Middle East update: December 13 2017


Regular readers will know what a big fan I am of Patrick Wing’s “Musings on Iraq” blog, which does invaluable work digesting Iraqi media for English-speaking audiences. Wing today is arguing that the Iraqis fudged the completion of their Jazeera operation, the effort to sweep the western Anbar desert for remaining ISIS members, to allow Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to make a rushed declaration of victory:

December 8, the operation restarted. In just one day the security forces claimed they went through 7,000 kilometers. The next day, a Hashd commander said that the government was in full control of the Iraq-Syrian border and the Jazeera campaign was over. That coincided with Prime Minister Abadi claiming that the Islamic State was defeated. Even if the Iraqi forces’ statements are taken at face value and they were able to sweep through 7,000 kilometers that would still leave approximately the same amount uncleared. It seems that victory was declared short of the campaign actually being completed so that the premier could make his announcement. This has been a major shortcoming of the war against the insurgents. Too many times the security forces say they have freed an area before they actually have.

The Iraqis could still resume this operation, but at this point it seems like they’ve decided to leave the job undone. Hopefully this won’t wind up being a catastrophic mistake, but the possibility certainly exists that it will.


Things are going so well in Geneva that United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura has begun publicly begging Moscow to force the Syrian government to engage more fully in his peace talks. The chances of this happening are slim to none–for one thing, Putin has begun a new peace initiative that is competing with the UN-led one, and for another, there’s still no indication that Russia actually has that kind of leverage over Bashar al-Assad.

Meanwhile, the US has reportedly been training Syrian civilians in places like Raqqa and Manbij to clear out explosives left behind by ISIS. Those explosives continue to be a huge problem, but it’s unclear whether the Trump administration is willing to fund the program at the level the challenge requires and it’s also unclear whether these civilians are putting themselves at risk in a future Assad-run Syria by accepting US training.


Saudi airstrikes on a military police camp in Sanaa on Wednesday killed at least 39 people, including prisoners. Killing prisoners is–say it with me now–a war crime.

Houthi media reported Wednesday on a meeting between Houthi leaders and representatives of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General Peoples Congress–at least, ones the Houthis haven’t already killed or arrested. They’re presumably trying to move past this whole Saleh-killing business and restore the Houthi-GPC alliance that existed before, well, Saleh tried to go over to the Saudis. This seems like a long shot, but if the talks keep the two sides from resuming their mutual destruction of Sanaa, then that’s probably a good thing. It’s bad enough that the Saudis want to blow up the city–they don’t need any help from on the inside.

The Intercept’s Alex Emmons reports on US Ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller, who has apparently been actually hindering peace efforts. It’s no secret that the US has been aiding Saudi operations in Yemen, mostly in deference to the Saudis, but Tueller seems to be operating more as a Saudi agent than a representative of American interests:

By the spring of 2016 — more than a year into the war – both the Obama White House and State Department began to question why Tueller was pushing such a one-sided plan.


In May 2016, Jon Finer, Kerry’s chief of staff, sent an email to Tueller asking why he didn’t support the formation of a national unity government. A unity government would include members of the various factions, giving the Houthis a seat at the table in the form of ministerial positions or other roles.


The email was one of several exchanges with Tueller that were widely circulated around the State Department. Its contents, and those of other exchanges with Tueller on the topic, were described to The Intercept and confirmed by multiple former officials.


The Pentagon will be sending around $120 million worth of aid to the Lebanese military, including swanky new helicopters and drones. The aid is ostensibly for counterterrorism purposes, but undoubtedly a secondary goal is to improve ties with the Lebanese military in order to open some daylight between it and Hezbollah.


Israeli officials say they intercepted two rockets fired from Gaza on Wednesday, while a third struck an unpopulated area of south Israel. The rockets were likely courtesy of Islamic Jihad, not Hamas, though Hamas must be allowing the launches to take place. The two organizations are frequent collaborators, but Islamic Jihad has been complicating life for Hamas leadership since the Trump Jerusalem announcement. Following that announcement, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called for a new intifada, but the organization itself has done little–the last thing it wants is another full scale Gaza conflict. However, because Islamic Jihad has a close relationship with Hamas, the Israelis tend to treat its rocket strikes as though Hamas were behind them–and Hamas can’t be seen trying to rein Islamic Jihad in after the Jerusalem announcement, lest it lose some of its revolutionary credentials.

Speaking of Jerusalem, leaders of the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation met in Istanbul on Wednesday to do just that:

The meeting condemned in a communiqué Mr. Trump’s “unilateral” and “dangerous declaration” as an effort to change the status of Jerusalem. It said that it considered the action a violation of United Nations resolutions and legally null and void, and that it would hold the United States liable for all consequences of not retracting its decision.


It also said it took Mr. Trump’s declaration as an announcement that the United States was withdrawing from its role as a sponsor of peace for the region.

There were calls at the summit for countries to recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, and even more calls for the United States to recuse itself as “mediator” between the Israelis and Palestinians.

While the Trump administration calculated that regional fears over Iran would outweigh anger over the Jerusalem announcement, instead it seems that the announcement may have rekindled interest in the Palestinian cause, something that had waned considerably in recent years. Quite a feat for a policy change that Rex Tillerson insists doesn’t mean anything.


King Salman told his Shura council on Wednesday that he’s committed to the country’s new power consolidation anti-corruption effort. He also stressed that the Vision 2030 economic reform program would not contradict Saudi Arabia’s moderate Islamic values. You know the ones. Those famously moderate Wahhabi values.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission member Jeffrey Baran told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday that the commission will have to weigh in before any nuclear cooperation deal between the US and the Saudis can go forward. Baran suggested that a deal that enables the Saudis to enrich uranium would be problematic from a regulatory standpoint since US nuclear cooperation agreements have traditionally sought to limit enrichment rather than expand it. But Republicans are apparently interested in leveling the playing field between Iran, which as you know does enrich uranium, and the Saudis. My response to this is the same as it’s always been: let the Saudis enrich uranium under the JCPOA’s inspections and limitations framework. My guess is that the Saudis would chafe at that, because all the Republican talking points about the JCPOA’s weakness and toothlessness are just that, talking points. There are real restrictions that the JCPOA imposes that I’d bet the Saudis would find objectionable.


The Bush Trump administration is going to conduct a public demonstration of what it says is Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons production capability Iran’s military assistance to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Secretary of State Colin Powell United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley will present an alleged vial of Iraqi-made anthrax Iranian-made missile components at the UN Security Council Defense Intelligence Agency later this week. He She will reportedly present further evidence of Iraq’s Iran’s violations of UN resolutions and sanctions as well as evidence that the Hussein clerical regime is destabilizing the Middle East.

While the 60 day window for Congress to wreck the Iran nuclear deal passed uneventfully on Tuesday, the deal is still in critical danger and likely will remain so for the rest of Donald Trump’s hopefully single term in office. I explain for LobeLog:

Trump may have been hoping Congress would make at least a cosmetic change to the accord, something he could use to claim victory and move on. But now the onus is squarely back on Trump to decide the nuclear agreement’s fate. Two deadlines will arrive in mid-January that will give Trump an opportunity to terminate the deal if he wants. In one, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson must issue a new round of waivers to maintain Iran’s sanctions relief. With the International Atomic Energy Agency continuing to certify that Iran is complying with its JCPOA requirements, it will be difficult for Tillerson to justify reneging on America’s. Of course, ongoing rumors about Tillerson’s job security make it hard to predict whether he’ll still be secretary of state in January, let alone what he might do if he is.


The second deadline applies to Trump. In a scenario that calls to mind the film Groundhog Day, INARA’s 90-day certification deadline, the one whereby Trump refused to certify the deal in October, is up again next month. At that time, Trump will again have the option to refuse certification and reopen another 60-day window for Congress to reimpose sanctions. There’s no reason to believe Congress would be any more open to taking that step in January and February than it was in October and November, but for proponents of diplomacy and the nuclear accord this could just be the beginning of an indefinite cycle of threats to both.

Finally Reza Marashi argues that the Jerusalem announcement hasn’t just empowered Iranian hardliners, it’s empowered Iran as a whole–ironic, I guess, for a US administration that professes to pretty much hate Iran’s guts:

Armed with Trump’s Jerusalem debacle, Tehran now has more tools at its disposal to protect itself from increased efforts to isolate it politically and economically. Moreover, the joint American-Israeli-Saudi efforts to create an exclusionary regional security framework at Iran’s expense will likely fall flat since much of the world deeply opposes it, having seen the chaos it has already caused. Now that Iran’s position on regional matters is more (but not entirely) in line with global public opinion, it may help Tehran consolidate its regional and international gains without having to be more stringent on the issue of Palestinian statehood.

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