What we're watching: The Czarmaker of Syria

Syria's new kingmaker – As a shaky US-brokered Turkish ceasefire in northern Syria entered its final hours on Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on a plan for northern Syria. Russia will now work with Turkey to ensure the removal of Kurdish forces from the 22-mile deep "safe zone" that Turkey won in its negotiation with the (departing) US five days ago. This is a big win for Putin, who, by virtue of his backing for Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad, is now the decisive figure in what happens in the region. Turkey also continues to make out pretty well, as we've written recently. But it is a huge loss for the perpetually luckless Kurds, who will be forced to leave a huge swathe of their homeland. They will also now need to depend chiefly on Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. Whether that's better or worse than relying on the fickle United States remains to be seen.


Rising chances of a UK election – Boris Johnson has his Brexit deal. Sort of. In a landmark vote on Tuesday, the House of Commons voted 329-299 in favor of the UK prime minister's EU withdrawal agreement on its second reading in Parliament. In classic Brexit fashion, that's not the end of the story. Parliament also rejected the PM's plan to ram through a final vote by Friday, all but scuppering Johnson's bid to ensure that the UK exits the EU on October 31 as promised. With the EU indicating it will extend the Brexit deadline yet again, possibly through the end of January, Johnson now faces a fateful choice: He can accept the delay and try to get the final bill passed after Parliament has had time to scrutinize it. Or he could roll the dice and call a snap election. The latter option could be a tempting gamble for Johnson: it would allow him to campaign as the man standing up to pro-Remain MPs who are bent on thwarting the will of the people on Brexit, try to win a clear endorsement from voters for his deal, and take advantage of Jeremy Corbyn's weakness as Labour leader to try to secure a stronger governing mandate for the next five years. So, Boris, you feeling lucky?

Bibi out, Gantz in—Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu has failed to form a government for the second time this year, and President Reuven Rivlin will now tap his rival, the Blue and White party's Benny Gantz, to take a shot at forming a majority coalition in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Gantz will have 28 days to pull it off. If he can't – and his path to a majority is very difficult – Israelis could soon head to their third election in just 12 months, a scenario most are loath to contemplate. One alternative to that would be a unity government in which Gantz and Netanyahu share power. But Gantz is firm: he says he won't serve with the Likud party so long as Netanyahu, who's facing corruption charges, is at its helm.

What We're Ignoring:

Mauricio Macri's crowd size – On Sunday, Argentines go to the polls for a first round of presidential voting, and incumbent President Mauricio Macri is a huge underdog in the race against Peronist party leader Alberto Fernandez. Still, last weekend about 300,000 people turned out for a Macri rally in Buenos Aires. We are ignoring this last gasp of momentum for Macri, because although he still has the support of many urban voters frightened by the idea of a return to power of left-populist Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the opposition candidate for vice president, the nationwide vote is still likely to be decided by economic conditions across the country. Those are bad, and don't appear to be improving.

The Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace launched in 2018 with the commitment of signatories to stand up to cyber threats like election interference, attacks on critical infrastructure, and supply chain vulnerabilities. Last week, on the first anniversary of the call, the number of signatories has nearly tripled to more than 1,000 and now includes 74 nations; more than 350 international, civil society and public sector organizations; and more than 600 private sector entities. These commitments to the Paris Call from around the world demonstrate a widespread, global, multi-stakeholder consensus about acceptable behavior in cyberspace.

Read More at Microsoft On The Issues.

What is a SPAC and how does it work?

So, SPAC is short for: Special Purpose Acquisition Company. That's when a company raises funds through an IPO and uses those funds to buy an operating business. You've seen SPACs grow in recent years and in fact, we just had one here. Virgin Galactic came public through a SPAC merger.

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In recent years, Republicans have come to dominate most of the state legislatures in the US. Ironically, it was during the Obama-era that the GOP made major headway in states that had long been considered safely blue. State legislatures are now redder than they've been in nearly a century, and in most parts of the country, one party holds all the levers of power (governorship and legislatures). For the first time since 1914, there's only one split legislature in the entire country: Minnesota. To be sure, some state races are bucking the trend: Kentucky and Louisiana, both deep-red states, recently elected Democratic governors. Here's a look at how Democratic and Republican control of state legislatures has evolved over the past four decades.

Forty years ago, Islamic extremists angry at the Saudi government's experiments with social liberalization laid siege to the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

To regain control, the House of Saud had to strike a deal with key conservative clerics whose blessing they needed in order to send troops into the mosque . The monarchy agreed to roll back all liberalization at home, and pledged to actively fund the spread of conservative wahhabi Islamic teachings around the globe.

To understand better how the repercussions of those choices are still with us today, we put some questions to Yaroslav Trofimov, chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and author of the magnificently written 2007 book The Siege of Mecca.

His answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Why is it important to mark the 40th anniversary of the siege?

YT: We are at a historic moment once again in Saudi Arabia, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman openly talking about how he wants to rectify the errors of 1979 and bring the country into a more socially liberal system. And he has done a lot already, allowing women to drive and lifting many other restrictions, allowing pop concerts, cinemas, tourism — all those things that remained banned in Saudi Arabia because of the 1979 deal between the House of Saud and the clerics. We are obviously talking about social as opposed to political liberalization now, as the kingdom's political system remains as oppressive as ever.

How did the event change Saudi Arabia's society?

YT: The 1979 events gave the upper hand to religious conservatives for nearly four decades, freezing the social reforms and keeping the kingdom's population under control of the religious establishment and its Vice and Virtue Police. That had repercussions in every sector, most notably education, which created a new generation steeped in ultra-conservative Islamic values. It is only after the 2001 attacks [of 9/11] that this began to change, with the most dramatic erosion of the clerics' power happening since 2016.

How did the siege affect Riyadh's foreign policy?

YT: The new pact between the clerics and the House of Saud also meant that the Saudi oil money was to be used to spread its ultra-conservative version of Islam around the world, at the expense of more moderate and open interpretations. That changed the discourse in Islamic countries all over, and indirectly fostered the rise of extremism.

The siege came a few months after the Iranian revolution, how did that play into things?

YT: There was a lot of confusion at first, as the US blamed Iran for the Mecca events and Iran blamed the US. But, all in all, the siege taught the Saudi royal family that the best way to confront Iran's aspirations to lead the pan-Islamic revolution was to stoke Sunni sectarianism that dismissed Iranians as not really Muslim because of their Shiite faith.

That became a point of convergence between the supporters of Juhayman [al-Oteibi, leader of the siege], the Saudi clerics, and the Saudi government. And we see the repercussions of that rise of Sunni-Shiite sectarianism across the region today.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says he is trying to move Saudi Arabia back onto the pre-1979 course of social liberalization. Is that possible?

YT: Well, empirically it is happening. I refer you to the piece I just wrote from Saudi Arabia for the WSJ. Times are changing and the influence of social media and the internet in general on young Saudis is massive, opening up their minds. Also, hundreds of thousands of young Saudis have traveled to the US to study on King Abdullah scholarships in the past decade, bringing back fresh ideas.

So far the backlash to the changes in the kingdom has been very limited. The question is: is Prince Mohammed dragging a reluctant kingdom into modernity, or was the society changed and reachable all along? We'll see what happens in the coming years.

In many ways the Siege of Mecca is the story of unintended consequences: of leaders tolerating (and even supported) extremists who ended up turning on their masters. Is there a comparable situation today that worries you?

YT: Well, history is full of unintended consequences. Did Putin expect Ukraine to harden as a nation-state and decisively turn toward the West as a result of his [invasion of the country] in 2014? My guess is no: he expected it to crumble.

On the question of jihadists, I think countries have learned since 2001 and since the rise of Islamic State that extremist proxies are dangerous. How long will that lesson hold?

Time will tell.