Middle East update: March 10-11 2018


After several days full of conflicting reports, it seems everybody finally got on the same page with respect to Eastern Ghouta, and by that I mean everybody seems to be in agreement that pro-government forces have cut the territory into (at least) two sections and possibly three. Over the weekend they captured the towns of Mesraba and Mudeira, which secured their gains and leaves the rebel-held city of Douma more or less surrounded. Each of the three main rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta, now largely cut off from one another, has resolved at various times to fight to the bitter end, but as things continue to progress in the government’s direction there are more conflicting reports suggesting that they may be wavering a bit.

One wonders if the rebels asked any of the civilians living in Eastern Ghouta what they’d like to do. Roughly 1100 of them have been killed over the past three weeks, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Russians say that some 52 civilians were able to flee the enclave over the weekend, which if true would be easily the largest group to have braved the mix of government bombardment and rebel snipers and gotten clear. Negotiations may be underway in Douma about evacuating civilians from that city–it’s unclear whether that evacuation might also include fighters from Jaysh al-Islam or any other rebel group that still has a presence there. The problem remains that there’s no place to which these people can be evacuated that isn’t either under government control or under government attack. I guess they could be evacuated to territory held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, but I’m sure Damascus would reject that because of the risk that rebel fighters could come into contact with US forces.

Meanwhile, in Afrin, the SOHR says that Turkish forces have reached the outskirts of the city (it’s usually more a “town,” but the war has swelled its population substantially) of Afrin. After being bogged down for a couple of weeks, the Turkish offensive here has picked up the pace considerably in the past several days. But there may be a speed bump ahead: Al Jazeera is reporting that civilians from the Gaziantep area in Turkey are trying to make their way to Afrin to serve as human shields for the town, standing in the way of the Turkish forces and daring them to attack anyway. The Turks say they’re trying to minimize civilian casualties, so if this comes to fruition that’s going to be put to the test. Meanwhile, the Turkish government is angry, or is at least performing anger, over the lack of NATO assistance in northern Syria. NATO is under no particular obligation to do anything about northern Syria unless Turkey invokes the common defense clause in the NATO treaty, and even for Ankara that would be a massive stretch.


The Iraqi government said this week that it may lift its ban on international flights crossing through Kurdish airspace and even start paying Kurdistan Regional Government workers’ salaries again before Nowruz (March 21), the Kurdish new year. The flight ban and the salary cut off are two of the lingering effects of last year’s Kurdistan independence referendum. Baghdad is conducting a full audit of the KRG’s ministries in the aftermath of the referendum and will only pay salaries of workers in ministries whose audits have been completed.


Reuters reports on the destitution of Yemenis who have been displaced by recent fighting along the country’s western coast:

Al-Mokha, located some 75 kms (47 miles) north of the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait, and neighboring al-Khoukha and al-Heiss are among the few towns conceded by Houthi fighters since Yemen’s civil war started in 2015 after the armed group forced Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia.


“At least 40,000 have been displaced in recent weeks,” Eshrak al-Soubai, Yemen’s deputy health minister, told Reuters.


“Most displaced people are coming from the areas of fighting in al-Heiss district (some 90 kms away) … the situation is very critical,” she said during a visit to al-Mokha hospital, the only medical facility in the coalition-controlled western coast.

Meanwhile, Senators Todd Young (R-IN) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) are helping to undermine efforts to end the US role in Yemen and foment a proxy war with Iran to boot. Talk about multitasking:

Young and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) on Thursday quietly filed new legislation, first reported by HuffPost, in response to a bill unveiled last week by Murphy and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). The Sanders-Lee-Murphy bill would force a Senate vote on whether to end U.S. support for the Saudi-UAE coalition fighting Iran-backed rebels in Yemen. It’s unprecedented by design, guaranteed to come to the floor because it invokes the War Powers Resolution and the Arms Export Control Act; it invites Congress to flex its foreign policy muscles in a way it hasn’t in decades.


It’s also a real challenge to President Donald Trump, who has grown close to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and whose lawyers are selling Congress a generous view of presidential authority over American military action abroad.


The Young-Shaheen amendment is less ambitious. It requires the secretary of state to certify to key congressional committees within 30 days that the Saudis are investing in diplomacy to end the Yemen conflict and increasing humanitarian access to the more than 20 million Yemenis who need some kind of help. The secretary would have to submit similar certifications two further times: one month later, and eight months after that. If such certifications cannot be provided, the bill says the U.S. must end the aerial refueling the Saudi-UAE coalition relies on for bombing runs ― though it says American help can flow to that coalition if it is targeting Yemen’s Al Qaeda and Islamic State branches or Iranian activity, raising the specter of an outright U.S.-funded proxy battle with the Islamic Republic.

This resolution has everything: it does absolutely nothing to ease Yemeni suffering, it opens the door for the Trump administration to claim, absurdly, that the Saudi-led coalition is actually fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula when at best it’s fighting AQAP with one hand and lifting it up with the other, and it encourages the Saudis to find a way to escalate their conflict with Iran. All this because, I guess, Young and Shaheen won’t be satisfied until two million Yemenis have contracted cholera.


The Turkish military says its aircraft struck 18 targets belonging to the PKK in northern Iraq over the weekend.


A 19 year old Palestinian was shot and killed on Saturday in clashes with Israeli settlers and soldiers in the northern West Bank.


I hope you’re sitting down, because I have a shocking story here: it turns out that the guy who was picked to run against Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in order to avoid Sisi appearing alone on the ballot after he’d cleared the field of every other candidate, doesn’t really seem like he’s trying to win:

Moussa Mostafa Moussa has so far not given speeches, made television commercials or bought newspaper ads seeking votes. Last Sunday, his first election rally was attended by no more than 25 supporters. As leader of the centrist Al-Ghad Party, Moussa has been one of Sissi’s staunchest supporters and part of a well-orchestrated effort backing Sissi for a second term.


Last weekend, Moussa told a state-owned television program that he doesn’t want to debate Sissi because he’s “not here to challenge the president.”

The election is next weekend so I would imagine it’s too late for a sudden surge, but even by Egyptian standards this campaign has been a ridiculous sham. Even criticizing Sisi has become a criminal offense, let alone actually campaigning against him. The government has lowered its threshold for a credible election to a measly 40 percent turnout, and there’s a good chance they might not even get that without twisting arms (perhaps literally) to get people to go vote.


Mohammad bin Salman is coming to Washington and, according to Al-Monitor’s Bruce Reidel, he’s bringing his enemies list with him:

Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman is buoyed by his successful visits to Cairo and London as he comes to Washington. Riyadh is sticking to its hard-line foreign policy and expects complete support from the Trump administration. But unstated are Saudi concerns about the scandals and chaos surrounding the administration and their potential consequences.

The crown prince is eager to secure international support for his tough line toward Iran and Qatar and his 3-year-old war in Yemen. The Saudis have broken ties with both Tehran and Doha since King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud ascended the throne. Prince Mohammed has hinted that the Saudis want regime change in both. Mohammed stars in a Saudi video that shows him leading a victorious Saudi army into Tehran; the video has gone viral in the region. Saudi forces enforce the land blockade of Qatar and Riyadh makes no secret it wants a change in the emirate.


Axios (I know, I know) is reporting that, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to DC last week, Donald Trump told him he’s going to scrap the Iran nuclear deal in May unless there are substantial changes made to it that go beyond what European countries have been willing to consider thus far. Who knows what Donald Trump is going to do from day to day, let alone two months from now, but something to watch for sure.

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