Helena Cobban

Middle East Affairs and the International System 

Helena Cobban is a writer and researcher on international relations, with special interests in the Middle East and the international system. She is the author of seven books on current international affairs, four of them focusing on the Middle East. She contributed a regular column on global issues to The Christian Science Monitor, 1990-2007, and is a Contributing Editor of Boston Review.

Ms. Cobban has a BA and an MA from Oxford, where she read Philosophy and Economics. From 1974 through 1981, she worked as a Beirut-based correspondent for news outlets including The Christian Science Monitor, The Sunday Times, ABC Radio, and the BBC, traveling broadly throughout the region for those media. While in Beirut she became fluent in French and Arabic. 

In 1982, she moved to the United States to take up a research fellowship at Harvard University Center for International Affairs, where she wrote her first book, The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (Cambridge U.P., 1984.) In 1985, despite not having a doctorate, she won an SSRC-Macarthur post-doc grant in International Peace and Security Studies, which she took up at the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), using that experience to write a book on US-Soviet interactions in the Syria-Israel theater.

For much of the time she was contributing a regular column to The Christian Science Monitor, she was also writing a separate column for Arabic-language international daily Al-Hayat.

Throughout the 2000s, she undertook numerous research/writing trips to the Middle East. In February 2003 she started publishing "Just World News", a blog on global issues that gained a broad global readership and was cited in Le Monde diplomatique and elsewhere.

In early 2010, she founded the publishing company Just World Books, which proceeded to publish 38 original titles on Middle Eastern and other international issues. In early 2018, the company entered hiatus from issuing new titles. Ms. Cobban then spent more time running Just World Educational, a non-profit, where as Executive President she also contributed to its blog, its podcast series, and other programs. In Spring 2019, she resumed her own writing career.

She was a long-time member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and sat for many years on the Middle East Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch and on the board of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. In 2007-08 she was a 'Friend in Washington' with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and in 2008-11 a member of Search for Common Ground's US-Syria Working Group.

Latest News

Syria and “Transitional Justice”

by Helena Cobban

Feb-12-2020

Senior Fellows

Almost from the beginning of the US-supported regime-change project in Syria, US policymakers have incorporated several kinds of planning for what is called “transitional justice” into their pursuit of the project.

Did Washington use a false pretext for its recent escalation in Iraq?

by Helena Cobban

Feb-7-2020

Senior Fellows

The United States almost immediately accused the Iran-backed Ketaib Hizbullah (KH) militia of responsibility. But Rubin quotes by name Brig. General Ahmed Adnan, the chief of intelligence for the Iraqi federal police at the same base, as saying, “All the indications are that it was Daesh” — that is, ISIS.

What the New York Times doesn’t want you to know about Idlib

by Helena Cobban

Feb-4-2020

Senior Fellows

If you rely only on the New York Times to understand events in Syria, you likely have the idea that the peaceable people of the Idlib province in the northwest of the country have for some years now been subjected to gratuitous attacks by the Syrian and Russian air forces that, for some unknown reason, seem to have illegally “targeted” hospitals and schools.

Trump & Khamenei de-escalate. Political struggle inside Iraq continues.

by Helena Cobban

Jan-8-2020

Senior Fellows

The coming weeks will almost certainly see an escalation in this political struggle between Iran and the United States, inside Iraq. It will be a struggle not only for the “hearts and minds” of Iraq’s long-suffering people and for influence over its decisionmakers, but also, quite likely, for the continued unity of the country itself.

World poised on post-Soleimani knife-edge. Possible off-ramp emerges?

by Helena Cobban

Jan-6-2020

Senior Fellows

With the decision he made late January 2 to kill the head of the Iranian “Qods Force”, Lt.-Gen Qasem al-Soleimani, Pres. Donald Trump set the United States on a course to an upheaval– certainly political and possibly also military– of truly global impact.

Can Escalation be Prevented in Iraq?

by Helena Cobban

Jan-1-2020

Senior Fellows

Given that the December 29 raid has backfired on Washington so seriously within the Iraqi political system, will Washington now choose to double down and get into an even more overt confrontation with Iran? Let us hope not. Regional and international politics would have great impact on any such scenario. Within the region, an adventurous and politically and legally embattled Israeli prime minister might be eager for more confrontation between Washington and Tehran, but no other significant regional power would welcome it. At the global level, Washington is likely to receive not support, but condemnation, for the recklessness of its actions in Iraq.

U.S. Dems’ dangerous demagoguing on Russia

by Helena Cobban

Nov-30-2019

Middle East and International System

Amb. Robert E. Hunter had a compelling piece on the Lobelog site recently in which he warned that the House Democratic leaders’ choice of the Ukraine issue on which to hang their impeachment hearings for Pres. Trump means that the discussion of both Ukraine and Russia in the U.S. political system has now become seriously polarized.

Pompeo casts international law aside on Israeli settlement policy

by Helena Cobban

Nov-22-2019

Senior Fellows

On 18 November, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States no longer judges the settlements Israel has established in the occupied West Bank to be illegal. Under international law, that announcement - like the Trump administration's earlier determinations that Golan is part of Israel and that Jerusalem is Israel's capital - has no weight.

U.S. forces (and policy) in Syria head south

by Helena Cobban

Oct-14-2019

Senior Fellows

It took less than a week after President Trump announced the summary withdrawal of the tripwire U.S. force deployed in northeast Syria alongside the Kurdish-dominated “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), before the SDF concluded a new alliance with the Syrian government. What happened between, of course, was the large-scale incursion of Turkish forces into the SDF-held part of Syria.

WaPo’s Ignatius gets “mugged by reality” on Iran

by Helena Cobban

Sept-20-2019

Senior Fellows

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius had a column in today’s paper that gave a muddled, fairly escalatory take on the continuing crisis in the Persian Gulf between the Iranian government and the forces lined up against it.

The Emperor’s New-Old Nuclear Clothes

by Helena Cobban

Sept-18-2019

Senior Fellows

Upgrade Development Dive in. We'll learn what you like along the way. GEN Alaska’s Swimsuit Scandal Unfairly Polices Young Girls’ Bodies ONEZERO Leak of Microsoft Salaries Shows Fight for Higher Compensation Attention Angry White People: 7 New Rules FORGE How to Stop Overthinking The Emperor’s New-Old Nuclear Clothes Helena Cobban Helena Cobban Follow Sep 18 · 8 min read How is it still possible to write a lengthy article about the military/strategic dynamic among the triad of Israel, Iran, and the United States while making zero mention of Israel’s robust nuclear-weapons capability? New York Times staffers Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti, and their editors at the Times magazine clearly think this is quite okay.

Hizbullah Reminds Israel of Its Power

By Helena Cobban

Sept-05-2019

Senior Fellows

On September 1, Hizbullah fighters on Lebanon’s border with Israel fired two precision-guided missiles over the border, apparently hitting an Israeli “Wolf” armored personnel carrier (APC) and inflicting casualties of unknown severity on its occupants...

The Dogs of War That Have Not Barked

by Helena Cobban

Aug-20-2019

Senior Fellows

In May, President Donald J. Trump rolled out his policy of "maximum pressure" designed to force Tehran to concede to far-reaching demands... Then - especially after Iran shot down a large U.S. Navy drone in late June - the world braced for a showdown. It never came.

The Dogs Of War That Have Not Barked

by Helena Cobban

Aug-20-2019

Senior Fellows

In May, President Donald J. Trump rolled out his policy of “maximum pressure” designed to force Tehran to concede to far-reaching demands. He tightened U.S. sanctions against Iran considerably and ordered the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and numerous other military units deployed to (or toward) the Persian Gulf.

On "Humanitarian Intervention"

by Helena Cobban

Aug-08-2019

Senior Fellows

Over the past 20 years, the increasing use of the term "humanitarian intervention" to mean military action has been accompanied by the efforts major Western governments have pursued to co-opt and distort the work of non-governmental organizations with previously long records of providing humanitarian aid on a relatively non-political basis.

On “Humanitarian Intervention”

by Helena Cobban

Aug-08-2019

Senior Fellows

It is time, therefore, to lay aside all the weasel-words and euphemisms that members of Western political elites have used in recent year to mask the realities of the nature of war.

Reviving Westphalia

by Helena Cobban

July-24-2019

Senior Fellows

Today, a global political system that for 350 years has been dominated by nations of the "West" finds itself approaching a crossroads. . . But the essential Westphalian principles of "live and let live," of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, and of the need for coexistence and co-operation among states run along deeply divergent lines have a value that is perhaps greater now than at any time since the unsettled years of 1640s.

Reviving Westphalia

by Helena Cobban

Jul-24-2019

Today, a global political system that for 350 years has been dominated by nations of the “West” finds itself approaching a crossroads. The principles on which this system has been based until now are in question—many of them, quite rightly so.

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