Middle East update: May 4 2018


The State Department announced on Friday that it’s suspending its funding for several civil society groups in Syria, including and most prominently the Syrian civil defense organization known as the “White Helmets”:

Less than two months ago the State Department hosted members of the White Helmets at Foggy Bottom. At the time, the humanitarian group was showered with praise for saving lives in Syria.


“Our meetings in March were very positive. There were even remarks from senior officials about long-term commitments even into 2020. There were no suggestions whatsoever about stopping support,” Raed Saleh, the group’s leader, told CBS News.


Now they are not getting any U.S funding as the State Department says the support is “under active review.” The U.S had accounted for about a third of the group’s overall funding.

The Trump administration has also frozen or outright cut funding on a range of Syrian reconstruction projects affecting things like utility restoration and school rebuilding. So forget about the White Helmet; these kinds of cuts are dangerous in that they leave Syrian society hollowed out and increase the risk of radicalization. You may not feel like Syrian schools, electricity, and water are America’s responsibility, and that’s fine, but we’ve spent billions of dollars blowing eastern Syria to rubble and our refusal to spend millions (or pocket change, in other words) putting it back together is not only arguably immoral but is demonstrably self-defeating–the case of Afghanistan in the 1990s comes to mind. Yes, it would have been better not to have blown the place up to begin with, but what’s done is done. All we can do now is decide if America is willing to spend money in Syria on anything other than destroying lives and killing people.

The team of Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigators who went to Syria to survey the sites involved in the alleged April 7 chemical weapons attack in Douma have reportedly returned to Europe. It should be three to four weeks before they release any findings, which will only pertain to the question of whether chemical weapons were used or not. The OPCW has no mandate to investigate culpability.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry says that replacing US troops in Syria with a pan-Arab force “is a possibility.” Which isn’t a commitment that Egypt would participate in such an effort, but signals that Cairo is at least open to the idea.

The YPG, meanwhile, says its forces in Afrin have killed a man named Jamal al-Zakhlool, who (they claim) has been working with Turkey to displace the area’s Kurdish residents and replace them with Free Syrian Army fighters. Zakhlool is allegedly a former police chief from Ghouta and according to the YPG has been “forcing” Kurdish Afrin residents from their homes and moving in FSA fighters and their families.


It’s from Al Jazeera so get out the salt shaker, but the Yemeni government is reportedly saying that United Arab Emirates forces are blocking Yemeni officials, including Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, from leaving the island of Socotra. The UAE may have signed a 99 year deal with Yemen in 2016 to lease Socotra, though there are conflicting reports about that. Either way, it doesn’t seem like the Yemenis were anticipating an Emirati military occupation.


Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has named its candidate for June’s presidential election: MP Muharrem İnce. A strident critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, İnce has little chance of even getting into a runoff, let alone of winning the election. He’s presumably running to hammer away at Erdoğan (to the extent that Erdoğan allows any of his challengers to actually campaign) and to dilute the first round voting in order to keep Erdoğan below 50 percent. That would put him in a runoff most likely against Good Party leader Meral Akşener, the candidate who, according to polling, stands the best chance (though not a very good chance) of unseating him.


In his weekly sermon on Friday, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani–the highest Shiʿa authority in Iraq–blasted former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is bidding to return to that office in this month’s Iraqi election. Sistani, who has been a Maliki critic for several years, didn’t name Maliki directly, but advised Iraqis not to support leaders “who are corrupt and those who have failed,” which pretty much describes Maliki perfectly. He also brought up Maliki’s lowest moment in office, the Iraqi military’s 2014 collapse that allowed ISIS to sweep across a third of the country, just in case his audience still didn’t catch his drift. Sistani is very influential among Iraqi Shiʿa, and his reverse endorsement will likely bury any slim chance Maliki had of getting his old gig back.


Harvard’s Jeffery Karam explains Lebanon’s new electoral law, which introduces a few new elements to Lebanese politics that could produce a handful of surprise outcomes in Sunday’s parliamentary election:

In June 2017, Lebanese parliamentarians passed a new electoral law. In contrast to the previous winner-takes-all system, the new law uses a more proportional representation system. The new law also introduced the “preferential vote,” in which voters are entitled to cast one preferential vote for a candidate on their chosen list. This change will probably allow for surprises in the upcoming elections. Previously, members of different lists ran as a collective, so the preferential vote increases competition among candidates on the same list. Although established political parties will ask their supporters to cast the preferential vote in line with their blocs, the preferential vote could highlight the friction in districts where different political parties compromised to form single list.


For the first time in Lebanon’s history, expatriates living around the globe were able to cast their ballots for candidates in their districts in early voting. About 82,970 registered expatriate voters were expected to cast their ballot between April 27 and April 30.


Unlike previous elections, the new law also calls for the Ministry of Interior to prepare preprinted ballots, including the names, religious sect and photo of candidates. In the past, voters would enter polling stations with lists given by their political parties or prepared at home and could mix and match candidates from different lists or even choose one candidate. But in this round, voters must instead cast their ballot for an entire list. Preprinted ballots are likely to increase voter choice and flexibility while reducing vote-buying, cheating and electoral bribes.


It’s Friday again, and that means another round of Palestinian protests near the Gaza fence line. This time the Israelis seem to have managed not to kill anybody, so I guess that’s something. There are reports of at least 1100 people injured, from a combination of tear gas and live ammunition, but no fatalities. So far.

The Foundation for Middle East Peace’s Lara Friedman argues that Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem tells us all we need to know about his Israel-Palestine peace plan:

In this context, honest observers must give up irrational hopes that Trump will surprise the world with an “ultimate deal” that can bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace. They must stop deluding themselves (and others) that a Trump plan may have “enough in it” to restart a productive peace process. It defies common sense and credulity to still believe that a Trump “peace plan” will serve a purpose other than to formalize and consolidate policies that aim not only to take the core issues of contention between Israel and the Palestinians off the negotiating table, but to remove the table altogether.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday offered a “sorry if anybody was offended” nonpology for his antisemitic, Holocaust denial-ish address to the Palestinian National Council earlier this week. It seems to be going over about as well as the speech did.

Yesh Atid party leader and man who would very much like to be prime minister of Israel some day Yair Lapid is creatively attempting to turn Benjamin Netanyahu’s big Iran PowerPoint thing from Monday against him. Rather than trying to debate the substance of Netanyahu’s three year old “revelations,” which would be a sure loser with the Israeli public, Lapid earlier this week welcomed the former deputy head of Mossad, Ram Ben-Barak, into Yesh Atid. Ben-Barak, in turn, kicked off what now looks like a sustained effort by the party to paint Netanyahu as a dangerous loose cannon who spilled state secrets on live TV, helping the Iranians plug a potential leak in the process, in order to score some cheap political points. This is consistent with rumors that have been spreading since Monday that Mossad leaders were not pleased with Netanyahu’s dog and pony show because it may have compromised their methods.


The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, a former Iranian prisoner, argues that withdrawing from the nuclear deal will work to the detriment of US efforts to negotiate the release of other US citizens imprisoned by the Iranian government:

Rezaian also points out that abrogating the deal will strengthen hardline elements in Iran who opposed it from the start, a trend that’s already starting to take shape. This is a bad thing if your interest is in reducing tension and chaos in the Middle East, but if your interest is in eventually fomenting a war with Iran, not that I’m speaking of anyone in particular, then it’s actually a feature of abandoning the accord.

Finally, in the interest of fairness, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Or Rabinowitz has identified one aspect of Netanyahu’s Monday PowerPoint that kind of does speak to troubling Iranian behavior since 2003, though she makes way too much of it. Specifically, it’s the very existence of the nuclear weapons research archive that the Israelis claim to have penetrated:

While not a clear violation of the JCPOA, by possessing the archive, Iran is violating its obligations as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State (NNWS) party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). NNWS members such as Iran are obligated by the treaty “not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons.” Possessing documents about producing nuclear weapons contradicts the spirit of the treaty because such documents could promote nuclear proliferation — either by the country possessing the archive or by transferring know-how to other actors seeking nuclear weapons.

Now, a recurring theme around here is that there is no such thing as “international law” because the only time “international law” ever gets enforced is when some major world power decides to enforce it. Arbitrarily applied laws are not really laws at all, if you ask me. How much more ephemeral, then, is the notion of the “spirit of the treaty,” which isn’t even codified anywhere and is thus even more arbitrary than the already quite arbitrary letter of any treaty? So this isn’t really a violation of the NPT, and anyway Israel would have to, you know, join the NPT before it could start accusing anybody else of violating it, but the continued existence of Iran’s nuclear archive could be problematic from a non-proliferation standpoint.

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