Middle East update: July 7-8 2018


According to Syrian state media, Israeli planes fired missiles at the T4 airbase outside of Homs on Sunday night. That base is used by Iranian personnel and the Israelis have attacked it previously. The Syrian reports say that their air defenses “thwarted” the attack, shooting down several Israeli missiles and hiting one Israeli aircraft, but Syrian media has been known to…oh, let’s say “exaggerate” these sorts of things in the past.

The ceasefire deal in southwestern Syria may be coming apart. On Sunday, Syrian aircraft struck rebel targets in a village called Umm al-Mayadin near the Jordanian border. They killed at least four people. It appears that rebels in the village refused to abide by the terms of the ceasefire agreement by handing over medium and heavy weaponry, citing some unspecified violations of the agreement by Russia and the Syrian government. Rebels in western Daraa province are also rejecting the ceasefire and fighting has continued there as well. On the plus side, the United Nations says that most of the roughly 320,000 people who were displaced by fighting in the area over the past several weeks have already begun to return home.

From Damascus’s perspective perhaps the most important outcome of the fighting in Daraa has been the recovery of the Nassib border crossing into Jordan. Infrastructure at the site has been damaged, but once it’s repaired and reopened the border crossing should be a major boost to the Syrian economy as it controls one of Syria’s chief trade routes to the south.


The Yemeni government, such as it is, says that the ongoing campaign to take Hudaydah from the Houthis has claimed 165 lives on both sides of the conflict. That figure is almost certainly too low, given the source. There’s been limited fighting south of Hudaydah’s main urban center over the past couple of days, but overall the coalition’s campaign there seems to be on hold as they give the UN time to try to negotiate a Houthi withdrawal in order to spare Hudaydah’s seaport.


Iraqi security forces opened fire on protesters outside of Basra on Sunday, killing one person according to a local official (Iraqi police have not acknowledged any deaths but say that eight people were wounded). The protesters were demonstrating against the weak Iraqi economy and the government’s failure to provide basic utility services.

The manual election recount in Kirkuk province has reportedly found discrepancies on half of the ballots it tallied, prompting former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to call for a new election. That’s an extreme long shot, but allegations of fraud are being leveled at the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, which won six of the province’s 12 seats in the May vote. The PUK says that the recount has not changed the distribution of Kirkuk’s seats and is threatening to sue its accusers, mostly smaller Kurdish parties.


The Trump administration has apparently realized that any peace plan it proposes will be dead on arrival as far as the Palestinian people are concerned, and may be changing tactics to focus instead on ending the humanitarian crisis in Gaza as a way to regain the goodwill it’s lost through, well, pretty much everything it’s done on Israel-Palestine to date. The promise of developmental aid would also be used to leverage Hamas into ending border protests and entering some kind of ceasefire arrangement with Israel, which would be good for Israel in that it would end Israel’s recurring PR nightmare at the Gaza fence line. And it would presumably let the administration bypass the UN Relief and Works Agency, which handles Palestinian issues, giving Nikki Haley a chance to flip the UN off (symbolically) yet again.

The deeper intent of a Gaza-oriented relief policy from the Trump administration and Israel would be to eventually separate Gaza from the West Bank. Israel doesn’t give a shit about Gaza except as a national security matter, but it wants to annex the West Bank, so by separating the two and actually letting a functional state develop in Gaza the Israelis would be pursuing the “let them eat cake” strategy for Palestinian independence. Talk about how “there’s already a Palestinian state in Gaza,” which is absurd now if you take 30 seconds to Google what life is like there, wouldn’t be so absurd anymore if the Israelis were to actually let Gaza out from under the blockade and if the strip were actually allowed to develop. The result could be a weakened Palestinian Authority and a weakened Palestinian cause in the West Bank.


The UAE has extended the term of its mandatory military service for men with a high school diploma from 12 to 16 months, possibly due to pressures caused by the ongoing Yemen intervention. Emirati men without a high school diploma will continue to have a two year mandatory service requirement.


Two people, a Saudi security officer and a Bangladeshi national, were killed on Sunday in an attack on a security checkpoint in Qassim province. It’s not yet clear who was responsible for the attack.

Israeli reporter Barak Ravid has a Twitter thread on Israel’s concerns with respect to the US helping the Saudis develop a nuclear power program:

One big sticking point is the uranium enrichment issue. Israel’s red lines include no Saudi enrichment capability, but the Saudis are equally insistent that they develop one. Donald Trump has of course wrecked the Iran deal, which would have offered a model for constraining a Saudi enrichment program. It’s likely he’ll wind up on the Saudi side of this because there’s money to be made that way, and he’ll justify it by arguing that if the US wasn’t helping the Saudis then whatever country did wind up helping them–China perhaps–would probably enable them to develop an enrichment capability anyway.

While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman talks about “returning” the kingdom to a moderate form of Islam, his actions of late suggest that he’s not really interested in reforming the Wahhabi establishment so much in trying to convince people that Wahhabism is moderate:

Prince Mohammed is unlikely to pull off a break with the Wahhabi religious establishment because the clerics have proved to be resilient and have displayed a great capacity to adapt to transitions and vagaries of power… The crown prince’s public denunciations of extremist ideas and promises to promote moderate Islam have been interpreted as a renewed desire to break with Wahhabism. A closer reading shows that Prince Mohammed primarily condemns the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadists and exonerates Wahhabism,” said Nabil Mouline, a historian of Saudi religious scholars and the monarchy.

Mr. Mouline went on to say that “the historical pact between the monarchy and the religious establishment has never been seriously challenged. It has been reinterpreted and redesigned during times of transition or crisis to better reflect changing power relations and enable partners to deal with challenges efficiently.”

Predicting that Wahhabism would likely remain a pillar of the kingdom in the medium term, Mr. Mouline cautioned that “any confrontation between the children of Saud and the heirs of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab will be destructive for both.”

Prince Mohammed has indeed in word and deed indicated that his reforms may not entail a clean break with Wahhabism and has been ambiguous about the degree of social change that he envisions.


While I was away, the Trump administration warned people to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain:

The United States is not pursuing regime change in Iran, a top State Department official insisted today, even while he highlighted recent Iranian protests, the Iranian currency’s plunge in value against the dollar and the Donald Trump administration’s urging of countries around the world to drop their imports of Iranian oil to zero by November.

“This new strategy is not about changing the regime,” State Department policy planning chief Brian Hook told journalists at the State Department today. “It is about changing the behavior of the leadership in Iran to comport with what the Iranian people really want them to do.”

“The Iranian people are rightly frustrated with the regime, and they are expressing their frustration in nationwide protests and in smaller acts of defiance throughout the country,” Hook said.

The United States is not pursuing regime change in Iran, even though we totally think Iran should change regimes and we’re pursuing policies intended to maximize the pain and frustration felt by the Iranian people toward their regime. Who are you going to believe, anyway, Brian Hook or your lying eyes?

That the “maximum pressure” policy being pursued by this administration is likely to lead to a lot of pain and suffering in Iran doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind in Washington. Nor is the fact that, even if this policy does somehow lead to regime change, there’s no reason to believe that whatever replaces the current Iranian government would be any friendlier to the West than this one is.

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