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  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Africa Center for Strategic Studies
  • Abstract: Militant Islamist groups in Africa set a record pace of activity in 2019, reflecting a doubling of militant Islamist activity from 2013. Expanded activity in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin underscores diversification of threat from Somalia.
  • Topic: United Nations, Violent Extremism, ISIS, Militant Islam
  • Political Geography: Africa, North Africa, Mozambique, Somalia, Sahel, Lake Chad Basin
  • Publication Date: 01-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Africa Center for Strategic Studies
  • Abstract: Declines in violent activity linked to Boko Haram and al Shabaab are balanced by increases in the Sahel, generating a mixed picture of the challenge posed by militant Islamist groups in Africa.
  • Topic: Violent Extremism, ISIS, Islamic State, Militant Islam
  • Political Geography: Africa, Mozambique, Somalia, Mali, Chad, Niger
  • Publication Date: 07-2019
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Africa Center for Strategic Studies
  • Abstract: A surge of attacks in the Sahel coupled with declines in activity by Boko Haram, ISIS, and al Shabaab reflect the constantly shifting threats posed by militant Islamist groups in Africa.
  • Topic: Violent Extremism, ISIS, Militant Islam
  • Political Geography: Africa, Egypt, Somalia, Mali, Sahel
  • Author: Anthony H. Cordesman
  • Publication Date: 01-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: The United States, its allies, and international organizations are just beginning to come to grips with the civil dimensions of "failed state" wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, the Sudans, Syria, and Yemen. In each case, it is clear that the civil dimension of the war will ultimately be as important as the military one. Any meaningful form of "victory" requires far more than defeating the current extremist threat in military terms, and reaching some temporary compromise between the major factions that divide the country. The current insurgent and other security threats exist largely because of the deep divisions within the state, the past and current failures of the government to deal with such internal divisions, and the chronic failure to meet the economic, security, and social needs of much of the nation's population. In practical terms, these failures make a given host government, other contending factions, and competing outside powers as much of a threat to each nation’s stability and future as Islamic extremists and other hostile forces. Regardless of the scale of any defeat of extremists, the other internal tensions and divisions with each country also threaten to make any such “victory” a prelude to new forms of civil war, and/or an enduring failure to cope with security, stability, recovery, and development. Any real form of victory requires a different approach to stability operations and civil-military affairs. In each case, the country the U.S. is seeking to aid failed to make the necessary economic progress and reforms to meet the needs of its people – and sharply growing population – long before the fighting began. The growth of these problems over a period of decades helped trigger the sectarian, ethnic, and other divisions that made such states vulnerable to extremism and civil conflict, and made it impossible for the government to respond effectively to crises and wars.
  • Topic: Security, War, Fragile/Failed State, ISIS, Conflict
  • Political Geography: Afghanistan, Africa, United States, Iraq, Middle East, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sundan
  • Author: Melissa Dalton
  • Publication Date: 02-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: 2017 marked a significant shift in the two wars in Syria. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Coalition forces drove ISIS from its self-proclaimed caliphate capital in Raqqa, across northern Syria, and down the Euphrates River Valley. Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, backed by Russia and Iran, secured key population areas and strategic locations in the center and coast, and stretched to the eastern border to facilitate logistics and communications for Iranian-backed militias. In both wars, Syrian civilians have lost profoundly. They also have shown incredible resilience. Still, the outcome of both wars is inconclusive. Although major areas have been cleared of ISIS, SDF and Coalition forces are fighting the bitter remnants of ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. Enduring security in ISIS-cleared areas now depends on governance and restoration of services. Turkey’s intervention into Syrian Kurdish-controlled Afrin risks pulling the sympathetic Kurdish components of the SDF away from the counterterrorism and stabilization efforts in Syria’s east in order to fight Turkey, a U.S. ally. With a rumbling Sunni insurgency in pockets of Syria’s heartland, Assad and his supporters continue to pummel Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus and threaten Idlib. They are unleashing both conventional and chemical weapons on the remnants of Syrian opposition fighters and indiscriminately targeting civilians. The Trump administration now is attempting to connect the outcome of these two wars. The Obama administration tried similarly but ultimately prioritized the counter-ISIS mission. The drivers of the Syrian civil war and the ISIS war are rooted in the same problem: bad governance. Thus, a sensible resolution of both wars must address Syria’s governance. However, squaring U.S. policy goals with current operations and resources the United States has employed in Syria will require a degree of calibration, stitching together several lines of effort, and committing additional U.S. and international resources. Orchestrating this level of U.S. effort has proven elusive over the last six years.
  • Topic: Civil War, Violent Extremism, ISIS, Civilians
  • Political Geography: United States, Iran, Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Anthony H Cordesman
  • Publication Date: 06-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: The Iraqi election in May 2018 has both highlighted Iraq's political uncertainties and the security challenges the United States now faces in Iraq and the Middle East. What initially appeared to be a relative honest election gradually emerged to have involved massive potential fraud, and forced a manual recount of the results of a failed electronic voting system. Its results have cast Iraq's ability to form an effective post-ISIS government into serious doubt, along with its ability to carry our follow-up provincial and local elections in October. At the same time, even the initial results of the election raised serious concerns over the level of future U.S. confrontation with Iran. The United States faced grave uncertainties regarding Iran's influence in Iraq even when it seemed that Iraq's existing Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, was likely to win the election. The election's uncertain results, and U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement, now virtually ensure that a far more intense struggle for influence will take place in Iraq and the rest of the region.
  • Topic: Elections, Democracy, ISIS, Election watch, JCPOA
  • Political Geography: United States, Iraq, Iran, Middle East
  • Author: Melissa Dalton
  • Publication Date: 08-2018
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Abstract: As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton assemble their own senior Middle East teams, a number of U.S. interests hang in the balance in Syria: the enduring defeat of ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Levant; the vulnerability of neighboring Iraq to extremist disruption; the return of Syrian refugees; the mitigation of Iranian influence; the need to both compete and cooperate with Russia to end the civil war; and the security of regional partners and allies. U.S. values are also at stake: the conflict has precipitated a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions, with over 500,000 civilians dead and 12 million displaced. The U.S. ability to shape high-level outcomes in Syria is limited. Russia and Iran have outmaneuvered the United States there. With their backing, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is extending his control throughout Syrian territory—most recently via an offensive on southwestern Syria, previously the site of a “de-escalation zone” agreed between the United States, Russia, and Jordan, precipitating immense civilian displacement. Assad’s consolidation of extremists in Idlib amongst civilians raises the specter of another slaughter like Aleppo in 2016. The UN-backed Geneva process is moribund, though still worth supporting, while the United States has limited influence in the Astana and Sochi processes, which are also demonstrating limited returns. More broadly, Assad is already also brutally shaping the facts on the ground regarding “reconstruction” through forcible movement of populations, demographic engineering, constricting property rights, and predatory governance that favors loyalists. In his meeting with President Putin, President Trump reportedly discussed Syria, although there was no official joint summary of the summit. The discussion may have included options for drawing down U.S. forces in Syria in exchange for Russia convincing Iran to minimize its presence in Syria. However, Russia lacks the will and leverage over Iran to fulfill such a bargain. The national picture is bleak. Zooming into the Syrian map more closely, one subnational enclave currently outside of Assad’s control has taken some steps towards stability. Eastern Syria still offers leverage to salvage a marginally but meaningfully better outcome for U.S. interests and the Syrian population. In the weeks ahead, the United States should: take stock of the sources of leverage in eastern Syria; articulate its goal for translating these sources of leverage into a defined political endstate; develop this stated goal into a broader stabilization operational framework; and then execute “the art of deal” in developing a burden-sharing plan to support these objectives.
  • Topic: Civil War, Fragile/Failed State, Al Qaeda, Refugees, ISIS, Displacement
  • Political Geography: United States, Iraq, Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Genci Mucaj
  • Publication Date: 03-2017
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Council of American Ambassadors
  • Abstract: A few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine the regional transformation underway in the Middle East. From the Arab Spring to the rise of ISIS, to a catastrophic Syrian war, we see a Middle East in turmoil and crisis. While the region’s geopolitical map varies, the root causes of conflict remain the same. What Is Pan Arabism, Sunni Islam and Shi’ism? In the early 1960s, Pan Arabism led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt attempted to unite Egypt and Syria as well as other Arab countries in one Pan Arab Union where member nations would be linked by a common language and culture despite differences in their respec­tive religious beliefs. The failure of this noble effort, I believe, resulted in the beginning of radical Islam. Arabism’s secular ideology that aimed to bring together people of all faiths in a modern Arabic society faced strong opposition from traditional Islam. The Islamic con­servative backlash was especially acute in tribal societies and led to the creation of a movement which became known as political Islam. In subsequent years, Arab countries suffered deep socio-economic and political crises. Rapid population growth[1] and a rural exodus in favor of large cities overwhelmed housing, employment and other resources, leading to social dislocation, instability and political radicalization. The radicalization of Sunni Muslims became a defensive tool against other religions and sectarianism. Individual Sunni scholars put their emphasis on incorporating Sharia law in all forms of government whereby their Holy Book would be the sole political manifesto. This action created constant institutional ambiguity as there was no recognized clerical religious authority to decide on specific matters of governance. This vacuum allowed many Sunni organizations, militants, self-proclaimed caliphs and radicalized groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, Al Nusra and other lesser known groups to impose their own view of Sharia. While the Sunnis do not have one supreme authority figure who sets the moral tone, the Shi’ites do. In the Shi’ite denomination, there is one supreme religious leader who unites all Shi’ites together, with Iran as its foremost state and Khomeini as the supreme, undisputed leader. Iran Iran’s sphere of influence in the Shi’ite world extends from the Strait of Hormuz with Houthis in Yemen, to Lebanon with Hezbollah, to Iraq and Syria. Shi’ite radicals put their emphasis on the character of the ruler who oversees the implementation of Sharia law. Foreign fighters who support Bashar al-Assad in Syria are sponsored by Iran, come in large numbers from Afghanistan and include other Shi’ites from countries that were once part of the former Soviet Union. Syria is extremely important to Iran. It links Tehran with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it closes the circle of influence in the region, making Iran a regional superpower. Besides the manpower Iran supplies for the war in Syria, it is estimated that Iran has spent nearly $1 billion in cash to prop up the Assad regime. Lifting the embargo and applying the 5+1 format conditions in the Iran Nuclear Agreement will make Iran economically viable once again. The Agreement is seen as a victory for Iran and its domestic policy, but it will have absolutely no effect in changing Iran’s policy in the region. Under no circumstances would Iran allow Assad to lose Syria, and that’s where old partners as well as adversaries have found common ground. Last August, Russian aircraft conducted raids in Syria after launching from Iran’s Hamedan military base, sending an important message to the West about this new/old alliance. Turkey, the Refugee Crisis and the European Union Iran’s new role in global geopolitics has implications for another key player in the region—Turkey. Turkey’s foreign policy and its international influence has waned as Ankara is faced with growing domestic violence. The ongoing terrorist threats in Turkey are not only from the Kurdish separatist movement and its Syrian PDY arm but are also from a faction of a radical group that deserted the Assad Army known as the Syrian Liberation Army (SLA). The SLA was originally supported by Turkey, a few European Union (EU) member nations and the Gulf States with the aim of getting rid of Assad. In part because of these domestic concerns, Turkey failed to recognize Russian and Iranian power-sharing ambitions in the region. The influence of Iran in the Shi’ite world and Russia’s interests in the region cannot be underestimated. New geopolitical alliances and the refugee crisis in Europe have created a serious dilemma. The European Union’s underlying principles have been called into question. Dealing with the influx of refugees fleeing war-torn areas goes beyond borders. The lack of a unifying foreign and defense policy will remain an EU challenge for the foreseeable future. Moreover, Turkey and Greece and other countries whose Mediterranean shores have accepted waves of refugees cannot face these challenges alone. Viewing the refugee crises as a regional issue is a mistake. This crisis is certainly a global concern. The European Union is now desperately trying to convince Turkey to shoulder more of the burden even though Turkey has been housing over 2.5 million refugees since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Europe and the whole world were transfixed last year, watching hundreds of thousands of desperate people crossing mountains, rivers and iron fences that were built across Europe. Most of these refugees ended up living in tents provided by the Turkish government. Turkish concerns about the plight of the refugees, however, fell upon deaf ears. This early warning of a pending humanitarian crisis was something that EU leaders failed to understand. By closing its borders, the European Union will not resolve the refugee crisis. It may, in fact, lead to bigger problems. Conflicts must be tackled at their origin. The European Union must find a way to balance its economic and security concerns with its inherent humanitarian obligation to help alleviate the suffering of immigrants who have walked thousands of miles in order to reach southeast Europe. Turkey and the European Union have serious issues when it comes to Turkey’s demand for nine billion euros to keep the refugees inside its borders. It certainly would cost the European Union less to have Turkey become a full EU member rather than continuing to deal with mounting pressure from the influx of refugees from the Middle East and beyond. Security is a global issue and cannot be handled in isolation. Europe is stronger, safer and bigger with Turkey and the Balkans inside its structures rather than outside. There is no better solution for these turbulent times than a strong and unified European Union. While the United States is trying to take a leadership role to find a solution, there are numerous bumps in the road. The Iran deal is viewed by some as a good step to satisfy and control Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but it is not enough. Europe is still trying to come to grips with Britain’s departure from the European Union. Russia’s attempts to increase its sphere of influence, on the other hand, makes the landscape even more complicated unless each individual player in the West maintains its geo­political influence in the region. The U.S. role in the crisis is vital, particularly in convincing the EU partners to stick together.
  • Topic: Nuclear Power, European Union, ISIS, Sunni, Shia
  • Political Geography: United States, Europe, Iran, Turkey, Middle East, Syria
  • Publication Date: 03-2017
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Africa Center for Strategic Studies
  • Abstract: After losing territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has affirmed its intention to expand its operations into Africa. A review of militant group activity on the continent, however, suggests that ISIS will be challenged to do so.
  • Topic: Regional Cooperation, Violent Extremism, ISIS, Militant Islam
  • Political Geography: Africa, Iraq, Middle East, North Africa, Syria
  • Publication Date: 04-2017
  • Content Type: Working Paper
  • Institution: Africa Center for Strategic Studies
  • Abstract: A review of militant Islamist group activity in Africa over the past year reveals considerable variation and a geographic concentration.
  • Topic: Violent Extremism, ISIS, Militant Islam, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram
  • Political Geography: Africa, Libya, Algeria, North Africa, Tunisia