U.S. Policy in Syria Vague as Turkish Offensive Continues
Turkey’s latest incursion in Syria continued this past week. On Sunday, Turkish forces partnered with Free Syrian Army units reportedly captured a strategic hilltop between Azaz and the Kurdish-held city of Afrin that is the immediate target of the Turkish offensive. Kurdish forces are putting up fierce resistance, and one fighter may have engaged in a suicide bombing targeting a Turkish tank (other reports have suggested the fighter died while throwing a grenade down the tank barrel). Turkish airstrikes have damaged an ancient neo-Hittite temple at Ain Dara, and more than 50 civilians have been killed in the fighting, according to monitoring agency Airwars.
Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to sweep east, through the territory secured by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, until Turkish forces reach the Iraqi border. Turkey is now pressing the United States to withdraw its partner forces from Manbij, a critical city if Ankara really does intend to push farther east. “The United States needs ... to collect the weapons they gave, they need to withdraw from Manbij immediately,” Prime Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Saturday. After a dispute over the readout of a call with President Trump last week, Turkish officials claimed over the weekend that U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster had assured them that the United States would cut off arms being provided to Kurdish militias. The White House did not corroborate the report, though, and Ankara’s claim echoed reports from last November, when Turkish officials said President Trump had made a similar promise. On Monday, Gen. Joseph Votel, head of CENTCOM, said that the U.S. military was not considering pulling its troops out of Manbij.
So far, the United States has been slow to respond to the Turkish offensive, and has mostly done so through public statements of concern. Turkey’s intervention has further muddied the Trump administration’s plan for Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently laid out an expansive policy, featuring the indefinite deployment of U.S. troops to limit Iran’s influence in Syria and, ultimately, oust Bashar al-Assad. The ill-defined, long-term mission prompted Sen. Cory Booker and Oona Hathaway to write in the New York Times that the war in Syria is illegal; there is still no authorization for use of military force in Syria and “it is no longer possible to argue that the mission is one of self-defense.” But Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis almost immediately began undercutting the new policy in public statements.
It’s not entirely clear what elements of the new strategy are credible and what are not: The commitment to force out Assad is almost certainly hyperbole. Constraining Iran seems more feasible, and makes sense in the context of plans to secure the east with U.S.-partner forces and cut off Iran’s potential land corridor to Damascus and Beirut. But that was an easier policy to sell two weeks ago. If Turkish forces keep moving east, will the Trump administration stand by it?
Turkey’s Afrin operation is demonstrating how marginal the United States is in Syria. Turkey has so co-opted the Syrian rebels that many had no choice but to participate, according to Hassan Hassan; that accord may even extend to extremist groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is rumored to have escorted Turkish forces through its territory. Russia has quietly withdrawn from the area; Moscow gave at least tacit support for the Turkish incursion and some analysts believe it may be supporting it as a ploy to further drive a wedge between the United States and its NATO ally and to strongarm the Kurds into ceding Afrin to the Assad regime. Hassan argues that Afrin is a grand compromise between the United States, Turkey, and Russia, all part of last-minute machinations before Russia’s big peace conference in Sochi. Jonathan Spyer, in a recent article for Foreign Policy, calls this new phase of the conflict “Syria 2.0.” The Islamic State has lost its territory and the civil war has settled from a roiling boil to a simmer, subdivided among ceasefires and de-escalation zones. “The new contests in Syria derive not from internal Syrian dynamics, but from the rival interests of outside powers pursued over the ruins of Syria,” Spyer writes.
Sisi Locks in Token Opposition Candidate for Election
The open registration period for candidates for Egypt’s presidential election in March closed on Monday. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s potential challengers have been met with legal obstacles and strong-arming; candidates have dropped out of the race under mysterious circumstances, have complained of intimidation preventing them from registering supporters, and been arrested on criminal charges. The registration week has seen new intrigue. Last Thursday, El-Sayyid el-Badawi, the head of the Wafd Party, announced that he would run for president with the apparent support of his party, but on Saturday the party convened a five-hour meeting that ended with a vote against his nomination. The party’s decision means Badawi did not receive the requisite number of supporters in parliament to be a candidate. “President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi managed to maintain the stability of the nation, and no one can face the challenges in Egypt except him, therefore our decision comes out of a popular desire and a desire by Wafd not to participate in the upcoming presidential elections," one Wafd official told press after the vote.
Badawi has now joined the ranks of other candidates barred from the race. On Sunday, opposition figures called for a boycott of the March election in an open letter and asked the public “to not recognize anything that results from it.” One of the signatories of the letter was Hisham Geneina, who was previously targeted by the Sisi government for revealing government corruption while working as the country’s top auditor. Geneina was assisting the campaign of Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, who was forced from the race after he was arrested for allegedly forging documents. On Saturday, a day before the release of the boycott letter, Geneina was severely beaten on the street in Cairo; Reuters reports that a group of men attacked him as he left his home and Geneina’s lawyer told press that the beating was an attempted kidnapping. The Interior Ministry issued a statement claiming that the attack was an altercation that occurred because Geneina hit someone’s car.
In the last hours of the registration period on Monday, one candidate did manage to register to run against Sisi. Mousa Mostafa Mousa, who heads the Ghad party, will be the only other candidate on the ballot in March. The Financial Times notes that Mousa had previously declared his support for Sisi’s re-election, and that those comments were still posted on his Facebook page at the time of his registration.
Sisi’s effort to manage and constrain the presidential election have been extremely effective—too effective and too transparent to maintain the charade of a free election. Reuters and the Associated Press have documented networks of patronage to buy votes. Wealthy businessmen backing the president are distributing food and money in exchange of pledges of support to Sisi, and reporters have heard Sisi supporters openly discussing the bribes they were promised while registering their support at notary offices. The ham-fisted approach to rigging the election has alienated some of Sisi’s supporters. “Of course we would have wished to have real competitive politics,” Emad al-Din Hussein, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Shorouk, wrote recently. “[B]ut since we don’t, the government should have at least prepared the stage in a way that looks democratic, like Iran does … electoral engineering would have at least spared us the current tragic scene which reflects badly on everyone.”
Pro-government Coalition Fractures in Yemen as Southern Secessionists Seize Buildings
After months of strain, the pro-government coalition in Yemen backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates appears to be fracturing. The long-simmering secessionist movement in Yemen’s south, which has mounted an escalating campaign for independence over the past year, broke into open fighting in Aden over the weekend. Secessionists had accused the prime minister, Ahmed bin Daghr, and his cabinet of corruption and attacking peaceful protesters, and had demanded that President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi dismiss the government. When Hadi did not, secessionists seized government buildings; at least 21 people have been killed in clashes with other pro-government forces. The skirmishes eased when bin Daghr called for a truce, but resumed again on Monday. The prime minister has described the clashes as an attempted coup and “a direct gift to the Houthis and Iran.”
The situation is complicated by the alliances within the pro-government coalition. Saudi Arabia has backed the government that was ousted from Sanaa and its loyalists, and has hosted Hadi and his officials (perhaps sometimes against their will) in Riyadh. Their goal has been the defeat of the Houthis and restoration of the government in Sanaa. The United Arab Emirates has cultivated closer ties with southern groups and pursued a more limited agenda, focused more narrowly on working with the United States to target al-Qaeda and secure the southern coast. As Kristian Coates Ulrichsen notes in a new brief for the Project on Middle East Political Science, “Emirati control of both coastal cities in southern Yemen is viewed in Abu Dhabi as part of a wider geopolitical arc of UAE influence spanning both sides of the strategic Bab al-Mandab corridor and extending into the Mediterranean with heavy investment in Benghazi in Libya.” Saudi Arabia is still pushing to drive the Houthis out of their remaining strongholds, and the border conflict in north Yemen has escalated in recent months. But “[p]olicymakers in Abu Dhabi appear to have concluded in 2016 that their military objectives in southern Yemen had been met,” Ulrichsen writes.
In the absence of a strategic consensus, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates’ proxies have been quietly working at odds with one another for months. Southern secessionists have built up parallel structures for governance. “What is happening in the shadow of war is state-building from the periphery that fully disregards the power struggle in Sana’a,” Susanne Dahlgren writes, also for POMEPS. And the secessionists are not only fighting for independence in Aden: Al-Monitor reports that the secessionist Southern Transitional Council recently hired a lobbying firm, Grassroots Political Consulting, to try to build support in Washington.
The fracturing of the pro-government coalition comes just two months after the collapse of the alliance between the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress. After months of frustration with the Houthis, Saleh broke with them in December. Skirmishes followed in the capital, and within days Saleh had been killed while trying to flee the city. No resolution to the conflict appears forthcoming, and the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, announced last week that he intends to step down next month after nearly three fruitless years of diplomacy in pursuit of a peace agreement.