Middle East update: May 31 2018


Bashar al-Assad must be feeling pretty good about himself, because in an interview with Russia Today that was broadcast on Thursday he threatened to attack northeastern Syria if the Kurds won’t agree to return it to government control, whether US solders are in the way or not. Assad cited the example of Iraq as proof that the US shouldn’t muck around in Middle Eastern affairs, which is a fair point. On the other hand, I’m not sure that’s the best analogy from Assad’s perspective, given how things turned out for Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces responded to Assad’s threats with defiance:

Military intervention is “not a solution that can lead to results,” SDF spokesperson Kino Gabriel told Reuters News Agency on Thursday.


“Any military solution, as far as the SDF is concerned, will lead to more losses and destruction and difficulties for the Syrian people,” Kino said.

Note that they’re not ruling out negotiations with Assad, at least not in this statement.

Syrian rebels, meanwhile, wants the US and the European Union to push Iran out of Syria, now that the nuclear deal is on ice. The EU is intent on preserving the deal but has to try to walk a line between doing that and alienating the US. So they may try to push back on Iranian activities in Syria to appeal to Washington. Of course, even though that issue is separate from the nuclear issue, the Iranians are liable to see any European pushback on anything as tantamount to voiding the nuclear accord.

As far as Iran’s presence in Syria is concerned, Russia now appears to be using it as leverage to improve its relationship with the Syrian opposition. The Russians are using North Caucasian military police to secure areas surrendered by rebels, like Eastern Ghouta. Because these troops are predominantly Sunni, they’re sometimes seen as a bulwark against Iranian-backed militias potentially asserting control in these areas.

There’s a budding situation happening in northern Syria between the Syrian military and Turkey. Having established 12 observation posts as part of its role as ceasefire guarantor for Idlib province, there are reports (from Syrian media so grains of salt and all) that Turkey and its rebel allies have been making incursions into Latakia province, part of Syria’s Alawite heartland and a region that you can expect Assad’s army to defend vigorously. It’s unclear why Turkey might be doing this. In Idlib, meanwhile, the various rebel factions now crammed into that province are increasingly at each other’s throats:

The flare-up in Latakia aside, Idlib’s outer periphery looks relatively quiet thanks to the de-escalation zones, yet its inner parts are simmering. Under growing pressure from the Syrian army, the region has become a theater of ferocious conflicts between rival armed groups, including assassinations. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 31 civilians and 88 fighters have perished in armed attacks and bombings since April. Among the dead militants were members of groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, as well as foreigners such as Uzbeks, Uighurs and Chechens. The death toll from clashes between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Turkish-backed groups is even higher — 405 people since Feb. 20, including 231 Hayat Tahrir al-Sham members and 174 fighters from rival groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, the Nureddin Zengi Brigade and Suqour al-Sham.


Saudi-led coalition forces are now about eight miles outside of Hudaydah, spearheaded in part by forces loyal to the late Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had aligned with the Houthis but broke with them and was killed for his trouble last December. Their advance has already displaced an estimated 100,000 people, with another 200,000 likely to go once they start attacking the city itself. As for the city’s port facility, its destruction would deprive Yemen of the conduit for about 80 percent of the goods coming into the country.


As Iraqi forces participate in operations to clear ISIS out of its last pockets on the Syrian side of the border, officials in Qaim are still looking for hundreds of people who were taken prisoner by ISIS and carried off when ISIS fighters fled that town:

The head of one of the two main Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in the town of Qaim, a former police intelligence officer named Col. Moussa Hamad al-Karbouly, told Al-Monitor that, during the liberation of his city, “some of the population as well as IS families fled. Prisoners that had been held there were taken with them” across the border into eastern Syria.


Karbouly is the head of Liwa Aaly al-Furat, a local PMU trained by the Danish special forces that was instrumental in retaking Qaim from IS.


“We have a list of 1,730 people from the city who disappeared at that point,” he said. “Some of the prisoners had been in the Iraqi army, the police, the Anbar Awakening or were tribal figures who refused to pledge allegiance to [IS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”

Patrick Wing summarizes the deteriorating state of Iraq’s election results:

For the second time, the Iraqi Election Commission cancelled the votes from polling stations. The votes from 1,021 stations were thrown out. 102 of them had serious complaints in Irbil, Anbar, Bhagdad, Ninewa and Salahaddin, which led to the Commission to investigate them. Another 2,000 stations were checked because there were believed to have problems. Of those, 852 were cancelled and covered Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Dohuk, Ibil, Kirkuk, Ninewa, Salahaddin, and Sulaymaniya. Another 67 from foreign voting in England, Germany, Jordan, Sweden, Turkey, and the U.S. were also thrown out. Just over a week ago, the IEC discarded another 103 stations in Anbar, Baghdad, Irbil, Ninewa, and Salahaddin. The Commission has received over 1,000 complaints from a variety of parties and sections of the country. The fact that the IEC has on the one hand, rebuffed most charges over the process and its own role, and then on the other, thrown out so many ballots only feeds the critics.

At LobeLog, journalist David Bacon writes about how the alliance between Muqtada al-Sadr and Iraqi communists came to be, why it was so successful in the election, and what it could mean for Iraq’s future:

The New York Times labeled Muqtada al-Sadr’s partners in the Sairoon coalition “Iraq’s moribund Communists, Sunni businessmen and pious community activists.” Actually, besides al-Sadr and the ICP, Sairoon (meaning Forward or the Alliance for Reforms) includes the Youth Movement for Change Party, the Party of Progress and Reform, the Iraqi Republican Group, and the State of Justice Party.


Oversimplifying politics and ignoring history, however, is not just a matter of names. It reveals blindness to the long process in which Iraqi civil society has been rebuilding itself, to the popular anger that has motivated this, and to the growing support for the political alternative this alliance proposes.


The Trump administration may pull the US out of the United Nations Human Rights Council over–three guesses–Israel, after Nikki Haley apparently failed to get the UN General Assembly to force the council to reduce its focus on Israeli rights abuses. Haley’s staff circulated a draft resolution that would have eliminated Agenda Item 7, which creates a special class of rights abuses for Palestinian issues, and got nowhere with European allies worried that the resolution would become a dumping ground for every other country’s efforts to gut the UN’s human rights work. The Human Rights Council has been on John Bolton’s shit list since it was created in 2006, so it’s unsurprising that he now has the administration looking for a way out of it. The council does spend a significant amount of time on Israel, but–and here’s the kicker–the Obama administration’s decision to join it, after the Bush administration had refused membership, coincided with a significant, demonstrable reduction in the council’s focus on Israel-Palestine issues. So a Trump decision to leave it is likely to backfire.

In other UN news, the Security Council on Thursday postponed a planned vote on a Kuwaiti resolution that would ask UN Secretary-General António Guterres to take steps to try to protect Palestinian civilians. Israel is furious with the resolution and the US is likely to veto, because protecting Palestinian civilians is bullshit, man. What good is it blockading and starving a place if you can’t mow down a few dozen protesters now and then?

The Israeli government is proposing to invest about half a billion dollars in a project to develop Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem via infrastructure and education improvements and programs to help women enter the workforce. While this sounds nice in a vacuum, because Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem have been rotting away for years, that has to be tempered against the fact that this program is part of a long-game Israeli effort to absorb the Arab half of the city, as its proponents are openly admitting:

Zeev Elkin, the government’s minister for Jerusalem affairs, is expected to play a leading role in implementing the program. Elkin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party who is running for mayor of Jerusalem, said bringing to prosperity to east Jerusalem is an Israeli interest.


“All those who truly believe in a unified Jerusalem and aspire to full sovereignty must act with determination to govern on one hand, and to take responsibility for developing infrastructure on the other,” he said.

Al-Monitor’s Akiva Eldar explains how Israel’s Supreme Court has abetted the government’s policies of annexation in the West Bank and separation in Gaza:

The barrage of Israeli commentary and slew of learned analyses generated by the violence that recently flared with Gaza did not mention the word “occupation.” The only remnant of the 1995 Oslo II Accord is the division of the West Bank into three areas of control (A, B and C), with Israel in total charge of 60% of Area C. Jewish settlers in area C enjoy virtually unfettered construction rights. The separation policy toward Gaza is a central component of the occupation policy in the West Bank. Israel’s Supreme Court, the institution that the conservative right seeks to portray as a branch of left-wing Meretz, has for years validated this separation and the occupation.


For years, the country’s top court has authorized the systematic theft of private Palestinian land for the construction of Jewish settlements, the demolition of Palestinian homes and public facilities, the building of a separation fence along and inside the West Bank and the paving of roads for Israelis only. There is an element of symbolism in the fact that on May 24, the court dismissed a petition by human rights organizations against Israel’s use of live fire across the border into Gaza to disperse Palestinian demonstrators, but allowed the government to raze homes in the West Bank Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar and expel its residents.


Two attackers killed a Saudi police officer and wounded Saudi soldiers in Taif on Thursday. The assailants killed a traffic cop by stabbing him, then took his weapons and attacked a military post in the city. One of them was wounded and captured but the other fled. No word yet as to motive.


At LobeLog, Paul Pillar tries to piece together the various Trump administration motives for violating the nuclear deal. For Trump himself, it’s about undoing an Obama achievement and playing to his base. For others, Pillar argues that there’s a continuum from those who believe returning to sanctions will cause Iran to cave and agree to a much more stringent deal, to those who believe it will cause the Iranian government to collapse, to those, like John Bolton, who go even further than that:

A fourth explanation, and one that may be at least as valid as any of the other three, is that policymakers want to have unending impasse and high tension with Iran. A subset of the policymakers in question, possibly including National Security Advisor John Bolton, would go even farther and welcome not only increased tension with Iran but war. Their preference raises a whole different order of hard-to-answer questions about motivations—and who can adequately explain what drives chickenhawks? A different and probably larger subset of people to whom this explanation applies does not seek war—although their policies increase the chance of one breaking out—but instead wants perpetual enmity in which Iran serves forever as a bête noire. Iran is a handy choice for playing this role in American rhetoric—for several reasons, such as memories of the hostage crisis of 1979-1981.

Iranian journalist Maziar Motamedi has an interesting piece at Al-Monitor examining how the reimposition of US sanctions is likely to stunt Iran’s already stunted tourism industry. On the one hand, if the sanctions cause the value of the Iranian rial to fall, that could incentivize tourism. On the other, public perceptions of Iran’s openness and stability are likely to take a hit and banking sanctions will make it difficult if not impossible for foreign travelers to access their overseas bank accounts while in Iran. Tourism is a minuscule segment of Iran’s overall economy, especially when you consider how many places in Iran could be huge tourist destinations.

The Iranian government has given the French energy behemoth Total 60 days to negotiate a waiver from US sanctions or else lose its contract to develop Iran’s South Pars gas field. Total has already said it will have to pull out of the deal absent such a waiver. The Iranians say they’ll give the contract to the China National Petroleum Corporation, which already has its own stake in South Pars. Meanwhile, Ali Akbar Velayati, the top national security adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has reportedly started identifying ways that Iran could boost its nuclear activity should it prove unfeasible to remain in the nuclear deal after the US withdrawal. Quickly increasing Iran’s uranium enrichment program is one obvious idea, but Velayati is also talking about starting a nuclear propulsion program for naval vessels. That idea would definitely raise alarms in Washington.

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