Middle East update: December 20 2017


Overnight airstrikes killed 19 civilians in the rebel-held Idlib village of Maar Shureen, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Russia denied involvement, which means it was likely the Syrian air force that carried out the attack. Witnesses allege that this was a double-tap strike, with a second bombing following shortly after the first to try to kill anyone responding to the scene.


An AP investigation shows that between 9000 and 11000 civilians were killed during the operation to liberate Mosul from ISIS, which is ten times higher than previous estimates. Of those, at least a third were killed by US-led coalition airstrikes. The AP’s investigation used data collected at Mosul’s morgue as well as by a number of independent observers, and if anything those figures may very well underestimate the death toll. More bodies could still be found amid the rubble as the city is cleaned up.

Protests have been ongoing against the Kurdistan Regional Government in Sulaimaniyah province since the weekend, and violent clashes between protesters and police are becoming more common. Among the KRG’s other offenses, its break in relations with Baghdad and Turkey has rendered it unable to pay civil servants, leaving potentially thousands of families with no way to support themselves. And this augurs well for the days to come:

In a worrying development Dec. 19 that could have serious consequences for the region’s stability, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls Sulaimaniyah province, appeared to call on vigilantes to maintain order and “support the democratic and patriotic path of their party” against “troublemakers.” The party shared a warning with the press. “It is not acceptable for some … media outlets to provoke protesters to cause trouble in the name of freedom of press. … These channels and their backers … are responsible for the blood of those who become victims.”

Coincidentally or not, just before the PUK announcement the Kurdish Asayish police seized the offices of the NRT media outlet in Sulaimaniyah, taking the station off the air.

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall for both the PUK and the Kurdish Democratic Party, the third largest party in Kurdistan, Gorran, announced Wednesday that it was effectively pulling out of the KRG altogether and criticized “the flagrant disregard for life, liberty and democracy shown by the authorities” in Kurdistan. In short, things in Iraqi Kurdistan look like they’re moving in a very dangerous direction.


Saudi airstrikes in northern Yemen killed at least 11 civilians on Wednesday, according to regional authorities.

On the plus side, the Saudis announced Wednesday that they’re going to reopen Hudaydah’s port to commercial shipping, in addition to humanitarian assistance, for 30 days. This comes despite yesterday’s attempted Houthi missile strike on Riyadh. Opening the port to commercial shipping is a huge step that will allow more food to come into the country along with other basic essentials like fuel. The Saudis said their decision to open the port was based on improvements in the international inspection effort to keep arms from coming into Yemen, and ideally the 30 day window will be extended provided there are no incidents of arms coming through Hudaydah to the Houthis during that time. US pressure may have played a role in getting the Saudis to take this step–in general it does seem like the Trump administration has really begun to sour on the war.


Both Saudi Arabia and Lebanon are refusing to accredit each other’s ambassadors. This is probably lingering fallout from the Hariri fiasco, though both governments insist that everything’s fine and they’ll be installing the two diplomats soon.


Al-Monitor’s Ben Caspit says that Donald Trump’s Jerusalem declaration may have irrevocably broken the US-Palestinian relationship, and when you read his account of the phone call in which Trump broke the news to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, you can kind of see why:

Meanwhile, the Ramallah-Washington axis has been shattered, and contacts between the United States and the Palestinians are mostly conducted through public declarations and angry speeches. A senior Palestinian source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity about a phone conversation between Trump and Abbas, during which Trump informed the Palestinian leader of his plan to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. According to the Palestinian source, Trump told Abbas, “I’m a strong president. Unlike my predecessors who made promises, I make good on my promises. But I’m also about to offer some good proposals to you, too.” Abbas asked Trump to elaborate, but Trump declined to say. “You’ll see,” he told Abbas. It turns out that this promise was insufficient to limit the damage incurred by his declaration. Abbas is an old hand. He has had his fill of promises and disappointments.

Apparently his sales pitch to the Palestinians is not unlike the pitch he laid on people who signed up for Trump University.

Meanwhile, Trump is trying to pull some dime store Tony Soprano impersonation over the planned United Nations General Assembly vote on Jerusalem:

What a dweeb. Who knows if this will have the desired effect, but I think we can all agree that wielding foreign aid like a cudgel to strong-arm other countries into doing your bidding is definitely a very effective way of doing foreign policy that won’t engender any long-term resentment.

As Trump himself says in that video, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is the one who rolled out this disgusting idea yesterday. Slate’s Josh Keating looks at how Haley has come to pretty much adopt Trump’s view of foreign policy wholesale:

It can often seem as if the Trump administration has two foreign policies: one, a fairly standard, hawkish approach that emphasizes a balance of power politics and alliance building; the other, a bellicose and erratic approach, aimed as much at scoring domestic political points as accomplishing international goals, that relies on threats issued via Twitter and treats international alliances as protection rackets. Both approaches were arguably on display Monday in the fairly routine National Security Strategy document released by the White House and the contradictory speech delivered by the president to introduce it.


If Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are the main public advocates for the former approach, Haley has surprisingly become the face of the latter. As a former official told New York magazine recently, “Her gut instincts are very similar to those of the president, which is probably why they have been so in sync.”

Please, folks, if somebody ever says your “gut instincts are very similar” to Donald Trump’s, have your gut checked by a medical professional.


A Tuesday attack on an Egyptian airbase in northern Sinai that killed one Egyptian military officer has been claimed by ISIS, not that there was really much doubt. Apparently both the Egyptian interior and defense ministers were on a tour of northern Sinai yesterday and they were the intended target. Neither was injured.

Al-Monitor has an interview with Sheikh Ibrahim al-Argani, the head of the Sinai Tribal Union. Argani says that Sinai tribes are eager to get more involved in the fight against ISIS, especially since the November 24 Rawdah mosque bombing.


Saudi authorities say that they have “permanently” closed their Salwa border crossing with Qatar. How one “permanently” closes something like that is beyond me, but if the Saudis are as successful at that as they’ve been with everything else they’ve done over the past couple of years, I’d expect to see it open to full traffic by the weekend.


An Iranian court on Tuesday sentenced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, to 63 years in prison on corruption charges. That’s a staggering sentence for an Iranian politician and reflects the degree to which, among other things, Ahmadinejad (whose administration was rife with corruption) is still on the outs with senior Iranian leadership.

There continues to be pushback over Josh Meyer’s BIG BREAKING INVESTIGATIVE FOUR DRUDGE SIREN ALERT SCANDAL Hezbollah-Iran story that POLITICO ran over the weekend. In discussing Meyer’s completely unchallenged appearance on NPR on Wednesday, Win Without War’s Ben Armbruster digs into some of the problems with Meyer’s report:

But a closer look into this story also reveals significant problems that cast doubt about its overall veracity, including the fact that this so-called Hezbollah “trade-off” is actually based on speculation and is unproven. And when the layers of Meyer’s newest report are peeled away, the story is, again, nothing more than a benign exposé on government policy processes.

To her credit, Martin does note that Meyer’s reporting actually acknowledges this, as it does relay comments from unnamed former Obama officials explaining that typically, one particular agency involved in national security decision-making–in this case, the DEA–is largely focused on its own goals and isn’t necessarily privy to the overall picture of what a particular White House wants to achieve or the strategy of how it will achieve it.

Even in Meyer’s piece there are mentions that the CIA opposed pursuing the drug case against Hezbollah, for reasons that had nothing to do with the nuclear deal and everything to do with jeopardizing whatever the CIA thought it had going on at the time. And speaking of which, ex-CIA analyst Nada Bakos illustrated a few more flaws with Meyer’s piece on Twitter:




So far, Bakos is the only one of Meyer’s high-profile critics that he hasn’t tried to smear on Twitter as an Iranian sympathizer, using the kind of language you generally only see from people with a strong anti-nuclear deal axe to grind. But Meyer is an impartial journalist, so that must be a coincidence.

I’m sticking with my initial response to the piece, which is that even if everything in it is true, it amounts to criticizing the Obama administration for passing up a drug bust in the name of concluding a massive international arms agreement that could have (if not for Trump, which nobody could have foreseen in 2015) forestalled a war with Iran:

But there is a bigger problem with the story, beyond being false. The more revealing issue is that the pro-war lobby actually thinks that, if they can convince the public these claims are true, the accusations are a valid line of attack. As if the U.S. should have given up on preventing Iran from having a path to the doomsday weapon and instead prioritized clamping down on Hezbollah’s alleged drug smuggling through tactical enforcement actions.


Indeed, had it been true, it would not have been President Barack Obama that the pro-war echo-chamber should be directing their anger against, but rather Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since the mid-1990s, Netanyahu had been hammering the point that Iran’s nuclear program constituted an existential threat to Israel. The West, and the United States in particular, had an obligation to address this threat and precisely because it was deemed existential, Washington had to give it priority over all other issues and concerns with Iran. In particular, the Israelis were worried that the Iranians would create linkages between the nuclear issue and other regional concerns of the US, and by that manage to retain aspects of the nuclear program in return for compromises on regional matters.


Later, of course, the Netanyahu government and other opponents deceitfully criticized the nuclear deal on the grounds that it didn’t address Iran’s regional policies ― which the Israelis specifically had pressed the U.S. not to address.

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