Middle East update: June 19-20 2017

BREAKING: Well, I suppose this was inevitable:

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Wednesday appointed his 31-year-old son Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince, placing him firmly as first-in-line to the throne and removing the country’s counterterrorism czar and a figure well-known to Washington from the royal line of succession.

In a series of royal decrees carried on the state-run Saudi Press Agency, the monarch stripped Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who had been positioned to inherit the throne, from his title as crown prince and from his powerful position as the country’s interior minister overseeing security.

I have a hard time believing that Mohammed b. Nayef is going to take this quietly, and it certainly doesn’t sound like he was given much choice in the matter:

Salman’s decision technically has to be put to the Allegiance Council, a body formed in 2007 and comprised of leading members of the Saud family, though the council has never done anything more than rubber stamp the decisions of the king. Assuming (as seems likely) that Mohammed b. Nayef didn’t voluntarily remove himself as crown prince, I honestly think the smartest thing Salman could do to ensure his son’s succession would be to abdicate, quickly, and make Mohammed b. Salman’s ascension a fait accompli. Not saying he’ll do that but it would make sense. Mohammed b. Salman is the family’s star now, but Mohammed b. Nayef has been running major elements of the Saudi deep state since 1999, and if he doesn’t want to go peaceably he may not have to.

UPDATE: It seems at this point at least like Salman has support for this move within the family:

Much more to come, obviously.


Are you folks ready to get your war on? I mean, more than before? Here’s where things stand. As you know a US fighter shot down a Syrian aircraft in the Tabqah area on Sunday, an incident the Pentagon characterized as “self defense.” If you can get past the basic absurdity of the US claiming self defense for its forces in Syria, where it was never invited and when its sole justification for being there at all boils down to “what are you gonna do about it,” then this makes sense in an “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln” kind of way. The Syrian Democratic Forces, who captured Tabqah a few weeks ago as part of their overall push toward Raqqa, say that the Syrian government has been striking their positions in and around Tabqah since Saturday, and the SDF is both an American ally and has US troops embedded with them. So, self defense. Kind of.

The SDF has also been coexisting with the Syrian government, but the fact is that the Syrian Kurds who make up the bulk of the SDF have a very different idea for post-war Syria than does Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, so these two sides were most likely going to come to blows eventually barring some kind of settlement. And with Raqqa now approaching an endgame it’s not terribly surprising to see some conflict here.

Russia, as you might have expected, did not take this incident very well. It warned on Monday that it would begin “tracking” anti-ISIS coalition planes in eastern Syria as potential threats, which is sort of a “nice air force you got there, be a shame if something was to happen to it” kind of statement, and also said it would cut off “deconfliction” contact with the US, which is the channel by which Moscow and Washington are supposed to make sure their respective planes don’t cross into each other’s airspace. But that latter threat in particular is hollow, in that actually cutting off those contacts would put Russian pilots in serious jeopardy. Russia has threatened to cut that channel before without doing it, and it doesn’t seem they’re actually cutting it this time either (“that link is still ongoing”). Nor has there been any apparent change in Russian posture in Syria, at least not according to the Pentagon. However, the Russian threats were apparently enough to convince Australia to ground its coalition flights.

Of course, things could still get worse. To wit, the US shot down another Iranian drone in southern Syria on Tuesday, saying that the drone was threatening US-allied rebels in that part of the country. And there has been fighting between Assad’s forces and Free Syrian Army rebels in Bir Qassab, a region east of Damascus. These units aren’t being directly aided by the US as far as I know, but Assad capturing this area will put more pressure on the US-backed rebels at Tanf. This situation is going to continue to escalate unless and until Washington figures out how it plans to conduct its operations in Syria moving forward. To this point, the US has been able to proceed as though its anti-ISIS campaign was somehow distinct from the rest of the Syrian civil war, which was never really true but the US could pretend that it was. There’s no pretending any more. Assad isn’t preoccupied fending off rebels in the west or blowing the hell out of Aleppo anymore, and the turf on which the anti-ISIS campaign is now being conducted–Raqqa and eventually Deir Ezzor–is territory he wants, and is trying pretty hard to get.

Focusing (at least publicly) just on ISIS has allowed the US to intervene in Syria without answering any difficult questions about what its long-term role there would be or how it would deal with the civil war, but the lack of a strategy or any answers for those questions–coupled with Donald Trump’s decision to abandon civilian oversight of the military–is causing the US to make a series of tactical decisions that are drawing it into a bigger conflict whether we want to be drawn in or not.

In other ISIS news, you may be stunned to learn that Russia has no confirmation of its claim that it may have killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late May. The US, however, is claiming that it can confirm that one of its airstrikes killed ISIS’s Grand Mufti, Turki al-Binali, on May 31. He will be missed, I assume, by somebody.

In Daraa, meanwhile, that two-day ceasefire that Damascus declared over the weekend came to an end yesterday, and the Syrian government helpfully illustrated its end by pummeling the crap out of the city on Tuesday. So much for reconciliation efforts, I guess. And here’s something exciting: the World Health Organization has diagnosed 17 cases of polio in Raqqa and the town of Mayadin, in Deir Ezzor province. A polio outbreak is obviously the last thing anybody needs in a place where vaccines and trained medical personnel are both in very short supply. The bulk of the cases have been diagnosed in Mayadin, and WHO workers are trying to ascertain whether the cases in Raqqa are evidence of an outbreak there or came in to the city from somewhere else.


Iraqi authorities announced on Tuesday that their 9th armored division had liberated west Mosul’s Shifa neighborhood, thus completing the encirclement of the Old City and bringing the city’s main hospital complex back into government hands. As always, it’s advisable to take claims like this with a grain of salt, as the Iraqis tend to announce progress before that progress has really been made, but it seems safe to at least say that Shifa is virtually liberated at this point.

The fighting in the densely populated Old City has been characterized as “house to house,” and ISIS’s resistance has been described as “fierce,” which makes the situation for the estimated 100,000+ civilians still trapped there extremely grave. The Red Cross reports that many civilians who have managed to escape to Iraqi lines are already badly wounded from the crossfire and are dying in significant numbers.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi finally did make his trip to Saudi Arabia, on the first leg of a Middle East tour that also, interestingly, will include Iran. Abadi met with Saudi King Salman on Tuesday, and the joint statement following their meeting said that Riyadh and Baghdad plan to set up a “coordination council” to improve bilateral ties.

Iraqi Kurds’ plans to hold an independence referendum got a decisive thumbs down from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday. Iran and the Iraqi Kurds historically have been on friendly terms, but then so have Turkey and the Kurdistan Democratic Party and yet Turkey also opposes this referendum. Both countries are nervous about a potentially independent Kurdistan of any kind destabilizing their own Kurdish populations. Khamenei also warned Abadi against trying to weaken or dissolve the Popular Mobilization Units for the sake of Iraqi “stability”–which, given the degree to which Iran influences/controls some of those units, also carries the faint whiff of a mafia-like threat.


Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is now heading into day seven of his 425 kilometer march from Ankara to Istanbul and is letting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have it along the way:

“I will always be on the side of justice. If someone tells me my rights are a favor, I will speak of his dictatorship. I say you (Erdogan) are a dictator,” Kilicdaroglu said in a speech after stopping at a national park near Camlidere, a rural area about 100 km outside of Ankara.

His comments were an apparent response to criticism from Erdogan over the weekend in which the president said justice should be sought in parliament and the CHP was only being allowed to march as a favor from the government.

Erdogan has likened the protesters who came out in support of Kilicdaroglu in Ankara and Istanbul to those who carried out the attempted coup, and said, “You should not be surprised if you receive an invitation from the judiciary.”

Well, he’s not lying.


A Palestinian allegedly wielding a knife and threatening Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah was shot and killed by those soldiers on Tuesday.

United Nations Middle East envoy Nikolay Mladenov reported to the UN Security Council on Tuesday that Israel is not abiding by the terms of UNSC resolution 2334, the one passed in December than the Obama administration famously opted not to veto. How so, you ask? Well, by continuing to build new illegal West Bank settlements, of course. And even though the Trump administration is the most compliant US government that the radical right wing Israeli government has had in, well, maybe ever, the Israelis haven’t abandoned their old practice of announcing new settlement construction in a way that maximizes the embarrassment they cause Washington:

Israel broke ground on Tuesday on its first new settlement in the occupied West Bank for two decades, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, announcing the symbolic move on the eve of a peace mission by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.

“Work began today on-site, as I promised, to establish the new settlement,” Netanyahu wrote on his Twitter feed, which included a photograph of mechanical equipment digging into a rocky field.

He was referring to the construction of Amichai, which will house some 300 settlers evicted in February from the Amona outpost after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled their homes had been built illegally on privately-owned Palestinian land.

By highlighting the earth-moving work – no date has been announced for actual housing construction – Netanyahu appeared to suggest he believed he had little to fear from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration over settlement building that has drawn Palestinian and international condemnation.

This move comes after Trump himself asked Netanyahu to chill on the settlement construction for a bit, and the timing is completely intentional. Netanyahu in particular has specialized in making these announcements around major US-Israel diplomatic events in order to let Washington and the rest of the world know that he’s calling the shots, not whoever sits in the White House.


Egyptian forces say they killed 15 extremist militants on Tuesday in two separate operations. Airstrikes in northern Sinai reportedly killed 12 ISIS fighters, while a police raid in Alexandria killed 3 members of the Hasm Movement, which has been responsible for a number of attacks in recent months, including one on Sunday, but whose affiliations and leadership are still unclear.


The Qatar-Saudi diplomatic spat has been going on for more than two weeks now, and that means the two week deadline that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, had given for Qatari nationals to leave their countries has elapsed. All three countries have tried to take some steps to address the concerns of families with Qatar members, but according to Doha at least those efforts have proven inadequate. In a story that would be ridiculously hackneyed if it weren’t true, even Qatari camels are getting expelled from Saudi Arabia.

The crisis shows no sign of abating anytime soon. The Qatari government heavily criticized the three Gulf states and Egypt on Monday for offering “no formula for resolving the crisis,” suggesting that the whole thing was just an effort to undermine Qatar and the justifications offered for it merely window dressing. Doha says it won’t negotiate anyway unless and until the Saudi-led bloc ends its blockade/siege/whatever, so any list of demands may be irrelevant–the Emiratis, at least, say they’re prepared to leave things as is for “years.” The amount of time that’s passed without a clear list of grievances from the Saudis and company led the US State Department, remarkably given that President Trump keeps proudly claiming responsibility for starting this whole mess, to pretty harshly take the Saudis to task on Tuesday:

In Washington’s strongest language yet on the Gulf dispute, the State Department said the more time goes by, “the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

“At this point, we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, referring to the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.

That would be a pretty sharp elbow coming out of any State Department, let alone Trump’s, but we’ll see if it has any effect.

James Dorsey suggests that the reason the Saudis et al haven’t made with a list of demands yet is because they’re trying to figure out what they can put on such a list that will garner widespread international support. Asking Qatar to censor or even shut down Al Jazeera, for example, is probably not going to go over well. Likewise, asking it to cut ties to Hamas might even be problematic, because Qatar’s ties to Hamas are really the only path Western states have through which to communicate with and potentially influence that organization. And at the root of this, aside from a latent Saudi desire for regime change in Doha, is a real effort by the Saudis and the Bahrainis at least to get the international community to adopt a definition of terrorism that would encompass political as well as militaristic opposition to established regimes, a definition that is useless at best and frighteningly authoritarian at worst.

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Mohammed b. Salman (L) and Mohammed b. Zayed (R)

Reuters went into some detail on Monday about the Gulf princes at the center of this drama–Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim obviously, but also Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed b. Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed b. Zayed. The latter two are seen as the driving forces behind the blockade and appear to be the first of a new kind of Gulf autocrat that settles internal Gulf disputes loudly and publicly rather than with behind the scenes talks. To what end, it’s not even clear they know at this point.

Finally, this is developing so I don’t have much to say about it yet, but Qatar’s attorney general, Ali b. Fetais al-Marri, is accusing at least some of the same countries who are behind the blockade of having engineered the hack of the Qatar News Agency that precipitated this affair. He’s not named any specific countries but it’s not like there are several possibilities, and he did say they were “neighboring” which I guess rules out Egypt. It’s not clear how much evidence he has to back up this charge.


So that Iranian fisherman who was supposedly killed by the Saudis on Friday? Riyadh claims that he’s actually an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sailor…and, apparently, that he’s not dead. The Saudis claim they captured three IRGC sailors on Friday in the process of turning back three IRGC boats carrying explosives into Saudi waters. The Iranians are denying this story and sticking with their original version of events, which was the fisherman story. Neither of these governments is particularly renowned for its honesty, so believe whichever you like I guess.


Iranian state media reported on Monday that IRGC forces recently killed Jalil Qanbar-Zahi, the leader of Baloch separatist group Ansar al-Furqan. They’ve supposedly been after this guy for 25 years, so it’s amazing good fortune that they were able to finally get him so soon after the June 7 Tehran terrorist attacks when Iranians are looking for reassurance that their government is protecting them.

The Tehran attacks have also apparently become fodder for Iranian politics. In particular, hardliners are using them to attack moderates and reformists, which is a remarkable thing considering that the attacks represented a failure of the security establishment, which is entirely controlled by hardliners. Reformists, meanwhile, have been rallying around the flag, particularly since last week, when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to make regime change official US policy toward Iran. I’d say Tillerson was dumb for forcing Iranian reformers to pick sides like that, but frankly that’s probably what he was trying to do–the existence of any Iranian reform movement is problematic for Americans who want war with Iran.

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