The Syrian civil war has raged for three and a half years. It has ruined the economy, cost over 200,000 dead and forced more than 10 million people from their homes. With Syrian refugees swamping neighboring countries, the hard pressed UN and other donor agencies are struggling to provide aid to the ever increasing number of refugees.
The forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have managed to stave off defeat due in part to the splintering of opposing rebel forces. As American coalition aircraft began attacking jihadist groups, some Sunni rebel groups quit the moderate camp and joined extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (affiliated with al-Qaeda) and the fearsome Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In the gloomy realm of Syrian opposition, many believe the goal of the American air coalition has changed, it now helping the Assad regime hold on to power.
Iran and the P5+1 negotiators failed to reach an agreement on the contentious nuclear issue by the November 24 deadline. The negotiators have agreed to keep meeting in the hope of reaching an outline agreement by March 1 and a final arrangement by June 30. Under the negotiating extension, Iran’s current nuclear program will remain frozen. The nuclear program is a major concern for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the country’s hardliners. They remain able and willing to block any final agreement if they don’t like it.
Despite the aspirations of President Hassan Rouhani and a sizable part of Iran’s population, the hardliners may not be too interested in seeing the country become more integrated into the global economy. As focused revolutionaries, they make decisions based mostly on ideology, not economic considerations. Their effective internal security forces virtually obliterated the opposition that was pressing for more democracy and openness to the world after the fraudulent election in 2009. As sanctions continue to bite and the hardliners dig in, it should be remembered that Iran is Assad’s strongest supporter. It funds the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militia fighters who are supporting Syria’s overstretched army.
The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is making belated efforts to win back the support of minority Sunnis and improve relations with Iraq’s Kurds. It has also found that the central government is paying salaries to at least 50,000 nonexistent soldiers, probably on the payroll since the time his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, was in charge. Maliki’s badly bungled management alienated Iraq’s minorities and resulted in the almost complete collapse of the Iraqi armed forces. This fiasco allowed ISIS to expand out of Syria and overrun large parts of western Iraq.
As foreign troops continue to pull out of Afghanistan, thousands of locals employed in support positions have lost their jobs. The NATO force will have shrunk from 130,000 in 2013 to around 12,000 by the end of this year. About 10,000 American troops will remain in Afghanistan after January 1, serving mostly as trainers. The entire U.S. military presence is expected to end by 2017. Despite NATO losses of 3,400 during past 13 years and a cost estimated at over a trillion dollars, Afghanistan remains violent, the poorest country in Asia and probably the most corrupt nation on earth.
The vision of Afghan prosperity and gender equality is waning although it is estimated that around 35% of Afghan girls are now being educated, up from 3% in 2001. The country’s poverty rate remains 35%-40%, illegal drug production accounts for around 15% of economic activity. With the U.S. paying the bulk of Afghanistan’s $5.5 billion annual defense budget, the Afghan army of 350,000 has managed to hold its own in recent fighting. It has suffered 9,000 causalities in the last two years.
Despite years of foreign support, the goal of a more stable, prosperous Afghanistan appears to have been pushed far into the future. Despite the intervention of foreign troops, the Taliban remains undefeated and is said to be growing stronger. Until the Afghan government is able to correct its internal deficiencies and negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban, more years of violence lie ahead. The sharing of borders with Iran and Pakistan, counties with their own regional agendas, has not helped make the situation in Afghanistan any better.