Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

Fiddling While Kobani Burns

by Steven A. Cook Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Turkish soldiers watch over the Syrian town of Kobani as they take position near Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters). Turkish soldiers watch over the Syrian town of Kobani as they take position near Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on ForeignPolicy.com on Tuesday, October 7, 2014.

Last week, the Turkish Grand National Assembly voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq. Turkish legislators also voted to permit the deployment of foreign forces in Turkey for the purpose of fighting against the Islamic State (IS). The votes were heralded in the Turkish and U.S. media as proof that Ankara is a dependable ally in the ongoing battle against the Islamic State. So why are Turkish forces sitting idly along the border while jihadist militants advance toward the border? Read more »

Weekend Reading: Mapping the Middle East, What ISIS Is Not, and Egypt’s Total Information Awareness

by Steven A. Cook Friday, October 3, 2014
A Syrian Kurdish refugee boy smiles as he waits for transportation after crossing into Turkey (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters). A Syrian Kurdish refugee boy smiles as he waits for transportation after crossing into Turkey (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters).

In this interactive map, David McCandless charts the key players in the Middle East and the relationships between them.

Alireza Doostdar argues that ISIS is more a product of war and instability than Salafist ideology. Read more »

Hating Mubarak; Loving Sisi

by Steven A. Cook Monday, September 29, 2014
A supporter of Egypt's new President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi kisses his picture and dances as he leaves after taking his oath of office in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo June 8, 2014 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). A supporter of Egypt's new President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi kisses his picture and dances as he leaves after taking his oath of office in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo June 8, 2014 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Over the last few years, Egypt has become an object lesson in how narrow interests, greed, and politics can quickly undo noble ideas and aspirations. The time since former President Hosni Mubarak’s departure has been a period of political cynicism, unprecedented violence, and economic dislocation. Yet for all the troubles bearing down on Egyptians, there are many who believe that the country’s trajectory is positive. This is not just elites grateful that the military intervention of July 2013 has restored the old—in their minds, natural—political order, but widespread optimism. Treat the polling with caution, but they demonstrate an overwhelming amount of support for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Friends in Cairo insist that “as much as 80 percent of the population” supports the new program and believe that Egypt’s new leader has set the country on a proper course. If that is the case, then why do Egyptians seem so furious? Read more »

Weekend Reading: On Being Jewish in Egypt, Iraq’s Militias, and What Just Happened in Yemen?

by Steven A. Cook Friday, September 26, 2014
Shi'ite Houthi rebels bury comrades, who were killed in recent fighting against government forces, in Sanaa (Khaled Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters). Shi'ite Houthi rebels bury comrades, who were killed in recent fighting against government forces, in Sanaa (Khaled Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters).

An old one from Eric Rouleau, who reflects on his experiences as an Egyptian-Jewish journalist.

Omar el-Jaffal examines the phenomenon of militias in Iraq and its implications on the Iraqi state. Read more »

Methinks Sisi Doth Protest Too Much

by Steven A. Cook Monday, September 22, 2014
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi waits for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Cairo September 13, 2014 (Brendan Smialowski/Courtesy Reuters). Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi waits for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Cairo September 13, 2014 (Brendan Smialowski/Courtesy Reuters).

Every year at the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting there seems to be one world leader who garners all the attention. Last year’s UNGA “It Guy” was Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. In 2012, the King of the Prom was Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader and a Muslim Brother. The year before that everyone wanted to hear from then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. This year all the Turtle Bay buzz is building around the man who is Erdogan’s bête noire and Morsi’s jailer, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Even though he is not getting a coveted “bilateral” with President Obama, Sisi is breakfasting with Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and Madeleine Albright, breaking bread with New York’s titans of business over lunch, and presiding at a small meeting of opinion leaders in advance of his speech before fellow heads of state on Thursday, September 25. The Egyptian president’s message is a simple one: “Egypt is back, I am in charge, we have an economic plan, it is safe to invest, I am actually on the right side of history, and Egypt is stable.” Don’t believe it. Methinks Sisi doth protest too much. For all of the persistently positive messages coming from official circles in Cairo, there is nevertheless a certain skittish and vulnerable quality to them. Read more »

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 »