Middle East update: July 27 2018


The Syrian Democratic Council, which is the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is the predominantly YPG-run military group that’s been serving as a US proxy in Syria for a couple of years now, has sent a delegation to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The ostensible purpose for the talks is to negotiate the reestablishment of some basic services to northeastern Syria, which is mostly under Kurdish/SDF control, but SDC leaders have talked about the possibility that those discussions could expand into broader discussions about the relationship between the SDF and Damascus and the future status of northeastern Syria.

Tired of being used by the US, the Kurds may be interested in making a deal with Assad that offers them some autonomy and assistance driving Turkey out of northern Syria in return for a restoration of Assad’s authority in the northeast and help fighting rebels (and Turkey) in Idlib province. Such a deal would make the ongoing US position in northeastern Syria, which is allegedly about preventing a resurgence of ISIS but really about containing Iran regionally, completely untenable.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations Security Council on Friday, ambassadors from Russia on the one hand and France on the other argued with one another about rebuilding Syria. French envoy François Delattre said that the European Union refuses to contribute to any reconstruction effort unless and until the Syrian government accepts a political transition roadmap that the Security Council drew up in 2012. Since that roadmap ends with Assad out of power, and Assad has won the war and would rather rule over a flaming hole in the ground than go into exile or worse, this EU threat probably doesn’t amount to much. Nevertheless, deputy Russian ambassador Dmitry Polyansky argued that international reconstruction aid should be tied to humanitarian needs rather than political conditions. Which is a fair point, albeit one coming from a country that has done quite a bit to exacerbate those humanitarian needs.

The wild card in Syria’s eventual reconstruction remains China, the one country outside the Western sphere that can finance a lot of reconstruction and doesn’t really seem to have any ethical concerns about helping Assad. However, China just hasn’t jumped in to Syria the way many (me included) have been expecting. China’s Middle Eastern investments have mostly been directed at the Gulf states and Iran. Beijing may be waiting until the war is well and truly over–which, in that case, could be a while because there’s every reason to expect that ISIS and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Qaeda) could maintain a low-level guerrilla/terrorist campaign going for quite some time. It may also be balking at working with Assad–not because he’s responsible for a lot of death and misery, but because his intent to simply resume running Syria as before means that all the grievances that caused the civil war in the first place will still be present, waiting to be reignited into another conflict. Instead of dangling reconstruction money in an effort to entice Assad to change course, China may prefer to just leave Syria mostly alone.


Saudi Arabia bombed the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah on Friday. The strikes targeted a Houthi military position, a plastics factory (?), and two neighborhoods in the southern part of the city. It’s unclear whether there were any casualties. It’s also unclear if this was a one-off retaliation for that Houthi missile attack on a Saudi oil tanker earlier this week or a full-on resumption of fighting, which could threaten Yemen’s largest seaport and main lifeline for humanitarian aid.


Iraq’s top Shiʿa leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, delivered on Friday (via a spokesperson) a sermon that called for Iraq’s political factions to get over their differences and form a new government soon that can tackle the endemic corruption that’s driven recent protests across the country. Sistani is not a political actor but he’s immensely influential and his words carry enormous weight with Iraqi Shiʿa.


Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt on Friday lambasted the United States, Russia, and the Syrian government for failing to stop ISIS’s rampage in and around the city of Suwayda earlier this week. At last count at least 220 people had been killed in a series of terrorist attacks, many or most of them Druze. Jumblatt is not a fan of Bashar al-Assad, but most of Syria’s Druze community has remained at least nominally in Assad’s camp during the civil war, mostly because they view the most likely alternative–Islamist Sunnis–as a far greater threat.


Israeli security forces stormed on to the al-Aqsa/Temple Mount area on Friday after reportedly having had rocks and fireworks thrown at them from Palestinians. They arrested as many as 24 people. In Gaza, meanwhile, Israeli forces killed two more Palestinian protesters (one a 14 year old boy) at the Gaza fence line.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has ordered the construction of 400 more dwellings in the West Bank squatter settlement of Adam in response to an attack there earlier this week in which a Palestinian man stabbed three Israelis, killing one of them. The beatings, in other words, will continue until morale improves.


That’s a man visiting the animal exhibit at Cairo’s International Garden, and that’s a donkey painted to look like a zebra next to him. The zoo’s director, Mohamed Sultan, insists that it’s a genuine zebra. Must be a special Egyptian zebra, with naturally occurring paint smudges.

On a much more serious note, the Egyptian government is now criminalizing the spread of fake news, where “fake news” is defined as “anything the Egyptian government doesn’t like”:

While the first case was the prolonged trial and imprisonment of three al-Jazeera journalists in 2013, the Egyptian authorities have in the past few months stepped up their crusade, with at least eight journalists and bloggers arrested in a spate of accusations over fake news.

Among them was blogger Wael Abbas, who was also arrested in a dawn raid, freelance photographer Fatma Diaa Eddin, who was detained with her husband and child, and journalist Moataz Wadnan, who went on a hunger strike to protest against his solitary confinement.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) documented two cases of other journalists now in hiding and Lebanese tourist Mona el-Mazbouh was this month sentenced to eight years in prison for “deliberately broadcasting false rumours which aim to undermine society and attack religions,” after she posted an angry online video describing sexual harassment on her Egyptian holiday.

It’s awesome that the one success story of Donald Trump’s rise to power is that journalists are at even greater risk around the world than they were before.


Human Rights Watch says that, since 2012, the Bahraini government has stripped at least 738 people of their citizenship for political reasons. Most of these cases have involved human rights and democracy activists, journalists, and prominent Shiʿa leaders. Manama has stripped 232 people of their citizenship just in the first half of 2018, so the frequency of these incidents seems to be increasing.


Saudi Arabia’s decision to stop oil shipments through the Red Sea’s Bab el-Mandeb Strait in light of a recent Houthi missile attack against two of its oil tankers could widen the Yemeni war as the rest of the world gets nervous about oil prices. Hell, that may be what the Saudis have in mind. The specter of higher oil prices could motivate European governments and the US to stifle their already vapid moral objections to the Saudi military campaign and maybe even lend it a bigger hand.


Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters on Friday that the Trump administration is not trying to cause Iran’s government to collapse. And also pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Mattis also denied a report from Australia’s ABC news outlet that the US “is prepared to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, perhaps as early as next month.” That report, believable though it may be, seems a little sketchy given that it’s based, as far as I can tell, on Australian officials trying to divine some understanding of US strategy by reading Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. That’s probably not helpful.

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