Middle East update: July 17 2018


Stop me if you’ve heard this one already, but the Syrian military on Tuesday continued its offensive in the country’s southwest, to deadly effect. At least 10 people were reportedly killed in a barrel bomb attack on a village called Ain al-Tineh, while the city of Nawa was subjected to repeated airstrikes, with reports of casualties there as well. Nawa is a medium sized city that may have swelled to as many as 100,000 inhabitants amid the war, and its one of the last populated areas of Daraa province still outside government hands–some 90 percent of the province is now under Damascus’s control. A large group of Syrians displaced by the fighting approached the Israeli border on Tuesday seeking asylum, but they were turned away by Israeli border guards.

Negotiators from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militant group may have reached a deal that will allow for civilians to be evacuated from two predominantly Shiʿa towns that HTS has been besieging since 2015. Around 7000 civilians remain in the towns of Fuʿah and Kefraya after a 2017 agreement saw most of the towns’ residents evacuated. If the deal goes through they’ll be let go in exchange for the release of around 1500 rebels and civilians who are being held by the Syrian government.

In a new statement, Amnesty International slams the US-led coalition for being “deeply in denial” about the number of civilians that were killed last year due to coalition airstrikes on Raqqa. A report published by the group last month concluded that there is “prima facie evidence that several Coalition attacks [in Raqqa] which killed and injured civilians violated international humanitarian law.”

Speaking of Raqqa, Joshua Landis argues that the US position in northeastern Syria is increasingly untenable:

The U.S. has set itself up for failure in northern Syria, not only because the region is likely to become ever harder to rule, but also because the U.S. has slipped into the role of champion of Kurdish nationalism in Syria. But only 2.5 million Kurds live in northeast Syria; the region is the poorest and least developed part of the country. What is more, Turkey and Syria are determined to prevent the emergence of a capable or independent Kurdish military that will threaten their stability and authority. Trump has repeatedly said he wants to withdraw troops from Syria. He is right to look for a way out before an insurgency begins attacking U.S. troops. The U.S. must seek to secure a better deal for the Kurds within Syria. But to remain in the country for the “long haul” is to set America up for failure.

Turkey, according to Al-Monitor’s Semih Idiz, is deeply concerned that the US and Russia are working on a plan to ally their respective Syrian proxies (the Kurds and Bashar al-Assad). That would be a big problem in terms of Turkey’s plans to clear the Kurds out of northern Syria and expand their own presence along the border. Presumably Ankara was pleased that nothing of substance came out of Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin on Monday.


Fighting in and around Hudaydah has killed at least 30 people over the past two weeks, according to the AP. And that’s with the coalition having hit the pause button on their offensive in an effort to give the United Nations time to negotiate a Houthi surrender of Hudaydah’s seaport and also because the offensive was stalling anyway.


Protests in southern Iraq reached their 11th day on Tuesday:

People came out into the streets in Baghdad, Basra, Dhi Qar, Karbala, Muthanna, and Najaf. In the capital, there was talk of huge demonstrations, which did not materialize. At the start of the day there were two gatherings in Tahrir Square and Shula, and then people went home. At night, when the temperature went down there was a new march of around 300 in Shula. Police were given orders to arrest all demonstrators, and forcibly broke up the protesters with 1 killed. In Basra, people came out to the Siba gas field, the provincial council building in Basra city, and the Um Qasr port. Someone also blew up an electricity tower serving the West Qurna oil field with an IED. There were protests in several areas of Dhi Qar that included the main highway to Baghdad being shut down with burning tires, one in Karbala city, one in Muthanna, and one in Najaf where people tried to storm a Badr office. A protester that was shot yesterday also died in Karbala bringing the total death count to 16 since the daily demonstrations began.

Meanwhile, ISIS is still making its presence felt in central Iraq:

Over the past two months, dozens of people, including local government officials, tribal elders and village chiefs have been abducted and killed or ransomed by fighters claiming affiliation with the Islamic State. Electricity infrastructure and oil pipelines have been blown up. Armed men dressed as security forces and manning fake checkpoints have hijacked trucks and robbed travelers, rendering the main Baghdad-Kirkuk highway unsafe for a period of weeks.

In one of the most sinister attacks, six members of the Iraqi security forces were captured at one of the fake checkpoints and forced to appear in a somewhat wobbly video. Kneeling before the black-and-white Islamic State flag and flanked by two heavily bearded figures, the men took turns warning they would be killed if the Iraqi government did not release Sunni women prisoners. Days later, the bullet ridden bodies of the men were found dumped in the area.


Israeli authorities have cut off fuel shipments into Gaza until Sunday in response to the ongoing use of crude incendiary devices by Gaza militants. The Gazan insurgents attach burning rags or other items to kites, balloons, even allegedly birds, and then attempt to fly those things over the Gaza fence to set fire to nearby Israeli farms.

In Washington, meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are pushing Trump to recognize the Golan as part of Israel. Apart from setting a lousy precedent–it’s unclear how the US could justify recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan but not Russia’s annexation of Crimea, whose people at least got to hold a referendum beforehand–the Golan is a test case for Israel. If they can get Trump to recognize their ownership of Golan, you can assume they’ll be back to ask him to recognize their ownership of most of the West Bank before he leaves office.


The BBC has come into possession of texts and voicemails exchanged between Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and Qatar’s ambassador to Iraq around the alleged $1 billion ransom Qatar paid to Shiʿa militias in Iraq to free several Qatari nationals last year. That alleged ransom was one of the big justifications for the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar that kicked off last summer. The Qataris say they sent $1 billion to Iraq, for, uh, economic development or whatever, and what the Iraqis do with that money is their own business. These messages, given to the BBC “by a government hostile to Qatar” and possibly curated for maximum effect, don’t really prove anything either way. But they’re an interesting read.


Iranian state media reported on Tuesday that security forces in southwestern Iran have arrested four suspected ISIS members who were plotting attacks in the country.

European Council on Foreign Relations’ fellow Ellie Geranmayeh is not optimistic about Europe’s chances to salvage the Iran nuclear deal:

The Iran nuclear agreement marked its third anniversary in a gloomy state. Despite repeated attempts to keep him on board, US President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal – signed on July 14, 2015 under the formal title the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and thereby pulled the rug from under Europe’s feet. European policymakers are now focused on salvaging the agreement. For a growing number of European corporate decision-makers, the deal is already dead. In reality, the JCPOA is on life support and the next few months could open either its next or final chapter. Despite the significant challenges they face, European governments have some limited time to avert the deal’s collapse.

Exceedingly high temperatures and a 10+ year long drought are combining to cause regular power outages across Iran:

The situation along with an annual increase in electricity consumption and the summer heat wave that has hit the country have resulted in power shortages in recent weeks. The hourslong power outages, which have repeatedly occurred in many cities, including the capital city of Tehran, have affected many businesses and citizens. Many people, including the elderly and the disabled, have complained about getting trapped inside elevators.

A manager of a workshop in central Tehran told Al-Monitor, “The power cuts are costing us money. Each day we rush to complete our work thinking the power may cut off at a moment’s notice. This is bad for morale.”

The extra demand for power created when everybody has to fire up their air conditioners is exacerbated by the fact that Iran’s reservoirs are so low that it’s reducing the country’s hydroelectric output. There’s almost no question that these conditions are contributing to the climate of protest and anti-government sentiment that’s rippled throughout Iran in recent weeks.

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