Middle East update: March 13 2018


The promised medical evacuation of Eastern Ghouta took place on Tuesday, with Jaysh al-Islam allowing the wounded, the elderly, new mothers, and others on a United Nations list of people in critical need of medical care to leave Douma. The evacuation is supposed to take place in “batches” with potentially hundreds of people being brought out of the besieged enclave (or enclaves at this point). Fighting continued on Tuesday mostly south of Douma, with pro-government forces reportedly capturing several villages. The West continues to agitate for a ceasefire, but at this point why would the Syrian government consider one? They’re winning.

Russian officials say they have “information” that the United States is preparing to strike Damascus and that any such strike will prompt a Russian response. They claim that rebels in Eastern Ghouta are going to stage a phony chemical weapons attack that will be used as a pretext for a strike by Washington. So either they actually have information to this effect or they’re crafting a cover story and Bashar al-Assad is planning a big chemical weapons strike on Eastern Ghouta. We’ll see, I guess.

Turkey has now officially encircled Afrin city. Here too there may be some kind of humanitarian evacuation before Turkish forces really begin to push into the city center, but it’s likely to be limited to the infirm rather than a general evacuation. Ankara says it’s reached a deal with the United States to evacuate Kurdish YPG fighters out of the city of Manbij, which is theoretically Turkey’s next target after Afrin, but there’s been no confirmation of that from the US and, more importantly, it’s not clear anybody has run this idea by the YPG. The Syrian Democratic Forces, meanwhile, are accusing Turkey of relocating displaced Arab and Turkmen civilians into Afrin in an effort to ethnically cleanse the area of Kurds. Ankara denies that. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the Afrin operation “unjustified” on Tuesday, but somehow I don’t think that’s going to slow Turkey down very much.


Baghdad says it will be reopening Kurdish airports to international flights in the next few days. Iraqi authorities have apparently taken control of Kurdistan’s international hubs, which was the government’s primary condition for restoring international flights. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seems to want to shed as much Kurdish baggage as possible before the country holds its parliamentary election in May.


A car bomb, later claimed by ISIS, killed at least seven people in Aden on Tuesday. The bomb targeted a military facility but at least one of the victims was a civilian bystander.


In advance of its Bulgarian summit with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan later this month, the European Union is reportedly about to approve another $3.7 billion payment to Turkey to assist in accommodating Syrian refugees (and, of course, keeping them out of the rest of Europe).


Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have held his coalition together. He’s made sure that a bill extending military service exemptions for ultra-orthodox Jews will be able to pass the Knesset without any votes from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, then gave the party permission to vote against it. Crisis averted, I guess.

Somebody apparently tried to assassinate the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza on Tuesday. Rami Hamdallah’s convoy was struck by a roadside bomb that damaged several vehicles but does not appear to have caused any significant injury or loss of life. Leaders in Fatah are blaming Hamas, either directly (as in they tried to kill the guy) or obliquely (as in they failed to protect him), while Hamas officials are denying any involvement and have suggested Israel could be responsible. Hamdallah himself said later that he’s still committed to working toward Fatah-Hamas unity.

In other Gaza news, the Trump administration hosted a conference on the humanitarian situation in Gaza on Tuesday with no Palestinians to be found. The PA boycotted the meeting over the Jerusalem embassy decision.


US Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Oman a couple of days ago for a meeting with Sultan Qaboos. Among other things, the two reportedly discussed finding a way to heal the Qatar-Saudi rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council.


With Donald Trump having just sacked yet another voice in his administration in favor of preserving the Iran nuclear deal (more on that later), I’d like to take this opportunity to note yet again that a lot of the calls for Trump not to scrap the deal are coming from inside his own government:

“The JCPOA addresses one of the principle threats that we deal with from Iran, so if the JCPOA goes away then we will have to have another way to deal with their nuclear weapons program,” said U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. military’s Central Command. He was using an acronym for Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name of the accord with Iran agreed in July 2015 in Vienna.


When asked by a lawmaker whether he agreed with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford that staying in the deal was in the national security interest of the United States, Votel said:“Yes, I share their position.”

There are, of course, also calls coming from outside Trump’s government. Specifically, they’re coming from Europe:

Richard Nephew, the lead sanctions expert for the US team negotiating with Iran, said in an interview, “I do not think that Europe, much less Iran, will accept [Trump’s] conditions. I think that European officials would be pleased to have the kinds of measures agreed to by Iran, but the fact that Iran will not agree—and certainly not in this context—will mean that the Europeans will reject the attempt as prejudicial to the JCPOA.”


He also added, “I do not think that the EU will be able to meet Trump’s demands. He will either have to back down from his demands, which is possible but increasingly hard to believe, or there will be a confrontation.”


In the past three months, European states have gone to great lengths to convince the Trump administration and Congress that a stronger pact with Iran is not possible on the ruins of the existing JCPOA. To them, the deal is of high importance and its decertification would distract from focusing on Iran’s regional and missile program activities as well as its human rights issues.

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