Middle East update: July 1-2 2017


At least eight people, in addition to the bombers, were killed in Damascus on Sunday in a multiple car bombing. Three cars attempted to get into the central part of the city, but two were stopped at checkpoints and deliberately detonated, so the attack certainly could have been worse. As such the Syrian government is naturally claiming a great counter-terror success despite the deaths.

Faylaq al-Rahman, a Syrian rebel faction based in Damascus’s Ghouta suburb, claims that on Saturday Syrian forces killed some 30 people in a chlorine gas attack in eastern Ghouta. The government denies the accusation. While in a technical sense such an attack would seem to violate the Trump administration’s recent warning to Bashar al-Assad against carrying out a chemical attack, chlorine is almost always treated much differently than something like sarin by the international community. For one thing, chlorine is a civilian-use commodity, so bans on stockpiling chemical weapons don’t apply to it. For another, if you’ve ever wondered why everybody makes a big deal over, say, sarin, when perfectly average conventional weapons can be just as deadly and, hey, dead is dead, then that applies even more to something like chlorine.

Speaking of sarin, though, Damascus is unsurprisingly reacting negatively to a new report from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluding that sarin was used in the April 4 Khan Shaykhun incident. The OPCW preliminarily drew that conclusion in an initial investigation later in April, but its new findings are based on in-depth investigation in the nearly three months since the attack. If sarin was used then that significantly narrows the range of possible explanations for the incident and heightens the likelihood that it was a Syrian chemical weapons attack. So, like I said, the Syrian government isn’t taking that conclusion very well:

“The report comes up with a fabricated and exaggerated story that has no credibility and can’t be accepted in any way because it is illogical and is the creation of a sick mind,” the ministry’s statement said. It questioned the testimonies collected by the OPCW in Turkey from witnesses it called “terrorists” and “perjurers” controlled by western intelligence agents.

It called on the OPCW to prepare “impartial and credible reports that have not been subjected to extortions by countries and parties that prevent it from reaching the truth.”

In Raqqa, the major news Sunday was that the Syrian Democratic Forces entered the city from the south, opening a new front in addition to its advances from the northeast and northwest. The SDF also deployed around 1000 new fighters to shore up those other two fronts.

Damascus issued a new 2000 pound banknote on Sunday. Previously its largest denomination was a 1000 pound note, but seeing as how the Syrian pound is worth jack shit nowadays, a larger bill seemed necessary. And seeing as how the 1000 pound note features the lovely visage of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, it’s only natural that the 2000 pound note should get an upgrade:



AFP is reporting that 14 people were killed on Sunday when a suicide bomber attacked a camp for displaced people west of Ramadi. Other outlets have the death toll slightly lower. This attack and the one in Damascus highlight once again that Iraq and Syria are transitioning from active war zones to places where, instead, terrorism is likely going to become, or remain, a fact of every day life. ISIS isn’t going away, it’s changing. The Syrian insurgency, or at least the al-Qaeda-led faction of it, isn’t going away either. As they lose territory, those groups will go back to their roots.

Iraqi forces are attributing their relatively swift recent progress through Mosul’s Old City, which you can see in the map above, to increased use of air power, but as the AP reports that comes at a heavy cost:

Iraqi forces have repeatedly requested airstrikes in Mosul, often to kill teams of just two or three IS fighters armed with light weapons.

Manhal Munir was sheltering in the basement of his home with his extended family when IS fighters took a position on his roof. They were targeted by an airstrike Sunday morning. The house collapsed.

“I just pulled my youngest daughter out with me,” Munir said at a nearby medic station, the toddler on his lap. “My mother was stuck between two large blocks of cement. We tried to free her,” he said, still covered in dust and his eyes red with grief. “After two hours she died.”

In the weeks leading up to the operation to retake the Old City the UN and human rights groups warned the Iraqi government against the use of explosive weapons with wide effects in the Old City area, where houses are tightly packed and the civilian population is dense.

Mosul residents who have survived the onslaught are already preparing to celebrate the city’s full liberation, and the Iraqi government is planning a week’s worth of celebrations, but the civilian toll is probably going to take some time to count. Moreover, spiking the proverbial football at this point is still pretty premature. I realize the liberation of Mosul is a big deal, but ISIS still holds Hawijah and that gives it a strategic foothold into the heart of Iraq, plus of course it still has a presence in the Iraqi countryside, especially in Anbar province.

Concerns about human rights violations by Iraqi forces dealing with captured ISIS fighters are rife–Human Rights Watch just issued another report on it. Additionally, local governments and other organizations are implementing collective punishment against the families of ISIS fighters–forcing families out of their homes, for example. Patrick Wing has more:

This mood is having a larger affect upon Iraqi society as Ninewa is the latest province to start group punishments against IS families. The United Nations also pointed out that Shirqat in Salahaddin and Hit in Anbar, along with Qayara and Mosul in Ninewa are witnessing organizations telling families with IS members to leave their homes or be kicked out. Many times tribes are behind these actions. Hundreds of families have been threatened as a result. The U.N. called on Baghdad to intervene. Reportedly Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is against these actions in Ninewa, and has told the intelligence agencies to stop any deportations. The problem is with so many different security forces working in the governorate and the ill will versus IS so virulent the government doesn’t have the power to stop this from happening. It also doesn’t help that Baghdad has no reconciliation plan that it can offer as an alterantive.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist Movement announced a little over a week ago that it would be forming an electoral alliance with former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s National Coalition. Sadr and Allawi make quite a pair–Sadr is explicitly Shiʿa and religious, Allawi’s public image (at least) is secular and non-sectarian. But Sadr’s main political project has for some time been to replace Iraq’s sectarian-organized cabinet with a cabinet of “technocrats,” and he’s publicly reached out to Iraqi Sunnis to a far greater degree than other leading Shiʿa political figures. Sadr and Allawi are also united by the desire to keep former PM Nouri al-Maliki from ever taking back that office–and, you know, they would both probably like to be PM themselves someday and see an alliance with one another as a way to help make that happen.


The death toll from Yemen’s cholera outbreak has risen to 1500. I wonder how high it would need to be to get anybody in the United States government to give a shit. 15,000? 150,000? Maybe there is no limit.


A camp for Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley was destroyed by fire on Sunday, with at least one person dying in the blaze. The fire is believed to have been accidental but obviously some investigation will be required to determine that for certain. In other refugee-related news, the Lebanese military has been denying accusations that it abused refugees during its raid on camps in Arsal on Friday.


Al-Monitor’s Uri Savir has details on Benjamin Netanyahu’s big meeting with Jared Kushner on June 21. Shockingly, it seems like the veteran political operator Netanyahu rolled Kushner, despite Kushner’s having married into the right family:

The Israeli side was satisfied that a good part of the agenda in these talks was actually determined by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that the US envoys initiated only a small part of the topics discussed. A senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs official present during part of the talks told Al-Monitor that Netanyahu is a master at formulating agendas for such negotiations, pushing the topic list into his own home turf on which only he can win. In this case, Netanyahu turned the payments by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to families of Palestinian terrorists and prisoners into the cause celebre. He successfully convinced President Donald Trump that these payments encourage terror. In Palestinian eyes, these payments represent a social contribution to large segments of Palestinians for being victims of the conflict.

Discussing this payment issue stole the focus away from the peace process itself and Trump’s aspirations for an “ultimate deal.” In the talks with Kushner and Greenblatt, Netanyahu provided ample evidence that the PA continues the payments, knowing well in advance that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would refuse halting them.


Qatar is definitely not going to be complying with Saudi Arabia’s list of demands, which they’ve described as “made to be rejected,” by tomorrow, nor do I think they’re going to change their mind by the new July 5 deadline that was just negotiated by Kuwait a short time ago, so its safe to say that we’re entering the next phase of the Gulf diplomatic crisis.  What that means is anybody’s guess, because the Saudis haven’t been forthcoming about their plans for the next escalation. Likely it will involve suspending Qatar from the Gulf Cooperation Council without kicking it out entirely, or imposing secondary sanctions on anybody doing business with Qatar, or both.

Vladimir Putin is working the phones to try to end the crisis. He reportedly spoke with Emir Tamim of Qatar and King Hamad of Bahrain on Saturday. Russia is thoroughly enmeshed on all sides of this dispute–Qatar owns part of Russia’s public-private Rosneft oil company, for example, while Russia and Saudi Arabia are currently colluding to prop up global oil prices. And of course there’s Russia’s alliance with Iran to consider. Putin would very much like to see this situation end peaceably and with minimal permanent disruption.


It’s been quite a couple of days for UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba. Here, for example, is what looks like an interesting story:

Companies connected to the UAE‘s ambassador to the US received $66 million from offshore accounts that contained money allegedly embezzled from Malaysia‘s 1MDB investment fund, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

In 2015, allegations emerged that billions of dollars were stolen from Malaysia’s state-owned 1MDB.

The WSJ said leaked emails of Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba included “descriptions of meetings between Shaher Awartani, an Abu Dhabi-based business partner of Mr. Otaiba, and Jho Low, the Malaysian financier the [US] justice department says was the central conspirator in the alleged $4.5 billion 1MDB fraud”.

The New York Times, meanwhile, has Otaiba personally financing a lawsuit against Al Jazeera by former AJ reporter Mohamed Fahmy. Fahmy was briefly Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief before he and two other reporters were arrested by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military junta in 2013, an arrest that Fahmy blames on the network for its biased, pro-Muslim Brotherhood coverage and its failure to follow proper licensing procedures in Egypt. Fahmy says that he and Otaiba have been pals since high school, but this still doesn’t seem entirely on the up and up.

In the UAE’s favor, though, Abu Dhabi’s airport has become the first Middle Eastern airport to get itself exempted from the US government’s ban on laptops in the passenger cabin on flights coming into America. They’ve apparently implemented whatever extra security measures the Department of Homeland Security was looking for. This is a pretty nice boost for Abu Dhabi’s Etihad airline, which flies nonstop to several US cities and will be able to lord this over competitors like Dubai’s Emirates airline and Qatar Airways.


The Saudi monarchy obviously doesn’t put much stock in freedom of the press, I think we can all agree on that. But maybe in just this one case, that’s OK:

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz has ordered an over-enthusiastic columnist to be suspended from his job after he equated him with God, Saudi media reported on Sunday.

King Salman has frequently been lauded by columnists in local media, in traditional deference to authority, since the 81-year-old assumed office in 2015.

But Ramadan al-Anzi’s column in al-Jazirah newspaper describing King Salman as “Haleem”, or forbearing, and “Shadeed al-Eqab”, strict in punishment – both terms associated in Islam with God – appeared to have gone too far.

I guess if you’re going to support free speech you have to support it in all of its forms, but man, that’s not right.


Iran is about to conclude a massive deal with French energy company Total to develop the next phase of its South Pars natural gas field, the one it shares with Qatar (the Qatari half is called North Dome). Total is buying a 50.1 percent stake in the project, estimated to be worth upwards of $5 billion. This is easily the largest deal Iran has signed with a Western company since the nuclear deal went into effect, and was in fact delayed so that Total could determine whether or not the Trump administration would tear the deal up.

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