Middle East update: July 18-19 2018


Most of the rebels in Quneitra province appear to have agreed to the standard “surrender and/or be bused to Idlib” deal that Russia and the Syrian government have been offering to everybody lately. Likewise, rebels in the city of Nawa, in Daraa province, surrendered on Wednesday. With the exception of some scattered fighting with holdouts who refuse to accept the surrender agreements, this puts both provinces, and thus Syria’s border with Israel, back under Bashar al-Assad’s control. It means Quneitra has been handled without provoking a substantial escalation with Israel. And it also means that only two large areas of Syria remain out of Assad’s hands: the Turkish-controlled northwest, including Idlib, and the Kurdish/US-controlled northeast. Both pose major challenges and concerns.

The Kurds have expressed a willingness to negotiate with Assad, so if he were going to immediately move on one of those two regions I would guess it would be the northwest. Idlib is under a Turkish-guaranteed ceasefire but it isn’t directly under Turkish control the way northern Aleppo province is, so Assad could go there first. But nothing says he’s going to move on anything immediately. Idlib is packed with rebel groups displaced from the rest of the country, and they’ve been at one another’s throats for some time now, so Assad may actually want to give them more time to tear each other apart before doing anything himself. Plus Turkey’s presence is a genuine complicating factor.

Speaking of Idlib province, the besieged Shiʿa villages of Fuʿah and Kefraya have now been fully evacuated, under a deal negotiated between Iranian-backed forces and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The Syrian government agreed to free some 1500 prisoners in return for the remaining residents of those towns being allowed to leave.

You’ll be pleased to know that the US military hasn’t had any changes to its orders in Syria since Monday’s summit between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Goodness knows we wouldn’t want to see the US military stop doing…whatever it’s still doing there. Eliminating whatever’s left of ISIS, or containing Iran, or just squatting on Syrian soil, whatever. They’re really knocking it out of the park.


Al Jazeera reports on the estimated 121,000 Yemenis who have been displaced by the fighting in Hudaydah and relocated to neighboring Lahij province:


Turkey’s state of emergency, in place for almost two years since 2016’s failed coup attempt, finally ended early this morning. This was one of the promises that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made during his reelection campaign. The SOE’s usefulness to Erdoğan ended when he won reelection last month and cemented his permanent hold on power under Turkey’s new executive presidential system. And really, it’s not going away: the state of emergency is being replaced with new “anti-terror” legislation that will keep most of its measures intact under a different name for at least the next three years.


At least 11 people were wounded in Kirkuk on Wednesday due to ISIS roadside bombs and mortar attacks. Another reminder that the group is still active in some parts of the country.

A government crackdown featuring multiple arrests of organizers, activists, and journalists appears to be having the intended effect on protests in southern Iraq, which have been diminishing in both size and scope. On Wednesday protests broke out in only three provinces, though there has apparently been talk about a large mass demonstration on Friday. Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of Iraq’s largest party following May’s election, expressed support for protesters on Thursday and called for the formation of Iraq’s next government to be delayed until their demands have been addressed. The problem is that their demands–for things like reliable electricity, water, jobs, etc.–are things that should have been addressed years ago and that cannot be resolved quickly.


New Jordanian Prime Minister Omar Razzaz’s cabinet won a parliamentary confidence vote on Thursday and so it is now officially on the job. Razzaz’s first task will be to find a way to repackage International Monetary Fund-driven austerity in a way that makes it more palatable to the unhappy Jordanian public.


The Knesset passed a measure on Thursday that codifies Israel as “the nation-state for the Jewish people.” If you happen to be a citizen of Israel who is not Jewish, then that’s probably not great news for you:

The legislation, a “basic law” — giving it the weight of a constitutional amendment — omits any mention of democracy or the principle of equality, in what critics called a betrayal of Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, which ensured “complete equality of social and political rights” for “all its inhabitants” no matter their religion, race or sex.

The new law promotes the development of Jewish communities, possibly aiding those who would seek to advance discriminatory land-allocation policies. And it downgrades Arabic from an official language to one with a “special status.”

A “basic law” is akin to a constitutional amendment or addendum so it’s binding in ways that normal laws are not. By only recognizing a Jewish right to self-determination, this basic law will enshrine into law official discrimination against Israeli Arabs, who make up somewhere north of 20 percent of the country’s population. And this is after it was diluted–removing, for example, language that would have explicitly made it legal to create Jewish-only communities–to help blunt charges of outright apartheid (though, to be clear, it’s still an apartheid measure and in the long run the “diluted” language may actually be worse for Arabs). It also enshrines in law special authority for Orthodox Judaism in Israel, which has earned it criticism from Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders around the world.


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may have finally met his political match: austerity. The IMF (of course) has been pushing Sisi to cut government fuel subsidies, introduce a value-added tax, and devalue the Egyptian pound as conditions of the $12 billion loan it gave Cairo in 2016. And Egyptians are pissed, thousands of them going on social media demanding Sisi’s resignation despite the fact that Egypt’s economy is growing at a fairly robust pace. Growth hasn’t translated into jobs and wages haven’t kept up with the subsidy cuts, the new taxes, or the currency devaluation.

One of the reasons China’s Belt and Road program and its BRICS development bank have been successful is that, while China’s loan terms are onerous in the extreme, the real pain they might cause is down the road in terms of loan repayments and asset seizures. The IMF, whose development aid has long been a tool of Western hegemony, requires governments to endure its pain immediately in the form of pointless and painful austerity. It’s not going to be at all surprising if more countries start opting for China’s help over what the IMF is offering.


Researchers at NYU Abu Dhabi are monitoring a dead zone in the Arabian Sea that they’re calling “the most intense in the world.” It’s apparently the size of Scotland and is almost totally without oxygen. The culprit, of course, is warming seas due to climate change. If the zone continues to expand it could cripple Gulf fishing operations and thus the livelihoods of countless people in Oman, the UAE, Yemen, and elsewhere.


A series of recent major ground operations suggests that UAE’s fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is shifting from operations designed to degrade AQAP’s capabilities to operations designed to enhance the UAE’s control over economic and security concerns in southern Yemen:

These parallel operations aimed not only to hamper jihadis from fleeing to different regions, but also to establish a new security and governance order directly or indirectly led by the UAE. This system links the major Emirati-controlled port cities of Aden, Mukalla, Mokha, and Bi’r Ali, as well as the gas hub of Balhaf, the oil fields of Masila, and the export terminal at Shihr, all now de facto controlled by the Emiratis.


Saudi Aramco says that a fire at one of its facilities in Riyadh on Wednesday was caused by an “operational incident.” The Houthis disagree. They claim they attacked the facility using a drone. There’s no particular reason to believe either side here, but if it was a drone attack then presumably we can expect to see it repeated.


Iran has opened a facility it says it built prior to the nuclear deal for manufacturing centrifuges. The facility can churn out rotors for as many as 60 centrifuges in a day when it’s operating. Of course it’s not operating yet, but this announcement is a clear threat to start rapidly expanding the country’s uranium enrichment program should it decide to abandon the nuclear accord in the wake of Donald Trump’s decision to violate it by reimposing US sanctions.

That’s not the only nuclear deal-related bit of news churned out by Tehran over the past couple of days. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, told Rouhani’s cabinet that Trump tried no fewer than eight times to arrange a meeting with Rouhani on the sidelines of last year’s United Nations General Assembly session. The intent here is obviously to belittle Trump and aggrandize Rouhani for refusing to knuckle under to the US. Given how suggestible Trump is, Rouhani may have made a mistake in refusing to speak with him. It’s working out well so far for Kim Jong-un, anyway–a fact Vaezi noted by criticizing Kim. On the other hand, Rouhani may very well have been under orders from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei not to speak with Trump.

Speaking of Trump’s suggestibility, an Israeli public broadcaster ran a video recording on Tuesday wherein Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brags that he “convinced” Trump to violate the nuclear deal. Trump was already opposed to the deal when he was running for president, so it’s unclear how much convincing Netanyahu really had to do.

Iranian journalist Fatemeh Aman says that part of Iran’s current environmental struggles can be blamed on US sanctions:

Iran’s disastrous management of water and environment need to be corrected urgently. The country needs regional and international cooperation and assistance more than ever before, and its public needs to be mobilized quickly to save what is left. There are major obstacles, however. The authorities either don’t understand the extent of the damage or must walk a fine line so as to not threaten the financial interests of those responsible for the catastrophe. Hardliners, a small but very powerful group, view any form of foreign cooperation and assistance as suspicious and espionage-related. More importantly, U.S. sanctions have targeted international cooperation and financial assistance to Iran that include some vital programs to save the environment.

International cooperation is also threatened by the U.S. administration’s efforts to isolate Iran over what it calls the country’s “regional activities.” Since it took office, the Trump’s administration has linked all regional and international cooperation with Iran to Iran’s presence in Syria. The result has been dire for Iran’s air and water. All international assistance and cooperation, if they involve U.S. funding, has been suspended.

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