U.S.-backed Syrian Rebels Surround Manbij

Troops from the Syria Democratic Forces, the U.S.-supported rebel coalition in eastern Syria, have seized the last point of access to the strategic Islamic State-held city of Manbij. With forces now encircling the city, SDF officials said this week that they are holding off on an assault out of concern for civilians. At least 160 ...


Troops from the Syria Democratic Forces, the U.S.-supported rebel coalition in eastern Syria, have seized the last point of access to the strategic Islamic State-held city of Manbij. With forces now encircling the city, SDF officials said this week that they are holding off on an assault out of concern for civilians. At least 160 Islamic State militants and 20 SDF fighters have died in the fighting around Manbij. SDF troops also made gains this week in Raqqa province. The SDF has been aided by U.S. Special Operations Forces, and France acknowledged on Thursday that it has also deployed ground forces to assist in operations in eastern Syria. “The offensive at Manbij is clearly being backed by a certain number of states including France. It’s the usual support — it’s advisory,” a French defense ministry official told AFP.

As U.S.-backed rebels make gains to close the Manbij pocket along the Syria-Turkey border, BuzzFeed reports that Russia is recruiting other U.S.-supported rebel groups with offers of financial and military aid, including airstrikes, to fight Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. Rebel commanders are now weighing the offers and the potential consequences of alienating U.S. and Turkish backers. “This is a turf war,” one foreign official told BuzzFeed.

U.N. Responds to Reports of Saudi Threats

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon responded to reports that Saudi Arabia threatened to leave the United Nations and withdraw funding from humanitarian projects when it was listed last week on a blacklist of child rights violators for its conduct in its intervention in Yemen. Though he did not explicitly say that Saudi Arabia threatened to defund projects, Ban said that “it is unacceptable for member states to exert undue pressure.” He also urged U.N. member states to defend the organization and its reports. “When U.N. reports come under fire for raising difficult issues or documenting violations of law or human rights, member states should defend the mechanisms and mandates that they themselves have established,” he said. Saudi Arabia has been delisted pending a review of the report’s findings and Saudi diplomats deny threatening to disrupt U.N. operations.


  • Forces loyal to the Libyan Government of National Accord have pushed into Sirte in their offensive against the Islamic State but their progress has been slowed by snipers in the city; “We think that Sirte will be liberated within days, not weeks,” a military spokesman said.


  • Food aid reached Daraya, a besieged neighborhood of Damascus, for the first time since 2012 last night in accordance with an arrangement reached between the United Nations and the Assad regime; the first delivery of humanitarian supplies was allowed past the siege last week.


  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned to Turkey abruptly on Thursday after attending but not being allowed to participate in the funeral of boxing legend Muhammad Ali in Louisville, KY, which had been the reason for his trip.


  • The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, a terrorist splinter group from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that has conducted several attacks, claimed credit for the bombing in Istanbul on Tuesday that killed 11 people; in a statement, the group said it was retaliating for Turkish attacks on Kurds in southeastern Turkey and warned tourists to avoid the country.


  • U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters that formal peace talks on the Syrian civil war will not resume until there is greater agreement among the parties on the plan for a political transition, though less formal technical meetings will continue on an ad hoc basis.

Arguments and Analysis

From Political Islam to Muslim Democracy” (Sarah J. Feuer, Foreign Affairs)

“In the end, the extent to which the Ennahda congress changes Tunisian politics may depend on the extent to which Ennahda itself changes. Analogies have been drawn to Turkey’s experience in the early 2000s, when the Islamist AKP recast itself as a socially conservative party and highlighted its economic platform in an effort to broaden its support base. Ennahda may have the AKP in mind, but the more relevant model today is arguably Morocco, where an Islamist party with Brotherhood roots legislates in parliament and even occupies the prime ministry but leaves overtly religious activities to its sister organization in civil society. Whether Ennahda changes its internal structures; where the party comes down on divisive legislation, such as the regulation of problematic imams or the recent proposal to remove the religious imprint on the country’s inheritance laws; and the degree to which the party campaigns on religiously oriented themes in the upcoming election cycles will give observers a clearer picture of Ennahda’s longer-term plans and more ammunition for the debate about the continued evolution of political Islam in Tunisia and in the wider Middle East.”


Egypt’s Mainland Terrorism Landscape” (Allison McManus and Jake Greene, Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy)

“On May 8, four men carried out a brutal mass shooting, emptying their magazines into an adjacent car as they drove along the Nile in Helwan, a district in Cairo. Eight policemen were killed during the attack, which was claimed by both the Islamic State in Egypt (that is, the branch of the global organization that operates in mainland Egypt, rather than Sinai) and a lesser-known group, the Popular Resistance Movement. Our long-term research shows that violence like this has been thriving in mainland Egypt for years. While the insurgency in the restive North Sinai has garnered a great deal of concern, actors in the mainland (that is, outside of Sinai) have evolved since then-Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah El Sisi asked for a popular mandate to counter terrorism in July 2013, and those actors continue to carry out regular attacks across the country. These actors are neither monolithic nor immutable; violence has seen two distinct phases, and is possibly now entering a third. While all three phases have seen a mix of small attacks with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), shootings, and intermittent large-scale attacks, the actor landscape has shifted.”

-J. Dana Stuster


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