Middle East update: July 7-9 2017


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Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi arriving in Mosul on Sunday (YouTube)

We might as well start with some good news: Mosul has been fully liberated. Mostly. Probably. I mean, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited the city on Sunday to celebrate the victory with Iraqi troops–while carefully avoiding the parts of the city where fighting was still going on. But if we were trying to guess when the city will be entirely in Iraqi hands, then I think at this point we’d be talking in terms of hours rather than weeks or even days. Here’s where things stood on Saturday:

So yeah, that’s pretty close to done.

ISIS has tried over the past couple of days to fight back a bit. On Friday it launched a substantial counterattack in the Old City relying mostly on suicide bombers. The effect seemed to be a temporary blunting of the Iraqi offensive, but for obvious reasons a defensive plan oriented around suicide bombers isn’t sustainable and isn’t really meant to defend so much as it’s meant to maximize casualties.  The hit-and-run nature of this attack makes it less a defense of Mosul and more an example of what ISIS is likely to become with Mosul gone.

Speaking of ISIS’s future, journalist Robin Wright suggests that now that it’s no longer ascendent in the struggle with its former parent organization, al-Qaeda, ISIS might follow the same path al-Qaeda took after 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan:

Yet, [former FBI agent Ali} Soufan warns, “the growing strength of its ‘provinces,’ particularly in Libya, suggests that, like Al Qaeda before it, the Islamic State may be poised to evolve into a multinational umbrella group with a number of franchises.” At its height, isis spawned eight branches, with thirty-seven wilayats, or “provinces”—from Algeria to the Caucasus, Afghanistan to Yemen—though some are weak, dormant, or have been crushed. The conditions that originally spawned militant jihadism still plague Iraq, Syria and much of the world’s most volatile region.

Soufan’s most intriguing theory is that ISIS and al-Qaeda might merge again. This is something that’s been talked about over and over again, particularly in Syria where both groups have certainly seen better days, but the likelihood of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi tucking tail and returning to Ayman al-Zawahiri after their falling out in 2014 has always seemed farfetched. But Baghdadi is AWOL and may be dead, while Zawahiri seems to be stepping back from his leadership role in al-Qaeda in favor of Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son and the new hotness in psycho jihadi mass murder these days. ISIS could come back into the fold under Hamza’s leadership, though it would likely have to contain its indiscriminate killing of Muslims for that to happen.

ISIS has also been active south of Mosul, where it captured the village of Imam al-Gharbi on July 5 and is still holding part of it despite an Iraqi counterattack. I’ve seen Western media, likely relying on official Iraqi sources, reporting on this attack like it was a hit-and-run strike against the village but Iraqi media says the fighting there is ongoing.

And, of course, the issue of rebuilding and governing Mosul remains a major concern:

With combat winding down the issues of governance and rebuilding are more pressing issues. Unfortunately, Baghdad has little to offer. The Abadi government was supposed to form a committee with the Kurdistan Regional Government and the U.S. led Coalition to plan for rebuilding Mosul, but it never happened. Sunni and Kurdish leaders in Ninewa also complained that the prime minister never responded to their calls to talk about the future political situation in the province. That was actually understandable, because any agreement on governance could have been broken by creating facts on the ground during the campaign. Not coming up with a reconstruction strategy however was pure negligence. Given past campaigns in places like Fallujah and Ramadi it was expected that there would be considerable damage that would need to be fixed. The Planning Ministry is working on a $100 billion, 10 year plan, but that is for the entire country. The fact that Iraq doesn’t have the money to pay for it, and is hoping international donors and the World Bank will fund it may make it mostly aspirational.

On Sunday, Baghdad also announced that it has begun drilling its first well in the Huwaiza oil field in the southern part of the country. This field is estimated to contain one billion barrels of recoverable oil and should give overall Iraqi oil production a bit of a boost, which might even help it finance some of that rebuilding work.


The weekend’s big news was that, during their big G20 meeting on Friday, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, along with Jordan, agreed on a ceasefire for southern Syria. Well, to be honest, the big news wasn’t so much that they agreed on a ceasefire, it’s that, so far anyway, it actually seems to have taken hold. Sure, it’s only been several hours since the deal went into effect, but that’s already several hours longer than many similar ceasefire attempts have survived over the course of this war. The ceasefire is localized to Daraa, which has seen heavy fighting over the past several weeks, along with nearby Suwayda and Quneitra, the latter of which includes the Golan and thus runs up against the Israeli border. That’s important, because one of the side goals of this plan is to ease border concerns held by both Jordan and Israel with respect to Syrian-Iranian intentions. Neither wants a permanent Iranian presence on its border and both seem to be parroting the (questionable) Iranian corridor theory.

The success or failure of this ceasefire is also going to show whether and to what extent Washington and Moscow can work together on Syria despite all the other baggage that attends that relationship right now. Putin said the deal was made possible by the Trump administration’s (well, Trump’s, really) “pragmatic” approach to Syria, but we’ll see if that applies more broadly. It also will test, as all these agreements do, whether the US and Russia can really force their allies on the ground to toe whatever line they set. The failure of past ceasefires has always pointed to the conclusion that the outside powers aren’t in control of events in Syria the way they like to pretend to be, but as the war stretches on and both sides become more exhausted/entrenched, the likelihood of one of these pauses actually sticking probably goes up. The result could well be a frozen conflict rather than a genuine resolution, but any reduction in fighting in this war is better than the alternative.

In Raqqa, ISIS fighters staged a counterattack on Friday that pushed the Syrian Democratic Forces back toward the Old City walls they’d breached just a couple of days earlier. It doesn’t seem they were able to make any sustainable gains though. By Saturday this is what things probably looked like:

I just recently found that Twitter account so I don’t feel quite as sure of its accuracy as I am about the Nineveh Media Center’s yet, but it seems credible based on reporting and I can’t see where the account is pushing any agenda, so I think it’s OK.

So far mostly so good, but Raqqa promises to be almost as tough a nut to crack as Mosul, though for somewhat different reasons. Mosul was a much bigger city and the western half was as dense an urban area as you’re likely to find being used as a battlefield. But while smaller, Raqqa is fairly dense as well, which limits the use of airpower and artillery. Of greater concern is the SDF’s fighting capabilities, which might match of even exceed those of Iraqi paramilitaries or the regular Iraqi army but are almost certainly not as great as Iraq’s elite special forces, the units that really drove the liberation of Mosul. There are additional concerns about how the SDF is going to be received by Raqqa’s civilians (though, to be fair, there were also concerns about how Iraqi forces would be received by Mosul’s civilians and those seem to have been mostly overblown. And, of course, the threat of a Turkish invasion of the Kurdish pocket in Afrin is a major potential complication hanging over this operation, because it would force the Kurdish YPG to redeploy its forces away from Raqqa in response.


“Thousands” of people rallied in Aden on Friday in support of southern Yemeni secession. A counter-rally was held the same day in another part of the city, but the upshot is that the secession movement isn’t going away and remains a huge complicating factor in ending the civil war without starting a new one.


In Istanbul on Sunday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked glowingly of the “courage” of Turks who resisted the July 2016 coup attempt. And, you know, that was nice of him. A lot of people did hit the streets on July 15 of last year, at considerable personal risk, to stand down that coup. But the government they defended for its democratic traits has rewarded them by imprisoning tens of thousands of people– including leaders of Turkey’s main opposition parties, by virtually eradicating any semblance of a free press in Turkey, by twisting the country’s judiciary into little more than a rubber stamp for the government, and by altering the country’s constitution to reduce checks against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarianism (checks that are already non-existent given the country’s now-perpetual state of emergency). Is that what those people risked their lives to protect?

How many of the estimated “hundreds of thousands” of people who took to the streets of Istanbul on Sunday to protest their government’s growing authoritarianism also went out to protect that government last July? The rally was the last stop of Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s “Justice March” from Ankara, and it comes just before a planned week of propagandistic government puffery to commemorate the coup that wasn’t. Tillerson can’t up and praise those people–who are risking their lives too, given what we know about how Ankara responds to large public protests–but they’re fighting for democracy, freedom, and human rights just as surely as people were on the night of the coup attempt.

Germany began pulling its anti-ISIS forces out of Incirlik airbase on Sunday, the end of a long-running dispute whereby Ankara was denying German leaders permission to visit their forces in response to the German government’s refusal to allow Turkish leaders to campaign in Germany before April’s referendum. The Germans will be redeployed to Jordan.


Royal Jordanian Airlines was briefly (see below) the latest Middle Eastern airline to get itself removed from the US ban on cabin electronics on flights coming into America. Again, more on this below.


The Israeli government is Mad (I know, what are the odds), this time at UNESCO, for the agency’s decision on Friday to put Hebron’s Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs on its endangered heritage list. Hebron is mostly controlled by the Palestinians, but a small part–the part that happens to contain the Old City and the Tomb (allegedly the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)–is under Israeli control, and the Palestinians say the sites have been vandalized and otherwise badly treated. Israel of course rejects those charges, but the area around the tomb has been a prime spot for Israeli settlement building, so it wouldn’t be that outrageous to imagine that the construction might have damaged the site enough for the Palestinians to make a case to UNESCO. The resolution also identifies the site as part of “Palestine,” which contradicts official Israeli policy both inasmuch as it suggests there is such a thing as “Palestine” and by the declaration that Hebron is a part of it.

Israel cut its UN funding as a result of the decision, and is now barely putting any money toward the UN at all which means it’s about to run out of this particular stick.

In Gaza, meanwhile, Egypt and Hamas are circling a deal that would put former Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan in charge of Gaza’s foreign relations while leaving Hamas in control of the province’s security. Dahlan clearly has a lot of support in Cairo, but he’s a rival to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who was drummed out of Fatah amid charges of collaborating with Israel, so it’s understandable that Abbas met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Sunday in Cairo to get a handle on exactly what is going on. There were no details about their meeting forthcoming.


At least 26 Egyptian soldiers were killed in a suicide attack, claimed by ISIS, on an army checkpoint in northern Sinai on Friday. In response, Egyptian authorities reported that their forces killed 14 gunmen in Ismailia province, which borders Sinai, on Saturday, and said those gunmen were linked to “recent attacks” against Egyptian forces in Sinai. To punctuate the weekend, two Egyptian police officers were killed by a roadside bomb in northern Sinai on Sunday.


Kuwait Airways joined Royal Jordanian (see above) on Sunday in getting itself taken off America’s cabin electronics ban list. Of the eight nations (and nine airlines, with the Abu Dhabi’s Etihad and Dubai’s Emirates both considered UAE airlines) originally on the list, now only Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia remain, and both the Moroccans and the Saudis say they expect to be taken off the list by July 19. I haven’t seen any word from EgyptAir but most of these announcements haven’t had come with much or any warning so I wouldn’t take that as evidence of anything.


One of the Bahraini government’s favorite tools for ridding itself of political opposition is stripping people of their citizenship:

The tiny island kingdom of Bahrain is increasingly turning to a particularly draconian tool of repression: stripping dissidents of their citizenship.

Rights activists say authorities have revoked the citizenship of 103 people so far this year, already more than in 2016. All were convicted of terrorism-related crimes in trials that rights activists say lacked due process and transparency.

The pace of citizenship revocations has increased amid an intensifying crackdown on opposition. And activists charge that the silence of the West, particularly the United States and Britain, has emboldened authorities to press ahead with more repressive measures than the kingdom has employed since the response to mass protests in 2011.

Once stateless, these people can be expelled or imprisoned without even a nod toward due process. Both the UK and US governments say they’re “concerned” about the citizenship revocations but neither is concerned enough to actually do anything about it.


The Qatari government says it plans to pursue “compensation claims” against Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates over their blockade, focused on damages to businesses due to the land, sea, and air cordon those nations have put around the Gulf emirate. The anti-Qatar bloc has been careful to refer to its actions as a “boycott” rather than a blockade for this reason, but if Doha can prove it’s really a blockade it might have a case. At any rate, this could be some leverage for the Qataris should this situation ever reach the negotiations state.

The AP’s Aya Batrawy looks at one important facet of the Qatar crisis, the use of the term “terrorism” to mean “anybody we don’t much like”:

The list of the groups and individuals released by Qatar’s neighbors reflects longstanding concerns raised by U.S. officials. At the same time, it also includes political dissenters and opposition voices.

“The allegation that Qatar supports terrorism was clearly designed to generate anti-Qatar sentiment in the West,” Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said Wednesday in a speech in London.

As he spoke, foreign ministers from the Arab quartet met in Cairo to review Qatar’s response to their demands. At the top of those demands is that Qatar end support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which briefly held power in Egypt and whose offshoots are active across the Middle East.

Though Qatar has cracked down on dissent at home, it views the Brotherhood as a legitimate political force. This has put it at odds with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, which have branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and see it as a threat to political stability and security.

In his speech, Al Thani said there is a danger in “labeling political opponents as terrorists merely to silence them.”


Oman’s government took a step to help Qatar on Friday when it ordered the country’s banks to trade in Qatari riyals at the official exchange rate of roughly 3.64 per US dollar. Qatar’s currency is pegged to the dollar, but its trading value dropped precipitously after the crisis started in early June–it’s since rebounded by remains volatile.


Mehdi Hasan is just asking questions:

What were a Saudi prince, a former Republican House Speaker and a former Democratic vice-presidential candidate doing together in a suburb of Paris last weekend?

Would you be surprised to discover that Prince Turki Bin Faisal, Newt Gingrich and Joe Lieberman were speaking on behalf of a group of Iranian exiles that was officially designated a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the United States government between 1997 and 2012?

Iran hawks long ago fell head over heels for the Mojahedin-e Khalq, known as the MEK, and loudly and successfully lobbied for it to be removed from the State Department list of banned terror groups in 2012. Formed in Iran in the 1960s, the MEK, whose name translates to “Holy Warriors of the People,” was once an avowedly anti-American, semi-Marxist, semi-Islamist group, pledged to toppling the U.S.-backed Shah by force and willing to launch attacks on U.S. targets. The MEK even stands accused of helping with the seizure of hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran; the group condemned the hostages’ release as a “surrender” to the United States. But after the Iran’s clerical rulers turned on the group in the early 1980s, its leaders fled the country and unleashed a series of bombings across Iran.

The title of his piece is “Here’s Why Washington Hawks Love This Cultish Iranian Exile Group,” and I don’t want to spoil it because you should read the piece, but the answer is money. Lots of money.

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