Back to School Edition Fall 2019

Investigators of Lebanon’s military intelligence inspect the site after an alleged attack carried by two Israeli drones, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Aug. 25, 2019. Credit: Nabil Mounzer/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

With Labor Day behind us and fall on the horizon, summer break is officially over. As we head back into the classroom, these are some of the most significant topics  and development to follow in U.S. foreign policy as well as in the Middle East. Be sure to follow us on Twitter for regular updates to these and other stories. What stories do you think are the most pressing in the region?

Keep an eye on upcoming presidential elections in several countries that could either prolong or upend the status quo, but, regardless, could potentially agitate the masses. Israel will hold parliamentary elections on September 17th after a previous round in April failed to lead to a coalition government. As incumbent President Benjamin Netanyahu tries to hold onto power,  there are several sources of concern: “since the Arab turnout plunged to about 49 percent in April (down from 64 percent in 2015), due to what many believe was anger at the failure of the four Arab party leaders to run together, the resurrection of the Joint List could now lead to a resurgence [of Arab Israeli voters] in turnout.” After the death of first-democratically-elected leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, in July, the Tunisian election authority announced the list of candidates who qualified for the Sept. 15 first round of voting; among the 26 candidates is a business tycoon in jail for money laundering.  And, Algeria’s army chief has called for elections later this year to choose a new president after mass protests forced the resignation in April of veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Israel’s military is increasingly executing offensive strikes across the region, which could contribute to greater instability and turmoil. Though Israel has argued it is defending itself against Iran’s creeping regional influence, three recent attacks against targets in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon were all allegedly preemptive. “Attacks against Iranian-allied forces in the three countries have drawn threats of retaliation and intensifying fears that a bigger conflict could erupt.” According to the Washington Post, the attacks against Iranian proxies are a “significant escalation of Israeli efforts to contain the expansion of Iranian influence in the region that could jeopardize the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and draw Lebanon into a new war.” Warplanes struck a base located southeast of Damascus that Israel claimed was led by Iran and planning a drone strike against Israel; drone strikes later hit a media center near Beirut and an Iranian-backed militia in western Iraq. Israel has struck hundreds of targets in Syria over the last seven years, most of them either Iranian forces or supposed Iranian efforts to deliver weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria.  Although the United States consistently stands behind Israel’s right to defend itself, on August 26th, the U.S. Department of Defense released an official statement distancing the American administration from the recent airstrikes in Iraq attributed to Israel, highlighting U.S. support for “Iraqi sovereignty” and opposition to “external actors,” making it the clearest sign yet that the American administration is troubled by the latest developments.

American and Iraqi military and intelligence officers have said that the Islamic State terrorist group is s gathering new strength, conducting guerrilla attacks across Iraq and Syria, retooling its financial networks and targeting new recruits at an allied-run tent camp, Five months after American-backed forces ousted the Islamic State from its last shard of territory in Syria. According to The New York Times, “though President Trump hailed a total defeat of the Islamic State this year, defense officials in the region see things differently, acknowledging that what remains of the terrorist group is here to stay.” While the expansive territorial claim it once has been restored to local or state control, the terrorist group has still mobilized as many as 18,000 remaining fighters in Iraq and Syria. These sleeper cells and strike teams have carried out sniper attacks, ambushes, kidnappings and assassinations against security forces and community leaders. A new inspector general’s report assessing ISIS activities from April through June concluded the group was “resurging in Syria” and had “solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq.” Despite these reports, Trump continues to claim credit for completely defeating the Islamic State, contradicting repeated warnings from his own intelligence and counterterrorism officials that ISIS remains a lethal force. With 5,200 troops in Iraq and just under 1,000 in Syria, the American military’s role in both countries has changed little despite the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in both countries.

Lastly, a development that merits continued attention is the creation of a so-called “safe zone” along the border between Turkey and northeastern Syria. While Turkey’s defense minister claimed on August 24th that military officials from Turkey and the U.S. had begun work on the 19- to 25-mile-deep zone within civil war-ravaged Syria, running east of the Euphrates River all the way to the border with Iraq, tension remains over who will have control over the area. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar also said that joint helicopter patrols were set to begin. However, on August 31st, Turkish President Erdogan said that “If our [Turkish] soldiers do not control the region within a few weeks, we will put our own operation plan into effect.” If it is not clear what this operation consists of, but it would likely involve attacks on the YPG forces that helped clear significant parts of Syria of the Islamic State group. Turkey wants the region along its border to be clear of Syrian Kurdish forces and has repeatedly threatened to launch a new operation in Syria against Syrian Kurdish forces if such a zone is not established. Though the NATO allies have set up a joint operation center for the planned zone along the border, disagreements over the size of the zone or the command structure of the forces to operate there persist.

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