Middle East update: February 8 2018


Obviously today’s big story is the fallout from the overnight US airstrike that reportedly killed, well, some members (estimates are varying wildly, from seven to over 100) of a pro-Bashar al-Assad militia in Deir Ezzor province. The Syrian government, citing the highest estimates, is calling the strike a “massacre,” while the US says its forces on the ground were attacked first and the strike was undertaken in self-defense. Of course, as the Russians have already pointed out, US claims of “self-defense” ring a little hollow in a place where the US has no legal justification to be.

The good news is that fears that this strike could lead to a US-Russia escalation now seem to be overblown. If there were Russian mercenaries among those killed, as some reports have said, then it’s clear Moscow doesn’t want to claim them because it’s denying there were any Russians there at all. Additionally, while chiding the US for being in Syria in the first place and saying that Washington was there to take Syria’s oil, the Russians do seem to be blaming this incident on the militia, which appears to have been looking to take a couple of oilfields from the Syrian Democratic Forces. The US was apparently in communication with the Russians before launching the airstrike.

While everybody focuses on Deir Ezzor, another 59 people were killed in Ghouta on Thursday (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights), bringing the death toll in the Damascus suburb to over 200 just this week. But the good news is that the same three countries who brought you the Ghouta ceasefire–Turkey, Russia, and Iran–are planning to meet soon in Istanbul to talk things over. As Reuters says, “the three countries have worked together in recent months to try to reduce violence in Syria,” and boy, they’ve really done a bang-up job.


The United States is apparently not planning to shell out any money for rebuilding Iraq. Or, at least, it won’t make any commitments at next week’s donor conference in Kuwait, even though rebuilding Iraq is kind of a big deal from a “making sure ISIS doesn’t come back” perspective. The Trump administration reportedly wants the private sector to pick up the tab, because private companies are often eager to get into big construction projects in countries that are months removed from huge wars and that still have multiple potential destabilizing elements roaming around. The administration would also like the Saudis to pick up a big chunk of the tab as a way to boost Riyadh’s profile in Iraq to counter Iran. And then there’s the fact that, you know, we’ve really done enough when you think about it:

Another U.S. official pointed to the billions of dollars the United States has committed to financing loans and restoring basic services to Iraqi towns and cities in the immediate aftermath of fighting.


“The immediate stabilization needs remain vast, and limited U.S. government resources alone cannot meet these current and pressing needs, let alone consider supporting long-term reconstruction,” the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Also, you know, it cost us like $2 trillion to blow Iraq to smithereens in the first place. We’re not made of money.


The Turkish government looks like it might force the European Union to either extend visa-free travel to Turkish nationals or admit that it has no intention of ever letting Turkey’s EU membership progress to the next level:

Turkey wants to turn a page in its strained relationship with the European Union to obtain visa-free travel, promising changes to its counterterrorism law to comply with the bloc’s human rights norms.


Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Wednesday that Turkey has submitted proposals to the EU showing it will comply with the remaining seven of 72 criteria required to win its citizens unrestricted travel in the 26 EU states comprising the Schengen Area.


“We hope and expect that this will win Turkish-EU relations new momentum. I can say that a new process has begun from today,” Kalin said at a news conference.

Ankara says it will implement new press protections, migrant protections, and anti-corruption efforts. Obviously there’s a big difference between saying they’re going to do these things and actually doing them, but if the Turks actually go through with it then Brussels could be in a tough spot. The EU has never particularly wanted to advance Turkey’s membership bid, but what if it runs out of legitimate justifications for keeping Turkey in limbo?


The US has sent acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield to the Middle East to try to mediate recent disagreements between the Israeli and Lebanese governments. Lebanon is angry because it says a proposed Israeli border wall will cut through its territory, while Israel is angry because it believes Beirut is planning to exploit offshore gas deposits that Tel Aviv says lie in Israeli waters. Satterfield has reportedly been telling Lebanese leaders that Israel is not looking for conflict.


Benjamin Netanyahu may be looking at a criminal indictment for corruption, and he’s real mad at the cops:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has lashed out at the country’s police chief, whom he accused of airing “delusional and mendacious” insinuations against him, just days before the police are expected to publish recommendations regarding potential charges against Mr. Netanyahu in two corruption investigations, possibly including bribery.


“Any fair-minded person will ask themselves how people who say such delusional things about the prime minister can investigate him objectively and make recommendations in his case without bias,” Mr. Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post after midnight Wednesday.


“A large shadow has been cast this evening over the police investigations and recommendations in the case of Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he added.

Netanyahu is angry because the commissioner, Roni Alsheich, suggested in a TV interview that Netanyahu has hired private investigators to dig up dirt on the police who are investigating him. But his angry performance is undoubtedly meant to cast doubt over the corruption probe altogether by alleging that the police are out to get him for some reason.


A Saudi court has sentenced journalist Saleh al-Shehi to five years in prison for “insulting the royal court.” It’s all part of Mohammad bin Salman’s exciting liberalization program.


Finally, I leave you with an exquisite troll by the Iranian government:

The West must ensure the Iran 2015 nuclear deal succeeds before trying to negotiate other issues, a senior Iranian official said in a rare public suggestion Tehran could discuss matters such as its regional activities or missile program with world powers.


“Now they ask Iran to enter discussions on other issues. Our answer is clear: Make the (deal) a successful experience and then we discuss other issues,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told a conference in Paris on Thursday, referring to the United States and its European allies.

Do the Iranians actually want to talk about other issues? What “other issues” are they willing to talk about? Does Araqchi speak for anybody else in the Iranian national security establishment? It doesn’t matter! The Trump administration is committed to ensuring that the nuclear deal isn’t successful, so at worst this is a bluff the Iranians know will never be called. And it lets Tehran look reasonable and open-minded, while the US looks petty and short-sighted, at a time when European countries are already looking for ways to keep doing business with Iran even if the US decides to reimpose sanctions.

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One thought on “Middle East update: February 8 2018

  1. “but if the Turks actually go through with it then Brussels could be in a tough spot.”

    and if I learn to levitate, I’ll be able to kill mosquitoes on the ceiling without using a magazine.

    Erdogan has discovered the delights of autocracy and repression, and he’s not going back any time soon. he can’t, really. at this point he’s gone so far over the line that any hypothetical future Turkish government that was remotely semi sort-of democratic would have to lock him up toute suite for its own legitimacy and safety.

    you may recall we had this conversation about Macedonia last year. I noted then that the new government pretty much had no choice but to lock up former autocrat Gruevski, because (1) he’d packed the police, judiciary, civil service and military with his loyalists, making it impossible to run the country with him running loose; and (2) he’d centralized all power in himself, making it super easy to decapitate the opposition by removing him, and (3) oh yeah, he was almost certainly guilty of all kinds of stuff. sure enough, a few weeks later he was arrested and tossed in the pokey, from which he has yet to emerge.

    well, multiply that tenfold for Erdogan. any post-Erdogan government will come for him fast and hard, and he knows it.

    so, corollary: there will be no post-Erdogan government while Erdogan is alive. he’s never going to hand over power, not even to a hand-picked successor.

    corollary2: he will do literally whatever it takes to stay in power. we haven’t seen any actual bloodbaths yet in Turkey, and maybe we won’t, but it’s absolutely on the menu if Erdogan feels threatened enough.

    corollary3. since Turkey still has civil society and an opposition, and since large numbers of Turks — especially urban and educated ones — fucking hate Erdogan, there will be no significant relaxation.

    you *might* get the Belarus model — arrest 100 people, then release a dozen at a time over months, each time claiming “relaxation” and “liberalization”; pass some completely ineffective laws for show, let a couple of opposition websites reopen and allow some mildly critical articles to be published; let that one stubborn academic dissident give a speech. then let the EU assume you are on the Path To Democracy and watch the donor money roll in. but while that worked a treat in the early 2000s — Lukashenko pulled it off like three times before the donors caught on — I think Erdogan will have more trouble pulling it off.

    so, yeah, Turkey’s EU membership will probably remain in limbo for many many years to come.

    Doug M.

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