Middle East conflict update: March 30-31 2017

If you’re looking for bad news from the rest of the world, you’ll find it here.


Mosul through March 30 (Wikimedia | Kami888)

The main progress in Mosul continues to be to the west of the Old City, where Iraqi counter-terrorism forces are pushing north in an effort to eventually surround the Old City and attack it from two sides. War Is Boring posted an eyewitness account from a reporter who was embedded with Iraqi federal policy, whose job right now is to hold ISIS’s attention while the counter-terrorism units complete their maneuver around the Old City. Unsurprisingly, it’s fear of even greater civilian casualties that has the Iraqis treading cautiously–an excessively violent campaign threatens to upend any hope of desperately-needed national reconciliation after Mosul has been liberated. As it is, as this first-hand Foreign Policy piece shows, the campaign has been plenty violent anyway. Speaking of, the Pentagon and the Iraqi military are strongly pushing the argument that ISIS has been sneaking civilians into buildings and then trying to bait the US-led coalition, unaware that there are civilians inside, to strike those buildings. This is what they’re saying happened in the case of the Jadidah bombing on March 17.

Niqash published a piece a couple of days ago about the civilian death toll in Mosul and why it’s been so high. Part of the reason is obviously because Mosul is a very large city whose civilians were told by Iraqi authorities (who were worried about coping with large numbers of displaced people, which they’re having to do anyway) to shelter in place rather than try to flee the fighting. But another factor is that here, unlike in previous urban campaigns like Ramadi and Fallujah, the Iraqis haven’t given ISIS a way out of the city. A surrounded enemy can be expected to resist harder than one that has a way to escape when the odds are not in its favor, and in this case ISIS’s continued resistance has added to the civilian body count. It seems quite likely that the Iraqis could have left ISIS an escape route and then killed all or most of the fighters who escaped later, in some much less populated area.


Another round of Geneva peace talks is in the books, and, folks, I think we really made some progress this time around:

Opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri said the “terrorist regime” of President Bashar al-Assad had refused to discuss political transition during the talks and said Assad was a war criminal who must step down in the name of peace.

“They are solely discussing their empty rhetoric about countering terrorism,” Hariri told reporters, vowing there could be “no peace without justice.”

“War crimes and crimes against humanity must not be an option for negotiations. From now, venues must be found for transitional justice to ensure holding the perpetrators accountable,” he said.

Hariri said he was looking for a negotiating partner who put the interests of the Syrian people first, while his opposite number, the government’s chief negotiator, Bashar al Ja’afari, said he only wanted to negotiate with someone “patriotic”.

Ja’afari mocked the opposition delegation as “adolescents” who thought they were appearing on a television talent show such as “Arab Idol” or “The Voice”, and were under the illusion that government would simply hand over the keys to the country.

“In fact they are tools, they are mercenaries in the hands of their lords, their operators, and it seems they have not received instructions from them, except instructions to continue supporting terrorism and to create havoc in these rounds.”

Oh, wait, my bad, that’s what the Syrians themselves said after the talks ended. Jeez, those are some lame insults. Anyway, here’s what UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said:

Representatives of Syria’s warring sides went into considerable detail on the substance of the agreed agenda during a round of Syria talks that ended on Friday, and are keen to return for another round, U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura said.

“I believe I can speak on behalf of all who participate that we must maintain this incremental progress on the political process, even if only incremental,” he told reporters.

“I cannot deny that there are serious challenges and I am not seeing this immediately developing into a peace agreement, no doubt about that.”

In diplomatic parlance, this is called “Declare Victory and Get the Hell Out,” which increasingly seems like the principle upon which all international affairs are being conducted–if you’ve noticed me using that phrase more frequently lately, that’s why. De Mistura, who is reportedly ready to retire–and who could blame him, I’m ready to retire and I only read and write about this shit–obviously would like to go out on a high note, and if he can’t get one, he’s going to do his best to spin one.

Most of the heavy fighting the past couple of days has been centered on the area north of Hama, where Syrian government forces–when they’re not bombing hospitals and maybe using chemical weapons–have been recapturing a series of villages that the rebels took over the past couple of weeks. Meanwhile, in southern Syria, Free Syrian Army forces have been swooping in to take over territory near Damascus and along the Jordanian border that has been vacated by ISIS. ISIS is presumably retrenching and consolidating its forces around Deir Ezzor and Raqqa in anticipation of the eventual attack on the latter (which, once successful, will likely be followed up by a move against the former).

The UNHCR said yesterday that the number of Syrian refugees has now passed five million, with another six-plus million displaced inside the country. That figure may not include the estimated 1.2 million Syrians trying to get asylum in Europe. Turkey is housing three million refugees, the Jordanian government says it has 1.3 million though the UN puts the number at half of that, and Lebanon, a country of maybe 4.5 million people, is trying to cope with a million or more refugees in what is more and more looking like a losing battle. If we magnanimous Westerners aren’t going to take in any more refugees–and, to be clear, we’re not–then we need to make with the financial support–except, oh yeah, we’re definitely not doing that either.

Say, what we are doing in Syria these days anyway? Getting the fuck out of it? HA HA HA man I crack myself up sometimes. I know we’re maybe about to blow up the Tabqa Dam, but that’s on the anti-ISIS end of things, and right now I’m wondering what we’re Doing with respect to the civil war. I’m sorry, Ambassador Haley?

“You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a small group of reporters.

“Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” she said. “What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.”

Ah, “we are going to focus on putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.” I have no idea what the hell that means, but I assume the Trump administration does, right?


Rex Tillerson headed to Turkey yesterday to shower praise on the Turkish government in an effort to try to improve the US-Turkey relationship. In return, he was treated to a laundry list of grievances from his counterpart, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. During a joint press conference, Çavuşoğlu demanded that the US stop supporting the Kurds in Syria, demanded the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, called the recent arrest of the Turkish banker in New York “political,” and called Tillerson a liar over the case of Adil Öksüz. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

(Who the hell is Adil Öksüz, you ask? I don’t know very much, but he’s apparently an academic who was arrested and charged with being one of the masterminds of last summer’s coup attempt, and a top operative for Gülen. A report in Turkish media this week said that he’d received a phone call from somebody in the US consulate in Istanbul a few days after the coup, and in conspiracy-mad Turkey that’s more than enough to determine that the US must have been involved in the plot. The official explanation from Washington is that the call was to inform Öksüz that his request for a US visa was being revoked, and that’s what Tillerson said yesterday when Çavuşoğlu suggested he wasn’t buying it.)

Polling around next month’s constitutional referendum continues to be all over the place, but one thing that seems to be constant in every poll, whether “yes” is leading or not, is that the “yes” vote total is going to fall short of the 60 percent target that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to hit in order to claim a broad mandate from the Turkish people. That won’t stop him from assuming all his new powers if “yes” wins, but it will probably make him mad–or madder, he seems to be mad pretty much all the time nowadays.


This week in “two plus two equals five,” the Israeli government authorized the construction of its first brand new West Bank settlement in 20 years, announced guidelines for virtually unlimited settlement construction within or near existing boundaries, and then tried to claim it was restraining settlement growth as a favor to Donald Trump. You can’t make this stuff up. The new construction guidelines specify that construction should take place within existing boundaries unless that’s not “feasible.” You know what would actually be feasible? Not building any new settlements, at all, and demolishing the ones that are already there. That would also be legal, and just, and humane, none of which qualities apply to these new construction guidelines. The Trump administration naturally had nothing really to say about any of this, but plenty of international groups lambasted the Israeli moves.

Amid this report on the growing under-the-radar ties between Israel and the UAE, I learned this interesting thing about ex-Fatah bigshot Mohammed Dahlan:

These secret ties with Israel are believed to be cultivated with the help of Mohammed Dahlan, a former strongman of the Palestinian Authority living in exile in the UAE since 2011, currently acting as security adviser of the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Dahlan is a shady figure in Palestinian politics accused by many of financial corruption and collaboration with Israel. Given that Avigdor Lieberman prefers Dahlan as successor to Mahmoud Abbas, it seems quite likely that Dahlan is indeed the primary connection between the UAE and Israel.

Dahlan fell out of favor in Fatah after Hamas took control over Gaza during Dahlan’s time as Fatah’s leader there. Accusations by others in Fatah leadership that Dahlan is on the Israeli payroll have been seen as part and parcel of something akin to a smear campaign, but if Dahlan is actually involved here then it suggests that maybe he has been working on Israel’s behalf. It also explains rumors that the UAE has been trying to arrange it so that that Dahlan succeeds Mahmoud Abbas as Fatah leader.


A bipartisan group of four congressmen wrote a letter to the Trump administration insisting that it get congressional approval before taking any decision to escalate US involvement in Yemen. That’s not going to happen, but I wanted to highlight Foreign Policy Savant John McCain’s comment in the above-linked article:

“I think it has significantly to do with al-Qaeda, and I believe we cannot allow Iran to dominate that country,” Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., told Al-Monitor. “I think it’s a direct threat to the United States’ national security and would help the rise of al-Qaeda and other extremist elements. I don’t have a problem with that.”

We can’t allow Iran to dominate Yemen, which it’s never shown any interest in doing, because it would help the rise of al-Qaeda. OK. The Houthis, part of the Yemeni rebel faction that Iran is backing, have been fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for at least the past three years, whereas it’s an incontrovertible fact that AQAP has thrived as a result of the Saudi campaign to dislodge the rebels, the one McCain is happy to expand, began in 2015. As ever, John McCain is losing track of all the things he’d like to bomb.

Humanitarian organizations are urging the Saudi-led coalition not to attack Hudaydah. Which is funny, because the Saudis have been arguing that they need to capture Hudaydah for humanitarian reasons, since it’s the only Yemeni port capable of handling aid traffic and the rebels are allegedly preventing that aid from getting to the Yemeni people. They seem to think that getting humanitarian aid through a brand new active front in the war will actually be harder than getting it through a rebel-controlled Hudaydah. Sounds like hippie talk to me. Anyway it seems likely that the Saudis will attack Hudaydah anyway because it makes good tactical sense, but remember this when they try to pretend they care about protecting Yemeni civilians.


The Trump administration has decided to go ahead with the sale of 19 F-16s to Bahrain, a sale that the Obama administration had put on hold due to the fairly high probability that those planes will someday be used to strafe a crowd of peaceful Bahraini protesters. We’re not even pretending to care about human rights anymore.


Speaking of not giving a shit about human rights, President Trump is hosting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi next week for talks that both sides hope will lead to closer ties between the two right-wing kleptocrats. US-Egypt relations were strained–but not that strained–under the Obama administration, which for some reason was concerned about Sisi’s tendency to have his police massacre any large gatherings of protesters. Which there may be more of in the future, thanks to Sisi’s policy of impoverishing lower-class Egyptians in order to funnel more wealth toward top officers in the Egyptian military (or, in Sisi’s case, his base). Cairo has been using the austere terms of an IMF loan to justify policies that amount to mass redistribution up the economic ladder.


Al-Monitor’s Arash Karami has written a new profile of Principlist Iranian cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who still seems to be hedging his bets as far as possibly running for president in May’s election. I would excerpt a bit of it here, but frankly this post is already too long so just trust me that it’s worth your time.

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