Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

Weekend Reading: Libya’s Forgotten War, Egypt’s Hidden Coup, and Falling Oil Prices

by Steven A. Cook Friday, October 23, 2015
A Tuareg boy stands next to a camel in the desert during the 19th Ghat Festival of Culture and Tourism, in Ghat, about 1,360 km (845 miles) south of Tripoli December 30, 2013 (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters). A Tuareg boy stands next to a camel in the desert during the 19th Ghat Festival of Culture and Tourism, in Ghat, about 1,360 km (845 miles) south of Tripoli December 30, 2013 (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters).

Valerie Stocker explores the overlook conflict between Libya’s Tebu and Tuareg communities.

Hossam Bahgat investigates a secret military trial in Egypt of twenty-six officers accused of plotting a coup with the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Read more »

Interest and Intrigue in Egypt’s Parliamentary Elections

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook Wednesday, October 21, 2015
A man casts his vote during the first phase of the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Giza governorate (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters). A man casts his vote during the first phase of the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Giza governorate (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters).

H. A. Hellyer contributed this guest post on the recent Egyptian parliamentary elections. I hope you find it interesting.

Egyptians voted this week for the eighth time in four years—ten if you count runoffs. The most blatant characteristic this time appears to be rather unedifying: An abundant lack of interest in the formal exercise of the democratic process. Unlike the enthusiasm of the last parliamentary elections in 2011, generalized apathy marked this round of voting. Yet there are some issues of intrigue to be drawn out and looked at further. Read more »

Israelis and Palestinians: And Then What?

by Steven A. Cook Monday, October 19, 2015
A pedestrian walks in the centre of Jerusalem (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters). A pedestrian walks in the centre of Jerusalem (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters).

In December 1987 the first intifada began after a traffic accident involving an Israeli truck and a Palestinian pedestrian outside the Jabaliya refugee camp set off a wave of demonstrations against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The sudden volleys of rocks pelting Israeli soldiers and the tear gas and rubber bullets in response changed the complexion of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians almost overnight, likely forever. The mighty Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were not traversing the Sinai Peninsula in three days, rescuing hostages in Entebbe, or spending two daring minutes over Baghdad, but breaking teenagers’ bones on the streets of Nablus, Hebron, Ramallah, and Gaza City. David had become Goliath and had no answer for Daoud’s slingshot. The Israelis must have been rattled by the images on television and pictures published in the press because, a few months after it all began, the Israeli consul general started doing the rounds of universities and colleges in the New York area to provide Jerusalem’s perspective on the unrest. I remember attending one such event on a chilly evening in a half-empty room at Vassar’s College Center. During the Q&A a member of the audience recalled an encounter with someone he identified as an “Arab friend in Israel.” He alleged that during a debate over politics his friend relayed that, despite their relationship, he would kill him if and when communal violence erupted. It was an odd non sequitur to what had, until that moment, been an interesting discussion thankfully lacking the overwrought theatrics of more recent conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on America’s campuses. Read more »

Weekend Reading: The Syrian Opposition, Iraq’s Identity, and Hamas Holds Back…For Now

by Steven A. Cook Friday, October 16, 2015
Free Syrian Army fighters, part of the Suqour al-Jabal (Mountain Hawks) brigade, rest with their weapons at their headquarters building in Aleppo, Syria, July 30, 2015 (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters). Free Syrian Army fighters, part of the Suqour al-Jabal (Mountain Hawks) brigade, rest with their weapons at their headquarters building in Aleppo, Syria, July 30, 2015 (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters).

Aymenn al-Tamimi examines the potential for a unified Syrian opposition as a result of Russian intervention.

Harith Hasan al-Qarawee and Matthew Schweitzer outline a strategy to rebuild Iraq’s cultural and historical identity. Read more »

Turkey. At War. With Itself.

by Steven A. Cook Monday, October 12, 2015
Gray clouds over Istanbul (Photo by Steven Cook). Gray clouds over Istanbul (Photo by Steven Cook).

In his famous and much-criticized 1993 Foreign Affairs article, “The Clash of Civilizations,” the late Samuel Huntington described Turkey as a “torn country.” For Huntington there is an irreconcilable difference between the Western-style political institutions of the Republic of Turkey and the Islamic cultural and civilizational foundations of Turkish society. It was a controversial assertion in a controversial article, though Turkey’s current prime minister (and political scientist), Ahmet Davutoglu, made a similar claim in his 1984 dissertation. I disagree with both professors. Turkey may not be “torn” in the way that Huntington and Davutoglu believe, but it is tearing itself apart in a war with itself. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Turkey and the EU, Tunisia’s Nobel Winners, and Life in the Qandil Mountains

by Steven A. Cook Friday, October 9, 2015
Hussein Abassi, head of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tunis, Tunisia, in this August 16, 2013 photo. Tunisia's National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for helping build democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, an example of peaceful transition in a region otherwise struggling with violence and upheaval (Anis Mili/Reuters). Hussein Abassi, head of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tunis, Tunisia, in this August 16, 2013 photo. Tunisia's National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for helping build democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, an example of peaceful transition in a region otherwise struggling with violence and upheaval (Anis Mili/Reuters).

Natasha Lennard examines the altering dynamics between Turkey and the European Union brought about by the refugee crisis.

Read the press release announcing that the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2015. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Revisionist Jihad, Rationalism in Iraq, and Turkish-Kurdish Relations

by Steven A. Cook Friday, October 2, 2015
A rebel fighter from the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement reacts as they fire grad rockets from Idlib countryside, towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stationed at Jureen town in al-Ghab plain in the Hama countryside, April 25, 2015 (Mohamad Bayoush/Reuters). A rebel fighter from the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement reacts as they fire grad rockets from Idlib countryside, towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stationed at Jureen town in al-Ghab plain in the Hama countryside, April 25, 2015 (Mohamad Bayoush/Reuters).

Sam Heller discusses the revisionist ideology of Syria’s Ahrar al-Sham and the future of jihadi thought.

Marwan Jabbar takes at look at Iraqis translating scientific articles into Arabic in an effort to combat extremism. Read more »

Sisi’s Struggle for Egypt

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acknowledges attendees after addressing the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters). Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acknowledges attendees after addressing the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters).

I have always wondered why leaders of foreign countries feel the need to publish opinion pieces in American newspapers of record. Who exactly are they trying to influence? The folks at the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, the Treasury, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) generally know a lot more about conditions in a given country than what these leaders are trying to convey in 750 to 850 words. Maybe such op-eds are meant for members of Congress and their staffs, many of whom are just far too busy to focus on any one issue. Perhaps they’re intended to build support with the American public, but with the exception of a few issues—transnational terrorism, Israel, Iraq (sort of), and the Iran nuclear deal—Americans do not seem much interested in what foreign leaders are doing at home to make their economies grow and provide opportunities for their citizens. I can only presume that foreign leaders believe it will accrue to their domestic political benefit by having an op-ed in one of America’s elite newspapers. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Iran’s Parliament, Syria Divided, and Egyptian Illusions

by Steven A. Cook Friday, September 25, 2015
Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, president of Egypt, addresses a plenary meeting of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 at United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, New York (Mike Segar/Reuters). Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, president of Egypt, addresses a plenary meeting of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 at United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, New York (Mike Segar/Reuters).

Farideh Farhi explores the Iranian parliament’s review of the nuclear deal.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed examines the consequences of a divided Syria. Read more »

Syria: Let Putin Bleed

by Steven A. Cook Thursday, September 24, 2015
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 »