Middle East update: August 17-18 2017

I’m posting this early because we’re supposed to get a major thunderstorm tonight and our electricity tends to go out during those. I may update later if something warrants it. I’ll try to post a world update later if nature and the electrical grid allow it.


Reuters has published another story on the imminent (?) Tal Afar offensive, talking about the positioning of Iraqi forces, the air campaign, civilians fleeing the city, Turkey’s concerns over the Popular Mobilization Units’ participation, etc. It hits all the main points so by all means read it if you’re interested in a summary of the situation, but it doesn’t really break any news and certainly doesn’t offer any hint as to when the attack might start.

Meanwhile in Mosul, the effort continues to dispose of unexploded ordinance left in the city. Much of that ordinance comes in the form of ISIS booby traps, but coalition bombs that never went off are also a problem. Iraqi authorities have asked the coalition for information on its airstrikes, which is classified, but coalition officials say they’re trying to work out a way to assist the Iraqis on that front. The scope of this problem is staggering–there are some estimates that suggest it will be 25 years before the city is entirely free from explosives again.

An Iraqi government investigation into charges, first raised in a report by Der Spiegel, that the interior ministry’s Rapid Response forces abused civilians during the Mosul campaign has determined that the charges are true. It promises to prosecute those responsible.


The United Nations is pushing for a round of “serious” peace talks in October or November between the Syrian government and a “unified” opposition. Presumably “serious” means “face to face,” but unifying the opposition is easier said than done. The High Negotiations Committee, which can be said to represent the rebels in Syria even though it doesn’t represent Tahrir al-Sham or Ahrar al-Sham, hasn’t been able to get on the same page with the relatively more Assad-friendly “Cairo” and “Moscow” opposition groups. Even if it did, again, none of these groups really represent the two main belligerent rebel groups in Syria.

Anyway, getting Bashar al-Assad to negotiate with anybody at this point might be a tall order, as his advisers are already talking as if the war is over. And they’re not wrong, in that almost all the major international players who opposed Assad initially have come to a place where Assad is no longer a priority for them. Assad’s move east to take on ISIS around Deir Ezzor, which made more progress on Friday, has highlighted how secure his position in western Syria has become. Talk has turned to rebuilding, in Aleppo and elsewhere. The thing that will get Assad to the negotiating table at this point is the war’s ongoing cost, especially the share of it being borne by Russia. Moscow wants to be able to stop shoveling money at Syria. and the only way for that to happen is for the war to come to an end or at least reach a frozen detente.

Speaking of indefinitely shoveling money at Syria, I give you the United States:

Washington’s main Syrian ally in the fight against Islamic State says the U.S. military will remain in northern Syria long after the jihadists are defeated, predicting enduring ties with the Kurdish-dominated region.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of militias dominated by the Kurdish YPG, believes the United States has a “strategic interest” in staying on, SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Reuters.

“They have a strategy policy for decades to come. There will be military, economic and political agreements in the long term between the leadership of the northern areas (of Syria) … and the U.S. administration,” Silo said.

Admittedly this talk is coming from the Kurds and not from Washington, but when was the last time you saw the US military turn down a chance to increase its already massive global footprint? I didn’t think so.


Saudi soldiers are being deployed to Aden not to assist with the war against the Yemeni rebels but to keep nominally aligned factions within the southern port city from killing one another. Forces loyal to Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi have clashed with forces belonging to the southern independence movement (and backed by the United Arab Emirates). Both are committed to fighting the rebels but obviously have very different ideas about what should happen to Yemen after the rebels are defeated.

Meanwhile, sensitive to growing international criticism of the humanitarian catastrophe their campaign has caused, the Saudis have announced they’re going to install additional cranes at the three major ports under their control–Aden, Mokha, and Mukalla–to help increase their capacity to take in food and medical aid. They also say they’re prepared to quickly replace cranes that they’ve destroyed at Yemen’s main port, Hudaydah, if and when that city comes under the control of a neutral party.

All this Saudi largesse comes at a time when, at least according to a UN assessment, its Yemen campaign could be considered a near-total failure:

“The Saudi Arabia-led coalition strategic air campaign continues to have little operational or tactical impact on the ground, and is only serving to stiffen civilian resistance,” according to a blunt verdict by a U.N. Security Council panel of experts. It is also helping to “consolidate” a military alliance between ethnic Houthi insurgents and Yemen’s disgraced former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who control 13 of the country’s governorates, including the capital of Sana’a.

The disarray has provided a rich breeding ground for extremists, including the Islamic State and al Qaeda, which, the panel believes, “is looking to launch terrorist attacks against targets in the ‘West.’” The report notes that al Qaeda may be bolstering its ability to carry out attacks on sea vessels, citing the seizure of water borne explosive devices and a marine radar scanner in the terror group’s former stronghold of Mukalla. Al Qaeda local leader, Qasim al-Raymi, recently released a video encouraging “lone wolf’ attacks against targets in the West, the panel noted.

That’s all in addition to the resurgence in southern separatism that is undercutting whatever authority Hadi may have once held.


This week’s visit by the Iranian military’s chief of staff, Mohammad Bagheri, looks like it will lead to increased cooperation between the Turkish and Iranian militaries. Ankara said Friday that the two nations will find ways to cooperate in counter-terrorism/anti-ISIS efforts as well as in ending the Syrian war.


The Jordanian government and the Palestinian Authority have formed a committee to deal with any crises that crop up in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, and to work more broadly on improving Jordanian-PA relations. This is a direct result of the al-Aqsa metal detectors episode and is probably a marginal setback for the Israelis in that it strengthens the PA’s hand ahead of the next situation like that.


The threat of ISIS-aligned forces in Sinai and potentially creeping into Gaza has led to an unlikely trio of bedfellows collaborating to counter it: Israel, Egypt, and Hamas. The ties are mostly indirect–Cairo has done a complete 180 on Hamas and now sees security cooperation with it as a vital national security priority, but any connection between Israel and Hamas runs through Egypt. The deal, essentially, is that Hamas gets Egyptian aid (fuel aid especially) while Hamas acts against jihadi groups in Gaza and arrests people identified by the Egyptians. Israel can undoubtedly suggest names to the Egyptians, and additionally the Israelis are allowing Egypt to deploy soldiers in Sinai (which is technically a treaty violation) to deal with the ISIS presence there.


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi should be standing for reelection next year, but some Egyptian lawmakers are pushing a measure that would extend his current term by two years. The argument is that Sisi took office in a period of instability and hasn’t had enough time to execute all of his opponents implement his agenda for the nation. There’s already been substantial backlash to this idea, and it’s so silly–it would be a near-miracle were Sisi to somehow not win reelection next year (nobody of any prominence seems willing to run against him and he can just rig the vote if push comes to shove)–that some Egyptians are suggesting that its proposal wasn’t serious and that this is just an effort to improve Sisi’s public image.


Gulf expert James Dorsey writes about the arms race that’s become one of the side effects of the ongoing Qatari diplomatic crisis:

The crisis and the wave of nationalism and support for Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, it has sparked, has convinced the Gulf state that its past strategy of emphasizing soft as opposed to hard power is insufficient to guarantee security.

As a result, Qatar has radically increased its arms purchases with a recent $12 billion deal to buy US F-15 fighter jets and a $7 billion naval vessel acquisition from Italy. Britain’s Department for International Trade reported that Qatar since 2015 had moved from the world’s sixth largest to the third largest buyer of military equipment. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said Qatari arms purchases had increased a whopping 282 percent since 2012.

Qatar signalled changes in its defense and security policy in 2014, the year the UAE and Saudi Arabia first unsuccessfully tried to subject Qatar to their will by withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha, with $24 billion worth of arms purchases.


In a separate piece, Dorsey discusses recent signs that the Saudis are interested in at least talking with Tehran again:

Recent moves by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates suggest that the two Gulf states may be looking for ways to reduce tensions with Iran that permeate multiple conflicts wracking the Middle East and North Africa.

The moves, including a rapprochement with Iraq and a powerful Iraqi Shiite religious and political leader as well as prosecution of a militant Saudi cleric on charges of hate speech, and leaked emails, point towards a possible willingness to engage with Iran more constructively. A dialling down of Saudi-Iranian tensions could contribute to a reduction of tensions across the Middle East and North Africa.

At the same time, however, a series of statements and developments call into question how serious Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be about a potential rapprochement with Iran. Further complicating matters, is the fact it is unclear who is driving a potential overture to Iran, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or his UAE counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

UPDATE: As you may know, Saudi Arabian authorities are preparing to imminently behead 14 Shiʿa men who were arrested several years ago for participating in Arab Spring-related protests in 2011. All 14 confessed under torture and all 14 should be released anyway because “protesting against a repressive monarchy” isn’t a fucking crime. Earlier this evening via Twitter I found a story from the Detroit Free Press back in July on one of those men, Mujtaba al-Sweikat, who was picked up just as he was about to leave the country to make a prospective student visit to Western Michigan University. These are children, and America’s best pal in the Arab world is slaughtering them by the dozens:

Human rights groups said the execution is troubling.

“The increasingly brutal Saudi Arabian regime has ramped up executions for protest-related offences in recent days, and this latest move is extremely worrying,” said Maya Foa, director of Reprieve. “Mujtaba was a promising 17-year-old boy on his way to study in Michigan when he was arrested, beaten, and later sentenced to death on the basis of a ‘confession’ extracted through torture. He now faces the imminent threat of beheading along with 14 others, including at least one other juvenile and a young disabled man.

Foa and others are appealing to the Trump administration to coerce the Saudis to halt the executions, but, you know, the Saudis let Donald play with a giant glowing orb and gave him a real nice medal that one time so I suspect their efforts will go for naught. But if Mujtaba’s story moves you, call your congresspeople and tell them so. The Saudis certainly aren’t alone in the world in beating confessions out of people and executing them for bullshit political reasons, but when they do it they’re operating under the protection and approval of the United States and therefore each of us.


Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi ended his hunger strike about a day after it began, upon receiving assurances from the Iranian government that his concerns would be addressed. Specifically, Karroubi was told that Iranian security personnel would no longer be stationed inside his home as part of his house arrest, and he was told that Hassan Rouhani’s government will try to see that he publicly stands trial over the charges against him. Those were Karroubi’s two demands when he began the strike. Karroubi has long been agitating for a public trial, which is highly likely to be embarrassing to the Iranian clerical elite, rather than the seemingly indefinite house arrest he’s been under since 2011.

Even as it’s maybe about to give Karroubi his long-overdue trial, the Iranian judiciary has denied an appeal by Princeton University student Xiyue Wang of his ten year espionage sentence. Wang was arrested last year and charged with spying; it was learned in July that he’d been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Alex Vatanka explains Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s apparent post-reelection shift to the right by arguing that Rouhani is trying to position himself as the eventual heir to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What this means for the nuclear deal is that Rouhani is likely to take a rhetorical hard-line against US criticism while working to preserve the deal, his signature achievement, at all costs:

No doubt, the recently re-elected Rouhani has greater political ambitions left in him. It is a safe bet to assume he is already eyeing the top job in the regime, the position of supreme leader.

The incumbent, 78-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has no plans to go anywhere just yet — but Rouhani has to start preparing the ground if he is serious about taking Khamenei’s postwhen the current supreme leader dies. In this jockeying for power, and with Trump’s threats in the background, Rouhani has no option but to up the rhetorical ante to mollify his right flank. For Rouhani, appearing soft in the face of Trump’s warnings is tantamount to political suicide.

Nonetheless, the Iranian president’s statements on the future of the nuclear deal are carefully considered. They in no way indicate that Iran intends to abrogate the nuclear agreement at the first opportunity. In fact, the unanimous view across the Iranian political space is that Trump’s aim is to goad Tehran to walk away from the deal on its own.

I think Rouhani is a longer-than-long shot to replace Khamenei. He doesn’t have the religious/scholarly credentials and he’s got a massive amount of work to do if he’s going to convince enough of the Iranian right to back his candidacy. But that doesn’t mean he’s not going to try.

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