Middle East update: July 6 2017

As I said on Sunday, this week was going to be a little abbreviated around here, and in that vein today’s updates will be our last until Sunday evening. Thanks for reading!


Yesterday there were signs that Iraqi authorities might (prematurely, of course) declare victory in Mosul today, but as far as I know they have not done so. Though as the Nineveh Media Center’s map shows, they’re not far off:

The NMC’s maps have generally lagged behind the overly optimistic statements from Iraqi officials, so I tend to think they’re reliable, bearing in mind the understandable fog of war type complications in producing these kinds of things. ISIS is still putting up an intense fight, but it’s down to its very last bits of Mosul territory.

ISIS operatives continue to attack liberated parts of the city and its environs. Many of these are probably sleeper agents but one consequence of their attacks is that Iraqi forces have started treating escaping civilians with greater suspicion:

The threat of IS infiltrations and attacks upon liberated areas of Ninewa continued. The Golden Division’s General Sami al-Aridi warned that IS members were trying to escape with the displaced by shaving their beards and changing their clothes. Three IS fighters were arrested in east Mosul planning an attack. Yesterday, four suicide bombers were killed in Wadi Hajar in the southern section of the city. The insurgents made a large assault upon Qayara southeast of Mosul as well, killing 2 tribal Hashd and wounding another 25. Nearly every day for the last two weeks the militants have been carrying out operations inside and out of Mosul. While some of these have been to draw forces away from the front, most are simply aimed at sowing disorder and showing that the group is enduring, one of its catchphrases.

IS’s activities have raised tensions between the security forces and the displaced as well. The Associated Press reported that the Iraqi forces are increasingly accusing people coming out of the city as being IS relatives. They were also being more suspicious and stand offish with the people, fearing suicide bombers.

The ability of IS to carry out these attacks is in part due to the nature of security in the city. Ninewa councilman Hossam Abar noted that there are not enough police in the province to protect it. That means that the army’s 16th Division and tribal Hashd units will be used to hold Mosul. None of these forces cooperate with each other, and sections of west Mosul are only lightly guarded. It doesn’t appear this dilemma will be resolved any time soon.

Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, told Reuters on Thursday that the scheduled September date for a Kurdish independence referendum is “flexible but not open-ended.” In that interview Barzani talks like someone who expects a vote for independence and then expects to follow through on that vote, but I still don’t think you can discount the possibility that he’s negotiating through the media with an eye toward increasing Kurdish autonomy within Iraq. Full independence has its appeal, but it also comes with a lot of regional turmoil. If Barzani can get a deal on full or nearly full autonomy within a federalized Iraq I wouldn’t be surprised if he took it. If Baghdad later appears to act contrary to such a deal he can always revisit the threat to secede, but once the Kurds secede that’s it, and they’ll have to deal with the fallout from Turkey, Iran, the US, and internally as the two largest Kurdish political parties jockey for position.

If it were me, at least, I’d rather miss all that stuff, but I’m sure that’s part of the reason why I’ve never founded my own nation.


A suicide bomber killed at least three people and wounded 11 others in Hama on Thursday.

There’s a possibility that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will talk about a Syrian no-fly zone or zones as part of their G20 meeting on Friday. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson mentioned the possibility earlier this week and now Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has suggested that Russia would be interested in such a discussion. It would seem like no-fly zones would have to be a part of Russia’s de-escalation zones plan, but it’s not clear if the Trump administration is referring to that plan or has something else in mind.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is aiming to complete its investigation into the April 4 Khan Shaykhun incident by October, but the head of its investigation, Edmund Mulet, told the UN Security Council on Thursday that he’d really appreciate it if a lot of unnamed governments would stop trying to influence his team’s work. It’s not clear which governments he’s talking about, though I imagine we could hazard a few guesses–I don’t imagine that, for example, Andorra is really leaning on the OPCW for a particular outcome. Mulet also apparently told the council that the Syrian government isn’t cooperating with his investigation despite promises to do so.

Lawfare has a lengthy analysis today of the June 27 coalition bombing of an ISIS prison in Mayadin. Most of the casualties were prisoners, and since they were prisoners of ISIS that makes them civilians. Targeting a prison raises all kinds of legal (to the extent that international law actually matters, of course) concerns, but here’s how the Pentagon would probably justify itself:

Some of the circumstantial evidence emerging about the al-Mayadeen prison attack suggests it may be justified by a controversial and recently reinvigorated U.S. position on the law of targeting: the argument that parties to armed conflict have the legal authority under international humanitarian law (IHL) to target objects that contribute to an opposing belligerent’s economy. If this legal argument played a role in the attack, the United States may be using it to increase the scope of objects it targets in Syria beyond the oil facilities and cash stockpiles targeted during the Obama Administration.

Under traditional interpretations of IHL, most objects that are part of a belligerent’s economic infrastructure are classified as “civilian objects” immune to targeting, with one narrow exception that we describe below. Article 52(2) of Additional Protocol I (API) of the Geneva Conventions limits targeting in international armed conflicts to military objects that “by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action.” Although API has not been ratified by the United States, it has been adopted by 174 states, and states and commentators consider many of its provisions to constitute customary international law (CIL). The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has treated Article 52 in particular as CIL in the context of non-international armed conflicts.

The general way this is applied is that “economic” infrastructure directly related to war-making–weapons factories, for example–is fair game but everything else is off limits. The US, on the other hand, has interpreted this principle to mean that any economic infrastructure that helps sustain an enemy’s ability to keep fighting is fair game. This could literally be almost anything–farms, utilities, banks, cobblers, pay toilets, you name it and it can probably be twisted up to meet this standard. And if ISIS was employing prison labor at the Mayadin facility, which wouldn’t be much of a stretch, then that target would be justified as well. It’s unlikely the United States would tolerate this kind of standard coming from another country’s military, but if you haven’t figured out by now that “OK for me but not for thee” is one of America’s basic foreign policy principles, then I’m not sure what to tell you.


For the second time in less than a month, the Turkish government has arrested one of the heads of Amnesty International’s Turkish office:

Idil Eser, the director of Amnesty’s Turkey office, was detained on Wednesday along with at least 10 others after a raid on a digital security workshop at a hotel on Buyukada, one of the Princes Islands near Istanbul.

The detainees included seven other activists from local rights groups; two foreign trainers; and the hotel owner, who was later released, Amnesty said. The whereabouts of the remaining detainees were unknown.

Ms. Eser’s detention follows that of the chairman of Amnesty’s Turkey chapter, Taner Kilic. Mr. Kilic was arrested last month on charges of having a connection to the Islamic group that is accused of spearheading the failed coup in Turkey last year.

The Turkish government treats human rights organizations as subversive, which says far more about the Turkish government than it does about those organizations.

Meanwhile, the European parliament, as expected, did call on Thursday for Turkey’s accession bid to be “suspended” until the EU has a chance to see how President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan actually implements his new referendum-granted powers. Turkey’s EU ministry called the vote “of no value to us” and said it was “based on false claims and allegations.” This was after Ankara had arrested the human rights workers, of course.


The governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates released a joint statement on Thursday in which they informed Qatar that the Jerk Store had just called that their original list of 13 demands was now off the table given Qatar’s rejection and that they’re going to have even more, bigger, harsher demands for Qatar now, you’ll see! You’ll all see!

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, on a tour of the Persian Gulf, said Thursday that he no longer thinks the Gulf diplomatic crisis could end in war. I’m not sure why he ever thought it might, that’s always been a pretty slim and distant possibility, but I’m also not sure why he thinks the situation has changed. The German intelligence community is apparently prepared to audit the Qatari government over the accusations that it’s been supporting terrorist groups, though it doesn’t seem like that’s going to be enough to appease the anti-Qatar bloc.

If the bloc was hoping that economic pressure would cause the Qatari people to turn on their rulers, well, they seem to have miscalculated:

Local media say that hundreds of men are signing up for the military, as others deliver jibes at Arab rulers on social media and rail against “fake news” they say some Arab media outlets are spreading to divide them.

After an announcement on Wednesday by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates that their boycott of the tiny Gulf Arab state would continue, playful Qataris shared on Twitter photoshopped images ridiculing officials from those countries. One showed a minister wearing rabbit ears.

Others shared a clip of the UAE foreign minister berating Qatar for supporting terrorism followed by a clip of Sheikh Tamim drinking a cup of tea and laughing.

The notion that blockading a country would induce regime change is very much of a piece with “we’ll be greeted as liberators,” so it’s not surprising that a militaristic blockhead like Mohammad bin Salman would find it compelling. But if anything the Qataris seem to be reacting more angrily to the blockade than their government–they’ve reportedly begun boycotting products from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt despite government instructions not to do that so as to avoid the appearance of organized retaliation.


The scrupulously neutral and independent foreign policy that Oman has cultivated since Sultan Qaboos took power there in 1970 has been on display for the past couple of years with respect to Yemen and is on display now with respect to Qatar. The Omanis have been the Gulf Cooperation Council nation least likely to toe the Saudi line on many issues, particularly when they involve Iran, and they’ve refused to get sucked in to the Yemen campaign or the anti-Qatar campaign. The Saudis, naturally, don’t really appreciate that:

Not all are sympathetic to Oman’s stance on the Yemeni crisis. One Arab Gulf official stated that many in the G.C.C. view Oman’s position on Yemen as “negative neutrality.” Recent reports in the press, citing figures from the G.C.C., Yemen, U.S. military officials, and the Mujahedin-e Khalq, have alleged that Oman is on Iran and the Houthis’ side, and has provided Tehran with Omani land and port infrastructure to help arm Ansarullah.

Regardless of Muscat’s actual role in Yemen, from Riyadh’s point of view, Oman is a link in the chain of Iran’s Shiite/Zaidi allies on the Kingdom’s borders at a time when Tehran is more decisively asserting its regional influence. Following the historic passage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, early negotiations of which were held in Oman, unbeknownst to Saudi Arabia, Saudi officials worry that growth of Muscat-Tehran relations will undermine the G.C.C.’s collective security from an ascendant Iran.

The Trump administration, which basically gets its Middle East policy briefings from Riyadh, seems to be treating Oman coolly. It hasn’t asked Muscat to cut ties with Iran or anything that drastic, but it’s quite a shift from the days when the Obama administration was relying on Oman to be its backdoor conduit to the Iranian government.

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