Middle East update: October 20 2017


Iraqi forces took the last Kurdish-held district in Kirkuk province on Friday, following–and here’s where it gets bad–a three hour battle with Kurdish peshmerga. That’s the first fighting between the Iraqis and the Kurds since those skirmishes that took place during the Iraqis’ initial move into Kirkuk, and reports suggest that it’s been much heavier than those earlier clashes. This could be a sign of bad things to come–the Iraqis are now sitting a scant 50 km from the Kurdish capital, Erbil, which is undoubtedly going to cause more tension moving forward.

Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly started lobbying European leaders to support the Kurds and pressure Baghdad to ease up. While Netanyahu’s motives are self-interested (and his supposed support for Kurdish self-determination is hypocritical to the extreme), his help might actually be valuable to the Kurdistan Regional Government, which burned a whole lot of international goodwill, not to mention cohesion within Iraqi Kurdistan, by pursuing its independence referendum.


That’s drone footage of Raqqa from the AP. The Syrian Democratic Forces declared the city free from ISIS fighters on Friday, which leaves two big problems before residents can come back: removing ISIS’s booby traps and, as you can see above, the fact that 80 percent of the city is in ruins. Then the question becomes what happens to the city itself. The SDF says the city will be part of a “federal Syria” that bears no resemblance to the kind of Syria we assume Bashar al-Assad wants to see. Kurdish autonomy might be one thing, but Raqqa isn’t a Kurdish city and Assad most likely wants it back. Will he fight for it? Will the SDF’s Kurds fight to keep it? Will the people of Raqqa be satisfied either way? The Kurds are trying to win some goodwill among the city’s residents, but they likely lost a fair amount of it when they decided to honor PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan there earlier this week.

There’s a similar question about what will happen in Deir Ezzor province, currently split between ISIS, the SDF, and the Syrian army. Once ISIS is out of the picture, it will be the locals, particularly tribal leaders, who go a long way toward deciding what happens next.


A Lebanese court has sentenced Habib Tanious Shartouni and Nabil Farah al-Alam, both members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, to death in absentia over the 1982 assassination of Bachir Gemayel, the country’s president-elect at the time. Gemayel’s assassination, as you may know, led directly into the Sabra and Shatila massacre.


Welcome to the new Israeli Left, where the rhetoric about the Palestinians is basically indistinguishable from what you find on the Israeli Right:

Some three months have passed since then. In that time, Gabbay realized that speaking out against the settlements could win him support from the left, but at the same time, there is no doubt that it will keep him away from the premiership. His Oct. 14 statement that he would not sit in a coalition with the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, and another statement two days later during an interview with Channel 2 that he would not evacuate settlements as part of a peace agreement, are lifted directly from the political lexicon of the right.

I hesitate to even write about this because I try to stick to what’s relevant to current events, and nothing is less relevant to current events than the Israeli Labor Party. But if former Likudnik Avi Gabbay thinks that copying Benjamin Netanyahu’s Palestine policy is going to revitalize Labor’s political fortunes, he’s dreaming. If Israeli voters are voting out of animus toward the Palestinians, they’re going to vote for the party that specializes in that sort of thing, not the party trying to copy that first party.


At least 30 Egyptian police officers, though that number may rise further, were killed Friday when their convoy was ambushed while preparing to raid a suspected Hasm Movement hideout in Egypt’s western desert. It’s likely Hasm was behind the attack, but that’s not 100 percent certain.


One of the side effects of the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar has been the rapid development of a Qatari farming sector. Which, having lived there, seems ridiculous to me, but it’s definitely happening. One Qatari firm is creating a dairy operation from scratch that will eventually be able to meet the country’s milk needs. The milking operation is (naturally, since the Qataris can afford it) the best money can buy, which sounds horrible for the cows but includes recycling their manure into fertilizer for Qatari crops. This is a long-term project, but if it succeeds then much of the initial damage the blockade did to the Qatari economy is going to ease over time, which means the Saudis and company will have to either back down–or escalate.


The recent rapid improvement in ties between Saudi Arabia and Iraq has been pushed heavily by the Trump administration as a way to–what else?–counter Iran, according to Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen:

Bolstering Iraq’s ties with Iran’s chief regional rival Saudi Arabia is one way Washington and Western allies are trying to balance out Iran’s sway and encourage Iraq’s independence. Those nascent ties have been visible in a series of meetings, visits and actions the past few months. Those include a series of visits of Iraqi Shiite politicians, including firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, to Saudi Arabia, and of Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir to Baghdad; the visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, this past June; the announcement in August of plans to reopen the Saudi-Iraq border crossing near Arar for the first time since 1990; and the first Saudi commercial flight from Riyadh to Baghdad in 27 years, which landed Oct. 18.


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the Trump administration does not intend to interfere with business deals that European companies are pursuing with and in Iran. This could ease some of the consternation those European firms have been feeling really since Donald Trump won last year’s election, but it’s also so vague as to be meaningless. The administration may not want to interfere with deals that are being made right now or have already been made, but it certainly wants to interfere with potential future deals unless Iran agrees to revise the nuclear deal on Trump’s terms.

Finally, I have to ask why our media allows itself to be spun so badly by people who want war with Iran. Take the AP’s Richard Lardner, for example:

U.S. sanctions against Iran automatically would kick in if Tehran violates new constraints, according to a draft Republican bill sought by President Donald Trump as he tries to unravel the landmark 2015 international accord to prevent Iran from assembling an arsenal of atomic weapons.


The draft bill, crafted by GOP Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Tom Cotton of Arkansas with input from the Trump administration, wouldn’t necessarily violate the Iran nuclear deal if passed into law. But the measure, obtained by The Associated Press, could still end up derailing the agreement by holding Iran to a series of requirements not previously agreed to when the deal was forged by the U.S. and other world powers two years ago.

That framing is false, based on good PR by the folks at Foundation for the Defense of Democracies or some other neoconservative PR outfit. Corker-Cotton absolutely violates the nuclear deal by trying to unilaterally eliminate the deal’s sunset clauses. Imagine buying a car on a five year loan, and in year two the bank calls and says it’s decided you’ll actually need to keep making payments on the same car for the rest of your life. Would you say that what the bank has done doesn’t necessarily violate the original terms of your loan, but that it could still derail your agreement? I bet you wouldn’t. But that’s basically what the people pushing Corker-Cotton want you to think is the case here, because it helps them seem more reasonable.

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