Middle East update: August 31 2017

EID MUBARAK!

Eid al-Adha, or Festival of the Sacrifice, begins/began at sundown today. It commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (Ishmael or Isaac depending on your religious tradition–most Muslims believe it was Ishmael though the Quran doesn’t specify) at God’s command, and always immediately follows the completion of the first part of the Hajj, the ascent of Mount Arafah. Best Eid wishes to any readers who are celebrating it, and again best wishes to those who just completed the Hajj.

IRAQ

This is shocking news, I know, but it seems there’s some confusion about exactly how much progress the Iraqis have made in clearing Ayadiyah of ISIS fighters. On Wednesday, three different Iraqi officers from three different units gave three different answers to what is effectively the same question: what percentage of the town and its environs is back under Iraqi control? Their responses ranged from “40 percent” to “the whole thing.”

So Thursday’s declaration by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that the whole of Nineveh province, obviously including Ayadiyah, has been “fully liberated” should probably come with an asterisk attached. We know the Iraqis have a habit of jumping the gun on these kinds of declarations for political reasons, but on the other hand Ayadiyah is going to be liberated at some point and these things usually happen suddenly, with some quick breakthrough in the fighting.

The Iraqis will need to continue clearing out the remnants of ISIS’s presence in Nineveh (sleeper cells and booby traps) while also moving on to their next target, which will either be Hawijah or western Anbar province as those are the only two parts of the country still under ISIS control. I’d say that Hawijah will be next, but as I’ve guessed that before and have been wrong every time I’m not going to try to make a prediction this time. Suffice to say that if it were me I would make Hawijah the next target. Then again, if it were me, I would’ve liberated Hawijah before Mosul.

UPDATE: The Iraqis have begun dropping leaflets on Hawijah warning civilians to prepare for fighting, so it seems that Hawijah will be their next target.

SYRIA

Airwars finds that the civilian death toll in and around Raqqa is mounting:

The number of civilians killed by the US-led coalition assault on the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria is mounting – but the coalition’s commanding general has cast doubt on the toll his forces are inflicting on innocents there. Airwars currently assesses that 1,700 or more civilians have likely been killed by U.S.-led air and artillery strikes in Raqqa governorate since March. A minimum of 860 civilians, including 150 children, are credibly reported to have been killed in Raqqa since the official start of operations to capture the city on June 6th.

Despite these findings, and corroborating evidence from UN bodies and nongovernmental organizations, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend has described reports of such claims of large scale civilian death as hyperbole. In one instance the General  prematurely called allegations not credible even before the coalition had completed its own investigation.

By all means we should definitely give lots of credence to the Pentagon, which always tells the truth about these things and at any rate would have no reason to lie, since its advanced munitions are designed to only spray shrapnel and drop buildings on Certified Bad Guys, while any non-Bad Guys in the vicinity are instead covered in flower petals and gummy bears. We should also give extra credence to Townsend, a man who once openly bragged about the coalition’s policy of indiscriminately firing on any boats leaving Raqqa to the south via the Euphrates River. Logically there’s no chance any of the boats the coalition destroyed could have been carrying civilians due to the fact that…oh man, this post is already getting really long so I’m just going to leave it here and we’ll finish that thought at a later time.

That convoy carrying 300 ISIS fighters and their families from the Lebanese border to Deir Ezzor has resumed its journey. They were stuck temporarily in Syrian government-held territory on Wednesday after coalition airstrikes knocked out part of the route they were using. The coalition may try to block the convoy again or it may fire on the convoy itself–coalition spokespeople have said that’s an option if they catch the convoy in open ground away from civilians. Of course, the families of those fighters are by definition civilians, and bombing them by definition a war crime, so it’s not clear under what conditions the coalition would actually be justified in attacking the convoy directly.

YEMEN

Nicholas Kristof put together a powerful photo essay on the war in Yemen on Tuesday that I would urge you all to check out:

I know Kristof is problematic and the New York Times is mostly a dumpster fire these days, but these are moving pictures and, to his credit, Kristof minces no words in talking about who’s responsible for creating them:

This catastrophe started under President Barack Obama, although he tried — not nearly enough — to rein in Saudi Arabia. President Trump has removed the reins and embraced the rash and inexperienced Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who is overseeing the assault on Yemen.

“Yemen is a moral, humanitarian and strategic disaster for America,” says Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East analyst who advised both Republican and Democratic administrations. “U.S. policy is being driven by its pro-Saudi proclivities and its own desire to contain Iran. But by enabling Riyadh, it’s only making an already fraught situation worse.”

TURKEY

An explosion in Izmir on Thursday struck a bus, wounding seven people. It’s not clear what caused the explosion but a bomb seems likely.

Taking advantage of Turkey’s perpetual state of emergency, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a decree late last week that, among many other things, transfers all authority over the country’s security and intelligence agencies from the prime minister to the president–i.e., him. This isn’t a big surprise–the PM position is supposed to eventually be abolished under Turkey’s new presidential system–but it is a sign that Erdoğan isn’t wasting time accruing all the power he can.

Al-Monitor’s Pinar Tremblay writes that Erdoğan has already started campaigning in Istanbul for elections that will be held in 2019. This seems excessive even by American standards (not that excessive, though) and by Turkish standards it’s really outrageous. But April’s referendum vote, in which Erdoğan lost all of Turkey’s major cities, has him especially worried about losing Istanbul in 2019. And losing Istanbul would be very, very bad for Turkey’s would-be President for Life:

The loss of Istanbul is an alarming signal that the AKP could lose Turkey for two significant reasons. First, to better understand, let’s put in perspective why Istanbul matters more than any city. There are about 58 million registered voters in Turkey; 10.5 million of them are in Istanbul. That is, Istanbul holds 18% of the total vote share. Hence, the mayor of Istanbul is the most powerful man in Turkish politics after the president.

Second, Istanbul is the hub of domestic migration. That means the majority of Istanbul’s contemporary residents have links to cities all over Turkey. This is particularly important for religious orders and big and midsize businesses.

All religious orders, even those that have emanated from other parts of Turkey, have their centers based in Istanbul. Two prominent districts, Eyup and Uskudar, which have traditionally voted for the AKP, overwhelmingly voted against the April referendum to expand the powers of the presidency.

The religious orders, which took a beating early in Erdoğan’s reign courtesy of his then-pal Fethullah Gülen, haven’t seen their fortunes reversed that much since Erdoğan and Gülen had their falling out. If they’re reaching a breaking point with Erdoğan, then he could find himself in serious electoral trouble.

LEBANON

Lebanese authorities say they’ve arrested a “suspected Islamic State commander” in Arsal. He reportedly confessed to participating in attacks in Lebanon as well as engaging in logistical activities on ISIS’s behalf.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Prominent figures on the Israeli right are fond of talking about how well Israeli Arabs are treated and how it’s so much better than Arabs in Arab-controlled countries. Let’s check in on that:

Israel has been gradually stripping thousands of Palestinian Bedouins from various villages in the southern Negev region of their citizenship status, claiming that they had been granted nationality in error – a move residents and legislators say is part of a state plan to do away with the minority population.

Although Israel has employed the revocation policy for more than two decades, Knesset Member Aida Touma-Suleiman of the Joint List says it has since 2010 become an increasingly “widespread phenomenon” that is in clear violation of Israel’s Citizenship Law.

“I found out about this [policy, implemented by the interior ministry] by chance during a site visit to one of the villages in the Negev – I was approached by some individuals who informed me of their dilemma,” Touma-Suleiman, who has been researching the policy and its effects for more than a year, told Al Jazeera.

Israel loves its Arab citizens so much it’s even relieving them of the burdens of citizenship. Hard to argue with that.

Hamas, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates are working to put together a long-term package of aid for Gaza to the tune of about $15 million per month. It’s part of the ongoing thaw in Hamas-Egypt relations, driven by Hamas’s need for aid and a mutual desire to contain ISIS in Sinai. The aid, assuming the project actually comes to pass, will target areas like healthcare, housing, and utilities, with one of the first big projects being the construction of a new Gaza power plant.

QATAR

Regardless of how or when the Qatar diplomatic crisis is resolved, it has likely led to permanent changes in the relations between Qatar and the other Gulf states. We already know this because Qatar has decided to reopen diplomatic ties with Iran, but Giorgio Cafiero explains that the crisis has also fundamentally changed the way Qatar does business:

To the contrary, the Qatar crisis has pushed the emirate closer to Iran. Unless the 12-week dispute in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) gets resolved, the GCC can feel quite confident about Qatar pursuing deeper ties with Iran for its geopolitical benefit throughout the highly divided region. If the quartet (Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) maintains its blockade on Qatar, it would be difficult to imagine Doha not becoming further invested in closer ties with Tehran out of mere necessity. Over the past 12 weeks, Iran has played a crucial role in enabling Qatar to function as a sovereign state without capitulating to the Saudi/UAE-led bloc. As the only nonquartet country sharing a maritime border with Qatar, Iran has been pivotal in terms of enabling the Arabian emirate to meet food import requirements following the Saudi-Qatari border closure. Shortly after the Saudi/UAE-led bloc cut off ties with Qatar, Iran opened its airspace to approximately 100 more Qatari flights each day that previously crossed the quartet countries.

Now that Qatar has adjusted many of its import/export routes since June 5, which Doha paid an economic price for doing, it is doubtful that the emirate would readjust them even if the GCC resolved its dispute, which is itself unlikely. Turning back to Saudi Arabia for food imports would only subject Qatar to Riyadh’s leverage in the future.

IRAN

In what has to come as a major disappointment for Donald Trump, the International Atomic Energy Agency has once again certified Iran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal:

Iran stuck by its nuclear deal with world powers by keeping its uranium stockpile and production capacity below set thresholds, according to United Nations inspectors.

Verification of the agreement by the International Atomic Energy Agency, published Thursday in a quarterly report, may come as a surprise to the U.S. administration. President Donald Trump said earlier this month he didn’t consider Iran in compliance and dispatched his UN envoy to convey his concerns.

“Iran has conducted its enrichment activities in line with its long-term enrichment and R&D enrichment plan” agreed with world powers, according to the six-page restricted document published in Vienna.

OK, so this isn’t actually likely to be a “major disappointment” for Trump, who is likely to invent some bullshit “spirit of the deal” rationale for breaking it anyway (his people are already hard at work on that front), but it does make it even less likely that the other parties to the deal will go along with Trump if and when he pulls the trigger on this exceedingly stupid idea.

Speaking of which, the IAEA says it will not request access to Iranian military sites just for the Trump administration’s shits and giggles. The administration wants the IAEA to push for access to those sites to provoke Iran to deny that access, thereby setting some groundwork for voiding the deal. But the IAEA isn’t supposed to request access to sensitive sites without reason to believe Iran is carrying out banned nuclear work at one of them, and seeing as how it has no evidence of that (the administration isn’t even pushing for access to a specific site, so you know they have nothing here and are just trying to create a crisis), it’s refusing to make the request.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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