Middle East update: July 3 2017


The Syrian army on Monday declared a ceasefire in the country’s three southernmost provinces–Daraa, Quneitra, and Suwayda–through July 6. The ceasefire is intended to support the next round of peace talks in Kazakhstan, which are scheduled to begin next week but may be light on rebel participation on account of heavy recent government bombardments, particularly in Daraa.

Another thing to watch for in Astana next week may be the outlines of a deal between Moscow and Ankara over northwestern Syria. Analyst Metin Gurcan argues that Russia may be willing to let Turkey attack Afrin, the YPG-controlled zone in the northwestern corner of Aleppo province, in return for Turkish help convincing its rebel proxies and civilians in Idlib to abandon the province in advance of whatever offensive Russia and the Syrian government are planning there. People who are displaced from Idlib would, under such an arrangement, be allowed to settle in and around Turkish-controlled Jarabulus. A Turkish move against Afrin would be much less likely to arouse US anger than a move against the YPG closer to Raqqa, though it may still derail US plans for eastern Syria if it forces the YPG to redeploy its forces as a result.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is now saying that 21 people were killed (including the bombers) in Sunday’s car bombings in Damascus. The Syrian government appears to be sticking to its claim that only eight people were killed.

The Trump administration’s on-again, off-again fixation with Bashar al-Assad appears to be off again:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres during a private State Department meeting last week that the fate of Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad now lies in the hands of Russia, and that the Trump administration’s priority is limited to defeating the Islamic State, according to three diplomatic sources familiar with the exchange.

The remarks offer the latest stop on a bumpy U.S. policy ride that has left international observers with a case of diplomatic whiplash as they try to figure out whether the Trump administration will insist that Assad step down from power. Nearly three months ago, Tillerson had insisted that Assad would have to leave office because of his alleged use of chemical weapons.

And shortly before that, if anybody can still remember back that far, Tillerson and the rest of the administration were talking about “the Syrian people” deciding Assad’s fate, with Nikki Haley adding that it wasn’t a US “priority.” It’s been a bit over three months since those days right before the Khan Shaykhun attack, and we’ve now seen the administration do a full 360 degree turn on Assad. It’s been a remarkable ride.

The International Crisis Group’s Noah Bonsey assesses the Syrian landscape for Washington after Raqqa is finally taken:

Thus far, the White House has emphasized two priorities in Syria: to gain ground from ISIL as quickly as possible, and to limit U.S. investment to the minimum required for immediate military objectives. A third priority, countering Iran’s influence, features prominently in the administration’s messaging, but has yet to be fleshed-out within its Syria policy.

The United States needs to address the tension among these objectives. What is fast and cheap often proves fragile and costly in the long run. And sliding into an escalatory cycle with Iran would not only endanger progress against ISIL, but also potentially redound to Tehran’s advantage. Two lessons from the post-2003 U.S. experience in Iraq seem apt: First, impressive military gains may give way to jihadist resurgence if fundamental threats to stability are left unaddressed. And second, Iran’s patience and proxy network render it formidable in a war of attrition.

Achieving durable wins against ISIL in eastern Syria while limiting risk of direct confrontation with the regime’s backers will require pro-active and sustained U.S. engagement on three fronts: managing conflict between its Turkish and Kurdish allies, incentivizing a new approach to governance in Raqqa, and carefully delineating objectives in Deir al-Zour.


As the Ninewa Media Center’s latest map shows, ISIS has really been reduced to a small sliver of Mosul’s Old City:

Iraqi forces expect to reach that last segment of the bank of the Tigris by the end of this week, but whether they’ll have it secured is another question. Meanwhile, the biggest remaining threat comes not from the ISIS fighters still holed up in their positions, but from ISIS members still positioned in parts of the city that have already been liberated:

Zuher Al-Juburi, a government-appointed city councilor in Mosul, told NBC News there were hundreds of ISIS members living throughout the city. NBC News could not verify these accounts.

“The only thing they did is they shaved their beards and changed their clothes,” he said late Saturday.

Al-Juburi, who is also the spokesman for Nineveh Hashed, a Sunni militia that fought against ISIS in Mosul, told NBC News that ISIS members remain active in the city.

“It is wrong to say that these are sleeping ISIS cells, because they are active and launch terror attacks from time to time,” he said.

ISIS has reportedly taken to using female suicide bombers, or men dressed as women, because while men are often stopped and searched by Iraqi forces before they can get close enough to the line to do much damage, women are often not searched. Some of these ISIS members still living in Mosul, it should be said, may have been involuntarily conscripted into ISIS in the first place and want to simply return to normal, pre-ISIS life. And if they were involuntary conscripts and didn’t actually participate in any violent activities, you could argue that they should be allowed to return to their former lives as best as that can happen. But due process should be followed in those cases. One problem with that, of course, is that genuine due process can be hard to find right now, with Iraqi forces allegedly torturing and murdering suspected ISIS fighters, questions about the efficacy of Iraqi courts in litigating these kinds of cases, and Iraqi politicians calling for retribution against families of suspected ISIS fighters.

Patrick Wing looks at the latest developments further west, where the Popular Mobilization Units are still operating along the border with Syria:

The Hashd were still having issues in western Ninewa. First, they turned back another attack by IS near the Syrian border. Second, one Hashd brigade asked Baghdad for permission to move into Syria to eliminate insurgent bases there. Finally, the head of the Sinjar Council Wais Naif complained that the Hashd were stopping displaced Yazidis from returning to the district. Since reaching the Syrian border, the militants have been carrying out occasional assaults upon the Hashd. That’s one reason why some Hashd units have been talking about crossing into Syria. The other is many pro-Iran Hashd are already fighting in Syria to support the Assad government, and would like to continue doing that in a formal matter as part of the Iraqi forces, which would give greater legitimacy to their Syrian policy. Finally, the Kurds are angry that the Hashd are in west Ninewa, because they see it as a threat to their hold over the area. There has been a war of words between the two sides as a result.


Turkish authorities say that PKK fighters killed one Turkish soldier and wounded two other security personnel in separate attacks in southeastern Turkey on Monday. This is after other PKK fighters reportedly killed two Justice and Development Party members, again in southeastern Turkey, over the weekend.

Ankara is accusing the Greek coast guard of firing on a Turkish freighter near the island of Rhodes on Monday. Greek authorities say they had information that drugs were on board the vessel and only fired warning shots, but the captain of the freighter claims that his ship now has 16 new bullet holes that suggest they were actually not warning shots.

Opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s march from Ankara to Istanbul protesting the Turkish government’s slide into authoritarianism is turning out to be a genuine protest rather than the curiosity it initially seemed like it would be:

The march, modeled on Mahatma Gandhi’s 240-mile protest, known as the Salt March, against British rule in 1930, has drawn the ire of Erdogan, who has accused Kilicdaroglu of supporting terrorism. “You are launching a march for terrorists and for their supporters, something which you have never thought about doing against terrorist groups,” Erdogan told supporters in Ankara on Saturday. “You can convince no one that your aim is justice.”

Yet the march has clearly made Erdogan and leaders of his Justice and Development Party, which dominates parliament, a bit nervous. Authorities have deployed thousands of security personnel to accompany the marchers, both to keep the demonstrators under control and to protect them from potential provocateurs, according to march organizers.

Though the march began initially with mostly supporters and members of Kilicdaroglu’s party, the CHP, it has since drawn other opposition groups, including the Kurds, leftists, environmentalists, and women’s rights activists. Selahattin Demirtas, jailed co-chair of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, endorsed the march through an intermediary.

Kılıçdaroğlu and his growing band of followers are going to reach Istanbul on July 9 assuming the march continues as planned. It will be interesting to see how the Turkish government responds.

Syriac Christians in southeastern Turkey say that their property, including churches, cemeteries, and monasteries, is being systematically seized by the Turkish government and handed over to the Department of Religious Affairs or Diyanet. The loss of these properties is a direct threat to that small community’s continued survival in Turkey.

Turkish Airlines expects to be the second Middle Eastern airline, after Abu Dhabi’s Etihad, to receive an exemption from US rules about electronics in the passenger cabin on flights into America. Its CEO announced via Twitter on Monday that the ban will be lifted on July 5.


Al Jazeera reports on life in Egypt, which is apparently “worse off” on “virtually every indicator” since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the country’s elected Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013:

“Many Egyptians just wanted economic and political stability; hence, the support for the Sisi coup. Immediately after Sisi took power, Saudi and Gulf money began to flow into Egypt, temporarily stabilising the Egyptian economy and winning for Sisi the support Morsi had squandered,” James Gelvin, a professor of Middle East history at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Al Jazeera.

“Egypt is much more authoritarian today than it was under any leader since Gamal Abdel Nasser … Under Sisi, all oppositional activity has been outlawed, the Muslim Brotherhood banned, and political opponents – whether Islamist or secular – killed, imprisoned and tortured.”

I highlight this piece not because it’s breaking any news–Egypt’s economic struggles, its instability, and Sisi’s authoritarianism are all pretty well-established–but because it highlights an interesting dilemma for Al Jazeera in the context of the Qatar diplomatic situation. Did this piece–which, again, doesn’t break any news–get put together now because of Egypt’s participation as one of the four leaders of the anti-Qatar movement? Al Jazeera has certainly been hard on Sisi in the past–though, again, you have to wonder how much of that was driven by Qatar’s past support for that Muslim Brotherhood government that Sisi toppled. I’m not accusing the network of impartiality, especially because, to reiterate, they’re not exactly dealing in fake news when they say that Sisi is a petty tyrant struggling to hold Egypt together and keep it afloat. I also don’t have any conclusions to draw here. I just think the network is in a no-win situation as far as how people gauge its objectivity, and the Qatar situation has made it worse.


The Israeli government is moving forward with plans to build 1800 new settlement units in east Jerusalem–including in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which likely will not go over well with the Palestinians:

The neighbourhood is regarded as heavy with symbolism for both sides. For Israel, it was home to a small Jewish community until 1948 when East Jerusalem came under Jordanian rule after the war that saw Israel’s birth.

Then in the 1950s several dozen Palestinian refugee families from west Jerusalem – displaced by the same war – were settled there.

In recent years, however, a number of these Palestinian families have been evicted as a result of Israeli court rulings to recognise pre-1948 Jewish ownership claims under laws that refuse to recognise claims made by Palestinians forced to leave west Jerusalem in similar circumstances.


Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed b. Abdulrahman Al Thani personally went to Kuwait on Monday to deliver Qatar’s response to Saudi Arabia’s list of demands to end the blockade it and three other nations have imposed upon the Gulf emirate. Now that’s service. It’s not known what the response specifically entails, but the Saudis have already said that anything short of complete capitulation by Qatar will be unacceptable, and Doha has not seemed inclined to capitulate. Yesterday, Qatar’s deadline for responding to the list was pushed back to Wednesday, likely to give international heavyweights like Russia and the US time to work the phones and try to establish some kind of compromise. Donald Trump himself apparently got into the act, which come to think of it probably hurts more than it helps.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two big movers behind the effort to isolate Qatar, have pushed this crisis to a level where they might not have a way out that avoids drastic escalation. The Saudi insistence that its demands are non-negotiable doesn’t really allow for much wiggle room, while its likely next steps don’t offer much of a solution either. Suspending Qatar from the Gulf Cooperation Council doesn’t seem materially any different than what they’ve already done, and imposing secondary sanctions against anyone doing business with Qatar might reveal a bit too much about Saudi Arabia’s actual position in the world–what if, for example, the Saudis impose such sanctions and a substantial number of entities decide to keep doing business with Qatar (a very wealthy nation with considerable investments around the world) anyway? Kicking Qatar out of the GCC altogether won’t fix anything either, and might backfire on Riyadh.

One thing that would solve the situation from a Saudi perspective is regime change, which has always been lurking in the background despite Saudi and UAE assurances it isn’t their goal. But a coup in Doha would take this crisis to a whole new and very dangerous level.


At a conference in Tehran on Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani criticized Turkey’s upstream dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers for drying up land downstream and contributing to the growing frequency and severity of dust storms in Syria, Iraq, and southwestern Iran.

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