Foreign Relations & International Law

Middle East Ticker: Mosul Fight Marches On, Egypt Protests Fizzle Out, and What Will Trump Mean for the Middle East?

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, November 15, 2016, 8:30 AM

Iraqi Offensive Slows in Mosul as Islamic State Puts Up Fight

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Iraqi Offensive Slows in Mosul as Islamic State Puts Up Fight

Iraqi forces are slowly but surely continuing their advance into the city of Mosul this week. On the outskirts of the city, forces participating in the offensive tightened the siege by capturing the town of Nimrud to the south and encroaching on the city limits from the north. Iraqi forces have also cleared the Qadisiya and Zahra neighborhoods of the city.

The Islamic State, which has spent months fortifying the city, have put up strong resistance to the advancing Iraqi forces. A spokesman for Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces told reporters that troops were encountering “obstructive patrols” of Islamic State forces that slowed their advance. “We are facing the most difficult form of urban warfare, fighting with the presence of civilians, but our forces are trained for this sort of combat,” he said. Troops also reported that the urban environment had made their tanks superfluous, and that Islamic State fighters were using a network of underground tunnels and hiding among civilians.

The Islamic State’s ruthless defense of the city is not limited to attacks on Iraqi forces. The United Nations reported last week that they believe the Islamic State has stored “large quantities” of ammonia and chlorine in residential areas to kill civilians if targeted by coalition forces. Four people died from inhaling toxic gas last month. Islamic State forces also executed 40 civilians last week after they were convicted of “treason and collaboration” in Islamic State “courts”; the bodies of the executed civilians were then hung from telephone poles.

Egypt Holds a Protest, But Nobody Comes

Egyptian police came out in force last Friday, November 11, in anticipation of planned protests advocated by a mysterious group calling itself the Movement of the Poor (or Disenfranchised, depending on your translation). After weeks of mounting public frustration with deteriorating economic conditions, the situation seemed primed for protest, but the only crowds that materialized were the large deployments of riot police in anticipated hotspots like Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Egyptian authorities had been bracing for protests for weeks, arresting dozens of activists who had supported November 11 rallies online over the past month and another 200 people over the weekend. The calls never gained steam with Egyptian political groups, though. Only the banned Muslim Brotherhood endorsed the protests, and some in the Egyptian government have speculated that the Movement of the Poor is actually a Brotherhood front. (Some suggested that the date, 11/11, was a coded message evoking four fingers, a gesture associated with protests against the Rabaa massacre in which as many as 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi were killed.) The organization’s provenance is still unclear; what is clear is that they could not rally the support that many had expected.

One extremist cleric, Sheikh Amal Abdel Wahab, riffing on a popular conspiracy theory that the United States supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power after 2011, claimed that not only was the Movement of the Poor a Muslim Brotherhood front, but that the group failed to protest because members had anticipated Hillary Clinton being elected. “They were counting on Hillary Clinton’s victory because she supports them and was expected to continue Obama’s policies towards them...But now that Trump won, they might not go ahead with 11/11 in the first place,” he said. Malek Adly, a human rights lawyer in Cairo, offered a more plausible explanation. "The revolutionary bloc is reticent to protest. We now know that any street action leads to bloodshed. There is no result we can achieve with this regime,” he told Reuters.

Turkey Is Ready for the Trump Presidency

Of all the countries bracing for a Trump presidency, few are as prepared as Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to President-elect Trump last Wednesday, the day after Trump’s election, and the two reportedly had a productive discussion about cooperating on counterterrorism issues. Of course, Erdogan sees counterterrorism in different terms than many in Washington; he has aggressively engaged in a war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization) that has spilled over into conflict with U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in Syria, and he has arrested or dismissed tens of thousands of people associated with the Gulen Movement, which Erdogan blames for the July 15 coup attempt. Turkish officials have demanded that the United States hand over the movement’s spiritual leader, Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999. "Whatever Osama bin Laden means for the United States and for the American people, Fethullah Gulen means the same for Turkey and Turkish people,” Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag told U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch last month.

Ankara sees Trump as receptive to Erdogan’s characterization of counterterrorism. “First and foremost,” the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Nicholas Danforth writes, this view is attributable to “a belief that Trump was less likely to criticize President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarianism and less likely to play an interventionist role in the Middle East. An exaggerated view of Hillary Clinton’s ties to the Fethullah Gulen movement—which has hired the Podesta Group and donated to key Democrats—was also a genuine source of concern.” Turkey also sees a benefit in Trump’s transactional approach to security cooperation. “Although Turkey is a longtime NATO ally, many in the pro-Erdogan camp see the alliance as a Christian club that works against Turkey’s interests. They prefer bilateral relations with countries like Russia, which are based on limited common interests rather than shared values,” Selim Koru wrote for Foreign Policy.

An editorial by Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (ret.), one of Trump’s top national security advisors, published by The Hill on election day, reaffirmed the perception that Trump’s election would be a boon for Ankara. In the piece, Flynn called for Gulen’s extradition to Turkey and compared him to Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini (while conveniently eliding Erdogan’s own Islamist governance). Flynn, the Daily Caller noted last week, has an interest in promoting the Turkish government’s position; Flynn Intel Group, his consulting firm, represents Inovo BV, a Dutch company founded by a Turkish businessman with strong ties to the Erdogan government.

What Else Will a Trump Presidency Hold for the Middle East?

Beyond Turkey, what will Trump’s Middle East policy look like? It’s difficult to know with any clarity: Trump’s own comments have been inconsistent and contradictory on the subject, and his proposals are likely to last only as long as his mercurial temperament allows. But that hasn’t stopped many in DC’s commentariat from speculating on where a Trump administration might start, myself included. In my thoughts for Lawfare on Friday, I concluded that “If there is an overarching framework to a Trump administration foreign is that the United States will be willing to work with any partner to fight terrorism while limiting its involvement in the region. This may be a guiding principle, but it illustrates why U.S. policy has been fractured across the region for so long; there’s a reason the United States has had to meet each country on its own terms and take a relative approach.”

Some analysts have focused on one issue or nation in Trump’s foreign policy. Brookings’ Bruce Riedel wrote that Trump will need to focus on “[salvaging] the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia” between now and January.” Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington noted that this will require reassuring the Gulf states about U.S. policy in Syria and taking a more assertive role in containing Iran. Chatham House’s Jane Kinninmont honed in on the implications of Trump’s embrace of authoritarian leaders, which has produced optimism even among rivals. “Some of the Gulf elites hope that, as a tough-talking Republican, he will be harder on Iran than Barack Obama...Conversely, the revolutionary establishment in Tehran welcomes Trump’s election because it thinks this will accelerate what it sees as inevitable US decline,” she wrote in The Guardian.

Trump has already started to adjust some of his most extreme campaign positions on domestic policy, but however his positions on Iran and Assad evolve, Paul Salem at the Middle East Institute has offered six guiding principles for his approach to the Middle East that have stayed consistent:

1. He favors cooperation with Russia and the Assad regime in Syria against ISIS and has little regard for the Syrian opposition;

2. He has promised either to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran or to monitor it very aggressively; either way the tone of détente will be replaced by hostility;

3. He has spoken fondly of authoritarianism and authoritarian leaders, and argued that human rights and democracy should not be U.S. foreign policy priorities;

4. He has said he will ratchet up the war on ISIS without revealing how that would happen;

5. He has vilified Muslims and called for a ban on their entry to the United States; and

6. He has questioned America’s alliances and commitments, and argued instead that U.S. protection should be in exchange for payment.

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare and an instructor at the Naval War College. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

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