Middle East update: April 17 2018


So that report yesterday that somebody had fired missiles at a Syrian airbase near Homs? False alarm, according to the Syrian government. Perhaps even a cyber attack staged by the US and/or Israel, according to one anonymous “commander” of pro-government forces in Syria.

Pro-government forces are reportedly gearing up for a move against Yarmouk, which now that Eastern Ghouta has been taken is the closest area to Damascus that is not under government control. Prior to the war, Yarmouk was home to a major Palestinian refugee camp holding about 160,000 people. An estimated 140,000 of them were displaced when ISIS swept through the camp in 2015, while another 18,000 have remained. ISIS has held most of the camp ever since.

Meanwhile, investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will visit the site of the alleged April 7 chemical weapons attack in Douma on Wednesday. There was some confusion about this on Tuesday. Syrian state media said they’d already been allowed access to the site, but the Trump administration and the OPCW itself later contradicted those reports. The Syrian government then clarified that a United Nations security team had been given access to the site on Tuesday to assess whether it’s safe enough for the OPCW team to go there on Wednesday.

Whatever the investigators find, or more to the point don’t find, will be tainted by accusations that Russia and Syria cleaned the site up before allowing them to see it. These claims that the area hasn’t been secure enough to open it up to the OPCW can’t be disproven, exactly, but they’re pretty heavily belied by the fact that the Russians and Syrians brought two news outlets, the pro-Trump One America News Network and the UK Independent (owned by a father-son combo of Vladimir Putin-friendly oligarchs), into Douma while they were keeping the OPCW out. Both outlets reported, coincidentally of course, that they couldn’t find any evidence of a chemical weapons attack. CBS also got into Douma and found witnesses who said there was a chemical weapons attack, so I don’t know I guess the British government got to those folks or something.

Of course, to a large degree any investigation is now superfluous, since the US, UK, and France have already determined that a chemical attack was committed, judged that the Syrian government was responsible, and punished it accordingly. Their judgments relied to a fairly shocking degree on open source information gleaned from news reports, third party observers, and social media posts. Depending on your perspective this is either an interesting look at the power of open source information or a chilling vision of a future dystopia wherein wars can be started over Facebook memes. That’s not entirely fair–it may actually be a present dystopia.

I know nobody really cares at this point because we’re all busy being outraged about the alleged chemical attack and/or the retaliatory Western missile strike, but I feel like it’s worth pointing out that conditions in Douma appear to have improved substantially with the rebels gone. And sure, the government made things miserable in Eastern Ghouta on purpose, but the rebels and several entrepreneurial war profiteers seem to have done their best to make everything worse:

Many residents blamed the greed of some local businessmen and the main rebel group in Douma, the Saudi-backed Army of Islam, for much of their misery, by raising food prices to make more money and hiding the scant food supplies from people in need. After the Army of Islam left town, they said, they discovered the militants had stored large amounts of rice, flour, wheat, canned goods and other food — enough, they said to feed residents for months.


Residents also spoke of several local families who used to buy large amounts of food and hoard it to sell later at a far higher price, making most food products out of reach for most people.

As to the strikes themselves, Micah Zenko aptly describes them as “a staged play”:

One year after launching a limited strike against the Syrian government to deter future chemical weapons attacks, U.S. President Donald Trump did the same thing again Friday night. Within 12 hours, the Pentagon judged the operation as being “very successful,” which was a given since the three above-ground facilities were assuredly monitored for years and situated in a relatively low-threat air defense environment. The ability of a $700 billion military to destroy static targets is unremarkable.


What was sensational about the missile strikes was the public spectacle of it all. From Trump’s initial pledge that the Syrian government’s suspected chemical attack “will be met, and it will be met forcefully,” to the Pentagon videos showing individual missiles being launched, this was a military operation telegraphed, scripted, and executed for a 24-hour information era.

In eastern Syria, meanwhile, the Pentagon says ISIS is making a comeback. Naturally all of these gains are happening in territory controlled by the Syrian government west of the Euphrates River. ISIS apparently hasn’t made any new gains east of the Euphrates, in areas controlled by US proxies, though the loss of Kurdish troops who moved out of eastern Syria to go counter the Turkish invasion of Afrin has forestalled any final clean up operations against the group’s last remaining pockets there. Anyway the point is that the US should definitely never, ever leave Syria, ever.

Well, unless maybe a coalition of Arab states would be amenable to sending troops to replace the US presence, which is apparently an idea being kicked around between Washington and Riyadh. It’s an extraordinarily bad idea, but what would you expect coming from the Trump administration and the Saudi royal family? And speaking of bad ideas, Israel may start targeting Iranian planes it suspects of ferrying Iranian advisers and war materiel into Syria. The Israelis say that an Iranian drone they shot down on February 10 in Israeli airspace was armed, and that incident prompted their attack on the T4 airbase in Syria, where Iranian personnel operate, on April 9. An Israel-Iran conflict is one of the many ways the war in Syria could still escalate, and that’s a conflict that could engulf the entire region.


Representatives of both the State Department and Defense Department were grilled on US aid for the Saudi war effort in Yemen on Tuesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Yemen Peace Project was heavily critical of the Congressional Research Service report that served as part of the basis for the hearing:

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a hearing this morning on US policy in Yemen, the first such hearing in over a year. To help prepare committee members for today’s hearing, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) produced a special report on the situation in Yemen, authored by the CRS’ long-time Yemen specialist, Jeremy Sharp. The report begins with a sober overview of the war in Yemen and a measured assessment of Iran’s limited role as the Houthis’ main foreign supporter, which is a welcome contrast from the rhetoric both the Trump administration and the Saudi-led coalition employ concerning Iran’s involvement. However, the analysis, while couched in the voice of objective expertise for which the CRS is known, has several shortcomings that, perhaps unintentionally, obscure the nature of Yemen’s crisis and the context of increasing congressional dissatisfaction over US participation in the conflict.

Basically, the CRS report spends a lot of time pouring over Houthi and Iranian misdeeds while downplaying the fact that it’s the Saudi-led coalition that’s doing most of the killing and immiserating and that it’s doing so with considerable US assistance.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that the Yemeni government is “torturing, raping, and executing” African migrants and asylum seekers at a detention center in Aden. It’s also forcibly deporting many of them, which in this case seems to mean basically setting them adrift at sea. Factions supported by the United Arab Emirates have reportedly been bringing the migrants to the detention center. As impossible as it is to believe that anybody is trying to migrate to Yemen at the moment, many people still make the journey from the Horn of Africa in hopes of continuing on into one of the Gulf countries.


The relationship between Greece and Turkey seems to be worsening by the day, which is a little awkward considering they’re both in NATO. On Tuesday, Ankara accused Athens of violating international law by refusing to turn over eight Turkish soldiers who fled to Greece after the 2016 attempted coup. Later in the day two Turkish fighter jets “harassed” a helicopter carrying Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras near Rhodes, which is a little provocative.

Relations between Turkey and the US remain pretty grim too. A Turkish court ruled on Monday that US pastor Andrew Brunson has to stay in jail during his trial on charged of aiding the 2016 coup plotters. Brunson has been the target of a pretty high-level US lobbying effort (both Donald Trump and Mike Pence have brought up his case in meetings with Turkish leaders), but Ankara is holding on to him. It’s possible they want to trade him for Fethullah Gülen, though I remain steadfast in my belief that they don’t actually want Gülen back.

Meanwhile, the European Union issued its annual report on Turkey’s membership process on Tuesday and it’s not good. The report says that Turkey is moving further away from EU membership as it slides into authoritarianism, and in particular singled out the state of emergency that has been in place since the coup attempt as problematic. Meanwhile, Ankara is seriously talking about moving next year’s national elections up to this August in an effort to cement said authoritarian transition.


Amnesty International reports that women with ties to ISIS are being brutally mistreated in camps in Iraq:

Iraqi women and children with perceived ties to the armed group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) are being denied humanitarian aid and prevented from returning to their homes, with an alarming number of women subjected to sexual violence, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.


The Condemned: Women and Children Isolated, Trapped and Exploited in Iraq reveals widespread discrimination against women living in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) by security forces, members of camp administrations and local authorities, who believe these women are affiliated to IS.


Amnesty International established that sexual exploitation was occurring in each of the eight camps that Amnesty researchers visited.


With Abdel Fattah el-Sisi having secured his reelection, he’s now turning part of his attention to the economy. In particular Sisi needs to do something about inflation, which rose to over 30 percent last year. He’s going to need to increase Egypt’s oil and gas production to do it, as well as boosting tourism back to something approaching pre-Arab Spring levels. Egypt brought in 14.7 million tourists in 2010. That figure plunged to a bit over five million in 2016 before rebounding last year to around 8.3 million.


The Middle East Institute’s Rauf Mammadov says that recent increases in oil prices, and the promise of still further increases, could push Russia to abandon its production cut arrangement with Saudi Arabia and the rest of OPEC:

Crown Prince Mohammed’s mention of a long-term production-cut deal between Russia and Saudi Arabia came as the U.S. continues to consider scrapping the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The Trump administration’s recent appointment of Iran hard-liners Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to top diplomatic and national security positions is the latest signal that the agreement could be abandoned.


Meanwhile, escalating tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are vying for a leadership role in the Middle East, could drive already-high oil prices even higher. This could dissuade Russia from committing to long-term production cuts when the matter comes up again in June.


Indeed, there is a growing sentiment among some oil and gas companies that Russia should abandon the deal: since its inception, it has led Russian oil production to drop by 0.8 percent. The president of Lukoil, the largest private oil company in Russia, called on the government to withdraw from the deal if prices remain at $70 per barrel for six months.


Gunmen identified as “terrorists” by Iranian media killed two Iranian border guards in a skirmish near the country’s border with Pakistan on Tuesday. It’s not clear who they actually were–“terrorist” is a pretty broad category in Iran, and given the location they could have been ISIS sympathizers, Baluch separatists, or possibly ISIS sympathizing Baluch separatists.

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