Middle East update: July 28-29 2018


Juan Cole has some thoughts about European NATO-hater Donald Trump’s plans to contrive an Arab NATO despite the fact that some of its potential members don’t really like one another very much:

So here are the problems with this Arab NATO. First, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar won’t be interested in taking a public hard line against Iran. All have correct relations with Tehran and want to keep it that way, each for their own reasons. They form half of the also now-defunct Gulf Cooperation Council.

The other three members of the GCC, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, are the only Arab countries of the 22 that are really gung-ho about practical anti-Iran steps.

Egypt has joined these three in a “quartet,” mainly based on hostility to Qatar for its promotion of a free press and of political inclusion for populist movements like the Arab Spring youth and the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is not clear, however, that Egypt would go full bore against Iran. Egypt is tilting toward the regime of Bashar al-Assad, since it is against Muslim Fundamentalism, and it seems unlikely Syria can decisively win against Sunni extremists without Iranian help. Egypt has declined to join the Yemen war, much to the dismay of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both of which have spent billions on foreign aid to Cairo.

Trump administration officials are pretty openly calling this hypothetical alliance, which would include the six GCC states plus Egypt and Jordan, a “Sunni” force. Why they would possibly want to wade into Islamic sectarianism is beyond me, but then so many things about this administration are.


Syrian government forces advanced deeper into ISIS’s Yarmouk Basin enclave in southwestern Syria over the weekend. At the same time, it’s reportedly negotiating with ISIS for the release of several hostages the group took during its attack on Suwayda last Wednesday. It’s unclear if these ISIS fighters might be willing to trade the hostages for a way out of their predicament, and it’s also unclear if the Syrian government would be willing to offer them such a deal.

On the other hand, the relationship between Damascus and the Syrian Kurds is coming into a little tighter focus after representatives from the Syrian Democratic Council met with government officials on Friday. Sort of. Kurdish leaders say they worked out an agreement to “chart a roadmap to a democratic and decentralized Syria,” which sounds like little more than an agreement to talk some more. But presumably it does mean Bashar al-Assad isn’t planning to attack northeastern Syria anytime soon.


Fighting south of Hudaydah has reportedly killed “dozens” of people over the past several days. Clashes have mostly centered on the districts of Zabid and Durayhimi. Meanwhile, Saudi state media says that coalition airstrikes destroyed Houthi missile launch sites in Saada province over the weekend.

Bruce Reidel notes that recent Houthi attacks–or claims of attacks, anyway–against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are escalating the potential stakes of Yemen’s war:

The Houthis’ missile and drone strikes have so far had limited results. The Red Sea shipping attacks have probably had the most impact but have not shut down the strategic chokepoint at the Bab el-Mandeb. Both the Saudis and Emiratis try to downplay the attacks on their capitals. They hype the sea attacks, hoping to get more outside support, especially from the United States.

But the persistence of the rebels’ campaign and their escalating threats this month are a clear indicator that the Houthis are still not intimidated by the coalition. The Houthis still control Sanaa and other major cities. The coalition campaign to seize the major port of Hodeidah has not materialized as a lightning or “golden” victory as the coalition promised. It may still turn into a bloody urban battle that grinds down both sides. The Saudis and Emiratis are not eager for a house-to-house battle with the Houthis, which could exact a large number of casualties.

The missile attacks inherently carry the risk of catastrophic success. A missile hit against a major civilian target in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi killing dozens would place enormous pressure on the Saudi and Emirati leadership to retaliate against not only Sanaa but also Tehran.


Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has “suspended” his electricity minister, Qassim al-Fahdawi, while his government investigates the ministry and the poor state of electricity service in Iraq. Frequent blackouts have contributed to a state of public outrage that has fed recent protests across southern and central Iraq.


The United Nations is working to negotiate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza:

While we’re on the subject, the Israeli navy on Sunday intercepted a vessel carrying aid intended for Gaza and redirected it to the Israeli port of Ashdod.


Coptic Bishop Epiphanius was found dead on Sunday in his monastery northwest of Cairo. OK, that sort of thing happens I guess, but the bishop was reportedly found with his head “smashed,” which suggests foul play. And given the climate for Egyptian Copts these days, there are reasonable concerns that he was targeted by Islamist attackers.


There are new allegations that Qatar’s World Cup 2022 bid team engaged in some inappropriate shenanigans to secure hosting rights:

The Qatar 2022 World Cup bid team ran a secret campaign in 2010 to sabotage competing host bids, according to a report published by the Sunday Times.

The paper claims to have seen leaked documents that show the Qatari bid team employed a US PR firm and ex-CIA agents to smear its rivals – mainly the United States and Australia.

The alleged aim was to create propaganda to give the impression that a World Cup would not be supported domestically. The Qatar tournament organisers deny the allegations.

Such a campaign alleged by the Sunday Times would have broken Fifa’s bidding rules.

Of course the real 2022 World Cup scandal remains the number of workers who have died during the preparations for it, but it’s worth noting that this was apparently a bad faith effort in pretty much every respect.


Saudi King Salman has been reassuring other Arab leaders, especially Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, that he will not throw his support behind any US-led peace effort that compromises on Jerusalem or refugee rights. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has reportedly been trying to strong-arm Arab leaders like Jordan’s King Abdullah and Abbas to accept whatever deal the US is about to offer, but this is being portrayed as though Salman is pulling MBS back a bit. Reportedly the Trump administration’s still-unreleased peace plan “does not include Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, a right of return for refugees or a freeze of Israeli settlements in lands claimed by the Palestinians,” which leaves one wondering exactly what it does include that would make any Palestinian want to accept it. Other than bribes, I guess.


The Iranian rial continues to collapse. It dropped to around 112,000 per dollar on unofficial currency markets on Sunday, with dollars reportedly trading in Iran as high as 116,000 rials. This is all over just the promise of US sanctions being reimposed, which won’t actually happen until August 7. Things could get really ugly after that.

Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, a preacher in the city of Zahedan who is often considered the spiritual leader of Iran’s Sunni community, is appealing to Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for help in getting the Iranian government to ease its repression of Iranian Sunnis:

In his letter, Abdul Hamid wrote that Sunnis in Iran are facing “extreme sectarian discrimination” amid “the absence of religious freedom,” the lack of “Sunni elites in public positions” and “imbalances between Shiites and Sunnis in Sunni areas.”

Sunnis are “prevented from building mosques in Tehran,” he wrote, and “holding Friday and Eid prayers in Tehran and other major cities.”

For decades now, Sunnis have been calling for the construction of a Sunni mosque in Tehran. However, Iranian authorities are impeding such a move, as they fear a Sunni mosque would turn into a political center opposed to the Shiite-led Islamic republic. The Iranian authorities also fear that such a religious center in Tehran would be exploited by Iran’s regional opponents, namely Saudi Arabia.

Abdul Hamid called on Sistani to use his influence to help end the suffering of Sunnis in Iran, which his letter indicated has been occurring for four decades.

Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi
Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi (Wikimedia)

Sistani has often called for tolerance in sectarian matters, both for Sunnis in majority Shiʿa countries and vice versa, but he’s also famously reluctant to directly weigh in on political matters. It’s also an open question just how much sway he could possibly have with the Iranian government and religious establishment–Iranian conservatives and Sistani don’t see eye-to-eye on many things.

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