Middle East update: June 19 2018

We’re a little early today because in addition to being Juneteenth we also have a family birthday to celebrate. I’ll catch you all up tomorrow.


The Syrian army is once again dropping leaflets on southwestern Syria asking civilians to expel the rebels who currently control most of Daraa province and part of Quneitra province. On Tuesday those leaflets were accompanied by scattered government airstrikes and artillery blasts around Daraa province, as well as a threat from the rebels to unleash (?) “volcanoes of fire” if the Syrian army moves into the region. That threat and vague warnings from the US aside, it seems today at least like Bashar al-Assad has made the southwest his next target. He claims that diplomatic talks are ongoing involving Russia, the US, and Israel over the disposition of southwestern Syria, but there’s no indication that, if they are ongoing, they’re actually getting anywhere.

The Iraqi government on Tuesday condemned the weekend airstrike in Deir Ezzor province that killed at least 22 Iraqi paramilitaries. While Syrian media initially pointed the finger at the US for that strike, it now appears that Israel was responsible. This is an interesting development in that the Israelis have not to my knowledge bombed Iraqi fighters in Syria yet, nor have they bombed this far east. Meanwhile, the US says one of its airstrikes on May 26 did kill Abu Khattab al-Iraqi, who is believed to have been in charge of ISIS’s oil and gas networks. And representatives from Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the United Nations met in Geneva on Tuesday to open discussions on a future Syrian constitution. Stunningly, they got nowhere.

Speaking of condemnations, the Syrian government doesn’t have kind words for the new status quo in Manbij. Damascus on Tuesday registered its “absolute rejection” of the joint US-Turkish occupation of that town. If the Syrians don’t approve of that, they must really be having a conniption at Turkey’s ongoing state-building efforts in northern Syria. Turkey is investing large amounts of money in development projects in the parts of Syria it controls, and is now even building governing institutions in those areas based on the Turkish model. I recently interviewed Syria analyst Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma about where things stand in Syria, and he suggested Turkey’s encroachment could open a new front in the war:

LL: Is there a scenario wherein we could see direct conflict between the Assad government and Turkey over northern Syria? Would Russia try to prevent that in order to preserve its relations with both parties?

JL: There’s definitely a scenario, and in fact there’s already a conflict there. Syria’s bombing of rebel groups in Idlib is a low-grade conflict between Syria and Turkey, because Turkey in a sense is claiming Idlib province. They’ve now set up over 10 observer posts in the province, manned by Turkish soldiers equipped with Turkish hardware, and they could become defensive positions opposing a Syrian assault on the province. Turkey will see any attempt by Syria to reimpose control over Idlib as a hostile act, but Assad has made it extremely clear that he intends to take that province back. So there’s an impending conflict at some level. Who’s going to blink, where Russia stands, we don’t know.

It’s a wide-ranging interview, so please go check it out at LobeLog.


After reports that they’d captured Hudaydah’s airport over the weekend turned out to be a little premature, the Saudi-UAE-led coalition seems to have finally accomplished the task on Tuesday. The coalition now plans to turn to taking Hudaydah city, which will put tens of thousands of lives at risk, and taking its seaport, which will put millions of people at risk if humanitarian aid access is cut off.


Turkish airstrikes have allegedly, according to the Turkish military, killed 26 PKK fighters in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq so far this week.

If polls are to be believed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP-MHP coalition is in danger of losing its parliamentary majority in Sunday’s election. No matter, according to MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli–they’ll just hold the election over again. And again and again, presumably, until they finally rig it to get the result they want.

Its things like this that are causing Congress to seriously consider yanking Turkey’s promised F-35 purchase. The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act now includes a measure that would stop or slow that sale–if that measure survives a conference committee with the House NDAA, it could become law. In which case, Ankara says, it will simply look elsewhere for its stealth aircraft. You don’t need to be psychic to know they’re talking about Russia, and a further complication exists here–cutting Turkey out of the F-35 program would impact the plane’s manufacture since there are Turkish firms involved in that process.


Iraqi authorities say that ISIS fighters abducted 30 members of the Shammar tribe in Saladin province on Sunday night. So far, seven of their bodies have been found. Small ISIS units continue to be active in sparsely populated areas of Saladin and Anbar provinces as well as in Diyala province and in some Kurdish regions.


Jared Kushner met with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Tuesday, presumably to pitch his massive Palestinian screw job Israel-Palestine peace proposal. In another time, the idea that the president’s dipshit real estate failure of a son in law would meet with an actual head of state would be laughable. Now it’s all part of our foreign policy program.


At LobeLog, researcher David Isenberg examines the UAE’s use of mercenaries in Yemen:

The UAE has participated in the ongoing, Saudi-led war in Yemen largely through its use of a disparate collection of mercenaries, or to use the accepted euphemism, “private military contractors” (PMC). In 2011, the UAE hired Erik Prince to set up an operation to train foreign personnel, mainly from Latin America, ostensibly for internal defense purposes. But events have shown that the UAE’s dependence on foreign contractors, for military and intelligence purposes, is far greater than previously thought.

One indication of the use of mercenaries by the UAE is to look at headlines about casualties, like “Dozens of Saudi-led Mercenaries Killed, Injured in Yemen’s Western Coast Front” and “Yemeni troops ambush Sudanese mercenary convoy in desert.” Earlier this year, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in Britain called on the UN Human Rights Council to form a special committee to investigate the UAE’s recruitment of mercenaries in Yemen. According to the group, the UAE recruited mercenaries to carry out torture and field executions. On November 27, 2017, the group commissioned a law firm to file a formal complaint with the International Criminal Court demanding an urgent investigation into the UAE recruitment of armies of foreign mercenaries to carry out criminal activities in Yemen. A press release from the organization also accuses the UAE of engaging mercenaries to fight in Yemen, including nationals from Australia, South Africa, Columbia, El Salvador, Chile, and Panama.


Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari told Iranian state media on Tuesday that Iran has no plans to work on missiles with ranges longer than the 2000 kilometer models the Islamic Republic already has. That range, he says, is enough to protect Iran and its interests. Jafari also ruled out new talks with the United States and branded moderates and reformists who have called for such talks “traitors.”

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, says that what European leaders have offered so far in terms of benefits will not be enough to keep Iran in the nuclear deal now that the US has violated it. Meanwhile, the deputy head of the National Iranian Oil Company, Gholamreza Manouchehri, says that the decision by French energy firm Total to withdraw from Iran’s South Pars gas project in the face of renewed US sanctions has not impacted the development of that field and that “everything is going according to plan.” I’m not sure there’s any reason to believe that, but it does seem the Iranians aren’t ready to knuckle under to Donald Trump’s superior manly toughness just yet.

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