Middle East update: November 9 2017


The Syrian army made it official on Thursday: it (with some help from its allies) has taken al-Bukamal from ISIS. This occasioned a dramatic declaration of victory from Damascus, but ISIS still controls enough Syrian countryside to disappear and go underground if that’s what its leaders want to do. That’s not really a clear victory. It will be much easier, by the by, for ISIS to go underground if the Syrian army now turns north to confront the Syrian Democratic Forces instead of back to the west to pursue ISIS.


Patrick Wing’s regular update on violent incidents in Iraq offers good news for the first part of November:

The vastly improved security situation in Iraq continued into the first week of November. There were few incidents and casualties. This was just another sign of the collapse and withdrawal of the Islamic State in the country.


There were only 72 incidents reported in Iraq from November 1-7. That marked the 14th week in the last 15 that had under 100 incidents. There were just 2 in Salahaddin, 7 in Anbar, 9 in Baghdad, 12 in Kirkuk, 20 in Diyala, and 37 in Ninewa.


Those incidents led to 135 dead and 97 wounded. That was the second lowest weekly fatality total since 124 recorded from July 15-21. There were 5 Peshmerga, 7 Hashd al-Shaabi, 17 members of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and 106 civilians that lost their lives along with 12 ISF and 85 civilians that were injured.

Unsurprisingly, more casualties were recorded in Anbar, where there’s been active combat, than in any other province.

Speaking of Anbar, the AP reports that US forces have been building small outposts in western Iraq, ostensibly to facilitate their support for Iraqi forces clearing ISIS off of the Syrian border. Which is undoubtedly true. However, those outposts are interestingly placed if, say, the US wanted to leave some forces disbursed around western Iraq more permanently in order to disrupt Iranian plans in the region. Just hypothetically speaking.


Reuters offers an overview of the flailing Saudi-led war effort:

More than two years into a war that has already left 10,000 dead, regional power Saudi Arabia is struggling to pull together an effective local military force to defeat the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement that has seized large parts of Yemen.


The dysfunction is a reminder to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that his campaign to counter arch-enemy Iran in the Middle East, including threats against Tehran’s ally Hezbollah, may be hard to implement.

The Saudis have concocted, still without evidence, a Grand Unified Theory of Saturday’s attempted missile attack on the King Khalid airport in Riyadh. In this telling, the Iranians smuggled the missile in pieces into Yemen, where it was assembled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and fired by Hezbollah. If they find a way to work Bashar al-Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood in there then they’ll have implicated all of their regional enemies in one failed missile strike. Meanwhile, the simpler explanation continues to be that the missile was developed in Yemen based on pre-war Yemeni military stockpiles.


Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım met Vice President Mike Pence in Washington on Thursday in an effort to ease tensions in the US-Turkey relationship. Yıldırım has been in DC for most of this week, working the think tank circuit and schmoozing reporters and lawmakers. Pence reportedly expressed his concern over the Turkish arrests of American citizens and US mission staff, while Yıldırım at least made a show of trying to get Fethullah Gülen extradited (I’m still not convinced Ankara really wants that, but they have to keep up appearances).


Saudi Arabia has ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon immediately, a move reminiscent of the initial steps the Saudis took to blockade Qatar earlier this year. The governments of Bahrain and Kuwait followed suit later in the day, and I doubt they’ll be the only ones. These countries have not, as far as I know, expelled Lebanese citizens, though that may be forthcoming.

Maybe the reason the Saudis haven’t expelled Lebanese citizens yet is because that might mean sending former (?) Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri home (though Hariri’s dual citizenship might “protect” him in that case). Reuters is reporting that there are officials in the Lebanese government (some with links to Hariri) who seem to genuinely believe that the former (?) PM is being held captive by the Saudis, a notion that was barely more than a Hezbollah talking point a couple of days ago. They say they want to work with foreign governments to try to secure his release. Hariri’s own Future Party issued a statement on Thursday demanding his return, and Lebanon’s fractured political system may be starting to find some true unity–in opposition to Riyadh.

Things are serious enough that French God of Diplomacy Hermes President Hermes Emmanuel Macron is making an emergency trip to Riyadh on Thursday to, I guess, try to talk Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman down. Either that or to have his dog pee on one of MBS’s cars or something. In all seriousness he might try to get Hariri (who lived in France earlier this decade and may have French citizenship although Online gives me some conflicting answers about that) released to go to France, but I can’t imagine MBS would go along with that. He may also talk to MBS about easing the Saudi blockade on Yemen.

Basically, at this point I think it’s difficult to overstate how badly the Saudis have fucked this situation up. They’ve easily handled this more ineptly than they handled Yemen or Qatar, which is saying something. Unfortunately, in this case their ineptitude probably makes an Israeli (and at some point maybe American) military intervention more likely, since it’s only going to entrench Hezbollah deeper into Lebanese politics.


Israeli police questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the fifth time on Thursday in relation to the corruption allegations that continue to surround him.

+972 Magazine has the story of Kibbutz Beit Alfa, which specializes in manufacturing a particularly troubling product:

Last week, hundreds of ultra-orthodox demonstrators blocked the entrance to Jerusalem to protest the arrest of yeshiva students deemed ‘deserters’ by the IDF because they refused to be drafted into the IDF. Israeli police sent in special riot control vehicles that sprayed colored water on the demonstrators. The footage of phosphorescent blue water splattered on the black-and-white-clad Haredi protesters appeared across Israeli media, mostly due to the colorful contrast. These riot control vehicles, produced by Kibbutz Beit Alfa, which belongs to the socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair movement, have been sold to despotic regime for decades. They colored water helps mark protesters, making it easy to arrest them even after they leave the scene.

Kibutz Beit Alfa’s vehicles have been sold to such wholesome regimes as Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile and Pierre Nkurunziza’s in Burundi.


Another gem has been unearthed from UAE ambassador Yusef al-Otaiba’s hacked email account. As reported by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim and Ben Walsh, Otaiba’s account included a slide presentation prepared by the Luxembourg-based Banque Havilland on a strategy to drive down the value of Qatari bonds and devalue Qatar’s currency. While Qatar is already feeling some of these effects as a result of the Saudi/Emirati/etc. blockade (though they continue to demonstrate enough financial strength to withstand that effort), this would have been (and, I guess, could still be) a targeted effort to crash the Qatari economy that can be described as economic warfare. And one of its intended outcomes is apparently, of all things, to force the then-impoverished Qataris to share hosting duties for the 2022 World Cup among all the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Grim and Walsh describe this as “petty,” but really “petty” doesn’t do it justice. This is petty. Wrecking Qatar’s economy over a soccer tournament is on a whole other level.

The Qataris have appointed four women among 28 new members to the country’s Shura Council. The council was established to be Qatar’s legislature, but unless and until the country holds an election (there have been plans to elect 30 of its 45 members since 2007 but a vote still hasn’t happened) it’s really more of an advisory body for the emir. These are the first women appointed to the body since it was created in Qatar’s 2003 constitution.


The UAE is helping Mohammad bin Salman in his purging. Its central bank has requested that commercial banks in the country provide information on 19 Saudi citizens. Presumably their accounts could be frozen on Riyadh’s behalf, though that order apparently hasn’t been given yet.

One of the understated aspects of MBS’s rise to power and his path of destruction across the region has been the role played by his mentor, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ). I linked you all to this POLITICO piece on their relationship back when it was published, but those who haven’t seen it yet and are interested in this story might want to check it out. MBZ’s relationship with the Saudi crown prince has given the UAE some degree of influence over Saudi foreign policy, for better (not so much) or worse (yes, mostly this).


DEVELOPING: Middle East Eye published a major story after I’d written this post but before I actually put it online, and while I don’t want to rewrite or delete everything below it’s all kind of superseded by this:

Some senior figures detained in last Saturday’s purge in Saudi Arabia were beaten and tortured so badly during their arrest or subsequent interrogations that they required hospital treatment, Middle East Eye can reveal.


Sources inside the royal court also told MEE that the scale of the crackdown, which has brought new arrests each day, is also much bigger than Saudi authorities have admitted, with more than 500 people detained and double that number questioned.

We’ve been joking about the arrested princes being “jailed” in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, but if this story is true then it’s the wealthiest and most powerful figures caught up in the purge who have been tortured the most severely, allegedly in order to make them reveal details of their financial accounts. One of the princes named in the MEE report is Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the US who was so tight with the Bush family that he was often referred to as “Bandar Bush.” If the MEE story is correct then his case does seem like a genuine corruption situation–he was allegedly paid a kickback by BAE in the scandal-plagued 2006 al-Yamamah arms deal. It’s not clear if Bandar was among those who were (again, allegedly) tortured.

Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said on Thursday that investigators have found that “at least $100bn has been misused through systematic corruption and embezzlement over several decades.” As far as I can tell he did not explain what “systematic corruption” and “embezzlement” mean in a country in which the royal family horking up a chunk of the nation’s wealth just because is, well, the normal way things operate. Which is not to say that there’s not corruption beyond that, just that it would be nice, and transparent, and would go a long way toward showing that The Purge  (up to 200 arrests now, and still going!) isn’t just MBS’s way of consolidating power, if Riyadh would very clearly explain what specific corrupt actions their investigation has uncovered.

Among the princes whose accounts have been frozen is former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who I guess can add “embezzler” to “drug addict” on the list of things he’s been accused of being since he was ousted in June. The move may validate a standing rumor that MBN has been under house arrest since his removal as crown prince–he made his first public appearance since then on Tuesday at the funeral for his cousin, Prince Mansour bin Muqrin, the former deputy governor of Asir province who was killed on Sunday in a totally coincidental (?) helicopter crash.

Brookings’ Adel Abdel Ghafar looks at the targets of MBS’s purge and the messages he’s trying to send to three of the country’s most important constituencies:

The arrests, which have sent shockwaves through Saudi Arabia and the region, are the design of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as he seeks to establish a new political order. They send important signals to the country’s political and religious establishments, as well as its huge youth population—but can he pull off the power consolidation in the longer term?


Now for a refreshing change let’s talk about Iran’s bullshit. The latest estimate is that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has arrested 30 dual nationals, all or nearly all on phony espionage charges, over the past two years. The number was previously believed to be much lower than that, and this estimate may still be low as governments often try to keep such information private as they negotiate with the Iranians over these prisoners. The IRGC has also branched out into arresting dual Iranian-European citizens where previously it focused almost exclusively on Iranian-Americans. Lawyers for many of those who have been detained say the IRGC is using them as leverage with foreign governments and as warnings to foreign businesses that might be inclined to enter the Iranian market and compete with IRGC-owned firms.

Finally, the leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), Ahmad Mola Nissi, was gunned down in The Hague on Wednesday night. ASMLA advocates for an independent state in Iran’s Khuzestan province, which has a sizable Ahwazi (Ahvaz is the provincial capital) Arab minority, and its armed wing has carried out violent attacks against Iranian since the group was founded in 1999. A suspect was arrested trying to flee the scene but there’s no information as to who he was or whether he was even involved, let alone about a possible motive.

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 2.38.39 PM
Khuzestan province is marked in red, courtesy of Google Maps

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