Middle East update: August 8 2017


Later in the day on Tuesday the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that coalition airstrikes have killed 29 civilians, including 14 children, in Raqqa over the past day. There’s been no comment from the coalition or the Pentagon.

In Ghouta, meanwhile, the beatings will continue until morale improves:

Pro-government forces intensified their assault on the rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital, activists said Tuesday, a day after rebels beat back an attempted government advance, killing several soldiers.

The fighting threw into sharp relief the fragility of a so-called “cease-fire” that was supposed to bring calm to the besieged enclave inhabited by some 400,000 people.

Opposition media activist Anas al-Dimashqi said government air raids and artillery fire have reached a rate of 60 to 70 strikes per day on areas held by the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel faction, which was not party to the cease-fire brokered by Egypt and Russia and signed in Cairo on July 22.

Although Ghouta, the suburb in which these attacks are taking place, is supposed to be a safe zone now, it’s Faylaq al-Rahman’s non-party status that allows the Syrian government to do this without breaking the ceasefire. Of course, lots of Syrian ordinance is landing and exploding in surrounding areas that ostensibly are under the ceasefire, but you can’t make an omelet, etc. I’m sure Bashar al-Assad weeps over every wayward shell. At any rate, the bombardment may not last much longer–Faylaq al-Rahman leaders are reportedly expecting a Syrian ground assault at any time.

Some kind of attack near Tanf along the Iraq-Syria border on Tuesday killed at least 30 fighters from an Iraqi militia called Kataʾib Sayyid al-Shuhadaʾ, or the “Battalions of the Martyrs of Sayyid.” Sayyid al-Shuhadaʾ is affiliated with the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units but has been fighting in Syria in support of Assad. They’re blaming US airstrikes, but the anti-ISIS coalition says it had no aircraft in that area today and ISIS is actually claiming that it was responsible for the attack. The group’s leader, Abu Ala Walayi, later claimed for Iranian state media that it was a joint US-ISIS attack, and, you know, I guess that is a theory.


The Tal Afar offensive continues to develop slowly:

For over two weeks now the Iraqi forces (ISF) have said the Tal Afar operation is right around the corner. The Defense Ministry was the latest to announce that the battle plan was completed and that a starting date has been set. Air strikes have been going on for days and knocked out several bridges in the district to limit the insurgents freedom of movement. A MiG flying reconnaissance was hit over the town by IS fire, wounding the two crew members. The Federal Police started reconnaissance missions and setting up logistics for the campaign. A member of the Ninewa council claimed all the civilians had fled Tal Afar only leaving IS families. Finally, Al Mada had a good piece on the challenges in the upcoming fight. Some parts of Tal Afar are as densely laid out as Mosul. There are also many orchards in the south. Those two areas could be difficult zones to maneuver through for the ISF. On the other hand, the article contradicted the councilman’s claim that all the people were out of the district, noting that non-IS families were on the perimeter of the town, which could help with their evacuation so they don’t get caught up in the combat. Finally, there are not many fighters left. The campaign was originally supposed to start at the end of July, but the Hashd had to move back from the Syrian border, which caused a delay. That should end very soon.

It will be interesting to see how much of a fight ISIS is willing to put up to defend Tal Afar, which is already a lost cause for them. This battle has some of the makings of a “last stand” type engagement, and certainly they’ll try to leave booby traps around the city to kill as many Iraqi forces as possible, but the organization is already transitioning to its next form as an underground terrorist/criminal network, akin to what the Taliban became for some time after it lost Afghanistan.

Shireen Hunter looks at Muqtada al-Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the movement within Iraq’s Shiʿa community, led in part by Sadr, that appears to be trying to put some distance between Iraqi Shiʿa and Iran:

Despite his close family links with Iran, and the fact that he has sought refuge there at times of danger, Muqtada does not want Iran to be too influential in Iraq. Once Ayatollah Sistani, now 87 years old, passes on, Muqtada would certainly not be happy if Iran were to decide who should be the country’s next spiritual leader. He probably feels that Iraq and Iraqis have a greater claim to the mantle of Shia Imams, most of whom are buried in Iraq, than the Iranians.

Nor is he alone in feeling this way. While Muqtada was visiting MbS, Ammar Hakim left the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which has been closely identified with Iran. Hakim is the scion of another Iraqi Shia aristocratic family, whose father Ayatollah Baqir Hakim spent many years in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Moreover, there was some speculation that Ammar Hakim would also be going to Riyadh soon. Two years older than Muqtada, Hakim might also be thinking about Iraq’s shifting politics, both clerical and governmental, especially in the aftermath of Ayatollah Sistani’s passing that is bound to happen before long. In that case, it would be interesting to see how the competition between a new generation of Sadrs and Hakims evolves.

Both Sadr and Hakim must also have felt the changing winds of politics in America, especially the more confrontational US policy towards Iran. Thus, they want to distance themselves from Iran and widen their political options both within Iraq and regionally.

Al Jazeera has put together a photo essay on the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, which is trying to establish control over part of the Iran-Iraq border in advance of the Kurdish independence referendum later this year. The KDPI’s presence there has already drawn cross-border fire from the Iranians.


Saudi Arabia is denying that its forces deliberately targeted the Saada province home they bombed on Friday to the tune of at least nine dead Yemeni civilians. And, look, I’m not here to say they’re lying–how would I know? But the alternative to this being a lie is that the Saudis routinely have no idea what the fuck they’re bombing, and there’s not much practical difference between deliberately targeting civilians and accidentally targeting civilians because you can’t shoot straight and don’t really care. Luckily, America is still selling them weapons and refueling their aircraft, so they really have no reason to ever start caring.

A group of al-Qaeda fighters reportedly tried to storm a Yemeni military base in the country’s southern Abyan province on Tuesday but were beaten back. Four Yemeni soldiers and six AQAP operatives were killed.

Meanwhile, the major Yemeni operation against AQAP in Shabwa province is continuing. With some 2000 Yemeni soldiers involved this is the largest anti-AQAP operation in Shabwa since last April, when the Yemenis retook the province’s main port at al-Mukalla.

Yemen’s provinces


The Turkish government has changed course a bit and decided to allow German lawmakers to visit German troops stationed at an air base near the city of Konya as part of a NATO delegation next month. Germany has already redeployed its personnel who were formerly stationed at Incirlik air base to Jordan because Ankara, upset because the German government wouldn’t allow Turkish politicians to hold political rallies for Germany’s large Turkish expat population in advance of April’s referendum, decided to bar German politicians from visiting that facility.


According to the Israeli military, a rocket fired from Gaza exploded near the city of Ashkelon on Tuesday, causing neither damage nor casualties. At the usual exchange rate this probably means a couple of hours of sustained Israeli airstrikes are in Gaza’s very near future.


Three Egyptian policemen were killed Tuesday in two separate incidents. One officer was killed in a gun battle with suspected Islamists in the country’s southern Qena province, while two others were killed by criminals of some description in a shootout north of Cairo. It’s not clear if the latter incident was terrorism-related. Late last week, another Egyptian cop and one civilian were killed when a police patrol was attacked in the town of Esna, south of Luxor.


A couple of US envoys are in the Persian Gulf for another round of “can’t we all just get along” diplomacy. Retired General Anthony Zinni and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Timothy Lenderking arrived in Kuwait on Monday for talks with Kuwaiti officials.

To a significant (and, to be honest, a little bizarre) degree, the feud between the Saudis and the Qataris is now playing out on American television, with dueling PR ads touting Qatar’s cooperation either with (in their telling) or against (in the Saudi version) America’s War on Terror. A new poll suggests that things on that front aren’t going Qatar’s way:

The data, compiled by the polling firm YouGov for the newspaper Arab News, suggested that just 27 percent of Americans considered Qatar a friend or an ally to the United States, while 31 percent suggested that it was unfriendly or an enemy. Of the almost three-quarters who were aware of the dispute between Qatar and its rival Saudi-led bloc, 67 percent said Qatar had been accused of “supporting what they describe as terror groups and meddling with their internal affairs.”

The poll also found largely negative views about Qatar’s state-run news agency, Al Jazeera, with 50 percent of those who knew of the station saying it promoted a “negative influence of U.S. image abroad” and 44 percent saying it gave “a platform to the terror groups linked to Osama bin Laden.”

YouGov’s polling partner in the Gulf is apparently owned by a member of the Saudi family, so grains of salt, etc. Americans seem divided on the question of whether the Saudis are a real US ally and have a net favorable view of the United Arab Emirates for reasons that will remain a mystery. Also, there’s not much history of polling about Americans’ views of Qatar in which to contextualize these results.

On the plus side for Doha, the International Civil Aviation Organization announced on Tuesday that Bahrain and the UAE have agreed to open up new air corridors for Qatar Airways flights. This doesn’t fully alleviate the airline’s problems, and it’s certainly not like things are back to normal, but it should help shorten some flight times for its passengers.


Hassan Rouhani has, as expected, appointed an all-male cabinet for his second term as president (in truth he didn’t change his cabinet much from his first term) and his is, as expected, taking grief for it. Rouhani made some campaign promises to do more in his second term to boost the role of Iranian women in politics, and while you always assume politicians are lying when they say things like that, it’s rare that they prove you right so soon after the election.

Rouhani’s proposed (it still has to be approved by parliament) cabinet is very interesting in one respect: he’s appointed the current acting defense minister, Amir Hatami, to assume the job for real. Hatami is a general in the regular Iranian army, not the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and you have to go all the way back to the early 90s at least (it can be difficult to parse these things in some cases) to find an Iranian defense minister who wasn’t appointed out of the IRGC. Rouhani may be trying to gently tweak the prominent role the IRGC plays in the Iranian state, and it will be interesting to see if he’s allowed to do so. On the other hand, Rouhani’s designated justice minister, Alireza Avaee, has been sanctioned by the European Union for human rights violations. So that’s not very promising.

Ryan Costello of the National Iranian American Council writes for Huffington about the idea, currently being pushed with suspicious forcefulness by the anti-nuclear deal crowd, that Donald Trump could decertify Iranian compliance with the JCPOA without breaking the deal altogether. This “third way”–spun as being an intermediate policy between simply abiding by the deal and breaking it–is, as Costello describes it, just a nice-sounding way to sell breaking the deal:

Prior to the vote to authorize war against Iraq in 2002, members of Congress who wanted George W. Bush to increase pressure on Iraq over allegations of a nonexistent WMD program were presented with a seemingly convincing third option. Rather than vote against authorizing Bush to go to war or explicitly backing his war push, they were told that voting for the authorization would give the White House the leverage to extract diplomatic concessions from Saddam Hussein. Yet there was no serious diplomatic plan, and Bush pocketed the war authorization to achieve his ultimate goal of regime change. In voting for a war authorization to buttress a nonexistent diplomatic path, many members of Congress were tricked into backing the war.

This is exactly what opponents of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are trying to pull off by presenting a false “third option” for Trump apart from ripping up the deal or sustaining it. Ideological opponents of the JCPOA, such as Senators Tom Cotton (R-AK), Marco Rubio (R-FL), David Perdue (R-GA) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), as well as the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Mark Dubowitz, are urging Trump to withhold certification that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA and that U.S. compliance is in the national interest at the next 90-day congressional review in mid-October. After withholding certification, they argue that Trump could continue to waive nuclear-related sanctions in line with U.S. commitments under the deal.

Yet there is no plan for Trump to sustain the JCPOA by withholding certification. The end result – whether through congressional, executive or Iranian actions ― will almost certainly be the death of the deal. Whether he intends to or not, by withholding certification, Trump would be opening Pandora’s box on Iran’s nuclear program and risking war.

With Trump seriously circling the idea of decertification, NIAC’s Tyler Cullis and Reza Marashi argue that the European Union, if it wants to preserve the JCPOA, should begin taking steps now to box Trump in. Publicly and preemptively refusing to go along with reimposed American sanctions would be one step, as would the establishment of dollar clearinghouses to ensure that Iran-Europe commerce can continue in dollars even if US banks are barred from participating.

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