Middle East update: March 3-4 2018


Independent monitors, including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, say that the Syrian government and its allies have captured between 10 and 25 percent of Eastern Ghouta in their latest ground offensive, which began on Wednesday. They’re close to cutting the suburb in two, as you can see:

The Damascus region through March 4; red = government, green = rebels (i.e., Eastern Ghouta), beige = unconfirmed government gains (Wikimedia | MrPenguin20)

Amid this offensive both the government and Russia have maintained the pretense of observing daily five-hour truces to allow civilians to leave the war zone. Nobody seems to have availed themselves of the opportunity, which the government and Russia say is because the rebels are preventing it but the rebels insist is because of the continued fighting. It may be a bit of both, but the idea that the rebels are in a position to control all civilian movement is pretty farfetched, especially when it’s clear that there have been thousands of people displaced back away from the front lines by this ground assault, forced to take refuge in makeshift bomb shelters throughout the enclave.

On the plus side, sort of, the United Nations says it’s received permission to bring enough humanitarian aid for 27,500 people into Douma on Monday, with a second shipment following on Thursday. That’s not nearly enough aid, but it’s at least something.

In Afrin, meanwhile, Turkish airstrikes killed at least 36 pro-government militia fighters on Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Panos Moumtzis spoke on Sunday of “disturbing reports out of Afrin of civilian deaths and injuries,” and also said there have been reports of “local authorities” (this would presumably mean the YPG) preventing civilians from fleeing to safer areas. The Turks of course insist that they would never dream of harming a hair on any civilian’s head, which is the same bullshit you hear from any country engaged in a violent military campaign that is assuredly killing plenty of civilians. They’re being forced to Do Something because of The Threat, the existence of which we’re all supposed to take for granted.


Clashes between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces northeast of Sanaa on Friday and Saturday killed at least 55 people on both sides. Another 25 were reportedly killed in fighting along the country’s Red Sea coast.


The US embassy in Ankara will be closed on Monday, except for emergency services, due to an unspecified “security threat.” It’s not clear what that threat might be or from whom it might be coming.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to take his presidency in a disturbingly militaristic direction. At a Justice and Development Party meeting on February 24, he reportedly floated the idea of mobilizing reserves (i.e., veterans) to go fight in Afrin. And then there’s what he’s doing to children:

Serdar Degirmencioglu, visiting lecturer at Universite Libre de Bruxelles, was quoting as saying by Turkey’s independent media outlet Bianet that one of the objectives of the last 15 years of AKP rule has been to raise new generations glorifying martyrdom, by naming schools, parks and even kindergartens after martyrs — people who have died for their country or for a cause. He said as if that wasn’t enough, 4- and 5-year-olds are made to enact martyrdom in battles at school. In Turkey’s mainly Kurdish province of Diyarbakir, six children who were killed in a fire in their Quran seminary in December 2015 were declared martyrs. The goal is to have Turkish children accept war and death as a duty, as their destiny and even as an objective.”

The militarism is an extension of Erdoğan’s nationalism, which has come to define his ideology more and more as the years have gone on. That increase in nationalism is already turning toxic for relations between Turkish citizens and the large population of Syrian refugees Turkey has taken in. If there’s a real threat for Turkey emanating from Syria, that’s the threat, and it’s one Erdoğan has mostly created.

Anyone in Turkey who might think of complaining about Erdoğan’s nationalism or his invasion of Syria is quickly running out of ways to express those complaints. There’s no longer a free press of any significance in Turkey, and the government now seems to be cracking down on the internet. The Turkish parliament is considering a new law that would give the government wide latitude to censor content, ostensibly on moral grounds but really for any reason that strikes its fancy. With Erdoğan looking ahead to an election next year–or possibly sooner–he’s trying to consolidate control over the last bit of media real estate that could still be a problem for him.


Isn’t this nice:

That’s Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (right), in Riyadh, with Mohammad bin Salman (left) and his brother, Saudi ambassador to the United States Khalid bin Salman (center). And Hariri doesn’t appear to be in custody, so I guess everything worked out OK on his recent Saudi visit.


Three people were injured on Sunday in a car ramming attack that Israeli police are classifying as terrorism. This is, interestingly, in contrast with earlier reports that made the incident out to be road rage rather than a premeditated act.

+972 Magazine’s Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man describes the slow, creeping Israeli annexation of the West Bank:

There will be no definitive moment, event or a point in history, when we can say that annexation happened. Israel’s annexation is a process — a deliberate process — which has been carefully planned, began a long time ago, and which will continue for years to come.


It is hard to get too excited over small steps toward annexation, such as a law that moves a university from the jurisdiction of one council of higher education to another. The international community will not raise a storm. The UN Security Council will not hold an emergency session. The EU will not threaten sanctions. Yet this is precisely what the annexation of Palestine will look like.


Egypt’s Supreme Court on Saturday assumed full authority over the case of Egypt’s transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, effectively erasing the lingering legal challenge to that plan. The country’s Supreme Administrative Court had declared the transfer unconstitutional, but this ruling now renders that one irrelevant since the administrative court no longer has jurisdiction. The transfer of the islands is basically a sale, since it’s meant as a thank you for all the financial support Riyadh has given to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government. But the Saudis insist that they’ve always owned those islands and only put them under Egyptian protection in the 1950s. Opponents of the transfer have argued that Egypt’s claim over the islands predates that. I’d say this could be a big issue in Egypt’s presidential campaign, but then there would have to actually be a campaign for that to be the case.

Despite Sisi and Donald Trump being pretty kindred spirits, US-Egypt relations have been deteriorating for the past several months. The primary reason is Egypt’s ongoing relationship with North Korea–which extends to allowing the North Koreans to sell weapons out of their Egyptian embassy in spite of US and international sanctions:

Like those of many North Korean outposts, the duties of the Cairo embassy extend well beyond diplomacy.


In Africa especially, North Korean diplomats have engaged in a wide variety of ruses and schemes to earn hard currency, United Nations investigators say. In South Africa and Mozambique, North Korean diplomats have been implicated in rhino poaching. In Namibia, North Koreans built giant statues and a munitions factory. In Angola, they trained the presidential guard in martial arts.


In Egypt, their business is weapons. United Nations inspectors and North Korean defectors say the Cairo embassy has become a bustling arms bazaar for covert sales of North Korean missiles and cut-price Soviet-era military hardware across a band of North Africa and the Middle East.

That relationship has also extended to collaboration on missile development and Cairo’s purchase of Soviet-era missile parts and other weapons from North Korea.


The Bahraini government has arrested 116 alleged Shiʿa militants in its latest crackdown on the country’s majority community.


A new Al Jazeera investigation has allegedly uncovered new evidence about the conspirators behind the 1996 coup attempt that sought to put the recently overthrown Sheikh Hamad back on the throne:

The failed coup, dubbed “Operation Abu Ali”, took place during the month of Ramadan on February 14, 1996, one year after the former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani assumed the throne.


It was planned in conjunction with the then-police chief and cousin of the former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani.


The documentary reveals that a committee was formed to organise the coup led by:


  • Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed, then chief of staff of the UAE armed forces and current crown prince of Abu Dhabi
  • Sheikh Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa, then crown prince of Bahrain
  • Sheikh Sultan bin AbdulAziz, then Saudi minister of defence
  • Omar Suleiman, the late Egyptian intelligence chief and former vice president of Egypt

It’s Al Jazeera, so any reporting on Qatar and the Saudis et al should be taken with a grain of salt or two. But it’s an interesting story nonetheless.


Speaking of interesting stories, the Mueller investigation has taken a couple of recent turns away from Russia and into the Middle East. There was the report, for example, that Prime Minister Kushner unsuccessfully shook the Qataris down for a bailout before turning on them when the Saudis launched their blockade last summer. Now it seems Mueller is looking into whether the UAE may have funneled money into the Trump 2016 campaign in exchange for influence:

George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman, has hovered on the fringes of international diplomacy for three decades. He was a back-channel negotiator with Syria during the Clinton administration, reinvented himself as an adviser to the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, and last year was a frequent visitor to President Trump’s White House.


Mr. Nader is now a focus of the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel. In recent weeks, Mr. Mueller’s investigators have questioned Mr. Nader and have pressed witnesses for information about any possible attempts by the Emiratis to buy political influence by directing money to support Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.


Mohammad bin Salman has hit the road for his first international trump since becoming crown prince. He’s in Egypt now, but he’ll be heading to Britain on Wednesday and eventually to the US.


Iranian military spokesperson Masoud Jazayeri told Iranian state media on Saturday that Tehran is happy to negotiate with the US and Europe over its ballistic missile program–the only precondition is that the US and European countries have to give up their nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles first. It’s a little too on the nose, but I’ll give it a 7/10, would consider trolling again.

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