Middle East update: June 27 2017

FYI, this is only going to be a partial update since I’m going to be out most of this afternoon and evening.


There was a bit more today on the strange White House statement last night regarding Bashar al-Assad’s alleged preparations for “another” (assuming you believe there have been others) chemical weapons attack. The White House hasn’t been forthcoming with any additional details, but the Pentagon had a bit more to say on Tuesday morning:

The United States saw what appeared to be active Syrian preparations for a possible chemical weapons attack at Shayrat airfield, the same Syrian airfield the United States struck in April, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said on Tuesday.

“This involved specific aircraft in a specific hangar, both of which we know to be associated with chemical weapons use,” Davis said, speaking by phone from Washington.

Davis added that the worrisome activity dated back to “the past day or two.” He did not say how the United States collected its intelligence.

This seems like fairly inconclusive evidence on which to base such a provocative (Moscow didn’t take it well, for example) statement. But I’m sure there’s no way the administration, whose only good week so far in terms of media coverage was the one when they shot missiles at Shayrat, is actively looking for a sequel.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says a coalition airstrike on an ISIS-run prison in Deir Ezzor province killed 15 ISIS personnel…but also killed at least 57 prisoners along with them. I’m struggling to understand what possible justification there could be for bombing a target where you must know (I mean, if you don’t know what the target is then you shouldn’t be bombing it anyway) there will be a concentrated population of civilians (and yes, people who have been imprisoned by ISIS can probably be considered civilians) in order to take out a handful of ISIS prison guards. It’s of course possible that the strike was an accident, but that raises other problematic questions.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis went into a bit more detail on Tuesday as to how the Pentagon plans to manage its arms shipments to the YPG in order to allay Turkish concerns. The idea is to keep track of weapons sent to the YPG and adjust what they have according to their battlefield needs. So weapons that have been supplied to the Kurds for the Raqqa operation may be taken back after Raqqa and replaced with something else more in line with the next stage of anti-ISIS operations. Mattis also seemed to warn that the US wouldn’t be able to reclaim all the weaponry it provides the YPG–“we’ll do what we can” were his words–which probably isn’t going to go over well in Ankara.


Iraqi forces say they’re only about 600 yards from the main road that runs along the western bank of the Tigris in the Old City, which would bisect that district and is another marker on the road toward the full liberation of western Mosul. In addition to elite forces moving along the Old City’s main east-west road, Iraqi forces have also started pushing east through the Old City along a broad north-south front, and they have been making slow but steady progress:

The Iraqi advance has been slowed, but not stopped, by ISIS’s counterattacks in other parts of the city. Those attacks are intended to do damage and slow the Iraqis but the militants are clearly not trying to recapture lost territory. The looming Old City endgame also appears to have activated ISIS operatives in east Mosul and other parts of Iraq:

IS sleepers were operating in other parts of the city and Ninewa as well. A suicide bomber was arrested in Farouq in the Old City trying to hide amongst people fleeing the fighting. In Nabi Younis in east Mosul people seized two insurgents before they could carry out an attack. They were stabbed to death, and then a crowd demanded that the security forces string them up to an electricity pole to warn others. In Zuhur, also in the east, a suicide bomber was arrested. Southeast of Mosul in Qayara, a tribal Hashd unit killed a suicide bomber at a checkpoint. Every day since June 23, IS has been carrying out attacks amongst displaced and in areas of the city and towns in the province under government control. These could be diversionary attacks to try to draw forces away from the last bastions of Mosul that are still under militant control. They could also be a reaction to the imminent liberation of the city. Either way, these operations are increasing even if most of them are not successful; and sowing fear in sections of Mosul.

It seems like these attacks, or attempts anyway, are probably more a reaction than attempt at diversion. ISIS may already be transitioning into a new phase of operations, one in which it looks a lot more like a pure terrorist organization than like the terrorist/insurgent hybrid it’s been since 2014.


The Turkish military says (it’s hard to verify these reports) it killed 10 Kurdish militants in airstrikes in southeastern Turkey on Tuesday, while three Turkish soldiers were killed in a separate incident in which their vehicle was attacked by Kurdish fighters.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fainted during morning prayers on Sunday, which he later blamed on low blood sugar. Erdoğan is only 63 but he is diabetic, and of course the end of Ramadan can’t be easy for someone with that condition. If Erdoğan were to suffer a serious health problem it would leave the Turkish state in chaos, but I doubt there’s much reason to be concerned in this case.


Israel did bomb Hamas targets in Gaza overnight in response to yesterday’s reports of rocket fire into Israel. Three targets were reportedly struck but Palestinian officials have reported no casualties.

Israel’s Intelligence Ministry has produced a slick new video describing its plans to construct an artificial island off the coast of Gaza. The proposed island, paid for by the international community of course, would in theory allow Israeli authorities to relax their blockade on Gaza by giving them an isolated port where cargo and passengers can be checked before continuing on to the mainland. The island could even include an air strip to help replace Gaza’s destroyed airport. Sounds great until you consider that this is really a way to maintain Israeli control over Gaza in perpetuity, even as it may alleviate some of the worst impacts of the blockade. Palestinian sovereignty is a pipe dream so long as the Palestinians are unable to control their own borders and regulate their own air and sea traffic.


Egypt’s air force destroyed 12 vehicles, reportedly packed with weapons, attempting to enter the country from Libya on Tuesday. The country’s western border, with chaotic Libya on the other side, is seen as a major vunlerability that groups like ISIS can exploit to bring terrorists and weapons into the country.


Emirati officials keep talking about the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council permanently severing ties with Qatar if Doha doesn’t respond to their demands by early July. While I wonder how Kuwait and Oman will take that, it does seem the UAE is keen to stress that there’s no war coming down the pike as a result of the Gulf diplomatic crisis. Former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman, however, thinks that the ongoing turmoil in the Gulf, taken in whole, has increased the possibility of conflict because, as he puts it, there’s “no obvious off-ramp” leading to de-escalation:

To bring this back to Mohammed bin Salman, what we’ve witnessed so far this century is the collapse of Saudi confidence in America as a protector and the birth of an assertively independent Saudi Arabia, now including policies that the Qataris and some others certainly regard as bullying. The Saudis, who were once prudent to a fault, have ceased to be risk-averse and are willing, as they have shown in Yemen, to use force against their neighbors to secure their interests as they see them.

And Saudi rivalry with Iran has intensified. You can understand the objections that Qatar’s neighbors have to its policies even if you don’t agree with them. They are not irrational, but the level of confrontation that now exists has no obvious off-ramp. So, no one can tell you at this point how this ends.


The AP takes a look at Riyadh’s effort to basically plow under the mostly Shiʿa town of Awamiyah, ostensibly over safety concerns but more likely because its been a source of Shiʿa unrest within the kingdom. The demolition plan is leading to violent clashes between residents there and Saudi authorities and could displace potentially thousands of people from their ancestral home:

Though the Eastern Province sits atop most of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves, al-Awamiya lacks basic services like a functioning hospital. It has no major ports. Garbage sits uncollected for weeks on the streets. Youth complain of rampant unemployment. The town is surrounded by checkpoints. Power has been cut to certain quarters.

“It’s collective punishment,” Ameen al-Nimr said of the situation in al-Awamiya. He left the town in late 2011 at the height of protests there and now resides in the U.K. The demolition is “erasing the identity of the area and its history,” he said. Residents in the town declined to speak with the AP directly about the ongoing unrest, citing fear of repercussions.

Three United Nations experts on cultural rights, adequate housing and extreme poverty have also criticized the demolition, saying the “destructions erase the traces of this historic and lived cultural heritage.” They said in a statement that the Saudi government has “ignored our concerns” and its only response “has been these violent actions.”

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