Middle East update: August 14 2018


Representatives from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council held their second meeting with representatives of the Syrian government last week, this time to discuss notions of self-rule and autonomy for northeastern Syria. The government’s reaction to the idea was apparently “not positive.” Which may be the end of any Kurdish rapprochement with Damascus, except that it’s not clear what other options the Kurds have at this point. They can’t really trust that the US is going to stick by them, although the recent downturn in US-Turkish relations may signal better times ahead (at least in the short term) for the US-Syrian Kurdish relationship. Elsewhere in Syria, government forces reportedly shot down five rebel drones on Monday night as they were approaching Russia’s Hmeimim airbase.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese government says it rejects the United Nations’ view that the situation in Syria is still too dangerous for refugees to return. Lebanon, which has been overwhelmed with Syrian refugees since the war began back in 2011, wants them to return home as soon as possible.


Presumably since the high from blowing up a school bus has faded, the Saudi-led coalition bombed the town of Durayhami on Tuesday and, according to Houthi officials, killed at least 13 civilians in the process. Durayhami lies south of Hudaydah, where most of the recent fighting between the Houthis and the coalition has taken place.

The governor of Taiz province, Amin Mahmoud, was the apparent target of a roadside bomb in Aden on Tuesday but he escaped unharmed. In what may be related news, fighting between two factions within Yemen’s nominally pro-government coalition has killed at least 18 people in Taiz over the past two days. A militia led by a man named Aboul Abbas has been clashing with “forces loyal to Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.”


Donald Trump is reportedly “frustrated” that Turkey hasn’t released US pastor Andrew Brunson. No shit. US and Turkish diplomats have apparently started talking to one another “behind the scenes” to resolve this situation, which has contributed to a steep loss in value for the Turkish lira over the past week or so. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seemed determined to keep tensions high on Tuesday when he called in a speech for a boycott of US electronic devices, and the Trump administration is keeping tensions high by feeding stories to the press that it’s considering additional sanctions against Turkey if Brunson isn’t released.

On the plus side, the lira’s decline leveled off on Tuesday, and concerns over the potential for a currency crisis to spread from Turkey to other countries now seem to be a little less serious.


Three people were killed on Tuesday in an explosion in Baghdad’s Sadr City area. It’s as yet unknown if this was an intentional blast or what the cause may have been.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is scrambling to fine-tune his response to US sanctions against Iran in a way that avoids alienating either Washington or Tehran (probably an impossible feat). His latest concession involves reducing visa charges for Iranians making the Arbaeen pilgrimage to Karbala. Meanwhile, the sanctions themselves are already hitting Iraqi investors pretty hard:

The Trump administration’s decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran is rebounding on neighboring Iraq, hitting Iraqi investors with dramatic losses at a time when that American ally is already facing unrest because of tough economic conditions.

As their country flirted with economic collapse in 2015 under the weight of an Islamic State onslaught, Iraqis poured millions of dollars into Iranian banks that were offering sky-high interest rates following Iran’s nuclear accord with the United States. Many Iraqis used mules to carry thousands of dollars into Iran to bypass laws regulating how much money could be taken out of the country.

Now, with the United States pulling out of the nuclear deal and renewing trade sanctions on Iran, the value of the Iranian rial has plummeted to historic lows, staggering investors.


Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri says that the country’s political parties “need more time to arrive at a final formula” so that he can form a government. Lebanon has been under a caretaker administration since its May 6 election, which proved to be fairly inconclusive. Hariri wants to form a national unity government but some parties are apparently striking a hard bargain in talks.

Lebanese authorities say that the Israeli military fired six smoke bombs over the border on Tuesday, causing two injuries and a fire. It’s unclear why the Israelis would have done so.


About 10 days ago, Jordanian and Iraqi officials signed a new joint security deal in Amman. The agreement calls for joint exercises and counterterrorism operations, intelligence sharing, and it also called for the reopening of the Iraqi-Jordanian border to commercial traffic, which began last Wednesday. Both countries are looking to develop the border region, with projects including a joint industrial area.


The Israeli government says that it will reopen the main Kerem Shalom border crossing into Gaza and re-extend Gaza’s legal fishing zone on Wednesday provided that there’s no new fighting before then. A ceasefire agreement reached last week in Cairo seems to have quieted Gaza considerably.


Tuesday was the fifth anniversary of the Rabaa Massacre, which Egyptian security forces rolled through two groups of protesters in Cairo and killed 800 or more people according to the highest estimates. The Egyptian government celebrated by arresting 13 alleged Muslim Brotherhood members on charges of “inciting protests.”


According to Iranian state media, the Saudi government on Tuesday released three Iranian fishermen it had been detaining since last June. The three men were picked up in Saudi waters. Their release was reportedly the product of negotiations between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministries.


That United Nations report that estimated there may be as many as 30,000 ISIS fighters still remaining in Syria and Iraq also made some allegations about Iran and al-Qaeda:

Al-Qaeda’s leaders in Iran “have grown more prominent” and have been working with the extremist group’s top leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, “projecting his authority more effectively than he could previously” including on events in Syria, the experts said.

The report mentions two al-Qaeda leaders in Iran who have allegedly been relaying Zawahiri’s orders into Syria since Jabhat al-Nusra severed its links with al-Qaeda and (eventually) became Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. That move, by the way, looks increasingly legitimate, in the sense at least that they made it without Zawahiri’s approval and that he’s had to look for other means by which to play a role in Syria. Anyway, if this UN claim is accurate, which is a big if, then the al-Qaeda officials would have to be acting at least with the tacit permission if not outright approval of the Iranian government. Iranian officials on Tuesday “categorically” rejected the UN’s claim.

James Dorsey writes that new protests by some of Iran’s ethnic minorities have caused Tehran to sound alarms about possible “foreign meddling”:

Iran has raised the spectre of a US-Saudi effort to destabilize the country by exploiting economic grievances against the backdrop of circumstantial evidence that Washington and Riyadh are playing with scenarios for stirring unrest among the Islamic republic’s ethnic minorities.

Iran witnessed this weekend minority Azeri and Iranian Arab protests in soccer stadiums while the country’s Revolutionary Guards Corps reported clashes with Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish insurgents.

State-run television warned in a primetime broadcast that foreign agents could turn legitimate protests stemming from domestic anger at the government’s mismanagement of the economy and corruption into “incendiary calls for regime change” by inciting violence that would provoke a crackdown by security forces and give the United States fodder to tackle Iran.

“The ordinary protesting worker would be hapless in the face of such schemes, uncertain how to stop his protest from spiralling into something bigger, more radical, that he wasn’t calling for,” journalist Azadeh Moaveni quoted in a series of tweets the broadcast as saying

Obviously this is mostly propaganda, but like a lot of lies it has a kernel of truth buried in it. The Saudis are pretty well known to support Arab, Kurdish, Baluch, and possibly Azeri separatist movements in Iran as a way of destabilizing the Iranian state, and the Trump administration has met with at least one prominent Iranian Kurdish leader within the past couple of months.

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