Middle East update: May 25 2018


Iraqi aircraft carried out another round of airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, striking suspected ISIS targets around the city of Hajin, in Deir Ezzor province. That city, which sits on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, is surrounded by Syrian Democratic Forces ground troops and has also been the target of US-led coalition airstrikes this week, so it seems to be getting a good deal of attention. A number of ISIS commanders are believed to be there as well as one of the group’s prisons.

Meanwhile, the US has begun warning the Syrian government not to violate the ceasefire in Daraa province. The southwestern province is under a deescalation agreement secured by the US, Russia, and Jordan, but it is increasingly seen as the Syrian military’s next major target. Moving the war into Daraa would take it right up to the Israeli border, substantially increasing the risks of escalation. It’s not clear what action the US would be prepared to take should the Syrian military begin a campaign in the province.

One expected effect of the civil war has been a resorting of the civilian population. Though the war isn’t explicitly sectarian or ethnic, there are certainly sectarian and ethnic elements that have played into the conflict, and as AFP reports Syria’s demographics are changing as a result:

Seven years of war and massive displacement have redrawn Syria’s demographic map, erecting borders between the country’s ethnic, religious, and political communities that will be hard to erase.


Displaced Syrians, analysts, and rights defenders have described to AFP a divided country where regime opponents have been driven out, minorities stick closer together and communities generally have become more homogenous.


The demographic reshuffle is likely to last, they say, with around 11 million Syrians displaced either abroad or within the country and unsure if they can go home.


The US Treasury Department on Thursday imposed new sanctions on nine individuals and entities–several of them Turkish–for doing business with previously sanctioned Iranian airlines. On Friday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said that it will do everything in its power to protect Turkish firms from US sanctions, which doesn’t bode well for the Trump administration’s efforts to put the old sanctions regime back in place. Meanwhile, in a move that’s likely to further inflame US-Turkey tensions, both the House and Senate are considering imposing restrictions on the sale of US weapons to Turkey, including the F-35, over concerns about Turkey’s relationship with Russia and its imprisonment of US national Andrew Brunson. Though to be honest, if Congress is really pissed at Turkey they ought to let the Turks buy as many F-35s as they want.

US sanctions aside, Turkey’s economy is floundering, but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan thinks he can fix it by stripping Turkey’s central bank of its independence and lowering interest rates even though conventional economic thinking says that Turkey should be raising them due to high inflation. He hasn’t taken any steps in this direction, yet, but his words alone have been enough to raise concerns:

Markets showed no mercy. Within 10 days, Turkey’s lira had plummeted to a new low, coming close to trading at nearly 5 to the dollar, compared to around 1.6 to the dollar in 2011, before the Central Bank raised a key interest rate by 300 basis points, from 13.5 percent to 16.5 percent. The move halted the slide and stabilized the currency, but it was not enough to quell worries about Turkey’s economy. After rallying briefly on Wednesday, the lira slid again on Thursday. Erdogan’s words had resounded deeply and negatively among already nervous investors.


“The suggestion that going forward that he would be looking to take more control of monetary policy and jeopardize the independence of the Central Bank has been an issue for market participation for some time,” says Paul Greer, a London-based portfolio manager specializing in Turkey and other emerging markets at Fidelity International. “The words that came from Erdogan so explicitly, particularly at a time when the markets are in already crisis, were quite inflammatory. It was ill-advised. If Erdogan’s goal was to appease investors and stabilize the currency, it achieved quite the opposite result.”

Erdoğan’s belief that he knows best and that the central bank’s power should rest with him is entirely keeping with his toxic authoritarian nature, and when he rails against (((international bankers))) wrecking Turkey’s economy you don’t need a secret decoder ring to parse his meaning. His tax policy, which redistributes income mostly up the ladder by expressly targeting the kind of people who don’t vote for him, is highly objectionable as well. But in this case it’s Erdoğan versus the received wisdom of the Austerity For Thee folks, and frankly I’m not sure which is worse.


Somebody threw two homemade bombs at the headquarters of the Iraqi Communist Party in Baghdad on Friday. There were no casualties. The ICP is part of the Muqtada al-Sadr-led Sairoon alliance that just came in first in Iraq’s parliamentary election, so the bombs may have been meant as a message for Sadr more than for the communists per se. As Al Jazeera reports, poor Iraqis are placing a good deal of hope in Sadr’s ability to reform and clean up Iraq’s politics and improve their living conditions:

As far as Iraq’s two dueling allies, Sadr has been sending signals to both the US and Iran that he’s not opposed to either and so far both outside powers seem to have made peace with his electoral success. But Sadr may use his influence over the next Iraqi government to try to get all foreign forces out of the country, so we’ll see if the goodwill survives that.


At least 109 protesters were wounded by Israeli forces at the Gaza fence line on Friday. Though their protest campaign culminated last week with the US embassy move to Jerusalem and Nakba Day, protesters say they plan to continue organizing near the fence in smaller numbers moving forward.

The right wing Shas Party may only have seven seats in the Knesset and two ministerial positions in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, but reporter Danny Zaken says that its chairman, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, is working overtime to hold the current governing coalition together so that Netanyahu doesn’t call for an early election. Likud’s recently increased public support, which makes the prospect of an early election more enticing to Netanyahu, has come in part at Shas’s expense, and there’s a danger that the party wouldn’t be able to clear the minimum threshold for being seated in the Knesset if an election were held now. So Deri has been the main voice of compromise in the government with respect to disputes between ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, who want to maintain draft exemptions for the Haredim, and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who does not. That dispute still threatens to force Netanyahu’s hand by collapsing the coalition.


While Mohammad bin Salman continues to generously offer Saudi activists the freedom to enjoy a lengthy stay in jail, his Egyptian client is doing likewise:

The prominent Egyptian blogger and activist Wael Abbas was arrested on Wednesday. He was blindfolded and taken from his apartment at dawn to an undisclosed location without a warrant or a given reason, according to his lawyers. It was the latest event in a crackdown on government critics as Abdel Fattah el-Sisi prepares to begin a new term as Egypt’s president next month. Other prominent arrests have included labor lawyer Haytham Mohamadeen, satirist Shadi Abu Zeid, and activist Shady Ghazaly Harb, one of the leaders of the protests that topped President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.


Abbas has won several international awards for his work documenting abuses by Egypt’s security services, both under Mubarak and under the new government. He briefly worked in Slate’s Washington, D.C., office on a Freedom House fellowship in 2007. After returning to Egypt following the fellowship, he wrote in the Washington Post about his fears of being arrested upon his return and the Mubarak government’s crackdown on the emerging Egyptian blogosphere. “Is this the kind of regime you want your tax money to support?” he asked his American readers.

Apparently it is.


Speaking of the new liberal Saudi Arabia, it arrested yet another human rights activist on Friday, Mohammed al-Bajadi, according to Amnesty International.


Representatives of the remaining six parties to the Iran nuclear deal (Iran, plus Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) met in Vienna on Friday, where the Iranians laid out their conditions for remaining in the accord. They seem to have been satisfied with what they heard:

Afterwards, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi said he was more confident than before that the deal could survive. “For the time being we are negotiating… to see if they can provide us with a package which can actually give Iran the benefits of sanctions-lifting and then the next step is to find guarantees for that package and we need both legal and political commitments by the remaining participants in the JCPOA [deal],” he said.

The Iranians have given Europe until May 31 to put together a package of economic benefits appealing enough to keep Iran in the deal even without US involvement.

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