Middle East update: October 7-8 2017


A reader passed an article along–I thought it might be of interest to some of you, and it’s nice to not talk about something other than people killing each other for a minute, isn’t it? Anyway, it’s a look at the world map included in an 11th century Arab geography called The Book of Curiosities. Medieval world maps are often fascinatingly bonkers and also quite informative in terms of what they say about the priorities of the society in which they’re drawn. The European “T and O” maps are a good example–they put Jerusalem at the place where the two lines of the “T” (the Mediterranean sea on the vertical, the Nile and Don rivers on the horizontal) intersect, making it the center of the medieval Christian world. While Curiosities includes plenty of bonkers details (“waq-waq trees” are particularly odd), its circular world map does get some things kind of right:

Its exquisite world map, one of the first of its kind, looks bizarre to a modern eye. At first glance, the land masses seem like formless blobs. But flipped upside down, reversing north and south, the wiggly blobs at the bottom resolve themselves into the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. England is shrunken to a faint speck, while Sicily is swollen and plump. Africa has been twisted into the shape of a sickle, and the frilly coastlines of Russia and China have been sanded down to a smooth arc. A band of indigo ocean encircles the continents.


The Syrian war (wars?) is (are) developing on multiple fronts at the same time. Let’s go west to east, for no particular reason. In Idlib province, Turkey’s Euphrates Shield rebel proxy army looks like it may be about to engage Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. This is part of Turkey’s deal with Russia to institute a safe zone in Idlib–for that to actually happen, HTS would need to be taken out of the equation. Ankara began some preliminary operations on Sunday, with Turkish artillery shelling positions in Idlib and reports that Turkish military forces had crossed the border into Syria. There were no immediate reports of civilian casualties in the shelling. HTS fighters reportedly opened fire on Turkish troops who were taking down part of a border wall, apparently also in preparation for the main offensive.

We’ll see if the main offensive ever happens. The Euphrates Shield rebels are not equal to fighting HTS, which means if Turkey is serious about clearing them out of Idlib it will have to be heavily involved in that effort. But it’s not clear Turkey really wants that fight, and HTS definitely doesn’t. If I had to guess, I would say Turkey plans on helping its proxies seize part of Idlib, probably someplace that would serve as a good staging area for an attack on the Kurds in Afrin. HTS will simply retreat out of whatever area Turkey wants to avoid a fight, and Turkey will declare victory. This means the Idlib de-escalation zone will eventually fall apart, but they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it.

Speaking of the de-escalation zones, they don’t seem all that de-escalated of late. Monitors have reported “hundreds” of Syrian and Russian airstrikes over the past couple of weeks, most of them against civilian areas and many in places–like Idlib and the Damascus suburbs–that are supposed to be off limits now. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that one strike on Sunday hit an open-air market in Maarat al-Numan, in Idlib, killing at least 11 civilians.

Moving east, a field commander with the Syrian Democratic Forces told reporters that the “final assault” to drive ISIS out of Raqqa should begin Sunday night. Which means it’s already started. The city’s remaining ISIS fighters are reportedly coalescing around its sports stadium, so that’s expected to be where they make their last stand, though they also still control Raqqa’s main hospital so that could factor into things as well. The assault is expected to take a week.

Russia said Saturday its airstrikes had killed 180 fighters in and around Deir Ezzor over the previous 24 hours. At least 120 of these were ISIS fighters–the other 60 are being categorized as “foreign mercenaries” caught crossing into Syria from Iraq, which seems like it would also mean ISIS but what do I know? The Russians also claim that they recently killed a number of senior ISIS commanders including somebody named “Omar al-Shishani.” This is noteworthy because AFP is treating him as though he were Abu Omar al-Shishani, the Georgian ISIS commander whom the US killed–ISIS even acknowledged it–last July. I have no idea if the Russians claimed to have killed “Omar al-Shishani” or “Abu Omar al-Shishani”–I only know what AFP has reported, which is “Omar al-Shishani”–but those names are not the same (the former is “Omar, the Chechen” while the latter is “Omar’s father, the Chechen,” who I think we can all agree would be two different people). For AFP to report one and treat it like the other is confusing and pretty shoddy work.

Yet further east, the Syrian army and its allies have reportedly encircled Mayadin, the town in eastern Deir Ezzor province that ISIS used as its rallying point as its leaders fled Raqqa and then Deir Ezzor city. It’s not clear if any ISIS leaders remain in the town–most likely they’ve already fled for someplace else, but on the other hand they’re starting to really run out of places to go. Syrian forces that had actually broken into the town on Saturday were reportedly driven back out by ISIS on Sunday.


Cooler heads seem to be prevailing for the moment with respect to the Kurdistan independence movement. KRG President Masoud Barzani has been meeting with officials from Baghdad, including parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri and vice presidents Ayad Allawi and Osama al-Nujaifi, the latter two informally as both were in Sulaimaniyah for the funeral of Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani. Nothing seems to have come from any of these meetings, which is unsurprising, but the fact that they’re happening is important insofar as it means no fighting has broken out. Likewise, it’s a good sign that Baghdad says it won’t “initiate” a military confrontation with the Kurds, even though that’s a pledge that can be finessed if push comes to shove.

Iraq’s governates (Wikimedia | Rafy)

I have another interesting historical piece for you today, courtesy of Joel Wing’s Musings on Iraq blog. He’s written a brief look at how Iraq’s provinces got their current names under the Baathists. There was a lot of early Islamic history that went into the naming decisions.


A suspected US drone strike reportedly killed five al-Qaeda operatives in Marib province on Sunday. Meanwhile, I think we should all take a moment to consider the true victims of the Yemeni civil war: the Saudis, who have been forced to fend off several Yemeni rebel attacks on border villages like Khubah. The Saudis didn’t ask for this–I mean, they did enter the war unprovoked and begin bombing funeral processions, hospitals, schools, etc., and they are blockading the country into starvation, and they’ve shown no inclination to let up even as the war has deteriorated into a brutal stalemate, and they do periodically threaten to destroy the only Yemeni port that can accommodate large humanitarian relief shipments…I’m sorry, feel like I’ve lost my train of thought. Anyway if you’re in to morbid humor, this Middle East Eye piece has it for you:

Hameed ducked slightly as he got out of his armoured vehicle, for fear of Houthi snipers and fighters lurking in the hills.


He described the area as a “kill zone”. But, he added, “as you can see, we are in full control here”.

“The Houthis have turned part of Saudi Arabia into a kill zone, but we’re in full control. Nothing to see here, you could be shot at any minute, everything’s normal.”


In the wake of Ankara’s arrest of a US consulate worker on allegations that he has links to the Gülen movement, the US has suspended non-immigrant visa services at its Turkish diplomatic facilities. As far as I know that means any Turk trying to enter the US for any purpose other than moving here is pretty much SOL for the time being–Turkey and the US don’t have any kind of visa-free travel arrangements, except (I think) for transiting cruise ship passengers–while Washington reassesses “the commitment of the Government of Turkey to the security of U.S. Mission facilities and personnel.”


Israeli forces say they destroyed an “outpost” used by Hamas on Sunday after a rocket was fired from Gaza into Israel.


A Saudi national named Mansour al-Amri killed two security guards on Saturday, before being killed by other guards, in an attack on the king’s palace in the city of Jeddah. There’s no word on Amri’s motive or any ties to ISIS or al-Qaeda.


Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Mohammad Ali Jafari has reportedly, according to Iranian state media, threatened America’s military bases in the Middle East should the Trump administration designate the IRGC a terrorist organization and impose new sanctions on Iran:

“As we’ve announced in the past, if America’s new law for sanctions is passed, this country will have to move their regional bases outside the 2,000 km range of Iran’s missiles,” Guards’ commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said, according to state media.

If you suppose that Jafari is trying to get Trump to back off then this is an exceedingly stupid way of going about that. But my guess is that Jafari wants Trump to make this designation. The IRGC is already so heavily sanctioned that designating it a terrorist organization is practically almost meaningless, but it would be a big symbolic act…one that Jafari and the IRGC could proudly carry like a banner in Iran. The IRGC is constantly jockeying for as much domestic influence as it can get, but particularly nowadays with the selection of a new Supreme Leader looming probably in the near future. So I think they’ll be quite happy to be Donald Trump’s Mortal Enemy or whatever. Hassan Rouhani, who is not aligned with the IRGC/extreme conservative/Principlist wing of Iranian politics, is also putting up a very public resistance to Trump and I would argue it’s for the same reason, to gain support domestically.

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