Middle East update: April 6 2018


It looks like the situation has completely broken down in the city of Douma, in Eastern Ghouta. As noted yesterday, Jaysh al-Islam has halted its evacuation of the city and is asking for new talks with the Syrian government and Russia. It’s not clear why, but chances are pretty good they want a different relocation plan than the one that would send them to Turkish-controlled territory around Jarabulus. In response, the Syrians and Russians have resumed pounding Douma from the air, with observers reporting “dozens” of people killed, and there are reports that pro-government ground forces have entered the Douma enclave. Meanwhile, a bombing in Damascus on Friday killed at least one person, but it’s not clear who was behind the attack and whether there was any direct connection with events in Eastern Ghouta.

A Reuters investigation has uncovered a regular airlift in and out of the Russian town of Rostov that has been carrying military contractors and supplies into Syria:

The flights in and out of Rostov, which no organization has previously documented, are operated by Cham Wings, a Syrian airline hit with U.S. sanctions in 2016 for allegedly transporting pro-Assad fighters to Syria and helping Syrian military intelligence transport weapons and equipment. The flights, which almost always land late at night, don’t appear in any airport or airline timetables, and fly in from either Damascus or Latakia, a Syrian city where Russia has a military base.


The operation lays bare the gaps in the U.S. sanctions, which are designed to starve Assad and his allies in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Hezbollah militia of the men and materiel they need to wage their military campaign.


It also provides a glimpse of the methods used to send private Russian military contractors to Syria – a deployment the Kremlin insists does not exist. Russian officials say Moscow’s presence is limited to air strikes, training of Syrian forces and small numbers of special forces troops.

At War on the Rocks, the US Naval War College’s Burak Kadercan argues that the only way for the US to resolve its problems with both Turkey and the YPG, without picking sides and thereby creating more problems, is to push for a long-term reconciliation between Turkey and first the YPG, then the PKK. Obviously that’s much easier said than done, but I think Kadercan makes a compelling case that it might be Washington’s only way forward at this point. Any of its other options are likely to make things worse.


At least seven more Palestinian protesters were gunned down by Israeli forces in northern Gaza on Friday, with hundreds more wounded. Friday’s protest was not as large as the one a week ago but, at an estimated 20,000 people, it was larger than protests earlier this week (which was expected).

As in previous days the protesters threw rocks and rolled flaming tires at the Israeli forces, acts that nobody outside of Israel and, I guess, the Trump administration believes warrants the use of live ammunition in response. Hamas is trying to keep these protests as non-violent as possible in order to draw international attention to Gaza’s plight and put Israel on the wrong side of public sentiment, and the Israelis so far are playing their role to the hilt. Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute hilariously calls this “the non-violent violence of Hamas.” While there’s no comparison between Hamas and Ghandi, one does wonder how the Hussein Ibishes of the 1940s might have referred to the Indian independence movement. I mean:

[Hamas] did not initiate the calls for the protests but rather seized on them and has effectively hijacked the movement, at least for now. But Hamas’s strategy is easy to discern. First, it relies on Israel’s long-established doctrine of disproportionate force. Particularly at the border, from its founding Israel has had only one main response to Palestinians seeking to go back to their former towns and villages, and the Israeli military announced before the March of Return protests that anyone approaching within 300 meters of the border would face the familiar shoot-to-kill policy.


It was entirely predictable that confronted with tens of thousands of Palestinian protesters, particularly at a border area, Israel would immediately resort to deadly force, even against unarmed persons. Israeli strategic and security thinking virtually guaranteed an effort to nip the protest movement in the bud by demonstrating the level of violence protesters, particularly those that challenge the border, can expect to face. Israel’s nightmare, and Hamas’s hope, is that during these protests, the border is somehow breached and large numbers of young men cross over into what used to be their country going toward their ancestral homes and villages. Israeli authorities speak in terms of a “bloodbath” even if such “infiltrators” are nonviolent and unarmed, and history strongly suggests that this is by no means hyperbole.

That Israel’s disproportionate force doctrine is long-established doesn’t make it defensible, and if the Israelis don’t want to take heat for gunning down unarmed protesters, then they should, you know, not do that. Waiting to see if those crowds actually challenge the border and then shooting works just as effectively as assuming they’re going to challenge the border and shooting anyway. More effectively, actually, since it can be justified.


Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed spoke with Donald Trump by phone on Friday, and the two of them agreed to work toward unity within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Working with MBZ on improving Gulf unity is a little like working with Al Capone on enforcing Prohibition, but best of luck to everybody involved I guess.


Eli Lake is flogging his Iran war horse again, this time via an interview with Nobel laureate and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, in which Ebadi says that the time for reform in Iran has ended:

“Reform is useless in Iran,” Ebadi told me in an interview Thursday. “The Iranian people are very dissatisfied with their current government. They have reached the point and realized this system is not reformable.”


For Ebadi the means of ending Iranian tyranny should be a U.N.-monitored referendum on the constitution that proposes a basic change: the elimination of the unelected office of supreme leader. The Iranian people, she said, “want to change our regime, by changing our constitution to a secular constitution based on the universal declaration of human rights.”

Ebadi in 2017 (Wikimedia | Bengt Oberger)

Lake of course frames this as a “well, libs, what do you have to say for yourselves now?” piece, but once you get past that the “EBADI WANTS REGIME CHANGE” headline what she says isn’t all that provocative. She believes the protests that started at the end of December signal that the Iranian people have had it with the Islamic Republic. She wants to see regime change but opposes US military intervention or “interference” with the protest movement. She doesn’t even want the US to restore the sanctions it lifted as part of the Iran nuclear deal, arguing that they were too harmful to the Iranian people while allowing powerful Iranians to amass more wealth and power. She would like targeted Western sanctions against Iranian state media and she criticized the National Iranian American Council as too close to the Islamic Republic, which I’m sure was music to Lake’s ears since he loathes NIAC.

So…OK. I think we might want to consider that while Ebadi is a tremendous advocate for human rights, she may not have her finger on the pulse of the Iranian people. December’s protests were a sign of frustration, but it would be a mistake to fall into the “squeaky wheel” trap and assume that the protesters represent a majority of the Iranian people. Maybe they do, but the protests alone are not evidence of that. Otherwise, I’m not sure what’s to oppose. If the Iranian people truly want a new government then that’s up to them. I’m not sure how they intend to achieve it but that’s not really my business (nor is it Eli Lake’s, nor is it Washington’s). Ebadi opposes military involvement, opposes ending the nuclear deal, opposes direct US involvement with the protesters. Sanctioning Iranian state media? OK. Working on some kind of new backchannel between activists in the US and the leaders–whoever they might be, and let’s be clear that we don’t actually know–of the protest movement? Sure. Lake’s spin aside, those both seem relatively unobjectionable.

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