THE SUN SETS ON ISIS’S MOSULI CALIPHATE

 

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Bailey Marsheck
Staff Writer

Exploding car bombs and ill-advised U.S. airstrikes have demolished the streets of what was once the proud city of Mosul, ISIS’s last major stronghold in Iraq. What remains is a war zone and one that ISIS cannot claim ownership over for much longer. As the American-backed coalition of Iraqi and Kurdish forces inch ever closer to its goal of recapturing the city, the Islamic State’s worldwide ambitions appear headed toward an impasse. The integrity of its Northern Iraqi caliphate is waning as it lies besieged amid the narrow alleyways and IED-strewn choke points of western Mosul. Its forces have employed increasingly destructive defense tactics that threaten both the anti-ISIS coalition and the city’s own residents through its clawing and foot-dragging “scorch-the-earth” exit. Losing Mosul spells strategic and symbolic doom for the caliphate’s goal of uniting the world under extremist Muslim rule. Fitttingly, ISIS’s metaphorical sun dims exactly where the group rose to prominence two years ago: in the shadow of Mosul’s Great Mosque of Al-Nuri.
Previously known for its historical significance and as a center of learning, Mosul became the heart of the Islamic State’s spread across the Middle East when the extremist group defeated Iraqi Army ground forces in 2014 and took possession of the city. At the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in the center of Mosul, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed ISIS to be a global caliphate and installed himself as caliph. This has been subsequently followed by over two years of rule under ISIS’s extremist interpretation of sharia law. It was at this point that ISIS became a credible threat and one that fellow terrorist organizations like Boko Haram began allying themselves with. The city has served as a base for their operations, in conjunction with the caliphate’s Syrian headquarters in Raqqa, from which ISIS controls its territories in the two countries. The looting of a central bank for $425 million dollars and profit from Mosul’s lucrative oil fields have helped to fund the Islamic State’s weapons purchases and recruitment of new members. When the Iraqi army began coordinating with Kurdish forces in 2016 to converge on Mosul, it took over 3 months for the coalition to recapture the eastern side of the city. The Western Mosuli campaign finally appears to be in its final stages after seven months of heavy combat, with coalition forces now pushing into the last occupied districts. Iraqi Lt Gen Othman al-Ghanim recently predicted that the coalition could completely overtake the city in a matter of days.

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U.S. forces provide artillery support in the coalition’s fight against ISIS

Despite the recent positive developments, ISIS saw its destructive agenda completed and found a surprising ally through the questionable actions of the U.S. military. On March 17, a U.S. airstrike allegedly decimated buildings in hopes of helping coalition forces oust ISIS from its cover within the city. Over 150 civilians were killed in a single strike, making it one of the most fatal in U.S. history in terms of civilian casualties. Such casualties caused by U.S. intervention in the Middle East have shown time and time again to breed further extremism, feeding directly into ISIS’s anti-Western rhetoric and call to arms. There were never official designations over what caused the building containing these civilians to collapse, but U.S. military forensic units have strong conflicts of interests in investigating their own actions. Some within the U.S. defense sphere blame ISIS for blowing up the building and herding civilians inside in order to frame American forces. Indeed, ISIS has trapped civilians inside buildings to deter or incriminate American air support since then, but the anti-ISIS coalition is now wise to the ploy. Beyond the threat of U.S. bombings, the lives of common citizens are further endangered by ISIS’s guerilla tactics like the use of humans shields and the holding of civilian hostages. Aid to the city can scarcely get in without the threat of appropriation by ISIS. Additionally, the acceptance of Mosuli refugees runs the risk of harboring fleeing militants in disguise.

The offensive has been a tactical nightmare for the allied coalition. ISIS snipers, sarin gas, incessant car bombs and an intensified media spotlight have contributed to slowing the allie’s advance in Mosul to a hesitant crawl. When anti-ISIS forces reclaimed parts of the city that had been previously under the Islamic State’s control, they discovered holes created between houses and tunnels beneath the streets that allowed personnel and supplies to move without aerial detection. The allied forces also discovered a garage which specialized in outfitting vehicles for suicide bombings, altering them to be bulletproof and avoid surveillance. These factors lead to difficult decisions regarding how much time and how many soldiers’ lives the coalition is willing to give up in order to capture Mosul. The respective cost in delaying progress, however, is larger still. ISIS has become more indiscriminate with its use of force as its defenses have failed. Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin reports that civilian collateral casualties per week are, “in the hundreds with evidence showing that’s increasing.”

Without Mosul, ISIS would be without its biggest source of prestige, economic support and coordination center. Control of Mosul is central to the group’s legitimacy as Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s jumping off point. The caliphate’s official title as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” would lose both its accuracy and its sense of attraction among certain circles due to the group’s inability to control any significant portion of Iraq. This would be a major hit to ISIS’s recruitment abilities, despite being counterbalanced by potential anti-American sentiment following the mass civilian airstrike. Without a means of bringing new recruits into the organization, the group’s influence would likely dwindle and dissipate. The group already lost control of the city’s oil fields earlier in the campaign. ISIS fighters have reportedly stopped receiving payment as the organization has run out of money. The extortion of civilians within Mosul, not uncommon in similar situations, is difficult when there are battles to fight and the city is essentially starved.

Mosul’s strategic position in Northern Iraq once made it invaluable in controlling the group’s territories in Northeastern Iraq and Northwestern Syria. The city’s close proximity to the Syrian border was useful in working in tandem with ISIS’s remaining major city and new de-facto capital in Raqqa, Syria. But what was once an advantage is now a liability, as the city’s position between the northern Kurds and southern Iraqis encouraged the formation of an opposing coalition that was otherwise unlikely. The loss of Mosul will shake the group’s very identity and serve as a huge blow to ISIS’s chances of establishing the globe-encompassing Islamic state that it seeks.

As the tides continue to tip in favor of the Iraqi coalition, the focus of these forces will soon turn towards Raqqa, where another offensive is already underway. There is much speculation over when ISIS may be defeated and what the terrorist group will look like in the aftermath of this defeat, but these estimates carry wild degrees of uncertainty. Halting ISIS’s caliphate goals isn’t likely to end the threat of terrorism that occasionally penetrates the West. If anything, ISIS grows harder to deal with as its extremist foreign fighters disappear back into their native populations and sow fundamentalism back home. The relative clarity of a defined battleground will soon be lost; a reality that the coalition is already preparing for.
The next challenge after Mosul falls will be in identifying the enemy fleeing among the Mosuli refugees. Islamic State members have already begun abandoning Mosul in what appears to be an acknowledgement of defeat. They may resurface elsewhere in attempts to establish control in other parts of the Levant, land the group claims as its religious right. Increased terrorist activity may become a top priority due to a lack of having a solidified sphere of influence or they may simply refocus on resource acquisition as they regroup. What seems to be most certain, however, is that the loss of Mosul will spell the beginning of the end for ISIS’s sovereign state and will bring about the liberation of innocent civilians that have been starving and dying under ISIS’s oppressive rule.

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Of the many reasons to liberate Mosul, the well-being of its people is perhaps the most compelling

Images courtesy of:
Staff Sgt. Adam Kern and the 621st Contingency Response Wing of the United States Air Force
Expert Infantry
DFID – UK Development for International Development

SISI’S EGYPT: REPRESSION AT A CROSSROADS

By Matt M. Joye
Senior Editor

In Egypt, it remains a very good thing to be a general. Even the protestors who occupied Tahrir Square and brought down the former general-turned-dictator Hosni Mubarak courted the support of the army. Now, after just over a year of rule by President Mohamed Morsi, the coup that unseated him has placed another former general in the presidential palace. Indeed, since the toppling of the monarchy in 1952, Morsi remains the only civilian elected to Egypt’s highest office. Yet despite the clamoring of average Egyptians for a return to stability, the landslide electoral victory of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not been a harbinger of democratic transition. It may in fact signal a dark road ahead for the country that cast off a 30-year despot less than four years ago.

Much has transpired since the momentous swell of popular protest and revolution—known collectively as the Arab Spring—began in Tunisia on Dec. 18, 2010, and exploded onto the world stage. Indeed, even now its imprint extends from the current Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, to the unseating of President Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso after 27 years of rule, and more ominously in the continuing civil wars in Ukraine and Syria. Nowhere became more synonymous with this global movement than Egypt: hundreds of thousands gathered in the streets of Cairo, centered on the iconic Tahrir Square, to demand the ouster of President Mubarak. In the end, after withstanding a brutal and deadly crackdown, they remained; gone was the former general who had ruled the country for almost 30 years.

The celebration of that victory would certainly have been tempered if protestors had known three years later another former general would occupy the presidential palace. Elected with 96.1% of the vote, President Sisi seemed to gain some form of democratic legitimacy after leading the coup that deposed President Morsi in July 2013. In one sense it ended an aberration: the military has been the dominant institution in Egypt since at least the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. After being sidelined for a year by the electoral victory of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood—the only other viable organized political institution in Egypt—it would appear the generals have escaped banishment to the barracks and returned to the field, albeit with somewhat bruised egos. [1]

Indeed Sisi’s ascension has taken on aspects of a jilted institution determined to re-establish the power and prestige of a group that has long dominated the Egyptian state. At times this has bordered on the bizarre. Sisi and the regime have advanced a cult of personality built around the president as Egypt’s savior. The Egyptian media coverage of his recent United Nations speech portrayed a triumphant and overwhelming response by the assembly to his address; the New York Times version was less glowing, noting the applause came almost exclusively from his entourage. Egypt’s private media outlets have vowed to observe a self-imposed gag order on criticism of his government. One satellite network even stated, “…freedom of expression cannot ever justify ridicule of the Egyptian Army’s morale.” After the United States briefly suspended some military aid to Egypt, US Secretary of State John Kerry was subjected to security wands on visiting the presidential palace—unusual for a visiting dignitary. In the midst of protests in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs even issued a statement advising the US to undertake “respect for the right of assembly and peaceful expression of opinion.”

Obviously at times it pays to have a short memory. The violent attack on Pro-Morsi demonstrations by the military in the aftermath of his overthrow killed over eight hundred people, according to Human Rights Watch, and was unlikely to have occurred without at least tacit approval from Sisi: he was in charge of the military and deputy prime minister at the time. The Muslim Brotherhood is now banned as a “terrorist” organization, which has swept up many non-Brotherhood supporters in the subsequent raids. Perhaps most ironic, the leader who has only risen to power because of a series of protests now bans demonstrations of more than ten people without a special permit, and these are hard to procure.

Foreign and domestic non-governmental organizations, under the guise that they provide a conduit for foreign interference, have also faced new restrictions. NGOs that are based in Egypt will now need the approval of the government before accepting any foreign funding. When HRC tried to deliver its findings on the Rabaa Square massacre, its representatives were turned away at the airport and prevented from even entering the country: this was the first time HRC had been denied entrance to Egypt. Former US President Jimmy Carter’s NGO, which promotes free elections and human rights, has already withdrawn, with Carter citing an environment so antithetical to democracy that it “could be extremely difficult, and possibly dangerous, for critics of the regime” to remain.

Two Egyptian institutions that were critical to the development of resistance and opposition to Mubarak were universities and mosques. Both have been targeted by repressive government measures. Muslim imams and preachers must now have approval from the government, and many smaller houses of worship have been closed. At Friday prayers, every preacher must deliver the same sermon. Universities, once a space free from police and thus safe to demonstrate after the restrictions, have been rocked by arrests and violence now that security forces have returned. Now long lines and searches are mandatory just to enter campus, staff may be fired for “inciting” demonstrations, and the head of each university is appointed by the president under new restrictive policies. A wave of preemptive arrests and protests has resulted.

In the aftermath of an attack by militants in the Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 24 that left more than 30 soldiers dead, the Egyptian Army bulldozed hundreds of houses to create a buffer at the Gaza border—initially giving only 24 hours advance notice—and leaving thousands homeless. The Sinai has long been a battleground between militants and the Egyptian military. But the attack has upped the ante, as the military had claimed until now it was winning the war against the insurgents. The Egyptian government has responded with additional repressive measures. One such policy, which hands prosecution for violations of public utilities over to military courts, is broad enough that marches on public roads could fall within the new jurisdiction.

Under even the most enlightened leadership, Egypt faces numerous challenges that would test the functionality of the state. Economic pressures are almost at a breaking point, with the collapse of the tourism industry, the decline of export revenues as gas and oil production decline, and a bloated bureaucracy and huge debts that siphon off much of its budget. Recent cuts in fuel subsidies, which caused gas prices to spike by 80 percent while electricity costs also rose, are not popular and thus speak to the extent of the crisis. The violence in the Sinai is unlikely to diminish in the near future. The specter of a Muslim Brotherhood re-emergence from the shadows is equal parts convenient spook and real fear in the minds of military brass.

Yet in the overwhelming crackdown on any entity that remotely threatens the rule of the military, there are potential seeds of opposition sown. Public support of the military has fallen dramatically, and the underpinning of earlier support—the wish for a return of stability after the chaos of the revolution and the Morsi regime—largely hinges on whether Sisi can deliver both stability and the economic growth that might accompany it. The removal of fuel subsidies was in part directed at the IMF, which is currently withholding a $4.8 billion loan critical for debt payments. Some investment has returned, but Sisi has not shed the state-centric economic model of old. Egypt has a history of cronyism based on state protections for favored industries: the military has often been the biggest beneficiary of state-directed economic ventures (Mubarak was personally connected to at least 469 businesses). It is possible that the stability of a Sisi regime will restore the stability necessary for economic growth and investment, which might be the biggest panacea for the ills of Egyptians.

There is a more dire option. With so much pressure on every avenue of dissent and political organization, overwhelming repression might produce far more determined—and risk-adverse—adversaries. The designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is no doubt politically expedient, but the wider net of oppression might alienate much larger segments of the population. Cracking down on universities, mosques, demonstrations and the like leaves little room for opposition within orthodox political channels. The domestic situation also limits the support that Egypt can garner from its longstanding allies, namely the US. The attempts by Sisi to foster closer ties with Russia stem in part from the hesitancy the US showed—read temporary suspension of military aid—after the coup that brought him to power. Egypt needs to address its structural deficiencies and attract investment to deliver on the growth that is the justification for its authoritarian rule—trading freedoms for the sake of stability. If Sisi cannot deliver an economy that at least partially fulfills the promises of the revolution and coup, it may take all of the qualities of the general in him to hold onto power. For those who occupied Tahrir Square four years ago, this might seem all too familiar.

1. Bahgat, Gawdat and Robert Sharp. “Prospects for a New US Strategic Orientation in the Middle East.” Mediterranean Quarterly 25.3 (2014): 27-39. Project MUSE. Web. Oct. 29, 2014.

Photo by EEAS

TENSION IN THE EAST: CHINA’S INCREASED RHETORIC AND THE RISING NEED FOR DIPLOMACY

By Andrew Kim
Staff Writer

While all remained calm in San Diego this past week, East Asia was marked by escalating tension and increasingly hawkish behavior as China’s declaration of a new airspace defense zone put its neighbors on edge. Moreover, China declared that all incoming aircraft should relay Chinese authorities of their presence, warning that it would take “defensive emergency measures” against any aircraft that failed to properly identify itself.

The new air defense zone not only encompasses the disputed islands in the East China Sea, but also includes waters believed to be territories of Taiwan, South Korea and Japan—all of China’s neighboring countries and all of which have publicly disputed the matter. Being that the United States is the predominant military backer of the three aforementioned East Asian countries, it is faced with heavy pressure to militarily support its allies. On Nov. 26, it did just that by flying two military aircraft around the disputed islands.

“We have conducted operations in the area of the Senkakus. We have continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies,” spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said, using the Japanese name for the islands.

The situation initially arose over China and Japan’s dispute over a series of tiny uninhabited islands whose surrounding waters are thought to be rich in minerals and resources. Known as Senkaku in Japan, and Diaoyu in China, the islands were bought by the Japanese national government in an effort to quell such disputes. However, recently China sent out water vessels to the area, subsequently exacerbating tensions and rhetoric by the Japanese. While China’s new declaration was made with the intent of chipping away at Tokyo’s claims, the United States had recognized that Japan has administrative control over the islands and is additionally bound by treaty to defend Japan in the event of an armed conflict. This is perhaps the most likely reason it sent aircraft into the new zone, in flagrant violation of China’s declaration. The move was made with the intention of showing a public display of support not only to Japan, but also to all other East Asian allies of the United States.

Meanwhile, China scrambled fighter jets to respond to the U.S. aircraft, marking the first time China sent military aircraft into the zone alongside foreign flights. Many analysts believe that while China wanted to display its rising weight, it most likely did not anticipate the forceful display and response from the United States, which is why the Chinese government did not give any initial response to the matter.

Moreover, such inflammatory rhetoric is creating problems. Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Asia-Pacific director at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the creation of its zone had its own momentum. “The danger in the announcement is that it empowers the People’s Liberation Army, maritime agencies and netizens [internet users] to hold the government to account,” she said. “Now people are transgressing the zone, they have to make it look to the domestic audience like they are serious. They have given birth to internal pressures.”

When looking towards the future, both China and Japan’s increasingly hawk-like rhetoric can translate into possibly dangerous escalations that the United States most likely does not want to get entangled in. The meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday that discussed topics such as the rising tension in the area shows that it is essential tfor diplomacy prevail—there is simply too much at stake if both sides were to get dragged into a possible conflict. Both the United States and China will continue to be global superpowers in the future, and so it becomes necessary to find common ground and come together to handle problems. Hopefully, cooler heads can prevail.

Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery