Middle East update: September 4-5 2017


A spat between Baghdad and Erbil is threatening to delay the start of the Hawijah operation. Specifically, the Kurds are objecting to a role for the Popular Mobilization Units in this next offensive, but the PMUs and the Iraqi government seem committed to their participation. The Kurds are threatening to bar Iraqi units from Kurdish territory unless the two sides can come to an agreement on the overall plan for the operation, which would include the use of the PMUs. This is petty and probably has as much to do with the Kurds’ referendum plans as it does with Hawijah itself, but after some bluster it’s almost certain they’ll come to some kind of arrangement. Nobody wants Hawijah to remain in ISIS’s hands.

Joel Wing has a look at the situation in Fallujah, which is struggling to rebuild and move forward after having been liberated last summer:

In June 2016, Fallujah was freed from the Islamic State. Most of the city’s residents are back, the economy is recovering, but there is still lots to do. Part of that is due to local politics, which has banned several thousand people from returning due to suspicions about their connections to the insurgents. Another issue is the government’s financial crisis, which has held up rebuilding. At the same time, IS has a presence there once again. Fallujah stands as an example for the cities that were liberated after it. While life appears back to normal, its rebuilding has been marked by revenge, the return of insurgents, and there is still much unfinished business.

Fallujah was one of the first cities to ban Islamic State families from returning. Starting in September2016, the first people began heading back to the city. By February 2017, 250,000 out of 320,000 people were in their homes once again. The roughly 70,000 people still displaced, however, were being kept in that status on purpose. Local officials and tribal leaders barred them from Fallujah due to their ties to the insurgency. Many reside in camps in Amiriyah Fallujah. This has happened in other liberated areas of Iraq. Salahddin and towns around Mosul have made similar decisions for example. This has kept thousands of people away. It is also an example of group punishment as these civilians are being persecuted for the actions of their relatives.

That deal Lebanon and Hezbollah cut with ISIS to move its 300 fighters off of the Lebanese border and over to al-Bukamal on the Syria-Iraq border is generating some serious fallout in Iraq. Baghdad was furious that the Lebanese and Hezbollah negotiated a deal that took their ISIS problem and parked it smack on Iraq’s doorstep. The whole business is heightening the tension between explicitly pro-Iran elements within Iraq (former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for example, and several PMU militias), who support the deal, and everybody else.

I have a feeling these kinds of cleavages in the Syria-Iraq-Iran relationship (and the Iraq-Kurd relationship, see above) are going to become more common as ISIS’s position continues to erode. For a while ISIS was such an overall threat that everybody was more or less on the same page in fighting them. But now that the group is circling the drain at least as a territorial power, it’s no surprise that the Syrian and Iraqi governments would each prefer to make it the other one’s problem. That’s why the Iraqis maybe weren’t as scrupulous about cutting off ISIS’s western paths of retreat from Mosul as they might have been early on in that operation, and it’s why the Syrians are OK transporting these ISIS fighters to the Iraqi border, hoping they’ll decide to cross it. At some point the common enemy is weakened enough for basic national/ethnic/etc. interests to kick in.


Potentially big news out of eastern Syria, where the Syrian army says it has reached the city of Deir Ezzor. A nominally government-controlled portion of Deir Ezzor, estimated to hold just under 100,000 people, has been entirely besieged by ISIS since 2014, subsisting in large part on airdrops of food and other aid by Damascus, but the arrival of the army has broken that siege and opened up a land corridor to the outside. A few parts of the city are reportedly still under siege at this point, but you would expect that to change shortly as the Syrian army continues to advance. This is obviously excellent news for the civilians in Deir Ezzor, but it’s also another serious blow to ISIS.

Speaking of which, with their capture of Raqqa’s Old City the Syrian Democratic Forces now control roughly 60 percent of ISIS’s former capital city. It’s believed that ISIS has consolidated its defenses in the center of the city and will make its last stand there. With Deir Ezzor now also in the process of being liberated, ISIS’s only two remaining Syrian cities are slipping out of its grasp.


Amid rumors that he’d been arrested, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh went on TV on Monday and pretended that everything is fine between his loyalists and their ostensible Houthi partners. Comments from the Houthis suggest that they have Saleh under their control, albeit not technically under arrest, and Saleh’s TV interview, which was abruptly cut off, is unlikely to actually convince anybody that things are OK between the two rebel factions.

The United Nations Human Rights Council is insisting that it take over investigating reports of right violations from the Yemen National Commission, which reports to nominal Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. I trust the problem of having one of the combatants in a civil war also be responsible for monitoring the conduct of that war doesn’t need any explanation, but the National Commission has been out to lunch in a way that exceeds even the lowest expectations.

The rights council is also reporting that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is “active” inside the Yemeni city of Taiz. Taiz is the country’s third largest city and has been the stationary front line between Hadi’s forces and the rebels for several months now, so as you might imagine conditions there are not great. You can’t help but marvel at a US policy toward Yemen that simultaneously targets AQAP and supports the Saudi intervention, which has done nothing but strengthen AQAP.


Shockingly, Ankara has not reacted positively to the news that Angela Merkel says she wants to cut off talks on Turkey’s accession to the European Union. I don’t know about you but I really didn’t see that coming.


The AP’s Jon Gambrell looks at a couple of Qatari exiles who are being boosted into prominence by the Saudis:

A Qatari exile wants to discuss the possibility of a “bloodless coup” amid a diplomatic dispute pitting Doha against other Arab nations. Another exile, a little-known Qatari ruling family member, meets with Qatar’s main foe Saudi Arabia and immediately gets suggested as a replacement for Doha’s ruling sheikh.

However, whether Khalid al-Hail’s planned conference or Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani’s sudden prominence represents any bloc within Qatar remains an open question.

The question may be a little open, but the answer is very likely “not really.” Hail has been doing an “opposition in exile” thing for several years now and, well, now that he’s being signal-boosted by Riyadh it’s basically the first time anybody has heard about him. There are allegations out there that Abdullah Al Thani, who you may recall does have a distant claim to the Qatari throne, was threatened by Mohammad bin Salman with the loss of properties in Saudi Arabia if he didn’t play ball and lend his name to whatever it is the Saudis are trying to do.

You may also recall that, back when the Qatar diplomatic crisis started, I suggested that regime change in Doha might be Riyadh’s ultimate goal. The thing is, though, there’s no reason to imagine there’s any public appetite for something like that in Qatar. Why would there be? From a lifestyle perspective, Qataris are living better than just about anybody else in the world, and sure some of them might prefer a freer, more open political system than the one they have but a) clearly not enough to risk upsetting their material comfort and b) they’re not going to get a freer, more open political system via a Saudi-instigated coup anyway.


Part of Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan to remake the Saudi economy involves increasing tourism. If you consider the Hajj and other pilgrimages to Mecca to be “tourism” then the Saudis already do a large tourism business every year, but there is massive tourism potential all over Saudi Arabia that goes untapped because exploiting it would contradict Wahhabi values. Visiting historical sites, for example, could be construed as idolatry, at least by unhinged fundamentalists, and that’s a problem. In fact the Saudis have made a habit of destroying sites, in Mecca and Medina, that have huge tourist value. Costs are also too high for most would-be visitors and the Saudis don’t really offer “tourist visas” that would allow people to control their own movements inside the kingdom, opting instead for more restrictive “pilgrimage visas.” Which, obviously, non-Muslims can’t get, so there’s a large potential market blocked.

On Tuesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir dismissed as “laughable” recent Iranian talk of a diplomatic thaw between the two Gulf powers. So I guess that’s not happening then? It’s not clear what Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was talking about last week when he made it seem like some diplomatic contact was already in the planning stages.


Protests broke out in the Kurdish town of Baneh on Tuesday after Iranian border guards killed two Kurdish men. Five border guards were reportedly arrested by Iranian authorities following the incident.

UN ambassador Nikki Haley addressed the American Bomb Bomb Iran Enterprise Institute on Tuesday on the subject of the Iran nuclear deal. Now, you may think that the middle of a genuine proliferation crisis with North Korea is not the time for the Trump administration to court another proliferation crisis by scrapping the Iran deal, but you would obviously never get hired to work in Uncle Donny’s Halfway House for the Criminally Stupid with that attitude.

It’s clear that it if were up to Haley, President Trump would scrap the nuclear deal ASAP. In her remarks she carefully softened that point by arguing that if Trump decertified Iranian compliance with the deal it wouldn’t necessarily mean scrapping the deal, and that’s technically true. What it would do is leave it up to Congress to decide whether or not to reimpose sanctions, which is basically the same way Trump is getting rid of DACA. Is there anybody who actually believes Congress wouldn’t vote to reimpose sanctions under those circumstances? A Senate filibuster might be able to prevent that from happening, but there are enough Democrats who have been on the fence on/outright opposed to the nuclear deal that I wouldn’t want to count on a filibuster to save it.

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