Middle East update: May 23 2018


A media outfit with links to Hezbollah reported early on Thursday that the US-led coalition struck the Syrian army in two places near the Iraqi border. At this point the story is unconfirmed and there’s no indication why the coalition bombed those targets, nor has there been any report of casualties.

Researcher Aymann Jawad al-Tamimi argues that, while Syria coverage naturally tends to focus on areas where conflict is still raging, it might be the places that the Syrian government has already pacified that can actually tell us more about what Syria will look like when the civil war is finally over:

Many areas in Damascus and its countryside have been brought back under government control through “reconciliation” agreements. One may be inclined to turn one’s attention away from these areas since there are no longer reports of battles and airstrikes coming from them that make for “interesting” news and updates.


In my view, however, such negligence is highly mistaken. Keeping track of reconciled areas helps us to address key questions regarding Syria’s future. Is the Syrian government truly able to pacify these areas that officially come back under government control? How far can it restore services for civilian populations in those areas? Can reconciliation agreements tell us something about the Syrian government’s thinking in particular places?

Tamimi recounts a reconciliation deal in the Damascus suburb of Beit Jann and draws some interesting conclusions about what the Syrian government is trying to achieve.

One thing the Syrian government is apparently not interested in doing is kicking Iran out of the country to appease the United States. Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told Sputnik news agency on Wednesday that what happens to Iran’s presence in Syria after the war “is not up for discussion” and will be decided by the Syrian government alone.


European officials have determined that a Turkish vessel carrying wheat to Yemen that exploded en route earlier this month was struck by a missile or rocket fired by “a non-state actor,” though they cannot say for certain that it was the Houthis. If it was the Houthis, and not al-Qaeda or ISIS, the Europeans believe the vessel was targeted mistakenly rather than deliberately.


Turkish Sultan President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s power projection includes a whole bunch of major infrastructure projects:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has big plans. With the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan recently inaugurated construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. He plans to build a 28-mile canal connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, allowing ships to bypass the busy Bosphorus Strait, and a tunnel beneath the waterway’s narrowest point for pedestrians to cross from the European to the Asian side of the city, as well as a $1.2 billion waterfront tourism destination. Turkey is launching a new domestically made automobile. It is building massive new mosques and museums, as well as shopping malls, bridges, and dams.


This year, in perhaps its flashiest new project, Turkey will unveil what it describes as the world’s largest airport, near the southern edge of the Black Sea almost 30 miles from the city’s commercial center. The terminal, now more than 85 percent complete, measures half a square mile, or the size of 265 football fields, at the center of facilities sprawled out across former wetlands and mines measuring 26 square miles, an area larger than Manhattan.

There’s just a little problem with all this monumental building, which is that Turkey’s economy is slowly circling the drain. On the airport in particular, though, there are other serious concerns–chiefly, that Turkey just doesn’t do enough air traffic to justify it. I guess there’s an argument to be made that if you build the world’s largest, most modern airport and equip it to serve more destinations than any other airport, the air traffic will come to you, but this project certainly seems more about making Erdoğan look like a big man than about serving a real need. Istanbul’s real needs are for mundane infrastructure and more housing, but those kinds of things aren’t flashy so they have a hard time getting on Erdoğan’s to-do list.


Iraqi authorities are reporting “multiple casualties” from a Thursday morning terrorist bombing in Baghdad. ISIS is presumably behind it. At least four people were reportedly killed in the blast but that figure will most likely rise. Likewise, ISIS reportedly attacked a village in Iraq’s Diyala province on Wednesday evening. No word on casualties but this is also a developing story so more information may come later.


With its electoral allies having done well in Lebanon’s general election earlier this month, Hezbollah is reportedly looking to take a more prominent role in the next Lebanese government. If it does that will pose a problem for the Trump administration, which wants to distinguish between the Lebanese state and Hezbollah, supporting the former in order to isolate the latter. As Hezbollah becomes a greater political force inside Lebanon that becomes harder to do. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is already asking Congress to review US security assistance to Lebanon and this is before anybody knows exactly what the Lebanese government is going to look like.


Great news–the Trump administration may take another issue holding up peaceful relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors off the table, by which I mean fully endorsing the Israeli position:

Interviewed by Reuters, Intelligence Minister Israel Katz described endorsement of Israel’s 51-year-old hold on the Golan as the proposal now “topping the agenda” in bilateral diplomatic talks with the United States.


Any such move would be seen as a follow-up on the U.S. exit from the international nuclear deal with Iran, and President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the opening of a new U.S. embassy there this month.

The Golan is still claimed by Syria though it’s been occupied by Israel since 1967. Katz may be off the reservation here, but it’s easy to see Trump using the same logic he used in moving the embassy to justify something like this. “Look, Israel and Syria have been disputing this area for over 50 years. By declaring that the dispute is over and Israel won, we’ve made it easier for Syria to make peace! Now they don’t have to worry about getting the Golan back anymore!” That’s shitty logic, but Trump is a shitty thinker and a shitty president so it’s appropriate.

Speaking of shitty people, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman is in a bit of hot water over a photograph of a photograph.

Friedman was visiting the city of Bnei Brak on Tuesday when he was presented with this doctored photo of Jerusalem, showing a new temple in place of the Islamic holy sites, by a rogue employee of the NGO Achiya. The US embassy insists that he had no idea what was in the photo and to be honest that’s fair. You’d need to actually look at the photo for a minute to understand what was happening in it, and Friedman was probably too distracted to do that in the moment. On the other hand, before he became Trump’s Israeli ambassador Friedman was best known for financing the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. So let’s not pretend it’s out of the question that he would support razing the Islamic sites to build a new temple if given the chance.


Mohammad bin Salman’s liberal reforms are picking up steam almost by the day now:

Saudi Arabia has reportedly arrested three more women’s rights activists in a crackdown launched just weeks before a ban on women driving will be lifted.


Human rights groups said at least 11 people, most of them women who had long campaigned for the right to drive, had now been detained since last week.


Officials have said they are suspected of “suspicious contact with foreign parties” and undermining “stability”.

The upside is that Saudi women will be legally allowed to drive as of June 24. The downside is that at this rate there’s a chance they might all be in jail by then. According to the AP, the detainees aren’t being given access to attorneys and aren’t being allowed to communicate regularly with family members.

The Center for International Policy’s William Hartung and Ben Freeman outline Saudi Arabia’s efforts to undermine the Iran nuclear deal even as the Saudis were publicly proclaiming their support for it:

The Saudi lobby’s push began long before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was formally announced on July 14, 2015. In fact, Saudi lobbyists had been working behind the scenes in the U.S. for years to ensure that the Kingdom’s concerns were incorporated into any deal Washington would agree to with Iran—if there was to be a deal at all.


In total, the Christian Science Monitor found that Saudi Arabia spent $11 million dollars on Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA)-registered firms in 2015, and “much of this spending relates to Iran.” They were also assembling former policymakers like Senator Norm Coleman, whose FARA disclosure mentions his work on “limiting Iranian nuclear capability.” More recently, Coleman penned an op-ed in The Hill applauding Trump for leaving the deal without disclosing that he was being paid by the Saudi government.


Satellite evidence suggests that the Iranians are using a newly-discovered facility outside of the city of Shahrud to develop long-range, possibly solid fueled, ballistic missiles:

But an analysis of structures and ground markings at the facility strongly suggests, though does not prove, that it is developing the technology for long-range missiles, the researchers say.


Such a program would not violate the international deal intended to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, or any other formal agreement. Still, if completed, it could threaten Europe and potentially the United States. And if Iran is found to be conducting long-range missile work, that would increase tensions between Tehran and the United States.


Five outside experts who independently reviewed the findings agreed that there was compelling evidence that Iran is developing long-range missile technology.

The overt purpose for the facility may be to develop rockets for Iran’s space program–indeed, the analysis that’s been done so far suggests it wouldn’t have the capacity to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles on a military scale. But the technology for an ICBM isn’t much different from the technology for a space launch vehicle, so the Iranians could be researching the latter in part to develop the capability to produce the former. The Iranians fairly recently declared that they had no intention of developing ballistic missiles of greater than medium range, but the declaration was made along with assurances that they could increase their missile range if they felt the need to do so.

Gosh, if Iran is developing an ICBM capability, it sure would be nice if there were some sort of international agreement in place that ensured that even if Iran were of a mind to produce nuclear weapons to stick on those ICBMs, the international community would catch them before they could do so. Speaking of which, analyst Adnan Tabatabai explains what European leaders are going to have to do if they truly want to preserve the nuclear deal:

In its efforts to champion this quest, Europe must reject two narratives that are being pushed forward by Washington: first, that being in favor of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran nuclear deal is officially known, means being pro-Iran. The JCPOA was finalized for the very reason that Europe, too, did not trust Iran. Keeping the deal alive means keeping the most comprehensive non-proliferation mechanism intact, rather than courting Iran.


Secondly, Europe must not accept the notion that pro-JCPOA diplomacy means acting contrary to the transatlantic bond. In fact, it was the Trump administration that seriously harmed transatlantic relations with its unilateral decision to leave the nuclear agreement. European leaders must push back against this binary, expressing commitment to preserving the transatlantic bond and to safeguarding the JCPOA.

On Wednesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei set out his terms for preserving the deal to Europe. They include: protecting Iran’s oil sales, preserving Iran’s access to financial markets for trade purposes, and no pressure from Europe to negotiate on Iran’s missile program or its activities in the Middle East. That latter condition seems unrealistic, given that European leaders are already trying to negotiate new deals on both of those fronts. Khamenei also made it clear that Iran will not do business with the US again, which would seem to preclude the possibility of a new international agreement to replace the nuclear accord. Khamenei’s hardline position will also make it difficult for Iranian leaders who might be inclined to negotiate a new agreement to act on those inclinations.

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