Middle East update: May 25 2017


I don’t want to alarm anybody, but those American strikes on Syrian government-aligned forces near Tanf last week may not be the end of the conflict there. The map below is a week old in terms of who controls what, but I think it will do for our purposes. The Syrian army has reportedly been sweeping through and capturing the gray areas south of Palmyra from ISIS over the past several days. Last week’s strike came because some part of the Syrian force, allegedly an Iranian-backed militia, got too close to a US-supported rebel position at Tanf (you can see the Tanf border crossing in the southern green area right on the border with Iraq).

Syria as of May 18 (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)

The US is training/equipping/aiding the forces at Tanf to take on ISIS, not the Syrian government, though I have no doubt plenty of them would love to take a shot at Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian army if they could. The plan for these forces has been, when they’re ready and in conjunction with the Syrian Democratic Forces’ operations in and around Raqqa (an assault on the city appears to be imminent), to move east, cutting ISIS off from the Iraqi border and maybe, if all goes well, moving north to attack Deir Ezzor while the SDF, after taking Raqqa, attacks it from the north. The Syrians may be looking to scuttle those plans. By taking that territory south of Palmyra, which hasn’t been much of a challenge since a) it’s sparsely populated and b) ISIS is a little preoccupied elsewhere, they put their forces in position to push straight toward the Iraqi border or to push straight toward Deir Ezzor and break the almost three year-long siege there.

I’m just some dude looking at this stuff on a computer, but it seems to me that what happens next is going to be dictated by what Damascus does. If Assad sends his forces toward Deir Ezzor, which is the humane thing to do as his people are in desperate shape there, then I think everybody will try to keep coexisting. The US/rebel force at Tanf may have wanted to liberate Deir Ezzor, but the border is more important from a US/anti-ISIS perspective. If Assad’s forces go for the border, though, you may see more fighting. While Assad would cut ISIS off from the Iraqi border as well, the US concern is that he’ll be doing so in order to open a corridor for Iran to move proxies and weapons freely all the way to Lebanon. I’m not arguing the legitimacy of that concern, simply noting that it exists. If Assad does decide to make for the border, then you have basically a race between his forces and the Tanf rebels, and that scenario opens a lot of potential for more “one-off” clashes. But what do I know?

In relatively late-breaking news, late enough that I already had this whole post written anyway, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that US/coalition airstrikes killed at least 35 civilians, several of them children, in the town of Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor province. Many of the dead are wives and children of ISIS fighters in the area. The SOHR says that 50 people have now been killed in two days of coalition strikes on the town.


The Pentagon has now admitted that its March 17 airstrike on the Jadidah neighborhood of western Mosul killed 105 Iraqi civilians, which makes it one of the highest casualty incidents of the entire 2003-present American operation in Iraq. It also means that the actual civilian casualty count in the strike was likely at least twice that number, which means unofficial estimates of around 280 dead are in the ballpark.

Operations in Mosul right now seem to be in a bit of a lull as preparations are made for the final, full-scale assault on the last ISIS pocket in the city, including the Old City where the militants are really dug in. One area where there’s been some furious activity has been in preparing for the expected flood of refugees to come pouring out of Mosul virtually as soon as the Iraqis begin their assault. Baghdad has been expanding refugee camps and building new ones south of the city in territory it controls. There continues to be a fair amount of slack to the north and east of the city where refugees could be sent, but as that territory is largely in Kurdish hands it seems the Iraqi government has been reluctant to bus people there except as a last resort.


The United Nations envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, flew into Sanaa on Monday for talks with Yemeni rebels about the port city of Hudaydah–I’m not sure what the specifics are, but I’d guess Ahmed is trying to talk the rebels into allowing the UN to take over administration of Hudaydah’s port in order to leave it open and forestall a potential Saudi/UAE attack that will almost certainly deepen the country’s humanitarian catastrophe. Anyway, it seems the convoy taking Ahmed from the airport to the UN compound in Sanaa came under fire, and now the UN is demanding answers from the rebels, which they don’t seem to have. Both parts of the rebel coalition, the Houthis and the forces aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have denied involvement, and the Houthis are saying some of their personnel fired shots into the air to clear protesters away from the convoy, but they didn’t fire at the convoy.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in Brussels anyway because of NATO, so he decided to have a short meeting with senior European Union officials over the whole thing about how the EU and Turkey kind of hate each other’s guts at the moment. It appears to have gone about as you’d expect–Erdoğan told the EU officials to cram their human rights concerns, they told him they’d get right on that whole visa-free travel for Turkish nationals issue while secretly making wanking motions under the table, and everybody agreed to keep their precious refugee deal in place because, for now, it’s in everybody’s interest to see that it remains in place.

Back in Turkey, two clashes between Turkish and PKK forces in the eastern provinces of Hakkâri and Van killed four Turkish soldiers, one village guard, and at least nine 29 PKK fighters. Ankara also announced that it killed three PKK fighters in an airstrike in northern Iraq earlier in the day.


Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivered a televised speech on Thursday in which he called on Saudi Arabia seek negotiation with Iran rather than confrontation:

“I advise Saudi to set aside struggle, hatred and war. Your only solution for the sake of all Muslims, the whole region … is dialogue with Iran and to negotiate with Iran,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech.

“This path you are taking will only lead to spending billions more dollars and spilling more blood and you will be the ones who lose. You will fail,” he said.

Nasrallah is hardly a disinterested observer, and I’m not going to get into the whole “you will fail” bit, but he’s not wrong that more talking and less sniping between Iran and the Saudis would be better for everybody. To be sure, though, achieving a dialogue is a two-way street, and Iran hasn’t exactly bent over backwards to reach out to the Saudis either.


Three Egyptian soldiers and one police officer were killed in separate incidents in Sinai on Thursday. The soldiers were killed when their vehicle was bombed while on patrol near the border with Gaza, while the police officer was gunned down while off duty in the city of Arish.

In addition to arresting potential opposition candidates on questionable charges, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government also looks like it’s preparing for next year’s election by shutting down a whole bunch of media outlets:

Egypt has blocked access to at least 21 news sites critical of the government, notably the Qatari channel Al-Jazeera, Huffington Post’s Arabic-language site HuffPost Arabi and the independent website Mada Masr.

The state-run news agency Mena announced late on Wednesday night that 21 websites had been blocked because they were “spreading lies” and “supporting terrorism”. The full list of banned sites was not provided, but Mena added that legal action against the outlets was forthcoming.

Sisi’s government is achieving levels of repression that are extreme even by Egyptian standards, and this newest act of censorship may be emanating from the country’s intelligence community rather than its telecommunications regulators.


The Qatar News Agency reported a couple of days ago that, in a commencement address at the country’s Ahmed bin Mohammed Military College, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim b. Hamad Al Thani, openly criticized the anti-Iran foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and the US and expressed sympathy toward groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. These are not things that the Emir of Qatar can say if he doesn’t want to cause trouble with the Saudis. And it’s not clear that Sheikh Tamim actually said them–the QNA says that it was hacked and that the account of the emir’s speech is fabricated. Which it might have been, but that’s a pretty easy claim to make nowadays, so there’s strong suspicion among other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia included, that QNA is lying. The Saudis have long seen Qatar as too much of a squish on both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, so the “Sheikh’s” remarks, real or otherwise, feed right into Saudi preconceptions about the Qataris.


Speaking of places with no free press, American University’s Stephen Tankel tries to explain why selling weapons to Saudi Arabia is not a great counter-terrorism tactic:

Trump administration officials claim that the arms deal would help the Saudi military contribute more to regional security measures. Since 9/11, the United States has increasingly sought more regional counterterrorism cooperation from various partners. The coalition against the Islamic State, which includes more than 60 countries, is the most recent example.

The kingdom has made meager contributions to this coalition despite viewing the Islamic State as a threat. Here’s why — domestically, the Saudis are committed to combating the Islamic State. Regionally, however, Iran is the greater concern. Saudi Arabia has invested considerably more blood and treasure in fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen than they have contributing to the coalition against the Islamic State.

Trump cited this intervention as an example of Saudi contributions to regional security. In reality, it has contributed to a humanitarian disaster in Yemen — and created space for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to expand, recruit and bring in money.

In other words, the Saudi intervention has actually set back U.S. counterterrorism objectives. Selling Riyadh more weapons without extracting some agreement to pursue a political solution to the conflict in Yemen simply gives away already limited leverage.


A senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps told Iran’s Fars news agency today that the IRGC has built a third underground ballistic missile manufacturing plant and plans to continue its missile development program. Which is nice for them, I guess. If you think the timing of this announcement, less than a week after Hassan Rouhani won reelection over an IRGC-approved challenger, is a coincidence, well, then, I don’t really know what to tell you.


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