Middle East update: June 21 2018


Syrian artillery struck more targets in the rebel-held southwest on Thursday, and it seems as though Bashar al-Assad has finally committed to that area as his next target. Thousands of civilians have reportedly begun fleeing parts of Daraa province in anticipating of a government offensive there. The Syrian military appears to be focusing its fire on the towns of Busra al-Harir and Hirak, both of which sit just east of the M5 highway that runs south into Jordan.

The International Crisis Group suggests there’s an opening here for the Trump administration, one of the guarantors of the supposed Daraa ceasefire, to step in and negotiate a deal that would peacefully return the southwest to Assad and minimize the damage that’s already taking place:

A Syrian military offensive on the southwest now seems imminent. Clashes broke out on the area’s eastern edge on Tuesday, and the Syrian military bombed rebel-held towns from the air, an unambiguous breach of the de-escalation agreement. Time is short. Still, there may still be a chance for an alternative. In our latest report at the International Crisis Group, Keeping the Calm in Southern Syria, we urge all sides – the de-escalation agreement’s three sponsors as well as, indirectly, Israel and the Syrian government – to broker a deal to prevent a bloody fight for the southwest.

For the Trump administration, that means it has to choose: Will it deal with the southwest on the area’s own terms, helping to spare civilian life and promoting the interests of Jordan and Israel, two close allies? Or will it fail to engage seriously in negotiations and allow events to take a more brutal course, one that crushes the southwestern opposition, rends the area’s remaining social fabric, and squanders whatever terms and guarantees Washington and its allies might have been able to negotiate in advance?

It seems unlikely that the US and Assad are going to be negotiating anything for a while. US airstrikes reportedly killed a “Syrian army officer” outside of the US-rebel base at Tanf on Thursday. Pro-Assad forces say that the strike targeted a military base while the US says it struck an armed force that was approaching Tanf.

Meanwhile, and this was really only a matter of time, Syria’s Kurds–the ones serving as US proxies whom the US is about to throw under the proverbial bus to appease Turkey–say they’re ready to talk with Assad. The Kurds want a democratic, federal Syria, but they aren’t in great negotiating position with the Turks breathing down their neck and the US unlikely to stick around to help them if push comes to shove. Cutting a deal with Assad may be the best play they have at this point.


Despite losing Hudaydah’s airport, the Houthis are not planning to withdraw from the city. That way they can share a little of the blame for what happens to the 250,000 civilians in the city. So far 348 people have been killed, but that’s only military casualties–civilian figures are still unknown, though to be fair the fighting hasn’t really hit the most populated areas of the city yet. Many civilian parts of the city have reportedly lost water and the Houthis appear to be preparing for street-to-street fighting against coalition forces, where they may have an advantage provided the coalition shows any restraint in employing its air power.

The United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths says he’s “confident that we can reach an agreement” on a ceasefire in Hudaydah that would “avert any escalation of violence.” The UN’s main concern is securing international control over the city’s seaport, the main point of entry for humanitarian aid, in order to keep the fighting away from there. He’s apparently gotten positive signals from the Houthis, but as it’s the coalition that’s making advances it’s going to be harder to sell them on a ceasefire. The Houthis are also reportedly signaling that they might be open to handing the port over to UN control.

The Intercept’s Alex Potter was able to get a firsthand look at the war’s impact on Sanaa, which isn’t near the heaviest fighting but is feeling the effects just the same:

THE CHANGES THAT three years of war have wrought on Sanaa are subtle and, at first, easily overlooked. The northern Yemeni city isn’t destroyed, but rubble from airstrikes remains in certain neighborhoods. People’s clothes aren’t in tatters, but men these days prefer colored robes instead of the traditional white, so they don’t have to launder them as often. All of the different types of Yemeni bread, from long, thin roti to flat rashoosh, are smaller, and food vendors in the market portion out their goods exactly in plastic bags, rather than throwing in some extra for good measure. More people walk in the streets, instead of spending a few riyals on a bus, or more on a taxi. At home, women make bread in wood stoves, rather than gas ovens, since the price of gas is over 10 times what it was before the war. 

The front-line battles are far from Sanaa, but the entire north is suffering the consequences of a blockade by the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi forces that have controlled the region since 2014. No civilian flights are allowed from the Sanaa airport, and international aid is often stopped and delayed. In addition to the skyrocketing price of goods, the Yemeni riyal has dropped from 250 to 450 on the dollar. The resulting economic crisis from the loss of jobs and trade has left 80 percent of the population in need of humanitarian aid, most often in the form of financial support and food. The markets are full, but no one is buying. Many Yemeni families go hungry, subsisting on only one meal a day, and while there is no outright famine, familiar faces, once full of life, are now hollow and drawn with worry.


While Congress continues to look at measures that would prevent Turkey from purchasing the F-35 due to Ankara’s relationship with Russia, Turkey is actually getting ahold of two of the planes this week–at least, according to Ankara–for training and testing before they buy the rest of their lot. The Turks won’t be taking the planes home just yet. Their pilots are going to receive training on the aircraft (“Session 1: What to Do When You Run Out of Oxygen,” “Session 2: OK, I’ve Used My One Missile; Now What,” and so forth) first. Turkey’s F-35 sales agreement specified that they would receive the two aircraft by June 21, which is today.

Burak Kadercan examines the three potential scenarios for Sunday’s Turkish election:

What should spectators expect from the upcoming twin elections? There are three possible scenarios: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the “good” scenario, Erdogan and his AKP are finally “balanced” by an opposition victory in either the presidential or parliamentarian races (or both), an outcome that may stop Turkish democracy’s slide from majoritarianism to outright authoritarianism. The “bad” scenario involves Erdogan scoring victories in both races. Under such circumstances, he and the AKP will further tighten their grip on Turkish political and social life, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the opposition to have any chance of victory in elections down the road. Such an outcome would accelerate Turkey’s move toward an increasingly authoritarian regime that legitimizes its existence through a majoritarian understanding of democracy that passes the votes of the majority as the “will of the people,” without acknowledging that the AKP closely controls much of the media and harshly silences opposing voices. The “ugly” scenario entails either Erdogan or the opposition refusing to agree to the election results. In this scenario, Turkey will likely undergo either large-scale protests and instability, likely met by an authoritarian crackdown that would make the emergency rule of the last two years look like a day at the beach.

Needless to say I wouldn’t bet on “good,” and as Kadercan writes even the “good” outcome isn’t all that great because opposition gains in this election can still be reversed.


Iraq’s Supreme Federal Court ruled on Thursday that a nationwide hand recount of votes cast in the country’s May 12 election can proceed as ordered by parliament, but additionally ruled that parliament’s decision to scrap ballots from displaced persons, from overseas, and from Kurdish Peshmerga fighters was illegitimate.


Israel struck what it called Gazan “infrastructure” on Thursday in response to the ongoing use of flaming kites as weapons by Palestinians at the Gaza fence line. I have no idea how the Israelis found any infrastructure in Gaza after their 11 year blockade of the place, but kudos to their spotters I guess.

The Trump administration is reportedly weeks away from releasing the Kushner Accords, which will likely (and justifiably) be rejected on sight by Palestinian leadership. Kushner and Jason Greenblatt are visiting Arab leaders to encourage them to pressure the Palestinians to graciously accept whatever shitty deal the US is about to offer them.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife Sara has been charged with fraud for using public money to order delivery. No seriously, she apparently ordered tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of delivery between 2010 and 2013. Israeli law forbids the PM from using public money to order food when the PM has a cook on staff, which the Netanyahus did, though Sara Netanyahu apparently tried to obfuscate that fact.


The Saudis are now taking bids for their forward-thinking and not at all batshittedly petty plan to dig a canal just south of their border with Qatar and then dump nuclear waste on the Qatari side of the canal. There is no real benefit to doing this that anybody can see, but it’ll I guess make the Saudis feel like they got one over on the Qataris.


In response to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s list of 12 preconditions that Iran would have to meet to negotiate a new nuclear arrangement with the United States, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday issued a 15 point list of demands for the United States. It’s equally as pointless as Pompeo’s list, but there are three more of them so I guess advantage: Iran on this one.

The Iranians are trying to advance development work on upgrading their Chabahar port into a commercial, energy, and manufacturing hub as a counterweight to US sanctions. Chabahar is a joint project that is in part meant to link India to Afghanistan without having to go overland via Pakistan, with India investing $85 million in the development project. It was intended to serve as a major gateway into Central Asia, but now Iran finds itself competing with China’s Belt and Road initiative on that front.

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