Thursday 20 Feb 2020 | 07:36 | SYDNEY
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Middle East

Why Trump’s Middle East trip matters to Australia

There are two reasons why US President Donald Trump’s visit to the Middle East matters to Australia. First, the President’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he also held a summit with Arab leaders, and Israel are a signal of where the administration’s foreign policy priority lies, and this does

Iranian politics nothing if not opaque

It is often difficult to make sense of Iranian electoral results. On the one hand, presidential elections feature such a narrow range of choice (the 1600-plus would-be candidates for this year's contest were whittled down by the Council of Guardians to just six, of whom two withdrew before

Iranians vote to continue on the path of engagement

Some 40 million Iranians took to the polls on Friday to vote for the next President of the Islamic Republic, which represented an impressive 70% turnout rate. Commentators had predicted a high voter turnout would favour the re-election of moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani, and they were correct: he

Trump’s Middle East tour: Status quo reset

President Donald Trump’s upcoming Middle East tour, his first international trip since assuming office in January, will take him to the heart of the three monotheistic faiths, beginning in Saudi Arabia, travelling to Israel and finishing at the Vatican. The symbolism of the tour is manifold.

Erdogan leaves Trump empty-handed

The language at the press conference following their meeting earlier this week may have been conciliatory, but there is no masking the tensions between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two strongmen lavished praise on each another,

Iran's growing security problem

As Iran heads into an election on Friday with the focus on the economy, it is easy to miss the rise in temperature in Iran’s regional security environment. In late April, nine Iranian border guards were killed in Sistan-Baluchistan province as the result of an attack launched from Pakistani soil

Syrian safe zones: Not there yet

Last Thursday in Astana the latest agreement that attempts to establish some limited cessation of hostilities in Syria was signed. The signatories (and hence guarantors) were Turkey, Iran and Russia. Given this is the fourth attempt at a cessation of hostilities, prospects for its success appear

What is Trump’s game in Yemen?

Yemen has been rather prominent in the Trump Administration's foreign policy agenda. On 29 January, a spectacularly flawed raid conducted by US special forces against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) heralded the beginning of a starkly different US policy towards the impoverished and

Turkey's democracy was already dead

In a result that surprised just about no one, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gained a 'Yes' vote in the weekend referendum, granting him sweeping new executive powers and a complete overhaul of the constitution drawn up at the birth of the Republic under Kemal Ataturk. Under the new

The popes and the Islamists

As we approach Easter, it's worth looking at how institutional Christianity and radical Islamism interact in the contemporary world. The bomb attacks on Coptic churches in Egypt highlight the occasional focus by Islamist groups on Christian targets in the Middle East. Just as outsiders

Egypt’s Copts: Caught between the Egyptian State and IS

What should have been a joyous Easter week has turned to tragedy in Egypt. Two suicide bombings targeting St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria (where the Coptic pope was praying just minutes before) and St George’s church in Tanta killed 44 people and injured hundreds during Palm Sunday services.

Missile strikes do not signal US shift on Syria

In a complex and confusing civil war in which decisions can result in unforeseen consequences, the Trump Administration was presented with a relatively straightforward choice and with a perfect target. Syrian military aircraft, launched from Shayrat airbase in Homs, carried out an attack

Assad and chemical weapons: The regional repercussions

The renewed use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons, possibly sarin, against civilian population centres in Syria - most recently in Idlib - is immoral, illegal, inhuman and counter-productive in every respect. It serves no military or political purpose. In terms of diplomacy, it is a complete

Assad set to outlast the many who wanted him out

The language emanating from the White House concerning the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad appeared to change last week, revealing another layer in an increasingly realist foreign policy approach from Washington. President Trump had signalled during the presidential debates that his focus was

Sisi in DC: The state of US-Egypt relations

Today, US President Donald Trump will receive Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi at the White House. It is the first visit of an Egyptian leader since 2009 and Sisi will no doubt get a warm welcome. Since meeting on the sidelines at the UN General Assembly in September last year, Sisi and Trump

Civilian casualties and the media

The issue of civilian casualties in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts has received plenty of media coverage recently. From claims that a mosque was deliberately targeted in Aleppo province with nearly 50 civilians killed, through an airstrike hitting a school housing displaced families in Idlib Raqqa

How Erdogan makes EU opprobrium work in his favour

The recent standoff between Turkey and several European countries shocked the world. For the first time in NATO and EU history, a member (or member candidate, in the case of the EU) state's foreign minister's plane was not allowed to land in EU territory (the Netherlands). Another Turkish

Syrian safe zones: A planning nightmare

This is the first in what will be a regular weekly post from the Lowy Institute’s West Asia program to bring Interpreter readers up to speed with the latest issues in the Middle East. The Syrian safe zone concept is getting less clear by the day.  In January President Trump said that he '

King Salman’s wild ride

Saudi King Salman’s month-long tour of Asia marks a rare occurrence for Saudi monarchs, who rarely engage in such prolonged diplomatic activities. The arc of the King’s sojourn takes him through a range of regional middle and lesser powers, with stops in Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the

Muddying the Syrian waters

The number of US boots on the ground in Syria is gradually increasing without, it would appear, a plan to inform the public about what broader purpose the troops' presence serves and, perhaps most importantly, what defines mission success and would allow the troops to redeploy. Before leaving

The race for Raqqa

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis is in the process of briefing his draft plan for defeating Islamic State, and is allegedly taking a global strategic perspective. This is only appropriate but, before the strategic can be addressed, the tactical must be planned. And now that Mosul is in the

Is Jordan in danger?

Jordan, unlike much of the Middle East, has been a beacon of stability in the region for decades. The Kingdom has previously faced significant economic threats, but it’s always managed to postpone addressing its structural problems and kicked this debate down the road. But rising challenges

US policy on Lebanon should be to keep calm and carry on

Last month a suicide bomber was stopped in his tracks in a cafe in the heart of West Beirut in a scene worthy of a Hollywood action thriller. The man from the city of Sidon in South Lebanon was thrown to the ground in the busy Costa Coffee café in Hamra by the Lebanese Armed Forces, who

Merkel's Faustian bargain with Erdogan

Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkey last week was met with wide-ranging scepticism. It was the German Chancellor’s first visit since the failed coup of July 2016, to which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded with an uncompromising offensive of suppression and violence. Having obtained the

The problem with any US strategy on Syria

The problem the United States has always had in crafting a Syria strategy is that Washington never possessed sufficient leverage to ameliorate Bashar al-Assad's behavior. Providing arms to opposition groups provided some leverage (but was always fraught because of the lack of

Once were moderate, vetted warriors

The day before President Obama left office, a US Air Force B-52 bomber struck a training camp used by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), the al-Qa'ida affiliate in Syria. The number of casualties varies: the US military put the total at around 100 while others cited lower figures. But as well as JFS, there

Plenty of ghosts at the table in Astana

Day one of joint Russian-Turkish sponsored Syrian peace talks concluded early this morning Australian time in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana with limited progress. Expectations for the talks are modest: the strengthening of a shaky ceasefire that came into place late last month late last month

Syria and the problem with numbers

Syria has already been referred to as the most socially-mediated conflict ever. But while most have viewed Syria through this lens (often because it's the platform favoured by reporters), social media has proven to be a poor substitute for accuracy. The problem, of course, is that objective news

The Interpreter's best of 2016: Syria

It was another year of war for Syria, one in which the tide swung from forces opposed to the Assad regime back to the Syrian military and those aligned with it. The Lowy Institute Research Fellow Rodger Shanahan made sure Interpreter readers knew not just what was going on but what it meant. In the

EU-Turkey relations: A decade of reversals

After the European parliament’s overwhelming vote to freeze Turkey’s EU accession process, the European Council summit that will get underway later today in Brussels will debate relations between Turkey and the EU. For economic and strategic reasons, both the EU Council and the Turkish

Middle East diplomacy: Assad will have to be included

While the intensity of violence in Syria may wind back in 2017, the transactional qualities and dilemmas of Middle East politics and diplomacy will be even more evident. The Syrian government’s ruthless application of siege warfare against the rebel forces in East Aleppo is expected to see the

'First we take Aleppo, then we take Idlib'

The gradual isolation and strangulation of Aleppo is part of a much broader strategy that has taken shape over the past year, albeit in the case of Aleppo on a much different scale. The actions follow a familiar pattern: encirclement; cutting off military and life support functions; limited

Egypt back on the brink

Six years after the revolution in Egypt that demanded bread and social justice, the country is on the brink again. With inflation at a seven-year high, a foreign exchange crisis that has led to food shortages, and debt and the deficit rising, the country is facing its worst economic and financial

Retaking Raqqa: Facts on the ground

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has turned from a state of strength, expansion, and influence to a position of fragility, weakness, and retreat. As the Iraqi forces encircle Mosul, ISIS’s last stronghold in Iraq, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have announced the launching of an

Trump and the Iran nuclear deal

The election of Donald Trump raises many uncertainties about the future direction of US foreign policy, including nuclear weapons and nuclear non-proliferation. A major aspect of this is the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), concluded between

A very Lebanese presidency

Whenever I think the Australian political scene has plumbed new depths of hopelessness I can always be reassured that at least we haven’t reached the level of bloody-mindedness and self-centredness that marks out Lebanese politics. After 29 months without a president, a parliamentary vote

Retaking Mosul will be hard, but Raqqa will be harder

Today Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop observed that the Mosul offensive is an 'important milestone' in the battle against Islamic State; there is no doubt retaking the city would seriously dent both IS capabilities and morale. But it would not be a fatal blow. The Iraqi Army and its

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