Months after the collapse of its territorial caliphate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) remains a viable threat to the United States and the international community writ large. The organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is alive and on the lam, while in the group’s former strongholds, it is reconstituting its networks and waging a low-level campaign of political assassinations, ambushes, and guerrilla warfare-style attacks. ISIS will be able to continue making money, even without a stranglehold on territory, and still has access to hundreds of millions of dollars that will aid its efforts to rebuild.
The recent firing or resignation of President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton has heightened speculation that Trump will meet with his Iranian counterpart President Hassan Rouhani on the margins of the upcoming United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session beginning next week. Bolton is renowned for his hawkish views on Iran—long advocating for forceful U.S. military action against Iran and pushing regime change as the “only long term solution” to the threats posed by Iran.
Even after eight years of civil war and the U.S. intervention to combat the Islamic State (IS), the future of northeast Syria still is unsettled. Washington faces the various divergent interests of powerful external actors, including Russia and Turkey—one a great power competitor and the other a NATO ally—in the country. To complicate matters further, the United States has sought to shift the goals of its presence in Syria from a narrow, counter-terrorism effort to defeat IS to denying the Bashar al-Assad regime a victory, with the intent of forcing Assad to make political concessions and making Syria a focal point of the so-called “Maximum Pressure” strategy aimed at using economic coercion to change Iranian foreign policy. Amidst the expansion of Washington’s desired political outcomes in Syria, President Donald Trump ordered the military to withdraw forces in December 2018, only to reverse course, so long as the United States worked to increase the European commitment to the ground war in Northeast Syria.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been at war for almost its entire existence, beginning with the Iraqi invasion of the country in 1980 and, then, in an asymmetric way in support of regional clients, often working against American allies and partners in the Middle East. As Ariane Tabatabai wrote recently for Foreign Affairs, the Islamic Republic’s operations in Syria is the first, large-scale and acknowledged operation in a foreign country since the country’s founding. After eight years of conflict in Syria, Iran is most certainly trying to incorporate lessons-learned about its experience in the conflict to help shape planning for the future. To discuss what the Iranians may be thinking, the Foreign Policy Research Institute convened an online discussion, led by Dr. Aaron Stein, along with Dr. Ariane Tabatabai, a political scientist at RAND, and Dr. Afshon Ostovar, a Senior Fellow at FPRI and professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.
With anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong showing few signs of abating, speculation is growing as to what China might do next. Already, China’s Hong Kong Affairs Office head warned, “If the situation worsens further, and there is turmoil that the Hong Kong government is unable to control, the central government absolutely will not just watch without doing anything.” To that end, Beijing has assembled thousands of paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP), China’s internal security force, just outside Hong Kong’s border. Were they to enter the city to quell the unrest, it would likely be a bloody affair. Largely unarmed, the demonstrators will likely get the short end of the stick.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the leaders of post-Soviet Russia faced herculean challenges and fundamental questions of national strategy and direction. Would Russia continue on the Soviet path of hostility toward the West—or would it take a very different course? For Mikhail Gorbachev, the first president of Russia’s new era, the answer was clear. Russia would seek not just good relations with the West, but it also would seek to become a fully integrated part of Europe. Gorbachev spoke eloquently and sincerely of “a common European home.” He initiated twin transformations of the Russian economy away from Soviet-style socialism toward free markets and the political system from communist dictatorship to parliamentary democracy.
Several unnamed U.S. government officials recently leaked the news that Hamza bin Laden, the son of al-Qaeda founder and its longtime leader Osama bin Laden, has been killed. Details surrounding Hamza’s death have been murky, although it now appears that the United States played a role in the operation that killed the younger bin Laden. President Donald Trump has so far declined to comment, other than to say that “Hamza bin Laden was very threatening to our country and you can’t do that.” It remains unknown where Hamza bin Laden was killed, with various reports over the past several years suggesting that he was in hiding in one of several countries—Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Syria. Given that the U.S. has publicly acknowledged a role in his death, it seems unlikely that he was killed in Iran. Available information suggests that he was killed in a U.S. airstrike, possibly in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) border region and that it happened at some point during the Trump administration. It has also been reported that Hamza met with al-Qaeda’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri somewhere near the AFPAK border at some point within the past two years. While it is impossible to know what was discussed, it does seem that Hamza was being cultivated by Zawahiri to assume a leadership position within the organization at some point in the future.
Today marks the end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, after more than three decades in existence. Ultimately, the treaty could not survive an increasingly complex security environment, nor the Trump administration’s broad assault on arms control.
The current trade war between Japan and South Korea makes little logical sense in a liberal worldview of international relations. French economist Frederic Bastiat (allegedly) said that “when goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.” The idea is that social and economic bonds created by trade across borders should form peaceful, mutually beneficial relationships between states. When two countries are mutually dependent on each other, neither have an incentive to fight with the other.
Over recent weeks, Hong Kong has been repeatedly rocked by mass demonstrations protesting the actions of its governing authorities. What makes these demonstrations noteworthy and very important are their scale and their location. Protest organizers estimated the crowds at one point at nearly two million—over a quarter of the entire population of Hong Kong. These are not the first expressions of mass dissent in Hong Kong; the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” paralyzed the city for days. But in several respects, Hong Kong still seems an unlikely venue for such events.