Middle East update: October 23 2017


During the 20 days it controlled the town of Qaryatayn in Homs province this month, ISIS reportedly executed at least 116 people (in the past hour I’ve started seeing reports that it was 128, but not from anywhere credible enough to confidently relay it) it suspected of collaborating with the Syrian government. Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says that the ISIS fighters who captured the town were mostly sleepers from the town itself, so they were able to pick out residents who were particularly pro-government.

Speaking of war crimes, the Syrian army is blockading the rebel stronghold of eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, leaving its 400,000 residents in danger of starvation or death from treatable illnesses. Infants have reportedly already started dying of malnutrition.

To round out today’s war crimes, somebody bombed Deir Ezzor city to the tune of at least 14 and possibly 22 or more dead civilians. And by “somebody,” I mean “we have no idea who it was and very likely never will.” There’s a chance that this was some errant Syrian or Russian airstrike meant for ISIS near the city that just got botched. But there’s an equal chance that this was a coalition strike that was botched, or “botched.” American Colonel Ryan Dillon, the coalition spokesperson, said there was no reason for any coalition aircraft to be operating over Deir Ezzor because the Syrian Democratic Forces aren’t fighting there. But, hey, you know who else isn’t fighting in Deir Ezzor city anymore? Russia and Syria! So they don’t make very much sense either. Yet here we are, and unless ISIS suddenly developed an air force this strike had to be from either the coalition or Syria/Russia. But whoever did it, you can expect them to continue to deny it and blame the other side.

Despite America’s strong preference that they not, YPG fighters in Raqqa have once again credited imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan for their success, this time by video, following up on their little flag-raising ceremony last week:

The US has been trying to maintain a fiction that the YPG and its parent political party, the PYD, are distinct from Öcalan’s PKK–and to be sure, they are somewhat distinct at the organizational level. But they both trace back to the same leadership cadre, including and most especially Öcalan, and that’s more than enough to put the lie to those American claims. This is why Turkey is routinely chapped that the US is working with the YPG in Syria. But more than that, for the YPG to start praising Öcalan after capturing/destroying Raqqa could be seen as a genuine thumb in the eye to Raqqa’s residents, who are predominantly Arab and likely don’t want anything to do with the PKK or the YPG’s political agenda. This kind of thing is going to add tension to Raqqa for no good reason.


When I talked about Rex Tillerson’s comments on Sunday with respect to the Popular Mobilization Units, I kind of buried the lead, which is that Tillerson told those units to “go home.” Of course these are Iraqi militias, so they are “home.” When I read Tillerson’s comment yesterday for some reason I assumed he literally meant they should go home, as in hang up their weapons and go to the physical dwelling in which they live. But if you watch the video it’s pretty clear that he thinks they’re from Iran and should go back there:

The State Department spin team tried to argue that Tillerson was talking about the Quds Force, but a) the Quds Force is not a “militia” and b) he uses “militias,” plural. Iran has sent militias, mostly made up of Afghan and Pakistani Shiʿa, to fight in Syria, and maybe Tillerson knows something we don’t about what they’ve been doing in Iraq. But the challenge in Iraq, the challenge Tillerson was talking about, is from Iraqi militias supported by Iran. Somebody should tell the secretary that.

Tillerson made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Monday following his unannounced stop in Afghanistan, and he arrived not long after the Iraqi government effectively told him to go pound sand on the militia front. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi spent part of his meeting with Tillerson extolling the PMUs’ virtues. All told it was a great victory for Trumpian diplomacy.

Kurdish elections, which were supposed to happen on November 1, are going to be delayed because, well, the parties apparently haven’t put forward any candidates. Yeah, I guess that would be kind of a problem. Erbil may have more urgent fish to fry anyway–on Monday the Kurdistan Regional Security Council said in a statement that it’s “concerned” about a new Iraqi military buildup along the Kurdistan border.

The Kurds, by the way, took another hit on the international diplomatic front on Monday when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said unambiguously that Kurdish independence/autonomy/whatever must be achieved through negotiations with the Iraqi government. The Russians had opposed the independence referendum but were trying to keep a low profile about it because they’ve negotiated a number of energy deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government. But now that the situation has been resolved in Baghdad’s favor, the Russians are more comfortable taking a firmer public stance. It’s called “leadership,” folks.


Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana is informally holding up the Trump administration’s nominee to serve as the state department’s legal adviser over Yemen. Specifically, Young is pressing the administration for answers as to whether or not Saudi Arabia’s naval blockade is violating US law by prohibiting the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Reuters reported earlier this month that the Saudis, despite claims to the contrary, are blocking humanitarian shipments from reaching Yemen even after those shipments have been checked for weapons.

Three Yemeni soldiers were killed on Monday when their base in Abyan province was attacked, most likely by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters.


A Turkish soldier was killed on Monday when his vehicle was hit by a PKK-planted improvised explosive device in Turkey’s southeastern Hakkari province.

Elsewhere, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan got his wish on Saturday when Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek announced his resignation. Erdoğan wants big city AKP mayors to resign because he blames them–along with everybody else other than himself–for the fact that his imperial presidency referendum did so poorly in so many of Turkey’s biggest urban areas.


Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Monday accused Hezbollah of deliberately firing projectiles from Syria into Israel in order to draw Israel into the Syrian conflict. A recent spate of such incidents prompted the Israeli military over the weekend to announce that it plans to step up its response to such events.


Israeli President Reuven Rivlin opened the new Knesset session on Monday by harshly (no, seriously) criticizing Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for trying to weaken the judicial system and “silence the free media”:

Rivlin, whose position is largely ceremonial, described proposed moves against the court by Israel’s most rightwing government ever, in particular by the far-right education minister, Naftali Bennett, and his allies, as part of “a continuous attempt to weaken the gatekeepers of the Israeli democracy”.


Seated at the dais opposite Netanyahu, he said: “In this climate of delegitimisation, the atmosphere of ‘everything is political’ trickles down to the public, who receive the message that there is no more statesmanship, that there is only ruling and democracy. And in this climate, democracy means that the strong decides.”


He added: “Leadership in a democratic country is the art of creating agreements, not vanquishing opponents. A democratic society is based on building processes, not revolutions.”

Despite the fact that they’re both Likud members, Netanyahu and Rivlin really don’t like each other at all, so the president’s criticism isn’t that surprising. But it may have more weight coming from another Likudnik than it would coming from a Labor president.

Human rights lawyers are working in Israeli courts to unearth evidence related to the country’s arms trade with, shall we say, unsavory elements all over the world. As it turns out, the Israelis have been dealing weapons to militias in South Sudan and to the Myanmar government, potentially making them complicit in two of the planet’s greatest ongoing crimes against humanity–though, to be fair, there are questions about exactly what Israel sold to Myanmar and whether or not any of it would have been used in the anti-Rohingya ethnic cleansing campaign. And that’s not the extent of it:

As well as fuelling the current violence in Myanmar and South Sudan, Israel has been accused of clandestinely providing arms used in notorious past episodes of genocide and ethnic cleansing in places such as Rwanda, the Balkans, Chile, Argentina, Sri Lanka, Haiti, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Israel also cultivated close ties to apartheid South Africa, Mack noted.

That last one at least is old news, and Israel has long had a reputation as the arms dealer of last resort for regimes nobody else will touch, but I think it would be fascinating to get some details about the other cases on that list. Israel’s Supreme Court will hear a petition next week for disclosure on possible Israeli arms sales to the Hutu génocidaires in Rwanda.


Egyptian authorities insist that only 16 police officers were killed on Friday when their convoy was ambushed in the country’s western desert. This is in contrast to several media reports over the weekend–from the BBC, Reuters, and the AP–claiming that more than 50 had been killed. There’s no reason to give Egypt’s authoritarian regime any benefit of the doubt here, but I will say that the AP’s report in particular makes very little sense, in that it counts 20 high-ranking officers among the 54 overall killed–including two generals (!), a colonel, and 10 (!!) lieutenant colonels. It would be a very bizarrely organized police raid that included that much brass. You’d be hard-pressed to find a casualty list like that in wartime.

On Monday, the Egyptian air force reported that it bombed a convoy carrying arms and explosives into Egypt via Libya. Additionally, Egyptian forces say they killed six insurgents in a raid in Sinai.


Steve Bannon, who knows almost as little about the Middle East as his former boss, told a Hudson Institute (naturally) conference on Monday that Donald Trump’s big trip to Saudi Arabia was responsible for the Qatar blockade, Mohammad bin Salman’s promotion to crown prince, and the recent Saudi crackdown on its clerical critics inside the kingdom. He apparently meant this all in a positive way, despite how it reads on paper.


While Trump’s open hostility toward the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is likely to improve the IRGC’s public standing inside Iran, he’s also strengthening the unit in another way by choking off foreign investment in Iran. During the peak sanctions period before the nuclear deal was negotiated, the IRGC was able to take advantage of the loss of foreign investment to extend its reach deep into the Iranian economy via a number of subsidiary corporations that the Guard owns. And while those companies benefited from the influx of foreign capital that came in after sanctions were lifted, they’ll benefit just as much if that capital is cut off and they step back in to fill the gap.

The deeper the IRGC reaches into the Iranian economy, the more powerful it becomes and the harder it is to separate it from the broader Iranian state. This is another one of those things that works to America’s detriment but is great for Americans who want, at some point, to be able to justify a war with Iran. And Trump is making this happen whether or not he actually reimposes sanctions–just the threat of reimposition is enough to send investors running for the hills.

Finally, FAIR’s Adam Johnson has noticed a trend among media outlets publishing stories about Iran:

The general mindlessness in choosing a stock photo is what makes them so pernicious. Editors reach for an image that captures the overall theme of the article while drawing the eye of distracted media consumers—typically as an afterthought, something that accents a piece rather than defines it. It’s not an easy task, but it’s one that, left unexamined, can become a form of propaganda independent of any written text.


One of the most overused and toxic stock photos–and one that highlights perfectly this genre of image making—is the “Woman in Chador Walks by Anti-US Mural” image accompanying countless stories about US/Iran relations. In several variants, the photo shows one or two Iranian women clad in black chadors, faces usually barely visible, walking past a mural of the Statute of Liberty with a skull face.

One of several examples of the mural from Johnson’s story

As Johnson notes, the image neatly conveys two of the laziest media tropes about Iran: anti-Americanism and the subjugation of women. Which is not to say that those two things don’t exist in Iranian society–just that the American audience might benefit from getting a different (literal) picture of Iran from time to time.

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