Counteroffensives

News reports today suggest that Iraqi forces are making progress in re-taking the Mosul Dam from Islamic State (IS) forces while Ukrainian forces are moving into the rebel-held town of Luhansk. Both are significant developments, if confirmed. The Gaza ceasefire ends at midnight, in just a few hours.

In Iraq, the press has put the emphasis on the risk of flooding should the Mosul Dam be breached.  IS was unlikely to indulge that fantasy while its forces held Mosul, which would suffer the most. The interesting thing about the operation to retake the Mosul Dam is the American involvement, justified on the basis of protecting critical infrastructure (and the US embassy in Baghdad).

That could cover a good deal more American engagement, which is likely to be successful so long as it has effective fighting forces on the ground to take and hold territory. So far I am detecting little domestic American opposition to attacking the IS, which represents a serious threat to US in interests both in the Middle East and at home. Another important development would be Sunni tribes rising against IS, which is being reported (but not yet in the US press).

In Ukraine, Kiev’s army appears to be making headway in the east, where rebels are reportedly in sometimes drunken disarray. That could bring more blatant Russian intervention, which has been surreptitiously growing over the last week. But Russian President Putin’s intentions remain foggy. He won’t want to see the insurgents routed, but he may be willing to cut a deal for more autonomy for the Donbas region. Crimea, which Russia has annexed, is already costing him a bundle, and pro-Russian sentiment in Donbas has proven much less vigorous than in Crimea. Some think Putin’s Novorossiya day dream is coming apart at the seams. The latest round of sanctions appears to have given Moscow pause.

The effort to negotiate a more permanent ceasefire in Gaza appears stalled, with Israel insisting on demilitarization of Hamas and Hamas insisting on ending the Israeli blockade. There is a deal to be had there: one that opens Gaza to trade but verifiably blocks weapons and materiel headed for weapons maufacture as well as tunnels and the like. European and Egyptian cooperation will be vital to making it feasible. The Palestinian Authority will need to be given a serious role in monitoring cross-border transfers. Other issues, like release of Palestinian prisoners re-arrested after the killing of three Israeli teens, apparently also remain unresolved.

Even in the absence of a deal by tonight’s midnight deadline, the Gaza war is unlikely to return to its previous intensity, as neither side at this point seems to think it can gain much from risking its main forces. Mutual counteroffensives–rocket barrages from Gaza and Israeli bombardment from sea and air–could however start up again. That will be most unwelcome to Gaza civilians, who face an astounding reconstruction challenge. Hamas is going to have a hard time maintaining its popularity once the fighting ends definitively. Something similar seems likely in Israel. Netanyahu, who gained politically during the war, will have a hard time explaining what was gained.

I can’t say peace is breaking out all over. But there are prospects in Iraq and Ukraine for setbacks to recent offensives. In Gaza, a decent outcome is possible, but only if Israel and Hamas eventually reach an agreement that goes far beyond their past ceasefires.

 

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