Middle East update: June 2 2017


ISIS may be down to three Mosul neighborhoods now, as Iraqi authorities said today that their forces have captured the city’s Sihha neighborhood from the insurgents. I know I keep saying this, but the Iraqis have a tendency to overestimate their progress, so Sihha may not quite be under full Iraqi control yet, but at the very least it should be in relatively short order (the Iraqis often get ahead of themselves but rarely do they just make stuff up). ISIS still controls the neighborhoods of Zanjali, Shafaa (including Mosul’s “Medical City”), and the Old City. The Nineveh Media Center’s latest Mosul map reflects this progress:

The Popular Mobilization Units are continuing to work at driving ISIS away from the Syria-Iraq border, and some PMU commanders are now talking about turning the border over to Iraqi border police once they’ve secured it. This would be a big step, considering that there are many players in the region who are worried that the PMU is trying to seize control of the border so as to basically hand it over to Iran. There’s also been talk of the PMUs crossing the border to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but their commanders say they would only do this if given the OK from Baghdad, and Baghdad is unlikely to give it because doing so would risk upsetting Washington.

The Kurdistan Regional Government says it will hold an independence referendum this fall, but it has a number of issues to iron out before that can happen. Most immediately, differences between Iraqi Kurdistan’s political parties need to be ironed out. The KRG says it would like Baghdad’s approval before holding the referendum, and you get the sense that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is hoping that internal Kurdish disagreements, or resistance from other regional powers to an independent Kurdistan, will derail this effort before he has to weigh in. Baghdad opposes Kurdish independence but doesn’t really have the capability to do anything to prevent it.


Syria’s civil war is nowhere near over, but with almost all the action having shifted elsewhere the AP reports that life in Damascus is starting to look more normal:

On the east end of Old Damascus in Bab Sharqi — one of seven Roman gates of the Old City — there’s a strip of new bars lining the historic street known as Mustaqim, or the Straight Street. Music and laughter fill the narrow street as young, cocktail-drinking Syrians go bar-hopping and dancing — scenes unthinkable only two years ago when most if not all those places were nonexistent. It’s become the equivalent of neighboring Lebanon’s famous bar-lined Gemmayzeh strip.

“The wound and the pain of all the martyrs who have died are always with us, but we are trying to escape. There is a big difference between trying to escape and being indifferent,” says Amro Tozan, 33.

Tozan left his job in shipping and clearance a couple years ago and opened up four pubs in Bab Sharqi in the past 14 months. He says he is not oblivious to the death and suffering happening only 2 miles away, but he wanted to show that there is another side to Syria besides war.

It certainly remains to be seen whether this state of relative calm will remain. I doubt you’ll see a shooting war threaten Damascus again, at least not anytime soon, but as Iraqis living in Baghdad could tell you, there are other ways for cities to be threatened.

The Syrian Democratic Forces announced on Friday that they’d captured al-Mansoura, a town just west of Raqqa, so their advance on that city is continuing. Things in general are looking up for Syrian Kurds–despite Turkey’s best efforts to keep their northwestern and northeastern Syrian cantons separate, the recent reopening of the Aleppo-Afrin highway means that, at least in some ways, those cantons are now linked. A Kurd looking to drive from northwestern Syria to northeastern Syria would have to pass through a bit of government-held territory to do it, but it can be done. Of course, I wouldn’t expect to see any major movements of YPG military assets between the two cantons, but this is still closer to unification than Ankara wants.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is sticking to his story that Assad was framed in the Khan Shaykhun chemical weapons attack in April. In remarks in St. Petersburg on Friday, Putin criticized international monitors for failing to go to Khan Shaykhun to investigate the strike and for refusing Russian offers to tour Shayrat air base and test for the presence of chemical weapons. He allowed as to how Assad has “made mistakes” in his conduct of the war, which I guess is one way to put killing hundreds of thousands of people, but said the parties opposing Assad have blood on their hands too…and, you know, obviously, but not as much of it.


An improvised explosive device blew up in a market in the northern Yemeni town of al-Hazm on Thursday night, killing six people. There’s been no claim of responsibility. ISIS doesn’t have a large presence in Yemen but they’re possible, as is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

UNICEF says that Yemen has suffered 600 cholera deaths in the past month and will likely hit 130,000 cases of the disease within the next two weeks. I’m not sure how many different ways to say that this war is slowly exterminating the Yemeni people, but it is.


The PKK is claiming that a Turkish military helicopter that crashed in southeastern Turkey on Wednesday was actually shot down by their forces. The crash killed 13 Turkish soldiers. Ankara says it was an accident caused when the helicopter hit power lines shortly after taking off.


Lebanese politicians are lobbying Congress heavily to amend the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendment Act of 2017 before it gets introduced in the House of Representatives. The Act would punish Lebanese banks found to be doing business with Hezbollah. Given the importance of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the importance of Lebanon’s banking sector to its overall economy, it’s no exaggeration to say that, whatever your view of Hezbollah might be, this law could crater the Lebanese economy if it’s not written carefully. And since a Lebanon in collapse would actually be worse for American interests than a stable Lebanon where Hezbollah is allowed to do some banking here and there, this is clearly something that needs to be done right or else not done at all.


The recent election of Ismail Haniyeh as Hamas’s political head appears to signal that the group is moving back into Iran’s orbit. The two fell out over Syria, with Hamas backing its fellow Muslim Brotherhood outfit in opposing Assad back in 2011, and for a while there it looked like it might drift toward the GCC states (it does have close ties with Qatar, but Qatar is also on the outs with the rest of the GCC at the moment). But apparently these two crazy kids are going to give love another chance.


A May 29 visit to Egypt by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seems to have been fairly productive. The two sides talked about “jointly combatting terrorism,” because you can’t have a country-to-country meeting anymore without jointly combatting terrorism, but they also talked about Egyptian forces eventually participating in a mission to secure those nebulous safe zones in Syria, whenever they’re actually implemented. Chiefly the talk seems to have been around arms sales and energy projects, but interestingly it doesn’t seem Russia is prepared to reopen direct air travel between the two countries. That’s been off the table since Metrojet 9268 was brought down over Sinai in 2015.


United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid b. Raʿad al-Hussein is calling for an investigation into the deaths of five protesters during a government crackdown in Diraz on May 23.


The FBI–no, seriously–is working with Qatari authorities to unravel the mystery of the Qatar News Agency Hack, in which a commencement speech that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim claims not to have delivered was nevertheless attributed to him by QNA. The contents of those remarks, which talked about the need for outreach to Iran and criticized US and Saudi foreign policy, have caused the GCC to once again stick Qatar in a corner, which is already threatening to undermine the nice pan-Arab counter-extremism thing that Donald Trump and Saudi King Salman inaugurated while pawing that totally normal and not at all insanely megalomaniacal-looking lighted globe a couple of weeks ago. I would assume that the first order of business would be to determine if QNA was hacked at all, since this whole hacking story seems awfully like an attempt to cover for something. The Qatari government says that Tamim attended the graduation but didn’t speak at all, and there are presumably witnesses who could corroborate that, but who knows?


In its quarterly report to member states, the International Atomic Energy Agency says that Iran is continuing to hold up its end of the nuclear deal, with uranium stockpiles and enrichment levels at or below the deal’s limits. One area for concern is that Iran is once again pushing against the upper limits of its allowed stockpile of “heavy water,” or duterium oxide (D2O), which is used as a moderator in some kinds of nuclear reactors, including the kinds that can produce enough plutonium byproduct to theoretically fuel weapons. Iran has repeatedly bumped up against or even crossed this limit over the life of the deal, but each time it’s worked out an arrangement, under the terms of the deal, to sell or otherwise ship out enough heavy water to get back under the limit. But the fact that it keeps happening is problematic.

At Foreign Policy, Iran scholar Afshon Ostovar warns that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps isn’t likely to just roll over and accede to American wishes in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. The IRGC sees its clients, especially in Syria and Lebanon, as fundamentally important to Iran’s, and its, regional aspirations, so it’s not going to give those up without a fight. This may be a problem for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, to the extent that his plans don’t align with the IRGCs and are undermined by the Guards’ foreign antagonism. But as Ostovar writes, there’s not much Rouhani can really do about it:

Even if Rouhani wanted to, it would be almost impossible for him to persuade the supreme leader to abandon or temper support for the IRGC’s program. To do so, he would have to make a convincing case that the IRGC’s activities no longer served, or were inimical to, the regime’s interests. A neutral observer could make a persuasive case that the IRGC’s activities have had a severely negative impact on Iran’s economy and international standing, and have contributed to the insecurity of the Middle East. But from the standpoint of Khamenei’s broadly defined anti-American objectives, the IRGC’s efforts advance the core mission of the Islamic Republic. Client groups have become an extension of Iran’s military power and not something that the IRGC and Khamenei will easily part with.

Indeed, in the battle for control of the Middle East, the IRGC’s militant clients have been the great equalizer. While Iran’s neighbors have poured billions of dollars into conventional weaponry, Iran has invested in comparatively cheap proxy forces that have proven effective in numerous theaters. They have prevented Iraq from becoming an American puppet, saved Syria from being dominated by American- and Saudi-backed Sunni extremists, and redirected the attention and resources of Saudi Arabia and the UAE away from Syria by igniting war in Yemen. Iran’s influence in each of those countries has grown as a result, as has its influence in the region.

US and Iranian proxies are already uncomfortably close to going to war with one another in southern Syria, so things may be about to take a very bad turn very soon.

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