Middle East update: October 9 2017



ISIS announced Monday that it had captured a dozen villages from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham east of Hama. The Syrian army just drove these same fighters out of a different pocket east of Hama, which means they must have opted to retreat north toward HTS territory instead of east toward the shrinking bit of Syrian territory that still belongs to ISIS. Assuming they went that direction on their own and weren’t steered that way by the Syrian army, it’s an interesting choice–one that could reflect a sense that ISIS’s future in eastern Syria is already kaput.


Human Rights Watch’s Belkis Wille writes about the growing challenge (not just for Iraq) posed by the (predominantly foreign) wives and children of dead or captured ISIS fighters:

The question of what happens to these foreign women and children will not go away. And the number of families related to Islamic State fighters who are detained in Iraq will most likely grow in the coming months, as Iraqi security forces take more territory from the organization. Those in detention now face the risk of unfair trials, torture, and the death penalty. The children caught up in detention, meanwhile, risk being treated like criminals rather than being offered rehabilitation.


Iraq has proven incapable of conducting basic screening Islamic State members and their family members — most of whom carry no identification — much less providing fair trials for those charged with crimes. The truth is that it would be politically toxic for Iraqi authorities to treat Islamic State affiliates and their families “well.” Many Iraqi citizens are resentful of the foreign families that came to the country to live under a regime that abused their own communities, and they want to see them pay a price.

European governments could do a lot of good by coming up with a plan for dealing with their nationals, but it’s much easier for them to wash their hands and let this be Iraq’s problem.

There are a few Kurdistan updates:

  • The Iraqi government is taking steps toward putting on trial any public officials who are believed to have facilitated the Kurdistan independence referendum. At this point it’s not clear if that just applies to Iraqi government employees who helped make the referendum possible or if it applies equally to employees of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
  • Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi is warning of the potential for a civil war over Kirkuk, which I assume means he’s been reading this blog. In an AP interview he called on Baghdad to restrain the Popular Mobilization Units from starting a conflict in Kirkuk and for the Kurds to negotiate over its status with Baghdad.
  • Some Sunni Arab leaders in western Iraq are watching what happens in Kurdistan very closely. There would undoubtedly be some support among Sunni Arabs for a similar move toward federalism, though I’m not sure they’d go so far as to hold an independence referendum if only because it would be a hollower threat than it is coming from the Kurds, who at least have enough oil to build a viable economy.


At least 13 people were killed in cross-border fighting between Yemen and Saudi Arabia on Monday. Nine civilians were killed in a Saudi airstrike in Yemen’s Saada province, while another four were killed when rebel artillery fire hit a Saudi border village.


As rocky as US-Turkish relations have gotten at times over the past few years, I think it’s fair to say that the US decision to suspend all non-immigrant visa services by its Turkish mission has left them as bad as they’ve been in a very long time. Ankara naturally responded in kind, so if you were planning a nice Turkish vacation that’s probably out for now. It’s also asking Washington to rethink its decision. The US move sent the Turkish stock market and the lira tumbling a bit in Monday’s trading, with airline stocks particularly hard hit and Turkey’s central bank looking at a potential interest rate hike.

Ankara is steadfastly refusing to release the US consulate worker it arrested, the thing that set this whole chain of events in motion, and even announced that it’s calling a second consulate worker in for questioning. So the chances of this little crisis ending soon don’t seem very high.


So apparently the Dubai police chief is…an interesting guy:

Dhahi Khalfan, Dubai’s head of security, made the call for Qatar to abdicate its right to host the World Cup on Sunday on his personal Twitter account which has over two million followers.


“If the World Cup goes out of Qatar, the crisis in Qatar will end because the crisis was made to break it,” Khalfan wrote on Sunday.


He added: “The cost to return is more than what al-Hamdeen have planned for,” referring to Qatar’s former ruling emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his son, the current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad.


Khalfan later accused Doha on Monday of “fabricating” the current crisis in a bid to avoid the “burden of costly sports construction”.


“I said that Qatar is making up this crisis and claims that a siege was imposed on it, in order to get rid of the expensive costs of building sports facilities and hand the World Cup [to another country]. That’s why it made up the current crisis,” he said on Twitter.

Cool story, bro

Khalfan also apparently believes that Qatar is the UAE’s “eighth emirate.” It’s good to see such a solid, level head running a big city police force.


Despite the announcement that the US is going forward with the sale of a THAAD missile defense unit to Saudi Arabia, Moscow says it’s still going ahead with plans to sell its S-400 missile defense units to Riyadh.


Though it’s gotten somewhat drowned out in the overall discussion about the future of the nuclear deal, one of the specific complaints that deal opponents have taken up in their quest to delegitimize the accord involves Section T of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This section bars Iran from acquiring or researching technologies and techniques that would be useful in producing a nuclear weapon. This is a permanent ban (meaning it never sunsets), with the possibility of limited exceptions being made in the case of dual-use technologies.

The problem with Section T is that enforcement seems to have been left to the International Atomic Energy Agency, as with the rest of the deal, and the IAEA itself has admitted that it’s not really well-equipped to handle this part of the agreement unless it gets significant cooperation from the Iranians–cooperation it hasn’t gotten yet. This is why deal opponents have begun waving Section T around as a fatal flaw in the agreement. But arms control expert Richard Nephew argues that their concerns are both overblown and disingenuous:

However, Amano never said that he is unable to verify Iran’s commitments in Section T. Rather, he said that his tools are limited and that his job could be made easier with an Iranian declaration. This may be true, but that does not detract from the fact that, in the event of indications of illicit work involving these items, the IAEA maintains the responsibility and the right under the deal to demand access to relevant facilities.


It is worth noting, in this context, that the broad nature of the Section T prohibition helps: Unlike centrifuge R&D or work with specialty metals that might have an application for the missile program (which is outside of the JCPOA), there is no accepted use of these items or technologies that does not involve Joint Commission approval. For this reason, any indication that they’re involved in ongoing Iranian research activities would be a material breach of the JCPOA—and given the subject matter, a highly significant breach at that.

If Iran is caught violating Section T, then there’s no question that it’s in breach of the JCPOA. More complicated elements of the deal, like Iran’s uranium enrichment program, require more finesse, which demands closer IAEA involvement. Comparatively, enforcing Section T is straightforward and can rely on intelligence work. Which would be necessary anyway, because if the Iranians really wanted to violate this part of the deal they would obviously try to do so outside of the IAEA’s ability to track their activities.

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