Middle East update: April 4 2018


A bunch of ISIS-related online outlets have published a statement in which the group’s fighters “renew” their loyalty pledges to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:

“To infuriate and terrorise the infidels, we renew our pledge of loyalty to the commander of the faithful and the caliph of the Muslims, the mujahid sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Hussaini al-Qurashi may god preserve him,” militants said in a statement posted on their social media groups.


Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises several governments including Iraq’s on Islamic State affairs, said this was the first known pledge of loyalty to Baghdadi since Iraqi forces recaptured Mosul in July and an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias took Raqqa in November, in both cases backed by a U.S.-led coalition.

Sure, OK, go nuts. Baghdadi may not even be alive at this point and there’s no particular reason to treat this statement as evidence that he is, but I would hazard a guess that its intended audience isn’t us infidels but rather ISIS’s rank-and-file, or whatever is left of it. Those guys are strewn mostly about some very uninhabited parts of Syria and Iraq, isolated from anything like a main command structure, and there has to be a fairly high potential for any group of them to either give up and fade away, break off and do their own thing, or give al-Qaeda another look. A message that suggests Baghdadi is still alive and still in charge of his movement might help keep them in the fold.


The presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran met in Ankara on Wednesday and said they’re going “to accelerate efforts to bring stability to Syria.” Well, problem solved then. The three of them can’t even get on the same page with one another, let alone try to get anyone in Syria on that page with them. Meanwhile, Jaysh al-Islam released five prisoners in Douma as part of its slow movement out of that city.

As to the big question of the day, it’s my sad duty to inform you all that Donald Trump is back on his bullshit. Trump has been teasing everybody about a potential US withdrawal from Syria for days now, despite a pretty unanimous consensus within the rest of the administration that the US should remain in Syria indefinitely. After meeting with his national security team on Wednesday, Trump announced that he’s doing both of those things, and therefore neither of them. He’s reportedly instructed his administration to “prepare to withdraw” from Syria, but at the same time has agreed to an indefinite deployment with the vague goal of “destroying ISIS” or something. Makes sense.

It clearly appears that Trump has gotten snowed by his handlers, which I grant you is not exactly breaking news nor is it a particularly rare occurrence, despite his recent independent-minded outbursts (e.g., the Tillerson and McMaster firings and his new trade war with China). They’ve convinced him that the war against ISIS is almost done, but not quite, and that the US just needs to stay in Syria a little longer, another Friedman Unit or so, to really Get The Job Done. The fact is that ISIS can’t be truly “defeated” in the absence of functional Syrian and Iraqi states, and since we seem to be a long way from either of those things being in place I guess we’ll be sticking around Syria for awhile longer, or at least until Trump’s next purge. Trump may be trying to get Saudi Arabia to foot part of the bill for the US deployment in Syria, but I can’t believe the Saudis would be dumb enough to fall for that, and they don’t really have the extra cash lying around these days to just throw some at Trump to make him happy.

In reality, of course, the ISIS story is mostly a smokescreen and has been pretty much since Raqqa fell. The US presence in Syria at this point is intended to counter Iran, full stop. Nobody in Washington can openly admit that, because a) there’s no legal mandate, either domestic or international, for US forces to squat in Syria to contain Iran and now apparently b) because the president opposes it. The US wants keep Syria unstable and especially to keep Bashar al-Assad’s hands off of those large oil fields in Deir Ezzor province (which deprives him of revenue and therefore contributes to his instability), and that means, at the risk of repeating myself, staying in Syria indefinitely. With everything that entails.

If you can get past its cheerleading for American Empire, this Daily Beast piece by Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss does a pretty good job of explaining what the administration’s Syria policy was before Trump started talking about withdrawal. It aims to prevent Assad from sustaining his own rule and thereby force Russia and Iran to keep picking up the slack until they both exhaust themselves doing it. This is actually not an unreasonable objective if your goal is “regime change eventually”–there does appear to be, for example, a small but growing chorus of Iranians who are tired of seeing Tehran pour Iranian blood and treasure out in service of preserving Assad–but it’s also a recipe for prolonging Syria’s conflict, and its chaos, at the cost of more death and suffering. And you may notice the distinct lack of “ISIS” anywhere in that mission.

Even though Trump caved on the deployment on Wednesday, he may already have scuttled this plan by creating confusion about US plans. A large part of the plan, both in terms of countering Assad/Iran and also in terms of keeping ISIS bottled up, depends on building close ties between the US and the tribes that wield significant authority in eastern Syria. If tribal leaders are led to believe that Trump is champing at the bit to pull out, then reassurances from the Pentagon that the US is staying might not be enough to keep them from reaching out to Assad, or even to ISIS’s remnants. So what we’re left with is a situation wherein Trump has taken the worst elements of both the indefinite deployment and immediate withdrawal plans and fused them into one galactically stupid Syria policy.

By the way, if you’re a big fan of Turkey’s “cleanse the border of Kurds” policy, this definitely means the US isn’t leaving Manbij. In fact, the AP reports that US forces were seen building new defensive works there on Wednesday.


New polling suggests that despite increasing voter frustration, Iraq’s next government is going to look pretty much the same as its current one:

Overall, the polling showed that people were growing weary of the status quo. At the same time, if the lists receive the predicted number of seats the new government will look much like the present one. That means Prime Minister Haidar Abadi will maintain his position atop another national coalition government with the Shiite parties holding the majority of positions. Change always happens slowly in politics. That means while people may be looking for alternatives they find themselves mostly looking at the same faces to pick from this year.


The Houthis attacked a Saudi oil tanker off the coast near Hudaydah on Tuesday and did little (read: no) damage, so the Saudis announced on Wednesday that there will be no disruption to oil supplies. Whew, we really dodged a bullet there.

On Wednesday the Saudis also said they intercepted another Houthi missile near the Yemen-Saudi border. The missile appears to have been headed toward the Saudi port at Jizan.


The violent response by Israeli security forces does not seem to have deterred protesters in Gaza:

Meanwhile, speculation is again heavy that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning to call for an early election. His quick and total capitulation on the deal he reached with the United Nations over undocumented African migrants this week suggests he’s feeling particularly vulnerable to unhappiness among his core hard-right supporters. At this point it may not be that Netanyahu wants an early election so much as he’s got no choice–the corruption allegations swirling around him have left him less able to control his already razor-thin governing majority, so his choices may be either elections now or spending another year and a half lurching from one potential coalition collapse to another.


Having secured his, uh, re-election, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is celebrating in style by trying to stifle whatever remains of Egypt’s free press. His government fined the newspaper al-Masry al-Youm around $8500 for implying that Egyptian authorities were bribing people to go vote in last month’s presidential election, a heinous accusation based merely on the substantial evidence that Egyptian authorities bribed a lot of people to go vote in last month’s presidential election. It’s also been lodging complaints about coverage by Reuters and the New York Times alleging the same thing, and has amazingly gotten Reuters to retract its story.


Speaking of global oil supplies, Bahrain just discovered an offshore field in its territorial waters that is estimated to contain about 80 billion recoverable barrels of the stuff, along with around 560 billion cubic meters of natural gas, a major find if it can be properly developed. It would vault Bahrain into the upper echelons of the world’s oil producing countries in terms of proven reserves, though oil prices being what they are (and likely to come down from there in the future, especially if more Bahraini oil starts hitting the market) the gas is probably the more important find.


The Trump administration, which was planning to host a Persian Gulf summit in May that would have tried to reduce tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has postponed that summit until September. This is both an acknowledgement of the lack of diplomatic progress that’s been made in reducing those tensions thus far and a recognition of the fact that the administration’s foreign policy team is currently in tatters. It would be difficult to host this kind of summit without a secretary of state, particularly in a month when Trump is supposed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and it would be pointless to host it unless there’s some expectation of progress.


Though numerous former Israeli military officers and Mossad higher ups have said they support the Iran nuclear deal and have cautioned against abandoning it, the current head of Mossad, Yossi Cohen, wants to get rid of it:

The head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency is “100 percent certain” that Iran remains committed to developing a nuclear bomb and believes the international community must change or scrap its nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.


Yossi Cohen, who leads the shadowy spy agency, has been holding discussions about the Iranian nuclear program and delivered his assessment in a recent closed meeting with senior officials, according to a person who attended the meeting.


Cohen called the nuclear deal a “terrible mistake,” saying it allows Iran to keep key elements of its nuclear program intact and will remove other restraints in a few years.

Cohen is a close Netanyahu ally, and Netanyahu and Trump are buddies, so make of that what you will. If Mossad has conclusive proof that Iran is committed to developing a bomb they should probably share with the rest of the class because nobody else seems to have that evidence.

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