Middle East update: January 10 2018


The United Nations reports that 85 civilians have been killed just in Ghouta so far in 2018 and says there are concerns that combatants on both sides are failing to distinguish between civilian and military targets.

Meanwhile, to the north, Turkey is continuing to demand, without effect, a halt to the Syrian offensive in Idlib province:

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Russia and Iran must fulfill their duties under a joint accord reached with Turkey last year in which the three countries announced a “de-escalation zone” in Idlib.


He said advances by the Syrian army and allied forces into Idlib could not have taken place without the support of Moscow and Tehran, which have both backed Assad in the war.


“Iran and Russia need to carry out their responsibilities. If you are guarantors, which you are, stop the regime,” Cavusoglu told the state-run Anadolu news agency in an interview broadcast on Turkish television channels.

Tens of thousands of people have already been displaced by the campaign. Çavuşoğlu summoned the Russian and Iranian ambassadors to Turkey to the Turkish foreign ministry on Tuesday to make a formal diplomatic complaint. Russia, for its part, wants Ankara to do a better job of policing rebels in Idlib so that Russia’s military bases in neighboring Latakia stop getting attacks. Moscow says it believes the attacks are being launched from a village in the southwestern part of Idlib (this would give the apparently very low-tech drones a range of at least 50 miles, so take that with a grain of salt). And in fact it can be argued that Turkey’s inability–or unwillingness–to control the situation in Idlib is what has caused the new Syrian offensive (or, at least, has given Damascus a reason to justify it):

Aaron Stein is a senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, who has written extensively on the Syrian conflict. He told Al-Monitor in an interview, “[T]he basic framework at Astana was for the regime to take back control over territory as far north as the train tracks [connecting the Idlib and Aleppo governorates]. Turkey agreed to this arrangement, I would presume because there was also an assumption made that the al-Qaeda elements within HTS could be dealt with through intra-rebel pressures.” For whatever reason — some argue Turkey never intended to confront HTS and is more interested in going after US backed Syrian Kurds in neighboring Afrin — it did not work. Thus now “the regime is taking back territory by force and to do so they have to bomb thoughout Idlib to weaken [oppostion] supply lines. It looks like the Idlib de-escalation is falling apart,” Stein observed.


One of the interesting features of ISIS is that it hasn’t suffered a major fracture yet. Takfiri groups are especially susceptible to messy breakups because, once you convince yourselves that you’re the only people who are practicing True Islam, the constant purity testing can easily lead to internal divisions. But ISIS has remained cohesive. At least to outward appearances. There was a piece in Foreign Affairs last month that identified one significant internal split that ISIS’s leaders suppressed well enough that it never became apparent outside the group. Since FA has a paywall, so I’ll let Patrick Wing summarize it for us:

Abu Omar al-Kuwaiti for example, an IS judge, accused the leadership of being kafirs because they did not destroy a sufi grave in Raqqa, Syria. Kuwaiti was later executed in 2015 for accusing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of being a kafir. Several other judges were detained at the same time perhaps for having similar beliefs. Some IS members accused non-Arabic speaking members of just listening to the rhythms of nasheeds, which would make them only music, which was banned. Some others were members of the hisbah, religious police, and were mad that their decisions were dismissed by the courts. The Islamic State eventually saw the threat their own ideas were posing and cracked down on these dissenters. Many were arrested, jailed and executed.

ISIS’s defeat on the battlefield could be used by these suppressed extremists (imagine being an extremist within ISIS) as evidence that they were right all along, so we could see these people making a comeback in the months to come.

The US-led coalition in Iraq is warning of the potential for ISIS Classic to make a comeback in any of five areas where the Iraqis have recently defeated the group:

Two of the areas, one centered on the city of Tal Afar and the other on Qaim, were also included for their proximity to the Syrian border. “There are still pockets of ISIS in Syria,” said the State Department official. “Adjacent to those pockets are areas that have been most recently liberated, and they are areas that have traditionally been politically volatile.”


The other areas highlighted on the map, including clusters near the towns of Hawija, Tuz Khurmatu, and Shirqat, were selected because of long-standing political and security concerns. “These have always been critical — even before ISIS. Hawija and Tuz Khurmatu [a disputed city near Kirkuk] have always been political flashpoints,” said the U.S. official.


These towns and cities, moreover, are all in a band of ethnically diverse communities, where Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds live in close proximity. Unlike the ethnically homogenous Kurdish region or Shiite-dominated southern Iraq, these areas have frequently seen bouts of sustained instability.

Interestingly this analysis ignores Diyala province, which has probably seen the most sustained offensive ISIS activity of any part of Iraq over the past several months. The focus on these areas has to do with the fact that they’re all recently liberated and haven’t been totally resettled, so the potential for new disruption remains high.


A Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a market in Saada on Wednesday killed 11 people, according to provincial officials.

The coalition, meanwhile, says that it was able to prevent a Houthi attack on a Saudi oil tanker near Hudaydah over the weekend. The Houthis allegedly packed a boat full of explosives and sent it out after the tanker. Undoubtedly this attack, or the accusation at least, will be used by the Saudis to justify their eventual attack on Hudaydah–you know, the one that will take Yemen’s humanitarian crisis from “horrifying nightmare” to “post-apocalyptic hellscape.”


Tensions continue to run high over Sudan’s plan to lease Suakin Island in the Red Sea, a former Ottoman military outpost, to Turkey. Despite Turkish denials to this effect, Egyptian media is heavily pushing the idea that Ankara wants the island to build its own Red Sea naval base, possibly…


At any rate, Egypt doesn’t get along well with either Turkey or Sudan, so the fact that they’re getting along with one another is bound to set Cairo off a bit:

Tarek Fahmy, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, told Al-Monitor that Egypt is worried because Turkey has already demonstrated its desire to build a military presence in the region by recently opening a base in Somalia. Egypt fears Turkey plans to exploit the island “to tighten the noose around Egypt’s neck, given that the island is close to the Egyptian border,” he said.


Cairo must see the Suakin deal as a declaration of a Turkish-Sudanese alliance opposing Egypt. Tensions between Sudan and Egypt escalated to the point that Sudan’s Foreign Ministry recalled its ambassador to Cairo for consultation Jan. 4. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said, “An integral assessment of the situation is taking place and will precede an appropriate action by Egypt.”

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki on Wednesday in Cairo. You may recall that Sudan decided to close its border with Eritrea over the weekend, so whatever the two men talked about I’m sure the Red Sea situation was on the list.


Based on a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights report that argues that the Saudi-led quartet’s blockade of Qatar is hurting people in the region, the Qatari foreign ministry said on Wednesday that it will pursue international remedies, possibly including arbitration to end said blockade. Since international law is only binding inasmuch as people allow it to be, whatever ruling the Qataris eventually obtain will probably just be ignored by the quartet.


Prince Abdullah bin Saud bin Mohammed was canned on Wednesday as head of Saudi Arabia’s Maritime Sports Federation. The prince, whose age and position on the expansive Saudi family tree I confess are total mysteries to me, allegedly recorded himself criticizing the recent arrest of 11 princes who were ostensibly protesting cuts to their royal allowances. In the recording he seems to say that the princes, who have been sent to the maximum security al-Haer Prison south of Riyadh (unusual for detained royals to say the least), were arrested for other reasons after getting into a confrontation with palace guards.


There were slightly dueling media narratives on Wednesday about Donald Trump’s plans for the approaching deadline over extending Iranian sanctions relief. Trump has to decide by Friday whether or not to continue waiving sanctions that were suspended under the Iran nuclear deal. Failing to do so would constitute an American withdrawal from the accord, an event that Iranian officials have recently been suggesting would cause them to scrap the deal altogether.

The AP reported that Trump has decided to extend the sanctions waivers but to announce some new sanctions against Iranian firms and individuals at the same time, which could constitute a violation of the nuclear deal but wouldn’t be as explicit as just allowing the sanctions to come back full force. The new sanctions wouldn’t, for example, include the punishing restrictions on Iran’s financial system that were the centerpiece of the pre-deal sanctions regime. However, Reuters then reported that Trump is being advised to extend the waivers by Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, etc., but that he himself is resisting that advice. Republicans in Congress are working on changes to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act that would let Trump look tough while giving him a justification for remaining in the nuclear deal, but there’s no way they’ll have something done by Friday, so Trump’s advisers are trying to convince him that enough progress has been made toward changing INARA that he’ll agree to extend the waivers.

By the by, US sanctions are actually making it harder for the Iranian opposition, like those protesters Trump says he likes so much, to organize their opposition. Consider that when Trump says he wants the Iranian people to seize their own destiny at the same time that he’s reimposing sanctions.

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