Middle East update: September 27-28 2017


ISIS released a new (?) audio recording from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Thursday. Baghdadi, assuming it was really him, offered the usual “keep fighting” pablum that these messages always include, but the real reason anybody listens to these things is in order to gain some clues into whether or not the guy is still alive. Baghdadi, again assuming it was him, apparently referred to the battle of Mosul, which is recent-ish, and to North Korean threats against Japan and the US, also recent-ish. None of it seems to conclusively indicate that he recorded the message within the past few days or even weeks, except possibly for a reference he made to fighting in Syria’s Hama province. There has been renewed fighting in Hama just in the past couple of weeks.


At least seven Iraqi soldiers were killed on Wednesday in fighting near Ramadi. ISIS fighters attacked several military positions outside the city using suicide bombers and mortars, but were eventually driven back after a lengthy battle. At least 16 ISIS fighters were also killed.

Human Rights Watch is accusing fighters from the Badr Organization, one of the largest of the Popular Mobilization militias, of unlawfully detaining and torturing male villagers outside of Hawijah. Badr denies the charges but does allow that it arrests people it “suspects” of being “terrorists.” There’s a lot of wiggle room in there. Badr, one of the largest of the PMU constituent forces, is alleged to have considerable influence over the interior ministry, whose Rapid Response force was found to have committed multiple human rights violations during the Mosul campaign.

The Kurdistan Regional Government released the results of Monday’s independence referendum, which show 72 percent turnout and 93 percent support for independence. And it’s not clear anybody really cares. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi says he’s willing to negotiate with KRG leader Masoud Barzani over greater Kurdish autonomy and things like sharing federal revenues, but he wants Barzani to annul the referendum results. This is kind of a silly demand, since the referendum was–could only have been–non-binding, and Barzani is not going to nullify what he sees as his greatest political legacy. The referendum’s reception at lower levels within the Iraqi government has been equally or more hostile:

Even then the premier was being pushed hard to take stronger action by Arab politicians and parties. Abadi gave the KRG three days to hand over control of its airports and border crossings with Turkey, Syria and Iran. The Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority sent notices to airlines that international flights to Irbil and Sulaimaniya were suspended. Some companies said they would comply, while others would not. A parliamentarian (MP) from the Supreme Council’s Citizen Bloc called for the Speaker of Parliament Sailm al-Jabouri to remove all the Kurdish deputies that voted in the referendum. Another MP said that the second deputy speaker of parliament Aram Sheikh Mohammed should be dismissed for the same reason. Legislators also demanded Abadi take all measures to ensure the unity of Iraq including asserting control over the disputed territories, removing the governor of Kirkuk, asking countries to close their consulates in Kurdistan, and even arresting Kurdish officials who were responsible for the referendum. Finally, Kataibh Hezbollah compared President Barzani to Islamic State leader Baghdadi saying he would be dealt with the same way that the Islamic State was. During the run up and after the referendum, this is the type of rhetoric that has been coming out from both sides. Arab MPs are calling for all types of actions to assert control over Kurdistan so that it cannot break away. Almost all of this is just words as no one really wants a confrontation that might escalate into violence. The Kurds are a favorite target of many Arab parties however, so this will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, all international flights directly into Iraqi Kurdistan are scheduled to end as of Friday. Small wonder that Barzani’s foreign minister, Falah Mustafa Bakir said Thursday that “There is always the carrot and the stick. But they have forgotten about the carrot. They know only the stick.” By “they” he meant Baghdad, but he might as well have been talking about Turkey, which is still threatening to close its border with Iraqi Kurdistan, a move that would be very damaging to the Kurdish economy. Kirkuk remains on edge, and I’m sure you’d find similar sentiments expressed by, say, Yazidis in Sinjar to those you find being expressed by non-Kurds in Kirkuk in that article.

The Washington Post’s Kareem Fahim has written an important story on the struggles facing Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, both to rebuild their communities and to find acceptance in a country where many people see them as ISIS collaborators:

Soldiers descended on a gathering of villagers at a roadside kiosk and quickly drew their guns. An accusation led to words, words led to scuffles and finally, an act of humiliation that was expected and intolerable at once. The soldiers viciously dragged two young men from the village to a waiting car, slapping their heads as their fathers watched.


“They represent the government,” said Khalid Saleh, an aid worker, who stood among a seething crowd watching the soldiers a few weeks ago. “The problem is, they consider us all Islamic State.”


The scene in Muneira, on the Tigris River in northern Iraq, offered a glimpse into the struggles of one Sunni Arab village in the year since the government drove the militants away: a place beset by suspicions, troubled by violence while coping, like much of the country, with death and loss.


A critical test for Iraq’s Shiite-led government is whether it can win the trust of the country’s Sunni minority in villages like this one, perched unsteadily on political and social fault lines. The nation, in turn, was demanding answers from Muneira about why some of its sons had supported a jihadist group dedicated to the bloody overthrow of the state.


United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura has scheduled a new round of Syrian peace talks “in about a month,” which is good because all complex international negotiations should follow a “eh, whenever everybody’s free” style of scheduling. De Mistura wants the talks to happen no later than early November. He seems intent this time around on extending the Astana talks’ localized ceasefire plan into a nationwide ceasefire, but with ISIS and the Artist Formerly Known As Nusra still active combatants I find it hard to see how that could happen.

The Syrian army is close to fully surrounding the ISIS-controlled parts of the city of Deir Ezzor, which would be a 180 turnaround from the several years during which ISIS was surrounding and besieging the government-held parts of that city. However, ISIS attacked the village of Shola on Thursday, and it’s not clear yet how that’s shaken out but if they were able to capture the city that would cut the main highway running from Damascus to Deir Ezzor and would make the Syrian army divert forces to retake the area.

Screen Shot 2017-09-28 at 2.23.34 PM
Thanks to Google Maps, here’s the location of al-Shola, right along the main M20 highway between Damascus and Deir Ezzor

In a bit over a week since Russian and Syrian aircraft resumed their bombing campaign in Idlib province, in response to rebel advances in northern Hama province, Syrian Civil Defense says they’ve killed at least 150 civilians. The Russian Defense Ministry on Thursday denied the accusation and insisted that it only strikes military targets and never bombs residential areas. Say, just like America!


An American engineer named Danny Lavon Burch who has lived in Yemen for decades was picked up on Monday in Sanaa by…somebody. It was believed that he’d been detained by the Houthis, but on Thursday the Houthis denied that and blamed some unknown gang of “perpetrators.”

There is a bill that appears to be gaining steam in the House of Representatives that would force the Trump administration to yank all American forces out of Yemen unless and until Congress authorizes a mission there. It’s an extreme long shot to actually pass, because Congress is terrified of reasserting itself when it comes to foreign policy, but it is a sign that the Yemen atrocity, and America’s role in causing it, is starting to lose support in Washington.

On the other hand, there will be no investigation into Saudi war crimes coming out of the United Nations human rights council. A push for one, led by the Netherlands and Canada, was quashed after the Saudis threatened to do terrible things to any country that voted for it.


Turkish airstrikes reportedly killed 13 PKK fighters in northern Iraq on Thursday.

The Turkish government is now openly tying the fate of an American pastor named Andrew Brunson to the US decision whether or not to extradite Fethullah Gülen. Brunson, who used to lead a church in Izmir, was arrested in October for–what else?–alleged ties to Gülen’s organization. Now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says Ankara will return him to the US if Gülen is extradited to Turkey. This is so blatant, even for Erdoğan, that part of me wonders if it’s not proof that Turkey really doesn’t want Gülen back. Erdoğan has to know that publicly trying to blackmail Washington is going to make it harder for the Trump administration to do this deal–if they really wanted to effect a trade they would have made the offer quietly. My view on this has been that Gülen is far more valuable to Erdoğan as the mysterious evil mastermind-in-exile than he would be standing trial, particularly if Gülen decided to avail himself of that opportunity to air some of Erdoğan’s dirty laundry in public.


Israeli intelligence agencies are beginning to sound regular alarms about what could happen after 82 year old Palestinian Authority boss Mahmoud Abbas departs this mortal life. This is not particularly new although the urgency of the message grows the older Abbas gets. But they’re also starting to sound concerned about what Abbas plans to do with the rest of his time on earth, worried about the possibility that his advancing years may either make him more unstable or less worried about keeping a lid on potential West Bank violence. In particular, they’re concerned about Abbas either losing control of, or deciding to turn loose, the Tanzim, the armed wing of his Fatah party:

Israeli leaders’ main concern is the Tanzim being coopted to join in a round of violence against Israel. Recent years have seen relative peace and quiet in the West Bank (with the exception of the individual terror wave that erupted in September 2015). This quiet is attributed to the work of the Palestinian security apparatuses and the Tanzim being removed from the equation. One order from the leadership in Ramallah, however, could rouse it. This is the most disturbing scenario and cause for concern for Israel in the coming period. The higher-ups in military intelligence and in the Palestinian General Security Services admit that this is not a “reasonable” scenario, but one that is called in Israel an “extreme” scenario. “Extreme” scenarios in the Middle East, however, have a propensity to materialize at the worst possible time.

Fortunately for the Israelis, of course, US ambassador and settlement financier David Friedman remains on the job. One of Friedman’s talents appears to be that he can say things so absurd and/or provocative that even the rest of the Trump administration has to distance itself from them–always an excellent trait to have in an ambassador. On Thursday, the State Department had to disassociate itself from a recent interview in which Friedman said that Israel only controls two percent of the West Bank (he’s off by a mere 58 percent) and that it was the “expectation” of the UN resolution that ended the 1967 Six Day War that Israel should retain parts of the territories it occupied (yeah, no, sorry). The first thing merely contradicts objective reality, the second contradicts decades of US policy, and that’s the part the State Department had to repudiate.

The one thing Gaza has always had going for it, despite being choked off, starved, and periodically bombed to smithereens by Israel, is that it had a nice long beach. Fortunately that’s been ruined. The Palestinian Authority’s decision to cut off Gaza’s electricity has left it unable to treat its sewage, which is being piped untreated right out into the Mediterranean Sea. The problem is now affecting Israeli beaches and it’s already seriously crippled Gaza’s fishing industry, since most people don’t trust what’s coming out of the water even if the fishermen do, as they claim, sail out past the polluted area to catch their fish.


The Egyptian air force says it struck a ten-vehicle convoy trying to enter Egypt from Libya on Thursday. The convoy allegedly carried weapons and ammunition.


Journalist Elizabeth Dickinson reports on Saudi women happy to finally be allowed to drive a car legally:

But it will be impossible to place restrictions on enthusiasm among Saudi women. Conversations with women across the kingdom on Wednesday revealed a mix of disbelief and euphoria rarely matched in their lifetimes.

“Saudi women are very happy,” said Hanan Alnufaie, a young Saudi professional who spoke by telephone. “Women will be much more independent.”

Saudi women celebrating the decision aren’t just thrilled about the possibility of sitting behind the wheel but of what this signals about how the political winds in Saudi Arabia have changed.

I still don’t want to be a downer on this story, but when Dickinson talks about “restrictions” she’s referring to the fact that when women are turned loose on Saudi streets next summer it will almost certainly come with a host of conditions, involving things like what  times of day women are allowed to drive. Developing those restrictions is part of the reason why the decree doesn’t go into effect for almost a year.


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif threatened on Thursday, in an interview with Al Jazeera, that Iran might withdraw from the nuclear deal if the Trump administration does so first. Zarif is trying to scare the other members of the P5+1 into leaning on Washington to keep the deal in place, but it’s unlikely any of those countries is going to be able to sway Donald Trump away from decertifying the agreement next month. It’s not clear, however, that there’s a real appetite in Congress for reimposing sanctions (i.e., withdrawing from the deal)–there’s certainly less of one than I would have thought, judging from this Weekly Standard (I know) piece. But I think Zarif is bluffing here, because it would still be in Iran’s interests to try to make the agreement work with the other five parties. The US is powerful enough to impose sanctions that would make it impossible for anyone to do business with Iran, but unless/until it did that I would expect Tehran would try to stick it out.

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