Syria Comes Apart (World Politics Review Special Reports)

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  1. What is the future of Europe?
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All parties—the Houthis and their Yemeni adversaries, but also the Saudis and Emiratis—seem to believe that time is on their side. An Afghan police truck transports injured victims following a suicide attack in Kabul on July In , by one tally , the war killed more than 40, combatants and civilians. But the ad hoc nature of the decision—seemingly made without looping in top officials—and the specter it raises of the United States cutting and running could bode badly for the coming year.

In , the war exacted a higher toll than at any time since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul more than 17 years ago. A three-day cease-fire in June, which the Taliban and the government enforced and which prompted joyous celebration by fighters and civilians alike, offered a short respite, though fighting resumed immediately afterwards. Taliban fighters now effectively control perhaps half the country, cutting off transport routes and laying siege to cities and towns. A sharp uptick in U.

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In September, Washington appointed the veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as an envoy for peace talks—a welcome sign that it was prioritizing negotiations to end the war. Taliban leaders appear to be taking the talks seriously, though the process is stuck over their continued insistence that the United States commit to a timeline for full withdrawal of international forces as a precondition for a wider peace process involving other Afghan factions, a sequence that would be a win for the Taliban while saddling other Afghans with uncertainty.

Withdrawing 7, troops in itself will probably not be militarily decisive. Indeed, there could be value to the United States making clear it is serious about bringing troops home. All sides understand that a rapid pullout could provoke a major new civil war, an outcome nobody, including the Taliban, wants.

With a U. Neighboring countries and others involved in Afghanistan—notably Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China—all want the Americans out eventually, but none of them wants a precipitous withdrawal. They may be more inclined to support U. Its timing appeared to catch everyone—from Khalilzad and top U. The fact that it was not coordinated with Khalilzad meant that the envoy could not extract any concessions from the Taliban in return for such a key pledge that partially addressed their core demand. In Kabul, the sense of betrayal was palpable. A few days later, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani nominated two hard-line anti-Taliban officials as his defense and interior ministers, suggesting a move away from his compromising tone of the past year.

But that was always an uncertain bet. The standoff between China and the United States is not a deadly conflict, no matter how bitter the trade war between Washington and Beijing has become. Still, rhetoric between the two is increasingly bellicose. If relations, already at their lowest ebb since the Tiananmen protests almost three decades ago, continue to deteriorate, the rivalry could have graver geopolitical consequences than all of the other crises listed this year.

In a deeply divided Washington, one position that wins bipartisan consensus is that China is an adversary with which the United States is inexorably locked in strategic competition.

Most U. Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, even as it acts inconsistently with the spirit of both. In reality, China likely has no short-term desire to fundamentally challenge the world order. But Beijing is ever readier to throw its weight around in multilateral institutions and its region. In Asia, it expects a Chinese sphere in which neighbors are sovereign but deferential. Mounting U. For the two superpowers, pooling efforts to end crises has never been easy.

An increasingly bitter rivalry would make it much harder. China would be less likely to back either tougher sanctions against North Korea, if stuttering talks between Washington and Pyongyang break down, or U.

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  8. Risks of direct conflict remain slim, but the South China Sea is a troubling flash point. The past two decades have seen occasional run-ins between Chinese forces and U. Beijing stakes claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, stopping mere miles from the Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Philippine coastlines, and has aggressively built bases on strategic natural and man-made islands.

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    Others, of course, see it differently. The smaller Southeast Asian nations object, and some look to Washington for protection. Beijing and Washington could reach some form of trade deal in the months ahead, which would help ease tensions. But any respite is likely to be short-lived.

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    On both sides, leaders believe a long-festering geopolitical and economic clash has reached a point of rupture. Much like , presents risks of confrontation—deliberate or inadvertent—involving the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran. The first three share a common view of the government in Tehran as a threat that has been emboldened for too long and whose regional aspirations need curbing.

    For Washington, this has translated into withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the restoration of sanctions, more aggressive rhetoric, and threats of powerful retaliation in the event of Iranian provocation.

    Riyadh has embraced this new tone, and— mainly in the voice of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—suggested it will fight back and seek to counter Iran in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and even on Iranian soil. Israel has focused on Syria, where it has regularly struck Iranian and Iranian-aligned targets, but it has also threatened to target the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

    So far, Iran—confident in long-term trends and deterred by the possibility of retaliation—has opted to hunker down. While it has resumed missile testing, and the United States has accused it of using its Shiite proxies in Iraq to threaten the U. But as economic pressure builds on Iran, this posture may not last. Moreover, the risk of an accidental clash originating in Yemen, in the Persian Gulf, in Syria, or in Iraq cannot be discounted. The main source of tension, so far, has been the U.

    Those leaders also seem to be hoping for a one-term Trump presidency. Even if they comply with nuclear constraints, the temptation could grow in Tehran to make Washington pay a price for its actions by taking aim at its presence in the region, for example by encouraging attacks by Iraqi Shiite militias against U. Any of these conflicts could escalate.

    Yemen is arguably the most dangerous. Should a Houthi missile inflict casualties in a Saudi city or if the Houthis target international commercial shipping in the Red Sea—a move they have long threatened to make—the conflict could enter a far more dangerous phase. In Syria, Israel has so far been adept at striking Iranian targets without prompting a wider war.

    Iran, no doubt aware of the potential cost of such escalation, calculates that it can absorb such attacks without endangering its deeper interests and longer-term presence in Syria. But the Syrian theater is congested, Iranian forbearance is not limitless, and the likelihood of a miscalculation or an attack gone awry remains a risk. Hanging over these dynamics will be continued reverberations of the October assassination of Khashoggi. The murder amplified criticism in the United States of both Saudi foreign policy and the seemingly unconditional U. These feelings will intensify next year as Democrats assume control of the House.

    One can only hope this leads to stronger U. A Syrian child walks past the rubble of destroyed buildings in an opposition-held neighborhood of the southern city of Daraa on Oct. As came to a close, it looked as if the Syrian conflict would continue along the same path.

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    It seemed that the regime of Bashar al-Assad, with Iranian and Russian help, would win its battle against the opposition. This paranoia—frequently reflected in official state media, which Khamenei controls—is also driven by political expediency. The revolution needs enmity with the United States. And the Iran nuclear program and negotiations engrossed the Obama presidency. Trump inherited from Obama an Iran that resembled the late-stage USSR, powerful beyond its borders but hemorrhaging billions of dollars in foreign entanglements and mired by internal economic malaise and ideological fatigue.

    To this day, senior U. Although Khomeini died 30 years ago, his sinister daily presence on American TV sets through the day hostage crisis left a lasting impression. The confusion—like so much the U. But in reality they are all led by individuals handpicked by Khamenei or unfailingly loyal to him. They serve to buttress rather than check his authority.

    Khamenei is a reader. Iran makes a great show of its highly manipulated presidential elections, and their importance to the public became clear when the ballot was stolen. Marring the ballot was a dangerous miscalculation by Khamenei, and perhaps an unnecessary one. No matter the challenge brought by a President—the economic challenge of Hashemi Rafsanjani — , the democratic challenge of Khatami, the populist challenge of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — or the pragmatic one of Rouhani —present —Khamenei emasculated each.

    In more than two decades researching Iran, both in Tehran and the U. Khamenei projects a life of piety and service. His modest official residence in working-class central Tehran is hidden from the public, and his clothing usually consists of dull robes and cheap slippers. Among his two daughters and four sons all of whom became clerics only one, Mojtaba, has a public profile. And in contrast to Arab first ladies whose spendthrift ways have fueled popular anger, Mrs.

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    Khamenei has never been seen in photographs. The conglomerate was built on the seizure of property of Iranians, many of them religious minorities, and holds stakes in sectors as diverse as oil, telecommunications, the production of birth control pills and ostrich farming. But if Khamenei controls more billions than Trump ever claimed to, his origin story is both humbler and bloodier. Those who know Khamenei personally have speculated that the roots of his hatred toward Israel and the U.

    When Grand Ayatollah Khomeini returned in triumph in , having overthrown the Shah, his disciple was catapulted from anonymity. Khamenei was delivering a speech on June 27, , in a Tehran mosque, when a bomb hidden in a tape recorder exploded.

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    The cultlike Marxist-Islamist organization that was blamed for the bomb, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, now promotes regime change from exile. It has minimal support but deep pockets and has together paid Trump associates John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees. Khamenei became an Ayatollah by shortcut. When Khomeini died in , shortly after agreeing to a cease-fire to end the brutal eight-year war with Iraq, there was no clear successor. He was made an Ayatollah overnight, but, lacking the respect of the seminary, instead sought the legitimacy of the barracks.

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    Khamenei cultivated the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps IRGC , selecting its top cadres, and shuffling them every several years to prevent them from establishing independent power bases. The checkered IRGC scarf Khamenei wears around his neck signals a symbiotic relationship: politically expedient for Khamenei and financially expedient for the Guards, who have become a dominant economic force in the theocracy they defend. Between banking, construction, smuggling and other nebulous enterprises, the IRGC, one study estimates, now accounts for one-third of the Iranian economy.

    Iran, which is publicly edging toward resuming its nuclear program , will likely always want to be a screwdriver turn away from having atomic weapons. But for now it has been doing well without them.

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