Middle East update: May 3 2018


It was one step forward and one step back in Syria on Thursday. Rebel fighters in the enclave around Yarmouk finally began to evacuate that area (ISIS is still holding out in Yarmouk itself) under the terms of a deal they reached with Damascus and Russia several days ago. However, a group of fighters in another enclave near Homs began shelling nearby government-controlled areas despite their leaders having agreed to surrender and clear out on Wednesday. There’s no word on casualties or what this means for the surrender agreement there.

Rudaw reports that Turkey and its Free Syrian Army proxies are working hard to fundamentally change Afrin’s demographic makeup:

Turkish-led forces are handing out vacant houses, abandoned by fleeing Kurds, to displaced Syrian Arabs from East Ghouta. According to a report in Syria Direct, these houses are being provided for free to the incoming displaced persons. With no hope of returning and rebuilding their old lives in East Ghouta for at least a few years, these displaced Syrians are likely being used as pawns by Ankara and the FSA to create new demographic realities on the ground – since many are unlikely to willingly give up free houses only to return to a dangerous and destitute existence.


Nevertheless, not all of those displaced people offered houses are willing to accept them.


“We are displaced from our homes, and are coming as guests to this region,” Khalid al-Hassan, a 29-year-old displaced Arab from East Ghouta, recently told Syria Direct. “We are not accepting these houses for free without the permission of their owners.”


“[A] demographic change is being carried out led by military powers that claimed the protection of the Syrians,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated in late April, referring to the Turkish-FSA forces.


The Observatory also reported that FSA forces have used spray paint to declare which properties are now theirs. In today’s Afrin a “spray can is enough to turn a building, a farm or even a whole village into [the] private property of a military faction.”

Rudaw is a Kurdish news site so take these stories with a grain of salt, but it almost defies belief to imagine that Turkey conquered Afrin only to just hand it back over to all the Kurds it displaced in the process.


Hold on to your hats, because this is pretty shocking–it turns out the US military has been lying about the extent of its involvement in Yemen:

For years, the American military has sought to distance itself from a brutal civil war in Yemen, where Saudi-led forces are battling rebels who pose no direct threat to the United States.


But late last year, a team of about a dozen Green Berets arrived on Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen, in a continuing escalation of America’s secret wars.


With virtually no public discussion or debate, the Army commandos are helping locate and destroy caches of ballistic missiles and launch sites that Houthi rebels in Yemen are using to attack Riyadh and other Saudi cities.


Details of the Green Beret operation, which has not been previously disclosed, were provided to The New York Times by United States officials and European diplomats.


They appear to contradict Pentagon statements that American military assistance to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is limited to aircraft refueling, logistics and general intelligence sharing.

I know, I can’t believe the Pentagon would lie either, but here we are. Back in February the DoD claimed in a letter to Mitch McConnell that its role in Yemen isn’t subject to the War Powers Resolution, because it “does not involve any introduction of US forces into hostilities.” Huh. The Pentagon insists that these special forces aren’t engaging in combat, just training and intelligence analysis, but does anybody really believe that?


ISIS attacked a police checkpoint in the town of Jalawla, in Diyala province, late Wednesday night, killing at least two officers and injuring seven more.

Iraq is in a drought, and water flow on both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is going to be impacted by several dam-building projects currently underway or in the planning stages in Iran, Syria, and Turkey. The resulting water scarcity is raising fears of renewed destabilization akin to the struggles that gave life to ISIS:

With Iraq’s creeping water security threats, tribal disputes in southern Iraq have flared. In the province of Dhi Qar alone, there were 20 clashes over water scarcity in recent months, according to Mayor Hussein Ali Raddad of the Islah district.


The effects of drought have not only been felt in Iraq’s south. Many of ISIS’s recruits came from agricultural areas in the country’s west, north and heartland. ISIS tapped into grievances within environmentally damaged Sunni Arab villages, which were ripe for recruitment. According to interviews conducted by National Geographic, ISIS crafted a narrative that “the lack of rain wasn’t due to climate change” at all, but rather due to a Shiite government plot to force Sunnis out of productive lands.


The Justice and Development Party earlier this week unveiled a hefty new package of economic goodies for the Turkish people that is not in any way meant to buy their votes in the June 24 election. They even appear to have pilfered a major component of the package from their opposition:

One of the most hotly debated items in the package, announced April 30, is the promise for two bonuses to pensioners this year. The plan has conjured up the pledges the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) made ahead of the June 2015 elections, including similar bonuses for retirees and a notable increase in the minimum wage. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) sought to discredit the pledges as deceptive and inapplicable due to budget constraints. Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek even said he was ready to vote for the CHP if it managed to pull it off. Since its re-election, however, the AKP has appeared willing to implement the same CHP proposals it had so disparaged. First it raised the minimum wage and now, less than two months ahead of the polls, it has decided to give pensioners bonuses of 1,000 liras (about $240) for the two main Islamic holidays this year, in June and August.

After the election AKP is likely to enter the austerity trap in a major way, with the Turkish economy struggling with deficits, inflation, and a weakening currency. But the overall benefits package, which includes increased pension payouts and significant debt restructuring for people who owe money to the state, might actually have a stimulus effect. That’s not the point, obviously, but it might work out that way anyway–assuming AKP actually sticks to it. The opposition, meanwhile, may now offer even more generous incentives to try to sway voters in their direction.


The lead up to Sunday’s Lebanese election has been marked by two clashing trends. On the one hand, several members of some of the country’s oldest political dynasties are stepping aside in favor of their children. On the other, this election has seen an unprecedented number of independent candidates emerge to try to break the power of at least a few of those dynasties. It’s likely that dynastic politics will carry the day on Sunday, but there may be a few interesting results.

Lebanon analyst Joe Macaron situates this dynamic among his “five trends to watch” in Sunday’s election. Another is the push by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and President Michel Aoun to keep their political arrangement together through the 2022 election and beyond, when Michel plans on handing the presidency to his son in-law, current Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil:

The 2018 general elections are expected to reinforce the realignment of the 2016 presidential deal and shape the quorum that will decide what will happen in four years, whether the gerrymandering of the May 2022 general elections or the October 2022 general elections, if there was no political impasse or delay of elections. The ruling class is operating on the premise that Hariri and Bassil, both in their late 40s, have a long-term agreement to rule the executive branch for at least the next decade. The plan is to transfer Hariri’s presidential deal with Aoun to his son-in-law Bassil in 2022. The complicity of this new guard in Lebanese politics is evident in their maneuvering of the Cabinet, their carefully crafted attacks against opponents and their electoral alliances in key districts. The growing opposition is coming from the old guard, most notably parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who have both lost their status as kingmakers in Lebanese politics. Lebanon will face critical economic debates in the next four years regarding privatization, gas production and a growing national debt. The economic liberalism of the new guard, which enjoys the support of the business sector, is expected to face off with the populist messages of the old guard. However, make no mistake, this is not a class struggle, it is a continuation of the confessional system’s battle for influence.

Lebanese President in-training Gebran Bassil (Wikimedia)


In yet another attempt to make Hamas pay by immiserating the Gazan people, the Palestinian Authority on Thursday cut salaries for public workers in Gaza by 20 percent and refused to make good on last month’s payment, which it skipped entirely. The PA already cut public salaries in Gaza by 30 percent last year, so this was an especially classy move on their part. It’s hard to understand why Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is about as popular as a case of chickenpox.

Despite his unpopularity, or maybe incidental to it, Abbas was reelected as chair of the PLO’s executive committee on Friday. He’ll now hold that position for another…well, until the Palestinian National Council decides to have another meeting, I guess, assuming the 82 year old Abbas lasts that long.


UPDATE: After I posted this, the Daily Beast reported that House Representative Mark Meadows (R-NC), who apparently speaks to Donald Trump frequently, told them that he thinks Trump is likely to remain in the Iran nuclear deal on a short-term basis rather than withdrawing from it on May 12. The thinking is that Trump doesn’t want to create a big international situation on the verge of his big summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and in the midst of a brewing trade war with China, and possibly that he wants to allow more time for negotiations with European leaders on supplementing the nuclear deal with additional restrictions on Iranian behavior. While potentially big news, bear in mind that Meadows is the only person anywhere within Trump’s orbit saying anything like this.

While the Europeans are still nominally committed to finding a way to make Donald Trump happy and preserve the Iran nuclear deal, they’ve begun to look for ways to remain in the deal themselves and still protect their firms from US sanctions. These protections are limited, though, and would not address finding a way to actually conduct transactions between European and Iranian interests if Washington reimposes its secondary banking sanctions that, prior to the nuclear deal, had effectively cut Iran off from the global dollar-based financial system. And anyway, if it comes down to a choice between doing business with Iran or doing business with the United States, no European firm is going to choose Iran.

Emmanuel Macron’s idea for a “grand bargain” with Iran that largely preserves the nuclear deal but addresses its sunset clauses and covers a range of other Iranian activities seems completely DOA at this point. If Trump does pull the US out of the deal, the Iranians are being very clear that they will not participate in any kind of renegotiation.

Meanwhile, a dangerous situation seems to be developing in southern Iran around the city of Ahvaz. Arabs there have been protesting discrimination, poverty, and poor infrastructure (exacerbated by drought, with Iranian officials allegedly diverting water away from predominantly Arab areas to satisfy demand elsewhere). In turn, the Ahwaz Human Rights Organisation and the Center for Human Rights in Iran report that hundreds of them have been arrested over the past several weeks.

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