Week of December 12th, 2015

Executive Summary

The brutal massive killing in San Bernardino was obviously the focus this week. It precipitated talk about how to control the threat within the US and was the basis for a new push to control firearms in the US.

The Monitor Analysis looks at the fallout of the attack and the threat of anti-Muslim feelings in the US. The most noticeable event was the statement by GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump that all Muslim immigration into the US should stop – a move that was widely criticized by the media, but seems to find support amongst many voters. Obama, however, used the event as the basis for a new push to control firearms – a move that caused Americans to go out and buy guns at a far faster rate. In addition, many American sheriffs called on armed Americans to carry their firearms in order to stop future terrorist attacks.

The Monitor Analysis also looks at the Turkish invasion of Iraq.

Think Tanks Activity Summary

The Institute for the Study of War looks at the most recent Russian activities in the Middle East.   They report, “Moscow also deployed attack and transport helicopters to a Russian airbase near Armenia’s border with Turkey. Russia launched a smear campaign implicating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in oil trade with ISIS, part of its broader information operations aiming to cast its adversaries as obstacles to the defeat of ISIS. NATO pledged new security assistance to Turkey, reportedly including naval, air and air defense deployments. Russia warned that NATO deployments to bolster Turkey’s defenses could undermine efforts to build an anti-ISIS coalition with the West. Russia continues to use aggression to portray itself as a necessary anti-ISIS partner in order to shape the operations of the U.S. and its NATO allies in the region.”

The Washington Institute looks at the Russia-Turkey crisis and how it might impact NATO. They conclude, “Although Turkey’s decision to down a Russian jet appears rash, it demonstrated that a state can trip up Putin if it is willing to take risks. Dangers remain, however, so job one in Washington is to work with both sides to avoid escalation. This means pressing hard for a compromise solution to the Syrian war that Turkey and Russia can live with. Yet any such effort will require more American “skin in the game.” Avoiding a serious escalation that drags in NATO is thus the latest rationale for Washington to engage seriously in the Levant, joining a long list that includes unsustainable refugee flows, mass civilian deaths, and the Islamic State threat.”

The CSIS looks at Iran and its recent missile tests. They note, “It was clear that the United States tried to put limits on Iran’s missile activities in the JCPOA and Iran refused. As a result, the United States and other members of the JCPOA chose to focus on an agreement that clearly forbade Iran from actually deploying a nuclear warhead, from getting the design and manufacturing capability to produce any nuclear weapon, and inspection provisions and controls on procurement that would prevent Iran – or at least limit it – from getting a reliable warhead. Iran never accepted the limits placed upon its missile programs by earlier UN resolutions like UNSC 1929. Iran did make it clear in accepting the JCPOA that it would proceed with its ballistic and nuclear missile developments and deployments regardless of the UN, and other interpretations of UNSC 2231, and there has not been any meaningful prospect that it will not continue to steadily improve its missile forces and ability to strike at long ranges.”

The Carnegie Endowment says the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will make critically important decisions in the coming days about allegations that Iran has worked on making nuclear weapons. The endowment looks at the political aspects and warns that the IAEA director will make a politically based report, not one that is based on facts on the ground. They note, “Amano knows that if he tells the board that the IAEA is satisfied that Iran did things that look like elements of a nuclear weapons development effort, Iran may then refuse to implement the agreement in part or in full. Amano also knows that, in addition to the influential countries that negotiated the JCPOA, nearly all other IAEA member states strongly favor the accord with Iran. They do not want Amano to provide a negative assessment which could doom the agreement even before it can be implemented. On the other side of the ledger, the IAEA’s credibility will be fatally damaged if Amano provides what one IAEA board member governor last week called a “politically correct reflection of what many member states want to hear.” Amano’s report will therefore likely be inconclusive.”

The Carnegie Endowment says that the Kurds are at the heart of America’s anti-ISIS strategy. They explain, “The Pentagon has been chastened by its failure to develop anti-Islamic State militias from within the mostly Sunni Islamist armed opposition in the Arab parts of Syria. Very few troops were trained, due to cumbersome vetting procedures demanded by Congress, and those who were quickly proved either incapable or unwilling to stand up to jihadi pressure. While the CIA continues to tinker unhappily with Arab groups in northwestern and southern Syria, the military’s anti-Islamic State mission has decided to stick with the Kurds for lack of better options. The plan seems to be to use the SDF to gradually glue more Arab groups onto a Kurdish core force while also separately standing up a nucleus of Sunni Arab fighters who belong to eastern Syrian tribes. Realistically speaking, these groups won’t be strong enough to dispense with the Islamic State and establish sustainable local governance on their own, and for reasons enumerated above, there is a limit to how far south you can go with the Kurds. But reality has a way of adapting, one way or the other, if you fire enough bullets into it.”

The Washington Institute looks at the Syrian civil war from the view of Israel. The author – the former head of the IDF’s Strategic Planning Division discusses how Israel is prioritizing threats from Iran, the Islamic State, and Hezbollah. They do not see any hope for current negotiations and note, “any diplomatic outcome will primarily be dictated by developments on the ground, and these do not bode well for any solution. Syria is deeply fragmented and the war intensifying. The major combatants within Syria, for whom this is a life-and-death struggle, are neither strong enough to overwhelm the other nor weak enough to be eliminated. Meanwhile, external powers negotiating a diplomatic solution hold to deeply conflicting visions and goals. They all agree in principle that ISIS must be defeated, yet are sharply divided on how this can be achieved, who should fill the void, who might represent the opposition, and whether Assad is part of the problem or the solution. On the ground, two parallel coalitions are confronting ISIS — one led by the US with increasing European involvement and the other led by Russia — but with the US and its allies prioritising the targeting of ISIS, and Russia prioritising protecting Assad. The potential for direct conflict between them was dramatically illustrated by the downing of a Russian plane by Turkey, which further complicates the chances of joining forces.”

The CSIS looks at the Obama administration’s announcement that the US will insert more special forces in Syria and Iraq and ask if they will help. The CSIS agrees with what the Monitor said last week and conclude, “it means deploying the kind of Special Forces that are all too easy to use as political tools to gain political and media visibility at a risk to the forces involved. Special Forces are exceptional, but they are not super soldiers. Things often do go wrong, and particularly if someone uses them in ways that involve crisis-driven sudden actions or to gain political visibility. They are not “bright shiny toys.” They are forces that must only be risked in a broader strategic context where the risks and sacrifices have clear necessity and a clear prospect of success.”

The Heritage Foundation looks at regional security around the Caspian Sea. They note, “The Caspian Sea is an important, if often overlooked, region in regard to many of the challenges that the U.S. faces around the world, such as a resurgent Russia, an emboldened Iran, wavering allies, growing China, and the rise of Islamic extremism. The resources located in and near the Caspian make the region of particular importance for locals and outsiders alike. The region’s energy resources are great and could play a significant role in helping Europe to loosen its dependence on Russia for oil and gas. Russia and Iran are the region’s biggest players, but Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan are emerging regional actors in their own rights. If the U.S. is to have a grand strategy for dealing with a resurgent Russia and an emboldened Iran and to help Europe improve its energy security, policymakers in Washington cannot ignore the Caspian region.



1 – San Bernardino Shooting Divides America

2 – Has Turkey and Erdogan overplayed the situation by invading Iraq?

The attack in San Bernardino last week has clearly shown the divides in American society. Attackers were identified by authorities as Muslims radicals inspired by terrorist organizations. While some like presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration into America, others like Attorney General Loretta Lynch have warned America about anti-Muslim talk. Meanwhile, while Obama has called for more gun control, gun sales in the last week have gone up and sheriffs from New York to Arizona have called on gun owners to carry their firearms in order to protect the public.

Needless to say, the biggest voice in the babble of public discourse is that of Trump, who Monday called for an immediate end to Muslims coming into the US. Although he was condemned by the media and even some of his fellow Republicans, he clearly reflected the feelings of a large part of the American electorate.

Although polling is scarce at this early point in time, it appears that what Trump advocated is not that far out of the political mainstream. A Survey USA news poll of Californians taken on Tuesday showed that 52% agreed with Trump. 48% disagreed with Trump.

What is most interesting is that this poll was taken in California, a solidly Democratic state, with a large immigrant population (although, since the shooting was in California, the feelings concerning the attack could be stronger). 45% of Blacks agreed with Trump’s statement, while 43% of Hispanics did. Those minorities that weren’t White, Black or Hispanic saw 59% agree with Trump. 43% of all respondents said Islam was a violent religion.

A national poll taken before Trump’s speech echoed that sentiment. An Associated Press survey found widespread antipathy toward immigration from the Middle East, with 54 percent of Americans saying the U.S. takes in too many people from the “volatile region”. Among Republicans, about three-quarters of respondents held that view, compared with about half of independents and more than a third of Democrats.

This backlash against Muslims was clearly in the mind of US Attorney General Loretta Lynch when she warned Americans about hatred towards Muslims. On Thursday she warned about, “very disturbing rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric.”

“My message to not just the Muslim community but to the entire American community is: we cannot give in to the fear that these backlashes are really based on,” Lynch said at a dinner sponsored by the Muslim Advocates. “When we talk about the First Amendment we must make it clear that actions predicated on violent talk are not American. They are not who we are, they are not what we do, and they will be prosecuted.”

This week, Lynch backtracked a bit after receiving considerable criticism about prosecuting speech, as this is protected speech under the US Constitution.

What is Trump up to?

The Trump statement was incendiary, but it may have reflected sound political sense in his mind to advance his candidacy. As was seen by the recent elections in France, a strong anti-immigration platform in the wake of Jihadist attacks is a vote winner.

The day after he made his statement, he noted that previous presidents had done similar things and that they hadn’t been challenged. Trump compared himself to Franklin Roosevelt who targeted US residents from Japan and other Axis powers for scrutiny during World War II.

Trump said he was “no different” than President Roosevelt, whom he called “highly respected by all.”

President Carter also took similar action after the Iranian revolution. Iranians were banned from entering the United States unless they oppose the Shiite regime or had a medical emergency.

Trump said his anti-Muslim policy wouldn’t be permanent, though he didn’t say how long it should be in place. “I’m talking about a temporary situation until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on,” he said.

Trump told CNN, “You’re going to have many more World Trade Centers if you don’t solve it — many, many more and probably beyond the World Trade Center.”

Trump may have made his statement in an attempt to regain traction in the GOP presidential race. His support had stagnated nationally and he had dropped to second place in Iowa, the first state in the GOP nomination process. His statements may have been attempt to regain the momentum.

By making this controversial stand, he attracted considerable media attention and reached out to voters concerned about future terrorist attacks.

However, not all Republicans – even conservative ones are in favor of Trump’s stand. The conservative National Review said, “Whatever else he might be, the idea of Trump as a paladin [protector] of civil liberties should make one howl with terrible laughter. Since he announced his candidacy, Trump has threatened to ignore those who are carping about free speech and shut down parts of the Internet; he has promised to summarily deport those who are suspected of being illegal immigrants, without due process of law; he has endorsed extensive campaign-finance regulations that fly directly in the face of the First Amendment; he has vowed to restrict the Second Amendment rights of those on the terror watch list, again without due process.”

Rival candidate Jeb Bush merely called Trump “unhinged.”

However, it is clear that Americans see a problem and want it solved. For the first time in CNN/ORC polling, a majority of Americans (53%) say the U.S. should send ground troops to Iraq or Syria to fight ISIS. At the same time, 6-in-10 disapprove of the President’s handling of terrorism and 68% say America’s military response to the terrorist group thus far has not been aggressive enough.”

That disapproval of Obama’s policy is also found within Democratic ranks. The New York Times noted:

“Many of President Obama’s Democratic allies in Congress say they do not believe he is being aggressive enough in confronting the terrorist threat of the Islamic State after last week’s attacks in California, undermining Americans’ sense of safety, especially among voters who will decide the party’s fate in elections next year.”

“The concerns began to surface last month, when senior administration officials went to Capitol Hill to urge Democrats to reject a bill to curb a Syrian refugee program and were rebuffed. That hostility grew with their increasingly uncomfortable efforts to defend Mr. Obama’s strategies in the Middle East after the attacks in Paris and California.”

“And Mr. Obama’s address to the nation Sunday — which several congressional Democrats said was an idea they pushed — left them wanting more.”

“When you interrupt the nation with an urgent and unscheduled statement from the Oval Office, or the White House, there’s I think an expectation that the address will contain a new approach or a new element,” said Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee.”

What this means is Americans want action and Trump is the only one articulating a policy. And, his policy is that the fighting should stay outside the US borders.

At this time is seems the policy choice for either Obama or his successor will be to either aggressively fight ISIS in the Middle East or implement drastic programs in the US that will destroy America’s traditional civil liberties. At this point, it seems that Americans want to see the war on terrorism fought in Syria and Iraq instead of on American streets.

Gun Control Becomes an Issue – Again

The San Bernardino attacks once again brought the issue of civil rights and the right to own firearms to the forefront. In his speech to the nation last Sunday, Obama asked for legislation that would keep anyone on the Terrorist Watch List from buying firearms.

Pro-gun advocates immediately opposed this because the Terrorist Watch List lists people only suspected of being tied to terrorism, but not convicted of terrorist actions. There has also been considerable controversy about the list as it is notoriously inaccurate and has included senators (specifically the late Senator Ted Kennedy), police, prominent government officials, and even babies that are just a few months old.

The American people, however, had a different view of gun rights as the first few days of December saw a burst in firearms sales according to the FBI. This is interesting because the total number of FBI background checks for the month of November was a staggering 2,243,030 checks, one of the highest months on record, with the FBI reporting an unprecedented 185,345-gun background checks on November 27th – the highest in the history of the background check system. That means two guns were being sold to Americans every second on November 27th and the total number of guns sold in November to Americans would equip a major army.

There is also an increasing number of calls for firearm training classes, which indicates that many people who have never owned a gun are purchasing one.

The San Bernardino attacks have raised the threat of more attacks such that several sheriffs have called for Americans to carry their firearms out in public.

Amongst these was Ulster County, New York, Sheriff Paul J. Van Blarcum, who issued a statement urging New Yorkers to carry firearms just one day after the attack. “In light of recent events that have occurred in the United States and around the world I want to encourage citizens of Ulster County who are licensed to carry a firearm to PLEASE DO SO.”

Sheriff Michael Helmig wrote in an open letter to residents of Boone County in northern Kentucky that it’s their “responsibility” to protect the country from domestic terrorism.

“I have reminded my current and retired Deputy Sheriffs of their responsibility to carry their firearms while off-duty,” Helmig said. “I would also like to remind the people who have applied, been trained, and issued a license to carry a Concealed Deadly Weapon that they also have a responsibility to carry their firearm, which they are proficient with, for the safety of themselves and others.”

Brevard County, Florida, Sheriff Wayne Ivey said in a video message that citizens carrying guns could be the first line of defense in active-shooter situations.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona called upon the 250,000 Arizonians who have gun permits to start carrying. All of Arizona’s civilian gun owners need “to take action in the event a terror attack or other violence occurs until law enforcement arrives,” he said in a press release.

That way, terrorists “with evil intent entering large gatherings, including shopping malls, should be worried about armed citizens who will be ready to defend themselves and others.”

Clearly, Obama’s attempt to use the San Bernardino shootings to push for more gun control fell on deaf ears.

2 – Has Turkey and Erdogan overplayed the situation by invading Iraq?

One of the reasons NATO wanted Turkey in its anti-Soviet alliance during the Cold War was to surround the USSR. Ironically, NATO member Turkey is now in danger of being surrounded by the Russians.

Last week, Turkey invaded Iraq with around 150 soldiers and two dozens tanks. The invasion was around Bashiqa, just northeast of Mosul in what Ankara described as an effort to replace an existing contingent of around 90 troops that have supposedly been on a “training” mission with the Peshmerga for the better part of two years.   Turkey said, “Training at this camp began with the knowledge of the Iraqi Defense Ministry and police. Those who make different interpretations of the Turkish military presence in Mosul are involved in deliberate provocation.”

On Sunday, Iraq demanded that Turkey withdraw, which the Turks refused to do. On Tuesday, the Turkish foreign ministry said that while it would halt the deployment (there are now as many as 300 Turkish boots on the ground at Bashiqa) Ankara would not comply with Baghdad’s demands regarding the withdrawal of the troops and tanks.

This move apparently is playing into the hands of Russia and Putin. Russia, already furious after Turkey shot down one of its jets flying a sortie over Syria last month, said it considered the presence of the Turkish forces in Iraq illegal. Now there is the possibility that Russia might provide military assistance to Iraq.

In fact, many in Iraq are sounding like they prefer Russia to the US. When Defense Secretary Carter announced that the US was set to send an “expeditionary targeting force” to the country to assist in raids on ISIS targets, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi flatly rejected the proposal, saying that “Iraq does not need foreign ground combat forces on Iraqi land.” Abadi rejected a similar Pentagon trial balloon involving Apaches helicopters last month.

The Iraqi parliament’s Security and Defense Committee is calling for the review and cancellation of Baghdad’s security agreement with the US.  “Soon, a meeting [of the committee] with Prime Minister Haider Abadi will be held, at which we will propose cooperating with Russia in carrying out airstrikes against IS and in the fight against terrorism in Iraq,” a committee member said earlier this week.

Tightening the Noose Around Turkey.

It’s not like Turkey doesn’t have any enemies in the region. Both Greece and Armenia are traditional adversaries of Turkey. Greece frequently intercepts Turkish military aircraft that stray near their common border.

Meanwhile, Russia’s RIA news agency on Tuesday cited the Russian Defense Ministry as saying that Moscow had sent seven Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters to its base near the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

The ministry was also quoted as saying that another deployment was expected to be made to the base before the end of the current year.

Moscow also has a military base in Armenia’s northwestern city of Gyumri, located near the country’s border with Turkey.

As if the ongoing disagreements with Russia, Armenia, Syria, Iraq, and Greece aren’t enough, Turkey lashed out at Iran, saying that if certain “attitudes continue, the traditional Turkey-Iran friendship will suffer great harm.”

If Erdogan thinks NATO will come to Turkey’s assistance, he is probably mistaken. Although Turkey’s NATO allies sided with Turkey when it shot down the Russian fighter, they made it clear that they wanted the Russian/Turkish conflict to cool down. In addition, the US still needs Iraq in its fight against ISIS. Supporting Turkey would only complicate the issue.

Erdogan may have very well geographically and politically boxed himself in.

The choice for Obama may not be much better. If Iraq nullifies the security agreement with the US and moves to invite the Russians into the country, the US will be forced to either pack up and leave, cooperate with Moscow, or fight for the right to preserve American influence.




A Secure and Stable Caspian Sea Is in America’s Interest

By Luke Coffey

Heritage Foundation

December 4, 2015

The Caspian Sea is an important, if often overlooked, region in regard to many of the challenges the U.S. faces around the world, such as a resurgent Russia, an emboldened Iran, wavering allies, growing China, and the rise of Islamic extremism. The Caspian Sea is at the heart of the Eurasian continent, and anything that is at the heart of something is, by definition, important. The region is a crucial geographical and cultural crossroads linking Europe and Asia and has proven strategically important for military and economic reasons for centuries. The U.S. needs to develop a strategy for engagement in the region that promotes economic freedom, secures transit and production zones for energy resources, and is aware of the consequences of increased Russian, Iranian, and Chinese influence in the region working against Western interests.

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Iran, Missiles, and Nuclear Weapons

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

December 9, 2015

It is far from clear why Iran is now sending such strong signals about new developments in its missile program at this point in time. It seemed during much of the negotiations over the nuclear deal and the JCPOA that Iran might be deliberately avoiding tests and activities that might call attention to any obvious fact: there is no meaningful difference between a missile that can deliver conventional munitions and one that can deliver nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. As long as the missile booster can launch a heavy enough payload to get the desired range, any missile can carry a nuclear warhead. It is possible, that hardliners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other parts of Iran’s power structure are “acting out” in opposition to the JCPOA and/or asserting Iran’s capabilities to show it will not halt Iran’s steady development of its asymmetric warfare capabilities. It is also possible that Iran’s leaders have a broad interest in showing their neighbors and the world that Iran is still becoming a steadily more important military power – both in terms of its ability to pose a threat and to deter.

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More Special Forces For Iraq and Syria: Tactical Asset or Strategic Tokenism

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

December 3, 2015

On the surface, deploying more Special Forces to deal with the threat from ISIS to Iraq and Syria should be a tactical asset. In reality, however, it is far from clear that they will be able to perform this role – given the overall lack of a credible U.S. strategy and plans to create effective Iraqi and Syrian forces. There is a serious risk that they will become a political tool rather than effective forces, and potentially a sacrifice pawn in a game that the Administration is not really playing to win.

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Iran Nuclear Deal’s Next Test: Getting Through the IAEA

By Mark Hibbs

Carnegie Endowment

December 2, 2015

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its member countries will take critically important decisions in the coming days about allegations that Iran has worked on making nuclear weapons. Their actions will determine whether and how the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the agreement which Iran and six other countries including the United States concluded this summer to end the Iran nuclear crisis—will be implemented.

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Syria’s Kurds at the Center of America’s Anti-Jihadi Strategy

By Aron Lund

Carnegie Endowment

December 2, 2015

The self-proclaimed Islamic State is under pressure in Syria today. In the Aleppo area, its defenses have been pierced by a Syrian government offensive backed by the Russian Air Force. Although most of the Russian airstrikes have hit other Sunni rebel groups (regardless of what the pro-Kremlin propaganda claims), some attacks target the Islamic State as well. In the deserts east of Homs, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed government is trying to reverse recent losses to the jihadi group. Should his army manage to recapture Palmyra, which was lost in May, it would be a severe blow to the Islamic State. But until now, the most significant recent victories against the Islamic State have taken place further east and have come at the hands of an American-backed, Kurdish-majority alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

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Russia Security Update: December 1- 9, 2015

By Hugo Spaulding

Institute for the Study of War

December 9, 2015

Russia confronted NATO with new rigor in the Middle East as NATO took steps to counter Russian power projection efforts. Russia expanded the scope of its operations in Syria, officially claiming its first submarine cruise missile strikes from the eastern Mediterranean on December 8. This step change underscores Russia’s intent to assert its freedom of action to the U.S. and its allies in Syria. Moscow flexed military muscle against Turkey in response to the November 24 downing of a Russian bomber, concentrating airstrikes on Syrian rebel supply routes to Turkey and displaying a man-portable air defense system on a warship in the Bosporus one week after deploying the long-range S-400 surface-to-air missile system to its airbase on the Syrian coast.

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How Will the Turkey-Russia Crisis Affect Ankara’s NATO Ties?

By Soner Cagaptay and James F. Jeffrey

Washington Institute

December 9, 2015

PolicyWatch 2530

While the current crisis between Moscow and Ankara may not escalate into a military conflict, it serves as a reminder that Turkey is deeply engaged in a proxy war with its historic Russian nemesis in Syria. When a Russian jet was shot down on November 24 after violating Turkish airspace, the pilots were on a bombing run against Syrian Turkmen rebels, whom Ankara supports given their ethnic ties to Turks and their armed opposition to the Russian-allied Assad regime. Turkish leaders are now worried about containing the Kremlin’s potential retaliatory steps and making longer-term contingency plans to strengthen their hand vis-a-vis Russia. These concerns will have major positive ramifications for Ankara’s ties with NATO.

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The Syrian Cauldron: A View from Israel

By Michael Herzog

Washington Institute

December 2015

Syria has become the epicentre of global jihad, regional turmoil and a humanitarian catastrophe, emitting waves of terrorism, instability and refugees far beyond the Middle East. What started as a civilian protest five years ago has turned into a bitter sectarian and proxy battle-ground, drawing in thousands of young Muslims — Sunnis and Shiites — to rival camps, as well as external forces competing to shape the end-game. Whilst the war in Syria sends destabilising shock-waves to neighbouring countries, Israel has been the least affected, successfully staying away from a war in which it does not have a direct stake. But whilst it is part of neither the war nor the diplomatic efforts, Israel remains an important stakeholder in the future of its northern neighbour.

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