Middle East Ticker

U.S. and Russia Agree to Ceasefire in Syria, Iraq Winds Down Fighting in Mosul, Turkish Opposition Rallies against Erdogan, and Britain Will Continue Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, July 11, 2017, 10:30 AM

Trump Administration Agrees to Russia’s Ceasefire Proposal in Syria

A new ceasefire went into effect in portions of southern Syria on Sunday. The arrangement is designed to freeze fighting between Syrian rebels and the Assad regime in some of the areas hit hardest by the civil war, including Deraa and Quneitra, and unlike the previous de-escalation zone proposal that came out of the Astana talks, the new plan is being implemented with the approval of the U.S. government and could signal further U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria. While many of the details of the ceasefire agreement remain vague, The Daily Beast reported last Thursday, a day before President Donald Trump’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit, that the plan “acquiesces to the idea of ‘safe zones’ proposed by Russia and its allies” and “leans on cooperation from Moscow, including the use of Russian troops to patrol parts of the country.”

The deal does nothing to advance a political resolution to the conflict, but if successful, it could slow the bloodshed and at least move the conflict closer toward some form of stasis. The agreement is notable in that it protects some of the rebels’ embattled territory, preserving their role in negotiating the future of Syria; that is a significant win for the United States despite Washington’s limited leverage in the Syrian civil war. But Russia probably gets the better end of the bargain: The agreement builds on the Astana framework negotiated by Russia, will rely on Russian forces to monitor and enforce the ceasefire, and follows the U.S. government’s decision to drop its stated policy calling for the removal of Bashar al-Assad.

Early reports suggest that the ceasefire is holding. However, clashes continued on Monday in portions of Syria’s southwest adjacent to the ceasefire zone but not covered by the agreement. Notably, the deal does not include eastern Syria, where Russian, Iranian, and U.S. proxies are pressing into Islamic State territory in what is both a counterterrorism campaign and a geopolitical land grab; U.S.-Russian cooperation in the east is based on an agreed demarcation between U.S. and Assad regime zones and a deconfliction channel that failed to prevent several incidents near Tabqa and al-Tanf last month. But U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week that he sees the new ceasefire as a starting point and that it could be expanded to include “establishing with Russia joint mechanisms for ensuring stability, including no-fly zones, on the ground ceasefire observers, and coordinated delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

An arrangement that preserves some of those rebels as a credible opposition is better than further slaughter. But the war is still a long way from a reaching a resolution...

The Syrian civil war has been heading in this direction for years. Russia and Iran were always deeply invested in preserving the regime, and the United States was never willing to spend the large quantities of resources that would have been necessary to oust Assad. In the absence of a large U.S. intervention to push out the Syrian government, the war has stagnated and generally trended toward an outright defeat of the Syrian rebels. An arrangement that preserves some of those rebels as a credible opposition is better than further slaughter. But the war is still a long way from a reaching a resolution and potential spoilers abound: Russia has used previous ceasefires to stall for time, then violate them and further impinge on rebel territory. Iran is even more committed to recovering territory in Syria than its Russian partners; it is testing U.S. troops in eastern Syria and recognizes that the United States would like to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran. If the ceasefire collapses, it may be Iran’s gain. Israeli officials are also wary of the agreement and have told their U.S. counterparts that they do not want Russian forces policing de-escalation zones near the Israeli border, and suggested U.S. troops be used instead; as the deal enters force, it is unclear where this dispute stands.

 

As Fighting Winds Down in Mosul, Iraq Prepares for Rebuilding and Reconciliation

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi toured western Mosul on Sunday, days after declaring the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq, though fighting continues in a narrow pocket of the city. With the Islamic State ousted from its last large population center in Iraq, Baghdad is turning toward efforts to rebuild the damage caused by nine months of siege and reconcile the country’s fractured politics. Both are daunting tasks.

Much of Mosul is in ruins. The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi and the Washington Post’s Louisa Loveluck, who entered the city with military units last week, posted videos on Twitter of block after block of rubble and shelled-out concrete frames of what had been shops and homes. On Monday’s episode of the Times’ podcast The Daily, Callimachi said that the ruins evoke Dresden after World War II. U.N. estimates suggest it will take at least $1 billion to rebuild the city, and hundreds of thousands of residents remain displaced.

The prospect of political reform in Iraq also opens the door to more of the same jockeying for foreign influence that has defined Iraqi politics since 2003.

The political situation presents opportunities and challenges. “Post-ISIS, Iraqi leaders will have to re-accommodate minority Sunni Arabs, normalize the political role of majority Shiites, tackle anew the question of Kurdish autonomy and even independence, and address the rampant corruption and mismanagement in the petroleum-dominated economy,” Muhamed H. Almaliky writes for the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. It’s an overwhelming set of issues, but it is also an opportunity to correct some of the mistakes made after the U.S. invasion. The prospect of political reform in Iraq, though, also opens the door to more of the same jockeying for foreign influence that has defined Iraqi politics since 2003. “With the Islamic State no longer a significant threat to the Iraqi government or Iran’s interests in the Arab country, the I.R.G.C. and its Iraqi proxies have recently intensified propaganda against the U.S. military,” the Middle East Institute’s Ahmad Majidyar writes.

 

Turkish Opposition Rallies against Erdogan’s Authoritarian Policies

Turkey’s political opposition marched through the streets of Istanbul on Sunday to protest against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on political dissent. The protest was the culmination of a three-week march led by opposition politicians, who walked from Ankara to Istanbul. Organizers told the Washington Post that more than a million people joined Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), for the rally at the march’s end. In a speech, Kilicdaroglu called the march a “new step, a new history, a new birth” and pressed the Erdogan government to walk back its increasingly authoritarian policies. The event was the most prominent display of political opposition in Turkey since the surprise success of the newly-formed pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in June 2015 or the Gezi Park protests in 2013.

It is a different country than it was just last year.

But the rally on Sunday took place in a Turkey far removed from the protests of even just a couple years ago. Next Saturday, July 15, will mark the one-year anniversary of the coup attempt on Erdogan’s government. The event was an accelerant for Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions. Soon after the attempt, he enacted a state of emergency, still in effect today, that has allowed him to crack down on political dissent, from journalists to sitting members of parliament; Turkey now imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. His hunt for people with ties to the Gulenist Movement—the religious organization that hails Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen as its spiritual leader and that Erdogan has accused of plotting the coup attempt—has resulted in mass firings and arrests that have decimated academia and the public sector, and caught people like Serkan Golge, a NASA scientist, in a dragnet based on paranoid conspiracy theories. And in April, Erdogan finally passed a referendum enacting constitutional reforms that grant him sweeping powers as the country’s president. It is a different country than it was just last year.

 

British High Court Allows Arms Sales for Saudi Intervention in Yemen to Continue

Britain’s High Court ruled on Monday that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia to support its ongoing intervention in Yemen are legal. The decision came in response to a complaint brought by the organization Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which argued that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia violate British and European law regarding humanitarian protections for civilians in combat; as The Guardian notes, “The EU council common position on arms sales compels the UK to deny an export licence if there is ‘a clear risk’ equipment might be used in violation of international humanitarian law.” More than 13,000 civilians have been killed or injured in the Yemeni civil war, according to the United Nations, many of them in indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets, including by Saudi airstrikes. The High Court judges wrote that their decision was based on classified reports that included “valuable additional support for the conclusion that the decisions taken by the secretary of state not to suspend or cancel arms sales to Saudi Arabia were rational.” The chief executive of the British branch of Oxfam said that the ruling “sets back arms control 25 years and gives ministers free rein to sell arms to countries even where there is clear evidence they are breaching international humanitarian law.”

The war in Yemen remains stalemated, despite the large sales of British and U.S. weapons to Saudi Arabia. The cholera outbreak in Yemen, though, continues to spread across battlelines and throughout the country. The number of estimated cases now exceeds 300,000, the Red Cross reported on Monday, and approximately 7,000 more people are infected each day. At least 1,600 people have died from the preventable disease in the last 10 weeks. “To understand the scale, we know that one new child is reporting sick with diarrhea every minute. The conflict has had a direct impact on children in terms of many children injured, maimed and killed. But the additional effect on children is due to the failure and collapse of the public service systems,” UNICEF's Sherin Varkey told NPR. "The situation for children is catastrophic in Yemen today."