Middle East update: August 19-20 2017


So I think that the Iraqi government just tried a little misdirection in the fight against ISIS. After saying for several days that it could be weeks before they started a ground offensive to liberate Tal Afar, the Iraqis started that offensive on Saturday. Donald Trump must be so happy that they didn’t telegraph the start of the operation. Is this going to matter in any way? Highly unlikely. But the Iraqis were able to get away with it here because there aren’t that many civilians in Tal Afar–an estimated 100,000 before the air campaign started and tens of thousands of them have already escaped the city, nothing comparable to Mosul–and the estimated 1500 ISIS fighters in the city are going to have a hard time keeping the civilians who are left from fleeing. So I suppose there was substantially less need to warn people that the battle was coming soon.

Things are moving quickly, as always seems to be the case in the early stages of these operations. By Sunday afternoon the Iraqis had cleared out several villages around the city and were approaching its outskirts. The heavy fighting won’t pick up until after they’ve pushed into the city and particularly in its Sarai neighborhood, the only part of Tal Afar where the streets are narrow enough to imepede the use of heavy armored vehicles. Narrow streets were a huge problem for the Iraqis in large segments of Mosul and especially in its Old City, but that should be less of a concern here.

Here’s a complete shock that nobody could have predicted:

Iraq’s Kurds may consider the possibility of postponing a planned Sept. 25 referendum on independence in return for financial and political concessions from the central government in Baghdad, a senior Kurdish official said.

A Kurdish delegation is visiting Baghdad to sound out proposals from Iraqi leaders that might convince the Kurds to postpone the vote, according to Mala Bakhtiar, executive secretary of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Politburo.

My guess was that the Kurds would hold the vote, win it, and then approach Baghdad for concessions with a strong hand. But I don’t think Erbil reckoned their proposal would generate as much international opposition as it has, particularly from Turkey but also from Iran and even a bit from Washington. They’ve also gotten pushback from Iraqi Turkmen and even from within the Iraqi Kurdish community. So it may seem like a better idea to trade the vote itself for concessions from Baghdad and avoid any more tension.


It hasn’t been a particularly peaceful weekend in western Syria, which is supposed to be quiet now that most of the heavy fighting has shifted to the east. But there were two attacks against cities controlled by Bashar al-Assad: on Saturday, two people were killed by a car bomb in Latakia, and on Sunday, at least six people were killed (that number is likely to rise) in what is believed to have been a mortar attack on an international trade fair in Damascus. Also on Saturday, Assad’s forces pounded parts of Damascus’s Ghouta suburb that are still held by rebel militia Faylaq al-Rahman. The noteworthy thing here is that these strikes came after Russia announced that it had negotiated a ceasefire with the rebels in that area. At least five civilians were reportedly killed and it’s alleged that the Syrians used chlorine gas weapons in these attacks.

Bashar al-Assad delivered a televised speech on Sunday in which he thanked Russia, Iran, China, and Hezbollah for their support and promised that his government would refuse to cooperate or even establish relations with governments that had opposed him during the civil war. This is part of an overall pivot Assad is making in which he’s focusing more on postwar Syria and rebuilding than he is on the remaining conflict in front of him–though he’s not declaring the war over or anything that drastic. He wants to create a sense of inevitability about his remaining in power to fend off calls for him to step aside as part of a peace deal/political transition. Fake it till you make it, in other worse.

This speech is particularly relevant because the new hotness among DC regime change enthusiasts, like John Allen and Michael O’Hanlon, is that Washington should insist Assad step aside before America and its allies (Europe and the Gulf states) agree to provide reconstruction aid. As usual with this crowd, I’d love to know what they’re smoking. What about the way Assad has conducted this war would lead anybody to think that he’d step down just to make sure the country is rebuilt? Has O’Hanlon actually been paying attention for the past six years? Moreover, who says Syria needs Western and/or Gulf money to rebuild? Allen and O’Hanlon say that Assad and his allies “simply do not have” the money to rebuild the country. OK. And yet one of Assad’s allies, if you note from the preceding paragraph, is apparently China. Why do you think Assad is going out of his way to thank China for all its support in a war in which, frankly, Beijing has tried to stay above the fray for the most part? Could it be because he wants China to invest in putting the country back together so he doesn’t have to go looking for aid from a bunch of governments that all want to see him out of a job? Gosh, I wonder.

Finally, aid agencies are sounding the alarm about what they say are deplorable conditions in camps set up by the Syrian Democratic Forces to house refugees from Raqqa. People fleeing the city have to pass through temporary displacement camps run by the SDF before they can get to more substantial long-term camps, and these short-term facilities often lack basic medical care or adequate food, water, and shelter. The SDF is partly to blame here but so, obviously, is Washington, which had a responsibility to be sure that refugee needs could be met before the Raqqa operation began and clearly either didn’t think about that or didn’t give a shit (probably both given that we’re talking about the Trump administration).


While the shaky alliance of convenience between Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and southern Yemeni separatists has seemed in danger of collapsing at several points over the past few weeks, the equally convenient rebel alliance between Yemen’s Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh hasn’t gotten much as attention. So, uh, about that:

A long-simmering power struggle between Yemen’s Shiite rebels and a former president has burst into the open, threatening to undermine their alliance against the internationally-recognized government and its Saudi-led backers.

Armed men suspected of links to the rebels on Sunday tore up poster portraits of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his son and one-time heir Ahmed in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital.

The vandalism took place in a part of the city where Saleh’s Popular Conference party is due to hold celebrations on Thursday marking the 35th anniversary of its founding. Adding to the tension, an unusually high number of armed men could be seen in Sanaa on Sunday, fueling fears that the two sides may clash on the streets of the capital.

Saleh feels like he’s being sidelined by the Houthis, while the Houthis feel like Saleh and his buddies haven’t been doing all they could to support the glorious rebellion. Hey, considering that the Houthis and Saleh were outright enemies for most of Saleh’s ~22 years in power, it’s amazing their collaboration has lasted as long as it has. The thing about all these fissures within both the (nominally) pro- and anti-government sides is that if these two factions break apart into four or more factions, it becomes much harder to end the war. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this is a war that desperately needs to be ended, ASAP.


On Saturday, the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah began simultaneous (but definitely not coordinated!!!11!1!!) offensives against ISIS in and around the Lebanese border town of Ras Baalbek, with Hezbollah attacking from the Syrian side of the border along with Syrian military elements. On Sunday, three Lebanese soldiers were killed by an ISIS landmine, but Beirut said its forces had captured about two-thirds of the Ras Baalbek area. With an estimated 600 ISIS fighters there this operation could take at least several days before it’s finished, if not substantially longer. It seems clear that, unlike the two previous Syrian insurgent groups that have been cleared out of the border area, Lebanon isn’t going to offer ISIS the option of surrender and safe passage across the border.


Desperate to shift attention away from the president’s affinity for white nationalists, the Trump administration is apparently going to give Middle East peace another go. Sounds like a really sensible plan:

The diplomat said the United States is interested in exploring three simultaneous approaches for progress. The first is creating a platform for the launch of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on all permanent status issues. Pragmatic Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Arab League, would partake in the opening of such negotiations. These talks would launch under Trump’s auspices, with the United States facilitating the overall progress.

The second approach explored is the US demand on both sides for confidence-building measures, such as the improvement of security cooperation, restraining settlement construction, curbing any incitement to violence by the Palestinian Authority and developing more economic cooperation agreements between Israel’s finance minister and the PA. In that respect, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon receives very high grades for his constructive positions vis-a-vis the Palestinian economy.

The third parallel approach is creating a regional track to hold discussions between security experts of the United States, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the PA to enhance anti-terror cooperation. Most of these discussions would take place bilaterally between each of the partners and the United States.

The only one of these tracks that would seem to have a prayer of succeeding is the third, since everybody hates ISIS (witness what’s happening in the Egypt-Hamas relationship) and you can use that. From there you might be able to do some small confidence-building stuff, but the Trump administration is delusional if they think “restraining settlement construction” is a possibility for Benjamin Netanyahu. The first approach is a total pipe dream. Even if somehow you could get Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the same room, there’s no basis on which to start talking about permanent status topics right now.


The legislator who proposed amending the constitution to extend President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s term in office to six years now says he didn’t mean this term. Apparently he’d like to extend the next presidential term to six years, meaning whoever wins the 2018 election (SPOILER: it’ll be Sisi) would get the extra two years. This is obviously horse shit being shoveled in response to an outpouring of dissent, but I think the upshot is you won’t be seeing this particular change to the Egyptian constitution.

Al-Monitor interviewed Issa al-Kharafin, leader of Sinai’s Rumailat tribe, about the tribal/government fight against ISIS. He seems optimistic about the course of the confrontation:

The battle between the army and extremist groups has been ongoing for a while now, but there has been a remarkable improvement in the security situation, and the battle will end in favor of the army, especially considering that the tribes have joined the armed confrontation against these groups in cooperation with the Egyptian army. This security improvement has affected the movement of extremists in the Sinai, knowing that they previously moved around in front of the very eyes of Sinai residents. This improvement was made possible through a very severe fight [against extremists] and a decreasing number of extremist groups. These groups previously attracted Sinai young people through religion, but as soon as their true faces were shown through brutal crimes against tribes and the killing of civilians, the tribal young people rejected them and even helped fight against them in cooperation with the army.


Saudia says it’s ready to begin flying Qatari pilgrims to Jeddah to begin the Hajj, but can’t because its planes haven’t gotten permission from the Qataris to land in Doha. Along with the announcement earlier this week that the Saudis are opening their land border with Qatar to pilgrims, Riyadh also said that King Salman himself was paying to fly Qatari pilgrims into the country. What a guy. But obviously the Qataris have to approve before those flights can happen.

Maybe the Qataris are balking at letting Saudia fly into Doha because Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya news channel is running animations of Qatari passenger jets being shot out of the sky. No, really:

The Al Arabiya report, which aired on August 9, claimed that international law allows countries to take down any plane that enters its airspace, since it can be defined as a “hostile target”.

At one point in the video, an animation of a rocket is seen being fired at a Qatar Airways plane.

The video also mentioned forcing a plane to land and sending the cabin crew to trial for “breaching national security.”

This seems like the kind of thing that might intimidate people who were otherwise thinking about flying Qatar Airways, which makes it a violation of international agreements around air travel–the Qataris have filed a complaint with the International Civil Aviation Organization. It’s also really quite irresponsible. If Al Jazeera ran a bit like this with a Saudi jet in place of the Qatari one, there’s no telling how white hot the rage coming from Riyadh would be.


Hey, let’s check in with the latest round of hacked emails from UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba. These are always good fun:

The UAE’s ambassador to Washington described Saudi Arabia’s leadership as “f***in’ coo coo!” in one of a series of leaked emails that suggests years of Emirati frustration with Riyadh’s old regime had coalesced into a strategy to support the rise of young Mohammed bin Salman.

The messages, obtained by Middle East Eye through the GlobalLeaks hacking group, show Otaiba mocking Saudi Arabia to his Egyptian wife, Abeer Shoukry, over the Saudi religious police’s 2008 decision to ban red roses on Valentine’s Day.

Hah! OK then! What a jokester! Most of the rest of this batch of emails details how Otaiba has been doing MbS’s PR for him in Washington, but for me the most interesting revelation in this Middle East Eye report doesn’t come from Otaiba’s email but is a story about the intrigues surrounding the death of King Abdullah in 2015:

MEE sources with direct knowledge of the events say that Tuwaijri and Meteb planned to forge Abdullah’s signature on a decree removing the then crown prince, Salman, from the line of succession by claiming he was unfit for office. His dementia was evident in January 2015.

Had this decree been published, Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, the then deputy crown prince, would have been promoted to crown prince and Prince Meteb would have become his deputy. It had been Abdullah’s intention to install Muqrin as king – he was one of the few surviving brothers before the next generation of rulers could be selected.

You’ll have to click the link to read the rest. I have no idea if it’s true but if it is, holy shit.


Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has called on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to release Green Movement leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Khatami’s plea is unlikely to draw a response–Khatami’s persona non grata status doesn’t help–but he is easily the highest profile Iranian figure to make this call.

Iran’s parliament voted Sunday to approve 16 of President Hassan Rouhani’s 17 cabinet appointees, including returning Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Only Rouhani’s pick for energy minister didn’t make the cut, apparently because parliamentarians weren’t impressed with his plan for dealing with Iran’s ongoing drought. If this sounds a little odd to you, then just know that Iran’s ministry of “energy” actually deals with several public utilities including water and sewage and then it might make more sense.

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