Middle East update: September 19-20 2017


UPDATE: Some time after I posted this Reuters began reporting that the Iraqis have begun their offensive to liberate Hawijah from ISIS. Disputes with the Kurds, exacerbated by their upcoming independence referendum, were thought to be delaying that offensive indefinitely, but I guess everybody was able to get on the same page enough to get things moving.

Five people were killed Tuesday by an improvised explosive device in the town of Tarmiyah, north of Baghdad. Also on Tuesday, three people were killed in the town of Hajaj, just north of Tikrit, when two suicide bombers attacked a restaurant known to be frequented by fighters in the Popular Mobilization Units. These were likely ISIS operatives but there’s no confirmation of that.

Iraqi forces have begun an operation intended to liberate the town of Anah from ISIS. Anah is the first of three towns in the Euphrates valley/western Anbar near the Syrian border that the Iraqis will be going after over the next several days/weeks. The most important, and the closest to the border, is al-Qaim, which the Iraqis will target last. Dozens of militants have been reported killed already in airstrikes on those two towns and the third, Rayhana. The actual liberation of these towns is probably not going to be as difficult as the task of trying to corral and kill/capture as many ISIS fighters as possible, because the relatively open ground in western Anbar is going to be hard for the Iraqis to cordon off even with substantial coalition air support. This is important because ISIS’s survivability as a terrorist threat in Iraq is directly related to the magnitude of the defeat it suffers in this final phase of the military operation.

You can’t see the three towns on the map below, but if you follow the Euphrates River in from Syria you can see where it flows through ISIS-controlled territory (gray)–that’s where this next phase of the war will be focused:

This map is old (September 3) but not much has changed in the past couple of weeks (Wikimedia | Absalao777)

There is a possibility that, if he’s still alive, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is in western Anbar somewhere, but that’s obviously speculative and, again, the openness of this area means he could have a relatively easy time slipping away. Still, it makes more sense for him to hole up in the Euphrates valley somewhere, maybe staying mobile and coming and going across the border, than for him to have trapped himself in a place like Hawijah that can be more easily surrounded. If he’s still alive.

Tensions over Kirkuk continue to rise ahead of next week’s planned Kurdish independence vote. Kurdish police had to be deployed throughout the city on Monday after a Kurd who had been celebrating the referendum was killed by a Turkmen security guard under circumstances that aren’t entirely clear. Even more than the fact that this is a Kurdish referendum, the thing that will draw Turkey into Iraq militarily is any hint of a confrontation between Iraq’s Kurdish and Turkmen communities. Additionally, Iran-backed militias in the Popular Mobilization Units are talking about “removing” the Kurdish peshmerga from Kirkuk, which is the scenario that would turn this independence referendum into a full-blown civil war more easily than any other.

Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court ordered the referendum vote suspended on Monday pending a review of its constitutionality. That’s unlikely to have much effect on Kurdish plans.

Just about everybody in the international community has come out against this referendum, which isn’t itself evidence for or against its merits, but on the other hand the Kurds probably won’t want to make the case for the referendum’s merits by focusing on its two most prominent international supporters. There’s Israel, which as a matter of policy has longstanding relations with the Kurds but is also run by a government that would be thrilled to see another long, protracted war right on Iran’s doorstep. And then there’s Russia, which hasn’t openly come out in support of the referendum but hasn’t come out against it either–a stance so conspicuous at this point that it amounts to support–and which, say, just happens to be investing billions of dollars in the Kurdistan energy sector. Go figure.


Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, FKA Jabhat al-Nusra, launched what appears to have been a major offensive on Tuesday against Syrian government positions north of the city of Hama. I say “appears to have been” because reports as to its size and effect are wildly different depending on which media narrative you’re following. Syrian state media says, unsurprisingly, that the offensive was relatively minor and that Bashar al-Assad’s forces quickly beat them back, but the rebels claim to have done significant damage to the army and its allies. Both of these versions could be true–the Syrians could have fended off the attack but with heavy losses–particularly if HTS wasn’t actually trying to capture territory.

Similarly, views differ wildly on the Syrian response to this attack, which involved heavy airstrikes in Idlib province. The Syrians say they were attacking rebel supply lines and support infrastructure, the rebels and rebel-aligned observers say they bombed hospitals. Idlib is of course supposed to be a de-escalation zone, but HTS has already rejected the Russia-Turkey-Iran agreement that established those zones and has promised to continue fighting, while the Syrian government has of course reserved the right to attack HTS since it lies outside the ceasefire framework.

There’s also a minor disagreement in Raqqa, where the Syrian Democratic Forces say they’ve captured 80 percent of the city while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says they’ve taken…90 percent. Things are wrapping up either way, I guess. One reason for the SDF’s success has undoubtedly been that the city is being absolutely pounded by coalition aircraft–Airwars has found that the coalition dropped 5775 bombs on the city in August, over eleven times the amount of ordinance that the US dropped over all of Afghanistan in that same month. Their investigation found that all those bombs killed at least 433 civilians for the month, a figure that the Pentagon will undoubtedly dispute, arguing that its bombs only kill Bad Guys while simultaneously presenting civilians in their blast radius with cake and ice cream.

To the south, US-backed rebels have pulled out of a small base at Zakf and are regrouping at the larger rebel base at Tanf. This pullout seems to have been part of a US-Russia deconfliction deal but the Pentagon isn’t confirming that, and anyway its usefulness as a forward operating base has probably ended now that the Syria-ISIS frontline has moved further east. The rebels at Tanf are just sort of parked in place now–the US says they’ll take part in the SDF’s eventual operation along the Syria-Iraq border, but getting these forces to link up with the SDF would require them crossing a pretty big chunk of government-controlled territory so that seems unlikely to say the least. The US seems to actually want these rebels to withdraw into Jordan, at least for the time being, but they’ve apparently refused to do that.

Finally, I recommend checking out this piece by reporter Anchal Vohra. It’s anecdotal, but her interviews with Syrians in Aleppo and outside Damascus find people hoping for the war to end, sort of resigned to Assad remaining in office if that’s what it takes, opposed to the extremists they see as having coopted the rebellion, and above all unwilling to say anything that could be construed as criticism of the government.


Four Yemeni children were killed by rebel shelling in Taiz on Tuesday.


The Trump administration has denied a claim by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Donald Trump apologized to him over the June incident in which DC police arrested some of Erdoğan’s bodyguards merely because they happened to be beating and kicking protesters. There’s really no way to know who to believe here and no reason to believe either side, so feel free to make up your own minds here or just never think about it again.


With Israel inexorably sliding toward another destructive but inconclusive war with Hezbollah, Middle East Eye’s Mona Alami reported Wednesday that an anonymous Hezbollah commander says the group has positioned 10,000 fighters on Syria’s Golan border with Israel. That would be a major red-line for the Israelis, if it’s true. But I’m generally skeptical of reporting about Hezbollah that relies on supposed anonymous sources within the group, so I would take this with a grain of salt or two. I’m not saying it’s inaccurate, but you would think if Hezbollah were positioning that large a force in southern Syria we’d have better information about it than comments from an “anonymous Hezbollah commander.” That said, the Israelis did shoot down what they say was a “Hezbollah drone” on Tuesday. But that story is a little iffy too. Initially the Israelis said the aircraft penetrated Israeli airspace, but later they said they shot it down over Syria.


Hamas is asking the Palestinian Authority to lift sanctions against Gaza now that they’ve gotten rid of the administrative committee that had been governing the territory. The PA has stopped paying civil service salaries in Gaza and has cut off most of its electricity in an effort to weaken Hamas. Analysts are skeptical, to say the least, that Hamas’s weekend overtures are the first step in Palestinian reconciliation, since there’s no reason to expect that Hamas and Fatah will be able to resolve their key differences–Fatah wants Hamas to completely give up control over Gaza, which it won’t do without Palestine-wide elections, which Fatah won’t hold because Hamas would probably win. There’s also the teeny problem that Israel doesn’t want Palestinian unification, and they have plenty of levers they can pull to keep it from happening.

Also too, there’s a major complication at the moment in that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are busy trying to negotiate an accord between Hamas and ex-Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan, as part of an overall plan to sever the Hamas-Qatar relationship. Dahlan is loathed by Fatah’s leadership, so the more Hamas makes nice with him, the harder a reconciliation with Fatah would seem to get.

The Israelis, meanwhile, are busy forcibly relocating Arabs from the West Bank villages of Khan al-Ahmar and Susya. Forced relocation is a crime against humanity under international law, but let’s talk more about how unfairly Israel is being treated by the United Nations or whatever.


Good news! Bahrain’s National Institute for Human Rights says that human rights in Bahrain are super good, and everybody has them, and there’s nothing at all to see here, hooray Bahrain!


Thank goodness the NIHR exists because, boy, just about every other international human rights organization thinks that Bahrain’s human rights record sucks:

It also comes as the Bahraini government has been accused of intensifying a year-long crackdown on the country’s Shia Muslim minority that has seen opposition figures and journalists jailed.

Rights groups say torture is “endemic” in Bahrain, especially in the kingdom’s death row and security prisons, and in testimonies gathered by London-based rights group Reprieve family members of death-row inmates describe prison guards at the notorious Jau prison “stomping” on inmates and using sleep deprivation tactics.

“They cannot even sleep,” she said the wife of one death-row inmate. “The guards come at them in the middle of the night.”

The evidence, gathered earlier this year, follows a recent report from Amnesty International which said that, in the year to June 2017, at least 169 critics of the Bahrain government or their relatives were arrested, tortured, threatened or banned by from travel by the security forces.

But look, I mean, the NIHR is actually a Bahraini agency, and who better to investigate claims of torture than the alleged torturer, am I right? And it was formed with money generously donated by the United Kingdom, whose government has never lied nor behaved disreputably in foreign affairs. So I think we can definitely take their word for it.


Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Al Thani can offer “unconditional dialogue” with the quartet of nations blockading his country all he wants–he did it again at the UNGA on Tuesday–but he doesn’t seem to have any takers on the other side. The International Institute for Strategic Studies said in its annual report, released on Wednesday, that Qatar’s exit from the Gulf Cooperation Council–which it termed “Qexit” because the world in which we live is virtually indistinguishable from hell–must be considered a serious possibility at this point. The IISS report argues that the situation could change if the Saudis decide keeping the GCC intact is important to them, but also suggests the damage to the GCC may already be irreparable. If Qatar goes, Oman may not be far behind, and Kuwait–the third of the three GCC members who try to maintain some semblance of independence from Riyadh–will be in a difficult spot.


The al-Imam Mohammed Ibn Saud Islamic University, one of Saudi Arabia’s largest post-secondary schools, says that it will start sacking any employees found to have ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. While this is unsurprising given the current state of political repression inside the kingdom, it is historically worth noting. Back in the old days, when the things that united the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood (religious fundamentalism, hatred of Gamal Abdel Nasser) were greater than the things that divided them (political activism, views on monarchy), the Saudis not only poured a lot of money into supporting Brotherhood causes, they also took in large numbers of Brotherhood members who were no longer welcome in Egypt. During the 1950s and 1960s, Brotherhood members were instrumental in helping the Saudis craft the bureaucratic framework of a modern state, and particularly in staffing its educational system. We’ve obviously come a long way since those days, but this decision by a large Saudi university to purge Brotherhood-affiliated staffers is a milestone of sorts.


Of Donald Trump’s two big targets in his Big Boy UN address yesterday, one was definitely Iran:

“We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities while building dangerous missiles, and we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program,” Trump said.

Calling the Iran nuclear deal forged by his predecessor Barack Obama and five other world powers “an embarrassment to the United States,” Trump vowed, “I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it — believe me.” This was evidently a reference to his decision next month on whether to certify to Congress that Iran remains in compliance with the deal.

Hassan Rouhani may think that Trump isn’t going to walk away from the nuclear deal, but I tend to agree with Mitchell Plitnick in that it’s hard to see how Trump can use the rhetoric he used yesterday about the deal, and about Iran, then turn around in a couple of weeks and keep the deal in place. He’ll put the deal in Congress’s lap and let them decide whether or not to reimpose sanctions. There have been a few comments from prominent foreign policy Republican in Congress over the past week or so that have made me think it’s not a slam dunk that they’ll reimpose sanctions if Trump gives them the chance, but it’s still more likely than not. If they do, Iran will likely appeal, or continue to appeal, to Europe not to follow America’s lead. France and Germany might be inclined to listen–I suspect the UK will do whatever the US does.

Trump’s administration has latched on to the deal’s “sunset” clauses as its excuse for backing out, but I think this is bullshit. For one thing, as I’ve written before, the way to encourage Iran to negotiate an extension to those sunset clauses is to make sure they benefit from the deal as it is now to build up good faith, not to obstruct the deal and show the Iranians that America negotiates these agreements in bad faith. There is demonstrably no appetite among the seven parties to the accord to reopen the deal for more negotiations. For another thing, this is now their second go at coming up with a justification–initially they tried to argue that Iran wasn’t complying with the terms of the agreement, but they’ve dropped that because nobody believed them. And for a third thing, I’m convinced that if somebody came through with a magic wand and removed those sunset clauses, the Trump administration would just find another reason to break the deal. The only thing Donald Trump knows about the Iran nuclear deal is that Barack Obama negotiated it, and so he needs to do away with it as he needs to do away with the rest of Obama’s administration.

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