Middle East update: April 21-22 2018


A new statement from ISIS’s official spokesman suggests that the group is shifting its focus away from the West and on to governments in the Middle East:

The remarks were a departure from the last pronouncement issued by the spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, which aimed to incite attacks against Europe and North America. It comes as the group is retrenching in its core territory after losing all but 3 percent of the area it once held in Iraq and Syria.


In a nearly hourlong audio recording, released inside the group’s chat rooms in the messaging app Telegram, the spokesman called on fighters to redirect their ire toward the leaders of Arab nations in the region, whom he described as “apostates,” a term the group uses to refer to fellow Sunnis who have strayed from its extreme interpretation of the faith.


The spokesman said there was “no difference” between fighting the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and the Palestinians “and their American Crusader allies, or the Russians or the Europeans.” He argued that they deserved to be treated even more harshly because “these are Arabs and are more fierce and vicious against Islam.”

Muhajir called specifically for attacks intended to disrupt Iraq’s election next month. He also explicitly said the group makes no distinction between Shiʿa governments (e.g. Iran) and Sunni governments (e.g. the Saudis).


Though it’s been a few days since ISIS and the other Syrian insurgent groups controlling Yarmouk and its environs reportedly agreed to evacuate, the Syrian military continues to bomb the place. Yarmouk is best known for its large, though mostly depopulated at this point, Palestinian refugee camp, and the United Nations Relief Works Agency says that at least two refugees in that camp have been killed in the past several days of government air and artillery strikes. While this is going on, rebels in what is probably the Syrian government’s next target, the Qalamoun area northeast of Damascus, began withdrawing to northern Syria on Saturday. Also on Saturday, investigators with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons finally visited one of the two sites in Douma that were allegedly hit with chemical weapons on April 7.

The United Nations Security Council held its annual retreat this weekend in Österlen, in southern Sweden. Syria was on the top of their agenda, which I guess would be super if the UNSC were at all relevant to the war. Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron is in Washington to visit with US President Donald Trump (Trump’s first official state visit, apparently), and talk about a meeting of the minds. Macron wants to convince Trump to extend the US stay in Syria indefinitely, which he’s pretty much already done despite his public complaints, in order to contain The Iranian Menace.

Speaking of which, both Iranian and Israeli officials seem this weekend to be trying to tamp down the rhetorical escalation that’s put the two countries on a path toward war. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif told CBS News on Sunday that “I do not believe that we are headed towards regional war but I do believe that unfortunately, Israel has continued its violations with international law, hoping to be able to do it with impunity because of the U.S. support and trying to find smokescreens to hide behind.” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, meanwhile, was asked by Israel Radio whether a war is imminent and said, “I hope not. I think that our primary role is prevent war, and that requires concrete, real deterrence as well as readiness to act.”


James Dorsey says that Saudi Arabia has changed its approach toward Shiʿa Iraq in an effort–of course–to counter Iranian influence there. He sees signs that Riyadh’s kinder, gentler manner is working:

Stepped up Saudi efforts to forge close diplomatic, economic and cultural ties to Shia-majority Iraq in a bid to counter significant Iranian influence in the country appear to be paying off. The Saudi initiative demonstrates the kingdom’s ability to engage rather than exclusively pursue a muscular, assertive and confrontational policy towards the Islamic republic and its perceived allies. It raises the question whether it is a one-off or could become a model for Saudi policy elsewhere in the region.


The kingdom’s recent, far more sophisticated approach to Iraq is testimony to the fact that its multi-billion dollar, decades-long support for Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that at times involved funding of both violent and non-violent militants had failed in Iraq. It constitutes recognition that Saudi Arabia’s absence effectively gave Iran a free reign.

Dorsey wonders if the Saudis are turning over a new leaf in general, but something tells me the answer is “no.” The kingdom’s own Shiʿa subjects, for example, are still being badly mistreated because their geopolitical significance to the Saudis is nil.


With Turkey’s next general election now only about two months away, 15 legislators from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) have switched over to the new Good Party (yes, that’s its name), which broke away from the nationalist party MHP last year over MHP’s decision to align itself completely with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This is now, however, some kind of massive electoral realignment. There was a chance that the Good Party would be denied the right to stand in June’s election because it hasn’t been around long enough, but the switch gives the party 20 seats in parliament and thus entitles it to run in June. Turkey’s opposition is trying to put together as big a tent as possible to counter Erdoğan, and the Good Party could be a vital outlet for right-wing nationalist voters who might not be on board with the whole Erdoğan project but aren’t going to vote for the centrist CHP or the left-wing HDP.

Good Party leader Meral Akşener could also, barring any surprise entries, be Erdoğan’s toughest competition in the presidential portion of June’s festivities. She appeals to the right but might also be able to lock down an “anybody but Sultan Recep” vote on the left.

Good Party leader Meral Akşener


Hamas member and engineer Fadi al-Batsh was killed on Saturday in Malaysia in a drive by shooting. The Israeli government is denying that Mossad had anything to do with it and says he was likely killed in an intra-Palestinian dispute.


If you happened to be in Riyadh on Saturday evening, you were likely startled by the sound of gunfire echoing through the streets. After rumors of a coup attempt and King Salman being ushered into a bunker began circulating on social media, the Saudis announced that in fact somebody’s toy drone had strayed into the airspace over an area of the city containing several royal palaces. Saudi security opened fire on the drone and it was apparently shot down, and in fact Salman wasn’t even in Riyadh. Sure, OK. This is definitely something that could have happened. It would be vastly overestimating Saudi security forces to assume that they had a better plan for dealing with drone sightings than “everybody grab a gun and shoot up in the air.” It could be a cover story though. Either way, it seems things have returned to normal in Riyadh. Except now people apparently need a permit to fly a drone over the city.


While Emmanuel Macron tries to convince Donald Trump to stay the course in Syria, he’ll also be trying to convince him to stand by the Iran nuclear deal. After Macron leaves, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be heading to Washington to make the same argument. European and US negotiators have been working on a package of, oh, let’s say supplements to the deal that might keep Trump from abandoning it next month:

According to U.S. and European officials involved in those talks, significant progress has been made on addressing concerns about the deal’s sunset clauses, its verification rules, and the absence of restrictions on Iranian ballistic missile testing and development, as well as new measures to counter Iran’s “malign” activities in Syria and beyond in the Middle East. Four documents have been drafted that they believe are responsive to Trump’s criticisms.


An overall declaration and three sub-texts are to outline their joint understanding that other international conventions will prohibit Iran from developing nuclear weapons beyond restrictions that expire in the next decade, push the International Atomic Energy Agency to expand its monitoring and promise strict sanctions if Iran moves forward with intercontinental ballistic missile development.

Just because the negotiators “believe” that these documents will pass muster with Trump doesn’t mean they will. And even if they do, there’s the little problem that Russia, China, and Iran haven’t been part of the negotiations involved in creating them. Iran has promised “expected and unexpected” responses should Trump abandon the deal. In the “expected” category, the Iranians are talking about drastically increasing their uranium enrichment activity in short order.

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