Middle East update: September 26 2017

A relatively quick one tonight, it’s been a long day.


The main story today is of course the Kurdish independence referendum, in which “yes” unsurprisingly won going away. Final results will be released Wednesday but the preliminary estimates suggest that “yes” may have pulled in 90 percent or more of the vote. As I’ve tried to emphasize, though, the overall tally matters less than the results in specific regions whose control the Kurdistan Regional Government disputes with Baghdad. Kirkuk is the most prominent of these. In those places, turnout will matter just as much as the other results in terms of legitimacy. And the Kurds will need to answer charges that they’ve deliberately blocked non-Kurds from returning home to places like Sinjar and Kirkuk in order to engineer these election results.

What happens now? Patrick Wing does an excellent job of laying out all the angles:

Kurdish officials have said they want to begin negotiations with Baghdad about seceding. There are several problems with that. First, there is no unity within the Kurdish parties on how to proceed. Second, the Kurdish authorities have angered the Arab parties so much they are uninterested in any talks, and are seeking retaliation instead. Third, the referendum didn’t have the backing of the international community to legitimize it because of the ad hoc way it was put together. Finally, the Kurds will have to gain the backing of the regional countries to become independent as well. All together that puts a daunting set of barriers for the KRG to move forward on its dreams.

While there was, mostly, broad intra-Kurdish unanimity on holding the referendum, there is less harmony about what to do now that it’s been held. KRG President Massoud Barzani wants to start talks with Baghdad about a quick secession, though I maintain he’ll settle for increased autonomy, control over all non-Kurdish areas that voted in favor of the referendum, and a (probably vague) path toward eventual independence. Smaller Kurdish parties aren’t necessarily on board with a rapid move to separate though, and even if he’s bluffing a bit Barzani could move too fast for them if he’s not careful.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has indeed already said it won’t negotiate with Barzani. Instead, it’s given the KRG until Friday to turn over control of all airports inside Iraqi Kurdistan or have its airspace blockaded. If the Iraqis won’t talk, then Barzani will pretty much have no choice but to declare independence unilaterally–I mean, he could back down completely, but that seems unlikely to put it mildly. Which might work out if the Kurds had any major international patron willing to go to the mat to help them out, but so far none has materialized. This referendum certainly hasn’t improved their standing in Washington, in case you were wondering.

The Kurds don’t even have any regional support apart from, uh, Israel, and that’s not particularly helpful either from a material or public relations perspective. Turkey, as you well know by now, is opposed. Iran is likewise opposed, even though–or, more accurately, entirely because–Iranian Kurds are apparently thrilled. And this really matters both in the short-term and the long-term, because should the Kurds somehow–hypothetically–actually achieve independence, that independent Kurdistan is going to be in a hell of a lot of trouble if it can’t convince either Turkey or Iran to trade with it.


In still more Kurdish news, the Syrian government is nodding in the direction of Kurdish autonomy once the civil war is over:

The Syrian government is open to negotiations with Kurds over their demand for autonomy within Syria’s borders, the foreign minister has said, striking a conciliatory tone as military tensions worsen between the sides in eastern Syria.

Walid al-Moualem said the government could discuss the Kurdish demand once Islamic State is defeated, state news agency SANA reported, citing an interview with Russia Today.

“This topic is open to negotiation and discussion and when we are done eliminating Daesh (Islamic State), we can sit with our Kurdish sons and reach an understanding on a formula for the future,” Moualem said.

Whether this is a serious offer or is just meant to blunt the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces’ offensive in Deir Ezzor province (where tensions on the ground between the SDF and the Syrian army continue to escalate) is anybody’s guess, but the fact of the matter is that Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to be in a position to pick a fight with Syrian Kurds in the aftermath of a war that’s so drastically overextended his military. And I’m not sure Russia will be interested in shoveling more money into Syria over a new war between Damascus and the PYD. Syrian Kurds have denied that they have any plans to hold their own independence referendum, and Assad may be able to live with that–at least for now.


Here’s Saudi Arabia, welcoming an impartial United Nations inquiry into the conduct of its war in Yemen:

Asked if the Saudis would retaliate economically against those countries pushing a commission of inquiry, the Saudi ambassador offered a nuanced response.

“We don’t link these issues with commercial considerations,” Mr. Mouallimi said, “but I think all the countries recognize we have presented a reasonable proposal and that trying to take alternative action would not be considered a friendly gesture.”

The Saudis would prefer the UN assist Yemen’s human rights commission in conducting an investigation, which would be like putting Renfield in charge of investigating whether or not Dracula likes to drink blood in his spare time. But the Saudis have allegedly already sent threatograms to at least two countries on the UN human rights council warning that they’ll cut economic ties with those countries if they support the UN investigation. So that’s nice.


A Palestinian man on Tuesday shot and killed one Israeli police officer and two Israeli security guards at the West Bank settlement where the shooter apparently had a job cleaning homes. The incident may cause the Israelis to rethink their illegal and provocative West Bank settlement program altogether system whereby vetted Palestinian workers are allowed on to settlements without first having to pass through crowded West Bank security checkpoints.


Qatar Airways is buying six new aircraft from Boeing at a cost of over $2 billion. Just another sign that Saudi Arabia has really brought the Qatari economy to its knees (?).

Donald Trump is leaning on Afghan President Asraf Ghani to close down the Taliban’s diplomatic office in Qatar. You know, the one that proves the Qataris support terrorism and that both the Saudis and the Emiratis desperately campaigned to host before it went to Qatar. Ghani seems to agree that the office should be closed–and, while I think shutting the office down is a bad idea, it’s also not as though its existence has done much good in terms of enabling negotiations–so the final decision will be up to the Qataris. I would imagine they’ll be happy to close it down if for no other reason than to appease Trump.

Meanwhile, far removed from Persian Gulf power games, here’s what’s happening to the manual laborers working to prepare the country for the 2022 World Cup:

Many thousands of migrant workers on construction sites in Qatar, including those building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, are being subjected to potentially life-threatening heat and humidity, according to new research on the extreme summer conditions in the Gulf. Hundreds of workers are dying every year, the campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said in a strong statement, but they claim that the Qatar authorities have refused to make necessary information public or adequately investigate the deaths, which could be caused by labouring in the region’s fierce climate.

HRW argues that millions of workers are in jeopardy, including those in the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – because statutory work breaks imposed during summer midday hours do not protect them sufficiently. An analysis of the weather in Doha last summer has also shown that workers on World Cup construction projects were in danger, despite the more advanced system used by the tournament organiser, Humidex, which measures safety levels of heat and humidity.

These workers are supposed to be given a mandatory break between 11:30 AM and 3 PM every day from mid-June through the end of August. As somebody who lived through a couple of Qatari summers and was fortunate to spend most of that time in air-conditioned buildings, I can tell you that’s not good enough. There are many days during the summer months in the Gulf when it would be unsafe to do heavy manual labor even in the dead of night, and on top of that only requiring those breaks through the end of August is totally inadequate–September weather is plenty unbearable as well. And Qatar’s climate has only gotten more extreme since the days I was living there.


Today’s other big news involves a surprising milestone for Saudi women:

Women in Saudi Arabia have been granted the right to drive, overturning a cornerstone of Saudi conservatism that had been a cause célèbre for activists demanding reforms in the fundamentalist kingdom.

King Salman ordered the reform in a royal decree delivered on Tuesday night, requesting that drivers’ licences be issued to women who wanted them.

Following the decree, women will no longer need permission from a legal guardian to get a licence and will not need a guardian in the car when they drive, said the new Saudi ambassador to Washington DC, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

For once in talking about the Saudis I’m not going to say anything snarky or critical. Yes, Saudi Arabia is the only country left in the world where women can’t drive. Yes, the change isn’t going to come into effect until next June because it has to be studied for some impossible-to-fathom reason. And yes, Saudi women are still going to be tightly controlled by the kingdom’s backwards guardianship rules and other restrictions. But this is a big deal and unquestionably a good thing.


Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that “Iran is adhering to its JCPOA obligations.” He went on to describe the damage that could be done by pulling out of the Iran nuclear accord absent a material Iranian breach:

And Dunford warned that U.S. action to pull out of the deal would have unfortunate ripple effects. He said that if the U.S. were to withdrawal without first finding Iran in material breach of the deal, allies would likely question other American treaty obligations. And North Korea, for its part, would have little incentive to enter into talks over its own nuclear program if Washington were to tear up an agreement that, by all accounts, Iran is adhering to.

“It makes sense to me that our holding up agreements that we have signed, unless there’s a material breach, would have an impact on others’ willingness to sign agreements,” Dunford said.

None of these internal dissents are actually likely to stop Trump from decertifying the agreement next month, but I think it’s important to catalogue them anyway.

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