Wednesday 20 Sep 2017 | 13:52 | SYDNEY
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The West Asia Program

The West Asia program provides original research on developments in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia, including as they impact on Australia. Central research issues include relations between West Asia and East Asia, the Arab uprisings and geo-political change in the Middle East and Australia’s relations with the Gulf.

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Cutting a deal with Islamic State

Negotiated deals between government forces and various armed groups have been a feature of the Syrian conflict. But a controversial deal involving several hundred Islamic State fighters who vacated the rugged Lebanese-Syrian border area is yet another example, if any more were needed, of how

Riyadh’s Shia two-step

Iraqi Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's reconciliation tour of Sunni-run Gulf states continued this week, following up his visit to Riyadh to see Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a visit to the UAE. There he was met by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayad. There is little doubt

Some lessons from the foiled Sydney terror plot

We don’t yet know all the details, but from what we do know there are both disturbing and perplexing elements to the Islamic State-supported terrorist plot to blow up an airliner departing from Sydney. Here are some early thoughts on the issues that should engage our minds as a result of the

Saudi Arabia’s change of tack on Iraq

For too long, the Saudis have complained about the 'loss' of Iraq to Iranian influence without acknowledging that their almost complete refusal to establish ties with Baghdad achieved little other than creating the vacuum that Tehran has sought to fill. But there are signs that Riyadh has

Syria: A farewell to arms

Last week’s confirmation that the CIA-run program to vet and arm Syrian rebel groups in the north of the country was coming to an end was a tacit acknowledgement of the flaws in the scheme. It should also have come as little surprise as, if there has been one thing that Trump has been consistent

Defence exports to the Gulf: No price on values

A recent interview with Christopher Pyne in his capacity as Minister for Defence Industry was somewhat unusual in the way in which he apparently advocated defence export-led closer engagement with Middle Eastern countries. The problem with defence exports, of course, is that ideally we

Stalemate in Qatar dispute

It was Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone who uttered the famous words ‘I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse’. In the current imbroglio between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc, the 13-point list of demands issued by Riyadh could well be described as making Doha an

Lifting the veil on jihad

In April 2015 a fresh-faced Australian-born doctor appeared in a slick Islamic State video extolling the virtues of making hijra to what he portrayed as a utopian Islamic society. The video showed the doctor, Tareq Kamleh, in a pristine and well-equipped paediatric ward tending to a premature

Saudi succession shuffle

Today's announcement that Saudi Arabia's King Salman has reshuffled the line of succession in favour of his son Mohammed bin Salman is surprising, but not unexpected. MBS, as he is often referred to, has been moved from Deputy Crown Prince to Crown Prince, while Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN), the King'

Syria: The battle for the east

Sryian President Bashar al-Assad claimed in September 2016 that he intends to re-establish control over the whole of Syria, and recent actions indicate this remains his strategic aim. In the west of Syria, realising he did not have sufficient combat power to defeat the armed opposition militarily

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

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

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 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

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 '

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

'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

Quick comment: Rodger Shanahan on Neil Prakash

We are learning more about the arrest of the Australian terrorist, Neil Prakash, in Turkey late last week. Writing in The Australian yesterday, Paul Maley revealed the Australian Federal Police anticipated Prakash would try to cross from Syria into Turkey and were on hand in Ankara to help confirm

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

The Middle East in 2016 (part 5): Cultivating order

Part 1 of this seven-part series is here; part 2 here; part 3 here: and part 4 here. In February 2014 I visited Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, near the Syrian border. According to official estimates it today houses around 80,000 refugees from the conflict in Syria, although in 2014, the Jordanian

The Middle East in 2016 (part 1): Levantine limbo

This is the first post in a series of seven on the Middle East in 2016. The first three will look at what I think will happen in the region this year; the second three will discuss how I think Western countries should respond; and a final post will discuss Australian policy. To understand what will

Syria: The gift that keeps on giving

The official announcement today that the government would refuse a US request for additional assets to be deployed in the Middle East against Islamic State came as little surprise. These types of requests rarely come out of the blue, and it is likely that Washington was aware of what Canberra’s

Turkey has got Syria wrong — again

The shooting down of the Russian aircraft by the Turks and the subsequent death of two Russian servicemen briefly got the tabloids talking about World War III but in reality this was never going to blow up into a direct military confrontation between Moscow and Ankara. What it did demonstrate, once

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