Middle East update: October 19 2017

Happy Diwali to those who are celebrating! I confess to knowing little about Hinduism and even less about Diwali, so if somebody wants to educate the rest of the class in the comments please feel free.

(As an aside, though there’s usually not much activity in the comments around here, be aware that I have them set to go through moderation. So if you try to leave a comment and it doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry. I get to them pretty quickly and as long as they’re not offensive or abusive they get approved.)


The Kazakh government announced Thursday that the next round of Russia-Turkey-Iran talks in Astana will be held on October 30-31.

The New York Times has put together a photo/video essay of the devastation wrought by battles against ISIS in Raqqa, Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah, and Kobanî that I highly recommend. Kobanî, which was never fully held by ISIS and was secured in 2015, is only just rebuilding from the fighting there. The other cities are still more or less in ruins. There are many reasons–the slow process of clearing out ISIS booby traps, sectarian/ethnic tensions, lack of resources–but the point is these victories over ISIS have come at substantial cost.

The destruction in Raqqa (Wikimedia)

That’s just the cost in property damage, but obviously we can’t forget the human cost–over 1800 civilians killed in the battle for Raqqa alone, according to Airwars. That’s based on the work of independent monitors because the US has decided not to count civilian casualties in Syria or Iraq–though in Iraq, at least, the Iraqi government did so. The anti-ISIS coalition has only allowed as to how maybe five civilians have been killed in Raqqa, continuing its fine tradition of not even bothering to come up with a plausible lie.

Speaking of Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces’ Kurdish YPG/YPJ contingent apparently raised a flag with the face of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan right in the middle of downtown. That didn’t go over well with Syrian opposition activists, and it doesn’t do much to bolster Washington’s argument, made repeatedly to the Turkish government, that the YPG is not connected with the PKK. In other SDF news, the group says it captured a number of ISIS’s “foreign emirs” when it took Raqqa and is interrogating them. It will then put them on trial in its own court system, but it’s not clear whether it will try to send them back to their home countries after that.

Brookings’ Daniel Bynam looks at ISIS’s future in Iraq and Syria. Its survival now depends on its ability to go underground and continue its insurgency relying on guerrilla/terrorist tactics, but Bynam argues that the group’s reliance on foreign fighters, who can’t blend in so easily, is a significant challenge. On the other hand, it will be helped by the same chaotic conditions in both countries that allowed it to get up off the mat in 2014:

As it attempts to regroup, the Islamic State could benefit from the power vacuum created in its absence. To defeat the Islamic State, someone must develop good governance in its former territories in Iraq and Syria to persuade locals to help uproot the group—an unlikely task that has no credible volunteers. The Islamic State is likely to increase violence against local leaders who cooperate with its many enemies: When operating underground in Iraq, the group waged an assassination campaign that killed hundreds of Iraqi leaders who worked with U.S. forces. Such a campaign can backfire if locals have an alternate source of protection, but without that the intimidation might work. In addition, the Islamic State is likely to seize on divisions between its opponents, who are now more eager to fight one another because they no longer face an immediate threat from ISIS. And having developed a presence in Syria, it has two countries where it can mount a revival, as opposed to the one it had in the past.

Sectarian conflict, tensions between Iraq’s Kurds and Baghdad, and the unsettled nature of Syria’s civil war will all contribute to creating an environment where ISIS’s remnants can survive and regroup.


On that note, the Kurdistan Regional Government is estimating that about 100,000 Kurds have fled Kirkuk province since Iraqi forces rolled in and took it over on Monday. And a court in Baghdad has issued an arrest warrant for KRG Vice President Kosrat Rasul Ali on the crime of “insulting” Iraq’s armed forces by asserting that they “occupied” Kirkuk. Insulting the army is apparently a real crime in Iraq, and the fact that Baghdad can’t possible enforce this warrant should in no way detract from how batshit that is.


A suspected US drone strike allegedly killed three al-Qaeda fighters in Bayda province on Thursday.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to cut European Union aid to Turkey over Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism. This probably sounds a little rich coming from somebody whose parliament now calls a far-right neo-fascist group as its third largest party, but Merkel has a point. The aid she’s talking about is specifically intended to help Turkey prepare for accession to the EU, and since that’s probably never going to happen it makes little sense to keep throwing money at it. I would imagine Recep Tayyip Erdoğan might even agree with this, privately–he’d probably rather have the ability to complain about Europe cutting aid to Turkey than to have the actual aid itself.

Speaking of Erdoğan, on Thursday Turkish media reported that he’s asked for the resignations of the Justice and Development Party-backed mayors in three major cities–Ankara, Balıkesir, and Bursa–so as to give AKP a chance to revitalize itself before the 2019 election. Recep, buddy, you know whose resignation would really revitalize the party? Anyway, what this is really about is that Erdoğan remains pissed that, while his referendum to imbue his office with extra powers was successful over all, it did not do well in most of Turkey’s major cities, including several with AKP mayors. Erdoğan has already forced the mayor of Istanbul to resign, and this is just more of that purge. Obviously it was their fault that his referendum didn’t do well in those cities and not, you know, that people didn’t like the referendum.


Lebanon’s parliament passed a budget on Thursday. Which should be routine business, the US Congress notwithstanding, but it’s the first time Lebanon’s parliament has done it in 12 years. As a precursor to passing the budget and to entice some legislators to vote for it, on Wednesday the body approved an audit of past extra-budgetary spending, which is also probably not a bad idea.


The Israeli military struck a target in Syria on Thursday in response to “errant mortar fire” that landed in the Golan earlier in the day. No reports of casualties.

The United States wants Hamas to disarm before it can be allowed to participate in a Palestinian unity government. Hamas has already rejected the demand and, well, I’m not sure what punishment the US, or Israel for that matter, is in a position to administer. Cutting aid? We’re already trying to do that. Halting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations? You can’t halt something that isn’t happening to begin with. Bombing Gaza? Guess what?


On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson–who’s heading for the Gulf on Friday to do some of whatever it is he calls diplomacy–spoke with reporters about the Qatar-Saudi crisis and seemed to blame Riyadh and its cohorts a little bit for the fact that the situation is still in limbo. Tillerson said that “it’s up to the leadership of the quartet when they want to engage with Qatar because Qatar has been very clear–they’re ready to engage.” It’s only been a few months since Tillerson’s boss stood outside the White House and bragged to reporters about how he’d gotten the Saudis and company to freeze Qatar out, so official American policy on this situation has clearly shifted significantly.


The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps says it plans on continuing, and even accelerating, its missile development program whether the United States likes it or not (SPOILER: we do not like it). Iran says its missile program is meant for self-defense only, even though ballistic missiles are not all that great as defensive weapons, but it continues to maintain that it is not developing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

It seems like a relatively minor detail, but one of the things that gave greatest offense to any Iranians who caught Donald Trump’s October 13 Iran speech was his use of “Arabian Gulf” instead of “Persian Gulf.” It generated responses at literally the highest levels within Iran:

President Hassan Rouhani was quick to address this issue in his speech shortly after Trump’s address was over, while Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Trump of selling geographical accuracy for political gains in a series of tweets posted on the same day. Former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Mohsen Rezaie also addressed the US president in a tweet, writing, “Mr. Trump, you had no right to call it Arabian Gulf instead of the Persian Gulf.”

What makes this strange little attempt to needle the Iranians fairly dumb is that Trump, in keeping with traditional US Iran policy, imagines that he can somehow talk directly to the Iranian people, explain that America supports them, and convince them to overthrow the Islamic Republic in favor of some nice, DC-approved replacement. That’s a fantasy anyway, but it’s particularly a fantasy when you go around talking about the “Arabian Gulf,” a term that offends most of those everyday Iranians you profess to support.

Eli Clifton notes that the fate of the nuclear deal is now in the hands of a Republican Party beholden to a cadre of stridently anti-Iran mega-donors:

Indeed, the influence of these key donors—Sheldon Adelson, Bernard Marcus, and Paul Singer—over U.S. foreign policy, particularly with regards to Iran, doesn’t stop at the White House, where combined they contributed over $40 million to various pro-Trump political groups and causes.


Those three donors also contributed $65 million at the congressional level. That represents nearly half of the individual contributions made to the Senate Leadership Fund (CLF) and Congressional Leadership Fund(CLF), Super PACs dedicated to maintaining Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Those contributions provide a considerable incentive for Hill Republicans to stake out a hawkish position on the JCPOA.

It will be interesting to see how much sway the donors have–new polling, which I’ve written up for LobeLog, shows that 3/4 of the American public supports the nuclear deal, so it’s not like Republicans will win much support for quashing it.

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