Middle East update: June 24-25 2017


OK, even I’ll admit this is a nice story:

People in the Iraqi city of Mosul celebrated their first Muslim Eid holiday without Islamic State in years on Sunday after the militants were ejected from much of the city, and hoped the battle to recapture the remaining area would soon be over.

Children gathered in squares on the eastern side of the city. Some played on old swings and others with toy guns and rifles, which were among the toys allowed by Islamic State militants after they took over the city in June 2014.

People who have been displaced from western Mosul aren’t exactly in the mood to celebrate since they’re unable to return home, and many are saddened by ISIS’s destruction of the Nuri Mosque, but things could certainly be worse for those who’ve survived the last three years.

The Iraqi tactic of advancing into the Old City via its main north-south and east-west roads seems to have paid off over the weekend, as “hundreds” of civilians were able to flee the area thanks to newly open corridors. Most of the 100,000 or so civilians believed trapped in the Old City are still stuck, but the number has probably declined fairly sharply this weekend (for obvious reasons it’s hard to get even an estimate right now).

The Iraqis say they repelled an attempted ISIS counterattack on Sunday in the Hay al-Tanak neighborhood just west of the Old City that featured a number of suicide bombers. ISIS has ratcheted up its use of suicide bombers in general over the past couple of days. Friday was particularly busy:

The Islamic State carried out a number of attacks throughout Mosul. A suicide bomber was hiding amongst people fleeing in west Mosul and killed 12 and wounded 20. Three other suicide bombers set off their devices inside Muthanna market in the Nabi Younis neighborhood in the east side of the city leaving 15 fatalities and 30 injured. A fifth suicide bomber was killed in the Sumer district. IS mortar fire also hit a market in Jadida in the west with 10 dead and 40 wounded. The bombings were a warning to the security forces that infiltrations and sleeper cells are still active in the city. There are several different security forces operating in Mosul, and the National Intelligence Service is specifically tasked with hunting down IS elements. The problem is that there is little to no cooperation between them, and those gaps can be exploited by the insurgents.

On Saturday, at least one person was killed when a terrorist joined a crowd of civilians fleeing the city and detonated his bomb in their midst.


Israel struck three Syrian targets on Saturday after ten projectiles reportedly struck the Israeli side of the Golan, spillover from fighting in southwestern Syria. All the action apparently took place around the town of Quneitra.

A car bomb struck the town of Dana, in Idlib province, on Saturday, killing at least 10 people. This seems likely to be some kind of rebel-on-rebel conflict–Idlib is still divided between Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda led Tahrir al-Sham coalition–but beyond that and barring a claim of responsibility it’s hard to say who was involved.

In Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced the capture of another neighborhood in the western part of the city on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Raqqa Civil Council, which is supposed to immediately take over control of Raqqa from the SDF when the time comes , issued pardons on Saturday to 83 low-ranking ISIS fighters who had already been taken prisoner. These were all apparently junior members of the organization who hadn’t killed anyone. Pardoning them sets a precedent that may hopefully spare Raqqa some of the revenge killings and judicial problems that Iraqis are facing in Mosul. ISIS certainly has its diehards, but there are a lot of people in the areas it controlled who signed on because eventually they ran out of any other way to provide for themselves or their families–some of them lost their livelihoods because of the American air campaign–or even to protect their families. It’s easy to second-guess the decisions these people made, to say they should’ve fled or taken a stand, but none of us really knows what we would do in the same situation. Perhaps they should be punished somehow, but it would be excessive to make them share the same penalties as a senior ISIS commander.

Over the weekend the Pentagon announced that Fawaz Muhammad Jubayr al-Rawi, described as the ISIS “finance emir,” was killed in a coalition airstrike earlier this month. But there’s still nothing on those Russian claims that they’ve killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Needless to say I remain skeptical, but the longer this goes on without any proof that Baghdadi is alive, the easier it’s going to get to believe Moscow. At the very least, it’s going to become pretty clear just out far removed from running his organization Baghdadi has become.


The Yemen government, such as it is, says it will form a committee to investigate recent allegations about a network of UAE-run black site prisons on Yemeni territory. The Emirati government denies running any prisons in Yemen, but it’s arranged things so that the prisons are directly run by UAE-backed pro-government militias. Technically this puts the sites under Yemeni government control, since those militias are technically answerable to that government. But practically speaking they’re controlled by Abu Dhabi. The US Congress may also conduct an investigation into these facilities, since the Pentagon does acknowledge working with the Emiratis at these sites–though it denies any knowledge of torture.

The United Nations now says that Yemen’s cholera outbreak is the worst in the world, so at least the Yemenis have something going for them. So far 1300 people have died, the total number of cases has reached 200,000, and there are 5000 new cases being reported every day. But things are looking up. Saudi Arabia, which bears substantial responsibility for this cholera outbreak in the first place, has generously offered to provide$66.7 million in cholera relief??!?!? Well, at least they can’t be accused of not doing the least they could do.


If there’s a country whose response to the Qatar diplomatic crisis has been more unfocused than America’s, then it has to be Turkey, which has had to sandwich its efforts to play neutral moderator in between deploying soldiers to Qatar and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s periodic pro-Qatar outbursts. He made another one of those on Sunday:

Turkey’s president has described as disrespectful a demand by Saudi Arabia and its allies that it withdraw its troops from Qatar as a step towards ending a deepening dispute with the besieged Gulf state.

Two days after the demand was made, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan instead reiterated his support for Qatar and described the 13 demands levelled at the Gulf countryas preconditions to restore relations as being “against international law”.

“To ask Turkey to pull out its troops from Qatar is firstly disrespectful behaviour towards us,” he said in Istanbul on the first day of a three-day holiday to mark the end of Ramadan. “We don’t need permission from anyone to establish military bases among partners. We endorse and appreciate Qatar’s stance towards the 13 demands. It’s a very, very ugly approach to try to interfere with our agreement.”

Erdoğan also on Sunday accused the US of “tricking Turkey” when it says it will take back any weapons that it supplies to the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria and then promised to make America “pay for any bullet that will be fired to our country, for every drop of blood that will be shed.” He seems like he’s in a good place.


President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has unsurprisingly approved parliament’s handover of the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. I say “unsurprisingly” because this arrangement was Sisi’s idea in the first place. The Saudis have been generous to Sisi since he took power in 2013 but it’s clear they’ve been expecting something for their largesse, and ownership of these two islands is part of Egypt’s bill. Egypt’s top administrative court has already ruled against the transfer, but it’s not clear they have the jurisdiction to override parliament–and, well, even if they do there’s no check on Sisi’s power to just ignore them.


On the subject of things that are not surprising, the Qatari government on Saturday rejected the list of demands it had been presented by Saudi Arabia and company last week. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani told Al Jazeera that the list proves the real Saudi aim in precipitating this crisis has been “limiting Qatar’s sovereignty,” rather than anything to do with Qatar’s support for extremists. He’s gotten agreement from a couple of interesting places. First from Iran, where President Hassan Rouhani criticized the Saudi “siege,” and no doubt the Iranians are going to continue weighing in like this, in ways that mostly just exacerbate the conflict. However, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also weighed in on the list of demands, and, well, he’s apparently not a huge fan:

“While some of the elements will be very difficult for Qatar to meet, there are significant areas which provide a basis for ongoing dialogue leading to resolution,” said Tillerson in his statement, which urged the parties to sit down and have a conversation about what he called the “requests.”

“We believe our allies and partners are stronger when they are working together towards one goal which we all agree is stopping terrorism and countering extremism,” he said. “Each country involved has something to contribute to that effort. A lowering of rhetoric would also help ease the tension.”

Without known how Tillerson feels about each particular demand, this is a reasonable response to the list, because there are some items on which Qatar could improve while there are others that are ridiculous and the clear end goal seems to be regime change or some equivalent, Emirati denials to the contrary. If Tillerson hadn’t already been pre-undermined by his boss, he might actually be able to leverage a settlement to this situation. As it is, President Trump has probably already done too much damage.


UAE President (and Emir of Abu Dhabi) Khalifa b. Zayed Al Nahyan appeared in public to mark the start of Eid this weekend, which is only noteworthy inasmuch as he’s barely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2014.


Iranian authorities had a busy weekend vaguely doing things to protect the Iranian people from terrorist attacks. They claimed on Sunday to have arrested 50 suspected militants in Kermanshah province, and on Saturday they reported breaking up a group affiliated with ISIS. As I’ve said, expect reports like this to continue pouring out of Iranian state media following the June 7 Tehran attacks, anything to assure people that the hardline security services are doing their job and shouldn’t be questioned in any way.

The Iranians are heavily criticizing Israeli reports suggesting that their big June 18 missile strike against ISIS in Syria didn’t go so well. The Israelis claimed that several Iranian missiles crashed in Iraq, well before making it to their targets, but the Iranians say they used multi-stage missiles and that the Israelis were tracking the stages as they broke off.

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