Middle East update: June 4 2018


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu have reportedly reached agreement on a “roadmap” for the Kurdish-occupied Syrian town of Manbij after a meeting in Washington on Monday. It’s unclear what exactly the roadmap entails beyond a phased YPG withdrawal from Manbij–it’s hard to imagine Turkey agreeing to anything less–with their forces to be replaced by joint US and Turkish (and presumably French, since France is also active in that area) patrols. It’s also unclear whether this roadmap extends beyond Manbij and addresses Turkish concerns about the YPG’s presence across northern Syria, though Çavuşoğlu certainly seems to believe that it does. There are so many unanswered questions that it’s not out of the question that the Turks rushed to get a vague “agreement” on something so that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could pocket it ahead of this month’s general election. That would explain why Turkey has jumped the gun a couple of times over the past couple of weeks, declaring agreement on a roadmap only to have the US deny it.

It’s also also unclear whether anybody has run this roadmap by the YPG–who are apparently expected to start leaving Manbij within 90 days–to see how they feel about it. In the long run its alliance with Turkey is more important to the US than its alliance with the YPG, but the US can’t complete any of its remaining objectives in Syria without the YPG. It can’t mop up whatever’s left of ISIS, it can’t contain Iran–nothing. So the YPG has some leverage here. As recently as a few days ago they showed no inclinations toward leaving Manbij, and at least some of the Arab residents of the town seem to prefer the return of the Syrian government to either YPG or Turkish control, so that’s yet another thing to consider.

The agreement is a positive step if you’re a fan of fixing the US-Turkey relationship, which is fracturing on multiple fronts these days, but how (and how quickly) it gets implemented will have a greater impact on that relationship than the agreement itself. Notably, Pompeo and Çavuşoğlu did not hold a joint press availability after their meeting, perhaps because neither was prepared to take any tough questions about the unresolved details around this roadmap or US-Turkey relations more broadly.

Further east, Rudaw reports that ISIS has adopted guerrilla tactics in its effort to resist the SDF’s mop-up operations (literally called “Operation Roundup”) in Deir Ezzor province. Further north, but perhaps along those lines, there were reports that an SDF vehicle was hit by an explosion near Ain Issa on Monday, with either no casualties or one person being killed. But the SDF says that none of its forces have been attacked in that area for at least two days.


United Nations special envoy Martin Griffiths is desperately negotiating with the Houthis to turn control over Hudaydah and its port to the UN in order to fend off an impending attack by the Saudi-led coalition (likely with US assistance) that would greatly exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. In the meantime he’s trying to delay that coalition attack to give his negotiations time to play out. The Houthis threatened over the weekend to fire missiles at Abu Dhabi if Hudaydah is attacked. The coalition advance on Hudaydah has reportedly killed at least 110 people since Wednesday and threatens to kill far more than that if it reaches the city. A UN World Food Program vessel that had just delivered humanitarian supplies at Hudaydah was reportedly attacked and boarded over the weekend by unknown forces while it was waiting for coalition permission to leave the port. The attackers set a fire in the engine room but there are no reports of casualties.


The Greek government has released eight Turkish soldiers who are seeking asylum from prosecution back in Turkey for their alleged roles in the 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan. Their asylum cases are still pending but at this point Turkish efforts to have them extradited seem to have come up empty. This is just the thing to help fix collapsing relations between Greece and Turkey.

Meanwhile, I hope I’m not surprising you when I say that Erdoğan is cheating to win the June 24 election:

In the May 1-25 period, the country’s two main news channels, NTV and CNN Turk, dedicated a combined 70 hours of coverage to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its election ally, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), according to a report by the two opposition-nominated members of Turkey’s media watchdog RTUK. The report was made available to Al-Monitor. The CHP and Ince got 22 hours, while the Good Party and its presidential candidate, Meral Aksener, got 17 minutes and the HDP received no coverage at all.

Besides the gap between the government and the opposition, the statistics reflect also a curious gap between the opposition’s two strongest candidates in the presidential race — Ince, who is seen as more left-leaning, and the right-wing Aksener, who many believe could lure disgruntled voters from Erdogan’s conservative base.

It’s not ballot stuffing–though he may do that too, who knows–but controlling media coverage and denying it to opposition parties and candidates is election rigging all the same.

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu says that “timing” is the only thing stopping Turkish forces in northern Iraq from attacking the PKK’s Qandil Mountains base. It’s unclear how long the Iraqi government is going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion–and domestic politics might be distracting Iraqi leaders at the moment–so “timing” could also be a factor for Baghdad. Turkey made a smart choice waiting until after the election to make this move–if they’d gone in before then Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi might have been under pressure to do something immediately to stop them. Now, not so much.


Speaking of domestic Iraqi politics, Columbia University’s Neda Bolourchi says that Iran doesn’t see the electoral success of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Sairoon alliance as a huge setback for its goals in Iraq:

Tehran does not see these elections as a zero-sum game. Sairoon narrowly won and must work to build a coalition in order to form a working government. Sadr and Sairoon campaigned on an “Iraq First” platform that relied on deeply nationalistic rhetoric, which has led to an assumption that Sairoon will build a coalition with everyone and anyone not affiliated with Iran. In practice, this means isolating Hadi al-Amiri of the al-Fatah Coalition, which won the second most seats in the election. But such an assumption ignores the on-the-ground realities of politicking. In addition, it also largely ignores what the campaign means for the United States, its presence, and its interests in Iraq.

To be clear, Tehran sees the recent Iraqi election as a potential and momentary setback at worst. The politics of coalition-building is ongoing, and Tehran does not believe that its partners, parties, or proxies will be eliminated from functional and substantives roles in the government, particularly the interior ministry. Tehran’s expectation comes from viewing itself as the most powerful outside actor in Iraq and one that is still needed. Finally, when push comes to shove, Tehran will not allow one election to nullify a decade’s worth of investment.

Whoever or whatever winds up running Iraq when the dust finally settles is going to have a major problem to tackle right out of the gate. Iraq is suffering from a massive water shortage, with water flow on its main rivers down by 40 percent or more from mid-20th century levels. The culprits are multiple, and certainly Iraqi mismanagement and the country’s multiple wars have to be considered among them, but upstream dams built by Iran and Turkey appear to be a huge part of the problem and in both cases are probably violating international water law.


In order to assuage Beirut’s fears, the Syrian government sent a letter to the Lebanese government on Monday saying that it “is eager for the return of all its sons.” A Syrian law, “Law 10,” which came into effect in April, makes it relatively easy for the government to seize property belonging to displaced Syrians, including the million or so Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The Lebanese government has no interest in accommodating one million or more permanently displaced Syrians indefinitely, so it has serious concerns about the law. Perhaps in response to Lebanese complains, the Syrian government over the weekend extended the period during which displaced Syrians can legally reclaim their old property (once it has been “designated for redevelopment”) from one month to one year.


As expected, Jordanian Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki “resigned” on Monday as a sacrificial offering to the thousands of Jordanians who turned out over the weekend to protest against the government’s painful International Monetary Fund-“recommended” austerity policies. In his place, King Abdullah appointed Omar Razzaz a…former economist for the World Bank. You can’t make this kind of thing up. Needless to say, the ex-World Bank dude is no anti-austerity politician, and he’s expected to keep the policies that caused the protests and forced Mulki’s resignation in place. So expect the protests to continue.

Razzaz might be given the latitude to open Jordanian society up a bit, as a way to placate the protesters without giving up the austerity, but that remains to be seen. Either way it seems like something has to give. James Dorsey argues that the current protests are a reiteration of Jordan’s 2011 Arab Spring protests, magnified by frustration over Abdullah’s unwillingness and/or inability to change pretty much anything.


Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man who allegedly attempted to cross the Gaza fence line while carrying an ax on Monday. They produced a photo of a dead body with an ax lying near it as proof.

Israeli forces have killed two Palestinian journalists and shot at least 20 others over the past several weeks, none of whom–so far as I know–was wielding something as existentially threatening to the State of Israel as an ax. When asked about these killings–which must have been deliberate, because the IDF knows where every bullet its soldiers fire lands–the Israeli response is:


Over the past two weeks, +972 Magazine has contacted the IDF Spokesperson’s Office five times with the following questions: What investigative actions have been taken into the two killings? Has a decision to charge or discipline the soldiers involved been reached? And, is the army is planning any changes to its standing orders or regulations in order to prevent other journalists from being killed or shot in similar situations.

Although the Spokesperson’s Office acknowledged receiving the questions, it ignored them and refused to answer on all five occasions.


Tuesday will mark the one year anniversary of the Qatar blockade, and according to Hassan Hassan the Qataris have emerged largely victorious:

But, by those measures, the crisis has so far played out in Qatar’s favor. Perhaps the clearest indication of that reality was the series of remarks made by Trump with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in April. Trump attacked Saudi Arabia, including in reference to terror funding, and acknowledged Qatar’s progress on the matter. Rather than convincing commentators and politicians in the West that Qatar had serious problems it needed to address, the effect has largely been the opposite. In large part, that’s because the quartet failed to anticipate Qatar would organize an effective public relations campaign of its own in the West. One source with knowledge of Gulf’s lobbying efforts estimated that Qatar has spent about $1.5 billion on PR efforts since the crisis. Similar amounts were expected to be spent by Saudi Arabia. Unlike other countries that were continuing lobbying efforts that existed before the crisis, such as the UAE, Riyadh and Doha are widely recognized to have upped their PR efforts before or in the lead-up to the crisis. Ad campaigns on channels like CNN were canceled out by counter-ads on the same channels.

The result is that it’s the countries of the quartet, rather than Qatar, that have suffered the most significant reputational setbacks. Saudi Arabia’s long-standing efforts to criticize Doha’s support for extremism in places like Syria and Libya have now been undermined by the partisan punditry that followed the crisis. Qatar has been able to portray such allegations as merely part of a paid effort by the Saudi side.


Ten people became the first Saudi women to be given drivers licenses on Monday as the country prepares to legalize women drivers on June 24. All ten had licenses from other countries already. Good for them! Say, has anybody heard from the women’s rights activists the Saudis have been arresting lately? They temporarily released eight of them over the weekend? Cool! Has anybody heard from the rest of them? No? Well, I’m…sure they’re doing fine. Anyway, congrats on the licenses!


Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Monday that Iran will not agree to limit its missile program at European insistence and that he’s already given orders to quickly increase Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity should Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia fail to protect Iranian interests as part of the nuclear deal. Sounds like somebody who’s not terribly interested in negotiating a new deal, or even in retaining the current one, and in fact maybe he isn’t: just a little while ago, Reuters reported that the Iranians plan to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday of their intention to begin taking steps toward increasing their enrichment capacity. That doesn’t mean they’ll be increasing their enrichment capacity right away, just that they’re planning to hit the ground running if/when they decide the nuclear deal is well and truly dead.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday and warned that Iran could cause another wave of Middle Eastern migrants to head toward Europe by instigating a sectarian war in the Middle East. Which, OK, sure. Let’s say the Iranians could do that. They could put chemicals in the water that turn the friggin frogs gay for all we know. If you think Iran is capable of something like that, wouldn’t you be interested in opening up diplomatic channels with Tehran in order to build up goodwill, empower moderate voices, and gradually alter Iran’s decision-making processes? Nah, fuck that. Let’s do our best to crater Iran’s economy and then maybe go to war with them, because there’s no way that could create a refugee crisis. Netanyahu is such a cartoonish liar, it’s amazing his bullshit works on Israeli voters.

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