Middle East update: June 8 2018


Airstrikes on the village of Zardana, in Idlib province, on Thursday reportedly killed at least 44 people. Syrian rebel media sources are accusing Russia of carrying out the strikes, but Moscow is denying it. It seems like it would be odd for the Russians (or the Syrian government, for that matter) to attack a target in Idlib when their attention seems to be on southwestern Syria at the moment, but maybe that’s just me.

German authorities have issued an “international arrest warrant” for Jamil Hassan, the head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence, on war crimes charges. Germany assumes unto itself “universal jurisdiction” for war crimes charges, which gives it the right to arrest people on those charges regardless of where they were committed. Of course, assuming that power and actually being able to exercise it are two different things.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah says that his fighters will remain in Syria until the Syrian government decides they should go. Nasrallah is responding to increasing calls from Israel, the US, and Europe for Iran and its allies–Hezbollah chief among them–to withdraw from Syria completely. It is perhaps worth noting that, while we can certainly debate the legality and advisability of paramilitary groups like Hezbollah in general terms, they are operating in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government. The United States is also operating in Syria, at the invitation of…well, of the United States, I guess.

According to BuzzFeed, some returning Syrian refugees are making easy money selling their European paperwork, a potential security risk for European authorities:

How many documents are available on the black market in Turkey and Syria is unknown. The European official believes to date the numbers are low — not large enough to consider the availability a failure of German policy, he said. It was “completely predictable,” he said, “that poor, desperate people fleeing horrible wars wouldn’t completely follow the rules.”

Still, the availability of valid documents on a black market could make it easier for suspected militants from the Middle East or a European-born militant who wanted to return home without being detected to cross into Europe under an assumed identity. A suspected or wanted militant “wouldn’t need these papers to hold up longer than a single border crossing into the Schengen Zone,” the counterterrorism official said, referring to the 26 European countries that don’t require a visa or passport to travel among them.


Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım says that Turkish forces have advanced 30 km into northern Iraq and are prepared to attack the PKK’s Qandil Mountain base. Speaking to Reuters, Yıldırım defended Turkey’s incursion into Iraq as a matter of national security and denied that it represents a violation of Iraqi sovereignty even though it, you know, does. He says that Ankara will continue its operations against the PKK and the YPG–which Turkey treats as the same organization–until both groups have been pushed away from the Turkish border.


An improvised explosive device in Kirkuk killed at least one person on Friday, though some estimates have already climbed as high as seven dead, and wounded at least 14 others. ISIS seems the most likely suspect though so far there’s been no claim of responsibility.

After a weapons cache that may have belonged to his own militia exploded in Baghdad and killed at least 18 people on Wednesday, Muqtada al-Sadr announced on Friday that he wants to lead a “nationwide disarmament campaign.” He wants armed paramilitary groups to turn their weapons over to the government and says that Sadr City, the Baghdad neighborhood that serves as his stronghold, will be “a weapons-free area later this month.”

Patrick Wing believes the push for a recount in Iraq’s May 12 election is more about anger over the outcome than about actual concerns over voter fraud:

Parliament took further action against the results as well. It voted to amend the election law, cancel the voting by displaced in Anbar, Diyala, Salahaddin and Ninewa, and conduct a recount. The Election Commission is also to be replaced by nine judges. The president must ratify this action, which could take up to two weeks. The parties that attended the session included Abadi’s Nasr, Vice President Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law, Sunni parties, the Kurdish opposition, and the Arab Coalition and Turkmen Front from Kirkuk. What these lists all have in common was that they did poorly in the vote.


Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil carried out his threat to act against the United Nations refugee agency on Friday by suspending residency permits for agency personnel. The Lebanese government believes that the UN is trying to discourage Syrian refugees from returning home by warning them that conditions in Syria are still dangerous. Lebanon, which has taken in more refugees than a country of that size can reasonably be expected to handle, wants them to start returning to “safe zones,” parts of the country that have been retaken by the government and are located far from any potential fighting. The UN denies discouraging refugees from returning home.


Israeli forces killed at least four more Palestinian protesters at the Gaza fence line on Friday. The Israelis say they were responding to Palestinian attacks that ranged from rock throwing to live ammunition and grenades. Some 618 people are believed to have been wounded, many quite severely and at times horrifyingly.

While the acute loss of life suffered amid these Gazan protests gets most of the attention, the underlying issue remains the sub-human living conditions inflicted upon Gaza by the Israeli government on a daily basis:

Israel’s economic development has been remarkable, and much of it has been driven by the ingenuity of its citizens — but it helps when American aid reaches above 10 percent of your GDP in times when you really need it.

It helps too when you have full control over your borders, airspace, roads, water, schools, and electricity. When you don’t have to worry about well-armed, hostile colonists routinely setting fire to your olive trees. When you can go fishing without being shot, threatened, or humiliated by a professional national navy. When you can drink clean water, or plant in clean soil. When your imports and exports are not subject to the arbitrary restrictions of a government whose ministers openly support your mass expulsion.

Many of these inhuman and degrading conditions apply to everyone living in the occupied Palestinian territories. But they are uniquely crushing to the people of Gaza.

Meanwhile, Al-Monitor’s Shlomi Edlar reports that the violence in Gaza is beginning to spill into the West Bank, where the situation could be far more combustible:

It is hard to say that the situation was unexpected. The number of clashes in the West Bank increased in the beginning of June, as young Palestinians faced off against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) amid spontaneous outpourings of rage over events along the border with Gaza. In Nabi Saleh in southern Mount Hebron, 21-year-old Izz ad-Din Tamimi was killed by IDF fire on June 6. According to the IDF, Tamimi was shot dead after throwing rocks at an IDF force operating in the region. In the Jalazoon refugee camp near Ramallah, violent clashes with the IDF take place on an almost daily basis with the throwing of stones and Molotov cocktails. The same is happening in other refugee camps across the West Bank near Bethlehem, Nablus and Jenin.

The possibility of West Bank Palestinians clashing with the IDF in sympathy with the border fence protests has been discussed by the security forces ever since the Gaza protests began. Fear of a violent outburst in the West Bank increased as the number of Palestinians killed and wounded in the Gaza Strip increased, as the photos of the victims flooded Arab broadcasting and social media networks.


James Dorsey writes that the Saudis are having success turning other Muslim countries against Iran:

Saudi efforts to isolate Iran internationally are producing results in North Africa and Central Asia. Authorities and religious leaders in Tajikistan and Algeria have in recent weeks accused Iran of subversive activity and propagating Shiism while Morocco last month announced that it was breaking off diplomatic relations with the Islamic republic.

While similar accusations have been lobbed at Iran in the past as part of a four-decade-long covert war between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic republic, the more recent incidents suggest that the Saudis are increasingly focussing on isolating Iran diplomatically.

In doing so they are benefitting from ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam’s appeal in North Africa and Central Asia even if Saudi Arabia is believed to have substantially reduced its financial support for Salafi and other groups.


Iran’s parliament speaker (and potential future presidential candidate), Ali Larijani, told a crowd of demonstrators on Friday that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US are causing “chaos” in the Middle East by pressuring Iran:

Tens of thousands of Iranians took part in anti-Israel rallies to mark Iran’s annual day of solidarity with the Palestinians. They chanted “Death to Israel”, “Death to America” and burned Israeli and U.S. flags.

“Israel and Saudi Arabia are the source of chaos in the region. The malicious triangle of Saudi Arabia, Israel and America wants to turn the region into a chaotic scene,” state television showed Larijani telling demonstrators “The region’s security will be threatened if they corner Tehran.”

If you just read those quotes in a mob boss voice I wouldn’t blame you. Larijani has tried to straddle the line between principlist conservatives and Rouhani-esque moderates in Iranian politics for the past few years, but clearly this speech was intended as red meat for the hardliners.

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