Regional Security

What to Expect From Putin's Re-election

Writing in Stratfor, Ambassador Cameron Munter contends that if Vladimir Putin manages to break with his usual strategy, Russia may yet find common ground with the West.

Vladimir Putin has won re-election as president of Russia, by a wide margin. According to news reports, he received over 70 percent of the votes cast, with an estimated 60 percent of voters taking part. Despite allegations of irregularities and criticisms that authorities kept legitimate opposition to the incumbent president off the ballot, Putin has achieved what he set out to achieve: a clear mandate for the next six years.

But what is that mandate? And what are we to expect from Russia in the global arena?

Context is important. Putin's last election, in 2012, came on the heels of significant public dissatisfaction (which led to mass protests the Russian president claims were orchestrated by foreign interests). This year's election was in part an attempt to "put to rest ghosts of the past" by preventing displays of public discontent and demonstrating to audiences — domestic and foreign — a sense of order, continuity and strength. The strategy proved successful. 

Putin's campaign also pointed to other signs of stability: In spite of low oil prices, most economic indicators in Russia, including wages, unemployment and gross domestic product growth, are stable. None of the metrics is necessarily exemplary, and Russia's poverty rate is still high, but the Kremlin is portraying its economic management as controlled and effective. Its efforts had a powerful psychological effect on the majority of the electorate. As Russians told me on my most recent visit, it could be a lot worse.

Read the full commentary here.


Photo: "Russia_President_Putin_Korea_Visiting_01" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by KOREA.NET - Official page of the Republic of Korea

Kawa Hassan on Putin's Re-Election and Impact on Middle East

Kawa Hassan, who leads EWI's Middle East and North America Program, speaks to Deutsche Welle Radio's Arabic Service on what the re-election of Russian President Vladimir Putin may mean in regard to the situation in the Middle East. Below are excerpts of his comments.

In the interview, aired on March 19, Hassan said President Putin perhaps will not try to play new political cards in that region.

He said Putin will keep using the threat of radical Islamist groups and the efforts to destroy them as ways to strengthen Russia's relations with regimes in the Middle East.

"Russia is trying to compete with the U.S. in Iraq through investment in oil fields [in the Kurdish region]. In the coming years, the [geopolitical] equation in the Middle East might not change against the interests of Russia particularly in Syria. The growing Russian influence there right now is less the result of Russian leverage and more due to the lack of clear U.S. strategy and vision, as well as to the fact that the EU is currently consumed with internal problems. But if Russia poses a threat to vital Western interests in Syria, that may lead to an escalation [of the rivalry]."  

Listen to the interview (in Arabic).


Photo: "G20 Leaders’ Summit" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Herman Van Rompuy

After Syria: The United States, Russia, and the Future of Terrorism


The collapse of Islamic State control in Syria has been hailed in both Russia and the United States as a victory over terrorism. Both credit their country’s military involvement with victory. But the war that continues in Syria also lays bare Moscow and Washington’s conflicting definitions and approaches when it comes to terrorism, insurgency, and combat operations. Moreover, even if a path to stabilization in that country is found, America and Russia will continue to face terrorism and terrorists at home and abroad. The ways in which these two crucial countries respond as the threat evolves will shape both their own polities and the world as a whole.

Please join us on Friday, March 30 for an expert discussion of what we can expect from the end game in Syria and after; emerging trends in terrorism and violent extremism; and the evolution and implications of U.S. and Russian policies and roles.

This event is organized in partnership with Center for Strategic & International Studies.


Photo: "Bashar al-Assad propaganda" (CC BY 2.0) by watchsmart

Kawa Hassan Talks Seventh Anniversary of Syrian Uprising

Kawa Hassan, who leads EWI's Middle East and North America Program, speaks to Deutsche Welle Radio's Arabic Service on the seventh anniversary of the Syrian uprising on March 15. Below are excerpts of his comments.

In the interview, Hassan highlighted the reasons that led to the fragmentation of the opposition.

"First of all, there is a historical factor, namely the authoritarian nature of the Syrian regime. The Assad regime, father and son, killed politics and civil society which made it extremely difficult for a strong opposition to emerge. Second, the intervention by regional and international powers in the conflict who have no interest in the emergence of a democratic Syria. Third, there is an objective factor that has to do with the nature of the opposition.

The democratic national opposition leaders were either marginalized, killed or fled the country. As a result, the more militaristic, radical Islamic fundamentalist groups prevailed.

The scorched earth policy by the regime partly led to the militarization of the uprising. But the absence of real opposition leaders who are capable of reading and understanding the complex geopolitics of the uprising has led to the empowerment and the prevailing sectarian and fundamentalist armed groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. As a result, it is almost impossible to go back to the peaceful phase of the uprising. 

Assad is winning battles but he is not winning the peace. Assad has succeeded in destroying Syria. But there are no winners in this conflict, only losers. And the biggest loser is the Syrian people." 

Access the interview here (in Arabic).


Photo: "Syria 2007 190 Palmyra تدمر" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by David Holt London

Turkey-Iran Rivalry: The Middle East’s New Great Game


We are witnessing the dawn of a new “Great Game” in the Middle East. The turmoil that has engulfed the Middle East since the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011 brought about the collapse of the regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, as well as catastrophic upheavals in Syria and Iraq. The collapse of state power in the region, the rise and fall of Islamic State (ISIS) and the realignment of tribal structures are just a few of the more immediate consequences.

This ongoing turmoil combined with the perceived waning of great power influence has opened the doors to the gradual reemergence of two regional powers with imperial pasts and contemporary aspirations to restore their glorious heydays: Turkey, the heir to the once might Ottoman Empire, and Iran, the Old Persian Empire.

Both countries have long and well established administrative and governance experience, as well as traditions accumulated through generations and now find themselves at the prospective forefront  of new regional opportunities. Arguably, both countries endeavor to extend their spheres of influence by restructuring the most destabilized parts of the Middle East region: Iraq and Syria in the North; and Yemen, which is guarding the southern approaches to the Red Sea in the south.

Naturally, this new regional power rivalry has deepened mistrust between Ankara and Tehran, underlined by the deep historical Sunni-Shia divide pitting Sunni-dominated Turkey against the Shia-dominated Islamic Republic of Iran.  

For example, the recent Turkish military activity in Afrin in Northern Syria (Operation Olive Branch), under the pretext of chasing terrorists and checking the Kurds along its southern flank, was met with suspicion by Iran, which saw it as an attempt to infringe on Syria’s territorial integrity and establish a permanent Turkish presence there. Conversely, Turkey has watched with misgiving Iran’s ongoing attempt to establish a land corridor stretching from Iran via Iraq and Syria, both weakened states, to the Mediterranean Sea either in Syria or Lebanon. (This land corridor is sometimes dubbed “The Shia Crescent”.)

Iranian and Turkish interests are also clashing in Northern Iraq, where Iran has encroached on Turkey’s historic and economic interests, especially when it comes to its relationship with the Turkmen minority and the export of natural resources from the oil rich province of Kirkuk. If Iran will manage to establish the intended land corridor to the Mediterranean it will have an impact on Turkey’s economy, which earns revenues from the oil pipelines passing through its territory.

The latest competition between the two regional powers is likely to occur in the south. The Iranian involvement in the current war in Yemen has by now been well documented. Among other things, Iran has been sending advanced weapons and military advisors to its Shi’ite ally, the Houthi movement, which recently threatened to disrupt navigation at the southern tip of the Red Sea. The Ottoman Empire ruled Yemen for several centuries and understands the perils of pro-Iranian regime there.

Turkey’s involvement in the countries neighboring the Gulf of Aden is also on the rise. Following the rift between Qatar and its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf, Turkey hurried to dispatch an extra military contingent to its forces, which have been stationed there since 2014. The recent visit of Turkish President Erdogan to Sudan resulted, amongst other things, in an agreement which will allow Turkey to restore the old Sudanese port of Suakin. This port, during Ottoman rule, was the main departure point of Muslims from Africa to the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The new Sudanese-Turkish agreement allows the presence of the Turkish Navy in the port. Needless to say, that is not welcomed by neighboring countries and regional rivals such as Iran. Turkey is building a military presence both in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to the west and east of the watchful Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is also a factor that cannot be ignored as the Kingdom is immersed in an intense dispute with Iran. Interestingly, the move coincides with Houthi threats to shut down the Red Sea and interrupt shipping in the Gulf of Aden.

Both Iran and Turkey already have a naval presence in the region under the umbrella of the international anti-piracy naval task force patrolling the Horn of Africa. As in Qatar, Turkey has maintained a military presence in Somalia since 2014. A serious disruption of the maritime routes in the Red Sea and its environs may have a tremendous impact on the oil supply from the Middle East to Europe. It is of little surprise than that both Turkey and Iran are maintaining a naval presence around the Horn of Africa. Interestingly, one may observe that this jockeying for strategic interests has resulted in an almost symmetrical positioning of Turkish and Iranian forces or proxies in the area facing off against one another.

Although history never repeats itself exactly along the same lines, it is recommended that this growing competition between Iran and Turkey for regional influence be closely observed for it is slated to increase in intensity. Both countries will certainly need local partners and proxies as sub-contractors to counter each other and effectuate their respective strategies. Turkey is counting on the Sunni Arabs while Iran is counting on the pro-Shia elements. But in the shifting sands of the region there might be other configurations that will require or compel other parties to join in and select sides bringing even more complexity to the region, and risk. This is especially the case when the southern approaches of the Red Sea and their oil supply routes will be in danger. The Middle East’s new great game is on.

Ambassador (ret.) Jacob Rosen-Koenigsbuch served as Israel's ambassador in Jordan (2006-2009). He is currently an independent consultant on demographic mapping and collects books about "Lawrence of Arabia." 

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.


Photo: "The Middle East" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Big Richard C

Lebanon’s Election: Potential Departures from the Status Quo


Lebanon, for once, looks relatively secure. To the south, a brewing corruption scandal threatens to upend Israel’s political establishment; to the north, the abattoir of Syria’s hijacked revolution grinds on. Despite a tense few weeks last November—when Prime Minister Saad Hariri temporarily resigned under duress—and an influx of refugees from neighboring Syria, Lebanon has largely avoided the destabilizing currents wracking the rest of the region. Lebanon’s relative security might tempt observers to assume the peaceful status quo will prevail at the ballot box on May 8.

But the relationship between national security and domestic politics in Lebanon is not so straightforward. The elections, less predictable than usual thanks to the debut of new voting laws, will change the relationship between the Lebanese and their political representatives. A new electoral dynamic could very well change the political calculus between Saudi Arabia and Iran which has so far sheltered Lebanon from regional storms. In the long run, though, the change could make Lebanon far more secure.

Read the full article on Lawfare Blog.


Photo: "Baalbek, Lebanon" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Paul Saad

Ambassador Akçapar Talks Turkey’s Place in the World at EWI

On February 23, the EastWest Institute hosted Ambassador Burak Akçapar, Director General for Policy Planning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey, for a frank and informative discussion on the country’s growing political and economic roles, as well as numerous challenges and current events unfolding in the region.

Akçapar, who served in Washington D.C. from 2004 to 2008, also spoke at length about the currently strained relations between his country and the United States, Turkey’s place within NATO, as well as its relationships with countries like China and India.

Discussion also focused on the Turkey’s engagement with Syria and ongoing conflict with the YPG militia, as well as its role as the largest host country of registered Syrian refugees at over 3.5 million.

EWI Chief Operating Officer Dr. William J. Parker III moderated the discussion.


Photo: "Turkish flag (2006-10-248)" (CC BY 2.0) by Argenberg

How Strong is the Iran-Russia ‘Alliance’?


On January 10, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow to discuss the resolution of the Syrian civil war and U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats to suspend the Iran nuclear deal. After their meeting, Zarif praised Russia’s resolute support for the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, and reiterated both countries’ shared willingness to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria.  

Even though Zarif’s recent meeting with Lavrov aimed to showcase the strength of the Russia-Iran alliance to the international community, the long-term sustainability of the Moscow-Tehran alignment remains unclear. The uncertainty surrounding the survival of the Russia-Iran partnership can be explained by both countries’ conflicting strategic visions for the Middle East regional system.

Russia’s strategic vision is chiefly focused on eliminating sources of instability and preventing U.S.-led military interventions, which from Moscow’s perspective facilitate the creation of failed states. The Russian government justified its September 2015 military intervention in Syria as a necessary measure to restore stability to the country, and to deter Washington from using force to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia views its Syria campaign as an integral step towards achieving its broader goal of establishing itself as an indispensable guarantor of collective security in the Middle East.  

Although Iranian policymakers frequently tout Tehran’s role as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, collective security promotion is only a peripheral goal in Iran’s strategic vision. Iranian policymakers are primarily focused on expanding Tehran’s sphere of influence in the Middle East and containing Saudi Arabia’s power projection capacity across the Arab world. These expansionist objectives have caused Iran to cooperate more extensively with belligerent non-state actors than Russia and engage in military activities that undercut the effectiveness of Moscow-backed political settlement initiatives.

These divergent objectives threaten to unravel Russia-Iran cooperation in Syria, as the conflict transitions from the military to diplomatic phase. Even though Russian military officials have praised the effectiveness of Hezbollah troops during pro-Assad military operations, Iran’s use of Syrian territory to create a permanent transit point of weaponry to Hezbollah has alarmed Russian policymakers who seek to preserve strong relations with Israel.

Iran’s unwillingness to suspend military operations in Syria until Assad has completely vanquished opposition forces also deviates from Russia’s more limited objective of ensuring that Assad controls enough territory to negotiate with Syrian opposition factions from a position of strength. Iran’s belief in the feasibility of a military solution in Syria has made it less willing than Russia to diplomatically engage with Syrian opposition or Kurdish factions during diplomatic negotiations, limiting the scope of the Moscow-Tehran partnership.

Prospects for constructive cooperation between Russia and Iran on resolving other regional conflicts, like Yemen and Afghanistan, also appear dim. In Yemen, the already-strained relations between Russia and Iran-aligned Houthi rebels have deteriorated further since the assassination of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh on December 5. These tensions have prompted Moscow to establish stronger lines of communication with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on resolving the crisis.

A similar divergence in objectives restricts the potential for Russia-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan. Russia is seeking to implement an Afghan political settlement, which includes the Taliban, as swiftly as possible. While Iran wants a peace settlement in Afghanistan to be achieved in the long-term, it is unwilling to suspend military action until anti-U.S. forces have gained a position of primacy in western Afghanistan. As Iran continues to provide military assistance to Taliban forces near its borders, Russian policymakers are concerned that Tehran will obstruct the Afghan peace process to advance its own objectives.

Although divergent interests make the Russia-Iran partnership weaker than many analysts have assumed, U.S. policy choices could also profoundly impact the strength of the alliance. As former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul noted in a August 2017 interview, the re-imposition of a stringent U.S. sanctions regime against Iran by abandoning the nuclear deal could cause Tehran to pivot strongly towards Moscow. If the United States decides to militarily retaliate against Assad’s use of chemical weapons, it will likely re-awaken Russia and Iran’s long-standing opposition to U.S. military interventions, further strengthening their partnership in Syria.

Although a marked improvement in Washington’s relationships with Russia or Iran is unlikely to occur in the near-term, U.S. policymakers can influence the trajectory of the Russia-Iran relationship. To capitalize on disagreements between Russia and Iran’s Afghanistan strategies, U.S. diplomats could re-establish diplomatic dialogue with the Taliban, which would provide a genuine basis for U.S.-Russia cooperation in Afghanistan and isolate Iran’s support for a military solution from the international consensus.

U.S. policymakers could also attempt to strengthen dialogue between Geneva and Astana talks participants in Syria. This move would give Russia the status recognition it desires, and weaken the Moscow-Tehran partnership, as Iranian policy makers remain concerned that heightened Russia-US cooperation will cause Moscow to distance itself from Tehran, like it did during the early years of the Obama administration.  

Even though the Russia-Iran alliance appears robust, both countries’ divergent strategic visions could render the partnership unsustainable in the long-term. To weaken the Russia-Iran alignment, U.S. officials should refrain from implementing overly hawkish retaliations to Moscow and Tehran’s destabilizing conduct, and look to expose cracks in the partnership through targeted diplomatic engagement with Russia. If U.S. policymakers implement this strategy, the Moscow-Tehran partnership could weaken considerably once military operations in Syria draw to a close, potentially strengthening Washington’s influence in the Middle East for years to come.   

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a regular contributor to the Washington Post, The Diplomat and The National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.



Post-ISIS Iraq: Challenges and Opportunities for a New Political Order

On January 18, the EastWest Institute and the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) hosted a closed roundtable discussion with Dr. Mustafa Al-Hiti, Chairman of the Iraqi Reconstruction Fund for Areas Affected by Terrorist Operations (REFAATO), and Mr. Ramon Blecua, the European Union Ambassador to Iraq. The round table focused on the challenges and opportunities for a new political order in post-ISIS Iraq. 

In many respects, 2017 was a remarkable year for Iraq. ISIS has been militarily weakened and most urban areas have been liberated from the terrorist organization. For the first time since 2013, the number of internally displaced persons returning to their areas of origin has surpassed the number of those displaced. Furthermore, the Iraqi government and political forces started a rapprochement process with the Arab Gulf neighbors.

Yet, Iraq will face daunting challenges in the coming years and maybe even decades: (re)building a new political order that meets the demands of Iraqi citizens for real reforms, fair redistribution of revenues and power, good governance, transparency, accountability, reconciliation, restructuring of the relations between Baghdad and Kurdistan Regional Government, recovery of ISIS-liberated areas, and relations with neighboring states.

Dr. Al-Hiti (left) highlighted the need to put human development and peaceful coexistence at the center of the reconstruction process, for recovery is more than rebuilding roads, hospitals and restoring services. Reforming the education sector is key to long term stability and peaceful coexistence. A reformed education system should reflect the diversity of the Iraqi society and hence ensure peaceful coexistence, pluralism, rule of law and good governance. This is a generational project and hence will take decades to produce tangible impacts. In addition, Dr. Al-Hiti said one of core problems of pushing ahead with reforms is the fact that laws are not always implemented. Thus, priority should be given to the implementation of laws dealing with good governance, power sharing and redistribution of revenues.

Ambassador Blecua (right) stressed the need to capitalize on the historic momentum generated by the military weakening of ISIS. Iraq could become a bridge to decrease regional rivalry and contribute to the emergence of an inclusive, security structure that ensures regional stability and prosperity, economic cooperation, and complementarity. Furthermore, he referred to the new EU Iraq Strategy and reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to cooperation and a strong EU-Iraq partnership.  


Photo: "U.S., Iraqi Soldiers Conduct Cordon and" (CC BY 2.0) by DVIDSHUB


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