Middle East update: September 7-8 2017


Early Thursday morning Israeli aircraft struck a military site near the town of Masyaf, in western Syria. The base is reportedly used by the Syrian military’s unconventional weapons arm and was used to produce precision rockets and/or chemical weapons. At least two people were killed in the strike. Israel has, of course, assumed unto itself the right to conduct airstrikes in Syria (around 100 since the start of the civil war) at will to prevent arms transfers to Hezbollah, and while the Israeli government hasn’t gone on record about this strike analysts suggest that the concern here was the development of rockets for Hezbollah to place in southern Lebanon. With the Israeli military getting ready for a new war with Hezbollah–because, I guess, there’s no point bombing Gaza again and, hey, you gotta bomb something–they’re obviously attuned to the risk of Syrian and Iranian-made weapons finding their way to Lebanon.

If you’re America’s Newspaper of Record, here’s how you framed this Israeli strike:

Overnight strikes Thursday on Syrian military sites — which are said to produce chemical weapons and advanced missiles — brought renewed attention to Syria’s chemical weapons, and appear to have been an escalation of Israel’s efforts to prevent its enemies from gaining access to sophisticated weapons.

That is an important issue. Syria of course isn’t supposed to be producing chemical weapons, so if it still has facilities where that’s happening then it’s crucial for the international community to learn about them. But we’re apparently not interested in bringing renewed attention, or any attention at all, to Israel’s habit of unilaterally committing acts of war against a neighboring state, even though that seems like an equally relevant issue. The Times just doesn’t seem to want to talk about that part of the story. I had a thought about that and shared it on Twitter earlier today:

Part of the reason so few Americans bat an eye when the US or its allies bomb some distant overseas country is because our media conditions us to think that this is just the way the world is supposed to work. The Good Guys bomb the Bad Guys and we all collectively nod our approval and move on with our lives. Nobody pushes this narrative more effectively than the NYT.

Speaking of chemical weapons, Damascus is denying the recent UN report that found it responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Khan Shaykhun on April 4 as well as on 26 other occasions. I don’t think their denial should come as any great surprise.

The Syrian military was able to exploit its newly-opened corridor into Deir Ezzor to bring an aid convoy into the formerly besieged city on Thursday. Deir Ezzor has been under siege since 2014 and some 93,000 people there have been subsisting on airdropped supplies since then. The army is attempting to extend its corridor through “hundreds of meters” of ISIS-held territory to reach the city’s airport. The airport has remained in government hands but has been cut off even from the rest of the city. On Friday, the Russian defense ministry said that its airstrikes had killed some 40 ISIS fighters in the city, including ISIS’s commander in Deir Ezzor and Gulmurod Khalimov. Khalimov famously used to command the special forces unit within Tajikistan’s interior ministry, in which role he received considerable US counterterrorism training, until he joined ISIS in 2015. He’d reportedly become the group’s “minister of war,” so his death would be a pretty big deal if it’s true.

ISIS fighters are reportedly fleeing Deir Ezzor city and linking up with other ISIS fighters, who have fled Raqqa, in the eastern part of Deir Ezzor province. If there’s going to be a “last stand” type confrontation between ISIS and its enemies, it will likely happen there, in and around towns like Mayadin and al-Bukamal. It’s not clear which enemies ISIS will be standing against, whether it will be the Syrian army and its allies or the Syrian Democratic Forces–who just announced the start of a new operation in northern Deir Ezzor province on Friday–with American/coalition support. It likely depends on how quickly the Syrians can secure Deir Ezzor as compared to the speed with which the SDF eventually clears out Raqqa.

Either way this seems like a bizarre choice for ISIS in terms of a battleground, which makes me think they’re actually not looking to make a last stand but rather to run and disperse into the countryside. ISIS has had more success defending densely populated areas where airstrikes and heavy artillery aren’t so useful (see Mosul, Raqqa) than they have defending less populated areas where those weapons can be used with more impunity (see Tal Afar). If they were looking to do as much damage as possible in one last blowout, doing so in a city would have made more sense. Frankly the idea of any “last stand” scenario makes less sense than going underground, but maybe there’s enough messianic zeal left in the group to get everybody to buy into the idea of one last great apocalyptic battle or whatever.

I’ve given up trying to make sense of the competing stories about that ISIS bus convoy that was/is taking roughly 300 fighters and their families from the Lebanese border to al-Bukamal on the Iraqi border. It’s variously reported as being stuck in the desert, or having split up so only part of it is stuck, or maybe the people on the convoy got out of the buses and walked to meet up with other ISIS personnel, or maybe they’re all still stuck on the buses, or maybe some of the buses are back in Syrian government-held territory, or all of the buses are out of Syrian government-held territory…fuck, man, I don’t know. Get your stories straight. Anyway, the latest edition I’ve seen has the coalition targeting and killing individual ISIS fighters who stray too far from the buses, to go for a walk, relieve themselves, etc. The coalition says it’s killed some 85 men this way. They might not be able to keep it up, though–on Friday Reuters reported that the coalition has pulled its surveillance aircraft away from airspace over the convoy to avoid interfering with Russian operations around Deir Ezzor


Lahur Talabany, the intelligence chief for the Kurdistan Regional Government, is warning that ISIS is retooling itself to undertake more major terrorist attacks in Europe now that its territorial ambitions have been mostly thwarted. This is not news–insurgent/terror groups historically focus more on terrorism when the insurgency suffers, and ISIS would obviously use splashy new attacks in Europe to bolster recruitment, which has suffered as a result of its territorial losses. It doesn’t seem like Talabany has any specific information to add to that discussion, but he is using the threat to push for Baghdad to repair its relations with Iraqi Sunni Arabs and, oh, hey, with the Kurds, which undoubtedly means acceding to the KRG’s autonomy wishes. Sounds like a real Crisitunity for Iraqi Kurds.

I highly recommend checking out this Guardian photo essay on Iraq’s landmine problem. The Mines Advisory Group has been working to defuse and remove landmines in Iraq since 1992, taking on a problem that goes all the way back to the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and its work is still ongoing.


It’s gratifying to see the conflict in Yemen getting more attention from mainstream American media for the America-enabled human rights catastrophe that it is. The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor tackled it for his Friday newsletter.


Prosecutors in New York have charged four Turks, including former economy minister Mehmet Zafer Çağlayan, with attempting to violate US sanctions against Iran. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is naturally treating this as a direct attack on Turkey and says the charges are bogus because Turkey never agreed to help the US enforce an embargo against Iran. He may have a point about the legal aspects of this case, but it’s obscured by the paranoia.

Ömer Çelik, Turkey’s European Union minister, accused European leaders on Friday of turning Turkey’s EU accession into a “child’s game.” He said that any talk of suspending negotiations between Ankara and Brussels was unacceptable to the Turkish government. But EU members are expected to discuss suspending those talks–suspending, not completely ending, because breaking off talks would require a unanimous EU vote while suspending them only requires a majority–in Brussels next month.


The Lebanese army is preparing to deploy along the country’s entire Syrian border to prevent a recurrence of ISIS or other extremist groups establishing positions in Lebanon.


Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is potentially looking at fraud charges related to an investigation into her misuse of around $100,000 of government money for catering. She allegedly hired outside chefs for the PM’s official residence while also having a full-time cook on staff, and that’s apparently a no-no.


Cairo is not reacting well to recent cutbacks in US aid:

The controversial US decision took many by surprise, not least the Sisi government, which reacted with shock, confusion and restrained anger. In a statement released shortly after the news was announced, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said it regretted what it called a “misjudgment of the nature of the strategic relations that have bound the two countries for decades.” It further cautioned the cutbacks could yield “negative consequences for the realization of the two countries’ joint interests.” The statement did not explain, however, what the repercussions might be.

A scheduled meeting between Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and White House adviser Jared Kushner (whose Cairo visit coincided with the aid cut announcement) was initially called off in what observers said was a sign of protest at the US decision, but the Egyptian diplomat-host quickly had a change of heart. The talks did take place, albeit later than originally planned. Photographs of the two men smiling and shaking hands belied earlier media reports that the meeting had been canceled.

But behind the smiles, anger is seething in Cairo. Supporters of the Sisi regime vented their dismay with an Arabic hashtag on social media networks that translates into #Egypt_is_far_bigger_than_your_aid. A cartoon published in the pro-government Youm7 newspaper depicted a man buying a pair of shoes at a Bata store to “raise in the face of America,” according to the caption. The message to the Trump administration (printed below the cartoon) was: “Egyptians could not care less about the aid.”

Call me crazy, but the act of drawing the cartoon kind of makes it seem like they do care? Seems like a lot of effort for no reason otherwise.


Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah visited the White House on Thursday, where the main topic was naturally the Qatar diplomatic crisis. And the message was…well, at least it hasn’t come to war, yet. How uplifting! Sabah suggested that military action against Qatar had been averted somehow, which apparently upset the four nations leading the anti-Qatar blockade, (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt) because the obvious implication is that those four nations had at one time contemplated going to war against Qatar, something they’ve all repeatedly denied. Sabah also said that the Qataris were ready to discuss the list of 13 demands it had been given by the quartet, but the Qataris themselves have been saying that for weeks now, while the quartet insists that there’s no discussion to be had.


The Bahraini government is naturally rejecting an Amnesty International report released earlier this week that accuses it of serial human rights violations since last June. It’s obviously not like the Bahrainis were going to say “oh, yeah, you caught us” or anything, but this is certainly a case where they’re asking you to believe them over your lying eyes.

Thankfully, Bahrain’s wretched human rights record isn’t stopping the US from selling it some $3.8 billion in new weapons. I admit I was a little worried there.


After his meeting with the Kuwaiti emir on Thursday, Donald Trump spoke by phone with Qatari Emir Tamim b. Hamad Al Thani. The two reportedly talked about resolving the diplomatic crisis, well, diplomatically.


And speaking of Qatar-related phone calls, this evening outlets began reporting that Tamim called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman on Friday and the two men had a conversation of some sort. The two apparently talked about establishing dialogue and exchanging envoys and that sort of thing, but it couldn’t have gone very well because by Saturday morning the Saudis announced that they’re suspending all contact with the Qataris…uh, again, I guess. Riyadh accused Doha of “distorting facts,” but that’s as far as their statement went and it now seems that the problem is the Qataris jumped the gun and started releasing details of the call, when MBS told them he wanted to confer with the rest of the quartet before saying anything. Assuming that’s true it seems like a stupid move on the Qataris’ part, but maybe there’s some angle here that I’m not seeing. The next time Tamim calls, I suppose MBS will have to let it go to voicemail.

Saudi rhetoric toward the Taliban has taken a decided turn toward the hostile of late. The Diplomat’s Samuel Ramani explains:

On August 7, 2017, Saudi Arabia’s most senior diplomat in Afghanistan, Mishari al-Harbi, described the Taliban as “armed terrorists” in an interview with Afghan reporters. Even though the Taliban’s alliance with Iran has created tensions between Riyadh and the Taliban in recent years, al-Harbi’s hostile rhetoric towards the Taliban surprised many observers, as Saudi Arabia recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government during the 1990s and expressed interest in hosting a Taliban diplomatic base in 2011.

Saudi Arabia’s increasingly hostile rhetoric towards the Taliban can be explained by two main factors. First, the Saudi government’s rhetoric aims to deter private donors in Saudi Arabia from providing financial assistance to the Taliban. Second, Saudi Arabia’s de-legitimization of the Taliban as a political entity seeks to undercut the effectiveness of Qatar’s mediation efforts between the Taliban and Kabul.

I would say these two factors are really one, and it’s about Qatar. One of the quartet’s complains about Doha has been its continuing diplomatic ties with the Taliban, which the Qataris say they’ve maintained in order to give Kabul and Western governments some conduit through which to reach Taliban leaders. But those complaints ring particularly hollow coming from the Saudis, or at least they did while Saudi citizens were still financially supporting the Taliban. The less money the Taliban gets from private Saudis, and the worse the peace process in Afghanistan gets, the easier it is for the Saudis to criticize Qatar over this.


Iranian journalist Alireza Rajaee has lost much of the right half of his face, including his right eye, due to cancer. I mention this because Rajaee might not have suffered this fate had his cancer been properly diagnosed back when he was being imprisoned by Iranian authorities on account of his reformist views. He spent four years in prison complaining of pain in his face and being denied proper medical care, and was diagnosed with the cancer after his release in 2015. The Iranian government maintains his cancer didn’t develop until after he’d been released, which is a load of horse shit.

Iran is taking in billions of dollars in Chinese assistance to improve its national rail network. The goal is to establish Iran as a key cargo corridor for Chinese shipments to Turkey and to Iran’s Persian Gulf ports. In return for the aid, Iranian officials are cutting tariffs on Chinese goods.

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