Middle East update: June 7 2018


The Iraqis conducted another airstrike against ISIS in Syria on Thursday. This time they struck an alleged ISIS command and control building in the town of Hajin, in Deir Ezzor province. This is at least the second time the Iraqis have bombed Hajin in the past 2-3 weeks.

Meanwhile, during his annual Telethon For Motion Sickness TV show wherein he takes questions from Russian callers, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the Russian military will remain in Syria indefinitely, but made it clear that “indefinitely” does not mean “forever.” He said that Russia will stay as long as it is in the national interest, and characterized the deployment as a chance to improve the Russian military and as a chance to Fight Them Over There So We Don’t Have To Fight Them Here At Home. I certainly hope Putin paid George W. Bush royalties for stealing his bit.


The International Committee of the Red Cross announced on Thursday that it’s removing its international staff from Yemen. The ICRC cited threats against its staff, interference with its work, and efforts on both sides of the conflict to “instrumentalise [its] organisation as a pawn in the conflict.” The organization said that it will only continue its work in Yemen if both parties to the conflict agree to provide security for its personnel.

A coalition attack on Hudaydah could be days away, or it could be delayed until after Ramadan, or it could never happen. At this point it largely depends on the United Nations’ next diplomatic push. But as the Saudis and Emiratis try to convince the Trump administration to back an attack on Hudaydah, one of the arguments they’re making is that even they can’t control the Yemeni forces fighting with them, who may just up and decide to attack the port without permission. The Intercept’s Iona Craig says that claim doesn’t comport with the facts on the ground:

Although the UAE pledged not to make the final push on Hodeidah without U.S. approval, Emirati officials have claimed that they have no control over the actions of its surrogate forces, raising concern that Yemeni anti-Houthi resistance fighters may advance on the city without authorization.

But that contradicts the scene on the front line last month, which suggested that the Yemeni fighters do not move without Emirati orders. Soldiers told The Intercept that their salaries are also paid by the UAE, with additional daily cash handouts for some resistance fighters arriving in plastic bags on the front line. More than a half-dozen field and brigade commanders acknowledged taking their orders from the UAE, including from Emirati senior officers stationed on the Red Sea coast. The strength of the Emirati chain of command is important because the notion that the U.S. and UAE don’t really control the fighters gives those countries “plausible deniability” in case of an attack, Hiltermann said.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dropped some big news on Thursday: after the June 24 election he may lift the country’s state of emergency. That state of emergency was put in place after the coup attempt against Erdoğan in 2016 and has remained in place because it allows Erdoğan to govern as a dictator there are still dangers lurking out there, somewhere. This is pretty ham-handed even for Erdoğan. He’s essentially admitting that the state of emergency has been a political tool for him to enable his agenda–when that agenda is secured after the election, the state of emergency won’t matter anymore. He’s also undercutting any challengers in the presidential race, who could use this extended and obviously manufactured state of emergency against him as a campaign issue.

Erdoğan also warned that Turkey is prepared to strike at the PKK in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains if Iraqi authorities don’t move against the PKK first. The PKK, meanwhile, is warning that a Turkish assault on its northern Iraqi base is “imminent”:

“Of course, we are in a state of war against the Turkish army. The escalation is in the upcoming days. We can say we are expecting a hot summer with Turkey,” Bahoz Erdal, known as the doctor within PKK ranks, told Saudi Arabian daily Okaz in an interview published Wednesday.

Turkish forces are marching on the PKK’s Qandil headquarters in the Kurdistan Region’s mountains. They have pushed at least 27 kilometres into Kurdistan.

The PKK’s umbrella group, the Kurdish National Congress (KNK), issued a similar warning.

“There are increasing signs of an imminent full-scale invasion of Iraqi Kurdish territory, including the mountainous Qandil region of northern Iraq, in an attempt to further encircle and strangle the only place of freedom in the region,” read a KNK statement published by ANF news.

On the plus side, the Turkish government says it will pause the process of filling the reservoir at its large Ilisu dam on the Tigris River until July 1. This will allow Turkish and Iraqi representatives to discuss ways to proceed on the dam project without drastically effecting the downstream water flow on the Tigris and compounding Iraq’s water shortage.


So it turns out that Wednesday’s explosion in Sadr City, which killed at least 18 people, was caused by the attempt to remove an arms cache from a mosque in the neighborhood and was not a deliberate terrorist attack. The mosque was reportedly used by supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, which is unsurprising given his popularity in Sadr City, but it’s unclear if the group storing the weapons there is connected to Sadr. That group hasn’t been named, but there is obvious reason to believe that it’s Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam militia. Sadr also needs to be worried about the manual recount of May 12 election ballots that the Iraqi parliament ordered on Wednesday, seeing as how he’s the guy who supposedly won the election and stands to lose the most if the results were tainted. He wants Iraq’s Independent High Elections Commission to oversee the recount, but parliament suspended the IHEC’s leadership on Wednesday.

Speaking of the election, Rudaw reports that an alliance appears to be emerging between Sadr’s Sairoon list, the Shiʿa Islamist Hikma Movement, and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Wataniya party. That union would need a lot more help to form a government–collectively the three parties have about 95 seats in Iraq’s 329 seat parliament–but it could be the nucleus of the next Iraqi government. Provided the recount doesn’t completely change the picture, of course.


Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil is promising to “take measures” against the United Nations’ refugee agency over what he says is a pattern of strong arming Syrian refugees who want to return home into remaining in Lebanon. Bassil says this behavior is “verified” but who knows, and he didn’t offer any particulars as to what “measures” the Lebanese government might take against the agency.


Israeli authorities are dropping leaflets over Gaza warning Palestinians to stay away from the fence line (yes, I know that piece calls it a “border,” which it is not) on Friday if they don’t want to get shot. Fortunately we’ve gotten to the bottom of all of this Gaza violence, and the real cause is decades of systematically dehumanizing the Palestinians followed by the decision to lock a couple million of them up in what amounts to a giant open air prison Iran. It’s definitely Iran’s fault. Iran aids Hamas and Hamas is inciting people to protest at the fence line. Yes, Hamas is doing that. It’s not the decades of vile mistreatment and the past 11 years in which the people of Gaza have been alternately starved and bombed to death by Israel. People don’t protest against that sort of thing unless they’re provoked! So Iran is the bad guy here.

Which is not to say that the people Israeli snipers have been capping by the dozens don’t deserve it, mind you. Why, even Rouzan al-Najjar, the 20 year old volunteer medic who was deliberately targeted by the Israelis in a completely unintentional shooting last Friday, turns out to have been an EVIL HAMAS EVILDOER. If you’re keeping score, the Israeli military, which always knows exactly where every bullet is going, killed a 20 year old volunteer medic accidentally, but also she totally deserved it. The Israelis even produced a video purporting to show Najjar throwing a tear gas canister and referring to herself as a “human shield.” As it turns out though, and you might want to sit down here, the Israeli video was total bullshit that couldn’t even pass muster with the Likudnik folks at the New York Times:

The Israeli video released Thursday does not say when or where it was shot, but it does not appear to have been taken the day Ms. Najjar was killed. If she is throwing a tear-gas canister, it does not appear to be aimed at anyone.

The interview appears to be an excerpt from a longer video produced by Al Mayadeen News, an Arabic satellite channel based in Beirut, Lebanon.

In the longer video, the comment that the military translated as “I act as a human shield” was part of a sentence in which Ms. Najjar said, “I’m acting as a human rescue shield to protect the injured inside the armistice line.”

The most damning you can say about Rouzan al-Najjar at this point is that in addition to being a medic she also saw herself as a protester. And given that she was protesting against the Israeli government’s 11 year ongoing program to administer Gaza as a prison camp, I’d say that’s not actually all that damning.


Egypt has a new prime minister. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Thursday asked Mustafa Madbouly, the housing minister in his last cabinet, to take the top job. Former PM Sherif Ismail resigned along with the rest of the cabinet earlier this week, as expected at the start of Sisi’s second term (he was sworn in over the weekend). But there are concerns that Ismail may be in poor health, so while the rest of the cabinet may return his resignation seems to be more permanent.


Lord Steward Jared Kushner is apparently very embarrassed that Kuwait brought a resolution to the UN Security Council recently that would have condemned the killing of Palestinian protesters. This would have contradicted months of Kushner’s patented “kill as many Palestinians as you want, it’s cool” Middle East diplomacy, so you can see why he was miffed.


Zayed University Professor Li-Chen Sim examines the increasingly close Russia-UAE relationship:

During a working visit to Russia last week, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, concluded a Declaration of Strategic Partnership with his host, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The elevation in bilateral ties aims to strengthen cooperation in various dimensions, including oil market stability and combatting terrorism. This declaration is a first for Russia in the Gulf. As such, the United Arab Emirates has become Russia’s most valuable interlocutor in the region.

The UAE is Russia’s largest trade partner in the region because its economy that is more diversified, better regulated, and more business-friendly than other Gulf states. Between 2000 and 2017, trade volume grew from $200 million to $1.6 billion, reaching a record of $2.5 billion in 2013. By comparison, Russia-Saudi trade was less than $900 million in 2016. Russia does not have any significant foothold in the lucrative arms bazaars of the Gulf states. In the UAE, for instance, the West is the source of 80% of weaponry imports. Nevertheless, the UAE announced in 2017 its intention to purchase anti-armor missiles and Sukhoi fighters from Russia, as well as to jointly develop a light combat fighter jet.

Its relationship with the UAE is also recognition for Moscow that it is the new power-player in the Middle East.


Apparently the day before he announced his decision to violate the Iran nuclear deal, Donald Trump called the Saudis to ask them to boost oil production in the event that his decision caused global oil prices to rise. Brent Crude is currently trading around $77 per barrel–higher than it’s been in a while, but still a ways off from the triple digit prices we were seeing as recently as 2014. The Saudis and Russia have talked about increasing global production by one million barrels per day, but the Saudis are somewhat handcuffed by OPEC–though obviously the Saudis carry a lot of influence in terms of setting OPEC policy.


Donald Trump knows he can leverage North Korea into a good deal when he meets with Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12. How does he know? Well, obviously because Iran, less than a month after Trump wrecked the nuclear deal, is now a totally different country, apparently:

“Iran is not the same country that it was a few months ago,” Mr. Trump said at a news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, five days before he was scheduled to meet in Singapore with Kim Jong-un of North Korea.

“They’re a much, much different group of leaders,” he added.

Mr. Trump cited no evidence to support his contention about Iran, which remains firmly under the control of its theocratic government and has announced plans to increase its capacity to enrich uranium in the wake of Mr. Trump’s decision.

No evidence? You don’t say. And Trump is normally so careful about that sort of thing.

When I say that what scares me about Trump isn’t the lies, it’s that he believes his own lies, this is what I’m talking about. I don’t know what Iran is like in the world he’s fantasized in his prion-riddled brain, but it seems to bear very little resemblance to the actual Iran.

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