyday transactions that it calls taxes In short, the solution is to remove IS from the money, not the other way around, which only will only weaken and radicalize already struggling populations.
  • Topic: Economics, Terrorism, Military Strategy, Armed Struggle, Insurgency, Counterinsurgency
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Syria
  • Publication Date: 10-2014
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: As King Abdullah remains out of sight, worries persist over Saudi Arabia's ability to handle its many domestic and foreign issues The Sunni-Shi'a divide is now seen largely in terms of competition for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran But it is not just the Sunni-Shi'a tension which impacts the region as Saudi Arabia and Turkey also compete for primacy in the Arab Middle East; the three-way competition has been a key factor in the chronic conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen Common antipathy toward the self-declared Islamic State is the only glue that holds together the US-led coalition at this time: there's no consensus on how to defeat it, what to put in its place, and the role of Iran-issues made more complicated by questions about Saudi Arabia's internal decision process.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Islam, Power Politics, Counterinsurgency, Sectarian violence
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Turkey, Middle East, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria
  • Publication Date: 10-2014
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: Iran is attempting to link greater cooperation against the so-called Islamic State (IS) organization to concessions by the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany) in negotiations on Iran's nuclear program Iran and the P5+1 remain far apart on the core issue of Iran's uranium enrichment program, increasing the likelihood that the talks will be extended beyond the current deadline of November 24 Iran requires a nuclear deal to satisfy public expectations and to increase its influence on regional events, including the US-led effort against IS A key Iranian goal is to dissuade the coalition from expanding the anti-IS campaign to include destabilizing the Assad regime in Syria.
  • Topic: Arms Control and Proliferation, Diplomacy
  • Political Geography: Russia, United States, China, United Kingdom, Iran, Middle East, France, Germany, Syria
  • Publication Date: 10-2014
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: As if sustaining an effective coalition against the anti-Islamic State coalition weren't complicated enough, increasingly open Iranian support for Syrian and Iraqi Kurds has the potential to further destabilize the situation Geopolitical machinations have excluded Iran from the international coalition but geographical realities will ensure the country has a significant role to play in the future of both Iraq and Syria Iran is seeking to leverage its support for the Kurds as a way to bolster its beleaguered ally in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, and increase Iranian influence in Kurdish regions at the expense of Turkey and the West Overt Iranian support for the Kurds-while reaffirming support for Assad-will further stress the coalition, inevitably increasing sectarian tensions among members already grumbling that Assad and not IS is the true enemy; all while the West remains focused on IS and how to avoid entanglement in Syria As a sign of Iran's surprising Kurdish influence, Turkish and Iranian officials met on October 9 to discuss the unfolding events in Kobani, remarkable in that neither country is a member of the coalition but both hold most of the cards to resolve the immediate crisis.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, International Affairs, Counterinsurgency
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria
  • Author: Richard Barrett
  • Publication Date: 06-2014
  • Content Type: Special Report
  • Institution: The Soufan Group
  • Abstract: Over 12,000 fighters from at least 81 countries have joined the civil war in Syria, and the numbers continue to grow. Around 2,500 are from Western countries, including most members of the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. There are also several hundred from Russia. But the great majority are from the Arab World. Most are fighting with rebel groups, and increasingly with the most extreme among them; but many are also fighting with the Government, or with ethnic or faith communities that are trying to protect themselves from both sides. A lot are young, often teenagers, and a fair percentage of those arriving from non-Muslim majority countries are converts to Islam. These and others who share their faith commonly express their motivation as a religious obligation to protect fellow Muslims from attack. This sense of duty is captured by their loose use of the word ‘jihad’.
  • Topic: International Affairs
  • Political Geography: Syria