Middle East update: October 4-5 2017


Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Thursday that Iraqi forces have liberated the town of Hawijah itself, leaving just a small enclave of villages east of the town still in ISIS’s hands. You can kind of see where things are at in the Iraqi Joint Operations Command’s map, below:

Reza Marashi has a good piece up about the geopolitical implications of the Kurdish independence bid:

One week after Iraqi Kurds held their independence referendum, the geopolitical blowback has been swift and near unanimous. The United States has called the referendum illegitimate. Iran, Turkey,and Syria have also rejected the move, each taking action to push back against what they consider an unacceptable precedent. The outlier backing an independent Kurdistan? Israel.

One country Marashi doesn’t mention is China, and that’s because China has been almost totally silent on the issue aside from one statement on September 25 saying that it officially opposes Kurdish independence. Even Russia has been more vocal about its preference that Iraq remain united, and Russia has barely talked about it because it’s hedging its bets. Both of these countries probably would prefer the Kurds remain part of Iraq because the alternative involves some lengthy period of extra chaos that they’d rather avoid, and also because both governments are, for domestic reasons, opposed in principle to separatist movements.

Unless, of course, they have something to gain from them–oh hi Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, northern Myanmar…I’m sorry, where were we?

Oh right, Kurdistan. China’s decision to stay mostly quiet about Kurdish independence isn’t much different from Russia’s–in theory Beijing would prefer Iraq stay together, but in practice all it really wants is to ensure it remains on good terms with Erbil for commercial reasons. In other words, it wants to invest in Kurdish oil no matter what country winds up in control of it. Additionally though, China does have a security-related reason to stay on good terms with the Kurds generally: because it can use them as leverage to keep Turkey from meddling in Uyghur affairs inside China.

Speaking of Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Thursday that “soon” he’ll order Turkey’s border with Iraqi Kurdistan closed and its airspace shut to Kurdish flights. That he hasn’t already done this could be taken as evidence that he’s bluffing–Turkey benefits considerably from serving as a conduit for that Kurdish oil to get to market, and its merchants benefit considerably from selling products in Kurdistan–but he risks embarrassing himself if he continues to talk tough and do nothing while Iraq and Iran take a much harder line toward the Kurds. There’s talk that Ankara is going to move its main border crossing with Iraq away from Habur, which is controlled by the Kurds, to Ovakoy, which is…also controlled by the Kurds, as is effectively the entire Turkey-Iraq border. But Ovakoy in theory shouldn’t be under Kurdish control, so the possibility exists that Baghdad will take it over at some point.


The International Committee of the Red Cross says that fighting across Syria is at its worst level since the battle for Aleppo last year. Hospitals are once again being damaged, thereby cutting some of the wounded off from medical care, and civilian casualties are naturally on the rise:

“For the past two weeks, we have seen an increasingly worrying spike in military operations that correlates with high levels of civilian casualties,” Marianne Gasser, head of the ICRC’s delegation in Syria, said.

“My colleagues report harrowing stories, like a family of 13 who fled Deir Az Zor only to lose 10 of its members to air strikes and explosive devices along the way.”

This is all despite the Russia-Turkey-Iran safe zones agreements in western Syria, most of which seem to be holding for now except the one in Idlib.

On that note, I suppose it’s necessary to say that the Russian defense ministry is claiming that it carried out an airstrike in Idlib on Tuesday that seriously injured Hayat Tahrir al-Sham boss Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani. And by “seriously,” I mean they say he lost an arm and is now in a coma. Jawlani is of course the long-time leader of Jabhat al-Nusra/Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, who assumed a nominally subordinate role as “military commander” when JFS united with several other extremist factions in January to form HTS. But he had just recently been “promoted” to full command of the group, with its former boss, ex-Ahrar al-Sham bigshot Abu Jaber Shaykh, taking a position on HTS’s leadership council. Moscow says that 12 other HTS commanders were killed in the strike, and further reported on Thursday that it killed seven more HTS commanders in another airstrike. This is a bit like the time Russia claimed to have killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in that HTS is denying that Jawlani was hurt, but there’s no good reason to believe either them or the Russians.

Similarly, there’s also a dispute about whether or not ISIS is currently holding two Russian soldiers captive. The group released a video on Tuesday showing two men it says are Russian soldiers captured in a village in Deir Ezzor province, but Moscow says it’s accounted for all of its soldiers in Deir Ezzor. Here what we have is a basic disagreement about the term “soldier.” These two guys are Russian, they have apparently been taken captive, but instead of being Russian soldiers they’re mercenaries who are being paid by Moscow. To you amateur laypersons, this may seem to be a distinction without a difference. But as a professional natsec expert, I can assure you that the two couldn’t be more different, for many reasons. For example, there’s…um…oh wow, I’m just looking at the word count and this post is already so long, maybe we should stop here and pick this up again some other time. Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

We can say with more certainty that a Russian airstrike outside of Deir Ezzor on Wednesday killed at least 38 civilians who were trying to cross the Euphrates River to get to safety. So I guess the ICRC might be on to something.

Rebels controlling the Nasib border crossing in Deraa province are resisting pressure from the Jordanian government to turn it back over to Damascus. This is a rare direct intervention from Jordan on the Syrian government’s behalf, but Amman says it cannot reopen the crossing unless it’s controlled by another government. It has offered to implement a system whereby the rebels would be paid a portion of the customs fees collected at the border, but that hasn’t been enough to entice rebel cooperation even though these same rebels get most of their logistical help from the US via Jordan.


Saudi Arabia (or, rather, the Saudi-led coalition) was officially added to the United Nations’ list of child rights violators on Thursday over its intervention in Yemen. Which is great, but ultimately isn’t going to save a single Yemeni kid from Saudi-caused cholera or from the next “errant” Saudi airstrike that hits a daycare instead of a Houthi artillery position or whatever.

On Thursday, a US drone strike in Yemen’s Baida province killed Shroum al-Sanaani, who is said to be a senior commander within al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.


Turkish authorities have arrested a Turkish man who is employed at the US consulate in Istanbul for–wait for it–alleged ties to the Gülen movement. This is obviously not going to do wonders for US-Turkish relations.

The Turkish military says its forces killed five Kurdish militants in an operation in Mugla province on Thursday. What makes this interesting is that Mugla is in southwestern Turkey, while the PKK generally operates in southeastern Turkey. There’s no immediate word as to what they were doing in Mugla. This operation comes a day after PKK militants bombed a Turkish military vehicle in southeastern Turkey’s Hakkari province, killing four soldiers.


Israeli intelligence believes that, despite Mohammad Dahlan’s efforts, any attempted reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is doomed to failure. Not only do the two parties remain fundamentally rivals for control over the Palestinian polity, such as it is, but the Israelis believe that there’s a more fundamental divide between Gazan and West Bank Palestinians:

A former head of Shin Bet speaking to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity told the following story: Not long after the signing of the Oslo Accord (1993), Israel agreed to a trial period for a “safe passageway,” a route so Gaza residents could travel to the West Bank without having to pass through Israeli checkpoints. These were the early days of Oslo, when the winds of peace still blew in the region and optimism prevailed. “After less than a week,” recalled the former security chief, “the Ramallah governor turned to us and begged us to close the passageway. The Ramallah people simply didn’t want the Gaza people mingling with them.” He further said, “We are talking about two populations that are different and incompatible. There is no great love between Gaza and the West Bank, no real identification.”

This belief likely explains why the Israelis haven’t raised much of a fuss about recent events, the way they did when Hamas and Fatah formed a short-lived unity government in 2014.


The ongoing leak of UAE ambassador Yusuf al-Otaiba’s personal emails continues to reveal fascinating details. For example, in the latest batch of leaks we learn that the UAE has been paying for Egypt’s lobbying activities in Washington:

Emails obtained by The Intercept show that Otaiba and the UAE essentially picked up the tab for Egypt’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

Egypt in 2013 enlisted the Glover Park Group, a top D.C. public relations and lobbying firm founded by former Clinton White House and Democratic Party officials, to be one of its public faces in the U.S. capital.

In a September 2015 memo to Otaiba, GPG described its work for Egypt as designed to influence both the U.S. government and the “echo chamber” of Washington think tanks and news media in order to influence American policy. The email exchanges provided to The Intercept were discovered in a cache of correspondence pilfered from Otaiba’s Hotmail account, which he used regularly for official business.

Otaiba was apparently able to get the liberal (?) Center for American Progress to support his efforts to convince the Trump administration that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a swell guy, notwithstanding the fact that he’s a brutal dictator whose repressive regime is actually worsening Egypt’s terrorism problem.


King Salman made his big visit to Russia on Thursday, and after some really harrowing moments when his giant deplaning escalator broke (I bet somebody gets beheaded for that, and I’m only kind of joking), he was able to walk down the steps and get on with his important meetings. While there has been a lot of attention focused on this meeting as some kind of status-quo shattering epic event, I’m not sure I’m buying it. As Bruce Reidel points out, the Saudis and Russians have been trying and failing to build a closer relationship since the end of the Cold War, and the only agreement they’ve really ever been able to implement has been the oil production cut they negotiated last November.

Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed that cut on Thursday and made a whole bunch of new agreements. For example, they agreed on several new joint investments that will probably be subject to oil prices since neither country is exactly swimming in liquid assets at the moment. The Saudis agreed to buy Russian anti-aircraft missiles, at least in theory. They, uh, agreed that terrorism is bad, a bold stance indeed. They’re apparently working together to “unite the Syrian opposition,” which is a project that I’m sure the Russians are approaching in total good faith. The two countries still disagree on Iran, obviously, with the Saudis unironically demanding that Iran stop meddling in Middle Eastern affairs–this is a weird demand, considering that a) Iran is in the Middle East and therefore inherently meddles in Middle Eastern affairs anytime it does anything, and b) the Saudis meddle in other countries’ business constantly.

One thing Riyadh and Moscow do agree on is the importance of jailing political opponents. The Saudis reaffirmed their commitment to that principle on Wednesday by arresting 46 people, some for “inciting against public order” and “stirring up feelings towards issues that are still under consideration” on social media, and others for “promoting lies and exaggerations about their circumstances in order to provoke sedition and tribal tensions.” These all definitely sound like real crimes that a normal state would prosecute, by the way.

On Thursday, Saudi authorities said they broke up an ISIS cell in Riyadh, in three raids across which two militants were killed.


It’s been a badly-kept secret for a while now, and it won’t become official until Donald Trump announces it next week, but the Washington Post on Thursday afternoon confirmed that Trump will decertify the Iran nuclear deal when the case comes up on October 15:

President Trump plans to announce next week that he will “decertify” the international nuclear deal with Iran, saying it is not in the national interest of the United States and kicking the issue to a reluctant Congress, people briefed on an emerging White House strategy for Iran said Thursday.

The move would mark the first step in a process that could eventually result in the resumption of U.S. sanctions against Iran, which would blow up a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear activities that the country reached in 2015 with the U.S. and five other nations.

It’s not clear that Congress will act, nor is it clear that the administration wants it to act, but this move will open up a two month window for Congress to reimpose nuclear sanctions. Congress may also look to amend the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act to require Congress to periodically assess whether Iran remains at least 12 months from conceivably producing a nuclear weapon. That would give it something to do other than reimposing sanctions, for now, but the political challenge of getting 60 Senate votes in favor of amending INARA may be pretty steep.

The administration and the various anti-Iran/neoconservative groups that have been frothing at the mouth over decertification for weeks say they want to use that two-month period, and the threat of Congress reimposing sanctions, to force Iran to reopen negotiations on parts of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. For most of these people this is nice-sounding cover for what they really want, which is a chance to scrap the deal and take us to war without looking like the bad guys. Iran is unlikely to renegotiate the deal, which gives these folks a justification for walking away from it and getting back on the road to an inevitable air campaign against Iranian nuclear facilities. And from there, the sky’s the limit.

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