Middle East update: September 1 2017

In an effort to not be up until 2 AM for a change, I’m going to try wrapping things up early today and see how that goes. I don’t want to say this could be the new normal, but for my own sanity I may start trying to get these updates out a little earlier in the day despite the possibility of more news happening after I post them. We’ll see. Thanks for reading!


With Tal Afar (apparently) liberated and Hawijah next up for the Iraqis, things in Iraq are back to a holding pattern more or less. That means it’s time to do some politics, and former/would-be Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has got a real doozy of a tale he’s trying to sell to the Iraqi people:

What happened to the IS fighters in Tal Afar has now become part of a conspiracy theory promoted by Vice President Nouri al-Maliki and his wing of the State of Law list. First, a State of Law parliamentarian claimed that the insurgents fled from Tal Afar to Irbil where they surrendered, and that proved they had a deal with President Massoud Barzani. The MP demanded the Kurds turn over all the militants that were arrested. Next, Maliki stated that the Islamic State had an agreement with the Abadi government and the U.S. to flee Tal Afar, and that was why they gave up to the Kurds. Abadi, Barzani and Washington are all favorite targets of propaganda put out by Maliki and his allies. He has been talking about conspiracies against him and Iraq since Mosul fell in 2014 and he was forced out of office.

Maliki and his cronies will say anything to desperately try to wallpaper over the fact that he, as much as anybody else, was responsible for ISIS’s surge through northwestern Iraq in 2014. It was his government that viewed Iraq’s Sunni Arabs as a problem to be suppressed rather than as, you know, Iraqis, which is what led to the Sunni uprising that ISIS then exploited. And it was Maliki’s army that threw its weapons on the ground and ran like hell instead of doing its job and defending Mosul and the other major cities ISIS captured, despite greatly outnumbering and outgunning the enemy.

On the other hand, at least he and Dipshit McGee up there were buddies

Maliki’s failure to unite Iraq created the conditions for the collapse of the army, and his coddling of incompetent and/or corrupt officers hollowed out the army and left it bereft of the kind of leadership that could have stemmed the retreat. His removal as PM was a huge turning point for Iraq, and any possibility of his return to that office should be treated as an existential threat to the nation. And nothing he says about ISIS should be taken seriously. If anybody ever had an under-the-table deal with ISIS you’d have to assume it was Maliki. He didn’t, of course, but ISIS couldn’t have asked for a better foil.


A new round of peace talks will convene in Astana on September 14. These Astana talks aren’t really peace talks so much as they’re an opportunity for Russia, Iran, and Turkey to talk about peace (note the absence of any Syrians), and in this case the three countries are expected to try to firm up plans for deescalation zones in Ghouta, near Homs, and in Idlib.

Speaking of non-Syrians who somehow think they’re integral to ending a Syrian civil war, the French government is arguing that outside powers need to impose a political transition on Syria that does not include Bashar al-Assad. I can only assume these guys just took a time machine here from 2014 and nobody’s brought them up to speed yet. Assuming you could get those outside powers to all agree on this, which you couldn’t, why should Assad go along with it? There’s no international appetite for a full-scale invasion of Syria, thank God, and he knows that if push came to shove Russia would still be in his corner. To be fair, Paris has been sending some mixed signals here lately, with President Emmanuel Macron recently and pointedly leaving any mention of Assad out of his comments about the war.

United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura is trying to appeal to Assad’s anti-ISIS sentiments, arguing that once Raqqa (whose Old City was just apparently cleared of remaining ISIS fighters) and Deir Ezzor fall it will be time for Assad to make some political concessions to end the war and prevent an ISIS resurgence. This might work if there were any evidence that Assad was ever really perturbed about ISIS in the first place. I’m not one of these “Assad and ISIS are BFFs” types, but it’s obvious that the Syrian leader took some steps to help strengthen the extremists among the various rebel factions once the war started, and he’s gone harder at comparative “moderates” than he has at ISIS, though part of that has to do with the fact that his efforts, until quite recently, have been entirely focused around western Syria, where ISIS was never that relevant.

US officials are watching the progress of that convoy carrying some 300 or so ISIS fighters from the Lebanese border to Deir Ezzor and say they’re prepared to bomb its path again to keep it from linking up with the main body of ISIS’s remaining Syrian forces. They may not exactly be well-received if they ever do get to Deir Ezzor–ISIS media and online supporters appear to be having a hard time digesting the news that a group of ISIS fighters cut that deal with the Lebanese government rather than, I guess, fighting to the death.


The founder of Yemen’s Red Crescent, Abdullah Alkhamesi, died on Thursday. Alkhamesi was 76 and apparently had heart trouble, but he died due to a lack of proper medical equipment and an inability to leave the country to seek better care, which makes him just another of the thousands of victims of the Saudi/US intervention.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is mad…well, all the time, really, but today he’s mad because 15 of his bodyguards were indicted in US court earlier this week for their roles in that brawl that took place during Erdoğan’s visit to Washington in May. Erdoğan termed the indictment of men caught on video kicking defenseless protesters in the face “a complete scandal,” which of course says much more about the way he runs Turkey than about the indictment itself.

Get ready for a new round of Germany-Turkey sniping, now that two more German citizens have been arrested in Turkey over their alleged ties to Fethullah Gülen’s movement. A dozen Germans are now in Turkish custody, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is already talking about freezing Turkey’s European Union accession talks and possibly issuing a travel warning for German citizens thinking about visiting Turkey in the near future.

Erdoğan has apparently embraced the anniversary of 1071’s Battle of Manzikert, which opened Anatolia to Turkish settlement, as a high holy day for Turkish nationalism. The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor explains:

Erdogan faces a complicated political moment. At odds with ethnic Kurds whose votes he once won in droves and bent on eradicating Gulenists — followers of an exiled Turkish cleric accused of fomenting the coup — from Turkish society, he is now focusing on winning greater support among Turkish nationalists.

“Publicly celebrating a historical victory that has always been most popular among Turkey’s conservative nationalists fits nicely with Erdogan’s political evolution,” said Nicholas Danforth, a Turkey expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and an occasional WorldViews contributor. “The Seljuks are the perfect meeting place, chronologically and geographically, of Erdogan’s Islamist Ottoman nostalgia and the fixation on ethnic and Central Asian Turks that marked much of traditional … Turkish nationalism.”


The United Nations Security Council has renewed its peacekeepers’ mandate in southern Lebanon, and has bestowed new authorities upon them to boot. They will now take a more visible role, alongside the Lebanese army, in patrolling and monitoring the southern border, with an eye toward detecting any building by Hezbollah in the area. Israel, and therefore the US, opposed renewing the mandate without some increase in the peacekeepers’ power to police Hezbollah, but pretty much everybody else, especially Lebanon itself, opposed some of the more muscular ideas that the US had. The expanded patrols seem to have been the acceptable compromise.


Israel’s Arab “Joint List” coalition is close to breaking apart. For one thing, one of its constituent parties, Balad, keeps alienating the other three with its more militant pro-Palestinian behavior. But more immediately, the four parties are squabbling over an internal agreement to rotate one Knesset seat between them. It’s convoluted and seems petty, but if the Joint List were to break up then Arab representation in the Knesset could decline precipitously, perhaps to nothing. None of the four Arab parties individually is a lock to get a high enough percentage of the vote to qualify for seats, which is why they all banded together and ran on the same list in the first place.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman gave a sit-down interview to the Jerusalem Post earlier this week that’s making quite a splash. See if you can guess which part is the most provocative:

What, we asked him, has taken you most by surprise since being appointed ambassador in May? He thought for a moment.

“I think the American Jewish community tends to look at Israel somewhat myopically,” he said. The Right, he said, is portrayed as believing that peace is not possible. The Left, he explained, is portrayed as believing that only if the “alleged occupation” ended would Israel become a better society.

“Israel’s much more nuanced than that,” he said. In private conversations, he said, people on the Left are more respectful of Israel’s security needs and more realistic about the dangers of a failed peace process than one might originally expect.

The same, he said, applies to people on the Right who privately admit to him that, in an optimal world, they don’t want to rule over two million Palestinians against their will and would be open to safe and secure ways to move that forward.

“You don’t get that,” Friedman said. “You don’t get that kind of nuanced center view as much in the States, because there’s not a lot of financial play in the middle.”

Did you pick “alleged occupation”? Congratulations! You’re a winner! Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the nearest Israeli consulate and an IDF crew will be by ASAP to bulldoze your home.

Hamas is reportedly trying, via Iran, to patch things up with Bashar al-Assad. Back in the day, Assad was a Hamas supporter, but when Syria’s civil war broke out Hamas left Syria and threw its verbal support behind the rebels, some of whom were Muslim Brotherhood as is Hamas. That decision temporarily caused a rift in the Hamas-Iran relationship, but now that’s seemingly been repaired and, having obviously backed the wrong horse in Syria, Hamas (which is really downplaying its Brotherhood ties nowadays) would like to get back to being on friendly terms with Damascus.


It’s gotten overlooked in the Qatar mess, but this year’s Hajj has particular significance for the fact that Iranian pilgrims, some 90,000 of them, are participating for the first time since the 2015’s pilgrimage’s deadly stampede at Mina. The Iranian pilgrims seem to be happy with how they’ve been treated by Saudi authorities and there’s a chance, slim as it may be, that a successful Hajj will open the door to improving the Saudi-Iranian relationship.

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