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  • Author: Engin Yüksel, Nancy Ezzeddine, Rena Netjes, Beatrice Noun, Erwin van Veen
  • Publication Date: 04-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations
  • Abstract: The Middle East was already plagued by war, famine and death in the form of the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as the US, radical extremism, the Kurdish question and Iraq’s many travails – in large part a result of decades of autocracy, corruption and repression. The outbreak of Covid-19 added pestilence to this trio and makes for a harmful long-term mix. With this in mind, the purpose of the brief is twofold: first, to examine the longer-term impact of the virus on political tensions and conflict in the region; and second, to explore opportunities for innovative conflict resolution that might be seized in the wake of Covid-19. In this way, we hope to stimulate something good coming out of this trying period yet.
  • Topic: Fragile States, Conflict, Crisis Management, COVID-19
  • Political Geography: Middle East
  • Author: Erwin van Veen
  • Publication Date: 06-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations
  • Abstract: On 10 July 2020, UN Security Council Resolution 2504 expires.1 It authorises humanitarian access from Turkey into northwest Syria. Should it not be extended, a humanitarian catastrophe will almost certainly occur. Fortunately, intense lobbying is already underway to avoid such an outcome. But other actions are essential beyond the resolution’s renewal. Key among those is the need for a shift in approach: instead of handling northwest Syria as a humanitarian emergency, the area should be treated as a protracted crisis to reflect the absence of a short-term solution to the predicament of its four million residents, including 2.7 million internally displaced. In practice, this means that much more humanitarian aid should be delivered through local Syrian organisations, reliable mechanisms for cross-line aid operations should be introduced, and the ground should be prepared for more EU engagement with Turkey and Russia. Without such actions, human suffering and its exploitation are bound to increase.
  • Topic: United Nations, Syrian War, Crisis Management, Humanitarian Crisis
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria, Idlib
  • Author: Engin Yüksel
  • Publication Date: 09-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations
  • Abstract: Recent Turkish interventions in parts of Syria, Iraq and Turkey itself, look like pushing various Kurdish armed forces and political groupings towards ‘defeat’ via a concerted regional strategy that combines battlefield action with repression and co-optation. But the ‘anti-terrorist’ frame and tactics that Ankara uses in a bid to solve its Kurdish problem feature many sticks and no compromises to improve Kurdish collective minority rights. It is likely that this approach will inhibit peaceful resistance and fail to reduce support for armed groups like the PKK and PYD despite their own authoritarian practices. Moreover, Turkey’s new regional militarism risks escalating conflict across the Middle East because of the complex international and transnational contexts in which Ankara’s interventions take place.
  • Topic: International Affairs, Non State Actors, Conflict, Kurds
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Turkey, Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Nick Grinstead, Christopher Solomon, Jesse McDonald
  • Publication Date: 01-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations
  • Abstract: The Eagles of the Whirlwind are one of the many militias that have fought on the part of President Assad’s forces in the Syrian civil war. The regime allowed it to defend and police Syrian territory and, in some cases, to fight alongside the Syrian Arab Army on the frontlines. The group proved to be a capable and effective paramilitary auxiliary. What makes the Eagles of interest is that its parent political party - the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) – was able to increase the space for its political activities in exchange for the battlefield services of its militia. This is not a mean feat under the authoritarian system of decades of Assad-rule that brooked no political diversity whatsoever. It is all the more remarkable because the SSNP has historically been a political rival to the Syrian Ba’ath party. This policy brief analyses the main interests and dynamics by which the SSNP managed to translate the battlefield support and achievements of the Eagles into ministerial positions and open recruitment rallies for party members across regime-held territory. It also examines the SSNP as a novel form of support to the Assad regime that traded greater political auton¬omy for paramilitary mobilization in support of the regime - without, so far, resulting in a more permanent role for the Eagles in the Syrian security architecture. While accepting greater political autonomy for the SSNP was a price the Assad regime was willing to pay for extra auxiliary fighting capacity, it remains to be seen how durable the SSNP’s hard-won autonomy will be.
  • Topic: Security, Non State Actors, Authoritarianism, Syrian War, Militias, Bashar al-Assad
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Erwin van Veen, Engin Yüksel
  • Publication Date: 06-2019
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations
  • Abstract: This policy brief analyses the official discourse and actual practices of Turkish control and reconstruction in northwestern Syria. It finds that Turkey pursues a strategy that seeks to achieve control and influence through a mix of military occupation and fullscale reconstruction based on the logic of Turkification and the deployment abroad of the domestic apparatus of the Turkish state. The main objective of this strategy is to contain and undo the politico-territorial gains of the Syrian Kurds. In the process, Turkey largely bypasses the Syrian National Coalition. While this ‘reconstruct-the-buffer-zone’ strategy has been comparatively successful in the Al-Bab-Azaz-Jarablus area, it is running into trouble in the Kurdish-dominated Afrin area due to heavy-handed Turkish tactics of repression and the insurgency campaign that was launched by the Syrian Kurds. Yet, the nature of Turkish reconstruction engagement suggest it is there to stay, which in turn is likely to prolong the Syrian conflict. It will also create several problems from an EU policy perspective, including repression of Syria’s Kurds, an uncertain future of Syrian refugees in Turkey and violation of international law.
  • Topic: Foreign Policy, Conflict, Syrian War, Kurds
  • Political Geography: Turkey, Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Tobias von Lossow
  • Publication Date: 07-2018
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations
  • Abstract: With the liberation of Mosul from so-called Islamic State (IS) in November 2017, Iraq entered – once again – a post-conflict period. In his Policy Brief Tobias von Lossow analyses how shrinking water quantities and acutely declining water quality pose tremendous challenges in the process of rebuilding the country: Dam building in Turkey and Iran has contributed to a remarkably reduced water inflow of the Euphrates and Tigris; Iraqi water installations had been in very poor condition before IS used water as a weapon and further damaged infrastructure; Tigris River’s waterflow upstream of Baghdad requires careful coordination between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and central government; extremely salinised water resources and environmental degradation in the Marshes risk the extinction of agricultural activities and livelihoods in that area. To address these challenges, technical measures will be important, and necessary – for instance, investment in water infrastructure. But that will not be nearly enough, as the water issue has the potential to accelerate re-emerging social divisions and political fragmentation and thus undermine Iraq’s stability and security. The political implications of water policies must be carefully taken into account in Iraq’s postconflict process and should complement technical efforts in this crucial sector. The basin-wide protection of the supply infrastructure could serve as a technical as well as a political entry point for water cooperation in the region.
  • Topic: Natural Resources, Water, Infrastructure, Conflict
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Middle East
  • Author: Samar Batrawi, Ana Uzelac
  • Publication Date: 09-2018
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations
  • Abstract: Syrian society is more socially, politically and geographically fragmented than ever before. None of the social problems that caused the 2011 protests have been resolved. Nevertheless, during recent months the Syrian regime has been trying to foster the image that Syria is entering a post-war phase in which a unified and stable Syria can flourish under President Bashar al-Assad. The fact that more than half of the country’s pre-war population is living in exile and has no part in this new social contract of sorts is conveniently omitted from the image presented of this ‘new’ Syria. These refugees will likely continue to live in precarious conditions, with few prospects for safe and voluntary return. In this policy brief authors Samar Batrawi and Ana Uzelac identify four tools the Syrian regime has at its disposal to control the return of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). It is the second in a series that explores practical considerations of potential European involvement in specific areas of reconstruction in Assad-ruled Syria (the first policy brief on urban reconstruction can be found here.) The brief puts these tools in the perspective of the broader conflict dynamics affecting refugees and IDPs and identifies implications for Western European policy. It concludes that rather than resigning to the limited possibilities for structural political engagement in Syria, Western European policymakers should invest in ways to mitigate the material and political dispossession of more than half of Syria’s pre-war population.
  • Topic: Refugee Issues, Displacement, Conflict, Syrian War, Bashar al-Assad
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria
  • Author: Nancy Ezzeddine, Erwin van Veen
  • Publication Date: 11-2018
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations
  • Abstract: It has become clear since Iraq’s May 2018 elections that many of the armed groups that make up the country’s Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi (aka Popular Mobilization Forces) intend to fully integrate into the Iraqi Security Forces and/or disband at some point now that the fight against the Islamic State (IS) has reached a much lower level of intensity. Several groups are less likely to do so, however, including those linked with Iran. Although all 50+ Hashd groups have been brought under the legal purview of the Iraqi state, in practice a number continue to operate autonomously. The fragmented nature of both the Iraqi state’s coercive capabilities and the country’s political landscape will make it difficult, in the short term, to compel reluctant groups to integrate into state security forces or disband. Pushing for enforcement of such compliance risks violence and is best avoided. At the same time, using a broad set of indicators to monitor Hashd-related events and incidents based on open, online sources, this policy brief provides substantial evidence that some Hashd groups are using their autonomy to strengthen their power base in ways that will complicate achieving greater integration in the future. Our research suggests that policy makers in Baghdad and Western capitals should support four initiatives that can help limit this risk without triggering large-scale violence: Gradually establish a direct, incentive-based relationship between Hashd fighters and the state to shift the loyalties of fighters over time. Tighten local command, control and coordination mechanisms of all state security actors to compartmentalise the way in which Hashd groups operate, especially locally. Ensure that (international) reconstruction funds have strong in-built safeguards and standards that reduce corruption and do not contribute to the growing penetration of the Iraqi economy by armed actors, e.g. by contracting them. Address the root causes of the emergence of IS to remove the rationale for some Hashd groups to retain arms (and to make Iraq safer).
  • Topic: Non State Actors, Conflict, Militias
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Middle East