Middle East update: August 21-22 2017

PSA: This may very well be my last update until Monday. I’m traveling for the rest of the week and while ideally I would like to find time to pump out a little content while I’m doing so, realistically I don’t think it’s going to be possible.


According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, ISIS’s battlefield losses have translated into a heightened level of terrorist activity. The group carried out over 1400 attacks last year and killed more than 7000 people, an increase of 20 percent over 2015. Its affiliates, from Boko Haram to groups in Yemen, South Asia, and elsewhere, carried out roughly 950 attacks with over 3000 deaths.

Horrible as this is it’s not surprising. Terrorist groups that morph into territorial insurgencies and then lose generally return to their roots and ratchet the terrorist activity up again in response (al-Shabab is a case in point). ISIS’s struggles in Syria and Iraq caused it to revert back to form and to encourage sympathizers to carry out terrorist attacks locally rather than trying to go join the fight in the Middle East.


Iraqi forces are advancing through the outskirts of Tal Afar from the east and southwest and appear to be making fairly rapid progress. Of course that’s to be expected, since ISIS lacks the manpower to defend the entire city and will likely stick to harassing the Iraqis (as at Mosul, they’ve started setting oil well fires to obstruct the Iraqi advance and the allied air campaign) while concentrating its forces for a final stand in the city center. It will be interesting to see how well the Iraqis have learned from Mosul in terms of coordinating among their very wide array of combat units. Patrick Wing has broken down exactly which units are involved at Tal Afar if you’re interested.

There are reports of “huge numbers” of ISIS commanders escaping Tal Afar and heading for Anbar province. It’s hard to know if these reports are accurate but it’s certainly something that bears watching.

The upcoming Kurdish independence referendum is causing new tensions between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Sinjar area. The PKK has been occupying Sinjar and, given its opposition to the KDP, may try to block efforts to conduct the referendum vote in that area. The KDP claims Sinjar (as does Baghdad) and would obviously want to make sure the referendum is conducted there. Caught in the middle are Sinjar’s Yazidis, who increasingly seem to want nothing to do with either Kurdish faction and have started joining the Popular Mobilization Units in fairly large numbers.

Brookings’ Ranj Alaaldin has an interesting look at Muqtada al-Sadr and his transition from Iran-backed militia leader to the champion of moderation and good governance he claims to be today:

Al-Sadr came to prominence in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as a fierce opponent of the American occupation. During this period, his organization’s militia wing, known then as the Mahdi Army, engaged in a guerilla campaign against U.S. troops as well as, on occasion, his domestic rivals. He also deployed the vast Sadrist network that his father established in the 1990s to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the state, providing protection and social services to the destitute Shiite underclass.

Today, al-Sadr has positioned himself as a counterweight against Iranian influence in Iraq and a champion of reform, but his organization bears responsibility for much of Iraq’s troubles. The Mahdi Army played a central role in fueling Iraq’s devastating sectarian conflict, fought U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces, and engaged in criminal activities. Early on, al-Sadr benefitted from Iranian support and he later spent three years in self-imposed exile there, burnishing his religious credentials.


Mid-September is the new target for another round of Syrian peace talks in Astana. These talks will probably resume joint Russia-Iran-Turkey effort to establish safe zones in western Syria. One safe zone has been established in southern Syria based on negotiations between the US and Russia, but the other three–in the Damascus suburbs, around Homs, and in Idlib province–have all run into problems.

On Monday, Russian media reported that Russian airstrikes outside Deir Ezzor hit an ISIS unit heading toward the city, killing an estimated 200 fighters. It’s not clear when the strike took place (and it seems to me that “whether” is also an open question).

On Tuesday, meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that anti-ISIS airstrikes have killed more than 170 civilians in the past week. At least 42 civilians were killed in airstrikes on Monday alone. It’s important to note that these figures are likely low–the SOHR isn’t going to downplay casualty figures to protect the US, but it also isn’t counting the dead directly. There may very well be bodies still buried in the rubble of the residential buildings that the coalition is destroying.


Via MideastWire.com, Qatar’s al-Sharq newspaper is reporting that the Saudis are planning a “coup” against Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. According to al-Sharq, this has to do with Mohammad bin Salman’s desire to extricate himself from the civil war, and would involve the selection of a new Yemeni president more amenable to the rebels (or at least the Houthi faction) plus Saudi support for a UAE-backed southern separatist movement. Take this with a huge grain of salt–al-Sharq is a pro-Qatari government news outlet and could easily be trying to stir the pot at Riyadh’s expense here.


The Lebanese army says it has recaptured over 80 percent of the territory in the Ras Baalbek border region that was previously held by ISIS. Among the weapons ISIS had apparently stockpiled in the area, the Lebanese soldiers have found a number of anti-aircraft missiles. These are presumably portable and thus not the kind of thing that could threaten commercial aircraft at cruising altitude, but it’s still not the kind of thing you’d like to see in ISIS’s hands.


Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is reportedly planning to tell American envoys, when he meets with then on August 24, that if there’s no progress in the peace process within the next 45 days, the Palestinians are prepared to walk away from US-led peace efforts and resume pursuing remedies at the United Nations and other international bodies. “Progress” in this case would mean genuine US opposition to Israeli settlements and a serious effort to leverage Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into engaging in talks. Abbas seems to be concerned that his last years on Earth are going to be spent watching the Trump administration feign interest in peace talks while it indulges every one of Netanyahu’s whims.

Which is what has been happening, writes Mitchell Plitnick in explaining why Netanyahu goes out of his way not to utter a discouraging word about Trump:

It is understandable that Netanyahu would enjoy having a man like Trump in the White House. In many ways, the two are kindred spirits. But more importantly, Trump has essentially given Netanyahu a free hand. He rarely mentions settlements, only occasionally alludes to reviving a peace process, and has a team of right wing American Jews leading what little diplomatic effort there is.

But that does not sufficiently explain Netanyahu’s willingness to ignore both Trump’s tacit support of white supremacists and his total disregard of Israeli security concerns.

What does explain it is much subtler. It is a growing normalcy.

The more settlements the Israelis build the more the fact on the ground change and the more Palestinian land is lost to Israel. All Israel needs is a US administration that doesn’t really give a shit, and they have one right now.


Interestingly, the Trump administration is reportedly about to slap the hand of one of Trump’s despot pals, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, over, of all things, human rights. The administration is preparing to cancel a bit over $95 million in aid to Egypt and put another $195 million in what amounts to escrow, mostly in response to a new Egyptian law that effectively bans non-governmental organizations. Egyptian officials told the administration that the law would not be allowed to go into effect, but lo and behold it was and now Washington is steamed. The larger of the two chunks of money, that $195 million, isn’t being denied to Egypt but will be put into an account and released only if the administration believes Egypt is making progress on human rights.


You know how the Saudis offered to allow Qatari pilgrims entry into Saudi Arabia for the Hajj and this was seen as a Nice Thing that might even get the two countries talking to one another again? As it turns out, the offer may have made Saudi-Qatari relations worse. See, it turns out that the deal was brokered by Abdullah b. Ali Al Thani, a businessman who is descended from the original Qatari ruling line before Khalifa b. Hamad Al Thani, the current emir’s grandfather, took power from his cousin in a coup in 1972.

Abdullah met last week with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in Riyadh and then with King Salman on vacation in Morocco, and suddenly borders were being opened and flights were being planned, and Saudi media started going all abuzz over this heretofore fairly obscure Qatari dude who despite his obscurity has, oh wow, check that out, a debatable claim on the Qatari throne. What a wild coincidence. As it happens this hasn’t really gone over well with the Qataris for some reason. And so relations continue to get worse, and very few Qataris are likely to actually attempt this year’s Hajj.


Dubai TV reported on Monday that Qatari citizens demonstrating against their government on the streets of Doha were teargassed and ruthlessly suppressed by Turkish soldiers. Sounds bad, and it would be if any of it had actually happened, but in an age where everybody is constantly accusing news outlets of airing #FakeNews, this was actually fake news. I lived in Qatar long enough to know that it would take a hell of a lot more than a half-baked GCC blockade to get the extremely pampered Qatari citizenry out into the streets to protest a government that positively drenches them in financial benefits paid for by the magic of liquified natural gas.


Remember a couple of paragraphs ago when I mentioned King Salman is on vacation in Morocco? Tangier, actually. It’s his favorite spot. He’s going to be there for the entire month of August, at a nifty cost of around $100 million. Or, if you prefer, King Salman himself will be responsible for 1.5 percent of Morocco’s total tourism revenue for 2017. Hot damn it’s good to be the king.


The chief of Iran’s atomic energy agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, said on TV on Tuesday that, should the US walk away from the nuclear deal, Iran would need a mere five days to begin enriching uranium to 20 percent, something the deal prohibits it from doing. That’s technically considered highly enriched uranium, which raises concerns about weaponization, though for a weapon the uranium typically has to be enriched to 80 percent or higher. You could theoretically build a bomb with 20 percent enriched uranium but it would have to be so massive that you wouldn’t be able to do anything with it. On the other hand, getting the uranium to 20 percent enrichment is actually harder than taking it the rest of the way to weapons grade. So there is an implicit threat here.

Anyway, Salehi wasn’t saying the Iranians would do this or are going to do this, though I’m sure a whole bunch of Iran hawks are furiously typing away at their “IRAN ENERGY BOSS THREATENS TO START BUILDING NUKES” takes even as I write this. He’s saying that Iran could reinstitute a major enrichment program very quickly, and maybe trying to provoke an angry response from Washington at the same time.

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