Middle East update: April 5 2018


Jaysh al-Islam’s evacuation of Douma hit a snag and was apparently suspended on Thursday for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Since the group never formally/officially accepted a deal to surrender and be relocated it’s possible that there are internal disagreements that are affecting the evacuation and/or that all the Jaysh al-Islam fighters who were prepared to pack up and leave have already done so. There’s also speculation that the JaI fighters who already evacuated to Jarabulus are sending back word that they’re not being treated well by the Turkish authorities who control that region and that this has caused the remaining JaI fighters in Douma to rethink things. Whatever the reason, the evacuation is in limbo at this point.

Speaking of Turkey, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu would like you to know that Turkey has only invaded northern Syria to lay “the groundwork for a sustainable peace.” Read this if you must, but wear tall boots and bring a shovel and nose plugs.

The New Yorker’s Robin Wright has a blow-by-blow of Donald Trump’s clashes with his own advisers over his desire to withdraw from Syria that manages to paint both sides in a bad light, which I grant you was probably not difficult. Trump’s advisers are worried that the almighty US Imperium is on the line, while Trump is whining about how bad staying in Syria makes him look:

Yet Trump, in the White House meeting, dismissed argument after argument about a longer timetable to finish the mission in Syria. A premature withdrawal, Trump’s advisers posited, would also take the United States out of the game in a country that is the geostrategic center of the Middle East—and borders five countries allied with the U.S.


The generals warned that an already complex war in Syria, now beginning its eighth year, would get even more complicated. They cited the dangers of the Assad regime or other foreign powers—including Iran and its allies in Hezbollah—filling the vacuum in areas that U.S. troops have worked so hard to help liberate. Without the constant threat of U.S. airpower, Russia could feel emboldened to operate in a broader swath of territory. Turkey recently intervened in northern Syria in a campaign targeting U.S. allies—drawing them away from the war against isis. A decision to pull out could also strand the Kurds, whose forces have fought most fiercely against isis in Syria.


Trump was unconvinced by—and impatient with—the advice, sources familiar with the debate told me. More than once he said, “Why do I have to be the one to do this?” one told me.

Its gratifying to see everybody so focused on what’s best for the Syrian people, or the people of the region.

Anyway, with Trump considering a pullout, however hamfistedly, you can expect to see a rash of stories in the US press about how ISIS, which was all but in the ground a couple of weeks ago, is suddenly poised to make a comeback at the slightest sign of an opening. To wit, there were at least two big stories today, this one in the Washington Post and this one from the AP, citing Kurdish sources about the danger of a US pullout. To be fair, the YPG is on the front line in Syria and they more than anyone know that a US withdrawal would most likely mean a full-on Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria er I mean an ISIS revival, definitely an ISIS revival is the thing they’re worried about. The hope is that at least some of these stories will get a few minutes’ play on Fox and Friends, which is where Trump gets most of his ideas.


Patrick Wing writes that 2018 is so far shaping up to be the least violent year in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003:

Iraq is currently witnessing the fewest security incidents since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In 2003, there were an average of 10 to 35 incidents per day. In the first three months of 2018, there has been an average of 9 incidents. After the Islamic State seized Mosul in the summer of 2014 attacks steadily declined even before the government forces went on the offensive and liberated all of the conquered territory. There were 28 incidents per day in 2014, 23 in 2015, 20 in 2017, and 15 in 2017. At the end of that last year the Islamic State decided to switch to an insurgency rather than continue to suffer high casualties in a losing cause. That was the reason why they barely put up a fight in the last clearing operations in Ninewa and Anbar. The number of incidents has been flat since October 2017 as a result.

Obviously most of the damage in Iraq is already done, but it’s almost impossible to figure out just how much damage was done. Take Mosul, where the only two actors who could realistically count the number of civilians killed in the battle to retake that city–the US-led coalition, and the Iraqi government–both have a strong vested interest in not conducting such a count. In December the AP estimated 9000-11,000 civilians were killed, about a third by coalition and Iraqi forces, but that effort drew a swift denial from the US military along with a rebuke about how it’s “simply irresponsible” to even investigate coalition- and Iraqi-caused casualties, basically because We’re The Good Guys, for Christ’s sake. Both the coalition and the Iraqis insist that everything they did in Mosul was with the utmost care for civilian life, but it’s hard to square that with the fact that they’ve deliberately chosen not to count, or at least to count and bury, the actual number of civilians they killed.


The United Nations says it is getting more stringent about inspecting ships carrying humanitarian aid into Yemen in order to screen for weapons smuggling, adding more inspectors and improving their technology. The move comes after several recent Houthi missile attacks against Saudi targets and is likely an attempt by the UN to forestall another total Saudi blockade or even a Saudi attack on the port, either of which would drastically reduce the already inadequate level of aid reaching the Yemeni people.


If you like spy stories, then you may want to catch up on what Turkey has apparently been doing. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said on Thursday that Turkish agents have nabbed some 80 people across 18 countries who are all suspected of involvement in the attempted coup in 2016. And apparently they’re not done, just FYI in case there are any hardcore Gülenists reading this blog.


The Israelis killed another Palestinian protester in Gaza on Thursday, bringing the total killed since last Friday to either 19 or 21 depending on whose reporting you’re following. The Israelis seem to be gearing up for a general attack on Gaza, talking about vague information that suggests Hamas is planning some nefarious deed that the Israelis will obviously need to stop. Friday is likely to be a bigger protest day, so casualties will probably go up.

At LobeLog, Mitchell Plitnick takes on some of the myths the Israelis have been propagating about these protests:

“The protests were not non-violent”


Indeed, according to reports, protesters threw stones, Molotov cocktails, and possibly burning tires at Israeli soldiers. But the soldiers were well away from the fence. There was little chance of these lightweight weapons doing any damage, and certainly no threat to the lives of the soldiers. These photographs show the distance that needed to be covered. Indeed, the Israelis would have been foolish to venture any closer. Their rifles, mortars, and other weaponry were more than capable of reaching the protesters from a safe distance.


That some of the protesters engaged in technically violent behavior is irrelevant. The army or the police can only use force in the face of an imminent threat of injury or significant damage to property. There was no such threat, much less one that could possibly justify the use of deadly force. In fact, there is not a single report of an Israeli casualty. That’s good news, but it also shows the absence of any real threat to the Israeli soldiers, much less Israeli civilians.

Meanwhile, as Gazans are being gunned down for even approaching the walls of their open-air prison, 1700 Jewish settlers have reportedly swarmed on to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem since Sunday to conduct Passover worship. They’re not supposed to do that, but since they’re protected by dozens of Israeli special forces I guess it’s cool. Palestinian civilians have tried to intervene but there haven’t been any reports of serious casualties.


Egypt’s new crackdown on militants might be winning the battle in Sinai while losing the war. The siege they began in February is strangling ISIS but it’s also cutting civilians off from basic necessities:

“With the closure of roads and a ban on goods, the army, the city council and well-connected individuals are now controlling sales outlets. Goods are being sold irregularly at double prices and in small quantities that are not enough to meet the needs of citizens,” an el-Arish shopkeeper told Al-Monitor.


Although life in el-Arish has virtually come to a standstill, residents there are still better off than in the border towns of Sheikh Zuwaid and Rafah. While the situation in Sheikh Zuwaid, a town 35 kilometers (22 miles) east of el-Arish, is bad, conditions in Rafah are worse. According to Rafah locals, car traffic is restricted and the army is shooting at any moving vehicle. Residents are forced to use carts pulled by mules and camels for transportation, with the cart fares now 30 times the price before the siege.

Defeating an insurgency while devastating local civilians only insures that the insurgency, or something very much like it, will crop up again.


Hey, just in time for Throwback Thursday:

Britain opened its first permanent military base in the Middle East in more than four decades on Thursday in the Persian Gulf country of Bahrain, giving the U.K. an expansive presence along key international shipping routes.


The UK Naval Support Facility can house up to around 500 Royal Navy personnel, including sailors, soldiers and airmen, in a region where maritime security ensures oil shipments and goods make it from Asia to Europe. British officials have described it as the first permanent British base east of the Suez Canal since 1971.


Saudi Arabia is ending its 35 year ban on movie theaters on April 18, and the first movie the new theaters will be showing is…



Hey, I can’t really argue with that choice. I saw it twice and thought it kicked ass. And, of course, it’s not lost on anybody that there are a lot of similarities between Saudi Arabia and Wakanda, right? I mean, Wakanda has this incredibly valuable resource that has fueled dramatic technological development, and the movie depicts it finally opening up to the world to share its advances. Saudi Arabia has a…resource, that has fueled, um, and it’s opening up to the world right now to do business deals. Whoa, am I seeing double or what? Also, don’t tell me you don’t see the similarities between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and the Black Panther himself. They’re both…men, on the young side, and uhhhhh, they…well if you look at it in a certain way they…boy, wow, we could be here all night with all of these commonalities! But I’ve got to get to sleep at some point, you know? Let’s just move on.

Maybe T’Challa also likes causing cholera epidemics

When MbS tries to pretend that Saudi Arabia only became conservative in 1979, he’s lying in service of a narrative that blames all of the kingdom’s negative traits on Iran. In his telling, the Saudis were forced to embrace religious conservatism lest the Islamic Revolution roll across the kingdom to everyone’s great detriment. Bullshit. James Dorsey pushes back on this fiction:

Prince Mohammed has traced Saudi Arabia’s embrace of ultra-conservatism to 1979, the year that a popular revolt toppled the Shah and replaced Iran’s monarchy with an Islamic republic and Saudi zealots took control of the Great Mosque in the holy city of Mecca.


While there is no doubt that the kingdom responded to the two events by enhancing the power of the kingdom’s already prevalent ultra-conservative religious establishment, Prince Mohammed appears to brush aside Saudi history.


The power of the establishment and the dominance of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia dates to 1744 when Mohammed bin Saud, the founder of the Al Saud dynasty, concluded a power sharing agreement with Islamic scholar Mohammed bin Abd al-Wahhab that lent Bin Saud the religious legitimacy he needed to unify and control Arabia’s warring tribes.


Similarly, Saudi global propagation of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism significantly accelerated in the wake of the events of 1979 but predates them by almost two decades.

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2 thoughts on “Middle East update: April 5 2018

  1. I can’t believe I’m agreeing with Trump on Syria 🙀. Did he just stumble into making a good decision? I’m thinking that US troops out of any Middle East country is a good idea, am I missing something?

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