Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

The Real Reason Turkey Is Fighting ISIL

by Steven A. Cook Saturday, August 22, 2015
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a graduation ceremony in Ankara, Turkey, June 11, 2015 (Umit Bektas/Reuters). Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a graduation ceremony in Ankara, Turkey, June 11, 2015 (Umit Bektas/Reuters).

This article originally appeared here on Politico.com on Friday, August 21, 2015.

On July 23 virtually every news outlet in the United States ran some version of the following headline: “Turkey Joins the Fight Against ISIL; Opens Air Base to Coalition Forces; Washington and Ankara Agree to Safe Zone in Syria.” The media, being what it is, dubbed Ankara’s decision to order up airstrikes on Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces a “game changer,” which is what journalists say when they have nothing else to say, do not understand a situation and are itching to get back to covering Donald Trump. The only game that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is actually interested in changing is the political one that he has been uncharacteristically losing since mid-June when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the parliamentary majority it has held since November 2002. Erdogan’s military actions against the self-proclaimed Islamic State are best understood as one part a desperate, highly complex attempt by Erdogan to win back the power he lost. If his plan fails, the risky multi-front war Erdogan has just launched may become his undoing. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Journey to Iran, Alawites on the Run, and Tunisia’s Terror Law

by Steven A. Cook Friday, August 14, 2015
An Iranian cleric reads the Koran during the 26th anniversary ceremony of Iran's Islamic revolution at the Khomeini shrine in the Behesht Zahra cemetery, south of Tehran, January 31, 2005 (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters). An Iranian cleric reads the Koran during the 26th anniversary ceremony of Iran's Islamic revolution at the Khomeini shrine in the Behesht Zahra cemetery, south of Tehran, January 31, 2005 (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters).

Larry Cohler-Esses, writing for Forward, discovers a dynamic and complex society during his recent trip to Iran.

Omar Abdallah speaks with Syrian Alawites who no longer believe that the Assad regime can guarantee their safety. Read more »

Whatever is the Matter With Egypt? Nothing All That New

by Steven A. Cook Monday, August 10, 2015
Men wave national flags while riding a motor bike in Tahrir where people gather to celebrate the opening of the new Suez Canal, Cairo, Egypt (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters). Men wave national flags while riding a motor bike in Tahrir where people gather to celebrate the opening of the new Suez Canal, Cairo, Egypt (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters).

My friend Hisham Melham, Al Arabiya’s Washington bureau chief, dean of the Beltway-based Arab press corps, farmer, and intellectual with few peers, wrote a piece that appeared over the weekend called “Whatever is the matter with Egypt?” It is a terrific question and one that I have been rolling around in my head for some time, but especially since two Sundays ago when I celebrated my birthday. That morning my lovely wife did what has become de rigueur in the era of Facebook: She posted a photo of me with my daughters wishing me a wonderful day. Among my many well-wishers, an old friend from Cairo posted the following: “Happy birth day Steve hoping you all the best. It might be good idea to visit Egypt after the inauguration of the new Suez Canal. You might change your position or at least sympathize with huge challenges facing Egypt. Take care.” I was happy to hear from my friend and just dismissed the added commentary about my work, thinking “Par for the course in Egypt these days, but—wow!—it is like the dude could not help himself.” I guess I had not exactly shrugged it off because I then planned to write a “what’s the matter with Egypt?” post using this birthday greeting as a device to explore the subject. Read more »

Weekend Reading: A Gift to the World

by Steven A. Cook Friday, August 7, 2015
Mohab Mameesh, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, holds an Egyptian flag while overlooking work at the New Suez Canal, Ismailia, Egypt (Stringer/Reuters). Mohab Mameesh, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, holds an Egyptian flag while overlooking work at the New Suez Canal, Ismailia, Egypt (Stringer/Reuters).

Mada Masr highlights the celebrations for “Egypt’s gift to the world,” the New Suez Canal.

Michael Collins Dunn examines the original festivities for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1867. Read more »

Weekend Watching: Hollywood in Arabia

by Steven A. Cook Friday, July 31, 2015
Camels graze in the desert during the 19th Ghat Festival of Culture and Tourism, in Ghat, about 1,360 km (845 miles) south of Tripoli December 30, 2013 (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters). Camels graze in the desert during the 19th Ghat Festival of Culture and Tourism, in Ghat, about 1,360 km (845 miles) south of Tripoli December 30, 2013 (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters).

This weekend we are taking a break from reading to watch the best in Orientalist cinema that Western film has to offer. Here are Team Cook’s top ten favorite movies of the genre:

1.  Aladdin (for added fun, watch it dubbed in Arabic)
2.  Argo
3.  Homeland
4.  Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
5.  The Kingdom
6.  Kingdom of Heaven
7.  The Mummy
8.  OSS 117—Cairo: Nest of Spies
9.  Syriana Read more »

The U.S.-Egypt Strategic Dialogue: Drift Along the Nile

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook Wednesday, July 29, 2015
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) is thanked by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after speaking at the Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh March 13, 2015 (Brian Snyder/Reuters). U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) is thanked by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after speaking at the Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh March 13, 2015 (Brian Snyder/Reuters).

My friend and colleague, Amy Hawthorne, wrote this terrific preview of the upcoming U.S.-Egypt strategic dialogue.  I hope you find it interesting and useful.

On August 2, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Cairo for the first U.S.-Egypt “strategic dialogue” since 2009. The high-level forum has been held on and off since the Clinton administration as part of the still-unmet goal of expanding the relationship beyond security issues into more robust trade, investment, and educational ties. During the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, the dialogue was mostly a talk shop and sop to Egypt for support on counterterrorism and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. In light of today’s diminished ties, similarly modest expectations for this Sunday’s conclave are in order, despite the State Department’s upbeat announcement that the dialogue “reaffirms the United States’ longstanding and enduring partnership with Egypt and will…further our common values, goals, and interests.” Read more »

Turkey, Syria, and the United States: Quagmires Are Us

by Steven A. Cook Monday, July 27, 2015
A Turkish F-16 jet returns to the military airbase in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir November 7, 2007 (Osman Orsal/Reuters). A Turkish F-16 jet returns to the military airbase in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir November 7, 2007 (Osman Orsal/Reuters).

This weekend Turkey and the United States took steps toward getting more heavily involved in the Syrian quagmire. First, after a year of protracted negotiations, Turkey agreed to allow the United States to use Incirlik airbase to conduct operations against the so-called Islamic State. In return, the Obama administration has agreed to the establishment of a “safe zone” in northwestern Syria that “moderate Syrian opposition forces” would protect along with Turkish and American airpower. Second, Turkey undertook airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria and the forces of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. Read more »

Weekend Reading: The Birmingham Quran, the Illiberal Middle East, and Terror in Turkey

by Steven A. Cook Friday, July 24, 2015
Conservator, Marie Sviergula holds a fragment of a Koran manuscript in the library at the University of Birmingham in Britain (Peter Nicholls/Reuters). Conservator, Marie Sviergula holds a fragment of a Koran manuscript in the library at the University of Birmingham in Britain (Peter Nicholls/Reuters).

Take a closer look at fragments of one of the earliest extant Qurans today, found recently at the University of Birmingham.

Nervana Mahmoud laments the fate of Middle Eastern liberalism in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal. Read more »

The Iran Deal: Tastes Great! Less Filling!

by Steven A. Cook Monday, July 20, 2015
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reacts during a plenary session at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters). Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reacts during a plenary session at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters).

It is rather difficult to know what to say about the Iran nuclear deal. It seems that everything that needs to be said has been said and will continue to be said in the coming days over and over and over again. As I have watched and read the commentary with a measure of detached bemusement, the debate reminds me of the Miller Lite television commercials of my youth. Retired sports greats and others were divided into two teams, one of which would scream “Tastes great!” and the other would retort “Less filling!” Everyone’s ideas were fixed beforehand and no one ever moved from one camp to the other. So it is with the high-pitched, high velocity contest over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that the P5+1 signed with the Islamic Republic of Iran last Tuesday. Read more »