Middle East update: February 12 2018


Reuters is reporting that at least two Russian mercenaries who were fighting in Syria were killed during that US airstrike on Syrian-aligned forces in Deir Ezzor province last week. “Associates” of the two men have reportedly confirmed their deaths. The official Russian line is that no Russians were involved in that incident, and while that’s technically true if these two men were private contractors, it’s misleading in that the Russian government often uses private contractors as regular soldiers precisely so that it can fudge casualty figures.

If you’re one of the, oh, it must be dozens of people in the world who still care about where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is, then Iraqi intelligence has some news: they believe he’s alive and getting medical treatment for serious injuries somewhere in northeastern Syria. Baghdadi is believed to suffer from diabetes plus a very acute case of getting caught in an airstrike, the latter of which has left him unable to walk under his own power. It’s not clear where or when this alleged airstrike occurred or who allegedly did the alleged striking, but suspicions point to Raqqa during a period when both US and Russian planes were bombing in and around the city fairly regularly.

If true, this report presumably shrinks the list of places where Baghdadi could actually be. As you can see from this map (ISIS-controlled territory in gray), current through early February, ISIS isn’t exactly swimming in northeastern Syrian real estate, and if Baghdadi is really a trauma patient that should further narrow the list of potential sites.

Syrian civil war through February 2018 (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)


At an international donors conference in Kuwait on Monday, Iraqi officials laid out an $88 billion price tag for rebuilding the country following the defeat of ISIS. Frankly that’s less than I thought it was going to be and yet it’s still far too much for the Iraqi government to cover on its own, at least not in a timely manner. Unfortunately it’s not clear where the money is going to come from–the US doesn’t seem likely to contribute, so that takes one major player out of the game before it even gets started.

Rebuilding Iraq will take more than money, of course–it will also require some willingness to live and let live so that Iraq’s diverse population can get along and stabilize the country. So it’s a little disheartening to see militia leaders in Anbar province advising the families of ISIS fighters not to return home or else. Though to be fair, it’s not that they’re collectively punishing those folks. They’d like them to return home, someday–after a stint in a…camp of some kind, where they would be reeducated by Iraqi authorities. Sounds like it could be fun.


After 26 years of governing oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan, the region’s two main political parties are on the verge of economic and political bankruptcy.


While officials of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) live in luxurious houses with 24/7 electricity, the majority of residents have not been receiving their salaries, which had previously been reduced, and the Kurdish economy is in a free fall, creating unprecedented levels of poverty and resentment. The situation has become so dangerously unstable that a senior peshmerga commander on Feb. 11 threatened to seize oil tankers unless the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) pays soldiers’ their salaries.


“No one can deny that the PUK and the KDP are scared,” Jamil Kheder, an Erbil trader who has voted KDP all his life, told Al-Monitor. “In the past, people were scared that the PUK and the KDP would cut off their salaries if they didn’t vote for them, but now [the parties] can’t even pay those salaries and are worried that we’ll punish them in the [next] election.”

The parties have now lost the two things that enabled them to buy a happy or at least passive populace: a sizable share of Iraqi national revenues and control over Kirkuk’s oil fields. All they have left now on which the public can base its support is their actual record, which, uh, isn’t all that substantial come to think of it.


The Turkish government is courting yet another problem with yet another European country–two of them, actually. Its warships, in connection with its invasion of northern Syria, are apparently blocking an Italian offshore rig from getting into Cypriot waters to begin drilling for oil. Coincidentally (?), Ankara also opposes this drilling effort because it’s being undertaken by the Greek Cypriot government without input from Turkish Cypriots. That’s of course an issue for the Cypriots to work out, without Turkish interference, but Ankara isn’t inclined to see it that way.

Meanwhile, and you really couldn’t make this up, Turkish authorities are investigating Pervin Buldan, who was just elected co-leader of the largely Kurdish People’s Democratic Party on Sunday, for possible comments she’s made opposing the Afrin intervention. Buldan replaced Serpil Kemalbay, who was arrested a few days ago. It’s likely Buldan will be arrested in the coming days. It’s almost as if literally anybody elected to run the HDP is going to be tossed in jail by the Turkish government in short order. But that couldn’t possibly be right because Turkey is a democratic republic where political opposition and free expression are encouraged, not punished.


Benjamin Netanyahu says he’s been talking with the Trump administration about annexing West Bank settlements. The Trump administration denies that it’s been talking with Benjamin Netanyahu about annexing West Bank settlements. Which means that Benjamin Netanyahu has been talking with the Trump administration about annexing West Bank settlements. That doesn’t mean such a move is imminent, but it does mean that Netanyahu knows he’s got a fat one on the line and he’s intent on reeling him in before, say, 2020.

If there is a move toward annexation it will undoubtedly be made in conjunction with the Kushner Accords, elements of which have started leaking to the press. If you’re a fan of non-state states that possess a little non-contiguous territory and have almost no ability to control their own economies or security, then you’ll love what the Trump administration has in mind for Palestine. Otherwise, not so much. The only reason I don’t spend more time railing against this plan is that it’s almost certainly dead on arrival and because the Trump administration already revealed the man behind the curtain when it handed Jerusalem over to Israel without a single concession and then cut aid to the Palestinians on top of that.

In Gaza, meanwhile, the ongoing financial crunch has turned the whole area into a giant tinderbox:

The jails are filling with shopkeepers arrested for unpaid debts; the talk on the streets is of homes being burglarized. The boys who skip school to hawk fresh mint or wipe car windshields face brutal competition. At open-air markets, shelves remain mostly full, but vendors sit around reading the Quran.


There are no buyers, the sellers say. There is no money.


United Nations officials warn that Gaza is nearing total collapse, with medical supplies dwindling, clinics closing and 12-hour power failures threatening hospitals. The water is almost entirely undrinkable, and raw sewage is befouling beaches and fishing grounds. Israeli officials and aid workers are bracing for a cholera outbreak any day.

The promised Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, which should help, looks less likely by the day, with Hamas now refusing to turn over tax collection to the Palestinian Authority until the PA starts paying civil servant salaries in Gaza. The PA refuses to do that until it gets control of the revenue collection. Meanwhile people sit around in the dark wondering where they can find a clean glass of water, and Hamas mulls cutting a deal with Mohammed Dahlan and the United Arab Emirates instead of the PA. That scenario could provide short-term relief at the cost of longer-term chaos.


Egyptian forces killed at least 12 ISIS militants in Sinai on Monday as part of their enhanced crackdown on extremists across the country. For its part, ISIS is calling on its supporters to stage attacks to coincide with next month’s Egyptian presidential election, in order to disrupt the process and depress turnout. Whether the attacks happen or not, the threat may help keep turnout low. Then again, turnout is already likely to be low since the whole election is a stage-managed farce.


The Saudis have agreed to surrender control over the Grand Mosque in Brussels, which the Belgian government leased to them back in the 1960s in an arrangement that has come under increasing scrutiny as several of its attendees have gotten involved with ISIS terrorist cells in Europe. Riyadh’s acquiescence to Belgium’s decision to revoke the lease is part of Mohammad bin Salman’s effort to try to paint a moderate face over Saudi Wahhabism, at least at home and as far as the West is concerned (sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia seem to be a different story).


A dual Canadian-Iranian national, Kavous Seyed-Emami, died on Friday in Evin prison, less than three weeks after being arrested by Iranian authorities. Seyed-Emami, an environmentalist, was accused of spying–as dual nationals in Iran often are–and the Iranians say he hanged himself while in custody. This is almost certainly a lie, though I suppose it’s possible that there’s just a wave of Iranian prisoners committing suicide these days (two people who were detained after December’s protest movement also “killed themselves” in custody).

The Iranians continue to hold dual US-Iranian national Baquer Namazi, even though the 81 year old Namazi is in dire health due to a heart condition (one that’s exacerbated by his treatment in prison) and will likely die in prison if he’s not given a medical furlough. I suppose if he dies in Evin we’ll be told he killed himself too.

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