Middle East update: July 12-13 2017


A number of things are happening on parallel tracks in Mosul. Most urgently, Iraqi forces are still mopping up pockets of ISIS holdouts and responding to multiple ISIS attacks on villages around Mosul. The village of Jaran was attacks on Wednesday and ISIS fighters still hold most of the village of Imam al-Gharbi. Many of Mosul’s displaced citizens are still stuck in limbo partly because the security situation remains unstable. The Iraqi government is trying to tamp down any revenge attacks by is forces and/or Shiʿa paramilitaries against Sunni Arabs possibly suspected of having collaborated with ISIS. At least 20 Sunnis have been killed in Baghdad this week in what appear to be sectarian killings by members of the Shiʿa militia Asaʾib Ahl al-Haq.

In general, the human rights fallout from Mosul is ongoing and will take time to completely unpack. Human Rights Watch has warned that Iraqi forces are engaging in collective punishment with respect to the families of ISIS fighters in Mosul:

Human Rights Watch has accused Iraqi security forces of forcibly relocating at least 170 families of alleged Islamic State members to a closed “rehabilitation camp” as a form of collective punishment.

“Iraqi authorities shouldn’t punish entire families because of their relatives’ actions,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“These abusive acts are war crimes and are sabotaging efforts to promote reconciliation in areas retaken from ISIS.”

The conduct of the Mosul campaign has also come in for criticism:

Amnesty International and the United Nations issued critical comments about both the Iraqi forces and the Islamic State over their conduct in the Mosul campaign. Amnesty said that the Iraqi forces and Coalition violated international law with indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilians. The ISF for example fired huge amounts of unguided rockets, mortars and artillery into Mosul, while the Iraqis and Coalition endangered civilians with their air strikes. The group also said that IS continuously committed crimes against the population by using them as human shields and executing them. The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights made similar statements about the Islamic State, while also stating that it had reports of collective punishment and forced evictions of IS families, and abuses against IS members and suspects by the ISF. All of these have been continuously reported in the press. From the start of the battle for example, IS was herding people from villages outside of Mosul to use them as cover for their retreat, while carrying out mass killings. The Jadida bombing which left over 100 dead inside Mosul, publicized the huge number of civilians that were being killed by Coalition air power. The Iraqi police were called out several times for causing a large number of casualties with their shelling as well. In an urban battle it is hard to avoid killing and wounding civilians. For IS there is no excuse as they are a brutal terrorist organization. The Iraqis and Coalition however, could have taken much greater care, especially when they consistently said they were trying to spare the population.

It will take weeks to fully clear the rubble and assess civilian casualties, and we may never know the extent to which those casualties were ISIS’s doing vs. the coalition’s.

NRT has a good look at one of the big challenges that will attend any attempt by Iraqi Kurds to declare independence: the status of areas claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Any Kurdish move toward independence is going to include massive complications, but this is one that could easily lead to conflict.


One of the obstacles to direct face-to-face talks between the Syrian opposition and Bashar al-Assad’s government has been that there is no unified Syrian opposition. In fact, there are three groups that claim political leadership in the opposition movement–the one most of us know about, the High Negotiations Committee, and two smaller groups based one in Cairo and the other in Moscow. Both of the smaller groups are much more amenable to working with Assad in a transitional capacity or even beyond, and so the HNC and its Western supporters have suggested that these are essentially front groups set up by Assad and the Russians to create the illusion of a diversity of rebel opinion about Assad’s future and to gum up peace talks. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said Thursday that he can envision the three opposition groups uniting before the next round of talks in August, which would clear a path for direct peace negotiations, but it remains to be seen whether these groups can bridge their differences. Presumably if the Cairo and Moscow groups are fronts, they’ll make it as hard as possible for the HNC to do business with them.

In Raqqa, US troops supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces have reportedly entered the city. These US forces are reportedly much closer to the front lines–and therefore at greater risk–than their counterparts were in Mosul. Meanwhile, according to the UN thousands of civilians are pouring out of the city traumatized by the fighting and suffering from weeks without basic needs like food and clean water. As many as 50,000 civilians are believed to still be trapped in the city.

Today is “Nobody Could Have Predicted This“:

The Donald Trump administration is pushing Congress for the authority to build new “temporary” facilities in Iraq and Syria as part of the US-led campaign against the Islamic State.

In a policy statement released Tuesday night, the White House argues that US troops are hamstrung by legal restrictions on their ability to expand US military infrastructure “in both Iraq and Syria.” The administration wants lawmakers to extend existing authorities that only cover the “repair and renovation” of facilities to also encompass “temporary intermediate staging facilities, ammunition supply points, and assembly areas that have adequate force protection.”

“These facilities, supply points, and assembly areas will enable the pursuit of [IS] into the Euphrates River Valley and help improve the security of Iraq’s borders,” the statement reads. “Current authorities … severely limit the coalition’s maneuverability and its ability to respond quickly to changing operational conditions.”

One of the “legal restrictions” that I guess is handicapping US operations in Syria right now is that the US doesn’t have any actual legal right to be in Syria. Leaving aside international law, under which the case for the US to be in Syria right now is nonexistent, Congress has never authorized any US action in Syria. This whole operation has been justified under the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, which at this point is being used to justify everything from bombing Libya to President Trump’s regular steak order, which on its own should be enough to get him hauled off to The Hague.

Now we’re going to be building “temporary intermediate staging facilities” in Syria, and if you think the word “temporary” there is doing anything more than providing a legal fig leaf to justify this act, then I’d like to introduce you to the last ~70 years of American foreign policy. We’re now going to be in Syria for as long as somebody–the Kurds, the rebels, anybody–will have us. This was already a given in Iraq but Syria, as legally unjustified as it is, at least offered some home that the US might have no choice but to leave once the operation was over. Of course, the US never leaves–that’s the one military principle we’ve never broken.


Part of the reason Congress has never authorized an American presence in Syria is that Congress doesn’t want to authorize an American presence in Syria. Oh, most members of Congress want America in Syria, don’t get me wrong. They just don’t want to put themselves on the record about it. Similarly, they don’t want to know about what the Pentagon is really doing to facilitate Saudi/Emirati war crimes in Yemen, because then they might have to do something about it:

Last October, an airstrike in Yemen by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition hit a funeral, killing more than 130 people and drawing global condemnation. Yet in the months following that strike, the United States doubled the amount of fuel it provided to coalition jets, according to figures obtained from the U.S. military. The numbers underline the fact that U.S. support for the campaign has continued and even increased despite growing attention to civilian casualties and alleged war crimes by the coalition.

But the House of Representatives just passed over the chance to vote on legislation that would have tracked the fuel the Pentagon gives to the Saudi coalition and prohibited refueling of coalition aircraft unless the Pentagon could assure Congress that subsequent missions wouldn’t hit civilians or targets contained on no-strike lists.

If this US isn’t going to walk away from this war as it should, then it would at least be nice to know how many millions of gallons of fuel we’ve provided to help the Saudis do triple-tap strikes on all the Dairy Queens in the greater Sanaa area. But Congress is happy to stay deeply in the dark in this case.

Middle East Eye has now reported on the rumor that the Saudis, with substantial nudging from the UAE, are about to dump Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and open the door for former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, or perhaps his son Ahmed, to take over the whole country again. The Emiratis in particular have had enough of Hadi, but the Saudis are also beginning to believe that it will be impossible to reunify Yemen with Hadi in charge. This is a terrible idea that would do nothing to end the civil war (the Yemeni people overthrew Saleh in 2011 for a reason) and would render everything the Saudis have done since entering the war utterly pointless, which is why it’s probably what Riyadh will do.


Against all odds, it seems Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy may have done something kind of good. On Thursday, Jason Greenblatt and Israeli and Palestinian representatives announced the successful negotiation of a deal whereby the Israelis will sell the Palestinians just short of 9 billion gallons of water per year at a reduced price, with a third of the water going to Gaza. The deal will help the Palestinians cope with their overall water shortage, though it’s not nearly enough to deal fully with that shortage and progress on other agreements on new infrastructure like desalination plants is still crucial. This also doesn’t really have any bearing on the Israel-Palestine peace negotiations, except inasmuch as it could be a bit of an icebreaker for the two sides.


Amman is hoping for big things from the US-Russia negotiated ceasefire (that they helped to arrange) in southern Syria. Obviously Jordan’s number one concern with respect to Syria remains the security of its northern border, and there’s a even an opportunity here for more moderate rebels in southern Syria to divest themselves of extremist allies. But if the ceasefire actually takes root there’s also hope that some of the refugees who have crossed the border into Jordan will try returning home.


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first attempt at shuttle diplomacy accomplished less than he would’ve liked but about as much as he could realistically have expected, which is pretty much nothing:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday ended his first stab at mediating a bitter spat in the Persian Gulf region, an effort that took him to three countries over four days but yielded little discernible progress in resolving the dispute.

Tillerson headed home after meeting with Qatari officials to brief them on his talks Wednesday with diplomats from four Arab countries leading a trade and diplomatic boycott against Qatar — Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

From the beginning, State Department officials tried to tamp down expectations that much, if anything, would be accomplished on the trip. Last week, spokeswoman Heather Nauert warned that the quarrel may not be settled for months.

The centerpiece of Tillerson’s visit to the Gulf, his deal with Qatar about reducing terrorist financing, went over like a lead balloon with the anti-Qatar bloc, who seem to have rejected it out of hand. The Qataris made a big deal about being the first country in the region to sign such a deal with the US, which didn’t help its reception with the Saudis and company. Tillerson says he’d next like to see the Gulf nations speak directly to one another, but that seems unlikely at this stage.


UAE Minister Noura al-Kaabi said in an interview with The Times published Wednesday that the anti-Qatar bloc has dropped, or at least substantially modified, one of its key demands and is no longer insisting that Al Jazeera be shut down. Instead she says the quartet is looking for “fundamental change and restructuring” at the Arabic-language channel, which if you read between the lines sounds like they would accept an Arabic Al Jazeera that was more like Al Jazeera English and less like Fox News for the Muslim Brotherhood. This is still a wildly inappropriate demand from a freedom of the press standpoint, but it’s also considerably less inappropriate than the initial demand that the whole outlet be shut down.


We seem to be in one of those periodic episodes where everybody lifts their heads up, notices the Saudi Arabia has been financially, materially, and ideologically backstopping extremist/terrorist groups all over the world for most of my adult life, and collectively shouts “what the fuck is up with that” before we all put our heads back down and go back to sleep. First, here’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker:

“The amount of support for terrorism by Saudi Arabia dwarfs what Qatar is doing,” Corker said on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar on June 5 and imposed a land, air and sea blockade on the country.

The quartet accuse Qatar of funding “terrorism”, an accusation Qatar rejects as “baseless”.

Corker said he was “really disappointed to see what Saudi Arabia did after having a great summit and bringing everybody together”, referring to May’s Riyadh conference that saw leaders of the GCC and other Arab states meet US President Donald Trump.

Corker is trying to help Tillerson end the Qatari diplomatic crisis by convincing the Saudis that having secured Donald Trump’s awe-stricken subservience doesn’t mean they now own Washington. But from across the Atlantic, here’s Sir William Patey, the UK’s former Saudi ambassador:

“The Saudis [have] not quite appreciated the impact their funding of a certain brand of Islam is having in the countries in which they do it – it is not just Britain and Europe.

“That is a dialogue we need to have. They are not funding terrorism. They are funding something else, which may down the road lead to individuals being radicalised and becoming fodder for terrorism.”

Patey said the Saudis “find it every easy to back off the idea that they are funding terrorism because they are not.

“What the World Association [sic] of Muslim Youth and the Muslim World League are doing is funding mosques and promoting an ideology – the Salifist Wahhabist ideology.”

He called for clarity on the definition of funding terrorism and “a grownup dialogue with the Gulf about what we think”. There were also “individual Gulf citizens that defied their governments to fund terrorism,” Patey added.

Patey is right, to a point. The problem of direct terrorist financing is mostly one of wealthy Gulf individuals rather than governments. But those individuals (who are frequently royal individuals) often act with a wink and a nod from their governments, who are happy to see these groups (like the Taliban, Syrian extremists, Kashmiri extremists, etc.) being funded but enjoy the plausible deniability that private financing allows. So it’s not just ideological, though that is a huge problem in its own right.


The Trump administration is expected as soon as Monday to certify, for the second time, that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal. The administration is, at the same time, continuing its broader Iran policy “review,” AKA its search for an excuse to break the deal.

There’s a new talking point bouncing around the anti-Iran echo chamber that says Iran is just like the Soviet Union circa the 1980s–ripe for collapse if only the United States would just give it a nudge. This is little more than an attempt by the Bomb Bomb Iran crowd to flatter Donald Trump with Reagan comparisons until he gives them their war, because as an actual historical analogy it’s completely absurd. The Wilson Center’s Sina Azodi explains this in detail, but the upshot is that it mischaracterize’s Iranian aims, drastically overestimates whatever threat Iran poses to the US, anachronistically applies Cold War framing to a different geopolitical reality, and ignores the fact that while Reagan did take a rhetorical hard line on the USSR, he also negotiated arms control treaties with it. Kind of like the one Barack Obama negotiated with Iran. Other than that though, it’s a great analogy.

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