Middle East update: July 12 2018


The Syrian military seized the city of Daraa on Thursday, symbolically flying the Syrian flag in the middle of town in commemoration. Daraa is an important tactical victory–you can’t control southwestern Syria without it, obviously. But it may be an even bigger symbolic victory, because it was in Daraa in the spring of 2011 that Syria’s Arab Spring movement began. Bashar al-Assad’s suppression of that movement led to the civil war. In retaking Daraa he’s in a sense bringing the war full circle.

As for who’s going to be occupying southwestern Syria from now on, in his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week Benjamin Netanyahu says he got a commitment that Russia will work to keep Iran and its allied forces “tens of kilometers” away from the Israeli border. That’s pretty small potatoes considering that what Netanyahu really wants is Iran out of Syria altogether. But Russia can’t deliver that–hell, it might not even be able to deliver this, and it has not confirmed Netanyahu’s account of the meeting.


A new Amnesty International report documents atrocities committed by Yemeni and Emirati forces and calls for an investigation into people who are still missing and may have been taken to one of the UAE’s black site prisons in southern Yemen:

Justice remains elusive a year after a network of secret prisons was first exposed in southern Yemen, Amnesty International said in a new report today that documents egregious violations going unchecked, including systemic enforced disappearance and torture and other ill-treatment amounting to war crimes.

“God only knows if he’s alive” details how scores of men have been subjected to enforced disappearance after being arbitrarily arrested and detained by United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemeni forces operating outside the command of their own government. Many have been tortured, with some feared to have died in custody.

“The families of these detainees find themselves in an endless nightmare where their loved ones have been forcibly disappeared by UAE-backed forces. When they demand to know where their loved ones are held, or if they are even still alive, their requests are met with silence or intimidation,” said Tirana Hassan, Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International.


Instead of producing an electoral result that satisfies all interested parties, the recount in Kirkuk province appears to be producing contradictory narratives:

The recount started first in Kirkuk on July 3 and there were immediately stories of differences with the official vote count. The Turkmen Front for instance was the first to claim that there was up to a 50% variance between the results and the recount in the Daquq district of the province. There were subsequent articles that reported the same thing. One in the Baghdad Post quoted an observer in Daquq that alleged that the Arab Alliance only got 46 votes in the returns, but 239 in the recount, the PUK received 1,363 officially, but only 115 subsequently, while the Turkmen Front got 145 ballots at first vs 738 in the new count. Al Aalem was told that 168 out of 379 ballot boxes showed fraud in favor of the PUK. There were similar reports coming out of Sulaymaniya. On the other hand, the Patriotic Union claimed there were no real differences in the counts. Something that the United Nations deputy special representative to Iraq seconded.

The smaller Kurdish parties are all now insisting that the recount was fixed. So it looks like the electoral tension in Iraqi Kurdistan is going to continue indefinitely.

Speaking of tensions, large demonstrations are continuing to break out near Basra–three of them on Thursday, in fact. Police responded to the protests and two people were reportedly wounded though it’s unclear how. Iraqis remain angry at the government’s failure to provide basic services and at a lack of jobs. Basra’s oilfields have become a focal point in part because foreign oil companies are bringing in foreign workers instead of hiring Iraqis.


Israeli media has been helpfully “warning” the Palestinians, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia that Turkey is attempting to usurp control over East Jerusalem. Which is rich, given that Israeli won’t let anyone else control East Jerusalem. Turkish and Palestinian sources are calling this a “smear campaign” against Turkey:

The contentious Israeli-Turkish relationship continues to witness ups and downs as Israel appears to have begun a campaign to counter Turkey’s increased interest in Jerusalem. As part of Turkey’s support for Jerusalem and Palestinians, more Turkish tourists are coming to Jerusalem, and Israel has made claims of Turkey’s attempts to purchase properties in the holy city. A smear campaign has been initiated in parts of the Israeli media against Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Khalil Assali, publisher of the Jerusalem-focused website Akhbar el-Balad, told Al-Monitor that there is nothing new from Turkey, but Israeli media has been pumped up to smear the Turks. “The attacks on Turkey are aimed at forcing the Turks to improve their relationship with Israel,” he said.


Saudi authorities have reportedly arrested religious scholar Safar al-Hawali and three of his sons. Hawali is a long-time pro-democracy and anti-corruption advocate who, understandably, has a few issues with the Saudi royal family. He apparently published a book critical of the Saudis recently, and in the spirit of Mohammad bin Salman’s liberalizing reforms he’s now in jail because of it.

Speaking of liberalizing reform, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal says he’s 100 percent behind MBS’s economic program and he’s definitely not just saying that in order to stay out of jail and avoid forking over another $6 billion or so to the Saudi treasury.


The Nation has put together a very good piece on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the neocon DC think tank that has been more or less feeding Trump his Iran policy for the past year and a half (though its CEO, Mark Dubowitz, now pretends that he thinks Trump has gone too far):

Critics have often accused FDD of being little more than a stalking horse for Israeli interests in Washington. But Judis noted in his profile of the organization that he had seen “no evidence [Clifford] May and FDD ‘take instructions’ from the Israelis.”

But what is clear is that FDD, awash in funding by stalwart advocates of Israel, has adopted policy positions that rarely—if ever—deviate from the preferred policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party. As one longtime Iran policy hand quipped to me recently, “They really should be called the Foundation for the Defense of Likud.”

And it is true that FDD’s position on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestine as well as its enthusiastic reaction to Trump’s reckless decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem also reflect the predilections of the Israeli right wing.

But nowhere else has FDD’s pronounced tendency to echo right-wing Israeli policies manifested itself more clearly than in its advocacy for greater American involvement in the war on Syria.

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