from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

This Week: Mobilizing to Counter ISIS

September 18, 2014

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Significant Developments

Syria. French President Francois Hollande announced today that France would provide military support, including airstrikes, against ISIS in Iraq. On Monday, Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom pledged support for the fight against ISIS following the conclusion of the Paris conference. Wrapping up his tour of the Middle East to recruit Arab support, Secretary of State John Kerry received assurances of good intentions from Egypt and Iraq, while Saudi Arabia pledged to provide the training of Syrian rebel forces at its bases. Less clear was what, if any, would be their military contributions. Germany is set to host a conference for Iraq and Syria in Berlin on October 28 to discuss security concerns in the region.

Meanwhile, the United States carried out its first airstrikes in support of the Iraqi army on Monday, destroying six ISIS vehicles and a combat post. With the support of U.S. aircraft, Kurdish peshmerga forces recaptured seven Christian villages west of Irbil this week. Since President Barack Obama’s address to the nation last week pledging U.S. airstrikes again ISIS, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that 162 new recruits have joined ISIS training camps in Aleppo. On Tuesday, ISIS released a new propaganda video entitled “Flames of War,” showing wounded American soldiers and ending with “the fighting has just begun.”

An unidentified surveillance drone, the first of its kind, was seen over Aleppo today, where ISIS militants reportedly began evacuating in anticipation of a U.S. airstrike. Meanwhile, ISIS seized twenty-one Kurdish villages in northern Syria close to the Turkish border, spurring the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) to call on Turkish Kurds to come to the aid of the Syrian Kurdish population.

Saudi Arabia.Saudi Arabia’s state appointed Council of Senior Scholars, led by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al al-Sheikh, declared terrorism a “heinous crime” yesterday. The Council, the sole body in Saudi Arabia empowered to issue fatwas (Islamic legal opinions), called for adherents to be publicly executed as a deterrent to future recruits and banned militant financing. The move follows previous public statements by the Saudi grand mufti in recent weeks in which he labelled al-Qaeda and ISIS militants “Islam’s foremost enemy.”

U.S. Foreign Policy

ISIS. President Barack Obama insisted yesterday, in a speech at MacDill Air Force Base, that the United States would not send troops to fight “another ground war in Iraq.” His assurances came a day after U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he could foresee the possibility of U.S. ground troops in Iraq. Aides subsequently said that Dempsey was merely “describing contingency plans” as part of his role as military advisor to the president.

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday authorized President Barack Obama to train and arm Syrian rebels as part of the U.S. led effort to defeat ISIS. The president, vice president and high-raking White House officials personally lobbied for the bill to be passed. The authorization, which was attached as an amendment to a bill to keep the government funded until December 11, was approved with a vote of 273 to 156. This will guarantee that the issue will be revisited in the near future when the routine funding legislation expires.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Qatar. Senior Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Amr Darrag said that Qatar last Saturday asked several influential members of the Islamist group to leave the Gulf country last Saturday. The Qatari request suggests that Doha, a traditional Brotherhood ally, may be seeking to ease tensions with neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which view the Brotherhood as a threat to their regimes.

Turkey. Turkey’s military has reportedly initiated logistical planning for a buffer zone to be imposed on its southern border as protection against spillovers from the Syria and Iraqi conflicts. Turkish plans include possibly implementing a no-fly zone and providing humanitarian assistance to civilian refugees. The move follows reports last week that Turkey has ruled out participating in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. Meanwhile, President Tayyep Recep Erdogan hinted on Monday that members of the Muslim Brotherhood recently exiled from Qatar could be granted asylum in Turkey.

Libya. Libya’s internationally recognized parliament rejected acting Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni’s proposed cabinet today amidst the country’s escalating security crisis. Members of Parliament had requested a streamlined ten person “crisis” cabinet, but al-Thinni submitted eighteen nominations. Both the parliament and al-Thinni are currently based in the eastern town of Tobruk, essentially in domestic exile after Islamists seized Tripoli and set up a rival government there. Al-Thinni has accused Qatar of contributing to the instability; on Monday, he claimed that Qatar sent three planes loaded with weapons to the opposition-controlled capital.

Meanwhile, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo warned yesterday that Libya could devolve into a civil war and become another Syria at an international conference on Libya. Sixteen foreign ministers attended the conference along with representatives from the UN and the Arab League.

Egypt. In an unusual ruling, an Egyptian court released Alaa Abd El Fattah , a prominent political activist and blogger from prison on bail last Monday. Abd al Fattah has been imprisoned under four different administrations in Egypt, from President Mubarak to President Sisi. Abd El Fattah, who was released due to procedural irregularities during his earlier trial, still faces retrial in another court.

Gaza. Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah announced today that Saudi Arabia has pledged $500 million to help rebuild Gaza. Reconstruction in the coastal strip is estimated to cost $4 billion and take up to three years. Meanwhile, an agreement was brokered by the UN between the Israelis and Palestinians on Tuesday to allow up to 800 truckloads of construction supplies to enter Gaza daily. This figure is four times the amount currently in transit. The materials will enable the reconstruction of the eighteen thousand homes destroyed or severely damaged during Operation Protective Edge this summer. The UN agreed to track the progress of the goods from purchase to arrival in Gaza in order to address Israeli concerns that the materials may be diverted by Hamas to build more tunnels.

Golan Heights. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced this week the withdrawal of UNDOF (UN Disengagement Observer Force) troops from their bases in the Golan Heights. The peacekeepers were moved to the Israeli-controlled side of the buffer zone after unidentified Syrian fighters moved too close to their former base. The move comes after forty-five Fijian members of the peacekeeping force were captured by the Al-Nusra Front over two weeks ago. Those forces were released earlier this week.

Yemen. Houthi fighters pushed into a suburb of Yemen’s capital today in an escalation of weeks of fighting. Over forty people have been killed in the past two days of clashes between the Shiite rebel group and the Yemeni security forces. Houthi protestors in Sana’a have been calling for the resignation of the government and the reinstatement of fuel subsidies for weeks.

 

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