Middle East update: May 31 2017


Hopefully I’m wrong here, but it seems to me that–without getting a lot of attention–the potential for a dramatic escalation in southern Syria is growing by the day. Here’s the latest tiptoe in the direction of what could be a very dangerous line:

Western-backed Syrian rebels said on Wednesday that Russian jets attacked them as they tried to advance against Iran-backed militias in a region of Syria’s southeastern desert.

They said six jets bombed their positions as they moved towards Zaza checkpoint near Sabaa Biyar, a small town near the Damascus-Baghdad highway and the borders with Iraq and Jordan.

They identified them as Russian because they flew in formation and at higher altitude than Syrian jets.

“A sortie of Russian jets bombed us to repel our advance after we broke the first lines of defence of the Iranian militia and took over advanced positions near the Zaza checkpoint,” Saad al Haj, a spokesman for Jaish Osoud al-Sharqiya, one of the main groups in the area told Reuters.

The rebels say they were approaching Zaza after having chased the militias there from a position closer to the rebel base at Tanf.

Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 2.29.53 PM
Sabaa Biyar, just west of the Zaza checkpoint, from Google Maps

If you’re keeping score at home, that makes one time the Americans have struck forces allied with Russia, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in southern Syria, and one time that the Russians have struck Syrian rebels allied with the United States. In the first case, the government-allied forces were approaching a rebel position at Tanf, and in the second, rebels were approaching a government position at Zaza checkpoint. Both of these armies are moving inexorably into the same part of Syria, so contact between them is only going to become more frequent, which means this kind of incident will become more frequent as well. And while their respective air forces (American and Russian) may not be interested in a confrontation, the armies on the ground have every reason to want to take shots at one another. How is this going to shake out? I can think of a few ways, and pretty much none of them is promising.

Speaking of Russian air support, Moscow opted to employ cruise missiles against ISIS targets near Palmyra on Wednesday, firing four of its Kalibr weapons from naval vessels in the Mediterranean. This is Russia’s first cruise missile attack in Syria since November.

This evening, word broke that an anti-ISIS coalition airstrike in Mayadeen killed Rayan Meshaal, the founder of ISIS’s “Amaq” media/propaganda bureau, and Meshaal’s daughter. The story hasn’t been confirmed.


Progress in Mosul has been slow, but there has been progress, even if it can be measured by the building. Iraqi forces seem intent on trying to preserve some infrastructure (hospitals, at least), which will naturally slow their progress. Still, it’s being reported that “dozens” of ISIS fighters have been seen assembling in and around the al-Nuri Mosque in Old Mosul, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his “caliphate” in 2014 and where ISIS apparently expects to make its last stand. If that’s the case, then the centuries-old structure is unfortunately quite unlikely to survive the coming fight intact.

In the city of Qaraqosh, just southeast of Mosul, Iraqi authorities have set up an ad hoc criminal court to try suspected ISIS fighters and to hear petitions from Iraqis who say they have lost property–and loved ones–to the extremists. Most cases end with confessions, of a sort, where the accused confess to having joined ISIS but refuse to talk about what they did while they were in the group (the judge told Al-Monitor derisively that “it seems like they were all working in the caliphate’s kitchen”). Convicts are then sent on to Baghdad for sentencing, which could mean anything from a few years in prison to the death penalty.

France has reportedly sent special forces to Iraq to hunt down and kill, or at least help the Iraqis kill, some 30 French nationals who joined ISIS and are believed to be there. This is a legal gray area to say the least (targeted killing as a law enforcement tactic is necessarily extrajudicial), but Paris does not want to risk these people returning home, where they could potentially carry out terrorist attacks.


Long-simmering tensions between Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the United Arab Emirates over control of the Aden airport are flaring up again. UAE-backed forces reportedly seized control of the airport today in a clash that killed one of the men guarding the facility. Hadi and his supporters have accused the UAE of backing southern Yemeni separatists, and Hadi has in the past sacked officials alleged to have uncomfortably close ties to the Emiratis.


Say, I wonder if Ankara is finally coming to terms with the American decision to arm and support the YPG in Syri–

Turkey’s National Security Council said on Wednesday that the U.S. government’s decision to arm the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in Syria was “not befitting” of a friend.

In a statement released after a 4-1/2-hour meeting chaired by President Tayyip Erdogan, the council said Turkey’s expectations on the matter had been disregarded.

“It has been stressed that the policy of supporting the PKK/PYD-YPG terrorist organization, acting under the guise of the Syrian Democratic Forces, by disregarding Turkey’s expectation is not befitting of a friendship and alliance,” the council said in a statement.

Moving on then. The Turkish military today reported that three of its soldiers and two PKK fighters were killed in clashes in Diyarbakır province.

Al-Monitor today posted an interesting look at the burgeoning Turkey-Qatar relationship. Qatar is investing in Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund and has delivered billions of dollars in 2022 World Cup-related business to Turkish firms, which the lagging Turkish economy desperately needs. The two countries are also working on or have completed a number of cooperative defense deals. At a time when Qatar is on the outs again with its fellow Gulf states, its ties with a regional heavyweight like Turkey take on added importance.


Al-Monitor’s Ben Caspit has a blow-by-blow from President Trump’s meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his Big Foreign Adventure last week:

According to Al-Monitor’s research, the following details are indeed true: The first part of the Abbas-Trump conversation was tense. It turns out that Netanyahu had shown Trump a section of a video clip in which Abbas says, “I am an inciter.” The Palestinians claim that the president did not raise his voice at Abbas, but do admit that Trump demanded explanations. The Palestinians claimed that the clip shown to the president by the Israelis had been edited and taken out of context. At this point, senior Fatah official Saeb Erekat intervened and told Trump that Netanyahu is the provocateur, that the prime minister never stops inciting against Abbas in order to torpedo any chances for advancing negotiations.

The next day, the Palestinians sent the Americans the entire video of Abbas’ speech. According to this version of events, the unedited video proved, from the Palestinians’ perspective, that Abbas did not touch on incitement or say that he is an inciter. According to the Palestinians, Abbas’ words were taken out of context through biased editing of the film.

Bethlehem was not the only place where tensions rose. It has now emerged that harsh words were also uttered in the conversation between Netanyahu and Trump. Evidently the American president continued to subject the prime minister to steamroller pressure on the concessions that Israel will have to make and the need to quickly renew negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu, when he appeared before the Likud faction in the Knesset on May 29, hinted at this. He told the Likud members, many of whom oppose negotiations, that Israel does not have a “blank check” with Trump in the diplomatic realm.

Trump apparently attempted to get Abbas to end the Palestinian Authority’s practice of providing financial assistance to families of people who have been imprisoned by Israel. This is both politically impossible–Abbas is unpopular enough as it is–and morally indefensible, given the number of Palestinians who have been hauled off to rot in Israeli prisons, often on what amounts to the crime of demanding to be treated like a human being.


I don’t want to say you read it here first, but here’s me on Monday:

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.

Now here’s Reuters today:

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was quick to launch air strikes on militants in Libya in response to a deadly attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt – but the attacks do not seem to be targeting those responsible.

The response was popular with many Egyptians. The country’s state-owned and private news media celebrated it as swift justice, but the president has been vague about exactly who he is attacking.

The strikes have been directed at Islamist groups other than Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for Friday’s massacre of dozens in the southern province of Minya, and seem to be intended to shore up Sisi’s allies in eastern Libya.

“The attacks in Minya were claimed by Islamic State, and there are Islamic State elements active in Libya, but the reports coming indicate Cairo is targeting other groups,” said H.A. Hellyer, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

In fact, many suggest the air strikes had been planned in advance to shore up support for Sisi’s main Libyan ally, Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), and that the Minya massacre was used as a pretext to launch them.

Forces loyal to Haftar, a military strongman like Sisi, have long been fighting the DMSC, cutting off supply routes to the city and hitting it with occasional air strikes. Despite the LNA’s siege, the military situation in Derna has been in stalemate for months.

The thing is, while ISIS has been driven from its main Libyan base in Sirte, there are still pockets of ISIS fighters in the country that Egypt could strike, if striking ISIS were Egypt’s intent. Indeed, if you think the attack in Minya was perpetrated by ISIS fighters who had come into Egypt via Libya, there must be some ISIS presence along the Libya-Egypt border that Egypt could strike. But Egypt didn’t strike ISIS. Maybe Sisi was just looking to strike somebody to score political points, and Derna was convenient, or maybe he was looking to help Haftar, but either way his government is not telling the truth about these strikes in Derna when it tries to link them to the Minya attack. Now, it is true that they could be indirectly linked–helping Haftar secure eastern Libya would help secure the Libya-Egypt border, which will help Egyptian security. But Sisi’s government has been framing these strikes as a direct response to the militants responsible for Minya, and that just doesn’t seem to add up.

Elsewhere, four Egyptian soldiers were killed in the Bahariyah Oasis in Egypt’s western desert when an explosive belt they seized from would-be terrorists accidentally exploded.


A Bahraini court on Wednesday outlawed Waad, or the National Democratic Action Society, a secular political opposition and human rights activist organization that has been accused of “glorifying” terrorists. Frankly it’s surprising that a group like Waad survived this long in a country that has systematically and at times violently suppressed any political dissent since the 2011 Arab Spring. Don’t expect any outcry from the Trump administration, which promised Bahrain during President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia that it would be far more accommodating of Bahraini human rights violations than the Obama administration was.

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