Middle East update: June 14-15 2017


As the Raqqa battle intensifies, civilians–naturally–are paying the heaviest price. UN investigators reported Wednesday on the “staggering” loss of life seen in Raqqa since heavy coalition bombing there began in March. Hundreds of civilians have been killed so far and the battle for the city is really still in its opening stages. ISIS is of course compounding the situation by trying to kill any civilians attempting to flee the city to get out of the way of the fighting. There are persistent concerns about the coalition’s use of white phosphorus over Raqqa, which the Pentagon insists is being done with concern for the civilian risk–but that, as I’ve noted before, is mostly horse shit.

The rare humanitarian bright spot to the Raqqa offensive has been that the Kurdish YPG and YPJ (its female branch) militias have freed an estimated 200 Yazidi women and children who were taken captive and enslaved by ISIS in Sinjar and have wound up in Syria. ISIS is still believed to be holding around 3000 Yazidi women captive.

Syrian government forces are heading toward the town of Sukhnah, which is ISIS’s last holdout in Homs province and, oh by the way, is also on the road to Deir Ezzor. Meaning that once they’ve clear it out, Bashar al-Assad’s military and friends will be that much closer to alleviating the siege there and beating any US-backed forces to the punch.

Syria as of June 14–red is government, gray ISIS, yellow SDF/Kurds, white Tahrir al-Sham/Nusra, and green is everybody else (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)

Speaking of which, Washington seems to be steadfastly beefing up its presence in southern Syria despite the fact that, as you can see from that map up there, its rebel proxies there have been kind of boxed in by Assad. Rebels who had been based at Tanf, which you can see marked just east of the point where Syria, Iraq, and Jordan all meet, have moved their forward operations to Zakf, which is another ~70 km northeast, closer to where Assad’s forces now are. They’re patrolling a perimeter at least 100 km outside of Tanf, and the farther that perimeter gets the higher the chances of confrontation get. The US has also reportedly moved a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) battery into southern Syria from Jordan, which gives the rebels the ability to hit targets 300 km away.

US officials say they’ve been training these rebels to combat ISIS, but–again, refer to your map–they don’t really have a way to get at ISIS anymore. Yes, they might be able to get across that strip of Assad-controlled territory without a direct confrontation, but that’s a risk, and even if they do their supply line will be going right across that strip. And they’ll still have to keep moving east quite a ways before they really hit any ISIS forces–I know that gray area looks imposing but most of it is unpopulated. Bukamel is supposedly their initial target, and that’s an awfully long way to march with a potentially hostile force behind you trying to get to the same place and get there before you do. Another factor to consider is that Tanf itself is pretty important, as it sits on the main drag between Damascus and Baghdad. If the US and its proxies leave there to move east, Assad’s forces are going to be inclined to come in behind them and take it.

Basically what I’m saying is that if you’ve been in the bag for a good old fashioned US war of regime change in Syria, if you’ve been craving a war like Iraq but potentially even worse, then don’t stop thinking about tomorrow because you may still get your wish.

Yes, I know what you’re all thinking (probably not)–what about the de-escalation agreement Russia and Turkey and Iran hashed out weeks ago? When the hell can we expect to see some evidence that it’s working? Well, the good news is that, according to the UN, it’s already working–the bad news is that it’s only working in one of its four intended safe zones:

In Geneva, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry told the U.N. Human Rights Council that fighting around the central province of Homs, near Damascus and in the southern city of Daraa has continued — despite the deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran in May.

Only in the northern Idlib province and western Aleppo has there been “discernible reduction” in violence, said the chair of the U.N. commission, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro.

Violence in Daraa has escalated, with some of the most intense bombing reported in recent weeks.

At least nine people were reportedly killed in government strikes in Daraa just yesterday.

Finally, Syrian rebels are starting to feel the pinch of the Saudi-Qatar crisis. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the two biggest financial backers of the various rebel factions, and if you go back to a time before Aleppo and subsequent infighting had sorted the (northern) rebels into basically two camps–al-Qaeda and Ahrar al-Sham–for a while there they were explicitly backing different factions in a competition to see who could control the Syrian rebellion. Qatar tended more toward Islamist factions while the Saudis tended more toward Free Syrian Army factions except of course when they didn’t. Qataris (it’s important to keep in mind when we talk about this financing that it almost never comes from Gulf governments but rather from wealthy Gulf individuals, the better for those governments to plausibly deny any wrongdoing later on) get blamed for supporting al-Qaeda/Jabhat al-Nusra, which they did, but the Saudis have escaped blame for supporting al-Qaeda because, I guess, they waited until after Jabhat al-Nusra started pretending not to be in al-Qaeda before they really started supporting it.

Though the rebellion has drastically shrunk since those days when you could pick from a plethora of factions to support, the deeper ties that some of those old factions still have for either Saudi or Qatar could resurface and destabilize what’s left of the rebellion. Or Qatar could be driven closer to Iran as a result of the crisis and start yanking its remaining support for the rebels altogether. Or both. The unpredictability is all part of the fun.


Iraqi forces claim to be on the verge of fully encircling Mosul’s Old City, ISIS’s final and primary stronghold. As we have learned again this week, the Iraqis tend to announce things before they’re actually true, but they do claim to have captured Bab al-Sinjar, which is one of the main entrances into the Old City sector. Fighting is ongoing in the Shifa neighborhood, particularly around the city’s main medical complex, but once that neighborhood is liberated the Old City really will be all that’s left. On the other hand, yesterday saw a massive ISIS counterattack in the neighborhoods south of the Old City that may still be ongoing–some Iraqi officials have said that it was turned back and all lost territory recovered, but, again, we know they sometimes exaggerate their successes and downplay their struggles. Civilians in the Old City, as many as 200,000 of them, are struggling to find enough to eat and digging makeshift wells for undoubtedly tainted water. ISIS has killed enough civilians attempting to flee the city that they are reluctant to do anything but stay put and hope to ride out the final battle.

The UN says it will have nothing to do with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s planned independence referendum in September. The KRG is probably holding this referendum to give it leverage in talks with Baghdad, but it’s not winning itself many accolades in the process. Even Turkey, a KRG ally, isn’t happy about this planned vote.

The Guardian reported on Monday about the Popular Mobilization Units’ activity in western Ninevah province, where they’ve been clearing ISIS out of villages along the Iraq-Syria border (including Baaj, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has allegedly spent a considerable amount time recently). It’s been difficult work–ISIS left as many of its usual booby traps behind as it could while pulling out–and the PMUs have been evacuating civilians while they clear the villages of threats. Whether those civilians will be allowed back is an open question though. The PMUs, and even Baghdad, may be inclined to militarize the border area to prevent a future ISIS-wannabe from exploiting its openness, in which case many of those border villages might become untenable.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi did not visit Saudi Arabia on Wednesday as scheduled…or maybe it wasn’t scheduled. Saudi and Iraqi officials are offering conflicting accounts of what happened, with the Saudis saying that Baghdad asked for the visit to be postponed and Baghdad saying that it had never scheduled a visit on Wednesday in the first place. Abadi apparently took a little political heat at home when word of the visit was announced by the Saudis, so maybe he’s trying to save face.


One person was wounded on Thursday when a missile presumably fired by Yemeni rebels struck a UAE cargo vessel. The ship was either carrying medical supplies or had just dropped off medical supplies and was reportedly hit as it was leaving the port of Mokha. Presumably if it was leaving the port then it had already dropped those medical supplies off, but as far as I can tell there’s been no confirmation that it was actually hit as it was leaving port.


Prosecutors in Washington DC have charged 12 Turkish security officers with assault related to a brawl that took place last month during a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Rest assured, President Erdoğan took the news that his bodyguards were being charged with crimes that they were recorded committing with his customary grace and dignity.

Erdoğan’s mood presumably isn’t being helped by other news at home. Thursday saw thousands of people take to the streets in Istanbul and Ankara to protest the sentencing of Enis Berberoğlu, a senior figure in the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), to 25 years in prison on espionage charges. Berberoğlu allegedly provided video of Turkish trucks carting weapons into Syria to an opposition newspaper, so this seems like railroading to me but then it’s not like the US deals with leakers any better than Turkey does. And of course Berberoğlu is a prominent member of an opposition party, which in Turkey nowadays is almost a crime in itself. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is leading a march from Ankara to the jail where Berberoğlu is being held, in Istanbul.

One interesting repercussion of the Qatar-Saudi dispute is that Donald Trump’s image in Turkey, where he was at one point seen as a potential improvement over Barack Obama, has cratered. To be fair, that process started back when his Pentagon decided to start directly sending weapons to the YPG Kurds in Syria, but Trump’s hostility toward Qatar, which is well-liked in Turkey, has sped it up. It also helps that Trump makes a convenient target for Ankara, which doesn’t want to focus too much public attention on Saudi Arabia’s role in the Gulf crisis–while Erdoğan has defended Qatar pretty strongly, there is a risk he could go too far and alienate the other wealthy Gulf states, so better to give the Turkish people a target a little further afield. That also might explain why Ankara seems to be scrambling to reassert a “mediator” role for itself after days of heavily pro-Qatar rhetoric from Erdoğan.


Hey everybody, Lebanon is holding parliamentary elections in May 2018! So what, you ask? Well, this is actually kind of a big deal, seeing as how Lebanon hasn’t held parliamentary elections since 2009, meaning the current parliament is now in year eight of its four-year term. Lebanon’s precarious sectarian makeup leaves it vulnerable to almost every regional conflict, but particularly to whatever happens in Syria, which is why it’s been so hard to get the country’s political situation in order. If the election happens next May then Lebanon will have a legitimate president, cabinet, and legislature again for the first time in at least five years, so that’s not too shabby.


The UN is warning that planned cuts to Gaza’s already meager energy supply could result in a catastrophic collapse of basic services, including sanitation, water, and health services. A 2008 Israeli Supreme Court ruling is supposed to prevent the Israeli government from reducing its supply of electricity to Gaza to levels below humanitarian minimums, but that doesn’t seem to be deterring Benjamin Netanyahu at this point.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that the Palestinian Authority is going to stop making so-called “martyrs’ payments” to families of suicide bombers and others who have carried out attacks against Israeli targets. This is…not true, according to the Palestinian Authority, though they might change the term they use to something less inflammatory. Ending the payments could well cause a full-on revolt against exceedingly unpopular Palestinian President/dictator Mahmoud Abbas, so you can see why they’d be reluctant to take that step.


The Egyptian parliament on Wednesday voted to approve the sale gift transfer of the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. What makes this case so interesting is that the transfer has already been ruled unconstitutional by Egypt’s judicial system, though it’s still wending its way through that maze. A constitutional advisory panel just ruled this week that courts that had previously ruled against the transfer acted appropriately, but the case next goes to Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court for review. But also, this is interesting in that the transfer is just plain unpopular among the Egyptian public, which is turning a bit on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi over the whole thing. Sisi has responded to calls for large protest rallies on Friday by, naturally, arresting people preemptively on Thursday. I guess it could be worse–he could let the protests happen on Friday and then order his police to massacre the protesters. It’s not like he hasn’t done that sort of thing before.

This update is already too long and we haven’t even gotten to Qatar yet, but I recommend checking out this analysis of recent eastern Mediterranean natural gas finds from Walaa Hussein. The short version is that Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and maybe even the Palestinians are going to have to come to some arrangements about sharing and coexisting over these gas fields or else the eastern Mediterranean could become a global flashpoint very quickly.


Bahraini human rights lawyer Issa Faraj Arhama al-Burshaid has sued his government over its decision to participate in the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. So on Thursday the Bahraini government, ever a beacon of freedom and justice unto the world, did the only thing it could do: it arrested him and then criminalized any public expression of “sympathy” toward Qatar. Thank goodness President Trump has the United States picking sides in this dispute. It’s really clear who the good guys are.


Qatar, as President Trump has informed us, is bad. They’ve supported terrorism, they’re destabilizing the Middle East, and they need to be brought to heel. That, and not the whole thing where they blew up his grotesque face and splayed it on the side of a hotel, is why President Trump supports Saudi Arabia, and it’s why on Thursday his defense department announced the sale of $12 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets to Qatar wait what the fuck? No, seriously, we’re selling the most terroristy terrorists who ever terroristed a bunch of fighters. Marvel at the coherence of our foreign policy.

The thing is, Qatar really does have problems, and a lot of the particular criticisms that have been leveled against them by the Saudis are, in the abstract, fair criticisms. When a couple of fine folks from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy write in Foreign Policy that “Qatar Doesn’t Back ‘Moderate Extremists.’ It Bankrolls Al Qaeda”–a title that was later hilariously changed to “Qatar Doesn’t Need a Blockade. It Needs an Audit,” because, go figure, I guess somebody complained–they’re not lying:

Donors and fundraisers based in the Persian Gulf have long supported al Qaeda’s central organization, as well as its affiliates in Iraq and more recently Syria. But while most such affiliates have diversified their methods of fundraising, away from reliance on individual donors and exploitation of charitable flows to mask their transactions, al Qaeda in Syria is the major exception. According to the Security Council, as of January 2017 the group has continued to derive its income “mainly from external donations,” along with criminal sources of funding such as kidnapping for ransom, extortion, and war spoils.

The group’s budget could be as much as 10 million dollars annually, with several million dollars a year coming from private donors in the Gulf, facilitated by false online fronts. Hajjaj al-Ajmi, a Kuwaiti who was sanctioned by the United Nations in 2014, used Twitter to solicit donationsfor al Qaeda in Syria. Ajmi and others, such as Qatari national Saad bin Saad al-Kaabi, who posted solicitations on Facebook and WhatsApp accounts for “arming, feeding, and treating” fighters in Syria. This includes openly crowdsourcing donations for al Qaeda and other jihadi groups in Syria.

It’s for this reason that back in March 2014, then-Treasury Department Under Secretary David Cohen singled out Qatar as an especially “permissive jurisdiction” for terrorist financing. The problem was not limited to support for Hamas, Cohen stressed, but to Qatari support for extremist groups operating in Syria. “To say the least,” he concluded, “this threatens to aggravate an already volatile situation in a particularly dangerous and unwelcome manner.”

The issue here isn’t with criticism of Qatar, it’s that the criticism is being leveled by Saudi Arabia, which in the annals of pots calling kettles black is…well, why don’t I let the experts at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explain for me:

There is a misconception that the kingdom does not get in the way of private Saudi financing of terrorist groups operating in Syria, including ISIS. Yet one of Riyadh’s most observable counter-terrorism financing activities is its monitoring of the country’s formal financial sector in order to block suspect donations. Indeed, social media fundraising campaigns highlight the challenges of sending such funds from Saudi Arabia to Syria. To ensure that their contributions actually reach Syria, Saudi donors are encouraged to send their money to Kuwait, long considered one of the most permissive terrorism financing environments in the Persian Gulf.

Riyadh’s concern about blowback — namely, the belief that allowing citizens to support terrorist groups hostile to the al-Saud monarchy will eventually spawn attacks on Saudi soil — helps drive the kingdom’s counterterrorism approach. In the mid-2000s, the country suffered a series of dramatic al-Qaeda attacks linked to Saudis returning home from the jihad in Afghanistan, and that experience was important in shaping the current mindset. As mentioned above, Riyadh formally outlawed private donations to ISIS and other groups when it designated them as terrorist organizations in March. That move may have been connected to increasing government concern about Saudi membership in foreign terrorist groups, and may have coincided with the investigation of the domestic ISIS-linked cell announced in May.

Today, Saudi citizens continue to represent a significant funding source for Sunni groups operating in Syria. Arab Gulf donors as a whole — of which Saudis are believed to be the most charitable — have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Syria in recent years, including to ISIS and other groups. There is support for ISIS in Saudi Arabia, and the group directly targets Saudis with fundraising campaigns, so Riyadh could do much more to limit private funding. U.S. officials have hinted that a combination of politics, logistics, and limited capabilities have impeded more effective Saudi efforts to counter terrorism financing. One particularly difficult problem is how to monitor cash transfers, a method common among Saudi donors.

When the Saudis “Do Something” about terror financing, what they usually mean is that they tell their plutocrats not to finance terrorism directly, but do it through a middleman for plausible deniability. For them to accuse anybody else of having a problem in this regard takes some incredible chutzpah. So incredible, in fact, that it really seems like there must be something else underpinning this dispute.


If you’d like to understand more about Turkey’s antipathy toward the Saudi-UAE side of the Gulf crisis–if you’re not satisfied with the explanation that Turkey’s ideological compatibility with and economic reliance on Qatar explains why Ankara has mostly come down on that side of the ledger, then perhaps this will be of interest:

The United Arab Emirates has been accused of financing last July’s failed coup attempt by a Turkish journalist known for his close ties to the government, as the Turkish president on Tuesday called on the Saudi king to resolve the “inhumane” Qatar crisis.

The UAE channelled around $3bn to coup plotters and was keen to see Recep Tayyip Erdogan toppled, according to Mehmet Acet, the Ankara bureau chief of pro-government broadcaster Kanal 7, who also has a column in the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper.

Acet based his claims on remarks attributed to the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, about six months ago at an invitation-only panel in Istanbul.

The important thing to understand is that it doesn’t really matter if this is true or if there’s even any evidence behind it. The Turkish government runs on conspiracy thinking. If this is being floated in elite circles, you can be sure it’s influencing their approach to the Qatar situation.


Brookings’ Bruce Reidel narrates Saudi Arabia gracefully shooting itself in the foot:

King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud demonstrated the impressive convening power of the Saudi government last month by hosting the American leader and those of dozens of Muslim countries. With a few exceptions (Algeria, Oman), most Islamic heads of government came to Riyadh for the summit. The Saudis rightly announced that the summit was a strong display of unity against terrorism and Iran, one that probably no other country in the Islamic world could have arranged. Saudi wealth and the king’s status as the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques account for the success.

The longstanding rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the world’s only two Wahhabi states, is now shattering the unity built just last month. Qatar has long been an irritant and gadfly of the Saudi royal family and other leaders. While suppressing dissent at home, Qatar has encouraged it abroad. It shares an enormous natural gas deposit with Iran and together with Oman has been a voice in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for keeping ties open with Tehran. Saudi Arabia is apparently determined to put Qatar in its place.

Now the GCC is broken into three camps. There is the Saudi-Bahrain-UAE bloc, which has severed ties and closed borders to Doha. Then come outliers Kuwait and Oman, leaving Qatar alone. Although close to Riyadh, Kuwait is trying to mediate what has become the worst split in the history of the GCC.

The Saudis want to be a regional military power, but they can’t even achieve more than a stalemate in Yemen. They want to lead the Sunni world, but they’ve managed to blow up the GCC in two weeks. I wonder how their big plan to diversify their economy is going to go.


Iranian authorities say that their security forces killed two members of a Sunni Baloch insurgent group called Ansar al-Furqan in the southeastern city of Chabahar. I suspect this is going to be the new normal for Iranian media for a while, frequent announcements of actions taken against Sunni extremists without a whole lot of context, just to show that security services are Doing Something to protect the public.

One early favorite to succeed failed presidential candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf as mayor of Tehran, which is just a mayoralty but was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s springboard to the presidency, is none other than Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, the son of the late moderate leader and former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The mayor of Tehran is elected by the elected city council, and in the May election moderates and reformists surprisingly won all 21 seats on the council (that’s why the hardliner Ghalibaf is on his way out the door). Public opinion polling suggests that Tehran voters prefer the younger Rafsanjani over other potential contenders. One problem is when he ran for city council Rafsanjani apparently promised to serve on the city council–i.e., not to trade up to the mayor’s office. Also, his departure from the council will leave an empty seat that will go to the 22 place finisher in the election, who was a conservative.

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