Middle East update: September 9-10 2017


Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, told the BBC on Sunday that he wants to work with the Iraqi government to redraw the borders of Kurdistan but will do so unilaterally if Baghdad won’t cooperate. It still seems the KRG is unlikely to go ahead and declare independence immediately following the September 25 referendum–instead, assuming “yes” wins, they’ll take that result and use it to leverage more autonomy out of Baghdad, and they’ll use local results in places outside the KRG’s direct control, like Kirkuk, to bolster their argument for expanding their borders.

The Hawijah operation seems to be taking shape, amid reports that Iraqi and coalition aircraft have stepped up their attacks on the town. The Iraqis have also started dropping leaflets advising civilians still in Hawijah that the assault is coming. There’s not much reason to expect that the fight in Hawijah will be much harder than it was in Tal Afar, though of course you can never be entirely certain about such things. Interestingly though, and along these lines, these stepped up Hawijah airstrikes also appear to be targeting western Anbar province, which is the next/final ISIS stronghold the Iraqis will be fighting to liberate.

Patrick Wing looks at violent incidents in Iraq during the first week of September. While there have still been scattered attacks, especially in Baghdad, with ISIS on the ropes the level of violence is as low as it’s been in several years. Paradoxically, ISIS’s eventual defeat in Hawijah and Anbar may actually cause the violence to go up again as the group goes fully underground.

The Iraqis say they’re detaining 1400 wives and children of suspected ISIS fighters in a camp south of Mosul. The wives are all foreign and many don’t have their papers, which makes it difficult to figure out what to do with them, even with those who want to return home. Many of the wives tell stories about being duped into coming to Iraq by their husbands. They’re sharing the camp with Iraqis who have been displaced from Mosul and there are concerns that the ISIS family members could be targets for reprisal violence.

Along those same lines, the AP reports on Sunni Arabs who are being blocked from returning home, either by Kurds in northern Iraq or Shiʿa in certain areas in the south, especially around Baghdad. Most of Iraq’s 3.2 million internally displaced are Sunni Arabs. In the north, the Kurds are trying to keep displaced non-Kurds from coming back and potentially screwing up their independence referendum plans. In the south, Shiʿa militias are trying to consolidate their control over the region between Baghdad and the Iranian border. In places where they have been able to return, Sunni Arabs are struggling (just like everybody else) to rebuild under a government that simply doesn’t have the money to pay for it. Nothing but nothing is going to sustain ISIS like a disconnected, beaten-up Sunni Arab community, so this is all pretty bad news for Iraq’s long-run future.


The Syrian army and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are once again racing to drive ISIS out of Deir Ezzor province. The race seemed to be won by the army when it opened a corridor into Deir Ezzor city last week, but a sudden SDF offensive in the northern part of the province has led to substantial early gains. On Saturday, the army was able to break through ISIS’s siege of Deir Ezzor’s airport, relieving troops who have been holding on there since 2014. It also captured a major oil field south of the city and part of the main road between Deir Ezzor and the town of Mayadin, further east. On Sunday, Syrian forces in the central part of the country seized control of the last chunk of the highway between Damascus and Deir Ezzor that had remained in ISIS’s hands. However, Russian airstrikes on ferries fleeing the town of Boulil on the Euphrates River killed at least 34 civilians, according to monitors.

By Sunday, meanwhile, the SDF had advanced as far as an industrial zone east of Deir Ezzor city. The SDF says it has no plans to engage the Syrian army but will defend itself if it comes to that, and that’s the big concern with having these two armies in such close proximity. The SDF’s intention may be to stick to the eastern bank of the Euphrates, but the army surely intends to keep pushing east as well, and some encounter becomes almost inevitable.

On the terrorism front, German authorities say that they believe ISIS has possession of more than 11,000 blank Syrian passports, out of some 18,000 they believe have been taken by various armed groups involved in the civil war. They’ve compiled the serial numbers of these documents, but the possibility remains that they could be filled out and used to infiltrate potential terrorists into Europe or elsewhere, or that ISIS could sell them for some badly needed cash.


The Lebanese government is filing a complaint against Israel at the UN Security Council, arguing that Israeli planes violated Lebanese airspace on their way to strike Syria on Thursday. And speaking of violating airspace, Israeli planes are buzzing the southern Lebanese city of Sidon low enough to (allegedly) break windows with their sonic booms. You have to fly at exceedingly low altitudes to do that. The Israelis are gearing up for another war with Hezbollah, mostly because it’s been 11 years since the last one and, well, you get to feeling nostalgic about these kinds of things, you know.


The Netanyahu family is nothing but class:

Yair Netanyahu, son of the prime minister, outdid even his father on Saturday when he published an anti-Semitic cartoon on his personal Facebook page.

The cartoon shows Manny Naftali, the former superintendent of the Prime Minister’s Residence, who is at the forefront of the struggle to put pressure on the police to indict Netanyahu for corruption, being baited by Israeli politico Eldad Yaniv, who is seen baited by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Barak is seen tempted by the money of the Illuminati, who according to the cartoon are being tempted by a Reptilian — a common anti-Semitic codeword for Jews. The Reptilian, for his part, is portrayed as controlling the world in the service of the Grand Jew: George Soros.

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 4.35.11 PM
Nice folks

The Netanyahus blame Naftali for the fraud charges that Sara Netanyahu is now facing. And of course no right wing fanatic ever screwed up by painting Soros as the nefarious master of the universe. Yair eventually took the post down, but not before getting lots of praise from a whole bunch of online Nazi types. Good for him.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is apparently beginning to lose patience with the Trump administration:

His exasperation was made clear when he told a visiting delegation from the Meretz party: “I have met with Trump’s envoys about 20 times since the beginning of his term as president of the United States. Every time they repeatedly stressed to me how much they believe and are committed to a two-state solution and a halt to construction in the settlements.”

He did not mince his words, and his desperation was palpable. “I have pleaded with them to say the same thing to Netanyahu, but they refrained,” Abbas continued. “They said they would consider it but then they didn’t get back to me.”

Abbas has been trying to work with Trump–his recent actions against Hamas in Gaza have been partly motivated by a desire to show he can play ball–but this is, rhetorically at least, the most blatantly pro-occupation presidential administration in American history, the kind of government whose Israeli ambassador talks about the “alleged” occupation of the West Bank, and whose State Department won’t affirm long-standing official US support for a two-state solution lest it hurt Bibi’s feelings. So Abbas is barking up the wrong tree. But the nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict is such that he doesn’t have any other trees up which to bark, really. He can resume taking Palestine’s case to international organizations, but all he can hope to get from them is symbolic recognition. The only path to a tangible Palestinian state, or a single-state union with Israel that isn’t based on apartheid, is through Washington.


Egyptian forces killed ten suspected members of Egypt’s Hasm Movement in a raid in Cairo on Sunday.

Cairo’s recent outreach to Europe over migrant issues is apparently coming with at least one string attached: the Egyptians want European support in any potential water dispute with Sudan and/or Ethiopia. They are particularly concerned about Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam project on the Blue Nile, which they argue will disrupt Nile water flows, and…oh, hey, it turns out the company contracted to build the dam just so happens to be Italian. Go figure.


There’s really nothing new on the Qatar-Saudi front since Friday’s seemingly-pleasant phone call between Tamim Al Thani and Mohammad bin Salman devolved into a renewed cut-off in communications. But it is worth noting that things got so bad on Saturday that Saudi media began circulating a phony ISIS declaration of support for Qatar. So apparently feelings are still raw.


The Saudis of course regularly accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism. Which is why stories like this are so problematic for Riyadh:

New evidence in a 9/11 lawsuit against the government of Saudi Arabia alleges the kingdom’s embassy in Washington, DC may have funded a test run for the deadly attacks in 2001, according to a US newspaper report.

The evidence was submitted as part of a class action lawsuit against the government of Saudi Arabia, the New York Post reported on Saturday.

It alleges the embassy paid for two Saudi nationals to fly from Phoenix to Washington two years before planes hit the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and slammed into a field in Pennsylvania as part of a “dry run” for the attacks.

The story comes out of the “28 pages” of the joint Congressional report into the 9/11 attacks that were declassified last July. Two Saudi dudes whose tickets had been purchased by the Saudi embassy tried to get into the cockpit of a flight into Washington, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing. It’s circumstantial and doesn’t prove official Saudi involvement, but it raises some uncomfortable questions at least about the kind of people the Saudis were posting at their embassy back then.

The Saudis have arrested a well-known cleric, Salman al-Awdah, apparently for expressing hopes for a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement via Twitter. If so, he’s the second cleric arrested for that same reason this week.


The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussein explains how Donald Trump plans to blow up the Iran nuclear deal while pretending to preserve it:

Like Trump’s recent move to kill the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the final decision on the Iran deal may become the prerogative of Congress, which has historically taken a hardline position on U.S.-Iran relations. If the president declares Iran non-compliant, Congress could choose to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions, or could decide to impose new sanctions for non-nuclear-related activity as a means of punishing alleged Iranian intransigence. Either course of action would be likely to trigger a response by the Iranians, whose main incentive for making the deal was the potential for reintegration into the global economy.

“There is a rather deceptive argument being made by those asking Trump not to certify Iranian compliance — they are trying to deny Iran the benefits of trade and commerce that were offered during the deal, but don’t want to take responsibility for pulling out of the nuclear deal itself,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “Failure to certify Iranian compliance opens the door to those in Congress, who, for political reasons or because they have donors pushing them to do so, would like to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran.”

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