Middle East update: March 5 2018


All you fans of superfluous American missile strikes might want to start getting ready for Operation Do Something About Syria, Volume 2:

The Trump administration has considered new military action against the Syrian government in response to reports of ongoing chemical weapons use, officials said, raising the prospect of a second U.S. strike on President Bashar al-Assad in less than a year.


The president requested options for punishing the Assad government following reported chlorine gas attacks — at least seven so far this year — and possibly other chemicals affecting civilians in opposition-controlled areas.

Donald Trump reportedly met with his various generals last week to talk about options. According to the Post, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster pushed hard for Doing Something while Defense Secretary James Mattis was opposed. McMaster is probably going to be promoted out of his post soon, so make of that what you will. Trump opted to take no action for the time being, but it’s still a possibility. There is, to be sure, a growing mass of eyewitness reports suggesting that somebody has been using chlorine gas in and around rebel-held areas, though none of them are close to conclusive.

The last US missile strike against the Syrian government over chemical weapons was so impactful that it literally seems to have changed nothing, so obviously creating some more pointless carnage should be just what the doctor ordered. The real concern is that each one of these self-contained responses creates its own impetus to Do More to roll back Bashar al-Assad’s alleged chemical weapons program. First it was sarin, now it’s chlorine, which is less lethal and whose possession occupies a different position in international law since it’s a dual use substance. And hell, if we’re going to bomb Assad over chlorine, why not over conventional attacks? I mean, killing people is killing people, right? That pattern is one way Washington gets its war on.

The good news is that the Syrian government did allow a United Nations humanitarian convoy into Eastern Ghouta on Monday as planned. Mostly. Before the convoy was cleared to enter the enclave the government reportedly stripped out some 70 percent of its medical supplies, including trauma kits (in a war zone!) and insulin (!!!). It also kept up its ground offensive while the convoy was delivering its aid, killing at least 45 people in the fighting. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the cumulative death toll at over 740 in the past two weeks.

In Afrin, meanwhile, Turkey and its rebel proxies have been focusing their attention on the town of Jindires. If they’re able to take it they could surround the city of Afrin and cut it off from the rest of the YPG and pro-government forces in the area. Taking it won’t be easy unless the Turks make full use of their air power–which will be extremely bad for the town’s civilian population.


The Iraqi parliament has passed its 2018 budget and not everybody is exactly thrilled about that:

The Kurds were also the major losers in the budget. During early debates over the bill, MPs cut the KRG’s allocation from its traditional 17% down to 12.67%. The final version of the law did not have any set amount for Kurdistan saying it would get a portion based upon its population, which was a step towards treating the region’s three provinces like the other 15 in Iraq. It also stated if the Kurds didn’t export their quota of oil those revenues would be deducted from their allocations. The Kurdish parties had been arguing over these points and starting in February boycotted parliament in protest. In the end, they were not needed to find a quorum and pass the budget. They are now talking about asking President Masum who is from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan to veto the budget, while others have threatened a lawsuit. Baghdad and Irbil have argued over the budget for years. Under the Maliki administration, the government cut off sending money to the KRG over objections to its oil policy. After the September referendum, Prime Minister Haidar Abadi imposed sanctions upon Kurdistan. The reduction of the region’s budget is part of that policy. The Kurds have no leverage in this matter, and were out voted in parliament. The premier on the other hand has no desire to make a deal until after the May elections since it will help him in his campaign.

Popular Mobilization Unit leaders are also complaining because the budget does not compensate their forces on par with the regular Iraqi military–this is something Baghdad promised to do back in 2016 but has still not done.


Saad al-Hariri’s recent visit to Riyadh had all the makings of a “let bygones be bygones” affair…to a point. Amid the smiling selfies with Mohammad bin Salman, Hariri and his entourage apparently had their mobile phones confiscated and Hariri was forced to wait two days before he was allowed an audience with MBS (he was able to meet the figurehead King Salman in the meanwhile). At LobeLog, Aurélie Daher says that relations between Beirut and Riyadh are still rocky, in part due to Saudi Arabia’s waning political influence in Lebanon:

To start with, Hariri has stubbornly ignored Saudi Arabia’s Christian friends—mainly the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea and the Kataeb of Samy Gemayel, who used to be the Christian main allies of Hariri’s Future Current. He doesn’t want their candidates running on his slate at all. After Hariri returned to Lebanon from his Saudi detention in November, it appeared that both Geagea and Gemayel, who had visited the kingdom in September, had secretly lobbied Riyadh to help arrange Hariri’s dismissal and his replacement by a more “pugnacious” prime minister who could stand up to Hezbollah.


Plus, Hariri is striking alliances in more than one constituency with their main Christian foe, Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which is pro-Hezbollah. Unless Riyadh intervenes on their behalf and persuades Hariri to change his mind, the traditional share of seats in parliament for the pro-Saudi Christians will seriously decline this spring.


At the same time, Hariri himself is a much-diminished figure. MbS did state in a Washington Post interview a few days ago that, thanks to what happened in November, Hariri “now is in a better position” in Lebanon, relative to Hezbollah. But he could not be more wrong.


Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington this week to seek asylum from prosecution back home on corruption charges visit with Donald Trump and address the annual AIPAC summit. He and Trump met on Monday to keep up the pretense that they’re actually interested in a peace deal with the Palestinians and not in full Israeli annexation of the West Bank.


There is growing speculation that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may be about to do a 180 on the Muslim Brotherhood:

Salah Hasaballah, the head of the Freedom Party and parliament spokesman, kicked off the party’s Feb. 24 press conference to announce its endorsement for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the upcoming election. Al-Bawaba news quoted him as opening with, “President Sisi stood up to the Brotherhood and countered their attempts to seize power. He risked his own life to save Egyptians from destruction.” Hasaballah’s remarks show how strongly politicians and everyday citizens support Sisi just for being the Muslim Brotherhood’s adversary.


However, a Feb. 6 Bloomberg article cited Brotherhood sources saying Sisi intends to reconcile with the group ahead of the election. The piece has caused a flurry of reaction articles.

If this is true, then Sisi’s motivation here seems to be at least twofold. One, with levels of extremist violence reaching epidemic levels Sisi has decided to approach peaceable Brotherhood leaders and offer them reconciliation–provided they abandon politics–in exchange for information on Brotherhood members who may have turned toward violence amid his crackdown on the group. Two, Sisi believes that the Brotherhood will inevitably come back in from the cold and he wants to make that happen on his terms, with the Brotherhood potentially throwing its political weight behind him. On the other hand, all the speculation could be generated by Muslim Brotherhood members looking to cause grief for Sisi, who if he did try to reconcile with the Brotherhood would have a lot of explaining to do about it.

Sisi may also have some explaining to do about his escalating crackdown against the media, which has reached the point where even some of his own political allies are starting to question how far he’s going.


Bigshot Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy is apparently the subject of the newest scandalous Gulf-related email hacking case. Broidy is a key player in a new branch of the Mueller investigation, focused on alleged influence peddling by the UAE. His emails are now being splayed over the internets, and he’s accusing Qatar of hacking his account. The case does bear similarities to the hacking of anti-Qatar UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba’s email a few months back, but the Qataris were never directly connected with that case either.

The Qataris are warning that a new piece of legislation in the US House could jeopardize US arms sales to Doha. The bill would sanction supporters of Hamas and would undoubtedly nab the Qataris in that net. The Qataris are certainly picking the right tactic for combating the measure–Donald Trump loves him some weapons sales, and the Qataris reliably buy billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry from the US every year.


One early revelation from the Broidy emails suggests a possible Emirati effort to get Rex Tillerson canned as Secretary of State for not throwing Qatar under the bus when the Saudi-led quartet (which includes the UAE) blockaded it last year. Broidy apparently met Trump in October and tried to convince him to sack Tillerson. Meanwhile, Broidy’s company, Circinus, reportedly “has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts with the UAE.”


While Theresa May says she plans to discuss Yemen and human rights issues when Mohammad bin Salman visits the UK in a few days, it’s a virtual certainty that those issues will take a very quiet backseat to commercial talks. Not only is that in keeping with the way London has been approaching the Saudis (and really all the Gulf states) since the Tories returned to power in 2010, but it’s particularly important now when the UK is competing with the US for Riyadh’s affections:

The challenge for May’s government is that the election of Donald Trump has focused GCC attention on Washington, DC in a major way. Saudi and especially Emirati leaders reached out to the Trump administration to try and shape its thinking about regional affairs while their Qatari counterparts responded to the Saudi-Emirati blockade in June 2017 by intensifying their own outreach in the US. Protagonists on both sides of the bitter Gulf squabble have realized that the battle to win hearts and minds will be won or lost in DC, especially as the White House prepares to redouble its search for a mediated solution to the nine-month dispute. Mohammed bin Salman also will look to the Trump administration to support a push for a Saudi nuclear program and the maintenance of pressure on Iran. The hard truth for May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is that the attention of the Crown Prince likely will be focused on Washington rather than London, particularly as there appears to be little geopolitically the British government can offer Saudi Arabia.

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