Middle East update: July 11 2017


As you may have heard, the Battle for Mosul is now officially over. Unfortunately, the fighting in Mosul is not. The United Nations estimates that some 3000 civilians, mostly disabled, elderly, and children, are still trapped in a small pocket of the Old City where several ISIS fighters are believed to be holed up.

The Washington Post has produced a summary of the full Mosul campaign including a nifty animated map for those who appreciate that sort of thing.

The violence has, thankfully, sufficiently settled enough that Iraq’s political leaders now feel comfortable resuming their beefs:

With the battle over political disputes have started coming to the fore. Moqtada al-Sadr demanded that those responsible for the fall of Mosul in 2014 be held responsible. He was referring to his political opponent Nouri al-Maliki that Sadr’s parliamentarians (MPs) have targeted before for Mosul. Two MPs on the security committee, including Sadrist Hakim Zamili accused Federal Police chief General Raed Shakir Jawadat of bad leadership that cost the lives of his policemen, of only being concerned with media coverage, and corruption. The Federal Police responded saying that Zamili was being partisan, and that the general spent five months on the battlefield defeating the Islamic State. More of these types of accusations are likely to be brought up in the coming weeks and months. That’s especially true with elections coming up next year, and politicians wanting to score political points.

There are no plans to reduce US troop numbers in Iraq now that Mosul has been liberated. Truly a surprise there. I guess on the plus side there doesn’t seem to be any plan to increase those numbers, and that’s about the best you can hope for when it comes to the United States and the Middle East.

South of Mosul, the village of Imam al-Gharbi remains in ISIS hands almost a week after the group first began attacking it. Around 75 percent of the village now reportedly belongs to ISIS, and given that Iraqi forces were set up to make a move on Tal Afar once Mosul fell, it’s likely going to take time to deploy units to retake this village.


I suppose this is the biggest story of the day:

The SOHR, though definitely sympathetic to the rebels, has been a decent source for news from inside Syria (which is a low bar, but I’d certainly put it up against Syrian state media, for example, in terms of reliability). But their subsequent reporting on this raises more questions than it answers. They know where he died (“the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzir,” which could mean Mayadin or Albukamal) and roughly when he died (“in the last three months”), but they don’t know how he died. He could’ve been killed in an airstrike in that region, moved there after being wounded someplace else (so Russia’s story about killing him near Raqqa is still possible), or, hell, from the way this is written I guess he could’ve died of natural causes. The SOHR also says there was some kind of meeting in Iraq in December 2016 about choosing Baghdadi’s successor, which I assume was done while Baghdadi was still alive because otherwise that means he’s been dead a lot longer than three months.

An interesting detail has emerged about the US-Russia ceasefire deal in southern Syria, specifically as it concerns Iranian-supported militias like Hezbollah:

A confidential U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement for southwest Syria that went into effect Sunday calls for barring Iranian-backed foreign fighters from a strategic stretch of Syrian territory near the borders of Israel and Jordan, according to three diplomatic sources.

President Trump hailed it as an important agreement that would serve to save lives. But few details of the accord have been made public.

Pentagon officials — who would have responsibility for monitoring the agreement — appeared to be in the dark about the pact’s fine print.

The pact is aimed at addressing demands by Israel and Jordan — the latter is a party to the agreement — that Iranian forces and their proxies, including Hezbollah, not be permitted near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which separates Syria from Israel, or along the Jordanian border.

The deal doesn’t seem to clarify who’s responsible for keeping those fighters out of the ceasefire zone, but it would obviously have to be Russia lest the US and Iran start shooting at one another. And yet, there’s no reason to be especially optimistic about Russia’s ability to guarantee this provision if Iran isn’t willing to acquiesce to it. As decisive as Russia’s involvement has been in turning the tide of the Syrian civil war, Iran is still in the stronger position both on the ground and in terms of its influence in Damascus.

Elsewhere in Syria:

  • Western-backed Syrian rebels belonging to the Usud al-Sharqiyah (“Lions of the East”) militia, using anti-aircraft guns, reportedly struck and at least damaged a Syrian government aircraft on Tuesday east of Damascus. The Syrian Observatory says the plane was able to land safely at a nearby airbase.
  • The Syrian Democratic Forces on Tuesday captured the town of Ukayrshi, just south of Raqqa, from ISIS. It had been home to an important ISIS base and training camp, which the group apparently named for Osama bin Laden.


Yemen has now experienced over 313,000 cases of cholera, and on Tuesday the United Nations announced that it’s probably scrapping plans to deliver 1 million doses of cholera vaccine to the country, citing security concerns and logistical challenges. This probably sounds worse than it actually is, simply because by this point in the outbreak it might be too late for the vaccine to do much good anyway.


Turkish airstrikes reportedly killed 11 Kurdish fighters in southeastern Turkey overnight.


The Lebanese army said on Tuesday that its men killed a suspected ISIS operative in a raid in Arsal and recovered several bombs and a quantity of explosives in the process.


The UN says conditions in Gaza are bad and getting worse:

“Across the board we’re watching de-development in slow motion,” Robert Piper, the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.

“Every indicator, from energy to water to healthcare to employment to poverty to food insecurity, every indicator is declining. Gazans have been going through this slow motion de-development now for a decade.”

Piper cited Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the countries squeezing Qatar as entities that are all currently “strangling” the 2 million people living in Gaza, and says that the “unlivability threshold” in Gaza “has been passed quite a long time ago.”


EgyptAir will be getting itself taken off the US cabin electronics ban list next week, and if Saudi Arabia and Morocco both come off the list by July 19 as they’ve said is their goal then I think that will be the end of the ban.


Rex Tillerson kicked off the second leg of his big “Sexual Healing” “Why Can’t We Be Friends” Persian Gulf tour by visiting Qatar on Tuesday, where he said that Qatar “has been…very reasonable” and announced a deal whereby Washington and Doha will work together to tighten up that whole “support for terrorists” thing that has the Qataris in a bit of hot water of late. There doesn’t seem to be that much substance to this new agreement but it does give Tillerson the ability to go to Riyadh now and argue that the Qataris are trying to clean up their act. The problem for Tillerson as he tries to make that argument remains the fact that the Saudis and their partners define “terrorist” to include groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, that Qatar–and the US, for that matter–don’t view in the same light. It’s hard to negotiate when the parties can’t agree on terms. To wit, the Saudis have already rejected the terms of the US-Qatar arrangement.


Say, how’s the Trump administration’s travel ban working these days?

An Iranian cancer researcher traveling to the US on a valid visa has been detained at Boston Logan international airport with his wife and three children, two weeks after Donald Trump’s revised travel ban came into force.

Mohsen Dehnavi was traveling to the US to work as a visiting scholar at Bostonchildren’s hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School. But when he arrived on Monday afternoon, he was not allowed to enter the country and may now be sent home along with his family, according to a friend who was due to pick them up from the airport.

Excellent. Keeping those goddamn cancer researchers out of America just as intended.

The Wall Street Journal (paywall, sorry) reports that European diplomats are getting worried that the Trump administration’s “review” of Iranian sanctions relief is little more than a way to scrap the nuclear deal without formally abrogating it:

European officials have remained publicly upbeat about the U.S. remaining a party to the deal, but diplomats privately voice serious concerns about where the U.S. review is headed. They say Washington is providing little feedback, has given no firm end-date for the review and hasn’t made clear who is shaping the process.

European officials still believe the Trump administration won’t abandon the nuclear deal, but many fear Washington will keep it under a rolling review. That, they say, would crimp economic benefits Iran expected from the agreement by persuading already cautious Western banks and investors to stay away—whereas President Barack Obama’s top officials urged engagement with Tehran. European diplomats also worry that if the U.S. commitment remains uncertain, Iran may respond by attempting limited violations.

I don’t think the risk of limited violations is really the concern. The concern is that what the administration is doing now will make it harder to talk with the Iranians about a new deal down the road.

Aside from its general hostility toward Iran, one of the administration’s genuine concerns with the nuclear deal is that it’s not permanent. This is a fair concern to a point, though it willfully ignores that Iran’s obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty are permanent. But if this is really something that worries the administration (and, again, there are legitimate reasons why the deal’s limited term might be a concern), then the appropriate way to deal with that is by scrupulously upholding the current deal and doing everything you can to make sure Iran sees its benefits. Then in ten years, when the current deal begins to sunset, you can approach the Iranians about extending key parts of it and they might be amenable to that, because of all the good faith you’ve shown. Playing games with the deal and jerking the Iranians around is only going to make them more inclined to tell you to fuck off down the road.

Or, if you’re a Republican, what you do is tell Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to bag the review and just tear up the goddamn deal already, FFS where’s our war? And if you’re President Trump, apparently you just up and violate the nuclear deal yourself, the hell with it:

One of [President Trump’s G20] achievements, Sanders said was that “In his discussions with more than a dozen foreign leaders, he underscored the need for nations to join together to strip terrorists of their funding, territory and ideological support—and to stop doing business with nations that sponsor terrorism, especially Iran.”

Tyler Cullis, a legal fellow for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), pointed this statement out in an email, otherwise I would have missed it, as most of the rest of the country seems to have done. But it’s really quite significant.

As Cullis noted, this statement puts the United States in material breach of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name of the Iran nuclear deal. In that deal, the United States committed to “implement this JCPOA in good faith and in a constructive atmosphere, based on mutual respect, and to refrain from any action inconsistent with the letter, spirit and intent of this JCPOA that would undermine its successful implementation.”

Encouraging other nations to “stop doing business” with Iran is pretty obviously a violation of the deal.

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