Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The New Yorker

Does the Manchester Attack Show the Islamic State’s Strength or Weakness?
By Robin Wright
Ten hours after Salman Abedi blew himself up outside the Manchester Arena, where the American pop star Ariana Grande was performing, ISIS claimed a grisly attack that killed twenty-two people and injured dozens more. “With Allah’s grace and support, a soldier of the Khilafah (caliphate) managed to place explosive devices in the midst of the gatherings of the Crusaders in the British city of Manchester,” the group boasted on social messaging apps, in multiple languages. The odd thing—for a group that has usually been judicious about its claims and accurate in its facts—is that it got key details wrong.

The discrepancies were conspicuous—and clumsy. In one early claim, the message referred to a “security detachment,” as if there were multiple operatives. It implied that the attack involved multiple bombs left on site. It missed the fact that a lone bomb had been detonated in a single suicide operation. It did not refer to a “martyr,” as it usually does when perpetrators are killed. It did not name or claim Abedi.


“It looks like the work of ISIS,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told me on Monday, although the British investigation was ongoing. Yet the mistakes also spurred speculation about ISIS’s command of foreign operations, its communications with operatives or sympathizers, and even its access to news, which had already reported the basics of the attack. Just how much has ISIS been disrupted?
Read on....

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The New Yorker

Trump's Simplistic Strategy on Jihadism
By Robin Wright 
Six days after the 9/11 attacks, in 2001, President George W. Bush went to the Islamic Center in Washington to dampen fears of a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the West. “The face of terror is not the true face of Islam,” he said. “Islam is peace.”
President Barack Obama’s main speech to the Islamic world, in 2009, called for a “new beginning” between Muslim and Western nations, noting “civilization’s debt to Islam.” Declaring to Cairo University students that “we also know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems,” he, too, envisioned political and economic solutions to countering extremism.
Donald Trump took a starkly different tack during the campaign. “I think Islam hates us,” Trump told Anderson Cooper, on CNN, fourteen months ago. He told both MSNBC and Fox News that he’d be willing to close mosques in the United States.  At the Presidential debate last October, in Las Vegas, he was particularly critical of Saudi Arabia. “These are people that push gays off buildings,” he said. “These are people that kill women and treat women horribly, and yet you take their money.”
On Sunday, on his first trip abroad as President, Trump tried to hit the reset button in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. He heralded Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths,” and his visit as the beginning of “a new chapter” between the United States and the Islamic world. In a palace of dazzling opulence, he spoke to dozens of leaders assembled by the Saudis from the Arab and Muslim world. In turn, the oil-rich kingdom, which is weathering its own political and military turmoil, treated him like royalty, with billboards across the Saudi capital covered with Trump’s face.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The New Yorker

Iran's Moderates Win Election
But It Won't Matter to Trump
By Robin Wright
Donald Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia this weekend to launch a new Middle East coalition designed to confront Iran, just as Tehran announced the reëlection of President Hassan Rouhani, the man who dared to engage diplomatically with the United States. Rouhani won a commanding victory: fifty-seven per cent in a four-way race, with seventy-per-cent turnout. He fended off a challenge from a populist right-wing cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, a rising political star backed by hard-line power centers such as the Revolutionary Guards. Street celebrations erupted Saturday night from Tehran to Mashhad, the eastern city with Iran’s holiest shrine. 

President Trump’s trip symbolizes a formal U.S. reversal on Iran. There is no foreign-policy issue over which Trump and former President Barack Obama disagree more. Trump’s mobilization of Sunni Arab regimes to challenge predominantly Shiite Iran risks increasing regional and sectarian tensions in the energy-rich Gulf. New sanctions, some imposed last week by the White House and others in the pipeline in Congress, threaten to undermine the spirit of diplomacy created during two years of arduous negotiations between Tehran and the world’s six major powers. It produced a deal, in 2015, containing Iran’s nuclear program—the most important nonproliferation treaty in more than a quarter century.
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The New Yorker

The Lights Are Going Out in the Middle East
By Robin Wright
Six months ago, I was in the National Museum in Beirut, marvelling at two Phoenician sarcophagi among the treasures from ancient Middle Eastern civilizations, when the lights suddenly went out. A few days later, I was in the Bekaa Valley, whose towns hadn’t had power for half the day, as on many days. More recently, I was in oil-rich Iraq, where electricity was intermittent, at best. “One day we’ll have twelve hours. The next day no power at all,” Aras Maman, a journalist, told me, after the power went off in the restaurant where we were waiting for lunch. In Egypt, the government has appealed to the public to cut back on the use of light bulbs and appliances and to turn off air-conditioning even in sweltering heat to prevent wider outages. Parts of Libya, which has the largest oil reserves in Africa, have gone weeks without power this year. In the Gaza Strip, two million Palestinians get only two to four hours of electricity a day, after yet another cutback in April. 

The world’s most volatile region faces a challenge that doesn’t involve guns, militias, warlords, or bloodshed, yet is also destroying societies. The Middle East, though energy-rich, no longer has enough electricity. From Beirut to Baghdad, tens of millions of people now suffer daily outages, with a crippling impact on businesses, schools, health care, and other basic services, including running water and sewerage. Little works without electricity.. Read on....


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The New Yorker

What Donald Trump 
Can Expect in the Middle East
By Robin Wright 
In 1974, Richard Nixon became the first American President to visit Saudi Arabia and Israel—as well as Syria—on a swing intended to chalk up triumphs abroad and, more pointedly, to divert attention from the escalating Watergate crisis at home. It was a reassuring trip for the beleaguered President. He promoted a new peace process and talked up a regional realignment to stabilize the Middle East after the 1973 war. Leaders fêted him. Flag-waving crowds lined the streets, even in Damascus. The trip didn’t change his fate. Two months later, Nixon resigned.
This weekend, Donald Trump will try to escape the turmoil of his Presidency for a tour of the Middle East. He, too, will stop in Saudi Arabia and Israel. He, too, is talking about Middle East peace and a regional realignment, this time a coalition made up of Israel and the conservative Sunni monarchies, centered around the Gulf sheikhdoms, Egyptians, and Jordanians. He, too, is expected to be fêted. The world’s most volatile region will offer Trump a diversion from Washington for at least a week, even though revelations that he spilled classified intelligence (provided by an ally) to the Russians are likely to dog him.
On his first Presidential trip abroad, Trump has outsized ambitions—both naïve and godlike—laden with religious symbolism from all three Abrahamic faiths. Will he have any success? 
Read on....
http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/donald-trumps-three-religion-tour-of-the-middle-east

Monday, April 24, 2017

The New Yorker

Rescuing the Last Two Animals from the Mosul Zoo
By Robin Wright
Mosul’s forlorn little zoo, a collection of rusted cages in a park near the Tigris River, was abandoned by its keepers in October, as the Iraqi Army began to liberate the city from the Islamic State. For three months, the zoo was a staging ground for isis fighters. More than forty of the zoo animals died, either as collateral damage—trapped between warring combatants—or from starvation. By January, when the eastern half of Mosul was freed, only two animals had survived: Lula, a caramel-colored female bear, and Simba, a three-year-old lion.

Animals, like people, suffer from war psychoses, including P.T.S.D. During the most intense urban combat in history, Lula ate her two cubs from hunger and stress. Simba had been one of three lions. Simba’s father, weak and emaciated, was killed by his mate to provide food for herself and Simba. In the wild, lionesses hunt for the entire pride. She, too, soon succumbed.


Concerned about the fate of Lula and Simba, residents in Mosul sent frantic Facebook messages to Four Paws International, an animal-protection agency based in Austria, appealing for help. In mid-February, the organization dispatched Amir Khalil to Mosul. Khalil is an Egyptian veterinarian who has spent a quarter century saving animals in war zones on three continents. He found Lula deeply traumatized and starving; her snout protruded through her cage’s rusted bars, anxiously seeking food and water. Simba had grown so scrawny that his rib cage was exposed. He wouldn’t stop pacing in his small enclosure. Read on...

Friday, April 14, 2017

The New Yorker

War, Terrorism 
and the Christian Exodus from the Middle East
By Robin Wright   
A decade ago, I spent Easter in Damascus. Big chocolate bunnies and baskets of pastel eggs decorated shop windows in the Old City. Both the Catholic and Orthodox Easters were celebrated, and all Syrians were given time off for both three-day holidays on sequential weekends. I stopped in the Umayyad Mosque, which was built in the eighth century and named after the first dynasty to lead the Islamic world. The head of John the Baptist is buried in a large domed sanctuary—although claims vary—on the mosque’s grounds. Muslims revere John as the Prophet Yahya, the name in Arabic. Because of his birth to a long-barren mother and an aged father, Muslim women who are having trouble getting pregnant come to pray at his tomb. I watched as Christian tourists visiting the shrine mingled with Muslim women.
At least half of Syria’s Christians have fled since then. The flight is so pronounced that, in 2013, Gregory III, the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, wrote an open letter to his flock: “Despite all your suffering, stay here! Don’t emigrate! We exhort our faithful and call them to patience in these tribulations, especially in this tsunami of stifling, destructive, bloody and tragic crises of our Arab world, particularly in Syria, but also to different degrees in Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon,” he wrote. “Jesus tells us, ‘Fear not!’ 
Syria’s Christians are part of a mass exodus taking place throughout the Middle East, the cradle of the faith. Today, Christians are only about four per cent of the region’s more than four hundred million people—and probably less.Read on...

The New Yorker

Trump Drops the Mother of All Bombs
By Robin Wright 
The Mother of All Bombs--the largest conventional weapon in the US arsenal--is so big it cost $300 million to develop and $16 million apiece to produce. The US used it for the very first time this week against the smallest militia it faces anywhere in the world.
When it was first tested, in 2003, the largest conventional weapon in the United States arsenal set off a mushroom cloud visible for twenty miles. The potential damage from the twenty-two-thousand-pound bomb was so vast that the Pentagon ordered a legal review to insure that the device wouldn’t be deemed an indiscriminate killer under the Law of Armed Conflict, the body of law that regulates behavior during wartime. The MOAB was compared to a small nuclear weapon. It’s so large that no U.S. warplane is big enough to drop it: it has to be offloaded from the rear of a cargo plane, with the help of a parachute. Read on...

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The New Yorker

The Assad Dynasty:
Nemesis of Nine U.S. Presidents
By Robin Wright
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s first meeting with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, in 1973, dragged on until almost eleven p.m. It ran so long, the Times reported, that the media began to speculate about whether America’s top diplomat had been kidnapped. Assad “negotiated tenaciously and daringly like a riverboat gambler to make sure he had exacted the last sliver of available concessions,” Kissinger recalled in his memoir, “Years of Upheaval.” The marathons were typical. In 1991, Secretary of State James Baker famously waved a white flag “in submission” after almost ten hours because he needed a bathroom break. Baker called negotiating with Assad “bladder diplomacy.”
Since the bloodless coup, in 1970, that brought the family to power, the Assad dynasty—the founding father, Hafez, and his heir and second son, Bashar—has exasperated nine American Presidents. “Time-consuming, nerve-racking, and bizarre,” Kissinger said of his sessions with Hafez al-Assad. Republican and Democratic Administrations alike have coaxed and cajoled, prodded and praised, and, most recently, confronted and condemned the Assads to induce policy changes....Read on

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The New Yorker

Trump Embraces Sunni Autocrats
By Robin Wright
On February 11, 2011, shortly after 3 p.m., President Obama stepped before a microphone in the Grand Foyer of the White House. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had just resigned after weeks of mass protests, in Tahrir Square and nationwide, and a final nudge from the White House. “There are few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place,” Obama said. “This is one of those times.” He compared the peaceful overthrow of Mubarak—who had been the centerpiece of U.S. policy in the Arab world for three decades—to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Gandhi’s civil disobedience against British colonialism.

“The wheel of history turned at a blinding pace as the Egyptian people demanded their universal rights,” Obama said. Two months later, Mubarak was detained on allegations of corruption, embezzlement, abuse of power, and negligence for failing to stop the killing of hundreds of peaceful protesters. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.


The wheel of history is now turning, at an equally blinding pace, in reverse. Mubarak was freed last month; he returned to his mansion in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. His two sons and other Mubarak-era officials, also jailed for corruption, are free now, too. On Monday, President Trump hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the former field marshal who orchestrated a military coup, in 2013, against Mubarak’s successor.
Read on....

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The New Yorker

The Bodies of Mosul
By Robin Wright 
I drove into Mosul in a battered Nissan pickup truck in mid-March. Iraq’s second-largest city, once a thriving manufacturing and commercial center, is now a wreckage of destroyed factories, shops, and homes. Huge craters from bombs dropped by the U.S.-led coalition obstructed major intersections. The craters, designed to slow ISIS suicide drivers targeting the Iraqi Army, have since filled with filmy, stagnant water; they were treacherous to circumvent. Roads were lined with rubble from five months of war—chunks of concrete, twisted electricity poles and downed wires, shards of window glass. Almost every block of East Mosul was littered with charred cars. ISIS seized them from residents, setting them alight to emit black smoke and hide their movements from coalition warplanes.

There were still many bodies on the streets, even though isis was forced out many weeks ago. I spent an afternoon in Hay al-Tameem, or “Neighborhood of Nationalization,” a district where isis ran a bomb factory and confiscated homes for leaders and senior fighters. Signs in black spray paint identified houses as “Property of the Islamic State.”


“There were a lot of Russian isis fighters here,” Ahmed Sobhay, who lived across the street from the bomb factory, told me. Thousands flocked to the Islamic State from the Russian Republic of Chechnya, but Sobhay never dared to ask for their home towns. isis fighters sporadically held a gun to his head to demand his coöperation; once, they put a gun to the head of his six-year-old son, Ammer, to ask if his father was secretly smoking. Sobhay said he pulled his children out of school and didn’t let his wife or daughter go out in public for fear they would be carried off by ISIS.
Read on...

Friday, March 24, 2017

Face to Face with the Ghost of ISIS
By Robin Wright 
On a crisp spring day in March, in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah, I met Abu Islam, a senior isis leader nicknamed the Ghost of isis by Iraqi intelligence for his elusiveness. He was escorted into a small office with faux-wood paneling and no windows at the Special Forces Security Compound in Kurdistan. His hands were manacled in front of him; he was blindfolded by a dark hood pulled over his loose black Shirley Temple curls. Long sought by the Iraqi government, Abu Islam was notorious for running clandestine cells of suicide bombers—some of whom were as young as twelve—and carrying out covert terrorist operations beyond the Islamic State’s borders. Having had a few years of religious training, he was also tasked with teaching the unique isis version of Islam to new fighters. Still in his mid-twenties, Abu Islam rose to become the isis “emir” of Iraq’s oil-rich province of Kirkuk.


Abu Islam’s capture, in October, was one of the most important in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State. Most of the isis élite have fled or been killed since Iraq launched its most ambitious military offensive, late last year, to retake Mosul. “He’s a guy we chased for more than two years,” Lahur Talabany, the head of Kurdistan’s Zanyari intelligence service, told me. “To pick him up and realize that we finally got him, it was a big catch for us.”
Read on....

Friday, February 17, 2017

The New Yorker

Trump's Flailing Foreign Policy
By Robin Wright
When I was five, I almost drowned after stepping into the deep end of a lake. I can still recall the terror, my small arms flailing toward the sunlight above the water, my legs kicking in all directions to find ground. A month into the Trump Presidency, that image haunts me as an apt metaphor for both the Trump Administration’s foreign policy and the gasping-for-breath fear among many old hands watching it play out.
“Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil,” General Tony Thomas, who heads the United States Special Operations Command, remarked at a military conference in Maryland this week. “I hope they sort it out soon, because we’re a nation at war.”

The President is increasingly bewildering or worrying friends and foes alike. Longstanding allies now publicly chide America. On Thursday, the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, called the Trump Administration’s policy on the volatile Middle East “very confusing and worrying.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel—who has become the de-facto spokesperson for the West’s liberal democracies since Trump took office—rebuked his “America First” policy this week. “No country can solve the problems alone; joint action is more important,” she said.
Read on...

Monday, January 30, 2017

Donald Trump, Pirate-in-Chief
By Robin Wright
Donald Trump has had a fixation on Iraq’s oil—and America’s right to seize it—for at least six years. In 2011, he told a Fox News producer that the U.S. should “take the oil.” It was a common theme on the campaign trail last year. “We go in, we spent three trillion dollars. We lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then look what happens is we get nothing. You know, it used to be the victor belong the spoils,” Trump said on NBC’s “Today Show,” in September. “There was no victor there, believe me. There was no victory. But I always said, ‘Take the oil.’ “

During his first week in office, Trump has twice repeated the claim—and alluded to a new opportunity to do just that. “Maybe you’ll have another chance,” he said, in unscripted remarks at the C.I.A., on his first full day in office. Four days later, ABC’s David Muir pressed him on what he meant. “We’re gonna see what happens,” the President said. “You know, I told you, and I told everybody else that wants to talk when it comes to the military, I don’t wanna discuss things.” The Administration is now reviewing options to be more aggressive, in both Iraq and Syria, against the Islamic State.

The reaction, from Washington to Baghdad, has been outrage—and bewilderment. “What he’s talking about is theft, pure and simple,” Robert Goldman, a professor at American University who has taught the laws of war for four decades, told me. “We have no right, and never had a right, even as an occupier, to take their oil. So what he is talking about is patently illegal under the laws of war, under which we are bound.”
Read on...

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Khizr Khan, Gold Star Father, on Refugee Ban
By Robin Wright 
Since his six-minute speech at last summer’s Democratic Convention, Khizr Khan has become a kind of celebrity, an honorable everyman who stood up for America’s Muslim community. The story he told of his son Humayun, a captain in the U.S. Army who gave his life to stop a suicide bomber approaching his troops in Iraq, in 2004, was emotional, and it made for gripping television. The Washington Post called the image of Khan waving his pocket-size Constitution in the air—and asking if Donald Trump had ever read it—one of the most memorable of the campaign. “I will lend you my copy,” Khan said, addressing Trump. “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.” His speech made the Constitution a best-seller on Amazon. Google searches on it soared tenfold.


Khan, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was born in Pakistan; his son Humuyun was born in the United Arab Emirates. Both became U.S. citizens in 1986. On Sunday, Khan stopped by my house in Washington, and, over honey-lavender tea, discussed President Trump’s new executive order banning the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely and all refugees for four months. The executive order suspends the entry of all citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—for ninety days. The order also calls for a general review of U.S. vetting procedures. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Read on....