Middle East update: November 18-19 2017

Reserving the right to pop back up if something major happens, and of course barring some kind of unforeseen problem on the back end, this is going to be our last set of updates until Monday, November 27. Thanksgiving is going to be extra challenging this year for a myriad of family reasons, and so I need a couple of extra days to deal with that. Additionally, while I love writing these updates for you fine folks every night, I could frankly use a little break and a few consecutive decent nights of sleep. We’ll have an occasional history repost over the next few days but otherwise the place will be quiet. Happy Thanksgiving to those readers who are celebrating it, and I’ll see you all next week!


I wasn’t sure where to put this or whether it was even worth including, but on second thought it might be of interest to some. At the Monkey Cage last week, criminologists Matthew Phillips and Matthew Valasik argued that, for a terrorist group, ISIS behaves an awful lot like a street gang:

Scholars have noted that the Islamic State has shown an ability to adapt to a variety of circumstances that seem unique among terrorist organizations. But terrorism experts can learn from the flexibility, resilience and group evolution studied in another type of criminal group: street gangs.


Approximately 33,000 gangs have been documented to exist in the United States. Gang scholars have studied street gangs’ remarkable ability to adapt despite law enforcement’s near-constant efforts to suppress them. And they’re often able to flourish in a multitude of directions, given the right ingredients and opportunities.


Our new research explores how nearly 100 years of gang scholarship helps us better understand the Islamic State.

I’m not sure how far you want to take this analysis (in particular I think it’s easy to overstate how “unique” ISIS is among terrorist organizations), but they do make some interesting points and it could be that treating ISIS more like a gang could be helpful in countering its recruitment efforts. It’s worth a read at any rate.


The Iraqi government has been arresting Shiʿa who curse important Sunni figures. There’s a long historical tradition in Shiʿism where believers will curse, for example, the first three caliphs–Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman–for supposedly usurping Ali as Muhammad’s rightful successor. There was, as usual, a fair amount of that sort of thing happening during Arbaeen earlier this month, and it’s always been tolerated if generally frowned upon. This year things are apparently different, and while it’s putting Abadi at odds with some Shia parties it may also be beneficial from the perspective of reducing Sunni Iraqis’ sense of alienation. On the other hand this could definitely be seen as an abridgment of free speech and freedom of religion. Iraqi laws against libel and defamation are being used to justify the arrests, but that seems like a bit of a stretch when we’re talking about people who died in the mid-600s.


The Syrian army has apparently retaken al-Bukamal. Maybe they’ll even be able to hold it for more than a couple of days this time. ISIS forces have reportedly withdrawn from the town but are still putting up a fight on its outskirts.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that at least 14 civilians were killed in government air and artillery strikes on Eastern Ghouta on Saturday.


Saad al-Hariri is in France and says he’ll be returning to Lebanon in time for Wednesday’s independence day celebration, and I’m pretty sure that’s not meant to be ironic even though, given the circumstances of his resignation, it really kind of is. He plans to “discuss” his resignation once he’s back in Lebanon, whatever that means. Presumably it means he’ll reiterate what was in the resignation speech the Saudis wrote for him. Hariri’s wife and eldest child are with him in Paris, but his two younger children are still in Saudi Arabia to make sure Hariri doesn’t change his mind because they’re in school. They’ll be stopping in Egypt on Tuesday, because, uhhhh, Hariri is really craving some koshary? Seriously I’m not sure it’s healthy to keep trying to make sense of this part of the story.

Hariri will be returning as perhaps Lebanon’s most popular politician, a state of affairs I would expect to last right up until the first pro-Saudi talking point leaves his mouth. His resignation has even caused many Lebanese Sunnis to turn on Riyadh over what they perceive to be a ridiculous Saudi infringement on Lebanese sovereignty. Hariri’s job will be to convince them that Hezbollah and Iran are the real problem, but it very much remains to be seen if he can pull that off.


The Trump administration is threatening to close the Palestinian mission in Washington unless the Palestinians “have entered serious peace talks with Israel” within the next 90 days. The Palestinian Authority says it will not give in to “extortion,” which is an accurate characterization of what the administration is doing here. There’s no indication whatsoever that Israel is prepared to enter serious peace talks within the next 90 days, and this threat, you’ll note made only against one side, is meant to try to intimidate the Palestinians into leaping at any offer Israel makes.


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is starting to ratchet up his rhetoric about Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Over the past couple of weeks he’s peppered his speeches with statements like “no one can touch Egypt’s share of water,” and “we are capable of protecting our national security and water to us is a question of national security.” It’s just talk right now, but if Cairo comes to believe that the dam is going to choke off its water supply then that’s most definitely the kind of thing that can lead to war. This isn’t a nuisance issue or a subjective thing, it’s a question of whether or not Egypt will be able to feed itself.


The Arab League held an “emergency meeting” in Cairo on Sunday, in regards to which emergency it’s hard to say. The only new emergencies in the Middle East are ones caused by Saudi Arabia. Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa called for Arab unity against Iranian aggression or whatever, citing Bahrain’s own difficulties with Shiʿa unrest in the kingdom. Shiʿa unrest in Bahrain is almost entirely a self-inflicted problem caused by a Sunni monarchy in thrall to Riyadh brutally trying to repress its majority Shiʿa subjects, but I’m sure that’s none of my business.


The Arab League meeting was of course a Saudi idea, and as such its output reflected Saudi demands. In particular, the League says it will provide the UN Security Council with evidence of Iran and Hezbollah involvement in Yemen. If it were me, and I were running Saudi Arabia, to be honest I would think the less that whole issue comes before the UN Security Council the better.

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