Middle East update: August 2 2017


The main issue in Mosul and the rest of Ninewa province continues to be security. ISIS no longer controls any part of Mosul but it still has cells throughout the province, and of course there are other criminal matters (reprisal killings, for example) that require a stable police force of some kind. But Baghdad is trying to cobble together a police force from the multiple security units it already has in place rather than creating one cohesive force or reinstating the old Ninewa police force. That’s clearly not a long-term solution, as Patrick Wing explains:

Baghdad continued to complicate the security in Ninewa. The 3rd Federal Police Division has been given control of Qayara to the southeast of Mosul and the 5th Division was deployed between the Fourth and Third Bridges along the Tigris in west Mosul. Security in Mosul and Ninewa is being done by a variety of units from the police to the army’s 16th Division to tribal Hashd units to the National Intelligence Agency. The Ninewa government wants the provincial police to hold the entire security file, but Baghdad has been dragging its feet on re-instating them. That has created the current hodgepodge of forces to do the job, which has been called “chaotic” by several officials and Hashd in the province because there is no coordination between them, and many are in competition with each other. Adding the Federal Police to the mix does not appear to be an improvement, but just adding to the current problem.

Part of the problem may be that Baghdad can’t afford to pay a new police force, or for reinstating the old one. The Iraqi government is so strapped for cash it can’t even afford to retain its top DC lobbyist, Tony Podesta. That name rings a bell but I’m just not placing it–anyway, I hope he manages to land on his feet somehow.


ISIS fighters on Wednesday attacked government positions around Jabal al-Shumriyah, in the countryside east of the cities of Homs and Hama. It’s unclear if they were able to take any ground from the Syrian forces.

The US State Department is warning that Tahrir al-Sham’s recent consolidation of control in Idlib province is putting that rebel enclave, and any non-Tahrir al-Sham rebels left in it, at risk. Idlib is supposed to be one of those “safe zones” that Russia, Iran, and Turkey negotiated a while back, but of course there was always an asterisk in that deal allowing Russia and the Syrian government to keep attacking “terrorists.” The definition of “terrorist” is fortunately broad enough to allow Russia to justify attacking pretty much rebel group, but certainly it would be difficult to argue that the former (?) al-Qaeda affiliate is not a terrorist organization, particularly inasmuch as it’s recognized as one by the US. So if Tahrir al-Sham now owns Idlib, you can expect the Russians to resume bombing that province with impunity.

Say, if you were wondering how the US can legally justify shooting down Syrian aircraft when it really doesn’t have any legal justification for being in Syria in the first place, wonder no more. It turns out that the post-9/11 Authorization to Use Military Force, the one that allowed the Bush administration to attack the Afghanistan-based terrorists responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001, also authorizes the Trump administration to shoot down Syrian government aircraft, in Syria, in 2017. I’m sure glad we sorted that out. If you think about it, really, the post-9/11 AUMF is already covering so much, maybe we should just amend the Constitution to replace its text with the AUMF and be done with it.

By the way, word came this week that Syrian democracy activist Bassel Khartabil Safadi was executed by the Syrian government in 2015 after what I’m sure was a fair military trial. Just in case you were tempted to start treating Damascus as the Good Guys in this story.

Reuters says its estimates show a significant increase in Russian casualties in Syria so far this year, despite an official Russian count to the contrary:

Ten Russian servicemen have been killed fighting in Syria so far this year, according to statements from the Defence Ministry.

But based on accounts from families and friends of the dead and local officials, Reuters estimates the actual death toll among Russian soldiers and private contractors was at least 40.

That tally over seven months exceeds the 36 Russian armed personnel and contractors estimated by Reuters to have been killed in Syria over the previous 15 months, indicating a significant rise in the rate of battlefield losses as the country’s involvement deepens.

Most of the deaths reported by Reuters have been confirmed by more than one person, including those who knew the deceased or local officials. In nine cases, Reuters corroborated a death reported in local or social media with another source.

Moscow has suggested that the additional deaths are of private Russian citizens who were so compelled to defend Bashar al-Assad (?) that they went to Syria of their own accord and can’t be counted among “official” Russian casualties. Sure, whatever. The Kremlin naturally has reason to want to keep the official–and officially reported–casualty count low, lest a high number eat into President Vladimir Putin’s 80+ percent approval rating.


Over 7000 Syrian refugees and Jabhat al-Nusra/Tahrir al-Sham fighters were bussed out of Lebanon’s Arsal region and back into Syria on Wednesday, part of a prisoner exchange deal reached last week between Hezbollah and the former (?) al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.


Today in You Couldn’t Make This Shit Up:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped an Israeli lawmaker from taking on a Jordanian counterpart in a fist-fight on Wednesday over a diplomatic crisis between the two neighbors.

The July 23 shooting to death of two Jordanians by an Israeli embassy guard who said he was acting in self-defense has outraged Amman, stirred up pro-Palestinian sentiment in the kingdom and prompted U.S. mediation efforts.

Oren Hazan, a member of Netanyahu’s rightist Likud party had tweeted on the day of the shooting that Jordanians “who we keep supplied with water and whose butts we defend day and night” needed “re-education”.

His comments prompted a challenge from a similarly fiery lawmaker in Jordan. “Let him meet me, if he is a man,” Yahya Soud said on Twitter.

They were due to square off against each other on Wednesday morning on the border.

Just a couple of normal guys settling a regular international dispute in the usual way. Making Benjamin Netanyahu seem reasonable by comparison. Nice.

I guess this campaign ad wasn’t that outrageous after all

Meanwhile, in what could actually be some serious news, there are reports that Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, is about to turn state’s evidence in the corruption investigation targeting his ex-boss. It’s not clear that Harow, who himself is facing fraud charges, can offer anything that will put Netanyahu in real hot water, but on the other hand it seems unlikely that prosecutors would be offering him a deal to talk if they didn’t think he had something worth hearing.


The Qatari government reached a deal on Wednesday to buy seven naval vessels from Italy at a cost of almost $6 billion. No other details were released, so it’s unclear what $6 billion buys you in Italian warships nowadays, but presumably they’ll be something in the frigate range at least. I’m sure this deal must have been in the works for some time now, but it can’t help but be viewed as a message to the Saudis/Emiratis/et al that Qatar has plenty of money to build up its military capabilities if it must.


Somebody apparently decided to open fire on the headquarters for Saudi Arabia’s mutaween religious police in Riyadh on Tuesday night. There were no casualties.


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is being criticized from the reformist side of Iran’s political divide over his proposed second-term cabinet. Reformists, whose support was obviously key to Rouhani’s election and reelection, are unhappy with reports that Rouhani is likely to retain several conservatives in key ministries, like interior, in his second term. As Rouhani is, let’s be honest, a conservative himself (albeit not a reactionary) by any honest definition of the term, it’s not surprising that his cabinet will skew in a moderate-conservative direction. But it’s also not surprising that reformists, who have stuck with him all this time, want a louder voice in his government now that he no longer has to worry about running for office again in four years.

Likewise, Rouhani is taking a lot of heat because he seems likely to appoint an all-male slate of ministers again. This was something for which he was criticized back in 2013, but it’s four years later and Rouhani should be freer to place more women in high government position, yet it seems likely that he’s not going to do so. Ergo the criticism has been ratcheted up. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reactionary asshole that he was, had a woman, Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi, as his minister of health. Granted, she was the first and only female minister in Iran since the Islamic Revolution, but her appointment does mean Rouhani has a precedent on which to build if he’s so inclined.

Finally, as the US, UK, France, and Germany warn Iran that its recent test of a multi-stage rocket was a “threatening and provocative step” in terms of its missile-development program, and as Iran warns of its “proportional” response to new American sanctions, I leave you with Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) warning that the Trump administration is repeating with Iran what the Bush administration did to drum up a justification to invade Iraq:

In the Iraqi case, international inspections offered a way to address the claims of WMD activity. On 7 March 2003, Hans Blix, head of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNMOVIC), and Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported to the Security Council that they had found no active programs for nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and that continuing the inspection process, with which Saddam Hussein was reluctantly cooperating, soon would be able to thoroughly document the status of his related capabilities. The Bush administration rejected their findings and 12 days later initiated the pre-ordained invasion.

In the Iran case today, another pre-ordained decision is looming and it again involves inspections. The Trump administration reportedly wants the IAEA to demand access to Iranian military sites, and to use Iran’s likely refusal as a basis for finding it to be in non-compliance with the JCPOA.  It may be the route that White House political operatives suggest as a way to meet President Trump’s pre-determination not to again certify that Iran is in compliance, even when the facts clearly say otherwise. Deciding the finding in advance would be an outrageous cooking of the books and a false basis for then deciding to end US sanctions relief under the JCPOA. Attempting to kill the nuclear deal in this fashion would give Iran hardliners their own excuse to ramp uranium enrichment back up, recreating a crisis that could lead to war.  Seeing that this was Trump’s intent, allies would have little reason to join the US strategy.

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