Middle East update: June 10-11 2017

Hey, so I know I said earlier that there likely wouldn’t be any updates tonight, but I finally got WordPress to work again and blogging has prevented me from throwing something at my television, and plus writing these things is much easier if I keep up with things on a nightly basis, so I managed to get this one done at least. I think this will probably be it for the night, but who knows.


Map of the Persian Gulf, just in case it’s helpful

There was a lot of chatter and even a little bit of movement around the Qatar-Saudi et al diplomatic crisis over the weekend, but for the most part the situation is unchanged. Comoros and Mauritania decided to join the Saudis and company in severing all ties with Qatar, while Chad, Djibouti, Niger, and Senegal opted to follow Jordan’s lead in “downgrading” their ties with the Qataris. All due respect to those fine countries, but none of these moves really does anything to escalate the situation.

Kuwaiti authorities said on Sunday that the Qataris are ready “to understand the reality of the qualms and concerns of their brothers and to heed the noble endeavors to enhance security and stability,” I guess because saying “Qatar is ready to talk” would have been too straightforward. Morocco announced on Sunday that it’s prepared to play a mediating role alongside the Kuwaitis, which in theory should put more pressure on Riyadh to open up some kind of dialogue. But so far it seems neither the Kuwaitis nor the Moroccans have been able to get a response out of the Saudis. Nor has the United States, where somebody must have immobilized Donald Trump’s tweeting hand so that Rex Tillerson could insist on dialogue to solve the crisis without his boss contradicting him an hour later. But still, no response from the Saudis, who seem to prefer focusing on Trump’s statements in support of their actions.. Russia, similarly calling for dialogue, doesn’t seem to have had any luck either.

Of the developments that actually did take place over the weekend, about the best I can say is that they weren’t bad. For example, the Saudis, Emiratis, and Bahrainis set up hotlines for families with Qatari members, and while this is literally the least they could do at least it means those families might not be separated because of this feud. The Qataris, meanwhile, have opted not to retaliate by forcing out any Saudi/Emirati/etc. nationals, so no hotlines needed. And, most importantly, the Qataris brought in five planeloads of food on Sunday, which will at least help keep people fed in the short-term.

Of course, that food came from Gulf Public Enemy #1, Iran, which means it will probably deepen the larger diplomatic crisis even as it alleviates the immediate food crisis (Turkey has also sent food). So not everything that happened this weekend was entirely welcome news. Qatari pilgrims are reportedly being denied access to the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Turkey seems to be shedding its mediator role and falling firmly in behind Qatar, and it’s impossible to say at this point how that might impact the situation. The Qataris, despite whatever they’re saying to the Kuwaitis, seem pretty defiant toward what they’ve publicly called the Saudis’ “policy of domination.” And the situation in Qatar is tense, with many expat workers–those who are able–thinking seriously about getting out of the country.

However this crisis resolves itself, however long it takes, there’s a sense in reading interviews with people living in Qatar that something has been broken here that isn’t going to get put back together. The GCC might survive this spat, but there’s a deep resentment that isn’t going away for quite a while.


The Syrian Democratic Forces say they’ve taken control of two neighborhoods in Raqqa, Romaniah in the northwest and Mashlab in the east. This gives them two fronts from which to push deeper into the city, which should force ISIS to stretch its defenses. These successes came at a cost, though–Syrian activists say that between Friday and Saturday, coalition airstrikes killed at least 13 Raqqa civilians.

On Friday, the Washington Post reported in depth on allegations that the US-led anti-ISIS coalition has been using white phosphorus over Raqqa and Mosul. White phosphorus is a chemical weapon that has escaped designation as such basically because powerful countries still find it useful. And it can be used to create smokescreens and obscure battlefield activity. But what it really does is this:

The often-controversial munitions are common in western militaries and are used primarily to create smoke screens, though they can also be dropped as an incendiary weapon. When a white phosphorus shell explodes, the chemical inside reacts with the air, creating a thick white cloud. When it comes in contact with flesh, it can maim and kill by burning to the bone.

While international humanitarian law stipulates that civilians must be protected from all military operations, it also says that countries must take even more care when using white phosphorus. Additionally, because of the weapon’s ability to cause grievous and inhumane injuries, rights groups caution against using white phosphorus to kill enemy troops if other weapons are available.

The Pentagon insists that it uses white phosphorus only as intended and that it takes the risk to civilians into account, but like almost everything the Pentagon says this is only sort of true. If the US military were really taking civilian risk into account, it wouldn’t use this stuff over cities, full stop. Yes, it airbursts its WP munitions close to the ground to minimize the spread of the incendiary element, but that’s small comfort if you happen to be a civilian standing underneath one of these things when it explodes.

Russia, go figure, is unhappy that the US keeps bombing forces allied with Bashar al-Assad in southern Syria. In al-Bab, meanwhile, rebels who are all supposed to be Turkish clients are suddenly fighting with one another for reasons that are unknown.


On Saturday Iraqi authorities announced that they’d liberated western Mosul’s Zanjali neighborhood. Now, the regular reader will know that the Iraqis sometimes announce things prematurely, but even with that in mind it seems safe to say that Zanjali is either completely liberated or at most a day or two away from being completely liberated. This leaves ISIS in control of only the Shifa neighborhood, where the city’s main hospital complex is located, and the Old City. Perhaps more importantly, losing Zanjanli seems to have carried a military cost for ISIS:

“The Zanjali neighborhood has fully been liberated,” Shakir Jawdat, commander of the Iraqi Federal Police announced. “A bomb and mortar making factory has been discovered in it.”

Jawdat added that “a large portion of ammunition and military equipment were seized from the factory.”

Shifa is the next Iraqi target, along with Bab al-Sinjar, which is one of the main entrances into the Old City.

Patrick Wing has compiled a number of stories on life in eastern Mosul, which is returning to normal, amazingly without much government assistance in rebuilding:

The Wall Street Journal wrote about the rebuilding going on in east Mosul. That section of the city was freed five months ago. Shops are open and life has generally returned. The government has provided some services and repaved main roads, but most of the reconstruction financing has come from private sources borrowing money or spending their savings. Prime Minister Haider Abadi blamed a lack of coordination between Baghdad and the Ninewa government for the limited rebuilding. In comparison, west Mosul is still a battlefield and has faced far more destruction than the east, and little is being done there as a result. That will make it a much larger problem. There is already some resentment building up over the differences between the two sections, which has historical precedents as the east has always been considered more well off than the west. Iraqis are a resilient group. They are not waiting for the government to help them put their lives together. At the same time, individuals can only do so much by themselves. They need the authorities to do the heavy lifting, but at the moment they don’t have a plan or the money to fund one.

There were two additional stories of life in east Mosul improving. First, the University of Mosul started classes once again. The campus suffered extensive damage under the Islamic State, so most of the classrooms are unusable. Still, they are pushing ahead. Second, the Iraqi Real Estate Bank re-opened a branch in the east. It will be part of a government program to offer up to 50 million dinar loans for 10 years to help residents rebuild. The program won’t start until the entire city is freed however. A similar program was started in Anbar, but the requirements to borrow money were so strenuous that only the rich could apply. Hopefully that won’t be repeated in Mosul, but you can never tell.

To the west of Mosul, the long-awaited Iraqi operation to liberate Tal Afar appears to be underway. Over the weekend, Iraqi units took several villages to the east of that city. Most of the territory around Tal Afar has already been liberated by the Popular Mobilization Units, but they were prevented from attacking the city itself in order to avoid causing tension with Turkey–which has real problems with Iranian-backed militias assaulting a mostly Turkmen city like Tal Afar. The liberation of Tal Afar is likely to be the final act of the Mosul offensive, at which point Iraqi attention should turn to Hawijah, to the south, which is ISIS’s last major enclave in a populated area of the country.

On the other hand, attention may turn to Hawijah sooner than that. ISIS launched an attack on the town of Shirqat on Saturday that was repelled, but at the cost of 38 Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Given Shirqat’s proximity to Hawijah, it’s likely that ISIS’s attack originated there. It’s simply untenable for the Iraqis to have ISIS in control of a town in a location from which it can attack Mosul, Kirkuk, and Tikrit with relative ease.


Benjamin Netanyahu is now pushing the United Nations, or rather he’s pushing the Trump administration to push the United Nations, to eliminate the UN Relief and Works Agency, the office established in 1949 to handle issues related to Palestinian refugees. Netanyahu wants its responsibilities folded into the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees because, of course, that would mean much less focus on Israel-Palestine. That’s…not going to happen, probably, but I will give him credit for having the balls to push this while his government is in the midst of the largest illegal settlement expansion since 1992.


Even though Egypt’s High Administrative Court ruled in January that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government cannot transfer the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian parliament is considering the transfer anyway. Sisi controls parliament completely, so if it comes to a vote he’ll get authorization for the transfer, but it will shred the last vestiges of any belief that Egypt is a country governed by laws rather than by Sisi’s diktats. It’s also likely to lead to new protests–the transfer of these islands is not popular with the Egyptian public (they’ve protested over it before), and how much more angry are they likely to be if the transfer comes with a public acknowledgement that Egypt’s judicial system is superfluous. Perhaps in an effort to tamp down public opposition, the measure parliament is discussing would leave Egypt in “administrative control” of the islands even though they would technically become Saudi property.


Iranian authorities said on Saturday that they’ve killed the “mastermind” of last Wednesday’s dual terror attacks in Tehran. Interestingly, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi seemed to suggest that this mastermind person had left the country, but that Iranian forces were able to kill him anyway with the cooperation of one or more other intelligence services. They’ve also reportedly arrested 50 people in connection with the attack. A number of top Iranian security officials have been called before parliament to answer questions about why last week’s attack wasn’t prevented, but one of the big takeaways for the Iranian government is likely to be a greater concern about radicalization in Iran’s Kurdish community, given how many of the attackers were Kurds.

“Tribal fighting” in Iran’s southern Khuzestan province reportedly killed 22 people overnight on Friday.

Iran is sending “two warships” to Oman on their way out to international waters. As far as I know Iran doesn’t have anything larger than a frigate, so “warship” is all relative. But given the tensions in the Gulf right now, this probably bears watching.

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