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  • Author: Samar Batrawi
  • Publication Date: 05-2020
  • Content Type: Special Report
  • Institution: Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations
  • Abstract: During 2019, the original Syrian conflict entered its closing phases, except for the battlefields of Idlib and in the north east. As a result, conflict dynamics have become somewhat easier to read, as the regime and its key allies have shifted towards a triumphalist ‘post-war’ narrative and corresponding governance styles, deal-making and decision-making. These developments can be witnessed in three interlinked spheres: security, civil, and political economic practices. Together, they largely form the Assad regime’s political economy, which – although poorly understood due to limited access – is crucial to understand to assess the negative externalities likely to result from its wartime survival and re-entrenchment. The paper analyses six such externalities: 1. risk of conflict relapse due to economic pressures 2. the politics of refugees 3. risks and instrumentalisation of terrorism 4. regional instability 5. humanitarian culpability 6. deterioration of the international legal order. These externalities are interconnected and emerge from the political economy of the regime – the accumulation of its security, civil and political economic practices. Their nature and volume suggest that the Syrian civil war will plague its neighbors, as well as Europe, for a long time to come. These externalities also focus our attention on the fact that adequate containment strategies should be designed as a matter of urgency, to limit their negative impact.
  • Topic: Security, International Law, Political Economy, Terrorism, Refugees, Conflict, Syrian War, Bashar al-Assad
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Syria, Idlib
  • Author: Hamzeh al-Shadeedi, Erwin van Veen
  • Publication Date: 06-2020
  • Content Type: Special Report
  • Institution: Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations
  • Abstract: Iraq’s emergent democracy stands at an important junction. The continuing intensity of the protests that have rocked Iraq since early October 2019 shows that its citizens are only too aware of this. Moreover, the necessity of going through three government formation attempts to install a new prime minister and cabinet after the resignation of Adil Abdul-Mahdi in December 2019 suggests that Iraq’s political elites are conscious of the precarious state of ‘their’ democracy as well. Although, so far, with the intent to block rather than enable reform. This report largely focuses on how international actors can help strengthen the democratic mechanisms of Iraq’s political system. One contribution that they can – and should - make is to facilitate processes of contestation between Iraq’s social forces (its political parties, elite networks, tribes, ethno-sectarian groups, religious authorities and protestors) about the hierarchy of systemic reform priorities for the country’s political system, and the balance between the speed, scope and feasibility of their implementation so that such reform can be undertaken as peacefully and as well-informed as possible.
  • Topic: International Relations, Democracy, Political Science
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Middle East
  • Author: Lars Hauch
  • Publication Date: 08-2020
  • Content Type: Special Report
  • Institution: Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations
  • Abstract: This report examines Syria’s Constitutional Committee process and parallel military developments during the Syrian civil war to reveal that the two have so far been interconnected. It arrives at the conclusion that the Government of Syria and Russia created and subsequently manipulated various linkages between conference room and battlefield to increase their own advantage. This has included the use of the Constitutional Committee as a placeholder to avoid greater Western diplomatic, or even military, efforts to resolve the conflict; the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure to force opposition bodies out of Syria; and polarization of the Committee by engaging in continuous human rights abuses among the Syrian population during negotiations. The Constitutional Committee can still help build bridges, but this requires redressing the balance of forces on the battlefield first. A joint Turkish-European military humanitarian intervention in northwestern Syria can serve this purpose and revitalize efforts to negotiate a (late) solution to the war.
  • Topic: Diplomacy, Constitution, Humanitarian Intervention, Syrian War, Negotiation
  • Political Geography: Russia, Middle East, Syria
  • 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: Erwin van Veen, Hamzeh al-Shadeedi
  • Publication Date: 07-2018
  • Content Type: Special Report
  • Institution: Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations
  • Abstract: Iraqi Kurdistan has done well for itself in recent decades by carving out a largely autonomous region free of most governance and security interference from Baghdad. The alliance of convenience between the two pre-eminent Kurdish parties (PUK and KDP) effectively seized a number of opportunities to consolidate and expand Iraqi Kurdistan, such as the international no-fly zone (1991), the US intervention (2003), the crafting of a new constitution for Iraq (2005) and, arguably, even the rise of the Islamic State (IS) (2014). Yet, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) also faces a triple crisis. Politically, this includes the exclusive and increasingly repressive rule of the KDP and PUK in a context of mediocre governance, as well as strained relations between Erbil and Baghdad over the disputed territories. Economically, it includes a general downturn combined with serious financial disputes with Baghdad. Socially, it includes deteriorating popular satisfaction with the quality of rule and life in Kurdistan. In this report Erwin van Veen and al-Hamzeh al-Shadeedi analyse four factors that could drive future (in)stability in western Iraqi Kurdistan: 1) geopolitical tensions; 2) further clashes over the disputed territories; 3) growing dissatisfaction with the KDP and 4) protracted displacement. On balance, it does not consider the risk of immediate crisis or violence as being very high, but the report does note that many elements are in place that could easily trigger violent incidents with the potential of escalation. For each factor, the report proposes restraining factors, developments to monitor and trigger events. While international influence on the domestic politics of Iraqi Kurdistan is limited, coupling an offer of international (UN) mediation to facilitate resolution of the disputed territories with the development, or strengthening, of a dedicated fund that can rapidly initiate the reconstruction of the Greater Mosul area (including some of the disputed territories) would be a valuable intervention to further the peaceful development of Iraqi Kurdistan.
  • Topic: Governance, Political stability, Autonomy
  • Political Geography: Iraq, Middle East, Kurdistan
  • Author: Ana Uzelac, Jos Meester
  • Publication Date: 07-2018
  • Content Type: Special Report
  • Institution: Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations
  • Abstract: This report analyses the challenges of implementing a “protection in the region” agenda in Lebanon, a country that hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, and which has been the recipient of one of the largest per capita aid and support packages since 2016. Our main finding is that EU diplomatic efforts and financial commitments to date have made very limited progress in ensuring protection for Syrian refugees in the country or improving their dismal socio-economic position. On the contrary, the main socio-economic indicators for Syrian refugees have remained very poor for the past three years, and the refugees’ continued presence in the country is increasingly questioned by parts of Lebanon’s political establishment. This report traces the reasons why donor efforts have had such limited success: restrictions created by Lebanese and European political narratives of displacement; the limitations imposed by Lebanon’s clientilistic economy; and the challenges of combining protection in the region with an economic reform agenda. Many donors have opted for predominantly technical approaches, based on cooperation with line ministries and state institutions. In our view, these approaches pay insufficient heed to the complex web of sectarian and personal interests that fuel Lebanese policy-making, with the result that limited progress is achieved for refugees.
  • Topic: Diplomacy, Migration, European Union, Refugee Crisis
  • Political Geography: Middle East, Lebanon