Middle East update: December 15 2017

IMPORTANT SITE UPDATE: All this time, without realizing it, I’ve had accelerated mobile posting turned on and as a result anybody coming to this site via a mobile link has been landing on a dull AMP page rather than the nice premium (as in I’m paying for it) theme page that I specifically chose for this site and for which I specifically format these posts. I’m going to experiment with turning AMP off starting with tonight’s updates, which apparently will render any past mobile Twitter links (at least, I don’t know about Facebook and elsewhere) useless because Online fundamentally sucks. If this change winds up causing trouble for you, please say something in the comments or hit me up on Twitter or something. If enough people have issues I’ll turn AMP back on.


As I noted yesterday, a couple of Popular Mobilization commanders have abruptly ordered their followers to place themselves under the authority of the Iraqi military this week. On Friday, Iraq’s leading Shiʿa authority called on all PMU fighters to follow suit:

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani stopped short, however, of rescinding a religious edict he made in June 2014 urging Iraqi citizens to join security forces at a time when the Islamic State was sweeping through the country, eventually taking over about one-third of Iraq’s territory.


Instead, he said all weapons should be under the control of the state and that armed groups should steer clear of political participation — marking a significant step in Iraq’s demobilization from a war footing now that major combat against the Islamic State has ended.

This is a gift to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who needs to figure out a way to bring the PMUs under control. Whatever weight Sistani carries within the militias themselves is less important than the weight he carries with the Iraqi people. PMU fighters who ignore his call could find themselves in hot water with the public. His 2014 call to arms led to a massive expansion in PMU recruitment, so it’s very possible he could break at least some of those forces as easily as he made them.

Iraqi authorities are investigating reports of shelling in the town of Tuz Khurmatu on December 9 and 12, according to the United Nations. Tuz Khurmatu is one of the towns abandoned by Kurdish forces as they fled that combined Iraqi military-PMU offensive in and around Kirkuk province in October. It was one of the few places where real fighting took place during that offensive. The shelling would be disconcerting enough without that background, but with it it’s potentially a very serious problem.

The UN says it is “appalled” at a mass execution that was conducted at the Iraqi prison in Nassiriya on Thursday. Reports say that the Iraqis hanged 38 men convicted on charges related to terrorism.


The State Department on Friday urged the Syrian government (“all parties,” but it’s clear to whom they were speaking) to “work seriously toward a political resolution” in Syria. Which is nice. I’m urging Warren Buffet to name me as his heir. But it might be helpful if somebody could figure out the contours of that “political resolution.” Because right now the rebels still seem to think it involves no more Bashar al-Assad. And as long as they hold that position, when Assad is under no pressure to leave or even really compromise his political future, one could argue that they’re not really “working seriously toward a political resolution” either.

Western peace efforts now seem to revolve around convincing Russia to strong-arm Assad into a settlement, but it’s becoming pretty clear that the Russians, Assad, and the Iranians (don’t forget about them) don’t see eye to eye when it comes to how to end the war:

But analysts struggle to see how Russian diplomacy can bring lasting peace to Syria, encourage millions of refugees to return, or secure Western reconstruction aid.


There is no sign that Assad is ready to compromise with his opponents. The war has also allowed his other big ally, Iran and its Revolutionary Guard, to expand its regional influence, which Tehran will not want to see diluted by any settlement in Syria.


Having worked closely to secure Assad, Iran and Russia may now differ in ways that could complicate Russian policy.


The Yemeni army captured the town of Bayhan, in Shabwa province, from the Houthis on Friday. Bayhan was one of the last Houthi-held towns remaining in southern Yemen. “Dozens” of Houthi fighters were reportedly killed in the battle.

Elsewhere, and much more ominously, foreign aid workers are reportedly leaving Hudaydah out of concern that the Saudi-Emirati-Yemeni coalition may be about to attack the Houthi-held port city. The coalition has made some recent gains south of Hudaydah along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, hence the concern. An attack on Hudaydah would trigger yet another humanitarian catastrophe, since it’s the only seaport in Yemen large enough to handle the necessary aid shipments and its destruction, as would almost certainly be the case once the coalition got finished, would mean those aid shipments would be drastically cut back and/or slowed down.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says he’s planning to seek action at the United Nations to reverse Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He’ll take his case to the Security Council, where obviously the US will veto, and then to the General Assembly, where it will be symbolically interesting but practically meaningless.


Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk has set May 6 as the date for Lebanon’s first parliamentary election since 2009. That vote is obviously long overdue–it’s been delayed three times due to breakdowns within the Lebanese political system.


Israeli forces killed at least four Palestinian protesters and wounded 160 more on Friday when they responded to violent protests with live fire along the Gaza border and in the West Bank. Police said that one of those who were killed in the West Bank had stabbed one of their officers before they shot him. Between the two territories a total of around 6000 people participated in demonstrations that frequently involved flaming tires, rocks, and Molotov cocktails. I guess the Palestinians aren’t getting the message that Trump’s Jerusalem announcement doesn’t mean anything and anyway they should just STFU and get used to getting nothing, and neither are demonstrators in Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, and Tokyo, where Jerusalem-related protests also took place on Friday.

Meanwhile, one of the important things to watch here is the degree to which Arab governments are able to walk a tightrope between offending the United States and offending their own citizens. So far, no Arab government has done anything about the Jerusalem announcement other than offering some half-hearted criticism, but that may be changing. The Jordanian government, the most precariously situated to suffer from any backlash over Trump’s decision, appears to be seriously trying to marshal a pan-Arab opposition to the move, but with Saudi Arabia firmly in Trump’s camp (or vice versa) now and likely forevermore, I’m not sure how much the Jordanians can realistically hope to achieve.


Finally, LobeLog published two interesting takes on Nikki Haley’s big Iran/Yemen event from yesterday, neither of them very complimentary. Reza Marashi says that Haley essentially lied about the UN report on which she based her presentation:

First, Haley cited a UN report in her claim regarding Iranian missile transfers to the Houthis. Of course, the UN has reached no such conclusion. Instead, a panel of experts concluded that fired missile fragments show components from an Iranian company, but they have “no evidence as to the identity of the broker or supplier.” Asked about Haley’s claim that Iran is the culprit, Sweden’s ambassador to the UN said, “The info I have is less clear.” Analysts from the U.S. Department of Defense speaking to reporters at Haley’s speech openly acknowledged that they do not know the missiles’ origin. Perhaps most surreal is the very same UN report cited by Haley also says the missile included a component that was manufactured by an American company. Did she disingenuously omit that inconvenient bit from her remarks, or fail to read the entire UN report? The world may never know.

Second, Paul Pillar finds, as I suggested a couple of days ago, that Haley’s speech carried echoes of a previous Republican administration hell-bent on making a case for war:

Now Nikki Haley has provided the closest replication yet of the notorious show-and-tell from 2003.  She has tendentiously and selectively brandished pieces, including physical pieces, of intelligence to stir up hostility toward Iran, with which the Trump administration seems intent on picking a fight.  The featured piece consisted of remnants of a missile fired from Yemen in the direction of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


Haley and the Trump administration have gone beyond Powell and the Bush administration in dragging U.S. intelligence agencies into their hostility-selling campaign.  For Powell’s speech, the imprimatur of the intelligence community was symbolized by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet sitting in the camera frame right behind Powell.  Although Haley is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, such an image in the Security Council chamber evidently wasn’t enough.  Instead, she did her show-and-tell at the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington.  And rather than a small vial that Powell used as a prop in talking about a biological weapon, she displayed a warehouse full of wrecked hardware, including the missile remnants.

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