Middle East update: June 28-29 2017


The still-alive as far as we know Mohammed b. Nayef

Let’s check in on former Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in his definitely totally voluntary and in no way forced retirement. I’m sure he’s having a fantastic time:

The recently deposed crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Nayef, has been barred from leaving the kingdom and confined to his palace in the coastal city of Jidda, according to four current and former American officials and Saudis close to the royal family.

The new restrictions on the man who until last week was next in line to the throne and ran the kingdom’s powerful internal security services sought to limit any potential opposition for the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, 31, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize relationships with Saudi royals.

Hah, well, I mean, you can’t just have princes running around willy nilly, I guess. At least he’s well protected by his guards, who are actually brand new appointees of Mohammed bin Salman, he replacement as crown prince, because Mohammed b. Nayef’s old guards were all let go I guess due to downsizing or something. Anyway I’m sure they’ll take real good care of him because it sure would make King Salman and his large adult son real sad if some unfortunate accident was to befall their cherished nephew/cousin. Technically, Mohammed b. Nayef’s staycation now falls under the purview of his replacement as interior minister, his nephew Abdulaziz b. Saud b. Nayef. King Salman made that appointment to keep the ministry in the same branch of the family so as to mitigate against any grumbling, but Abdulaziz is young and inexperienced enough that he’s no threat to outmaneuver Mohammed b. Salman at court.

The Saudis are of course denying that they’ve forcibly imprisoned the former heir to their throne. As one does. And Mohammed b. Nayef is well-liked enough in Washington that they may want to tread very carefully here. But for once I can think of a Saudi prince with whom I probably would not trade places.

Speaking of Mohammed b. Salman, the young crown prince has now spearheaded two major initiatives in his time as Saudi defense minister, both of which can be put under the general umbrella of his anti-Iran campaign. One is the Yemen war, which has been a humanitarian disaster and a military bust, the vaunted Saudi military finding itself unable to defeat the Arabian version of the McCoys. The second is the diplomatic confrontation with Qatar, which has been equally beneficial to Saudi interests:

In this regard, decision-makers in Tehran understand well that Qatar and Turkey are one axis and are unlikely to fully accept Tehran’s regional views. Yet despite these differences, Ankara and Doha don’t regard Tehran as an enemy. This is enough to reach common ground on some differences thanks to Riyadh’s harsh regional approach, which is seen by all three as endangering fragile regional stability. Another issue that raises concern in Tehran is the Saudi insistence on imposing Riyadh’s agenda on its neighbors and unifying them under its anti-Iran banner, which if fulfilled might mean that the next Trump-backed Saudi step could be directly again Iran.

In an effort ostensibly to isolate Tehran, Mohammed b. Salman is now helping Iran and Turkey improve their relationship. I can’t understand why anybody would take a dim view of Prince Mohammed’s competence and prowess as a strategic thinker.


We did it folks! The White House’s out-of-left field warning to Syria not to use chemical weapons worked! How do we know? Well duh, because they haven’t used chemical weapons! Clearly the Syrian government got scared and backed off.

I’m sorry, you had a question? How do we know they were ever planning to use chemical weapons in the first place? Because fuck you, hippie, that’s how.

Buzzfeed asks the important question: “Why Does The Syrian Government Keep Looking To Use Chemical Weapons?” So I guess we’re just kind of assuming they were in fact looking to use them. The answer, assuming you accept the validity of the question, is that they want to, more or less. Bashar al-Assad continues to face a serious disconnect between his desire to reconquer all of Syria and the size of his army, which is barely enough to defend what he has and only because the rebels are in even worse shape than he is. Chemical weapons, to the extent that they’re useful at all, can be useful as area clearing weapons. So maybe Assad values this or that piece of turf enough to risk another US missile strike that doesn’t really do anything. But, again, this assumes Assad was planning to use chemical weapons and America’s threat of retaliation stopped him. Which could be true, but I’m not going to believe it just because the US government, particularly this US government, tells me it is.

On Wednesday, somebody dropped cluster weapons on the village of Dablan, near Mayadin. At least 15 and maybe over 30 people were killed. Dropping cluster munitions on civilian targets is reprehensible, but it’s not clear who was responsible since pretty much every air force in the country is now operating around Deir Ezzor. Still, the US did bomb an ISIS prison in Mayadin earlier this week, so we know they’re active, and actively committing war crimes, in that area.

The Syrian Democratic Forces announced on Thursday that they’ve surrounded Raqqa. The southern approaches to the city had been left open during the first part of the Raqqa operation but now the SDF has closed off the main roads into and out of the city in that direction. If the SDF has the manpower to push in from the south it will force the city’s estimated 2500 ISIS defenders, already defending against attacks from the northeast and northwest, to cover a third front. Also on Raqqa, Reuters published a report on Wednesday about what life has been like in the city as ISIS clamped down in advance of the current battle. It’s worth reading. Normally I’d give you an excerpt but I’m afraid this update is already going to be too long as it is.

There was trouble in northwestern Syria on Wednesday, as Turkish forces shelled Kurdish YPG positions south of the town of Azaz, they claim in response to fire from the Kurds (the YPG, naturally, claims the Turks fired first). At this point it may be that the only thing that could stop the SDF from taking Raqqa would be a full-scale Turkish action against the YPG further north. That would force the SDF’s Kurdish fighters to redeploy in response, which would leave the SDF too weak to take the city without a much heavier use of air and artillery, which would not be great for Raqqa’s very large remaining civilian population.

Finally, in the realm of peace talks, French President Jupiter Optimus Maximus Emmanuel Macron thinks he may have an opening to start talking with Moscow. Macron has changed France’s position on Assad’s future and he thinks maybe the Russians are getting tired of unending war, and with the United States wandering the Syrian desert looking for Iranian drones to shoot down, I guess he figures there’s no time like the present to see if there’s any room for compromise. Of course, once again we’re in the realm of Syrian peace talks that don’t involve any Syrians, but at this point that’s almost to be expected.


So the map of Mosul’s Old City looks a little different today:

That’s from the Nineveh Media Center, whose projections have been consistently less optimistic than the ones coming from Iraqi authorities, so I don’t see any reason to seriously doubt them now. Which means that there’s no uncontested ISIS territory left in the Old City. As of a couple of days ago, at least, the Iraqi army was still fighting over the last couple of buildings in the Shifa medical complex, but I suppose one might say the full liberation of Mosul is at hand.

The Iraqis, of course, have gone way more hyperbolic than that. On Thursday they declared the end of ISIS’s caliphate after capturing what’s left of the Nuri Mosque, where said caliphate was declared in 2014. This has to be a little tongue in cheek, even for the Iraqis. For one thing, the caliphate was never a real thing. For another, there’s nothing about capturing the ruins of Nuri Mosque that definitively puts it to an end. I get that the Iraqis like to have some sweeping pronouncement of success to share with the Iraqi people every day, but this is a declaration that would be as valid a week from now as it is today or would have been a month ago. It’s pure symbolism. And if it’s supposed to be a suggestion that the war with ISIS is over (to be honest I’m not sure that it is, but some outlets are treating it that way), then it’s a flat-out lie. Mosul isn’t the end of ISIS, even if I guess you can say it’s the end of the caliphate that never really was.

I’m inclined to just leave things here because this is a pretty big deal, but I should also mention that the Kurdish plan for an independence referendum in September is getting attention in Washington, and it’s not going over well. Members of Congress are already threatening to cut off aid to Iraqi Kurdistan if it secedes from Iraq.


The AP doesn’t break any new ground here, but if you’d like a recap of what a giant, destructive, humanitarian nightmare of a mess Yemen has become, this piece isn’t a bad place to start.


Analyst Kemal Kirişci charts Turkey’s transition from a “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy to a “you can count on one hand the number of countries that we don’t hate” foreign policy:

[Former Prime Minister Ahmet] Davutoğlu had once been closely associated with Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy. This policy had emerged in the early years of the Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s tenure in power, when Turkey markedly improved its relations with its neighbors, embarked on EU accession negotiations, and expanded economic integration with its neighborhood. In 2007, Turkey hosted Mahmud Abbas and Shimon Peres and arranged for both leaders to address the national parliament. Ankara ran mediation efforts around the region, including proximity talks between Israel and Syria. No wonder The Economist—less than seven years ago—called Turkey’s government, and especially Davutoğlu, “the great mediator.” It was in this context that Turkey was elected by a wide margin to a non-permanent member seat on the U.N. Security Council in 2007. Turkey hadn’t held such a seat since 1961.

The picture today is a very different one. It is characterized by the ever-increasing disputes that Turkey is having with countries in its neighborhood and beyond. Domestic political problems and growing authoritarianism have tarnished its “soft power,” which had once made it a model for many Muslim countries aspiring for dynamic economies and democratic political systems. The U-turn in Turkish foreign policy—and the resulting loss of prestige—has come at a cost: Turkey lost its bid for another round of U.N. Security Council non-permanent membership in 2014, by a vote of 132 to 60 (in favor of Spain). In 2007, Turkey had won 151 of the 193 votes. Although the votes are secret, it would not be surprising if a number of Arab countries—including those involved in the Qatar crisis—voted against Turkey this time. Why?


The Lebanese government is debating a new electoral law based on proportional representation rather than winner-take-all seats. Proponents argue that this could help facilitate the rise of non-sectarian political parties outside the country’s traditional, and increasingly debilitating, sectarian quota system. Opponents argue, among other things, that the law lacks an independent electoral commission, does nothing to ensure more women in political office, and that whatever improvements the proportional system might make in breaking the sectarian chokehold on Lebanese politics are offset by the fact that the new law redraws electoral districts according to sect.


The Israeli government is weaponizing the teaching of history by bribing Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem to teach a pro-Israel version of modern events (the “Israeli curriculum”) in exchange for more funding. It’s bribing Palestinian parents too, by offering children the chance to earn an “Israeli diploma,” which makes finding a job or getting into college easier than with a “Palestinian diploma.”

Mitchell Plitnick argues that, just as Donald Trump’s Big Middle East Adventure kicked off the Saudi-Qatar crisis, so has it contributed to the Palestinian Authority’s recent decision to try to break Hamas by immiserating the people of Gaza. Gaza is still struggling with a lack of electricity, which is killing farms as it shuts down irrigation systems. There’s now talk that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may declare Gaza a “rebel district,” which would allow him to outlaw Hamas and impose blanket sanctions on the whole area (shutting down banks, for example) and could well lead to some kind of conflict.


The nephew of former Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, is thinking about running for president next year. He won’t win–it would be shocking if the whole thing wasn’t rigged in favor of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi–but he says that the only remaining way to express criticism of the Egyptian government is by running for office. There’s no independent media and members of the regular political opposition are frequently jailed, so he’s probably right. And he may wind up in prison too, we’ll see.


Kuwait’s decision to play mediator in the Qatar-Saudi dispute grew naturally out of the country’s foreign policy, which has tended since the Gulf War to try to find a balance between its much larger and more powerful neighbors. But as Giorgio Cafiero writes, there’s a real concern for the Kuwaitis that a full break between Riyadh and Doha would redraw the regional map and force Kuwait to take a more actively anti-Iran position. The Kuwaitis would very much prefer not to do that, since they have a substantial Shiʿa minority and share a land border with Iran. So mediating this conflict is also a matter of straightforward national interest for them.


It’s probably easiest to go over recent developments in bullet points:

  • Migrant workers whose Qatari bosses have now been kicked out of Saudi Arabia are, basically, stranded.
  • First and foremost, nobody is negotiating over anything. The Qataris say they’re working on a “response” to the list of demands they were given by the Saudis and company. The deadline for Qatar to meet those demands is Monday, and the Saudis seem unlikely to be interested in a Qatari “response” that is anything other than “thank you sir, may I have another?” The Saudis are being criticized for this stance, but they seem unperturbed even by the possibility of a cut-off of American weapons sales. I wonder why they feel so confide–oh, right, now I remember.
  • The Saudis are also being roundly slammed for demanding the closure of Al Jazeera. The Al Jazeera network has problems–its Arab channel has become Fox News for the Muslim Brotherhood and its English channel, for all its supposed editorial independence, has struggled to report objectively about Qatar absent tremendous pressure (it’s reported on Qatar’s human rights violations in connection with its migrant workers, but with as much media attention as that story was getting a couple of years ago, it would look silly if it simply ignored it). But every media network has blind spots or aspects of its coverage that can be criticized. We don’t, if we value a free press, call for those outlets to be shut down unless maybe they cross the line into pure propaganda or incitement, which Al Jazeera hasn’t done. Of course, the fact is that “we” don’t, actually, all value a free press.
  • Assuming the deadline passes without the Qataris spit-shining Mohammed bin Salman’s Aston Martin or whatever, the next step seems up to the Saudi side. The UAE ambassador to Russia, Omar Ghobash, is suggesting the Saudi/UAE gang could begin imposing secondary sanctions on countries, corporations, etc., that do business with Qatar. This seems like a fairly empty threat. The US regularly does business with Qatar–are these guys going to slap sanctions on the US? Unlikely.
  • The Qataris, meanwhile, seem prepared to pursue some kind of international legal ruling against the four nations blockading them. I say “some kind” of ruling because it’s really not clear what recourse they have. I’m not sure what international body would have jurisdiction, and anyway the Saudis have a habit of buying and/or threatening their way out of international legal scrapes.
  • The end of the line here is kicking Qatar out of the Gulf Cooperation Council, but nobody really wants that even though they keep making decisions that are inexorably taking them there. Kicking Qatar out would be hugely contentious–Oman would certainly oppose it and Kuwait would really prefer not to have to think about it–and Qatar would be lost to the Saudi/UAE orbit for good. It would immediately be pulled into an Iranian/Turkish (and Iraqi, once Baghdad gets its own house in order) orbit instead. The Saudis don’t want that. The Qataris don’t want it either, because it would upend every aspect of its established foreign and defense policies. The United States doesn’t want that–pay no attention to the man in the White House, nobody in his administration is. But it’s looming on the horizon because none of the parties involved in this situation has an offramp, a way to deescalate without looking weak.

If this all seems bleak, then let’s end on a funny note. Qatari grocery stores are seeing products from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, etc., languishing on the shelves while shoppers boycott the countries who are boycotting Qatar. They’re doing this despite Qatari media urging them not to do it–Doha doesn’t want to give any impression that it’s taking punitive action against the Saudis and their pals–and despite the fact that I guess the replacements for those Saudi goods take some getting used to:

“Suddenly, we went from people who gave a lot of s*** about having fresh milk in our cappuccinos to us drinking Turkish milk, which does taste weird – let’s be honest,” said Hessa, 22, a Qatari woman who claims her family and neighbours all threw out the Saudi products they hoarded.

“But we still say, ‘We love it! Turkish milk is great! We don’t need Saudi products!'”

Meanwhile, a now three-week-old bottle of strawberry milk still sits in 24-year-old Mohammed’s family fridge. It’s a symbol of silent protest.

His mother was tempted to buy the Almarai milk because of the steep discounts, he says. “But then my sister gave her a dirty look.”

I can attest that one of the first things I noticed when I moved to Qatar back in 2002 was that the milk tasted weird to me. I had to go through a couple of brands before I found one I liked, which might have been Almarai but I can’t remember anymore. So I can empathize with Qataris trying to get used to Turkish milk. I’m sure Turkish milk tastes fine if that’s what you’re used to drinking, but if you’re not then it’s undoubtedly an adjustment.


Jesus Christ:

A city in southwest Iran posted the country’s hottest temperature ever recorded Thursday afternoon, and may have tied the world record for the most extreme high temperature.

Etienne Kapikian, a forecaster at French meteorological agency MeteoFrance, posted to Twitter that the city of Ahvaz soared to “53.7°C” (128.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Kapikian said the temperature is a “new absolute national record of reliable Iranian heat” and that it was the hottest temperature ever recorded in June over mainland Asia. Iran’s previous hottest temperature was 127.4.

Weather Underground’s website indicates the temperature in Ahvaz climbed even higher, hitting 129.2 degrees at both 4:51 and 5 p.m. local time.

OK, sorry, but…Jesus Christ.

The Iranian parliament is boosting funding for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, I guess partly because they have some crazy idea that the United States is trying to overthrow the Iranian regime just because Rex Tillerson pretty much said so earlier this month. This is bad news for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has been under clear and consistent attack from hardliners since he won reelection last month. Empowering a hardline institution like the IRGC won’t help ease the pressure on him. Of course, that may be by design, given the Trump administration’s push toward war with Iran, which Paul Pillar does a thorough job of cataloguing here.


In addition to losing its happy memories mosque, or what’s left of it after they blew it up, ISIS is also losing money, fast. Its revenue is down an estimated 80 percent from its 2015 heights. As ISIS loses territory, it loses its two most reliable funding streams: oil and extortion. I guess there’s just no way for a bunch of dipshit fanatical psychopaths to make a steady living in this crazy world of ours.

Finally, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is now apparently in the “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead” camp. Ali Shirazi, a cleric for the IRGC’s Quds Force and thus somebody close to Khamenei, said this to Iranian state media on Thursday. No offense to the Iranians, but I’m still not convinced.

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