Russian Retreat

Today, President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced that most of Russia’s forces in Syria would pull out of the country in the coming days. But the question is, why?

The goal of the Russian intervention was never to ensure Assad’s victory, it was merely to prevent the regime’s imminent collapse. This has been accomplished. Russia is very keen to avoid a long drawn-out engagement with no end in sight, and so they are pulling out of Syria the first chance they got. However, this is still very bad news for the Assad regime. The Russian intervention did prevent an imminent collapse of the Assad regime but did not significantly alter the course of the war enough so that the regime will not find itself in the same position again. Assad forces have re-captured quite a bit of ground, yes, but only with overwhelming Russian firepower and not enough so that they can stand on their own. The Russian intervention did nothing to alleviate the regime’s rather severe manpower shortage. The Alawites, who overwhelmingly make up the majority of the regime’s supporters and soldiers, have (as of a year ago) seen roughly a third of their men of fighting age die. That figure is higher today. The regime has little in the way of replacing them except to increasingly rely on fighters from Hezbollah and Iran to do the actual fighting. This problem is only getting worse and spells long term trouble for the Assad regime. Even if, somehow, they manage to take back the rest of the country, how will they be able to maintain control? Heavy airstrikes by the Russian’s have relieved some of the pressure on the Assad regime, but to win a war, any and every war, you must have soldiers, and the Syrian regime is running out of men.

As a final note, I would like to stress what a depressing way for the Syrian conflict to end this is. What began as a peaceful uprising has killed or wounded an entire generation of young men. This war seems likely to only end once the regime runs out of Alawite men able to fight.

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The Sanders Surge

Bernie Sanders is well positioned to make a major comeback in the race, not that he ever fell far behind mind you. After his upset victory in Michigan last week, and two very strong debate performances, the momentum is clearly with Sanders. Three of the states voting tomorrow, (Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio) are likely Sanders wins given that they roughly match the profile of states in which that Sanders has already proven strong: they aren’t in the South. Of the twelve non-southern states that have voted already, Clinton has won three to Sanders’ nine, and Clinton’s three victories were quite close indeed. Furthermore, the issue of free trade seems to have given Sanders the right message to appeal to Rust-Belt voters, bringing more voters his way. Another major factor in the potential Sanders’ surge is Donald Trump. The best way to win votes in the Democratic primaries right now is to be the anti-Trump, and with Donald Trump blaming Sanders for the violence at Trump rallies, Sanders can do just that. The clear juxtaposition of Trump vs Sanders can only be good for his campaign and can help him sidestep Clinton altogether in the minds of voters.

Tomorrow will be a big day for the Democratic-party nomination. If Sanders can post a convincing overall win tomorrow, he could begin to run away with the nomination. The official Standard Daily News prediction for tomorrow is: Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois for Sanders, and North Carolina for Clinton with Florida as a toss-up that could go either way.

Iran’s Millennial Generation Votes

Partial results are in for Iran’s elections last Friday, and reformists have seen major gains. The reformist camp won all 30 parliamentary seats from the capital, Tehran, and 15 out of 16 of the capital’s seats in the Assembly of experts. Two of the hardliner camp’s most influential leaders have lost there seats altogether. This result, while at first glance surprising, makes sense. Rouhani’s success so far in his first term has given the reform movement the ammunition to achieve the result we see today. Successfully negotiating the nuclear agreement and getting sanctions lifted is a huge coup for the government in a country with as young, highly educated, and ambitious of a population as Iran has. Iran’s ‘millennial generation’ is coming of age and they are making their voices heard. They desire the education and job opportunities that come with globalization and Iran’s engagement with the world. This is a confident, optimistic, and hopeful generation that seeks an end to the country’s ‘permanent revolution’ and wants to see Iran become a ‘normal’ country that engages positively with the rest of the world.

On the other hand, this vote is not a knock-out blow to the hardliner camp. Far, far from it. The hardliners are on track to still win a majority of seats in both the Parliament and the Assembly of Experts, even if that majority will be rather slim. They also still control a number of powerful, unelected bodies the most important being the Guardian Council (analogous to the American Supreme Court, but with extra powers) and the Revolutionary Guard. The hardliners in Iran still have more than enough power to force the reformists to fight tooth and nail for every gain they hope to achieve. If anything, the election results show a highly divided Iran. Both the reformists and the hardliners have shown that they have considerable reservoirs of genuine, popular support to draw on. The Battle for Iran’s soul is heating up and there is no clear victor yet.

Elections in Iran

On Friday, Iran holds elections for its Parliament and for the Assembly of Experts, who choose the next Supreme Leader. While the Iranian Parliament is not particularly powerful as an institution, the election is still very important. And given the age and possibly poor health of Iran’s current Supreme Leader the Assembly of Experts could very well see action soon, and given how much power the Supreme Leader has, this makes their election incredibly important. The elections are being seen as a referendum on President Rouhani’s term thus far, and on the nuclear deal. But indeed, the elections are about the future of Iran itself.

Right now, there are two main camps battling for control of Iran’s government, and for Iranian hearts and minds: the hard-liners and the reformists. Both sides have strong bases of support and can both realistically hope for victory in the elections. The hard-liners can count on structural advantages, such as the disqualification of many reformist candidates and the short campaigning season (only a week long), to boost their chances, backed by deep support among various segments of the population. The reformists will be boosted by Rouhani’s success over the last few years, the high expected turnout, and the increasing feeling of optimism in the country.

Whichever sides wins these elections will be given a massive boost in momentum in the battle for Iran’s soul. This is an election we should all care about, given the importance of Iran in the Middle East region. This is an opportunity for the people of Iran to let their voice be heard. At the very least, I will be listening.

The End of Jeb

Jeb Bush has dropped out of the race after quite a poor showing in the South Carolina primary. I still believe that if he had done well, he could have come back to become the front runner, but he did poorly. Very poorly in fact. He barely came ahead of John Kasich and Ben Carson, despite his far greater name recognition and campaign spending. It was indeed a poor enough showing to convince Jeb to end his campaign. Although, Jeb Bush did not need to drop out of the race. His campaign still had the money to continue. But there was little point. His poll numbers were not rising despite all the money put into advertising, and he seemed incapable of ever producing a top three finish in a primary. But the most important thing about Jeb Bush ending his campaign is what happens next, and in particular, who do his donors support now?

In all likelihood, they will support Marco Rubio. He is now the undoubted establishment candidate, or at least, the candidate closest to the establishment with a chance of winning. Some of Jeb’s donors may be pulled away by Trump, Cruz, or even Kasich, but the majority will probably end up backing Rubio. This is especially important in the run-up to ‘Super Tuesday,’ when a dozen or so (depending on the party) states vote for their choice of nominee. With so many states voting, no candidate can cover all of them personally and the gaps must be filled with ad money, and for many candidates they still might not have enough money to sponsor advertisements in every state. This makes campaign financing particularly important for Super Tuesday. The candidates who will do the best will be the ones with enough money to cover all the states voting on Super Tuesday. Donald Trump has his personal fortune to cover him. But the other candidates are not so lucky. The race is on to win Jeb’s donors, and this may prove to be one of the most consequential votes of this election.

The Kurdish Question

The Kurds are one of the world’s largest stateless ethnic groups, but that may soon change. The Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS have allowed Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq to seize swaths of land historically claimed by the Kurds. The map below shows the current situation in Iraq and Syria.

Syrian,_Iraqi,_and_Lebanese_insurgencies

The yellow area at the top of the map is the area controlled by the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds and it is pretty clear that a nascent state is emerging. Their borders are linked and their soldiers are fighting together, as in Kobani in 2014. Except for Turkish Kurdistan, the Kurds have indeed already achieved effective independence. Neither the Syrian nor Iraqi governments are able to prevent the Kurds from declaring independence, at least not by force. Which brings us back to Turkey and Turkish Kurdistan.

Of the four Kurdistans (Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, and Turkish), Turkish Kurdistan is the largest and most heavily populated. According to the CIA World Factbook, Kurds make up around 18 percent of Turkey’s population, giving the Turkish government a major stake in the future of Kurdistan. The Turks have fought a long-running war against their Kurdish population, running for about 40 years. The Turkish government is adamantly opposed to the creation of any independent Kurdish state and seem prepared to use force to prevent it. I do believe that if the Kurds were to make more overt moves towards independence, the Turks would respond with ground troops, at least in Syria. The Turks are more wary about invading Iraqi Kurdistan.

Another factor in the future of Kurdistan is the increasing support from the rest of the world. Both the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have emerged as the most effective forces fighting ISIS. As such, they have both received ample support from the US coalition, mainly in the form of airstrikes. The US is essentially acting as the Kurds’ air force at the moment, with the US even building a new airfield to facilitate support for the Kurds, who have also received equipment and training necessary to effectively call in air support. The Kurds, particularly the Iraqi Peshmerga, are also receiving significant amounts of equipment from Western countries. Now admittedly, those links are quite outdated, but since then the amount of support the Kurds are receiving has only increased. But, most important to the Kurdish cause is the recognition they are receiving. Their fight against ISIS has made them popular both with Western governments and Western populations. This is important as international recognition is what the Kurds need most to achieve independence. As the map posted above showed, the Kurds have already seized most of their claimed areas by force. What they need is for the international community to allow them to keep their gains. Turkey’s opposition is heavy and potentially backed up by force, but the US and its European allies have significant leverage over Turkey. Will it be enough to restrain the Turks remains to be seen.

On a final note, I do believe the Kurds are going to achieve independence, at least in Iraq and Syria. They have a historically unique opportunity to do so right now. The effect of the Turkish wildcard remains to be seen, however. First, whether or not the Turks use force to prevent Kurdish ambitions. Second, whether or not the Turks are successful in defeating the Syrian Kurds or if their intervention unites the Kurds against Turkey.

Race to the White House

No self-respecting political blog can avoid covering a US Presidential Election, and with such an interesting one underway, here are my thoughts.

First: Sanders is doing well. Incredibly well, in fact. According to the BBC, his campaign raised more money than Clinton’s in January and so far in February as well. His campaign is also rapidly building the nation-wide infrastructure that is so critical to winning elections. What Sanders lacks however, is a win in a representative state. The upcoming primary in South Carolina provides him with an opportunity to do so. If he wins in South Carolina, that could very well propel him to absolute front-runner status. But even if he loses, so long as the lose isn’t too bad, he’s still in the race for the long haul.

Second: The Republican race is still anyone’s guess. The GOP nomination has so far been very difficult to predict. Both primaries so far have been filled with surprises and upsets. In Iowa, Ted Cruz had a shock win and Marco Rubio had an unexpectedly strong third place finish. In New Hampshire, John Kasich’s surprisingly strong second place finish and Rubio and equally surprisingly lackluster finish were both unexpected. And while the candidates who have recently dropped out of the race, particularly Chris Christie, did not pull in too many votes, as close as the race is it is probably enough new votes up for grabs to make a difference.

Third: Jeb Bush could very well come back. If Jeb handle’s Saturday nights upcoming debate well, he is in a strong position to make a comeback. He had a solid performance in New Hampshire, not stellar, but strong enough to keep him going. His campaign is incredibly well financed, he has a strong record as governor, and the primaries are moving into territory more friendly to the GOP establishment and the Bush family. If Jeb does manage a win in South Carolina, his campaign will come back in a major way. If he doesn’t though, he will be in trouble. Although, given the amount of money his campaign has, it will be very hard indeed to knock Bush out of the race altogether.

Fourth: While commentators have a tendency to place undue importance on each of the primaries, I do believe South Carolina will be a particularly important primary, especially for the Republican race. Trump is the undoubted front-runner, and South Carolina is not going to change that. But the South Carolina primary could very well determine his main challenger. If Cruz or Rubio don’t do well, their campaigns will be in trouble. When it comes down to it, the Republican race is about money. Jeb Bush is backed by the majority of the GOP establishment and its substantial financial contributions. Trump has his own private fortune to lean on. Cruz and Rubio’s campaigns’ have much more fluid bases of support. A poor showing by either one of them will be difficult to recover from. As for the Democrat race, well, its going to be a long fight either way.

The Difficulties of Finding Peace in Syria

The Syrian Peace talks in Geneva broke down just three days after they started. Personally, I’m not surprised. The amount of hostility between the (roughly) two sides extends beyond the current conflict. To understand why the talks broke down it is important to remember why the conflict is occurring in the first place.

The Syrian Civil War began during the Arab Spring. Originally it was limited to peaceful protests, but from the start the goal has been to remove the Assad family from power and end their many decades of harsh rule. The fighting itself began as a result of the regimes heavy use of force to stop the protests, and as the war has raged on the desire to remove Assad has only grown. So, in sum, the opposition’s desire to remove Assad is not a result of the civil war, but rather the civil war is a result of the opposition’s desire to remove Assad. This distinction is important as it underlines the minimum terms each side is willing to accept. The Assad family has ruled Syria since 1970, and from the start has ruled with an iron fist. The 1982 Hama massacre was a particularly bloody episode for a regime characterized by repression and death. The present civil war was forty years in the making.

The Opposition is willing to accept nothing less than Assad’s removal, and the regime is only willing to accept a resolution if Assad remains in power. If nothing else is agreed upon, these are the minimum terms for each side. At this point however, it is likely the fate of Assad will only be decided through force of arms and continued bloodshed and devastation. The victor will be left with the Herculean task of piecing together whatever is left of Syria.

Cracks in the Sand

The BBC had an interesting article this morning about Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and his first year in power. Suffice to say, its been a rocky one. None of the Kingdom’s major foreign policy initiatives are bearing much fruit. Saudi Arabia seems unable, or unwilling, to match Russian and Iranian support in the Syrian Civil War and thus the rebels that the Saudi’s support are on the back foot. The Kingdom is embroiled in a costly stalemate in Yemen that is proving quite embarrassing for the Saudi military. This is all compounded by a dramatic fall in the price of oil. As reported by al-Monitor, the Saudi state budget posted a deficit of 15 percent of GDP in 2015 and will most likely match that figure again this year.

Saudi Arabia has also seen an increase in the number of protests. The execution of a leading Shiite cleric earlier this year was an attempt to clamp down on rising public anger against the Saudi state. For now, most of the unrest remains focused in the mostly-Shiite populated east of the country. As reported in both the BBC and al-Monitor, the Kingdom has sought to address the deficit by liberalizing the economy, including reducing fuel subsidies and raising gasoline prices. These are measures that will disproportionately affect the poor in Saudi Arabia, and with an unemployment rate about 11 percent, there are plenty of those to go around. All in all, Saudi Arabia is beginning to look a lot more like the countries most affected by the Arab Spring. High unemployment, large deficits, youth bulge, etc. Except that Saudi Arabia also has an open-ended war to top it off.

The thing about revolutions is, they tend to sneak up on you. Everything may seem fine and stable, until they aren’t. Right now, in Saudi Arabia, things don’t even seem fine and stable. The Kingdom is currently engaged in a massive crackdown on the populace, whether supporters of terrorism or democracy. And with oil revenue drying up, so does the massive Saudi welfare state. Once the welfare state is stripped away, all the Kingdom has to show for itself is an authoritarian, fundamentalist state. Now, I’m not saying that Saudi Arabia is going to have a revolution tomorrow, but if things don’t change it could very well be coming up soon.

Hello world!

Well, this is my first official post. I decided to keep the standard “Hello World” default title because it aptly describes my feelings right now. I have a B.A. in Foreign Affairs and have had a few internships, but there aren’t many actual jobs available in the field right now. But given my passion for the subject, I just couldn’t keep quiet. I have too many thoughts in my head that I need to put somewhere. And so I started a blog.

Let me tell you about about the source of my passion for foreign relations. Quite simply: The Arab Spring.

New York Times Photo By Moises Saman
New York Times Photo By Moises Saman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Arab Spring began just before I started my first year at college, just as I was beginning to break out of my high-school shell and delve into international politics. And such a welcome I could never have dreamed of. The Arab Spring, such an outpouring of revolutionary fervor, I could not help but get swept up in it. If I had lived in Egypt at the time, I would have been out on the streets fighting for freedom and democracy. But I wasn’t. I was attending the University of Virginia and so had to content myself by watching videos of rallies and living vicariously through the noble men and women up on the barricades across the Arab World.

Some years later, and the Arab Spring has turned into an Arab Winter. But this has not dimmed my passion but tempered it with a desire to act and to do my part. At the moment, the best way for me to do this is to combat misinformation and to share my passion. And so, again, I started a blog. Please enjoy.

Hani Mohammed / AP Photo
Hani Mohammed / AP Photo