Foreign Relations & International Law

Turkish and Russian Offensives Drive New Surge in Fighting in Syria

J. Dana Stuster
Wednesday, February 7, 2018, 9:20 AM

Turkey and Russia Bombard Syrian Towns

Photo Credit: Associated Press via Stripes

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Turkey and Russia Bombard Syrian Towns

The U.S. military is drawing down the number of troops deployed to Iraq now that the Islamic State has been forced from occupying territory in the country. Many U.S. soldiers are being flown to Afghanistan, and officials say the U.S. troop presence in Iraq could quickly be reduced by approximately 60 percent, to about 4,000 soldiers staying on to train Iraqi forces. The drawdown could ease some Iraqis’ concerns about a lingering U.S. presence ahead of the country’s elections in May, but not all Iraqis will be happy to see the bulk of the U.S. force leave. A member of a provincial council in Anbar province, which is majority Sunni and bore much of the hardship of the Islamic State’s occupation, told the Associated Press that the plan “is an abdication of responsibility by the coalition.”

Additional reductions in forces will likely follow in Syria. The drawdown in Iraq tracks with comments Secretary of Defense James Mattis made last month when asked about the U.S. troop presence across the border in eastern Syria. “Right now, our forces we are reducing,” he said, noting the diminished threat from the Islamic State. “There will be some U.S. military there, but the main effort shifts to state department's diplomats … [A] diplomatic solution, is what we're doing—what we're doing this for. It's not for a long term U.S. presence. We're not occupying that place. We're just making certain that it's turned over responsibly to the locals and that the locals have a seat at the table in Geneva.” The implementation of the drawdown policy should put to rest any lingering doubts about the seriousness of the ambitious set of goals laid out by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month: The speech was completely detached from the actual plan being implemented.

The United States has remained muted in its criticism of the ongoing Turkish intervention. Turkish forces partnered with the Free Syrian Army are advancing slowly toward Afrin, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday that they have seized strategic positions outside the city. But Turkish forces are also taking losses: Sunday was the deadliest day yet in the offensive, with seven deaths confirmed by Turkish officials. The total toll stands at 14 Turkish troops and an unknown number of Syrian and Kurdish militia fighters, though independent estimates suggest the actual figure of Turkish dead may be greater. The offensive, which has been framed as a counterterrorism operation, has garnered tremendous public support in Turkey and has inflamed anti-American sentiment because of U.S. cooperation with Kurdish forces in Syria, according to recent polls. Not everyone agrees, though; Turkish authorities have arrested at least 573 people for taking part in protests or posting criticism of the operation on social media.

Turkish airstrikes are bombarding the city of Afrin and the advance has displaced civilians in the area, some retreating to nearby caves. Others have tried fleeing across the Syria-Turkey border, where Human Rights Watch reports they have been fired upon by border guards (a charge the Turkish government has denied). Minority groups told Voice of America that they fear they will be targeted by the advancing FSA forces. “We fear that the factors that contributed to the Sinjar massacre would combine and produce a similar atrocity in Afrin,” one Yazidi representative said. Their concerns about extremism may be well-founded: Fighters from a Turkish-backed militia confirmed to the Washington Post’s Louisa Loveluck that they had attacked and destroyed a shop in the neighboring town of Bulbul for selling alcohol.

The Turkish offensive in Afrin has overshadowed clashes between rebels and regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes farther south, in Idlib. Regime forces have concentrated on trying to retake a strategic corridor near the town of Saraqeb. Fighters in the area with the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hizb Tahrir al-Sham shot down a Russian Su-25 fighter jet on Saturday, apparently using a man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS), a category of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles that the United States has long worried could fall into the hands of extremist groups in Syria. Russian jets have intensified their bombing of the area over the past couple days, targeting hospitals and dropping chlorine bombs, according to monitors on the ground. There have been reports of as many as eight chlorine attacks since the start of January.

Mohammed bin Salman’s Balancing Act

Mohammed bin Salman’s strategy for controlling and cajoling the royal family is entering a new phase. After three-months as a makeshift luxury prison, the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh is scheduled to re-open next week; the remaining 56 royals who have not paid a settlement or been released were transferred out of the hotel last week. More than 300 Saudi aristocrats were caught up in MBS’ power play, which appears to have been purge of potential rivals, a crackdown of corruption and excess, and a coerced reallocation of national wealth to MBS’ economic reform plan all mixed into one. Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud Al-Mojeb told press last week that more than $107 billion had been handed over to the state by royals at the Ritz.

MBS is in a difficult position. He must keep his potential rivals in line, both too weak to threaten his ambitious agenda and too complacent to want to. But he has faced resistance and the speed with which he is implementing reforms has troubled some royals—by some accounts this building opposition to the crown prince prompted the crackdown in November. Shaking down royals for billions of dollars and forcing them to pay their utility bills has probably not won him any new allies. These have been big sticks, but there have been carrots, too. Some Saudi royals reportedly received an extra 50-percent raise in their monthly stipends in recent weeks. Bloomberg reports that it’s unclear whether it was a one-time bonus or will be consistent going forward, but either way the message is clear: Loyalty has its rewards.

Friction in the royal family is not the only obstacle MBS is facing. The economic reform plan will require large investments from international companies, and he made his pitch once again to business leaders at the World Economic Forum. But as Roula Khalaf wrote for Financial Times, “For many at Davos, Saudi Arabia was baffling rather than normalising. While they were fascinated by the boldness of the economic change and social transformation … participants were also alarmed by a crackdown that is damaging the business environment and concentrating political and economic power in the hands of a 32-year-old.” Bloomberg also notes that some of MBS’ cultural reforms have drawn criticism from Saudi youth, who should be the target demographic for a more open society. With many young men struggling to find employment, public spending on concerts seems frivolous to some, and others expressed concern about the more tolerant form of Islam MBS has promised.

MBS will make his pitch directly to American businessmen and politicians on a trip to the United States scheduled for March. It will be his first trip to the United States since being made crown prince last year.

Israeli and Palestinian Officials Remain at Impasse

Despite multiple crises, including sharp U.S. cuts to the agency that provides assistance to Palestinian refugees and possible further cuts to U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, there have been no meetings between senior Israeli and Palestinian officials over the past two months, since the Trump administration’s Jerusalem announcement on December 6. That almost changed over the weekend, but a planned meeting between Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon was postponed at the last minute; it has been rescheduled for February 19, but that, too, might fall through. It’s timing comes close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ scheduled address to the U.N. Security Council on February 20, where he is expected to ask for full recognition as a U.N. member state. The prospect has rankled U.S. and Israeli officials. Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said last month that Abbas is “seeking to put an end to any possibility of negotiations with Israel.”

The controversy has put new wind in Abbas’ flagging sails. Several months ago, he appeared to be out of ideas; the only thing he had left was his office, which he has clung to with increasingly authoritarian measures. His renewed campaign for U.N. recognition has given Abbas direction, though not necessarily a strategy. And Abbas has continued to consolidate power and restrain potential rivals. As Bernard Avishai writes for the New Yorker, that even includes tying up Khalil Shikaki, the leading pollster in the West Bank, in bureaucratic red tape. Under new regulations for NGOs, Shikaki is required to lobby Palestinian officials to release funding to his organization, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research—“the very people whose popularity I am trying to research and whose actions I often criticize,” Shikaki told Avishai. If nothing gives, Shikaki may have to close the organization in the next six months. “Shikaki also knows that the new P.A. regulations are ‘a barometer of Abbas’s evolving authoritarianism,’” Avishai writes. “That shift is understandable, Shikaki said, but ‘understandable does not mean justified.’”

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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