Middle East update: October 6 2017


We haven’t talked much about Raqqa in recent weeks, as the potential for an Assad-Kurd–and, therefore, Russia-America–throwdown in Deir Ezzor has stolen most of the attention, but the Syrian Democratic Forces appear to be in the last phase of their campaign, with estimates putting the number of remaining ISIS forces in the city at somewhere around 300. Residents who lived there under ISIS are now free to tell horror stories of life over the past three-plus years, but they’re also looking forward to a future spent rebuilding their thoroughly destroyed home. A huge amount of urgent reconstruction aid–restoring basic things like clean water and other utilities–is going to be needed in Raqqa fast, if the city’s 200,000 residents are going to be able to settle back in and live peaceably under SDF control.

Further east, there are reports that the Syrian army is approaching the city (town) of Mayadin, in eastern Deir Ezzor province. This is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. One, Mayadin became ISIS’s new stronghold after Raqqa and then Deir Ezzor city were attacked, so there could be some senior ISIS people holed up there unless they’ve already fled. Two, it’s a little odd that the Syrian army is continuing to rapidly push east when, as far as anybody can tell, they still haven’t really tamped down the recent ISIS counterattack along the main Damascus-Deir Ezzor highway. The town of Qaryatayn, which sits on that highway, was reportedly taken by ISIS earlier this week, and I’ve seen nothing to suggest it’s been retaken by the Syrians.

The Qaryatayn situation highlights Assad’s ongoing challenge, which is that the war has so badly depleted his military that he can really only be active in one or maybe two places at once and is vulnerable everywhere else, and it’s raised new questions about whether, despite all the help he’s gotten from Russia and all the progress he’s made in the past couple of years, he can actually win the war. For the Syrians to just keep moving east in Deir Ezzor without shoring up their own lines seems like bad tactics to me, but what do I know?

On the plus side for Assad, his army has reportedly pushed ISIS completely out of the small pocket of territory it still controlled in Homs province.


The last bits of the Hawijah operation are ongoing, but as far as I know there haven’t been any major new developments. The Joint Operations Command hasn’t posted a new map so that suggests to me that things were relatively quiet today.

Iraq’s foreign ministry says that it has formally asked Iran and Turkey to cut off all oil and border contact with Iraqi Kurds and only deal directly with Baghdad on all commercial matters. If nothing else, the Kurdish independence referendum seems to be bringing those three countries closer together, and Al-Monitor’s Ali Hashem writes that the Iranians in particular have really started to appreciate this side effect. It would be a little ironic if the Kurdish independence bid actually wound up decreasing regional conflict, but we live in ironic times.


The leader of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, said last week that he has a volunteer militia of some 5000 armed dudes ready to march in to Iraq to prevent Kurdish independence–oh and also to annex Mosul and Kirkuk for Turkey, just by the by.

Bahçeli (L), with some other guy

It seems like Bahçeli has, horrifyingly, actually put some thought into this, because he didn’t just pull that number out of a hat–if he was really talking off the cuff then he probably would’ve referred to the MHP’s entire “Grey Wolves” paramilitary arm, which is far larger than 5000 men. And amazingly, this revelation has been met with virtually no response from the ruling Justice and Development Party, who would presumably feel much differently if the opposition Republican People’s Party were to suddenly unveil a new 5000 man armed militia. Since the idea of 5000 paramilitary bros invading and annexing two of Iraq’s largest cities is absurd to a surreal degree, the feeling seems to be that Bahçeli’s militia poses a threat not to Iraqi Kurds, but to–who else?–Turkish Kurds.


The standoff between Qatar and the Saudi-led quartet (Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE) shows no sign of abetting anytime soon, and so US Central Command told reporters on Friday that it’s scaling back American involvement in joint military exercises in the Persian Gulf. They didn’t announce any pattern to the reduction, so maybe this is more an attempt to just stay out above the fray.

The diplomatic crisis doesn’t seem like it will threaten Qatar’s 2022 World Cup, at least if Qatar’s World Cup Supreme Committee boss Hassan al-Thawadi is to be believed. The event also remains unthreatened by the fact that it’s being supported by slave laborers who are being literally worked to death, so good for them.


The Saudis are not happy to find themselves on the United Nations blacklist of child rights violators:

In response, Saudi Arabia’s UN ambassador said on Friday that the information and figures contained in the world body’s report were “inaccurate and misleading”.

“We express our strong reservation in respect to this information,” said Abdallah al-Mouallimi, reading a statement at the UN.

“We exercise the maximum degree of care and precaution to avoid civilian harm,” he added.

The truly scary part is that he may not be lying there, this may be the best the Saudis can do. In which case, I’d like to suggest that maybe war just isn’t their thing, you know?

Fortunately the Saudis believe it is, so they keep buying billions of dollars in new weapon systems from the United States. It’s a real win-win, unless you happen to be in the next funeral party they “mistakenly” double-tap.


BREAKING NEWS FLASHING RED SIREN ALERT ALERT: Iran is caving, folks! All it took was President Deals flexing his huge muscles in Iran’s direction and the mullahs are suddenly ready to talk about their missile program. BOOM! WE DIDN’T EVEN HAVE TO DO ANYTHING AND THEY’RE ROLLING OVER! WE WIN! WE WIN!

Well, not really. The Iranians are apparently ready to talk about their missile program in the sense of actually talking about it, to make the case why they should be able to continue it without alarming the West and getting slapped with new sanctions. They are not looking to negotiate over the program, let alone trade it away if hugely ripped alpha male Donald Trump would just please not give them a swirly in the locker room toilet after gym class. Thankfully, this revelation did not stop the Foundation for Destroying Iran Defense of Democracies crowd from throwing itself a huge party on Twitter today:

I hope those guys aren’t too disappointed. I mean, chances are they’ll get their war eventually, so there’s no sense getting too frustrated over a temporary setback.

The likelihood that Trump will decertify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nine days from now is so high that European officials who want to save the accord have started taking their case to Congress. Trump’s plan for handling the JCPOA is, par for the course with this guy, to half-ass it. Trump hates the deal–I continue to believe that “because Barack Obama made it” is his main reason for hating it–but he doesn’t want to be responsible for what might happen if he withdraws from it, so he’s not going to unilaterally scrap it as it is within his power to do. Instead he’s going to let Congress scrap it, or not–it’s looking increasingly like the votes to scrap it may not be there in the Senate–and that’s where the European lobbying comes in.

While that’s all going on, Trump is planning to push a host of non-nuclear measures to punish Iran for its “bad” (i.e., counter to American interests) behavior, one of which will probably be designating the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Designating the IRGC as a terrorist group doesn’t accomplish anything tangible–the IRGC is already about as heavily sanctioned as it can get through a variety of other channels–but it’s splashy, which is appealing to Trump, and would severely curtail the ability of American and Iranian commanders in the Middle East to communicate with one another while strengthening the IRGC and allied hardliners within Iran, so it hits the “dumb but also dangerous” sweet spot that this administration seems to love so much in its foreign policy.

It’s still not even clear that Trump wants Congress to scrap the nuclear deal–certainly it doesn’t seem like any of his foreign policy advisers do–because he seems ready to use the threat of Congress acting to try to force a renegotiation. But what happens if he can’t get one? Well, then the deal really would get scrapped. That’s why deal supporters are so nervous right now, even though the administration’s ideal outcome would leave the deal intact and even strengthen it. You also have to consider that the people pushing the “fix it or nix it” plan, as this convoluted mess is being called, are long-time members of the Bomb Iran Caucus like Tom Cotton and Benjamin Netanyahu. These guys want to “nix” the deal, and they’re using the “fix it” part as cover to make it seem like they’re not just out to start another major war in the Middle East.

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