Middle East update: December 18 2017


Iraq as of December 12–red areas are in government hands, gold in KRG hands, and bright yellow in PKK hands (Wikimedia | Absalao777)

The Kurdistan Regional Government says that Baghdad is building up forces southwest of Erbil in preparation for a renewed military offensive against the Kurds. Baghdad denies this claim, but it’s worth noting that the dispute over the Kurdistan independence referendum has never really been resolved, just frozen. Baghdad still wants the referendum’s results “cancelled” while the Kurds have only “suspended” them or some other outrageously pedantic thing. Likewise, the Kurds have not turned over control of their remaining oil facilities are are offering only joint control of points of entry, neither of which is what Baghdad wants. The German government inserted itself into the crisis on Monday, saying that its continued aid for both the Iraqi and Kurdistan governments will be dependent on both parties working toward a peaceful resolution of their disagreements.

With the Kirkuk oil fields back in its hands, Baghdad may start directing some or all of the province’s output through Iran, rather than through Turkey as has long been the arrangement. This would be a big wet kiss to Iran for its help dealing with ISIS and the Kurds, and a giant middle finger to Turkey, which, uh, also helped Iraq deal with the Kurds, but nonetheless has been a repeated pain in the neck for Baghdad since the start of the Mosul operation (OK, for longer than that, but let’s stick to recent history). This is worth watching for the potential to reenergize long-standing Ankara-Baghdad beef that had been waning thanks in part to the Kurdish referendum.


Bashar al-Assad complained to reporters on Monday that in three years the United Nations-led Syrian peace talks have accomplished “nothing,” and, well, he ought to know since he’s done quite a bit to make sure of it. He also talked up the new Russian Sochi initiative, the one that also hasn’t accomplished anything but doesn’t yet have the three year track record of failure that the UN talks have. Give it time. The Syrian political opposition unsurprisingly doesn’t seem quite as keen on the Sochi track, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll participate and, indeed, whether their participation is even relevant at this point.


Brian O’Toole, a former senior adviser at the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, this afternoon tweeted a fairly perturbed response to POLITICO’s big Hezbollah investigative report. He definitely seems Mad, Online:

There’s obviously a lot of inside baseball going on here that I can’t really evaluate one way or another. My argument from yesterday, that criticizing the Obama administration for passing up a fucking cocaine bust in the pursuit of a potentially landmark nuclear agreement is dumb, still stands. But if O’Toole is right, then it doesn’t even seem as though they were likely to get the fucking cocaine bust anyway.


The Israeli military conducted overnight airstrikes against what it says is a Hamas training camp in northern Gaza. The strikes came in response to more rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli territory.

On the Jerusalem front, as expected the United States was alone in voting against a UN Security Council resolution on Monday that would have walked back Donald Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, which of course means it didn’t pass due to the US veto. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley pretended to be offended by the resolution’s very existence, which was a nice touch, but still the other 14 council members voted in favor of the measure. Which is a bit embarrassing, but it’s only like the 500th most embarrassing thing the Trump administration has done since Halloween, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that. The Palestinians and Turkey both say they’ll pursue the issue in the UN General Assembly now, and if you think the Security Council is powerless here, buddy, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

One interesting wrinkle to this story is that a number of Arab governments appear to be underwhelmed by India’s response to the Jerusalem decision. India has historically supported the Palestinian cause, but under Narendra Modi’s leadership its relations with both Israel and the US have improved to the point where the Indian government might be prepared to jettison that support. Interestingly, one of the Arab governments reportedly demanding clarification from India is Saudi Arabia, which seems ready to toss the Palestinians in the bin itself in return for closer US and Israeli cooperation against Iran.

Missing from recent protests against corruption and Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv has been any sign of representation from Israel’s Arab parties. According to +972 Magazine’s Doron Matza, that’s partly because Israeli Arabs are giving up on the Israeli Left, which is increasingly indistinguishable from Likud on Palestinian issues, and moving toward the Israeli Right, owing to Netanyahu’s economic outreach to the Arab community.


Egyptian police say they killed five “militants”–whether they were ISIS or of some other persuasion is unclear–in a raid just north of Cairo on Monday, and arrested ten others in additional raids.

Twitter is apparently banning Nazis! Which is Good! But over the weekend they also for some reason suspended Egyptian human rights activist Wael Abbas! Which is Bad! Really Bad:

Abbas is blogger-in-chief for the website Misr Digit@l, which posted about the suspension, saying it involved the deletion of “over 250,000 tweets. Dozens of thousands of pictures, videos and live streams from the middle of every crisis in Egypt with date stamp on them, reporting on people who got tortured, killed or missing. Live coverage of events as they happened in the street.”

I guess you have to take the Bad with the Good, but wouldn’t it be nice for a change if everybody’s favorite micro-blogging website just did Good stuff? I don’t want to accuse them of kowtowing to the Egyptian government here, but what else could explain this?


At LobeLog, retired British diplomat Peter Jenkins has more to say on the rumored US-Saudi nuclear deal, in particular the Trump administration’s apparent willingness to allow the Saudis to enrich their own uranium:

Since 1975 the United States has argued more fiercely than any other supplier of nuclear equipment for restricting the spread of uranium enrichment (and spent fuel reprocessing) technology, because this can be used for the production of nuclear weapon material. Initially the most the United States could obtain from other suppliers was agreement to “exercise restraint in the transfer of sensitive facilities, technology and weapons-usable materials.” But by 2011 they had persuaded the other members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to accept three pages of “Special Controls on Sensitive Exports.”


So tolerating Saudi acquisition of an enrichment capability—maybe even facilitating it—would be either a major inconsistency or a major policy shift.

Yes, in the Iran nuclear deal America also agreed to tolerate Iranian uranium enrichment…but only along with severe International Atomic Energy Agency-overseen safeguards and inspections. And Donald Trump isn’t even satisfied with that–he wants to tear up the deal! Imagine, as Jenkins says, how the rest of the world is going to react if (when) America OKs an unfettered Saudi enrichment program and then comes back in ten years and says that restrictions on Iran’s enrichment program have to be extended or else the whole world will be bathed in nuclear fire. Probably not well, is my guess.


Donald Trump unveiled his National Security Strategy on Monday, about which we’ll have more to say later (SPOILER ALERT: it sucks). But we can talk here about Iran, which got its own little rage-gasm in the middle of the document:

The Trump strategy comes as the White House is trying to deter Iran, dubbed “the world’s most significant state sponsor of terrorism” in the document, from strengthening ties with Shiite groups such as Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Last week, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley held a press conference in Washington with purported fragments of Iranian missiles that the Houthis fired into Saudi Arabia.


“Our new strategy was prompted by the undeniable fact that the Iranian regime’s behavior is growing worse,” she said.


Monday’s strategy could provide a preview of how the Trump administration’s pressure campaign will develop over the next year. It cited Iran’s efforts to beef up its influence through proxy groups, weapons proliferation and a recommitment to its ballistic missile program, activities that have “continued unabated since the 2015 nuclear deal.”

Among the strategy’s other Middle East gems: the Trump administration plans on running its Middle East policy through the Gulf Cooperation Council, even though our best pals the Saudis have already rendered that body impotent via their anti-Qatar program. That should go well.

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