Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

Weekend Reading: Surveillance in Egypt, Inside ISIS, and Peace in Libya

by Steven A. Cook Saturday, September 20, 2014
Demonstrators protest against the Libyan Parliament's decision to call on the United Nations and the Security Council to immediately intervene to protect civilians and state institutions in Libya (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters). Demonstrators protest against the Libyan Parliament's decision to call on the United Nations and the Security Council to immediately intervene to protect civilians and state institutions in Libya (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters).

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reports on the mysteries surrounding Egypt’s new surveillance system. Read more »

Revisiting Rabaa

by Steven A. Cook Friday, September 19, 2014
Suspects are rounded up near a burnt annex building of Rabaa Adawiya mosque after the clearing of a protest camp around the mosque, in Cairo August 15, 2013 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). Suspects are rounded up near a burnt annex building of Rabaa Adawiya mosque after the clearing of a protest camp around the mosque, in Cairo August 15, 2013 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Between the war in Gaza, the ISIS advance on Iraq, Libya’s disintegration, and the monumental brutality of the Syrian conflict—the last week of July was the deadliest of the civil war—the world barely noticed the one year anniversary of the violent dispersal of a sit-in at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. Now as the annual UN General Assembly meeting is set to begin, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, and lesser officials are descending upon New York to spread the good word that everything in Egypt is just fine. They are hoping—in some cases demanding—that people don’t ask hard questions about what transpired last year. Despite these wishes, let’s reviewOn August 14, 2013 almost 1,000 Egyptians were killed and another 3,000 injured mostly at the hands of the Ministry of Interior’s Central Security Forces, but also under the watchful eyes of the Egyptian armed forces. The sit-in at Rabaa and al-Nahda Squares had been underway since the coup d’état that ousted President Mohammed Morsi on July 3. Human Rights Watch recently released a report detailing the massacre. It makes for a chilling read. Others have weighed-in on this terrible event as well. Of particular interest is a piece that Amy Austin Holmes, who is an assistant professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, posted at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog under the title “Why Egypt’s Military Orchestrated a Massacre.” In it Holmes poses an important question: “How do we explain the behavior of the Egyptian military on Tahrir in January 2011 [which was ostensibly peaceful] and in Rabaa in 2013?” As Holmes recounts—she observed the Rabaa protests—the clearing of the square was the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history and it was, by Egyptian officials’ own admission, entirely planned. The massacre itself tells analysts something important about the trajectory of Egyptian politics in general, but the conduct of the armed forces, which had previously vowed never to use violence against fellow Egyptians, cries out for explanation. Holmes comes up short, however. She offers sound analysis without ever getting to the heart of matter. So what is the deal? How come there was no massacre in Tahrir, but one at Rabaa? Read more »

ISIS and Us: No Way To Go To War

by Steven A. Cook Monday, September 15, 2014
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a live televised address to the nation on his plans for military action against the Islamic State, from the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington September 10, 2014 (Saul Loeb/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a live televised address to the nation on his plans for military action against the Islamic State, from the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington September 10, 2014 (Saul Loeb/Courtesy Reuters).

Washington is in an ISIS frenzy.  Everywhere you turn, everything you read, every place you go, you can’t escape ISIS.  Since James Foley was beheaded on August 19, everyone in and around the Beltway wants to go to war in Iraq. Try as he might to be careful and avoid the mistakes of a decade ago, it seems that the president is being bullied—by the press and his political opponents—into what can only be described as a half-baked policy to go deal with the ISIS threat. Bullied? Yes, bullied.  For a White House that prides itself on not paying attention to its critics, the president seems to be reacting to the universal derision of his ill-considered “We don’t have a strategy yet” statement.  Peter Baker’s revealing piece in Sunday’s New York Times suggests that the criticism stung.  This is why a variety of sources, no doubt close to the president, were willing to relay to Baker how much deliberating over ISIS was actually going on inside the Oval Office before the president’s big speech last Wednesday.  It was hard not to notice the “campaigny, spinny” feel to these statements. That speech, which was clearly intended to alter the perception of helpless incompetence, merely reiterated the ad hoc approach to Iraq that his administration has pursued since early June. There may be good reasons to go to war against ISIS, but no one has actually articulated them.  Are we protecting Erbil and American personnel? Undertaking a humanitarian mission? Fighting evil? Helping the Free Syrian Army? Assisting Washington’s regional allies against the ISIS threat? No one knows, but we are nevertheless turning the aircraft carriers into the wind.  This is no way to go to war. Read more »

Weekend Reading: The Middle East Is Not All That Bad

by Steven A. Cook Friday, September 12, 2014
The newly renovated facade of Maghen Abraham, Beirut's oldest synagogue (Jamal Saidi/Courtesy Reuters). The newly renovated facade of Maghen Abraham, Beirut's oldest synagogue (Jamal Saidi/Courtesy Reuters).

After 30 years, Beirut’s Maghen Abraham synagogue has been restored and is scheduled to reopen.

Zamaaan offers a glimpse into a people’s history of the Middle East via crowd-sourced family photos. Read more »

Assadomasochism

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, September 9, 2014
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad heads a meeting of his new cabinet in Damascus August 31, 2014 (Sana Sana/Courtesy Reuters). Syria's President Bashar al-Assad heads a meeting of his new cabinet in Damascus August 31, 2014 (Sana Sana/Courtesy Reuters).

There is now no question that the United States is about to get a lot more involved in Iraq (and perhaps Syria) than President Obama had ever intended.  So far, the administration has made it clear that the goal is to defeat ISIS, but it has been more difficult determining how to make that happen. The administration has not publicly offered much in the way of what its strategy is other than to say that a broad international coalition is necessary to crush ISIS.  Here is a question: Will Syria be part of that coalition? That sounds crazy after Bashar al Assad has killed 190,000 of his own people and made three million of them refugees.  Hasn’t virtually everyone inside the Beltway declared that “Assad must go”? Still, the issue lingers.  There has been some speculation that the United States is coordinating with Bashar al Assad via the Emiratis and last winter there were mysterious reports of Western intelligence officers reaching out to Damascus.  Who knows what to make of these stories, yet it is clear that serious, but cold-hearted people both within the United States government and outside of it have advanced the idea of working with Assad “because the alternative [i.e. ISIS] is worse.” This is a losing proposition and among the worst policy recommendations to surface since Syria’s descent into bloodshed began three summers ago. Read more »

Weekend Reading: What Caused ISIS, PKK Women on the State of their World, and Meet PM Davutoglu

by Steven A. Cook Friday, September 5, 2014
Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu addresses members of the parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament (Stringer Turkey/Courtesy Reuters). Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu addresses members of the parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament (Stringer Turkey/Courtesy Reuters).

Peter Harling explores the rise of ISIS in Le Monde Diplomatique (English).

Alexandra Valiente’s two-part interview with representatives from the PKK’s Party of Women’s Liberation. Read more »

The New Arab Cold War

by Steven A. Cook Friday, August 29, 2014
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal (R) after arriving at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah June 27, 2014 (POOL New/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal (R) after arriving at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah June 27, 2014 (POOL New/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on ForeignPolicy.com on Thursday, August 28, 2014.

A bitter proxy war is being waged in the Middle East. It stretches from Iraq to Lebanon and reaches into North Africa, taking lives in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt’s Western Desert, and now Libya. Although the nihilism of the Islamic State and the threat of other extremist groups have garnered virtually all the attention of the media and governments, this violence is the result of a nasty fight between regional powers over who will lead the Middle East. It is a blood-soaked mess that will be left to the United States to clean up. Read more »

Washington Can’t Solve the Identity Crisis in Middle East Nations

by Steven A. Cook Monday, August 18, 2014
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, walk to a refugee camp after they re-enter Iraq from Syria, August 14, 2014 (Youssef Boudlal/Courtesy Reuters). Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, walk to a refugee camp after they re-enter Iraq from Syria, August 14, 2014 (Youssef Boudlal/Courtesy Reuters).

I published the following piece in the Outlook section of Sunday’s Washington Post. I hope you find it interesting and useful! Read more »