Middle East update: April 20 2018


The Syrian military continues to pound away at Yarmouk and the surrounding areas in an effort to clear out the last area near Damascus that remains out of its control. Insurgents there–including ISIS, which has controlled most of Yarmouk since 2015–have reportedly agreed in principle to be relocated (ISIS fighters to the east, everybody else to the north), but the government isn’t letting up until the deal has been completely concluded and the rebels have surrendered. You may recall that the government reached an evacuation deal with Jaysh al-Islam in Douma a couple of weeks ago that then nearly fell apart, leading to whatever allegedly happened in Douma on April 7. It seems like they’re not taking any chances that one or more of the groups in the Yarmouk area could start having second thoughts.

Speaking of the April 7 alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, well, investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons still reportedly have not been allowed access to the site of the (again, alleged) attack. Ostensibly the site is still not secure enough for the inspectors, though (to reiterate) it was secure enough for OANN, The Independent, CBS, and the AP to all send reporters in there earlier this week.

It remains impossible to know what happened in Douma on April 7 and at this point probably will forever be impossible to know. To be fair, it’s been impossible to know to a certainty what happened in the case of nearly every major alleged chemical weapons attack that has occurred during this war, but because of this delay now everybody gets to simply reject the OPCW’s eventual findings out of hand. Moscow and Damascus are already prepared to discount the OPCW as a tool of the West if the investigators find evidence of chemical weapons. But now, if the investigators find no evidence of chemical weapons, it’s because the Russians and Syrians cleaned up the site, hence the delay.

Not that it matters, because (all together now) we’ve already judged Assad guilty and punished him for it. Because that’s just how the United States rolls.

While we’re on the subject of Douma, the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw is reporting that the fighters who left that town are being relocated to Afrin. This may not be by choice–Rudaw quotes the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying that Turkey has decided to put them in Afrin, probably because it’s trying very hard to ethnically cleanse Afrin of its Kurdish population it only wants what’s best for everyone involved. Even though they’re definitely not ethnically cleansing the area, the Turks don’t seem all that keen on allowing civilians displaced by the now-concluded fighting there to return home. It’s been a month since the fighting stopped and some 137,000 displaced Afrin residents are still displaced and are occasionally even being shelled, presumably by Turkish-aligned forces.

Interestingly, Ankara doesn’t seem at all concerned that it keeps relocating thousands of extremist jihadi fighters and their families within shouting distance of the Turkish border. I wonder why that is.


The Saudi-led coalition bombed a vehicle south of Taiz on Friday and reportedly killed 20 civilians in the process. Luckily the US is still helping the Saudis with their targeting, otherwise this could have been really bad.


In a huge anticlimax, Turkey’s parliament on Friday rubber stamped approved President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision to move Turkey’s next general election forward from next November to this June 24. Middle East expert Howard Eissenstat explains why Erdoğan is choosing to manipulate the details around the election–like when it will be held–rather than just manipulate the election itself. Mostly it has to do with a popular commitment, Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism notwithstanding, to democracy:

First, there is a broad national consensus in Turkey that the country’s government should be chosen through competitive elections. A recent study found that 86 percent of Turkish citizens believed that “supporting democratic values” was somewhat or very important to being a Turk. Compare that to Russia — where sympathy for “rule by a strong leader” is stronger — or in Egypt, where polling suggests that support for democracy is weaker and in decline.


Turkey was never fully democratic and has become less so. But there is a broad political consensus that Turkey should be a democracy. Could Erdogan rule through flagrant ballot-rigging? Yes, most likely he could. His command of the basic institutions is so great at this point that it is hard to imagine an outcome where the courts, the military or anyone else could effectively stand against him. But to do so would be tremendously costly.

Eissenstat believes Erdoğan wants to win by a slim margin to avoid comparisons with, say Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s obviously rigged election in Egypt. He might manipulate the actual vote around the margins, but he’ll try not to make it too obvious.

Meanwhile, the 66 US senators on Friday signed on to a letter urging the Turkish government to release American pastor Andrew Brunson. The Turkish government is holding Brunson on suspicion of ties to Fethullah Gülen and involvement in the attempted coup in 2016. Turkish officials have at times intimated that Brunson could be released if the US were to extradite Gülen, but the fact that 66 senators have gone on the record calling for Brunson’s release raises the possibility that Congress could consider sanctions against Turkey over this case.


Human Rights Watch says that thousands of Syrian refugees have been kicked out of towns and camps in Lebanon since last year. It seems the downside to Lebanon finally holding parliamentary elections (scheduled to happen next month) is that politicians are now one-upping each other in a “who can most effectively use the refugees as a punching bag” contest. Lebanon has, of course, taken in an absurd number of Syrian refugees relative to the size of the country, so it’s not at all surprising to see things breaking down like this and in fact it’s surprising that they haven’t already broken down. But that doesn’t make these evictions any less of a human rights violation.


Another Friday brought another round of large-scale Palestinian demonstrations near the Gaza fence line over the issue of Palestinian refugees and the conditions in the open-air Israeli prison that Gaza has become. And, of course, with large-scale Palestinian demonstrations comes the phenomenon of Israeli soldiers firing at will on the demonstrators. At least four of them were reportedly killed on Friday with another 700 or so wounded. Israel continues to insist that Hamas is using these protests as a cover for violent attacks against Israel.

B’Tselem Executive Director Hagai El-Ad writes that these protests are “reminding us” that Gaza and its people exist:

Two million people live in the Gaza Strip. That’s a statement of fact, not opinion. Two million people live like prisoners in a prison built by Israel, and it seems that Israel’s sole vision for their future is to keep them jailed there forever.


What happens when the prisoners stage a protest? We’ll just shoot them from the other side of the fence. And if the gunfire looks bad on TV? We’ll send in the prime minister’s advisers in fancy suits to give interviews near the fence.


And if the inmates burn tires? We’ll look into prohibiting tires from being brought into the prison. And if the prisoners come to the protests by the busload? We’ll threaten the bus company owners, and so on, and so forth.


I think it remains highly unlikely that Israel and Iran will go to war with one another in or over Syria. But the rhetoric on both sides is heating up:

Iran has said it is prepared to wipe out “Zionists” in the event of a war with Israel, as mutual hostility deepened amid escalating tensions over Syria.


Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, reacting to earlier comments by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanhayu, said on Friday: “If any war happens, it will definitely be followed by your annihilation.”


Marking Israel’s 70th birthday, Netanyahu said in Tel Aviv: “We hear the threats from Iran. IDF fighters and the security branches are ready for any development. We will fight anyone who tries to harm us.”

On the one hand this is a war Israel would likely lose, considering how badly it came off in 2006 when it invaded southern Lebanon against just Hezbollah. On the other hand it’s a war that Israel can’t lose because if things got too rough the United States would undoubtedly intervene, at which point it would become the United States’ war to lose, not Israel’s. Then all you folks who have been jonesing for a war with Iran would finally get your wish.

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