Middle East update: May 22 2017


You Really Couldn’t Make This Shit Up, Exhibit A:

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry lodged a formal protest Monday with the U.S. ambassador to Ankara over what it said were “lapses of security” during a violent confrontation between protesters and Turkish bodyguards during President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington earlier this month.

The summoning of the ambassador, John Bass, sharply escalated a diplomatic rift between Turkey and the United States after the brawl, which prompted outrage in the United States, as well as calls for the prosecution of the Turkish guards and even the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador to Washington.

To refresh your memory, the Turkish government is unhappy about this incident:

At least some of those guys in the dark suits, who are, among other things, kicking protesters who have already been knocked to the ground, are Turkish security. Ankara is angry because DC police didn’t break up the “unpermitted” protest, which is a natural complaint coming from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government. In Turkey those people would’ve been gassed about ten seconds after they assembled, and while America isn’t much–or any–better when it comes to how we treat protesters, repressing peaceful demonstrations is a bullshit authoritarian thing to do. Ankara is also upset that police, in an effort to get Turkish security personnel to stop kicking people who were lying on the ground, hit a few of those Turkish guards with their batons. Like I said, you couldn’t make this shit up.

This is how Erdoğan operates–tyrannical but constantly being victimized by oppressive forces all around him–and he had to come up with a reason to be pissed here lest he cede that ground entirely to the Americans and wreck his idiom.

A trial began today for 221 people suspected of involvement in last summer’s attempted coup. These are the alleged ringleaders of the operation, which, that must have been some ring. All but 12 of them are there to stand trial, but among the absent is the alleged Grand Mastermind, Fethullah Gülen, who is of course still in the US. His extradition continues to be a sore spot in US-Turkish relations, but unless and until his case gets through the US legal system, there’s really not much Turkey or the Trump administration can do about it.


United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura says that “all parties” have agreed to participate in “expert” talks on a new Syrian constitution, which–assuming he’s not putting a sunny face on this–means that last week’s round of talks in Geneva really did make some progress. He wants to hold another round of talks next month, presumably to hash out the details of these “expert” talks, but of course that’s the hard part. De Mistura also reported today that there’s good and bad news about the war itself:

He said there was additional “good news” in reports of “a significant drop in violence, including in aerial bombardment, in most areas” since a high-level meeting this month in Astana, Kazakhstan, of the three guarantors of the December cease-fire — Russia, Turkey and Iran.

But de Mistura also cited “not-so-good news” in reports of continuing hostilities and bombings involving the government and some opposition groups in areas, including Hama, Homs and Damascus, which appear to be outside the de-escalation zones established by the three guarantors.

This is pretty much what the de-escalation zones were designed to do, to allow an increase in fighting in the areas outside those zones, so his concerns are a bit hollow.


Here’s an interesting bit of news:

Considering the source, this may be more an effort to demoralize those “foot soldiers” than a reflection of an actual ISIS communique–most commanders who were planning to get out of Mosul have presumably already gotten out.

Iraqi forces are consolidating some recent gains along the west bank of the Tigris. If the maps being put out by Iraqi media are accurate or close to accurate, then ISIS is really down to its last few nubs of territory in the city, basically the Old City and a small pocket to the north. Iraq’s “Golden Division,” its elite US-trained counter-terrorism unit, says that its operations in Mosul have ended, but I have a hard time believing that. The Golden Division has been Iraq’s single most capable fighting unit, and it’s hard to imagine the Iraqis leaving the liberation of the Old City up to the federal police, who have been bogged down there for weeks and are now being accused of war crimes by German media:


I’m linking you to a Twitter thread about the Spiegel article because the article itself is in German and also, if my own very shitty German is right, is behind a paywall. Arkady was embedded with the federal police, which is the Interior Ministry’s force. This is the kind of situation that Baghdad was hoping to avoid when it ordered that the Shiʿa Popular Mobilization Units be kept out of Mosul in favor of units that were under the government’s direct control. However, the Iraqi Interior Ministry is largely controlled by the Badr Organization, a powerful Shiʿa Islamist network that was part of the anti-Saddam resistance and was then legitimized after the American invasion. They have an armed branch called the Badr Corps that is in the PMU, but Iraq’s Interior Minister, Qasim al-Araji, is a Badr member, and it looks like he’s failed–willfully or not–to rein in his ministry’s troops.

ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on Monday on a military training center in Diyala. Iraqi authorities say four Iraqi soldiers were killed but ISIS claimed the Iraqi casualties were in the “dozens.”


You Really Couldn’t Make This Shit Up, Exhibit B:

That’s President Trump today, in Israel, assuring reporters that he “never mentioned the word Israel” to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov a couple of weeks ago, when he allegedly revealed classified intelligence to Lavrov during a meeting in the Oval Office. Which is great…except nobody has accused him of that. The charge is that he gave Lavrov information that was specific enough to allow the Russians to figure out which country’s intelligence service provided it, not that he actually blurted out the name of the country. Which, of course, he may have done today, publicly, in that video up there. You can’t make this shit up.

If Trump did inadvertently let the cat out of the bag, he can blame his grueling schedule, which reportedly has him so “exhausted” that he had to cancel a planned appearance in Riyadh on Sunday. He’s exhausted. On day two of a nine-day trip. At least he was able to make it through his trip to the Western Wall without starting a new Crusade or something:


Trump is expected to meet with Palestinian leaders while he’s there, but I wouldn’t expect any breakthroughs in the peace process.


You Really Couldn’t Make This Shit Up, Exhibit C:

I realize that Wilbur Ross is a billionaire, so the last time he had to pay attention to the world around him was probably decades ago, but Jesus Christ. Is there anybody in this administration whose brain, such as it ever might have been, hasn’t melted away and dribbled out their nose? Also, isn’t it telling that Ross has such a pleasant impression of Saudi Arabia mostly because there were no protesters? These plutocrats sure do appreciate a country where they don’t allow the riff-raff to intrude on your good time.

If you’re looking for another analysis of Trump’s Riyadh speech yesterday, I recommend Thomas Lippman’s at LobeLog:

On the question of what tangible results Trump will bring home, the outcome is considerably less dramatic than indicated by the president’s glowing public statements on Sunday. It is, of course, too soon to know how the world’s Muslims will respond to Trump’s exhortations that they do more—in their own interest, and in accordance with their faith—to stamp out extremism. No doubt they will welcome his declaration that the United States “is eager to form closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce” with them as preferable to the anti-Muslim rhetoric of his campaign, but they will also want to see what actually happens, if anything. The president conspicuously did not say he would cancel his executive order seeking to halt travel and immigration from six Muslim countries.

On Monday, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said he expects the six month worldwide oil output cuts that were implemented by OPEC and major oil-producing non-OPEC states in January will be extended for another nine months, through March of next year. The cuts stabilized oil prices in the $50/barrel range, far short of where most oil-dependent countries need them to be but far better than the $30s/barrel range they were in before the cut. That level is probably where prices will stay, because prices much higher than $50/barrel will probably bring more US fracking production back online, which will then glut the market and lower prices in turn.


Fresh off his reelection victory, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani today tried to demonstrate that he’s not enthralled to the West by harshly criticizing President Trump’s Saudi speech and American policy toward Iran. He accused the Saudis of funding terrorism and argued that true regional stability is impossible without Iran’s participation, which sounds vaguely like a “nice Middle East you got here” kind of threat but is also an accurate statement of reality. He also pledged that Iran’s ballistic missile tests will continue, which is interesting because, during the campaign, he criticized the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for orchestrating missile tests in order to deliberately compromise his efforts to engage with the West diplomatically. His foreign ministry joined in, labeling Trump’s speech in Riyadh yesterday as “Iranophobic.” At the same time, Rouhani insists that he’s ready for more diplomacy to get non-nuclear sanctions against Iran lifted. Since many of those sanctions are based on Iran’s missile program, Rouhani seems to be contradicting himself here.

Farideh Farhi writes that preliminary indications about Friday’s vote may upend some conventional wisdom about the ways Iranians tend to vote:

At this point it is not possible to do an analysis of the composition of the vote. The Interior Ministry has yet to release detailed data about precincts or even provinces. Governors of various provinces have released information about the total number of votes for each candidate, but not all provinces have done so. Hence, any comments about urban-rural or middle class vs. poor neighborhood splits are not warranted. If anything, the general information about the provinces suggests that the kind of splits proposed in the press may not hold. For instance, many of the provinces with higher rural concentration tended toward Rouhani while the highly urban (and religious) province/city of Qom went to his opponent Ebrahim Raisi (55 percent). So have the three Khorasan provinces that have historically been dominated by the Imam Reza Shrine, for which Raisi is the custodian (Raisi has reportedly also won in Hamedan, Semnan, and Zanjan provinces). Furthermore, the spread in the other provinces is quite varied, with Rouhani scoring more than 65 percent in provinces such as Tehran, both East and West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, and Albroz, more than 70 percent in Kordestan and Sistan and Baluchistan, while achieving much closer margins in some other provinces.

Farhi argues that the biggest loser of this election, even more than Raisi, was probably Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf, who blew what may have been his last shot at being elected president and is now virtually certain to lose his current job as well. The Tehran city council chooses the city’s mayor, and with moderates sweeping the council election it’s hard to imagine they’ll want to keep the principlist Ghalibaf around. Overall, Iranian conservatives took a real hit in this election, failing to field a candidate who could seriously challenge Rouhani even though Rouhani was weak on the economy. Raisi’s decision to campaign to the hard-right turned Iranian voters off and allowed Rouhani to run against him as much as he was running on his own record.

Of course, anything can happen over the next four years. Rouhani’s reformist ice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, acquitted himself well in the campaign and may be an early frontrunner for 2021. But Rouhani is going to have to start to deliver on the expectations of the people who voted for him–both economically and in terms of social reforms–lest his whole moderate-reformist movement be discredited by then.

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