Middle East Ticker

Attack in Egypt, U.S. and Turkey Spar over Trial and Arming Kurds, Saudi Arabia Tempers Its Power Play

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, November 28, 2017, 10:00 AM

Egypt’s Deadliest Attack in Modern History Hits Mosque in Sinai Peninsula

Five truckloads of armed men stormed a mosque in Rawda, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and massacred more than 300 Muslims on Friday. Eyewitnesses who survived the attack described an explosion followed by a methodical killing spree that ended with gunmen walking among the dead, which included 27 children, to execute any remaining survivors. Some carried the flag of Wilayet Sinai (or Sinai Province), the local affiliate of the Islamic State. The attack targeted a nominally Sufi mosque, but as some have noted, many of the dead may not have been from the Sufi sect. Friday’s violence was the deadliest attack in Egypt’s modern history.

Wilayet Sinai has terrorized the area since 2011, when it went was an al-Qaeda affiliate called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, but the attack on Friday is a significant shift in its tactics and the scale of its violence. The group has primarily targeted the Egyptian military in Sinai, ambushing military patrols and bases, as it did in an attack on a military post near Sheikh Zuweid in October. It has also assassinated Christians and Sufis in Sinai. In some respects, the attack on Friday was prefigured by Wilayet Sinai’s bombing of a Coptic cathedral in Cairo last year, but the latest violence is the first to target Muslims on such a large scale in Egypt—though the Islamic State considers Sufis to be apostates practicing witchcraft.

In response to the attack, the Egyptian military destroyed the trucks used in the attack, but it is unclear if any of the attackers were killed. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi promised to meet the Islamic State with “brute force,” but that’s what the Egyptian military has been doing since 2011. Hundreds of Egyptian military personnel have been killed in Sinai in recent years while waging a ruthless war on local militancy. In the process, civilians have been killed in indiscriminate attacks and suspected militants have been summarily executed. “The Egyptian government has been describing its reaction to every attack as a harsh response since the summer of 2013, if not before. So it’s difficult to assess what is meant by a promise to do more than that,” Zack Gold, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, told the Washington Post. Sinai is now bracing for more of the same. The New Yorker’s Robin Wright writes that “Egypt’s situation is reminiscent of the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Egyptian forces hold military bases, operate checkpoints, and carry out periodic patrols in armored convoys—but they can’t control much of the countryside.”

Whatever the Egyptian military’s response is, we will only hear about it in bits and pieces. The government has imposed a media blackout on stories in Sinai since July 2013 and Egyptian law blocks Egyptian media from publishing stories that stray from the government’s official line on its campaign against the Islamic State. The Egyptian government this weekend went after foreign media outlets that placed the attack in the context of the grinding war against militants in Sinai. After Trump tweeted criticism of CNN’s international coverage in response to new restrictions on foreign media imposed by Russia, the English-language account of Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs piled on. “As usual, deplorable @CNN coverage of Sinai tragedy today. Anchor more interested in reporters access to Sinai than in those who lost their lives !!!” the account tweeted.

Trump and Erdogan Paper over Turkey-U.S. Feud

The future of U.S. partnerships in its fight against the Islamic State in eastern Syria is in flux. Turkey has adamantly opposed U.S. partnership with Syrian Kurdish YPG militias for years; Ankara often notes the YPG has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the United States. On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he had finally convinced the United States to stop arming Kurdish groups in a phone call with President Donald Trump. But on Monday, the Pentagon seemed to suggest Turkish officials had mischaracterized U.S. policy. “We are reviewing pending adjustments to the military support provided to our Kurdish partners in as much as the military requirements of our defeat-ISIS and stabilization efforts will allow to prevent ISIS from returning,” Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman, told Reuters.

That response probably won’t put Kurdish militias at ease. Now that the Islamic State has lost its largest bastions, many are anticipating a reduction in support. “America is absolutely, 100 percent going to abandon the Kurds for Turkey,” Brace Belden, a former American volunteer in the YPG, told the Chapo Trap House podcast in February. Belden said that the Kurds he met in the YPG “think of America as being allied with Turkey, which they are, and allied with the Iraqi Kurds, who they hate. So everyone’s kinda getting ready for that.” Kurdish forces have tried to play both sides, courting support from Moscow as well as Washington; this past spring, Kurdish forces reportedly reached a basing agreement with Russia, but since then Kurdish and Russian forces have clashed near Deir Ezzour.

The Pentagon’s response yesterday won’t alleviate Syrian Kurds’ concerns, but it won’t satisfy Turkey either. Erdogan’s latest effort to apply pressure to cut off Syrian Kurdish militias coincides with growing strain with Washington over the trial of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman, accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. As Amanda Sloat recently explained here on Lawfare, the case has ensnared former Turkish officials, including former Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and Halk Bank Deputy General Manager Suleyman Aslan, who were indicted in September. This convoluted mess of conspiracy and intrigue has been made more complicated in recent weeks, intersecting with Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump administration’s foreign entanglements. Zarrab, The Daily Beast reported, may be testifying to federal prosecutors about former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s business with Turkey, which could include Flynn’s role in a planned abduction of Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric Erdogan has accused of plotting last year’s failed coup.

The Turkish government has dismissed the case against Zarrab as a Gulenist conspiracy and a “plot against Turkey,” but it is clearly worried about the potential implications of Zarrab’s trial. The evidence presented at the trial will likely embarrass Erdogan’s administration, and, as Sloat notes, could hit the Turkish economy by jeopardizing the credibility of the banking sector. As the start of the trial has approached, Ankara has grown increasingly hostile toward the United States, even as Trump and Erdogan have papered over their differences. In October, Turkey arrested employees of the U.S. consulate in Istanbul and sparred with the United States over visa processing. More subtle moves could be in the offing as the trial begins.

The State of Saudi Arabia’s Power Play

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) roller coaster month is ending with him backpedaling on some of the aggressive actions he made at the start of November. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned (possibly under duress) in Riyadh, returned to Beirut last week and rescinded his resignation, vowing to work with other factions of the Lebanese government, including Hezbollah, to preserve the country’s stability. Hariri only left Saudi Arabia after a public intercession by French President Emmanuel Macron and quiet pressure from the United States. Though Hariri’s efforts to lobby the U.S. Congress against sanctions on Hezbollah or diminished aid to Lebanon convinced MBS to drop Hariri, David Ignatius reports that Riyadh has had a change of heart. “The Hariri episode appears to have convinced Washington and Riyadh that their interests are better served by stability in Lebanon than instability, even though that approach requires some cooperation with Hezbollah, the dominant political faction,” he wrote earlier this month. “A Saudi official told me that the kingdom plans to work with the United States to support Lebanese institutions, such as the army, that can gradually reduce the power of Hezbollah and its patron, Iran.”

MBS is also easing up on his purge of potential rivals. News reports have emerged that royals arrested in the initial corruption sweep have been offered deals to buy their freedom in exchange for 70 percent of their wealth. I noted here in the Ticker that the crackdown “has all the hallmarks of an authoritarian purge,” and I still think that’s true. Ignatius has noted that MBS took action after sensing growing dissent in the royal ranks and writes that his “power play risked a backlash within the royal family because it violated the kingdom’s traditional consensual politics.” MBS seems to now be gambling that those potential challengers will either be cowed into submission, or won’t have the money left to do much about it. He’s also insulating himself from criticism from the broader public. A new counterterrorism law “includes criminal penalties of 5 to 10 years in prison for portraying the king or crown prince, directly or indirectly, ‘in a manner that brings religion or justice into disrepute,’ and criminalizes a wide range of peaceful acts that bear no relation to terrorism,” according to Human Rights Watch.

MBS’ other foreign policy adventures brought new problems for the kingdom this week. Qatar has decided to push ahead with a challenge via the World Trade Organization to the Gulf states’ campaign to isolate Doha politically and economically. The United Arab Emirates is expected to respond by invoking the WTO’s national security exception for the first time in a WTO dispute. Some WTO members worry the move could set a dangerous precedent, opening the door to a variety of rule-breaking under the cover of national-security reasons. The Saudi intervention in Yemen is also under renewed scrutiny, especially after the tightened blockade imposed by Riyadh earlier this month drew criticism for exacerbating the war-torn country’s dire food insecurity. That blockade has been loosened in recent days to allow medical supplies to reach Sanaa. The United Nations has called for greater access. "Yesterday’s success cannot be a one-off,” the Middle East director of UNICEF said after the plane of medical supplies landed in the capital.