Middle East update: October 14-15 2017


BREAKING/NOW: Well, you could read everything below, written earlier today. There’s some important material in there. However it’s also been, to say the least, overtaken by events:

The “comprehensive attack” part of this is still unconfirmed at this point, but Reuters did report this evening that Iraqi forces were “advancing” on Kurdish held oil fields and the K1 military airfield in Kirkuk province. The Iraqis seem to want the airfield at a minimum, and Iraqi state TV is reporting that Iraqi forces have taken control of “vast areas”–I have no idea what that means–of Kirkuk province without resistance from Kurdish peshmerga fighters, but the Kurds are denying that.

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 7.46.31 PM
Kirkuk province, featuring the K1 airfield, courtesy of Google

There are some credible reports of fighting coming in via Twitter:

There are reports of fighting in Tuz Khurmatu, a town about 50 miles south of Kirkuk city in Saladin province, with the Popular Mobilization Units having fired on Kurdish positions.

I admit that I didn’t think something like this would happen this quickly, because uncharacteristically for me I underestimated how dumb the Iraqi government could possibly be. I figured the Iraqis would let the Kurds stew in their blockade for a few weeks, deal with ISIS in western Anbar, and then revisit the situation in Kirkuk, unless some rogue Popular Mobilization militia took matters into its own hands. Instead, it looks like Baghdad itself is pushing for a fight with the Kurds ASAP, and ISIS leaders must be sitting in Qaim (or wherever) wondering if they’re the luckiest assholes on the face of the planet because the Iraqis may have just thrown them a lifeline.

I can sort of understand Baghdad’s point–every relevant foreign power is aligned against the Kurds because of their referendum right now, and if you think that’s a temporary alignment then maybe now seems like a good time to strike. But a serious provocation by the Iraqis could increase international sympathy for the Kurds and thereby completely transform this situation into one where Kurdish independence becomes more likely. At the very least Iraq is now on the fast track to yet another civil war.

More to come, obviously.

EARLIER: Let’s start in Kirkuk, where things are deteriorating quickly and, to be honest, inexplicably. Kurdish authorities say the Iraqis gave them a deadline of early Sunday morning to withdraw from military and oil-related sites around the city, which Baghdad denies. Either way, the deadline–if there was one–has passed and war hasn’t broken out yet, so thank heavens for small favors I guess. The Kurds are saying that the deadline was extended another 24 hours. I suppose we’ll find out tomorrow. In particular, the Iraqis want the Kurds to withdraw from a key road junction south of Kirkuk city that enables them to control access to those oil and military sites further north.

Baghdad says that the Kurds have brought in fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to reinforce their lines around Kirkuk. This makes very little sense unless the Kurdistan Regional Government–which most definitely does not get along with the PKK–has decided to give up any hope of ever getting Turkey back on its side. The KRG is naturally denying it. The Kurds are further refusing to go along with Baghdad’s main demand, which is that they repudiate the results of their independence referendum. The Iraqis haven’t really signaled that they’re prepared to start talking without that concession, but there’s virtually no way the Kurds are going to do that.

Patrick Wing argues that this is just brinksmanship on Baghdad’s part, something to which Iraqi politicians are fairly accustomed. And so far life in Kirkuk city itself seems unaffected. But somebody blew up the headquarters of Korek Telecommunications in Erbil on Friday night, and for the first time in a while it’s not clear that it was ISIS. Tensions are high enough that it would be pretty easy for ISIS to nudge these sides closer to a shooting war. Which is part of the reason why this escalation is so senseless. A confrontation between Baghdad and the Kurds would be terrible at any time, but particularly right now with the Iraqis so close to liberating the last parts of Iraq that are still under ISIS’s control. Kurdistan isn’t going anywhere in the next month–the Iraqis can take care of ISIS and then escalate things in Kirkuk if that’s what they want to do.

Additionally, there are some extraordinarily stupid ideas floating around, like replacing current Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a Kurd, with Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, whose disastrous turn as prime minister is one of the biggest reasons (obviously leaving the Iraq War aside) why Iraq is in this mess to begin with. The US is reportedly trying to use its leverage with both sides to de-escalate the situation, as is, again reportedly, Iran–specifically, Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani has met with Kurdish leaders, but his presence in Iraq also raises the possibility that he’s there to offer “advice” to the Popular Mobilization Units, which is potentially troubling. Iran has reportedly closed its border crossings with Iraqi Kurdistan, at Baghdad’s request, which could itself be a prelude to something bad.


Some 3000 civilians were able to flee the remaining parts of Raqqa under ISIS control on Saturday, and by Sunday the Syrian Democratic Forces had begun their last push to secure the entire city. The evacuation may have cleared out the last civilians still trapped in Raqqa, and a further evacuation on Sunday brought about 275 surrendering ISIS fighters and their families out. The SDF estimates that about 100 fighters, mostly foreigners, are still holding out.

The Syrian army, meanwhile, says it has taken Mayadin, the town in eastern Deir Ezzor province that had been serving as ISIS’s “capital,” to the extent it still has one.

In Western Syria, Turkey continues to move forces into Idlib province, ostensibly over the de-escalation agreement there though it’s abundantly clear at this point that they’re preparing to contain and/or move against the Kurds in Afrin. Turkish forces have been coordinating with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, to ensure that there’s no fighting between them and the former (?) al-Qaeda affiliate. Damascus has been demanding an immediate Turkish withdrawal, but Ankara isn’t paying any attention–it believes, not without justification, that these Syrian demands are about looking tough for a domestic audience.

Finally, Reuters has highlighted just how difficult it’s going to be to rebuild Syria with a report about how difficult it’s been to rebuild Kobani:

Islamic State’s defeat in predominately Kurdish Kobani in early 2015 helped turn the tide against the ultra-militant group and marked the start of a more open U.S. military relationship with the Kurdish YPG militia.


But much of the town near the border with Turkey was destroyed, leaving it facing a huge reconstruction challenge and in need of help from the allies that had supported the fight to defeat Islamic State, including the United States.


Electricity still works only a few hours a day and regularly cuts out. The internet, using a Turkish communications signal, is expensive and unreliable.


That, local officials say, is because aid quickly dried up, and the town’s problems could soon be replicated across parts of northern Syria as Islamic State cedes ground.

Compared to Aleppo, or Damascus, or Raqqa, rebuilding Kobani, a modest town under undisputed Kurdish control, should be straightforward. If it’s not going well there, yikes.


Former Yemeni President and current rebel bigwig Ali Abdullah Saleh apparently just had surgery on Friday for complications related to an assassination attempt that he survived back in 2011. A Russian medical team was flown in to perform the procedure. Which means that Russian medical team was allowed to fly in to perform the procedure. I guess if you’re important enough to be of potential value to Riyadh (they see Saleh as a potential counterweight to his uneasy Houthi partners), you actually can get medical treatment in Yemen nowadays. Everybody else can STFU and enjoy their cholera quietly.

Southern Yemeni secessionist leader Aidaroos al-Zubaidi says he’s working on an independence referendum (oh goodie, those are the best!) for southern Yemen that will be held “soon.” He’s also putting together an interim parliament of sorts called the “National Association,” which shouldn’t in any way antagonize anybody.


One of the under-the-radar reasons why the US-Turkey relationship is fraying is that federal prosecutors have charged nine people with attempting to violate US sanctions against Iran based in part on recordings made by Turkish police back in 2013. The recordings, which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insists were faked by his enemies, suggest that at least three of the people being charged were in regular contact with Erdoğan about boosting Turkish exports, though there’s no evidence that he knew about their activities. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that he didn’t know about their activities either. One of those three, Reza Zarrab, is in American custody and, if he’s thinking about spilling the beans, that could be damaging to Erdoğan.


Benjamin Netanyahu says he wants parliament to investigate where Israeli NGOs are getting their funding. Historically, when fringe right-wing governments start poking around the finances of human rights and civil society organizations it’s always in good faith and never a pretext for shutting those groups down, so I’m sure this will be fine.


ISIS forces in northern Sinai attacked multiple Egyptian military checkpoints almost simultaneously on Sunday, killing at least six Egyptian soldiers against 24 attackers.


Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al Thani, who may be the centerpiece of a Saudi plan to form a “Qatari government in-exile,” has reportedly had his assets frozen by the Qatari government.


The former deputy prime minister of Qatar, Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, apparently told Spanish media last week that, when the Qatar diplomatic crisis first broke out, the UAE government hired a private security firm to train a 15,000-man mercenary force to invade Qatar and overthrow the ruling family. The plan was nixed because Donald Trump wouldn’t approve it–which is maybe the most stunning part of this story, because how hard could it really be to get President Prion Disease to agree to anything? Anyway, I wouldn’t give this story too much credence but I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand either.


Contrary to what the Financial Times has been reporting, Saudi Aramco says it is not thinking about scrapping its plans to do a public IPO next year. The Saudis are reportedly struggling to decide on which exchange to list the stock.


There are a lot of takes out there on Donald Trump’s Friday speech about the Iran nuclear deal and America’s approach to Iran more broadly, so I think the easiest thing to do is link you to some of them:

  • Ryan Costello of the National Iranian American Council examines the four potential threats to the deal after Friday’s speech
  • Robin Wright explains the degree to which Trump is isolating the United States by threatening an agreement that, apart from Israel and a few Arab states, the rest of the world sees as beneficial
  • Joshua Landis argues that Trump’s efforts to rollback Iran’s regional stature are likely to create chaos, rather than reducing it, in the Middle East
  • Former International Atomic Energy Agency boss Mohamed Elbaradei thinks this whole effort seems a lot like the Bush administration’s actions in the run up to the Iraq War
  • Eli Clifton discusses the role that major pro-Israel Republican donors are playing in formulating this administration’s Iran policy

Trump’s handlers are in full “let me rephrase that” mode, clarifying that the US is not abrogating the Iran deal even though what Trump did on Friday, to the extent that it injected a massive amount of uncertainty into the decision-making processes of companies that are looking to maybe invest in Iran, is a clear breach of the accord. Nikki Haley told “Meet the Press” Sunday morning that the administration just doesn’t want Iran to become “the next North Korea,” which is a strange argument coming from an administration that’s threatening the agreement that prevents that from happening. Inside Iran, meanwhile, and as I’ve said multiple times, Trump is strengthening the most reactionary elements of the Iranian political establishment, something that is most definitely not in American interests–unless, of course, you think that American interests can only be served by a military confrontation with Tehran.

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