Middle East update: June 13 2017


Today in “Me Or Your Lying Eyes,” it’s Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir:

“There is no blockade of Qatar. Qatar is free to go. The ports are open, the airports are open,” Jubeir said alongside a silent Tillerson who had called last week for the embargo on Qatar to be “eased”.

“The limitation on the use of Saudi airspace is only limited to Qatar Airways or Qatari-owned aircraft, not anybody else,” Jubeir said.

“The seaports of Qatar are open. There is no blockade on them. Qatar can move goods in and out whenever they want. They just cannot use our territorial waters.”

There’s no blockade on Qatar! It’s just that the Saudis, with a number of other allies, have…blocked…land sea and air access to Qatar. But it’s not a blockade, that’s an act of war. It’s different, in some way.

Jubeir’s bullshit parsing notwithstanding, the State Department’s readout from his meeting with Rex Tillerson in Washington today was that this crisis is “trending in a positive direction.” Which is awesome. Wait, no, it’s actually just more bullshit.

Here are today’s developments as best I’ve been able to tell:

  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to move in a more explicitly pro-Qatar direction–today he described the Saudi-led non-blockade as a “death sentence” for Qatar, and he’s planning to discuss the affair with Donald Trump “in the coming days,” according to Ankara.
  • Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned from Saudi Arabia and issued a statement expressing “solidarity” with the Saudis but nonetheless calling for the Qatar situation to be “resolved soon.”
  • Despite some efforts (hotlines, exempting spouses in the case of the UAE) to make life easier for Gulf families with Qatari members who are subject to expulsion orders, families are still being threatened.
  • An enterprising (insert cliche about the Chinese words for “crisis” and “opportunity”) Qatari businessman named Moutaz al-Khayyat is reportedly working out a plan to import 4000 dairy cows to Qatar to launch a domestic dairy industry. Having experienced June and July in Qatar on two occasions myself, those cows, if they actually do make it there, have my sympathies.
  • US Ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith announced on Tuesday that she’s leaving her post as of the end of June. She’s been there for about three years, which is a pretty normal period for an ambassadorship, and the State Department says that she made the decision to leave earlier this year, but given the context it’s hard to escape the feeling that she’s also getting out of Dodge just a little bit.
  • UAE ambassador and Washington party animal Yousef al-Otaiba insists that “there is absolutely no military component” to the anti-Qatar campaign, and that the US military facility at Qatar’s al-Udeid base is perfectly safe–though, of course, if the US would like to talk to him about moving that facility to the UAE, he guesses he might be able to have that conversation. What a guy.

Finally, you’ll be shocked–shocked!–to find out that Gulf state media outlets are parroting Donald Trump in their reporting on Qatar:

Many media outlets in the region — government-owned and independent — have adopted the anti-Qatar stance of their respective governments and began echoing some of Trump’s remarks. As the crisis entered its second week, here’s a look at what some newspapers are saying.

Saudi Arabia’s Mecca Al Mukaramah newspaper printed a photo of Trump on its front page, with a red headline: “Qatar has a history of funding terrorism, has to stop.” Al-Jazira newspaper also quoted Trump, warning that “Qatar must stop its terrorism or accept its downfall.”

“Qatar adopts antagonist policies towards gulf countries, undermining their sovereignty to destabilize their security,” added the leading Saudi newspaper, Al Riyadh.

In the United Arab Emirates, Al Khaleej newspaper described the steps taken against Qatar as “harsh” but “necessary to set the limits for the Qatari leadership’s stubbornness and insistence on destabilizing Persian Gulf countries.”


The next round of peace talks in Kazakhstan, which was supposed to happen this week but was postponed, is likely to happen in early July, according to Moscow.

Most attention in Syria these days seems to be on the fight over Raqqa, or the looming US-Iran proxy war in the south over who gets to occupy Bukamel and attack Deir Ezzor, but three members of the the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation (SAMS) are touring Europe to try to increase humanitarian support for people in the perhaps-forgotten Idlib province:

“The situation in Idlib is very bad because many organizations have stopped their support,” said Dr Farida, the last obstetrician-gynecologist to be evacuated from rebel-held eastern Aleppo to Idlib earlier this year. The doctors did not use their full names to protect their families from retaliation.

“Many hospitals are closing because their supporters from outside are bored now because it’s the seventh year of the revolution. Many of them don’t want to come in anymore,” she said. She estimated some 3 million people now lived in the area.

The war in northwestern Syria isn’t over–in fact, the government attack on Idlib, which is inevitable barring some miraculous settlement of the civil war, is likely to be as violent as any other battle in this war save maybe Aleppo. Without some basic, functional medical services available in that province, a lot of people may die who could otherwise have been saved.

In Raqqa, meanwhile, the United Nations is demanding that US and SDF forces attacking the city allow its refugee agency better access to areas north of the city. The UN is expecting the attack on Raqqa to displace tens of thousands of people–it estimates that around 100,000 have already been displaced, and while it hasn’t yet raised enough money to deal with that flood, it nevertheless needs to gain access to areas where people fleeing Raqqa are likely to wind up. The Syrian army has reportedly made a major advance against ISIS west of Raqqa, along the Ithriya-Tabqa highway. This route could theoretically be used by ISIS to move back into central Syria and the Palmyra area, potentially threatening the roads between Damascus and Aleppo, hence Damascus’s interest in capturing it apart from a general interest in retaking Syrian territory.

As to that conflict in southern Syria, on Tuesday US Defense Secretary James Mattis categorized recent US strikes against government-aligned forces there as “self-defense.” This is a little like squatting in somebody else’s kitchen, smacking his kids any time they come near you, and claiming self-defense for that, but to be fair when was the last time the Pentagon actually acknowledged concepts like “national sovereignty” as applied to nations other than the U.S.?


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Iraqi authorities on Tuesday announced that they’ve liberated west Mosul’s  Zanjali neighborhood. I guess the second time is the charm…maybe? Patrick Wing points out that the Iraqis are under political pressure to announce some progress every day, even on days when they really haven’t made any, which helps to explain why they sometimes exaggerate how far they’ve advanced.

Wing has also been tracking the three-year anniversary of ISIS’s capture of Ninevah province, which has brought up a whole new round of sniping and blame-gaming over who was to blame for that 2014 fiasco:

June 10 was the three year anniversary of the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State. That has led to a new blame game over who was responsible. First, former Ninewa Operations Command head General Mahdi al-Gharawi claimed he was not the one that let the city’s defenses collapse. He told the press he got a command from an unknown source to retreat from the city in 2014. He went on to criticize then Defense Minister Sadoun Dulaimi for not carrying about Mosul, former ground forces commander General Ali Ghaidan for making wrong decisions during the 2014 battle, ex-Ninewa Governor Atheel Nujafi for giving out contracts which the Islamic State skimmed money off of, and finally the population of Mosul and the Ninewa government who he said welcomed the Islamic State. Similarly, Sadrist parliamentarian Hakim al-Zamili who is the head of the security committee accused ex-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, and Speaker Salim Jabouri. The Sadrists are some of the strongest critics of the former premier, and they along with other Shiite parties have claimed a conspiracy of Sunni and Kurdish politicians for supporting the Islamic State. General Gharawi has a little better argument, because Maliki did take Mosul out of his command when it was attacked. On the other hand, he too seems to be driven by personal vendettas in his list of those he accuses. The fall of Mosul was a traumatic event for Iraq, and no one has ever been punished for it. Instead, you get these types of statements where people try to shift the blame or attack their opponents. It’s a perfect example of politics trumping accountability.

Conditions in the UN’s overtaxed refugee camps outside of Mosul continue to be ragged. Some 800 refugees in a camp east of the city have fallen ill with food poisoning, over which one restaurant owner from the city of Erbil has reportedly been arrested. There had been reports of one fatality from the tainted food, a six-year old child, but the UN seems to have walked that back and is now saying there have been no fatalities.

Saudi King Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi are scheduled to meet on Wednesday in Jeddah. Abadi would dearly love to extricate Iraq from the middle of the Saudi-Iran and Saudi-Qatar feuds, but while he might not have much of a problem with the latter, it’s almost impossible for him to get clear of the former. For both geopolitical and just plain old political reasons, Abadi cannot turn his back on Tehran, but it’s hard to imagine any other way he could get on Riyadh’s good side.


The number of people who have been died of cholera in Yemen has risen to 923, roughly doubling in just the past two weeks. If one wanted to be inflammatory, but still arguably accurate, one might argue that this cholera outbreak represents biological warfare being waged by Saudi Arabia against the Yemeni people. But of course I wouldn’t want to suggest anything so heinous.


The Turkish military announced on Tuesday that its airstrikes in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq killed 20 PKK fighters.


The Israeli government may shut down Al Jazeera’s local offices. You millennials out there may not know this, but I’m old enough to remember that there was once a time when Israeli and Saudi policy weren’t in lock-step over almost everything, and those two countries didn’t play silly games to try to pretend they were at odds with one another because, well, they really were at odds. I suppose this is better–less conflict is always better than more conflict–but ideally you’d like to see these two countries come together over policies that aren’t horribly authoritarian or destabilizing.

Palestinians are split over the Qatar-Saudi dispute. Given Qatar’s strong support for Hamas and Gaza over the years, it makes sense that many Gazans and/or Palestinians who support Hamas would gravitate toward Qatar, while Palestinians who don’t care for Hamas might be inclined toward the Saudi point of view. The recent re-warming in Hamas’s relations with Iran has left them on Riyadh’s shit list anyway, so it probably makes no difference that the organization has supported Doha since the diplomatic crisis began last week.


A parliamentary committee has approved President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s plan to transfer the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. This is thoroughly unsurprising, as it will be when the full parliament also votes to approve the measure–Sisi totally controls the legislature. But it sets up a serious constitutional fight with the Egyptian judiciary, which has held the transfer unconstitutional, and with the Egyptian people, who seem pretty opposed to the whole idea.


Praise the Lord, Saudi Arabia is getting more American weapons:

The US Senate on Tuesday narrowly averted a bid by a bipartisan group of senators to block President Donald Trump’s $500m sale of guided, air-to-ground bombs for use in Yemen by Saudi Arabia’s Royal Air Force.

The vote was 53-47 to defeat a resolution of disapproval that had been offered by Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, and Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat. Senate Republicans were joined by five Democrats to defeat the measure. Four Republicans joined most Democrats to vote against the arms sale.

“We are fuelling an arms race in the Middle East,” Senator Paul said in remarks during Senate debate, citing the famine and Cholera outbreak in Yemen and Saudi domestic rights abuses as reasons not to support Trump’s munitions sale.

“What is happening today in Yemen is a humanitarian crisis,” Senator Murphy said in floor remarks. “The United States supports the Saudi-led bombing campaign that has had the effect of causing a humanitarian nightmare to play out in that country.”

The good news, obviously, is that we’re re-arming Saudi Arabia. But the great news is that we’re selling them advanced guided munitions. So instead of just randomly bombing stuff and occasionally hitting a wedding, funeral party, elementary school, or what have you, now the Saudis will be able to specifically target weddings, funerals, and schools and be sure they’re hitting exactly what they want to hit. The Trump administration was so proud of its advocacy for this sale that it held public hearings on it where all objections were heard top-secret briefings for senators that no peace activists could attend.

To be fair, the Senate did almost vote to block the arms sale. Which I guess will be of some comfort to those 450 or so Yemenis who almost didn’t die of cholera over the past two weeks.


Attending a conference in Oslo today, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif kept up Tehran’s messaging around last week’s terror attacks in Tehran, accusing the Saudis of “promoting terrorist groups” in Iran’s eastern Baluchistan region. This is a less incendiary charge than the one lobbed Riyadh’s way by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps last week–namely, that the Saudis were specifically behind the Tehran attacks–particularly inasmuch as, so far as I’ve seen anyway, there’s been no connection between those attacks and Baloch insurgents (Iranian Kurds and possibly Arabs have been implicated). It’s also not really breaking news–Saudi (and US, for that matter) support for Jundallah, the main extremist group in Iranian Baluchistan, has been suggested for years now. But it is a way for Zarif to simultaneously take a hard line on Saudi Arabia and downplay those provocative IRGC accusations from last week.

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