Middle East update: June 8-9 2017


We’ve learned a bit more about five of the men who, along with two other men and one woman, attacked Iran’s parliament building and Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum on Wednesday, killing 17 people in the process. On Thursday, the Iranian government said that these five attackers had been recruited by ISIS from inside Iran. They were apparently members of other Sunni extremist groups in Iran who at some point left those groups and pledged themselves to ISIS, and then left Iran to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It’s believed they returned to Iran last summer to serve under local a ISIS commander calling himself “Abu Aysha,” and who himself was killed by Iranian forces last July. It’s not clear which extremist groups they might have been from, but as I noted on Wednesday they fact that at least one of the attackers can be heard speaking Arabic on video suggests that he at least was from Khuzestan, which does have a minority Sunni population.

I think this kind of analysis only goes so far, but I will note that of these names:

three of them (Saryas, Fereydun, and Ramin) are Iranic in origin, which would obviously suggest they’re not Arabs. Rudaw is reporting that four of the attackers are alleged to have been Kurdish, including “Serias” (who seems to have been Saryas Sadeghi, apparently a known ISIS supporter/recruiter), something that’s likely to lead to increased government scrutiny of the Iranian Kurdish community.

Iranian officials continue to lash out at Saudi Arabia and the US–President Trump’s decision to express condolences for Wednesday’s attack while victim-blaming the Iranians (even the president of the UAE, which is more openly hostile to Iran than the US, had more tact than Trump) hasn’t helped calm Tehran down–but there’s some evidence that Iran’s security establishment is trying to walk back the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s statement that the Saudis are to blame for the attack:

The country’s Supreme Leader said the attacks will add to the hatred that Iranians harbor toward the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

In a condolence message ahead of a funeral for the victims, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the attack: “will not damage the Iranian nation’s determination and the obvious result is nothing except an increase in hate for the governments of the United States and their stooges in the region like Saudi (Arabia),” state media reported.

On Thursday, Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said investigators were working to determine whether Saudi Arabia had a role Wednesday’s attacks but said it was too soon to say if that was the case.

The IRGC does its own thing, but it’s also a component of Iran’s national security state/deep state/whatever you want to call it, so even though this latter comment came out of the intelligence ministry it can probably be taken as at least a partial walk-back from the most incendiary implications of the IRGC claim–particularly given that the IRGC is facing some tough scrutiny right now for its failure to prevent these attacks.

If you want a detailed history of ISIS’s desires to strike inside Iran, I recommend Will McCants’ piece on the topic. The short history is that the al-Qaeda branch that eventually became ISIS has been itching to go after Iran for many years, and we know this because in 2007 Osama bin Laden wrote a letter to them asking them not to pursue it. Bin Laden talked about the importance of retaining the organization’s funding and transportation networks in Iran, but one assumes that the bigger issue for him was that the Iranians, after 9/11 and the exodus of many al-Qaeda officials out of Afghanistan, nabbed several important AQ figures, in particular Hamza bin Laden, and basically held them hostage. Proto-ISIS went along with this, but when they broke with al-Qaeda in 2014 they set attacking Iran as one of their main objectives, both because Iran has been an enemy in Syria and Iraq and because striking Iran would be a powerful one-up on their AQ rivals.

McCants goes on to talk about what ISIS might be hoping to get out of their success:

There may also be strategic reasons, as found in one of the group’s favorite insurgent manuals, The Management of Savagery. Reasons for attacking Iran might include punishing an adversary for attacking its territory, provoking an all-out sectarian war to force Iraqi Sunnis to side with the Islamic State, or provoking the Iranian government to launch a domestic crackdown on Sunnis that would lead them to turn to the Islamic State for protection.

Finally, the Islamic State wants to win its struggle with al-Qaida for the hearts and minds of global jihadis. The group badly needs recruits in order to replenish its decimated ranks in Syria and Iraq. A daring attack on Iran’s capital makes al-Qaida look foolish for refusing to carry out a siege of its own. The timing of the assault is also significant. To prove that it is still relevant in order to attract new recruits, the Islamic State seeks to inspire or direct global attacks during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Last Ramadan was incredibly bloody, and this Ramadan is on pace to match or surpass it.

ISIS has shown itself to be pretty adept at exploiting tensions between its enemies. For example, the 2015 Suruç bombing effectively caused a resumption of the Turkey-PKK war in an effort to stymie Kurdish aims in northern Syria. While that didn’t work strategically (Syrian Kurds continued to kick ISIS’s ass for the most part), we can say that the tactic worked pretty much exactly as planned because, well, have you seen southeastern Turkey lately? So if they’re trying to cause a wider sectarian war, I wouldn’t discount their ability to do that.


In a rare rebuke to Betteridge’s Law of HeadlinesThe Atlantic has published a piece with a question in the headline–“Is America Getting Sucked Into More War in Syria?”–to which the answer is, probably, not “no.” On Thursday, for the third time, the US struck forces allied with Bashar al-Assad in southern Syria in defense of its rebel proxies in the region. In this case the target was a drone that had apparently fired on those rebel proxies near their main base at Tanf. These strikes have now become frequent enough that, despite frequent US insistences to the contrary, there are a lot of people in Syria, particularly among the Syrian rebels, who believe that Washington is sliding itself deliberately into war with Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, and the whole crew.

The US is of course trying to prevent Assad’s forces from reaching the Iraqi border and, supposedly, creating a land corridor for Iran, through Iraq and Syria, all the way to the Mediterranean. So, let’s talk a bit about that. First, there are reports today that pro-Assad forces have already reached the Iraqi border by going around Tanf, which means those US-allied rebels are now blocked in and escalation might be inevitable. But also, Dexter Filkins reports on this “land corridor” for the New Yorker and, I have to say, seriously? The road network to the Mediterranean runs through Iraqi Kurdistan (the Kurdistan Regional Government opposes an Iranian corridor), then through a lot of territory controlled by Baghdad (which has to be accountable to Washington as well as Tehran), then through a lot of territory controlled by Syrian Kurds (likewise), and on to the sea. This is…not a secure route for Iran. There are possible alternate routes that cut around Syrian Kurdish areas, but right now those all run through ISIS territory. Plus the whole thing is over a thousand kilometers long. What’s the actual worry here? Is there a genuine concern that Iran is going to truck heavy weapons to Hezbollah over 1000 km of questionably secure territory? Or are we just coming up with Scary Iran Things to be worried about?

The Syrian Democratic Forces have entered the Raqqa city limits. This is big, but the fight in Raqqa isn’t expected to go quickly–ISIS has had a lot of time to prepare its defenses–nor is it likely to go easily for the city’s large remaining civilian population. Who, unfortunately, appear to be getting “conflicting instructions,” in Airwars.org’s words, about what to do to try to get out of the city. Coalition leaflets are being dropped on the city that variously tell residents to approach SDF forces and show them the leaflet and to hide the leaflet and approach SDF forces wearing a white strip of some kind. It’s tempting to roll your eyes at reports like this, but people might literally be killed by SDF forces over it.

Syrian government aircraft have reportedly been striking ISIS targets near Raqqa, which I guess is helpful, but Russia chimed in on Friday to accuse the SDF-US coalition of “colluding” with ISIS by leaving the southern passage into the city open for ISIS fighters to flee. Look, Moscow will score points any way it can, and we know from the rest of their conduct in Syria that they clearly don’t give a shit about preserving civilian lives, but this is an entirely sound tactic. Giving ISIS a place to run may encourage them not to fight to the death in the heavily populated city around all those civilians, and then–and here’s the real beauty of this tactic–you can kill them somewhere else. Enveloping an enemy on the battlefield is tactically sound and usually leads to a decisive victory with heavy enemy losses. Enveloping an enemy inside a city is bad, because while it might lead to a decisive victory, the heaviest losses are inevitably going to be to civilians. Witness western Mosul right now for a case in point. Does the US really care about not killing civilians in Raqqa? Well, it actually might, because minimizing civilian casualties will make it easier for the SDF to pacify the city after ISIS is gone, but even if it doesn’t, leaving ISIS an out is still a way to reduce those casualties. Which is good.


Two suicide bombings claimed by ISIS killed at least 34 Iraqis on Friday. In the deadlier attack, at least 31 people were killed when a female suicide bomber struck a crowded market in the town of Musayab, south of Baghdad. Another suicide bomber hit a bus station in the city of Karbala, killing at least three people.

The heaviest fighting in Mosul right now appears to be focused on the Zanjali neighborhood, where the UN is warning of a dramatic escalation in civilian casualties. In particular, it says that between 50 and 80 civilians were killed in a coalition airstrike on May 31, which I’m sure will be reduced to around two once the Pentagon gets done “investigating” the incident. Tens of thousands of people are still trapped in ISIS-controlled parts of Mosul (an estimate 100,000 children alone).

Baghdad is trying to rebuild and restore services to liberated parts of Mosul, but it’s been slow going and its efforts are hampered by political conflicts. For example, it floated an idea to divert a third of Kirkuk’s electricity to eastern Mosul and was met with a threat from the city’s government to cut off Kirkuk’s oil and/or electricity shipments to the capital.

Speaking of Kirkuk, when Iraqi Kurds vote on independence in September you can bet that its status will be front and center in any ensuing negotiations/arguments/conflicts with Baghdad. In fact, there are some in Iraq who say that the independence referendum is an effort by Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani to create leverage by which he can force Baghdad to make Kirkuk and its oil fields part of Barzani’s autonomous Kurdistan region. He would effectively trade independence for the right to directly control Kirkuk’s oil. The Kurds say they’re going ahead with the referendum no matter what, even over strong opposition from Barzani ally Turkey (which opposes any Kurdish separatism for obvious reasons).

Finally, there’s the ongoing Popular Mobilization Unit operation in northwestern Iraq, especially around Sinjar, but since this update is already long and about to get a lot longer (we haven’t even gotten to Qatar yet), here’s Joel Wing to fill you in on the mostly-friendly (so far) relationship between the PMU and the Yazidis, and on the progress of their operation more generally.


The Israel-Palestine Joint Water Committee met on May 16 for the first time in seven years. Originally formed in 1995, the committee was supposed to deal with water and waste issues in the West Bank (except for the Jordan River) during the Oslo Accords’ “interim period,” which technically ended in 1999. How about that. But since Oslo has been on life support since about three minutes after it was originally signed, that “interim period” has pretty much stopped being interim, and the JWC is therefore still, in theory, active. It never gets anything done though, because Israel apparently refuses to approve new Palestinian water projects unless the Palestinians legitimize Israel’s West Bank settlements, and the Palestinians aren’t about to start doing that.


During a press conference today at the White House with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, US President Donald Trump decided to “call on Qatar to end its funding” of terrorism.

He then “thanked” King Salman of Saudi Arabia for hosting him in Riyadh.

This is what’s so fucked up about how the US has responded to the latest Saudi-Qatar spat. Washington has been reluctant to call any of its Gulf allies out for financing international terrorism for fear that things in that regard could get worse and because those countries are valuable to the United States in other ways (as reliable energy sources, as strategic locations for military bases, as sources of intelligence, etc.). If we’re serious about ending Gulf support for terrorism and for extremist organizations, that’s great. But there’s no way in which singling out Qatar on this score while throwing completely in with Saudi Arabia makes sense. Trump has decided to fully support the Saudi pot calling the Qatari kettle black because…well, I don’t know. He liked seeing his face on the side of that hotel.

It’s not like Trump is part of a wave of international sentiment in support of the Saudis. Kuwait, one of Riyadh’s closest allies, is trying to mediate the dispute. Germany too. Turkey, in a decision that could have long-term strategic implications, has apparently decided to back Qatar. Pakistan is trying not to get sucked in to the situation. Iran is calling for calm and still offering to send food to Qatar to help its people get through this blockade, which, as Paul Pillar notes, has given Tehran a chance to look like a font of peace and stability despite constant Saudi and Western accusations to the contrary. Even the rest of Trump’s own administration has refused to adopt his view of this situation. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called on Arab states to ease their blockade of Qatar and even cited humanitarian reasons in doing so–though his main concern seems to be the effect this situation is having on American interests.

The dispute itself keeps escalating despite all the calls for calm. The Saudis, et al, on Friday announced imposed sanctions against 12 entities and 59 individuals accused of links to international terrorism, many of them Qatari or with Qatari ties. The Qataris “rejected” this list and have described the Saudi and co. blockade as a violation of international law and an illegitimate effort to undermine Qatar’s foreign policy. Bahrain, cutting more to what I think is at the heart of this dispute, is demanding that Qatar sever ties with Iran. Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed b. Abdulrahman Al Thani said on Thursday that Qatar is not going to surrender its foreign policy independence and called for dialogue to resolve the crisis, but Omar Saif Ghobas, the UAE ambassador to Russia, appeared to close the door on that idea by saying on Friday that “there is no trust” with Qatar and by appearing to welcome the idea of a Qatari coup.

It seems unlikely that Qatar will acquiesce to having its foreign policy run out of Riyadh, and that also means it’s unlikely to agree to shutter Al Jazeera. Speaking of which, Al Jazeera was apparently the victim of a major hacking effort yesterday, I’m sure completely coincidentally. They seem to have been able to deal with it. You may recall that there’s a hacking case at the center of this whole situation, and the New York Times goes into some detail today about what the nature of that hack, believed to have been carried out by freelance Russian hackers, may have for the future of espionage in general.

My guess is that the first thing that will get tossed in the name of Gulf unity is Qatar’s support for Hamas. The reason, in part, is that Hamas doesn’t really need it anymore, with its relationship with Iran improving again and all of its top leadership now in Gaza instead of being in exile in Doha. Qatar had already, in fact, started quietly moving Hamas out of the country anyway, so this wouldn’t be that big a sacrifice but it would carry a lot of symbolic weight. Qatar defends its relationship with Hamas as important to try to build Palestinian unity, but, well, if Qatar’s relationship with Hamas were actually important to building Palestinian unity, I imagine we’d actually have some Palestinian unity by now, don’t you?


I feel like this whole update has been about Saudi Arabia, so deeply is it enmeshed in the Iran and Qatar drama. But in a video recorded before Wednesday’s Tehran attack, the ISIS fighters who carried out that attack also leveled a threat at the Saudis:

In a video that appeared to have been recorded before the attack on Tehran, five masked fighters were shown threatening Shi’ites in Iran as well as the Saudi Arabian government saying their turn “will come”.

“Allah permitting, this brigade will be the first of jihad in Iran, and we ask our brothers the Muslims to follow us, as the fire that was ignited will not be put out, Allah permitting,” one of the masked fighters said, according to SITE.

At the end of the video, he sent a message to the Saudi government.

“Know that after Iran, your turn will come. By Allah, we will strike you in your own homes… We are the agents of nobody. We obey Allah and His Messenger, and we are fighting for the sake of this religion, not for the sake of Iran or the Arabian Peninsula.”

I suppose the IRGC would say that threat was added for effect, to give Riyadh plausible deniability. But considering that ISIS has struck Saudi Arabia more often than it has Iran (Wednesday’s attack was the first one), I don’t think this threat was just for show.

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