Middle East update: May 30 2017


Yesterday evening’s bombing in Baghdad was the first of several that have struck the Iraqi capital over the past 24 hours. The attack yesterday, targeting a popular ice cream shop in central Baghdad, has killed 17 people so far and I’m not sure if any of the wounded are still in critical condition. This morning, 14 people were killed when a bomb exploded in the city’s Shawaka neighborhood during morning rush, and four other bombings have since struck various parts of the city, killing at least seven people. ISIS was certainly behind the first two and is probably responsible for the other four as well. The group has traditionally increased its activity during Ramadan, when crowds of people celebrating the holy month, particularly in the evening, make for inviting targets. These attacks are entirely about amassing a body count–I mean, when you target a fucking ice cream shop, you’ve made your goal, killing children, pretty clear.

Reports from Mosul suggest that ISIS is pulling its remaining fighters back into the Old City rather than attempting to mount a serious defense in the handful of other neighborhoods it still controls. Iraqi forces are continuing to drop leaflets on the Old City advising civilians to get the hell out of there, which is probably good advice in general but also may suggest that they’re hoping to have a freer hand to use heavy artillery and airstrikes on that neighborhood than they’ve had to this point. Western Mosul is so badly damaged that it’s going to cost billions of dollars to rebuild, but there are structures in the Old City that are centuries old, irreplaceable at any price. Obviously the survival of physical heritage matters less than the survival of the human beings whose lives are at stake here, but it does matter. ISIS has destroyed so much of Iraq’s heritage, it would be a shame if Iraqi forces contributed to that destruction for the sake of, say, wrapping up the Mosul operation in two weeks instead of a month. ISIS’s position is unsustainable. If using heavier firepower to end their resistance faster will save lives, which is certainly a debatable point, that’s one thing. But if there’s a decision to ramp up the firepower simply because the Iraqis want to look good or the anti-ISIS coalition wants to move on, then that’s a problem.

At Syria Comment, Yazidi expert Matthew Barber argues that the arrival of the Popular Mobilization Units in Sinjar, though it has been met with hostility by the Kurdistan Regional Government, may actually help the KRG achieve its goal of driving the PKK out of the region. The PMUs have been organizing Yazidi fighters into their own militia, independent of the PKK-aligned Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), and the PKK’s foothold in the area is consequently slipping. The Yazidis appreciate the PKK for having stepped in to protect them from ISIS in 2015, but they aren’t keen on being sucked into the PKK’s broader regional conflicts. The PMU organization gives them a chance to maybe establish an independent self-defense force that doesn’t come with the PKK’s baggage. It may, of course, come with the PMUs’ baggage, but Berber writes that the Yazidis seem more amenable to the PMUs, and Baghdad, than to either the PKK or the KRG. This is probably going to lead to a new set of problems for the KRG, which sees Sinjar as Kurdish territory, but one problem at a time I suppose.


The Syrian Democratic Forces say they’ve reached the northern entrance to Raqqa amid a heavily increased US air campaign that’s once again raising concerns about the Trump administration’s approach to civilian casualties. Independent monitors are reporting that their fighters have also reached the city’s eastern outskirts. It’s not clear what kind of defense ISIS is prepared to put up in Raqqa–everybody has known this operation was coming for some time now, and ISIS does have other places in Syria to which it can retreat (the SDF has left the southern approaches to the city open so ISIS fighters can still escape that way)–but this could be the SDF’s biggest test yet.

US-aligned Syrian rebels based at Tanf in southern Syria say that Washington has been stepping up its arms shipments in response to a push by forces supporting Bashar al-Assad to sweep through the Badia region in the country’s southeast. As I have written here before, this is the likeliest place for a full-fledged US-Assad fight to break out, as these rebels and Assad’s forces are both after the same real-estate for the same goals–controlling the Syria-Iraq border and going after ISIS’s last major Syrian stronghold, Deir Ezzor. American aircraft have reportedly been dropping leaflets on Syrian government positions near Tanf, advising those forces to pull back. A battle here, which the rebels would likely relish (they’ve agreed to focus on ISIS in return for American aid, but their real enemy remains Assad), would put the US in direct conflict with Iran and, potentially, Russia, so that should be a lot of fun.

The Washington Post’s Linda Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria looked today at the battle that looms over almost anything else happening in Syria these days, the eventual government offensive to retake Idlib province. Idlib is the last rebel stronghold in northern Syria, so they can be expected to put up a fight to keep it, but more worrisome is the fact that Idlib, which has been receiving displaced civilians and ex-rebels from all over the country as Assad’s forces have been clearing out other population centers, is now home to about a million people who quite literally have nowhere else to go:

Already struggling to accommodate earlier refugees, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have mostly closed their borders. Crossing east into Iraq risks a perilous journey through Islamic State territory. So the displaced live in permanent flux, doing what they can to outrun the violence and to make ends meet when they arrive at their next destination.

As Syria’s war between pro-government forces and rebels reaches its endgame, Idlib has become a dumping ground for militants who have refused to surrender to the government elsewhere in the country.

The province’s population has swelled under deals brokered by Assad’s government, as civilians and fighters have been bussed northward from rebel-held areas across Syria that have submitted to government control in recent months.

Residents say new arrivals are packed into every last space. Apartment buildings are full and rents sky-high. Many families live in tents, mud houses or even caves.

Control of the province has largely fallen to Tahrir al-Sham, the al-Qaeda-led coalition of extremist groups that very few of these refugees actually support and that will likely focus on defending territory, not protecting people. So these people will be caught between an attacker that has no problem killing them and a defender that has no problem letting them die while it tries to grind out a defense. Not a great mix.


This is an interesting development: Oman is apparently trying to broker a return to peace talks in Yemen, engaging in shuttle diplomacy between the Yemeni rebels and the government. They’re pushing both sides to accept a UN plan for restarting talks that, among other things, would turn the port of Hudaydah, Yemen’s primary access point for humanitarian aid, over to a third party for management. This would obviate any rationale for the Saudis to attack it. An anonymous source tells Reuters that the sides are negotiating over the identity of that third party, which seems like progress.


Ankara has imposed a curfew in 43 villages in predominantly-Kurdish Diyarbakır province, its latest escalation in the war against the PKK. The curfew will remain in place indefinitely.


Amnesty International says that a new measure that restricts the activities of international NGOS is a “death sentence” for human rights groups in the country. The bill was signed into law by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi yesterday, and something tells me he’s not going to lose any sleep over Amnesty’s complaints.


Two Saudi police officers were injured in a bombing in the eastern Saudi town of Awamiya on Tuesday. Awamiya has become the locus of Shiʿa opposition to Riyadh in part because the government has begun destroying the centuries-old town, and displacing its residents, in order to erect a shopping center and office park.

Amnesty is reporting that the Qatari government detained Saudi human rights activist Mohammad al-Otaibi on May 24, as Otaibi was attempting to transit at Doha airport to a flight to Norway, where he’d been promised political asylum, and then deported him back to Saudi Arabia a few hours later. Otaibi has been charged with, essentially, criticizing the Saudi government online, and he now becomes the kingdom’s highest-profile political prisoner. For the Qataris, who claim they detained Otaibi because of some procedural issue, I wonder how they feel about having gifted this guy to Riyadh only to have the Saudis continue to bully them over the Qatar News Agency story.

Although they disagree on Syria and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia are pretty pleased with one another these days because they’ve been able to work out a deal to cut global oil production and keep prices in the $50/barrel range. As the largest OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers in the world, respectively, the Saudis and Russians have been the key players in negotiating the production cut and maintaining it. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad b. Salman–say, notice how you hardly ever hear about the actual Crown Prince, Muhammad b. Nayef, much anymore–and Russian President Vladimir Putin slobbered all over each other during a confab in Moscow today. It was a real bromance, but it doesn’t seem that the prince brought up any of the issues on which his family and Putin’s oligarchy are at odds.

Bruce Reidel has a look at the immediate challenges that Riyadh’s hoped-for pan-Sunni alliance is facing, just days after Donald Trump’s visit seemed to place it front-and-center in regional politics. For one thing there’s the Qatar dispute, which has escalated now with the publication of a letter from the descendants of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism and therefore the spiritual base of the Saudi state, accusing an “unnamed” Gulf ruler (there’s not much doubt that it’s the Emir of Qatar) of falsely claiming descent from their family. But the Saudis are also already having problems with Pakistan, one of the military anchors of the alliance. Pakistan shares a border with Iran and has a large Shiʿa population, so it doesn’t have much interest in participating in a regional anti-Iran alliance operating under the guise of fighting extremism or whatever.


The Guardian Council, which typically has the final word on such matters, today certified Hassan Rouhani’s May 19 reelection, presumably over the objections of his opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, who had raised concerns about unspecified voter fraud in recent days. Now comes the hard part–delivering on the human rights reforms he embraced over the last couple of weeks of the campaign and that people have been expecting from him for four years now. Rouhani’s power to really effect change is limited (he’s already getting pushback from the judiciary, which he doesn’t control), so he’ll have to get creative if he wants to keep young Iranians engaged in the effort. He’s also going to have a hard time pushing for a less confrontational foreign policy at a time when the region’s main players–not to mention the administration in Washington, aren’t exactly reaching out to Iran with open arms.

Rouhani is going to be immediately challenged when the US, as expected, imposes new sanctions against Iran over its missile program. These sanctions have been written carefully enough that they technically don’t violate the Iran nuclear deal, meaning Tehran doesn’t really have any justification for walking away from that deal in response. But Rouhani will likely face a fair amount of criticism over being too trusting of Washington. Brookings’ Emma Borden and Suzanne Maloney aren’t optimistic about the deal’s long-term chances of survival. However, things may be looking up on the European front, as there are signs that the growing Donald Trump-shaped split between the US and the EU is causing the Europeans to move more quickly to improve relations with Iran than they might otherwise be doing.

On May 28, Iranian border guards engaged with fighters from the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), a leftist PKK offshoot that has been practically dormant for several years now. Tehran, for some reason, is blaming Turkey for the incident, even though, as PJAK is closely tied to the PKK, there’s virtually no chance that Ankara would choose to collaborate with it in an attack against Iran or anybody else. Meanwhile, Turkish media is suggesting that the PKK orchestrated this sudden PJAK reappearance because the PKK would like to get on Washington’s good side by showing the Trump administration that it can help destabilize Iran. The United States lists the PKK as a terrorist organization, even though we obviously support the PKK’s sister organization, the PYD/YPG, in Syria, so while this is probably just another conspiracy theory, there are clear reasons for the PKK leadership to want to repair its US image.

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