Though I am reticent about these kinds of claims, I think it’s safe to say at this point that the Battle for Mosul is over. A day after flying into the city in anticipation of declaring victory over ISIS, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday declared victory over ISIS. The anti-ISIS coalition agrees that the entire city has now been liberated. Likewise for the folks at the Nineveh Media Center, who deserve enormous credit for the great work they did tracking this battle and were able to post this nice map of Mosul’s Old City earlier today:
It seems shameful to step on this moment by pointing out that there’s still a lot of work to be done, but, uh, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Parts of the city are still wired with ISIS booby traps and have to be cleared before rebuilding work can begin. The rebuilding task is, of course, monumental. The task of tallying the civilians whose lives were lost in this battle can only really begin now and, as gruesome as it will be, it must be done. An honest assessment to determine how many of the dead were killed by, let’s say, overzealous Iraqi and coalition firepower is in order as well. An estimated 700,000 people are still displaced from the fighting, and their humanitarian needs have to be met until conditions improve at least to the point where they can return home. And, of course, the fight against ISIS isn’t over yet. The next stop is Tal Afar, but Hawijah and other parts of Iraq will still need to be cleared after that.
And those are just the immediate issues. There are a lot of larger issues that need to be resolved, issues that are going to define what Iraq is moving forward. Are the Kurds really going to vote on independence, and what will that mean apart from enraging the perpetually enraged? Are the Kurds and Popular Mobilization Units going to come to blows in Sinjar? In general, is Iraq going to be able to find the balance between its many religious and ethnic communities that it failed to find before ISIS swept through a third of the country in 2014? Foreign Policy has put together a few essays on topics related to post-Mosul Iraq and post-Raqqa Syria. The collection starts off with ex-con Elliott Abrams arguing that now is not the time for America to stop killing Arabs, so I wouldn’t recommend reading the whole thing. But Renad Mansour’s essay on Iraq’s various power struggles is decent.
From that same collection of essays I would also recommend Cole Bunzel on ISIS’s future. He pushes back against arguments that ISIS might wind up coming back into the al-Qaeda fold, arguing that too much bad blood has passed between the two organizations to make that possible. I’m not sure I agree, particularly if both of them experience leadership changes (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, if he’s not already dead, probably doesn’t have that much time left, and Hamza bin Laden looks ready to supplant Ayman al-Zawahiri as the public face, at least, of al-Qaeda), but Bunzel makes a good case. He also links to his own research into Jabhat al-Nusra’s/Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s split from al-Qaeda in July 2016, which I find interesting because it’s much less cynical than most commentary about that move has been. Bunzel says that, far from approving or winking and nudging at Nusra’s break with the mothership, Zawahiri wasn’t told that it was happening and tried to reverse the decision when he found out:
Abu al-Khayr is Ahmad Hasan Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, an Egyptian al-Qaida leader who served as Zawahiri’s deputy in Syria till his death in late February 2017 in a U.S. airstrike. It was Abu al-Khayr who, on July 28, 2016, put out the audio statement granting Jabhat al-Nusra permission to leave al-Qaida. Yet such permission, according to al-Maqdisi, was dependent on Zawahiri’s anticipated approval, which proved not forthcoming. When Zawahiri was informed of what had happened he sought to restore the status quo ante, but the leaders of his former affiliate balked. And so a superficial split became a real rupture—widened by the bad blood of perceived disobedience.
This story, it should be noted, is widely believed by the jihadis aligned with al-Maqdisi and al-‘Uraydi. “Everyone knows that the sage [i.e., Zawahiri] rejected the breaking of ties, which was carried out by deception and the violation of an oath,” said recently a certain “Dr. Abu Hamza,” a thinker whose messages are reposted by al-Maqdisi and al-‘Uraydi. As another put it even more recently: “We take issue with the fact that [Abu Muhammad] al-Jawlani invalidated the bay‘a and rejected Zawahiri’s command.”
These kind of comments could be part of the con designed to make the post-Qaeda Nusra seem like a moderate and reasonable partner for Western countries, but it’s still an interesting bit of research.
So, anyway, how’s that US-Russian ceasefire holding up? Well, so far it seems to be holding up OK, according to UN envoy Staffan de Mistura in his remarks opening another round of peace talks in Geneva on Monday. Russia likes it enough to talk about doing more such deals with the US. Iran wants the ceasefire extended to all of Syria, not that that would serve Tehran’s strategic interests at this point or anything. The UN seems to approve–as long as the ceasefire zone doesn’t turn into a basis for partitioning Syria later on. There is fighting going on just outside that ceasefire zone, though:
Syrian troops and Iranian-backed militias launched an assault on Bedouin villages in southeast Syria on Monday to consolidate control of a swathe of desert stretching to the Iraqi border, Western-backed rebels said.
The rebels said they came under attack at dawn in a sparsely populated desert area that lies east of the pro-government controlled city of Sweida, mainly inhabited by the Druze minority.
The air and ground offensive, backed by Russian air power, was waged on eight villages from Tal Asfar to Tlul al Shuhaib that had been seized at the end of March by Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels from Islamic State after the hardline militants had retreated to regroup further north.
When I say this fighting is happening “just outside” the ceasefire area, I mean it’s close enough that there could be some disagreement that it is, in fact, happening outside the ceasefire area and isn’t a violation of the deal. But so far it doesn’t seem to be threatening the deal either way, which could partly be because very few people in the US government actually seem to know what the terms of the agreement are.
A rebel court in Sanaa sentenced four Saudi nationals to death on Monday for participating in a 2014 al-Qaeda attack in which 14 Yemeni soldiers were beheaded. This is a case that predates the rebel takeover of Sanaa in September of that year, so this sentencing could be taken as an attempt by the rebels to bolster their claim to being Yemen’s legitimate government.
Speaking in Istanbul on Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed hope that the US-Turkey relationship could be improved:
“I think our relationship here in Turkey which has been under some stress for some time, I hope we are beginning to put it on the mend,” he said. “I think we’re beginning to rebuild some of that trust that we lost in one another, they lost our trust to a certain extent, we lost theirs, so I think we are working very hard to rebuild that level of trust and that is the basis for any relationship.”
“This is an extraordinarily important relationship to the United States for many, many reasons that you would well understand from a security standpoint to the future economic opportunities as well and the important geography just by luck of Mother Nature that the citizens of Turkey occupy at this crossroads of the world,” Tillerson said. “So it’s important for so many reasons which is why we must put the relationship on the mend, re-establish it on the proper basis and strengthen it going forward and I think we’re taking the first steps in that regard.”
The big complicating factor in the US-Turkey relationship remains America’s support for the Kurdish YPG in Syria, and since that’s not changing anytime soon Tillerson probably isn’t going to have much luck on this front.
Political novice Avi Gabbay was elected the new leader of Israel’s Labor Party on Monday. His last political gig was serving as Benjamin Netanyahu’s environment minister when he belonged to the center-right Kulanu party, and he’s still enough of an outsider in Israeli politics that he doesn’t actually have a seat in parliament–which means that current Labor leader Isaac Herzog will remain the party’s leader in the Knesset for now. Labor’s near-term future may be hopeless no matter who’s running the party, but its chances in the country’s next parliamentary election can’t really be any worse with Gabbay in charge than they were under Herzog. On the other hand, Gabbay is being called “Israel’s Emmanuel Macron,” which, uh, yikes.
The Palestinians opened a new electricity substation in Jenin on Monday as part of a newly announced deal that will have Israel supplying the West Bank with more electrical power. This is noteworthy in its own right I suppose, but it’s particularly noteworthy in that this new Palestinian Authority-Israel electricity deal comes at a time when the PA and Israel are busy trying to strip Gaza of its electricity altogether.
After his speech in Istanbul, Tillerson flew to Kuwait to try his hand at resolving the Gulf diplomatic crisis. He’s going to spend most of the week shuttling between Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia and, well, good luck with that. The anti-Qatar bloc is already talking about increasing pressure on Qatar over what it says are Doha’s failures to abide by a 2013 deal between the Qataris and Saudis. That deal, which was released by CNN today, basically covers Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the fact that other Arab regimes don’t like Al Jazeera very much.
The Intercept had an interesting report on Monday that should raise a few questions about how the Trump administration has responded to the Qatar crisis. Specifically, it should raise the question of whether Trump himself would have been so gung ho about the Saudi move against Qatar if the Qataris had only bailed out his son in-law:
NOT LONG BEFORE a major crisis ripped through the Middle East, pitting the United States and a bloc of Gulf countries against Qatar, Jared Kushner’s real estate company had unsuccessfully sought a critical half-billion-dollar investment from one of the richest and most influential men in the tiny nation, according to three well-placed sources with knowledge of the near transaction.
Kushner is a senior adviser to President Trump, and also his son-in-law, and also the scion of a New York real estate empire that faces an extreme risk from an investment made by Kushner in the building at 666 Fifth Avenue, where the family is now severely underwater.
Qatar is facing an ongoing blockade led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and joined by Egypt and Bahrain, which President Trump has taken credit for sparking. Kushner, meanwhile, has reportedly played a key behind-the-scenes role in hardening the U.S. posture toward the embattled nation.
That hard line comes in the wake of the previously unreported half-billion-dollar deal that was never consummated. Throughout 2015 and 2016, Jared Kushner and his father, Charles, negotiated directly with a major investor in Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, known as HBJ for short, in an effort to refinance the property on Fifth Avenue, the sources said.
There are conflicts of interest and then there’s whatever this is. Kushner is one of the administration’s leading voices on foreign policy for reasons that make less sense by the day, and there’s every reason to think that he’s leading the behind the scenes charge against Qatar because his business deal with Qatar’s richest prince fell through and left Kushner’s family in serious financial jeopardy. And this isn’t the first time Kushner’s business dealings have intersected with his foreign/Middle East policy work.
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