Middle East update: September 18 2017

I got a late start today because I was working on a piece for LobeLog and also because I am extraordinarily spacey today. So if this update is briefer than usual, or if it meanders off and doesn’t make any sense–either is possible–then that’s why.

SYRIA

One child was killed and six other people were injured when a “booby-trapped motorcycle” exploded in the mostly-Kurdish controlled city of Qamishli on Monday. Interestingly, Reuters is reporting that ISIS’s Amaq news agency noted the bombing but that ISIS hasn’t (yet) actually claimed credit for it.

Syrian soldiers appear to have crossed to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in Deir Ezzor on Monday. The Euphrates is supposed to be serving as the demarcation between the Syrian army and the Syrian Democratic Forces as both armies advance against ISIS into eastern Deir Ezzor province, so this could be a prelude to clashes between them. But this particular river crossing seems to have been done with SDF and US knowledge and in keeping with ongoing deconfliction talks between the US and Russia. Of course, both armies want to clear out the Iraq-Syria border area independently of one another, and each would need to eventually cross the Euphrates to do so, making a conflict between them still something of a foregone conclusion unless one of them backs off.

War on the Rocks’ Dan Wilkofsky and Khalid Fatah take a look at the SDF and its alleged “Arab majority,” which is chafing under tight YPG control and also too on account of how a lot of the SDF’s Arab fighters weren’t exactly willing recruits:

The PYD has forced thousands of Arab (and Kurdish) youth to serve in the SDF and its associated military entities. This strategy has stirred resentment among northern Syria’s residents, and could backfire in the long run if the party loses its grip on power.

Young men in the PYD’s three cantons are conscripted into “Self-Defense Forces,” and local militias by other names in Arab-majority areas farther south. On paper, these forces are separate from the SDF, but in reality they share the same leadership (e.g., see the career path of commanders Shurfan Darwish and now-deceased Adnan Abu Ajmed), and sometimes wear the same uniform and participate in the same operations, so for our purposes the distinction is nominal.

Voluntary enrollment by Arab fighters has been on the wane coinciding with a number of Arab militia defections from the group, in part because of the Kurds’ heavy-handed approach.

IRAQ

Iraq’s plans for its endgame operations against ISIS have undergone yet another change. Instead of targeting Hawijah for liberation first, the Iraqis announced earlier this month that they would be operating in Hawijah and western Anbar simultaneously. But disputes with the Kurds, especially over their September 25 independence referendum plans, have caused the Hawijah operation to be delayed yet again, and so the Iraqis have decided to move forward with western Anbar instead. They also seem to be taking a more measured approach to this operation, going slowly town by town rather than constantly advancing.

Speaking of the referendum, the Iraqi supreme court has ordered that it be suspended. Which is unlikely to carry much sway with the Kurds. What could carry more sway is a United Nations plan, which seems to have significant foreign support, to broker talks between Baghdad and Erbil on Kurdish autonomy in exchange for the referendum being put on ice. Turkey decided to start conducting tank exercises near the Iraqi border on Monday, which might punctuate the international effort to get the Kurds to back off.

YEMEN

One question that would be helpful to answer is just how much the US has been helping Saudi Arabia blast Yemen into rubble. We know that US support has been instrumental to allowing the Saudi mission to continue, but it’s hard to know just how much to blame Washington for what’s happening without a clearer idea of what the US has been doing. Congressional oversight, which is still supposed to be a thing, also depends on knowing what role, exactly, the US is playing in Yemen. Fortunately, the Pentagon has made sure that figuring that out is going to be pretty much impossible:

The United States has come under increasing scrutiny for what seems like unconditional support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition waging a brutal air war in Yemen. One of the key measures of that support has been refueling operations: U.S. tankers fill up planes from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other coalition members, which go on to drop bombs in Yemen. Those bombs have killed at least 3,200 civilians and leveled hospitals and markets, leading to accusations that the U.S. is facilitating war crimes.

But U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, now admits that it doesn’t even know how much fuel it offloads for Saudi Arabia and its partners — directly contradicting information about refueling operations that it previously released. Responding to questions from The Intercept, CENTCOM now says that it lumps together refueling data for the coalition with data for U.S. planes in the area, joint U.S.-Emirati missions, and possibly other operations. Even this pooled data has unexplained discrepancies.

In other words: The U.S. military says it doesn’t know how much of its own fuel goes to an indefinite number of operations.

Oakford gives CENTCOM the benefit of the doubt and chalks this up to sloppy record keeping, but I think we can safely say it’s deliberate. By lumping all US fuel usage together you can conflate America’s support for Saudi war crimes with its slightly more justifiable aerial campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as other US activity in the region.

LEBANON

The speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, Nabih Berri, proposed in an interview on Monday that Lebanon hold elections by the end of this year instead of waiting until next year as planned. Lebanese legislators are now in year eight, I think, of what was supposed to be at most a four year term when they were elected back in 2009, so if they did hold a new election this year it would manage to be both early and very, very late.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

President Deals met with Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session on Monday and, well, I’ll let his words speak for themselves:

“Peace between the Palestinians and Israel would be a fantastic achievement, and we are giving it an absolute go. I think there’s a good chance that it could happen. Most people would say ‘there’s no chance whatsoever,’” Trump said as he began a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York ahead of the U.N. General Assembly’s meeting.

“I think Israel would like to see it. I think the Palestinians would like to see it. I can tell you the Trump administration would like to see it. So we’re working very hard on it; we’ll see what happens. Historically, people say it can’t happen. I say it can happen.”

Normal president, normal world leader. All very normal.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah is planning a trip to Gaza to assess the seriousness of Hamas’s announcement over the weekend that it’s open to resuming a unity government with the Palestinian Authority.

EGYPT

Over 500 people were sentenced Monday in a mass trial–seems legit–over their alleged roles in perpetrating violence following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. No, current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi wasn’t one of them, smart guy. Of those sentenced, 43 were given life in prison in what I’m sure must have been a very normal, proper trial that honored their civil liberties to the utmost.

BAHRAIN

The Bahraini government claims that the Qatari navy spent the weekend seizing Bahraini boats–three of them, to be precise. Manama says it can document 20 (!) boat seizures like this by the Qataris dating back to 2009 (!!), but it’s not clear what, if anything, Bahrain plans to do about it.

SAUDI ARABIA

Middle East Eye got ahold of another batch of UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba’s leaked emails, and the gem this time around is an exchange between Otaiba and Iran-Contra ex-con Elliott Abrams in which Otaiba says that Saudi Arabia “came pretty close to doing something in Qatar” back in 2014, before the death of King Abdullah.

SL730393
Well, this photo of Otaiba is actually the real gem, but the email with Abrams is good too

“Something” here clearly means an invasion, which Otaiba assumes would have ended in a Saudi victory even though the Saudis have now spent over two years trying and failing to finish off a tribal gang in northern Yemen that gets nominal aid from Iran, whereas the Qataris host an entire US airbase, have vast amounts of money, and are on excellent terms with major military powers like the US, Russia, and Turkey. “How hard could it be?” wonders Abrams, who I’m sure said something just like that before the US invaded Iraq.

Not only should these people not have any influence on international affairs, they should all be collected and dropped off on an otherwise unpopulated island the way people used to do with lepers.

IRAN

How are we withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal today, you ask? By making up excuses to do so at an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting:

“We will not accept a weakly enforced or inadequately monitored deal,” U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry told the IAEA General Conference, an annual meeting of the agency’s member states that began on Monday.

He did not say whether he thought the deal was currently weakly enforced.

“The United States … strongly encourages the IAEA to exercise its full authorities to verify Iran’s adherence to each and every nuclear-related commitment under the JCPOA,” Perry added, referring to the deal by its official name — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

To be clear, Perry didn’t say whether he thought the deal was currently weakly enforced because there’s absolutely no evidence that the deal is currently weakly enforced. But just by mentioning it the administration now has people questioning the IAEA’s enforcement of the deal. Fake news is a hell of a thing.

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