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.