Middle East update: November 11-12 2017


Iraqi forces are moving against Rawa, the last town of any size in Iraq still under ISIS’s control. Initially I have to admit I thought the Iraqis would take Rawa before Qaim and work their way west to the Syrian border, but instead they opted to go around Rawa, take Qaim and close off the border, then move back east. The map below, updated through November 2, shows how little ISIS still controls in Iraq–if you zoom in along the Euphrates River, you’ll see one single dot in black denoting a town controlled by ISIS. That’s Rawa. Once it’s liberated, ISIS will be down to a stretch of desert. Which is not to say its fighters aren’t hiding out in other places–a lot of that red, government-held territory is unpopulated and difficult to secure, for example. But certainly ISIS has seen better days.

Iraq through November 2 (Wikimedia | Absalao777)

Iraqi forces have found another mass grave near Hawijah, one of dozens discovered in areas previously controlled by ISIS. Thousands of bodies, most/all executed by ISIS, are believed to be buried in these places.


Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t have a sit down meeting in Đà Nẵng on Friday, but they did agree to defeat ISIS. Big, if true.

If Putin wants to defeat ISIS he should probably start in al-Bukamal. The town that was allegedly captured by the Syrian army on Thursday is now reportedly 60 percent back in ISIS’s hands has been entirely recaptured by ISIS (this is why I wait to post these things until very late in the day), thanks to a Syrian government that has repeatedly let ISIS up off the mat during the course of the civil war. Note that I’m not alleging collusion here, though I think there was some early on in the war. I’m simply alleging incompetence.


As a reminder, this is what Yemen was like before Saudi Arabia closed off every port of entry into the country after last weekend’s failed missile strike on Riyadh:

Abdulaziz al-Husseinya lies skeletal and lifeless in a hospital in Yemen’s western port city of Hodeidah. At the age of nine, he weighs less than one and a half stone, and is one of hundreds of thousands of children in the country suffering from acute malnutrition.


Seven million people are on on the brink of famine in war-torn Yemen, which was already in the grip of the world’s worst cholera outbreak when coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia tightened its blockade on the country last week, stemming vital aid flows.


Al-Thawra hospital, where Abdulaziz is being treated, is reeling under the pressure of more than two years of conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and Iranian-allied Houthi rebels. Its corridors are packed, with patients now coming from five surrounding governorates to wait elbow-to-elbow for treatment.

Starving millions of people to death because a group of rebels almost pulled off a single missile strike on your country isn’t just, or strategic, or tactical. It’s sadistic. And since it wouldn’t be happening without American support, it’s our sadism on display for the rest of the world to see.

The rebels are denying that the missile they fired on Riyadh was Iranian in origin. There’s no particular reason to believe them, just as there’s no particular reason to believe the US or the Saudis when they say it was Iranian. But the burden of proof here lies with Washington and Riyadh, and they haven’t met it yet.

A “Yemeni official” says that Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi is not under house arrest in Riyadh. Though it might seem like he’s under house arrest, the official says the reason Hadi can’t go back to Yemen is because, well, he’d probably be assassinated if he did, maybe by one of the southern Yemeni secessionist factions allied with the United Arab Emirates. Though with the degree to which Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed controls Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, one assumes if the UAE’s proxies really wanted Hadi back in Aden he could make that happen.


The Turkish government insists that it agreed to buy Russia’s signature S-400 anti-aircraft units because they offered more features for less money, not to send a political message to its NATO allies. The S-400s will represent Turkey’s first domestic anti-aircraft defense system–to date it’s relied on Patriot missile batteries contributed by other NATO countries. NATO members have raised concerns about whether it will be possible to integrate the Russia units into NATO’s unified defense systems. However, Turkey has also agreed to participate in a joint project with France and Italy to develop a next-generation air defense system, so it does seem like there’s not much of a political message to the purchase.

Ankara says it did not offer Michael Flynn $15 million to basically kidnap Fethullah Gülen and deliver him back to Turkey. Truly we live in the dumbest time in human history.


The Washington Post’s David Ignatius tapped some “well-informed Lebanese sources” on Friday to confirm what we’ve all been saying: Saad al-Hariri was detained by Saudi authorities and forces to resign as Lebanese Prime Minister. He says the Saudis forced Hariri out because he was unwilling to take a tougher line against Hezbollah, and that they want Hariri’s older and more intransigent brother, Bahaa, to replace him. I am not a David Ignatius fan. He’s a steadfast conventional wisdom fountain whose main job is to do PR for the Blob. But that’s why I think it’s worth noting what he’s saying here. If even David Ignatius says the Saudis arrested Hariri, then it seems to me the odds are pretty good that’s what happened. Reuters published virtually the same story, based on its own reporting, on Saturday.

Hariri himself actually spoke on Lebanese media on Sunday, giving an interview to a pro-Saudi journalist on Hariri’s Future Movement Party’s pro-Saudi TV network. He told everyone that resigning was totally his idea alone and was meant to “shock” Lebanese politics into change. He said he’ll be returning to Lebanon “within days” (not holding my breath!) and that he’s been free to return all this time, but hasn’t due to fear over the assassination plot against him–you know, the one nobody in Lebanon seems to know anything about and the one Hariri himself never mentioned until the Saudis made him he got to Saudi Arabia. But he’ll definitely be returning…to…Lebanon…any…minute…no-

This whole situation is so weird it makes the sonic whatever in Cuba seem positively normal by comparison. Hariri seemed to allow for the possibility that his resignation as PM was not a done deal, suggesting that if Hezbollah were to agree to adopt a policy of regional neutrality (which he says is all the Saudis want) he could be persuaded to stay on. He notably did not criticize Hezbollah for playing a role in Lebanese politics, but did criticize it for playing an independent role in regional events (essentially for its activities in Syria and its independent relationship with Iran). And, hey, Hezbollah turning inward a bit probably wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to the Middle East, except insofar as it would validate all this Saudi fuckery and that would undoubtedly embolden Mohammad bin Salman’s worst instincts. Which is the last thing the Middle East needs.

Hariri’s semi-offer to stay on as PM seems to stem from a belief he now has that the outpouring of anger from all corners of Lebanese society over this situation is motivated by people’s great love for Hariri himself. I’m not sure he’s reading the situation correctly. Most of this outrage seems to me to stem from the fact that the Saudi crown prince is treating Lebanon like a Saudi colony rather than as a sovereign state. I guess when (if) Hariri returns to Lebanon we’ll get a better sense of just how beloved he is nowadays. He’s become a symbol for people angry at Saudi interference in Lebanese internal politics, but when he goes back to Lebanon it will be as a virtual Saudi puppet. He can’t be both of those things.


Good news, everybody! The Trump administration has started working on its Israel-Palestine peace plan:

President Trump and his advisers have begun developing their own concrete blueprint to end the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, a plan intended to go beyond previous frameworks offered by the American government in pursuit of what the president calls “the ultimate deal.”


After 10 months of educating themselves on the complexities of the world’s most intractable dispute, White House officials said, Mr. Trump’s team of relative newcomers to Middle East peacemaking has moved into a new phase of its venture in hopes of transforming what it has learned into tangible steps to end a stalemate that has frustrated even presidents with more experience in the region.

Wow, a whole ten months! Surely this, the bar-none dumbest administration in American history, is more than up to solving the Israel-Palestine conflict after ten months of half-assed prep work led by a real estate failson whose biggest goal in life is to get somebody to buy one single building from him. Success seems particularly likely given that Trump will be working with two dynamic leaders in Benjamin Netanyahu, who may have to phone into the talks from his jail cell, and Mahmoud Abbas, whose approval rating is probably in the single digits within his own family. Frankly, this can’t not work.


Egyptian authorities said on Saturday their airstrikes destroyed ten trucks full of weapons and ammunition being smuggled into Egypt from Libya. It’s not clear when the airstrikes took place.

Buzzfeed’s Borzou Daragahi reports on a brawl that took place in Cairo’s Tora prison in June 2016 between inmates affiliated with ISIS and inmates affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood:

Supporters of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS militants locked up together inside the cramped, dingy cells of Cairo’s notorious Tora prison had been arguing endlessly over religion and politics. The ISIS prisoners refused to eat next to the Brotherhood inmates, and ordered their followers not to pray with them, spelling out specific rules on when and how to call out cellmates as infidels and when to try to recruit previously peaceful political Islamists to their violent cause.


Elders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist organization in the world, sought desperately to keep their younger adherents from drifting toward ISIS. Heated discussions went on for hours, with inmates having little else to do but talk.


The debates descended into taunts and on June 21, 2016, ISIS and Muslim Brotherhood supporters picked up pipes and kitchen utensils and raised their fists in what became an all-out brawl involving dozens of prisoners, according to several researchers and activists who have spoken to current and former inmates at Tora.

The brawl itself is obviously old news, but ISIS recruiting young Brotherhood members imprisoned amid Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s all-out war against the Islamist group is both ongoing and a serious threat to Egyptian security. Almost as if authoritarianism and repression actually increases the risk of radicalization rather than diminishing it? But that’s just nonsense talk.


Bahraini officials have classified Friday’s explosion along its main oil pipeline as an act of terrorism. They are, of course, blaming Iran, and Iran, of course, denies involvement.


There are some signals coming from the State Department that, Donald Trump’s total devotion notwithstanding, the United States would like the Saudis to be a little less enthusiastic about destroying the entire Middle East just to own the Iranians. This reminds me of the time Bay Area authorities asked the Zodiac Killer to “tone it down just a hair” as he was committing his murders.


Iranian media is reporting that at least 140 people were killed in a magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck along the Iraq-Iran border on Sunday. That number has risen precipitously over the past few hours so it’s likely not done rising. At last check the quake  had caused six deaths in Iraq. Most of the Iranian deaths occurred in Kermanshah province as far as I can tell.

Analyst James Dorsey puts the murder of Ahwazi leader Ahmad Mola Nissi in The Hague last week in the context of the Saudi-Iran rivalry:

No one has claimed responsibility for Mola Nissi’s killing and Iranian opposition sources blame the regime in Tehran. Some Iranian Arab activists, however, expressed surprise at the killing.


“I don’t believe the regime will do such a crazy, stupid crime in Europe that would severely damage the regime’s reputation. I personally don’t believe the regime wants to destroy its ties with the EU for such a person (Ahmad Mola),” one activist said.


Nonetheless, Mola Nissi was shot dead as he was preparing to establish a television station staffed with Saudi-trained personnel and funding that would target Khuzestan, a south-eastern province that borders on Iraq and sits at the head of the Gulf, according to activists.

The Iranians have reiterated, after a new push by French President Mithra Emmanuel Macron, that they will not negotiate away their ballistic missile development program.

After British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson did his best last week to ensure that detained dual British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe would not be released by the Iranian government, his fellow dolt Michael Gove for some reason decided to twist the knife deeper over the weekend. Gove told a BBC interviewer that he doesn’t know why Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran. These two are apparently too dumb to remember to say “she was on vacation,” which is what her family says and what the official British position–for purposes of, you know, negotiating her release from an unjustified Iranian prison sentence–is.

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