Middle East update: November 28 2017


Settlement talks between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government appear to be at an impasse, partly due to Masoud Barzani. The now-former Kurdish president hasn’t disappeared from public life despite his resignation, and if your interest is in seeing tensions between the Iraqi government and the KRG reduced, well, he’s not helping:

The ex-Kurdish president has been sniping in public, and being an impediment to progress. For example, on November 20 Barzani rejected the Federal Court’s decision on the referendum saying the will of the Kurds cannot be overturned. The next week, he stated he was open to negotiations, but then blamed Baghdad for the lack of progress, claimed it had been plotting against the Kurds before the referendum, and then accused the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of betraying the Kurdish cause. Some members of his party have repeated this line as well. This showed Barzani is not only unwilling to admit to his mistakes, but is bitter at his enemies and undermining the Kurds’ position. The referendum was a huge setback, and is the main point of contention. By saying that he stands by the vote means that he is not serious about resolving the problems with the central government.

Baghdad isn’t helping either, though. The Iraqis are still insisting that the Kurds overturn the results of their independence referendum, which at this point is barely even a technicality since Irbil has said it will abide by an Iraqi court ruling that made secession illegal. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is still feeling political pressure to make the Kurds pay some kind of price for their secession attempt, despite the fact that said attempt has been well and truly beaten back and it would be better for everybody if the two sides could somehow get beyond it.


The Syrian government is sending a delegation to the new round of peace talks in Geneva after all–they should arrive on Wednesday–and it’s doing so under a truce in Eastern Ghouta to boot. The fighting in that Damascus suburb has been intensifying lately, as evidenced by mounting civilian casualties and a deteriorating humanitarian situation, so hopefully the ceasefire will hold. United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura says he’ll offer the government and rebel negotiators the option of meeting face-to-face during this round of talks, but it’s unclear if the two sides would even be willing to attempt that at this point.

Turkey’s mission in northern Syria has instituted a program for rehabilitating former ISIS fighters, overseen by Ankara’s Free Syrian Army clients:

There are 25 ex-members now at the center where they take classes in religious doctrine and law. Psychological counseling is mandatory; some get individual sessions to help wean them off extremist ideology. The center is funded by the director as well as small donations, and its staff are all volunteers.

While something like this would be useless for serious ISIS diehards, for people who joined because they were swayed by the group’s propaganda or in order to survive the war it’s conceivable they could be rehabilitated. Assuming this program is being run in good faith there could be some important lessons learned for countries dealing with their own returning nationals.

Meanwhile, Ankara has helpfully suggested that it might extend its armed incursion in Idlib, ostensibly meant to secure a ceasefire there, into neighboring Aleppo province and specifically the Kurdish enclave in Afrin. The Turks argue that they could extend an “environment of peace and safety” into western Aleppo province, which glosses over the fact that the closer they get to the Kurds the less peaceful and safe the environment is likely to get. The YPG, which controls Afrin, has now in theory been cut off from American military aid, according to whatever Donald Trump blurted out on the phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week, but its leaders are warning that the loss of American aid would only empower ISIS. Which at this point is debatable at best, but it’s a pretty good argument to make to Washington. As to US weapons that have already been provided to the YPG, the Pentagon says that they were all loaners and that it plans to collect them if and when circumstances dictate. Sure, whatever. The Pentagon ostensibly does these temporary military equipment loans pretty frequently, and I’m sure you’ll be just stunned to learn that, whether intentionally or not, it usually fails to recoup most of the stuff it “lends” out.


At least two people were killed in a car bombing in Aden on Wednesday morning. As this attack just happened within the last couple of hours, information is still scant, but if it warrants more coverage I’ll have more tomorrow.

A World Food Program ship has docked in Hudaydah and started unloading humanitarian aid. So there’s a genuine piece of good news.


Reza Zarrab, the Turkish-Iranian gold trader who was supposed to stand trial in New York on charges that he attempted to circumvent US sanctions against Iran, is apparently cooperating with prosecutors. His testimony is expected to implicate high-ranking members of the Turkish government in the sanctions-busting scheme, including people close to Erdoğan and possibly even members of Sultan Recep’s family. So in other words, don’t expect Ankara to take this in stride.

Zarrab’s testimony might even impact the Mueller investigation, though there’s no particular reason to believe that he was privy to Michael Flynn’s dealings with the Turkish government.


Saad al-Hariri says he won’t talk about what happened during his sojourn in Saudi Arabia, and here I think it’s important to remember that two of his kids are still there, so, yeah. You’d clam up too.


Egyptian forces say they’ve killed at least 14 suspected ISIS militants in Sinai and the adjacent Ismailia province since Friday’s horrific mosque attack in northern Sinai.


The Saudis have released Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, probably the senior-most figure swept up in Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s purge anti-corruption effort. Mutaib was one of a handful of Saudi princes who could have legitimately challenged MBS’s accession to the throne–now, though, he’s been stripped of his control over the Saudi national guard, disgraced by the corruption investigation, relieved of a cool billion dollars worth of his personal wealth, and likely released into some form of house arrest or restricted movement. During his detention he was particularly singled out (as compared to most of the other detainees) on social media for his alleged corruption, which I guess is just a weird coincidence given that he was also a genuine rival to MBS.


Finally here’s Paul Pillar on the hardening of Iranian public sentiment against the US and how inevitable and universal that response is:

An important consequence of the unrelenting, unqualified hostility toward Iran that Donald Trump has made a centerpiece of his foreign policy is described in an article by Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times about the impact of that policy on the Iranian public. Erdbrink summarizes the overall effect: “In short, it appears that Mr. Trump and the Saudis have helped the government achieve what years of repression could never accomplish: widespread public support for the hard-line view that the United States and Riyadh cannot be trusted and that Iran is now a strong and capable state capable of staring down its enemies.”


Such an effect is unsurprising. Nor are the underlying dynamics unique to Iran. Two fundamental processes are at work in Iran to produce the effect Erdbrink is observing. Both are foreshadowed by many earlier experiences of countries that felt especially threatened by a foreign power.

Pillar calls Trump’s Iran policy “counterproductive,” but on this I think he’s being too generous. His assumption, it seems to me, is that the administration is acting in good faith to force a change in Iran and is just going about that in entirely the wrong way. I would argue that the administration is trying to pave the road toward a military conflict with Iran, and in that sense it’s doing exactly what it needs to do.

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