Week of March 12th

This Week in the Middle East takes a look at a number of stories that highlight some of the interactions between the West, particularly the United States, and the Middle East. As this feature in Slate outlines, fifteen years after the decision to invade Iraq, the U.S. is at war with at least seven countries across the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. President Donald Trump’s America-first foreign policy is centered on securing the homeland and combating terrorism; he has, for the most part, maintained former President Obama’s policy of playing more of a supportive and advisory role in regional conflicts. His administration is “prioritizing efforts to confront and defeat radical Islamic terror and the ideology that sustains it”, a priority that shapes American military, economic and diplomatic action in the region and beyond. Even without U.S. troops on the ground, its decisions to fund, arm, or partner with certain parties have effects on short- and long-term outcomes and dynamics in the Middle East. One example of the America First policy is Trump’s continuing effort, since the first days of his presidency, to block refugees and migrants from certain, predominantly Islamic countries from entering the United States to prevent potential terrorists from harming American citizens. Another application of the policy is the steadfast commitment only to fight ISIS in Syria, as opposed to other actors in the conflict. If you were the president, how would you respond to some of the following situations?

Weapons reportedly seized by Syria’s armed forces during a military operation against ISIS in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, on November 5. While the vast majority of ISIS’s arsenal originated in Russia, China and Eastern Europe, much of it was initially procured by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which transferred it to Syrian rebel forces later defeated or absorbed by ISIS. STRINGER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
  • U.S. arms sales have surged significantly in the past four years as more weapons flowed to clients involved in violent conflicts in the Middle East, according to a report released on Monday by a conflict monitoring and disarmament analysis institute. The U.S. reportedly supplied weapons to some 98 states with 49 percent of sales going toward the Middle East, where American weapons have ended up in the hands of countries charged with human rights abuses and militant groups labeled terrorist organizations accused of destabilizing the region.  The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute calculated that between 2013 and 2017, arms imports to the Middle East increased roughly 103 percent compared to the previous five-year period. This alarming increase correlates with the instability of the region when considering the analysis of greater tension and conflict involving India and Pakistan, the Syrian civil-war, and the Houthi rebel fight in Yemen. 
  • The United States is looking into moving its Al Udeid military base from Qatar to another country. Pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat reported that the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives is considering four alternatives that could become the military headquarters when the contract with Qatar, which was renewed in December 2013, expires in 2023. The daily, citing “reliable sources in the US Congress,” named Al Dhafra Area in Abu Dhabi, Al Zarqa in eastern Jordan, Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, or Bahrain as potential options for the new headquarters. The four military sites had been used successfully, including during the Gulf War, the Afghan War, the Iraq War and the war against terrorist groups, including Daesh, in Iraq and Syria. Demands to transfer Al Udeid base from Doha were made following U.S. measures taken against Qatar that included closely observing its financial and banking system due to fears of support for terrorist organisations and individuals associated with them, as well as strictly monitoring its diplomatic actions and foreign policy.
  • On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis suggested it could be time to negotiate peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Mattis visited the country to meet senior U.S. and Afghan officials and discuss both the military campaign and “peeling off” some members of the Taliban to pursue a peace deal with the Afghan government. The unannounced visit came two weeks after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made what many observers consider an unprecedented offer, inviting the Taliban to begin peace talks without preconditions to end the 16-year war. The Taliban said last month that it is open to reaching a political settlement and negotiating, but it has not responded to Ghani’s offer. The Taliban remain a powerful force in Afghanistan, regularly carrying out high-profile attacks in and around Kabul in addition to holding or contesting more than a quarter of Afghanistan’s territory. That same day, however, the New York Times reported that other terror groups are amassing in the country. Defense department and intelligence officials fear that Afghanistan is once again becoming a safe haven to groups wishing to harm American interests; with the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in its twilight, American officials are tracking foreign fighters veering to provinces in Afghanistan’s north and east. Al Qaeda also remains a persistent and deadly threat across the country, a senior American general told senators last week. Afghan officials believe there are now an estimated 3,000 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan.
  • On Wednesday, the Pentagon asked the senate to reject criticism of Saudi actions in Yemen. Secretary Mattis urged in a letter sent on Wednesday for lawmakers to reject a resolution cutting off support for Saudi Arabia due to its role in the Yemen conflict. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s upcoming visit to Washington, DC, could trigger a vote on this bipartisan bill, resulting in embarrassment to the kingdom and damage to an important bilateral relationship. Secretary Mattis suggests this could undermine American interests in the Middle East. A deterioration in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia could also have a negative impact on the conflict in Yemen, he clamed, by prolonging the humanitarian crisis. Many American policymakers have criticized the U.S. support of the Saudi-led fight against the Houthi rebels and Iranian influence.
  • The BBC reports it will meet with the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to defend BBC Persian staff members who have been harassed by Iran over the last several years. The attacks on journalists by Iran have involved death threats, arrests of relatives, and travel bans to prevent staff from entering Iran. Iran previously accused staff with BBC Persia and others alike of conspiracy against national security to justify their actions. Iran plays off the BBC appeal to the UN as the network spreading false information to encourage the overthrow of the Iranian regime. Despite these accusations, the UN Human Rights Council will hear the appeal from the BBC in an effort to protect journalists reporting on Iran.

And, lastly, on Sunday, after advancing against outlying Kurdish settlements for several weeks, Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army allies overtook Syrian Kurds controlling the northern city of Afrin. The YPG forces fled the Turkish advance, along with both Kurdish and Arab civilians. Turkish and FSA troops have been seen looting Kurdish property, an accusation to which Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded: “We are sensitive to looting or inhuman treatment and we won’t allow them.” The Turkish justification and mission is to eliminate Kurds along their border believed to be threats to their national security. President Erdogan has declared that Turkish and the FSA forces – who are opposed to Kurdish authority in the north – would continue toward areas east of the Euphrates River and expand into northern Iraq Kurdish territories, all of which are controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and include stationed U.S. troops. Even Syria’s Assad regime has condemned the advancements and has demanded that Turkey withdraw, viewing their entrenchment as an invasion of sovereign territory. The U.S. State Department has released statements of “commitment” to fight ISIS with its partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces — Kurdish-led, but Arab-majority — while noting that it understands Turkey’s security concerns. Because the Kurdish troops left the front with ISIS in order to defend their territory against Turkey, there has been a resurgence of ISIS in previously-contained areas to the east. The Syrian Kurdish forces who proved to be the most powerful tool in the fight against ISIS have lost valuable territory, along with their trust in a benefactor that issues “statements” when the Kurds find themselves overpowered by another invading force. It is difficult to imagine what, if any, kind of resolution is possible under the current circumstances.

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels loot shops after seizing control of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) on March 18, 2018. A major victory for Ankara’s two-month operation against the YPG in northern Syria, Turkish-led forces pushed into Afrin apparently unopposed, taking up positions across the city. Credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
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