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Middle East Ticker: Complicated U.S. Diplomacy in Fight Against ISIS

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, September 27, 2016, 12:50 PM

Complicated Diplomacy Ahead of Offensive Against Islamic State Strongholds

U.S. officials are preparing for the coming battles to retake the Islamic State’s largest remaining strongholds, Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. Shaping operations continued last week as Iraqi forces backed by U.S. airstrikes seized Shirqat, a town 60 miles south of Mosul. The U.S. military has also requested the authority to deploy another 500 troops to Iraq ahead of the push to capture the city, which would bring the number of U.S. forces operating in Iraq to as many as 6,400. The Islamic State is reportedly getting nervous. Residents of Mosul told the Washington Post that the terrorist group has increased arrests and is settling into general paranoia as coalition forces draw closer.

Speaking at an event during the U.N. General Assembly last Wednesday, Brett McGurk, the Obama administration’s point person for the coalition fighting the Islamic State, said that there would be “no tolerance” for the kinds of human rights abuses perpetrated by Shia militias (officially known as the Popular Mobilization Forces) during the operation to retake Fallujah, where men fleeing the city were detained and tortured. The Shia militias, though, are defiant when it comes to taking orders from the United States. “We do not need America’s support,” one fighter in Bashir, Iraq, told Sulome Anderson, reporting for Foreign Policy. “The Hashd al-Shaabi [Popular Mobilization Forces] has never been supported by the U.S. Since the beginning, there was direct support from Baghdad and Iran, and Iranian advisors are here. We tried [the Americans] for more than two years while ISIS was in Bashir, and they did nothing.”

The United States faces an equally difficult challenge managing its partners in Syria ahead of the push to retake Raqqa. There, the United States is in the awkward position of operating through the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition, a primarily Kurdish rebel force, and Turkey, which considers the SDF a terrorist affiliate. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he confronted Vice President Joe Biden in New York last week about U.S. forces arming Kurdish groups in Kobane, and a government spokesman in Ankara said that Turkish forces would not participate in the Raqqa operation if Kurdish groups were also involved. That doesn’t match up with the plan that U.S. officials are discussing. Last Wednesday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Kurdish forces are “the most effective force that we have right now and the force that we need to go into Raqqa,” but said they would only be responsible for clearing the city and that Arab forces would take the lead in holding operations. It’s an important issue to resolve ahead of any operation to retake Raqqa; otherwise, the United States risks a repeat of the clashes between U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels and Turkish-backed Sunni Arab rebels that occurred in the opening stages of the Turkish intervention in Syria.

Jordan Votes in Parliamentary Election

Jordanians went to the polls on Tuesday to vote in parliamentary elections—or at least some did. The elections drew a relatively low turnout, 37 percent, but marked a shift in the country’s electoral politics in that no parties withdrew from the contest. “No parties are boycotting but the people are boycotting,” an activist told Curtis R. Ryan, a professor at Appalachian State University.

The level of party participation is significant, though. Since 1989, the Jordanian government has revised the country’s election law before each election to better manage the outcome, and as a result the Muslim Brotherhood has boycotted elections for the last decade, Ryan wrote for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage. This time around, the revision, which opted for a single nontransferable vote system, purported to open the door to more inclusive politics; according to the Jordanian government, the revision was made to foster the development of more and stronger parties. Because the Brotherhood is a well-established political institution, the change worked to its advantage this time, but the Brotherhood has also tried to broaden its appeal by dropping religious slogans and forming an opposition coalition with other groups. Their National Coalition for Reform picked up 16 of 130 seats in Tuesday’s election. “The number is below predictions but enough to make it the only real political opposition in a parliament made up largely of tribal and independent deputies who support the monarchy,” writes Ben Lynfield for the Jerusalem Post. Women also made a relatively strong showing. Twenty of the elected parliamentarians, or 15 percent, are women, exceeding the 15-woman threshold that is required under Jordanian law. (Fifteen percent is still a long way from gender parity, but the United States isn’t much better. Women make up only about 20 percent of the U.S. Congress.)

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Reasserts Influence with Dismissal of Finance Minister

The Iraqi parliament dismissed the country’s finance minister, Hoshiyar Zebari, with a vote of no confidence last Wednesday. Zebari was accused of misusing public funds and questioned by parliament last month as part of an ongoing corruption inquiry of Iraqi officials. Just last month, the parliament also sacked the minister of defense, Khaled al-Obeidi, under similar circumstances. The news has caused concern about the country’s economic stability, but the International Monetary Fund reaffirmed its commitment to working with the Iraqi government to follow through on a 5.34 billion dollar loan agreement that Zebari helped negotiate.

Zebari is a Kurdish official who was originally appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki more than a decade ago, but he frequently disagreed with Maliki about the government’s treatment of Iraqi Sunnis before Maliki stepped down under domestic and international pressure in 2014. Maliki was replaced by another member of his Dawa Party, Haider al-Abadi. Though Maliki no longer holds office, he is still the head of the Dawa Party, and from this vantage point, he’s led a splinter of the party against the Abadi government—a move that echoes the way deposed Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh used his continued political role to sabotage the transitional government in Sanaa in 2012 and 2013. In Baghdad, this has taken the form of a series of allegations of corruption in Abadi’s cabinet, and with Zebari, the allegations have now claimed their second minister. On Thursday, Zebari fired back, saying that Maliki and Parliament Speaker Saleem al-Jabouri were behind his dismissal, and that the campaign against him has been part of a "vengeful, politicized, and short-sighted" effort to bring down the government. Iraq analyst Joel Wing agrees. “When Maliki was in office he was masterful at playing divide and conquer allowing him to take on nearly every faction in Iraq. He is doing the same now... Abadi already came into office in a weak position, and now his legs are being further cut out from under him,” he writes on his blog, Musings on Iraq. Michael Knights, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tweeted that the move was a “guerilla war” tactic, adding that “Maliki is mounting a very effective political insurgency.” And that insurgency will continue. Emily Anagnostos at the Institute for the Study of War writes that Maliki’s splinter faction will continue to try to take out members of Abadi’s cabinet, and maybe even Abadi himself.

France Acknowledges Suffering of Pro-French Algerians More Than 50 Years Ago

French President Francois Hollande gave a remarkable speech at the Invalides monument in Paris on Sunday, in which he recognized the failures of France’s treatment of the Algerian forces that fought alongside French troops during the Algerian war of independence. The Algerians that sided with French colonialists, known as “Harkis,” were killed en masse by Algerian forces after the French withdrawal in 1962, and those that escaped to France were placed in internment camps. "It wasn't Guantanamo, but it was similar," Serge Karel, an Algerian man who joined the French Army in 1957, told PRI in 2012. "It was the shame of France, sticking entire families behind barbed wired like that. It was shameful." Many Harkis and their descendents still struggle to find acceptance in French society. They’ve been the target of racist political attacks and tend to have fewer economic opportunities. The Guardian reported in 2001 that unemployment in the Harki community was as high as 30 percent.

French politicians have gestured at the betrayal of the Harkis before. In 2002, then-President Jacques Chirac inaugurated a memorial commemorating those who died in the war, including Harkis, and shortly after succeeding Chirac in office in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy suggested that France should pay reparations to the Harki community to “put right the mistakes that were committed.” But Hollande’s speech on Sunday went further than previous admissions. “I recognize the responsibility of French governments in abandoning the harkis, the massacres of those remaining in Algeria, and the inhuman conditions for those transferred to France,” Hollande said. “France betrayed its promise, turned its back on families.” As the French government struggles to relate to and better integrate the country’s Arab and Muslim communities, acknowledging its failures with the Harkis is a good place to start.

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