Middle East update: August 11-12 2018


At least 39 people were killed on Sunday when a weapons depot in the town of Sarmada, in Idlib province, exploded. The depot was apparently inside a civilian residential building, which shows the kind of deep concern for human life that you can only find in a group like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, whose fighters’ families–including at least 12 children–made up most of the casualties. It’s still unclear what caused the explosion but the uncertainty itself suggests that it was not an airstrike and Sarmada’s distance from any government-held territory would argue against artillery.

Russia says it shot down a rebel (presumably) drone that was approaching its Hmeimim air base in northwestern Syria on Saturday.

The likelihood of a Syrian assault on Idlib, and on Turkish-occupied parts of northern Aleppo province after that, may be determined by the speed with which Turkey appears to be colonizing the area. Turkish authorities are reportedly forming a “national army” of around 35,000 rebel (presumably Free Syrian Army) fighters in the Afrin and al-Bab areas. If Turkey is prepared to fully support it–with air power, in particular–that could be a pretty big speed bump on Bashar al-Assad’s road to reconquering all of Syria. Meanwhile, the Turks also keep talking about invading and occupying other parts of northern Syria. These are the sorts of things that could provoke Assad to move on northern Syria sooner rather than later. The longer he waits the larger and more entrenched Turkey’s position becomes.


United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths said on Saturday that next month’s Yemeni talks “will focus on a transitional governance deal and disarmament,” or, in other words, on forming a national unity government. The talks are scheduled to begin with indirect consultations on September 6 in Geneva and will apparently include the Houthis, the Yemeni government, the departed Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress, and southern Yemeni separatists.


Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish media he controls are really hammering home the idea that the United States is waging economic warfare against Turkey and that’s the only possible explanation for the lira’s rapid loss of value over the past couple of weeks. Economic warfare is probably overstating things, but it is true that US tariffs have hit the lira extremely hard. Ankara says that it has developed a plan to take “necessary steps” to calm global financial markets and will begin implementing it on Monday.

Erdoğan’s own economic management has played a role here, specifically his hostility to raising interest rates. The lira was already losing value independent of anything the United States did. There are good arguments to be had about whether raising interest rates is the right way to counter inflation and at what point it makes sense to raise them without hurting workers and the lower classes, and I’m certainly no economist so I won’t tell you whether Erdoğan is right or wrong here. Erdoğan did study business administration in college, but I will also note here that, while this is disputed, he probably didn’t finish his degree.


The Iranian government canceled a scheduled visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi this week over Abadi’s decision to abide by restored US sanctions against Iran. That doesn’t bode well for Abadi, who is fighting to remain PM in whatever government emerges in Iraq and would stand a much better chance of making that happen if Tehran were to be at least indifferent on the subject.


One Jordanian police officer was killed on Friday when an improvised explosive device struck his vehicle in the town of Fuheis, just outside of Amman. That explosion was initially attributed to a gas leak but Jordanian authorities subsequently found evidence of the explosive. On Saturday, Jordanian police raided a house in the city of Salt where they believed a group of militants behind Friday’s attack where staying. At least four police officers and three militants were killed during the raid, and at least 20 more people were injured. The militants apparently blew up part of the house and caused extensive damage in the vicinity. It’s unclear what their motives were or whether they had any allegiances to larger organizations like ISIS or al-Qaeda.


There was another large protest against Israel’s new nation-state law in Tel Aviv over the weekend, this time among Israeli Arabs:

Tens of thousands of Arab Israelis and their supporters chanted against “apartheid” and for “equality” on Saturday in central Tel Aviv at a rally protesting a law that declares Israel the nation state of the Jewish people.

Israeli Jews also joined the demonstration, the second since last Saturday, when thousands from Israel’s Druze minority took to the streets in Tel Aviv to denounce the law they say makes them second-class citizens, AFP reporters said.

Protesters waved Palestinian and Israeli flags at the rally, which Israeli state television said drew a crowd of more than 30,000 people.

+972 Magazine has more, including interviews with some of the protesters.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu naturally seized on the presence of those Palestinian flags as an argument for why the nation-state law is necessary. Apparently acknowledging Palestine at all is now tantamount to denying Israel’s right to exist. It hasn’t always necessarily been that way, but then Israel hasn’t always been this blatantly an ethno-state either. If Netanyahu has one redeeming feature, it’s his ability to make the subtext not just text, but bold text in a really nice, readable font.


Egyptian authorities say their security forces killed 12 militants in a raid in the city of el-Arish in northern Sinai, without offering any details as to when the raid took place. Elsewhere, Egyptian forces also reportedly stopped a suicide bomber before he could reach a church outside of Cairo on Saturday. The bomber detonated his explosives but killed only himself. They’ve subsequently arrested seven people in connection with the attempted attack.

Hey, remember the murder of a prominent Coptic bishop, Bishop Epiphanius, at a monastery northwest of Cairo late last month? Turns out he was apparently murdered by a disgraced former monk.


It comes from Qatar-owned Al Jazeera, so take it with a grain of salt, but they claim to have gotten ahold of a report detailing the extent of the abuse heaped on prisoners at the UAE’s secret detention facilities in Yemen. It says that some 49 people died at these UAE facilities in horrifying conditions:

The report – which was provided by Yemeni military figures who worked with the Saudi-UAE coalition battling Yemen’s Houthi rebels – described scenes of sexual abuse by Emirati army personnel and their Yemeni surrogates.

Individuals endured rape at the hands of coalition forces and were subjected to electrocution in the genitals, chest and armpits.

Some detainees were hung in midair while being insulted and beaten, the report said.

Electric cables were used alongside wooden bats and steel poles during the interrogation sessions.

In some instances, the detainees are described as having been deprived of sleep and confined to narrow spaces with poor hygiene and limited air ventilation.

For some, this was accompanied by sessions where their skins were lashed with whips and their wounds were subsequently covered in salt. Others had industrial nails inserted into their finger and toenails.


James Dorsey writes that Saudi Arabia’s continued involvement in Yemen is costing it support elsewhere in the Islamic world, for example in Malaysia:

“Malaysia and other Muslim nations can no longer look up to the Saudis like we used to. They can no longer command our respect and provide leadership. The Saudis have abandoned the Palestinians, just like the Egyptians. The Saudis have moved much closer to Israel who are suppressing and killing the Palestinians,” said Raja Kamarul Bahrin Shah Raja Ahmad, a member of Malaysia’s upper house of parliament and the head of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition in the Malaysian state of Terengganu.

“Perhaps Malaysia under the leadership of Dr Mahathir Mohamad should take the lead again in speaking up for the oppressed Muslims of the world. It is about time Malaysia again show the leadership that was once so much admired and respected worldwide,” Mr. Bahrin added.

Malaysia has sought to distance itself from Saudi Arabia since the return to power in May of Mr. Mahathir, whose past Islamist rhetoric and stark anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish statements propelled him to prominence in the Islamic world.

Dorsey also hints at the possibility that Donald Trump’s harsh economic measures against Turkey aren’t just about the Andrew Brunson case or US-Turkey relations, but that Ankara’s deteriorating relationship with the Saudis may have something to do with it as well. Erdoğan has thrown Turkey’s lot in with Qatar in a major way, and has been critical of Mohammad bin Salman’s talk about “returning” Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam.” And of course Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party is effectively, if not formally, a Muslim Brotherhood party, which the Saudis still hate.

Bruce Reidel delivers a similar message about the effect of the kingdom’s foreign policy at Al-Monitor. While Donald Trump may still be completely in the can for the Saudis, he’s increasingly alone in that regard:

Congress, on the other hand, is turning against the kingdom, as is the press and the public. Mohammed is increasingly seen as an autocrat who can’t tolerate any dissent, rather than as a modernizer opening up the country. Criticism and dissent is not tolerated, even if it is the dissenting opinion of women who fought for the right to drive in the only country in the world that ever made driving a gender-based issue.

Indeed, the international business community has come to a very different conclusion about the country’s policies, especially in the wake of Mohammed’s shakedown of his own people last fall to pay for his expensive adventures. Hundreds were detained without charge, and then forced to turn over their assets to the government. Foreign direct investment in the kingdom dropped 80% from over $7 billion in 2016 to $1.4 billion in 2017, according to the United Nations, and down from over $12 billion when King Abdullah was still on the throne. Jordan and Oman each attracted more foreign investment last year than Saudi Arabia. The number of companies also fell significantly. Concerns about the rule of law and arbitrary detention are also encouraging capital flight.


The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps says that its forces killed 10 Kurdish militants on Saturday near the town of Oshnavieh in West Azerbaijan province on Saturday. The IRGC didn’t say who the Kurdish fighter were with but it did imply they had some connection with the United States.

Iranian activists have reportedly started a new social media campaign to track nepotism and other kinds of favorable treatment for the children of top Iranian officials. It’s the latest manifestation of the growing Iranian unhappiness with corruption and inequality.

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