Syria: foreign intervention still debated, but distant

A family escapes from fierce fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government troops in Idlib, north Syria, Saturday, March 10, 2012 (by FreedomHouse from Flickr under Attribution 2.0 Generic CC BY 2.0 license).

From Strategic Comments

The debate over external intervention in Syria has grown in recent weeks as the humanitarian toll of its revolution-turned-civil war rapidly mounts, atrocities by government forces multiply, pressure increases on Turkey and other neighbouring states, and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad resorts to the use of air power.

So far, Western countries have exhibited little enthusiasm for military intervention, and Russia has blocked most possible actions by the United Nations. For the United States, President Barack Obama indicated in August that the use or transfer of chemical weapons would constitute a clear red line. However, the crossing of other presumed red lines since the revolution began in March 2011 has not prompted any direct external intervention. The complexity of the crisis, its regional repercussions, the deadlock at the UN and the projected costs of any military operations have deterred other states. None has sought to make a decisive entry into the fray that could tip the balance of power.

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Negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Trade ministers from APEC-member economies attend a June 2012 summit in Kazan, Russia.

Trade ministers from APEC-member economies attend a June 2012 summit in Kazan, Russia.

The latest IISS Strategic Comment examines the negotiations behind a new free-trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific, which could become ‘the most far-reaching economic agreement since the World Trade Organization was established’. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as it is known, could eventually unite at least 11 economies in two of the world’s most dynamic regions, East Asia and the Americas.

Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam together constitute nearly 30% of the world’s gross domestic product, and Japan – the world’s third-largest economy – may join in the future.

But opinions on the TPP are divided, as the article explains: ‘On the one hand, it could serve to strengthen strategic relationships among regional states, and to reassure Asian countries about Washington’s commitment to the region. However, it could also be interpreted as the economic complement to the US military’s ‘rebalancing’ to Asia and as an attempt to contain China.’

Read the full article

Understanding the Saudi succession

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud performs a funeral prayer for Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (Photo: Saudi Press Agency)

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud performs a funeral prayer for Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (Photo: Saudi Press Agency)

It’s not yet clear what the appointment of Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud as crown prince of Saudi Arabia following the death of his brother, Naif, will mean  for the country or the wider gulf region. Prince Salman has a reputation as something of a reformer but is also known to be hawkish on Iran.

The appointment has also shone a spotlight on the kingdom’s labyrinthine rules of succession. In December 2010, following the unusual public announcement  that King Abdullah would be seeking medical treatment in the US, an IISS Strategic Comment explained the 2006 Succession Law, and looked at the issues facing the Saudi monarchy.

Read Saudi-Arabia: testing times ahead

Time to end the war on drugs?

Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines, Regimental Combat Team 1, search a vehicle for possible threats during operation Aero Hunter in Afghanistan, May 9. Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 and RCT-1 supported Operation Aero Hunter to disrupt suspicious activity and counteract enemy drug and weapons trafficking.

South American countries afflicted by drug-related violence are seeking to promote a global discussion on the legalisation of narcotics, the latest IISS Strategic Comment says. Increasingly, these countries  feel that a prohibition-based strategy places most of the burden on them, rather than on consumer countries, as they suffer from extreme violence caused by competition between drug cartels.

It’s a timely topic, with the Intelligence Squared forum and Google recently joining forces to host a high-profile discussion entitled: ‘Is it time to end the war on drugs?’ The event attracted dozens of participants from Virgin boss Richard Branson, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and human-rights lawyers Geoffrey Robertson to former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and Mario Antonio Costa, the former head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

And this latest Strategic Comment is just an entree to an IISS Adelphi book out later this month. In Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition, authors Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli look at the money and effort that has going into curtailing the drugs trade – with limited success. Their book shows ‘how progress may be made by treating consumption as a healthcare issue rather than a criminal matter, thereby freeing states to tackle the cartels and traffickers who hold their communities to ransom’.

As another author and expert Misha Glenny says, it’s quite something when an organisation like the IISS enters a debate like this on the side it has – ‘surely a sign’, he continues, ‘that the time has come for a fundamental rethink of this policy.’

We hope to hear from Nigel and Virginia directly after the book is out; in the meantime, there’s more about it here.

Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s options

Could Iran shut the Strait of Hormuz, or significantly hinder traffic passing through it? A recent decision by the European Union to impose a total embargo on the purchase of Iranian oil has prompted threats from Tehran to close the world’s most important oil chokepoint. However, an assessment of military capabilities deployed in the area, and of likely tactics, suggests that Iran would find it difficult or unpalatable to cause major disruption, the latest IISS Strategic Comment finds.

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