Middle East update: June 12 2017


First off, here’s me on today’s Majority Report today talking about Qatar:

The Qataris have really latched on to Kuwait’s efforts to mediate their diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia. This makes sense, in that the Kuwait route must seem like the only way out of this mess that doesn’t involve turning Qatar into a Saudi colony, but the problem is that there’s so far been no sign of interest in mediation from the Saudis or their crew. Mediation only works if there are two parties participating in the process, you know?

The most acute need in Qatar continues to be importing enough food–and with the Saudi land border completely shut down, that’s not surprising. Turkey is supplying some items, particularly dairy, the Qataris have increased food imports from countries outside the Middle East, and Iran now says it will provide Qatar with 100 tons of food per day, which as I said yesterday helps alleviate an immediate crisis at the cost of deepening the underlying diplomatic conflict with the Saudis. And there are ripple effects that are starting to be felt elsewhere, in countries where the remittances from relatives working in Qatar make up a big chunk of families’ income:

The blockade has also led to shortages of US currency in exchange houses used by foreign workers, who make up 90% of the population, to send money home.

“I spoke with my wife this morning. She said: ‘Send your savings to me now.’ I am not panicked, but my family are scared,” said John Vincent, an air-conditioning repairman from the Philippines queueing at one exchange house.

The sense as this situation enters its third week seems to be that the Qataris have stabilized their situation for the most part, which isn’t surprising given the massive resources upon which they’re able to draw. The food situation is still a concern but it’s being managed, for now, it’s huge cash reserves are stabilizing the economy, for now, it’s still selling gas and some oil, for now, and it’s continuing to ship goods via Oman, for now. All those “for nows” are the problem. If this crisis continues indefinitely at this level, something is going to give out–eventually Qatar’s cash reserves, for example–or some other event is going to impact on this situation.

Qatar, at this point, doesn’t seem inclined to take any retaliatory steps that would inflame the situation further. Instead they’re beginning to take their case against the Saudi et al blockade international, for example by complaining to the UK about the air embargo against it. But you’ll note in that Guardian piece that Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed b. Abdulrahman Al Thani said that Doha will not shut off its natural gas shipment to the UAE. Qatar could do serious harm to the Emiratis by taking that step, but it would escalate the crisis without really affecting the Saudis, who are driving the bus here. The UAE, for its part, is now exempting Qatari spouses of Emirati nationals from its expulsion order, which isn’t much but will reduce the real harm being felt as a result of the crisis.

At the end of the day the implications of this crisis are very important for the future of the Middle East and the Arab world, because it’s about whether Saudi Arabia is going to allow its neighbors to govern themselves. Is the Gulf Cooperation Council going to be an alliance of six equal partner or is it going to simply be Saudi Arabia’s Greek chorus? Are other Arab nations going to be entitled to chart their own course or will they all have to take marching orders from Riyadh? What about the Sunni world? The Saudis have been cajoling and threatening and buying influence all over the Sunni world, and beyond, for decades now. Their ability to keep buying influence is on the wane thanks to cheap oil, the growth of renewable energy, and the inevitable decline in Saudi oil reserves. So they’re trying to bring Qatar to its knees as an example to the rest of the Sunni states around the world about the price of fucking with Riyadh.

Everything else about this situation–Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, its relations with Iran, its support for extremism (which in particular is a galling charge coming from the Saudis)–is simply detail. The core of the matter is whether or not Arab/Sunni states will be forced to knuckle under to the region’s new would-be hegemon. Clearly if Donald Trump has anything to say about it, they will.


Syrian Democratic Forces…uh, forces (I’d like to call a moratorium on any armed group using the word “forces” in its name) advanced deeper into eastern Raqqa on Monday, all the way to the walls of its Old City section, though they have not fully secured the areas they’ve taken to get there. The New York Times, meanwhile, reports on the battle coming after Raqqa, since it now seems like ISIS’s Syrian endpoint is going to come further south than its (former?) “capital”:

American-backed forces have begun an assault on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s hub in northern Syria, and signs are that they could capture the long-sought target with relative ease. Yet the militant group’s commanders, who have already withdrawn their toughest forces from the city, and most everyone else in Syria’s multifaceted war are looking ahead to an even more decisive battle in the south.

There, a complex confrontation is unfolding, with far more geopolitical import and risk. The Islamic State is expected to make its last stand not in Raqqa but in an area that encompasses the borders with Iraq and Jordan and much of Syria’s modest oil reserves, making it important in stabilizing Syria and influencing its neighboring countries.

Whoever lays claim to the sparsely populated area in this 21st-century version of the Great Game not only will take credit for seizing what is likely to be the Islamic State’s last patch of a territorial caliphate in Syria, but also will play an important role in determining Syria’s future and the postwar dynamics of the region.

ISIS has gotten most of its fighters and leadership out of Raqqa and has moved the center of its Syrian operations south, to Deir Ezzor and even further along toward the Iraqi border. Their new location make them a target for both the Syrian army and southern rebels backed by the US, which is part of what’s feeding the increasingly tense situation in southern Syria. If ISIS can get its two enemies, the Syrian government and the US with its rebel proxies, to start fighting each other, then maybe neither will be able to move against ISIS. It’s a long shot, but long shots are really all ISIS has left at this point.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but it seems the Iraqis may have been overestimating when they declared west Mosul’s Zanjali neighborhood liberated over the weekend. At least, it seems they were overestimating if reports of new fighting there today are accurate:

This is not to say that Zanjali isn’t on the way to being liberated, just that it might not be there yet. In related news, when the Iraqis say they’ve established a “foothold” in the Shifa neighborhood’s medical complex, maybe you should take that with a grain of salt. You can, I suppose, take some comfort in a report issued Monday by the London-based IHS Markit military analysis group, which says that ISIS’s chemical weapons capabilities have been significantly eroded thanks to the Mosul operation and “targeted killings” of the group’s CW specialists.

The bodies of 11 more men have been found outside of Mosul, murdered execution-style and left along the side of a road. Vigilantism against men suspected of fighting or otherwise collaborating with ISIS is and will continue to be a problem that Iraqi forces, already overwhelmed with the battle against ISIS, are going to need to find a way to stop, or at least punish.

Reuters reported on Monday as to the suspected whereabouts of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who impressively went from the Most Dangerous Man In The World to underground fugitive in record time. Baghdadi was believed to be hiding out in the Iraqi border town of Baaj, but he clearly got out of there before it was liberated by the Popular Mobilization Units earlier this month. He’s definitely steering clear of any big cities and is believed to travel between a number of hideouts along the Iraq-Syria border in a single nondescript car or pickup truck.


Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attacked a southeastern Yemeni army base on Monday, killing two soldiers along with ten AQAP fighters.


Israel announced on Monday that it’s going to cut the four hours of electricity the people of Gaza receive each day by another 45 minutes. This actually isn’t a specifically punitive measure by Israel (I mean it is to some extent, but that’s not the main cause). Rather, it has to do with a long-running dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. The PA has in the past been responsible for supplying fuel to Gaza’s power plant and for paying Gaza’s electric bill to the Israelis for the Israeli power that supplements the plant. But the PA and Hamas are fighting over Gaza taxation and, more generally, over forming a Palestinian unity government, so the PA has in recent months stopped fueling the power plant and informed Israel that it will only pay 70 percent of Gaza’s electric bill. Consequently, Gazans spend most of the day without power and their hospitals are trying to get by on generators. Hence the Israeli cuts.



Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi held secret talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog last year to promote a plan that would have recognised Israel as a Jewish state, according to a report by the the Haaretz newspaper.

Several Arab countries helped broker the April 2016 secret meeting in Cairo with the aim of forming a coalition government in Israel between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Herzog’s Zionist Union party.

The regional leaders felt Netanyahu’s right-wing government was not capable of implementing a peace initiative they held two months earlier and approached Herzog asking for his help in promoting the plan, according to the report.

The meeting in Cairo came off the heels of a secret four-way summit in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba in February 2016, also reported by Haaretz, where Sisi, Netanyahu, then-US Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordan’s King Abdullah II were prepared to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.

These talks aren’t very secret–they’ve been known about for some time now. Netanyahu eventually refused to offer any concessions to the Palestinians and opted to form a precarious far-right coalition rather than a more stable national unity government with Herzog, so the whole effort collapsed. But I think it’s interesting that Al Jazeera is pushing this major story that doesn’t do much for Sisi’s public image right after Egypt joined the Saudis and company in cutting ties with Qatar. Al Jazeera has long been and continues to be hard on Sisi, which is good, he’s a brutal dictator who’s done horrible things, but there too Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood government that Sisi overthrew is undoubtedly part of the reason AJ has made Sisi’s abuses such a focus. I think Al Jazeera English is one of the more valuable media outlets in the English-speaking world (its Arabic outlet has unfortunately given itself over to extremist personalities to a greater extent), but it’s always important to watch for biases.


One Saudi security officer was killed on Monday in a bombing in the predominantly Shiʿa town of Qatif.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in Jeddah on Monday for talks with King Salman over the Qatar situation. There have been reports that Pakistan has sent or was sending troops to Qatar, but Islamabad has denied this and is very much trying to stay above the fray. Which is understandable considering that Pakistan is economically dependent on both countries.


Iranian state media is reporting that police killed four suspected ISIS members and captured five others in the country’s southern Hormuzgan province on Monday. Since last Wednesday’s successful ISIS attack in Tehran it seems like the normally opaque Iranian media has been full of stories about arrests, battles with militants, and the like. It may be that Iranian security services want to reassure the public that they’re Doing Something to protect the country from additional attacks.

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