Middle East update: August 20 2018

As always when I take a few days off we’re going to skip over what happened while I was gone unless absolutely necessary.


First of all, Hajj Mubarak to those who are undertaking the pilgrimage despite the apparently heavy rains. The Guardian has put together a nice photo essay on this year’s Hajj. If you’re interested in more information on the Hajj I wrote an explainer on it several years ago which you can find here. This evening will also mark the beginning of Eid al-Adha, so Eid Mubarak to anyone celebrating. You can find my explainer on that festival here.


While Russia, Iran, and Turkey continue to negotiate a way to avoid a Syrian offensive in Idlib province, people there are getting killed anyway:

Ahmed Barakat gathered what remained of his destroyed home in the town of Urum al-Kubra, west of Idlib city. All of the residential neighborhood’s houses turned into piles of rubble when Russian airstrikes targeted the town on Aug. 10.

A layer of dust covered Barakat’s hair and face, his eyes sad and tired. As he was leaving in a car with what is left of his belongings, he told Al-Monitor, “In one moment, your life can turn into hell. Just before sundown, an aircraft flew over and attacked our neighborhood. I thought I was dreaming, but it was a living nightmare. Dozens of my neighbors were killed or injured. The entire Al-Abboud family was killed.”

He added, “Although my house was not completely destroyed, I cannot live here anymore. I will move in with my relatives until a find a place of my own.”

Thirty-six people, half of them children, were killed in Urum al-Kubra. Shock was still evident on people’s faces as they walked past the site of the massacre, as locals call it.

At The Diplomat, analysts Logan Pauley and Jesse Marks assess China’s mostly domestic reasons for potentially increasing its military involvement in Syria:

The increasing threat of domestic terrorism is a significant motivator for China’s possible growing military cooperation with Syria and other states in the Middle East. An estimated 5,000 Chinese Uyghurs are currently fighting alongside the Islamic State (ISIS) and other radical groups in Syria, most of which are concentrated in Idlib. In 2017, ISIS issued its first direct threat against China, promising to shed “blood like rivers,” in an attempt to fill its ranks with Uyghurs. Threats from supposed Uyghur terrorists circulated on Chinese social media around the same time, professing that “when the Syrian War ends, that is the day when China’s biggest fear begins.” The same year, China reportedly deployed forces to Syria to assist the Syrian government’s counterterrorism operations. Now, by increasing military cooperation Beijing may be able to help address the threat in Idlib.

The British government has decided to end a program that provided funds to the Syrian opposition for building governing capacity. It says it’s made this decision because there’s little chance the Syrian opposition is ever going to get to govern anything and not because of reports that the funds have gone to support things like jihadi-run “police” forces in Idlib.


The Houthis announced on Monday that they fired a ballistic missile at a military camp in Saudi Arabia’s Najran province. No word yet on what happened to it.

On Friday, CNN reported that wreckage from the Saudi bomb that killed dozens of Yemeni schoolchildren in Saada province earlier this month proves that the bomb was sold by the United States. Maybe that makes the United States culpable for that attack. Maybe it doesn’t. After three years and countless other Saudi attacks on Yemeni civilians, I would argue that the US is responsible for every death its weapons cause in that conflict. But what’s incontrovertible is that the United States is doing for Saudi Arabia precisely what it accuses Iran of doing for the Houthis–aiding and abetting their war effort and thereby lengthening the war. Nobody really cares about hypocrisy, but it seems worthwhile to point it out sometimes anyway.


Turkish authorities have arrested two men alleged to have fired shots at the US embassy in Ankara on Monday. Nobody was injured in the shooting, which was presumably motivated by the current tensions in the US-Turkey relationship.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Eid message dealt with those tensions, or at least one aspect of them. Erdoğan declared that the decline of the lira’s value (it fell slightly on Monday and remains at a bit more than six to the dollar) represents an economic attack against Turkey by nefarious international interests. In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Donald Trump insisted that he won’t make any concessions toward Ankara (his decision to raise tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel helped lead to the lira’s most recent slide) unless/until it agrees to release detained US pastor Andrew Brunson.

Turkey, meanwhile, has turned to Qatar for assistance. The two countries’ central banks agreed on Friday to a $3 billion currency swap arrangement that could help stabilize the lira somewhat. The deal will allow Turkey to borrow Qatari riyals while lending Qatar an equal amount of Turkish liras. Since the riyal is the more stable currency this deal essentially floats Turkey easy access to foreign currency while the Qataris take the risk that the liras Turkey lends them in return may continue to lose value.

The Turks are also continuing their efforts to build a substantial power base in Africa, though that may not be such good news for their African partners:

A Nigerian businessmen and consultant who works in Europe and Middle East told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “I have been following Erdogan’s growing reach and influence in Africa. I understand there are three categories of interests that are vital for Turkey: economic, security and cultural. Within the security interests, I do not only mean the military base in Somalia and the 99-year lease of Sudan’s Suakin Island but also minimizing the influence of [exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen] on the continent. Turks have been working relentlessly to convert Gulen schools and arrest Gulenists. These schools will have a significant impact in two decades for the future of these countries. Turkey has performed successful humanitarian missions but it is a mixed blessing. Turkish government here is mired in contracts that were received through back-door channels, without proper transparency. I frequently observe that cutting corners, not having to meet high standards and lack of obligation to report back to agencies is what makes Africa so attractive to Turkey.”


The good news is that the number of internally displaced persons in Iraq dropped below 2 million in July. That’s a significant improvement considering the figure was around 3 million at the start of this year. The bad news is that the number of displaced persons returning home has been steadily decreasing all year and may be coming to a point where those who are still displaced either can’t or won’t return home for whatever reason.

In other mixed-blessing news, Iraq’s Supreme Court over the weekend certified the results of the May 12 parliamentary election. Those results had been under something of a cloud due to fraud charges that led to a nationwide recount effort, but the recount doesn’t appear to have significantly changed the outcome. This is hopefully a step toward ending Iraq’s current political crisis, but it also means that Iraqi political parties are now officially on the clock in terms of forming a government. If they fail to do so, that crisis will only worsen.

On Monday, Al Jazeera reported that Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon list, which came in first in the May election, has reached a “preliminary agreement” with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Nasr party, the Shiʿa Hikma party, and the secularist Wataniya party on forming a coalition. Those four parties in unison would be the largest bloc in parliament but still wouldn’t have a majority of seats among them. They’d need to find at least 28 seats from elsewhere to form the next government. The success of this bloc may be Abadi’s only path toward retaining his hold on the PM’s office.


Hajj is supposed to be an apolitical event–or, at least, Saudi authorities would prefer that it were–but according to Reuters, plenty of pilgrims were ready to complain about Arab disunity and the role it played in enabling the US decision to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. Some even pointed a finger squarely at their hosts, accusing the Saudis of trading Palestinian rights in return for better relations with the Trump administration.

The United Nations is pleading for emergency funding to provide fuel to power basic necessities in Gaza like the city’s medical and sanitation facilities.


One Egyptian military officer was killed by a car bomb just outside the city of el-Arish in northern Sinai on Sunday. ISIS was presumably responsible.


US authorities arrested two Iranian nationals on Monday on espionage charges. One is charged with surveilling the Rohr Chabad Jewish students facility in Chicago, the other with surveilling a Mojahedin-e Khalq protest in New York.

Over the weekend, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Europe hasn’t shown enough willingness to “pay the price” of defying the United States in order to salvage the Iran nuclear deal. Although several European governments have said they will work to preserve Iranian oil exports and access to international banking systems despite US sanctions, Zarif dismissed those statements as statements of principle rather than concrete action. Europe’s case wasn’t helped on Monday when French energy firm Total announced that it’s pulling out of a major deal to develop Iran’s offshore South Pars gas field due to an inability to secure a waiver from the Trump administration. China’s National Petroleum Company was also involved in the deal and will likely assume Total’s role as the main partner in the effort, but it likely can’t replicate the technology Total was planning to use for the project.

European leaders are, of course, getting exactly the opposite message from the Trump administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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