Middle East update: August 5-7 2017


Bashar al-Assad’s military is on the offensive again, on two fronts. In Homs province, they were able to capture the town of Sukhna from ISIS on Sunday, which should be the last serious ISIS obstacle between Assad’s forces and besieged Deir Ezzor. Meanwhile, Assad’s air force has been bombing the Damascus suburb of Ein Tarma. Eastern Damascus suburbs are supposed to be included in the Russian “safe zone” initiative, but the rebel group controlling Ein Tarma has rejected that ceasefire and so I guess that makes them, and consequently the civilians living there as well, fair game.

You’ll be please to know that Turkey and Saudi Arabia haven’t given up the dream of perpetually wrecking Syria. The Saudis, for example, insisted on Sunday (in response to several reports alleging otherwise) that they still reject the idea of Assad even being involved in a political transition process in Syria. I’m certainly not about to defend Bashar al-Assad, but what this likely means is that Riyadh will keep doing what it can to keep the rebels in the fight and extend the war, to the ongoing detriment of the Syrian people. Meanwhile, Ankara is once again preparing to attack the Kurdish enclave at Afrin, in northwestern Syria. I don’t think there’s any question that this attack is going to happen at some point–Turkey may even be joined by Assad if it looks like the Kurds are really serious about holding elections in their cantons–so the big question is whether Turkey will wait until after the Raqqa operation has been concluded.

Speaking of Raqqa, the fighting there seems to have settled into a sudden stalemate over the past week, with the Syrian Democratic Forces controlling about 45 percent of the city. Fighting in Raqqa looked to be moving pretty quickly but we may finally be seeing a repeat of Mosul, with slow-moving, house-to-house battles complicated by ISIS suicide bombers and booby traps, with heavy civilian suffering the main effect. On the plus side, ISIS is already down to a pretty small defense force of around 2000 fighters, if US estimates are accurate. On the minus side, whatever criticisms you want to lob at the various Iraqi forces that liberated Mosul, their capabilities were greater than the SDF’s. And that’s still true despite the Trump administration’s significantly increased support for the SDF both in terms of military aid and air cover.


There has been a flurry of isolated violent incidents in Mosul and elsewhere in Ninewa province over the past couple of days:

There was more violence in and around Mosul. On August 5, four bodies were discovered shot and tortured in Hadbaa in the northeast. The next day, an IED went off in a house killing one and wounding another, a suicide bomber was killed, thirty bodies were found in a mass grave in a market, a teenage age boy’s body was uncovered in the Old City, a policeman was wounded in a shooting at a checkpoint, and an IS fighter emerged from a tunnel and shot at two tribal Hashd killing one and injuring another. All of this happened in the western section of the city. A leading Islamic State judge was arrested with his family as well. Outside the city in Houd, in the Qayara district in the southeast two IS elements died in a gunfight. Nearly every day there are security incidents in Mosul and Ninewa in general. These are still scattered, and have little impact overall, but they do show a low level of insecurity. This is a major reason why so few people are going back to Mosul. The security forces in Mosul are also being transitioned, which could open gaps, which the insurgents could exploit.

This sort of thing is going to be an issue at least until Baghdad commits to a policing plan for Ninewa and empowers that police force to deal with reprisal/vigilante activity.

Meanwhile, the Tal Afar operation is still on deck but the Iraqis are taking time to move key military units into position. While the city is being bombarded from the air, ISIS has nevertheless also been able to take advantage of the delay to improve its defenses–in particular, they’re reportedly digging a trench around the city. ISIS probably has about 2000 fighters in Tal Afar, similar to the number it’s estimated to have in Raqqa, but Tal Afar should be easier terrain for the Iraqis than Mosul was, or than Raqqa has been for the SDF. Except in a few relatively small pockets it’s not as dense an urban environment, for one thing, and there are reportedly far fewer remaining civilians in Tal Afar to complicate the use of airpower and artillery.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Saturday that he will not dissolve the Popular Mobilization Units in response to a call from powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to do just that. Sadr is playing an interesting game right now, trying to distance himself from Iran and court the Saudis while still remaining a leader in the Iraqi Shiʿa community, but he has to know that an order from Baghdad disbanding the PMU could very well precipitate a civil war. Of course, that war wouldn’t really be Sadr’s problem, and anyway I suspect he called for disbanding the PMU knowing full well that it wouldn’t–couldn’t–happen.


Lebanon’s campaign to drive ISIS out of its enclave along the Syrian border appears to be going well:

The Lebanese army captured a number of strategic hilltops bordering Syria from Islamic State militants on Sunday amid mounting expectations for a campaign to decisively defeat them there, the army and state media said.

The National News Agency said the army captured several hills between the frontier towns of Ras Baalbek and Arsal, and the Army said in a statement it destroyed IS fortifications and killed several IS militants.

There were reports Monday that ISIS had fired rockets into Lebanon, but no casualties were reported.

Beirut was keen over the weekend to deny claims from Hezbollah that this operation was being undertaken with coordination with the Syrian army across the border, and understandably so, but it doesn’t really require any direct coordination for the two armies to attack ISIS on opposite sides of the border in roughly the same place at roughly the same time. Particularly not when Hezbollah is there to serve as a go-between. And Hezbollah, despite what Donald Trump may say and what Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri might maintain in public, has been intimately involved in both phases of this border clearing operation.


Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet “little snakes” Shaked says that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu need not resign from office if he’s indicted over corruption charges. This is Shaked’s way of doing something nice for her boss, Netanyahu, without appearing to bias the investigation in some way. She’s not saying he shouldn’t resign, you know, just that he doesn’t legally have to resign. That corruption case took a new turn on Monday when Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Netanyahu must release logs of his calls with one of his big-money American patrons: casino billionaire and all around sack of garbage Sheldon Adelson. Netanyahu is alleged to have offered the publisher of the newspaper Yediot Ahronot that in exchange for more favorable coverage he would weaken their biggest competitor, Israel HayomHayom just so happens to be owned by Adelson, so Netanyahu’s offer may have come with Adelson’s blessing.

Amid all this turmoil, Netanyahu is focused like a laser on the real problem: Al Jazeera. In a really pretty hamfisted attempt to play “look over here!” with his own legal problems, Netanyahu is going to shut down the Qatar-based network’s Jerusalem office and strip its employees of their press credentials. He’s able to build on the anti-Al Jazeera work that’s already been done by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates over the past several weeks.

Anonymous senior Palestinian leaders have told Al-Monitor’s Uri Savir that they fear the recent dustup over the al-Aqsa/Temple Mount complex may have empowered extremist elements within the Palestinian community, including Hamas. They warn that Israeli actions that are seen as threatening Arab control over al-Aqsa inject an element of religious warfare into what should be treated as a political conflict over Palestinian rights and dignity. Palestinian Authority boss Mahmoud Abbas (who just met with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Ramallah on Monday to talk over the al-Aqsa situation) is reportedly frustrated enough that he’s talking about resigning and disbanding the Palestinian Authority, which would first and foremost be a massive problem for, you guessed it, the Israelis.


Turkish and Qatar soldiers held a joint exercise on Monday, which, hey, nothing provocative about that, am I right?

The Gulf diplomatic crisis, terrorism, Iran, etc. aside, the Qataris also remain in hot water over football soccer. They’re still dealing with the scandal of the 2022 World Cup, the football soccer tournament that was awarded to Qatar in 2010 in a decision that almost immediately came under fire for potential corruption and later for the disturbingly high death toll among Qatar’s migrant worker population–many of whom were put to work building the tournament venue. The French government has opened an investigation into the 2022 World Cup decision involving shady business deals allegedly linked to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy just in time for Emirati and Saudi media to gleefully slap it all over their front pages and websites. Of course, the Emiratis and Saudis only care about the bribery aspect of this story, because both countries have similarly brutal migrant worker programs and it wouldn’t do for either to make much hay about that.

On the flip side, the Qataris this year have decided to throw a massive amount of money at the football soccer team they’ve owned since 2011, Paris Saint-Germain. I don’t know much about football soccer, but I do know that Neymar is really good at it, and PSG just spent far more money to acquire him than any football soccer team has ever spent on a transfer fee, something on the order of $260 million. For one player. Deadspin’s Billy Haisley has a good piece today on how the Qataris are hoping to make PSG shine so brightly with new stars that we’re all blinded to Qatar’s many, many faults.


In what could be taken as a sign that international pressure is starting to get to them a bit, the Saudis went to the trouble of issuing an official statement justifying their upcoming execution of 14 Shiʿa political prisoners:

A spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Justice, Mansour al-Ghafari, said in a statement released Friday that the trials met international standards for fairness and due process and that the “defendants enjoy full legal rights.” All of them had access to lawyers and all court hearings were in the presence of the media and human rights observers, Ghafari said.

It probably comes as no great surprise that this statement was most likely packed with lies:

In a response Saturday, a prominent human rights group said the Saudi government’s statement made several false claims and was “at odds with assessments by the U.N. and rights groups.”

“Saudi Arabia’s attempts to justify these 14 unlawful executions are appalling,” said Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, an advocacy group based in Britain. “This statement is a serious mischaracterization of the trial process against the 14 men.”

At least one defendant was never permitted to see a lawyer, and in another defendant’s case, no evidence against him was presented at trial, said Reprieve.

However, the Saudis still felt compelled to speak up in their own defense, which is unusual in cases like this in which complaints about process would usually be blown off with–at most–a Saudi comment about “national sovereignty.” I don’t know if it heralds anything, but it’s an interesting development.


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani used his second inaugural address on Saturday to, unsurprisingly, take a few shots at US President Donald Trump:

“Today is the time for the mother of all negotiations, not the mother of all bombs,” Rouhani said, referring to the US dropping its largest non-nuclear bombever used in combat in Afghanistan in April. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, was among those present at Rouhani’s inauguration.

“The US has showed a lack of commitment in its implementation of the nuclear deal because its policymakers are addicted to the illegal and futile policy of sanctions and humiliation,” Rouhani said. “This has proved the US to be an unreliable partner to the world and even to its longtime allies.”

Referring to Trump, he added: “We do not wish to engage with political novices … Those who want to tear up the nuclear deal should know that they will be ripping up their own political life by doing so and the world won’t forget their noncompliance.”

Funny story: European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini attended Rouhani’s inauguration and, yadda yadda, a bunch of Iranian legislators are now dealing with a bit of a PR crisis after they all mobbed her for selfies after Rouhani’s speech. Politicians are dipshits everywhere, not just in the US.

Trump, as we all know by now, seems hell-bent on breaking the nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) or at least on decertifying Iran’s compliance with the deal as some kind of “message” to Tehran. Decertifying most likely would be the end of the deal even though some JCPOA opponents are (very disingenuously) trying to spin it as a “third way” measure that would be Tough on Iran but leave the deal in place:

Trump’s argument for decertifying Iranian compliance will rest on whatever his White House team of Iranophobes can uncover concoct between now and October, but it won’t be based on any actual evidence. It will, instead, be based on a lot of nebulous talk about the “spirit” of the JCPOA, and the next time you hear somebody use that word in this context you can rest assured that they’re bullshitting you, because there is no “spirit” of the JCPOA. Talking about the “spirit” of the JCPOA allows deal opponents to bring in a lot of malign Iranian behavior that has nothing to do with the agreement, like its missile program or its support for Hezbollah, and pretend that said behavior somehow violates the JCPOA on, like, a metaphysical level, man. Said behavior, while admittedly undesirable, does not violate the JCPOA because the JCPOA was very carefully negotiated to only deal with limiting Iran’s nuclear program. It was specifically negotiated in a vacuum because fears of Iran’s mostly-phantom nuclear weapons program were so high that the situation was deemed too urgent to complicate and extend the negotiations by including a whole bunch of non-nuclear issues.

Many of the people you hear making this “spirit of the deal” argument today were among the loudest voices back in 2013 insisting that the nuclear negotiations must only deal with Iran’s nuclear program so that America could continue punishing the Iranians for their other Bad Naughty Wicked Behavior. Now that the nuclear deal is in place and, you know, working, they want to switch the field a full 180 degrees and argue that the deal is fundamentally flawed because it doesn’t address all those other behaviors. They’re doing this because policy doesn’t really matter to these people, and neither do outcomes–except for one, that sweet, sweet Iran War high they’ve been chasing for the past 40 years. They’re in Donald Trump’s ear now in a big way, and what’s holding them back is Trump’s vestigial desire not to start a major war and the cadre of Trump officials who, while they would love to Bomb Bomb Iran, recognize that pissing all over a major international agreement like the JCPOA might have some unfortunate long-term ramifications for the United States.

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