Middle East update: June 5 2018

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The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that a US-led coalition airstrike in Syria’s Hasakah province on Monday killed 11 civilians. The strike occurred near one of the small pockets in northeastern Syria still occupied by ISIS. The coalition has so far not acknowledged the strike and, given their track record on such things, probably won’t acknowledge it.

So, this didn’t take long. The YPG announced on Tuesday that it is withdrawing its “military advisers” from Manbij, just after the US and Turkey agreed on a “roadmap” that would eventually have the YPG leaving that town anyway. The YPG says its active forces left Manbij back in 2016 and it has only had advisers in the town since to work with the Manbij Military Council. Which sounds like a lot of semantics and recategorizing and shuffling things around on paper to me, but what do I know? The Manbij Military Council is itself is a product of the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces and therefore objectionable to Turkey, but the YPG bugout plan calls for the council to be dissolved and rebuilt by local residents who meet with Turkish and US approval. This is a win-win for the US and Turkey–for the US, it kicks the issue of its Kurdish alliance and Turkey’s hostility to it down the road, and for Turkey, it’s a big diplomatic achievement for the government just about three weeks before a general election.

To the west, Reuters is reporting that a Russian troop placement near the Lebanese border on Monday drew enough heat from Iran that regular Syrian army soldiers had to replace those Russian forces. The Russians occupied a position near the city of Homs without, apparently, coordinating their movement with the Iranians nor with Hezbollah fighters who were already in the area. It could have been a simple misunderstanding or it could be a sign that Russia-Iran comity is breaking down as Moscow tries to keep the promises it’s made to the Israeli government to keep Iran in check.

Amnesty International says that the US-led coalition’s airstrikes in Raqqa last year appear to have violated international law against the targeting of civilians and/or the indiscriminate bombing of civilian population zones:

Amnesty researchers spent two weeks in Raqqa during February 2018, visiting the 42 sites and interviewing a total of 112 survivors and witnesses. Amnesty has highlighted the cases of four families who lost dozens of members, illustrating the terrible ordeal Raqqawis faced as a result of ISIS’s criminal behavior – and the disproportionate and at times seemingly indiscriminate nature of Coalition strikes meant to vanquish the militants.

In each case, “Coalition forces launched air strikes on buildings full of civilians using precision munitions with a wide-area effect, which could be expected to destroy them entirely,” wrote investigators. “The civilians killed and injured in the attacks, many of whom were women and children, had been staying in buildings for long periods prior to the strikes. Coalition forces would have been aware of their presence had they conducted rigorous surveillance prior to the strikes.”

“Witnesses reported that there were no fighters in the vicinity at the time of the attacks,” said Amnesty. “Such attacks could be either direct attacks on civilians or civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks.

ISIS deliberately used Raqqa’s civilian population as human shields, but the coalition seems to have done nothing to try to protect civilian lives under those conditions. The coalition’s own investigation of civilian casualties has been predictably preposterous: per Airwars, of 225 alleged civilian casualty incidents it’s reviewed from Raqqa, the coalition has deemed only 15 of them to be credible. Why even bother? Just say you don’t give a shit and move on.


The Trump administration has reportedly once again told the UAE that it does not approve of a coalition attack on Hudaydah. Recall that just a couple of days ago the administration was considering aiding such an attack because it believed the attack would happen anyway. And, hey, the attack may happen anyway. But this seems like a fairly unambiguous signal that the US won’t support it.


New polling shows that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is at risk of not winning a majority in the first round of Turkey’s presidential election on June 24, but that he’ll still win the runoff that follows. The survey, conducted by Turkey’s SONAR polling firm, shows Erdoğan taking just over 48 percent in the first round, and interestingly shows Republican People’s Party candidate Muharrem İnce getting to the runoff with 31.4 percent. Erdoğan would then win 53 percent against İnce in the runoff. Most pre-election predictions have had Good Party leader Meral Akşener facing Erdoğan in a hypothetical runoff, but İnce seems to have moved past her into second place. As a runoff challenger, İnce won’t potentially siphon nationalist voters away from Erdoğan the way Akşener might, but he’ll also likely get more Kurdish support than she could.

The poll also shows Erdoğan’s governing coalition falling just a hair short of a parliamentary vote majority, with a combined 49.3 percent. That total would be enough to secure a majority of seats in parliament if any smaller parties, like the predominantly Kurdish HDP, fail to clear the 10 percent threshold for being seated in the legislature. This poll has HDP sitting right at the 10 percent line.


Water wars, here we come:

Iraq is surprised by Turkey’s decision to start holding back water behind its Ilisu dam earlier than promised, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday, suggesting it was done to win support for the government in upcoming elections.

Turkey has started filling the dam basin, a step that has alarmed neighboring Iraq, which is struggling with a water crisis.

“The Turkish prime minister had promised me they would start filling the dam at the end of June, not the start, so I was surprised to see they started,” Abadi told a news conference.

“I am aware that they have elections on June 24 and perhaps need to get the support of farmers,” he added, referring to Turkey’s planned general elections for president and parliament.

Abadi also made it clear that his government was not working with Turkey in its apparent plans to attack the PKK’s base in northern Iraq and that it would not tolerate any Turkish “violations of Iraqi sovereignty.” Ankara insists that the dam project will leave plenty of water flowing down the Tigris for Iraqi needs, and the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources has said the country will have enough water for drinking and irrigation purposes. Hassan al-Janabi, Iraq’s minister of water resources, says he’s reached an agreement with Turkey on the speed with which the dam’s reservoir will be filled, though Turkey says there’s been no such agreement.

Warning of “dangerous violations” in Iraq’s May 12 election, Abadi on Tuesday barred members of Iraq’s Independent High Elections Commission from leaving the country, and his cabinet approved recommendations by an investigative committee to toss out diaspora and displaced persons votes while instituting a manual recount of five percent of all ballots collected across the country. Larger recounts could follow depending on what that recount reveals. Iraqi politics were already promising to be chaotic enough after the vote given how it turned out and the usual coalition building process. These questions over the vote itself take that uncertainty to a new level altogether.


King Abdullah has replaced his prime minister, but not the austerity policies that got the last PM hounded out of office. At least not yet. The Jordanian monarch, perhaps mindful that public discontent could start to blow back on him after a while, has ordered his new PM, Omar al-Razzaz, to conduct a “review” of planned tax hikes.

Appalachian State University’s Curtis Ryan argues that the proposed tax measure is only one part of the frustration that’s brought so many Jordanians out in protest. Instead, Jordan’s decades-long process of neoliberal reform has run smack into the realities of the current moment in the Middle East:

But this time, a perfect storm is brewing that has made this process even more unsustainable and even dangerous. Regional turmoil raised costs for just about everything within Jordan, as refugees flowed into the country to escape the horrors of the Syrian civil war. Shifting regional alliance patterns — and in particular the appearance of a U.S.-Saudi-Israel axis — have at least partially marginalized Jordan, forcing the state to scramble to establish more avenues of external support.

With external sources of aid uncertain and debt increasing to crisis levels, Jordan turned to domestic taxation as an essential source of revenue. The tax bill raised taxes, to be sure, but it also sought simply to enforce taxation itself and to move against widespread tax evasion. Most Jordanians are actually tax exempt under the new bill, since most people have an income lower than the minimum threshold. Middle class professionals, on the other hand, rebelled against this. But Jordanians of all walks of life are affected by a sales tax increase to 16 percent and price increases in gas and electricity.


Gazan militants have been flying kites carrying flaming materials over the Gaza fence line to set fire to Israeli fields on the other side. So far they’ve managed to burn about $2.5 million worth of Israeli farmland, so naturally Israeli forces are going to have to start killing them. Since the Palestinians have been thoroughly dehumanized, the idea that it’s better to kill one, or ten, or a few dozen of them if it means saving a few acres of wheat won’t actually be that controversial.

The Israelis say that their forces did not intend to gun down a volunteer Palestinian medic during last Friday’s Gaza protests. Of course we know that’s a lie, since the Israeli Defense Forces know exactly where every bullet is going.


As he tries to consolidate power in Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman has been suppressing religious leaders on both the conservative and reform sides of Saudi society:

His supporters say the crown prince has proved his commitment to moderating Saudi ideology by curbing the influence of the religious police, who enforced moral codes like gender segregation — sometimes by beating violators with sticks. He has also reformed the Muslim World League, an umbrella group for Saudi charities founded in the 1960s that Saudis have used to propagate their strict ideology around the world.

“This time, there is no way to return to the past,” Saud Al-Sarhan, the secretary general of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, wrote in a recent essay. “There is a clear desire to break with all kinds of political Islam, Sunni and Shiite alike, both by leaders and by the populace, who see the most extreme version of these same Islamist ideologies in the monstrous death cult of the so-called Islamic State.” The center is chaired by a member of the royal family, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, who is often called upon by the Saudi leadership to publicly explain its thinking.

But critics say there are also signs that Mohammed is accommodating the hard-liners, pointing to the state’s recent arrest and public shaming of some of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights advocates. And some of the Salafists the authorities have arrested could have helped with the state’s fight against intolerance and extremism.

As observers try to divine what MBS’s religious leanings are, I think mostly they’re barking up the wrong tree. What MBS suppresses is criticism, from all directions. Liberal clerics, conservative clerics, it doesn’t matter. He wants obedient clerics. He’s an authoritarian, not a reformer or an ideologue.


Iran has begun taking steps to increase its ability to enrich uranium:

Iran announced on Tuesday that it had completed a new centrifuge assembly center at the Natanz nuclear site, in a first step to increasing its enrichment capacity.

While Iran said it would keep enrichment within limits set by the 2015 nuclear accord, the center’s opening seemed to signal that it could swing to industrial-level enrichment if that agreement, which the United States withdrew from last month, should further unravel.

The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, told state television that the center’s construction had been “in line with our safeguard commitments but not publicly announced.”

A spokesman for the Iranian nuclear agency, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said a letter had been sent to the International Atomic Energy Agency explaining the action. He also told the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency that Tehran would increase its capacity to produce uranium hexafluoride, a feedstock for centrifuges.

For now, the Iranians will not do anything that violates their commitments under the nuclear deal. Building a new centrifuge assembly plant is technically not the same as assembling new centrifuges. These developments will enable it to very quickly ramp things up if the nuclear deal collapses. But as long as Europe keeps up its end of the bargain there’s little risk of tha-

The European Investment Bank has balked at an EU proposal to do business in Iran to help offset U.S. sanctions and save the 2015 nuclear deal, EU sources told Reuters, under pressure from the United States – where the bank raises much of its funds.

The resistance from the European Union’s lending arm underscores the limits of the bloc’s ability to shield trade with Iran from the reimposition of U.S. sanctions after President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear accord last month.

The European Commission can, and likely will on Wednesday, recommend that the EIB do business in Iran. But it can’t force the EIB to do business in Iran. And as exposed as the bank would be to US sanctions and other penalties if it did do business in Iran, it seems unlikely that it will. Not an auspicious sign for the EU’s ability to deliver benefits to Iran in the face of US pressure.

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