Middle East update: October 21-22 2017


The Syrian Democratic Forces captured the Omar oil field in eastern Deir Ezzor province on Sunday, setting up a potentially awkward situation with respect to the Syrian army. The New York Times calls this development “a major blow” to ISIS, but it’s really a much bigger blow to the Syrian government. I mean, ISIS was going to lose Omar field to somebody, and Damascus would much rather it had been them. Omar was Syria’s largest oil field before the civil war, and while it’s not known whether or to what extent damage from the war affected its recoverable reserves, it’s still a big prize–along with control over the border with Iraq and over towns like Mayadin and al-Bukamel, it was one of the biggest prizes in eastern Syria. Now the SDF has it, but without long-term American support it probably can’t keep it. About a month ago the SDF captured the Conaco gas field, also in Deir Ezzor, which it subsequently traded to Damascus for…something. They may do the same thing here, or they may try to hold on to it for now (while America is still involved), make a little money, and then leverage it during peace talks later on.

The Syrian army recaptured the town of Qaryatayn, in Homs province, on Saturday. They’d lost it back to ISIS earlier this month. Taking it again helps secure the main highway from Deir Ezzor west to Palmyra, and from there on to Damascus.

Russia on Sunday accused the United States of blowing Raqqa “off the face of the earth” during the operation to rid the city of ISIS, comparing the destruction to the bombing of Dresden in World War II. And, hey, they’re not wrong. On the other hand, I wonder if anybody at the Russian defense ministry has taken a gander at eastern Aleppo lately.


Masoud Barzani is now getting calls to resign in the wake of his independence referendum-slash-loss of Kirkuk debacle. Gorran, the main Kurdish opposition party (at least for now, unless/until the KDP-PUK unity government breaks apart), made the demand on Sunday. Barzani naturally is unlikely to do that.

Speaking of things that aren’t going to happen. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used the occasion of his trip to the Persian Gulf to demand that Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Unit fighters either stand down or join the Iraqi army, and that the Iranian advisers working with them leave the country. Oh for sure man.


Middle East Eye reports on the tense and increasingly frayed alliance between the mostly-secessionist element of the “pro-Hadi” coalition, backed by the UAE, and the Islah party, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood branch. The UAE and the Muslim Brotherhood don’t get along, to say the least, and the secessionists don’t really get along with anybody who doesn’t support southern secession:

But in a country where history is littered with shifting alliances, double-dealing and splits, reality is never black and white. The forces loyal to the UAE, known as the “Security Belt”, support the breakaway Southern Transitional Council, while the Islahi support Hadi’s push for a united Yemen.


Added to this is the current diplomatic war being fought by the UAE and its allies against Qatar, which they accuse of supporting “terrorism” through the Brotherhood.


Those fractures have led to what would seem to have been a foregone conclusion from the outset of war: the UAE’s proxies in Aden are in open conflict with Islah.


The death toll from Friday’s raid/ambush in Egypt’s western desert has reached 54 Egyptian police officers. Many of them were apparently captured by whomever it was who attacked them, and were later executed. The police were on their way to raid a suspected Hasm Movement hideout, which makes Hasm a likely culprit, but the sophistication of the ambush would be far beyond anything they’ve managed to pull off in the past. For that reason at least, ISIS can’t be ruled out.


Five projectiles apparently hit Israeli territory from Syria on Saturday, and so the Israeli military announced that it will “intensify its response” to future such occurrences.

The Palestinian reconciliation movement got a new booster on Sunday when Jordan’s King Abdullah II threw his weight behind the process. Jordan hasn’t been part of the negotiating process–Egypt has been and continues to be the main force behind it–but given Amman’s heavy involvement in Palestinian affairs Abdullah’s support is significant. His financial support may be particularly needed–the new unity government, assuming it actually comes into existence, is going to have to figure out how to pay civil service salaries in Gaza in addition to those in the West Bank, and it may surprise you to learn that the Palestinians aren’t exactly swimming in cash. We may be getting ahead of ourselves, though–Hamas is very insistent on maintaining both its relationship with Iran and its armed wing, and that alone could prove fatal to the unity arrangement.


Tillerson was in Saudi Arabia on Sunday for the first session of the brand new Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Council, which exists in order to–naturally–try to isolate Iran:

In Riyadh for the inaugural meeting of the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Council — a vehicle that U.S. officials believe can wean Iraq from Iran — Tillerson told Saudi King Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that the nascent partnership between their countries held great promise for Iraq’s reconstruction after devastating battles to wrest territory from the Islamic State group and its independence from foreign influence.


“We believe this will in some ways counter some of the unproductive influences of Iran inside of Iraq,” he said at a news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir after the council meeting.

Tillerson’s attempt to broker some talks between the Saudis and Qatar (his other stop on Sunday) seem to have been a bust.


Tillerson had more to say about Iran while he was in Riyadh:

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson warned Europeans on Sunday not to invest in certain Iranian businesses as the Trump administration considers walking away from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions against Iran.


Speaking during a visit to Saudi Arabia, Mr. Tillerson said, “Both of our countries believe that those who conduct business with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, any of their entities – European companies or other companies around the globe – really do so at great risk.” Mr. Tillerson appeared at a brief news conference in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, with the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir.

While the Trump administration continues to hunt for anything they can spin as a technical Iranian violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, what we have here is an actual, whopping JCPOA violation. Tillerson’s remarks are intended to discourage European corporations from doing business with Iran because of the possibility of renewed American sanctions. The nuclear deal expressly requires the six parties other than Iran to take measure to ensure that the Iranians get the maximum possible benefit from the deal. This, obviously, does the opposite of that.

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