Middle East update: November 3 2017

SYRIA

So, uh, it wasn’t exactly a banner day for ISIS. We’ll get to Iraq in a minute, but the Syrian army declared that it has finally secured all of Deir Ezzor city–it had disputed reports to that effect yesterday, saying that there were still pockets of ISIS resisters in the city. This isn’t a huge setback for ISIS in that it had already lost any practical control over the city weeks ago, but it’s still another symbolic setback. ISIS still controls a substantial swath of territory in Syria, but much of it is desert, useful for hiding but not very much else. It does still control a couple of towns–al-Bukamal is the most important and would figure to be the next Syrian/Russian/et al target.

Unless, that is, they for some reason decide to attack Raqqa instead. Which is Ali Akbar Velayati, Ayatollah Khamenei’s national security adviser, said on Friday while visiting Beirut. Velayati could just be blowing smoke, but a man in his position can’t afford to be made to look ridiculous and so it seems unlikely that he was just idly thinking out loud. And certainly the potential for the Syrian army to move on Raqqa has been present this whole time. But the Syrian Democratic Forces don’t seem like they’re inclined to give Raqqa up, and if it came to a fight, well, you know who’s acting as the SDF’s air force? And who’s acting as (most of) Bashar al-Assad’s air force? The US and Russia have been deconflicting their mutual presences in Deir Ezzor province for weeks, but that could all go up in a literal puff of smoke if the Syrians move on Raqqa.

Interestingly, this report about Raqqa comes on the same day that Lebanese media is reporting, and Reuters appears to be confirming, that “a senior US official” went to Damascus earlier this week for a meeting with Ali Mamlouk, Assad’s national security adviser. It’s unknown who the official was but it’s being called the highest level contact between Washington and Damascus since the start of the civil war in 2011. So far there’s been no official of this alleged visit out of either the Syrian or US governments, but Laura Rozen speculates the contact could be about Americans believed to be held by Assad and/or a part of that whole deconfliction process I mentioned above.

Speaking of unauthorized military interventions in Syria, Trump administration is considering a plan to leave hundreds of American soldiers stationed indefinitely in several small bases in SDF-controlled parts of eastern Syria. These soldiers would be tasked with interdicting Iranian weapons shipments across Syria and deterring/preventing Assad and his allies from attacking the SDF. The Atlantic Council’s Faysal Itani argues that this would be a dangerous escalation that would put American forces at grave risk is a completely lame half-measure when what America should be doing is WAR ON IRAN ALREADY FOR FUCK’S SAKE.

The Blob’s gotta keep Blobbing, you know?

IRAQ

In addition to fully losing Deir Ezzor, ISIS lost the border town of Qaim to Iraqi forces on Friday. This loss actually stings considerably more than Deir Ezzor, because Qaim was the last Iraqi town left in ISIS’s possession and is one half of a major Syria-Iraq border crossing, along with al-Bukamal. ISIS has now lost an estimated 96 percent of its Iraqi territory and only has a small bit of western Anbar still under its control. More importantly, it lost Qaim surprisingly quickly, suggesting that it simply lacks the capacity to put up much of a fight anymore, at least on the Iraqi side of the border. The Iraqis will likely sweep through that last bit of territory on their way to fully securing the border, in order to prevent ISIS fighters from crossing back into Iraq as they’re pressured in Syria. The full eradication of ISIS as a territorial force in Iraq could happen in a matter of days, though it will almost certainly linger as a guerrilla/terrorist force.

TURKEY

Two people–a militant and a police officer–were killed on Friday during a police raid on an alleged PKK safe house in Diyarbakır.

This should go over well in Ankara:

A wealthy Turkish gold trader charged in the United States with violating U.S. sanctions against Iran sought support from and invoked the name of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to advance his business, U.S. prosecutors say.

 

U.S. allegations against the trader, Reza Zarrab, were detailed in a Monday filing in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan ahead of a scheduled Nov. 27 trial.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a crowd at the Chatham House in London on Friday that Israel America on Israel’s behalf is “not going to let” Iran leave military forces in Syria. Netanyahu went on at some length about the emerging anti-Iran alliance between Israel’s reactionary government and reactionary autocracies throughout the Arab world, and suggested that the old adage that Israel had to make peace with the Palestinians to make peace with the Arabs has now been turned on its head, and the Israel can make peace with the Palestinians by making peace with the Arabs. Something tells me the Palestinians would get royally screwed in that scenario, but I guess time may tell.

On a completely unrelated note, the Israeli Knesset is considering a bill that would annex a number of illegal East Jerusalem settlements, housing around 150,000 people, while downgrading the status of three mostly Palestinian neighborhoods, home to some 100,000 people. The move would reduce the percentage of Palestinians officially living in Jerusalem from 40 percent to around 32 percent.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military says it’s prepared to enter Syria to protect the Druze village of Hader, which lies just over the Syria-Israel border in the occupied Golan. Hader was hit by a car bomb on Friday as part of a broader rebel offensive in Quneitra province, and given its own Druze population Israel has long an affinity for Syrian and Lebanese Druze and especially for how they can be used to justify military action.

EGYPT

An apparently new group calling itself Ansar al-Islam has claimed credit for the mid-October attack in Egypt’s western desert that killed at least 16 (and maybe dozens more) Egyptian police officers. There’s nothing to go on here apart from their claim, but a man the group claimed to have been one of its leaders, Abu Hatem Emad al-Din Abd al-Hamid, was definitely killed in an Egyptian airstrike earlier this week. So that at least suggests the group does exist. Hamid is known to have worked for Hisham al-Ashmawy, who was kicked out of the Egyptian special forces about 10 years ago, wound up joining Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis before that group became ISIS-Sinai, and then went to Libya. He’s believed to still be working out of Derna. It’s not clear if he ever had active ties with ISIS, but whether he once did or not he’s believed to be working for al-Qaeda now. He’s believed to be responsible for several terror attacks in Egypt in the past few years. If this Ansar al-Islam is his group then it’s nothing to take lightly.

IRAN

Some indeterminate “militants” killed eight Iranian border guards in fighting near the Turkish border on Friday. Given the location a Kurdish angle would not be surprising, but that doesn’t rule out ISIS.

Vladimir Putin visited Iran this week for the Caspian Summit. What has emerged about his meetings particularly with Ayatollah Khamenei is that the two men, whose countries are both prime targets of sanctions these days, were keen to talk about ways to isolate the United States internationally. I mentioned a couple of days ago that Moscow is talking about linking its new national payment system with China’s as a way to strengthen it against the US. Khamenei apparently pushed Putin to move away from using dollars for their mutual commercial transactions. In other words, he wants Russia to accept payments in Iranian rials and in return Iran would accept payments in Russian rubles. This would protect their transactions from a great deal of potential American interference by getting the dollar out of the equation. It wouldn’t help either do much business on the open market, but they could continue to trade with one another in each other’s currencies. Putin and Khamenei, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, also reportedly talked about Syria, trying to make sure they stay on the same page even as the civil war winds down and their national interests begin to diverge.

Speaking of meetings with Iran, I was apparently wrong to give the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt when it said that Trump hadn’t sought one with Rouhani during the UN General Assembly session in September. He did, via French President Emmanuel Macron, and was rebuffed. The administration now says that Trump only wanted to meet with Rouhani to harangue him with all of America’s complaints about Iran, so I bet Rouhani is really kicking himself for not agreeing to do it. It should be noted that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders flat-out lied about this story as recently as this Sunday, only to get the rug pulled out from under her by the State Department two days later.

While he’s been forced publicly to come to their defense because of Trump’s rhetoric, Rouhani is, according to the New York Times, working behind the scenes to break up the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ grip on the Iranian economy. Specifically, he’s cut the budget for Khatam-al Anbiya, the IRGC’s massive construction firm that has tendrils into major infrastructure projects all over Iran. This has kept them from outbidding foreign investors on a few recent energy projects. Now, if the US reimposes sanctions on Iran then all bets are off–it was the isolation brought on by the former sanctions regime that gave the IRGC space to expand its business empire. But Rouhani wouldn’t be doing this if he didn’t have Khamenei’s support. Moreover, the IRGC itself seems to be going after corruption in its own ranks all of a sudden, which is another sign that they’re getting pressure from Khamenei to reform.

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Author: DWD

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