Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

Posts by Category

Showing posts for "U.S. Foreign Policy"

The Perplexing Problems of Solving Syria

by Steven A. Cook
Rebel fighters shoot their weapon towards Dabiq town in northern Aleppo countryside, Syria (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters). Rebel fighters shoot their weapon towards Dabiq town in northern Aleppo countryside, Syria (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters).

This article was originally published here on War on the Rocks on Monday, October 17, 2016.

What is there to say about Syria? That it is a tragedy? That only the horrors of the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s reign of terror, and Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution diminish its human toll? That the so-called international community strenuously condemns the murder of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of half of Syria’s population? These are, as so many have pointed out, merely words to salve the collective conscience of officials who have chosen to do the absolute minimum while a major Middle Eastern country burns. This tragedy was coming. It was obvious once Syrian President Bashar al-Assad militarized the uprising that began in the southern town of Deraa in March 2011. Policymakers in Washington and other capitals assured themselves — against all evidence — that it was only a matter of time before Assad fell. But anyone who knew anything about Syria understood that the Syrian leader would not succumb the way Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak did. No, Assad’s ignominy is different, borne of the unfathomable amount of blood he has spilled. There was a time when this violence could have been minimized and American interests served through an intervention, but policymakers acquiesced to the arguments of those who said it was only a matter of time or, when Assad did not fall quickly, that it was too hard. Until it actually was. Now, the desperate images emerging from Aleppo have made it impossible to look away. It remains a matter of debate precisely what the Syrian air force and its Russian partners seek in Aleppo, thought it seems that they are seeking to wrest control of the eastern half of the city by flattening it from the air. Read more »

Libya: Cameron, Sarkozy, and (Obama’s) Iraq

by Steven A. Cook
A member of Libyan forces prays as he prepares with his comrades for next advance against Islamic State holdouts in Sirte, Libya (Ismail Zitouny/Reuters). A member of Libyan forces prays as he prepares with his comrades for next advance against Islamic State holdouts in Sirte, Libya (Ismail Zitouny/Reuters).

There is a lot going on this week given that Tuesday marks the beginning of the United Nations General Assembly’s annual general debate. I cannot actually remember when something substantive happened during these meetings, but hopefully this year will be different as world leaders gather ahead of the debate for a summit called “Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.” Read more »

Turkey Is No Longer a Reliable Ally

by Steven A. Cook
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters). Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters).

This article was originally published here in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, August 11, 2016.

The meeting this week between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin and their vow to expand bilateral relations is the latest sign of deteriorating U.S.-Turkish relations since Turkey’s failed coup last month. Read more »

Turkey’s Failed Coup and the United States

by Steven A. Cook
Members of Patriotic Party shout slogans as they demonstrate against the visit of U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph F. Dunford in front of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara (Umit Bektas/Reuters). Members of Patriotic Party shout slogans as they demonstrate against the visit of U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph F. Dunford in front of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara (Umit Bektas/Reuters).

Ever since Turkey’s failed coup, the pro-government media has pointed the finger at the United States for actually planning the military intervention. It is not just the media, however. The leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (quoted below) and a number of government figures have all insinuated that the failed coup was carried out with Washington’s support and/or planning. This week, a Turkish parliamentary delegation is visiting Washington, DC, and New York City to press the Turkish government’s case on the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric who resides in Saylorsburg, PA, whom the Turks are alleging Washington colluded with in the failed coup. The delegation would likely get a more serious hearing in the United States if influential parts of the Turkish press and political leaders did not insist that Washington was responsible. Have a look… Read more »

Failing Iraq

by Steven A. Cook
Sir John Chilcot presents The Iraq Inquiry Report at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, London, Britain (Jeff J Mitchell/Reuters). Sir John Chilcot presents The Iraq Inquiry Report at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, London, Britain (Jeff J Mitchell/Reuters).

Last week, Sir John Chilcot released the final report of the Iraq Inquiry—also known at the Chilcot report—after seven years of work. It is the definitive statement on how the British government became the primary partner of the United States in Operation Iraqi Freedom and how its armed forces conducted the war. The aftermath of the British vote to leave the European Union and the violence on American streets made the over-six-thousand-page study a second-tier news story, but one also gets the sense that there is a profound ambivalence about reliving the events of thirteen and fourteen years ago. Still, the Chilcot report is important because it reaffirms the transparency and resilience of British political institutions. It is true that, like in the United States, no one was held accountable for the strategic blunder that was the invasion, but the report represents a thorough examination of the record from which hopefully the British (and American) governments can learn. At the same time, the whole exercise seems woefully and depressingly beside the point because it is yet another distraction from the larger story that has been unfolding since the first rockets fell on Baghdad: the failure of Iraq. Read more »

Don’t Blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s Mess

by Steven A. Cook
Members of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), a militia affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), detonate improvised explosive devices captured from Islamic State fighters near village of Umm al-Dhiban, northern Iraq (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters). Members of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), a militia affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), detonate improvised explosive devices captured from Islamic State fighters near village of Umm al-Dhiban, northern Iraq (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters).

This article was originally published here on ForeignPolicy.com on Friday, May 13, 2016.

Sometime in the 100 years since the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed, invoking its “end” became a thing among commentators, journalists, and analysts of the Middle East. Responsibility for the cliché might belong to the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, who in June 2013 wrote an essay in the London Review of Books arguing that the agreement, which was one of the first attempts to reorder the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire’s demise, was itself in the process of dying. Since then, the meme has spread far and wide: A quick Google search reveals more than 8,600 mentions of the phrase “the end of Sykes-Picot” over the last three years. Read more »

Between Ankara and Rojava

by Steven A. Cook
Kurdish women gesture and shout slogans during a demonstration against the exclusion of the Syrian Kurds from the Geneva talks, in the northeast Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishli (Rodi Said/Reuters). Kurdish women gesture and shout slogans during a demonstration against the exclusion of the Syrian Kurds from the Geneva talks, in the northeast Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishli (Rodi Said/Reuters).

This article originally appeared here on ForeignAffairs.com on Tuesday, March 15, 2016.

Nearly seven years ago, U.S. President Barack Obama traveled to the Turkish capital, Ankara, to address the country’s parliament. Turkey was second only to Russia in its need of a “reset.” The war in Iraq had damaged Washington’s ties with Ankara, which had warned of the dangers of a U.S. invasion and paid a price for its destabilizing effects. The new U.S. president’s gauzy rhetoric before the Grand National Assembly about how Turkish and Americans soldiers stood shoulder-to-shoulder “from Korea to Kosovo to Kabul” and his admiration for “Turkey’s democracy” seemed to hit exactly the right notes. It was the dawn of a new era in which close relations with a large, prosperous, democratizing, predominantly Muslim country would exemplify a more constructive, less belligerent course for U.S. foreign policy. Read more »

Thinking About “the Kurds”

by Steven A. Cook
Kurdish demonstrators gesture during a protest against the curfew in Sur district and security operations, in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey (Sertac Kayar/Reuters). Kurdish demonstrators gesture during a protest against the curfew in Sur district and security operations, in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey (Sertac Kayar/Reuters).

Hi folks. It’s been a while. During my hiatus it seems the world has gone mad or madder. I am not exactly sure where to begin. The list of blog topics that I have collected over the last few weeks is long. I am going to pick up where I left off, with Turkey. Read more »

What’s in a Name?

by Steven A. Cook
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about counter-terrorism and the United States fight against Islamic State during an address to the nation from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington (Saul Loeb/Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about counter-terrorism and the United States fight against Islamic State during an address to the nation from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington (Saul Loeb/Reuters).

On February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein entered the Ibrahimi Mosque, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs, during dawn prayers and murdered twenty-nine Palestinians. He derived justification for this violence in the way he read sacred Jewish texts. Goldstein was a radical Jewish terrorist. So was Yigal Amir, the man who murdered Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 based on a particular interpretation of a concept found in the Babylonian Talmud that allows for the murder of someone who puts Jewish lives in danger. That Goldstein and Amir were violent Jewish extremists seems so obvious that it is hardly worth the eighty-something words that I have spent on it. However, when it comes to Muslims and terrorism, naming names seems enormously complicated. Why? I am not sure. It does not seem as problematic as some Muslims and analysts suggests. That said, it is also unclear what purpose stating an event or an organization as “radical Islamic terrorism” serves. Read more »

Repost: What Should the U.S. Do About ISIS?

by Steven A. Cook
A passerby pauses near a makeshift memorial with U.S. and French flags outside the French embassy in Washington November 16, 2015  (Carlos Barria/Reuters). A passerby pauses near a makeshift memorial with U.S. and French flags outside the French embassy in Washington November 16, 2015 (Carlos Barria/Reuters).

Last June, I participated in a National Journal symposium asking, “What Should the U.S. Do About ISIS?” After last Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, for which the self-proclaimed Islamic State has claimed responsibility, I went back and looked at what I wrote. My bottom line was this: The United States has a responsibility to its allies, but policymakers should understand that bringing military force to bear on the Islamic State will not alone resolve the problem. The phenomenon of Islamist extremism is first and foremost a political and theological challenge that Washington barely understands; this part of the fight is best left to Arabs and Muslims. Have a look at what I wrote. I believe it stands up pretty well. Feel free to let me know what you think. Read more »