Middle East update: June 23 2017

QATAR

Well, the long-awaited list of Saudi demands is in, and it’s quite something. If you had no knowledge of the context and you just happened to come upon this list, I think you’d probably conclude that Qatar must have lost a war:

— Curb diplomatic ties with Iran and close its diplomatic missions there. Expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard from Qatar and cut off any joint military cooperation with Iran. Only trade and commerce with Iran that complies with U.S. and international sanctions will be permitted.

— Sever all ties to “terrorist organizations,” specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State group, al-Qaida, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Formally declare those entities as terrorist groups.

— Shut down Al-Jazeera and its affiliate stations.

— Shut down news outlets that Qatar funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye.

— Immediately terminate the Turkish military presence currently in Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside of Qatar.

— Stop all means of funding for individuals, groups or organizations that have been designated as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, the United States and other countries.

— Hand over “terrorist figures” and wanted individuals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain to their countries of origin. Freeze their assets, and provide any desired information about their residency, movements and finances.

— End interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs. Stop granting citizenship to wanted nationals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Revoke Qatari citizenship for existing nationals where such citizenship violates those countries’ laws.

— Stop all contacts with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Hand over all files detailing Qatar’s prior contacts with and support for those opposition groups.

— Pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and other, financial losses caused by Qatar’s policies in recent years. The sum will be determined in coordination with Qatar.

— Align itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially and economically, as well as on economic matters, in line with an agreement reached with Saudi Arabia in 2014.

— Agree to all the demands within 10 days of it being submitted to Qatar, or the list becomes invalid. The document doesn’t specify what the countries will do if Qatar refuses to comply.

— Consent to monthly audits for the first year after agreeing to the demands, then once per quarter during the second year. For the following 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.

The list even includes reparations payments! For some unspecified “loss of life” that almost certainly does not refer to the actual loss of life that Qatari policy has been causing “in recent years.” The demand that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera is already making the most waves because it’s the one most obviously offensive to Western sensibilities, but it may be the least surprising (this is an excellent account of the station’s history and why it enrages the other Arab states so much) and most straightforward item on the list–the demand that Qatar sever ties with Iran is equally unsurprising, but comes with the insistence that Qatar cut off “joint military cooperation” that, as far as I know, has been talked about but doesn’t actually exist.

I’m hesitant to even say much about this list because it’s so unbelievably ridiculous that it may not even be useful as an opening position in a negotiation. The TL;DR version is that Qatar should consent to being annexed by Saudi Arabia. You can’t even really assume that the Saudis and company are serious because so many of these demands are still too open-ended to be actionable and because ten days is an absurd deadline for a list this punitive. The main takeaway from this list is that this Saudi-Qatar dispute is now part of the regional status quo and probably will be for some time to come. Qatar won’t agree to these demands, there’s apparently no interest in talks from the Saudi side, and yet it’s unlikely that they’re prepared to impose additional penalties on Qatar at this point for fear of pushing it to do something drastic like approaching Iran about an alliance.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces are pushing deeper into the Old City along two main streets, one running north-south and the other running east-west. The goal is two-fold: to partition the district into four, obviously, and further isolate remaining ISIS fighters, but also to open up as many corridors as possible for civilians to escape the fighting. Doctors Without Borders reported an increase in the number of wounded civilians reaching its facilities on Friday, which could indicate that those corridors are already having an effect. As expected, ISIS’s decision to destroy the Nuri Mosque, while a tragic loss of cultural heritage, has from a purely military perspective actually freed the Iraqis up to engage more heavily without worrying about damaging the once-iconic structure.

It should come as no surprise that the Iraqi declaration on Tuesday that they’d fully liberated west Mosul’s Shifa neighborhood turns out to have been premature, as they were still reportedly fighting ISIS in parts of that neighborhood yesterday (“two small buildings” apparently still were under ISIS’s control, according to that headline).

The Mosul government and Iraqi government are at odds over a city plan to bar the return of any family members of ISIS fighters. Baghdad is warning against this kind of collective punishment:

Baghdad is upset that the Mosul city council wants to expel IS families, but it looks like that will go into effect. Recently the Mosul government passed an ordinance banning insurgent families from returning. That has to go to the Ninewa council, which according to the Wall Street Journal will approve it. Prime Minister Abadi on the other hand stated that no family should be punished for the act of a relative. A member of the National Intelligence Service told the Journal that they had been ordered by Baghdad to stop any deportations. The city is just the latest to follow this trend of holding families guilty. It’s important that the premier said something, but the central government has no reconciliation program so there is nothing to counter these types of actions.

Niqash’s Mustafa Habib reports on Muqtada al-Sadr’s new political project: forming a pan-sectarian, pan-ethnic political coalition:

The Sadrist movement has had a busy few months. The Iraqi political movement, which is led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has defected from the larger Shiite Muslim political alliance to which it belongs, withdrawn ministers from government, joined in popular anti-corruption demonstrations calling for political reform and now, it seems, the Sadrists are trying to form a new alliance in preparation for federal elections next year. The most interesting thing about the latter is that the Sadrists appear to want to form an alliance that does not rely on sectarian affiliations – that is, whether one is a Shiite or Sunni Muslim. It may also end up not mattering whether one is religious or not, too.

For several weeks now, the Sadrists have been holding a series of talks with secular political groups. If successful, the alliance would be the first between a religious, Shiite Muslim political group and a secular, civil-minded one.

The diverse coalition Sadr seems to be trying to form appears, at this point, to be united behind one principle: that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should never be allowed to return to a prominent role in Iraqi politics again. If these talks go according to plan, they should definitely have enough political strength to prevent that from happening in the 2018 elections. The concern, of course, is whether Sadr is using the broad opposition to Maliki as a way to boost his own political fortunes, but that remains to be seen.

SYRIA

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that the US-led anti-ISIS coalition killed 470 civilians in strikes on Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the one month from May 23 through today. This is a massive increase in the number and pace of civilian casualties caused by the coalition and, according to the SOHR, is higher than the number of civilians killed by any other actor in Syria over the same period. Is the increase simply due to the ramping up of fighting in Raqqa? Or is it more evidence that the Trump administration has loosened its rules about civilian casualties? Why not both?

Russia’s supposed killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the story that won’t die despite an almost total lack of evidence apart from statements by Russian officials that should be treated with extreme skepticism. On Friday, Viktor Ozerov, a senior member of the upper house of Russia’s legislature, told Interfax news service that he’s “close to 100 percent” certain that Baghdadi is dead. Does he have any new evidence behind this statement? Of course not. He just doesn’t think the Russian defense ministry would have made the claim if it wasn’t true. And yet this is treated as news for some reason.

Reuters looked at the two likeliest choices to succeed Baghdadi in the (unlikely?) event that he really is dead. Both are military bosses who served in Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi military:

Experts on Islamist groups see no clear successor but regard Iyad al-Obaidi and Ayad al-Jumaili as the leading contenders, though neither would be likely to assume Baghdadi’s title of “caliph” or overall commander of Muslims.

Obaidi, who is in his 50s, has been serving as war minister. Jumaili, who is in his late 40s, is head of the group’s Amniya security agency. In April Iraqi state TV said Jumaili had been killed, but that was not confirmed.

Both joined the Sunni Salafist insurgency in Iraq in 2003, following the U.S.-led invasion which Saddam and empowered Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

Neither has the religious credentials or lineage to try to stake a claim to be caliph, so it’s possible that neither would be the pick. On the other hand, ISIS’s territorial strength has declined so precipitously that the group is unlikely to name a new “caliph” to succeed Baghdadi. Doing so without an obvious, physical “caliphate” would be questionable in terms of legitimacy and would make ISIS look ridiculous–and an organization in ISIS’s position can’t afford to be made to look ridiculous.

Ahead of peace talks next month in Astana that should, in theory, advance the Russia-Turkey-Iran “de-escalation zone” plan, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told state media on Friday that Damascus “will not allow anything thing to pass from which Syria’s enemies could benefit.” By that standard it’s hard to see how Damascus could agree to any de-escalation arrangement, since–with Bashar al-Assad currently winning the war against the Syrian rebels–any pause or break or safe zone plan would necessarily work to the rebels’ benefit.

Moving further east as a segue to the rant that’s coming in a couple of sentences, one of the many foreign militias fighting on Assad’s behalf has reportedly advanced into Deir Ezzor province. An Iraqi force called Harakat al-Nujaba, which means something like “movement of the nobles,” I think, pushed ISIS units in the province back toward Deir Ezzor city. Inasmuch as Deir Ezzor increasingly looks not only like the place where ISIS is going to make its final Syrian stand, but also the likeliest place for a US-Assad/US-Iran war to break out, this is a potentially important development.

Now then, I’d like to take a moment, if I may, and scream into the ether about the new trend in reporting on Syria and America’s escalation there, which is to, as Fareed Zakaria does here, suggest that the US is “stumbling” blindly into war through nothing but its own stupidity, or the stupidity of the Trump administration. Adam Johnson offers other examples like Zakaria’s here. This is a bullshit narrative, and it’s one that’s frequently applied to American wars of choice, the notion that the United States, owner of the most powerful military on the planet, is constantly just sort of being swept up into things or blundering its way into bad situations. Johnson has a theory why this is:

This framing serves to flatter two sensibilities: one right and one vaguely left. It satisfies the right-wing nationalist idea that America only goes to war because it’s compelled to by forces outside of its own control; the reluctant warrior, the gentle giant who will only attack when provoked to do so. But it also plays to a nominally liberal, hipster notion that the US military is actually incompetent and boobish, and is generally bad at war-making.

I would add another sensibility that’s unique to the present moment, and crosses party lines: the idea that the Trump administration doesn’t have any idea what it’s doing, and that Trump in particular is dangerously out to lunch. This sensibility, unlike the other two, has the virtue of probably being true to some degree. It’s a sensibility that often colors my commentary on Syria. But Trump’s disconnection from policy making, and the apparent lack of a well-defined Syrian strategy, does not mean that the US is just sort of meandering its way aimlessly toward war.

America’s escalation in Syria is very much a conscious one, its frequent recent claims of “self-defense” are transparently engineered, and we know this because recent reporting on Syria says so. People in the Trump administration, specifically in his National Security Council, are talking about creating more US outposts in parts of Syria they know are being targeted by Damascus, so that they have more justification to conduct more strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s forces and claim self-defense, like they’ve done repeatedly at Tanf. These are conscious, tactical decisions–perhaps abetted by Trump’s absence from the decision-making process–to create more opportunities for conflict with Assad, and while it’s not clear that there’s a coherent strategy behind them, there is an animating principle: this administration’s overwhelming hostility toward Iran.

It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture amid all the day-to-day details, it happens to me all the time. But let’s at least be clear that America is not being sucked into a conflict against its will. Trump himself may not know what’s going on, but it’s fiction to suggest that his entire administration is merely along for the ride.

LEBANON

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned on Friday that an Israel-Hezbollah war would draw in Hezbollah supporters from all over the Middle East. This seems reasonable–many of the region’s armed Shiʿa paramilitary groups are already active right over the border in Syria, so it would be a fairly small thing for them to redeploy into southern Lebanon. This is the latest in a series of statements Nasrallah has made seemingly in an effort to deter Israel from attempting yet another invasion of Lebanon at a time when Hezbollah’s main focus has been on Syria.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is accusing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of trying to provoke a new Gaza war in order to break Hamas’s control there. Lieberman is not an Abbas fan, needless to say, but in this case there’s actually a pretty good argument that Abbas is doing precisely that:

Liberman is known for his acrimonious feelings toward the Palestinian president and has called him an obstacle to peace on countless occasions. In Liberman’s view, only a route “circumventing Abbas” will lead to progress on the diplomatic front. This time, however, his comments were apparently not made out of the same sense of animosity. They were based on assessments by top Israeli security officials who claim that the PA’s financial disengagement from Gaza — the electricity crisis, the slashing of salaries and even the reduction of the supply of medicines and medical equipment to Gaza’s hospitals — could drag Hamas into another military conflict with Israel.

According to some assessments, these moves were planned by Abbas with a clear purpose. They were not simply intended to advance greater financial efficiency in the PA or to appeal to the Trump administration, but to bring down the Hamas regime in Gaza too.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Human trafficking is one of the most grotesque of all crimes. Just the term is enough to make your skin crawl. Those who are convicted of it are often, and rightly, given heavy punishments…except when they’re Gulf royalty, in which case a human trafficking conviction carries a small fine and suspended jail sentence:

Eight princesses from the UAE have been convicted of human trafficking and degrading treatment of their servants by a Brussels court.

They were given 15-month suspended jail terms and ordered to pay €165,000 (£145,000; $185,000) each, with half the sum suspended.

They were accused of holding more than 20 servants they brought with them on a 2008 visit in near slavery.

But they were acquitted of the more serious charge of inhumane treatment.

To be fair, there seems to have been little about the treatment of these servants that could be considered “inhumane.” They were simply required to be available 24 hours a day, slept on the floor, ate the princesses’ leftovers, were not allowed to leave the hotel…wait, where was I going with this? This treatment wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in the UAE, but for Belgium I guess it was just enough to warrant a stern talking to and a firm but polite smack on the wrist.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi security forces say they’ve thwarted a terrorist plot against the Grand Mosque in Mecca, in the process breaking up two cells in Mecca and a third in Jeddah. There don’t seem to be any other details forthcoming.

Questions continue to swirl about whether King Salman will now abdicate in order to oversee the succession of newly-appointed Crown Prince Mohammed b. Salman as king. My feeling is that this would be the most obvious way to head off any potential challenge to the succession, but Salman could also continue to let his son de facto run the kingdom as he has been. The risk of doing that is that the more things Mohammed b. Salman fucks up in that role, a la Yemen, the more chance that a resistance to his eventual enthronement could grow. Bruce Reidel suggests that the thing to watch for is the appointment of a new deputy crown prince, which is an office that doesn’t have much history and could theoretically remain vacant. If Salman is planning to abdicate, though, then he’s likely to appoint a new deputy crown prince who would then be Mohammed’s heir apparent, someone from outside his branch of the family so as to try to reassure the rest of the Sauds that power isn’t being consolidated by Salman and his children.

IRAN

Today is al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, which was founded by Ayatollah Khomeini and is held annually on the last Friday in Ramadan. Iranians “celebrated,” as every year, by holding rallies across the country and chanting “Death to Israel.” Classy. The Iranians also paraded around a few of their more advanced missiles. The Guardian reports that President Hassan Rouhani’s appearance at the Tehran rally brought out the hecklers, which is indicative of just how bad the relationship is between Rouhani and Iranian hardliners right now and follows humiliating remarks earlier this month from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who compared Rouhani to Abolhassan Banisadr, Iran’s first post-revolutionary president. That’s an implicit threat, by the way–Banisadr was impeached in June 1981, less than 18 months into what was supposed to be a four year term, and he’s been living in exile every since. Khamenei is obviously suggesting something similar could happen to Rouhani–whether this is true or not is less important than that the threat was made.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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