Middle East update: June 30 2017

I know it’s a little early this evening, but I’m beat and so I’m deciding to call it a night barring some major thing happening.


Syria through June 29–colors should be pretty evident by now, but red = government, green = rebels, white = Nusra, gray = ISIS, and yellow = Kurds (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)

Depending on which account you believe, a major ISIS counterattack in Raqqa on Friday either mostly fizzled out or made substantial territorial gains. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that ISIS was able to retake most of the city’s industrial district, in the east, from the Syrian Democratic Forces, while the SDF claims that fighting was contained to the outskirts of the district and that it still controls the area. In other ISIS news, the Syrian army appears to be driving the group out of its last remaining territory in Aleppo province. ISIS no longer holds any major towns in the province but it still has personnel staged there–or maybe had them staged there, today’s SAA advance may have forced them to withdraw completely.

The Trump administration apparently has, or is developing, a “stabilization plan” for Syria once Raqqa has been taken. Who knew? I’m not even sure the administration knows, since at this point the only element of the plan seems to be to continue supporting the SDF against ISIS’s remaining Syrian positions. Securing Raqqa is another concern as is preventing a Turkey-YPG war to the north. And that’s just the one piece of a very multifaceted conflict.

On the plus side, I think, the United Nations refugee agency says that some 470,000 Syrians have returned home so far this year. Most of those (440,000) were internally displaced rather than external refugees, but internal displacement is still horrific. They’re returning to areas where the security situation is believed to have improved (i.e., areas that Bashar al-Assad has retaken).

People may also be anxious to return home from forced displacement into Idlib province. Not only is Idlib high on Assad’s target list, but even if a proposed de-escalation zone there actually holds up, the province is still being destabilized by the ongoing low-level conflict between Nusra/Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham:

Idlib is currently the site of increasing competition between the two most dominant armed coalitions, the al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (H.T.S.) and Ahrar al-Sham. The province has witnessed limited airstrikes since a de-escalation agreement, which came into effect on May 5, was brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran at the Astana talks. Idlib was one of four areas labeled as a de-escalation zone.

The agreement has, however, prompted a contest between H.T.S. and Ahrar al-Sham, with both groups vying to increase their influence and control new areas. The competition between them has three dimensions: military, economic, and social.


I don’t know that it’s fair to say the Iraqis are now conducting “mop-up operations” in western Mosul the way the AP puts it, but developments over the past couple of days have clearly moved the battle in the Old City close to a conclusion. Between 200 and 300 ISIS fighters are believed to still control a section of the Old City within about 700 meters of the banks of the Tigris River, and unfortunately it’s believed that as many as 50,000 civilians are still trapped in that area and therefore at risk from these final days of fighting. On the one hand this is a powerful argument for the Iraqis not to rush to close out the operation. More than 200 civilians have been killed in the Old City this week. On the other hand, the conditions in which those civilians are living and have been living for weeks–little water or food, no medical care–argue for wrapping the battle up as quickly as possible.

Iraqi authorities are on the hunt for ISIS sleepers all over Mosul, a hunt that’s probably going to continue for some time to come after the city is fully liberated:

There were continued concerns of IS operations in the liberated sections of Mosul. The Federal Police conducted a large search and arrest operation throughout the city to find sleeper cells. They warned of insurgents dressed as members of the security forces. This happened after a recent suicide bombing in a market in east Mosul where IS fighters were dressed as members of the Golden Division. That was followed by two more bombers being killed in Nabi Younis, on June 29 that were wearing Federal Police uniforms. Another bomber was arrested in Zuhur. That marked the sixth straight day the Islamic State had attempted operations in the freed parts of the city. Few of them have been successful thankfully.


The Guardian checks in with the thousands of demonstrators marching from Ankara to Istanbul to protest Turkey’s increasingly repressive government:

Hıdır Aydur rested his blistered feet under the shade of a tree on the side of the highway that runs between Ankara and Istanbul. The 57-year-old, from Erzincan in Turkey’s north-east, who has diabetes, had been marching for 15 days. He is one of thousands journeying by foot from Turkey’s capital to its largest city, many carrying banners that say “adalet” or “justice”.

“We lost democracy in our country, and we want it back,” Aydur said, his shirt bearing the images of Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça, two teachers who were jailed last month after more than 70 days on hunger strike over their arbitrarily dismissal in a government decree.

Tens of thousands of people have been dismissed or detained in a broad government crackdown in the aftermath of a coup attempt last July that left more than 250 people dead and 1,400 wounded. After declaring a state of emergency, the government’s purge went beyond the direct perpetrators of the coup to encompass a large swathe of civil society, the political opposition, academics, journalists and civil servants, squandering a rare moment of unity to solidify its hold on power.


One child was killed on Friday in Arsal when five suicide bombers (who also died, naturally) targeted a Lebanese army unit as it raided Syrian refugee camps in Arsal. Over the course of the Syrian civil war, Arsal has been both an important crossing point for refugees fleeing the war and ground zero for occasional attempts by ISIS and/or al-Qaeda to expand the conflict and their presence into Lebanon, as for example during 2014’s “Battle of Arsal.” The Lebanese military occasionally conducts operations in the refugee camps to arrest or kill ISIS personnel who have tried to sneak across the border among the refugees.


There’s not much new to report on the Qatar story and may not be anything of note until the July 3 deadline for Qatar to unconditionally surrender passes. But on Friday the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid b. Raʿad al-Hussein, did join a growing chorus of voices decrying the Saudi demand that Al Jazeera be shut down.


More of UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba’s emails have leaked, and this time we find our intrepid hero complaining to the Obama administration that media coverage of his country’s human rights abuses in Yemen has been unfair:

During the exchange, which took place in June 2016, the UAE’s Ambassador Yousef Al-Otaiba tries to convince Robert Malley, then a top Middle East advisor to President Barack Obama, that human rights reporting critical of the U.S.-backed bombing coalition in Yemen was unfairly biased. The UAE is a key member of the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war, which has killed thousands of people, destroyed hospitals, food sources, and water infrastructure, and left seven million people on the brink of starvation.

In the exchange, Otaiba tried to persuade Malley that reporting by the British-based news agency Reuters was unfairly biased. Otaiba focused on a Reuters report that said Arab monarchies had pressured then-U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon into removing the Yemen coalition from a U.N. list that shames countries for killing children. The Reuters story claimed that Persian Gulf state foreign ministers had threatened to withhold millions of dollars of from U.N. humanitarian programs. In an extraordinary press conference two days later, Ban all but confirmed the report.

Otaiba’s complaints are especially ironic given that we now know that the UAE has been running secret black-site torture prisons in Yemen in addition to all the work its done helping the Saudis to blow up schools, infect people with cholera, and starve them to death. Which, if you think about it, makes the Emiratis the real victims here, victims of the biasedly objective reporting of all the horrifying things they’re doing.


While this obviously pales in comparison to the pointless human suffering it causes, one of the other drawbacks of implementing a ham-fisted travel ban–such as the one the Trump administration now has in place with an assist from the Supreme Court–is that it gives your geopolitical opponents, the ones you keep trying to paint as evil or at best amoral maniacs, the chance to respond in kind:

The modified version of Donald Trump’s travel ban, which went into effect Thursday night, is a “shameful” act targeting “Iranian grandmothers”, Iran’s foreign minister has said.

Nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen have been banned from obtaining a visa to enter the US if they fail to show a credible “bona fide relationship” with a person or entity in the US.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, a close ally of Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, said on Twitter: “US now bans Iranian grandmothers from seeing their grandchildren, in a truly shameful exhibition of blind hostility to all Iranians.”

Generally speaking you’d prefer that the Iranian foreign minister not be able to go online, point to the United States, and say “can you believe these assholes?” and have a point. Unfortunately, in this case he does.

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