Middle East update: May 24 2017


Iraqi authorities are starting to climb down from their predictions that they would have Mosul fully liberated by the start of Ramadan, which is likely to be sundown on Friday. The assault on the Old City, ISIS’s main remaining stronghold, hasn’t even begun, and it would be a complete shock if the Iraqis were able to liberate that neighborhood in hours when their interior ministry forces have been stalemated there for weeks. The Iraqis are now talking in terms of two weeks before they’ll have the whole operation completed, which seems more realistic.

Speaking of those interior ministry troops, Baghdad is ordering an investigation into a recent report in the German media about abuses committed by those forces during the Mosul offensive. The Rapid Response Force, the unit in question, is denying the allegations and accuses the photojournalist who filed the report of fabricating pictures that appear to show them torturing prisoners.


The Syrian army is saying that it killed a very senior ISIS leader in fighting east of Aleppo earlier this month. Abu Musab al-Masri (presumably not his real name) is known to be either ISIS’s overall “minister of war” or at least its “minister of war” for Syria, so if he really was killed it comes at an opportune time right before major operations against Raqqa are set to begin. Of course, reports like this should always be treated as suspect, no matter where they come from, until some confirmation is available–generally when the organization itself admits that a leader was killed, that’s taken as a signal that they’re really dead.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that fighting in and around the southern city of Daraa has escalated, and that the government carried out a number of airstrikes and barrel bombings against rebel-held parts of the city on Wednesday. This is particularly notable inasmuch as Daraa is supposed to be one of the “safe zones” designated in that recent Russia-Turkey-Iran deescalation agreement. Promises that fighting would cease in those areas were pretty hollow–the Syrian government maintained the right to attack “terrorists,” which it defines pretty much on an ad hoc basis, anywhere, but it is also the case that the actual, logistical implementation of the “safe zones” plan is still likely weeks away.


Some 2000 new cholera cases are being reported in Yemen every day, leading doctors to investigate whether they may be looking at a second wave of the outbreak that started back in October, perhaps involving a more virulent strain of the disease that may have come into the country some time in the past month. Their findings aren’t likely to make any difference in terms of human suffering so long as the war keeps raging, so it’s definitely a good thing that Washington is rearming the Saudis to ensure they can keep fighting as long as possible.


On his way to this week’s big NATO summit, where he may find occasion to air some of his European grievances, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in Ankara that he believes the European Union is trying to prod Turkey to withdraw its bid for EU membership. Turkey and the EU are in a very strange place now, but it’s not entirely because of Erdoğan and recent events. The EU has really never wanted to admit Turkey, despite playing around with the idea for decades now in order to keep Turkey on friendly terms. They have even less interest in admitting Turkey now, but even more interest in trying to retain some semblance of leverage to keep Erdoğan on terms that are, if not friendly, at least not outright hostile (I know, they’re pretty close to that anyway). Erdoğan, meanwhile, doesn’t really seem like he wants Turkey to join the EU, but if he withdraws its membership bid he’ll lose the chance to have these occasional “two minutes’ hate” episodes where he rants to the Turkish people about how unfair the EU is treating them by refusing to admit them into the club. Neither side really benefits from being the one to end this charade, so it will likely continue indefinitely.


Palestinian protesters and anti-occupation activists clashed with Israeli police in Jerusalem’s Old City on Wednesday during a march by a group of right-wing Israelis to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Israel’s capture of the Old City during the 1967 Six Day War. The actual capture of the Old City took place on June 7 on the Gregorian calendar, but on the Hebrew calendar it took place on 28 Iyar, which this time around happens to coincide with today, May 24. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commemorated the day, known to Israelis as “Jerusalem Day,” with a speech to the Knesset in which he said that “the Temple Mount and Western Wall will remain forever under Israeli sovereignty.” He keeps telling everybody what he really thinks about making peace with the Palestinians, but nobody seems to want to actually listen.

Meanwhile, thanks to Donald Trump’s decision (?) to share classified Israeli intelligence with the Russians, Israel has apparently changed the way it will share intel with the US in the future. What that change entails hasn’t been made clear, and frankly I find myself struggling to care, but I do think this story continues to entertain at the very least.


The Egyptian government is planning to try Khaled Ali, the lawyer and possible presidential candidate who was arrested yesterday for allegedly making an “obscene gesture.” If convicted, he could face two years in prison, but more importantly he’d be barred from challenging Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in next year’s election. For a guy whose people supposedly love him, Sisi is going to some lengths to disqualify a whole bunch of relative unknowns just so he can clear the field next year.

Sisi today denied an accusation from Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir that Egypt has been aiding Sudanese rebels. This is a charge that Bashir makes from time to time, but on Tuesday he said in a speech that his forces had seized Egyptian armored vehicles from rebels in Darfur, adding a bit of specificity to his claims. Bashir’s foreign minister is heading to Cairo at the end of the month for talks on a host of problems between the two countries, including trade issues and the ongoing dispute (actually a fun artifact of early 20th century British administration over the region) over the Halayeb Triangle, an area in southeast Egypt, along the Red Sea coast, that Sudan claims as its territory.

Screen Shot 2017-05-24 at 2.51.45 PM
The disputed Halayeb Triangle, delimited by the dashed lines (Google Maps)

I should have mentioned this in yesterday’s update but had too much else on my mind. Yesterday, as I hope you read, the Bahraini government killed six protesters and arrested 286 more in Diraz, fallout over the recent sentencing of Shiʿa leader Isa Qassim on corruption charges. While I’m not sure you can draw a straight line from one thing to the other, I do think it’s worth noting that yesterday’s events happened only a couple of days after Trump told the Bahrainis that there won’t be “any strain” in their relationship with his administration, as there had been with the Obama administration. That might not have been a green light for the Bahrainis to go hog wild suppressing Shiʿa opposition, but at the very least it was a wink and a nudge in that direction.


At LobeLog, former CIA analyst Emile Nakhleh writes critically of Trump’s decision to go full Wahhabi over the weekend and embrace the Saudi/Sunni cause as his own. I think Nakhleh’s main point, that it makes no sense for the United States to get between Tehran and Riyadh, is the right one. His secondary point, that taking the Saudi side puts the United States in the position of supporting, militarily and otherwise, a whole mess of very repressive regimes that bear a lot of the responsibility for radicalizing Islamic extremists, is also a good one. But he goes a little off the rails here:

President Trump’s apparent alignment with Sunni autocrats has thrust him in the middle of the centuries-old Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. This is unwise and in the long-term harmful to American interests and presence in the Muslim world. The president seems clueless about the history of Islam and the different schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam. Nor is he aware of, or perhaps cares about, the fact that the most conservative and intolerant of these schools is the basis of Saudi Islam. How can an American president share “values” with a country that proselytizes a hateful, narrow-minded religious ideology intolerant of Jews and Muslims, disrespectful of women, and scornful of human rights?

I get nervous when anybody, even while they’re making a smart overall point, embeds the very modern Saudi-Iran conflict heavily within the almost 1400 year old tradition of Islamic sectarianism. It elevates a conflict over political hegemony and oil markets into something that almost transcends human history, that’s just an immutable part of life in the Middle East. The historical struggle between Sunni and Shiʿa is a real one, but it’s ebbed and flowed at different times and in different places. It’s not inevitable, nor is it immutable. Yes, the Saudi-Iran rivalry includes elements of that divide, and of the much older Arab-Persian divide, but mostly it uses those things as a gloss, as a way to disguise the petty concerns of two autocratic regimes in the form of some deep-rooted historical contest.


Buzzfeed’s Borzou Daragahi has another worthwhile election post-mortem, focusing on the ways in which young, reform-minded Iranians have learned to use the democratic or pseudo-democratic elements of the Iranian political system to their advantage:

The machinations began last year, when the Guardian Council barred most reformists from running for parliamentary elections and the powerful council that will choose Khamenei’s replacement. After the names of approved candidates emerged, exiled Iranians called for a boycott while some Washington pundits criticized the vote as phony.

But egged on by Khatami and other moderates, Iranians voted in droves anyway. They sometimes held their noses and cast ballots for figures implicated in human rights abuses, just to keep worse candidates out of office. As a result Rouhani’s allies expanded their control of the parliament. Among lawmakers’ duties in parliament is forming committees to vet candidates for municipal and local council elections. Those committees managed to approve larger numbers of reformists and moderates, setting the stage for Friday’s victory of reformists like Haghshenas.

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