Middle East update: October 17-18 2017


It shouldn’t be breaking news that ISIS is losing ground fast. It also shouldn’t be breaking news that the group has plans for reverting back to its roots as a predominantly terrorist organization now that its territorial insurgency is being defeated. ISIS isn’t going anywhere, is the point. Even after losing every major city and most of the large towns under its control, it still has considerable territory under its control in which it could hide–particularly if the anti-ISIS coalition starts breaking apart over internal conflicts–oh hi, Kurds and the Iraqi government, I didn’t see you guys come in.

ISIS also has at least roughly ten times the number of active members in Syria and Iraq as al-Qaeda in Iraq, aka the Islamic State in Iraq, had when it was left for dead six years ago. It doesn’t even really need those fighters to survive–as long as there are people out there who find the group’s ideology appealing and are willing to do violence on its behalf, ISIS can exist as a mostly virtual presence with little physical infrastructure. Of course that kind of existence might not do much to advance the cause of rebuilding the fake caliphate, but it’s enough to perpetuate their terrorist threat to the rest of the world. And, of course, al-Qaeda is still out there too.

All of these points are made in this “continue to be very afraid” report by the New York Times, and by all means continue to be afraid if that’s your thing. But where this tale starts to lose me is when we get into talking about those lone wolves who are inspired by ISIS. Because it seems to me that some, most, maybe even all of the people who carry out those kinds of attacks aren’t so much inspired by ISIS’s message as they are justified by it. There’s a difference–the former reads ISIS’s bullshit and is then motivated to commit violence, while the latter just wants to commit violence and finds ISIS’s bullshit to be a good excuse. If you remove ISIS from the equation, remove violent Islamist rhetoric from the equation altogether, that latter group is just going to move on to the next excuse.

Countering ISIS is important, but if your hope is to make a dent in those kinds of attacks then just tamping down on the jihadi presence online is not enough–and yet that’s where most of our attention is focused. Frankly, there’s probably nothing, and no combination of things, that can really eliminate lone wolf violence. But by making it an Islam issue we’ve set people up to believe that there is.


A Saudi commercial flight landed at Baghdad airport on Wednesday. Which seems pretty trivial, except insofar as it’s the first time that’s happened since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. In 1990. So not that trivial, I guess.

The peshmerga’s surrender of Kirkuk turns out to have prefaced a much larger withdrawal across all of northern Iraq. This has left the Kurdish government holding on to only the territory it controls under the Iraqi constitution, the same territory it had back in 2014 before all of this mess started, and means that towns like Bashiqa and Sinjar are now under Iraqi government control. Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani is bravely accepting responsibility blaming pretty much anybody other than himself for what can only be termed a complete debacle, with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party first on his list. He also seems to be trying to argue that the retreat subsequent to the loss of Kirkuk was all part of the KRG’s commitment to abiding by the arrangement it made with Baghdad before the Mosul offensive to return territory its forces conquered back to the Iraqi government. Which is some nifty CYA bullshit. That deal only covered territory the Kurds conquered during the Mosul offensive, not before, and anyway if Barzani really cared about honoring that arrangement he never would’ve conducted the independence referendum in these disputed areas to begin with.

I think it’s safe to say that the issue of Kurdish independence has been superseded by events, as it were. Barzani’s independence referendum now looks like an even bigger mistake than it looked like a few weeks ago, and that’s saying something. The KRG had already lost control of its airspace, borders, and banks because of it. Now it’s lost Kirkuk, without which it’s hard to see how an independent Kurdistan can be economically sustainable. The 2005 Iraqi constitution obliges the Iraqi government to hold a referendum in Kirkuk over whether the province wanted to join the Kurdistan region–by upping the ante to full-on independence, Barzani may have ensured that Kirkuk remains out of Kurdish hands permanently. At the very least, the idea of an independent Kurdistan is dead for now because neither of Kurdistan’s two leading parties–the PUK and Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party–has the residual credibility left to form a government. With their uneasy alliance shattered, Iraqi Kurdistan could very easily now devolve into PUK- and KDP-controlled enclaves.

Haider al-Abadi comes out of this situation a winner, through no real fault of his own, but I’m not sure how long he’s going to feel that way. For now, Abadi has ended a crisis that threatened to either tear Iraq in two or at least lead to a protracted civil war. He’s done so in a way that makes him appear bold and decisive, which means he’s likely secured himself a compliant parliament and another term as prime minister, and which also means Sunni Arabs aren’t going to get any bright ideas. And while ISIS has taken a little advantage of the chaos, there hasn’t been enough chaos for them to really claw back much ground. That said, Abadi’s reliance on Iran-friendly Popular Mobilization militias to carry out this operation has given those organizations a seat at the table in Baghdad, and while independence has probably been taken off the table, the way this situation was resolved has probably made it less likely that most Iraqi Kurds will ever accept being part of Iraq–particularly as stories about alleged PMU abuses in Kirkuk gain traction among the Kurdish population.


Raqqa has officially been taken by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Symbolically this is as big a defeat for ISIS as the fall of Mosul was, if not bigger, but practically it’s even more anti-climactic (and equally damaging–Raqqa, like western Mosul, has been thoroughly destroyed in the fighting). Now the question is whether the Kurdish-dominated SDF will be a liberating force or an occupying one. The SDF has set up a civil council to run the city and try to ensure local support, and so far so good, but even if that works there are longer term questions about Raqqa’s ultimate disposition–Bashar al-Assad is ultimately going to chafe at Kurdish autonomy even in predominantly Kurdish parts of Syria, let alone in places like Raqqa. Outside of Raqqa, the SDF now says it plans to “speed up” its campaign against ISIS in Deir Ezzor province. What that means–specifically, whether the SDF has any intentions of trying to outrace the Syrian army to al-Bukamel on the Iraqi border–is unclear.

Issam Zahreddine, a Syrian general and torture enthusiast who a few weeks ago warned refugees not to return to Syria “if you know what’s good for you,” was killed in recent days by a landmine near Deir Ezzor city. He will be missed–and I mean that literally, because everything about the Syrian civil war is awful.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has released a video of leader Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani alive and in apparent good health, an attempt to rebut Russian claims that one of its airstrikes severely maimed and/or killed him. The thing is, though, the video is apparently undated, and if Jawlani has been fine all this time, why did it take HTS two weeks to release even this unconvincing proof of life? I’m not saying Jawlani is dead, mind you, just that I don’t know that HTS did a very good job of proving otherwise in this case.

The United States wants the UN Security Council to renew the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons’ mandate to investigate chemical weapons use in Syria, which is going to provoke a confrontation with Russia. The OPCW is due to report on its investigation into the Khan Shaykun incident on October 26, after which Moscow has said it will try to terminate the investigation if the organization blames the Assad government. Washington would like to renew the investigation before the report comes out, which is unlikely to get past a Russian veto barring some kind of deal.


The US says its missile attack on two villages in Yemen’s Bayda province on Monday targeted “dozens” of ISIS fighters, which would make it the first major US strike against ISIS in Yemen. But the people in those villages are disputing that account. They say the target was an al-Qaeda cell, and they’re still not sure how many people were killed because US drones continued to buzz around the target and there were fears that they could strike again.


The Trump administration says it will resume regular consular activity in Turkey as soon as the Turkish government complies with four demands from Washington. One is that Ankara turn over evidence that implicates the two US consular workers (both are Turkish nationals) whose recent detentions are behind this latest downturn in US-Turkey relations. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu says that Ankara wants to work with the US to restore normal relations but “will not succumb to impositions” (I assume it sounds better in Turkish). Still, there is a US delegation in Turkey now trying to work things out, so there could be some movement on the visa front soon.


Apparently Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t the only member of Israel’s current government who is trying to quash corruption allegations:

Later that day Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas) proposed shutting down the new Israel Broadcasting Corporation (IBC), in order to fund new settler roads in the West Bank, which Netanyahu floated funding with across-the-board cuts. The interior minister could have solved the budget problem in other ways but it turns out what worries him most these days is the months-old public broadcaster’s low ratings.


It is difficult to know whether Deri’s sudden interest in the corporation’s ratings was the result of an investigative report it aired, according to which Israeli police have gathered enough evidence to indict him and his wife for tax offenses, money laundering and breach of trust.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, says he won’t negotiate with a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas. Since he also won’t negotiate with any other kind of Palestinian government, it seems a bit superfluous to point this out. He probably doesn’t need to worry, as the obstacles to the long-term survival of a Palestinian unity government are still pretty substantial.

At LobeLog, Mitchell Plitnick takes issue with the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO in part, it says, over UNESCO’s decision to classify Old Hebron and its Tomb of the Patriarchs as Palestinian, rather than Israeli, heritage sites. Hebron is indisputably Palestinian–even the Israeli government agrees with this, which is part of the reason why the US decision apparently caught Netanyahu completely off guard. If it’s now US policy that Hebron is a Jewish city, then one has to ask if this administration envisions any part of the West Bank as belonging to the Palestinians.


Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani says that he is “ready to conduct a dialogue” to resolve differences with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the anti-Qatar quartet. Which is nice. The quartet has been saying the same thing. For my part, I’m more than ready to conduct a dialogue with all five nations as to the web address of my PayPal account and how many millions of dollars they should deposit in it. The point is we’re all ready for dialogue. It’s the terms of that dialogue that are the issue.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani says that the dispute with Qatar is hurting the international effort to combat ISIS. Because before this spat started, Qatar and the Saudis were really definitely absolutely playing a major, major role in that effort. No question. Bigly. He also told CNBC on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia is “talking about regime change” in Qatar, which…well, actually they are doing that. He gets a point there.


Saudi religious leaders are going to establish a “global council” of Islamic scholars in Medina to vet religious teachings in an effort to root out extremism. To which I can only say:


This effort is apparently going to center on studying hadith, reports of the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, in order to root out Hashtag Fake Hadiths that are being passed around by The Bad Guys. True attwiw-heads will know that historical reliability of any hadith is very dubious at best and that the various attempts at “authenticating” them that have been undertaken by many Islamic states and scholars over the centuries have all necessarily been politicized and/or affected by the needs and biases of any particular state or scholar. This effort will be no different, and given that it’s the Saudis who are sponsoring it I imagine the output will be much less about countering ISIS’s rhetoric than about countering Iran’s.


Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered a speech on Wednesday and had, uh, a few things to say about Donald Trump:

In a meeting with young academic elites on Oct. 18, Iran’s supreme leader referred to Trump’s address, saying, “The president of the United States displays nonsense; however, this should not lead us to ignore the mischief of the US regime. Everyone should be certain that the United States will once again be beaten and defeated by the Iranian nation.”


He added, “It would be a waste of time to respond to such blathering and nonsensical remarks by the foulmouthed US president.”

Well, that last bit is hard to dispute, anyway. Khamenei later threatened to “shred” the nuclear deal, but only if the US tears it up first.

Iran’s roughly $36 billion deal with three airplane manufacturers looks like it might be the first casualty of Trump’s rhetoric about the nuclear deal. This includes the $16.5 billion portion of that deal that was supposed to go to Boeing, a US company that you’d think President Deals would be keen on helping. The actual aircraft deal isn’t itself in jeopardy, necessarily, but there’s a lot of concern about finding a bank that would be willing to extend Tehran a massive line of credit with the Sword of Dipshit Damocles hanging over its head like this. The Iranians can afford to buy a few new aircraft outright but they don’t have $36 billion in cash lying around to pay for the whole shebang.

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