How It Works

July 21 2014 4:44 PM

Twitter Is Changing How the Media Covers the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Benjamin Wallace-Wells of New York notes that in contrast with previous Israeli-Palestinian clashes, there seems to be a lot more coverage of the Palestinian casualties of Operation Protective Edge. 

This may be partly because of the stark differences in death tolls between the two sides and in particular the shockingly high number of Palestinian children who have been killed. But I suspect one big reason for the shift in tone has been social media.


Twitter was not even three years old when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, its last, and far bloodier, incursion into Gaza, and Twitter was certainly not the indispensible tool for gathering and disseminating news that it has since become.

Now, whether or not U.S. broadcast networks and newspapers feature images of what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls “telegenically dead Palestinians,” the images circulate. And with nearly all the journalists covering the conflict—reporters on the ground, editors assigning stories, and commentators around the world—plugged into social media as well, it’s hard to imagine their coverage is not in some way influenced by the images they’re seeing online.

Despite the Israeli government’s large social media campaign—in constrast to that of Hamas, whose accounts are routinely blocked—it has undoubtedly been losing the online information war. As the New York Times notes the “hashtag #GazaUnderAttack has been used in nearly 4 million Twitter posts, compared with 170,000 for #IsraelUnderFire.”

Mainstream outlets also seem to be responding to pro-Palestinian public backlash in a way they haven’t before. When NBC News Foreign Correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin was removed from Gaza shortly after reporting on the killing of four boys in an airstrike on a Gaza beach, he was reinstated four days later following a widespread social media backlash. Newspaper headlines downplaying Palestinian casualties have also been roundly criticized

On the other hand, it’s not clear how much difference this will make. Support for Israel remains extremely high in the United States and is increasingly defined by party affiliation. The coverage may be becoming more balanced, but the audience may not have much interest in nuance.

Video Advertisement

July 21 2014 3:44 PM

“Telegenically Dead Palestinians”

This article originally appeared in Daily Intelligencer.

In many ways, the story of this month’s eruption of violence in Israel and Palestine has been depressingly familiar. But in one interesting way it has been a little bit different from the beginning: American audiences are seeing the story of the conflict, perhaps more than ever before, through Palestinian eyes.
That this is the case is probably something of an accident. But after Israeli extremists kidnapped and murdered a Palestinian kid named Mohammed Abu Khdeir, apparently in retribution for the earlier murder of three Israeli teenagers, police detained and beat up his cousin, Tariq Abu Khdeir, a 15-year-old Palestinian-American from Tampa, vacationing with his family. It is common for television news broadcasts to carry sympathetic stories of a local American kid tragically caught up in Middle Eastern violence. It is not so common for that kid to be Palestinian. Soon the networks were broadcasting sympathetic interviews with Tariq Abu Khdeir's angry mother. “The Palestinians live like this every day,” Suha Abu Khdeir told ABC. “They kind of say, OK, we'll deal with it. But us, as Americans, it’s just, it’s not human.”


It’s been a little more than two weeks since Abu Khdeir’s kidnapping, and the violence in Gaza has escalated from retribution murders into a military campaign. But in the American press, the human story of the Israel–Palestine conflict—in which more than 400 Palestinians have been killed, and fewer than 20 Israeli soldiers—has stayed, unusually, on the Palestinian side. As the first Israeli mortars began to fall on Gaza, the most arresting and memorable event was the death of four Palestinian preteens killed by fire from Israeli gunboats; moments earlier, the boys had been playing soccer with journalists on the beach. “It looked as if the shells were chasing” the children, one witness told NBC News.
By this weekend, with Israeli troops moving through Gaza, the story’s setting had moved, grimly, to Shifa Hospital. There were “lakes of blood,” a Norwegian doctor working there told Channel 4 News in the U.K. NBC broadcasted from the bedside of a man who had lost 20 members of his family. The AP documented the impossibility of medical care under siege; the doctor overseeing Shifa’s three ICU beds had “made a special wire for cardiac pacing from a spliced Ethernet cable.” On social media, images circulated: the dead body of a reporter, the large-print word PRESS on his chest covered with bloodstains, a father carrying his dead daughter’s body, a guided missile slamming into a residential area. “I’ve seen some truly shocking scenes this morning,” tweeted the Guardian's man in Gaza, Peter Beaumont, on Saturday. “A man putting the remains of his two year old son into a garbage bag.” 3,000 people retweeted that.

Earlier this month, the IDF’s Twitter feed had been full of images of besieged Israelis. But by this weekend Israel was so clearly losing the public relations war that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained to reporters, tersely, that Hamas uses “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.”
If Netanyahu is so bothered by how dead Palestinians look on television then he should stop killing so many of them. But his complaint is in itself a concession. The story of the conflict between Israel and Palestine looks a little bit different this time around. Social media have helped allow us to see more deeply inside war zones—in this case, inside Gaza—and allowed viewers much fuller access to the terror that grips a population under military attack. America’s changing demographics (the country’s Muslim population has skyrocketed in the past decade and is now as much as half the size of the U.S. Jewish population) have meant both a more receptive audience for sympathetic stories about Palestinians and more Americans like Abu Khdeir, with connections back to Palestine. The sheer imbalance in the human toll, in the numbers of dead, has been impossible to elide or ignore.
None of this is likely to change the politics of America’s relationship with Israel. The U.S.’s support for Israel wasn't arrived at arbitrarily, and it has withstood some similarly ugly episodes in the past. Palestine is still ruled by ugly politics. But more subtly, I think the way the last two weeks have unfolded in the Western media has made it more difficult for Americans not personally invested in the conflict to simply assume that the Israelis are necessarily right. There is a reason that apolitical celebrities like Dwight Howard and Rihanna were tweeting out messages of support for Palestine. They, like the rest of us, are seeing the Palestinians a little bit less as demagogues and terrorists and a little bit more as they see themselves, as ordinary people living in often impossible circumstances.

July 21 2014 3:09 PM

It’s Not John Kerry’s Fault the World Blew Up Last Week

Secretary of State John Kerry is taking a lot of heat at the moment for a “hot mic” moment just before an interview on Fox News Sunday in which he sarcastically described Israel’s offensive in Gaza as “a hell of a pinpoint operation.”

It was pretty mild as reactions go to the grim civilian death toll from Israel’s bombardment, and I’m guessing pretty mild compared with what U.S. officials say in private, but as Kerry heads to the region in hopes of helping to negotiate a cease-fire, his credibility with the Israeli government is already not particularly high.


This is the latest of a number of examples of Kerry going off-script, and it’s leading to the inevitable perception among many that Kerry is bumbling his responsibilities during a week when a number of simultaneous international crises are blowing up. Before host Chris Wallace played back Kerry’s “pinpoint operation,” he had already been pressing the secretary on the administration’s response to the shootdown of MH17 and the stalling of nuclear talks with Iran.

There’s plenty of room to criticize the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and Kerry in particular—Syria is a good place to start—but it’s hard to lay responsibility for last week’s grim news at his doorstep.

Acting against the conventional wisdom, which held that it was a complete waste of time, it was Kerry who pushed to restart the moribund Middle East peace process in 2013. Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon have a riveting tick-tock account of those talks in the New Republic today, which makes it abundantly clear that while Kerry may have been guilty of hubris, it was the parties involved who were responsible for the breakdown. On the other hand, as the authors note, “since the talks collapsed three months ago, Kerry’s warning about a third intifada has looked far more prescient.” Kerry’s efforts may have been futile, but his argument that time was quickly slipping away for a two-state solution is hard to refute.

As for Russia, Kerry has been about as tough as America’s chief diplomat can be in his rhetoric condemning Moscow for supporting pro-Russian separatists. The United States has already placed wide-ranging sanctions on Russia and is pushing for Europe to do the same.

There’s a tendency to judge U.S. foreign policy on the condition of the world at any given moment rather than the success of actual actions taken. I suspect this is what’s mainly to blame for Hillary Clinton’s slumping approval numbers. But it’s hard to make the case that Kerry’s actions (or lack of actions) contributed significantly to the crises in Ukraine or Israel.

And sometimes there is little tangible evidence of a secretary of state’s greatest successes. Consider that there’s a good chance that without Kerry’s intervention, we would also be seeing the outbreak of full-fledged civil war in Afghanistan this week. Unfortunately for Kerry, one of his more impressive feats of diplomacy may have taken place during a week when everyone was distracted by fires no one could have prevented.

July 18 2014 5:00 PM

Why Is Modern Warfare So Deadly for Children?

It’s striking how many of the recent crises that have received international attention prominently involve violence against children.

More than 40 children have already been killed in Israel’s strikes against Gaza, a crisis that of course began with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The killing of four Palestinian boys on a Gaza beach, as the New York Times’ Anne Barnard put it, “came quickly to symbolize how the Israeli aerial assaults in Gaza are inevitably killing innocents in this crowded, impoverished sliver of land along the Mediterranean Sea.”


Meanwhile on America’s southern border, we’re seeing the consequences of an escalating drug war in Central America in which children increasingly find themselves on the front lines. In El Salvador, murders of children have increased even as the overall homicide rate dropped following a gang truce. (Unfortunately, as my colleague David Weigel notes, this is attracting depressingly little sympathy in Washington.)

Then of course, there’s Boko Haram’s ongoing campaign of terror in northern Nigeria, which attracted international attention after the abduction of 223 girls in April. Most of the girls are still missing.

A new annual report from the U.N. secretary general looks at trends in violence against children in 2013, finding “a significant spike in the killing and maiming of children in several situations, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.” The U.N. also documented more than 4,000 cases of children being recruited and coerced into combat.

Why do today’s wars seem deadlier than ever for children? The New Yorker’s Robin Wright reflects on the issue, writing, “today’s wars are increasingly within countries rather than between them; the fighting has moved to city streets, invading the playrooms of homes and kindergartens.”

This corresponds with the findings of another recent U.N. report, this one looking specifically at Afghanistan, which found that casualties among women and children rose much more quickly than for adult men last year due to a shift from improvised explosive devices to gun battles in heavily populated areas as the most prominent form of violence.

Of course, not all violence against children is incidental, the inevitable result of shifting patters of warfare. There are extensive reports of Central American criminal organizations targeting children for recruitment or as a means of punishing or extorting their parents. Boko Haram’s massive abduction got it exactly the kind of international publicity it craves. The three Israeli teenagers who were killed last month were clearly intentionally targeted, as was the Palestinian teenager killed in retaliation. ISIS has deliberately targeted families with children in Iraq as part of its clash with Kurdish forces. Syrian forces have been accused of deliberately targeting children for detention and torture.

In a world where violence is shifting from battles between state-sponsored militaries to clashes involving nonstate groups fought in communities, children aren’t just often the victims, they’re often the targets.

July 17 2014 5:51 PM

Why the MH17 Crash Might Change Nothing at All in Ukraine  

U.S. intelligence agencies now say they believe that the Malaysia Airlines flight that crashed in eastern Ukraine today was brought down by a surface-to-air missile. If nothing else, the incident is going to put the crisis in Ukraine back on the international agenda.

Speculation about what this may mean for the crisis has already begun, with responses ranging from Jacob Heilbrunn’s fears that this is a Lusitania moment that could draw the U.S. and Russia into a new world war, to Marc Champion’s more optimistic take that this could be the catalyst to de-escalating the conflict.*


I’m going to not-so-boldly suggest that it will likely be something in the middle. In fact, it’s quite possible the incident won’t change the underlying dynamics in Ukraine that much at all.

As Mark Leon Goldberg smartly points out, “One of the key distinguishing features of the conflict in Ukraine is that the USA and Russia have not been able to agree to a simple set of facts about the crisis.”

This has been true up until now and already seems to be true of the MH17 crash, with Vladimir Putin suggesting that the crash is Ukraine’s responsibility because it took place over Ukrainian territory and the Russian media already putting the blame on the Ukrainian military.   

Any smoking-gun evidence tying separatist rebels to the crash or the separatists to Russia will be spun and denied. The rebels will deny they shot down the plane, and the Russian government—as it has continually—will deny that it is supporting the rebels.

There will be pressure on the U.S. to respond forcefully against Russia, but new sanctions were announced just yesterday. The high number of European casualties on the plane may spur calls for the EU to step up its sluggish response, but those measures were also already in the works

The incident may result in a temporary lull in violence—separatists are apparently open to a three-day cease-fire—but my guess is that before long the Ukrainian military will restart its offensive against the rebels and, once Ukraine dips out of the headlines a bit, separatist activity including the supplying of fighters with arms from Russia will continue.

When the story eventually falls out of the headlines—and it certainly already has competition—the conflict will likely remain. I should note that while all the examples of passenger planes being shot down mentioned in my last post raised global tensions, none of them actually led to a war, or ended one. 

*Correction, July 17, 2014: This post originally misspelled Jacob Heilbrunn’s last name.

July 17 2014 2:00 PM

Passenger Planes in the Cross Hairs

The warning in my last post about thinly sourced news coming out of Israel applies doubly to the crash of a Malaysia Airlines passenger flight in eastern Ukraine, which Ukrainian officials are strongly suggesting was shot down. Both the Ukrainian government and Russian separatists deny having shot down the plane, though it would be a fairly incredible coincidence for a plane to go down in a region where a Ukrainian military fighter jet and a military transport plane were both shot down in the past week.

In any event, this would certainly not be the first case of a passenger jet being mistakenly shot down by military forces on high alert. These events were far more common the Cold War era, when airspace was more tightly controlled.


In 1955, for instance, an El Al flight from Vienna to Tel Aviv to London was shot down by Bulgarian fighter jets when it inadvertently veered into the country’s airspace during a thunderstorm, killing 58 people on board.*

Israeli military jets shot down a Libyan Airlines flight from Tripoli to Cairo in 1973 when it drifted into Sinai, then under Israeli control, as the result of a sandstorm. One hundred and eight people were killed.

Korean Airlines twice found itself in the cross hairs of the Soviet military. A KAL 707 flying from Paris to Seoul was brought down but not destroyed by heat-seeking missile near Murmansk in 1978 when it was mistaken for a military plane.* Five years later, KAL Flight 007, from New York to Seoul via Anchorage, was shot down by Soviet jets when it mistakenly crossed into Soviet airspace. All 269 people on board, including U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald, were killed.

In 1988 a U.S. naval warship in the Persian Gulf shot down an Iranian Airlines flight to Dubai after mistaking it for an F-14, killing nearly 300 passengers. The incident loomed over U.S.-Iranian relations for years. While President Ronal Reagan initially called the shootdown a "proper defensive action," the U.S. later agreed to pay compensation to the victims following a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice. 

Today’s crash would not even be Ukraine’s first experience with an incident of this type. In 2001 a Siberian Airlines flight en route from Tel Aviv crashed into the Black Sea, killing 78, many of them Russian émigrés to Israel.* While the Ukrainian military initially denied responsibility, President Leonid Kuchma later accepted the findings of a report that said the plane was brought down by Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles fired form the Crimean coast during an air defense exercise.

All of these tragedies exacerbated already tense political disputes. Though in the case of the current situation in eastern Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine how things could get much worse.

*Correction, July 17, 2014: This post originally misstated that an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to London was shot down in 1952. The 1955 flight was from Vienna to Tel Aviv. The post also misstated that a downed Siberian Airlines flight was en route to Tel Aviv. It was en route from Tel Aviv. It also misstated that a KAL flight was a 747. It was a 707.

July 17 2014 12:07 PM

The Middle East Friendship Chart

With overlapping civil wars in Syria and Iraq, a new flare-up of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, and tense nuclear talks with Iran, Middle Eastern politics are more volatile than ever and longtime alliances are shifting. Here's a guide to who's on whose side in the escalating chaos. Click a cell to learn more information.

Legend:FriendsEnemiesIt's complicated

For the interactive version, visit on your desktop or tablet.


Egypt: ENEMY

Egypt’s military government has made cracking down on extremist groups in the Sinai Peninsula a priority, and the al-Qaida-inspired group Ansar Beyt al-Maqdis has emerged as the country’s most formidable terror threat.


The two groups have been linked in the past and have a shared hostility toward Israel, but their ultimate goals are quite different. Hamas authorities in Gaza have at times clashed with even more radical al-Qaida-linked groups there.

Hezbollah: ENEMY

While nominally on the same side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Shiite Lebanese militia and the Sunni international terror network have found themselves on opposite sides of Syria’s brutal civil war. Al-Qaida-linked groups have carried out attacks against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon.


Despite their religious divide, Iran has allowed senior members of al-Qaida to operate from its territory in the past, particularly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but the civil war in Syria has seriously strained the relationship. Iran expelled Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law and spokesman from its territory in 2013.


Al-Qaida remains opposed to the U.S.-backed Shiite government in Iraq, though ISIS is now the primary threat to the Iraqi government.

ISIS: Al-Qaida central disavowed any connection with the group that used to be known as “al-Qaida in Iraq” earlier this year and has criticized both its tactics and unwillingness to work with other groups. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a “caliphate” last month was a major challenge to the authority of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Israel: ENEMY

Al-Qaida and its affiliates remain committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.

Palestinian Authority: ENEMY

Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has denounced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as an appeaser who is selling out the Palestinian cause to appease the United States.

Saudi Arabia: ENEMY

Al-Qaida supports the overthrow of the House of Saud, and Saudi security forces have cracked down on al-Qaida cells within the country and supported efforts to fight al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in neighboring Yemen. However, U.S. officials have often expressed frustration with the government’s inability to prevent wealthy Saudis from sending funding to the group.

Syria: ENEMY

Al-Qaida supports the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime through its local affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

Turkey: ENEMY

Al-Qaida has carried out a number of deadly attacks against Turkey over the years. But all the same, Turkey only recently stopped supporting the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.

United States: ENEMY

The U.S. continues to attack al-Qaida and its affiliated groups in Libya, Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen, though these efforts have shifted more toward affiliates like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula rather than the central Pakistan-based group once led by Osama Bin Laden. The U.S. government believes al-Qaida is still plotting attacks against the United States and its international interests.


Hamas: ENEMY

In stark contrast to ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Hamas-linked Muslim Brotherhood, the new Egyptian government has made life miserable for Hamas by arresting its members within Egypt and destroying the smuggling tunnels used to bring goods (as well as weapons) into Gaza.


Cairo designated Hezbollah as a terrorist group in 2009. Ties warmed briefly under former President Mohamed Morsi but have soured since his ouster. Morsi is currently on trial, in part, for allegedly conspiring with the group.


Iran and Egypt have had a tense relationship since the 1979 revolution, but things improved a bit under former President Mohamed Morsi, who in 2012 became the first Egyptian leader since the revolution to visit the Islamic Republic. Iran denounced Morsi’s overthrow, but there have been some signs of a continuing thaw between the two.


The two governments are relatively friendly. Iraq backed Egypt’s crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, and Egypt supports Iraq remaining a unified state.


There have been some reports of ISIS members operating in Sinai, but whether or not that’s true, the group is certainly hostile to the Egyptian government.


Likely in deference to public opinion, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has condemned Israel’s offensive in Gaza, but has crucially kept its border closed, preventing aid or reinforcements from reaching Hamas or the people of Gaza. Egypt and Israel are currently working on a major gas deal.

Palestinian Authority: COMPLICATED

The PA supported the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, who was seen as supportive of rival Hamas. The two governments have been negotiating terms for a Gaza ceasefire.

Saudi Arabia: FRIEND

Saudi Arabia supported the coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi and has provided financial backing for the new government.

Syria: ENEMY

While former President Mohamed Morsi supported the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, Egypt's new rulers have been far less enthusiastic, opposing outside military intervention.

Turkey: ENEMY

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist government, which knows a thing or two about military coups, strongly condemned the ouster of Mohamed Morsi. Turkey expelled Egypt’s ambassador in late 2013, and relations between the two regional powerhouses remain chilly.

United States: FRIENDLY

The U.S. suspended military aid to Egypt last fall after its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood but recently restored it, despite few apparent improvements in the human rights situation in the country.



The two groups have long shared a common goal in the struggle against Israel—and both have backers in Iran and Syria—but their relationship has soured since Hamas made the decision to support the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad.


Iran is one of Hamas’ traditional backers, but it cut its support to the group after they found themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict. More recently, however, there have been indications that they’re patching things up.


The Iraqi government has been critical of Israel, but doesn't have much of a relationship with Hamas.


ISIS reportedly has a recruitment presence in Gaza, and Hamas authorities have attempted to clamp down on young Palestinians going to join the fight in Syria.

Israel: ENEMY

Not much nuance here. The two continue to exchange fire, though Israel’s current offensive seems likely to seriously degrade the group’s capabilities.

Palestinian authority: COMPLICATED

Hamas, which maintains control of Gaza, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank, are longtime rivals for political control in the Palestinian territories, but Hamas backed a unity government led by Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas in June.


The Saudis have traditionally been backers of Palestinian unity governments and have attempted to act as mediators in conflicts with Israel, but things were complicated earlier this year when Saudi Arabia designated Hamas’ parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, as a terrorist group.

Syria: ENEMY

In 2012, Hamas made the politically risky decision to cut its ties with Bashar al-Assad’s regime and back the rebels, moving its headquarters from Syria to Qatar.

Turkey: FRIEND

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hosted Hamas leader Khaled Meshal three times, the only NATO country that has done so.

United States: ENEMY

The U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist organization, though much to Israel’s consternation, it said last month that it would continue to work with the Hamas-backed Palestinian unity government.



Tehran has been Hezbollah’s primary patron since its founding in the early 1980s.


Though there’s not much direct collaboration between the two, Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government shares with Hezbollah a key ally in Iran and a key enemy in ISIS. Maliki raised eyebrows in Washington in 2006 by denouncing Israel as the aggressor in its anti-Hezbollah incursion into Lebanon.


Hezbollah is staunchly opposed to the growing Sunni militant threat posed by ISIS. The departure of Iraqi Shiite militias to return home to fight has left the group a bit overexposed in Syria.

Israel: ENEMY

For now, the Israel-Hamas conflict is getting more attention, but Israel-Hezbollah violence seems likely to return eventually.

Palestinian Authority: COMPLICATED

Mahmoud Abbas has criticized the group in the past, but not very strongly.

Saudi Arabia: ENEMY

Riyadh blacklisted Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in March and called for it to pull out of Syria.


Hezbollah members have been fighting in Syria on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.


The two are supporting opposite sides in Syria, and relations have been strained, but unlike a number of other governments, Turkey has not designated the group as a terrorist organization.

United States: ENEMY

The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization and sanctions companies that do business with it.



Iran has been steadily increasing its influence in Shiite-dominated Baghdad for years and has dispatched advisers and drones to aid the government in its fight against ISIS.


The rise of ISIS is a major threat to Iranian interests in both Iraq and Syria, and Tehran has been pouring resources into fighting the group in Iraq.

Israel: ENEMY

Whatever other shifts have been happening in the Middle East, the hostility between Iran and Israel has not dampened, nor has Israel’s skepticism about the prospects for an international nuclear deal between Iran and the West.

Palestinian Authority: COMPLICATED

Iran traditionally backed the more militant Hamas and Hezbollah, and contacts between the PA and Tehran are cordial but rare.

Saudi Arabia: ENEMY

The Sunni and Shiite powers are major rivals for regional influence, and many view the bloody struggle in Syria as something of a proxy battle between the two, though some recent dialogue may hold out the possibility of a rapprochement.


Along with Russia, Iran has been Bashar al-Assad’s most committed international backer, sending billions in aid to his beleaguered regime.


The two longtime rivals for regional influence are at odds over the conflicts in both Syria and Iraq, but have a deepening economic relationship, and political ties have been warming.

The two longtime rivals for regional influence are at odds over the conflicts in both Syria and Iraq, but have a deepening economic relationship, and political ties have been warming.

United States: ENEMY

For now at least. The U.S. retains sanctions on Iran, and the two are still miles apart on a host of issues from Syria, to Israel, to human rights, but under new President Hassan Rouhani there’s been more progress toward a nuclear deal and the two are now tacitly cooperating in helping the Iraqi military fight ISIS.



ISIS isn’t just the most serious security threat Iraq has faced in years, it poses a threat to the country’s existence within its current borders.

Israel: ENEMY

Much to the irritation of his backers in Washington, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has remained steadfast in his unwillingness to deal with Israel. Israel, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the staunchest backers of an independent Kurdistan.

Palestinian Authority: FRIEND

Mahmoud Abbas has had a fairly friendly relationship with Iraq’s government.

Saudi Arabia: ENEMY

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of backing ISIS to destroy his government. The Saudis, meanwhile, blame Maliki’s sectarian policies for the violence.


Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has offered both rhetorical and material support for Bashar al-Assad’s government

Turkey: ENEMY

The Turkish government has blamed Nouri al-Maliki’s misrule for the crisis in Iraq. Maliki’s government was also angered earlier this year by a gas deal signed between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government that was signed without Baghdad’s consent.

United States: FRIEND

The U.S. facilitated Nouri al-Maliki’s rise to power—and some say let him get away with increasingly authoritarian and sectarian tactics—and has now sent military advisers to help in the fight against ISIS. On the other hand, there are strong signals that the U.S. would prefer to deal with a different Iraqi prime minister.


Israel: ENEMY

ISIS’s main efforts are focused elsewhere at the moment, but ISIS’s “caliphate” is certainly hostile to the Jewish state and Israel has been quietly stepping up its support to more moderate Syrian rebel groups. There are some reports that militant groups in Gaza have pledged allegiance to ISIS.

Palestinian Authority: ENEMY

ISIS’s vision for the Middle East doesn’t leave much room for compromise with Israel.

Saudi Arabia: ENEMY

Saudi Arabia has denied claims that it supported the rise of ISIS and has recently begun to crack down on the group, but in the past may not have always tried its hardest to prevent private donors from supporting it and other extremist groups in Syria.

Syria: ENEMY

Though it’s not quite as clear-cut as you might imagine. ISIS is formally committed to his overthrow, but Bashar al-Assad’s military largely avoided attacking ISIS for months as it gained strength in eastern Syria, likely in order to further divide the rebel movement. But Syrian planes have recently begun attacking ISIS within Iraq.

Turkey: ENEMY

ISIS has abducted dozens of Turkish citizens in Iraq, many of whom remain in captivity.

United States: ENEMY

The U.S. has stepped up its support to both the Iraqi government and other Syrian rebel groups in order to contain ISIS.


Palestinian Authority: ENEMY

A recent bid by John Kerry to restart talks between the two failed, and a two-state solution seems as far off as ever.


The relationship between the two has always been more pragmatic than friendly, but they’re both suspicious of Iran’s nuclear intentions and frustrated with what they see as mixed U.S. signals on Syria.

Syria: ENEMY

Relations between the two countries have always been hostile and periodically violent. Israel has carried out airstrikes against Syrian military targets on several recent occasions.


Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of Israel’s most vociferous international critics, particularly since the killing of nine Turkish activists in the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid. But despite the dismal political relationship, economic ties between the two have continued to grow.

United States: FRIENDS

The relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t exactly cordial, and Israel has been alarmed at the slightly warming ties between Washington and Tehran, but the U.S. remains Israel’s primary military and political backer.



Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Syrian government for attacking Palestinian refugee neighborhoods and has butted heads with Bashar al-Assad in the past. All the same, unlike Hamas, the PA has remained relatively neutral in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey: FRIEND

Ankara has been increasing its economic aid to the Palestinian government.

Saudi Arabia: FRIEND

Saudi Arabia has given significant financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

United States: COMPLICATED

The U.S. is a major economic backer of the Palestinian Authority and has continued to support talks with Israel, but Palestinians have been frustrated with U.S. reluctance to put pressure on Israel and the U.S. has attempted to block recent Palestinian statehood bids at the United Nations.


Turkey: ENEMY

Along with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Turkey has been one of the main backers of the anti-Assad rebels as well as a major recipient of refugees from the conflict. According to a leaked recording, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his advisers have even considered direct military action.


Saudi Arabia, along with Turkey and Qatar, is one of the major regional backers of the rebels fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.

United States: ENEMY

While the Obama administration has been reluctant about being drawn into the conflict, it has imposed sanctions on Syria, provided covert aid to some rebel groups, and at one point threatened airstrikes over Assad’s use of chemical weapons. This makes it somewhat awkward that the two are now fighting a common enemy in ISIS.


United States: COMPLICATED

President Obama and Recep Tayyip Erdogan developed a personal rapport during the Arab Spring and were reportedly in frequent communication, but the relationship has frayed recently over U.S. criticism of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and Turkish frustrations over America’s hesitant response to Syria.


The two have deepening economic ties and a common cause in Syria, but in the long run they are rivals for regional influence and Saudi Arabia was far less excited than Turkey about the Arab Spring revolutions.


United States: FRIENDS

The relationship isn't as close as it was in the Bush years thanks to differences of opinion on Iran's nuclear program, Egypt's revolution, and Syria's civil war. And America's oil boom means it isn't as reliant as it once was on the House of Saud. But the two governments are still pretty tight.

*Correction, July 17, 2014: Due to a production error, this chart originally misstated that Saudi Arabia and Syria are friends. They are enemies. Also, the chart misstated the relationship between Egypt and Syria as the relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

July 17 2014 11:42 AM

Be Wary of Stories Quoting One “Israeli Official”

This morning a number of outlets, including the BBC, AFP, and Reuters, quoted claims by an unnamed Israeli official who said that the Israeli government and Hamas had agreed to a cease-fire due to take effect tomorrow morning.

The reports were quickly denied by both Hamas and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, though there are apparently ongoing talks facilitated by the Egyptian government in Cairo.


It’s not unusual for conflicting statements to come out of a government during combat and high-pressure negotiations. The quick reversal struck me only because the New York Times led its front page this morning with an article declaring that a ground invasion of Gaza is “increasingly likely,” according to a “senior Israeli military official.” The official “spoke on the condition of anonymity under military protocol” and “said that his assessment was based on ‘the signals I get.’ ”

I have no particular reason to doubt this official’s take on the signals coming from the government, but as I noted yesterday, it’s fairly apparent that there’s disagreement and even acrimony among senior Israeli leaders about what course of action to take. It doesn’t seem that unlikely that some officials might be attempting to sway policy with leaks to the international media.

My guess would be that decisions on whether to accept a cease-fire—if there were even one on the table—or escalate to a full-scale ground campaign haven’t been made yet. A lot can happen in the next few days, and I’d take the comments of any anonymous official with a grain of salt.  

July 16 2014 5:41 PM

Bibi in the Middle

Israel has apparently now agreed to a U.N. request for a five-hour humanitarian cease-fire tomorrow, but things aren’t likely to stay quiet for long. A military official tells the New York Times that the likelihood of a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip is “very high” and that dealing a meaningful blow to Hamas’ ability to fire rockets into Israel could require an operation “of many months.”

One aspect of the situation that’s gotten comparatively little attention is that hardline members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet seem to be pushing the Israeli government toward a more aggressive campaign. Netanyahu is hardly pushing for accommodation, but the most aggressive political pushback he’s gotten during this campaign is from the right, not the left.    


Yesterday, Netanyahu fired his deputy defense minister, Danny Danon, a member of his own Likud party, for saying that the short-lived cease-fire yesterday had humiliated Israel.

Netanyahu had faced heavy criticism in the Cabinet for accepting the Egyptian-proposed cease-fire, particularly from Danon, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Jewish Home party.

Liberman has been the loudest voice calling for an occupation of Gaza and has split his Yisrael Beiteinu party from Netanyahu’s Likud over what he sees as the prime minister’s tepid response to rocket attacks from Gaza.

“We must go all the way, there is no alternative. We have to end this conflict with the IDF in control of all of Gaza. … There is no other way to tackle the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror that rules Gaza," he has said. Cabinet meetings have apparently become extremely heated, with Netanyahu favoring a more limited campaign. Netanyahu seems to be particularly enraged by Bennett, Danon, and Liberman publicly criticizing the government.

At the moment, the debate seems to be less about whether to stop the fighting—both Israeli public opinion and Hamas seem to be against that—than about whether to escalate the conflict significantly by launching a ground invasion. Momentum seems to be with the most aggressive voices in Netanyahu's Cabinet. Moderates like Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid—whose election last year was seen by some as a sign of a potential centrist revival in Israeli politics—have been a lot quieter lately. 

July 15 2014 6:14 PM

Wall Street Journal: The World Is Falling Apart on Obama’s Watch

According to a news analysis by Jay Solomon and Carol Lee in the Wall Street Journal, the world is coming apart at the seams on Obama's watch:

The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn't been seen since the late 1970s, U.S. security strategists say, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, revolutionary Islamists took power in Iran, and Southeast Asia was reeling in the wake of the U.S. exit from Vietnam.
In the past month alone, the U.S. has faced twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria, renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan and ethnic strife on the edge of Russia, in Ukraine.
Off center stage, but high on the minds of U.S. officials, are growing fears that negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program could collapse this month, and that China is intensifying its territorial claims in East Asia.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), in a CNN interview Sunday, said the world is "in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime." 

That list actually leaves out a few alarming current conflicts, including Libya, where violence is worsening, ongoing fighting and humanitarian catastrophes in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, the Pakistani military's latest offensive in North Waziristan, and the worsening drug violence in Central America that's the main cause of the current crisis at America’s southern border. 

All the same, as undeniably grim as the last month’s headlines have been, I think it’s worth questioning this narrative a bit. First of all, John McCain was alive during World War II and fought in Vietnam. And the article seems to fit into a pattern of odd conservative nostalgia for the simpler bygone era where the U.S. and Russia stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation. (The phrase "the U.S. has faced" also irks me, implying that the violence impacting millions of people should be seen primarily as a U.S. politcial issue.)

The recent historical high point in armed conflict was actually not the late 1970s but the early 1990s, the era of the Gulf War, Black Hawk Down, the wars prompted by the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, brutual civil wars in West and Central Africa, and the Rwandan genocide.

Is the world at its most unstable since that point? Well, perhaps. But it's worth remembering that the mid-aughts included the worst years of violence in Iraq, the Darfur conflict, the Israel-Lebanon war, the Russian invasion of Georgia and numerous smaller conflicts. It wasn't the most tranquil time.

As for the examples cited by the Journal to demonstrate a departure from the norm, the current Gaza crisis is not a new conflagration but the latest chapter of a grim and predictable years-old cycle of violence. The continuing (and recently worsening) violence in Ukraine is disturbing, but also remember that it hasn’t been all that long since Russia launched full-scale ground invasion of another country and fought a brutal war against separatists in Chechnya. The Iran nuclear talks do indeed seem to be stalled, but at the very least, the prospect of military conflict between the U.S. and Iran seems a lot less likely than it did just a few years ago.

The underlying critique in the Journal story is that a more muscular U.S. foreign policy would keep this wave of instability from spreading. “The renewed instability in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent weeks is rekindling criticism that the White House hasn't pushed hard enough to maintain a U.S. military presence in these countries,” the authors write.

But in the case of Iraq, it’s worth remembering that what’s so disturbing right now is that violence is returning to levels not seen since the U.S. had troops on the ground there following its invasion of the country.

As for Afghanistan, the overall level of violence in the country remains grim, but it appears, according to reporting by the New York Times today, that some last-minute diplomatic intervention by the Obama administration at least temporarily defused an electoral crisis that risked plunging the country into civil war.

The situation in Syria is undeniably a historic catastrophe, almost solely responsible for the recent uptick in global battlefield deaths as well as main driver behind the disturbingly high population of refugees in the world right now. It’s also one area where I think the criticisms directed at the Obama administration’s tentative policy response are fair.

I think it’s a stretch for the president’s spokesman to say in response to the story that Obama's actions have “substantially improved the tranquility of the of the global community.” I also don’t want to be Pollyannaish about the state of global conflict. The carnage in Syria could still metastasize and draw in more countries. We’re certainly nowhere near through with the after-effects of the upheavals that swept through the Middle East in 2011. A miscalculation could lead to one of China’s ongoing territorial disputes erupting into a shooting war. Fights over resources in a warming world could drive more instability.

There’s a lot to be worried about in the world right now, and the U.S. still has an important role to play in containing conflict. But from Central America to Libya to Iraq, American firepower doesn’t have a great recent record of promoting stability.