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New Clashes in Syria as Israel Hits Iranian Targets, U.S. Troops Attacked by Regime
As Turkey continues its intervention in Afrin and Russian-backed Assad regime forces bombard East Ghouta, fighting also erupted along the Syrian-Israeli border this past week. The clashes began when Israeli forces detected an Iranian drone, apparently based on the American RQ-170 that crashed in Iranian territory in 2011, entering Israeli airspace. The drone was quickly intercepted and destroyed by an Israeli Apache helicopter gunship. Israeli forces then responded with a series of airstrikes. Twelve targets were hit in all, including Syrian air-defense systems, a vehicle in Syria which Israeli officials believe was the mobile control center for the drone, and four sites that the IDF had identified as “part of Iran's military establishment in Syria.” One Israeli F-16 was shot down in the operation; both pilots were able to eject and land in Israel, though one was seriously injured. While Israel has periodically carried out airstrikes against military targets in Syria throughout the civil war, Haaretz reports that the strikes on Saturday are believed to be the first that Israel has launched against targets with Iranian military personnel.
Farther east, regime forces launched an attack against a headquarters of the Syrian Democratic Forces last week, despite the presence of U.S. troops. The Pentagon said that an estimated 500 regime forces participated in the attack, which involved an effort to cross the Euphrates River at Khusham and bombard the SDF position with artillery. U.S. officials told CNN that Russian contractors in the area may have participated in the assault, possibly to secure nearby oil fields. U.S. forces responded with strikes launched by mobile artillery, drones, and F-22 and F-15 jets; as many as 100 pro-regime fighters were killed as the attack was rebuffed. On Tuesday, Russian media reported that Russian miltary contractors operating with regime forces were killed in the attack. The skirmish was far and away the deadliest altercation between U.S. and Syrian regime forces in the conflict to date.
Both clashes raise questions about Russia’s strategy in Syria. The attack targeting the SDF in Khusham involved an incursion by regime forces across an established “deconfliction” line, possibly with the support of Russian forces. And Israeli officials have had deconfliction arrangements with Russian forces in Syria since 2015, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed in a press conference with President Vladimir Putin just last month. Is Russia having a hard time controlling its client regime? Or is it participating in pushing the boundaries of the conflict?
The fighting on both western and central fronts come at a particularly complicated moment in the conflict. Turkish-backed rebels are fighting Syrian Kurds for control of Afrin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed in speeches that they will move east into areas secured by the U.S. troops and the SDF. The United States is doing its best to deter such an advance, and last week U.S. generals took journalists on a tour of Manbij to signal their resolve. The trip was designed to send a message to their NATO ally in Ankara: “You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves,” Lt. Gen. Paul Funk told the New York Times. Erdogan remains defiant, and told the Turkish parliament today, "It is very clear that those who say ‘we will respond aggressively if you hit us’ have never experienced an Ottoman slap."
Turkey’s endgame is unclear. Hassan Hassan, writing for The National, suggests that the Afrin operation could settle into a long siege of the city while Turkey focuses on the higher priority of securing a buffer zone along the border. The United States is not supporting the Kurds in Afrin, but the Assad regime is looking to exploit an opportunity to further divide the Kurdish factions. The regime—which has had a complicated relationship with the Kurds since the early days of the conflict—is allowing Kurdish forces in Afrin to move supplies and reinforcements through regime-held territory. The latest surge in fighting is showing the weaknesses of both the U.S.-led coalition and the Syrian-Iranian-Russian-Turkish partnership that coalesced around the negotiated de-escalation zones.
Egypt Launches New Counterterrorism Offensive in Time for Election Season
The Egyptian military launched a new counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State last Friday. The offensive is a response to the massacre carried out by the Islamic State at a mosque in the Sinai Peninsula on November 24, the deadliest in a string of recent attacks by the group. The Sinai is under a media blackout imposed by the Egyptian government—few journalists have access to the peninsula, and those who do face prosecution if they report findings that differ from the government’s official statements—so reliable details about the operation are sparse. But according to the Egyptian government’s account, nearly 30 militants have been killed and more than 100 others detained over the weekend. The offensive has also reportedly destroyed weapons caches, bomb workshops, and drug operations. While focused on the Sinai, some airstrikes have also targeted militants along the Egyptian-Libyan border.
As the New York Times notes, the large-scale, conventional military offensive is exactly the kind of approach the United States has cautioned the Egyptian military against. The military’s heavy-handed, and at times indiscriminate attacks have often caught civilians in the crossfire and alienated the local population over the past several years. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Cairo on Monday on the first leg of a five-country trip through the Middle East, stressed U.S.-Egyptian cooperation on counterterrorism issues. “[O]ur joint commitment to defeat ISIS is steadfast and there has been no gap between Egypt and the United States in our joint efforts to confront terrorists and extremist—extremism in the region, but most specifically here in Egypt as well,” he said yesterday.
The Egyptian offensive coincides with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s campaign for re-election and seems timed to gin up a “rally ‘round the flag” effect. Sisi has gone overboard in his efforts to rig the election next month, so much so that Egyptians have complained about just how transparent his authoritarian machinations have been—from bribing supporters, to running potential competitors out of the race. That Sisi feels all this is necessary “suggests that opposition to Sisi might be growing” and that “he feels pressured from both inside and outside the regime,” Michelle Dunne wrote for Diwan.
The election campaign grew even more absurd last week. The Egyptian prosecutor general announced that he would launch an investigation of opposition activists and politicians encouraging a boycott of the election. Sisi’s token opponent in the election—Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who previously posted online his support for Sisi’s re-election—also supports bringing charges against people encouraging the boycott, saying the campaign is tantamount to “high treason.” Tillerson offered some very mild criticism of the Egyptian government’s conduct in the election yesterday, stating that “the United States, as it does in all countries, supports a transparent and credible electoral process, and all citizens being given the right and the opportunity to participate freely and fairly.”
Iraq Raises Funds to Rebuild after the Islamic State
Iraqi officials are estimating the near- and medium-term costs of recovering from the destruction of the battle with the Islamic State to be $88 billion dollars. Qusay Adulfattah, the director-general of Iraq’s planning ministry, told an international donors conference in Kuwait yesterday that at least $23 billion is needed soon to start restoring services and rebuilding housing. UNESCO reports that 11 million Iraqis are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 3 million who have been displaced by the conflict. Beyond the country’s immediate needs, Iraqi officials are discussing diversifying the country’s economy away from its reliance on oil and creating new job opportunities; the goal is to create not only economic security, but physical security by addressing some of the grievances that the Islamic State was able to exploit in Sunni areas.
Despite the urgent need and U.S. investment in clearing the Islamic State from Iraq, U.S. officials said last week that the United States does not plan on making a contribution to reconstruction at the international conference. A State Department spokesperson instead pointed to representatives from the U.S. private sector that would be in attendance. “The immediate stabilization needs remain vast, and limited U.S. government resources alone cannot meet these current and pressing needs, let alone consider supporting long-term reconstruction,” one U.S. official told Reuters, noting that the United States had financed loans for local reconstruction projects in Iraq. International donors pledged $330 million to Iraq on the first day of the conference yesterday, according to Kuwaiti state media.
Iraq is also grappling with other residual challenges left by the war. Dindar Zibari, an Iraqi Kurdish official, told reporters this week that Kurdish forces are holding thousands of suspected Islamic State militants without clear guidance about what to do with them. Some foreign fighters have already been released to their countries of origin, and the United States is encouraging countries to repatriate more foreign fighters, including those being held by Syrian Kurdish forces. The central Iraqi government has called for the detainees held in Iraqi Kurdistan to be handed over to their authority, but Zibari said Kurdish officials would like the United Nations to supervise the transfer. The Iraqi government’s conduct has raised concerns about affording detainees due process; some have been rushed through “rapid-fire trials” and executions.