Middle East update: November 4-5 2017

Where to even begin.


With Qaim under control, the Iraqi plan is to move back east along the Euphrates and take the town of Rawa while simultaneously clearing out the rest of the Syrian border area. The focus for now seems to be back on ISIS, though conflict with the Kurds could flare up again at any time. Somebody bombed a Popular Mobilization Unit office in Kirkuk on Sunday, killing at least five people in what is exactly the kind of thing that could cause a resumption of armed conflict with the Kurds. It’s not clear who carried out the bombing, a Kurdish group or ISIS. It would certainly be in ISIS’s interest to try to stoke tensions in Kirkuk.

I don’t have time or space to talk about this in detail (trust me), but this piece on Iraqi Kurdistan from analyst Denise Natali strikes me as worth a read. Natali basically sums up all the reasons why the Kurdistan independence referendum was such a bad idea, ranging from a complete lack of international support to the precarious nature of Kurdistan’s politics and its economy (which was far too heavily dependent on maintaining control of Kirkuk).


More than 100 people were killed on Sunday when a truck bomb hit a checkpoint outside of Deir Ezzor city where civilians fleeing the fighting in Deir Ezzor province had gathered. That fighting involves the Syrian army advancing on the town of al-Bukamal, ISIS’s main remaining position on the Syrian-Iraq border. With the Iraqis having closed off their side of the border at Qaim, these ISIS fighters have nowhere to go unless they’re able to slip away and into the southeastern Syrian desert. A spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, one of the largest of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization militias, said on Friday that the group will cross the border into Syria to participate in the al-Bukamal fight.

The Turkish government, at least, says that Russia’s planned November 18 Syrian “people’s congress” in Sochi has been postponed–it’s not clear why, but perhaps due to tepid interest from the main rebel negotiating body. What is clear is that the Russians’ invitation to the Kurds has been rescinded, presumably at Turkey’s insistence. Instead, I guess (?), Russian President Vladimir Putin may discuss a “deal” on Syria with US President Donald Trump when the two of them meet next week at the APEC conference.


Saudi officials on Saturday said they were able to intercept and shoot down a missile fired from Yemen toward the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. That’s as far into Saudi territory as the Yemeni rebels have been able to fire a missile and the closest one of their missiles has come to striking a large city. Donald Trump blamed Iran for the missile strike–it’s not clear if he meant because of Iran’s support for the rebels or because he actually thinks the Iranians fired the missile–but there’s really a simpler explanation for how the rebels obtained it. The type of missile allegedly used, a Burkan-2, is a new version of a missile the rebels have used before, which itself was a version of the Scud-D. The Scud-D design is a technical improvement on the Scud-B, which Yemen’s military bought in large numbers from the Soviet Union during the Cold War–the rebels have on several occasions used both Scud-Bs and Scud-Cs from the country’s pre-civil war stockpiles. Absent some actual evidence that they acquired this missile from Iran, it’s likely that the rebels simply developed the new variant by improving on the missiles they already had.

In response, on Sunday the Saudis shut down every point of entry into Yemen–they did say they would take humanitarian needs into account, but frankly I don’t know why they would start doing that now–and then proceeded to bomb the crap out of Sanaa to the tune of some 29 airstrikes in a single day. One wonders how many Yemeni civilians will have to die to punish the rebels for doing something that resulted in no Saudi casualties at all.

An ISIS suicide bomber struck a security building in Aden on Sunday, kicking off what seems to have been a fairly lengthy gun battle in the city.


Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned on Saturday. And, you know, prime ministers resign all the time, for all kinds of reasons. Hariri has what must be one of the most stressful PM gigs in the world, trying to keep a constantly imploding Lebanese political system from crumbling all the way to dust. He cut a deal last year to get reappointed as prime minister that practically gave Hezbollah a permanent veto in the Lebanese government, which made Lebanese politics even more unruly than they’d already been even as it ended a years-long gridlock crisis. He lived through the assassination of his own father, former Lebanese PM Rafic Hariri, so he’s seen first-hand how dangerous things can get for people in his position. So this wasn’t entirely surprising.

But here’s the thing: Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon, didn’t announce his resignation in Lebanon. He didn’t announce his resignation on Lebanese TV. He resigned while on a visit to Saudi Arabia, on Saudi TV, reading a statement that it looked very much like he’d never seen before and that just so happened to tick off a whole bunch of standard Saudi talking points as he blamed Hezbollah and Iran for threatening his life and forcing him to quit.

It’s almost impossible to escape the conclusion, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah later made sure to mention it, that Hariri did this with a (figurative, probably) gun to his head being held by the Saudis. Consider that Hariri is a long-time Saudi client (they forced him from office once before, in 2011) and that Lebanon has been on the political front lines of the Iran-Saudi rivalry for years. Consider that the Saudis and the US have been ranting quite a bit about Hezbollah for several weeks now. Consider that the details about the supposed threat to Hariri’s life that he mentioned in his speech were later supplied by Saudi media, not Lebanese media. And consider that, if this were really Hariri’s decision, he could’ve gone about it so much more effectively by doing it in Lebanon with an address that didn’t wholesale adopt Saudi rhetoric about Iran and instead just focused on the situation in Lebanon. The way Hariri did this makes no sense unless the Saudis were pulling his strings.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun later said that Hariri called him from Riyadh to tender his resignation. Aoun further said he won’t accept the resignation until Hariri returns to Lebanon and explains himself. Which could be a little while, because, well, it’s not entirely clear whether Hariri is actually free to leave Saudi Arabia at the moment. Aoun is clearly holding out hope that, removed from Riyadh, Hariri might be amenable to staying in office in return for some sort of concession.

There are at least two consequences of Hariri’s resignation, neither good. One is that Lebanese politics, deeply affected by internal and regional divides and less than a year removed from a period of such dysfunction that the legislature couldn’t elect a president and the government couldn’t even keep the streets of Beirut free from garbage, may be right back in the shit. It was the deal Hariri and his March 14 Alliance reached with Aoun and his March 8 Alliance (which includes Hezbollah) last year that ended the dysfunction, gave Lebanon a president, and was leading to a four-years-overdue parliamentary election next May. Is that election still going to happen now? I guess we’ll see, but that’s a lot less certain now than it was on Friday. Even if the elections to go as scheduled, what kind of government Lebanon will have in the meantime–and the degree to which it will reflect either Iran’s or Saudi Arabia’s influence–is an open question.

The second consequence has to do with the possibility of a new Israel-Lebanon war. You’ll never guess (OK, you will) who immediately jumped on Hariri’s resignation to argue that it’s “proof” that Hezbollah is taking Lebanon over and turning it into Iran Junior, necessitating the need for some righteous Israeli intervention. Hezbollah, especially with the war in Syria winding down, could in theory take some provocative action against Israel now hoping that an Israeli attack would unify the Lebanese people against a common enemy. Or Israel could just attack without a real provocation–they do that kind of thing from time to time–hoping instead that Hariri’s resignation will have driven a wedge between the Lebanese government/military and Hezbollah.


Proving that there’s no such thing as “water under the bridge” when it comes to the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Bahraini government issued a press release on Saturday reasserting Bahrain’s rights over the northern Qatari town/fort of Zubarah. Qatar and Bahrain spent much of the 20th century mired in a number of small territorial disputes with one another, including over Zubarah. These disputes were all settled by the International Court of Justice in 2001, with Zubarah being ruled Qatari property, but I guess everything old is new again or something.


Saturday was a real whirlwind day in Saudi Arabia. On top of the Hariri resignation and the Yemeni missile, Mohammad bin Salman took a number of steps to clear out potential opposition in advance of his eventual coronation. First, MBS had his father, King Salman, sack a number of cabinet ministers. Most prominent among them was Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, the some of former King Abdullah, who until yesterday had been in charge of the country’s national guard. Mutaib had been one of the most prominent and, by many accounts, well-respected of Ibn Saud’s grandsons, the generation to which MBS belongs and which will finally take over the kingdom when MBS officially succeeds to the throne.

As a much older man (65), the son of a former king, sitting in a very powerful office (the national guard is where King Abdullah amassed his power base before ascending in the royal hierarchy, and it’s the one military force in the country not directly under MBS’s purview), Mutaib was an obvious rival for the much younger MBS. He had to go, and his eventual removal had been talked about for some time. That his removal consolidates the entire state security apparatus under MBS’s control (the Saudi family has traditionally divided control of the military, interior ministry, and national guard up among different power centers to avoid an imbalance) is icing on the cake.

Then came the big hammer blow. Just hours after King Salman promulgated a decree creating a new anti-corruption body with–who else–MBS as its head, dozens of very powerful and mostly quite wealthy Saudi figures, including several princes, were arrested. Multiple billionaires were caught in the net, including Bakr bin Laden (Osama’s brother and the head of their massive family corporation) and Alwaleed bin Talal, the jet-setting multi-billionaire (careful–he’s been known to sue people who underestimate his wealth) investor who may be the most prominent Saudi prince as far as Western audiences are concerned. Alwaleed had a very public falling out with Donald Trump back in 2015, adding another potential wrinkle to this story (which comes while Trump is publicly lobbying Riyadh to list Aramco on an American stock exchange) that bears watching moving forward. It emerged overnight that Mutaib was also one of those who were arrested.

Were these guys actually nabbed over real corruption? Your guess is as good as mine. Certainly there’s plenty of shit that goes on in Saudi Arabia that could objectively be called “corrupt. But I’m not even sure I know how you define “corruption” in an absolute monarchy-run petro-state like Saudi Arabia. Walking off with the public treasury is kind of just what the Saudi family does. I do know that “corruption” is becoming a high-profile issue around the world, and as such it’s starting to supplement “terrorism” on a list of things you can gleefully accuse your political enemies of doing in order to brutalize them while still receiving lots of pats on the back internationally (interestingly, there are now “rumors” that some of these guys were supporting terrorists). And I know that there’s no possible way the new anti-corruption agency could have investigated all these people in the hours after it was formed on Saturday, which means either they were already under investigation or something else is going on. The Saudis would do themselves a tremendous favor if they approached their corruption cases in a spirit of real transparency, but I expect that’s not going to happen.

But even if there is a legitimate corruption crackdown on display here, I don’t think you can dismiss what these moves mean in terms of MBS’s succession and his ability to implement his agenda. MBS is in a challenging position. He’s going to be the first of Ibn Saud’s grandsons to take the throne, he’s younger than the vast majority of his cousins, and his the current king’s son. That means his accession is cutting a lot of prominent Saudi princes out of any chance of being king and that it risks alienating some of the royal family’s competing power centers.

Add to that the fact that MBS is spearheading what he envisions as a total overhaul of the kingdom’s economy, from one dependent on fossiul fuels to one that is driven by investment, both foreign and domestic. Vision 2030 has a lot of splashy elements to it–the new high-tech megacity, the Aramco IPO, promises of easing the kingdom’s stiflingly conservative brand of Islam–but MBS doesn’t talk about the other side of its program: the austerity. The Saudi welfare state can’t survive a world where oil is trading at $50/barrel (one rumor has it that Alwaleed bin Talal was arrested partly because he’s refused to use his massive fortune to help bolster the Saudi economy) and people are transitioning to renewables. The inevitable cuts in benefits and increases in costs are going to piss some people off. Many of those who were arrested were wealthy enough and prominent enough to become focal points for any popular anger that might emerge against MBS. So, again, they had to go.

If you’re weeping for the arrested Saudi princes, consider that they’re being held captive in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, because the kingdom doesn’t have any detention facilities for royalty. Even getting arrested in Saudi Arabia can be nicer than living your normal life in other countries. Some people aren’t so lucky, like Prince Mansour bin Muqrin–son of the country’s former crown prince–who died an a, uh, helicopter crash on Sunday.

If there was anybody powerful enough to act as a rival to MBS, the Saudi state’s crackdown on critics, prominent religious leaders, Muhammad bin Nayef, and now several other royals has probably eliminated them. But the degree to which MBS has accumulated absolute power, in a way that’s foreign even within the highly authoritarian Saudi framework, is bound to cause some resentments. And the seemingly arbitrary nature of his purges, even the ones framed as “anti-corruption,” is likely to make potential investors more nervous about doing business in the kingdom–particularly considering that Saturday’s dragnet caught Alwaleed, a very prominent member of the global investor community.


I don’t want to say anything, but you heard it here first (or at least fairly early on):

Escalating tensions with the United States have stirred nationalist sentiment in Iran, giving its hard-liners an opportunity to more fiercely target critics and settle old scores, rights advocates and analysts say.


The clampdown on activists, journalists and even politicians has served as a warning to pro-reform leaders who have pushed for a more tolerant and open Iran.


In recent weeks, hard-line judges have confined a reformist ex-president to his home, sentenced pro-reform leaders to prison and opened a criminal investigation into BBC’s Persian-language channel for conspiracy to harm national security.


They also placed travel restrictions on the family of late president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another reformer, and on Wednesday an appeals court upheld a sentence for a pro-reform activist on national security charges.

Lest we make the mistake of chalking this up to the Washington foreign policy establishment fucking up yet again, my belief has always been that this is exactly what they wanted to happen. Maintaining the constant drumbeat for doing war on Iran is more difficult when the Iranians put a moderate face out to the world, like Hassan Rouhani’s. The Bomb Bomb Iran types much prefer that Iran’s hardliners remain ascendent for that reason, and thankfully for them Trump’s election gave them a president willing to help give Iranian politics a big nudge in that direction.

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