Middle East update: August 28 2017


The Battle of Tal Afar is…over? Seriously? Eight days and the city is liberated? Well, yes, as it turns out. The battle ended on Sunday, after a lightning Iraqi offensive from three directions that cut through the city and then swept across it much faster than most analysts, yours truly included, expected it would. I guess this will be the only time I’ll need to show you one of these:

Iraqi officials are citing the speed of the operation as proof that ISIS has lost its will to fight, but the actual explanation is likely far more prosaic. Basically, Tal Afar contained far fewer ISIS defenders and far fewer civilians than pre-battle estimates suggested. Before the offensive it was believed somewhere between 1000 and 2000 ISIS fighters were in the city–Iraqi forces say they killed fewer than 300 fighters in their operation. Apparently many were able to flee the city during the months when it was supposedly “surrounded” by the Popular Mobilization Units. Likewise, before the battle estimates had as many as 200,000 civilians still in Tal Afar, though 50,000-100,000 seemed more reasonable. In fact, around 28,000 civilians fled Tal Afar after Iraqi and coalition forces began bombing it in late July, and only about 5000 civilians remained when Iraqi forces entered the city. Add a very small defending force to a scarcity of human shields and you get an operation that succeeds quickly and relatively easily.

The Iraqis have now moved north to the nearby town of Adaiyah, where a number of ISIS fighters who fled Tal Afar wound up, and say they’re facing stiff resistance from those fighters, who seem to be in a “last stand” frame of mind. It’s not clear how many of them are positioned in the town.

A car bomb in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood on Monday killed at least 12 people. ISIS, unsurprisingly, claimed responsibility.


We’ve come a long way, baby:

As Damascus reverses military losses in much of the country’s strategically important west, and foreign states cut support for rebel forces, diplomats from Washington to Riyadh are asking representatives of Syria’s opposition to come to terms with President Bashar Assad’s political survival.

The country’s civil war has crossed the halfway point of its seventh year and Assad and his allies are now in control of Syria’s four largest cities and its Mediterranean coast. With the help of Russian air power and Iranian-sponsored militias, pro-government forces are marching steadily across the energy-rich Homs province to reach the Euphrates River valley.

Western and regional rebel patrons, currently more focused on advancing their own interests rather than accomplishing regime change in Damascus, are shifting their alliances and have ceased calls on Assad to step down.

“There is no conceivable military alignment that’s going to be able to remove him,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, now a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. “Everyone, including the U.S., has recognized that Assad is staying.”

I know a few hundred thousand people had to die so that we could get here, to the same place we’ve always been, but, you know, I think it was worth it. We’ve tried to dramatically increase that casualty count, but so far to no avail.

Meanwhile, one of the senior-most commanders in the Syrian Democratic Forces, Kurdish YPJ leader Nowruz Ahmed, says she believes the Raqqa battle will be over within the next two months. The SDF has taken about 60 percent of the city and estimates that ISIS has about 1000 fighters left in the city, give or take. She contradicted another senior SDF commander who said late last week that the SDF was preparing for a new operation in Deir Ezzor province–Ahmed says the focus is entirely on Raqqa. The end of the Raqqa operation cannot possibly come fast enough for the civilians trapped there, who are struggling to find food and medicine when they’re not being killed in coalition airstrikes.


If you can ignore the fact that the term “Saudi Arabia” doesn’t appear until paragraph 10 of this New York Times piece on the civilian suffering in Yemen, and “United States” doesn’t appear until paragraph 28, it’s not a terrible summary of the impact the war is having:

In just three months, cholera has killed nearly 2,000 people and infected more than a half million, one of the world’s largest outbreaks in the past 50 years.

“It’s a slow death,” said Yakoub al-Jayefi, a Yemeni soldier who has not collected a salary in eight months, and whose 6-year-old daughter, Shaima, was being treated for malnutrition at a clinic in the Yemeni capital, Sana.

Since the family’s savings ran out, they had lived mostly off milk and yogurt from neighbors. But that was not enough to keep his daughter healthy, and her skin went pale as she grew thin.

Of course you can’t really ignore those things, because they’re indicative of the NYT’s and most of the rest of the mainstream American media’s refusal to report honestly on this war, on the relatively rare occasions when they report on it at all. But as long as Saudi “technical errors” are being enabled by American technical assistance and arms sales, the United States bears responsibility for every one of these deaths.

Speaking of Riyadh’s technical errors, for the second year in a row the Saudi intervention in Yemen is due to land them on the United Nations’ blacklist of countries responsible for targeting and killing children. You may recall that the Saudis were able to tantrum and/or blackmail their way off of last year’s list. This year they’re trying to head the UN off at the proverbial pass by highlighting all the wonderful charity work they’re doing in and for Yemen, a bit of which you can see at the tail end of this video:

Whether this tactic is successful will go a long way toward determining if new UN Secretary-General António Guterres has any more of a spine than former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.


After a week of fighting around Ras Baalbek and Qalamoun, the Lebanese Army, Hezbollah, and the Syrian Army “separately” reached a ceasefire over the weekend with remaining ISIS fighters along the Lebanon-Syria border. These simultaneous ceasefires were definitely uncoordinated, in case you or anybody in Washington was wondering, just as the simultaneous military operation conducted on both sides of the border was also uncoordinated. The terms of the deal include those remaining ISIS fighters being evacuated to eastern Syria, where they can get killed in/around Deir Ezzor, along with a number of ISIS prisoners that the Lebanese military agreed to release in return for information on the fates of eight Lebanese soldiers who were captured by ISIS in 2014. All eight, perhaps unsurprisingly, appear to have been killed.

Reuters reported Monday on rising tensions surrounding the roughly 1.5 million Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon. No country has taken on more weight as a result of the displacement caused by the Syrian civil war than Lebanon–those 1.5 million refugees are equal to a whopping 25 percent of the total Lebanese population. In some ways it’s surprising these tensions haven’t already exploded yet, but there are signs that the situation could be reaching a breaking point.

I’m reluctant to even mention Sunday’s big New York Times piece on Hezbollah, which, in true Blob fashion, casts the Lebanese paramilitary/political organization as nothing more than an appendage of the Iranian military. Obviously Hezbollah is closely connected to Iran, which sponsors it. And it does take at least its general guidelines from Iran’s Supreme Leader. But it has to be understood in a Lebanese context and as something more than simply Iran’s cat’s paw around the Middle East. That’s only part of the story, and an oversimplified one at that. Hezbollah has its own aims, its own concerns, and the NYT’s readers deserve better than this rehashed Ayatollah Assahola-level analysis. And they definitely deserve better than whatever this is:

The network Hezbollah helped build has changed conflicts across the region.

In Syria, the militias have played a major role in propping up President Bashar al-Assad, an important Iranian ally. In Iraq, they are battling the Islamic State and promoting Iranian interests. In Yemen, they have taken over the capital city and dragged Saudi Arabia, an Iranian foe, into a costly quagmire. In Lebanon, they broadcast pro-Iranian news and build forces to fight Israel.

The Houthis have been active since 1992 and have been at war on-and-off with the Yemeni government since 2004. The notion that Hezbollah helped establish their movement is utterly false, and the continued effort to paint the Houthis as merely another Iranian puppet continues to be nonsense. Also, and most of all, the idea that the poor benighted Saudis were dragged helplessly into this conflict, a civil war in another country, is depraved. Ben Hubbard really ought to know better.


The Egyptian and German governments announced a deal on Monday to establish a refugee center in Egypt for African migrants. Similar to the EU’s arrangement with Turkey, this will basically amount to European countries throwing money at Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to encourage him to do more to stop migrants from passing through Egypt on their way to Europe. It will involve some talk about job creation and inducements for people to return home, but mostly Sisi will take the money as incentive to crack down on people smugglers and the like. Which isn’t itself the worst thing–human traffickers are the absolute worst–but it’s likely to lead to a whole lot of people getting detained and sent back whence they came, even if that place happens to be a war zone like South Sudan. French President Shiva the Destroyer Emmanuel Macron is trying to organize the EU to pursue similar arrangements with Libya, Chad, and Niger.

Al-Azhar is opening “fatwa kiosks” in various Cairo metro stations, so you can stop in for some religious legal advice on your way to work. I don’t really have anything to say here–I just wanted to type the phrase “fatwa kiosks.” Thanks for indulging me.


Saudi Arabia’s efforts to isolate and shame Qatar in part for its cordial relations with Iran just paid off in a big way: Qatar has reestablished full diplomatic relations with Iran. Wait, what?

Qatar said on Wednesday it decided to return its ambassador to Tehran, more than 20 months after he was recalled in protest over the ransacking of Saudi Arabia’s missions in Iran by demonstrators angry at Riyadh’s execution of a Shi’ite Muslim cleric.

The Qatari decision comes amidst a row between Doha and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which together with Egypt accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism, a charge it denies.

You’d think the Saudis would get tired of Mohammad bin Salman’s big schemes backfiring all the time, but what do I know?


Speaking of big schemes backfiring, how about the Saudis, the UAE, and the US arming ISIS? That seems like kind of a miscalculation, and yet here we are:

An investigative report by a Bulgarian journalist says Saudi Arabia and the UAE have supplied Eastern European-made weapons to armed groups in Syria and Iraq using different intermediaries and diplomatic cover to mask their points of origin and final destinations.

The report, authored by Dilyana Gaytandzhiev, claims Saudi Arabia, UAE, the US military and several countries have used Azerbaijani state-owned airlines Silk Way Airlines to transport large quantities of weapons that ended up in the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS) group, Kurdish fighters in the Middle East and armed groups in Africa.

“At least 350 diplomatic Silk Way Airlines flights transported weapons for war conflicts across the world over the last 3 years,” says the report, published in Trud, Bulgaria‘s largest circulated newspaper.

It’s well-established that the US has been using small defense contractors to funnel arms to Syrian rebels and it’s equally well-established that those arms have found their way to Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. But this report sheds more light on exactly how these programs are being carried out.


The Saudis can’t get too angry at Qatar for resuming diplomatic relations with Iran, seeing as how last Wednesday Tehran announced that the Saudis were heading down that road as well. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told an Iranian news agency that visas have already been issued for an upcoming exchange of diplomatic visits between Tehran and Riyadh.

John Bolton apparently wrote a paper for Steve Bannon about how to break the Iran nuclear accord, and now that Bannon is out of the White House he decided to publish it in the National Review. I know, I don’t give a shit either. But I would like to briefly address a fallacy that keeps coming up anytime someone talks or writes about Bolton, which is the notion that he’s a neoconservative. He’s not. Bolton is a “realist” from the school of “realism” that says the United States should pound the shit out of everyone else on the planet until it reigns supreme for time immemorial. This view is not actually realistic in any way, but names often don’t make sense. Neoconservatism has its roots in Wilsonian idealism, even if its ideals are all farcical, and Bolton shares very few of those. He doesn’t care about promoting democracy and you rarely see him even pay lip service to things like human rights and international law, which neocons generally at least pretend to care about. Bolton and the neocons are on the same page on many fronts, but it is inaccurate to paint him as one of them. He’s arguably worse.

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