Middle East update: June 6 2017


This evening CNN broke the story that the FBI believes that not only was the Qatar News Agency really hacked a couple of weeks ago with a fake news report about an incendiary anti-Saudi, pro-Iran speech by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim b. Hamad Al Thani, but that Russians were behind the hack. It’s not clear if they were affiliated with Russian security services or just freelancing Russian cybercriminals, but assuming the FBI is right this is another huge development in this story. The QNA affair was certainly part of Riyadh’s motivation for going after the Qataris this week–though I’d be careful not to overestimate how big a part it was–and if this was Russia deliberately acting to sow chaos in the GCC and between two US clients, that’s very dangerous.

Also breaking this evening, according to Al Jazeera reporter Faisal Edroos the Saudis have given Qatar a list of ten demands that must be fulfilled within 24 hours or…else (or else what? who knows?):


Some of these things couldn’t be accomplished within 24 hours even if Qatar wanted to do them. Others are so nebulous that they probably can’t ever be accomplished (define, for example, an “anti-GCC element”). In short, this is a list of demands that cannot be met and Riyadh absolutely knows this. We’ll see what “or else” they have in mind.

Also, Jordan announced that it’s “downgrading” diplomatic ties with Qatar, whatever that means, but there hasn’t exactly been an avalanche of countries following the Saudi/UAE lead and cutting ties with Doha.

One thing I do want to mention is that yesterday I missed a small but potentially significant point regarding Qatar’s relationship with Iran, which is that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim b. Hamad Al Thani called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on winning reelection on May 19. A small gesture, but one I imagine the Saudis noticed and added to their list of grievances.

The Qataris started telling people Tuesday morning that Kuwait was trying to play mediator between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and bring the Gulf Cooperation Council back together, and today it’s being reported that Turkey is also trying to mediate the dispute. Both countries have a good reason to want to head this crisis off, which is basically that either or both of them could be next on Riyadh’s shit list. Turkey has had close relations with the Muslim Brotherhood’s various branches (its ruling Justice and Development Party is itself very Muslim Brotherhood-influenced) and it has maintained ties with Iran despite their disagreements on Syria. Kuwait, likewise, has maintained its historically cordial relations with Iran despite a couple of bumps in the road. Turkey also has a lot of business and military ties with Qatar that would likely force it to take Qatar’s side if this situation escalates any further, and Ankara doesn’t want that.

The tangible impacts of this blockade on Qatar are starting to be felt. In addition to food shortages, Qatar Airways has been scrambling to reroute flights because it’s even being denied airspace rights over Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt (Bahrain has restricted its airspace rights but hasn’t completely denied them). Also, at least one of the countries that supplies Qatar with its often brutally-treated migrant workforce, the Philippines, has stopped sending its nationals to Qatar citing the potential for unrest.

One other country is weighing in on this situation pretty heavily, and that’s of course the United States. And because Donald Trump is the President of the United States, you can rest assured that we’re doing so in the absolute dumbest possible way. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offers to mediate the crisis, here’s what the president (via Twitter, naturally) is doing:

“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!” Mr Trump tweeted on Tuesday.

He later tweeted: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding… extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

Absent some immediate threat, it doesn’t make sense for the US to get involved in these regional conflicts even when its a US ally against an US foe–it’s incredibly stupid, for example, for Trump to wade into the middle of the Saudi-Iran feud, because there’s really nothing to be gained from doing so. How much more stupid, then, for the president of the United States to take sides in a fight between two US clients?

There are already questions about whether US military assets in Qatar can now be utilized (for example, in Iraq) because of those airspace issues. The future of the regional anti-terrorism initiative Trump inaugurated in his visit to Riyadh is in doubt. And any other nation watching this play out now has to wonder if allying with the United States is worth it, given the apparent ease with which another US ally can get into Trump’s ear and cause him to turn on you. Maybe this is why Trump’s own Pentagon spent the day praising Qatar, and flatly contradicting him. And maybe it’s why, later in the day on Tuesday, Trump reportedly called Saudi King Salman and stressed the importance of “Arab unity” to fight extremism. I have no idea who convinced Trump to make that call or how they convinced him, but I do find it hilarious that he swung from bragging about causing this rift to trying to heal it in the space of a few hours.

It cannot be overstated how much Trump is responsible for this. He’s gone all-in on Riyadh’s destructive and counter-productive plans for the Middle East. He’s emboldened the Saudis to assert dominance over their neighbors. He’s decided to subsume American interests to the interests of a client state. And why? Because they kissed his ass just right. Is America Great Again, or what?


As previewed yesterday, the Syrian Democratic Forces have begun their attack on Raqqa. This offensive is expected to take a while, with maybe 3000 ISIS fighters in the city and 200,000 civilians who, hopefully, will be protected as much as possible (already there are reports that 17 civilians trying to flee the city were killed in a coalition airstrike on Monday, which is not an auspicious start to this assault). But it probably won’t be as tough as it could have been a couple of months ago–many ISIS fighters reportedly withdrew from the city and headed into Deir Ezzor province in advance of this fight.

In southern Syria, meanwhile, the slow roll toward a US-Iran war continues. Coalition aircraft struck forces affiliated with the Syrian government again on Monday after those forces allegedly entered a deconfliction zone too close to US-aligned rebels. It’s certainly not clear how this is going to shake out, but Jordan seems already to be expressing a preference for having US-backed rebels on its border as opposed to, say, ISIS, or Iranian-backed militias.


The United Nations says that 163 Mosul civilians were killed by ISIS in a single day last week, probably June 1, as they attempted to flee the war zone. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, is reporting that the bodies of at least 26 men have been found in various government-held parts of the city since the Mosul operation began, all handcuffed, blindfolded, and executed. Which is not to equate both sides here because they’re not even close to equal, but one of these two sides is an armed mob playacting as an apocalyptic death cult, and the other side is supposed to be adhering to the rule of law–which may be a naive idea, but the only chance Iraq has to survive this ordeal intact is for Iraqi forces to take the moral and legal high ground.

Iraqi officials have finally put together their response to journalist Ali Arkady, whose embedded reporting with the interior ministry’s Rapid Response Division showed massive human rights violations by some of that unit’s members. And boy, it’s an interesting one–they’re accusing Arkady of inventing the abuses in order to get himself asylum in a European country…and accusing him of complicity in the abuses since he was there when they allegedly occurred. Complicity in abuses that didn’t actually take place? That would really be something.

The Popular Mobilization Units are continuing their efforts to clear the Syrian border of ISIS and their commanders may be trying to create a case for crossing into Syria, as Joel Wing describes:

The Hashd were still at work in west Ninewa. 9 villages were seized to the northwest of Baaj, and they were heading towards a border crossing. Hashd leader Yusuf al-Kalabi told the press that the units would be clearing the Baaj district and the move into new regions. Deputy Hashd commander Abu Muhandis claimed IS was firing upon the Hashd from Syria. This might be a provocation to cross the border as many other Hashd members have talked about in recent days. Prime Minister Haider Abadi however stated that the government does not want any of the Iraqi forces fighting outside the country. The Hashd have said they would not move into Syria without Baghdad’s approval, but they are increasingly pushing the matter. Until then if they want to secure the Iraq-Syrian border they only have a very small fraction under their control, so there is plenty for them to do inside Iraq.


The New York Times published an absolute bombshell today on the Pentagon’s use of supposed humanitarian aid organizations to ferry covert military hardware into war zones, in this case post-Houthi takeover Yemen:

An American kidnapped two years ago in Yemen while helping coordinate aid for Unicef and the Red Cross also had a second, secret role: He was shipping materials for elite military commandos under a clandestine contract his employer had with the Pentagon. The arrangement with Special Operations forces has never been made public.

The former hostage, Scott Darden, was the Yemen country director for Transoceanic Development, a New Orleans-based logistics company that specializes in transporting cargo to the world’s most dangerous hot spots. It belongs to a small group of firms that provide humanitarian aid to famine-stricken women and children at the same time that they help set up safe houses and supply networks for the military’s secret kill-or-capture commando units.

Darden was a Houthi prisoner from March through September 2015. And it’s not him I’m really worried about. But it is incredibly irresponsible for the Pentagon to use humanitarian aid contractors as military bagmen. Just a handful of cases like this casts legitimate humanitarian aid workers in a suspicious light and therefore puts them at risk.

The governor of Yemen’s Hadramout province, Ahmed Saeed b. Bourek, says drone strikes are a lousy way to fight al-Qaeda and that US policy should instead focus on providing direct aid to regional governors, bypassing the country’s embattled central government(s):

Bin Bourek, however, believes that the U.S. military can’t wipe out the terrorist organization by itself. The state-of-the-art Predator drones the U.S. military uses “can achieve 50 percent success in liquidating al Qaeda,” he said. “They are not as effective as trained forces on the ground. The drones can kill leaders but cannot greatly exterminate the militants.”

He urged Trump to help train and arm local forces to confront the militants in their own regions, arguing that the current U.S. policy of filtering aid through officials of Yemen’s internationally recognized government was a mistake.

He dismissed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s central government as consigned to exile in “Riyadh’s hotels” (although it is now formally based in the Yemeni port city of Aden) and unaware of conditions in the country. Assistance, he said, should instead be given directly to provincial governors like himself.

Undoubtedly there could be some selfish rea$on$ why a Yemeni governor would like US aid to come directly to him rather than passing through the various grifters that comprise the Hadi regime, but this seems like a no-lose proposition. You send aid directly to the governors and either they pocket it, which isn’t much different from what already happens, or maybe some of them are on the level and actually use the aid to deal with al-Qaeda.


Germany is pulling its forces out of Incirlik air base over Turkey’s decision to block German politicians from visiting the facility. But Berlin hopes to do this in a way that doesn’t escalate tensions with Ankara, and, well, good luck with that. Literally everything raises tensions with Ankara these days, because “tense” is pretty much the Turkish government’s normal state.

The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), who are either a PKK splinter group or a PKK front group depending on who you ask, declared on Tuesday that it is going to escalate its war against the Turkish state. It promised in particular to target Turkish tourism, which means its major cities. Because Ankara views TAK, PKK, PYD, YPG, SDF, BBQ, TNT, MSN, GRE, and IRC (I might have added a couple extra acronyms there) as all fruit off the same poisonous Kurdish tree, it’s possible this TAK provocation could have repercussions for the Raqqa offensive. Unlikely, but possible.


Lebanese authorities have arrested at least one and as many as three people connected with a suspected ISIS cell that was plotting at least one suicide attack.


Mitchell Plitnick writes for LobeLog on the Six-Day War and its repercussions:

Fifty years have passed since Israel’s stunning military victory over the countries surrounding it in 1967. War transforms countries, regions, the entire planet as no other event can. And perhaps no war ever transformed a country and the entire region surrounding it as suddenly and as dramatically as the 1967 war did to Israel, the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the entire Middle East.

Consider where the region was on June 4, 1967. The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing in the region, with the US enjoying an advantage, but still concerned with Soviet influence. Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, was a leader in both the global Non-Aligned Movement—which purported to resist the influence of either of the superpowers—and the rapidly declining Pan-Arab movement. Syria was already fighting with Israel. Its government in a state of flux that would not resolve itself until several years later, Syria was already the Soviet Union’s strongest ally in the region. Disunity among Arab governments in general was rampant, with uneasy relationships thwarting several attempts at alliances among different sets of countries.

The fiftieth anniversary of the war that created the occupation has spawned many futile calls for its end, including Tuesday’s call from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid b. Raʿad al-Hussein. But when I say these calls are futile, I’m not speaking abstractly. I mean they’re futile because, while the rest of the world is acknowleging the great harm the 1967 war did to the Palestinians, Israelis are celebrating their victory and making plans to expand settlements in the West Bank and tighten their control over East Jerusalem. Oh, and gunning people down in Gaza as well.

For Hamas, the war’s anniversary has kind of been overshadowed by the Gulf diplomatic crisis. Hamas has long had good relations with Qatar, relations that really kept Hamas viable after its stance on the Syrian civil war and Bashar al-Assad cost it Iranian support (which has largely been restored) back in 2012. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if Hamas’s recent warming with Iran contributed to Riyadh’s move against Qatar (it’s also likely going to worsen Hamas’s already tenuous relationship with Egypt). The Qataris had quietly begun moving Hamas out before things went crazy, but now that effort will probably speed up in order to appease the Saudis.


The Huffington Post has a new batch of leaked emails from UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, in which he denigrates Donald Trump:

At 9:12 p.m. on election night, as Trump’s odds of a win dramatically increased, Rob Malley, the top official for the Middle East in the Obama White House, wrote to Otaiba.

“You got room for me in Abu Dhabi?” Malley wrote, referring to the Emirates’ capital city.

“This isn’t funny. How/why is this happening??” Otaiba responded. “On what planet can trump be a president??”

Well, he ain’t wrong there. There’s more:

Otaiba seemed more dismissive of Trump in an email exchange from earlier in 2016, between the ambassador and Fox News personality Judith Miller.

The ambassador wrote to Miller, a former New York Times reporter, on May 9, 2016, after she appears to have sent him tweets from a Saudi whistleblower account that seemed to have disparaged Otaiba’s boss, Emirates Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed.

“The 7 minutes I spent reading this was the equivalent of watching 7 minutes of donald trump. A waste of my time,” Otaiba said.

The ambassador also joked about Trump, then a presidential candidate, with Chris Schroeder, an entrepreneur who worked for President George H.W. Bush. In a Jan. 26, 2016, conversation about different conferences in the UAE and the U.S., Otaiba wrote, “The government summit is big deal. In trump’s words, its uge!”

Maybe this guy’s not so bad. Huffington’s Akbar Shahid Ahmed seems to think these emails could cause Trump and his fragile ego to turn against the UAE and the anti-Qatar effort, but I think all that Saudi fluffing is still too fresh in his mind.


The World Health Organization says that three Saudi hospitals have reported outbreaks of the potentially fatal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) since late April. The MERS virus is related to the virus that causes SARS and is believed to be transmitted by camels. It has killed almost 700 people since 2012.


Tehran has informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that it will ship 20 metric tons of heavy water out of the country to remain in compliance with the terms of the Iran nuclear deal. The most recent IAEA report on Iran’s compliance noted that it was approaching its allowed limit for heavy water, so this is not a surprise. Iran wants to find buyers for its surplus heavy water, but ships excess to Oman for storage unless and until it can find some.

On the Qatar front, there seems to be a lively debate in Tehran about whether to just point and laugh at all this GCC dysfunction or to step in and try to take advantage of the situation by throwing Qatar a lifeline. At this point the hardliners seem to be in the “point and laugh” camp, so that’s probably where Iran will remain for now. They’ve already offered to help Qatar import food, but I suspect that’s as much to jerk the Saudis around as to genuinely aid the Qataris.

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