Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

Syria: Seeing the Forest from the Scuds

by Steven A. Cook Monday, April 29, 2013
Missiles seen at a Syrian air defense base in after Free Syrian Army fighters seized the base, in eastern Ghouta, on the eastern edge of Damascus (Muhammad Al-Jazari/Courtesy Reuters).

Since I first broached the subject of intervention in Syria sixteen months ago, I have had episodic debates with various former military officers and defense intellectuals concerning the wisdom of a more robust approach to the insurrection that began against Bashar al Assad in March 2011.  The most recent installment came last Friday in response to the following tweet: Read more »

Weekend Reading: No Egypt Independent

by Steven A. Cook Friday, April 26, 2013
An opposition supporter uses a newspaper with headlines on Thursday's riots as a prayer mat as he waits to perform Friday prayers in Tahrir Square (Steve Crisp/Courtesy Reuters).

The complete final issue of Egypt Independent, which was not allowed to go to print.

Sarah Carr takes down Al Masry Al Youm chairman and director, Abdel Monem Said Aly. Read more »

Europe’s Syria Prevarications

by Steven A. Cook Thursday, April 25, 2013
French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (C), Syrian Opposition Coalition vice-president Riad Seif (R) and member Suheir Atassi (L) attend the international meeting to support the Syrian National Council in Paris (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

The West’s overall approach to Syria since the uprising began in March 2011 has been a combination of empty sloganeering (“we strongly and unequivocally condemn this violence”), wishful thinking (“it is only a matter of time before Assad falls”), and hand wringing (“Syria is not Libya”).  Yet recently, there seems to have been a subtle, yet important shift that would augur a more active American and European role in managing the conflict.  The recent Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul gave Secretary of State John Kerry an opportunity to signal an evolution of U.S. policy and the British and the French have publicly entertained  the idea of lifting the arms embargo on the rebellion. This all seems to be good news, yet it may be more apparent than real.  This is not to suggest that Washington will renege on the pledge that Kerry made in Turkey or that the Foreign Office and Quay d’Orsay are not serious about the prospects of supplying weapons to the Free Syrian Army, but this support is far from unequivocal. Read more »

Turkey: No Checks, Few Balances

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu addresses the media as he is flanked by his deputies at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters).

“Recep Tayyip Erdogan is Turkey’s first Pharaoh!” a contact in Turkey declared to me recently over breakfast in Ankara.  “Not a Sultan?,” I countered teasingly.  “No, the Sultans had some checks on their power.  Today Tayyip Erdogan’s power is absolute.”  My friend, who would fall within the category of right-of-center nationalist, assured me that his Pharaoh comment was not meant to be an insult, but rather a statement of fact.   That’s hard to believe given what the leaders of ancient (and not so ancient) Egypt stood for and the principles by which Erdogan and his associates claim to have governed Turkey for the last almost eleven years.  Indeed, when Erdogan, Abdullah Gül, and the people around them broke from Turkey’s Islamist old guard and established the Adelet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party, AKP) they offered Turks a vision of a democratic and prosperous Turkey. Read more »

Prolonging the Conflict in Syria

by Steven A. Cook Monday, April 15, 2013
A view shows wreckage of cars,after a suicide car bomb exploded in the main business district of Damascus April 8, 2013, in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency (SANA).

The debate in Washington about Syria has picked up a bit lately.  The Obama administration is stepping up its aid to the rebellion and the civil war will no doubt be on the President Obama’s agenda when he meets with a parade of regional leaders at the White House starting next week. Although many members of Congress—taking cues from their constituents who are weary of the Middle East—are resolutely opposed to American involvement in Syria, others have expressed frustration that the United States is not doing more to bring the crisis to an end.  Like all things related to Syria there is little agreement even among the people who would like to see a more robust policy on what form a more active approach to the conflict would take. Read more »

Weekend Reading: 1967 Borders, Sectarianism in Egypt, and the Options for Iran

by Steven A. Cook Friday, April 12, 2013
A vendor works on a copper item to be sold in a shop in Baghdad's al-Safafeer Souq bazaar (Mohammed Ameen/Courtesy Reuters).

Dahlia Scheindlin evaluates the pragmatism of Ghazi Hamad,  Deputy Foreign Minister of Gaza, who publicly recognized the 1967 borders last week. Read more »

Turkey’s Political Football

by Steven A. Cook Monday, April 8, 2013
Fenerbahce's team celebrates after the Europa League quarterfinal soccer match against Lazio at Sukru Saracoglu stadium in Istanbul April 4, 2013 (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters).

When you travel in the Middle East you are bound to have multiple “Holy Moly!” moments.  My wife and I had one of those last Thursday.  Yet we weren’t touring the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, gazing upon the Khazneh in Petra in the late afternoon when the Nabatean capital seems to glow a rose red, or marveling at the ancient ruins of Ani on the Turkish-Armenian border.  We were in Turkey, in Istanbul, in Kadikoy to be exact, but it was not some Ottoman gem of a mosque or palace that caused our eyes to go wide.  Nope.  It was the Şükrü Saracoĝlo Stadyumu and the 52,000 fans of the Fenerbahce Sports Club’s football (i.e. soccer) team—it also fields basketball, boxing, table tennis, and sailing teams—who were near delirium even before their team took the field against Italy’s Lazio. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Egypt’s Bassem Youssef, Politics of the Arabic Language, and Videos from Syria

by Steven A. Cook Friday, April 5, 2013
A general view of the Dubai skyline shows the Burj Khalifa building (Mohammed Salem/Courtesy Reuters).

Al-Monitor outlines the investigation of Egypt’s beloved comedian, Bassem Youssef.

Muftah discusses how nuances of the Arabic language reflect and affect the ever turbulent politics of the region. Read more »

Turkey’s Constitutional Controversy

by Steven A. Cook Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek arrives for independence day celebrations in breakaway northern Cyprus, in Nicosia November 15, 2010. Turkey is the only country to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which unilaterally seceded in 1983 (Andreas Manolis/Courtesy Reuters).

April 3—Istanbul

A draft of Turkey’s new constitution was supposed to be finished on Monday, but the members of the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission say they need about another month to produce a draft.  The missed deadline prompted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to float the idea that the Justice and Development Party would circumvent the Commission and take its own version of a new constitution to the Turkish people in a referendum.  Not surprisingly, the prime minister’s proposal was met with considerable criticism from the opposition parties in the Grand National Assembly all of which have representatives on the Commission.  In the English language daily, Today’s Zaman, the Nationalist Movement Party’s Faruk Bal said, “The prime minister is looking for excuses to break his promise that his party would not quit the negotiating table.  He is working to disperse the commission.Read more »

Fiddling While Egypt Burns

by Steven A. Cook Monday, April 1, 2013
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (R) talks with U.S. Senator John McCain during their meeting in Cairo January 16, 2013 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters).

Life is getting increasingly difficult for Egyptians.  The New York Times ran a front page story on Sunday about what anybody who has been paying attention to Egypt already knows:  the country is running out of fuel, food, and cash.  The Egyptian Central Bank announced weeks ago that its reserves of foreign currency are down to critical minimums while sources of liquidity are drying up.  Only the most intrepid tourists are visiting Egypt, Suez Canal revenues are down 7.4 percent, there is little in the way of foreign direct investment, the International Monetary Fund is holding the line on its conditions, the Qataris have turned off the spigot of riyals, the Saudis never really turned it on, and no one else has been willing to step up with assistance. Read more »