Middle East update: June 23-24 2018

I’m going to be away for most of the next two weeks so these will be our last major updates until July 5.


Israel on Sunday launched a Patriot missile at a Syrian drone it says was about to cross into Israeli airspace. The missile missed and the drone apparently turned back on its own. Damascus says it was being used for operations in southwestern Syria (see below).

Bashar al-Assad told Russian TV on Sunday that he’s prepared to use force to regain control of northern Syria if necessary. That’s a threat directed not only at northern rebels and the Syrian Democratic Forces militia, but at Turkey and the US, which are patronizing each of those groups and occupying Syrian territory in the process. Turkey at this point seems far more entrenched in northern Syria than does the US–Ankara is building new infrastructure and institutions in the parts of Syria it occupies, while the US won’t even rebuild Raqqa, a city it destroyed, and lately has looked ready to cast the SDF aside in order to appease the Turks. Assad also said he does not want Western help to rebuild Syria, which is relevant in that the West seems to think withholding its aid will somehow force Assad to step down. You get the sense that Assad would rather rule a toxic dump at this point than take any Western money to clean it up. The Syrian people may feel differently, but I’m not sure that’s relevant when Assad is emerging victorious after seven years of war.

Assad is of course already using force to regain control of southwestern Syria. Thousands of Syrians are reportedly fleeing toward the Golan and the Jordanian border in an effort to escape increasingly frequent government air and artillery strikes in Quneitra and Daraa provinces. The United States, which is supposed to be co-guarantor of a ceasefire zone in Daraa, has been warning Assad of repercussions if he continues to push an offensive there. But with Russia now getting involved in the operation, the US has also reportedly told its allied rebel groups there that they “should not base [their] decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us.” In other words, the US cavalry isn’t on the way.

The Iraqi military says it has carried out another airstrike on the eastern Syrian town of Hajin, killing 45 ISIS fighters. On the other hand, the SDF is imposing a three day curfew in Raqqa on intelligence that ISIS has “infiltrated the city” and is planning a terror campaign there. That’s sure to endear them to a civilian populace that already seems to have soured on the SDF’s control over what’s left of the city.


The heaviest fighting in Hudaydah now reportedly centers on the city’s university, less than two miles from its center. Houthi rebels are deploying additional fighters in some of the city’s most heavily populated neighborhoods, a bad sign for the estimated 250,000 civilians in the city. The university sits near the road from Hudaydah’s airport, now controlled by Saudi/Emirati-led coalition forces, and its seaport. The seaport is still under Houthi control, though the United Nations is continuing to try to negotiate an international takeover to avoid having the fight spread there. At this point it appears the Houthis are amenable to handing the port over but it’s the coalition that won’t accept that arrangement. Which means, as though we didn’t already know, that the coalition values a decisive victory in Hudaydah more than it values preserving humanitarian aid access for millions of starving Yemeni civilians.


I’m tracking Turkish election results here. As I write this Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has declared victory, winning the first round with just under 53 percent of the vote. The parliamentary vote is cloudier but it appears the AKP-MHP alliance will have a majority when the dust clears. The opposition is already talking about election fraud but it’s unclear what avenue they would have through which to pursue such a claim. Turnout was very high, reportedly at around 87.5 percent.


A panel of judges that has been placed in charge of Iraq’s electoral commission says that instead of a full manual recount of votes cast in the country’s May 12 election, it will only conduct a partial recount of “problematic ballots.” This apparently means ballots specifically flagged over allegations of fraud or other funny-type business. That will speed up the recount but also reduces the chances of the recount producing some kind of dramatic electoral swing.

Which probably doesn’t matter, because Iraq looks headed toward another broad Shiʿa coalition government. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the first place Sairoon list, announced on Saturday that they are forming an alliance. That brings Sadr’s party into alignment with all of the major Shiʿa seat-holders coming out of the election. Abadi wants to retain the PM job but some of Sadr’s other coalition partners are resisting that. Iranian lobbying (and maybe some more…energetic forms of persuasion as well) appears to be behind the formation of this coalition, which will have enough seats in parliament to form a government but whose existence threatens to exacerbate Iraq’s sectarian political divides and seemingly undercuts Sadr’s stated aim to form a nonsectarian government that would end patronage and corruption.


Experienced peacemaker Jared Kushner is going to bring peace to the Israel-Palestine conflict whether the Palestinians like it or not goddammit:

Kushner said the plan is “almost done,” but offered scant details aside from the promise of economic prosperity. He made no mention of a Palestinian state arising alongside Israel, though he acknowledged that Arab partners support that goal.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and two years later, Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas’ forces. Abbas now governs only small autonomous zones in the West Bank.

Kushner cast doubt on Abbas’ ability to make a deal, alleging that the Palestinian leadership is “scared we will release our peace plan and the Palestinian people will actually like it” because it would offer them a better life.

“The global community is getting frustrated with Palestinian leadership and not seeing many actions that are constructive toward achieving peace,” Kushner said. “There are a lot of sharp statements and condemnations, but no ideas or efforts with prospects of success.”

The global community is undeniably frustrated with Palestinian leadership, which has for the most part been unequal to every task set before it. But Kushner appears to be laboring under the conception that the global community is not frustrated with the United States, which is delusional. His plan, which shapes up as a deal whereby Israel and the US will stop starving Palestinians if they agree to graciously accept Israel as an apartheid state, is unlikely to go over well.


The Egyptian government is extending its state of emergency for another three months, starting on July 14. That state of emergency was imposed last year in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks.


Dubai has reportedly become a money-laundering haven:

Fraudsters involved in scams costing the Treasury almost £100m have bought a string of luxury apartments in Dubai – now considered to have replaced Spain’s Costa Del Crime as the place to launder money – a major leak of a secret Dubai property database has revealed.

The list of purchasers will be studied closely by British investigators, who have been chasing the missing millions the fraudsters owe the UK and other European countries. All the men are accused of being involved in so-called carousel fraud, which is estimated to have cost the UK £16.5bn in tax revenues between 2005 and 2016.

Rod Stone, former assistant director of the HM Revenue and Customs organised crime national coordination unit, said fraudsters began consigning goods via Dubai in 2005 in an attempt to undermine the tax authorities’ ability to identify the tell-tale circular movements that indicate carousel fraud. “Fraudsters used Dubai banks to avoid both the stringent anti-money laundering reporting requirements in the UK, and the authorities’ ability to freeze their ill-gotten gains,” Stone said. “Many law enforcement professionals now believe that Dubai has replaced the Costa del Crime in Spain as the place criminals conceal and invest the proceeds.”


Saudi media says that Saudi missile defenses intercepted and destroyed two Houthi-fired missiles over Riyadh on Sunday. Houthi-controlled media reported that the missiles hit their target but there’s been no word of any casualties.

Sunday was the big day for Saudi women, who are now free to drive as long as they haven’t already been arrested by Saudi authorities for agitating too much for the right to drive. Now maybe the Saudis will get to work on the countless other rights they currently deny women. And Shiʿa. And non-Muslims. You get the idea.


Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran fighters reportedly clashed with Islamic Revolutionary Guard soldiers over the weekend in Iran’s West Azerbaijan province, with one dead on each side.

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