Middle East update: April 14-15 2018


The Pentagon’s map of the sites it targeted (Wikimedia)

I’ve collected most of my thoughts about Syria at LobeLog, so if you’re looking for those please go there. The upshot is that I’m not a fan:

If the strike wasn’t legal, was it at least justifiable? The fact that Russia would have reflexively vetoed any action against Syria regardless of the evidence is certainly frustrating and reflects a fundamental problem with the way the UNSC is designed. In his address, Trump spoke at some length about the need “to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons.” But if deterring the use of chemical weapons is an international norm worth upholding, surely so is the principle that one nation, or group of nations, cannot simply bomb another because it feels like the right thing to do. You cannot uphold international law and norms by violating them in other ways.

Neither, for that matter, is Paul Pillar:

The missile strike against Syria in response to an alleged chemical attack has given many people a cathartic moment without having to produce any new and effective ideas about how to deal with the ugly conflict in Syria. For President Trump, it was an opportunity to follow his guiding principle of doing something different from what Barack Obama did. On policy toward Syria, he has struggled to find such opportunities. For many customary critics of Trump, supporting the strike has been an opportunity to look tough on Syria and to avoid looking like reflexive oppositionists. One might add that for Bashar Assad, it has been an opportunity to stand tall and look unperturbed in the face of the most modern weapons that Western powers could throw at him.

The New York Times has a basic, maybe too basic, list of “takeaways” from the operation, while the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker purports to have the “inside story” about the deliberations within the administration over striking Syria. It’s nothing you couldn’t have pieced together on your own: our dim-witted president, howling over James Comey’s book and the Mueller investigation, seized on the Douma incident and pushed hard for a quick and heavy response that some of his advisers, Defense Secretary James Mattis in particular, managed to negotiate down to a fairly limited response. You can even see the places Rucker got spun, like his credulous assertion that “as final options were presented, Trump was concerned about U.S. missiles harming civilians.” Yeah, sure he was.

Other details about the strike: the Pentagon says that it hasn’t received any reports of civilian casualties, which is fairly unbelievable but so far I haven’t seen anything from Damascus to contradict it. In “putting the cart before the horse” news, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons began its investigation into the Douma incident on Sunday–they were supposed to start on Saturday but presumably the airstrikes delayed them. And Bashar al-Assad met with a delegation of Russian lawmakers in Damascus on Sunday, where he was reportedly “in a good mood” and was openly disdainful about the strike. I don’t want to tell Assad how to do his business, but if he’d like to avoid another strike he might not want to antagonize Trump so blatantly. On the other hand, maybe he’s learning to appreciate these US strikes, which have mostly left his military untouched while tightening the sometimes fraying bonds between him and his Russian patrons.

As for the other two countries that participated in the operation, France and the United Kingdom, both of their leaders are taking some domestic heat but nothing that should outweigh the benefits of doing Trump a solid by sharing responsibility with him. Trump tends to keep track of those kinds of things–and on that note maybe Emmanuel Macron should stop bragging about how he coaxed Trump into following Macron’s lead. Just saying.

The job now for Macron and Theresa May is, in part, to steer the international debate in a direction that forestalls another US strike and maybe even establishes a non-military mechanism for responding to future alleged chemical attacks. Both countries, along with the US, will push a new United Nations Security Council resolution on Monday targeting Assad’s alleged covert chemical weapons stockpiles, in a session that will inevitably turn into another struggle session as everybody takes turns venting their anger at the Russians. The US will couple that diplomatic effort with new sanctions against Russian firms alleged to be supplying Assad’s alleged chemical weapons program. On Saturday, the UNSC lopsidedly rejected a Russian resolution that would have condemned the US-UK-French strike. Which I suppose could serve as an after-the-fact authorization of the strike, if you squint at it just right.

UN ambassador Nikki Haley reiterated on Sunday that the US will remain in Syria indefinitely, which at this point can be considered a not-so-veiled threat to Assad about using chemical weapons again (assuming, that is, he actually used them this time). Russian President Vladimir Putin told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a phone call that the strike had damaged the possibility of a political settlement in Syria (oh please) and that further strikes could mean “chaos” (OK he’s got a point there). Like a couple of real troopers, though, Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan say they’re going to keep working together for Syrian peace. They’ve made so much progress already it would’ve been a shame to throw it all away.


The Israeli military says it has destroyed another Hamas tunnel in Gaza, the fifth one it’s destroyed in the past five months. This tunnel allegedly opened near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniya is explicitly comparing the current protests in Gaza with famous nonviolent movements of the past, though he clearly hasn’t given up on violence altogether:

Urging on Palestinians who have staged a new campaign of protests along the fence separating Gaza from Israel, Mr. Haniya likened their struggle to those for India’s independence, against racial segregation and discrimination in the United States, and against apartheid in South Africa.


“This blessed protest is national, peaceful, popular and civilized,” he said.


Minutes later, though, he called the same protests “a deadly weapon” with which to achieve the Palestinians’ goals, saying that guns, rockets and attack tunnels — the more familiar weapons that have kept Hamas listed as a terrorist group by the United States, European Union and Israel — remained at hand if needed.

You could say that Haniya is being cynical here, and really he is. But after enduring a coordinated offensive from Israel, Fatah, and Egypt over the past several months, Hamas has used this protest to regain its footing. So from the organization’s perspective, at least, he’s doing something right.


Militants assaulted an Egyptian military base in central Sinai on Saturday, killing eight soldiers and wounding another 15 while losing at least 14 of their own number. To nobody’s surprise, ISIS later claimed responsibility for the attack.


The Arab League, meeting in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, called for an international investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria and condemned Iran in a statement on Sunday. Whatever. The more important story is that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani refused to attend the summit, the delegations to which are typically led by Arab heads of state or heads of government. Clearly this is a sign that Saudi-Qatar relations are still ragged, but you also can’t blame Tamim. Given what the Saudis apparently believe they’re entitled to do to friendly visiting dignitaries, there’s no telling what they might have done with the emir of Qatar.

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