Middle East update: September 12 2017


Having opened up a corridor to relieve the besieged city and its similarly besieged airport, the Syrian army is now massing assets for a push to recapture all of Deir Ezzor city from ISIS. They’re also massing civilian casualties, with “dozens” of people (69, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) reportedly killed in the past couple of days by Russian airstrikes in and around the city. The SOHR says Russian aircraft have bombed small boats attempting to flee the city via the Euphrates River and displaced persons camps on the river’s western (or southern where the river flows east-west) bank, so you know they must really be picking their targets carefully.

Deir Ezzor as of September 9; red means government, tan? or whatever the hell color that is means ISIS (Wikimedia | MrPenguin20)

The Syrian army plans to move through Deir Ezzor city and along the western bank of the Euphrates to al-Bukamal near the Iraqi border. If it sticks to that plan, it might manage to avoid some kind of extremely perilous encounter with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, whose advance into Deir Ezzor province seems to be sticking to the eastern (northern) side of the Euphrates. But the SDF and the coalition seem intent on eventually attacking ISIS in the town of Mayadin, which has become ISIS’s de facto capital of last resort, and as far as I know Mayadin, or most of it anyway, sits on the western side of the river. So, good luck with that.

This is all moot, though, because the Syrian civil war is now over. We did it, everybody! Uh, well, that’s what Hezbollah says, anyway. Russia too, claiming that Assad now controls 85 percent of the country (he, ah, does not). And Damascus has started handing out reconstruction contracts, giving Iran the rights to rebuild part of Syria’s shattered power grid. This is presumably the first of many reconstruction projects that will go to Iranian firms, though Russia and China are expected to be major players as well and even Egypt is hoping to get in on the action.

Hundreds of, uh, “former” ISIS fighters have piled up along the Syria-Turkey border in Idlib province, scrambling to get out of Syria and go, well, who knows where. Home, I guess? There’s no real reason to believe any of these guys when they claim to have abandoned ISIS or when they say the extremist group duped them into coming to Syria somehow, but it’s already proven exceedingly difficult to try to track their movements. If they remain stuck in Idlib, it will be interesting to see if they become a problem for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in terms of consolidating its control there.

Meanwhile, thousands of displaced Syrians have reportedly fled the Hadalat camp along the Jordanian border for the Rukban camp further east, as government forces move into the area. This is a potentially serious situation–the people at Rukban were struggling already, and these new arrivals are surely going to push the camp past its capacity. The UN has been delivering supplies to both camps from Jordan, but the increased military activity in the area has made that more difficult.


The Iraqi parliament voted Tuesday to reject the planned September 25 referendum on Kurdish independence, and Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani subsequently told them to get bent. Sounds like things are heading toward a happy ending on this front, folks.


These kinds of announcements are starting to sound like echoes:

Human Rights Watch has accused the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen of committing war crimes, saying its air raids killed 39 civilians, including 26 children, in two months.

The rights group says five air raids that hit four family homes and a grocery store were carried out either deliberately or recklessly, causing indiscriminate loss of civilian lives in violation of the laws of war.

“Such attacks carried out deliberately or recklessly are war crimes,” HRW said in a report on Tuesday.

As the world really starts to notice what’s happening in Yemen and the degree to which the Saudis and Americans are responsible for it, I’m pleased to see there are outlets like Foreign Policy prepared to help soften one of the Obama administration’s worst foreign policy decision by arguing that America was “dragged into” Yemen. Hey, we’re the victims here! We didn’t know! Yemen, I mean, what even is that, am I right? We were just trying to do a solid for our Saudi bros and they went all crazy on us, and then we kept on helping them anyway because uhhhhh oh man would you look at the time, I really need to be somewhere, let’s pick this up again later.

Plus, look, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi was the legitimate president of Yemen–after all, he won a resounding unanimous victory in 2012 running against, um, nobody. That’s big! And you always try to stick up for the legitimate government, which is why Washington has been so strident in its support for similar figures like Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein.


Turkey’s Anadolu news agency said Tuesday that the country’s security forces have arrested 25 suspected ISIS members in Istanbul. On a (sort of) similar note, Anadolu also reported Tuesday that Turkish authorities have issued arrest warrants for 63 people, including personnel from the National Intelligence Agency, over suspected links to the Gülen movement and last summer’s attempted coup.

Along those same lines, Ankara appears to be preparing to strip Fethullah Gülen of his Turkish citizenship. This would be an interesting development, in that it wouldn’t technically impact a potential Gülen trial or even the possibility of having Gülen extradited to Turkey for punishment, but it would make it easier for Gülen to apply for asylum and/or citizenship somewhere else–possibly America, but maybe more likely in a country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Turkey. There are critics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who suggest that this is deliberate and that Ankara doesn’t really want Gülen to come back and stand trial or face punishment.

Why? Well, because Gülen and Erdoğan were comrades in arms from Erdoğan’s ascent until 2012 or 2013, and so if there are any bodies that Erdoğan buried during his first decade or so in power, Gülen certainly knows where to find them. He might, for example, have some interesting things to say about the 2008 Ergenekon trials, which helped consolidate Erdoğan’s rule vis-a-vis the old guard in the Turkish deep state. Gülen and his movement were a huge force in bringing those treason cases to trial, the verdicts from which were all wiped out last year. If Gülen has anything to say about those cases, Erdoğan would likely prefer he not say it.

Germany proposed an arms embargo against Turkey on Monday, via Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, then walked it back on Tuesday, via Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel cited the Islamic State threat in saying that Berlin would only restrict “some” arms sales to Ankara. The Germans may try, or at least pretend to try, to restrict sales of weapons they believe will be used for suppressing internal opposition, but that seems like an impossible standard to meet. Good luck figuring out which weapons can be used to kill would-be terrorists but can’t be used to kill would-be protesters.


In an effort to cut off “pirated” connections to its water grid in the West Bank, the Israeli government deprived the Palestinian village of Ein al-Beida of clean water for over a week, ending on Monday. When they restored service, the water supply was even lower than the already inadequate level it had been at before the shutoff. The Israeli government and its West Bank settlers frequently use water as a weapon against the Palestinians, both in isolated incidents like this and in general, by leaving Palestinian farmers such a small share of the water supply as to make parts of the West Bank uninhabitable for them. When the UN talks about Israel “de-developing” Palestine, this is the kind of thing they mean.

Following a meeting between Hamas leaders and Egyptian officials in Cairo last week, Hamas on Monday expressed an interest in opening up reconciliation talks with the Palestinian Authority without preconditions. They had previously held that the PA needed to reverse its recent punitive actions toward Gaza–cutting off its electricity, for example, and refusing to pay civil servants there–before they would consider negotiations.


The Egyptian government has reportedly severed ties with North Korea, with the Egyptian defense minister apparently announcing the step during a visit to Seoul on Tuesday. This report is unconfirmed, but it makes sense–Egypt as been under pressure from the US in particular to cut off North Korea, from which it has frequently purchased military hardware over the years. It’s quite possible, even likely, that the Trump administration will be willing to restore the Egyptian aid it had recently suspended over “human rights” concerns if Cairo really has taken this step.


The Qatar diplomatic crisis was a big topic at Tuesday’s Arab League meeting in Cairo, and I’m happy to say it sounds like things went really well:

Tensions flared after Qatar’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sultan bin Saad al-Muraikhi discussed the boycott in his opening speech despite the Gulf dispute not being on the agenda.

He called the Gulf monarchy’s critics “rabid dogs”.

“Even the animals were not spared, you sent them out savagely,” Muraikhi said, referring to the thousands of camels left stranded on the border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia after borders were closed.

Things later devolved into a shouting match between Muraikhi and the Saudi envoy, so that’s wonderful news.


At LobeLog, Giorgio Cafiero explains why Oman’s approach to the Qatar diplomatic crisis has been one of official neutrality but unofficial support for the Qataris:

Oman has stood by Qatar throughout the past three months in part because Muscat is also worried about being targeted by the ATQ. Oman has vested interests in promoting a GCC in which all six members can freely exercise their sovereign rights in terms of both their domestic and foreign policies. On past occasions, the Saudis and Emiratis have pressured Muscat to distance itself from Tehran. For example, last year King Salman did a tour of all GCC states with the notable exception of Oman. The leadership in Muscat is concerned that Riyadh’s “with-us-or-against-us” foreign policy will further complicate regional instability, particularly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expected to become Saudi Arabia’s next monarch.

Omani foreign policy has long been rooted in a “no problems with neighbors” principle, hence the formal neutrality. But as Cafiero writes, this dispute with Qatar is, as much as anything else, about whether or not individual GCC members are going to be allowed to pursue foreign policies that are independent of whatever Riyadh wants. On that principle, Oman and Qatar see eye to eye.


Saudi state media and security officials said on Tuesday that they’d stopped an ISIS plot to blow up the Saudi defense ministry in Riyadh, arresting two Yemenis and two Saudis in connection with the plot. The Saudis also say they’ve broken up some kind of foreign spy ring with Muslim Brotherhood links. While it’s possible these two stories are related, they seem like two different incidents. The Saudis have so far offered no details with respect to the alleged spy ring, though it seems at least one of the men arrested there has ties to the Houthis.

The Saudis have also reportedly detained more regime critics in recent days amid rumors that King Salman is about to abdicate in favor of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (this wouldn’t be a huge surprise, but with the Saudis it’s usually better to wait and see than to speculate about these kinds of things). These arrests have reached a level where there are calls for protests against the monarchy this Friday, but obviously it remains to be seen whether any will come together and, if so, how large they will be.

Elsewhere, this is apparently a real thing that the Saudis are really doing:

Saudi-funded PR firms and media outlets have been putting in overtime this week trying to make the case that Iran and Qatar were responsible for 9/11, pay no attention to the 15 hijackers who were Saudi nationals or the mounting evidence suggesting that somebody in the Saudi government played some role in the attacks. And folks, I have to say, there’s no telling just how deep this rabbit hole goes:

Terrifying stuff. But it does reflect something Al-Monitor’s Ali Hashem reported Tuesday, which is that the recent buzz about a possible Saudi-Iran rapprochement, one possibly mediated by Iraq, has come to nought. Saudi outreach to Iraq now seems more like an attempt to destabilize, if just a little bit, a key Iranian alliance rather than a genuine attempt to open a channel to Tehran.


According to Reuters, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and Rex Tillerson have presented Donald Trump with a proposal for maintaining the Iran nuclear deal while punishing Iran more harshly for things like its ballistic missile and offensive cyber programs and its support for groups like Hezbollah. Paradoxically this can be read as an attempt by those three to moderate Trump’s Iran policy by giving him a way to stick to the nuclear deal but still get his anti-Iran rocks off. It can also be read as an attempt to reconstitute the pre-deal sanctions regime against Iran under a different name and ostensibly for different reasons, so that Washington can say technically that it’s not violating the deal. The latter reading seems more accurate to me. The plan also calls for a more aggressive stance toward Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf but does not advocate a more aggressive stance toward Iranian proxy militias in Syria and Iraq, so that’s something. Reuters additionally says the plan calls for the US to “react more aggressively” in Bahrain, and I’m not really sure what that means. I assume it means we’ll be helping King Hamad massacre Shiʿa protesters more efficiently.

The Trump administration has been quietly gutting US-Iran scientific and cultural exchange programs at the State Department, which serves no purpose other than to prevent any thaw in US-Iran relations and, in the case of the scientific programs, to slow scientific progress. There’s no clearer way for this administration to say it wants to return to the days of total US-Iran hostility, with all the heightened risk of war that entails. than for it to be petty enough to block these exchange programs.

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