Syrian rebels from the “Al-Qasas Brigade” or “Justice Brigade” run through an olive grove to avoid Syrian Army snipers, Oct. 20, 2012 (photo by Flickr user syriafreedom licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy to counter the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq has three central components: pressuring the Iraqi government to change its policies that fuel support for IS and to rebuild its military; conducting U.S. airstrikes to weaken IS and prevent it from gaining an outright military victory; and training and equipping militias to fight IS on the ground, including Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syrian rebels. All of these components are shaky to one extent or another, but the third is the most precarious of all, reflecting the Obama administration’s desperate effort to balance […]

Samantha Power, Permanent Representative of the United States to the U.N., United Nations, New York, Sept. 19, 2014 (U.N. photo by Amanda Voisard).

Editor’s note: Due to travel, Richard Gowan’s column will appear Wednesday this week. Vladimir Putin and Samantha Power both grumbled about the state of the international system last week. It is hard to know who is the more displeased. The Russian president told foreign dignitaries that American policy toward the United Nations and international law threatened to make the whole system “worthless, outdated and in need of immediate demolition.” But the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., embarking on a tour of the Ebola-ridden countries of West Africa, targeted other states for not fulfilling promises to fight the disease. Too many […]

President Barack Obama walks over to greet people after arriving in the snow at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in Manchester, N.H., March 1, 2012 (AP photo by Susan Walsh).

Editor’s note: Due to travel, Richard Gowan’s column will appear Wednesday this week. Nikolas Gvosdev’s column will appear Monday. How three presidents—Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin—and one institution—the European Union—grapple with and navigate the political challenges they will face this winter will have a profound impact in shaping global politics in the years to come. The decisions that are taken, or deferred, will determine whether current assumptions about the international order are reconfirmed or discarded. Those assumptions include the belief that most countries, including the rising and resurgent powers, still prioritize their relationships with Washington over bonding together […]

President Ronald Reagan with Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Ed Meese and Don Regan, Nov. 25, 1986 (White House photo from the Ronald Reagan Library).

In the early 1980s, U.S. military strategy had lost its bearings. Rocked by a decade of bloody, expensive and divisive counterinsurgency in Vietnam, Americans could not agree on how to use their military in a way that would both promote the national interest and reflect national values. Under the Reagan administration, the U.S. began to shake off this malaise. In a 1984 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s secretary of defense, suggested a set of tests or principles to guide the use of the American military: vital national interests must be at stake; the U.S. […]

This image made from an undated video shows Tarkhan Batirashvili, known as Omar al-Shishani, among a group of Islamic State fighters (AP Photo/militant social media account via AP video).

As militants from the so-called Islamic State (IS) advance across Syria and Iraq, the battlefield exploits of a 28-year-old field commander known as Omar al-Shishani—“Omar the Chechen”—have become a prominent narrative in the conflict. Born Tarkhan Batirashvili, the IS fighter is increasingly credited by observers as a superlative tactician who has overcome the group’s disadvantages in size and equipment to score a string of recent victories in Iraq. Batirashvili is an unlikely war hero for the radical Islamist brigades. Only a few years ago, after serving as a sergeant in the Georgian army during the 2008 war with Russia, Batirashvili […]

President Barack Obama arrives to vote early in the midterm elections, Oct. 20, 2014, Chicago, Ill. (AP photo by Evan Vucci).

Traditionally, U.S. midterm elections have been referenda on how a president has managed domestic affairs, a vote of confidence or rejection of his various policy choices. International events, however, can emerge as issues in the campaign to the extent that they indicate whether the country is moving in the right or the wrong direction. In 2006, for instance, the Bush administration’s mismanagement of the Iraq War became a factor in the recapture of both houses of Congress by the Democrats because it was put forth alongside domestic disasters—such as the handling of Hurricane Katrina—as part of an effective campaign slogan […]

Russian-speakers stand around the statue of a Red Army soldier protesting against the Estonian government’s plan to move it, Tallinn, Estonia, April 22, 2007 (AP photo by Timur Nisametdinov).

Nowhere does Russia’s policy of protecting its “compatriots”—Moscow’s loosely defined term for the Russian diaspora and Russian-speakers residing in the former Soviet republics—spell as much concern for the current post-Cold War order as in the Baltic states. All three Baltic states have significant numbers of Russian-speakers that are concentrated in territories close to the Russian border. In Lithuania, Russian-speakers make up 15 percent of the entire population; in Latvia 34 percent; and in Estonia the number might be as high as 30 percent. This has been a major source of worry for the Baltic states, because in the recent past […]

Thick smoke and flames from an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition rise in Kobani, Syria, as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Oct. 20, 2014 (AP photo by Lefteris Pitarakis).

While the world watches the battle over the Syrian border town of Kobani in light of Turkish tensions with its Western partners in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS), there are significant Kurdish undercurrents that have largely escaped attention. Regardless of whether Kobani falls or Syria’s main Kurdish rebel group, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), ultimately manages to hold the town, the resistance that Syria’s Kurds have put up for a month now against vastly superior IS forces has already become “a defining moment for nationhood and identity”for Kurds everywhere—a kind of Kurdish Alamo. As Kobani’s YPG fighters […]

Members of the U.N. investigation team take samples from the ground to test for chemicals in the Damascus countryside of Zamalka, Syria, Aug. 29, 2013 (AP Photo/Local Committee of Arbeen).

A series of recent media reports have refocused attention on chemical weapons and highlighted the threat presented by their possible use by terrorists. Stories about the so-called Islamic State (IS) seizing the remains of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons stockpile in Iraq; the large number of abandoned chemical weapons that U.S soldiers discovered during the post-Saddam occupation of Iraq; and the continued cases of chemicals being used as weapons of war in Syria have all generated concern and alarm. But they also highlight the ways in which the international chemical weapons regime must be updated to reflect the current nature of […]

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping talk during their meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Sept. 11, 2014 (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Mikhail Klementyev, Presidential Press Service).

Russia and China are good friends these days. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Moscow last week and, by signing a bundle of economic agreements, demonstrated Beijing’s disregard for Western sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. Early in the Ukrainian conflict, American and European officials hoped that Beijing would take steps to penalize Russia over its annexation of Crimea. But it has confined itself to token complaints, while reinforcing its trade relations with its northern neighbor. This is not the first time China has disappointed Western officials by sticking close to Moscow in recent years. Throughout the Syrian civil war, American and […]

Two UH-60 Blackhawks assigned to U.S. Army Europe’s 12th Combat Aviation Brigade on approach to pick up soldiers during a mission rehearsal exercise (Photo by SPC. Glenn M. Anderson).

Since the U.S. Army left Iraq and began withdrawing from Afghanistan, it has struggled mightily to reinvent itself and convince Congress and administration policymakers to preserve much of its force structure. This has been an uphill battle. For many Americans, the Army has become synonymous with counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the U.S. doesn’t expect to fight a major land war with another nation, it was easy—if incorrect—to conclude that it no longer needs a large Army. This forced military leaders and national security experts who believe in the enduring importance of land power to appeal for preserving Army […]

A Turkish forces soldier on an armored vehicle uses his binoculars as he patrols on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, overlooking Kobani, Syria, Oct. 16, 2014 (AP photo by Lefteris Pitarakis).

Turkey recently announced that only Syrian refugees would be allowed to cross the border to fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the besieged town of Kobani. In an email interview, Sinan Ülgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, discussed domestic influences on Turkey’s Syria policy. WPR: How unified is the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Turkey’s Syria policy, and how does the Turkish opposition view the AKP’s policy? Sinan Ülgen: The Turkish government’s policy on Syria has never really been popular. There are no dissenting voices within the ruling party given the strong party discipline. But […]

Smoke rises from a fire in Kobani, Syria as seen from Mursitpinar on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Oct. 15, 2014 (AP photo by Lefteris Pitarakis).

Just as the United States thought it had made progress convincing Turkey to help fight the so-called Islamic State (IS)—particularly in the current battle for Kobani, the Kurdish town near Turkey’s border with Syria—Ankara came out with a rather disconcerting announcement. Turkish warplanes, officials said, had launched bombing raids, but they had struck Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey, not IS. The bombing raids against Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey did not directly change the balance in Kobani, but their timing was a particularly brazen defiance of international pressure. The U.S.-led effort to “degrade and destroy” IS has put a harsh spotlight […]

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 26, 2014 (AP photo/Kazakh Presidential Press Service, Sergei Bondarenko).

Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the leaders of Italy, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and other European countries at tomorrow’s 10th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan. The meeting, the third between Putin and Poroshenko since the latter took office in May, will include talks on Russia’s supply of gas to European countries via pipelines through Ukraine, which was a fraught issue even long before the ouster of Ukraine’s previous president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February. Russia shut off Ukraine’s gas supply in June, citing Ukraine’s failure to pay its debts, and the […]

Fighters of the Islamic State waving the group’s flag from a damaged display of a government fighter jet following the battle for the Tabqa air base, Raqqa, Syria, photo post Aug. 27, 2014 (AP photo/ Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group).

The elusive unicorns wandering the forests of America’s Middle East policy are the so-called moderates who will battle the extremists on behalf of the Western world. There is a touching faith among many parts of the U.S. foreign policy establishment in the existence of these moderates, who simply require sustained U.S. support in order to step forward out of the shadows of the stagnant status quo regimes and extremist movements that dominate the region. These moderates, according to this rosy view, can already field a disciplined and effective fighting force. But better yet, they can also be trained quickly and […]

Armed men belonging to the Self-Defense Council of Michoacan guard a checkpoint in western Mexico, May 9, 2014 (AP photo by Eduardo Verdugo).

The emergence of self-defense groups in the state of Michoacan in Mexico earlier this year is yet another chapter in the history of nonstate actors that contest the government’s monopoly on violence. While many circumstances are specific to Mexico, parallel cases in Colombia, El Salvador and Nigeria can help illustrate how such groups form and why they persist. Mexico Earlier this year, violence in Mexico once again made international headlines. On this occasion, however, the media feeding frenzy wasn’t caused by the most recent macabre innovation of cartel gunmen or the arrest of a prominent drug lord. Instead, a heterogeneous […]

A man walks past a billboard warning people of the deadly Ebola virus in Monrovia, Liberia, Oct. 10, 2014 (AP photo by Abbas Dulleh).

Across Africa and the Middle East, governments and international organizations are paying the price for responding to crises too late. Last week, the continuing spread of Ebola in West Africa vied for global attention with new advances and atrocities in Syria and Iraq by the so-called Islamic State (IS). These were arguably both avoidable disasters. A more determined international medical effort to contain Ebola when it appeared in Liberia and Sierra Leone at the start of this year would almost certainly have stemmed the epidemic. Earlier Western and Arab military action against IS, perhaps paired with a nasty but necessary […]

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