Middle East update: May 29 2018


An anonymous “pro-Assad commander” in Syria says that the Syrian army is ready to invade Daraa. The United States says it better not. Russia says only the army itself should invade, without its Iran-backed allies. Rebels in the southwest Syrian enclave say they see no sign that the army is preparing to invade and call the rumors of an imminent attack a kind of “psychological war.” I guess the most you can say right now is that Daraa is definitely the center of attention in Syria. The Russian government says it’s planning discussions with the US and Jordanian governments to discuss preserving the ceasefire they’ve all guaranteed in southwestern Syria:

Meanwhile, the United Nations says that it urgently needs to deliver humanitarian aid to an estimated two million people in difficult to reach parts of Syria like Idlib province, rural parts of central Syria, and Damascus’s Ghouta suburb (specifically Douma), which was only recently taken by pro-government forces. UN officials are asking the government and rebel groups to provide it with access to those areas.


Iran and the so-called E3 (Britain, France, and Germany) all say they’ve make a potentially important breakthrough in talks over the civil war in Yemen, as the Iranians have apparently decided they’re willing to use whatever influence they have with the Houthis to push them toward accepting a humanitarian ceasefire and to engage in peace talks. Though the Iranians won’t admit it, this is clearly tied up with the negotiations over preserving the nuclear deal, with Iran willing to deal on Yemen as a way of strengthening European resolve to resist US sanctions. Assuming that this is a genuine offer and not for show, it will test just how much sway the Iranians have over the Houthis. It will also test the current Yemeni/Saudi/Western narrative on Yemen, which is that the Saudi-led coalition is ready to talk but the Houthis are unwilling to come to the table. The Iranians claim that the opposite is true, that it’s the Saudi side that won’t talk. These dueling claims might be put to the test now.


Temel Karamollaoğlu, the leader of the small Saadet (Felicity) Party, says that he believes a sizable number of AKP voters (around 15 percent) are disillusioned with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and are looking to vote for another party, most likely his. Felicity is a very small party, so small that it has been unable to clear the required 10 percent threshold to be seated in parliament, but as an Islamist party it’s ideally positioned to poach religious-minded AKP voters who are uncomfortable with Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. And now that the party has joined a coalition along with most of Turkey’s other opposition parties, it doesn’t have to worry about the 10 percent threshold and its votes will count in forming the next parliament.

Polling, which isn’t always so great in Turkey, is a big of a mixed bag from the opposition’s perspective. Polls show Erdoğan’s AKP-MHP alliance taking exactly 50 percent of the parliamentary vote, so that race seems like it may be up in the air, but also shows Erdoğan himself winning a bit over 51 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, which would be enough to avoid a runoff.


It appears Rudaw jumped the gun a little on yesterday’s Iraqi political news: the parliamentary vote to toss out diaspora and displaced votes and begin a 10 percent test recount appears to have been conducted without a quorum, so it’s not valid, and anyway it was on a non-binding resolution, so Iraqi authorities don’t actually have to abide by it.


The Pentagon is planning to channel $22 million this year into providing Jordan’s “rapid reaction” special forces counterterrorism unit with firearms and gear, including night vision goggles. It may surprise you to learn that despite a lot of US training and supplies, evidence suggests that Jordan’s special forces–which, admittedly, have had to deal with major budget cuts by the Jordanian government–are not very good at their job.


Israeli forces and Gaza militants traded heavy fire on Tuesday:

Israel has attacked militant sites in Gaza after coming under the heaviest barrage of mortar and rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave in years.


The Israeli army said air strikes hit 35 targets, including a cross-border tunnel, belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad – Gaza’s main militant groups.


In Israel, an empty kindergarten was hit when militants fired more than 30 mortars earlier in the day.

I haven’t seen any casualty reports but I’ll update if/when I do.

Elsewhere, the Israeli navy intercepted a boat that attempted to break through the blockade around Gaza to transport 17 people, many in need of medical care, to Cyprus. The Israelis towed the boat back to Israel and returned the passengers, which included people wounded by Israeli forces during the recent spate of protests, to Gaza.

Speaking of those protests, Palestinian analyst Omar Shaban explains what really motivated them:

In recent months, tens of thousands of Palestinians have marched toward the Gaza-Israel border in what has become known as the “Great March of Return.” On May 14 alone, more than 60 people were killed and over 2,700 were injured by Israeli bullets and tear gas. While the ongoing mass protest succeeded in bringing Gaza’s humanitarian crisis to the world’s attention, it also reminded the Arab nations, the European Union, the United States, and Israel that Gaza may have been perceived as a stable conflict, but is in fact far from stable. The call by some activists to march to the Gaza border with Israel was seen by Hamas and other Palestinian factions as a golden opportunity to exit from the numerous crises facing them and to shift the people’s anger toward the Israeli occupation.


The most important motive for the marches was anger at the terrible conditions in which Gazans live. Gaza has been besieged by Israel for more than 11 years, and its people are suffering from a shortage of electricity, lack of water, and the inability to travel. They are also victims of the political failures of both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas; the PA-led peace process and the armed resistance spearheaded by Hamas have done nothing to improve the lives of Gaza’s residents, 65 percent of whom are under 30 and have never been outside of Gaza. A United Nations report that was published in 2012 projected that Gaza will not be livable by 2020.

And finally, if you’re one of the many people who sadly labor under the perception that Donald Trump is entirely in the bag for Israel, clearly you just don’t understand what it looks like when a master deal-maker takes an even-handed approach to a difficult negotiation. Trump has been very hard on the Israelis. Don’t you remember last February, when his White House said that Israeli settlements in the West Bank might maybe sort of not be the absolute best idea? Tough stuff! So tough that Benjamin Netanyahu promised that he would consult with Trump on future settlement expansion, and wouldn’t you know, everything has worked out great since then:

According to Peace Now, since Netanyahu gave his word to Trump 16 months ago, the number of new homes in the West Bank approved by his government has reached three times the number approved in the 18 months that preceded Trump’s January 2017 inauguration — that is, 14,454 compared with 4,476 during the administration of President Barack Obama.

See? Just great! Can’t wait to see how this impacts Trump’s Israel-Palestine peace deal!


So, um, remember how Emmanuel Macron spouted off in an interview last week about how he’d personally intervened to prevent war in the Middle East and secure the release of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri from Saudi captivity last year? It turns out the Saudis weren’t too taken with what Macron had to say. The kingdom’s foreign minister on Tuesday issued a statement that described Macron’s comments as “untrue,” reiterating their official bullshit stance that they did not force Hariri to resign nor did they take him captive, and insisted that it is, actually, Iran and Hezbollah who are dragging Lebanon and the Middle East into chaos, not the Saudis. It will be interesting to see how Macron responds.

Elsewhere, the Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Liz Throssell, told reporters on Tuesday that the UN is “disturbed” by the arrests of several women’s rights activists by Saudi authorities over the past couple of weeks. She called on the Saudis to release information on the detainees’ whereabouts and to ensure that they’re accorded due process, and to release them “immediately” if the only reason they were arrested in the first place was due to their activism. In other news, attwiw.com’s spokesperson, me, urged Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to “with immediate effect” sign over his entire net worth to attwiw.com’s owner and operator, also me. I called on the Saudi prince to “be cool about this” and “don’t ask questions, just do it.” We’ll have more on both of these stories as they develop.


A group of Iranian university students met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday and it was apparently not just a photo op:

At Monday’s audience with Khamenei, university student Sahar Mehrabi read a speech in which she recounted the “numerous crises” now facing the country.


Among them, she listed Iran’s “intensified systematic inequality in social classes, the decline of public trust and the increase in environmental crisis and shantytowns.” She also mentioned high unemployment, the challenges faced by minority groups and the way hard-line element’s within Iran’s judiciary and security system “fabricate security cases in a delusional way” to target activists.


“What answer does Your Excellency have in response to questions, criticisms and protests,” she asked.

The session was difficult enough that Khamenei had to do a little “I believe the children are our future”-style damage control on Twitter:

You sort of get the sense that Khamenei recognizes that change is coming and the Islamic Republic can either channel it or be swept away by it, but for his own part he’d really prefer to shuffle off into the afterlife before the wave starts to crest and let somebody else deal with it. He’s been given a boost by the Trump administration. The decision to abandon the nuclear deal gives Khamenei and the principlist Iranian establishment a scapegoat and a rallying cry. In the long run it won’t be enough to save these guys if they don’t start to open up Iranian society, but it buys them time and also, as analyst Daniel Amir writes, buys them a lot of short-term good will internationally.

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