The Middle East Channel

Militants Advance Toward Baghdad as Kurdish Forces Seize Kirkuk

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have overtaken a number of towns and major cities in Iraq and said they are moving toward the capital of Baghdad. On Wednesday, ISIL fighters over took Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit as well as small towns north of Baghdad. Government forces, however, slowed the militants' advance outside Samarra and appear to be preparing for a counter-strike. ISIL forces reportedly now hold between 10 and 15 percent of Iraqi territory, excluding the autonomous Kurdistan region. On Thursday, Kurdish forces took control of Kirkuk after the Iraqi army abandoned its posts there. The Iraqi government has signaled it would allow U.S. airstrikes to stop the advance, and in May Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reportedly secretly requested the Obama administration consider carrying out airstrikes against militant staging areas. A National Security Council spokeswoman said the current U.S. focus is to bolster Iraqi capacity. However, an anonymous U.S. official said the administration is considering several options, including drone strikes.

Syria

According to aid organization CARE, at least 50,000 Syrian refugee children living in Lebanon and 60,000 in Jordan are working to pay for food and shelter for their families. Children are working in harsh conditions as street vendors or in cafes and markets, or on farms and construction sites. An estimated 50 percent of Syrian refugee children living in the region attend school. Meanwhile, Syrian state media and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported a car bomb exploded in the central city of Homs killing at least seven people.

Headlines

  • A suicide car bomber hit a checkpoint run by former General Heftar's forces in the Libyan city of Benghazi injuring at least six people.
  • An estimated 6,000 Kuwaitis gathered Tuesday night to protest government corruption in the largest demonstrations in the kingdom since 2012.
  • An Israeli airstrike hit Gaza killing one person a day after militants in Gaza launched a rocket into southern Israel in the first violent exchange since the formation of a Palestinian unity government.
  • Iran said it is redesigning its Arak heavy-water reactor to scale down plutonium production in part of a nuclear deal Tehran is negotiating with world powers.

Arguments and Analysis

'Political reform in Iraq will stem the rise of Islamists' (Hassan Hassan, The National)

"So the pressing question is: how can this numerically small group control large areas in two countries? Three main reasons can be identified for its resilience and expansion.

The first is the inconsistency of its opponents. In Iraq, the revival of the group since it was essentially wiped out in the wake of the country's civil war in 2006 and 2007 was made possible in large part due the imprudent policies of prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. The biased anti-terror laws as well as the tendency to employ sectarian rhetoric in military campaigns against militancy in Sunni areas, as he did in his speech in December, have estranged the Sunni population, which has played into ISIL's hands.

These policies lead Sunnis, even while they dislike ISIL, to feel they have no stake in fighting ISIL or resisting its presence because the government is just as bad. Additionally, there is a growing sense among Shiites that they have no stake in fighting in Sunni areas and leaving their areas exposed to danger. That leaves the Iraqi government forces with little appetite to face a brutal and resilient militia."

'Renewed Conflict in Lebanon' (Mona Yacoubian, Council on Foreign Relations)

"The potential for renewed conflict in Lebanon hinges directly on the trajectory of the civil war in Syria. Over the next twelve to eighteen months, the security situation inside Lebanon could deteriorate due to three interrelated spillover effects stemming from Syria's ongoing civil war: growing sectarian violence, a rising influx of refugees, and the increasing paralysis of state institutions. The Syrian conflict will likely remain a protracted stalemate over this timeframe because neither the regime nor the rebels have the capacity to prevail militarily. Though the Syrian regime is consolidating military gains on the ground, an outright regime victory remains unlikely. However, should the regime emerge victorious, the prospect of widespread renewed conflict in Lebanon could diminish, particularly if Hezbollah withdraws from Syria, removing a major impetus of sectarian violence in Lebanon. Meanwhile, in an even less probable scenario for Syria, if armed rebel groups either overthrow the Assad regime or force its retreat from Damascus, the contingency would not only be more likely, but possibly worse than depicted. Major refugee flows from Damascus would be expected. Rising Sunni power in Syria and, by extension, Lebanon, would check Hezbollah's dominance and necessitate a reformulation of Lebanon's power equation, typically achieved by force of arms."

-- Mary Casey

MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Iraqis Flee Mosul as Militants Expand Control

An estimated 500,000 people have fled the Iraqi city of Mosul after militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) overran the city. Fighters seized control of government buildings, prisons, banks, and the airport. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has urged parliament to declare a state of emergency calling on "all international organizations to support Iraq and its stance in fighting terrorism." The United States said the situation in Iraq remains "extremely serious" and called on the Iraqi government to "step up to the plate" to address political issues and instability. On Wednesday, ISIL and allied fighters pushed south into Baiji, which holds Iraq's largest oil refinery, expanding control from Nineveh province into Salahadin province.

Syria

A new coalition of Islamic rebel factions, the "Operations Room for the People of the Levant," has announced a new offensive against ISIL. On Monday, al-Nusra Front, Islamic Front, and Kurdish fighters launched attacks on the ISIL-held town of al-Bab. Meanwhile, in an interview with Lebanon's al-Akhbar, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that since the beginning of the crisis, Syrians had trusted the state, and that his re-election was proof that this support remains. Syria has begun releasing prisoners under a general amnesty declared by Assad. The amnesty should cover prisoners detained under anti-terrorism legislation and foreign fighters, as long as they turn themselves in within a month. However, it is unclear how many prisoners will be released. 

Headlines

  • An Egyptian court has sentenced prominent pro-democracy activist Alaa Abdel Fattah and 24 others to 15 years in prison for violating a protest law.
  • Israel's Knesset members have elected veteran Likud Party lawmaker Reuven Rivlin to succeed President Shimon Peres when his term ends in July.
  • Former Libyan General Khalifa Heftar's forces have launched airstrikes on three areas of Benghazi after reports that he had agreed to cease-fire through national elections.

Arguments and Analysis

'Inside Mosul: How did extremists take over one of Iraq's biggest cities in just five days?' (Niqash)

"It only took five days for the Sunni Muslim extremist organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, to occupy the city of Mosul, capital of the province of Ninawa and one of the biggest cities in Iraq, around 395 km north of Baghdad. The reason that the group, known as Daash in Arabic and formerly affiliated with Al Qaeda, were able to do this was because of the mass withdrawal of the Iraqi army and local security forces. These forces, loyal to the Shiite Muslim-led government in Baghdad, have been controlling parts of multi-ethnic Ninawa province for the past six years. Other parts of Ninawa are under the military control of forces from neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan, which operates partially independently of Baghdad."

'Syria's Very Local Regional Conflict' (Yezid Sayigh, Carnegie Middle East Center)

"But this is no ordinary proxy conflict. The hollowing out of the Syrian state, significant demographic shifts resulting from the displacement of some 9 million Syrians, and the rise of subnational identities as a remarkably diverse society fragments have turned Syria into a kaleidoscope of local conflicts and miniature civil wars. New political actors, social trends, and economic dynamics continue to appear on the ground and evolve constantly. In many cases they are increasingly integrated into crossborder networks, communities, and economies in ways that may be difficult to reverse.

The highly localized nature of the Syrian conflict suggests that no external actor can fully grasp, let alone control, the intricacy and fluidity of complex dynamics at the grassroots level. But given the Assad regime's dependence for its survival both on its external allies and their proxies, as well as on the diverse array of local actors it has brought into being since the start of the conflict, it has little hope of regaining meaningful sovereignty. Indeed, no matter who eventually 'wins' the war, the scale of destruction, the loss of economic opportunity, and the degree of capital flight Syria has experienced mean that the country will remain completely dependent on external assistance and subject to foreign influence for decades to come."

'The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa' (International Crisis Group)

"The power balance in Yemen's north is shifting. In early 2014, Zaydi Shiite fighters, known as the Huthis or Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), won a series of battles, in effect consolidating their control over Saada governorate, on the border of Saudi Arabia, and expanding southward to the gates of the capital, Sanaa. Now a patchwork of shaky ceasefires is in place, albeit battered by bouts of violence. Tensions are high between Huthis and their various opponents - the Ahmar family, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the Ahmar family) and his military allies, Salafi fighters, and the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, and their affiliated tribes. Fear is growing that an escalation could draw the state into a prolonged conflict. To head off a conflagration, the parties must turn the inchoate understandings reached during the country's National Dialogue Conference (NDC) into an implementable peace plan."

-- Mary Casey

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images