Middle East update: August 13 2018


China, which more or less prides itself on staying above the fray (or several frays) in the Middle East, might be about to get directly involved in Syria:

On August 1, Ambassador Qi Qianjin told the Syrian pro-regime news outlet Al-Watan that China’s “military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that’s fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.” Qi praised the China-Syria military cooperation.

The Chinese military attache in Syria, Wong Roy Chang, said that cooperation between the Syrian and Chinese militaries was “ongoing,” adding, “We – China and its military – wish to develop our relations with the Syrian army. As for participating in the Idlib operation, it requires a political decision.”

Obviously “participate” could mean a lot of things. But it’s still somewhat uncharted territory for China in the region. And it’s unclear what could be motivating Beijing–maybe a chance to test the Chinese military in a low-risk situation, maybe concern over militants who’ve gone to Syria from China and might want to return home at some point. Whatever the reason, getting involved in Idlib could lead to some interesting diplomatic entanglements with Turkey, which has been hostile to the idea of a Syrian offensive in that province.

A new United Nations report estimates that there are still some 20,000-30,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq, and says that the group’s international capabilities remain a threat, as do those of al-Qaeda.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights now puts the death toll from that weekend explosion in Idlib province at 69, 17 of them children.

The Syrian government says it wants to facilitate the return of refugees by rebuilding its infrastructure, and would very much appreciate it if Western governments would drop their sanctions in order to help speed things along. I’m sure they’ll get right on that. The United Nations still says conditions are too dangerous in Syria for refugees to return.


Emirati officials are denying last week’s Associated Press report that the Yemeni coalition it co-leads with the Saudis has been cutting sweetheart deals with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and then passing those off as great victories in the War on Terror:

On Monday, Emirati Brig. Gen. Musallam al-Rashedi talked to journalists about his country’s work to battle al-Qaida in Yemen, known by the acronym AQAP. Responding to an AP question, the general denied the news agency’s report without offering any specifics.

“They are not willing to negotiate, most of these hard-core guys. They are willing to go and fight,” al-Rashedi said. “We have guys who have been injured, killed by AQAP and there’s no point in negotiating with these guys.”

He added that since 2015, some 1,000 “core” al-Qaida fighters had been killed, including 13 most-wanted leaders, while 1,500 have been captured. Emirati officials said only “200” al-Qaida fighters remain on the battlefield, without elaborating.

I wonder why he didn’t want to elaborate. Meanwhile, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash gave the standard “you can’t make an omelette” answer when asked about the airstrike that killed dozens of children in Saada province last week. I guess it’s better than continuing to insist that their school bus was a legitimate military target.


Well, on the plus side, if you’ve ever wanted to visit Turkey on a budget now might be your chance.

On the downside, the lira is continuing to lose value, and part of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to stop that trend is apparently to…go after “economic terrorists on social media.” Ah, OK. Sounds foolproof. Basically anybody expressing any negative sentiment about the currency on Twitter or whatever is now liable to face justice, which all seems very free and fair to me. Erdoğan has also been talking about deepening Turkey’s economic ties with the BRICS nations–Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa–as well as in Africa and Southeast Asia, the implicit message here being that Turkey is looking to directions other than the West to find friends and allies.

Erdoğan’s son in-law/finance minister/heir apparent, Berat Albayrak, said on Monday that his office will begin implementing policies to counter the lira’s slide. One component of that plan may have begun to take shape over the weekend, when amid several other pronouncements Erdoğan talked about dropping the dollar as intermediary currency in Turkey’s commercial relations with China, Russia, and Ukraine. Turkey would instead conduct its trade strictly in national currencies. This is a punitive measure directed at the US more than a way to salvage the lira, but that reflects Erdoğan’s belief that the lira is sliding because the United States is engineering it rather than because of purely economic factors (it’s both, really). Russia in particular is thrilled by the idea, understandably since US sanctions have hurt the ruble as well.

The US economy benefits considerably from the fact that the dollar is by far the main global reserve currency, which in part means that when two countries want to do business with one another they usually first convert their money into dollars and then proceed. If the rest of the world were simply to stop doing that it would really upend the global economic order as it exists today. The US definitely doesn’t want that. The problem with Turkey’s plan is that it alone doesn’t really have the economic muscle to force a global move away from the dollar. And we’re only talking about a portion of Turkey’s commerce anyway. You’ll note that Turkey’s trade with the rest of Europe will continue to run through the dollar and that accounts for the bulk of Turkey’s international commerce.

It’s also unclear that trading directly in national currencies can work as a stable mechanism of global trade. Some kind of common trading currency would seem to be required for consistently smooth transactions. But it definitely doesn’t have to be the dollar. And clearly the idea of shifting off of the dollar is out there, perhaps given a bit of a boost by Donald Trump’s habit of alienating everyone geopolitically. Europe–i.e., Germany, France, Italy, the UK–is the place to watch. If the Europeans decide that it’s time to transition to a post-dollar world then that would really open up the floodgates. The transition would probably be very bumpy and that’s part of the reason why it’s not something that’s usually talked about except by cranks and US adversaries. But it’s the stability of the US and the dollar that keeps everybody on board, along with America’s economic and–let’s be honest–military power. As the US looks to be entering a very ugly decline phase, dropping the dollar is an idea that may gain more traction moving forward.


Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has…oh, let’s say “clarified” his approach to the resumption of US sanctions against Iran. After saying last week that Iraq would abide by the sanctions, Abadi on Monday told reporters that he simply meant that Iraq would obey a ban on using dollars to do business with Iran and not necessarily the broader package of sanctions. Presumably Iran’s anger over his statement last week–which even included calls for Iraqi reparations for the Iran-Iraq War–is behind his, uh, “clarification.”

Kurdish forces have reportedly rescued five Yazidi captives from ISIS. They’d been held by ISIS since the group swept through Sinjar in 2014.


The militants who engaged Jordanian police in a gun battle over the weekend after killing one Jordanian police officer on Friday had no direct links to any terrorist organization, according to Interior Minister Sameer al-Mobaideen. However, he says that they were influenced by ISIS’s propaganda.


New polling finds support among both Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution is continuing to decline:

Support for the two-state idea began to steadily decline more than 10 years ago, but first dropped below 50 percent for both populations last December, following Trump’s controversial announcement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In the six months since, backing for the two-state solution dropped three points each for both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, from 46 percent to 43 percent.

The research also found that Palestinian citizens of Israel follow a separate trend, with stable and high backing for a two-state solution at 82 percent.

Interestingly, support for a conflict against Israel is dropping among Palestinians, with only 27 percent in support compared with 38 percent in December. But support among Israeli’s for a “definitive war” against the Palestinians, whatever that means, is up to 20 percent from 12 percent in December.


Egyptian officials say their security forces killed six “suspected militants” in a raid on a house outside of Cairo. The Egyptian interior ministry says the suspects were planning attacks against Christian targets to coincide with Eid al-Adha, which begins next week.


Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to shut the door on negotiations with the United States in a televised speech on Monday, while saying that government mismanagement is to blame for Iran’s economic struggles rather than US sanctions:

“Negotiations with the U.S. would definitely harm us and they are forbidden,” Khamenei said, adding that the Americans had proven they could not be trusted. “Negotiation with the bullying and very eager government of the U.S. means giving it an instrument through which it can add to its hostility,” he said.

Khamenei meanwhile blamed the monetary crisis on President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, saying it resulted from “management problems unrelated to the sanctions.”

To be fair, Khamenei also insisted that Iran will not go to war with the United States either. Dumping the economic situation entirely in Rouhani’s lap, which is farther than Khamenei has been willing to go in the past though he has been frequently critical of Rouhani, is an attempt to elide the corruption that exists at the highest levels of Iranian politics and instead direct popular anger away from himself, the IRGC, and other institutions of the Islamic Revolution.

Iranian state media is reporting that the military has begun producing a new short-range, radar-evading missile, which could correspond to this report via Fox (I know) that Iran tested a Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missile last month during military exercises in the Persian Gulf. It’s Iran’s first missile test in more than a year and violates the spirit of at least one UN resolution 2231, the resolution that enshrined the Iran nuclear deal, which “calls on” Iran not to test missiles.

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