Middle East update: July 4-5 2017


With victory in Mosul more in sight than ever, Iraqi leaders are just itching to declare victory or at least to predict when they will be declaring victory:

Iraqi commanders and politicians continue to jump the gun on the finale in Mosul. Prime Minister Haider Abadi in his weekly speech congratulated the ISF for its victory in Mosul even though there is still fighting going on. Ninewa Operations Command head General Najm al-Jabouri predicted that the battle would be over in two days by July 6, while the Joint Operations Command had it at 3-4 days. The ISF could also not agree on how much of the Old City they still had to clear. General Yahya Rasool told the press there were 300 meters to reach the Tigris, General Abdul Ghani al-Asadi of the Golden Division put it at 250 meters, topped by General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, also of the Golden Division who had it at only 150 meters. All of these miss the point that simply reaching the Tigris will not mean that the fighting will be over. Al-Mada reported that the Iraqis wanted to declare the campaign over on July 4, the anniversary of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the caliphate, but that didn’t happen. These are all typical of Iraqi propaganda. Each division, and even commander is competing with the others to brag about how much they have done. The government’s demand for constant positive news in its victory narrative is another incentive for these statements. They should all be taken with a huge grain of salt as the ISF has proven to be consistently inconsistent and full of hyperbole.

However large the territory still controlled by ISIS may be, the commander of Iraq’s special forces says the group still has 300 fighters holed up in the Old City. Iraqi estimates as to the number of ISIS fighters in the city and the number who have already been killed have been as all over the map as their territorial estimates, but it’s also believed that a fair number of ISIS fighters have been able to disguise themselves as civilians and escape the city amid this intense Old City fighting.

The large number of civilians still left in the Old City continues to hamper operations. On Tuesday, the Iraqis said they were slowing their advance out of concern for civilians trying to get out of the line of fire. One of the great “what ifs” of the Mosul operation is what might have happened if Iraqi authorities had told civilians to flee the city before the operation began instead of telling them to remain in place. There are a whole host of negative consequences that could have followed from a massive civilian outflow–not the least of which that ISIS would undoubtedly have tried to kill as many fleeing civilians as it could–but we already know that doing things this way has led to human suffering on a pretty massive scale.

Whether it takes two days, six days, two weeks, or whatever for Mosul to be fully liberated, the city is going to be fully liberated, and so a lot of attention is now being paid to what comes next. From an operational standpoint it seems the Iraqis are set on liberating Tal Afar next, and from there it seems to me they’ll have two choices–liberate Hawijah or move west to supplant the Popular Mobilization Units along the Syrian border. I maintain that Hawijah is still a big problem for the Iraqis because ISIS can stage operations from there toward Mosul, Kirkuk, Tikrit, and elsewhere, but on the other hand Hawijah is to some degree cut off from the rest of ISIS’s territory in Iraq so Baghdad may feel comfortable letting it stay like that for now. If Baghdad has concerns about whatever the PMU are doing in the border region, they could see getting a handle on that as the higher priority.

Other issues abound for Iraq moving forward. Obviously there’s the question of the planned Kurdish independence referendum in September, which could have huge repercussions. But let’s focus a little attention on Mosul itself. The United Nations estimates that just repairing basic infrastructure–meaning utilities and public services like schools and hospitals–in the city is going to cost $1 billion. Western Mosul, being by far the harder hit of the city’s two halves, could take a year or more to completely restore–particularly if that includes projects like rebuilding the city’s airport. The people of Mosul are also going to need help of a less tangible kind getting over the trauma they’ve been through, not just from the past several months but since ISIS took over the city in 2014. Even residents who have managed to escape physical injury through this ordeal have nonetheless suffered greatly.

To close this on a somewhat happier note, Mosul University is trying to recover and rebuild its library, which was largely destroyed by ISIS. Thousands of books and manuscripts were lost (which makes a powerful argument for speeding up the digitization of such things), but volunteers have been able to recover a bit of the collection, including rare books and manuscripts. They’ve also received an outpouring of support from elsewhere in Iraq and around the world, with some 10,000 books donated so far. They’re hoping to open again in early 2018 and eventually rebuild the collection to around 200,000 books.


Russia, Turkey, and Iran announced on Wednesday that they’re forming a “working group” to straighten out any remaining issues with respect to executing their long-promised and still undelivered safe zones plan. On Tuesday Moscow was talking about potentially deploying troops to police those zones “within weeks,” so it’s unclear if this working group announcement is part of that timetable or reflects some breakdown in the negotiating process. Meanwhile, Syrian rebels seem to be rejecting the plan altogether, which raises questions about how it could possibly be implemented.

In Raqqa, there was a fairly major development on Tuesday when the Syrian Democratic Forces breached the walls of Raqqa’s Old City. ISIS had apparently mined the existing breaches in the wall and set up its defenses around them, so US airstrikes opened up two new gaps that they say should allow the rest of the 8th century wall to be preserved while letting the SDF outflank ISIS’s positions. Bombing a structure to preserve it may seem like an oxymoron, but I’m not sure it isn’t actually true in this case. Prolonged fighting over the wall could very well have done more damage to its internal structure than these two strikes were intended to do. And of course if the strikes speed up the SDF’s operation then that’s less time Raqqa’s civilians have to suffer through the fighting, which anecdotally already seems to be taking a huge toll.

Speeding up the SDF’s operation would also have the effect of ensuring Raqqa is liberated before Turkey goes to war with the Kurdish YPG, which would inevitably pull YPG fighters away from the SDF to defend their territory further north. Such a confrontation appears increasingly likely in northwestern Syria, where YPG leaders in the group’s Afrin pocket say they’re “expecting” a fight, perhaps within days. Ankara, meanwhile, says it only intends to “respond” to “threats” from the YPG, not to initiate hostilities. Of course, Turkey’s definition of “threat” might be different from the YPG’s, or America’s, which is part of what makes this situation so volatile.


Yemen’s cholera outbreak is the Saudi gift that keeps on giving:

The United Nations says the cholera outbreak in war-torn Yemen has now spread to all 21 governorates and there have been 270,000 suspected cases and over 1,600 deaths from the disease since late April.

On the plus side, the World Health Organization is getting supplies to treat cholera patients in Yemen. On the minus side, they’re not getting enough supplies to keep up with the spread of the disease.


Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu continues his march from Ankara to Istanbul, which Turkish security forces are now saying has been targeted by ISIS. They claim to have arrested six ISIS operatives planning an attack on the march as it approaches its destination. They even released video of the seizure of a bus the alleged attackers were planning to use, which contained among other things flags of the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party. So assuming this story is true, they may have been looking to implicate AKP in the attack in an attempt to maximize the chaos the attack would cause. Or maybe AKP is trying to sow doubt in case the march does come under some assault from its supporters. There’s no doubt that this CHP demonstration could make an inviting target for somebody looking to cause trouble.

Kılıçdaroğlu also formally petitioned the European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday over irregularities in the April referendum that rewrote Turkey’s constitution to give more power to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This is a purely symbolic move, because Ankara can simply ignore an unfavorable ECHR ruling, though doing so might have some negative impact on Turkey’s relations with the European Union.

However, it’s hard to know how much worse those relations could possibly get. On Wednesday, Erdoğan told German media that Germany is “committing suicide” by not letting him hold a rally for Turkish expats in Germany after the G20 summit this week in Hamburg. So, RIP to Germany, I guess. It had a good run–well, it had a run, anyway. Erdoğan accused the German government of fascism for not allowing similar rallies during the referendum campaign, but also says he has no problem with Angela Merkel, which seems to suggest the possibility that he meant that fascism description as a compliment. The European Union, for its part, is likely to vote Thursday to suspend Turkey’s already-encased-in-amber EU accession bid, which will give Erdoğan something new to complain about when he gets to Hamburg–not that he wouldn’t have found something to complain about anyway.


The Lebanese government is still responding to criticism that it’s mistreating people detained during its raid on Syrian refugee camps in Arsal last week. On Tuesday it said that four detainees who have since died in Lebanese custody were suffering from illness before they were taken in. Meanwhile, another fire swept through a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley on Tuesday, killing one child and injuring 21 people. That makes two such fires this week.


Israel’s Labor Party is having a bit of an identity crisis surrounding its ongoing leadership election that may look familiar to followers of, well, pretty much any center-left party in the West:

As Israel’s Labor Party prepares to choose its new leader, it already has taken a big step toward shedding its image as a bastion of liberal, upper-class Israelis of European descent.

A party primary on Tuesday chose two candidates of Middle Eastern heritage as finalists for next week’s runoff, handily defeating a trio of established blue-bloods associated with the old guard. In a strategy that could spell trouble for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the party is now hoping its next leadership will appeal to the ethnic working-class voters who make up the core of Netanyahu’s support.

Labor still has a long way to go before returning to its former glory days as the movement that led Israel to independence in 1948 and dominated Israeli politics for three decades. But both candidates for Labor leadership, Amir Peretz and Avi Gabbay, have made it clear that they are aiming to rebrand their party.

“You have proven that you are an open party that truly calls on new publics to join it,” Gabbay, the seventh of eight children born to immigrants from Morocco, told his supporters after the first-round vote. “Choosing me is a call to new constituencies saying: ‘We want you to join us.’”

There’s a split between Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent) and Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern descent, though the term is sometimes expanded to include Jews of North African and Spanish descent, as the AP does in this piece) communities at play here that I don’t think aligns neatly with the left-center divide in Western politics, but a lot of the rhetoric from Peretz and Gabbay echoes the leftist rhetoric of a Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders.

The Israeli left is so broken right now that the party has no real hope of winning control of the government (hence the reason current Labor Party boss Isaac Herzog didn’t even make it out of the first round of voting), but if Labor found a way to steal some working class votes from Likud or its coalition partners then it could force Benjamin Netanyahu to include it in his next coalition. Or the party’s affluent centrist members could bolt to Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, which might in theory put him in position to unseat Netanyahu and become the next Israeli prime minister (he already polls pretty well head-to-head with Netanyahu). Barring a collapse of Netanyahu’s thin ruling coalition, he doesn’t need to call elections until November 2019, so this is all quite premature. But it’s still interesting to speculate.

Hamas has been reaching out to rebuild its relationship with Egypt, which was badly damaged after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government was ousted in the 2013 coup (Hamas has MB roots and got along quite well with Mohamed Morsi’s government). There’s a sense of urgency from Hamas’s leadership to improve ties with somebody (they obviously have good relations with Iran, but their other main patron–Qatar–is in a bind and the Palestinian Authority has been trying to maximize pressure on Hamas by cutting off support for Gaza), and the talks with Cairo are being facilitated by former Fatah big shot and now staunch Mahmoud Abbas enemy Mohammad Dahlan. Dahlan would like to establish himself as the man who can unify the Palestinians and use that as a platform from which to challenge Abbas (or whomever succeeds Abbas) for leadership. In return for Egyptian energy aid and for keeping open the country’s border crossing with Gaza, Hamas is trying to secure its Egyptian border. Cairo may also now see Hamas as a counter to ISIS, which as we all know has a presence in Sinai and would like to extend that into Gaza if it could.


Two retired Egyptian military officers and one active soldier were killed on Wednesday when an attacker shot up a toll booth in the southern part of Cairo. There’s been no claim of responsibility.

The Egyptian parliament has extended the country’s state of emergency indefinitely for as long as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi wants it for three months, starting July 10. That extends it until October, at which time I feel fairly confidant they’ll extend it again. There’s a presidential election coming up in early 2018, after all, and President Sisi needs the extra powers to stifle any hint of opposition protect Egypt in this critical time.

US President Donald Trump spoke with Sisi by phone on Wednesday to discuss…well, it’s not entirely clear. The White House says the two men talked about the Qatar diplomatic crisis, with Trump urging “constructive negotiation,” and also North Korea for some reason (I guess just because it was on Trump’s mind), while Egypt says this happened:


Since we’re dealing here with two authoritarians who tend to make up their own reality as they go, I would caution against trying to figure out which interpretation of this call is the more accurate. For all we know they could have spent the whole time talking about shiny ribbons or loud noises.


Amnesty International is warning that political activist Ebtisam al-Saegh, arrested by Bahraini authorities on Monday, could be subject to sexual assault and other forms of torture while in state custody. Saegh was also arrested in May and was reportedly beaten and sexually assaulted by security forces at that time.


UPDATE: After this posted I saw news that Qatar Airways has beaten Saudia to the punch and become the third Middle Eastern airline to win an exemption from the Trump administration’s cabin electronics ban.

Once again I feel like I have to preface this bit by noting that no matter how much you read on this topic, nothing about the situation has really changed. The Qataris sent a response to the Saudi/Bahrain/Egypt/UAE list of demands that, unsurprisingly, wasn’t well-received. But that’s all that’s happened at this point. There’s been no move to escalate sanctions against Qatar. A meeting of the foreign ministers of the four blockading states in Cairo came and went Wednesday with the ministers only saying they’re leaving the current sanctions in place and will ratchet things up at an “appropriate time.” This may mean that the blockading countries are beginning to feel a little pressure from the US and Europe to ease off on the Qataris, but at the same time they’re clearly not feeling enough pressure to back down, and there’s no obvious way for any player in this drama to de-escalate at this point without looking weak.

On Tuesday, Qatar announced plans for a significant increase in its natural gas production over the next several years. Qatar has been keeping its exploitation of the North Dome gas field relatively constant for some time now. The increase probably reflects a desire to hang on to market share, which is independent of the diplomatic crisis. On the other hand, announcing these plans now could be an attempt to lock in contracts for all the work involved with increasing production before the Saudis and co. decide to, say, impose secondary sanctions against companies dealing with Qatar. Additionally, Iran’s recent moves to increase exploitation of its half of the shared gas field may be freeing up the Qataris to increase their exploitation without risk of angering the Iranians.


According to Saudi state media, the kingdom expects its Saudia airline to be the third fourth Middle Eastern airline–after Abu Dhabi’s Etihad and Turkish Airlines (and, LOL, Qatar Airways, see above), to be exempted from American restrictions on cabin electronics on flights to the US. They expect the ban to be lifted by July 19.

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