Middle East update: October 31-November 1 2017


Well this is probably bad news:

Iraq says negotiations with the Kurds over the deployment of federal forces along the borders of their autonomous region have failed.

The body overseeing Iraq’s security forces said Wednesday that Kurdish forces had delayed talks in an effort to strengthen their defenses, and that as a result, both sides are back to “square one.”

The expectation is that Baghdad will resume trying to gain control over the borders by force, though at border crossings where its forces have already established a presence, for example at the Turkey-Iraq Habur crossing–like Kirkuk, a crucial economic pillar for Kurdistan–the potential exists for immediate flareups with the Kurds.

To the extent there’s any diplomacy going on between Baghdad and Erbil it will now be going through Nechirvan Barzani, Masoud Barzani’s nephew and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s prime minister. With Masoud’s decision to devolve his presidential powers, or step down or, well, whatever he’s doing, Nechirvan is the new public face, at least, of authority in the KRG. He gets the nod over Masoud’s son, Masrour, because he was less enthusiastic (at least publicly) about the independence referendum and consequently hasn’t burned as many bridges with Baghdad, Ankara, et al. One way Baghdad may attempt to ease tensions with the Kurds is via the pocketbook–the Iraqi government is going to start paying the salaries of many, and possibly all, KRG civil servants and peshmerga fighters, something the KRG government has been struggling to do. It may be difficult for the peshmerga to fight against the people who sign their paychecks.


Russia would like to host a “Syrian people’s congress” on November 18 in Sochi. Whatever that means–mostly it seems to be another step in a Russian plan to undermine and supplant the United Nations-led peace process. Interestingly Moscow invited the Kurds to participate, something the UN has been unwilling to do at Geneva, but any optimism about the congress’s ability to end the civil war should be pretty well suppressed given that the main opposition negotiating body on Wednesday rejected the whole idea. And, you know, I just can’t imagine why they might not feel great about a negotiation managed by Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful international supporter.

In an effort to blunt Russia’s attempt to totally co-opt the Syrian peace process and recovery, European diplomats are trying to raise pledges for reconstruction funds that would be distributed only in the event that Assad, I guess, goes away, or something. The Europeans and the US believe, and with good reason, that Russia and Iran aren’t going to be willing or able to finance Syria’s entire rebuilding project. Of course they seem to willfully ignore the fact that China can, and has already expressed interest in doing so. They also seem to be laboring under the impression that, having just fought a war that destroyed Syria in order to remain in power, Assad would be willing to give power up in exchange for help repairing the damage. I have no idea how many times you need to hit yourself over the head to actually believe this stuff.

And speaking of Assad, the Kurds, and Russia, the Syrian president–apparently taking his lessons from what happened in Iraq–is reportedly eyeing a military move against oil fields controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces in Deir Ezzor. Of course, the Kurds who fled Kirkuk’s oil fields weren’t backed by American air power, unlike the SDF, so Assad would definitely be playing with fire if he were to attempt something like this. He should probably at least make sure Moscow is with him before he does anything too rash.

Ten people, five of them children, were reportedly killed on Tuesday by government shelling in Eastern Ghouta. At least one shell hit near a school, killing the children. Elsewhere, Israeli aircraft reportedly struck a copper factory (?) just south of Homs on Wednesday, for some reason.


A Saudi airstrike hit a key rebel military target hotel and nearby market in Yemen’s Saada province on Wednesday, killing at least 26 people.


Mohammad bin Salman’s promise to, uh, “return” Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam” was apparently not well-received by non-moderate Muslim leaders in Turkey:

The extreme Islamist view on Mohammed’s remarks, on the other hand, came from Ibrahim Karagul, the acerbic editor-in-chief of the government mouthpiece Yeni Safak.


“Saudi Arabia’s ‘We are switching to moderate Islam’ announcement contains a dangerous game. The US-Israel axis is forming a new regional front line,” Karagul contended in his column. He maintained that the aim was to “doom” the Sunni Arab world to this axis.

Turks of all ideological stripes take issue with the notion of “moderate Islam” going back to the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The United States used to describe Turkey as a “moderate Islamic republic,” and basically that phrase became tainted because of a feeling that the US was making Turkey the poster child in a propaganda campaign to justify the Iraq War. Secular Turks were angry at the description of Turkey as an “Islamic republic,” while religious Turks came to see the “moderate” bit as some kind of Western plot to corrupt their faith.

Some very preliminary–maybe even premature–polling suggests that a new Turkish political party could fundamentally alter the country’s political landscape in 2019. The new movement, literally named “the Good Party” (İyi Parti), has been established by former Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) senior figure Meral Akşener, who broke from the MHP over its official support for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s imperial presidency referendum.

Akşener (Wikimedia)

Turkey’s elections aren’t scheduled until 2019, but when asked how they would vote if a snap election were held today, 19.5 percent of Turks said they would support Akşener’s party, which means it would supplant the Republican People’s Party (CHP) as the official opposition. What’s more, a substantial portion of that 19.5 percent would come out of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which would see its vote share drop from 49.5 percent back in 2015 to 43.8 percent in the hypothetical election. The MHP would drop out of parliament altogether, along with the leftist, pro-Kurdish Free Democratic Party (HDP).

Where this could be especially significant is in Akşener’s ability to voice opposition to Erdoğan–the one thing he really has left to fear politically is a unified opposition that manages to align behind a single candidate in a potential 2019 runoff. The problem of course is finding that unity–a figure like CHP’s Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu isn’t going to be acceptable to right-wing nationalists, while somebody like Akşener would be anathema to liberals and leftists. But if they all somehow decided to bite the bullet and make “anybody but Erdoğan” their rallying cry, there’s a real possibility that Sultan Recep could be vulnerable. Assuming, of course, that he doesn’t rig the vote.


Contrary to my skepticism, it looks like the Palestinian unity deal between Hamas and Fatah is really starting to take root. On Wednesday, the Palestinian Authority took control over Gaza’s border crossings, a substantial step in the reunification process. Serious issues remain over forming a unity government and questions about Hamas’s armed wing. Also, crucially, Egypt and Israel still hold a lot of sway in terms of whether things proceed in a positive direction. Egypt can be expected to quickly ease restrictions on its border crossing with Gaza, but for the Gazan people to feel the full impact of reunification and continue supporting the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis will have to do the same. I wouldn’t count on that.

Tuesday was the 100th anniversary of the World War I Battle of Beersheba, the first battle in the operation that would culminate with the British capture of Jerusalem a few weeks later. Beersheba is sometimes called the “last successful cavalry charge in history,” which it most definitely was not, but it was still an important if fairly small battle. I don’t have time to write about it, but here’s a piece on the battle by Michael Collins Dunn of the Middle East Institute.


Egyptian authorities say their aircraft struck three trucks carrying weapons and explosives as well as several militants southwest of Cairo on Tuesday. They’re apparently related to the militants who ambushed Egyptian police several days ago, but there’s still no mention as to who they are, at least none in Western media that I’ve seen. Also on Tuesday, four civilians were reportedly killed by mortar fire in Sinai.


Bahraini authorities on Tuesday announced that they’ve imposed an entrance visa requirement on all Qatari nationals and residents, another small escalation of the Qatar/GCC diplomatic crisis. On Wednesday, Bahrain’s prosecutor charged two senior figures in the outlawed Wefaq opposition party of spying on Qatar’s behalf. One of the men, Sheikh Ali Salman, has been in prison since 2015, so I’m not sure he would have been able to provide the Qataris with much information.


Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps says that it has been told by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to limit the range of its ballistic missiles to no more than 2000 kilometers. That leaves the Iranians able to hit most places in the Middle East and in Iran’s Central and South Asian near abroad, but the announcement can probably be seen  as an attempt by Tehran to ease tensions with the US a bit by demonstrating its disinterest in being able to fire missiles at Europe or the US. Iran’s ballistic missile program is one of the most frequently cited concerns of the anti-Iran crown in the US, and this limitation bolsters the Iranians’ claim that the program is defensive in nature. Of course, the Iranians also noted that they don’t need to develop longer-range missiles to hit American targets.

The Central Intelligence Agency, in what certainly appears to be a pet project of director Mike Pompeo, has released the final tranche of documents that were recovered from Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani vacation home back in 2011. There’s likely very little useful information to be found here–anything real interesting has already been released. But Pompeo’s goal seems to be to feed these documents to the storytellers at Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (he apparently gave them early access to the material before it went public) to help them spin yarns about Iranian support for al-Qaeda.

Iran and al-Qaeda have had a complicated relationship that goes back more than 20 years–the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, for example, was probably carried out by Saudi Hezbollah, an Iran-linked group, but the 9/11 Commission among others has found evidence that al-Qaeda played some kind of role in that attack. But for the most part, Iran has approached al-Qaeda pragmatically and antagonistically, detaining as many AQ authorities and their families as it could (including some of bin Laden’s children) but then treating them fairly well in custody, in return for al-Qaeda not targeting Iran. It’s believed that in 2003 the Iranians offered to trade their al-Qaeda captives to the US in return for the leaders of Mujahedin-e-Khalq, but the US hoped to use MEK to infiltrate and destabilize Iran so it refused the offer.

Naturally the FDD folks will seize on anything they can find to portray Khamenei and bin Laden as close personal friends and partners, because that’s how they roll (see what they did in the months before the Iraq War, for example). Pompeo wants to help them out. Whether any of it is true or not is irrelevant.

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