Foreign Relations & International Law

Middle East Ticker: Mosul Offensive Begins, U.S. Fires on Targets in Yemen, and What Intervention in Syria Will Look Like

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, October 18, 2016, 10:00 AM

Fight for Mosul Begins in Iraq

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Fight for Mosul Begins in Iraq

After months of preparation, the Iraqi military launched its assault on the Islamic State-occupied city of Mosul early Monday morning. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the operation in a televised speech and promised to rebuild the city after the destruction caused by the Islamic State. “We will soon meet in Mosul to celebrate in liberation and your salvation...We will rebuild what has been destroyed by this criminal gang,” he said. At least 80,000 Iraqi troops are involved in the assault, an Iraqi special forces commander told the Washington Post, though it’s unclear if this figure includes the 5,000 Kurdish peshmerga and 1,500 local militia fighters advancing on the city from the east. In the early hours of the operation, U.S. artillery began barraging points of access to the city and peshmerga seized several outlying villages. The Islamic State has been confronting increasing unrest in the city, and last week arrested and executed 58 people accused of plotting a rebellion against the terrorist group, including a local aide to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Despite the start of the offensive, tensions among the coalition nations persist, especially between Turkey and Iraq. Turkish officials say they are deploying half of the 3,000 local, predominantly Sunni fighters they’ve trained at an airbase in Bashiqa, Iraq, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Monday that Turkey “will be at the table” for talks on Mosul after the Islamic State is forced from the city. "It is impossible for us to stay out of it because there lies history for us,” he said. That has caused more consternation in Baghdad, and today supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr rallied outside the Turkish embassy, chanting “Get out, get out, occupier!”

Iraq has consistently opposed Turkey’s troop deployment in Bashiqa and has good reason to distrust Ankara’s intentions. As Aaron Stein writes for the Atlantic Council’s MENASource blog, since 2010, Turkey has “committed to the further decentralization—and, in the longer term, break-up—of the Iraqi state.” Stein notes that tensions between rival militias supported by Iran and Turkey could complicate the plan for post-Islamic State governance in Mosul, which presently involves handing the city over to a local council currently operating in exile and policing by forces drawn from the area. “This plan is at odds with Turkish support for” rival local leaders close to the Kurdistan Regional Government “and, again, is another potential fault line that has to be navigated in post-Islamic State Mosul,” he writes. “The risk is also that Iran-allied PMF [Popular Mobilization Forces, semi-official Shia militias] could use the Bashiqa base as a justification to take a more pronounced role in the operation, risking broader sectarian tensions.”

U.S. Fires on Houthis in Yemen as Conflict Escalates

The United States has tried to keep the current war in Yemen at arm’s length, limiting its involvement to providing targeting assistance and logistical support to Saudi Arabia, but U.S. warships responded to failed missile attacks by Houthi forces with targeted strikes last Thursday. The strikes followed a series of escalations that began with Saudi strikes on Saturday, October 8, that targeted a funeral attended by senior Houthi officials. At least 140 people were killed and hundreds wounded in a series of bombing runs, in what are sometimes referred to as “double tap” strikes. The United States condemned the bombing and said it was reviewing its assistance to Saudi Arabia’s war effort. Thousands of Yemenis demonstrated in Sanaa against the Saudi-led air campaign; Houthi leader Abdul-Malek al-Houthi drew a direct connection from the strike to U.S. support to Saudi Arabia in a televised speech, and ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has asserted himself as a major power broker in the Houthi coalition, called for retaliatory strikes against Saudi Arabia. Houthi rebels fired missiles at the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Mason as it patrolled the Red Sea on Sunday, October 9, and again on Wednesday, October 12. None of the missiles struck the Mason, but on Thursday, the USS Nitze retaliated, launching cruise missiles on three coastal radar installations. The U.S. Navy said the USS Mason is investigating whether a third attempted strike targeted the ship again on Saturday.

In a statement, the Defense Department characterized the U.S. action as “limited self-defense strikes” and said the United States “will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic.” The narrow scope of the strikes, specifically targeting radar installations that would facilitate similar missile attacks endangering shipping routes, suggest that hysterics about the United States opening a new front are misplaced. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has laid out a framework for responding to Houthi aggression in the Red Sea, stressing the need to disassociate the Houthis from Iran and potential asymmetric targets. In a recent post for Informed Comment, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole argues for a more cautious approach. Both the Houthis and Saudis have acted indefensibly, he argues, and the best course of action for the United States would be “to open its own lines of communication to the Houthis” and hasten a political settlement.

A political settlement can’t come soon enough, says International Crisis Group’s April Longley Alley. “Since U.N. peace talks collapsed in August, both sides have engaged in a series of tit-for-tat escalations,” she wrote last week for Foreign Policy. “Now the funeral attack will likely produce an even more significant military escalation by Houthi forces along the Yemeni-Saudi border.” Some analysts say they are optimistic about the prospects for an agreement if peace talks are restarted, and yesterday the United Nations announced a 72-hour truce will take effect later in the week. But as Brian Whitaker writes, “it's unlikely that a ceasefire can be established without serious loss of face by the Saudis and, to a lesser extent, other members of the coalition.” A peace deal would require Saudi Arabia to admit to the limits of its new, interventionist foreign policy and accept some sort of political integration for the Houthi government. That means concessions not just to the Houthis, who have shelled the Saudi border, but to Saleh, who has manipulated the Houthis to restore his influence after the Saudis eventually dropped their support him during the Arab Spring in 2011. So far, Riyadh would rather maintain a grinding stalemate and risk international condemnation for its air campaign than swallow that bitter pill.

What Will Intervention in Syria Look Like?

With the diplomatic process on Syria still stagnating, including after meetings in Lausanne, Switzerland, over the weekend, the United States and other nations are considering new options to try to halt the destruction of Aleppo. Administration officials leaked last week that they are considering options that would involve striking Assad regime forces, but Foreign Policy’s David Kenner noted on Twitter that, notwithstanding the frequent emergence of similar reports since 2012, each time the United States has chosen not to take military action against the regime. In London on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said they were considering issuing new sanctions against the Assad regime and its foreign patrons, including Iran, but that a military response was still unlikely. “I don’t see the parliaments of European countries ready to declare war. I don’t see a lot of countries deciding that’s the better solution here,” Kerry said.

Nonetheless, some observers say the mood does seem to be shifting, and the United States could adopt a more aggressive policy late in the Obama administration or at the start of the prospective Clinton administration in January. In a survey of Clinton’s Syria policy and the diverse views of her foreign policy advisors, Aron Lund notes that Clinton’s support for “a coalition no-fly zone in the air coupled with safe zones on the ground” is an escalation from Obama’s policies, but that Clinton’s stated goal is still to build leverage for a negotiated settlement, not to topple the Assad regime. As Aaron David Miller and Frederic Hof observe in Lund’s piece, though, Clinton’s policies will ultimately be affected by the willingness of coalition partners to shoulder some of the burden and where the conflict stands in Spring 2017. With the prospect of some sort of military intervention growing, Thanassis Cambanis, writing for War on the Rocks, called last week for a more serious debate. “Any honest assessment of the crisis demands humility,” he argues. “Any serious analyst taking a position on Syria has to acknowledge that there is no possibility of a neat solution, and no outcome that precludes civilian suffering, regional instability, and strategic blowback—whether one argues for increasing America’s intervention, as I have, or for further restraint, in keeping with President Obama’s position (or, for that matter, for an admission of rebel defeat and an acceptance of Bashar al-Assad’s enduring role).”

Coup in Tripoli Complicates Libyan Governance

The struggling U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, Libya, was dealt another blow last Friday when it was pushed out of the semi-official seat of government at the Rixos Hotel by forces loyal to Khalifa Ghwail, who headed the previous National Salvation Government. The GNA withdrew without fighting and later posted online pictures of meetings taking place at another location in Tripoli. Reports have characterized the move as a coup, but the word has little meaning in Libya where the GNA and Ghwail’s National Salvation Government also compete for political power with forces loyal to Gen. Khalifa Hiftar and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. In a statement, Ghwail called for the formation of a new unity government with Hiftar. He also claimed that he is now in control of state institutions in Tripoli, but a GNA official issued an ultimatum ordering Ghwail to leave the government compound at the Rixos and some clashes between militias have been reported.

The GNA has struggled to build domestic support for its internationally-backed governance project. Early recognition in Tripoli in March and April gave way to bickering with the House of Representatives, which refused to recognize the GNA, and clashes with Hiftar’s forces, which seized oil facilities. This latest round of political jockeying comes as Libyan forces—mostly drawn from Misrata, loyal to the GNA, and supported by U.S. airstrikes—advance into the last Islamic State-occupied district of Sirte, where militias have been fighting the terrorist group for the past six months.

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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