Middle East update: June 16 2017


And here we go:

A pair of top White House officials is pushing to broaden the war in Syria, viewing it as an opportunity to confront Iran and its proxy forces on the ground there, according to two sources familiar with the debate inside the Donald Trump administration.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top Middle East advisor, want the United States to start going on the offensive in southern Syria, where, in recent weeks, the U.S. military has taken a handful of defensive actions against Iranian-backed forces fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Their plans are making even traditional Iran hawks nervous, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has personally shot down their proposals more than once, the two sources said.

If your belligerence toward Iran is freaking out James Mattis, who’s been nursing a simmering rage toward Tehran since 1983, then you’ve really hit the jackpot. Cohen-Watnick and Harvey are both Michael Flynn appointees, which ought to tell you all you need to know about whether or not they should be treated as sensible national security analysts. I don’t know much about Harvey, but Cohen-Watnick is enough of a war-humping buffoon that current National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster tried to shuffle him off into a meaningless job after he took over for Flynn, only to be overruled by Donald Trump. Naturally.

The fact that Michael Flynn was ever allowed within one kilometer of the White House without an armed guard and the Hannibal Lector restraints from Silence of the Lambs is a persistent national disgrace. That his warmongering appointees are still infecting our national security apparatus is terrifying. I wouldn’t expect these two to get their way in Syria, at least not yet, but they’re going to keep trying, and Donald Trump is going to keep being president, so maybe it’s only a matter of time.

Although Ankara seems to have resigned itself to the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces liberating Raqqa, Buzzfeed’s Burcu Karakas reports that the Turks are definitely not ruling out the possibility of an intervention after Raqqa to forestall an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria:

“If PKK terror continues and this arises from Syrian territory, Turkey can start a military operation in northern Syria,” said Yesiltas. “If an accident or an attack happens on the Turkish–Syrian border, there can be clashes. Moreover, in the case of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, a military operation can be brought to the agenda. What Turkey is trying to do is prevent YPG dominance in Syria.”

Turkey has long voiced its opposition to the US plan, which has created an uncomfortable arrangement that is already straining relations with a country that hosts one of the most significant US military bases on the globe. Erdogan criticized Trump’s decision to send arms to the Syrian Democratic Forces while standing alongside the president at a joint press conference in Washington last month. Turkey asked that the weapons given to the Syrian Democratic Forces be recollected after the Raqqa operation.

Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi-born cleric who sits on the leadership council for Tahrir al-Sham, AKA Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, AKA Jabhat al-Nusra, AKA al-Qaeda, AKA Miguel Sanchez, was nearly assassinated by a suicide bomber in Idlib on Friday. No word on who tried to off him or whether it’s connected to the Qatar diplomatic situation–given Nusra’s links to Qatar and the degree to which they’ve been hyped by the Saudis as justification for what they’re doing, it wouldn’t be out of the question if this was connected in some way.

Finally I guess we have to deal with the elephant in the room–Russia now thinks maybe it killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late May:

The Russian Defense Ministry said on its Facebook page that it was checking information that Baghdadi was killed in the strike on the outskirts of Raqqa in Syria, launched after Russia received intelligence about a meeting of Islamic State leaders.

“On May 28, after drones were used to confirm the information on the place and time of the meeting of IS leaders, between 00:35 and 00:45, Russian air forces launched a strike on the command point where the leaders were located,” the statement said.

“According to the information which is now being checked via various channels, also present at the meeting was Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was eliminated as a result of the strike,” the ministry said.

To be honest, I’d have an easier time believing that Baghdadi and Dmitry Medvedev are sharing a two-bedroom flat in downtown Moscow than this, but I’ll happily admit I’m wrong if it turns out I am. But very little about this adds up. Baghdadi has reportedly been ducking from one hideout along the Iraq-Syria border to another for weeks, studiously avoiding big cities that are known targets for ISIS’s many enemies. Why would he risk showing up in Raqqa, of all places, on May 28? What is this “information” the Russians claim to have? Because the Iraqi government and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights both say they have information that Baghdadi wasn’t in Raqqa at that time. Also, if he’s dead, where’s the announcement? ISIS has consistently acknowledged the deaths of its deceased senior leaders, maybe not immediately but there’s no evidence they’ve ever tried to Weekend at Bernies any of these guys. Until they say Baghdadi is dead, or there’s a body or something, I’m going to assume he’s still alive.


Here’s the most recent Mosul map from the Nineveh Media Center:

That strip along the Tigris north of the Old City (the area in gray) is Shifa, and the area in red represents territory where fighting is currently taking place (white area remains in ISIS’s control). Shifa remains the focus of the action, with army and interior ministry forces still efforting to get the city’s main medical complex back in Iraqi hands. The Iraqis want to marshal all their strength when the real assault on the Old City begins, so they’ll presumably want to liberate Shifa before they proceed to the final phase of this final phase of the Mosul offensive.

Say, remember when the Iraqis were going to have Mosul liberated before the start of Ramadan? Well, Ramadan is going to be over in another four or five days, pending moon sightings. And this battle looks like it could still be weeks away from a resolution.

The United Nations has updated its estimate of the number of civilians still living behind ISIS lines in Mosul and, well, it’s still not good. They believe some 100,000 civilians , or even up to 150,000, are still trapped in the city, down from the 200,000 they’ve been citing for the past few weeks but still far too high for comfort given the kind of intense fighting that awaits in the Old City. I think it’s safe to assume that those who are left at this point have made the calculation that, with ISIS actively looking to kill any civilians it catches trying to escape the city, flight is not a realistic option.


With the country’s medical personnel having not been paid in months despite being neck deep in a cholera epidemic, UNICEF has started paying the salaries of Yemeni doctors and nurses. The total number of cholera cases in Yemen is expected to approach 300,000 in the next few weeks, and the number of people dying of this wholly preventable disease could be expected to skyrocket if these health care workers finally decided that they were done risking their lives for free. I’m sure the Trump administration will immediately demand that its support payments for UNICEF be drastically cut in response to this move, because that’s how we roll these days.


Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım is trying to talk Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu out of making a 425 km march from Ankara to the Istanbul jail where his CHP colleague, Enis Berberoğlu, is being imprisoned on dubious charges:

“I advise Kilicdaroglu to desist from this act,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters. “Justice cannot be sought on the streets, Turkey is a state of law… Even if we don’t like a court’s ruling, we have to respect it.”

This is Turkey, so the 68 year old CHP leader will probably be arrested for illegally walking outside or something before he gets to Istanbul, but we’ll see.


Three Palestinians carried out a series of shooting and knife attacks in Jerusalem on Friday before they were shot and killed by Israeli police. One Israeli border policewoman was stabbed to death by one of the attackers before he was killed. ISIS subsequently claimed responsibility for this attack, which true or not is the first time they’re taken credit for an attack in Israel-Palestine.

In better news, Israeli authorities are about to begin a trial period in which they will leave the Allenby Bridge border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan open all day on weekdays, with an eye toward opening it 24/7 next year if the trial goes well. This would go a long way toward meeting the demand for people trying to travel into the West Bank and could be a decent boost for the Palestinian economy.


Pre-emptively arresting opposition leaders seems to have worked, as today’s planned protests against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s plan to transfer control over the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia were relatively small and easily dispersed, apparently with gunfire because that’s really the best way to scare people into shutting the fuck up.


Relatively few developments here today, for once. The chair of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee called the Saudi-et al blockade/siege of Qatar “worse than the Berlin Wall,” which, come on. Let’s try to hold it together here. Additionally, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir says he’s drawing up a “list of grievances” against Qatar that presumably will be aired at this year’s Festivus celebration per international diplomatic norms.

Should be good fun.

Finally, at LobeLog Columbia University’s Gary Sick offers his thoughts on this crisis:

First, as a member of the US policy team that first applied sanctions against Iran when our diplomats were being held hostage in Tehran, we drew the line at food and medicine. That has remained true in the succeeding 37 years. Despite all the onerous sanctions that the US has imposed against Iran over the years, which verge on economic warfare, there has never been a formal restriction on sales of food or medicine, including by US companies. The Saudi-UAE boycott, however, closed off food and medicine shipments to Qatar wherever possible, in the middle of Ramadan. I don’t know if this technically constitutes a breach of international humanitarian law, but it is certainly drastic by modern standards of political conflict.

Second, and related, it is striking that the attacks on dissident forces in Yemen have employed the same tactics. Access to food and medicine have been denied routinely in the name of military expediency, reducing the population to near starvation and subject to outbreaks of cholera and other epidemics. And these are neighbors, who physically resemble each other and who have long historical ties, but severe political differences. Family schisms are often the cruelest and most devastating of all.

The Saudi foreign minister, in Washington, said there was no blockade, since air and sea routes remain open. That is true, and Qatar agrees that it is a “siege” not a blockade. The Qataris are sufficiently wealthy to find alternative sources of supplies. They are not going to starve. But the fact remains that Qatar has traditionally imported up to 80 percent of its food via the ports and roads of its immediate neighbors, who slammed the door shut without warning. The inclusion of food and medicine is unusually draconian in this day and age.


Iranian hardliners are having a bit of a field day with the new sanctions bill that passed the US Senate yesterday:

“The U.S. Senate’s move is unquestionably in breach of both the spirit and the letter of the nuclear deal,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was reported by media as saying on Friday.

“The Iranian committee tasked with monitoring the accord will certainly examine the congressional move and come up with a decent response.”

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