Middle East update: September 23-25 2017


Iraqi forces liberated Shirqat on Friday, which means Hawijah should be the next big ISIS stronghold to fall. Some accounts of Iraqi plans for the last phase of this conflict have treated Shirqat as a separate objective apart from Hawijah and western Anbar, but in truth Shirqat is close enough to Hawijah to consider them part of the same offensive. The Iraqis will eventually continue, after pausing to clear Ana and its environs of ISIS-laid explosives, to push west toward al-Qaim and the Syrian border. ISIS organized al-Qaim into a border-straddling province along with the Syrian town of al-Bukamal, which is likewise about to be pressured by either the Syrian army or the Syrian Democratic Forces, assuming those two combatants don’t start fighting with one another first.

The more immediate story in Iraq is of course the Kurdistan independence referendum that took place on Monday. Depending on when I post this the results may not have started coming in yet (turnout, at least, seems high), but I think it’s pretty safe to say that “yes” will win pretty handily. The overall vote is less significant right now than the vote in flashpoint areas–especially Kirkuk province, which will probably also go “yes” but where the margin and turnout are both up in the air. Kirkuk’s Arab and Turkmen voters are expected to boycott, which will give “yes” in the province a higher margin with lower turnout, and will call the validity of the result into question. Rudaw has published a photo of the ballot if you’re interested–the four languages on the ballot are Sorani (?) Kurdish (I assume it’s Sorani since that’s an official language in the KRG, but I know next to nothing about Kurdish languages so I could be wrong), Arabic, Turkish, and Syriac:


Just about everybody, even long-time Iraqi Kurdish allies like Turkey and the US, has been warning against holding this referendum, at least for the time being. The Kurds believe that a lot of international opposition will eventually fade after the vote, once the negotiating process has begun with Baghdad. They may be right when it comes to, say, Europe and the US. But regional opposition is going to be harder to work out. The Turkish parliament on Saturday made plans for a fight by extending deployments for Turkish forces in Syria and Iraq by a year. Iran over the weekend halted all flights into Iraqi Kurdistan and started conducting war games near the border. Legislators in Baghdad want to send soldiers into territories (like Kirkuk) that are not legally part of Iraqi Kurdistan but are participating in the referendum.

Each of these players can hurt the Kurdistan Regional Government. Turkey can blockade its oil sales and intervene militarily. Iran could intervene militarily or use its Iraqi proxy militias to help stoke violence in one of those disputed areas, like Kirkuk, which could very easily escalate from there. Baghdad can, and already has in fact, withhold the Kurds’ share of national revenues (this perversely strengthens the KRG’s argument for separation), close airspace for flights to and from Kurdistan, and also engage militarily. But the Kurds seem convinced that this opposition will fade as well. They think the economic benefits will convince Ankara to keep the oil flowing and that Iran will cave rather than allow Iraqi Kurdistan to edge too far into Turkey’s orbit. I don’t know that they’ve properly assessed just how opposed those two nations are to an independent Kurdistan on their borders. and I really don’t know that they’ve properly assessed just how committed all three nations are to making sure Kirkuk remains part of Iraq.


The Syrian civil war is circling an outcome that looks a lot like Syria before the civil war, only worse in countless small ways:

Under the scenario that is emerging, Assad remains in power indefinitely, there is no meaningful political settlement either to remove or redeem him, and the war grinds on.

It is a bleak outlook, foreshadowing an unstable Syria mired in at least low-level conflict for years to come, its towns and cities in ruins, its people impoverished and its economy starved of the funding it needs to rebuild the country.

The fighting certainly isn’t over yet. There’s still the inevitable battle for Idlib, where the Syrians and Russians have responded to the recent rebel attack in Hama province by restarting a widespread air campaign targeting almost the entire province without regard for the Idlib de-escalation agreement the Russians negotiated at Astana.

There’s also the fighting against ISIS in Deir Ezzor. The SDF captured a major gas field in eastern Deir Ezzor province on Saturday, and was then bombed by Russian aircraft near that field on Monday. The SDF reportedly put together a civilian council to run Deir Ezzor province, but seeing as how a big part of the province–including its main city–is under Damascus’s control, they’re only going to be running a portion of it. Further east, along the Iraqi border, Iran is using drones to strike ISIS positions. And in and around the city of Deir Ezzor, Russian airstrikes are being blamed for a sharp rise in the frequency of civilian casualties since September 10.

And while Deir Ezzor is getting more attention lately, there’s also an ongoing SDF/coalition operation to defeat ISIS in Raqqa. That operation seems to be nearing its end, but at a heavy cost: more than 1000 people killed, 190,000 displaced, and an estimated 75 percent of the city destroyed. Much of this has been caused by the US-led anti-ISIS coalition’s air campaign. The biggest change the war has wrought in Syria, apart from the death and destruction, could well be the advent of a Kurdish-dominated north. That Kurdish north could include Raqqa, depending on whether the city’s displaced are able to–or even want to–return home.


Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi told reporters in New York on Sunday that “the military solution” is “more likely” for Yemen’s civil war, and I think it’s safe to say that as long as Hadi remains in the picture that’s true. He said that Yemeni rebels could be welcomed into a national reconciliation process if they disarm first, but the rebels have refused to disarm in the absence of a national reconciliation government–i.e., one without Hadi. Not a lot of room to compromise there.

On Saturday, Saudi officials said they intercepted a ballistic missile fired from Yemen toward their Khamis Mushait airbase, which has been their main hub for air operations in Yemen.

On Monday, the rebels reportedly detained a US national living in Sanaa for reasons that are as yet unclear.


Tehran is reportedly trying to get the band back together:

Iran is working to restore a lost link in its network of alliances in the Middle East, trying to bring Hamas fully back into the fold after the Palestinian militant group had a bitter fall-out with Iranian ally Syria over that country’s civil war.

Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah are quietly trying to mediate a reconciliation between Syria and Hamas. If they succeed, it would shore up a weak spot in the alliance at a time when Iran has strengthened ties with Syria and Iraq, building a bloc of support across the region to counter Israel and the United States’ Arab allies.

Hamas famously broke with Syria, with which it had long-standing close ties, when it sided with the Muslim Brotherhood-inflected Syrian opposition toward the start of the civil war. That decision almost cost Hamas its relationship with Iran, too, but they were able to keep it together and are growing closer now because Syria is no longer an issue and because of the Persian Gulf diplomatic situation. The fact that Khaled Mashal, who made the decision to support the rebels, is no longer in charge of Hamas could make this rapprochement easier.


Speaking of the Qatar diplomatic crisis, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani told reporters in Paris on Monday that the Saudi-led blockade was “pushing Qatar to Iran” but at the same time said that Qatar’s position with respect to Syria (i.e., support for the rebels) had not changed. He stressed that Donald Trump wants the intra-GCC dispute to be solved diplomatically, which I suppose could be true, to the extent Trump has thought that far ahead, but true or not is meant to put pressure on Riyadh.

Also meant to put pressure on Riyadh, the Qataris staged a “spontaneous” rally to welcome Emir Tamim back from the UN General Assembly and a trek through Europe on Sunday, obviously to show the Saudis that there’s no appetite within Qatar for a change in leadership.


Assuming Trump scraps the Iran nuclear deal next month and Congress reimposes sanctions against Iran, analysts are projecting a $10/barrel spike in oil prices. That would be fantastic news for, oh, hey, the Saudis, what luck, and other oil producers like Iraq, Russia, and even Venezuela until the Trump administration slaps them with an oil embargo. The variable here, as it always is anymore when talking about global oil prices, is whether the higher price would be enough to bring significantly more American fracking operations back online. If it did, then the price would presumably come back down, though not all the way back down to where it is now.

European countries have adopted a new tactic to try, almost certainly in vain, to keep Trump from walking away from the deal–convincing him that he’s “already changed the conversation” around Iran. Essentially they’re telling him “hey, Donald, it’s cool, we all hate Iran again, just like you guys, no need to scrap the agreement.” It’s a variation on their argument that further action against Iran should build on rather than destroy the accord, but dumbed down quite a bit.

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