The Middle East Crisis Deepens as Militants Gain Ground

AP Photo/Jaber al-Helo

Last Friday, Pentagon officials announced that the U.S. had started to fly armed drones over Baghdad to protect U.S. civilians and military forces in the Iraqi capital, according to the Associate Press. The senior defense official under anonymity confirmed that a handful of Predators armed with Hellfire missiles are being used in the mission. The drones are assisting manned and unmanned aircraft in the collection of data as well as provide protection for U.S. interests since President Obama has not authorized airstrikes against Sunni militants who have overrun parts of the country. The Pentagon on Thursday said that four teams of Army special forces had arrived in Baghdad bringing the number of American troops there to 90 of the 300 Obama promised to send. The Americans will advise and assist in the Iraqi counterterrorism efforts.

On Saturday of last week, the Iraqi government took steps to retake the northern city of Tikrit back from Sunni militants using soldiers backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, reported Ryan Lucas and Qassim Abdul Zahra (Iraq Launches Push For Militant-Held Tikrit). Reports coming from the city were conflicting as residents said the militants were still in control of the city by nightfall, while Iraqi officials said the troops had reached the outskirts and even made it as far as the heart of Tikrit itself. What has become very clear was the government’s desire to portray their efforts as a significant step in the right direction after two weeks of defeats at the hands of the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The series of defeats across the northern and western regions of Iraq has lead to the deepest crisis since the U.S. exited in December of 2011 threatening the stability of the country as the militants threaten to cleave the  nation in three along sectarian and ethnic lines. If successful, according to Lucas and Abdul Zahra, the Tikrit operation could restore some faith in the security forces and save Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s job. Many residents of the city have fled in anticipation of a government assault turning Tikrit into a ghost town. The city has been without power or water since last Friday night, according to one resident, Muhanad Saif al-Din. Early Saturday, the military carried out three airstrikes on the insurgent held city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and the initial target of the Islamic State’s offensive in the country. The Islamic State, which has seized control of large parts of northern and eastern Syria, aim to create a state straddling Syria and Iraq governed by Islamic law. Al-Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq, has failed to unite the Shiite and Sunni groups allowing militants to tap into the deep seated discontent among Iraq’s Sunni community fueling their anger. The Unites States and other world leaders have told al-Maliki to reach out to the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities and have called for more inclusive government to address longstanding grievances, according to Lucas and Abdul Zahra. Al-Maliki has refused to step aside and will seek a third consecutive term as prime minister as his bloc won the most seats in the April election.

On Sunday of last week, the al-Qaida breakaway group declared the establishment of a new Islamic state demanding allegiance from Muslims worldwide, according to the Associate Press article Al-Qaida splinter declares new Islamic caliphate. The spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, made the announcement in an audio statement posted online on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Al-Adnanai declared the group’s chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the new leader, or caliph, calling for jihadi groups everywhere to swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi and support him. Al-Adnani states,”The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas. Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day.” The Islamic state’s territory runs from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyala, according to Al-Adnani. With the establishment of the caliphate, the group changed its name to the Islamic State. In email comments, Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, explains that:”This announcement poses a huge threat to al-Qaida and its long-time position of leadership of the international jihadist cause. Taken globally, the younger generation of the jihadist community is becoming more and more supportive of (the Islamic State), largely out of fealty to its slick and proven capacity for attaining rapid results through brutality.” Al-Baghdadi has long been at odds with al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri and the two have had a very public falling out after al-Baghdadi ignored al-Zawahri’s demands that the Islamic State leave Syria. In February, al Zawahri formally disavowed al-Baghdadi. The declarations comes as the Iraqi government tries to take back some of its territory lost in recent weeks to jihadi groups and Sunni militants. The fighting continued on Sunday as Iraqi helicopter gunships took out suspected insurgent positions for the second day in the northern city of Tikrit. However, the insurgent were able to repel the military effort and remain in control of the city with clashes continuing to take place in the northern neighborhood of Qadissiyah, according to two residents.So far, Washington has sent 180 of the 300 American troops President Obama promised to help Iraqi forces, in addition, to flying unmanned and manned aircraft over Iraq.

President Obama has become increasingly concerned that the battle hardened militants who have spent time in Iraq and Syria could pose a threat to U.S. security due to the fact they could enter the country without visas on European passports, the Associate Press reports Obama: Battle-Hardened Militants Pose Threat To U.S. In an interview last Sunday on ABC’s “This Week”, Obama said,”They’re gaining strength in some places. We’ve seen Europeans who are sympathetic to their cause traveling into Syria and now may travel into Iraq, getting battle-hardened. Then they come back.”  The POTUS believes that the U.S. must improve surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering to neutralize the risk, in addition, possible military strikes against these organizations that could do us harm. As of Monday, officials confirmed that the U.S. will be sending another 300 troops to Iraq to beef up security at the U.S. Embassy and elsewhere in Baghdad to protect U.S. citizens and property, the HuffPost and Associated Press report (Obama Orders More Troops To Iraq). This addition brings the count to 750 total U.S. troops present in Iraq. The State Department has announced it will temporarily move unspecified embassy staffers in Baghdad to U.S. consulates in the northern city of Ibril and the southern city of Basra. On Sunday and Monday, the Pentagon confirmed that 200 troops have arrived to reinforce security at the embassy, its support facilities and Baghdad International Airport as requested by the POTUS. In a written statement, the Pentagon’s press secretary, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, had this to say: “The presence of these additional forces will help enable the embassy to continue its critical diplomatic mission and work with Iraq on challenges they are facing as they confront Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” Obama notified House and Senate leaders in a letter Monday of the additional forces. Obama has ruled out sending combat troops and insists the extra troops will stay in Iraq until security improves and reinforcement are no longer needed. Kirby said 100 additional troops who are on standby in the Middle East since the mid June will move to Baghdad to provide security and logistics support.

Syria Open To Talks With Rebels, Foreign Minister Says, No Word On Guarantees

Syria Open To Talks With Rebels, Foreign Minister Says, No Word On Guarantees.

Will there be peace coming to the region soon after years of violence? It depends. Syria’s foreign minister said Monday that the country is ready to negotiate with the army opposition trying to topple President Bashar Assad to try and resolve the 2 year old civil war. Walid al-Moallem could not say whether the rebel fighters would lay down arms before the talks could begin which has been a point of contention in the past. The proposal is the first time a high ranking Syrian official has said publicly that the government would meet the opposition fighters. Al-Moallem in Moscow ahead of the talks explained that through dialogue not through violence will reform happen according to the Associated Press. One rebel commander has one condition to the idea of talks which is that Assad and responsible parties for the bloodshed be put on trial. The 23 month old conflict has killed more than 70,000 people and destroyed numerous cities while repeatedly ignoring international efforts to bring the opposing forces together in order to end the bloodshed. Russia, Assad closest ally and chief international advocate, said on Wednesday with the Arab League that they would broker talks between rebels and the government. The proposal shows signs that the regime could be content with the idea of a settlement as it struggles to hold territory and win back ground from the rebels. The Syrian’s rebels have made several advances beyond their stronghold in Damascus including the nation’s largest hydroelectric dam and overtaking northeastern airbases. On Thursday, a huge last near the Baath party headquarters in Damascus killed 53 people according to state media. As of the moment the rebels may have a slight advantage, Assad’s regime still has a firm grip on Damascus and his fall is far from imminent or certain. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has repeated his call for negotiations to take place between both parties as the situation is at a crossroads and fears the continued fighting could break up the Syrian state. The difficulty in the actual negotiation will be the dozens of armed brigades and groups with no unified command that have fractured from those fighting to topple the regime. The rebels wan the government violence to end and power handed over to the opposition. Both sides have offered up their own requirements and conditions to hold talks to resolve the crisis in the recent weeks. Countries in the region have seen the Syrian conflict and watched  with caution as well as fear as the conflict could spill over into neighboring states. Turkey in particular is most concerned about the fallout since the country has taken in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and exchanged gunfire with government troops across the border. Meanwhile, the fighting in Syria will continue until both sides can come to an agreement.