Middle East update: August 16 2017


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the air campaign against Tal Afar continues to ratchet up in advance of the ground offensive that will begin…well, someday. Probably someday soon but I don’t want to overpromise. Anonymous Iraqi sources are still talking about weeks before the ground attack really begins. There’s less political pressure on Baghdad over liberating Tal Afar than there was over Mosul, so hopefully that will translate to a more measured approach to the operation.

After Tal Afar, the plan now seems to be to follow ISIS out into western Anbar province and engage them near the city of Haditha, northwest of Mosul. Haditha never fell to ISIS back in 2014 and should make for a decent staging area, but where Mosul was challenging because of the perils of fighting in a major urban center, this operation is going to be challenging because of the lack of an urban center or some other fixed target. Western Anbar is sparsely populated and ISIS has pretty much free movement through its countryside, which may make it easy for their fighters to slip away unless the Iraqis are able to surround them somehow. Undoubtedly Iraqi and coalition air power will play a major role in this effort.


This should come as no surprise to, well, pretty much anyone, but the hastily cobbled-together (23 days of training, hell yeah!) Arab elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which were cobbled together so that it could reasonably be said that the SDF wasn’t just another name for the Kurdish YPG militia, aren’t too good at this whole war fighting business:

In one recent incident, the fighters were quick to open fire after stray bullets flew above their makeshift compound.

“Cease fire! Can you even see what you’re shooting at? Our comrades are somewhere up ahead!” their 27-year-old commander Hassan Khalil shouted to his fighters in the Foj al-Raqqa (Raqqa Regiment).

Meanwhile, Reuters reporters covering the Raqqa assault have watched the Kurdish YPG militia take the most visible role.

You don’t say. All that talk about the Arab units of the SDF serving as the vanguard of the attack on Raqqa has been long forgotten and the Kurds are doing almost all the heavy lifting. Just, nobody tell Ankara that, OK? It’ll be our secret.

Speaking of the SDF, many of the ISIS fighters it’s taken prisoner in Raqqa have turned out to be heavy amphetamine users. This too isn’t really surprising, given that the civil war has made Syrian the Captagon capital of the world, but it seems like an unsustainable way to maintain their defenses.

Finally, the Red Cross on Wednesday says it plans to carry out emergency repairs to the Tabqa Dam west of Raqqa. This could be related to the structural damage the US insisted it wasn’t doing to the dam a few months ago, but the sense I get from that Reuters report is that the repairs are more related to the dam’s water-pumping function, to get water flowing to camps for people displaced from Raqqa. Drinking water and basic sanitation are critical concerns in those camps.


A new United Nations report says the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen killed or wounded 683 Yemeni children in airstrikes in 2016. The report, part of an annual UN project to document attacks against children worldwide, has not been released yet and may not ever be released, since it would be so damaging to the Saudis. The report’s author says she plans to push for Saudi Arabia’s inclusion on a list of countries and other entities that target children in wartime. This is the same list that the Saudis were supposed to make last year, but their threats to cut their UN contributions and lead an Arab nation boycott of the body caused UN authorities to back down and agree to take the Saudis off the list. Presumably Riyadh will try to pressure the UN into delisting it again this year.

This year’s statistics will probably be worse than 2016’s because the volume of airstrikes in Yemen has gone up dramatically. A report from the UN’s Protection Cluster in Yemen finds that the country has weathered 5676 airstrikes so far this year, far more than the 3936 it suffered for all of 2016. Boy it sure is nice that President Trump went to Riyadh and danced like an idiot and told the Saudis to do whatever they wanted wherever they wanted to do it.

The Red Cross is planning to attempt to ship rice into Yemen via the port of Hudaydah. This will be the aid organization’s first use of Hudaydah since it abandoned the port city in February amid Saudi airstrikes and threats of a coalition attack.


President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may soon find himself confronting a new political movement from his right. Former Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) politician Meral Akşener, who was deputy speaker of the Turkish parliament from 2007 through 2015, is putting together a new party focused on MHP members who are unhappy that their party has basically been coopted by Erdoğan. She’s also hoping to attract members of Erdoğan’s own Justice and Development Party (in which served before she went over to MHP) who are disillusioned with the way Erdoğan has so thoroughly come to dominate that party.

Akşener (Wikimedia | Haber Medya Grubu)


The Syrian air force is attacking ISIS positions along the Lebanese border at the same time that the Lebanese army is attacking those ISIS positions on their side of that border. It’s all part of the joint anti-ISIS operation that the Lebanese government desperately wants to convince you is not a joint operation.

The Lebanese parliament did, no irony, a good thing on Wednesday. It repealed article 522 of the Lebanese penal code, which allowed a rapist to escape punishment for the crime by marrying the victim. Lebanon is the fifth Arab country to abolish this sort of law, but according to Human Rights Watch it’s still on the books in Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, the Palestinian territories, and Syria, as well as many non-Arab nations around the world.


At least one Hamas security officer was killed on Wednesday when a suicide bomber blew himself up near the enclave’s border with Egypt.


The BBC has posted a video report from the largely obliterated and once predominantly Shiʿa Saudi town of Awamiyah. On Wednesday, the Saudi government said it had demolished the last home in Awamiyah’s historic district, which it insists had to be done for safety reasons and not to cleanse the town of its Shiʿa residents. It insists that all Awamiyah residents will be allowed to return to the town once it’s been rebuilt. I’m sure it definitely intends to keep that pledge, absolutely.

The Saudis also said Wednesday that they will open a border crossing with Qatar for Qataris who wish to make the Hajj pilgrimage this year. It also plans to open two airports to flights from Qatar for the same purpose. Hajj begins on the evening of August 30.


Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi, the 79 year old who was one of two moderate candidates to lose Iran’s controversial 2009 presidential election to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has reportedly gone on a hunger strike. Karroubi has been under house arrest since 2011 but has never been tried for anything, and his wife says he’s demanding a public trial.

Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has often talked of making Karroubi’s release, and that of fellow Green Movement figure Mir-Hossein Mousavi, one of his priorities while in office, but it didn’t happen. That phrase, “but it didn’t happen,” is how Rouhani explained on Tuesday why his cabinet has no women ministers in it despite his campaign promise to, you know, appoint a few. It’s not really an explanation, but it has become fodder for Iranian reformists who seem a little tired of Rouhani promising things he never delivers:

Iranians quickly took to Twitter and other social media outlets to mock the president, launching a Persian hashtag that translates to #ButItDidntHappen to express their disappointment with Rouhani, while reminding him of the promises he made during his electoral campaign.

Manzie, a user who describes herself as a feminist, tweeted, “We weren’t supposed to be disappointed with Rouhani so soon, #ButItDidntHappen.”

Another Twitter user published a picture of a smiling Rouhani, along with the satirical quote, “I wanted to lift the house arrest [of 2009 opposition leaders] #ButItDidntHappen.”

Another Iranian tweeted, “Rouhani has learned his lesson. Every time he makes a promise, he then says #ButItDidntHappen.”

We like to joke, but seriously apart from the nuclear deal and to some extent fixing the economy Rouhani’s administration hasn’t really done a whole lot to change Iran. Which would be easier to accept if Rouhani himself didn’t keep insisting that he’s going to do something about opening up Iranian society. It’s not good to get people’s hopes up.

Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff for Iran’s armed forces, visited Turkey on Wednesday to meet with Erdoğan and Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli. High on the agenda was probably the Kurdish issue, between the YPG in northern Syria and Iraqi Kurds careening toward an independence referendum that neither Turkey nor Iran wants to see happen. Although Turkey and Iran don’t see eye-to-eye on Syria to say the least, recent cooperation between the US and Russia with respect to Syria probably has Ankara and Tehran a little worried and looking to find some areas of common cause with one another.

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