The Islamic State (IS) continues to dominate Western media discourse regarding the Syrian conflict, and it remains true that they are the preeminent, and most deadly extremist force in much of the north and east of the country. However, the incessant focus on IS has overshadowed the threat posed to local and regional stability by other militant groups involved in the war in Syria. These include Jabhat al Nusra (JaN), which is one of the most successful, well-trained and well-equipped of the myriad rebel groups that have sprung up during the conflict. JaN is arguably the primary armed movement in a number of key Syrian regions, including the north-western Idlib province, the mountainous Qalamoun area along the frontier with Lebanon, and the Quneitra/Deraa zone to the immediate east of the Golan. While sharing an almost identical and uncompromising extremist ideology with the IS (although with an arguably more limited focus), JaN is a very different animal, as it combines an ability to adjust its activities to local realities and power structures, with an willingness to work with others. This brief analysis will seek to outline the group’s genesis and growth, and to identify what it is that makes JaN so dangerous, particularly, its pragmatism and its efforts to remain receptive to other Syrian rebel organisations, on occasion even with its dire enemies. First, it is worth examining just how the extremist movement evolved out of the maelstrom of the Iraq war to become such a major player in Syria.read more
On 10 November 2014, North Korean soldiers edged too close to the Demilitarized Zone, receiving warning shots from the South Korean forces on the other side of the border. Reading solely from this unremarkable episode, one might think that lately it has been business as usual for Pyongyang. But few, if any, states can be said to conduct themselves in a more perplexing manner than North Korea. This example of normality was preceded by weeks of distinctly paradoxical behaviour, a characteristic which had become particularly pronounced during the autumn of 2014, when the foggy window outside observers have into the country became even more clouded than usual.read more
On 23 October 2011, the Libyan people were wildly celebrating the death of one of the world’s most notorious dictators. Fast-forward three years, and it is clear that the celebrations are over. As the past two weeks have seen an alarming intensification of fighting in both eastern and western Libya, internationally-backed national dialogue initiatives have foundered. Negotiations coordinated by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) seem to have been stillborn, as an initial round of talks involving a narrow segment of political actors held in late September 2014 is all that has been achieved thus far. An Algerian-sponsored initiative, slated to be far more inclusive, has similarly stalled before getting off the ground. As violence has worsened in many parts of the country, political developments have also raised further challenges to an inclusive and peaceful resolution to the conflict, leaving the international community at a loss for a next move.read more
As the body count continues to rise in Baghdad, the troubled security situation is causing great concern that the darkest days of sectarian mayhem – as witnessed throughout 2006 and 2007 – have returned. Shi’ite militias appear to be responsible for much of the bloodshed in the city, and are largely operating with impunity, employing many of the same tactics as the terrorist group that they are ostensibly fighting. These militias, which are strongly backed by Iran, have become one of the main fighting forces of the Baghdad Government, and are now believed to consist of well over 100,000 troops. Despite having played a key role in the campaign against the Islamic State (IS), the resurgence of the Shi’ite paramilitary forces is having a severe and negative impact on the stability of Iraq, particularly on its capital city.read more
As events in the wider Middle East gather pace – particularly the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq – they have overshadowed (and some would say trivialised) many other more localised threats. One of these threats is that represented by the Egyptian militant group Ansar Beyt al Maqdis (ABM). The Sinai-based extremist movement has been targeted by a massive security crackdown over the past year, but has proven that not only does it have the ability to continue its “traditional” attacks against the security forces, but has also proven its willingness to adopt new strategies. This shift in tactics is believed to have come about partly as a result of increased collaboration between it and other prominent militant organisations, such as the IS.read more
The past week has been an extremely busy one in Iraq, with a number of serious developments occurring across the country. On 07 August 2014, US President Barack Obama announced that he had authorised the US military to carry out targeted airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) forces in Iraq. The following day, 08 August 2014, US military aircraft began limited operations in the country’s north. In what is believed to have been one of the first attacks, two F/A-18 aircraft reportedly dropped several laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece that was attacking Kurdish forces not far from Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This was followed up over the weekend by a series of targeted attacks by both manned and unmanned US aerial vehicles; largely hitting specific small-scale IS assets, less in an effort to destroy militant forces, but rather to stall their advances into Kurdish-held territory. But why has Obama – who has made no secret of his hesitation to consider military operations to counter the Islamists gains in Iraq – chosen this moment to reverse his previous stance? The answer lies in a number of recent events, which constitute a clear deepening of the conflict, particularly the IS advances into areas held by the Kurds, its targeting of embattled religious communities (like the Yazidis), and its seizure of large amounts of heavy weaponry from Iraqi military bases. In parallel to these military developments, Iraq’s political crisis has also worsened, as incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s struggle to hold onto power continues to exacerbate divisions in the nation’s capital.