Middle East update: March 7 2018


The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that the Syrian government has captured about 50 percent of Eastern Ghouta, and all it took was 850 or so dead civilians. The rebels’ ability to resist may be approaching a tipping point, as the amount of territory pro-government forces have been able to take each day seems to be increasing. The government was reportedly able to split the enclave in two on Wednesday, which should speed up the rebels’ collapse still further. Rebels are still refusing a Russian offer for safe passage out of the area.

Turkey is now asking the US to prevent the Syrian Democratic Forces from redeploying from eastern Syria to Afrin to aid the YPG forces there:

Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, said his country had taken “the necessary steps” through official channels and “expected from the U.S. that it should absolutely step in” to prevent the movement of the Kurdish forces from Manbij to Afrin. “This is our most natural right,” Mr. Kalin added.

I appreciate how Turkey has a right to expect the US to step in here, but apparently neither the SDF nor any of its fighters have the right to, I don’t know, move freely from place to place. Washington would presumably be happy to stop the SDF from pulling forces out of eastern Syria, where ISIS is still present though mostly broken, to Afrin, where the US has no real strategic interest. That hasn’t stopped Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from accusing the United States of complicity in, well, the Kurds defending themselves I guess:

“The terrorist corridor that is being set up all along our border has but one target, and that is Turkey’s territorial integrity,” Erdogan told his party in parliament March 6.


“You were supposed to be our friends. What kind of friendship is this? You were supposed to be our allies, we’re supposed to be together in NATO. They are like ostriches” sticking their heads in the sand, he said, without explicitly naming the United States.


Washington and Baghdad are in a bit of a spat over the Iraqi military’s decision to transfer several US-supplied M1A1 Abrams tanks to the Popular Mobilization Units. The US opposes the PMU, many of which have strong ties to Tehran, and anyway it doesn’t seem to have intended those tanks for anybody other than the Iraqi regular military. The US army is paying General Dynamics to maintain Iraq’s tanks, but as a result of this dispute most of the General Dynamics contractors who were in Iraq doing that maintenance have been pulled out of the country–leaving many of those tanks unusable.


At least two more civilians were killed by Saudi airstrikes on Wednesday outside of Saada.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni government says that shipments of cash bound for Aden and intended to pay the salaries of government employees are being held up by the UAE. The UAE and Yemen President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi are not on good terms and there are accusations floating around that Hadi is enriching himself on the back of these cash shipments, but it’s not clear if that’s the reason why the UAE is doing this (assuming that they are, in fact, doing it).


In remarks that are sure to help ease regional tensions, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman reportedly told Egyptian newspaper editors this week that Turkey is part of a “triangle of evil” in the Middle East, with Iran and extremist Islamists as the other two points. He even accused Ankara of trying to restore the Ottoman Empire and the caliphate, which is a pretty deep cut but it’s not the first time somebody has accused Erdoğan of harboring neo-Ottoman proclivities.


Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t just fretting over his corruption investigation, though he’s clearly angry about that. He’s also potentially facing new elections if his tenuous coalition falls apart. There’s a fair chance that the Kulanu party may quit the coalition over its failure to pass a budget. The budget is being held up over ever-present tensions around exemptions from military service for ultra-orthodox Jews. Netanyahu wants a deal on the exemptions that has the support of every coalition member or else he’s threatening a snap election. He might also see a snap election as his last chance to shore up his own base before the corruption investigation really begins to affect his support.

As to the Palestinians, they’re reportedly planning a tent city protest near the Israel-Gaza border starting at the end of March to agitate for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The protest would begin on March 30, or Land Day–which commemorates the killing of six Arab Israelis who were killed by police during 1976 protests–and would end on May 15, the anniversary of the Nakba (“catastrophe”), the term used to describe the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians when Israel was created in 1948.

A meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Wednesday produced a declaration that Jerusalem “must be the capital of a future Palestinian state.” Which might look like it contradicts Israeli and US policy, but since neither Israel nor the US has any intention of allowing the creation of a Palestinian state, the site of its future capital is irrelevant. Consider that the Israeli Knesset just passed a law that allows Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to be stripped of their residency for a “breach of loyalty” to Israel–a country to which they have no reason to be loyal. Yeah, these guys are deeply committed to doing right by the Palestinian people.

There is a chance, though you should believe it when you see it, that Mahmoud Abbas may soon step aside as PLO leader and Palestinian president. Abbas would like to shepherd the succession toward his deputy in the Fatah party, Mahmoud al-Aloul, though it’s expected that his retirement will kick off a succession fight. Rumors abound that Abbas is in poor health, perhaps suffering from cancer although at 82 he doesn’t really need a reason to be in poor health. Something may happen in terms of his status at the next meeting of the Palestinian National Council, in May.


Egypt’s military campaign in Sinai has reportedly been taking a huge toll on civilians, with homes, schools, and more being destroyed in the process. This is an Al Jazeera report so take it with a grain of salt, but the video seems to speak for itself:

The campaign is also inconveniencing people outside of Sinai. Egyptian authorities have been jamming cellular signals to disrupt militants’ communications, and that jamming has caused service disruptions in both Gaza and Israel.


Mohammad bin Salman also told those Egyptian newspaper editors that Qatari representatives will be allowed to attend the Arab League summit later this month in Riyadh. At the same time, he said Saudi Arabia’s dispute with Qatar could go on for a while–he compared it to the US embargo on Cuba, which I think gets the point across pretty aptly.


Qatar can’t catch a break from Riyadh, but apparently Israel can. The Saudis announced on Wednesday that they’re lifting a 70 year old ban on Air India flights between New Delhi and Tel Aviv using Saudi airspace.

MBS’s foreign adventure has now taken him to London, of course, where things are going really, really well:

The Saudi crown prince faced heavy criticism from British opposition figures at the start of a three-day visit to the UK that includes lunch with the Queen and dinner with the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cambridge.


Mohammed bin Salman was accused of funding extremism in the UK, committing human rights abuses domestically, and breaching international humanitarian law in Yemen, where Riyadh has intervened in a war that has killed thousands of civilians and driven the Middle East’s poorest country to the brink of famine.


Campaigners against the war also rallied near parliament and several hundred held a protest outside the gates of Downing Street. A man was arrested on suspicion of criminal damage after an egg was thrown at police vehicle as Bin Salman’s motorcade arrived.

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry accused Theresa May’s government of essentially sacrificing the Yemeni people by “bowing and scraping” before the Saudis in order to boost international trade and help ease the pain caused by Brexit.


Another Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran leader was found killed on Wednesday:

A commander of a Kurdish party opposed to the Iranian government was found dead on Wednesday in a village of the Kurdistan Region near the Iranian border. His party says he was “assassinated.”


Qadir Qadiri, the deceased Peshmerga, was a commander of the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iran.


Ibrahim Zewayee, the head of the PDK foreign office, told Rudaw that they found Qadiri’s body in Hartal village, located in Raniya district of Sulaimani province, about 79 kilometers east of Erbil city.

This is the second killing of a KDPI leader in less than a week. Obviously Iran is the likely culprit, though I’m sure they would deny any involvement. Maybe Qadiri just took a bad fall onto 21 bullets or something.

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