Middle East update: November 8 2017


There’s been no official confirmation as I write this, but “pro-government sources” are saying that the Syrian army and its allied militias (including at least one–Kataib Hezbollah–that has crossed into Syria from Iraq) have captured al-Bukamal, the last ISIS position of any significance in eastern Syria and along the Syria-Iraq border. If true, this means that ISIS is down to a handful of villages and parts of the southeastern Syrian desert as its remaining Syrian possessions. Damascus, meanwhile, finally has control of a major crossing on the Iraq-Syria border for the first time since the early weeks of the civil war.

گفت‌وگو با جناب آقای دکتر علی‌اکبر ولایتی
Ali Akbar Velayati

Iranian national security adviser Ali Akbar Velayati is back on his bullshit, it would seem. Just a few days after saying that the Syrian army would attack Raqqa soon, Velayati told reporters in Aleppo that Syria will shortly be “clearing” both eastern Syria and Idlib province. The latter is obviously new and would seemingly wreck the whole Turkey-Russia-Iran deescalation zone agreement in Idlib, so again it’s unclear whether Velayati actually knows something or is just running at the mouth.

The US, France, and UK, along with Germany, issued a joint statement on Wednesday calling on the United Nations Security Council to extend the ongoing investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria, whose term is due to expire in a few days. They seem intent on forcing Russia to veto an extension at least one more time before the November 17 deadline passes.


Masoud Barzani has concocted quite a theory to explain how his peshmerga lost Kirkuk: American and Iran did it, working in cahoots with one another:

“We do believe, yes, that the operation to take over Kirkuk was led by Iranians with the knowledge of the US and British officials,” Barzani, 71, said in an interview with Newsweek.

I mean, if US and British officials “knew” something was going to happen in Kirkuk, that’s not terribly compelling evidence–hell, I thought there was a pretty good chance something might happen and I’m just Some Guy on the Internet. But to be honest I think I’m going to need to see a little more evidence before I can accept some kind of alliance between the Trump administration and the Iranian government.

Osama al-Nujaifi, the Sunni member of Iraq’s unwieldy (and mostly unnecessary except as patronage) three-person vice presidency, told Reuters on Wednesday that he could throw his support behind Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in next May’s election. Nujaifi wants to see Abadi formalize Baghdad’s authority over the Popular Mobilization Units and make a substantial commitment to rebuilding Mosul before he decides what to do, but his endorsement would not only help Abadi but could (if handled well) help reconnect Sunni Arabs with Baghdad.


Saudi Arabia has loosened its total blockade on Yemen–which, to reiterate, did not make any allowances for humanitarian aid despite what the Saudis said when they imposed it–by opening up the port at Aden. That’s certainly a positive development, but Aden isn’t really equipped to handle the kind of massive humanitarian need that currently exists there. Hodeida is the only port in Yemen large enough for that, and frankly even it’s not enough by itself. Well, at least some people might be able to get gas for their cars again now.

The Saudis and the US continue to insist–without evidence–that Iran supplied the missile that the Yemeni rebels fired at Riyadh on Saturday. The US wants the UN to hold Iran “accountable” for, well, something I guess. The Iranians have already complained to the UN about hostile Saudi rhetoric regarding the missile launch.

With Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi apparently under house arrest in Riyadh, Al Jazeera–obviously not the most neutral observer at this point–wonders what is the point of Riyadh’s ongoing Yemeni adventure. Ostensibly the whole effort was to restore Hadi’s “legitimate” government, but if he’s not even allowed to go back to Yemen then, well, what’s the endgame? The UAE’s endgame at this point seems to be to secure a southern Yemeni secession, but for the Saudis it’s much less clear. Are they planning to replace Hadi with somebody else? Maybe former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, or Saleh’s son Ahmed, if they can pry them away from the Houthis? And if that’s where this is heading, why would that new person be any more “legitimate” than the Houthis?


Instead of cutting the funds it’s currently spending on Turkey’s accession bid, the European Union may redirect part of those funds toward strengthening the Turkish judicial system and civil society groups. I’m sure that policy will be very well-received in Ankara. On a more positive front, Italy and France have signed a letter of intent with Turkey to develop a joint air/missile defense system. That might keep Turkey from finalizing its deal to buy Russian S-400 batteries, which are of course incompatible with other NATO systems.

Meanwhile, inside Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is busily depriving people of their elected local officials for reasons that aren’t entirely clear:

Since the botched coup in July 2016, the Interior Ministry has dismissed the mayors of 10 provincial centers and close to 100 districts in the Kurdish-majority southeast, including the region’s biggest city, Diyarbakir, replacing them with custodians of its own choice.


In September, Erdogan launched an extraordinary purge against mayors from his own Justice and Development Party (AKP). The mayors of six major urban centers, including Ankara and Istanbul, have resigned thus far at Erdogan’s behest.


The provinces that have lost their mayors are home to more than 30 million people, meaning that, on the local level, roughly 40% of Turkish citizens are no longer governed by the people they elected.


Nabih Berri, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, says that Lebanon’s government remains in place despite ex-Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s resignation. Under the terms of Lebanon’s traditional (well, back to the 1940s) power-sharing arrangement, parliament speakers are always Shiʿa, and as such Berri is part of the March 8 Alliance rather than Hariri’s March 14 Alliance (as far as I know there are no elected Shiʿa in March 14 in the current parliament). So he’s not really in a position to talk about what March 14 might do now that its leader has quit.

At LobeLog, Aurélie Daher says the Hariri resignation is already not going the way the Saudis presumably wanted it to go:

One thing is certain. The Saudi initiative was part of a larger plan to send a strong message to both Saudi and regional audiences: Hariri’s resignation, the arrest of dozens of princes and ministers, and the blockade on Yemen were coordinated to give the world a clear image of Saudi Arabia’s new posture.


In Lebanon however, things are already backfiring. The Saudi move had an unexpected result. Whereas Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon have seemed for the last 10 years incapable of sharing common ground on regional alliances, the “kidnapping” of their prime minister at the hands of his own Saudi boss managed to infuriate Hariri’s own community. On Sunday, Hariri’s party even praised Hassan Nasrallah, calling him a “responsible man” who placed above all the country’s “national interest,” a first in more than 10 years.

Amazing. Mohammed bin Salman is batting .000 since he became defense minister in 2015. And this is not only the kingdom’s next king, he’s the guy they’ve entrusted with stabilizing its economic future. Credit where credit is due, Brookings analyst Bruce Reidel saw this coming:

The king and his son have embraced the most virulent sectarianism in the modern kingdom’s history against Shia at home and abroad.  The Saudis encouraged Lebanese Prime Minister Saed Hariri to quit his post, apparently hoping to isolate Hezbollah. Now the Saudis are saying they are at war with the group.  Most likely the gambit will ricochet and benefit the Iranians and Hezbollah.


British International Development Secretary Priti Patel has been forced to resign after it surfaced that she’d held secret meetings with several Israeli leaders back in August about funneling aid money to the Israeli military. This would have been accomplished by classifying whatever the Israeli Defense Force is doing in the occupied Golan as “humanitarian operations.” Patel originally denied having conducted the meetings, which seem to be what did her in.


Like Saad al-Hariri, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is parroting Saudi rhetoric on Iran:

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said Wednesday that Iran must stop “meddling” in the Middle East and the security of Arab Gulf countries must not be threatened, but he underscored that he does not want war and believes dialogue can resolve the region’s crises.

Nobody wants a Saudi-Iran war–least of all the Saudis, who would lose it. Riyadh’s only hope would be to get so much American help that the war would effectively become a US-Iran war, which might be exactly what they’re after except insofar as Iran would then appeal to Russia for help, and that could take everybody into some very uncharted territory. And anyway, judging from Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s no particular reason to think the US could win that war either, depending on how you define “win.”

But Sisi has adopted the same bizarre framework that Iran must stop meddling in the affairs of the region in which it is located. Apart from being seemingly impossible–literally anything Iran does inherently “meddles” in the Middle East since Iran is in the Middle East–it’s a way to create some artificial Persian-Arab barrier by which it’s bad when Iran fucks around in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, but it’s perfectly fine when Saudi Arabia and Egypt fuck around in exactly the same places. Unfortunately, that the trail of destruction the Saudis have left via their meddling is at least as big as the one the Iranians have left.


The UN’s International Labor Organization has reportedly closed its file on Qatar, which had been open since 2014, in response to the Qatari government’s latest promises to fundamentally reform its kafalah migrant labor system. Hopefully they’ll be ready to open it back up again if the Qataris fail to deliver.


The Saudis have made more arrests in their anti-corruption/pro-Mohammad bin Salman campaign, and they’ve also gone on a bit of a spree in terms of freezing bank accounts–some 1700 at this point. This has been enough to put the Saudi stock market into a downturn, though Saudi officials are making it clear that they’re only freezing personal accounts in an effort to convince investors that businesses aren’t going to be affected.

The Saudi government is insisting that Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd is still alive, despite swirling rumors that he was killed in a shootout with Saudi security forces trying to arrest him as part of the campaign. Middle East Eye is reporting that he’s been under house arrest for some time now and was recently moved to the King Faisal Hospital for some reason. He was apparently MBS before MBS–promoted nepotistically up the Saudi ranks by his father, King Fahd–but unlike MBS he was brought back under heel by his uncles (who, unlike today, weren’t all on death’s door 10-15 years ago when this was going on). As to what got Abdulaziz arrested, the speculation is that it was his considerable wealth. When all is said and done the Saudis may be able to confiscate up to $800 billion in assets seized from all the people they’ve arrested.


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke with his cabinet on Wednesday, and one topic was Saudi Arabia:

“Why are you showing hostility towards the people of Syria and Iraq? Why are you strengthening Isis and leaving the peoples of the region with them? Why are you interfering with Lebanon’s internal affairs and governance?” Rouhani said, referring to the resignation on Saturday of Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister, who unexpectedly stepped down as prime minister while he was visiting Saudi Arabia.

A couple of those questions could just as easily be asked of Iran, which has showed hostility toward plenty of Syrians and Iraqis and interferes with Lebanon’s internal affairs on the regular, but I digress.

In a somewhat surprising move, the Iranian government has suspended Kayhan, an ultra-hardline newspaper whose editor-in-chief is appointed by the Supreme Leader, for two days, over a headline referring to Saturday’s attempted missile strike on Riyadh that read “Ansar-Allah’s missile fires at Riyadh: the next target, Dubai.” This tone was decidedly not in line with the Iranian government’s official response to the missile incident, hence the (brief) suspension.

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