World update: October 16 2017



This is obviously the day’s big story. Last night’s Iraqi advance into Kirkuk province appears in the light of day to have ended with Baghdad in control of pretty much all of its targets–oil fields, the K1 military base, and even the city of Kirkuk itself. Aside from a few small skirmishes that understandably caused a great deal of concern last night but that the US now calls “misunderstandings,” the Iraqi seizure of these areas seems to have been mostly peaceful, as Kurdish peshmerga fighters opted to retreat rather than stand and fight. At some point this retreat was arranged with the Iraqis, but when and by whom remains unclear.

That last part is what’s driving the story today, because the Kurdish flight has prompted accusations of cowardice and betrayal between the two main Kurdish parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (other charges floating around include the accusation that Iran-backed forces were preparing to destroy Kirkuk if the Kurds didn’t fall back). Their unity government has been holding Iraqi Kurdistan together and made the independence referendum possible, but it’s also papered over some deep-seated tension between them that the referendum seems to have exacerbated. Masoud Barzani’s KDP has definitely been more enthusiastic about the referendum and independence drive than the PUK, though some elements of the PUK–Kirkuk governor Najmiddin Karim, for example–have been pretty keen on the referendum themselves.

Musings on Iraq’s Patrick Wing argues that this conflict is unlikely to last very long, and there’s a good chance he’s right. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has presumably silenced his critics in Baghdad–who have apparently been louder than I thought–who wanted him to Do Something about the Kurds, and managed to back up some of his more reckless demands that the Kurds withdraw from disputed areas like Kirkuk. The US is now going to work double-time to try to keep things from flaring up again, particularly insofar as the mission to defeat ISIS in Iraq is literally hanging in the balance.

But last night’s events may have fundamentally changed the trajectory for Kurdish independence overall, and when I say that I want to be clear that I’m not giving the Iraqis credit for this because they haven’t done themselves any favors in the long run. The peshmerga can threaten to make Baghdad pay for what happened all they want, but at this point that seems completely far-fetched. If they weren’t able or prepared to defend Kirkuk, there’s no reason to think they can retake it now that they’ve given it up. There’s particularly no reason to think they can retake it if the old KDP-PUK division has been reopened. And even if it hasn’t, there’s a strong argument to be made that both parties and their affiliated peshmerga so badly exposed themselves last night that they’ve blown their credibility with the Kurdish people.

At the same time, this incident isn’t exactly going to make any Kurds think twice about supporting independence. There were some eerie similarities between the Iraqi advance into Kirkuk and the way Iraqi Kurds were often treated during the bad old Saddam Hussein days, and don’t think those similarities went unnoticed. The KDP and PUK may have discredited themselves to the point where independence becomes harder to achieve for now, but Baghdad likely discredited any lingering ideas about maintaining a united Iraq.

If the Iraqi offensive last night was a surprise, the Kurds’ collapse was shocking. It will take some time to figure out how big an impact it’s going to have in Kurdistan, but it will have an impact.


Raqqa is now in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces, with an official declaration of victory expected to come soon. “A few dozen” ISIS fighters are thought to still be in the city, though, so a cleanup operation will be in order.

Israeli planes attacked Syrian anti-aircraft batteries on Monday after those batteries fired upon them in Lebanese airspace. What were the Israelis doing in Lebanese airspace? None of your business, I guess.


A US strike on two ISIS training camps in Yemen’s Bayda province reportedly killed “dozens” of the group’s fighters on Monday.


Two Turkish soldiers were killed by an IED in northern Iraq on Monday. The Turkish government initially said they were killed in southeastern Turkey but later changed its story. It’s not clear why they were on Iraqi territory.

The Turkish government is extending the state of emergency it imposed after last year’s coup attempt. In other news, I can confirm that the sun will disappear for several hours overnight but reappear tomorrow morning.


Lebanese President Michel Aoun says that his country is no longer able to handle large numbers of Syrian refugees, and with peace more or less returning to some parts of Syria he wants those refugees to start returning to Syria. Under international law it’s a serious offense to send refugees back into a war zone, and while parts of Syria are calm at this point, the United Nations does not believe that it’s safe for refugees to go back.


The Israeli government last week announced new plans to build nearly 3400 additional settler housing units in the West Bank, but when its planning committee convenes to consider the units this week it will likely reject most of them. Benjamin Netanyahu is ironically more sensitive to upsetting Donald Trump, the most pro-settlement president America has had yet. He’s also keen to avoid antagonizing Arab governments that are warming to Israel over their mutual hostility toward Iran. On the other hand, Netanyahu has to appease the settler community or his government will collapse. Plus he’s an asshole. It’s a real tightrope job.


ISIS’s Sinai branch claims to have fired two rockets into Israel on Sunday, but their story hasn’t yet been confirmed.


China has reportedly offered to buy five percent of Saudi Aramco outright and may be prepared to pay according the $2 trillion that the Saudis have valued the company at overall. That would eliminate Riyadh’s need to find a market on which to list the company, eliminate any transparency requirements that would come along with taking Aramco public, and ensure that the Saudis get what they want rather than what the market dictates. Oil prices being what they are, there’s good reason to think that the market will not value Aramco as high as the Saudis do, and that could be embarrassing on top of the financial problem it would pose for Riyadh.



Ömürbek Babanov conceded on Monday, so there’s little doubt that Kyrgyzstan’s next president will be establishment favorite Sooronbai Jeenbekov. There is, however, considerable doubt about the manner in which Jeenbekov won the election. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said afterward that, while the campaign was overall fairly competitive, there are some concerns about voter pressure, vote buying, and other potential irregularities. Babanov hasn’t ruled out contesting the results if more evidence is uncovered.


A suspected US drone strike in the Kurram region, close to the Afghan-Pakistan border, reportedly killed 20 militants on Monday. It’s believed the target was a Haqqani Network compound. It was apparently close enough to the border that it’s not entirely certain the strike was on Pakistani soil.


With Isnilon Hapilon and the Maute brothers all reportedly dead, the 30 or so remaining ISIS-aligned fighters in Marawi are reportedly being led by their Malaysian recruiter/financier, Mahmud Ahmad, who once allegedly trained at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. Reuters has more on this guy.

An increasing number of Philippine citizens believe that President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign is leading to extrajudicial killings by police, but they don’t seem to care very much. Despite 73 percent saying they believe extrajudicial killings are taking place, 88 percent support the effort.



Leaders of South Sudan’s various opposition groups are meeting in Kenya this week to try to iron out their differences ahead of the possible resumption of peace talks. The Kenyan foreign ministry claims not to have any knowledge of the meeting, which would be pretty odd if true (it’s probably not true).


The death toll from Sunday’s terrorist attack in Mogadishu has now climbed over 320. The true count could be considerably higher–the heat caused by the initial explosion and the subsequent fuel truck explosion could well have burned some victims to ash. There’s still no claim of responsibility but Somali authorities are pretty sure this was al-Shabab’s doing and say they have a member of the cell in custody. As I said yesterday, the death toll may be high enough that even al-Shabab is uncomfortable putting its name to the attack–and already there have been reports of Somalis protesting against the terror group, so the public impact of this attack is definitely working against them. People are also angry at police, saying that the country’s lax and even compromised security services helped enable this to happen.


Human rights organizations say that the Kenyan government may have killed as many as 67 people in responding to protests that have taken place since the country’s now-voided presidential election in August.



Kosovo’s prime minister, Ramuch Haradinaj, is calling on the United States to help mediate talks between his country and Serbia. The Serbians of course still consider Kosovo rightfully a part of their country, and aside from the potential for revisiting the Kosovo War of the 1990s the fact that these two countries can’t come to some kind of accord is helping to keep both out of the European Union. Kosovo is further blocked from joining the United Nations thanks to Russian and Chinese vetoes at Serbia’s behest.


Daphne Caruana Galizia, the main journalist behind the Panama Papers story, was murdered by a car bomb in Malta on Monday. The list of powerful people who would like to stifle the Panama Papers story is massive, and naturally nobody has claimed responsibility for killing her.


The Spanish government on Monday jailed the leaders of Catalonia’s two largest independence organizations, the Catalan National Assembly’s Jordi Sànchez and Omnium’s Jordi Cuixart. Demonstrations are planned in Catalonia tomorrow over their arrests. Meanwhile, Madrid has given Catalan leaders until Thursday to back off of their independence plans or risk the Spanish government assuming direct rule over the region.



Sunday’s surprising (?) result in Venezuela’s state elections, in which at least 17 of the country’s 23 governorships were won by members of Nicolás Maduro’s Socialist Party, is naturally being met with opposition by the, uh, opposition, and skepticism internationally. The results are almost too surprising to be believed–Maduro’s approval rating is in the tank even when you factor in the Donald Trump Effect (anything Trump dislikes becomes more popular, and vice versa), and yet his party is supposed to have taken 54 percent of the vote overall and won states that are considered strong opposition areas. Anything can happen in politics, but this is a bit of a stretch. On the other hand, apart from a general sense that this outcome was too unbelievable to be genuine, there’s been no outpouring of opposition claims of voting irregularities. And turnout, which is the opposition’s best friend these days, was a mere 61 percent–low enough for Maduro’s committed base to theoretically have carried the vote, though even at that this result is still a reach.

In hindsight, it might have been better for the opposition to boycott these votes–state governors are unlikely to have much power under the constituent assembly anyway, so why give this vote the legitimacy of contesting it? But then again, at some point the opposition has to oppose Maduro at the ballot box, or else it’s not much of an opposition. Of course, by running and losing the opposition now has the worst of both worlds–they legitimized these elections and they look totally ineffectual.

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