Middle East update: March 14-15 2018


Thousands of civilians poured out of the Eastern Ghouta town of Hamouriyah on Thursday after a heavy bombardment from pro-government forces reportedly broke rebel defensive positions and left much of the town in ruins. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that 12,500 people evacuated the town and fled toward government-controlled territory. It’s unclear what kind of reception they’ll be given by the government though civilians have been promised safe passage out of Eastern Ghouta at least. Another 43 people were reportedly killed in Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday, putting the estimated death toll there at 1540 since mid-February. There are conflicting reports as to whether the town is now in government hands but it’s safe to say it will be soon if it isn’t already.

The BBC is reporting that another convoy of humanitarian aid was trucked into Douma on Thursday, and that two people were killed by rebel shelling in Damascus’s Old City.

In Afrin, Turkish airstrikes reportedly killed eight pro-government militia fighters on Wednesday and Turkish artillery reportedly killed seven people in the city of Afrin itself. The militias responded by shelling Turkish positions but there are no reports of casualties.

In related news, the Turkish government says that the recent personnel turmoil inside the Trump administration may delay a plan to evacuate YPG fighters out of Manbij and avoid a potential Turkish assault on that city. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was supposed to visit Washington next week to talk about the plan with Rex Tillerson, but for obvious reasons that’s no longer happening. In other related news, senior PYD figure Omar Alloush has apparently been murdered. The PYD announced on Thursday that he’d been found dead in his apartment in Tal Abyad. Alloush had been working closely with the US to administer areas of Syria that the YPG has captured from ISIS and was considered particularly crucial to maintaining positive relations between Arabs and Kurds in those areas.

The AP reports that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (or al-Qaeda in Syria depending on whether you believe their split from al-Qaeda was genuine or not) has recently been taking a pounding not only from pro-government forces, but from a new Islamist coalition in Aleppo and Idlib provinces:

The recent fighting appears to have been triggered by last month’s assassination of a senior al-Qaida official, Abu Ayman al-Masri, who was riding in a car with his wife when members of a rival militant group, Nour el-Din el-Zinki, fired on their vehicle, killing al-Masri and wounding his wife.


The killing led to battles in Aleppo and Idlib that have raged for the past three weeks.


The shooting was preceded by the merger of Nour el-Din el-Zinki and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham, both former al-Qaida allies now turned enemies.


Amid the recent battles, the new coalition, the Syria Liberation Front, has forced the al-Qaida fighters to retreat west to Idlib.

A spokesman for the Zinki militia describes this as a war against HTS’s “extremist ideas,” which is fair enough but a little rich coming from a group that beheads children.

Experts are looking ahead to the end of the Syrian war, as crazy as that sounds, and debating whether the US should participate in Syrian reconstruction as a way to generate “leverage” with Bashar al-Assad:

Having invested heavily in the failed rebellion, Assad’s chief foes — the United States, Europe and the Gulf countries — are understandably wary of making a 180-degree turn and lending him a helping hand. But staying away, some economic and regional experts warn, could well prove worse not only for Syria, but for the region and the rest of the world as well.


“At its base, the issue is: Do we want to stabilize Syria,” James Dobbins, a former US ambassador to the European Union under President George H.W. Bush, told Al-Monitor. “If that’s the objective, then being willing under some conditions to engage in — or at least allow our partners to engage in — reconstruction activities across the country is an important piece of leverage. In fact, it’s virtually our only piece of leverage.”

Frankly this sounds like a load of crap meant to justify a policy that would let US and other Western companies enrich themselves via contracts from Damascus. Which, fine, the country needs to be rebuilt and people are going to get rich in the process, so it makes little difference. But drop the “leverage” nonsense. Assad doesn’t need Western help to rebuild when he’s got Russia, China, and Iran (at a minimum) drooling over the prospect. And in fact he’s unlikely to even seek much Western assistance, since he’ll be far more inclined to reward his Russian and Iranian allies with plum contracts, and to use the reconstruction as a way to build closer relations with Beijing. There is something to the idea that Assad might want some Western involvement as a way to exert independence from Russia and Iran, but he’s not going to want Western involvement at the cost of having to radically change Syria’s political system to his disadvantage.


Reuters says “sources” are reporting that the Saudis and Yemen’s Houthi rebels are in “secret talks,” via Oman, on ending their conflict. Both sides are reportedly interested in reaching a “comprehensive agreement,” and somewhat hilariously neither side seems to care about involving Yemen’s internationally recognized government in their negotiations. The new United Nations envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is expected to participate in these negotiations, which are geared toward an initial ceasefire followed by a political process to form a new Yemeni government.

Meanwhile, the Sanders-Lee-Murphy effort in the Senate to force a vote on authorizing US involvement in Yemen is continuing. The Pentagon appears to be weaponizing ignorance in its defense of that involvement, with CENTCOM boss Joseph Votel telling a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the military isn’t tracking whether its fuel and US-made weapons are being used in coalition airstrikes. Of course they are, but for the Pentagon it’s better not to confirm that and just shrug and say “gee whiz, I honestly don’t know what they do with all that stuff.”


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made some waves in a speech on International Women’s Day when he said “Islam must be updated”:

The speech was made to hundreds of Turkish women from various walks of life who were invited to the presidential complex in Ankara for International Women’s Day. In his address to the women, Erdogan implicitly referred to a few ultraconservative scholars in Turkey who recently outraged society by defending misogynist practices such as wife beating. “Recently, some people claiming to be clerics issued statements contradicting religion,” Erdogan said. “They have no place in our times. They don’t realize how Islam needs to be updated and is updated accordingly. You can’t apply the practices applied 15 centuries ago today. Islam changes and adapts to the conditions of different ages. This is the beauty of Islam.”

While there’s a tradition of Turkish leaders weighing in on and even attempting to control matters of religion, hardline religious conservatives are having a hard time with this message. But frankly it’s good politics if nothing else. While Turkey has a large bloc of religious voters, only a small percentage of them say they hold beliefs that would be considered extremist, for example on the permissibility of wife beating.


Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri told an international aid conference on Thursday that he plans to deploy more Lebanese military assets to the country’s southern border with Israel. In another context this could be seen as a provocative act, but in this case Hariri wants to put those troops there as a buffer between Israel and Hezbollah, thereby possibly helping to forestall a war. He’s looking for more international aid to help pay for it.


An Israeli court ruled on Thursday that the government must suspend its plan to deport potentially thousands of mostly Eritrean and Sudanese migrants. It wants “more information” about the program and has given the government until March 26 to provide it.

Some Israeli leaders argue that the deportation program is essential to preserving “Israel’s Jewish character,” a character that came a step closer to being enshrined in law on Thursday when the Knesset passed the first reading of a bill that would establish Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” It actually goes much further than that:

  • Arabic will lose its status as an official language
  • It will be easier for the Israeli government to expand into the West Bank without drawing court challenges
  • Jerusalem will be recognized as the undivided capital of Israel, so any possibility of East Jerusalem serving as the capital of Palestine would be kaput
  • The power to exclude Arab Israelis from large chunks of Israeli land will be affirmed

In short, it forecloses on any possibility of a single Israeli-Palestinian state that is not an apartheid state. Consequently it preempts any attempt to argue that Israel cannot be both “Jewish” and “democratic” by making it clear that, if push comes to shove, the Israeli government doesn’t really give a shit about democracy. And since the two-state solution is dead as disco, I guess apartheid it is.

The United Nations received new pledges totaling $100 million on Thursday to help close a 2018 funding gap for its UN Relief Works Agency, the office responsible for Palestinian refugees. Unfortunately it still has $350 million to go to completely close the gap, thanks to the Trump administration’s decision to cut America’s UNRWA funding. If UNRWA has to drastically cut back its services that’s going to lead to substantial human suffering and to a breakdown in order in Palestinian refugee camps–the kind of thing that groups like ISIS try to exploit.

The Palestinians are reportedly somewhat optimistic about Mike Pompeo’s nomination to be Donald Trump’s next Secretary of State. Which makes sense. I mean, it’s not like the Trump administration could treat them any worse than it already has, and additionally Pompeo apparently has a personal friendship with Palestinian Authority intelligence chief Majid Faraj. Pompeo hasn’t had much to do with Israel-Palestine issues as CIA director, but he might have more involvement in that portfolio at State.


Abdel Fattah el-Sisi wants Egyptians to come out and vote “in large numbers” in his sham presidential election later this month, and he’s apparently prepared to say some really dumb shit to motivate them. On Thursday he said in a televised speech that he’s ready to “don fatigues and fight side by side” with Egyptian security forces battling extremists in Sinai and elsewhere around the country. You know, I bet if Sisi really wanted to do that, he’d be allowed. Nothing really stopping him there, unless he’s just blustering for effect.

Sisi’s big long-term challenge is restoring Egypt to a position of prominence in the Arab world. A country that used to be the most powerful and influential in the region is now largely a subsidiary of Saudi Incorporated, and as long as Egypt is dependent on Gulf financial assistance–and preoccupied with internal threats–that’s unlikely to change.

Speaking of internal threats, the battle against Egypt’s extremists has been shifting away from Sinai and toward Egypt’s Western Desert, whose vast sparsely populated territory, challenging terrain, and mostly unguarded desert border with Libya make it prime real estate for militants. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda have active branches working in this area. The al-Qaeda affiliate, Ansar al-Islam, is believed to be composed largely of radicalized former Egyptian soldiers and is thus pretty dangerous militarily.


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman recorded an interview with 60 Minutes that will air on Sunday, in which he describes Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a Middle Eastern “Hitler,” again, and says that if Iran develops a nuclear weapons “we will follow suit as soon as possible.” So that’s nice.

At LobeLog, the Center for International Policy’s William Hartung expects MBS’s visit to the US to be a massive PR blitz facilitated by the prince’s media admirers:

Given his aggressive foreign policy and record of internal repression, MbS’s attempt to burnish his image during his U.S. trip should be a hard sell. But he has prominent admirers in the U.S. press like David Ignatius of The Washington Post and Thomas Friedman of The New York Times in his corner, and is one of Donald Trump’s favorite world leaders. Perhaps this Sunday’s interview with MbS on CBS 60 Minutes will highlight his war-mongering and human-rights abuses as much or more than his claims to be a refreshing force for reform. But the danger remains that at least some parts of the mainstream press will whitewash MbS’s record.

As such, MbS’s visit, which is slated to include everyone from Donald Trump and his top security officials to Wall Street executives and Silicon Valley moguls, could at least partially succeed in meeting his main objectives. It’s up to opponents of MbS’s human rights record and his brutal war in Yemen to make sure it doesn’t.


For their part, the Iranians apparently don’t see the nomination of the staunchly anti-Iran and anti-nuclear deal Pompeo as particular cause for concern. But only because they were already preparing for Donald Trump to scrap the accord anyway.

Anyway the Iranian religious establishment has bigger fish to fry–namely, the provocative dancing of elementary school girls:

An influential Friday Prayer leader, Ahmad Alamolhoda, said the dance performance had been planned by enemies set on disgracing the Shiite saint that the event was meant to honor, Fateme Zahra.

Mr. Najafi tried to defend himself. The mayor said that the girls were all younger than 9 and that he regretted that their dance had been a part of the event. But Mr. Alamolhoda was having none of that.

“One cannot argue that these were children,” he said, according to the semiofficial ILNA news agency. “They were young girls who incited arousal. They made the most atrocious movements. This cannot be justified.”

They incited arousal, these children! It cannot be justified! Really it seems that what can’t be justified is the fact that Ahmad Alamolhoda isn’t on some kind of watch list, but that’s just my opinion I guess. Women in Iran are prohibited from dancing in public, and for conservative Iranian clerics girls become “women” at age 9. But even though the organizers of this event say all the girls who danced were under 9, it was still too risqué for Mr. Alamolhoda.

By the way, the “Mr. Najafi” here is the now-former mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Ali Najafi, who was at the event where this dancing took place and, because he didn’t stop it or promptly leave, has now been forced to resign. What a deeply normal country.

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