Middle East update: October 26 2017

If this is a little abbreviated it’s because I’m getting a really late start, apologies.


Probably today’s biggest story is that the United Nations’ Joint Investigative Mechanism made its report on the Khan Shaykhun chemical weapons attack to the UN Security Council and found the Syrian government responsible. Hey, I said it was a big story, not a surprising one. It’s also not likely to be a particularly consequential one–if you think Bashar al-Assad did it, then you most likely thought that before this report came in, and if you don’t think he did it, you’re unlikely to be moved by the results of a UN investigation. And even if this report were conclusive, nobody is going to face justice for the attack unless Assad is somehow removed both from power and from Russian protection. Neither of which seems likely.

Unless, that is, you’re US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who told reporters in Geneva on Thursday that “the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.” This must come as a big surprise to, among many other people, the Assad family. Their army, by the by, captured the important T2 oil pumping station in Deir Ezzor province on Thursday, giving them a staging area for an attack on al-Bukamal, the last major town ISIS controls on the Syrian side of the Syria-Iraq border. With the Iraqis finally undertaking their western Anbar offensive in earnest, they and the Syrians will be trying to put ISIS in a vise on either side of the border.


With ISIS largely on its way out as an insurgent force, it’s good to know that the conditions that gave rise to ISIS are still mostly in place:

There were high expectations when Haider al-Abadi became prime minister in 2014 that he could turn the page after the divisive sectarian rule of his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and win the confidence of the Sunnis.


Instead, Sunni leaders say, he has forsaken them as he forged closer ties with Iran, the hard-line Shiite theocracy next door. Iran now wields tremendous influence over Iraq’s economy, military and government.


Hamid al-Mutlaq, who represents Karmah in Parliament, said the government was more focused on working with Iran and Iranian-armed Shiite militias than helping Sunnis rebuild.


“We are now a displaced people, a completely marginalized people — and it’s getting worse by the day,” he said.


“We have a corrupt government controlled by a foreign power, at the expense of Sunnis,” he added.

Sunni Arabs would be in better shape if at least their own politicians were united in working diligently on their behalf, but instead they’re feuding with one another and generally doing very little productive work on their constituents’ behalf.

Southern Iraq’s historic marshlands were almost destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s crusade against the Shiʿa who live there, but were revived after the US invasion. Well, they’re in peril again, thanks to upriver water diversion that has allowed salt water from the Persian Gulf to move north into the riverbeds and sewage dumping that’s killing off the fish. The marshes are a unique ecosystem and have nurtured the equally unique Marsh Arab culture for centuries, so it would be a critical loss if they were destroyed.

Baghdad has naturally rejected the Kurdish Regional Government’s offer to freeze its independence drive, and there are reports of new fighting between Iraqi and Kurdish units along the Syrian border. So far the Iraqis are sticking to what seems to be a containment policy–drive the Kurds out of contested areas and take control of their international borders. But more fighting like this threatens to bleed resources away from the western Anbar campaign against ISIS.


Benjamin Netanyahu’s minister of intelligence, Yisrael Katz, says Israel is ready to act unilaterally to strike Iranian nuclear facilities:

“If international efforts led these days by U.S. President Trump don’t help stop Iran attaining nuclear capabilities, Israel will act militarily by itself,” Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said in an interview in Tokyo. “There are changes that can be made (to the agreement) to ensure that they will never have the ability to have a nuclear weapon.”

Metaphysically, there’s nothing that can “ensure” Iran will never have the ability to have a nuclear weapon. The nuclear deal makes it prohibitively difficult and expensive for them to try to get or develop one. Parts of the deal will expire at some point, which will make it relatively easier for Iran to pursue a weapon if it desired. Trying to force Iran to renegotiate the deal under threat risks destroying it, which would make it much easier and much less expensive for Iran to pursue a weapon, and means they’ll never agree to negotiate an extension on the current deal when the time comes.

The one thing that definitely can’t keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is a military strike. But that’s what we’re obsessed with doing anyway. Go figure.


Yesterday I told you that, according to the Middle East Institute’s Ahmad Majidyar, there were signs that the Iranian media was paying attention, at least, to US efforts to build up the relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Today, Al-Monitor’s anonymous Iran correspondent says they’re paying attention, but don’t seem particularly concerned about it. Mostly because Iraq and Saudi Arabia aren’t all that compatible. It would be trite to chalk it up to Sunni-Shiʿa hostility, but at the very least it’s difficult to imagine Shiʿa Iraqis warming to a nation that ethnically cleanses its own Shiʿa minority. There’s no reason why Baghdad and Riyadh couldn’t build solid ties, but if the Saudis ever present the Iraqis with an “us or them” type of offer, it’s hard to imagine the Iraqis siding with the Saudis unless something serious crops up in the Iraq-Iran relationship. Which still seems to be alive and well, if you were wondering.

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