Middle East Ticker

Civilian Casualties Mount in U.S. Fight against Islamic State, U.S. Forces Launch Surprise Attack Near Mosul, and Mubarak Released after Years in Detention

By J. Dana Stuster
Wednesday, March 29, 2017, 8:30 AM

Concerns about Civilian Casualties Growing after Deadly Strike in Mosul

A March 17 airstrike in Mosul conducted by the United States may have killed as many as 200 civilians, and the circumstances that contributed to the severe death toll are the subject of debate between U.S. and Iraqi forces. U.S. military officials confirmed last Friday that U.S. forces did in fact carry out an airstrike in the area on March 17 and that they are investigating reports of civilian deaths.

Iraqi troops had previously told the New York Times that the deaths occurred as a result of an airstrike they had called in on rooftop snipers in the Mosul Jidideh neighborhood. The strikes caused several buildings to collapse killing scores of civilians being held in basements. “After the bombing we were surprised by the civilian victims...and I think it was a trap by ISIS to stop the bombing operations and turn public opinion against us,” Maj. Gen. Maan al-Saadi, of the Iraqi special forces, told the Times. Saadi’s account conflicts with the Iraqi government’s official statement on the strike, released on Sunday, which claims the buildings collapsed as a result explosive traps rigged by the Islamic State.

The past several months have seen a spike in civilian casualties in fighting between Iraqi and Islamic State forces, according to monitoring groups. The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights reported 2,190 civilian deaths in the three-month fight for the eastern portion of the city; the toll of the battle for the western part of the city is already at 3,864 civilian deaths in just five weeks. Airwars, another monitoring organization, has also reported a dramatic increase in reports of civilian casualties. One reason for the higher figures could be that the U.S. military has reportedly relaxed the rules of engagement to allow greater risk of collateral damage in strikes. Iraqi forces, many of whom criticized the level of caution exercised by the U.S. military under the Obama administration, told the Times that they have noticed a greater willingness among U.S. officials to carry out strikes on the targets that they have been calling in recently.

The high civilian casualties will affect more than the thousands killed and injured; they could also impede the political reconciliation necessary to reintegrate Islamic State-occupied territories into the Iraqi state.

A Pentagon spokesperson defended the U.S. commitment to minimizing civilian casualties in a statement on Saturday and denied that the rules of engagement had changed. But the Associated Press reported last month that “tactical directives” issued beginning under the Obama administration in December allow some local forces to bypass a previous level of review when requesting airstrikes. One former official told Airwars that the Trump administration has exceeded this guidance by encouraging military planners to get as “close to the chalk line” as permitted under international humanitarian law. “The question that’s out there is to what extent has any relaxation of rules of engagement or restrictions based on civcas been put in place by the new administration,” the former official said. “I don’t know—clearly we have reporting on an increase in civcas [in Iraq and Syria]. To some extent that’s going to be driven by high-op tempo in urban areas—but the U.S. also has a very long history of doing that kind of stuff very well in Afghanistan with minimal civilian casualties—so it begs the question, what is different?”

The high civilian casualties will affect more than the thousands killed and injured; they could also impede the political reconciliation necessary to reintegrate Islamic State-occupied territories into the Iraqi state. While the Kurds are organized and prepared to reaffirm their autonomy or seek secession after the Islamic State’s defeat, Iraqi Sunnis are divided and wary, the BBC reported after interviews in Mosul. Many of their concerns focus on whether they will be allowed greater self-governance or if the country will relapse into the sectarianism that typified Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s governance from 2011 through the Islamic State’s rise in 2014. The latter is a particularly salient concern given the potential role Shia militias could play in upcoming provincial elections; they could even facilitate Maliki’s return to the premiership, Sheikh Jamal al-Dhari wrote recently for Lawfare. “Another Maliki premiership could lead to the end of Iraq and a new cycle of war,” he warns. “The Kurds will not hesitate to declare independence, the Shiites will fight among themselves, and the Sunnis will find no option but to rebel and seek to their own state.”

U.S. Launches Operation Near Raqqa but Unclear about Desired Endstate

The United States and its local partners in Syria launched a surprise assault last week on the Tabqa Dam, 25 miles west from the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. U.S. warplanes airlifted Syrian Democratic Forces rebels south of the dam while more troops advanced from the north; officials said the goal is the capture the dam and a nearby village and airfield, while closing off the western approach to Raqqa before an expected offensive against the city. While some reports have suggested that attack won’t be launched until after Turkey’s constitutional referendum in mid-April, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last week it would begin “in the coming days.”

U.S. and Syrian forces reached the dam on Friday and took control of the airfield and the village of Karama on Sunday. The Syrian government claims the attack is jeopardizing the dam’s structural integrity, risking flooding if it is breached. U.S. and SDF officials have said the dam will not be harmed unless the Islamic State destroys it, however drone footage from the area released by the Islamic State does seem to show damage to the dam.

The Tabqa operation is an important prelude to the Raqqa offensive, but the plan for that offensive—and what comes after—are still up in the air. U.S. officials emphasized that Arab SDF forces were taking the lead in the Tabqa area in an effort to assuage Turkish concerns about the U.S. reliance on Kurdish troops, but it’s unclear if it will be possible to maintain such a large proportion of Arab Sunni fighters in the big battle ahead. “By accelerating the timeline for the Raqqa operation, and a concurrent campaign in Deir al-Zour, with the U.S. military’s chosen local Syrian partners, the Trump administration could soon assume complete ownership over a large area of eastern Syria,” Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, writes for The National Interest. “Turkey is expected to be cut out of the equation.”

The Tabqa operation is an important prelude to the Raqqa offensive, but the plan for that offensive—and what comes after—are still up in the air.

The United States only has bad options for what to do after taking Raqqa, Heras notes. It could hand control of the territory to local forces, which would alienate Turkey and leave local forces vulnerable to government attack or clashes among themselves. It could also hand control to the Assad regime and Russia, which would alienate U.S. partner forces and probably win few supporters in Raqqa. Or the United States could take lead on stability operations in the area, which would require a large commitment of troops. At the conference of the U.S-led coalition fighting the Islamic State last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was vague. “The United States will increase our pressure on ISIS and al-Qaeda and will work to establish interim zones of stability, through ceasefires, to allow refugees to return home,” he said, but did not specify where these zone would be located or how they would be protected.

Egypt’s Ousted President Released from Years of Detention

Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president forced from power during protests in the Arab Spring in 2011, was released from detention at a military hospital in Cairo last Friday. He had been held for six years while facing a series of charges that accrued during his three-decade tenure as president, including embezzlement and ordering attacks on protesters before his ouster; in 2012, he was sentenced to death, but subsequent rulings overturned his convictions. He is still facing additional corruption charges, but a court ruled earlier this month that his detention was no longer necessary. He returned quietly to his mansion in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis under armed guard.

Mubarak is a spent force, physically and politically. Though much of the autocratic state he constructed remains in power today, Mubarak is now 88 years old and he frequently had to be transported by stretcher to court appearances. “While the 2011 uprising was centered around Mubarak as a person, Egyptian politics has now moved on,” Nathan Brown, professor at George Washington University, told Vox. “Of course, some of the activists who led the 2011 uprising will view it as a nail in the coffin of their efforts—at least for the present. It has symbolic importance in that respect, even if Mubarak himself is not likely to be politically active.” That was echoed by Ahmed Harara, an activist wounded in the 2011 protests. “At this point, I really don’t care,” he told the New York Times. “I realized years ago that this is not just about Mubarak and his regime, it’s an entire system that has now resurrected itself.”