Middle East update: November 26 2018

As usual when I return from an extended break, we’ll be sticking to things that happened today or are particularly relevant rather than trying to recap everything that’s happened while I was gone.

THE WAR ON TERROR

While I was away, the Center for Strategic and International Studies released a new report concluding that, 17 years into the Global War on Terror, the threat of Salafi-Jihadism may be greater than ever. With as many as 230,000 extremists running around the world causing mayhem, suffice to say that it’s definitely time to crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside. Except that there are quite a few issues here. For one thing, CSIS actually estimates that the number of Salafi-Jihadists globally could be anywhere from 100,000 to 230,000, though guess which of those figures the media is stressing. And for another thing, CSIS’s methodology sucks. Alex Thurston explains:

Second, the authors determined both the low and the high estimates by adding up estimates for various armed movements around the world – and they counted some movements that I don’t think they should have. Most problematically, they included the Taliban, which is not even Salafi, theologically speaking, and whose basic political orientation and strategy is different from that of al-Qaida and/or the Islamic State. The authors attempt to gloss over this problem by staking out a minimal definition of Salafi-jihadism (p. 4) and then conflating some iterations of the Deobandi school (to which the Taliban belong) with Salafism (p. 5) while pointing to the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida. We should note that the figures given for Afghanistan alone (27,000 for the low estimate, and 64,060 for the high estimate – see p. 10) already represent over a quarter of the total, while the figures given for Pakistan (17,900 for the low estimate, and 39,540 for the high estimate – again, see p. 10) represent over a sixth of the total. If we carve out the Taliban from the world of Salafi-jihadism, the numbers start to look much, much different.

Third, the authors take an extremely broad view of who counts as a Salafi-jihadi in Syria. If South Asia is the largest single region in their estimate, Syria is the largest single country: 70,550 fighters in the high estimate, and 43,650 in the low estimate. From what I can tell, these figures involve counting every member of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham as well as Ahrar al-Sham as Salafi-jihadis. Syria expert Sam Heller (whose thread on this topic we will return to below) has argued that Ahrar al-Sham should not be counted, and I (although not a Syria expert) would add that counting all HTS members would seem to contradict common sense, given that HTS is a coalition of multiple groups. So once we interrogate the Syria figure, it seems that the estimate should drop again, and that subtracting the Taliban and adjusting the Syria figure might bring even the high estimate below 100,000.

On top of these two huge problems, there is the perhaps unavoidable problem that CSIS counts every member of every Salafi-Jihadi group as a Salafi-Jihadist. There probably isn’t any other way to approach a study like this, but it’s still sloppy because we know that people join these organizations for a variety of reasons and not all of them are true believers. Treating them as such for purposes of hyping a threat is dishonest.

As Thurston notes, CSIS’s study is part of an interventionist pushback against the Trump administration’s decision to refocus its defense strategy away from counterterrorism and toward preparing for World War III with China and/or Russia. It’s not arguing that the War on Terror has failed–though that’s certainly what a sane national security discourse would be asking in the wake of a report like this–but rather it’s arguing that we can’t abandon the effort now or else ISIS or whoever will kill us all. And it’s playing very loose with the facts in order to make that case.

SYRIA

A major, possibly last-ditch (though who really knows at this point), counterattack by ISIS in eastern Syria over the weekend has reportedly left at least 204 people dead since Friday. Of those, 92 are fighters with the US-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces while 112 are either ISIS fighters or civilians (most of whom are family members of those ISIS fighters). ISIS attempted a major breakout on Friday, using fog for cover from airstrikes and featuring suicide bombers and cells operating behind SDF lines, but their gains have largely been reversed thanks to subsequent airstrikes. The SDF has reportedly lost more than 450 fighters since beginning its offensive against ISIS’s remaining Deir Ezzor pocket in September. There are sketchy/unconfirmed reports that “Osama Abu Zeid,” the alleged number two man in ISIS, was captured by the SDF in eastern Syria on Thursday.

Further north, meanwhile, the US is pushing ahead with a plan to put a dozen observation posts along the Syria-Turkey border in an effort to prevent any further clashes between Turkey and the YPG. Turkish officials have argued against this plan, but the US seems to want to replicate the model it’s used in Manbij in other parts of northern Syria that are predominantly Arab rather than Kurdish. Basically this means giving Turkey a transparent way to monitor events without ceding any control to them, and then weeding out the YPG over time.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is sending an investigative team to Syria to look into allegations that anti-government forces used chlorine gas in a strike on Aleppo on Saturday. The OPCW appears to be waiting for the United Nations to determine if security conditions will allow their team to go in and conduct its assessment. At least 107 people were reportedly wounded in the attack, exhibiting classic signs of chlorine gas exposure. The Russian military retaliated on Sunday with airstrikes against rebel positions in Idlib province, after first warning the Turkish government that the strikes were coming. These were the first airstrikes in Idlib since the Russian-Turkish deescalation agreement there went into effect starting back in September. Several rebel groups have, naturally, accused the Syrian government of fabricating the attack.

YEMEN

Six reputed members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were killed in what was probably a US drone strike in central Yemen’s Bayda province on Sunday.

TURKEY

Turkish police reportedly searched a coastal villa southeast of Istanbul on Monday in the latest development in the Jamal Khashoggi investigation. The villa owner, a Saudi national named Mohammed Ahmed Alfaozan, reportedly got a call from one of the suspects in Khashoggi’s murder the day before it happened. This call allegedly had to do with disposing of Khashoggi’s remains. The villa is near Yalova, which is an area that Turkish authorities have already searched.

George Soros, the deliberately overhyped nemesis of every right-wing authoritarian on the planet, will be pulling his Open Society Foundation out of Turkey. OSF says that investigations by Turkish authorities and “baseless claims” in Turkish media have made continued operations impossible. Turkey claims that Soros’s group financed the 2013 Gezi Park protests via human rights activist and Turkish political prisoner Osman Kavala. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has always insisted, absent compelling evidence of course, that the Gezi Park movement was some sort of devious foreign plot against him, I guess because he thinks that justifies the fact that his security forces murdered a couple dozen protesters and injured thousands more.

JORDAN

Jordanian border guards on Monday killed four people who were attempting to sneak into the country and interdicted two large drug shipments involving Captagon, Tramadol, and hashish. It didn’t say where these incursions came from but Captagon is a very popular drug among Syrian insurgents, who manufacture it both for their own use and as a revenue source.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man north of Hebron on Monday after the man injured three of them in a car ramming attack.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but its motives may have something to do with the Israeli government’s slow-moving efforts to annex the city, and indeed the entire West Bank:

“Israel doesn’t need to declare formal annexation for its annexation steps to be unlawful under international law, as long as it is taking steps to ensure the permanency of its settlements and trying to establish sovereign facts on the ground. That is sufficient for it to be illegal under international law,” Lynk said.

The newest settlement to be built in Hebron is yet another reaffirmation of Israel’s intention to remain permanently in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, Lynk said.

For Zleikha Muhtaseb, director of a women’s cooperative in Hebron’s H2, she worries the new settlement will bring more restrictions for Palestinians living and working nearby.

“We’re worried because they keep expanding… With the new settlement, it will cause more violence. We already have very extreme settlers, but you never know how extreme the newcomers will be.

“The women’s centre will be very close to the settlement; I think we will be in danger.”

QATAR

Qatar Airways has announced plans to add seven weekly flights to Iran by February in seeming defiance of US sanctions. Several national carriers have dropped all their flights to Iran in order to avoid US penalties, so these additional flights could be a lifeline for the Iranians and are definitely a nice way for the Qataris to thank Iran for its recent support. The US is in a bit of a quandary here, because of course its largest Middle Eastern base is in Qatar, a country that Washington desperately wants to keep out of Iran’s orbit. But last year’s Saudi-led blockade of Qatar has given the emirate little choice but to gravitate toward Iran. The US has leaned on Riyadh to end the blockade, but of course it’s not going to lean too hard on Donald Trump’s best foreign pal (see below).

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

After sentencing him to life in prison on obviously trumped up spying charges (including a video “confession” in which Hedges admits that he’s a “captain” in MI6 even though no such rank exists) last week, Emirati authorities pardoned British grad student Matthew Hedges on Monday. He should be en route to the UK if he hasn’t already arrived. Hedges apparently signed a confession without realizing it, as he doesn’t speak Arabic. Which is an odd detail for a person doing graduate research in the Persian Gulf, but even odder for a supposed elite British spy. It’s unclear whether the Emiratis released Hedges because they realized they were in over their heads or they’d manufactured this entire crisis with an eye toward “magnanimously” releasing him in the end in an effort to win themselves some international goodwill. If the latter, so far it seems to have backfired on them.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is visiting Egypt in the third stop on his regional “I’m Not Going Anywhere” tour, which had previously taken him to the UAE and Bahrain. MBS is carefully picking his spots so far, visiting his closest regional ally and two Saudi clients where he’s sure to get a warm reception. But he may not get that kind of welcome in Tunisia, where protesters are already demanding that his scheduled visit be called off. And he really may not be well received in Argentina, where he’s supposed to attend the G20 summit later this week. Argentine authorities have reportedly opened up an investigation into MBS’s possible human rights violations in Yemen and with respect to the Khashoggi killing. It’s extremely unlikely the case will come together in time to arrest MBS this week, and even less likely that Argentine authorities would waive his diplomatic immunity to do so anyway, but even “extremely unlikely” may not be enough for the prince to risk attending the summit.

As MBS’s foreign tour continues, Bruce Reidel argues that the Saudi family is increasingly concerned about this possibility of his ascension to the throne. But little of that concern has leaked out and, at any rate, it’s far from clear that the rest of the family still has the leverage to do anything about it.

In Washington, meanwhile, people are still trying to digest the sub-fourth grade level statement that Donald Trump issued last week in defense of the Saudis and Mohammad bin Salman. Presumably you’ve already read and mocked it by now, so I’m not going to belabor the issue. But Win Without War’s Kate Kizer argues that Congress must act this week to counter Trump’s obsequious indulgence of Saudi excesses:

Last week’s absurd statement from the White House was supposed to resolve any lingering questions about Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi’s murder by the Saudi government. Instead, the statement only made clear that Donald Trump will do nothing to hold Saudi Arabia or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) accountable—for his role in the Khashoggi murder or his destructive war in Yemen. Fortunately, this week the Senate can impose a reality check on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia by voting to end the shameful U.S. role in the Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) war in Yemen.

IRAN

A new study from Bourse and Bazaar argues that reimposing US sanctions against Iran is unlikely to impact Iran’s military spending unless the Trump administration can get the rest of the world on board:

Do sanctions reduce the military spending in Iran? This is the question we sought to answer by modeling the effects of sanctions on military spending in Iran to investigate the impact of unilateral sanctions (where only the United States sanctions Iran) and multilateral sanctions (where the United States acts in conjunction with other countries to sanction Iran). The results show that the increasing intensity of sanctions dampens the military budget of Iran. But by separating unilateral and multilateral sanctions, we show that only multilateral sanctions have a statistically significant and negative impact on Iranian military spending.

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