Updates on Conflicts in Syria and Yemen and an Economic Overview by Jeffrey Sachs

By Evan Pye

This week I read news articles on Middle Eastern affairs, including the crises in Syria and Yemen. I also read an overview of the United States’ economy by Jeffrey Sachs. To begin with the Syria, it was a significant week because the US and Russia negotiated a cease-fire between Assad’s forces and the rebels. The purpose of the cease-fire was to allow aid supplies into the areas in greatest need. ISIS was not involved in the agreement, however, so there was no guarantee of safety for aid groups. The US and Russia agreed to take the time during the ceasefire to jointly target ISIS forces and an Al Qaeda affiliate group called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Meanwhile, the United Nations is making attempts to negotiate a settlement to the entire conflict with Syrian leaders in Geneva. The United States and Russia deeply disagree about the causes and potential solutions to the conflict in Syria. While Russia blames terrorist groups for destabilizing Syria, the US blames Assad and his mistreatment of his people. The common belief is that Russia is supporting Assad because he is a former-Soviet ally. While this may be true in part, this Foreign Policy article explains that Russia’s greater concern is a power vacuum left by Assad’s ousting. Russia sees a power-sharing solution in which Assad is still a leader a possibility, while the US does not. Other countries have more skin in the game than either the US or Russia. Turkey is fighting to stop ISIS from creeping up on its border and to restrain the Kurds from gaining too much power. Saudi Arabia and Iran are also engaged in a proxy war with very high stakes in Syria.

Jeffrey Sachs wrote this article on why ISIS persists in Syria, which explains the confusion that is going on there. With so many actors and so many enemies, it seems that nothing is really getting accomplished. Sachs explains that ISIS has only 25,000 troops in Iraq and Syria, and only 5,000 in Libya. Compared to fighting forces in the hundreds of thousands in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, it’s a mystery why ISIS hasn’t yet been thwarted in the Middle East. Sachs goes on to explain that ISIS persists because the countries involved in the Syria conflict have other priorities that are distracting them from eliminating ISIS. Israel considers the removal of Assad a greater priority than ISIS, because Assad helps Iran support Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are paramilitary enemies of Israel. The US also prioritizes ousting Assad in Syria, because he is the last of the Soviet-friendly regimes in the region. The US has been fighting against these regimes since the 1990s (Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan). Saudi Arabia wants to oust Assad to weaken Iran as well, just like Israel. Turkey is equally concerned with weakening the Kurds, ISIS, and Assad. Russia is primarily concerned with removing ISIS, but they have also been targeting rebel forces trying to oust Assad. The United States could partner with Russia and Iran to eliminate ISIS in Syria, but the US refuses to lose focus on the fight against Assad. This multi-targeted approach is the reason Assad and the rebels are stuck in a stalemate in places like Aleppo, and why ISIS hasn’t yet been defeated despite its small fighting force.

Yemen was also in the news this week, because more civilians were killed by Saudi Arabian air bombs. So far this summer, 40 civilians have been killed. MSF hospitals, a potato chip factory, and a school have all been targeted so far by the coalition of Sunni Arab nations. The United States is also selling weapons to Saudi Arabia for this mission, which is drawing significant criticism. The article argues that the US is simply trying to mollify Saudi Arabia, because it is not happy with the release of sanctions resulting from the American nuclear deal with Iran. Saudi Arabia is attacking the Houthi rebels, who have taken over the capital of Yemen, Sana. The Houthis are Shia, and likely close with Iran.

Finally, a Jeffrey Sachs article about the US economy provided some reasons for pessimism as well as some solutions. America is experiencing a low annual growth rate (about 1.4%) and increasing inequality. In 2016, the top 1% of earners took home 22% of income. He is also pretty pessimistic about unemployment, despite the fact that the unemployment rate is a very low 4.9%. He provides another statistic, which shows that the ratio of overall employment relative to working age (25-54) is at 77.2% now, compared to 81.5% in 2000. Sachs also says that the budget deficit is contributing to a harmfully high debt and that the big ideas we’re coming up with (Internet, smartphones) aren’t having as much of an impact as previous big innovations (steam engine, automobiles). The two solutions he offers are a renewed focus on sustainable development (people, planet, and prosperity), as well as public investment in order to spur private investment.

Online Courses on World History & Sustainable Development

By Evan Pye

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been taking several online courses to learn more about world history and the sustainable development goals. I’ve been learning world history with John Green’s CrashCourse World History 2 on youtube. The course is based on theme rather than chronologically or geographically. Themes featured include war, disease, water, Islam, climate change, and money. I went through the entire first course on world history offered by Crash Course this time last year. I learned so much that I had missed in high school, and this second course taught me just as much.  

The most interesting lesson I learned from the second half of the “World History 2” course, and the lesson that may be most relevant to international development, is that democracies may not be the most effective (economically) form of government for developing countries. John Green points to Singapore and China as examples for his argument. The architect of Singapore’s new government was Lee Kuan Yew, who leads a very dominant political power that has the freedom to focus on long-term development objectives without any interruption. As a result, Singapore has very strong health, education, and social security systems. The country has emerged as an economic success story over recent decades. Of course, China is another example of tremendous economic growth under a non-democratic political system. Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Communist Party implemented 5-year plans that allowed the Chinese government to appoint executives in China’s biggest corporations. This state-run industrial model is successful in some sectors, and not so successful in others. For instance, China is very good at building infrastructure, but not very good in entertainment or innovative industries such as filmmaking or software/tech. John Green explains that the state-run model might be helpful to developing countries that need to foster industry and infrastructure, but should maybe be replaced when a country is ready to transition to a service-based economy.

After finishing the World History II course, I signed up for a free online mini-course on the Sustainable Development Goals from Jeffrey Sachs and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The course gave an overview of the Global Goals and explained their origins. It begins with a 1972 UN conference in Stockholm, which was the first time development and the environment were discussed together. 20 years later, in 1992, the Earth Summit in Rio set goals to protect biodiversity and mitigate climate change. And then in 2012, the Rio+20 conference set the stage for the SDGs to replace the highly-successful MDGs in 2015. Sachs goes onto explain how the goals are highly inter-connected, how every country is responsible for creating its own tailored plan for achieving the goals by 2030, and how businesses and universities should serve as allies in this endeavor. While discussing the role of universities in the United States, Sachs refers to the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act, which allocated land in each state upon which to build public universities. This investment was meant to reap benefits by stimulating local economies and producing research and development to spur American progress.

I am particularly interested in the roles that universities have to contribute to global health and development. I think that for all the research that is conducted, there should also be an action component. Universities are filled with thousands of energetic, passionate, and curious students from the full range of academic departments – equipped with knowledge, expertise from their professors, and resources from their universities – capable of making a real difference. I think most of this potential is so far untapped, but could have a very significant impact on the developing world when it is.