Middle East update: May 23 2017

Obviously the big news today is the aftermath of last night’s terrorist attack in Manchester. I’m trying to break these updates up into more manageable chunks, so you’ll find coverage of that story in another update.


The latest map from Iraq’s Ninewa Media Center suggests that the Mosul endgame is really upon us:

via Twitter

Green represents liberated areas and dark green represents recently liberated areas. That red slivers represent territory still being contested, while the white and gray area there is what’s still under ISIS’s control (the gray area is the Old City). Jan Kubis, the United Nations envoy for Iraq, says the liberation of the city is “imminent,” and Iraqi forces have built a new pontoon bridge across the Tigris to allow reinforcements to come in from eastern Mosul. The hardest fighting is likely still to come, but the operation does seem to be nearing its end.

It seems appropriate, then, to talk a little about what the post-ISIS future is going to look like. Western Mosul has been destroyed, to a far greater extent than eastern Mosul was. Rebuilding it is going to take years and cost billions, which Iraq doesn’t have. Ninewa province has been bisected by a Kurdish-built berm that the Kurdistan Regional Government clearly expects will mark the new boundaries of its territory when it makes its eventual bid for independence, but Baghdad will undoubtedly disagree with that assessment and the Iraqis whose property has literally been sawed in half by the line can also be expected to have something to say about it. And there’s still a KRG-Popular Mobilization Unit fight brewing around Sinjar, where the PMUs continue to take villages from ISIS despite the KRG’s demands that they get out of the area.


Two suicide bombings on Tuesday struck a neighborhood in Homs and a suburb of Damascus. Four people were reportedly killed in a bombing in the Zahra neighborhood of Homs, while a separate incident near Damascus airport and close to the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine resulted in the deaths of the two would-be bombers and possibly one other person. There’s been no claim of responsibility as far as I can tell, but certainly ISIS and al-Qaeda would be at the top of the list of potential suspects. More to the point, I think, is that this kind of thing is likely to become more frequent as the civil war transitions from a territorial struggle to an underground insurgency with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the “former” al-Qaeda affiliate, at its center.


US special forces conducted another raid on an al-Qaeda compound in Marib province early Tuesday, killing a reported seven al-Qaeda operatives and collecting intelligence. “Multiple” US troops were reportedly injured in the engagement, but apparently none seriously. There’s been no official word on civilian casualties, which I’m sure is intentional on the Pentagon’s part. However, the U.K.-based human rights organization Reprieve is reporting that at least five civilians were killed–it’s not clear if they’re in addition to the seven alleged AQAP fighters or if the Pentagon–for what I’m sure would be the very first time–misidentified some of the men its forces killed.


Ankara is rounding up yet another batch of suspects who may be connected to last summer’s coup–so far, they’ve detained 35 of some 144 new persons of interest. Reuters reports that “the suspects were thought to be using ByLock, an encrypted messaging app the government says was used by preacher Fethullah Gulen’s followers,” which definitely seems like substantial grounds for arresting somebody and not purely circumstantial. Anyway I guess Turkey will soon be 144 steps closer to its ultimate future, in which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the only person in the country who’s not in jail. God speed, Turkey!


Hey everybody, Donald Trump just got back from the Middle East:

Well, OK, he was technically still in the Middle East when he said that, but he was only like a day premature, because he actually has now left the Middle East for Italy. During his two days in Israel, Trump made approximately no progress toward his “ultimate deal,” an Israel-Palestine peace accord, but at least he doesn’t seem to have done anything to make the situation worse. You have to take your victories where you can. Trump has delegated the task of producing an Israel-Palestine accord to Prime Minister/Crown Prince Jared Kushner, but as Reuters says, if Kushner has any idea how to make that happen he’s not telling anybody about it. Which, to be fair, I would say was smart if I thought for one second that Kushner actually knew what he was doing. In this case, I suspect he’s not saying anything because he really doesn’t have anything to say.


Egyptian authorities have arrested lawyer and potential 2018 presidential candidate Khaled Ali for, and this is really it, “a complaint that he made an obscene finger gesture on the street outside a Cairo courtroom in January.” Yes, I’m sure that’s it. Ali was involved in the legal case that overturned President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s plan to sell return gift the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, so if his political aspirations weren’t quite enough to get him arrested, that certainly would have helped. Ali’s arrest is, in fact, merely the latest in a series of arrests of opposition politicians on charges like “misusing social media” and “insulting the president”–you know, the kind of criminal charges you see being applied in any healthy democracy.


Bahraini police on Tuesday killed one demonstrator when they raided an encampment in the northwestern village of Diraz belonging to followers of Ayatollah Isa Qassim, then killed five more and arrested nearly 300 during an extended clash in which 19 police officers were injured. Qassim is the top Shiʿa cleric in Bahrain and a leader of the opposition Wefaq party, and as such has been a constant target of government repression–he was, for example, stripped of his citizenship last year over vague charges of “extremism.” He’d recently been sentenced to a year in prison (suspended) on corruption charges, which inspired his followers to start a sit-in demonstration in Diraz.


More critical analysis of Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, this time from former CIA analyst Paul Pillar:

All this, especially the anti-Iran part, was music to the ears of the Saudi rulers.  But besides acting like a guest who is pleasing to the hosts, what else did this speech accomplish?  What else, that is, besides avoiding any new Trumpian disasters?  A major speech by a U.S. president to foreign audiences should do more than suck up to the rulers of whatever is the speech’s venue.  The ideal speech should deftly convey messages to the multiple audiences who will be listening, to address questions that are meaningful and important to each of the audiences in a way that indicates understanding of their problems, and to use persuasion to move those audiences in a direction conducive to U.S. interests and international peace and security and in which they would not otherwise have moved, or moved as much.  The most useful lines in Trump’s speech acknowledged that Muslims are the most numerous victims of terrorism, noted the need for religious leaders to counter extremist exploitation of their religions, and appealed for religious tolerance.  But by throwing himself so fully into the arms of the Saudi regime, it is hard to identify how the speech is likely to move the needle in a positive direction as far as the behavior of either that regime or other regimes is concerned.

The speech conveyed a very crude and simplistic explanation of terrorism and political violence in the Middle East.  As Trump describes it, terrorism is all just a matter of good versus evil.  And his exhortation to his audience of rulers was: “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists.  Drive them out. Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land. And drive them out of this earth.”  There was barely any hint of awareness about political, economic, and social conditions that have much to do with how much terrorism there will be in the years ahead and how many drivable terrorists there will be in the first place.  But it is in affecting those conditions that regimes such as the Saudi regime could do the most good.  They don’t need exhortations about “driving out”.  The Saudis used to have a policy of driving extremists out of the kingdom, which was just a way of sloughing the problem off on someone else and did nothing to solve the problem.


At the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Brown University’s Mohammad Ali Kadivar argues that reform-minded Iranian voters were able to force newly-reelected President Hassan Rouhani to campaign on a more explicitly reformist platform this time around than he’d campaigned on in 2013:

This move toward more radical reformist positions occurred in the context of the hard-liners’ attacks on Rouhani’s economic performance and perhaps his realization that he lacked the 50 percent of the vote required to win the election in the first round. By going on the offense and adopting reformist positions, Rouhani attempted to sway undecided, politically dissatisfied voters.

In Rouhani’s campaign speeches across the country, audiences often chanted pro-reform slogans and demanded the release of political prisoners — specifically, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard and Mehdi Karroubi, opposition leaders under house custody since 2011. The passionate, pro-democracy mood of these gatherings was similar to those in 2013, when reformists first aligned with Rouhani. These campaign events served to not only energize the base but also spread excitement throughout the electorate.

The pro-reform transformation of Rouhani’s discourse during the election could also signal how participating in these campaign meetings transforms the discourse of the candidates running for the office. Throughout their term, Iranian presidents usually attend public speeches and visit provinces, drawing large crowds. However, these gatherings are usually less political and emotional as the crowd is mostly there to greet the president and listen to his speech.

In election campaigns, however, the exchange between the candidate and the crowd is more interactive, with participants expressing their demands through slogans, pictures and symbols. With the institutionalization of semi-competitive elections in Iran, now election campaign gatherings are also becoming some of the few political public gatherings that happen in Iran at least every four years.

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