Omphalos

Middle East Ticker: Aleppo Under Siege, Turkey and Iraq Spar Over Troop Presence, and Morocco Votes

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, October 11, 2016, 10:17 AM

International Community Struggles to Respond to Destruction of Aleppo

The destruction of Aleppo continued last week with Assad regime forces advancing slowly in contested neighborhoods and continuing the bombardment of rebel-held areas. Airstrikes abated somewhat on Friday after the Syrian military said it would give civilians a chance to relocate to safer areas. Though the United Nations was left out of the arrangement, U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura encouraged rebels to leave the city and even volunteered to personally escort them through regime lines to ensure their safety. De Mistura specifically appealed to the leaders of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), previously known as the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra; the presence of an estimated 900 JFS fighters have been used by Russia and Syria to justify their devastating air campaign. The lull in the regime’s assault seems to prefigure a larger push to retake the rest of the city. The Syrian military also said last week that individuals who do not leave eastern Aleppo will meet an “inevitable fate.”

The international community has struggled to respond to the Aleppo offensive. On Saturday, Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a halt to the bombing of the city. France is now pushing ahead with a discussion of how the International Criminal Court might investigate Russia and Syria for war crimes committed in Syria, and last Friday U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he supports an investigation. Medical aid groups have asked the Assad regime to allow access to provide support to the dwindling number of doctors in the city. At a press conference on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin said they agreed on the need to provide humanitarian aid to besieged areas of the city. “The only issue is ... ensuring the safety of aid delivery,” Putin said.

Iraq and Turkey Escalate Diplomatic Fight over Turkish Troop Presence

Turkey has had a deployment of military trainers in the Kurdish town of Bashiqa, Iraq, for nearly a year now. This has been a source of persistent frustration for the Iraqi government, which sees the Turkish troop presence as an infringement on its national sovereignty. The issue first flared up last December, when Turkey sent several hundred troops and tanks to Bashiqa to train Sunni militia forces. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Baghdad had not authorized Turkey’s presence and called for the complete withdrawal of the forces within 48 hours, but he eventually dropped the issue after then-Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu pulled out some tanks and said Turkey would not send more troops. That’s how things stood until last week, when the Turkish parliament voted to reauthorize troop deployments in Syria and Iraq for another year.

The Turkish parliamentary vote apparently reminded the Iraqi government to be offended by the Turkish troop presence in Bashiqa. (To be fair, they’ve had their share of distractions.) The Iraqi parliament called on Turkey to withdraw all its forces from Iraq, estimated to be about 2,000 troops in all. "We have asked the Turkish side more than once not to intervene in Iraqi matters and I fear the Turkish adventure could turn into a regional war,” Abadi said in an interview. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus responded defiantly, saying that the Turkish troops are not an occupation force and will remain in northern Iraq. “Turkey will not allow this to become a matter of debate,” he said. Last Wednesday, both Turkey and Iraq summoned each other’s ambassadors in protest, and on Thursday, Abadi made good on a promise he made in December to call on the U.N. Security Council to resolve the dispute.

The spat comes as coalition forces make their final preparations for the assault on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul and hits many of the points of tension between Ankara and Baghdad. Turkish officials have said they’re operating at Bashiqa at the request of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which puts the semi-autonomous Kurdish government at odds with the central government in Baghdad. Furthermore, Ankara (and the United States, for that matter) has expressed concerns about the Iraqi government’s embrace of Shia militias, which have committed human rights abuses and alienated Sunni populations. That’s one of the reasons Turkish troops have been training up local Sunni forces at Bashiqa, but the predominantly Shia government in Baghdad is wary about the prospect of well-trained Sunni forces operating outside the direct control of the Iraqi military. The past week has made clear that the Iraqi government doesn’t want Turkey involved in the liberation of Mosul, but this morning President Recep Erdoğan said Turkey won’t be excluded. In a blustering speech, he said that Abadi should understand that he is “not at my level” and should “know his place.” The dispute only makes things more difficult for the United States as it tries to manage the coalition at a critical moment in the campaign against ISIL.

Morocco Goes to the Polls for Parliamentary Election

Morocco held parliamentary elections on Friday, the country’s second poll since the implementation of reforms after protests in 2011. Much like the Jordanian elections last month, the election was seen as a bellwether for promised reforms. Analysts cited concerns about low voter turnout, but 43 percent of eligible voters cast ballots on Friday, only slightly down from elections in 2011.

The elections were also seen as a referendum on the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (PJD), the country’s largest Islamist party, which won big in 2011. “To appeal to its voters, the PJD has adopted a narrative that despite significant constraints imposed on it by the palace and the opposition, the party has been able to fulfill much of its electoral promise,” Intissar Fakir writes for Sada. The PJD has also tried to explain its shortcomings by noting that its still figuring out how to work with the King Mohamed VI, framing itself as “an outsider still proving itself to the monarchy,” Fakir writes. Going into Friday’s election, the PJD was facing a strong challenge from the country’s ascendant liberal party, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), which was founded in 2008 by an advisor to the king, as well from the establishment Istiqlal party.

The PJD’s strategy seems to have worked. It pulled in 125 of the 395 parliamentary seats. The head of the party, Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, told reporters that the PJD victory “has proven today that being serious and truthful ... and being faithful to the institutions, especially the monarchy, is a winning currency.” But Morocco’s electoral laws prevent any party from winning an absolute majority, and analysts say that it will be difficult for the PJD to form a coalition government with other parties. That could open space for the PAM, which placed second with 102 seats, to try to form a majority.

The end result might not matter all that much, according to Adria Lawrence, writing for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog. She argues the parliamentary system is still too fractious and constrained to present an effective democratized counterweight to the monarchy. But a relatively free and fair election (though there were some accusations of ballot stuffing) is a step in the right direction, says the Washington Institute’s Sarah Feuer. Feuer concludes that the election is “an important milestone for one of Washington's few relatively stable allies in the region” and that “the experience of the past five years suggests that a PJD victory would not spell chaos or even conflict with the monarchy, as both remain keen to shield Morocco from the region's upheaval and keep it on a path of gradual reform.”