Sunday 21 May, 2017 Update: President Trump in Riyadh

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President Trump’s approach to America’s allies in the Persian Gulf region is markedly different from the policies and approach of his predecessor. For the last eight years, as Iran grew stronger and more audacious, the Gulf States were left to confront the situation without support or guidance from the United States. As the power and influence of ISIS increased, and the Arab Spring metastasized into a regional nightmare Washington remained on the sidelines to a great extent. Obama’s ‘lead from behind’ foreign policy doctrine was alienating some of America’s most important strategic partners and allies at a time when those nations were desperately seeking US leadership.

President Trump’s visit to Riyadh has made it clear that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf allies again have a steadfast friend in the White House. The strategic relationship is being rekindled, much to the delight of the Saudis. In a widely anticipated speech on Sunday to the leaders of 50 Muslim-majority nations, Trump called on those nations to take the lead in combatting radical Islamic terrorism, and its root causes. His speech was widely seen as an attempt to ‘reset’ relations with the Muslim world. He blamed Iran for much of the region’s instability, and characterized the war on extremism as a fight between ‘good and evil.’ Unlike his predecessor, Trump did not bring up human rights, or democracy. However, he did condemn the oppression of woman, something the Saudi government is seen to be guilty of.

The list of subjects discussed between Trump, and GCC leaders included threats to regional security and stability, Iran’s influence in the region, and Yemen. The civil war raging in that country is also a proxy war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi/GCC- supported government forces. Iran’s move to support the Houthis came as part of a wider campaign to obtain a lasting strategic advantage over Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and its GCC allies could not stand idly by and allow Yemen to fall into Tehran’s sphere of influence. Saudi Arabia, leading a coalition of 9 Arab and African nations launched a military intervention in March, 2015. UN efforts to negotiate a ceasefire have been unsuccessful. The Saudis are holding onto the hope that US efforts to broker a ceasefire will materialize and be more fruitful.

President Trump next flies to Israel on Monday morning for a two-day visit.

Is France Heading Toward Its Trump Moment?

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Mainstream Europe is thinking the worst is over after the first round of the French presidential elections on Sunday. Independent-centrist Emmanuel Macron performed well enough to create a broad expectation that he will defeat far-right candidate Marine Le Pen when the runoff is held in two weeks. Populism in Europe appears to have reached its high-water mark after recent electoral defeats for far-right populists in the Netherlands, and Austria, as well as the continuing decline of far-right political fortunes in Germany. Supporters of the European Union appear ready to write off the populist surge that has brought about Britain’s exit from the EU, and Donald Trump’s rise to the White House.

The folks in Brussels, as well as their supporters around Europe, may have the cart before the horse.

The collapse of the traditional parties in this election serves as a blunt confirmation that France is in the midst of a political renewal. Macron and Le Pen’s emergence show that a wide majority of French citizens are dissatisfied with the political system and eager for a change.

While Macron is positioned as a reformer, a flurry of questions and concern surrounds him. As a former investment banker, there is skepticism that he can address the angst and concerns of ordinary working class citizens. His political past is attached to the French political establishment, with time spent member of Hollande’s government and as a minister in the Second Valls Government. He is pro-EU and points to his party as ‘the only pro-Europe political force in France.’ In short, Macron provides a ripe target for Le Pen.

Le Pen is not expected to defeat Macron in the runoff. However, as we have seen over the past year, pre-election expectations and polls do not tell the entire story. France is unhappy with the establishment parties and she can use that disgust to her benefit in a way that her opponent can only dream of.

The wildcard here is terrorism. Another terror attack between now and the runoff will rapidly transform the election into a one-issue race and will only propel more voters to at least consider casting ballots for Le Pen. Macron’s pro-EU position and vast experience in economics will not serve him well should more French citizens die at the hands of people inspired, or supported by ISIS.

In that regard, the populist feeling and prospects of a Trump Moment coming to France remain alive and well. Populist views have been growing in Europe for years now. In times of economic and security turbulence, like now, there is a yearning for a national identity, along with the feeling that a supranational body like the EU only strips away that identity.  The runoff in two weeks will determine whether French voters identify first and foremost as French citizens or as citizens of the European Union and act as the foundation for whichever direction France decides take in the future.

Tuesday 4 April, 2017 Update: In the Aftermath of St Petersburg

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Monday was a dark day for Russia. An explosive device detonated on a crowded metro train as it departed from Sennaya Ploshchad station around 1430 local time. Eleven people were killed and over fifty injured to one degree or another. A second device was found at another metro station and defused before it could detonate. An investigation began immediately and it was not long before police labeled the incident a terror attack, specifically a suicide bombing. Today, Russian officials released the name of the bomber, Akbardzhon Dzhalilov, a 22 year old Central Asian national. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the city at the time of the attack. It is not likely that there is a connection between his visit and the attack. Putin being in St Petersburg yesterday was merely a matter of happenstance.

Today, as St Petersburg attempts to return to normal amid increased security at transportation infrastructure locations there is speculation in the media on how the Russian government will respond to this terrorist attack. Russia is no stranger to terrorism and past attacks have favored transportation locations. They are especially soft targets with large amounts of people coming and going. Security is porous under the best conditions, however. It is simply not possible to screen each and every person stepping into or out of a metro station, bus terminal, or airport. Yesterday’s attack was the latest of many against transportation locations in Russia. One of the most infamous attacks was the 2009 bombing of the Nevsky Express train running between Moscow and St Petersburg that killed 29 people. Islamic militants from the North Caucasus were responsible for that attack.

The St Petersburg attack also reaffirms the grim reality that Russia has been wrestling with a terror problem long before it became involved in the Syrian conflict. The majority of bombers and attackers that have struck Russian targets have come from the North Caucasus region, a hotbed of instability and Islamic insurgency for decades, if not centuries. Many of the men and women responsible for launching terror attacks on Russian soil have come from this region or from Central Asia.

International reaction was swift in coming. Leaders from Europe to the United States expressed their remorse and offered aid if possible. President Trump spoke on the phone with Putin and personally extended his condolences. Combatting terrorism is one issue the US and Russia seem to agree on. Relations between the two nations have deteriorated  in recent years, yet it’s the hope of many observers that fighting terrorism will provide some common ground for Washington and Moscow to build upon in the future.

 

 

 

Thursday 16 February, 2017 Update: ISIS Bombings In Iraq & Pakistan

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ISIS has claimed responsibility for a pair of bombings that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people in Iraq and Pakistan today. In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded at a used car marketplace in the Bayaa neighborhood in the southern portion of the city. The death toll right now sits at above 50 with an even larger number of wounded. It is the deadliest attack so far this year in Iraq, a nation that is no stranger to large-scale terrorist attacks. Recently, the number of bombings in Baghdad has been on the rise. On Wednesday, a suicide car bomb attack in the Sadr City area left 11 dead. The neighborhood where today’s the attack took place is no stranger to bombings either. On Tuesday, a car bomb in the same area killed 4 people.

A suicide attack in Pakistan targeted a popular Sufi shrine in the town of Sehwan. The shrine is one of the most revered in Pakistan. Thursday was a sacred day for Muslims to pray there and the shrine was crowded at the time of the attack. At least 72 people were killed and that number will possibly rise as time goes on. Since last Sunday, Pakistan has experienced six suicide attacks, resulting in the deaths of over 100 people. The attacks in Pakistan provided a sharp reply to statements by the civilian and military authorities suggesting Pakistan had defeated the militants there.