Middle East update: July 23 2018


Though there’s fighting ongoing in southwestern Syria and periodically in eastern Syria, and though the complicated issues of Idlib province/the Turkish-occupied northwest and the Kurdish-controlled northeast still have to be sorted out, the AP reports that people in Damascus are beginning to feel like the Syrian civil war is already over:

In the capital of Damascus, many of the checkpoints that for years have snarled traffic are gone. The city is again connected to its sprawling suburbs once held by the opposition, and many former residents and visitors from other parts of Syria fill its streets.

There’s a new feeling of hope that an end is near to Syria’s seven-year civil war.

“It is almost over,” Nazeer Habash, 60, said as he walked home near the Hijaz train station in central Damascus. “It is like a child when he starts to walk, taking one step after another, and victory will always be on our side.”

In a central square not far from where rebel shells used to land just a few months ago, families and groups of teenagers took selfies. Children played on a large sculpture spelling out, “I (heart) Damascus.”

The Syrian government is criticizing the evacuation 422 people–White Helmet members and their families–in the southwest, calling it “a ‘criminal operation’ by Israel and its tools.'” Which, look, this may have been an operation of questionable legality carried out by Israel and the country that bankrolls Israel, but…I’m sorry I lost my train of thought. The government has continually accused the White Helmets of conspiring with “terrorists,” though to be fair the Syrian government has a fairly broad definition of “terrorist” these days.

Also in the southwest, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday rejected a Russian plan for keeping Iranian-aligned forces away from the Golan and the Israeli border. In a meeting with Russian envoys Netanyahu said that Moscow’s plan to keep Iran 100 kilometers from the Israeli border was insufficient. He’s already rejected a plan to keep Iran 80 km from the border so I don’t know if the Russians are going to keep going up in increments of 20 or what. Israel fired two missile interceptors at projectiles in Syria on Monday, but both of the Syrian missiles crashed in Syrian territory and so the Israelis used the interceptors’ self-destruct feature to bring both of them down before they crossed into Syrian airspace.


The BBC reports that the Yemeni island of Socotra, which is home to one of the most unique ecosystems on the planet, is at risk of severe environmental degradation owing to the Yemeni civil war. It’s not that the fighting has touched the island, it’s that the Saudi-led coalition has been using it as a staging area for its operations:


A group of gunmen stormed the Erbil provincial government’s offices in, well, Erbil on Monday. At least one government employee was killed and two police officers wounded before the three assailants were either killed by Iraqi forces or blew themselves up (accounts differ). ISIS is considered the likely culprit, but at least one adviser to the Iraq government, named Hisham al-Hashimi, believes the attack was carried out by Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish al-Qaeda affiliate that supposedly pledged itself to ISIS back in 2014. Some pockets of Ansar al-Islam did not go over to ISIS and it’s possible the group is reconstituting itself. There were sightings of a “new” Kurdish militant group called the “White Flags” around Tuz Khurmatu last year, and some observers believe the group is Ansar al-Islam’s remnants operating under a new banner.


The Jordanian government is turning to Russia for some assurances before it considers normalizing its relations with Damascus:

Amman is now looking to Moscow to play a role in removing obstacles before moving to reset Jordanian-Syrian ties. In particular, it wants the Russians to facilitate the process of repatriating tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who had fled to the kingdom. On July 20, the Russian government presented a proposal to the United States for organizing the return of an estimated 1.7 million Syrian refugees to pre-war areas in Syria, with priority given to refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. On July 22, Al-Ghad reported that Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi had discussed the issue of repatriating Syrian refugees in a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, among other topics.

Another priority for Jordan, as well as for Israel, is to obtain Russian guarantees that Iranian militias and Hezbollah fighters will keep an acceptable distance from Jordan’s borders. Such an arrangement appears to have been worked out when US President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Helsinki on July 16.


Al-Monitor’s Shlomi Eldar says that Hamas went too far last week when it deployed its own snipers–one of whom killed an Israeli soldier–near the Gaza fence line, and its rapid move to deescalate tensions with Israel reflects that fact:

A Gaza journalist close to Hamas confirmed to Al-Monitor that Egypt conveyed a request that Israel open the Kerem Shalom passage in order to generate an atmosphere conducive to maintaining the fragile truce. “The Hamas appeal this past weekend was so urgent that it can be defined as surrender,” a security source in the Palestinian Authority (PA) told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. The source, who is familiar with the three-way contacts between Hamas, Egypt and Israel, added, “Within the [Hamas] leadership, there is deep disagreement about the next stage in the struggle against Israel.” Despite their militant declarations, Yahya Sinwar, who heads Hamas in Gaza, and Ismail Haniyeh, who leads the movement’s political wing, understand the need for an agreement to ease tensions and avert a broader clash with Israel, said the source. Until the sniper killing of the Israeli soldier, Hamas had sought to capitalize on the achievements of the popular protests of recent months. They tried to buy time, claiming the airborne arson would stop gradually, but since it was a spontaneous, widespread campaign, time was needed to control it. They also claimed that the border demonstrations were a popular protest led by “volunteers” and not by Hamas, but promised to make an effort to push them away from the fence. “In fact, they tried to squeeze the lemon dry in order to keep all their options open,” the source summed up.


The International Court of Justice ruled on Monday that the UAE government must allow the return of the Qatari nationals it expelled from the country last year. If the ICJ actually had any authority then this decision would be meaningful. As it is, it’s symbolic. However, UAE authorities say they’ve already met the conditions of the ruling anyway.


Everybody is all in a panic over President Trump’s tweet on Iran from last night and I just can’t figure out what all the fuss is abo-

Oh right, because it was absolutely batshit. That’s what all the fuss is about. With his tweet, Trump leapfrogged every Iran hawk in his administration by openly suggesting military action against Iran. Rumors that John Bolton achieved his first erection since the end of the Iraq War could not be confirmed at press time.

Iran’s response to Trump’s tweet was, fittingly I guess, another tweet, by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif:

Interesting that Zarif mentioned the 40 years since the Islamic Revolution, because that’s about how long Donald Trump has wanted to invade Iran. But while Zarif may be unimpressed, the market dropped the Iranian rial down to 92,000 to the dollar on Monday, when it had been 75,000 to the dollar late last week. That’s got to sting a bit.

Iranian Brigadier General Gholam Hossein Gheibparvar, commander of the Basij paramilitary force, called Trump’s tweet “psychological warfare,” while others called it a “war of words” between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose warnings about a war with Iran appear to have been what set Trump off in the first place. Both of these are at least preferable to actual warfare, but we may be headed there anyway.

It’s pretty clear that Trump thinks by threatening to blow up Iran he can replicate the success he’s had with North Korea. There are only two problems with that theory: 1) he hasn’t actually had any “success” with North Korea yet apart from ending the crisis he himself began, and 2) Iran isn’t North Korea. Kim Jong-un wanted a meeting with a US President as a sign that he and North Korea were a genuine world power. Rouhani has, at least according to his own administration, turned Trump’s requests for a meeting down multiple times already.

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