The Middle East Channel

Militants Seize New Towns in Iraq as U.S. Considers Options

Fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have moved southeast seizing the towns of Saadiyah and Jalawla in Diyala province, close to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Anticipating the approach of militants, Iraq's interior ministry spokesman said it is intensifying the deployment of forces and increasing intelligence efforts in Baghdad. U.S. President Barack Obama said he was considering "all options" to make sure "these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria." The president has not ruled out airstrikes, though White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States is not considering ground troops. According to Iranian security officials, Iran deployed two Revolutionary Guards units Wednesday to protect Baghdad, Karbala, and Najaf. On Thursday, the Iraqi government launched airstrikes in and around Mosul and said it sent elite military units to "cleanse" the city of Islamist extremists. Additionally, thousands of Shiite "volunteers" reportedly are mobilizing to protect Baghdad and other Shiite regions. The United Nations refugee agency said there have been 800,000 people displaced by fighting in Iraq since the beginning of the year, with 300,000 just this week.

Syria

While the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is making gains in Iraq, its branch in Syria appears to be holding back on fighting, particularly in territory held in the east near the Iraqi border, while fighters bring back weapons seized in Iraq. The head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdulrahman, said ISIS may have negotiated a cease-fire with rebel brigades in Syria, though clashes continued in parts of Deir al-Zour and Aleppo.

Headlines

  • An Egyptian court has cleared Habib el-Adly, interior minister under Mubarak, of corruption charges, though he will remain in prison facing a retrial over the killings of protesters in 2012.
  • Tunisian police killed two militants from the Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia in clashes Thursday night in the city of Jendouba near the Algerian border.
  • Iran released a study this week estimating that, with its current infrastructure, it would take its scientists and engineers years to build a nuclear weapon.

Arguments and Analysis

'How Nouri al-Maliki's policies are dooming Iraq' (Nabeel Khoury, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs)

"One thing is clear: U.S. goals in Iraq have not been accomplished, and what accomplishments were achieved prior to the departure of troops in 2011 have by now unraveled. From the lofty nation-building goals of 2003, a constitution and a functioning parliamentary system are indeed still in place. National reconciliation, however, has lagged behind and may now be on the verge of collapsing. Economic recovery remains mired in disagreements over the export of oil policies of the central government and endemic corruption of state officials at all levels. As for security, and despite the millions spent on training and equipping Iraqi troops, the performance of the state has been deficient throughout the country. The exception is the northern Kurdish region, where central government forces were shunned in favor of a locally grown and controlled security apparatus. Even before this latest assault on Mosul and its surroundings, Iraqi civilian deaths from sectarian strife over the past year exceeded the number killed during the height of the civil war in 2006 to 2007. Economically, politically and militarily, the Iraqi nation remains a work-in-progress, with the word progress used only idiomatically."

'Egypt: The Closing of the Political Space' (Marina Ottaway, Wilson Center)

"After the turmoil of the past three years, which devastated the economy and worsened the country's chronic socioeconomic problems, Egypt needs a period of political stability in which the focus will shift from political struggles to formulating policies to start addressing problems. Political instability has sapped investor confidence and scared away tourists, drying up a major source of foreign currency earnings. Slow economic growth has exacerbated the problems created by the skewed income distribution, which worsened during the Mubarak years. A bankrupt government-the budget deficit for next year could reach 14 percent if no measures are taken-has little choice but to reduce subsidies on energy and food, in turn increasing discontent. Electricity production is insufficient to meet demand because of shortage of fuel for power generation, leading to constant blackouts. Most Egyptians, in other words, face outright catastrophe or endless aggravation in their daily life. The generous support provided and pledged to post-Morsi Egypt by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will keep Egypt afloat for the time being, but the problems are just too large and complex for this aid to be more than a palliative.

Egypt needs stability to address these problems. Closing the political space, as the regime is trying to do, is unlikely to bring either stability or a solution to these festering problems."

-- Mary Casey

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

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