Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

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

by Steven A. Cook Friday, May 13, 2016
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 »

Weekend Reading: Beirut’s Elections, Armenian Artisans, and Egyptian Buildings

by Steven A. Cook Friday, May 6, 2016
A picture of a candidate for municipality elections is hung near displayed mirrors of an antique shop in Beirut, Lebanon (Alia Haju/Reuters). A picture of a candidate for municipality elections is hung near displayed mirrors of an antique shop in Beirut, Lebanon (Alia Haju/Reuters).

Habib Battah examines the intersection of new and old in Lebanese politics in the context of Beirut’s municipal elections.

Nektaria Petrou narrates her quest to find a renowned Armenian hand engraver in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Read more »

Syria’s Doctors

by Steven A. Cook Monday, May 2, 2016
Burnt vehicles are pictured in front of the damaged the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)-backed al-Quds hospital after it was hit by airstrikes, in a rebel-held area of Syria's Aleppo (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters). Burnt vehicles are pictured in front of the damaged the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)-backed al-Quds hospital after it was hit by airstrikes, in a rebel-held area of Syria's Aleppo (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters).

In late May 1994, I boarded a Pakistan International Airways flight bound for Islamabad with intermediate stops in the Netherlands and Syria. It was the summer between my two years at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and I was headed to the Institute for Teaching Arabic to Foreigners in Damascus. Somewhere halfway across the Atlantic that night I struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me, who was juggling two little fidgety children. He was probably the same age that I am now. For the life of me I cannot remember his name or where in the United States he lived—I want to say Texas, but it could have been California or Illinois—but I do remember his profession. He was a doctor. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Kurdish Linguistics, Egypt’s Repressive Complacency, and Music and Pluralism in Jordan

by Steven A. Cook Friday, April 29, 2016
Journalists and activists protest against the restriction of press freedom and to demand the release of detained journalists, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters). Journalists and activists protest against the restriction of press freedom and to demand the release of detained journalists, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters).

Theotime Chabre explores the complexities of Kurdish linguistic diversity, explaining how limits in communication across the Kurdish nation can be both a hindrance and an opportunity. Read more »

This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is Saudi Land

by Steven A. Cook Monday, April 25, 2016
Supporters of Egypt's army and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi dance and cheer as they celebrate the anniversary of Sinai Liberation Day in Cairo, Egypt (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters). Supporters of Egypt's army and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi dance and cheer as they celebrate the anniversary of Sinai Liberation Day in Cairo, Egypt (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters).

Today is Sinai Liberation Day. On April 25, 1982, the then-governor of the South Sinai governorate, Fouad Aziz Ghali, hoisted the Egyptian flag over Sharm el-Sheikh, in view of two islands called Tiran and Sanafir. The same day, former President Hosni Mubarak gave a speech before the People’s Assembly and laid wreaths at Egypt’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the graves of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat. These solemn events marked the official end of Israel’s occupation of the Sinai (with the exception of a place called Taba that remained under Israeli control until 1989). Read more »

Weekend Reading: Comedy and the Islamic State, Protest and Failure in Egypt, and Insulting Erdogan

by Steven A. Cook Friday, April 22, 2016
A view shows actors during the filming of the set of the television series, whose title is loosely translated as "State of Myths" in Baghdad (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters). A view shows actors during the filming of the set of the television series, whose title is loosely translated as "State of Myths" in Baghdad (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters).

Nathaniel Greenberg examines the use of comedy in Iraq to counter the narrative of the self-declared Islamic State.

One blogger expounds on the weaknesses and pitfalls of the Egyptian protest movement. Read more »

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 »