Week of November 8, 2019


Think Tanks Activity Summary

(For further details, scroll down to the PUBLICATIONS section)


The CSIS isn’t optimistic about the end of Islamic radicalism with the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—and his replacement by Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurash.  They note, “What factors have contributed to the resurgence of jihadist violence? And what are the implications following the death of al-Baghdadi? In answering these questions, this analysis argues that the jihadist movement has ebbed and flowed during a series of four waves that have occurred between 1988 and today. The persistence of jihadist groups and networks has been caused by structural conditions like the existence of local grievances and weak governments—not individual leaders. Decapitation strategies, in which governments attempt to weaken or destroy a group by capturing or killing its leadership, generally provide only a temporary reprieve. The demise of al-Baghdadi is unlikely to degrade today’s decentralized jihadist movement. Instead, the prevalence of substantial grievances and weak governance in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia suggests that a fifth wave is likely. And it could come in the form of a revival of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, an offshoot of one or both, or a merger of Islamic State and al-Qaeda networks.”

The American Foreign Policy Council looks at the changing face of the Iranian protests.  They note, “That vision of a post-theocratic future lies at the core of the protests taking place throughout Iran today. A decade ago, many in the Green Movement still believed that it might be possible to reform the Islamic Republic, and to significantly modify both its domestic and international behavior. Today, few Iranians do. Instead, they see the regime as a closed ideological system – one that is resistant to reform and fundamentally at odds with democracy and individual freedoms. And, they say, since evolution is impossible, a new revolution has become necessary. They have paid an exceedingly high price for those ideas. Most of the signatories of the June 2019 letter…are now in prison, having been rounded up by Iranian authorities and charged with assorted crimes against the state. But their message and their sacrifice have resonated throughout Iranian society, making the so-called “14+14” an inspiration for further anti-regime activism among the diverse strains of dissent now taking place within the Islamic Republic.

The CSIS looks at military officers in the GCC nations.  The report pays special attention to pilot training in the Gulf and explains why GCC pilots still have a long way to go to approximate the skill level and professionalism of their colleagues in Western air forces. Because being a fighter-pilot – or, in some respect, any kind of pilot at all – is so prestigious, the princes of the large ruling families often aspire to these positions. As from the general application pool, only a small proportion of them are suited for pilot assignment but, because these armies are anything but meritocracies, those princes who want to, usually end up flying. Pilot performance is continued to be influenced by cultural factors: flyers perform adequately in good conditions with no surprises; once something unexpected occurs, they tend to freeze and make mistakes. Attrition rates in pilot training tend to be far lower in Gulf armies than in, say the Israeli Defense Force or the US Air Force. In spite of massive financial investment in these armed forces, from a professional standpoint they remain at best mediocre as their performance in the on-going war in Yemen reminds analysts daily.

The Center for a New American Security looks at America’s maritime shortfall, a critical issue in America’s ability to reinforce Europe or the Middle East.  They note, “For 25 years after the collapse of Soviet Union, the United States and Europe no longer viewed Russia as the substantial military threat of prior decades. U.S. defense posture reflected this reality as it accepted greater risk in Europe to focus forces on the Middle East and the rebalance to Asia. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 upended this status quo, however, and snapped NATO back into a reality that most allies thought had ended with the Cold War. Russia’s actions in Ukraine marked a clear shift in Russian foreign policy with the Kremlin pursuing a more assertive and aggressive approach to Europe and the West. Russia’s resurgence has meant that the United States again must seriously consider a possible conflict in Europe in its military plans and posture—though of a different tenor than the Cold War. Not only has this revitalized threat stressed demands on allied force capacity, but it has tested military muscle memory neglected since the early 1990s.”

The Heritage Foundation looks at Syria and chemical weapon attacks.  They note, “Syria’s continuing use of chemical weapons is an egregious violation of international norms, treaties, and law, a threat to international peace and security, and an affront to humanity. Full accountability for this behavior may be a long time coming, but it’s critical that the U.S. and like-minded partners take steps to deter and, if possible, deny Syria’s future use of chemical weapons. To that end, the Trump administration must publicly keep open the military option for responding to Syria’s possession or use of chemical weapons. That includes the option of striking high-value political targets not related to the regime’s chemical weapons program. The administration should also continue to highlight Syria’s crimes in international venues and forums, including the U.N. Security Council. And it should support international efforts at greater accountability for Mr. Assad. For example, Washington should encourage potential foreign reconstruction providers to withhold aid to Syria until Damascus comes into full compliance with the Chemical Warfare Convention, including verifiable chemical weapon disarmament.”

The Washington Institute looks at the power sharing agreement between Hadi government and the Southern Transitional Council in Yemen.  Despite the difficulties, they conclude, “if the agreement is implemented even partially, it has the potential to create better conditions for UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, since any comprehensive peace talks he is able to convene would now include parties that might otherwise act as spoilers. For example, the Hadi delegation to such talks could plausibly include representatives from the Islah Party (assuming they retain some ministerial positions) and the STC, while the Houthi delegation would continue to include representatives from the General People’s Congress Party. Although Yemen’s increasing fragmentation lends itself to additional spoilers, their impact would be greatly mitigated if the above key players are similarly invested in successful rather than failed talks. Thus, even if the Riyadh agreement suffers the same halting implementation as the Stockholm agreement, it may still be a political win that moves the Yemen war closer to resolution.”


Looking at the Last American Elections until 2020

This week several states held off year elections.  And, though it is easy to try to extrapolate these results into a national trend, it’s important to remember that all these elections revolved around candidates and local issues.

In this case, both Republicans and Democrats have something to be happy about.


Virginia was once a Republican state with a balance of mostly liberal suburbs in the north around Washington DC, Conservative military families around Norfolk, and conservative voters in the rural areas in the southwest.  That has changed.

As the suburbs around Washington DC grew with an influx of government workers and government contractors, the state grew increasingly liberal and friendlier towards the Democratic Party.  In fact, the state has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate for the last three presidential elections.

Now the state has turned fully Democratic as the state now has both a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature, thanks to an election that gave a majority of legislature seats to the Democrats.

Part of the problem was due to a state Republican Party that didn’t even run candidates in about a quarter of the seats in the election – some of which were Republican districts.  Democrats didn’t face a Republican opponent in 10 of the 40 state senate seats and 23 of the 100 House of Delegates seats.  That makes it nearly impossible to stay in control of the legislature.


Kentucky is a conservative Republican state.  That’s why the victory of Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Andy Beshear by a few thousand votes seems to be a dramatic shift in voter sentiment.  But there is more to it.

Beshear is the son of a two-term governor, so he had name recognition.  Meanwhile, Republican incumbent Bevin was unpopular due to cuts in Medicare and pensions.  Bevin also barely won the Republican primary earlier this year.  However, Bevin nearly came back from a 15% deficit thanks to a Trump visit in the last days of the campaign.

However, it appears that the problem was Bevin, not the Republican message.  All the other statewide offices were won by Republicans and the two Kentucky chambers of the legislature have Republican super majorities.


Mississippi wasn’t a surprise as Republican Tate Reeves was elected governor in a generally Republican state.  This was another state, where a Trump campaign visit helped boost the Republican voter turnout.

Other Elections

Democratic Arizona city Tucson overwhelmingly rejected a referendum to become a sanctuary city, where police couldn’t inquire about the immigration status of people they encounter.  The referendum was opposed by both Democrats and Republicans and went down to defeat by over 70%.

Seattle, Washington is a very liberal city that had a socialist on the City Council.  However, the socialist, Kshama Sawant, lost her bid for reelection.  Internet company Amazon, which is based in Seattle, spent millions to defeat anti-business liberals in the last weeks of the campaign.

In liberal Texas city, Houston, the Democratic mayor failed to win a majority of the votes and must go to a runoff against Republican Tony Buzbee.  There will be a runoff election in December.

New Jersey Republicans won key battleground districts for the New Jersey state legislature, although the Democrats still control the state legislature.  These wins were in south New Jersey, which is more conservative.

So, what do these elections mean?  Both sides have something to brag about, but there is no clear trend.  In many cases like New Jersey and Virginia, it was the efforts by the local political parties that were responsible for the results.  In cases like Kentucky, it was the candidate himself that was responsible for the loss.


So, if the election results don’t give us any clear indication of what will happen in 2020, what about the polls?

They will not help either.  There are a lot of polling services today in the US and competing for business has less to do with reliability than the polling company’s willingness to skew the poll results to fit the customer’s wishes.

One good example in the last week was Fox News’s poll on Trump impeachment.  The results showed that 51% of those polled wanted Trump to be impeached – not an overwhelming majority, but a majority, nevertheless.

However, a look at the poll internals showed that the results were seriously skewed.  The internals of the poll showed that 49% of those polled identified themselves as Democrats, when the actual number of self-identified Democrats in the nation is somewhere between 30% to 35 %.  Given the fact that a large majority of Democrats favor a Trump impeachment, no wonder the poll was so skewed, even though the majority of independents and Republicans don’t want Trump impeached.

A Monmouth poll released this week showed that 73% of respondents have little or no trust in the impeachment process.  60% say Democrats are more interested in bringing down Trump than in learning the facts.

Which brings us to the impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives.  If most people don’t favor impeachment, why is the Democratic majority still holding hearings, especially since the presidential elections are in a year?  It would make more sense to focus on beating Trump at the ballot box than through an impeachment process that will divide the nation and probably stall when it reaches the Senate.  In fact, the Monmouth poll said a majority of respondents say people who want Trump out of office should just vote him out of office next year instead of going through the impeachment process.

Although there are a lot of theories, the most logical is that Democrats hope the investigation will turn up some evidence of Trump wrongdoing.  That will weaken Trump enough that the Democratic candidate can win next November.

But, will that strategy work?  Democrats have been trying to find Trump wrongdoing for three years, without any success.  And, the Monmouth poll indicates voters won’t believe the House Democrats anyway.

Then there is a realization amongst Democrats that their slate of presidential candidates is weak.  Biden was the strongest candidate, but his numbers are falling as corruption issues and campaign missteps dog him.  Senator Sanders has lost some of his excitement from 2016 and now appears to be an old candidate with heart problems.

Other candidates like Warren may not escape problems too, the media and other candidates are critical of her Medicare for all plan.  Then there is the number of Democratic candidate debates, which have provided “some radical sound bites” that will be ideal for Trump campaign advertisements.

With such a not too strong candidate list, Democrats hope that they can use the impeachment to weaken Trump’s support.

The problem is that the Trump voters, who helped him win in 2016, are still solidly behind him – a real frustration for the Democrats.  The daily attacks against him are now ignored by his voters as more examples of “fake news.”  They see the impeachment as a political game rather than a real investigation into corruption.

This was seen in this week’s New York Times/Siena College poll that showed Trump doing well in battleground states that will decide the 2020 campaign.   These included Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina.  Although former vice President Biden has a narrow lead (2% or less) in these states, the other Democratic candidates are behind Trump.  Trump is also making inroads in traditional Democratic demographics like blue collar white voters and minorities.

Given what the Democrats are facing – weak presidential candidates and firm support for Trump – they can’t rely only upon traditional campaign strategy.  Impeachment appears to be the best course to a 2020 Democratic presidential victory.

There are, however, problems with this strategy.  First, they must find something that will weaken Trump’s support – something they have failed to find in 3 years.

Second, they are failing to use their congressional majority to pass popular legislation that may help win votes.  History shows that elections are won on positive action like legislation, not negative action like impeachment.  That’s one reason why the Republicans lost congressional seats after impeaching Clinton.

Finally, the current congressional impeachment process is far removed from previous impeachment hearings against Nixon and Clinton.  Trump supporters claiming that Americans are accustomed to legal process that gives the defendant certain rights but have been denied to Trump and his lawyers.  This gives the whole process a more political taint that will have an impact next year.

In the end, the 2020 election is still up for grabs.  Trump will have the advantage of incumbency which has given the president in office a reelection victory in every election since World War Two, except for two (Carter and the first Bush).  On the other hand, there is a large “Never Trump” voter bloc that will be energized to vote next November.

We will just have to wait and see.


Syria and Chemical Weapons: The Horror Continues

By Peter Brookes

Heritage Foundation

November 6, 2019

From the demise of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to the Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces, Syria has been in the news recently and often. What hasn’t made headlines much is Damascus‘ continuing possession and use of chemical weapons. And that’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten. The regime of Bashar Assad has a long history of using chemical weapons — one that started even before the Aug. 21, 2013, attack on Syrians living in the Ghouta district just outside Damascus. The regime’s release of sarin gas — a highly toxic nerve agent — reportedly killed more than 1,400 people and injured thousands more. Mr. Assad still has the capability — and, apparently, the willingness — to use chemical weapons against his fellow Syrians. The U.S. State Department reports that he used another deadly chemical weapon — chlorine gas — this May in an assault on insurgents in Idlib province.

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Beyond Baghdadi: The Next Wave of Jihadist Violence

By Seth G. Jones

Center for Strategic and International Studies

November 4, 2019

The death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—and his replacement by Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi—is another setback for the jihadist movement that captured the world’s attention beginning in 2014. Following its military defeat along the Hajin-Baghuz corridor in Syria earlier this year, the Islamic State lost its last major area of control in Syria and Iraq, which at its largest point approached the size of Belgium. U.S. military and intelligence units had also decimated the Islamic State’s external operations capability, killing leaders like Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the chief spokesman and head of Islamic State external operations. Yet the death of al-Baghdadi is not the first time the demise of a jihadist leader has led to hope—even expectation—that the movement was on a trajectory to defeat. Nor will it be the last. In March 2003, shortly after the United States captured al-Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the masterminds of the September 11, 2001 attacks, a Washington Post headline trumpeted: “Al Qaeda’s Top Primed to Collapse, U.S. Says.” After the 2006 death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq and a predecessor of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, President George W. Bush remarked that his killing was a “severe blow” to jihadist networks in Iraq.3 Not to be outdone, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked in May 2011 that “the death of Osama bin Laden has put al-Qaeda on the path to defeat.”

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Military Officers in the Gulf: Career Trajectories and Determinants

By Zoltan Barany

Center for Strategic and International Studies

November 5, 2019

Relatively little is known about officer corps of the six GCC states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – even though thousands of Western military advisors and instructors have worked with them since they gained independence. The aim of this Burke Chair Report is to analyze the officer corps of the armies of Arabia with special attention to socio-cultural factors. The report demonstrates that the disparities between wealthy – as measured by per capita GDP – Gulf states (Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE) and less affluent ones (Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia) manifest themselves in the divergent socio-economic background and career prospects of their professional military personnel. In the wealthier states individuals from (comparatively) lower income and social-status backgrounds tend to find the military career appealing while their colleagues in the more modestly endowed GCC countries usually come from more prominent socioeconomic environments. Shia Muslim communities are essentially banished from the Bahraini and Saudi armed forces while in Kuwait they suffer no such discrimination.