Middle East update: June 11 2018

It may be a spare couple of days around here as I fulfill some freelance obligations, so please bear with me.


Syrian state media reported on Monday that the US-led coalition bombed a school in Syria’s Hasaka province and killed 18 Iraqi refugees in the process. The coalition is denying it, and here we’re once again left with the dilemma that neither of these actors is particularly trustworthy. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that SDF fighters did capture the village in which this school is located from ISIS on Monday but did not have any information about airstrikes. If the SDF was fighting in that village then the coalition likely provided air support, so that at least means the coalition was active there.

The United Nations, meanwhile, is concerned about recent reports of stepped-up airstrikes in Idlib province and is urging a negotiated settlement that protects the estimated 2.5 million people currently inhabiting that part of Syria. After Friday’s big strike in Idlib that reportedly killed at least 44 people, another alleged airstrike in Idlib on Sunday may have killed at least 11 people.


Speaking of potential war crimes, here’s one:

The United States, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is “monitoring” the situation in and around Hudaydah, where a coalition offensive threatens to kill thousands and choke off Yemen’s main humanitarian supply port. The AP reports that said offensive has killed more than 600 people “in recent days,” and that’s with the fighting being confined to low population areas along Yemen’s Red Sea coast. The United Nations is still working on a negotiated way to prevent a Hudaydah battle but it’s also withdrawing its own personnel from the city because it believes a coalition attack is “imminent,” timed perhaps to take advantage of the buzz around the Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit in Singapore and evade as much international attention as possible.

If you’re watching for any sign that the Trump administration might be wavering on its opposition to a coalition offensive against Hudaydah then Pompeo’s statement offered you something:

“We expect all parties to honor their commitments to work with the U.N.,” Pompeo said, adding that they should also “support a political process to resolve this conflict, ensure humanitarian access to the Yemeni people, and map a stable political future for Yemen.”

In his call with Emirati leaders, Pompeo said he “made clear our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and life-saving commercial imports.”

That’s definitely not unequivocal opposition to a Hudaydah attack.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said at a campaign event on Monday that Turkish aircraft destroyed 14 PKK targets in northern Iraq’s Qandil Mountains. It’s not clear, at least from this AP report, if he specified when these strikes took place, but presumably within the past couple of days.


Iraq’s electoral situation is approaching a total free-for-all, particularly after the fire over the weekend that may have destroyed as many as half of the paper ballots produced in May 12’s election. Iraqi authorities say they stopped the blaze and saved the ballots, but if somebody tried to burn them once… Anyway, Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Sairoon list came in first place on May 12 and who therefore has the most to lose either from a manual recount or a decision to scrap the whole vote and do it over again, is urging calm and arguing that the situation could descend into violence if things continue in the direction they’re heading.

Iraq’s parliament has already ordered a manual recount of the votes cast on May 12, but its speaker, Salim al-Jabouri, says he wants to redo the entire election over allegations of fraud that he says are substatiated by the warehouse fire. The head of Jabouri’s Wataniya Party, former Prime Minister Ayad al-Allawi, is also leading the calls for a do-over.

The rate of displaced Iraqis who are returning home has declined precipitously from where it was at the end of last year. According to the United Nations, 159,534 displaced Iraqis returned home in April and May, compared with 112,446 in March alone and 298,290 for January and February combined. All of those numbers pale in comparison to last December, when 267,750 people returned home in a single month, or November, when 290,940 returned. To some degree this is expected–the early returnees were going to be people whose homes were still there and whose neighborhoods were still in decent enough shape to allow for some security and quality of life. People who remain displaced long term will be doing so because they can’t go home until substantial reconstruction work has been completed. At some point the only remaining displaced Iraqis will be people who have chosen not to go home, period, for whatever reason.


In response to a recent video in which Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani praised Hezbollah and its political allies for winning Lebanon’s May 6 election, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Monday insisted that Iran should stay out of Lebanese affairs. It’s an interesting take coming from a guy who was forced briefly to resign his job by the Saudis just a few months ago, but a fair point. Let’s say that all other countries should butt out of Lebanese domestic affairs and leave it at that.


Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE pledged $2.5 billion in aid over five years on Monday to help Jordan stabilize its fiscal situation while possibly warding off more unpopular austerity measures, at least for a little while. It’s…not enough. Really, no amount of foreign aid is going to be enough to tamp down the protesters, who are immediately angry over austerity but whose complaints run much deeper than that, to issues of corruption, government incompetence, and a stale, stifling monarchy sitting atop it all. Indeed, Jordan’s historic dependence on foreign aid is part of the reason it finds itself in its current situation–and this isn’t the first time it’s been in this situation:

Mass protests rocked Jordan as citizens raged against International Monetary Fund-induced financial austerity. Rising living costs drove tens of thousands to the streets, compelling the king to sack the technocratic government. The new Cabinet promised to delay any more economic cutbacks. Declaring its sympathy with a public burdened with unemployment and poverty, the ruling monarchy scrambled to raise foreign aid in order to stave off further turmoil.

It was April 1989.

Not much has changed today, as Jordan has just churned through its latest round of unrest. The protests began on May 30, when 33 unions and professional associations called a strike against proposed taxes. The demonstrations grew when youth activists joined them to rally against the removal of fuel and electricity subsidies, and crested with mass public marches against corruption and economic belt-tightening.


Qatar on Monday announced plans to take the United Arab Emirates before the International Court of Justice. It’s framing aspects of the year-long boycott/blockade against Qatar as human rights violations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which both Qatar and the UAE are signatories. Some of them seem dubious (closing UAE airspace to Qatari flights isn’t racial discrimination) but others, like the decision to expel Qatari nationals from the UAE, could have some merit.


Iranian officials say they’re close to completing a massive project that will ultimately divert water from rivers in the western part of the country to its drier eastern regions. There’s just one teensy problem: the rivers whose water is being diverted flow into Iraq, ergo this project is going to significantly worsen Iraq’s already dangerous water shortage. Iran has a huge water problem of its own, especially in the east, so this is a matter of basic survival for both countries. And you thought Egypt-Ethiopia was our only pending water war. Isn’t climate change great?

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