Middle East update: May 26 2017

With the three day weekend I may–may–not be back until Monday. The downside of taking any significant time away from these updates is that it just makes the ones I have to write when I get started again that much longer. So I might sneak one in Sunday night just to keep Monday’s from being a slog. Or I might get you one on Sunday and then take Monday night off. Anything is possible.

EGYPT

There was another major attack on Egypt’s Coptic Christian community today. Gunmen killed at least 28 people when they attacked a bus carrying a group of Copts from the city of Minya to the Monastery of Samuel the Confessor in central Egypt, shown here:

monastery of samuel
(Google Maps)

There’s been no claim of responsibility but it would be stunning if this wasn’t ISIS, which has repeatedly threatened the Copts and has attacked Coptic churches in recent months. Assuming it is them, this would be another blow in that campaign as well as another sign that ISIS has metastasized out of Sinai and is now operating throughout Egypt.

In response to this attack, later in the day the Egyptian air force struck “terrorist training camps” near Derna, Libya. Parts of Derna were held by ISIS between October 2014 and June 2015, when they were reportedly driven from the city by the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, an offshoot of the old, al-Qaeda-aligned Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. It’s possible that ISIS maintained camps near the city and is using them as a staging area to move fighters into Egypt, but the Shura Council is also opposed to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, who is on friendly terms with kindred spirit Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. If the strike was against Shura Council positions then it really had less to do with today’s attack than with Sisi’s desire to help out a buddy.

IRAQ

If you, like me, were unable to read Spiegel‘s reporting on reporter Ali Arkady’s experiences while embedded with Iraq’s Rapid Response Forces because it was in German and/or paywalled, then ABC News has done a followup that tells Arkady’s story in gruesome detail:

Arkady’s effort to film an upbeat documentary about the two soldiers putting aside sectarian differences to defeat ISIS together took a dark detour last fall when the soldiers conducted a night raid on Nov. 22, pulling a man out of the bed where he slept with his family in the village of Qabr Al-Abed.

“You’re scaring the children,” his wife says, as the soldiers barge into their bedroom and drag the man outside.

With the man pressed up against a wall, Capt. Nazar punched the man in the head 15 times and told him to recite the pledge of fealty, or baya’a, to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Nazar forced the man to repeat the pledge after him piece by piece, and Arkady says Nazar later asked him to edit the video so that it would appear the man could recite the pledge unprompted.

“Say the pledge, say the pledge,” Capt. Nazar demanded as he grabbed the man by his shirt. “I will hit you in the nuts.”

Watching his video of the man being punched in the face with ABC’s Brian Ross two months later, Arkady shook his head.

“He knows he is innocent,” Arkady said. “He’s not working with ISIS.”

The man finally recited the ISIS pledge in full, Arkady says. Working with Human Rights Watch, ABC News has been unable to confirm the fate of the man and has withheld his name as well as those of other victims whose whereabouts could not be independently confirmed.

Captain Nazar, the commanding officer of the unit Arkady followed, didn’t deny that his men have been torturing and summarily executing prisoners, though other Iraqi officials have suggested that Arkady somehow fabricated his piece. But this is how Iraq is going to collapse back in on itself once the fight against ISIS is over, and this is where the seeds for the next ISIS are going to be planted. It would be bad enough if these prisoners were actual ISIS fighters being treated like this. But how many of them aren’t? And how are the people of Mosul, who already saw their national army cut and run on them in 2014, supposed to welcome that army back if the result is innocent people being brutalized and murdered? Iraq can survive ISIS but it can’t survive this kind of stuff.

Little is happening in Mosul at the moment as the Iraqis gear up for the final push against ISIS. But that push may be coming soon–on Friday Iraqi planes dropped leaflets over Mosul urging civilians still inside the Old City to try to get out if possible. This presumably means a renewed offensive is about to start.

SYRIA

The coalition airstrikes I told you about yesterday that reportedly killed 35 civilians in Mayadeen appear to have killed considerably more than that. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has upped its casualty estimate and now says that over 100 civilians, many families of ISIS fighters and at least 40 of them children, were killed in the strikes.

This isn’t just confined to Syria, but the independent monitoring group Airwars.org has conducted an investigation that has found that US officials are helping other nations in the anti-ISIS coalition cover up civilian casualties. The Pentagon has acknowledged that, since 2014, some 80 civilians have been killed in airstrikes involving non-US coalition countries–since these are only those deaths that the Pentagon has acknowledged, the real number is likely higher. But the Pentagon has agreed not to attribute those deaths to any specific coalition member (though it has notified the members themselves of their responsibility, so when asked each member of the coalition can say, doing their best Kakfa impression, that they’ve been responsible for zero civilian deaths. The US is now going to get in on this game–instead of acknowledging its own (almost certainly lowballed) civilian casualty count, the Pentagon plans to just attribute all civilian deaths to “the coalition” from now on.

QATAR

The Kuwaiti foreign minister, Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah, headed to Qatar on Friday to try to help repair GCC relations after their most recent rough patch. You may recall that earlier this week the Qatar News Agency posted a supposed transcript of remarks by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Al Thani, in which he disparaged Saudi Arabia and anti-Iran Gulf Arab rhetoric. The QNA says the transcript was fake and its website was hacked, but the Saudis and Emiratis, at least, don’t seem to be buying it. Kuwait has become the GCC’s Qatar Whisperer lately–it’s the designated go-between when Riyadh and Doha are feuding. I would expect this spat to blow over relatively quickly, especially if nobody produces any evidence that QNA wasn’t hacked. The GCC has bigger fish to fry, i.e., Iran.

IRAN

There’s not much new in this election recap from Harvard’s Payam Mohseni, but he does a very succinct job of explaining the realignment in Iranian politics that Hassan Rouhani has been able to achieve:

Indeed, Rouhani’s 2013 election and the nuclear deal were largely possible with the backing of key segments of the conservative Iranian elite — what I call the “modern theocrats” within Rouhani’s larger power triangle. Rouhani’s cross-factional alliance is a serious force in the battle of succession. If Rouhani successfully amalgamates reformists, moderates and conservatives into one cohesive whole, a broad elite consensus with a soft ideological vision and desire for global integration could dominate the state — in stark opposition to the revolutionary anti-imperialist ideology of the supreme leader and hard-liners.

Rouhani’s explicit thanking of Mohammad Khatami alongside Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri in his presidential acceptance speech could not be any more telling of the coalition he has built, all the more intriguing since Nateq-Nouri resigned from the supreme leader’s inspections office before the election in a possible sign of internal disagreements. These two figures were once the respective reformist and conservative candidates in the 1997 presidential elections and it demonstrates the convergence of forces that has occurred between the once opposing factions in support of Rouhani. This broad alignment wants to strengthen its position to push through fundamental reforms and make a bid for the country’s third supreme leader.

Having both candidates from the 1997 election in his corner is indeed a sign that Rouhani has changed the political landscape. The problem is that his coalition, broad as it may be, doesn’t really control the levers of power. The Revolutionary Guard is inherently hardline, the Assembly of Experts is controlled by hardliners, and and of course Ayatollah Khamenei is a hardliner. The path to “dominating the state” has to run through at least two of these–the Assembly and, then, the Supreme Leader position. Yes, Rouhani is president and his movement is well represented in parliament and in local councils, but that’s only enough to push for change, not enough to make it without some help.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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