Middle East update: August 7 2018


On Tuesday, the Syrian government officially accused Mossad of engineering Saturday’s assassination of Aziz Asbar, a scientist at Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center with alleged links to Syria’s missile development program. Damascus claims Mossad had made two previous attempts on Asbar’s life before succeeding over the weekend. If Mossad was behind the assassination it raises the possibility that it’s working with al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria. A group called the Abu Amara Battalion, which has been connected with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the AQ affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra), claimed responsibility for the attack, but Syrian officials say it collaborated with Israel.

Israeli officials say they estimate that the Syrian army has surpassed its pre-war size, which if true is as sure a sign as anything that the civil war is effectively over. The Syrian military had degraded to such an extent by 2015 that Damascus began ceding large parts of Syria to the rebels in order to defend core areas like Damascus and the Alawite regions along the coast. But of course that was before Russia got involved in the war.


The Turkish government is sending a delegation under Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal to Washington to discuss Turkey’s ongoing detention of US pastor Andrew Brunson and how the two NATO allies can either negotiate his release or at least put the issue behind them. Turkish media is reporting that the two sides have already reached some preliminary agreement but if that’s true neither is talking about it and there’s no indication that Brunson has been or is about to be released. If they have found common ground, it’s likely going to involve Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the Turkish banker who was convicted earlier this year in US court over charges that he helped Iran evade US sanctions. But the fact that the Turks are sending this delegation instead of just releasing Brunson suggests that the two sides aren’t agreeing on very much yet.

The Brunson spat seems to have been good for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s domestic political strength. Erdoğan is often at his best when he can point Turks at some foreign enemy who is allegedly attempting to weaken Turkey through nefarious means, and he’s managed to whip up support even among the opposition in his mini-feud with Donald Trump. Trump’s global unpopularity has probably helped. However, that might be outweighed by the damage this dispute seems to be doing to the Turkish economy, though of course Turkish officials aren’t willing to admit that:

Amid mounting panic about the effects of the row on Turkey’s fragile economy, the Turkish lira dropped by a record 5% against the US dollar on Aug. 6. Mahir Unal, a spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party played down the meltdown, insisting that it stemmed from broader global economic instability.

“Turkey’s economy is extremely strong,” Unal asserted. “Its financial sector, its banking sector, are extremely strong. Citizens rest assured, our government is solving the problem.”

Some Turkish commentators believe that Erdogan’s uncharacteristically moderate response to the US sanctions imposed against Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu over their role in Brunson’s incarceration indicates his desire to avoid further escalation. Erdogan called the measures “disrespectful” and “irrational.”


While we know there are still questions about who Iraq’s next prime minister will be, Al-Monitor’s Ali Mamouri says that the offices of president and parliament speaker also remain unsettled:

As for the presidency, Mohammad Saber Ismail was officially nominated by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — a position that has been traditionally in the Kurds’ hands. Ismail, whose wife is former President Jalal Talabani’s sister-in-law, served as Iraq’s ambassador to the UN from 2013 to 2016. Ismail will take the presidency provided he gets two-thirds of the parliament’s votes. This, ultimately, hinges on the internal talks between the Kurdistan parties, as well as their talks with the other parties from the Shiite and Sunni spectrums.

Nonetheless, there have been disputes among Kurdistan’s parties — particularly the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party — over Ismail’s candidacy. The Sunni entities, on the other hand, are eyeing this position for Sunni leader Khamis al-Khanjar, who is a supporter of the so-called Iraqi Decision Alliance — a feat that seems, however, unlikely due to the extreme Shiite reservations over Khanjar.

Yet speaker of the Iraqi parliament remains one of the more problematic positions, as Sunni groups, which have this position, are still deeply divided in light of disjointed visions and power struggles. Both Khaled al-Obeidi, the former minister of defense, and Osama al-Nujaifi, the former vice president of Iraq and a former president of the parliament, are hoping to seize the position, in addition to Salim al-Jabouri, who was the last speaker.


Israeli artillery killed two Hamas operatives in Gaza on Tuesday. The Israelis say they were returning fire after the Hamas fighters had already opened fire on their forces, but Hamas says they were involved in a sniper drill and were not shooting at the Israelis. Perhaps Hamas might want to conduct its sniper exercises a bit further away from the Gaza fence line, just a suggestion.

An Israeli human rights group, working with several Israeli Arab groups, has petitioned the country’s Supreme Court to overturn the basic law that defines the nation-state of only the Jewish people. They’re arguing that the measure, which specifically enshrines the right of self-determination only for Israel’s majority Jewish community, violates the civil rights of Israeli minority groups like Arabs and the Druze.


The United States and European Union say they would like “details” about the Saudi government’s systematic arrests of prominent women’s rights activists over the past several month. Mindful, I guess, of the fact that actually criticizing said arrests can get threats of another 9/11 attack tossed at you online, both the US and EU have not offered any criticism of the arrests so far. Neither has shown any interest in supporting Canada over the Saudis, which I suppose is to be expected, though the US is calling on the Saudis and Canadians to resolve their dispute. This came after reports emerged that the Canadians are asking the governments of the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates to intervene with Riyadh on their behalf.

The spat with Canada is the latest and most…energetic, let’s say, Saudi response to Western criticism, but the Saudis have been displaying a shorter and shorter fuse in terms of tolerating such criticism in recent years. As I wrote yesterday, part of that comes from the sense that they can do no wrong in Donald Trump’s eyes and so will always have US support no matter what, but part of it also likely stems from Mohammad bin Salman’s desire to look tough so as to keep conservatives mostly in line even as he takes (mostly superficial) steps to liberalize Saudi society.

If you’re just here for more batshit Saudi overreactions, then here’s something to scratch your itch:


US sanctions against Iran are back in effect and you better believe Donald Trump is tweeting about it:

I had some thoughts about where things go from here that I put together for LobeLog:

The Trump administration’s aim in re-imposing sanctions is, in its own telling, to force Iran to reopen negotiations over a new “nuclear-plus” accord. This hypothetical deal would impose stronger restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity than the JCPOA did while also addressing a host of other issues like Iran’s missile program and its regional geopolitical activity. Last week, Trump declared that he would meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with “no preconditions” to discuss such an agreement, a statement that was quickly walked back by the administration and that may not have reflected a genuine offer anyway. In recent days there have been rumors, despite Iranian denials, that Washington and Tehran are conducting back-channel talks via Oman, which helped facilitate the talks that led to the JCPOA.

If his offer to meet with Rouhani is genuine then it likely reflects Trump’s desire to replicate the “success” of his Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June. Though that summit has yet to produce much of substance, and U.S. and North Korean leaders are already sniping at one another again, it did let Trump play “master diplomat” for a day and brought him some positive media coverage. It also pulled the U.S. and North Korea back from a potential crisis—albeit a crisis that Trump was mostly responsible for creating in the first place.

However, as many commentators have noted, Iran is not North Korea. Iranian leaders have never valued the chance to meet with a U.S. president the way North Korea’s leaders have, and for Rouhani to meet with Trump would likely be to risk his political fortunes at home. So far, at least, the Iranian president is insisting that Trump lift sanctions and return to the JCPOA before any meeting can take place.

Moreover, now that Trump has violated the JCPOA and shown that the United States is not a reliable negotiating partner, Iranian leaders would have little reason to believe anything Trump were to offer in talks. So the idea that this situation will end in a new agreement seems at least for the moment to be farfetched at best. And, frankly, that may be just how the Trump administration wants it.

As Ankit Panda notes here, the reimposition of sanctions really starts the countdown to the total collapse of the nuclear deal, as Iran weighs the benefits of trying to squeeze out some benefit from the accord versus telling the US to go fuck itself and restarting its industrial scale nuclear program. We don’t yet know how Iran is going to respond, but other countries are beginning to make their feelings known: the Syrian government condemned the sanctions on Tuesday, the Iraqi government said it will comply with the sanctions but does not agree with them, and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini urged European companies–almost certainly in vain–to continue doing business with Iran without regard for US policy.

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