Middle East update: August 3 2018


Reuters claims that Russia is using its military-to-military backchannel with the United States to prod the US to help rebuild post-war Syria. That may be. China’s seeming reluctance to get involved could have Russia and the Assad government a little freaked out. But it’s hard to imagine this idea gaining much traction in Washington.

The New York Times reports from northeastern Syria, where tensions between the Kurds and Turkey, uncertainty about the US presence, leftovers from ISIS, and the destruction caused by the war against ISIS are all having an effect on people’s lives:

On the rocky banks of the Euphrates in the former capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, boatmen yell to coax passengers onto rickety metal barges. Once they are filled with passengers, cars, motorcycles and trucks bearing everything from diapers to flatbread, the motors roar and belch black smoke as the men pilot their charges across the pale green water.

Raqqa was once a commercial center for Syria’s breadbasket. Now, it is an orphaned city in ruins.

The military campaign that drove out the jihadists in October left two-thirds of the city’s buildings damaged or destroyed, local officials said. Entire city blocks were erased and apartment buildings brought to the ground. Residents have returned to find walls and ceilings missing from their homes. Some even struggle to find their homes.

But the world powers who fought here, led by the United States, are staying out of reconstruction, so Raqqa’s residents are largely on their own.


The United Nations Population Fund and the World Health Organization warned of the ongoing health risks posed by the Saudi-led war on Yemen. The UNFPA says that as many as 90,000 pregnant women in Hudaydah are at “extreme risk” of death due to the coalition attack on that city, with maternal death rates upwards of perhaps 800 per 100,000 live births. The fighting has displaced thousands and destroyed medical facilities for those still in the city. Meanwhile, the WHO is still warning of the potential for another cholera outbreak that could be exacerbated by the country’s rampant hunger problem. It’s asking for a ceasefire in order to allow health workers to vaccinate the population.

This somber talk brings up an important question, which is why the international community continues to cite a figure of 10,000 dead in Yemen when that’s the same figure it started citing two years ago and things have obviously not improved since then. Some estimates say that over 50,000 people have died in Yemen just since January 2016, which is around the time when that “10,000” figure first started getting play. Obviously it’s impossible to keep track of deaths in a situation like Yemen’s, or Syria’s, but stopping the count at such a relatively low number and then continuing to cite it ever since has left the impression that the fighting in Yemen hasn’t been so bad.


Israeli soldiers killed at least one Palestinian and wounded at least 220 others in clashes along the Gaza fence line on Friday. Some 8000 people protested in Gaza on Friday and, according to the Israelis, attacked soldiers with improvised explosive devices. Talks are reportedly ongoing between representatives of Hamas, Fatah, and Israel in Egypt over a durable Gaza ceasefire and Palestinian unification.

This is not a huge surprise, but the Trump administration’s move to defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency appears not to be some off the cuff punishment for the way the Palestinians responded to Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. In fact it’s part of a concerted effort to eliminate the UN agency responsible for dealing with Palestinian refugees and, eventually, to eliminate Palestinian refugees themselves by defining them away:

Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, has quietly been trying to do away with the U.N. relief agency that has provided food and essential services to millions of Palestinian refugees for decades, according to internal emails obtained by Foreign Policy.

His initiative is part of a broader push by the Trump administration and its allies in Congress to strip these Palestinians of their refugee status in the region and take their issue off the table in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, according to both American and Palestinian officials. At least two bills now making their way through Congress address the issue.

Kushner, whom Trump has charged with solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has been reluctant to speak publicly about any aspect of his Middle East diplomacy. A peace plan he’s been working on with other U.S. officials for some 18 months has been one of Washington’s most closely held documents.

But his position on the refugee issue and his animus toward the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is evident in internal emails written by Kushner and others earlier this year.

There has long been a belief on the Israeli far-right that Palestinian refugees would give up and settle permanently in the countries they’re in now if only the UN would stop coddling them. Those refugee camps must really be spectacular. The Trump administration, which is now virtually an appendage of the Israeli far-right when it comes to this issue, would prefer to send the aid money the US is supposed to give the UNRWA directly to those countries to entice their governments to allow Palestinian refugees to settle there permanently. They believe that would take the refugee issue “off the table” in peace talks, much the way the embassy decision took the final status of Jerusalem “off the table” by giving Israel everything it wanted.

It’s all about boxing the Palestinians in through economic hardship and by stripping them of their remaining issues and leverage until they have no choice but to accept a peace deal whose terms are completely loaded in Israel’s favor. Where this ends is with Israel’s virtual annexation of the West Bank, with Palestinians there given a choice between relocating to Gaza or living on one of several walled-off West Bank reservations occupying whatever land the Israelis don’t want. You know, the two-state solution.


Bloomberg is reporting that China has refused to cut its imports of Iranian oil after US sanctions go back into effect (non-oil sanctions will begin to go back into effect next week), despite pressure from the Trump administration. The US wants all countries to stop buying Iranian oil altogether by November 4. Beijing has apparently agreed not to increase its imports of Iranian oil after that date, but they’ve already started increasing them in advance of that date. And even if China just maintains its current level of oil purchases it would still be a boon to the Iranians and blow to the US sanctions regime.

Which is not to say that it’s going to be enough to salvage the Iranian economy. That economy is so bad already, and the rial so weak, that over 400,000 Afghan migrants are believed to have left Iran to return to Afghanistan so far this year. “I’ll take my chances in Afghanistan” is a hell of a bar to reach. And the impact of Iran’s downturn will be felt next door because of the drastic decline in remittance payments coming from Iran to Afghanistan.

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