Middle East update: October 25 2017


The Iraqi military has started dropping leaflets on the western Anbar towns of Qaim and Rawa, and their environs, in what sure seems like the prelude to a resumption of their offensive in that part of the country. The leaflets say, in part, that “your security forces are now coming to liberate you.” The Iraqis announced some time back that they would be doing the western Anbar and Hawijah offensives simultaneously, then briefly decided to do western Anbar first, then switched to doing Hawijah first, and after that Baghdad’s attention became focused on countering the Kurdish independence movement and so this operation kind of got lost in the shuffle. It shouldn’t be much of a military challenge but logistically, given how wide open western Anbar is, there will be difficulty keeping the remaining active ISIS fighters from just bleeding into the countryside and disappearing.

The Iraqi military seems to be unmoved by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s offer to “freeze” its independence drive. Their new operation to take control of all disputed territories and, more critically, of the Kurdistan region’s borders, looks like it will continue unabated. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has no reason to reassess this operation, since it’s succeeding and greatly shoring up his political position to boot. He’s got Turkey in his corner, since Ankara wants Iraqi oil to start flowing back into Turkey and sees an Iraqi takeover of the border as the fastest way to make that happen. Abadi, not coincidentally, is suddenly feeling pretty good about himself. Between his handling of the Kurds, the common cause he’s been able to make with both Ankara and Iraq’s militias over the Kurdish independence movement, and his recent happy meetings with the Saudis he’s now confident enough to tell both Washington and Tehran that Iraq isn’t the place for them to work out their differences with one another.

Interestingly, Baghdad is now having some trouble with the Kirkuk oil fields it recently seized. The Kurdish engineers who had been operating those fields fled well in advance of the Iraqi offensive, apparently over fears that International Bogeyman Qassem Soleimani was coming to get them, but as it so happens they were the only ones who knew how to turn the pumps on. Oops.


Syrian Kurdish leaders are angry at the US over Washington’s denunciations of Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader Abdullah Öcalan. The PYD party and its armed wings, the YPG and YPJ, have been praising Öcalan quite a bit since their capture of Raqqa from ISIS, which has forced the US to distance itself rhetorically–apart from the fact that Öcalan is persona non grata in Turkey, the US still lists  his PKK as a terrorist organization. Underlying the Kurds’ concerns is a fear that, now that they’ve done America’s work for it in terms of defeating ISIS, Washington may ditch them to curry favor with the Turks. Which certainly wouldn’t be out of the question, though at this point I’m not sure the US-Turkey relationship can be salvaged anyway.


Gulf analyst Neil Partrick tries to unpack the United Arab Emirates’ aims in getting so heavily involved in Yemen:

With the prevailing sense of “mission accomplished” in the UAE’s role in Yemen, increasingly there is debate over whether this might be the time to draw down troop levels. The UAE believes that its intervention in Yemen has been successful in assisting various southern allies in the fight against al-Qaeda and in containing the expansion of the Iran-backed Houthis, despite an unprecedented loss of Emirati lives. Yet this perceived military success does not mean the Emiratis are planning to leave Yemen any time soon. According to Emirati analysts,1 Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the de facto leader of the UAE, values military and diplomatic engagement with the Saudis because of a shared regional interest in countering Iran and because he thinks it maximizes Emirati influence on a Saudi domestic agenda that the UAE hopes includes reining in Wahhabi extremism. Compounding the likelihood that the UAE will remain in Yemen is their sense that only they—not Saudi Arabia or the internationally recognized, formal Yemeni political leadership it backs—are doing the real work of fighting the war and rebuilding infrastructure.

The Emiratis’ decision to work particularly with southern Yemeni forces has increased tension within Saudi-led coalition and increased the likelihood that those forces will at some point attempt to secede, but the Emiratis believe they have no choice because Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi is such a complete non-entity at this point. Additionally, the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Islah Party among Hadi’s supporters is a tough pill for the Emiratis to swallow.

The US and the Gulf states on Wednesday blacklisted eight Yemeni individuals and one company accused of links with al-Qaeda and ISIS. Their sanctions were organized under the new Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, which was formed out of Donald Trump’s big trip to Saudi Arabia earlier this year. Elsewhere, seven suspected al-Qaeda fighters were killed on Wednesday by what’s believed to have been a US drone strike in Bayda province.


A trial of 11 human rights workers, accused–naturally–of ties to the Gülen movement, began in Istanbul on Wednesday. Whether they’re found guilty or not (odds are they will be, given the nature of the Turkish justice system), the damage to human rights-oriented NGOs in Turkey has likely already been done.

However, later in the day the court surprised just about everybody by releasing eight of the 11 workers on bail. Two of them are foreign nationals, which…well, I don’t want to advise anybody to do anything illegal under Turkish law, like fleeing the country in lieu of being railroaded at trial.


The US House of Representatives approved new sanctions against Hezbollah on Wednesday. They’re likely to impose new sanctions against Iran over its missile program on Thursday, but this measure was more about Iran than about Hezbollah per se. It’s great that these guys are so hyper-focused on claiming another pound of Iranian flesh that they’re prepared to go after Hezbollah regardless of the risk that poses, and it is substantial, to the stability of Lebanon’s perpetually fragile political system.


I would urge you to read this B’tselem and HaMoked report into allegations that Israeli security forces have been targeting and abusing Palestinian teenagers:

Palestinian teenagers from East Jerusalem are pulled out of bed in the middle of the night, unnecessarily handcuffed and then made to spend a long time waiting for their interrogation to begin. Only then, when they are tired and broken, are they taken in for lengthy interrogation sessions, without being given the opportunity to speak to a lawyer or their parents before the questioning begins and without understanding that they have the right to remain silent. They are then held in the detention facility under harsh conditions, for days and weeks, even once the interrogation has, in fact, ended. In some cases, all this is attended by threats, verbal and physical abuse – before or during the interrogation.


Once the boys are officially placed under arrest, their parents are excluded from the proceedings altogether. At no point in time do the law enforcement authorities consider them relevant to the process or as persons entitled to protect their children. They are given no more than the very barest minimum of information about what is happening with their son or what rights he has. Only very rarely are they even allowed to meet with their child. This leaves the parents powerless, unable to help their own child.


Assuming another round of attempted Kuwaiti diplomacy fails, as it likely will, the expectation among Gulf states is that the Trump administration will “intervene” in some way to end the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia before it pushes Doha further into Iran’s orbit. There doesn’t seem to be any guess as to what form that intervention might take.

Meanwhile, the International Trade Union Confederation says that it has secured the Qatari government’s agreement to significantly reform its kafalah labor systemKafalah is the legal framework under which Qatar’s expatriate workers exist, and under which they are systematically abused and denied basic civil rights. Among the reforms the ITUC says the Qataris will implement are a change in how workers are given exit visas, guarantees that the contracts offered to workers to entice them to Qatar will not be altered once those workers have arrived, and a minimum wage. The most pernicious aspect of the system, workers’ inability to change jobs, would remain unchanged, but this would still represent significant progress. It remains to be seen, obviously, whether the Qataris will actually follow through.


Switzerland secured agreements with both Riyadh and Tehran on Wednesday to serve as Saudi Arabia’s consular representative in Iran and vice versa. The two countries haven’t had any diplomatic ties since early last year, and while this doesn’t do anything to change that, it will make it easier for citizens to travel back and forth, and that could lead to a breakthrough down the road.


There are signs in Iranian media that Rex Tillerson’s recent efforts to build the relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia have caused a bit of a stir in Tehran. Outlets affiliated with Iranian hardliners and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are warning of an “Arab-American-Zionist Axis” targeting Iran, and argue that the Saudis and Americans will try to influence Iraqi elections next year to their benefit.

On the rare nice story front, on Tuesday an American destroyer came to the aid of an Iranian fishing boat that was attacked by pirates off the coast of Yemen. They helped the crew make repairs and provided supplies and medical treatment to the fishermen.

The Intercept’s Emran Feroz flags and expands upon a Human Rights Watch report from earlier this month alleging, with substantial proof, that Iran has been recruiting child soldiers among its Afghan refugee population and sending them to fight in Syria:

WHEN ABU FAZEL listens to news of the civil war still raging in Syria, he thinks about how he very nearly ended up a foot soldier there. But Abu Fazel isn’t Syrian, nor was he ever a would-be Islamic State fighter. He’s an 18-year-old Afghan refugee, living in the small city of Leverkusen, Germany. He spent most of his life in Iran but fled to Germany, rather than be sent to Syria by the Iranian government to fight on the side of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.


Abu Fazel is one of an unknown number of Afghan teenagers that have been recruited by Iran to fight in Syria’s civil war over the past several years. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch reported that it had identified the graves of eight Afghan children who had died in Syria, and collected evidence of other teenage recruits, some as young as 14. Conscripting children under the age of 15 as soldiers in active hostilities is a war crime, Human Rights Watch noted.


Abu Fazel was 15 years old when he was set to begin training for Syria. He and Ali, another 18-year-old Afghan refugee living in Germany, told The Intercept about Iranian militias targeting teenagers in immigrant neighborhoods.


“We are cheap cannon fodder for them,” said Ali, which is a pseudonym. The Intercept is also referring to Abu Fazel by only his first name because both youths fear retaliation against their families still living in Iran.

It’s well-established that Iran has been recruiting Afghan and Pakistani Shiʿa to fight in Syria with promises (often empty ones) of legal residency and integration into Iranian society, but the evidence that they’re recruiting children is, as far as I know, a new development. Though not a particularly surprising one, unfortunately.

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