Middle East update: January 7 2019

Welcome back! As always after an extended break, we will not be recapping everything that happened while I was gone. If I’ve missed a story you think is important, you can always drop me a line and let me know.


Terrorism analysts say that recently acquired evidence shows that ISIS, despite losing its territorial caliphate, has nevertheless squirreled away somewhere on the order of $400 million acquired during the group’s heyday. It looted much of the money from banks under its control and made the rest through various operations like extortion, illicit oil and mineral sales, and trading in black market antiquities. As it’s lost territory it’s allegedly invested tens of millions of dollars in “legitimate” businesses around the region. I always take these kinds of reports with a grain of salt because they’re estimates and there’s always the possibility that the figures are being overhyped. But the main point, which is that ISIS isn’t going away, is a sound one.


In Syria news that has nothing to do with Donald Trump, an ISIS suicide bomber struck a recruitment office for the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa on Monday, killing several people though a firm death toll hasn’t been forthcoming so far. The group’s Amaq media outlet claimed 17 casualties (dead and wounded) but that hasn’t been verified by any reputable media.

The Syrian Negotiation Commission, the main political umbrella for the country’s various opposition factions, is asking Arab leaders not to restore diplomatic ties with Bashar al-Assad. Good luck with that. Assad has all but won the war and Arab governments are increasingly adjusting to that fact, some because they just want to get along with the Syrian government and others (the UAE, for example) because they think they can pry Assad out of Iran’s orbit if they throw enough cash at him. Which is probably true–Syria’s alliance with Iran has usually been one of convenience for Syria–but only in the long-to-very-long term. We’re already seeing the first step in this process, as several Arab countries reopen their embassies in Damascus. The next step will be reinstating Assad’s government in the Arab League, which could happen at the Arab League summit in Tunisia this spring.

OK, so what happened to Donald Trump’s Syria withdrawal? It’s a question so pertinent that I actually stole it from Ishaan Tharoor’s Washington Post headline this morning. You may recall that before Christmas Trump abruptly declared that US soldiers were pulling out of Syria, arguing in particular that ISIS had been defeated, and that it would be done in a month. Pretty quickly, though without much fanfare, that timeframe got changed to something like four months. This led to a host of takes encompassing everything from “Trump is a possibly traitorous doofus who is surrendering to Iran or whatever” (please do yourselves a favor and don’t click on that link) and/or “Trump is a brilliant foreign policy theoretician who is playing 4D chess against his hapless opponents” (really don’t click on that one). Trump’s defense secretary and his envoy for the anti-ISIS campaign both resigned over the announcement.

The prevailing view on the left, though your mileage may vary, seems to have been “getting out of Syria is good in principle, but doing it on a whim in the middle of a phone call with the president of Turkey sure does increase the potential for it to be a disaster.” Which is sensible to me. Even when Trump stumbles blindly into the right policy there’s absolutely no reason to expect that he can implement it without fucking up catastrophically.

If you’re generally on the left consensus as I’ve described it, then I have some good news and bad news. The good news is that the US probably isn’t going to leave Syria precipitously. The bad news is that it’s increasingly unclear that the US will be leaving Syria at all. This shift happened pretty quickly though I will note that Trump himself still hasn’t really explained anything (if you think that would help). Lindsey Graham, obviously nervous about the possibility that one of America’s 824 wars might be coming to an end, visited Trump just before the new year and came away telling reporters that Trump said there wouldn’t be a withdrawal until ISIS was defeated (even though he’d claimed that it already had been defeated) and until he could be sure that the Syrian Kurds–whose YPG militia has been the main US proxy in eastern Syria–wouldn’t be overrun by Turkey and that Iran wouldn’t step into the vacuum left by the US exit. Or, in other words, there wouldn’t be a withdrawal.

A couple of days later, Trump flatly denied to reporters that he’d ever put any kind of timetable on the US withdrawal, even though when he announced it he posted a video to Twitter in which he said “they’re coming home now” in reference to US troops in Syria. “Now” would seem to be a timetable, but what do I know? And anyway they were probably going to redeploy to Iraq rather than “coming home,” so maybe you just can’t believe anything this guy says. Then National Security Advisor John Bolton seemed to put the final nails in the withdrawal’s coffin over this past weekend, telling reporters during a trip to Israel (the first leg of a trip that will also take him to Turkey for what I’m sure will be a thrilling set of discussions) that US forces will not leave Syria until ISIS is absolutely defeated and without assurances from Turkey that it won’t attack the YPG. So never, then.

Never–assuming, of course, that Bolton is actually speaking for Trump and not trying to manipulate Trump into a policy change. There’s some reason to think he may be doing the latter–Mike Pompeo, for example, still seems to be operating under the assumption that the US forces are coming out relatively soon. On the other hand, Trump hasn’t contradicted Bolton, and Bolton is enough of a bureaucratic animal to know better than to publicly undermine his boss, so he may instead be trying to inject some uncertainty into the situation because he/Trump think it will give the US some additional diplomatic leverage. The only thing that’s going to clear this up is if Trump makes a coherent statement about what he wants to do–and, needless to say, that could take awhile.

Now everybody wants to know What It All Means. US allies don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing in Syria because they’re so used to taking their cues from the US and now those cues are indecipherable. The Kurds are demanding, justifiably it seems to me, “clarification” from Washington, though reports that the US has started shipping weapons to them again may be of some relief. Still, if I were the Kurds I’d keep on talking with the Assad government about a reconciliation, because you’re only one phone call and/or tweet away from another complete policy shift. The Syrian army has already reportedly moved into positions around Manbij, so it’s presumably ready to step in against a potential Turkish/Free Syrian Army offensive there.

Trump, naturally, is insisting that nothing about his Syria policy has changed, even though nobody can even figure out what the hell his Syria policy is at this point, let alone determine whether it’s changed in the past three weeks. January Trump says that he’s consistently maintained that the US will only leave Syria once ISIS is defeated, and yet December Trump said that ISIS has already been defeated. Good times!

If there has been a complete policy reversal here, it should be attributed to the fact that Donald Trump is a moron, who makes sudden, knee jerk decisions while steadfastly refusing to learn (and/or being unable to comprehend) even the most basic facts about anything, and then frequently walks those decisions back after making them. But I also think to some degree the Turks may have played themselves here. It was, apparently, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who convinced Trump to order the withdrawal–to allow Turkey free rein to crush the YPG and ethnically cleanse northeastern Syria–but it appears even Erdoğan wasn’t expecting Trump to act as suddenly as he did. Turkey wanted the US to hang around and support its Arab proxies in what’s left of the fight against ISIS–support them to such a degree, in fact, that Ankara might have actually demanded a larger US presence in Syria than the status quo. Which is presumably the opposite of Trump’s intent. Meanwhile, the Turks started meeting with the Russian government to discuss how to parcel out northern Syria and, well, I’m sure that didn’t go over well in Washington.

So the US is staying, as far as I can tell. Unless, reportedly, it can get that whole “Arab NATO” thing off the ground and get that organization to send forces to eastern Syria to replace US forces. Which is unlikely to happen because 1) the “Arab NATO” project is stalled over the Saudi-Qatar dispute and 2) see above–Arab governments are looking to make nice with Damascus, not antagonize it.


A US airstrike in Yemen’s Marib region on January 1 appears to have killed Jamal al-Badawi, considered the mastermind of the 2000 al-Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in Aden’s harbor. So that’s…something.

United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths spent his weekend in Yemen trying to hold the ceasefire in Hudaydah together and make some plans to implement its monitoring mechanisms. The Yemeni government and Houthi rebels agreed last month on a ceasefire for the crucial port city, which involved handing control of the port to “local authorities.” But apparently the Houthis believe that means the current local authorities, who are aligned with the Houthis, while the government believes it means the authorities who were running the port before the civil war, who are aligned with the government. Fighting has continued in Hudaydah, albeit at somewhat reduced levels, despite the ceasefire, and will likely flare back up into full scale conflict unless this disagreement over port management can be solved.


Turkish authorities have issued arrest warrants for another 100 soldiers suspected of having links to the Fethullah Gülen organization. If you’re keeping score at home, Turkey has now arrested over 77,000 people for allegedly participating in the failed 2016 coup against Erdoğan.


On the plus side, if you’re a fan of a stronger Iraqi budget and/or more opportunities for corruption in Baghdad, Iraq exported more oil in December than ever, thanks to the reopening of the pipeline from Erbil to Turkey and favorable seas for shipping in the Persian Gulf. On the downside, oil prices were back down to just under $53/barrel in December, after peaking in October at over $73/barrel. Which means that revenue-wise December was one of Iraq’s worst exporting months of 2018.

Meanwhile, researchers Martha Revkin and Kristen Kao argue that the Iraqi government’s rather, shall we say, austere counterterrorism techniques are actually helping to cause a resurgence in ISIS’s support among Iraqi Sunnis:

In Iraq, the government’s harsh counterterrorism strategy, which is widely perceived as collectively punishing the Sunnis, is generating new grievances that could increase local support for an Islamic State 2.0. More than 19,000 people have been detained on terrorism-related charges since 2014. Over 3,000 have been sentenced to death in rapid-fire trials that are sometimes decided in less than 10 minutes. Convictions are often based on thin and circumstantial evidence, the testimony of secret informants, or confessions induced through torture, making it easy for innocent people to be falsely accused and unfairly punished.

These injustices are fueling anger, and with it, a new wave of violence. Since 2016, the average number of Islamic State attacks in Iraq — including suicide bombings and targeted assassinations — has risen to 75 per month. In August, U.S. and U.N. reports estimated that the number of Islamic State fighters active in Iraq and Syria might exceed 30,000.

In our working paper based on an original household survey of over 1,400 Mosul residents — the Islamic State’s former de facto capital in Iraq — we identify two serious flaws in the government’s approach to prosecuting and punishing individuals accused of joining or supporting the Islamic State. First, it is unwilling to recognize variation in the severity and voluntariness of “collaboration.” Second, it relies heavily on unproven criminal justice and counterterrorism theories.


In case you were curious, that long overdue Lebanese government whose formation was reportedly “imminent” when I went on break still doesn’t exist.


Israeli aircraft pounded Gaza on Sunday and overnight in response to evil terror balloons and one rocket fired over the fence line. No word on casualties as far as I can tell. The renewed violence and the pressures of the upcoming Israeli election may prevent the next influx of Qatari money from getting to government workers in Gaza. Qatar has sent two $15 million payments to Gazan civil servants so far out of a promised $90 million relief package, but Israeli officials are apparently blocking the next transfer. Meanwhile the Palestinian Authority pulled its personnel out of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, accusing Hamas of “harassing and detaining” them. Hamas has resumed control over the crossing, but Egypt will likely now close its side of the border.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a “dramatic announcement” in prime time on Monday, and then proceeded to whine about how unfair it is that he’s being investigated for corruption merely because he appears to be, you know, corrupt. Netanyahu says he wants to “confront” the state’s witnesses against him, which doesn’t sound at all threatening coming from an increasingly absolutist PM, and insists that the whole corruption investigation is a political stunt by his enemies, #FakeNews #WitchHunt.


Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gave an interview to CBS’s 60 Minutes that aired on Sunday, but not before his government apparently tried to get CBS to pull the whole thing. It’s unclear why they did so, but speculation centers on the fact that Sisi admitted in plain terms that Egypt is working closely with Israel in fighting Sinai insurgents linked with al-Qaeda, including allowing Israeli aircraft to strike targets in northern Sinai. Which isn’t all that shocking, frankly, but I guess I can see why Sisi decided he’d probably said too much. He also claimed during the interview that his government holds no political prisoners, which is an absurd lie but one he’s told many times before. Anyway the upshot is that because of the attempt to get CBS to can the interview it’s actually gotten far more attention than it probably would have gotten otherwise.


While we were gone, King Salman made some changes to his cabinet, most notably replacing his (now former) Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir with former Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, while shuffling Jubeir to the position of “minister of state for foreign affairs.” Jubeir’s actual duties may not be that affected by the switch but Assaf will now become the public face of the country as it tries to persuade the rest of the world to put the Jamal Khashoggi murder behind it. Jubeir clearly wasn’t getting that job done. Salman also promoted new leaders of the Saudi National Guard, the General Directorate of Public Security, and the Information Ministry, all believed to be on good terms with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, in an effort to provide some window dressing for the notion that the Saudis are really reforming.

As for MBS’s closest associate, alleged Khashoggi murder ringleader Saud al-Qahtani, he seems to have disappeared from public view since being fingered as the guy behind the killing and (purportedly) losing his job as an adviser to the crown prince. It’s possible he’s been placed under house arrest, but any reports out of the kingdom on something like this are naturally sketchy and unverifiable. The Saudi government has charged 11 people with involvement in Khashoggi’s death, but it’s unknown whether Qahtani is one of them.


Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, the head of Iran’s Expediency Council, died on December 24. He was 70 and had apparently been ill for some time. He was also seen as a possible successor to Khamenei, in a country where 70 puts you squarely in middle age as far as national leaders are concerned. The Expediency Council’s job is to mediate disputes between the Majles (the Iranian parliament) and the Guardian Council, which makes sure laws passed by the Majles don’t violate Islamic law and thereby serves as a sort of upper house in the Iranian legislative process. The Expediency Council also serves as a ready-made body of advisers to the Supreme Leader, and so its chairmanship is an extremely powerful position.

Rouhani Khamenei Larijanix2
Left to right: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Majles Speaker Ali Larijani, and Sadeq Larijani (Wikimedia Commons)

Khamenei replaced Shahroudi with Sadeq Larijani, a conservative who has also been Iran’s chief justice since 2009 (a job he took over from Shahroudi, for what it’s worth) whose brother is the powerful but a bit more moderate Majles Speaker Ali Larijani. Larijani will be leaving the chief justice’s post later this year, and there’s speculation that the job may go to Ebrahim Raisi, the cleric who ran against and lost to President Hassan Rouhani in 2017. Larijani’s promotion may be as close to an overt designation of succession as Khamenei will ever get, and if you’re trying to handicap the race to succeed Khamenei I would say he’s become the prohibitive favorite.


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