Middle East update: April 28-29 2018


So, um, it appears that the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian army fought each other over the weekend in eastern Syria:

U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said they expelled had Syrian troops that briefly took control of a string of villages in oil rich areas east of the Euphrates river near the Iraqi border on Sunday.


SDF forces led by the Kurdish YPG militia said they had waged a counter-attack against Syrian troops it said were backed by Russian forces, adding they were driven “far away” from four villages they had seized earlier in the day.


“Our forces regained the initiative,” they said in a statement.

Presumably the government forces were backed by Russian private contractors, not regular Russian soldiers, or else this would already be a much bigger story. The US-led coalition apparently provided air support. Much of Syria’s energy reserves are located on the eastern side of the Euphrates in Deir Ezzor province, so this is going to remain a target for the Syrian government despite the escalation risks.

Closer to Damascus, the Syrian military spent the weekend gradually converging on Yarmouk, squeezing ISIS and the other insurgent groups that control that area. On Sunday it captured the Qadam neighborhood outside of Yarmouk. Syrian state media reported on Sunday that the government has reached a deal with “terrorist groups” there to surrender and evacuate to Idlib. It’s not clear which groups would be covered by that deal, but presumably ISIS is not included since their fighters would need to evacuate to the east, not to Idlib, to get to territory still under ISIS control.

Later on Sunday, Syrian state media reported that “enemy missiles” struck government facilities in Hama and Aleppo provinces. I have yet to see any word on casualties. It’s unclear who the “enemy” in question might be–rebels, Israel, someone else–but there may have been Iranian personnel at a couple of the facilities. Israel would be the most likely culprit, and we may be in for another week of escalating tension between Tel Aviv and Tehran.


Saturday’s Saudi airstrike in Sanaa killed as many as 50 Houthi fighters, including the two commanders that were cited in the initial reports. The Saudi-led coalition seems to have adopted a new tactic against the Houthis–decapitation strikes, meant to disrupt the rebel command structure and exploit any rifts that may exist within it. Perhaps in response, or just because they wanted to, the Houthis fired eight missiles at Saudi Arabia’s Jizan province later on Saturday. The Saudis claim they intercepted four of the missiles, but at least one person was killed by one of the other four.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began campaigning for June’s general election with a rally in Izmir on Saturday. Polling suggests that Erdoğan is in danger of finding himself in a runoff on July 8, because he won’t get past 50 percent in the June 24 ballot. His opponent is likely to be Good Party leader Meral Akşener, particularly since former Turkish President Abdullah Gül announced on Saturday that he will not run due to a lack of consensus among opposition parties. Gül was thought to be the candidate most likely to give his former ally Erdoğan a serious run for his money. Akşener could also give him a scare if she can get him to a runoff and if the opposition stops bickering long enough to unite behind her, but as a hardline Turkish nationalist she’ll have a very difficult time appealing to Kurdish voters.


Joel Wing previews next month’s Iraq elections. Among his predictions: the Kurdish vote is unlikely to be as decisive this year as it has in the past:

The Kurds used to be one of the kingmakers in Iraq because they had a united bloc in Baghdad, but that is no longer true. The two main parties the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan are running separately this year, and the opposition has formed its own list as well. The parties are all divided over the fallout from the independence referendum as well as the KDP-PUK administration of Kurdistan. If they wanted to make sure they had the strongest voice in creating a new administration and holding onto their positions in the federal government they would all unite after the vote into a single bloc. While the KDP and PUK might be able to come back together, the opposition is unlikely to join them, allowing Abadi and others to play divide and conquer with them.

The KDP is actually boycotting the vote in Kirkuk in protest over Baghdad’s seizure of that province last year, but it will not endorse any of the Kurdish candidates who are actually running.


Israeli soldiers killed at least three more Palestinians in Gaza on Sunday. Two men were allegedly caught trying to cross the fence line into Israeli territory and one of them was killed while the other was taken into custody. In a separate incident, two men reportedly threw “explosive devices” at Israeli soldiers, who shot and killed them in response.

Meanwhile, Hamas has accused a faction within the Palestinian Authority of masterminding the March 13 assassination attempt on Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Gaza. The PA has, of course, already blamed Hamas for the incident, but Hamas authorities say they’ve obtained confessions from four men who say they carried out the plot on orders from figures within the PA who wanted to disrupt the reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Israel on Sunday wound up not including any meetings with the Palestinians. It turns out his office didn’t even request such a meeting, and so we have no idea whether the Palestinians would have gone through with one or not. It’s possible they were looking to spare themselves the embarrassment of a snub, or maybe Pompeo just doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the Palestinians, like the rest of the Trump administration. Or both!


Some anonymous third party, let’s call them “the shmoverment of the shmunited shmarab shmemirates,” has provided the Washington Post with a trove of hacked communications laying out the Qatari government’s negotiations with multiple interests over the return of 25 Qatari nationals who were kidnapped in Iraq in 2015:

In the April text message and in scores of other private exchanges spanning 1½ years, Qatari officials fret and grouse, but then they appear to consent to payments totaling at least $275 million to free nine members of the royal family and 16 other Qatari nationals kidnapped during a hunting trip in southern Iraq, according to copies of the intercepted communications obtained by The Washington Post.


The secret records reveal for the first time that the payment plan allocated an additional $150 million in cash for individuals and groups acting as intermediaries, although they have long been regarded by U.S. officials as sponsors of international terrorism. These include Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi paramilitary group linked to numerous lethal attacks on American troops during the Iraq War, the records show.


The payments were part of a larger deal that would involve the Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish governments as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and at least two Syrian opposition groups, including al-Nusra Front, the notorious Sunni rebel faction linked to al-Qaeda. The total sum demanded for the return of the hostages at times climbed as high as $1 billion, although it is not clear from the documents exactly how much money ultimately changed hands.

The whole thing sounds like a mess, but apparently it included a $50 million payment to Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, so that’s nice for him. Assuming he actually got it–as the Post notes, these communications do not clearly denote how much the Qataris wound up paying and to whom they paid it. Their ultimate ransom payment was one of the main justifications cited by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and company when they cut ties with Qatar last year. Presumably they were leaked to the Post to help bolster the public case for that decision.


Why would the UAE, Saudi Arabia, et al, feel the need to bolster the public case for cutting ties with Qatar, you ask? Well, maybe because the Trump administration seems increasingly fed up with the ensuing crisis. During his visit to Riyadh on Saturday, Pompeo reportedly told the Saudis in fairly blunt terms to wrap this whole thing up so everybody can focus on Iran. He’s even supposed to have told the Saudis to do more to allow humanitarian aid and commercial goods into Yemen. Since Pompeo is believed to be in synch with his boss, Donald Trump, his message should carry more weight than Rex Tillerson’s did. And if Trump is really souring on the Qatar crisis and the Yemen intervention, then the Saudis may really come under some pressure to change course.

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