For the last several weeks, my Twitter feed has been consumed with Trump-mania. What he said, what he didn’t, who incited whom to what. Who can beat him? Can he beat Hillary? Is this the end of the GOP?
While these are all important and necessary analyses of this disaster of a primary season, there are, in fact, other things going on in the world—especially in the Middle East and North Africa. It’s essential to stay abreast of these current affairs because our next president will have to confront them come January, making this election all the more important. So, let’s survey the current state of disrepair in the region.
Turkey Tightens the Screws
On Sunday night, a car bomb devastated the business district of Ankara. This is the second time in the last month that an attack like this has struck the city. No group has yet claimed responsibility, but Turkish officials suspect Kurdish separatists. ISIS has also been responsible for attacks in recent months. At least 37 are dead and over 100 wounded as a result of Sunday’s attacks. This puts the tally to nine attacks, with more than 200 dead, in the past nine months.
This most recent round of violence escalates already mounting tensions between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Turkey has called on the United States to end cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish force, one of our better ground partners in the fight against ISIS. Meanwhile, the Turkish government began bombing the Kurds in northern Iraq and southeast Turkey last month, and attacked again on Monday in reaction to the Ankara bombing. Both Turkey and the Kurds are vital partners in fighting ISIS, leaving the U.S. without any good options.
Libya and Tunisia Foster ISIS
In the years since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted, a power vacuum has allowed ISIS to take root in Libya and given it easy access to its neighbor to the west, Tunisia. ISIS operatives based in Libya were responsible for the March 2015 attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis that left 19 dead, and the June 2015 attacks on the Sousse beach in Tunisia that killed 39.
On March 7, weeks after the United States targeted an ISIS training camp in northeast Libya, ISIS attacked the Tunisian city of Ben Gardane, after which Tunisia closed its borders with Libya. Meanwhile, Tunisia is the largest supplier of foreign-born ISIS fighters (7,000). All this bodes extremely ill for both countries.
President Obama strongly criticized British Prime Minister David Cameron and former French President Nicholas Sarkozy last week for not following through in Libya after the ouster of Gaddafi. He called it a “s— show.” Britain is now pledging 1,000 soldiers to join an international coalition of 6,000 troops to protect the new Libyan government. Meanwhile, just last month Obama turned down a proposal by the U.S. military to hit ISIS in its Libyan regional stronghold of Sirte. He’s talking the talk, but, well, you get it.
The Ivory Coast Heats Up
On Sunday, three gunmen in bulletproof vests attacked a beach resort on the Ivory Coast, killing at least 15 civilians and three military personnel, including four French nationals. These attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the same group responsible for attacking hotels in Mali and Burkina Faso in November and January, respectively.
These attacks represent a change in tactics for the group, which for the past decade has been attacking impoverished countries in the Sahara. Now, the terrorists are focusing on wealthier enclaves in more economically stable African countries, not unlike ISIS’s targeting of tourist spots in Tunisia. In a statement, AQIM said this is a warning to countries that cooperate with France’s counterterrorism efforts.
Strangely, Iran More Aggressive After Nuclear Deal
In the past few weeks, Iran has tested ballistic missiles with the capacity to carry nuclear weapons that could reach Israel. The U.N. Security Council is condemning these tests but isn’t taking any punitive action, while the European Union is claiming Iran didn’t violate the nuclear deal.
The United States and its allies are about to submit an official report to the Security Council accusing the Islamic Republic of violations of international accords. Russia, meanwhile, is pointing out that the tests are not, in fact, violations because of the change in language made upon Iran’s request during the negotiation period. Sen. Robert Menendez protested this change at the time as a dangerous concession, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted wouldn’t make a difference in our ability to sanction ballistic missile tests. So much for those snapbacks sanctions…
Russia Gains Strength
Then there’s Russia. The country suddenly announced a withdrawal of the majority of its military presence from Syria this week, as peace talks in Geneva resumed Monday. President Vladimir Putin says Russia’s goals in the country have been reached. He’s not wrong. Before Russia stepped in in September, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s government was faltering. Russia came in purportedly to help fight ISIS, but in reality has been bombing moderate rebel forces backed by the United States. This has allowed Assad to gain the strength needed to negotiate from a position of power, leaving ISIS relatively unscathed.
Now that Assad has been sufficiently propped up and Russia has flexed its muscles against U.S. interests in the region, it can go home. In doing so, it’s thumbing its nose at the West. It doesn’t need to give the United States a heads up that it’s withdrawing. And Russia is triumphantly pointing out that, unlike America, it can easily touch down in the Middle East, accomplish its mission, and pull out. No quagmires or extended wars.
This six-month foray has allowed Russia to reassert itself as a major player internationally, especially after its relative ostracization when it annexed Crimea in March 2014.
Elsewhere in Syria, the al-Qaeda-backed rebel group, the al-Nusra Front, attacked Western-backed moderate rebels in a key rebel stronghold over the weekend, taking over bases and U.S.-supplied weapons. Moderates fear this will put them in a weak negotiating position at the peace talks in Geneva, and will be used as an excuse for the regime to attack rebel-held areas. This is a bad sign for the moderates and for U.S. efforts in the region.
Elsewhere, Things Are Also Bad
Add to all of this the ongoing civil war in Yemen, where more than 40 civilians were killed by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Haja province Tuesday, and the ongoing wave of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians.
This isn’t meant to be alarmist or to whip people into a frenzy. It is, however, a reminder of the serious instability in the Middle East and Africa, which will require more than Donald Trump’s council of one to manage. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s recent worldwide threat assessment describes the United States as facing more foreign policy threats than at any time since World War II.
As former secretary of Defense Robert Gates said at a recent talk, the Middle East and North African are on fire and are probably going to burn for the next 30 years. We had better well have a plan—a consistent one that can endure beyond a single election cycle. This will require the general support of the American people, which is not an easy task.
We can only hope that these problems, which are now spreading beyond Syria and Iraq, are on every candidate’s radar, and that voters think carefully about who is the right person to take them on.