Middle East update: June 1 2017


The US embassy in Israel is…staying put, in Tel Aviv, for the foreseeable future. After making a big campaign deal about moving the embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing that city as Israel’s capital, President Donald Trump today issued the same national security wavier that every president since 1995 has issued to keep the embassy where it is. Under the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, the executive branch is required, by Congress, to relocate the embassy, but presidents are allowed to waive that requirement every six months on national security grounds. And so every six months, presidents have been (rightly) waiving the requirement, on the grounds that moving the embassy would inflame Palestinian tensions and thus run counter to American interests. Candidate Trump promised that he would be different, that he would move the embassy anyway, consequences be damned. President Trump apparently sees things differently.

In its statement announcing the waiver, the White House defiantly said that “the question is not if that [embassy] move happens, but only when,” but that’s probably bullshit. “When, not if” has been the question since 1995, but every six months since we’ve seen that question reliably put off. And so we’ve just seen it happen again.


Iraqi police say that at least seven civilians trying to flee the Zanjali neighborhood were killed on Thursday when they were targeted by ISIS mortars. ISIS appears to be slowly pulling its assets out of Zanjili and nearby Medical City in order to concentrate its defenses in the Old City, and part of that has involved rounding up human shields. Prisoners are being relocated and the group is trying to herd civilians into the Old City to make the fight as difficult as possible for the Iraqis. So anyone escaping from these neighborhoods now is threatening ISIS’s plans for defending what little turf it has left.

There’s been more movement with the Popular Mobilization Units near the Syrian border over the past few days than there has in Mosul. The PMUs quickly made it to the Syrian border, but they seem to have run into considerable trouble there, as Patrick Wing relates:

There was mixed news coming out of west Ninewa. First, the Hashd were still assaulting the town of Baaj. The Hashd said that IS was trapped in the town and couldn’t maneuver anymore. On the other hand, the Islamic State launched a counter attack upon the Hashd that stopped their advance. There was also news of a possible counter attack in Baaj. The second issue was the Iraq-Syrian border. That was reached yesterday to great fanfare. Iranian media posted a picture of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani posing with Hashd members at the border. Hashd officials were talking about crossing over to Syria, but with government approval. If they want to secure the border first that is a big task. The Hashd have only taken 17 kilometers of a border that is roughly 600 kilometers long. There is already news that the Hashd need help with this effort. The Hashd have taken a huge amount of territory in western Ninewa and captured dozens and dozens of towns. Holding such a huge section of the province is daunting, and now they are talking about expanding even more along the Syrian border. That has to be stretching resources.

Yesterday we discussed the ad hoc Iraqi efforts to try suspected ISIS collaborators, which are being hampered by suspects’ unwillingness to confess to anything more than joining the group–i.e., nobody is willing to talk about what they did. USA Today has a story from the other side of that issue, from Iraqi families whose men were either forcibly recruited by ISIS or joined because they really had no way to provide for their families otherwise (local economies in Iraq and Syria were devastated by ISIS and by the anti-ISIS air campaign), or whose sons were brought in by ISIS as child soldiers and brainwashed. It’s easy to judge these people harshly, and maybe that’s even the right thing to do both morally and from the perspective of future Iraqi stability (there are risks to stability from treating them too harshly but also risks from allowing them impunity). But at the very least I think we should acknowledge that their stories are often more nuanced than we might like to think.

That said, ISIS has committed horrific crimes against humanity that are going to take years to unwind. That process is being made more difficult by disputes between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government over who has the right to exhume mass graves near Sinjar that are believed to contain somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 mostly Yazidi bodies. What ISIS did to the Yazidis between 2014 and 2015 was a genocide, and the families of the people who were massacred deserve the chance to bury their loved ones properly, without having the process prolonged by a pissing match between Baghdad and Erbil. This is unconscionable.


The AP’s Sarah el-Deeb has an in-depth report on rebels in northern Syria, who have basically been reduced to two options if they want to continue their rebellion: work for Turkey or join with al-Qaed–er, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Neither is ideal–Turkey cares more about confounding the Kurds than about fighting Bashar al-Assad, and al-Qaeda is al-Qaeda. But plenty of rebels have taken the al-Qaeda plunge:

Nothing blurs Tarek Muharram’s determination to fight Assad. Not the loss of his beloved city of Aleppo to government forces. Not the hours he and his comrades now spend in a small apartment in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, watching TV and smoking, waiting for the next battle.

He quit his banking job in the Gulf to return home and join the rebellion in 2011. Over the years, he fought alongside several different rebel groups, including ones backed by the United States.

The fall of Aleppo was a watershed moment. It cost the rebels there their strongest base, their resources, their homes.

“We had reached a dead end,” said the 39-year-old Muharram.

Now he and his group, Noureddine el-Zinki, have now joined the alliance led by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The move caused many of his group to break away. But for Muharram, anything else would have required too many concessions, including accepting a role for Assad.

Muharram says he has his personal differences with al-Qaida — he doesn’t always pray, for example, and he smokes. He sports a wolf-head tattoo on his arm, something militants frown upon.

On the other hand, the Zenki Movement–which, mind you, at one point was receiving American aid–does share certain principles with al-Qaeda, so it’s maybe not that big an adjustment.

Russia has apparently stepped in to plug the gap that the Syrian Democratic Forces left in their encirclement of Raqqa, declaring that it will strike any ISIS fighters attempting to leave the city to the south. This is interesting, because while I’m not privy to anybody’s war plans it wouldn’t surprise me if the SDF and the Pentagon opted to leave the southern approach to Raqqa open in order to give ISIS a way out so they’d be less inclined to put up a “last stand” resistance in the densely populated city. Moscow understandably wants to keep ISIS forces from leaving Raqqa and trying to take back territory further west, around Palmyra for example, but at the same time it might be undermining a tactic intended to lessen the risk to Raqqa’s civilians. Meanwhile, US weapons are reaching the YPG and the attack on Raqqa appears to be weeks or possibly even days away. The US appears to be supplying the YPG with weapons that are sufficient to take on what ISIS has but would not be particularly effective against an advanced modern military like Turkey’s, so it’s possible that Turkish complaints about arming the Kurds have registered with the Pentagon.

Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen is reporting that US and Russian officials have engaged in secret talks over Russian plans for a safe zone in southern Syria. These are separate from the usual US-Russia military communications to try to ensure that nobody does anything they’ll regret while the two countries’ forces are operating in such close proximity. In this case the US seems interested in Russia’s de-escalation plans at least inasmuch as they might offer a chance to move some active conflict away from the Israeli and Jordanian borders.


More Turkish airstrikes in northern Iraq killed six PKK fighters, according to the Turkish military.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says that he plans to extend the border wall his government is building along Turkey’s Syrian border to cover the country’s Iraqi border and “appropriate places” on its Iranian border as well. This is politically safer for him than negotiating with the PKK, and it’s a big public works project at a time when the Turkish economy is still struggling.

Ankara is reportedly wary of NATO’s decision to join the anti-ISIS fight as a bloc because it fears that decision might work to the YPG’s benefit, which would mean Turkey, as a NATO member, would be indirectly aiding the YPG, which it’s directly working against. However, it didn’t try to block the alliance’s decision to sign on, and in reality that decision was probably symbolic anyway.


Look, I don’t really care how Lebanon regulates its film industry and in general I think censorship is bad, but if you’re going to report on the Lebanese government’s decision to ban screenings of Wonder Woman, do better than this:

The ban isn’t just because Gadot is Israeli. She also served in the Israeli Defense Forces between 2005 and 2007, or in other words during the 2006 Lebanon War. Here’s a bit of what the IDF got up to during that war:

Kate Gilmore, the Amnesty executive deputy secretary general, said the bombardment of power and water plants and transport links was “deliberate and an integral part of a military strategy”.

“Israel’s assertion that the attacks on the infrastructure were lawful is manifestly wrong,” she said.

“Many of the violations identified in our report are war crimes. The pattern, scope and scale of the attacks makes Israel’s claim that this was collateral damage simply not credible.”

Amnesty called for an official UN inquiry into human rights violations on both sides of the conflict.

The report’s authors described the destruction of up to 90% of some towns and villages in southern Lebanon, releasing aerial photographs that showed Beirut’s southern Dahiya district had been transformed from a bustling suburb into a grey wasteland.

“In village after village the pattern was similar – the streets, especially main streets, were scarred with artillery craters along their length,” the report said.

“In some cases, cluster bomb impacts were identified. Houses were singled out for precision-guided missile attack and were destroyed, totally or partially, as a result.
“Business premises such as supermarkets or food stores and auto service stations and petrol stations were targeted, often with precision-guided munitions and artillery that started fires and destroyed their contents.”

The IDF admits to using white phosphorus munitions, which should be classified as chemical weapons but are not because international law is a largely useless thing, during the 2006 conflict as well. All told, 1183 Lebanese people were killed, about a third of them children, and nearly a million people were displaced.

Hezbollah killed around 40 Israeli civilians and displaced 300,000 from northern Israel in 2006, so if there’s ever a movie starring an ex-Hezbollah fighter and Israel wants to ban it, I think that would be understandable. And I bet that the American media would report that the ban was about something more than simply the fact that the star was Lebanese. And again, I’m not saying I agree with this decision or that I think it’s the right thing to do. But if you’re going to report on it, take five minutes and include some proper context. Don’t just chalk it up to The Broken Arab Mind or some other orientalist bullshit.


The Monkey Cage has a detailed look at the latest Qatar-GCC feud that makes sense particularly in terms of how the Trump administration’s Middle East policy has played into the situation:

A convergence of factors appears to have shifted the geopolitical landscape in the Persian Gulf. The Trump administration signaled that it intends to follow a set of regional policies that are aligned far closer to those of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh than Doha. Both Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were high-profile visitors to Washington in the run-up to the Riyadh summit with Arab and Islamic leaders.

Further, the policy inexperience of many within Trump’s inner circle has presented an opportunity for both the Saudis and the Emiratis to shape the administration’s thinking on critical regional issues such as Iran and Islamism, both of which were evident during the Riyadh visit.

Whereas the Obama administration sought to enhance U.S. engagement with the GCC as a bloc, Trump focused instead on Saudi Arabia and the UAE as the twin pillars of its regional approach. Strong bonds reportedly have formed between Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia as well as Yusuf al-Otaiba, the influential UAE ambassador in Washington.

The administration has emboldened the Saudis and Emiratis to take a harder line against any dissent. Whether Sheikh Tamim Al Thani actually gave the speech that’s supposedly behind this dispute–and there are apparently witnesses who say he didn’t–it’s been a convenient excuse for both countries to flex their new muscles.


Two people were killed on Thursday when what’s being treated as a car bomb exploded in the eastern, predominantly Shiʿa, Saudi city of Qatif. From the description of the incident, if this was a bomb these two victims may have been the bombers.

Saudi satellite network MBC has begun airing a new drama series that tries to counter ISIS propaganda by showing the brutality of life inside the terrorist group:

“Black Crows” shows women and children living under the jihadists and is the first television drama to tackle subjects such as mass murder and rape, contrasting sharply with the idyll of heroism and holy war projected by IS on social media.

“The main audience we target, the most important and dangerous, are those who are prone to support and even join terrorist organizations,” MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek told Reuters in an interview.

“Media is part of their (IS) offensive strategy. Thus media organizations have the right, actually the duty, to face such an offensive – which is well-funded and on the internet and social media – with this series,” he said.

Who knows if this will have any impact, but its a highly visible project that at least makes it look like Saudi Arabia is Doing Something about Islamic extremism, and that’s really all it’s meant to be.


One of the Iranian constituencies that came out big for Hassan Rouhani on May 19 was Iran’s Sunni minority. Of course, as with everybody else who supported Rouhani, that means they’re expecting progress over the next four years in alleviating the dismal socioeconomic conditions found in predominantly Sunni areas like the country’s restive Sistan and Baluchestan province. Iranian leaders have created a problem there by systemically marginalizing the Sunni population, some of which is then naturally drawn to extremist/separatist groups. Then, in fear that nefarious forces from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or elsewhere are manipulating those groups to take down the Islamic Republic, they deepen that marginalization, which creates more recruits for the extremists. Rouhani’s ability to improve conditions in Sistan and Baluchestan is limited, like the rest of his powers, but this is going to be a lingering problem for Tehran until it changes the way it treats minorities.

Iranian hardliners are reportedly pushing a new conspiracy theory that says Rouhani is planning to hand Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani over to the US in return for sanctions relief. Not only is there no evidence that Rouhani has ever considered such a thing, there’s virtually no chance he could actually do it, unless he’s planning to leave Iran on the same flight as Soleimani (who may actually be more popular with Iranians than Rouhani).

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Soleimani: not about to be handed over to the feds

Johns Hopkins’s Joshua Koontz writes that Iran’s involvement in Yemen is escalating and its costs are increasing:

On March 8, 2015, a Hizballah commander announced that eight of its fighters had died while fighting in Yemen. Three weeks later, anti-Houthi tribal militias captured three IRGC officers and one Hizballah adviser fighting alongside Houthi forces in the southern and eastern governorates of Aden and Shabwah. Iranian and Hizballah military advisers for the Houthis are now being killed and captured in expanding numbers in Yemen. They recently lost 15 advisers and officers in a series of airstrikes and base seizures. While the totals pale in comparison with their respective losses in Syria and Iraq, the rising death toll demonstrates an increasing expenditure of Iranian and Hizballah blood and treasure in the Arabian Peninsula.

The numbers here are still quite low, so I’m not sure you can extrapolate as much from them as Koontz does, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Iran, which initially treated Yemen as a useful stick with which to poke Riyadh but not much more than that, is finding itself getting sucked more deeply into the conflict as time goes on. Mission creep isn’t just an American thing.


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