Middle East update: October 24 2017

If I post this early, it’s because WordPress is really messed up today and I’m worried that I might lose my work at some point. Anything I miss this evening I’ll either update later or cover tomorrow.


As you might expect what with the campaign against ISIS approaching an end, violence in Iraq has been down for several weeks now:

For the twelfth time in the last thirteen full weeks Iraq witnessed less than 100 security incidents. Casualties were extremely high however because of clashes between the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces.


There were just 60 incidents reported from October 15-21, 2017 in Iraq. That was the second lowest amount of the year with only 52 recorded September 22-28 being lower. Since August 15-21 there has been less than 100 incidents in 12 out of 13 weeks.

This welcome trend may not last if the Kurdistan situation turns violent again, but I think with Kirkuk settled we’ve probably seen the last of–I’m sorry, what’s that?

A Kurdish official said Kurdish security forces known as Peshmerga had successfully beaten back an advance by Iranian-backed pro-government paramilitaries in the region of Rabi‘a, 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the Fish-Khabur border area.


Fish-Khabur is strategically vital because oil from both Kurdish and government-held parts of northern Iraq cross at a pipeline there into Turkey, the main route out of the area for international export, crucial for any Kurdish independence bid.


The fighting so far has taken place outside the Kurdish autonomous region, but Fish-Khabur is located within it, so any assault on the border crossing would mark a major escalation, bringing government troops into undisputed Kurdish territory.

Hoo boy, ok then. The Iraqi military is denying that there have been any clashes, raising the extremely troubling possibility that the Popular Mobilization militias have decided to take matters into their own hands. That would be an extraordinarily unwelcome development. Baghdad does want Fish-Khabur and its pipeline/border crossing under Iraqi control–even though it does lie within the legal Kurdistan region, the Iraqi government asserts the authority to control all of the country’s border.

The Kurds announced on Tuesday that they’re delaying planned November 1 elections–cancelled because none of the parties announced any candidates–for eight months.

BREAKING: This just came out as I was getting ready to hit post–the Kurdistan Regional Government says it has “frozen” the results of its independence referendum in an effort to deescalate tensions with Baghdad. It’s not the “cancellation” Haider al-Abadi wants, so it remains to be seen how his government will respond. More as this develops.


The US-led coalition has denied responsibility for Monday’s airstrike on Deir Ezzor city, which killed at least 14 civilians (22 according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights). From a practical standpoint, assuming this strike was accidental, then it’s probably a bit more likely to have been a stray Syrian strike than anything else. The Syrians and Russians are still fighting ISIS pockets in the city and more importantly are fighting larger ISIS positions near the city, while the Syrian Democratic Forces (for whom the coalition is providing air support) are all the way on the other side of the Euphrates. And while the Russians haven’t exactly avoided hitting civilians during their Syrian air campaign, the Syrian air force is certainly less capable and more prone to an error like this. That said, there’s no reason to give anybody the benefit of the doubt anymore when it comes to civilian casualties in Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told his parliament on Tuesday that his army’s mission in Idlib province is “largely completed” except in terms of dealing with the Kurds in Afrin. Seeing as how the Turks haven’t done anything in Idlib that wasn’t directly related to the Kurds in Afrin, it’s really anybody’s guess what the hell Erdoğan is talking about. Presumably it’s just bullshit.

Also Tuesday, Russia unsurprisingly vetoed a resolution in the UN Security Council that would have extended the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, the unit leading the investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The JIM is supposed to report this week on the Khan Shaykun incident, and Russia wanted to wait to use its veto until after that report. But the US was pushing for a renewal now, before the report, basically to force Russia’s hand. Mission accomplished, I guess. The JIM’s mandate expires next month, and while I don’t want to suggest that Russia is trying to run cover for Bashar al-Assad in shutting it down–well, actually, I do want to suggest that.


The Turkish-US Business Council, which is apparently a real thing, is demanding an end to the diplomatic spat between the two nations that’s resulted in each refusing to issue visas to citizens of the other. Considering that the state department just refused to issue visas to a team from the Turkish justice ministry that was supposed to travel to the US later this month to talk about restoring consular services, it seems unlikely that this situation is going to get resolved anytime soon.

Fans of the Turkish football club Galtasaray have adopted Rocky Balboa as this season’s inspiration for some reason, and they’ve unveiled a banner with Rocky’s image on it in Istanbul. Fans of the Turkish football club Fenerbahçe have decided that this banner is a coded Gülenist message for reasons that I can’t even begin to fathom, and now the actual prime minister of the entire nation of Turkey, Binali Yıldırım, has actually ordered an investigation into the banner. I wish I were making this up. I sometimes joke that Turkey is like if Infowars were a country with Alex Jones as its president, but it’s one of those jokes that has a core of truth to it.

The offensive (?) banner on display at Galtasaray’s stadium


The Israeli parliament is considering two measures this week that will, if adopted, give Benjamin Netanyahu wide latitude to shut down NGOs that oppose the occupation:

They will examine proposals for a committee of inquiry into groups receiving foreign funding, and a provision in the so-called “NGO law” advanced by Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing coalition that would allow the state to shut down groups it claims are working to “have [Israeli] soldiers tried under international law”.


The moves come amid increasingly harsh rhetoric from Israel’s right wing, which has sought to cast Breaking the Silence and other anti-occupation groups including B’Tselem as “traitors”.

At the Monkey Cage, Northwestern University’s Wendy Pearlman argues that Palestinian disunity has been one of the prime factors in the failure of the peace process, which she says makes Benjamin Netanyahu’s hostility toward reunification “counterproductive.” And it is, if you assume Netanyahu’s aim is peace with the Palestinians. That assumption isn’t supported by a lot of evidence at this point.


Emmanuel Macron hosted Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Tuesday and was kind enough not to “lecture” the Egyptian dictator and serial human rights violator on, well, human rights:

“I believe in the sovereignty of states, and therefore, just as I don’t accept being lectured on how to govern my country, I don’t lecture others,” Macron said at a joint news conference with Sisi in Paris following talks.


“My deeply held conviction is that it’s in President Sisi’s interest to accompany the defense and consolidation of human rights by the Egyptian state, in the context that only he can be the judge of,” the French president said.

Macron, who–let’s bear in mind–thinks he’s the Roman god Jupiter or whatever, may not be comfortable “lecturing” other world leaders, but here’s a thought: how about not welcoming them to Paris for a big, legitimizing state function? Do you think maybe you could manage that? Sisi told reporters that his police have to beat the crap out of political prisoners because Egyptians are extremists who are constantly fighting with one another, and said “we are not in Europe, with its intellectual, cultural, civilization and human advancement.” As we know, that kind of argument is right up Macron’s alley.

Analysts say that ISIS may be stepping up its activities in Sinai–its bank robbing activities, that is:

The most recent attack came Oct. 16 in the province’s capital, el-Arish, when the Islamic State-affiliated Wilayat Sinai robbed a bank, leaving eight dead and taking $1 million (17 million Egyptian pounds). Among the dead were three policemen and five civilians, including the bank guard. Officials said 16 other people were injured and one person was taken hostage.


That Monday morning, three unmarked vehicles (two cars and a pickup truck) carrying 20 Wilayat Sinai terrorists arrived at the downtown branch of Al-Ahli state bank. They deployed quickly and efficiently, an eyewitness told Al-Monitor.

The group’s Sinai affiliate isn’t getting financial support from the mothership any more, so it has to find a way to pay its fighters at the very least. Bank robbing worked for Butch Cassidy, so why not ISIS Sinai?


The Future Investment Initiative, a conference hosted by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), kicked off in Riyadh on Tuesday with a couple of big announcements. Under Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan, the PIF is the tool by which the Saudis plan to continue raking in money even after the oil market stops providing (how else will the kingdom be able to continue buying billions of dollars worth of UK and US military goodies?), and as such it’s already made a number of large international investments in recent years. The goal is to make the PIF the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, in large part via the sale, public or not, of five percent of Aramco.

One of the conference’s major developments was the unveiling of a $500 billion project to build a massive industrial/investment zone in northwestern Saudi Arabia that might theoretically stretch across the Egyptian and Jordanian borders. The zone, called “NEOM”  (apparently a kind of portmanteau of “neo” and the Arabic word mustaqbal, or “future”–finally some new future instead of the typical old future), will–again, in theory–have its own governance, laws, regulations, tax code, etc., entirely outside the Saudi government. It will focus on advanced manufacturing, environmental technology, biotechnology, and other high tech fields, and will be powered entirely by renewables. Theoretically. Feel free to be skeptical right up until the day this place actually opens for business.

The other big development involved MBS trying to convince the rest of the world that Saudi Arabia is going to stop being Saudi Arabia:

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has vowed to return the country to “moderate Islam” and asked for global support to transform the hardline kingdom into an open society that empowers citizens and lures investors.


In an interview with the Guardian, the powerful heir to the Saudi throne said the ultra-conservative state had been “not normal” for the past 30 years, blaming rigid doctrines that have governed society in a reaction to the Iranian revolution, which successive leaders “didn’t know how to deal with”.

First of all, I’m sorry, but you can’t take 30+ years of consistent support for often violent Sunni extremism all over the world and say “uh, Iran made us do it.” Second, Saudi Arabia has been in existence for 85 years. How can any trend that covers 30 of those years be considered “abnormal”?

Third, and most importantly, what is this “return the country to moderate Islam” shit? MBS told the Guardian that “we are simply reverting to what we followed–a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.” There’s been some kind of Saudi polity on the Arabian peninsula since the middle of the 18th century, and it has always been fundamentally rooted in Wahhabism. And, guys? Wahhabism is not, never has been, and never will be “moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.” Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab believed that Jews and Christians were devil worshipers and that Shiʿa Muslims were apostates who should be killed if they refused to repent. That’s the founder of the feast, not some rando cleric who corrupted the original Wahhabi/Saudi message.

You can’t “revert” to something you never verted to (I don’t care if it’s not a word) in the first place. And I don’t believe for a second that this is anything other than some nice-sounding words for a Western audience.

Finally, you’ll be pleased to know that the Saudis agree that Donald Trump should do unspeakable things to the Iran nuclear deal. What a shock, really. They further agree that Iran, and I guess only Iran, is destabilizing the region.


The Iranians have sentenced Swedish resident Ahmadreza Djalali to death on the charge of passing information to Israeli intelligence regarding the identities of several Iranian nuclear scientists–two of whom were among five Iranian scientists executed in 2010-2011. It should surprise nobody to learn that Djalali was denied access to a lawyer, tortured until he confessed, and then given a sham trial leading to his conviction. But other than that I’m sure the Iranians did everything above board here.

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