Middle East update: August 30 2017


The fighting around the town of Ayadiyah has been so fierce that it seems likely that the bulk of the 1000-2000 ISIS fighters who were thought to have been in Tal Afar actually retreated to Ayadiyah instead and are making their last stand there. Iraqi officers are comparing the fighting in Ayadiyah to the fighting in Mosul’s Old City, and some are even arguing that this battle is worse. That seems a little excessive, but you get the idea. The Iraqis are reportedly going “house to house” at this point, which is extremely difficult fighting even when the two sides are as thoroughly mismatched as they are in this case. Compounding the challenge is the fact that Ayadiyah’s terrain isn’t allowing the Iraqis to bring in their heavy vehicles, which reduces their offensive capabilities and increases their vulnerability to suicide bombers and booby traps.

Not all the ISIS fighters in Ayadiyah seem intent on going out in a blaze of glory. Kurdish forces positioned north of the town say they’ve killed 130 ISIS fighters over the past three days, and presumably they fled Ayadiyah and ran smack into the Kurdish line. This naturally raises the troubling possibility that other ISIS fighters have maybe fled the town in other directions and, possibly, were actually able to get away.

Iraq and Jordan reopened their Tureibil border crossing, which had been closed since 2015, on Wednesday.


A number of international human rights organizations issued a joint statement on Wednesday calling on the international community to address the issue of the reported tens of thousands of Syrians who have disappeared during the course of the civil war. Most of the disappeared have likely been taken by Bashar al-Assad’s government and there’s no telling how many of them have already been executed and how many are still alive in one of Assad’s prisons. The fates of the thousands who have been taken by ISIS or various rebel factions are similarly unknown.


Seven people, including five civilians, were killed Wednesday when a Saudi airstrike hit a checkpoint outside Sanaa. In Sanaa, meanwhile, the Houthi rebels have reportedly arrested Yemeni peace activist Hisham al-Omeisy. It’s unclear why they detained him though it was almost certainly related to his criticisms of the rebels and their role in the civil war.


If you’re interested in a little history that I probably won’t be able to cover in detail, today is Victory Day in Turkey. Victory Day commemorates Turkey’s defeat of Greek forces in the 1922 Battle of Dumlupınar, which drove the Greeks out of Anatolia and was the final battle of the Turkish War of Independence. I suppose there’s a bit of a Yorktown parallel there if you’re looking for an analogy, but I wouldn’t push that comparison very far. Anyway, in his speech marking the holiday, Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan–and this is really something, he never does this–took the opportunity to remind people of last summer’s attempted coup and promised to defeat all of Turkey’s many mortal enemies, both the real ones and the ones he’s invented to stoke public fears.


The US says it conducted airstrikes on Wednesday to block the convoy carrying hundreds of ISIS fighters from the Lebanon-Syria border to eastern Syria. The strikes did not target the convoy itself, ostensibly because the convoy includes civilians, but the US-led coalition now assesses that it’s stuck in Syrian government-controlled territory. The fighters were heading for al-Bukamal, a town near the Syria-Iraq border, where their arrival would have basically acted as a reinforcement of the ISIS fighters already there. Lebanon’s deal to evacuate the fighters there drew a lot of criticism for Beirut and for Hezbollah, even from allies of both like the Iraqi government.

I’m including this under “Lebanon” even though all the action is happening in Syria because, well, it started in Lebanon.


The number of extrajudicial killings by Egyptian security forces seems to be on the rise, and the start of that increase just so happens to coincide with Donald Trump’s trip to the Middle East. You remember, it was the one where he told every Sunni autocrat he could find that America was done getting all up in their grills about trivialities like human rights and whatnot. Since that trip, coincidentally or not, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has gone on a whirlwind campaign to suppress any political opposition, of which the murder of dissidents appears to be one component.


The Qatar diplomatic crisis is ongoing, but seems to have reached a sort of stalemate in the Persian Gulf itself, perhaps as the Saudis et al adjust to the fact that Qatar just reopened diplomatic ties with Iran. But as the AP reports, the fallout from the dispute continues to reverberate internationally, particularly in East Africa. The United Arab Emirates has opened or is opening new military bases in Eritrea and the breakaway Somaliland portion of Somalia and the Saudis are talking about opening a base in Djibouti. The jockeying among the Gulf states is particularly apparent in Somalia, which has so far tried to remain neutral. Ethiopia, meanwhile, which has difficult relations with both Eritrea and Somalia, is naturally concerned that all this Gulf attention could empower either or both nations.

The UAE media is apparently having a field day with reports that Qatar is planning to quit the GCC and/or try to take it down from the inside. The thing is, the reports come from the Iranian media. Iranian state media will happily push and/or invent any story that might cause instability within the GCC, and UAE state media will happily grab on to any reason to rant about the treacherous Qataris. So this story might not be 100 percent accurate, is what I’m saying.


UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba gave a long interview to The Atlantic that was published on Monday. In general it’s just Otaiba parroting UAE/Saudi talking points about Qatar, Iran, etc., but I did get a kick out of this one bit:

Otaiba: … And part of the reason the UAE has become what it is today is because we don’t inject Islam when we’re debating our economic policy; we don’t find a religious verse that helps guide our energy policy. We learned that from you guys.

The Atlantic: You haven’t learned democracy from us though.

Otaiba: We tend to focus on governance. Governance is about providing security, providing infrastructure, providing healthcare, providing education. But we have our own style of democracy. We have something called the majlis system, which is open forums where people address their leaders, where they voice their grievances and they come and they say “I need this” or “This is a problem” or “My son’s school isn’t working,” and this is the Bedouin style of democracy. Is this the Jeffersonian style of democracy? No. But it works for us, it works for our culture, it works for our identity.

The “Bedouin style of democracy” is…monarchy? Fascinating. And while I concede that it “works” exceedingly well for, uh, the monarchs, I’m wondering whether, for example, the people who were just forcibly evicted from their homes in Awamiyah would feel likewise.

Speaking of Otaiba, I…well, I can’t possibly do this report by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim justice. You’ll need to read the whole thing, but here’s a little taste:

The 2004 emails Otaiba hoped would never see the light of day include a series of exchanges with “Tracy,” who appears to have worked finding high-price escorts for Otaiba that summer. (She poached him from another madam, whom she and Otaiba discussed in the emails.)

In one of the 2004 correspondences, Tracy, whose real identity The Intercept was unable to confirm, indicated that there had been issues with one of Otaiba’s engagements with a sex worker. “Thanks for speaking with me today,” Tracy wrote. “I am sorry that you had such problems with Kaitlyn. Like I said, I have had a similar situation as well.

The story, I promise you, gets much darker and much stranger than that. Otaiba has been able to float above these leaked emails for a surprising length of time, but I have to believe that the details in Grim’s piece are going to make it difficult for him to remain in his current job. I know he’s a favorite of Mohammed bin Zayed, but there’s only so much scandal anybody can cause without repercussion.


The Hajj began Wednesday. Hajj Mubarak to those who are participating this year.

This year’s group of pilgrims is, in the final analysis, unlikely to include many participants from Qatar. While the Saudis have made some very grand and very public gestures toward enabling Qataris to participate, they’ve conveniently neglected a few very basic issues, like reestablishing some consular services in Doha so that people could obtain visas. As a non-Muslim and really a non-religious person I’m the last guy to get bent out of shape over something like this, but it really is to the Saudis’ discredit that they use the Hajj to play these kinds of political games. Whatever issues they may have with the Qatari government, there are people who save their whole lives for one shot at going on Hajj and they deserve not to have the Saud family dicking around with that. Granted, most Qataris are well-off enough to get through it, but in principle this is just a shitty thing to do.

Please, if you’re able, listen to this interview with the mother of Mujtaba al-Suweikat, one of the 14 Shiʿa men the Saudis will be executing imminently because they committed the heinous crime of participating in peaceful Arab Spring protests in 2011. Suweikat’s situation is extra-galling because he participated in those protests when he was 16, so he’s being executed for engaging in political speech as a minor.


Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer Namazi, both dual Iranian and American citizens who have been sentenced by the Iranian government to 10 years in prison on trumped up “espionage” charges, had their appeals denied on Monday. According to their lawyer, Siamak is routinely tortured and Baquer, 81, is in poor health following a heart bypass. It’s fine for the Iranians to condemn Saudi abuses and I think it’s fair for Americans to be more outraged at Riyadh’s bad behavior because our government tacitly endorses it, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Iran is a massive human rights violator whose judicial system is heinously rigged.

Finally, here’s Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen with some excellent reporting on the nuclear deal deliberations going on within the Trump administration:

Critics and defenders of the nuclear deal with Iran are equally in the dark about President Donald Trump’s intentions ahead of the next congressionally mandated deadline to certify Tehran’s compliance Oct. 15.

The arrival of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly a month ago, combined with the subsequent departure of Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, his bombastic deputy Sebastian Gorka and several hawkish National Security Council officials aligned with Bannon, have reduced access to the president for those advocating outright abandoning the deal. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, has imposed strict protocols, requiring that any information going to the president be submitted first for review by White House staff secretary Rob Porter. Kelly has also stopped the Oval Office open-door policy, limiting who can gain access to the president’s ear.

But even as Iran deal critics and regime-change proponents find themselves stymied in their efforts to access Trump, more pragmatic foreign-policy hands and Iran deal proponents are far from confident that their views will prevail. Washington’s European allies are similarly uncertain about how Trump will proceed, even as they insist that their commitment to the 2015 deal remains firm.

Whatever Trump does on October 15 is perhaps less important than the overall impression he’s leaving, which is that he’s going to break the deal at some TBD point. That has the effect of stifling international investment in Iran.

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