Middle East update: June 22 2017


With my focus heavily on the Saudi story yesterday, I feel like I gave short shrift to this Washington Post piece on the Trump administration’s thinking with respect to the next (post-Raqqa) phase of its Syria operations. It’s not that the piece breaks much new ground in terms of what’s happening in Syria–it’s been obvious for weeks now that the administration is slowly escalating, whether by design or not, a conflict with Assad/Iran-aligned forces in southern and eastern Syria–but it does go in to some detail about the administration’s deliberations over where things are heading:

Trump administration officials, anticipating the defeat of the Islamic State in its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa, are planning for what they see as the next stage of the war, a complex fight that will bring them into direct conflict with Syrian government and Iranian forces contesting control of a vast desert stretch in the eastern part of the country.

The wisdom and need for such a strategy — effectively inserting the United States in Syria’s civil war, after years of trying to stay out of it, and risking direct confrontation with Iran and Russia, Assad’s other main backer — has been a subject of intense debate between the White House and the Pentagon.

Some in the Pentagon have resisted the move, amid concern about distractions from the campaign against the Islamic State and whether U.S. troops put in isolated positions in Syria, or those in proximity to Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, could be protected. European allies in the anti-Islamic State coalition have also questioned whether U.S.-trained Syrians, now being recruited and trained to serve as a southern ground-force vanguard, are sufficient in number or capability to succeed.

What the Pentagon is resisting, specifically, are calls from higher up in the administration to establish outposts in the eastern Syrian desert, presumably akin to the American outpost at Tanf. These outposts would be there to thwart Bashar al-Assad’s plans to recapture the area and would presumably, like Tanf, be used as tripwires, so that Syrian aircraft or forces that get too close to one of them could be struck under a technically plausible, if contextually strained, definition of “self-defense.” This is a strategy, I guess, but it’s not a very well-articulated one and it’s not clear that it has an endgame apart from:

  1. Establish outposts
  2. ???
  3. Assad is ousted and peace is restored

It’s also not clear where the US or proxy forces to man these outposts are going to come from. The forces at Tanf are blocked from advancing further east by Assad and his allies, and anyway Tanf itself is too important to abandon to keep moving east. US and Syrian Democratic Forces…uh, forces (seriously the SDF needs to change its goddamn name) at Raqqa are going to be at Raqqa for a while yet, and they’re already under pressure from Assad as it is. Deir Ezzor is the next phase of the anti-ISIS fight but it’s going to be a challenge for either the SDF or Assad to amass its forces there. And then of course there’s Iran, which is the foreground and background of almost everything the Trump administration does:

At the White House, senior officials involved in Syria policy see what’s happening through a lens focused as much on Iran as on the Islamic State. The Iranian goal, said one, “seems to be focused on making that link-up with Iran-friendly forces on the other side of the border, to control lines of communication and try to block us from doing what our commanders and planners have judged all along is necessary to complete the ISIS campaign.” ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.

US foreign policy has had some fixation on Iran since 1979, but with these guys it’s become an obsession. It hasn’t been good for American planning and it’s not good for anybody hoping to avoid another all-out war.

If you’re interested in what’s been happening in Aleppo since Assad retook it last year, Swedish reporter Aron Lund has been reporting from there periodically since December. His most recent reporting suggests that the Assad government is trying to clamp down on allied militias who have set up shop there and are engaged in smuggling and other criminal enterprises:

Bashar al-Assad has now sent one of his top intelligence officials to Alepp: State Security director Lt. Gen. Mohammed Dib Zeitoun. He has been tasked by the presidential palace with overseeing a crackdown on organized crime and reining in the militias, and local authorities – including Lt. Gen. Saleh’s Security Commitee, the provincial police chief Lt. Gen. Essam al-Shelli, and the local Baath Party branch of Fadel al-Najjar – are now busily reorganizing the security sector.

Russia’s foreign ministry now says it has a “high degree of certainty” that one of its airstrikes last month killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I wouldn’t make any plans to attend the funeral without some actual confirmation of his death, which this is not.


I’d also like to say more about ISIS’s destruction of the ~850 year old Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s Old City. I never know how to talk about heritage destruction, because it’s an issue I actually feel quite passionately about and yet I realize that the loss of any structure, however old or culturally significant, is less important than the loss of any human life. If you get too emotional about a mosque or ancient city being blown up it can start to seem like you’re more upset about that than you are about kids being shot trying to escape the fighting.

In truth it’s all part of the same pathology. ISIS values nothing except perpetuating itself, and it views both human lives and cultural heritage as tools that can be used (respectively, as human shields and suicide bombers, and as sources of revenue) and then discarded as appropriate. The loss of heritage certainly doesn’t hurt those affected as much as the loss of human life, but it does hurt. Destroying this mosque robs the people of Mosul, and Iraq, and the entire world, of a piece of their history, their heritage, their identity. It impoverishes and immiserates them both materially (the mosque was something that brought people to Mosul) and intangibly.

And to what end? Spite, basically. The Nuri Mosque was where Baghdadi declared his caliphate in 2014, and ISIS decided if it couldn’t have it, nobody could. It wanted to deny a trophy to its Iraqi enemies. There was certainly no tactical value to destroying the building–the Iraqi desire to preserve it was helping to stifle their use of heavy weaponry and air power in the Old City. ISIS’s decision to destroy it is an acknowledgement that it’s on the verge of losing anyway–which it is, as the pace of Iraqi progress seems to be picking up. It’s a white flag with a heavy cost attached.


The Pentagon announced on Thursday that a US airstrike killed Abu Khattab al-Awlaqi, the commander for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen’s Shabwa province.


Ankara says it has received assurances from the US that weapons supplied to the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia will be carefully inventoried and reclaimed by Washington after ISIS has been defeated in Syria and that “mainly” Arab forces within the SDF will be used to liberate and secure Raqqa. This raises a lot of questions:

  • how are we defining ISIS’s “defeat”?
  • Ankara says “mainly” Arab means 80 percent Arab, but what happens if holding that much of the SDF’s Kurdish element out of the fight leaves them unable to capture the city?
  • why would we assume the US will keep better track of these weapons than it has anywhere else?

But hopefully these assurances will be enough to keep Turkey from provoking a conflict with the YPG at least until after Raqqa is taken.

Turkey has just sent its first cargo vessel carrying food and other goods for Qatar (they’ve sent aid by plane but this is a much larger shipment going by sea) and is making plans to deploy more troops there. They’re also still trying to play mediator so as to not alienate the Saudis, which given all the gestures they’ve made toward Qatar seems like a long shot.


Israeli officials have filed a complaint with the UN Security Council alleging that Hezbollah is using an environmental group called “Green Without Borders” as cover for setting up outposts along the Lebanon-Israel border. Such outposts would violate the ceasefire that ended the 2006 Lebanon War.


In breaking news, the sky is blue, Israel is planning to build thousands more illegal settlements, water is wet, and you can’t keep a good man down. Well, we’re fact-checking that last one.


Without providing much in the way of detail, Egyptian authorities say a government raid on a camp in the country’s western desert killed seven militants connected to recent terrorist attacks targeting Coptic Christians. Earlier on Thursday, the Egyptian parliament took President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s suggestion–made, I’m sure, in the best interests of the nation and not to help Sisi repress opposition to his rule–and extended the country’s three-month state of emergency, first imposed in April, for another three months. Stay tuned for a repeat of this message in September when they vote to extend it again.


Giorgio Cafiero and Theodore Karasik of Gulf State Analytics look at how the Qatar-Saudi-UAE-Bahrain mess is affecting the other two members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Kuwait and Oman:

In an effort to work the rift “within the unified Gulf house,” Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah engaged in shuttle diplomacy, travelling between the Qatari, Saudi and Emirati capitals shortly after the crisis erupted. On June 5, Oman’s foreign minister, Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, went to Doha on a private trip planned prior to the severance of several Arab states’ ties with Qatar. According to U.A.E.-based newspaper The National, the following day officials in Doha looked to their counterparts in Muscat for help in mediating the row, and Oman agreed.

Kuwait and Oman’s positions on the Qatar crisis came as no surprise given these two states’ record of serving as mediators in Yemen, between the Saudi-led military coalition members on one side and the Houthis on the other, as well as between Riyadh and Tehran. Another factor is that Kuwait and Oman have never had the same problems with Doha’s foreign policy that have irritated the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia.

Both countries are heavily invested in seeing the GCC survive intact–neither wants to lose Qatar, because it helps them balance the Saudi faction of the council (Bahrain and the UAE are more or less operating in lock step with Riyadh these days, while the other three GCC countries have maintained their relative autonomy). Oman’s problems with the Saudis are numerous and would prevent it from playing a real mediating role, but Kuwait may still be able to pull it off.


DEVELOPING: The Qataris have reportedly received a list of demands from the Saudis et al, via Kuwait. Nothing on what those demands are, and as I’m hoping to maybe call it a night a little earlier than usual this evening, I’ll probably cover this tomorrow.

While you won’t catch me defending Saudi Arabia and company as they continue trying to pummel Qatar into submission, but this is really a bit much:

Qatar has never supported Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the Syrian group formerly known as the Nusra Front, or any other “terrorist group”, its foreign minister says.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said in an interview with France 24 Arabic on Thursday that Qatar had always “abided by international laws” and played a key role in the international coalition fighting Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

“Qatar does not support the Nusra Front in Syria … and it does not support any terrorist organisation,” he told France 24.

This is at best a half-truth. The Qatari government presumably isn’t cutting checks to al-Qaeda in Syria or else somebody would’ve found out by now. But it has allowed people to raise funds for Nusra in Doha and it has hosted charities known to launder money for al-Qaeda. It also supported Ahrar al-Sham, which had its own links to al-Qaeda before the intra-rebel conflict in Idlib in January that brought most of the rebellion’s real extremists under Nusra’s (now Tahrir al-Sham’s) banner. It also supported Jaysh al-Fatah, the extremist rebel coalition that conquered Idlib and that, at one time, included Nusra. So really, enough with this bullshit.


The AP is reporting on serious and horrifying human rights violations, perhaps involving American personnel, at a network of at least 18 secret prisons the UAE has been maintaining in southern Yemen:

Hundreds of men swept up in the hunt for al-Qaida militants have disappeared into a secret network of prisons in southern Yemen where abuse is routine and torture extreme — including the “grill,” in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Senior American defense officials acknowledged Wednesday that U.S. forces have been involved in interrogations of detainees in Yemen but denied any participation in or knowledge of human rights abuses. Interrogating detainees who have been abused could violate international law, which prohibits complicity in torture.

Some 2000 men have reportedly disappeared into these prisons, which are essentially a recreation of the black site facilities set up by the CIA after 9/11 to facilitate its torture and rendition program–a program in which the UAE was a major participant. The UAE denies these facilities exist, which is contradicted by US personnel who acknowledge participating in interrogations at the sites while denying any knowledge of torture, and both of these denials are likely bullshit. I guess when James Mattis patted the UAE on its collective head and dubbed it “little Sparta,” he was really being literal.


So far there’s no sign that the elevation of Mohammed b. Sultan as Crown Prince is causing any discord among the Saudi royal family, but this Reuters piece does make an interesting point when it mentions the fate of King Saud 53 years ago. The one time there was real violence associated with a Saudi succession was of course the assassination of King Faisal in 1975, and even then the actual transfer of power to his successor, Khalid, was peaceful–Faisal’s murder, by his nephew Faisal b. Musaid, wasn’t over the throne but was instead (probably) a revenge killing. But Saud was actually forced to abdicate in 1964–things almost got violent–so that wasn’t the smooth succession we’ve come to expect from the Saudi family. The reason for his removal? Mostly it was about Saud’s alleged failure to meet the threat posed by Nasserism, but there were also concerns that he was planning to consolidate royal power within his family by putting his sons in line for the throne. Which has some echoes in King Salman’s decision.

I feel like I’ve written as much as I have to say about this story, which is usually the point at which I start directing you to other worthwhile takes. For example, Robin Wright asks the question “why now”:

The big question is: Why did the king make the appointment now? Was President Trump’s trip last month, orchestrated largely by Prince Mohammed, the turning point? Was the decision influenced by the age of the king, who reportedly suffers from dementia? Was it driven by the need for resolution regarding the kingdom’s future at a time when the Middle East faces existential challenges to its countries, borders, and millions of residents? Was it the sway of Prince Mohammed’s influential mother—the king’s third wife? Possibly, it was all of the above.

“The king may have felt that, with all the issues on the table now, clarity in terms of leadership and succession were paramount,” Ali Shihabi, the executive director of the Arabia Foundation, in Washington, told me. “After being led by old men for the last fifty years, Saudi Arabia needs to be led by a younger man open to new ideas and willing to take risks.”

I also think she makes an important point in noting that, despite all the major responsibilities that have been piled on MbS’s shoulders, he’s yet to actually demonstrate that he’s up to the task. It’s way too soon to say anything about Vision 2030, but his aggressive move against Qatar isn’t going well and his biggest project to date, Yemen, has been a thorough clusterfuck even if you don’t care about harming civilians.

Paul Pillar, meanwhile looks for signs of Saudi instability and how that instability might hurt US interests:

A foreign country may be a problematic partner for the United States for two basic types of reasons, both of which apply to Saudi Arabia.

First, the partner’s foreign policies may range from misguided to immoral, or risk sucking the United States into conflicts in which it is not, or should not be, a party. Saudi Arabia’s calamitous war in Yemen is currently the leading example of this sort of problem. More recently has come the economic and diplomatic offensive against Qatar, which threw a wrench into the Trump administration’s aspirations regarding regional security, and in response to which the State Department this week delivered a bemused scolding.

Second, internal fragility may risk having the foreign regime suddenly come apart. This not only would mean that the partnership with the United States also would come apart. It also could mean that close association of the United States with the old regime earns it lasting animosity from the new rulers and from the discontented foreign populace that supported political change. For an example of this dynamic, one need look only to the other side of the Persian Gulf. The close association of the United States with the Shah of Iran became a major ingredient in post-revolutionary anti-Americanism in Iran. Even after the Shah had been deposed, his admission to the United States for medical treatment was the immediate trigger for the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and a hostage crisis that lasted more than a year.

If there are any Saudi princes put out by the new succession arrangement, that could bring the second factor into play.

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