Middle East Ticker
Rebels and Regime Clash in Syria While Fighting Islamic State, Iraqi Forces Enter Mosul, and Washington Prepares for Sisi’s Visit
Russia Tries to Balance Turkey and Assad Regime in al-Bab and Geneva
Despite reaching an arrangement two weeks ago to divide control of al-Bab, where an Assad regime offensive pushing east and Turkish-backed Syrian rebel offensive pushing south are converging, rebels and regime forces clashed again in the area over the weekend. Regime forces captured Tadef, just more than two miles south of al-Bab, on Sunday—the town previously had been deemed the dividing line between rebel and regime control—and then pressed closer to the city. Rebels told Reuters that their impression was that the regime forces were testing their limits, a limit that the rebels clearly enforced. The advancing regime troops were met with shelling and small arms fire, killing 22 soldiers, according to the Free Syrian Army. "They probably hadn't thought that they would receive such a fierce response," one rebel official said. Russian officials reportedly intervened to mediate a restoration of the ceasefire in the area.
Russia seems intent on managing a balance of power in the area; Moscow and Ankara are cooperating on the current diplomatic push, renewed after the fall of Aleppo late last year, and that seems to be resulting in the partition of the country into de facto spheres of control. If Russia can prevent continued clashes, things could settle into a sustainable freeze along the southern edge of the Manbij pocket, allowing both the rebels and regime to focus their attention east toward Raqqa. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also reiterated today his intention to turn the Turkish intervention toward the Kurdish-held town of Manbij.
Peace talks convened by the United Nations resumed last Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland. U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has been shuttling between meetings with rebel and regime delegates. The head of the rebel delegation said Monday that his group was hoping to meet with representatives from the Russian foreign ministry to better understand Russia’s intent and push for better enforcement of the nationwide ceasefire. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that the rebel delegation remains too fractious and reiterated calls for including Kurdish groups in the U.N. talks; both the United States and Russia have cultivated strong ties with Kurdish rebels operating in northeast Syria.
U.S. Looks for “Long-Term Commitment” as Iraqi Forces Enter Western Mosul
One week into the new offensive to oust the Islamic State from western Mosul, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have swept through outlying areas south of the city and captured neighboring villages, the international airport, and the Ghazlani military base. The advance slowed over the weekend as troops entered the city, where they had anticipated a difficult fight. The Islamic State has entrenched itself, prepared armored car bombs and small armed drones, and can take advantage of the dense urban terrain. Despite these challenges, Iraqi forces on Monday captured a strategic bridge linking western Mosul with the city’s eastern neighborhoods, which Iraqi forces gained control of last month, and have drawn within two miles of the city center. One U.S. official described the advance to Foreign Policy as “deliberate, small bites” of the city. Thousands of Iraqi civilians have begun fleeing western Mosul as Iraqi forces enter the city; as many as 750,000 remain trapped in Islamic State-occupied neighborhoods.
The situation raises humanitarian concerns for both civilians fleeing the city and civilians who cannot. Human Rights Watch warns that Kurdish peshmerga are detaining men and boys, even after they pass security checks, sometimes for months at a time without communication with their family. The United States has also loosened the rules of engagement for U.S. forces operating in tandem with Iraqi troops, allowing closer cooperation as U.S. Special Forces move closer to the front lines. Some Iraqi military officers have been pushing for the change for more than a year and U.S. officials say the rule change will cut out bureaucratic wrangling that can delay necessary air support, but the Obama administration was reluctant to allow more permissive strikes because of concerns about civilian casualties.
The U.S. military is also preparing for maintaining Iraqi security after the Islamic State is forced from major Iraqi cities. Mindful of how the Iraqi military atrophied and collapsed after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of Central Command, said last Thursday that the United States and its NATO partners have begun discussions with the Iraqi government about “a long-term commitment to grow the capacity, maintain the capacity of Iraqi Security Forces.” How long that long-term commitment might be is unclear but a NATO official told CNN last week that the current cooperation “has no fixed end date” and Secretary of Defense James Mattis said on his recent trip to Baghdad that “I imagine we'll be in this fight for a while and we'll stand by each other."
Washington Prepares for Sisi’s Visit
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday to discuss plans for a visit in March by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. The Trump administration has signaled it would like to reassert strong ties with Egypt; Trump met with Sisi last September during the presidential campaign and called him “a fantastic guy” and said he had “good chemistry” with the Egyptian president, and since the election the two spoke by phone in December and January.
U.S. ties with Egypt have been complicated since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and especially since the massacre of more than 1,000 protesters rallying against the military coup that ousted his successor, President Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013. The Obama administration tried to balance support for the Egyptian government as it struggled to contain a surge in terrorism and economic instability—even bending over backwards to avoid calling the military’s removal of Morsi a “coup” because it would trigger a freeze in foreign aid—with concerns about Sisi’s consolidation of power. That consolidation is continuing: the space for civil society and political dissent has narrowed considerably since Sisi entered office. The latest illustration of this came just yesterday, when the Egyptian parliament voted to strip Muhammad Anwar al-Sadat (a nephew of the assassinated president) of his parliamentary seat amid accusations he leaked a draft of the country’s controversial NGO law to foreign governments and other government materials to generate criticism of the Sisi administration.
Egyptian security also remains a chronic problem. The country is fighting an Islamic State-linked insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. In recent weeks, militants have begun murdering members of Sinai’s Christian population, leading hundreds to flee west to the city of Ismailia, on the Suez Canal, seeking safety. Sisi has ordered the Egyptian government to help resettle Christians arriving in Ismailia, but Egyptian Christians aren’t necessarily much safer in mainland Egypt: Christian churches have been targeted by bombers and arsonists, and their communities attacked by violent mobs.
The Trump administration seems to have no qualms about engaging with Sisi. After a meeting with Sisi over the weekend, Gen. Joseph Votel said he would like to restart the Bright Star joint military exercises the United States and Egypt conducted for decades before they were suspended in 2013. More policies to strengthen ties are expected when Sisi visits Washington in March. Adel El-Adawy, writing in The Hill, recommends the United States increase its military assistance and reinstate military financing for the purchase of hardware and munitions, begin a new strategic dialogue, encourage investment in the Egyptian economy, and follow through on plans to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. As several authors have noted here on Lawfare, that last recommendation could have counterproductive consequences. Experts at the Center for American Progress recommend a more circumspect approach that would leverage Egypt’s interest in restored ties to gain concessions on civil society reforms and the protection of religious minorities.