Middle East update: August 6 2018


Analyst Giorgio Cafiero writes on the lingering threat ISIS poses in Syria:

The Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has lost 98 percent of the territory that it controlled in Iraq and Syria several years ago, a territory equivalent in size to Great Britain. Yet any doubt that IS remains a threat to the Ba’athist regime in Damascus and Syrian civilians living in government-held areas was eliminated on July 25 when it coordinated a wave of suicide attacks in Syria’s southernmost al-Suwayda governorate. The attacks killed at least 240 civilians, according to local doctors and activists. IS reportedly kidnapped at least 30 Druze—mainly women and children—and decapitated a 19-year-old male hostage on August 5. The group is threatening to kill more of these hostages if its demand that the regime’s offensive in al-Suwayda be halted is not met.

Such vicious violence sends a clear message. Despite military defeats at the hands of a diverse host of state and non-state actors, IS retains the capacity to terrorize Syrians. It is seeking to exploit existing fissures within the country as the regime attempts to reconquer more territory. By sending out this message that it remains a lethal force, IS is also trying to deflect public attention away from its continuing loss of power in Syria.

Although a group affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham claimed responsibility for assassinating a top Syrian scientist with alleged ties to the country’s missile development program on Saturday, for some reason a lot of people seem to think that Israel’s Mossad might have had something to do with the killing. Aziz Asbar, the scientist in question, seems to have spent most of his time working on how to improve the accuracy of Syrian missiles and rockets, as well as to develop solid fueled projectiles. He’s allegedly been on Israel’s radar, and not in a nice “hey that guy is really doing good work” kind of way, for several years now. And Israel hasn’t exactly shied away from assassinating people like Asbar in the past.


The AP has produced an absolute bombshell of a report on how exactly the Saudi/Emirati coalition has been dealing with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula:

Again and again over the past two years, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States has claimed it won decisive victories that drove al-Qaida militants from their strongholds across Yemen and shattered their ability to attack the West.

Here’s what the victors did not disclose: many of their conquests came without firing a shot.

That’s because the coalition cut secret deals with al-Qaida fighters, paying some to leave key cities and towns and letting others retreat with weapons, equipment and wads of looted cash, an investigation by The Associated Press has found. Hundreds more were recruited to join the coalition itself.

It’s not news that the Saudis’ actions in Yemen have helped AQAP, or that the Saudis have turned a mostly blind eye to AQAP’s activities in Yemen. But the notion that the Saudis have been collaborating with AQAP is something that’s only been the stuff of rumors until now. Maybe this will cause Washington to rethink its support for the Saudi war eff–ahahahahahahahaha oh my God I don’t know what came over me there.


Here’s one of those pieces where I don’t really know what to say other than that you should go read it, and I don’t really think I can do it justice with an excerpt either. At Foreign Policy, Turkey analyst Selim Sazak has chronicled the post-election collapse of every one of Turkey’s main opposition parties into internal fighting and jockeying for power. It’s not like these parties have much recourse left to check Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authority now that Turkey’s constitutional changes have gone into effect, but whatever chance they might have of somehow checking him in the future is going to hinge on whether or not they can pull themselves back together.


As Iraq’s political parties struggle to form a new government, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s chances of keeping his job are dwindling. Abadi’s party finished a disappointing third in the May election, so he’s not in a great bargaining position, and the wave of protests that’s swept through southern Iraq in recent weeks has largely targeted him as an ineffectual leader unable to provide basic services to the Iraqi people. He may be too damaged at this point to front the next government.

Christian communities in Nineveh province are reportedly disappearing, and the culprit is Baghdad’s failure to rebuild the province and to provide those communities with the resources to bring back people who were displaced by ISIS’s 2014 offensive. Many Christians are also concerned about government plans to settle displaced Shiʿa families in areas that were predominantly Christian pre-ISIS. They feel Baghdad is trying to demographically change the province. Meanwhile, there are reports that ISIS is beginning to resurface in the town of Baaj in Nineveh. Baaj was supposedly liberated from ISIS last June but suspected ISIS fighters have been conducting attacks around the town and allegedly killed 20 people in that area last week.


Al Jazeera’s Marwan Bishara looks at the dilemma facing Palestinian leaders:

Judging by their smirks and statements, Kushner and Company have succeeded in tightening the noose around Palestine in complicity with Egyptian and Saudi leaders and are now waiting for the right time to unleash a diplomatic blitzkrieg.

But how could such a trio of staunch supporters of Israeli settlement expansion come up with a deal that merits the moniker “deal of the century?” One that is comprehensive and acceptable to both Israel and the Arabs, who insist on a two states solution that includes East Jerusalem?

The answer lies in the timing, packaging and delivery.

He expects the Kushner Accords to contain the symbolic trappings of Palestinian statehood as well as significant economic assistance, while giving Israel something approaching total control over the West Bank and full annexation rights for Israeli settlements there. The Palestinians will have to decide whether to walk away from such a lopsided deal or accept it because it may be the best they can get.


Part of the Kushner Accords will likely involve an effort to make Gaza Egypt’s problem, which is ironic when you consider that Gaza was Egypt’s problem until Israel took it in 1967 and refused to give it back. Though it was less of a problem then because, you know, Israel hadn’t wrecked the place yet. Now they’d like to implement a kind of “we break it, you buy it” policy. The Egyptians don’t seem to be terribly thrilled with that idea.


According to his son, Ali, imprisoned Bahraini opposition leader Hassan Mushaima is being denied proper medical care by Bahraini authorities. Hassan Mushaima was imprisoned by the Bahraini government back in 2011 during the Arab Spring protests, and officials claim that he’s refusing medical care. Ali Mushaima, currently engaged in a hunger strike outside Bahrain’s embassy in London, says that authorities are only offering to take his father to hospital in handcuffs, which seems a bit much for a 70 year old non-violent offender and is apparently more than Hassan’s pride can bear.


I absolutely cannot believe the Saudi-Canada spat has become a two-day story, but it has and it threatens to go on a lot longer than that. In case you missed it, on Friday Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland offered up the most anodyne, milquetoast statement of concern over Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women’s rights activists–said treatment being to toss them in a hole until hopefully everybody forgets they were ever allowed out in public. In response, the Saudi government has had what international relations scholars define as a “massive shit fit.” So far, it has:

  • suspended all new commercial ties between the two countries
  • suspended all cultural exchange programs between the two countries, including withdrawing Saudi nationals who were attending Canadian colleges and universities
  • kicked the Canadian ambassador out of the kingdom
  • recalled its own ambassador from Canada
  • suspended direct flights between the two countries
  • unleashed its army of internet trolls (you know, the ones who are supposed to be rooting out extremism online) to tweet about the horrors of Canada’s treatment of the Quebecois and First Nations peoples (that this is a fair criticism doesn’t make it any less disingenuous)
  • tweeted nifty new 9/11 threats at Canada

No, really, that last one is true:

That image is Toronto, and that’s an airplane flying right at the city in a pretty 9/11-ish manner over a very stark “mind your own business if you know what’s good for you” message. Now, the account @Infographic_ksa, which has since been taken offline altogether after tweeting that image, deleting it, tweeting it again sans airplane, then apologizing for the whole episode, might be an official Saudi Twitter account, it’s not clear. But at the very least it seems to be a sort of quasi-official one, which frankly is close enough.

This is all pretty batshit. The Saudis pulled their ambassador out of Sweden in 2015 over Swedish criticisms of their human rights record, but that whole affair took a lot longer to escalate and the Saudis only turned it up to 11 after Sweden backed out of an arms deal between the two countries. In this case Canada did…pretty much nothing, apart from offering the same lame, toothless expressions of concern that Western countries have always offered to try to paper over their inexcusable relationships with a ridiculously repressive, human rights-deficient totalitarian monarchy like Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration said worse about the Saudis, and the Obama administration was nauseatingly solicitous of Riyadh most of the time.

But that’s what this is about, really. Where Obama was nauseatingly solicitous of the Saudis, Trump generally behaves like he’s trying to get King Salman to adopt him. There is no action the Saudis can take that is too grotesque to cause Donald Trump to change his mind about them, and they know it. So they’re acting like it. They don’t even have to tolerate mild empty criticism from the West any more, and flipping out on Canada, of all places, is a nearly cost-free way for them to show it, both to the West and to the domestic audience. The Trump administration couldn’t even muster a half-hearted statement of support for Canada here, for the simple reason that the man running it likes the Saudi Arabia and the Saudi monarchs a whole lot more than he likes Canada or Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.


US nuclear-related sanctions against Iran will begin to go back into effect as of midnight tonight. For now the sanctions will cover just about everything apart from Iran’s shipping and energy sectors, but those sanctions will come back into effect in early November and the Trump administration is working to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero by then. It won’t get that far but it will achieve a significant reduction–which will get more significant if it folds Chinese purchases of Iranian oil into the broader Beijing-Washington talks over rolling back tariffs. I’ve got a piece going up at LobeLog in the morning that covers my thoughts on what happens now, so I don’t want to spend too much time on that now.

Iranian leaders are gearing up for a rough ride and are already trying to channel public anger about Iran’s weak economy into anger at the US for making it that much weaker. Iran’s central bank on Monday lifted restrictions on currency trading to give Iranians a last minute chance to trade their rials for something that might still have value in the morning. Tehran is still hoping that the remaining parties to the Iran nuclear deal–Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia–can salvage the accord and, with it, the Iranian economy, but despite European Union efforts to seal their firms off from US sanctions, chances are most companies aren’t going to risk doing business with Iran and potentially losing access to the United States in the process.

The Trump administration is hoping that the sanctions and their impact on Iran’s already staggering economy will lead to more and bigger protests against the Iranian government:

“What we’re noticing is that so many of the things that the protesters are demanding are very similar to the things that the United States and other nations in the world are demanding,” a senior administration official, speaking not for attribution, said on the call. “And we have been consistent saying that if Iran will start behaving like a normal country, there are a number of benefits that will follow from that.”

“But for as long as Iran continues to export revolution around the Middle East and to destabilize the region … I think you’re going to see the Iranian people continually frustrated, and we support their claims,” the official continued. “So we would like to see a change in the regime’s behavior, and I think the Iranian people are looking for the same thing.”

The Trump administration officials said they were glad to see signs of Iranian economic distress and unrest after Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May, contrary to predictions of some experts that unilateral US economic sanctions would not be very effective.

It remains to be seen whether this will work out the way the administration wants–there is at least the possibility that the resumption of sanctions will cause Iranians to rally around their government. But it must also be noted that the thing that motivates these protests is pain, brought on by US sanctions. Make people hurt enough, make them desperate enough, make them afraid for their next meal, and they’ll come out into the streets. For all the Trump administration’s high-minded talk about standing with the Iranian people, the goal here is to significantly increase the suffering of the Iranian people and then to weaponize it against the Iranian government. This administration only stands with the Iranian people inasmuch as it needs to stand with them in order to twist their arms.

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