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Middle East Ticker: Assad Regime Corners Rebels in Aleppo, U.S. Reauthorizes Iran Sanctions, and Islamic State Prepares Its Fallback Plan

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, December 6, 2016, 8:30 AM

Assad Regime Captures Large Swaths of Eastern Aleppo

The Assad regime’s advance into rebel-held districts of eastern Aleppo has resulted in the capture of as much as 70 percent of the city’s previously besieged territory. The offensive has killed at least 319 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and displaced more than 30,000 others. But the actual toll is likely much higher: Syrian Civil Defense (the “White Helmets”) told the Washington Post that they have counted at least 509 dead but the severity of the assault has prevented them from keeping an accurate record.

The offensive shows no sign of ending. On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated the Russian government’s position that rebels remaining in Aleppo are “terrorists” and that the regime and its allies “will treat them as such, as terrorists, as extremists and will support a Syrian army operation against those criminal squads.” In New York, Russia and China voted down a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a weeklong ceasefire that Lavrov dismissed as “a provocative step that undermines Russian-American efforts.” U.S. and Russian diplomats are expected to meet in Geneva this week to discuss a potential arrangement that would allow rebels to evacuate from remaining districts of the city, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested last Friday, but separate talks between Syrian rebels and Russian officials in Turkey have stalled.

 

U.S. Senate Renews Iran Sanctions, but Experts and Foreign Governments Urge Caution about Nuclear Deal

The U.S. Senate voted unanimously last week to reauthorize the Iran Sanctions Act, a 1996 law imposing a slate of sanctions against Iran. The act’s nuclear sanctions have been waived since the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in January, and the “measure does not affect the commitment the United States made as part of the nuclear accord to provide sanctions relief if Iran meets its obligations,” the New York Times reports. Iranian officials claimed that the reauthorization violated the agreement and said they would file a report with a committee overseeing its implementation.

Governments around the world and policymakers here in Washington, DC, are encouraging U.S. President-elect Donald Trump to maintain the JCPOA. Yesterday, officials in China, a party to the P5+1 talks that negotiated the deal, said they support its continuation. "Maintaining the deal's continued, comprehensive, and effective implementation is the responsibility and common interest of all parties, and should not be impacted by changes in the internal situation of each country,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters at a press conference. The deal’s European parties have also been outspoken in their support for the agreement. Veteran Saudi diplomat Prince Turki al-Faisal also said he hopes the incoming administration will be circumspect about the deal. “To scrap that willy-nilly as it were will have ramifications, and I don't know if something else can be put in its place to guarantee that Iran will not go that route if the agreement is scrapped,” he said last month at an event at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Outgoing CIA Director John Brennan also encouraged the Trump administration to maintain the agreement in an interview with the BBC, saying that to “tear it up” would be “disastrous” and “the height of folly.” As Politico’s Nahal Toosi reported last month, even many of the deal’s critics have argued that it should be maintained and that moving quickly to dismantle the JCPOA would diminish U.S. leverage on Iran. "You don’t want all the blame for the deal falling apart to land on the U.S.," David Ibsen, president of United Against Nuclear Iran, a group that advocated for months against the agreement, told Toosi.

 

Islamic State Preparing Plan for Fall of Mosul and Raqqa

With Mosul slipping away in a grinding Iraqi offensive and Turkish and Syrian rebel forces closing in on Raqqa, the Islamic State is bolstering its defenses in Deir Ezzor as a fallback position. Sources with ties to the Islamic State told the Wall Street Journal that members of the group are being bussed from Mosul and Raqqa to the city, which lies about 80 miles southeast of Raqqa. The influx of Islamic State personnel has displaced local residents who have been living under occupation by the terrorist group.

The city remains an active front, contested by the Islamic State and Assad regime forces, but it is essential to maintaining the group’s economic interests, particularly its extortion of farmers in southeast Syria and oil smuggling operations. “The red line is where the oil and the resources exist, it will be protected as much as possible. It’s not important where Islamic State is located—we proved that we can come back anywhere, anytime,” an Islamic State commander told the Journal via Skype. “But places like Deir Ezzor are irreplaceable.”

The Islamic State will have months before its hold of the area is seriously challenged. After six weeks of a grueling offensive in Mosul, Iraqi forces now control much of the city east of the Tigris River, but face challenges trying to press their gains farther west. Nearly 2,000 Iraqi forces were killed in the battle last month, as were 926 civilians, according to figures released last week by the United Nations. The battle is even further removed from Raqqa, where both Kurdish and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are advancing toward the city but remain miles away and are as likely to clash with each other as with the Islamic State.