Middle East Update – January 2021

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Recent news, analysis, and commentary about the Middle East – politics, conflict, Iraq withdrawal, and great power competition.

Security Overview

CENTCOM Now Has Israel. In his last week in office President Trump ordered that U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) add Israel to its area of responsibility (AOR). This moved Israel from the European Command (EUCOM) AOR. According to the DoD the “. . . easing of tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors . . .” has provided a strategic opportunity for the US to align key partners against shared threats in the Middle East (that would be Iran). This puts CENTCOM in an awkward position – forcing it to work with both Israel and its Arab opponents. This move may strain relationships between CENTCOM officials and other nations in the region. This may prompt some realignment with SOCEUR, SOCCENT, 10th SFG, and 5th SFG, as well as other special operations forces. See “In waning days, Trump shakes up CENTCOM to increase Arab-Israeli efforts against Iran”, by Howard Altman, Military Times, January 15, 2021.

Great Power Competition. Russia continues to support the Syrian regime. This effort increases Russia’s prestige in the area, enhances the ability of Russia to project power in NATO’s southern flank, and puts the U.S. on notice that it doesn’t have free reign in the region. China continues its work to strengthen its economic ties in the region. Read more in “Great Power Rivalry in the Middle East”, Eurasia Review, January 20, 2021.

A Plan on How the US Could Withdraw from ME. Mike Sweeney, a fellow at Defense Priorities, presents a 4-year plan for significantly reducing the US military presence in the Middle East. “When It’s Over: An American Withdrawal Plan for the Middle East”, Modern War Institute at West Point, January 18, 2021.


US Troop Levels Reduced. In accordance with instructions from President Trump there are now only 2,500 U.S. service members in Iraq. The reductions were longtime goals of the Trump administration. This drawdown in Iraq follows the successful Iraqi military campaign against ISIS. (The campaign is over?). The US will continue to provide support with air power, intelligence, and a counterterrorism platform.

Iraq’s Economy. Widespread instability and violence is likely in Iraq’s future if Baghdad’s finances are not addressed. Kenneth Pollack and Farhad Alaaldin believe that U.S. and international community must shore up Baghdad’s finances before it is too late. “Iraq’s economic collapse could be Biden’s first foreign policy headache”, AEI, December 14, 2020.

Iraqi Arrest Warrant for Trump. A judge in Baghdad’s investigative court tasked with probing the Washington-directed drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassim Soleimani in January 2020 has issued an arrest warrant for President Trump. Soleimani headed the expeditionary Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. The warrant was a charge of premeditated murder. See “Iraq issues arrest warrant for Trump over Soleimani killing”, ABC News, January 7, 2021.

The Sinjar Agreement – It Needs Work. One of the knotty political problems facing Iraq is the population area near the border with Turkey and Syria. The Agreement on the Restoration of Stability and Normalization of the Situation in the District of Sinjar is a joint security agreement between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the federal government of Iraq. Sinjar is a Yazidi town in Iraq’s Nineveh Governate the fell to the Islamic State in 2014 and culminated in a genocide against its inhabitants. The October 2020 agreement neglects to include the local population of Sinjar. Shamiran Mako, a professor of international relations at Boston University, argues the agreement needs a recalibration. Read her essay “Negotiating Peace in Iraq’s Disputed Territories: Modifying the Sinjar Agreement”, Lawfare Blog, January 17, 2021.

Iraqi PMFs Explained. Renad Mansour of Chatham House provides a detailed and interesting look of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) of Iraq. The PMF is more than a group of militias – it is interwoven into Iraqi government and society. “The ‘Hybrid Armed Actors’ Paradox: A Necessary Compromise?”, War on the Rocks, January 21, 2021.

Iraqi Interpreters Face Death. Former interpreters for the British military advisors and British special forces in Iraq are terrified that Iraqi Shia militia members will track them down and kill them. See “Iraqi interpreters ‘stalked by death squads’ for helping the British”, BBC News, December 29, 2020.

Iraqi Air Force Readiness Problems. There are recent press accounts that suggest less than 20 percent of Iraq’s F-16s are fully airworthy. Poor jet maintenance and mismanagement are some of the causes of failing to meet maintenance standards. It is speculated that the poor maintenance record for the Iraqi Vipers is behind the decision to remove the F-16s from the air tasking orders in April 2020. Read “The Iraqi Air Force’s F-16 Fleet is on the Brink of Collapse Despite Showy Flybys”, The Drive War Zone, January 7, 2021.

Senior ISIS Leader Killed. A U.S.-led coalition air strike killed the top Islamic State leader in Iraq. Abu Yasir was the most senior Daesh leader and was killed near Kirkuk on January 27, 2021. (Military Times, Jan 29, 2021).


New US – Syria Policy Needed. The partnership between Russia and Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011 has proved to be effective and successful in preventing the fall of the Assad regime. The US lost significant leverage due to its inaction when self-imposed red lines were crossed and an incoherent foreign policy ensued. A new US policy towards Syria should recognize the necessity of pragmatic engagement with Russia. A ten-paper provides more details in Reframing US Syria policy: The road to Damascus runs through Moscow, Brookings Institute, December 2020.

Few Attractive Options for US in Syria. Sam Heller, an independent researcher and analyst based in Beirut, offers his views on the way forward for the US in Syria. Read his article “Redefining Victory in America’s War Against the Islamic State in Syria”, War on the Rocks, January 5, 2021.

Syria’s Narrative War. The battle for physical territory in Syria is complemented with the battle of the narrative. The propaganda, activism, and disinformation of Syria’s warring factions is a major factor (and threat) that will have lasting consequences for the region. Read more in “Lessons From Syria’s Low-Profile Narrative War”, War Room, United States Army War College, January 7, 2021.

Northern Syria – Fighting Continues. The Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) is facing the prospect of a new Turkish offensive. Turkish-back proxy groups are continuing their operations trying to control SDF-held areas. Russia is putting the pressure on the SDF to vacate areas so Syrian government forces can move in. See “Fighting Continues Over Flashpoint in Northern Syria”, Voice of America, January 5, 2021.

Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis. The Syrian civil war is approaching its tenth anniversary. The country remains divided and the conflict has settled into a stalemate – for the time being. Left in the lurch are refugees in neighboring countries and internally displaced personnel (IDPs) – many in temporary camps. Shelly Culbertson describes the situation in “The Syrian Forever War Has Created Forever Refugees”, The National Interest, November 24, 2020.


Heightened Tensions. U.S. military forces in the Middle East remain on high alert due to concerns that Iran may take action against U.S. interests in the region. The aircraft carrier Nimitz was enroute to its home port when it was sent back to the region. The one year anniversary of the killing of the top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani could be a reason for Iran’s escalatory rhetoric. It is being reported that the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force (under new leadership) has reverted back to being a smaller clandestine fighting unit. (Ynet News, Jan 3, 2021).

Iran and al-Qa’ida. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo revealed that Iran has given a new operational headquarters to al-Qa’ida. He says that Iran is now the home base for the terrorist group. (DoS, Jan 12, 2021).

Attacks on Shipping. The Middle East remains a volatile area for merchant shipping. Tankers and other civilian ships face the risk of limpet mines, explosive boats, sea mines, piracy, and the risk of politically motivated seizure. Many of the incidents are tied to Iran or its proxies. Read “Spate of Attacks on Ships in Middle East Points to Iran-Backed Group”, USNI News, January 6, 2021.


Iran’s Ally. For the past several years Iran has enjoyed the benefits of an alliance with the Houthis – a minority Shiite Muslim community in Yemen engaged in a long-running civil war. Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Houthi movement has come out against US interests in the Middle East. Iran has, for the past several years, provided advisors and equipment to the Houthi forces. The U.S. has backed Saudi Arabian and UAE forces that are fighting the Houthis with arms and diplomatic support. Bruce Riedel, a Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institute, advocates for a US policy change in “A pragmatic view on Yemen’s Houthis”, Brookings, January 11, 2021.

New Policy for Yemen. Katherine Zimmerman, a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), says that the policies of President Trump and Obama for Yemen were flawed. She believes the U.S. needs to retake a leadership role to secure U.S. interests, reduce Iranian influence, stabilize the region, and address humanitarian concerns. Read “US needs to take on a leadership role to secure its interests in Yemen”, AEI, December 16, 2020.


Video – Trends in ME in 2021. Middle East experts survey what lies ahead for the region in the year ahead – with particular attention to Yemen, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Trends to watch in the Middle East in 2021, Middle East Focus, Middle East Institute, January 15, 2021, one hour.


Photo: Map from Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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