Middle East update: September 16-17 2017


You may have noticed the Syrian army paying considerably more attention to ISIS in recent weeks. That’s partly a function of the fact that the civil war in western Syria is all but over or at least frozen, with Bashar al-Assad clearly ascendant, so ISIS is the next logical target for Damascus. But it’s also partly a function of Russian interests. When the Russian’s got into the war it was with a lot of fanfare about how their decision was mostly about fighting ISIS, which quickly turned out to be bullshit. Moscow’s number one concern was preserving the Syrian government, both because Assad was/is a Russian ally and because they assessed that whatever would replace the current government would be worse for Russian interests (before you rip them too much for that, it seems pretty clear that the US reached the same conclusion a few years ago but decided to maintain nominal opposition to Assad and consequently kept supporting the rebels just enough to extend and therefore worsen the war). But now that Damascus is secure, the Russians are going after ISIS.

Well, ISIS and, apparently, the Syrian Democratic Forces. Somebody conducted an airstrike on an SDF position in Deir Ezzor province on Saturday morning, and while they’re denying it, it seems likely that the “somebody” was Russia. With both the Syrian army (and now its allied militias) and the SDF operating in eastern Deir Ezzor province I suppose they’re close enough for accidents to happen…except that they’re separated by the Euphrates River. Which, and admittedly I’m not a pilot, seems kind of hard to miss. And when you consider the distribution of Deir Ezzor’s oil wells:

I think it’s fair to wonder whether the Syrians and Russians really plan to limit themselves to the western bank of the Euphrates.

ISIS is still hanging on to about a third of Deir Ezzor city, but the Syrians took the al-Jafra suburb along the river on Sunday and now seem to have cut off ISIS’s main supply/evacuation route. Russian aircraft have been targeting boats fleeing the city via the river, which means they’re killing family members and civilians in addition to ISIS fighters.

In Idlib, a Turkish column has assembled on the border and appears ready to enter Syria as part of the de-escalation deal that the Turks reached with Russia and Iran at Astana on Friday. Under the deal, Turkish forces will deploy as monitors in the northern part of Idlib, Russian forces in the middle section, and Syrian/Iranian forces in the south. This seems like a recipe for conflict with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which has already said it won’t abide by the ceasefire agreement in Idlib, and maybe for conflict between the Syrians and the Turks, depending on how heavy-handed Ankara gets and how long its forces remain on Syrian soil.


At least one person was killed on Saturday by a car bomb in Kirkuk. This seems likely to have been an ISIS attack though it’s not entirely clear. Tensions in Kirkuk are high because the city and its surrounding province are participating in the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum on September 25, so a motive related to that issue can’t be ruled out. Several ISIS suicide bombers reportedly attacked a coalition base near Hawijah on Sunday, but there are no reports of casualties apart from the attackers.

On Saturday, Popular Mobilization Unit forces as well as Sunni tribal levies liberated the area around the small town of Akashat in western Anbar province. Akashat sits near the Syrian border and some of Iraq’s richest natural gas fields, and is on the road to the larger and more important town of al-Qaim, one of the Iraqis’ main targets in their western Anbar offensive.

Iraqi authorities have decided to relocate around 1400 wives and children of suspected ISIS fighters who were being held in the Hammam al-Alil displaced persons camp south of Mosul to a new location north of Mosul, but they apparently never informed aid organizations of the move. These (alleged) ISIS family members are in an extremely dangerous situation, because not only are they displaced but they’ve got targets painted on them due to their relationship to ISIS. According to Baghdad, half of these families are Turkish, so if you’re looking for an innocent explanation as to why they were moved, in secret, then I guess it’s possible the Iraqis are going to try to repatriate many of them back to Turkey.

The situation around the planned Kurdish independence referendum continues to spiral toward an ugly resolution. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi reportedly told Iraqi media on Saturday that the Kurds are “playing with fire,” and he told the Associated Press that if violence ensues after the vote then he’s prepared to intervene militarily. As I’ve already explained, I think the risk of something like that is high enough to be concerned, particularly around Kirkuk. Abadi is planning to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this week to discuss the referendum, which both countries oppose. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım on Saturday characterized the referendum as a national security issue for Turkey and said that Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani was “very wrong” for not postponing the vote.


On Saturday, 12 Yemeni civilians were killed by a Saudi airstrike north of Sanaa. In Aden, meanwhile, at least one civilian was killed amid a gun battle between President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s security forces and a nominally Hadi-aligned force established by the United Arab Emirates.


Hamas took a potentially major step toward Palestinian unity on Sunday when it agreed to dissolve its Gaza administrative committee and participate in new, Palestine-wide general elections. Hamas and Palestinian Authority representatives have been meeting with Egyptian officials in Cairo in an effort to end their internal feud. If this breakthrough actually goes somewhere, the next step would be for the governance of Gaza to be assumed by the reconciliation government that was formed the last time Hamas and the PA got this close to a deal, in 2014.

Hamas is obviously looking to rebalance itself now that its relationship with Qatar is being tested by the Gulf diplomatic situation, but its close ties with Iran are likely to complicate a reconciliation process. Another thing that’s likely to cause problems is that some polling suggests if the Palestinians were to hold elections right now, Hamas would win. Again. You may recall that Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative election is what led to the total break in Hamas-PA relations–and, not coincidentally, that’s the last time Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas deigned to hold an election. I think you can expect the PA to drag its collective feet on holding new elections, which presumably would not sit well with Hamas.


The Kuwaiti government is reducing its diplomatic ties with North Korea and has ordered the North Korean ambassador to vacate the country within a month.


In a move that I’m sure will be welcomed by all nations across the Arab world, Qatar announced Sunday that it’s buying 24 Typhoon fighters from Britain. That’s on top of a deal it struck with the US in June to buy $12 billion worth of F-15s.


King Salman is heading to Moscow in October for a visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Maybe. His potential visit has oddly been announced by the Russian government while nobody in Riyadh has confirmed it. Saudi media has reported that Moscow is preparing for the Saudi king’s visit but only inasmuch as the Kremlin expects it to be “scheduled soon.” Presumably this means Salman is going to Moscow at some point, even if it’s not early October. He and Putin will have a lot to talk about–by which I mean that Putin and Mohammad bin Salman will have a lot to talk about, while King Salman stares at a shiny ball or something. Russia very much wants to pivot out of its role as Bashar al-Assad’s big brother to one as an independent broker in the Middle East–kind of like the role China is able to play, where it has warm relations with all the major players in the region. The Russians are already on good terms with Turkey, Iran, and Egypt, but they’ve got some work to do where Riyadh is concerned.


With the Syrian civil war kind of meandering toward a stalemate, there’s some concern about the Afghan and Pakistani militias that Iran has been recruiting and sending to Syria to aid Assad. Analysts like the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Amir Toumaj are arguing that ISIS is targeting Shiʿa civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan in retaliation for the activities of these militias in Syria, which could be true at the margins but seems more like a way to uphold FDD’s primary mission, which is to find a way to blame Iran for any bad thing that happens anywhere. ISIS, as we’ve seen over and over again, targets Shiʿa as part of its core ideology–they don’t need an excuse or justification for it. There is, I will agree, some reason to be concerned about what happens when hundreds or thousands of veteran Shiʿa fighters with close ties to Tehran return home to those two already unstable countries, both of which are home to badly mistreated Shiʿa minorities and neither of which has particularly great relations with Iran. Many of these fighters could take the Iranian government up on its offer of legal residency in Iran, but undoubtedly many will go back to Afghanistan/Pakistan.

On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this week, foreign ministers from each of the nations that were involved in negotiating the Iranian nuclear deal are expected to meet to discuss issues related to the deal. This will put Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the same room with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as well as a bunch of other people who want Tillerson to convince Donald Trump not to scrap the agreement. Things got off to a great start on Sunday when Tillerson and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei traded accusations about each nation backtracking on their obligations under the accord.

Tillerson insists that Iran is in violation of a line in the agreement’s preamble–the one part of the deal that isn’t actually binding on anybody–that says the parties “anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” It’s fair to say that the state of regional and international peace and security continues to suck, but it seems fairly ridiculous to a) blame that all on Iran and b) thus accuse the Iranians of violating a part of the nuclear deal that clearly isn’t meant to be read as a binding commitment. Also, too, the deal is supposed to contribute to peace and security because, if nothing else, it removes any reason for war enthusiasts in DC to accuse Iran of developing nuclear weapons even as we speak. And in that sense, it has in fact worked.

Khamenei, for his part, is accusing Washington of trying to discourage companies from doing business in Iran so as to depress the economic benefits that Iran receives from the nuclear accord. Khamenei, unlike Tillerson, actually has a point.

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