Middle East update: May 16-17 2017


We’re going to start with a story about Turkey that didn’t happen in Turkey, or anywhere near Turkey. Rather, it happened in Washington, DC, on Tuesday:

Supporters and opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey engaged in a violent confrontation outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington on Tuesday night. Nine people were injured and taken to a hospital, the District of Columbia’s fire and emergency medical services said.

Photos and videos on social media showed people kicking and punching as the police tried to intervene. At one point, a man threw a bullhorn, two men could be seen bleeding from the head, and another man was on the ground being violently kicked.

The fighting poured into a park across the street as uniformed police officers, some in helmets and swinging collapsible batons, tried to restore order. Men in dark suits could be seen in the videos, punching and kicking protesters. The Anadolu Agency, a state-owned Turkish news service, reported that members of the president’s security team were involved in the fighting.

Voice of America’s Turkish station tweeted video of the altercation–fair warning, some of this is pretty violent:

My Turkish wasn’t very good six years ago when I was actually studying the language, but that tweet says, more or less, “Erdoğan’s guards got into a fight.” Which seems like a bit of an understatement.

Readers with good memories will recall that this is, amazingly, the second time Erdoğan has come to DC and turned his bodyguards loose on protesters–a similar scene played out during his visit a little over a year ago to attend a nuclear security summit. In fact, the similarities go beyond the mere fact that his guards beat up some protesters in Washington–both scenarios also involved esteemed American think tanks rolling out the red carpet for Erdoğan, a man who really wouldn’t deserve it even if he didn’t bring his goon squad with him. Last year it was Brookings playing the role of Erdoğan Respecter, this time it was the Atlantic Council, which co-hosted an event for the Turkish president at the ambassador’s residence. Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman, who was one of the journalists harassed by Sultan Recep’s Janissaries during last year’s kerfuffle, writes that the AC’s decision to host Erdoğan, despite having already seen what can happen when he’s in Washington, may have had some basic, bottom-line motives, if you catch my drift.

Erdoğan’s main reason for being in DC was, of course, his big meeting with President Trump. It was, at least by outward appearances, a bust. Overwhelmed by the news of Trump’s latest fuck-up (more on that later) and confronted with a fait accompli even given Trump’s habit of changing his mind every couple of hours, the best Erdoğan could do was to be performatively mad about the US-YPG relationship in Syria and mouth some bromides about the US-Turkey relationship. He didn’t even get any assurances about a potential Fetullah Gülen extradition, which is surprising to me given that, well, he was talking to Trump. Granted, Trump actually can’t promise anything on the extradition because it has to go through proper judicial channels first, but there’s no way Trump himself actually knows that. Accordingly, Erdoğan seems to have modulated his demands from Washington and is now looking for American support for a Turkish invasion of Iraq to clear the PKK out from Sinjar. I can’t imagine he’ll get that given how badly it would unbalance the precarious situation in northern Iraq, but I guess we’ll see.

In Turkey, meanwhile, Erdoğan continues to display his deep commitment to civil liberties and a free press, most recently via his government’s imprisonment of Cumhuriyet editor Oğuz Güven. Ankara’s justification for locking up yet another opposition journalist is that it didn’t like the way his newspaper worded a tweet about the death of a prosecutor last week. That’s some actionable shit right there. Hopefully Erdoğan didn’t share with Trump any tips about dealing with the press. Also, if you were waiting for German-Turkish relations to improve, you can keep waiting. The Germans are currently looking for a new base of operations for their anti-ISIS coalition forces–Jordan and Cyprus seem to be the main contenders–because Ankara is refusing to allow German politicians into the country to visit the 250 support soldiers it currently has stationed at the Incirlik air base.


The Pentagon is denying that the US-led coalition carried out the airstrikes that reportedly killed 42 people in the eastern Syrian town of Albukamal on Monday. It insists that the closest the coalition came to the town on Monday was a strike on an oil facility some 50 kilometers away, and says that “other unnamed countries” were active in that area at the time when the strikes took place. This is…not terribly persuasive, is it? “I didn’t do it” is a ten year old’s idea of a counterargument.

The Treasury Department on Tuesday slapped new sanctions on five individuals and five “entities” with close ties to Bashar al-Assad. Any US assets they have will be frozen and they will be legally barred from doing business with Americans or American companies. Damascus, meanwhile, has denied US accusations that it’s set up a crematorium at Saydnaya Prison in an effort to hide the political executions it’s allegedly carrying out there. Also, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced on Tuesday that it has found evidence of mustard gas use in Aleppo province in September 2016. The OPCW report simply ascertains whether chemical weapons were used, not who used them, though they may conduct a follow-up investigation to try to determine that.


In its latest in a long string of atrocities, ISIS is reportedly planting mines outside the front doors of residential buildings in the areas of Mosul it still controls, an effort to prevent civilians from trying to flee the war zone. ISIS wants to keep as many civilians in place as possible to use as human shields. If this sounds like the kind of thing you might do as a last-ditch sort of tactic, well, it probably is. Iraqi forces are saying that ISIS has been reduced to all of 12 square kilometers in western Mosul, which suggests they’re in endgame territory even given the Iraqis’ penchant for exaggerating their successes. Which is something the Iraqis have been doing regularly, as Patrick Wing explains:

In May, Al Monitor talked with former government adviser and Iraqi security analyst Hisham al-Hashimi who was very critical of Baghdad’s announcements about the war against the Islamic State. Hashimi told Al Monitor that the daily releases by the ISF were nothing but propaganda that always exaggerated its success like the number of IS fighters killed. The Joint Operations Command provided another example when it claimed that 16,667 insurgents were killed during the Mosul operations. That was more than two-four times higher than any estimate given for the number of fighters in Mosul before the operation started in October 2016. Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy had 2,000-3,000 IS fighters, while Peter Bergan of CNN had the number at 4,500-7,500 when the campaign began. In January 2017, the ISF in Ninewa told the press there were 3,300 fighters left with the Defense Ministry saying there were originally around 6,000. In that month, the Ministry also claimed approximately 3,400 IS members had been killed so far. While these figures are all on Mosul and not Ninewa overall, there were not many IS fighters outside of the city. Ninewa is mostly wide open territory, which the militants did not defend because they would be exposed to air strikes. The Iraqis themselves were talking about roughly 3,000 IS fighters killed by January. Somehow that exploded to 16,000+ four months later. That was not the only problem.

The same Joint Operation Command release had 679 car bombs destroyed in the Mosul battle. At the start of the campaign it was said that the insurgents were launching dozens of vehicle bombs per day. By January both the U.S. and Iraqis said this was happening far less frequently. That didn’t stop the ISF from constantly reporting large numbers of car bombs being destroyed each day. From October 2016 to January 2017 the Iraqi forces claimed 949 car bombs were blown up. From February to April when those types of attacks went down, the Iraqis still reported 762 destroyed for a total of 1,711. The Joint Operations Command figure might be a more realistic one, but because the Iraqis exaggerate so much it’s impossible to tell. This is just another example of how the Iraqis have lost credibility when speaking on these issues.

The Iraqis want to have this offensive wrapped up by Ramadan, which is a nice symbolic end point, but the real deadline is the onset of summer, which is going to be brutal for people stuck in displaced persons camps.

To the west, the Popular Mobilization Units are continuing their push to secure the border between Syria and Ninewah province, but they may be about to pick a fight with Iraqi Kurds in the process. Earlier this week the PMU forces reportedly entered the Yazidi area of Sinjar, which is supposed to be off limits to them according to Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, who says he made an agreement with Baghdad to that effect. Baghdad’s ability to control the PMUs has never been absolute, so it may have overpromised here and hoped for the best. The situation around Sinjar is already a mess, with Barzani’s forces trying to dislodge the PKK and Turkey maybe planning its own intervention to do the same, so this PMU incursion is coming at a particularly bad time.

The PMUs also may have gotten sloppy because they’re racing to get to the border before the US fully secures the Syrian side. While the Kurds have been trying to build a “corridor” across northern Syria to the Mediterranean, Iran is reportedly trying to do something similar via Iraq and Syria. The PMUs securing the border area is believed to be one of the keys to this plan. Tehran has already shifted the route of the planned corridor once because of the US presence in northeastern Syria, and if it doesn’t work quickly it may not be able to carve out a route at all. In related news, some PMU commanders are already making noise about attacking US forces that remain in Iraq once the Mosul operation is over. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is working with Washington on a new Status of Forces Agreement that would allow for a long-term American military presence, which unsurprisingly doesn’t sit well with the PMUs–or with Iran. But given that ISIS is still going to be a threat even after it loses Mosul, Abadi’s desire to keep some American troops at his disposal is understandable.


King Abdullah appears to have been censored by his own newspapers last month over a remark he made to the effect that “96 percent” of a group of ISIS operatives who were captured or killed in Jordan last year were of Palestinian origin. Palestinians may make up as much as 60 percent of the Jordanian population, and despite Abdullah’s own public efforts to try to erase the societal distinctions between them and Jordanians, there is still a big divide between the two groups that would be exacerbated by a comment, from the king no less, suggesting that Palestinians were prone to joining ISIS for some reason. If Jordan’s Palestinians are prone to joining ISIS, and there’s no evidence to suggest they are apart from the king’s anecdote, then it’s probably because Jordanian youth in general are frustrated with their authoritarian government, and Palestinian youth in particular are even more disenfranchised than Jordanian youth. ISIS has never really adopted the Palestinian cause as its own, which you can see reflected in the fact that it’s never developed a serious foothold within Gaza or the West Bank, so it’s not clear why Palestinians in Jordan would be especially drawn to it.

Speaking of that authoritarian government, Temple University’s Sean Yom has an interesting piece at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog arguing that the Jordanian and Moroccan monarchies have dropped their decades-long pretense of democracy and reform and are now embracing the authoritarianism that was always there under the surface:

Yet recently, the Moroccan and Jordanian monarchies have adopted a remarkable new strategy: They are no longer hiding their absolutism. For decades, these regimes paraded around halfhearted political reforms whose democratic rhetoric obscured the fundamental reality of royal autocracy. Seldom mentioned or insinuated were the facts that kings wielded vast executive powers, commanded large military and security forces, and could squash opposition through legal and financial means.

Now, Morocco and Jordan have toned down reformism and presented a new bottom line to their societies and the world: Ruling monarchism is here to stay. It may be anachronistic, but is still the best bet for stable, functional governments.


The Pentagon announced on Tuesday that it’s signed a new defense accord with the UAE that will almost certainly see an increase in US military personnel and assets deployed to that Gulf state. It’s all about containing Iran, you see, by defensively* encircling it with US military bases.


Donald Trump will be visiting Riyadh on Saturday, where he’s expected to stress the renewed closeness of the US-Saudi relationship and his administration’s hostility toward Iran. Among other things, Trump is expected to push for the creation of an “Arab NATO” that would tackle counter-terrorism but really would just oppose Iran. This dovetails nicely with the Saudis’ “Islamic Military Alliance” plan, which also uses counter-terrorism as a fig leaf for what is really an anti-Iran enterprise. The IMA isn’t just an Arab enterprise (its commander is Pakistani, for one thing), but an “Arab NATO” could be a component of it, I guess–though it’s going to be fascinating to see whether Arab countries that have cordial or better diplomatic relations with Iran, like Iraq, Lebanon, and someday Syria, are invited to join the Arab NATO. Iraq has not been invited to join the IMA (neither has Syria, but that’s more understandable). Trump is also planning to deliver a Big Speech on Islam, which is a recipe for disaster on multiple levels, not least of which because it’s reportedly being written by Muslim Ban advocate Stephen Miller.

In addition to meeting with King Salman and other Saudi royals, Trump will meet with leaders from all six GCC states and have lunch with leaders from around 50 predominantly Muslim countries. One of the leaders expected to attend this lunch is Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, who has the distinction of being the only head of state currently under indictment at the International Criminal Court, over the Darfur Genocide. It’s understandable why the Saudis invited him–Sudan is part of their anti-Iran front–but it will be fascinating to see if they try to arrange some direct interaction between Bashir and Trump, and how Trump will react if they do. His visit will also coincide with ongoing clashes between Saudi security forces and Shiʿa militants in the eastern town of Awamiyah, but that’s exceedingly unlikely to pop up on Trump’s radar.


Big news: the Iran deal marches on. Mostly:

The Trump administration has decided not to torpedo the historic nuclear deal with Iran and is renewing key waivers that allow foreign companies to do business with the Islamic Republic, two administration officials tell BuzzFeed News. At the same time, the Treasury Department is set to sanction seven targets, including two Iranian defense officials, for activities related to missile development, the officials said.

The State Department will also issue a report that condemns Iran for human rights violations, a move that comes two days before Iran’s presidential elections.

The actions, set to take place on Wednesday, represent a significantly more aggressive approach to Iran than under the Obama administration but stop short of an all-out abandonment of the 2015 nuclear deal signed by Iran and world powers including the US and Russia.

Don’t buy that “significantly more aggressive” crap in the third paragraph. Though Republicans have succeeded in making it Conventional Wisdom that Barack Obama hugged and kissed a giant pillow of Supreme Leader Khamenei every night before he went to bed, there’s really nothing here that the Obama administration wasn’t doing.

This is kind of a mixed bag for Hassan Rouhani, obviously, with Friday’s election looming. He can claim a win in that the waivers have been renewed, but the new sanctions, despite being pretty specifically targeted, will be portrayed by his opponents as a sign of American duplicity and he’ll be criticized for trusting the US. On the other hand, he can rightly argue that these new sanctions wouldn’t have been put in place if the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hadn’t been so provocative with its missile testing, which is a point he’s hit a couple of times during the campaign. Rouhani warned the IRGC today to stay out of Friday’s vote, an oblique reference to the belief that they helped manipulate the vote in 2009 to ensure Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s reelection.

Rouhani picked up a few endorsements over the past couple of days. As expected, his reformist vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, withdrew from the race and endorsed his boss. That endorsement probably means more now, after Jahangiri made a bit of a name for himself during the debates, than it would have previously, but the hope is he’ll be able to convince disillusioned reform voters to come out and vote. In addition, Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, endorsed Rouhani on Tuesday, as did conservative politician Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, who interestingly is one of Khamenei’s advisers. The Khomeini endorsement should help–he’s a prominent figure who is respected by reformers because he claims to be one and respected by other Iranian voters because of his grandfather–and Nateq-Nouri might help pull some moderate conservatives toward Rouhani. His endorsement may also signal that Khamenei would be OK with a Rouhani win on Friday, but if that were really the case then Khamenei probably wouldn’t still be obliquely criticizing Rouhani so much. It’s clear the Supreme Leader would like to see Ebrahim Raisi win, but it remains to be seen if he’s willing to fudge the election outcome in order to make that happen.

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