October 18th, 2014
11:29 PM ET

The problem with the U.S. strategy in Syria

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

By Fareed Zakaria

For any strategy to work in Syria, it needs a military component and a political one. The military one – a credible ground army – is weak. The political one is non-existent.

The crucial underlying reason for the violence in Iraq and Syria is a Sunni revolt against governments in Baghdad and Damascus that the Sunnis view as hostile, apostate regimes.

The political solution, presumably, is some kind of power-sharing arrangement in these two capitals. But this is not something that the United States can engineer, certainly not in Syria. It tried it in Iraq and, despite 176,000 troops on the ground, tens of billions of dollars, and David Petraeus' skillful leadership, the deals he brokered started unraveling within months of his departure, well before American troops had all left.

The only strategy against ISIS that has any chance of working is containment – bolstering the neighbors who are willing to fight militarily and politically, neighbors who are threatened far more than the United States is. They include, most importantly, Iraq then Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the Gulf States. The greatest challenge is to get the Iraqi government to make serious concessions to Sunnis so they are recruited into the fight, something that has not happened so far.

Watch the video for the full Take or read the WaPo column

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Topics: Fareed's Take • Syria
September 24th, 2014
05:30 PM ET

Zakaria: ISIS policy 'remains somewhat troubling'

CNN speaks with Fareed Zakaria about President Obama’s speech on the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria delivered at the United Nations on Wednesday. This is an edited version of the transcript.

Many were surprised that the Obama administration did in fact put together a coalition including five Sunni Arab countries to not only express support, but military support against ISIS. They got involved in striking these ISIS targets in Syria. That certainly is going to put enormous pressure on the rest of the world and friends of the United States to at least voice support for what the U.S. is trying to achieve.

Frankly, I wouldn't mind seeing the United States leading a little bit from behind on this one, which is to say having the Sunni Arab states in the front confronting ISIS, rather than having what ISIS would regard as the crusader capitalist Western Christian power do it.

The issue here, though, is that the strikes are fine, and I think the president will find there's broad support in a campaign against ISIS. There's broad support for the kind of talk about world order. But what's the regional strategy and follow up?

These addresses before the U.N. General Assembly are usually pretty good speeches, well written, there's a whole laundry list of international issues they want to get through, make some points, but then a few days later, certainly a few weeks later, very few people remember what they said. Will this speech be remembered down the road?

I think it will because of that very distinctive piece of it, the call on the Muslim world to cleanse itself of extremism. Very unusual. Many presidents have thought about talking in those terms, but have always been deterred – I know this was a conversation that took place within the Bush White House – because [they] always felt it would seem too anti-Muslim.

But I think it's also important to point out that this was a great speech, the kind Obama gives well. It's Obama as professor. It's a public education speech. It's coherent. It arches over lots of subjects, talks about world order. FULL POST

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Topics: Iraq • ISIS • Syria • Terrorism
U.S. must not jump when ISIS asks it to
September 16th, 2014
04:04 PM ET

U.S. must not jump when ISIS asks it to

CNN’s New Day speaks with Fareed Zakaria about recent developments over the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and what the U.S. response should be. This is an edited version of the transcript.

What is the perspective from Arab states about who is willing to join the coalition against ISIS and put boots on the ground?

Let's think about it from this point of view. What is ISIS’s strategy? What are they trying to do to put out these videos, by doing this kind of brutality? They are trying the goad the United States in. What they want to do is say, there America goes again, invading another Arab country, bombing Muslims, and we are the defenders. They want to make it us against them.

What we have to be careful not to play into the game, not to jump when they ask us to.


The most important thing is that we have to make sure that the other Arab states are involved. We have a few countries like Saudi Arabia that say they would be willing to participate in the bombings. FULL POST

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Topics: Iraq • Syria
Why U.S. is wary about intervening in Syria
August 14th, 2014
10:38 AM ET

Why U.S. is wary about intervening in Syria

CNN speaks with Fareed about the latest developments in Iraq and U.S. involvement in the region. This is an edited version of the transcript.

So, aren't these boots on the ground in Iraq? 

You know, they are boots on the ground. But I think in a way that's a kind of weird shorthand that we’ve developed to try to understand whether or not this is an open-ended mission. The really important question is, what is the nature of the mission? You go into a country and say we are going to save the country, restore it to its normal functioning, nation build – those are vast open-ended missions. It's not clear how you would do them. It's not clear how you would ever know you had succeeded.

Here, you have a very defined mission. The idea is to try to save these Yazidis, to perhaps bolster the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces. That seems to me pretty doable. There is a great danger, and I understand it, a wariness about getting more involved in Iraq. But you don't slip down every slippery slope.

Once they come off the mountaintop, what do we do for the Yazidis?

Where they will go is probably the ones that want to leave will go into Kurdistan, the Kurdish part of Iraq, which is very tolerant, but also very secure, and will become increasingly secure because we are now supplying the Kurdish forces with arms.

Remember, because these guys are an autonomous part of Iraq, the United States wouldn't sell them weaponry, wouldn't give them weaponry, because the idea was that that's violating the central government. You know, we're meant to be giving money to the Iraqi army, not to this group of militias.  Well, we have gotten over that now. The United States is helping the Kurdish Peshmerga. The Yazidis will go there. That's a secure, safe, tolerant place and can be defended.  FULL POST

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Topics: Iraq • Syria
Iraqis don't want their country broken up
July 16th, 2014
10:57 AM ET

Iraqis don't want their country broken up

By Amal Mudallali, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Amal Mudallali is a senior scholar at the Wilson Center. The views expressed are her own.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Iraq is heading for partition. The argument is that Iraq is on the cusp of being broken into three states: a Sunni, a Shiite, and a Kurdish state to replace the current state of Iraq. But while many of the proponents of this view contend that the Iraqis themselves want this because they simply cannot live together, I believe nothing could be further from the truth.

Sunni Iraqis do not want to be separate, they want to be equal. And for the Shiite Iraqis, the definition of equal is for Iraq to remain whole, but under a Shiite-dominated government. These views may appear somewhat inconsistent, but a regional and international coalition that sees the dangers of dismembering Iraq two sides should be able to help them walk back from their positions.

I know this is possible because Lebanon, another Arab country that suffered a bloody 15 year civil war, managed to step back from the abyss through a political settlement. Thirty years after the end of that civil war, and despite the suicide bombings that have blighted the country in recent months, Lebanon is still united.


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Topics: Iraq • Middle East • Syria
July 14th, 2014
10:41 AM ET

Is U.S. throwing fuel on Middle East fire?

By Fareed Zakaria

The Obama administration's decision to seek $500 million to train and fund moderate elements of the Syrian opposition has been greeted with bipartisan support in Washington. The general consensus is that if the administration had done three years ago what it is doing now, the situation in Syria would not have turned into a bloody sectarian civil war.

But almost all elements of this conventional wisdom are wrong. The administration is caving in to the classic Washington desire to "do something" in the face of a terrible tragedy without any clear sense as to whether it has the ability to improve things or to make matters worse…

…The complexity of Washington's task can be seen in the American attitude towards ISIS. When the group battles the al-Maliki government in Iraq, it is a deadly foe of the United States and must be ruthlessly attacked. But when it crosses the now non-existent border between Iraq and Syria and battles the al-Assad regime, it’s aligned with America's stated goal of regime change in Damascus.

With this whole history of sectarian conflict in mind, it’s difficult to believe that three years ago a modest American intervention of arms and training, which is all that was being advocated, would have changed the trajectory of events in Syria.

Watch the video for the full Take or read the WaPo column


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Topics: Fareed's Take • Syria
Time to rethink approach to Iraq's displacement crisis
July 11th, 2014
12:09 PM ET

Time to rethink approach to Iraq's displacement crisis

By Elizabeth Ferris and Vittoria Federici, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Ferris is the co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. Vittoria Federici is a senior research assistant at the Brookings Doha Center. The views expressed are their own.

In a scene reminiscent of Iraq’s 2006-2008 displacement crisis, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are again fleeing violent conflict for perceived safer areas. Indeed, more than 1.2 million Iraqis have been displaced since fighting erupted in Anbar Province between Sunni insurgents and the Iraqi army at the start of this year, a situation dramatically worsened by the lightning advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Sadly, this mass displacement looks like it will be even more complicated than the previous one.

For a start, ISIS fighters have quickly and brutally taken over large swathes of territory in order to establish an Islamic Caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq. Taking advantage of widespread discontent among the local Sunni population, the group is fighting an open sectarian war against the Shia-led government in Baghdad. As it consolidates its powerbase, ISIS is demanding that Muslims pledge allegiance to its movement, live according to its harsh interpretation of Islam, and wage international jihad. FULL POST

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Topics: Iraq • Syria
July 10th, 2014
10:29 PM ET

Obama caves to conventional wisdom on Syria

By Fareed Zakaria

Syria has been unstable from its birth. Between its independence in 1946 and Assad’s coup, there were around 10 other coups and attempted coups. By the late 1970s, it was already divided into camps, largely defined by Islamism and sect. Outside powers in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran — have been funding, arming and training militants on both sides. In 2011, these long-simmering tensions bubbled over.

Today, according to James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, there are about 1,500 separate insurgent groups in Syria, with between 75,000 and 115,000 insurgents. In addition, there are 7,500 foreign fighters from neighboring countries. The strongest groups are all radical Islamist — the Islamic State, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Read the Washington Post column

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Topics: Fareed's Take • Syria
Repression no cure for challenge of political Islam
July 2nd, 2014
12:28 PM ET

Repression no cure for challenge of political Islam

By Dalibor Rohac, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Dalibor Rohac is a policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute. You can follow him @daliborrohac. The views expressed are his own.

The events in Iraq, where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been mounting an offensive against the ill-prepared Iraqi army, raises important questions about political Islam and about the response to it by both Middle Eastern governments and the West.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the increased perception of political Islam as a major security threat led Western governments to boost support to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East as long as they were secular and therefore seen as superior to their theocratic alternatives. When the Egyptian military brought down President Mohamed Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013, there was a sense of relief among many observers in Washington.

Some of them may be willing to give Egypt's current military regime a pass even after its judiciary convicted three Al-Jazeera journalists for seven years for "aiding terrorists" – not to mention recently upholding death sentences for 183 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who allegedly organized an attack on a Cairo police station last year. Yet the repression of Islamic political movements, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, often backfires, with consequences that could be as dire as the current bloodbath in Iraq.


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Topics: Egypt • Iraq • Islam • Middle East • Syria
Iraq badlands might be inevitable
June 16th, 2014
04:46 PM ET

Iraq badlands might be inevitable

Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

CNN speaks with Fareed Zakaria about the advances made by militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over the past week, what role the United States can play in assisting Iraq's government, and whether the latest violence was inevitable. This is an edited version of the transcript.

What can the U.S. do?

I think that what the president is trying to do is to force the Iraqis, particularly Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to make some political overtures to the Sunnis. Because I think he recognizes at the heart of this problem what you have is a disaffected population – about 20 percent of Iraq that is fueling and supporting the insurgency.

Remember, the problem is not arms or men. The Iraqi army is about three-quarters of a million men strong. They have been trained in equipment supplied by the United States for ten years. The insurgents are about 2,000 or 3,000 people. So the fact that the insurgents [are] taking this down tells you that the basic problem is not a military one, it’s a political one. The army won't fight. The Sunnis in the area are providing support for the insurgency. FULL POST

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Topics: Iran • Iraq • Syria • Terrorism
How to respond to the ISIS threat
June 12th, 2014
12:39 AM ET

How to respond to the ISIS threat

Just a day after overunning Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, militants from the al Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gained nearly complete control of the northern city of Tikrit. How should the Iraqi government and United States respond? And what are their chances for success? Leading analysts offer their take on what to look for. The views expressed are their own.

U.S. should deal with Iraq and Syria together

By Brian Katulis, Special to CNN

The astonishing advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) across parts of northern and central Iraq has reignited a debate about what the Obama administration should do in Iraq and Syria. For now, the centerpiece of the struggle is sharply focused on how Iraq’s government responds and how countries in the region react.

The first key question is how Iraq’s government, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, responds to this assault. Al-Maliki, a leader from a Shia party who has led Iraq for the past eight years, has been accused by his opponents of becoming increasingly authoritarian and not inclusive when it comes to reaching out to people in the Sunni minority community.  Some have gone so far to say that his neglect of the Sunnis created the opening for extremist groups like ISIS to achieve the rapid gains over the past few days.

If al-Maliki can put together a cohesive response that cuts across the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide and the Arab-Kurd split, this would go a long way toward building a more stable political foundation to address Iraq’s dangerous security problems.  These events come just as Iraqi leaders are negotiating a new governing coalition after national elections on April 30.


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Topics: Iraq • Syria • Terrorism
How world can respond to Syria's refugee crisis
May 12th, 2014
02:09 PM ET

How world can respond to Syria's refugee crisis

“The Syrian crisis crashed onto neighboring Turkey’s doorstep three years ago and the humanitarian, policy and security costs continue to rise,” the International Crisis Group notes in a new report. “Ankara needs to find a sustainable, long-term arrangement with the international community to care for the Syrians who arrive daily.”

But what could a long-term solution look like? Didem Akyel Collinsworth, Turkey and Cyprus analyst for International Crisis Group's Turkey/Cyprus Project, answers readers’ questions on the issue.

What are the conditions like for Syrian refugees?

According to official numbers, Turkey has already received nearly one third of all the Syrian refugees in the region. Around 220,000 of these 720,000 people are in 22 refugee camps in Turkey. The camps have high standards compared to similar shelters around the world; some international experts refer to them as the world’s best refugee camps. In addition to food and shelter, they provide healthcare, schools and other types of assistance. Nonetheless, they are an emergency response, expensive to build and run, and simply not enough to host the continuous inflow. Most of the new arrivals therefore add to a growing “urban Syrian” population inside Turkey; these are officially around 500,000 but unofficial estimates reach one million. Some of them have the means to support themselves financially but most are destitute and in need of assistance.

There are ad-hoc efforts by Turkey’s government and other countries as well as several international and local agencies and NGOs to help them, but these are currently not enough. In the southeastern Turkish provinces along the border, Syrians have a hard time finding accommodation and access to sustained aid. In February, we met new arrivals who had fled the barrel bombings in Aleppo and who were now living out in the open in makeshift tents in Turkey’s border Kilis Province because they couldn’t afford or find housing. Even for people with accommodation, conditions are difficult – we talked to a group of around 20 people living in a bare, one-bedroom apartment with no furniture or heating.


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Topics: Syria • Turkey
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