Middle East update: April 24-25 2018


On Wednesday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigative team in Syria visited a second site in Douma that was allegedly struck by chemical weapons on April 7. Meanwhile, the US, France, and Britain may employ a little-used Cold War-era United Nations mechanism to reestablish a full investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria over Russia’s veto. This mechanism allows nine members of the UN Security Council to refer a resolution to the full General Assembly for a vote. If the resolution then gets a 2/3 majority in the GA, it takes binding effect. While the OPCW can investigate whether chemical weapons were used in Douma, it cannot attribute responsibility for their use. A separate investigation would have to be set up to do that, but Russia will inevitably veto any such investigation in the UNSC.

Hezbollah’s media arm says that rebels have fully withdrawn from the Qalamoun area north of Damascus, leaving Yarmouk and its environs (south of Damascus) as the only area close to the Syrian capital that is still out of government control. Meanwhile, the UN is warning about the possibility of a government offensive against Idlib province, which now holds an estimated 2 million people, many of them displaced from other parts of the country. What makes a potential Idlib operation especially troubling to contemplate is that there’s nowhere else for anyone to go in Syria. Since Russia intervened, surrendering insurgents have had the option of being relocated to Idlib as an alternative to fighting to the bitter end. When Idlib becomes the battleground, there won’t be any more options.

In eastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces reportedly have begun returning to Deir Ezzor province and the battle to eliminate the last vestiges of ISIS east of the Euphrates River. Many SDF fighters had gone to Afrin to try to counter the Turkish invasion there, and it’s not clear how many are choosing to return to the east and how many are staying behind to harass Turkish forces. They arrive just as the US has begun ratcheting up its air campaign again. In particular they’ve increased the number of surveillance flights in order to compensate for the lack of SDF spotters on the ground.

The UN raised $4.4 billion for Syria on Wednesday at a donors conference. This is not chump change, exactly, but it’s substantially less than they wanted and also substantially less than they took in last year. Why? Well, mostly because the US didn’t submit a pledge. Hey, we already paid to blow the place up, am I right? Let somebody else clean it up.


The United Arab Emirates has promised to pay $50 million to help rebuild Mosul’s al-Nuri Mosque. The mosque, which was built sometime in the 12th century, was best known of late for being the site wherein Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate in 2014. ISIS destroyed it in 2017 before it fell back into Iraqi hands.

The post-ISIS remains of the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul (Wikimedia | Tasnim News)
The mosque’s signature tilted minaret, photographed in the 1930s (Wikimedia)


With its offensive against the Kurds in Syria stalling out, Turkey has decided to focus its attention on the PKK in northern Iraq. Turkey aircraft have been striking northern Iraq fairly frequently of late, and Turkish forces have begun setting up military outposts inside Iraqi territory. These outposts are presumably temporary, but they may not be that temporary. The Turks have reportedly been building roads and bridges in northern Iraq, which suggests they plan to be there for a while. Still, the immediate objective is probably short-term–Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would like to keep some kind of anti-PKK military campaign going to boost his support among nationalist voters in June’s general election.


Lebanese authorities say that earlier this month they detained an ISIS “commander” attempting to cross into the country from Syria. It’s not clear if he was fleeing Syria or looking to cause trouble in Lebanon, or both.

With a parliamentary election finally scheduled for next month–only five years late–under a new and therefore unfamiliar electoral law, it seems that the political climate in Lebanon is becoming tense, and maybe even violent:

“The threats to candidates, men and women, are escalating. We expect more of them as we approach the election, and we expect an increase in violence,” said Omar Kabboul, the executive director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), a group of independent electoral observers.


“The outcome of the elections is uncertain. The more uncertain the outcome, the more fear there is within the parties and the bigger the agitation in speeches.”

Because Lebanese elections are really contests within sects (Sunni, Druze, Maronite, Shiʿa) over seats within their pre-ordained seat allotments in parliament, any pre-election violence is unlikely to escalate into something bigger.


The Israeli government has abandoned, at least for now, its plan to forcibly deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers to Uganda, after negotiations with the Ugandan government fell apart. The Israelis had previously negotiated to relocated the asylum seekers to Rwanda, but those talks didn’t go anywhere either.

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, has filed a complaint against Israel for violating the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, not over its treatment of African asylum seekers but over the apartheid conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. The complaints could lead to a UN investigation, but international law being what it is that’s pretty much as far as things could realistically get.


According to the Egyptian military, three of its soldiers have been killed over the past week in fighting in Sinai, against 30 insurgents killed and more than 170 captured. There’s little to no media presence in Sinai because of the fighting and Egypt’s…let’s say “unsparing” view of free press, so there’s nothing to check these claims against.


The Kuwaiti government on Wednesday expelled the Philippine ambassador. Relations between these two countries have been souring for months, all over the teensy little problem that several Philippine nationals brought to Kuwait to serve as domestic workers are being abused to the point of suicide by their employers. The Kuwaitis, now, are upset at reports that Philippine embassy staff have been trying to rescue and/or kidnap (depends on your point of view, I guess) domestic workers in Kuwait.


So, look, I had like ten pieces queued up here about French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Washington and his efforts to pitch Donald Trump on a supplement to or expansion of the Iran nuclear deal that would leave the core deal in place but try to address Trump’s issues with it at the same time. There’s been a flurry of takes and reports and rumors ever since Macron got to DC about What It All Means and whether Macron could talk Trump into sticking with the accord. But it’s all beside the point, because after putting on a full court pro-deal press over the past couple of days, here’s what Macron said at the end of his visit on Wednesday:

“My view — I don’t know what your president will decide — is that he will get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons,” Macron told a group of a dozen reporters and editors in an exchange at the George Washington University on Wednesday.


The comment marked a recognition that even the theatrical personal chemistry between Trump and Macron couldn’t dramatically shift Trump’s plans, and that his trip was largely focused on containing the aftermath of US withdrawal. And Macron mixed personal praise and some optimism about Trump with sharp disapproval of US plans to pull out of treaties it recently joined.


“It can work in the short term but it’s very insane in the medium to long term,” he said of the American decision “to change [its] opposition so often.”

In an effort to try to manage what Trump does the day after he abandons the deal, Macron appears to have tried to sell him on a “bigger” Iran deal to, I guess, replace it:

Macron said he and Trump had discussed his idea for a framework on Iran that has four pillars. The first pillar would preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to deal with concerns about Iran’s nuclear program until the year 2025. The second would ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons after that. The third would address concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program and proliferation. The fourth pillar would address concerns about Iran’s regional activities and seek longer-term stability in the region, including by finding a political solution to the Syria civil war after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State.


“We therefore wish, from now on, to work on a new deal with Iran,” Macron, speaking through a translator, said. “I therefore would like us to commit to that effect in the weeks and months to come.”

That first pillar seems to be out of the question if Trump is intent on withdrawal, and the rest of it all seems to assume that the US and France, and presumably a couple of other countries, can negotiate this whole arrangement without any input from Russia, China, or Iran itself. Good luck with that, guys. The Iranians don’t seem terribly thrilled by that idea, to say the least. And any rationale they might have once had for considering a successor agreement to the nuclear deal will go out the window as soon as Trump withdraws and demonstrates that the United States cannot be trusted to abide by any international agreement. While I realize that Macron thinks he’s a Roman god, he doesn’t actually have the power to bend other countries to his will.

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