Middle East update: April 19 2018


The Syrian military turned its focus to Yarmouk on Thursday, striking the ISIS-controlled area from the air and via artillery. Yarmouk seems to be Bashar al-Assad’s next target, as he looks to secure the area around Damascus. ISIS also took a pounding on Thursday in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border, from the Iraqi air force. The Iraqis reportedly coordinated their strike with both the Syrian government and the anti-ISIS coalition. ISIS and pro-Assad forces have been clashing in eastern Deir Ezzor province this week, and while I know we’ve coincidentally been inundated with stories about the imminent return of ISIS ever since Donald Trump started talking about pulling US forces out of Syria, but ISIS is still hanging on in some of these places even if the threat is being overhyped. The problem with connecting a potential ISIS resurgence to the question of whether or not the US is willing to stay in Syria until the heat death of the universe is that the far more relevant question is whether the US is ever going to rebuild the parts of Syria it’s wrecked. If ISIS makes a serious comeback it will be from among the rubble in Raqqa, not the desert countryside.

After Yarmouk, it’s not clear where Assad’s attention will turn. Idlib province is of course looming out there, but rebels in the “Southern Front,” the Free Syrian Army unit south of Damascus received US assistance for part of the war, are preparing as though they could be up next. Southwestern Syria is supposed to be a de-escalation zone, but so was Eastern Ghouta and, well, you know. The risk if the conflict shifts further south is that it will mean Iranian-aligned militias getting closer to the Golan and the border with Israel. That could be combustible.

Whatever happens now, though, at least we can all rest easy that Donald Trump’s decisive action has permanently eliminated the possibility that the Syrian government could use chemical weapo-

A barrage of missiles against Syria by American, French and British forces most likely will not stop President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons program, a Pentagon assessment has concluded, despite President Trump’s “Mission Accomplished!” declaration hours after last weekend’s strikes.


The military intelligence report, put out less than three days after the attack, said the allied airstrikes likely set back Mr. Assad’s production of sarin gas.


But it found that the Syrian president is expected to continue researching and developing chemical weapons for potential future use, according to an American intelligence analyst who has seen the document and described it to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity.

Well, at least Washington got to get its war on for a night. They needed a fix.


Fighting has been raging since Tuesday between Houthi rebels and pro-Yemeni government forces on a couple of fronts in Taiz province, with dozens of people on both sides reportedly killed so far. The pro-government forces in one of the engagements are led by Tareq Saleh, nephew of former Yemeni president and current corpse Ali Abdullah Saleh.


Now that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has decided to move Turkey’s general election forward to this June, opposition leaders are scrambling to mount a challenge to him. This vote is their last chance to derail Turkey’s shift, led by Erdoğan, from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, before the constitutional changes approved in a referendum last year go into effect. If Erdoğan wins, he’ll amass so much authority as a result of those changes that it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to roll things back and contain Turkey’s illiberal slide toward authoritarianism. He moved the election up to capitalize on the opposition’s disarray–a condition he’s created by jailing several opposition leaders–as well as to avoid an expected economic downturn and, to a lesser extent, to capitalize on Turkey’s recent military victory in Afrin. US officials say they “have concerns” about Turkey’s ability to hold a legitimate vote under the state of emergency that the country has been under since the attempted coup in 2016.

Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman suggests, contrary to conventional wisdom, there is a chance that the opposition could pull out a dramatic victory despite the odds:

Various opinion polls suggest that Erdogan and his Nationalist Action Party (MHP) ally, Devlet Bahceli, will between the two of them garner less than 50% of the votes. To win in the first round of balloting, presidential candidates need to surpass 50%.


Aykan Erdemir, a former parliamentarian for the secular, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Al-Monitor, “If Erdogan were so confident about his own power, he would not be holding early elections. This is the first time we see him showing signs of panic.”


The main reason for Erdogan’s concern is Turkey’s unraveling economy. “A relatively stable economy, which kept the AKP in power all these years, is now coming apart at the seams and there is no easy fix,” Erdemir said. “As people’s finances shrink, Erdogan’s talk of Western conspiracies is beginning to ring hollow.”


Despite their ongoing dispute with Saudi Arabia, Qatari forces did participate in joint “Gulf Shield” military drills that ran from March 21 through April 16, and a Qatari contingent was even allowed to attend the drill’s closing ceremony in Saudi Arabia on Monday. So that’s nice.


With the nuclear deal’s May 12 doomsday approaching, European politicians are trying to appeal to Donald Trump’s…good judgment? I think they’re probably barking up the wrong tree:

More than 500 parliamentarians from France, Germany and the UK have written to their US counterparts urging them to persuade Donald Trump not to abandon the Iran nuclear deal.


In a joint statement published in the Guardian, Der Spiegel, the New York Times and Le Monde, they urged a White House rethink before the 12 May deadline set by Trump to pull out of the deal, known as the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA), unless Europe can come up with a new policy that will meet his concerns.


“The US government threatens to abandon the JCPOA, although Iran fulfils its obligations under the agreement,” the letter said. They warn that “an exit from the US would have fatal consequences”.

The Iranians, meanwhile, have decided threats will be more effective:

“Iran has several options if the United States leaves the nuclear deal. Tehran’s reaction to America’s withdrawal of the deal will be unpleasant,” TV quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as saying on his arrival in New York.

Good luck with that.

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