Middle East update: June 5 2017


OK, so undoubtedly the biggest news of the day is that Qatar has basically been declared an uncountry by half the Middle East (OK, six countries and one pretend government, but whatever). I have tried to explain what’s going on here for LobeLog, and if it’s all the same to you I’m going to point you there and hopefully not write another word on this story until at least tomorrow:

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have had a love-hate relationship for over two decades—a fact acknowledged in Monday’s statement from Riyadh: “Since 1995, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its brothers have made strenuous and continued efforts to urge the authorities in Doha to abide by its commitments and agreements.” The Saudis didn’t select that date at random. In 1995, the former Emir of Qatar, Hamad b. Khalifa Al Thani, overthrew his father, Khalifa b. Hamad Al Thani, in a bloodless coup. Sheikh Hamad abdicated in 2013 in favor of his son, Tamim, who is the current Qatari ruler. Hamad’s decision to maintain friendly relations with Israel (Qatar broke off those relations over the 2009 Gaza War) was a source of tension with the Saudis. For several years the two countries also disputed the precise location of their land border, before finally reaching an agreement on its location in 2008. Monday’s events come out of this years-long tension.

The immediate cause of the diplomatic break can be traced back to the 2011 Arab Spring. Unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which quickly opposed any revolutionary movements that threatened established Arab autocracies, Qatar decided to bet on the revolutionaries and used some of its vast fossil-fuel wealth to support them. In particular, Sheikh Hamad decided to throw its weight behind Muslim Brotherhood movements in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere, building off of his long-standing support for Brotherhood branches around the Arab world, including Hamas. This represented a radical shift from Hamad’s previous “no problems” foreign policy, which presumably reflected Hamad’s desire to increase Qatar’s prominence on the geopolitical stage commensurate with its financial clout. Under Hamad, and then Tamim, Qatar has adopted a number of foreign policies that have at times, placed it at odds with its fellow Gulf states:

I’ll only add one thing, and it’s not about geopolitics or counter-terrorism or Iran or the Trump administration or all the various royal assholes involved in this situation. It’s this:

The vast majority of the people who live in Qatar are expatriates. While some of them are the kind of rich, globetrotting Western expats you’re thinking of right now, most of them are poor, brought to Qatar under false pretenses and put to work doing backbreaking manual labor for hardly any pay. They’re going to be the first people to starve if Qatar runs out of food. They’re the ones who will pay the price because Saudi Arabia is mad. In that, they have a lot in common with the people of Yemen.

UPDATE: Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed b. Abdulrahman Al Thani told Al Jazeera on Tuesday morning that Kuwait is trying to mediate this dispute, so we’ll see how that goes.


The Syrian Democratic Forces have reportedly begun their attack on Raqqa. An official announcement should be coming within “hours.”

Rebels in southern Syria are reporting that they, using American-supplied anti-aircraft guns, were able to bring down a Syrian military aircraft east of Damascus. Soooo, we’re giving the rebels weapons that can shoot down Syrian jets now? Because call me crazy, but that seems like a bit of an escalation.

So with both of those points in mind, here’s Paul Pillar on why, post-Raqqa, it would be a bad idea for the US to escalate its involvement in Syria:

Reduction of the IS mini-state is where the familiar battle map of Syria is most likely to undergo change in the weeks ahead. The central focus has been capture of the de facto IS capital of Raqqa. But when—and it’s when, not if—Raqqa falls is less important than what is left behind after it falls. The importance of a distant territorial enclave to terrorist threats in the West has always been overstated, and IS, even before losing Raqqa, already appears to be placing greater emphasis on violent clandestine operations abroad that do not depend on possession of any such enclave. How much unsettled conflict and chaos is left behind in that part of Syria after Raqqa falls will determine how fertile a field it will be for breeding additional extremism, whether under the IS label or some other label.

The makers of U.S. policy should bear in mind how little stake the United States has in specific outcomes in Syria, beyond the concern with exportable extremism and political violence (and they should remember that even IS was exported from Iraq, where it was born under a different name as a consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation). Avoidance of situations that risk sucking the United States into a larger military clash will be important. A sample of the risks of such escalation recently occurred when U.S. forces attacked a pro-regime militia, said to be supported by Iran, when it got what the U.S. military regarded as uncomfortably close to an installation that U.S. forces use in southern Syria.

There is no good case for U.S. escalation in Syria. It would increase the danger of further unwanted escalation. Given the nature of the current stalemate in the main part of the civil war, such escalation would be unlikely to move the needle regarding the shape of an eventual political settlement. And U.S. interests would be little affected even if the needle did move.


Iraqi forces were able to turn back several ISIS attacks on the entrances into Mosul’s Old City yesterday, but their progress in the city’s Zanjali and Shifa neighborhoods continues to be slow. Joel Wing has that and much more. The United Nations estimates that some 100,000 children remain trapped in western Mosul and are at risk as the Iraqis attempt to liberate the city’s final ISIS enclave.


Yemen’s rebels have reportedly barred UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed from returning to Yemen (or, at least, the parts of Yemen they control). They’ve accused him of bias and of ignoring UN resolutions. Of course, the last time Ahmed was in Yemen his convoy was shot at by…somebody (the Houthis?), so maybe he wouldn’t be all that interested in returning right now anyway.


This business with Qatar (see above) apparently has Turkey on edge. Not only does Ankara have a treaty (not to mention several lucrative financial deals) with Doha that would oblige it to come to Qatar’s aid if things get violent, but the Turks are worried that they might be the next target of Gulf rage. Turkey’s government is Muslim Brotherhood-adjacent and has tried to maintain at least cordial relations with Iran, which sounds a lot like Qatar’s government, so while this is probably a bit paranoid, it’s not that paranoid.

Turkey has told the German government that its legislators are welcome to visit a NATO base at Konya but that they are not permitted to visit German units stationed at Incirlik air base as part of the anti-ISIS coalition. Consequently, it’s highly unlikely that there will be any Germans stationed at Incirlik in the near future. I’m not sure this is a real hardship for Turkey, which barred the political delegation from visiting Incirlik over Germany’s penchant for granting asylum to former Turkish soldiers fleeing prosecution over last summer’s coup attempt.

Speaking of the coup attempt, its alleged mastermind, cleric Fethullah Gülen, is probably about to lose his Turkish citizenship under a new interior ministry ruling. Some 130 people wanted by Turkish authorities are being given three months to return home or be stripped of their citizenship.


If, on this 50th anniversary of the war that brought us the Israeli occupation, you’re still holding out hopes of a two-state solution, you should probably stop doing that:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Israel will maintain security control over all of the West Bank, with or without a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Speaking at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Mideast war, when Israel captured the West Bank, Netanyahu said Israel seeks “true peace” with its neighbors but all has to ensure its own security.

“For that reason, in any agreement, and even without an agreement, we will maintain security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River,” he said.

How can a Palestinian state exist under conditions in which it’s not permitted to secure itself? I honestly don’t know.


At Foreign Policy, journalist Elizabeth Dickinson takes a long look at Mohammad b. Salman’s attempts to reform (i.e., cut) Saudi Arabia’s massive welfare state. Cheap oil is rapidly reducing the Saudi monarchy’s ability to buy the public’s acquiescence (luckily though, they can still afford American weapons), and as the eventual (at least for now) heir to the throne, it’s Mohammad’s job to get people to accept benefit cuts gracefully. But short of liberalizing the state politically, which the Saudis refuse to consider, it’s not clear what they have to offer their subjects in return for lower benefits. So far the solution, inadequate as it may be, has been to make Prince Mohammad a star and hope his charisma can win people over:

The style Mohammed bin Salman works to project mirrors how he hopes Saudis will think about the reforms. He has sought to portray himself as a youthful, down-to-earth technocrat. He has dispensed with pomp and circumstance and glossed over traditional family hierarchies in appointing ministers. He is also betting that this image will be enough to bolster support for a wholesale rewrite of Saudi economic policy.

Citizens here increasingly accept the need for some change. After the global price of oil dropped in 2014, the Saudi budget slipped into double-digit deficits. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, the country’s central bank, burned through nearly $200 billion in reserves and went to the international bond market to raise more cash. Though it still has the lowest debt-to-GDP ratio of any country in the G-20, the long-term outlook foresees growing deficits.

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