Middle East update: September 22 2017


The Popular Mobilization Units have reportedly joined the operation to liberate Hawijah from ISIS. This isn’t surprising from an operational perspective–the Iraqis are fighting here, at nearby Shirqat, and in western Anbar simultaneously, so it’s all hands on deck–but it could spell trouble for next week’s Kurdish independence referendum. Hawijah is in Kirkuk province, which is the likeliest place for things to turn violent over this vote. The PMUs are a wild card, nominally under Baghdad’s authority but in many cases operating very independently and/or in line with Iranian interests, and they generally oppose the referendum and especially oppose Kirkuk’s participation in it. Their presence in Kirkuk province when the referendum takes place adds a potentially destabilizing element to an already unstable situation.

For what it’s worth, a disagreement between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government over the PMU role in Hawijah is one of the reasons it took longer than expected for this operation to come together. So the Kurds may be looking specifically for those units to cause problems next week, which only adds to the tension surrounding this whole situation.


Somebody, likely the Israelis, carried out an overnight airstrike near Damascus airport. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the target was a weapons depot belonging to Hezbollah.

Damascus reached an evacuation deal with the remaining ISIS fighters in central Syria on Thursday, and on Friday those fighters along with their families and other civilians were evacuated, either into territory controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib province or into camps set up by the government west of the former ISIS enclave. The idea of ISIS fighters choosing to be evacuated into territory controlled by HTS is interesting and maybe something to watch, but I’m reluctant to make too big a deal out of it on the basis of one incident especially when the alternatives they were offered seem to have been less appealing.

Statistically they’re only a small part of the death toll from Syria’s civil war, but the murder of opposition activist Orouba Barakat and her 22-year-old journalist daughter Halla in Istanbul should be acknowledged anyway. I don’t think you need to have a particularly vivid imagination to have an idea who wanted these two people dead (he’s on the verge of winning that war) and why. That much of the violence and deprivation of the war seem to be waning is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean the war is over or that Syria is on a brighter path.


How’s America’s war-by-proxy in Yemen going? Fantastic:

A bomb that destroyed a residential building in Yemen’s capital last month, killing 16 civilians and injuring 17 more – including a five-year-old girl called Buthaina whose photograph went viral after the strike – was made in the US, Amnesty International has said.

The assessment was based on an examination of the remnants of the weapon used in the 25 August airstrike.

The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition admitted carrying out the attack, blaming civilian casualties on a “technical error”.

Luckily we have plenty more bombs where that one came from, so we shouldn’t have any problem continuing to help the Saudis blow up more apartment buildings.


Say, stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

Violence erupted at a New York hotel after protesters heckled a speech by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with chants of “terrorist”.

Mr Erdogan was addressing supporters in Turkish at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square when he was interrupted by several demonstrators.

“You’re a terrorist, get out of my country,” one protester shouted before he was punched and dragged away.

Mr Erdogan is in New York for the UN General Assembly.

In footage from the speech on Thursday, protesters are seen being pushed and punched in the head as they are ejected from the venue by suited men.

It is not clear at this stage if they were pro-Erdogan attendees, presidential bodyguards, or guards providing security at the hotel.

It may not be clear from the footage, but considering this is now the third time Erdoğan has come to the US and some large, suited men have beaten the shit out of a bunch of protesters in his vicinity, I think we can make some educated guesses about who they were. The only question I have is, how many more times is this scene going to repeat itself?


Al-Monitor conducted an interview with Lebanese President Michel Aoun in New York earlier this week that I think includes a few interesting nuggets. In particular I think Aoun’s comments on Hezbollah are worth reading:

Hezbollah, you know, is a Lebanese organization that was founded to liberate our territory from the Israeli occupation. It was created for that in 1985, and then later, in 2000, Israel withdrew from Lebanon and we believed that the action of Hezbollah was finished.

And I met with them [in early 2006 as head of the Free Patriotic Movement] and signed a memorandum of understanding about how to [disarm] Hezbollah and to maintain a dialogue for that, but in [the summer of] 2006, Israel attacked once more. And it’s complicated, this situation. You cannot say to Hezbollah, “We have to dismantle your organization,” since Israel is provoking Lebanon and it is attacking. Last week, they attacked twice. The first attack, it was not on Lebanon, but it was from the airspace of Lebanon to Syria. And after that, they simulated an air attack on Sidon, and they broke windows of houses. They broke the sound barrier and [the sonic boom caused damage]. This was at a low altitude, just over the buildings.

Actually Hezbollah has become a component of the regional crisis. If we have to solve the problem of Hezbollah, it would be within a general solution to the Middle East crisis, especially in Syria.


This week’s UN General Assembly session was a coming-out party of sorts for Jordanian Crown Prince Hussein, the 23 year old Georgetown graduate who delivered Jordan’s address to the body. Which is nice for him, but Hussein’s bigger concern should be with how he’s received at home rather than abroad. Jordanians are angry about austerity and unemployment, and while their anger remains focused on the civilian government there’s no accounting for if or when it might turn on the Hashemite monarchy.


Saudi and Emirati media continue to elevate Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al Thani, who descends from a branch of the Thanis that used to hold the Qatari throne but was ousted from power in a coup in 1972, and now they’re also signal boosting one of his nephews, Sheikh Sultan bin Suhaim Al Thani. It’s a complete mystery why they would be so interested in covering two fairly obscure Qatari royals with weak but clear claims to the Qatari throne, but then we do live in strange times. Neither one appears to have any semblance of a base of support within Qatar.


Saudi authorities have suspended a preacher named Saad al-Hijri on account of…well, his thoughts on women drivers:

In a video identifying him as the head of the religious edicts department in the southern province, Hijri asked what the traffic department would do it if it discovered a man with only half a brain.

“Would it give him a license or not? It would not. So how can it give it to a woman when she has only half?” he said.

“If she goes to the market she loses another half. What is left? A quarter…We demand the traffic department check because she is not suitable to drive and she has only a quarter.”

HA HA BROADS, AM I RIGHT? This is presumably part of Mohammad bin Salman’s efforts to throw a veneer of class over the Wahhabi establishment without actually, you know, changing anything substantively. I mean, suspend the nutters all you want, but call me when women are allowed to drive, you know?


Reporter Laura Rozen has what I think is probably the best summation of where Donald Trump is on the nuclear deal at this point. The administration would like Congress to amend or scrap and redo the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) to remove the 90 day certification requirement, arguing that the frequent certification requirement was created with the Obama administration in mind. This leads one to the conclusion that Trump plans to decertify and then would like everybody to get off his back about it. They’re not operating under the assumption that Congress would definitely reimpose sanctions though, which suggests they’re interested in using decertification as a threat to leverage the rest of the parties back to the table to renegotiate its terms. Everybody else has been pretty adamant that they’re not interested in reopening the nuclear deal for new talks–on the other hand, even the Iranians seem amenable to negotiating with the US on other issues and on supplementing the JCPOA (e.g., extending its expiration dates).

At LobeLog, Columbia University’s Gary Sick looks at the challenges facing Trump if he intends to revisit the Iran nuclear deal as part of some larger negotiation over Iranian behavior in the Middle East:

The negotiators of the JCPOA deliberately avoided trying to stretch the agreement to cover geo-strategic concerns beyond the nuclear issue. There has been talk of a possible “grand bargain” with Iran since at least the days of the George W. Bush administration, but no U.S. president was prepared to undertake the daunting task of trying to pull all of these threads together in a single negotiating package. This would appear to be a challenge truly worthy of the man who was elected because his followers believed that he would bring business acumen and exceptional deal-making skills to the most powerful office in the world.

With no certainty about exactly what the president intends to do next, let’s hypothesize that he is interested in a grand bargain of some sort. That is at least consistent with his expressed concerns about Iran. The posturing about possibly leaving the JCPOA could be interpreted as a warning signal to everyone that he was serious about this and they had better pay attention. Since all the signatory countries want nothing to do with a revision, they had to be sufficiently startled to justify taking a second look. And there have been hints from some European countries that they might be willing to consider the idea. So the first move may have been successful.

But from that point on, it gets harder. Federica Mogherini, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, who chaired the recent meeting of the JCPOA signatory states in New York, delivered a very clear message that the JCPOA is operating exactly as intended and should not be dismantled. The range of other issues related to Iran, she said, can be taken up in other ways and other places.

The Iranians right now don’t seem inclined to respond to Trump’s bluster with anything other than their own bluster. They even debuted a new ballistic missile at a parade marking the anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq War on Friday. And so we’re left with the possibility that Trump, while he may be bluffing about abandoning the deal, might bluff himself into a place where he has no choice but to abandon the deal. Jeffrey Lewis explains why that would be a lousy idea, using the example of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea. The Bush administration shredded the Agreed Framework, and now we may be circling an actual nuclear exchange with Pyongyang. That’s not to say Iran would pursue nuclear weapons if the JCPOA were broken, but why even take the risk?

Finally, Al-Monitor’s Zahra Alipour reports on efforts by Sunnis in Tehran to get the Iranian and Tehran governments to build a Sunni mosque in that city. Officially there are nine Sunni mosques in Tehran, but these are apparently nothing more than prayer rooms and rented houses, no purpose-built houses of worship, and Iranian authorities have interfered with religious activity at those sites in the past.

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