Middle East update: June 17-18 2017


Iraqi forces said on Sunday that they’ve begun their attack on Mosul’s Old City, ISIS’s one real remaining stronghold and the district from which they’ve been able to hold out for several months now. But as usual with these sorts of announcements, this one is surrounded by contradictory and confusing reports from the Iraqis themselves. In this case, their progress in Shifa, the other neighborhood still partly controlled by ISIS and home to the city’s medical complex, has been almost impossible to gauge. I keep telling you folks you should be reading Patrick Wing’s “Musings on Iraq” blog, and part of the reason is that he does a great job of tracking the confusion:

There was fighting across the two remaining areas in west Mosul under Islamic State control. First, the Golden Division had to call off an attack upon Shifa due to heavy fire from IS, especially snipers in hospital buildings and the use of human shields. The Federal Police claimed to have taken Hospital Street in the neighborhood. Unofficially, a Federal Police Captain told Bas News they were in control of 70% of the neighborhood, while another police officer went further saying all of Shifa was freed. June 16, the police were only supposed to have 30-35% of the area, which was below the 60% mentioned on June 11. The Rapid Reaction Division assaulted Tal Zalat, which is one of the entrances to the Old City. Police reinforcements also arrived outside Bab al-Jadid and in Bab al-Sinjar two other ways into the Old City. When the new offensive started at the end of May the Iraqi forces (ISF) moved into the Shifa medical complex and immediately got ambushed by the insurgents and had to retreat. They have been struggling over the area ever since. That hasn’t stopped the Iraqis from claiming they controlled a varying amount of the neighborhood. The actual figure is impossible to say since it keeps going up and down. The Old City on the other hand, will be the last neighborhood taken on by the ISF. It has held up the police for four months or more now. It has a large civilian population, and the IS fighters have been able to successfully exploit the dense layout where armored vehicles are too large to traverse the streets to build formidable defense. The district will eventually fall, but it will be a bloody battle.

I’m a bit surprised the Iraqis have decided to start an attack on the Old City without fully securing Shifa, but if the resistance there has been tough they may be under pressure to make some progress elsewhere in order to keep the good news coming in. Part of the reason these progress estimates are so scattered is that the Iraqis are under pressure to demonstrate success every day, which is unrealistic and probably unnecessary–the Mosul operation has been, at least in the combat sense, an unqualified success (there are certainly other senses in which it’s been less successful and arguably unsuccessful, to be sure), so if the Iraqis suffer a brief setback here or there I don’t think anybody’s morale is going to take a dive. On the other hand, part of the problem the Iraqis are facing is that they’re fighting this battle with a bunch of units that are each under different commands, and the lack of cohesion might create incentives for the commanders of one unit to exaggerate their successes in order to get over on the other units.

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a very good Middle East analyst but especially so on Syria and Iraq, wrote a lengthy piece last week on his first-hand observations from Mosul and its environs during a trip he took there in March and April. He goes into particular detail about the role of the formal and informal Popular Mobilization Units and the need for an expanded Ninewa police force, both to incorporate and professionalize some of the paramilitary units that have formed during the Mosul operation and to bolster the province against what is certain to be a continued ISIS presence lurking on the outskirts of major cities and among some segment of the population. I highly recommend checking it out.

Iraqi military and tribal Sunni forces announced the capture of the al-Waleed border crossing from ISIS over the weekend. Al-Waleed is one of the three main border crossings between Syria and Iraq and just so happens to be located along the same highway as the US/rebel base at Tanf in Syria. This is important amid all the hype about an Iranian land corridor to the Mediterranean, because that highway is one potential route for that corridor, and yet the US presence at Tanf, plus the apparent Sunni paramilitary presence at al-Waleed, doesn’t exactly make for a welcome mat for hypothetical Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah. It’s still not clear the Iranians have any obvious vector for this supposed corridor, considering that a possibly northern route has to go through Kurdish-controlled territory in both Iraq and Syria, and while the main Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish groups don’t like each other, neither of them gets along particularly well with Tehran.


The al-Waleed news gives us a genuine segue into Syria, which is rare. First of all there’s some breaking news from the Raqqa area, where a US F/A-18E fighter shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber that was reportedly carrying out airstrikes near US and US-allied forces. The Syrian government says its aircraft was conducting operations against ISIS, but earlier in the day government forces reportedly attacked a US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces position south of Tabqah, and US officials are saying that the Su-22 that was shot down had just bombed targets in Tabqah–which would mean it wasn’t bombing ISIS. I don’t know how to describe this other than to say it’s a pretty significant escalation. We’ve had Syrian drones shot down by the US. We’ve had Syrian planes shot down by US allies. But this is a US plane shooting down a Syrian plane, one on one. That’s new.

Now I have the happy news to report that, well, it’s all over. The War on Terror is over, folks. It’s been a long road and we’ve made a lot of sacrifices along the way, but apparently Russia has now killed every terrorist who is or ever was and so there aren’t any more left to threaten anyone. Right?

Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based expert who advises several Middle East governments on Islamic State affairs, said he was skeptical about Russia’s claim on Saturday.

He said Abu Yasin al-Masri is the same person as Abu al-Haj al-Masri, who the Russians on Friday said they killed near Raqqa in May.

Al-Hashimi said the other IS leader, al-Beljiki, was unlikely to have been in Syria at the time of the attack.

“The Russians are trying to improve their record fighting Daesh as it was the Americans who have killed the top commanders of the group so far, like Abu Omar al-Shishani, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani and Abu Ali al-Anbari,” he said, using an Arabic acronym of Islamic State.

“If (Russia’s) announcements prove wrong, their credibility will be hurt,” al-Hashimi said.

Their announcements are almost certainly wrong (at least the Baghdadi one), but the only reason this will hurt Russia’s credibility is because it’s Russia. I’d be willing to bet that every terrorist leader the US has killed, and several it hasn’t, was reported killed at least one time before they actually were killed, because it’s hard to know these things and Western governments have an incentive to hype potential successes. But a lot of sarcastic “al-Qaeda #2” jokes aside, those false reports haven’t done anything to American credibility. American credibility is shit for many reasons, but that’s really not one of them. And Russian credibility should also be shit at this point, thanks to Syria, but why would these things affect it? Killing individual ISIS leaders is practically irrelevant (killing Baghdadi would have symbolic importance, but if he ever really was in direct operation control over his organization he’s likely not anymore), so mistakenly thinking you’ve killed a few really isn’t a big deal.

Here’s some actual good news: the Syrian government declared a two-day ceasefire in Daraa on Saturday. Despite being nominally part of one of the “de-escalation zones” negotiated by Russia and Turkey last month, Daraa has been getting pounded by Bashar al-Assad’s air and artillery of late, and reports say that the level of violence there dropped a few hours after the ceasefire went into effect. The ceasefire may be related to Saturday’s announcements that both tracks of the Syrian peace talks are going to resume early next month–in Kazakhstan on July 4 and in Geneva on July 10.


Hey America, get a load of the war you’re fighting second-hand:

At least 25 Yemenis were killed when Saudi-led coalition aircraft struck a market in the northern Saada province, a local health official said on Sunday, the latest in a string of deadly incidents in the 27-month-old conflict.

Officials from the Saudi-led coalition could not immediately be reached for a comment on the report.

Yemen has been torn by a civil war in which the exiled government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, is trying to roll back gains made by the Iran-aligned Houthi group which controls most of northern Yemen, including the capital Sanaa.

The director of the Houthi-run Health Department office in Saada said the aircraft conducted two raids on al-Mashnaq market in Shada district, which is close to the Saudi border, on Saturday, killing 25 people and wounding at least one.

“Rescue teams were unable to reach the area for some time for fear of being hit by artillery shelling of the area,” the official, Dr Abdelilah al-Azzi, told Reuters by telephone.

Truly we can be proud to live in a country that sells weapons to fanatics who bomb civilian markets to inflict suffering in order to advance a political agenda. I think there’s even a word for people who launch attacks target civilians, attacks that kill some people but terrify many more…but I can’t quite remember what it is.

In slightly more welcome news, the Yemeni government says it’s agreed to a United Nations plan to bring a neutral third party in to manage the main Yemeni port at Hudaydah. Hudaydah needs to stay open for humanitarian aid deliveries, but the Saudis, who believe Yemen’s rebels are smuggling weapons from Iran into Yemen via that port and who clearly do not give a shit about humanitarian anything at this point, have been threatening to attack/destroy Hudaydah for weeks. Bringing in a third party could satisfy the Saudis that weapons aren’t getting in but allow the port to stay in operation for humanitarian deliveries. The only problem here is that, while the Yemeni government apparently is receptive to the plan, the rebels aren’t buying it. It might help if the UN found a third party who could be acceptable to both parties.


There are signs that, despite Ankara’s efforts to profess neutrality, Turkey’s clear pro-Qatar positioning in the Gulf diplomatic crisis is starting to damage its relations with Saudi Arabia:

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held talks late Friday with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman about the crisis engulfing Qatar. No statement was issued after their meeting.

Saudi tour guides Khalid Abdullah and Edris Ismail told The Associated Press on Sunday that some Saudis are cancelling planned visits to Turkey for the upcoming Muslim Eid holiday, which starts next week. Saudi Arabia says around 250,000 Saudis visited Turkey last year.

An Arabic hashtag on Twitter has also appeared calling for Saudis to cut ties with Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said last week that he’d “offered” to build a Turkish military base in Saudi Arabia to match the one he’s building in Qatar, which I guess was supposed to show how even-handed he is toward Gulf Arabs or something. The public revelation of that offer…well, let’s just say it didn’t go over very well with the Saudis, who probably resent the implications (both geopolitical and historical) that their country should serve as a base for Turkish soldiers.


For a relatively minor terrorist attack, Friday’s murder of an Israeli police officer in Jerusalem is drawing a lot of attention. ISIS claimed credit for the attack, which would be a major development as it would be the group’s first in Israel-Palestine. But then Hamas claimed credit, or partial credit along with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and, well, who knows? The three attackers may have just been three angry Palestinians whose attack can now be claimed by literally anybody. They may have been, as Hamas is alleging, members of Hamas and/or the PFLP, who nevertheless at some point began to support ISIS, making both claims accurate on some level. Israeli police say they haven’t yet been able to find links between the attackers and ISIS, so that’s something, but if they were acting on their own under ISIS influence, any link could be very hard to find. In response to the attack, the Israeli government revoked permits for some 200,000 Palestinians to enter Israel during Ramadan.


A roadside bombing in a Cairo suburb early Sunday morning killed one Egyptian police officer. There’s been no claim of responsibility yet.


At least one security officer was killed on Sunday in an explosion in the village of Diraz.


The Saudis have been making slow progress in leveraging other Muslim nations to join their blockade/siege/whatever of Qatar:

Saudi Arabia, in a first move to pressure mostly Muslim states to join its campaign against Qatar, has persuaded six sub-Saharan African nations with threats of reduced financial aid and restricted quotas for the haj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, to follow its lead in taking punitive steps against Qatar.

The Saudi effort in Africa suggests that the kingdom is seeking to tighten the screws on Qatar more than a week into a Saudi and UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott that has failed to persuade the tiny Gulf state to bow to demands that it halt its support for Islamists and militants and curb, if not shutter, Qatar-funded media outlets, including Al Jazeera.

Saudi efforts, however, despite the actions of the six countries — Senegal, Chad, Niger, Comoros, Mauritius, and Djibouti – are proving to be only partially successful. Of the six states, only Mauritius severed its diplomatic ties with Qatar. Senegal, Chad, Niger and the Comoros restricted themselves to recalling their ambassadors from Doha while Djibouti, like Jordan, simply reduced the level of its diplomatic relations.

Most other Muslim countries are trying to remain neutral. As Dorsey writes, the most interesting case may be Somalia, which has maintained neutrality even though it receives substantial aid from Saudi Arabia and has at least one major business deal with the United Arab Emirates in the planning stages.

Some recent developments:

  • Speaking of the UAE, their government is now calling for Western “monitoring” of Qatar to make sure it behaves, which I use for lack of a better word and for lack of much specificity about what exactly it is the Emiratis and Saudis want here. There was a list of demands floated very early on in this crisis but nobody has officially claimed it and at this point it’s still not clear what steps Qatar could take to end the spat.
  • The Saudis are advancing, without any real evidence yet as far as I can tell, a claim that the Qataris conspired with then-Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi to attempt to assassinate then-Saudi King Abdullah in 2010. This is certainly possible, but it’s all a bit too convenient for it to suddenly be revealed in the midst of this diplomatic standoff.
This was taken in 2014, so they clearly didn’t get him, in case you were wondering (Wikimedia)
  • The Qataris are denying another story, from the Bahraini government, alleging that they’ve been supporting Bahrain’s opposition in an effort to overthrow that country’s monarchy. Qatari officials say they made contacts with Bahrain’s opposition in 2011 during the Arab Spring at the request of the Bahrainis, who wanted Doha to potentially serve as a mediator, but that they broke off those contacts when the Bahraini government decided to stop talking with opposition figures and start jailing and/or killing them.


On Friday, Saudi border guards opened fire on what turned out to be an Iranian fishing boat, killing one fisherman. The Iranian boats may have drifted into Saudi waters, but even so, “shoot first and fuck questions” isn’t really the way to handle these situations. Anyway, I’m sure it was an honest mistake and it’s not like the Iranians are conducting any military activity in the Gulf right now that could heighten tensions even further.

Hm? I’m sorry, what was that?


The Iranian and Chinese navies are conducting joint exercises in the Persian Gulf. Which is fine, everything is fine, nothing to worry about here in any way.

Meanwhile, Tehran says it launched missiles against ISIS positions in eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province on Sunday in retaliation for the June 7 terrorist attacks in Tehran. On the one hand this is a fairly perfunctory retaliation for a terrorist attack. On the other hand, it’s a pretty big deal:

Daragahi’s point is a very good one–Iran has plenty of assets in Syria that it could use to retaliate against ISIS. This was a public demonstration of its medium-range missile capabilities first and a retaliation second. That’s going to raise hackles in the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, but since they struck ISIS it’s hard to see what any of those folks can really do or say about it.

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