Middle East update: May 10 2018


More information has come in about the apparent overnight exchange of artillery fire between the Israeli military and somebody in Syria. The Israelis say that Iran’s Quds Force attacked targets in the Golan Heights, which if true–emphasis on “if,” the Iranians insist it wasn’t them–would be the first time Iran has ever directly attacked Israel. There have been no reports of any casualties. The Israelis, in their telling, then responded with the largest strike they’ve carried out in Syria since at least the 1970s, striking “dozens” of targets associated with Iranian forces in Syria as well as five Syrian air defense batteries. They estimate that 23 people were killed in these strikes, 18 of them foreigners (presumably Iranians but let’s not be too hasty).

Naturally, this is all being treated in the US and Europe as a completely unprovoked act of Iranian aggression against Israel, despite the fact that Israel has been targeting and killing Iranian personnel in Syria for months if not years. If the Israelis are trying to goad Iran into doing something that provokes Europe to abandon the Iran nuclear deal as the United States has now done, they may be on the right track. At The New Yorker, Bernard Avishai argues that Israel is “both anticipating a crisis and helping to precipitate one”:

For Israel, then, the goal may be deterrence, but the danger is an escalation that gets out of control, because deterrence means ever more elevated threat. Yadlin told me that the situation urgently needs Russian and American leaders who will contain the menace of a larger war. But Trump’s announcement seems unlikely to bring restraint. Uri Sagi, another former military intelligence chief, told me that Netanyahu’s performance was calculated to force Trump to exit the nuclear agreement and “leave only military power” as leverage over Iranian behavior. Presumably, the Iranians, the Syrians, the Russians, and Hezbollah would have to think that any missile attack on Israel would be met not only by the Israeli air force but also with American cruise missiles. The former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, who normally preaches restraint, told Israel’s Channel 10 that Russia got Syria to establish itself and will “stay the course.” It will not accept the defeat of Iran, its “regional partner.” Israel will not seek a confrontation with Russia, but if, he said, “God forbid, confrontation is unavoidable, Israel will have to come out with the upper hand.” He might have added that Israel could never count on having the “upper hand” without American help.

Elsewhere, the last rebels have been evacuated from an enclave near Yarmouk, south of Damascus, under a surrender deal they reached with Russia and the Syrian government late last month. ISIS fighters remain holed up in Yarmouk itself and seem likely to fight to the end.


A Saudi airstrike in Sanaa on Thursday reportedly killed six people and wounded six others. The Saudis, exhibiting their keen ability to hit only the most important of military targets, appear to have bombed a shop and the home next door to it.

The Independent is running a series on the UAE’s occupation of Socotra and its impact on the people of the island that I recommend checking out:

Women aren’t often seen in public on the Yemeni island of Socotra; their voices certainly don’t carry through the streets.


But everything is changing on the island at the moment. “My blood, my soul, for you, Yemen,” around two dozen women shouted as they marched through the main town of Hadibo on Saturday, carrying Yemeni flags the size of bed sheets.


Since Socotra has become the focus of an unprecedented power struggle between Yemen’s government and its supposed ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the red, white and black of the mainland flag is no longer a given on the isolated Arabian Sea island. Emirati green and Socotran separatist blue flags also shimmer during counter-protests as Egyptian vultures coast on thermal currents overhead.


A new poll shows Turkey’s ruling AKP-MHP coalition taking 54 percent of the parliamentary vote in the June 24 election. Polling in Turkey is notoriously unreliable, so keep that in mind.


The Iraqi sting operation that nabbed four ISIS commanders from over the border in Syria earlier this week was apparently a fairly elaborate affair. Ismail al-Eithawi, who was initially listed as one of five ISIS commanders captured by the Iraqis, has apparently been in Iraqi custody since he was picked up in Turkey in February. He’s an “aide” to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and so the Iraqis were able to use the Telegram app on his mobile phone to convince the four ISIS leaders that Baghdadi himself wanted them to cross into Iraq, where they were then picked up. Among the four was Saddam Jamal, a very senior figure who was governor of ISIS’s Eastern Euphrates province. Eithawi’s phone apparently also provided information on ISIS’s finances.

Reuters has a reasonably good preview of Saturday’s Iraqi election if you’re in to that sort of thing.


The protest movement in Gaza will reach its climax early next week, when the US embassy moves to Jerusalem on Monday and Palestinians mark the 70th anniversary of the Nakba on Tuesday. Hamas’s Gaza leader, Yehya Sinwar, gave a press conference on Thursday in which he described the protests as peaceful, which for the most part they have been, and made it pretty clear that while the ostensible goal of the movement is to secure the right of return of Palestinian refugees, its real purpose is calling international attention to the deplorable conditions in Gaza as it remains under an Israeli siege.


James Dorsey suggests that, with the Iran nuclear deal now on ice, the Saudis could try to use their economic leverage on China so as to discourage Beijing from maintaining or increasing its economic relationship with Iran. Their ability to seriously pressure China, a much larger economy whose support Saudi needs at least as much as vice versa, is questionable.

At TomDispatch, meanwhile, Ben Freeman and William Hartung recap Saudi Arabia’s extremely successful effort to make Donald Trump their Man in Washington:

Saudi Arabia’s influence over Donald Trump hit an initial peak in his first presidential visit abroad, which began in Riyadh in May 2017. The Saudi royals, who had clearly grasped the nature of The Donald, offered him the one thing he seems to love most: flattery, flattery, and more flattery. The kingdom rolled out the red carpet big time. The fanfare included posting banners with photos of President Trump and Saudi King Salman along the roadside from the airport to Riyadh, projecting a five-story-high image of Trump onto the side of the hotel where he would stay, and hosting a male-invitees-only concert by country singer Toby Keith.


According to the Washington Post, “The Saudis hosted the Trumps and the Kushners at the family’s royal palace, ferried them around in golf carts, and celebrated Trump with a multimillion-dollar gala in his honor, complete with a throne-like seat for the president.” In addition, they presented him with the Abdul-Aziz al-Saud medal, a trinket named for Saudi Arabia’s first king, considered the highest honor the kingdom can bestow on a foreign leader.


The Saudis then gave Trump something he undoubtedly valued even more than all the fawning — a chance to pose as the world’s greatest deal maker. For the trip, Trump brought along a striking collection of CEOs from major American companies, including Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, and Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group. Big numbers on the potential value of future U.S.-Saudi business deals were tossed around, including $110 billion in arms sales and hundreds of billions more in investments in energy, petrochemicals, and infrastructure, involving projects in both countries.


Speaking of which, the AP has the blow-by-blow of Trump’s decision to violate the Iran nuclear deal, which he made even after European leaders had caved to all of his Iran-related demands:

It was all there on paper in black and white, down to the precise number of centrifuges: the terms of a potential “fix” that President Donald Trump had demanded for the United States to stay in the Iran nuclear deal.


Dragged kicking and screaming into five months of negotiations, America’s closest allies in Europe had finally agreed in principle to the toughest of Trump’s demands. They conceded that some expectation could be put into place in perpetuity that Iran should never get closer than one year from building a bomb. All that was left was to figure out creative language for how that constraint would be phrased that everyone could support.


Trump walked away from the deal anyway. Announcing the U.S. was out, he called the 2015 pact his predecessor brokered “defective at its core” and said the U.S. would immediately re-impose sanctions lifted under the deal.

The Trump administration, by the way, still expects Iran to abide by the agreement even though the US will not:

Amazing. The US has always had a glaring double-standard when it comes to foreign policy, but previous administrations generally haven’t been dumb enough to just come out and say so.

There is one interesting feature to Trump’s decision to go full bore and reimpose all US sanctions on Iran: he has apparently opted not, at least for the time being, to likewise employ the nuclear deal’s “snapback” provision, which gives any party (other than Iran, obviously) an almost unlimited ability to claim that Iran is violating the deal and force the reimposition of international sanctions. The provision would allow the US to declare Iran in breach and then, after going through a dispute resolution process, force a vote at the UN Security Council against reimposing sanctions. The US could simply use its veto to get around that vote, even if every other country on the council was against it. The problem with invoking this mechanism is two-fold. One, every other country on the council would be against the US, so invoking snapback would put the US through a lengthy process that would make it painfully clear just how isolated the US is on this issue. Second, Trump was so eager to declare that the US is out of the deal that he’s created a situation whereby he probably can’t invoke snapback anymore.

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