Middle East update: October 2 2017


The Hawijah operation proceeded on Monday with the Iraqis capturing the Rashad air base, about 20 miles south of the town, from ISIS. Rashad is in a fairly strategic position for deploying helicopters to Hawijah and in cleanup operations around northern Iraq, so this is a positive development. Over the weekend, ISIS apparently set fire to three oil wells near Hawijah, partly to do some extra damage and partly as temporary cover against airstrikes. The Iraqis have one fire under control and are working on the other two.

The situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is in kind of a holding pattern, but Iran did park a dozen tanks and assorted artillery within sight of its border with the region on Monday. The Iranian and Iraqi militaries are conducting joint exercises in response to Kurdistan’s independence referendum last Sunday, so presumably this deployment is somehow related to that while also being a relatively unveiled threat. The Kurdish news agency Rudaw tweeted several hours ago that Iran had closed its border with Iraqi Kurdistan entirely, but I haven’t seen that reported anywhere else so there’s a chance it’s inaccurate though Rudaw is generally very reliable. The Iraqis got a boost from Egypt’s al-Azhar university, the center of Sunni religious scholarship, which came out against Kurdish secession. That should have some influence on anybody inclined to view the Erbil-Baghdad beef through a sectarian lens (most Kurds are Sunni).


A police station in Damascus’s Midan neighborhood was attacked by four men, two of them suicide bombers, on Monday. At least ten people were killed and there’s been no claim of responsibility as yet.

An airstrike in eastern Homs province killed seven Hezbollah fighters on Monday, but nobody seems to know who was responsible. The most obvious candidate is Israel, but that’s a bit far north for the Israelis to operate without being detected. It could have been the US drone, but US officials claim they had no aircraft in that area and indeed that would be a risky move sending a drone into Russian-controlled airspace to strike an Assad-friendly target. Another possibility is “friendly fire” from either the Syrians or Russians.


While Ankara likes to talk a big game about its military capabilities and the threat that it could invade northern Iraq or northern Syria–again–on short notice, Al-Monitor’s Metin Gurcan debunks this by noting that the Turkish military’s reliance on air power means Ankara has to ask permission before it can move into either country:

To start with, the most important lesson from Operation Euphrates Shield — which began in August 2016 and ended in March — is that a cross-border operation should never be launched without air support. During the course of Euphrates Shield, especially in its final 100-day stage to capture al-Bab, the lack of close air support by warplanes and attack helicopters and force protection by attack helicopters for temporary military outposts, as well as the inability to fly missions to evacuate wounded troops and provide logistical support, bore markedly on the campaign. Thus, the Turkish military is now unlikely to make a move on the scale of Euphrates Shield into northern Syria or northern Iraq without air support.


This means the situation in the air rather than on the ground should be the primary indicator in assessing the likelihood of fresh Turkish military campaigns. In this context, the first prerequisite for an operation in northern Iraq would be for the United States and Baghdad to temporarily open the region’s airspace to Turkish warplanes, attack helicopters and drones for missions of close air support, reconnaissance, surveillance, airborne evacuation of wounded troops and logistical support. Similarly, Russian consent would be needed for the use of Syrian airspace west of the Euphrates River.


Palestinian Prime Minister Rami al-Hamdallah visited Gaza on Monday for high-level talks with Hamas on issues related to a Hamas-Fatah rapprochement. Under terms Hamas has already laid out, Hamdallah’s government is to begin assuming some administrative responsibilities in Gaza, including policing, though it will be some time–if ever–before Fatah has a stronger security presence in Gaza than Hamas.


Egyptian police killed three members of the Hasm Movement on Monday in a suburb south of Cairo.

The AP has a good look at Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam project on the Blue Nile and the Egyptian concern that it’s going to have serious adverse impacts on water flows downstream. Egypt already barely gets by on the amount of water in the Nile basin as it is, and there’s a genuine fear that if the Ethiopians don’t manage the dam’s initial operations sensitively, vast amounts of currently arable Egyptian land could be lost forever:

Much depends on the management of the flow and how fast Ethiopia fills its reservoir, which can hold 74 billion cubic meters of water. A faster fill means blocking more water, while doing it slowly would mean less reduction downstream.


Once the fill is completed, the flow would in theory return to normal. Egypt, where agriculture employs a quarter of the work force, is worried that the damage could be long-lasting.


One study by a Cairo University agriculture professor estimated Egypt would lose a staggering 51 percent of its farmland if the fill is done in three years. A slower, six-year fill would cost Egypt 17 percent of its cultivated land, the study claimed.

The Nile; the dam is being built on the Blue Nile near the Ethiopia-Sudan border (Wikimedia | Hel-hama)

Some of that land could maybe be recovered over time, but if Egypt loses 51 percent of its farmland at a time when its population is growing rapidly, that sounds like the plot to a horror film. The only real way for Egypt to come out of this process unscathed would be for Egyptian and Ethiopian officials to work closely and cooperatively to manage the filling of Ethiopia’s reservoir in conjunction with the status of Egypt’s Lake Nasser reservoir at the Aswan Dam. But there seems to be no appetite from either side for that kind of collaboration (and don’t overlook the fact that Sudan is potentially affected as well). Which makes this potentially one of the most volatile situations on the planet even though it rarely gets much notice.


Five Bahraini police officers were wounded in a bomb blast on Monday while guarding an Ashura procession in a town outside Manama.


Omani Sultan Qaboos met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday at a fort outside of Muscat. The details of their discussion are less important than the fact that they met, which says that the 76 year old, cancer-stricken Qaboos is not only still alive but also well enough to receive foreign dignitaries.


If I could toot my own horn for a moment, I’ve got a new piece at Jacobin Magazine, my firs time writing there, on last week’s big driving ban news and the implications of that and another move the Saudis made toward recognizing women’s rights:

In the wake of the decree, the monarchy announced it would also criminalize sexual harassment within the next sixty days, another important sign of progress. Taken together, these reforms could dramatically improve the work prospects (and, to some extent, autonomy) of Saudi women. It will be considerably easier for middle- and lower-class Saudi women — those who can’t afford chauffeurs — to obtain and hold jobs, and criminalizing sexual harassment (assuming the new law is enforced) should make the workplace less hostile.

My comments about freedom of expression in the kingdom are borne out by the Reuters report today that the activists who fought for years to legalize women drivers are being warned by Saudi authorities to stifle any urge to comment now that their goal has been achieved.

The Saudis have executed their 100th prisoner this year. Congratulations to them, they should really be proud of themselves.


Al-Monitor’s Bryant Harris looks at what Congress is likely to do if Donald Trump refuses to recertify the Iran nuclear deal in a couple of weeks and the deal’s survival falls into the legislature’s lap:

Under the 2015 law that paved the way for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Congress will have 60 days to take action if Trump won’t certify Iranian compliance with the deal by the Oct. 15 deadline. While most legislation takes 60 votes to pass in the Senate, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) specifically allows the upper chamber to reinstate several hard-hitting sanctions packages with a partisan majority of just 51 senators (Vice President Mike Pence would split a 50-50 tie).


“It’s 50 votes, so they can’t rely … upon a minority to block it procedurally,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a supporter of the deal. “I think that would be a difficult vote.”


Republicans currently hold 52 Senate seats and a comfortable majority in the House, more than enough to reinstate sanctions without any Democrats joining them if they band together. Not a single Republican in either chamber voted for the deal in 2015, and congressional leaders are desperate for a political win after back-to-back defeats on health care.

Still, given Congress’s general loathing to be seen as doing anything risky on national security, there’s a chance that a handful of Republican senators could punt on reimposing sanctions, at least for now, which would leave the deal in place. It’s not a great chance but it’s not trivial either. Anyone looking for a reason not to reimpose sanctions ought to think about talking to Uzi Arad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security adviser. While his former boss may still be trying to get the deal scrapped, Arad argued in a conference call on Monday that the deal has benefited Israel, the US, and international security, and said that abandoning it was “no real option.”

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2 thoughts on “Middle East update: October 2 2017

  1. I wrote quite a bit on the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam during my undergrad, and it’s seriously a disaster on all fronts. The Ethiopian government is getting robbed blind by a handful of European construction companies, and there’s about a 0% chance it’ll ever pay off for Ethiopians. What’s scarier is, like you said, the unwillingness of Cairo, Khartoum, and Addis Ababa to cooperate

    1. Joseph, if you’ve got something on this that’s already written up about this or would be interested in writing about it please contact me either via Twitter or the email address on the blog’s “about” page

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