Middle East update: June 14 2018


During its rise as a global power, China’s approach to the Middle East has been in many ways the polar opposite of America’s. Beijing works with pretty much everybody, stays out of conflicts, doesn’t get on anyone for human rights issues, etc. It doesn’t take sides, therefore it doesn’t get bogged down in the inter-regional conflict du jour and it doesn’t have an extensive record of committing war crimes in various Middle Eastern countries. And now that America is buying less Middle Eastern oil and is therefore less valuable as a customer, China’s influence over the region is growing:

As the Middle East becomes ever more unstable, a surprising victor may be emerging: China. Under President Xi Jinping, China has accelerated its engagement with the Middle East — a region Beijing once treated as peripheral to its interests. Increased trade and investment, invigorated diplomatic exchanges, and expanded military ties are gradually transforming China’s position in the Middle East. Unless Washington can free its focus from the crises of the moment, Beijing may realize its ambitions: a Middle East more squarely within its own economic and diplomatic orbit, where the United States remains responsible for addressing the region’s most intractable challenges.

Oil has traditionally served as the glue holding together America’s relationships with key Arab states. Yet while the United States has revitalized its domestic petroleum production through the fracking revolution and reduced its dependence on foreign oil, China’s energy imports from the region have surged as the Middle East’s demand for energy at home has grown. Today, even as Beijing seeks to diversify its sources of foreign oil away from the region, it remains the among the top three importers from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran.

China’s role in the Middle East is going to be a key determinant of the region’s development over the next couple of decades, or at least until the water wars kick in. But Beijing can’t straddle all of the region’s fences indefinitely. It’s already starting to get into the Middle Eastern weapons market, for example, and that inevitably will create clients and antagonists moving forward. It will also be interesting to see how increased Chinese involvement in the Middle East changes the calculus for groups like ISIS, which has already tried to make inroads with China’s oppressed Uyghur community. But the United States could learn something here, at least the part where China isn’t traipsing all over the region bombing houses and squatting on territory that doesn’t belong to it. Apparently people like it when you don’t do that sort of stuff. Who knew?


Bashar al-Assad told al-Alam TV (which is funded by Iran) earlier this week that he’s open to the idea of Iran establishing its own military bases in Syria. Assad suggested that he’s been told by unnamed Saudis that if he only cuts ties with Iran “the situation in the country ‘would return back to normal.'” But he insists that he’s not willing to give up his ties with Iran no matter how much pressure he gets from the Saudis, Israel, the US, etc.

The United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura says that the United States will participate in talks in Geneva next week on establishing a Syrian constitutional committee. Previously Russia, Iran, and Turkey were known to be participating, so this just adds another country that definitely only has the best interests of the Syrian people at heart. What could go wrong?

Meanwhile, Turkey continues to…do something in northern Syria that sure looks like colonization:

Turkey plans to open its fourth university in the northern Syrian territory it controls. It is just one of many steps that have people wondering if Ankara ever plans to leave the area.

In an apparently organized effort to establish parallel institutions in Syria, Turkey announced that Harran University will open a campus in the town of al-Bab, which Turkey captured during Operation Euphrates Shield (August 2016-March 2017). According to information on the school’s website, the university’s vice president, Ali Sariisik, has inspected a building to house the new facility.

One wonders how long the Syrian government is going to let this go on before it does something. Which would put Russia in a bit of a bind, seeing as how it maintains good relations with both Turkey and Syria.


Coalition forces say they’ve broken through the Houthis’ first line of defense around the port city of Hudaydah and are closing in on the city’s central district and its airport. Reports say that 30 Houthi fighters were killed in fighting around the airport on Thursday against nine coalition soldiers. The United Nations Security Council is holding an emergency session to discuss the situation, with Russia reportedly pushing for the council to condemn the attack and its likely impact on humanitarian aid delivery. So far Hudaydah’s port has remained open to shipping but the coalition has begun issuing warnings to commercial vessels in the area. The coalition also says it’s amassed a large amount of humanitarian aid that it plans to move into the region quickly once the fighting is over.

The Pentagon continues to insist that it has nothing to do with the Hudaydah attack, which is splitting hairs since the Trump administration did in fact give the coalition permission to proceed.


An AKP legislator named İbrahim Halil Yıldız visited the predominantly Kurdish town of Suruç on Thursday. At least three people are now dead and eight others injured. Turkish state media says that Kurdish shop owners attacked Yıldız and his entourage, and the MP’s brother is believed to be one of those killed. Kurdish sources say that Yıldız’s bodyguards began shooting unprovoked at a hostile crowd. It’s no excuse, but the incident did occur shortly after a video was leaked on social media showing Turkish President and AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appearing to call for AKP operatives to man polling places during the June 24 general election and intimidate would-be Kurdish voters into leaving.

New polling shows Erdoğan’s support slipping and the election tightening a bit. The survey by the pollster Gezici shows the Turkish president losing 1.6 points in a week to drop to 47.1 percent, which would put him in a runoff. Though he would be the favorite to win any runoff, Erdoğan wants to avoid it anyway due to fears that opposition voters will unite behind whichever candidate opposes him. Many other polls show Erdoğan in much better shape, but the big overall caveat here is that polling in Turkey tends to fluctuate wildly and can be very inaccurate.


Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is leading his State of Law coalition into an alliance with the new Sairoon-Fatih bloc that emerged earlier this week. This is a case of very strange bedfellows, because not only is Maliki firmly in Iran’s pocket, whereas Sairoon boss Muqtada al-Sadr has opposed Iranian involvement in Iraqi politics, but Maliki and Sadr pretty much hate each other on a personal level as well. Maliki is close with Fatih leader Hadi al-Amiri, so either Amiri mediated or Sadr is being rolled a bit by the pro-Iran brigade (and presumably by Iran itself). Or, to be fair, Sadr may have traded his support for a serious concession from Amiri’s side, like bringing his Popular Mobilization Units under tighter state control.

Or there’s another possibility: Iraqi parties are coming together in the same broad, unwieldy national unity coalition they’ve formed after every election since 2005. At this point Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is on the outs–his negotiations with Sadr have apparently not gone well–but his Victory Alliance will probably come in at some point (though whether he still has a shot at returning as prime minister is an open question). And really this may be the outcome Iran wants–Tehran tends to prefer that Baghdad’s politics remain ossified, and an “everybody in the pool” coalition will prevent Sadr from making any of the reforms on which he campaigned.


Al Jazeera looks at the impact of US sanctions on the Iranian people:

What’s interesting here is that the people Al Jazeera interviewed are blaming their own leaders for helping to isolate the country just as they’re blaming Donald Trump for breaking with the nuclear accord. They remain frustrated with their economic situation and now things are only going to get worse in that regard. Is there enough frustration to give Trump and his people the Iranian revolution they so clearly want to force? Maybe. But I’d note that this piece was filmed entirely in Tehran, whose population tends to be more liberal and more globally-minded than the rest of the country.

When I say things are only going to get worse for Iran economically, I mean that the nuclear deal, already running on fumes, is circling the drain as European companies continue to pull out of Iran despite the work their governments are doing to try to insulate them from US penalties. European leaders are starting to give up on that part of the process and instead to see what benefits they can offer Iran directly, such as protections for Iranian oil exports:

“The European governments understand that most of their major multinational companies find the US a much more important market than Iran,” said Peter Harrell, who served as the deputy assistant secretary for counter threat finance and sanctions in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs during the Obama administration. But the Europeans are trying to send Iran the message that they will continue to work with Iran in certain concrete areas, oil being the most important.

“The Europeans, being aware of this, are trying to press the Iranians to be realistic … Europeans and now the Iranians are very focused on, can they set up a concrete mechanism that would allow Europe to continue importing Iranian crude?” Harrell said.

Europe isn’t the main customer for Iranian oil exports — the major importers are India and China (neither of which is free of sanctions drama; India’s Reliance Industries, a oil-refining complex, already has announced it will no longer accept Iranian crude oil imports). But European companies play a crucial role in that process, acting as tankers and insurers. And China and India could always insist on getting Iranian crude at a discount if the Europeans stop buying.

Finally, here’s Robin Wright on the Iranian government’s condemnable arrest this week of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh:

Sotoudeh was arrested on Wednesday shortly after announcing plans for a sit-in to protest a new government rule that restricts the rights of activists and dissidents from hiring an independent lawyer. In Tehran—home to eight million people and the country’s most politically active city—defendants in national-security cases must choose from one of only twenty lawyers pre-approved by the state.

“She was detained to prevent her from holding this public protest,” Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, which is based in New York, told me. “Her arrest was Orwellian, as the agents carrying it out claimed she has a five-year sentence in a case that has been decided in secret. She and her husband have no idea of when this prosecution took place, under what charges, and based on what evidence. That is an unbelievable miscarriage of justice.”

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