Middle East update: June 26 2017


The commander of Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service, Lieutenant General Abdul Ghani al-Assadi, says the full liberation of Mosul will be over “in a few days,” and given that “few” is a pretty vague term, I guess he’s probably right. The Iraqis estimate that about 350 ISIS militants remain in the Old City, and Assadi says they’ve lost their “fighting spirit” and “balance.” On the other hand, they’ve likely booby trapped the city to such a degree that they can hold out for a while longer–the traps aren’t there to kill Iraqi forces (though that’s a bonus) so much as they’re there to slow them down. But if the Nineveh Media Center’s maps are accurate–and they’ve consistently been more pessimistic in their mapping than Iraqi assessments have been, so I think they’re reliable–then clearly the Iraqis have made significant progress in bisecting the Old City:


The forces moving in from the north and the forces moving in from the west will meet and then jointly keep pushing east toward the Tigris River. It should be easier to liberate small pockets of the city once it’s been divided, and as they advance along that main west-east road they’re opening up more corridors for civilians to get out of the area.

With that all said, we have to continue to bear in mind that the Iraqis are generally over-optimistic about their progress. They’re under great political pressure to keep delivering news of their progress to the Iraqi people, so they do that even when it’s maybe not 100 percent accurate. They’re still, as Patrick Wing has been tracking so effectively, fighting in areas that were announced as liberated days ago:

The ISF remained fighting over several neighborhoods, some it claimed to have freed. To the north of the Old City, the Rapid Reaction Division has been caught up trying to take the Republican Hospitaland a few other buildings in the medical complex of Shifa. That area was said to be cleared three times before, and was originally entered at the end of May. In the Old City, the Golden Division and Federal Police were still attempting to seize Farouq in the center of the district from two directions. Towards the south, the Golden Division said it was anywhere from 25-50 meters away from the Nouri Mosque, which the Islamic State just destroyed. There were continued clashes in Khazraj and Bab al-Baid, both of which the ISF said it liberated, as well as Ras al-Jadah, and Bab al-Jadid. The Joint Operations Command stated that IS was down to just six neighborhoods, but the continued fighting would put the figure at a few more than that. In the last week, the ISF were able to make two large thrusts into the center of the Old City, after that however it has been tough going with few advances since then.

ISIS reportedly attempted another counterattack Sunday night, again involving several suicide bombers, striking the Tanak, Rajm al-Hadid, and Yarmouk neighborhoods. I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about these attacks being “repelled,” since I’m not sure the goal is to actually take territory–if ISIS is down to its last ~350 fighters and is using suicide bombers heavily, then it’s not interested in anything but maximizing the damage it does in its remaining days.


DEVELOPING: Late on Monday the White House released a statement saying that the US “has identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children. The activities are similar to preparations the regime made before its April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack.” It warned that the Assad regime will “pay a heavy price” if it carries out a chemical attack. Interestingly, I guess, Buzzfeed reports that “CENTCOM officials told BuzzFeed News they have ‘no idea’ about the statement.” You would think that if the US intelligence community, say, had information about a pending chemical weapons attack in Syria, that it might share that information with the military at roughly the same time it shared it with the White House, but what do I know? Whatever else may be true, I’m sure this isn’t a transparent attempt to pre-justify another missile strike on one of Assad’s bases so that Brian Williams and the rest of the cable news gang will gush over what a big boy real president Trump is.

I missed this yesterday, but apparently on Friday the US-led anti-ISIS coalition appeared to change its approach to the Syrian army’s (and allies) movement into the eastern Syrian desert, which has already led to a number of clashes between US and pro-Bashar al-Assad forces:

The U.S. military coalition fighting the Islamic State would welcome a concerted effort by the Syrian government or its Iranian-backed partner forces to defeat IS in its remaining strongholds in eastern Syria, a U.S. spokesman said Friday.

Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the coalition, told reporters at the Pentagon that the U.S. goal is to defeat IS wherever it exists. If others, including the Syrian government and its Iranian and Russian allies, want to fight the extremists as well, then “we absolutely have no problem with that,” he said, speaking from Baghdad.

“If it looks like they are making a concerted effort to move into ISIS-held areas, and if they show that they can do that, that is not a bad sign,” Dillon said, referring to forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. “We are here to fight ISIS as a coalition, but if others want to fight ISIS and defeat them, then we absolutely have no problem with that.”

Taken at face value this would seem to be a deescalation. If the US doesn’t care that Assad’s forces are moving east as long as they take on ISIS, then there’s no reason to compete with those forces over the Iraq-Syria border region or Deir Ezzor. So we’ll see. I suspect that competition will continue, because Iran, and that statements like this are meant to insulate the coalition and the Trump administration from accusations that it’s trying to provoke a confrontation with the Iranians in eastern Syria.

Fighting in the Syrian Golan has continued, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting that at least 12 people were killed there on Sunday. Israel of course carried out airstrikes in that area on Saturday in response to what it said were projectiles that crossed into the Israeli-occupied part of the Golan. The Syrian army is accusing the Israeli Defense Force of coordinating those strikes with an attack by Tahrir al-Sham, or if you prefer the former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, on a suburb of Quneitra. Accusations of IDF-Nusra collusion have been made by Damascus throughout the war, and they can’t be entirely dismissed. It’s probably more reasonable to say that Israel and Nusra share a common enemy and so their efforts in Syria are going to align more often than not–whether there’s active collusion between them is another matter and Assad’s military is not the most reliable source on which to base such a claim.

UPDATE: OK, I was going to give myself more time to digest Seymour Hersh’s latest investigation, alleging that the Khan Shaykhun chemical weapons attack was not, in fact, a chemical weapons attack but rather that the Syrian air force bombed a building containing fertilizers and other chemicals, the resulting cloud then poisoning civilians in the vicinity. But I guess I’ll get this out of the way now and say that I’m unconvinced. It’s not Hersh’s heavy use of anonymous sources that bothers me–well, it bothers me, but that’s not in itself where I have a problem. It’s in this passage from his reporting:

“The rebels control the population by controlling the distribution of goods that people need to live – food, water, cooking oil, propane gas, fertilizers for growing their crops, and insecticides to protect the crops,” a senior adviser to the American intelligence community, who has served in senior positions in the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency, told me. The basement was used as storage for rockets, weapons and ammunition, as well as products that could be distributed for free to the community, among them medicines and chlorine-based decontaminants for cleansing the bodies of the dead before burial. The meeting place – a regional headquarters – was on the floor above. “It was an established meeting place,” the senior adviser said. “A long-time facility that would have had security, weapons, communications, files and a map center.” The Russians were intent on confirming their intelligence and deployed a drone for days above the site to monitor communications and develop what is known in the intelligence community as a POL – a pattern of life. The goal was to take note of those going in and out of the building, and to track weapons being moved back and forth, including rockets and ammunition.

If Russia had this site scoped out to such a degree that they knew it contained insecticides, fertilizers, chlorine cleaning products, all things that could, I guess, be vaporized by an explosive into a toxic gas, why has it changed stories about this incident so many times? It’s not like Moscow and Damascus haven’t offered alternative explanations. They’ve suggested that the Syrians bombed a rebel chemical weapons depot or plant. They’ve suggested the rebels themselves gassed the town. They’ve suggested there was no gas and the whole thing was made up. But if they knew Assad had struck a building containing all these various civilian-use chemicals, why wouldn’t that have been their explanation from the start? Part of the reason Russia’s alternative theories began to look so fishy is that the Russians trotted out so many of them. If they knew the “real story” from the start, why not just run with that?

Also, I might add that Hersh’s contention that Russia would have been royally pissed (one of his anonymous sources says Moscow would have been “10 times as upset as anyone in the West”) at Assad if Assad had really used chemical weapons ignores past reporting, done by very credible reporters, that Russia was, in fact, royally pissed at Assad over Khan Shaykhun.

Also, in denying that sarin was used at Khan Shaykhun, Hersh ignores–literally, there’s no mention of it–the work done by OPCW and French investigators that found traces of sarin at the scene and on the victims. There is evidence that could suggest something other than sarin was happening in Khan Shaykhun–for example, I’ve read about at least one witness who reports coming into contact with the gas and only suffering some mild eye irritation–but if you’re going to write a story debunking the use of sarin in this attack then you can’t simply not mention the investigations that have already been done. Some of the substances Hersh puts in this building could mimic the effects of sarin under the right conditions, but it would take a very specific set of substances for them to also lead to a positive test for sarin after the fact. Maybe you think the OPCW and the French government are both in cahoots with the Trump administration to justify strikes on Syria, and that’s possible if maybe farfetched, but then report that.

There’s a lot about Hersh’s piece that rings true. Above all, the Trump administration’s mad dash to Do Something without waiting for any kind of investigation into the bombing was extremely problematic. And certainly this evening’s hype about “another” chemical weapons attack, the one about which CENTCOM says it has no idea, raises eyebrows about what the administration is doing. The problem I have with Hersh’s work over the past several years is that it’s plausible but insufficient. And here I’ll come back to the reliance on anonymous sources but also to his tendency to gloss over or just ignore known facts (it’s a fact that the OPCW determined that sarin was used in this case, whether or not you believe them) or other reporting (like Laura Rozen’s story about Moscow’s anger at Assad) that don’t fit the narrative. I can believe that he’s on to something here, just as I could believe he was on to something with his bin Laden investigation (in that case especially I still find parts of his reporting a lot more plausible than the official story) and his reporting on Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in 2013, but there’s not enough to convince me. At the same time, I won’t say Hersh is wrong, because I don’t know that he is.


The May 14 murder in Aden of a law student who belonged to a secularist social organization has some Yemenis concerned about the increasing presence of Islamist extremists among the forces being backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE (with American support, let’s bear in mind). Nobody has taken responsibility for Amgad Abdulrahman’s murder, but his family and friends believe he was killed for his openly secular views, which had also apparently brought him harassment from Yemeni officials.

Also, I have no idea if there’s any truth to this:

but man is that a bad idea. On its surface it would presumably end the civil war because, well, those are four of its five main players who would all be negotiating a deal to reinstall the fifth as president. But Saleh’s nearly 34 years in power, first as president of North Yemen and then as president of the whole country, are what broke Yemen in the first place. He was forced to abdicate by Arab Spring protesters for a reason, you know? Reinstating him as president would bring back all those popular grievances, would bring back the president who colluded with al-Qaeda on the one hand while manipulating the US counter-terror program to take care of his political enemies on the other, and would surely bring back a full-fledged southern secession movement almost immediately. This is the solution if you’re tired of the current Yemeni civil war but not of Yemeni civil war in general. It reshuffles the deck and then most likely continues the conflict.


Israeli officials are beginning to make the case for a preemptive war in Lebanon, arguing that UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon have failed to prevent a Hezbollah build-up there in contravention of US resolutions:

The confrontation between Israel and UNIFIL erupted at the beginning of the month, in the course of the June 7-9 visit of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley to Israel. Haley, who enjoys tremendous popularity in Israel, was taken for a patrol of the northern border line between Israel and Lebanon. She was accompanied by Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who recently served as the head of the Northern Command and is now deputy chief of staff, and Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. Amir Baram, the 91st Division commander.

In preparation for the visit, Kochavi and Baram had received special authorization to reveal hitherto secret intelligence information to Haley regarding Hezbollah’s deployment along the border in violation of Security Council Resolution 1701. To demonstrate that, Kochavi and Baram received approval to use sophisticated observation devices on the patrol. In addition, a female soldier from the local combat intelligence battalion participated in the patrol; she had recently immigrated to Israel from the United States and was tasked with providing accurate translations to the ambassador.

UNIFIL rejects Israeli accusations that it’s allowed Hezbollah to deploy south of the Litani River, which 1701 forbids. The Israelis have taken to calling Hezbollah “an army with a state” rather than a paramilitary organization, which adds meat to its concerns about Hezbollah’s alleged plans to invade northern Israel. If this situation ends in war, of course, it will almost certainly be Israel invading southern Lebanon again rather than Hezbollah invading Israel. But the Israelis can argue that Hezbollah was going to invade Israel, and are in fact arguing it right now.


Jordan has taken a relatively unique position on the Gulf diplomatic crisis, opting to “downgrade” its relations with Qatar rather than cut ties completely. Jordan doesn’t have great diplomatic relations with Qatar, but it does export a fair amount of agricultural goods to Qatar and there are a number of Jordanian expats working in Doha who send money back home. On the other hand, Jordan gets a great deal of aid from Riyadh and it has more expats working in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, sending more remittances back home. Ultimately Amman probably sees this spat as nothing more than a distraction from ISIS and spillover from Syria, which are still constant threats for the Jordanians.


This is developing, potentially, but the Israeli military says that a projectile fired from Gaza landed in an unpopulated part of Israel on Monday. Some kind of Israeli retaliation seems possible, if not likely.

There’s dissatisfaction all across the Israeli political spectrum these days. Right-wing lunatic Naftali Bennet, on the one end, is unhappy that the Trump administration hasn’t green-lit a full-on ethnic cleansing plan for the West Bank. On the other end, Jewish diaspora organizations are particularly upset at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent decision, yet another give away to the ultra-orthodox religious right, to scrap plans to introduce mixed-gender worship at the Western Wall:

A high-profile body that liaises between Israel and the Jewish diaspora has reacted with fury at a decision by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to in effect abandon a plan to allow men and women to pray together at the Western Wall.

The Jewish Agency has cancelled a gala dinner with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and is to discuss the ramifications of the decision at a meeting this week.

The Israeli cabinet decided on Sunday to scrap a compromise agreement made 17 months ago, which was intended to resolve a battle lasting more than a quarter of a century over equal rights for women praying at the Western Wall.

Netanyahu came under intense pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition government and the religious authorities that manage the site, the holiest place that Jews can pray.

The plan would have created a new area for worship at the Western Wall for men and women to pray together. At present, prayer areas are segregated, with a smaller stretch of the wall of the ancient temple reserved for women.

One of the Trump-Russia investigation’s side investigations has to do with former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s work on behalf of Turkish clients, and whether that work influenced his brief stint in the Trump administration (it also seems likely that Flynn committed a crime in not disclosing this relationship either to the Justice Department or in his security clearance application, but that’s neither here nor there). It now seems that a Turkish businessman, Kamil Ekim Alptekin, who hired Flynn’s firm, did so on behalf of Ratio Oil Exploration, a firm based in Israel. Ratio denies having any relationship with Alptekin but Buzzfeed has now published a number of photos that seem to disprove that denial, and is reporting on the contents of email exchanges between Ratio executives and Alptekin, as well as wire payments from Ratio to Alptekin’s company.


ISIS’s recent shift of focus toward targeting Coptic Christians has also come with a shift in its geographic focus in Egypt. As its position in Sinai has become more untenable, the organization appears to be reorienting itself toward Upper Egypt and the country’s western desert. It’s not really trying to take territory in these regions so much as to set up a base for terrorist attacks throughout the country, and given Upper Egypt’s remoteness it’s relatively easy to for a small network to find places to hide.

A programmer named Momen Talosh has developed an app to help young Nubian-Egyptians–or, I guess, anybody–learn Nubian languages (two of the five Nubian languages, anyway) and learn more about Nubian culture and history. All the Nubian languages are in serious danger of going extinct, so this may be a way to help preserve them.


Here’s something I didn’t know until today: the Qatar-Saudi dispute is apparently impacting the global supply of helium:

In 2015, Qatar supplied 27.2 percent of the global supply, according to IHS Markit, a research firm. In terms of global helium reserves, or the total amount available that could be tapped, Qatar is tied with Iran for the second-largest source, containing 17 percent of the world’s helium.

The country with the largest amount of helium is actually the United States, which has a little more than one-third of global resources, mostly near the oil and gas fields of Kansas and Oklahoma. Yet the analysts at IHS Markit say the shortfall from Qatar likely can’t be met by increasing production from these aging American fields. Although American producers could benefit from higher global helium prices, they probably won’t be able to boost production enough to meet the demand that is left over from falling Qatari production.

Helium is apparently a byproduct of natural gas recovery and processing, so its understandable why Qatar would have so much of it. Its helium production plants have shut down amid the crisis, and while this may seem trivial, it’s not that trivial, given helium’s importance to things like medical imaging and high-tech manufacturing.

I assume it’s not because of the helium, but whatever the reason the Qataris are gaining support in a variety of quarters. Iran, as we know, is offering assistance, though its offers may be as much about provoking further intra-GCC turmoil as they are genuine. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel weighed in on the Saudi/UAE/etc. list of demands presented to Qatar on Monday, calling them “very provocative.” And interestingly, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker wrote a letter on Monday to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlining plans to restrict new arms sales to GCC member states absent “a better understanding of the path to resolve the current dispute and reunify the GCC.” Tillerson, contrary to his boss, has been pushing for a negotiated settlement to the dispute, and Corker’s letter may give him some additional weight in that regard.

There’s still no sign of any abatement in the conflict, though. Also on Monday, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid b. Ahmed Al Khalifa accused Qatar of “military escalation” in regards to its plans to house more Turkish soldiers.


The Associated Press follows up its revelations of the UAE’s network of black site prisons in Yemen by looking at the country’s steep military buildup over the past several years:

The UAE was one of the most prominent Arab members to join the U.S.-led coalition striking IS targets in Syria. Its contribution gained particular attention for the role played by a female fighter pilot early in the campaign.

And while its military only numbers in the tens of thousands, it spends a whopping 6 percent of GDP on defense, allowing it to acquire advanced weapons systems from France, Britain and the U.S. The Pentagon said a new, 15-year defense cooperation agreement signed in May would “enable closer and more agile collaboration against a range of threats.”

“They’re trying to curry favor with the U.S. by taking on more and more roles in the region, to carve out their niche and emerge at the coveted position of being Washington’s Number One Arab Ally,” said Christopher Davidson of Britain’s Durham University.

“They’ve had to make deals with some unsavory characters to protect their flanks in places like Yemen, but in general they’ve proven more deft at keeping a cleaner image than, for example, the Saudis,” he added.

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