U.S. soldiers stand guard in Hasaka, northeast Syria, Jan. 27, 2022 (AP photo by Baderkhan Ahmad).

At its height half a decade ago, the Islamic State was among the most feared armed organizations in the world. The infamously brutal group had at one point captured and established governance of more than a third of Iraq and large swaths of Syria. But that shocking, sudden rise to infamy was followed by a steep, if slower, downfall. By January 2019, the Islamic State had lost nearly all of its territory in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. declared it defeated and media organizations began to pay only sporadic attention to its isolated attacks. By 2021, Google searches for the Islamic State, a […]

President Joe Biden listens to a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, Washington, Jan. 19, 2022 (AP photo by Susan Walsh).

Assessing the Biden administration’s performance in the Middle East at the one-year mark requires some careful metrics. Should the benchmark be a comparison to the turbulent Trump years, or to earlier times when U.S. diplomacy was defining the regional agenda and, on occasion, making a meaningful contribution to achieving peace? Should it prioritize the possibility that people in the region, who once resented the effects of too much U.S. power, now fear its absence, or the emerging consensus in Washington that the U.S. has more urgent strategic challenges to attend to elsewhere? Biden administration officials talk in pragmatic terms about […]

A man holds a portait of Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba who has taken the reins of the country in Ouagadougou, Jan. 25, 2022 (AP photo by Sophie Garcia).

In the latest in a series of military coups in West Africa, a group of army officers in Burkina Faso has overthrown the government of President Roch Kabore. In a televised address on Burkina Faso’s state broadcaster on Monday, the group—which has dubbed itself “the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration,” or MPSR—said that it had deposed Kabore, suspended the constitution, closed the country’s borders and dissolved the government and the legislature. The group affirmed that Kabore remains safe and in good condition.  The announcement came after two days of confusion and pandemonium in the capital, Ouagadougou, amid reports of […]

U.S. President John F. Kennedy and President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana talk as they sit in a limousine at Washington National Airport on March 8, 1961 (AP photo).

Anyone with even a sketchy understanding of the Cold War knows that it was a time not only of intense direct competition between the reigning superpowers, but also of grand schemes by both the U.S. and USSR for integrating their allies and clients into adversarial blocs, as well as for poaching the partners of the rival power—especially in the developing world—into their own camp. Throughout much of this era, the West regarded professions of neutrality among poorer countries with skepticism or even outright hostility. Beginning with the Eisenhower administration, the view took hold in Washington that non-alignment was just a […]

People inspect the wreckage of buildings after they were damaged by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 18, 2022 (AP photo by Hani Mohammed).

A ballistic missile attack on a U.S. military base in the United Arab Emirates yesterday, the second attack on Emirati soil in a week carried out by Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels, marks a dangerous escalation in regional tensions. It also underscores the difficulty of achieving a diplomatic settlement to bring an end to years of violent conflict between Iran, Saudi Arabia and their many partners and proxies across the Middle East.  According to statements from U.S. and UAE officials, two missiles were intercepted Monday near Abu Dhabi. A spokesman for the Houthis claimed that the attack targeted U.S. airmen stationed […]

The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani speaks with the United Arab Emirates’ top national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, during a meeting in Tehran, Iran, Dec. 6, 2021 (AP photo by Vahid Salemi).

A series of deadly explosions in Abu Dhabi, the normally placid capital of the United Arab Emirates, has created a strategic quandary for the UAE government. Its leaders are in the midst of a major diplomatic reinvention, seeking to develop good relations with all of their regional neighbors, including, notably, Iran. The recent attacks, which were carried out by Houthi rebels in Yemen, may cause the UAE to reconsider its rapprochement with Tehran, the Houthis’ chief sponsor. The Houthis’ weapons, reportedly advanced missiles and drones, killed three people­—two Indian nationals and one Pakistani—and injured six others. The strikes targeted an area near the […]

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana in front of the Soviet U.N. delegation headquarters, New York City, Sept. 22, 1960 (AP photo).

In 1956, then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev executed a sharp but largely forgotten reorientation in his country’s foreign policy. During the long decades under Josef Stalin, with the exception of its support for communist China, Moscow had focused almost all of its energy abroad in buttressing client states in Eastern Europe. But with one major speech, Khrushchev announced that the era of investing only in Russia’s “near abroad” was finished.  Taking his cues from the 1955 Asian-African Bandung Conference in Indonesia that launched the Non-Aligned Movement, and anticipating the huge wave of newly sovereign countries that would commence with Ghana’s independence […]

An old and corroded Soviet tank on the beach of Socotra Island, Yemen, Oct. 22, 2021 (CTK photo by Ondrej Zaruba, via AP Images).

Ravaged by over seven years of war, Yemen continues to witness escalating violence as 2022 begins. Last week, pro-government forces fighting on behalf of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seized the energy-rich Shabwah province. After successfully pushing out fighters loyal to the Houthi movement from Shabwah, the loose coalition of pro-government forces continues its campaign in neighboring Marib province. Largely overshadowed by these rapid developments on the ground were reports of Houthi fighters seizing a UAE vessel traveling through the Red Sea. The pro-government coalition stated that the vessel […]

From left, Syrian women Samaa Mahmoud, Mariam Alhallak and Yasmen Almashan hold pictures of relatives who died in Syria, before the verdict in front of the court in Koblenz, Germany, Jan. 13, 2022 (AP photo by Martin Meissner).

The conviction by a German court last week of Anwar Raslan, a Syrian intelligence officer who oversaw the torture and murder of detainees in that country during the early years of its civil war, represents a high-water mark in the ongoing quest for accountability against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the difficulty of securing a war crimes conviction for even a mid-level bureaucrat like Raslan also underscores the difficulty of pursuing accountability for Assad himself. If it’s a long shot to prosecute a low-level perpetrator like Raslan, then how likely is it that Assad will ever be brought to […]

Demonstrators gather during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied, in Tunis, Sept. 18, 2021 (AP photo by Riadh Dridi).

On Wednesday, Tunisia announced that it had restored its pandemic-era restrictions, imposing a 10 p.m. curfew and banning all gatherings for two weeks. According to President Kais Saied’s government, the decision was made in order to combat the recent, rapid spread of the coronavirus’s omicron variant. Yet the timing was suspect. It came merely two days before rival political parties were scheduled to lead a massive demonstration against Saied’s concentration of power in his own hands. The main opposition party, Ennahda, immediately promised to defy the ban and called for its supporters to demonstrate anyway.  Tunisia is not an isolated case. Since the beginning […]

A supporter of the Polisario Front and Western Sahara waves a flag reading “Free Sahara,” Logrono, Spain, June 8, 2021 (AP photo by Alvaro Barrientos).

Maps have long played a crucial, symbolic role in the dispute over the Western Sahara. For years, because most world maps available elsewhere show the international border that separates Morocco from its coveted territory to the south, those that were sold in Morocco had to be separately manufactured for the domestic market, affecting everything from globes and atlases to toy puzzles and address books. It was no surprise, then, that shortly after the outgoing Trump administration recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory in December 2020, Moroccan newspapers and officials happily praised the United States’ new official map of Morocco when it was […]

Populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf, Iraq, Nov. 18, 2021 (AP photo by Anmar Khalil).

Negotiations to form a new government in Iraq have entered a final, decisive phase, with the process shaping up to be a dispiriting contest among several factions that unfortunately share broadly similar authoritarian characteristics. The disputes over power-sharing arrangements and government positions are complicated, and the final lineup is still taking shape. But underlying the post-election jockeying for power, which ultimately determines the makeup of Iraq’s central government much more than the actual election results do, are three more fundamental questions about the future of Iraqi politics. First, will Iraq continue to divide government positions among all of the country’s factions and […]

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech after a meeting via video-conference with leaders of the G5 Sahel countries, Feb. 16, 2021, Paris (AP photo by Francois Mori).

In mid-December, with little forewarning, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that he would soon be visiting Mali, a country in West Africa’s Sahel region that, along with several others there, has been afflicted with rising communal violence in recent years. It seems that the surprise Macron trip was conceived in order to serve multiple goals. Foremost was the desire to call Mali’s interim leader, who took power in a military coup last May, to heel, and get him to commit to a calendar for democratic elections early in 2022. By the same token, Macron surely also wanted to personally warn […]

An army soldier scuffles with an anti-government protester outside a military court in Beirut, Lebanon, Feb. 22, 2021 (AP photo by Hassan Ammar).

What would it take to transform the way countries in the Middle East are governed? That question has taken on added urgency over the past year, in which we’ve seen stark new tests of competing theories of power and change in the Middle East. The region’s reformers and despots are still engaged in a struggle over the central purpose of government: Should the state provide social goods and services—including security—as well as a sense of belonging to the governed, or is the state simply a vehicle to uphold sovereignty, as defined, personified and exploited by a country’s rulers? This bedrock […]