Middle East update: June 21 2017


OK, time for some more BIG, BREAKING news on today’s huge shakeup in the Saudi line of succession…but, you know what? There really hasn’t been any. If you were hoping for some serious Saud family drama, then at the very least you’re going to have to keep hoping for a while longer, assuming there’s any at all. Really, the elevation of Mohammed b. Salman to Crown Prince and the complete removal of the former crown prince, Mohammed b. Nayef, from all of his public roles has so far gone pretty much as intended. Saudi royals spent Wednesday evening pledging their loyalty to the new heir, a process that included this:


That’s Mohammed b. Nayef pretty calmly wishing the guy who just passed him over well, and Mohammed b. Salman making a big theatrical gesture of honoring his predecessor. It’s possible, likely even, that this is to some degree just for show and that Mohammed b. Nayef is seething, but even if that’s true it still doesn’t mean he’s going to take any action.

So if there’s nothing new to talk about, I guess we can try to get a handle on What This All Means. First of all, while this is obviously a big deal, it’s unlikely to change much about Saudi policy or governance because, at least from outward appearances, Mohammed b. Salman was already de facto running the country anyway. He’s controlling the kingdom’s military policy, its foreign policy, and its economic policy via his Vision 2030 plan. That’s a pretty expansive portfolio, and meanwhile Mohammed b. Nayef, the ostensible heir to the throne, has been hard to find in public for the past several months. There have even been rumors that bin Nayef has been ill, which would help explain both the succession change and his seeming acceptance of it, but those rumors have been circulating for months so they don’t really explain why the change was made now. The simpler explanation for bin Salman’s prominence is that he’s, you know, the king’s son, and has been his father’s closest aide since 2009–a period during which there have been serious questions raised about Salman’s mental acuity.

At any rate, in the most obvious respect this move simply cements what had already become the family power dynamic. Mohammed b. Salman is the star of the Saudi family and his accession has been in the cards for some time now. And since he was already setting policy for the kingdom across the board, those policies are likely to stay in place with his elevation and eventual succession to the throne, which will be music to the Trump administration’s ears. Assuming Mohammed b. Nayef continues to go along with the new order, then this shuffle drastically reduces tensions around the succession–had bin Nayef become king and attempted to assert himself as such, the potential for a power struggle between him and bin Salman would have been pretty high.

On the historical scale, Muhammad b. Salman’s rise is a pretty major shift for the Saudi family. For at least a decade now the open question about Saudi Arabia has been when the next generation of princes was going to take over. King Abdulaziz, AKA Ibn Saud (d. 1953), the founder of the modern Saudi state, had a lot of sons, and the succession has wound its way through that generation of the family for more than 60 years now. But it’s approaching the point where the crown is going to have to pass to Abdulaziz’s grandsons, and the question has always been which one of them would be the first to get it. Mohammed b. Nayef was long seen as the likely pick, but even he’s pushing 60, so he wouldn’t have been on the throne that long. Mohammed b. Salman is 31 and could potentially rule Saudi Arabia for decades, shutting innumerable other Saudi princes out of a shot at the big chair. That’s why I don’t think you can discount the possibility of some drama here, even though everything seems to be going smoothly so far.

There are two other things that make this succession choice interesting and potentially problematic. First is that it’s a direct father-son succession in a monarchy that has consistently practiced brother-brother succession since Abdulaziz’s death. Saudi royals tend to view the monarchy as the family business, so while the generational shift was inevitable it might have been less controversial for Salman to have passed the throne to a nephew, like bin Nayef, than to his own son. It will also raise, as Juan Cole notes, more internal questions about the “Sudairi” faction of the family, the descendants of Abdulaziz’s seven sons by one of his favorite wives, Hussa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi. Other branches of the family have been concerned about the Sudairis consolidating power at everyone else’s expense. However, Mohammed b. Nayef was a Sudairi as well, so this would have been an issue anyway, and one of the decrees surrounding bin Salman’s elevation seems to preclude him appointing a crown prince from the same branch of the family. Of course, bin Salman could always change this once the dust settles.

This is also a huge generational jump–Salman was born in 1935 and his son is a millennial, so there are at least a couple of entire generations of Saudi princes who are getting passed over. On the one hand this is a point in bin Salman’s favor; he’s quite popular with young Saudis, and Saudi Arabia has a large youth population. On the other hand, again, the possibility of more senior princes grumbling about this behind the scenes is fairly high. Which still doesn’t mean they’ll try to do anything about it.

Last night I raised the possibility of King Salman abdicating in an effort to rush the process along and install his son as king before the rest of the family has time to react to the move. There are now rumors floating about on the internets of just such a thing, and they’re being heavily circulated by Iran, which would obviously appreciate any discord in Saudi politics. The Iranians seem to be having a little fun today characterizing this move as a “soft coup,” but Mohammed b. Salman is obviously not popular among Iranians so these comments are jokes but with a sharp edge to them.

In the long-term, assuming bin Salman does accede to the throne and stays on it (the Saudis have never overthrown a sitting king so there’s no historical precedent for thinking he wouldn’t stay on it), then we’re definitely seeing a changing of the guard in the Persian Gulf and maybe not necessarily for the better. Mohammed b. Salman has garnered himself a reputation as a vibrant young reformer largely on the basis of good PR and one economic reform plan that has barely gotten off the ground. He’s also the guy responsible for thousands of civilian deaths and a massive humanitarian crisis in Yemen, for helping to ratchet tensions with Iran up to the dangerously high level they’re at today, and for attempting to starve Qatar into submission. His accession means that two of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states–Qatar and Saudi Arabia–will be led by millennials in a region that has been known in recent years for the advanced, to put it mildly, age of its top political leaders. This new generation seems more inclined toward conflict than diplomacy, which is unfortunate in a region that has way too much of the former and way too little of the latter.


The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are now attempting to fully encircle Raqqa by taking territory along the south bank of the Euphrates River on the city’s southern reaches. The SDF had previously surrounded the city to the north, east, and west, but had left the southern approaches open, which I’ve argued was a good idea to the extent that it might encourage ISIS fighters to leave the heavily populated city and make a stand somewhere else. The decision to encircle the city now closes off that avenue of retreat, but it may be that the US and SDF figure any ISIS fighters who were thinking about leaving have already left, so there’s no sense leaving an escape route open any more.

The SDF has helped establish something called the Raqqa Civil Council, which is supposed to be handling post-conflict planning for the city. There are many concerns about the RCC’s work, however. For one thing, rebuilding Raqqa is going to take a lot of money, and that means the notoriously stingy international community will need to pony up to support the effort. In particular, new police are going to need to be hired and trained to stabilize the city and prevent, for example, revenge killings. For another thing, if the RCC is too closely tied to the SDF and especially the Kurds, its work could inflame tensions with Turkey. The US and SDF are likely to face an immediate challenge from the Syrian government as well. Raqqa is important to controlling eastern Syria and the oil fields located there, so there’s little chance Assad would be content to leave it to the SDF.

There’s a possibility, which would be a fairly remarkable sign of just how much of its own tail Turkey’s foreign policy has eaten, that Ankara could offer to work with Assad’s forces to jointly attack the Kurds. Independent monitors are reporting that Turkey has been bolstering its forces in northern Syria–it’s not clear toward what end.


Joel Wing has updates on the battle in west Mosul’s Old City:

The Iraqi forces (ISF) made another advance, while the Islamic State is down to just one district under its control in Mosul. First, the army’s 9th Division announced that the Shifa neighborhood was finally freed. That allowed the ISF to also take the western end of the Fifth Bridge across the Tigris River. The Federal Police were still fighting for Bab al-Baid, attacked Bab al-Lakash, and advanced 200 meters into the Farouq area all in the Old City. The Golden Division freed Khazraj in that district as well. The insurgents launched another counter attack into Danadan south of the Old City, but was turned back. Shifa was a difficult battle, holding up the Iraqi forces for almost a month. With that finally under control, IS only holds the Old City. It will likely be the hardest part of the entire campaign because the streets are so narrow military vehicles cannot traverse them, the houses are so densely laid out that artillery, mortars and air strikes will likely take a heavy civilian toll, and the militants have nowhere to go, and will fight to the death. There are already signs of that as more than 200 bodies were said to have been pulled out of the rubble caused by ISF air strikes and artillery over the last few days.

It’s now being reported that somebody has destroyed the Nuri Mosque, which has stood since the late 12th century and was the site on which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed his “caliphate” in 2014. In recent weeks it had been the focus for Iraqi forces grinding away in the Old City, but I guess that will no longer be the case, and Iraq has just lost another irreplaceable piece of its cultural heritage to ISIS. US forces are saying that the structure was blown up by ISIS fighters, but ISIS claims it was destroyed in an airstrike. There’s allegedly video of the building’s destruction that sure looks like it was blown up from the inside:


The World Health Organization is spearheading an effort to get one million cholera vaccines into Yemen to try to stem the outbreak there. The vaccines will help, but the tens of thousands of people who have already been infected need medicines to treat the disease. Moreover, no amount of vaccine is going to replace access to clean water and sanitation in terms of preventing the spread of the disease, and epidemiologically it may already be too late for vaccines to do much good in some parts of the country. Of course, those are the same parts of the country where it will be hardest to get the vaccine to the people who are at risk, thanks to the civil war.


The State Department’s recent decision to, apparently, break with its own president and denounce the Saudi blockade of Qatar (we’ll get to that in a minute) has worked in Turkey’s favor. Ankara’s support for Qatar risked putting it in Riyadh’s crosshairs, but with Washington now also souring on the blockade it’s safer for the Turks to oppose it as well.


US Prime Minister Jared Kushner dropped in on Israel today, so I guess we can expect peace in the Middle East to break out any minute followed closely by an end to all human suffering. Reporters were literally prevented from covering his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so I really don’t know that there’s anything else to say about this, but Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen has done a great job of collecting a number of views on Kushner’s visit and the prospects for negotiations here.

The Egyptian government has stepped in with a shipment of diesel fuel for Gaza’s power plant. The plant has been offline since the Palestinian Authority stopped supplying it with fuel a couple of months ago, and the few hours of electricity Gaza gets each day from Israel are being cut because the PA, due to its longstanding feud with Hamas, is only willing to pay about 70 percent of what it used to pay to Israel. Israel, of course, is happy to do anything that hurts Hamas even if it means hurting everyone else in Gaza at the same time. The Egyptian fuel shipment will help keep Gaza’s basic services running (for now, at least) and also reflects a recent uptick in the formerly frayed relations between Hamas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Another effect of Gaza’s electrical shortages has been an increased interest in solar panels. Hamas is lifting fees on the import of solar equipment in order to make it cheaper for residents to install their own panels.


A day after the State Department questioned the motives of Saudi Arabia and company in their decision to cut ties with Qatar, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday pressed Riyadh and its partners to get a list of “reasonable” demands to the Qataris:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that the United States is waiting to see whether a “list of demands” presented to Qatar by a coalition of its Gulf neighbors and their partners are “reasonable and actionable,” one day after the State Department’s top spokeswoman questioned the continued diplomatic freeze.

“In regards to the continuing dispute within the (Gulf Cooperation Council), we understand a list of demands has been prepared and coordinated by the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, and Bahrainis,” Tillerson said in a statement. “We hope the list of demands will soon be presented to Qatar and will be reasonable and actionable.”

“We support the Kuwaiti mediation effort and look forward to this matter moving toward a resolution,” he added.

To my knowledge, Donald Trump hasn’t said anything publicly about Qatar since he took a Twitter victory lap two weeks ago over causing this whole mess. His State Department seems increasingly to be taking a hard line toward the Saudis, much to the Qataris’ joy.


Israeli sources are saying that Iran’s big, splashy missile strike on ISIS targets in Syria on Sunday was a bust. Iranian officials claim their seven medium-range ballistic missiles killed 360 ISIS militants, but according to Israeli analysts claim that three of the missiles crash landed in Iraq and only one actually hit its intended target.

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