Middle East update: January 13-14 2018

By way of a site update, with tomorrow being a holiday in the US I’m not 100 percent sure I’ll be blogging. If not then I’ll be back on Tuesday with two days’ worth of bad news.


I have bad news, good news, and political news, which is probably bad but also silly.

Baghdad was hit by a suicide bombing on Saturday. The blast, in a neighborhood in the northern part of the city, killed at least eight people. There’s been no claim of responsibility but it’s not hard to imagine who it might have been. The specter of such bombings no longer looms quite as large over the Iraqi capital these days as the frequency of such attacks has declined quite a bit over the past year, but clearly it’s still looming to some extent.

The good news is that, according to the International Organization for Migration, 2017 saw more Iraqis returning home than being newly displaced. Obviously the Iraqis’ defeat of ISIS is the reason for the positive numbers. The important thing now is to make sure people aren’t being forced to return home when conditions can’t support it. Unfortunately there are already signs that people are being forced to return home prematurely, in part because of the upcoming parliamentary election. Which brings us to our political news.

The Shiʿa Dawa coalition announced on Saturday that it will not field candidates in this year’s parliamentary election. Dawa had become untenable due to the intense rivalry between current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, both of whose parties were under Dawa’s umbrella. The coalition’s choices were either to sit this election out or watch itself be ripped apart from the inside, basically. Maliki, currently occupying one of Iraq’s three make-work vice presidencies, is himself probably still too toxic to be elected PM, but he may be looking for a stalking horse to run against Abadi on his behalf. Either way his chances of unseating Abadi are an extreme long shot–the Iraqi PM is riding a popularity high thanks to the successful military campaign against ISIS and his tough and successful approach to Kurdish separatism.

Abadi says his candidate list will be “cross-sectarian,” or in other words that it will include Sunni candidates. But he’s secured support from some of the country’s most hardline Iran-backed Shiʿa groups, parties with militias participating in the Popular Mobilization forces, and in doing so seems to have alienated influential Shiʿa leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been positioning himself as a populist and an Iran skeptic. Abadi also hasn’t earned himself any new friends in Washington. His popularity is such that it probably doesn’t matter.


Al Jazeera is reporting that a displaced persons camp in Idlib province was hit by at least one missile on Sunday, as fighting in that province continues. Tens of thousands of people (some estimates put the figure close to 300,000) have been displaced, or re-displaced, in this new round of fighting. And things are likely to get worse soon–the Turkish government says it’s preparing an imminent attack on YPG Kurdish forces in the Afrin region. Ankara is pissed at new US plans to create a new border security force in areas of northeastern Syria controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The new unit would deploy along the Turkish border and along the Euphrates River, which is the “border” between SDF-controlled territory and Syrian government-controlled territory in the east. Washington has tried to distinguish between its collaboration with the YPG in Rojava, in northeastern Syria, and YPG activity in Afrin, in northwestern Syria, but certainly the YPG doesn’t make that distinction and it will likely attempt to move assets to counter a Turkish offensive against Afrin. It’s unclear whether or how the US would react to that.

In Eastern Ghouta, meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that 179 people have been killed since the Syrian government, with Russian help, launched its most recent assault on the rebel-controlled Damascus suburb late last month.


A bombing in Sidon on Sunday wounded Mohamed Hamdan, a Hamas official. There’s been no claim of responsibility but obviously Israeli intelligence is a potential suspect.


The Trump administration is likely to cut about half of the $125 million it is supposed to send to the United Nations Relief Works Agency this month instead of cutting all of it, as UN ambassador Nikki Haley, among others, seems to prefer. Haley apparently feels strongly that Palestinian refugees should be starved for Palestinian leadership’s refusal to knuckle under (when Mahmoud Abbas says “Damn your money!” that’s pretty unambiguous) to whatever horrible peace deal Jared Kushner has been cooking up, but others in the administration would prefer to only put them on a diet instead.


Unknown gunmen shot and killed a Christian man in northern Sinai on Saturday. No claim of responsibility but ISIS is certainly fond of killing Christians and active in Sinai.

Meanwhile, two more candidates–human rights activist Khaled Ali and Mohammed Anwar Sadat, nephew of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat–have thrown their hats in the ring to challenge Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in March’s presidential election. Whether either will meet requirements to get on the ballot remains to be seen.


Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al Thani released a video on Sunday claiming that he was being held captive in the UAE and blaming “Sheikh Mohammed,” presumably Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and de facto UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, for his predicament. UAE officials said that Abdullah was free to come and go as he wished, but he left the UAE later in the day, almost as though it was a direct result of his video.

Abdullah, you may recall, last year briefly became a central figure in a low-key Saudi effort to foment a coup in Qatar. He comes from a branch of the Thanis that ruled Qatar until a coup in the 1970s put the current ruling line on the throne. It’s not clear why the Emiratis might have been detaining him.


Alwaleed bin Talal and his billions of dollars in net wealth are negotiating with Saudi authorities about what it will take to buy his freedom. Alwaleed was one of the most prominent figures swept up in Mohammad bin Salman’s alleged anti-corruption campaign, and his restitution payment can be expected to be the largest of the bunch. He’s reportedly talked about making a “donation” to the kingdom with no admission of wrongdoing, but those terms and/or the size of the donation have been unacceptable to the Saudis.

If you’re wondering how MBS’s big “moderation” push is going, the answer is FANTASTIC:

Plans to open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and Saudi Arabia raise questions about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salah’s concept of a moderate form of Islam.


The questions are prompted by the fact that Prince Mohammed has so far put little, if any, flesh on his skeletal vow last October to return his ultra-conservative kingdom to “moderate Islam.”

Converting mostly-Zaydi northern Yemen to Wahhabism has been an on-again, off-again Saudi project for decades now, but with MBS supposedly committed to “moderate Islam,” it’s a little strange to see him opening new extremist missions.


Iran’s foreign ministry told state media on Saturday that the country “will not accept any change in the [nuclear] deal, neither now nor in future.” Obviously that doesn’t bode well for Donald Trump’s plans to modify the accord before the next time he’s required to waive US sanctions.

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