Middle East update: March 16 2018


Tens of thousands of civilians have fled fighting in Eastern Ghouta and Afrin over the past few days. Conservative estimates put the number at 50,000 but the Syrian government says that over 40,000 fled Eastern Ghouta on Thursday alone, so if their count is accurate the overall number must certainly be well north of 50K. Monitors reported at least 27 people killed in Afrin and 64 in Eastern Ghouta on Friday.

There are believed to still be 200,000 people in Afrin, many who are scrambling to get out, though their efforts are reportedly being hampered by both the YPG and pro-government militias. Many of those who are fleeing are Kurds, though not all–there are a lot of people in Afrin now who were displaced from other parts of Syria by the war. But Afrin’s Kurds are convinced–and why wouldn’t they be–that Turkey intends to permanently displace them from their homes and relocate displaced Arabs and Turkmens to the area in their place. So far Turkey has maintained that it does not intend to do so and has been trying to convince Afrin’s civilians that they don’t need to worry:

At the outset of the military operation, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said: “Turkey’s aim is to give Afrin back to its rightful owners” – a statement that has since been used by Kurdish groups to claim he intends to engineer a demographic shift. However, Turkish military jets dropped fliers over Afrin on Friday that claimed the incursion was aimed only at forcing militants allied to the YPG militia to flee the area.


“We are here for your peace and security; trust in Turkey’s justice. Please don’t believe terrorists’ empty promises. YPG/PKK terrorist leaders are fleeing Afrin and living good lives elsewhere. Please stay away from the bloody terror organisation. Take our hands, please surrender. A good future with peace awaits you in Afrin,” said one flyer also referring to Kurdish Worker’s party, or PKK, which is listed as terrorist group by Nato, the US and the EU among others.

“Trust in Turkey’s justice while Turkey rains bombs down upon you” is probably not a terribly convincing message, but I guess anything is possible.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is asking Saudi Arabia to fork over some money to help rebuild the parts of Syria that are currently controlled by US allies (basically the YPG). The Washington Post reports that Trump asked King Salman for $4 billion in a December phone call and believed he had Salman’s agreement, but the Saudis seem to be balking at that number. Trump apparently views rebuilding those areas where ISIS could still come back as essential to getting America out of Syria, but the administration is internally split on whether to get out of Syria or stay indefinitely as a check on Iran.


Seven US service members were killed on Thursday when their helicopter crashed near Qaim, in western Anbar. At this point there’s no indication that it was brought down deliberately.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary James Mattis is very worried that Iran might be trying to influence Iraqi politics:

“We have worrisome evidence that Iran is trying to influence — using money — the Iraqi elections,” Mattis told reporters flying with him to Washington from the Persian Gulf island state of Bahrain, where he discussed Iran and other issues with senior government officials.


“That money is being used,” he said, “to sway candidates, to sway votes — not an insignificant amount of money, we believe, and it’s highly unhelpful.”


“We know that they are doing what they can to impact the elections, and we don’t like it.”

Yeah, boy, it is pure evil of Iran, a foreign power, to just up and intervene in the affairs of the sovereign nation of Iraq like this. With money. It’s a good thing the United States never does anything like that because that would be wrong of us.

Anyway, if Iran wants to influence events in Iraq they should just invade and bomb the place to smithereens. You know, the American way.

Speaking of the American way, thousands of Kurds marched in Halabja on Friday to commemorate the 30 year anniversary of staunch US ally Saddam Hussein’s massacre of some 5000 people in a chemical weapons attack on that city. Hussein’s attack came amid the Iran-Iraq War and a related Kurdish uprising, and its effects are still being felt today:

The mourners, including some survivors, carried pictures of the victims, most of whom were women and children, as they walked down a red carpet to the Halabja Memorial Monument to lay wreaths for the dead.


The families, then gathered in a nearby cemetery where tombstones were covered in the Kurdish red-white-green-yellow flag, to pray for their relatives.


Fatima Mohammad, who was 17 when Halabja was gassed with what experts say was mustard gas, is among thousands of wounded survivors.


Each day, for the past three decades, she still suffers from “respiratory problems.”


After a debate that included a fistfight on the floor of parliament, the Turkish legislature earlier this week approved a set of new election laws that should make it easier for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to consolidate his power moving forward. The measures  allow small parties to partner with larger ones to get around the threshold that a party must get 10 percent of the vote to get any seats in parliament, which makes it very attractive for the nationalist MHP to formally align with Erdoğan’s AKP. They also allow Turkey’s electoral council to change district boundaries, move polling places, and station armed security forces at those polling places, all of which would seem to open the door to serious electoral manipulation. Additionally, the new laws allow ballots that haven’t been properly stamped to be admitted as legitimate votes, so start stuffing those ballot boxes now I guess.

A Swiss newspaper is reporting that, back in 2016, Turkish agents attempted to “abduct a Swiss-Turkish businessman” suspected of involvement in that summer’s attempted coup in Turkey. Swiss prosecutors have apparently been formally investigating this case for a year now. Ankara, of course, denies the allegation.


Two Israeli soldiers were killed on Friday when a Palestinian man drove his car into a crowd of people outside an Israeli settlement near the city of Jenin.


The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Joint Commission, which includes representatives from the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, and Iran, met in Vienna on Friday. There’s no word on what they discussed, but obviously the meeting comes amid the backdrop of the Rex Tillerson firing and the increasing likelihood that Donald Trump is going to pull the US out of the accord, if not at the next available deadline in May then eventually.

The governments of Britain, France, and Germany are circulating a proposal for new sanctions on Iran’s missile program to other European Union members. This is part of their effort to toughen the EU’s approach to Iran in order to appeal to Trump and maybe convince him not to withdraw from the nuclear deal. Trump has been adamant that he won’t consider staying in the deal unless what he perceives as its flaws are addressed, so this could be a futile effort and it’s one that the Tillerson firing probably makes a bit less likely to succeed.

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