Middle East update: September 2-3 2017


On Saturday, at least three ISIS attackers struck a power plant near Samarra. Four policemen and three workers were killed and the station had to be shut down after one of the attackers detonated his suicide vest.

Patrick Wing has a rundown of the casualty figures in Iraq for the month of August:

While the number of security incidents was down from July to August 2017 the number of casualties went up due to several mass graves being discovered and the Battle of Tal Afar.

There was a total of 357 incidents reported in Iraq in August 207. That was down from 477 in July, and marked another low in the country since the 2003 invasion. With fighting in Ninewa winding down Baghdad returned to the most violent province in the country with 98 incidents. That was followed by 90 in Ninewa, 47 in Diyala, 41 in Anbar, 28 in Kirkuk and Salahaddin each, 13 in Babil, 3 in Dhi Qar, 2 in Basra, Maysan, and Sulaymaniya each, and 1 in Irbil, Karbala, and Qadisiyah each.

Operations against ISIS are in another pause as the Iraqis prepare for their assault on Hawijah.


The Syrian army is continuing to clear out an ISIS-controlled enclave in the central part of the country, straddling the border between Homs and Hama provinces. The Syrians are moving east to relieve the ISIS siege of Deir Ezzor, and say they’re a scant 10 kilometers from the city, but finally eliminating the last ISIS presence in western Syria is part of the operation as well. On Friday they took the village of Uqairabat, which was the biggest remaining target in the enclave, and they reportedly captured a number of other villages on Saturday.

This map is a little old, but you can see the that gray ISIS enclave in the middle of the red government-held territory clearly

Other than that operation, the main drama in Syria continues to revolve around the disposition of that bus convoy carrying around 300 ISIS fighters and a little over 300 of their family members away from the Lebanese border and, theoretically, into ISIS-held territory in southern Deir Ezzor province, around al-Bukamal. The United States has been striking the road ahead of the convoy to prevent it from reaching its destination, ostensibly to keep those 300 fighters from joining their comrades on the Iraqi border but also because this convoy arrangement was negotiated in part by Hezbollah, and the US reflexively opposes anything Hezbollah does.

On Saturday, Hezbollah reported that most of the convoy was “out of the area of Syrian government control,” but it’s unclear to me what that means (it’s a war zone, so determining what areas are and aren’t in a particular party’s control can be complicated) and it’s possible Hezbollah was just trying to wash its hands of what’s become a bit of a PR problem for them both internationally and back in Lebanon. It released a statement attacking the US for putting the lives of the convoy’s civilians–women, children, elderly men, the sick and wounded–in danger. US officials said they’re allowing–have already allowed in at least one case–deliveries of food and water to the convoy.

On Sunday, US officials said the convoy had split into two groups, with one group remaining stuck in the desert outside Deir Ezzor and the second heading back west toward Palmyra. That would seemingly put the second group well back within government-held territory, but we’ll see what the Syrians/Hezbollah have to say about that. But the Washington Post is reporting that at least some, and possibly all, of the ISIS fighters and civilians in the convoy may have actually made it into Iraq, despite the coalition supposedly monitoring the convoy carefully. There are reports from western Anbar province that they cunningly, ah, got off the buses and walked until they were picked up by other ISIS fighters and transported across the border. Excellent monitoring, everybody!

There’s also, to be fair, a little drama happening in northern Aleppo province. Syrian Democratic Forces fighters in that area are engaging in near-daily exchanges of artillery fire with Turkish-backed elements of the Free Syrian Army. Civilians in nearby villages appear to be paying most of the price, naturally.


At Al-Monitor, Bruce Reidel writes that the Saudis are hoping for a further deteriorating in the very tense alliance between the Houthis and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. They see this as their best chance to extricate themselves from the quagmire they helped create. But as Reidel points out, there are many ways that a Houthi-Saleh breakup could make the civil war worse:

Thoughtful Saudis are deeply skeptical about Saleh, doubting that he will really be prepared to support the restoration of Hadi’s government, even if it is rearranged to broaden its appeal. The alternative of turning back the clock to 2012 and putting Saleh or his sons in power is even less appealing. At best, the clash within the rebel camp will turn the conflict into a three-sided civil war that could go on without end. The worst outcome for the Saudis would be if the Houthis quickly routed Saleh’s supporters and consolidated their control of the rebellion. The two camps may also remain united despite their differences and contain occasional flare-ups of violence.


On Saturday, the Washington Post ran a goofy article that I felt compelled to share it with you. Here’s the premise:

This weekend is Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of the hajj pilgrimage season. To nearly all Muslims, it’s known simply as Eid. But to Turks and their kin in other nations, it’s called Bayram.

The dividing line between the two names offers unexpected insight into how Turkey’s bid for influence in the Muslim world has played out: between one region where it has successfully built on cultural ties to expand its soft power — and another, the Middle East, where it has tried and failed to expand its hard power.

Most Muslim nations in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia use the name “Eid” for this weekend’s holiday, as do most Muslim communities in the West. Meanwhile, nations and ethnic groups related to the Turks — Tatars in Russia, Azeris in the Caucasus, Uzbeks and Kazakhs in Central Asia — call the holiday “Bayram,” which is a Turkish word.

Some people speak Arabic while other people speak Turkish (however “bayram” is originally a Persian word, though Iran is one of the places where people mostly use “eid”). The thrust of the piece is that Turkey has had much better luck in terms of expanding its foreign policy footprint into Central Asia and Russia than it has into the Arab world, and coincidentally (?) that divide lines up neatly with the “bayram”-“eid” split. I’m not sure there’s any great insight there, but I guess it’s not a bad way to take a lighter look at a serious topic like Ankara’s lousy foreign policy.

Speaking of Turkey’s lousy foreign policy, in a campaign debate on Sunday German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the first time said that she supports ending talks over Turkey’s potential but always highly unlikely accession to the European Union. Ending the talks would simply be acknowledging reality at this point, but her remarks are certainly going to be deposited in Ankara’s Perpetual Grievance Bank.


Maybe it’s because of the Hajj, but for some reason this has been a weekend for Big Saudi Arabia/Gulf Thinkpieces. First up, at Lawfare, is Kristin Smith Diwan’s look at the changing nature of the Gulf monarchies as a new generation of rulers takes over amid a very different media climate than their predecessors faced:

Gulf monarchies have followed certain norms which are intended to bring stability to an inherently competitive process of succession and to provide continuity to the state policies pursued by ruling families. Gulf dynastic monarchies are built upon a commitment to power sharing that encourages deliberation and a deference to age that supports incremental change. However, the current transition from the founding generation to one shaped by a new information age is challenging those long-standing traditions and practices.

The younger monarchs that have come to power in the last decade or so are ambitious. They have sought to centralize power at home and to extend influence abroad. Each one of them has changed the strategic direction of his country in fundamental ways, and has not been reticent to intervene abroad through media, mediation, and even military campaigns. This ambition has led to rivalries among the new generation of monarchs. The competition between the small but influential sheikhdoms of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are instructive: Both have dramatically increased their domestic and regional ambitions, initially funded by the historic petroleum suprluses of the 2000s.


Our second thinkpiece comes from The Guardian’s Martin Chulov and looks at the roots of Mohammad bin Salman’s big Vision 2030 economic reform push:

Over the past three years, as Saudi Arabia’s new heir to the throne was plotting his ascendancy, he surrounded himself with public accounts and private advisers who all drew the same conclusion – the kingdom itself was at serious risk if its people didn’t change their ways.

On every front, the house of Saud faced a struggle – that it would probably lose – to retain its grip on a country that was moving towards implosion. Culturally, socially and economically, Saudi Arabia needed an overhaul and Mohammed bin Salman, who sensationally ousted his uncle, Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince earlier this year, pinned both his startling rise and eventual legacy to the most comprehensive reform attempt that kingdom has yet seen.

Left unsaid is the fact that MBS has fucked up everything he’s touched since becoming defense minister back in 2015, so there’s little reason to expect he’ll be able to get this right. But I digress. The final thinkpiece gets into an area I really don’t understand, the Business Industry, with a look at Vision 2030’s core element, the partial privatization of the Saudi Aramco oil giant:

Saudi Arabia is lining up a privatisation of state assets that dwarfs the Thatcher “revolution” of the 1980s, and rivals the 1990s dissolution of Soviet assets in scale and significance. It has hung a “for sale” sign on virtually every sector of Saudi economic life: oil, electricity, water, transport, retail, schools and healthcare. Even the kingdom’s football clubs are due to be auctioned off.

The sell-off programme is the central part of the economic transformation plan envisaged under the Vision 2030 strategy. With oil stuck around the $50 mark, Saudi budgets are creaking and deficits are widening. Around $75 is regarded as the break-even point for the national finances.

The five percent of Aramco stock the Saudis are preparing to sell off could net upwards of $100 billion, which would make it the largest IPO in history. Another $100 billion is expected to be sold off over the next few years. And that’s just Aramco–much of the rest of the country is getting privatized as well:

There is, however, a clearer idea of what assets are on offer, because virtually everything is potentially on the block. The National Centre for Privatisation, which began operating in March this year, has drawn up a list that reads like a cross-section of the Saudi economy. “Environment, water and agriculture; transport; energy, industry and mineral resources; labour and social development; housing; education; health; municipalities; telecommunication and information technology; and Hajj and Umrah [Islamic pilgrimage] services,” its website declares, are all subject to the programme.

The influx of foreign investment, especially in sensitive areas like education, is going to alienate the more conservative elements of Saudi Arabia’s religious community, which is potentially bad news for the monarchy. It’ll be particularly bad news for the monarchy once the Saudi lower classes get over the euphoria of the Brand New Saudi Arabia and realize that privatization likely means they’re going to be getting the shaft to an even greater degree than they do now. Angry religious leaders combined with unhappy lower classes is historically a combustible mix. That’s why, though he doesn’t talk about it much, MBS’s challenge with Vision 2030 will be as much about liberalizing Saudi society and culture, undercutting the clerics, as it will be about hyper-normalizing the economy. Again, based on past performance there is literally no reason to believe that MBS is up to this challenge.

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