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The Great Game In Mideast – OpEd

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By Osama Al Sharif

At least three major offensives are taking place, almost simultaneously, in both Iraq and Syria, and somehow there are all connected. On Monday Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi announced the beginning of a long-awaited military operation to recapture Fallujah in Al- Anbar province. The city with over 100,000 resident was taken in January 2014 by Daesh, among other towns and villages in the vast Sunni province. Last week the Iraqi Army expelled Daesh from Al-Rutba, a strategic town near the Jordanian border and on the Amman-Baghdad highway.

The international coalition will provide air support for the advancing Iraqi troops on Fallujah, a city of historic symbolism since the US invasion of Iraq. It was instrumental in resisting American occupation and later in expelling Al-Qaeda militants from most of the province almost a decade ago. Residents are fearful of a repetition of Al-Ramadi scenario, few months ago, when Iraqi troops leveled the Daesh-held city resulting in heavy civilian casualties. Observers believe the Fallujah offensive will act as a rehearsal for the bigger challenge of recapturing Mosul, a major Iraqi city that was easily overrun by Daesh two summers ago.

The timing of the Fallujah operation is crucial. It comes at a time of heightened political tensions that have crippled the political machinery in Baghdad. Al-Abadi hopes that the liberation of Fallujah will somehow strengthen his position, as he tries to restructure a new Cabinet and negotiate a deal with a divided Parliament. But the operation is risky as well. Sunni figures have warned that they will not tolerate any role for the notorious Popular Mobilization forces, which are largely Shiite and are led by Iranian officers. These forces are accused of committing atrocities against Sunnis in Tikrit and others areas last year. A victory in Fallujah is unlikely to contain or reduce political congestions in Baghdad.

On the other hand, the Americans are taking the initiative in northern Syria where Gen. Joseph Votel, head of US Centcom, paid a secret 11-hour visit to an American camp not far from the Daesh’s de facto capital of Raqqa. There he met with Kurdish and Arab rebel groups, mainly the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and talked about plans to launch an offensive on Raqqa, which Daesh had occupied in 2013.

The US-backed SDF has been making significant gains against Daesh-held positions in recent weeks. Earlier in the week coalition aircraft dropped flyers on the city asking residents to leave and there were reports that civilians have been seen abandoning Raqqa and heading towards Deir ez-Zor and northern Aleppo countryside. The Americans are depending on the SDF to lead the offensive and take over Daesh-controlled areas. But it is not clear if these fighters, assisted by US Special Forces, have the capability to recapture Raqqa at this point of time.

One thing that is a source of concern for Arab residents, who make up a majority in some of these areas, is fear that Kurdish troops will seek to displace them in order to widen areas under their control. Certainly Turkey, which is not joining the military campaign, will be watching this latest development.

Coinciding with the Raqqa events is the fact that Russian jets have intensified their bombing of the Aleppo countryside, in direct violation of a shaky truce that is about to collapse. The Americans have declined a Russian invitation to launch joint airstrikes against extremist rebel groups, primarily Al-Nusra Front. The Russians appear to have changed their position over sparing Aleppo and are now providing air cover to advancing Iranian, Hezbollah and regime forces with the intent of taking the city or tightening the siege against rebel held parts of it. Last week these pro-regime forces suffered heavy losses at the hand of rebel groups.

The Russians are also looking the other way as the Damascus regime intensifies its indiscriminate bombing of Daraya and other towns in the Ghouta, close to the capital. The coming few days will be crucial in deciding the fate of these towns, especially in light of inter-fighting that has broken out between two Islamist opposition groups.

All of these developments are taking place against a backdrop of a waning political process in Geneva where the special UN envoy, Russia and the US have been unable to agree on a date to resume talks. The opposition has refused to end its suspension unless military hostilities stop.

This is now unlikely.

The question is has the US abandoned Aleppo to its fate in return for a free hand to end Daesh’s control of Raqaa? The US has toned down its criticism of Russia’s repeated violation of the cease-fire and is now focused more on the objective of defeating Daesh in both Iraq and Syria. It is also walking away from the so-called moderate opposition groups. It will certainly change the structure of frontlines in Syria’s evolving geopolitical map.


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Arab News

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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