Mosul Fight Enters Home Stretch
After weeks of siege, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces pushed the Islamic State into a tiny last redoubt in Mosul’s Old City district last week. As they retreated, fighters from the terrorist group detonated explosives that destroyed the 12th-century Nuri Mosque, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic State’s caliphate in 2014. Iraqi forces say they expect to clear the last Islamic State fighters, now confined to a 300 meter by 500 meter area along the Tigris River, by the end of the week.
With the eight-month-long battle now in its final days, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared last week that the Islamic State’s caliphate has ended. "The return of al-Nuri Mosque and al-Hadba minaret to the fold of the nation marks the end of the Daesh state of falsehood,” he said in a statement last Thursday. He will visit the city this week to formally announce Iraq’s victory and a week of celebrations is planned.
With Mosul now back under government control, the Islamic State has lost its last large population center in Iraq.
U.S. troops remain deeply involved in the ongoing fighting and are working closely with Iraqi troops to secure captured areas. Though fighting is winding down, the U.S. presence could last indefinitely: In an interview last week, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said he would like to see a persistent U.S. role to bolster Iraqi forces and ensure the Islamic State doesn’t return. “We’ve seen that movie before,” he told the Fayetteville Observer, referring to the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. “My thought is to try something different.” That will depend on the Iraqi government, though, which was previously unwilling to accept U.S. conditions for a Status of Forces Agreement.
With Mosul now back under government control, the Islamic State has lost its last large population center in Iraq. U.S. intelligence officials say that the group has pulled its command and control structures across the Syrian border to Mayadin, but it’s not completely gone. As predicted, the Islamic State is adapting to its defeats as a conventional military force by increasing its reliance on terrorist tactics. Suicide bombers have targeted internally displaced persons near Baghdad and struck other targets both around Mosul and far behind the government’s lines.
Tillerson Tells U.N. That Assad Will Be Russia’s Problem
The fight against the Islamic State in Iraq will now shift from Mosul to the group’s last rural hideouts, but the terrorist group still retains a large presence across the border in Syria. U.S.-backed fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition have isolated Raqqa and are pushing deeper into the city. “If you want to get out of Raqqa right now, you’ve got to build a poncho raft,” Townsend told the New York Times this week, noting that the counter-Islamic State forces have destroyed the bridges out of the city and are targeting boats that try to cross.
The situation outside of Raqqa remains fraught, though U.S. and Russian defense planners have tried to set a boundary to prevent further clashes. While the United States has at times appeared to be slipping into Syria’s broader civil war, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told U.N. Secretary General António Guterres in a private meeting last week that the United States will leave the fate of Bashar al-Assad up to Russia, Foreign Policy reports. While the U.S. government has been retreating from its endorsement of regime change in Syria for years, including during the Obama administration, Tillerson’s comments make explicit what had previously been left unsaid. But, even as Tillerson was privately articulating U.S. policy to Guterres, the Trump administration was threatening to carry out strikes targeting the regime after detecting new activity at the Shayrat airbase, from which the regime launched a sarin gas attack earlier this year. The White House’s warning seems to suggest that there are still conditions for U.S. acceptance of Assad’s continued rule.
Leaving the future of the regime in Syria up to Russia won’t by itself resolve the looming hazards in eastern Syria. The United States and its partners are holding territory; some of it could be ceded to local authorities with ties to the regime, but other areas won’t accept regime governance. The U.S. military has said it would welcome a constructive counterterrorism approach from Assad regime forces advancing toward Deir Ezzor and Mayadin, now the strategic strongholds from which the Islamic State is operating, but that proposition remains very much untested.
The White House’s warning seems to suggest that there are still conditions for U.S. acceptance of Assad’s continued rule.
Still, the U.S. policy shift gives more room to Russia and the Assad regime as they enter another round of negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan. The regime announced a three-day ceasefire in southern Syria this week to coincide with the talks. The United States has pushed for measures to de-escalate hostilities in the area, but has little influence in political bargaining. As Sam Heller wrote last week for War on the Rocks, the situation in Syria is “a sort of non-aggression pact between internationally backed regime and Kurdish-led forces that are dividing the country amongst themselves before, potentially, coming to their own accommodation. The mixed opposition and the Islamic State have lost, by international consensus, and are being edged out of a future Syria.”
Deadline Nears for Saudi Arabia’s Demands to Qatar
On Monday Saudi Arabia extended the deadline for Qatar to accept its extreme set of demands by two days, but Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani has already delivered his government’s response to intermediaries in Kuwait. Over the weekend, Thani said the Saudi ultimatum had been designed to be rejected and it is doubtful that Qatar will accede to to the demands, though Doha’s official response has not been made public. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has urged the Saudis to negotiate a resolution to the crisis, and while he has reportedly made little headway, the State Department and White House have been in frequent communication with the Gulf states over the weekend.
Qatar could face further penalties from the Gulf states if it does not agree to shut down Al-Jazeera and other Qatar-linked media stations, curtail its ties to Iran and Turkey, and break off relations with the Muslim Brotherhood by Wednesday. Saudi Arabia and its partners have suggested suspending Qatar’s participation in the Gulf Cooperation Council, withdrawing funds from Qatar, and sanctioning countries that continue to trade with Qatar as potential options to increase pressure on the emirate. So far, the Saudi-led isolation policy has had little bite in Qatar: The New York Times reports that Doha has been able to compensate for the closed land border with shipping imports, and residents’ complaints so far have been about inconveniences, not hardships.
Saudi Arabia’s New Crown Prince Moves to Consolidate Control
Mohammad bin Salman, who was recently appointed the new crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has garnered a reputation for generally more liberal views than other members of the royal family, particularly with regard to economics and the rights of women. But those views do not extend to political expression, and with his status as next in line to the throne confirmed, MBS is moving quickly to ensure his position is secure. The Wall Street Journal reports that Saudi authorities are tightly monitoring social media and the Saudi blogosphere for signs of dissent, even summoning some activists to the Interior Ministry to receive warnings about potential jail sentences. The crackdown was already underway when MBS was made heir—Saudi officials were monitoring dissent regarding its policy of isolating Qatar—but has expanded to include new issues.
MBS has been guiding much of Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policy for the past two years. Becoming king would formalize that power, but he’s already calling the shots.
MBS is also watching his flank within the royal family. Mohammed bin Nayef, who was cut out of the line of succession and public life by MBS’ promotion, is now reportedly under house arrest and his guards have been replaced by a cohort loyal to Salman. It’s an abrupt and ignominious end to 57-year-old bin Nayef’s career; no one is more responsible for reforming Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism practices—for which he was targeted and wounded by an AQAP suicide bomber in 2009—and he has been a favored partner of the U.S. defense establishment. In the months leading up to the shakeup, the Trump administration was divided over whether to get involved in the royal family’s politics; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson counseled impartiality, but the administration chose instead to cozy up to the ascendant prince based on the advice of Jared Kushner and others. That may turn out to be the right choice in the near term, but there is no indication that backing MBS has given the White House any influence in Saudi policy. Writing for Politico, Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky warn that U.S. officials shouldn’t let their desire to please MBS pull the United States deeper into Saudi Arabia’s growing foreign policy debacles.
With MBS’ path to the throne looking increasingly assured, there is a chance that King Salman may step down and hand over control to MBS. As Bruce Riedel noted last week, the position of deputy crown prince is currently vacant; if King Salman pencils someone into that role, it could signal his intention to abdicate. However, it’s not likely to make much difference. MBS has been guiding much of Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policy for the past two years. Becoming king would formalize that power, but he’s already calling the shots.