Middle East update: November 2 2017

IRAQ

Iraqi forces captured western Anbar’s large Akkas gas field from ISIS on Thursday. Akkas hasn’t yet entered production so while this is a significant recovery for the Iraqis it’s not a huge loss for ISIS–they weren’t selling the gas.

As for the Kurdish situation, little has changed since Baghdad declared an end to talks over border control with the peshmerga and the Kurdistan Regional Government earlier this week. Erbil is publicly complaining that the Iraqis would rather fight than make a deal, which is a bad sign, and its offer for joint control of border crossings has so far elicited nothing from Baghdad. We’ve apparently reached the point in the Iraqi-Kurdish fighting where we can start to assess damages, and the United Nations reported Thursday that the young conflict has already displaced 183,000 people, mostly Kurds and primarily from the Kirkuk region.

The UN also issued a report Thursday on the Mosul battle, finding that at least 2521 civilians were killed during that offensive. Of those, the UN says a majority were killed by ISIS, including at least 741 “executions,” some of ISIS’s many “war crimes” that the UN argues must be tried in an international forum. The report further insisted that the Iraqis investigate war crimes charges against their own forces and the US-led coalition that was supporting them. And while we’re on that subject, BuzzFeed has found that the coalition is not paying compensation to the families of the civilians it kills, even in the rare cases when it actually acknowledges killing them. Past American practice when killing Iraqi civilians has been to make “condolence payments,” which are characterized as expressions of sympathy but not acknowledgements of wrongdoing. But the coalition apparently forgot (oops!) to create a mechanism by which families could request condolence payments for deaths incurred during the ongoing anti-ISIS campaign. It’s called winning hearts and minds, folks.

SYRIA

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday that the Syrian army has taken full control over Deir Ezzor city. Reuters is reporting that there are still pockets of ISIS resistance in the city, however, per “a commander” in one of the allied units fighting with the army.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, says Moscow hopes “that everyone who believes that the fate of [Syria], its unity, its territorial integrity and its sovereignty are important” will attend its November 18 Syrian “congress” in Sochi. But for some reason, the Syrian opposition seem to doubt Russia’s motives. The rebel High Negotiations Committee says it will “not participate in any events held outside the umbrella of the United Nations,” and I have to say I just can’t figure out why they’re not keen on some impartial Russian mediation. Why, just today Russia impartially told the US that it is “unacceptable to politicize” investigations into the use of chemical weapons in Syria, where “to politicize” means “to blame Bashar al-Assad for.” Seems pretty neutral to me, folks.

Damascus wants the UN Security Council to condemn Israeli airstrikes on its territory. One assumes at least the United States would veto any resolution like that. Also at the Security Council, the US is circulating a draft resolution to extend the investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria for another two years. Russia vetoed an extension last week, and it’s not clear what’s different about this one that would cause them to make a different choice. Moscow has proposed its own, six month (renewable) extension that essentially requires investigators to work really, really hard to find a way to attribute the Khan Shaykhun incident to something other than a Syrian government sarin attack.

Alexander Bick of Johns Hopkins argues that Syria is heading toward partition:

This reflects deep skepticism that Assad will be able to reunify the country and a recognition of the degree of fragmentation that’s already taken place. A quick glance at any of the open-source maps depicting areas of control in Syria reveals a complex patchwork of colors corresponding to discrete blocs held by the central government, armed opposition groups, Syrian Kurds and their allies, and ISIL. Damascus’ reach into these territories is deeper than many observers realize — for example, the government has continued to pay salaries to civil servants, even in areas outside its control. But over time, these blocs have become increasingly autonomous: Each flies its own flag, operates its own security, administrative, and judicial institutions, and has developed its own educational curricula.

As far as the map is concerned, he’s got a point:

983px-Syrian_Civil_War_map
Syria through October 21 (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)

(you should recognize the color scheme by now: red means government, white means Nusra/HTS/whatever, green means other rebel factions/FSA, yellow means Kurds/SDF, gray means ISIS, and that new blue bit reflects Turkish occupation)

Bick further argues that a managed partition at this point might be the least bad option, at least for Russia and the United States in terms of avoiding a conflict with one another in eastern Syria. He may well be right, but partition will also definitely freeze the conflict into something that might go on, albeit at a lower level, for decades to come. Not that the alternatives are any better, mind you, but when I say “least bad” I definitely mean “least bad.”

YEMEN

Congress is being righteous as always:

House leaders have neutered a bipartisan push to suspend US military support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.

 

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., had planned to offer a resolution this week requiring President Donald Trump to cease US military involvement in Yemen except for “forces engaged in operations directed at al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or associated forces.” A new resolution introduced Wednesday and obtained by Al-Monitor, however, eliminates that clause amid pressure from House leaders opposed to the motion.

 

In addition to eliminating the “removal of armed forces” clause, the new resolution calls on “all responsible countries to take appropriate and necessary measures against the government of Iran, including the interdiction of Iranian weapons to the Houthis.” It also urges an end to the obstruction of humanitarian aid while supporting “the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s commitments to abide by their no-strike list and restricted target list and improve targeting capabilities.”

Somehow they turned a resolution condemning Saudi Arabia’s systematic destruction of Yemen into a resolution calling for MOAR WAR WITH IRAN. You have to admire their singular devotion to that particular cause.

TURKEY

Ankara says that 39 people–eight of its soldiers and 31 militants–were killed on Thursday in fighting between the Turkish army and the PKK, in separate clashes in Turkey’s southeastern Hakkâri, Tunceli, and Şırnak provinces.

LEBANON

Lebanese analyst Halim Shebaya looks at Michel Aoun’s presidency as it heads into its second year:

In his inaugural speech, Aoun described himself as “a president who came at difficult times, and on whom high hopes are placed to overcome difficulties and not merely conform and adapt to them, and to ensure the stability that the Lebanese long for, so that their greatest dream is no longer the travel bag [to emigrate]”.

 

The question is how far Aoun has managed to live up to this vision and to “regain the trust” (the motto of the Hariri government) of the Lebanese public.

Aoun’s first year saw the passage of a budget and a new electoral law in addition to a significant military victory over extremist forces at Arsal, but he hasn’t been able to solve Lebanon’s corruption problem or to make any real progress on coping with the country’s difficult Syrian refugee situation. Though to be fair, it has only been a year, and those are both massive challenges.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The anniversary of the Balfour Declaration brought Palestinian protesters out into the streets of all the major cities in the West Bank, as it does every year. Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

KUWAIT

GWU’s Scott Weiner explains why Kuwait’s government resigned en masse on Monday. The one-word answer is “austerity”:

The cabinet reshuffle allows Kuwait’s government to realign the parliament’s agenda toward austerity and create buy-in from MPs for this agenda. While it cannot prevent the prospect of future interrogations that grind parliament to a halt, the government can use the time between the resignation of the old parliament and appointment of a new one to come to an agreement with opposition figures over its policies.

 

Kuwait’s cabinet reshuffle is part of a renegotiation of the relationship between governments and citizens taking place across the Gulf Arab states in the wake of the sustained low price of oil worldwide. While austerity measures are necessary in these states, they are also unpopular. Implementing them will require changes to both the government and the opposition’s approaches.

The resignation was triggered by the Kuwaiti opposition’s plan to subject cabinet ministers to a series of “interrogations” and no-confidence votes over the government’s austerity measures, both as a way to stall further austerity bills and as a way to embarrass the government. Because Kuwait’s political system allows the prime minister to take as much time as he wants in appointing a new cabinet, he can now embarrass the opposition into being more compliant.

IRAN

British Foreign Secretary and man whose hair bleach has clearly seeped into his brain Boris Johnson is heading to the US to lobby the Senate not to do anything that might wreck the Iran nuclear deal. This is a noble effort whose chances of success could only be exceeded if literally any other human being on the planet were undertaking it.

Hey, remember how CIA Director Mike Pompeo released a bunch of files from the bin Laden compound and gave the Foundation for Defense of Democracies early access so those guys could gin up a real good “al-Qaeda and Iran are in cahoots” story to sell to some credulous dupe reporters? Well, congratulations to the AP’s Jon Gambrell for being today’s credulous dupe. Hey, this yellow journalism isn’t going to write itself, you know? That’s why we keep people like Jon around.

On the plus side, the tranche of bin Laden documents includes video of Hamza bin Laden’s wedding, which probably took place in Iran because the Iranians were holding him captive at the time (pre-2008). It may be the only images anybody has of Hamza bin Laden as an adult. Hamza is getting the hard sell as al-Qaeda’s heir apparent in an effort to sex up the older of the two global jihad brands, but it’s not clear yet that he has a tremendous amount of credibility in that community apart from his name.

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