Middle East update: March 1 2018


So far Russia’s plan to open a five hour ceasefire window every day in Eastern Ghouta to allow civilians to leave and humanitarian aid to come in has been a gigantic bust. I know, I was shocked too. The United Nations says the windows aren’t nearly long enough to actually accomplish either of those goals, and that’s assuming they actually open. So far this plan has been in effect for three days, and on two of them it doesn’t really seem like there’s been a ceasefire of any length at all.

There’s yet another permutation in the Syrian rebel organizational chart. In mid-February two Islamist factions, Ahrar al-Sham and the Zengi Brigade, joined forces to form what they’re calling the “Syrian Liberation Front.” Its first priority seems to be taking on not the Syrian government, but Hayat Tahrir al-Sham:

The movements’ decision to unite grew out of concern involving elevated tensions between Free Syrian Army factions and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in the north of Syria. HTS has been fighting Ahrar al-Sham and Nureddin Zengi Brigade after the two group’s supporters accused HTS of failing to counter the regime’s assault on the Idlib countryside in early 2018. Prior to the unification, clashes had erupted between HTS and the Nureddin Zengi Brigade in November 2017 and between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham in August 2017. Mediation efforts in November by independent figures and clerics failed to reconcile the warring parties.

Several clashes have already broken out between HTS and the SLF, with mixed results on both sides. In general HTS, or Jabhat al-Nusra if you’re a purist, has seen its position in Syria weaken since its late 2016-early 2017 heyday when it controlled most of Idlib province and had tentacles out into other rebel-controlled parts of the country. Which is why it rings fairly hollow when the Syrian government and Russia cite “Nusra” as justification for bombing wherever they want. But while they’ve weakened they’re still there, and by “there” I mean pretty much all over the place if only in very small numbers. Which is why, even though they do ring hollow, those Syrian/Russian invocations of Nusra aren’t entirely invented either.

In Afrin–hey, remember that battle–Turkey reportedly lost at least eight of its soldiers on Thursday in fighting with the YPG and its allies.


Kurdish media is reporting that one person was killed and another seriously wounded on Thursday by an improvised explosive device in Erbil. The target, and indeed the victim, seems to have been an official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI). Curiously the attack comes a couple of days after the KDPI claims to have been active in Iran:

There’s no reason a this point to think there’s a connection, but it is quite a coincidence.

While there are concerns about displaced Iraqis being returned home for political reasons before it’s safe to do so, the thousands of family members of ISIS fighters have the opposite problem: they may never be able or allowed to return home. It’s very likely that in the current environment they would be subject to retributive violence by people whose family members and fellow tribespeople were killed by ISIS, so they’re being kept in displacement camps for their own safety. It’s unclear whether those conditions will ever change.


Three Senators–Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee, and Chris Murphy–are trying to force the Senate to vote on authorizing US military action in support of the Saudi war in Yemen. I wrote about it last night for LobeLog:

In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) announced that they—along with Senator Chris Murphy (D-VT), who was not present for the press conference—will introduce a privileged resolution that could put an end to U.S. logistical and other support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in their nearly three-year-old military intervention in Yemen.


The bipartisan resolution will invoke the 1973 War Powers Act, which requires the U.S. president to consult Congress for any deployment of U.S. armed forces into combat. Senate approval of the resolution could have far-reaching implications for other U.S. military operations in combat zones ranging from Syria to the African Sahel.


Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri is in Saudi Arabia and, so far at least, he hasn’t been detained or forced to read any hostage-like statements on Saudi TV, so I guess that’s a positive sign. There’s been no mention in the Saudi media of the fact that Hariri was forced to resign his job the last time he was in Saudi Arabia, which is the kind of bizarro reality-bending you can get away with in an absolute monarchy.


Two Egyptian soldiers were killed on Thursday during an operation against ISIS militants in the northern Sinai. Human rights groups, meanwhile, are criticizing the Egyptian government for using US-made (of course) cluster bombs in Sinai. Amnesty International says that the Egyptian military (deliberately, one presumes) misidentified at least one cluster bomb as an improvised explosive device planted by ISIS in a video they released several days ago trumpeting their great Sinai successes. Why they let that slip into the video at all is somewhat amazing. Cluster bombs are rightly banned by most countries, though not by Egypt and also not (of course) by the US.

Of course, you need to be careful with that kind of talk. Apparently it’s now treasonous to criticize the Egyptian military. As it should be in all healthy democracies.


European diplomats are still negotiating with their American counterparts to try to cobble together some kind of face-saving measure that at least seems to toughen the Iran nuclear deal so that Donald Trump won’t be so motivated to scrap the whole thing. They have until early May before Trump has to make any new decisions about sanctions waivers, which is the next point at which he could conceivably wreck things. So far there seem to be two big hang ups in the talks (apart from the fact that Iran, Russia, and China aren’t involved and have no reason to support the process):

“There are two problems,” however, Vaez said. “The first one is the sunset issue. I think the Europeans would only agree to something which at the core amounts to a fig leaf solution for the Trump administration. If [the Europeans] want to say, we will seek a supplemental agreement once the sunset provision sets in, or anything that could defer the crisis now and not amount to a commitment to the reimposition of sanctions.”


“The only thing that would satisfy the administration is for the Europeans to jointly commit to violate the deal by agreeing to sanctions on Iran for expansion [of its enrichment capacity], which the JCPOA allows,” he added. “My understanding is they won’t do it. So far, there has not been an understanding.”


“The second problem is, in terms of what the Europeans can get in return,” Vaez continued. That would be a commitment “by the US to stay in the JCPOA. But how reliable would such a commitment be, and what mechanisms can they sign on to ensure the US stays in the deal? There is a big question mark there.”

At LobeLog, economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani looks once again at the extent to which Hassan Rouhani’s economic policies have fueled public anger and protest in Iran:

Rising poverty is one problem for which Rouhani is to blame. After 2010, following Ahmadinejad’s subsidy reform, generous cash transfers to all citizens became an important part of Iran’s social protection. They reduced poverty and bought peace in the worst of the sanction years. Even before coming to office, Rouhani sharply criticized this program. In his first year in office he raised energy prices without adding to the monthly cash transfers. As a result, poverty increased during his first term, especially in smaller towns and rural areas. Then, in December, in a reckless move as part of his proposed budget for 2018, he announced plans to completely dismantle the universal direct cash transfers and replace them with payments through the welfare bureaucracy. At the same time he announced plans to raise the gasoline price by 50 percent.


Few countries have been able to raise gasoline prices without seeing urban riots, Mexico being the latest example a year ago. In response to the unrest, Iran’s parliament has announced a freeze of the gasoline price.

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