Middle East update: June 16-18 2018


Syrian and Iraqi paramilitary groups say that the US-led coalition attacked them late Sunday night. The groups say that drones, which they believe to belong to the US, struck a Syrian military base near the border town of al-Harra, southeast of al-Bukamal, at around 10 PM. The Iraqis claim the attack killed 22 of their fighters. It’s not clear why the Iraqi paramilitaries were there (Iraq’s Joint Operations Command says it has no units in Syria), but some Popular Mobilization Units have been known to operate in Syria from time to time. It’s not clear if there were other casualties apart from the Iraqis, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that at least 52 people were killed all told by “unidentified planes.” The coalition denies carrying out strikes around al-Bukamal, which is some ways south of where the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces group is fighting remnants of ISIS. According to the SOHR Hezbollah is active in this area, raising the possibility of Israeli strikes, but that’s pretty far east for the Israelis to strike.

Speaking of the SDF, its fighters captured the border town of Dashishah, in Hasakah province, from ISIS on Sunday. Further east, Turkish forces say they’ve entered the outskirts of Manbij, which the SDF evacuated earlier this month after the US and Turkey reached agreement for joint control over the town. They plan to move slowly into the center of town before establishing control.

To the west, the Syrian army seems to be keeping both its options open in terms of next steps. Over the holiday weekend it struck rebel held areas in both Daraa province, in the southwest, and Hama province in the northwest. Laminah, the town it struck in Hama, sits very close to the provincial border of rebel-held Idlib province.


Houthi rebels reportedly shelled the village of Haglan Maris in central Yemen on Sunday, killing at least eight people. It’s unclear what their target could have been other than civilians.

Although Hudaydah airport itself was reportedly taken by coalition forces on Saturday, fighting continued to rage around the facility on Monday as coalition aircraft struck Houthi units and urged the rebels to retreat. These very public calls for surrender are intended as much for international consumption as for the Houthis. This way, if the coalition forces wind up destroying Hudaydah’s airport and seaport and thereby severely undercut the international humanitarian relief effort, they can say “look, we gave those guys a chance to retreat and they didn’t take it, they’re to blame for this destruction.” Much of the international community, especially the US, will no doubt buy that inversion of logic in order to blame the Houthis and ergo Iran rather than the Saudis and Emiratis. They’re also talking a lot about the possibility that the Houthis may have mined the seaport, which is another potential cover story. Maybe the Houthis did mine the seaport! But if airstrikes reach the harbor and cranes start blowing up, it’s going to be hard, at least at first glance, to say for certain what blew them up. That’s the point. It’s all to obfuscate the fact that the Hudaydah attack itself, on a large civilian population center serving a desperately needed humanitarian function, is inherently illegitimate.

The United Nations is continuing to negotiate with Houthi leaders to take over Hudaydah’s seaport before the heavy fighting reaches it, and it says those talks have reached “an advanced stage.” If they break down, and it seems likely that they will, they’re more likely to break down because of resistance from the Emirati side, which reportedly wants the Houthis to make substantial additional concessions beyond just turning over the port. The coalition apparently wants a major military victory here not just to hurt the Houthi war effort, but also so that the Emiratis can show the whole world that they can handle things. They’re smart. Not like everybody says, like dumb. They’re smart and they want respect! Anyway, it seems pretty clear that, for all their words to the contrary, they’re very prepared to sacrifice the port in order to achieve those aims. Hopefully the UN can convince them to seek their big win someplace else, but I think we should believe that when we see it.


Though it has no chance of winning anything on June 24, Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and its leader Selahattin Demirtaş, may be crucial in determining how Turkey’s election turns out. Demirtaş, who is running for president despite having been imprisoned by Turkish authorities for the heinous crime of Doing Politics While Kurdish, could be the person whose votes force President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan below 50 percent and thus into a runoff, probably against Republican People’s Party candidate Muharrem İnce.

Polling shows, meanwhile, that the question of whether or not Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)-Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) coalition emerges with a parliamentary majority might hinge on whether or not HDP gets above the 10 percent threshold for being seated in the legislature. If HDP fails to get above that line, the seats it “wins” will go to the second-place party in its constituencies, which will almost certainly be AKP. If it does get above 10 percent, AKP-MHP will have a harder time getting to a majority. Defeating Erdoğan and/or preventing an AKP-MHP majority are key to stopping and even potentially rolling back the constitutional changes Turkish voters barely approved last year that are seen as enabling Turkey’s slide into dictatorship.

The vote on Sunday will mostly represent a second referendum on those constitutional changes. But it will also represent maybe the last chance for Turkish voters to render an opinion on Erdoğan’s desire to remake the country in his own religious conservative image. Already he’s overseen the replacement of many secular public schools with religious schools, part of his long-standing goal to “raise a pious generation.” As usual, Erdoğan’s policies in this regard are being broadly rejected buy Turks living in major cities, who are choosing to send their kids to secular private schools instead of the new religious one. But religious schools keep opening despite the fact that most of the slots in those schools remain empty.

Turkish officials say their aircraft struck a large PKK meeting in Iraq’s Qandil mountains on Friday, killing at least 35 people. The PKK, however, insists that it suffered no casualties.


Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, leader of the Wataniya party, says that he’s unhappy with Sairoon leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to align with the Fatih list, led by Hadi al-Amiri. Fatih is the political arm of the sectarian Popular Mobilization Units, which Wataniya, with a nonsectarian agenda, opposes. Allawi and Sadr had already agreed on a political alliance before Sadr united with Amiri. Allawi hasn’t gone so far as to scrap that alliance but he is saying that the Fatih move violates his agreement with Sadr.


Is it possible that Saudi Arabia’s decision to offer aid to Jordan came with the stipulation that Jordan support the Trump administration’s “peace plan” for Israel-Palestine? It’s possible. But many analysts seem to feel that it’s less about Palestine and more about stabilizing Jordan in order to avoid another regional protest domino situation a la the 2011 Arab Spring movement:

Given the timing of the Mecca summit, political analysts have been speculating why Saudi Arabia, which chose not to provide aid to Jordan in 2017, has decided to resume financial support to Amman at this particular time.

Bassam Badarin, a political analyst and director of Al-Quds al-Arabi in Amman, told Al-Monitor that the resumption of Gulf aid to Jordan is linked to concerns over possible instability. “Saudi [Arabia has] concerns about Jordan’s peaceful protests spilling over into Gulf countries, as happened with the Tunisian revolution, which later turned into the Arab Spring in 2011,” Badarin said.

To be fair, instability in Jordan would make any Israel-Palestine peace effort much more difficult. Even so, it seems clear that Jordan’s repeated decisions to diverge from Saudi policy–with respect to Trump’s handling of Israel-Palestine, the Qatar diplomatic crisis, and even relations with Iran–have impacted the size of the aid package, which is woefully small compared to what Jordan needs to really stabilize its fiscal situation. Jordanian economist Khalid al-Zubaidi describes it more as a gesture of “moral support” than of financial support.


One Palestinian man was killed on Monday in an “explosion” near the Gaza fence line. Israeli officials say that he was in a group of five men who approached the fence intending to “sabotage” it in some way, when the fence “exploded.” This sure sounds like a roundabout way of saying that the Israelis have booby-trapped the fence with mines or some other kind of explosive, because I suspect the Israelis’ language would be far more direct had these five guys brought a bomb to the fence and blown themselves up with it. Meanwhile, the Israelis bombed nine Hamas-related targets in Gaza on Monday in what they said was retribution for the flaming kites that Palestinians have flown over the fence to destroy nearby farmlands and forests over the past several weeks.

Haaretz reported on Sunday that, as a prelude to unveiling the Kushner Accords, the Trump administration is planning to ask the Saudis and other Gulf states to pony up a cool $1 billion to fund development projects in and around Gaza. These would mostly be in port development and sustainable energy, and most of the money would go toward projects based in North Sinai that would employ Palestinians from Gaza rather than to Gaza itself, as a way around Hamas.

On Wednesday, the Israeli Knesset is expected to approve the preliminary reading of a bill that criminalizes photographing or filming Israeli soldiers or police while they’re engaged in, let’s say, pacifying the Palestinians. Something that might, I don’t know, highlight this discrepancy, for example:

According to the Jerusalem Post, that bill will have to be completely rewritten to make it somewhat less of a total violation of free speech and free press rights before it goes to a final vote.

The Israeli military’s Arab outreach took a bizarre turn last week, rolling out a video from its Arabic-language spokesperson, Avichay Adraee, that engaged in straight-up Wahhabi-style anti-Shiʿa polemic:

Ardaee’s video doesn’t incite sectarianism in passing. It digs deep into centuries-old religious texts to promote hostility towards Shias, then translates that into anti-Iranian arguments. The video opens with Ardaee accusing Hamas of promoting Iran’s agenda in the region, thereby “officially becoming Shia, according to the honored sayings of the prophet.”

Adraee then addresses his audience, saying: “have you not read the writings of religious scholars… who have clearly and candidly warned you about the threat of Iranian-style Shiism to you and your people?” The scholars Adraee cites represent the ideological rootsof groups like IS. For instance, Adraee quotes Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th-century preacher who inspired an extreme and intolerant strain of Islam, as saying that the Shias “are more damaging to [Islam] than the Jews and Christians.”


The Egyptian government is increasing fuel prices for the third time in three years, part of an austerity plan designed to help it secure a loan from–guess who–the International Monetary Fund. While the IMF, economists, and rich people love screwing the poor like this, it’s unsurprisingly not that popular with most Egyptians.


Brookings’ Bruce Reidel argues that, thanks to the Qatar crisis, the Gulf Cooperation Council is pretty much kaput:

A year after the start of the Saudi-led siege of Qatar, the Gulf Cooperation Council is all but dead. The GCC was created by Saudi King Khalid in May 1981 during the Iran-Iraq War to provide strength through unity for the gulf monarchies; the United States was its midwife. Never a tight union, the GCC nonetheless was a useful means to coordinate policy and enhance the influence of Saudi Arabia and the other five monarchies.

The decision announced on June 5, 2017, by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to break relations with Qatar and impose a blockade on trade on the emirate came shortly after President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh last year, his first foreign stop as president. It remains unclear today how much the Saudis told the Americans about the plan to attack Qatar and how much Trump’s team understood what they were told. Confusion was the hallmark of the American response to the blockade. It still is.


The Saudis are working closely with Russia to calibrate their approach to global oil prices. Earlier this month they discussed an increase of one million barrels per day in output, but that’s climbed now to 1.5 million bpd. At this point both countries seem interested in keeping oil prices stabilized at their current level, which is relatively high, rather than seeing prices go higher into potentially destabilizing territory. The current price also sits pretty close to the line where US shale oil extraction stops being profitable, so maintaining it at this level keeps much of that activity offline. Both countries want to preserve and expand the “OPEC-plus” group that they formed in 2016 to control prices, which could mean inviting the US into the arrangement at some point. It remains to be seen whether they can get over the whole Iran thing and actually establish a relationship.


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is taking his “Save the JCPOA” show to Switzerland and Austria next month, where he plans to negotiate “cultural, economic, and political agreements” with both governments. US sanctions are kicking in soon, with an extra enforcement boost from Israel that I’m sure will be very even-handed, and both countries will be pressured to disengage from Iran.

Rouhani might want to check with his boss first, though. In his Eid sermon on Friday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Iranians to give up their “bad habit” of “traveling abroad too frequently.” He doesn’t mean trips to Europe, though, not really. Khamenei would like Iranians to make fewer pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia and Iraq and more pilgrimages to holy sites within Iran, so their money stays home instead of going elsewhere. He’s also calling for the importation of fewer foreign products in order to boost Iranian industry and enhance his “resistance economy.”

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