Middle East update: October 11 2017


A suicide bomber struck a cafe and killed at least 11 people on Wednesday in the town of Heet, just northwest of Ramadi.

The Iraqi commander in Hawijah officially declared the military operation there over yesterday. In the course of the fighting, which was over so quickly it almost doesn’t warrant being called a “campaign,” the Iraqis estimate that 385 ISIS fighters were killed and more than 1000 surrendered–to the Kurds, interestingly. The Iraqis will presumably now resume their operation in western Anbar province–despite their decision to conduct both operations simultaneously, Anbar clearly got sidelined while the focus was on Hawijah. The towns of Rawah and Qaim are expected to be the toughest remaining Iraqi targets, but if you ask me the most challenging thing about Anbar is and will continue to be trying to ensure that few or no ISIS fighters manage to slip out of the Iraqi net, either to return home or to stay and establish cells for a long-term destabilization campaign inside Iraq.

You can see where things stand on the Iraqi Joint Operations Command’s October 10 map (black is still in ISIS control, dark green covers areas that have been liberated from ISIS by the Iraqis:

Speaking of destabilizing Iraq, let’s talk about Kurdistan:

An Iraqi federal court has ordered the arrest of Kurdistan officials involved in overseeing a referendum last month on the region’s independence.


The arrest warrants, issued by Baghdad’s Rusafa investigation court, apply to members of the Kurdistan Region’s electoral commission.

If Iraqi authorities try to execute those warrants, it’s hard to believe that the Kurdistan Regional Government won’t resist. The KRG on Wednesday started warning of an impending Iraqi and/or Popular Mobilization attack on Kirkuk, which would obviously lead to serious fighting but even the warning is itself destabilizing. Kirkuk’s Turkmens, who make up a small but substantial portion of the province’s population (there’s been so much population movement in Kirkuk that there’s no reliable recent demographic information), are firmly opposed to its incorporation into Kurdistan and are mobilizing both politically and militarily to counter the independence movement, adding another potentially destabilizing force to the mix.


Three suicide bombers struck a police station in Damascus on Wednesday, killing at least one person two people. ISIS claimed responsibility, as it did for another attack on a different police station in the city last week.

Reuters says that its reporters have spoken with farmers in eastern Syria who supplied wheat to the Syrian government while that part of the country was under ISIS’s control earlier in the civil war, as well as with a couple of the traders who made the arrangement possible. Hossam al-Katerji, a member of the Syrian parliament, allegedly arranged the deals via middle men so as not to have direct contact with ISIS, and in return the traders gave ISIS 20 percent of the grain they bought while the farmers paid ISIS the customary 10 percent zakat tax on their earnings.

On the one hand, this arrangement–if true–renders hollow some of Bashar al-Assad’s criticisms (which are still being echoed by Russia, possibly even to deflect from this Katerji story) about the US and Turkey turning a blind eye toward ISIS. On the other hand, it’s already been picked up by the “Assad and ISIS are the same” crowd as more evidence supporting that thesis. And, look, there’s almost no question at this point that Assad tried very hard to establish ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra as his main opposition early in the war so that he could portray himself more easily as the good guy (or, at least, the less bad guy). So yes, this is more evidence of that, particularly to the extent that Assad’s leniency enabled ISIS to capture eastern Syria in the first place. But at the same time, Katerji was buying food to feed people in wartime, so of all the terrible things Damascus has done over the past six–hell, 60–years, I’m having a hard time getting aggravated by this particular one.

The US-led anti-ISIS coalition says it will not accept a negotiated withdrawal for ISIS fighters remaining in Raqqa. The coalition’s spokesman, Colonel Ryan Dillon, says Wednesday that there’s been “good progress” in terms of evacuating civilians from the last parts of the city still under ISIS control, but that only an unconditional surrender by the estimated 300-400 remaining ISIS members will be acceptable.


Security forces loyal to Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi reportedly arrested ten members of the Islah Party, an Islamist organization that is nominally aligned with Hadi in the fight against Yemen’s rebels, in Aden on Wednesday. They also closed down Islah’s Aden office. The justification was reportedly the assassination of a Salafist imam in Aden on Tuesday, about which I haven’t been able to find any information but in which Hadi’s government apparently believes Islah was culpable. It’s unclear how much this move will impact the already tenuous pro-Hadi coalition–Islah doesn’t have much Saudi or Emirati support because it has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and it’s opposed to southern secession so it doesn’t have any friends in that community either.


I neglected a part of the ongoing US-Turkey spat yesterday because I thought it was dumb, but I’ve decided I was wrong. On Tuesday, a perturbed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that he no longer recognizes US ambassador John Bass as the American representative in Turkey. Don’t get me wrong, this is dumb, both because Erdoğan is fundamentally a silly person and because Bass is literally in his final days as ambassador to Turkey before he leaves to become US ambassador to Afghanistan, but it’s still provocative and certainly adds to the deteriorating diplomatic situation between the two countries.


On Tuesday, the State Department announced rewards for information leading to the location/arrest/conviction of two high-ranking Hezbollah figures: $7 million for Talal Hamiyah, who it says is the group’s head of external operations, and Fuʾad Shakur, one of its military commanders who is also apparently a suspect in the 1983 marine barracks bombing in Beirut. Hezbollah on Wednesday dismissed the move, which should really be seen as part of the Trump administration’s anti-Iran efforts rather than as anything specific to Hezbollah.


I suppose it was only a matter of time before the Saudis went down this road:

Qatari exiles, some with Saudi business interests, are set to declare the formation of a Qatari government-in-exile to push for regime change in Doha, a source briefed on the declaration has told Middle East Eye.


The source, who wished to remain anonymous, said a number of exiled Qataris, already known publicly as opponents of the ruling emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, were preparing to announce the establishment of an opposition government, possibly on Saturday.

It’s important to say at this point that there is zero, and I mean zero, evidence to suggest that there’s any interest in regime change in Qatar. Governments in exile usually have to have some demonstrable support in the country from which they’ve been exiled in order to have any credibility. I could drive to Canada tomorrow and declare myself president of the American government in exile, but understandably people would think I was an idiot. This is pretty much like that.

That said, Saudi money can buy a lot of credibility, so expect to see these guys get much more media and think tank traction than they would otherwise deserve moving forward. Interestingly, many of them already seem to be on the Saudi payroll–for example, there’s Sultan b. Suhaim Al Thani, whose company currently holds a ~$9 billion contract for development in Riyadh. So that’s nice for him. One might wonder whether the Saudis threatened to yank that contract if he didn’t go along with this circus, if one were so inclined.

If they really go through with this announcement, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the Saudis, Egyptians, Bahrainis, and Emiratis recognize these guys as the “real” Qatari government. I don’t know that they’ll want to climb out on that limb right away, but I have to believe they plan to do it eventually–otherwise, who go to all this trouble?


The Saudis are deploying their National Guard’s first aviation wing, equipped with a whole fleet of US-supplied helicopters purchase in 2010, to the Yemeni border. This is a milestone for the guard, which reports directly to the Saudi king without going through the defense ministry and has never had a helicopter unit before. The deployment is intended to be defensive, so the Yemeni civilians these guys wind up killing will definitely be “accidental.”


The closer Donald Trump gets to tossing the fate of the Iran nuclear deal into Congress’s lap, the less it seems like Congress wants anything to do with it. Which is good. Trump is expected to announce his new Iran strategy on Friday, which if it’s anything like his new Afghanistan strategy it will be basically what the US was doing before the nuclear deal, only More and More. But Congressional Democrats who opposed the accord, like Eliot Engel (D-NY), and even Republicans who opposed the accord, like Ed Royce (R-AIPAC), say they don’t think abrogating the deal now is the right thing to do.

On some level this is what Trump wants. If he just wanted to tear up the deal he could do that on his own, so presumably he doesn’t want Congress to do it for him. But he probably also doesn’t want Congress to telegraph its reluctance to reimpose sanctions like this, because it takes pressure off of Iran to renegotiate–which they’re unlikely to do anyway. As for the people advising Trump to take this course of action, well, we know what most of them want and it’s war with Iran. They don’t really care how this shakes out as long as it brings them closer to their goal.

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