What the war on terror looks like

THE GAP could not be greater between the war on the Islamic State as it is narrated, on one side, and how it is experienced by ordinary people trapped in the crossfire, on the other. In Iraq, the story pushed by the various anti-Daesh protagonists is a consensual and simple one: as progress is made…

The Syria aid regime that needed help. Touching the ground

THERE WILL BE YEARS OF SOUL-SEARCHING to do on the many aspects of our failure in Syria, but humanitarian aid is one area that warrants bold and immediate action. The issue is not so much our inability to address the sheer magnitude of suffering and disruption, which may well be beyond anyone’s capacity to alleviate…

Charting the course

FIVE YEARS HAVE COME AND GONE, wrecking hopes and spreading sorrow. In the giant maelstrom in which the Arab world is foundering, all seem to be clutching at the flotsam: some cling to hatreds that are consuming them, while others grasp at the receding horizon of salvation through migration.

Obama’s Iraq policy: That curious feeling of deja-vu

ONE OF THE GREATEST IRONIES of Barack Obama’s presidency is the extent to which he is repeating, rather than correcting, his predecessor’s mistakes in Iraq. Obama originally defined himself as the anti-Bush, chastising reckless foreign policy, vowing to bring the US’ military adventures overseas to a close. In general, he framed his international posture as…

The Syrian trauma

EVERY NOW AND THEN, the conflict in Syria produces an iconic image of horror and suffering, which many brandish as an undisputable truth that will finally shake the world into “doing something”. Others break down at the sight of such images, or instinctively avert their senses. Mass killings and disappearances, industrial-scale torture and sexual abuse,…

Why Iraqis fear victory

IRAQ’S NATIONAL GRID is a metaphor for the country’s problems. Access to electricity, the starting point for all modern human activity, is the last problem you would expect in a country with plentiful hydrocarbon reserves, big rivers and as much sunshine as the Garden of Eden. (1) But the electricity supply illustrates the failings and…

Basra, dystopian city

BASRA, THE SECOND or third largest city in Iraq, should be a great metropolis, more dynamic than Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha or Kuwait City, and should dominate the Gulf. Its port, Umm Qasr, offers the rest of the world access to one of the biggest oil-producing countries, which is also a huge potential consumer market….

The reinvention of Jihadism in the Middle East

THE FUTURE OF JIHADISM in the Middle East is looking bright. Indeed, a threshold appears to have been crossed whereby the response to the mounting jihadist threat perpetuates and exacerbates the very causes of the phenomenon in a self-reinforcing loop. The ever-expanding recourse to airstrikes has been destroying more and more of the region’s urban…

The digital path to real citizenship in Lebanon

AS THEY BUSY THEMSELVES with sorting out a profitable model, Lebanese digital entrepreneurs are doing much more that we are less aware of: Keen to live by their own rules, they challenge the prevailing patronage system based on ingrained sectarianism, nepotism and corruption. The meritocratic, egalitarian, secular and self-sufficient work ethos that transpires from their…

The West and the Arab World, between ennui and ecstasy

TO OUTSIDERS, the Middle East usually is an intellectual object —a place on a map onto which they project their fears, fantasies and interests. But to many it is a home to live and despair in, to flee and to cling to, to loath and to love. When writing for the truly concerned, commentary has…

Tuer les autres, se tuer soi-même Attentats de Paris

L’ASPECT LE PLUS TROUBLANT des massacres commis à Paris est qu’ils ressortent d’une violence intime. C’est ce que nous peinons à cerner et qui nous travaille. La recherche d’une explication qui reposerait sur l’altérité des commanditaires ou des exécutants, suggérant un changement de stratégie de la part de l’organisation de l’État islamique (OEI) ou un…

Erosion and resilience of the Iraqi-Syrian border

THE ONGOING WARS in Syria and Iraq have triggered a spate of commentary and counter-commentary debating “the end of Sykes-Picot,” shorthand for the collapse of the century-old state system imposed on the Middle East by European powers after World War I. (1) One class of commentators has warned of the erasure of the post-Ottoman order—in…

The Islamic State through the looking-glass

ONE OF THE PARTICULARITIES of the movement calling itself the Islamic State is its investment in the phantasmagorical. It has an instinctive understanding of the value of taking its struggle to the realm of the imagination as the best way to compensate for its real-world limits. Even as it faces setbacks on the battlefield, it has made forays into our collective psyche

IS back in business

THE SO-CALLED ISLAMIC STATE (IS) — the jihadist movement also known as ISIL or ISIS and by the derogatory acronym Da’ish in Arabic — now controls much of northeast Syria and northwest Iraq (1). In a region beset with so much confusion, it appears uniquely determined and self-assured. Despite its name, it is in no sense…

Taking Iraq apart

THE RECENT SURGE in power of a Sunni jihadist force in northwest Iraq has been spectacular. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s protestations of shock and horror are both theatrical and disingenuous, for it was his own actions that paved the way for this surge. His friends, especially those in Iran, know this but are playing…

The Arab World into the unknown

TWO AND A HALF YEARS AGO, Arab countries were abuzz with interesting conversations. Rich and poor, old and young, villager and urbanite, Islamist and secular all had their own take on the bewildering turmoil of the uprisings they were caught up in. They tended to be aware of the risks, hopeful that change was both…

Egypt’s quest for itself

SINCE PRESIDENT MOHAMMAD MURSI was deposed last July, the coalition leading the transition may not be liberal and inclusive, but it does enjoy (for now) broad popular support, is committed to a clear electoral roadmap and, in any event, is a reality on the ground; “let us deal with it on that basis”, say most…

The Syrian heartbreak

THERE WAS A DISTINCTIVE SENSE of national pride in Syria. It flowed from the confidence of a civilization dating back to the times of the earliest alphabets and visible in the country’s wealth of archaeological sites, including some of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It came from the depth of local culture….

The new normal in Baghdad

AFTER VIOLENCE THAT SHATTERED hundreds of thousands of lives and left nearly everyone with a tragic story to tell, life in Iraq has settled into a strange normality — with no discernible direction or clear future. “How do you make sense of the last ten years?” said a novelist, who is trying to do just that….

Beyond political ruptures: Towards a historiography of social continuity in Iraq

ATTEMPTING TO UNDERSTAND present-day Iraqi tribal, religious, class, political, generational, geographical, and social fault lines makes little sense without taking the longer view. In the wake of the 2003 invasion and subsequent ill-conceived U.S. occupation policies, the collapse of the Iraqi state created a sociopolitical discontinuity — indeed an aberration — leaving a vacuum that…

Beyond the fall of the Syrian regime

SYRIANS ARE APPROACHING the one-year anniversary of what has become the most tragic, far-reaching and uncertain episode of the Arab uprisings. Since protesters first took to the streets in towns and villages across the country in March 2011, they have paid an exorbitant price in a domestic crisis that has become intertwined with a strategic…

Le monde arabe est-il vraiment en hiver ?

SI LE “PRINTEMPS ARABE” suscitait l’enthousiasme aux beaux jours, le pessimisme est désormais de saison. Dans les médias, un glissement sémantique s’est opéré du thème révolutionnaire vers un registre à connotations négatives, où le triomphe des islamistes, les dynamiques de guerre civile, la désillusion et l’impuissance figurent en bonne place. Aussi les commentaires donnent-ils la…

Collectively failing Syrian society

FOR MONTHS, neither the Syrian regime, the international community, nor the opposition in exile have offered much hope in a dangerously deteriorating crisis. Increasingly, they seem to be unintentionally conniving in bringing about a civil war although it will serve no one’s interests, destabilize Syria for years, and suck in the rest of the region….

Turkey and the Arab World: From ‘zero problems’ to losing count

TURKEY ARGUABLY RANKS HIGHEST on the outside players’ score sheet after a first year of Arab revolts. Ankara responded fastest to the region’s paradigm shift, taking the lead in calling Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down; defined clear principles, pushed for sweeping reforms and denounced repression; avoided rushing into a questionable war to oust Libya’s Muammar…

Crunch-time for the Syrian regime

SEEN FROM DAMASCUS, the crisis that is gripping Syria is fast approaching crunch-time. The regime appears to have stopped pretending it can offer a way out. More than ever, it portrays the confrontation as a war waged against a multifaceted foreign enemy which it blames for all casualties. This narrative, which informs the security services’…

Syria’s race against the clock

THE SYRIA WE KNEW IS NO LONGER. Together with the rest of the region, it has entered an era of uncertainty and incessant flux. For now it has settled into a slow-motion revolution, as protests both fail to reach a critical mass and prod authorities to successfully respond to far-reaching demands. Two conflicting trends currently…

Syria following the script

PRESIDENT BASHAR ASSAD’s strongest asset, in the face of growing frustration in the street, was the lapse of time he was offered to study developments elsewhere in the region. Indeed, surprise was a key factor in the speed with which his Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts were overtaken by events. With the president’s speech today, the…

Europe and the Middle East: Divorce by mutual consent?

IN THE FACE OF ASTONISHING DEVELOPMENTS in the neighbouring Middle East, Europe has been looking West of all places – to the U.S. – for cues on how to respond. Almost all European statements have echoed those made by the Obama administration, itself timidly playing catch-up with events it could not predict, comprehend or influence. It…

Remettre les pendules a l’heure au Moyen-Orient

L’IRRUPTION de la “rue arabe” (concept jusqu’ici bien commode par son abstraction) place l’Occident face à ses contradictions : si l’interpellation populaire de pouvoirs autocratiques et corrompus résonne avec les valeurs démocratiques dont on se targue à Washington, Paris et ailleurs, elle s’accorde mal avec les aspects pratiques d’une politique occidentale qui n’a jamais fait…

A State of violence: A sociological reading of the battle for Baghdad

THE EXTREME LEVELS OF VIOLENCE that befell the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in 2006 and 2007 both exposed the city’s sociopolitical makeup and caused its deep transformation, a sea change that will have lasting consequences for the country. The dynamics of the conflict in Baghdad contain many clues for an accurate understanding of Iraq’s polity and…

Beyond moderates and militants

IN THE MIDDLE EAST, U.S. President Barack Obama has spent the first year and a half of his presidency seeking to undo the damage wrought by his predecessor. He has made up some ground. But given how slowly U.S. policy has shifted, his administration runs the risk of implementing ideas that might have worked if President George W. Bush had pursued them a decade ago. The region, meanwhile, will have moved on.

The Middle East’s dangerous equilibrium

A YEAR INTO U.S. President Barack Obama’s presidency, the Middle East is on the brink. Almost every country in the region spent 2009 waiting in vain for something dramatic to come out of Washington. By the time 2010 was rung in, most players appeared to have given up just as hastily on the Obama administration….

The Sadrist trend: class struggle, millenarianism and fitna

LITTLE WAS KNOWN about the phenomenon which we now call “sadrism”, and which originated in the movement created by Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr[1] during the 1990s, until the emergence on the Iraqi political stage of the Ayatollah’s son Muqtadâ al-Sadr, shortly after the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein. The extreme polysemy of the phenomenon,…

Iraq’s diverse Shia

EVERY DAY IN IRAQ brings more sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia factions. Such attacks have become routine events, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds. They  are now much more frequent than operations targeting the occupation forces. In Baghdad the river Tigris forms a dividing line between the largely Shia left bank, al-Rusafa, and the mainly Sunni right bank,…

The Falluja syndrome: Taking the fight to the enemy that wasn’t

THE IRAQI TOWN OF FALLUJA offers an excellent case study of how the US military in Iraq, by responding to threats in oblivion to a specific cultural and political context, exacerbated those very threats and thus created a much harder task for itself. Much has been said about the US military’s distaste for stabilization and…