Joost Hiltermann

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Iraqi Kurdish men carry fire torches, as they celebrate Nowruz Day, a festival marking the first day of spring and the new year, in the town of Akra near Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq March 20, 2019. REUTERS / Ahmed Jadallah

Nowruz, the new year for Persians, Kurds and many others, marks the arrival of spring, a time of joyous renewal. For Iraqi Kurds, the occasion is bittersweet, because it was springtime 35 years ago, at the tail end of the Iran-Iraq war, when the Iraqi army swept through the Kurdish countryside, razing villages and massacring the inhabitants. Some 100,000 men, women and children were systematically murdered at sites in Iraq’s southern desert during what Saddam Hussein’s regime called the Anfal counter-insurgency operation. Today, twenty years after the U.S. invasion, the Kurds are free of such repression, and rural communities are slowly coming back to life.…  Seguir leyendo »

Parts of a broken mannequin lie on the ground near a tower building hit by Israeli air strikes on Gaza, May 12, 2021. Mohammed Salem/Reuters

The year 2011 was a watershed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as the popular uprisings that cascaded through the region precipitated the collapse of several regimes at astonishing speed. These developments in turn triggered civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen that converged in dangerous ways, raising the potential for a wider conflict between regional actors, directly or through proxies, including potent armed groups supported by powers external to the region.

Over ten years later, Yemen is going from bad to worse, but the big war in Syria is for now frozen. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a shadow of its former self, and the Libyan civil war isn’t raging on as it used to.…  Seguir leyendo »

There has been a noticeable relaxation of tensions in the Middle East over the past year. Various antagonistic actors have resumed communications—though one hesitates to elevate them to the notion of “dialogue” just yet—suggesting that the region’s leaders are recalibrating after the heady, unpredictable years of Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States. One of the most dynamic, versatile and forceful actors is the United Arab Emirates, which has been projecting itself militarily in various theaters for several years, but now says it is shifting to a greater emphasis on diplomacy.

The UAE is sometimes referred to, admiringly or disparagingly, as “little Sparta”—a power that punches above its weight in a treacherous neighborhood.…  Seguir leyendo »

In his prologue to The Geopolitics of Iran, edited by Francisco José B. S. Leandro, Carlos Branco, and Flavius Caba-Maria, our Middle East expert Joost Hiltermann says policymakers should come to grips with the country's lived experience to understand why dialogue and diplomacy are the best way to deal with the Islamic Republic.

Imagine the view from Tehran. It is early 2021. You are an Iranian, with inherited memories of empire and conquest, yet also of foreign invasions and defeat; a citizen of a country isolated in the world, yet also a rising power accused of hegemonic ambitions, one that may be poorly managed but also has accumulated and deployed remarkable technical brainpower; you’re part of a population kept down by harsh economic sanctions but that has proved doggedly resilient; you’re saddled with a leadership that champions a revolutionary ideology, now fading, even as it projects its power across the region; and you belong to a society that veers between forbearance and protest, but is kept in check by a security apparatus that uses an effective blend of co-optation and naked repression to stay in power.…  Seguir leyendo »

A car burns outside the UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel after a huge suicide truck bomb explosion rocked the building. Baghdad, Iraq, September 2003. AFP PHOTO/Sabah ARAR

My friend Arthur telephoned me one summer morning in 2003, when I had just returned from Iraq, which had fallen into U.S. hands that April. Arthur was head of the refugee program at the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights. A decade earlier, he and I had travelled together to Iraq, Iran and Turkey to investigate the refugee crisis in the wake of the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Now, he said, he wanted to go to Baghdad for meetings about addressing the new war’s human cost. He asked me if he should bring a bulletproof vest. We at Crisis Group had raised the alarm about an incipient insurgency in Iraq, based on my observations during two visits since the U.S.…  Seguir leyendo »

When reports surfaced in April that senior security officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran had met in Baghdad to discuss their two countries' troubled relationship, at least three pertinent observations came to mind about the state of the cold war that has played out in the Gulf region ever since Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979. For one, the arrival of the Biden administration and its distinctly diverging Iran strategy from the Trump administration helped convince the Saudis of the need to recalculate their own approach toward Iran. For another, in pursuing talks, Saudi leaders are suggesting that diplomacy may stand a better chance of achieving their objective of containing Iran than confrontation.…  Seguir leyendo »

Revolutions can take decades to show their full transformative impact, but in the case of the Middle East and North Africa, the popular uprisings that coursed through the region beginning in late 2010 have failed to fulfil any of their early promises ten years on.

Instead, with the possible exception of Tunisia, they have only made things worse: several countries descended into chaos and civil war; in others, sitting regimes strengthened their hold on power or, suffering an initial defeat, returned with a vengeance, a brutal Tweedledum making way for a vicious Tweedledee.

In 2011, protesters flooded into the streets and squares calling for social justice, jobs, and an end to nepotism, state-sponsored bribery, and the daily indignities inflicted by a highly intrusive security apparatus.…  Seguir leyendo »

A New Arab Revival: Not to Be – For Now

Standing in a Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi, Sanaa or Manama square in early 2011, one could be forgiven for believing that these joyful, family-friendly mass gatherings were an augury of dramatic peaceful change in a region that badly needed it, yet had very rarely seen it. That was a time before the reigning autocrats turned their guns on the protesters; before Russia and Arab counter-revolutionary forces rushed in to uphold a senescent order that could no longer stand on its own legs, and Western powers coughed politely while looking the other way; and before Iran jumped in to exploit the political vacuum left by Arab state collapse.…  Seguir leyendo »

Un hombre pasa junto a un graffiti que representa la metamorfosis de un hombre en pájaro para simbolizar la libertad, en la plaza Mohamed Bouazizi, el 27 de octubre en Sidi Bouzid (Túnez), cuna de la primavera árabe tunecina. FETHI BELAID. GETTY

As a moment in time, the Arab Spring produced breakdown, repression and violence, with Tunisia the only notable exception. Yet, seen over the subsequent decade, these uprisings were merely the first manifestation of popular rejection of a deep malaise that no attempt to quell them could remedy or even frustrate, but only magnify. In hindsight, we may think of revolutions as short, dramatic outbursts that overturn the reigning order, seemingly overnight. In reality, they may take years to unfold before they radically restructure society and the rules that govern it. In the Middle East, such fundamental change has likely only just begun.…  Seguir leyendo »

The past year’s uprisings shook countries – Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon – that their predecessors had passed by, showing a continuity in roots and purpose. They have in common their anti-establishment sentiment and anger at elites incapable of meeting citizens’ basic needs. But each has its own internal focus and dynamic.

In Algeria, people converged on urban squares when an aging and ailing president announced he would pursue a fifth term in office. In a move to prevent a popular movement from bringing down not just the leader but the entire regime, the military stepped in, replacing the president, targeting some particularly corrupt figures in his entourage, appointing an interim government and organising presidential elections.…  Seguir leyendo »

Residentes locales observan a las fuerzas de seguridad en Oued Ellil, al este de la ciudad de Túnez, el 24 de octubre de 2014. Foto: Xinhua/Pan Chaoyue


No reconocer las revueltas de los países árabes de 2011 como un punto de inflexión que anuncia la necesidad de un cambio de régimen en la región –y la consecuente revisión de la política occidental con respecto a ella, que está pendiente desde hace tiempo– sería un error con importantes consecuencias negativas. Las fuertes réplicas a los acontecimientos de 2011 siguen presentando la posibilidad de debilitar no solo a Estados individuales, sino al sistema de Estados árabes en su conjunto.


Los drásticos cambios acaecidos en Oriente Medio y el Magreb tras 2011 imponen la necesidad de que entes externos definan un nuevo enfoque político para abordar los retos a largo plazo de la región.…  Seguir leyendo »

By pulling the U.S. out of the nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1), the Trump administration has brought the U.S. relationship with Iran back to an earlier, more confrontational, era. The two states have been locked in an adversarial logic ever since the 1979 Islamic revolution (though popular grievances that fuelled the Shah’s removal date back to 1953, when the CIA helped depose Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh). The fall of the U.S.-backed guardian in the Gulf, followed by the embassy hostage crisis, launched almost four decades of unremitting enmity, which only the JCPOA began to thaw.…  Seguir leyendo »

Crisis Group's Middle East & North Africa Program Director Joost Hiltermann participated in the 2018 Körber Policy Game, designed to explore possible outcomes in the event of a crisis between Turkey and the West in Syria. While the exercise underscored many of the Syrian conflict's complexities, it also revealed that a strong desire by stakeholders to find common ground can help overcome them.

If it were up to regional experts advising their governments, things in the Middle East needn’t look so bad: the Syrian conflict could be contained; a war between Israel and Iran could be avoided, and so, too – and more importantly – a war between Russia and the United States; and Turkey would return to providing regional stability, anchored firmly in the West through its NATO membership.…  Seguir leyendo »

Yemeni women and children wait during food distribution in the province of Hodeida on May 30, 2018. Hodeida port, Yemen's largest entry point for aid, is now in the crosshairs of the Saudi-led coalition which is intent on cutting off the Huthi rebels from alleged Iranian arms shipments. The United Nations has warned that any operation aimed at seizing Hodeida itself would disrupt the entry of aid shipments to Yemen, 70 percent of which flow through the rebel-held port. / AFP PHOTO / ABDO HYDER

After more than three years of fighting, Yemen is teetering on the cusp of an even fiercer war. The Saudi Arabian-led coalition is poised for an offensive on the Red Sea port of Hodeidah that could plunge Yemen into greater turmoil, deepen its humanitarian crisis, and provoke a surge in cross-border missile attacks by the Houthi rebels.

The European Union and its member states have a chance to stop the conflict from sliding into a lethal new stage; now is the time to take action. All sides have declared a readiness to engage in talks (with various conditions), but they need to be nudged towards the table before a full-fledged battle for Hodeidah breaks out.…  Seguir leyendo »

When they meet with trauma and survive it, a people’s aspiration to surmount it and prevent its recurrence does not die. On the contrary: it gains strength over time, despite setbacks – sometimes of the disastrous variety – until a time arrives that offers the chance to break through externally imposed barriers and realise long-nourished dreams. But success is not guaranteed. A people’s agency – their willingness to struggle and make sacrifices – may be essential in the achievement of their goals, but it alone does not suffice. The ever-shifting geopolitical environment, too, will play a role in shaping the outcome.[1]…  Seguir leyendo »

Iraqi supporters of Sairun list celebrate with Iraqi flags and a picture of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr after results of Iraq's parliamentary election were announced, in Najaf, Iraq 15 May, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani

At first blush, what do these preliminary results amount to? Any surprises? Any dramatic change in the way Iraq will be governed?

There is less surprise in the victory of a component of the Shiite Islamist political firmament than in the nature of that component: the Sadrists, long demonised in the West and not particularly liked in Tehran. They won in alliance with the Communists, also vilified by the West and Iran alike, but in a much earlier era. But the antipathy of external powers is not all the Sadrists, followers of the populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Communists have in common.…  Seguir leyendo »

Remnants of an unidentified rocket that fell in Hasbaya, Lebanon, near the Israeli and Syrian borders, in February. Israel has responded to Iranian drone attacks in the border areas. Credit Zyad Shoufi/European Pressphoto Agency

The government of President Bashar al-Assad is resurgent in Syria, steadily retaking terrain lost to the rebels. This may bring to an end one set of conflicts, but it could spark newer, potentially more dangerous confrontations.

The key to preventing the Syrian civil war from splintering into an even more chaotic and deadly phase will be Russia, whose September 2015 military intervention gave it control of Syrian airspace and placed it politically in the driver’s seat. But the United States, too, could still play an important role in preventing matters from getting worse.

To understand how perilous the situation in Syria is, look at the map: In the northwest, in Idlib Province, a “de-escalation zone” that is monitored by the Turkish Army remains tenuous.…  Seguir leyendo »

Vladimir Putin at a ceremony in Moscow last week (Photo:

As we witness the slaughter of civilians in yet another part of Syria – most recently, the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta – the country appears to enter the endgame of the confrontation between the regime and an array of rebel groups.

But new battles await. Syria is increasingly turning into a battlefield for outside parties’ wars: in the south between Israel and a Hezbollah backed by Iran; in the north between Turkey and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) affiliates; and in the east, potentially, between Iran and the U.S. Instead of ending the population’s suffering after years of merciless fighting, these conflicts extend and add a perilous layer to it that could trigger a regional conflagration.…  Seguir leyendo »

Russia Can Keep the Peace Between Israel and Iran

There are still many unanswered questions about the reported incident with the Iranian drone in northern Israel last week, but two things should be clear. First, the 12-year-old lull between Israel and Hezbollah will come to an end if a new understanding about the rules governing conflict in this region is not reached. And second, Russia will need to help broker that new understanding.

As for the incident itself: Israel claimed that it shot down an Iranian reverse-engineered Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel drone as it entered the country’s airspace from Jordan on February 10. The RQ-170 is a surveillance drone the size of a small airplane, with a wingspan of over 65 feet.…  Seguir leyendo »

Principal Findings

What's new?  Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, conflicts of divergent origins across the Middle East have intersected and metastasised. This has drawn in regional and international powers, poisoning relations between them, creating more local conflict actors and greatly complicating the task of policymakers to respond effectively.

Why does it matter?  Policy responses that treat conflicts in isolation and ignore their root causes may end up doing more harm than good. Stabilising war-torn states or de-escalating crises requires an understanding of the interconnectedness and the deeper drivers of regional conflicts.

What should be done?  A new methodology is required to effectively address the Middle East’s post-2011 conflicts.…  Seguir leyendo »