from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

This Week: Mosul Offensive, Netanyahu’s Address, and Turkey’s Incursion

February 26, 2015

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Significant Developments

ISIS. Ashton Carter, wrapping up his first overseas trip as secretary of defense, met with top U.S. military and diplomatic officials in Kuwait on Monday to review the U.S.-led international coalition’s strategy against ISIS. Carter announced that the Obama administration had “the ingredients of the strategy” to defeat ISIS militarily in Iraq and Syria, but that further efforts were required to combat ISIS’ use of social media. Meanwhile, the Pentagon on Tuesday walked back its earlier CENTCOM announcement of a spring offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS after Iraqi officials reacted angrily to the disclosure. A senior CENTCOM official had briefed reporters on details of the offensive, including dates and the number of fighters likely to be involved. The White House also distanced itself from the announcement, with spokesperson Josh Earnest telling reporters that he was not aware of the briefing and that the offensive “[wouldn’t] begin until the Iraqi security forces are ready.”

Israel. Opposition Labor Party head Isaac Herzog today called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel his planned Congressional address next Tuesday saying it would cause “strategic damage to Israel’s standing and to the relationship with the United States.” U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice last night strongly criticized the Israeli leader’s planned Congressional speech, calling it “destructive to the fabric of the [U.S.-Israeli] relationship” in an interview with Charlie Rose. Meanwhile, Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) reported on Tuesday that Netanyahu had declined to attend a private meeting with Democratic senators, calling Netanyahu’s refusal “disappointing to those of us who have stood by Israel for decades.” However, Israeli officials said today that Netanyahu will meet with Democratic and Republican Senate leaders in a closed-door meeting.

Turkey-Syria. Turkish military forces entered Syria for the first time since the start of the Syrian civil war last weekend to secure the remains of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire and to evacuate the thirty-eight soldiers guarding his tomb. ISIS had threatened to destroy the tomb unless its guards lowered the Turkish flag adorning it. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that over five hundred troops, forty tanks, and over a hundred and fifty vehicles entered Syria through Kobani and successfully removed Shah’s remains and rescued the guards posted to the shrine who had been trapped by ISIS militants for several months. The Syrian government issued a statement on Sunday calling the operation a “flagrant aggression,” alleging that Turkey undertook the excursion without gaining permission from Damascus. Prime Minister Davutoglu told reporters on Sunday that he had notified the Syrian government, rebel leaders, and the coalition forces battling ISIS about the operation.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Qatar. Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani met with President Barack Obama on Tuesday, in his first ever visit to the White House. President Obama stressed the “strong security relationship” between the United States and Qatar, and said that Qatar was a “partner on a whole range of security initiatives, [including] in the [U.S.-led international] coalition to degrade and ultimately defeat [ISIS].” The leaders also discussed the situation in Syria, agreeing that the country could only be stabilized after securing the stepping down of President Bashar al-Assad.

Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry testified on Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee to explain the State Department’s budget request. In hearings heavily focused on the ongoing negotiations with Iran, Kerry denied reports that the United States would accept a nuclear agreement that would constrain Iran’s ability to achieve break out capacity after ten years. He declined to offer further details on the talks. Kerry’s testimony came a day after he returned from the latest round of high-level talks in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Palestine. A U.S. District Court awarded over $ 218 million on Monday to ten U.S. families who were among the victims of six terrorist attacks perpetrated by Palestinian groups between 2002 and 2004. The jury found the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) liable for their role in knowingly supporting the attacks. The attacks killed thirty-three people and wounded over four hundred and fifty, including U.S. citizens. The final damages will amount to over $655 million under a special legal provision that provides for tripling the amount of damages awarded by the court. The PLO and PA announced they were “deeply disappointed” with the verdict, while Palestinian deputy information minister, Mahmoud Khalifa, vowed Tuesday to appeal the decision.

Syria. ISIS militants have kidnapped over two hundred Assyrian Christians over the last three days after storming several villages in northeast Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a London-based watchdog. Thousands of Christians have resorted to fleeing the town of Tal Tamr in an effort to avoid abduction. ISIS has taken command of ten Assyrian villages around Tal Tamr that were previously under Kurdish militia control, and has also kidnapped militants fighting with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) during an assault on Tal Tamr.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch released a report on Tuesday documenting the Syrian regime’s use of barrel bombs on at least fifteen hundred sites in rebel-held areas since the Security Council specifically censured their use in February 2014. Barrel bombs are prohibited under international law as they indiscriminately injure civilians upon explosion. Meanwhile, the Syrian authorities have released a prominent Syrian dissident, Louay Hussein, on bail. Hussein, who is the head of the pro-democracy “Building the Syrian State” movement, is charged with “spreading false news” and “weakening national morale.” His next trial is scheduled for March 3.

Lebanon. Lebanese military experts and analysts announced yesterday that ISIS and the Nusra Front, who are mostly located near the northeastern border with Syria, are planning a large-scale attack on Lebanon, most likely in the second half of March, once the weather improves. The Nusra Front’s main goal for the offensive is to secure new supply routes, while ISIS seeks to gain traction in a bid to set up an Islamic “emirate” in Lebanon. ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, first announced his plans to create such an “emirate” last year in Iraq. ISIS announced recently that the command for the emirate in Lebanon would be led by Khalaf al-Zeyabi Halous, a Syrian militant who played a key role in the ISIS offensive to capture Raqqa in Syria in 2013.

Yemen. Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi withdrew his resignation from Yemen’s presidency on Monday after he escaped from a month-long house arrest at the hands of Houthi rebels. He has since relocated to the southern city of Aden, and is seeking the support of political parties and southern tribes to retake power from the Houthi rebels. According to a Hadi aide, Saudi Arabia has relocated its ambassador to Aden and promised unlimited political and logistical support to him. Houthi rebels issued an official statement on Tuesday, saying Hadi had “lost his legitimacy to act as president.”

Egypt-GCC. President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi on Monday applauded the support offered by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain, and stressed that efforts to cause friction between Egypt and the Gulf States would fail. The statement appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to the recent discord between Egypt and Qatar over Egypt’s airstrikes against ISIS factions in Libya last week in retaliation for ISIS beheading twenty-one Egyptian Copts near Benghazi. The situation also caused friction between the various members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) last Thursday, after the GCC publicly endorsed Qatar for announcing it had reservations about the Egyptian air strikes without the support of all members of the Council, prompting its secretary-general to issue a new statement in support of the strikes in Libya later that day.

Egypt. A prominent Egyptian blogger and activist, Alaa Abd El Fattah, was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $13,000 on Monday by an Egyptian court. He was convicted for participating in an unauthorized demonstration against the use of military trials for civilians in November 2013. Two -dozen other defendants received more lenient sentences during the same trial. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi authorized an anti-terrorism law on Tuesday, which authorizes officials to ban groups or individuals that are deemed to be a threat to national security, including people who disrupt public transportation. The law also gives officials the authority to freeze the groups’ assets.

Tunisia. Tunisian officials announced on Tuesday that their security forces had arrested around one hundred suspected Islamist militants in Tunisia since the weekend, including some allegedly influenced by ISIS. At present, there are an estimated 3,000 Tunisians fighting in Syria.

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