About William Goodyear

Will is the Gulf Research Associate and Special Researcher for the Director at the NESA Center. His research interests include Environmental and Natural Resource Security, International Aid and Development, Islamist Politics, and the Modern History of the Arab World.

What the New Syrian Opposition Alliance Means

A contribution from NESA intern, Chris Chapman.

This week eleven Syrian opposition groups signed onto an Islamic alliance in efforts to repudiate the legitimacy of the internationally backed Supreme Military Council (SMC) and Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and form a united front against Bashar al Assad.  Led by the Islamist group, Jabhat al-Nusra this bloc represents a majority of the militant opposition in Syria.  Their letter stated four main points: first, for all opposition to unite under an Islamic framework and operate under sharia law, second, they can only be represented by those living within Syria, third, a denunciation of the exile opposition National Coalition backed by the West, and last, a plea for unity within the opposition ranks to avoid further conflict. 

This alliance may or may not last, but it does reveal three factors about the current and future status of the opposition forces in Syria.  The signing of this agreement is a direct blow to the US and Western backed attempts to support a moderate opposition, it shows a new level of rebel interaction, and presents a potential game-changer for future opposition dynamics. 

To start, the creation of this alliance hurts the US and West’s efforts to find and support ‘moderate’ opposition units.  Many of the groups under the direction of their SMC, the Western backed military wing, have signed onto this alliance.  So, will US aid continue to arrive?  These units are part of both the SMC and this new Islamic agreement.  A main reason for these groups signing on was to show their objection to the exile opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition.  Rebels within Syria do not accept their legitimacy or any possible government they intend to establish.  So what we see is the US and its chosen ally in Syria, are unfortunately cut off from the on-the-ground reality of the opposition.  This act was done out of frustration with the US and West’s inability to provide what the rebels see as adequate support.  It muddies and already murky situation for the US to be dealing in. 

Next, the eleven participants are not all using this purely to establish sharia and an Islamic Syria; some are using it as protection.  Recent infighting between more extreme units and moderates for control of towns pushed these moderate groups to join this bloc.  In essence, this is politics of protection for these groups.  They are all fighting for the same result, the end of Assad’s regime, so this is an effort to decrease tensions between groups fighting on the same side and assure a sense of security from what they deem an ally.  It is an interesting turn of events and one that I want to keep my eye on for future possibilities within the rebel community. 

Furthermore, for the above reasons, I think that if this alliance decides to organize itself into a political entity, it would rival the SNC for control of a post-Assad Syria.  Divided, these groups stood little chance of rallying enough support to succeed politically.  Combined, however, these groups represent a majority coalition of the opposition within Syria.  They are the main fighting force against Assad and as it stands, would garner more support than any party comprised of exiles.   

In the end, the existence of this agreement amongst so many rebel units bodes ill for the US as it tries to navigate the Syrian conflict.  The statement alone of their signatures sent a clear message that the rebels are done waiting for US assistance and wholly disappointed with US and Western attempts to act on behalf of their best interests.  It will be much more difficult for the US to make inroads and sustainable relationships with such views against it. 

Chris Chapman is currently a Research Intern at the NESA Center and an M.A. candidate at American University’s School of International Service

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


The Counter-Revolution is in Full Swing

Earlier today it was announced that former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, will be released from prison after two years in captivity. He has been reportedly cleared of all charges of corruption. Although he still faces trial for conspiracy to murder protestors, the maximum of two years without verdict have officially been exceeded. According to Egyptian authorities he can no longer legally be held.

The reaction that is sure to follow is both appropriate and understandable. Many Egyptians viewed Mubarak’s imprisonment as a symbol of the Egyptian people’s authority over their government. Letting Mubarak go sends the message that, ultimately, authority lies elsewhere.

To both outside observers and many Egyptians, this is not a surprising revelation.

Yet, Mubarak’s release is still important because it threatens to further fragment Egyptian society. While protestors in Tahrir may have applauded the military’s removal of President Morsi from power, it is hard to imagine that they will overlook the reversal of their greatest and most tangible victory.  With Mubarak free, it will be increasingly difficult to ignore that the people and the military are no longer “one hand.”

It is difficult to see what the interim government’s reasoning could be for allowing Mubarak to go free. Up until this point, the military had successfully co-opted public opinion in their fight against the Muslim Brotherhood. In releasing Mubarak from jail, they risk alienating nationalist protestors who have been their largest base of support so far.  One shudders to think of the violence that could ensue if the nationalist protestors turn on the military and receive a response similar to what the Muslim Brotherhood has gotten.

Now all eyes should be on Tahrir. It is impossible for the protestors to ignore the counter-revolution anymore.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Really, Peace Talks now? Yes! …well…maybe.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced Friday that Israel and the Palestinians (though not, importantly, Hamas) have tentatively agreed to resume the first direct peace talks since 2010. Already, this agreement has generated praise and criticism, despite the fact that very few of its details are actually known. Already, there is speculation as to who will be on Kerry’s peace-making team. Already, not four days after the announcement, pessimists and optimists are penning articles predicting the outcomes of the entire negotiations process.

Then we found out that this happened.

It’s at times like these that the foreign policy community might benefit from collectively stepping back and taking a deep breath.

The reality is this: little is known about what if anything was actually agreed to. Some prisoners might be released but we don’t know how many or when.  There was almost certainly some discussion of borders, though again we can only speculate about who promised what.

In the end, we should be surprised that there was any announcement concerning the talks at all. On face value, none of the political players involved have much to gain by engaging in serious negotiations. Prime Minister Netanyahu is barely able to maintain control over an increasingly unruly cabinet at a time when domestic Israeli politics are so chaotic that even the election of the Chief Rabbi has become bitter. At the same time, President Abbas faces his own domestic challenges and may not speak for enough of the Palestinian people to be able to legitimately offer or accept a deal for peace. Clearly, this isn’t an ideal time for talking about solutions…

But is there or will there ever be a good time to make peace? Given the regional environment, it’s hard to imagine how an opportune moment could possibly arise on its own. It seems that Sec. Kerry has realized that, contrary to the claims of some, the time for the two-state solution (or any solution for that matter) isn’t running out – time has to be made for it.

Sec. Kerry is attempting to create an opportunity for peace talks where one didn’t previously exist. This is certainly an innovative approach – one that I imagine will confuse and confound the majority of us as it takes shape. So rather than heap praise or scorn on every development in this process, let’s try to understand the process so that we can actually recognize success or failure when it happens.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Revisiting Piracy in the Gulf of Aden

Yesterday’s sentencing of 9 Somali pirates to 5 years in jail in Kenya went largely unnoticed in American media circles. This is not particularly surprising, given the exceptional decrease in piracy in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden in recent years. Let’s take a look into how this has happened.

East African Piracy became a serious concern for the international community in 2008, when there was a sudden spike in pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden. Driven by instability in their home country and declining fish yields, Somali fishermen began attacking the high-traffic shipping lanes that run off the coast of Somalia. They attacked 111 ships, successfully pirating 42, and earned ransoms of up to $3 million per ship. These attacks increased in frequency and success for the next 3 years and peaked in 2011, a year in which they earned approximately $146 million in ransoms on 25 hijacks (or $4.87 million per ship).

Since 2011, however, attacks have steadily decreased with only a handful of successful hijackings. In 2012, there were only 5 successfully pirated ships resulting from 35 attacks. In 2013, there have been only 3 attacks and each one has been thwarted. Not only are pirates failing to capture their targets, but they are also bringing in less money. Pirates received only $31.75 million in ransoms during 2012. Today, East African pirates are in control of just two hijacked ships (both taken in late 2012) and a total of 54 hostages.

            This decrease is attributable to a number of factors; however, it is clear that the efforts of Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151) are the main reasons for the decline of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Under the authority of a number of UN Security Council Continuing Resolutions, this group of 29 countries has used a combination of aerial monitoring and naval patrols to successfully deter would-be pirates. Through their efforts, hundreds of pirates have been arrested and prosecuted or are awaiting trial.[i] Others have been killed by US Special Forces.

            The rapid success of CTF-151 at curtailing piracy off the coast of East Africa is certainly impressive. It demonstrates just how effective international security cooperation can be and provides a model for states interested in working together to defend the international order from destabilizing forces.

Despite the successes of CTF-151 in East Africa, the problems of piracy still threaten the global economy. The Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca have become the newest hotbed of piracy. There were over 130 incidents of piracy and sea robbery in this region each year from 2009-2012.

Nearly 20% of global sea trade occurs in the Indian Ocean and 15.2 million barrels of oil pass through the Strait of Malacca each day. Simply put, the global economy cannot afford to allow piracy to expand in this crucial region. Yet, it is happening.

            Given the exemplary model of CTF-151, one might be inclined to call for a new anti-piracy task force for Southeast Asia. Yet, more task forces may not be the answer.

The UN mandate for CTF-151 strictly defines and limits its area of operation to the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Moreover, the Indian Ocean is a dividing line within the American military between CENTCOM and PACOM. Pirates in Southeast Asia are simply taking advantage of these arbitrary divisions. By operating along the “seams” of administrative jurisdiction, pirates are able to attack their targets with very little risk of capture and prosecution.

Given that these pirates seem to be attacking these vulnerable seams in the global security regimes, the appropriate response would seem to be to create more flexible systems for dealing with mobile threats. In my next post, I hope to examine some of the potential strategies that governments are considering employing to overcome these obstacles to freedom of navigation.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Top Reading in Environmental Security News this Week

A little cheerful news to start your week…

          Oil rose to a one-month high as the world responded to growing tensions in the Middle East after Israel’s strikes in Syria this weekend.

          Increased frequency of sand and dust storms in the Gulf have spurred GCC countries to work with the UN Environmental Programme to develop initiatives aimed at preventing soil erosion and degradation.

          Rapid flooding in Nepal is literally reshaping the landscape of the country and threatening the tourism industry there, the single largest sector of the Nepalese economy.

          Rapid acidification in the Arctic Ocean guarantees long-term melting of ice in the North Pole. In addition to irreversibly altering the ecosystem, huge stores of oil and gas could be opened up to development.

Please note that the views expressed in this post are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the National Defense University, Department of Defense, or US Government

The Persian Gulf, Never-ending Oil and the On-Going Arab Springs





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While surfing the blogosphere over the past week I became aware of two related analytical threads that had yet to be connected in any meaningful way. On the one hand, esteemed political anaylsts at Foreign Policy like Marc Lynch and Christopher Davidson have presented arguments predicting the inevitable arrival of the Arab Spring revolutions to the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, writers at the Atlantic have been considering the potentially disastrous consequences of a world endlessly consuming fossil fuels as well as the price we have already paid for our oil addiction.

According to Lynch and Davidson, the Arab Springs in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya broke the psychological barriers (mainly) to public political expression amongst citizens of nearly all Arab countries, including the Gulf States. As Davidson puts it,

Detailed, substantiated criticism of governments has become commonplace, with exposés of ruling family corruption and public insults directed at hitherto unchallengeable elites being digested by millions each day. Such disparagement of rulers was almost unimaginable prior to 2011, but now it is almost fashionable for young Gulf nationals to question their autocrats.

This sustained criticism, the authors argue, is the beginning of the end for Gulf Monarchies that have up until this point been able to survive only by harnessing their massive oil wealth to buy off their populaces or using their well-equipped security apparatuses to suppress them. Yet, neither author addresses the important changes that are taking place in the world oil market that directly affect the sources of Gulf stability.

The prospect of endless global consumption of oil does not necessarily mean that the Gulf Monarchies will remain intact endlessly, but it does give them an important bargaining chip that will affect how they relate with their populations. At the same time, the continued extraction and use of hydrocarbons on the Arabian Peninsula will have environmental and health consequences that will add further complications to the political balance in the region.

What is needed now is a comprehensive analysis of the ways in which changing global oil production will affect the new political mobilization in the Gulf.

Please note that the views expressed in this post do not represent those of the National Defense University, Department of Defense, or United States Government.

What is Environmental Security?

Earlier today I attended the first iteration of the Stimson Center’s 2013 Discussion Series on the Environment and Security. These discussions are intended to bring together professionals from the security and environmental fields in order to identify and examine the links between the two fields. Today’s discussion focused on the evolution of military thinking about the environment and environmentalism since the early 1990s and highlighted some of the major transboundary security issues that are susceptible to environmental threats.

                One of the most interesting points that was made during the conversation was that, within the U.S. military, environmental security was initially understood as a “way to secure the environment.” That is, DoD officials concerned about environmental security essentially focused on ways in which the military could lessen its impact on the environment through reducing waste, becoming more efficient, protecting habitats, etc. Since then, we were told, environmental security has come to take on a much broader meaning.

                Yet, when one audience member asked “what is environmental security?” no one seemed to have a clear answer.

                The question highlights a tension that exists within environmental security. On the one hand, a too narrow understanding of the term limits environmental security to those things that the military can do to protect the environment. This understanding ignores the interlinkages between the environment and the wide array of non-military aspects of national security. On the other hand, a too broad interpretation of environmental security risks subsuming all non-traditional security threats under the environmental umbrella and thereby making the term meaningless.

                I thought this was a good question and so I decided to go looking for answers. Lucky for me, the Millennium Project published a report on this issue way back in 1998. In it, the author examined a wide array of different definitions and proposed a synthesized version. It essentially states that Environmental Security is environmental viability for life support, with three elements, preventing or repairing military damage to the environment, preventing or responding to environmentally caused conflicts, and protecting the environment due to its inherent value.

                Clearly this definition doesn’t satisfy everyone, but I think it does a good job of covering the major bases of Environmental Security: that it is pro-active (i.e. preventative or involves pre-planned responses to events), that it deals with both naturally occurring and human-caused threats, and that at-some level environmental preservation is considered a good in its own right.

                There is a lot more work to be done on this, but I think that this could be a good jumping off point for further discussion.

Please note that the views expressed in this post do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, Department of Defense, or United States Government.

On Baklava, Turkey, and Being in Over Your Head

I recently returned from my first trip to Turkey where, among other things, I tasted the best baklava in the world from the city where it was invented – Gaziantep.

Turkey is booming and it is being led by cities like Gaziantep that are able to take advantage of an abundance of natural resources, cheap labor and favorable government policies to develop strong, export-based economies. Despite the loss of trade with neighboring Syria, Gaziantep businesses exported $5.9 billion worth of goods and local authorities expect that number to increase to $30 billion by 2023.

Unlike other rapidly expanding industrial cities, however, Gaziantep seems to be legitimately committed to doing so in a relatively eco-friendly way. Local officials in the city showed me plans to build a 200,000 person zero-carbon satellite city and this is in addition to a whole host of other environmentally responsible reforms that the city is undertaking, from updating their bus fleet to improving water pump efficiency.

Clearly, I left the city extremely impressed by the enthusiasm and dynamism I witnessed there. I imagined that it was kind of like being in early 20th century Pittsburgh…if it were run by people who preferred not to breathe in lung-clogging smog.

I also left Turkey with the sense that I was in WAY over my head. As someone who has spent the better part of 6 years studying the Arab World I quickly found that none of the conceptual frameworks I have been trained in really apply in Turkey – at least not in the same way as in some of the other countries I have visited.

I can’t – and don’t – claim to have much of an understanding of Turkey. However, from what I have read about some on-going internal political debates and my brief time in Ankara and the South East, I can say that whatever is going on Turkey right now certainly feels important and those interested in Middle Eastern affairs should really start to pay attention.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Peace at last?

Super quick post today as I am getting ready to head off to Turkey with some other members of the NESA team. This development means a lot of things to a lot of different people and, being no expert on Turkey, I don’t feel qualified to comment on it much.

What I will say, though, is that this has the potential to cause big changes throughout the Middle East – not least in Syria.

This link from the Economist says a lot more than I can.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Is Climate-proofing a Tool for Dictators?

I came across this interview last Wednesday with Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia of the Center for Climate and Security talking about the ways in which climate change impacted the violence in Syria. There is a lot of meat to the article, but I found one quote particularly striking – I’ll post it here:

“In other words, doing something about climate change is not going to bring world peace, in and of itself. However, it is very important that governments and the international community recognize that we can do something about mitigating climate change and also adapting to the risks. Governments can climate-proof their infrastructure: We’re talking about better water practices, better irrigation techniques. It also means climate-proofing institutions we normally don’t think of as associated with climate change, such as health infrastructure.”

I found the idea of “climate-proofing” government institutions to be really interesting. It seems to me that often the best forms of “climate-proofing” are just good governance to begin with – i.e. improving access to healthcare, ensuring an equitable and efficient distribution of clean water in rural areas, etc.

If that is the case, though, does it really make sense to talk about “climate proofing” as a tool of governance that any regime can use to shore up control over their citizenry? For example, given what we know about the Assad regime could it have ever employed “climate-proofing” without a radical shift in strategy – one that might have been equally destabilizing to the regime as the climate changes it sought to mitigate?

My worry here is that pursuing “climate friendly” governmental policies could be used as tools for keeping dictators and tyrants in power. I would love to hear what Werrell and Femia think about that and how they would answer the above questions. In any case, it’s something for me to grapple with for a while.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.