Middle East update: September 15 2017


The death toll from Thursday’s ISIS attack in Nasiriyah has now risen to 84, and as more details come out it seems to have been a fairly intricately planned effort involving multiple pieces and sequential targeting of a police checkpoint followed by two restaurants popular with residents and pilgrims. The main takeaway from something like that is that ISIS may be losing the territorial fight, but it’s still a potent organization with the potential to carry out major attacks throughout Iraq.

Speaking of the territorial fight, the Iraqis and the US-led coalition are expecting a major fight when they begin the operation to liberate Hawijah/Shirqat and western Anbar simultaneously. I still think Anbar is going to be the harder of the two parts of the operation. ISIS may put up a fight in Hawijah but the conditions there are at least somewhat similar to what they were in Tal Afar and, as we now know, ISIS actually chose not to make much of a resistance there because conditions weren’t favorable. Western Anbar is wide open terrain, which means air power can be a bigger factor (good!) but also makes it easier for fighters to slip away (not great!).

Adding to the problems with fighting ISIS on open, hard to control ground, whatever happens in Anbar will be affected by whatever is happening in eastern Deir Ezzor province, across the Syrian border. Syrian advances there may push ISIS fighters into Iraq or vice versa, Russian aircraft flying over Deir Ezzor may come into close proximity to US aircraft flying over Anbar–there are a lot of potential complications. It would be easier to coordinate what’s shaping up to be the final operation against ISIS in Anbar/Deir Ezzor if the forces operating on either side of the border were allied or at least on cordial terms with one another.


Another complication in terms of fighting ISIS’s last stand is the potential for problems between the Syrian Arab Army (and pals) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (and pals) as both entities move further east. SDF and US-aligned militias say they have no plans to cross to the western/southern side of the Euphrates (at least, not yet), but also say they will not allow the SAA to cross to the eastern/northern side. The two sides are communicating on de-confliction and creating zones of control, but it’s inevitable that Bashar al-Assad’s goals and those of the SDF (particularly its dominant Kurdish element) are going to conflict with one another.

Further west, the Syrian army has resumed its efforts to clear out that pocket of ISIS territory in the central part of Syria. On Thursday they retook the town of Okeirbat in Hama province, which ISIS had lost but regained earlier this month, after heavy airstrikes.

Meanwhile, much further east, all the way in Kazakhstan, Russian, Iranian, and Turkish negotiators say they’ve reached a deal to secure four de-escalation zones in western Syria (in southern Syria, in Ghouta, in Homs/Hama provinces, and in Idlib province) for at least the next six months. In particular, they agreed to deploy observers at points on the border of Idlib province, easily the most problematic of the four zones. Under the plan Damascus will allow humanitarian aid into all four zones.

Al-Monitor’s Khaled al-Khateb says elements of the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Interim Government are negotiating on a plan to form a unified rebel army. The FSA, of course, was supposed to be a unified rebel army, but that as we all know didn’t pan out. The new group, if it does get formed, would exclude Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, but would include some pretty unsavory elements:

The factions that agreed to take part include al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (the Levant Front), Ahrar al-Sham, the Sham Legion, al-Naser Union, Nureddin Zengi Brigade, Free Idlib Army, the Central Division, the Sultan Murad Brigade, the 13th Division, the 1st Coastal Division and the Hamza Division.

Ahrar al-Sham’s reputation precedes itself, but let’s allow as to how they’ve probably moderated somewhat since Tahrir al-Sham poached their most extreme fighters. Of the remaining groups, Jaysh al-Islam is a Salafist militia that’s known to have used chemical weapons and deliberately attacked civilians, while the fighters in the Zengi Brigade like to spend their down time beheading twelve year olds. Really upstanding folks.

Say, did you know that America has barely harmed a single hair on a single head of any Syrian civilian? Just ask Stephen Townsend, the guy who just got done commanding US forces in Syria! Townsend’s argument might carry a little more weight if it wasn’t basically “trust us, we know more than you do”:

Our critics are unable to conduct the detailed assessments the Coalition does. They arguably often rely on scant information phoned-in or posted by questionable sources. The Coalition would be pilloried if we tried to use similar supports for our assertions. Still, their claims are often printed as fact and rarely questioned.

How interesting, that the people accused of repeatedly killing civilians are the only ones who are able to fully investigate those same charges. Seems like a bit of a problem to me, but then that’s probably why I’m not a general.


A US drone strike on Friday killed three suspected al-Qaeda fighters in southern Yemen’s Abyan province.

As for average Yemenis, many are now turning or have turned to selling their organs on the black market, because, well, desperate people do desperate things:

More than 20 million Yemenis currently need humanitarian assistance, according to the UN, while it is estimated that the Yemeni Central Bank’s foreign exchange reserves have dropped from $4.7bn in late 2014 to less than $1bn in September 2016. Salaries for health facility staff, teachers and other public-sector workers have been paid irregularly since September 2016, leaving more than a million state employees and their families without a regular income.

Last month, activists on Facebook circulated a photograph of a Yemeni female teacher allegedly offering one of her kidneys for sale, with the caption: “This is what a deceptive government with false legitimacy has led us to. I am offering one of my kidneys for sale to save my children from hunger. Salary is life.”

Wahag al-Maqtari, founder of the Sobol al-Haya Critical Care Hospital in Sanaa, told Al Jazeera that a majority of the victims of organ trafficking in Yemen are men, usually between the ages of 28 and 40. While he could not pinpoint how many Yemenis had resorted to selling their organs, he suggested that from what he has witnessed anecdotally, it appeared it was “being carried out on an unprecedented scale”.

It gets repetitive to keep saying that we’re responsible for this humanitarian nightmare, but we are responsible for this humanitarian nightmare.


A series of attacks in Sinai this week makes it clear that, whatever progress Egyptian authorities claim to have made there in recent months, it hasn’t been much. The number of attacks in Sinai is down this year compared to last year, but fatalities are up, which suggests a tactical shift by ISIS toward bigger operations rather than a reduction in their activities. And those are the official numbers–there’s reason to at least suspect that the Sisi government, which tightly controls the Egyptian press, is lying about them.


Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Al Thani, made his first trip abroad since the onset of the Qatar diplomatic crisis, visiting Turkey on Thursday and Germany on Friday. In a joint press availability with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Tamim reiterated his willingness to negotiate with the Saudis and the other three members of their quartet, while Merkel expressed concern that the crisis hasn’t yet been resolved.


Riyadh’s recent crackdown against dissident clerics, which has been condemned by Human Rights Watch among other international groups, is reportedly being managed by a new security agency. The “State Security Presidency” was formed in the wake of Mohammad bin Salman’s promotion to crown prince in June, when former Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammad bin Nayef was simultaneously stripped of his offices. Perhaps out of concern that MBN loyalists at the interior ministry could cause problems moving forward, King Salman gutted the ministry itself of almost all of its security operations/apparatus. It reports directly to the king, which means it reports directly to MBS, who will soon enough be de jure king as well as de facto king as he is now.

The main target of this new force is likely to remain Islamist preachers who cross the Saudis for some reason. MBS’s mentor, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, has blazed new ground suppressing Islamist clerics in the UAE and MBS is presumably taking cues from him. And while we all hear the word “Islamist” and immediately think “hey, fuck those guys,” there are two things to consider here. One is that this kind of suppression is exactly the sort of thing that moves people from “political Islamism” to the kind of Islamism that involves waving a black flag as you drive around the countryside in your Toyota pickup truck looking for schools to bomb. Second, it shouldn’t need saying, but probably does, that the same secret police jailing hostile clerics today can be turned on liberal democracy activists tomorrow.


The New York Times’ David Sanger has once again offered up his credibility (LOL) and that of his newspaper (also LOL) in service of the people who want to quash the Iran nuclear deal. Writing that Donald Trump “is stepping back from his threat to abandon” the agreement, Sanger says that Trump is likely to adopt a compromise position whereby he doesn’t tear up the deal and reimpose sanctions but rather simply decertifies Iranian compliance and leaves things as is:

But he is clearly walking a fine line. It is possible, White House officials say, that Mr. Trump will stop short of blowing up the accord but still insist on declaring to Congress next month that Iran is violating its terms. Such a move would not affect the future of the agreement itself, while a reimposition of congressional sanctions would have violated its terms.

Sounds all very reasonable, but this paragraph is based on a lie, one that deal opponents are telling to try to sell their preferred outcome as a middle path. If Trump doesn’t certify Iranian compliance next month (and even if he doesn’t we’ll just be having this same discussion all over again in January because he has to certify every 90 days), then Congress has the option to reimpose sanctions. It’s exceedingly likely that it will, which means the US will be quitting the nuclear deal. Even if it doesn’t, the threat of reimposing sanctions will thereafter loom over every decision any company needs to make about doing business in Iran, which will chill the benefits Iran is supposed to be getting from compliance. In its own way, that’s also a violation of the deal.

And yes, European countries would likely take a dim view of America in this event, but the fact of the matter is there’s very little the UK, France, and Germany can do to stop the US from reconstituting some of the strongest anti-Iran sanctions. Russia and China are likely different stories. Iran would likely take its complaints, which would be legitimate complaints, to the governing board established by the nuclear agreement, at which point the question would be whether any of those three American allies would be willing to risk that alliance by opposing Trump over Iran.

If you have any doubt that this “decertify but do nothing else” idea is a Trojan Horse, consider that Eli Lake has been peddling it. Clearly there’s an agenda to this effort, and I don’t think it has anything to do with moderation or preserving the deal. I’m just glad the NYT is pitching in to help the cause.

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