Middle East update: August 10-11 2017


I know I’ve already mentioned this several times before, but if you’re interested in really keeping up with day-to-day developments in Iraq I highly recommend Joel Wing’s “Musings on Iraq” blog, which I cite in these posts all the time. He goes into much greater detail than I’m able to do in this overviews and gets into stories that I tend to pass over unless/until they become major problems. He tracks the number of displaced in Ninewa almost every day, for example, which is really important.

As far as actual activity things are very much in a holding pattern. The two things that remain constant are 1) ongoing government efforts to root out the last remaining ISIS presence in Mosul and 2) preparations for the eventual Iraqi attack on Tal Afar. Iraqi units are mostly in place to begin the attack but as Wing explains there’s some controversy over what role US advisers will play in the battle:

According to Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s Jawad Talabawi, President Barzani pushed the U.S. to pressure Baghdad to exclude the Hashd from the Tal Afar operation. That was denied by Hashd leader Hashim Moussawi who said that any stories about the Hashd not participating were only personal opinions and did not represent the force. Finally, 70 U.S. advisers arrived at the Kahriz base to assist with the upcoming battle. There was also a story that the Americans were building a base, but that might have been about the same location. Talabawi’s comments were the latest by pro-Iran forces to discredit the U.S. presence in Iraq. Earlier Sayid Shuhada claimed that the American air strikes hit them along the Iraq-Syrian border, which if did occur didn’t happen in Iraq but in Syria. Now Asaib Ahl Al-Haq issued a statement that Washington is blocking Hashd from military operations. Politicians have also voiced concerns about the U.S. constructing a base. This goes along with other stories that the U.S. is supporting the Islamic State. Unfortunately, these stories get wide coverage within Iraq and are believed by many people.

The Hashd (Popular Mobilization Units) are keen to play a role in Tal Afar because the city’s Shiʿa Turkmen population has been particularly hard-hit by ISIS and the city’s Sunni Turkmen population disproportionately seems to have collaborated with the extremists when they swept through Ninewa in 2014. Almost nobody else (the Americans, Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, and even Baghdad) really wants them involved in this operation though, both out of fears about Iranian influence among the PMUs and concern for the possibility of reprisal attacks against those Sunni Turkmen. The more Iranian-aligned of the PMU militias do partake in some very anti-US rhetoric suggesting that America is actually helping ISIS (big if true, but then we seem to be doing an extremely shitty job of it).

Al-Monitor’s Fazel Hawramy reports that there seem to be a lot of Iraqi Kurds, especially in the large (around 1 million people in the city and 2 million in the surrounding province) northeastern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, who are preparing to vote “no” in September’s referendum on Kurdish independence. They’re motivated not so much by the question of Kurdish independence as by the failure of the Kurdistan Regional Government to provide for their basic needs:

“Why should I vote yes in the referendum?” Shaho Mahyaddin, a father of two, asked rhetorically. “After 17 years of being a traffic police officer, what do I have? No electricity. No water. I have no house or investment. I have nothing. The only thing I had was my salary [$980 a month], but over the last two years, they have cut it by more than 30%. How can I feed two children on that amount?”

Reeling from low oil prices, the KRG last year resorted to cutting the salaries of public sector employees — a bloated 1.4 million-person workforce — by up to 65% to counter the economic meltdown. The move had serious adverse effects for the economy, including a decline in purchasing power. Traders in the bazaar, already hit hard by the economic crisis, are now also worried about the possible impact of the upcoming referendum.

Sulaymaniyah has historically been a center for the Kurdish independence movement, at one time against Britain and later against successive Iraqi regimes. So while these stories are anecdotal, if they’re indicative of a larger trend then the KRG is losing support in a place that should really be one of its strongholds.


This is late-breaking but reports say a suicide bomber struck a camp belonging to the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group near the town of Nassib on the Syrian-Jordanian border. No word on casualties yet.

The Syrian Democratic Forces say they’ve now fully surrounded the remaining ISIS fighters in Raqqa, trapping them in the city center. But unlike the Iraqis in Mosul–and, to be fair, the SDF itself earlier in this campaign–they seem to be managing expectations as to how quickly the Raqqa operation will be over:

“It could take another three to four months to finish Raqqa,” [SDF commander Haval] Gabar said. The SDF was advancing steadily, but he added: “They’ve laid many mines, that’s one of the biggest difficulties. As for car bombs, they don’t use them every day, but if our forces are advancing down a street, then they deploy them.”

As he spoke, a huge blast shook the building, and a plume of smoke rose from inside the Old City – a car bomb had been hit by an air strike.

The SDF aren’t under the same political pressure that the Iraqis were in Mosul to publicly  demonstrate forward progress every day, so there’s less reason for them to overestimate their progress. However, the SDF’s success has been accompanied by a coalition air campaign that has by many accounts done an absolutely abysmal job at minimizing civilian casualties:

Rights groups say the coalition should be more transparent in how it makes targeting decisions, because it appears that on some occasions it has targeted Isis fighters, such as snipers, based on the rooftops of residential buildings, endangering large groups of civilians in an effort to kill a single militant.

“There are definitely grounds for caution and concern and the need to beef up the process by which targets are selected,” said Nadim Houry, the director of the terrorism and counter-terrorism programme at Human Rights Watch, who recently visited Raqqa province and investigated a series of airstrikes by the coalition that caused civilian casualties.

“We know that Isis fights from civilian areas and in some cases intentionally uses civilians to protect itself,” he said. “The coalition still has the obligation to minimise civilian casualties and have a robust mechanism in place. When it fails the result can be very deadly for civilians, so an investigation of these strikes is essential.”

Elsewhere, the Syrian army and its allies made major gains in the country’s southern Suwaydah province on Thursday, capturing some 30 km of the Jordanian border from rebels. Those gains come as accusations have arisen that the Syrian air force is bombing targets inside the so-called “de-escalation zones” established by Russia and Turkey.

The Syrian army is attempting to alleviate its manpower shortage by demanding compulsory service from former rebels who have since surrendered. Under the terms of the various local evacuation deals signed between the government and rebel units, the rebels have been offered a choice between being relocated to Idlib province or staying behind and giving up their weapons. Those who choose the latter were told that they could be conscripted into the army after six months, but they say they were also told they would be exempt from front-line combat duty. That doesn’t appear to be the case, and so many of these former rebels have fled rather than be conscripted and used basically as cannon fodder.

There is some good news on the displaced persons front. The International Organization for Migration says that a bit over 600,000 displaced Syrians have returned home so far in 2017, and given that the total number of returnees in 2016 was just under 660,000 that represents a substantial increase in pace from last year.


In response to calls from several international aid agencies to reopen the main Yemeni airport in Sanaa to allow aid in and sick and wounded Yemenis to fly elsewhere for medical treatment, the Saudi-led coalition has said they would be willing to allow flights to resume if the United Nations were to take over operations at the airport. The UN has already seemingly put the kibosh on that idea.

A day after at least 50 people were deliberately drowned by smugglers off the coast of Yemen’s Shabwa province, an almost identical incident in roughly the same place saw at least 19 migrants drowned on Thursday. This is either just sheer horrible coincidence or the start of a terrible new trend in human trafficking, where passengers are forced into the water offshore so as to give the smugglers a head start in evading any official vessels in the area.


Opposition politicians in Turkey are alleging that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has formed his own clandestine service outside the National Intelligence Organization. This would violate Turkish law if true, not to mention that it’s not generally good for freedom and democracy when an autocrat establishes his/her own intelligence operation. There’s no hard evidence that this has happened, but there seems to be a lot of smoke and it’s not like it wouldn’t be in keeping with Erdoğan’s nature to do something like this.


Another Islamist Syrian rebel group is pulling out of its enclave in Lebanon. Saraya Ahl al-Sham, a militia that’s been active in and around Damascus and has good ties with the formerly (?) al-Qaeda aligned Tahrir al-Sham, plans to start pulling back into Syria on Saturday after concluding negotiations with the Lebanese government and Hezbollah. Some 3000 refugees are expected to go with them. ISIS will now be the last Syrian-based insurgent group with a presence inside Lebanon, and it probably won’t be there much longer.

Politically, Lebanon’s policy of “dissociation” seems to be ending as the Lebanese government begins officially engaging with Syria again. Since 2012 Beirut has tried to stay out of the Syrian civil war and really all other regional conflicts in an attempt to stabilize its divided internal politics, which are particularly sensitive to regional events. But that’s proven to be an impossibility, and forcing up a wall between regional affairs and domestic politics has only led to an even more dysfunctional Lebanese political scene.

I’m reluctant to link to this Reuters piece on the subject because while it does an OK job of hitting the basic details it’s also written from a hair-on-fire THE IRANIANS ARE WINNING OH NO point of view that I find frankly dumb. Maybe, just maybe, instead of the end of dissociation being part of an insidious pan-Shiʿa plot to take over the world, what if dissociation was a misguided policy to begin with? And the fact that Lebanon is coming out of it is, I don’t know, good? Yes, this (slight) reopening toward Syria is being pushed by Hezbollah, and yes Hezbollah has more influence in the Syrian government now that Michel Aoun has become president, but before the deal that put Aoun in office there were literal rivers of garbage running through the streets of Beirut because the government was entirely rudderless. The country couldn’t continue to function in full-on political paralysis, particularly not while coping with such an overwhelming number of Syrian refugees.


The UN is calling on Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas to settle their various disputes at least enough to allow Gaza residents to have more than the four hours of electricity they’re being given each day. The manufactured power shortage, engineered by the PA in collusion with Israel and exacerbated by Hamas’s shitty relations with both, is affecting medical treatment, nutrition (due to lack of refrigeration), and of course air conditioning, which is pretty important in a place where the temperatures are consistently in the 90s (Fahrenheit) this time of year.

Speaking of Hamas, a delegation from that group reportedly attended Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration on August 5 and spoke with a number of senior Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. This is the latest sign that Hamas’s relationship with Iran is on the mend, after the two sides fell out over the Syrian civil war. Naturally it was mutual hatred for Israel that brought them back together, though the Gulf diplomatic crisis has also left Hamas scrambling to replace the support it was getting from Qatar.


Donald Trump doesn’t think Iran is living up to the “spirit” of the nuclear deal. That there is no “spirit” of the nuclear deal is, I guess, beside the point. But anybody (me, for instance) who was hoping that Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin would have the one perversely positive outcome of shoring up US support for the JCPOA appear to have missed the mark on that one. Moscow is now publicly criticizing Trump for trying to scuttle the deal.

Hassan Rouhani having now officially begun his second term as Iran’s president, analyst Farideh Farhi expects he’ll have to navigate increasing challenges in his relationship with Khamenei–or Khamenei’s successor, if the aging and infirm leader doesn’t survive the next four years. Rouhani and Khamenei are ideologically out of alignment for starters, but also, historically, second term Iranian presidents have tended to fall out with the Supreme Leader:

In general, with the exception of Iran’s first president, who was quickly impeached and booted out in his first term, Iran’s presidents, including Ayatollah Khamenei when he was president, have mostly come into direct conflict with the office of the Supreme Leader during their second term. The sources of the conflict are structural, constitutional, and currently also ideological.

The Iranian constitution has endowed the Islamic Republic with two executives that have different missions. The presidency is the only nationwide elected office and subject to both the secular exigencies of running a technocracy and the changing sentiments of the electorate. The Office of the Leader, on the other hand, is both the keeper and promoter par excellence of, and dependent for its survival and power on, revolution-inspired institutions and values. In addition, the lack of term limits for the office of the Leader and effective oversight has allowed the expansion of extra-constitutional powers, including intervention in cabinet selection. This reality is the source of conflicts no matter who is the president. Even Ahmadinejad, with whom Ayatollah Khamenei famously acknowledged close ideological affinity, ended up not going to work for more than 10 days because the latter would not allow him to remove his minister of intelligence, a prerogative of the president.

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