Middle East update: August 1 2018


The final deal that the Syrian government struck with ISIS fighters in the Yarmouk Basin seems to have involved the evacuation of as many as 1500 of them to the eastern Syrian desert, presumably to areas where ISIS still has a presence. Meanwhile, the group continues to transition into its next life as a purely terrorist/guerrilla insurgency. It attacked a Syrian military position northeast of Damascus on Tuesday and killed three army officers. Elsewhere in the southwest, Russia says that Iran has pulled back its forces to a distance of at least 85 kilometers from the Golan, but that’s apparently not far enough for Israel’s comfort. Israeli officials have reportedly previously rejected a Russian offer to keep Iran 100 kilometers from the Golan, so this is unsurprising. If Iran withdrew all of its forces back to Iran itself, the Israelis would certainly still argue that they were too close.

The US and its Syrian Democratic Forces proxies say they’re preparing an operation to drive ISIS out of the city of Hajin, near the Iraqi border in Deir Ezzor province. There are an estimated 1000 ISIS fighters in the city now, who may be inclined to fight it out since they don’t really have anywhere else to go and who may be forcing civilians to remain in place as human shields. Hajin is believed to be the last ISIS stronghold east of the Euphrates River in Syria–it still controls some stretches of desert west of the river, but the US and SDF don’t operate on that side as the river itself serves as the dividing line between government- and SDF-held territory.

According to Reuters, part of the reason many of the “White Helmets” who were supposed to be evacuated from Syria last week were actually not evacuated is that they couldn’t get security clearance to be resettled in Europe or Canada. I have tried studiously to stay out of the “White Helmet” debate, because I have yet to understand why it matters so much, and yet wading into it apparently marks someone as either a US imperialist stooge or a Bashar al-Assad apologist for life. I am neither, and I see no point in participating in what is mostly an online pissing match. But I will say this: if I were looking for evidence to support an argument that the White Helmets have been working with al-Qaeda, the fact that many of its members couldn’t get clearance from the group’s own Western patrons would certainly pique my curiosity.


The Trump administration on Wednesday followed through on its threat to impose sanctions against Turkey over its ongoing imprisonment of US pastor Andrew Brunson. The Treasury Department blacklisted Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül as well as Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu. The administration apparently believed, erroneously, that it had gotten an agreement from Ankara to release Brunson, who is alleged to have links to Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, last month, and its recent pressure on the Turks is because that deal failed to materialize. Brunson is now under house arrest awaiting trial in Turkey, and his case has been championed by Vice President Mike Pence because of its resonance within the evangelical community. Turkey insists that it will retaliate for the US action.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is pushing for the reinstatement of the death penalty after a likely PKK-planted roadside bomb killed a mother and infant near the town of Yüksekova in eastern Turkey on Tuesday. Turkey got rid of its death penalty provision in 2004 in order to enhance its largely fictitious bid for membership in the European Union, which outlaws capital punishment. But Erdoğan has been itching to bring it back in recent years as his politics have moved further toward the nationalist right and the fictitiousness of Turkey’s EU bid has grown more apparent. Reimposing the death penalty could quash it altogether.


Israel is halting fuel shipments into Gaza again starting Thursday, again in response to the use of incendiary devices (this time balloons more so than kites) by Gaza militants.

The Israeli government also warned on Wednesday that it will respond militarily if Iran, via Yemen’s Houthis, attempts to block the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea. Israel does a lot of commerce via the Red Sea and closing the strait would be a major problem for them.


Human Rights Watch reported on Wednesday that Saudi officials have arrested two more women’s rights activists this week, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah. Both have criticized the country’s repressive guardianship laws, which restrict women’s movements and behavior. In other words, Mohammad bin Salman’s project to liberalize Saudi society is going really, really well.

The Intercept’s Alex Emmons says that, contrary to what everybody was saying last summer, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were planning to invade Qatar–and that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to prevent it were part of the reason he later got canned:

The Intercept has learned of a previously unreported episode that stoked the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s anger at Tillerson and that may have played a key role in his removal. In the summer of 2017, several months before the Gulf allies started pushing for his ouster, Tillerson intervened to stop a secret Saudi-led, UAE-backed plan to invade and essentially conquer Qatar, according to one current member of the U.S. intelligence community and two former State Department officials, all of whom declined to be named, citing the sensitivity of the matter.

In the days and weeks after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and closed down their land, sea, and air borders with the country, Tillerson made a series of phone calls urging Saudi officials not to take military action against the country. The flurry of calls in June 2017 has been reported, but State Department and press accounts at the time described them as part of a broad-strokes effort to resolve tensions in the Gulf, not as an attempt by Tillerson to avert a Saudi-led military operation.


Amid increasing tensions with the US and with sanctions about to go back into effect next week, Iran is moving up the timing of its annual Persian Gulf naval drills to, well, probably sometime in the next couple of days. That’s sure to ease the tension.

The Iranian parliament has summoned President Hassan Rouhani to answer for his management of the Iranian economy. It’s a first for Rouhani and reflects the fact that inflation is reaching out-of-control levels. Protests broke out in the cities of Ahvaz, Isfahan, Karaj, and Shiraz on Tuesday due to public anger over the rial’s loss of value. This development comes as hardliners appear to be bolstering their control over the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting company.

James Dorsey suggests that Donald Trump’s seemingly out of the blue declaration that he’s ready to meet with Rouhani may actually be a planned move right out of John Bolton’s Iran playbook:

The plan meticulously lays out the arguments Mr. Trump employed to justify the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and steps the United States should take to garner international support for the sanctions regime.

“Iran is not likely to seek further negotiations once the JCPOA is abrogated, but the Administration may wish to consider rhetorically leaving that possibility open in order to demonstrate Iran’s actual underlying intention to develop deliverable nuclear weapons, an intention that has never flagged,” the plan said. JCPOA is the acronym for the nuclear accord’s official designation, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement hardly proves the allegation that Iran intends to develop a military nuclear capability, but it does constitute an attempt to gain the moral high ground and weaken European, Russian and Chinese support for the agreement by demonstrating that Iran is recalcitrant and unwilling to come to the table.

This is a fair point, but because Trump violated the nuclear deal before extending this offer, he’s demonstrated himself to be acting in bad faith and has given the Iranians an easy counterargument, which is that they have no reason to meet with a man whom they cannot trust. If Trump really is following Bolton’s plan, then you can expect increasing violence inside Iran–Bolton calls for supporting violent Iranian separatist movements among its Kurdish, Arab, and Baluch minorities.

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