Middle East update: June 20 2018


The escalation in government bombardments in southwestern Syria reportedly has the Jordanian government concerned. Amman would desperately like to see its main border crossing with Syria reopened to facilitate commercial traffic, but it wants a peaceful solution to the situation to avoid either a new influx of displaced Syrians heading for the Jordanian border or a beefed-up Israeli intervention as the fighting gets close to the occupied Golan. The latter risks a wider conflict.

Both the Syrian military and rebels committed war crimes during the Syrian government’s five year siege of Damascus’s Eastern Ghouta suburb, according to a new report from the United Nations commission of inquiry for Syria:

The government and its allies took control of eastern Ghouta in April after imposing what the commission described as “the longest siege in modern history,” displacing more than 140,000 people from their homes and unleashing bombardments that destroyed hospitals, markets and schools and forced residents to live in cellars and basements.

Those bombardments — mainly airstrikes by Syrian and Russian planes — killed 1,100 civilians and injured 4,000 others in a period of less than a month from Feb. 18, the commission says in a 23-page report that it is to deliver to the Human Rights Council next week.

Tens of thousands of those who fled are still held unlawfully by the government, which pursued a policy of blanket internment the panel called “reprehensible.”

The report accuses rebels in that pocket of indiscriminately attacking civilian areas in Damascus, causing “hundreds” of casualties.


For what seems like the fourth day in a row, on Wednesday the Saudi/Emirati-led coalition declared that it has captured Hudaydah’s airport. I guess one of these days they’ll be right, no? We saw this kind of premature victory stuff happen in Iraq during the anti-ISIS campaign–it stems from having multiple autonomous actors involved in the fight, each of which has political reasons for wanting to boast about progress as quickly as possible and ideally before any of the other actors do. This time I’m going to tentatively say that it looks like the airport is finally in coalition hands, because there are reports that the fighting has reached residential parts of the city. With an estimated 250,000 people in Hudaydah, that’s most definitely not good news. The city’s seaport continues to operate normally, though it may be on borrowed time.


PKK fighters killed two Turkish soldiers in a guerrilla attack in Hakkari province on Wednesday, while Turkish airstrikes reportedly killed 10 PKK fighters in northern Iraq.

Congress may still call off the sale of F-35s to Turkey if it can figure out how to replace Turkish contractors in the aircraft’s manufacturing process. The main concern centers around Turkey’s planned purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems and Turkey’s close ties with Russia generally. Congress doesn’t want any Russians snooping around our special $1.5 trillion pilot asphyxiation device. The sale is progressing as normal for now, but it will take years to train up the depleted Turkish air force before it can actually use the aircraft, so that gives the Pentagon some time to assess the security situation.

A record number of expat Turks, 1.49 million, have voted ahead of Sunday’s general election. Voting at Turkish consulates and embassies is now closed, but expats who are close enough can still vote at the Turkish border through election day. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tends to be a polarizing figure among expats, but in Germany, the country with the largest Turkish expat community in Europe, a majority supported his constitutional changes in last year’s referendum. The additional turnout may come from non-voters who are so opposed to Erdoğan’s agenda that they finally went to the trouble of voting, but obviously it’s impossible to know that at this point.

I’m not sure how much more we can say here in advance of the election, but if you want more What’s It All About-style pieces on this story, there’s one by the AP today talking about the new opposition unity that’s threatening to break Erdoğan’s hold on power, and another in The Guardian about how Erdoğan is still in complete control. I will say this: everything rides on the presidential election. An unfriendly parliament can slow Erdoğan’s movement toward one-man rule, but probably only for a while before Erdoğan simply calls new elections. And we know from past experience that he’ll do that over and over again until he gets the result he wants. As long as Erdoğan emerges from this election as president he’s sitting pretty, and since he’s favored to win at least in the runoff, he’s in good shape.


The European Union is sending over $190 million to Lebanon to help it care for Syrian and Palestinian refugees. The EU announced the package on World Refugee Day.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s General Security directorate announced earlier this week that it’s instituting a new policy allowing Iranian nationals to fly into Lebanon without getting their passports stamped. Amid an almost instant outcry over unchecked Iranian influence in Lebanon, Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said on Wednesday that, hey, the new policy also applies to Gulf Arabs (there’s reason to believe he threw that into the new policy in response to the backlash) and, anyway, he’s thinking about canceling it altogether. Not stamping passports is something many countries do if a traveler has reason to believe that a particular country’s stamp will make it harder for him or her to travel to another country. Usually some kind of entry card gets stamped instead. But I grant you that carving out a special exemption for one country’s nationals is a little weird.


The Israeli military says it bombed 25 targets linked to Hamas in Gaza on Wednesday morning after rockets and mortars were fired across the Gaza fence line overnight. At least three people were wounded in Gaza against no reported Israeli casualties.

If you sometimes wonder why the Democratic party is at best pretty awful on Palestinian issues, consider that one of its largest donors is absolutely wretched on the subject:

TELEVISION MOGUL AND Democratic Party megadonor Haim Saban is privately reprimanding lawmakers who spoke out about the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Saban emailed the senators, some at their personal addresses, to directly express his displeasure with a letter organized last month by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Twelve Democrats and Sanders signed the May 11, 2018, letter calling for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “act urgently in order to help relieve the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.” The letter, which came amid a deadly Israeli response to a protest movement in the Gaza Strip, said that the Trump administration should restore funding to a United Nations humanitarian effort and encourage Israel to ease restrictions on Palestinians living in Gaza. Three days after the senators sent the letter, Israel fired on another round of protests, leaving dozens dead and hundreds more wounded.

On Tuesday, The Intercept obtained a copy of an email Saban sent to six of the senators, along with a handful of staffers for the others, expressing his “dismay” that they signed.

Campaign finance reform remains one important path toward fixing much of our terrible foreign policy.


White the Hudaydah battle is going on, the AP has uncovered more gruesome details about the treatment of prisoners in UAE-run detention facilities across Yemen. This is really awful stuff so please be forewarned:

From inside a Yemeni prison controlled by the United Arab Emirates — a top U.S. ally — a Yemeni detainee held without charges chronicled torture and sexual abuses through drawings. Smuggled to The Associated Press from the Beir Ahmed prison in the southern city of Aden, the drawings offer a grim glimpse into a hidden world of flagrant human rights abuses by UAE officers acting with impunity.

Sexual violence is a primary tool aimed at brutalizing the detainees and extracting “confessions,” the artist and six other detainees told the AP.

The drawings — made on plastic plates — show a man hanging naked from chains while he is being subjected to electric shocks, another inmate on the floor surrounded by snarling dogs as several people kick him, and graphic depictions of anal rape.

“The worst thing about it is that I wish for death every day and I can’t find it,” the artist said, summing up nearly two years in detention that started last year after he spoke against the Emiratis in public.

This is a close US ally doing this stuff, remember.


Saudi women will get to drive starting on Sunday! Hooray! I mean, provided they haven’t all been tossed in jail by then. At least two more women’s rights activists were thrown in the slammer by Saudi authorities earlier this month, according to Human Rights Watch. At least 12 women remain imprisoned amid a now month-long Saudi crackdown against activists, which Huda Alsahi suggests is partly motivated by the recent rise in Saudi nationalism.


Thanks to the Trump administration’s decision to violate the nuclear deal, Iranian conservatives are winning an internal battle over whether or not to reform Iran’s banking system to correspond with international standards:

A priority for those in Iran seeking re-integration into the international economy has been banking reforms that conform to globally accepted standards.

But hardline factions oppose the reforms as surrender to US-led financial institutions and their views have been reinforced by the US decision to unilaterally leave the Iran nuclear deal.

On June 10, the parliament postponed for at least two months approval of key legislation establishing safeguards against financing terrorism and money laundering required for Iran to join the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a Paris-based international financial watchdog institution. This decision could have a negative impact at the next FATF plenary June 24-29 where members will decide whether to keep Iran on a “gray list” of transgressors or put it back on a “black list” with North Korea.

Leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran are hoping to capitalize on a general resurgence of support for the Kurds in Washington, as well as the Trump administration’s obsession with Iran, to get US support for their operations in western Iran. Fomenting unrest inside Iran appears to be stage 2 in John Bolton’s Iran playbook, right after withdrawing from the nuclear accord. Iranian Kurdish groups are hampered greatly by the fact that Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government has been trying to build ties with Tehran and does not want its territory used for insurgent operations against Iran.

If you’re a fan of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani then you’re likely familiar with the 2014 PR blitz he conducted in Iraq, where he was as visible as he’s ever been while supposedly coordinating the defense of Iraq from ISIS. It now appears that was mostly for show to hide the fact that Soleimani was being sidelined by the Iranian government. Patrick Wing has more on this.

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