Middle East update: May 8-11 2017

Hi, long time no see I guess. Everybody OK? No? Right, of course not.

Because this update is going to be so big, I’m splitting it into an as yet unknown number of parts. I’m actually considering doing this for every one of these updates moving forward to keep post length down, but I’m not sure about that yet. There’s no way around it with this update, though.


The Iraqi army’s chief of staff, Lt. General Othman al-Ghanimi, has told the BBC that he still expects Mosul to be completely liberated by the start of Ramadan, which is May 26 this year for those of you who aren’t on the Islamic calendar. Throughout the Mosul operation, Iraqi officials have consistently overestimated their progress and underestimated the remaining challenge when speaking for public consumption, but this is a very specific estimate and Ghanimi is going to look pretty silly if Ramadan arrives and situation isn’t much changed from where it stands right now. So hopefully he has good reason to be confident…because otherwise there’s a chance that come, say, May 20, you’re going to see the Iraqis take some kind of drastic action to try to wrap the offensive up, one that could risk a whole lot of lives.

The Iraqi forces are definitely making progress, though, mostly via the new front the army’s Ninth Division opened up in the northwest of the city. That front has linked up with the counter-terrorist “Golden Division” which had been pushing north through the center of western Mosul (I hope that makes sense), and the combined forces have liberated a number of neighborhoods as they work their way east toward the Tigris River. The plan then is to move south, surrounding Mosul’s Old City and forcing ISIS to defend its position there from multiple sides. It sounds like a reasonable plan, but I wouldn’t want to put a deadline on it the way Ghanimi has done. The progress the Iraqis have made further north is mostly due to the fact that ISIS has really pulled back from the rest of the city to concentrate its forces in the Old City, a small enough area that it can be defended by a relatively small force. Attacking the Old City on several fronts should help weaken ISIS’s defenses there, but it could still be a long fight.

One of the downsides to opening the new front is that it’s brought fighting to more of the city and displaced more of its residents. After a bit of a humanitarian pause in April when the battle had stalemated for a bit, more people are once again fleeing from Mosul than are returning to it. Apart from the short-term needs of the displaced and the medium-term needs of people trying to return to Mosul and rebuild their city, there are long-term humanitarian consequences of this war to consider as well, like the hundreds of people who have lost limbs in the fighting and the vast numbers of young boys who were forcibly recruited by ISIS as child soldiers and are only just beginning to confront the trauma that entailed.

Aside from keeping civilian suffering as minimal as possible, the Iraqis also have to be mindful of how much pressure they’re putting on the four (or so) units doing the bulk of the work in Mosul (the Golden Division, the Ninth Division, the Rapid Reaction Force, and the Federal Police), because while liberating Mosul might feel like the end of the fight against ISIS, it’s not. Hawija, Tal Afar and the areas of Ninewah and Anbar provinces along the Syrian border are still in ISIS’s hands, so the Iraqis still have more work to be done.

There is also an entirely different confrontation happening around Sinjar that at some point may become a full-blown armed conflict between different Kurdish factions, the Turkey-centric PKK on the one hand and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government on the other. Virtually everybody wants the PKK out of Sinjar: the Iraqi government, the Turkish government (which as you know has starting bombing Sinjar and is threatening to take ground action to drive the PKK out), the KRG (which has expressed disapproval of the Turkish airstrikes but nevertheless wants the PKK out)–everybody, that is, except the PKK itself and many of the Yazidis who live there. The Yazidis have been screwed by just about everybody except the PKK, who came in offering to protect the area from any more ISIS attempts to occupy it and have been helping to train a Yazidi defense force, but there does seem to be a faction within the Yazidi community that thinks the PKK is screwing them as well, simply by being there and making Sinjar a Turkish target.


There continues to be a fair amount of confusion about the Russia-Turkey-Iran “de-escalation zones” plan and what exactly it’s supposed to do. This is natural, given that the de-escalation agreement gave the three parties until June 4 to iron out key details such as the specific boundaries of safe zones and how those zones would be monitored, but the fact that there seem to be more questions than answers at this point isn’t a great sign for the deal’s chances of success. There has been a reduction in fighting (though perhaps not that much of one) since the agreement was reached last week in Astana, but the humanitarian situation is beyond acute and aid convoys still aren’t being given the green light to move into afflicted areas. And it’s not entirely clear how the actual sides on the ground are going to respond to the agreement. The Syrian government says it will go along with the deal but will not allow foreign troops to be used to police safe zones, which is one option under the terms of the agreement. Rebels have rejected the deal, and it’s unlikely they’ll reconsider if the deal obligates them to forcibly drive jihadi groups out of the safe zones and begin “reconciliation” with Damascus, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seems to think it does.

Russia would clearly like to have this de-escalation agreement ratified in a UN Security Council vote, but of course that means getting past America, British, and French vetoes, and that doesn’t seem to be in the cards until after those governments have had a chance to review the deal for themselves–which, since it really doesn’t exist in a final form yet, may be a while. A new round of the Geneva branch of peace talks has been scheduled for May 16-19, so that may bring more clarity. Reuters had a report today about the situation in Damascus’s rebel-held East Ghouta suburb, which is now fully under siege after the Syrian military destroyed a network of tunnels that had been used to smuggle supplies into the area. Ghouta is supposed to be one of those de-escalation zones, and so it may be the canary in the coal mine as far as the whole arrangement is concerned. If fighting there stops and aid starts coming in, then the deal will probably be working. If not, then we’ll know the deal is failing.

There have been a number of developments in the anti-ISIS fight over the past few days. For example, the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed up by American air power and advisers, said yesterday that they’ve captured the rest of the town of Tabqa and its nearby dam from ISIS after negotiating ISIS’s withdrawal from the area (I’m not prepared to read as much into that decision as that Buzzfeed piece is, but it’s worth noting). This removes a major obstacle to the SDF’s eventual assault on Raqqa. The biggest obstacle to that assault continues to be Turkey, which has not reacted well to word that the United States has finally decided to arm the SDF and, therefore, to arm the Kurdish YPG, which is part of the SDF and which Turkey considers a national security threat. This decision has been obvious for months but Washington kept playing coy so as not to upset Ankara, but it’s time for the rubber to hit the road. The Turkish government has, unsurprisingly, responded angrily, saying that arms shipments to the YPG will constitute a threat to Turkey and threatening vague “consequences.” Though, to be completely honest, the Turkish response could have been–and could still get–a lot worse. It’s possible that Ankara has resigned itself to this decision, but it’s also possible that they’re just waiting for the right time to start another round of airstrikes.

Buzzfeed reported yesterday that US Special Forces have been embedding with rebels in Tanf in southern Syria to assist them with fighting ISIS in the Deir Ezzor region and along the border with Iraq. The US has been much less open about its work with various rebel factions than it has about its work with the SDF, because those groups are more enmeshed in the civil war than Washington would like to admit, but unless they surrender, these rebels are going to find themselves in conflict with the Syria army–even if the army doesn’t attack them first, it’s also moving toward Deir Ezzor, which puts it on a collision course with these US-backed rebels.


Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, who had been governor of Aden until Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi sacked him two weeks ago, found himself another gig today: head of a brand-new council seeking southern Yemeni independence. You know how, every once in a while, I mention that Yemen is staring at another civil war whenever the current civil war ends? Well, apparently they’re going to overlap a bit. The drive for southern Yemeni independence predates the Houthi uprising and dates back to, oh, about 30 seconds after Yemen was unified in 1990. But the timing here throws an already chaotic situation into, uh, double chaos? Is that a thing? The secessionists are going to seek Saudi and UAE approval for their cause, which they’re not likely to get, but the mere fact that an open secessionist movement now exists puts Hadi’s position in jeopardy. He’s been ruling out of Aden–what happens if his situation there becomes untenable?


Undoubtedly in an attempt to smooth things over with Turkey over that whole “we’re going to start sending weapons to the YPG” thing, the Trump Administration has deployed Defense Secretary James Mattis to talk about America’s abiding commitment to Turkey’s security and its fight against the PKK. Without passing judgment on Ankara’s never-ending war against the Kurds, which has accomplished nothing apart from killing a lot of people needlessly over almost four decades, Washington’s position on the YPG/PKK distinction is and has long been mostly bullshit. Yes, these are separate organizations…whose founders and top personnel overlap and which share men and materiel regularly. It’s disingenuous to arm one of these groups and pretend you’re not at least risking that those arms will be shared with the other. I completely understand the need to use the YPG against ISIS, but to turn around and talk about America’s “100 percent” agreement with “Turkey’s concern about PKK” is outrageous and only makes the situation more inflammatory.

With President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looking ahead to elections in 2019, the one thing on his mind is presumably the fear that Turkey’s fractured opposition might unite behind one candidate who could potentially defeat him. The very slim margin of Erdoğan’s victory in the April 16 constitutional referendum should have told him that he can’t afford to take anything for granted in terms of his political support. Al-Monitor’s Mustafa Akyol looks at opposition efforts to cobble together a united front–no easy task, given that opposition to Erdoğan literally runs the entire gamut of Turkish politics, from hard-right Turkish nationalists to leftist Kurdish activists. Good luck getting all those folks arrayed behind one challenger.


While announcing that it had secured the Lebanon-Syria border and was pulling back to allow the Lebanese government to take over security there (the kind of thing you might do if you were worried about a new threat coming from the south), and expressly denying any intentions to pick a fight with Israel, Hezbollah boss Hassan Nasrallah warned in a speech today that a future war with Israel might not be fought on Lebanese territory, where the Israelis would prefer to fight it. That’s probably an idle threat, and in some ways it may be to Hezbollah’s interest that a future war with Israel be fought on Lebanese soil, where the Israelis will be seen as the aggressor and face international pressure to back down and minimize civilian casualties.


Al-Monitor’s Akiva Eldar suggests it’s time to stop pretending that Israel is heading toward anything other than a full-on apartheid state, one state for one people with a Palestinian population that has virtually no rights whatsoever:

From the explanations furnished by Levin, one of Netanyahu’s closest allies, it appears that the proposed bill leaves the Palestinians with only three options: living forever under foreign occupation, emigration or expulsion. Levin said with no trace of ambiguity, “The settlement of Judea and Samaria is a fait accompli. … The measure we are leading will put an end to the blatant discrimination and the disregard by the laws of the State of Israel against the regions of the homeland and the Israeli citizens living there.”

In other words, one could say that the move that Shaked and Levin are promoting will offer a juridical stamp of approval (not a legal one, as the settlement enterprise is contradictory to international law) to clear discrimination and to Israel’s ignoring the human rights of 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians. Such a policy has a name: Apartheid.

It’s becoming harder for the Israeli government to keep up pretenses. Its education minister denies that the Palestinians are a people. Its education minister, a potential candidate for prime minister one day, openly says there’s not going to be a Palestinian state. Its defense minister compares elected Arab legislators to Nazis. Its legislature is about to pass a law that seems to limit the right of self-determination in Israel to Jews. There’s no real mystery about what this is.


The Egyptian air force spent last weekend destroying some 15 trucks attempting to cross into western Egypt via Libya, and its security forces killed eight men identified as Muslim Brotherhood members in a shootout in southern Egypt. “Muslim Brotherhood” is a broad category, particularly when the Egyptian government uses it because they like to tie any violent threats to the Brotherhood, but the western desert and that long, undefended border with unstable Libya have been legitimate security concerns for the Egyptians for some time now.


Tensions between the Saudi royal family and the conservative religious types who support it are often lurking under the surface, but they’ve bubbled up recently over plans to diversify the Saudi economy. In particular, there seems to be a bit of an ongoing fight over music, which ultra conservatives believe is corrupting but which is a key part of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad b. Salman’s economic reforms, which call for increasing the kingdom’s entertainment sector. Most people find music, you know, entertaining. The fight here extends deeper than whether you’ll ever be able to hear live jazz in the hotels in Jeddah–there are signs of a real disconnect between the establishment and the prince’s generation of royals, which could make the monarchy amenable to a request, say, to stop proselytizing Wahhabism all over the world. Or it could leave the royal family vulnerable to a religious revolution. Either way.


With the presidential election but a week away, the big political story revolves around incumbent Hassan Rouhani’s decision to change tactics and go very hard at his conservative rivals. In a speech a few days ago, Rouhani attacked one conservative challenger, Ebrahim Raisi, as a product of Iran’s repressive judiciary, and the other, Mohammad Ghalibaf, for his antiquated views on gender segregation. Rouhani has already openly criticized the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is really something in Iranian politics. The reason he’s adopted this more aggressive style is, according to Brookings’ Suzanne Maloney, pretty simple: he’s going back to what worked for him in 2013. It may seem odd for an incumbent president to campaign for reelection as an angry outsider, but in the Iranian system the president can easily be an outsider.

Rouhani’s situation is quietly deteriorating, which also helps explain his tactical shift. Recent polling has put Raisi in second place, suggesting that the former attorney general and apparent IRGC favorite is overcoming his biggest disadvantage, poor name recognition. More importantly, that polling gives Raisi and Ghalibaf over 50 percent support combined, which is an ominous sign for Rouhani if, as seems likely, he finds himself in a runoff with either man after the first round of voting on May 19 (Ghalibaf may have a harder time in a runoff than Raisi, as his decision to run and stay in the race seems to be pissing a lot of people off). Also, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is warning against people “disrupting” the vote, which, taken in the context of the 2009 presidential election, sounds like he’s thinking about putting his finger on the scale. He’s also openly criticizing Rouhani, which may not have that great an effect on the electorate but does make it clear how he’d like to see the vote go. And, naturally, the Trump administration is doing all it can to help throw the election to hardliners, because that will make it easier for them to take a hard anti-Iran line themselves.

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