The Fight against DaeshThe battle in Syria, Libya, and Iraq
In the last quarter of 2016, across West Asia and North Africa (WANA), the fight against Daesh accelerated. After months of preparation, regional forces backed by a 68-member anti-Daesh coalition moved en masse to reclaim Daesh-held territory.
In Libya, the battle to retake Sirte was led by a force that, at its height in August 2016, consisted of thousands of fighters drawn from hundreds of loosely tied militias, mostly from nearby Misrata. After a summer push into the city and its surroundings by groups backed by the Government of National Accord, Daesh fighters were cornered – and subsequently vanquished – from the Ghiza Bariya district.
To the east, in Syria, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched Operation Euphrates Wrath with the aim of recapturing Raqqa. By December, the 30,000-strong force had expelled Daesh fighters from areas 24 km north and 50 km west of the city.
In Iraq, government-backed forces entered Mosul but faced a challenging street-to-street and house-to-house battle that Daesh had been preparing for since overrunning the city in 2014.
Now, Daesh’s state-building facade across the region has largely crumbled, leaving behind a destructive insurgency with nothing to lose.
US support is central
These offensives are largely being overseen by US strategic leadership: The push into Sirte was aided by US airstrikes and the US footprint in Iraq and Syria is even more evident. The Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and SDF benefit from US weapons, embedded advisors, strategic airstrikes, and a constant stream of intelligence to and from the front lines.
In Mosul, looking past Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias, the positive relationship between the US and many of the units engaged in the city – consisting of roughly 20,000 fighters – will afford it a significant amount of influence in how the battle is conducted. This is of great importance though is generally under-reported and underappreciated.
A domestic prize with many winners
Fighting to seize control of Mosul and Sirte was sold domestically as a means of empowering each city’s respective regional government, with Baghdad and Tripoli both celebrating Daesh’s retreat as a victory. However, in neither scenario was the central authority in full control of forces on the ground.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Libya: Although the unity government in Tripoli often claims it was planning and overseeing the Sirte fight, it exerted minimal, if any, authority. In addition, some militias who took part in the fighting reject the unity government’s legitimacy and carried out separate battles for personal or tribal gains, or to win favour with Western nations aiding the offensive.
The same goes for Iraq, where the fight for Mosul is being carried out by a constellation of forces that receive orders from differing, and sometimes opposing, stakeholders. Kurdish Peshmerga are holding territory just north of Mosul, explicitly looking to their own political leaders for military directives. Here, the central government in Baghdad can only hope to co-ordinate fighting.
From the south and into Mosul, the fight is being led by the ISF, though their size and high attrition rates could lead to the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) taking a bigger role. With its leadership linked to Iran, the PMF has been key in the fight to take back Mosul. Acting independently of the central government, it has severed supply lines from the west and could potentially retake large swaths of territory north of Mosul.
Between the Peshmerga and PMF, Baghdad’s influence over Mosul’s recapture, and who will eventually control the remnants of the largely Sunni city and its surrounding towns, will depend on how and if their counterparts can co-operate.
Although the military move against Daesh could have been the key to overcoming adversarial regional politics, alliances have largely held strong and tensions remain.
Sectarian tensions beneath the surface
Despite frequent public outbursts between Iran and its Sunni neighbours, long-standing tensions are rarely overtly visible. Rather, the conflict lives on in proxy battles taking place across the region. These tensions, and the geopolitical struggle for primacy, were recently seen in the Hizbollah-backed election of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a key antagonist against Syria during Lebanon’s long-running civil war.
Although the role of president in Lebanon is ceremonial, Aoun’s election does not benefit Saudi Arabia. Rather, it reaffirms Riyadh’s decision to withdraw from Lebanon’s deeply sectarian and complicated domestic political environment. But while this decision will strengthen Hizbollah and Iran in the near term, Saudi Arabia remains an important power-broker and financier to many Lebanese figures and enterprises. Indeed, Aoun, who recently accepted an invitation to visit the kingdom, understands the importance of mending ties. In this way, a pattern typically emerges in which the Saudis usually prevail in periods of peace and order, while the Iranians step forward in times of war and instability.
“Frustrated by a perceived lack of return on investment in regional partners, Riyadh may be adopting a more thorough realpolitik foreign policy.”
Cuts to discretionary spending and the cost of the war in Yemen have led officials in Riyadh to reassess aid to regional partners. It has been reported that aid to the Palestinian Authority has been stunted, and, in November, days after Egypt voted against a UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to Russian airstrikes on Aleppo, the kingdom indefinitely halted a $23bn aid deal to Cairo. Frustrated by a perceived lack of return on investment in regional partners, Riyadh may be adopting a more thorough realpolitik foreign policy.
Turkey leans into Iraq
During conflict, some regional forces retreat while others adopt more combative roles. For example, as Turkey’s relations with Russia, the GCC, and Israel have improved demonstrably, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become increasingly empowered to engage in operations along the country’s borders with Syria and Iraq.
Over the last year in Syria, Turkey has targeted and shelled Kurdish groups moving west of the Euphrates. In Iraq, however, it has supported Kurdish Peshmerga forces, bombed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) forces, and warned off Shiite militias, a stance that has contributed to feuding between Ankara and Baghdad over anti-Daesh operations in northern Iraq, particularly in Ninewa province.
Evidently, when it comes to securing its national interests, Turkey has taken a hawkish position.
With the Kurdish Peshmerga, PMF, and ISF moving forward in a co-ordinated offensive, rhetoric between Ankara and Baghdad has risen. Erdogan’s government seeks direct involvement on the ground to degrade the PKK’s military presence in northern Iraq and safeguard Iraqi Turkmen populations near the Turkish border. Erdogan’s projection of Turkey’s historic responsibility toward Iraq, coupled with the Turkish soldiers already stationed on Iraqi soil, recently led Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi to call Turkish incursions an attack on "Iraqi dignity”.
If these tensions are further stoked, the US, which has thus far successfully mediated between the two nations, could potentially find anti-Daesh operations jeopardised. And, if Daesh is pushed out of northern Iraq, Baghdad will not only have to manage the grievances of disenfranchised local populations: It will also need to monitor Shiite militias, Kurdish territorial expansion, and Ankara’s appetite for a more prominent role.
In Iraq, with international focus squarely on the fight for Mosul, a considerable amount of thought should be placed on intra-sectarian relations and local governance. After the fight against Daesh, what comes next? Who will govern liberated Sunni areas of the country, and how? Thus far, little attention has been placed on ensuring the military battle has an effective and parallel strategy for overcoming social cleavages and ensuring good governance post-Daesh.
The same can be said of Libya, with Daesh expelled from the coastal town of Sirte by Misratan militias. However, the large tribes that once governed the city, namely, the Gaddafa and Warfalla, have long opposed intervention from Misrata and this tension could boil over in the post-Daesh era.
“Local and tribal dynamics must be viewed as a way of understanding how populations engage with the central state, especially following civil war.”
Local and tribal dynamics must be viewed as a way of understanding how populations engage with the central state, especially following civil war. Here, Iraq serves as a historical example of an extremist group’s ability to exploit a power vacuum and re-emerge after military defeat. After all, Daesh sympathisers can only be hosted in enabling environments. Tribes, local councils, or an umbrella of local families will play a central role in protecting the community from any resurgence of extremists.
Humanitarian crisis runs deep
Countries under pressure from fighting must also battle the humanitarian crises that follow from conflict.
Across WANA last quarter, the ramifications of protracted wars grew more acute. Six years of civil war in Syria have created 6.3m internally displaced persons, 4.8m refugees, and resulted in estimates of more than 400,000 deaths. As the last evacuees escape Aleppo and the anti-Daesh coalition steers toward Raqqa, there is no end in sight to the generational consequences of the Syrian war.
In Yemen, over the past three months, the humanitarian situation has reached critical levels amid reports of cholera outbreaks, famine, and the complete dismantling of already underdeveloped essential services. With salaries intermittently paid, citizens do not have the purchasing power to buy basic foodstuffs. As the most impoverished country in WANA, Yemen now has more than 14m people classified as food insecure, while nearly 320,000 children are severely malnourished.
Following conflict, the human burden of budget cuts, subsidy reforms, and a shrinking public sector adds another layer of complexity.
In Egypt, growing deficits and looming austerity measures are hitting close to home. Cairo, already reliant on aid from supportive regional governments, has been hampered by terrorist attacks on tourist sites and reduced confidence in the Egyptian market, all of which have diminished its ability to induce foreign investment. With Central Bank coffers depleted and inflation rapidly rising, Cairo actioned a series of IMF-sponsored policies in an attempt to regain the trust of international markets; within a few weeks, fuel subsidies and currency controls had been lifted, and what started as a financial pinch morphed into a social crisis.
As WANA’s most populous nation squares up to important socio-economic challenges, its neighbours are watching. In the short term, Egyptians will struggle with an extremely weak currency and exorbitant prices across the board. However, in the medium to long term, policy-makers hope the economy will attract more investment. Egypt’s currency saga could serve as a cautionary tale to regional governments slow to respond to dwindling reserves, minimal government taxation, or an over-reliance on certain economic sectors.
Cutting budgets and weathering the response
With the landmark OPEC deal in early December, oil prices are holding at more than $50 a barrel, a two-year high. Nevertheless, in the last quarter of 2016, WANA’s oil-exporting countries pushed forward new taxes and fees as well as cuts to public sector expenses and subsidy programmes. A year after the collapse of global oil prices, financial markets have calmed and regional economies are adjusting.
Oil-exporting governments continued to borrow aggressively on international markets. By way of example, on October 19, Saudi Arabia’s inaugural international bond issue resulted in the sale of $17.5bn in government bonds, the largest sale of emerging market sovereign bonds recorded. Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and the UAE also sold foreign and federal bonds during 2016. While mulling more expansive taxation projects, oil-exporting countries introduced new fees and targeted taxes: In Saudi Arabia, municipal fees increased, while Algeria froze public sector salaries and increased sales, petrol, and tobacco taxes.
The response to these cuts has been varied. In the GCC, Kuwaitis took to the polls to voice their displeasure. Running on an anti-austerity platform, the opposition won 24 of the 50 seats in the legislature – the largest turnover of seats of any election in the country’s history. Saudis expressed their displeasure through satirical images of the fiscal situation. In North Africa, the reaction has been more vocal. Tunisia and Algeria both saw civil society groups strike in protest of parliamentary bills mandating spending cuts and salary freezes.
Up against a fiscal wall, governments have had less room to weigh austerity measures against the social consequences of their reforms.
Money: A weapon of war
For regional countries embroiled in conflict, finances are an important front line. In a bid to corner the Houthi-Saleh bloc, Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi moved the Central Bank’s headquarters from Sanaa to Aden. Now, facing financial shortages, the Houthi-Saleh bloc has begun to see protests in Sanaa.
In Libya, a battle over the distribution of oil revenues is ongoing. Though Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army holds Libya’s oil crescent, it does not control the Tripoli-based Central Bank – the recipient of oil revenues. And while Haftar is co-operating with the National Oil Corporation to increase Libyan output, he will undoubtedly seek to leverage his military positioning for political gain.
“Although countries are adjusting to the reality, simply put, they have less money to spend.”
In all, WANA faces strong headwinds in the face of persistently low oil prices. Although countries are adjusting to the reality, simply put, they have less money to spend.
Regionally, the politics of retraction and more realist policies are punctuating tensions between neighbouring forces. While friction points remain steady, rhetoric between some entities, and the absence of certain voices, may suggest a growing weariness to sustain rivalries on all fronts. Nevertheless, where some voices disengage, others seek to fill the void.
And so, as a generational fight against Daesh inches towards operational success, the potential fruits of victory are already being claimed by contending actors.