Middle East update: October 12-13 2017

I’m posting this early to get my thoughts about Trump’s Iran policy out in a timely fashion for once. I will update as needed throughout the day.


A Turkish military convoy entered Syria’s Idlib province for the first time on Thursday. Remember how I guessed that the Turks and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham would probably try to avoid a real confrontation here? Well I was way off–they’re not just avoiding confrontation, HTS’s forces are escorting the Turks into the province. They’ve assumed a high ground position at a place called Sheikh Barakat, which can be justified from the standpoint of monitoring the whole province but is really noteworthy for being close to the Kurdish front line at Afrin, in case you had some doubt as to Turkey’s real reason for going into Idlib.

Three Syrian rebel groups–Jaysh al-Islam, Jaysh al-Ababil, and the Hamas-aligned Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis–agreed to a ceasefire deal on Thursday covering an area just south of Damascus. The agreement was apparently brokered by Russia and Egypt, without the Syrian government’s participation, so it remains to be seen whether or not it will hold.

ISIS carried out a triple car bombing on Thursday in Abu Fas, near the border of Deir Ezzor and Hasakah provinces, against refugees displaced by the fighting in Deir Ezzor. At least 50 people were killed at last count.

In Raqqa, meanwhile, talks between local notables and ISIS on allowing civilians to leave the last ISIS-held pockets of the city appear to have broken down over the issue of allowing those ISIS fighters to retreat. The US and the Syrian Democratic Forces have to this point refused to consider allowing ISIS to withdraw from Raqqa, even in exchange for civilian safe passage, so it looks like the ~4000 civilians still trapped there are going to remain so unless they can escape, which many are reportedly trying to do.

Finally, the Syrian army reported Thursday that it had captured part of the town of Mayadin, in eastern Deir Ezzor province. Syrian troops briefly held part of the town earlier this week before being driven back out by ISIS. Mayadin was thought to have been ISIS’s refuge when it lost Raqqa and then Deir Ezzor city, but it seems likely that any high level ISIS personnel who fled to there have now fled from there as the Syrian army has advanced east.


After briefly taking the very provocative step of blocking the main roads from Mosul to Erbil and Dohuk on Thursday in response to Iraqi troop movements, on Friday the Kurdistan Regional Government said it was deploying more fighters to the Kirkuk region. The Iraqis say they’re diverting all their forces west to deal with the final assault against ISIS in Anbar, but there have been reports of Iraqi troop movements around Kirkuk.

In addition to the reinforcements, the Kurds reportedly pulled their defensive line back from a couple of predominantly Turkmen towns south of Kirkuk city in order to open space between their lines and Iraqi positions, but the Iraqis are now demanding that the Kurds withdraw from oil fields and military installations around the city. This situation is tensing up much faster than I would have guessed just yesterday, and while I know the Iran news (see below) is today’s big story, and US Defense Secretary James Mattis says Washington is working to keep things in Kirkuk from escalating, I’d keep an eye on Kirkuk for the next little while.

On the other hand, the Kurds have made some moves in the direction of concessions to Baghdad. For example, Jalal Talabani’s son Pafel made a televised statement offering to sack the governor of Kirkuk–Najmiddin Karim, who is a member of Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party–and its provincial council, which PUK controls. Baghdad already canned Karim in September when he insisted that the province would participate in the Kurdish referendum, but he ignored that dictate and, at the time, Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani said the order “left no room for negotiations with Baghdad.” Talabani is proposing a joint Kurdish-Iraqi administration in Kirkuk as a temporary measure to calm things down.

Baghdad, for its part, says the Kurds have to “commit to Iraqi unity” before there can be talks. Since it was the Kurds’ strong opposition to Iraqi unity that set this whole crisis off, this seems like a tall order. They do seem amenable to a joint administration over Kirkuk, but only if Baghdad is ultimately in control of it.


Yemen’s cholera outbreak is officially the worst ever recorded, with more than 815,000 documented cases and expectations that the number will pass one million by the end of the year.


A Coptic priest was killed in Cairo on Thursday in a knife attack. A suspect was later arrested and there’s been no word as to motive, but any incident like this has to at least be considered in light of ISIS’s frequent attacks against Copts. In Sinai, meanwhile, six police officers were killed Thursday in an ISIS attack on a checkpoint outside of the city of Arish.

Given these stories it’s unsurprising that Egypt’s rubber stamp parliament has extended the country’s state of emergency for another three months, even though we all know that Egypt’s indefinite state of emergency is more about empowering Abdel Fattah el-Sisi than it is about protecting the country against threats.


The Trump administration pulled the US out of UNESCO on Thursday, citing the organizations supposed “anti-Israel bias,” which is code for “they let the Palestinians have a membership.” Since it couldn’t very well let the US withdraw on its behalf without doing likewise, Israel announced later in the day that it was also quitting the education and cultural organization. UNESCO expressed disappointment over the decision, but it’s probably not that disappointed considering that the US hasn’t paid its UNESCO dues since 2011 and the chances of Donald Trump making good on that debt (which the State Department also cited as one of the reasons behind this move) are almost nil. The US says it would like to “continue providing American perspective and expertise” to the organization as a nonmember observer, and invitation that I can only hope UNESCO leaders tell Trump to cram someplace uncomfortable.

In Palestinian news, Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation agreement in Cairo on Thursday. The first step will be for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential guard to assume responsibility for security at the Rafah checkpoint on the Gaza-Egypt border by November 1. From there, the presidential guard will assume additional security responsibilities in Gaza over time. Other details haven’t been made public, but the deal does apparently call for Palestinian elections within a year.


The Saudi Aramco IPO, considered the key to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic reform plan, is reportedly about to be canceled. The Financial Times is reporting that the Saudis want to do a private stock sale to foreign governments and other large investors rather than a general stock offer, ostensibly because they haven’t been able to decide on which market to list the company but more likely because a public listing would come with all kinds of disclosure requirements that, frankly, the Saudis would rather not have to meet.


OK, so. Donald Trump unveiled his new Iran strategy (I linked to that Reuters report as a placeholder, but I recommend going to Laura Rozen’s piece instead), such as it is, on Friday, and it manages to be both worse than and the same as what you probably expected. As expected, he announced that he will not certify the deal under the terms of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, arguing that America does not benefit from the accord. In refusing to certify, he will not claim that Iran is out of compliance with the deal because, well, it isn’t, and facts are stubborn things. Also as expected, he will not reimpose sanctions on Iran, leaving it to Congress to decide in the next 60 days whether or not to take that step.

Similarly, Trump plans to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Well, kind of. The administration has been talking about taking this step for a couple of weeks, but it ultimately decided to designate Iran a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” rather than a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.” This seems very much like a distinction without a difference, but under US law the SDGT designation can be made for entities deemed to be enabling terrorism in addition to entities deemed to be themselves terrorist. So the US isn’t strictly-speaking calling the IRGC a terrorist organization, but rather an organization that helps cause terrorism–a bit of a pullback from the rhetoric it’s been using lately. The designation will come with new targeted sanctions against IRGC leaders and related companies and other entities, but frankly the IRGC is already so heavily sanctioned it’s hard to know how big a deal this could be. The big risk is that this designation could draw a response from the IRGC and its allies against US soldiers in Iraq and Syria, but I don’t think that’s inevitable and is probably less likely under this SDGT designation than it would have been if Trump had made a FTO designation. It’s definitely a provocation though, one that makes an armed conflict between the US and Iran more likely.

Where Trump’s “plan” is actually more dangerous than we might have hoped is when it’s taken in conjunction with new legislation authored by Bomb Iran Caucus members Tom Cotton and Bob Corker–yes, the same Bob Corker who thinks Trump is leading us into World War III and that “the White House has become an adult day care center” is still happily carrying legislative water on behalf of Trump’s foreign policy. The Corker-Cotton legislation would remove the requirement that the president certify the Iran deal every 90 days and replace it with automatic triggers that will reimpose sanctions if the US determines that Iran has shortened its “breakout time”–the time it would take them to enrich enough uranium for one nuclear weapon–to anything less than 12 months. It also seeks to undercut the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s sunset clauses by making US sanctions against Iran permanent, so that if Iran’s breakout time is ever assessed as dropping below 12 months the sanctions would be reinstated.

David Sanger’s credulous assertion that this legislation would not “unravel[] the accord or even rewrite[] it” notwithstanding, that’s exactly what it would do. It would represent an attempt by Washington to unilaterally rewrite the JCPOA’s terms and would violate the agreement in multiple places. The good news is that this bill can be filibustered, so as long as 41 Senate Democrats can manage to stiffen their spines–I know, but even Bob Menendez, who’s never met an anti-Iran policy on which AIPAC couldn’t buy his support, has come out against what Trump is doing–the measure won’t pass. Trump threatened to scrap the nuclear deal himself if Congress won’t do it for him, but it’s hard to know how seriously to take that threat, since Trump could scrap the deal right now but clearly doesn’t want to do that. That said, I wouldn’t dismiss the threat out of hand–in the long-run, if Trump remains fixated on killing this deal, he will. He hasn’t even finished his first year in office so he’s got plenty of time to make things worse.

It’s also being reported on my TV that the administration is going to authorize “covert action” against Iranian forces in Syria and/or Iraq. Which, you know, oh boy.

Nothing about what Trump is doing makes sense. Trump wants Iran to abide by the “spirit” of a technical nuclear proliferation agreement that has no “spirit” and with which Iran is clearly in technical compliance. The people he employs to clarify his gibberish say they want to “work with our allies” to contain Iranian behaviors beyond nuclear issues, but they’re going about that by trying to wreck an accord that every American ally, apart from Israel and a few Arab countries, supports unreservedly. I guess we can work with Saudi Arabia to contain Iran by giving the Yemenis a couple more preventable diseases or something. That really seems to be working great. This move isolates America internationally, makes it crystal clear to the rest of the world–hello, North Korea–that any agreement the United States reaches isn’t worth the paper upon which it’s printed, and oh by the way, the IRGC bit is almost certain to actually strengthen the Guard and its political allies inside Iran. Trump is absolutely killing moderate and reformist politics in Iran, which is exactly the opposite of what America should be after–though it’s a great outcome for any Americans who want a war with Iran.

And the really crazy thing is that, for all this potential chaos and risk the administration is assuming here, it has no tangible purpose for doing any of it. The reason I know that is because the White House’s own “strategy” document, possibly the laziest thing yet to emerge from this laziest of administrations, doesn’t contain any actual strategy but is instead just a rehashing of America’s grievances about Iran, including the utterly batshit assertion that the Obama administration was wrong to focus on al-Qaeda and ISIS instead of Iran. Corker-Cotton is unlikely to pass, and so nothing will actually change about the nuclear accord except that the Trump administration will have injected a bunch of uncertainty into the process and made the United States look like it’s acting in bad faith (because it is). All so, I guess, Trump can piss on another of Barack Obama’s accomplishments and make a handful of pro-Israel Republican megadonors happy. Those are great reasons to make stupid foreign policy.

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