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  • Author: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: During the war years in Syria, the northwest, specifically Idlib, has become a site of heavy internal displacement. Observers on the ground recognize the green buses traveling to Idlib carrying migrants who have refused reconciliation agreements with the Damascus regime. Since around 2014, a range of jihadist, Islamist, and Salafi actors have wielded control in the area, the most recent being the al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which has ruled—ineffectively and brutally—through its so-called Syrian Salvation Government. But the group's reign is unlikely to last long if current trends persist. The regime's recent move against the town of Maarat al-Numan suggests plans for a broader takeover in the northwest, aided by Russian firepower and other allies such as Iran. In this Policy Note filled with local insights, jihadism expert Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi presents the current scene in and around Idlib province, the last Syrian outpost still run by independent rebels. Absent an intervention by Turkey, the Assad regime will likely prevail in a campaign that quashes the insurgency at a high humanitarian cost.
  • Topic: Al Qaeda, Displacement, Military Intervention, Conflict, Syrian War
  • Political Geography: Russia, Iran, Turkey, Middle East, Syria, Idlib
  • Author: Michael Knights
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Enhancing deterrence and protecting Americans in Iraq and Syria requires a more formalized system for rationing out retaliatory strikes at the proper intensity, time, and place. When U.S. airstrikes targeted Kataib Hezbollah militia personnel and senior Iranian military figures on December 29 and January 3, they were releasing long-pent-up retaliation for a range of provocations by Iraqi militias. Yet while these powerful blows may have injected some caution into enemy calculations, such deterrence is likely to be a wasting asset. The most proximal trigger for the strikes—the killing of an American civilian contractor during Kataib Hezbollah’s December 27 rocket attack on the K-1 base in Kirkuk—was just one in a series of increasingly risky militia operations against U.S. facilities. Only good fortune has prevented more Americans from dying in attacks conducted since then, including January 8 (when Iranian ballistic missiles struck the U.S. portion of al-Asad Air Base, causing more than a hundred nonlethal traumatic brain injuries), January 26 (mortar strike on the dining hall at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad), January 31 (rockets fired at the U.S. site at Qayyarah West), February 10 (explosive device thrown at a U.S. logistical convoy south of Baghdad), and February 13 (rocket attack on U.S. site at Kirkuk). The United States has seemingly communicated to Tehran that it will strike Iraqi militias and Iranian targets if any Americans are killed, but this redline has opened up a dangerous gray zone in which Iran and its proxies are emboldened to continue their nonlethal attacks. Besides the fact that such high-risk attacks are destined to result in more American deaths at some point, they will also produce many more injuries if permitted to continue, as seen in the January 8 strike. More broadly, they will limit U.S. freedom of movement in Iraq and Syria, undermining the point of being there in the first place. This situation is unacceptable—the United States needs a way to deter such behavior even when attacks fall short of killing Americans. When faced with similar challenges in past decades, the U.S. military established reckoning systems that matched the punishment to the crime, with useful levels of predictability, proportionality, and accountability.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Military Affairs, Assassination, No-Fly Zones
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Fabrice Balanche
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Various displacement scenarios may unfold as the fighting escalates, each carrying a high risk of negative humanitarian and economic consequences even if the parties live up to their promises. The battle for Idlib province, the last stronghold of Syrian rebel forces, is heating up again. As Turkish troops clash with Assad regime forces and displaced civilians continue piling up along the border, various foreign and domestic players are considering moves that could send hundreds of thousands of refugees to other parts of Syria, northern Iraq, or Europe.
  • Topic: Refugees, Displacement, Conflict, Syrian War
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Europe, Turkey, Syria, Idlib
  • Author: Oula A. Alrifai
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Besides highlighting Assad’s financial mismanagement, the recent unrest gives the international community a genuine opportunity to push for transition while bolstering the more prosperous local administration in the northeast. Since mid-January, shop owners, government employees, students, and even children have been gathering in the streets of various Syrian communities to express their frustration with the Assad regime’s economic policies and untruths. Although the protests remain small for now, the fact that they have persistently carried on in the middle of regime-controlled territory highlights Bashar al-Assad’s potential vulnerability on these issues. In Suwayda, a Druze-majority province in the south, residents have protested the sharp drop in the value of the Syrian pound/lira and the deteriorating economic situation in general. In the central-western town of Salamiya, protestors were seen chanting “we want to live.” And in the Suwayda town of Shahba, demonstrators raised loaves of bread in the air while openly criticizing Bouthaina Shaaban, Assad’s political and media advisor. The latter protest was partly spurred by a recent interview on the pro-Assad television network al-Mayadeen, where Shaaban not only claimed that the country’s current economy is “fifty times better than what it was in 2011,” but also declared that “Syrians are self-sufficient in everything.” In response, protestors sarcastically noted that her comments referred to her own household’s economy, not Syria’s. Elsewhere, former agriculture minister Nour al-Din Manna described Shaaban’s remarks about the war-torn country as “hard to believe,” and a closer look at the country’s finances supports this disbelief.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Economics, Syrian War, Currency
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Lebanon, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Martha Crenshaw
  • Publication Date: 02-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: United States Institute of Peace
  • Abstract: The 2011 civil war in Syria attracted thousands of fighters from at least seventy countries to join the Islamic State. Al-Shabaab carried out large-scale attacks on civilian targets in Uganda and Kenya as retribution for the deployment of peacekeeping forces in Somalia. In this report, Martha Crenshaw considers the extent to which civil war and foreign military intervention function as a rationale for transnational terrorism, and how understanding the connections between terrorism, civil war, and weak governance can help the United States and its allies mount an appropriate response.
  • Topic: Terrorism, War, Non State Actors, Islamic State, Transnational Actors, Peace, Al-Shabaab
  • Political Geography: Uganda, Kenya, Africa, Middle East, Syria, Somalia, United States of America
  • Author: Bríd Ní Ghráinne
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Institute of International Relations Prague
  • Abstract: On Wednesday 9 October 2019, Turkey launched a cross-border operation in Northern Syria. Turkey justified its actions as a response to an ‘imminent terrorist threat’ from Kurdish-led forces. Its operation was directed at pushing back these groups from its border and creating a ‘safe zone’ in Syria where up to two million Syrian refugees can be resettled. This reflection aims to assess whether the Turkish operation to establish the safe zone was lawful; and whether the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the safe zone is in conformity with international law.
  • Topic: Human Rights, International Law, Refugees, Syrian War, Humanitarian Crisis
  • Political Geography: Turkey, Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Mark Furness, Annabelle Houdret
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: German Development Institute (DIE)
  • Abstract: State–society relations are in flux across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), nearly a decade after the Arab uprisings. The protests and revolts that swept the region in 2011 arose from widespread rejection of the post-independence Arab social contracts. These were based on redistribution of rents from natural resources and other forms of transfers and subsidies, as “compensation” for acquiescence to political and economic authoritarianism. In several MENA countries, including Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, but also in Algeria, Lebanon and Palestine, the old social contracts have been destroyed by civil conflicts and internationally sponsored wars, which in some cases predated the 2011 uprisings. Since broken social contracts are at the root of conflict in the MENA region, supporting new social contracts should be the core objective of development cooperation with the region’s most conflict-affected countries. But “post-conflict reconstruction” often ignores the fact that conflicts do not end with peace agreements, and conflict-affected societies need more than reconstructed infrastructure, institutional capacity and private sector investment if they are to avoid violence in the future. Development agencies term this kind of cooperation “resilience”: promoting political, economic, social and environmental stability, rather than risking uncontrollable, revolutionary transformation. However, resilience has often provided cover for short-term measures aimed at preserving the position of particular actors and systems. Development cooperation needs to get beyond reconstruction and resilience approaches that often fail to foster the long-term stability they promise. By focussing on the social contract, development cooperation with conflict-affected countries can provide a crucial link between peacebuilding, reconstruction and longer-term socioeconomic and political development. It can thereby contribute not only to short-term, but also to long-term, sustainable stability. Using the social contract as an analytical lens can increase understanding not only of what donors should avoid doing, but also where they should concentrate their engagement during transitions from civil war. Practical examples from challenging contexts in the MENA region suggest that donors can make positive contributions in support of new social contracts when backing (a) stakeholder dialogues, (b) governance and reforms, and (c) socioeconomic inclusion. In Libya, the socioeconomic dialogue process has brought stakeholders together to outline a new economic vision for the country. The Municipal Development Programme in Palestine focusses on improving the accountability and delivery of local institutions. The Moroccan Economic, Social and Environmental Council provides an example of a process that engages previously marginalised groups. These programmes are all examples of targeted efforts to build cooperation among the groups that make up MENA societies. They aim to broaden decision-making processes, and to increase the impact of specific measures with the ultimate objective of improving state–society relations. They could be adapted for other fragile contexts, with external support. In backing more of these kinds of activities, donors could make stronger contributions to sustainable, long-term peace- and state-building processes in conflict-affected MENA countries.
  • Topic: Development, Natural Resources, Conflict, Peace, Social Contract
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Middle East, Libya, Yemen, Palestine, Algeria, North Africa, Lebanon, Syria
  • Author: David Pollock
  • Publication Date: 01-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: As the United States prepares to withdraw its 2,000 troops from Syria, it has one last essential mission to accomplish. Those U.S. forces have fought successfully, hand in hand, with 60,000 Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against Islamic State terrorists for the past four years. And President Trump’s latest statement about this, on January 2, noted his desire to protect these Kurds. So, despite all obstacles, the United States should still try to protect that brave and loyal militia in the short term, and secure a safer medium-term future for the Syrian Kurds and their local partners.
  • Topic: International Security, International Affairs
  • Political Geography: Syria
  • Author: Michael Knights
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Despite the damage wrought by the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, the main drivers of Islamic State resurgence in Iraq can still be restrained by local U.S. engagement, which is now even more vital than before. The gross uncertainty surrounding the future of counterterrorism operations in northeast Syria is raising understandable fears of an Islamic State comeback in Iraq. After all, the IS resurgence of 2011-2014 was partially driven by the chaotic war conditions in Syria, and suppressing the group there will be extremely challenging in the coming months amid U.S. withdrawal and Turkish invasion. Another resurgence in Iraq is hardly inevitable, however—the country is subject to different internal drivers, and the United States is still well-positioned to lead international support of Baghdad’s counterterrorism efforts. Yet Washington will need to stay engaged and urgently address new problems if it hopes to prevent another disastrous insurgency.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Military Affairs, Counter-terrorism, Islamic State
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Middle East, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Aaron Y. Zelin
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Recent U.S. decisions have seemingly ignored the degree to which the group is continuing its insurgent attacks and reorganizing its supporters inside increasingly vulnerable detention facilities. In contrast to President Trump’s statements over the past half-year, the Islamic State has yet to be defeated outright. True, the group is nowhere near as capable as it was in 2015, but it is steadily rebuilding its capacities and attempting to break thousands of its supporters out of detainment. The vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal and Turkish invasion will create more space for those efforts, while compounding the original problem of states being unwilling to deal with their citizens who joined IS and remain in Syria. To avoid becoming known as the administration that allowed IS to reemerge and, perhaps, conduct mass-casualty attacks in Europe or elsewhere, President Trump and his cabinet should take urgent action to salvage and mobilize their surviving ties with Washington’s longtime partner against IS, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Military Affairs, Violent Extremism, Islamic State
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Middle East, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Oula A. Alrifai
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Tehran and its proxies have been exerting hard and soft power in northeast Syria, combining military consolidation with economic, social, and religious outreach in order to cement their long-term influence. On September 30, Syria and Iraq reopened their main border crossing between al-Bukamal and al-Qaim, which had been formally closed for five years. The circumstances surrounding the event were telling—the ceremony was delayed by a couple weeks because of unclaimed foreign airstrikes on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps targets in east Syria following the Iranian attack against Saudi oil facilities earlier that month. What exactly have the IRGC and its local proxies been doing in Deir al-Zour province? And what does this activity tell us about Iran’s wider plans there?
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Education, Military Strategy, Geopolitics, Conflict, Soft Power
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Bilal Wahab, Barbara A. Leaf
  • Publication Date: 09-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Even as Baghdad works to rein in militias that invite outside attacks, Washington needs to be patient with the country’s contradictions in the near term and give space for it to exert sovereignty in the long term. As President Trump met with Iraqi president Barham Salih today on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, they were no doubt buoyed by their governments’ mutual conclusion that the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq did not originate from Iraq. Initial concerns about that possibility were well founded—a previous attack on a major Saudi pipeline was carried out from Iraqi territory this May, and multiple Iraqi militia facilities have been struck since June, reportedly by Israel. Each of these developments was linked to Shia “special groups” with known ties to Iran. On July 1, Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdulmahdi ordered these and other militias to fold themselves under state authority, but so far he has been unable to impose order on them. The government has also failed to prevent them from threatening neighboring countries at Iran’s presumed behest—an especially dangerous lapse given that Iraqi authorities cannot protect the territory these militias hold from external retaliation. To keep other countries from turning Iraq into a proxy battleground, Baghdad needs to rein in the unruliest militias. This is a tall order because Tehran has spent fifteen years building them into a parallel force of its own. Given the willingness these “special groups” have shown when asked to attack U.S. troops, fight on the Assad regime’s behalf in Syria, or secure other Iranian interests, they risk implicating Iraq in Tehran’s regional confrontations with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and/or Israel.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Bilateral Relations, Non State Actors, Proxy War
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United States of America, Gulf Nations
  • Author: Dana Stroul, Charles Thépaut
  • Publication Date: 12-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: Renewing the UN cross-border mechanism is crucial to helping millions of needy Syrian civilians, preventing Russia and Assad from weaponizing aid deliveries, and safeguarding future international assistance efforts. On December 19, the UN Security Council is expected to vote on the renewal of Resolution 2449, which authorizes the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid to Syrians without the Assad regime’s permission. The outcome will determine whether the regime is allowed to approve and entirely control who receives UN aid, and in what areas of the country it is available. If the resolution is not renewed, aid delivery will become yet another tool for shifting the war’s trajectory in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor, with dire implications for civilians living in areas not under regime control. The recent Security Council debate over the resolution reflects broader developments inside Syria. Russia has coordinated with China to argue that current battlefield trends are in the regime’s favor, attempting to use the aid debate as a means of coercing political recognition of Assad. Others have proposed adding a fifth crossing along the northern border at Tal Abyad to address the increased needs of Syrian civilians trapped in the latest Turkish military operation. UN Security-General Antonio Guterres has recalled how essential the mechanism is to reaching people in need.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Humanitarian Aid, International Law, United Nations, Syrian War
  • Political Geography: Middle East, United Nations, Syria, United States of America
  • Author: Bilal Wahab
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • Abstract: The U.S. withdrawal of troops from northeast Syria has placed Kurdish fighters in a near-impossible situation, while alarming Kurdish communities in other countries, but Washington can still take steps to mitigate the damage. On October 21, footage of Kurdish civilians heckling withdrawing U.S. troops in both Iraq and Syria offered a rare and disturbing sight. This scene was facilitated by President Trump’s October 6 decision to unilaterally withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, in effect paving the way for the Turkish military to cross the Syrian border three days later and attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Thereafter, a safe haven quickly became a war zone. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 180,000 people have now been forced from their homes. James Jeffrey, the U.S. administration’s envoy to Syria, told Congress on October 22 that the fighting has resulted in hundreds of SDF deaths, a likely war crime by a pro-Turkish militia, and the escape from prison of more than a hundred Islamic State (IS) fighters. The U.S. action has unsurprisingly left the Syrian Kurds feeling abandoned and exposed against the militarily superior Turkish army and its Arab militias. On a deeper level, America appears to have entirely lost Kurdish sympathy and trust, while at the same time failing to either deter or appease Turkey. Rather than ameliorate matters, President Trump has poured salt on the wound. He responded to backlash against his policy by claiming the Kurds were “no angels” and that they had failed to contribute to the Allied cause in World War II, while characterizing their Syrian military campaign as a fight over “long-bloodstained sand.”
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Public Opinion, Military Affairs, Conflict
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Turkey, Middle East, Syria, United States of America, Rojava
  • Author: Natasha Hall, Benjamin Smith, Thomas McGee
  • Publication Date: 10-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: United States Institute of Peace
  • Abstract: Throughout the eight-year-long conflict in Syria, the movement of people and goods—including vital foodstuffs, medicines, equipment, and fuel—has often been severely restricted by periods of prolonged fighting. Yet in many areas, local arrangements, historical circumstances, and key actors have facilitated trade and movement across the lines of conflict. This report examines four cross-line areas in Syria and draws lessons for how these local dynamics might affect the resolution of the larger conflict and these communities in the long term.
  • Topic: Conflict, Syrian War, Mobility, Peace
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Alice Debarre
  • Publication Date: 12-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: International Peace Institute
  • Abstract: In recent decades, sanctions have increasingly been used as a foreign policy tool. The UN Security Council has imposed a total of fourteen sanctions regimes alongside those imposed autonomously by the EU, the US, and other countries. Despite efforts to institute more targeted sanctions regimes, these regimes continue to impede or prevent the provision of humanitarian assistance and protection. This policy paper focuses on the impact of sanctions regimes in four countries: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. It aims to assist the Security Council, relevant UN organs, UN member states, humanitarian actors, and other stakeholders in ensuring that humanitarian activities are safeguarded in contexts in which sanctions regimes apply. While there are no straightforward solutions, the paper offers several ways forward: Including language that safeguards humanitarian activities in sanctions regimes; Raising awareness and promoting multi-stakeholder dialogue; Conducting better, more systematic monitoring of and reporting on the impact of sanctions on humanitarian activities; Developing more and improved guidance on the scope of sanctions regimes; and Improving risk management and risk sharing. This paper is accompanied by an issue brief that provides further detail on the types of impact sanctions can have on humanitarian action.
  • Topic: Humanitarian Aid, Sanctions, UN Security Council
  • Political Geography: Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria, Somalia, United States of America, European Union
  • Publication Date: 11-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: The Sexual Violence Research Initiative
  • Abstract: Gender-based violence (GBV) is rooted in harmful gender norms and attitudes – unspoken social rules of behavior that are maintained by the approval or disapproval of a group. Gender roles and norms that condone violence against women are deeply embedded to varying degrees throughout most societies in the world, and are predictive of violence perpetration. Without changes in norms, laws and other interventions to reduce and prevent GBV can prove ineffective. Evidence indicates that transforming gender norms and power relations is one of the most effective ways of tackling violence against women.
  • Topic: Gender Issues, Culture, Women, Gender Based Violence , Sexual Violence
  • Political Geography: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, Syria, Jordan, Peru
  • Author: Jasmine El-Gamal
  • Publication Date: 03-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: European Council On Foreign Relations
  • Abstract: European governments must decide when and how to protect Syrian refugees who are voluntarily returning home They should do so using their remaining levers of influence in Syria, in line with European interests and UNHCR protection parameters. European engagement on voluntary refugee returns should be limited, cautious, and conditional. Europe must work with Middle Eastern host countries to prevent forced refugee returns. European governments must talk to all relevant stakeholders in the Syrian conflict, particularly Russia.
  • Topic: International Cooperation, International Affairs, Refugee Crisis
  • Political Geography: Syria
  • Author: Benjamin H. Friedman, Justin Logan
  • Publication Date: 05-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Defense Priorities
  • Abstract: The United States intervened in Syria’s civil war in two ways: (1) anti-Assad efforts—through aid to rebels to help foster regime change and with airpower, troops and support to a militia—and (2) anti-ISIS efforts—through aid to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to destroy the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate. The first mission was an ill-considered failure, the second a success.
  • Topic: Conflict Resolution, Civil War, Military Strategy, Peacekeeping, Military Affairs, Military Intervention, Peace
  • Political Geography: Russia, United States, Iran, Syria