Middle East update: July 30 2018


According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, pro-government forces have retaken all but three villages from ISIS’s Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid affiliate in its pocket in southern Daraa province. They constitute the only parts of southwestern Syria still outside Damascus’s control. Assad’s focus will now probably shift to the northwest, to Idlib province and beyond that to northern Aleppo province, where Turkey has established a presence. Not only is Idlib packed with rebel forces displaced from other parts of the country, along with an estimated 2.5 million potential civilian refugees, but attacking it significantly raises the possibility of direct conflict between Syria and Turkey, with Russia presumably trying to mediate. Turkey and Russia have reportedly been in talks about the situation in Idlib but notably Ankara has not offered to help return control over it to the Syrian government.

On a presumably related subject, Iran, Russia, and Turkey are resuming their three-way talks over ending the Syrian war in Sochi this week. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is also there as well as representatives from the Syrian government and the rebels’ joint High Negotiations Committee. I wouldn’t hold my breath for any breakthroughs.

Speaking of Russia, its military says it shot down a likely Syrian rebel drone near its Hmeimim air base in Syria on Sunday. And its ambassador to Israel, Anatoly Viktorov, said on Monday what a lot of observers have been thinking for a while now: namely, that Russia doesn’t have enough leverage to force Iran to leave Syria as the Israelis and the US would prefer. Whether or not this is the truth–and I would argue that it is–it shows that at the very least Russia doesn’t want to attempt to force Iran out of Syria. Viktorov added that Russia cannot (will not) attempt to stop Israel from launching its periodic airstrikes in Syria.


Gunmen killed a “senior” Yemeni intelligence officer in Aden on Sunday. It’s not clear who the gunmen were.


There is an escalating war of words going on right now between the Turkish government and US Vice President Mike Pence over the status of US pastor Andrew Brunson. Both Pence and Trump have threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey unless it released Brunson, who has been arrested over alleged links to Public Enemy #1 Fethullah Gülen. Ankara has been pretty careful to target its ire specifically at Pence but it fired another salvo in the back and forth on Monday:

The drama over a North Carolina pastor detained in Turkey showed no signs of abating as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to not bow before the threat of US sanctions over the affair. With both sides refusing to de-escalate, salvaging battered relations between the two NATO allies will be harder than ever.

“You cannot force Turkey to cave to sanctions,” Erdogan told reporters in Zambia before heading home, warning, “If the [United States] does not change this attitude, they should not forget they will lose a sincere and strong partner like Turkey.” Erdogan added Turkey had “other alternatives” and noted that Iran had not collapsed when it was slapped with US sanctions.

As two authoritarian dudes with a healthy love of both themselves and conspiracy theories, Erdoğan and Trump should be getting along with one another better than Erdoğan did with Barack Obama. But the Brunson situation is a unique one because it appeals to Trump’s evangelical base, and so he can’t be soft on Erdoğan as he is with other dictatorial types around the world. Pence, who is Trump’s ambassador to that community, may really be the one driving this policy.


Iraqi officials say that Saudi Arabia has agreed to build a solar power plant and sell its electricity to Baghdad for around a quarter of what Iran is charging. The Iraqis say they’re evaluating the proposal, which would obviously be a way for Riyadh to try to undermine Tehran’s influence in Iraq. But notably the Saudis have not yet commented for themselves about this alleged offer.


With the United Nations Relief and Works Agency possibly unable to reopen schools in Gaza and the West Bank this fall due to US funding cuts, Israel may find itself wishing its buddy President Trump hadn’t taken such a hard line on the agency. While Benjamin Netanyahu and his base are cheering Trump’s decision to pay rough with the UNRWA, which they all despise because it keeps reminding them about all the Palestinians the state of Israel turned into refugees in 1948, no school means a lot of young Palestinians out on the streets this fall with nothing to do but be angry at Israel. Just something to think about.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Fatah and Hamas representatives are in Cairo to negotiate a Palestinian unity deal. Again. The main sticking point between the two groups seems to be over whether or not Hamas will disarm under the unity arrangement, but Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas now seems amenable to a phased disarmament as the two factions work together on other issues, and that could be gentle enough to get Hamas on board. Abbas allegedly wants to get a unity deal in place and then retire, but frankly I’ll believe that when I see it.


The Iranian government is denying rumors that Oman is once again working as a go-between for indirect US and Iranian negotiations. You may recall that Oman, which maintains good relations with both the US and Iran, served that role five years ago, helping to lay the groundwork for what eventually became the Iran nuclear deal. Well there’s been an interesting coincidence this month as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah at the start of the month and then Alawi headed to Washington late last week to visit with US Defense Secretary James Mattis. And that’s got people talking.


You know what also has people talking? This:

A week after warning him in an all caps-tweet against military threats, US President Donald Trump said today he’d be willing to meet with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani anytime Iran wants, without any preconditions.

“I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet,” Trump said at a White House news conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

“No preconditions,” Trump added. “If they want to meet, I’ll meet, anytime they want. It is good for the country, good for them, good for us and good for the world.”

Well, OK then. Does this represent some kind of shift in administration policy? I mean, to hear the Iranians tell it, Trump has been trying to get a meeting with Rouhani for a while now. But then there’s no particular reason to believe the Iranians when they say that. Did Trump just blurt this out in the heat of the moment? We know he has a tendency to do that sort of thing, and his own secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, seemed to contradict him later in the day:

“We’ve said this before,” Pompeo said. The “president wants to meet with folks to solve problems. If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior, can agree that it’s worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he’s prepared to sit down and have the conversation with them.”

Yeah, so either Pompeo doesn’t know what “no preconditions” means or Trump got out ahead of everybody again. My suspicion is that Trump is chasing the high he got off of meeting with Kim Jong-un on June 12 in Singapore. He got some positive press out of that summit and got to feel like a real diplomatic superstar, and Iran is the only other country whose relations with the US are wretched enough to come close to repeating that event. Which is fine. The world didn’t spin off its axis on June 12, and even if nothing else really comes from that summit the tensions that Trump previously raised with North Korea are now lowered as a result of that meeting. If the same thing were to happen with Iran, well, it wouldn’t be the worst possible outcome.

Of course, Iran isn’t North Korea. For one thing it doesn’t have North Korea’s leverage. For another, Kim was eager for a meeting with a US president, something that’s been a long-standing foreign policy goal for Pyongyang all on its own, whereas Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei frequently makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with Washington. For still another, Iran has every reason to distrust anything Trump says or does after he violated the terms of the nuclear deal. And indeed, the message coming out of Tehran so far seems to be “restore that deal, and then we’ll talk.”

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