Middle East update: October 3 2017


Former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani died on Tuesday about a month shy of his 84th birthday. A high-ranking member of the Barzani family’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, Talabani split from the KDP in 1975 to found the leftist Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. While they’re currently collaborating in a unity government of sorts, the PUK remains the KDP’s biggest rival for control of Iraqi Kurdistan–the two parties fought what amounted to a civil war in the mid-1990s, but Talabani and Masoud Barzani seem to have patched things up to some degree after the Iraq War. Their politics still diverged though, especially around questions of Kurdish independence. After the war, Barzani pursued the presidency of the Kurdistan Regional Government and kept pulling away from Baghdad, while Talabani became President of Iraq and spent most of his time trying to keep the country together. He continually insisted that the conditions weren’t right for Kurdish independence, so it would have been interesting to see how he approached last week’s referendum, but he’s been in poor health and out of Iraqi politics for a few years now.

The PUK participated in last week’s independence referendum, but with less enthusiasm than the KDP. It remains to be seen whether its leaders will remain aligned with Barzani and the KDP as the push for secession continues.

Talabani back in 2005 (Wikimedia)

The KRG announced on Tuesday that it will hold presidential and legislative elections on November 1. While they’re obviously holding these elections to build on the referendum, these are the normal elections for the regional presidency and regional parliament, not some sort of immediate declaration of independence. They would have happened at some point anyway. One interesting thing to watch with be whether Barzani stands for another term as president–he should be barred by term limits. Meanwhile, Baghdad’s central bank said Tuesday that it will no longer sell dollars to Kurdish banks, which could be a serious blow to the region’s economy.

Only one-third of Hawijah remains in ISIS’s hands after a scant four or five days of Iraqi action, which suggests that it will only be another couple of days before the whole operation is concluded. However, the United Nations estimates that as many as 78,000 civilians could still be trapped in Hawijah, and if that’s anywhere close to accurate it could complicate and delay the rest of the offensive.


Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Tuesday that Ankara is working to convince rebels in Idlib province to abandon Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly (?) al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. The goal is to weaken HTS to the point where Turkish forces can be safely deployed within Idlib to secure it as a de-escalation zone, under the Turkey-Russia-Iran plan negotiated at Astana. Once that happens, those Turkish forces would be able to take more proactive steps against HTS, which has refused to recognize the de-escalation agreement and is the single biggest impediment to its implementation.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that an American airstrike in Raqqa on Tuesday killed 18 civilians, including four children. Just another “extraordinary effort” by the US military to not kill innocent people.


This is potentially big news: Reuters is reporting that it’s seen a draft of the 2017 United Nations blacklist of countries that have harmed children, and Saudi Arabia is on it. The Saudis famously threatened their way off of last year’s list, and even this year it looks like their presence on the list will be tempered with some acknowledgement that they’re taking steps to protect children or some such pablum. And, of course, there’s still a chance they could threaten their way off the list again–this is only a draft.


Today we have a veritable children’s treasury of stories about Israel brutalizing Arabs. First up we have Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu throwing his weight behind a Knesset bill that would annex 19 illegal settlements around Jerusalem into Jerusalem itself, effectively making them part of Israel.

Next, we have Israeli authorities bulldozing the Bedouin village of Araqib, in the Negev, for the 119th time. The Bedouin aren’t even Palestinians, they’re actual Israeli citizens who keep having their homes destroyed anyway. Over and over again.

Third, we have a report from Maan news agency that the Israeli military plans to blockade the occupied territories from October 4 through October 14, during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. These blockades are common practice during Jewish holidays but almost never for the entire holiday for multi-day affairs like Sukkot. Only medical and humanitarian aid will be allowed into the Palestinian territories during this period, and nobody will be allowed to leave except in special cases.

Finally, Al-Monitor’s Akiva Eldar looks at how Jewish settlers are using archeology as a tool to justify pilfering more West Bank land from the Palestinians:

“The Biyar Aqueduct is an example of a ‘tourism settlement’ — creating a tourist site on ancient relics and marketing the place as an Israeli heritage site,” archaeologist Yonathan Mizrachi told Al-Monitor. Mizrachi heads the Emek Shaveh center that seeks to prevent the use of ancient relics as a tool in national conflict or a value justifying harm to weak groups. Such use is made by the operators of the City of David site below the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, on the land of the Palestinian village of Silwan. Almost every Israeli high school student and soldier is brought to visit the site, becoming an advocate of an Israeli presence there. Silwan’s Muslim past and the link of its residents to the place is presented as random and negligible, if at all.


Egyptian authorities are cracking down on LGBTQ Egyptians, and do it in typically brutal Egyptian fashion:

Egyptian authorities have arrested at least 22 people in the past four days as part of a campaign against LGBT people, a rights group has said.

Thirty-two men and one woman have now been detained since rainbow flags were displayed at a pop concert in Cairo last month, according to activists.

Anal examinations have been reportedly carried out on five of those arrested, reported Amnesty International on Monday.


King Salman is heading to Moscow tomorrow for meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, so that should be fun. They’re both real nice guys. The two are expected to discuss the state of the oil business, mutual investment opportunities, Iran, post-ISIS Syria, and generally getting the Russian-Saudi relationship onto better footing. Or, more accurately, Putin is expected to discuss those things with Salman’s advisers while Salman himself stares at something shiny.


Well folks, another loony leftie Iran appeaser has crawled out of the woodwork to argue that President Trump should not abandon the terrible deal that basically required Amazon to deliver a nuclear weapon to Ayatollah Khamenei’s house, PRIME NO LESS. Thank goodness President Trump is set to ignore these dangerous fifth columnists like…uh, Secretary of Defense James Mattis:

President Donald Trump has made numerous hints that he is considering unravelling the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), potentially at the expense of relations with European allies, Russia, China, and Iran. But proponents of the deal may have just found an unlikely ally in Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who earlier Tuesday stated unequivocally that the deal serves the national security interest of the U.S.

Soft on Iran, that’s always been Mattis’s thing.

The likelihood that Trump is going to send the nuclear deal into the great unknown later this month is, as intended I’m sure, causing European businesses to hedge when it comes to deciding whether or not to make new investments in Iran. You know how the Trump administration keeps accusing Iran of breaching the spirit of the JCPOA? Well, and this is arguable but I think I’m on pretty firm ground, this would be the US violating the letter of the accord. The deal obligates the parties, the US included, to proactively ensure that Iran is able to benefit fully from sanctions being lifted, and this very public game playing around certification most definitely does not do that.

Speaking of which, the consensus now seems to be that Trump will decertify Iran’s compliance with the deal under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act on October 15, but will not ask Congress to reimpose sanctions. That way President Deals can use the threat of reimposing sanctions to force Iran to cut him a deal. Which they probably won’t, but I’m sure nobody’s thought that far ahead. And of course Congress doesn’t actually need the president to ask it to reimpose sanctions, it can vote to do that all on its own. So when I say Trump is about to send the deal into the great unknown, this is what I’m talking about.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif returned from a two-day diplomatic visit to Oman and Qatar that as far as I can tell was mostly intended to troll Riyadh. He called for “dialogue” to ease tensions in the Gulf, but there’s no word on whether he was able to stifle a smirk while he did so.

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