Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

Tunisia: Saving Democracy in the Middle East? Really?

by Steven A. Cook Monday, April 18, 2016
An unemployed graduate clashes with riot police during a demonstration to demand the government provide them with job opportunities in Tunis, Tunisia (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters). An unemployed graduate clashes with riot police during a demonstration to demand the government provide them with job opportunities in Tunis, Tunisia (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters).

Last Wednesday, the Washington Post ran an op-ed called “We Can—And Must—Save Tunisia from its Troubling Recent Descent” under the byline of Marwan Muasher and William J. Burns. Muasher was Jordan’s foreign minister from 2002 to 2004, deputy prime minister from 2004 to 2005, and now serves as vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). Burns had one of the most distinguished careers in the U.S. foreign service, rising to become deputy secretary of state from 2011 to 2014. After he left government, he became Muasher’s boss as president of CEIP. Needless to say, these gentlemen know of what they speak. Their clarion call to help Tunisia is important for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the recognition that the country is not the “Arab Spring success” that it is often portrayed to be. The United States should help Tunisia, but mostly because it will help Tunisians, and not for the additional reasons that Muasher and Burns lay out, which amount to a reformulation of something called the “international demonstration effect.” Read more »

Weekend Reading: Egypt’s Saudi Islands, the Hezbollah Corporation, and Syria’s Alawites

by Steven A. Cook Friday, April 15, 2016
A former presidential candidate and lawyer Khaled Ali shouts slogans against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the government during a demonstration protesting the government's decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters). A former presidential candidate and lawyer Khaled Ali shouts slogans against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the government during a demonstration protesting the government's decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters).

Maged Atiya reflects on the public reaction to Egypt’s transfer of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, situated at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba, to Saudi Arabia. Read more »

A Prolonged Period of Uncertainty

by Steven A. Cook Thursday, April 14, 2016
Pro-Turkish protestors hold Turkish national flags as they take part in a demonstration in Hamburg (Fabian Bimmer/Reuters). Pro-Turkish protestors hold Turkish national flags as they take part in a demonstration in Hamburg (Fabian Bimmer/Reuters).

This article originally appeared here on the Cipher Brief on Thursday, April 14, 2016.

In the late 1970s, Turkey experienced a convulsion of political violence between leftist and rightist factions that killed almost five thousand people by the time the military pushed out the government in a September 1980 coup d’état. The respite from violence was relatively brief, however. Since the mid-1980s, the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state have been waging a war against each other that has taken the lives of tens of thousands. The recent violence in Ankara, Istanbul, and the Kurdish southeast is not unprecedented, but the fact that the PKK, an offshoot called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), and the Islamic State group are all targeting Turkey poses a variety of security challenges and dilemmas for Ankara. The Turkish military, which has laid siege to parts of the southeast; the police; and the National Intelligence Organization, do not seem to have an answer to the bloodshed except more bloodshed. Although episodic PKK violence has marked the Justice and Development Party (AKP) era, the general stability of the last thirteen-and-a-half years seems to have given way to a more uncertain and bloody future for Turks. Read more »

Libya: Disconnect and Fragmentation

by Steven A. Cook Monday, April 11, 2016
Supporters of the unity government shout slogans during a demonstration at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli (Hani Amara/Reuters). Supporters of the unity government shout slogans during a demonstration at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli (Hani Amara/Reuters).

Over the last few years, I have been quietly following events in Libya. I must admit, I don’t feel the country “in my bones” the way I do other places in the Middle East, but the more I dig into Libyan politics, the more it fascinates me. I have great guides, though: folks like my dear friend Karim Mezran, who is a wise tutor; Fred Wehrey, who has had the courage to go to Libya when the rest of us wouldn’t dare; and Dirk Vandewalle, whom I have long admired from afar. What has struck me about Libya and Libyan politics is how at first blush it can seem weirdly different from other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, but upon closer inspection, there are compelling similarities. When, on the day that long-standing leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was driven from Tripoli in August 2011, I pointed out that, at a level of abstraction, Libya and Iraq were not all that different, and that Libya may not end up a democracy, I was pilloried. That is Twitter for you… Read more »

Weekend Reading: Lights Out in Libya, Jordan’s Brothers, and Alaa’s Tax Shelters

by Steven A. Cook Friday, April 8, 2016
A member of the media works on a staircase at the Rixos hotel during a power cut in Tripoli (Paul Hackett/Reuters). A member of the media works on a staircase at the Rixos hotel during a power cut in Tripoli (Paul Hackett/Reuters).

Naziha Arebi illuminates the daily life of Libyans in the shadows of electricity cuts through a series of photographs and conversations.

Osama Al Sharif ponders whether tensions between Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood and the government will lead to an outright ban on the group. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Smuggling in Syria, Marriage in Mosul, and Egypt’s Development Challenges

by Steven A. Cook Saturday, April 2, 2016
Iraqi soldiers launch artillery toward Islamic State militants on the outskirt of the Makhmour south of Mosul (Azad Lashkari/Reuters). Iraqi soldiers launch artillery toward Islamic State militants on the outskirt of the Makhmour south of Mosul (Azad Lashkari/Reuters).

Yasser Allawi interviews a Syrian smuggler, Abu Yazan, on the process of transporting refugees to Europe via Turkey.

Nawzat Shamdeen takes a look at marriage laws in Islamic State–controlled Mosul. Read more »

“How Happy Is the One Who Says, I Am a Turk!”

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Flags with a picture of the jailed Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan and of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (L) are pictured during a gathering of supporters of the Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) (Murad Sezer/Reuters). Flags with a picture of the jailed Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan and of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (L) are pictured during a gathering of supporters of the Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) (Murad Sezer/Reuters).

This article originally appeared here on ForeignPolicy.com on Monday, March 28, 2016.

The war between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is back, and it seems more ferocious than ever. Over the past six months, an estimated 500 civilians have been killed in fighting between Turkish security forces and the Kurdish insurgent group. In February and March, PKK suicide bombers struck at the heart of Turkey’s capital, killing a total of 67 people within steps of the prime ministry and in Ankara’s bustling Kizilay neighborhood. All the while, the Turkish military has laid siege to the towns of Cizre and Nusaybin, PKK strongholds in the southeast, razing apartment blocks and sending desperate civilians fleeing. Read more »

Turkey to See More Ballot Boxes This Year

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook Monday, March 28, 2016
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during his meeting with mukhtars at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey (Umit Bektas/Reuters). Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during his meeting with mukhtars at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey (Umit Bektas/Reuters).

Ali Sokmen is an analyst covering Turkish affairs for Control Risks, the global business risk consultancy.

After having voted four times over the past two years, many Turkish citizens think they have seen enough ballot boxes. Turkish politicians seem to disagree. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Remaking Turkey’s Southeast, Barzani Speaks, and Sisi’s Parliament

by Steven A. Cook Friday, March 25, 2016
raqi Kurdistan region's President Massoud Barzani attends a news conference with Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in Erbil, Iraq (Azad Lashkari/Reuters). raqi Kurdistan region's President Massoud Barzani attends a news conference with Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in Erbil, Iraq (Azad Lashkari/Reuters).

Nicholas Glastonbury and Defne Kadioglu discuss the salient role of urban governance in the conflict between the Turkish government and its Kurdish southeast. Read more »

Shameless in Turkey: Aydinlik, Sabah, and Henri

by Steven A. Cook Monday, March 21, 2016
A man places carnations at the scene of a suicide bombing at Istiklal street, a major shopping and tourist district, in central Istanbul, Turkey (Osman Orsal/Reuters). A man places carnations at the scene of a suicide bombing at Istiklal street, a major shopping and tourist district, in central Istanbul, Turkey (Osman Orsal/Reuters).

On Saturday there was a horrific bombing in Istanbul that killed four and injured thirty six. It is the fourth attack in Turkey in six weeks. The country is under grave threat from the self-declared Islamic State, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, known as the TAK. Ankara has fingered a suspect named Mehmet Ozturk, who is believed to be a Turkish member of the Islamic State, for the weekend’s violence. One would think that the Turkish press would spend its time looking into the attacker’s background, trying to understand who his accomplices are and how he got past Turkey’s rather intensive security. Many journalists are doing just that, but the Turkish newspapers Aydinlik and Sabah had something different in mind for their readers this weekend. Aydinlik’s front-page headline screamed “Barkey’s Bombs Exploded.” The “Barkey” in the headline is Professor Henri J. Barkey of Lehigh University and the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington. For its part, Sabah reported “Istiklal Bomb Threat From CIA” with a picture of Barkey (which Aydinlik had also included). Read more »