Middle East update: September 6 2017


At least one international investigation into the April 4 Khan Shaykhun chemical weapons attack has concluded that the Syrian government was responsible for the incident. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a report released Wednesday that the incident was one of 27 times they’ve concluded that Bashar al-Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons during the Syrian civil war. This report is not related to the ongoing investigation into the incident by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The Commission also criticized the US-led coalition, specifically for its March bombing of a mosque in the town of al-Jinah, west of Aleppo. It said there was no evidence to support the coalition’s claim that there was an “al-Qaeda meeting” going on inside the mosque, or a building nearby, when the strike took place, and further concluded that the coalition didn’t follow its own rules for minimizing the risk to civilians.

The Syrian army is continuing its operations in Deir Ezzor, where it’s attempting to secure the corridor into the otherwise besieged city that it opened on Tuesday. ISIS has been counterattacking, which has prevented the army from advancing, but so far the corridor appears to be holding. The army is also still working to clear out the remaining ISIS pocket in central Syria, which you can see below:

Newly updated to show the Syrian army’s (red) advance to Deir Ezzor (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)


With action still paused as the eventual Hawijah operation gets sorted out, here’s Patrick Wing with an update on Mosul. After a period in July and early August where more people were returning to the city than were leaving it, there’s once again a net migration out of Mosul because of its current living conditions:

When Mosul was freed in July 2017 the number of displaced (IDP) families heading back to the city started going up. The eastern half of the city had been freed months before, and was relatively safe and largely untouched by the fighting. Many people from west Mosul also went directly from the combat zones into the east. Islamic State sleeper cells were still active and carried out some large bombings scaring some away, but there were more that wanted to leave displacement camps, be close to their property, and find housing and jobs in the city. In August however, the trend has reversed and now there are more people leaving then returning, largely due to the economic situation.

Mosul’s economy has been shattered and rebuilding is going to take a lot of time and a lot of money that Baghdad doesn’t have. People who have already returned are finding it impossible to stay without a way to eke out some kind of living.


The disposition of Ali Abdullah Saleh is becoming the big wild card for Yemen’s civil war and its future. It seems clear that, despite outward attempts to patch things up, his alliance with the Houthis has run its course in the sense that the erstwhile partners are no longer really pulling the rope in the same direction. Saleh would very much like to pivot away from the Houthis to position himself (or nominally, perhaps, his son Ahmed) to the international (and Gulf) community as the compromise choice to lead Yemen.

The Saudis, whose search for an exit from Yemen is becoming more frantic by the day, might jump at something like that if they thought it could end the war. The Americans, who loved Saleh back when he was cooperating* with US counter-terrorism efforts, would probably be thrilled to have him or his son back in power. The problem is, it can’t and won’t. For one thing, even if Saleh could divest himself of the Houthis, it’s hard to imagine that newly empowered southern secessionists are going to go along with restoring Saleh family rule over the whole country.  For another thing, Saleh clearly can’t divest himself of the Houthis without the Houthis potentially tossing him down a hole somewhere, or worse. He’s stuck. And, frankly, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

* Saleh did indeed “cooperate” with US counter-terrorism efforts insofar as they were also beneficial to him. He happily accepted American money and American weapons and then used both to suppress the Houthis and the southern secessionists rather than al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. There’s no clear evidence that he misdirected US drone strikes to target his political enemies, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising if he did that too.


Turkish police killed a would-be ISIS suicide bomber targeting a police station in the city of Mersin on Wednesday.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a speech in Ankara on Wednesday that the European Union needs to “take a step” to clarify its intentions regarding Turkey’s accession. Of course, the EU, or the European Economic Community as it was then known, decided it wasn’t going to admit Turkey probably back in 1987 when Ankara first applied. If the EU ever seriously considered the idea of admitting Turkey, it discarded it at least 15 years ago, when it started coming up with a litany of excuses to avoid opening up negotiations with Erdoğan’s government. But for a long time it’s been good for both sides to pretend that Turkey’s EU membership was still a possibility, even though both know it isn’t and really never was.

Erdoğan, who practices the politics of grievance better than any other world leader, still derives substantial domestic political benefit from being able to complain about how unfairly Brussels is treating the Turks. But as Turkey slides deeper into authoritarianism, the Europeans may be reaching the point where it’s no longer worth keeping up the pretense. So Erdoğan, as the authoritarian, needs to position himself as the strong leader who demanded the EU finally come clean on this shared lie.


The corruption investigation surrounding Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be getting more serious:

It turns out that Milchan, an international movie mogul who divides his time between Los Angeles and Israel, has been questioned under caution on several occasions at the Israeli Embassy in London. The police have prima facie evidence according to which Netanyahu used all his weight to convince British Jewish billionaire Len Blavatnik to acquire shares in Israeli Channel 10. A significant portion of those shares were held by Milchan in an investment gone bad, in which he stood to lose tens of millions of dollars. When Blavatnik acceded to Netanyahu’s request and acquired the channel, which he still controls, it redeemed Milchan’s failed investment. The acquisition by Blavatnik was worth a fortune to Milchan.

“Milchan” is Arnon Milchan, a very wealthy Israeli-American fellow who counts giving money to Netanyahu among his hobbies. Israeli investigators have been trying to figure out what Milchan has been buying with his largesse, and their failure to make that connection has been impeding their case. Now that the narrative is starting to come together, the chances that Netanyahu will be indicted are increasing.


Human Rights Watch says that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is overseeing an “assembly line” of torture by his security forces:

In the past four years, more than 1,000 protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces, at least 60,000 people are reported to have been arrested or charged, hundreds have been handed preliminary death sentences, and hundreds more have gone missing in apparent forced disappearances.

Most of them have been supporters of Morsi’s Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, but liberal and secular opposition activists have also been targeted.

HRW researchers interviewed 19 former detainees and the family of a 20th detainee who said they were tortured between 2014 and 2016, as well as Egyptian defence and human rights lawyers.

The former detainees alleged that the torture sessions began with security officers using electric shocks on a blindfolded, stripped, and handcuffed suspect while slapping and punching them or beating them with sticks and metal bars.

Unfortunately, Sisi did touch Donald Trump’s Big Glowing Ball of World Domination, so he’s pretty much untouchable now.


However, he can still be inconvenienced by Congress. The Senate Appropriations subcommittee for foreign operations voted unanimously on Wednesday to slash $300 million in military aid and another $37 million in economic aid to Egypt over Sisi’s wretched human rights record. The full Appropriations Committee will take up the issue on Thursday. The House has already voted to keep Egypt’s military aid budget the same as it was last year, which is also what the Trump administration wants, so this may not go anywhere. But we’ll see.


At LobeLog, Paul Pillar takes down Nikki Haley’s anti-Iran deal speech at AEI from Tuesday:

Nikki Haley, whose foreign policy experience has consisted of these past few months as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, has assumed the role of chief public trasher of the JCPOA for the administration. Evidently no demands on the time of the U.S. ambassador in New York, from the issue of North Korea (which has real, not imagined, nuclear weapons) to the war in Syria, were too important to keep her from giving a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that represented the administration’s most concerted and contrived public effort so far to lay the groundwork for withdrawing from the JCPOA. Haley has warmed to this cause both because of her own previous parochial interests, including those associated with financial contributions she has received, and because it is a convenient vehicle for playing to Trump’s urges. Haley evidently feels no obligation to perform as one of the “adults” in the administration to whom the country looks to contain those urges.

The speech at AEI was Trumpian in some of the tactics it employed. The performance should cement the ambitious Haley’s place on Trump’s short list of candidates to become secretary of state once Rex Tillerson’s unhappy and probably short tenure in the job ends. The speech also used more twisted versions of familiar rhetorical twists that have been heard before from diehard opponents of the JCPOA.

One familiar Trumpian tactic is blatant lying. Haley lied when she said that the JCPOA “gave Iran what it wanted up-front, in exchange for temporary promises to deliver what we want.” The truth is that Iran had to fulfill most of its obligations first—including disposing of excess enriched uranium, disassembling enrichment cascades, gutting its heavy water reactor, and much else—before the agreement was fully implemented and Iran got even a whiff of additional sanctions relief. There is no correspondence between reality and Haley’s assertion that the agreement was a great deal for Iran but “what we get from the deal is much less clear.” What we get is a cementing closed (even literally, in the case of the disabling of a reactor that otherwise could have produced plutonium) of all possible pathways to an Iranian nuclear weapon. This isn’t just a promise; this is major, material, already implemented change.

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