Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

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Showing posts for "U.S. Foreign Policy"

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 »

Syria: Let Putin Bleed

by Steven A. Cook
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stand together before a trilateral meeting in Doha, Qatar August 3, 2015 (Brendan Smialowski/Reuters). Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stand together before a trilateral meeting in Doha, Qatar August 3, 2015 (Brendan Smialowski/Reuters).

Early September brought the news that the Russians were deploying military forces to Bassel al-Assad International Airport near Latakia on the Syrian coast. The Aviationist website recently reproduced satellite imagery showing twenty-eight combat aircraft, including four Sukhoi Su-30SM multirole (air-to-air and ground interdiction) fighters, twelve Sukhoi Su-25 attack planes, and twelve Sukhoi Su-24 attack planes. In addition, the Russians have deployed fifteen helicopters, nine tanks, three missile batteries, cargo planes, refueling aircraft, and about five hundred soldiers to the same airfield. The Obama administration has not said much about the deployment, only that it was seeking clarification from Moscow. Pentagon officials were generally mum last Friday after Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, saying only that they are watching the situation closely. The administration’s critics and supporters have responded to these developments in ways one might expect—howling criticism or over rationalization justifying why the presence of Russian forces in Syria is actually no big deal. They both have it wrong, though. Of course, the Russian buildup is a very big deal and marks a new, even more complicated and potentially dangerous phase in the Syrian conflict, but that is precisely why we should welcome it. Read more »

Syria and the Question of Intervention

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook
A Syrian refugee man covered with dust arrives at the Trabeel border, after his crossed into Jordanian territory with his family (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters). A Syrian refugee man covered with dust arrives at the Trabeel border, after his crossed into Jordanian territory with his family (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters).

My friend, Timothy Kaldas, offers this provocative post on the conflict in Syria.  He raises a host of issues that many people have been struggling with since the civil war began.  I hope readers find it interesting and useful. Read more »

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

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook
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
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 »

The Iran Deal: Tastes Great! Less Filling!

by Steven A. Cook
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 »