Middle East Ticker

U.S. Deploys More Troops to Syria, Trump Loosens Rules for Counterterrorism Operations, and Turkey Feuds with Europe ahead of Referendum

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, March 14, 2017, 11:20 AM

New Deployment of U.S. Troops Heads to Syria

The U.S. military has deployed an additional 400 troops to Syria, where they have joined the approximately 500 Special Operations Forces already working with local forces to push back the Islamic State. The United States is also planning to send more than 2,500 paratroopers to Kuwait; they will “be postured there to do all things Mosul, Raqqa, all in between,” Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson told the Fayetteville Observer.

The new U.S. deployment to Syria is ostensibly to prepare for the anticipated offensive to retake Raqqa, but that is still weeks away. The United States is expected to wait until after Turkey’s constitutional referendum in April before launching the attack, and the plan is still in development. At the heart of the planning debate is the extent to which U.S. troops will work with Kurdish forces in the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition. The SDF has been the backbone of U.S. efforts in northeast Syria so far, but Turkey vehemently opposes Kurdish involvement in the operation and in recent weeks has supported rebels pushing U.S.-backed Kurdish forces from towns between al-Bab and the Euphrates River. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is reportedly sympathetic to Ankara’s concerns. “He’s thinking beyond Erdogan and focusing on the partnership with Turkey, and how this will impact relations in the long term,” an administration official told Al-Monitor.

But without the Kurds, the United States will have to carry more of the burden itself. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Gen. Joseph Votel warned that the United States may need to commit more troops to the fight to take Raqqa and ensure a peaceful transition of power after the Islamic State is forced out. "I think as we move towards the latter part of these operations into more of the stability and other aspects of the operations, we will see more conventional forces requirements,” he said. This could also mean cooperating with Russia and the Assad regime. One of the options being considered for after the Islamic State’s defeat in Raqqa is handing the city over to groups sympathetic to the regime, which Turkey would prefer to Kurdish control of a largely Arab area.

But without the Kurds, the United States will have to carry more of the burden itself.

While those plans are being debated, the nearly 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria are now not only fighting the Islamic State, but running interference between rival Turkish-backed rebels and Kurdish forces in Manbij. While the two sides agreed to cede a buffer zone to Assad regime forces, tensions are still running high. Last week, U.S. troops made their presence in Manbij visible with large U.S. flags in an effort to deter clashes.

 

United States Loosens Rules for Counterterrorism Operations in Yemen

The New York Times reported on Sunday that President Donald Trump is loosening restrictions on counterterrorism operations put in place by the Obama administration. Trump has granted a request from the Defense Department to designate parts of Yemen an “area of active hostilities”; apparently this was one of his first acts as president, because the authors note the decision “opened the door” for the January 29 Special Operations raid and dozens of airstrikes in the weeks since. The White House is expected to also designate Somalia soon, and other regions may follow. Together, the expanded operations targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Shabaab are a “test run while the government considers whether to more broadly rescind or relax the Obama-era rules.”

Those rules drew a lot of criticism, especially from Republican presidential candidates during the campaign. Even in targeting the Islamic State in Syria, the Obama administration insisted on what some defense planners said was an impossible, or at least counterproductive, standard for minimizing civilian casualties. But the raid launched against the village of Yakla, Yemen, in January was excessive by any metric: more than a dozen civilians were killed, including at least six women, 10 children. More than 120 heads of livestock were also killed. According to eyewitness accounts reported from Yakla by Iona Craig, people were shot indiscriminately by helicopter gunships and other aircraft. The raid itself appears to have been a failure: U.S. officials are not sure if the primary target of the raid, AQAP leader Qassim al-Rimi, was even in the village at the time, and despite claims made by Trump and other members of his administration, there’s no evidence that any valuable intelligence was recovered. Instead, U.S. and Emirati forces killed a tribal official who was a paid ally of Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi and an apparent intermediary between local groups and AQAP.

The United States has grappled with questions about al-Qaeda recruitment for years, especially with concerns that the Obama administration's’ drone campaign in Yemen was driving more recruits to AQAP than it was killing. That was part of the reason for implementing the stricter rules of engagement in the first place. Now that they’ve been loosened in Yemen, the United States certainly isn’t winning local allies. “From now we are ready for any fight with the Americans and the dog Trump,” one resident told Craig.

 

Turkey Feuds with Europe ahead of Constitutional Referendum

The Turkish government is embroiled in a new political spat with Germany and the Netherlands. The fight has arisen as Turkish officials try to encourage expats to support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s constitutional referendum to strengthen the executive branch, which will be voted on next month. As BuzzFeed notes in a play-by-play, the fight started when Dutch officials revoked a protest permit for a rally at which Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was scheduled to speak. Several German towns also canceled planned rallies in response to Turkey’s arrest of a German-Turkish journalist. That prompted a fierce reaction from Ankara. Erdogan compared the German decision to “Nazi practices of the past,” and said the Dutch government does “not know politics or international diplomacy … these Nazi remnants, they are fascists.”

Playing hardball with Germany and the Netherlands rallies precisely the supporters that Erdogan needs to show up to cast votes next month.

A political fracas has ensued. German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the comments directly in a speech. “We will not allow the victims of the Nazis to be trivialised,” she said. “These comparisons with the Nazis must stop.” Things have escalated further with the Netherlands, where horse-mounted police broke up a rowdy pro-Erdogan protest in front of the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam on Sunday. The Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned Dutch diplomats in Ankara today to register a formal complaint about the incident, and they might not stop there. The Turkish minister for European Union affairs said his government is considering sanctions against the Netherlands that “could affect cultural activities, and military and technological cooperation.”

It’s unclear how much of the fight is just politics, but Erdogan is definitely turning the situation to his advantage. His nationalist base has a bone to pick with the European Union; many feel that Europe stalled accession talks for years to prevent Turkey from joining the Union, a prospect that has been further ruled out by Erdogan’s authoritarian turn. Playing hardball with Germany and the Netherlands rallies precisely the supporters that Erdogan needs to show up to cast votes next month.