Middle East update: August 9 2018


We normally start with Syria but I thought I’d change it up today because, in case you missed it, America’s best Middle Eastern pals massacred a bunch of Yemeni kids again on Thursday:

An airstrike from the Saudi-led coalition struck a school bus in northern Yemen on Thursday and killed dozens of people, many of them children, local medical officials and international aid groups said.

The attack sent a flood of victims to overwhelmed hospitals struggling to cope in what the United Nations considers one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

The coalition said it had hit missile launchers and called the attack a “legitimate military operation,” but the attack and the justification for it were condemned and drew new attention to the tremendous human toll of the war in Yemen, especially on children.

Hey, missile launchers, school buses, close enough am I right? Or, more to the point, who cares? The Saudis obviously don’t, and neither does the US since we’re the ones who continue to make this war possible because otherwise the nefarious Iranians will win or whatever. At least 43 people (most of them children) were killed in the strike, which hit a market in Saada province, and another 63 wounded–and I think it bears remembering that “wounded” covers a lot of ground all the way from “a few scrapes” to “amputated limbs.” Authorities believe those numbers are going to rise as rescue and recovery efforts continue.

In the Saudis’ defense, the missile that the Houthis fired on Jizan on Wednesday–or, rather, fragments of the missile that rained down after a Saudi interceptor destroyed it–did apparently kill one person. So you can clearly see how those third graders had it coming to them.

The United States could end the Yemen war by dinner time tonight if it wanted, which puts these deaths, along with tens of thousands more, on our hands. But hey, at least we’ve politely asked the Saudis to investigate this bombing. That should take care of everything.


According to the United Nations, Russia and Iran are very keen to avoid bloodshed in Idlib province. And yet an invasion seems more imminent by the day. The Syrian military  has begun dropping leaflets over the Idlib urging people to cooperate with the Syrian army to restore government rule, a message that sure makes it sound like the Syrian army will be passing through the province soon enough. This is the same thing Damascus has done before invading other rebel-held parts of the country–the difference in this case is that when it offers people the chance to surrender, it can’t offer them the chance to be relocated someplace else because, well, there’s nowhere else for them to go. And on top of the leaflets, it appears that the Syrian army has begun shelling rebel positions in the southern part of Idlib. Though it remains to be seen if that shelling is a precursor to a larger operation or just an isolated incident.

If the Syrian army does move in to Idlib, the next question will be whether Turkey, which is overseeing the ceasefire there, will respond. The question after that will be whether the Syrians intend to continue into northern Aleppo province, which has been outright occupied by Turkey. Ankara is busy trying to change Afrin’s demographics by settling displaced Arabs where Kurds once lived, and as part of that project it’s even changing little things like street names to rid them of any reference to Kurdish culture.

In other Syria news, Task and Purpose’s Paul Szoldra has uncovered the story of an insider attack by a Syrian Democratic Forces fighter against US soldiers in February that appears to have been entirely suppressed by the Pentagon. Insider attacks have been a regular feature of the US presence in Afghanistan, and it’s not surprising to see evidence that they’ve happened in Syria, but it does raise questions about what else the Pentagon is suppressing about Operation Inherent Resolve.


The BBC attempts to explain what’s ailing the Turkish economy:

The Turkish currency, the lira, has lost about 30% of its value against the US dollar since the New Year.

The stock market has fallen 17%, or if you measure it in dollars as some foreign investors would do, the decline is 40%.

Another measure often watched in the markets is government borrowing costs.

Borrowing for 10 years in its own currency now costs 18% a year. Even borrowing in dollars is expensive for Turkey at a cost of around 7%.

So what is going on?

On the plus side, whatever economic problems Turkey may be having, you can be comforted to know that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s very free and objective press isn’t really covering them. After all, why should Turks have to waste their beautiful minds on something like that?


Iraqi elections officials have released the results of their recount of the votes case in May’s parliamentary election. The new results seem to at least roughly correspond with the old one, and there have been no major changes to the makeup of Iraq’s next parliament.

Muqtada al-Sadr is now warning that if the Iraqi government does not fully meet the demands of protesters, he won’t join anyone’s coalition and will instead instruct his Sairoon party to join the opposition. The protesters are angry about the government’s inability to provide basic services, about the lack of jobs, and about corruption. Sadr is looking for a commitment from other parties to form a technocratic cabinet that ignores sectarian quotas and isn’t drawn from the typical pool of Iraqi politicians. If he follows through on his threat, Sairoon would comprise the first real opposition party in Iraqi politics since the US invasion and the implementation of democracy (well, sort of). Every Iraqi government since Saddam’s fall has been an unwieldy national unity mess that has basically just served as a central node for patronage arrangements.

Iranian media was apparently taken quite off guard by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s declaration earlier this week that Iraq will abide by US sanctions against Iran. Abadi made it clear that he’s not happy about it but that he believes Iraq must comply with the sanctions to protect its national interest. Iranian-backed militia leaders in Iraq have criticized Abadi’s decision, and some Iranian politicians are angry enough that they’re raising the possibility of demanding reparations from Baghdad over the assistance Iran provided in the war against ISIS.


This is very much a developing story, but Israeli and Hamas officials have reportedly agreed on a ceasefire in Gaza. The Israelis haven’t officially commented on it, but they often don’t on these kinds of stories because it would mean acknowledging that they’ve been negotiating with Hamas.

The ceasefire became imperative after the situation in Gaza overnight got pretty rough. Israeli forces reportedly conducted 150 air and artillery strikes in response to the launch of 180 rockets and shells from Gaza. The Israelis killed three Palestinians, including a pregnant woman and her toddler-aged child. It’s unclear how things got so out of control but the initial rocket fire from Gaza may have been Hamas’s way of making a statement while the ceasefire negotiations are ongoing. Prior to the ceasefire announcement things seemed to have calmed down somewhat on Thursday, though there were a couple of strikes. At least one Gaza rocket struck an unpopulated area outside the city of Beersheba, and the Israelis responded by bombing an apartment building in Gaza, injuring at least four people.

Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch looks at the Trump administration’s growing desire to define almost all Palestinian refugees out of existence:

Their case rests on the belief that the descendants of first-generation refugees cannot qualify for refugee status. Palestinians, they claim, are the only refugees in the world who pass on their refugee status through the generations.

The view is not shared by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the State Department, which maintain that multiple generations of Afghan, Bhutanese, Burmese, Nepalese, Thai, Tibetan, and Somali people have been recognized as refugees.

But the case for denying most Palestinians refugee status has gained traction with Trump’s inner circle. Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel, has dismissed these Palestinians as “so-called refugees.” Kushner, in an internal emails exposed last week by Foreign Policy, has advocated “a sincere effort to disrupt” UNRWA.

It’s at the point now where I couldn’t begin to guess whether these people are motivated more by their devotion to Israel or their loathing of Palestinians. I’m sure both are present to some degree.


Juan Cole discusses the fundamental emptiness of Saudi threats against Canada:

These boycotting steps may mildly inconvenience some specific Canadian institutions. Saudi medical school residents in hospitals had been playing an important role, and Saudi government-paid tuition for foreign students will be missed this year by some colleges and universities– though Chinese and other students will be lining up to replace the Saudis relatively quickly. All those thousands of Saudi students who suddenly have to switch countries and institutions will lose out in their educations and their future may be affected. Saudi investments in Canadian securities, real estate, etc.had not been made by Saudi Arabia out of the goodness of their hearts. Canada is a lucrative place to invest, and the Saudis were making money there. They will now face the prospect of investing elsewhere and likely not making as much. Canada will handily find other investors.

The Saudis then attempted to smear Canada for having a poor human rights record. Unfortunately for them, they were busy actually crucifying a convicted criminal at the same time, which rather detracted from the credibility of their critique of Ottawa.

Almost on cue, the Saudis made it clear on Thursday that their collective fit won’t affect oil sales to Canada. I mean, look, there’s getting really performatively angry in a way that embarrasses everybody and then there’s getting really performatively angry in a way that that embarrasses everybody and might seriously hurt the bottom line. It’s all about restraint, you know?


Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called on current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to resign on Thursday. I guess Ahmadinejad had gotten tired of people not talking about him and needed a quick fix.

Finally, I’d like to say something about the Trump administration’s stated intentions for Iran. I’ve written at LobeLog that I believe its real intention is to try to cause the Islamic Republic to collapse, which could take things in any number of directions–only some of which are improvements over the status quo, while many others (civil war, military dictatorship) are not. I don’t know that the administration’s intention is full-on war with Iran, but at the very least I don’t think that’s an outcome that people like John Bolton would be too upset to see. But that’s not what the administration is saying. Instead, it’s been talking about forcing Iran to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal and to change its behavior in terms of missile development, regional entanglements, and human rights. But we know that’s bullshit.

How do we know? Because the way to encourage Iran to change its behavior, to incentivize it to negotiate a new, more comprehensive arrangement with the West, would have been to fulfill the nuclear deal, not to violate it. Show the Iranians that there are benefits to negotiations with the West and that the United States can be a reliable partner and that might lead to further negotiations. What Trump has done instead is to fulfill everything that Iran’s two supreme leaders have ever said about the United States–about its dishonesty, its unreliability, its innate hostility toward Iran. Who wants to negotiate with a country like that? Why would Iran want to craft another deal with a country that can’t be trusted to uphold any deal? I suppose there is a scenario under which the US could brutalize Iran so thoroughly that the Iranians have no choice but to talk–but it’s likely that the Iranian government would collapse before it got to that point.

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