The Cable

SitRep: Kurds Vote, as Turks and Iranians Prepare For War

New travel ban, Russians bomb U.S. allies in Syria

Members of a Kurdish Peshmerga battalion to cast their vote in the Kurdish independence referendum at a polling station in Arbil on September 25, 2017. 
Iraqi Kurds voted in an independence referendum in defiance of Baghdad which has warned of "measures" to defend Iraq's unity and threatened to deprive their region of lifeline oil revenues. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED        (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of a Kurdish Peshmerga battalion to cast their vote in the Kurdish independence referendum at a polling station in Arbil on September 25, 2017. Iraqi Kurds voted in an independence referendum in defiance of Baghdad which has warned of "measures" to defend Iraq's unity and threatened to deprive their region of lifeline oil revenues. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Kurds vote, neighbors threaten war. Voting began Monday in northern Iraq on a controversial referendum that will decide whether Iraqi Kurds will declare independence from Iraq. Iraq’s central government remains starkly opposed to the effort and has asked countries to stop buying oil from Kurdistan, and threatened a wider economic blockade.

With roughly 30 million ethnic Kurds scattered over Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, Iraq’s neighbors are eyeing the vote anxiously, and beginning to take more drastic action. On Sunday, Iran halted flights to and from the Iraqi Kurdish region and kicked off military exercises near the Iraqi border.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, subtle as ever, is openly threatening war. He has already staged tanks and troops at his border, saying Monday, “our military is not (at the border) for nothing…We could arrive suddenly one night.” He also endorsed an economic blockade: “Let’s see where — and through which channels — will they sell their oil. We have the valve. The moment we shut the valve, that’s the end of it.” FP recently ran down some controversy over U.S. military aid to the Kurds.

Charges of Russian bombing. Over the border in Syria, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces claim that Russian jets have again attacked their positions in hotly contested Deir el-Zour province.

The alleged attack comes a week after Russian jets bombed an SDF unit and their American advisors — injuring six Syrians — and leading to an extraordinary meeting between U.S. and Russian generals to try and prevent future attacks. FP’s Paul McLeary has more here on Russian promises to keep bombing the SDF, and attempts to keep the U.S. allies away from forces comprised of Syrian government troops, Hezbollah fighters, Iranian troops and Russian special forces.

In recent days, the SDF captured a large gas field from the Islamic State, intensifying the competition with the regime of Bashar al Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers to capture the oil and gas fields of eastern Syria. On Sunday, Russia announced that one of its generals was killed in Deir el-Zour in an ISIS mortar attack.

Drone wars. Iranian officials also said that their armed drones bombed Islamic State positions in eastern Syria over the weekend, around the same time the U.S. launched six drone strikes against ISIS militants in Libya, killing an estimated 17 fighters and destroying several vehicles. Meanwhile, the U.S. is quickly testing lasers, nets, and other novel technologies to meet the growing threat posed by small, commercially-available drones that ISIS has shown can also be cheaply and relatively easily weaponized.

Comparing notes. Iran tested a new type of mobile medium range ballistic missile on Saturday. The missile, dubbed Khorramshahr, closely resembles North Korea’s Musudan ballistic missile, which has struggled with repeated failures during tests. The similarity between the two missiles has led many to believe North Korea and Iran are cooperating on weapons development — a point underscored in a Saturday tweet from Trump accusing Tehran of “working with North Korea.”

New ban. Taking a brief break from his crucial Twitter war with players from the NFL and NBA, president Trump on Sunday issued a new order indefinitely banning almost all travel to the United States from seven countries.

“The new order is more far-reaching than the president’s original travel ban, imposing permanent restrictions on travel, rather than the 90-day suspension that Mr. Trump authorized soon after taking office….Starting next month, most citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea will be banned from entering the United States, Mr. Trump said in a proclamation released Sunday night. Citizens of Iraq and some groups of people in Venezuela who seek to visit the United States will face restrictions or heightened scrutiny.”

Yemen. Saudi Arabia is claiming a new round of cross-border rocket attacks on Saudi civilian targets from Houthi rebels in Yemen. But “international relief organizations, human rights advocates, and a growing number of U.S. lawmakers say Saudi Arabia and its military partners are aggravating the mounting humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen by delaying or blocking access for emergency aid to areas controlled by Houthis, including a crucial port and the country’s airport,” FP’s Dan De Luce reports.

Who’s where when: 4:00 p.m. Kang, Kyung-wha, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea speaks at CSIS. Livestream here.

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Article 5. “NATO” isn’t a word that often comes up in discussions of American North Korea policy but the Atlantic alliance could find itself at war with Pyongyang in the event the North attacks U.S. military installations in the Pacific. The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison says it’s possible the U.S. would ask to trigger NATO’s mutual defense provision in the event North Korea hits American territories.

Heads up. Shortly after the 2016 election President Barack Obama warned Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that his company needed to crack down harder on foreign adversaries using the social media platform to spread disinformation. By that time, however, Zuckerberg already had an inkling that Facebook was in the crosshairs of Russian intelligence after employees flagged what they believed to be accounts set up by Russian hackers to spread emails stolen from the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee.

Cybersecurity. The Department of Homeland Security informed 21 state election officials last week that the U.S. believes hackers working for Russian intelligence tried to break into voter registration systems during the 2016 election.

Iraq. Iraq wants to get back into the nuclear energy game, with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari asking for foreign assistance to build a reactor during a speech before the United Nations on Saturday. Iraq’s last nuclear reactor at Osirak was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in order to disrupt Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program, but in his speech Al-Jafaari stressed the peaceful nature of Iraq’s request for civilian nuclear energy.

Rendition. The German Foreign Ministry has booted another Vietnamese diplomat from the country in retaliation for what authorities say was Vietnamese government involvement in the kidnapping Trinh Xuan Thanh, a Vietnamese citizen seeking asylum in Germany after being accused of losing millions of dollars from the state-owned PetroVietnam energy company.  

 

 

Photo Credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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