Middle East update: August 14-15 2017


Those two US soldiers who were killed in northern Iraq on Sunday were apparently killed by an artillery “mishap.” Oops! I guess mistakes will happen, when you’ve been at war nonstop for 16 years in seven different countries! Color us embarrassed!

Reminder that ISIS still says its rockets killed those two soldiers. But artillery mishap sounds like a winner. It’s very simple and believable.

More scattered violent incidents in and around Mosul:

There were more incidents in Mosul and surrounding areas of Ninewa province. Islamic State members were arrested attempting to smuggle weapons into west Mosul. A senior insurgent leader who allegedly was in charge of operations in east Mosul along with several other militants were also detained. A policeman in Tanak in the west was shot and killed. In an outer village, an IED wounded a civilian, and three people were killed and one injured in a shooting incident in the Tal Afar district. The liberation of Mosul didn’t mean the end of the Islamic State. Its units are scattered, but still making attempts every day in the governorate.

Saudi Arabia and Iraq agreed to reopen their Arar border crossing on Tuesday. That may not seem like much, but Arar has been closed not just since ISIS came on the scene, not just since the US invasion of Iraq, but since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait more than 27 years ago. Reopening the crossing is a big symbolic development in the Iraq-Saudi relationship.

Finally, it looks like the Tal Afar offensive is ramping up, naturally to the detriment of civilians in the area. Thousands of them have reportedly fled the city and surrounding villages over the past couple of days in response to an increase in airstrikes. They describe bleak conditions inside Tal Afar–lack of food and water, for example. Despite the heavier air campaign Iraqi officials are saying it could take weeks for the ground offensive to begin, even though by outward appearances the Iraqis are in place and ready to go. This leads me to wonder if there’s a possibility there’s some misdirection being done right now in an effort to surprise ISIS somehow. The “surprise attack” is of course a big Donald Trump favorite, but it seems hard to believe the Iraqis could catch ISIS napping at this point.


A Free Syrian Army-aligned militia in Syria’s southern Sweida province says it shot down a Syrian air force jet on Tuesday, and Damascus is confirming that one of its planes crashed without confirming the cause. The rebels claim to have the pilot in custody.

The Guardian on Tuesday published a first-hand account of life in ISIS-controlled Raqqa by a pseudonymous Syrian journalist:

Nobody likes living under Isis’s control, being forced to follow their laws and exposed to danger on a daily basis. We lead double lives as a condition of our survival. Everyone has at least two personalities. The first personality despises Isis, but if this personality emerges outside the home it could lead to execution. Therefore a second personality is necessary.

That second personality must express an affinity for the militants, and emerges as soon as you see an Isis member or you are stopped at one of their checkpoints. When they ask what you think of Isis, you have to respond in a manner that pleases the militants, so you can pass and get on with your day. You even have to hide your first personality from your children, because militants make a point of asking them if their parents speak ill of the organisation.


A bombing in the southern Yemeni city of Qataba on Monday killed 13 people. There’s been no claim of responsibility.

At LobeLog, Giorgio Cafiero and Matthew Hedges examine the growing southern secessionist movement, which is complicating an already extraordinarily complicated situation. However, one of the leaders of that movement–former Aden governor Aidarous al-Zubaidi, told Al-Monitor that the secessionists remain committed members of the coalition to unseat the rebels in northern Yemen, so it seems like they’re willing to wait until after the current Yemeni civil war is over before, well, starting the next one.

Speaking of an end to the current civil war, this sure is interesting:

Mohammed bin Salman, the heir to the Saudi throne, confessed to two former US officials he “wants out” of the brutal two-year war he started in Yemen, and added that he was “okay” with Washington engaging with his arch-foe Iran, according to leaked emails obtained by Middle East Eye.

The 31-year-old revealed his intentions to Martin Indyk, the former US ambassador to Israel, and Stephen Hadley, a former US national security adviser, at least one month before the kingdom accused Qatar of undermining its campaign in Yemen and colluding with Iran.

The emails are part of the ongoing dump of UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba’s personal email account. In them, Indyk relates MbS’s feelings to Otaiba, so this isn’t coming directly from MbS. But if he’s regretting the Yemen intervention, then it raises the question of what else about his ultra-confrontational approach to Iran he might be rethinking.


Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told a Turkish newspaper a few days ago that Ankara is thinking about tearing up its migrant/refugee deal with the European Union unless Brussels moves toward approving visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. The Turkish government makes this threat periodically but never follows through on it, even though Brussels is unlikely to ever actually drop visa requirements for Turks.

Recent ambassadorial appointments seem to suggest that having connections in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party can be very good for your political career. In general, actually, it seems like corruption and cronyism is on the rise in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s republic. This segues in to some interesting recent polling results:

In 2016, according to Transparency International findings and the polling of 2,000 people by the research firm Ipsos Group, 55% of the respondents believed corruption had increased in Turkey in the previous two years, and 60% were not hopeful that the corruption would decrease in the next two years. The most devastating finding of the detailed research is that more young respondents, compared with older respondents, think it is acceptable for a government employee to accept gifts and money. For ages 18-24, 29% said it is normal, whereas for those above 65, 11% believe such gifts are acceptable. The poll also showed that respondents with less education showed less concern about corruption than more-educated participants. Most people surveyed failed to comprehend that political corruption is stealing from their incomes. To the contrary, the general understanding goes as follows: “Yes, there are some corrupt government employees, but this the reality of Turkey. Whoever comes to power will be corrupt. At least the AKP provides services.”

There’s an issue here that a competent opposition could exploit. Unfortunately any sign that the opposition might be getting more competent is met with another purge.


The evacuation of hundreds of Saraya Ahl al-Sham fighters and a few thousand refugees from Lebanon’s Arsal region to Syria began Monday. It had been held up over the weekend by some unknown technical snafu. That leaves only the ISIS-controlled pocket of Arsal for the Lebanese army to liberate, and preparations for that offensive are advancing.


Jordan held its first local elections since 2013 on Tuesday. Turnout, unfortunately, was a very low 31 percent. Voters were choosing representatives for city and town councils, as well as for a new set of provincial councils that will be responsible for infrastructure and other development projects. This is part of a new decentralization project instituted last year, to give more governing authority to individual regions.


Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing for a new amendment to Israel’s Basic Law that would give the Israeli prime minister the power to go to war without parliamentary approval. With Netanyahu trying to dodge an embarrassing corruption investigation and looking for anything to distract public attention, what could go wrong here?


Two Egyptian policemen were killed Tuesday in separate shootings in two northern Sinai cities.


It should come as absolutely no surprise that the people being hardest hit by the Saudi-Qatari diplomatic feud are neither Saudi nor Qatari. No, the biggest impact of the Saudi-led boycott has hit migrant workers, the folks who get paid almost nothing and have virtually no freedom of movement when times get rough:

Fresh vegetables usually trucked across Qatar’s land border with Saudi Arabia, a route now blocked, have increased in price.

That is indebting some workers from places like India and Nepal who typically earn 800 rial ($219.78) a month and who make up about 90 percent of Qatar’s 2.7 million population.

South Asian workers have been left stranded on Qatari farms in Saudi Arabia without food after their Qatari employers fled to Doha in June, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Last week dozens of Indian and African workers at hotels in Doha were told to take extended unpaid leave and return to their countries because of a drop in occupancy caused by the embargo.


The Muqtada al-Sadr feel-good tour continued on Monday in the UAE, where he met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed b. Zayed Al Nahyan and talked about improving Iraqi-Emirati ties.


Canada is reviewing its arms sales to Saudi Arabia after video was released showing Canadian-made equipment being used to brutalize the Shiʿa population of Awamiyah.

The BBC is airing a documentary on the story of three dissident Saudi princes–Sultan b. Turki, Turki b. Bandar, and Saud b. Saif al-Nasr–who were kidnapped from various parts of Europe and (probably, it’s not entirely clear in all three cases) taken back to Saudi Arabia between September 2015 and last summer. All were very public critics of the Saudi monarchy. There’s been no sign of any of them since their abductions, and none of the European nations from which they were abducted seems to have any interest in antagonizing the Saudis by pursuing their cases.


On Monday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made several appointments to the Expediency Council, the influential body whose role is to mediate between parliament and the Guardian Council. Most importantly, he named Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi as the new permanent chair of the council, replacing, finally, the deceased former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Shahroudi is the former Chief Justice of Iran and is considered ideologically close to Rafsanjani, which means he’s certainly not the worst/most reactionary pick Khamenei could have made. His appointment was balanced by the naming of two reactionaries to seats on the council–specifically, failed presidential candidates Ebrahim Raisi and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.

In a speech to parliament on Tuesday, President Hassan Rouhani threatened that Iran could restart its nuclear program “within hours” in response to any new American sanctions. His bluster comes amid new Israeli accusations that Iran is building a long-range rocket factory in Syria and some counter-bluster by UN ambassador Nikki Haley. On the plus side, parliament may be on the verge of easing Iran’s ultra-draconian anti-drug laws by raising the minimum amount of drugs that have to be in one’s possession to trigger the death penalty. Currently a mere 30 grams of heroin, cocaine, etc. can result in a capital charge–this change would raise that to 2 kilograms. On the minus side, the Iranian government continues to suppress journalists, with the latest violation being a freeze on all BBC Persian assets and the apparent detention of at least one of the service’s  Iranian employees.

Finally, Iran’s ISIS problem isn’t going away. The group is exploiting discontent within Iran’s Sunni Kurd and Balochi communities to try to recruit new fighters and, if Iranian authorities and their constant arrest reports can be trusted, it is having some success in terms of recruitment and developing potential attacks. Last week video emerged of ISIS beheading a captured Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldier, Mohsen Hojjaji, in Syria. Hojjaji’s death seems to have touched a nerve in Iranian society:

A wide range of Iranian politicians made statements on Hojjaji’s death. President Hassan Rouhani’s vice president said that his “innocent blood” will expedite the demise of the terror group. Some of Iran’s top commanders personally visited the home of Hojjaji’s parents to pay their respects, including IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and the head of the IRGC ground forces, Mohammad Pakpour.

During an Aug. 13 ceremony for Hojjaji, Jafari tied domestic political issues into the matter. Commenting on the Iranian Reformist parliamentarians who had enthusiastically lined up to take pictures with the European Union’s Federica Mogherini during Rouhani’s second inauguration in Tehran, Jafari noted that Hojjaji’s death took place around the same time. He suggested that Hojjaji’s “martyrdom” answered the “call for national dignity” after Iran’s parliamentarians took part in the “cheap act” of taking selfies with Mogherini.

In a message to Hojjaji’s parents, wife and son, Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani vowed revenge until the terrorists are eliminated from the Islamic world. Soleimani promised that Iran was more determined than ever to fight IS and rid the region of the group.

Mohsen Hojjaji at the moment of his capture

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