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Renewed Violence Threatens an Undetermined Future in Iraq

According to the U.N., 761 people were killed in militant attacks in Iraq this month, down from May’s 1,045, a multi-year record high.  With this streak of steady terrorist and sectarian militant attacks, as well as amplifying regional tensions, many have predicted that Iraq is headed toward civil war. Yet, Iraq’s economic prospects also present the chance for significant development. Will a young and still budding Iraqi state prove itself in times of domestic and regional hardship or will it fall victim to sectarian divide?

Following the departure of American forces in 2011, Iraq faced a precarious political and security situation.  The federal government, under Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was operational, holding free and fair elections, but relied on a delicate cooperative balance between political powers in the nation.  To exacerbate the turbulent political environment, regional and domestic issues have made this balance increasingly unsteady.  The government struggles to foster accountability to its divided population, as the Sunni, Kurdish and even other Shia sects develop harsh critiques of Maliki’s government.  Although on the surface the present Shia Prime Minister, Sunni Speaker of the Council of Representatives, and Kurdish President of Iraq would appear to provide sufficient sectarian representation, reality presents a tumultuous state of affairs not easily maneuvered by self-interested parties.

What challenges prevent the successful political navigation of such a crucial time for Iraq?  While the nation has always dealt with a domestic atmosphere tense with sectarian issues, this specific uptick in violence has particularly strained the state of affairs and progress in the political arena.

Perhaps the most frustrating result of increased regional and domestic pressure is the reemergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI or The Islamic State of Iraq).  Following years of brutal al-Qaeda operations, by 2007 Iraq was all but unified against al-Qaeda with the efforts of U.S. forces, the ISF, and the U.S.-backed Sunni Awakening Movement.  This coalition, coupled with independent Shia militias who, in addition to targeting U.S. troops, also fought al-Qaeda militants.  However, with the departure of U.S. Forces and growing minority discontent toward Maliki’s Shia-led government, al-Qaeda has benefited from a resurgence in violence.  This renewal of strength pulls from simultaneous goals of fighting both the Syrian and Iraqi governments.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq has publicly associated and claimed partnership with parts of the Sunni opposition in Syria, most notably its questionable merger with Jabhat al-Nusra.  The spillover of Iraqi al-Qaeda fighters into Syria and vice-versa, as well as similar practices among Shia militias, has threatened a short-lived lull in sectarian violence.

However, fresh terrorist violence is not the only confrontation to Iraq’s political stability.  In order to briefly address the dwindling security situation in Iraq one must consider Iraq’s place in a region of conflict.  Historically sandwiched between neighbors that all see great value in promoting their respective opinions in Iraq, regional actors play a significant role in Iraq’s security, economic, and political affairs.  While past decades saw meddling on the part of Turkey and the Gulf nations, the most substantial external influence now comes from other actors.  Cradled between the ongoing Sunni uprising against Bashar al-Assad in Syria and strong, yet unpredictable Shia neighbor Iran, Iraq must deal with an international presence in its domestic affairs.

While sectarian hardships have stifled progress in the political and security realms, there have been significant economic developments and accomplishments in Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal.  Iraq has experienced rapid growth: 10.2% in 2012 and estimates of 9.4% annually through 2016.  With these kinds of promising economic prospects Iraq is viewed by some as a market of the future; Citigroup recently opened in Iraq this week as its first new market since 2007.  However, in the eyes of other interested investors, such as HSBC who is considering a pullout from Iraq, the situation is not so bright.  In a recent program note on Iraq, the IMF reported the powerful effect oil has had on the Iraqi economy, bringing in $90 billion in revenue in 2012, but also emphasized that Iraqi economic prospects are subject to “significant risks, deriving mainly from institutional and capacity constraints, oil prices volatility, delays in the development of oil infrastructure, and an extremely fragile political and security situation.”

Due to this potential for remarkable gains or equally damaging regressions, Iraq is at a significant turning point in plotting its future course. U.N. Special Envoy to Baghdad Martin Kobler concernedly discussed this crossroads, noting that Iraq could experience a collapse of the federal state into sectarian-defined regions or it could blossom into a regional economic power with political stability.  Whether or not increasing oil revenues can lead to comprehensive economic prosperity and development for Iraq will be greatly decided by the ability of the country to advance past the recent period of political and sectarian conflict.

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The Souring of the Arab Spring and the Rise of Islamist Jihad

Despite the Arab Spring’s grassroots origins — disenchanted populations taking a stand against authoritarian regimes in an effort to promote democracy and fair governance — the rise of Islamist militias and insurgencies in some of these new “open” societies has become cause for concern. The April 2013 announcement by Syrian militia group Jabhat al-Nusra that it would pledge its allegiance to al-Qaeda and affiliate itself with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), or the Islamic State of Iraq, is the most recent in a long line of promising Arab Spring uprisings turned sour. The ability of non-state actors like al-Qaeda to gain ground in unstable territories, co-opting revolutionaries, is an alarming side effect of these uprisings and is proving antithetical to the intended goal of the Arab Spring.

Al-Qaeda “franchises” have become fairly prevalent over the past decade as the group was driven out of Afghanistan with its senior leadership establishing safe havens in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Regions and promoting the rise of regional affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). However, with significant blows to its leadership and recruitment efforts, the group has turned to the instability caused by the Arab Spring for members to replenish itself. Since the beginning of protests across the Middle East over two years ago, many Salafi and Islamist Jihad groups with questionable ties to the dominant terror organization have emerged under the name of Ansar al-Sharia. These groups use political turmoil to promulgate their cause in countries such as Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Morocco.

Though many of these new groups may only tacitly acknowledge an affiliation with al-Qaeda, Syria’s al-Nusra has done just the opposite, publicly proclaiming its association with AQI. Starting out as one of many militant groups in the Free Syrian Army fight against the Assad regime, at over 5,000 men strong, al-Nusra has a reputation as being the most respected rebel group due to its disciplined fighters and  past victories against the Assad regime.  Al-Nusra is notorious for its violence and suicide bombings and has also been outspoken in regard to its plans for Syria after the current regime falls: building up and establishing a jihadist network under a common identity in the name of Islam, instituting Sharia Law, and establishing an Islamic Caliphate (the Levant). The creation of its own Sharia court in Syria has also helped al-Nusra gain ground amidst political instability and lack of rule of law.

While the “traditional” threat of al-Qaeda may appear to be waning, these franchised or marginally-affiliated groups may pose an even greater threat to U.S. interests as they do not subscribe to one doctrine or strategy, tend to be locally-embedded and sometimes garner the support of local populations due to their security-providing role. In many cases, weeding out jihadists from legitimate revolutionaries is an impossible goal, making decisions about arming opposition movements even more difficult, especially in the case of Syria. For other nations experiencing their own Islamist insurgencies and al-Qaeda resurgence, the key to defeating these groups lies in the state establishing stability and security to starve them of rhetorical fodder, further recruitment and ungoverned safe-havens.

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Mobilizing the People: Transcending Borders through Social Media

Much has been said about social media’s role in empowering marginalized populations, revolutionizing the ability to share and utilize information worldwide.  In authoritarian governments, where non-regime approved opinions are often silenced, social media allows individuals to advocate and collaborate with their similarly minded peers within their own countries and around the world.  It is this collaboration through social media that Alec Ross, former Department of State Senior Advisor for Innovation, has called the prime medium for the establishment of social change movements.

New forums for social interaction have provided worldwide access to an endless supply of information and news.  As a result, power has shifted from large traditional information providers, such as governments and the mainstream media, to the citizens themselves.  Oscar Morales’s One Million Voices Against FARC is one of social media’s first success stories, as Morales was able to mobilize millions of Colombians against terrorism using Facebook. The movement started by providing the public with the face of a victim, in this case the child of a FARC rape victim, whose story was circulating around the news at the same time.  This timing caused the movement to go viral gaining thousands of supporters on Facebook within hours of its inception.  Rather than let one image define his movement, Morales continued to provide information to his network. Through social media, he was able to organize the movement to reveal more victims to the public, to provide videos, photos, and information against the FARC.  This movement spread across the globe, leading to demonstrations around the world with millions of people in attendance.

In addition to giving social media users the power of information, the new leaderless format of movements has helped to create anonymity for the founders of movements and protect their members. For example, We are All Khaled Said, an influential movement against the Egyptian Government in the weeks leading up to the Egyptian Revolt, was able to use anonymous social media accounts to provide a level of secrecy necessary to evade the dangers of government persecution and punishment.  Additionally, Facebook and other media outlets allowed the movement to connect with other networks and movements, providing wide-ranging support, as well as legitimacy, to the group.

Though social media has ushered in a new era of global community, citizen journalism and information sharing, many academics would advise against buying into the belief that social media, and social media alone, has led to some of the most dramatic social upheavals of recent history. Rather, Jon B. Alterman argues in “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” that it was social media’s ability to empower individuals and convey information to the traditional media that made it a tool of revolutionaries, not a revolutionary force in and of itself.

Nonetheless, social media has facilitated the opening of closed societies and in this new era of global interconnectivity, it will continue to mobilize and connect individuals around the world, shifting traditional means of geopolitics to a more population-centric approach.

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Turkey Between East and West: A Balancing Act

More recently than not, Turkey seems to be walking through a political minefield, poised to take one wrong geopolitical turn, disrupting its carefully crafted foreign policy and international partnerships. It has continually tried to appeal to both Western standards of democracy, while maintaining its Islamic heritage. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has helped transition Turkey over the past ten years into the economically powerful Islamic democracy it is today. Part of this success has come from its “zero problems with neighbors” policy since 2009; however, with growing conflicts of interest between Turkey and Iran, and Turkey and Russia, the country’s aspirational role as a broker in the Middle East/Central Asia may be at risk. Iranian nuclear ambitions, the Syria conflict, security ties with the U.S., renewed negotiations with Kurdish rebels and strengthening economic ties with the East make for an uncertain future regarding Turkey’s balancing act.

Turkey has deep-rooted economic ties with Russia due to oil and natural gas dependence – it imports 10% of its oil and 58% of its natural gas from the former Soviet Union. Although less reliant on Iranian energy imports, Turkey is still invested in maintaining relations with Iran for geographic, political, and security reasons.  Compounded with an increasingly strong alliance between Russia and Iran, Turkey is in a difficult situation as it tries to balance relations with the U.S. and Western Europe. Though militarily Turkey’s behavior seems to align with that of NATO, economically, Turkey’s decision-making looks eastward.

However, this algorithm may not work for long as Turkey’s economic and security affairs collide. Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. sanctions against the country have already created a rift in the U.S.-Turkish alliance and could lead to major strategic problems for Turkey. Additionally, Russia and Iran remain the main suppliers of weapons to the Assad regime, yet Turkey is the main supporter of the Free Syrian Army and its border with Syria has come under fire prompting a U.S.-Turkish military buildup.

Though Turkey’s ties to the U.S. loom large in its decision-making process, it has had no qualms in the past about bucking U.S. interests for its own. This policy has received much support at home as both PM Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul maintain high levels of popular support and have benefited from a policy that seems to put Turkey first, relegating international political demands to the back burner. For example, if Turkey is not admitted to the EU, Erdogan has threatened that it might be strategically advantageous for it to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with Russia and China. With Iran as an observer state, Turkey’s admittance to this organization could shift its allegiances further east, dissolving ties with the EU and the United States. Shared values, along with booming economies in China and Turkey, may make the SCO increasingly attractive as the EU continues to drag its feet on Turkey’s admission.

President Obama’s brokering an Israeli apology to Turkey for the death of eight Turkish humanitarian workers during the Gaza flotilla raid of 2010 may be signaling Turkey’s turning back to the West. Finding itself at a global crossroads, Turkey will have to determine which allegiances are more beneficial for its long-term political, security and economic interests. But in the short-term, it is more likely to walk a fine diplomatic line to keep itself in favor in both East and West.

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