Middle East update: August 12-13 2017


Preparations continue for the eventual Tal Afar operation, but it’s not clear at this point what the hold up is. Iraqi forces are in place to begin attacking the city but the order hasn’t come down from Baghdad yet. On Sunday, two American soldiers were killed east of Tal Afar in what the anti-ISIS coalition called “combat operations” but said were “not because of enemy fire.” ISIS had earlier claimed in a statement that it killed four US soldiers in a rocket attack east of Tal Afar, so clearly somebody’s lying. It might be helpful if the coalition offered some vague notion as to how these two soldiers died if it wasn’t due to enemy fire.

An ISIS suicide bomber struck an Iraqi checkpoint outside Karbala on Saturday, killing at least one Iraqi soldier and injuring at least two others.

With Iraqi Kurds still targeting September 25 for their planned independence referendum, the Iraqi Turkmen community is mobilizing in opposition. In particular, Turkmen leaders are insisting that Kirkuk, a mixed province with a very slim Kurdish majority, should not be part of the territory in the referendum, and in fact the Iraqi constitution explicitly leaves Kirkuk out of “Iraqi Kurdistan,” so the Turkmens have a case. But seeing as how Kirkuk is a very important city near some very important energy resources the Kurds are, ah, not going to go along with that. The Turkmens have accused the Kurds of forcing Turkmens out of Kirkuk to try to change the province’s demographics. If the overall prospect of Kurdish independence doesn’t trigger a war between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, then the issue of Kirkuk very well might, which would leave the Turkmens caught in the middle seeing as how they’re not all that enamored of Baghdad either.

Finally, life in Mosul continues to be a struggle as the process of rebuilding and restoring basic services progresses slowly if at all:

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees talked with a family living in west Mosul’s Resala. During the fighting, they sheltered in their basement, until a lull allowed them to escape and head for a camp. As soon as the city was declared liberated they returned only to find the front of their house completely destroyed by an air strike or artillery. Despite that they were still happy the building was standing, and their possessions were inside. Today they have to pay high prices to receive electricity from a generator that only provides around 8 hours of service per day. Their drinking water is trucked in and stored in tanks, while a well is used for the toilet and washing. They are making clothes to try to earn some money. According to the Iraqi government 79,000 people have returned to west Mosul, only 10% of the population. That compared 165,000 or 90% in the east. The U.N. has increased aid to these people trying to help them find housing, remove unexploded bombs, and providing basic services. Life is still extremely difficult and several hundred families have gone back to camps instead of staying in Mosul. Given this new trend the massive displacement in Ninewa is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.


Seven volunteer workers for Syrian Civil Defense, AKA the “White Helmets,” were killed on Saturday in Idlib. It’s not known who attacked them but they reportedly made off with vehicles, equipment, and cash. Also on Saturday, the Syrian army said that it had fully captured the town of Sukhna, in Homs province, from ISIS. That puts them very close to the border with Deir Ezzor province, still mostly in ISIS’s hands. Overall, the Russian government said Sunday that Damascus has increased the territory under its control by 2.5 times over the past two months. So they’ve got that going for them.

Yes, yes, handshakes all around

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said Saturday that Damascus will provide “all facilitations” to the investigative team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that’s scheduled to arrive there later this month. The OPCW team is investigating the April 4 incident in Khan Shaykhun, believed by a majority of international observers to have been a regime sarin attack. The investigators will probably not be able to go to Khan Shaykhun itself, because it’s currently controlled by Tahrir al-Sham, which then raises the question of how they’ll actually be able to conduct a thorough investigation. Mekdad said they will be allowed access to Shayrat air base, from which the alleged (I’m trying to be as neutral as possible here) attack was allegedly launched, but is that going to be enough to really close this case?


This is just coming out now, but Turkish authorities say a man who was arrested in Istanbul on charges of planning an ISIS-related suicide bombing has stabbed and killed a police officer while in custody.


Yemeni rebels say they successfully attacked a Saudi-led coalition warship docked at the Red Sea port of Mokha on Saturday, using a remote controlled boat packed with explosives. The coalition, on the other hand, says the boat was intercepted and sent off course before it exploded.


The planned expulsion of Saraya al-Sham fighters and some 3000 refugees from the Lebanese-Syrian border has been held up due to “a logistical problem.” I haven’t seen any word on what the problem is or when it might be resolved.


Writing at Al Jazeera, journalist Ben White examines claims that the United Nations is unfairly biased against Israel:

“Undoubtedly, the UNHRC and General Assembly do devote disproportionate attention to Israel/Palestine,” South African international law professor John Dugard, the UN’s former special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, told Al Jazeera.

“But this must be viewed in the context of the UN political organs as a whole,” Dugard added. “The Security Council and Quartet on the Middle East [UN, European Union, United States and Russia] are notoriously pro-Israel and refuse to pay adequate attention to Palestinian issues.”

The UN’s top official for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, an office that “represents the secretary-general and leads the UN system in all political and diplomatic efforts related to the peace process”. The post comes under the authority of both the secretary-general, as well as the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), headed by US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman.

During his time as Special Rapporteur, Dugard told Al Jazeera that some senior officials in the DPA “made no attempt to conceal their pro-Israel feelings to me”. He believes that more attention should be paid to the “bias” of the Security Council, Quartet and Secretariat.


Two members of Egypt’s Hasm Movement, a militant group with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, were killed on Sunday in a shootout with police in Qalubiyah province, just north of Cairo.


Iraqi media is reporting a very interesting story, assuming it’s accurate:

Citing Qasim al-Araji, Iraq’s interior minister, the Iraqi satellite channel Alghadeer reported that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has asked Haider al-Abadi to lead the mediation with Iran.

“During our visit to Saudi Arabia, they also asked us to do so, and we said that to [the] Iranian side. The Iranian side looked at this demand positively,” Araji was quoted saying by Alghadeer on Sunday.

“After the victories that Iraq has achieved, it [Saudi Arabia] began looking to Iraq, at its true size and leading role.

“The calm and stability and the return of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have positive repercussions on the region as a whole.”

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. If the Saudis wanted a neutral mediator to intervene with Iran, Kuwait or even Oman would have been a better choice because neither is as inside Iran’s orbit as Iraq is. Because of Iraq’s closeness to Iran, though, if the Saudis wanted to make a good faith gesture toward Tehran, going through Iraq would actually be a good way to do that. On the other hand, if the Saudis are looking to cause mischief in the relationship between Baghdad and Tehran, then this overture could be the first part of a bigger plan.

The fact that Muqtada al-Sadr was just in Saudi Arabia a couple of weeks ago raises questions about the timing of this apparent initiative. Sadr was in the UAE on Sunday and announced that Riyadh will be donating $10 million toward caring for displaced Iraqis and may possibly make some investments in southern Iraq, such as a potential consulate in Najaf. I’m not ready to say he’s Riyadh’s Man in Baghdad yet, but he’s clearly working some kind of angle here.

Speaking of the UAE, remember how funny it was to learn that the Emiratis, who have been lambasting Qatar for, among other things, hosting a Taliban office in Doha, had once upon a time worked very hard to try to get that Taliban office placed in Abu Dhabi? Well it probably won’t surprise you to learn that a third Gulf state also played host to the Taliban before they decided that hosting the Taliban was akin to terrorism:

A former Afghan fighter turned mediator says Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) tried to host the Taliban before the armed group set up an office in Qatar.

Abdulla Anas, a former friend of the late al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, told the Middle East Eye on Friday that he was “bewildered” by Saudi Arabia’s claim that Qatar supported “terrorism” by allowing the Taliban to open an office in Doha.

That initiative was first established in Saudi Arabia, Anas said.

“There were also some rounds in the Emirates. So if Qatar is accused of hosting terrorists, someone hosted the same ‘terrorists’ before this,” he said.

This revelation was almost inevitable from the minute the list of Saudi bloc grievances began to circulate. It just couldn’t not be this way.


In the face of new US sanctions and threats from Donald Trump over its missile program and its foreign military activities, the Iranian parliament on Sunday voted 240-4 to budget an extra $500 million for those two programs. The bill also imposes Iranian sanctions on a number of US officials, which I’m sure will come as a tremendous blow to them all.

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