New Perspectives on the Middle East and North Africa

The city of Aleppo, earlier in 2016. Taken from

Middle East Weekly Roundup: May 2nd, 2016

    The Levant and Turkey Israel This past week saw the UN Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) pass a resolution weakening Jewish claims to the Temple Mount area, also known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif,  in overwhelming favor, 33 to 6. The UNESCO resolution, authorized by the executive...

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Middle East Weekly Roundup: April 19th, 2016

    The Levant and Turkey Israel Following last week’s transfer of two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, Israel’s National Infrastructure, Energy, and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz viewed the move as a positive diplomatic breakthrough between the Jewish state and the Saudi Kingdom.  Saudi...

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Iranian Influence in MENA: Interview with Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush

Banafsheh Keynoush is an international geopolitical consultant, foreign affairs scholar, and author of “Saudi Arabia and Iran: Friends or Foes?” (Palgrave Macmillan, February 2016).  The book is based on dozens of interviews with Saudi and Iranian leaders, politicians and decision makers, and rich archival material collected and made available for...

Sahrawi refugees sip on tea. Image taken from Wikimedia

Ban Ki-Moon Has Sparked a Diplomatic Crisis in Western Sahara

Tom O’Bryan is a U.K. Kennedy Scholar at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a Researcher at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, analyzing stabilization strategy and conflict zone transformation. He is also the co-author of Narrating the Arab Spring (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Ban Ki-Moon has sparked a...

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016. Taken by Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Amending Inadmissibility for Syrian and Iraqi Victims of ISIL

Living Under ISIS Under existing United States law, asylum-seekers having given material support to designated terrorist organizations cannot apply for asylum in the United States. This is called the material support statute under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and is meant to protect the United States from admitting potentially...

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Middle East Weekly Roundup: April 11th, 2016

    The Levant and Turkey Israel IDF Colonel Yisrael Shomer was cleared of all charges in the shooting of a Palestinian teenager, Muhammad al-Casbah, this past week.  The incident occurred last July, in the town of a-Ram, when al-Casbah hit Col. Shomer’s vehicle with a rock, was subsequently shot,...

Scorched Earth in Iraq and Syria
By John S. Powell

	This week’s ouster of Islamic State (ISIS) forces from the Syrian city of Palmyra sparked cautious optimism from some observers. Aside from the destruction of the city’s ancient ruins, Palmyra appeared less damaged than had been originally feared after its takeover by the Islamic State. Yet under the surface of this reclaimed land lies a nasty truth about the terrorist group’s long-term impact. The ancient ruins and surrounding areas are laced with mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), planted by ISIS fighters intent on denying the Syrian Army any momentum in its advance. 
	This is not a new tactic. A year ago, when Iranian-backed militias pushed ISIS out of the Iraqi city of Tikrit, they found their offensive stalled by thousands of explosives hidden in the ground. In Ramadi, where Iraqi Army forces have been largely successful in driving out ISIS occupiers, mines and IEDs have become one of the greatest dangers to advancing ground forces. Resettlement efforts in both cities have been slowed significantly due to the persistent threat of hidden explosives. In countless, smaller retreats, ISIS has been brutally proficient in its emplacement of explosive devices to thwart government forces in their drive to reclaim lost territory. 
	Mine warfare in Iraq and Syria has proven disruptive to military units and civilians alike. Absent a concerted, technically demanding effort to uproot hidden explosives, mine emplacements can effectively deny large areas for years. Aside from the clear human rights implications, this tactic carries grave consequences for basic security and the provision of government services in formerly occupied territories. The loss of freedom of movement, as civilians and government forces shy away from unseen dangers, can have a dramatic effect on citizens’ confidence in representative officials and undermine government legitimacy. 
The NATO experience in Afghanistan serves as a useful historical analogy with regard to the impact of mines and explosives. In some parts of that country, especially in heavily contested Helmand and Kandahar Provinces, Taliban-allied fighters created ad hoc minefields out of IEDs. Their goal was to deny government access to key terrain in order to preserve the primacy of their shadow government in the eyes of a victimized population. The tactic largely worked, as NATO and Afghan government forces adopted cumbersome preventive measures or avoided mined areas altogether. Unable or unwilling to penetrate the improvised belts of explosives surrounding key areas, NATO and Afghan forces could never reliably access or fully gain the confidence of certain populations. Not coincidentally, some of the most densely mined parts of the country were also the first to fall to Taliban control upon the departure of NATO combat forces. 
ISIS forces appear to have adopted a similar plan for dealing with the temporary military superiority of Iraqi and Syrian forces. Where ISIS fighters face a numerical disadvantage and cannot stand and fight, they prefer to deny territory to the victors. The Afghan analogy suggests that their goals may be three-fold. First, ISIS hopes that such explosives might delay the attacking forces long enough to allow ISIS to effectively consolidate and eventually counterattack. Failing that, ISIS gains a significant boost to its propaganda of intimidation and omnipresence with every government soldier killed by a well laid mine. Finally, mines may prevent the effective provision of government services for long enough to allow ISIS forces to capitalize on the ensuing tensions and loss of confidence in government by those civilians living in contested areas. 
Initial reports from Palmyra suggest that Russian engineers may aid the Syrian Army in mine detection and removal. Despite outside help, the process will likely prolong the effort to advance and consolidate gains in ISIS territory. Given the extent and density of the minefields being reported, it may take months for life to resume a semblance of normalcy in Palmyra. In this sense, despite losing its hold on the city itself, ISIS may reassert its presence far longer than anticipated.
This pattern—first Tikrit, then Ramadi, and now Palmyra have been laced with mines in anticipation of defeat—holds grave implications for the likely next steps in the war against ISIS. An offensive for Mosul has stalled, but retaking Iraq’s second largest city is an absolute necessity to pushing ISIS from the country. Heavy urban fighting is quite likely, but if pushed out of the city, ISIS will almost certainly employ mines. Given the size and density of Mosul—a city of 2.5 million before it fell to ISIS—the de-mining process could take many months and severely hamper attempts at establishing effective governance in a city that has been in extremists’ hands for almost two years. It is almost unfathomable that the Iraqi military could undertake such an endeavor without direct assistance. 
Beyond Mosul, Raqqa and Deir al-Zour are the Islamic State’s remaining urban strongholds, both located in Syria. As forces backed by Russia, Iran, and the West slowly close in on ISIS, and as the group becomes more desperate, the intensity of its tactics will likely increase. Starting with Mosul, we should expect to see its scorched earth campaign intensify, increasing the time and effort required to retake each successive piece of territory. Momentum is a key factor in most wars, and may indeed hasten the end of the Islamic State’s reign over parts of Syria and Iraq. Yet in the midst of celebrations over the recapture of Palmyra, it is worth reflecting on the possibility that the road ahead may only become more difficult, and more strewn with hidden explosives, for advancing government forces.

Scorched Earth in Iraq and Syria

This week’s ouster of so-called Islamic State (ISIS) forces from the Syrian city of Palmyra sparked cautious optimism from some observers. Aside from the destruction of the city’s ancient ruins, Palmyra appeared less damaged than had been originally feared after its takeover by the Islamic State. Yet under the surface...