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.


A Mix of International Affairs

International Affairs from a Variety of Online Articles

By: Evan Pye

This week I read and took notes on several online articles that I have been bookmarking over the past few weeks. The topics covered in the articles range from elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo to American foreign policy to innovative solutions in global health and education.

Governance in Africa (Link)There are signs that President Joseph Kabila from the Democratic Republic of Congo may violate the country’s constitution by running for a third term this December. Kabila took over power in the DRC after his father’s assassination in 2001. Since the DRC achieved independence in the 1960s, it has never enjoyed a democratic transfer of executive power, which is why the United Nations and Secretary of State John Kerry from the United States is strongly urging Kabila’s government to step down in December.

These events echo what has transpired recently in Burundi. There, President Nkurunziza ran for an unconstitutional third term in July of 2015 and won with 70% of a farce election. Protests and violence erupted in Burundi last year, so fear of even more instability in the DRC are well-warranted with its decades-long track record of violence.

American Foreign Policy (Link)In this article critiquing America’s foreign policy strategy, Jeffrey Sachs lays out a comprehensive overview of the United States’ failed meddling in other countries’ affairs over the past 60 years. Since the creation of the CIA in 1947 with the National Security Act, the covert agency has led coups, assassinations, or general destabilization in 20 different countries. Sachs ties this interventionist approach to the fall of four major empires after World War I – the Prussian, Russian, Hapsburg, and Ottoman Empires. Britain and France quickly filled the gaps that these empires left and misguidedly divided up the Middle East between themselves with the Sykes-Picot agreement. After World War II, the United States took Britain’s place as the world’s superpower and used the CIA to influence international events. Sachs argues that the US viewed every country in the world as a potential “first domino” that could fall to the Soviet Union and start a dangerous chain reaction. Yet, even after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the United States strengthened NATO and tried to extend its reach to post-Soviet countries all the way up to the Russian border. The US invited Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO in 2008. Subsequently, Russia invaded Georgia, annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and destabilized much of eastern Ukraine. Russia has acted similarly when the United States has shown signs of dismantling the Soviet-friendly dictators of Syria and Iran. Sachs also goes into the CIA involvement with Osama bin Laden and the Saudi Arabian-backed mujahideen, which mobilized jihadist Sunni Muslims in Afghanistan after the failed Soviet invasion in 1979.

Education in Developing Countries (Link) This article on education by Bjorn Lomborg lists some common-sense ideas for education interventions in developing countries that actually haven’t been shown to work: smaller class sizes, extending the school day, adding computers to the classroom, and providing textbooks to students. On the other hand, two less conventional interventions have proven to be quite beneficial to educational outcomes: providing two years of weekly home visits to teach parenting techniques to families with stunted children, and streaming students into low-performing and high-performing classes so that teachers can more easily tailor lessons to certain groups of students.

Global Health – I also read two global health articles on tuberculosis and antibiotic resistance. The tuberculosis article listed five steps that should be taken in order to eliminate all tuberculosis deaths around the world. They include ramping up data collection efforts, preventing new infections, controlling the sources of the disease, developing a better vaccine, and tackling the social determinants of the disease. The antibiotic resistance article provides ideas for two innovative financing mechanisms for pharmaceutical research and development, which is vital to staying ahead of the antibiotic resistance threat. The first is a billion dollar reward scheme for companies that develop new versions of the most-needed antibiotics, while the second is an access-to-market fee that pharmaceutical industry regulators would impose upon the industry to raise money to support R&D.