Middle East update: February 16 2018


As usual, civilians are taking the brunt of the pounding as Turkey tries to grind out more territory in Afrin:

One-month-old Heyim Hassan was receiving treatment for a chest infection in the Afrin general hospital in northern Syria when a shell landed a few meters (feet) away. His panicked father whisked him out of the building and spent hours looking for nebulizers to aid the infant’s breathing. No one was killed in the attack, but nearly 30 children had to be evacuated to safety.


It was the third time Heyim’s father, Serbest, had to seek shelter for his family in the last month. Four days after the baby was born, Turkey launched an offensive in northwestern Syria, forcing them to flee their home and Serbest’s mobile phone shop to find safety in the district’s center.


Nearly a month into the offensive in Afrin, hundreds of thousands of Syrians like Hassan and his family are hiding from bombs and airstrikes in caves and basements, trapped in the Kurdish enclave while Turkey and its allies are bogged down in fierce ground battles against formidable opponents.

There are now reports from the YPG and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that the Turks used a chemical weapon of some kind in Afrin that sickened six people. Needless to say it’s unlikely that these reports will trigger the same kind of international outcry as the reports of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, though to be fair an attack that puts six people in the hospital is relatively mild in the Syrian context.

If the Turks expected a quick victory in Afrin–and their “all the way to the Iraqi border” rhetoric certainly suggests they did–they were clearly wrong. The situation there is almost stalemated despite heavy Turkish advantages in air power and heavy artillery, and those situations are always hell on people caught in the crossfire.

On the plus side, if you were worried about Turkey going to war with the US over Manbij you can breathe a little easier today. Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey has produced an agreement for Washington and Ankara to work together to alleviate Turkey’s angst. This could mean a joint US-Turkish deployment in Manbij to replace the YPG/SDF presence there, though more likely it will mean some kind of compromise that sees the Kurds pull back to the eastern side of the Euphrates while the Arab remnants of the SDF remain in Manbij or are supplemented/replaced by Turkey’s Free Syrian Army proxies. That would satisfy prior Turkish complaints and fulfill (though with a considerable delay) American assurances to Ankara that the Kurds would not stay in Manbij indefinitely. It’s important to note though that the US-Turkey relationship is still practically in crisis mode despite whatever Tillerson and the Turkish government managed to hash out.


The cause of press freedom in Turkey took one step forward on Friday followed quickly by six steps back:

A Turkish court sentenced three prominent journalists to life in prison on Friday, stepping up the government’s campaign against independent news media, even as it released from prison a German-Turkish journalist whose yearlong detention without being charged had aggravated relations between Berlin and Ankara.


A court at the Silivri Prisons Campus handed down the life sentences against the three high-profile figures and three others linked to the news media who were convicted of involvement in the failed 2016 coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. All were accused of having links to Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in the United States who Turkey says organized the effort to overthrow the government.


At about the same time, Deniz Yucel, a reporter for the German newspaper Die Welt, was allowed to leave the same prison, about 60 miles northwest of Istanbul, just hours after being formally charged with spreading terrorism-related propaganda. His release came a day after Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim to press for his freedom.

The sentence for the three journalists include special circumstances that allow Turkish authorities to keep them in solitary confinement for almost the entire day and inflict various other forms of institutionalized torture upon them. Their crime, ultimately, is not getting on board with the Erdoğan program.


Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told Assistant US Secretary of State David Satterfield on Friday that US proposals for mediating the maritime dispute between Israel and Lebanon are “unacceptable.” Israel has been making threats over the Lebanese government’s decision to begin exploiting offshore gas fields, including those lying in waters whose ownership is disputed by Tel Aviv. The US proposed a compromise arrangement for those waters back in 2012, and that’s probably the proposal Berri was talking about on Friday.


Al-Qaeda issued a recording from the long-silent Ayman al-Zawahiri this week that calls on its supporters to undermine the Egyptian government. The release seems timed to affect Egypt’s upcoming presidential election, but Zawahiri doesn’t say anything about the election specifically in the recording and there’s no reason to believe he recorded it recently. ISIS has already issued a call for the same thing, so it’s nice to see all these guys finding some rare common ground like this.


LobeLog’s Mitchell Plitnick says that the Israeli government and its staunchest supporters in the US are very concerned about a recent Qatari effort to woo right-wing American Jews:

On January 31, the Israeli embassy in the United States stated that Israel did not approve of several right wing, pro-Israel American Jewish leaders meeting with senior officials, including the emir, of Qatar. “We oppose this outreach effort in the Jewish and pro-Israel community,” said embassy spokesman Itai Bar Dov.


It was an unusual, and in some ways bizarre, statement. What was Israel so worried about?

The answer, basically, is that they’re worried about Qatar upending the convenient Israel-Saudi foreign policy consensus that currently dominates Washington. We’ve come a long way from the days when Qatar was the first Gulf state to open up formal commercial relations with Israel back in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, any Israeli-Qatari tension could come down hardest on Gaza. Qatar is prepared to finance a reconstruction effort in Gaza, but because Qatar and Egypt have broken off relations with one another there’s no way for that to happen unless Doha and Tel Aviv can find a way to work together on it. Israel does have some motivation to help restore basic services to Gaza to avoid an even bigger and more destabilizing humanitarian catastrophe there, but other diplomatic considerations may get in the way.


Also at LobeLog, Ben Armbruster talks about one of the most important neoconservative think tanks in Washington, a group that I often mention but usually in passing, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Specifically, he talks about their obsession with going to war with Iran, which is real even though they seem to get ultra-defensive anytime somebody has the gall to bring it up:

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) is a little known but highly influential hawkish think tank in Washington that has made a name for itself over the past few years by opposing the Iran nuclear deal and its subsequent (and current) efforts to derail it.


Aside from its long tradition of opposing negotiations with Iran, FDD has also been known as a safe space for its staff—chief among them CEO Mark Dubowitz—to call for war against Iran and/or regime change.


And for some reason, FDD really doesn’t like it when it gets called out on it.

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