Middle East update: December 19 2017


While American officials are pushing the line that most ISIS fighters have perished on the Syrian-Iraqi battlefield over the past several months, BuzzFeed reporters investigating the situation at the Syrian-Turkish border say that the story isn’t quite so neat or comforting:

Interviews with smugglers and human traffickers, carried out over the summer and fall, reveal for the first time how, in the shadows of America’s war against them, ISIS members have been able to use the financial resources they gathered over the three-plus years they controlled their territory to escape the battlefield — even when surrounded by US allies.


The smugglers said that the number of people seeking to leave ISIS territory for Turkey began to rise in the spring and summer as the Raqqa battle approached. Most of those fleeing were civilians without any ISIS connection seeking to escape from the militants and find safety. But ISIS members regularly joined the human tide, the smugglers said, and if they paid smugglers enough money, they could avoid the rudimentary security measures, such as checkpoints and screening camps, that the US and its allies had put in place to catch them.

Turkish authorities, while insisting that they couldn’t possibly police their own border, are nevertheless also suggesting that the Syrian Democratic Forces (who have slightly fewer resources at their disposal than does the Turkish government) must be in cahoots with ISIS to allow so many of its fighters from Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to get through to the border in the first place.

What these escapees are planning now is anybody’s guess. Some likely have decided to give up the cause or had already given it up and were looking for a time and a way to get away from ISIS. But there’s no reason to believe that all, or even most, of them fall into that category. Many others are probably looking for new opportunities to continue the fight, either in their home countries (assuming they can get back home) or in places where ISIS’s presence is still growing, like South Asia or the Sahel.


Three people were killed on Tuesday in clashes between protesters and Kurdish security forces in Sulaimaniya. One of the many achievements of the catastrophic Kurdish independence referendum seems to have been to unleash a pent-up wave of frustration by Iraqi Kurds toward their political establishment. Protests like this one have been the result. Both the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, coalition partners and the two largest parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, are feeling the heat.

In somewhat more positive news, the International Organization for Migration says that the number of internally displaced Iraqis declined by about nine percent in November…but that still means there are just under 2.9 million displaced people inside Iraq. The longer it takes to create the conditions under which people feel like they can return home, the greater the likelihood that many will be permanently displaced, which is not ideal for a country struggling to rebuild.


Bashar al-Assad and French President Emmanuel Macron are feuding over comments Assad made earlier this week to Syrian media alleging that France supports terrorism. On Tuesday Macron called Assad the “enemy” of the Syrian people and pointed to France’s role in the fight against ISIS as proof that France isn’t in the terrorism support business. Really, this is all honestly so important.

Despite its supposed status as a de-escalation zone, Assad is still planning at some point to attack Idlib province. When he does, assuming he does, he’ll likely benefit from the fact that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham appears to be coming apart–largely over the group’s decision to leave the al-Qaeda network:

Tensions inside Idlib have been on the rise for months, reflecting a power struggle between hard-line foreign fighters loyal to al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, and its more moderate Syrian members.


The tensions worsened in late November after a wave of detentions by an al-Qaida-linked group against more extremist, mostly non-Syrian members. Among those detained were two of al-Qaida’s most esteemed leaders and founding members of the extremist group’s branch in Syria, who were set free days later after pressure by factions within the group who threatened to withdraw from the battlefield in protest.


The Nov. 27 raids by the al-Qaida-linked Hay’at Tahrir al Sham — Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee, also known as HTS — took many by surprise and angered al-Zawahri, who accused his top man in Syria of betrayal.

HTS is now clashing with Jund al-Malahim, a group whose name goes back to 2015 when it referred to a coalition between then-Jabhat al-Nusra and two other groups, but that now appears to be a breakaway HTS faction of al-Qaeda diehards.


The Saudis say that they’ve intercepted another missile fired by the Houthis from Yemen, this time directed at Yamamah palace in Riyadh. Whether they actually intercepted it or it failed on its own, the upshot is there were no reports of casualties or significant damage to anything. How the Saudis plan to respond, with another total blockade or something even worse, remains to be seen.

The United Nations, meanwhile, says that Saudi coalition airstrikes killed 136 Yemeni civilians in just an 11 day period earlier this month. Want to bet which of these two Yemen stories will get more attention from the Trump administration?

There may be a bit of good news on that front, though. Trump’s nominee to serve as State Department legal adviser, Jennifer Newstead, told Senator Todd Young (R-IN) in a written reply to his questions that Saudi Arabia may be violating both US and international law in restricting the flow of humanitarian aid into Yemen. Young had put a hold on Newstead’s nomination until she answered his questions, but as she’s now done that he’s lifted the hold and she’ll likely be confirmed ASAP. If Newstead pursues this line of thinking once she takes the job, it’s hard to see how US support for the Saudi war wouldn’t be impacted.


Brookings’ fellows Hady Amr and Arsalan Suleman have put together a decent summary of the international fallout over Donald Trump’s Jerusalem decision:

On an issue as sensitive as Jerusalem—where emotional attachment to the city is felt by billions of people around the world and international law intersects with diverse political, economic and security interests—we cannot help but think that President Trump did not fully appreciate the sensitivities and risks involved in undertaking a disruptive unilateral move with nothing to show for it in return.


Part of that may have to do with Trump’s personal limitations, and part may be the result of the degradation of the State Department itself.

Mike Pence is delaying his big Middle East trip, but at least ostensibly it’s because he might be needed in DC to cast the tie-breaking vote to pass Trump’s Reverse Robin Hood tax reform bill, and not because he’s already been pre-snubbed–again over Jerusalem–by both Coptic leaders in Egypt and Palestinian leaders in Palestine.

Also, LOL:

It’s a public vote, Ambassador. Everybody knows you’ll be taking names and apparently they don’t give a shit.

Israeli security forces shot and killed Ibrahim Abu Thurayeh, a double amputee Palestinian protester in Gaza, on Friday. The United Nations is calling his death “incomprehensible,” but the Israeli government insists he wasn’t intentionally targeted. Abu Thurayeh, by the way, lost both of his legs in a 2008 Israeli airstrike.


Egyptian army Colonel Ahmed Konsowa announced last month that he plans to run for president next year. Today he was sentenced to six years in prison for expressing political opinions as a serving military officer. Which seems like a legitimate grievance, but six years in prison? Seriously?


The new Saudi budget envisions running a $52 billion deficit in the coming fiscal year, based on a $261 billion budget (the largest in Saudi history) and $209 billion in revenues. It’s hard to read this piece and not come away thinking that the Saudi economy is inching toward a serious collapse. They’re planning to balance the budget by 2023, but that’s going to come mostly on the backs of cuts in public benefits (they’re already replacing energy subsidies with a general low-income assistance payment that’s certain to be considerably less generous) at a time when Riyadh is spending extravagantly on any number of failing foreign adventures like the Yemen war. Meanwhile, here’s the real problem:

Unemployment in Saudi Arabia rose this year to 12.8 percent. Government statistics show that women make up the overwhelming majority of job seekers in Saudi Arabia.


Also, around 34 percent of Saudis seeking employment are between 25 and 29 years old. That number is expected to grow with half the population under 25.

That massive youth unemployment is eventually going to lead to a major problem, regardless of how popular Mohammad bin Salman might be with Saudi youth.

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