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As the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is driven from its strongholds in Syria, US-backed forces face the challenge of stabilizing these conflict-ravaged territories.

This task is made more urgent by the fact that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Iran-backed militias are swooping in on eastern Syria in an attempt to capitalize on ISIS’ defeat, said Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

“If they succeed, the basis for ISIS 2.0 will be set,” said Hof, adding: “After all, it was the Iranian (and Russian)-supported brutality of the Assad regime that created the governance vacuum filled by ISIS in the first place.”

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on October 16 that they had seized control of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS’ “caliphate.” A US-backed civilian council, which has been based in Ayn Issa, north of Raqqa, will now seek to stabilize Raqqa.
As Tip O’Neill coined it, “all politics is local.” Accordingly, the local dimension of the Kurdistan referendum is a core aspect, but underplayed as the news focuses on regional and international repercussions. The internal political moves that led up to the referendum and the referendum’s results will define KRG politics in the near future, but they are less clear to those outside of the Kurdistan region due to their complexity and language barriers.
Iraqi government forces on October 16 seized vital oil fields and the city of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces.

The military action, which pits two US allies against each other, followed a September 25 referendum in which the Kurds voted for an independent state. The Iraqi government had declared the vote unconstitutional. Kirkuk, which is not part of Iraqi Kurdistan but was under Kurdish control at the time, took part in the referendum. (Kurdish forces had controlled Kirkuk since 2014 when Iraqi forces fled as Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) militants advanced on the city.)

Explaining the security offensive, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said in a statement on October 16 that he acted “in accordance with the constitution to serve the citizens and protect the unity of the country, which was in danger of partition due to the insistence on holding the referendum.”

Harith Hasan Al Qarawee, a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, discussed the significance of the developments in an e-mail interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from that interview.
A recent series of militant attacks that forced the closure of three of Libya’s key oil fields represents the latest blow to the North African nation’s efforts to revive its energy sector while reigning in the chronic instability that has plagued the country since its 2011 revolution.

Over the course of two weeks in late August, the Rayayina Patrols Brigade (RPG) targeted oil fields and other facilities along a key pipeline corridor in western Libya, disrupting production at  the Hamada el Hamra, El-Feel, and El Sharara oil fields by an estimated 360,000 bpd.

Though all three fields are scheduled to resume production this week following a negotiated settlement, the attacks underscore the challenges the Tripoli-based and internationally recognized Government of National Accord continues to face as it attempts to revamp production and stabilize the country amidst a fraught security environment.
Diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the chaos that has prevailed in Libya since 2011 have legitimized Khalifa Haftar, a former Libyan general whose forces have been accused of torture and executing prisoners, according to the Atlantic Council’s Karim Mezran.

Haftar met Fayez-al-Serraj, the prime minister in Libya’s United Nations-backed government, in Paris on July 25. The fact that this meeting occurred in the first place was a recognition of the reality that Serraj’s government—the Government of National Accord (GNA)—has been unable to unite the country and that Haftar has an indispensable role in any solution to the crisis, said Mezran, a resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

“Haftar is the big victor,” he added.
Russia has decisively expanded its global footprint in a way that analysts say challenges the West and will force US President Donald J. Trump to rethink his “America First” strategy.

This challenge extends well beyond Russia’s neighborhood—Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic States—to Syria, Libya, and even Afghanistan. Western governments and intelligence agencies have also accused Russia of meddling in elections in the United States and Europe.

John E. Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, said Russian President Vladimir Putin is “pursuing a clear revisionist agenda designed to change the post-Cold War order in Eurasia; permit Moscow to establish a clear sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space; weaken NATO and the EU; weaken the transatlantic relationship; diminish American prestige and power; and project Russian power globally.”

With this as a backdrop, Trump and Putin will meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7. The meeting takes place amid investigations by a special prosecutor and congressional committees into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
True national reconciliation and inclusiveness are necessary ingredients for ending the cycle of statelessness and radicalization that has created a fertile ground for terrorist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), to flourish in Libya, according to a new Atlantic Council report.

“People who fought in Syria, we call that the undergrad for jihad, they went to Libya to get their post-grad degree in jihad,” said Jason Pack, founder of Eye on ISIS in Libya and executive director of the US-Libya Business Association.

“By coming from what they gathered in Syria to their post-grad in Derna and Sirte they founded their own brigades,” said Pack referring to mostly Tunisian jihadis who initially trained in Syria where a civil war has raged for the past six years. “The porosity of the Tunisian-Libyan border has been a real plague for Libya, and it has been a plague for Tunisia,” he added, pointing to high-profile terrorist attacks in Tunisia in 2015 at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and on British holidaymakers in Sousse.
The Arab world is in a sorry state. The spat between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Qatar is but the latest symptom of an enduring serious rot in governance and a destructive power struggle in the wake of the Arab Spring. This situation is compounded by a lack of constructive dialogue on addressing the challenges that face most countries of the region.

Qatar’s excommunication from the GCC is the latest schism to hit what has seemed, at least since 2011, to be a stable and unified bloc. On June 5, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt broke diplomatic ties with Qatar and cut off air, land, and sea transportation links. On the surface, it appeared that Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism was at the heart of the dispute. Certainly, US President Donald J. Trump’s tweet, sympathizing with the action taken against Qatar, implied that this was his understanding. It took reminders from the Pentagon and the US State Department of US national interests in Qatar and its strategic interest in Gulf stability to get Trump to pull back on his original impulse to take sides and instead advise Saudi King Salman to seek unity and harmony within the GCC rather than allow a dangerous escalation in rancor.
A horrific suicide bombing in Manchester has put a spotlight on Libya—the North African nation where the chaos that has prevailed for the better part of the past six years has become a fertile breeding ground for a mélange of terrorist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

“What Manchester shows is that it is possible for a radicalized kid to go to Libya and potentially receive the kind of training that would allow him to return to his home country and commit an act of terrorism,” said Karim Mezran, a resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

On May 22, a bomber identified by British authorities as Salman Abedi, the twenty-two-year-old British-born son of Libyan immigrants, detonated explosives at the end of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena, killing himself and twenty-two other people. Fifty-nine people were wounded. Abedi had earlier traveled to Libya to see his parents who have moved back; he also visited Syria. The British government on May 23 put the entire country on the highest level of alert—a sign that another attack “may be imminent.”
The Washington Post reported on May 15 that US President Donald J. Trump disclosed highly classified information to two Russian officials—Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak—in their White House meeting on May 10.

“The information the president relayed had been provided by a US partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the US government,” the Post reported, citing unidentified current and former US officials.


    

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