Middle East Ticker

Middle East Ticker: Islamic State Faces Symbolic Battle and Remembering Shimon Peres

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, October 4, 2016, 7:51 AM

Syrian Rebels Advancing on Symbolic Islamic State-Occupied Town

Free Syrian Army rebels, backed by the United States and bolstered by Turkey’s Euphrates Shield intervention, are advancing on the Islamic State stronghold of Dabiq, located north of Aleppo along the western edge of the Islamic State’s territory.

The offensive has been in the works for weeks and could involve dozens of U.S. special forces, the Guardian reported last month. Now, rebels advancing south from al-Rai are expected to start the battle within days, though one rebel leader said they could be delayed by land mines in the area.

It’s not a strategic military position, but Dabiq has special significance for the Islamic State, which captured the town in 2014. In fact, it is so central to the organization’s millenarian eschatology that the group named its English-language online magazine after the city and noted in an editor’s note that “The area will play a historical role in the battles leading up to the conquests of Constantinople, then Rome.”

As Brookings’s Will McCants writes in his book, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, the village is the subject of a prophecy that probably originated in the 8th century and was popularized by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led al-Qaeda in Iraq until his death in 2006. According to the prophecy, the city will be the site of a battle (between Muslims and Roman forces, according to the original text) that will presage the Muslim conquest of modern-day Istanbul and the Day of Judgement. As McCants points out, “The fact that Turkish Muslims, not infidel Romans, control Constantinople, or Istanbul, today and are working with the infidel West against the Islamic State makes the Dabiq prophecy a poor fit for contemporary events….But in the apocalyptic imagination, inconvenient facts rarely impede the glorious march to the end of the world.”

U.S. Breaks Off Ceasefire Talks with Russia as Assad Bombs Hospitals in Aleppo

The Assad regime continued its offensive against rebel-held districts of eastern Aleppo for a second week after the collapse of the ceasefire negotiated by the United States and Russia. In recent days, airstrikes have struck several of the few remaining medical facilities in the besieged portion of the city. Two hospitals were hit last Wednesday, and one of three remaining hospitals was severely damaged in a strike on Saturday. Only 30 doctors are believed to be assisting wounded amid the sustained regime bombardment, which some have compared to the bombing of Dresden during World War II. “Up until the last few days, there had been eight hospitals partially functioning in Aleppo, but a few days ago, the two largest hospitals [were] deliberately targeted and are now not functioning, drastically reducing the capacity of health workers in the city to provide life-saving medical care for many innocent civilians,” Dr. Rick Brennan of the World Health Organization told press on Friday. At least 320 civilians have been killed in Aleppo in the last two weeks.

The Syrian military said Sunday that it would allow rebels safe passage out of Aleppo if they lay down their arms, but many are understandably wary of the government’s offer of protection. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned that there would be consequences if the United States tried to intervene to halt the Aleppo offensive. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has chafed at the administration’s reticence to authorize more forceful measures to guarantee the recent ceasefire, according to leaked audio of a meeting published by the New York Times, and on Monday the State Department announced it was breaking off talks to renew the ceasefire, citing Russian obstructionism. "Unfortunately, Russia failed to live up to its own commitments...and was also either unwilling or unable to ensure Syrian regime adherence to the arrangements to which Moscow agreed," State Department Spokesperson John Kirby said. With this most recent ceasefire now definitively off the table, the United States could choose to pursue a more aggressive policy. Going forward, Washington could potentially work more closely with rebel groups with which it has deepened its ties as a result of the failed ceasefire. “Even though this latest ceasefire has failed, this behind-the-scenes dialogue is part of a larger, pragmatic shift on the part of the United States, as the U.S. State Department has proved increasingly willing to deal with Syrians with real power on the ground,” Sam Heller, a fellow at the Century Foundation, writes. “These communications also signal the maturation of these armed opposition groups, which, after five years of war, now have leaders and political officers who can do their own talking to the outside world.”

Shimon Peres, Former Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Prize Recipient, Dies at 93

Shimon Peres died last Tuesday at the age of 93, two weeks after suffering a stroke. Thousands of mourners attended his funeral at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on Friday, including diplomats and dignitaries from around the world. Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton delivered eulogies focusing on Peres’s dedication to the peace process, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recounted a conversation that showed their collegial relationship but acute differences. “In one of our nearly night-long discussions, we addressed a fundamental question: from Israel’s perspective, what is paramount—security or peace?” he said. “Shimon enthusiastically replied: ‘Bibi, peace is the true security. If there will be peace, there will be security.’ And I responded to him: ‘Shimon, in the Middle East, security is essential for achieving peace and for maintaining it.’”

Among those in attendance was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who shared a handshake with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The gesture angered Palestinians, many of whom remember Peres as much for his hawkishness—and a 1996 strike against a U.N. base in Lebanon that killed more than 100 civilians during an offensive against Hezbollah, in particular—as his work to promote peace. The furor reflects the length of Peres’s political career and his complicated legacy. Peres was the last surviving politician from Israel’s founding generation; as Brookings’s Natan Sachs writes in his remembrance, Peres became an aide to David Ben Gurion when he was just 24, even before the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. In the first three decades of his career, much of which he spent at the Ministry of Defense, he was known for his role in the 1956 Suez War, his early support for the settler movement, and his establishment of Israel’s (still nominally clandestine) nuclear weapons program.

But “Peres also embodied a dramatic transformation from ideological hawk to dove, common among several Israeli leaders,” Sachs writes. By the 1980s, he was pursuing a peace agreement with Jordan, and then led the Israeli delegation at Oslo in 1993, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. Even as prospects for an agreement faded, Peres continued to work towards an increasingly difficult goal. Late in life “he had begun watching Palestinian soap operas in order to better understand the people with whom he hoped soon to live in peace,” Serge Schmemann remembers in the New York Times. He served as president from 2007 to 2014, his last political office, and though the role is generally ceremonial, he again used his role to promote peace. His proudest moment as president, he told the Jerusalem Post soon after his term ended, was when he dissuaded Netanyahu from ordering Israeli airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear program.

In his incisive and heartfelt piece on Peres’s legacy, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg writes that Peres was Israel’s “greatest visionary” and his death draws a sharp contrast between his leadership and the current generation of Israeli politicians. “As Peres famously said, optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently,” Goldberg concludes. “Despite it all, Peres chose to live as an optimist.”

Congress Gets Buyer’s Remorse after Overriding Veto to Pass Terrorism Prosecution Bill

As readers of this site know, the U.S. Congress voted last Wednesday to override President Obama’s veto—for the first time in his presidency—and pass the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). The law will allow families of 9/11 victims to file suit against Saudi Arabia for its supposed role in the attacks. Speculation about whether or not Saudi officials facilitated the 9/11 hijackers’s planning has simmered for more than a decade, but official investigations, including the 9/11 Commission Report and its recently declassified “28 pages” annex, have not been able to prove the claim. Under JASTA, the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act is amended “to allow for lawsuits against foreign nations in federal court if it is determined that they played a role in terrorist attacks that killed Americans on U.S. soil,” the Washington Post reports.

The Obama administration warned that the measure could have far-reaching consequences beyond just allowing lawsuits against a partner country that the United States has never designated a state-sponsor of terrorism ahead of the Wednesday vote, and called the veto override “a mistake” that would set a “dangerous precedent.” Lawfare’s Jack Goldsmith and Stephen Vladeck seconded those concerns in an editorial for CNN. “Reasonable people can disagree over whether giving the 9/11 victims their day in court justifies the diplomatic and foreign relations problems this law would provoke,” Goldsmith and Vladeck wrote. “What should be clear to everyone, though, is that the bill Congress actually enacted last week provides virtually no benefits to justify its substantial costs.” In an interview with Zachary Laub at the Council on Foreign Relations, Vladeck stressed that the bill not only undermines the principle of sovereign immunity here in the United States, but could encourage other nations to hold the United States liable in foreign courts. By Thursday morning, some members of Congress were already expressing concerns about their vote, echoing the same criticisms Obama and others had raised about the bill. A letter signed by 28 senators sent to the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. John Cornyn, asked them to work on revisions to “appropriately mitigate” the bill’s “unintended consequences,” and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said that “there may be some work to be done to protect our service members overseas from any kind of legal ensnarements that occur, any kind of retribution.” Despite the Obama administration’s veto and warnings, Sen. Mitch McConnell still blamed the president for “a failure to communicate early about the potential consequences of a piece of legislation [that] was obviously very popular.”