Middle East update: August 1 2017

You may have noticed that I’ve been away for a couple of weeks. While I’m absolutely not going to try to catch you up on everything that’s happened while I’ve been away, I will be interspersing the usual daily news with a few stories that developed over that time.


Combat operations in western Mosul may have ended three weeks ago, but Iraqi security forces are still mopping up:

There were continued clearing and rebuilding operations in Mosul. First, the Iraqi forces (ISF) arrested 12 Islamic State members attempting to escape across the Tigris River from east to west Mosul. They were picked up in three different neighborhoods. Second, the Federal Police announced they were done with 40% of their sweep through the Old City. Three weeks after the city was declared liberated IS elements continue to be killed and arrested, and explosives defused. This is a major reason why so few displaced are returning to the city; they don’t think it is safe yet. Third, a man was freed after being kidnapped for ransom. He was taken in the northeast and found by the army’s 16th Division. There have been sporadic reports of crime taking place in Mosul since the east was freed at the start of 2017. Unfortunately, the lack of jobs and money is likely a driving force. Fourth, 14 bodies were discovered in the Old City of West Mosul. Civil Defense units believe there are hundreds of people still buried in the west, and they have weeks more work to do to find them. Finally, engineers are working on building a new pontoon bridge across the Tigris to link east and west Mosul. The city used to have five bridges across the span but those were all destroyed by the U.S. Coalition. Now these is just one bridge, which severely restricts the movement of people and supplies between the two halves. The World Bank has also fast tracked programs to rebuild the five original bridges.

Security remains a concern, particularly insofar as Baghdad is not moving quickly to either reinstate Nineveh’s former police officers or to build a new police cohort for the province. This may be due to a lack of money more than anything else.

Tal Afar remains the next target for the Iraqis. On Monday, Najm al-Jabouri, overall commander of Iraqi forces in Nineveh province, told Reuters that he believes the fight for Tal Afar will be (relatively) easy because ISIS is “worn out.” Given the frequent Iraqi predictions of imminent victory in Mosul that turned out to be more bluster than reality, I would suggest treating this prediction skeptically. However, relative to Mosul far fewer of Tal Afar’s civilian population has remained in place, and the absence of civilians could allow coalition airpower and Iraqi artillery to be used even more freely than they were used in Mosul. So it is reasonable to expect that this battle won’t be as challenging.

On Sunday, Iraqi Shiʿa cleric Moqtada al-Sadr visited Saudi Arabia and spoke with several Saudi officials including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Iraq, for better or worse and probably worse, is becoming a theater in the Saudi-Iran rivalry, with Saudi leaders eager to try to leverage Baghdad away from Tehran. Sadr has tried to position himself as the champion of Iraqis who have been mistreated by Baghdad, a group that includes Iraqi Sunnis. So this is an interesting visit even if it’s not clear that anything substantive came out of it.


While we were away, this happened:

President Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad, a move long sought by Russia, according to U.S. officials.

The program was a central plank of a policy begun by the Obama administration in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to step aside, but even its backers have questioned its efficacy since Russia deployed forces in Syria two years later.

Officials said the phasing out of the secret program reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests. The shuttering of the program is also an acknowledgment of Washington’s limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power.

This move has led to a lot of hand-wringing and “OMG RUSSIA WON” talk from the usual corners of Washington DC, and while I’m certainly not here to defend the Trump administration I have to wonder what the fuck these people think has been happening in Syria for the past two years. Covertly arming “moderate” Syrian rebels hasn’t done shit as far as removing Assad from power (though it has allowed a bunch of American weapons to find their way to al-Qaeda, so that’s something), and if there are people who are actually worried that this “abandonment” is going to tank America’s image in the Middle East, all I can say is I hope you haven’t suffered any ill effects from being buried underground since 2002.

The one complaint around this issue that I can actually understand is the complaint that Trump traded the CIA program away for nothing. A proposal to end the program probably should’ve been dangled to Moscow and Damascus in exchange for some kind of concession. But really, would anybody trust Donald Trump in that kind of negotiation? Instead of getting a wider ceasefire or guarantees of humanitarian relief he probably would’ve demanded a new Trump hotel in downtown Aleppo.

Also while we were away, al-Qaeda–er, Tahrir al-Sham–consolidated its position in Idlib. After a week of clashes between HTS fighters and Ahrar al-Sham that killed more than 90 people, on July 23 Ahrar al-Sham agreed to evacuate its men from the city of Idlib and leave it entirely in HTS control. This loss leaves Ahrar al-Sham with only a couple of strongholds in Idlib province–most of the group’s fighters have either moved to Aleppo province to serve as Turkish proxies there or have defected over to HTS as relations between the formerly aligned groups have deteriorated. The realignment also poses a new challenge for Turkey, as it potentially leaves al-Qaeda (or, at least, a group that used to be al-Qaeda in the not too distant past) in control of a significant chunk of the Turkey-Syria border. HTS has been pretty careful not to provoke Ankara, but its uncontested presence on the Turkish border is naturally a concern, and Ahrar al-Sham’s defeat in Idlib leaves it in no position to help Turkey go after the Kurds in Afrin. The Turks may be tempted to intervene in Idlib directly.

Speaking of the Kurds, the Syrian Democratic Forces say they’re close to taking all of southern Raqqa from ISIS. Compared with Mosul the progress in Raqqa seems to be more rapid, perhaps because ISIS has been less able to concentrate its defenses and is being spread out by the multiple SDF fronts. However, there have been isolated reports of civilian casualties in the city who have no access to medical care, and the fog of war around that issue seems worse here than it was in Mosul.

Speaking of Raqqa, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s intelligence chief, Lahur Talabany, says that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is “definitely alive” and is hiding out somewhere south of his former capital. I’m no scientist, but I believe quantum mechanics would postulate that Baghdadi is simultaneously alive and dead until somebody actually lays eyes on him, so maybe everybody is right on this story.


Iran has reportedly opened up a new channel for smuggling weapons and aid into Yemen to aid the rebels there. I guess. There have been so many breathless assertions about new Iranian channels into Yemen that I kind of gloss over as soon as I read about another one. Anyway I’m sure the Saudis will bomb a couple more Sweet Sixteen parties in Sanaa–or, I don’t know, maybe they’ll block fuel for humanitarian relief flights or something–and everything will be work out.


While July marked the one year anniversary of the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the fallout from that incident continues to reverberate through Turkish society. Obviously, the attempted coup (and the indefinite state of emergency it spawned) has given Erdoğan a platform through which he’s been able to excuse his every repression and to justify his continued efforts to monopolize all political power in the republic. That’s been going on virtually since the day after the coup fizzled out. But now the country is about to litigate the coup attempt itself, literally, as 486 people (seven in absentia) went on trial on Tuesday for their roles in the operation. One of the defendants being tried in absentia is Fethullah Gülen, the controversial US-based cleric who allegedly masterminded the whole thing according to Ankara. Turkey doesn’t currently have the death penalty, but Erdoğan has openly mused about holding a referendum on reintroducing it specifically for these defendants.

While this is all going on, there’s been movement in the direction of what could frankly be Erdoğan’s worst political nightmare if he’s unable to undermine it somehow. The “Justice March” led by Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu that culminated with a rally in Istanbul on July 9 has produced a moment, maybe just a brief one but a moment nevertheless, in which Turkey’s opposition suddenly seems like it’s all on the same page. This is the one development that could upend Erdoğan’s accumulation of authority, because for all the power he’s trying to amass he’s still got to stand for reelection next year. He could amass enough power to make the results of that election a foregone conclusion, but for a guy whose political party has benefited to a great degree from the fact that its opposition has been fractured, he has to be concerned about the possibility that they’re coming together.


Tahrir al-Sham, or Nusra or whatever, conducted a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah on  Monday that should end with thousands of Syrian fighters and refugees being relocated from Lebanon back into Syria. All Nusra fighters are being moved out of Lebanon’s Arsal region as part of the deal, and refugees who choose to return to Syria will be transported as well. Hezbollah, backed by the Lebanese army, has made Nusra’s position in Arsal untenable in recent weeks, and it now has designs on going after a similar enclave of ISIS-affiliated fighters.


While we were gone, a new dispute over the al-Aqsa/Temple Mount complex threatened to plunge Israel into a serious crisis. On July 14, three Arab Israelis killed two Israeli police officers guarding the compound. Video showed them attacking the police from within the al-Aqsa grounds, and so in response Israeli authorities placed metal detectors at all entrances to those grounds for security purposes.

In the abstract this doesn’t seem like much of a violation, but in the context of 50 years of occupation (precisely 50, so tensions are especially high right now because of the milestone anniversary) and disenfranchisement, many Palestinians took the metal detectors as a sign that Israel was finally taking control over al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. And so they protested, sometimes violently, for nearly two weeks, with seven people (three Israelis and four Palestinians) being killed, before the Israelis agreed to remove the machines last Tuesday after talks with Jordan (which has custodial responsibility for the Muslim holy sites in East Jerusalem). Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces resumed anyway. Netanyahu seems to have been keen to appease the Jordanians following a July 23 shooting at the Israeli embassy in Amman in which an embassy guard killed two Jordanians (one of whom apparently attacked the guard but the other of whom was a bystander). But his decision to take the detectors down was unpopular with Israelis, some 3/4 of whom opposed it according to polling.


Say, I wonder how the Qatar diplomatic crisis developed while I was gone? I’m sure things must be winding down by no-

Deported camels. Rerouted planes. Just when you thought the Gulf crisis couldn’t get any more absurd, a media outlet linked to the Abu Dhabi ruling family has announced the release of a documentary claiming that Qatar was behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Sky News Arabia, owned in part by Emirati scion Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, will release the documentary, called “Qatar… The Road to Manhattan,” on Wednesday. It focuses on 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad’s visit to Qatar in 1996 as well as “Qatar’s long-term support for him, including protection and financial assistance, to achieve his terrorist goals and plans,” according to a report by Gulf News.

Oh. OK then. Seriously as far as I can tell this situation has remained static, but you might enjoy this piece from the Guardian’s Randeep Ramesh about some of the pettier aspects of the Gulf feud. I was unaware of this, but there’s apparently a strong belief in the Middle East and among US neoconservatives that the former Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad, is still actually running the country despite having abdicated in 2013. Which, to be fair, wouldn’t be the most outrageous thing if it’s true. But the Saudis hate Hamad, both because he unseated his father, a loyal Saudi puppet, in 1995 and quickly began charting a more independent course for Qatari foreign policy and for more personal reasons:

The soldiers of the Hamad brigade were among the first coalition troops to engage Iraqi forces at the battle of Khafji in February 1991. When Saudi forces joined the battle, however, US marines ended up protecting Saudi troops because their Arab allies from Qatar were accidentally raining “friendly fire” on them.

Things were patched up swiftly after the war but worry lingered, especially as Hamad returned as supreme military commander and a newly decorated war hero. He continued to rile Riyadh, telling the Saudis over a border dispute in 1992 that they would answer to the “barrel of a gun”.

This dispute might be dumb, but its roots run pretty deep. They’re also dumb, but good luck telling the Saudis that.


It’s been quite a couple of days for leaked emails from UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba. For example, there’s the batch of emails to Middle East Institute chairman Richard Clarke in which Otaiba goes on at length about how absurd it is that Donald Trump is winning the Republican primary (I know, right?). That’s kind of embarrassing! Then there are the emails that show Otaiba passing cash around to prominent DC think tanks like the Democratic-affiliated Center for New American Security (to be honest I thought the Old American Security was better, but that’s just me). Kind of embarrassing there too!

But my absolute favorite of these recent leaks involves Afghanistan and the Taliban. See, the UAE and Saudi Arabia keep decrying Qatar’s support for terrorists as part of the PR campaign related to their blockade. One of the pieces of evidence they cite in support of that allegation is that the Taliban decided back in 2013 to open an office in Doha for communicating with the outside world in the unlikely event of peace talks. Hosting the Taliban, that’s bad! Except, well, it probably won’t surprise you to find out that at least one other nation was keen to host the Taliban back in 2013:

Over the weekend, The Times obtained an email dated Sept. 12, 2011, in which an Emirati diplomat questioned the United States’ position on where the Taliban embassy should be located.

“There is an article in the London Times that mentions US is backing setting up a Taliban embassy in Doha,” the diplomat, Mohamed Mahmoud al-Khaja, wrote to Jeffrey Feltman, then Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. He used the shorthand “HH,” presumably to refer to his boss, the foreign minister, His Highness Abdullah bin Zayed. “HH says that we were under the impression that Abu Dhabi was your first choice and this is what we were informed” by the United Nations envoy to Afghanistan, Mr. Khaja said.

In a separate email dated Jan. 28, 2012, Ambassador Otaiba himself wrote to another American official about similar complaints from Mr. bin Zayed, using a different shorthand, “ABZ.”

“I got an angry call from ABZ saying how come we weren’t told,” Mr. Otaiba wrote. “They want to be in the middle of everything those guys,” he added, referring to the Qataris. “So let them, it will eventually come back to bite them in the _____.”

Well, to their credit, the Emiratis are trying to make sure it does bite the Qataris in the ass.


Reuters reported a bit of a scoop a couple of weeks ago, citing a “source close to MbN” (Mohammed bin Nayef, the now ex-Saudi crown prince) saying that MbN’s addiction to painkillers is the reason reason the former crown prince was replaced by new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in late June. A follow-up report said he’s been addicted to morphine and cocaine (!). Of course, nobody can confirm that MbN is actually an addict, let alone that his addiction cost him his post as heir apparent, but there have been rumors about MbN’s health going back at least to 2009, when he was injured in an attempted assassination by an al-Qaeda suicide bomber. And if you scour the web you can find (unsubstantiated, of course) suggestions that he’s an alcoholic, which is at least in the same ballpark as drug addiction. Even sources supportive of MbN seem to have acknowledged to Reuters that he’s at least been dealing with a morphine addiction. So this is plausible enough.

But it also might be a little too clean. Until June, Mohammed bin Nayef had served as interior minister since 2012 and crown prince since 2015. The former in particular is a critical post that made MbN responsible for internal security in a repressive monarchy that’s been repeatedly targeted by international terrorist organizations. Now, I realize the Saudis aren’t exactly going to win any awards for good governance, but it stretches credulity to believe that they left a drug addict in that job for five years. Has his addiction suddenly gotten worse? That’s possible, of course, but I’d be a lot more inclined toward that theory if the main beneficiary of his sacking weren’t King Salman’s favorite son. Regardless of how debilitating his addiction really was, though, it seems like it was serious enough to get a substantial number of senior Saudi princes behind Salman’s decision to sack MbN and replace him with MbS, despite the fact that the Saudi royals are typically wary of the crown staying on one branch of the family tree and that MbS’s age seemingly locks a lot of his older cousins out of any chance at being king.

Anyway, in terms of actual news the Saudis appear at this point to be cleansing the eastern town of Awamiyah of its Shiʿa residents. Riyadh wants to tear down the old quarter of the town ostensibly because of the threat posed by insurgents who hide among its narrow streets, but depriving thousands of people of their homes and their heritage (Awamiyah is only a small town now but people have been living on the site for centuries if not millennia) seems like a pretty counter-productive way of trying to tamp down an insurgency. The town has been under effective siege from Saudi security forces since May.


If you were still hoping that the Iran nuclear deal might survive the Trump administration, then I’ve got some bad news. After apparently being dragged kicking and screaming into certifying Iran’s compliance with the deal’s terms twice, President Trump is determined not to let it happen a third time, and he’s tasked the Office of Special Plans a select group of White House ideologues with coming up with a reason for him to justify decertification when the issue comes up again in October. Trump is deliberately going around his own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has emerged as a voice if not defending the deal then at least arguing that Trump shouldn’t just tear it up and walk away. Which it seems clear is what he wants to do. Refusing to certify Iran’s compliance would not in itself wreck the nuclear deal, but it would put the ball in Congress’s court to potentially reimpose nuclear-related sanctions against Tehran that could then wreck the deal.

The administration still seems to be sorting out what its Iran policy will be, but “regime change” is the early leader. I’ll leave you with Iran scholar Michael Axworthy’s take on why, apart from the obvious reasons, that would probably be a bad idea:

And even if it could succeed, what would follow? Does the United States really want a destabilized Iran in the Middle East? To add to other more or less failed states in the region like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria? Destabilizing Iran would be like shaking up a kaleidoscope and hoping to get a Titian. It is far from clear that the outcome would be better than what we have now.

A country that is essentially defensive and pragmatic in its foreign policy, and resilient internally, is not a good candidate for regime change. In its effective opposition to the Islamic State and similar groups, and its actions favoring regional stability, Iran deserves at least some praise, rather than blame. The sensible policy would be to accept the existence of the Islamic Republic, to hope for its evolution in a more liberal direction perhaps, but to let Iranians decide that for themselves.

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