Middle East update: December 9-10 2017


The Iraqi government on Saturday declared that its war with ISIS is over. On Sunday, it even held a big happy victory parade through downtown Baghdad. Before you get too excited, what this apparently signifies is that Baghdad has taken control over its side of the Iraq-Syrian border from ISIS. So territorially the group is finished in Iraq, but that doesn’t mean it’s been eradicated or that it doesn’t continue to be a threat to carry out attacks. But this is definitely a milestone, don’t get me wrong.

With the war over, or at least changing to something else, the New York Times reported Sunday on the effort to pick up the pieces in Mosul:

Around 600,000 people remain displaced, and approximately 60,000 homes are uninhabitable. The city’s business and government sectors are crippled, with at least 20,000 commercial and government buildings destroyed, according to aerial images commissioned by the United Nations.


The west side in particular sustained apocalyptic damage. It took six months of grinding street-by-street battles and aerial bombardment to free the area, including the labyrinthine Old City, where the militants made their last stand.


“Mosul is a tale of two cities,” said Lise Grande, the humanitarian coordinator in Iraq and head of the United Nations Development Program. “In east Mosul, more than 95 percent of people are home. On the west side, it’s a completely different picture. Yet people are rolling up their sleeves and determined to get their lives back.”

Meanwhile tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds are still high, and the Yazidis, who I think we can all agree have probably suffered enough as it is, are unfortunately on the front lines. Sinjar is one of the areas that the Kurds claim as part of Kurdistan even though, strictly speaking, it lies outside the legal boundaries of that region. So now it’s mostly being occupied by Shiʿa militias, with some of its residents lamenting the Kurdish retreat, and with the PKK lurking in the area just to complicate things a little further.

Things are looking much better for another small Iraqi religious community, the Baháʾí. They were able to openly celebrate the 200th birthday of their faith’s founder, Baháʾu’lláh (d. 1892), in Baghdad on November 30 (he was actually born either in late October or early November, but you take what you can get I suppose). Baghdad is an important city for the Baháʾí, as Baháʾu’lláh lived there for a time and actually declared his divine status to his followers for the first time in Baghdad. But the religion has been officially suppressed in Iraq since 1970 and technically still is even though that 1970 law contradicts Iraq’s 2005 constitution and its guarantees of religious freedom.


The Syrian government delegation made its way back to Geneva to continue peace talks on Sunday. It’s highly unlikely that this will actually matter, but at least those guys will get to see Switzerland again–I hear it’s really nice there.

Meanwhile, the Syrian army and allied militias have begun advancing–under Russian air cover, of course–through Hama province toward rebel-held Idlib province. Which is interesting, because rebel-held Idlib province is supposed to be a de-escalation area. Turkish forces are stationed in the province ostensibly to enforce a ceasefire.


Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s body was reportedly buried overnight in a small ceremony attended only by a few relatives.

A “confidential” United Nations report finds that the missiles that have been fired on Saudi Arabia by Yemeni rebels all seem to share a “common origin.” UN investigators are not prepared to say what that origin is, or more to the point they’re not ready to say it was Iran.

Speaking of things that have a common origin, how about all those bombs that keep falling on Sanaa? At least four people were killed on Saturday in a Saudi airstrike on a Houthi-controlled TV station in the Yemeni capital.


Well, if Saad al-Hariri is trying to convince people that he’s reining Hezbollah in, this probably isn’t going to help him make his case:

A powerful Iran-backed Iraqi militant commander has visited the Lebanon-Israel border expressing support for the Lebanese and Palestinians against the Jewish state and sparking harsh criticism from Lebanon’s prime minister who ordered him banned from entering the country.


Qais al-Khazali is commander of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, a group that staged spectacular attacks against U.S. troops before their withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. He appeared in military uniform in a video while touring the border with Israel along with members of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group.


“We declare our full readiness to stand with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause against the unjust Israeli occupation that is hostile to Islam, Arabs and humanity,” he said.

The visit apparently happened six days ago and Hariri has since barred Khazali from the country. The intent of his visit is likely to threaten Israel that any future war with Hezbollah would draw in the same regional Shiʿa militias that are fighting in Syria and to some degree in Iraq.


Sunday saw a fourth straight day of Palestinian protests against Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, with a Palestinian attacker stabbing an Israeli security guard at the city’s main bus station. Over 150 Palestinians were injured in clashes with Israeli forces. Lebanese security forces broke out the tear gas and water cannons to suppress a protest at the US embassy in Beirut, and similar protests took place as far afield as Jakarta, Karachi, Istanbul, and Rabat. Palestinian leaders reiterated that Mahmoud Abbas will now not meet with Vice President Mike Pence when Pence visits the region later this month. Likewise, Coptic Pope Tawadros II said on Saturday that he will refuse a meeting with Pence as well.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Paris turned a little sour when French President Emmanuel Macron (who seems to be trying very hard to assume the mantle of Honest Broker that Trump decided to shed last week) expressed displeasure with Trump’s move during their joint press conference. Netanyahu insisted that Macron “respect” Israeli history and Jerusalem’s status in it. He also said that he thinks “the sooner the Palestinians come to grips with this reality, the sooner we move toward peace,” which is so outrageously cynical you almost have to tip your cap to him.

Netanyahu was trying out the newest US-Israel tactic on this story, the “get over it” message. But his version of that message paled in comparison with UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who did the Sunday TV circuit to press the message that “the sky hasn’t fallen.” Which is always where you want to be a few days after making a major foreign policy announcement. The rest of her arguments were similarly rigorous:

She insisted, without offering details, that the decision would advance peace talks. “When you recognize the truth, when both parties recognize reality, peace comes,” she told CBS’s Face the Nation. “We are living in the reality that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.”


Making a similar argument that the Obama administration used in its decision to re-establish relations with Cuba, Haley argued that change for its own sake would be more productive than the status quo.


“The last 22 years, that was a bargaining chip and it got us nowhere closer to peace,” she said. “What if this actually moves the ball forward?”

Oh cool, the “let’s throw some shit against the wall and see what happens” method of foreign policy. That’s always welcome. It occurs to me that for the last 22 years, nobody has tried kicking Netanyahu in the nuts either. What if that moves the ball forward? Frankly I don’t think we can afford not to give it a shot.

James Zogby explains why Haley–assuming she’s even making the ball-moving argument in good faith, which is itself a stretch–is likely wrong:

The unilateral American recognition of Jerusalem not only prejudges one of the conflicts most sensitive issues, it does so in Israel’s favor. From the beginning of the modern “peace process,” there have been two fatal flaws that have hampered the effort: the asymmetry of power in Israel’s favor and the clear US bias in support of Israel. Trump’s action has accented both flaws. It has emboldened and rewarded the most hardline and intransigent elements in Israel while weakening and compromising those Palestinian and Arab leaders who have put their trust in the US role. The decisions to recognize Jerusalem as the capital and to begin the process of relocating the US Embassy makes it clear that the US is not an “honest broker.” In this context, the president’s appeal to the parties to continue to focus on achieving peace simply doesn’t pass the smell test.

The Israelis destroyed another tunnel from Gaza into Israel on Sunday, which could be well-timed given the rhetoric Hamas has been using since the Jerusalem decision was announced last week. One thing that’s gotten lost in the shuffle since last week has been the progress of Hamas-Fatah unity talks. They were falling apart at last check, badly enough that the planned handover of Gaza to Fatah had to be postponed, with Fatah leaders blaming Islamic Jihad and other smaller factions for complicating the talks. It’s unclear whether the Jerusalem announcement will further complicate those negotiations or simplify them by giving both parties something to be pissed off about together.


Giorgio Cafiero thinks it’s too early to say that the new Saudi-UAE strategic partnership is meant to undermine the Gulf Cooperation Council:

This new UAE-Saudi partnership represents an alternative to the GCC while the Qatar crisis continues. Yet it is premature to conclude that it intends to be a substitute for the subregional organization founded by six Arabian Peninsula monarchies in 1981. Regardless, the UAE-Saudi partnership’s purpose is to achieve between these two nations essentially what the GCC was intended to accomplish among all six of the GCC members: enhance transnational cooperation in the areas of military, economics, culture and politics.


I know things in the Middle East may seem bleak, but look on the bright side–the Saudis are still doing what they do best:

The ascension of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, raised hopes for change inside and outside the conservative, oil-rich monarchy. He has announced drastic social reforms that include modernizing the nation’s religious teachings and granting women more rights. But when it comes to the death penalty, Saudi Arabia remains stuck in its old ways.


The number of executions carried out so far this year is on track to match or possibly exceed the numbers of death penalties in each of the last two years. According to numbers provided exclusively to BuzzFeed News by the UK human rights group Reprieve, 137 people have been put to death this year in Saudi Arabia, 11 of them over the last nine days. Saudi Arabia executed 158 people in 2015 and 154 in 2016, the highest numbers in two decades. A record-high 192 people were executed in 1995.


“These figures demonstrate that under Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi government has no intention of ending the use of executions as a tool to crush dissent,” Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, a privately funded human rights organization which focuses on death penalty cases, said in an email.

See? Somehow, in the midst of all the turmoil, the Saudis still remember to find time for the fun. Good for them.

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