06/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Weekly Foreign Affairs Roundup

The Week's Top Stories in Foreign Affairs:

Iraq's Reversing

Facts: Six car bombs strike Shia areas of Baghdad. This is the latest in a series of recent attacks, including suicide bombings, that have killed nearly 200 people in the last few weeks and both Iraqi and US troop casualties are on the rise. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Iraq, pledging long-term US support to the country and claiming that attacks are a desperate last act for opponents of the emerging Iraqi state. In a rebuff of US support, PM Nuri al-Maliki makes stark statements claiming that the US is violating tenants of the Security Pact when it cracked down on Shia militias last weekend, while underscoring his eagerness for the US to leave Iraq as agreed. Also this week, Britain formally ended its combat mission in Iraq.

SI Analysis: Both al-Maliki's statements and the increased violence are cause for concern, especially when seen in concert with evidence of some political paralysis (e.g. certain regional elections not moving forward, problems for Parliament to implement a new oil law, jostling for centrality with the autonomy-minded Kurds, disenfranchisement of Sunni Awakening Councils and militias, etc...). They are the reflection of three very dangerous actions from the al-Maliki government: a failure to integrate the Anbar Awakening Council associated militias into the Iraqi army, the suspension of agreed payments to Council leaders and a crackdown on many Council and important Sunni leaders. It is believed that Sunni militias who have ensured security in the past are abandoning their posts and some are joining the growing insurgency. One has to wonder whether this is evidence of new policy ahead of the US withdrawal, only two years hence, that aims to sure up Shia political dominance of both the government, the army and the resources. Further, such policies are seemingly more and more pro-Iranian and they successfully ostracize nationalists like Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. The risk is that Iraq will soon once again be dealing with both Sunni and Shia insurgencies.

AfPak Paradox

Facts: In Pakistan, after intense criticism and under pressure, Pakistan's army attacked Taliban militants in its North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), both in Lower Dir and Buner valley. The army said the Taliban failed to meet the disarmament conditions of a peace agreement that would have allowed for Sharia law to be applied in the Malakand area. This followed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's claim that Pakistan's collapse posed "mortal threat" to the US. And Central Command Chief, General David Petraeus said Islamist extremism poses an existential threat to Pakistan, surmising that peace in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be harder to achieve than in Iraq. On May 6 and 7, US President Barack Obama will host trilateral AfPak talks with Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Asif Zardari of Pakistan in Washington. Otherwise, in Northern Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked German forces while German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was on visit to the region. In a boost to US efforts in Afghanistan, the UK and Australia commit more troops ahead of upcoming elections. Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban pledge to launch an impending spring offensive.

SI Analysis: A large part of the problem in the AfPak region is that there is not one situation to address, there are many different and conflicting situations both politically and militarily. Part of this stems from that there is not one clear enemy. There is not one Taliban, but many Talibans. They are not a united or even necessarily coordinated front. There are no clear borders between their regions of influence. They are mixed in with regional warlords whose interest for peace is local. To boot, there are a great number of foreign extremist militants; and these actors are a disparate and to a certain extent unknowable quantity. Furthermore, there is great political division within and between Afghan and Pakistani leadership on how to deal with these different actors. In Pakistan alone, factions of the Army, the Intelligence Service, the Judiciary and the opposition seem to be working disconnected from the central government. At an international political level even, there is no clear idea of what to do. Debate over the effectiveness of cross drone cross border attacks continues: critics say that they are provoking greater instability within Pakistan and drawing the conflict into urban centers, while creating a PR nightmare for both Pakistan and the US; supporters say the recent spate of violence is an indication of the extremists weakness and proof that the bombings are placing great pressure on the militants. There has been a palpable turn in the recent public tide against the Taliban in Pakistan. And this recent army action could be seen as an opportunity for the government to achieve both a public mandate to regain control of Pakistan, to acknowledge the primacy of the Islamist militant threat (many still believe India and Kashmir should be Pakistan's first concern), and assert the legitimacy of the central government. For next week's meeting, it is imperative that the three countries agree on a common political mandate to bring control to the region. This should be accompanied by a breakdown of strategic actions to improve security, build the economies as well as political and military coordination. US and NATO so far is too militarily based and any agreement should also focus on development, the provision of civil services and "softer initiatives." If these are clearly in place, commitment from the US for significant financial economic aid and military equipment to fight insurgency should follow.

The Decline of Russia's Gas Monopoly?

Facts: This week, Russia suffered 2 major blows to its energy sector, both of which related to the planned Nabucco Pipeline that will link a pipeline from Turkmenistan all the way to Europe via the Caucasus and Turkey, thereby bypassing Russia all together. Last Friday, there was a summit in Sofia, Bulgaria to discuss various regional energy issues. Russia had intended the summit for sealing agreements from Bulgaria on its competitor to Nabucco, the South Stream pipeline. Bulgaria is a key nation because both the Nabucco and South Stream are planned to route through its territory. At the last minute, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin boycotted the event because the Nabucco Pipeline was to be discussed. Putin's absence set back negotiations on the South Stream with Bulgaria (but not for long), and opened a window for the Nabucco planners, who also scored in Turkmenistan. At last week's energy security conference in Ashgabad, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov set about to putting an end to Russian Gazprom's effective monopoly over Turkmen gas supplies. He announced that Turkmenistan will diversify its exports (read, Nabucco and China), to which the United States responded with great warmth. The planned May 8 Nabucco summit in Prague looks to encourage further advancement of the EU's pipeline plans.

SI Analysis: It's no secret that Russia enjoys a monopoly over energy supplies, particularly natural gas. Not only does Russia maintain its own gigantic natural gas reserves in addition to significant oil fields, Moscow is also the key negotiator and arbiter when it comes to the energy supplies of its neighbors. Energy rich nations such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan all have strong ties to their former Soviet ruler and their economies and pipelines are inextricably tied into the overall Russian system. This groundwork has, for the large part, allowed Moscow to set prices and flow of resources as it sees fit, leaving large consumers such as the EU and China subject to a lopsided and non-competitive market. The question is whether these recent developments point to a real departure from Russian dominance given the weakness of the petro-dollar, or if this is just one pull in a tug-of-war over energy. Also of note is that Iran, eager to profit more from its vast natural gas supplies, and Turkey, with the potential of profiting from much more pipeline traffic, could find partnerships either with the EU or Russia depending on the right situation. Once oil and gas prices rise again, Russia will likely resume its confident strides and have the ability to exert more control over its neighbors as per usual.

Swine Flu: Myths and Realities

Facts: You can't get swine flu from eating pork. You can get it from working with livestock, particularly pigs in Mexico. You can also get it from airborne human-to-human contact, as is evidenced by the quick spread of the disease, first in Mexico, then to the rest of North America, and now in Europe, Asia and Africa. The New York Times has an interesting interactive map that tracks the spread of the illness.

SI Analysis: Regardless of the spread of the disease, the flu has already had a huge impact because of its name. Pork sales have dropped. This week, the share price of JBS, one of the world's largest meat producers, fell 12% over fears that meat consumption would decrease because of fear of pork products. Some pork producers in Brazil have even called for a name change for the disease: Mexican Flu. The outbreak will be telling as it effects US-Latin American relations (US VP Joe Biden's advice doesn't necessarily help). What is more important is how the flu spreads in poor nations. The IMF, World Bank have warned countless times this year that the global financial downturn will effect poverty-stricken nations the most, many of whom are in a food crisis as it is. With little infrastructure and limited medical supplies in many places, swine flu could leave a devastating impact and become a pandemic. Indeed, the WHO has raised its alert to level 5 for the disease.

Speculation of the Week: Ticking Clock for a Grand Bargain

SI Analysis: Whilst on a visit to the US, Jordanian King Abdullah expresses sincere urgency for a deliberate Middle East peace process, without which he says the region could devolve into a complex and protracted state of chaos and war. Indeed, there seems to be an increased palpable tension in the Middle East, perhaps only subconsciously penetrating the minds of leaders and analysts: there seem to be an imperative to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict within the context of a rapidly evolving regional debate. And it seems that Syria and Iran are integral actors, even more so than traditional Arab powers such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Some suggest that conditionare not ripefor peace, that US-Iranian pre-dialogue is already at a stalemate, but others point to recent developments as evidence to the contrary. Analysts note that the new Israeli policy has distanced itself from a continued and open-ended peace process; while others suggest that a forthright and hardliner leadership is the desired sort of participant in a definitive debate that could lead to peace. Presently, Israel remains somewhat belligerent and disengaging, insisting that its priority is to head-off a nuclear Iran, but that isn't keeping others, particularly the US, Syria and Iran from positioning themselves for a possible grand bargain. Recent events of note include:
  • US Ouvertures to Syria? The UN Tribunal responsible for the investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri releases the four generals who have been held without charges since 2005 for lack of evidence, prompting celebration and strong dissension in the process. Many (including Hizbollah and Syria) complement the tribunal's impartiality but many say it undermines the pro-Western factions in Lebanon, especially ahead of June elections. Some say this was a Western nod to Syria to allow it to save face ahead of peace negotiations with Israel and the US. In effort to support the March 14 Coalition and pro-Western forces and the army in Lebanon ahead of the elections, US Secretary of State Clinton made a surprise visit to Lebanon last weekend. These events may actually boost constructive US engagement with Syria, as Syria may have less pressure from the UN Tribunal (but its influence will be closely circumscribed in Lebanon as the US has expressed repeated concern for Lebanese autonomy, free from Syrian influence).
  • Syrian ouvertures to the US: Indeed, there is evidence of growing reciprocal openness between the US and Syria. A recent US congressional delegation to Damascus to discuss improving ties with Washington and Damascus has also moved to open the American Language Center, which was closed following a cross-border raid from U.S. military forces in Iraq in October.
  • Iranian concilitory statements: Surprisingly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says that Iran would accept a two-state solution if the Palestinians would. Notably also, Admadinejad adoped the phrase, "We Can" as his electoral campaign slogan: is this a presage of openness towards the US?


Is Somalia Shifting?

SI Analysis: This week the radical Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys returned to Somalia after 2 years of exile. Aweys was the head of the Union of Islamic Courts ousted by US-led air raids in 2007. While his co-leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has since returned and become UN-supported President of Somalia, Aweys is still considered a terrorist by the US. What remains to be seen is how Aweys deals with his return. Many Somalis view him as the "kingmaker" in Somali politics. He is reported to have close ties to the radical al-Shabaab militants (who are evidently meeting with UNHCR representatives this week to discuss human services for poverty-stricken Somalis). If Aweys aligns himself with al-Shabaab, it will give even more power to the insurgent group and cause even more strife in this lawless country, giving even more reason for pirates to continue their pillaging of the global shipping industry.

North Korea is back to being nuclear

SI Analysis: This week North Korea threatened to go forward with yet another nuclear test. The international community has, as expected, largely condemned the announcement. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared particularly concerned, announcing that it is "implausible, if not impossible" for Pyongyang to return now to the table for 6-party talks. What some commentators suggest now is that Washington will resort to "Plan B", seeking direct talks with North Korea instead. The repercussions of such a move could have large impacts on the development of diplomacy with Iran, considering its budding nuclear program.

US returns to climate change debate

SI Analysis: This week the Obama administration proved to an international crowd that it is serious about climate change. The Washington Forum on Climate Change sought to reengage with the world in curbing global warming, particularly after 8 years of what was perceived as inaction by the Bush Administration. Many European voices welcomed this shift from the US. The meeting set the agenda for similar and larger talks in Copenhagen in December. Still, many critics argue that the US is not doing enough on the issue.

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