Reports & Issue Briefs

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Russia and Iran are allies in Syria not out of mutual sympathy, but for pragmatic reasons. Iranian leaders were instrumental in convincing Vladimir Putin to send his air force to Syria to support Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, and the two countries cooperate within Syria to this day. However, their various differences highlight the limits of what looks like an alliance of convenience. A new report by Atlantic Council Nonresident Senior Fellow, Ambassador Michel Duclos, "Russia and Iran in Syria—a Random Partnership or an Enduring Alliance?," analyzes these points of contention and the potential for Western diplomacy with Russia to deter Iran and bring about a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

In the short term, Russia and Iran appear to disagree on how to handle the current challenges the regime faces in Idlib and the Kurdish-dominated northeast. There is a degree of competition between the Iranians and the Russians in trying to get access to Syria’s rare economic resources, such as port access and hydrocarbons. Both countries are also jockeying for influence with the Assad regime, trying to put people close to them in key positions in the Syrian military and security forces.


In the longer term, it seems Russia and Iran do not share the same vision for Syria’s future. Russia sees a secular Syria that is somewhat decentralized, while Iran sees something closer to the Lebanese model. There is no doubt that Russia and Iran have different ideas about the regional balance of which Syria should be a part, and particularly diverge on their stance towards Israel. Ambassador Duclos' new report investigates these tensions and the ways they might be exploited, with policy implications for Western countries.
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A quiet shift in geopolitics has been taking place, with East Asia and the Middle East drawing closer together. Energy trade explains part of this, as Japan, South Korea, and China are consistently among the largest export markets for Middle East oil and gas. In the case of China, the relationships have moved beyond economic interests to incorporate strategic concerns as well. The Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East report has released a new report by Dr. Jonathan Fulton on this subject: "China's Changing Role in the Middle East." The report analyzes China’s presence in the Middle East, examines the response of Middle Eastern states, and explores how US-China competition plays out in the region: are their interests compatible, creating opportunities for cooperation, or do they diverge to the point that competition is the most likely outcome?



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The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is experiencing a time of great transformation and as well as tumult. Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Dr. Karim Mezran and Dr. Arturo Varvelli of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies gathered experts to explore decentralization and political Islam in six MENA countries in “The Arc of Crisis in the MENA Region: Fragmentation, Decentralization, and Islamist Opposition.”

The report is divided into three parts. The first explores whether decentralization can positively contribute to more effective governance in fragmented environments across the region. The second examines the diverse manifestations of political Islam following the changes several countries experienced after the 2011 uprisings. The third addresses the issue of energy, including the challenges and opportunities it presents in the current political climate.
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Seven years from the Syrian revolution, the conflict in Syria has altered the course of history for the generation coming of age in the region. It has killed, wounded, or displaced millions of Syrians, worsened regional sectarianism, raised the risk of war between Israel and Iran, generated the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and created a new and more pernicious wave of violent radicals. Its effects extend beyond the region, shaping the outcome of politics around the world.
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The Islamic Tradition and the Human Rights Discourse is a collection of thought provoking articles that aim to elevate the conversation on Islam and human rights beyond the confines of "compatibility." The report, compiled and edited by Dr. H.A. Hellyer, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, sheds light on new methods for the exploration and engagement of the Islamic tradition and the rights discourse, featuring theoretical and practical accounts by Muslim scholars, academics, and human rights practitioners.
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As unrest over the Iraqi government’s failure to provide essential services grips southern Iraq, the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East is offering insight and analysis beyond the headlines. In a new issue brief, Beyond Security: Stabilization, Governance, and Socioeconomic Challenges in Iraq, Dr. Harith Hasan explores the ways in which economic and social issues play into Iraq’s instability and the genesis of violent conflict. In addition to Iraq’s flailing economy and demographic boom, the author highlights growing disillusionment with the political system, demonstrated by the low turnout in Iraq’s contested May 2018 election. Lack of political participation risks widening the gap between ruling elites and public demands, which could ultimately lead to further radicalization and conflict.
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This new issue brief by Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Dr. Aaron Stein explores the challenges facing the United States and Europe as Turkish politicians use foreign policy as a tool for populist political gain.

To better understand the relationship between Turkish policy-making and public opinion, the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center worked with Metropoll, a Turkey-based independent polling firm, to gauge public opinion about the country’s relationship with its neighbors and allies.
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This new issue brief argues that the United States should craft a realistic Turkey policy, given the current state of tensions over regional policy and the entrenchment of authoritarianism and illiberalism in Turkey. The piece contends that the trajectory of the relationship between the United States and Turkey suggests a need for the United States to focus on "transactionalism," wherein the majority of bilateral talks are simply aimed at managing a troubled but important relationship, rather than waiting for tensions over US actions in Syria to subside.

 
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More than six years after Libya’s 2011 revolution against Muammar al-Qaddafi, the situation in the country is significantly more complex and dangerous. The failure of the 2011 NATO intervention to assist the country with a comprehensive stabilization process led to rapid deterioration on the ground and created an opportunity for external actors to pursue competing self-interests in the country. While in most cases the factional rivalries in Libya have real roots, they have been exacerbated by the interests of both regional and international actors, and the resulting proxy conflict in Libya has significantly weakened the UN-led negotiation process.

 
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For the past three decades, Libya has been a rich recruiting ground for the global jihad. Investigating the precursors and then subsequent evolution of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other extremist actors throughout this period presents actionable insights into how jihadist actors coalesce; how they interfere in post-conflict state building; the threats they pose to civilians, nascent economies, and external states; and finally, what complexities remain when their hold on territory has been eradicated, but their adherents have not been killed nor their ideology debunked. In The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya, Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, Karim Mezran examine ISIS’s pre-history, birth, expansion, consolidation, and dispersal in Libya, as well as the broader political context of the country. They offer advice and recommendations for how Western governments and militaries should approach jihadist actors globally.

 


    

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