Middle East update: July 31 2018


According to the Syrian Observatory, pro government forces on Tuesday took control of the entire Yarmouk Basin enclave that had previously been controlled by ISIS’s Khalid ibn al-Walid Army affiliate. That brings all of Daraa province, where the 2011 Arab Spring protests began, under government control. It’s unclear what happened to the estimated 20 women and girls who were kidnapped by ISIS fighters during their rampage through Suwayda last week. The group had threatened to kill them unless the government called off its offensive.

Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, criticized Turkey for its presence in northern Syria and raised the possibility of a military operation to “expel” Turkish forces from the country. Meanwhile, Russia’s ambassador to Syria, Aleksandr Lavrentyev, told Russian media that there’s no imminent offensive planned for Idlib province, which is home to between 2.5 and 3 million people including most of Syria’s remaining rebel factions. Jaafari also raised the possibility of military action in Idlib if negotiations with rebel groups there don’t work out, but Turkey views Idlib as under its protection so such an operation would raise the possibility of escalation. The possibility of fighting in Idlib is putting Russia in a dicey diplomatic situation:

Backed by Russia, Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and other foreign actors, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) feels emboldened by its recent gains in eastern Ghouta, Homs, much of Daraa and Quneitra. Taking the fight to Idlib, a province of roughly 2.5 million people that the regime lost in 2015, is a priority for Damascus when the opposition is so demoralized. A Syrian regime offensive in Idlib would severely undermine Turkey’s ability to remain a co-guarantor of a de-escalation zone in the northern Syrian province, where the Turks have established a dozen observation points. Officials in Ankara are especially alarmed by reported discussions between the PYD and the regime about the Kurdish militia integrating its militants into the SAA and the PYD’s reported preparations for working with the SAA in an offensive to take back Idlib in exchange for Damascus handing Afrin and Manbij (currently controlled by Turkey and Turkish-backed Sunni Islamist forces and armed groups of Sunni Arab refugees) to the YPG.

For Moscow, such developments pose delicate geopolitical dilemmas that may force Russia to cool its relations with Turkey as it maintains support for the Assad regime. The question of Idlib will likely remain a source of tension between Ankara on one side and Moscow and Tehran on the other as the three capitals seek to advance the Astana process despite their different positions on the Syrian regime’s role in the country’s future. Since Turkey has vowed to leave the Astana format if the Syrian regime wages an offensive on Idlib, it is key for the Kremlin to try and ease the tensions in this part of northwestern Syria.

Idlib is apparently front and center in this week’s Iran-Russia-Turkey gabfest in Sochi. The Turks are worried about a Syrian attack on Idlib first and foremost because of the refugees such an attack will send Turkey’s way, but also because they believe if the Russians will countenance a Syrian attack on Idlib that means they’ll also countenance an eventual Syrian attack on areas that Turkey currently holds, like Afrin and Jarabulus. Russia may push Damascus to spend some time consolidating its gains in rural areas, which would buy time for continued negotiations about Idlib’s fate.


The Houthis have decided to call a two-week “unilateral halt” in their attacks on ships in the Red Sea that “could be extended and include all fronts if this move is reciprocated by the leadership of the [Saudi-led] coalition.” Somebody must have advised the Houthis that the rest of the world isn’t too keen on the idea of Red Sea oil shipments being halted.


Rice University’s Abdullah Aydogan goes through some peculiarities in the vote count in Turkey’s election last month that could point to efforts to manipulate the results:

Videos of ballot stuffing — mostly in eastern Turkey — in favor of pro-Erdogan parties went viral after they were posted online on election day. And both partisan and nonpartisan reports showed that allegations of electoral irregularity came primarily from eastern Turkey. An opposition-written report stated that 68 percent of the election day violations took place in the east — areas where Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) experienced significant gains. A report published by an independent fact-checking organization largely supports these claims.

Because this area has a majority-Kurdish population, election observers were surprised at the increased support for pro-Erdogan nationalist parties that suffered significant losses in the rest of the country, despite years of tensions between Erdogan’s government and Kurds.

To sort out the competing claims by pro-government and opposition sources, I examined data at the ballot-box level. I found a significant level of overlap between the geographical distribution of this unprecedented electoral result and that of some electoral anomalies. These include: excess votes per boxes, high levels of spoiled ballots, and noticeable differences in the amount of parliamentary and presidential ballots in the same box.


Opposition to Israel’s new basic law that jettisons protections for minority groups in favor of emphasizing Israel’s status as a Jewish ethno-state is not only coming from Israeli Arabs. Israeli Druze are also upset:

“It’s enough of patting us on the shoulder and saying, ‘You are our brothers, we love you,’” said Shadi Nasraldeen, 45, a native of Daliyat el-Karmel whose brother, Lutfi, an Israeli soldier, was killed during the last war in Gaza, in 2014.

“There has to be full equality in a democratic state,” said Mr. Nasraldeen, who ended a 26-year army career last year and now works at the memorial site, which holds lectures and educational activities. “We are the first to run into battle and the first to die on the flag.”

He added: “It’s as if the Israeli people simply abandoned us. They say they didn’t. But according to the clauses of this law, we don’t exist.”


Egyptian police say they killed five members of Hasm, a militant group that broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood after the 2013 coup and subsequent government suppression of the Brotherhood, in a shootout north of Cairo on Tuesday.


The UN human rights office on Tuesday called on the Saudis “to unconditionally release all human rights defenders and activists who have been detained for their peaceful human rights work, including their decades-long campaigns for the lifting of the driving ban for women.” While the Saudis have taken some steps to improve conditions for women and to open up Saudi society, they continue to ruthlessly suppress any dissent or criticism of the government.


Shockingly nobody in the Iranian government seems to want to spend any one-on-one time with Donald Trump. I can’t imagine why.

Oh, wait, maybe this is why:

Talk of negotiations and high-level meetings between the United States and Iran is nothing new. Trump reportedly tried to meet Rouhani last September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, right after he delivered a fiery speech critical of Iran. The Iranians promptly spurned his outreach, as his harsh insults had rendered the political cost of engagement prohibitive for Rouhani and his associates. Trump remains radioactive in Tehran, and not just because of his Twitter feed.

Since then, circumstances have only worsened. The Trump administration has walked away from the 2015 nuclear deal. Many Iranians had pinned their hopes for a better life on the deal, and it may well have improved relations between the two countries. Instead, the Trump administration is now seeking to levy sanctions that would crush the Iranian economy. It has done little to disguise its goal of fomenting unrest among Iranians. Stung by the deal’s failure, burned by Washington’s attitude, and keen to survive politically, Rouhani, for his part, has adopted the bellicose tone characteristic of the Islamic Republic’s hard-liners.

The Iranians don’t trust Trump, he hasn’t offered anything to entice them to talk, and unlike Kim Jong-un they don’t seem to be keen on meeting for the hell of it, just to provide him with a photo op.

Also, according to Washington, there are no plans for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to chat with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit this weekend in Singapore. Another missed connection.


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