Middle East update: April 9 2018


It took a little while, but both Russia and the Syrian government dropped their accusations that the United States was behind this morning’s (local time) attack on Syria’s T4 airbase near Homs and came around to the consensus view that it was an Israeli strike. So that appears to be settled. There are lingering questions as to how many missiles the Israelis fired at the base and how many hit–Damascus says it shot down eight missiles, Russia says the Israelis fired eight missiles and three of them hit the base, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 14 people were killed in the strike, which means something must have hit someplace.

Israel, per its standard operating procedure, will not comment either way on the strike. But Israeli officials have held that T4 is being used by Iran, which the Israeli military views as justification enough for this kind of attack, and Iran’s Fars news agency reportedly says that three Iranians were killed in the strike. Apart from chronology there’s no reason to link this strike with Saturday’s alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma. Israel is not in the business of worrying about what Bashar al-Assad does or doesn’t do to his own people. What is interesting about this strike, as opposed to the many previous Israeli strikes in Syria, is that Russia was so quick to point its finger Israel’s way. Moscow typically ignores these things in the interests of the broader Russia-Israel relationship. That could suggest said relationship is hitting a rough patch, with Israel no longer trusting Russian assurances that they will keep Iran in check.

Speaking of said alleged chemical attack, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says that “Russian specialists” have found “no evidence” that such an attack took place, and in particular they’ve found no traces of chlorine (the symptoms that were reported on Saturday seem to correspond with what you’d expect from chlorine exposure, though the US is talking about sarin). The Russians and Syrians have been warning for some time now that rebels might attempt a “provocation” by staging some kind of chemical attack to raise international outrage against Assad. Which is either a genuine warning or an advance cover story for an actual chemical attack. It’s hard to say which at this point without an independent investigation, though really there is no such thing as an “independent investigation” where Syria is concerned–at least, not one that both Russia/Syria and the rest of the international community will both accept.

Nevertheless, the United Nations Security Council is meeting in an emergency session on Monday to discuss the incident. The US, France, and eight other countries have called for it, while Russia has countered with a call for a broader session on Syria as a security threat, which would necessarily draw the focus away from Douma. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says it will begin its own investigation into the alleged attack, but the OPCW cannot by rule attribute responsibility for something like this, it can just attempt to ascertain whether or not an attack did occur. Since Russia has the power to veto any UNSC effort to establish another investigation that can attribute responsibility, like the former Joint Independent Mechanism, Monday’s session will likely turn into an airing of grievances against Russia without actually accomplishing anything tangible.

(Note that I wrote all of this before the UNSC session took place. If I can get details on what happened in a timely fashion I’ll update this, otherwise I’ll have more tomorrow. So far it sounds like it’s gone about how you would have expected.)

Absent any willingness to authorize or wait for the results of a credible investigation–well, absent any agreement on what a “credible investigation” would be–expectations of some kind of Western military response are growing. Donald Trump told reporters on Monday that he’ll decide whether/how to respond in a day or two, and his defense secretary says “I don’t rule out anything right now” when asked about the possibility of airstrikes. Oh, and John Bolton started his new gig as Trump’s National Security Advisor on Monday, so this is all very well-timed. As I noted yesterday, French President Nemesis Emmanuel Macron has already mouthed off so much about chemical weapons in Syria that he’s going to look goofy (well, more so) if he just lets this slide. Theresa May, happy to jump on a new runaway train to distract her from her runaway Skripal train, has now gotten in on the act too.

So we’ll see, but it would be at least mildly surprising if we got through this week without some Western military bombing some Assad-related Syrian site. To wit:


If strikes happen tonight I’ll try to be timely about updating this post. Whenever they happen, and yes I’m assuming they will, some analyst types are speculating that they’ll be more intense and/or more extended than last year’s one-off attack on Assad’s Shayrat air base. I’m not saying that’s impossible, but it would draw Trump deeper into a war he was talking about exiting just last week and risk a confrontation with Russia. So I’ll believe it when I see it.


Pivoting from the atrocity that occasionally gets attention, Syria, to the atrocity that almost never gets any, a Saudi airstrike killed at least 15 civilians in Taiz on Monday. Taiz has been the stalemated front line in Yemen for months now, to the tremendous suffering of the people living there. Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition, spearheaded mostly by the United Arab Emirates, has been trying to gain control over Yemen’s ports in an effort to choke the Houthis off from the arms shipments that are allegedly coming in so frequently from Iran. Hudaydah, Yemen’s largest port, is pretty much the only one they don’t have right now, but their proxies are about 60 miles outside the city. At the risk of repeating myself, an attack on Hudaydah could send Yemen’s humanitarian crisis into overdrive, since Hudaydah’s port is so vital to bringing in aid.

As to the prospects for a peace settlement in Yemen, the Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson says that UN Resolution 2216, which the Saudis and Emiratis cited as their justification for intervening back in 2015, may be standing in the way:

Yet the bad news is that Griffith’s efforts may be hobbled by UN Security Council Resolution 2216 from 2015, which has been used by the internationally recognized Yemen government and its chief supporter, Saudi Arabia, to legitimize military intervention against Shiite Houthi rebels and create a serious obstacle to negotiations.


Analysts say the conflict has now evolved beyond that resolution, which explicitly requires that the Iran-backed Houthis give up their weapons and leave cities.

A new resolution that treated the Houthis as a legitimate belligerent–and not as an illegitimate rebellion that has to surrender and go home as a precondition to talks–might support a UN-led peace process instead of hindering it. But there doesn’t seem to be much momentum for such a thing.


The Israeli air force was busy on Monday. Not only did they strike the T4 airbase in Syria, but they also got after Hamas over two “explosive devices” that they reportedly found near the Gaza fenceline. Both Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear on Monday that they’re not backing down from the current tensions in Gaza, so you can expect more protests and more dead protesters in the days to come.


Saudi Arabia reportedly has big plans for its border with Qatar–namely, flooding it. The Saudis are reportedly considering a plan to dig a 200 meter wide, 20 meter deep canal on their side of the border that would turn Qatar into an island. Adding insult to injury, or potentially injury to injury, the Saudis would set aside part of the canal zone for a military base and another part for a waste dump for their nuclear program, if and when it actually gets going. The UAE is apparently planning to park its own nuclear waste in a new dump “at the closest point to Qatar on the Emirati border.”

The UAE border never comes that close to Qatar, but whatever

While this is all going on, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is visiting Washington this week for meetings with an array of Trump administration officials, including Trump himself on Tuesday. Certainly the rift with the Saudis will be high on the agenda. In advance of the emir’s visit, the Qataris–who are no dummies–have hired a new lobbying firm known to Trump personally:

The Qatari Embassy in Washington recently hired Ballard Partners, a Florida-based lobbying shop that worked for Trump before he became president, according to lobbying records that were made public today. And Doha also added several new Florida hires to its team of lobbyists from Mercury Public Affairs to help with federal and state issues.


In conjunction with the emir’s visit, top Qatari economic officials and business leaders are touring the East Coast promoting commercial ties in Miami, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina, where Boeing’s Dreamliner is produced. The multi-pronged US tour mirrors a similar effort by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose country is leading a 10-month-old embargo against Qatar over its support for political Islamists and close ties to Iran.


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is in Paris, where he and Macron had dinner in the Louvre on Sunday evening. How nice for them. They’ll do some business deals before MBS moves on to his next mark destination.


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the audience at a National Nuclear Technology Day conference in Tehran that the United States would “regret” a decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal. And he’s got a point:

“Even if one day (the US) can harm the JCPOA, we will be the winner in the public opinion of the world as the nation that stuck by its commitments,” Rouhani said.


“If they withdraw, it would mean that they are not committed to their words.”

James Dorsey writes that the Iranian government is worried about its long-term drought and the possibility for an environmentally-motivated uprising like the Arab Spring movement to hit Iran:

Like Syria, Iran has been confronting a drought that has affected much of the country for more than a decade with precipitation dropping to its lowest level in half a century. Environmental concerns have figured prominently in protests in recent years, often in regions populated by ethnic minorities like Azeris, and Iranian Arabs.


Unrest among ethnic minorities, who account for almost half of Iran’s population, takes on added significance with Iran fearing that Saudi Arabia’s activist crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and the Trump administration’s antipathy towards the Islamic republic bolstered by the appointment of a hardliner, John Bolton, as the president’s national security advisor.



Yet, concern about environmental degradation and its potential political fallout goes beyond fear that it could facilitate interference by external powers. Demonstrators in the province of Isfahan last month clashed with security forces after they took to the streets to protest water shortages. The protest occurred some three months after Iran was wracked by weeks of anti-government demonstrations.

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