Middle East update: June 2-3 2018


Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem made it clear to reporters in Damascus on Saturday that his government is targeting southern Syria next. Muallem said that the government wants to retake rebel-held parts of Quneitra and Daraa provinces in southwestern Syria, though it will attempt to do so through reconciliation/evacuation agreements with the rebels before it begins a military operation. He also said that the United States must withdraw its forces from Tanf, the area in the south-central part of Syria that’s home to a major Syria-Iraq border crossing as well as a US-aligned rebel base and a number of US forces embedded with those rebels. In a bit of positive news, Ali Shamkhani, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said (also on Saturday) that Iran supports a Russian idea to have only regular Syrian military forces involved in any southwest operation. That would keep Iranian and Iranian-aligned forces out of the region closest to the Israeli border and might–I stress might–reduce the chances of some sort of Israeli intervention.

Donald Trump would probably like to get US forces out of Tanf, along with the rest of Syria. He’s said as much, to enormous consternation from the DC foreign policy establishment and his own national security team. But one genuine problem standing in the way of a full US withdrawal is the issue of unexploded ordinance in Raqqa, most of left behind by ISIS but some of it dropped from US and coalition aircraft. Private US advisers are supposed to be training fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces in how to disarm and clean up these explosives, but it’s not clear they’re getting anywhere and anyway the problem in Raqqa is severe enough that it might not be the best place for SDF trainees to learn on the job. For obvious reasons, the rebuilding of Raqqa cannot possibly begin until the city is cleared of explosives, so US forces may have to get more directly involved in solving this problem.

Muallem also claimed on Saturday that Iran has no combat forces or fixed bases in Syria. This is a bit of sleight of hand, since regular Iranian forces in Syria are classified as “advisers” and Iran has been using Syrian military facilities for its bases. But as the US experience should have made abundantly clear by now, “advisory” forces have funny ways of winding up in combat anyway. And regardless, this elides the thousands of paramilitary forces that are in Syria supporting the government because Iran ordered, organized, trained, equipped, and/or transported them there. None of which negates the fact that the Syrian government has the right to ally with whomever it chooses. Muallem’s aim is probably related to Iran’s diplomatic efforts to salvage the nuclear deal with Europe, since European governments object to Iran’s activity in Syria.

On the other hand, North Korean state media reported this week that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wants to visit Pyongyang sometime soon. It will be Kim Jong-un’s first state visit since succeeding his father in 2011. So that will be nice for both of them, and surely nobody will find it objectionable in the least.

In Afrin, meanwhile, Free Syrian Army and Kurdish YPG forces are trading accusations about the treatment of displaced Kurds trying to return home. The FSA insists that it welcomes returning Kurds while the YPG has been attacking people it catches trying to go back. The YPG, on the other hand, accuses Turkey and the FSA of attempting demographic realignment by preventing Kurds from returning and resettling displaced Arabs, especially from Ghouta, in Afrin. Caught in the middle of this conflict are those displaced Arabs, many of whom seem to get that their presence is resented by Kurdish residents and who would happily return to their homes if it weren’t for, you know, the civil war.


Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen reports on international opposition to any coalition offensive against Yemen’s main port city, Hudaydah, including from the Trump administration:

“The United States has been clear and consistent that we will not support actions that destroy key infrastructure or that are likely to exacerbate the dire humanitarian situation that has expanded in this stalemated conflict,” a National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor by email June 1.


“We expect all parties to abide by the Law of Armed Conflict and avoid targeting civilians or commercial infrastructure,” the NSC spokesperson said.


United Nations aid agencies warned again June 1 that a military operation to take Hodeidah, a port city of 400,000 people and the key lifeline for food and fuel for the capital’s population of 2 million people, must be avoided.

According to Rozen, the administration has flat-out told the UAE that it opposes an attack on the port, and the Emiratis have promised not to undertake such an attack without US approval. Yet the coalition’s advance on Hudaydah has continued. I don’t want to parse Rozen’s reporting, but if the administration specifically rejected an attack on the port, perhaps the coalition still feels empowered to attack Hudaydah city even though the chances of spillover hitting the port would be huge. Or maybe the administration is sending conflicting messages.

Scratch all that–the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday evening that the Trump administration is considering an Emirati request that the US help the coalition take Hudaydah:

The Trump administration is weighing an appeal from the United Arab Emirates for direct U.S. support to seize Yemen’s main port for humanitarian aid from Iranian-backed Houthi fighters, according to U.S. officials, a move they worry could have catastrophic effects on the country.


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has asked for a quick assessment of the UAE’s plea for assistance such as surveillance drone flights to help a Saudi-led coalition retake Hodeidah, which currently serves as a vital lifeline for the country’s 29 million residents, U.S. officials said.

The Emiratis continue to insist that the coalition won’t attack Hudaydah without US approval, but the administration is apparently worried that Yemeni ground forces aligned with the coalition could attack Hudaydah anyway and do so in a way that seriously threatens the port. They believe US assistance could help minimize the risk of serious damage to the port, to which I can only ask whether these assholes have taken a gander lately at, say, Mosul, or Raqqa, or the rest of fucking Yemen. The US isn’t any better at containing violence than any of these other countries. We’ve just convinced ourselves that we are because America Is Exceptional™.

If the Trump administration wants to protect Hudaydah as a humanitarian lifeline then it could immediate drop all support for the coalition and declare that it will fire on any coalition forces that get near the city. That would do the trick. But of course that would put us on the side of the Bad Guys, as opposed to the Good Guys like, um, Saudi Arabia.


According to Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, Turkish forces have advanced at least 27 kilometers into Iraq in pursuit of PKK fighters based there. That’s a fair chunk of the (straight-line) distance between the Turkish border and the PKK’s long-time base in the Qandil Mountains, so if true this could represent the start of a major anti-PKK offensive. Of course it might not be true. It is campaign season, after all, and the Turkish government could use a “major offensive” against the PKK to whip up nationalist voters. Baghdad hasn’t responded to this (claimed) incursion as far as I can tell. It very much would like the PKK out of Iraq, but historically (and understandably) has opposed Turkish invasions of Iraqi territory. The Turkish military said on Saturday that it “neutralized” at least 15 PKK fighters in Friday-Saturday airstrikes in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey.

Speaking of campaign mode, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is on an “I love the Kurds” tour of southeastern Turkey to pitch himself and AKP to Kurdish voters:

Kurds were “ignored” before his era, he said.


Erdogan praised his government’s treatment of the Kurds and promised to “face anyone who violates the rights of Kurds,” adding that he will make [Diyarbakır] “a place of tranquility.”


“We will not say that there are no Kurds … but that there is not a Kurdish issue … the Kurdish language is as honorable as the Kurds … Your mother-tongue is as halal as your mother’s milk,” he said.

Erdoğan isn’t entirely wrong, he’s just eliding the fact that he’s been at war with the PKK sine 2015 (not a very tranquil sort of thing) and keeps tossing elected Kurdish leaders in jail on account of trying to govern while Kurdish. Prior to that stuff, though, he was better on Kurdish issues than just about any previous Turkish leader.


The National Defense Authorization Act that passed the US House of Representatives last month includes sanctions targeting two Iranian-backed paramilitary groups that have fought against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq–Asaʾib Ahl al-Haq and its splinter group, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujabaʾ. Both groups insist that they have no concerns about US sanctions, but the measure raises the possibility, given that AAH (as part of the Fateh alliance) could wind up as part of Iraq’s next government, that the US could find itself sanctioning the Iraqi government when all is said and done:

Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, expects his movement to end up with at least 15 seats once the official results are announced, following the resolution of disputes over balloting irregularities. The Badr Organization is also thinking that it will be allotted additional seats after the results are in. Meanwhile, the State of Law Coalition, another ally of Iran, won 26 seats, and is fully prepared to forge an alliance with Al-Fateh given their common political agendas.


All this means that should Al-Fateh’s natural allies join it, it would beat out the Sairoon Alliance and be in a position to form a government consisting mostly of pro-Iranian factions. If this scenario transpires, the United States could find itself in the very awkward situation of having to deal with a government it is sanctioning, should the sanctions ultimately be adopted. Would the United States actually sever ties with the Iraqi government, a key partner since 2003, or, finding that scenario unpalatable, simply decide to waive or put off new sanctions?

There’s also the less likely possibility of a coalition between Fateh and Sairoon, the alliance led by Muqtada al-Sadr. Both lists do want the US out of Iraq, but are 180 degrees apart on the question of Iran’s continued involvement in Iraq.

Iraq is soon going to begin piping oil from Kirkuk into Iran under a deal the two countries signed last year after Baghdad forcibly took Kirkuk from the Kurds. The agreement calls for Iraq to ship Kirkuk oil to northern Iran in return for an equal amount of Iranian oil shipped from southern Iran to southern Iraq. Which sounds odd but makes geographic sense for both countries. Concerns over ISIS activity in central Iraq had delayed the deal.


Thousands of people protested across Jordan on Saturday against the government’s austerity policies, while unions are “calling for a one-day strike next week” to register their opposition. They’re angry over International Monetary Fund-“recommended” price and tax increases, the result of a $723 million IMF loan Jordan secured two years ago. Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki has refused to scrap the proposed income tax increase that lies at the hear of the current round of protests, but there seems to be a fairly decent chance that it will be voted down in parliament. Nevertheless, after renewed protests on Sunday it seems likely that Mulki is going to lose his job.

Jordan has an exorbitantly high debt, there’s no doubt about that, but even the IMF knows that austerity to reduce debt is a terrible idea. And yet it persists in foisting austerity upon its clients nevertheless–almost as if the IMF isn’t actually in the business of helping economically struggling nations at all. But surely that can’t be.


Somebody fired at least four rockets over the Gaza fence line on Saturday, which prompted Israeli airstrikes against at least three targets connected to Hamas in response. There have been no reports of casualties. Not so in the West Bank city of Hebron, where Israeli soldiers on Saturday shot and killed a Palestinian man they say attempted to ram them using a tractor. There’s obviously no way to confirm that version of events.

On Friday, the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have called for an end to Israel’s use of deadly force against Palestinian protesters in Gaza. The US was the only council member to vote against it. A followup, US authored resolution that would have demanded that Hamas stop, um, forcing Israel to gun down unarmed protesters (?) failed, with the US being the only council member to vote in favor. The twin votes gave UN ambassador Nikki Haley the chance to do her favorite thing–griping about the UN and its bias against Israel–and illustrated that, really, almost nobody likes the US or Israel anymore.

The Trump administration is now considering an administrative change that would screw the Palestinians just a little bit more, by bringing the US consulate in Jerusalem under the umbrella of the new US embassy in Jerusalem. While normally this would be uncontroversial, since consulates are generally subordinate to embassies in the same country, in this case the US consulate in Jerusalem has historically reported directly to the State Department in order to serve the Palestinian population of the city without forcing them to go through the US embassy in Israel–and specifically, in this case, without forcing them to go through the Likudnik, pro-settler US ambassador, David Friedman. This change would deprive the Palestinians of a direct channel to Washington and make even clearer that, its empty rhetoric aside, this administration wholeheartedly supports a single apartheid state covering Israel and the West Bank.

Among the more unappealing features of the Trump administration is its petty hostility toward the Palestinians. Trump was always going to be a very pro-Israel president, but he’s also gone out of his way to be a very anti-Palestinian one, often through small knife-twisting moves like this that don’t benefit Israel in any tangible way except inasmuch as they further immiserate the Palestinians. I suppose Trump is pissed off that the Palestinians didn’t trip over themselves to shower him with praise for his decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, which was somehow supposed to help the Palestinian cause in his mind even though it manifestly didn’t. I’m not really sure what else could explain it.


President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was sworn in for his second term on Saturday with promises to create “a common space” for all Egyptians. That common space appears to be prison, where Sisi keeps tossing anybody even remotely critical of his authoritarianism. But kudos to him on winning reelection in March while running against the president of the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi Fan Club.


At this weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue international security conference in Singapore, Qatari Defense Minister Khalid al-Attiyah made it clear that, despite the sizable US military presence in Qatar, his country wants no part of any military conflict with Iran:

“Is it wise to call the United States and to call Israel to go and fight Iran? … Whether any third party is trying to push the region or some country in the region to start a war in Iran, this will be very dangerous,” he said.


He did not name any party but could be referring to Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia, which has also led a blockade of Qatar with its Persian Gulf allies since June last year, accusing Doha of supporting extremists and refusing to cut ties with Tehran.


“Iran is next door. We should call Iran, put all the files on the table and start to discuss to bring peace rather than war,” he said in a speech.


Responding to a question whether Qatar’s air bases could be used to launch airstrikes on Iran, al-Attiyah said that his country was not a “fan of war” and supported engagement and dialogue.


The BBC takes a dive into the online back-and-forth between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which has become as much a feature of their rivalry as the Saudi-led blockade:

On the Qatar side, hashtags “Tamim The Glorious” and “Qatar Is Not Alone” appeared on Twitter’s homepage in the Gulf, supposedly showing they were popular sentiments for the region’s social media users. Meanwhile, The Saudi and UAE side accused Sheikh Tamim of being the “Gaddafi of the Gulf”, a reference to the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.


However, a BBC Arabic investigation has revealed that the majority of tweets using these hashtags were pushed by fake accounts known as “bots”. Bots are automated accounts which attempt to manipulate public opinion by artificially boosting the popularity of social media posts.


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wants the remaining parties to the Iran nuclear deal to oppose the Trump administration’s violation of the accord and its “bullying methods” to force the rest of the world to comply with that decision. He sent a letter to those other parties last week warning that they had to “make up for Iran’s losses” that were caused by Trump’s decision.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be touring Europe this week to try to whip up opposition to Iran and encourage Germany, France, and Britain to follow Washington’s lead and abandon the deal unless it is fundamentally rewritten to alter its terms around missile development and sunset clauses. Netanyahu is unlikely to make much headway with European leaders who still want to try (probably in vain) to preserve the deal, but he’s also going to push for a European response to Iran’s involvement in Syria and there he may make some headway. Hence, to take us back to the beginning of this very long update, Walid Muallem’s remarks about Iran on Saturday.

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