This article was originally published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on 27 May 2016.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Popular Mobilization launched a major operation on May 23 to recapture Fallujah from ISIS. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced Operation Breaking Terrorism late on May 22 following weeks of force build-up in the area. The ISF and Anbar Sunni tribal fighters carried out shaping operations to the south of Fallujah in the weeks prior, recapturing al-Salaam Junction and moving along the southern road on May 7. Iranian proxy Shi’a militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba, deployed heavily to the vicinity of Fallujah beginning on May 17. Progress of the actual operation has been rapid, with the joint ISF-Popular Mobilization forces recapturing key locations within the first 24 hours. These included Garma sub-district, a small town northeast of Fallujah, and Naimiyah on the southern edge of Fallujah City on May 23. Even before ISIS, Sunni militants including Jaish al-Mujahideen, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and Jaish Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandiyah (JRTN) used Garma as a support zone. As of May 26, security forces have captured much of the Garma area and have pressed on Fallujah’s northern, eastern, and southeastern flanks, though the progress of the ISF and Popular Mobilization in Albu Shajal and Saqlawiyah, on the northeastern axis, remains limited. These areas need to be controlled in order to complete the encirclement of Fallujah.
Operation Breaking Terrorism comes amid a period of instability for Baghdad and the Iraqi government. PM Abadi is weak, and the Council of Representatives has failed to make quorum due to boycotts by numerous parties, including the Kurdistan Alliance, the Reform Front, and the Sadrist Trend. Meanwhile, Sadrist demonstrators have threatened Baghdad security, breaking into the Green Zone and major government buildings first on April 30 and again on May 20, when protesters clashed with security forces. The demonstrations have exceeded the Interior Ministry’s security forces’ ability to provide basic protection in Baghdad; the increased instability caused by large-scale protests has required the deployment of additional forces to the capital, including members of the Golden Division, a unit within the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), that closed the entrances of the Green Zone on May 20.
Quran pages, courtesy WBEZ/Flickr
This article was originally published by the World Policy Institute on 18 May 2016.
For Middle East watchers, all eyes are on Saudi Arabia these days, particularly on the transformative Saudi Vision 2030 plan recently introduced by the young Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The plan envisions a Saudi Arabia with reinvigorated development, a diversified economy, and peace and security. It is a plan decidedly aimed at young Saudis, upon whom the future of the state rests. To assess its chances of success, however, observers would do well to watch the reaction of the ulama, the religious clerics who have an enormous impact on daily life in Saudi Arabia and whose alliance with the House of Saud is the bedrock upon which the modern Saudi state is built. Despite the Kingdom’s progressive plan, the clerics seem to be backsliding, and the internal dynamics between its leading members are shifting considerably.
In the 2000s, under the late King Abdullah, the clerical universe consisted of four broad categories: the Sahwa (or Islamic Awakening, a group of former oppositionist clerics that have come to fall in line behind the Saudi monarchy), the Islamic Liberals (including Shiite clerics), the Salafi-jihadists, and the establishment clerics. The bulk of these clerical classes were co-opted by the Saudi leadership to contribute to the fight against al-Qaida and as a means of diminishing Iran’s influence over the Saudi Shiite population. By 2009, a new group arose within the ulama; younger and more liberal than their contemporaries, these “Young Turks” had not yet been co-opted by the regime in the fight against extremism. A key figure in the rise of this group was Prince Khalid al-Faisal, currently the Saudi Minister of Education, who was formerly the governor of Mecca and, before that, Asir province.
Relief from the palace of King Sargon II in his capital city of Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad). Courtesy Mary Harrsch/Flickr
This article was originally published by War On The Rocks on 16 May 2016.
Iraq is once again in political turmoil, and once again we are hearing calls to partition the country into three ethno-sectarian cantonments: Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurd. The partition trope resurfaces periodically, most often while Iraq looks “too hard to fix.” Advocates of partition suggest that Iraq is a false construct of the century-old Sykes-Picot treaty, and that Iraqis are incapable of sustaining a heterogeneous state. Putting aside the fact that the Sykes-Picot narrative is at best contested, it is time to put the partition trope to the test and then, hopefully, to rest. The mostly non-Iraqi voices who want to divide the country into thirds owe the Iraqi people and the rest of the world extensive, detailed clarification. Surely, any plan to drastically restructure Iraq must be more thoughtful and detailed than the widely condemned 2003 plan to invade Iraq. At the very least, advocates for partition should address some fundamental questions. If they cannot answer these satisfactorily then they should pause before reissuing what many Iraqis view as disheartening, and even inflammatory, positions about their state.
First, who wants to break the state into three parts, either under “loose federalism” or as separate states? There appears to be no evidence that the current Sunni revolt seeks sectarian partition. Other than the outlying Islamic State terrorists, Sunni Arab Iraqis want to be part of and, in some cases to control, the state. Most Sunni Arabs I have spoken with are terrified by the idea of partition. It does not appear that leaders from Iraq’s powerful Da’wa party, or even Muqtada al-Sadr, seek partition. While the two major Kurdish parties—the PUK and the KDP—do seek eventual partition or confederation for themselves, and while the head of the PUK has suggested three way partition, neither party has pushed hard for this solution and neither party can claim to represent Iraqi Arab interests. Arguments for partition cannot be predicated on the idea that this is what the Iraqis want. If Iraqis do eventually seek three-way partition, then there is no need to advocate the position, as they will get there of their own accord.
Man in Sandstorm, courtesy A. Masood
This article was originally published by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) on 19 May 2016.
The blueprint for the Great Green Wall is nothing if not ambitious. Quite Canute-like, it would seem.
The aim is to plant a forest of trees about 15km wide, snaking some 7 775km from Senegal on the Atlantic to Djibouti on the Red Sea – crossing another nine Sahelian states on the way – to halt the southward march of the Sahara into the Sahel. This elongated forest would cover about 11 662 500 hectares.
The idea was originally conceived by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005 and enthusiastically embraced by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. In 2007, the African Union Commission (AUC) took it up as the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI). Obasanjo seems to have borrowed the idea from China, yet the Chinese precedent is not entirely encouraging. Its bricks and mortar equivalent failed to keep out the Mongolian hordes from the north in the 13th century. And China’s Great Green Wall – launched in 1978 with the aim of creating a forest of trees 4 500km long – has also not stopped the southward drift of the Gobi and other deserts, despite the planting of about 70 billion trees to date.