Middle East update: July 20 2018


Syrian rebels in Quneitra province either have begun or will soon begin evacuating the area, which abuts Syria’s Golan region and thus its border with Israel, so that it can be turned over to Syrian government forces. Rebels who wish to remain in Quneitra and surrender will be allowed to do so but bear the risk of being drafted into the Syrian army. Those who refuse to stop fighting but agree to leave the area will give up their heavy weapons and be taken to Idlib province, where they bear the risk of being killed either by a rival rebel group or, eventually, the Syrian military and its allies. There is a “sliver” of territory southeast of the Golan that is under control of the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, an ISIS affiliate, and they are (so far, at least) not being offered the chance to surrender. The US is advancing plans to evacuate members of the Syrian Civil Defense group, AKA the “White Helmets” from southwestern Syria to a neighboring country and eventually on to Europe and possibly Canada.

The Russian government has sent a draft plan for repatriating Syrian refugees to Washington in the wake of this week’s summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Supposedly this is something the two men discussed during their meeting, but who really knows at this point. Since the summit Russia’s moves in Syria have revolved around three axes: addressing Israel’s security concerns, assuring Iran of its continued cooperation even as it tries to reduce Iranian influence in Syria, and working with (or at least creating the impression that it’s working with) the US and other Western governments on long-term Syrian issues.

Researchers David Lesch and Kamal Alam explain Washington’s reluctance to ever fully commit to regime change in Syria as a function of a justifiable “after Assad, the deluge” mindset:

The US can overthrow just about any government in the world or keep one in power if it sets it mind to it.  That’s how overwhelming its military might is. The US could have removed Assad if we really wanted to.  The problem is that the Middle East security state, by its very nature, constructs a ruling apparatus and governance system that is pervasive. It is one that becomes very good at preventing the development of any viable, coherent opposition movement, usually through a combination of divide and rule tactics and repression.

If the government is overthrown, as it was in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, there is very little left to take its place. New governments were brought to power by external forces, therefore lacking indigenous legitimacy, with little experience in politics (especially democratic politics).  What inevitably results is rampant instability, with more people as time goes on willing to accept the return of authoritarianism if it will keep the lights on, the grocery stores stocked, and suicide bombings at a minimum.


Turkey and the Netherlands have decided to restore full diplomatic relations after their spat last year. So that’s nice.


Large protests returned to southern Iraq on Friday as thousands of people took to the streets in Basra, Baghdad, and other cities to protest the Iraqi government’s failure to provide basic services. Unlike demonstrations over the past couple of weeks Friday’s seem to have stayed largely peaceful, save for a brief skirmish with police in Baghdad and an apparent clash with security personnel at the paramilitary Badr Organization’s offices in the city of Diwaniya. One person was killed there when a guard opened fire while trying to push the crowd back. The Kuwaiti government, mostly over concerns that further instability could push Iraqi refugees into Kuwait, has begun sending Iraq fuel for its power plants and says it’s willing to help with desalination efforts to improve Iraq’s water supply, and the Saudi government has also suggested it will offer assistance to Baghdad, presumably in an effort to undermine Iranian influence.


The Jordanian government’s decision to keep its border closed even to the tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing fighting over the past few weeks has not gone over well with the Jordanian public:

Many Jordanians reacted angrily to the government’s position — #OpenTheBorders became a top trending Twitter hashtag in the country as people called the decision shameful and vowed to share their bread with the refugees. Some Jordanians matched words with actions, organizing private relief efforts to help those trapped on the border. Under pressure, the government took steps to coordinate the aid campaign and allow some refugees to cross the border temporarily for medical assistance.

The public’s reaction may seem surprising. With record numbers of refugees displaced globally in recent years, public opinion has typically pushed governments to implement more restrictions on refugees, not fewer. However, our research indicates that this reaction was not an anomaly. Despite increasingly restrictive government policies targeting the refugee community, results from a recent survey in Jordan show that many Jordanians continue to be sympathetic toward the refugees and support hosting them in the country.


One Israeli soldier was shot and killed Friday during new Palestinian protests at the Gaza fence line. That’s the first Israeli soldier killed in the Gaza protests since they began back in March. The Israeli military responded by striking multiple Hamas-related targets in Gaza, killing at least four Palestinians (three of them Hamas militants). Early Saturday morning Hamas announced that it and the Israeli government have agreed to try to ease tensions in Gaza. Again.

Israeli officials have begun suggesting that the Palestinians’ use of incendiary devices against Israeli farms and fields near the Gaza fence could lead to a wider Israeli military campaign against the enclave. However, there’s some hope that a renewed effort by both Israel and Egypt to facilitate Hamas-Fatah reconciliation could bear fruit. Under the proposed arrangement, the Palestinian Authority would deploy forces along the fence line and take responsibility for securing it against attacks directed at Israel. That would be the first step toward a wider reunification process. Hamas has already accepted the arrangement and it’s up to Mahmoud Abbas whether it goes forward.

Arab Israelis and Palestinians are unsurprisingly reacting negatively to the passage of a new basic law that enshrines preferential status for Israel’s Jewish citizens:

The decision has angered the 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel who represent about 20% of the total population. Ayman Odeh, the head of the 13-person parliamentary Joint (Arab) List, told thousands of protesters in Tel Aviv July 14, “The nation-state bill won’t make us disappear, but it will massively harm democracy.”

Aida Touma-Suleiman, the only Palestinian to chair an Israeli parliamentary committee, sharply attacked the law in parliament and at the end of her speech raised a sign calling Israel an apartheid state.

PLO leaders have focused on the word “apartheid” because of its inclusion in the International Criminal Court as a crime against humanity. The state of Palestine has joined the ICC as a full member, which allows it to take legal action against countries violating international norms.

Palestinians are also skeptical about a $560 million Israeli plan to invest in and develop Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem primarily through investments in infrastructure and education. Over a third of Jerusalem’s population is Palestinian but they live as a perpetual underclass due to disparities between the two halves of the city. They’re eligible for Israeli citizenship but most have rejected it due to concerns that it would validate Israeli control over East Jerusalem. Likewise, many residents believe the new development plan is just a way for Israel to tighten its grip on that half of the city.


Chinese President Xi Jinping has been visiting the UAE this week, where the Belt and Road Initiative has dominated discussion:

The focus of the visit, naturally, was on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The two sides signed two MoUs pledging cooperation on both the Silk Road Economic Belt (the “Belt” in the BRI) and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (the “Road”).  The UAE is a key node for the BRI – the Middle East is a crucial geographic link between China and Europe, but instability in the region makes it a difficult bet to place. Enter the UAE, which Xi praised as “an oasis of development for the Arab world” in a letter published in UAE newspapers Al Ittihad and The National. It’s no coincidence that the UAE has been the recipient of the first Silk Road Fund investment in the Middle East, for the $3.4 billion Hassyan Clean Coal Power Plant. Another Silk Road Fund deal was inked during Xi’s trip, for “the world’s largest solar energy plant.”

Indeed, energy, a traditional focus for China’s Middle East engagement, was another key part of Xi’s visit. Deals on both oil and solar power were forged in separate MOUs. There were also agreements on agriculture, e-commerce, and finance as well as people-to-people exchanges.

Interestingly the two countries seem to be getting along well despite China’s good relations with Iran and the UAE’s, um, not so good relations with Iran.


Speaking of Iran, OH MY GOD THEY’RE GOING TO KILL US ALL SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING PLEASE HOLY SHIT I DON’T WANT TO DIE! Sorry, but I freaked out after reading that “Iranian hackers have laid the groundwork to carry out extensive cyberattacks on U.S. and European infrastructure and on private companies,” according to the same US agencies who once upon a time told us that not invading Iraq was going to lead to mushroom clouds over major US cities. We invaded, as you may recall, and I guess everything went well because there sure haven’t been any mushroom clouds, so these guys definitely seem to be on the level.

Anyway, these attacks, which Iran is definitely for certain possibly starting to formulate in a vague sense, are absolutely real and will be terrifying if we don’t stop them through being Tough and Doing Sanctions and possibly a “preemptive” cyberattack of our own and maybe IDK some airstrikes or something? God it’s been so long since we bombed a new place, can’t we just hit a couple of targets please?

With the Iranian economy in free-fall with sanctions still on the horizon, the Iranian public is growing more disenchanted with its government. That much is clear. But while this could be seen as cause for celebration in Washington, what’s likely to emerge from the wreckage of the Islamic Republic, should it come to that, is not a friendly pro-Western democracy but something potentially more dangerous than the status quo:

Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at the University of St Andrews, says the outcome of the current situation “would be … something akin to military government”.

“What’s going in Iran is not something for democracy, people are not chanting for democracy, people are chanting for water and bread,” Ansari says. “In 2009 [post-election unrest], people were saying: ‘Where is our vote?’ That’s finished, what’s happening now is much more fundamental talking to the body politic of the country, which is more existential.”

The post-revolutionary optimism that helped people go through the Iran-Iraq war, he says, has given way to a state of despair as economic, social and political resources have become depleted.

If the Iranian military takes over then the democratic aspects of the Islamic Republic, which right now are working to blunt hardliners’ impulses, will disappear. Pair that with a populace that’s been beaten down by a combination of internal repression and external punishment and you’re looking at a pretty scary scenario.

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