Middle East update: July 25-26 2018


The death toll from Tuesday’s series of ISIS attacks in and around the city of Suwayda has risen to 221, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. That includes 127 civilians and 94 pro-government fighters. Suwayda lies in a largely Druze part of Syria and so it’s not surprising that many of the victims were Druze.

Israel on Wednesday claimed that two rockets were fired from Syrian territory into Israel. Both of the projectiles allegedly splashed down in the Sea of Galilee, though so far recovery work has found no sign of them. The Israelis retaliated with strikes against the area in Syria where the rockets were allegedly fired.

In longer-term Syrian news, Bashar al-Assad told Russian media on Thursday that he believes a permanent Russian military presence in Syria is “needed for balance in our region, at least in the Middle East, until the global political balance changes.” Russia has long term leases at both its Tartus naval base and its Hmeimim air base. Assad also called on Syrian refugees to return home, a position echoed by Moscow’s ambassador to Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, who told reporters in Lebanon that “there is no threat from the [Syrian] government” facing returnees.

Assad also also made it pretty clear that Idlib is his next target, not that it should come as any surprise.

French humanitarian aid has begun arriving in Ghouta, under an arrangement negotiated by the French and Russian governments. The assistance was flown in to Hmeimim over the weekend and is being trucked into Ghouta now.


Houthi rebels claimed on Thursday that they attacked Abu Dhabi’s airport using a drone. The UAE government says there’s been no disruption at the airport, though the airport did tweet something about an unspecified “incident” earlier in the day that might have been the drone attack.

Meanwhile, Save the Children says that Yemen could be on the brink of another cholera epidemic like the one that infected over one million people last year.

A coalition airstrike in April that hit a wedding party in the Yemeni village of Raqah and killed 22 people is raising new questions about the US role in enabling the coalition’s atrocities:

In the hours following the airstrike in Raqah, local media published photos, provided by the Houthis, showing the bomb was a GBU-12 Paveway II precision-guided bomb, manufactured by Raytheon, the Massachusetts-based defense contractor, according to Bellingcat, an investigative website. The Washington Post could not independently verify whether the bomb was used in the attack.

But visits to other bombed sites by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch confirm that American-made munitions, including banned cluster bombs and Paveway bombs, have been used in attacks that have killed and injured civilians. The Post saw remnants of U.S.-made bombs in the capital, Sanaa, and in the southwestern city of Taiz.

After the Senate narrowly approved a $510 million first installment of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia in June 2017, the kingdom said it would launch a training program to reduce accidental targeting of civilians. But in the year after that announcement, civilian deaths were 7 percent higher than the year before, U.N. data shows. In April alone, there were 236 civilians killed and 238 injured — the deadliest month this year so far.


Donald Trump decided to make some new friends in Turkey on Thursday:

This was after Mike Pence warmed the crowd up for him:

The Turkish government, which is basically holding Brunson hostage while it pretends to demand the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, responded by saying that “no one can give orders to Turkey and threaten our country.”


Israeli authorities say that nine rockets were fired from Gaza overnight and that their missile defense systems intercepted one of them. The rest landed in open fields. This came after Israel killed three people in Gaza in artillery strikes on Wednesday. In the West Bank, a Palestinian man reportedly burst into a home in the Israeli settlement of Adam on Thursday night and stabbed three men, injuring at least one critically (UPDATE: that man has died). Israeli officials say the attacker was killed by police.

The Trump administration is reportedly preparing “a robust economic plan” as part of the Kushner Accords. Officials are expecting Palestinian leaders to engage with the package rather than dismissing it out of hand, and all I can say is good luck with that.


The Trump administration is releasing $195 million in military aid funds that had been held up due to concerns about Egypt’s human rights record. It’s citing improvements that Cairo has made in that regard, but when pressed for details an anonymous State Department official couldn’t cite any actual improvements.

The Egyptian government appears to be telling the International Monetary Fund to piss off just a little bit. It’s boosting public investment from around $3.9 billion to around $5.6 billion despite the IMF’s insistence that it maintain austerity to satisfy the austerity gods. The extra spending comes mostly in the form of public-private partnerships in the energy and infrastructure areas.


UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash says his country is ready to pitch in to help bolster regional stability:

“In this current international system, it is no longer ‘write a cheque and someone is going to come and secure the stability in the region.’ You have to do some of the burden-sharing,” Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said in a speech in London.

Wow, cool stuff. The UAE is currently destroying Yemen and has contributed to lengthening the Libyan civil war and creating the Gulf diplomatic crisis over Qatar, as well as fomenting regional chaos through its confrontational policy toward Iran. So they’ve been a real force for stability so far.


The Saudis have suspended oil shipments through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea, following the Houthi missile attack on Wednesday that damaged a Saudi vessel.


Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani had a message for Donald Trump on Thursday:

Soleimani said President Trump would regret waging a war that would “destroy all that he owns” — an apparent reference to U.S. influence in the region.

“You may begin the war, but it will be us who will end it,” Soleimani said in a speech in the central city of Hamedan, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported.

He also said that the Red Sea, a critical waterway linking the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean basin, was “no longer secure” with U.S. military assets stationed in the area.

The mention of the Red Sea, not really in Iran’s usual purview, is interesting and could be a reference to the aforementioned Houthi missile attack on Wednesday.

Valiollah Seif, the governor of Iran’s central bank, lost his job on Wednesday. He could be the first of several top economic officials to find themselves out of work as the Iranian economy continues to struggle and with reimposed US sanctions on the way. Seif is being blamed, and not unjustifiably I think, for not doing more to prepare Iran for the possibility–probability, really–that Trump would decide to wreck the Iran nuclear deal.

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