Middle East update: August 10 2018


Syrian state media reported Saturday morning that the country’s air defenses had intercepted a “hostile target” near Damascus. No further details seem to be available at this point.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights the Syrian military conducted “dozens” of air and artillery strikes in northern Hama, southern Idlib, and western Aleppo provinces on Friday, killing at least 22 people in total.

Speaking of Aleppo province, the Turkish government is apparently planning a new highway network that will connect the cities of the parts of Aleppo province that it currently occupies with cities in southern Turkey. Not that it’s aiming to eventually annex northern Syria, mind you. I have no idea where you’d get that idea.

Hey, you know that insider attack in eastern Syria that Task and Purpose uncovered this week that I mentioned in yesterday’s update? The Pentagon, which had previously not mentioned the incident at all, now says it can’t determine whether the SDF fighter who shot a US Marine in February did so on purpose or accidentally.


The Saudi-led coalition says it will investigate Thursday’s airstrike, which blew up a school bus in Saada province. That’s big of them. International media is still reporting death tolls of 43 people overall, 29 of them children, but the Houthis are now saying that the strike killed 40 children and 51 people overall. What’s needed here is an independent investigation, as the United Nations seems to want, and not an internal coalition whitewash. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the Saudis to agree to that–or for the United States to demand it.

On Friday Saudi media reported that the kingdom’s military intercepted two Houthi missiles headed for Jizan province. It’s unclear if the Houthis fired off additional missiles, but their own media reported earlier in the day that they’d fired several missiles toward Jizan and one in the direction of Aseer province.


So it looks like US-Turkey relations are heading in a really positive direction:

The lira, thanks for asking, has lost nearly a fifth of its value over the past day or so, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is urging Turks to use their foreign currency and gold to purchase lira in an effort to prop the currency up against what he termed “economic war” by the United States. Which, sure thing pal. You first. Erdoğan made that call before Trump’s tweet, which will add fuel to the fire in terms of his “economic war” claim, but we’ll see if that’s enough to rally Turks to essentially throw their money on a bonfire on Erdoğan’s behalf. Though things are looking fairly grim, the International Monetary Fund says that Ankara has not approached it about a stabilization loan, which would have the side effect of locking Turkey into austerity–a proven method of pissing off voters. Turkey’s central bank may be forced to do a major interest rate hike to try to get things under control, though Erdoğan is dogmatically opposed to that sort of thing.

Hard as it is to believe, US-Turkey relations are worse now than they were under Obama, and while you won’t catch me shedding any tears about that it’s going to be interesting to see how far Trump is willing to push things for the sake of a single US pastor. I mean, the administration doesn’t seem to have any concern for the several local US embassy workers Erdoğan has detained in addition to Andrew Brunson, which is frankly unconscionable–but, hey, they’re most likely Muslims, so it’s not like you’re going to get Mike Pence and his 2024 presidential hopes interested in their plight.

Well, I’m being unfair. Trump isn’t just angry about Brunson. He’s also angry because he thinks Turkey is deliberately devaluing the lira in order to get around the effect of his original aluminum and steel tariffs. Of course Turkey isn’t deliberately devaluing the lira–Erdoğan’s innate hatred of interest rate increases is devaluing the lira, at least in part. But since these super double extra tariffs are driving the lira even deeper into the sewer, you can expect Trump to get even angrier now. What a fascinating experience it is watching this man at work.


Friday brought the announcement of another hypothetical Iraqi political alliance, this time between Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance (Nasr), former PM Ayad Allawi’s National Coalition (Wataniya), and cleric Ammar al-Hakim’s National Wisdom Movement (Hikma). If this grand alliance actually coalesces it would control 101 seats in the new parliament, only 64 shy of a majority. That difference could almost be made up by an alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Forward Party (Sairoon) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Adding those two would get them to 161 seats. Then it could just be a matter of attracting a small Kurdish or Sunni Arab party to the group to get to a majority.


Al Jazeera reports on the continuing difficulty Lebanese leaders are having in forming a government, over three months after the country’s May election:


Gaza seemed mostly calm on Friday morning but things appear to have turned violent again later in the day. Israeli soldiers reportedly killed a Palestinian paramedic and wounded 40 other people with live fire during another protest at the Gaza fence line, and  then the Israelis shelled a Hamas position in Gaza in response to militants allegedly throwing explosives over the fence at Israeli soldiers. Israel and Hamas were supposed to have agreed to a limited Gaza ceasefire on Thursday and are still supposed to be talking in Cairo about a more comprehensive ceasefire. It’s possible that Friday’s incidents weren’t severe enough to wreck all of that work, but at this point it feels like any exchange of fire could be the prelude to another full-on Gaza war.

At LobeLog, Mitchell Plitnick looks at Donald Trump’s bumbling efforts to simultaneously build an Arab coalition to oppose Iran and to dismantle any expectation that the Palestinians might one day have an actual state of their own:

Trump’s advisers—including John Bolton and Mike Pompeo in addition to Greenblatt, Friedman, and Kushner—either failed to grasp or failed to convince the president of the difficult balancing act they were trying to pull off. The most glaring example is Trump’s impetuous decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. There were reasons that prior presidents—Clinton, Bush, and Obama—consistently decided to waive the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. They knew that it was an explosive move to take a key Palestinian demand off the table with no compensation. They also realized that it would impede efforts to increase cooperation between Israel and the Arab world, as well as complicating US efforts in the Arab world.

Trump simply ignored that reality. He likely believed that frustration with the Palestinians—most notably, the frustration he doubtless heard expressed from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS)—would mean that, after some initial protests, things would calm down and the US could proceed with its agenda in the region.

It is telling that Saudi King Salman, who had been largely out of the limelight as his son, MbS, moved forward with his new partnership with Trump, felt the need to intervene sharply in the attempt to force a resolution on the Palestinians that he knew neither the Palestinian people nor most of the citizens of the Arab world would ever accept.

Nonetheless, the administration is reportedly moving ahead with a plan to further immiserate the Palestinians in the hopes that they’ll accept whatever lopsided deal presents itself in the forthcoming Kushner Accords. Having already almost zeroed out US aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the administration now apparently wants to cut US aid to private charities that administer aid to the Palestinians as well. The beatings will continue, etc.


Just about everyone seems to be happy that the Saudis have decided to resume shipping oil through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea, but Egypt may be happier than most. A loss of traffic at one end of the Red Sea could a loss of traffic at the other, i.e. the Suez Canal. But more importantly, the Saudi decision to stop shipping through the Red Sea threatened to raise the price of oil, which could have really hurt the already struggling Egyptian economy.


Shockingly, Mohammad bin Salman’s epic win conniption fit at the Canadian government doesn’t seem to have won any Canadians over to his cause:

In a sign that the Saudis may not have as much leverage over Canada as they thought, many in the country say they are less concerned about the effects on Canada of the diplomatic spat than they are concerned for the well-being of the 15,000 students who were told they cannot resume studies for the fall semester and 800 doctors and medical residents who must leave by Sept. 1.

“It’s very difficult for people who have families and leases,” said Dr. Salvatore Spadafora who oversees 216 of Saudi doctors and medical residents in the Toronto Academic Health Sciences Network. “They are all working very, very hard and trying to study and then this happens.”

This is unfamiliar territory for MBS, whose big plans in places like Qatar, Iran, Yemen, and Syria have all worked out so well. I guess we all fail sometimes.


Also at LobeLog, Jamal Abdi and Sina Toossi argue that reimposing sanctions on Iran will help the very forces inside Iran that the Trump administration claims to oppose:

The repressive powers in the Islamic Republic are far more threatened by Iran’s integration into the global economy than by a tit-for-tat dispute with the United States. They worry that the lifting of sanctions will undermine the monopolies established by the well connected few who are aligned with the Revolutionary Guards and other government entities. Indeed, after the nuclear deal, the Supreme Leader issued edicts against a broader opening to the United States and hardliners repeatedly warned of “foreign infiltration” in order to obstruct President Hassan Rouhani’s outreach to the West.

The real threats to repressive rule in Iran are a growing middle class, an organized civil society movement, and leaders who have the political capital to push for change against entrenched elements in the system. These trends make a democratic Iran inevitable. But outsiders, often led by the United States, have taken actions to arrest these developments. They have propped up Iran’s repressive rulers with threats of war and invasion, and bailed them out by slapping sanctions and travel bans to isolate Iranians and keep them weak.

Of course, to believe that sanctions undermine the Trump administration’s stated aims with respect to Iran is to assume that the administration genuinely wants talks with Iran rather than war. I have my doubts. The Iranians seem to have their doubts as well–they reportedly spent last week testing anti-ship missiles as part of their naval exercises in the Persian Gulf.

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