Middle East update: May 27-29 2017


Mosul through May 27, ISIS territory in gray (Wikimedia | Kami888)
The main story here is that the final phase (or, I guess, the first part of the final phase) of the Mosul operation has begun. On Saturday, Iraqi forces began their effort to clear the last section of western Mosul, including the Old City, of ISIS insurgents. Federal police are still anchoring the line in the south, but the interior ministry’s Rapid/Emergency Response Division (which has been in the news for some unfortunate reasons of late) is now pressing in from the north and several army units, including the counter-terrorist “Golden Division” are participating as well. Those units are all trying to liberate the last ISIS-held neighborhoods north of the Old City so that everyone can concentrate their forces on that one final neighborhood, where ISIS has been dug in the deepest. Their commanders were suggesting yesterday that it could take 72 hours to secure those neighborhoods–this may be optimistic (the Iraqis have made a habit of overestimating their situation), but it still shows how close they are to finally finishing this effort. The usual ISIS cocktail of snipers and suicide bombers is slowing the Iraqi advance.

Troublingly, there appears to have been an immediate swell of civilians trying to get out of the city almost as soon as the attack began. Human rights organizations are estimating that as many as 200,000 people may still try to get out of Mosul before the fighting is over, which would put tremendous pressure on the Iraqi government and NGOs to accommodate them.

Joel Wing has more on the Pentagon’s report about the Jadidah airstrike, which killed at least 100 and probably closer to 300 civilians in western Mosul in March. The US military is sticking to a theory that ISIS had planted explosives in the building that was brought down, based on what they say is the finding of explosives residue that doesn’t match the weapon used in the airstrike. But Iraqis are casting some doubt on that claim:

The executive summary of the U.S. investigation into the bombing added a few more details to the story. The Golden Division called in an air strike after it was engaged by two snipers a top a building. A GBU-38 500 pound guided bomb was used. The bomb caused explosives inside the building to detonate and brought down the structure. Inspectors found residue of other explosives not associated with the GBU-38, which was the evidence that the insurgents had placed some of their own inside the house. The Islamic State had entered the area a few days before, and evicted families to use their homes as fighting position. The displaced were invited by a neighbor into his house, which was the one hit. IS fighters told people in the building that they should move north because of the fighting, and if anything happened to them it was not their fault.  The deputy head of the Ninewa council called for the U.S. to pay compensation to the victims since it was responsible. Locals also disputed the American’s version of events. Survivors and neighbors of the bombing along with General Mohammed al-Jawari the civil defense chief in Mosul told the Associated Press and Washington Post that there were no explosive inside the building.

West of Mosul, the Popular Mobilization Units have been continuing their advance toward the Syrian border. Today they reportedly drove ISIS out of part of the town of Baaj, one of the few really strategically important areas in Iraq still under ISIS control. There’s some concern that once these Iranian-backed forces reach the border they’ll link up with Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria and/or create some kind of trans-Middle East corridor for Iran to…do…uh…well Very Bad Things, you can be sure of that. Interestingly, though, they’re talking about erecting a berm along what is pretty much a wide open border at the moment. Speaking of Iran, a senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was killed over the weekend–or, more accurately I guess, his death was announced over the weekend–in PMU-ISIS fighting west of Mosul. Which does make it pretty clear that the IRGC is helping the PMU.

It’s a bit under the radar with everything happening in Mosul, but in Baghdad the Iraqi parliament is considering a draft law that would require Iraqis to apply for authorization at least five days before holding any demonstration and would severely restrict freedom of expression around certain topics, mostly related to religion. This is a law that has come up multiple times, in multiple forms, over the past few years and each time its been beaten back by Iraqi civil society leaders.

UPDATE: Late Monday evening at least 13 people were killed when a car bomb exploded in central Baghdad. The target was apparently an ice cream shop popular with people breaking their Ramadan fast. ISIS is almost certainly responsible.


There’s been a flurry of airstrike activity in Raqqa over the past couple of days and, therefore, concern over civilian casualties there. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that some 38 civilians were killed in Raqqa over the weekend, though it had no estimates from strikes that happened on Monday, while the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently said that some 35 people were killed in strikes between Sunday and Monday. I’m not sure if those numbers include the 17 or 18 people who were reportedly killed in a coalition airstrike just south of the city on Saturday, but it seems unlikely. Coalition aircraft reportedly dropped leaflets over Raqqa on Sunday warning residents to evacuate, which could mean a ground offensive is imminent.

There’s a possibility, and I don’t want to alarm anybody so maybe you should sit down before you read this, but it’s possible that the US committed a war crime last week. A number of coalition airstrikes hit the town of Mayadeen, in Deir Ezzor province, and killed at least 106 civilians according to SOHR, including more than 40 children. These seem primarily to have been families of ISIS fighters who have fled Raqqa. So far, so bad…but it gets worse. Perhaps you remember an interview then-candidate Donald Trump gave to Fox in December 2015, in which he suggested that as president he would target the families of terrorists. Did President Trump make good on that statement? Because if he did, then that’s pretty unambiguously a war crime. Families of combatants are civilians, and intentionally targeting civilians is a crime, period. Of course, the fun thing about international law is that there’s no body with jurisdiction to actually investigate and prosecute something like this (the International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction in Syria and the US isn’t a member), and even if there were the US would ignore it and there would be little anybody could do about it.

In northern Syria, it looks like Turkey is establishing a permanent presence in and around the city of Jarabulus, which was liberated from ISIS during Ankara’s Operation Euphrates Shield. It’s handling Jarabulus’s law enforcement, health care, and education systems, and has opened as many as ten military bases in the vicinity. It even seems to be relocating Syrian Turkmens into the territory it controls as a demographic base of support. And, you know, this isn’t out of the blue. Occupying the area around Jarabulus gives Turkey a staging area from which it can disrupt Kurdish efforts to connect their Afrin territory in the northwest with their Rojava territory in the northeast.


Speaking of war crimes, The Intercept’s Iona Craig is reporting that the May 23 US Special Forces raid on al-Adhlan, Yemen, resulted in the deaths of five civilians, contrary to the Pentagon’s insistence that there were no civilian casualties. One of the five was a 15 year old child, Abdullah Saeed Salem al-Adhal, who was shot by US forces as his family was attempting to flee the fighting. A 70 year old man, Nasser Ali Mahdi al-Adhal, was reportedly killed as he attempted to greet the Americans. It appears that US claims that seven al-Qaeda fighters were killed in the raid are correct.

Craig’s reporting suggests that some villagers in al-Adhlan were in the habit of offering lodging to al-Qaeda fighters, and this had become a point of contention in the village. The Pentagon, which likely didn’t know and definitely wouldn’t have cared that there were people in al-Adhlan fighting against al-Qaeda, decided to go into the village guns blazing. But remember, they hate us for our freedom, or whatever. It’s not because we keep killing them and their loved ones.


The Turkish military says it killed 13 PKK fighters in airstrikes over northern Iraq on Sunday.

Talks between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and European leaders last week were apparently cordial but didn’t really achieve anything apart from a restatement of everybody’s positions. In other words, Erdoğan complained about Turkey’s EU membership bit, the EU leaders complained about…well, Erdoğan, and everybody agreed to disagree. Also I don’t think Erdoğan’s bodyguards kicked any protesters in Brussels, so that actually is progress. Erdoğan said on Saturday that he’d been given a 12 month timetable for improving Turkey-EU relations, but European leaders dispute that.


The nearly 1200 Palestinian prisoners who had been on a hunger strike for better conditions in Israeli detention have ended their action in response to an Israeli agreement to allow them to have two family visits per month instead of one.

According to Al-Monitor’s Ben Caspit, the Israeli far right–the folks who make even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look moderate–are convinced that Netanyahu is about to sell them out and jump into a Donald Trump-led peace initiative. While this would seem to fly in the face of pretty much everything we know about Benjamin Netanyahu, let’s allow that anything is possible. In order to survive such a move politically Netanyahu would need to bring the center-left Zionist Union into his government to replace whatever hard right parties would abandon his coalition, which may be easier said than done. Caspit suggests that the Hatnua Party, the more centrist of the two parties (Labor being the other) that make up the ZU, could leave that coalition and join Netanyahu’s government on its own, which would give him a bit of flexibility.


ISIS did take credit for Friday’s attack on a bus full of Copts in central Egypt. The Coptic community is understandably angry, and they’re angry at Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who makes protection of the Copts one of his big selling points to Western governments. Some Muslim Brotherhood leaders are reportedly pushing the idea that the Copts deserve the several attacks to which they’ve been subject over the past couple of months and/or the conspiracy theory that the Egyptian government has been behind these attacks in an effort to increase popular sympathy for the Copts. Both of these are obviously bullshit, but I’m not sure the degree to which either has really caught on in Egypt.

The Egyptian air force appears to be continuing a campaign against insurgent camps outside of Derna, Libya, that it says are connected with Friday’s bus attack. They bombed those targets on Friday, again on Saturday, again on Sunday as well, and on Monday…well, you probably get the drift. However, Cairo’s story here is contradictory. On the one hand, they claim they’re striking targets connected to Friday’s attack. On the other, on Monday they said the camps they’re striking belong to Majlis Mujahideen Derna and the Abu Salim Brigade, neither of which is affiliated with ISIS. Both are local militias with al-Qaeda ties. Striking them helps Sisi’s buddy, Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar, but it’s not clear what it has to do with Friday’s bus attack.


Intra-GCC tensions are still high enough that UAE Minister for State Affairs Anwar Gargash felt the need to subtweet Qatar about them on Sunday:

“The Gulf Cooperation Council countries are passing through a new sharp crisis that carries within it a great danger,” Gargash said. “Fending off sedition lies in changing behavior, building trust and regaining credibility,” he added, without mentioning Qatar by name.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are pissed about critical remarks that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Al Thani supposedly made at a commencement earlier this month. Qatar says that he didn’t make those remarks and that the Qatar News Agency was hacked and the phony remarks were posted there. The Saudis and Emiratis don’t seem to be buying that explanation, and the Qataris seem to be growing increasingly pissed that they’re not being believed.


At Lawfare, Dina Esfandiary and Ariane Tabatabai look at how the Saudi-Iran conflict can be deescalated. Their answer is, of course, that both countries need to start communicating again:

There is a window of opportunity for dialogue between the two sides. Rouhani was just reelected for a second term in office. This time his mandate is stronger: He won by a landslide in a resounding rejection of the populist and isolationist policies his hardline opponent advocated. He also enjoys a friendlier Majles populated by his own faction. And after a period of reluctance and heightened tensions, Iran seems to have a newfound desire to try again. Tehran is aware it is spread thin in the region and concerned about the uncertainty created by the new Trump presidency and its hostile rhetoric. The Gulf Arab states are also tentative about Trump. Though they eagerly welcomed the U.S. president with red carpets, lavish meals, and a sword dance, they have adopted a “wait-and-see” approach to him. After all, President Trump is renowned for flip-flopping. What’s more, the pragmatists in the Persian Gulf now recognize the shortcomings of outsourcing regional security.

In December 2016, the Gulf Cooperation Council endorsed a plan that was presented to Iran in January by Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khalid Al Sabah during a visit to Tehran. The letter reportedly established the principles for dialogue between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors, including reiterating a principle of non-intervention, and outlined areas of discussion, such as regional conflicts and economic concerns. The initiative was well received in Iran, but President Rouhani reiterated that preconditions could not be set for dialogue. Earlier this year, Iran and Saudi Arabia held a first round of talks on resolving outstanding issues preventing Iranian pilgrims from attending the Hajj this year, and a few weeks ago they reached a compromise allowing Iranian pilgrims to return to Mecca. Both sides could build on this foundation. Rouhani said as much after his reelection, noting that “the people of Saudi Arabia are our friends and neighbors.”

Of course, this window may already be closed, with Trump having visited Riyadh and gone completely in on Riyadh’s Iranophobia, and with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seemingly uninterested in chatting. But dialogue remains the only way the Middle East is ever going to find stability again.


Ebrahim Raisi is accusing Hassan Rouhani of voter fraud in the May 19 election, a charge that is fairly ridiculous, but probably isn’t meant to be taken seriously as an attempt to relitigate the election. Rather, it’s one of countless ways Raisi and other hardliners are going to try to find to neg Rouhani over the next four years in order to prevent him from accomplishing anything.

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