Middle East update: May 12-15 2017

Things are still a little catch as catch can here at attwiw world headquarters, but I’ll do my best to get you all up to date on news that doesn’t involve Donald Trump’s multiple imminent indictments at the hands of the FISA court, the Eastern District of Virginia, the International Criminal Court, the Justice League, and the Intergalactic Tribunal on Shitty Comb-Overs. We’ll start, as usual, with the Middle East.


Mosul as of May 13 (Wikimedia | Kami888)

Iraqi forces continue to grind away against the last few western Mosul neighborhoods still in ISIS’s hands. They’ve made considerable, and rapid, progress since opening up a new front in northwestern Mosul, advancing so far east that they’ve reduced ISIS to a narrow strip of territory along the west bank of the Tigris, leading south to its Old City stronghold (see the maps at Musings on Iraq). However, with Iraqi commanders still talking about wrapping this operation up by the start of Ramadan (May 26 or 27), it’s fair to wonder how realistic they’re being. The real endgame isn’t going to start until the Old City is being attacked from multiple sides, and while ISIS’s defenses could fall apart quickly once that happens, they could also continue to hold out as they’ve done against Iraq’s federal police for weeks now.

West of the city, Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units have begun their operation to take control of the Iraq-Syria border from ISIS. They’ve reportedly liberated several villages in the Qayrawan and Baaj areas of western Ninewah province. The PMU goal here is less to deal heavy losses to ISIS, whose forces can still retreat across the border into Syria, than to take the border territories and serve as an anvil to the hammer provided by the Syrian Democratic Forces and/or Syrian army when they begin attacking Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in earnest. The idea would be to make sure ISIS’s fighters can’t flee back into Iraq. But there’s mounting evidence to suggest that ISIS might be regrouping not in Ninewah, but in western Anbar province, to the south. Anbar’s deserts are an ideal, isolated place for the group to try to collect itself, and the border there may remain open long enough to allow some ISIS fighters fleeing Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to get across. So there’s likely to be at least one more major battle in Iraq’s future before ISIS is fully eliminated as a territorial force.


Speaking of the Anbar border, Damascus has reportedly been sending forces into southeastern Syria toward the Iraqi and Jordanian borders, in an effort to stymie and/or capitalize on recent advances made in that area by US-backed rebels fighting ISIS. If they make it to the border they’ll likely try to link up with the PMU forces in Iraq, which could allow arms and supplies to flow to forces aligned with Bashar al-Assad. It’s even possible to imagine the PMUs conducting operations in Syria, though they would likely do so against Baghdad’s orders.

To the north, ISIS shelling killed at least seven civilians in Deir Ezzor over the weekend, while coalition (probably) airstrikes on the village of Akayrshi and the town of Albukamal may have killed at least 32 civilians. The coalition strikes would have obviously been related to the Syrian Democratic Forces’ move toward Raqqa, which is continuing and, according to the SDF, should culminate “next month.” The Turkish government, still unhappy about the US-SDF relationship (more on that in a minute), says that it’s been told by Washington that the YPG won’t be allowed to remain in Raqqa once the fighting is over.

Meanwhile, in the non-ISIS portion of Syria’s comprehensive disaster, another round of peace talks is taking place in Geneva this week, starting tomorrow, with UN envoy Staffan de Mistura changing the format to hopefully force more discussion and less grandstanding by the parties. De Mistura may be reacting to criticism last week from Assad, who said in a TV interview that the Geneva peace talks have been largely a waste of time (insert “stopped clock” reference here). An evacuation deal saw the departure of 2300 rebels and their families from the Damascus suburb of Qaboun on Sunday, which as with all of these deals is good (at least temporarily) for the evacuees, very good for Assad, and very bad from the perspective of preventing war crimes (like, say, siege warfare and forced evacuation). The evacuees will head to Idlib while Assad moves on to besiege the next suburb, Jobar. Also on the crimes against humanity front, Washington today accused Assad of building a crematorium at Saydnaya Prison to help discreetly dispose of the dozens of prisoners his government is allegedly executing there each day.


Let’s return to the SDF-Raqqa operation, since it’s about to be the major issue when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visits the White House on Tuesday. America’s involvement with the SDF is, as you know, a major problem for Turkey, which sees the SDF, and specifically the Kurdish YPG militia that operates under its umbrella, as an extension of the PKK, which has been carrying on an insurgency in Turkey for decades. And to an objective outside observer, the YPG is an extension of the PKK, despite Washington’s assertions that they’re really separate-but-related organizations. Colin Kahl, who served as Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor, argues that the Trump administration should try to appease Ankara by embracing the YPG-PKK link and arguing that the US can influence the joint organization to stand down in Turkey:

First, even as Trump impresses upon Erdogan the urgent need to liberate Raqqa with the forces at hand, the administration needs to make a stronger case — both in private and in public — for the potential advantages to Turkey of the U.S. partnership with the YPG. The Raqqa operation orients the SDF away from the Turkish border and away from further attempts to link Kurdish cantons. American backing also provides important influence over YPG cadre in north central and northeastern Syria, limiting the prospect that the YPG will pursue an alternative alignment with Russia and Iran, which could prove much more detrimental to Turkish interests.

The U.S. relationship with the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), also positions the United States to potentially play a quiet mediating role between Turkey and the PKK in the event the parties are willing to re-start peace talks. This is something that should be in Erdogan’s interest given the toll the PKK insurgency has taken on Turkish society, and the fact that there is no purely military solution to the conflict. Moreover, having consolidated executive power, Erdogan’s political need to whip up anti-Kurdish sentiment should theoretically be lessened. It is important to remember that, from 2012 to early 2015, Erdogan previously pursued a strategy that aimed to end the war with the PKK via a negotiated settlement. Simultaneously, the Turkish government engaged the PYD/YPG in the hopes of driving a wedge between them and the PKK. This strategy collapsed in 2015 as the cycle of PKK violence reignited and Erdogan’s own political interests in checking Kurdish political gains in Turkey led him to take a harder line. One key task for Trump, therefore, is to make the case to Erdogan that it is in Turkey’s interest to return to a version of this earlier approach — and that the U.S. dealmaker-in-chief is prepared to help.

The big problem with this, aside from the fact that it requires the Trump administration–hell, Donald Trump himself–to engage in a lot of diplomatic maneuvering when it–he–has shown no aptitude for anything like that so far, is that it assumes Erdoğan has any interest in standing down his war against the PKK now that he’s won his big referendum. And, look, it is possible that his narrow margin of victory in the April 16 constitutional referendum will cause Erdoğan to rethink his Kurdish policy, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Erdoğan still has to look toward a presidential election in 2019 that could be too close for comfort, and continuing to do war on the Kurds allows him to: maintain and perhaps expand his nationalist voter base, keep his AKP base in a state of fear, and maintain the state of emergency that allows him to thoroughly repress dissenting views in the public sphere. It also helps him keep the military, which has traditionally opposed negotiations with the PKK, in line. This toll that the PKK conflict has taken on Turkish society? It’s redounded almost entirely to Erdoğan’s benefit, and while I know it’s hard to imagine this in our post-West Wing politics, Erdoğan really isn’t a Good But Misguided Man Who Only Wants What’s Best for His Country. He wants power, and he’s going to keep prosecuting a fight against the Kurds so long as it’s useful to him to do so.

Erdoğan, to his credit, is smoothly trying to cast the Trump administration’s decision to arm and work with the YPG as a result of the Obama administration poisoning the well against US-Turkish collaboration–it’s really a function of the fact that the Turkish army has no way to get to Raqqa, but whatever. This allows Erdoğan to get off on a good foot with Trump, and, hey, given what we know of the way Trump “thinks,” if Erdoğan manages to get him alone for a few minutes and plays his cards right, Trump could decide to undo months of preparation and completely reverse course. Anything is possible.


Unsurprisingly, the Gulf Cooperation Council hasn’t welcomed former Aden governor Aidarous al-Zubaidi’s new southern Yemen secessionist political council. Given how much a move toward south Yemeni independence complicates the GCC’s war against Yemen’s other rebels (the Houthis, et al), you can see why they wouldn’t exactly embrace this. But like it or not, they’re going to have to reckon with this new element in the conflict. Somebody is also going to have to reckon with the recent outbreak of cholera throughout the country, which has killed at least 180 people and prompted the declaration of a state of emergency in Sanaa. While attention has rightly focused on the fact that millions of Yemenis are in acute danger of starving to death, those same people are also being denied access to medical aid, like the kind that could help alleviate the effects of cholera, and to clean water, which would have prevented the outbreak in the first place.


Al Jazeera has photos from today’s Nakba Day demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza. May 15 marks the day after David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the state of Israel, known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” It’s marked annually by protests in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza (and elsewhere in the Arab world) that usually turn violent, as they appear to have done again this year.

The Israeli government, meanwhile, is reportedly angry about remarks made by a US diplomat in advance of President Trump’s visit to Israel during his first big overseas excursion, which begins Friday. The unnamed diplomat reportedly told the Israelis “that Trump’s visit to the Western Wall was private, Israel did not have jurisdiction in the area and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not welcome to accompany Trump there.” So, yeah, that’s pretty much all going to piss the Israelis off. It would be understandable why the White House, fantasizing about doing an Israel-Palestine deal where previous administrations have all failed, wouldn’t want Netanyahu accompanying Trump for what would be a divisive photo op as far as the Palestinians are concerned. Of course, Trump could just, you know, not go to the Western Wall, but then he’d be passing up an opportunity to self-aggrandize, and we know that’s not an option.


The conflict in Sinai has taken on a new dimension, with the heaviest fighting over the past few weeks coming between ISIS and the local Tarabin tribe rather than between ISIS and, you know, the Egyptian government. This is not great news, really, insofar as it reduces the Egyptian government to the level of spectator in a war taking place on its territory. If more tribes and other civilians decide to take the fight against ISIS into their own hands, the long-term result is going to be a Sinai that’s even further outside Cairo’s authority than it is now.


Hey, speaking of the death and suffering of the Yemeni people…

The United States is close to completing a series of arms deals for Saudi Arabia totaling more than $100 billion, a senior White House official said on Friday, a week ahead of President Donald Trump’s planned visit to Riyadh.

The official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the arms package could end up surpassing more than $300 billion over a decade to help Saudi Arabia boost its defensive capabilities while still maintaining U.S. ally Israel’s qualitative military edge over its neighbors.

Hopefully those weapons will be put to good use, perhaps in besieging a majority Shiʿa town in eastern Saudi Arabia and killing a bunch of Shiʿa civilians because some people in that town are unhappy about plans to bulldoze their homes and cultural heritage to make room for exciting new development. Not that I’m referring to any event in particular.


So, the big news is that the Iranian presidential election is essentially down to a two-person race now that Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf has dropped out in favor of Ebrahim Raisi:

“What is important now and vital is preserving the interests of the people, the country and the revolution and this cannot be achieved in any way other than a change in the current situation,” Ghalibaf said, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

“We should make a fundamental decision to create unity in the revolution’s front and I call upon all my supporters across the country to come out in support of my esteemed brother Hujjat al-Islam Ebrahim Raisi and make him succeed in forming the government of work and dignity.”

This has been in the cards since Ghalibaf surprisingly decided to register as a candidate after weeks of suggesting he would stay out of the race in order to avoid splitting the conservative vote. It’s possible he had a deal in place with Raisi whereby he would drop out after entering the race long enough to take some shots at incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, or that one of them would drop out once polling made it clear which of them would be Rouhani’s main challenger. Which it has, by the way, and Raisi is the guy. He’s come from relative obscurity to polling in second place in such a short amount of time that it would be hard to imagine the much better known Ghalibaf overtaking him.

Ghalibaf’s decision may only speed up the inevitable. Some of that polling also indicates that support for Raisi and Ghalibaf, taken together, accounts for over 50 percent of the vote. If Raisi were able to hold on to Ghalibaf’s voters, he could win the election in the first round, on Friday. At a minimum he’ll be hoping to hold Rouhani under 50 percent to force a runoff, which would be unprecedented for an incumbent Iranian president. And, for the conspiratorially-minded among us, he’ll also be looking to keep the election close enough to make it possible for the religious and military authorities to, shall we say, lightly massage the outcome in his favor without setting off the kind of alarms that led to massive public outcry in 2009.

The likelihood of somebody winning decisively on Friday went up with Ghalibaf’s decision to drop out, which really leaves only two credible candidates in the race. Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri is expected to drop out to endorse Rouhani, though theoretically he could stay in if he and Rouhani think it will help keep Raisi below 50 percent and thus force a runoff.

The key for Rouhani will be turnout, which always favors moderates and reformists in Iranian elections but which will be a tough slog inasmuch as Rouhani’s performance in office has been, albeit not entirely through his own fault, underwhelming. Unemployment remains high, and the economic gains that have accrued to the country as a whole, due to the nuclear deal’s sanctions relief and Rouhani’s efforts to reduce Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s absurd levels of corruption, have not been evenly felt up and down Iranian society. Polling indicates that a lot of Rouhani 2013 voters are seriously considering staying home on Friday, though if the Trump administration makes an announcement about sanctions relief on Wednesday as suspected, it might give Rouhani a bit of a boost.

Rouhani is trying to rely on endorsements from prominent reform figures, like former President Mohammad Khatami and Green Movement totem Mehdi Karroubi, to boost his turnout, and in last Friday’s final debate he went hard at Raisi for past abuses of power and possible corruption related to his campaign. In particular, Rouhani has been attacking Raisi for his role in a mass 1988 execution of thousands of political prisoners. Raisi allegedly served on the commission that implemented that sentence.

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