Lina Khatib

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10 Downing Street in London, United Kingdom as seen on 05 September 2022 as Liz Truss was announced as the UK's next prime minister. Photo: Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

It says something of the UK that the incoming prime minister has ordered a rewrite of British foreign policy barely 18 months after the last one was published.

Liz Truss, who has become the fourth prime minister in Downing Street in six turbulent years, is not prone to risk aversion or offering bland reassurances. She made clear during the campaign for the Conservative leadership that she wants the 2021 Integrated Review redrawn with a far greater focus on combating the ‘growing malign influence’ of Russia and China. She has also pledged to increase defence spending from its current 2.1 per cent of GDP, to 2.7 per cent, and then to 3 per cent by 2030, which will include more support for the intelligence services and cyber security, a further £10 billion overall at a time when public finances are in dire straits.…  Seguir leyendo »

Fake oranges filled with Captagon pills and dissimulated in boxes containing real fruit, after the shipment was intercepted by the customs and the anti-drug brigade at the Beirut port, Lebanon, on 29 December 2021. Photo: ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images.

The growing Captagon trade in Syria and Lebanon has been given much attention in recent months. The networks involved in this trade, such as the Fourth Division of the Syrian Arab Army and other smaller armed groups in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and networks of smugglers in both countries, help extend its reach beyond the borders of Syria and Lebanon, smuggling Captagon to Gulf countries – especially Saudi Arabia – and even to Europe. The transnational nature of this illicit activity and its link to the context of the Syrian conflict requires international policies that take into account cross-border conflict dynamics, including how people can end up involved in illicit activities to cope financially.…  Seguir leyendo »

A man checks electrical wires in Baghdad, 13 September 2017. For years Iraqis have denounced the bad management and financial negligence that have stifled the country and let its infrastructure fall apart. Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images.

Tackling entrenched corruption will be a key focus of the political discourse in the Middle East and North Africa in 2022. International policymakers will look to anti-corruption as a framework that can be used to help stabilize conflict countries, support economic reform, or to pressure adversarial regimes. Pressure to deal with corruption also stems from popular anger in countries that suffer from poor governance as corruption can have very serious – even fatal – consequences, as the deadly hospital fires Iraq suffered last year illustrate.

Across the region, anti-corruption processes are meant to signal accountability. However, they can also be weaponized by elites to consolidate power and target opponents, particularly in countries where the political system itself is built on politically sanctioned corruption.…  Seguir leyendo »

People raise portraits of the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, as they gather to welcome tankers carrying Iranian fuel as they arrive in the city of Baalbeck, Lebanon, on 16 September 2021. Photo by AFP via Getty Images.

In September 2021, at the height of the unprecedented fuel shortage in Lebanon, a tanker carrying Iranian fuel docked at a Syrian port where the fuel was loaded onto trucks and driven through an illegal border crossing into Lebanon. The fuel shipment was brokered by Iran-backed Hezbollah to help alleviate Lebanon’s energy crisis that has been brought on by the country’s ongoing economic crisis. The newly formed Lebanese government made no comment about the shipment while Hezbollah hailed the arrival of the fuel a ‘victory’ and as having ‘broken the American siege’ on Lebanon. Despite it being in violation of US sanctions on trade with Iran, the US ignored the scenario altogether.…  Seguir leyendo »

A man wearing an American flag shirt visits the Tribute In Lights in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2021 in New York City. Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images.

It has been 20 years since the September 11 attacks, and ‘Islamist terrorism’ and the goal of countering it have become a useful framework for governments across the globe to justify foreign and domestic policies and serve geopolitical goals, especially in the context of the Middle East.

Governments around the world have found in the notion of Islamist terrorism a convenient way to present themselves as a force of good in the face of the ‘evil terrorists’ – and sometimes to justify pragmatic yet problematic behaviour.

For the West, Islamist terrorism became the greatest evil of them all in the Middle East, and countering it trumped many other foreign policy concerns in the region.…  Seguir leyendo »

Russian military police armoured personnel carrier (APC) passing through Amuda in Hasakeh province, Syria. Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images.

The summit between US president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva is the optimal setting for Washington to begin to broker a deal on Syria.

Russia has been craving US recognition of its rise in geopolitical status, partly gained through its intervention in support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Biden’s initiation of the summit is a nod to Russia’s ego, which can pave the way for future US-Russian engagement on Syria beyond the ministerial-level talks that have been taking place behind closed doors.

Only Washington can steer the Syrian conflict towards resolution – if it steps up bilateral talks with Moscow.…  Seguir leyendo »

An anti-government protester in Beirut puts up a poster accusing corruption in Lebanon's state judiciary. Photo by Sam Tarling/Getty Images.

In the aftermath of the devastating Beirut port explosion last week, it is not just the role of the Lebanese political class that has come under scrutiny, but that of their international peers too.

Sunday’s international donor conference led by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, raised €253m (£228m) in relief funds, but it also signalled an important change in rhetoric. For the first time, donors affirmed that relief funds would directly go to the Lebanese people, and that longer-term economic assistance would be dependent on Lebanon implementing structural reforms.

This affirmation came hot on the heels of growing international attention on rampant corruption among Lebanon’s ruling political class, which is widely blamed for the port explosion.…  Seguir leyendo »

The word Corona written in the sand on the beach in Lebanon's southern city of Saida. amid the spread of coronavirus in the country. Photo by MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images.

As Lebanon strains to contain COVID-19, it is not clear which governmental public health policies apply to refugees. The government announced free testing for coronavirus in the public Rafiq Hariri University Hospital in Beirut but has not mentioned if refugees are eligible.

Lebanon’s coronavirus containment strategy is based on self-reporting and, given incidents of forced deportation and harassment of Syrian refugees from both the authorities and local communities, it is certainly less likely refugees would present themselves to the health authorities for fear of deportation.

Despite agreeing a Lebanon Crisis Response Plan with the UN for refugees, different ministries were left to implement it without coordination, just as Lebanese politicians from all sides started trying to rally popular support for ridding Lebanon from refugees - in particular from Syria, who Lebanese leaders say are causing a strain on the country’s already weak infrastructure.…  Seguir leyendo »

Protesters hold up an image of Qassem Soleimani during a demonstration in Tehran on 3 January. Photo: Getty Images.

An unexpected bounty for Iran

Sanam Vakil

The assassination of Qassem Soleimani has been an unexpected bounty for the Islamic Republic at a time when Iran was balancing multiple economic, domestic and regional pressures stemming from the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign.

Coming on the heels of anti-Iranian demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, and following Iran’s own November 2019 protests that resulted in a brutal government crackdown against its own people, the Soleimani killing has helped the Iranian government shift the narrative away from its perceived regional and domestic weaknesses to one of strength.

The massive funeral scenes in multiple Iranian cities displaying unending waves of mourners chanting against the United States has provided the Islamic Republic with a unique opportunity to showcase its mobilizing potential.…  Seguir leyendo »

An image grab from a video released in 2014 shows Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching at a mosque in Mosul. Photo by Al-Furqan Media/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi does not mean the automatic end of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). But the immediate future of ISIS depends more on local dynamics in Syria than on whether it still has a leader or not.

Baghdadi was a powerful tool for ISIS, especially at a time when the organisation was planning to establish a so-called state. Considering that there could not be a caliphate without a caliph, ISIS put Baghdadi in the public eye to give its supporters around the world an identifiable figurehead.

Despite the military defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, its supporters still saw in the presence of Baghdadi hope of restoring the caliphate one day.…  Seguir leyendo »

Iranians burn US flags during commemorations of the 40th anniversary of the revolution in Tehran on 11 February. Photo: Getty Images.

On 25 February, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Tehran, only his third trip abroad since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, following trips to Russia in 2015 and 2017.

Assad’s Tehran visit is largely symbolic, marking the declared 'victory' of his forces with the support of Iran, but it can also be read as part of an escalating American-Iranian showdown that is playing out in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Iran's narrative

The visit came shortly after US President Donald Trump declared victory against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Trump boasted on Twitter that 'we have defeated ISIS', with the 'we' referring to the US-led international anti-ISIS coalition.…  Seguir leyendo »

Syrian pro-regime forces enter Yarmouk. Photo: Getty Images.

The ISIS attack on Sweida in southern Syria last week, where coordinated suicide bombings and raids left more than 200 people dead, took many by surprise. Many had felt that ISIS was all but defeated in Iraq and Syria, and now concern is growing that it remains capable of conducting terrorist attacks.

But the situation in Sweida says more about the Syrian regime than about ISIS, and about how far the regime is willing to go to pursue its goals at the expense of civilian lives.

The ongoing military campaign has been presented by Russia and the Syrian regime as targeting ISIS and other terrorists.…  Seguir leyendo »

Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr celebrate their electoral success in Baghdad in May 2018. (Hadi Mizban/AP)

This year featured key parliamentary elections in Iraq and Lebanon. In both countries, formerly controversial populist figures performed far better than expected and are playing central roles in the scramble to form governments. In Iraq, the Saeroon coalition led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the notorious former leader of the Mahdi Army militia, won the plurality of seats. In Lebanon, the Samir Geagea-led Lebanese Forces, a former militia traditionally seen as a right-wing Christian party, doubled its number of seats in parliament.

At first glance, the two outliers, Sadr and Geagea, may appear to be diametrical opposites, but their surprising victories reveal an emerging form of populism sweeping the Middle East.…  Seguir leyendo »

An Israeli soldier stands on Mount Bental in the Golan Heights near the Syrian border. Photo: Getty Images.

Israel's retaliatory attack on Iranian military targets inside Syria represents the biggest direct confrontation between the two countries in their history. It came after rockets were launched from Iranian bases in Syria towards the Golan Heights. This escalation has caused widespread concern that war might be imminent between Israel and Iran.

But neither wishes to engage in all-out war with the other. Iran’s Golan Heights rocket launch was the product of the growing pressure it faces in the Syrian conflict. Unless the United States steps in with a plan for Syria, Israel and Iran will continue to clash there.

Iran regards its presence in Syria as crucial for its influence in the Levant.…  Seguir leyendo »

A stage constructed for a post-election rally collapses on top of Beirut's Martyrs Monument. Photo: Getty Images.

Lebanon finally held a parliamentary election, nine years after the last one and following several false starts over the past five years, but the results have not brought change to the country's political status quo. The same old political elites continue to dominate Lebanon's political scene, winning the vast majority of seats.

Turn out in this election was lower than in the previous one, standing at 49 per cent. This signals a sense of popular ambivalence about the political process among most Lebanese, especially since the outgoing parliament renewed its own mandate twice unconstitutionally, and since the elections that were meant to take place in 2013 kept being postponed under the pretext of lack of security.…  Seguir leyendo »

Chemical weapons are a symptom of the real problem, which is the Assad regime in power, writes Lina Khatib. Photo: Getty Images.

It was on Wednesday 11 April that Donald Trump sent that fateful tweet about a looming attack on Syria as punishment for the latest use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. My judgment, before then, was that Western military action was not, necessarily, part of the answer to the conflict. Needed, instead, was political will on the part of the US in particular – as the only superpower able to exert serious pressure on the main broker in Syria, Russia – to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table.

But once Trump had declared that he would punish Bashar al-Assad militarily, he had to follow through – not doing so would have destroyed US credibility.…  Seguir leyendo »

Preparing food at the Ibad al-Rahman's Damascene Delicacies in Idlib, Syria. Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

The recent victory by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) over Ahrar al-Sham has consolidated the al-Qaida-affiliated armed coalition’s military control over Idlib. But military control does not mean that it is in charge of all aspects of life in the governorate.

The reality is HTS has not managed to put down deep roots in areas under its control, despite taking over the provision of electricity and water in Idlib, which provides both a key source of income and a mechanism to control the population.

This hold on key resources is the main reason many acquiesce, rather than because they agree with the group’s ideology or methods.…  Seguir leyendo »

Russia has been selectively labeling groups as terrorist or not according to its strategic military goals. Photo by Getty Images.

The ceasefire declared in Syria at the end of 2016 has already practically collapsed. This is not surprising. No ceasefire in Syria has so far managed to hold long enough to pave the way for meaningful peace talks. This is not because the Syrian opposition hasn't taken ceasefires seriously, but because the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies have re-defined ceasefires.

In Syria, ceasefires have become another tool of warfare. They are tools for making military gains, political statements, and playing power games.

A familiar pattern

Looking at the series of ceasefires in Syria over the past year reveals a pattern.…  Seguir leyendo »

Iraqi pro-government forces advance towards the city of Fallujah on 23 May 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

On 26 June, the Iraqi government declared Fallujah, a city just west of Baghdad, fully liberated after more than two years of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) control. The Iraqi army played a key role in the effort, but it could not have won without the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) - an umbrella of Iraqi militiamen who are mainly Shia but who now also include some Sunnis - and airstrikes by the US-led coalition. The Iraqi government has been unwilling to acknowledge its dependencies, however, and has portrayed the PMF as a mere sidekick to the national army even though many of the groups fighting under the PMF banner operate independently.…  Seguir leyendo »

The attack on Istanbul's main airport has underlined President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increased weakness, a vulnerability that's a product of the actions of Turkey's allies and opponents alike. But it's partly Erdogan's own doing.

From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Erdogan has used the conflict as an opportunity to crack down on the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a militant group that has been battling the Turkish state for decades and is listed by NATO, the U.S. and the EU as a terrorist organization.

The government stoked the fires of Kurdish grievances, and the PKK returned the favor in-kind -- ratcheting up its terror attacks on the Turkish state, mainly against security institutions like the police, which have increased in number and frequency over the past five years.…  Seguir leyendo »