Middle East update: May 18 2017

This may be all the updating we get to do this evening, and it may be short. The lightning outside my window and my experience with the electricity in this neck of the woods tells me that the power may be going out pretty much anytime now. But there are a couple of stories I’d like to try to cover, and if circumstances permit I’ll do more than that.


Yeah, so today this happened:

The U.S. military carried out an air strike on Thursday against militia supported by the Syrian government that posed a threat to U.S. and U.S.-backed Syrian fighters in the country’s south, U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday.

The militia, who numbered in the dozens and drove a tank and a small number of construction vehicles, ignored warning shots from U.S. aircraft and, according to a U.S.-led coalition statement, even “apparent Russian attempts to dissuade” their advance.

One of the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, speculated that the group might have been trying to establish a position near the garrison in Syria used by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces around the town of At Tanf.

“They were potentially probing to see how close they could get to At Tanf,” the official said.

I’ve seen no word on casualties.

With the Syrian army steadily moving east across southern Syria, something like this was becoming inevitable. It’s the second time the US has deliberately fired on the Syrian military or its allies (the Shayrat airbase strike being the first), and the first time it’s deliberately fired on Syrian units in the field–there have been a handful of accidents–or “accidents”–over the past couple of years, but this was obviously deliberate. Was it justified? Was this militia really threatening Tanf? It’s really not possible to say. If the Syrian force really did ignore Russian warnings to knock it off, then it may well have had hostile intentions, but on the other hand I suspect the US military is, if not actively looking for any excuse to strike Assad, then certainly ready to accept an excuse that’s put in its collective lap.

I wouldn’t expect much fallout from this apart from maybe some grousing by Bashar al-Assad and Moscow. Official US statements about the strike have mentioned agreed-upon deconfliction lines, which means those American troops in Tanf are there with Russian knowledge and with the understanding that the US will act to protect them if it perceives there to be a threat. So while their presence in Syria may not really be justifiable under international law, Moscow has more or less acquiesced to it. To put it another way: if the Shayrat strike didn’t elicit anything more than some verbal condemnations, then this strike, which is at least arguably more justifiable, probably won’t either.

Elsewhere in Syria today, ISIS attacked the village of Aqarib al-Safi in Hama province, which sits on the main road between the cities of Homs and Aleppo. Government forces later counterattacked and drove them out of the village. At least 52 people were killed in the fighting, at least 25 of them civilians–some of whom were apparently executed by ISIS fighters.


Friday is Election Day, so I wanted to talk one last time about that before the actual voting makes my observations obsolete.

I am cautiously predicting that Hassan Rouhani will be reelected, but I still wouldn’t be shocked if Raisi were to pull off the upset. I do think there will be a definitive winner tomorrow–the field has been winnowed down to only two credible candidates, so it would be surprising if one of them didn’t pull in a majority of the vote. While polling has not been Rouhani’s friend for much of this race, here’s something from May 15 that looks favorable for him:

That graph shows 20 percent of the now-departed Mohammad Ghalibaf’s supporters looking to Rouhani as their second choice, and another 16 percent opting not to vote at all in Ghalibaf’s absence. While some polling has shown the combined “principlist” vote, Ghalibaf’s support plus Raisi’s, outstripping Rouhani’s support, these numbers, even if a bit on the high side, suggest that Ghalibaf’s departure from the race, which was intended to boost Raisi’s chances, may have actually secured a Rouhani victory. There are several possible explanations why Ghalibaf’s voters aren’t all flocking to Raisi despite Ghalibaf’s endorsement. Ghalibaf and Raisi are both conservatives, but Raisi is a religious conservative and Ghalibaf is more a conservative technocrat-type–his voters might be more comfortable with Rouhani’s technocratic administration than with voting for someone like Raisi. Also, Raisi has surrounded himself with the remnants of Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s government, and Ghalibaf and Ahmadinejad do not get along. And, of course, there’s the strong possibility that many of Ghalibaf’s voters simply didn’t give a shit who he endorsed–he’s a politician, after all, not a guru.

IPPO has Rouhani winning with with over 60 percent of the vote–30 points higher than Raisi–among voters who say they’re definitely going to vote, which–assuming there’s not a huge break toward Raisi among people who decide to vote at the last minute, may be a big enough margin to dissuade the Revolutionary Guard and the Supreme Leader from fudging the results in Raisi’s favor. But Raisi appears to be so favored by the military and religious establishment–and the stakes in this election are so high, given that Ayatollah Khamenei may not survive the next four years and a new Supreme Leader will have to be chosen, a process into which the elected president can expect to have considerable input–that the possibility lingers that they’ll rig the outcome in his favor anyway. A Raisi victory puts him on the path to succeed Khamenei–if he loses, it’s tough to see how he could then rise to the top job.

If Raisi does lose–i.e., if Khamenei decides to allow him to lose–then I expect Khamenei will try to use that outcome as proof that Iranian “democracy” works: “See, everybody said we were going to rig this vote, but we didn’t!” And, truth be told, as much vitriol as Khamenei has thrown Rouhani’s way during this campaign, Rouhani is certainly well within the boundaries of a president that Khamenei can live with.

The ultimate determinant may be turnout–high turnout and Rouhani wins, barring any funny business. One truism of Iranian politics is that reformers and moderates always do better when turnout goes up, which is a bit of a quandary for the revolutionary establishment, which sees high turnout as another validation of Iranian democracy but struggles to get its preferred hardliners elected when turnout goes up. But people are unhappy with Rouhani’s economic performance and, yes, the incumbent’s free market fetish is probably partly to blame for that. We all, me included, spend so much time thinking about Iran as a Special Case that we lose sight of the fact that, in many respects, this is another race between a centrist free market internationalist and a hard-right populist/nationalist promising all kinds of economic goodies to the in-group if he’s elected. But I think it’s unfair to lay all of Iran’s continued economic struggles on Rouhani, considering that the office he holds isn’t the most powerful–and probably isn’t even the second-most powerful–office in the Iranian state. He probably could have done more to see the economic gains of the nuclear deal filter down to Iran’s lower classes, but his latitude to do that isn’t as wide as that of, say, the president of the United States.


I’m really on borrowed time here so I’ll try to be brief. There’s not much new to mention as far as military operations are concerned, but the United Nations is warning that 200,000 more people could be displaced from Mosul before the city is fully liberated. That’s an astonishing number considering how little of the city remains in ISIS’s hands, but the parts of the city ISIS still controls are some of the most densely-populated sections of Mosul, so not only are there still a lot of people who could be dislodged, but the fighting there will be right on top of those people because it can’t not be right on top of them. But a surge of 200,000 more displaced Iraqis coming in the next couple of weeks is going to play havoc with the systems set up to handle the displaced. It will bring the total displaced from Mosul up around 900,000, many of whom have since returned home but still, that’s a massive number for one operation.


With his trip to Washington having been a bust apart from the workout his bodyguards got beating up protesters, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has returned home to talk tough in the hopes that none of his supporters would notice that he came back empty-handed. He said in a speech today that Turkey will have no problem undertaking another Operation Euphrates Shield-type mission if it believes that the threat from the Kurdish YPG militia dictates it. I’m not sure what another months-long campaign that ends with Turkish air power and tanks barely liberating a single town from a gang of paramilitaries armed with assault rifles is going to do to help secure Turkey, but I assume that’s why I’m not Sultan of the Would-Be Ottoman Empire President of Turkey today.

Erdoğan’s government also, and this is kind of priceless, is now demanding that the Trump administration remove the US envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, on the grounds that he’s “providing support” for the Kurds. Well, America as a whole is providing support for the Kurds, at least in Syria, so yeah. But McGurk makes a convenient target, I guess, for a president who doesn’t handle setbacks very well and just suffered one in DC. Speaking of people who are prone to overreact, after Tuesday’s brawl in Washington, US Senator John McCain wants to expel the Turkish ambassador back to Turkey. That might be a bit much.

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