MENA’s Rising Generation

The Strategist’s guest blogger, Chris Chapman, returns with his second post!  It begins just below…

Recently, a group of Washington, DC-based analysts and academics gathered for a seminar devoted to the “Next Generation” in the Middle East and North Africa.  The seminar focused on issues related to demographic pressures in the region, the impact of youth led revolutionary movements, and the role of ideologies.  The topics spurred conversations on the necessity of youth involvement in the political process.  After being so vital to the uprising and push for change in countries, many youth still feel alienated and ignored politically.  It is unreasonable to believe the major voice of change in these states can be marginalized during the transition period.  But how can their revolutionary energy get redirected into political and civic participation?  This was a focus of discussion amongst the seminar participants and is vital to achieving stability. 

Unfortunately, the youth in these states see the government and political process as corrupt.  There is a clear need in these transitioning nations for the next generation of leaders to become active participants in politics at all levels, as well as within civil society.  They have insights and ideas for how to solve their nation’s biggest issues, which will be the issues that define their lifetime.  Their continued exclusion from the political process will breed the anger and resentment which brought them out to protest initially.

The task of inclusion in newly formed governments is not simple.  For instance, the United States, the world’s oldest democratic society, has struggled to get younger generations involved in the political process.  In the Middle East and North Africa, the youth are blocked by established hierarchies, entrenched elites, and internal division.  All in all, the region encourages the young to stay on the street.  This rising generation will need to forge their own way into the political process or else risk being silenced after having achieved so much.

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.


Is it becoming harder to define Syria?

A guest blogger has joined the NESA-Strategist. Chris Chapman, a research intern at the NESA Center, will be regularly posting his thoughts on events in Middle East, particularly focusing on the Levant. The Strategist writers welcome Chris and hope you enjoy his first piece which follows below…

As it stands today the very nature of Syria as a state is in question.  Large swaths of land are no longer under government control.  The Assad government no longer holds a clear and legitimate monopoly on the use of force within the state.  Even the boundaries of the Syria state are becoming less definitive as spillover threatens Lebanon to be subsumed by the conflict.  Syria may still claim to have a government, representation in international boundaries, and recognition by the international community, but is it truly a state? Consider two potential outcomes of this conflict. 

The first outcome is the Assad regime finds a way to quell the Sunni rebels.  It is hard to picture a scenario where Assad’s forces completely expel or defeat the rebels.  Instead, we are faced with Assad controlling certain regions of land and the Sunni’s maintaining control of others.  Is this still one state?  Could these groups coexist under the same roof, let alone acknowledge the legitimacy of the other?

An alternate outcome is that Sunni factions breakthrough and defeat Assad’s forces.  This will end the current regime.   Infighting and rivalry already exists amongst the opposition.  The internal division has not yet become a massive problem because each group is primarily fixated on defeating the regime.  If they were to prove successful in that effort, then it is likely that internal competition will escalate into something larger.  Salafist groups, Al Qaeda, the Free Syrian Army, Kurds, and others will claim the right to rule Syria, or seek to carve out a portion in which they rule.  The situation will devolve into more fighting between these groups and Syria in essence becomes a tribal battleground with no clear legitimate leadership.

The outcomes in these two situations pose risks and problems for the international community and native Syrians. If the conflict does not end in absolute victory for one side, then there is a real risk that Syria as it is defined today will no longer exist.  The country could fracture into small segments?  The removal of Assad may not be accompanied by the rise of a competent replacement, which makes Syria a state with no real leadership.

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.

From Russia (and China) with Love

Today, we have a special guest blogger contributing to the Strategist’s digital pages.  Kathleen O’Rourke is an Academic Research Intern at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. She is a rising Fourth Year at the University of Virginia finishing her B.A. in Russian and East European Studies.

Russia and China are using one of the oldest tricks in the book to build up their political capital in Central Asia – gifts. Lots of them. An extraordinary amount of money is flowing from the two powers into neighboring Central Asia’s infrastructure. Of the more than $47.2 million in humanitarian aid Tajikistan received from the international community from January-June 2013, Russia provided 9.7% and China provided 2.9% as the second and fourth largest donors, respectively. Russia will begin arms shipments to Kyrgyzstan this year worth $1 billion. China will singlehandedly import 25 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year from Turkmenistan. Russia will soon invest over $60 million in Uzbek oil production.

The list goes on. Most intriguingly, Russia recently reached an agreement with Kyrgyzstan in which Kyrgyzstan will sell its bankrupt natural gas company Kyrgyzgaz to Russia’s Gazprom for a staggering total of $1 (yes, $1), in exchange for Gazprom’s pledge to invest a mere 20 billion rubles (more than $619,000,000) in developing Kyrgyzstan’s natural gas infrastructure over the course of five years. Good deal.

But besides its readily apparent intent to create “client states” in Central Asia (most notably Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) by bringing the former Soviet republics back into the fold of its political and economic influence, Russia could have another interest in mind that resonates closely with current trends in Russian public opinion.

Russia’s ostensibly generous aid in bolstering the Central Asian states’ internal development may reflect a conscious effort to prevent an increased rate of Central Asian immigration into a more economically prosperous Russia. RIA Novosti reported that the government-run All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, or VTsIOM, published a poll on 22 July in which most participants (35%) identified “migration from abroad” as the most viable security threat to the nation. Though significantly lower than the 58% who responded likewise when the poll was conducted in 2005, a high percentage of Russians continue to believe that ethnic minorities hold more potential to harm the Russian state than energy resource depletion or even terrorist attacks. It seems that Russians will remain inhospitable to a heightened Central Asian ethnic presence, at least for the foreseeable future. And the best way for the Russian government to ensure that the Central Asians remain where they already are is for their regional economic environment to improve.

That being said, Russia is not the only world power literally invested in keeping Central Asia stable – China has also broadened its scope of influence over the states, three of which border China’s troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. China has continuously upped its economic assistance to Central Asia over recent years (primarily in the energy sector), and publicly promotes its strong bilateral relationships with the region’s states. Most notably, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently proclaimed that Chinese investment ventures in Kyrgyzstan would forever be free of “additional conditions” that would theoretically require Kyrgyzstan to provide comparable payments or services in return.

But in politics, nothing is free, and gifts never fail to generate a sense of indebtedness. Russia and China clearly possess long-term interests in presently courting the Central Asian states and providing these seemingly unconditional financial favors. So the question is not if, but how, Russia and China will decide to cash in on them.

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.

The Jihajjis

For centuries Muslims have been making pilgrimage to Mecca. The hajj is an extremely important part of a Muslim’s religious life and it leads to a growth in societal status when one returns. Upon return, those who have successfully made the pilgrimage are accorded the title of Hajji, which denotes an enhanced respect for the person in question. This practice of according enhanced respect to pilgrims has existed for centuries and continues to do so.

However, there today appears to be another method to acquire respect based upon a different type of pilgrimage, that of jihad. While less formalized than the Hajj system of societal ascendancy (no new titles are necessarily bestowed) those leaving for jihad very often do find a newfound respect from their home societies upon return from warfighting. Jihad is very clearly an important element of Islamic tradition, including both its internal and external variants. Internal jihad refers to the attempt to continually improve oneself and external typically refers to efforts to defend or expand (depending on your interpretation of the relevant religious texts) the ummah, or community of believers.

In the 1980s Afghanistan offered prime jihadi real estate. Not only was there an opportunity for jihad, there was also significant funding and state support. Saudi Arabia in particular was known to encourage its militants to go to Afghanistan to fight, partly out of religious duty, but also out of a desire to export religious militants who were worrying the political establishment (especially after the 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure in Mecca). Fighting was “openly celebrated and did not require concealment…many activists understood their work as a form of political and religious solidarity.” On return many jihadis found a newfound respect from their compatriots.

As a side note one could make an argument that jihad is significantly more respected when the jihad takes place in a foreign land. Local efforts and attacks often have very different effects – as returning Saudi (and other) militants found when they attempted to bring the fight back home.

The Arab Spring has provided new opportunities for jihad. Syria, Libya, and maybe Egypt provide opportunities for jihad. There is a lot of material coming out discussing states’ worries that returning jihadis will come back and attempt to pursue jihad in their own countries, but there is another, more subtle, effect as respected jihadis return from their ‘pilgrimages.’ Most of these ‘Jihajjis’ aren’t going to turn towards militancy in their home countries, but they may, as a result of their enhanced societal prestige, be able to influence public opinion and public policy in unexpected ways.

That effect may be much harder to gauge than that of more militant, violent actors, but it could push societies into a mindset more open to fundamentalist interpretations of religious texts and duties.

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.

BIT: China and US Agree to New Talks

The conclusion of the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED) came with the announcement that the United States and the People’s Republic of China agreed to reinitiate talks regarding a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT).  Officials on both sides praised the development.

It makes sense that both sides in the S&ED would emphasize the agreement to begin discussions over a BIT, as most of the S&ED focused on highly contentious issues.  In particular, both sides traded barbs over the other’s cyber policy.  The United States demanded that China cease its commercial and government cyber-espionage activities, while China returned with demands for the United States to end its actions of hacking into university systems in the People’s Republic.  Both sides need to walk away with some type of win – thus, the BIT.

Reengagement on bilateral investment is a positive step in the US-China dynamic, but everyone should not be overly optimistic about where new talks will lead.  Prior discussions on investment floundered and it is quite possible that new talks will as well.  The reason that a formal investment treaty may prove unlikely is that there already exist standard patterns of investment between the two countries.  After a period of decline during the global financial crisis, US investment in China is once again picking up.  The United States also has no BIT with two of its most important trading and investment partners: Canada and the European Union. 

Added to the already existing financial architecture is the fact that BITs are not easily passed by the United States Congress.  Formalizing investment between the United States and a foreign country means that a great many interests in the United States will have to be heard from before Congress will act.  Furthermore, the US Congress remains wary of China’s impact in the realm of human rights, intellectual property, environmental safety, consumer safety, financial transparency, and banking stability.  Similar apprehensions are held by some central leaders on China’s side regarding US regulatory systems, banking and financial requirements, and trade protection laws.  In short, the BIT has a steep hill to climb before becoming real. 

New talks on investment do have one positive impact regardless of the end result of those talks: developing rules regarding US-China economic interaction.  The current bilateral relationship is made difficult by the territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific, China’s policy regarding the DPRK, its activities in the IOR, and its cyber policy, but the two countries are making strides economically.  US-China trade remains robust with more firms in both countries entering into joint enterprises.  Continuing to institutionalize economic behavior may well have the side effect of easing tensions within the strategic and political realms.

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.

Reform, Cyber, and Bilateral Tension

From 10-11 July, the fifth meeting of the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED) will take place in Washington, DC.  The meeting serves as the highest bilateral meeting between the leadership of the United States and the People’s Republic.  For more background, read this overview.

Since its inception, the S&ED has been criticized for not achieving much within the bilateral relationship, but that may soon be changing.  Internal pressures in China and a changing international arena affecting the United States may finally lead to some frank, essential discussions between these two major powers.  What sort of issues will likely be a subject of discussion…?


Cyber assaults and espionage have long increased tensions between these two countries.  For years, the United States has been the victim of attacks originating in China.  These incursions have predominately focused on private industries in the United States, searching for proprietary information that could give Chinese firms a leg up by gaining access to cutting edge technology without going through the investment of research and development.  US industry has partnered with the US government in order to increase effective countermeasures for cyber incidents and pushed for a stronger stance on cyber topics within the bilateral relationship.  With the US firm Mandiant publicly revealing earlier in 2013 the scope of Chinese hacking on US government offices, the issue of cyber has become a primary topic of concern.

The cyber issue is not solely a topic of concern for the Americans, as the Chinese government has also traced cyber incursions into their systems back to American shores.  However, whereas Chinese cyber forces focus on extracting information by disrupting systems, especially from US corporate entities, American cyber forces focus on gleaming information without causing disruption.  Given the potential cyber capabilities of the United States and superior global position of US information technology firms, the Chinese government understands that US cyber policy could readily become much more invasive and overtly confrontational.  As of right now, there is likely no more contentious topic of conversation between these two countries.

The Asia-Pacific

China’s rise has been accompanied by not only an over interest in becoming the hegemon of the Asia-Pacific, but also with a policy of extending China’s territorial claims in the South and East China Sea.  Viewed by many of its neighbors as aggressive, China’ expansion claims have increased hostilities with Vietnam, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Japan.  Given US strategic alliances with Korea, the Philippines, and Japan, the United States has been dragged into regional tensions.

It is unlikely that discussions over the Asia-Pacific will lead to any new understandings.  China will never be able to exert control over everything it claims, which means that eventually there will have to be conciliation by some party to the disputes.  Yet, that time has not yet arrived.  Additionally, China remains wary of the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.  It is likely that both countries will strongly reiterate their positions and move on.

China’s Economic Transformation

Over the past several years, there has been mounting evidence that China needs to initiate wide-ranging economic reform.  The almost magical growth rates of the 1990s are no longer possible, its banking sector is saddled with billions in bad debt, its real estate sector is in many ways toxic, and the country’s overall economic health remains dependent on exports.  Greater financial transparency, industrial and commercial regulation, and stronger domestic consumption are essential for maturing the economy.

The United States has long called on China to initiate this change.  The Americans believe that by doing so, China will become a stronger partner in the global economy and abandon many globally unpopular actions.  Yet, a change of this magnitude is dangerous for the global economy and for China’s political elite.  Economic conversations will likely center on how the United States can help China if it seriously desires to reform.


During the two days of engagement, there will be conversations on topics where the United States and China largely share common interests.  Maritime security is one such example, especially in the Indian Ocean Region, global energy market stability and energy pricing will be another opportunity.  Furthermore, stability in the Middle East, which is all the more important with recent instability in Egypt, is of greater importance to both countries.  With any luck, the United States and China will discuss not only topics where they disagree, but also engage on those issues where they walk in parallel.  Investing in such topics will improve the bilateral relationship while also enhancing stability on a whole host of global issues.

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 Struggle between Populism and Democracy in Egypt

At this moment, the Egyptian military, under the direction of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and with the support of anti-Morsi protestors, is removing the current Egyptian president from power.  Over the coming days, many will debate the moves of the military, the effectiveness of the Morsi administration, and the realistic expectations of liberal protestors.  What is essential at this moment, however, is to recognize how serious the emerging problem is for Egyptian citizens.  A democratically elected President is in the process of being removed from power by his country’s military. 

The removal of President Morsi is supported by millions of Egyptians who oppose the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood, are fed up with the current regime’s inability to fix Egypt’s myriad of problems, or are fearful of what the religiously-guided Muslim Brotherhood will do to the country’s nascent democratic institutions.  The opposition to President Morsi has completely legitimate complaints about his administration, but there is a fear that the actions taking place today will only serve to undercut democracy and increase social tension in Egypt.

First, it is the military that once again chose to step in to solve a dispute within Egyptian society.  Not only is this pattern dangerous for democracy, but it undercuts the very notion that civilian leaders have any real power in Egypt.  Second, pro-Morsi supporters will not forget or forgive today’s actions.  The Muslim Brotherhood and other religiously-motivated groups remain powerful factions in Egyptian society.  It is entirely possible that removing Morsi from power will completely sour his constituency on the benefits of democracy and motivate them towards more radical political methodologies.  Finally, the opposition to Morsi who have seized control of Cairo’s streets in an effort to show their displeasure with the current government are not an organized force in a political sense.  If President Morsi is removed, then can this hodgepodge of forces making up the opposition put democracy on a firm footing?

In short, Egypt has a serious problem between democratic procedure and populist sentiment.     

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.