Another month, another series of major developments in Middle East politics. In case you missed last month's recap post, we are kicking off each new month with a look back at the major developments (and the occasional odd news story) from the previous month. June was (unsurprisingly) a busy month in the fight against ISIS. But we also encountered a potentially destabilizing (and woefully under-reported) development in the small island kingdom of Bahrain. So what do these changes mean for the future of the region?
1) Fallujah Liberated
Arguably the biggest breakthrough in June was the successful liberation of the Iraqi city of Fallujah from ISIS forces. This battle, which began back in May, sought to retake control of the strategically important city of Fallujah, in the heart of Iraq's Sunni Anbar province. In just five weeks, nearly all ISIS fighters had been driven out (and many of those fleeing were blown up in a convoy a few days later). Fallujah was one of the first major cities to fall to ISIS and has long been regarded as a Sunni stronghold, so the victory is yet another ideological setback for ISIS as its so-called "caliphate" continues to shrink. As has been demonstrated several times now, the Iraqi army is increasingly becoming more successful at integrating a variety of religious sects to fight with or alongside them (with air support and intelligence advising from the United States too). Fallujah was another example that the current strategy appears to be paying off (albeit slowly).
What's next for Iraq? Probably the most difficult job of all: the liberation of Mosul from ISIS. It is one of last major cities in Iraq still controlled by ISIS (and is the second largest in the country). Mosul is also the administrative capital of ISIS in Iraq and close to some very helpful oil fields. It is difficult to say for sure when this assault would take place. It is still relatively early in the fighting season (even with modern technology it doesn't always make sense to invade something in the middle of winter) so it's possible we could see this occur even before the end of the year. Both Obama and Iraqi president Abadi have said they want to complete this by the end of year. But Mosul will be a massive undertaking. Just like Fallujah, the city will likely be lined with traps and bombs designed to slow and harass an invading force. But if the terrible bombings which occurred this week in Iraq are any indication, the final assault better come sooner rather than later.
2) Turkey Forced To Act
Though for every success against ISIS, there seems to be a setback. This was certainly the case in Turkey last month when a group of gunmen/suicide bombers attacked Turkey's main international airport in Istanbul. The attack killed 44 in total, and demonstrated how vulnerable Turkey has become to ISIS attacks (not to mention attacks from Kurdish separatist groups). Up until now, the Turkish government has mostly been focused on its fight with the Kurds (who are so far proving one of the most capable forces fighting against ISIS in Syria and parts of Iraq). Turkey clearly didn't view ISIS as an existential threat like they do with the Kurds, but now this thinking may have to change.
It's no secret that Turkish president Erdogan has been pushing for more authoritarian rule in Turkey throughout his presidency. This attack against a high-profile (and tourist driven) target weakens his image and increases the possibility of internal disaffection with his policies. Already, Erdogan has (ironically) criticized other nations for not doing enough to fight terrorism, so it looks increasingly likely that Turkey will be forced to play a larger role in the conflict against ISIS. Of course, Erdogan could also use this attack as a means of suppressing dissent within his own country rather than taking the fight across the border. Either way, Turkey is quickly realizing that the status quo is no longer viable against an increasingly desperate ISIS force abroad.
3) Tensions Rise in Bahrain
But ISIS isn't the only thing causing political upheaval in the Middle East. In the tiny island nation of Bahrain, a prominent opposition leader named Sheikh Ali Salman was arrested last month. Bahrain is a Shia majority nation with a Sunni dominated royal family located only a couple dozen miles from mainland Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has long suspected its regional adversary Iran of playing up these tensions with the hope of one day turning Bahrain into an allied Shia nation. To be fair, these fears are not entirely unfounded. Naturally, the imprisonment of Ali Salman has raised these fears (and some conspiracy theories) all over again.
So what might come of this development? For now, Salman's al-Wefaq party is still legally recognized within Bahrain. Most people are still hesitant to begin outright protests given that the memories of Bahrain's brutal Arab Spring crackdown are still fresh. It is more likely that this will become consumed by the larger dynamics of the quickly worsening Iranian-Saudi Arabian relationship. As noted in previous posts, tensions have increased greatly between the two countries over disputes regarding ISIS, Iraq, and Yemen. So it only makes sense that Bahrain would be pulled into this power struggle as well. Slow reform of the political system to include more Shia input would probably help alleviate tensions, but could also open Bahrain up to Iranian influence. Perhaps Bahrain could take a page from the Saudi Arabia handbook of protests and provide massive public works and spending programs in exchange for limited political freedom. Either way, Bahrain's current political atmosphere is just waiting for another spark to light to fire.